Sasuke watched the tail lights marking Naruto's distance from him fade around the turn at the end of the parking lot and decided not to acknowledge the way the darkness pressed that much heavier into every part of him.
They'll bring him back, Obito promised. He'd barely been aware of the man's existence until two days ago, but apparently they were still related. Sasuke twitched out from under the man's comforting arm and put some space between them, taking refuge in the shadows.
There'd always been things he didn't know about Naruto. Everyone thought the idiot told everyone everything—Naruto was, after all, always, always talking—and he made such a show with those oh-so-expressive eyes and brow and mouth of his that the people he interacted with believed they knew exactly how the hyperactive knucklehead felt, all the time.
Sasuke wasn't fooled. Unless he wanted to, Naruto expressed less of what was going on behind that animated mask of his than anyone Sasuke knew. Including himself.
You shouldn't be here, were the first words Naruto ever said to him, and Sasuke hadn't believed him.
He should have. He really should have—should have listened to the short kid with the scarred face and a knife in each hand. Sasuke didn't believe anyone at that part of his life: not himself, not his family, not his teachers, certainly not another lost boy acting tough in the scummiest arteries feeding Konoha's underbelly.
The difference between himself and Naruto, back then, was that Naruto wasn't acting. Not like Sasuke. While Sasuke walked himself into every kind of fatally stupid situation a half-cracked mess of thirteen-year-old could get himself into, Naruto showed up like a curse (or a lucky charm) and pulled him out—over and over and over again. Each time Sasuke hated the idiot more for it.
Until he noticed that Naruto was clinging to him. Was trying to be like him. That as thoroughly and royally screwed up as Sasuke may be, he was the closest thing to a "normal" kid Naruto had ever seen; the closest thing to "friend" Naruto had ever known.
So when Sasuke got out of the hospital that last time, with Itachi pacing his every footstep and Mother keeping all his shirts damp with her tears, he finally acknowledged the extra shadow radiating worry and curiosity that showed up around the edges of his spaces from time to time, and suggested that they try out a new game. Maybe without knives this time. Maybe something like a hockey stick would do instead. Maybe something that was just about kids and speed and challenge and fun without the (pretty much inevitable) death part.
Naruto was older than him (or was he? Hadn't the Namikaze baby been younger? Another thing to check—) but Sasuke found himself falling into roles he pretended not to recognize as Itachi's: big brother, advisor, protector. He was the one to teach Naruto about grade school and sneakers and comic books; the first to introduce tomato sandwiches and mowing lawns and drenching hot-day sprinkler fights. He'd let Naruto into his world inch-by-inch until the gravity of its epicenter depended on his presence, and that was dangerous.
There'd always been things he didn't know about Naruto. It never mattered—not enough to strain what was between them, not enough to make Naruto hide away behind face-splitting grins and squinted eyes. Naruto can take care of himself, Sasuke told himself. In his ignorance, he forgot that there could be a someone with greater claim to Naruto's brightness than he.
If you fail to return him, he promised the empty dark where the car had long since disappeared, if you keep him when he doesn't want to be kept, he'll fight. You will underestimate him, because no one is ever prepared for the way that idiot owns it, and I'll slip through the cracks and snatch him back.
If he was yours, he's not anymore.
...unless he wants to be.
Hunched under the weight of the dark, Sasuke turned quickly and shoved his way back through the heavy glass door and down narrow hallways until the crowds were loud enough and the artificial lights bright enough that he could pretend not to see his own thoughts.
Slumped sideways across the back seat of Kushina's rental car, Naruto dreamed. Unable to break through his will during waking hours, Naruto's memories lurked until unconsciousness claimed him, gathering vivid potency.
It began with pain and cold marble.
"Now," came the command, voice soft, promising further punishment should any word spoken be less than perfectly heeded, "Go do as you're told and nothing else. If I see you again looking like this I'll smack you till there's nothing left of your disobedient backside. Yugito! Get him out of here and get the job done."
