Shattered Bonds 13

Shattered Bonds 13 — Finding Sasuke, Again  

Author’s Note: I don’t know if I’ve published early copies of this story here or not (looking back through my posts, I don’t think I have) but here’s an early copy of the next chapter! I’ll post it on on Friday. Enjoy!


I hope you actually read this, and don’t just ball it up and throw it in the trash.

It’s hard to admit, but I think I’ve been lost. For a while, actually. I don’t know if you’ll understand —  you’ve always seemed to know exactly what you’ve wanted and gone for it unerringly. But I think, somewhere a long the way, I lost sight of what was important.

I started on this road before we were even a team. I planned out every aspect of what I was going to do, how I was going to gain power and avenge my clan. And I did everything I’d set out to do.

But when I came to the end of the road that I’d worked so hard to get down, when my goal was complete, I found out that it was just a dead end. It offered me no peace.

So I started thinking back, going over all the incidents in my life, all the things I’d overcome, going back and back, before my life was consumed by revenge and hatred and lust for power. I went back, trying to remember what made me happy, whole.

It was pathetic really. I discovered that, after everything I’d accomplished, the things that made me happy weren’t really things at all. It was people and experiences. I realized the one thing that made me happy was the one thing I’d been running from all along. Being a part of Team 7. Being in Konoha and doing stupid crap, pulling weeds, eating ramen. Even going on missions and still being so weak and young was better, had more heart and soul in it, than all the things I did with my newly acquired powers.

I discovered that it was after I’d left the village that things started to go downhill. I achieved my goals, but each one came at a cost. I ignored it at first, thinking that it was the way gaining power and experience and maturity must feel.

But the greater the gains, the more I felt like he was hardening inside. I stopped caring about the reasons why I was on this mission. By the time I got to Itachi, I wasn’t killing him for my mother or father. I barely even thought about them. I was killing Itachi for myself. Because there was nothing else in my life I wanted more.

And when I’d done it, there really was nothing else I wanted.

And that’s when I realized maybe the path I’d been on had been the wrong one.

It took me a while to figure it out. It didn’t happen overnight. But slowly I realized that I had nothing in common with the team I’d built. I never quite fit, but I thought I’d get over it, that it would get better. But it never did. We traveled together, encountered different foes, but it never felt like a unit. Not like it had when we were kids.

Not until we overnighted in some far-flung village did something happen that showed me I couldn’t go on.

We killed a foreign genin team, mistakenly thinking they were Akatsuki’s or Kabuto’s underlings tracking us, or hunter nins from any of the countries my team were from. We could never take chances. We were all wanted, by many places and for many reasons

As soon as the genins were discovered they split and fled through the forest. It was pitch black and they were wearing black cloaks in an area where Akatsuki had frequented. Each of my team took one assailant and ran them to ground. I thought because they split they were sharp nins, confident in their own strength. But I know now they were just scared kids, not thinking and staying together where they would have more power.

I realized my mark was a genin only moments before the kunai hit him. He leapt to a branch, but his chakra wasn’t solid enough to keep his foot on the limb. His chakra sputtered and he flailed. I knew it right then, but my aim was true. I took him with a single blow, the kunai driving in just deep enough to pierce his heart. He was dead before he hit the ground.

When I pulled back his hood, he looked like…you. Pale hair going everywhere, big eyes. There almost looked like there was a smile on his stupid face. Almost. What did it matter. He was dead. I’d killed him.

The rest of the team brought their marks to the meeting place. Two boys, light and dark haired, and a girl. All dead. Everyone was quiet, realizing that we’d killed a bunch of kids. We cleaned up and moved on, but I didn’t. Not inside.

I realized then that I had killed us. Our team. Hadn’t I already done it once when I was younger by leaving Team 7? Now I’d done it again. But this time, I’d become like my brother. I was the hunter. I was creating the cycle of vengeance now. Killing Itachi hadn’t resolved anything. It had only made things worse.

I’d hit a dead end. That’s when I realized I couldn’t go on. I couldn’t fight any longer. I couldn’t be like Itachi. Not for another day.

