There's a few questions that came up from reviews last time and I thought I'd address these here.
From Saby A: Will Naruto grow into his age? I feel sasuke is molesting a teen. I think I'd approach this from the 'how much has Sasuke actually aged?' point of view. It's funny that this question comes now, because the prequel (yes, the prequel) will address a few themes, and that will be one of them. But mentality wise, they will cover that gap quite quickly.
Piro: What's wrong with Naruto's seal? So far, all of Naruto's seal troubles I've talked about have just been Kyuubi being a horrible tenant that likes causing troubles.
Lastimosa: Is there a definitive update time? (Nervous laugh). There was supposed to be. But then that crumbled to the ground. So no definitive update agenda.
Disclaimer: I'm getting there. (Write slave! - I mean. That's looking great Kishi)
Even evil cannot wage a battle without the existence of good.
And so, does war begin once more.
Chapter 7: The Sleepy Town
The rancid smell of decade old decay that rushed out from the darkness made Kakashi scrunch up his nose in distaste as the door to the underground dungeons was opened. Turning to the men that stood on the steps behind him, he waved a hand at the two ANBU that had accompanied him this far and they moved back up to stand guard, the relief evident in their body language. He took another step down into the dank corridor, pausing to wait as the heavy door slammed shut behind him. With its closure everything became so dark that he was forced to pull down the top of his mask and activate his other eye. An incessant dripping sounded and his path became clear.
Taking a deep breath, he began making his way down between the endless rows of cells, ignoring the way that his sandals stuck to and detached loudly from the floor with each step. He kept his eyes fixed ahead to avoid looking into any of the small, slitted gaps in the doors that he passed. Unlike the usual cells above the surface, these ones were fitted with armoured doors and stone and jutsu barriers, not the simple bars that any shinobi dangerous enough to be put down here could easily snap, even without chakra.
As it was, he was not aware of any prisoners that should be held down here at the moment. At least, not alive, and that was what Kakashi did not want to confirm to himself. Let the curses of the past Hokages die with them, he thought as he continued on, but do not allow them to come back and haunt the living.
As if sensing him approaching, one of the doors to the right and near the bend up ahead suddenly opened up, swinging inwards and casting a long strip of white light into the corridor. Sai's head poked out from the doorway and nodded at him when he had located his features in the darkness. The shadows were obvious beneath his eyes, even as he attempted a wry smile in his direction.
"How is she?" Kakashi asked when the door was closed behind them again. The sudden, artificial brightness was such that he was had to blink to get the white spots out of his vision. After taking a sweeping inspection of the room he pulled his mask back up over his sharingan now that it wasn't needed.
The eerie dripping of the corridor was replaced by the mechanical beeping and ticking of several machines, the sound not any more comforting. The whirring machines formed a 'U' shape around the pink-haired figure that lay limply on a bed in the centre of the room, hooked up to wires that snaked and coiled beneath the sheets from every side.
"She woke up about an hour ago," Sai informed him from where he still stood by the door. "She was clearer in the head this time, but she was still convinced that I was Sasuke."
"She attacked you again?" Kakashi asked grimly as he approached her.
"She tried to." Sai forced a smile and Kakashi pitied the effort. "Fortunately, Ino was still here and she sedated her. But because of that, it became too dangerous for her to go into Sakura's mind."
Kakashi's eyelids lowered sadly at the sight of his pupil, unconscious and defenceless on the bed. Sakura was not a woman that could normally be reconciled with the word 'delicate,' but that was what came to his mind right now. Going to her bedside while making sure to carefully avoid the wires, he ran a hand across her sweaty forehead, pushing away the messy fringe that had shifted out of its typical parting before moving down to lift her hand in his own.
"Did she say anything of importance this time?" He didn't like asking the question –it felt too much like Sakura really was a prisoner –but it was a necessary one.
"She did. She probably didn't mean to." Sai hesitated, watching them with an artist's sharp eye.
"She might have seen Naruto."
Kakashi stiffened, back and neck straightening. Slowly placing Sakura's hand back down gently, he turned his head to regard Sai. The newest addition to Team 7 seemed to be debating with himself over something, a light frown wrinkling the skin between his eyebrows as he thought over a memory not yet privy to Kakashi.
"Why do you think that?" Kakashi asked him seriously. It was enough that Sakura had found Sasuke –and Pakkun had been able to verify that upon recovering – but no living witness had ever sighted Naruto in the past 7 years. It was one of the reasons why they hadn't been able to completely dismiss the possibility that he had already died by Sasuke's hand.
"She was screaming at me to get away from Naruto," Sai answered in a lilting voice, "and at one point, she appeared to think that Ino was Naruto."
It seemed that being thought of as Sasuke still hit chords with Sai, Kakashi thought shrewdly.
"Did she say anything else?"
Sai shook his head. "No. But she was beating herself up about something and she wouldn't stop crying."
Kakashi looked back down at Sakura's pale face, troubled. He exhaled deeply. "Sai, could you please go and get Ino again?" he asked. "I would like her to wake Sakura up so that I can speak with her."
"I'll go." Sai nodded and left.
When the door had closed behind him with a soft click, Kakashi released a breath. He turned away from the locked entrance and his eyes went back to his only female student and trusted assistant.
"Sakura. I hope that you have a good explanation for this."
Green eyes opened suddenly, blinking in the bright light as dilated pupils attempted to adjust. And then Sakura was sitting up and pulling the wires from her wrists, ignoring the way that the beeping of the machines levelled out into a monotonous shrill as she leaned heavily against the wall and pillows behind her. The lifeless doll of moments before disappeared and became animated. She appeared to be extremely tired though and Kakashi worried about just how lucid her mind was. At least he knew that she wasn't under a genjutsu. He had checked for that the moment he entered the room.
"Damn it," Sakura muttered darkly, wincing and rubbing at the inside joint of her elbow beneath a white, baggy sleeve, "Ino always could mix up a strong batch of sedatives." As though only just remembering that he was there, she looked up at him wearily. She futilely attempted to moisten her dry, cracked lips with her tongue.
"Kakashi. I need to talk to you without anybody else here. Quickly," she said, her eyes flickering over to the door.
"I thought you trusted Sai?" Kakashi breathed out, disappointed on Sai's behalf.
"I do," Sakura replied guiltily, lowering her head in shame, "but at the moment I would prefer if everyone else thinks I'm insane." She sighed her frustration and beat a fist against the covers. "I messed up badly," she confessed ruefully. "I shouldn't have said anything when they found me."
Kakashi sat down on the bunched up sheets at the foot of the bed with his lower back pressed against the rails. He had the feeling that it would be better if he weren't standing for this conversation.
"So what you were saying when Sai's team picked you up…it was all true?" he asked carefully. "You really did see Sasuke? And Naruto?"
Sakura nodded grimly. Her eyes grew distant and her fingers clenched in the sheets beneath them as she spoke. "Sasuke was waiting for me. Naruto was seriously injured when I found them," she stated shortly as though reporting, but Kakashi didn't miss how some anger coloured her voice.
She took a quivering breath and started up again. "He was still so young," she whispered, almost in wonder. Her voice softened as she remembered. "He was just laying there, bleeding…"
Kakashi drew a sharp breath.
Sakura shook her head a few times as though to clear it. Her green eyes were intense again when she locked them onto his, trying to convey how important her next words were. Even so, her voice shuddered.
