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There was a chip in his mask, right below the left eye. Naruto smiled appreciatively as he ran a finger along the irregularity, remembering a good fight and skilled opponent, then grimaced as his mind scrambled for a way to smooth away the evidence before Sakura launched into one of her tirades. It would most likely involve something about how one should protect ones face, especially the eyes, how a kunai should never be close enough to carve a memento along his cheekbone. She would be insufferable in her need to examine every inch of his desperate smile, looking for damage. At that point stray acne would probably set her off.

No, it was best he hid this mask, claimed it as lost, and begged a new one.

Naruto stretched, his body uncurling from its gargoyles hunch with a grateful creak. Old habits died hard, and for the past few weeks he had spent most of his time trying to be as small as possible. Small was harder to notice. Small fit into the places rain didn't fall into.

And there had been a lot of rain. Which produced a lot of mud. Which was responsible for the touchy footing that had resulted in his almost getting an eyeful of kunai. Naruto was good with rolling with things, if nothing else, so a slip had turned to a slide, and he was the one that got to stagger to his feet looking like the harried result of a rather elaborate schoolyard prank. A bit of the mud was still in his hair, and seeing how he could no longer pass it off as cover…

Naruto had a brief, fond memory of hot springs past, and resigned himself to a quick shower.

Konoha had rarely looked so inviting. Stashing his mask in with the rest of his dirtied ANBU attire, Naruto took a swipe at his hair that failed to establish order amidst spiky bits of hair gone unruly with neglect, and sauntered through the gates with his best smile peeking out around the last traces of grime.

Shower…shower…shower…

His scalp itched. He had heard mud was good for the skin, probably from Ino at some point, but this was ridiculous.

'Shower' was a mantra, each syllable a step along familiar roads, past familiar shops and food…

Shower first. Food after.

Naruto frowned, a hint of responsibility breaking through his ecstatic expectations involving soap and water.

Tsunade first. Shower second.

_______________

 

There were benefits to smelling like he hadn't seen the right side of hygiene in the better part of a week. Tsunade wasn't interested in the usual word games and information ferreting. She took his report at face value, tried not to crinkle her nose too obviously, and sent him on his way. Naruto grinned as soon as he left her office, and then allowed that grin to fumble into something sideways but still civil as Sasuke approached.

Sasuke's expression hardly shifted, dark eyes flicked over every inch of Naruto, assessing and disproving in a heartbeat.

A quick heartbeat, on Naruto's part. Quick, a bit unsteady, and very uncomfortable. Naruto had an embarrassing second to wish he had stopped for that shower, and then smothered the thought as a bit too skewed, giving the present company, and remembered why the hell he had volunteered for that last assignment in the first place.

Sasuke, with his unapproachable demeanor and his utter lack of interest in anything that could be remotely classified as human.

Naruto reflexively pulled a face and brushed close to Sasuke's impeccable presence, refusing to let Sasuke by easily. It was a kid's reaction, but when it came to Sasuke, old habits not only died hard, they mutated. He could smell Sasuke's soap, a touch of what could only be cologne, and then Sasuke was past and letting himself into Tsunade's office.

The door shut, and Naruto exhaled, trying to refrain from sniffing after Sasuke like a dog.

When had the bastard started wearing cologne?

_______________

 

There were other little things that sent off the atavistic alarms in the back of Naruto's brain. Sasuke's hair was a bit more groomed, his clothing less of an afterthought, that hint of what could almost be considered a smile hanging around on the edge of every expression. It was uncanny. It was…off.

And Naruto had the unfortunate impression that it was all on the behalf of someone else. That was what rankled, as much as he tried to ignore the itching sensation somewhere between possessive and petulant. Sasuke obviously cared about someone, someone's opinion, and damn if that didn't set Naruto to grinding his teeth in the middle of his fixed smiles.

If anyone was going to get that bastards attention it should be him. Naruto. Rival and something occasionally close to friend. They had been through enough to forge bonds people would talk about for generations to come. And yet…

And yet their interaction was limited to awkward hello's, guttural sounds, and conversational riposte that had become as worn out as Naruto's favorite shirt.

It was galling.

