It’s Just That Any One of Us Is Half Without Another One Is You – Chapter Twelve

Gaara is revived, and Naruto and Sakura take Sasuke home to recover. Drama, Angst, Fluff, Light Porn, I-5

When they reached the stone temple again, in the late, silvery light cast up by the swamp waters, Neji dumped Itachi’s body next to Hoshigake’s and the now headless bird-riding Akatsuki, and they went to join the others. Sand’s shinobi all stood beside Gaara on a scrubby rise of hill.

Or at least, beside his body.

Even in his own daze, Sasuke drew closer to Naruto, trying to offer a little support. Naruto had been so determined to save his friend, his fellow host.

“Is he really…?” Naruto asked, voice rough.

Chiyo sighed and sat back on her heels beside the body. “You’re a healer too, Naruto-kun. You know as well as I.”

“It isn’t right!” Naruto’s hands clenched helplessly.

“No,” she said, very softly. “No, it isn’t.” Her hands rested on Gaara’s chest in a way that plucked at Sasuke’s observation, even with the Sharingan closed down. That touch wasn’t the farewell or silent plea for forgiveness of a medic who had failed. He’d seen that before. She held her hands like a healer preparing for a jutsu.

“Gaara,” Kankurou whispered, kneeling on the other side of the body, face twisted with grief. The grief of losing his brother.

Sasuke remembered his promise to Temari and flinched.

“Kazekage-sama,” Fuunotora said softly, folded hands pressed against her mouth. “He was taken because he tried to protect us instead of escaping.”

“The other villages and hosts will know, now,” Sakura offered, just as soft, eyes fixed on Gaara’s body. “We’ll find a way to destroy Akatsuki for this. That, at least.”

“There may be something more.” Chiyo’s words dropped into the soft sounds of grief like pebbles into a pool.

Kankurou looked up with a jerk, and Naruto flung himself down beside her, all in one moment. “What?” Naruto demanded, eyes blazing. Chiyo looked back steadily. “You have great reserves of chakra,” she said. “It may be enough, if you will lend me your strength.”

“Anything,” Naruto promised, tautly, reaching out to her, chakra already spilling into reddish visibility around his hands.

Kankurou whispered, voice harsh, “Chiyo-baasama…”

“Hush, boy,” she told him with a faint smile. “It’s my choice. I was the one who got Gaara into this mess, after all.” She beckoned Naruto closer. “Feed your chakra to me, Naruto-kun. Don’t falter. It will be a heavy draw; this is a deep technique.” Softly she added, “And a forbidden one.”

Naruto froze in mid-reach, eyes even wider than before. “Forbidden…?”

She smiled, quite serene, and Sasuke’s heart twisted with the utter contrast between her expression and Itachi’s mad calm. Chiyo’s eyes were deep and shadowed, but content. “To bring back one who is already gone, my own life must be given.”

Naruto flinched back. “But—!”

Chiyo reached up and rapped him over the head with her knuckles. “You hush too,” she scolded. “I said it was my choice, and it is. It’s one you may face someday, too, though I will hope not. It’s a choice that comes to very powerful healers in time of war, though, all too often. And war is come on us again, I can see that.” She looked around at the Sand-nin standing, stunned, around her. “Understand. This is my gift to our village, that our leader may live and be strong, and we may not be deprived of his will and wisdom. I believe young Gaara has both those. Don’t let the silly boy brood, clear?” She fixed a sharp eye on Kankurou and he swallowed.

“Yes, Chiyo-baasama,” he said, husky.

Chiyo nodded briskly. “Good. Now, then.” She raised a brow at Naruto, who was biting his lip hard. The thought prodded at Sasuke that his team wasn’t just his anchor; he was theirs also, and Naruto obviously had no real idea why Chiyo had chosen this. He shook himself out of his daze and went to kneel beside Naruto. He was too tired to yell or argue, the way they normally would, so he settled for just thumping down behind Naruto and resting his forehead against Naruto’s back, nearly clinging to his shoulders for balance.

“It isn’t wrong,” he whispered. “It isn’t your fault, because you want him back. Okay? It’s her choice. As a noble, she’s chosen her duty to her village and clan and Kage. Help her do it.”

