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Grave AU Collection

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If, Kakashi thinks, as he hasn’t since he was a child and first discovered the danger of this word, walled himself off from its lure. If Kakashi had been a better person, or the world had been a better place – if Sasuke had never been scarified to Orochimaru, if they hadn’t wasted all their chances…

If Itachi hadn’t turned on Sasuke, then

…then Itachi walks back into the blue sitting room shortly after nine o’clock, October 10 seven years ago. He sits down next to Sasuke and Kakashi on the carpet, slipping an arm around Sasuke and pulling him close. Sasuke curls into him without protest, reaching over his arm to move his shogi piece. For a long moment, Itachi buries his face in Sasuke’s hair, breathing in deeply.

Kakashi lifts an eyebrow, turning to throw some more wood into the fireplace – to let Itachi collect himself.

Itachi shakes his head, straightening. “That woman…!”

Sasuke stares up at him. Mikoto’s been cruel and callous to Sasuke for as long as Kakashi’s known her, and yet Itachi’s never referred to her as anything but “Mother”, respectful and polite even when disagreeing viciously.

Itachi hesitates for almost a minute, then pulls Sasuke into his lap, resting his chin against the top of Sasuke’s head. Sasuke squirms, starting to speak quickly in Japanese, but Itachi won’t let him turn around enough to see his face, holding him locked in what must be a bruising grip.

“They really meant to…” Kakashi says.

“Over my dead body,” Itachi says. “And certainly over theirs. I made that excruciatingly clear.” He relaxes his arms a little, with visible effort. “Ochitsuke, Sasuke. Mou daijoubu.” Sasuke twists around, sitting sideways in Itachi’s lap so he can look up at his face at last, with the watchful eyes of an unwanted child. Itachi ruffles his hair. “Don’t go anywhere with Orochimaru. Never be alone with him.” His mouth twists. “I’ll kill him if he touches you.”

So the war comes.

They manage to stave it off for a while, but shortly after Sasuke’s ninth birthday, WW4 breaks out.

When it begins to wind down a bit, years later, it’s more from exhaustion than anything else: there’s so very little left to fight over. The human population is down from eight to three and a half billion. Which is probably fortunate, because in between the WMDs, the human attempts to use nuclear bombs against demons and the ongoing climate catastrophe, Eurasia alone is still habitable. Only exorcist society remains largely intact, up in their ivory tower.

“I failed,” Itachi says. He’s standing on a rooftop, the Eternal City crumbling around him, the wind playing with his hair. “I was selfish.” He sighs, straightens. “And I can’t even regret it.”

“Of course not,” Kakashi says, his voice coming strange and rough. “Of course you did the right thing.”

Itachi turns to him: so young sudden, so human after all. The idea of Itachi as someone who can fail, who can hesitate and hurt, is alien and oddly charming. “I can’t believe that.”

Kakashi lifts his left shoulder in a shrug. “A few million humans or one crusader?”

“Of course the crusader.” Because Sasuke’s strong now, so strong that his parents’ forced refusal to trade him away can no longer be criticised.

“Exactly.”

Itachi lets out a sigh. “Thank you. But I don’t believe Orochimaru would’ve killed him.”

“It would’ve killed you,” Kakashi says, quiet suddenly. “In all the ways that matter, it would’ve killed you.”

For a moment of grace, Itachi leans against him, shoulder to shoulder as the sun starts its long fall over the horizon.

xxxxx

Naruto kneels in front of the grave he’s decided is Mum’s. It has more to do with over-heated exhaustion than with piety, the way his knees give out. All roads lead to Rome, Dad told him dryly when he objected to moving, and here they are, protected from the worst of the war by proximity to the global exorcist HQ in the Vatican.

“I finally stopped shedding,” he tells Mum, holding out his arm to show her. The sunburn has finally flaked off, as it does every spring, leaving his skin several shades darker. “Well, it was a while ago.”

Really of course this isn’t Mum’s grave at all. He’s in a huge churchyard in a different part of the world, framed by the Mediterranean instead of the Atlantic, and has found an abandoned grave whose soft, rounded shape reminds him of Mum’s favourite art pieces. The writing on the stone is in faded Italian: just nonsense to Naruto, just random letters with no meaning attached to them.

He touches the stone gently, feels it sunwarm and rough in his palm. It’s been months since he was last here: he’s not really supposed to wander around on his own, and also it’s cheap, somehow, to confess things to Mum – the bloodshed, the hatred, the unbelievable, desolate frustration – now that she can no longer turn away from him.

The sound of footsteps behind him has Kyuubi surging to the surface. Naruto snaps around, still on his knees, aiming a semi-automatic at what turns out to be just the janitor. The poor man drops his equipment, raising his hands. Naruto puts the gun away and rubs at the back of his head. “Sorry!”

“Tch, dobe.”

Naruto snaps around again, even quicker this time. “Sasuke!”

“Hn.” Sasuke jumps off the wall surrounding the churchyard, joining Naruto on the grass in front of Mum’s grave. Kyuubi splutters and licks his gums, triggered as always by Uriel’s scent. Naruto inches closer, pushing his head against Sasuke’s arm so Kyuubi can sniff his fill. The smell of Sasuke now – brimstone and blood and skin, angelfire and sweat and ozone – is Kyuubi’s favourite smell in the world.

Sasuke pushes him away only when his chin brushes the neckline of Sasuke’s shirt, Kyuubi’s fangs whispering for an instant against the skin of Sasuke’s throat. “Heel.”

Naruto sticks his tongue out, sitting back but locking his legs over Sasuke’s. “Trapped!”

“Che.” Sasuke doesn’t kick at him, though, and Naruto grins wider, provocative: Sasuke needs to be a lot more pissed off before he’ll start struggling physically with a shifter, who’ll always be a hundred times stronger.

Then he sobers, rubbing his grin away with a hand dirty with grave dust. “You finish up in Malaga?”

“Yeah.” Sasuke leans back on his hands, stretching out his arms. Despite the climate, steadily hotter each year, he’s still pale, though part of that might be the contrast against his hair and eyes. Naruto knows for a fact that he basically bathes in sunscreen, and he’s far more covered up here in the perpetual summer heat than he was back home. He looks kind of medieval, in those loose linen clothes – especially in contrast to what he calls Naruto’s touristy get-up. “We might be able to start on Algeria soon. Start reclaiming the liveable parts of Africa.”

Africa, who couldn’t pay their indulgences and was depopulated by demons. At least the content is still partly salvageable, if not its inhabitants. Australia fell to climate change, and America bombed itself to pieces.

“But you didn’t just kill demons, right?”

Sasuke sighs, but he doesn’t hesitate. Sasuke isn’t a hesitant person. “No. We purged it.”

“You know there were shifters settlements!”

“Humans, too. They were told to move.”

“With, what – one day’s grace period?”

“Naruto, the fucking wards were breached. It’s not like it would’ve been better if the demons took them.”

“I just,” and he punches the ground, so hard a miniature earthquake, just a few centimetres deep, shudders around them. “It’s such a smaller world than the one we were born in.”

“Isn’t that good for you?” Sasuke asks rather cynically. His mouth twitches into that little half smirk/half sneer that Naruto wants to bite off his fucking face. He’d lick it all better afterwards, drag his tongue through the open flesh of Sasuke’s ripped face, and – okay, that’s enough of that. Calm the hell down, he tells Kyuubi, directing a challenging glare at Sasuke, who shrugs, “The only reason humans were ever a threat to you was their population size. The odds are much more in your favour now.”

Naruto shrugs too, mirroring the jerky movement designed to annoy Mikoto. “I wanted a bigger world. A better one.”

“They did it to themselves.”

To an extent, this is true. The Americans took issue with the exorcist system for prioritising exorcisms, tried to strongarm themselves into a better position, and were consequently blacklisted: left with little choice but to try and take matters into their own hands.

Extensive nuclear bombing of your own land can only end in disaster. Maybe someone will live there again, but it’ll be hundreds of years from now.

Global warming, which destroyed Australia, and capitalism, which killed Africa, are obviously human inventions.

Naruto makes a gesture like he’s trying to grab the air, force it into shape. “When all your options suck…”

“Yeah, well. What’s done is done. What’s left can be managed better.”

“Yeah,” Naruto agrees. “It’ll have to be. Well, we finally stabilised the temperature rise this year.”

“Yeah? Good.”

“Yeah, they just released it. And if you can get started on cleansing Africa in earnest…”

Sasuke reaches forward, quick as a snake, and pokes Naruto sharply in the forehead. “Aren’t you omitting something?”

“Hmm?”

“Kakashi said you were up in the Alps.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I was.”

“Fucker,” Sasuke snaps at him. “I told you not to go alone.”

“What? I can’t just stand by, and – they raided Milan, you know. Said it was a shifter den, went in with fire bombs.” He crosses his arms over his chest, defensive. “Anyway it’s not like you’re all that much use against humans.”

Sasuke lifts an eyebrow.

Naruto swats at him. “Come on. You’re not gonna burn them or sic a demon on them, not when you’ve finally got that non-heresy treaty in place. Not even on BEAST.”

“I’m perfectly capable of shooting them,” Sasuke grumbles.

“Yeah, and of getting shot!”

Sasuke scowls at him, and Naruto scowls back. They’re looked in a staring match, Kyuubi wild and insane, a whirlpool in the depths of Naruto, and a faint gleam behind Sasuke’s pupils that will be Uriel – until Sasuke’s phone goes off. It plays a pompous, sickly-sweet and rather old-fashioned song in Japanese.

“Fucking Kakashi,” Sasuke grumbles.

“Oh, sure, blame him!”

“Tch. Like I’d choose the intro from bloody Oniisama e for Itachi. He’s a truly sick man.” Before Naruto has time for a rejoinder, Sasuke accepts the call, as well he might because Itachi gets paranoid after only four rings. “What?”

Predictably, Itachi wants him indoors before curfew. Sasuke’s insisted for years that if he’s capable of exorcising devils solo, he’s surely old enough to walk home after sunset, but there’s no real arguing with Itachi. Anyway Naruto should probably get home himself – BEAST will likely be retaliating, and they don’t want any streetfights. Better to let the fanatics beat themselves bloody against their walls.

“Come on,” he says, pulling Sasuke to his feet. “My place is closer.”

It’s a yellow house with green shutters. Naruto discovered shutters when they relocated to Italy, and fell instantly in love, but he loves them as something adorable and foreign: as something belonging to a place that isn’t home. He’d thought of Rome in terms of the empire and the Vatican, had expected something…something self-consciously impressive, something grand. In reality Rome’s beauty is more on the cute side.

The Tiber too is different, both from what he’d expected and from the river he’s used to, a green snake with dirty edges.

Sasuke nudges his shoulder. “What?”

“It just doesn’t look like the place Cesare Borgia dumped his brother’s corpse, you know?”

“You do realise that show about them wasn’t actually a history lesson?”

“How would you know?” Naruto shoots back. “When were you last in school?”

Sasuke looks thoughtful, as though he’s trying to remember. To be fair, going by Sakura’s gossip, school doesn’t seem to be teaching them much useful stuff. Sasuke speaks several languages, can do basic math, and knows how to use Google. Whatever else school could’ve given him is hardly worth more than having him exorcise full time.

It’s the same for Naruto, pretty much, though he’d have liked to be able to pick up a bit more Italian, even if everyone speaks English these days. It is a smaller world, hopefully small enough for a proper lingua franca to take hold. As Sasuke said last time Naruto waxed maudlin about how they’re caged in, how they were born into an open world that’s been steadily closing – But isn’t it finally possible? The dream of Europe.

This was shortly after Naruto had let Esteban González Pons join Palme and MLK and Wallenberg and Marx and the rest of his Political Justice League. Europe is not a market, it is the will to live together. Leaving Europe is not leaving a market, it is leaving shared dreams. We can have a common market, but if we do not have common dreams, we have nothing. Europe is the peace that came after the disaster of war. Europe is the pardon….the return to freedom... Europe is the fall of the Berlin Wall… Europe is the welfare state, it is democracy. Europe is fundamental rights. A world of peace, of culture and civilisation, a world without borders – a word without end.

Sasuke’s always been rather less perceptive to the romance of democracy, of the mass movement, of we the people. He raised an eyebrow, though not without interest, Wasn’t he just moaning over Brexit?

Naruto shrugged. Not like that lasted.

The corner of Sasuke’s mouth quirked. Wouldn’t have been much of a European Federation if it did. He pushed his fringe out of his face. But take care. The humans are in pieces, it’ll be the Church establishing Eurasian rule.

Which is less horrifying than it might’ve been, because at least half the Council is reasonable, and they’ve had to come around to the view that shifters are far more useful than humans. Also any exorcist knows for a fact that the bible has preciously little to do with God, so there’s no real risk of some Christian caliphate. Still, Naruto would like to return to an order where people could participate, an era of active citizenship.

In the present Sasuke nudges him. “Are you going to let us in?”

“Mmh, yeah.” He turns the key, leading them upstairs. Most of the shifters just nod to Sasuke, deferential and distant. Shukaku hisses at him, even as Naruto mimes zipping his mouth shut, but Gaara knows better than to do anything.

He jumped Sasuke once, two years ago now, broke most of his ribs before Uriel’s fire forced him away. Itachi went spare and Dad wouldn’t step in, because Gaara unarguably had done it to himself. Sasuke finally put an end to the matter, less because he felt for Gaara and more because Itachi’s over-protective big brother tendencies are humiliating at the best of times.

As usual, he ignores Shukaku’s hissing. Naruto has the idea that Sasuke approves of Gaara, in the sense that he approves of Naruto having a very loyal, very strong shifter companion to watch his back when Sasuke himself isn’t around.

In his room he finds the wrong mess on his desk – Naruto’s mess is a systematic mess, and this doesn’t look like it should. Probably Konohamaru has gone through it again, searching for…Naruto’s not sure what, but Konohamaru’s in a sullen mood lately, resentful perhaps of Naruto having less time for him, or of Kushina working more closely with Naruto, even if that’s to protect Kono – and Sakura perched on his bed talking to Ino on her phone. She wiggles her fingers at them, smiling.

Naruto mimes hi. Sasuke makes straight for his wardrobe and helps himself to a towel and some clothes. “I’m taking a shower.”

“You do kind of smell,” Naruto points out.

“Tch. You’re the one who keeps sniffing me. You must like it.”

Naruto wets his lips. “I do.” He’d like to bury his nose in Sasuke’s neck, in his armpits, drink in the smell of him until he’s drunk on it.

Sasuke lifts an eyebrow but leaves it at that, presumably eager to wash off the Spanish grime and the perpetual layer of sweat and sunscreen.

Sakura finally hangs up and pats the bed beside her until Naruto sits down, chucking off his sandals and stretching his toes. “Ino’s gone insane,” she reports, not without glee. “Here, look, now she’s convinced Sasuke’s got with Hanabi!”

Naruto goggles. “What?” Certainly Sasuke and Hanabi are friendly, but…

“Look, look! And that’d mean he isn’t gay, which means she can no longer give up on him gracefully. She’s going spare.”

Naruto finally grabs her hand, keeping the phone steady so he can see. It shows him Sasuke sitting on a bench and someone – presumably Hanabi Hyuuga: only visible from behind, but it’s undeniably the Hyuuga hair, undeniably an exorcist uniform – leaning close and kissing him.

“Naruto – ouch.”

“Huh? Oh. Sorry!” He belatedly releases her hand. “This can’t – this doesn’t make any sense.”

“Naruto.” Sakura smiles at him, almost with pity. “Sweetheart. Obviously that’s not Hanabi.”

Naruto looks again, and indeed, those shoulders are too broad to be Hanabi’s. “Fucking Neji?!”

“Well,” Sakura says rather carefully, sounding surprised. “Is that so unexpected?”

“He just – he could do better. Sasuke.”

“Of course he can,” she says, still very softly. “Obviously he thinks so too. See? It’s not like he kisses him back.”

Sasuke returns to the room wearing Naruto’s tshirt, which is a bit too large and reveals his clavicles, and Naruto’s shorts. His hair is still dripping – that was something Naruto learnt swiftly and happily, that there’s little point towelling your hair in the southern summer, it dries on its own so quickly.

“What the hell, bastard!” he demands, grabbing Sasuke’s arm and tugging him down on the bed. Kyuubi growls, Naruto’s mouth suddenly dry and aching with how bloody fantastic Sasuke smells, the scent of Naruto’s detergent and body wash all over him. God, he wants to lick that smell from Sasuke’s skin… “You’re off kissing Neji Hyuuga, and I have to find out from Sakura?”

Sasuke shrugs. They’re pressed side to side, so the movement rubs their arms together. Naruto’s heartbeat spikes uncontrollably.

“It’s wasn’t my business telling anyone.”

“I’m not just anyone,” Naruto protests, pressing his face briefly into the sharp edge of Sasuke’s shoulder. His fingers play with the hem of Sasuke’s shirt – his shirt – feeling the warmth from Sasuke’s body. In revenge for Sasuke keeping secrets, he lets his nails scratch against the small of Sasuke’s back, up underneath the shirt.

Sasuke arches away from his hand, taking hold of his jaw and lifting his face for a steady look. “It’s not like he’s out. You know what Hiashi’s like.”

“Mmh.” He lifts Sasuke’s hand away from his face, toys with it, bending Sasuke’s long thin fingers this way and that. “I’m surprised yours weren’t – they’re fucking arseholes about everything else.”

“Given the Church’s long and proud history of raping little boys, it’d be a bit hypocritical.”

“Hypocrisy is antoher one of its proud traditions, though?”

Sasuke snorts in agreement, freeing his hand at last.

They play a few levels and watch a few episodes of some stupid show – the whole point of watching telly together is talking about what you’re watching, which inevitably turns into talking about other things, which means this is not the time for appointment television – but Sasuke’s always needed a lot of sleep, and Sakura has school early. They’re in bed by half past nine like good children, Sasuke in the middle as always. Iruka’s more conservative about these things than Naruto would’ve imagined, and it’s rubbed off on Sakura to the point she’d hardly be comfortable sharing a bed alone with a straight boy.

As always, Naruto reaches over Sasuke and cops a feel or two; as always, Sakura giggles before she shrieks at him; as always, Sasuke kicks him in retaliation; as always, Naruto catches Sasuke’s legs with his own, tangling them firmly together.

As always, he wakes up sprawled all over the bed, Sakura and Sasuke pressed to its edges, but with Kyuubi’s tails wrapped around Sasuke. Uriel surges back against them, little static shocks erupting across Naruto’s nerves.

Groggily half-awake, he nestles into the pillow, which smells of Sasuke’s hair, and feels at home after all.

xxxxx

“You were out,” Fugaku says.

Sasuke makes for the tea pot. “I’m aware. What’s your point?”

In its own way, Kakashi reflects, it’s poetic justice. Fugaku’s worked hard for a world where exorcists are demi-gods: an absolute meritocracy based on the value you can add to society, your role in the survival of the human race. According to those very rules, Fugaku’s hardly fit to lick Sasuke’s boots.

He grumbles something into his coffee now, before collecting his things and leaving the room.

Sasuke smirks, that crooked, uneven little smirk that might one day quite soon be that of a heartbreaker. Always an adorable child, he's swiftly growing into his teenaged looks, completely skipping over the akward coltish stage Kakashi remembers with such horror. Mikoto was one of the great beauties of her generation, and Sasuke takes after her even more than Itachi -certainly there’s no trace of Fugaku in him.

“Rude,” Kakashi mumbles, rather in approval, dropping several sugar cubes into his coffee.

“I learnt from the best,” Sasuke tells him, drinking his tea strong and untainted by milk or sugar while raiding the fridge for leftovers. Even as a child, he never much liked sweets.

“You know, I might need to have a talk with Naruto. It’s very déclassé to not even offer some breakfast the morning after.”

“Tch.”

“You can hardly expect to avoid walk of shame associations when you’re wearing his shirt.”

Sasuke looks down at the offending article, which carries the logo of a fastfood chain, with some consternation. “His idiot little brother dumped my clothes in the toilet.”

“To be fair, he made my morning better.”

“Fuck off,” Sasuke grouses. He’s pushed up his sleeves, thick morning light playing over his arms, painting them golden.

“Now, now, as your honorary oniisama…”

Sasuke pushes at him. It’s a perfectly ordinary, familiar movement, but it’s also one that’s changed lately, become charged differently. His hands linger for maybe a few seconds on Kakashi’s chest.

It’s tempting to catch him.

Instead he pokes Sasuke’s face. He aimed for the cheek, but Sasuke’s not keeping still, and it transpires that his finger ends up pressed to Sasuke’s lips, pressed hard enough to feel a hint of wetness and heat between them. 

Sasuke bites him.

It’s not a sexy bite, but a vicious, sharp-toothed one that makes him bleed in Sasuke’s mouth. Which makes Sasuke swallow, and the finger’s pressed to the smooth slick inside of Sasuke’s cheek, Sasuke’s lips closed tight around the second knuckle, and Kakashi supposes he can maybe see why Itachi directs such a death glare at him from the doorway.

He’s not surprised when Itachi intercepts the scene very quickly indeed. “If you need a thumb to suck, Sasuke, at least keep it in the family.” Kakashi’s index finger is out of Sasuke’s mouth and Itachi’s thumb in before Sasuke can protest.

Sasuke glares up at him. “This seriously doesn’t disturb you?” His words come unarticulated, indeed barely comprehensible, around the digit he appears to be giving a defiant suck.

“Not at all,” Itachi says mildly, completely unruffled.

“You are so weird,” Sasuke tells him, spitting out his thumb.

He’s barely out of he room before Itachi directs his most fervent and indeed quite frightening look at Kakashi. “You will not.”

Kakashi smiles blithely, before sobering somewhat. “Isn’t that the whole point? I’m safe because nothing’s going to happen.”

Itachi remains suspicious. “You’re expecting me to believe you have no interest?”

Kakashi shrugs, leaning back against the counter. “If he were a bit older…”

“He’s not,” Itachi cuts him off. “He’s fourteen.”

Kakashi makes an idle gesture, sipping coffee. “Exactly. Which is why I’m meekly accepting this – pre-emptive shovel speech, rather than telling you to stop being a controlling creep.”

Itachi breathes out rather heavily, picking up Sasuke’s cup and finishing the tea. “I’d hoped that weak-willed Hyuuga boy… then in a few years, if you were both still interested.”

“Why would he ever have any interest in a weak-willed Hyuuga?”

Itachi smiles. Sasuke, really, has always been the only thing that can make him smile.

In the interest of keeping the peace, Kakashi neglects to point out that when Naruto finally gets his head out of his arse, he’s not going to be deterred by Itachi’s disapproval.

xxxxx

“Ugh,” Naruto grumbles. “I figured Scandinavia would finally boast some reasonable temperatures. What’s all this global warming been for?” He’s a few miles outside Oslo, it’s May, and he’s still wearing bloody mittens.

“The golf stream changed course,” Raidou tells him, smirking a bit. “It’s colder here now than it was before.”

Naruto shrugs, blowing pointlessly on his fingers. “Ah, well. At least we get to see some snow again.”

It would’ve been nice if Konohamaru was here, so Naruto could start a snow ball fight with him, maybe mend some bridges. Kiba too would’ve been a great opponent. Obviously he’s going to sneak a handful snow down the back of Shino’s shirt at first opportunity, but Shino’s oversensitive about these things so it’ll probably turn into more of a fight than a playfight.

Rumour had it BEAST forces had isolated a small, rural shifter settlement – and rumour turned out to be true. The BEASTers were paramilitary, but while they might terrorise civilian shifters, they could never stand against a trained shifter taskforce.

Naruto kept warm in the morning, building up a good fire to get rid of the corpses. It must still be burning behind them, in the liberated settlement. Some of the inhabitants came with them, most planning to stop in Oslo but some aiming to go back to with them all the way to Rome.

Naruto’s arguing, mostly playfully, for a bit of a detour to see the northern lights when the sky darkens above them. “Fucking hell. DEW guns out now!” The rosary around Naruto’s neck burns, on the very edge of painful. Human and shifter leaders are issued relics – he’s not sure he would’ve qualified, but from what he’s understood, the rosary Sasuke made him is as good as they get. A strange, peaceful light glows around him, making Kyuubi sneeze irritably: Virgin Mary’s love caresses his soul.

If things really go to shit, her light will be replaced by Uriel’s, which is an altogether more painful and frightening experience.

“In the cars now! We should be able to make it to Oslo before they hit.”

They do reach the suburbs before the demons hit them in earnest, but the wards are damaged here too. Shrill alarms ring through deserted streets: there’s no other option than making a stand, hoping the infestation is minor.

Uriel is out by the time they’ve left the cars. Kyuubi growls and grumbles, focused on keeping Naruto safe from the angelic energy protecting him from the demons. Everyone else is not that fortunate. He’s tried sharing the rosary, even give it away, but Sasuke knows him too well for that: it will only work for Naruto.

Really, they work best together. Naruto steps between Sasuke and any physical threat, would and has torn apart hundreds for him, made himself a meat shield absorbing the projectiles from tommy guns and rocket launchers: with Sasuke present, no demon or indeed devil would ever get close to threatening Naruto. Naruto remembers skidding into Sasuke’s bedroom in the middle of the night, dragging him out of bed to come save Dad and Konohamaru when some arse BEAST-friendly exorcist had sicced demons on them and he couldn’t know who to trust. They ran through the silent night streets, Sasuke a few decimetres off the ground, and then finally they were home, and the matter was dealt with quickly and easily, the world safe again.

Uriel tore the demons apart like so much mist, erased them from the world.

While Sasuke’s parents lost the ability to allow or disallow Sasuke anything a long time ago, Naruto can only assume that Itachi failed to immolate him for that little stunt because when it was some crazy humans and insurgent shifters turning on the exorcists, it was Naruto who came and got Sasuke out. That was years ago, before Uriel had manifested enough to prevent Sasuke being hit by bullets, or to let him wipe dozens of shifters. Naruto dragged and carried him through air vents and sewers. Sasuke, grim and silent, eventually accepted his fate and did as directed, keeping hidden while Naruto cleared the way, only leaning out of cover to shoot.

Right now, though, Naruto would be happy to see Itachi, or indeed any exorcist – and finally he does.

Mami meets his gaze from across the street, wiggling his fingers.

Naruto’s not the only one stomping over to him. “Fucking exorcise already!”

Mami smiles at him. “I’m in no hurry.” Around them demons are sucking the souls from Naruto’s shifters, leaving nothing behind. “After all, there aren’t any people here.”

Naruto shoots Mami’s knee cap, then presses the muzzle of his gun into the soft flesh under Mami’s chin. “Either we all live, or we all die.”

Mami finally stops screaming, staring at him in what seems more shock than hatred. Then the world twists, becomes searing light. Naruto’s body is suddenly insubstantial, transformed – destroyed – by the light of exorcism.

It happens so quickly, he barely has time to realise that he’s going to die before it stops.

Angelfire explodes and annihilates, but when it fades, Naruto’s still there. It’s Mami who’s gone, exorcised from the world as though he was never alive at all.

Lifting his head, Naruto’s transfixed by Sasuke’s face, familiar and beloved and ice-white with shock.

This is the final taboo, the absolute heresy: exorcist killing exorcist.

Sasuke’s jaw audibly snaps shut, and the turns his gaze decisively to the sky. Two minutes ago, it seemed to Naruto an impressive infestation. The moment he laid eyes on Sasuke, it became irrelevant.

Uriel’s power roars around them: less than five seconds later, every trace of demonic energy is gone.

Ten seconds later, everyone else is gone too.

Naruto is alone with Sasuke in this sudden ghost town, every other shifter wiped from existence.

He grabs Sasuke’s still-raised arm, which burns his fingers, he has to drop it or lose them. “What the fuck, Sasuke!”

“No one can know.”

“They were people.”

“Not people I’d trust with heresy.”

Some of these people, Naruto met yesterday. Even the ones he knows – Raidou and Shino are none too fond of exorcists. He couldn’t promise they wouldn’t speak of this under torture, that they’d die before they breathed a word of it.

But the whole point of coming here, of fighting BEAST and standing against the demons and shooting Mami, was to keep them safe…!

“If it’s – why.” He breathes in the cold, desolate air, and maybe it’s good he burnt his hand because Kyuubi wants out so bad and needs a distraction. “If it’s so horrible, why’d you even do it!”

“Shiranai!” snaps Sasuke, never very comfortable with words. “My body just moved on its own!”

Naruto’s body moves on its own too, wrapping his arms tight around Sasuke. His burnt hand throbs and screams, the other one fists in Sasuke’s jacket. If he unlocked it, it would fist around Sasuke’s spine, deep under Sasuke’s skin. “I’m glad you’re here.”

“At least their souls weren’t eaten.” He steps out of Naruto’s arms – rather, he tries to, and after a long, long moment Naruto lets him. Sasuke’s eyes are still hellfire red, inhuman but no longer unreadable to Naruto. “I’m bound for a Moscow exorcism. Come on.”

“This is why we need regulations,” Naruto tells him on the train. “If Mami had been obligated to exorcise, this would never have had to happen.”

Sasuke sinks into his seat with the ease of someone who spends much of his life on trains, planes, busses. Exorcists are welcome everywhere, needed everywhere, and so have free access to any transportation they require. A crusader like Sasuke, sent out again and again and again to almost every corner of the continent, requires a lot. He toes off his shoes, resting his feet in Naruto’s lap. “The only thing that can interfere with an exorcist’s power is another exorcist. Even if he’d been sealed, which would be an abomination, you couldn’t have activated it.”

“There’s gotta be a way. I know there are seals that open up when demons appear.”

“Open up, yes. Force you to start exorcising, no.”

“We could tweak it.”

“Possibly. But you’d be executed for it.” He shifts in his seat, light catching in his lashes. “Arguing for a proper separation of powers is a far more realistic approach.” His mouth quirks. “How about it, did you finally slug through Montesquieu?”

Naruto grumbles, sinking lower in his seat and pinching Sasuke’s toe. Sasuke kicks at him a bit, and Naruto catches his foot, keeps it still. He digs his thumbs into it thoughtlessly, idly massaging. “It’s kind of heavy going, you know! The man could think, sure – he couldn’t write.”

Sasuke lifts an eyebrow, flexing his toes as Naruto presses particularly hard at a spot where he always gets tension knots. “Funnily, I seem to remember you had no trouble getting through Machiavelli in a day.”

“That was – train wreck syndrome!”

“Sure,” Sasuke says dryly. “And Kakashi reads porn for the excellent metaphors and the gripping background stories.”

“You should sneak some tentacle stuff in there. Broaden his cultural horizons.”

“And you call me racist.”

Naruto sticks his tongue out. They’re quiet for a few kilometres before he says, “Exorcists aren’t even a majority.”

“No, and we’re stretched thin as is. Losing even a tenth of the exorcist population – we’d have to give up more land.”

“If you can make relics, you’ve got to be able to, like, bless DEW guns. I mean, exorcists in general. We already established that it works. It has to be put into practice.”

They did indeed demonstrate it. It was a DEW gun blessed specifically for Naruto, custom made to work with Kyuubi’s energy. One shot could take out a demon, as they’ve proven to the Council – and soon to the world, because Naruto will leak video very soon indeed if the Council doesn’t start moving.

Sasuke sighs, rubbing impaitently at a spot on his jaw. He almost never gets spots, but when he does he can't stop poking at them. “How much energy did I expand on that gun? Rhetorical question, shut up. It took weeks, I wasted so much power on those prototypes. And you can fire, what, ten shots before Kyuubi can’t heal you anymore? Most exorcists couldn’t make anything like that, and most shifters, not to mention humans, couldn’t use it at all.”

“Equality is worth working for! We have to keep trying with this.”

“We are.” He lets his head fall back against the seat. In the brighter midday light, he looks washed out, his skin papery: the beauty of a relic, like the skull of a martyr. “It’s just – people aren’t born equal.”

“Yet you killed an exorcist for me.” It’s maybe the cruellest thing he’s ever said to Sasuke, and he’s said some terrible things, mainly during the dark weeks just after Mum’s death.

Sasuke said some pretty horrible things back, but he doesn’t now. “You’re different.”

Naruto’s chest grows tight, too tight for air. “Everyone’s different to someone.”

“Then their someones are free to take action for them.”

They stare at each other in this sudden airless silence. Naruto can’t breathe: there’s no room for his lungs to draw in air, his heart’s expanding so violently, filling his entire chest, thrumming through his body to the exclusion of everything else.

In the end Sasuke reaches forward and snatches up Naruto’s hand, inspecting the burn damage. He couldn’t keep hold of it if Naruto tugged even just a little, but the very authority of his grip freezes Naruto in place even as Sasuke’s fingers brush carefully, carefully over the burnt areas, a touch that sears through him. “You’re not going to be able to heal this.”

“Yeah,” Naruto agrees. He was going to say something more, but with Kyuubi suffusing his brain, with Sasuke’s eyes locked on him, language disappears.

“Numb yourself,” Sasuke tells him.

“But I can…” Naruto starts.

Sasuke ignores him, taking a knife from his leg holster and starting to carve off the damaged flesh. It’s just a normal knife, nothing holy about it: it leaves mundane wounds, wounds Kyuubi can heal instantly.

When he’s done, Sasuke’s hands are sticky with blood. He begins to stand, obviously meaning to go wash them off in the toilet.

Naruto tugs at his jacket. “Stay.”

Sasuke holds up his bloody hands, as though presenting an argument, but he does stop.

“Let me.” Naruto’s face burns, but he can’t stop himself. “Let me lick.”

Sasuke stands still for a long time, maybe a minute, before he abruptly sits back down, hands spread out on the little table between them. They’re tense but pliant as Naruto lifts them to his mouth, Sasuke’s pulse thudding through them, Uriel twisting just under his skin but never quite breaking through.

Naruto feels shaky, out of control, as if he’s no longer able to stop. He opens his mouth and licks across Sasuke’s palm, has to press his mouth to Sasuke’s wrist and suck to gag Kyuubi’s guttural moans.

They don’t talk about it afterwards.

Chapter Text

They finally arrive in Moscow, which has suffered a serious ward breach. Even Naruto, mostly blind to demonic energy, can see why this was meant to be a team effort. Only the other exorcists, who had no reason to take a detour to Oslo, got delayed by some sort of train mishap – and rather than wait for them, Sasuke decides to go ahead on his own.

While the Russian authorities are clearly sceptical, they lack the authority to stop him. Naruto swallows a bitter snort: these days it’s basically an immolating offense for a mere human to dare question an exorcist. Sasuke wouldn’t do that, but Naruto has the uncomfortable suspicion that he’d refrain more because Naruto would freak than because he genuinely understands that it’s reprehensible.

One of the Russians offers Naruto a cup of tea, and they stand together on the pavement as Sasuke steps out of their reach, high into the sky. It’s going to be hours before he returns, and eventually the same friendly officer suggests some sightseeing. Naruto checks out the Red Square and the Kremlin, gradually making for the Vasilij Cathedral. He’s not technically supposed to be here, intruding on the hallowed ground of the local exorcist HQ, but after he’s pulled Sasuke’s rosary out of his neckline they let him close.

When Sasuke finally returns to earth, the sky is dark from dusk instead of demons. By then Naruto has made the terrible calls to friends and family of the Oslo deaths, and has given up the pretence of wanting to see anything but Sasuke.

This was a major exorcism, and Sasuke stumbles out of the sky. Uriel’s erasing the last traces of demon taint even as Sasuke straightens up, cold and gracious with the officials, displaying the courtesy of a prince addressing his subjects. When Naruto steps up close, just behind Sasuke’s shoulder, Sasuke lets him take almost his entire weight. He quickly cuts the Russians off, “We need to head back to the train station.”

Naruto kicks discreetly at his leg. “He means thank you so much for your gracious offer, it’s deeply appreciated, but we’ve got other exorcisms lined up and we really must be going.”