Naruto kneeled thoughtfully over the scroll lain out on the barren shore, paying no heed to the way that the large, smooth stones dug into his knees and legs as he tried to concentrate on the black ink littering the parchment. His fingertips followed each complicated symbol as he passed it so that he wouldn't lose where he was on the ridiculously long scroll. Some metres behind him near the gently lapping waves, Sasuke stood looking out over the ocean, waiting patiently for him to decipher the contents of the space-time jutsu as the sun began to set on the horizon.
"Okay," Naruto muttered, lifting his fingers from a character that he had been tracing for a minute now. He heard Sasuke move immediately in response and felt a tinge of pride in the thought that the other could place his complete confidence in him for this task, at least.
"This one should take us to the outskirts of a town around fifty miles West of Konoha," he informed him, his eyes darting over the relevant section that detailed the encoded destination. "That was a pretty deserted region, I think." This part was said with less confidence and he glanced meaningfully at Sasuke over his shoulder, trying to cover up the fact that Iruka's lessons on geography had all but vanished from his mind the hour after he was taught them. "Do you know if it's still like that?" he asked sheepishly.
"The last time I went anywhere near there was a long time ago," Sasuke responded as he walked towards him, "on a mission with you," he added. "It was remote back then."
Naruto's brow furrowed and he looked back down as he tried to recall the exact mission that Sasuke was talking about. Possibly one of those escort ones had taken them near there but there were far too many of those to be sure that he wasn't mixing a few missions into one. Sasuke still had an extremely impressive memory, he marvelled, only a little put out by it.
"In that case, I guess we'll just hope for the best," he said cheerily.
"What about the other ones?"
Sasuke tilted his head at the larger scroll lying beside the him, into which Naruto had sealed several other smaller scrolls that he had found potentially useful while digging around in the underground room.
"Same deal," Naruto said dismissively. He picked up the scroll, spinning it between the fingers of one hand before catching it in his palm. "I think that they all lead to pretty obscure and out of the way places. Whoever used these techniques probably didn't want to risk being ambushed. It'd be stupid for them to pick populated locations," he pointed out.
"Your brain seems to function inexplicably better when it comes to seals," Sasuke remarked unhelpfully.
Naruto threw him a narrow-eyed glare and lobbed a kunai at Sasuke's inattentive face. He looked back down before it was intercepted, knowing that Sasuke could catch it easily. It wasn't returned to him, however, and the clicking of a weapons pouch being opened told him that Sasuke had kept it. They were rather low on kunai at the moment, what with Sasuke having had to divide his original supply between the both of them.
Reaching behind and finding the clasp on his belt between his new kodachi and weapon's pouch, he attached the larger scroll to the back of his pants, hiding it beneath his cloak and moving his hair out of the way as he did. He had decided that it would be best to keep his ponytail hidden beneath his cloak whenever possible. It would make it harder for it to get in his way if they had to fight, which, according to Sasuke, would not be happening anytime soon.
"Right. Are we ready to go?" he asked when he was done, already lifting his hands eagerly in a seal. His chakra bubbled just as restlessly in sync with with his own excitement, waiting to be called upon again.
He dropped his hands dramatically. Letting out an exasperated groan, he jumped to his feet, boots crunching loudly on the stones as he span around.
"We've been hanging around here for hours," he accused. It was already nearing sunset and the tide had even come in so close that in an hour or so, they would be standing in the ocean.
His eyes crossed as Sasuke held up a small, glass jar close in front of his face, shaking it once so that the white pills inside rattled. Frowning, he took it from him and rotated it in his hand until he could see the salmon pink label on it, blank except for a single word at the bottom right corner that read in neat handwriting, 'Chakra.'
"What's this?" he asked, bewildered. "I've never heard of chakra replenishing tablets before."
"Idiot. They don't replenish chakra," Sasuke said, leaning forward and tapping the container gently. "I tested one. It changes your chakra signature and will stop anyone from identifying us."
Naruto's eyes boggled and his jaw dropped. He lifted the jar slowly above eye level like some holy artefact.
"Are you serious? People can actually do things like this now?" he exclaimed. "And hey, you're the idiot! Who the hell tests substances on themselves?" he accused back, lips twitching.
He was a glutton for abuse, wasn't he, he thought sombrely. If being called names by Sasuke was actually becoming some twisted sort of comfort.
"I used to train with snakes. Like any poison could harm me," Sasuke scoffed and Naruto just rolled his eyes in response. Once an over-confident bastard, always an over-confident bastard.
Holding the jar in one hand, he popped the plastic lid off with his thumb, catching it in his other palm.
"How many do I take and how long will it last for?" he asked, shaking a few of the tablets onto the lid and examining their powdery dusting curiously.
"One tablet took three days to clear from my system but it might take less for you because of the Kyuubi."
"Don't say his name!" Naruto yelped suddenly, cringing in anticipation.
Sure enough, the demon inside him responded to Sasuke's utterance of its title by thrashing violently beneath the tori gates that Naruto had reconstructed a few days ago. True to his word, the free space available to the fox's tails was a bit less than it had used to be once the gates were standing strong again. He suspected that the fox was now intending to make him suffer in equal kind by causing enough mental pain so that he willingly left Sasuke and went on his own, Uchiha-less path. As if Naruto Uzumaki would break a promise over something like that.
"He really hates you," he forced through gritted teeth, glaring at Sasuke and trying to somehow impart his pain. Didn't mean that he wouldn't whine about it though.
That statement seemed to be enough to acquiesce the beast slightly and steeling himself, he opened his mouth and popped one of the white tablets in quickly, swallowing it dry. Offering the lid to Sasuke and sticking his tongue out at the bitter taste –who was he kidding, it tasted unexpectedly foul– he watched the Uchiha take one and do the same. His eyes followed the movement of Sasuke's throat as the pill went down.
Shaking himself a bit, he let Sasuke put the container away before he grabbed his hand –ignoring how the other squeezed back – and pulled the taller male down so that they were both crouched over the seal. In the back of his mind he mused that Sasuke, a 24 year old man with a penchant for being disagreeable, was allowing himself to be pushed around rather easily. He filed that away a bit gleefully for use in the most likely distant future.
"Alright! We're leaving!" he announced. Lifting his head, he took one last glance at the glowing pools beyond the mist before lowering his face again. He would definitely be returning once everything else was sorted out.
Releasing Sasuke's hand, he raced through a few seals and held his fingers together in a triangular shape to finish. When the black ink on the parchment began glowing, he bit his thumb to draw blood and dripped it onto the blank area in the centre of the parchment. The sacrifice was instantly absorbed and hastily, he grabbed Sasuke's right hand in his left again, his other hand coming up in a two fingered seal. His chakra flowed from him in dizzying, visible waves of blue and the wound that he had dripped blood from seemed to burn as the jutsu reached out, securing the link.
Everything went blinding white.
Sasuke clapped a gloved hand over Naruto's mouth, stopping the loud exclamation that the younger had released on instinct. He fought to smother his own expression of distaste as he took in their surroundings.
"Be quiet!" he hissed lowly, eyes darting around to see if anyone had heard them. Ankle-deep in muddy, viscous water, all he could hear was the ceaseless buzzing of cicadas and other insects in the night. Where it had been only sunset in whirlpool, it was already well and truly nightfall on the mainland.
He felt Naruto become still beneath him, waiting as he checked with his sharingan for other chakra signatures that may have been attempting to conceal themselves behind some of the thicker vegetation or below the muddy depths. Finding none, he removed his hand and pulled Naruto up with him, feeling how the bottom of his cloak was now heavy with muck that resisted his ascent. Naruto opened and closed his mouth a few times to alleviate the pressure that Sasuke had placed on his jaw before leaning over to retrieve the scroll from a puddle in front of them, now covered in mud.
