DISCLAIMER: Aren't we all glad I don't own Naruto? With my updating schedule, we might never have got past the third chapter of the manga in the last ten years! Luckily, this is a oneshot. Oh yeah, there are a couple lines you might recognise from other fiction and are thus not mine. Please do tell me where you recognise them from so I can give proper credit (I did it subconciously...)

WARNINGS: Um, poignancy. A bit graphic violence at some point. Language. Telling anything else would be spoiling, but mind you: there is a major event that most of you will not like...

PRELIMINARY NOTE: I wrote this in an attemp to show one of my favourite charcters that there IS another path. A vain attempt, of course, since it is nigh impossible that anything happening here will even remotely happen in canon... Still, I hope you enjoy this major mindfuck and that you learn something from it. On a related note: this is a oneshot mindfuck, and thus, it will have NO SEQUEL. If you for some incomprehensible reason want to write anything based on this piece, please do send me the link later so I can flail and squeal. So, without further ado, I present thee with:

"A Stitch in Time"

By Pluma Desatada

For Sasuke Uchiha in his birthday

There's a flaming world… Sasuke looks around, wondering where he is.

There! There is a child crying…Who is it? A younger me? Had he really been so small, so weak?

Mom and Dad didn't have to die, growls the child, and Sasuke can feel his pain deep in his chest.

And suddenly, there they are too, taunting him: Mom, lying on the floor as is asleep; Dad, thrown carelessly across her; Itachi, standing over them, sword drawn, his face creepily serious. Blood is splattered everywhere. Sasuke's hands are dripping with it.

Everyone was killed because I didn't have enough power, the child continues, getting more and more worked up. The clan was wiped out! he screams, holding his head, hiding his face. If you don't have power, you can't do anything! he spits out, scrunching his eyes shut.

Sasuke winces. He doesn't want to hear this. He already knows.

And because I didn't have the power, everyone was killed!

Sasuke gasps, horrified. Stop! He wants to plead, but he can't speak.

The child has decided to torture him; he's looking at Sasuke with accusing eyes.

You let them die. You just WATCHED THEM DIE! If only I had more power… If only YOU had had more power…

Then the world goes red and black and white and wrong. Itachi goes up to his parents' corpses and stabs them again and again and he wants to stop him but he can't because he's weak weak weak…

And then he wakes up in a flash of light.

He's crushing Sakura's hand, he can feel he has broken some bones, but she's only looking at him and crying. He's sitting up against Naruto, and for once he does not mind that the moron's arms are around him, holding his own arms closely to his chest like a makeshift straightjacket. A hand is on his head and he looks up to find Kakashi with his Sharingan uncovered staring warily at him.

He realises he's seeing in too much detail and turns off his own Sharingan, and then discovers he's been crying, or something, because his face is all wet. His body is trembling and his throat feels sore. He connects the dots: he must have woken his team up with his nightmare but they hadn't had an easy time waking him out of it.

"It's OK," he says, and it's no surprise his voice is so hoarse.

Naruto lets go as if burnt, mumbling stuff under his breath. Kakashi lets go of his head and pries Sasuke's hand off Sakura's to examine the damage.

"Did you know you are crying blood?" asks Naruto suddenly, trying not to look worried.

Sasuke wipes at his face and, true enough, there's blood on his hands. "What happened?"

"You had a nightmare."

Sasuke rolls his eyes. Trust Naruto to state the obvious even in this situation. "I gathered that, dobe. What else happened?"

"Chill out, teme, I'm just telling it how it is." He glares at Sasuke. Then he gets this sly smile. "You were crying and moaning like a baby, you know? And we couldn't wake you up no matter how much we shook you. Kakashi thought that the Oro-what's-his-name guy might have trapped you in a genjutsu 'cause you're a sucky ninja like that, but you were thrashing about so much he couldn't aim his chakra or something. That's why I was holding you still! Don't go thinking I was worried about you or anything 'cause that'll never happen."

Sasuke glowered at Naruto, trying his best to ignore the tangential comments in favour of getting the rest of the story. "So?"

"So you open your eyes but you're still dreaming or something. Sakura-chan said they are, like, not your normal freaky Sharingan, that they looked like flowers, you pansy. And you have these black marks all over your body, like when I scribbled all over you with a permanent marker that time last year, remember?" Sasuke growls, not appreciating being reminded of that episode. Naruto tries to act like he isn't properly cowed and fails. "Good days. Anyway, Kakashi-sensei finally managed to put his chakra in you, you scream and it all goes white and then here we are, in the middle of the Forest of Death with not even a kunai to throw around," Naruto concludes cheerfully.

Sasuke looks around and sees it for himself: no backpacks, no kunai pouches, no fire. All gone. What the fuck?

And then he hears a little whimper-squeal and he turns his head to see Sakura trying and failing to ignore the pain as Kakashi splints three of her fingers with sticks and a roll of bandage. If she doesn't get actual medical attention soon, her bones might heal wrong and she'll have to quit being a ninja. Sasuke sort of feels bad.

What is Kakashi doing here anyway? Only participants in the chuunin exam are allowed!

Kakashi finishes tying the last knot and says they'd better get to the hospital to fix her hand and look at Sasuke's shoulder, and only then does Sasuke realise said shoulder is burning as if he's poured boiling oil on it, so they get up and start walking. Naruto chivalrously offers Sakura his t-shirt as a makeshift sling and Sakura hits him upside the head with her good hand.

Kakashi seems to know the Forest of Death like the back of his hand, and they navigate it easily enough, stopping once in a while for sensei to get his bearings, mumbling something like this tree wasn't here last time I checked, or there used to be a big-ass rock here. Eventually they get out and go straight for the hospital. Though "straight" is a figure of speech, seeing how they manage to get lost twice. Apparently, Kakashi-sensei tells the truth all those times he says he got lost and that's why he's late.

They reach the hospital, finally, and Kakashi tells them to sit while he gets a medic-nin. Before he comes back, however, a lady with pink hair walks into their hallway, looking at a clipboard.

"Sakura-chan, is that old lady your mom?" Naruto asks, curling his hand around his mouth as if to prevent anyone else from hearing what he says.

The moron should have lowered his voice, Sasuke thinks, chagrined, but I guess he's not smart enough to learn discretion.

Before Sakura has the chance to answer, the woman closes in on Naruto, barking, "Who the fuck are you calling old, brat?" and punches him in the face, sending flying through the wall and into the next wall behind it.

Sasuke is impressed. "Are you a doctor?" he asks as politely as his pride will allow.

"Yeah," she answers, before looking at him. The clipboard falls out of her hand. "Impossible!" she hisses, and then discovers Sakura sitting next to him, cowering away from her, and her eyes open so wide that for a second Sasuke thinks they are going to fall off her face. "Holy. Shit." she breathes, and then looks through the Naruto-shaped hole in the wall and Sasuke can see she's pale and needs to sit down.

He doesn't get what's so "Impossible!" about them being in the hospital. Maybe they really weren't supposed to leave the Forest of Death until the whole five days were up? At any rate, they need medical attention. "We need medical attention," he states, clear and to the point.

The woman nods slowly, and then seems to break out of whatever funk she was in. "Right. Come with me, then," she says. She pick up her clipboard, hands it to a passing nurse that is looking back and forth between Sakura and the doctor with pink hair, and goes off into another hallway.

"Wait!" calls Sakura. "We need to wait for Kakashi-sensei to come back!"

The woman flinches. "Kakashi is here too? Of course he is." She shrugs. "Can this day get any weirder? What on Earth did Ino slip me? Well, come on. Kakashi will find us sooner or later." She shakes her head to clear it and continues on.

Sasuke doesn't want to look like he cares about the idiot or anything, but someone has to ask: "What about the dobe?"

He ended up having to carry the total idiot all the way up three flights of stairs and five hallways until they reach a door with "Hospital Head, Chief Medic-nin" written on it. He finds it a bit weird that the woman with pink hair goes in without knocking. He finds it even weirder when, after pointing at a litter in the corner and telling him to put Naruto on it, she sits behind the huge desk and pulls out a bottle of sake.

