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He slides through the darkness of gnarled trees and jutting rocks, barely half a shadow in the gloom. There is no moon—there hasn’t been in a very long time—but shinobi eyes are more than capable of using the cold light of the stars. By their glow, it’s simple enough to pick his way around and over the well-hidden traps scattered throughout the clearing’s edge. They're deadly, all of them, because they lost the luxury of mercy years ago.

“The amplification seals are in place,” he says, slipping over a jagged boulder and landing lightly in front of his partner. “With your genjutsu, that should be enough to hold them off for at least a day, probably more.”

Sasuke coughs, deep and wracking, but nods. “Surroundings?” he rasps, and his voice is rough and his breathing labored from a recent fit.

Naruto closes his eyes, not so much to shut out the fact that Sasuke is dying, but to strangle the despair that’s rising up inside him. They're the last of the Konoha shinobi, maybe the last living souls in the Land of Fire. Madara’s been thorough. “Clear,” is all he says, though, taking a seat beside the Uchiha and watching him pull himself upright with worried eyes. “You're—?”

“Fine,” Sasuke finishes, because after so many years they're all but sharing brainwaves. Not that the question is so hard to guess, given their situation. He leans back against the boulder behind them, clearly exhausted, but reaches out to wrap a hand around the back of Naruto's neck and drag him closer. Naruto goes with it, not about to resist, and he lets himself fall all but boneless against Sasuke's strong chest, pressing his forehead into the other man’s shoulder. Slim, deft fingers thread through his long hair, tugging lightly, and then still.

“It’s almost time,” Sasuke says, and for once his voice is nearly gentle.

Naruto keeps his eyes closed and doesn’t move. He knows, he’s known for weeks now, but that doesn’t make it any easier to accept. This is a one-way ticket for only one person, and as much as Naruto would like to argue that Sasuke should be the one to go, he knows better. That kind of foolish, heroic naivety was what got Sakura killed.

Apparently fed up with his silence—and isn't that irony, the bastard—Sasuke yanks on his hair, making him yelp. “I said—”

“I heard you, teme,” Naruto hisses, jerking back to glare at his best friend. He almost loses a chunk of scalp in the process, but Sasuke doesn’t relinquish his grip and Naruto doesn’t move far enough away to make him. His expression settles, anger fading, and he lowers his eyes. “And…I know it is. But I still think—”

“Hn. Dobe.” But Sasuke's red-and-black eyes are warm in a way they only rarely are. “I thought I warned you about that and how it overtaxes your brain.”

Naruto makes a face at him, because end of the world or no, childishness is pretty much always satisfying. “Oh, funny. But…” He trails off, not meeting Sasuke's gaze, and then says softly, “I just… Is this really our best option?”

“Yes,” Sasuke answers instantly. He reaches out again, pulling Naruto closer, until their foreheads are resting together and their breath mingles, warm in the cooling night air. “We’ve already gone over this, Naruto. You know it is. What is this about?”

Naruto hesitates, because he knows Sasuke will call him a moron for this, and while that’s hardly a new thing, right now he doesn’t want to hear it. “I…” He looks up, meets Sasuke's level eyes, and tries for a smile even though he knows it falls very far short. A sweep of his hand takes in the small clearing, the two of them pressed so close they might as well be sharing a heartbeat. “This,” he whispers, and it’s jagged. Naruto's lived a while now—longer than he ever expected to, certainly—but he has never, ever been able to want anything, have it, and then keep it. “Us,” he finally manages. “If I go back, if I change everything, then this—”

“Has already happened,” Sasuke interrupts inexorably. His free hand slides around Naruto's side, up the line of his back to curl around his neck again, his other still twined in deep garnet hair. But his eyes are resigned, as much as he tries to hide it, sad though there's a hint of wry humor there as well. “You're going back to change the future, Naruto. The past—our past—has already happened. The timelines will split. We’ve gone over the theory enough for you to know this. We can't change what’s already happened, but you can change what will happen. This, us, it’s always going to be there. But I’ve got two days left, three at the very most, and I'm not going to leave you alone in this hell when there's a way to fix it.”

