The first time Naruto realized Sasuke might be full of shit was when he was hanging in chains in an Akatsuki prison. His left ankle was broken and he had a hell of a concussion, so he could be forgiven for thinking that he was hallucinating Sasuke’s voice at first.
"Wake up, idiot," the angry whisper came again, and Naruto blearily lifted his head. Sasuke’s arm brushed by Naruto’s cheek as he unlocked the cuffs, and Naruto’s only daft thought was that the last time he’d been so close to Sasuke, Sasuke had been threatening his life.
Sasuke caught him as he pitched forward, grunting in annoyance. "You’re heavy, dobe," Sasuke grumbled, then dug his shoulder up under Naruto’s armpit and began to maneuver them painfully out of the compound.
Naruto’s internal monologue went like this: It began with, ‘These are some drugs those shitheads fed me.’ Then, when the agonizing pain in his ankle took care of that theory, he moved on to, ‘Who are you and what have you done with Sasuke?’ It finally settled somewhere between ‘My best friend Sasuke is saving me,’ and ‘Fuck, my best friend Sasuke is going to kill me and make it even more painful.’
When he tried to explain all this to Sasuke, the only thing that trickled out of his mouth was, "Whaa…?"
"Almost there," Sasuke said in an oddly strained voice. "Just hold on."
Sasuke dumped him in the middle of the forest, after what seemed like days of stumbling. His ankle was on fire and his vision was still blurry, but the night air was chilly enough to shock some sense back into his brain.
"Sakura is three miles northwest of here, and Kakashi is with her," Sasuke said, looking off into the distance. "This is as far as I can take you."
"Why?" Naruto asked in a cracked voice. Sasuke seemed very tall from the ground, too grown-up and remote to recognize. He didn’t pretend to misunderstand.
"Because," he said, staring down with dark eyes. "When I kill you, it will be on my terms and no one else’s."
Long after he was back in Konoha, in a hospital bed under Sakura’s exacting care, the only thing running through his mind was, We’ll see who kills who.
The second time Naruto realized Sasuke might be full of shit was in the middle of the final battle with Akatsuki. Naruto’s hands were drenched in blood and he hadn’t seen Kakashi in ages, but Sakura was still fighting, tall and fierce next to him, and that was what really mattered.
He knew Sasuke was there in the melee somewhere, but for the life of him he couldn’t tell which side the Uchiha was fighting for. Then again, Naruto could barely distinguish his own opponents anymore. Duck, kick, parry, shield, punch, slice. Rinse and repeat. The only the thing that mattered was keeping himself and Sakura moving forward.
The moment of crisis came when Naruto jammed a kunai into his opponent’s cloaked back, only to realize it was a clone, a fucking clone, and how could he fail to recognize that jutsu by now? He crouched down immediately, but it was too late, and he felt another Akatsuki at his back and he heard Sakura’s scream, and how could he possibly die now, here, when Konoha needed him and Sakura was watching and…?
The strike never came. He looked up to see Sasuke holding his attacker off with his own sword.
"Well?" Sasuke said, sweating with effort. "Are you going to just sit there, dead-last?"
And god, he’d forgotten what it felt like to fight with Sasuke, the brief touches and preternatural awareness, the dance-like synchronicity of the whole thing. Every once in a while they’d fly close enough to each other to exchange a "yes" or "no" or "to the left" or "now," and Naruto wondered if it was normal to be able to have whole conversations with someone in mere syllables.
Every time Naruto stumbled, Sasuke was there. And since Naruto was not about to let Sasuke die now that he was finally on home soil, he made sure to watch Sasuke’s back, too. When, at last, he plowed his Rasengan through their opponent’s heart, Naruto saw it: that spark of approval in Sasuke’s dark eyes that he’d been missing for three long years.
He sat down heavily on the ground, then unfolded his spine to lie flat on his back. The battle was dying around him, and he felt safe closing his eyes, because Sasuke was there and Sasuke had helped him and that meant Sasuke was back on the good guy side, finally.
"What are you doing?"
He cracked an eyelid to see Sakura frowning down at him, covered in dirt and blood, but blessedly alive. "Tired," he mumbled.
Sakura looked up, past him. "Where did he go?" she asked. Naruto shot to his feet.