Choking on the last of the tears he had so desperately tried to hold back, Naruto jerked out of the man's loosened grasp and tried to swiftly yank his trousers back up, another yelp escaping as the material scraped over swollen flesh. Defiance and humiliation burned through him hotter even than the pain from the belt-whipping and it was hard to get the button of his trousers through the buttonhole with the way his fingers kept clenching into fists. Tears blurred his eyes, but they didn't blind him to the booted feet striding toward him or the hand reaching to grab him and he knew better than to avoid but still his feet were backing him toward the wall, anger and fear swirling his thoughts into get-away-get-away-get-away and a bigger, much scarier hand clamped down over the nape of his neck and lifted and shook and his stomach heaved and he wondered how much worse things could possibly get even if he just puked right here right now—
"Five more," came the grim sentence, and the boy's pants were yanked down to make place for lashing leather and he couldn't even try to stop the screams, this time.
When it was over, and he was stood back up on trembling legs, his eyes had dried up. He could feel the snot running steadily over his upper lip but his voice was gone and he could see better without the tears blurring his vision so he raised his head and stared at the man who hit him, and his secret rolled round and round his head even though the words felt kind of hollow against the heat of hurt and shame. When Yugito reached for him again, he stayed perfectly still, like a plush toy animal with nothing but cotton inside. No pain, no hate, just fluffy, white, stupid cotton...
"You see, Naruto?" rumbled the Fox, wrapping the belt slowly around one hand. "There is always a choice, and a consequence. You're a big boy, six years old. Old enough to choose what, exactly, you want to avoid." Yugito's other hand curled around him, and she urged him towards the door as the man's voice rumbled one last command:"Bring him back when he's presentable; make sure he gets a hot dinner."
Naruto's sneakers squeaked as they shuffled over marble tiles, the hot hands gripping his shoulders pushing him through each awful step. "Step it up," urged Yugito. "Now that you've calmed down, we can get this over with quickly, and then you can have some dinner, got it?"
They were at the doorway. Naruto tried to remember if he had ever hurt this much. He was pretty sure he had, but he always forgot how truly horrible some things were the moment he stopped feeling them. It was stupid and good at the same time, being able to forget.
"No." he didn't know he'd said it until the whisper reached his own ears, and his whole body twinged fiercely in warning. Yugito stilled, let him go, stepped back. Slowly, so slowly, Naruto turned to face the Fox, fingers curling into fists, determination sparking a tiny, flickering flame in his belly. His eyes rolled up slowly, fear creeping down each limb until it tingled in his palms and across the soles of both feet, twisting everything inside him—but he kept his eyes moving up, up, up until they stared straight into the raw challenge in the gaze aimed sharply down at him.
There was a long, breathless pause, in which the thought of puking came back full force.
"Are you saying no to me, Naruto? Is that the choice you want to make?"
He almost stopped, right there. Almost chose the smart thing. Almost cried and said he was sorry, he didn't mean to, he wouldn't do it again. But the promise was still rattling around in his mind, over and over and over.
"I don't want black hair." He dropped his gaze to the floor, unable to look any longer at the red-grey hair and cold grey eyes watching him, or the belt coiled like a nightmare-snake in strong hands. But his tongue kept making the words and his lungs kept pushing them out. "My dad's coming to find me," he breathed, and as the secret rushed out into the room he felt his belief in those simple words grow—it was pounding in his heart, harder truer faster. "My dad's coming to find me. He's gonna find me. I don't want black hair. I want him to recognize me right away. He's coming to find me—he's coming to find me—he's comi—"
And then he couldn't do anything but gasp and scream and try to squeeze some breath in-between the rain of overwhelming force and pain lashing over every part of him—arms, legs, wrists, neck, calves, palms. He collapsed onto cold stone and tried to curl into the smallest ball possible, but strong hands just pulled him up and shook him out again and the belt never stopped finding the spots that hurt the most. There was a breath where everything stopped and through the ringing in his ears and the trembling of each aching limb he knew what was going to happen next. He couldn't stop the urge to struggle against the hands lifting and repositioning him and baring his bruised buttocks again, but his arms and legs were so tiny, so weak with pain, that it made no difference. The order came with the sure snarl of a dog with its jaw clenched around the throat of its prey. "Start counting."
