Sasuke wakes up around noon on the day of the wedding covered in sweat. He rolls over on his cheap motel bed, thinking maybe he’ll just ignore it and fall back asleep.
He’s never been particularly good at ignoring things, though. Summers in Konoha are always an ordeal, but this one has been especially miserable—there’s nowhere else for the heat to go and so it settles, laying over the village like a hot, wet blanket.
Naruto says the wedding won’t stop for anything—not for the weather, not for the entire shinobi world. Sasuke believes he means it, wholeheartedly.
After a few minutes of tossing and turning on his stiff mattress he sighs and kicks off his remaining bedsheet. Even the fitted sheets are damp with sweat and, when he feels like it, will probably need to be washed again.
The view from his grimy little window is grisly—the skies are bright and blue and the streets are packed. Foreigners in their grubby travel clothes hurry alongside locals in their formalwear, while merchants line the streets hawking tacky trinkets and bottles of water that are probably close to boiling.
He closes the curtains but knows the heat will still manage to percolate through, cooking the inside of his motel room. The window is shut and going to stay shut, though.
Even if there’s only a single person in Konoha even capable of challenging him in a fight, there’s more than enough of them willing to annoy him.
The motel room has no air conditioning and the fan is more for show than anything else—he flips the switch and the fan groans, spinning lethargically once, twice, before Sasuke flips the switch again and turns it off. All it’s ever been good for is moving hot air around.
He grabs the black yukata he’d bought two days before and shakes it out, laying it on the bed before walking into the bathroom. His mother would be mad about that, he thinks. Mad about the wrinkles in it, in the balled up receipt still tucked into his collar.
We aren’t just ourselves, Sasuke, she’d told him once. We represent the clan.
Sasuke isn’t going to think about that. He’s not going to think about a lot of things—not the wedding, not his mother, and not Naruto’s damned social climbing. He lets himself orbit the ideas instead, never quite ignoring them but letting every disruptive thought push them further away from his conscious mind.
Sasuke twists the shower knobs and thinks about how he ought to have an iron to get rid of the wrinkles in his yukata, then thinks about how useless it’d be to buy an iron he’d only need to use once.
He drops his sweaty tank top and shorts on the off-white bathroom tiles and again considers washing his sheets. From the other side of the wall he hears a loud squeal and several clunky sets of footsteps, and decides it’ll just have to wait for another day.
Steam from the shower fills up the closet-sized bathroom and he thinks about how there are two different kinds of night sweats: the kind that comes from the heat, and the kind that comes from nightmares. He thinks about how they each have a different smell.
He’s beginning to think that the heat is so exhausting that it’s hard to even have nightmares anymore.
He turns off the shower. The steam doesn’t so much dissipate as much as it lingers, mixing with the already hot, humid air in his bedroom.
Sasuke looks back down at his cheap yukata and sighs.
He plans to wait until after Naruto’s wedding to start drinking.
It’s probably a terrible day for a wedding anyway, but it’s not like he’s an expert on weddings. He lets his yukata hang a little looser than is typical, looser than his mother would have allowed, but within minutes of leaving his motel room there’s already sweat prickling in the palm of his remaining hand and under the dark sleeves of his robe.
It’s an inescapable kind of misery; the air is thick and the people on the street trap the heat between them, spitting out more hot air every time they open their mouths. There’s friction every time he bumps shoulders with one of them and keeps walking, static with every swish of their garishly bright dresses.
Konoha is so full sometimes that he’s nearly sick of it. Sometimes the air feels dense enough that he can close his fist and wring water and secrets out of the air, so full of moisture that the smallest spark of chidori could bring the entire village down.
(The close, suspicious way that the other people on the street watch him makes him think he might not be the only one who has considered it.)
The civilians on the street kick up dust from the road as they walk, dry, chalky dust that clings to the backs of his sweaty calves and his open-toed shoes. Those who aren’t dressed for the wedding are dressed in as little as possible to stay cool. Girls pass him in loose tank-tops with no mesh armor beneath them, bared shoulders and navels.
There’s a use for days like this, Sasuke thinks, because he’s dealt with them before—it’s a good day to train in the dry shady corners of the Forest of Death, or to swim under the waterfalls just out of town. It’s a good day to linger on Naruto’s back porch, legs dangling off of the balcony while they work their way to the bottom of a cooler full of melting popsicles, waiting for a breeze while Sakura lectures them both about eating nothing but sugar. Any of those would be fine with him, he thinks, because it’s a good day to do nothing-in-particular.
It is not, however, a good day for a wedding.
Still, not once does he contemplate simply not going; Sasuke is not an Uchiha, but the Uchiha, the only one left to give the name any sort of meaning. In nineteen years, he’s given it enough meanings that nineteen more years probably won’t remedy it.
Coward will not be one of them. He hates the idea of it, but he refuses to be afraid.
He will go to the wedding.
Sasuke will go to the wedding, because the wedding will happen whether or not he goes to it.
He will go to the wedding, and as soon as the wedding is over he can leave to drown the memory of it in the strongest, shittiest sake he can find. It’s as simple as that. It’s all incredibly simple once he breaks it down.
He’ll bow his head. There’ll be a short prayer, a few quick comments, and then he can look up again. He knows it all down to the earliest second he can leave.
In a way it almost feels like he’s cheating the consequences; as much as he’s tried not to, he’s thought about the wedding so much that he’s almost more exhausted than sick of it. Repetition ought to make him numb to it, he thinks—he should only be able to watch the same broken nightmare so many times before it starts to lose its power over him.
