In his 33 years, Sasuke, needless to say, had seen and experienced a lot already. When a militant group began to gain power and funding from certain lords and politicians allegedly connected with the Rice and Rain countries, Shikamaru was quick to form an alliance with the Kazekage, Raikage, and Mizukage. Together, the four nations, because of their long-standing personal ties since the Fourth Ninja War, decided they would share intel amongst each other. The militant group had been using guerilla tactics and slipped from one base to another, not unlike how Akatsuki used to operate. Yet, rather than rely on powerful ninja individuals, they relied on merciless attacks on the innocent to get the job done and their point across. At first, it started with smaller bombs being placed where political leaders were going to hold meetings with other diplomats, but then it grew to encompass national sporting events, festivals, and important landmarks. They started to target vital roads used to transport goods as well as bridges and shipping docks.

Even the Great Naruto Bridge had been targeted, but Sasuke - along with ninja from the other three nations - had been sent to prevent the bombing and take out the targets. That mission had been a success, but no matter how many targets they took out, the organization, known solely as Saisei, had no difficulty in recruiting new members. They solicited poor, uneducated youth and promised them food and shelter if they'd take up arms for their cause against the more prosperous nations.

The Land of Rain had long been a country trampled on by the more powerful shinobi nations who had always used it as a fighting ground without providing reparations. Before Naruto had died, he'd tried to work with Rain's daimyō in order to offer compensation on behalf of Fire Country and also to help rebuild schools and orphanages, but after Naruto's death, negotiations fell apart and his ideas never came to fruition.

The Land of Rice, home to the Sound Village, had dissolved after Orochimaru's death, but for the past 10 years, it had seen at least two attempts by powerful ninja to regain its former status as an official hidden village. The current Sound leader was shrouded in mystery, but it was known that the person was somehow associated with the Saisei group. Also, intel gathered within the last six months showed that two of Orochimaru's former bases were operating again under the dubious claim that they were being used as rehabilitation facilities for the country's most violent criminals as well as high-ranked criminals from other shinobi nations. In fact, because many of the great shinobi nation's prisons were overcrowded, they would pay Sound to take them off their hands and "do with them what they will." While these instances had been reported on, the paperwork was all legit from what Sasuke had seen and there was no physical proof that Sound had gone back to human experimentation or research into restricted jutsus.

Sasuke's contacts from when he'd been in Sound proved very useful and allowed Konohagakure quite an influential hand in how these political matters were handled and also gave Shikamaru, the village's eighth Hokage, a substantial amount of negotiating power during diplomatic discussions of these incidents and what tactics the Allied Shinobi Nations should take in order to begin disbanding Saisei.

It was one of these particular discussions that led to the organizing of an infiltration in what was presumed to be Saisei's main recruiting and training base and where its military strategists and tacticians met to plan their violent attacks. The base's location was said to be on the border of Rain and Earth, which also meant there was a possibility of the Tsuchikage's having involvement with Sound. It had already been made clear that the current Tsuchikage had no interest in an alliance with the other hidden villages. Ever since Ōnoki was killed in the battle between the Five Kage and the resurrected Uchiha Madara, Earth's relations with the other countries had been extremely tenuous, even more so when Konohakagure allowed Sasuke political refuge and exonerated his purported war crimes and involvement with the Akatsuki (despite Earth having been well-known for hiring Akatsuki on several occasions to bolster its militant leanings). This was an excuse that none of the other kages actually put much credibility in, especially Shikamaru. The Tsuchikage who replaced Ōnoki had taken his position under extremely questionable and even unethical circumstances, with several of Ōnoki's former council members resigning their posts in protest. However, at least two of those who resigned were killed in accidents that raised a lot of suspicion, but any connection between those deaths and the Yondaime Tsuchikage were, likely, erased.

