Providence I

For as long as you can remember, he's always given you those words, two paltry little words littered amongst apologies like eulogies to the times you used to spend together, the times you once allowed yourself to believe you imagined ever happened, but when that time finally comes, when you flinch at the soft touch to your forehead and the sudden appearance of a still familiar gentle smile that has no right to make him look so damn happy, when the sky falls with him over you, when you close your eyes to the rain that doesn't wash anything away, it's in this moment you realise there won't be a next time anymore.

...

It's dark when you're able to see again, take that first conscious breath that makes you remember how to breathe again—that you can breathe again.

Trembling fingers fail to grip the soft bedding beneath you. Arms laden at your sides, they tighten at the sharp pain flaring in your chest, echo with the throbbing mass in your head making it too heavy to lift.

There's too much that hurts to tell what actually doesn't, aches that swathe you like a second skin, and you grind your teeth because it doesn't encompass enough to say everything does.

Dry eyes squeezed shut you can't force open. There's a tickle in your throat, and you try to suppress the urge to heave with your tongue depressed against the roof of your mouth.

Yet the bile still threatens to rise, itches from the back of your throat like the scratchy material wrapped around your torso—binding, constricting—draped taut and chafing against your skin.

You flinch at the touch on your forehead, too cool against your skin too warm, but something holding your arm keeps you from moving far when you try to jerk away from the voice above you.

"Hey, it's me. Don't—it's me, okay."

In comes one breath. Out goes another. Shaky pauses in between grow increasingly short and scattered with sharp movements from your limbs protesting the weight holding you down.

Your chest deflates then tightens when the cool touch disappears, hacks at your body with a harsh fit of coughing forcing phlegm up your throat.

It's painful to breathe in, feels like you're choking on air. Yet the air drawn, as much as you can, as fast as you can, none of it seems to reach your lungs. Less and less with each exhale. Harder to gather with each inhale, snatched from you with each gasp as quickly as your breaths become.

"Calm down—breathe, just breathe. Breathe. I need you to breathe for me, all right."

You push away from the voice, both hands flat and pressing against something solid. You swallow to wet your dry mouth, force back the itch in your throat to prevent anything from coming out when eyes you squeeze to keep closed begin to water.

"Would you stop fighting me already," the voice hisses. "I'm just trying to—"

You lurch up at the sudden weight on top of you, lifting your right leg and forcing contact against the weight with your knee.

There's a loud groan. Hands clamp around your wrists and trap your arms to the bedding.

"T-too close," the voice wheezes. "That was too close."

You buck again, reaching for something with fingers clawing at nothing, yet the weight on top of you only shuffles to bear down on your legs, pressing you further into the bedding.

You feel yourself being shaken, and your eyes shoot open, revealing only darkness.

"You got to be kidding me. I just put up money for this room. You can't—" The voice curses. "Quick, put it out—put it out already!"

You squirm, trying to turn from the hand moving to cover your eyes and lash out with an elbow that's pushed back against the bed.

"Didn't you hear what I said? I know you can hear me—I know you know it's me, so stop trying to fight me, Sasuke!"

The grip holding down your arms tightens, but your body goes rigid at the sound of your name.

The weight on top of you shifts, turns into soft rustling that lapses into a quiet disrupted by the voice.

Slowly, the hand moves away from your eyes. Sasuke, you hear again, this time softer, calmer. Again then again it comes, forming a mantra dissolving in the back of your mind.

You struggle to keep open unseeing eyes stretched wide enough to burn. The silhouette looming over you slowly comes into focus, but your eyes begin to close, and the name once foreignly familiar teeters on your lips as you feel yourself drift out of consciousness.

...

It's still dark when you try to find your way out of sleep. The glow from a tiny light offers a glimpse of blond hair, flickers over the face you strain to see through the haze laid thick over your mind.

"Should have known you'd be the type to wake up in the middle of the night like that," comes the voice from before.

The already soft light begins to dim even further, withers behind your eyelids. You raise your knee adjacent to your stomach, pushing with a shaky palm against the bedding to turn on your side.

"Nice to see you again, too."

There's a long pause from the voice, interrupted by the rustle of fabric, then the screech of something scraping across wood.

"Okay, don't talk to me then."

You try to draw back, but your body is sluggish, refusing to let you move far from the voice too loud inching closer and closer.

"I'll just chalk it up to the pain medicine making you cranky—crankier—and leave it at that."

Turning on your back, you lay one arm beside you, bent at the elbow and idle on top of the bedding stealing the little heat left in your body.

"At least your fever went—Sasuke?"

You moan at the familiar touch warm on your forehead, a hand you lean into but can't follow when it disappears. A shiver makes you curl beneath the soft material pulled over you, the sound of your name whispered like a hush meant to lull, and you let yourself fall back to sleep.