"Want some?" she asks when she's drunk at least half the bottle.

"Yeah," says Naruto behind them, apparently having woken up. He walks up to the desk, clearly interested.

"We are minors," reminds him Sasuke. Then he turns towards the head of the hospital, at least according to the sign on her door. "Well, are you going to treat us or what?"

Silently, she turns her eyes towards him, looking as serious as the Memorial Stone. "Of course," she drawls out, "as soon as you show me your true faces." She crosses her arms over her rather flat chest and stared expectantly at them.

"What are you talking about, old hag? These are our true faces. I didn't even know you could have fake faces." Only Naruto, of course, could be this crass to a woman he's just met.

But the pink haired woman only smiles. "Well, whoever you are, you got Naruto's bratty attitude down pat."

Sasuke is growing annoyed at this nonsense, but Naruto goes on: "Look, old hag. I know we are supposed to be in the chuunin exam and all, but it's not like the fence is hard to get over. Aren't you overreacting it a bit? Sakura-chan here has all her fingers broken, a guy bit Sasuke's shoulder and I think it's infected, and you just gave me a concussion. So either treat us or let us go to the emergency room."

The woman with pink hair looks about as annoyed as Sasuke is feeling. She slams her hands on her desk – it creaks ominously – and stands up, ready to give him a piece of her mind – Bring it on, he thinks – but she can't, because at that moment Kakashi-sensei strolls into the office.

"So here you are. I told you to wait for me."

"We were waiting, but Sakura-chan's grandma here," Naruto points at the woman, "dragged us away."

Said woman is chalky pale. Sasuke notices she's gripping her end of the desk hard enough to splinter it. And her eyes are wet, as if she's about to cry. "Kakashi-sensei…" she whispers, and true enough, there are waterworks.

Everyone is weirded out by this display. Sasuke is very uncomfortable. Really, they should teach us how to deal with crying women in the academy. Naruto, the king of the inappropriate, babbles away. "Don't cry, old lady! Kakashi-sensei is not that ugly! And you can't even see his face under that mask. We'd know, we wasted a whole day following him around trying to see his face, remember guys?"

But that only seems to make it worse: the woman starts outright sobbing into her hands, muttering we never told anyone about that and I can't believe you're really us between sob and sob.

Sasuke would really like to know what she's going on about. He looks at Sakura, she's the smart one after all, but she shrugs. Naruto has no idea either, not that he ever has any idea about anything.

Kakashi goes to the crying woman, seemingly the only one with any idea how to calm her down, and starts patting her back. "There, there, Sakura, it's alright, it's alright." They keep at it for at least three more minutes, not that Sasuke is counting. He's much more interested in why for all that is holy did Kakashi just call her Sakura.

Finally she winds down, blows her nose on a handkerchief Kakashi pulls out of thin air, dries her face with her sleeves and takes a deep breath. "It's OK now. It's OK." She drinks more sake and takes more deep breaths, and finally Kakashi lets go of her shoulder and walks back around the desk to where his genin are. When she finally composes herself, she calls Sakura over. "Let me see your hand."

Sakura meekly offers her hand to the woman that, admittedly, looks so much like her it's uncanny. She concentrates and her hands glow green. In less than a minute, she's healed the damage that would otherwise have taken a month to heal. Sakura is properly awed. Sasuke too, though he'll never admit it.

The woman stares at him for a long while and he thinks he's next, but no. It's Naruto's turn, apparently. "Go sit on the littler, you complete moron." She pushes him back onto in and starts examining his skull. "You said yourself I gave you a concussion, so why the hell are you up and about? And you wanted sake, too? You idiot, they taught us in the academy that head trauma and alcohol don't mix, but of course you must have slept through that," she finishes, and then she raps him upside the head.

Naruto curls up on himself, tearing up. "Owowow! That was really unnecessary, you bitch!"

"Shut up and bear it like a man, you baby. Besides, you're so hard-headed that a little tap like that shouldn't even hurt."

Sasuke approves of her words, though he wonders if she really knows Naruto as well as she seems to, and how, if Naruto didn't seem to know her at all.

But then she turns to him, and it feels like the temperature in the room dropped ten degrees. "Your turn, emo asshole."

"She's got you pegged, teme," snickers Naruto.

Sasuke can feel his eyes widening. No woman has ever treated him badly! Especially not since his clan was massacred. They either try to mother him or get him on a date. So Sasuke doesn't really know how to act, other than blink at her and present his shoulder.

"I'm starting to think maybe Naruto's idiocy is contagious," she rolls her eyes. "Take off your shirt."

Sasuke does, still bewildered. Being compared to Naruto in those terms… He still doesn't know what to think.

"Hm." The doctor looks closely at his shoulder. "Like I thought. That man gave you more than a love bite and an infection."

Sasuke blushes. He's really intimidated by this woman for some reason. "What did he give me, then?" he asks in a quiet voice.

"From what I recall," she started, and he didn't know what to make of those words, "it's a special protein. When injected, it forms a seal, like the one you have here. That seals becomes like a gland of sorts and, when activated by anger or fear, it produces an enzyme that accelerates your production of chakra. Prolonged use will cause cell deterioration, as the enzyme actually converts part of your cells into chakra, and loss of overall chakra capacity."

Sasuke is stunned by the possibilities. Instant chakra production? The cost was minimal, since he didn't plan on living after killing Itachi.

"But," says the medic-nin, and Sasuke thinks Of course, there's always a catch, "the seal is incomplete. As it is, the enzyme it produces is quite poisonous and it's also a mind-altering drug. It makes you paranoid and depressed. There's a second protein you have to ingest, which will put you in a comatose state for about two days but it will complete the seal. My guess is that this man gave you half the seal to tempt you to come to him for the rest."

"He did say that Sasuke-kun would come to him seeking power," says Sakura, the only one who had been conscious at the time. "But I only understood that Sasuke-kun was poisoned and Naruto was knocked out and after five hours neither seemed to be getting any better so I panicked and called Kakashi-sensei," she finishes, ashamed.

So that's what Kakashi was doing in the Forest of Death, thinks Sasuke. Out loud he says: "So? What are my options?"

"Well, we have a sealsmith that can remove it, if you want. Or, if you want to be a baby about it and get the shortcut to power, I can make the other protein for you and you can have a complete seal."

Even if she has mocked him about it, he doesn't have to think twice about it. "Make me the protein. I have to get stronger."

"Sasuke!" shouts Naruto, outraged, but he is ignored in favour of watching the woman.

"Of course you would choose that," she sneers at him, clearly disgusted. "See that, Sakura? That's the true face of the man you are in love with." Sakura turns red and looks away quickly. "No, look at him. You too, Naruto. This is your best friend, the one you think of as a brother." Naruto sputters indignantly. "And he would have gone to that man for power without a second thought if no one here could build that protein, wouldn't you, Sasuke-kun?" she demands.

Sasuke doesn't know how to answer that. Sakura, in love with him? Naruto, his best friend? Him, a total bastard that would sell his soul for power? Is he really that shameful?

If you want to kill me, hate me, despise me, and live in an unsightly way.

Yes, he swallows. Yes he is. And it is the only way.

When he lifts his head, he sees Sakura looking at him, stricken; Kakashi, disappointed, but resigned as if he had expected nothing better. Naruto won't meet his eye.

"How do you know all this?" he sombrely asks the pink-haired woman.

"Because I've seen it happen," she answers, and for a wild second Sasuke thinks she meant it as in a psychic vision.

But no, she is a person of science, he reminds himself. "What do you mean?"

At this, she smiles wryly. "Haven't realised it yet? Of course, children are so self-centred. Kakashi-sensei realised it immediately."

This time it was Sakura who asks, "What are you talking about?" When she only smiles as an answer, Sakura turns to her sensei. "What is she talking about, Kakashi-sensei?"

"Look outside the window," he answers cryptically.

So they look. And nothing seems too abnormal. It's Naruto who notices it first. Of course, after vandalising it so much, he'd notice any change.

"Why are there six heads in the Hokage Mountain? And who the hell are those two? Since when did the old man retire and name someone who is not me Hokage?"