Naruto killed another target with absentminded lethality, not even pausing to take proud note of how accurately his weapons fell. He was going through the motions, moving with reflexive intensity and grace, all the while wondering how to wring some information out of Sasuke. A name, a face, even a favorite color would be more than he currently had to work with.

If he had a name to his rival, he could work on a plan. He pondered without properly processing, failing to fully acknowledge just what he was worked up and planning to fight for.

Never noticing how dark eyes watching his every move with an almost gloating appreciation.

 

________________

 

"C'mon…almost…" Naruto gnawed his lower lip into submission as he aimed the scissors, trying to repair the mess he had made earlier. Who knew a quick trim would be so hard to do. His artful spikes of hair were reduced to haphazard outcroppings of blond that no amount of hair product would be able to repair. He had cut one too short, and a few were still long enough to droop. He could, probably, ask for help, but he didn't think he would be able to tolerate the grins and the commentary. It felt awkwardly like he was preparing to put on a show. He was far too conscious of each mended tear in his pants, the faded grass stain on the back of his shirt. His hair was fit more for nesting birds than a properly styled masterpiece. The more he cut, the more he had to fix. It was a downward spiral. The growing mess of hair at his feet bore silent testament to his continued failed efforts.

Panache be damned. Naruto made a few more snips, removing the worst offenders and running a hand through the hair that was left. It wasn't too bad.

 

__________________

 

"Interesting haircut. Scissors might have been more appropriate than a kunai."

Naruto responded to that voice, that tone, with a reflexive snarl and roundhouse. He missed, like most times before, and launched directly into a series of hits that seemed to come from all angles at once. At least one hit home, and Naruto bared his teeth in a feral sort of smile as he wound down into a defensive crouch.

Sasuke raised an eyebrow, his expression a politely inquiring sneer. The red mark one side of his face was the only thing that ruined his usual aloof posturing, proof that Naruto had gotten close enough to get his message across.

"Anything else to say?" Naruto snapped.

Sasuke made a show of thinking it over before smiling briefly. "No. Not particularly. If you are quite done I have to leave or I'll be late."

Naruto blinked.

Late for what?

_________________

 

There were quite a few members of the ninja community who had realized what a double-edged blade Naruto was. The positives had outweighed the negatives in the long run. Negatives like training Naruto further in sneaking and entering, teaching him patience and persistence. He held perfectly still, exhaling one long breath as slowly as possible as he heard someone pass by outside.

He didn't need another mark against him, and digging about in the Hokage's personal files would most definitely count as a negative mark.

His sneaking suspicion was proving right. Sasuke was not planned to be off anywhere, he had no recorded responsibilities currently needing attention on any sort of time schedule.

What could be possibly have been late for apart from a personal engagement.

A personal engagement.

Naruto stifled a frustrated snarl beneath the professional carriage the current situation brought out in him. Careful as any ninja on assignment he replaced every piece of paper he had flipped through, leaving the drawer slightly ajar as it had been when he entered, and let himself back out the window.

 

________________

 

Confrontation had always been, and staunchly remained, Naruto's strong point. He caught a well-groomed Sasuke the next morning, throwing a punch in place of the more typical hello. Sasuke blocked with a small grunt.

"Good morning would have worked just as well."

"Who is it?"

Sasuke was caught off guard, and caught a kick to the side of his knee that had him taking a fall to save the joint. He rolled out of the way of another hit and frowned. "What are you talking about?"

"I know its not Sakura. She would have said something."

Sasuke's brain scrambled to catch up and decipher Naruto's aggression.

"I can't believe it would be Ino. That's screwed up, even for you."

"You seriously think…" Interrupted by a fist, Sasuke's protestation sputtered to a stop.

"Seriously. Hinata isn't weird enough around you for it to be her. Not to mention Neiji would kill you. Twice."

"Naruto."

"Shut up, I'm thinking."

"Not very well."

Naruto pulled a punch that would have rearranged Sasuke's perfect teeth had it landed and flipped through half a dozen emotions before settling on so angry he felt tears scald traitorous trail down his cheeks. "I know you think I'm dumb. Do you always have to bring it up?"

"Always making a scene." There was something oddly thoughtful in Sasuke's expression, a slight shifting of arrogance and ambivalence into what might have been affection.