He believes this, even if it hasn’t happened yet.
There’ll be a time to speak, a time where Kakashi says he ought to speak, but Sasuke has no intention of giving speeches to anyone, regardless of what his duties are.
He is, of course, Naruto’s best man.
In his mind, there’s no one better.
He holds his head high when he walks into the banquet hall and imagines his cheekbones are made of stone, his jaw bound shut with wire. The back of his robe is already soaked through but he ignores it—he endures it.
It is, he has to admit, a good venue for a wedding—the wooden floors are so polished that they glow under his feet. It’s more high-brow, more traditional, than he can ever imagine Naruto choosing by himself.
(Naruto is the one thing he could never second guess, and yet he wonders—how long can Naruto live like this before it changes him?)
Guests clear out of his way when he passes through the lobby and towards the back patio, giving him a wide berth. Their eyes still linger on him, though, either wary or curious.
Maybe, he thinks, even excited—wondering what kind of show it’ll be this time, what kind of disaster he has planned.
The best he can hope for is that he leaves them disappointed.
(It’s what Itachi would want, he thinks—he’d want them to realize their opinions are wrong, and he’d want Sasuke to be the one to prove it to them.)
He’s early—not because he intends to be, but because there’s no alternative. He either goes to the wedding, or he waits, alone in his stuffy motel room, until it’s time for the wedding.
He’s early, but there’s already something of a crowd assembled on the back patio. Some faces are ones he recognizes, but a majority aren’t. Very few shinobi talk to him anymore—very few trust him or like him or bother at all with the pretense of tolerating him.
At the center of the gathering - at its heart - is Naruto.
As always, Naruto’s grin is instantaneous when he sees him. “Sasuke, you bastard! Picking up Kakashi’s habits, huh?” It’s obnoxious and so innately him: Naruto lets his heart lead, throws out the first feeling to strike him, no matter what it is. No time to hesitate or second-guess himself, not a second to refine or perfect what comes out of his mouth.
And yet—it’s still his own kind of perfect. Who would ever want to change that?
Naruto waves until Sasuke finally nods back, waves even when the wide sleeves of his yukata slide down his arm. He doesn’t seem to care in the least that he looks absolutely ridiculous, absolutely out of place. “You sure took your damn time getting here! Always gotta be fashionably late, huh?”
There’s a perfect gravity between them; before Sasuke even responds Naruto is already walking towards him, the conversation behind him already forgotten.
(Is Naruto as aware of it as he is? Does Naruto really understand what it means?)
“Idiot.” It doesn’t feel like enough, though, and so he adds, “I’m still early. You’re the one who’s always late.”
Naruto waves his comments off and jerks his head back towards the perfectly manicured ornamental hedges and pruned rose bushes behind him. He’s beautiful—his bare forearms tanned and rough like sandpaper, speckled with waxy scars and ruddy sun spots, uneven tan lines and smatterings of freckles.
“You gotta see this place, Sasuke! I bet if I showed up here even five years ago they wouldn’t have let me in! And now I’m having my wedding here!”
Naruto nods and kicks at grass that’s probably more fine than any haircut he’s ever had in his lifetime. His voice dips; it isn’t secretive exactly, but it lacks his usual confidence. “It’s pretty fancy, huh? I probably couldn’t have even afforded it myself but, ah, Hinata’s dad helped out a lot, and he said he wanted it somewhere nice like this, y’know?”
He doesn’t know, but he isn’t surprised to hear it either.
It’s Naruto, though, and he perks back up almost immediately. “But, ah, let me walk you around a little, okay?”
Sasuke swallows words like lead and follows Naruto blindly, mutely, swerving around servers while Naruto babbles, spilling an unrelenting onslaught of information Sasuke can only barely process.
It’s been almost eight years and still nothing has changed: Sasuke doesn’t even need to think before his feet move, taking him to wherever Naruto is.
“—eggshell, and ivory? I thought she was joking with me! I said, Hinata! They all look exactly the same!”
Despite his earlier hesitance, Naruto is able to fall somewhat haphazardly into smalltalk. It’s all new to him, Sasuke thinks. It’s Naruto’s first bite at affluence, his first attempt to fit into polite society.
It’s inherently, unbearably wrong.
“So what do you think, huh?” Naruto’s walking backwards, his arms spread behind him. Like he thinks he can hold the entire world, the whole sky. When he looks like that, it’s hard to believe he couldn’t.
Sasuke shrugs. “It’s fine.”
“What!” Naruto scrunches his nose. “Oh, I see. You’re gonna be all cool and aloof today, huh?” He pauses a moment but then grins slyly, like he thinks he’s found a way to get under his skin. “You’re not worried about me being cooler than you, are you?” Naruto grins wider, leans in closer—maybe too close. “Because hey, maybe I really am now!”
Sasuke shakes his head. If it were just a popularity contest, Sasuke knows he isn’t coming anywhere but deadlast. It’s not, though, and the fact that Naruto doesn’t even seem to be aware of it—
“Hey! Sasuke, Naruto!” Sakura is standing by the patio entrance, arms full of wrapped boxes and hanging gift bags. She smiles, then rearranges her load to wave at them both. Even with her arms full she looks relaxed, fresh-faced. Like she isn’t even bothered by the heat.
He nods once at her and Naruto, like a kid distracted by a new toy, is already by her side.
“Sakura! Those all can’t be from you!” He cups his chin and bends over to look at the boxes, his eyes squinting. “… But are they?”