The pink-haired doctor actually looks relieved and a bit amused. "So?" she asks Naruto, ignoring his silly questions. "What can you deduce from the fact that the last time you checked, there were four heads, but now there are six and you are talking with the eighteen-year-old version of you first crush?"

Naruto goes beet-red. "You know about that?" he asks, a rubbing a hand behind his head sheepishly.

Older, cooler Sakura smiles. "Sure. You'll confess like ages ago. Then you'll grow out of it."

Sakura works it out. "We're in the future?" Pause, and then a shit-eating grin breaks out on her face. "Wait, so I become YOU? SHANNARO! I'm so strong! And head of the hospital! For real? HOW COOL! Did you see, Naruto?"

Naruto sees, apparently, and he's equally excited for Sakura. "I always knew you would become an awesome lady, Sakura-chan! Look, you're even Chief Medic-nin!"

"Yep," says Older Sakura. "And you won't ever guess who trained me!"

"Who, who?"

"Look out the window. Second head from the right," she answers, looking quite satisfied with herself.


"Very cool, Sakura," Kakashi answers dutifully from behind that ubiquitous orange book. When did he even pull it out?

But Sasuke sits quietly, too stunned with recent revelations to pay him any more attention. Is that woman really the useless, love-struck girl who constantly throws herself at him and can't do anything else? The good-for-nothing toddler that needs protecting all the damn time? Sasuke thinks maybe she expected to never amount to anything more than a housewife and broodmare, and sneers. She becomes the best damn medic-nin in Konoha? Trained by a Hokage? Head of the Hospital? He has seen how strong she actually turns out to be. If she, the weakest link of Team Seven, turns out like that, he can't wait to meet his counterpart.

And suddenly, a completely unrelated thought dawns on him. "How are we getting back?" he asks, effectively killing the mood.

Older Sakura takes it as a personal challenge. "Well, how did you get here?"

"I wouldn't know. I wasn't there when it happened," he bites back, not wanting to admit he'd been trapped in a genjutsu.

Sakura intervenes, apparently overconfident now that she knows who she's talking to.

"Well, so Naruto and Sasuke-kun were passed out and I got Kakashi-sensei to come. We tried to wake Sasuke-kun. Kakashi-sensei said it might be a genjutsu, but Sasuke-kun was thrashing too much for him to dispel it. Naruto had woken up by then, so Kakashi-sensei asked him to hold Sasuke-kun still. Sasuke-kun opens his eyes –"

"What did they look like?" interrupts her older version.

"Well, red, but it wasn't his normal Sharingan. It looked like –"

"The Bohr model of lithium?"

The what? thinks Sasuke, but Sakura apparently knows what the other Sakura is talking about.

"Yes! Exactly!"

Naruto is as confused as Sasuke. "But Sakura-chan!" he whines, "you said it looked like a flower, not like a model from Lithium magazine!" He looks at Sasuke like he's grown a second head.

Both Sakuras turn to him and say at the same time "Not a magazine, baka!" and "The atomic model, you moron!" and then they roll their eyes at the ceiling and sigh, "Why do I even bother…"

Sasuke, despite himself, is quite amused. "Well, what about my eyes?"

Older Sakura turn to him with a frown. "What do you know about the Mangekyou Sharingan?" she asks.

You must kill your closest friend.

Sasuke pales, but chooses to play dumb. "What is that?"

"Like you don't know," she spits. "You unlock it by experiencing major emotional trauma. Like killing the person who is most precious to you. Like you brother, for instance. That's how you got it this time."

Sasuke wants to deny it, to shout My brother is not my precious person! but she doesn't give him the chance.

"And then you have some very powerful techniques that are unique to your cursed bloodline. But you a little blind every time you use them. You'll learn them eventually, so I won't waste my time explaining them. Kakashi can bend time and space. I've seen him send an enemy into an alternate dimension. That's probably what you did, Sasuke."

He recalls the dream. He remembers wishing with all his soul that he was powerful enough to defeat Itachi. Maybe his prayers have been answered? Maybe this little trip is so that he learns the secret to killing Itachi? But then… "I don't know how to replicate it," he confesses.

Kakashi giggles creepily behind his book.

Older Sakura smiles fondly. "Kakashi can do it, no worries."

Surprisingly, it is Naruto who brings the conversation back to something Sasuke has already forgotten about. "But, Sakura-san, what about Sasuke's protein bar? The one he needs to eat to complete the seal? Don't you need to cook it?"

Even if Naruto got it completely wrong – protein bar? honestly? – Sasuke can't help but feel a bit touched.

Sakura-san looks startled. And then shifty, as if she had purposefully steered the conversation away from that topic. "Well, I'll need at least a week. I'd really recommend leaving before then. And I mean, really recommend," she stares at Kakashi pointedly.

"I want the pill," Sasuke insists. He really does, more than anything.

Sakura-san looks way older than eighteen all of a sudden. Then she looks out the window, but Sasuke can't make out what exactly she is looking at. "Are you sure you want to stay?"

"Hell yes! It'll be like a vacation! And we can train and then we can go back to the chuunin exam and KICK MAJOR ASS!"

Trust Naruto to be exited for all the wrong reasons.

Sakura-san laughs and her whole face lights up. "OK, OK. But you'll have to check with the Hokage first. He'll decide where you'll stay. I can't go with you, sadly. I'm writing next month's budget and I'm already behind schedule, so… well, you know the way." Then she seems to realise something. "Actually, no you don't. The Hokage Tower is not where it used to be," she says, and she looks nostalgic. "Right, see that building, the tall one," she points through the window, "that's the new Hokage Tower."

It is completely different from the old one. Sasuke finds it disconcerting. And in fact… "The whole village is new, isn't it?"

Sakura-san winces. "Perceptive bitch, aren't you?" She looks intently at him, and only after she's made him thoroughly uncomfortable she sits back and makes a shooing motion with her hands. "Well, run along, then! Go away, I'm fucking busy."

So they leave the hospital with more questions than answers.

Not even half a block later, Naruto's stomach protests its empty state very vocally and the rest of the team realises how hungry they actually are. "Let's go to Ichiraku!" he shouts, "Kakashi-sensei is paying!" He starts running towards, Sasuke assumes, where he thinks Ichiraku is.

Of course, the complete king of morons, with his amazingly short attention span, has forgotten a little detail: the map of Konoha is not what it used to be. So they run after him with a chorus of "Naruto, wait!", "Dobe, come back here now!" and "Children have so much energy…"

But apparently, Ichiraku Ramen Stand is still where it used to be. Only it's not a stand anymore, it's a full-out restaurant. Kakashi manages to catch Naruto by the scruff of his neck before he dives in. "OK, you'll treat this as an undercover mission. I want you to henge into whoever you want, as long as they don't look like you. It'd be better is people didn't know who we are."

Sasuke sees reason in that. Sakura too. Naruto not so much, but he does what he always does when he doesn't understand something: grin and nod, Naruto, just grin and nod.

So finally, four people who are certainly not Kakashi, Sakura, Sasuke and Naruto enter Ichiraku Ramen Restaurant. They have to wait to get a table, the restaurant is quite full. Naruto practically dehydrates right then and there drooling when he sees the sheer selection of ramen, and he can't wait to sit down and try each and every one of the thirty different recipes. And then he sees the hostess.

"Ayame-chan?" he manages, breathtaken.

Sasuke barely recognises the girl he's seen helping her father with the stand the few times he'd eaten there. She's – he blushes – quite curvy. He totally hadn't been expecting that.

"Yes?" She answers. "Table for four? You'll have to wait at least 40 minutes, sorry."

"No, no, it doesn't matter," says Naruto, and Sasuke is relived because he had thought Naruto was going to blow their cover. "I'll wait a year to eat the wonderful ramen you make here. I see business is good. How's Teuchi-oji-san?" he asks, and Sasuke is on the brink of breaking out in cold sweat.

"Naruto, is that you?" she asks, and Sasuke wants to facepalm.

Naruto rubs the back of his head sheepishly. "Hehehe, I didn't think you'd know so fast. We're supposed to be undercover."