The order came with the sure snarl of a dog with its jaw clenched around the throat of its prey. "Start counting."
"One," choked Naruto. Daddy will come. Daddy will come. Daddy please...
"I didn't hear you." The belt struck. Naruto stuffed a fist in his mouth and bit back the scream curling helpless in his throat. I can do this. Daddy will come. The fist left his mouth ringed with small red tooth-marks; oxygen and courage rushed in.
The belt hit again.
"One," counted Naruto again, loud enough and clear enough that there was a grunt of acknowledgement before the next strike.
There were hands on him and the belt and it hurt and his face was pressing into something hot and kind of damp and—"Five," he gasped—
Naruto flinched violently and the hand disappeared.
He was shaking.
He was in a car. Going where?
His hands were big. I can fight back now, you damn old Fox. Just try—
His hair was black.
"...Naruto? Are you awake? Look at me—Naruto—"
He had to move quickly, unexpectedly, but between the automatic tightening of the seatbelt he didn't know he was wearing and the trembling of his muscles, each action was slower than it should be. Still, he had one hand pressing the catch to release the belt buckle and the other slipping the switchblade from his waistband in the same breath it took him to count the people (two adults one-driving-one-guarding) in the car and recognize that they were going too fast to risk trying the door and jumping for it immediately. It was as he was getting his feet under him, crouching fight-ready in the cramped backseat space, that he caught a startling glimpse of his reflection in the rearview mirror: bloodshot blue eyes, mussed-up black hair, red patterned imprint of the material his cheek has been pressed against marring half his face.
His not-six-anymore face.
"We better pull over—Kushina," came that same urgent voice, and with a shudder Naruto came fully awake.
His father was staring worriedly at him. His mom was driving, switching between checking the side-mirrors as she switched lanes and the rear-view mirror as she checked Naruto. Too-quick seconds beat by as the car swooped to a stop on the shoulder of the road, eerie yellow streetlamp-glow flooding the windows, and Naruto shrank back against the upholstered seat-back, lifting an arm to hide his face, breathing heavily.
The engine cut.
'Naruto?" it was Kushina this time. I like your voice, thought Naruto, and wanted to hit himself for the stupidity of it.
Breathe in—two, three, four... Breathe out—two, three, four..., In— out—
"I'm okay," he managed, breath mostly under control. Slowly, unwillingly, he forced the arm shielding his face to fall. What happened to me? Don't think I was in a fight, but my body's all messed up—wha—there was something with Sasuke—Sasuke was gonnaknock me out—and then—and then—
"Do you feel sick? Naruto? Need some fresh air?" His father was speaking.
Yes. "No." In, out. In. At least I didn't pull the knife on them. Out. I can't lose control like this. His fingers still trembled as he tucked the blade back into his waistband and slipped his cellphone out of his pocket to replace it, hoping the way Namikaze's eyes tracked the movement was his paranoid imagination.
"We can do this another time," said Namikaze, nearly concealing the intense emotional strain tugging his voice into sharp edges. Nearly. "Let's forget Millennium Stadium and call it a night. You need some rest. Let's find a hotel..."
Naruto couldn't recall why they were driving to Millennium Stadium, but it was urgent. "No—really—I'm fine. And I was just sleeping. No more sleeping." If he blinked a little too rapidly, swiped a hand across one cheek, surely they wouldn't notice. "I'm... gonna call a friend. On the road again! Let's go!" he urged cheerily, and grinned, though by the taught silence that followed, no one was buying into the mood shift. Kushina's hand hovered over the ignition key, some sort of silent conversation flickering between her and Minato. When she turned to pin her backseat passenger with her cool grey gaze, Naruto squirmed uncomfortably, fighting to keep his phony smile steady.