Naruto smiles at him, small and sad. “No one would ever believe me if I told them the great Uchiha Sasuke was a closet romantic,” he jokes, but the lines in his face have eased a bit, and he breathes out as he leans forward, gently pressing his lips to Sasuke's pale throat.

Sasuke chuckles, even as his fingers wind more deeply into long tresses and tug the other man closer still. “No one,” he agrees, looking down at the man in his arms. He pulls gently, dragging Naruto against his chest once more. Burying his face in silken red strands, he breathes out a long, quiet sigh and then says, apropos of nothing, “I miss your blond hair.”

It’s Naruto's turn to laugh, muffled as it is by Sasuke's shirt. “You and me both,” he offers in amusement. “I spent twenty-four years of my life blond, before the stupid fox decided to go all noble on me.” He picks up a lock of hair and surveys it with bemusement, then lets it fall with a shrug and rests his cheek on Sasuke's shoulder again. “But at least I won't have to use a henge, once I'm back. With the Hyuuga still alive, that would just be asking for trouble.”

Sasuke rolls his eyes at his friend’s incredibly awful planning skills, but says nothing. As bad as he is at strategy, Naruto's always been brilliant at tactics, and with Sasuke helping him plan out his return, things should go at least a little more smoothly than they otherwise would.

At the thought of what’s coming, Sasuke closes his eyes and tightens his arms just a bit. He knows his own expiration date is rapidly approaching, but knowing is different than accepting. Far different than liking. Naruto has been his rock for years now, a safe harbor in the storm of war their land has fallen to, and Sasuke doesn’t believe it’s hubris to think he’s been the same for Naruto. And now Sasuke is going to cast him away to the tides, send him spinning through places no human, jinchuuriki or otherwise, was ever meant to go. Alone, without allies, facing some of the most dangerous people in any world, and there's nothing more he can do to help. They’ve prepared and planned and schemed and made arrangements for the worst case scenario. But all of that only goes so far, especially when Naruto will be alone in what is essentially enemy territory for as long as it takes to complete the first stages.

But for the moment, at least, there's nothing between them, not even air, and Sasuke curls around his partner, his best friend, his lover as much as he can, holds him tightly and wonders just how long the world will let them stay like this. Not long enough, never long enough, but they’ll have to make do.

“You'll save me, right? Him,” he whispers, suddenly insecure, adrift. “I—we, all of us could have been so much more. What we became wasn’t what we were meant to be. You’ll fix it, won't you?”

Naruto breathes out against his skin, warm-damp and faintly laughing. “Of course,” he says, twisting his head to look up at Sasuke with one ocean-blue eye. At least those are the same, even if his hair has changed and the whisker-marks are long-since vanished. “I know I'm going back to save the world, but our team is a huge part of that. Just think of it, what we could have been.”

“The next coming of the Sannin,” Sasuke finishes with some feeling between amusement and resignation. “As long as you don’t turn into Jiraiya.”

“As long as you don’t turn into Orochimaru,” Naruto retorts, but his gaze is unwavering as he meets Sasuke's eyes. “Don’t worry, Sasuke. I won't let it happen again.”

Naruto's word is worth everything in the crumbling world, and Sasuke nods, just once. He tips his head back, checking the position of the stars, and then murmurs, “Naruto…”

With a soft sigh, Naruto pulls back, if only a little. He follows Sasuke's gaze and nods, expression resigned. “Yeah, I know.” Then he leans forward, and Sasuke meets him halfway in a slow, careful kiss, the goodbye they’ll never be able to speak out loud, the tears that will never be shed for a loss they’ve both helped to orchestrate. Naruto's mouth is warm and soft under his, and Sasuke tastes the sweetness of the apples they had for dinner. Naruto wraps an arm around his shoulders, pressing close again, and it’s the work of half a moment for Sasuke to topple them to the ground.

Naruto arches up as the other man settles on top of him, still taller and heavier even after so many years, and though he’s not quite sure who initiated it, the kiss is desperate now, sharp and carelessly hungry when they’ve both kept themselves tightly controlled in every aspect of their lives for so long now. But he buries his fingers in raven hair, ghosts over smooth, pale skin, and tries not to cry when Sasuke pulls away, breathing hard and eyes gone dark and somber.

