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夏 一

4, June, 1000

Sasuke had been sure that the most boring part of this diplomatic mission to the Sand Village would be the meeting itself. He’d played the role of stenographer for Tsunade in council meetings before and this one would be no different. He had expected to nearly lose his mind cycling between identical conference rooms, taking notes on incredibly dry (ha ha) subject matter, and helping Shizune work the carousel slide projector because technology hated that woman about as much as Sasuke hated Itachi. He’d been half-right.

The meeting had started out fascinating. For one, the passive aggressive sniping and backbiting shoots up dramatically when the council consists of more than two (sometimes three) elderly people who are united in their desire to tell Tsunade she's doing everything wrong. For two, watching Shizune take charge of a room in Tsunade’s stead is bizarrely captivating– she never raises her voice, because she never has to, effortlessly controlling the volume and pace of discussion with a few well-placed words and a disarming smile. For three, Sasuke had no idea how hot-button an issue the Land of Rivers even existing as an independent state is, especially for the trading powerhouse that is his home country and the parched Land of Wind.

But then it had been time to discuss the Chunin Exams. And it just would not do for a genin to be in the room while they went over that. Was Sasuke even going to participate in the exams? He had no idea, the damn thing was a month away! But still. The principal of the thing, you know.

So here Sasuke is, standing out in the hall, arms crossed over his chest and back up against the adobe wall. He glares at the opposite wall, tapping his foot and grinding his teeth. The worst part of this isn’t that the Sand Council didn’t respect his position as Tsunade’s apprentice. It’s not that Shizune didn’t stand up for him nearly as much as she should’ve. It’s not even that there’s no clock out here and Sasuke left his watch at home, leaving him with no idea how long he’s already been waiting.

It’s that Tonton was allowed to stay in the room and he wasn’t.

"She’s not a security risk," Sasuke grumbles to himself, "Nobody’s going to gossip with a pig."


Sasuke turns his shocked jump into a fighting stance, whirling on his heel with Sharingan already blazing to face the voice. They alight upon a… he thinks confused Gaara. For a long moment they stare at each other, waiting for the other to move.

Sasuke takes the hit, shifting back to lean on the wall again as he wheezes, "How did you sneak up on me like that?"

Gaara blinks; "I didn’t."

Sasuke frowns; "What? You did. I didn’t hear you coming, you appeared out of nowhere. What were you doing? Was it Teleportation Jutsu or something?"

Gaara blinks twice; "I walked in."

Sasuke very pointedly says nothing, because he would rather endure thirty seconds of awkward silence than admit to someone he’s not sure is even his acquaintance that he’d been too busy grumbling about pigs to notice their presence.

In the midst of that silence, Gaara blurts out, "Do you want to see my cacti?"

Sasuke stares at him for a moment, then replies, "That… is an incredibly weird question."

Gaara’s gourd ripples; "Does that mean 'no'?"

"It means you’re showing me right now," Sasuke replies, pushing himself up off the wall, "Are we going far?"

Gaara shakes his head, already turning to leave; "No, not very."

Unlike in the Leaf Village, the Kazekage’s residence is in the same building as their administrative office, on the very top floor. Sasuke doesn’t even try to keep himself from looking all around the main room, comparing it against it’s equivalent in the Leaf Village. The rugs covering the stone floor are the only similarity, and even that is like apples and oranges. The rug adorning Tsunade’s floor is diverse in color and pattern, a feast for the eyes filled with images of soaring birds of prey and blooming vines. These rugs are infinitely more modest, woven from goat hair and dyed green when it’s dyed at all. The patterns are an intricate web of geometric shapes that radiate across the rug like the rays of the sun. Sasuke doesn’t need to be an expert to guess they were woven by different tribes.