I didn’t know what I wanted, but I knew I didn’t want this life. So one night, while the rest of my team slept, I left.

I wandered for a long time, not knowing what to do. But it still wasn’t safe, and I knew I’d end up having to kill again, if just for self defense. Yes, I was wanted as a nukenin and a criminal, but I discovered my eyes made me a very valuable asset for other countries. I was seen as a weapon, by everyone from the Akatsuki to the governments of the five nations.

The only place that had never treated me as such was Konoha. I was allowed to grow there. I was supported and protected. It was then that I started to understand exactly what I’d thrown away in my youth.

But returning now would just land me in a Konoha jail cell — not an appealing option either, although at least there I knew they wouldn’t strip me of my eyes or force me to fight for them. You were still there. So I had hope for the rest of them. If you were still there, then it was still the Konoha I knew. I was sure of that.

Time passed, and I learned that there was no safe port for me. I had traveled alone, eating where I could, sleeping rarely, when I came across your chakra signature. I thought it was a mirage. A product of an empty stomach or a sleep-starved mind. But no, I checked again and again. I knew it like mine own, a chakra that was so familiar I couldn’t believe I’d forgotten it. So I tracked you down.

I figured even if you killed me in surprise it would be a better death than dying at the hands of a hunter nin or in some foreign jail cell waiting for them to use me or kill me.

So I took a chance. Just to see you. Then I’d tell you how much I’d fucked everything up. And that the things I thought were true were not, and that the plans I’d made had all failed and that really, I was wrong. I had wasted so much time chasing after ghosts, that I’d missed the friend that was right in front of me.

I should have never left. I should have listened to you and Sakura and Kakashi. My way was never the right way. But I was too stubborn to see anything else. So I had to learn the hard way how wrong I really was.

But…I didn’t say any of that.

In fact, I don’t think I said anything at all. You didn’t kill me, which was a good thing, but I found that just being there, finally in front of the one person who would understand me, I was too scared to say anything at all. Or too stupid.

I was just…exhausted. Physically and emotionally.

All I remember was that I wanted to sleep. That I’d finally put my burden down. That I was safe, at least for a little while. That I knew you, and if anyone attacked, you’d have my back. Even now. Because that’s the type of person you are, even though I hadn’t been there for you as I should have been.

And when I woke up it was like I saw everything differently. The path was before me, if I was brave enough to take it. Konoha might throw me in jail, but it was a better fate than this. Being in a prison without walls and always worrying that one misstep and I’d end up on some table with my eyes being used as weapons against the people I had once sworn to protect.

So I came home. And you saved me a second time by coming up with that crazy story about fighting together. Tsunade saw right through you, dumbass. But that you all still believed in me enough to accept me back, after going the wrong direction for so long, is a gift I’ll always be grateful for.

I know it’s been hard, coming back and not diving right into Team 7, but I don’t want to make the same mistakes again. Fighting for the wrong reasons. Tsunade said to give it some time and that things will work themselves out, and I hope that’s true. I know from my own life that sometimes time is the only teacher that hard-heads like me…and you…will accept.

I’m leaving now, but I’m not giving up on my village again. It works better for everyone this way if I move around a bit for a while. Keeps the council happy, because they really did want to throw me in jail. Now they can ignore that fact that they really don’t have any control over Tsunade at all. I have an Anbu detail. I work at the pleasure of the Hokage and report directly to her. I’m a diplomat with benefits, specifically that I am her eyes and ears in places where she cannot go. I have found a path I’m happy being on.

I’ll be back soon, I’m only assigned for a few months at a time, so we’ll get some ramen when I get back. Maybe then I’ll have gotten better about saying all this to your stupid face. Maybe…but don’t hold your breath.

Until then, I’m glad to count myself as part of Team 7. The only true team I’ve ever known.


Naruto crushed the letter to his chest. In one breath, the anger that he’d built up against Sasuke since his return rushed out. He saw his friend with clear eyes. And the hope and bond that he felt when Sasuke first tumbled out of the woods at the campfire all those long nights ago came back to him. This was his friend, his brother, his teammate. How could he have been so blind.