ANBU found Sasuke thirty minutes later, standing over Danzou’s body with blood covering his sword and the rage on his face melting into something like peace.
The third time was truly weird. Sasuke looked up as Naruto unhinged the lock to his prison cell. "Get up," he said.
Sasuke didn’t move.
"Get up," Naruto repeated, this time punctuating it with a kick to Sasuke’s ribs. Which Sasuke caught in one fist.
"What are you doing, idiot?" he asked, with no more than mild curiosity in his voice.
"Isn’t it obvious?" Naruto hissed. "I’m letting you go."
Sasuke stared. "Why?"
"Because," Naruto said shortly. "I don’t know what you’re planning, why you’re waiting, but we both know you could Sharingan your way out of here any time you want. So I’m letting you go before you hurt someone else. Go. Get out of here."
Sasuke just regarded him with a lazy sort of bemusement, and Naruto thought that if the bastard didn’t move soon he was going to knock him unconscious and carry him out.
"Maybe I like it here," Sasuke said finally. "Maybe I’m doing penance."
"Are you sorry?" Naruto asked dubiously.
"No." Sasuke’s response was immediate and flatly final.
"Then you must be planning something," Naruto said wildly. "Or you wouldn’t be staying here. So just leave."
"Or- or what?" Naruto asked, nonplussed.
"If I am planning something, how are you going to stop me?"
"I…well," Naruto bit his lip. "I guess I’d tell Tsunade. They’d lock you up even more tightly."
"Or kill me." Sasuke didn’t seem at all concerned by the prospect. He’d gotten too thin during the months of imprisonment, and his collar bones were jutting out from the loose neckline of his prison-issue shirt.
That. That was it, Naruto realized. He wasn’t afraid that Sasuke would destroy the village. Konoha was capable of protecting itself against even the greatest threat – the battle with Akatsuki had proven that. No. What he was afraid of was that Sasuke would try something else, something violent, and that Tsunade would be forced take that final step and declare the Uchiha too dangerous to leave alive.
Naruto didn’t think he could handle watching Sasuke die.
"Just go," Naruto said, feeling the stopped-up tears in his throat this time. "Get out of here."
Sasuke wasn’t looking at him anymore. "What if I don’t want to?" he asked in a careful tone of voice. "Maybe I like being back in Konoha. Maybe Sakura makes good tea when she comes to visit me. Maybe I want to stay."
And Naruto stood, locked in his own private hell where his inability not to hope for that very thing was warring with his knowledge that Sasuke was a walking disaster and would never last long without betraying all of them in some way. Once a traitor, always a traitor, and it was Naruto’s own misfortune that he happened to care about this particular traitor with a ferocity he couldn’t shake.
"I wouldn’t believe you," Naruto said, and even though his eyes were closed he could sense Sasuke’s skepticism radiating from across the prison cell.
Sasuke moved, finally, getting leisurely to his feet. Instead of leaving his cell, he wrapped his hands around the bars on either side of Naruto’s ears, sliding them up so their faces were very close. His Sharingan was spinning, and Naruto couldn’t look away.
"You’re a complete fool," Sasuke said, and put his lips softly against the corner of Naruto's mouth. Naruto felt himself sinking, felt his knees giving way as Sasuke breathed warmly into him. There were colors dancing behind his eyes, and he thought he didn’t care if he died right now, because everything was so bright and peaceful, and it was like ramen and sun and love and friendship all woven together, flowing around him.
Genjutsu, he realized dimly, except it didn’t matter. He’d always heard the Tsukiyomi was unpleasant, but he didn’t care if he never woke up from this. He could be free-falling off a building or he could be bleeding out in the middle of his apartment and the only thing that would matter would be the warm pressure of Sasuke’s lips and the helpless, blinding beauty swirling around inside him. He could happily float here forever.
He let himself fall deeper and deeper into the illusion, spiraling into some dark ecstasy. The prison faded out, but Sasuke remained, exploring his lips gently and and squeezing his wrists and pushing him higher and higher and higher and…
"Naruto-san." The ANBU operative was shaking his face sharply, and he opened his eyes to see that he was slumped on the floor of the cell Sasuke had been in. There were other ANBU members mulling around, speaking with brisk efficiency into comsets, and Naruto realized that Sasuke was gone, gone, gone.