"You will tell us what 'five' means when we talk about these things," she promised grimly, and, supremely unfazed by the sudden tightening of Naruto's jawline or the defiance flashing in his eyes, faced forward and floored the gas pedal.
Minato turned to the windshield with a quiet sigh as the little sedan swerved into the flow of traffic, accelerated well past the speed limit, and dangerously cut off another driver before leaving the other cars in the dust.
Naruto gulped and re-fastened his seatbelt.
The hiss and pop of a thousand lights flickering to life cut the silence echoing round the empty cavern of Millennium Stadium; Minato felt each reverberation trickle down his spine as drops of ice water. His fingers itched to reach and hold his son (a wrist, a shoulder, the hem of his hoodie; anything to keep him tangible) so he kept his hands in his jacket pockets, where they clenched into painful fists. If he was right—and when it came to issues of fact, detail or memory, he always was—this would be the place where a second chance could finally, finally begin.
"It was nine years ago," he said. "Closer to eight and a half, to be more precise. A fundraiser anniversary rematch of the World Cup game between Konoha and Iwa. I was listed as a guest player and would have opened the game as part of the starting lineup, but I left before it even started."
Naruto twitched and hunched further into his hoodie, muscles visibly taut through the thick folds of cloth. He seemed hesitant, or wary, and offered no encouragement for Minato to continue his story, but he kept close as they trecked a path through the bleachers. A door slammed and both heads snapped round to view the source of the sound; apparently satisfied with the lighting, Kushina swung out of the control booth and started briskly toward them. Minato paused to watch her, the sensation of cold fingers crawling up his spine intensifying.
"...I'd been receiving anonymous texts for twenty-four hours," Minato continued, swallowing against the potent grip of mixed anxiety and anticipation swelling a painful lump in this throat. "In patterned intervals of minutes. Threats. Made me really jumpy."
Naruto's eyes cut sideways to watch him.
"Things like, 'I keep what is mine,' and warnings to stop looking for you—that's how I interpreted them, anyway." Minato swallowed thickly. He had tried to stay calm, to collect this potential source of information and allow it to be analyzed from every angle. But what he thought he understood was terrifying in the way waking from a nightmare, knowing it is a nightmare, and still being unable to shake the unreasoning, mind-devouring fear from paralyzed limbs is terrifying. The pattern of minutes between each message could have meant so many things—it went seven, ten, ten, ten, seven, ten, ten, ten, seven...
Seven, ten: July tenth. Kushina's birthday. Ten, ten: October tenth. Naruto's birthday.
"Who was the 'I'?" Naruto's voice was startlingly quiet and rough around the edges and nearly swallowed in the hugeness of the room. "From the text messages. Who was 'I'?"
"...We were unable to confirm who wrote the messages," hedged Minato, watching Naruto as closely as Naruto was watching him. "But the number was one that had belonged to Kushina's deceased grandfather. His land-line number—that was before mobile phones, so coincidence was a possibility."
Naruto just looked confused. "My mom's... grandfather? Like my great-grandfather?"
Minato nodded. "He'd been dead for more than a decade. At least we believed he was. Now..." his eyes traced the scars etched cruelly across his's son's smooth skin. "...Now I'm not so sure."
"You still haven't explained how we're going to find answers here," interrupted a new voice, and both men jerked guiltily towards Kushina, who was striding towards them with a scowl. "Or which answers we're looking for. Or why you needed all the lights on. Do you have any idea how big the electricity bill for this place is? I don't, because when a number has that many zeros I make Obito handle it. Think of global warming!"
Minato couldn't help it; he smiled at her. She never was one for dramatic warm-ups to a conflict or revelation, and offered a welcome counterpoint to the mounting tension. "Right," he said. "I'll cut right to it. We need to take a look in the VIP box."
"Any particular VIP box?" she queried, pushing past them and taking the lead with a rather snappy pace. "Or is the nearest one fine?"