...

The muscles in your stomach stiffen as you sit up, suck in another harsh breath because the movement too abrupt leaves you faint, hunched over in the exertion it takes to remain upright.

Breathing out, you grit your teeth, bite the inside of your cheek at the dull ache beginning to settle within your chest. Hands in your lap clutch the sheet fallen around your waist and stuck to clammy skin. The ache grows heavier, pervading your body like the keen sense of disappointment that you're able to feel anything at all.

Yet you can.

You do.

To wake up on this bed, in this room that's only significant lies only in the fact it's somewhere you weren't before, somewhere Itachi's body isn't lying beside you, the already waning fulfilment you should feel is undermined by a quick glance to your left.

Because then you see, remember that voice you subconsciously knew without recognising—his voice—and you simply stare at the figure slouched in the chair pulled next to you.

Of all people, the one person you could live without meeting again—it had to be him.

Of all people, Naruto had to find you.

An arm hanging over the back of the chair moves when he begins to stir. He raises his head drooping with his chin close to chest, raises both arms to lengthen his body in a stretch. Eyes yet to unclose, his mouth opens wide with a yawn.

He smacks his lips, bending over and bringing his arms down to rest on top of his knees. Groggy eyes he opens immediately sharpen when they catch your gaze.

"Looks like you're up for real this time," he says, distorting the seemingly innocuous words around a grim sort of smile.

Flexing your jaw, you swallow against your mouth dry and throat sore. You don't trust your voice to speak, so you don't. You watch Naruto, well aware of his eyes roaming over you.

It's a subtle gesture, more subtle than you would have thought someone like him capable of, but the stout display of attentiveness, although quick, borders on unsettling. He studies you, inspecting his own abysmal bandaging skills that aren't so abysmal anymore, over your chest and your right arm, finishing the survey near the back of your neck, where it stays too long.

Another moment and he finally decides to draw back, sitting up with a posture too forced to seem casual.

"Between trying to burn this place down and almost kicking me down there," he says, "I wasn't sure what you were going to do when you woke up this morning."

Your fingers clutching the sheet slacken and tighten.

"Not that you remember that, right." He snorts, then smiles again, small but this time a little more reminiscent of his old smiles easier to disregard. "Sleeping, that's what you've been doing. In and out of it for the most part. It wasn't that bad, but then your fever wouldn't stay down—even though I'm not Sakura or anything like that, I know enough to get by, but I almost thought..."

He shifts in the chair, rubbing the back of his neck with one hand. "Anyway, you're better now. At least better enough to ignore me, so..."

Leaning over, almost cautious, he reaches to touch your forehead. You intercept the hand with fingers grabbing his wrist, try to squeeze hard enough in an attempt to break it, but you can only squeeze hard enough to ensure you won't collapse.

The room stills, fills with the sound of your breathing, haggard gasps for air hauled long and slow through the slight gape in your mouth. Your grip is pathetically loose, and the refusal to release the hold sways to the necessity of leverage rather than the desire to actually hurt him.

He doesn't pull away until you gather the energy to let go. His mouth forms into a thin line, tight despite his expression that makes something churn in the pit of your stomach.

Your hand falls back in your lap, but he doesn't say anything, extending an arm behind him for a small plastic cup sitting on the desk.

"Here." He holds towards you the cup half empty. "You really should drink something."

The coated feeling of your tongue is slimy against chapped lips, but you don't move to accept the cup. You look away from it. You look away from him.

"Look, it's just water. You can't tell me you're not thirsty."

You don't deny it, yet as dehydrated as you probably are, more so than even hungry, you know your hands won't be steady enough to take the cup, let alone steady enough to hold it without spilling anything, but Naruto doesn't need to know that. You'll be damned if you let him try to do something as degrading as force-feed you water.

Again, he motions you to take the cup. He frowns when you still don't move, then sighs and turns to place the cup back on the desk. "I'll leave it here for later, all right. Just..."

Two fingers tap in quick succession on his knee, speeding up to a haphazard tempo. His gaze travels back to you, but he remains silent, seemingly content to stare with a newfound sense of patience.

Fatigue compels you to look away first. You lie down on the bed, forcing slow breaths through lungs suddenly parched for air, and you close your eyes, hands gripping the sheets until you manage to fall asleep.

...

The ceiling's sallow in colour, almost a sickly yellow due to age obvious from the rest of the room. Large cracks in the off-white paint appear at random intervals along the intersection of the walls and ceiling. It's a decaying backdrop to the four modest pieces of furniture noticeably dated, maybe even old enough to be considered antiquities, but it doesn't tell you what you want to know, where you are.