Sakura rolls her eyes and huffs, shifting her feet and her grip on the boxes. “Obviously this isn’t all from me, Naruto! The hospital staff wanted too—I mean, since you’re practically always bugging me at work now, they wanted to pitch in and get you and Hinata a few gifts. At least, the idea was just to get a few things… And of course they sent me over with all of them, so…”
“Well it’s a lot better than what Sasuke brought! Mr. Cool didn’t even have anything with him!” Naruto looks back at him, eyebrows furrowed. “Did you forget to get me a gift, Sasuke?!”
Sakura rolls her eyes. “It’s not about the gifts, Naruto! And they’re for you and Hinata, not just you!” She turns back towards the tables and chairs spread out on the grass. “I’m going to go set these down and see what else needs to be done. I don’t know if you’re supposed to be in charge or not but someone needs to be keeping an eye on things!”
A wedding is obviously the sort of thing Sakura would enjoy, Sasuke thinks—she weaves between the guests, her smile wide and eyes bright. Halfway there she pauses to fix the corner of a tablecloth, dipping and turning on her heel without so much as missing a beat.
She leaves her boxes on one table and Naruto turns back to Sasuke, still grinning. “She and Hinata have been spending a lot of time together lately—like we’re all one big family, y’know?”
Maybe it’s his own biased hearing - maybe his own ears are lying to him - but Naruto’s comment sounds heavier than it should. More plaintive. Maybe that’s exactly what Naruto would want—Team 7 and everyone else, all squished together into one big, grotesque family.
Sakura pauses on her way back around to snap at Shikamaru, who’s sitting at a corner table probably trying his best to fade back into the shade. She points him in the direction of the kitchen where servants are carrying out place settings and stacks of plates and, begrudgingly, Shikamaru sighs and wanders off to help.
That’s new, Sasuke thinks.
Somewhere between then and the first time he had left the village, Sakura had become someone formidable, someone with authority—someone who could even get a slacker like Shikamaru to take her orders.
A whole war and the end of the world have passed, but even Sakura has been able to forget, to move on, and to grow from it. They’d each been tested and, as she’s always done, Sakura passed with flying colors.
Bitterness comes easy, but it doesn’t do him any good. Sakura has always been more elastic, less desperate in her emotions than he or Naruto could ever afford to be. How could he hold that against her?
Next to him, Naruto cups his hands around his mouth. “Oi, Kiba! What the hell do you think you’re doing sitting down, huh?!” Dozens of heads, Sasuke’s included, immediately whip back towards him. There’s already a hearty Hyuuga contingent, several elders who grimace and share pointed looks with each other as if, even after all of this time, they can only just barely tolerate Naruto. “Even Shikamaru’s lazy ass is helping now, y’know!”
Because he knows Naruto down to the soul in his body, knows that Naruto probably wouldn’t notice them to begin with, Sasuke turns to glare at the Hyuuga in his stead. Raises his remaining hand just an inch, but enough to give the appearance of a threat.
There isn’t so much as a spark of chakra but one of them blanches, several of them freeze in place. It’s funny, in a way, to see how easily their prejudice can be used against them.
Sasuke lowers his hand and there’s an immediate break in the tension, like a sigh of relief gone through the whole crowd. Just like that—they’re so willing to believe in the worst of him that even the tiniest hint is enough.
Naruto turns back, shaking his head. Completely unaware of anything else happening around him. “Would you believe he’s Hinata’s teammate and he was just gonna sit there? He’s lucky his mom isn’t here yet to catch him!”
Naroto is oblivious to the point it’s painful, oblivious in such a loving, forgiving way that only he could ever manage.
He had been like that once, Sasuke thinks. Never once was he that trusting, never so willing to overlook others’ faults, but he’d once been the darling of the village, the golden child. The last Uchiha: feudal lords had come from nations away just to watch him fight in the chunin exams. It had always been collateral, though—never what he had been after, but something that had naturally followed his success.
He wants to tell Naruto that it doesn’t mean anything, that the way the Hyuuga and the rest of the village feel about him is entirely dependent on what he can do for them, what role he’s willing to play. That their love is entirely conditional and revocable. That the version of him they love isn’t him at all, but a sanitized caricature with Naruto’s face pasted over it.
He wants to tell Naruto that people never change, they only stand more revealed.
Instead, Sasuke turns back to Naruto and says, “It’s crowded.”
Naruto’s stars rise as Sasuke’s set—it’s so perfectly balanced that it almost feels wrong to try to change his mind about it.
“Speaking of which…” Naruto gives him a hefty pat on the back and every single muscle tenses. “Hang tight for a quick second, okay? I’m going to go see if Iruka-sensei is here yet.”
Naruto hurries off again, but is forced to stop every few feet by another hand he has to shake, another pair of shoulders to throw his arms around, etiquette be damned.
Is this what Naruto will still be like after a year like this? In two years? Naruto’s heart is iron-wrought but even iron is malleable with enough heat and pressure. How does it start, he wonders? Being Hokage had always been Naruto’s greatest dream but it’s close enough now to be a chain, a collar. Something to be held over his head to make him behave.
He tugs at the collar of his own robe, anything to breathe a little easier. The fit is loose enough that instead of catching sweat he can feel beads of it rolling down the inside of his biceps.
Sasuke tries to adjust his arm in the sleeve but he feels another hand on his shoulder, either holding him steady or holding him down or holding him back.