Naruto had spent months knocking around Konoha trying to find his way. He’d put all his energy into having things go according to his plan, a plan which he thought was best for everyone. But it turned out his most cherished people didn’t want it. And now he wasn’t sure if he even wanted those carefully crafted plans.

He pulled the letter back and shook his head at it in disbelief. He had been foolish and stubborn. He had spent months running away from the one person that would’ve understood him perfectly — Sasuke.

A dead end. That was what Sasuke called it. Yeah, Naruto felt like he was at a dead end. And he had no idea what to do about it. Where to go next. But Sasuke would know. He’d lived through it.

Tsunade couldn’t understand. She had the concerns of a nation on her shoulders. And Kakashi and Team 8 and all their other friends just expected him to get over it, move on, just be cheerful and upbeat like he always had. But he didn’t know how to this time. Only Sasuke would understand. He needed to find Sasuke. See him. Talk to him.

With every breath, Naruto grew more certain of this course of action. He shoved the letter back into the envelop, not bothering to pluck out the stray pink note that had fallen in with it, and jammed the drawer closed.

It was the middle of the night, but Naruto felt as energized as if it were dawn. He knew what he had to do, and he didn’t want to lose a moment in starting out, especially since he only had two weeks of leave time left. It may not be enough to track Sasuke down, especially if he didn’t want to be found.

Naruto changed into fresh fatigues, splashed some water on his face and snapped on his kunai holsters and weapons pouches. Tightening the laces to his boots, he decided not to ask permission first — he didn’t want to wait the extra hours till dawn to go to the Hokage’s office and fill out the proper and required leave forms — he’d just apologize later. Naruto grabbed a sheet of paper, dashed off a quick note and left it on his table in case Kakashi came looking for him.

Shutting the door firmly behind him, Naruto got a few steps down the landing before turning back suddenly. He took his spare key out of his pocket and slid it back into the empty spot above the door moulding. Then, feeling more hopeful than he had in months, he launched into Konoha’s night.

One week later, a ragged, tired and hungry Naruto stumbled into a clearing in an Earth Country forest. Heaving and pale, he collapsed next to the low campfire burning in the center.

But the single occupant of the fire circle didn’t even bat an eyelid. “You look like shit.” He took another bite from his skewered meat, pulled a second skewer from the rose-plated ashes and held it out.

Naruto blinked, looking from the steaming meat to the smooth face of of his long-sought friend and back again.

Sasuke hitched a single eyebrow. “I saved you some,” he said in the same unconcerned tone. “Don’t tell me you’re too tired to eat now that you’ve come all this way—“

Naruto rubbed his growling stomach and panted, “How— How— How did you know? How did you know I was here? I’ve looked everywhere for you— Chased so many false trails—“

A black figure broke through the treeline. Naruto looked up and recognized the white masked person as an Anbu agent from Konoha. Sasuke raised a hand in the air, communicating that everything was under control, and the Anbu agent disappeared into the darkness again.

Sasuke waggled the skewered meat at Naruto, tempting him. Naruto’s stomach growled loudly, prompting another grimace before he scooted over to take the offered food. Naruto savored each bite then looked over the empty skewer, still chewing, and eyed his friend. Sasuke smirked back.

“False trails are this Anbu agent’s specialty. That’s why he was assigned to me. He creates ghost impressions on the landscape—“

“Yeah,” Naruto grumbled, “that turn out to be nothing at all. You don’t have to tell me about it.”

Sasuke smirked again. “We knew you were on our trail about a day ago when you tripped his chakra line. Next time you’re hunting someone, you might want to keep your chakra better concealed. You’re about a subtle as a flare gun.”

Naruto scowled and threw his empty skewer into the fire.

But Sasuke only smiled, proving that the good natured ribbing was as warming to the soul as the camp fire was in the dark solitude of a foreign forest.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Sasuke said, still smiling. “It’s a nice surprise. I don’t get many visitors. Well…none, really. What brings you out this far?”

