A/N: Thank you for your patience! Here's the next chapter. And as always, many thanks to my beta who makes this possible!
Naruto stood unmoving before the five distinguished leaders, hands held tensely at his side. They were gathered in a small room furnished simply with a long table and five chairs. Just down the hall, most of Konoha and shinobi from other villages were waiting in the courtroom. However, he'd requested a private audience with the Kages prior to the start of the trial. His throat felt dry from all the speaking he'd done, but the jinchūriki ignored it. That small discomfort was the least of his worries.
The Raikage's expression conveyed his utter irritation. His eyes were narrowed, glaring heatedly at the young ninja. "You expect me to believe that Uchiha suddenly decided to help you and turned good out of nowhere?" The large man snorted, voice layered with disbelief. "That boy attacked my brother, and you want us to just let him walk free? I won't stand for it!"
"It's the truth!" Naruto insisted determinedly. "Kakashi-sensei and Yamato-taichou will tell you the same thing."
The Tsuchikage cleared his throat loudly, sitting straighter in his chair. "Even if what you say is true, why should we show Uchiha any leniency? He might not be Madara, but he sided with him all the same."
The blond frowned, shaking his head. "Sasuke was lied to. Madara manipulated him like he did with everyone else! He helped us because we finally told him the truth." He hesitated a moment before adding, "And he's a good person...deep down. He deserves a chance."
All the while, Gaara had listened to the proceedings wordlessly. However, Naruto's last words struck close to home. After all, it hadn't been too long ago when he himself had walked on a path of darkness. The villain he had formerly been was gone, but it was far from forgotten. In many ways, Gaara sympathized with Sasuke. The last surviving Uchiha had suffered in ways he could relate to. In his heart, the Kazekage sincerely wished for Sasuke's redemption. And maybe... that hope lay best with Naruto.
He cleared his throat, drawing Naruto's attention to him. "Perhaps he is," the red-haired mused, catching the anticipation in the jinchūriki's face. "That is something we can only determine in hindsight, Naruto. Right now, we are judging Sasuke for his crimes. But maybe-"
"He betrayed Konoha and attacked a Kumo ninja," the Raikage cut in impatiently. "Shinobi law is clear about the punishment for such actions! I personally will-"
"Executing Sasuke won't solve anything!" The Cloud leader was visibly shocked by his interruption, but Naruto pushed on. "The world has enough hatred and killing in it. You kill Sasuke and someone else just like him will come along sooner or later." His clenched hands were practically shaking with emotion. The blond forced himself to speak as calmly as possible: this wasn't the time to appear rash or impulsive. "But if we give him a chance, maybe we can have one less bad guy in the world...and one more person to do some good."
A looked down at the young teen agitatedly, but kept his ill temper in check for once. "And how can you guarantee he won't betray us again?"
Naruto didn't hesitate in his answer. "Seal us."
The Hokage frowned, confusion in her expression. "What are you talking about, Naruto?"
"The Fourth Hokage mentioned it in his writings," he explained, carefully taking out a worn booklet from his tool pouch. He flipped to a page near the end and set it open on the table. "A loyalty seal."
Gaara's eyes quickly scanned the handwritten pages, anxiety flashing across his calm features. He'd never heard of such a technique. Evidently it had been closely guarded by the Leaf. But what disturbed him was the fact that if the seal was broken, the individual it was used on would immediately die. The Kazekage raised his face, worry plainly visible. Naruto was headstrong and doggedly determined; Gaara knew this and admired his fellow jinchūriki's complete devotion to his beliefs. However, he wondered if this time Naruto had erred grievously in his judgment. "Naruto," the red-haired shinobi said slowly, watching the other teen's face carefully. "Given what Tsunade-sama has told us Kages about the seal binding you and Sasuke..." Gaara stopped, unsure of how to phrase the remainder of his sentence.
Seeing his hesitation, Tsunade leaned forward, clasping her hands together on the table. "This technique will kill a person if he turns traitor." She bit her lip, easily sensing the alarm rising in her fellow leaders as they realized the implications of Naruto's proposal. "Do you really trust Sasuke so completely?" This was a risk Tsunade feared to take.
"Yes, I do," the blond ninja answered without hesitation.
"Then you're a fool," the Raikage hissed angrily, thumping the table firmly with a clenched fist. "Putting this seal on Uchiha won't change the person he is: a traitor with no sense of loyalty! And what about the foolhardy technique you used to save his life? He'll get you killed and you don't even see it!"