There are no chairs, no sofas, just cushions of varying sizes arranged around a central hearth made from the same adobe as the walls. The low tables and hanging lamps are made from tarnished brass instead of living wood, forged with the same intricate, interlaced geometric design sensibility as the rugs. On the far wall is a pointed arch-shaped divot in the wall, within which sits a small altar. The altar is the only piece of wooden furniture in the main room, covered with mother of pearl inlay in yet more geometric design. On top of it two brass incense burners sit on either side of a photograph of a woman with blonde hair and Gaara’s sharp cheekbones.

Sasuke’s eyes crawl from the photo to the brass tables. Strewn across them are the ephemera of a lived-in home, from such general signifiers as a forgotten lime-green drink whose ice has nearly melted, to the specifics like a pot of purple face paint and a set of metal tools.

"It hasn’t always looked like this," Gaara suddenly says, as if he knew exactly what was on Sasuke’s mind, "When my father was… Before the exams, this room was a lot cleaner. The cushions are supposed to stay on the edge of the room, the rugs are all crooked, and we…"

Gaara takes a long look at his siblings’ things, then continues in a softer voice, "We didn’t spend much time out here."

Sasuke heard stories about what kind of man the Fourth Kazekage was. He can imagine exactly what this place was like when he was alive. The main room was a space for guests of the Kazekage, not for family. The children were never to leave their rooms except to dart quietly out the front door, and lived separate lives as the older two cowered in fear of their youngest brother. The girl (because that is, without a doubt, what the Fourth Kazekage must have called her in mixed company) was allowed to leave if the help was indisposed, but only to cook and serve. If anything was out of place, and the Kazekage would know if anything was, there would be consequences.

Sasuke shoves his hands in his pockets; "Why do you guys still live here?"

"We’re allowed to stay until the new Kazekage is chosen," Gaara replies, crouching down to slip a coaster underneath the green drink, "It’s easier for the Council to keep track of me if I live above their chambers. And Temari and Kankuro…"

Another long pause from Gaara. He spends this one staring through one of the porthole windows.

"I don’t think it’s nostalgia," Gaara murmurs, "I don’t think things were better before our mother died. I think… they see leaving this house and all it’s… memories behind as letting our father win."

Gaara’s room sits on the north side of the house. Nearly every flat surface is covered in potted cacti who merrily soak up the desert sun pouring through the window. On a table to one side is a large fish tank, lovingly decorated with rock formations and aquatic plants, in which a little goldfish is swimming to and fro. A piece of lined paper taped to the tank reads, "Sushi. Feed twice daily. Keep water between 68˚–74˚."

There are an impressive variety of succulents, many of which Sasuke has never even seen pictures of before. He drifts from pot to pot with Gaara shuffling a foot behind him, quietly telling him both the scientific and common names of the plants. There are little round cacti covered in inch-long spines with bright yellow flowers ("Ferocactus cylindraceus, or desert barrel cactus"), tall cylindrical cacti with coats of shaggy white hair ("Cephalocereus senilis, or old man cactus"), tiny cacti dwarfed by their own bright red flowers ("Rebutia miniscula, that one doesn’t have a common name"), branching cacti with pad-like stems ("Opuntia microdasys, or… bunny cactus"), and dozens more.

"You’re gonna need your own greenhouse soon," Sasuke remarks, "Unless you plan on putting some on your bed."

Gaara considers that for a moment before shrugging one shoulder; "You can take some with you when you leave. Some of them produce chemicals good for medicines and poisons. And it’s likely we’ll be kicked out of here soon. Wherever we can afford on our mission pay probably won’t have enough room for me to house them all, so I should start finding them new homes."

Sasuke frowns over at Gaara; "They’ve passed you over for Kazekage?"

Another one-shouldered shrug from Gaara; "Not exactly. They’ve dusted off an old law meant to take effect if there was insurmountable conflict within the council over who to appoint. It calls for the organization of a public vote. Any currently serving shinobi of chunin rank or above may campaign for the position, and any ninja of genin rank or above or civilian sixteen years old or older is eligible to vote so long as they’re a citizen. The fact that they legally can’t pass me over if I’m alive and willing to take the position but don’t want me assuming it apparently counts as conflict insurmountable enough for them to do this."