"A swamp," he muttered in disgust, shaking the scroll a bit before rolling it back up and tucking it away. The seal that matched the key on the scroll had probably been hidden beneath the swamp somewhere, its presence not suspected at all. Looking around, his eyes began to glow red and realising that he intended to improve his eyesight with the Kyuubi's chakra, Sasuke grabbed his arm.
"Don't use the Kyuubi's chakra," he said sharply when the other looked questioningly back, the glow fading away. "No matter how much those pills mess up your chakra, demonic chakra has a different feel. Shinobi like Madara will tell the difference in an instant. Leave it for emergencies."
Sasuke could see Naruto's eyes grow wide and the blonde hesitated for a moment before nodding once. He seemed to deflate and Sasuke knew that he was inwardly raging with the idea of being even more dependent upon him. First his sage chakra was affected and now the Kyuubi's was too high risk. Even Sasuke had to admit that if he were in Naruto's position he would be extremely uncomfortable. As it was, if Naruto hadn't already had unnaturally large reserves without those other sources to begin with, Sasuke would have flat out refused to leave Whirlpool at all.
Unfortunately, he had almost forgotten how unbelievably stubborn Naruto could be at times, especially to the point of recklessness. Rediscovering it was like a guilty thrill in itself.
"It'll be fine," he told him quietly.
"I know," Naruto lied. He took another glance around them, slowly trying to adjust to the darkness. "It doesn't matter. It's a pretty bright night anyway, see?" he said with a strained, toothless smile, and pointed at the patches of moonbeam breaking occasionally across the mud and water through the thin trees. Pulling a leg from the heavy mass and focusing chakra to the soles of his boots so that he wouldn't sink again, he attempted to walk ahead before Sasuke stopped him with a yank.
"What now?" Naruto yelped, catching himself before he could tumble sideways to the muck-covered ground. Definitely not a pretty situation for anyone to find themselves in.
"Don't wander off," Sasuke ordered darkly.
Naruto sighed heavily but reluctantly allowed him to walk ahead and lead them, not even protesting when he reached a hand behind himself to grab his wrist firmly, just to make sure that he didn't try to run off. Keeping Naruto grounded while on an island was one thing, but trying to keep him in check while out in the open was an entirely different story altogether.
Now that they were back in the elemental countries, Madara had the upper hand. The reckless kind of running off that Naruto tended to make a habit out of was not something that would be survived this time when spies and enemies were everywhere. Naruto may not have had the chance to but Sasuke had seen the desperation that some people would go to in order to secure the Kyuubi. Madara's promises were tempting, even if empty. Naruto had no idea what he was getting himself into, especially if he went meandering off into the darkness by himself.
With chakra tingling lightly beneath his own soles, Sasuke tugged Naruto and led him forward, using his sharingan to identify their direction and avoid areas where the murky ground was particularly disgusting. Rather than take their chances with the spindly, thin tree branches, they maintained a quiet, steady speed across the swamp surface, using the moon's position as a basic guide as to time. Owls hooted occasionally in the distance as they made their way onwards.
He felt Naruto tense suddenly beneath his loosened grip and glancing back, he saw him bite his bottom lip as he looked around, blue eyes sometimes unfocused when they were unable to grasp exactly what certain shadows were. It reminded Sasuke of the expression that Naruto had had when he first woke up in Whirlpool, tentatively disbelieving and confused.
This is different to him, he realised, taking another look for himself around at the foreign environment. It may have been the mainland but it was a completely unfamiliar and obscure corner of it. Naruto may as well have been waking up in unknown territory all over again.
And it probably didn't help things that Naruto had always had an acute fear of the eerie and supernatural, he recalled distantly as a wolf chose that moment to howl somewhere in the distance. He turned back to the front and smoothly, he slipped his grip down.
"There's nothing to see here, really," he said, squeezing Naruto's hand so lightly that it probably would have gone unnoticed if he hadn't spoken as well.
Naruto startled and Sasuke felt the slight jump of skin beneath his fingers. "Eh?"
"It's just a swamp. Think of that large one that we passed on the way to Snow Country when we were guarding the princess. It's just like that one."
There were a few seconds of silence before he heard Naruto give a light chuckle, the lonely sound echoing around them. "Yeah. I remember that."
Sasuke smirked to himself, also recalling the stubborn, young woman that had given Naruto a run for his money that time. "That's good. And here I was worried that you would remember nothing apart from the princess."
"I'll have you know that I remember exactly how uncool you were on that mission."
"I'm flattered," he responded mockingly, and he enjoyed the squawk of indignant protest that Naruto voiced, the blonde giving a half-hearted attempt to jerk himself free from his hand.
Nonetheless, Naruto's grip was considerably more firm after that.
Sometime later, when the moon was halfway down and Naruto had definitely started dragging his feet behind them…
"Is that dry land?" the blonde asked suddenly, perking and tugging multiple times at Sasuke's hand pointedly. The ground beneath them was considerably harder than before and it levelled out smoothly after a few more steps.
"It is dry land!" Naruto crowed in delight and after disconnecting their fingers he did a running jump, landing in a crouch just to prove that he would not sink this time.
Sasuke felt a ticking urge to smack his palm against his own forehead as he watched the celebrating blonde, the desire temporarily overtaking his want of a once again active Naruto. It seemed that there was a fine line between active and hyperactive, only one of which he could handle well. Thankfully, he had excellent self-control and he merely collected the blonde again as he walked past, dragging him along with him to the base of a tree.
"Stop making a racket. You can light a candle if you want," he scolded, disengaging his grip on a cloak-covered elbow and pulling out a tatty parchment from the inside of his own cloak. Unfolding it, he revealed a stained but detailed map of the elemental countries. "We might be here for awhile."
"It's fine now," Naruto said contentedly, although Sasuke noticed that he stayed right by his side rather than stray elsewhere. "Wouldn't it be better if we sneak into the town at night?" Naruto suggested, tilting forward to try and read the map upside down.
"Perhaps it would have been easier in the past," Sasuke agreed as he flicked the parchment with a smirk so that it hit the irritable blonde on the tip of the nose. "But nowadays the security at night has gotten so much tighter than in the day that the advantage is considerably less." Nursing his nose, Naruto turned his head rather quickly.
"Even you can't get past the security?" he asked with a disbelieving tone.
He froze with a caught expression the next second when he realised that he had just unwittingly paid the other a great compliment. Sasuke chuckled and watched as he became increasingly mortified at his unusual reaction.
"I could," he offered, pretending to consider it as he pored over the bottom half of the map, "but then there would be a lot more damage control required."
The flush slowly receded from Naruto's neck.
"What happened to the quiet, sneaking bastard that crashed the Kage Summit without anybody noticing?"
Sasuke snorted, finally locating their region. "I ended up killing several samurai, so it wasn't as quiet as all of you thought."
At the trailing voice Sasuke glanced back up, expecting to see that troubled look that Naruto had taken to wearing. He was therefore momentarily taken aback when he saw him smiling warmly at him instead, those ocean blue eyes sparkling merrily even in the darkness.
"I'm glad you're avoiding that now," Naruto said to him by ways of explanation, looking absolutely serene at that moment. It was an expression that no illusion or hallucination could ever match up to and ironically, Sasuke felt reality slipping away in the face of it.