Some kind of inn, most likely, although how far away from that place...

Movement from the other side of the room catches your attention. You lick your lips, try to swallow the metallic taste that won't leave your mouth. Without having to move, from your peripheral, you see Naruto standing on his knees reaching for the window above his bed.

"I know it's too cold to open the window," he says, "but natural light's supposed to have the same effect as fresh air. Or at least something close to it."

He pushes back the plain curtains unravelling at the seams, exposing you to the glare of the morning sun. "Plus, sharing a room this small, it doesn't take that much to make it feel stuffy."

He plops himself back on the bed rumpled and unmade, bouncing on it for a few moments. After the squeaking from the springs begins to subside, he says, "How long do you plan on keeping this up?"

Arm beneath the quilt, you tug on the waistband of the pants you don't remember putting on, curl your fingers around the gathered material too much in your grasp.

"Not talking to me, that is."

You keep your eyes fixed on the ceiling, listless.

He tosses a sigh that reaches you from across the room. "That long, huh?"

He's looking away when you turn your head to face him, staring at the worn knapsack you assume is his lying against the wall in the corner of the room. Near it, to the right of a narrow door, is a small desk, on top of it only a paper cup and a forehead protector sitting close to the edge.

You haven't seen any of your belongings since you woke up coherent, but the only thing you need is Kusanagi. Unless Naruto had the foresight to look for it, you'll have to return to that place where Itachi fell as soon as you're well enough to travel.

With another sigh, Naruto pushes himself off the bed and stands. He walks towards you, pulling at the hem of a white shirt covering loose black sweatpants. The soft pattering of his bare feet onto the hardwood floor grows louder, Naruto closer until he stops at the edge of the bed you're lying on.

He peers down as you look up, squints at you while pushing away the hair falling over his face.

The unstated literal difference in vantage is too blatant to ignore. It doesn't quite make you feel uneasy, nor does it detract from the lack of vulnerability you feel despite being in this position, yet the simple act of having to look up to meet his gaze has you narrowing your eyes nonetheless.

"It's been four days, Sasuke. Four days and you—"

He drops his hand, letting his arm flop against his side. "You can't do this forever. You won't get better if you stay like this, and I can't let that happen. I won't let that happen. I didn't come this far just to let you..."

Slow, exhale and inhale, you take in the scent of the quilt laid up to your neck, the almost pungent smell of mothballs. The taste it leaves in your mouth is unpleasant, nearly as bitter as the taste of dirt turned into mud from blood and sweat lost amidst rain.

"...say something." From a low whisper, his voice begins to rise, words snarled through lips curving upwards at one corner. "Stop being such an asshole and talk to me—say something."

The fingers gripping your pants unfurl, and you watch his body tense as he extends fingers that quickly form a fist.

"Say something."

You don't startle when the bed sinks beneath his additional weight, sinking further as he hovers above you, when his arms enclosing your face demand your attention.

"...get the h-hell off me. "The fluctuation in your voice agitates your throat, reaffirms a dull throbbing behind your eyes at the fact you don't simply throw Naruto to the floor.

"Damn it, Sasuke, I found you. I finally found you, but then seeing you look at me like that, like none of it matters. Like nothing ever did."

His face lowers close to yours. His breath you unwillingly inhale smothers you, an unwanted warmth that envelops you, but you don't blink. You don't let your gaze waver.

"Was it even worth it?" The sun gleams on his eyes marred by lines of red rimming white surrounding blue. "Throwing it all away for Itachi's death, this is what you gave up everything you had for. But in the end, did it change anything?"

He closes his eyes, keeps them shut despite the wetness from his face that spatters on your cheek.

"Does it make things different now?" Sniffing, he opens his eyes and swallows, but his voice beginning to crack develops into a low growl. "...do you even care anymore?"

The bed recoils from his hands pressing down and pushing against it.

"Do you, Sasuke?!" he shouts, then again, "do you?!" and shoves at the bed twice, three times and again, punctuating the baseless litany of the underlying I told you so—we told you so you can't help but hear each time the bed carries you with its momentum, each time the emphasis scrapes at your skin like the sheets under his fingers he bunches in his hand.

Once more, the bed dips before he pushes away. A glance at you makes him wince, makes his eyes grow wide. Slowly, he steps back, wiping his face with the bottom of his palm, muttering something you can't hear, and stopping near the foot of the other bed. Turning away, in and out he breathes, reaching for his hair with the tips of his fingers pressing down hard against his scalp.

"Shitshit—shit."

His hand drops to slap against his thigh.

"Sasuke, I..."

He cuts himself off with a scoff mangled by a faint laugh that follows. After a moment, he paces to the corner of the room, where he leans down in front of the knapsack.