Sasuke scowls at one of the taller, skinnier cacti; "So instead of just rejecting you outright they’re setting you up to fail."

Gaara nods; "They know it will be… difficult for me to sway the public to my side. I will first need to perform so well in the upcoming chunin exams that even in the face of the disaster last year and my well-deserved bad reputation the council has no choice but to promote me. And as for the campaign itself, Temari and Kankuro have explained to me many times that sound policy doesn’t count for very much when your character is in doubt."

Sasuke nods to himself, blinks a few times, then turns to shoot a bewildered look at Gaara; "Wait a minute, sound policy? You… This isn’t a Naruto thing? You actually– What kind of policy are you talking about?"

Gaara’s voice is even and calm as he explains, "For one, fixing our relationship with the nomadic tribes. In the past the daimyō would use us to harass and cow them into accepting him as their sovereign, and when they won an amount of autonomy the daimyō and Third Kazekage decided to instead instate a law that barred us from accepting any mission requests from autonomous tribes since, technically speaking, they’re not citizens of the Land of Wind. The autonomous tribes are the people who need our protection the most, moving through the desert with valuable herds of goats and other animals makes you a target for bandits, yet we aren’t allowed to provide them with it. Then there’s the fact that our most common and lucrative missions to 'protect' water sources usually are a smokescreen for us keeping that water source exclusive to our employer, which–"

"Okay," Sasuke cuts in, waving a hand, "Okay. You’ve… actually put a lot of thought into this."

Gaara cocks his head a single degree to the side; "Why would I not? The Kazekage’s post is a serious responsibility, one my father abused. I don’t understand how someone could go after it without understanding the issues they’re going to be facing."

Sasuke’s memory conjures the image of Naruto going pale with terror when confronted with any of the bureaucratic realities of being Hokage. How indeed.

Gaara’s face twitches in a strange, aborted attempt at a frown; "And I… As a ninja in the field, I can protect myself. My sand protects me, and only me. If I become the Kazekage, I can use the power of the office to… extend that protection. But it won’t be worth much if I don’t know what I’m protecting people from."

Sasuke takes a long look at Gaara, watching him fidget in place, the sand shell of his gourd rippling like a pond in a rainstorm. He doesn’t need to ask what Gaara thinks his chances of winning are.

Sasuke’s brow furrows and he asks, "If your odds are so bad, why are you running?"

Gaara purses his lips and remains silent. He pads over to the fish tank, watching the gold fish glide around the water. He checks the clock on the wall, then pulls a tin of fish food from a desk drawer and sprinkles it into the tank. The fish gobbles it up, Gaara watching attentively to make sure it finishes every bite.

"I may not win," Gaara remarks, "But… I spoke to Naruto, on the day of Lady Tsunade’s inauguration. He was of the opinion that trying counts for something, even if you don’t achieve the exact result you want. I will still be a ninja after this election, whether or not I’m Kazekage. If through this campaign I convince even one of my peers or our civilian charges that these issues are important, if my efforts result in more people that are alive and safe, then I will be satisfied."

He turns to Sasuke with a smile that’s more in his eyes than his mouth; "And, well, Temari and Kankuro have appointed themselves my campaign managers. They’re much better at communicating with people than I am."

Sasuke smiles to himself. If Gaara can raise a goldfish in the middle of the desert, there’s no question he’ll become Kazekage.

23, July, 1000

Sakura’s in the middle of moving a shipment of rice to the storerooms when she remembers it’s Sasuke’s birthday.

She drops the bag of rice on her foot.

