The Avenger was all sharp edges and prickles, strong and vicious and ruthless and occasionally a little too happy to kill enemy ninjas or quick to attack his rival teammate, but Naruto loved him like a brother. Sometimes, after a particularly bloody mission, while they were taking stock and tending their injuries, the Avenger would let slip something about his brother or father, a quick whisper, faint enough that even Naruto's sharp ears couldn't make out all the syllables, and he had to take a moment to piece together what had been said. Usually, by the time he got it, the moment was past--but that was just as well, because if he responded to anything the Avenger said, the mildest reaction he'd get would be a toss of the head and a scornful snort or a baleful Sharingan glare, as if the off-handed comment hadn't been meant for Naruto's ears. It seemed that there was no proper response for the Avenger.
"He never had time for me," the Avenger whispered once, "and he won't until he thinks I'm strong enough to be worth killing." Another time, he commented, "The only time he was ever pleased with me was when I learned the Goukakyu no Jutsu. But even then he talked about Itachi."
Aside from his warm relationship with Iruka-sensei, these bits and pieces of painful history were all Naruto really knew of family, and regardless of whether they'd really been meant for him to hear he hoarded them greedily, putting them together bit by bit into a picture of what the Avenger's life might have been like, a picture of what the Avenger himself might have been like, if his life had continued going in the direction it had begun.
But things were as they were, and the Avenger was as he was, and difficult though he might be to get along with, Naruto loved him.
After all, if there were no Avenger, there would be no equal and opposite Saki-chan. Saki-chan had never seen anyone die, never had blood on her hands, never known what it felt like to love and hate and fear someone so much that bile burns the back of your throat while your guts turn to ice. Where the Avenger was sharp and prickly, Saki-chan was soft, and sweet, and innocent in a way that the Avenger had never been. Naruto loved her dearly, and wanted to protect that shadow of innocence at any cost, and while he learned the hard way not to mention that Saki-chan's hands were rough and callused like a fighter's, or that her feet were a little too big to be ladylike, or even that he preferred the taste of the peachy lip gloss to whatever new product it was she was experimenting with, still he found that Saki-chan was infinitely easier to get along with, and easier to understand, than the Avenger.
It was so easy to be gentle and considerate and loving to Saki-chan. And sometimes, when the mood was right, she would smile her sweet, demure little smile, and say something about her mother. Saki-chan's mother had been beautiful, and kind, and strong in a purely feminine way, and Naruto figured, after much thought on the subject, that Saki-chan herself must be a combination of the memory of her mother and the memory of the child Sasuke had been, before his fate had turned.
Naruto was never sure how to respond to these comments, these snippets of faint, sweet memories, so he usually hugged her and murmured that he was certain her mother would be proud of her. And if she stiffened at that, a comment that would equally please Saki-chan and offend the Avenger, he would kiss her, slow and sweet, until she was completely Saki-chan again in his arms, but the moment of confession would be over.
Sometimes at night, when the ribbons and fripperies and scrolls and weapons were cast aside, when they lay naked on the bed, with their limbs entwined and the sweat slowly cooling on their skin, in that brief space of time between the sweetness of release and the inevitable moment when the Wet Spot became an issue, sometimes Sasuke would whisper to him, the hurting, needy, lonely Sasuke that Naruto loved with the best part of his heart, the kindred spirit somewhere between the two extremes, who touched something so deep and fundamental in Naruto that he couldn't bear to think of living without him. In those moments, Sasuke would cling to him, and whisper the really important things into the darkness with his cheek pressed against Naruto's shoulder and his hair tickling over Naruto's face.
Naruto never worried about how to answer these whispers in the darkest part of the night; he merely nuzzled the wild bird's nest of dark hair that only Saki-chan could tame, and whispered back, softly, into the quiet and the darkness.
"I love you, too."