Sometimes it isn’t always immediately evident which it is.
“You’re doing fine,” Kakashi says, his voice low.
He shrugs Kakashi’s hand off. He’s a damn grown man, and he doesn’t need Kakashi to tell him how he’s doing. “Of course I am.”
“It’s good that you’re here.” Kakashi only ever speaks to him in half-words, leaving Sasuke to fill in the gaps on his own.
“Of course it is.”
Sasuke can feel Kakashi’s eyes on the back of his neck and he ignores them. Kakashi lingers a moment and then sighs, walking back into the crowd. Maybe it’s a bad look for him, being caught with one the village’s greatest embarrassments.
Maybe Sasuke doesn’t care.
Maybe he’s thinking instead about the walk back to his shitty little motel room and the shitty little backpack that he can’t bring himself to fully unpack. He’d brought little enough back with him—weapons that had been confiscated the second he’d walked into the village and clothes Sakura had burned after weeks of begging him to give them up.
Naruto doesn’t know about any of it—not about the motel room or the backpack or the drawers that still sit empty, because if he did Sasuke knows he’d never be allowed to live alone.
Sasuke knows that Naruto’s heart is much bigger than his apartment, and that even if it’d be the two of them and Naruto’s wife, Naruto would try to make it work.
Sasuke doesn’t share.
Sasuke won’t have anything but all of Naruto, and now he will get nothing; he’ll be the scarred headband Naruto keeps in the first drawer of his nightstand.
The time passed quickly after he returned to the village. It’d been filled with tedious missions and wastefully long hearings where he’d stood before the Hokage and her advisors and been asked to play the submissive penitent, the reformed man. Where he was not asked but expected to be complicit in burying the Uchiha Clan for good—expected to keep Danzo’s secrets and the Third Hokage’s secrets while getting nothing in return.
It’d been what Itachi wanted, but Itachi didn’t bother sticking around to make sure it happened. Instead of immediately recoiling at the suggestion, though, he’d looked to Naruto, looked back at the Hokage, and said, Yeah. Sure.
What else could he have done?
It hadn’t otherwise been a particularly notable amount of time, but it was still long enough for Naruto to spontaneously realize and confess his feelings for Hyuuga Hinata, a classmate of theirs Sasuke can only barely remember.
Things had been fine until then, Sasuke thinks—it’d been as close as normal as his life had ever been since the massacre. He never had to eat alone if he didn’t want to; if Naruto wasn’t dragging him to lunch, Sakura was bringing leftovers to his motel room, Kakashi was wandering by every other week or so, acting as if he were lost.
There was a lethargy to it. A lack of urgency maybe, but nothing existential about it. Missions by the dozens, but never a mission. Never anything looming large enough over his head, dictating his next move.
Never anything to guide him.
Some days he wouldn’t have to leave his motel room at all, and he’d let it pass by without once leaving his bed, sucked into the blue-grey light coming through his curtains. Some days it was just him, his partly-unpacked backpack, and the kaleidoscope of memories that spun every time he closed his eyes.
Survivor’s guilt, the dozens of pamphlets Sakura left in his kitchenette called it. She left a lot of things on his table—groceries, summonses to the Hokage’s office, their old classmates’ phone numbers scribbled on the backs of business cards.
There are better ways of dealing with this, she’d told him, but what did Sakura know about that?
What had Sakura ever lost that would make her understand?
Nothing, he thinks now, watching her lean over and whisper something to Ino across the aisle from him. They’re directly across from each other—the groomsmen and bridesmaids, with Naruto between them. At the very least they’re in the shade now, under vine-covered awnings that block out most of the sun and soak up some of the humidity.
Sakura reaches over to tuck one loosely-curled strand of hair behind Ino’s ear and it’s nothing—Sasuke’s world has imploded several times over and Sakura hasn’t lost anything.
Ino smothers a laugh behind her hand and Sakura gives her a warning look, drastically undercut by the smile tugging at her lips. The way their hands dangle just inches apart has something wicked and sharp twisting in his gut.
Naruto lets out a breath like a gut punch when Hinata finally walks into view and Sasuke’s stomach plummets further. He thinks of his shitty little motel room like a sanctuary, a safe place he can escape to after the ceremony, four comfortable walls where he can drink until the memory itself is drowned out.
“Just look at her…” Naruto whispers, and Sasuke can’t bring himself to disobey.
After all, why shouldn’t he look? There are worse images yet burned into his memory, imprinted into his eyes that are really his brother’s eyes.
That were his brother’s eyes.
Sasuke chokes the thought down, feels his throat burn with the lingering taste of bile.
Hinata is dressed in crisp white, with pastel flowers and watered-down ribbons braided into her hair, and there’s not one thing wrong with her except for everything. Sasuke can barely put together a memory of her that’s longer than a split second glance, but the way Naruto’s eyes soften when they see her makes him think that’d been a mistake.
When? Sasuke wonders. What happened while he was away from the village?
How could he have missed it?
The monk presiding over the ceremony begins to speak but Sasuke only sees his lips move, curl into a soft, pleasant smile as he warmly greets the visitors. Even though it’s cooler under the awnings, here’s still the tiniest spray of sweat at his brow.
In the corner of his eye, Naruto is wavering.
He tells himself he’s only trying to pay attention to the ceremony, that missing a few minutes of Naruto can’t count for much when he’s missed years.
Naruto wrings his hands together and Sasuke narrows his focus to the crinkles in the sides of the monk’s eyes, the practiced way he holds one hand to his chest as if to assuage heart pains, raising the other to gesture as he speaks.