Shikamaru ended up using a variation of Sasuke's guidelines he'd proposed for the ANBU teams three years ago in order to form platoons that consisted of allied ninja from the other nations. Often, Sasuke was asked to be captain to these 5-person platoons. They had been able to infiltrate other bases as well as prevent assaults that could have been extremely deadly had they been carried out. But the cost of fighting this group lay mostly in the amount of casualties they suffered. On one of Sasuke's last missions, they'd lost two people, one of which had been a well-trained medic nin from Suna. Sasuke had chastised himself for the loss of their medic and took sole responsibility for her death, despite the other team members arguing that her death would have been impossible to prevent. Saisei members knew they were to target the medic nin since it left the squad vulnerable to attacks when outnumbered.

On the day Sasuke's platoon infiltrated the town where Saisei's main base was located, he remembered it had been incredibly quiet. It was no more than a small trading post. Most of the inhabitants were farmers or traders. Anyone the team investigated was completely cooperative but had no information on an alleged militant group operating within the town's borders. Sasuke was suspicious from the start. They'd been fed incorrect information before from contacts paid off by Saisei's financial supporters, so he told his platoon to approach everyone with caution.

It was when Sasuke and another member from Mist named Tatsu were investigating a farmhouse a ways outside the town's border that they heard a large explosion come from the direction of the town center. A great plume of spoke rose into the air. Sasuke and Tatsu were on their way when a second and third explosion went off, and even from this distance, Sasuke could smell the gunpowder and blood. By the time they arrived on the main street where all the stalls had been located, there were bodies everywhere. Men, women, and children. Body parts littered the ground. Another squad member rushed up to them and informed Sasuke there had been a series of suicide bombers dressed up as farmers and tradesmen. Two of their team had been killed already in the blasts. As soon as Sasuke gave the order to withdrawal, a young boy no older than 13 ran in their direction, screaming at them to help, that they'd strapped explosives to his entire family. Sasuke only had seconds to warn his comrades to flee when the bombs strapped to the boy exploded and the three ninja were thrown across the dusty road in different directions. Sasuke's body flew through the glass of a furniture shop window, where he rolled across the floor and through at least two other walls before the ceiling crashed down on top of him. Already, he was aware he'd broken at least 20 bones and had a severe concussion. Their medic, he knew, had already been taken out, but, Sasuke was already painfully aware that he was the only one left alive.

He struggled to move, to get out from under the debris, but the structure began to collapse further and he had no choice but to lay there for a few minutes. However, within those few minutes, he felt a presence only a few yards away. He heard the sound of wooden planks being shifted, and when he saw who it was standing over him, Sasuke did not let any emotion show on his face.

"Long time no see," they greeted him. "Of course you must realize we'll be taking you prisoner. However, I think you'll find that our information retrieval tactics aren't quite as soft as the Leaf's." The woman, who had a plain muslin cloth wrapped around her head to cover her face, gave a laugh as she planted a harsh kick to Sasuke's already broken ribs. "I bet it sucks to run into me, doesn't it, Sasuke? After all, no one knows your strengths and weaknesses better than I do."

Sasuke had no idea what sort of jutsu she used, but after performing only a few hand seals, which he followed with his sharingan, the woman grabbed hold of the spot where the cursed seal had once been. The pain was excruciating, almost as bad as when he'd received the seal all those years ago from Orochimaru during the Chuunin Exams. He didn't make a sound, which seemed to displease this person, but the edges of his consciousness faded in and out until he was lost to a blackness so heavy and thick he was left to wonder if he'd ever come out of it.

He couldn't be sure how long he'd been imprisoned, but at least two weeks must have gone by since his platoon had been set up and annihilated by Saisei. They were deep underground, he could tell by the smell and the degree of air pressure in the cell. It was probably one of Orochimaru's old bases. The air was extremely thin and with all his injuries, including his broken ribs, it became difficult to breathe. Guards came at least twice a day to torture him for information, knowing full well he would not give anything, not even his name. Since being captured, he'd seen Karin only twice, and she was, both times, accompanied by a trio of guards. Karin had cropped her fire red hair short into a severe crop that came just under her chin. Other than that, her appearance hadn't much changed since the last time he'd seen her, which was after he and Itachi had taken on Kabuto nearly 17 years ago.