Sasuke’s black eyes watched Naruto, reading Naruto’s face as he shuffled through his emotions. First he laughed as if it was nothing, then he bit his lip, turning inward and thinking about his reasons and how much to divulge. And when he looked up at last, Naruto’s face was open and honest, free from the blustering smiles he used to keep everyone else at bay. He was simply to tired to don that mask. He had come too far to turn back now.

“I read your letter.”

Sasuke lips curved up. “Good. I hoped you would. But I wasn’t sure.”

Naruto wiped the dust from the tops of his shoes and sighed. “Well, it took me a long time,” he confessed with a small shrug.

But Sasuke wasn’t offended. He made himself comfortable and settled in to wait for his friend to come to his point, not wanting to rush him with more questions. It was clear there was something on his mind. And Sasuke could guess what it was…or rather, who. This was a conversation they’d needed to have for a while.

At length, Naruto blew out a long, low breath. “I didn’t understand you. For a long time. Why you didn’t want to be a shinobi anymore. But now I think I do…. I’m thinking of quitting too.”

For the first time that night, and the first time in as long as he could remember, Sasuke was surprised. Stunned. He sat slack-jawed in the firelight for a moment.

“Th-That’s the last thing I’d ever expect to hear from you, Naruto.”

Naruto shrugged, defeated. “Yeah, well…it’s true. There’s no other way to put it.”

“What brought all this on?”

And then, surprising Sasuke and in truth, surprising Naruto himself, Naruto began explaining how he’d arrived at that point, his experiences in Anbu and the words of Kakahi and Tsunade. He explained about feeling that he’d gone down every path, explored every avenue open to him, but that he’d still reached a dead end. He didn’t have a name for it until he read Sasuke’s letter.

Sasuke was silent, listening to the whole thing and waiting until he was sure Naruto was finished before he spoke again. When he did speak, his words were careful and measured.

“I think…. I think it’s not that being a shinobi is wrong for you, it’s that the reasons you were doing it were wrong.” Naruto tipped his head, listening closely. “You built your hopes and dreams on shaky ground. On false ideas. Or maybe, immature ones. And now you’ve grown up. You have to find new reasons to follow your path.”

Naruto bobbed his head, thinking. “Tsunade said something like that,” he said quietly.

Sasuke continued. “For me, I had always followed this path that had been set out for me, never thinking I could change. My family expected me to be a shinobi. And after they died…. Well, I chased after Itachi, cutting down anyone who stood in the way of my revenge.

“But I started to question if I had it all to do again, if it was my choice, and mine alone, would I choose the same path? Would I go after revenge…or would I choose the life that you and Sakura had? Safe, in a village, living to protect not to harm. And after that, I just lost the taste for it all. I’d had enough of killing to last a lifetime.”

Naruto screwed up his face in question. “But if you still want that, a life in Konoha, then what are you doing out here?”

Sasuke laughed. “I think I got too used to moving around. So, I’m protecting the village in my own way. Sending back covert information while staying on the move. It suits me right now. Eventually I’ll settle down….” He shrugged.

“Like, back in the village?”

“Yeah, sure. I could see myself eventually in the village, starting a family….” His black eyes had sharpened on Naruto’s face. This was the one topic that Naruto had been suspiciously silent on. And it was the one topic he knew they needed to clear the air about. And he was hoping they could do it without coming to blows.

“Well, don’t stay gone too long.” Naruto laughed but there was no humor in it. “I don’t know if Sakura’s waiting for you anymore.”

“Sakura was never waiting for me.”

Naruto scoffed. But Sasuke watched him closely.

“I saw the way you two were together,” he said, but his careless demeanor was straining. “I saw the way you looked at her. You can’t deny that.”

Sasuke’s eyebrow hitched up. His mouth curled at the corners the same way it did when they were kids in training and he was leading Naruto into a trap.

“No, I won’t deny it. She’s beautiful and strong and amazing….” Naruto snapped his attention to Sasuke, that old rivalry alive in his blazing blue eyes. Sasuke smirked. “I’d be a fool not to be interested in her. She’s forgiven me completely, and supported everything I’ve done since I’ve been back. She’d be the perfect wife. Except—”

Naruto looked like he wanted to jump across the fire and throttle him. “You don’t know anything about her. How much she’s changed since you’ve been gone—

“Except—” Sasuke repeated calmly, but Naruto interrupted him again.