As fast as they’ve turned a corner, finally out of sight, Sasuke basically collapses against the closest wall.

“You’re such an arrogant bastard,” Naruto mutters. “You could’ve just put up some shields and waited for the rest of the team.”

Sasuke shrugs. “I had to get it out of my system.”

Maybe do what an exorcist is supposed to do, turn his power on the demons – putting righteousness and distance between himself and the Oslo incident. Doing penance, in a way, for the heresy of Mami’s death.

“Hop up,” Naruto tells him. Sasuke looks unconvinced, and Naruto slaps his shoulder. “Let me rephrase that. Hop up or we’ll do this Princess Ducky style.”

“Fuck you,” Sasuke grumbles, but he does get on Naruto’s back, locking his arms around Naruto’s neck and letting Naruto carry him. His breaths come steady and warm against Naruto’s neck. For an absurd moment it sees completely overwhelming.

xxxxx

“Dipping oranges in salt, did you ever try that? Sakura – my friend, I don’t think you’ve met her – she read about it. It sounds weird, I know, but it’s really addictive. Here, see?”

Maria laughs, a breathy little sound of relief. “You’re much more – normal – I’m sorry, that’s not quite the word. But it’s a relief. It’s like taking to a friend.” She says this in heavily accented English, and Naruto wishes again that he was better at Italian. Sure English is the official world language, but many of the locals still prefer their native tongue, in which Naruto’s what his teachers call conversationally fluent – really the biggest issue is that he lacks half a vocabulary in Italian and half a vocabulary in Japanese, and so tends to fill in the gaps with words from the wrong language. His only consolation is that Sasuke’s even worse, essentially speaking Latin sprinkled with the occasional Italian word.

It’s easier these days to handle getting a human mate: now that shifters are tentatively recognised as a superior because far more useful race, being the object of a bond tends to be seen as more of an honour than a horror. Still, this young woman is the daughter of a VIP human business leader, and her hand, resting lightly against the swell of her stomach, bears a wedding ring.

Talk to her, Kiba asked. His sister had been shocked to get a girl, especially a human one she’s not particularly intimate with. I need this to work out, and we can’t have any hints of coercion. She seems nice enough, you know, doesn’t want anybody getting hurt, but it’s…she already has a family. Just – talk to her, okay?

Naruto’s always thought of Hana as far older, but really Kiba’s sister is only three years their senior. Naruto won’t have her dying at seventeen, no matter how weird it is to participate in this bizarre cross between a friendly meet & greet and a procurement meeting. He smiles at the girl, holding out the platter of salted orange segments.

He’s still holding it out, a useless and forgotten gesture, when Kiba crashes into the room.

“Sorry,” Kiba tells the girl. “Naruto. You need to call Kakashi. Now.”

Kakashi picks up immediately. Which he never does.

Naruto’s knuckles whiten around the balcony railing.

“Naruto. I need you to let me finish before you react. All right? All right, good. I just spoke to Hanabi. You know she and Sasuke had a joint exorcism – well, they took out five devils between them, and a great deal of demons. So they weren’t in very good shape afterwards, and it seems Orochimaru has abducted Sasuke. Itachi and I are going after him now. I’d like you to apprehend Kabuto, he should still be in Rome. We need this done quietly, we need him unable to act, but we would like him alive.”

Naruto remembers, incongruously, a day when they walked through a seaside town, now long since flooded. From one step to the next, the ground disappeared into a sinkhole. What had been a place to stand became an abyss.

xxxxx

They’re in flat moorland, deep in flyover country. Orochimaru’s chosen an old mansion, which seems rather grotesquely large given its isolated location and minimal staff.

The building does have impressive security, but there’s nothing in this world that can stand against Itachi. Lucifael, strongest and best beloved of all the archangels in all creation, tears through energy and flesh, leaving nothing behind.

Following Itachi through the door, Kakashi lets Gabriel out, an almost solid light around him that will incinerate any attacker.

They find Orochimaru before they find Sasuke, in one of the long, badly-lit hallways. He’s bloodied and burnt, which is heartening. Sasuke’s spent enough time around shifters and humans to learn to fight without magic, and he’s obviously put those skills to use. All the same, Orochimaru’s still walking around, which isn’t a good sign.

“Go ahead,” Itachi tells him tonelessly. “I’ll deal with this.”

Kakashi nods briskly, continuing up a staircase. There’s clearly been an altercation, and it must’ve essentially ended in a draw, which means Sasuke injured in some way. He won’t have tried to run: given any kind of choice, Sasuke will always pick fight over flight, and with the flatlands outside, running would’ve been a fool’s game. Sasuke will still be here, watching for his chance to finish Orochimaru.

“Sasuke? Sasuke!”

Third time’s the charm: Sasuke staggers out of a doorway, desperately unsteady on his bare feet. He’s dressed in a hospital gown and someone’s hit him in the mouth.

He drops the scalpel he was holding only when Kakashi catches him, taking his weight.

“Injuries?” Kakashi asks. There’s quite a bit of bruising, but none of it looks particularly serious.

Sasuke shakes his head, forehead pressed heavily against Kakashi’s ribs.

“Do you know what he gave you?”

Sasuke shakes his head again. “It’s worn off a bit.”

“All right. Let’s go find Itachi.”

Sasuke offers him a tiny, misshapen smirk that makes his fat lip bleed. “How many trackers does he have on me?”

“Man isn’t meant to know these things,” Kakashi tells him, directing him towards the staircase and hovering to ensure Sasuke makes it safely down. Kakashi would’ve preferred to carry him, but being treated like an injured child wouldn’t help Sasuke feel normal or in control again.

When they reunite with Itachi, there’s no longer any trace of Orochimaru.

Itachi turns immediately to Sasuke, his hands steady on Sasuke’s shoulders as he presses a kiss to Sasuke’s forehead.

“Itachi-niisan.” And Sasuke starts speaking Japanese, rather quickly for all he’s still obviously drugged out of his mind. Kakashi only makes out bits and pieces. …Orochimaru no mono da…hajimaru kara, sutto…kazoku dakara… aitsu wa ore ni sou itta…uso, ne…arienai, desho…

“The words of a dead man carry no weight,” Itachi interrupts.

Sasuke keeps staring at him, clearly hungry for some kind of reassurance Itachi doesn’t give him, and clearly not sober. His eyes have always been large, and they seem even bigger now, pupils blown and black against ash-white skin. His stingy little mouth is large too, swollen out of all proportion.

Kakashi’s idea of seeing Sasuke drunk for the first time was much more hilarious as well as much more adorable than this reality: more along the lines of that time he and Itachi, new to being teenagers, snuck some communion wine and drank it on the floor of Itachi’s bedroom.

“Take him home,” Itachi says. “I’ll clean up.” He turns to Sasuke, lifts his chin. “You’re safe. You’re fine. Go.”

Kakashi eventually gets him in the car, where he sprawls semiconscious over the backseat, and starts checking flight schedules. They’re in – where even are they? Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan? The borders aren’t marked anymore.

“Orochimaru likes to manipulate,” he says, in clear invitation. “He loves to talk.” He keeps scrolling, carefully not looking directly at Sasuke.

“It’s like Itachi said,” Sasuke says. “He’s dead, it doesn’t matter.”

“I see.”

There won’t be a flight in hours, so he texts Itachi the address of the nearest hotel. Sasuke basically has to be dragged out of the car, but he perks up a bit once they’re in the room, locking himself in the bathroom for a while and emerging with much less blood on him.

He still moves wrong, in this careful over-balanced way instead of his normal jerky starts and stops. He sits down at the table and drinks glass after glass of water.

“No, that’s good,” Kakashi says distractedly into his phone.

Presumably hearing Naruto’s voice over the line, Sasuke gestures for him to hand it over.

With the phone pressed to his ear, Sasuke finally settles, talking in a faint drugged voice, in the weird mixture of Japanese and English he uses with Naruto.

xxxxx

“Naruto,” Dad says on the phone. “What have you done?”

“Leave off,” Naruto tells him. “It needed done.”

Kabuto – what’s left of Kabuto – moans on the floor. Naruto covers his mouth with his foot.

“Naruto – ”

“Not now.” He hangs up on Dad: only picked up in the first place because what if it was Kakashi.

The words echo: Naruto, what have you done?

Only this time they’re spoken inside the room, in Neji Hyuuga’s supercilious voice.

He stares at Naruto in disdain, which he always does, but the staring is of a different kind. There’s something haunted, horrified in it.

Naruto looks down at Kabuto. Kabuto’s still vaguely recognisable, though many of his limbs are shaped wrong, his legs just minced meat inside his trousers, and his face has attained a shape and a colour quite different from what it started out with.

“You’re dead,” Neji tells him. For the first time he sounds sympathetic, as though he thinks it a pity that Naruto’s going to die.

Naruto gives him Kyuubi’s grin, vicious and fanged. “I’m acting on crusader orders.”

“Which crusader?” Neji clearly asks this as a formality.

“Itachi Uchiha.”

Neji blinks. Naruto might’ve lie about Kakashi, certainly about Sasuke – but Itachi sounds like truth, because the lie would so impossible. “What’s happened to Sasuke?”

“Why don’t we ask Kabuto that?” Naruto sits back on his haunches, making sure Kabuto’s still conscious.

“I see.”

“Yeah, he’s – ah, wait, finally.” Finally it’s Kakashi calling.

“He’s alive,” Kakashi says immediately. “We’ve got him, Orochimaru’s no longer a threat.”

Naruto’s legs give out, he’s kneeling in Kabuto’s blood and everything is golden and bright: life goes on, hope springing eternal after all.

He barely hears what Kakashi says after that, and then suddenly it’s Sasuke’s voice, faint and slow and heavily accented. “Naruto.”

Naruto babbles uncontrollably: the words meaningless, just vessels for the tornado of relief sweeping through him.

“Mou anzen,” Sasuke says. There’s more Japanese than usual, more than Naruto can actually follow, but what matters is Sasuke’s voice, steady and live in his ear even though the words drag and slur, Sasuke sounds gone. Drunk, maybe, because normally his voice remains sharp even when he’s about to pass out from exhaustion. 

“Let me,” Neji says.

Naruto shakes his head, waving his hand trying to say, wait, wait.

In the event Sasuke’s voice disappears, Kakashi returning to the phone. “Itachi’s here. We’re flying back.”

Naruto turns to Neji with a smile, feels suddenly weak-limbed but happy about it, like after a good workout. “He’s fine. He’s been – drugged or something, he sounded all weird. But they’ve got him. Kakashi and Itachi. They’re returning now.”

“Good,” Neji says. He too sounds out of breath, as though he’s been running from something and can finally stop. “Orochimaru took him?”

“More fool him,” Naruto says. It’s no secret that Orochimaru’s been obsessed with Sasuke for years, but this will be the last mistake he ever makes: they all know what Itachi would do to anyone fool enough to hurt Sasuke.

“I’ll take care this,” Neji says at last. “Go.”

Naruto clutches his arm in gratitude, and Neji responds by making a disgusted face but doesn’t retract his offer.

Kakashi unfortunately texts him that they’ve missed their connection and will be several hours delayed. Naruto decides to stop by home and make sure Kiba got along with his prospective sister in law, but feels jittery, strange. He’s still full of adrenalin energy, and now that the shock and desperation are wearing off, nausea is creeping up on the memory of what he did to Kabuto. That it makes Kyuubi hungry triggers his gag reflex.

He’s not sure how to stay still, needing to focus on something, do something –

He catches sight of Konohamaru, deciding to be a good Naruto-niisan and get the little brat back in line. He shoots off a quick text, letting Dad and Kushina know what happened with Kabuto, and also that Naruto’s taking Kono to finally climb that mountain he’s been obsessing about.

“C’mere, brat,” he overrides Konohamaru’s swiftly abandoned protests, bundling him onto a dirt bike. “Show me you’re big enough to ride this one on your own, and we’re going.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

He’s watching Kono take the bike around the yard when Gaara appears beside him. “I’m coming with you.”

“Yeah? Okay, great.”

Gaara nudges his arm without looking at him. “I can’t believe you went after an exorcist without me.”

Konohamaru stops the bike in front of them, directing a huge grin at Naruto. “See? See?”

Naruto laughs. “All right, all right, let’s go.”

Gaara’s mostly quiet, only directing a few dry comments at Konohamaru, who scrunches up his face and argues with everything he’s got. It’s actually kind of adorable, as Naruto points out to an annoyed Gaara. It’s night by then, Konohamaru asleep on his feet as they return home.

Afterwards, when Naruto lingers outside, Gaara stays with him.

“Naruto,” he finally says, in that grave deep voice that means he’s uncomfortable. His small hot hand shoots out and catches Naruto’s wrist, holding on pugnaciously even though Naruto’s not trying to get free. He takes a step closer, lips pressed together as though he’s stepping off a ledge and into thin air.

“What’s up?” Naruto asks, taking hold of Gaara’s other hand, keeping him steady.

“It could happen anytime now,” Gaara says abruptly. “Mating.” He draws in air as though it’s difficult. “It’s usually – more than seventy five percent of the time, it’s with someone you’re close to. So it’s not – it is possible to be proactive about it.” He steps even close, until they’re right in front of each other, centimetres between them. “You’re the only one I can stand.” He frees his hands, taking hold of Naruto’s face.

Naruto gets it now about that uncomfortable video of Sasuke and Neji, because Gaara isn’t someone he can push away, but this isn’t right. He shrinks from it, knowing this isn’t an option, that he could never –

“I see,” Gaara says, stepping back. “That’s too bad.”

“Yeah,” Naruto says. “Um. Sorry? I – I can’t.”

Gaara shrugs. ”It is what it is.” He slants a look towards the house, where there’s some commotion. “Minato’s back, then. You should probably head to the airport if you don’t want him to ground you.”

“Yeah,” Naruto says. “Hey. Thanks. I – you know I love you?”

“But not enough.” He shakes his head. “It’s fine. Go, or you’ll have to break out.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time.”

“No. But you should go.” Gaara says it more firmly this time, and Naruto nods, taking off at an easy sprint. Most public transport shuts down after curfew: he’ll have to run through the city, until he reaches one of the outbound bus stations that’ll get him close to the airport.

He gets there around five in the morning, and then has to spend half an hour convincing security to let him in before he can fall asleep in a waiting room.

It’s past noon when Sasuke’s plane arrives at last. Naruto’s scarfed down tax free sweets and brushed his teeth in the airport toilets, and can finally jog towards arrivals.

He spots Kakashi, tall and gangly, first, and then finally Sasuke, in between him and Itachi.

Sasuke seems perfectly normal now, only someone’s punched him in the face. His lip’s held together by stitches. 

Naruto thunders through the crowd, catching Sasuke in his arms and clinging like a huge, monstrous tick. He’s buried his face in Sasuke’s neck, and Kyuubi surges around them, his energy tangling with Uriel’s. This isn’t smart, because it might look to Itachi like heresy, but Naruto doesn’t care, doesn’t care, doesn’t care. Everything’s all right now – Sasuke’s here, back where he belongs.

“Idiot,” Sasuke mumbles into his hair. “Aitakatta.”

“Naruto,” Itachi says dryly, and Naruto finally makes himself step back, pretending his eyes aren’t suspiciously wet. “I understood you had subdued Kabuto?”

“Ah, yeah. I left him with Neji. He’s not going anywhere.”

“Good,” Itachi says, with something not entirely unlike approval. He nods at Sasuke and Kakashi. “I’ll see you later.”

Naruto looks after him. “Hmm?”

“Lazy bastard,” Kakashi drawls. “Some of us have more exorcisms lined up.” He turns towards the billboards, scanning for his next fight. “I need some tax free before I hit Beijing.”

Naruto tries to lift an eyebrow. As usual, his entire forehead goes along. “Aren’t you a billionaire?”

“Actually,” Kakashi says lightly, “I’ve been working pro bono for the last ten years.”

“Oh. I didn’t realise.”

Kakashi shrugs. “It’s no big deal. But I do need my coffee, tax free or otherwise. Later.”

Sasuke too scans the billboards, then turns sharply left.

“Where are you going?” Naruto protests.

Sasuke gives him an impatient look. “I’m booked for an exorcism in Paris. I’m already running late.”

“You were just abducted!”

“I’m fine.” He presses a fingertip to his lip. “You’ve hit me harder than this.”

“It’s different when you deserve it.” Though that probably won’t matter to the Parisians…

“Uh huh. Anyway I’m bound for Paris. See you later.”

“No way. I’m coming too.”

“I told you, I’m fine. Do not fucking condescend to me.”

“I’ve got stuff do to in Paris anyway. You know I need to talk down that revolution-happy shifter association or whatever they’re calling themselves now. We can’t have them starting any more riots.”

“Fine. Come on, then.”

It’s a short flight. Naruto spends it illicitly texting with Anko about the French revolutionaries, and Sasuke’s sunk into that trancelike state, Uriel’s light visibly flowing through him and occasionally breaking through his skin in sudden sparkles.

In Paris, Sasuke hurries into a taxi, and Naruto starts making his way towards the northern suburbs.

He doesn’t see Sasuke again until rather late at night. Naruto’s already in bed, in a luxury suite in some hideously expensive Montmartre hotel the Parisian officials have reserved for visiting exorcists. Usually he likes Montmartre, not least because he used to have a crush on Jeanne d’Arc as depicted in the Sacre-Coeur stained glass windows, but today he mostly wants to go home.

He shifts a bit to make room for Sasuke, not that it’s a small bed. Sasuke slips under the sheets with icy feet, and Naruto presses a finger against the stitches on his lip.

There’s a line of bruises that spills down from Sasuke’s mouth and across his jaw, down his throat and under his neckline. Not particularly bad bruises, but shaped oddly.

Part of Naruto knows that they’re from Orochimaru putting his mouth on Sasuke’s skin and sucking. 

“It’s not a big deal,” Sasuke grouches. “You’ve been abducted. Got beaten a lot worse than this. And you’re fine now.”

“Yeah. But I don’t think Orochimaru took you as a political prisoner.” He swallows. “So I think it was a different kind of awful.”

Sometimes being a political prisoner means being locked up in nice rooms with people you needed to speak with anyway. Naruto’s talked his way out of that kind of imprisonment, and returned with new allies. Sometimes it means being chained up and beaten almost to death on livestream. Dad got him out of that, and Gaara, and Sasuke. Sasuke held him, after, when he’d lost control of his body and his magic and was puking uncontrollably with panic and pain.

He remembers a melody, though Sasuke’s always denied singing to him.

“Are you asking if I’m ruined for marriage?”

Naruto shifts closer. “Are you?”

“No. Not really.” Sasuke shifts too, the sheets scrunching up around them. “He tried, but…”

“I’m glad he’s dead.”

“I’d be gladder if I’d done it myself.” He breathes out. “He was stupid. If you’re trying to rape someone, why the hell would you put your dick between their teeth?”

“You bit.”

“Of course I bit it off.”

Naruto hides his grin against Sasuke’s shoulder. “Poetic justice, and all that.”

Sasuke snorts. “Yeah.”

Sasuke’s feet are still cold. Naruto starts rubbing them. “What did it taste like?”

“Like something I didn’t want in my mouth.” Sasuke rolls over onto his back, offering Naruto his profile. “It was just dumb. I was drugged, I could hardly move. I hated that. He put his fingers in, I – I couldn’t do anything about that. But then he was stupid.”

“Sasuke…” He slips an arm over Sasuke’s waist, letting his tail curl tight around Sasuke’s leg. The idea of Orochimaru putting his hands on Sasuke – in Sasuke – makes Kyuubi berserker insane. Naruto feels him like an actual explosion inside his chest.

“He was delusional. He said he’d made me, that I’d always been his.”

“He was delusional,” Naruto repeats. “Tch. He made someone to bite off his dick? Genius move…”

Sasuke snorts, rolling back onto his side. His fringe tickles Naruto’s cheek. “Whatever. He’s dead now.”

“Ah. What is it Itachi says? God’s in his Heaven, all is right with the world.”

“Hn.” His fingers flex against the pillow. “You took care of Kabuto? You told them Itachi ordered it, right?”

“Worried about me?” Naruto teases.

“Che. We don’t need an assassination squad waiting for us in Rome.”

Naruto sobers. “No. I told Neji I was acting on Itachi’s orders. He said he’d take care of it. Anyway rumour was already out when I left for the airport, and nobody went after me. So I guess they believed it.”

“Right.”

Naruto burrows closer, humming whisper-quiet. He rubs his hand up Sasuke’s back, wanting closer somehow.

Sasuke relaxes under his touch, lids growing heavy. “He had some kind of long-term plan. He’d left papers lying around with seal designs on them.” His mouth grows firm, eyes blazing open again. “The body’s one thing. But to have that filth touch my soul – I could never – ”

Naruto blows air on his nose, making him blink. “The mind’s nothing but a plaything of the body?”

“Said a man who thought Nazism was a swell idea and who wanted to fuck his sister.”

Naruto laughs, a low purring sound. “Yeah, okay, fair enough.” He wets his lips. “I, um. With Kabuto. I kind of really tore him to pieces.”

Sasuke doesn’t hesitate an instant, which allows Naruto to finally stop hesitating. “Good. Fucker had it coming.”

xxxxx

Naruto still thinks of November as basically a winter month, and he supposes technically that holds true. It’s just it doesn’t seem like winter when he’s in only a jumper, and still wearing sandals.

Warm, rather moist winds sweep over the city. He’s recently returned from Kiev, and enjoys the softer climate here.

He’s lying on the ledge surrounding the roof, pillowing his head on Sasuke’s unfortunately bony thigh. Sasuke tugs at his hair, and Naruto can’t stay still. He keeps twitching, shifting around, breaking out of his own skin. Three tails are out, waving wildly because he won’t let them pour over Sasuke, sink into him.

Sasuke rubs his ear – Kyuubi’s ear – quite roughly, and Naruto rolls over onto his stomach, somehow desperate. He presses his head recklessly into Sasuke’s hand, and one of the tails winds itself around Sasuke’s neck. Uriel’s fire burns just under Sasuke’s skin, but his fingers play through the tail without incinerating it.

Naruto forces himself into a sitting position before – before – before he implodes, comes utterly apart. His fangs ache, a sick pain like starvation.

“Fuck, I want to bite you.”

Sasuke lifts an eyebrow. He reaches out without hesitation, pressing his fingertips to Naruto’s mouth, feeling the fangs through his lips.

Naruto starts panting, mouth open and Sasuke’s fingers pushing directly against his teeth, and he’s going to – die, explode, somehow go to pieces. He never wants it to stop.

“Bite me?” Sasuke repeats, mostly teasing. But only mostly.

“All the time. I feel crazy, I – I want to bite you so bad.”

Sasuke bites his lower lip, and heat pounds through Naruto, blood circulating so quickly he goes dizzy.

“Bite me as in attack me or bite me as in mate me?”

“I – both – neither – I don’t know.”

“That’s pretty fucked up,” Sasuke says, but he’s still rubbing Naruto’s mouth.

“It’s not fucked up,” Naruto protests. “Okay, maybe attack biting a little, but we fight all the time! And – and, bonding, that’s…”

“That’s really fucked up.”

“What the hell, bastard. Are you seriously – what, like, you wouldn’t let me?”

“Would I hesitate to let unclean magic latch onto my actual soul?” Sasuke sneers.

Naruto gapes at him, stunned and hurt and – completely fucking destroyed.

“Che.” Sasuke tugs at his own shirt, exposing his shoulder. “If you need to bite, bite.”

Naruto swallows and swallows, trying not to drool, trying not to moan. He clings to Sasuke’s thigh and he would die if he let go. He wants to bite so badly it feels like a need. “I’m not – like, I’m not matesick yet.”

“I know.” The shirt falls back into place, but Sasuke doesn’t break eye contact. “But it’ll hit you soon.”

“I,” Naruto starts. For the first time in years, he can’t read Sasuke’s face

“I heard Kiba talking about it. He thought maybe it’d be good for you – you could finally be more obsessed with something other than me.”

And Naruto can finally relax then, can laugh easily: because he can say with absolute conviction, certain as gravity, “That’s impossible.”

Sasuke’s mouth quirks sharply. His phone goes off. “Right,” he says, looking at the screen. “We were supposed to meet Sakura an hour ago. She’s not thrilled.”

“Shit. Okay. Let’s go.”

They manage to placate Sakura fairly quickly, not least because Sasuke’s got a bit of a limp after he fell off his hoarse en route to some trickily located exorcism. This is too bad, because Naruto’s mastered a new martial arts move he’s been dying to try out on Sasuke.

He did initially stick his tongue out and offer to carry Ducky-hime, which would’ve let them get to Sakura’s much sooner, but Sasuke elbowed him quite viciously in the mouth.

They bake some sort of lemon cake in Sakura’s ridiculously enormous kitchen. The cake itself is kind of a failure: too tart for Naruto or Sakura to particularly enjoy it, and Sasuke has the taste buds of an overly conscientious diabetic.

Still, it’s a good time. Naruto’s full and happy and only minimally antsy as he and Sasuke walk home. Avoiding the near-curfew crush on the streets, they’re walking across the roof tops, eventually stopping on the huge balcony wrapped around Sasuke’s building.

Sasuke leans a bit against the wall, taking the weight off his twisted ankle. Naruto’s right next to him, toying with Sasuke’s fingers as he finishes some anecdote he keeps losing track off. Sasuke meets his eyes, and Naruto thinks he falls silent. There’s just… Sasuke’s eyes, Sasuke’s smell, the sound of blood rushing in Naruto’s ears. “I…” He swallows convulsively.

“You’re the stupidest fucking idiot in the world,” Sasuke tells him. He tugs at Naruto, pressing him into the wall, and – and – Naruto blinks, and oh God, and – Sasuke’s kissing him.

There’s a standstill moment of shock. What is happening, and what is Sasuke doing, and the whole world is changed and made new.

Then every particle of Naruto roars its approval. His body’s melting in pleasure, his heart’s expanding like a star about to go nova, and Kyuubi’s dancing inside him.

It’s a feeling of yes.

He maybe says it, only he’s talking right into Sasuke’s mouth, kissing him and kissing him, straining ever closer.

When they pull away – and it’s a ridiculously terrible feeling, as though someone’s pulling the life out of him – it’s because Sasuke’s mother steps out onto the balcony and clears her throat. Sasuke’s lips are beestung and wet, and Naruto inches forward instinctively to have more of them, stopped short millimetres from Sasuke’s mouth by Mikoto’s arctic death glare.

“Perhaps it’s time you left, Naruto.”

“Ahahahah, yeah, maybe. Yeah.”

Sasuke smiles at him, and the world just – stops around them. Sasuke’s never been a smiler, he smiles maybe twice a year, and the smile on him now… It’s what Naruto always wants to be looking at. It’s the whole point of it all, of his life in this world.

xxxxx

Kakashi probably shouldn’t be watching this. He didn’t set out to, but now that he’s stumbled upon the scene, its intensity is difficult to look away from.

Sasuke’s sitting on his favourite sofa, reading something. He looks up the moment Naruto enters the room, they stare at each other in this embarrassing way, as if they really believe they’re the only two people in the world.

Naruto walks to him the way a river follows its course. Sasuke tilts his face up, reaching for him, his knees falling open.

It looks like the movement of a breathing chest: not like an act of will at all, but like the movement of the body keeping itself alive.

They’re all over each other, Sasuke’s arms up around Naruto’s neck, his legs around Naruto’s hips, he falls back on the sofa with Naruto on top of him.

Naruto’s face was made for this slack-jawed ardency, an expression as though he could laugh, could burst into song. It’s odder to see it mirrored, however inexactly, on Sasuke’s stricter features.

Kakashi’s decided to leave after all, because they’re basically grinding and clothes are starting to come off, when Itachi appears. His face goes white, and Kakashi puts out a quick arm, keeping him at bay.

“I’m killing him.”

“Wait,” Kakashi insists.

Naruto’s been mumbling things, he’s never been able to keep quiet, but it’s Sasuke talking now. “Of course I – idiot. Look, I’m saying it once.” Naruto must touch him somewhere, because he breaks off on a moan, arching closer. His voice comes certain and almost steely, though. “Naruto. Yes. Touzen da, aishiteru.” Another moan, Naruto mumbling happily in response in between sucking at Sasuke’s throat. Sasuke tugs at his hair, “Mochiron desu, dobe. Now shut up and – nnh. Ah.”

Itachi looks like the world has ended.

The sounds that follow aren’t ones a sibling should have to hear, and anyway Sasuke’s hands are sneaking deep into Naruto’s trousers, so Kakashi elects to drag Itachi away.

“It’s impossible,” Itachi says flatly. “He’s a shifter.”

“Well, yes, but they’ve been joined at the hip – admittedly in a slightly less pornographic fashion – since they were five? It’s not like he suddenly became a shifter,” Kakashi points out.

“He’ll bond with someone.”

Kakashi shrugs. “What will be, will be. But I wouldn’t be surprised if…”

“Impossible,” Itachi says again. “It’s happened once in recorded history. It’s not even possible to interbreed, the notion is absurd.”

“Once in recorded history,” Kakashi emphasises. “The Church would’ve wanted to keep it quiet. It’ll have happened, every now and then.”

“I rescind my previous refusal. Do seduce him.”

“Jesus Christ, Itachi.” He laughs, warm and low, suddenly almost unbearably fond.

He does flirt with Sasuke a few days later, which seems mainly to confuse Sasuke. Kakashi’s always teased the kid, always rather adored him – always had this idea that one day… He lets his hands linger a little, teases in a subtly different tone.

Sasuke frowns. “What are you doing?”

“Hmm?”

“I’m – with someone. Which, I know you know that.”

Kakashi shrugs, dropping his hands. “Will you believe Itachi actually ordered me to seduce you? It’s a once in a lifetime mission, how could I possibly refuse?”

“Mataku,” Sasuke mutters, leaning briefly against Kakashi’s arm, obviously deciding that they’re family again, that Kakashi wasn’t serious. “Unbelievable.” He snorts, smirking up at Kakashi for a moment, sharp-edged and glorious, and maybe if Kakashi had fought for this, he could’ve had it.

Not much later, Sasuke expresses his annoyance to Itachi, who pleads confusion – surely he’s always liked Kakashi? Wasn’t it always on the table that they’d end up together?

Sasuke shrugs. “Naruto no inai sekai… tabun ne.”

A world without Naruto would be a smaller, meaner world. Those are the circumstances in which Kakashi could have had a little life with Sasuke. But it would have been exactly that: a littler life, cold comfort.

There are parts of Sasuke to which he simply doesn’t have access, and he isn’t like Naruto: someone who makes the world bigger and brighter by being in it. The person that Sasuke is with Naruto… well, he’d have to be cut down to size, to fit in a world without Naruto.

The door slams open, Naruto entering all huge grin and gesturing hands, and Sasuke fucking glows. Kakashi’s never seen anyone so ridiculously, dangerously in love.

At least, Kakashi thinks, Sasuke could conceivably live in a world without Naruto – it’s impossible to imagine Naruto even existing in a world without Sasuke.

“So the big question,” Kakashi drawls after Naruto’s dragged Sasuke away, handing Itachi an extremely Irish coffee, “is whether you’d rather have your baby brother living in sin, or accept interracial marriage?”

Itachi chokes on his coffee, and Kakashi decides to laugh.

Chapter Text

If, Gaara thinks, as he hasn’t since he was a child and first discovered the danger of this word, walled himself off from its lure. If Gaara had been a stronger person, or the world had been a fairer place – if Kyuubi hadn’t twisted reality to fit his obsession, if they hadn’t wasted all their chances…

If Naruto hadn’t bonded with Sasuke, then

…then Gaara starts to feel a pull, up north in the war. It feels like nature taking its course: a wave hitting the shore, a wolf biting into the throat of a deer. He’s been a planet circling its sun, caught in Naruto’s gravity, for as long as he can remember – this isn’t so different.

For the first time in years, since the very first time he saw an interracial bond, he can relax. He’ll be safe. He’ll be fine. He might be…happy.

Naruto shows no signs of noticing anything, but then Naruto can be astonishingly dense. And Gaara’s always considered the bond a yoke, but that’s the beauty of it now: it leaves no room for doubt, no room for choice. Naruto will be made to realise

Gaara’s hoped for this too profoundly to ever acknowledge that hope to himself. Only now, when he’s sure it’ll come to pass, does he experience the sweet, sharp relief as it floods him – a chronic pain suddenly healed.

xxxxx

Kabuto knows it’s time to send Sasuke away when he walks into Orochimaru’s office, where Orochimaru has Sasuke spread out on the carpet, and realises that he’s seen Orochimaru fuck corpses with more life in them than Sasuke's currently exhibiting.

This romp will have been provoked by that very fact – it can hardly be interpreted as anything but an attempt to elicit fury, failing that indulgence, failing that annoyance. But Sasuke’s face, turned listlessly to the ceiling, remains blank as his head bangs into the wall, moved by Orochimaru’s thrusts. These days, he still occasionally frowns and sneers and raises his eyebrows, but the expressions never go deep enough to affect the underlying blankness. They remind Kabuto of the smiles painted onto the plastic faces of his childhood dolls. 

Orochimaru whispers something in Sasuke’s ear, and Sasuke finally starts moving, touching Orochimaru the way Orochimaru likes best. Sighs and moans, the exact pitch that Orochimaru prefers, slip from between his lips. Watching, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Sasuke adores Orochimaru, and desires his touch above all else. Only his face remains disinterested, disconnected.

But the charade doesn’t last. Minutes later, Sasuke falls silent, his body so unresponsive it appears insensate.

Orochimaru lifts a hand as though to strike him but then just caresses his cheek, mumbling something.

Sasuke makes a face like a shrug. “Whether you fucked me ten times or eleven, that still made a difference. But if it’s 3008 times or 3009, it doesn’t matter anymore.” His voice is clear and ordinary and so very tired.

Indeed, Kabuto reflects. Those early violations were still experiences that Sasuke could conceivably recover from.

They’re far past that now.

And so in the end it seems they all realise it at the same time: that Orochimaru can no longer make Sasuke do anything, because there’s nothing left that he can take from Sasuke without killing him, and there’s nothing he can offer him that matters anymore.

As fast as Orochimaru’s rolled off him, Sasuke pulls up his trousers and stands. Turning his back on them, he walks to the large windows lining the office.

In retrospect, Kabuto will never be sure why nobody stops him as he opens one of them and steps out into thin air.

Orochimaru watches his fall with something like amusement – indeed, fondness – until Sasuke’s very close to the ground indeed, and falling never turns into flying.

For the first time in many years, Kabuto hears Orochimaru curse.

When Samael’s retrieved Sasuke and dumped him on the office floor, Sasuke expresses neither relief nor disappointment. He’s always been sharp, one of those people whose personality is mostly edges, but there’s something dull about him now.

It’s been a long time since Orochimaru raised his voice to Sasuke, but he does now.

Sasuke shrugs, that misshapen one-shouldered shrug that Orochimaru hates, and probably regrets having caused. He’s tried to train Sasuke out of it, but Kabuto’s examination revealed that it’s not simply a way of minimising pain: Sasuke’s marked shoulder is too damaged, he’s not physically capable of a normal shrug.

When Sasuke at last speaks, he sounds like he’s quoting, “If all I have left is a life of making myself smaller…”

In the very recent past, that would’ve been a challenge. Today it’s simply Sasuke thinking out loud because he can’t be bothered to censure himself anymore, he’s gone beyond the stage where there’s any point in that.

“I see,” Orochimaru says, and Kabuto imagines that he does.

Sasuke has tried his best, and has failed. He’s burnt away every part of himself that Orochimaru could corrupt, has slashed and savaged and salted his own lands, and it emerges that what’s left isn’t enough to survive on.