Chiyo’s mouth crooked. “You’re so sharp you’ll cut yourself, boy,” she murmured. Sasuke arched a tired brow at her. She didn’t exactly hide the signs that she was from one of the Sand’s noble clans. The influence she and her brother had, the size of the compound he’d heard some Sand-nin talking about—and with access to an underground river, in this desert village—wasn’t it obvious? His thoughts were wandering. He hauled them wearily back.

“You’re sure?” Naruto said, low and uncertain.

Sasuke tightened his hands for a moment. If Naruto was sometimes his voice, maybe he was Naruto’s history—all the things Naruto should have been taught, as the son of the Fourth, but never had been. “I’m sure," he said softly.

“Okay, then.” Naruto scooted forward, and Sasuke swayed, reaching out to brace himself against the ground to keep from falling over. Hands tipped him back upright, though the hands themselves were shaking. He looked up to see Kakashi looking down at him, drawn and gray like Sasuke had never seen before. The corner of his visible eye was crinkled, but not with the usual smile lines—with something softer and sadder. This mission had wrung out a lot of hearts, he thought distantly.

He managed to straighten up a bit, at least long enough for Sakura to kneel beside him and wrap an arm around him. They watched Naruto’s hands pressed over Chiyo’s on Gaara’s chest.

“It was a technique for puppets,” Kankurou muttered, broad shoulders tight, eyes fixed on Gaara. “To give them life. But it always cost a life. Chiyo-baasama forbid it herself.”

Light grew and refracted around Naruto and Chiyo’s hands. Sasuke wondered what he would see if he’d been able to muster chakra for the Sharingan. Gai had come to stand with them, one shoulder under Kakashi’s; their commander must have spent all his reserves, too, to be accepting support like that in public. Sasuke leaned against Sakura and blinked. Lots of public. There were… more people here than there had been.

The rise of ground before the temple was filling with new figures, one after another. Shinobi of the Sand, he realized, slowly taking in the uniforms they wore. One of them was Temari.


Kankurou caught her. “It’s okay,” he said, low and rough, as she tugged against his grip on her shoulders, dark, scared eyes fixed on their brother. “It’s okay. Chiyo-baasama has him.” His mouth twisted. “And Naruto, too.”

Whispers ran through the tripled crowd as he told her what had happened, that four of Akatsuki were confirmed dead. That Sand had killed their own renegade, and Leaf theirs.

“I couldn’t confine Hoshigake,” Gai was saying quietly to Kakashi, behind them. “I only barely defeated him, and that took opening the seventh gate. Nothing we have available could have held him, if he’d regained awareness.” For once that booming, bluff voice was hard. Dark.

“Best that you killed him, then.” Kakashi’s voice was cool. “We’ll see if we can make out anything of their plans from what the four of them said during battle.”

The light around the two healers faded and Kankurou hurried forward to catch Chiyo as she fell. Naruto looked grim and drawn, across from her, hands still resting on Gaara’s chest. “I’ll look out for him for you,” he whispered, eyes on the old woman’s body. “I promise.”

From the crowd, Chiyo’s brother came forward and took her from Kankurou, laying her out carefully a few steps away with some low, murmured words that Sasuke thought were probably goodbye.

Gaara stirred and breathed. By the time he opened his eyes, he was wrapped in Temari’s arms as she hid tears against his shoulder. “Nee-san,” he murmured, and that pulled a single, muffled sob out of her.

“Hey,” Naruto told Gaara, softly, smile crooked. “Everyone was just coming to save you.” He looked around at the crowd and Gaara followed his glance, eyes a bit wide. Noise broke over the crowd, sounding everywhere of relief as Gaara slowly stood with Naruto’s hand under his arm.

“Our turn,” Sakura murmured. “Can you stand?”

“I’m not the one who died,” Sasuke muttered. “Just help me up.”

So he was on his feet to offer his respects to Chiyo’s spirit, as Gaara requested. That was proper. Naruto came to join his team as Gaara’s siblings and people closed around their Kazekage, and Sasuke reached out and hauled him closer. “It was what she wanted. Her spirit thanks you,” he murmured, leaning against Naruto.

Naruto scrubbed a rough sleeve across his eyes and muttered, “You noble types are really crazy, you know that?” He leaned back, though, and some of the prickly tension Sasuke had felt, seeing Gaara dead and tossed aside just for the sake of his beast, settled in face of Naruto’s solid, living presence.