“She’s worked so hard, juggling both her shinobi and her medic duties—“


“She’ll outdo Tsunade one day. Baa-chan even says so! You have no idea how much she’s changed! You weren’t there, you didn’t see her! So don’t act like you know her so well, that you know everything she wants!”

Sasuke sat back, realizing it was pointless to reason with Naruto yet. He was still too worked up. “So what you’re telling me is that she’s changed.”


“And what about you, Naruto? How have you changed?”

“I haven’t changed! I don’t change! I still want the same things I did as a kid.” Naruto knew he was lying, even as he said it. And that thought only made him angrier.

Sasuke narrowed his eyes. “Bullshit. If that’s the case, then what are you doing out here?”

Naruto stared challengingly across the fire from him. But Sasuke wasn’t letting it go. They were finally getting to the heart of the matter.

“Did you really think I’d come back and we’d be genin all over again? We’d start training and going off to fight? Or were you thinking that since I was home, I’d pick up where I left off with Sakura? That it, isn’t it? We didn’t fall right in line with your plans for us. And now you’re pissed!”

Naruto was really pissed now. He folded his arms across his chest and sat across the fire, firelight and anger blazing in his blue eyes. He jutted out his chin and looked away, refusing to acknowledge any truth in Sasuke’s words.

But Sasuke’s smirk only deepened. He knew Naruto wouldn’t open up so readily. That’d be too easy. Fortunately Sasuke knew how to reach him. He knew him like a brother.

“Because of course Sakura is still madly in love with me, just the way she was at 12 years old….”

Naruto tightened a fist.

“If people don’t change,” Sasuke goaded, “then why does it bother you if I come back to claim Sakura, she’s amazing isn’t she? And she worked so hard…just for me—

“She didn’t do it for you,” Naruto growled. “She did it for herself. And you don’t know anything about her. I don’t care how much time you spent talking to her. It’s not the same. You weren’t here. You didn’t see her. You didn’t help her. You weren’t here. So you shouldn’t just be able to walk right back in and—

“Are you saying that you have a problem with me if I’m interested in her?” Naruto’s answer was written all over his face. Sasuke narrowed his eyes. “If she’s still the same kid I left crying at the gate, then she must have done all this for me right?”

“She did it for herself you arrogant asshole!”

Naruto launched across the fire. But anger and fatigue made him a terrible fighter. He flailed around, never landing a punch on Sasuke, until Sasuke neatly flipped him on his back and disabled him.

“You don’t deserve her,” Naruto yelled up at Sasuke, struggling against his iron grip. “You don’t deserve to just walk back into the village and have everything handed to you. And…her! You don’t deserve her!” Angry tears leaked out of the sides of his eyes.

There it was, finally out in the open. Sasuke nearly sighed from relief. When Naruto stopped struggling, Sasuke scooted off, leaving Naruto lying there, staring up at the night sky through the tree branches.

“The Naruto I remember when I left would never have told me off. Especially about Sakura. You’ve changed too. Even though you won’t admit it.”

He shook his head stubbornly, then sat up and dusted himself off, dashing the traitorous tears quickly away.

“You’re right,” Sasuke said calmly, all trace of teasing gone from his voice. “I don’t deserve to walk back through the gates and have everything handed to me. And I don’t deserve her.

“The only reason I could ever come back is because I had friends who didn’t give up on me. Who still accepted me no matter how much I changed.”

Naruto had grown still, listening finally. He propped his elbows on his knees and stared at the glowing embers of the fire.

Sasuke continued. “I didn’t expect to come back and find a 12-year-old girl crying at the gates. And I didn’t expect my best friend to still be somebody I could only connect with through petty rivalries. I’ve grown up, and so have you and Sakura. I wouldn’t wish it back even if I could. I want you as my ally, not my enemy. I don’t want to fight any more. Not if I can help it.”

“Then what about Sakura?”

“What about Sakura, you dumbass?”