It’s better if he doesn’t look. Naruto is his best friend, his most precious person in the world, and he deserves more than Sasuke’s sloppy-drunk self crying over what is undoubtedly the nicest outfit Naruto has ever worn.
Hinata must have picked it out, he thinks bitterly, because it’s too dark, too fine. They’re somber colors. Funeral colors.
On Naruto, it’s almost hard to tell. (Even when he doesn’t mean to—Sasuke realizes he can never stop himself from watching Naruto.)
His yukata is a deep dark grey, his hair combed into order sometime before the ceremony. Tamed, like the rest of him. Palatable for the same people who years ago could only barely tolerate him.
The thoughts churning in the pit of his stomach turn brackish when Naruto tries to roll up his sleeves, begins to nervously tug at his collar. Hinata’s eyes tick up to Naruto’s for a split second, and his hands still. Naruto’s shoulders relax.
Sasuke looks away. Again. He shifts his feet and swallows a lump in his throat, takes in a breath that doesn’t help at all.
He looks towards the rest of the guests. He’s not looking for anything in particular but still manages to accidentally make eye contact with Hinata’s cousin Neji, who is standing perfectly straight alongside other Hyuuga.
Neji had already been watching him—he stares back at him now as if he could burn a hole in him, as if Sasuke’s very existence was somehow offensive to him.
It could be anything, really—Sasuke is a former missing-nin in an unwashed, unpressed yukata, but he’s still somehow Naruto’s best man. Belatedly, Sasuke can’t help but wonder if the Hyuuga even bothered trying to talk Naruto out of it.
Neji, unlike Sasuke but much like the rest of his clansmen, is dressed immaculately. Neji narrows his eyes but Sasuke breaks away first, turning back to Naruto.
Naruto opens his hand, the bandaged one the old hag replaced several months ago. Even Tsunade herself won’t be able to truly replace it, because Naruto’s hand is one part of him Sasuke will always own—one part of Naruto that Hinata will never be able to touch.
Sasuke has taken Naruto out of this life and back and that—that is a place Hinata will never be able to go with him.
It is the fake hand, after all, that rummages through Naruto’s pockets for several long, painful seconds before it fishes out a ring Naruto paid for with a three-week long A-rank mission in Kiri. Sasuke knows because he went too, bunked with Naruto on those nights only to hear him chatter excitedly about being able to start a family of his own while being completely unaware of Sasuke’s very intentional silences.
The fake hand is the one that finally slides the ring onto Hinata’s thin ring finger, and Sasuke feels a petty sort of satisfaction in that.
“I do,” they echo.
It may not be a lie, but Sasuke tells himself it is not the entire truth, either.
People live their lives by what they accept as correct and true, Itachi had told him once, and Itachi’s words have a strange way of aging as Sasuke ages, growing into new meanings.
Then again, even before he was dead, Itachi’s existence was a malleable thing, something capable of speaking to any situation where Itachi otherwise had no place. Sasuke wants to think he’s outgrown that conception of Itachi but it keeps resurfacing, interrupting the safe, suspended eternal space in his mind where he can be nowhere.
He thinks of Suigetsu, long gone with Juugo and Karin—if that was how he’d felt when he was trapped in Orochimaru’s lab. Suigetsu was never the type to stay in any one place for too long, never the type to linger, but Sasuke can’t help but wonder if there’d been a strange sort of comfort in it. Being no bigger than the space in which he was confined, the world beginning and ending where his body did.
Naruto and Hinata break apart and, not for the first time, Sasuke turns his back on his best friend and doesn’t look back. He ducks Sakura’s hands and Kakashi’s hands and the hands of every single unimportant person in that building who isn’t Naruto.
“Hey—Sasuke?” Naruto calls for him but—well, it’s Naruto’s wedding. He’s not going to leave, not even to chase after Sasuke.
Maybe it’s better that way.
Inexplicably, he finds himself on top of the old hag’s head.
He doesn’t start there, obviously.
He starts in the middle of town. A wedding of that magnitude draws more attention than he’d like, and the press of bodies is thick enough that Sasuke is forced to take to the rooftops to get anywhere. He takes an improvised detour and finds a corner store, grabs a bottle off the racks, and stares down the clerk when she asks for identification. She hesitantly lowers her hand, and accepts the bills he pushes towards her.
He doesn’t wait for change.
He turns towards his motel room but stops, thinking that if anyone was going to come after him it’d be the first place they’d look. If anyone was planning to come after him at all, that is.
Maybe they aren’t.
Sasuke takes another look up at the rooftops, and decides to go higher.
The Hokage Monument is a place so beloved by Naruto that Sasuke can’t imagine anyone who loved Naruto would think to check for there for Sasuke. There’s a funny sort of irony in that, he thinks.
He starts on the First Hokage’s head, but quickly jumps to the next. There’s too much there, too much history, too much destiny—too much that reminds him of Naruto.
The Second and Third Hokage he avoids on principle alone. And the Fourth…
Sasuke very deliberately skips over his head, and settles on the Fifth. She’s the last—it’s either her or the soft, uncarved portions of the mountain that’ll eventually be ground down to resemble Kakashi.
Well. He supposes if he’s going to drink himself to incoherence he at least picked an appropriate place to do it.
Sasuke rests on the curve of her forehead, dropping the brown paper bag down next to him. The village lies open below him, nothing but open air beneath his dangling feet. It’s a much needed change in pace—no chattering guests to disturb him, no elbowing tourists to get in his way.