He stared at Naruto until the his words processed. Tearing his eyes away, he listened as the other settled himself comfortably against the tree trunk to wait for his verdict on what they were to do, rubbing his arms loudly to keep the warmth in now that they had stopped moving.
He wrestled down the need to turn around again and set straight the fact that no, that wasn't the case, and that Naruto had gotten it wrong. He would still let people die –he would let entire villages and even their old comrades from Konoha die –if necessary. Somehow he knew that allowing Naruto to know that it was for his sake probably wouldn't help him either. Unlike the illusions, the true Naruto would not know his reasons, privy as they were to the darkest corners of his soul.
Now that they were out in the open, Naruto would see what he had truly become soon enough. What years of a stagnant, silent war and hopeless craving had done to him. His fingers clenched on the parchment. Naruto beginning to hum drew him from his listless thoughts and he returned to analysing their precise coordinates.
They were to go in, stock up on food and weapons, do some recon and get out before nightfall, all without attracting any attention to themselves. Naruto mused out loud that it was just like any one of the other countless missions that they had done together as genin and he visibly lost tension from having a semblance of routine return to him. The small town that had been indicated in the scroll was just over the next hill and they were currently still at the border of the swamplands, making preparations to leave the foliage without anybody recognising them.
"So why exactly can't I just use a henge?"
Perhaps it was not so much physical preparation as mental preparation on Sasuke's part.
"I told you already," he bit out, "you can use a henge inside the village all you want but it won't get past the gates outside."
Naruto pursed his lips sceptically and lifted his nose up at him. "But your genjutsu will?"
"From past experience, yes, it will," Sasuke retorted with surprising calmness. He knew that Naruto wasn't questioning his ability. It was, yet again, Naruto refusing to believe that he could do nothing for himself in these circumstances. Naruto's bottom lip was now jutting out as he frowned to himself and Sasuke sighed, knowing very well that when he got like this, sheer stubborness on his own part would only make things worse.
"Look," he said, rubbing his forehead and Naruto flicked his eyes back up, "You don't like depending on me. That's fine," not really, he thought, "as soon as we're inside you can henge. We both know what your genjutsu is like so just let me get us in."
Naruto regarded him suspiciously. "Really?"
"…Okay, fine." Naruto pointed a finger at him, blue eyes flashing warningly. "But remember what you said!"
Like bargaining candy with a child, Sasuke thought as Naruto instantly brightened up again.
When it neared noon they made their way along a dirt path that connected directly with the main route to the entrance of the village. As they passed through the forest and undergrowth, Sasuke felt that warning Naruto about a few things was in order.
"We will get a better idea of security as we get closer," he said. "If this town has any shinobi at all, then the protection will be of the kind that Konoha had during Orochimaru's invasion, only on a smaller scale. Also," he looked sideways at the blonde, "expect for the town itself to look different."
And with any luck, they'd avoid the masses of corpses lining the streets, he thought. Beggars were a given, but corpses being left like rubbish in plain sight as people walked by were not so ignorable. Hopefully, this town would be one of the fortunate ones.
Naruto replied from beside him, his voice deceptively level. "I want to see, Sasuke," he told him. "Even if everything has completely changed, I want to remind myself of what I'm fighting for." He smiled and half his teeth were visible in it. "At the very least, that won't change."
"Fair enough," Sasuke replied with an exhale, expecting nothing less. "Just don't be too surprised. It will attract attention to us. Let me do most of the talking. When I unsealed you there were a lot of rumours going around about Kabuto double crossing Madara, so our main priority should be to get more information about that."
"Sounds like something that guy would do." Naruto nodded, remembering how he had been tricked by Kabuto in the past. "What are we going in as?"
"A merchant and his wife. Our story is that we are in the region to find a steady supplier of cotton."
Naruto's nose wrinkled as he frowned and walking ahead by a few feet, Sasuke could feel a glare powered on the back of his head.
"I'm not the merchant, am I?"
Sasuke didn't bother to completely hide his snicker.
They reached the end of the dirt path and merged onto the main road where there were a large number of people already heading in both directions. Naruto watched them inconspicuously but with curiosity, noticing the patchy, drab clothing most of them wore and the produce and poached animals that some were carrying with their bare hands and the occasional, woven basket. A large number of these people were older than what he would have thought typical of a hunter. No one was giving them any strange looks though so he assumed that whatever genjutsu Sasuke had cast was doing its job well.
"This looks normal," he commented, keeping his voice low. The people looked like those that he'd typically expect from an agricultural region. So far he could not see why Sasuke was being so uptight.
He did and straightening up a bit, he saw the top of the town that lay beyond a small hill. Instead of thatched, straw rooves however, he was met with several guard towers that spiked up into the cloudy sky. Squinting a bit, he counted three men on each tower and more that became visible as they ascended the hill. The men were standing on top of what appeared to be poorly constructed turrets made out of wood.
"Paranoid normal, maybe," Naruto replied dubiously.
"Don't say anything as we go past the barriers," Sasuke told him. He nodded his understanding.
There was a small line waiting to enter the town and they lined up side-by-side behind an old man. Naruto stood close to Sasuke as they slowly progressed up the queue, suddenly nervous about the range of Sasuke's genjutsu. When they reached the front there were three men running basic level scans on each person. The old man in front of them was ushered to one side and another free guard gestured for them to follow him to the side of the turrets when he was done with the previous person.
Sasuke felt Naruto tense as the man used some kind of jutsu that he'd never seen before. He wouldn't have, because it had been jointly developed by the five great villages especially for countering zetsu and other transformations after the war. The watered down version of the technique had then been distributed to smaller populaces, one of the last connections between the great villages and the smaller colonies before those ties were almost completely severed.
A strange tingling feeling enveloped the both of them as the man before them concentrated. Naruto didn't say anything and after a few minutes, the guard nodded and waved at them to continue on ahead and into the village. Sasuke felt Naruto move away as the man turned to examine the next person.
The both of them paused, Naruto significantly more startled. Looking over their shoulders, they saw that the guard was not addressing them but the elderly man that had been in front of them. The man was clutching the two dead rabbits in his hands protectively to his chest. Understanding what was happening, Sasuke attempted to walk on but Naruto held back uncooperatively, throwing him a questioning look.
"You know the rules, old man," the guard said loudly in annoyance, his voice easily carrying over to them. They watched as he reached out a hand and took one of the rabbits bodily, holding it out of reach when the original owner extended a hand to try and take it back. "You only need one."
"I have grandchildren," the man pleaded. "Please, sir."
"Keep walking, old man." A hand batted carelessly at the one that had been deprived of its labour.
Naruto's lips had gradually thinned as he watched them and seeing this, Sasuke knew that he would not stand idly. He prepared to hold the other back if necessary but was surprised when the blonde made no action to surge forwards in his anger.
"Sasuke, what do our genjutsu forms look like?" Naruto asked instead, tone frigid. Seeing beneath the genjutsu, Sasuke could tell that the coldness tinted his unblinking eyes.
"I told you before. A merchant couple," he said slowly.
"Young or old?"
He threw him a dark warning look but Naruto was still focused on the spectacle near the turrets.
"Do we look like civilians?"
"Just answer the question, Sasuke!"
"You're a weak, civilian woman," he snapped. Naruto grinned.
"Excellent. Then they won't suspect this."