He’s got his head tilted oddly, as though listening to something over the noise of Orochimaru’s and Kabuto’s conversation. Indeed, Kabuto imagines that he’ll be hearing them by now, the dangerous voices – the ones telling him that this too shall pass, that he can in fact end it. You do not have to live this way. You can stop.

At sixteen, Sasuke’s lasted longer than almost any of Orochimaru’s other erotic projects, but he’s going to die now.

There’s only one solution.

xxxxx

The days up north are short and sharp, red with bloodshed and midnight sun. Gaara lets Shukaku stretch his legs as he runs through the moorland.

He only feels a prickle of unease as he smells exorcist, and upon cresting a hill spots Sasuke Uchiha.

Gaara stops, watches him in silence. Sasuke’s standing in the middle of a lake, most of it frozen but the ice littered with cracks. That doesn’t matter to Sasuke, of course, Sasuke who can walk on water. At least, he can while the unnatural darkness is still fading from the sky.

Gaara’s never worried about Sasuke. He doesn’t give a shit about him personally, but Naruto does – Naruto would be destroyed if Sasuke was gone – and all the same Gaara hasn’t worried, because no matter that people keep treating him as prey, Sasuke was born an apex predator. That killer instinct will never be domesticated.  

You’re a zebra, Naruto said once. Orochimaru can try and paint over your stripes all he likes, you’ll never be a horse. In response Sasuke laughed, the unhinged raspy laugh that’s his substitute for crying, and pressed his face against the edge of Naruto’s shoulder. Naruto rested his cheek against the crown of Sasuke’s head, and stank of rage and love and frustration.

There’s always been a curious disparity in the way he touches Sasuke like Sasuke’s his most treasured possession: as if he can hardly believe that he can, and yet as though Sasuke has always belonged to him.

But the point is, Gaara’s never felt any concern when it comes to Sasuke. Today, something’s different.

The last traces of demonic interference disperse, the smell of angelfire abruptly fades, and Sasuke goes through the ice.

Seconds pass, and he doesn’t try to get up. Gaara’s heard enough about the seal to know it has a self-defence release, that the risk of imminent drowning will allow Sasuke to burn through the ice, to step up into the air. Isn’t that the whole point of Sasuke jumping off highraises, walking into traffic, picking fights with people ridiculously stronger? Naruto’s always insisted that he’s not really trying to die, and to be fair Sasuke’s good at killing people, so if he really wanted to, Gaara reckons he’d be a lot more efficacious about suicide.

But in the end it’s Gaara who has to run out onto the fractured ice, who spots Sasuke’s dark hair and angelfire-bright skin down below. It’s Gaara who breaks the ice and lets the heat of Shukaku’s energy coat his arms as he reaches for Sasuke. It’s Gaara who drags him spluttering and semi-conscious onto the shore.

He turns Sasuke over, thumps his back to force him to puke up the water he’s swallowed.

For a long time Sasuke looks like a mermaid – an icy, inhuman creature who doesn’t belong on dry land.

“Don’t touch me,” is the first thing he says, his voice hoarse and his lips faintly blue.

“Don’t be more pathetic than you can help,” Gaara tells him, taking off his coat and dropping it over Sasuke’s shoulders. “Let’s get in the car. Get up, get moving.”

“Fuck you.”

“I’m not in the market for sloppy seconds.”

“Che.”

When Sasuke shows no signs of obeying, Gaara throws him over his shoulder. Sasuke can fight all he likes – and he fights viciously and quite well – it makes no difference. Gaara’s not threatening him, so the seal remains locked tight: Sasuke’s as helpless as a human against Shukaku’s strength.

Sasuke’s metal foot kicks through Gaara’s stomach, coming out the other side, which makes Gaara hiss and pull it sharply out. Five hundred metres later, he’s healed.

He dumps Sasuke in the passenger seat and hurries around the car. Fortunately Sasuke’s calmed down, slumped boneless and with his teeth chattering. Gaara cranks the heat up to max. This is Anko’s car, so, “There’s vodka in the glove compartment. Drink.”

Rather to his surprise, Sasuke complies. Twenty minutes and several large drinks later his cold-shaky hands have steadied.

“What are you doing here?” Gaara asks. He’d be a fool not to exploit Sasuke’s sleepy inebriation.

“Exorcising,” Sasuke tells him dryly.

“Cut the bullshit. These parts haven’t seen a proper exorcist in over a year.”

“Orochimaru made a deal with Ibiki. I’m here to clean up for the humans.”

“Not for us,” Gaara finishes. “All the human-controlled areas will be safe, all the demons will congregate on the shifters strongholds. Fuckers.”

But there’s little cause for concern. Sasuke’s might be a racist arsehole generally, but if a demon appears, Gaara expects he’ll exorcise. He won’t be careful about collateral damage, but he’s never been the type to hold off exorcising until the demons have eaten any nearby shifters.

If worse comes to worst, they’ll have to use Naruto as demon bait to get Sasuke where they need him…if that even works anymore

Sasuke shrugs. “Kakashi’s here too.”

“Really.”

“Minato wanted him badly for this.” Sasuke’s face twitches into an approximation of a smirk. It still looks inhuman, hollow, and Gaara thinks once more of mermaids, pretty lips closed over shark teeth. “And the Council feels I need a handler.”

Gaara parks in front of the house they’re staying in. “Get out.”

Sasuke waves him off, his usually sharp movements softened with drink, and stumbles out of the car.

Gaara’s not looking forward to having to carry him again. He should’ve just knocked Sasuke unconscious, saved himself a lot of trouble, expect he wanted to interrogate him.

Fortunately Kakashi steps out of the house and jogs towards them, catching Sasuke by his shoulders. He sniffs. “Did you actually bathe in vodka?”

“Tch.”

“Come here,” Kakashi says, leading Sasuke towards the house with a steady grip on his arm. He nods at Gaara over his shoulder. “Thanks.”

Gaara doesn’t respond. He’s always liked Kushina far too much to like someone sniffing around her husband, though at least Kakashi, unlike Yui, is a useful sidepiece.

He gets back in the car to finish the mission Sasuke interrupted.

When he returns, he finds the exorcists in the kitchen. As usual, they’re acting like the own the place, completely unembarrassed about taking over shifter space.

Sasuke still seems out of it, sitting on the counter bundled up in layer after layer of shirts and jumpers. Kakashi’s standing between his legs, towelling his hair. Sasuke isn’t particularly cooperative, frowning and leaning away from him. When Kakashi catches his arm and the sleeve rolls down, Gaara sees one reason Sasuke might need a handler: scars across his wrist, and Orochimaru doesn’t like to mar him, so the odds are overwhelming that Sasuke’s done that to himself.

He’s just a weak little bitch, Gaara told Naruto once – this isn’t the first time Sasuke’s hurt himself, nor is it the first time he’s only put up a token struggle as someone stands between his legs.

He’d been rather hoping for Naruto to take a swing at him when he said that, to roar at him: hoping to distract Naruto, chase the haunted look off his face. But Naruto didn’t get angry, not that time. It was the first time he ever looked at Gaara with contempt, with this sad, disgusted pity that Sasuke should rightly have provoked but never did.

Pity was the one thing he couldn’t handle, not from Naruto, so Gaara kept prodding, increasingly crude.

You wouldn’t have made it, Naruto finally told him. He sounded sad but sure, which was what made the words so cruel.

I wouldn’t have –

But Naruto spoke over him. Naruto didn’t usually do that, Naruto usually wanted to listen to people, but Gaara was reminded then that he always could just take over – that Naruto being easy, being kind, was a choice. That Naruto could choose at any time to be a fascist dictator instead, and none of them could stop him. You’d have let Shukaku devour you.

Yes, Gaara said.

That’s suicide, Naruto told him, with which Gaara didn’t agree, but there’s no arguing with Naruto about this.

In any case Gaara comes to the uncomfortable realisation that this time, Sasuke might actually be readying himself to die. Those scars on his wrists are determined, not from wounds made by a dilettante. He might’ve been aware of Gaara’s presence when he went through the ice, but he can hardly have counted on Gaara rescuing him – would hardly have wanted to be rescued by a shifter he dislikes. So he must conclude that Sasuke’s – what’s the quote – that Sasuke’s given what he had to give, that he can try and try but it’s not use anymore, because he’s burnt himself out at long last. Looking at him, Gaara thinks of empty shells, a clam pried open and the pearl long gone.

He’s never worried about Sasuke, but now he does.

He feels Naruto behind him before Naruto’s even inside the building, hypersensitive to Kyuubi’s energy. Shukaku twists and twirls in his chest, addicted to it.

As usual, Naruto shows zero signs of reciprocating. He should feel it by now, the bond’s been dragging at Gaara’s mind for weeks, but Naruto steps into the kitchen and when he stops, as if the world has frozen around him, he’s not even aware of Gaara. Gaara knows that, knows he might as well be a chair to Naruto, and that when Naruto remembers this moment, he will not remember Gaara.

He sees Sasuke, and the rest of the world turns to background noise.

This is what Naruto should smell like when he looks at Gaara – the ferocious, uncompromising need, the painful rush of arousal and belonging. Indeed, he smells borderline matesick, as if Kyuubi’s been trying to establish a bond with Sasuke for years.

Of course, that’s impossible. If Sasuke were anything other than an exorcist… but he’s not, and so Naruto’s mad love will never amount to anything. Biology will force him to turn to Gaara, where his will or desire would never lead him.

Gaara doesn’t look at Naruto. It’s not the time: he’s had a good day, he doesn’t need Naruto’s stunned, hungry expression to ruin it.

Instead he looks straight ahead, which means at Sasuke, who also grows still before pushing Kakashi away from him. It’s an easy, assured movement, worlds away from the uncoordinated, unsuccessful struggle of minutes before.

In a curious way, it looks like Sasuke waking up.

Then Naruto stumbles past Gaara, moving possibly faster than Gaara’s ever seen him move before, barrelling into Sasuke. Naruto’s hands – Kyuubi’s hands – lock around Sasuke’s arm, around his back, with the finality of something that’s forever.

Sasuke makes an odd face, as though he’s forgotten how to express any sort of emotion but is trying now to remember, and pushes at Naruto’s head.

Naruto grins at him, fanged and ardent and desperate, and presses their foreheads together.

xxxxx

Sasuke pushes him away almost immediately. Naruto takes a step back but keeps hold of Sasuke’s wrist, Sasuke’s arm suspended in the air between them.

Sasuke makes a face, pinched and furious and – humiliated. It comes to Naruto with the impact of a sucker punch, as it hasn’t for some times, that Sasuke can’t get free. What Naruto interpreted as a playful tug is actually Sasuke struggling with his full strength.

Naruto drops his wrist as though it’s burnt him. His fingers leave red marks that he can already tell will darken into bruises.

Sasuke’s the strongest person Naruto’s ever known, which makes it too easy to forget that he’s also terrifyingly fragile.

In fact, he could actually…keep Sasuke. Unless his life is threatened, Sasuke’s seal won’t open, and bereft of his magic he could never escape Naruto.

Orochimaru wouldn’t punish Sasuke for that, he’d just – he’d just come here to recover him, and to kill everyone who’d tried to steal from him.

It was never possible before, because Dad would’ve interfered and given Sasuke back, but Dad’s not here and anyway Naruto’s establishing his own leadership. He wouldn’t like to try and order the entire force under his command to go against Dad, but many of them – enough of them – would follow him if he did.

“You’re here now,” Naruto says. It means you’re finally here, the prayer of a lifetime granted, are you really here? It also means, you’re staying, I’ll never let you go again.

Sasuke rubs his wrist. It won’t be the bruises bothering him, not when he’s hardly batted an eyelash at Naruto breaking his actual bones in the past – and not when the bruises are forming across deep, ugly scars from someone butchering his arm. “You can’t do that. You can’t just – touch me.”

“I’ve always touched you.” He’s stepping closer again, feeling the sharp warmth of Sasuke’s knee millimetres from his stomach. Kyuubi growls and twists through his intestines, wanting to drag Sasuke back to his foxearth and bite away all the sick parts, lick his wounds clean.

Naruto goes cold then, from the inside out, feels his entire body ice over. It’s the first time Kyuubi’s wanted to take care of Sasuke rather than challenge him.

Which means – and Naruto’s swallowing, but it’s impossible, and anyway Sasuke’s here now, right here, and he’s fine and he’s going to stay fine, Naruto will make sure of that – which means that Sasuke’s dying.

“I don’t want you to,” Sasuke says.

“You can’t just – decide to cut me off on your own. That’s not…”

“Yes, I can,” Sasuke snaps, temper igniting at last and clearly far shorter than it once was.

“It doesn’t work like that,” Naruto insists. He’s even closer now, not touching but so close he might as well have been.

“Actually, it does. Keep your fucking hands off me!” Sasuke kicks at him, furious and fractured. Naruto’s thighbone cracks open, and he finally takes a proper step back.

Sasuke slides off the counter and presses his forehead against the wall, panting and white-knuckled.

Naruto realises then that Sasuke’s coming apart, that Sasuke’s going to actual pieces in front of him – that Sasuke can no longer handle any emotions at all, and only survives by cutting himself off from everything.

He’s hanging on by a thread, just waiting for it to snap – perhaps indeed anticipating it.

“All right,” Naruto says, “all right.”

He sits down on the floor next to Sasuke, and eventually Sasuke can look at him.

“Are you hurt?” Naruto asks. “Kakashi seemed like he was checking for injuries.”

“I’m fine,” Sasuke says mechanically. He looks at his own hands and arms, which are scratched up and bruised, shrugs. “It’s nothing serious.”

“Okay. I was gonna go over to Midriver and get a handle on things. It’s mostly humans, but – you up for it? There’s a great burger place on the way.”

“All right,” Sasuke says after a breathlessly long silence.

“Great.” Naruto breaks out into a grin, waving his hand around. “Help me up.”

“Tch. You’ve got fat.”

“Have not!” Naruto protests, getting to his feet under his own steam. It’s true that he’s grown heavier, has bulked up on muscle, but what puppy fat he had is gone. In fact, it was Sasuke who used to have a round face as a child, cute chubby cheeks, even though his body was always stick-thin. But Sasuke’s ridiculously thin now, skin and bones and the borrowed clothes falling off him.

Naruto thinks uncomfortably how the current beauty ideals means Ino at thirteen had to starve herself into hospitalisation before anyone caught on that something had gone wrong – the fact that Naruto even notices Sasuke’s weight now, that means Sasuke’s far, far too thin. 

He doesn’t think Sasuke would try to starve himself to death: it’s inefficient, uncertain, completely at odds with how Sasuke kills. But then he remembers Sakura talking about Ino’s anorexia as self-hatred, as a way of purifying yourself through suffering, regaining control and getting rid of the unclean and disgusting.

He also remembers exorcist children fainting during Lent, which kids aren’t really supposed to be that strict about, but tell that to Itachi and his fellow fanatics.

“Is that, um,” he starts.

Sasuke turns his face towards him, lifting an eyebrow. Animation is only gradually creeping back: the movement still resembles that of a cunningly manipulated puppet, rather than a flesh and blood expression.

“This whole,” Naruto makes an incoherent gesture meant to encapsulate Sasuke’s suddenly nihilistic beauty, “is this a new thing? That he’s into? Heroin chich? I mean, Kimimarou always looked sick, I guess…” 

Sasuke’s face remains blank for a long time, as though he doesn’t understand what Naruto’s talking about. Finally he snorts. “He made Kabuto put me on an IV. So I’m thinking no.”

“Right. So it’s to…spite him?”

Sasuke sighs, turning away from him and walking towards the hallway. “Not everything I do is about Orochimaru.”

“Of course not. That’s not what I’m saying!” Naruto hurries to catch up, grabbing his coat and an extra one for Sasuke.

It’s new that Sasuke calls Orochimaru by name. That’s been a forbidden word for years, but he says it now neutrally and easily.

“I ate a lot for a while,” Sasuke tells him in the car. His voice is faint but steady, accented again, like he’s too tried to keep up the RP English. “I wanted to grow up. Grow bigger. People always say he’s a paedophile, I assumed if I grew… But it’s not like that.”

“I know,” Naruto says through gritted teeth. It’s the only thing he can say, and he keeps staring straight ahead – if he looks at Sasuke he’ll start screaming, start crying, start shaking him. In any case something it’s not his place to do, not when Sasuke’s barely hanging on. “Kimimarou’s, what, eighteen now? He never stopped with him.”

“No,” Sasuke agrees. “Kimimarou would’ve killed himself if he did.”

“You’d think he could do us all a favour and kill Orochimaru instead...”

“It’s not like that,” Sasuke says again.

“I know,” Naruto says again.

Outside the kilometres are rolling away, miles and miles of tundra and snow and ruined harvests. Naruto used to be curious about midnight sun, elated at the idea of seeing northern lights. The lights are still beautiful, but the bright summer nights are mostly a hassle – shifter senses are an enormous advantage in the dark.

“It’s always like this,” he says, looking at Sasuke again and almost crashing the car because the rest of the world disappears. “When I see you again.”

It can be days or it can be years, but the time in between always just disappears, the world coming back into focus. Like every time Sasuke isn’t there, Naruto’s life is put on pause: as though Sasuke’s presence presses play, and life can go on again.

He doesn’t say it quite like that, but Sasuke knows what he means. Sasuke shakes his head, looking…old, almost, like one of those medieval kids who died at twenty, so sixteen was old age. “It’s too late.”

“No, it’s not,” Naruto insists. “It’s not.” He grabs for Sasuke’s hand, which is small and callused and cold in his own. He’s been around only shifters too long – can’t tell if the twitch running through Sasuke’s fingers is a shudder or a struggle to get free.

Sasuke’s face is mostly skull, the flesh sunken and the skin white as bone. “I can’t do this anymore.”

Naruto swallows and swallows. Sasuke’s not even fighting him. He’s never been so scared in his life. “I don’t know how to stop.”

Sasuke makes an odd face, squinting against the low-hanging sun. “This too shall pass.”

“It won’t, though.”

“I’m just…done.”

“You have to fight,” Naruto orders him like he’s never ordered anyone before – like he’d order people if he merged with Kyuubi and became the monster dictator the humans fear so much.

“I have fought,” Sasuke tells him, not so much peaceful as weary, and very certain. “I’m done now. I’m finished.”

The car lurches into a ditch. Naruto rips free of the seat beat, fisting Kyuubi’s claws in Sasuke’s jacket. “If you can’t fight for yourself anymore, then fight for me!” He feels insane, the world intermittently whiting out.

“Some people can do that,” Sasuke says, looking him straight in the eyes, remorseless and familiar and so unbearably beloved. “Live for others. For some people it’s the only way they can live. I’m not like that.”

There’s something ugly and guttural in Naruto’s voice – it’s the voice he usually calls Kyuubi’s, but it would be a coward’s excuse to pretend it’s Kyuubi saying, “If you’re all set on dying, I’ll kill you myself.”

Sasuke leans back in the seat, baring his throat in challenge. “That’d be suicide for you.”

At first Naruto’s mouth is so dry he gasps, then it’s flooded with saliva. It’s just a throat, just Sasuke’s throat, and God. He’s never consciously thought of Sasuke in sexual terms before – hasn’t been truly alone with Sasuke in five years – but God how has he not?

Finally, finally that steely glint of challenge like wildfire, that little quirk to Sasuke’s mouth, and Naruto’s suddenly leaking and aching with how hard he is. If Sasuke smiled at him, if Sasuke touched him at all, he’d come in his pants and come apart.

But it would tear Sasuke apart too, and at this point he couldn’t be put back together again.

Naruto swallows. “I don’t care. You’re more important.” He tries to smile but it doesn’t come out right. “If you die, I can’t live anyway.”

Sasuke looks terribly conflicted but then sighs. “You’re a fool.”

“Maybe.”

Sasuke curls up more comfortably in the car seat, in one of those convoluted poses his mother always chided him about. “Naruto, Orochimaru basically sent me to you on some kind of demented vacation. You know what that means.”

“He’s wrong about you,” Naruto insists, teary-eyed for some reason. “He’s always been wrong about you.”

“Maybe.”

“Anyway – anyway I’m not – I’m not going to let you go anymore. You get that right?”

Sasuke must. He stays still, calm but somehow intense, as Naruto pulls away his scarf and tugs his coat open, pulling at the neckline of his shirt to expose his neck and shoulder.

Kyuubi’s eagerness becomes tangible inside Naruto’s mouth, growing into enormous fangs. This is the point towards which he’s been moving all his life, he understands that now.

Sasuke shifts his arm, just subtly but it leaves the field clear.

Naruto bites him.

His fangs sink in smoothly at first, Sasuke’s flesh providing no more resistance than the air. It’s easy as opening the door to your own home.

Then he hits the seal, and his mouth is on fire.

But this isn’t an attack, he can keep going, and his teeth go through the bone of Sasuke’s shoulder, magic and blood and Naruto’s deepest, most desperate hopes.

Nothing happens.

It must be minutes later that Sasuke pushes lightly at his head. “It’s not going to work.”

Naruto’s jaws unlock, and Sasuke’s shoulder doesn’t heal. Naruto can see straight through it, through the holes where the fangs went in, deep but impotent. One of the holes cuts right through the seal, and it doesn’t even matter, Naruto can’t reach deep enough, can’t touch Sasuke on the inside, and the sky is falling.

He can’t hold his head up, winds up with his face buried in Sasuke’s chest, howling and crying and hyperventilating.

For once, he and Kyuubi are in perfect accord: for the first time, he understands the temptation of giving in to your beast. When you’ve failed at the one thing that mattered, been denied what you can’t live without – when the sky has fallen and all your dreams have died.

Sasuke reaches over his shoulder for the bandages in the glove compartment, then rests his chin on top of Naruto’s head.

When Naruto can look up at last, Sasuke remains steady and certain and so close. Through his tears, Naruto can see the individual hairs of Sasuke’s lashes.

“I love you.” There’s no thought beyond that belligerent protest, no decision. He speaks and moves the way his heart beats, instinctual and necessary. Sasuke’s lips are thin and chapped and perfect under his.

This is the magic the bite failed to create. Sasuke’s always been his, and now, like this –

Sasuke pushes him away, the bony edge of his palm pressed to Naruto’s forehead. “Stop.”

Naruto sits back, hungry and destroyed and – and alight, fireworks going off in his head.

“I can’t give you that,” Sasuke says. He shrugs. “You can take it, but.”

“Right,” Naruto says, and feels stolen from, as if Sasuke should rightly belonged to him in full. “Shit, your shoulder.”

“It’s fine.”

“Uh, no, there are big holes in it? Fuck, where’s the disinfectant?”

“It’s fine,” Sasuke says again, even though he’s bleeding through the roll of bandages pressed to the bite.

“You’re gonna get infected.”

“So?”

“So I presume you don’t actually want to be strapped to a hospital bed, so enough with the edgy self-pity or whatever. Ah, here we are!”

There’s no shifter needs disinfectant, but someone’s left vodka in the car. Naruto brandishes the half-empty bottle in triumph.

Sasuke takes a healthy swig before drenching a new roll of bandage in it and finally wrapping his shoulder properly.

Thankfully the car is made for rough conditions and gets back up on the road without complaints. It’s after they’ve driven for a while, long enough for the worst of the vodka stench to dissipate, that Sasuke says, “I really thought we were going to make it.”

Naruto crashes into another ditch.

“We are! We are gonna make it!”

Sasuke ignores this. For really the first time he sounds normal, calm but fully alive. “I won’t last the year. I used to think – but all of that is over now. It’s all done. And I thought – I thought if I’m gonna go, I might disappear in you.”

Naruto freezes at the realisation that Sasuke was so amenable to the idea of the bond, so eager for it, because he considered it suicide. Another invasion, which he couldn’t withstand.

Naruto takes his hand, just short of breaking the bones in it. That’s the only way he could stand Sasuke disappearing from the world: if he disappeared into Naruto, if Naruto could take him irremovably into himself. “To be one flesh,” he mumbles, playing with Sasuke’s ring finger.

“You want a geisha finger?”

“I – yes.”

Sasuke presses his ring finger into Naruto’s mouth. Instantly Naruto’s completely hard, swallowing around it and drunk on the taste of Sasuke’s skin.

Sasuke’s eyes are wild, pupils blown. “It’s not like I’ll need it for a ring.”

 Kyuubi’s tails tear themselves out of Naruto, wrapping like manacles around Sasuke’s arms and legs. His mouth aches around the fangs, overflowing with saliva. He can’t hold back.

He bites off Sasuke’s finger, eats it, swallows it. Feels it burning and at home in his stomach.

Lips wet with Sasuke’s blood, he kisses Sasuke’s cheek, just at the edge of his mouth. Sasuke locks his arms around his neck, hyperventilating into his ear. “I have to disappear.”

“No,” Naruto mumbles, “no, no.”

He can’t hear anymore, he cannot, so he kisses Sasuke again. Deeply this time, and for a long while, until Sasuke doesn’t speak anymore.

Chapter Text

They’re forced to stop several miles short of Midriver, just outside Rock.

Rock’s had demon problems for years, but today it’s on a different level, like crossing the border meant entering a different time zone, where it’s night. There’ll be no driving through this, demon mist so thick even Naruto can see it, not with your soul intact. “Fuck.”

Sasuke smirks.

“Don’t,” Naruto snaps.

“Che. Isn’t this your lucky day?”

“You mean – ”

“Jesus, Naruto, it’s not like I mind.”

There’s that lovely, cocky twist to Sasuke’s mouth. He finally moves right, strong and energetic, as he undoes the seat belt and steps outside the car, walking straight up into the sky.

Naruto has to throw himself down, cover his eyes, as Uriel’s wings unfold, a blaze of searing light like that of a nuclear bomb.

Sasuke could’ve just cleared the way for them and left the settlement to its fate, but he exorcises properly: finally Rock is set free from a decade under siege. 

By the time Sasuke descends, still glowing faintly with God’s grace, people are streaming out of the walls. Naruto quickly gets out of the car, standing beside Sasuke, and the atmosphere grows less tense, more jubilant as people realise it’s not a purging coming their way.

Sasuke ignores the shifters, letting Naruto speak for both of them – he’s in fact texting someone on his phone when Shino appears, and Naruto stiffens.

People say Shino’s smart. Naruto’s never been convinced – Naruto knows bona fide smart people, and their way of thinking is radically different from Shino’s – and today he gets proof.

“…and the little exorcist tragedy,” Shino finishes. He says this like he thinks he’s being clever – like he’s figured out that getting away with being cocky to an exorcist will give him cred with the shifters, and that Sasuke’s safe because the seal won’t allow him magic unless he’s directly threatened, not now that all the demons are gone.

Sasuke finally looks up from his phone. He tilts his head, taking Shino in. “Who’s that?” he asks Naruto.

“Shino?”

“Hn.” Sasuke returns to his phone, typing quickly, then looks up with a twisted, delighted smirk worthy of Orochimaru himself. “Shino Aburame. You killed Tenten.”

“So what?” Shino snaps. “If she hadn’t been so weak, she wouldn’t have let the demons eat her!”

“True.” Sasuke presses his right hand to the seal, mumbling a snatch of Latin. Then he burns Shino.

The fire eats Shino so slowly, he has time to scream and scream as he realises his life is over, but these are purgatory flames: it doesn’t matter if people pour snow or water over him, if they try to smother the flames in jackets and coats, nothing in this world can put them out.

Naruto grabs Sasuke’s wrist, feeling the bones grind in his grip, but Sasuke himself couldn’t stop the pyre anymore.

Shino’s bodyguards open fire on Sasuke.

Naruto moves quickly in front of him, but it makes no difference, it’s all too late. The seal opens, Uriel’s wings curling protectively around Sasuke. Around them people disappear, erased by the sheer holiness.

Sasuke starts speaking Latin, in the ritualistic tones of prayer. Naruto understands enough to catch on that he’s bearing witness before God that these people have raised hand against an emissary of the Lord and so shall be purged under the law of God and man.

“No! Sasuke, no!”

There’ve been rumours, many rumours, about Sasuke purging places that might or might not have deserved it, for whatever demented value of deserved it – and whatever people think, Naruto does know Sasuke well enough to realise those rumours are true: Sasuke’s purged more than his fair share. Orochimaru’s responsible for him, so Orochimaru’s the one getting shit for it, but of course that’s cold comfort to the millions of dead.

There’s no one left around them now – hundreds of people gone in an instant, and Sasuke walks towards Rock. If Naruto lets him, there will be nobody left at al. Tens of thousands of children and their parents, erased to the point there’s nothing to even bury.

Sasuke will enjoy it.

Not because he particularly likes killing civilians, there’s no challenge in that, but because the seal will stay open for the purge.

Naruto throws his arms around Sasuke, which means around the tangible aura of light enveloping Sasuke. It burns him, his skin starts melting off, but he holds on, keeping Sasuke still.

“Do you want to die with me?” Sasuke asks. It doesn’t sound like a taunt. It sounds too much like a real question.

“No,” Naruto says, and wishes he could see Sasuke’s reaction, but his eyes are gone, have melted into hot tear tracks down his cheeks. “I want to live with you.”

“Then wait outside.”

“No! I need to stay with you. I can’t be away from you, ever again!”

“Why are you acting like this is a big deal?”

“Will he,” he swallows, trying to speak through a tattered throat, gagging on smoke from his own flesh incinerating. “Will he hurt you, if you don’t?”

“…no,” Sasuke says, softly, viciously. “We’re past that now.”

“Then stop. Stop for me.”

For a long time, they’re at a stalemate. Then the seal closes, and Sasuke collapses into Naruto’s arms. Naruto can barely stay on his feet, too injured to even register pain over the shock from the burns. Catastrophic injuries, he thinks. This is what people mean when they talk about catastrophic injuries.

Sasuke’s head is heavy on his shoulder: Sasuke makes sounds like hulking, like hysterical tearless crying. “Bite me again.”

“Sasuke…” He falls on his knees, bringing Sasuke with him until they’re kneeling on the frozen ground.

“I need it off, I need it off. Just bite it off!”

“That’d cripple you!”

“I’m already crippled!”

Naruto holds him harder, feeling Sasuke’s vertebrae creak and bend under his fingers. “You’re on vacation,” he reminds Sasuke. “Fucking enjoy it.”

Sasuke laughs, husky and shaking, finally lifting his head and studying the burns. The ashy gashes are closing slowly, new skin growing over blackened flesh. Sasuke pokes at it, perhaps incidentally or perhaps deliberately pulling loose big chunks of Naruto’s cheek.

“Bastard,” Naruto grumbles. He wants – sickeningly, dizzily – he wants Sasuke to eat his flesh. Wants to kiss Sasuke afterwards and taste his own blood.

“Right,” Sasuke says at last, standing up. “Vacation. Come on.”

Naruto pulls himself to his feet by grabbing onto Sasuke’s arms, and after a few steps his stagger turns into a swagger. He’ll be okay in a couple hours.

“Live with me,” he says again in the car, taking Sasuke’s hand without looking at him and feeling the absence of Sasuke’s ring finger. “Not just for this, like – weird suicidal honeymoon or whatever. Stay with me.”

“Naruto…”

“Just listen to me!”

“Then stop fucking lying! Even if – even if I could, you’re just going to bond with someone!”

“No I won’t!”

Sasuke stares at him in challenge, lifting an eyebrow.

Naruto wilts, but persists, “I can’t. I could never – it’s you, it’s always been you, it has to be you…”

“But it wasn’t me,” Sasuke tells him, absolutely relentless. “You bit, nothing happened.”

“That’s wrong! It’s supposed to be you!”

“Everyone knows you can’t bond with exorcists.”

Naruto sniffs belligerently. “But I love you. Nothing’s going to change that.”

Sasuke shrugs. “Your father loved your mother, so he said. He still left her for the bond. Couldn’t even be bothered to save her life.”

“That wasn’t!”

“No?”

“No! Anyway I’m not like Dad.”

“No,” Sasuke agrees at last. “I couldn’t stand you if you were.”

Naruto parks in front of the burger place, pressing his face into Sasuke’s shoulder. “I thought about you all the time since – I think about you all the time.”

Sasuke stares straight ahead through the windshield. “I didn’t think about you at all.”

Naruto knows what that means. Sasuke couldn’t think about him, not without falling apart.

“I’ll always be yours, whether you think about me or not.”

“Tch. Let’s go.”

Naruto nods, leading the way into the eatery. His face is okay now, and his hands, and the staff doesn’t have to see the burns lingering under his clothes.

Sasuke eats properly and quickly, shovelling down half of Naruto’s fries in revenge for Naruto stealing his complimentary muffin. “That’s unfair! You don’t even like muffins!”

“It’s still stealing!”

Naruto sticks his tongue out, and Sasuke quickly retaliates by stuffing a discarded pickle into his mouth “Eww! How could you!”

Sasuke laughs at him, seeming for a moment normal, and safe, and ordinary. Naruto knows with absolutely certainty that he will die if he ever loses this again.

xxxxx


Gaara stares at his phone in annoyance. Rock demonfree, Shino & ~600 wiped bc didnt know when 2 stfu :(, is what Naruto’s written.

Gaara breathes in, in, in, and then out in a sigh. He’s been telling Naruto for months that Shino needs his place explained to him, in the simple and violent terms that he understands. Naruto of course has insisted that they should just talk him around, but then hasn’t got around to it, what with everything going to shit daily.

Across the room, Kakashi lifts an eyebrow at him. It’s a movement Gaara associates with Sasuke, although to be fair Kakashi was probably doing it years before Sasuke was born. That doesn’t make it any less annoying.

Still, Kakashi’s useful. Gaara tilts the phone towards him, before remembering that Kakashi doesn’t have shifter senses and can’t read at this distance. “Your boy cleared up the demon problem in Rock. Wiped a few hundred shifters, too.”

Kakashi sighs, his mouth quirking in this rueful little smirk that Gaara would like to wipe off his face. Preferably with his fist. “Of course he did. Nobody terribly important, I hope?”

 “We can do without Aburame.”

“Good.”

And for some reason Gaara’s suddenly, coldly furious. “Does he do this with humans?”

“Cleanse them? Oh, certainly. Quite often.” Kakashi shrugs. “I suppose you’ll need to know, now. He’s more often able to turn on shifters, because humans typically aren’t a threat. But they’re the same kind of collateral to him, just an excuse to get at Uriel.”

“What do you mean, I’ll need to know now?”

Kakashi looks at him sadly, condescendingly. “Well, you’ll need to deal with him now, won’t you? Given the bond.”

Bloody Kakashi fucking Hatake noticed before Naruto, then. Either Naruto’s genuinely oblivious, either Naruto feels nothing when he looks at Gaara – or else Naruto’s so horrified, so completely against the idea that he can’t even let it into his thoughts.

Kakashi feels sorry for him. It’s a dragging, spiky emotion, one he’d like to drink away, but there’s a commotion in the hallway and the way Gaara’s head snaps up makes it abundantly clear that Naruto’s the source of it.

Then Sasuke steps into the room, and Kakashi blinks stupidly. He’d forgotten that expression – the one Naruto calls Sasuke’s shark smile: half smirk, half sneer, wholly Sasuke. It’s sharp and not particularly flattering, and Kakashi hasn’t seen it in years. Hadn’t realised he’s missed it for years.

On a more practical level, Sasuke appears to be suddenly missing a finger, and the shoulder of his jacket is wet with blood.

When Sasuke actually was a child, he could deal with injuries perfectly well. He knew how to disinfect, how to wrap, how far too push himself.

But Sasuke can’t take care of himself anymore.

Kakashi catches his shoulders lightly, lightly, and sits him down on an ottoman. Sasuke must be more concerned with keeping himself alive and healthy than usual, because he doesn’t protest or obstruct when Kakashi injects him. These are Kabuto’s drug cocktails, meant to cover the myriad strange and sometimes serious injuries Sasuke sustains and never mentions.

Sasuke’s head falls forward onto Kakashi’s arm, maybe because he gets tired or dizzy or maybe because his pupils expand so much and so fast, the lights are hurting his eyes.