“Always, koi,” he murmurs, ghosting one more quick kiss across Naruto's lips, and Naruto feels his heart clench, because Sasuke never uses that endearment. Hell, the closest they ever usually come to endearments is teme and dobe. Three times that Naruto can remember the word koi has passed Sasuke's lips, and every time it’s been the nearest to death they’ve ever come.

Here, now, death isn't so much a chance as a certainty, and Naruto closes his eyes and fights not to give in to grief.

“Always,” he answers, whisper-soft and more heartfelt than any word he can remember speaking previously. “I’ll never—”

“No,” Sasuke cuts in, and the desolation is entirely gone, banished by the raging, furious fire that’s sprung up in his eyes. “No, Naruto, don’t you dare promise me that. You deserve to find someone else, to feel this again. It won't be me, it won't be the same, but swear you’ll let yourself. Swear, Naruto.”

Naruto meets his sharp gaze, sees the determination there, and knows that in this at least he will never win. So he gives in with a crooked smile, dipping his head and murmuring, “I swear, Sasuke, if there's ever anyone else, I’ll try. But you’re…”

Sasuke's eyes soften, and he tips forward to knock their foreheads together again. “I know,” he whispers in response. “I know, but…try.”

They both understand, because it’s something they’d both ask of the other and fail at doing for themselves, no matter how situations played out. Love is a fierce and formidable thing, at least in parting, and the grief of lost romantic love is something neither of them has had to endure before. Sasuke's will be over shortly—he can feel his life seeping away, the clock running down on his time here—but Naruto will have to endure and survive, alone in a land that’s become strange to him.

“I will,” Naruto repeats, shutting away the thought of another lifetime without Sasuke—a very long life, after Kurama’s sacrifice. Also pushed back is the knowledge that Sasuke will be left here to die alone, kamikaze mission or no. He’ll drop the genjutsu hiding them as soon as he’s ready, and then wait for Madara’s forces to find him. There are suicide seals everywhere in the clearing, just waiting for the trigger word to activate, and then it will be done. “Always,” he repeats, stealing another butterfly-brief kiss before getting his feet under him and rising.

Sasuke rises with him, even though he wavers on his feet as a harsh, hacking cough tears through him, and together they drag out a huge, heavy scroll and unroll it across the middle of the small open area. The lines of the seal seem to glimmer even in the darkness, sucking in the light and holding it. It’s by far the most complex seal Naruto has ever made, almost a year of constant work in one length of heavy canvas. Each line is perfect, checked over countless times and tweaked until the whole thing resonates with contained power, even before activation.

They lay it out beneath the darkened sky, and then step back into the silence, because this is the moment. This is the last, the end, the step beyond the edge and out into a new beginning.

Only one of them will be making the trip.

Naruto huffs out a heavy breath and then looks up, meeting Sasuke's dark eyes with something terribly close to despair. He doesn’t say anything, but he doesn’t need to. Sasuke's eyes reflect the same, because beginnings or no, this is also most certainly an end. In less than a quarter of an hour, the stars will be in position, ready to amplify the power called, and Naruto's seal will come to life with a single drop of blood, carrying him away forever.

Sasuke reaches out with a hand that doesn’t tremble, cups Naruto's cheek and traces every line of his face. The Sharingan means he doesn’t have to work to memorize his partner’s features, but he does anyway, consciously committing every detail to memory. It’s a beautiful face, strong and entirely matured from the roundness of childhood, lean from years of hard living and scarred from war. Even the Kyuubi couldn’t heal everything, at points, and it’s left a patchwork of scars on Naruto's skin. The long red hair, as deep and dark as a garnet, falls loosely around his face, having long since come free from its usual tail, and Sasuke runs a hand through it wistfully. Not blond, even though the sunshine-gold hair so perfectly suited Naruto's personality. But still Naruto's, and that’s enough to make it dear.

There's a single thin braid, hanging down beside Naruto's face, and Sasuke touches it regretfully, remembering the long, slow night that they took for themselves once the seal was finally complete. One night where they threw thoughts of safety and concealment and vigilance to the wind, indulging, and only a slim plait bound with black and red silk and a lingering ache in both their bodies to remember it by.