Naruto bared his teeth, a wounded animal giving a warning, and Sasuke paid it as little heed as he ever did. Naruto's personal space was his to play with, had always been. They were too poles of a battery, each necessary for the other to spark. Sasuke stepped close, baiting and braving Naruto's threat of temper. Naruto lunged forward and teeth met with a clack, lips following close after. Naruto laid claim to Sasuke's flesh with tooth and claw, drawing blood with a primal possessiveness. Sasuke was by no means passive, taunting and testing, pulling away only to be pulled back, letting Naruto know he would have to fight for what he wanted.

It was a method Naruto was more than used to.

It could have passed for one of their more violent confrontations. Grunts and growls took the place of inflammatory conversation, marking the gravity of the situation. No one would have looked twice, would have noticed that Naruto's bite on Sasuke's shoulder caused Sasuke's eyes to slide closed even as he curled away in a counter. Fists flew and fingers grappled, and Naruto ended on top, pupils narrowed, eyes catching the light with a reddish glint. Sasuke didn't yield so much as melt, muscles going lax in a way that had every intensely feral neuron in Naruto's mind flipping into overload. Naruto planted a hand at either side of Sasuke's head, nails digging into the dirt as fingers curled in anticipation. Something close to a smile curled at the ends of Naruto's mouth as he pinned Sasuke, pressing hip to hip.

Submission was sweet, a turn on like nothing Naruto had ever experienced.

This is where it had been leading, all of the awkward preening and confused jealousy. This was what he had been hunting.

Sasuke looked up, and then leaned his head back, exposing the curve of his throat, and Naruto was momentarily mesmerized by the visible beating of Sasuke's pulse.

Sasuke smelled of sweat and soap, a bit of leather. Naruto breathed deep and grappled desperately for some semblance of sanity. Sasuke. Pale skin, impenetrable eyes. Beneath him, waiting, watching.

Naruto hadn't become ANBU without learning a thing or two about control.

He pulled himself up and away, taking a moment to savor the surprise drifting in the back of Sasuke's eyes.

Surprise, and just a bit of disappointment.

"You always were a manipulative bastard." Naruto was proud his voice was only a little rough.

"You have always managed to surprise me."

Naruto didn't know whether to take that revelation as a compliment. He did offer a hand, helping Sasuke off the ground, trying to ignore the way that bit of contact, skin on skin, seemed to tingle.

__________________

 

It was a singularly fascinating social study. They worked their way through a rather primal dance, hunter and hunted. Naruto did his best to avoid Sasuke, and Sasuke found a way to be everywhere Naruto was obligated to be. Naruto was polite to the point of pained, his expression indicating he had ingested something just a bit sour, while he seriously contemplated a higher calling as a hermit. Maybe follow in Jiraya's footsteps and turn out a dirty book or three.

Naruto slipped on his mask, secured his weapons, and set off on each mission with a sense of relief, attempting to forget Sasuke's smoldering eyes in the rush of the hunt, the thrill of the chase. He tried to carve the feel of Sasuke beneath him out of every memory with kunai after kunai, kill after kill. He was the Hokage's most effective weapon, and yet he couldn't even manage to exorcise the ghosts that crawled into the blankets with him each night.

He couldn't throw off his own hunter.

Absence didn't make the heart grow fonder, any more than it made the problem go away. Absence bred wondering, which slunk its way back into obsession.

The same thread of thought that had led him to check the Hokage's records had Naruto spinning tales of what Sasuke could be doing in his absence, each more improbable and impressive than the last.

Naruto caught himself writing Sasuke's name in the dirt with a kunai and started laughing. He could imagine the cuff he would catch should Sasuke see him doing something so stupid. Humor cleared the cobwebs uncertainty and confusion had cluttered him with. Such a silly situation. When had he ever back down, backed away, where Sasuke was involved? It was a bit too late in his life to develop that habit.

Sure Sasuke was arrogance incarnate, the very personification of the forbidden fruit. There was enough of a dark past and uncertain future to make a novelist immobile with glee.

In that respect, they were perfect for each other.