The pain does nothing to shock her back into survival mode. All she can think about is being thirteen years old and so excited as she spun on her stool in Ichiraku, presenting Sasuke with a tantō she’d saved up weeks of D-Rank mission pay to have custom made. Her cheeks had burned with pride as Sasuke looked at just the box in awe, because even he had forgotten that it was his birthday. Naruto had loudly lamented not knowing and not having a chance to buy a gift of his own. Kakashi had spent the whole dinner looking on in amusement, eye crinkled at the corner the only evidence of his smile.

Sakura grabs the rice and hauls it frantically to the storeroom so she can shut the door behind herself and press her hands into her eyes. She breathes in shuddering gasps. Trying to force her mind away from home is having the exact opposite effect. Dinner at Ichiraku on Sasuke’s birthday flows into her mother braiding her hair and Sasuke and Naruto adjusting to her father’s old yukata in her living room on the day of Tsunade’s inauguration, which flows into her and Sasuke laughing in her hospital room after midnight over the absurdity of her being matched up against Gaara, and it’s a never-ending stream of white water rapids that drags her under and smashes her hard against the rocks.

She’s fourteen but she feels seven years old, sobbing like the academy girls from minor clans are making fun of her for her forehead. The intensity of the flood of emotion makes articulating it all in an eloquent, mature way impossible.

Because it isn’t eloquent. It isn’t mature. She’s scared and she’s cold and she’s hungry and she wants to go home.

She wants her mom. She wants Kakashi. She wants Danzo to send her a message saying she’s done enough and she’s allowed to go home. She wants a grown-up, any grown-up, to sweep in and take her home. She wants to be wrapped in a blanket and given a mug of hot chocolate and told she can cry for as long as she wants.

But this is Sound. And she can’t cry here.

Practicality draws her back. She keeps repeating to herself, over and over again, that if someone catches her not doing her job that will draw suspicion from Orochimaru and Kabuto. If they see her getting homesick, they’ll doubt her commitment. If they doubt her commitment, they’ll doubt her motives. If they doubt her motives, they’ll start unraveling all her other lies, and then she’ll be dead. If she’s dead, Sasuke is at risk. Naruto is at risk. The village and everyone who lives in it is at risk.

Too much is riding on her ability to keep her shit together. That thought almost sets her off again.

Sakura forces herself to take deep breaths and hisses, "You have rice to move, get it together and move it."

Sakura storms out of the storeroom and stomps back the way she came. It takes every ounce of focus she has to push herself forward, putting one foot in front of the other, all the while keeping her mind on the moment and not how much she misses the taste of her mother’s yakisoba. This single-minded focus almost puts her directly in the line of fire. She doesn’t notice the saké cup flying through the open door until it whizzes just past the tip of her nose. It shatters against the wall behind her and Sakura can’t suppress a shocked yelp. Her arms fly up to shield her eyes from any ceramic shrapnel.

Sakura has barely recovered from the shock when she gets another; "Ha! I don’t know what’s worse, your reflexes or my aim!"

Sakura, for a moment, can only blink. That cannot be who she thinks it is drunkenly slurring through that sentence. She turns to look through the open door.

Sakura had been vaguely aware there was a wine cellar of some sort down here with the rest of the provision storage, and through the door she sees tens of thousands of saké bottles on shelves that go up to the ceiling and recede into darkness. Orochimaru is reclined loosely against the shelf directly across from the door, an empty bottle and several cups scattered at his side. His paper-white skin makes Orochimaru’s drunken flush all the brighter. Through his hair, far stringier and greasier today than Sakura’s yet seen it, his gold eyes make a concentrated effort to stay locked on her.

He wags his chin towards the shelf; "Make yourself useful for once. Get me another bottle."

Sakura has no idea how to play this, so she lamely stammers, "I-I was in the middle of moving the rice shipment–"

This time she has ample time to see Orochimaru pick up one of the two remaining saké cups and fling it at her forehead. She catches it out of the air and chokes down a scowl, as well as the urge to chuck it right back at him.

"I gave you an order," Orochimaru snarls, "Get in here."