Naruto had offered her asylum in Konoha once, but she had refused and last Sasuke had heard, she had been planning on settling down somewhere in Grass Country. Eventually after the war, Naruto discovered Karin had come from the Uzumaki clan. It wouldn't have been any of Sasuke's business to inform him when he'd found out from Kabuto. It figured that the one person in Taka who obsessed over him, chased him, and clung to him like glue would've come from the same bloodline as Naruto.

The cell they kept him in wasn't a whole lot different than the one he'd slept in while staying with Orochimaru. There was a cot, a toilet, and a rusty pail half-filled with water. They fed him once a day unless he was being punished. He'd gone a few days without eating already when he'd been able to loosen his bonds and thrown the guards against the metal bars of the cell. Some sort of seal had been placed on his skin, though, and it allowed Karin to track his movements and his chakra capacity even without her being physically near him.

What they were after, he did not know. Surely they didn't think they could use him as a hostage for bargaining purposes. His life wasn't worth that much anymore. Sasuke was more inclined to believe this was Karin's form of personal vengeance after he left her for dead. If that's all it was, he gave it very little thought. He didn't especially care whether he escaped or not, but he also wouldn't allow them the courtesy of retrieving any information from him no matter what they tried. The times they strapped him to a table and cut him or tied him up just to beat him until he crumpled onto his knees - he disappeared somewhere into his mind.

Another week passed, the torture intensifying every day until it became difficult for Sasuke to stand on his own, to eat what few crumbs they gave him, or even to clean himself. His hair had gotten longer and one night (or it could have been day), Karin came in with a large pair of shiny metal scissors. She had Sasuke tied to a chair, and they were left alone. He had his head bowed and was dressed in only a pair of loose, cotton pants. He'd lost weight, and the bruising he'd sustained had turned half of his torso dirty shades of purple, brown, and green. When she touched his cheek and pushed his face to the side, he almost winced. His jaw had been broken a few days ago from a kick to the face by a heavy metal boot worn by a guard as large as the Raikage.

"You know, seeing you in this condition, I'm not so sure why I ever thought you were attractive," said Karin as she circled him and ended up behind, where she pulled her fingers through his hair at the back. She started cutting it off haphazardly. "There were so many days I dreamed of being the one to take care of you, Sasuke, but you..." The scissors made a loud slicing noise as she cut off more hair. "You were just too good for any of us! Suigetsu was too much of a dumbass to get it, and Juugo was so blind in his loyalty to you because of Kimimaro. God, men are such retards!"

Sasuke remained silent and unmoving even as the cool blades of the scissors were pressed against the side of his neck.

"Except that Naruto guy, I guess." Karin finished and came around to the front. She put her hands on Sasuke's bare shoulders, digging her nails in. "He was such a good guy, and you really treated him like crap, too." She laughed in his face as she flung the scissors behind her, where they penetrated right into the center of a stone brick. "But, what's hilarious is that I've heard you've been raising his son! Uchiha Sasuke, a father! Oh God, do you know how hard I laughed when I heard? If he hadn't been the son of that guy, I probably would've snuck into Konoha and killed him. You should be thanking me for my kindness." Karin kicked the legs of the chair and sent Sasuke backward with it as she towered over him, sneering. "Not that you ever thanked me for anything."

She spat on him.

Sasuke kept his eyes averted. He was already somewhere far off, in a place where he didn't care what she said or what she did. There was, however, a small part of him amused by the poetic justice of this situation. Ghosts coming back to haunt him from his past.

"What's so funny?" asked Karin. "Is this situation funny to you? You are going to die here, you know!"

Sasuke couldn't help it. He laughed.

"Huh? Why are you laughing?" She put her hands on her hips and came around to his other side, giving him a swift kick to the face. "You fucking Uchiha trash." Karin adjusted her glasses, the lenses flashing due to the light from one of the torches on the wall. She put the sole of her sandal down onto his ribs and applied pressure. Sasuke could feel one of his broken ribs start to puncture his left lung and began to wheeze.

Karin crossed her arms against her chest. "You seem so pathetic now. Softer, and nowhere near as powerful as you used to be. Then again, it's difficult for ninja to have much of a life expectancy when you think about it. Just like with your friend Naruto, right? I bet he went out with a bang though. I remember the first time I read his chakra, all I could think was how opposite you two were. His chakra was so warm, you know? And underneath, blegh!" She shivered. "Such dark chakra! Maybe worse than yours! To think you'd been childhood friends with the Nine Tails jinchuuriki and you didn't even know! It's so stupid!"