Sasuke is ready to kill him.

"Oh, Naruto, shirking you duties again to come stuff your face with ramen?" She seems to discover the other three fourths of Team Seven. "Oh, where are my manners! Hi, I'm Ayame, daughter of the owner. Who might you be?"

"They are my teammates," says Naruto. Sasuke sends some killing intent his way and can feel Sakura and Kakashi doing the same, but apparently Naruto is immune.

Ayame only laughs. "Your teammates! Of course. Only you would call your assistants teammates, hahaha." Sasuke can't believe their luck. "But wait!" Oh no, what now? "You only have two assistants! Who's the other one?"

Kakashi butts in before Naruto can answer, seeing the opportunity. "I'm a diplomat from… Iron Country," Sasuke can tell Kakashi just pulled the name of the country out of his ass. "We broke for lunch, and Naruto here insisted we try your wonderful ramen."

Ayame seems to understand. "Oh, of course, Iron Country." Jackpot. "Must be some Great Five's Alliance business. I wasn't aware negotiations were still going on?"

Why o why, did their waitress have to be politically aware?

But Kakashi takes it in stride. "Oh, it's something we don't want released to the public just yet."

"But I thought the Hokage wanted to keep everything transparent?" She asks, looking at Naruto askance.

Sasuke decides to end this. "It concerns a certain S-Class nuke-nin," he invents, playing it safe. Everything concerns S-Class nuke-nin at some level. "But now we are hungry. Do you think you could get us a table?"

"Oh," she breathes, as if she's having some big revelation. She looks a tad distraught for some reason. "Sasuke, of course..!" She seems to get her bearings. "Come right this way."

So… She knows who he is? Does that mean he's one of Naruto's assistants? He scoffs. Hell would freeze over first.

They order. Naruto orders everything in the ramen section Oohing and Ahhing the whole time, and the waitress (not Ayame, just a random girl) doesn't seem surprised. She finishes taking his order with a "Sure thing, Naruto!" and proceeds to ask the other three what they want. Sasuke sees that they do serve normal food that isn't ramen, so he asks for some sushi (much to Naruto's horror). Sakura orders a bowl of diet ramen, of all things, and Kakashi asks only for a glass of water. He has to foot the bill, after all, Sasuke smirks

The waitress comes back soon enough, followed by an entourage of waiters, cooks and even the accountants to carry Naruto's humongous order. They all greet him, "Howdy, Naruto?", "How's it going, Naruto?" and his personal favourite, "What rules haven't you broken yet today, Naruto?"

Naruto doesn't seem to know what to do with all the positive attention. Just nod and grin, baka thinks Sasuke, don't you dare blow our cover again!

They finally go away, seeing how Naruto is ogling the ramen savagely. Then he eats it savagely, splattering them in broth of all possible flavours. It's quite amazing how Naruto managed to pack away thirty bowls of ramen in the time Sakura finishes, half-heartedly, her bowl and Sasuke his sushi. Then of course he has to go to the toilet, probably to vomit and make space for more ramen.

Kakashi uses the time to wave the waitress over and ask for the bill.

"No way," she says, "Hokage-sama never lets a guest pay the bill. We already put it on his tab."

Sasuke gets some cruel amusement at Kakashi's reflexive swallowing.

Then, as if nothing is wrong, Kakashi asks: "Why is the village so different from the time when I visited six years ago? I asked Naruto, but he and his assistants won't tell me."

The girl looks sombre. "We tend not to speak about that. Well, you are from Iron Country, home of the Great Five's Alliance. So you know who the Akatsuki are. One of them, Pein, who from what I'm told managed to control seven bodies, attacked the village looking for Naruto. Thankfully he was away, but this Pein character turned Konoha upside down looking for him. He actually razed it to the ground, killed a lot of great ninja, like Kakashi, Naruto's sensei."


"And what did Pein want from Naruto?" asks Kakashi, nonplussed even after learning he is dead.

"Well, he wanted the Kyuubi no Youko that is sealed in Naruto, of course."

Sasuke is reeling. So THAT'S where he gets all his power!

"You know about that?" asks Kakashi. Now he's looking nervous. "And you don't hate him for it?"

The waitress laughs heartily, "Hate him? No way! Not the Great Toad Sannin who came back at the risk of his own hide and defeated Pein single-handed? Not the guy who practically stopped Uchiha Madara," Sasuke looks at her more intently, "and his minions from completing his plan to dominate the world? Not Uzumaki Naruto who has carried the burden of keeping the Kyuubi locked up so valiantly and so unfailingly? Oh no. Can't you tell? We love Naruto to bits. If he told us to stop breathing, we would do it just because he asked. We trust him unconditionally."

There is a quiet sniff behind her. She turns around to look and finds Naruto crying his eyes out, not even trying to dry his tears. She smiles fondly and goes to console him, hugging him to her bosom and rubbing his shoulder, saying "there, there".

Sasuke rolls his eyes. Naruto has always been an overemotional idiot. He doesn't understand what is so great about him that a waitress would wax poetic about his achievements. If he has achieved anything, really. Knowing Naruto, he probably just pulled many a solution out of his ass at the last minute. Except the Kyuubi thing, which he still finds hard to believe, but Naruto has no choice about that.

Ok, so Naruto has become a great Sannin, whatever that is, commander of the forces of good, blah blah blah, the reincarnation of Jesus. Now he really wants to see the Hokage, fully expecting to see own his face smugly smirking back at him. So he pushes them, subtly, to reach Hokage Tower as fast as possible.

They run into trouble as soon as they cross the massive doors.

Apparently, walking into the Hokage Tower through the front door in a henge is not only impolite, it's also impossible. Sasuke notices it no sooner it happens: their disguises wash away like caked mud in a storm.

The guards apparently didn't get the memo. They seem to believe they are still in henge.

"Look at these morons! They haven't done their homework at all!"

"Yeah, dude, I mean, Sharingan Kakashi? Their intel is so old it's not even funny!"

But apparently it is, since they are laughing so hard. Kakashi looks annoyed.

"Yeah, whatever. We came to see the Hokage."

The guards seem to understand something is afoot. They share a look and Sasuke, for one crazy microsecond, believes they can communicate telepathically. "Do you have IDs, dude?" one asks.

"No, dude," mocks Naruto, "I left mine in my backpack, which was stolen." He rolls his eyes.

Moron, thinks Sasuke, conveniently forgetting his ID is also in his wandering luggage.

The guards look at each other again, and Sasuke starts to think maybe they enjoy each other's faces so much they can't do their job properly. Then one guard goes behind the counter and uses the radio to call Someone From Upstairs. An escort team arrives in less than a minute.

Finally they arrive at the Hokage's office. Sasuke has only been here once, right after his family was massacred, and he was so young he doesn't remember much. Naruto, on the other hand, can't shut up about how fucking weird all is and why the hell did they change everything.

The people who are escorting them knock and a "COME IN! IT'S OPEN!" is hollered from behind the heavy doors. The guards push them open, they go in and they wait for a long time. Then one of the ninja that came with them clears his throat bluntly and calls out "Hokage-sama!". The figure behind the desk lifts his head from his paperwork to look at them and they can finally, finally see under the shadow of the hat.

"Yeah, what did you wa..." The Hokage trails off, his mouth an O framed by three parallel lines on each cheek. Wide blue eyes stare at them.

Naruto stands there, as shocked as his look-alike behind the desk, muttering whatthefuck over and over again. But for Sasuke it's simple math: Konoha's all changed, there are six heads on the mountain, a grownup who looks a lot like Naruto – he refuses to think it is Naruto – is sitting behind the Hokage's desk, wearing the Hokage's robes, being addressed as "Hokage-sama!"; clearly, he hasn't sent them into the future: he has dumped them in the Twilight Zone.

"What the hell, people!" says the Naruto-look-alike, evidently recovered although looking a little angry. He stands up and starts rummaging around his office, checking under his desk, in his closet, outside the windows. "Ok, who's the funny guy? No, really, who thought it would be funny to put a genjutsu on their Hokage, huh? And why this illusion?" He whines like Naruto, at least, thinks Sasuke. "Why not make all the paperwork disappear instead?"