He kicks his legs back and slips out the bottle of sake from the store bag.
Like most bottles, it’s meant to be opened by someone with two hands and Sasuke doesn’t have the patience or polished sensibilities to want to find a bottle opener. He doesn’t have enough time to waste it acting like somebody’s wife.
Instead, he fishes a kunai out of his pocket and, holding the bottle between his knees, stabs the kunai into the cork and twists it until the cork squeaks and pops off the top of the bottle. He flicks the cork off the kunai and it rolls down the stone, bouncing once off of Tsunade’s nose before falling down to village.
Years ago, it’d seemed like every day Naruto was getting in trouble for this kind of thing—skipping class to hang out up there, pulling pranks on their sensei. That’s the love-starved, lonely Naruto he’ll always remember—the Naruto who knew his heart.
How long until that changes?
Without so much as a sniff, Sasuke tips the bottle back and swallows as much as he can before the taste catches up to him.
It does, of course, catch up to him eventually.
It’s disgusting, closer to vinegar than any kind of beverage he’s had before. Sasuke has never been one to enjoy sweets but he still has to screw his eyes shut to get through the first long sip, a heavy mouthful he had to force himself to choke down.
He feels cliche for even thinking it, but shitty sake still isn’t the hardest thing he’s had to swallow lately.
Sasuke chokes down another mouthful.
Getting drunk as fast as possible is ideal, but time and his taste buds are both working against him. Every second is a second closer to the end of the wedding, closer to Naruto’s long walk home, leading Hinata through the crowded Konoha streets until it’s only the two of them, alone.
Sasuke takes another sip, but it’s far too easy, far too tempting to let his mind chase after Naruto, to piece together every moment of his evening.
The loving, tender touches they’ll share. Hinata reaching up, maybe, to tuck a piece of too-long yellow hair behind Naruto’s ear. Setting her hand on his shoulder, too uncertain to move it any lower, unsure if that alone is too forward. She’d let him take the lead, touching him as lightly as possible with the shy, gentle nervousness of a couple that just barely knows each other.
Naruto would take his time to undress, probably doing it himself because Hinata, who could barely look up for the majority of her own wedding, wouldn’t possibly be able to bring herself to undress Naruto.
The consummation. He wonders if she would even be able to look him in the eye.
If he would be.
If there were a moment, a heavy, heated second, where Naruto couldn’t help but look away from her.
If Naruto closed his eyes and let his mind wander just the slightest bit, would he still be thinking about Hinata?
Sasuke flicks his hair back and it sticks to his neck, damp with sweat. Even so, it’s at least cooler up there, the higher altitude affording some relief from the oppressive Konoha humidity. Still, there’s no such thing as a comfortable spot in Konoha this time of year, and so Sasuke loosens the tie on his robe a little more and lets it slide down his shoulders.
Not like anyone else was going to see it, after all. Anyone brave enough to bother him was probably still at the wedding.
Well, except one person.
“You’ve certainly got some nerve, Uchiha.” Neji Hyuuga lands a few feet behind him, still dressed in his wedding outfit, his long hair thrown back over one shoulder.
Sasuke isn’t in any particular mood to indulge other people, and so he continues to look down at the village, the various roving crowds.. He doesn’t bother acknowledging Neji when he’s pretty certain he knows where this is going.
Neji takes another step closer. Not close enough to threaten him, but if he crosses that line—well, Sasuke has no reason to back down from a fight now. “You’ve hurt Naruto.”
Sasuke takes another mouthful of shitty sake and shrugs. “What’s it to you? He’ll get over it.”
Unlike Hinata, Neji is someone Sasuke remembers, if just barely.
Sasuke can’t quite put a time or place on it, but he thinks he might have been thirteen when, somewhere in the chaos of the chunin exams, he’d overheard some villager brag about Neji Hyuuga, the pride of his clan.
Now it barely means anything, but back then it had set off something in him, had triggered a deeply buried memory of those exact words, the ghost of someone else, and for just a second Neji Hyuuga had been far too familiar with his long, dark hair and piercing eyes, his arrogance that seemed to believe it was capable of anything, everything.
In that moment, hating Neji had been defensive, instinctive. Something in him had wanted to do nothing but hate, to prove to Neji and to Itachi and to the world that he was capable of as much hate as it’d take to get what he wanted. To hate anything and everything that could be traced back to Itachi, no matter how marginally.
The urge isn’t quite the same anymore. It has nothing to do with Neji, though, and everything to do with Itachi, who would probably be there right alongside Neji trying to coax him back to the wedding.
Sometimes he loves Itachi so much that he can’t stand it, that he’ll lie awake and imagine in the darkness of his motel room all of the ways he could find his way back to him. How easy it’d be to make his way down to the Nakano, to let the water and the river weeds tangle in his hair, and to wake up wherever Itachi is. Wherever their parents are.
Sometimes he can’t imagine spending more than another year or month or day without his brother—the realizations come in spurts, in stabbing bouts of clarity. Sometimes he’ll be folding laundry, not thinking about anything in particular, and out of nowhere he’ll be struck by the realization that Itachi is gone, that he’s gone forever, and there will be no next time.
But still, it isn’t that simple. It never has been when it comes to Itachi.