“Keep this?” he asks before he can stop himself. “Just…just this one.”

For me, he doesn’t have to say, because Naruto knows, will understand better than anyone else ever could.

Naruto's hand comes up, covering his, and tightening their fingers around the slender twist of hair. “Always,” he says, his oath given once again, but this time with a smile, with his entire heart in his eyes. “Sasuke, everything. It’s always been yours. We’ve remade each other so many times since we first met, and like you said, it’s already happened. Nothing will ever change it. Even if I find someone else, even if I don’t, you’ll have already had all of me.”

Sasuke knows that, of course, has known it for years. But hearing it spoken like that, so simply and certainly, is a balm to a wound he hadn’t even recognized as such. He leans in again, brushes a kiss over the back of Naruto's hand where their fingers are still entwined, over Naruto's forehead half-hidden by his bright-dark hair, and then over his lips again, lingering and soft. One last kiss, and Naruto answers it with everything. Give and take, and they’ve always been equals, no matter his delusions as a child. Naruto is half of him, light to his dark, gold to his pale, quicksilver to his calm. Every sun needs a shadow, and every shadow needs a sun, and they balance each other like this. They always have, even in the times they didn’t want to admit it.

“Go,” Sasuke breathes against his lips, because if Naruto doesn’t leave now Sasuke is aware he never will. They’ll hesitate and hope for another way until the stars fall out of alignment, and then everything will be lost.

There are no choices here, no other paths they can take that end in a better future. This is their only chance, and neither of them can waste it.

“I love you,” Naruto whispers back, barely a breath. They don’t say it often—twice, three times, maybe—but that’s all right, because it’s always been understood. He takes a step away and squares his shoulders, striding forward to stand in the very center of the seal. Starlight glints off dagger-sharp claws as he lifts his hand, blood splattering from a slit wrist. Sasuke winces at the deep wound, life-threatening on anyone else, but Naruto's face is calm and set, not quite at peace but not entirely far off from it, either.

The seal starts to glow, rippling with blue and violet chakra, shining like a beacon in the darkness. The seals on Naruto's arms echo it, glittering and sparking, and for a moment he’s a creature of light, suspended in the shadows. Sasuke catches his breath—one last chance, one last time, just once more—and takes a step forward, right to the edge of the scroll. Naruto opens eyes that glow deep violet, and smiles at him, sharp white teeth flashing and expression fierce. Sasuke meets the grin with one of his own.

“Always, koi,” he says again, knowing Naruto will hear it even over the snap and crackle of building power as the stars creep into alignment. “I love you.”

Naruto's eyes meet his and hold, steady and strong, and there's a world of words there that neither of them has ever needed to speak. They don’t need to speak them now, because one look is enough.

It holds for a single, endless moment, and then Naruto's hands flicker through three hand seals and the light is gone.

The seal is gone.

Naruto is gone.

Sasuke takes a step back, the sudden lack like ashes on his tongue, and then breathes out.

They're lucky, really. So few in this time have ever gotten such a chance to say goodbye. Farewells are another luxury lost to war, abandoned along with mercy and justice and anything beyond kill-protect-avenge-defeat-survive. But not for long, if this plan succeeds.

Never again, if Naruto keeps his word, and Sasuke knows he will, the same way he knows the sun will rise and the tide will pull and he will die. There is simply no other option.

Their farewell will linger, will remain, and Sasuke takes comfort in it, even as he settles back against a boulder and folds his hands into a ram seal. “Kai,” he murmurs, and feels the genjutsu that’s been concealing them, reflected and amplified by Naruto's seals until not even Madara himself can sense it, shatter and fall to pieces. He makes himself comfortable, readying the trigger word in his mind to be spoken on a moment’s notice, and prepares himself for a wait.

Not long now, he thinks, and with Naruto gone, forever lost to him, he cannot bring himself to truly mind. He will face his death here when Madara comes for him, comes for his eyes, or he will meet it before the sun rises three times, and use his own passing to trigger the suicide seals and keep Madara from ever gaining his Sharingan.

Either way, they’ve won.