The guards behind Team Seven are snickering. The Naruto-look-alike goes up to them and asks them one by one: "Was it your idea? No? What about you? Was it you who though hey, I'm bored, let's go bother Naruto about his past, let's bring up his failures? No? Seriously, guys. I have half a mind right now to execute y'all for treason right now."

Sasuke thinks you always have half a mind, dobe before he can stop himself.

Naruto, on the other hand…

"I MAKE HOKAGE? YES! IN YOUR FACE, SASUKE!" and he does his little victory-dance-shimmy-thing.

Sasuke really can't believe it. They had put a damsel in distress as Chief Caregiver and the village idiot in charge of the village… then Sasuke must be king of the world. Hadn't the waitress mentioned a world-wide alliance? Perhaps he presides it. Perhaps he has founded his own village on the spot where he kills his brother and uses it as the capital city, and now has a hundred children of his own running around.

Then a wave of killing intent buffets them like a hurricane, throwing him out of his brief delirium of grandeur and Naruto out of his. Wow, and Sasuke had thought Zabuza's killing intent was strong! And it's coming from the Naruto-look-al… Older Naruto, who is looking as serious as a kunai through the chest. His eyes are golden now, rimmed in bright red-orange, and suddenly his presence seems larger than life.

"Somebody explain what's going on. Now," he says, with thunder in his voice and lightning in his eyes.

From the way she squeals, Sasuke guesses Sakura is about to piss herself in fear. He snorts in his mind, not wanting to bring more of this man's anger upon himself. But he needn't have worried: Hokage Naruto has deflated, his eyes once again blue and bright with unshed tears, gazing longingly at them.

"It's really you. I can feel your chakra. I can't believe this." He sits down wearily, opens a drawer and pulls out a bottle of sake and a saucer. He stares at the saucer a second or two, then he shrugs and drinks straight from the bottle up to the last drop. He sits back, closes his eyes and pinches his nose with his thumb and forefinger, such an adult gesture that Sasuke never expected it from Naruto, no matter how old, and sighs tiredly, waving the entourage ninjas away.

Sasuke finds it a bit amusing that he had the exact same reaction as the older Sakura. Kakashi must have been more of a bad influence than he'd initially calculated.

When Older Naruto opens his eyes again, he looks sadder and more defeated than Sasuke has ever seen someone look before. "Explain," he says.

Kakashi, as team captain, explains everything they have worked out so far. Older Naruto looks progressively more serious, if that is possible. "So, just checking, you haven't finished the chuunin exam yet?" he asks, and Sasuke feels it's a loaded question.

"No," answers Kakashi, "they were in the middle of it when all this happened."

Hokage Naruto – Sasuke's still unsettled by the oxymoron – seems to be relieved by that. He smiles at them. "Well, then, how would you like to enjoy the village? Until Sakura-chan finishes cooking that protein bar for Sasuke," Team Seven minus Naruto snorts, "and you have to get back?"

But Sasuke is not nearly as optimistic. "And what if we can't?"

The Rokudaime's smile only gets wider. "Then you'll have to stay here. Take the chuunin exam, get stronger, all that jazz. Meanwhile, you'll stay at my house. I practically live in this office, anyway," he laughs at some inside joke, "and it can fit y'all just fine."

He calls over one of his assistants, and Sasuke fears he'll finally find himself, but it is a false alarm.

Naruto, however….


They chat for a little while until the Adult Naruto calls Konohamaru and hands him a key and a slip of paper. They do a pit stop at the bank, where the boy of about fifteen exchanges the slip of paper for money. Then they do another pit stop at the marketplace, where the genin use their hard-earned "Mad Genin Skillz", as Naruto calls them, for some very quick shopping. Sasuke is surprised when he has to get toilet paper. The Rokudaime apparently wasn't kidding when he said he lived in his office.

And then when on the way to the actual house, Konohamaru often stops and points: "That's Naruto's favourite place to eat", or "That's where I used to meet up with my old genin team every morning", or "That's where Kiba proposed to Hinata". Like Sasuke cares. He just wants to get into the Hokage's library to read up on jutsu so he can get stronger and defeat Itachi.

When they finally get to where they're staying, they all look around, unable to believe their eyes. "Look at all this sweet stuff!" cries Naruto, flitting from one awesome object to the next, "I'm so wealthy when I grow up! I was totally expecting my crappy old apartment."

The Hokage's assistant smiles indulgently. "Your old apartment was totalled by Pein with the rest of the village. They gave you this house as a gift for helping rebuild half of Konoha with your clones. It's really nice, isn't it? And you didn't even have to buy most of the stuff: they are gifts."

Sasuke remembers that it is a custom in Konoha to give the Hokage stuff after any major battle is won. So the fact that he was given so much stuff…

Konohamaru reaches out and ruffles Naruto's hair. "They really acknowledge you, you know? Not only that, they outright love you. You're the best damn Hokage to ever look after Konoha. I'll probably have to kill you when you retire or they'll never stop wanting you back in office. Can you believe they ask for your autograph wherever you go? You are The Great Toad Sannin, the ninja who single-handedly defeated Akatsuki and won the Fourth Great Ninja War, the first genin to ever become Hokage. You are the stuff legends are made of. Did you know you even have a bridge named after you? You are the president of the Great Five's Alliance!"

Naruto swallows thickly, disbelieving. Sasuke can tell he's about to cry again.

As if the dobe could ever amount to all that when he is the king of losers, Sasuke snorts. He's exaggerating because he's Naruto's friend. And the waitress was probably instructed to speak well about him or risk losing the number one customer. "Are you for real?" he asks disdainfully. Wait. I'M supposed to be the president of the Alliance. "If the dobe really did all that, then I must be king of the world!"

Konohamaru smiles cheerily at him. "Something like that. The world does revolve around your other self right now. Wait until the end of the week and you'll meet him!" He cackles.

Sasuke doesn't find it funny. Then he remembers Older Sakura's words. I'll need at least a week. I'd really recommend leaving before then. And I mean, really recommend.

Sakura seems to be thinking of the same thing. "What happens at the end of the week?"

"The public execution," he says, smiling wistfully, "of a certain S-Class nuke-nin who is the single remaining threat to worldwide peace."

Sasuke flashes back to the Ayame girl. It concerns a certain S-Class nuke-nin, he had said. And the girl had recognised him at once. Sasuke, of course! Come right this way. So, if he is Naruto's "assistant", and people recognise him straight away when he speaks of secrets concerning S-Class nuke-nin, and an execution of a nuke-nin is scheduled by the end of the week and it somehow had to do with him, then… Maybe he specialises in hunting down the threats to the peace of Konoha. Maybe he is the commander of the ANBU, traditionally the Hokage's most trusted ninja, his eyes and hands when the Hokage is stuck in his office doing paperwork.

It would make him the only true ninja out of Team Seven. One turns into a politician, a brilliant one, apparently, but still nothing more than a paper-pusher. The other turns into a medic-nin, who are traditionally non-combatant. Sasuke still lives by the kunai, shrouded in darkness, silent as a shadow; the deadliest man on the face of the planet, while his other two teammates rotted away in desk-jobs like the wusses they are.

He can live with that.

Kakashi disappears as soon as the sun rises and doesn't come back until it's time for dinner. Sakura goes to the hospital every day for the next three days. She likes to chat with her older, cooler version. Sasuke would like to do the same, but he has no idea where his own older, cooler version may be. Naruto can't very well interrupt the Hokage in his duties, so he's stuck with Sasuke.

They spar a bit in the mornings until it degenerates into an all out fight with no one to keep them in check. Then they each prepare their own lunch – as if he'd ever cook for Naruto! – and eat it separately. Then Sasuke buries himself in Hokage Naruto's personal library, and Naruto does god knows what. They don't speak to each other until the late afternoon, when Naruto breaks because he's So booooooored! and the task of entertaining him falls on Sasuke.

By that time, the Older, Cool Naruto comes home. Sasuke understands he's going out of his way to spend time with them. With him, more accurately, seeing how Dumb Naruto always goes off with Konohamaru. He can't help but preen: even Naruto prefers me over Naruto.