Sasuke felt a hand swipe at the lining of his cloak and he looked down just in time to see Naruto's fingers make a barely noticeable flicking movement. Pinpricks of light reflected off of the needle-thin senbon that went flying through the air towards the guard holding the rabbits. Naruto had aimed for a nerve in his neck that sent signals to his arm and fingers and Sasuke's better eyesight saw the senbon go cleanly through, not leaving an immediate mark on the skin. The blood would well up later but the immediate result was that the rabbit went thumping to the ground as the guard stared at his suddenly numb-hand in confusion.
The old man, interpreting this as the guard taking pity on him, quickly retrieved the dusty rabbit. After thanking the guard profusely he scuttled off into the town behind them and out of sight. Naruto watched him run ahead of them with satisfaction.
"And now, we walk quietly away," he declared, prompting Sasuke to move again with another tug at his elbow as he followed the street that the old man had vanished down. Sasuke restrained his exasperation and the need to lecture the other on his recklessness.
"When did you learn about pressure points?" he interrogated instead.
"Sakura," Naruto answered simply. He tilted his head slightly to the side. "She always hit mine when she got annoyed." He didn't say anything else.
Sasuke looked at him suspiciously but did not question the lack of further discussion of their ex-teammate. It suited him better that way.
"Where are we going first?" Naruto asked. He was casting his gaze in all directions, taking in what all of the stores lining the street had to offer and looking completely like a foreigner as he did. One store caught his eye and following his line of sight, Sasuke saw sets of shining weaponry sitting behind a display glass.
With sparkling eyes, Naruto grinned eagerly at him.
The grin dropped.
"Why not now?"
"We'll get them after I have a chance to remove the genjutsu. We'll come back in shinobi attire."
"Oh, right. Merchants, cotton. Got ya."
They kept on walking and Naruto gestured at another place. Sasuke could tell that he was trying his hardest to show that he could do something, too. He took a look at the small tea shop crossed with a bar that sat near a street intersection. Even from the limited view of the inside that their angle gave them, he could already glimpse at least one small group of shinobi sitting down, relaxing. It seemed like a good place to do some investigating.
He nodded his approval and they approached it.
A kindly looking old woman greeted them from behind the hanging cloths over the counter, giving them a warm smile even as she poured cups of steaming hot tea without looking.
"Good morning," Naruto chirped back before Sasuke could say anything. He was forced to regain the distance that Naruto made as the younger rapidly dogged a straight line to the counter, leaning over the edge and breathing in deeply.
"The tea smells great, obaasan!" Naruto exclaimed as he pulled back.
The old woman chuckled and looked at Sasuke. "Your wife is quite an energetic young woman," she said with a smile. He grunted an affirmative in reply and she turned back to Naruto, lightly flattered when she saw that the merchant's 'wife' was examining all of the containers of tea leaves with great interest. "These are special brews," she informed him proudly. "Only I know their composition. People come from all over the great nations for this tea!"
"Really?" Naruto asked in awe, already completely sold and near salivating.
The old lady nodded. Looking around at the unnaturally immaculate state of the little tea shop, Sasuke agreed that there had to be indeed something special about her tea if she could afford to keep her shop so pristine.
"Could we get a pot of that one?" Naruto asked the old woman, pointing to some tea leaves that had rice grains and some sort of dried, pink flower mixed in.
"Certainly. Please take a seat anywhere you like and I'll bring it right over."
They turned into the restaurant and Sasuke could see a few curious gazes directed their way, the owners pondering at the unusually lively woman in their midst.
"You're too loud," he muttered under his breath.
"There's nothing wrong with being loud," Naruto defended but he said it in a noticeably quieter tone.
They sat down on blue zabutons at a table that Sasuke selected on the tea side of the shop, close enough to the bar that they could hear the words of any of the shinobi sitting there. Kneeling carefully, Naruto consciously made sure that he retained a lady-like pose in keeping with the genjutsu. His normal sitting position with both legs stretched out in front of the zabuton probably wouldn't do, no matter how comfortable he could claim it was.
"Here is your tea."
The old lady approached with two cups and a teapot on a serving board. She set these down before them and poured the hot liquid without spilling a single drop. "Is there anything else I could get for you? We have some light snacks that compliment our tea splendidly."
"Sure," Naruto responded enthusiastically, "I'll try some of those."
The old lady nodded happily and turned to Sasuke.
Naruto looked over the low table at Sasuke in surprise, the expression fortunately unseen by the shop's owner.
"Certainly," the woman responded and she bustled away to get their orders.
"You drink?" Naruto asked, taken aback. Sasuke shrugged.
With amazing speed, the old woman returned with a plate of four sweet cakes and Sasuke's beer. After she had gone, Naruto watched with some disbelief as Sasuke took a long drink from the glass after first taking a smaller sip, presumably to test for poison. He managed to drink even beer with grace, something which Naruto had never seen anyone else achieve during his training with Jiraiya, and that had been a long line.
Lifting his own cup of bittersweet tea with a sideways glance at the flower shaped cakes, he suddenly felt like an over-indulged child. Sasuke had even tested the tea for the both of them.
"Can I try some?" he asked, setting down his cup.
Sasuke looked at him over the rim of the glass, a bit of surprise showing in his eyes.
"I'm the same age as you."
"Don't even try to say otherwise," he said dangerously, seeing the words balancing on the tip of Sasuke's tongue.
Sasuke's lips thinned but he passed the glass over. "One sip," he said flatly as Naruto took it.
Naruto stuck his tongue out but took only a single, modest draw from the glass. He swished the liquid around in his mouth for a moment, testing it and letting the smallest amount trickle down his throat. Then something started burning at the back of his throat and up to his nostrils. Eyes widening, he forced himself to swallow the strong liquid, coughing and reaching for the tea, the cake, anything.
"It's disgusting!" he spluttered loudly, earning them scandalised looks from a small group of men nursing their own keg of beer.
Sasuke smirked and took the glass back, continuing to drink comfortably from it while Naruto threw occasional dark looks at the liquid within.
They continued taking small sips of their beverages after that, using it as an excuse to remain silent and eavesdrop on each of the talking groups surrounding them. Naruto had to admit that the tea tasted very unique and he ended up refilling his cup several times as they waited for an interesting conversation to come along.
" –definitely the hottest girl I've ever met."
"No way. My Natsuko-chan would take her down any day!"
Naruto snorted at the way that Sasuke's eyebrow twitched. Next conversation. They looked at two people sitting at the bar, both dressed in camouflage shinobi garb. One was waving his arm haphazardly to make a point.
"And you know what that asshole –hic—said to me? He told me that if I didn't—hic— take my scroll and get the hell out of his village, he'd take it and shove it up my–"
"I feel for him," Naruto said sympathetically. Sasuke's other eyebrow twitched suddenly and he gave his beer a mutinous look. "I mean, do you remember how many times we got chased out of villages by crazy old geezers," Naruto continued without noticing, "and that's not including the ones who did it cause of Kyuubi!"
"Keep listening, idiot."
He did and for his troubles, he got a couple of conversations about boring D-rank missions, a few brags and several extremely colourful, drunken rants. He supposed what people lacked in brains, they made up for with stupid theories on why the great nations looked like the constellation of some weirdo shinobi that most likely had never even existed. Bored, he licked at the red bean filling of his cake as it began leaking out from all of his ministrations upon the poor thing.
"—kage's entourage was ambushed."
They both tensed. They threw meaningful looks at each other and then at the group of four that the words had come from.
"Is that crazy coot still trying to call himself a Kage? Jeez. Well, I guess he had it coming to him. Though the loss of the Flower Country is rather unfortunate."