“What are you doing?” Naruto hisses, kneeling far too close to Sasuke, who inexplicably fails to swat him away.

“Preventing gangrene,” Kakashi tells him dryly. He takes firm but gentle hold of Sasuke’s arms. “Come on. We need to check on your shoulder properly.”

“No, wait!” Naruto hangs onto Sasuke’s wrist, his hands obscenely tan and healthy against Sasuke’s bruised pallor.

Sasuke turns to him as though Kakashi’s not even there, hardly able to sit upright but with that familiar laser focus that Kakashi had thought was lost. Naruto stares back at him, so obviously blind for anything else.

There’s a red thread vibrating between them, maybe the only thing still tying Sasuke to earth.

“Stay with me,” Naruto insists, thumbs curling in Sasuke’s belt loops.

Sasuke starts to stand, eyes half-lidded and hands fisting in Kakashi’s shirt. “Let’s go.”

“Wait,” Naruto says again. “This isn’t –”

But Sasuke’s shut down. Kakashi holds him upright, and responds with some irritation, “Back off. He just said.”

“He doesn’t want that!” Naruto insists, with astonishing certainty. Kakashi’s only ever met a handful of people so fundamentally sure, so absolutely convinced of their own core truths. Sasuke, certain as death; Naruto, certain as the sun. Itachi, certain as God’s judgement. “What he says and what he means are two different things!”

“Enough,” Kakashi decides. It’s possible he’s never used this tone with Naruto before: devoid of amusement, of irony. It shocks Naruto still as Kakashi directs Sasuke upstairs.

In their room, he deposits Sasuke on the bed, where hopefully he’ll stay as Kakashi ventures out for some proper medical supplies.

Naruto must’ve gone outside, because Gaara’s staring out the window with sore, naked hunger. As Kakashi passes him by, Gaara hisses at him, Shukaku’s inhuman hiss twisting his features out of all personhood.  

“It’ll never be you,” Kakashi tells him, head tilted in that way he’s picked up from Sasuke.

Gaara’s face whitens.

Seeing his own useless yearning mirrored in Gaara’s collapsing expression, Kakashi remembers how cruel he can be. “He wants someone to stand beside him, and you’ll always just be a follower. You were born a follower.”

“So were you,” Gaara sneers.

“Ah,” Kakashi says. “That’s how I know.”

But Gaara’s beyond listening. “It’s the same for you, Uchiha will never – ”

“Maa, I suppose he won’t.”

Why he is tormenting a disturbed teenager doomed to a lifetime of unrequited love? He shakes his head, shakes the cruelty off like letting blades recede back under his skin where they'll only cut himself, and closes the door between himself and Gaara.

In the room, Sasuke pushes himself upright in stages. He’s managed to get most of his layers off, leaving him in an oversize tshirt. Kakashi’s tshirt, in fact, which is essentially a dress on Sasuke. He’d have liked to tease Sasuke about that, but Sasuke doesn’t care what he wears, and has indeed used Sakura’s clothes in public on more than one occasion. The only thing he takes issue with is Naruto’s garish colour preferences.

“Hey,” Sasuke mumbles, his knees knocking into Kakashi’s.

Kakashi’s sat down, going through the med kit, and looks up at Sasuke swaying and extremely close. “Hey, you.”

Sasuke’s mouth quirks oddly, a confused and vulnerable movement that quickly changes into a bad-tempered one. He sits down in Kakashi’s lap, curling close with his cheek pressed against Kakashi’s chest. The emptiness where his ring finger should be becomes increasingly apparently as he plays with the straps of Kakashi’s hoodie. He’s humming something under his breath, a snatch of searing nostalgia: one of the mere handful childhood songs that wasn’t a psalm.

Kakashi puts an arm around his waist, holding him steady as he leans forward to put the med kit on the floor. “You’re acting like a little kid.”

Sasuke looks up, huge guileless eyes blacker than midnight. “Maybe I want to be little.” He leans more heavily on Kakashi, as if he’s trying to make himself smaller and softer, only he’s so bony it rather hurts. His voice comes slower, muffled by the drugs. “You liked me, when I was. Even Itachi did, for a while.”

“Jesus Christ, Sasuke.” His arm tightens around Sasuke, holding him bone-creak tight. “I like you, you stupid kid.”

“You like fucking me,” Sasuke points out. “That’s not quite the same thing.”

“No, it’s not. So if I meant I like to fuck you, I’d have said that.”

“You’re always lying to me,” Sasuke says, speaking softly for once in his life. He stands up, taking an unsteady step towards the bed. “But that’s fine. It’s why we can be together.”

xxxxx


It’s not that Naruto doesn’t realise he’s being creepy. He’s never had what Sakura calls proper boundaries when it comes to Sasuke, but this might be a new low.

He’s clinging to the outside wall, Kyuubi a thick heavy heat inside him, and staring in through Sasuke’s window.

Sasuke’s been asleep from the start, curled into a tiny ball, only his hair visible above the duvet. Kakashi for a long time stroked his hair, talked to him too quietly for Naruto to make out the words, but has finally fallen asleep too, one arm thrown carelessly over Sasuke’s hips.

Naruto’s not sure how long he’s been there, watching, when Kakashi wakes up, checking his phone and making a face like he’s cursing. He leaves the bed and then the room.

He doesn’t come back, and Naruto forgets how to breathe.

The window’s meant to be secure, but Naruto’s got into far more tightly guarded places, and despite his shaking hands it takes him less than two minutes to break in.

The room smells of Sasuke. Kyuubi starts salivating.

Naruto has that feeling like when you’ve run for a really long time so it’s like you’ve forgotten how to stop. His legs just walk on their own.

Sasuke doesn’t wake up as Naruto steps out of his shoes and parka and sits on the bed. He doesn’t wake up when Naruto slips under the duvet too, right next to him. He doesn’t even wake when Naruto puts his arm around him, drawing him in until Sasuke’s spine cuts into Naruto’s chest. He buries his face in Sasuke’s hair and wraps his tails around Sasuke’s legs, and still Sasuke doesn’t wake.

Sasuke’s skin looks smooth as water, but it’s not really. Protected places, like the back of his neck or below his chin, sure – but Sasuke lacks the regenerative capacity of a shifter, his skin subject to human wear and tear. The scarring is bad, too. A lot of it Naruto can’t even tell what it’s from, since he barely knows anyone who scars.

Hours later Sasuke rolls over, burying his face in Naruto’s chest, fingers curled against Naruto’s heart, which races headlong and crazy in response. He catches himself touching Sasuke’s bare legs only when flesh abruptly turns into metal, holy inscriptions sizzling against his fingertips.

But Sasuke’s rolled onto his injured shoulder, and starts frowning in his sleep. Naruto nuzzles against his face, carefully pushing him onto his back.

He’s going to come in his pants any second, but he also feels calm and – perfectly content. He’d forgotten this sense of peace: has longed for Sasuke fiercely and constantly, longed for that sensation of the world becoming realer, brighter, sharper, brought to life by Sasuke’s presence. He’d forgotten to miss the absence of that clawing, restless need.

Mum used to talk about maybe putting him on Ritalin – she should see him now, laying almost motionless and staring at Sasuke sleeping for hours and hours.

Sasuke shifts minimally, and his neckline, never proper, slips further down his chest. And Naruto gets that he’s the one in the wrong, gets that he’s the one taking liberties with Sasuke without Sasuke’s consent, but it feels like Sasuke makes him. He licks the night’s sweat from Sasuke’s skin, Kyuubi purring and his underwear soaked through with precome.

He’s mouthing Sasuke’s collar bone when Sasuke’s eyes finally blink open. He lifts an eyebrow at Naruto, bleary-eyed but not really glaring.

“Hi,” Naruto says. His voice comes breathy and ardent, almost a gasp, and he flushes.

Sasuke’s not really dressed, and it’s so much more striking now that he’s awake, how he never chose to show Naruto his sleeping face, his naked skin, all his scars.

“Hi,” Sasuke drawls. “What the hell are you doing?”

“I, um.” He licks his lips. “You didn’t wake up.”

Sasuke shrugs, rubbing his eyes with his knuckles. “Orochimaru’s a licker. I’ve learnt to sleep through it.”

The morning seems suddenly colder. “He’s a…”

“Hh.” Sasuke yawns, pulling the duvet up to his chin. “He licks my fucking snot when I’ve got a cold. He’s a licker.” He makes a face Naruto can’t read, seeming rather more awake. “Did the idea of licking my snot actually just make you harder?”

“Maybe?” He hides his face in Sasuke’s uninjured shoulder. “Shut up!”

“Whatever.”

Naruto glances up through his lashes. He’s so ashamed, it’s difficult just to exist. He needs to confess, “I want to lick inside your ears.”

“Nobody’s surprised you grew up a pervert.”

“I’m not, I – I don’t even watch porn!” Naruto protests. Sasuke says nothing, and Naruto squirms. “It’d be wrong. It’s – people get forced, the conditions are terrible. I’m not going to jerk off to watching someone probably get assaulted.”

”Okay? I don’t care.” Sasuke leans over the edge of the bed, grabbing an enormous jumper that must be Kakashi’s and a pair of trousers, tugging them on underneath the duvet. But he stays in bed, half-sitting against the headboard. Despite having just woken, he seems desperately tired; despite the clothes and blankets, he seems cold. Naruto, mostly dressed from the start, kicks off the duvet and pulls up his jumper, enjoying the chilly air against his overheated skin.

He takes Sasuke’s hands, rubbing them warm.

Sasuke pretends not to notice. “Don’t you have anything to do?”

Naruto shrugs. “Don’t you?”

“I’m on vacation.”

“Yeah? What do you wanna do?”

Sasuke’s hands are finally warm, but Naruto keeps playing with them. Bending his fingers, tracing the lines of his palm, circling the empty spot where his ring finger was.

Sasuke shrugs. This isn’t a speaking time for him.

”All right,” Naruto says, kissing Sasuke’s wrist before making himself let go. “Well, I’m working on a speech. I want something like, you know, Per Albin Hansson.”

At ceremonial and sometimes also everyday occasions, we like to talk about society as the communal home of us all: the home of the people, the home of the citizens. Perhaps it’s in relation to the sense of duty that this idea of society as the people’s home is the strongest. One’s own right, one’s own share, is quickly claimed – less so the care for others. But the foundation of a home is community and fellow feeling. A good home knows no privilege and no neglect, no favourites and no stepchildren. One does not look down on another. Nobody tries to get an advantage at the expense of another; the strong do not plunder the weak. In a good home, there is equality, consideration, cooperation. Applied to the great home of people and citizens, this means the breaking down of all social and economic barriers, which now separate people into those who have and those who have not, into rulers and ruled, plunders and plundered.

“Breakfast first,” Sasuke interrupts.

Naruto laughs, rubbing at the back of his neck. “Yeah, okay. Be right back!”

He shrugs everyone off, collecting leftovers and that disgusting nut porridge Sasuke likes. Soy milk, bananas, anything that still looks tempting.

Back in the guest room, Sasuke hasn’t moved. Naruto puts the tray in his lap, sitting cross-legged next to him and helping himself to a slice of leftover pizza.

Sasuke scrunches up his nose at the smell, sticking to his weird old-man breakfast. When he’s finished, Naruto pulls the Rubik’s cube from his pocket, dropping it in Sasuke’s hands. ”Got you a present.”

The corner of Sasuke’s mouth quirks into a tiny smile. His fingers attack the cube immediately.

“Well, so, yeah – I thought that’d be the basis. But I still need to pull it all together…”

Our society is not yet a good citizens’ home. We might have achieved a degree of formal equality, but socially the class differences remain, and financially we suffer under the dictatorship of the few. In order for our society to become a good home for our people, the class differences must be done away with, welfare and social care must be developed, and we must have financial equalisation. Everyone shall have an equal share of our treasures. Socially and financially too we must become truly a democracy. The existential security provided by the absolute assurance of support in times of need – during unemployment, sickness, old age – brings the individual awareness of their citizenship. It makes of society a community, it creates the home-feeling that characterises a good democracy.  

“I mean, obviously it needs tweaking. Has to be fitted to our circumstances, but.”

“The strong shall not plunder the weak,” Sasuke says, emptying a glass of orange juice. “You’re finally admitting there are strong people and weak people?”

“Yeah,” Naruto says, sadly but without hesitation. He wanted to believe that people are equal, but he’s had to accept that Sasuke’s right: people aren’t born equal. So society has to compensate, the government needs to step in and even out the playing field. “But, you know. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

“Tch, you create that Utopia, you’ll have a Harrison Bergeron smashing it up quickly enough.”

“Look, no. Okay, that’s a bloody brilliant story, but that’s not what socialism is about!”

“Whatever. You’re already working against evolution, protecting the weak – you don’t need any fictional enemies.”

“I just don’t – people aren’t that shitty!”

Sasuke tilts his head, clearing the Rubik’s cube and messing it up again. “Naruto, you’re probably the best person I know. By rather an enormous margin.” He holds up his mangled hand with the missing finger. “You’ve crippled me for life and you break into my room to touch me in my sleep. People are shit.”

“You’re the best person I know,” Naruto says, light-headed but surer than he’s ever been. “By rather an enormous margin. And you’re – well, you’re an arsehole. That doesn’t mean everyone is baseline shitty, it doesn’t make it pointless to try and create a better society!”

“Hope springs eternal,” Sasuke mutters. It sounds less insulting than…not quite thoughtful, not quite surprised.

“Quoting hope lines is hopeful!” Naruto points out.

“Che. Of course you’d have forgotten the rest of it. The soul, uneasy and confined from home?”

“I think that is kind of hopeful, though? Man never is, but always to be blessed? It’s the whole existentialist thing. This whole idea, you know – change is possible, that we can decide who we’re going to be?”

The soul rests and expatiates in a life to come? I get that Itachi would find that hopeful, but you?”

“Okay, yeah, no, fine. I mean, yeah, future dreams are great, but carpe the diem?”

“Anyway it’s not true,” Sasuke says, pushing the tray away and pulling his legs up to his chest. “People are who they are. There’s no changing it.”

“It’s not like you’re born with a set personality that can never change. The way you grow up, the life you have – that has to matter. Predestination is bullshit, and also it would make everything we do not matter.”

“But then it’s still not you deciding who you want to be. It’s other people. Which is the socialist credo anyway.”

“People are who they are,” Naruto agrees. “But we can – we don’t have to stagnate.”

Sasuke shifts, leaning his head against the pillows. “If you could’ve picked, would you be a shifter?”

Naruto rubs at the back of his head. “Wouldn’t everyone want to be an exorcist? Then the demon problem would’ve been dealt with a long time ago, and we could start sorting things out between ourselves.”

“You think everyone would want a life that means statistically you’re eaten by the demons before you hit thirty?”

“I think everyone should want to do everything they can for the world. It’s not – you wouldn’t want to be anything else.”

“No. But then I’ve never aspired to dying peacefully at a ripe old age.”

Being an exorcist means, really, being a martyr, even though it’s difficult to reconcile that idea with people like Sasuke, Kakashi, Orochimaru. You’re worked to the bone, you’re sent out to fight actual evil made manifest almost as soon as you can walk, and eventually you’re going to lose. The best you can hope for is self-immolation and a grave in the sky.

It’s not wonder they don’t manage to change the fundamentalist system from within, when so much time is spent surviving from one battle to the next. It's what Mum woul've called not an excuse but an explanation.

For Sasuke it’s the only kind of life, but then Sasuke’s far too up close and comfortable with both pain and death. Shinigami-chan, as Orochimaru calls him, and maybe Orochimaru’s not quite as wrong as Naruto would like.

“If I was,” Naruto muses, “I wonder what angel I’d get? Maybe, um…”

“Phanuel,” Sasuke immediately cuts him off.

Naruto has no idea who that is, but smiles all the same – elated and effervescent with the knowledge that Sasuke cares enough to have an answer. “If you weren’t an exorcist…?”

Sasuke yawns. “Shifter, obviously. At least you lot are useful for something.”

“I’m touched.”

Sasuke shrugs, eyes slitted and sleepy. “Who’s the speech for, anyway?”

Naruto smiles again, helplessly wide and smitten, and lies down, pulling Sasuke close. “You’re cold again.”

“Hn.”

It’s like cuddling a cat – a difficult, sharp-edged creature that might cut you as soon as let you pet it. Sasuke kicks at him, but eventually, as Naruto explains about the speech, falls back asleep.

Things are better after that, for the most part. They go on a kind of exorcising road trip through the north, cleansing years of infestations and terror in a matter of days. Naruto’s suddenly able to speak face-to-face with any human leader he wants, because none of them would dare turn away from the companion of a crusader; can assert absolute, blood-less dominance over insurgent shifters, because he’s the only one who can rein in Sasuke.

And Sasuke as usual has no patience for what he considers useless people, always dismissing them in favour of Naruto. He’s never cared before about Naruto using him to score political points, and he doesn’t now – most of the time he hardly notices, and when he does it just provokes this dark little smirk.

Still, Sasuke’s not doing well. Gaara thinks he’s normal now, even Kakashi seems mostly to believe he’s himself again, which is ridiculous and terrifying, because it’s so obvious that Sasuke’s stretched thin, that there’s too little left of him.

“He’s not right,” Naruto finally snaps at Gaara. They’re in the kitchen, which smells strongly of curry and of the gathering storm outside. “He’s better, but.”

“He looks fine to me.”

“Well, you don’t know him.”

“Tch.”

“I thought you liked him now?”

Gaara’s mouth thins. He refuses to speak.

There’s no getting around the fact that he approves of how Sasuke handled the Westford incident, when the humans attacked Naruto. Naruto was never in danger of anything but fleeting pain, but all the same Sasuke stepped in front of him.

He stood steadily and quite happily in front of a bullet. Either the seal would open or he would die, and for the first time Naruto really understood that Sasuke would be happy to die.

But Uriel’s wings unfolded, burning away anything that touched them.

They were in a BEAST stronghold, and maybe that was part of why Naruto didn’t stop Sasuke burning it to the ground, leaving nothing alive. But mostly it was the shock, the nasty, ringing understanding that Sasuke would welcome death.

In any case there’s no getting around the fact that Gaara approves of Sasuke’s methods. But there’s also no getting around the fact that Gaara can’t stand the sight of Sasuke – which was an unpleasant surprise, because while he’s never liked Sasuke, he’s never expressed this virulent, oddly personal hatred before.

But the matter slips away to the furthest corners of Naruto’s mind as Sasuke steps into the room. He’s bundled up in a ridiculous number of layers as usual, which probably helps the impression, but he’s lost some of that horrifying gauntness.

He smells better too, after using Naruto’s tooth paste, Naruto’s soap, Naruto’s clothes.

Naruto holds on to the edge of the counter as Sasuke approaches: not reaching for Sasuke feels like an act of violence against himself.

Sasuke leans against his side, chin propped on Naruto’s shoulder. “You’re warm,” he mutters, icy fingers sneaking under the hem of Naruto’s shirt, pressing against the small of his back.

Naruto turns minutely, sliding his arms around Sasuke, holing him tight and close for as long as Sasuke will let him. Far too soon, Sasuke tugs at his hair. “Didn’t you want to go skating?”

“Mmh.” He nuzzles Sasuke’s face, not quite kissing it. “Yeah! Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

There’s a great big frozen lake quite close by the house. The outside air smells strongly of the building storm, but as yet the air is clear, the sun reaching down between the clouds.

Sasuke agrees to put on skates, but they don’t fit on his prosthesis. Naruto thinks of that too late, of how Sasuke has to wear either specially designed shoes or regular shoes tied tightly around his ankle and pooling around the metal foot. In the end they tie the skate to his boot, which doesn’t exactly make for a great beginner’s skate, but then Sasuke’s always had excellent balance.

This is something Mum liked to do, and Mum never liked Sasuke, so Sasuke’s exposure to ice skating has been highly limited. Still he pirouettes easily around the lake, only falling when they start racing and pushing at each other.

Maybe two hours later, Naruto’s feeling for fractures along Sasuke’s legs. Normally, he wouldn’t have bothered: Sasuke knows how to fall, knows when to seek treatment. It’s just Naruto doesn’t trust him to utilise that knowledge anymore.

He wants so badly to just love the fact that Sasuke lets him do this, that Sasuke lets him so close so often. But he understands that it’s not really a matter of Sasuke choosing to let him in – it’s more that Sasuke’s barriers are down because all of Sasuke is so worn down, there’s not enough fight left in him to uphold his integrity.

Sasuke pokes at his shoulder until he looks up, and Sasuke has this odd expression, as if he’s trying to be kind. “You need to stop.”

“No, I don’t. I can’t.”

“I’m not going to last. So you have to stop.”

The wintry air is sharp in his lungs. “But I can’t do without you.”

Sasuke sighs. “It’s time you cut your losses.”

“This is bullshit! You’re not – you’re not done!”

Sasuke’s mouth quirks into that misshapen, strokey smile he had as a child, a tired and ugly expression. All the pretences are gone, all the goals he’s ever worked for. There’s no pride left, nothing left for Sasuke to protect. “Funny how everyone else believes me.”

“I believe in you,” Naruto hisses. “I’ll never believe you’ve got nothing left to give.”

“It’s no use,” Sasuke says. Naruto thinks he would’ve maybe cried, if he’d still remembered how. But that’s gone from him too. “You can try and try, but it’s just no use.”

The storm’s upon them, the first snow falling, and Naruto drags Sasuke to his feet. “Indoors, now.”

Sasuke acts normal again, or as normal as he gets these days, scarfing down dinner and making dry comments about some random movie Naruto put on as background noise.

That night, curled tight under a heap of blankets and also Naruto’s arm, Sasuke rolls over. “Are you going to fuck me?”

Kyuubi licks his maws. Naruto blinks. “Can I?”

“I can’t stop you.”

With Sasuke, lack of virulent refusal is often as close to permission or even encouragement as you get. Naruto leans over him, tilting Sasuke’s face up and kissing him. Sasuke bites his tongue clean off and kicks him with everything he’s got, metal foot snapping Naruto’s hip bone.

“Fuck! What the fuck?”

Sasuke pushes himself up on an elbow but makes no move to leave the bed. “I can’t stop you. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to fight you.”

“Oh, fuck off,” Naruto snaps. “I’m not going to do anything you don’t want! I want – I want to sleep with you, yeah. I don’t want to fucking rape you!”

“You’re so strange,” Sasuke tells him. He finally sits up in bed, pulling on a fleece jacket. “I’m going for a walk.”

Naruto’s too pissed off and hurt to stalk him.

He regrets this very much when he finally ventures outside to collect Sasuke, and Sasuke’s nowhere to be found.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Naruto grumbles, Kyuubi growling. He can’t smell Sasuke, which means Sasuke’s much further away then he should’ve been able to get in just an hour.

Kyuubi starts running, but only catches faint traces. Naruto curses again, fumbling for his phone and calling Kakashi.

“What the hell happened?” Kakashi demands when they meet up. “Why’s he running off all of a sudden?”

“The point is, he must’ve taken a car. But none of the keys are missing. He can’t hotwire, can he?”

“Not to my knowledge.”

“Um,” Kiba says. “I, um. I was on the supply run, you know, and I ran into him – almost ran him over. Anyway he told me to drop him off in Woodburg.”

“And you did?” Naruto demands. “What the hell, Kiba!”

Kiba shrugs defensively. “I’m not telling a crusader no. And maybe he can’t do much right now, but the last person who took issue with him, you ripped off their arm!”

Kakashi lifts an eyebrow.

“It grew back!” He grabs Kiba’s discarded keys off the table. “Anyway let’s go.”

As they get in the car and start driving, it’s oddly quiet. Naruto’s barely spoken to Kakashi since he and Sasuke arrived, and it’s… well, depending on how you look at it, Kakashi’s sort of lending Naruto his boyfriend.

He hits the steering wheel, not quite had enough to break it. “How the fuck did we let it get this bad!”

“He’s done much better than I expected,” Kakashi says.

“What?”

“Most people didn’t estimate he’d make it to double digits.”

“They thought he’d die before he hit ten, and they still bloody gave him away?”

“Would it be better to give him away expecting him to endure decades of torture?”

“It has to end.”

“Yes,” Kakashi sighs. “That’s exactly what Sasuke’s decided, too.”

“Well, he’s wrong,” Naruto snaps, accelerating sharply.

“Whoa, whoa,” Kakashi drawls. “Dying in a car crash in bumfuck nowhere is not the way to go.”

When they reach Woodburg, it becomes quickly apparent that Sasuke’s been taken into custody by BEAST.

“What,” Naruto says blankly. “What the hell?”

Kakashi shrugs. Only now, when the tension lines smooth out, does Naruto realise that Kakashi was in fact not relaxed at all in the car. “It’s not like he can protect himself, not unless they actually threaten him.”

“They’re fanatics,” Naruto says, more an assurance for himself than anything else. “They fall on their knees at the sight of an exorcist. They wouldn’t harm him.”

“They might think they’re saving him from you.”

“Well, fuck them.”

Between Kyuubi’s nose and Kakashi’s ability to get answers out of anyone, they find the BEAST stronghold quickly enough.

Naruto had anticipated rushing in, taking the brunt of the violence – Kyuubi certainly is eager for it – but Kakashi surprises him by walking briskly through what, seconds before, was a solid door. Gabriel’s wings have unfolded in a sphere of vicious light.

Naruto’s skin melts off his face, his cheekbone cracking from the heat.

Kyuubi heals him, but he has to keep his distance – walks through rooms filled with light and air and no trace of anything else. Some of the exorcists, people like Neji and Itachi, are so self-consciously crusaders, you can smell the holiness and brimstone just under their skin. With Kakashi, laid-back and sarcastic, it’s much easier to forget this potential for extreme destruction.

Finally there’s Sasuke, sitting on a chair in a room like a monk cell. He’s perfectly composed and nobody will have laid hand on him, but as long as they didn’t there was no way out of this for him. He could fight free of a few humans, but not of cement and steel.

He raises an eyebrow, standing up as Kakashi and shortly afterwards Naruto enter the room. The door’s gone, reduced to ash and coals. “Hi.”

“Hi,” Kakashi says, mouth quirking into a half-smile. It looks far more genuine than the easy, politic smiles Naruto’s used to seeing on him. It comes to him slowly, reluctantly, that this is real to Kakashi, this thing he has with Sasuke.

It comes to him even more slowly that it’s real to Sasuke too, though maybe not in quite the same way.

Still it’s Kakashi that Sasuke goes to, standing rather close and tilting towards him in that way he has. “You went all out.”

“I’ve grown tired of fanatics.” It’s said with a certain weary disgust, and far more feeling than Naruto would’ve expected.

“Oh yes,” Sasuke says. They share a look Naruto can’t interpret, and then Sasuke’s walking past them both and out of the room.

It’s afternoon by the time they return, and Sasuke’s either genuinely unconcerned about the incident or pretending to be, and he’s never been all that good at pretending. Of course he was never in danger, and the inconvenience was minor, but he should be pissed off about his helplessness. While he’s always been pragmatic, he’s also always resented any kind of dependence.

“Yeah, sweet move” Naruto agrees around a mouthful of ramen, gesturing towards the screen displaying a video game fight. “Why aren’t you angry?”

Sasuke sighs. He looks suddenly too tired even to speak.

Naruto grabs his jumper. “Don’t shut down!”

“Don’t push me,” Sasuke hisses.

“Someone has to!”

Sasuke makes a noise half exhalation, half ugly laugh. “Like I said, I can’t stop you.” He turns his face away, going lax and motionless in Naruto’s grasp.

For a moment Naruto fists his jumper harder, fabric tearing in his hands, shaking – then he takes a sharp step back, because if he doesn’t he’s going to go further and further, he’s going to need a reaction, and when he doesn’t get one, it’ll make him do something worse, something Sasuke has to react to. It’s horrifying, to have it dawn on him how much he might actually be prepared to hurt Sasuke, in order to make Sasuke feel something for him, make Sasuke respond to him.

He remembers having to laugh, to make Sakura stop staring at him in bemused horror, after he’d said, I’ll drag him back to us if I have to break every bone in his body. They’d been kids daydreaming about taking Sasuke away from Orochimaru, a possibility Sasuke refused to discuss post-amputation, and Naruto had meant every word. It only occurred to him that maybe he shouldn’t have after Sakura blanched.

“Mou ii,” Sasuke mutters, heaving himself up from the couch. He used to move so lightly, as if he could step off the ground and into thin air at a moment’s notice. But that’s gone now. He moves softly for the first time in his life, the sharpness of his usual jerky stops and starts eroded away, drags himself across the floor like a very old person crippled with arthritis.

Naruto stays behind, wrestling Kyuubi back into his cage, and stares after him.

Sasuke slouches into the kitchen and pulls himself up on a counter, talking softly and intermittently to Kakashi, who’s apparently grown tired of microwave food and is trying to cook something. Trying being the operative word, because Naruto’s not a picky eater but Kakashi’s recipes are usually more than he can swallow even when the ingredients aren’t limited to military staples.

Sasuke keeps leaning towards Kakashi, and every now and then Kakashi touches him. Naruto resents that less than he expected to, because a lot of the time it looks like Kakashi keeping Sasuke upright, keeping him from sliding off the counter.

If he fell, Naruto doesn’t think he could get up again. He’d just lie there on the floor, and Naruto would kick and scream but it would be too late, too late for everything.

Naruto goes briefly outside and bangs his head against the wall. His skin breaks open, his cranium shattering and for a merciful moment his brain splatters apart before Kyuubi heals him and the thoughts return, the ones he can’t stop thinking.

Finally Kakashi touches his arm. Naruto steps back from the wall, wiping snow and flood off his face.

“Come inside,” Kakashi tells him.

“I just had to go out for a bit.”

“I know. But you can have your breakdown after. When it won’t hurt him anymore.”

“Hurt,” Naruto starts, almost unable to think it – to hope, disgusting as it is. “But that’s the problem, I can’t hurt him, nothing matters anymore, it –”

“He’s doing better,” Kakashi tells him. “He wasn’t – you haven’t seen him lately. There used to be there was remission and relapse, but there’s no respite any longer. Orochimaru doesn’t dare hurt him anymore, did you realise that? All his threats are empty now.”

Naruto swallows and swallows. “I want that to be a good thing.”

“Don’t we all. Well, you’ve seen how it is. He’s stepping away.”

“He’s not eating, he’s – he’s hurting himself, right?”

“Yeah.” Kakashi rubs his own face. “I’ve found him – hell, there’s no end to it. He jumps off buildings, he walks into traffic, he cuts himself, he burns himself. I’ve found him unconscious in the bathwater, with his head in the oven. Pulled a gun out of his mouth.”

“It doesn’t make sense. If – if he wants – he’s good at killing. He’d know how to do it.”

“I suppose he’s looking for the right way to go.” Kakashi shrugs. “Now come inside, because he’s not looking right now. You distract him from dying. Keep it up.”

Naruto blinks, blinks the possibility of redness and tears from his eyes, and returns to the kitchen. Sasuke does eat, and doesn’t cut himself on the cutlery.

When Naruto takes his hand afterwards, he lets himself be lead to Naruto’s bedroom without protest. Naruto sits him down on the bed and kneels to unlace his shoes. As fast as he’s done, Sasuke curls into a ball on top of the covers.

Naruto rests his cheek against Sasuke’s, mumbling, “Aren’t you going to brush your teeth?”

Sasuke shrugs. Speaking is clearly beyond him. Going to the bathroom, standing up – it would be too much.

“Okay,” Naruto says, “okay.”

He pulls the coverlet and blankets out from under Sasuke and bundles him up in them, kicking off his own shoes and jeans and lying beside him. “Does it bother you if I do some stuff on the laptop?”

Sasuke shakes his head minimally. Every time he blinks, his lashes brush butterfly-light against Naruto’s arm.

Sasuke must not be able to sleep, because eventually he starts mumbling fractured Latin: Sasuke counts rosary prayers the way other people count sheep.

“Shouldn’t you curse God?” Naruto finally demands. “Not pray to him, he abandoned you, he’s –”

Slowly, laboriously, Sasuke tells him, “I never expected anything from God.”

“But the rest of us – ”

“I used to curse everyone,” Sasuke says. “Myself, too. But what’s the point anymore.”

“There’s a point,” Naruto insists. “Maybe not in cursing specifically, but – you’re the point, can’t you see that? We’ll get through this. Together. We’ll kill Orochimaru, and…”

“Killing him won’t fix anything.”

The room spins white with panic around Naruto. He maybe blacks out for a second. Then he’s grabbing Sasuke, not gently, pulling his limp body up, forcing him to meet Naruto’s eyes, shaking him so his teeth rattle. “What are you saying!”

“You can’t fix me.”

“I can! I can!”

“I can’t fix me. Nothing can fix me.”

“I can!” Naruto screams again, and he’s crying now and still shaking Sasuke.

When he stops, it’s because he’s afraid he’s going to damage Sasuke: Sasuke won’t stop him anymore, so Naruto has to stop himself.

The moment Naruto releases him, Sasuke lies back down, curled into a tight circle. He falls asleep almost immediately.

Naruto stares at him with this – this bleak yearning, so resentful and so destroyed and so God damn in love.

Sasuke wakes during the night, hysterical. He seems like a ghost, half erased from the world: only a thinning wail of despair, a vicious demand for restitution. He can’t even scream, he’s hyperventilating too badly.

Naruto keeps talking, saying how he’s here and it’s all right, they’re safe, it’s okay, Sasuke please, snap the fuck out of it, I need you to come back to me…

Sasuke claws at his own face, cuts opening like bloody tear tracks down his cheeks, until Naruto grabs his wrists, keeps them locked away.

Sasuke finally seems to notice him. He pulls at Naruto’s chin, mumbling quickly in Japanese Naruto can’t follow until he manages to say, “Bite me.”

It’s not like Naruto doesn’t understand selfharm. It’s far more socially acceptable among shifters, since it’s not physically dangerous, doesn’t leave any visible scars.

He closes his fangs inside Sasuke’s body, bites cleanly through skin and flesh. Again, and again, biting deep and sucking the blood from the wounds, marking Sasuke everywhere: his hands and arms, up his thighs and all over his hips, his shoulders, his throat, so that Sasuke’s windpipe trembles against Naruto’s tongue.

He’s so unbelievably aroused, it feels like one of Kyuubi’s berserker rages only it’s desire burning through him instead of pure rage.

Maybe Sasuke perceives that, because as Naruto releases his throat and hovers over him, panting, Sasuke says, “Itachi. I dreamt of Itachi”, which effectively kills Naruto’s erection.

This is what Naruto’s most ashamed of in the world, but in a horrible, unspeakable way he’s jealous of Itachi: of the fact that he’ll never be able to hurt Sasuke as deeply as Itachi has.

Naruto understands gradually, in stops and starts, that it wasn’t exactly a nightmare. It’s just he woke up into one.

“I never used to dream,” Sasuke says. “Especially about him. But now…and I wake up.” He wakes up, he’s always waking up, into a world where Itachi threw him away, cut him off like gangrene. “I’m tired of waking up.”

Naruto thinks of the promise he made Sasuke: if you’re so set on dying, I’ll kill you myself!

It’s the only way Naruto could commit suicide, really, and that’s exactly what it would be.

He straddles Sasuke’s waist, closing his hands slowly and deliberately around Sasuke’s neck. He cuts off the blood supply to Sasuke’s brain, and then the air. Sasuke’s heart strains desperately against his arm – Sasuke’s body at least is still viable, still clings to life – but the seal opens and still Sasuke submits completely to his strangling.

Tears spill from the corners of his eyes. Naruto licks them up.

Sasuke’s unconscious by the time Naruto releases him, his throat one huge handprint. But he’s alive.

It’s not because he wants to be.