He quite likes the man that complete moron will grow into. He's quiet, for one. He's also quite serious. They sit in the veranda and watch the sunset, listening to the crickets and the wind through the leaves. Naruto will eventually expend all his energy and become peaceful, apparently.

Sometimes the older Naruto turns to him and smiles softly. Sasuke doesn't get what he's smiling about, and even if he did, he can't hold his gaze for more than a few minutes. He always ends up embarrassed, looking away. Then Naruto reaches up and rustles Sasuke's hair fondly, and Sasuke blushes. He doesn't know what he's done to cause Naruto to like him so much, but whatever it is he wants to do it again.

He secretly enjoys Older Naruto's attention.

He can tell Little Naruto is brimming with jealousy whenever he catches them bonding. He jumps on his older counterpart and roughhouses with him, magically turning him back into a child. Sasuke thinks it should bother him more, but he's actually quite comfortable with it. It feels like family.

One day, when he's alone, he goes to the veranda anyway with a tall glass of orange juice and a fire jutsu scroll. But Older Naruto is there, sitting very very still. Sasuke is startled: he can't feel Naruto's presence. So he puts everything down, rushes to his… friend and checks for a pulse. Naruto blinks at him, his eyelids orange-red and his eyes golden yellow, and understands.

He takes from his neck Sasuke's hand – the left one, actually – between his own, stares at it momentarily, thinking; then he smiles softly and lets go of it.

"What was that?" asks Sasuke, very curious. To be able to hide away your very life force… now that's a skill he'd like to have.

"I was meditating."

Meditating? "As in becoming one with Nature?" asks Sasuke.

Naruto chortles. "Exactly that. I do become one with nature. Look around, take a breath," he says.

Sasuke does. The sun in halfway gone, and the sunset is dyeing everything in a warm orange glow. He can hear the squawk of the birds he sees as black silhouettes against the sky. He sees the koi in Naturo's pond swimming about in intricate patterns; he hears the sound of trickling water. He inhales the sunset, the warmth, the birds, the pond.

"What do you feel?" asks Naruto.

Sasuke looks at him with new eyes. He felt more at peace than he's felt in years. He tells him that. Sasuke can't see his reaction because a sunray hits straight in the eye. By the time he moves and can see Naruto again, his face is empty.

"That wasn't what I was trying to show you, actually. But it's nice to know you can feel peace." Sasuke doesn't know that to make of that. Naruto continues, "I wanted you to feel the natural flow of energy."

"The what?"

"Believe it or not, humans are not the only things with chakra in this world. The grass, the clouds, the birds, even the soil under our feet, has a great well of untapped energy. I learnt to tap into it. See? Touch my skin."

Sasuke pokes Naruto's shoulder. It's hard like stone. He turns fully towards Naruto, surprised. Unlimited energy? Invincible armour? "Teach me!"

"I knew you were going to ask me that," he says, and Sasuke can't decide if that's a grin or a grimace on his face. "But I'm not qualified. And it takes more than just a few days to learn."

"We can stay longer," rebuts Sasuke, eager to learn this marvellous technique.

Naruto heaves a great sigh. He exhales more than just air, apparently, as Sasuke can feel his skin sparking. Naruto's eyes are back to normal, if a little sadder than usual.

"No," he says. "You must leave before the week is up."

"Why? Because of the execution? I can handle that!" he scoffs.

Naruto looks stricken. "You know about that?"

"Sure I do. It's not like it's a big secret. Everyone is talking about it." And it was true. Wherever he goes, people talk about it, saying how much they look forward to it.

"And it doesn't bother you?" Naruto presses, troubled.

Sasuke decides to be truthful. "Well, it kind of surprises me how many people want it to happen. I never knew Konoha citizens were so bloodthirsty." Naruto wiggles uncomfortably. "But it's ok, it's a very bad nuke-nin, right? He must have done a lot of damage to Konoha for people to want him dead so hard."

"He did," replies Naruto with a hoarse voice, not looking at him.

"So really, it's ok." He swings his legs back and forth like a little child. "Besides, from what I hear, my older self caught him, so I… What is it?"

Naruto is looking at him like at a ghost, his eyes shiny with unshed tears. Maybe he is not supposed to mention his older self? He lives in secrecy! How cool is that?

"Poor, poor boy," he mumbles, suddenly drawing him into a hug. Thought from the way he is trembling, Sasuke assumes it's more for his benefit that Sasuke's.

Sasuke likes this Naruto, so he lets him: if he needs a hug, he's not against it. So he buries his face in Naruto's chest and hugs back as strongly as he can, not fully understanding why they are even hugging at all.

Naruto is caressing his hair. It feels quite nice. "Tomorrow," he says, and Sasuke can tell he's about to cry, "you are going meet your older self."

Sasuke smiles at that. Finally!, he thinks.

They stay entangled like that, enjoying each other's company, until Younger Naruto gets home, sees them and jumps them, throwing them off the veranda and into the pond.

Older Naruto teaches them to walk on water.

He and Naruto wake up the next day to the smell of food. Naruto apparently will learn, wonder of wonders, how to cook when he grows up. And learn well, judging from the mouth-watering scent of pancakes.

When they reach the table, they are surprised to find Sakura and Kakashi there too. I guess the whole Team Seven is going on this field-trip, thinks Sasuke, a bit annoyed. He was the one who worked for it, damnit.

So they eat – the pancakes are really good, and the host also serves them freshly squeezed orange juice – and they get ready to meet the older, cooler Sasuke. They traverse the whole of Konoha, Sasuke admiring how it's all changed for the better.

"Why are we going to the Konoha Prison?" asks Naruto. "I thought we were going to see Sasuke!"

Sakura elbowed him. "Shut up, baka. Hasn't it cross your mind that maybe Sasuke is in the Prison?"

"What? Sasuke's is in prison?" he looks around wildly, looking at Sasuke like seeing him for the first time.

Sasuke notices his elder version flinching minutely. He's probably wincing at how stupid he used to be.

"Not IN prison, baka!" shouts Sakura, hitting him again, "He probably just works there. Right, Hokage-sama?"

He winces. "Again, just Naruto will suffice. Please, Sakura-chan."

They have reached the prison's doors. The guards recognise Older Naruto instantly and let them through. As they walk through hallways leading to the Maximum Security part of the building, Sasuke notices the Hokage never really answered Sakura's question.

He starts grasping at straws. I'm so high profile that my office needs to be within Max Security. Then, when they walk towards what is clearly a cell: I'm in the cell with the prisoner, interrogating him. Then, when they stop in front of the barred door and there is only one person in the cell, chained to the wall, arms stick thin, skin pale and dirty: I'm checking the security measures of the cell.

And then the older Naruto, who is gazing sadly at the prisoner, says "For once, Naruto is actually right. Good morning, Sasuke. You have visitors."

The prisoner raises his head, looking unfocusedly at them and Sasuke find himself staring at his own face.

And finally he understands the whole horror of the situation.

It concerns a certain S-Class nuke-nin. And the girl had known instantly: Sasuke, of course! You were talking about him.

The world does revolve around your other self right now. Wait until the end of the week and you'll meet him.

What's happens at the end of the week? The public execution of a certain S-Class nuke-nin who is the single remaining threat to worldwide peace.

You must leave before the week is up.

He turns around and runs.

He had wished to be strong enough to kill Itachi. In this timeline, he has done exactly as Itachi had said: live in an unsightly way. He has betrayed Konoha for the power, he has become a criminal so unsightly that the people of Konoha, normally tame as rabbits, are calling for his blood.

His legs are tired, and anyway he can't see through the tears blurring his vision, so he stops and weeps.

Naruto, the dead-last!, will become a hero. He will be loved by people in and out of Konoha. He will become so strong and so good that people will be singing about him a thousand years from now. He'll grow up to see his dream a made a reality.

Sakura will become the best damn medic-nin in the whole village, possible even the whole world. She will bloom from the tiny, crumpled bud she is now into a strong, confident woman, not just useful but essential to the life of the village.