Sakura reluctantly does. Despite being legally allowed to drink since she graduated, Sakura knows absolutely nothing about alcohol. Her mother would kill her if she touched the stuff before she turned twenty. As she pretends to scan the shelves for an appropriate bottle of saké she weaves a subtle genjutsu over her face to hide her bloodshot eyes and blotchy cheeks. Even like this, she can’t let Orochimaru know she’s been crying. Sakura plucks a random bottle out of the shelf and hands it to him.

Orochimaru takes it and snorts; "Feeling homesick, little flower?"

Sakura’s heart almost stops; "What?"

He turns the bottle around so she can read the label. It’s emblazoned with the Leaf Village’s symbol. Sakura reads the fine print and finds it’s brewed by some minor clan within the village walls. Sakura sucks back her sigh of relief.

For once, honesty will benefit her; "Speaking frankly, Sir, I picked the bottle without looking at it."

Orochimaru rolls his eyes; "Of course you did. Civilian like you, probably haven’t even tasted a drop of the stuff. Not that the taste is even the point but," Orochimaru cuts himself off with a long swig straight from the bottle. Why did he even bring the cups?

Sakura should probably be taking this moment to quietly excuse herself, but all she can do is stare down at Orochimaru. There are deep bags under his eyes, and now that he’s stopped teasing her and is just examining the label on the bottle his mouth has fallen into a sour scowl. There’s a faraway look in his eyes, like through looking at the Leaf symbol he can see all the way to the village.

"Figures," Orochimaru grumbles, "Even in the former Land of Rice Paddies nobody can manage to make a better bottle of saké than the Gekkei Clan. I think this bottle’s older than I am. That’s a feat all on it’s own."

Is… Is he the one who’s homesick?

Sakura almost asks, but quickly pivots before the words can get all the way out of her mouth; "Are– I-I mean, if we’re comparing you to alcohol, you’re not that old. There’s wines made a hundred years ago that still haven’t finished aging."

Orochimaru doesn’t throw another cup at her, instead just arching a brow and slurring, "Really. I feel like I’ve spent a hundred years trapped in a barrel. You think I’m this pale naturally? Nope, comes from spending every goddamn day underground. Just watch. You’re gonna go from blushing petal pink to white just as fast, that’s a fact."

Sakura doesn’t know what to say. Usually Orochimaru’s jokes lean more on the 'dark humor' and 'bad' side of the spectrum. 'Self-deprecation' isn’t something she thought he had in him.

Orochimaru takes another pull and continues, his consonants melting into each other, "Tha’s prob’ly why Kabuto’s plotting 'gainst me. Y’let chil’ren spend time in the sun and sudd’ly they’re too good for your hole in the ground."

Sakura shoves herself back into character and forces her eyes to go wide, sputtering, "He’s what?! Kabuto would n–"

"Don’t," Orochimaru snaps, glaring up at her, "You’re too smart t’play dumb. You’ve got to be a li’l bit dumb yourself to put au-then-ticity into th’ performance. Y’ve seen it just ’s well ’s I have. He made sure to play the middleman for the Sound 4, makin’ sure I wouldn’ know you were on th’ way 'stead of Sasuke ’til y’were already here. Same for the secur’ty cameras and the wiretaps. Either he thinks I don’ notice his clever li’l edits or he just doesn’ give a shit anymore."

Sakura purses her lips and lets a tiny bit of honesty leak through; "Well… He’s constantly telling me about how everyone in the Sound Village is out for themselves, so… I don’t think he gave a shit to begin with."

Orochimaru throws his head back and cackles, "Of course! Of course he’s trying t’use wha’ever you’re really here to do to his 'dvantage! Clever, clever, oh so fuckin' clever, why the fuck do I keep taking clever children?! I was a clever child, I know what you’re like but no I never learn!"

Sakura puts on her best indignant frown and lies, "I wasn’t lying to you about why I came here."