Sasuke looked up from underneath the strands of his hair covering his face, barely able to gasp in enough air, and smirked. "Thanks for the haircut," he rasped. "You were always so good at those domestic things."

"Why you," Karin narrowed her eyes to slits, "You wouldn't be so smug if you knew what Saisei has planned! Like there wouldn't be consequences eventually for all the countries that participated in the Fourth War? All those people who lost their houses? Their families? They're tired of elitist ninja snobs like yourself doing whatever they feel like without caring what it costs the average person!"

"I don't recall you being such a philanthropist," said Sasuke, licking his painfully dry lips.

"You'd be surprised what I've done since we last saw each other. How large our organization has grown, how much support we have! All I had to do was give them a bit of information and re-open some of Orochimaru-sama's old bases."

Sasuke felt a wave of nausea.

"You don't look so well, Sasuke. Would you like to take a bite for old time's sake?" She started to unzip her jacket, revealing a hint of creamy white skin. Karin waggled her finger at him. "Just kidding! Oh, and would you look at the time? I have to get going, so I hope you're uncomfortable where you are. I doubt we'll be seeing each other again after this. Goodbye, Sasuke."

He watched her leave the cell, the torch flames flickering as the cell gate opened and shut with a loud clang.

Sasuke could barely keep his eyes open as he tried to focus on the cracks in the ceiling. He lasted only another ten minutes before he slipped into unconsciousness.

Five long, grueling, painful days went by since his meeting with Karin. Sasuke was sure every bone in his body was broken. If he had any sustenance at all anymore it was the blood he was forced to swallow when it came vomiting out of his mouth from internal injuries. He had no strength left in him - mental or physical. He spent these days drifting between consciousness and unconsciousness, experiencing all sorts of vivid dreams that clung to the heels of an approaching death. Sometimes he saw his parents being murdered, sometimes it was the fight where he killed Itachi. Other times it was Naruto. A lot of Naruto. But that imagery wasn't particularly violent. He saw them in a place he was unfamiliar with but that resembled the dock in Konoha where he used to sit as a child and stare into the water, hating that his reflection resembled his brother.

The two of them would sit at the end of the dock, and Naruto didn't look any older than 15 or 16. Naruto did most of the talking, usually about random crap that Sasuke didn't really care about. But there was a warm connection to the images that made him not want to leave, that made him sit and listen for hours as Naruto prattled on about the weather, ramen, jutsus, movies, his favorite porno mags, or some cute girl he'd seen while traveling with Jiraiya over the years.

When Sasuke awoke from these dreams, or whatever they were, he usually felt disappointed. With every vision, he thought maybe he was closer to death. He did think of Akiyoshi, but it was hard to dwell on it because he didn't want to deal with the thought of failing in his promise to Naruto. But when would Sasuke be allowed peace? To be reunited with his family? What did Naruto know? He had his entire family with him now that he was dead, and Sasuke only had this nuisance of a kid that Naruto had forced on him to raise.

Memories of Akiyoshi's time with him seemed to fade the longer he was here. The boy would be better off without him anyway, and he knew Sakura would be there to take care of him.

It might've been only hours later that a loud explosion ripped through the underground portion of the base, causing Sasuke's cell to shake and bits of the wall to crumble and scatter across the floor.

Sasuke could only think: This is it.

He waited.

He thought he heard Sakura's voice calling to him. Kakashi, too. Others were there.

There was so much pain as he was lifted that he might've let out a grunt.

Warmth started to spread across his abdomen and all over his body.

Something wet fell onto his face. Like rain. It kept falling, cooling off his overheated skin.

Everything grew lighter and brighter until Sasuke's body filled with such a sense of gentle calm.