Their lives have done nothing but get better and better, he thinks, while mine has only got worse. How do I go back to my life knowing what I will turn into? Sure, I'll kill Itachi. But I'll also bring the Uchiha clan such dishonour that…

He falls down and vomits, upsetting himself even more because he's choking now and he can't breathe.

Then there's a hand on his shoulder, rubbing comfortingly, and another hand in his hair, holding it away from his face. He turns his eyes to find Old Naruto – the fucking Hokage – there. And he understands that, all this time, he's only cared about protecting him from himself.

Naruto releases his hair and pulls out a handkerchief to clean Sasuke's face. Sasuke lets him, too tired to do otherwise.

He wants a hug, but he's too proud to ask for one. Naruto gives him one anyway, and he clings to him like his life depends on it, crying like he's only ever cried once in his life, when Itachi killed their family, until he calms down.

I see now.

And then Naruto speaks softly, right into his ear. "It doesn't have to end up like this, you know."

Sasuke doesn't know, but he nods anyway.

Then they get up and Wise Naruto holds his hand all the way home. And then he has to return to his Hokage duties.

Naruto and Sakura avoid looking at him. Just as well. He doesn't feel like looking at them either, so he goes straight to his and Naruto's room. He misses lunch, not that he's hungry anyway. At about three in the afternoon, he sneaks out of his room, grabs an apple in passing, and goes to the prison, intent on getting answers.

The guards have instructions to let him in, apparently. He's still marvelling over how thoughtful Naruto can be. They even let him into the cell itself and leave.

"Who is it?" his older self croaks out pathetically. He is looking straight at Sasuke.

"You are looking at me. You should recognise me."

He only blinks heavily. "Did I kill your father? Did I make your brother go crazy? Are you here to kill me?"

"NO, BASTARD, LOOK AT ME!" Sasuke shouts.

The prisoner face is expressionless. "I'm blind," he states.

Sasuke gapes, disgusted. Right, Older Sakura had said something about going blind from abusing the Sharingan. "Oh my god, I turn into you?"

His elder version frowns. "What are you on about?"

Sasuke tells him how he was bitten by a man during the chuunin exams, which led to a nightmare that unlocked his Mangekyou, and how they had been sucked into their future.

"Ah, bending time and space. That was Madara's power, not mine," he says, almost conversationally, for him.

I go mad, thinks Sasuke.

"Yes, mad with grief," nods his elder, and Sasuke realises he thought it out loud. "But I brought it upon myself, really," he adds.

Sasuke can't help his morbid curiosity. "Will you tell me about it? About my future? Everyone else has already seen theirs, and they are brilliant. I want to know where I go wrong." Where I fucked everything up.

"Let me see your face, first," he asks, holding out both hands as far as the chains will allow.

Sasuke understands after a moment or two and guides the hands to his face. The fingers are light like butterflies, they fly all over his face and ears and then, with a pull on his fringe, finish touch-seeing.

The older man smiles sadly. "I can't believe I was ever so young…"

"You are eighteen," says Sasuke belligerently.

"I feel like I'm eighty. May I confess something?" he doesn't wait for Sasuke to answer, "I can't wait for my execution. I'll finally be able to sleep."

"You won't," Sasuke rubs in his face, "you are going to hell."

The man blinks, and he really does look like he's eighty years old. "It's no more than I deserve."

Suddenly, Sasuke feels overwhelming pity for this man he'll become. He sits down in front of himself, ready for a heart-to-heart. "What happened?"

He is silent for a long while, looking at nothing, and Sasuke thinks maybe he's forgotten the question. Then, he speaks.

"Everything started the year you were born." Sasuke is sceptical, but says nothing. "Uchiha Madara, like all Uchiha with the Sharingan, could control the Kyuubi no Youko. He set it loose from its prison to capture it for himself, but was stopped and the Kyuubi was loose on the village. Namikaze Minato, the Yondaime Hokage, sealed the demon into his own son," Sasuke gasps, "at the cost of his life. Seeing how Madara was an Uchiha, the Council decided all Uchiha should be watched. They outvoted the Sandaime and ghettoised our clan, never letting us rise past chuunin rank at the most. After years of oppression, our father, head of the clan, decided he'd had enough. He started organising a coup d'état."

"What?" Sasuke exclaimed. "What have you been smoking? Dad would never do that!"

"Shut up and listen, boy. You asked for the story and your getting it whether you like it or not. Where was I? Oh yes, the coup. Well, the council got wind of that, and enlisted the help of possibly the only Uchiha that was more loyal to peace than to his clan, Itachi."

Sasuke inhales, eyes wide. "Please tell me they didn't order him to kill everybody?"

"Then you would be asking me to lie," his wearier self answers.

"Why not just kill the ones who planned the coup? That at least makes more sense!"

The man looks surprised. "Never thought of that. I guess I thought a massacre, no matter how small, is never justified. But it probably was because of this guy on the council, Danzo is his name, who wanted many Sharingan eyes to implant into his body." Sasuke is disgusted. "At any rate, Itachi did it. He started with his best friend, so he could get the Mangekyou, then waited until he knew we – I would be out for a long time, and did it. He loved me – us too much to kill us," Sasuke can see his counterpart's deep sorrow. "And then he killed everyone, even the babies, even his girlfriend. Then he left Konoha in exchange for them keeping me alive and sought out the next big threat to peace and infiltrated it. He joined Akatsuki."

"What is this Akatsuki thing?" Sasuke demands.

"It's an organization founded by Madara. Their aim was to get all nine bijuus, fuse them together to recreate the original Juubi and put everyone under an illusion of peace so they can dominate the world. I joined them after killing Itachi and learning the truth."

Twelve year old Sasuke may have been young, be he wasn't stupid. "So… you joined the group that Itachi was trying to bring down?"

"Yes. Madara promised me I could raze Konoha to the ground to avenge my clan and Itachi."

Sasuke gapes. I really go bonkers. I join a criminal organization to destroy the village my brother killed our clan to protect in order to… avenge Itachi? He's really glad his older self is blind and can't see him…

"I know what you're thinking." …even if he clearly possesses ESP. "Like I said, I was mad with grief and not thinking clearly. But I'm telling this out of order. Look, you said Orochimaru bit you, right? Well, a few months after the chuunin exam that ended with the Sound Village invasion and the death of Sandaime by Orochimaru's hands," Sasuke thinks this is getting crazier by the minute, "I went and joined Orochimaru. Naruto came after me, trying to get me to see reason and I almost killed him. I decided at the last minute I didn't need the Mangekyou, that I'd get power on my own terms.

"I defect to the Sound. Orochimaru trains me for over two years and a half. He has to switch bodies periodically and he wanted mine, so I kill him." Sasuke snorts. "Then I gather a team and look for Itachi, but you know this part. Oh yeah, apparently, if you and your brother both have the Mangekyou, you can kill him and implant his eyes, and then you can use them as you want and never go blind. Itachi wanted me to do that, but I couldn't, not after I learnt the truth about him.

"So now I worked for Akatsuki. There are only two demon hosts left, Naruto and the baby brother of the Raikage. We go after him, and fail to capture him. But that finally brings attention to Akatsuki, and the Great Five Countries come together to decide what to do. Danzo is going, as Acting Hokage, so I decide to go too and kill him. I didn't know they had declared me S-Class Nuke-nin and that I had a kill-on-sight order. I found out when I spotted Naruto, fresh from defeating Pein, all beat up and on his knees begging the Raikage to lift it." This Naruto? thinks Sasuke, on his KNEES, begging? He is really touched.

His older self continues, voice harsh from thirst. "The Kages in the Summit decide to form a world-wide alliance, totally transparent so that the little countries won't think they are trying for world domination. Then I kill Danzo. The only people on my list now is the council who decided Itachi's fate: Mitokado Homura and Utatane Koharu. But Madara wants to keep me and my team in Akatsuki. When the time for battle comes, I turn on him as he's fighting Naruto."

"You just can't stop betraying people, can you?" asks a voice from the direction of the door. Naruto, young Naruto that is, is there, arms crossed.