"Bandages," he says, "your bandages—too tight, are they..."

He doesn't finish. He doesn't wait for you to answer. Frantic hands searching the small bag find and pull out a roll of gauze coming undone.

"I-I'm going to have to redo your bandages. Soon. Now." Standing up, he turns to face you, tightening his grip around the gauze. "Then we can—you can get cleaned up. I did what I could, but you still might want to, uh..."

He starts to walk towards you but hesitates, edging backwards until the back of his legs hit the other bed. He allows himself to sit, allows his shoulders to sag with a heavy sigh.

"...four days, Sasuke," he whispers, watching you with eyes still gleaming. "Four days."

...

The narrow door by the small desk leads to an equally narrow bathroom. Although it appears traditional, with the kind of steep wooden tub typically found in older inns, it doesn't have a separate bathing area, nor a separate room for the toilet and sink cramped inside. Despite the oddity, however, being attached to the room is a convenience you don't fail to appreciate.

Yet even with a door closing you off to the room, it's hard to feign any semblance of privacy when you know Naruto's on the other side.

You try anyway.

The partial fog collected on the tiny mirror above the sink has already cleared, has been for more than a few minutes. You're clean enough. Too clean, probably. Once inviting, the smell of the soap withered in your hand is suffocating, becomes a stench in the bathroom without a window to open.

Still, you'd prefer to soak in water already cool and almost cold. You'll let Naruto wait. You'll let him sit restless on that chair by the bed, keen for even the slightest hint of noise, treating you as if you're some child liable to drown without constant supervision.

The coarse material of the washcloth you lather again with soap begins to burn your skin red. It scours over white lines of slightly raised scars that have yet to fade, again and again over the impressions left from the bandages Naruto tried to prevent you from removing.

You wouldn't let him take them off.

Couldn't.

But he still sat on that chair, watched you slowly peel away the bandages to reveal skin too pale from limited circulation.

You grit your teeth at your skin now an angry flush.

According to him, it's been four days. Four days since Itachi fell, left you behind with years of grime and caked blood you can't fully wash away that gradually warmed the water surrounding you a muddled pink.

Your left arm lifts to raise your hand. You continue to scrub, pressing down against the base of your neck hard to reach without wincing.

The soap clunks on the floor when your right elbow is scraped by wood. Water spills over, splashes onto the floor. A single-handed grip on the edge of the tub is the only thing that prevents you from slipping, grows tighter when you hear the call of your name.

You almost lose your balance when the door opens, hushed, unbearably slow, right yourself up by the time Naruto squeezes into the bathroom.

Lack of food and water takes its toll on you. It takes too long to steady your breathing. More than long enough for Naruto to notice.

"Sasuke, you..."

You let go of the tub, let your right arm hang at your side. With your left hand, you grab the washcloth floating in the water, wring it out and drape it over the side of the tub.

He starts to say your name again, cuts himself off and stands there when you raise your head to look at him. One step, he comes forward, cautious yet apparently not wary enough to leave you alone. Another step with a foot heavy against the floor, closer until he's almost within arm's reach.

"Are you..."

The way the corner of his mouth twitches, the sudden tension in his shoulders, you can tell he wants to say something. But he won't.

You don't care where you stand with him anymore, but he's still trying to figure out where he stands with you, and for whatever reason, he's deciding to hold back. It's disgustingly obvious. Either he's too easy to read, or—no, he's simply too easy to read. He has to be. He's always been. There was never a time you used to know him that well.

You reach for the towel folded on top of the tapered sill on the wall to your left. The few seconds it takes to get up seem excruciatingly long, but you set your jaw. You hide the pale knuckles of reddened fingers beneath a white towel. You don't lose eye contact with Naruto.

He breaks it first. The colour on his cheeks turns his gaze down, trained on the floor and away from your feet.

If he's waiting for you to tell him to leave, you won't. It'd give him the excuse he'd use to stay. Seeing you like this can't be what's bothering him. Not if he's stubborn enough to will aside his own discomfort out of his damnable concern for you.

Or maybe it's nothing more than pride. Maybe it's an effort to appeal to you, still asserting that childish notion he ever could have been your rival.

Either way, it's an abject display of something you neither need nor want.

Taking a shallow breath, he squares his shoulders. When he glances up to look at you, he doesn't turn away.

"If you're done, I'll just..." There's a short pause, and he swallows, lets his eyes wander to your neck. Eventually, they return to your face. "I'll go ahead and empty the water."

...

The pants you woke up in lie tossed in a bag by the corner. The pants you're wearing don't fit. They're too loose without something to hold them up, with the length of the seam too short falling just above your ankles. Somehow, though, they're able to make your already restricted range of motion seem even more stifled.