Naruto can’t breathe. It’s strangling him far more brutally than he strangled Sasuke, the final, unmerciful realisation that Sasuke wants to die. Naruto wants to get up, run, howl, break the world, but he can’t move. He just lies there, breathing in the unwashed smell of Sasuke’s hair and crying until he chokes on his own snot, which pools on the pillow, sticks to Sasuke’s hair.

“Itsuka,” he mumbles in Sasuke’s ear – the promise Itachi always made him. Someday, this; someday, that. But Itachi’s a liar. “We’ll make it. It’s the promise of a lifetime.”

xxxxx

It’s Naruto’s voice on the phone, staccato and focused – not a way Kakashi’s ever heard Naruto speak before. “…too many demons – how do you tell if there’s devils, I can’t bloody see – how soon can you get here?”

Naruto’s been rather distant, probably because he’s arguably sharing Sasuke with Kakashi. Kakashi’s fine with that, but of course Naruto wouldn’t be. “Coordinates?” he asks. Naruto tells him, and Kakashi turns the car around. “It’s too far. You need to go, if you doubt he can deal with it on his own.”

“I can’t.”

“Just get out of his way.”

“I can’t,” Naruto repeats. “If it’s just his life on the line – he won’t fight for that.”

“Fuck,” Kakashi mutters, because of course Naruto’s right.

Kakashi’s always too late. He was born too late, almost tore his mother in two, and nothing’s changed. He’s late enough to put people through hell, but ultimately it doesn’t alter the outcome, because that was never contingent on Kakashi’s presence in the first place.

Improbably – if Itachi was here he’d say miraculously, watch Itachi twitch – Sasuke’s still alive, and so is Naruto. Glowing, his outline crackling and fluid as lightning, Sasuke leans on the bonnet of a jeep, Naruto trying to hover over him but having to step back as the light of God sizzles too close. The sky above them is a light grey, mostly clouds but some demon residue as well. For it to linger post-exorcism, there must’ve been a devil.

Looking at Sasuke and the way the seal burns through his clothes, the way his skin is luminous and transparent and his eyes bleed red, at least one devil.

At last the seal snaps shut, reasserting its power and locking the light inside Sasuke. Naruto can finally touch those inhuman tears, blood thick with holiness. He gathers them on his fingers, licks, and his tongue burns and his cheeks flush. They must taste of Uriel, filtered through Sasuke’s human biology – perhaps the closest one can come to the taste of a soul.

This was a far more major exorcism than Sasuke should’ve been able to handle – than most people would’ve probably expected Sasuke to be able to handle even without the seal. Well, well, well…

Sasuke reaches up, catching Naruto’s hand in his own, his blood tears smearing over their fingers. He smiles his shark smile, that half smirk, half sneer that wrenches at Kakashi, and that Kakashi had given up for lost.

His lips move, but Kakashi can’t hear him over the sound of approaching helicopters.

Kakashi notes with interest that the shifters’ reaction was not to evacuate, minimising their own casualties, but to approach at first opportunity. What’s more interesting is whether this is because of their loyalty to Naruto, in the sense that they won’t voluntarily leave him, that they’ll risk themselves for him of their own will – or if it’s because of loyalty, born out of a fear bone-deep and soul-sucking, to Naruto’s orders, which might well have been to sacrifice everything and everyone in a vain attempt to rescue Sasuke from something Sasuke alone could save them from.

xxxxx

It’s a bit odd to witness the sexual awakening of someone you’ve been sleeping with for years.

But Kakashi steps into the large kitchen, where Sasuke and by extension Naruto spends much of his time because it’s by far the warmest room in the badly isolated building. Sasuke’s half standing, half sitting on a counter, shoulder pressed into the spice cupboard, and for really the first time he doesn’t seem cold. His arms wind tight around Naruto’s neck, possessive as a noose, fingers pulling, kneading, scratching. His human leg is curled partly around Naruto’s – it must be Naruto’s arms around him keeping him upright – and his mouth opens for Naruto’s, wide and hungry.

Like most people of a certain standing, Kakashi’s seen Sasuke enjoy intimacy. It’s only now, faced with this previously unimagined version of Sasuke, that he realises he’s never seen Sasuke desire it before.

There’s something oddly tentative in the way he touches Naruto, as if this is new to him – to Sasuke, who’s had sex on a professional level since before he hit puberty.

Naruto’s mumbling into his skin, too breathless to even really sound happy, hoisting him up on the counter to be able to step closer, in between his knees. Sasuke shark grins at him, sharp teeth and swollen lips, the dainty mouth of a baby predator. Kyuubi’s tails are winding up Sasuke’s legs and waist, sinking through clothes and skin, and Sasuke tightens his legs around Naruto’s hips, metal foot digging into the base of Naruto’s spine.

Asuma and Genma appear at about the same time Sasuke’s jumper tears, exposing nothing but undershirts but the sound of it sharp and somehow final.

Asuma has the sense to take a quick step back, distancing himself. Genma hesitates for a long time, clearly debating leaving, but ultimately they both stand there, at the edge of the charmed circle, waiting for Naruto to notice them.

Kakashi’s already stirring his coffee, secure in the knowledge that nobody who matters will pay him a blind bit of attention. More fool them.

“Naruto,” Asuma starts at last, the authority in his tone getting lost somewhere around the second syllable.

Naruto ignores him, as Asuma should’ve expected given that Naruto’s got his hands up under Sasuke’s shirt by now.

“Naruto,” Genma says after a few seconds, and then louder, “Naruto! We’ve got a situation in Higa Pass, we’ve got to get our people out or we’ll lose the whole platoon – do you hear me, the whole platoon! Including Hana, and – and we’ve got to go, this can wait! Naruto, listen to me – pack first.” He reaches out at last, touching Naruto’s arm.

Naruto – Kyuubi, really, Kakashi supposes – only turns minimally, probably just to swat him away, but it takes so very little to break even something you needed a miracle to build. The fire bleeds out of Sasuke, his arms stilling, just lying now across Naruto’s shoulders instead of holding on to them.

“Out,” Naruto orders.

Kakashi’s heard of alpha commands – has considered them variously a euphemism, a myth, and a joke. He understands now that they’re real. Naruto enters into a contest of wills, and his is stronger: asserts itself absolutely over theirs. Kakashi could swear there’s no decision, certainly no will of their own, making Asuma and Genma leave the room.

But it’s too late.

Sasuke puts his hand on Naruto’s chest, holds it out like a stop sign. “Don’t.”

There’s a frozen moment of Naruto’s red cheeks and red eyes, of your one chance slipping out of your hands. “Okay,” Naruto says. He leans his head on Sasuke’s shoulder, the red tornado of Kyuubi’s frustrated energy raging through him and he’s panting open-mouthed. “Okay.”

Through the window, afterwards, Kakashi watches Kyuubi grab Genma’s head. Genma’s neck snaps immediately, leaving him kneeling limply.

Kakashi’s never been particularly good at lip reading, but while Kyuubi’s fangs distort Naruto’s mouth and makes it even harder, Naruto’s unpredictability has never applied to Sasuke. Kakashi could’ve written these lines, doesn’t have to look or listen to know what’s being said.

Anyone who gets between Sasuke and me, or who moves against him in any way – you die.

Kakashi reckons someone speaks up, because Kyuubi’s fist twitches closed. Genma’s head transforms into a sudden spray of blood and brain matter, enormous insubstantial claws shredding his skull.

Naruto would’ve healed from that, but Genma won’t.

This is not a discussion. This is an order. You obey or you die.

Behind Kakashi, Sasuke heaves himself off the counter. He doesn’t look out the window before leaving.

Kakashi snorts. “Young love…”

xxxxx

Shortly after dawn the next day – he knows Sasuke hasn’t slept in between – Kakashi looks up from his book as Sasuke slips into his room, a shadow in the moonlight, beyond the reach of the bedside lamp.

He’s quiet for a bit, and then says with some impatience, as if Kakashi should’ve spoken, “It’s time.”

Kakashi can’t say he’s surprised. “If you’re sure.”

“Che. How many of Orochimaru’s messengers have you killed before they could speak to me?”

Kakashi shrugs, offering a blank, blithe smile. “All right, then.” He’s also disposed of Sasuke’s phone, which Sasuke hasn’t commented on and indeed might not have noticed.

He gets off the bed, pulls on his fleece jacket and parka.

Sasuke nods, stalking out of the room. Kakashi follows at a leisurely pace: it’s a matter of time before they run into Naruto, which promises to turn into a nigh immeasurable delay.

Ah, indeed, there he is, drawn as always to Sasuke. Less moth to flame than lightning zigzagging inevitably towards the earth.

Kakashi passes him by. “I’ll wait in the car.”

But he’s still in the hallway, scavenging for another scarf or two, when Sasuke finishes the conversation. It’s so odd that he can do that again, take charge of anything – as if someone beloved had suddenly stood from their grave, something too impossible and untenable to make you happy.

“I know what I have to do now,” Sasuke tells Naruto. He’s for a moment almost himself again, with that implacable certainty that could cut through stone. Neither hell nor high water could ever change Sasuke’s mind… Itachi, so adored and idolised, used to try and admonish him to be more politic, and more concerned with God – Mikoto dangled the possibility of parental love in front of him, and Orochimaru used harsher measures – none of it ever made much of an impact. In the end, people don’t change.

Kakashi has little interest in what Naruto says, and when Sasuke speaks again he hurries to put on his gloves and close the door behind him, because his eyes burn and his ears, these words weren’t for him.

Sasuke says, “You made me feel for a little while that I wasn’t dying. That it wasn’t over.”

Kakashi’s only been in the car twenty minutes when Sasuke climbs into the passenger seat. Quietly, they drive towards the airport.

Chapter Text

Kabuto’s never understood this pandemic, rather pathetic obsession with Sasuke Uchiha. A powerful crusader, yes, a very beautiful child, yes, a strong personality, yes – but none of these are rarities. One or two people would be one thing, but the list of scorned admirers is verging on the farcical: Itachi, Orochimaru, Neji, Kakashi, Naruto… The best and the brightest of several generations, all circling their dying sun. 

“You don’t resent him?” he asks mildly, neutrally.

Kimimarou’s wrinkled mouth edges into a smile. “No.”

“I originally imagined that you must.”

“No offence, Kabuto-sensei, but you’ve never been one to adopt a perspective not dictated solely by self-interest.”

“Such is the human condition.”

“Perhaps,” Kimimarou says. “Then we must all transcend it.”

He’s well on his way to do that: no matter what treatments Kabuto administers, and Kimimarou’s his masterpiece, the boy will go nova before the year is out.

Until very recently, Kabuto assumed that would result in Orochimaru losing both of his favourites, and had started desultorily planning the acquisition of a few possible replacements, such as that Hyuuga boy, but Sasuke came back different. Steadier, surer – once more semi-functional and grounded in himself.

I see Naruto is a panacea?

Orochimaru must’ve been less convinced of Sasuke’s recovery, because he interrupted the exchange. Kabuto, you will not take that tone with a crusader.

Sasuke himself rarely dignifies Kabuto with a response, and he didn’t then – it’s been years since Kabuto was relegated in Sasuke’s mind to a mere tool. Any vengeful hatred is saved for the one who wields it.

Kabuto looks at them now, the wielder of him and the one who resents the wielding of him. Orochimaru’s sitting on one of the deep window ledges, his loose hair largely indistinguishable from the dark green curtains. Sasuke sprawls across the Persian carpet, looking rather like a byzantine painting of a martyr. He used to have that rather military bearing, back always painfully straight, position defensive – but left to his own devices he sleeps twenty hours a day now, and hardly leaves the bed even when he’s awake.

Depression, like most of the great killers, is incredibly dull to witness.

“You understand, of course, why I can’t unseal you,” Orochimaru says. It’s not really a new way of speaking – despite what people assume, he and Sasuke have had perfectly civil, mutually interested conversations for years, in between the threats and the insults and the sheer verbalised hatred – not even the sweeping, bittersweet mode is really new. Orochimaru’s always rather enjoyed playing his own herald. “You would kill me or die trying.”

“Ah.”

Orochimaru sighs. “It’s too bad, the way things turned out.” Then, with more violence than Kabuto would ever have expected, “It’s a waste.”

Sasuke shrugs. His shoulder blades dig into the carpet. He’d fattened up a bit, up north, but his flesh is sinking away again with startling haste. “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.”

“You’re not suggesting you’ve found religion?”

“Are you trying to insult me?” Sasuke asks. “I can’t even tell.”

“Being like Itachi, isn’t that a compliment?”

“You know with eating disorders,” Sasuke says thoughtfully, and indeed Kabuto remembers Sakura making him read books on that, “the thing is, it’s a way of having control, until suddenly you don’t – until the thing you were controlling is what controls you absolutely. It’s a little like that, isn’t it? Itachi and his God delusion.”

Orochimaru laughs his low raspy laugh of absolute delight.

The sun plays over Sasuke’s face, making him blink. He says, “Do you think people change?”

“Do you?”

“No.”

“Then were you always this way?” Orochimaru inquires.

Sasuke shrugs. “The potential was always there.”

“Ah, yes.” Orochimaru smiles, tapping a fingertip against his full, sensuous lips. “No, I agree. There’s a core personality which cannot be altered. The rest might change a bit, the frivolities, they might be pushed in one direction or another, but the marrow stays the same.”

Sasuke nods decisively. “The marrow,” he repeats with approval.

Orochimaru stands up in a rustle of robes, then kneels on the carpet next to Sasuke. His shoulder shields Sasuke’s face from the sun. But this doesn’t make Sasuke open his eyes.

“Isn’t that the very name of God?” Orochimaru muses. “Yahweh. I am, or perhaps indeed: I am who I am.”

“Since when do you believe in God?”

“That too is something that doesn’t change, isn’t it? Deep down, we all know we’re alone. Whether we can shoulder that knowledge, or fall into the psychosis of religion – that too is simply who we are. Parents might try to influence their children one way or another, but in the end either they’re strong enough to stand on their own or they aren’t.”

“In the end, everybody falls.”

“A grave in the sky is not a place one falls to.”

“Will you let me go nova, then?”

“Ah,” Orochimaru mumbles, stroking the outline of Sasuke’s shadow, the fibres of the carpet bending under his touch. “We shall see, we shall see.”

Sasuke snorts. “The Lord works in mysterious ways?”

“The Lord,” Orochimaru says with some acerbity, “doesn’t work at all.”

“Mmh.” Sasuke lifts his hand, holding it out in the thick column of sunlight. “The hand of God upon this earth…”

Orochimaru’s far more interested in his left hand. “I can’t help noticing you seem to have returned a finger short.”

“Ah,” Sasuke mutters. “I’m getting rid of the useless parts of myself.”

“How about your soul?”

Sasuke grins like a skull. “What are you offering?”

“I thought you might trade it for Itachi’s.”

Sasuke’s grin tires, grows smaller, but doesn’t quite fade. “I always could.”

xxxxx

Kakashi isn’t sure what he expected – probably he didn’t expect anything – but Sasuke remains the same. He doesn’t mend and he doesn’t break.

Presently he’s idly fingering a little jade Buddha. “Not much of a statement keeping him on your mantle when you never have people over.”

“The most important statements are the ones you make to yourself,” Kakashi drawls.

Sasuke tilts his head, as if listening for someone else’s voice. Eventually he says, “Do you believe in karma?”

“It seems likelier than Heaven. But who knows.”

“Wouldn’t purgatory be a fairer comparison?”

“If one’s just made it through this world, wouldn’t purgatory seem a repeat performance?”

Sasuke’s mouth quirks, though his eyes remain distant. He takes a few steps towards Kakashi, bare legs and exposed collar bones in Kakashi’s jumper.

“You think I’m okay.”

“Yeah.”

Sasuke licks his lips. Kakashi’s never seen him do that before, not disconnected from eating. “Naruto didn’t.”

“Hmm,” Kakashi says, catching the hem of the jumper in his fingers, to give himself something to look at. “He’s usually an optimist.”

“He has higher expectations for me.”

Kakashi looks up then after all, feels his own face oddly unguarded, almost open.

“I was on vacation with Naruto,” Sasuke says. He touches Kakashi’s temple, fingers carding through Kakashi’s hair. “This is my real life.”

Kakashi palms Sasuke’s hips, up under the jumper, reading scar tissue like Braille. Sasuke’s knobbly knees knock against his for a second, before Sasuke’s straddling his thighs, head tilted in invitation. Kakashi takes him up on it, nuzzling along the line of his jaw, licking the veins stretching darkly under his chin.

Sasuke makes a thoughtful face. Kakashi hums in question.

“It doesn’t feel like – I thought maybe it would.”

“That maybe it would feel like it did with Naruto.”

Sasuke sighs. “Yeah. But that’s fine. You’re a different person, I feel differently with you.”

“Mmh. You didn’t fuck him, did you?”

“No. It wouldn’t have been right.”

In the fading afternoon light, they kiss each other for a long time.

Later, after sunset, Kakashi makes cereal, humming old boy band hits under his breath. At the table, Sasuke looks through his collection of art books, lingering longer than Kakashi would’ve expected over Monet and then Delaunay. 

When Kakashi puts the plate in front of him, he pauses for a bit over an unremarkable Cezanne before picking up his spoon. “I’m like your pet.”

“I’d say more of a stray.” Kakashi unearths a particular volume from the pile, letting it fall open to expose a stunning Van Gogh. “I’d have trained a pet to have better taste in art.”

Sasuke smirks at him, glancing at this missing ring finger. “I suppose self-mutilation and craziness is exactly your type.”

“Eh,” Kakashi says, turning the page and coming upon one of the interminable self-portraits. Not a very good one, from approximately the period of The Potato Eaters. “Never liked redheads.”

“How Gaara must despair.”

“We all have our crosses to bear.”

“Mmh.” Sasuke presses his hand briefly against the seal hidden under his jumper. “It will be time soon.”

xxxxx

Kakashi can distantly remember thinking Itachi was brave. But in order to be brave you have to be afraid first, and the one thing Itachi fears, he’s run from for years.

“I understand he’s doing better,” Itachi says.

“Why don’t you ask him,” Kakashi says.

“I’m not sure that would be prudent.”

For the first time, Kakashi consciously thinks that Itachi’s weak as well as stupid. The fanaticism has destroyed everything that was bright and brilliant about him – the question is what’s underneath it, what made Itachi turn the light of God upon himself and burn away everything that made him human. “How do you feel about him, really? I must admit, that’s always been a mystery to me.”

Itachi’s quiet for a long time.

“Come on, Itachi.”

Itachi doesn’t quite shrug. “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent.”

Kakashi smirks, the scarecrow smile familiar and numb on his mouth. “It’s probably the most spoken of topic in the world, you know. People write songs about it.”

“That’s not quite true.”

“Isn’t it? The kind of love you get lost in.”

“Human love,” Itachi starts. “One must purge oneself of it, to be fit for God.”

“Engaging in a spot of child trafficking makes you fit for God? You should be a missionary.”

“That’s blasphemy,” Itachi says mildly.

Kakashi shrugs. “A God who made man unhappy, when he could have made him happy with the same effort – what do I want with him?”

“You don’t understand.”

“No, I don’t.”

“It’s not about understanding. It’s about faith.”

“Blind faith is unworthy of an adult intellect, and a sign of moral cowardice.”

“For we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”

“Jesus, Itachi. I wish I killed eight years ago.”

“Why not now?”

Kakashi’s smirk turns into a grin, as wide as it’s empty. “Eight years ago, you still trusted me.”

“You loved me more than you hated me, then. But not anymore.”

“Anyway there’s no point killing you now, is there?” His mouth twitches, jaws trying to lock themselves closed, but in the end it’s futile. It can’t be denied anymore. “You won, okay? You’ve destroyed him.” Itachi says nothing, and Kakashi for some reason keeps talking. It feels like he’s vomiting the words. “He won’t last the year. Fuck, Itachi, you could’ve just wrung his neck. You didn’t have to do this to him.”

xxxxx

“This is wrong,” Naruto says. He sounds all of five years old, stunned and dumb at the unfairness of the world.

“It is how it is,” Gaara says. He puts his hand on Naruto’s arm, just where the sleeve ends, and the feel of skin dries out his mouth.

Kyuubi’s energy coats his hand, feverish for him.

Naruto starts to cry.

Gaara’s thought of it as Naruto working through his issues – with the bond, with Sasuke’s departure – these last few weeks of vicious campaigning. He’s never seen Naruto let Kyuubi out to so much, be so in synch with him. It’s a different kind of war, a war they’re going to win, now that Kyuubi’s berserker ferocity no longer stops at mere survival, when Naruto no longer reins him in as soon as they’re safe.

So Gaara had thought he’d worked through his issues, and that now, when he can no longer deny the bond compulsion, that he’d be ready – but of course Naruto’s always been the number one unpredictable idiot of their pack.

“I can’t, I can’t, I’m sorry, I can’t.”

“Are we going to die, then?” Gaara snaps. “You’re going to kill us both, because – what, you’d rather fuck Uchiha? He won’t care!”

“I don’t want this!”

“Stop crying.”

“I’m trying – I – I can’t do this, it’s wrong. It can’ be real!”

Kyuubi’s energy is breaking through his skin in waves, but even Kyuubi’s ambivalent – even Kyuubi wants Sasuke to the exclusion of everything else.

Gaara leans forward and kisses Naruto. Naruto’s half-open lips taste of snot and disgust.

Naruto is the best part of Gaara’s life: Naruto’s given him almost everything he has that is of any value to him. It’s Naruto who’s brought out the best parts of Gaara, the parts of him he’d never guessed were there, would’ve never seen without Naruto.

Now he’s kissing Naruto, and Naruto feels sick at the thought of touching him. Gaara wants to give him something but ends up just taking something from him.

He steps back.

On a physical level, Naruto’s visibly aroused, erection jutting between his legs. But he looks at it as though as something alien that’s invaded him, something that has nothing to do with him and sickens him deeply.

This needs to happen, because Naruto has to live and Gaara’s not going to die on the altar of Sasuke fucking Uchiha. But Gaara’s never been able to make Naruto do anything.

Shukaku’s urge to push Naruto down on the bed, to take what he needs – what they both need, God damn it – is tangible in his hands, growing into claws.

For the first time in his life, he’s been grateful for Minato interrupting. It makes sense, he supposes: if Naruto hadn’t been so difficult, they should’ve finished long since, at which point Naruto was supposed to call his father. Minato must’ve tried reaching Naruto first – he and Gaara have never liked each other – but Naruto’s clearly not prepared to talk, and in any case has left his phone outside.

Well, it’s time Naruto got over himself. Gaara puts his mobile on speaker and tosses it on the bed next to Naruto. “It’s your dad. Talk to him.”

On shaky legs – and he curses them, the way they threaten to give out at every step, the way his helplessly rushing pulse visibly expands and contracts the veins, threatening to break through the skin – Gaara walks out of the room.

Naruto’s jacket’s lying over the back of a chair, and Gaara goes through the pockets – yes, there’s Naruto’s phone, and of course Naruto’s never learnt to use adult passwords – yes, there’s Naruto’s contacts – Gaara’ legs give out, his whole body seizing – but yes, there’s Kakashi name – he fumbles to put the phone on speaker, so he won’t have to hold it, because he’ll break it, his hands are twitching so hard, he’s losing control of his body entirely – but yes, there’s Kakashi’s voice.

“Hello?” he drawls, and Gaara’s always resented him, always, but Kakashi’s probably the only person in the world to have truck with both Naruto and Sasuke.

“It’s Gaara,” Gaara grits out, and then feels stupid. Kakashi often makes him feel stupid. “Naruto won’t do it. He’s going to die. I need – would he –”

“Call him,” Kakashi says at once. “He’ll keep Naruto alive, whatever it takes.”

Gaara reminds himself that he’s doing this for Naruto. He’s never had to learn how to ask for help, and he’d never do it for himself, but this is for Naruto. Gaara’s discomfort, Gaara’s humiliation, can’t matter.

Gaara can and has accused Sasuke of many things, but at least he’s never been one to beat around the bush. Ten seconds of conversation, and then Gaara staggers, crawls, back into the room where Naruto and Minato are shouting at each other.

“Shut up,” Gaara snaps, and then tosses the phone at Naruto’s head. Naruto’s hands come up to catch it when he adds, “It’s Sasuke.”

He should leave, he doesn’t want to hear this, but his body isn’t working anymore. He leans back against the door, knowing he’ll fall if he moves. Tries not to listen, and Shukaku’s dying screams help with that, but he hears enough.

I told you when I left – you have to still be alive, you lying selfish fucking hypocrite coward.

Gaara had wondered how Sasuke got Naruto stay here, but of course Naruto would’ve be killed if he’d come along – of course Naruto would be used against Sasuke, and they’d both die, because Sasuke doesn’t have the will to go on without him anymore.

I already asked if you wanted to die with me. If you’re going to fail me now – you should’ve just killed us both back then.

Gaara’s spine rattles as he hits the floor, his legs failing him. He locks his claws in the door to keep himself half-sitting, and his blood boils just under his skin.

Naruto stands up with sudden determination, crosses the room in easy strides and kneels in front of Gaara. “Right. It’s you and me now. Let’s do this.”

Naruto tils Gaara’s head, exposing his neck and shoulder. Gaara’s fangs ache, the worst pain he’s ever felt, and yet he can’t move: it’s Naruto who has to rip his own shirt, push Gaara’s head towards his flesh. They bite at the same time, life exploding sweet and painful as birth in Gaara’s mouth.

There’s so much of Naruto. Gaara’s always considered him a big personality, but he had no idea. How could Naruto’s soul have ever possibly fit inside his body? It expands endlessly as the universe, bright and deep and forcing its way into every crevice of Gaara’s brain, leaving him bloated and cornered.

That’s not even mentioning Kyuubi’s monster strength, a beast that could eat the world and not be sated.  Naruto actually keeps him in a fucking cage, it was no metaphor – and Gaara would protest, only if Kyuubi was let loose there’d be no room for Gaara anymore.

The bond all but forces Shukaku into a cage as well, just to make room for the enormity of Naruto’s presence, fit his personality inside Gaara’s head.

Naruto pulls back, reins himself in – Gaara’s left gasping as Naruto simply takes Kyuubi by the scruff of the neck and forces him where he wants him – and there’s this alien, animal need. It’s a feeling very akin to starvation, his whole body a hollow ache and his head empty with need, saliva burning in his mouth. He reaches out to have more of Naruto, his hands trembling but it’s the surest move he’s ever made.

The sharp contour of Naruto’s neck, the sweaty hair at the back of his head, the hot skin of his shoulders – Gaara’s fists it, hears himself make a sound like a moan. Naruto’s body pulsates with energy and heat, roaring its approval, but Naruto doesn’t move. Gaara pushes himself up, presses them flush together, and Naruto swallows. His eyes are wild and he wants to be anywhere but here.

It’ll never be you, Kakashi told him, as if Gaara hadn’t already known that, hadn’t gone to sleep with and woken up with that knowledge like a bitter pill under his tongue for years and years. Ever since fucking Sasuke walked into his life, and took what had always been meant for Gaara.

The force of Naruto’s obsession, which feels like – like any natural disaster, really – is at war with the bond craving. Like in any war, there won’t be much of a victory, will very likely not be a winner remaining at all, because they’ll destroy each other.  

Horrified, teary-eyed, ready to scream as the foundations of his world sink and sink under his feet, Gaara experiences love as he’s never felt it, never imagined it. Compared to Naruto’s feeling, Gaara’s sullen hatred of Sasuke doesn’t stand a chance. He wants him now, gloriously and desperately, would be so happy to sacrifice the rest of the world just to see him again.

He used to experience a certain smug pride sometimes, knowing that he’d succeeded without even trying where Itachi’s failed, being actually asexual. But he wants Naruto now, with the desperate need of a dying animal, and beyond that wants Sasuke, as a man wants another. People need people, Naruto keeps saying. Terrified, Gaara finally believes him, and doesn’t know how to survive that knowledge.

“Okay,” Naruto mumbles. “Okay. I can do this. We can do this. Okay. Okay.”

Gaara’s believed him when he’s said far crazier things than that. The difference is, this time Naruto doesn’t even believe himself.

He does care for Gaara, he hates himself for putting Gaara through this, but what he feels for Gaara just can’t compare, it isn’t right…

For a mad second Gaara wonders if he’ll have to call Sasuke again, have him bully Naruto through the coupling.

Naruto must catch that thought, his face crumbling in half laugh, half despair. “Hey,” he says, a little steadier. “We’re okay. We can do this.”

Gaara would like to believe him.

But he knows what he has to do. It’s easy as anything, reaching into Naruto’s mind and pushing play on one of his favourite daydreams. Kyuubi, starting to seize again, snatches onto this chance, pushes power into the fantasy.

Naruto blinks.

“Just do it,” Gaara says. “I’d rather you’re pretending I’m someone else than you’re crying your way through.”

He can see the idea’s taking hold, Naruto too clinging to life in any way he can. Naruto’s cheeks grow red, his mouth falls open.

Gaara clutches at him, kissing him again. As long as Naruto can pretend it’s Sasuke, they’ll be fine. He mumbles and moans into Gaara’s mouth as Gaara pushes him back on the floor, kneeling between his legs.

It’s only afterwards, done and dressed, that Naruto really looks at him again. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t.”

Naruto shrugs. “Words are cheap. But at least you know now I mean them. I am sorry. You deserve better than this. I wanted better for you, too.”

And Gaara can’t lie anymore, not with the bond spearing him. “I wanted you.”

Naruto breathes in deeply, blinks away the possibility of tears. “Sorry. Shit. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.” He stands up looking perfectly composed, then collapses to his knees, projectile vomiting uncontrollably.

Sympathy vomit rises high in Gaara’s throat. “We all want something we can’t have. We all have to get over it.”

Naruto’s puking too hard to speak. When he can finally look up, he’s teary eyed and vomit smeared, and still what Gaara loves best in the world, the only person he’s ever wanted this with.

“I’m doing my best,” Naruto says. “I promise. I’m not going to let you down.”

Gaara hates how badly he wants to believe him.

xxxxx

Naruto is the worst. He sees that in Gaara’s eyes every day, never clearer than now: he’d fallen asleep in the car, and woke up happy because in his sleep things had turned out right. When he bit Sasuke, the bond had opened, and the world was bright and sharp and clear, he still had all his chances and all his hopes clutched tight to his chest.

That nightmare evening when whichever way he turned he betrayed himself, the taste of loss and Gaara and vomit, had never happened.

So he woke up happy, and he sees with helpless horror how different that must be, how that’s not a face he’s shown Gaara since long before the bond. He sees this in the way Gaara’s expression closes off as Naruto’s eyes blink properly open and his face falls in disappointment: in rejection.

He sometimes can’t look at Gaara at all.

That’s unfair, he gets that it’s unfair: cruel even. Unjust, because Gaara’s been a good friend since literally before Naruto can remember, and Gaara’s done nothing wrong. But Naruto has to build walls inside his own mind, has to chain himself down to keep from pushing Gaara out of Gaara’s own head, and to keep the feel of Gaara’s soul away from him. Because there’s been a mistake. It was supposed to be Sasuke, he was always meant for Sasuke, and the sensation of someone else inside his mind makes him want to claw himself and the world to pieces.

“You think about him all the fucking time,” Gaara sneers. There’s a breaking point here, something cracking inside him. “All the fucking time, he’s always there, there’s never a second’s respite, I can’t fucking stand it, you have to stop!”

For a moment Naruto’s not even sure what he means. His mind’s so saturated with Sasuke, trying to get him out would be like untangling every nerve, ripping himself apart.

“I can’t do that,” he says, and he wants to say he’s sorry, he feels like he should, but he really, really isn’t. “I’ll shield better.”

Gaara blinks, shutting down the breaking point. He looks out the window, away from Naruto. “He’s like ninety percent of your emotional life. There’s no shielding from that.”

“You were surprised,” Naruto says, reaching forward to start the radio, because he has to shut himself up, he’s hurt Gaara enough. “At first, that Kyuubi also…”

“Yes,” Gaara says tonelessly. Humiliation always makes him paler instead of flushed – it’s Naruto who flushes, with shame. “I thought it was just your obsession, maybe you’d infected Kyuubi a little. But it’s both of you.”

“Yeah,” Naruto says, closing his eyes. “It always was.” For a moment, a carsick half-sleepy moment, he can believe that it’s Sasuke beside him in the car: a sharp stab of happiness like a blade through his chest.

Gaara hisses.

“Sorry," Naruto whispers miserably.

Gaara’s mouth thins. “The only time you’re not miserable is when you’re pretending I’m someone else. Well. It is what it is.”

“You thought I’d get more, like, used to this. That this other thing would fade.”

“It seemed logical,” Gaara agrees. “But then logic has never had much truck with you.”

Naruto’s suddenly filled with tenderness, tight and painful in his chest, a wobble around his mouth. On impulse, he takes Gaara’s hand. It’s not disgusting. It’s not – he reminds himself it’s not wrong. It’s Gaara, he loves Gaara and he’s responsible for Gaara, and he has to be better than this. “Let’s try, okay? Let’s really try. I’ll do better.”

“Okay,” Gaara says, because Gaara’s always trusted him more than he deserves.

Naruto says that, and he means it. He tries.

He fails.

It’s a black hole opening in the pit of his stomach at once Gaara smiles, the knowledge that he’s going to fail, going to let them both down.

He shakes his head. Fuck that.

“All right.” He grabs Gaara’s hand, opening the car door and basically pulling Gaara out with him. “Let’s go.”

He can feel – God, he can feel it make Gaara happy, cautiously and shamefully happy, and he hangs on to his smile with brute force. He never had to try to want to be close to Sasuke.

But he resolutely shuts that thought down. Smiles at Gaara, and listens to him. Argues with him about tactics, and steals the good parts of his lunch, and laughs at his dry, odd comments. They’re good together, he remembers. Beyond friends and well into family, and yes, Gaara makes his life better by being in it.

Still it’s with relief that he lets Kyuubi out, when the enemy party comes upon them at last.

It’s not very long ago at all, mere weeks, that he would’ve called himself deranged that this should be a relief. The world a merciful berserker blur, he lets Kyuubi bleed into his thoughts, explode out through his skin.

He’s licking his hands clean, sucking blood from vermillion claws, when the world comes back into focus. There’s not much left of the humans: a dampness to the ground, scattered organs.

“This way,” Gaara says, and Naruto goes to him. “Let’s leave this for the cleanup team.”

They drive on, towards the western city states, and still everything’s fine. Gaara smells good, blood and power and shifter. They talk easily, happily, only a little emptily. In the evening they eat weird seafood with the others, and everyone’s in a good mood, victory is nigh.

Dad calls, but he doesn’t even make Naruto angry anymore. Naruto’s busy hanging on, clinging to every thread he can find, and very shortly he will rip out every safety rope and finally fall – there’s no room for Dad to make him feel any worse.

He says all the nice things Dad’s always wanted to hear from him, and Dad seems only vaguely to get that that’s a warning sign, and Naruto cries a little – annoyed, tired, thoughtless crying – before plastering the smile back on. It feels like that, like plaster cracking across his lips.

Someone gets in his way and he didn’t mean to smash them into the wall – smash them clean through the wall, broken bricks and broken bones – but he does anyway. Stands there stupidly, looking at his own hand on the far side of the wall, and wondering what the fuck he’s doing, why the fuck did he do that?

Gaara grabs his arm. “Come on.”

Naruto lets himself be dragged, and eventually pushed down onto his bed. It’s the latest in a series of hostel rooms and car seats and tents, soft-washed cotton that smells a little like rain.

Gaara sighs.

“These days,” Naruto says blankly.

“The days are just like moments turned to hours.”

“That’s – what does that even mean?”

Gaara shrugs. “That someone was paid by the word to describe ennui?” He’s still for a moment, silent, considering. Then he takes off his shoes and sits next to Naruto on the bed.