"Any of them will be fine," Minato replied. He could remember exactly which of the four he had stared at that day, but this wasn't about the exactness of his recall. The jingle of a great many keys mingled with their footsteps as Kushina searched through the key-ring she'd taken charge of, finding the appropriate key for the VIP box nearest them. By the time he and Naruto caught up with her, she had the door open and was giving herself a tour of the place. It was a small, expensively furnished room balanced at the edge of the second-floor balcony, floor-to-ceiling glass offering a million-yen view of shining ice reflecting several thousand lights.
For a moment the three stood in silence, Naruto and Minato shuffling in awkwardly while Kushina milled about, encountered a remote and started using it to try to turn the array of TV screens on. In seconds Naruto was reflecting her fidgeting in his own restless limbs.
"Just wondering if any of this seems... at all familiar, at all like what you remember from—from what you told me tonight," began Minato, and Kushina looked up sharply. "If you and I are remembering the same thing, you would have been in a room like this one when I—when you—when you saw me."
"I don't remember—" began Naruto, but then stopped, staring fixedly at the glass. Under no conscious command, his feet moved forward, pulling him by small, hesitant steps until he was pressed against the glass wall, breath fogging the clear surface.
"If you had been standing in front of the glass—the perspective would have been a little different, because you would have been so—so small—" the words cracked, and Minato stopped to breathe. "Just—just wait," he managed, and nearly ran for the door. He took the stairs to the lower level three and a four at a time, vaulting down into the tunnel leading from changing rooms to the rink and over the boards onto the ice with enough speed to send him skidding over the surface on the tractionless soles of his expensive street shoes, nothing but innate balance and long experience keeping him standing.
The shapes of the arena whirled around him in a double vision: one the empty greys and blues of abandoned bleachers ringing round blinding whites of untouched ice and silence; the other a remembered mess of roaring crowds and faces unduludating with waving flags and pumping fists. There had been music blaring and his name reverberating through the loudspeaker as he sailed to center ice.
He had been a mess of nerves, the rabid beast of consuming fear barely suppressed in the hollows of his gut. Instinct, fueled by the sinister texts and what he read between their lines, had made him desperate and unreasonable for hours before arriving at the arena, and his need to protect Kushina had backfired spectacularly, leading to their worst fight to date. Had the text messages not directed him to this game—and any hope of unraveling the plot behind them—he never would have set foot in Millenium Stadium.
Now he swirled to a stop in on empty ice, turning slowly to stare at his own reflection.
Was it here? I remember the glass—and a dark room—but—but if it was here, and he remembers, why—why— Naruto's breath fogged the glass, and a stepped away, tugging nervously at his bangs. Kushina came to stand beside him.
"You were here, Naruto? When?" her voice was soft and urgent.
"...Maybe," said Naruto, glancing at her and looking just as quickly away. "I was eight..."
Kushina sucked in air sharply, and bit her lip. Through the window, Minato could be seen, clearing the boards with ease and sliding, uncontrolled, over the ice.
"I could see him," whispered Naruto, "and I tried to make him look at me, there were lots of people so I wasn't sure he would hear me but he did—and he came sprinting closer and was staring right at me—"
Down on the rink, Minato turned slowly, looked up at them. Naruto barely registered the warmth and wetness sliding down his cheeks.
"I was so happy." The hand gripping his hair pulled painfully, and Naruto withdrew it quickly, turning away from the glass the memory of joy and relief swelling so painfully he still couldn't breathe around it.
Kushina rested a small, warm, impossibly gentle palm on his arm. "Did you try to get to him? Did someone stop you?"
"No," said Naruto, and his breath shuddered. "He saw me and his face changed... just like they said it would. They were right."
"Right about what, Naruto?"
"That if he saw me with—with my scars—" his fists clenched, he made them open; allowed his eyes to press closed. "-Even if he was my dad, he wouldn't want me. No one would."
The palm on his arm became a grip, but it didn't hurt, and every finger was warm. "That's what they told you?"
"Everytime I insisted that Namikaze Minato was my father." He opened his eyes, faced his mother full-on. "They were right."