That would not happen to Naruto. Not ever. Sasuke had stopped Itachi, he’d kept his family alive, he’d do it again as often as he had to.

“…and if we have another healer around who can stop decomposition,” he heard Kakashi saying off to one side, “we’ll take Itachi’s body back to Konoha.”

Sasuke spoke without thinking. “No.” He turned to face Kakashi and two of the Sand shinobi, who were all looking at him, a bit startled.

“We don’t dare leave one of our advanced bloodlines just lying around,” Kakashi observed, brow raised.

“Then burn him here.” Certainty spilled through Sasuke with the words, and he straightened a little between Naruto and Sakura. “He chose this,” waving a hand at the temple and, by implication, all of Akatsuki’s works. “Let him stay here. He is banished from the clan, and his spirit is none of ours.” Against his side, he felt Sakura relax, and her arm tighten around him.

“All right,” Kakashi said after a long, thoughtful moment. “Naruto. Do you still have enough chakra for a sustained fire?”

Naruto glanced questioningly at Sasuke and, at his nod, patted Sasuke’s shoulder and stepped forward. “Yeah.”

The rest of the Leaf teams gathered around Sasuke as he watched Itachi’s body burn, wild and hot. Considerably hotter than he’d expected, actually, and his mouth twitched as he caught the vindictive glare Naruto was giving the body.

“What was it Tsunade-sama said about him?” Sakura murmured with a hint of laughter in her voice, apparently having noticed too.

“A pathologically overprotective beast host, who can be counted on to follow right after any kidnapping, setting forests on fire with his chakra as he goes,” Sasuke recited, having had exactly the same moment in mind.

"Not that you have a lot of room to talk, yourself," she added.

They were smiling as Naruto turned back to them, and he smiled too, some of the tight lines around his mouth relaxing again.

It was a slow journey home. They went back to Sand, first, so Naruto could make sure Gaara was all right and Kakashi could talk the Sand Council into returning Hoshigake’s body to Mist intact.

“We will need good will among the great villages very badly and very soon,” he’d told them bluntly, and eventually they’d agreed. Sasuke thought Kakashi-sensei really was very good at diplomatic stuff when he wanted to be—though he had no idea why it made Kakashi flinch when Sakura voiced the same thought out loud.

Kakashi and Sasuke were both still tired and had to go slowly. Lee’s ankle and hand had been set but weren’t fully healed. Gai had pushed himself too hard while he was still recovering from the Eight Gates and had been yelled at very firmly by an exasperated Sand medic and forbidden to run at more than half speed. Neji was trying to hide it, but he was still wincing now and then from taking even an interrupted Tsukuyomi.

And Sasuke’s mind wasn’t focusing the way it really should. Akatsuki was out there, and here was Leaf’s host in the open and only lightly guarded. He had work to do. He had a clan to re-found. He should be focused.

Instead, little random moments replayed in his mind’s eye. The expression on Gaara’s face when he overheard some of the Sand girls squealing over him. Sakura’s excited remarks over dinner one night about fish in the underground river. A curl of sand lifting Naruto’s hand up to meet Gaara’s, when they parted. The Naka priestesses dancing in the empty streets of the Uchiha compound.

He nearly stumbled over his own feet at that memory, and Naruto was instantly beside him, frowning worriedly.

“Hey, are you okay? Do you need to rest? Hey, everyone, we’re taking a break now!”

“I don’t need to rest,” Sasuke started.

“Medic says!” Naruto snapped, glaring at him.

“Use that too often, and it isn’t going to work some day when you need it,” Sasuke grumbled, but the group was already alighting at the foot of a tree and he resigned himself to a break whether he needed it or not.

And maybe it was best not to be running, for a moment. He leaned back against the tree and absently accepted the water bottle Naruto pressed into his hand, and looked into the past.

He hadn’t thought about the cleansing in years. The village had paid for the priests and priestesses of the Naka Shrine to cleanse the compound, after the bodies were taken away. To burn the handful of buildings that couldn’t be cleansed. He had vague memories of someone talking to him about the clan’s accounts, of signing something to pay for an auxiliary shrine, and for a priest to tend the murdered dead of Uchiha until their violence was appeased.

And the compound had had to be cleansed so that people… so that people would move in. He hadn’t thought about that, either. Not past the decision never to visit, never to see other people living in his clan’s place.

That was not, he understood in the abstract, any way for the head of a clan to act. But he didn’t know if he could do any differently.