Sasuke returned to sipping his beer, visibly ticked.
Naruto frowned, unable to make sense of the conversation. "I don't get it," he whispered confusedly.
"It seems that the Hanakage finally figured out that being a Kage isn't all fun and games," Sasuke informed him dryly. When Naruto continued staring blankly at him through the smoke spiralling from the teapot, he explained further. "A few idiots tried to place their countries in positions of greater power. Unfortunately for them, it isn't only the five great nations that disapprove. Madara doesn't like it when people don't know their place."
"Oh." Shifting uncomfortably with that knowledge, Naruto's brow creased further and his fingers began moulding the new pink cake that he had picked up. "Why would they do that, though?" he asked.
"Desperation." Sasuke shrugged uncaringly, brushing back a stray lock of hair that dislodged with the action. "Most likely, someone came along and promised protection in return for control."
"Aren't the Kages doing anything about it?"
"A couple of idiots trying and failing to get involved in small politics are the least of their worries."
"—my son is getting married next month. It's a shame we can't have a larger ceremony but you know how things are. It's enough that –"
"Let's go. I've heard enough."
Sasuke set down his empty glass with a dull clunk and Naruto hurriedly finished what remained of his tea as Sasuke went on ahead to pay at the counter. Catching up, he noted with appreciation that the genjutsu could maintain itself even across the expanse of the store.
"We got absolutely nothing," he said in a low tone as they left the shop. Remembering his manners, he stopped to turn back and wave and smile at the old lady once.
"There will be more opportunities," Sasuke said calmly. "Parts of this village seem to be flourishing rather well and it looks like shinobi enjoy resting here."
They walked deeper into the heart of the town where many more people were occupying the streets. Casually, they kept an eye out for anything of interest. Their cover really couldn't have been more suitable. The town was filled with a rich variety of goods and wares for sale, most of which would have definitely been from some other region.
"Where did you normally do all your recon?" Naruto asked when they had gone through several streets with no luck. Recon always had been one of the more annoying kinds of missions because it couldn't be rushed or expedited in any way sans violence. It was a matter of luck that depended on coming across people that just happened to talk.
"I'd do what we're doing now, until I eventually find something," Sasuke replied. "Or if I felt like it, I would just use the sharingan."
"We're not that desperate yet," Naruto enforced hastily. "You don't have to use your sharingan for every little thing."
Sasuke glanced sideways with one raised eyebrow at the shorter male. "Are you still upset that I used it on you?"
"No...not really." He sighed, remembering the strange wooziness that came with not having full reign over your own mind. "But it didn't feel good when it wore off," he scolded. "And it can't be all that healthy for you to continuously use it either."
Sasuke mused over Naruto's words. "These eyes won't lose their light," he settled for saying. Naruto, looking up at an angle, found that slight hue of grey that he had come to notice stained the corners of Sasuke's eyes. It hadn't always been there.
"Because they're Itachi's?" he mumbled, more to himself.
He immediately knew that it was not the right thing to say and that that he could not have picked an easier trigger to push. There was no right time to bring up Itachi's name, it simply didn't happen. He watched with dread as Sasuke stiffened beside him and something tense fell over them, making the atmosphere stale and distant.
"I don't mean it that way," he whispered hurriedly, wondering apprehensively whether Sasuke would lash out at him. However, the other didn't even turn his head.
Sasuke's pace sped up and he was taking wider steps, weaving through the people whose movements seemed to slow down in comparison. He obviously wasn't happy and Naruto sidestepped throngs of people to keep up.
"Come on," he tried to make amends, "Itachi's a great guy and all but I know that you can –"
"I'm not jealous of my brother," Sasuke cut him off coolly. "Not anymore." Naruto realised that the purpose of his speed was to try to stop them from smoothly continuing this conversation. "I agree with you," Sasuke said, breaking off when he sidestepped a couple. "He was a great shinobi. One of the best. I am the one that threw all of that back in his face."
He trailed off to dodge a man that walked right between them. They were going way too fast for a nice morning stroll on a full stomach of tea, dammit. He returned back to Sasuke's side and knocked him in the arm with his shoulder, making him pay attention and slow down a little.
"I don't care whose eyes they were," he said quickly in a hushed breath. He leaned forward so that Sasuke was forced to look at him. "You might be here because of everything Itachi has given up but you're still Sasuke, my best friend. Itachi has a part in that but I'm not an idiot that'll let that get in the way."
To his surprise, Sasuke's face seemed to harden even more and became positively stony. Lips thinned and lines appeared in a way that was disturbingly reminiscent of Itachi's features. The younger Uchiha didn't answer him and continued walking by him and down the street, leaving a flabbergasted Naruto in his wake.
And then Naruto realised that what he'd just said was exactly what Sasuke had done in the past. He could have run himself into a brick wall right then.
Something grabbed his hand and in that moment, Sasuke disappeared behind a small group of people cutting acrosss the street. In a momentary panic, he attempted to push forward but whatever it was that was holding his hand turned out to be doing so quite deliberately, pulling him back and making him stumble. Even as he watched, the top of the easily identifiable locks of raven hair vanished from sight as well.
Turning around, he was completely ready to tear apart the person that had separated them, along with every intention of imputing his confusion at Sasuke upon this guy as well. He was faced with a short, young man with brown hair and plain features, maybe around the same age as himself and Sasuke. It was this man that held his wrist in a gentle but firm grip.
"Who are you?" he snarled warily. With a strong tug he freed himself, flinging the other hand away from him. They were in a crowded street and he cast a look over his shoulder, trying to see where Sasuke was and if he had noticed his absence. Nowhere in sight.
The brunette made a sound of satisfied acknowledgement as he watched his actions.
"As I thought. You and your husband aren't normal merchants."
Naruto's heart skipped a beat. He swung his face back to the other, examining him more closely from head to foot. He searched for a hitai-ate that might reveal this man's origins but he didn't appear to be wearing one. That in itself was enough to make his eyes narrow in suspicion.
"What are you talking about?" he demanded. The guy didn't look that strong. If the need arose he could most likely handle this before Sasuke figured out what was going on.
The young man leaned forward very close to him but he refused to let himself take a step back. This man was even shorter than him, for god's sake. So when the other spoke at such close proximity, Naruto heard only his words, loud and clear.
"I saw what you did to that guard."
It was like a barrage of jutsus had hit him, and then left him laying there with a sign pronouncing his uncanny ability to walk into traps and bad situations in general. His resultant shock and horror must have been extremely apparent because the man hurriedly reassured him.
"I mean you no harm. I would just like to have a word with you."
His eyes darted around and finding the entrance to a gap between two buildings, he began pulling Naruto towards it. Seeing his intention, Naruto came to his senses and shook himself out of his stupor.
"Oi! Let me go!' he screeched. "I'm warning you –"
"You're seeking information, aren't you?"
He stopped pulling against the man just as they came to a stop in the shadow offered by the buildings.
"You were following us?" he whispered. His chakra stirred in preparation. Had this man heard what they were saying as well? In his mind he tried to recall whether he had used Sasuke's name at all.
"I followed you after I saw you help that old man," the man confessed. "I was watching you from a store across from Lady Kana's tea shop so I know that you are seeking information. I just want to give you this." In the gloom, Naruto saw the man reach a hand into his cloak and begin withdrawing something.
Instantly, he tensed in distrust. A kunai slid into his hand from his sleeve on instinct but before he had the chance to lift it in warning, someone else had hit the both of them from behind and sent the whole lot of them stumbling into the small space and out of sight completely. At first Naruto feared that it was an ambush but then a familiar voice met his ears.