Later, when they asked him what Sasuke did to him, all could say was that he didn’t remember.
Naruto tried to forget about the fourth time, every chance he got.
The day of Sakura’s funeral dawned bright and sunny, and for once Naruto wished it would just rain already in Konoha. Tsunade looked like she was on the verge of collapse as she presided over the ceremony, and Kakashi looked even worse.
She’d been on an intelligence gathering mission with Lee and Neji, along for medical and tactical support. The attack had come from above, and it was just pure dumb luck that the knife hit Sakura, instead of the Byakugan it was aiming for.
At least, that was the way Neji told it.
Lee insisted, in tears, that she’d thrown herself in front of Neji at the last moment, in a dramatic act of self-sacrifice. "She was brave, Naruto-kun," he’d sobbed in Naruto’s apartment. "She died as a hero."
And Naruto was numb – numb and disbelieving, because it was the night before Sakura left for this very mission that she’d leaned over her bowl of ramen and laid a thumb against his lower lip and said, "How many hints do I have to drop?" And he’d stared at her until she kissed him, and then he’d blushed and laughed as his brief bout with shyness fled, and he’d tackled her to the floor, wrapping his fingers in the soft strands of her hair.
He didn’t care how it had happened – only that she was gone and Naruto was alone again.
Lee had carried her broken body on his back for the entire trip home – a hundred and fifty miles of cold skin and limp limbs and no breath at all coming from the pink lips. Naruto couldn’t imagine the horror, even though he knew he would have done it himself if he were there.
If I were there,he thought over and over again that night. I could have stopped it, I would have protected her. Why wasn’t I there? Except Lee and Neji had always been at least as strong as Naruto was, and deep in the most hidden part of his heart he wasn’t convinced that he could have done anything differently.
He tried to forget Sakura’s funeral every chance he got, and he knew he’d continue to do so for the rest of his life.
Naruto tried to sleep that night – he really did. But he found himself stumbling back toward the grave site after dark, not wanting to be anywhere but by Sakura’s side. When he got within shouting distance, he froze. There was someone kneeling by the gravesite, one long-stemmed daisy in hand.
It was Sasuke.
The rage that roared through Naruto was unlike anything he’d ever felt. He launched himself at his former teammate, sending them both sprawling across the grass.
"How dare you," Naruto forced out through clenched teeth. "How dare you show up here now, when it’s too late, when it doesn’t even matter, you asshole, you – "
He aimed his fists for Sasuke’s face, and it wasn’t until he’d hit dirt three or four times that he realized Sasuke wasn’t fighting back at all, was just dodging the blows blankly, dazedly.
"Fight me, you bastard," Naruto yelled, grabbing him by the collar, except his voice came out small and broken and close to tears, and Sasuke just leaned his head back and closed his eyes.
He dropped his forehead against Sasuke’s collarbone until his shuddering breaths evened out, and then he pushed his way off the Uchiha.
"You’re not welcome here. Get out of Konoha before I report you."
Sasuke just pulled himself into a sitting position, wincing.
"Get out," Naruto said more forcefully.
Sasuke reached out and touched the carved headstone. "Between the two of you," he said in a low voice, "I think I missed her the most."
Naruto gave him another shove, but it was half-hearted at best. He did nothing at all when Sasuke laid the daisy across the freshly-dug soil.
"It should have been me," Naruto said dully. "I wish it had been me."
"But then you’d never get to be Hokage," Sasuke said quietly, "and she wouldn’t have wanted that."
Naruto wanted to shake him and scream at him, but what came out was a whisper. "Do you think I care?" he asked. "Do you think I wouldn’t trade that dream in a heartbeat for Sakura’s life? It doesn’t mean half as much if she’s not here to see it."
"She wouldn’t see it that way," Sasuke said, and for a brief, hysterical moment, Naruto felt like laughing. Sasuke couldn’t understand, because Sasuke had always been a selfish prick who sacrificed his loved ones for his own purposes without thinking twice.
"Achieving your goals when everyone you love is dead is worse than not achieving them at all," Naruto said. He slammed a fist against the ground. "Damnit, I wanted her to see me. I wanted her to be there. She was supposed to outlive me, and you, and everyone. I was supposed to protect her."