Naruto’s body stops aching so abruptly, he almost falls apart.

“We don’t have to,” Gaara starts. “But to just sit like this. We need to be able to function.”

“Of course we have to,” Naruto says. “It’s fine.” Right now, he even means it. What’s the big deal? He loves Gaara, and touching him feels good the way it feels good to drink water when you’re dying of thirst, and physical intimacy doesn’t have to be a big deal.

It’s just it is to Naruto.

But it’s time he got over that and stopped being such a pathetic, selfish arsehole. He puts his arm around Gaara’s shoulders, their tails intertwining, and it’s fine.

They have sex, and there’s nothing wrong. It’s simple as walking off a log.

It’s just afterwards he can’t get up. He doesn’t cry and he doesn’t puke, he’s too empty for that, and the whole world is empty too, and he wants to let Kyuubi eat him alive.

He’s lost control over his own body, can’t move it – maybe hates it too much, for this betrayal, to be able to interact with it at all. Worse, he’s lost control of his own will.

Shukaku cuffs him, and he sort of welcomes it but can’t respond.

Gaara throws a phone in Naruto’s face. Naruto gets it: it’s time.

Sasuke doesn’t usually pick up when Naruto calls, and when he does they have fraught, cutting conversations, too much ardency and too much distance.

In the end Naruto types out a text, sweaty fingers stabbing at the keyboard. I don’t do well without you. You have to come back or I need to come to you. And I know what you said but I’m dying without you anyway. So. Fucking pick up the phone, you bastard. You could at least tell me you love or something.

xxxxx

Entering his kitchen, Kakashi almost stumbles over Kabuto’s legs.

Sasuke looks up from where he’s kneeling next to Kabuto’s head – from where he’s idly picking at Kabuto with a fork. Kabuto’s face is rather heavily mutilated, but he won’t feel that anymore.

“How charming,” Kakashi says. “Is this like when cats bring home dead birds to impress their owners?”

“A dead rat, if anything,” Sasuke snorts. “I expected you to be home, you know. Kimimarou had to help me lug him up the stairs.”

“And where’s Kimimarou now?”

Sasuke shrugs. “In your bedroom, I think. He had to lie down.” He stands up, stepping over Kabuto. “He’s going to go nova anytime.”

“He’s been about to go nova anytime for years,” Kakashi remarks, fiddling with the coffee machine.

“Well,” Sasuke smirks, “he won’t be getting any more treatments now. I don’t reckon he’ll last until tomorrow.”

Kakashi gives Kabuto’s corpse a longer, more considering look. He’s not a big man, but he’s not a small one either: Sasuke won’t have had any trouble killing him, but getting the corpse quickly and discreetly away – yes, Kimimarou must’ve helped him. “I didn’t realise Kimimarou wanted to die.”

Sasuke shrugs, softer this time. “He’s tired.”

“Aren’t we all,” Kakashi mutters.

But Sasuke for once doesn’t seem very tired. He steals Kakashi’s coffee cup and takes an experimental sip, face scrunching up at the taste.

“Tch,” Kakashi mutters, and Sasuke leans against him. It’s one of those sudden movements, no warning before Sasuke’s entire weight hits him, as if he’s testing to see if Kakashi will catch him. “Is it time?” he asks softly, into Sasuke’s hair.

Sasuke could’ve killed Kabuto at any time. Now suddenly, long after he stopped feeling anything for the man, he has.

Perhaps it’s just that Orochimaru’s unlikely to punish him for it anymore, but then the very reason for that is that Sasuke’s no longer concerned with his punishments.

Sasuke nods, cheek rubbing against Kakashi’s ribs. “Soon.”

“All right.”

Sasuke pushes away, stands upright. “But not yet.”

“All right,” Kakashi says again. “Shall we have a pyre for Kabuto, then?”

Sasuke makes a go-ahead gesture, and Kakashi incinerates the corpse, leaving not a single speck of ash.

“I’m going to look in on Kimimarou,” Sasuke says. He turns around in the doorway, offering one of those self-consciously charming smiles that quickly twists into a more familiar smirk. “I’m hungry.”

“Oh?” Kakashi teases.

“Hn. You should feed me.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

The smell of curry chicken finally tempts Sasuke back out of the bedroom. Kakashi’s going to have to replace the bed, which is annoying, since he’s none too keen on sleeping in Kimimarou’s imminent lit-de-parade.

It’s good to have Sasuke eating properly again, so he hasn’t taken any chances – it’s hard to go wrong with curry.

Kakashi talks of nothing of importance, until Sasuke finally looks up from his plate. “I ran into Sakura. I think I scared her.”

“Oh?” Kakashi asks, wondering if he’ll need to make a quick placating call to Ibiki or perhaps burn another body.

“Nothing like that. We just said hi.”

“Ah. I’m sorry.”

“Why?”

“You did like her.”

Like is a trite, pointless emotion.”

“Maa, maa.” Kakashi shrugs. “Well, you’re not wrong.”

Sasuke chews a piece of broccoli – even as little kid he always liked vegetables, Itachi could give him tomatoes and carrots for sweets – and indulges in some thoughtful silence. It ruptures like something tangible, like skin under a blade, when he asks, “Where’s Itachi?”

“At home, I should imagine. Why?”

Sasuke shrugs, swallowing a mouthful of rice. “He didn’t go with Neji and Hanabi for that exorcism, right?”

“No,” Kakashi agrees. “They’ll be back Sunday, if you didn’t already know that.”

Sasuke nods.

It’s time, Kakashi remembers.

But not quite yet.

Tonight, Sasuke sits with Kimimarou until bleak, sick lights spreads through the flat, a dwarf star going nova.

Kakashi’s made up the couch, and Sasuke climbs in next to him, close like he wants to be touched – or at least, would like the opportunity to reject being touched.

Kakashi strokes his hair, which makes him frown. Kakashi strokes his neck instead, getting a scowl, and finally brushes his hands up and down his back. Sasuke’s rather tense posture softens, he half-lies on Kakashi’s arm. He breathes warm little breaths against Kakashi’s collar bone, so close it occasionally feels like a kiss.

Wildly, improbably, he wants to tell Sasuke that he loves him. But it wouldn’t be fair. Sasuke’s heard that so seldom, the words still mean something to him: he’d still hear it as a promise never to let him go, and Kakashi’s broken enough promises.

“What?” Sasuke mutters, settling more comfortably against him, metal heel digging into Kakashi’s thigh.

“Nothing.”

“Hn.”

“Nothing,” Kakashi says again, brushing his fingertips along the metal pole where Sasuke’s calf used to be, feeling the cold of the metal and the sparks of magic along the inscriptions. “Hey.” And then he can’t say anymore, because he meant to say something harmless, toothless, but faced with Sasuke’s open face, he can’t.

Sasuke lifts an eyebrow but lets himself be kissed, pressing cruel, idle nails against the demon taint on Kakashi’s jaw. It concentrates under his touch, sudden stings and heavy pressure as the evil tries to break out into the world to devour Sasuke.

Sasuke smirks, mocking, and Kakashi pulls him fully into his lap. He kisses Sasuke’s neck until Sasuke becomes distracted and stops pushing at the demon wound.

Sasuke’s phone beeps, Naruto’s name lighting up the screen. Sasuke sighs softly, touching it without really reading the text. “He never stops.”

“No,” Kakashi agrees. “I don’t expect he will.” He feels himself smiling, it hurts a little but a sweet kind of pain. “Why, did you expect he’d leave you be after you came back home?”

“I don’t know,” Sasuke mumbles, and then with some frustration, “None of this makes sense.”

“Hmm.”

“Tch. You’re no better.”

“Mmh,” Kakashi says, pressing a kiss to Sasuke’s forehead, which Sasuke doesn’t like, and then to Sasuke’s mouth. “Isn’t that how it is? If you press me to say why I loved him, I can say no more than because he was he, and I was I…?”

Sasuke bites Kakashi’s lower lip, not quite breaking the skin. “Didn’t he also say the greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself? Though I suppose if you have to do the dorky love quotes, at least Montesquieu is a step up from Blake and his sick roses…”

“Careful,” Kakashi mumbles, kissing below Sasuke’s ear, “or you’re in for a serenade.”

Sasuke kind of chuckles, biting lightly at Kakashi’s collarbone as Kakashi strokes up his legs. They’re skin and bone and tightly-drawn muscles, he can feel blood and tension move through them under his touch. Teasing the hollows of his knees makes him flush, legs opening a bit to let Kakashi continue up the insides of his thighs.

He’s breathing heavily enough it sometimes sounds like sighs, nipping at the skin below Kakashi’s jaw, when his phone goes off again.

“Answer it,” Kakashi mutters into his skin.

Rather to his surprise, Sasuke does. His voice always changes when he’s talking to Naruto: sounds younger, more alive and more belligerent, as if what he says matters more, as if he’s prepared to fight for it.

Kakashi licks up the nape of his neck, and Sasuke arcs against him, shoulder blades digging into Kakashi’s ribs.

Kakashi registers bits and pieces of the conversation: hearing but not particularly listening to what Sasuke says, and catching Naruto’s words occasionally, whenever Naruto raises his voice.

Sasuke’s never been as response to Kakashi, as alive under his touch, as he is now. His voice sounds normal enough, he’s completely focused on the conversation, but his chest heaves under Kakashi’s fingers.

Even when they start fighting, voices so sharp suddenly they turn brittle, Sasuke seems oddly content. Naruto’s finally caught on to Kakashi’s presence, and is apparently appalled, not that Kakashi’s paid attention to whatever desperate declarations he must’ve made – Kakashi and Sasuke have long practice talking around things, talking about nothing so what needs to stay buried stays buried, but Naruto and Sasuke aren’t like that. The deep things surface between them.

“So what?” Sasuke snaps, just as Kakashi’s hands slip under his waistband. “You share your every thought with someone else!”

“That’s different,” Naruto almost screams. “I don’t want to, it’s not by choice!”

“I don’t want your excuses!”

They argue back and forth for a while – Kakashi isn’t listening, fascinated by Sasuke’s physical responsiveness. He presses a hand to Sasuke’s chest, Sasuke’s heat beating against his palm and Sasuke’s nipple caught between his fingers, and Sasuke’s hips shift sharply back against him. 

“You’re a might have been,” Sasuke tells Naruto. “This is my actual life.”

“Enough,” Naruto says. “It has to be enough now. I don’t – I don’t do well without you, I can’t do without you at all. And you want me in your life. So I’m done with this bullshit, and – ”

“Sunday,” Sasuke cuts in. “I’ll be there Sunday.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

 “Promise me.”

“If I’m not with you Sunday, it’ll be because I’m dead.”

Naruto protests, until Sasuke says something in Japanese that makes him shut up. Finally Sasuke tells him, “It’s the promise of a lifetime”.

They wrap up the call, and Kakashi wipes his hand on Sasuke’s pyjama trousers.

Sasuke shifts in his arms, letting his head loll on Kakashi’s shoulder. “You prefer to share me. You wouldn’t want to have to handle all of me.”

Kakashi gives him a slow, thoughtful kiss. “Whereas Naruto would like to devour you.”

“Mmh,” Sasuke says, curling up under Kakashi’s arm. “Let’s go to sleep.”

“Mmh,” Kakashi echoes, dragging his fingers lightly up Sasuke’s back, fisting them loosely in Sasuke’s hair. “Do you want to be with Naruto?”

Sasuke yawns. “What does it matter? I’m with you, aren’t I.”

But already Sasuke has begun his ascension, out of human reach and human life, towards his grave in the sky.

Chapter Text

Where’s Itachi, Sasuke asked. The unprecedented question has prompted Kakashi to locate the older Uchiha brother.

He hadn’t expected Sasuke to already be here.

The stained glass windows of the family chapel reflect off Itachi’s long hair. Hardly anybody used to frequent this chapel – it came with the house, for a time it served as a garden shed, certainly Mikoto and Fugaku have never been interested in it – but Itachi lately has taken to coming here.

He’s facing the altar, his back to Sasuke.

“You know,” Sasuke says lightly, “Genesis establishes breath as the beginning of life. If she didn’t want me, she could’ve just aborted me.”

“That would’ve been the pragmatic solution,” Itachi agrees, turning to offer Sasuke his profile.

They look astonishingly alike, both wearing subtly altered versions of Mikoto’s face. Whatever people whisper about Sasuke’s paternity, nobody could ever question that he’s Itachi’s brother.

“Mmh,” Sasuke says lightly, his fingers trailing along the back of a pew. It’s an unnatural movement, not something Sasuke would normally do. Itachi’s eyes follow it with something almost like resignation. “But in the end you’re the one who raised me. Ne, Itachi-niisan.”

Itachi turns to face him at last, and a change comes over him. His face was set to dismiss, rather with scorn, with this sad disgust that he’s been trying to direct at Sasuke for years, but the expression falls away. Time seems to fall away, because Sasuke’s smiling at him. It’s an impossible smile: a small, shy but perfectly comfortable smile, his eyes above it huge and full of this complete trust.

It’s the smile that was Sasuke’s and Itachi’s, before Orochimaru.

Kakashi wouldn’t have thought it was still hiding under Sasuke’s older, harsher features, would have thought Sasuke had killed it years ago. He does know that Sasuke’s never given it to Orochimaru, for all Orochimaru’s wanted very badly to have it.

And so Itachi meant to turn to Sasuke with scepticism, but is caught in the smile like in a memory.

“What brings you here?” Itachi asks.

 “You.”

“And what is it that you want with me, Sasuke?”

Sasuke shrugs, still smiling. “Shinjitai.”

“Usotsuki. Kami-sama o?” Itachi seems only peripherally to notice that he’s been drawn back into the language of childhood. Sasuke isn’t sentimental about Japan, but Japanese is still the language he dreams in. How Itachi feels about it, Kakashi’s never been certain: he spoke Japanese with Sasuke before Orochimaru, when Sasuke balked at having to learn yet another language, but never with anyone else.

“Iie.” Sasuke tils his head, bird-like and so impossibly young. “Itachi-niisan dake o shinjitai.”

“I had assumed,” Itachi says dryly – too dryly, self-consciously dryly – never quite looking away from Sasuke, “that you wished to be free of me.”

Sasuke takes a few steps closer. “How could I be? I’m what you’ve made me.”

“The way one hears it, it’s Orochimaru who’s made you.”

“The way one hears it, God is dead.”

Itachi tilts his head, in just the same way Sasuke did earlier. “Aren’t you callously disregarding that shifter beast of yours?”

The smile returns to Sasuke, warmer and brighter. His eyes crinkle a bit, slanting deeper than usual. He exudes a brittle, ethereal beauty, like a fairy caught in the hands of a child prepared to tear its wings. “Long before I met Naruto, you were already so deep inside me.”

“That’s one way of looking at it.”

“Mmh.” He takes that last step closer, into Itachi’s space. Close enough to share body heat, for all they’re both cold, the sort of people who wear jackets in summer.

He puts a hand on Itachi’s arm, fingers closing around Itachi’s wrist in the exact grip they had when Sasuke was eight. Kakashi, still hidden in the shadows just inside the doorway, finds himself oddly breathless. Sasuke hasn’t touched Itachi in eight years.

In fact, Kakashi’s fairly certain nobody’s touched Itachi in eight years.

Sasuke does it now as though it’s easy, as though he never stopped.

For some reason, Kakashi remembers the evening when he first slept with Sasuke. Standing in the sleet outside the hotel, Sasuke huddled close under Kakashi’s coat. How Sasuke looked up at him with that shining belief, the warmth that came when Sasuke put his hand on Kakashi’s chest and then didn’t dissipate – the sudden return of hope, as if the world had been made new, an impossible night-time dawn.

Sasuke looks at Itachi now with the love of a child who still has all his first teeth and all his chances, who’s never really lost anything and so doesn’t truly believe that he could, and touches him accordingly, as if it’s his birthright.

For a long time, in the rainbow light under the stained glass windows, he touches Itachi innocently and ardently, just the way he did when he was little. And then – the way his hands move over Itachi doesn’t change, the way Sasuke leans into him and looks up at him doesn’t change, but Sasuke’s face twists, just subtly, and the scene is blatantly, overwhelmingly sexual.

Itachi, who never touches people, who barely deigns to touch the ground he walks on, floating through life refusing to make contact with it, shudders away. He pushes at Sasuke with the staccato violence of someone not used to falling back on physical force.

Sasuke’s hip hits the altar, he falls to his knees, clinging to the hem of Itachi’s shirt, Itachi’s belt. Breathless, open-mouthed, he stares up at Itachi with the hungry eyes of a ghost child.

“What do you imagine you’re doing?” Itachi demands.

“I’m kneeling in a church,” Sasuke points out.

“You’re depraved.”

“That’s what you wanted, isn’t it?” Sasuke smiles that wholesome, innocent smile of a lost childhood, even as his hand ghosts over Itachi’s crotch. “You loved me. You couldn’t stop yourself. So you set out to make me into something cracked and dirty, something nobody could love, so you’d be cured of your sin.”

Itachi doesn’t answer. As so often, that is an answer.

“But it didn’t work,” Sasuke says, almost kindly. “I’ve fallen so low, I’m as filthy as you could’ve ever dreamt, and yet you still want me. So you just made it worse, it just made you sinful too, that you should love me even now.”

“You’re dirt.”

“Yes,” Sasuke says. “And you want to roll in me.”

Itachi reaches down and grabs Sasuke’s chin, pulling him to his feet by the grip. Still Sasuke smiles that awful, lost smile.

“You were always a coward,” Sasuke says. “You always needed someone else to take action, so you could go along but blame them in your heart. It wasn’t even your own idea to get rid of me.” He winds his arms around Itachi’s neck. “And you couldn’t have reached for what you wanted, you couldn’t have born it.” The corner of his mouth quirks, he looks more like himself. “You’re so afraid of being weak, it’s made you weak.” He touches Itachi’s forehead, chin, cheek, cheek, making the sign of the cross. “But here we are. It’s time we put all our sins on my head, and I’ll carry them into the desert.”

He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites – all their sins – and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness.

Itachi puts an admonishing hand on Sasuke’s head, angled to push him away. But Sasuke’s done being pushed around.

“Very soon, it’ll be time for you to release me into the wilderness.”

He leans up and kisses Itachi on the mouth.

xxxxx

That night Sasuke calls Kakashi, tells him, Be late tomorrow, and then hangs up. His voice is sleepy, breathy: childish. It leaves no room for argument.

Next morning Kakashi gets a call about a massive exorcism. It was duly predicted, but seems to have grown bigger.

“Itachi’s gone,” Mikoto tells him. “He disappeared yesterday. Hanabi and Neji haven’t returned yet, and Kimimarou appears to have gone nova.”

“Really,” Kakashi says.

“Indeed. Orochimaru had to go himself.”

“Really,” Kakashi says again. “He went with Sasuke alone, then?”

“Yes. And looking at the latest numbers, this is very much a team effort. You should hurry.”

“Maa, maa. I’ll get there eventually.”

About an hour late, he arrives at the scene. The sky’s still storm-coloured, darkness like clouds and afterimages of angel blades striking through them like lightning. It must’ve been one of the bigger exorcisms of the decade.

It’s about to get bigger: just before the seal closes entirely, Sasuke reaches out and rips the sky open.

Gabriel tears out to Kakashi so sharply, it feels like a flaying. Around him the world has gone dark.

He thinks idly, misquoting, that today is the day when Orochimaru will finally learn why storms are named after people.

Exhaustion has cracked open Orochimaru’s face, and emotions play quickly across it: despairing fury, pride, resignation. Something you might call love.

This was already a major exorcism, Sasuke’s seal vibrating and over-stimulated – and Sasuke now has torn open every ward, clearly aiming to overload the seal. It’s a very sophisticated lock, able to last through the power necessary for exorcising even a devil. But two devils, three… it will break now, or Sasuke will be eaten alive by the evil.

Kakashi could step in. Unlike Orochimaru and Sasuke, he’s still fresh, and could seal the torn wards.

He does nothing. All his life, he’s failed Sasuke by not taking action – he’s not going to fail him now by suddenly interfering.

The world goes black and white, angelic lights in a sudden night.

Uriel roars out of Sasuke: a final and glorious show of power from the angel to whom has been entrusted the vengeance of the Lord.

As long as there’s a demonic threat, the seal cannot close. And no seal in the world could withstand this magnitude of power. Very, very few exorcists could: this is nova level power, a suicidal grasp at magic beyond what a human being can wield.

When the darkness clears, Sasuke’s outlines are hazy. He seems to flicker in and out of existence every time Kakashi blinks, teetering on the very edge of existence.

The seal has ripped open, and has probably ripped Sasuke’s soul along with it – Kakashi’s surprised to meet Sasuke’s eyes and see recognition, any sort of human intelligence or personhood.

Of course, he thinks. Of course Sasuke’s personal thirst for vengeance would trump Uriel’s destiny as divine avenger.

There’s a humming in his ears, even though Gabriel has receded.

Sasuke turns on Orochimaru, and can speak after all. His voice cracks into almost song, echoed by the heavenly choir, but he’s still tone-deaf, still doesn’t have much of a singing voice.

Orochimaru raises a hand, brushes Sasuke’s face, and Sasuke catches it. Holds it to his cheek, and at the contact Orochimaru’s fingers start to char.

They smile at each other, the perfectly mirrored smiles of close family, of people who’ve lived with each other and in each other.

Orochimaru says something Kakashi doesn’t catch, and Sasuke nods. “Of course I understood. Like you must understand why I had to unseal myself, no matter the cost.”

“To rather die standing than live on your knees – I confess, I never grasped that sentiment.”

“That’s where you went wrong.”

“Yes,” Orochimaru says slowly, lifting his free hand to Sasuke’s other cheek. “That’s where I failed with you. I could’ve made you so perfect, Shinigami-chan, if only you’d been willing to bend a little.”

“If I bent, I’d have broken.”

“Ah, perhaps. Well, I suppose we shall never know, now.” He bends forward, kisses Sasuke’s forehead, and his lips come away ashy. “You were my best, Shinigami-chan. I always knew that you were for me.”

Sasuke bares his teeth. “Did you want to die by my hand, then?”

“Truthfully, I never wanted to die at all. But I suppose if I have to, you’re my perfect end.”

Sasuke says something in Japanese, sayonara and then something Kakashi can’t follow.

Orochimaru burns so bright, Kakashi thinks he’s been struck blind. When he can see again, there’s nothing left.

“Right then,” Sasuke says tonelessly.

It’s clearly a struggle for him to rein in the power raging through him, and light keeps breaking through his skin, cutting through his humanity. 

He looks sad, as if Orochimaru’s death had to happen the same way cutting of a gangrened limb has to happen. You live, it’s the only way you can live, but it hurts and it makes you smaller.

It’s not something you get over.

“Let’s go, chibi-chan,” Kakashi says. He couldn’t say why he reverts to the ridiculous nickname, something he hasn’t called Sasuke in ten years, and rarely even then.

But Sasuke’s mouth twitches into some approximation of a smile. “Let’s.”

xxxxx

“You can let me off here,” Sasuke says.

For two hours of driving, he hasn’t said a word. Has kept his eyes closed, mostly, and when they’ve blinked open they’ve been red and looking at nothing Kakashi can see. But Sasuke seems steadier now, more normal. He’s got a little bit of a nosebleed, which he keeps wiping on his sleeve.

Mikoto never did manage to train him out of that filthy habit, he’s always wiped his nose on his sleeves, sometimes even with his fingers.

Orochimaru, of course, liked to lick it. So did Itachi, once – in some demented childhood game Kakashi didn’t understand, wrestling Sasuke down on the sofa cushions and licking the snot from his cheek while Sasuke gasped and squealed with laughter and protest.

But it’s no good thinking about Itachi and Sasuke.

Sasuke never mentioned seeing Itachi in the family chapel, and Kakashi’s not going to bring it up.

He stops the car outside the train station. “Are you going north?”

Sasuke nods.

If I’m not with you Sunday, Sasuke told Naruto, it’ll be because I’m dead.

Naruto will be good for him, Kakashi thinks. Sasuke could use some of that boundless, relentless joie de vivre – and Naruto, by all reports, could use someone to rein him in and make him take a long hard look at himself.

“He’ll be happy,” Kakashi says. “Just don’t kill Gaara.”

Sasuke sniffs at him.

Kakashi makes a disarming gesture, not quite ruffling Sasuke’s hair. “I know it’ll seem like a good idea at the time, but you might quickly find yourself regretting it.”

“Hn.”

“Well, then.”

“You can come if you like, you know.”

Kakashi blinks, wordless with how touched he is. “I’d like to.” He kisses the side of Sasuke’s face, feels the skin crackling with heat and light under his lips. “But I don’t think it’d be a good idea.”

“Mmh.” Sasuke steps out of the car, and Kakashi goes with him to the ticket machines. Probably, as usual, Sasuke doesn’t have any money. He could live in opulence if he wanted – there’s very little Orochimaru would deny him in the way of worldly luxuries, not that Sasuke’s ever been interested in that – but he hardly ever has any cash. Like a spoilt child, he’s given things but never given the opportunity to buy things for himself.

They’re turning towards the platforms, Sasuke stuffing the ticket into the pocket of his hoodie, when they run into Mikoto.

That relentless savoir faire seems finally to have left her. “Sasuke,” she says, without greeting.

Sasuke tilts his head, looking at her. He doesn’t reply, and Kakashi isn’t sure whether it’s because he can’t hear her or can’t speak, or just chooses to ignore her. His skin is slowly growing translucent again, lit up as a lamp shade.

“Am I to understand that you’ve murdered Orochimaru?”

Sasuke’s nosebleed grows heavier. He wipes at it with his hand, the blood so hot it smells like boiling copper. The dirt under his nails stand out in astonishing contrast against the star-white light permeating his fingers.

“You shouldn’t talk to me,” he says.

“I would’ve liked to be spared the need,” Mikoto agrees. “However as things stand, I find myself compelled to –”

Her words are cut off sharply. Sasuke flicks his fingers, and she burns. So quickly, so hotly, there’s no time to scream before she’s erased from existence.

Sasuke’s fingers are burning, a little. He puts them in his mouth and sucks on them, putting the fires out.

Kakashi hands him a handkerchief. “You killed your mother,” he observes.

Sasuke shrugs. “She made me feel worse.”

“Do you feel better now?”

Sasuke’s mouth quirks, twists. “I don’t feel worse anymore.”

xxxxx

A snowflake catches on the tip of Gaara’s nose, burns against it for a moment, then melts down the side of his nostril.

Something’s happened, something to do with Sasuke: Naruto’s happy. Naruto’s been doing much better ever since Sasuke promised him, Sunday. Gaara hasn’t commented.

He’s got nothing to say, and anyway it’s not what he says that matters to Naruto.

Gaara never used to understand Kushina. He’s always liked her, but it frustrated him so much that she’d let Minato get away with shit – with Yui in particular.

But he understands it now. Naruto’s love for Sasuke is stronger than anything Gaara himself has ever felt or expects he ever will feel, and so is Naruto’s misery at Sasuke’s absence, and by extension Gaara’s misery.

Naruto wants better for Gaara, Gaara knows that. But it’s only for happy people that generosity comes easily, it’s only happy people who have anything left to give away for free. Without Sasuke, Naruto barely manages to survive. He puts on an all right front, but Gaara sees through that now, clearer than he probably ever wanted to, and knows that Naruto’s barely making it through. There’s no room for taking care of Gaara, who anyway has always preferred to take care of himself.

He knows that if Naruto had to choose between on the one hand having a perfect life, filled with love and accomplishments and meaningful work, but not having Sasuke, and on the other hand losing literally everyone he ever has or ever could care for, all his ambitions going to waste, but having Sasuke present in his life in any capacity at all – he’d choose Sasuke, because without Sasuke all the rest is meaningless.

To Gaara’s left, Asuma looks at his phone and then looks up at Gaara with some trepidation.

“Speak.”

Asuma touches his cap in a sloppy salute. “Uchiha’s early. He’ll be at Lilytown about seven thirty.”

“I see.” Gaara makes a sharp gesture, fingers twitching involuntarily into a fist, cutting Asuma off before he can speak again. “I’ll get him myself.”

Asuma obviously wants to question him, but Asuma’s no fool: Asuma doesn’t dare.

So for the second time this endless winter, Gaara smells exorcist and spots Sasuke Uchiha. All the same the scene is very different: Sasuke walks out of the train station, clearly regretting having forgotten his down jacket, his skin crackling and alight with out of control power that makes Gaara want to sneeze, tickling Shukaku’s jaw and making his pelt stand on end.

There are no demons here, no threat to Sasuke, and yet his eyes are red.

But all of these considerations disappear. Sasuke’s smell hits him – starfire and tea and underwashed hair – and Gaara’s instinct is to…to… he can hardly even think it: to take Sasuke in his arms, or something equally horrific and absurd.

Shukaku trashes around inside him, pulled this way and that, pulled almost apart, between his own urge to kill Sasuke and Kyuubi’s overwhelming desire to keep Sasuke for his own.

Gratifyingly, Sasuke doesn’t seem very happy to see him.

It’s silly, because the only reason he should be unhappy is jealousy, and the idea of Sasuke being jealous of him is completely absurd: Gaara never wanted to know that Kyuubi wouldn’t hesitate to sacrifice every human being on earth, shifter or not, for Sasuke, and consider it a cheap trade. He never wanted to know that Naruto would let him.

All the same Gaara finds himself unwinding his enormous woollen scarf and holding it out towards Sasuke, Naruto’s unbearable tenderness clenching his heart like the talons of a predator bird.

Sasuke gives him an odd look, as well he might, but gets in the car.

With the doors closed around them, the air confined to the jeep, Gaara almost chokes on the smell of him. Angelfire glitters on Sasuke’s skin, slipping through and then sinking back through his pores. That stench of holiness and purgatory fire: the smell of Sasuke’s soul. Beyond that there’s the smell of Sasuke’s body, a dizzy smell of flesh and skin and hair. Dried blood crusts his nostrils, he’s sweated a bit on the train, and Gaara has the vomit-inducing urge to lick him clean.

“What the hell are you doing?” Sasuke demands, and Gaara comes back to himself. To the realisation that he’s staring, open-lipped, and straining towards Sasuke as far as the seatbelt will let him.

“Let’s drive,” he says, sitting back and looking sharply away from Sasuke.

Changing gears, his little finger brushes fleetingly against Sasuke’s leg. It feels like moving your finger through a candle flame, like children do, just quickly, quickly so it doesn’t quite have time to burn you, and somewhere deep in your stomach there’s an urge, maybe you want it to burn.

Sasuke can hardly have felt the touch through his layers of clothing, but frowns at Gaara all the same. “Are you fucking kidding me?”

“I wish I was,” Gaara says through gritted teeth.

“Keep your paws off me.”

And Gaara’s just – had enough. He sees red and backhands Sasuke.

Then he crumbles forward over the steering wheel, Kyuubi howling at a deafening level inside his head. Sasuke’s spitting teeth, his mouth a red ruin and his cheekbone cracked so badly, broken bone peaks through his skin.

Gaara’s fist is gone. It incinerated on contact, his wrist ends in sooth and nothing.

He waits for Shukaku to heal it and it doesn’t heal and it keeps not healing.

A true angel wound, he thinks, over the ringing in his ears and his sight whitening out. It’ll never grow back, then.

He’d like to strangle Sasuke but that’d mean losing his other hand.

“Fucker,” Sasuke says.

“Whore.”

Sasuke’s collected six or seven teeth in his palm, and now throws them out the window. He lifts an eyebrow. “What, do you need two hands to drive? Let’s go.”

“Che.” But Sasuke has a point. Gaara shakes off the nausea, regains control of the car. After a while he says, feels himself oddly and reluctantly compelled to say, “It’s Naruto. I don’t feel this way. I don’t want to feel this way.”

“You’re his mate,” Sasuke says tonelessly. “Shouldn’t you have fucked him out of it?”

Gaara hears himself make a strangled, hoarse sound not quite a laugh. “It doesn’t work like that.”

“From what I hear, that’s exactly how a bond works.”

Well, that’s what Gaara heard too. He shrugs. “Naruto’s Naruto. He’s never been predictable.”

He can see it in the glitter of Sasuke’s eyes, smell it in the power coursing just under Sasuke’s skin: Sasuke would like to kill him. The temptation must be tangible, a piece of meat held between the jaws of a starving man.

He supposes pyrrhic victories are still victories, at least to someone who’s lost so much. Someone much like Gaara himself, in other words. 

Sasuke has to know that very recently, before the seal broke, Gaara could’ve done whatever he liked with him. Not killed him, probably, Naruto would never have allowed that, but he could’ve hurt him, badly – Naruto’s too far away to prevent it in time. Fucked him, too, if he decided it was worth it.

So they’d both like to go for each other’s throats, but of course there’s Naruto in between them. “We need a balance of terror,” he says. Sasuke lifts an eyebrow, and Gaara would like very much to say something nasty about how Sasuke should be used to sharing, he’s been shared so much. But it’s time he set himself above that. For the first time in his life, he wishes Kakashi was here: someone who can make Sasuke see sense without getting completely caught in his gravity. “Regardless of who’s the wife and who’s the mistress, we’re both in this, and we’re not getting out.”

With a shudder, he thinks how it’ll be when they get back, when Naruto can finally get to Sasuke. There will be no shielding from that, no more than you can shield yourself from a nuclear explosion. It’s going to be wrenching, fox claws shredding Gaara’s soul, ripping through his intestines. They’re going to fight and they’re going to fuck, and Gaara’s twitching with the sick anxiety of knowing he’ll have to second-hand experience it all.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps he won’t experience anything at all, because the sky above them darkens so abruptly, Gaara thinks for a second he’s been struck blind.

Gradually, with a vertiginous, sinking feeling filling him, Gaara lets the car slow down and then stop. He can’t see to drive through this. Never once has he been nightblind, Shukaku seeing through any darkness, but now suddenly he’s muddled, lost and helpless as a human.

“How many devils, Sasuke?”

“Too many.”

“It’s time for you to go,” Gaara tells him. “We can’t run from this.”

Sasuke looks like someone who’s been falling for so long, he’d forgotten he’s going to hit the ground. But he remembers now.

“It’s time for you to go,” Gaara says again, building wall after wall through his mind. “He can’t live without me, and if you wait – if we try to run, if you wait for him to get here – it’ll be too late. He can live without you.”

“Maybe,” Sasuke says, and then stops for a while before he manages to continue. “No – but maybe he can.”

He digs through his pockets for his phone, and for a black moment Gaara thinks he’s going to call Naruto. That’ll be the end of it, then, the end of them all.

Sasuke speaks abruptly, interrupting Kakashi’s drawled greeting, “I loved you. It was never going to be enough, but I did. Just so you know.”

He ends the call and breaks the phone in his hand.

Gaara understands. He never wanted to understand Sasuke, but he understands this. If Sasuke had heard Naruto’s voice, he wouldn’t have been able to walk away from it, and he has to.

“Sasuke.”

For the first time in years and years, Sasuke smiles. “It’s time for me to go.”

He climbs out of the car, shedding the dirty parka, and walks up into Heaven, a pinprick of blinding light in the unnatural darkness.

Gaara has to blink, peer through his lashes, and so catches sight of the watch next to the steering wheel. That’s how he knows: 9.23 pm, Sasuke goes nova.

Kilometres down from him, Gaara feels his skin burn off, feels the edges of his soul curdle at the light.

Then there’s no trace of Sasuke left in this world. He’s gone where he was always going, to his grave in the sky.

9.25, Kyuubi eats Naruto’s soul.