“Hey.” Sakura, sitting next to him, nudged his shoulder with hers. “You doing okay?” She was looking away into the trees instead of at him, which he was glad for.

“It’s… there’s… something I need to think about.”

“Not surprised.” She gave him a little, sidelong smile. “You know we’re not leaving you, right?”

Sasuke snorted. “Since the two of you have barely left me alone in the bathroom for the last three days, I kind of figured, yeah.” His mouth had curved up at the corners, though, and Sakura looked satisfied.

“Just making sure.”

Sasuke was quiet for a moment. “After we get home,” he finally said. “Stay with me.”

Her eyes darkened for a moment, and she nodded.

Sasuke closed his water bottle and stood up. “Let’s get going, then.”

Eventually, they got back to Konoha and Kakashi went off to make reports and Naruto bullied the hospital staff into letting them all go after a check-up. He was getting good at that, Sasuke reflected, watching him wave his arms vigorously and lecture a faintly amused-looking doctor about all the tests and observations he’d made of the team on the way back.

And then he was finally home, walking through the darkening streets of his village as the lamps lit here and there, and climbing the stairs to his apartment with his teammates beside him.

Sakura promptly spread his double futon and pushed him down onto it, settling behind him. “All right,” she said firmly, strong hands kneading his shoulders. “We’re home. There’s no one else to see. You can let go.”

“Knew it,” Naruto grumbled from the kitchen nook.

“You just hush up and cook,” Sakura directed.

Sasuke didn’t know what he wanted to say until he heard the words, “I really loved my brother,” coming out of his mouth. Sakura took in a quick breath at that and wrapped her arms around him. Sasuke was glad for that; it kept the shaking in his stomach from taking his whole body. “I loved him,” he said again, slowly, painfully. “And then he turned into… that.”

“Maybe something happened to him,” Naruto suggested, from the direction of the stove. “Like Orochimaru tried to happen to you.”

Sasuke’s breath caught. He didn’t often think of that, these days—of the months when he’d been going, in retrospect, slowly crazy. “Oh.”

Sakura’s arms stayed strong around him, stilling the shaking, and he leaned back against her, just breathing. After a long, silent moment while she rocked him gently, Sakura asked, “Sasuke, what age did your clan inherit at? I mean… if there was any kind of recognition or ritual for the heir, when did that happen?” Her voice was slow and thoughtful.

“Thirteen,” Sasuke answered, automatically; another reason Orochimaru had gotten to him so easily, that year when, if he hadn’t been the last one alive, he should have been acknowledged, should have taken on more responsibilities. And then he froze. Thirteen. When he’d been seven. The year that his father and Itachi had started to quarrel. The year that his brother changed.

“Sasuke?” Sakura asked softly, one hand rubbing his back steadily.

“He changed, then,” Sasuke whispered, starting blindly at the wall. “He did. He and Tou-san argued. That… that was the year his best friend died.” A shudder ripped through him. “For the Mangekyou Sharingan… he said….”

“Said what?”

“Itachi killed him.” Sasuke tried to swallow, and found his throat too dry. “That night… when we fought… he said to go to the shrine. I found records about it. You have to kill the person closest to you.”

“To achieve that second Sharingan?” Sakura asked, and he just nodded.

“Well, but hang on.” Naruto came to the futon with hot mugs of ramen, of course, for all of them. Sasuke folded shaking hands around his. “Kakashi-sensei has one of those. He used it while we were chasing Deidara; that’s what got him in the end. Whoa, hey!” He put a fast hand under Sasuke’s cup to keep it from spilling as Sasuke jerked forward, staring at him.

“I told him,” Sasuke whispered, cold tightening on his chest. “After that mission to Hidden Stone, I told him, I asked him to help me unlock the records. But he couldn’t…” Please no, please not again.

Naruto’s snort broke the panicked circle of his thoughts. “Of course Kakashi-sensei hasn’t killed anyone!” He paused. “Well, not like that. I mean… he was in the last war. He’s killed people; he’s a shinobi after all. But not like that.”

No. Not like that, not Kakashi-sensei, the one who had taught him how not to listen to Itachi. Sasuke slowly relaxed again and managed a sip of his broth without spilling it, limp with relief.

“So there must be some other way to achieve it, then,” Sakura pointed out.