"Sasuke is a person who understands loyalty far better than most people," Naruto retorted stubbornly, unfazed by A's anger. "He gave his life to revenge out of loyalty to his family. And when given the truth, he remembered his loyalty to us: his team." Swiveling his head, the jinchūriki looked in turn to each of the other Kages. "Sasuke saved me— he saved all of us— not because he stood to gain, but because there is good in him. So yeah, I'll put my trust in him, and I'll share in his fate." He looked towards the Hokage, blue eyes bright with determination. "If you won't seal him, then at least spare him from the death sentence for helping us stop Madara. Whatever the punishment, I'll stand by him."
The Mizukage lifted her head, voice low. "And what if we choose to lock him away for the rest of his days? Would you remain with him still?"
"Absolutely," Naruto answered, tone unfaltering. "Always."
Tsunade shut her eyes for a moment, the present issue giving her a ferocious headache. As it was, they could not execute Sasuke without bringing the same fate upon Naruto. That much was clear. The obvious choice would be imprisonment. The Hokage had hoped to perhaps study the seal more closely, and maybe devise a method of removal. However, she very much doubted that the jinchūriki would be cooperative in that plan. And yet, locking up Sasuke was not much of a solution either: Naruto would stubbornly demand that the same treatment be given to him out of his devotion to the other shinobi. While the Raikage might have no qualms about that, Tsunade did not have the heart to be so cold.
"Naruto," she said hoarsely, her voice laced with exhaustion despite her best efforts to hide it. "What you're asking of us...it could kill you."
He looked her dead in the eyes, completely sure and trusting. "Have some faith, baa-chan."
"Everything seems to be normal, Sasuke-kun." Shizune made several quick notes on her clipboard. Her patient was visibly subdued and had yet to speak a word to her since being escorted here from the courtroom. "Your chakra pathways are healing nicely. We have every reason to believe they will be back to normal within a year." She watched him pull back on his shirt with short, brisk movements. "Some pain and discomfort should be expected. Would you like me to prescribe you some painkillers or-"
"No," he said lowly, running a hand tiredly over his face. "I'm fine." His mind was far too preoccupied with other things to notice small trifles like that.
"All right then. If you change your mind, you can come back and speak to me or one of the other medics." Shizune tucked her pen back into a pocket, turning primly towards the door. She looked back at his tense figure, her hand on the doorknob. "I believe Tsunade-sama or Kakashi-san will be with you shortly to..." She stopped, unsure of how to delicately phrase his situation. "...to explain what happens next." Slightly embarrassed, the medic slipped quietly from the room and shut the door gently behind her.
Sasuke let out a long sigh, tilting his head up to look over the plain and unadorned examination room. He felt a weariness that gnawed at his very core. The mental and physical strain he'd been carrying hadn't been fully evident to him until he'd entered that courtroom. And though his journey was far from over, the dark-haired shinobi felt lighter than he had ever felt in years.
Crossing the room in a few short steps, he dropped tiredly into a chair. Instinctively, a hand went to his chest, fingering the cloth obscuring the skin there from sight. It was a strange feeling, though unobtrusive enough that Sasuke only noticed it when he was idle. The chakra flowing into him and mingling with his own energy contained a vibrancy that he could almost touch. It was amazing really, to think that such a small thing had wrenched him back from death. Naruto might have called it a physical proof of his love.
He shut his eyes, frowning. Naruto was a straightforward individual: Sasuke never doubted the truth behind his confession. But what about his own feelings? Sasuke was at a loss at how to translate what he felt into clear words. In the art of killing and warfare, he excelled above most of his contemporaries. But in this matter of the heart, Uchiha realized that he was a complete novice. Love had come easily to him as a child; it had been practically automatic. However, it was something he'd worked to suppress utterly over the years. Sasuke wondered if that capability still existed within himself.
What Naruto was offering him...he longed for it inexplicably. But Sasuke was unsure if he knew how to reciprocate as Naruto would want him to.
A soft knock jolted him from his thoughts, and the dark-haired shinobi sat up straight in the chair.
Kakashi opened the door unhurriedly, eye flickering towards Sasuke for a moment. He looked faintly uncertain for a heartbeat before he stepped aside deferentially and allowed the Hokage to sweep past him into the room. Tsunade didn't look happy, but Sasuke couldn't detect any anger in her expression. In fact, her face betrayed the barest hints of exhaustion and worry. However, that was hardly surprising, given the circumstances encompassing all of them. Despite that, she managed to give him a slightly reassuring look. "Well, Shizune has pronounced you fit enough to leave the hospital."
Sasuke instinctively tensed, rising slowly to his feet. "Where will I go?" The words felt hollow on his tongue. After all, his position in Konoha was still tenuous at best.