The clothes that were yours, what was left of them, you don't know where they are. You didn't ask. Naruto probably threw them away.

Your skin dry and wrinkled still feels cool. It prickles from the air in the room only a little cooler, tickles from Naruto's hand that much warmer pressed against your back holding you steady. Gently, using his other hand, he unravels the roll of gauze around your torso. He licks his lips, reaching from beneath your arm a third time with a pull firm but not tight.

You don't move to hinder him. You don't lift your arm to help him.

Across the room, the window above Naruto's bed is still closed. The curtains are pushed to the sides, revealing a foreground of falling snow against reds and oranges from the sun setting behind white hills.

You grunt when you're jerked forward, stopped from falling over and held still by Naruto's grip on your uninjured shoulder. He mumbles a quick apology, more focused on finishing the nearly empty roll in his hand.

Sterile, the smell of gauze begins to overpower the lingering scent of the soap that left you too clean, clogging your nostrils and making your chest constrict. You inhale when Naruto moves away.

Emptied roll in hand, he sits back, slouches in the chair that never seems to deviate from by the bed. He places the roll on one finger and lets it drop in the palm of his other hand. He peers at you without raising his head.

Favouring your left side, you lie down, facing Naruto but not inclined to move in order to face away. You concentrate on trying to keep open eyes on the verge of closing instead.

"So, I..." His mouth twitches. Movement slight, the corner of one side turns up then down. He takes a breath, looks down at the roll he continues to toss from one hand to the other for a few seconds.

He said something about medicine, you remember, either yesterday or the day before. You lick your lips, think about the acrid taste in your mouth from earlier.

"I left Itachi's body," he says, conversationally, but his glance towards you cuts through the attempt to appear casual.

You blink.

Speaking so candidly, it's a suspicious way to make an admission. If anything, it makes you suspect to what he's not saying.

He fidgets in the silence stretched in the wake of his own words. The roll in his hand crumples in his palm he opens and closes again. "In case you were wondering what happened to him."

Except you weren't.

Aren't.

You couldn't care less if crows picked at the remains of that man's body.

At best, the admission is a roundabout confession to not knowing. Although if it's supposed to be a means to gauge your reaction to Itachi's death, by the most menial standards, it's clumsy, even for someone like Naruto. Worse if he made the assumption you'd allow yourself to be that transparent for anyone again.

(And yet, even now, the failure not to disappoint still clings to you).

He leans forward, arms crossed and propped on top of his legs brushing against the edge of the bed, but the sight of Naruto begins to fade, distorts and blurs until his expression tinged with something you refuse to name finally disappears.

But you don't have to wonder about Itachi anymore.

He's already dead.

"...or anything like that."

...

It's late in the afternoon when you wake again. The sun's still glaring through the curtains pulled closed. The window is slightly ajar, but the bed beneath it is dishevelled and empty.

Ignoring the growl from your stomach, you roll from your back onto your side. You hiss at the sharp flare of pain travelling up your right arm, pressing your tongue against the roof of your mouth. Wincing, you shut your eyes. The metallic taste hasn't gone away yet.

Naruto's probably been giving you the medicine in middle of the night, taking advantage of your less than ideal state while you have no choice but to drop your guard.

There's nothing you can do about it now, although even if you could, there's no reason to if it means not admitting to needing the medicine when your body's still considerably sore despite taking it.

The sound of footsteps is faint but has you turning your head towards the door. You narrow your eyes as the footsteps grow louder then quiet outside the door.

You know it's Naruto. Whether he did it for your sake or not, you sensed him nearby as soon as you woke up. His muffled voice you hear when a key clatters on the floor only confirms it.

He says something again you can't make out. Twice, the lock clicks, followed by the turning of the knob. The door begins to open, nudged with Naruto's foot as he shuffles inside the room. Adjusting a large white paper bag in one arm, he closes the door with his hip, then turns around, using his free hand to lock it.

"Oh." He stops, stares for a while, and grins a little behind the bag covering nearly half of his face. "Good. You're up."

As he walks towards the desk, you turn over on your back.

"Thought you'd be sleeping all day again."

A soft thud and a loud rustling signals Naruto setting down and unpacking the bag.

"I had to pick up some food and some more of your medicine," he says. "You're going to have to eat something eventually, so I tried to get stuff I know you like. The kitchen downstairs, the old lady who owns this place said we can use it. I put food in the refrigerator there, too, but for now I just brought up whatever won't go bad, you know, since that's easier to keep in the room."

There's a series of crackling sounds.

"Like those rice crackers wrapped in seaweed you used to eat all the time. Remember? I got a bunch of those. There's this guy, Hayashi, owns this neat little store right around the corner I went to. We ended up talking for a while, and he gave me a discount because I wanted to buy so much."