"I take my eyes off of you for five seconds and this is what happens," Sasuke's voice hissed angrily.
Straightening, Naruto saw the exact kind of scene that he would have liked to avoid. Sasuke's forearm held the brunette against the wall by the neck, pinning him there firmly and non-too gently. The young man choked a bit beneath the pressure and Sasuke coolly observed this, pressing down even harder.
"Sa—" Shit, Naruto cursed in his mind, he had to really get more used to this, "Bastard, don't kill him. He isn't an enemy."
"What do you want?" Sasuke ignored him, leaning closer to his captive. Seeing the look of fear in the young man's eyes, Naruto had to wonder what genjutsu Sasuke was using that was even more impressive than the true Uchiha glare.
"Just—this," the brunette held up a scroll in his shaking hand, "—information."
Sasuke made no move to take it and fading eyes locked onto Naruto's in desperation over Sasuke's shoulder. Sensing the plea, seeing the way that the hand held tightly to the extended scroll like it was something preciously important, Naruto had the fleeting, unquestioned thought that this man and whatever he had to tell them could be trusted. He took the scroll from the trembling hand and before Sasuke could stop him, he unfurled it.
A cry came from the captive as Sasuke pressed down hard with a vicious snarl. Naruto's stomach dropped at the sound of crunching brick against bone and he lunged forwards.
"Stop! There's nothing wrong with the scroll!"
He turned it around quickly to show Sasuke.
"It's normal writing and ink. Trust me."
He met Sasuke's eyes, trying to tell him. He would know. He was an Uzumaki, he knew seals and any trap involved in them. This was not one.
Taking it with his free hand, Sasuke made a sweeping examination of the scroll, his eyes darting over row after row of the characters quickly. They widened slightly as whatever information was contained was processed by his sharingan at a rate faster than what would normally be possible. He looked back at the floundering young man that he held against the brick.
"Is this true?" he demanded in a low voice. The other nodded weakly. "Why would you give something like this to us?"
"It's all I can do," The young man gasped for air, "I have to s— spread word."
"Who's side are you on?"
By the sudden sharp breath that Sasuke drew, Naruto knew that that had meant something to him. He watched as with some hesitance at first, Sasuke's grip lessened. Then he released it altogether and took a step back. After the man had slumped to the floor, he grabbed Naruto roughly and pulled them out of the small space again, leaving the man shell-shocked but alive.
"Will he be alright?" Naruto asked, taking a backwards glance at the shadowy alcove.
"He'll be fine."
"What's with the scroll?"
He suddenly felt a jerk and a gust of wind blew abruptly down the middle of the street, the air mixed in with an unusually large amount of leaves. He closed his eyes against the jutsu and when he came to his bearings after the world stopped spinning, he saw that they were in a deserted alleyway in another street. Sasuke abruptly grabbed him by both shoulders and wheeled him around, slamming him against the closest wall.
"What were you thinking, going off like that?" he demanded harshly, shaking him. The rough brick grated uncomfortably through Naruto's clothes and already a bit thrown by the jutsu, he would have none of it.
"You're the one that walked off!" he snapped.
"Are you that slow that you can't keep up with me when I'm walking?"
"You seemed like you were doing it quite happily on your own."
His words were bitter. Sasuke disappearing into the crowd of people, his familiar back no longer within reach, was something that he had already had enough of. It brought back long strings of memories that he didn't yet want to face.
Sasuke's fingers dug into his shoulders hard enough to bruise and he held back a wince at the rough treatment.
He could feel Sasuke's fists shaking, most likely in anger. He found that he didn't care. How dare Sasuke make it sound like he was the wrong one here? Defiantly he pulled away, knocking the hands off. He turned around and began taking large strides away from him, fully intending to walk off to anywhere other than there. Let Sasuke have a taste of his own medicine, he thought vengefully as he made his departure, let him have a taste of being abandoned time and time again.
He didn't get very far before he was yanked back violently, the alley exit still out of reach. Unable to re-balance himself, he want crashing into Sasuke.
"Let go!" he demanded, twisting against the arms that wound constrictively around him. They pinned his own arms to his side and he began kicking out instead. "God damn it, Sasuke, let me go or I swear I'll rasengan you!"
Sasuke must have been leaning over because his hot breath was tickling Naruto's neck, making him shudder and stiffen involuntarily. He shook himself and increased his struggles, refusing to lose.
He growled. "You—"
He frowned at the interruption.
"What do you know?" he asked, sarcasm seeping into his words.
"Why you want to go." Lips pressed against the shell of his ear. "No matter what I do, it'll never be enough, will it?"
Seven years is not enough.
At those words, all flailing and kicking stopped at once. He felt Sasuke's face press against his hair and the back of his neck now that his violent actions had ceased. Every uneven breath that gushed from the older male's lips sent another rush of heat down his collar and spine.
Oh. This was actually serious. And Sasuke could not have gotten it more wrong.
The anger seeped out of him faster than water moving in a river.
The grip around him was suffocating now that he focused more on it. It was the clutch of a desperate man hanging onto his final, precious treasure. And within it he was the one being sheltered. Wanted or not, he was being held like he could finally give up on a little of that fear of being alone in the end.
Sasuke was far from calm. His disappearance in that street must have hit him harder than he'd first imagined. He'd probably thought that he had done a runner, judging by this reaction. Slowly, as the arms around him loosened gradually with the seconds going past, he rotated in them until he could see the Uchiha in the face. The arms around him slipped away, a ghostly warmth all that was left behind.
Sasuke's expression was blank. The pale, flawless countenance was completely wiped clean, waiting for him to decide what it would become. Seeing this vulnerability, Naruto sighed breathlessly. He leaned forward to give Sasuke his own, gruff bear hug, failing somewhat because Sasuke was larger than him.
"You're troublesome, you know that?" he grumbled.
Sasuke stiffened and Naruto pulled back, looking at him seriously. "I won't leave. I already told you I won't," he repeated. "Get that into your head, Sasuke. No matter what stupid things come out of my mouth or whatever crazy family member of yours tries to kill me, I'm not leaving."
"You already broke that promise." Sasuke sneered accusatorily, refusing to relent despite the peace offering. "Seven years ago, you already broke it."
"I'm back now, aren't I?"
"You never intended to come back."
A rush of regret surged between the both of them the moment those words were uttered, both wishing that they could be taken back and locked away. This conversation was dangerous and they both knew it. Some things when laid bare could never be buried away again.
"You don't trust me either," Naruto accused, steering them into safer waters.
Sasuke gave him a flat look, as if asking, 'How do you figure that?'
"You won't let me do anything," he said. "You won't even let me use a henge because you think that I'll leave the moment I don't have to depend on you."
A flash of something in Sasuke's eyes acknowledged those words as truth but Naruto felt no triumph whatsoever at catching him out.
"Did I ever say that I wanted to leave you?" he asked softly.
Sasuke saw the blue eyes fiercely challenging him and he knew that he had one chance to give the right answer.
Naruto smiled. He tilted his head at an angle, the both of them meeting each others' eyes without blinking. The thought of abandoning the other, against his will or not, really didn't sit with him.
I'll be on your mind, first and foremost.
Maybe Sasuke was right.
Black eyes swam with shards of red, captivating him. He couldn't tear away from them, even though no hands held his body in place to make sure that he didn't reject the sharingan. Sasuke was giving him free reign and in return, he expected trust. Naruto gave it willingly.