"You can’t save everyone," Sasuke said, and man – the irony of that statement coming from Sasuke, of all people... Sasuke had been the first one to teach him that lesson, with excruciating, repetitive thoroughness.
Naruto looked, and Sasuke’s face was shuttered. "Get out of here," he said. "She wouldn’t have wanted you here," which was a lie, because Sakura most definitely would have. But Naruto couldn’t deal with Sasuke’s presence anymore – it provided a wealth of memories, and none of them were comforting. He had enough demons to deal with at the moment.
Sasuke slid one hand against the back of his neck, pulling. It took a moment for Naruto to realize what was happening. A hug. Sasuke was hugging him. It was stiff and awkward and maybe the weirdest thing that had ever happened to him, ever, but he took it gladly.
"You bastard," he said, tears leaking. "First you and now Sakura, and what am I supposed to do?"
He held tightly to Sasuke’s shoulders and wept into the front of his shirt, and Sasuke let him, staying silent and motionless for hours as Naruto poured out his grief. The sun was rising when he finally sat back, spent. He was too tired to move, even when he felt Sasuke drop his face against Naruto’s hair.
"Naruto, I’m sorry," he murmured, and then everything went black.
He woke up later that afternoon in his own bed, sun pouring through the windows. He sat up and looked dispassionately around his trashed apartment, glass still littering the floor from where he’d thrown his Team Seven portrait against the wall.
He slid the photo out of its ruined frame and tucked it gently into the mirror. Life, he was discovering, always went on.
The last time Naruto realized his best friend might be slightly more conflicted than he was letting on was during their final battle on the outskirts of Konoha. Naruto didn’t know if Sasuke had come to ask for help or to attack the village or on some other entirely melodramatic vengeance mission that seemed to be part and parcel of the Uchiha DNA. All he knew was that Sasuke had drawn his sword immediately, and Naruto thought it was better to defend himself first and ask questions later.
After a few minutes of sparring, during which Naruto began to realize that, yes, Sasuke was deadly serious aboutsomething, Sasuke stopped and looked up.
"We’re not alone," he said.
He was right. Naruto wasn’t sure why the three water-nins were attacking, but then Konoha had never been on great terms with the Mist anyway. It wouldn’t be the first assassination attempt since he’d become Hokage.
The robes still felt too formal hanging on his shoulders, and he flat-out refused the wear the headdress, but at that moment he felt the weight of both of them, keenly. Rivalry would have to wait. Konoha needed him.
Sasuke helped, of course. Sasuke had always been there, helping in his own odd, destructive way. Sometimes Naruto thought he owed the biggest portion of his strength to Sasuke’s presence – always hovering just out of reach, driving him forward, dragging him up before he fell.
The two of them took care of the attackers easily. When it was over, Naruto chained all three of them to the nearest tree, already mentally writing out a list of interrogation instructions for Sai.
He gave the restraints one last tug, then straightened. "Well, that was fun," he said wryly. "What do you say we – "
Sasuke’s steel was like ice through his body.
"My terms," he heard Sasuke say as the landscape blurred past him. His cheek hit the ground with shattering force.
By the time everything came back into focus, Naruto knew the sword had gone directly through his heart. The blood was pouring very quickly from his chest and very slowly from his throat, and they both sucked, but the throat was worse. It hurt less, but it was choking off his breath. The fox was rattling the bars to its cage in panic, but all Naruto could think was, I don’t think you’ll get your way this time, Kyuubi.
Sasuke’s hands were very gentle as they lifted Naruto up. Naruto felt himself being pulled into an embrace, and he let his head roll onto Sasuke’s shoulder.
"You were right," Sasuke said, and Naruto could swear his friend was fighting back tears. "This is much worse."
"Sasuke," Naruto mumbled, but his lungs weren’t cooperating anymore. It was getting difficult to keep his eyes open, and he felt Sasuke’s hands cupping the back of his hair. The body he was propped against was shaking.
Or was he the one shaking?
His limbs were numb and oxygen was nonexistent but somehow he could still smell Sasuke all around him, and that was all right. All the colors were melting together, and he thought he might be crying, because Sasuke was holding him tighter and saying "shhh" and then everything –