Sometimes he hates Itachi because, when he allows himself to, it’s so, so easy to hate Itachi. Itachi himself understood that, and was able to weaponize that hatred. With nothing more to keep him busy Sasuke finds himself falling easily into those ruts, settling back into old grooves. He hates Itachi and even if Itachi isn’t alive to feel it, Sasuke still wants his pain, wants to destroy everything Itachi had ever held dear—his precious village and his precious brother and Itachi’s own tortured, guilt-ridden self.
Even after all of this time, Sasuke still can’t quite decide which of the three Itachi loved the most.
“Is this how the great Sasuke Uchiha faces his problems now? Ignoring them, hoping perhaps that they’ll go away on their own?”
Sasuke takes a deep breath to clear his head, and feels his shoulders relax. Itachi deserves, after all this time, to be put to rest.
(Later, in the darkness of his hotel room, he knows he’ll come running back to the same tender spot, shovel ready to dig his brother up once again.)
It’s only a matter of gritting his teeth—Neji wants some catharsis from him, some self-righteous satisfaction in talking down to him, and the faster he gets it the faster Sasuke can be on his own again. “You got some kind of job to do here, Hyuuga, or are you just here to waste my time?”
Neji scoffs, all arrogance. “Everyone saw you leave, you fool. Naruto believes you are mad at him, and instead of enjoying his wedding he is worrying about you. What an absolutely unexpected development.”
“So did he send you?” Would Naruto do that? He’s never been the delegating type, but maybe that’s another thing that’s gonna change. Still… “No. It was her, wasn’t it?” Sasuke snorts. “Figures.”
“I would be very careful how I talk about Lady Hinata if I were you.” It’s a genuine threat, and the anger underlying it is just as genuine.
Sasuke finally turns around and gets a good look at Neji, his stiff back and narrowed eyes. There’s only a few feet between them, but Sasuke can’t be entirely sure it’ll stay that way. Neji is almost far too vehement for this to only be about decorum.
He supposes that maybe he isn’t the only person a little less than thrilled about the marriage.
Neji sneers back at him. “What? You suddenly can’t speak when you have to look me in the eye?”
It’s fucking weird but Sasuke can accept that; it’s not as if intermarriage was unheard of in the Uchiha Clan either. He’s spent enough time looking at the Uchiha Clan’s family tree to know its oddities, branches that intertwine and curve inward where they absolutely should not.
He turns back around, watching a cluster of green vests parade down one street, and a line of smooth, silk kimono hurry down another. Their skirts are fluttering—the wind is starting to pick up. “You’re wasting your time here, Hyuuga. Might as well go back to your party. Let her know you tried your best.”
Neji grits his teeth. “You hurt Naruto,” he repeats, “and that is unforgivable.”
“And yet you’re the one who was so eager to track me down when she asked you to.” Neji’s frown deepens, and Sasuke laughs. It tastes bitter, but bitter is good—Neji isn’t Naruto or Sakura or Kakashi, and Sasuke doesn’t see any need to pull his punches. “She’s not going to fuck you, you know. You can stop trying to impress her.”
Neji frowns. “I have no idea what you—” The thought finally seems to click, and he bristles. “I want nothing of the sort from Hinata. I—” Neji takes in a long, heated breath. “We are cousins, you fool. She has always looked to me as her older brother. I am here because her and Naruto’s happiness is something I will protect. But of course someone like you would not understand that.”
Neji shifts from one foot to the other. It’s barely noticeable, but Sasuke thinks he hears an unexpected vulnerability creep into his voice. “Naruto is one of my closest friends. If he will be happy with Hinata, then I will wish them both the best.” Neji crosses his arms defensively, and Sasuke’s immediate thought is that it’s very unlike Itachi.
The thought holds him for a second, and Neji shakes his head. “Naruto deserves better than you. He always has.”
“Looks like you’re not good enough for him either,” Sasuke retorts. “That’s it, then, isn’t it? You’re pissed cause he chose the wrong Hyuuga? You not pretty enough for him or something? No demure enough?”
“You just don’t get it, do you? You can’t see past your own selfishness to imagine another person doing anything that isn’t completely self-interested.” Neji takes a step closer—another step, Sasuke thinks. One more step is all he needs to justify retaliating. “You’ve spent so much alone that you’ve become blind to the world around you—the only Uchiha, the last of your clan. You believe you are the only one capable of loss, the only one capable of feeling true hurt.”
Neji takes another step, but Sasuke doesn’t stop him. He can’t attack him now—he’d win the physical fight but Neji would only be twice as right, twice as smug. “Get away from me.”
“You know you are wrong, don’t you? You know your own hatred and bitterness have blinded you, that you would rather continue to lash out at others rather than solve any of your problems. You know Naruto believes you have changed for the better, and you know how wrong he truly is.”
“And you sure seem a lot more interested in sitting here lecturing me than you are in celebrating your little cousin’s party.” Sasuke takes another quick drink and feels the world tilt when he knocks his head back. Maybe this is the fun part of being drunk—feeling like you can literally detach yourself from the world. “You already know you aren’t getting me to go back—you’re here for yourself, so you don’t have to be there, and you’re using her as an excuse. Excusing your selfishness.”
“Perhaps you are right.” There’s a drawn out pause while Neji thinks. It’s arrogant and smug—that he is comfortable enough to sit back and consider his positions. When he speaks up again, it’s almost quiet enough that Sasuke can barely hear him over the rising wind. “Still, I am Hinata’s brother. I have not always deserved that title. The very least I can do is ensure I never again become undeserving. Hinata did not ask me to come here; still, I knew it troubled her.” Neji holds his hands out in a gesture of openness. “I will always put Hinata’s needs and her happiness above my own. Always.”