When the red had slunk back into the black depths like an illusionary vanishing trick, he blinked, seeing two people in his mind that he had never seen before. A man and a woman. He instantly knew who they were and he smiled to himself.
"Those are our forms," Sasuke murmured.
"I think we look better as ourselves," he said with a grin. The atmosphere lightened.
"We'll stay the night here," Sasuke told him, a tiny smile on his own lips. He looked at the inn on the other side of the alley that they were in. "You can henge from tomorrow onwards."
"We're staying here? Why?"
Sasuke lifted the scroll that Naruto had completely forgotten about and he studied it with a bit of ill-will. It had started their altercation in the first place, after all.
"According to this, the resistance group is meeting in a neighbouring village in a few days. They openly oppose Madara so they should know about what's going on." The Uchiha shook his head to himself. "I've never been able to find out anything about them. Yet you manage to get information without even trying."
Sasuke was being subtly nice and Naruto had to admit, he loved it.
"So that thing," he pointed at the scroll, "is kind of like their way of keeping members updated on what's going on?"
"And for recruiting new members, it seems." Sasuke paused and after a split moment's hesitation, he offered the scroll to Naruto. "There's something in here about the Hokage," he said lowly, waiting as the wind curled around them in the small space.
Naruto's lips parted a bit, startled. He looked down at the proffered scroll and Sasuke fully expected him to snatch it and demand why he didn't say so earlier. Instead, Naruto slowly reached out. He touched Sasuke's hand that held the scroll, and gently pushed it away.
Sasuke held the scroll dumbly in his hand as Naruto walked towards the inn, pausing when he didn't immediately follow.
"Come on," the other called over his shoulder. "We should rest up for tomorrow."
One stepping stone at a time, Sasuke told himself, and he followed Naruto's path.
Naruto woke up in the middle of the night to the soft cries of some stray animal foraging in the street gutters directly outside the inn. The lamps were glowing dully through the windows and he hazily blinked a few times at the rice paper panels before rolling over, fully intending to doze back off, tortured cat or none. He froze when he immediately saw the shadow sitting stoically next to the doorway on the other side of the room.
His eyes flitted to Sasuke's futon and upon seeing that it was empty with the covers pulled back, he took another good look at the person next to the door. His heart calmed when he confirmed that it was just Sasuke and not some random thief or creepy innkeeper that had broken into their room in the name of making sure that things were to their liking. That had happened in the past before, a rather terrifying experience that Sai had made sure to tease him consistently about.
He pulled himself up, sweeping his covers off and to the side in one clean movement. Sasuke turned around at the sound of sliding cotton and watched him without speaking as he crawled on his hands and knees across both futons, not stopping until he was right beside the sentinel-like Uchiha.
"Sasuke, what are you doing?" he whispered when he had reached him. Eyes roving downwards, he saw that in the hand of the arm that rested on Sasuke's knee, his kusanagi was held in a lax grip, the end of the sword grazing against the tatami next to his bare foot.
"Keeping watch," Sasuke answered shortly and without inflection. Naruto flinched. The response had sounded too robotic and nonchalant. "This is unfamiliar territory," Sasuke continued, only a little more naturally. "At least for the first night, we can't take any chances."
Kneeling, Naruto examined him thoroughly. Although the Uchiha appeared alert enough on the surface, Naruto noticed how his breaths were deep and even, as though on the precipice of sleep. He was also as still as a statue but without any tension at all. It was a relaxed stance, practised so that Sasuke could slip into the offensive straightaway but not strain his muscles from being kept in a single position for too long.
"Sasuke, let me take over for the rest of the night," he said firmly. Reaching out, he made to slide the katana from Sasuke's limp hand. He pulled back defensively when the grip tightened suddenly and the blade sounded metallically within its sheath from the motion.
Silence, then, "Go back to sleep." Sasuke turned back to the doorway.
Hesitantly, Naruto leaned forward again, this time tentatively placing one of his hands over Sasuke's one that was still clutching the embossed handle tightly. He squeezed gently, making Sasuke look back down at him.
"You've been doing this for the past seven years," he told him softly in persuasion, meeting his gaze. "Let me take over now." After speaking he made no more movement, waiting instead for the lucidly dreaming Sasuke to react.
They blinked at each other through the darkness, determined blue refusing to back down from hard, barely focused black. Finally though, Sasuke shifted slightly. Naruto took advantage of it and helped him along, standing up together with him and steering him stolidly back to his futon.
"Go to sleep," he told him, taking the katana from his loosened grip as the other man snaked under the sheets. "And don't think that I won't notice if you're still awake," he warned with finality.
Sasuke's airy snort was the only answer he received before he closed his eyes. Naruto settled down in the spot that Sasuke had been in before, occasionally looking over for the first few minutes to make sure that the Uchiha's breathing and facial muscles had completely relaxed.
He didn't know that a smile had made its way to his own face, and he carried out his self imposed duty with a feeling of great content.
The next morning Sasuke woke up to a calm mind and a bowl of steaming congee on a small stool beside his futon.
Sitting up, he stared blandly at it, questioning its presence before the door slid open suddenly and Naruto walked in with another bowl on a serving tray. Naruto grinned broadly when he saw that he was awake and pushed the door loudly shut behind him with one foot, balancing precariously so that Sasuke had fleeting concerns as to whether the contents of the second bowl would find themselves all over his head.
"Morning Sasuke!" the blonde chirped, setting the tray on the ground next to the stool and flopping down onto his stomach on the tatami. "I got us breakfast, so eat up!"
Sasuke watched as the blonde pulled the second bowl to himself and began spooning large mouthfuls into his mouth, fanning himself rapidly when it burnt his tongue.
"I already checked it for poison," Naruto said after swallowing his first, scorching mouthful, seeing the question floating on Sasuke's disapprovingly parted lips. "And no, no one saw me like this," he said, waving a hand down his dishevelled pyjamas and unhidden appearance. "Come on, give me a bit of credit," he mocked.
Closing his mouth, Sasuke picked up the bowl cautiously, swirling the congee a few times with the spoon before actually beginning to eat. He kept his eyes on Naruto the whole time.
"You seem happier today," he commented when they were both done. He set his empty bowl back on the stool.
"I am," Naruto acknowledged cheerily.
"Is there something you can share?"
Naruto feigned a thoughtful expression from where he was still stretched out on the floor, a forefinger tapping away at his chin.
"Well," he dragged out, "I'm no longer in the middle of the ocean, Kyuubi's stopped giving me headaches, we're actually getting somewhere, and the innkeeper is a surprisingly nice guy," he contemplated with a chuckle to himself.
Sasuke raised an eyebrow, telling him with minimal effort that he didn't buy it.
Naruto huffed and reached for the empty bowls, preparing to take them back outside.
"Fine, the innkeepers a sleazy asshole but the first three are real."
"Naruto," Sasuke said warningly.
Letting out a loud exhale, Naruto stacked the bowls on the tray. His grin softened into a mischievous smile and he moved the tray to the side and out of the way.
"Hey Sasuke," he called out casually, eyes thinning as his smile broadened into his cheeks.
Sasuke looked at him warily but played along. "What is it?"
Naruto leaned forward close to him. The room seemed to grow just a bit brighter.
"Thank you," he said sincerely, and grinning at the faintly perplexed expression that he had induced on Sasuke's face, he picked the tray back up, disappearing out the door with his golden hair flicking after him around the wooden frame.
End of Chapter Seven.
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