The intermittent crackling stops, replaced by his laughter, but it's a soft hum short-lived. "Honestly, I think he was just—well, he said there aren't too many people that come by anymore, so he promised to give me a discount as long as I keep coming back. That's good, right?"

You see him turn around in your peripheral, an indistinct figure suddenly becoming clear when he takes a seat in the chair pulled beside the bed.

"Anyway, what do you want to try first—the rice crackers?" There's a loud pop, then crinkling from the small bag he's holding. "Or do you want something to drink?"

You don't look away from the ceiling, clenching your jaw at your growling stomach this time Naruto hears, too.

"Definitely the rice crackers." He pops one of the crackers into his mouth and begins to chew. Loudly. His brow knits when you don't reach for the open bag he's holding towards you. "This doesn't mean I have to feed you, does it?"

Digging your nails into your palm, you push the bag away.

He sucks his teeth. "You always have to be so—"

"You said," you try to say, the second attempt to speak you've made since you've been here. You inwardly cringe at the nearly unintelligible words that come as a result.

The muscles of your stomach contract as you sit up. Both hands push hard against the bed to keep yourself steady.

"What are you—"

"You said," you try again, but the rasp stuck in your throat is swallowed too late. "You said you left the body."

"That's what you—oh." He shifts in the chair, looks to the ceiling and then back to the bag of rice crackers in his hand. "Yeah, I—you really should eat something, you know. No point in dragging you all the way out here if you're not going to eat anything."

"The body."

"Or drink something, if you're still not up to eat—"

"Where is it?"

"Eat or drink, I don't really care," he says, keeping his voice low through clenched teeth. The bag crackles under the pressure of being wedged in the grip of his fingers. "As long as you do something. You can't not do anything, okay. You just...can't. It's not supposed to work that way."

"Where's—" You breathe through your nose, push away with the back of your hand the hair sticking to the side of your face.

The first two syllables of Itachi's name are the beginnings of a thought you won't finish. You catch yourself before the name becomes a careless slip of the tongue. That body hasn't been Itachi in years. You can't let it become Itachi again.

It's not that you believe he survived.

You were there. You remember falling after him, remember watching the dissolution of years of chasing a single ambition you can't fully claim peak and become shrouded by the body lying unmoving beside you.

But you don't care how or why.

You just want to make sure he's dead.

"Where's the body?"

"It doesn't work that way."

"Where did you leave—"

You jolt when you're slammed into the headboard by the hands seizing your wrists held against the wall.

"And what'd you think you were going to do with Itachi, Sasuke?"

You feel your jaw snap, teeth scraping against the inside of your cheek.

"Drag his body to some cave out in the middle of nowhere? If I didn't come when I did, you could have died out there, o-or somebody else could have found you, and then you'd—"

"Shut up." Twisting your wrists out of his hold, you shove him away, spilling the bag of rice crackers already scattered over the bed onto the floor. "None of this was ever your business. You didn't have a right to bring me—"

"Look, I..." He regains his balance before he stumbles to the floor. After a sigh, he brushes off the crumbs on his shirt. "I left Itachi there, all right," he says, terse, yet it's not enough to completely mask his irritation. "I left him because I had to. But I—when I found you, I was already ahead of Kakashi and the others, so...so if they stopped looking for me, they'll probably take Itachi back to Konoha. Because of the things he said, they'll take care of him."

Your breath hitches. There's a minute sense of apprehension. The possibility of Naruto withholding information you don't know about Itachi evokes the reoccurrence of a doubt still lurking in the back of your mind, but you're not that foolish child you've long since renounced.

"You don't know a damn thing about Itachi. What he did to—"

"Even with all that's going on," he says, voice strained to stay calm, "I really don't know what to believe right now. If there's anything I can believe in anymore. Either way, though, after everything you've done, I think I'm starting to understand it. Why you had to do it. What it means to—"

"What would you know—an orphan like you who never had a family to lose? Don't act like you understand me and what I've been through. You can't understand because you're nothing like me. You're nothing to me."

His mouth he opens just as soon closes. He looks down and scoffs at the floor. "Yeah, I—you're right. I guess I am."

You breathe in, breathe out, lean against the headboard bearing the brunt of your weight.

He grabs a cloak from the bed where he threw it earlier. From the corner of his eye, he spares you another glance. The thin line of his lips stretches taut across his face. "I'll be back."

You don't watch the door open and close behind him.

Your eyes are squeezed too tight. They start to water as you curl and uncurl your fingers around the quilt covering the lower half of your body.

It's darker outside, colder. The window's still slightly ajar, but you can't move. You don't have the energy to leave the bed.