He blinked. “There… was something about that. I remember. The record of the Mangekyou, it said something about killing being the forbidden way, almost like there was more than one. But it didn’t say what any others might be, so I thought it must not mean that.”

“Well, it’s a forbidden technique,” Naruto said reasonably. “They wouldn’t want to say too much.”

“So we know Kakashi-sensei figured out a different way; good,” Sakura said firmly. “But that timing… I think something must have happened to Itachi. Something he had to do for the ritual or something he found out, then.”

“Maybe it was the clan records themselves,” Sasuke said, low, looking down into his noodles. “The records that were sealed in the shrine. I didn’t know about them until Itachi told me. They were secret.”

“He graduated young, didn’t he?” Sakura murmured. “And then went into ANBU, and he’d been a kid during the last war. I bet he was under a lot of pressure. Maybe it was just too much.”

Maybe the clan had been Itachi’s anchor, Sasuke thought, and maybe finding something like the Mangekyou in its history had just been too much. But a lot of people had been under heavy pressure and none of them had murdered all their relatives. So it had to be something about Itachi himself too. That was the thought that led him to mutter, “I wonder if it’ll happen to me, too.”

Naruto thumped his cup down by the bed. “No, it won’t,” he said, very definitely, and rocked forward on his knees to wrap Sasuke in his arms. “You lost everything once, and it didn’t happen. Even when people were trying to make it happen, it didn’t happen! And we won’t let it.” He leaned in and kissed Sasuke, gentle and awkward, and said, more quietly, “Okay?”

Sasuke let himself lean into them, into the rare, serious softness of Naruto’s eyes holding his and Sakura’s hands on his shoulders, and whispered, “Yeah. Okay.” His team. His anchor. His… family. They would keep him safe from this, too.

“Good. Then finish eating,” Naruto ordered, giving him the medic-look instead.

Sasuke picked up his mug of ramen, raising his brows. “This is your idea of good nutrition, as a healer, is it?”

“Hey, it’s salt, sugar, and carbohydrates!” Naruto protested. “What more do you want?” He sounded indignant, but he was grinning.

Sakura leaned against his shoulder giggling, and Sasuke ate a bite of ramen and felt himself settling back into his right place.

The season was turning before Sasuke could bring himself to visit the Uchiha compound. When he did he found that it wasn’t, any more.

He’d known, in theory, that part of the reason the village had paid for the cleansing of the compound from the deaths was so that people could live there again. And he’d been aware that he was, technically, the landlord of many people living on the compound’s ground. But he’d never paid any attention to that. The bank had assigned a trustee to the Uchiha accounts, there was more than enough money in them when he needed some, and he’d left it at that.

Now he actually saw what the figures on those quarterly statements he’d stuffed away without reading meant.

Parts of the compound were still empty, but in other places there were people: slow extensions of the surrounding neighborhoods, or a store reopened and a clutch of houses reoccupied around it. There were people walking in the streets, talking and arguing and laughing. Live, solid people, out in the sunlight under the changing leaves.

They just weren’t Uchiha.

He recognized every meter of this place, and it was all strange to him. The clash of past and present was so disorienting he had to stop now and then while Naruto or Sakura gave him their hands to grip until he could walk again.

They stayed close to him, and he caught them, once or twice, silently warning off someone whose eyes widened with recognition on seeing him. He was glad of that; if someone had asked him if he was Uchiha Sasuke, he wasn’t entirely sure what he would have answered. Even his own self felt strange to him, today.

Finally they came to the river, and the Naka shrine, and Sasuke stopped and stared.

There were people here, too.

The auxiliary shrine was built on a broad walk around the side of the main hall. It was well tended; the stone was clean and the paint bright. And there were people here. A woman stood before the offertory box, hands pressed together. A young couple were waiting quietly for her to finish. Two mothers and their children stood at the gate talking, smiling, perhaps waiting for the woman who prayed.

No one was afraid. No one walked too softly. They weren’t here to propitiate angry ghosts. They were here because it was the compound’s shrine, here to honor the clan who had held the land they lived on.

It was so much as it should be, so right, that he had to reach out for Naruto and Sakura again, and they gathered him into their arms, quick and protective.

He took what felt like the first full breath that day and said, “I need to come back here. This… I need to be here again. Here, where it’s new.”