 

_________________

 

It had started so differently, a mere whiff of cologne in a hallway. It had thrown him off center, started a chain of thought and association he would never have thought possible. But, as he dragged himself home yet again, mud and blood thick on his clothing, exhaustion in his eyes, Naruto caught himself sniffing as he entered the hall outside the Hokage's office, hoping to catch a hint of…

Sasuke, standing with what looked like a can of something warm and hopefully caffeinated in one hand, a crooked sort of smile on his face.

Naruto cracked a smile of his own, and threw one dirty arm over Sasuke's immaculate shoulder, chuckling at the way Sasuke's nose crinkled at the fantastic assortment of odors that accompanied Naruto, none of them particularly pleasant.

"When I'm done here, wanna spar?"

It wasn't a commonplace sort of proposition, but they would never been a common sort of pair. Sasuke effortlessly took in the full breadth of Naruto's suggestion, and allowed one eyebrow to creep higher than the other. "Only if you bathe first."

"Bah." Naruto snorted.

"Bathe or I will throw you in."

"Try it."

"If you two are quite done, there is work around here that is not going to do itself. Naruto. Report. Now."

Naruto rolled his eyes over to Tsunade, daring an impudent grin before detaching himself from Sasuke. "Yeah, yeah. Coming."

Tsunade's nose twitched as Naruto approached, but was far too professional to give voice to the olfactory horror she was suffering. "I hope it was worth it."

Naruto broke into one of his rare, honest smiles. "Every speck of dirt."

"I don't know if I believe if all of that is dirt…"

 

_________________

 

Sasuke was a surprising kisser when he put his mind to it. His usual attention to detail was employed in fascinating new ways, and Naruto was hard put to keep himself from flipping Sasuke over and hurrying things along. Patience was an acquired habit, but one that was so very hard to abide by when Sasuke was running his lips along the curve of Naruto's throat. Gentle, so very gentle…

It was an odd juxtaposition, Sasuke's calloused hands tracing patterns, tracking scars instead of adding to the damage. Sasuke had long fingers, something Naruto had noticed but never had the chance to appreciate before. Long fingers and a tendency to move them in ways that skirted the edge of ticklish. Naruto smothered a sound that was somewhere between a laugh and a groan into Sasuke's shoulder, missing the smile that spread across Sasuke's face like a revelation.

It was hard for both of them, learning to allow emotions apart from anger and antagonism to bubble to the surface. Naruto embarrassed easily, turning away and pressing close as opposed to meeting Sasuke's eyes. Sasuke was silent, testing the situation more than experiencing it. It was where they both wanted to be, but admitting it was a thing apart.

Admission came in the form of little gasps and wide-eyed expressions, in the way Naruto nuzzled close, in the way Sasuke reached to embrace. They learned as they went, awkward laughs and little chuckles wiping away the stress of something so strange as Naruto sinking into Sasuke, Sasuke allowing such an intimate intrusion. They chipped away at each other's masks with each kiss and thrust until each finally saw the other.

"This." Naruto whispered, face a study in surprise and contentment. "This."

Nonsensical as ever, but Sasuke managed a small nod, the gestalt of the moment allowing full comprehension.

This is what they had both been after.

 

_________________

 

"Idiot."

Naruto cracked an eye open, more than ready to be irritable as the moment was lost. "What?"

"How did you manage to be sloppy enough to let someone this close?"

Naruto broke into startled laughter. Of all the bizarre pillow talk through the ages…He reached out and snagged his ANBU mask from where it had been resting beside the bed and shoved it under the pillow. He definitely needed to get a new mask.

"When did you start wearing cologne?" As deflections went, it wasn't his finest, but it would do.

Sasuke snorted a typical disgust with the shiftiness of the conversation, but complied. "About the time you started coming back from missions smelling like the cesspit of an entire nation."

"That was one time…"

"You can bathe before you come home. I am sure the Inuzuka clan would appreciate it."

"You're a bastard. Seriously, it isn't that bad."

"Sure."

Naruto lightly punched Sasuke in the chest before returning to using it as a pillow. Sasuke's heartbeat was steady, soothing.

Sasuke snorted as Naruto started to snore, and then smiled.

It always was the little things with them. The little victories and contentments. Sasuke closed his eyes and fell asleep to the rhythm of Naruto's snores.