"'Course you weren’t, like I said, you’re smart," Orochimaru grouses, rolling his eyes as he rolls his neck, "You know how t’hide a lie by reframin' the truth around it. That way y’can stick to the true parts of your story when you’re un’er pressure and steer questionin' t’avoid the lies. Are y’here t’gain power and knowledge? Certainly. D’you have a chip on your shoulder so deep it should sever your arm from your torso? Absolutely. But…"

Orochimaru peers up at her, gaze still sharp and calculating through the haze of alcohol; "The day I met you, first thing I learned 'bout you ’s you were willing to blindly sacrifice yourself for Sasuke. That kind of love… it can be twisted, it can be tainted, but y’can’t get rid of it. Not without cutting out your heart."

Sakura’s brow doesn’t even start furrowing before Orochimaru scoffs, "I know that look. How does this old snake know anything about love? Trust me, I know enough. I know ’s a fucking scream-yourself-awake-nightmare that keeps randomly poppin’ in to throw you off your axis when you need it least."

He lets the bottle drop from his hand so he can run both through his hair with a heavy sigh before mumbling to himself, "T’Hell with her and Kato and Jiraiya and the whole fucking thing."

Sakura stares at him, arms hanging loose at her sides.

Slowly, she asks, "Sir… Are you… alright?"

Orochimaru extracts his hands from his hair. He stares silently at the open door for a long moment.

"That’s my business, Sakura," he mutters, "Not yours."

Sakura doesn’t say anything. She settles down next to Orochimaru and pours saké into the two cups. She takes one for herself and holds the other out to Orochimaru. It takes him a couple tries, but he plucks it out of her hand.

He raises the glass with a lopsided grin and unfocused eyes; "Kanpai."

Orochimaru tosses back the shot and Sakura pours hers back into the bottle while his eyes are closed.

5, August, 1000


The whole table knocks back their drinks. Sasuke immediately regrets it. He thought he could handle the burn, he’s had literal fire coming up his throat since he was eight, but no, no this is uniquely terrible. He is absolutely still too proud to admit that. Thankfully saké comes in small doses, and Sasuke swallows the whole thing before coughing up a puff of smoke and surreptitiously pushing his glass over to Kakashi.

Kakashi chuckles and leans in to mutter in his ear, "Yeah, that’s about how my first drink after making chunin went too."

"This a terrible tradition," Sasuke gripes, "How is this a reward?"

"You’ve got me," Kakashi replies with an easy shrug, "From the looks of some of your friends it’s not even their first drink."

Ino and Kiba are taking a commanding lead, as they always do when alcohol makes it’s way into the conversation. Sasuke starts counting the minutes until one or both of them has to go vomit. Tenten and Neji are sipping modestly at their drinks and pretending for Gai’s sake that they’re the first they’ve ever had. Lee, Hinata, Shino and Choji have followed Sasuke’s lead and let either their friends or sensei take the alcohol out from under their noses.

Sasuke leans over to Shikamaru on his other side and wonders, "Did Ino keep her hair short so she wouldn’t need anyone to hold it back?"

Shikamaru smirks over at him and elbows him in the ribs; "You and Ino are on ribbing terms now? What did I miss during the exams?"

Sasuke rolls his eyes; "Me getting a crash course in field stomach pumps. People kept trying to poison Choji and accidentally hitting Ino instead because they didn't distinguish between his food and our food. You’d think it’d be common sense that a clan that eats to fight is immune to sixty-five percent of ingestible poisons but the Rock ninja just couldn’t get enough of that low-hanging fruit."

Shikamaru’s brows hop up; "Huh. Then yeah, she probably did."

He bumps Sasuke with his shoulder and continues around a bite of his short ribs, "Thanks for looking after them, by the way. I know they’re pains in the ass, but they’re my pains in the ass, so…"

Ino spills over onto Shikamaru’s shoulder with a cackle of, "Aaaawwwwww! Were you worried about us, Shikamaru?!"