“I’ve seen the way you look at her. Don’t think I don’t see it—“

“So? What do you care? Are you still the same little kid I remember, who would just step out of the way and let me win?”

Naruto snorted loudly. “I never let you win anything—“

“So what about Sakura? Why haven’t you gone after her? Or have you already given up?”

Naruto scoffed again, anger flaring. “I haven’t given anything up!” But his anger quickly cooled. “But she doesn’t feel that way. People don’t change—“

Sasuke tsked and shook his head. Naruto frowned at words, realizing it sounded more like an excuse than a fact.

“We’ve all changed, and if you would stop running away and looked at that, you’d see she has too. But that would involve you putting yourself out there. The real you. The one that doesn’t hide behind all those goofy grins.”

Naruto sneered petulantly, prompting a laugh from Sasuke.

“Sakura’s amazing,” Sasuke continued. “So much more than I ever remembered, I admit. And if she thought about me that way, well then, I’d be pretty lucky. But….” Sasuke looked long and hard at Naruto. “But…she doesn’t. She’s got a thing for another guy. I couldn’t even touch it.”

Naruto looked away, clearly not believing him.

“And if the dumbass would ever wake up, he’d see she’s been right in front of him all along.”

Naruto looked at him, blinking. Sasuke’s meaning slowly sank in. “She told me a while ago, some things, that she’d changed…. I— I didn’t believe her. I didn’t think she could feel that way. Not for me, at least. So I told her that—“ Naruto stopped suddenly clearly not wanting to confess what he’d actually said.

Sakura had said “I love you.” But he had only responded with an “I hate you.” No, he shook his head, that wasn’t right. “I hate people who lie to themselves.” But maybe he had been lying to himself. They had all changed, and he refused to accept it.

Maybe Sasuke was right. Maybe things would have gone differently if he had just put himself out there. Believed that she might have meant what she said, instead of automatically thinking the worst of her. And really the worst of himself too. Somewhere deep down he must have still believed he was second-place to Sasuke. After all, it must have taken a lot of courage for Sakura had put herself out there like that. And what did he give her? Nothing. Not even a thank you. He fisted a handful of hair, wishing he could do it all over again.

Sasuke shook his head at his friend. “Don’t worry, you don’t have to repeat it. I know what you said. You’re a real idiot, you know that? But she knows it too. She said she’d wait for you to come around—“

“Really? She said that?” Naruto looked up, hair sticking up at all ends. Hope lit up his eyes and Sasuke nodded encouragingly. But suddenly, the light went dim and Naruto’s face drooped into even greater dejection than before.

“Yeah, well I’m a bigger idiot than you know. She’s not waiting for me anymore. She’s gone off to the Sand.”

Sasuke frowned. “I knew she’d gone to the Sand for a time, to train their medics, but that doesn’t mean—“

“She’s got a boyfriend there. A top doctor. Brilliant. Handsome,” Naruto grumbled. “Tsunade says she’s coming back, but I don’t think she is. She didn’t see them together.”

Sasuke frowned. “I have a hard time believing—“

“Nah, I’ve been an ass,” Naruto said soberly. “Running away? Not putting myself out there — was that what you called it? I think I was doing that. I partnered up with Team 8. But I think I maybe I was just hiding out with them. Glomming on,” he said ruefully. Naruto pounded a fist into his hand, frustrated. “In the end, I was the one who finished off our team! Not you!”

Sasuke started to speak but Naruto waved him off.

‘You’re right.” Naruto pulled out the folded up letter from his back pocket. A crumpled pink note fell out of the crease. Naruto opened it and smoothed it out. “My goal was to get you back, then we’d all be happy. I guess I’ve changed too. Having you back meant that I’d have to give up Sakura—“ He closed his fist around the little note. “But I’ve lost her all on my own too. I’m such an idiot.”

Sasuke was quiet, sensing there was more. Naruto sighed. He closed the note up in his fist.

“So how do you do it? How do you straighten everything out? How do you find a new path after you’ve hit a dead end? How do you find a new…” Naruto’s voice trailed off for a moment, realizing he was grappling with exactly what Tsunade said Sakura had, “purpose?”