The pain in your side makes you grimace. You almost pierce your lip with your teeth, inhale a breath that takes too long to release. The right side of your upper body is throbbing, almost feels numb, and you squeeze your arm with your left hand.

Hissing, you look for the medicine lying out of reach on top of the desk. You can't find it, don't see anything that looks remotely like it. You wouldn't be able to get it without Naruto anyway, but you don't need him.

You don't need someone pretending to understand you.

He shouldn't even try. Whether you want him to or not, he doesn't. He can't understand. He's not supposed to.

No one is.

...

You don't remember much after Naruto left, although you assume he hasn't been gone long. It's still dark, and the breeze from the window is absent, yet you can't decide if he already came back once before you fell asleep.

There's a click from the other side of the room. A portable lamp on the desk illuminates the silhouette sitting in the chair, blocking the light that hurts your eyes as soon as Naruto moves.

With a groan, you push off your chest the quilt making you too warm.

"Didn't mean to wake you up. Told you I'd be back. I just—" He hisses. "Jeeze, why is this thing still so hot—I just went to the kitchen because I wanted some noodles."

You place your left hand over your forehead. The thin film on your lips leaves a sharp aftertaste from the medicine you couldn't find last night.

"Unless you wanted something, too."

"...why?"

"Hmm?" He makes a slurping noise and smacks his lips.

You blink to stay awake, wait for him to finish.

"Why what?"

"Why did you..."

Your eyelids feel too heavy to keep open. You let them close, listen to Naruto's voice fade in the dark.

He snorts and slurps more noodles. "I need to start slipping you that stuff more often."

...

You dreamed last night.

You think.

Maybe.

If hallucinations count as dreams.

Yet the images seemed familiar, echo like an outline of strange memories from scenes replayed too many times to be simple figments of your imagination.

There was a time when you would dream too much, you remember, a time you left behind, those nights you'd wake to meet the shadows creeping upon the walls. Although they'd disappear with the arrival of dawn, they'd still lie in wait during the day. They followed you unseen, made themselves known despite your eyes closed, but you could still hear them, feel them watching you.

After dusk, they'd hide behind lights that gradually became more compelling to leave on. The shadows teetered just beneath the floor they made quake, from the cracks and crevices they escaped, and swaddled you like a second skin. Voices quiet during the day grew louder, deafening in the stillness of your room.

A silent mantra of a single word you used to fear, taught yourself to hate.

But that name doesn't mean anything anymore.

"Are you going to eat or what?" Naruto says, scooting the chair closer to the bed. His smile is a little too wide, overbearing, especially when he gestures towards the small bowl he holds towards you.

The sight of food doesn't tempt you. The thought of it upsets your already empty stomach.

"It's just dashi," he says, "with some scallions and mushrooms. The old lady says it's good for you. I told her you haven't been able to keep anything down in a while. You know. Since in your case that's the same thing as being stupid about not eating."

Holding your right hand, he places the bowl in your palm, careful not to jar your shoulder. He reaches for your other hand to place around the side of the bowl.

"It's not bad actually." He leans down to blow away steam rising from the soup that simply rises again. "You should try it. I think you'll like it."

You stare at the dashi, at the plastic spoon floating, slowly whirling in the broth. It's not much. The small bowl isn't even filled halfway, but it's probably all you'll be able to tolerate for now.

"There's tea, too. Lotus root with shiso leaves. To make you feel better. If you want some, that is, but the old lady said it'd help make the food go down easier, too."

With both hands, you hold the warm bowl over the towel covering your legs folded on the bed.

"You're going to be okay with that, right?" he says. "I know you're right-handed, but..."

You pick up the spoon with your left hand, dip it into the soup and raise it to your mouth.

"Is it good?"

You peer at him from beneath your eyelashes, blink, then immerse the ladle of the spoon back into the bowl.

"I, uh..." He clears his throat once. Twice. "I guess that means yes."

Apart from the physical aspect of hunger, you don't have much of an appetite, but the meagre amount of soup won't take long to finish. You take your time, however, eat with small, unhurried sips comparatively loud against Naruto unusually quiet sitting next to you.

He taps his foot on the floor, looks down then looks back to you, stares at you.

You tighten you grip on the spoon, pressing hard against the bowl your palm clammy that starts to shake.

Removing the bowl from your lap, Naruto frowns and places it on the desk.

You shiver, squeezing the spoon still in your hand.

"You're starting to look hot again." His frown deepens after he places the back of his hand against your forehead. "This is why I'm trying to get you to—"

"Don't." You push his hand away, draw back when he tries to touch you again. "...stop."

"Your fever's coming back."

"Stop it."

"I'm not doing anything,"

"Stop staring at me."