He had feared, for years, that if he set foot back in the compound the weight of memory, the weight of that night, would crush him. And, at the same time, he had feared the intrusion of others, of outsiders who would desecrate the memory of his clan and his vengeance. Instead he had found… life. Life going on and yet honoring what had been, what had been his.

That was what, finally, let the tears he’d denied for almost ten years break through.

Naruto and Sakura held him through it, warm arms around him and quiet murmurs without meaningful words. And it was Sakura who found a tea shop inside the district for them and made him sit down where he could see the people passing while Naruto got hot tea and some sesame dango for them.

“This might be a nice place to live, right around here,” Sakura said softly, looking around. “One of the empty areas is near here. You could take something at the edge of that.” She smiled at him over the rim of her cup. “And have room to expand.”

The thought, the mental image of a house known but not too familiar, was a good one. More than that, the thought of having clan again, or at least the plans and space for one, made some cranky sense of something-off at the bottom of his heart subside.

Naruto leaned his elbows on his knees and smiled at Sasuke, sidelong. “So, hey, will you give us discount rental rates, if we move in around here?”

Sasuke couldn’t help smiling, even if it did stretch the rawness of his cheeks. “You can pay me part of it in babysitting.” The appalled look on Naruto’s face made him laugh.

“Oh, go on, Naruto, you’d be good at it,” Sakura said, ruthlessly. “And it’s not like I’m going to take too much time off for it.” She hesitated suddenly and added, not quite looking at either of them as her cheeks turned pink. “I mean. If you want me to. I figure I would be okay with it. Having Uchiha kids.”

Sasuke’s face heated, and he had to clear his throat. “I’d like that. Yeah.” He had a hard time imagining anyone else, though he supposed he’d better, eventually. He doubted Sakura had any intention of retiring to play clan-mother.

“Oh well, if they’re yours, I guess it’s okay; I’ll watch ’em,” Naruto muttered, also a little red himself. They all drank their tea in flustered silence.

As the thought settled in, though, Sasuke had to admit it felt good. It felt right.

His family. This time, the thought didn’t hurt.

Sasuke had barely settled on a suitable house when Sakura was recalled to work by Intelligence. Naruto wasn’t at all sure he approved of this.

"I’d tell them where they can stick this assignment," she told them, driving her hands through her short hair in frustration, "but Tsunade-sama is the one who requested me. It must be important."

"Can you tell us what it is?" Sasuke asked quietly.

"It’s a diplomatic mission, sort of. To Hidden Valley, to tell them about the Akatsuki base in their country so they can take care of it."

Naruto frowned. Okay, yeah, that was important. But so was their team! "Can we come with you?"

Sakura’s mouth tilted and she leaned back against one of the trees of the training ground with a thump. "They might let you go, but no one is going to pass Sasuke for duty yet, and I’m not leaving him here without you to look after him."

Sasuke didn’t say anything at all to that and Naruto scooted over on the log they shared to lean against him, worried. Sakura came and sat on her heels in front of Sasuke, resting her hands on his shoulders. "It’s okay," she said softly. "Kakashi-sensei is leading this mission. Even if we run into any more of Akatsuki, none of the rest of them are going to go after me to get a lever on you, right?"

Sasuke relaxed a little, and Naruto’s eyes widened. Was that what he’d been worried about? Sakura looked over at him meaningfully. "Take care of Sasuke while I’m gone, all right?"

Stay with him so he had at least one of them in view, Naruto was betting that meant, and nodded firmly. He could do that.

Sasuke snorted. "Shouldn’t you be telling me to look after him, so he doesn’t eat nothing but ramen and store bought onigiri while you’re gone?"

That sounded more like their Sasuke and Naruto grinned even as he drew himself up indignantly. "Hey, I can cook!"

"Yes, you can," Sasuke answered blandly. "You just don’t."

Sakura laughed and everything was okay again, even a day later when they saw her off at the gates. Sasuke got quieter again once the gates closed, though, so Naruto steered them toward a takoyaki stand just to make him roll his eyes. It worked and the food tasted great. Complete win.

"If you’re going to hang around," Sasuke told him, having obviously figured that part out, "you can help me pack. With luck it’ll be done by the time Sakura gets back, and she can lend a hand with moving."

"Okay," he agreed around a mouthful of dumpling, and chalked up another win at the long-suffering look Sasuke gave him for his lack of manners.