"Of course I was," he drones, "If you died out there I would’ve been obligated by clan alliances to ruin fifteen years of peace with Rock and start the Fourth Shinobi World War. And that would’ve been an even bigger pain in the ass than dealing with you every day."

"I can’t tell you how much it means to me to hear you say hanging out with me is less annoying than World War Four," Ino sighs, "It really warms my heart. Truly."

"Gotta love that Will of Fire camaraderie," Asuma sighs, glancing longingly at the No Smoking sign on the wall.

"Hey," Kiba calls out, raising his glass again, "Another toast! To Gaara, for making chunin and being one step closer to the Kazekage’s hat! If he can be the youngest Kage in history, then so can I!"

Only about half the table toasts this time, and Sasuke cranes his neck around to ask Hinata, "How many of these should we expect?"

Hinata shrugs a shoulder with a smile and replies, "P-probably around four or five, depending on when he finally blacks out."

"I’m curious, Sasuke," Kurenai remarks, resting her chin on her steepled hands, "Now that you’re a chunin, will you start a hospital residency or stay in the field?"

Sasuke blinks, pausing in the middle of plucking some beef tongue off the grill; "Uhm."

Tenten snorts; "Come on, this is Sasuke. We know better than to ask him about any goals with a term longer than the end of the week."

Sasuke frowns at her and shoots back with a mouth full of barbecued meat, "I have long-term goals, Tenten."

"Yeah, but the term on those is usually someday," she retorts, stealing a bit of pork belly he’d been saving, "Also they’re gloomy and serious and no fun to talk about so they don’t count."

Sasuke just scowls and activates his Sharingan to help him snatch the pork belly right out of Tenten’s chopsticks.

Tenten’s jaw drops; "You–! Motherfucker you better not–!"

Sasuke shoves the pork belly in his mouth without breaking eye-contact.

Tenten gets up onto her heels to reach across the table and smack Sasuke on the back of the head; "You asshole! First you steal my place as Tsunade’s apprentice now you steal my food?! What’s next, my boyfriend?!"

"Language, Tenten," Gai and Lee chorus in perfect affronted harmony.

"Please," Ino scoffs, "Sasuke and Neji wouldn’t last a week."

Shino nods and rasps in a voice permanently damaged by smoke inhalation, "It’s like if you have two queen bees in a hive, one of them would kill the other before too long."

Neji’s brow furrows; "What? Sasuke and I get along fine."

Tenten leans hard on his side, sneaking a piece of liver from Neji’s plate; "It’s different when you’re dating."

Neji narrows his eyes and swipes it back; "No it isn’t. The only significant difference between our relationship before we started dating and after is the amount of time we spend alone."

Tenten stares at him, unimpressed; "Really. All the making out isn’t significant."

Neji immediately goes bright red and Tenten collapses into giggles.

Ino slaps Lee on the shoulder to get his attention and points at his teammates; "How the Hell did that even happen before Naruto pulled Neji’s head out of his ass?"

Lee contemplates that question for longer than it deserves before answering, "To be perfectly honest, I do not know. I did not know it was happening until it had been happening for a month."

Kiba’s hand goes up in the air and everyone groans as he shouts, "Another toast! To Sakura! Because if that mission to get her back hadn’t gone so fuckin’ badly, none of us would’ve trained this hard to prove ourselves! We’re comin’ for you, Sakura!"

Sasuke can suddenly feel every eye on him like a red welt on his skin. He toasts Kiba with his water and takes a gulp. Everyone goes back to conversation, but it’s like a spotlight is shining on his seat the way everyone keeps fidgeting in place, eyes downcast as they flicker toward him then quickly away. Sasuke quickly finds he has to make a concentrated effort to keep his face at least neutral. Even Kakashi’s posture has stiffened and he’s making nervous askance glances, like he thinks Sasuke’s about to have some kind of sobbing meltdown.