Kushina looked back at him steadily, grey eyes wide and clear and every line of her face telling some story: anger, pride, compassion, empathy. Sorrow.
"He didn't see you," she said.
Naruto jerked his head sideways, looking pointedly at where Minato was still watching them, as if he could read every word through the glass.
"It's one-way glass, Naruto," she said softly. "Window on one side, mirror on the other. All he can see is his own reflection."
Unbelieving, Naruto stared at her, then took long fast steps out of the room and down the aisle to where regular bleachers lined up at the edge of the balcony. The front of the VIP boxes wasn't clearly visible—the reflective quality could be due to the angle—so he gripped the railing and leaned out over the ice, twisting his head to the side so he could measure the glass from the other side.
It was a mirror. A mirror showing nothing but bleachers and wall and ice and empty space made for too many people.
A hand fisted in the back of his jacket and he leaned back, pulling away instinctively.
"It wasn't your face that he saw that day, Naruto," said Kushina, allowing him to step away, dropping the hand that had held him. Minato was still standing on the ice, alone, waiting. "It was mine."
"It was Kyuubi."
Sasuke stilled, the hand holding his phone seizing, straining to hear over the sound of rushing water Naruto was using to mask their conversation. "What do you mean?"
"It wasn't—wasn't Dad's fault, that he couldn't find me," gasped Naruto, and Sasuke knew that the boy must be pacing, aching, lost. "It was that effing Fox. He made me think—made us both think—Dad thought he'd killed Mom—"
"Dobe. Sentences. Use complete sentences."
Naruto slowed down a bit at the familiar rebuke. "Ahgh. Okay. You know my scars."
Sasuke didn't say anything. Of course he knew those scars.
"So that's what Kyuubi used to do to the people he killed. You know."
Sasuke did know. Naruto was the only person to have ever been found alive with marks like that. The only one whose wounds had time to turn to scars. They were the signature of a serial murderer.
"He made me think that Dad would see them like everyone else. You know, be scared and shit. Hate me. Run away from me."
"Hn," agreed Sasuke. Very few people could look at Naruto without recalling gruesome images of mutilated corpses.
"Then he set Dad up."
Naruto was using the word 'Dad' very freely, Sasuke noted.
"Sent him text messages. Threatened Mom. Made him desperate to keep her from—from disappearing. Like me."
"Then he let me see him, but he couldn't see me—all he could see was mom—a reflection of a picture or a projection or something—Mom—with scars like—like mine—"
"How could he not see you?"
"That kind of glass in movies, like a mirror on one side, you know? And Dad totally freaked, and that's when he ran—I thought it was because of me—"
It wasn't because of you, dobe. I could have told you that. But Sasuke said nothing.
"-he just had to get to Mom, and she was fine, it was all a set up. But I bought it—for all these years, I thought... I thought..."
"Naruto. Are you crying?"
Pause. Sniffles. "Of course not. Bastard."
"You believe everything they say?"
"Yeah. I believe it."
Of all the things Sasuke would blithely deny, Naruto's uncanny ability to detect truth was not one of them. "I see."
"Right?" asked Naruto.
"Hn. Are you staying there tonight?"
"Um... yeah... I'm not really sure, Dad's calling for takeout right now... Thai food, he said..."
Sasuke groaned and it turned into a yawn. "Why'd you call me at 2:00 am, idiot."
"Yah, whatever, you weren't sleeping."
He hadn't been.
"Hey, Sasuke...thank you." The words were far too quiet for ones spoken by Naruto, even over the phone.
"Of course I'll come back, dumbass. It's just a long drive and it's already been a long night, plus it's not my car, y'know? I need to check on Hina-chan. And we have practice tomorrow anyway. I have to come back."
Eased by the latent anxiety edging those words, Sasuke grunted an affirmative. But the next promise turned that bit of relief to a roaring wave of warning.
"And I've got a fox to kill."