They were at the lake. The sky was an intense shade of blue, and the color seemed somehow familiar to Sasuke, who had his bare feet hanging over the end of the dock. He was watching Naruto float on his back, the rays of the sun already casting a healthy glow all over Naruto's exposed skin. After a while, Naruto started to swim toward him and climbed up to sit beside Sasuke. He shook his head like a dog would do, splattering Sasuke in the face with drops of water.

"Idiot. You're getting me wet," said Sasuke, putting a few inches distance between them.

Naruto shook his head again and tilted it to each side, trying to get the water out of his ears. "Duh. We're at the lake. It's wet here."

"At least be considerate of others." Sasuke leaned back on his arms, basking in the sun.

"Ne, ne, Sasuke? Where do you see yourself in 10 years?" Naruto asked, nudging him with an elbow.

"Dead," he answered. "Ninja don't live that long."

Naruto scoffed. "Sure they do. Look at how old the Third got, right? I always thought he'd keel over at any moment, he was so old. And what about baa-chan? She's still around and she's," Naruto's whole body shivered, "she's old! You should see her without that jutsu keeping her young looking! It's enough to make your balls shrivel!"

"I would prefer not to think about your shriveled balls."

Naruto slapped him on the back. Sasuke punched him in the shoulder twice as hard until they were suddenly rolling around on the wood planks, laying into one another like there was no tomorrow. By the time they rolled apart, they were both panting and bruised. Naruto had blood running out of his nose that he wiped away with the back of his hand.

"I've been wanting to do that for ages," said Sasuke as he turned to look at Naruto.

Naruto smiled. "Yeah. Same."

"It's not as fun sparring with anyone else. Not that we ever got to spar much."

"I know what you mean," said Naruto. He adjusted himself, his green swimming trunks making squelching noises as he sat cross-legged beside Sasuke. The sun was starting to set, and the myriad of colors began to shoot across the surface of the water like a lop-sided rainbow.

"What's it like?" Sasuke asked suddenly.

"What's what like?" Naruto was peering over at him, an eyebrow raised and a fist tucked under his chin.


"Ah. Depends on how you go, I guess." He laughed, a sad sounding laugh, and stared ahead as two small ducks landed on the lake, making the water ripple. The feathers on their heads were a dark copper color. Their breasts were a stark white, while the rest of their bodies were speckled with tans, grays, and blacks.

"Okay. So when you died, what were your last thoughts?" Sasuke asked, his eyes on the ducks and the way they smoothly glided through the water.

"A lot of things at once, I guess. There was a part of me that didn't really realize I was about to die. I thought, okay, I'd been through so much, maybe I'd make it this time."

"But before all that, you'd still had the kyuubi inside of you."

"Yeah, I know. But I'd promised Kurama I'd set him free eventually. Anyway, I dunno. I was thinking of the village. Of the people in it. I was thinking of my family. Of our child." Naruto paused and took in a deep breath. A flash of pain crossed his features.

"Our child?"

"Well, hers and mine. And yours."

"I'm not his Dad," Sasuke replied, a sharpness to his tone.

Naruto shrugged. "Semantics."

"You don't know what semantics even means."

"True. I heard Kakashi-sensei say it once. Seemed appropriate."

Sasuke shook his head, frustrated. "There's no sense in talking to you even now. Why did I think you'd have any wisdom at this point?"

"Ha ha." Naruto scratched the back of his head. "You've got me there. What do I know? I'm the idiot who sacrificed himself for the village and left his kid with Uchiha Sasuke of all people. I thought, 'cause of what happened to me, if I ever had kids, I'd always be there for them. But, I guess these things happen."

Sasuke gave a bitter laugh. "It didn't have to happen, you let it happen."

"Hey, Sasuke?"

"What?" he spat.

"Are you... mad at me for dying?"

"No. Why would I care? You've been dead for so long I hardly remember you." He looked at Naruto out of the corner of his eye.

Naruto's gaze was focused somewhere in the distance. "If you'd died instead of me, Sasuke... I would have been so mad at you. I would've found a way to get down to hell and bring you back - "

"Hell?" Sasuke interjected but probably shouldn't have been surprised by the assumption.

" - And... Well. But that's not what was planned, I guess. Not in the cards. We knew it might come to that, though, didn't we? Or else I wouldn't have asked you for that one small favor."