Kakashi cleared his throat. "For the length of your probation, you will have at least two ANBU guards supervising your movements every day. You will remain within the village limits. We also ask that you check in with either me or Hokage-sama once a week."
Tsunade crossed her arms over her chest, sighing deeply. "For now, we'll permit you to be relatively free in your movements. But make no mistake: fail to do this and we will be forced to reassess the terms of your probation. Do you understand this, Sasuke?"
He nodded, face calm. In light of their current conditions, the limits they were placing upon him were far more lenient than he'd ever dared hope for.
The Godaime pursed her lips, sharp eyes watching his every movement and change in expression. "As you might be aware, we are still in the process of rebuilding the village. Housing is limited for the time being." She glanced at the Jōnin standing calmly beside her. "Kakashi has agreed to give you shelter in his apartment temporarily until other arrangements can be made."
Sasuke barely restrained a wince. That living arrangement would be awkward at best. His former sensei was a reserved man most of the time, but the past three years had created an even greater distance between them. Coming together to defeat a common enemy was one thing; living in close quarters was quite a different story. Madara's defeat did not erase his own crimes, nor did it wipe away the wounds his actions had wrought on those closest to him.
Perhaps a bit of that showed in his expression, for the Hokage's mouth twitched in the hint of a smirk. "Naruto has also volunteered space in his quarters." Personally, she would have preferred Kakashi to be the one to watch over the last Uchiha: the Copy Ninja was intelligent, resourceful, and more controlled in his emotions than Naruto. However, the jinchūriki had an undeniably positive influence on Sasuke. And in the days to come, perhaps that would help assuage the worries she had regarding the two of them.
After all, Naruto had asked for her to have faith.
"For now," she said finally, done deliberating, "you'll room with Naruto." Kakashi looked uncertainly at her, but held his silence. "But if you two start butting heads, I'm sending you straight to Kakashi."
Naruto kicked off his sandals, letting them land untidily in a corner. "Make yourself at home." He shut the door with a flick of his hand.
Sasuke looked at his surroundings slowly, surprised by how neat everything was. The walls were painted white and unadorned save for a clock hanging on a far wall. There was a small couch set at one end of the room with a wooden coffee table resting in front of it. The space extended into a tight kitchen area furnished with the basics: a stove, sink, medium-sized refrigerator, and a table with two chairs. A narrow, darkened hallway led out of the room, and he could just discern the outlines of three separate doors.
"Do you want something to eat?" The jinchūriki fumbled with the lock on the door, slightly nervous. "It's probably not as roomy as you're used to. Most of the apartments were built in a hurry, after-" He stopped. Probably not a good subject to bring up.
Sasuke shook his head, wordlessly taking off his shoes. It was almost surreal to be in such a mundane setting. He scarcely knew what to do or say.
Naruto strode over to one of the closed doors and opened it. "You can have this room. The bathroom is the door in the middle, and my room's the other one." He retreated a bit, giving the other teen space to pass.
Silently, Sasuke looked around at the rather ordinary room. A closet and a set of shelves took up one of the walls, and a single bed had been placed opposite them. In one corner stood a small, neat wooden desk with a matching chair pushed in. It was situated so that the occupant would have a good view out the room's single picture window. From where he stood, Sasuke could see the sun beginning to set over Konoha: the sky was tinged with red and orange, and the day's final light threw long shadows over the land. In a way, it was nostalgic.
But the Konoha he saw in the twilight was a changed village. A cluster of newly finished buildings surrounded the row of apartments, but a large part of the town was still under construction. The Leaf's outskirts were little more than rubble and dirt, dotted with tents and the beginnings of new structures. Gone was the once bustling village he'd grown up in. That, too, had been a casualty of the war.
Behind him, Naruto sighed lowly. He took a step towards the window, watching people in the streets make their way home after a long day of work. "It was slow going at first. We hardly knew where... or how to start." The blond paused, his gaze wandering over each new structure like a parent watching his struggling child. "Yamato-taichou has been able to help us more lately."
Sasuke noted the soft look on Naruto's face, mildly surprised. It was a tender expression, full of affection and worry for the village before his eyes. It was a look that eventually turned away from the window and settled on him instead. He held his breath, unused to being confronted with such emotion.
"I didn't get a chance to thank you, Sasuke," Naruto began, shifting his feet.
"You have nothing to thank me for." Sasuke turned away curtly.
Naruto looked steadily at Sasuke's back, watching him take several steps away to sit down stiffly on the bed. "You saved my life. I think that's worth thanking you for." He paused, debating mentally on how to continue.
But Sasuke beat him to the punch. "What is it that you want from me, Naruto?"