“Well—” Always? There’s something about that word that’s tripping him up—something he’s forgetting, maybe. “You think you know what’s best for her, just cause you’re her older brother? You just assume what she wants all the time?” He—he doesn’t give a shit about Hinata. He knows he doesn’t.
He thinks his arguments are starting to sound sloppy even in his own mind.
“I think I can do more good for the both of us by letting her and Naruto enjoy their night in peace.” Neji’s sigh is so deep that Sasuke thinks he feels it too, feels the droop in his own shoulders. “She knows I will always be there when she needs me to be.”
There’s a point to be made there, maybe, but Sasuke is starting to think he won’t like the way it comes out. He’s starting to think none of this is going quite like he would have planned it.
Having little else to offer, Sasuke only sighs and holds the bottle up to Neji. “You might as well sit and join me then, huh? No reason why we both can’t be miserable.”
Neji snorts but still accepts the bottle out of his hands. He contemplates it for a long second before taking a long sip, just barely shielding his wince at the end.
“Misery loves company, doesn’t it?” he asks when Neji crouches down next to him.
“Don’t lump me in with you. I’m no traitor.” Neji looks down at the bottle in his hands, but doesn’t take another drink. He turns the bottle over, running his thumb over the label before picking at the edge of it with his nail. He shakes his head.
“I always wondered why… why it’d always been you. Of all people, why Naruto was so focused on you. He would do anything for anyone but… Even after you abandoned the village—I could tell, you always meant the most to him.”
“Apparently not.” Not when it mattered most, at least. “Not today.”
Neji takes another long, complicated sip of the sake and his throat bobs as he swallows.
It’s nothing like Itachi. Only just barely like Naruto. It’s hard to put him entirely on either spectrum; he’s just there—just Neji.
“Do you plan to go back, then?” Sasuke asks, not entirely sure which answer he’s expecting to hear. Which answer he’s hoping to hear.
Neji lets out a long breath, his eyes squeezed shut. He licks his lips, then grimaces again. “It’s what a good friend would do.” He squares his shoulders resolutely, bracing for some kind of impact. “It is starting to get late, though. By the time I return they may already be gone.”
Sasuke snorts. It isn’t funny anymore, but maybe it’s still amusing. “If you could let him go like that, you must not take your own feelings serious enough.”
“If you truly love someone, you put their needs before your own.”
“It’s easy to say that when he was never going to be yours.”
Neji visibly flinches.
Down below them there’s a loud cheer, dozens of voices calling out in unison. The sound echoes a little too well—Sasuke can’t quite pinpoint where it’s coming from. Or, perhaps, the sake is actually starting to hit him.
Neji’s lip curls disdainfully and he sets the bottle down, none too gently. He smooths his pants down, wobbling into a standing position. “I really should go—”
“Sit the fuck down, Hyuuga,” Sasuke snaps, and, surprisingly, Neji does. “I’m going to finish this bottle and then… and then I’ll walk you back to the Hyuuga District, or wherever it is you live.” It’s been long enough since he’s thought about it that he can’t actually remember what it’s called. Is it a district? A compound?
Neji blinks. “Oh. Okay.” He looks down at his hands, his very neat and well-trimmed nails. “Where will you be going?”
He offers a single-shouldered shrug. “Back to my motel room. Probably’ll pick up another bottle on the way.”
“Right. How about you stay with me.” It’s not a question, but a vague, noncommittal offer. “I have my own quarters and—and it is unlikely that anyone will join us or disrupt us.”
“Is that supposed to be an invitation?”
Neji looks down at the bottle in front of him and he’s—well. He’s no Itachi, and he’s definitely no Naruto either. He’s dark where Naruto is light, light where Naruto is dark. He’s too cunning, too suspicious to be as unquestioning loving as Naruto, to have a heart as stupid and deep and unflinching as Naruto’s.
Neji brings a hand up to tuck a strand of hair behind his ear, and he isn’t scarred like Naruto either. That’s the Gentle Fist style, Sasuke thinks—regardless of the damage it can do, the intimacy just isn’t there. It’s quick, it’s devastating, and then it’s gone.
Naruto will twist his fist into your stomach and knee you in the throat and barrel headfirst into a fight. He’ll give you everything, will pour his whole heart into you with nothing but his bare hands.
“It’s just an invitation. You can take it or leave it, Uchiha.”
Sasuke’s legs only shake a little when he stands. “Alright.” Is it alright? He’s starting to lose track of time, doesn’t know if the wedding is still ongoing. Doesn’t know where Naruto is supposed to be right now.
What he’s supposed to be doing.
“We had better hurry, however,” Neji says. He’s staring at the open palm of his hand in a way that makes Sasuke’s own itch.
Neji tilts his head back, cloudy skies reflected in his eyes. It’s gotten so much darker, Sasuke realizes—the sun in Neji’s eyes has gone soft, a bruised collage of indigo and scarlet. “It seems as though it is about to rain.”
Sasuke feels that choking feeling again, like the air has been sucked out of his lungs. “Yeah,” he breathes. The wind through his hair is finally cool, finally soothing. As if the weather, like a great, long fever, had finally broken. “Looks like it is.”
He takes one last long glance down towards the village, down the hundreds of lights flickering on in apartments, blinking off in the corner stores. Naruto could be anywhere right now but, then again, so could Sasuke.
Sasuke turns to follow Neji just as the first drop of rain hits him square on the forehead.