Sasuke glared fully at him. "You consider asking me to raise your son a small favor?"

Naruto flashed a blazing smile. "But now you get to think of me every day when you see him. He looks just like me, doesn't he?"

Sasuke stared in disbelief.

"What?" asked Naruto.

Sasuke shook his head. "He does. He looks too much like you."

Naruto seemed to understand. "I miss you, Sasuke. A lot."

Uncomfortable, Sasuke averted his gaze and shifted around, straightening his legs out in front. "It should've been me," he murmured.

"Don't say that," Naruto protested. "I'm glad it was me. I was Hokage. It was my duty."

"But if you would've let me - "

Naruto held up his hand. "Hey, what's done is done. I'm fine. I'm with a lot of people I love. I wish I could be with Akiyoshi, but I can't. So, if I could have anyone in the world raising him, it just had to be you."

Sasuke circled the fingers of his left hand around the wrist of his right and rotated it back and forth. "You could've asked Sakura or Iruka. They would've made better parents."

"Nah. It had to be you."

Sasuke looked up. Naruto's eyes sparkled with all the reflected colors of the sunset. It unsettled him. "Why me?"

Naruto grinned. "We're fated that way, I suppose. Who knows? Every time we live, every time we die, we'll end up running into each other somewhere."

"You're not going to start talking about how we'll meet in the next lifetime, are you?"

"Mah." Naruto rubbed his chin. "I told you then I wasn't good at lectures or speeches or whatever. And, you never know, maybe next lifetime you'll come back as a woman."

Sasuke's eyebrow shot up. "What would that matter?"

Naruto brought his knees against his chest and smirked. "Isn't it obvious? I'll be the guy. We'll get married."

"Disgusting," said Sasuke. "I have no intention of ever being your," his lip curled in derision, "wife."

"Maybe I'll be the wife?"

"Naruto, we're not getting married. I've already raised your kid once. You think I want to do it again?"

"But you're so good at it. What does he call you? Do you make him refer to you as Sasuke-sama?"

"Hardly," replied Sasuke. "You know I've never been one for honorifics. But, he calls me oji-chan. Though for the past year he's called me oji-san."

"Mm. That's because he respects you." Naruto made a fleeting gesture with his hand, like a half-hearted wave. "Does he... ever ask about me? Does he hate me?"

"Maybe you should ask him that yourself."

"That's a bit difficult considering the whole I'm dead thing." Naruto frowned across the way. The ducks started to quack. They flapped their wings and flew off together, circling around once before they headed away from the sun.

"Whose fault is that?"

"Mine," Naruto answered softly. "I take full responsibility for the pain I've caused and will cause my son."

Sasuke stood up, his the edge of his shadow falling across Naruto's knee. "What about the pain you've caused me?" he asked.

"I'll take that on as my burden, too," Naruto answered.

Sasuke sneered. "I'm dying. Right now, I know I'm dying. That's why I'm here."

"Nope, sorry. Won't allow it."

"That's not your decision to make," he hissed.

Naruto gazed at him calmly. "You still have things to do."

"I don't. I don't want to do anything. You said we'd die together, right? But I'm still here and without having contributed anything extraordinary."

Naruto got up on his feet and grabbed hold of Sasuke's shoulders, shaking him. "Are you kidding? Do you have any idea what you did for me? And shit. Sasuke, you raised my son! How is that anything but extraordinary? I can never repay you for what you've done."

"You can by letting me die. Let me... go."

Naruto looked pained, conflicted. "I can't."

Sasuke smacked his arms away and lowered his head. "My... parents. My clan."

"They're here," said Naruto. "Waiting for you. Itachi, too. It's like a party, but I know how much you hate those, so consider yourself lucky."

"I...enjoy parties."

"Sure you do." Naruto smiled at him and folded his arms behind his head. "Ah haaah. What a nice day! I wish I could stay here forever. But, you know, Sasuke... when you die, you still have crap you're obligated to do. It's no different than living. Just as I have to do stuff from this side of things. Stuff others can't do... you have things to do on that side. Like, watch over Akiyoshi. Take care of Sakura. Thought you two would've been married by now."