The jinchūriki frowned, crossing his arms over his chest. "I wanted you to know the truth, and to come back home," he said simply. Sighing, he turned back towards the window and stared unseeingly into the evening. "I know what you're asking. I don't expect you to feel the same as I do, Sasuke. But I cared enough to save you from all that hatred." He closed his eyes, suddenly tired. "All I want now is for the world to heal. You especially." He turned his head slightly. "You deserve that."
Sasuke didn't reply, but Naruto hadn't expected him to. Instead, he rested his hands on the windowsill, looking back out into the evening. "You and I...we're the last of our clans. I think for a long time we've both been suffering in their memory." He closed his eyes, reminiscing briefly on the precious few moments he'd been able to share with his parents. They'd loved him, sacrificed everything to protect and help him. But a person could not mourn forever. He and Sasuke had their whole lives in front of them, and there was much to be done in the world. "Revenge is an empty existence. I think our families would have wanted us to move on and find peace."
He pushed away from the window, turning slowly to face the silent Uchiha. Sasuke's head was bowed, his dark hair obscuring his expression. Naruto sighed, tentatively taking a seat next to the other shinobi. "Itachi would want that for you. He was a good person," he said quietly.
Sasuke started, head lifting slightly. "What makes you so sure?"
"Because in the end... I think he did what he did out of love, Sasuke." Naruto bit his lip. "And where love exists, good does too." He sighed again, folding his arms over his stomach. "But even good people make mistakes. I think Itachi was as much a victim of the shinobi system as the rest of us. He loved you, Sasuke," he said earnestly, turning his gaze towards the other teen. "His only mistake was that he didn't trust in your strength." He paused, adding quietly, "And I believe you would have made a difference, given the chance. You still can."
For a long few minutes, Sasuke was unsure of how to reply to Naruto's words. It was starkly different from how other people in his life had described his brother. Madara had spoken at length about Itachi, but with a cold detachment. Many Leaf ninjas used his name with scorn and disgust, fiercely judging a man they'd never met or understood. Sasuke himself felt conflicted still about his dead sibling, caught between the love of his childhood and the hatred that Itachi's actions instilled in him. But that was a pain only time could assuage.
In hindsight, it seemed he was always at odds with himself internally. His heart urged him in one direction, but his ambitions and grief pulled him down another. But after all that had been said and done, Sasuke knew finally understood that nothing resembling happiness lay down the path he'd been trekking.
The truth was plain in Naruto's words. Itachi was gone, and it was time that Sasuke chose his own path. He finally met the blond's gaze, nodding slightly. "Thanks," he murmured. Gratitude was something he had seldom experienced in these past few years, but he felt it now as Naruto sat beside him.
A small smile curved his lips, and the other ninja nodded as he made to stand up. "I should go, let you get settled. Baa-chan wanted me to-"
On an impulse, Sasuke reached out a hand to touch Naruto's. It was a light tap, but the other teen stopped all the same. The blond looked curiously back at him, confused. "Sasuke?" Their faces were so close, it took only a slight turn of his head for Sasuke to brush his lips against Naruto's. The jinchūriki jumped slightly in surprise, but relaxed after a pause. Instinctively his mouth opened, letting the taste of Sasuke's skin flood his senses. He slowly ran his hand up the dark-haired teen's arm, settling it hesitantly at his elbow.
The feeling was still new and distinctly foreign to Sasuke, but not unpleasant. Naruto's lips slowly and gently caressed his own, coaxing a calmness to settle over him. He could sense the emotion radiating from the blond, could practically feel it on his skin like a summer breeze. But above all, he felt his own heart stir in response.
Sasuke withdrew after several moments, inhaling deeply. Neither of them blushed; they'd been through too much war for that. He felt an undeniable pull though, an attraction to his former teammate. Whatever this was or would be between them, Sasuke did not yet know. But he was willing to allow it to guide his steps from here. Naruto had proved time and time again that sheer faith and belief were powerful forces, potent enough to change the landscape of their world. So it seemed only natural that he found his own convictions changed.
It was strange how their close proximity gave clarity to his thoughts. But in its own unseen way, it soothed the anguish buried within his tumultuous soul. He didn't love Naruto. Not yet. But much like how a person knew that the bright spring would eventually fade into autumn and then winter, Sasuke knew instinctively that his ties to the jinchūriki would only grow and strengthen with time.
He felt Naruto's breath on his ear as he murmured briefly, a soft question. Sasuke didn't reply but leaned in once more, letting their lips meet again. Perhaps love could always be like this: simple yet stable, and strong enough to bring light into darkness.