Sasuke tipped his head, his eyes soft. “You go back to the beginning. Start over. Like unraveling a sweater. Go back to the beginning. For me, I didn’t know I was going to come back to Konoha. I just wanted to find you. That was enough.” A crooked, almost sheepish smile appeared on Sasuke’s face. His cheeks tinged pink at the confession, making him look like a boy again.

His smile made a warmth bloom in Naruto’s chest. Sasuke was being honest, and Naruto felt connected to him in the way he’d been searching for all along. Deep down, their bond of friendship was still there. Time had not dimmed it. Maybe this was what he meant by starting over.

“So I go back to the beginning,” Naruto repeated.

Sasuke nodded. “Find the things that you want. Not what you want for others. Start there.”

Naruto stared into the fire, mulling over the words.

“You want to be Hokage,” Sasuke continued. “You always have. And that’s not a team effort. That all on your shoulders. So keep going for it. Do everything to be the best Hokage Konoha’s ever seen.”

A frown line creased itself into Naruto’ forehead. Doubt preyed on him. “Yeah, but maybe I’m not good at doing this…. Telling other people what to do and all. Maybe it’s too much for me. Look at what I did to my own team…. Maybe I’m just not cut out for being a Hokage?”

But Sasuke looked calmly back. He didn’t laugh or pity or tease. “Nope,” he said firmly. “There’s nobody better for it. You don’t give up, and you protect anyone who needs protecting. It drives you to find a way when there isn’t one. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to come back. But you made a way for me. Because you didn’t worry about what any one else thought. And that’s what you have to do when you’re Hokage. Be responsible for your own actions. No one else’s. The rest will work itself out.”

Naruto blinked, hearing Tsunade’s words again in a whole new way. His friend really had changed, and Naruto looked at him, astonished.

“That’s really, uh…deep, man.”

Sasuke chuckled. “I’ve had some time to think along the way.”

Naruto breathed deeply, feeling like the sun had risen inside him. He had purpose again, something to work towards. He remembered being a kid, and wanting to be Hokage so badly he could taste it, and now, with Sasuke’s support, it seemed like the goal was within reach again after it had been lost for so long—

“So Sakura’s gone off to the Sand,” Sasuke began and Naruto suddenly slumped, remembering that not everything was so clear cut in his life. Sasuke laughed. “Well…are you just going to let her go?”

Naruto shrugged. “If she’s happy then—“

“She’s not happy, I’m sure of it. I know how she feels about you—“

“You do?”

“You do too,” Sasuke said in his you-really-are-an-idiot tone of voice.

“Yeah, I suppose I do.”

“You need to go to her—“

“But what if you’re wrong? Her feelings changed after you left and—“

Sasuke shook his head, smiling. “She said she thought maybe she always cared for you, even from the beginning. She was just too stubborn to see it.” He laughed wryly. “Sound familiar?”

Naruto laughed too, feeling better all of a sudden.

“You need to go to her. Tell her you love her and you want another chance. Start there. Don’t hide anymore. Put yourself out there.”

Naruto nodded, slowly feeling more sure of himself.

“People change. Even you, dumbass.”

Naruto flopped back on the ground beside the fire circle, partly because he wanted to stretch after sitting for so long, but mostly because he couldn’t hide the blinding smile that broke across his face.

Beside him, Sasuke laughed, seeing right through his friend’s actions. Naruto laughed too, warmed by the fire, the sound of Sasuke’s laughter, and the knowledge that for the first time in a long time, he felt like part of his team again. His own team. Nothing had been lost. The shadowy bleakness that had gripped his soul for so long faded away into nothing, unable to exist in the penetrating beams of hope dawning inside him.

Now he just had to smooth things over with Sakura.

He opened up his hand to see the crumpled pink note and held it up in front of his face. He tenderly unfolded the wrinkled corners. Her words still called to him.

“Hey I’m worried about you. I haven’t seen you for so long. I miss you. Come find me when you get in.”

In his mind, he answered her. I will, Sakura. I will.

He thumbed away the smudges of dirt from the note, and began planning his next journey — to the Sand.