Sasuke smirked. "I take it you don't peep in on everything that happens in my life."

"Why?" Naruto searched his face with confusion. "What happened?"

"It didn't work out. The only things we had in common anymore were you and Aki. We're good friends though."

"Of course you are, you're both part of Team 7!"

"Kakashi's good, too. As is Sai. Everyone is doing well, I think."

Naruto put his hands on his hips. "That's good, that's good. I'm really happy then."

Sasuke regarded him coolly. "Are you? You've always been such a horrible liar."

"Heh. Well." He rubbed the side of his nose, took a couple of steps forward and pressed the palm of his right hand to Sasuke's chest. "It's not a perfect situation, but... what I can't do anymore, I know you can. I trust you, Sasuke. Your brother once told me not to take everything on myself. That I'd be conceited to do that. So, I'm asking you. I will get down on my knees and beg if I have to. Stay with Akiyoshi. Stay with Konoha and take care of it."

The hand fell away, but the warm feeling on his skin remained.

Sasuke nodded. "You owe me."

"Of course."

"Would you really have gone down on your knees?"

Naruto's grin widened. "Definitely."

"So what happens now?"

Naruto wrapped his arms around Sasuke, hugging him tight as he spoke into Sasuke's ear in a voice that shook, "You wake up."

When Sasuke awoke in Konoha Hospital, he kept his eyes closed a while longer, holding onto those last images that had made him feel so much more like himself than he'd felt in a long time. It was painful to wake up and know this was his reality still. The machines beeped and all kinds of medical wards had been slapped onto different parts of his body. There was a heavy weight on his right arm, which turned out to be Akiyoshi, who'd fallen asleep at the side of the bed in a chair.

Sakura was at the foot of the bed, reading notes attached to a clipboard. She came to the other side of the bed when she saw he was awake.

"Hey," she said gently, pushing his hair to the side and tucking it behind his ear, "How are you feeling?"

"Amazing," he said hoarsely. "How long have I been here?"

"About a week." Tears started to slide down her cheek as she collapsed on top of Sasuke and hugged him. "I didn't think you were going to make it! Even Tsunade-sama wasn't sure... and," she started blubbering so much that Sasuke couldn't understand her.

"Sakura," he growled. "You're heavy."

"I'm sorry," she said, moving off of him as she fiercely rubbed her cheeks. "I'm just so happy you're okay, but..." She averted her eyes.

"What is it?" Sasuke tried to sit up more in the bed, but it was painful.

"We weren't able to catch Karin, but at least now we know she's linked to Saisei and is apparently the newest leader for Sound. After we infiltrated the base, Kakashi-sensei was able to knock out a few of the guards, and Sai and some of the black ops retrieved a lot of their tactical information as well as some possible locations of attacks that are supposed to take place within the next month - "

"Sakura," Sasuke's head hurt too much to think about these things right now.

"Oh right, well. We can discuss it when you're feeling better." Her eyes turned toward Aki. "He's been really worried about you. He tried to run away at least three times to try and find you on his own. I had to have ANBU watch and restrain him if necessary."

"Hm." Sasuke put his hand on top of Akiyoshi's head.

The boy started to rouse from his sleep, his cheek stuck to the skin of his forearm. He smacked his lips together as he raised his eyes and saw that Sasuke was awake.

"Oji-san!" He cried and did the same thing Sakura had done earlier as he attempted to climb on top of Sasuke.

Sasuke allowed it and said nothing about the tears that began to slide down the open collar of his hospital gown. He pet the boy's hair, holding onto each golden-yellow strand until his fingers reached the tip.

"I'll give you two some time to talk, but I'll be right outside if you need anything. Also, Kakashi-sensei and Sai are in the waiting room. I'll let them know you're awake. Shikamaru was here about an hour ago. He's come in nearly every day even though he's been extremely busy working with the Allied Nations. Iruka, too. He'll probably stop by once he's able to leave the academy."

"Thank you, Sakura," he said as she left the room, and they both knew it was for a lot more than just keeping him updated. No doubt having her medical expertise when the rescue team arrived had an instrumental part in saving his life.