Someone had to keep Sasuke from getting too serious, after all.

Packing to move was strange. Naruto was pretty sure it violated the laws of physics, because even when there was as much boxes of stuff as there had been space to put stuff, there was still stuff left. It was also, he decided after no more than an hour, not a good thing for Sasuke to be doing when he was already in a low mood. The third time he caught Sasuke sitting there on the mats, staring at a photo or a book or a kunai, he decided it was time to take measures. Sakura had entrusted Sasuke to him, after all.

The problem was what measures, and he thought about that as he wrapped up plates and bowls, of which Sasuke had about five times as many as he did. Sasuke wouldn’t agree to food again so soon. He might agree to some training, but if he’d gotten into the wrong mood that might just make him even more dark and broody, the way he got sometimes when he was seeing ghosts in place of his actual target.

Well, if those were out, there was always their other popular team activity.

Naruto grinned, tucking away the last bowl. Yeah. That should work. He closed the box, stacked it with the rest and strolled over to where Sasuke was sorting his shelves. "Hey, Sasuke?"

"What?" When Sasuke looked up, Naruto took the opening and swooped down to kiss him.

Sasuke made a startled sound, one fist closing in Naruto’s shirt as if to throw him. Naruto laughed, which made the kiss a little odd for a moment, and slumped forward, letting his weight bear Sasuke back to the tatami. Sasuke growled at that, eyes lighting up properly, and rolled.

They half wrestled over the floor for a few turns, laughing and groping, until Naruto got his hand into Sasuke’s pants. That made Sasuke’s eyes half close, and he ground his hips down against Naruto. "Mmm."

Naruto grinned. "I win," he declared, breathless.

"Oh you do, huh?" Sasuke looked down at him thoughtfully, eyes glinting, and finally smiled. "Try this, then." He closed both hands around Naruto’s face and kissed him. A different kiss than usual.

It was slow and… gentle. Coaxing. And something else, too. Sasuke’s mouth moved over his carefully, and his hands cradled Naruto’s face like… like Naruto was something precious he didn’t want to drop. That thought made a little sound catch in the back of his throat, and Sasuke’s arms wrapped around him with that same care.

"I know it sounds weird for me, of all people, to say," Sasuke murmured, resting his forehead against Naruto’s. "But not everything has to be a competition."

Naruto swallowed, eyes wide. "O… okay." Slowly, he wrapped his arms around Sasuke, too, and it made his heart do turny-flippy things when Sasuke relaxed, letting Naruto take his weight.

"Itachi," Sasuke said quietly. "That… that wasn’t a competition either. But I want to be better than him."

"You are!" Naruto said fiercely, holding Sasuke tighter. "You already are!"

"Mm." He could feel Sasuke smiling a little against his neck. "Not stronger yet, though."

That felt wrong to Naruto, and he thought about it. "You were in the end, though," he finally said, slowly. "You won, Sasuke. That’s stronger, isn’t it?"

"I couldn’t block Amaterasu, though," Sasuke objected and Naruto frowned.

"So what? You won. Quit trying to find reasons for it not to count!" He pummeled Sasuke’s shoulder for a moment before wrapping his arms back around him. "Besides, Sakura looked in the Intelligence records and said it sounded like that Mangekyou thing is really dangerous and makes you go blind. Is that true? You’d better not be thinking of doing that if it’s true."

After a taut moment, Sasuke snorted and relaxed over him again. "Yeah, okay. I guess… I did win." He leaned up on an elbow, looking down at Naruto soberly. "And yes. The Mangekyou Sharingan leads to blindness if it’s used too often. I want to find a different way."

"Well that’s okay, then." Naruto settled his arms comfortably around Sasuke’s waist. "We’ll help."

"Yeah," Sasuke said softly. "I know you will." He slid back down to lie against Naruto and added, a bit muffled against his shoulder, "Thanks."

Naruto smiled and just held him. "Yeah."

A/N: Little changes: Kakashi has slightly better aim than in canon because I’m not going to faff around with multiple rounds against Akatsuki, and Gai’s fight with Kisame goes very much the same as in canon except that it’s the real thing, which means he has to open up another level to beat him. I’m thinking Sasori’s fight also goes quite similarly, only Chiyo has Fuunotora and her teams instead of Sakura. Since those are all basically canon-replays, I’m not going to do them up in detail. You already know pretty much what happens.