Sasuke drums his fingers on the table. These people are his friends. Friends are supposed to know you. They should know that one little mention of Sakura isn’t going to send him spiraling, especially not when he’s having a good night, when he’s enjoying himself. It’s like he’s eight years old again and coming back to class for the first time after the massacre to a gaggle of anxious children walking on eggshells around him. He wants to get up and leave, go to the bathroom for a bit or pop out into the alley and take a breath, but then everyone will think he’s off crying his eyes out over Sakura, and the last thing he wants is to give them even more reason to pity him–

Sasuke is shocked out of his reverie by a napkin, folded into the shape of a shuriken, hitting him in the chest.

He follows it’s trajectory to meet Choji’s eyes. He wags his head in the direction of the door to their private room. Sasuke’s brow furrows, but he gives him a shallow nod.

After a few more moments, Choji gets up with a mutter to Ino and Asuma about heading off to the bathroom. Sasuke waits ten more heartbeats before excusing himself with the same line. He follows Choji to the restroom and finds him in front of the sinks, fiddling with his hands like Hinata.

"You looked like you were gonna burst into flames in there," Choji remarks, "You alright?"

"I was," Sasuke snaps, "But then everyone started looking at me all concerned just because Kiba mentioned Sakura, like I was gonna break down in public over it or something, and I–!"

Choji’s eyes go wide and he cuts in, "Wait– You thought everyone was looking at you?"

Sasuke’s train of thought hits a mountainside and crashes.

Choji shakes his head; "You– You’re hopeless, that’s what you are. Ino’s been calling you that since the Forest of Death last year but I’m only really now getting it. Do you–? Did you think you and Naruto were the only people on that mission or–?"

Choji frowns at the mirror and mutters, "Actually, I read the mission reports, I know that’s exactly what you thought."

Sasuke opens his mouth. No words come out.

Choji lets his head hang with a sigh; "This isn’t what I wanted to talk about… I’d just wanted to thank you for being our third in the chunin exams…"

Sasuke pulls a hand up to rub at the back of his neck; "It’s nothing, Choji. It’s not like there was anyone else–"

"There was," Choji cuts in, meeting Sasuke’s eyes, "There always is. Every year there’s dozens of career genin trying to get out of that ditch. Ino almost wanted to go with one of them, said it’d be better training for us to run with someone we don’t know instead of you, but… I wasn’t gonna do it without you."

Sasuke’s train of thought finds itself derailed once again, careening off a cliff and into the sea.

"… Huh?"

Choji’s hands and voice are shaking now; "I… You know what I had to do during the Sakura Retrieval Mission, right?"

Sasuke remembers his stomach flipping as he read that part of the mission report and he hoarsely replies, "Yeah."

"I didn’t… I don’t know if I… I wasn’t sure if I could trust myself," Choji whispers, "I needed someone to be there if I choked in a fight, or if Ino got hurt even worse than during the mission, and you… You’re a medic. You’re getting scary good at taijutsu. You were the only choice. So… Maybe Ino was right, maybe having you around was kind of a crutch, but–"

"Choji, I know more than I should about crutches," Sasuke interrupts, crossing his arms over his chest, "I know if you need one, it’s because without it you can’t walk. We both got promoted, so objectively you did better than great, you did amazing. If I was a crutch, at least I was one that worked."

Choji doesn’t respond with words. He responds by walking up to Sasuke and brusquely pulling him into the biggest, tightest bear hug he’s ever received. Sasuke freezes for a moment, eyes going wide. Once the moment passes, he struggles to free one of the arms Choji pinned to his side. When he finally wriggles it loose, he brings it around to awkwardly pat his back.

"Yeah, yeah, I get it," Sasuke chokes out, "If we keep this up for much longer everyone’s gonna steal the last helpings on the barbecue, you know."

"Yeah, I know," Choji mutters into Sasuke’s shoulder, "There is, and I don’t say this kind of thing lightly, more to life than food."