“And in the end,” Gaara mutters aloud, clinging to the words as he builds his walls higher and higher against Kyuubi’s beastmad rage, the only form of suicide Naruto could indulge in without taking Gaara with him, “in the end we were all just human, drunk on the idea that love, only love, could heal our brokenness.”

xxxxx

Chapter Text

”Obviously I’m going to bond with him!” Naruto erupts. They’re seventeen now, and Sasuke’s shown no signs of bonding with anyone, but statistically it’ll happen any moment and – and a big-name exorcist/shifter alliance is exactly what they need to stabilise things, and anyway Naruto pities any other poor fool who ends up with Sasuke and his bad-tempered impatience about the whole thing.

…also the idea of Sasuke even looking at anyone else is impossible to countenance.

Dad sighs. “One, that’s hardly possible. Two, it would be borderline heresy.”

Naruto snorts. “Heresy like when someone sicced demons on that shifter settlement and nobody cared?” Phanuel’s wings itch against the inside of his skin, impatient to break out into the world.

Dad sighs. “We can’t afford internal strife right now.”

“We can’t afford not having internal strife when thousands of people are murdered,” Naruto snaps. “If we’re ever going to have an equal world, we have to stop this idiot apartheid system where you get away with anything just because you happen to be an exorcist!”

“Grow up,” Dad tells him.

Naruto glares. “You do realise that being grown up and being spineless are actually two different things, right?”

For a moment Dad looks stricken. Then he says, “We’ll continue this conversation later,” probably relieved that his phone goes off.

Naruto stalks out through the French windows, but it’s difficult to stomp on thin air. He quickly ventures back inside, two stories lower, and surreptitiously checks his phone.

Sasuke’s out east dealing with some Luthors, and Naruto hasn’t heard from him since the day before yesterday, and – he almost stumbles over Shikamaru. “Shit, sorry, hi.”

Shikamaru snorts. “Hi.” He must’ve stopped by to see Ino, but Ino has a terrible habit of mixing up her appointments and obviously isn’t here. Naruto slumps down next to him, and Shikamaru grumbles but scoots over. “Heard you had another screaming match with the pater?”

Naruto rubs at the back of his neck. “Yeah…”

“Realistically,” Shikamaru drawls in this slow, disinterested and very, very careful voice, “isn’t he going to bond with Gaara? They’re close, they’re both shifters… Gaara’s strong, too. It wouldn’t be the worst thing.”

“Gaara’s wrong for him,” Naruto says furiously.

“Maybe. But the bond’s – well, it is what it is, right?”

“If,” Naruto wets his lips. “If Temari had bonded with someone else, you’d – eh, no, you’re all – you’re all chill. You’d have just kept dating her anyway, right? It would’ve been fine.”

“No, actually,” Shikamaru says, and Naruto freezes. “Some people can do poly, good for them. Me, I’m not built that way.”

“It’s – obviously it sucks for the shifters when a human doesn’t want them. But no one hardly ever talks about – it sucks for the humans too, what if you have a shifter and you love them, and they just bond with someone else, what are you supposed to do with yourself, what – ”

“Naruto,” Shikamaru interrupts, still so damnably mild. “You’re not dating Sasuke.”

“No, I just – I mean – but he’s…”

“You finally stalked him into being your friend. Maybe be happy with that?”

“Settling is beneath us,” Naruto tells him, standing up. “It’s unworthy of us.”

Shikamaru rolls his eyes. “If you want an angsty pretty boy, ask Neji out. You’ve got to know he’s carrying a torch for you.”

Naruto makes a face, and is immediately ashamed, because “Neji’s a friend.” But Neji will never be anything more than that, the very idea is absurd.

Naruto gets that Hiashi has been horrible to Neji, but there’s no excuse for the way Neji stands by and lets him treat Hinata like rubbish, not when Neji’s grown into a crusader and doesn’t have to take any of Hiashi’s shit anymore.

Naruto too remembers in his bones what it was like before he attained crusader status, back when he was just a little mongrel runt nobody believed would amount to anything much – just another cog in the machine at best, what with his human mother. But people listen to him now, like they’d listen to Neji if Neji cared to speak, and someone has to tell them to get their heads out of their arses.

“He’s fine, you know,” Shikamaru says.

Naruto can feel the hungry demand in his own stare.

Shikamaru sighs, leaning forward to get the remote. “See for yourself.”

The screen behind Naruto blazes to life. He spots Sasuke immediately, could pick Sasuke out of any crowd, at any distance. Sasuke either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care that he’s being filmed, wiping blood off his cheek with the back of his hand. For a moment afterwards the left half of his face is hollowed out, exposed flesh and a sharp glint of bone, and then the next moment it’s whole, covered in virgin skin. His eyes are still red with Taka’s energy.

Naruto sinks back down beside Shikamaru, straining towards the screen. Bloody Gaara’s crowding Sasuke as usual, and there’s Temari and Kiba and the rest. Sasuke ignores them, reaching up to catch something. His hand grows huge, a monster hand of crimson energy, and shudders – it comes to Naruto that the thing Sasuke caught was a grenade, and it’s detonating inside his fist now.

It can’t hurt him.

Sasuke’s never been physically imposing – tiny and angular, his authority and charisma tied only to his presence, his force of will, and almost incongruous with his stature – but he snorted at bombs before he’d graduated primary school.

Light catches in Sasuke’s lashes, strangely angelic around the cold berserker fury of Taka’s red stare, Sasuke’s thin lips curl into a smirk as Gaara says something, he turns his head and the light slips down his throat, and –

“If I’d realised this was basically a porno to you,” Shikamaru says, “I’d have let you to enjoy yourself in peace.”

Naruto throws a pillow at his head.

xxxxx

It all began twelve years ago, when Naruto’s preschool teacher made the class quiet down. “We’ve got a new friend joining us today – let’s make a good impression, everyone!”

Naruto pouted when Sakura nodded at Ino, who resolutely put her hand over his mouth. “Shut up already, Naruto!”

Naruto grumbled against her hand, but then the door opened and a boy entered. Dressed in a painfully proper school uniform, the newcomer walked straight up to the teacher at the front of the classroom. The way he didn’t look at any of the other kids didn’t seem shy, or even introverted, just arrogant. Still, after the teacher told them to say hello to Sasuke Uchiha, who had just moved here, Sasuke freaking bowed to them. “Yoroshiku onegai shimasu.”

It was after this that the girls in the class started tittering about being mated as something exciting and glamorous rather than as a fate worse than death.

The Uchiha family overall was an extremely successful important for the shifter community, bringing with them a rather different image: beautiful, respectable, civilised. Sasuke never had a diplomatic bone in his body, but he did have his beast firmly under control, he was stiffly polite with adults and always got perfect grades. He was also a total Mummy’s boy, and completely unembarrassed about it.

The idea of what it meant to be a shifter changed rapidly and radically: Sasuke could and did take down people three or four times his size with those crazy ninja moves of his, told Kiba off for being rowdy around the girls – “Humans are fragile!” – and then smiled up at his mother when she came to get him, apple-cheeked and adorable and showing off his perfect report card with this obvious, oblivious pride.

Despite being so popular, Sasuke never had much interest in befriending anyone, keeping jealously to his own family. Gaara and he circled each other for a few weeks, then had an explosive fight, and afterwards were fast friends. Quickly after that, he and Temari grew close as well.

He expressed not a blind bit of interest in any of the exorcists.

That was until an afternoon in early September when they’d been sent out in groups to collect mushrooms or some rubbish. Naruto was enjoying the clear air, up in the mountainous landscape outside the city, and the opportunity to practice air walking in peace. He was not so much enjoying the fact that Sakura had resolutely set off without him.

This was in the days when Naruto was – bullied is a strong word, that wasn’t really…but he wasn’t welcome amongst the full-blood exorcists: he was the first mongrel on record in two hundred years. The humans of course were polite and deferential, but fundamentally distant, and the shifters kept to themselves. Hinata smiled at him sometimes, then always looked ashamed, as though he’d tricked the smile out of her. The best he could hope for from Ino were admonitions.

Then Sasuke came running. Usually when Naruto saw him running, in gym class or to the bus, it was a human sort of running, which he realised now was just some kind of light jog to Sasuke. This was a real shifter run, easy and animal, faster than any other living creature could move.

Sasuke’s tiny, chubby hands were enormous claws shedding crimson energy, and held Sakura tight where he’d slung her over his shoulder.

She was screaming, a high thin wail that Naruto only now realised was a human sound. Sasuke’s deeper, gruffer voice cut across it. “Naruto! Demons!”

The wards were thinner out here, in these barely populated areas. Naruto had been aware of a heavy sensation of darkness, but Phanuel was always trying to spread his wings, to break out into the world… Whereas most of the others struggled to get more than a few metres off the ground, Naruto had never doubted he could walk above the clouds. But whilst they stood steady those few metres up, Naruto’s power raged and erupted, exploded out of his control. So Phanuel sensing demons didn’t mean there was actually any kind of imminent threat.

But he could see the demons now, a dark mist following Sasuke.

“Isoge!” Sasuke snapped, stopping a few metres from Naruto. He looked frustrated for a moment, searching for the English word, “Hurry!” He was tense but he never seemed afraid: never doubted.

He could’ve run the other way. Neji and Hanabi were further off, but he could’ve run to them.

He hadn’t. He’d come here, he had expectations for Naruto to rise to, rather than to sink to.

Light erupted in Naruto, the dizzy thrill of heavenly fire sizzling under his skin. “You have to go!”

Sasuke stared, more a demand than a question.

“My control is crap, okay? It’s – I burn people. When I exorcise – I’ll take the demons, no problem, but I can’t with people around, I – ”

Sasuke nodded, turning to run – and stopped short. Naruto didn’t have to turn around to know the demons were surrounding them now, that there was nowhere Sasuke could go. Alone, he could’ve maybe made it through, if there weren’t any more demons lurking out of sight, but Sakura had no beast to defend her. Her soul would be eaten before Sasuke had run through the demon mist.

“I’ve got this,” Sasuke told him. He dumped Sakura, still screaming, on the ground. Knelt over her, covering her with his body, which was barely visible now under Taka’s energy. “Better we burn than we’re eaten. Go!”

“We’ve got this,” Naruto echoed, and could finally believe. The demons had never been the problem.

This wide, wild grin split his face. Phanuel burst out of him, his white-on-white wings spread wide enough to touch the farthest reaches of the galaxy.

The demons melted and dissipated as Naruto released the flames of purgatory, let them cleanse sin and impurity from the world.

Time didn’t really flow during exorcism, not for him, but it couldn’t have been more than three minutes before he was back on the ground, his wings gone and the demons erased.

Sasuke pushed himself up off Sakura, grinning at Naruto over his shoulder.

Naruto froze, before rushing over, Sakura’s pale horrified face forgotten.

Sasuke’s skin was melting off him, leaving exposed meat glazed in a layer of burnt blood.

“Jesus Christ, Sasuke!”

But new skin was already growing in. “I’m fine,” Sasuke claimed, teeth gritted and clearly in a lot of pain. He didn’t sound like he was lying, though. “I’m like – moulting. I’ll be fine.”

Naruto held out his hand, unthinking. His heart beat harder than it ever had.

Sasuke blinked, frowned, and Taka’s energy concentrated on his hand, quickly covering the exposed bones of his fingers with new skin. He opened his eyes, mouth still quirked, and took Naruto’s hand, let Naruto pull him to his feet.

“We did it,” Naruto said.

“Of course we did.”

By the time people came, Sasuke looked all right, and Sakura had never been hurt – everyone assumed Naruto had finally got his power under some sort of control, and anyway he’d taken out an infestation they wouldn’t have expected a child to be able to handle: it was clear now that he was going to be a crusader, and the exorcists decided he was one of them.

Naruto…well, Naruto believed in letting bygones be bygones, and he’d always wanted more friends, more people. But he was always Sasuke’s first.

It took rather a long time before Sasuke understood that this incident made them friends. He’d never shunned Naruto for his mixed parentage – Sasuke’s mother’s husband/mate was human, even though Sasuke’s real father was a shifter – but he seemed mainly bemused when Naruto started talking to him daily. Eventually he began arguing, and from that of course it was only a matter of time.

xxxxx

It was a bit ironical, since Itachi and Mikoto used to admonish Sasuke to be more diplomatic, that possibly the best shifter propaganda of the century featured Sasuke.

Naruto loved and hated that photo, which became iconic and almost erased the actual experience it depicted. School had just let out and they were all going home when the lorry came. Most of them got that something was wrong, started throwing themselves out of the way. Naruto was caught up in some anecdote, turned too late to see the headlights upon him. The lorry wasn’t even a metre away, it was this normal vehicle turned into a hulking monster, and Phanuel screeched but this was metal, it wasn’t spirit or even flesh, and – surely he couldn’t die this way. Eight years old going home from school, because some idiot got in a car and…

Then Sasuke was there, in between Naruto and the speeding lorry. Asphalt cracked under his feet, Taka flared and made Phanuel sneeze, there was the impact, the final sound of it, and – the car stopped. Sasuke had both hands pressed against the bonnet, his arms were bent weird, maybe they’d snapped from the impact, and the lorry couldn’t move forward.

The adults dragged the driver out of the car. Itachi snagged Sasuke, pulled him up into his arms. He talked quickly for once, not in his annoying adult voice but like a person who felt things. He was also carefully re-breaking Sasuke’s arms so they could heal right.

“Shiranai yo,” Sasuke grumbled, mouth crumbling around the bone-break pain. “I just did. It was like my body moved on its own.”

Itachi frowned at him. “Taka?”

“Iie, tada....” Sasuke shook his head, and wouldn’t say anymore. Maybe couldn’t find any words that fit.

Even Grandpa Jiraiya couldn’t dislike Sasuke anymore after that, for all he’d always snorted at that “stick up his arse little princess”. That didn’t stop him grumbling, only ninety percent playfully, when Naruto abandoned him to go play with Sasuke.

“Brat, I’m just back after almost a year.”

And Naruto was happy about that, he really was, because Jiraiya always had loved him best, had never hesitated to claim him as family, but, “You were away forgetting to send me a birthday card, and he was here stepping in front of a lorry for me.”

“Ouch,” Jiraiya grumbled, reaching out to ruffle Naruto’s hair.

“Didn’t you – I mean, didn’t you miss Grandma?” Naruto couldn’t imagine voluntarily being away from his people – from Mum, or from Sasuke.

Jiraiya sighed. “We’re not like that.” He sighed again, rattling and thick, a TB kind of sigh. “She loved someone else, you know. But he died. I was cold comfort.” A final sigh, lighter than the rest. “Your father’s the result of a drunken one night stand. Why she kept him, I’ll never know.”

“How romantic.”

“I’m glad of it now, obviously. You’ll notice I never said I loved someone else.” Jiraiya shrugged. “Anyway look at you – the fruit of this great romance transcending all the taboos, and how did that end?”

Naruto looked away before looking back, blazing. There was no denying that Dad was happier with Kushina, and Mum was happier on her own. Most of the time, Naruto even liked Konohamaru. “They – stopped transcending.”

“They gave up,” Jiraiya said. “I guess they didn’t love each other enough.”

“I don’t – get that. Love is love. There isn’t – there’s no stopping.”

Jiraiya swatted at him. “Aren’t you a little heartbreak hero.”

xxxxx

The other hard-hitting media image of Sasuke was taken less than a year later. It made Naruto sick with terror to see it, and yet he couldn’t stop staring, his knees buckling in relief – Dad had had to order people to hold him down, once he realised they were cleansing Mist Town.

But Sasuke lived, clearly.

The photo showed Kakashi carrying him out of the purgatory flames of what used to be Mist Town. Sasuke’s eyes were enormous and dark, black holes in his face. At first it looked like he was clutching Kakashi’s shirt, but then you saw that his fingers ended, that the tips of them were gone. Half his face was angelically beautiful, the other half a parody of a devil, red and black and blistering.

His father, it emerged later, had shielded him. Had in fact died to keep Sasuke safe, and it would’ve been for nothing if Kakashi had been even a little later snatching him to safety.

When Naruto finally managed to escape the guards stationed outside his room and sneak across the sky to Sasuke’s hospital room, he was stopped short by Gaara growling at him. They’d never exactly been friends, but the aggression in Gaara’s stance was different, was real. For the first time, Phanuel reacted as if Gaara was a demon rather than as if he was a human.

“Now, now,” came Kakashi’s drawl, and Naruto would’ve liked to explain to Gaara that this wasn’t Kakashi adopting the typical exorcist condescension, treating shifters as not even worthy of hatred, it was just Kakashi being Kakashi, but he was too buys sneaking past Kakashi and Gaara, past Mikoto’s corpse-like face and into Sasuke’s room.

Sasuke, thankfully, had nothing corpse-like about him, for all his skin was still flaking, half his face still a burnt mess.

“They’re ready to come off,” he insisted to Itachi, making a belligerent gesture. “I want my fingers back.”

Itachi looked sceptical. “Taka’s not even done with your face.”

“My face is fine.”

“Exactly. It used to be rather adorable. Fine is a sad downgrade.”

Sasuke scowled. “Are you quoting Kakashi at me?”

“Possibly. Fine, give me your hand.”

Sasuke swallowed but didn’t hesitate. His hand looked like a baby’s hand, with these tiny stumps for fingers. Itachi sighed, and then cut one of them off.

Naruto made an involuntary sound of outrage and horror.

Sasuke stared at him over his re-growing finger, and of course – of course Taka couldn’t heal a deliberately inflicted angel burn, but would have no trouble with a flesh wound.

Itachi gave Sasuke a slow onceover, then said something in Japanese that Naruto couldn’t follow. Sasuke nodded, and Itachi left.

In his absence, Naruto scrambled onto the bed, right by Sasuke’s side. Sasuke’s face abruptly crumbled – not into tears, but this was clearly as close to it as he’d get. Rage and desolation and this hunger for restitution, red-eyed and thick-throated with swallowed sobs, and he pressed his face into Naruto’s shoulder so hard, Naruto almost tumbled off the bed.

It was the first time Naruto thought, I love you.

“Get over yourself,” he muttered into Sasuke’s hair, holding onto his arms, his shoulders, struggling somehow and overwhelmed.

Finally Sasuke sniffed and looked up. He reached for the scalpel and aimed at the next finger, but his hands were shaking too badly to cut.

“I’ve got you,” Naruto said. He stilled Sasuke’s hand in his, this cold thin little hand with bones like needles and skin perpetually baby-soft because it kept having to re-grow, and when Sasuke nodded at him he cut off Sasuke’s fingers.

Afterwards he bent abruptly forward and vomited all over the floor.

Sasuke made this strange sniffing, snorting sound, and finally handed him a discarded bandage to wipe his mouth on.

“Your mum was sad,” Naruto said at last, when they were both curled up against the headboard.

“Father is dead.”

“This will never – this won’t happen again. Ever.”

“That won’t make him any less dead,” Sasuke sneered, and again looked like he might cry but then didn’t.

“I know that,” Naruto said. “That – sucks. But. It won’t happen to anyone else. We can do something about that.”

“Dobe,” Sasuke muttered.

“At least,” Naruto said, distracted, “at least she’s still got Fugaku.”

“Tch. He’s not even a shifter.”

“Didn’t he want to bond…?”

“He wanted it. She didn’t.”

“Oh.”

“Of course she didn’t. He’s human.” Sasuke shrugged, then immediately stiffened: Mikoto didn’t approve of shrugging. “And now he doesn’t want it anymore either, he’s realised he’ll never be more – more only human, than with us.”

“There’s nothing wrong with being human,” Naruto said, not with much conviction. If he couldn’t be an exorcist, he’d at least want to be a shifter. It’d be so empty inside his head, with no angel and no beast. And he’d be so helpless, shackled to his humanity and unable to step up, to step in when he needed to…

Sasuke raised an eyebrow. “There’s nothing wrong with being a cow either. That doesn’t mean you want to marry one.”

“I never knew him well,” Naruto said. “Your father.”

Sasuke’s father had been very much a father, not a dad. Tall, dark and handsome, gone and lot and not speaking much when he was there.

At least he’d always loved Itachi and Sasuke, unlike Fugaku who would hardly look at them – which, fair play to him, Itachi and Sasuke looked through him as though he was an unwanted pet.

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Sasuke seemed furious again, new fingers fisting so hard they creaked. “There’s no point.”

That night, he was still young enough to twitch and weep in his sleep.

Naruto could never say anything about it, never ask or tease, because he’d had this psycho impulse. Had collected a tear on his finger, and sucked it into his mouth.

Afterwards, quickly, he kicked Sasuke in the shins until Sasuke woke up, and pretended he’d done it in his sleep.

xxxxx

Only weeks later, Mum was killed.

It was never entirely clear to Naruto exactly what happened. Some kind of power struggle, turning into a botched kidnapping, and if she’d been an exorcist she’d have been fine, and anyone who’d dared raise hand to her would’ve been lucky to be have been dust to dust and ashes to ashes. But she wasn’t an exorcist.

Sasuke, Naruto knew, would’ve found out who did it and killed them. He offered, in fact, to be Naruto’s weapon in this – he was a lot more efficacious against humans than Naruto. Maybe it would’ve made things easier for Sasuke, given him a sort of substitute closure: everyone knew who was responsible for Mist Town, which was to say the exorcists, who’d done what they’d done because the idiot inhabitants hadn’t called them in time. There was nothing to be done, no revenge to be had.

But vengeance had never been Naruto’s game.

Dad tried to hold his hand during the funeral – Kushina for once wasn’t by his side, but further back among the grieving – but Dad didn’t get it, Dad had abandoned her...! The hand Naruto wanted, that Naruto grabbed for, was Sasuke’s.

Sasuke was stiff and distant with discomfort, probably the only shifter at the ceremony, and dragged now towards the front by Naruto’s insistent grip.

He hadn’t allowed Naruto at his father’s funeral service. It’s a shifter thing. You don’t have any part in it. Naruto had been...more surprised than he should’ve been, given that Sasuke had always been very much a shifter, loyal to his family first.

But your mum’s all – wouldn’t she want an exorcist presence? Mend bridges, like she said?

Sasuke face had hollowed out, skull-like suddenly. She wouldn’t want an exorcist to see her cry.

Don’t you...?

This is for my family.

Naruto had stayed away. He couldn’t say, at age nine, I’m your family. He could feel it, though.

Now Sasuke was here, because Naruto had wanted him here. He hadn’t seemed happy but he hadn’t hesitated when Naruto came and got him, just let Naruto grab onto his wrist and lead him into the church.

It was a church, Naruto remembered only when they’d been inside it for a while and he couldn’t think of Mum in the coffin anymore, where someone had recently stood in the pulpit and said Sasuke’s entire race should be exterminated. That Taka was demon taint, hereditary sin made manifest, and the exorcists should turn purgatory flames on him – that shifters were nephilim, the unclean offspring of demons mating with humans, and it was God’s will and God’s law that they be burnt.    

Well, anyone who tried would have to go through Phanuel first. Anyway that kind of ignorant weakling wouldn’t last five minutes against Taka...

Then Dad was pushing him forward, and Sasuke’s hand slid out of his. Naruto was suddenly right beside the open coffin, and Mum...hardly looked like Mum anymore. In order to have an open coffin, they’d had to give her skin transplants, reset bones. Perform plastic surgery on the corpse, essentially.

Naruto reached forward on instinct, trying to touch her. To wipe the thick layer of powder away, find his mother beneath it.

Dad practically carried him away, Naruto’s entire body stiff and unresponsive with not struggling.

Afterwards, often, he found himself at the graveyard with Sasuke. He hated the stupid verse on Mum’s gravestone, something soppy and hopeful.

“Isn’t that what you believe?” Sasuke sneered. “Wonderful days head of us, all that?”

Naruto swallowed. “If people ever get to meet God – I mean, God like in the bible, God as a person – he’s the one who’ll have to beg for our forgiveness.”

“He can rot in his own hell.”

“Someone who makes a hell deserves to rot in it,” Naruto agreed. “But God’s not like that. It’s nothing like a person, it’s just – it’s just power. Light. Goodness.”

Sasuke shrugged. “Whatever it is, it’s not for me.”

“That’s not true. Phanuel’s – I’m for you.”

“Tch. Learn not to burn me, then we’ll talk.”

All the same, a few months later Naruto used Taka’s claw, holding Sasuke’s hand like a handle from which it protruded, and etched that new legend into the stone: wonderful days ahead of us. When he’d started to believe it again, at least sometimes.

He couldn’t always. These were the dark times, but they were also the times when Sasuke and he stopped holding back with each other. Sasuke could push him off a roof, in the sure and certain hope that Naruto would fly; Naruto could let Phanuel flare free, in the sure and certain hope that Sasuke’s burnt body would heal. Still, there were limits: Sasuke didn’t cut him, which Naruto wouldn’t have survived, and Naruto never directed angelfire directly at Sasuke, who had no problem healing burns from Phanuels’ spillover power but would be crippled by a direct hit.

Sasuke broke Naruto’s arm once, grabbing him when Naruto had said something agitated and kind of stupid. The sound of bone snapping made Sasuke’s face whiten, and he dropped it quickly. Naruto bit his lip through the pain that chased tears to his eyes.

It wasn’t like Sasuke hadn’t seen him cry often enough after Mum died, but this was different.

“I didn’t mean,” Sasuke started. “I shouldn’t – I’m sorry.”

“’S fine.”

Sasuke held out his own arm. “Fair’s fair.”

And Naruto understood that need for balance, this sudden dizzy need for marking, for leaving mutual scars. He closed Phanuel’s hand around Sasuke’s arm, just below the elbow, and smelt burnt flesh.

Ever after, Naruto’s arm was a little crooked, he could feel a minimal bend just above his wrist, since he’d hidden the injury and it had healed a bit wrong – ever after, Sasuke carried Naruto’s fingerprints on his skin. It didn’t matter how often his arm was injured and healed, Naruto’s marks always grew back on the new skin, inerasable.

Later on, as a teenager, he once masturbated to that thought, and came so hard he saw white.

Chapter Text

Shortly before Sasuke’s thirteenth birthday, he disappeared.

He’d been supposed to meet Naruto, and never showed. Which…Sasuke was ridiculously punctual, and while it wasn’t unheard of for him to cancel appointments, he let Naruto know in advance. He didn’t just – not show up.

Naruto called him, and found Sasuke’s phone in the grass.

He started calling Itachi instead, and knew the seasick feeling in his stomach, the way all his muscles had knotted tight – that it was real when Itachi cursed in Japanese.

It was almost two days later that they found him.

Naruto went in first and alone. The security was pretty sophisticated, but it wasn’t meant to keep out other exorcists, and anyway most sophisticated spells can be burnt through by raw power – the one thing Phanuel had always given him.

He ran through the corridors, stone and linoleum and desperation as he kept taking wrong turn after wrong turn, until finally, finally…!

The scene was chaos, he perceived it only in bits and pieces: was too busy acting into it. Roaring, throwing himself at Orochimaru, Phanuel’s light a war torch.

Orochimaru was trying to…do something… to Sasuke, they were struggling, Sasuke a mess of red claws and flaring energy and red-black handprints, the eyes of a soldier and the smell of a burn victim.

Samael’s power flared in response to Naruto’s sudden assault, but it didn’t burn Naruto, who rammed straight into Orochimaru, head-butting his stomach with everything he had. Orochimaru stumbled back, and Sasuke was on him immediately, clearly injured but that had never stopped him before and it didn’t now.

Samel threw them off, and it was real now, they might really die.

Naruto felt better about it this time: dying like this, fighting alongside Sasuke, was a far more acceptable end than being run over by a terrorist lorry.

Only then Itachi was there, the strongest shifter who had ever lived, and Orochimaru fell back under the renewed assault. Naruto neutralised Samael’s fire as best as he was able, tried to take the brunt of it, and Sasuke dragged himself up Orochimaru’s body, climbing him like a mountainside. Taka’s claws cut into him, and were burnt off, and reformed to cut anew. It might as well have been years later that Phanuel’s power started flagging, Naruto’s outlines growing hazy and his skin flaking into ash.

But Itachi’s beast was not flagging. It was power like a natural disaster, tangible as an archangel, clawing through Samael.

Finally Sasuke sank his claws into Orochimaru’s eyes. They burnt so bright, they weren’t just immolated but exorcised. Naruto knew even then that they’d never grow back, that they could cut off Sasuke’s entire arm and have it regrow, and yet Sasuke’s left hand would always be short a ring finger and half a middle finger.

Naruto knew the second Taka’s claw pierced Orochimaru’s brain, because that was the moment Naruto’s skin stopped flaming, little burns breaking out across his face and hands.

Then Orochimaru was on the floor, this huge unwieldy dead thing, Naruto panting on his hands and knees across its legs, Sasuke panting on his hands and knees across its chest. Naruto started at him, reached for him, and there was this moment of grace: of victory, more vicious and triumphant than relieved, of almost grinning.

It wasn’t the first time Naruto had been involved in killing someone, but it was the first time he was happy about it, the first time he felt in his bones that he’d done the right thing, a tired satisfaction like that after a hard workout. Usually people died as collateral to over-delayed, badly-controlled exorcisms, which Dad claimed had made Naruto a little heretic, since he’d expressed quite strongly his belief that this meant God’s design of the exorcist system left a lot to be desired.  

Itachi was taking the situation far less lightly, pulling Sasuke to his feet and pressing a quick kiss to his forehead before visibly assessing his injuries. Sasuke was…definitely far more scruffy than Naruto’d ever seen him. A lot of his clothes had burnt, and there were injuries underneath that Taka couldn’t heal. Cold sweat breaking out across his skull, Naruto realised he could see Sasuke’s innards.

But Taka’s energy was wrapped tight around those deep, ash-edged gashes, and if Itachi hadn’t counted on them being healed shortly, he’d have been much more upset.

What would last, were the black handprints. There was one just under Sasuke’s jaw, as though Orochimaru had cupped his face and burnt him like that.

There were others circling his arms, one starting on his hip and seemingly – it seemed to be from Orochimaru grabbing his arse, the shadow of his grasp burnt into Sasuke’s buttock.

Mouth drawn tight, not showing a millimetre of teeth and yet the most animal expression Naruto had ever seen on him, Itachi took off his jacket and draped it over Sasuke.

“Shit,” Naruto muttered, stepping closer and almost tripping on Orochimaru’s limp arm.

“Some men need killing,” Itachi said, lifting Sasuke face to inspect the burn under his chin.

Sasuke tugged free, frowning.

Naruto’s hands itched, a deeply physical sensation like a gnat bite, with needing to be put on Sasuke, covering Orochimaru’s handprints with his own.

The lights went out.

Naruto let Phanuel illuminate the room, a more silvery light than the fluorescents. Of course, he thought. Of course the exorcists were coming, after this massive power clash, after Naruto had no doubt set off alarms forcing his way in.

“He attacked me!” Naruto said, immediate and belligerent. To be fair, he had the sort of injuries he could only have sustained from another exorcist’s attack.

He explained at once, then and there, and later swore with his hand on a blessed bible, that he’d gone looking for Sasuke, and the clues had lead him into Orochimaru’s building, where Naruto as an exorcist had every right to be. Orochimaru had been hurting Sasuke in some way, Naruto had called for him to stop, and Orochimaru had attacked Naruto. Sasuke had stepped in to help Naruto, and Itachi, hearing the scuffle, had also aided Naruto: the only way it could ever be permissible for a non-exorcist to lay hand on an exorcist, in protection of another exorcist.

“You lied,” Sasuke told him afterwards, with no discernible expression. “You put your hand on your holy book and lied to everyone.”

Naruto shrugged. “It’s just a book.” Shrugged again, though that wasn’t the movement he wanted to make. “He needed killing. He was – he did attack me. He attacked you, and… And anyway it was the right thing.”

Right then and there, with Orochimaru’s body on the ground between them, there was nobody with the authority to accuse Minato’s crusader son of lying, and everyone knew Orochimaru had a nasty habit of abducting very pretty, very young boys. It was one thing when they were humans, who were always sacrificed with sickening ease, but the Hokage’s child was quite a different matter…

It was quickly decided that Orochimaru would be buried in state, along with any accusations.

Itachi took Sasuke home, finally allowing Naruto in the car with them after it became clear he’d otherwise have a shouting match on his hands.

Sasuke of course sneered that he was fine, but sat hunched in oddly on himself. He’d never exactly been graceful, in the dancer sense of the world: always angular, military stiff, moving sharply and jerkily. Graceful as lightning, maybe, but not a very human or endearing sort of grace. All the same, he’d never been so visibly uncomfortable in his own body before.

Naruto grabbed the sleeve of Sasuke’s jacket, because Sasuke didn’t look like he could be touched but Naruto had to hold on to something.

“You need looking over,” Itachi said. “Don’t – I understand not by me. Go to Shizune.”

“I don’t need –”

“Sasuke, I will not have your intestines tumble out of your stomach after we survived murdering a crusader.” He heaved a sigh, but his voice came steely. It had never really been possible to casually disagree with Itachi – it always meant taking a stand. “Naruto, you go with him. You make sure he’s seen to.”

“Che.” But Sasuke didn’t protest Naruto’s company as he staggered towards the infirmary. He walked very quickly: it had been Naruto’s experience that injured people walked either very slowly, unable to make themselves move faster, or very quickly, so as to get it over with as soon as possible. Or course Sasuke would quicken his step.

Naruto thought uncomfortably how Sasuke was used to withstanding horrific, absurd injuries, death blow upon death blow – but he wasn’t necessarily used to them lasting. If Orochimaru hadn’t been a crusader, Sasuke would’ve stopped hurting before Orochimaru’s body was cold.

As it was – well, as it was Sasuke gave his amputated fingers a speculative look. “They’ll never come back.”

“No,” Naruto agreed. “They won’t.”

“That’s fine,” Sasuke decided. It was absurd and his stiff upper lip might’ve trembled if he’d relaxed it, but Naruto believed him.

“Yeah. I know, bastard. Losing a few fingers won’t stop you. Might get you out of all the proposals though, now you can’t wear a wedding ring.”

Sasuke didn’t quite laugh, but then that thick snort was often the closest he got.

Then his face crumbled, in that horrible way it had just after his father died and then never again, only the expression was angrier now, more vicious. He gestured to the marks on him, the black scar of Orochimaru’s hand perpetually cupping his chin: gestured at them like Sakura might gesture at a rat, like at something he couldn’t bear to touch. “I need them gone!”

“No, you don’t,” Naruto told him, stepping up closer, until Sasuke’s knee was pressing into his hip. “You don’t need anything painted over or hidden away, you never have.”

Sasuke met his stare, unflinching and unimploring, and Naruto had the sense that he was being used as an anchor. That he…that it was mutual, the way Sasuke had always been able to expect so much of Naruto, and had been able to make Naruto measure up to those expectations – to show Naruto the person he might be, that he wanted to be.

The moment shattered like glass in his hands as the rest of the Uchiha family spilled into the room. Naruto had never heard raised voices between them before.

Mikoto stepped forward immediately, kissing Sasuke’s forehead the same way Itachi had. She was always stiffly graceful: Naruto’d never seen this fluid, animal speed, somehow incongruous with her pencil skirt and heels.

In the background, Itachi and Fugaku were having an animated disagreement, which turned suddenly and shockingly into an outright fight, Itachi’s voice cold now and implacable as a glacier flattening the land. They were speaking quickly in Japanese, but Naruto had known Sasuke long enough to get the gist of it. 

He’d never given much thought to Fugaku, who was just…just a shadow, a weak light obliterated by the nova stars of his family.

He’d never imagined Fugaku might sell a child to Orochimaru.

With distant, faint shame, Naruto thought this was typical – that now Sasuke would never trust humans.

Then there was the sound, a noise like wet paper ripping, and Mikoto paled.

When Naruto turned around, Fugaku’s windpipe was no longer attached to his throat. Itachi was holding it in a startled fist.

“Oh, no,” Mikoto said softly, with no emotion Naruto could discern.

“Mother…” Itachi started.