"You're not killing anyone." Sasuke was sitting up in bed now, feet searching for sandals. If he had to take the moped to the capital in the freezing dead of night, Naruto would have hell to pay. "Naruto. I'm serious. Itachi did not put his career on the line for you to end up in jail for murder."
He hoped for an irritable knock-down, or maybe an oafish claim that he'd been joking. He got silence.
"Naruto," he growled. He was at the door now.
"He broke my family."
Itachi's bedroom light snapped on; Sasuke could see it under the crack of the door. "And you think he's not using you now just like he did back then?" he demanded, exasperated. But mostly scared. The coat closet's door squealed in protest and he wrenched it wide, grabbing for his thickest winter coat shoved in the very back. "You said he sent a message today. You said he knows something about your parents. Do you somehow imagine that he didn't leave room for all of this? That he somehow didn't consider you believing your dad's story or something? That you wouldn't come looking for revenge? Look, you complete and utter idiot, I know about broken family—" he had to stop, catch his breath, and come up with something to do about Itachi, who was standing between him and the front door, looking murderous.
"Of course I've thought of that," said Naruto tightly. "But. I can't. This time, I just can't."
"The hell—can't what—" Itachi was advancing towards him now, and Sasuke was feeling more than a little nervous.
"I should have killed him before."
"You telling me you tried?" Sasuke wished he was hearing this wrong.
Naruto laughed, a tired, frustrated, I-have-no-other-way-to-deal-with-life laugh. "No. If I'd gone through with it, I would have succeeded."
"Naruto. You're sounding stupider than usual." You're scaring me.
"I let myself walk away," Naruto was saying. "'Cause I love him. Do you have any idea how messed up that is? I love him. Like... like a father. Or something. Hah. I'm so messed up, Sasuke, and it's all because of him, and I can't stop this time, I have to—have to do something before he finishes whatever this is he's started—it will never end—"
Sasuke crouched cold entryway tiles, and didn't mind too much when the 'you've disturbed my peace, you will pay' slant to Itachi's eyebrow lowered slightly into 'okay, now I'm worried, the world is gonna pay'. "Yeah, Naruto," Sasuke managed, after a moment. "It's screwed up. All of it."
"I don't wanna be like him," Naruto whispered. The rush of water—must be a shower, it was too loud for a tap—swallowed the words, but Sasuke caught the shape of them. "It's not—Sasuke, it's not—it's not revenge. Though I want that too. I want it bad."
"I think he put us together so he can take us apart again."
Horror rushed down Sasuke's spine, built an ache in his chest.
"I... I got too independent. This is just another consequence."
"Naruto... is there something he wants from you?"
The line was quiet.
"...I gotta go. Gotta get in the shower before they come in to fish me out."
There were so many things Sasuke thought he should say, wanted to say, that no words would form.
"Just... pay attention. Don't go near the Gates. Stay close to Itachi. Or let him stay close to you. ...Please."
"Worry about yourself, dead last."
Dial tone filled his ear. Sasuke wasn't sure if his last words had been heard, or not.
He didn't think it would make a difference either way.
Curled between cold sheets, Hinata hugged a frog-shaped hot water bottle and stared at Naruto's plants. I am so happy for you, Naruto-kun. The thoughts grew from her heart as a prayer. Please be well. Please be safe. There is so much joy waiting for you. I want to teach my child to be like you. You are everything bright and strong, warm and good... Her child kicked, and she placed a hand over the spot, smiling through her tears.
Naruto-kun... you saved us both... thank you...
Tomorrow she would leave this apartment to settle in the home Neji-niisan arranged. The loneliness had already set in her bones, and for a moment she selfishly wished that Naruto could have been with her for one more night, that their life together could have lasted for one more morning.
But now Naruto would be free. With Minato and Kushina watching over him and providing for him, his life would be his own for the first time: he could study anything he wanted, travel anywhere he wanted, be with anyone he wanted...
Be happy, Naruto-kun. Please, please be happy, and even if I can see it only from a distance, your smile will always be sunshine to me.
A/N: happy summer :)