"What are you doing here, dobe?" shouts Sasuke indignantly.

Naruto ignores the elder Sasuke's gasp of "Dobe?" and shouts. "It's not like I wanted to come, bastard. Kakashi-sensei saw you leaving and ordered me to make sure you don't do anything stupid. C'mon, we're leaving," he says, pulling Sasuke to the door by the hand.

"Na… Naruto?" asks the older Sasuke in a pathetically small voice.

Naruto stops. "What do you want?" he snapped harshly.

The elder Sasuke's face is the epitome of anguish. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry."

Naruto scoffs and pulls Sasuke to the door. "You're telling it to the wrong Naruto," he tells the ground, and closes the door behind them.

Everyone ignores him for the rest of the day until Older Naruto comes home.

They watch the sunset together. The rest of the house is quiet.

"Does he have to die?" asks Sasuke. "He really is sorry, you know."

The blond man stretches his arms and lies down, his feet hanging from the edge of the deck. He looks at the sky. "Yeah, I know. So he keeps telling me. But he also wants to die. Has to die. I've been kicking it forward for nearly two years now, trying to get him to change his mind, to get the Alliance to change their minds. No dice. He still wants to die. He says seppuku is the only way to cleanse his sins. Says he wants to die honourably."

"Well, he's clearly an idiot," calls Naruto from behind them.

They turn to look at him. Sasuke can see he's as affected by this whole mess as Sasuke is, even the blond tries to hide it.

"What do you mean?" asks older Naruto.

"You don't get to die honourably," he answers, looking at his hands as he plays with a blade of grass. "There is no honour in death. You get to live honourably, and then you die."

Sasuke is very surprised. The older Naruto too, apparently.

"I forgot how wise I used to be when I was little," he says, and then he laughs so hard he starts crying. "The– there really is no other way, huh?" he cries.

"It's what he wants," says Sasuke. "The only way he'll ever be at peace with himself is if he's dead. He can't live with himself. Never's been able to," he confesses in a small voice. His eyes must be broken, they are leaking again.

Sakura comes back from the hospital for dinner. She's awkward around Sasuke (no doubt her older, meaner self is filling her head with crap about him) but she comments, excitedly, that they are working on Sasuke's Protein Bar – the name had stuck – and it would be finished on time.

Sasuke goes to sleep early that night, alone, while the house is still alive with laughter, and thinks about his future.

The days pass faster than he would like and he still hasn't made a decision. He and Naruto, the younger one, go to visit Older Sasuke every day. Naruto seems to have forgiven him, even if it wasn't his place to forgive.

Even if he's not as cool or as exciting as Older Naruto, Older Sasuke has many great stories to tell and great advice to give. "He would have made a great teacher", comments Sasuke over dinner. He's grown much closer to his team.

"He still can," teases Naruto looking pointedly at him.

Sasuke smirks, considering it. Since talking to his older self, he feels like a weight has been lifted. Maybe he could have his own genin team while getting strong enough to defeat Itachi – in a spar, that is.

The last day of their stay finally arrives, and with it, an inescapable mood of gloom seems to coat the walls of the Hokage's house. It's fucking sunny, observes Sasuke. He had been expecting at least cloudy.

They arrive at the plaza early. There is a stage and everything. They get as close to it as they can. There are a lot of people there already, eagerly awaiting the start of the spectacle. He feels a bit sad for them.

At midday exactly, the place is full. You can't even walk, there are so many people. A set of guards guide the prisoner up a set of stairs behind the stage, followed by the Hokage, who has been asked to be the kaishaku. The prisoner looks proud and regal in his pure silk white kimono. The guards help him kneel and then climb off the stage. He opens his kimono a bit, then tucks the sleeves under his knees and wraps the ritual tantou in rice paper.

Naruto, in full Hokage garb, holds Sasuke's chokutou in the air, waiting for the signal to bring it down on his head. But the last Uchiha sticks the tantou in his belly and drags it across it. Then he takes a deep breath to steady his hand, returns the blade to the centre and cuts up, almost reaching his sternum, and nearly all his guts come out and spill on the stage. Then he takes another deep breath, looks his trusted kaishaku in the eye and nods.

The Hokage doesn't hesitate. Faster than lightning, the sword is touching the stage. Sasuke's head rolls to a stop facing a pale and shaky Team Seven. He looks at peace, at last.

Older Naruto kneels next to his deceased best friend and starts picking up his organs and putting them back in his corpse. Then he reaches for the head, gouges the eyes out with the ceremonial tantou and lays it on top of the body. He kneels by the prone corpse and put one arm under the knees and one under the shoulder. He stands up solemnly and starts walking home, followed by Team Seven, Older Sakura, a couple people Sasuke recognises from his academy days and a woman with the biggest boobs he's ever seen who he doesn't recognise but both Sakuras call "Shishou".

By now most people have left, so the path to the Hokage's house is relatively clear.

Older Naruto goes straight to the back yard and lays dead Sasuke's cadaver on the ground. He disappears inside a shed and comes back with a shovel. Then he starts digging Sasuke's grave under an oak that lives there, mumbling insults against him. He is making a valiant effort not cry. See the most important man in the village doing manual labour in the dirt? That's how much this man cares, thinks Sasuke.

Older Sakura takes over when it seems he can't take it anymore. She is crying, yes, but she doesn't let that distract her from her task. When she finishes digging a reasonably deep tomb, the Hokage, covered in sweat, dirt and tears takes Sasuke's body and deposits it inside. The head had rolled off, so he picks it up, kisses the cold forehead and puts it on top of the severed neck. Then he shovels the dirt back in.

When he is done, he falls to his knees and bawls, his face a rictus of pain. "SASUKE, YOU ASSHOLE!" he chokes out. "I FUCKING LOVED YOU, YOU MORON! HOW IS THAT NOT ENOUGH? I FOLLOW EVERYWHERE AND YOU TRY TO KILL ME? WHAT THE HELL? BAKA! YOU RUINED EVERYTHING! SASUKE!" he screams, throat hoarse, and then he has to shut up because he can't breathe over his chocking sobs.

Sakura gives Sasuke a little push forward, and he takes the hint. He goes up to the devastated man and hugs him close, even if it looks ridiculous because Naruto is so much bigger than him. He doesn't say anything, he just holds him. Naruto leans on him, clings to him and cries.

"Promise me," he whispers, "promise me that it won't be like this, please. Say you won't let it, promise me."

Sasuke blinks away the tears in his eyes. "I promise, I promise," he says over and over again.

It may have been hours before they calm down for all that Sasuke cares. He realises Naruto needs to be alone, so he leaves to wash his face. When he turns, he sees Little Naruto, looking more like a child than ever before, with his lower lip trembling dangerously, waiting for him. Sasuke smiles a watery smile at him, and the boy manages to answer it. He tends his hand to Sasuke, and Sasuke takes it.

"Hey, Naruto," he whispers, not trusting his voice, as they walk back inside.

"What is it?"

"How do I tell Sakura that I don't want the pill she's been slaving over anymore?"

Naruto squeezes his hand and beams. "I don't think that will be a problem!"

When Sasuke woke up, he felt more clear-headed than even before. He was under a tree, apparently. Naruto was lying next to him, still knocked out from whatever the Orochimaru guy had done to him. But wait, hadn't that seal been removed? He heard the sound of a battle, so he looked.

Sakura was there, covered in bruises, her hair cropped short, wilder than he had ever seen her before. It actually suits her, he thought, before jumping sword first into the fray to defend his teammates and possibly even get a scroll.

He was really looking forward to fighting Naruto later, so he had to make them go through to the next round no matter what. Maybe they'd even make it to chuunin, and then Sasuke would be stronger when the time came to beat some sense into his big brother.

After scaring the sound ninjas away, he and Sakura patched each other up. She turned out to be surprisingly more competent at first aid than he'd thought she'd be. She insists on checking the back of his neck, however, for some reason.

It turns out there is nothing there.

OBLIGATORY ENDING NOTE: Like? Hate? Crit? Please do tell: what was the best part? The worst?

Flames tolerated, reviews wanted, criticism craved.

~Pluma Desatada