"I'm trying to make sure you're not—"

"Stop it."

"Sasuke, just let me—"

"Stop it." You hurl the spoon at him, shut your eyes to the loud clatter of the spoon hitting the hardwood floor. "...stop it."

"All right—all right, I'm stopping, okay. I'm stopping. Just..."

Head lowered, you cover your face with your hand, press your back against the wall.

Naruto's still there, you know, still close, still watching. You know he'd be there if you reached for him. You wouldn't have to extend your arm very far, but you don't open your eyes to make sure.

You keep them closed, keep your face covered as you listen to the haggard sounds of your own breathing until you fall asleep.

...

"You're still kind of warm," he says, "but at least it wasn't as bad as it was before. You were kind of out of it yesterday."

Bleary vision reveals the sight of blue eyes above you and far too close to your own. You lean away from the contact, from his hand a cool respite laid against your damp skin.

Naruto stands back.

"Finished with your tea?" Not waiting for an answer, he takes the ceramic mug from your hands, squinting as he tilts it forward to look inside. "Want some more?"

You turn your head to cough into your shoulder, focus your gaze on the bandages around your torso that need to be changed. He doesn't see you flinch.

"Here." Next to the mug he placed on the desk is a smaller plastic cup half full with the water you didn't finish earlier. He picks it up and hands it to you. "Drink some more. You still sound congested."

The cup almost falls out of your left hand, but you down the water before Naruto notices the tremor that passes through your right side. Wet lips you lick still feel chapped when he takes the cup away.

"Want to try eating again?"

You let your head rest against the wall, heave a breath that augments the already growing ache in your chest.

He rakes a hand through his hair, curses under his breath. "Look, you won't get better if you keep trying to make it worse. You have to eat something."

"Where did you—"

"You're still on that?" Frowning, he lets his hand fall to the side and sits in the chair by the bed. "Just because you don't want to eat, all of a sudden you want to talk, is that it?"

You close your eyes, breathe in and breathe out.

Naruto made a point of admitting he left Itachi's body there, presumably where he found you, but he won't confirm where there is. He keeps trying to circumvent the question.

Maybe you're asking the wrong one.

"Why did you bring me here?"

"...what?"

"You heard me."

"Because I..." Leaning back against the chair, Naruto crosses his arms over his chest. He looks away, stares at the window with edges beginning to frost over. "Because I didn't have a choice."

"What choice?"

"I didn't have one. I just knew I had to be the one to find you."

"Why?"

With a sigh, he sits up and bends over. He uncrosses his arms to rest on top of his thighs, hands clasped together.

"Time," he finally says, leaving room for another pause. "I needed more time."

"For what?"

"I already knew it wasn't going to be much." He glances at the window, absently biting his lower lip. "Maybe not enough, but I knew it'd still be something. Something I didn't have before. So I went ahead. Even though Kakashi told me not to, but I wasn't ready for that yet. I didn't want to..."

You grit your teeth. He's still not giving you the answer you want to hear. "Didn't want to what?"

"That's why I had to be the one who found you—don't look at me like that. I needed something to slow them down so I could—"

"So you could what?"

"There wasn't enough time—I didn't have time, okay! It was either find you together or leave Itachi's body there for them to find. But I couldn't—I didn't..." He takes a long breath, rubbing his knuckles against the side of his leg. "I didn't want them to find you, too. Not yet. Not if I still could help it. But Kakashi will take care of it. I know he will, so just...just bear with it until it gets better."

Ignoring the sharp pain from your side, you grab Naruto's shirt. "That's why you left the body there?"

"What do you even care? You already killed him. That was your goal, wasn't it?"

Your fingers curl around the soft material gathered in your hand, yanking Naruto closer.

"What else did you expect, Sasuke, huh?"

Lips pursed, you narrow your eyes.

"Huh? Answer me, Sasuke. What else did you think would happen? Itachi's dead. He's not coming back. He's not—"

An arm reaches around you, holds you up when you begin to hunch forward.

You try to pull yourself up but fall. Laboured breathing aggravates the ache in your chest, makes you clutch at Naruto's shirt because you can't shove him away when he tightens his hold and buries his head on your shoulder.

"I'm sorry, Sasuke."

Warm fingers press against your skin, mindful of the bandages unravelling from your arm.

"I'm sorry," he says again, breathes across your neck. "I'm sorry I had to leave Itachi there."

You stare at the frosted window pane above Naruto's bed, blinking at the sudden wetness on your shoulder. You don't even know why he's apologising.

"I'm sorry I didn't have enough time. I'm sorry I didn't know what else to do."

There's nothing to apologise for.

"I'm sorry, Sasuke."

Itachi's already dead.

"...I'm sorry."