Not that dying had ever been a choice for him apparently.

"This is like when you were little and lectured me that it was okay for people to cry," he said against the side of Aki's head. He had nuzzled into Sasuke's neck. "You're not as small as you used to be back then."

"You saw tou-chan, didn't you?" Aki asked, surprising him.

The line of Sasuke's mouth became thin. "Shouldn't you be with your genin team training?"

"Did you see him? Did you see tou-chan? They said they weren't sure if you were gonna live, but I kept talking to tou-chan whenever I could and asked him to keep you here."

"I see." Sasuke ruffled the boy's hair. "I did have a chat with your Dad."

"Did he say anything about me?" Aki tugged at the dressing gown. He rolled to the side a bit so that his full weight wasn't on Sasuke.

"He said a lot about you."

"Mm. I knew he would!"

Sasuke looked toward the window and, for the first time, noticed that the desk was covered in cards. There were balloons and flowers. Aki noticed and glanced to where Sasuke had been staring.

"Isn't it cool? Everyone in the village has been talking about how brave you are and sending you things. All that stuff makes it look like we're gonna have a party, huh, oji-san?"

"A party..." Sasuke, with some effort, lifted his arm to touch his fingers to his lips.

"Un," Aki said, nodding his head excitedly. "We should have a party when you're feeling better! Everyone will be there!"

"Everyone..." Sasuke repeated, lowering his arm.

"What is it?" Aki asked. "Don't you like parties? Maybe it can just be you and me and Sakura-onee-san and Iruka-jii-chan and Kakashi-san and we can all get some ramen from Ichiraku and hang out in the backyard? Ne, ne, wouldn't that be fun? With all the fireflies that come out at night? We can have barbecue?"

"Shh," said Sasuke. "You're too loud. You talk too much."

"Hnn." Akiyoshi looked pleased as he threw an arm across Sasuke's waist and grinned. "I love you."

Sasuke heaved a sigh. "Damn you Uzumakis for being so sentimental."

"Ha ha."

"Don't laugh. I've tried to raise you so you wouldn't grow up to be exactly like your Dad."

"Nah. I don't think that's true at all. I think you like having a piece of Dad around to keep you company. Sometimes you look really lonely, and I can tell you're thinking about him."

Sasuke scoffed and moved so that he could put his hand on Aki's back. "I think about other things besides your Dad."

"But you do think about him," Aki said, and Sasuke didn't have it in him to argue.

"I do. But apparently he wants me to stay alive at least long enough until you can take care of yourself."

Aki squirmed in the bed as Sasuke tickled the nape of his neck. "That tickles, cut it out! I'm a genin now, y'know? I can take care of myself just fine. You're the one who needs to be taken care of!"

Sasuke let his arm rest on the bed. "It certainly seems that way these days."

"S'fine," said Aki. "I'm gonna take care of you from now on all the way up until - "

"Until?" asked Sasuke.

"Until I'm Hokage, of course!" said Akiyoshi, who gave him a thumbs up.

"Yes, sure. Whatever you want. I already learned a long time ago not to tell you Uzumakis what to do."

"I know, right? We're stubborn, ne?"


Akiyoshi peered at him with those striking eyes. Sasuke was reminded of the reflection of the colors of sunset he'd seen in Naruto's, but Aki's were lighter in hue, almost like crystal. Perfectly clear. Like the sky above the lake.

"What is it, oji-san?"

"Grow up to be just like your father."

"Mah," the boy laughed. "I'm gonna grow up to be a bit like him and a bit like you."

"Well then," said Sasuke as he smiled faintly. "I hope you only take after our best qualities. My intelligence, strength, and hygiene and your Dad's... sense of timing."

"Ha ha, okay. I'll do my best!" He squeezed Sasuke and grew quiet after a while, his breathing evening out as he fell asleep again.

Sasuke stayed awake. Their scents were somehow similar, too. It was...nice. He grabbed for Aki's hand and set it on top of his own chest. There was an ache there, but as always, Sasuke would survive. He had to anyway. He'd made a promise, and he intended on keeping it.

That had been his way of the ninja, so maybe now it could be Sasuke's, too.