Mikoto pulled herself together before she’d even fallen apart. She stroked Itachi’s forehead, decisively sweet. “You’re Hokage now. You’ll take care of Sasuke.” Itachi nodded mutely, and she continued. “This will have to be your only lesson, but then you’ve only ever needed one.”

“Okasama…!” Sasuke protested, and Mikoto returned to his side, stroked his face the same way she’d stokes Itachi’s. “You too, Sasuke. You look after your brother. Someone has to, you see.” She whispered something softly in his ear, presumably that he was loved, and then straightened up. “I’ll need to settle matters quickly.”

She was gone then, from the room and from their lives. None of them would see her alive again. 

So Naruto was there, the day childhood ended for Sasuke.

xxxxx

“He’ll be back soon,” Sakura says, with that tolerant amusement Naruto associates with mothers and usually enjoys.

He rubs at the back of his head, feels his cheeks flush, and laughs. “Everyone keeps saying that.”

“Possibly because you keep showing everyone that alone and palely loitering face you get every time Sasuke’s managed to escape from you.”

“You don’t have to put it that way! It’s not stalking if he likes it.”

“Right,” Sakura mumbles, taking his arm. It’s something she does sometimes, but not often enough that Naruto doesn’t take notice of it now. “Anyway, before he comes back, I wanted to – I wanted to talk to you.”

“You talk to me all the time,” Naruto protests, wilfully oblivious because people wanting to talk to him when Sasuke’s absent usually want to talk about obsession, and impossibility. They might frame it as a joke or an admonishment, as a kindness or an observation, but the idea remains the same.

It’s as if they really think Naruto will just stop how he feels. Change how he experiences the world, who he needs: who he is.

“I just thought…” Sakura starts softly, pausing as Naruto holds open the door to this posh café or other that Ino hasn’t been able to shut up about. Sakura decides on some fancy ivoire dome pastry, which she describes as a dream of white chocolate mousse and raspberry cream. They snag a corner table facing the grey day outside, and Sakura eventually wets her lips, a clear prelude to picking back up where she left off.

“I never got that,” Naruto interrupts before she can, gesturing at her almost untouched pastry. “Ordering this expensive treat and then eating, like, one spoonful, and then just leaving it.” His own fudge/orange muffin has long since been devoured.

“I’ve always been more of the slow and steady school,” Sakura says, dimpling charmingly. “I’ll get around to it. Which, well. You know that. You – I do feel that you know me. And that’s what I was trying to say, before. Um. This is – more embarrassing than I thought it’d be. Than it should be, really. I think I underestimated how brave you were about it, back in the day. But, um. I’m going to be a good feminist and just – okay. So I know you used to…like me. In a romantic sort of way. And we were kids but then we weren’t, and you still expressed these sentiments, and – and then we were friends, good friends, and it’s all shifted, and…”

Naruto barks out a short laugh in embarrassed relief, rubbing at the back of his head. “I’m sorry. If I’ve still been – stalking you, or making you think – it was a really long time ago, and I wasn’t, um, the smoothest kid and – we’re friends now. I’m really sorry if I’ve made you uncomfortable.”

Naruto would’ve said, when he was only a few years younger, that he didn’t get how it could be uncomfortable: how it could be anything but a huge gift, a wonderful gift you’ve been longing for all your life, to have someone love you, even if it wasn’t someone you were in love with.

That was before the awkward realisation that Hinata fancies him, which he’s never been sure what to do about. He maybe babbles something about this, “…sorry for her, and that’s a terrible way to feel about someone, you know? When they want to be with you, and you’re like… they’re just not – you’re just not on the same level. I never felt sorry for Sasuke, you know? I’ve felt bad for him, and I’ve been so angry with him and – but it’s not the same. I could never be angry with Hinata. Hardly even disappointed, because I don’t expect… And God, listen to me: I’m so awful about her, and I just don’t know how to change it. But yeah. Even if Sasuke hadn’t been in my life, I still could’ve never seen her that way. But I didn’t have the heart to tell her that. I never thought of myself as a coward, but I just couldn’t – so I just told her it was Sasuke. That there wasn’t anything wrong with her, it’s just for me it’s always going to be Sasuke. And I don’t – I’m just trying to say, I get that it’s hard, and you don’t want to hurt anyone, and I’m sorry I put you in that position! But you really don’t have to worry. I know that Sasuke – doesn’t date or anything, that he’s – but it’s still always going to be him.”

Sakura laughs, soft and low. She hides her eyes for a moment behind her hand before taking a big bite of her pastry, smiling at him and shaking her head even as she chews. “I’m glad you’ve never been able to shut up. God, Naruto, I was trying to ask if you still wanted to give it a shot! I mean, um. With me.”

“Oh. Oh my God – ”

She waves him off. “It’s fine, it’s fine. Really, it’s better this way.” The grin fades into something softer, her head tilting towards him. “You’re really serious about him, aren’t you? I mean I knew that you – but I hadn’t realised you were this serious.”

Serious is an understatement, but Naruto’s learnt not to say this – or if he says it, to say it in a way so people think it’s hyperbole. But Sasuke’s the one, he always has been and he always will be.

But even aside from the shifter thing, which is to say the bond thing – saying Sasuke doesn’t date is putting it mildly. He’s nothing short of aggressively disinterested in anything of the kind, and it took a lot of work to save their friendship after he realised, years ago now, that Naruto’s in love with him.

Sasuke could no longer ignore Naruto looking at him, Naruto vibrating with longing to get always closer, after a party Naruto had dragged him to. Sasuke didn’t usually participate in what he considered stupid games, but he’d been in a good mood and possibly a little tipsy, and Naruto had managed to persuade him into the circle around the spinning bottle.

Girls kissing him didn’t make him react. Sasuke had always dismissed the possibility of being interested in anyone at all, but Naruto had always known that girls in particular did nothing for him, that their lips carried no significance.

Then the bottle moved again, and Naruto’s world stopped before spinning under his feet. They were at the edge of the circle, of course they were, Sasuke had been steadily sneaking away and Naruto had followed. It didn’t seem like part of the game at all when Naruto curled his fingers around Sasuke’s cheek and kissed him. Part of him had thought of the game as plausible deniability, as an excuse, but he realised at once that there’d be no denying anything.

Sasuke’s lips were thin and chapped and Naruto pressed against them for far too long, and felt he was melting. In romances that was supposed to be a sweet description, but really it was too intense for that: you have to be very hot indeed to melt, and it leaves you liquidated, helpless but too dazed to protest. Afterwards he couldn’t sit back away from Sasuke, just pressed his face into Sasuke’s shoulder instead, nuzzling stupid and crumbling against Sasuke’s neck.

Sasuke poked at his head. “Naruto.”

“I just love you.”

Sasuke’s voice was steeled against the possibility of shaking. “But not that way.”

Naruto needed closer, fire was chasing through him hotter than Phanuel’s flames, and this was exactly right, this was where he was meant to be and had spent his whole life getting to. “In every way.” Sasuke stiffened, shuddering away from him, and frostbite erupted across the inside of Naruto’s skin. “No!” And this was – this was desperation, he clung to Sasuke’s wrist. “In every way! I – you’re my best friend. You’re my family. I’d never do anything you didn’t want, you have to know that, I just – I just love you, you’ve got to know that.”

Sasuke relented, but he was weird around Naruto for a long time afterwards. There was this new distance opening like an abyss, wall after wall slamming up where Naruto was used to having free passage. It was years before they reached a real equilibrium, the understanding that this was something they never acknowledged.

Sasuke isn’t great with people, but he isn’t stupid and Naruto isn’t smooth – there’s no way on earth Sasuke doesn’t know that Naruto’s dizzy about him. But Naruto’s learnt to handle that, to function around the perennial longing that shapes his days. To punch Sasuke’s arm, sleep on Sasuke’s shoulder, tickle Sasuke’s knees and never, never let his hands linger.

“We tried, you know,” he tells Sakura. The words come abrupt and sharp, dislodged painfully from his throat. “It was – about a year ago, maybe. He thought we could try.”

The second time he kissed Sasuke, and it was even better than the first, because this time Sasuke kissed him back, open-lipped and belligerent and awkward.

“Why didn’t it work out?” Sakura asks. Naruto shifts around in his chair until she takes his hand. “Take your time. I just meant – he obviously loves you. As his friend. And if he wanted to try, then…”

“It was, maybe…I think it was too much too fast? We weren’t on the same level, or something. I mean, I mean – he was still deciding if he even liked touching me at all and I was, like, about to come in my pants.”

Sakura giggles, an embarrassed but warm sound. She squeezes his hand. “You’ll get there. I mean, it’s not that he doesn’t want you, right? He just doesn’t want…isn’t ready for that kind of relationship at all. He’s probably worried about bonding, too.”

“Worrying isn’t really him.”

Still, Sakura’s right: it’s not about Sasuke not wanting Naruto specifically, since Sasuke isn’t interested in pursuing a sexual relationship with anyone.

But Naruto’s supposed to be different…!

The thought must’ve shown on his face, because Sakura nudges his shoulder. “But you are different, aren’t you? He’s still – you’re still his best friend. Whereas he hardly speaks two words to Kakashi these days…”

Indeed, Kakashi miscalculated. He’s always had a soft spot for Sasuke, and Sasuke’s been amenable to that, has in some sense reciprocated. Has let Kakashi closer than he does most people.

That’s changed.

Naruto still isn’t sure what exactly Kakashi did, maybe he just said something suggestive, because Naruto only heard Sasuke’s voice through the door, rising higher than Naruto had thought it could go.

What the fuck is it with old exorcist men hitting on me? Is this a fetish thing? Yellow fever?

Kakashi’s lower, carefully amused drawl, I’m not sure it counts as yellow fever if the old man is Asian himself. Sasuke spat something, and Kakashi continued, Of course not me, but Orochimaru was part Asian, wasn’t he?

A mumbled laugh from Sasuke, so in a way Naruto figures they mended things. But it’s something that requires mending, someone making a move on Sasuke.

“It’d be funny if he got a girl,” Sakura says. “Not funny ha ha, just…funny weird.”

Sasuke overcome with lust for a woman is indeed a very funny thought, twisting like barbed wire through Naruto’s brain.

xxxxx

Sasuke’s home, Itachi texts him. Come over. Wear something nice.

Naruto assumes they’ve got VIPs over and struggles into a suit, which he wrinkles badly in his haste. Never mind – he’s Minato Namikaze’s crusader firstborn, he can dress how he likes. He kicks open the shutters even as he gives up on the tie and throws it away, running through the sky.

He crashes in through a fifth story window of the Hokage building, where he finds Itachi’s raised eyebrow.

“Ehehehhe, hi, Itachi! Um, thanks for texting?”

Itachi gives him a critical once-over. “Not quite what I had in mind when I instructed you to dress nicely.” Rather surprisingly, he steps closer, undoing the topmost button of Naruto’s shirt. “There. I suppose you’ll have to do.”

“Um, yeah, okay. Thanks? Oh, hi Kisame.”

Kisame nods vaguely. He’s slumped in one of the visitor’s chairs, his face blank. Most people don’t bother speaking to him at all, but Naruto figures it’s like with coma patients – maybe he can still hear, even if he can’t respond.

The bond’s been cruel to Kisame. Itachi’s beast, Itachi’s personality, is so enormously stronger, there’s nothing left of Kisame. He’s just an echo chamber for Itachi, a sleepwalker.

It’s not common, but it happens.

Itachi smiles at him, possibly with a certain fondness. “He’s up on the roof.”

Naruto grins back, and then he runs.

Finally, finally there’s Sasuke. Naruto allows himself one hug, only one, which is his silently negotiated allowance after Sasuke’s been gone a week. Sasuke’s unusually stiff in his arms, his skin feverishly hot. Naruto steps back with his hands still on Sasuke’s shoulders. “You’re sick?”

Sasuke steps sharply away. Taka’s leaking through his skin as red mist, and Naruto starts worrying about infections, even though Sasuke doesn’t get infections.

“How’s, um,” he starts. “How’s Kankurou? He stabilise yet?”

Because Naruto saw Kankurou relatively recently, and the mate sickness had passed but he seemed…very down. Of course he seemed down, because his mind is tied to that of a girl who hates him. Whom, Naruto had gradually understood, Gaara had kidnapped, and who hadn’t agreed to be mated at all.

“She’s getting used to it,” Sasuke says.

Shikamaru had been upset, in that quiet biting way of his, but the shifters had closed rank. Sasuke doesn’t even like Shikamaru – doesn’t trust humans, and after Fugaku who can blame him, and Temari’s one of his best friends. Naruto’s always known that Sasuke wouldn’t have hesitated to force Shikamaru into the bond, but it was still odd to realise that Kankurou, someone Naruto’s known almost as long as he can remember – that Kankurou raped someone, that Sasuke’s best friend helped him, and Sasuke didn’t stop them.

She does seem better, though, the girl. And she’s alive, which Kankurou wouldn’t have been, and there’s no undoing it, so they just have to move forward, all of them. She’s in some facility now, getting counselling, with no shifters around to re-traumatise her. Last he heard, she was still on suicide watch.

Which, Naruto doesn’t get that. Obviously she went through something awful which should’ve never had to happen to anyone, but – if you can help someone live, and you don’t? How do you make that choice and live with yourself, anyway? Wouldn’t it be even harder – shouldn’t it be even harder – to move on from that than from being violated?

“Mmh.” Naruto jumps up to sit on the ledge surrounding the roof. If he stays on his feet, he’ll go after Sasuke. Touch him, to make him turn around, make him focus on Naruto, pay attention – God, he’s starving for it. His feet keep kicking against the low wall, a dull stinging pain rising up his calves. “You heard about the purges?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re not –”

“It’s like Mist Town. They know to call you in as fast as they notice the infestation.”

“So many people died, though…”

“Better they burn than they’re eaten.”

That’s always been Sasuke’s line, and in principle Naruto agrees, but…”How do you not resent them more? The exorcists!”

“Of course I resent them!” Sasuke snaps. “But we need them to fight off the demons, that’s how it is.” He makes an impatient gesture, which is – Sasuke doesn’t typically talk with his hands at all. He’s upset about something… “What we need is a proper separation between church and state. Let the exorcists do what they’re meant for, it shouldn’t give them any say in anything else.”

This is a far more reasoned approach than Sasuke’s previous desire to start a terrorist rebellion and keep exorcists enslaved, and largely the result of Itachi’s influence, of Sasuke’s loyalty to Itachi and what Itachi’s trying to build as Hokage.

If Itachi were to die, Sasuke would be Hokage, and – well. Civil war would no doubt be imminent.

“You’re right,” Naruto says. “It’s not – you don’t have a better idea how hospitals should be run, or schools or anything, just because you’re an exorcist.” Naruto has a lot of ideas about that, but that’s because he’s interested, not because of Phanuel.

“They didn’t do anything wrong this time,” Sasuke says, rather grudgingly. “Burning people is better than feeding them to the demons.”

“I could never.”

“I’d certainly expect you to burn me before you left me to the demons.”

“I’d die before I let that happen.” His fingers cut into stone, trying to fist around the ledge.

“That’s crazy.”

“I’m crazy about you.” It slips out huskier, realer, than he meant it to. It doesn’t sound like a joke.

Chapter Text

Sasuke finally turns to him, and steps closer. Much closer, until Naruto spreads his knees to let Sasuke stand between them. Sasuke has to notice how his breathing picks up.

“You used to say how you were going to bond with me,” Sasuke tells him tonelessly.

“Yes.”

“You said it like you wanted it.”

“Yes.” He’s unable to hesitate, it’s heatedly, hopelessly, helplessly yes.

“Do you still think that?”

He tries to catch Sasuke’s eyes, and they’re Taka’s red eyes but the pupils are so blown they look black anyway. “Yes.”

Sasuke nods, swallows. “I’m going to bite you now.”

“What!”

Sasuke makes an impatient sound, fingers curling around Naruto’s throat. “This is when you stop me.”

Naruto can see fangs now, and the fact that Sasuke’s – this is what Sasuke was upset about, that Sasuke wants him! He locks his legs around Sasuke’s, ripping the collar away from his own neck and tilting it in invitation. This is so close to being everything he’s ever dreamt.

Finally, finally, Taka’s fangs sink into him. They’re so sharp, he doesn’t feel them go through skin and flesh. Then they close inside the bone of his shoulder, and it’s the worst pain Naruto’s ever experienced. He clings to Sasuke, sweaty and overwhelmed and still wanting it more than anything.

But the pain is over – or at least, it becomes irrelevant – very shortly, because the bond crashes into his mind. People need people, Naruto’s always maintained, people belong to people.

He’s always wanted to feel Sasuke inside his soul.

Phanuel and Taka circle each other, wary and possessive, but Naruto’s not worried. Naruto’s thrilled, his mind expanding uncontrollably, and his body shakes and he starts to vomit, pressing his face to the side of Sasuke’s neck and puking down his back.

Heathen energy fills him, he has to hold Phanuel back from burning it away, and it doesn’t even matter, because Sasuke loves him. Naruto basks in being able to feel that, being able to submerge himself in the feeling of Sasuke loving him best in the world.

But Sasuke also resents the hell out of what’s happening. He never wanted a bond, he hates and burns at the loss of control, the biological imperative overriding will. Naruto knows he was planning on a Kisame light situation: someone he never cared about, someone he’d have the minimal amount of contact with to keep them both healthy but would otherwise ignore.

That’s not what’s going to happen now.

“Come here, come here,” Naruto mumbles, and Sasuke lifts his head from Naruto’s shoulder at last. For a moment he’s the hulking beast from the fairytales, red eyes and evil energy, all rage and claws and instinct, and Naruto wants that.

His desire intertwines with Taka’s, they feed off each other and flood through the bond, and it dawns on him gradually that he’s grinding against Sasuke, that he has been for a while. He curls his fingers in Sasuke’s hair, and his mouth’s still tangy with vomit and Sasuke, always so fuzzy about his food, doesn’t even care.

This isn’t how Naruto wanted it – he’s always wanted Sasuke to want to want him – but it is what he’s wanted. Right now, that’s enough. More than enough.

He feels himself devoured and loves it, yearns to be entirely part of Sasuke. Sasuke kisses him so hard Naruto’s jaw cracks, a sharp pain and then immediately soothed, healed, Taka’s energy hot in his mouth. Naruto laughs, breathless and dizzy, and pulls at Sasuke’s clothes. He’s strong now too, Taka’s beast strength, and Sasuke’s protective wear tears in his hands. He’s touching Sasuke’s skin then, smooth and perfect and unmarred by anything by the persistent handprints, which cover maybe a third of it. Naruto ignores them completely, just trying to get closer, always closer, get more…

Sasuke’s tiny but monster strong, and ends up holding him by the thighs. There’s no wall behind Naruto, and he’s lost contact with the ledge he was sitting on. But he’s always been at home in the air, Phanuel’s wings straining inside his shoulders, seconds from breaking through.

But Sasuke never drops him, never lets him go.

“This isn’t how I imagined it,” Naruto remarks afterwards. They’re sitting on the roof floor by then and Sasuke’s got dressed, a bit, but Naruto hasn’t bothered. It’s so new and so fantastic, this sudden power to command Sasuke’s attention just by shifting, showing skin.

“It’s something you imagined?” Sasuke inquires, rather more dryly than Naruto would’ve hoped. Asking is… well, Sasuke knows all the answers now, or he could if he tried, but he’s shut the bond down as much as Naruto thinks he’s able to. Still there’s this golden feeling of closeness, of belonging, of being chosen and forever.

Naruto laughs, hardly even embarrassed anymore, and leans closer. Sasuke might pretend to be grumpy all he likes, he still welcomes Naruto’s nearness, pressing back against his side. “It might’ve been something of a recurring mental porno.”

Sasuke lifts an eyebrow, and Naruto can’t help himself. Doesn’t want to help himself, and doesn’t have to anymore. He just climbs into Sasuke’s lap, kissing him on the mouth, on his eyelids, down his throat. Sasuke’s arms, shrouded in Taka’s energy, wrap tight around him.

“It was better in reality,” Naruto tells him. He can’t keep still, keeps dragging his fingertips over Sasuke’s skin, everywhere he can reach. “I love you. Well, you knew that. Everyone knew that, I guess.” He kisses under Sasuke’s jaw, looks up at him almost shyly. “But. You love me.”

Sasuke makes an odd face, displeased and yet alight with desire and satisfaction. “It was hardly a well-kept secret, or anything.”

“Bite me again,” Naruto says, watching his words blow Sasuke’s pupils wide open. He won’t let Taka heal it, caught up in and on fire with the idea of carrying that mark, of everyone who sees him knowing he belongs to Sasuke…!

Sasuke bites him again. Sasuke bites him several more times, in several interesting places.

It’s many hours later, after Naruto’s skin has started goose bumping from cold and not just excitement, that Itachi steps onto the roof, politely averting his eyes. “Perhaps it’s time you came inside.”

Naruto snickers.

Itachi sighs. “Incorrigibility, thy name is Naruto. Really, I assumed you might have the sense to retire to a bedroom…”

“Shut up,” Sasuke grumbles.

“Quite, quite. I’ll leave some robes here by the door. Do feel free to use them.”

So Naruto falls asleep in Sasuke’s room, in Sasuke’s bed, in Sasuke’s arms. Wakes up in the morning to sunlight on his face, Sasuke’s head on his chest, and this panicked feeling of fullness in his head. In sleep, Sasuke’s shields have eased up, and the magnitude of the bond, of what they share now, hits Naruto’s brain like a freight train. Sasuke, even asleep and disregarding Taka, is by no means a small or easily negotiated personality, and Naruto’s mind, unlike Sasuke’s, wasn’t built to withstand this intrusion. 

Phanuel flaps phantom wings through Naruto’s mind, chasing flames across his thoughts, and Naruto has to rein him in. Use him to block, rather than to burn, but he can, he just needs to interweave exorcist and shifter energies better, acclimatise Phanuel to the bond…

Sasuke’s fingers twitch against his ribs, and Naruto catches his hand, intertwining their fingers. Sasuke’s lashes tickle against his skin, Sasuke’s yawn turns into a light bite. Naruto hums in contentment, carding through Sasuke’s hair, and this is the best, the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen: Sasuke naked and his in thick morning light. He’s not trying to hide the thought, and Sasuke blushes furiously.

He hides his face for a moment in Naruto’s throat, before leaning up to bite his lip, rather harshly. “God, you’re so sappy.”

Naruto shrugs. “I mean it.”

“I know.” Sasuke shifts, untangling the sheet and settling sleepily between Naruto’s legs. The blocks are back in place, now that Sasuke’s awake, and Naruto scratches up Sasuke’s back in equal parts disappointment and relief. Sasuke’s skin twitches under his touch, healing instantly, almost catching Naruto’s nails in the closing cuts. Naruto could swear he hears Taka purring.

He catches that crimson energy in his hands, lets it swirl around his fingers: letting just enough of Phanuel through that he can hold on to it as though to something tangible. “He must’ve been crazy about me for a while.”

“Che.”

“No, but really. How long has it been?”

“A while,” Sasuke says, poking at his chin and then unfairly distracting him by kissing below it.

“You don’t really…let him out.”

Sasuke wakes up a bit more, pushing himself up on his elbows. Naruto knows that Sasuke’s come to see some of his mother’s more extreme teachings as internalised shame: that Sasuke would consider Taka a mark of superiority long before he considered him something shameful to be hidden. “Taka’s my beast,” he says at last. “Not the other way around.”

“How exciting for him.”

“He’s like any captive monster. You can work with him, you can even trust him with your life, but only as long as you don’t forget for a second who’s in control.” He pushes hair out of his face, and it keeps falling back into his eyes, until finally Naruto reaches up, unbearably fond, and fastens it behind Sasuke’s ear. “You have all these shifters blaming massacres or abusive relationships or whatever on their beasts. That’s pathetic. You’re in charge, you’re responsible, otherwise you really are just a beast.”

“You’re saying you slaughtered Pari? Not Taka, you?”

“Of course me. Taka wanted to do it, so did I. So I let him. When I felt he was done, I stopped him.”

Naruto takes that in, and he totally shouldn’t but he does reach up and catch Sasuke’s face, brings it down to his own. Just because he can, because there’s the sure and certain hope that Sasuke will open his mouth for him. “I’ve never felt like I have that kind of control over Phanuel.”

Sasuke shrugs. “I’ve never tried controlling one of the most powerful entities in the universe.”

Naruto preens, but also frowns. “I should be able to, though. I – it’s better now, but… I am responsible when he goes too far.”

“You’re doing all right,” Sasuke tells him, pressing closer, nudging Naruto’s legs further apart. “You haven’t burnt me, have you? Even when I defiled you.” He grins then, this sort of – cheeky smirk, or some other absurd expression – and kisses the bitemark still lacerating Naruto’s shoulder.

Naruto’s mind goes briefly white. “Maybe,” he mumbles, nuzzling against Sasuke’s face, searching blindly for his lips. “Maybe fuck me right now.”

It’s very many hours later that someone knocks on the door. Naruto’s never been particularly shy, but today he’s glad they have the sense not to come in. It’s just… private. This is for him and Sasuke. He laughs helplessly, burrowing in Sasuke and the sheets.

“Sasuke?” comes Temari’s voice. “Gaara’s really on edge. If you’re done for now, maybe come knock some sense into him, or Itachi’s gonna have him locked up again.”

Sasuke sits up, still entirely entwined with Naruto but turned now towards the door. “You don’t think the smell will set him off? I’m going to stink of exorcist no matter how much I shower.” It strikes Naruto that Sasuke’s speaking in his normal indoor voice, that Temari, out on the far side of the door, probably is too, and still Naruto can hear her perfectly. Shifter hearing, shifter healing… he’s going to have to be careful, or he’ll wind up hurting someone with his sudden shifter strength.

“We don’t have much to lose at this point,” Temari says.

“All right.”

“All right,” she repeats.

“He really wanted…” Naruto mumbles, face pressed to Sasuke’s shoulder to hide the warring glee and horror. If it had been Gaara who was chosen, who was warm and loved and permanent in Sasuke’s bed…

“Yeah,” Sasuke says shortly. “You know how he feels about humans.” He’s quiet for a moment, reaching for some clothes on the floor. Sasuke’s typically neat, but they were in a hurry last night and things are everywhere.

Then he touches Naruto’s cheek, and Naruto feels Taka wind hot and heavy under his skin, making himself a secondary home inside Naruto. His face hurts with smiling, he wants to grab at Sasuke and never, never let him go. Just stay here, just belong.

“We tried, you know,” Sasuke tells him. “Gaara and I. It just made sense. He hates people, and I – I’m the same, this is the one thing I’ve always resented about being a shifter. But he and I get each other, we’re both strong … it would’ve been a good fit. It would’ve made sense.”

“You tried,” Naruto repeats. He presses his hands down into the bed, and smells it start burning, because his instinct is to grab Sasuke but if he did he’d burn him.

Everyone knows the closer you are to someone, the closer you are to mating with them. The famous cases are always the exceptions, when people get strangers or someone they don’t like or whatever, but most wind up with friends, lovers, someone they’ve already picked for themselves.

“It didn’t really work,” Sasuke says. He finds a jumper on the floor and pulls it over his head, emerging with impossibly worse bed hair. “The whole time I was thinking about Orochimaru.”

There’s a memory there that Naruto catches onto, Sasuke determined and shirtless in a cold room with Gaara in front of him.

Gaara too is shirtless, his skin tinted goldish by Shukaku’s energy. Sasuke on the other hand is keeping Taka back, because Taka’s instinct is to lash out, to fight his way free of this situation. But Sasuke and Gaara have reached the understanding that this is sensible and worth trying, and Sasuke’s never chickened out of anything in his life.

Gaara’s looking at the handprints. He’ll have seen Sasuke in various states of undress a thousand times before, but not with the expectation of touching him. Then he reaches forward and touches Sasuke’s shoulder, lets his hand slip down Sasuke’s chest.

After a long moment Sasuke too reaches out, runs his hands up Gaara’s arms.  

Naruto’s never had the impression that Gaara’s exactly in love with Sasuke, or particularly attracted to him – so he doesn’t look at Sasuke the right way, not with enrapture, but gradually his breathing picks up, his cheeks flush a little.

Sasuke’s hard breathing has nothing to do with excitement, even though he’s letting Taka’s and Shukaku’s energies intertwine a bit, sink through skin and touch nerves. He still sees this as a victory, simply because he’s not freaking out, and Naruto’s heart aches, momentarily cured of its jealousy.

When Gaara finally reaches into Sasuke’s trousers, he finds him entirely soft. Sasuke’s face is too determined to allow any discomfort to shine through. He pulls down Gaara’s jeans without looking, and there’s a terrible, prolonged mutual jerking session.

Though Sasuke technically comes, he finds far more pleasure in wrapping himself back up in layer upon layer of clothes afterwards.

“You didn’t like it,” Gaara observes. He too has wasted no time getting dressed again.

“It wasn’t about liking it.”

Gaara tilts his head, in that animal way Sasuke too does sometimes. “Rumour is you tried with Uzumaki.”

Sasuke shrugs.

“Were you trying to bond with him?”

“One doesn’t bond with exorcists.”

“So why?”

“Naruto isn’t up for discussion.” It’s said in such a way that Gaara shuts up.

Naruto’s the same as Orochimaru, in that regard: up to a certain point, Sasuke doesn’t care about them being talked about, joked about, insulted or discussed. But cross that line, and he will shut it down. Pack or no pack, there are things he can’t or won’t share. Naruto’s been one of them even longer than Orochimaru.

In the present Naruto does touch him now, finally closing his fingers around Sasuke’s wrist, where they partially overlap with the black handcuff of Orochimaru’s handprint. “You weren’t now. You weren’t thinking about Orochimaru.”

“No,” Sasuke agrees, moving his face with unaccustomed awkwardness, as though he’s longing for contact and not sure how to get it. Naruto presses their cheeks together and Sasuke amazingly lets him. “I wasn’t thinking at all. I suppose you’re contagious that way.”

Naruto sticks his tongue out, which at this distance means licking Sasuke’s cheek, and then he’s licking into Sasuke’s mouth, bundling Sasuke into his lap, and quite forgets about anything else until Temari knocks again.

xxxxx

The first time he really sees Itachi after bonding – the first time he sees Itachi after bonding while no longer naked with Sasuke – Naruto shocks them both by freezing. He’s been helping himself to Itachi’s snacks, and a plastic-wrapped biscuit falls from his suddenly-stiff hands.

“Oh, no,” Itachi says.

Because it’s more complicated now, how Naruto responds to Itachi. He’s always liked Itachi, albeit he’s occasionally been terrified of him, but Sasuke’s feeling about his brother are far, far stronger than Naruto’s, and thus are liable to inform Naruto’s reactions.

And Naruto’s reaction was freezing, was shuddering away.

“No!” Naruto protests. “It’s not like that! He loves you, he does, I promise. It’s just, he’s never going to get over what happened with your mum, either.”

“I suppose that’s me,” Itachi says softly, glancing over at Kisame. “I ruin the people I love.”

Naruto remembers, as he doesn’t remember often enough, that Kisame was Itachi’s best friend.

“I think,” Naruto says, with growing conviction, “I think you should go ruin Kakashi. He’s, like, got a thing for you. Or at least, would be very amenable to getting one.”

Itachi laughs at last, that careful little laugh of his. Not for the first time, Naruto reflects that for two people so often described as similar, Itachi and Sasuke really are remarkably different.

Naruto grins back at him, proud and relived, and bends to rescue the biscuit. “Anyway I gotta scram. But seriously – Kakashi. Hit that!”

Sasuke’s already in the car, starting the engine as Naruto collapses into the passenger seat spraying crumbs all over the immaculate interior.

Sasuke lifts an eyebrow. “About time.”

“Punctuality is for small minds!” Naruto argues, finishing the biscuit in record time.

“I’m sure that’ll go over well with the survivors,” Sasuke says dryly. He drives far too fast, but then shifters tend to: the speed limits, after all, are at least partially dictated by human reflexes, which can’t compare.

They’re a few kilometres out of town by the time Naruto lets his knuckles brush the side of Sasuke’s thigh.

“Naruto,” Sasuke growls.

Naruto grins, unrepentant, and quickly repeats the motion, turning his hand now, letting it lay heavy just above Sasuke’s knee. This thrill will never wane: Sasuke, who’s always been so asexual, immediately responsive to his touch.

He drags his hand higher, up toward Sasuke’s hip.

“Enough,” Sasuke tells him. “Are you trying to find out if you’ll heal from a car crash?”

“Eh…maybe let’s save that one, huh.” His hand retreats, he starts playing with a loose thread on his sleeve to distract himself. “So I urged Itachi to make a move on Kakashi.”

Sasuke gives him an odd look, taking a corner sharply. Naruto whoops as the car skids, the adrenaline haze turning the world blurry and bright. “That’s – actually not the worst idea you’ve had.”

“I know, right! I mean, all my ideas are gold. I mean – hey!”

Sasuke just snorts at him, accelerating again. Naruto’s phone beeps, showing a text from Neji. He’s distracted from typing out an answer by Sasuke saying, “One of these days he’s going to snap and try to exorcise me.”

“Good thing I’ve got you covered, then,” Naruto says, letting Phanuel’s power glitter under Sasuke’s skin. “By the way.” He shucks the phone in the backseat. “How’s Gaara?”

Sasuke shrugs. “He’s Gaara.”

“Mmh, yeah, obviously.” It still stings, this way of shutting Naruto out. Shifter loyalty – only that’s not fair, because Sasuke’s talked about shifters in a manner that makes it clear he’s loyal to Naruto over them. Not that Sasuke’s ever been much of a talker, but it doesn’t take much to establish that kind of intimacy, not when it’s real.

Still there’s a burning feeling in Naruto’s throat, like he’s going to projectile vomit words that can’t be taken back. Which, really, are the only kind of words that truly need speaking. He closes his hand around Sasuke’s leg again, not sexually this time. “You didn’t want this.”

“I don’t want to be forced into intimacy with anyone.”

“You think people ever choose who they love? What, you think I sat down and like, made a list of pros and cons and decided who I should like?”

“It’s not the same.” His fingers tighten on the steering wheel. “How did you ever want this? Shouldn’t you ask for better?”

“I think it’s kind of the same,” Naruto says, calmed as always by his ability to elicit real emotion from Sasuke. They’ve had screaming matches, Naruto’s been wild with rage, but true terror only comes when Sasuke shuts him out. “It’s not like you didn’t want me, or anything. I …feel like you did choose me. I mean, I mean – you’re not really the kind of person to just be randomly overcome with passion for some stranger, y’know?”

Sasuke’s mouth quirks. “Technically I chose Gaara.”

For a moment the world burns, apocalyptic. Then the ashes settle and Naruto can say, “But you chose him because it wouldn’t have been like this.”

Sasuke looks at him in question, in something like challenge.

Naruto squeezes his leg, making a gesture with his free hand and cursing as he bangs it on the window. “You don’t feel like this about him. I mean, he’s your friend but your whole relationship is on your terms, you know? Like with – with me and Neji. You’re not in love with him.”

“No,” Sasuke says. “I’m not.”

“Right,” Naruto says, and must be far more insecure than he thought about Sasuke not wanting to choose him – or perhaps it’s that Sasuke wanted to choose him freely, without the bond? – must be far more upset than is fair, because he hears himself say, “You didn’t even…”

But Sasuke’s always hit back just as hard. “I never wanted to fuck you either, before this.”

That’s true. If Sasuke had felt the slightest inclination, God knows Naruto wouldn’t have objected. Sasuke in fact did give him a chance… and Naruto utterly failed to entice him.

“Only that’s not true,” Sasuke finally says, staring straight ahead through the windshield. “I did want to. I just couldn’t.”

“I’m glad,” Naruto says, pushing his face into Sasuke’s shoulder. “I mean. That sounds horrible. I’m glad it wasn’t that you just don’t – that it could be fixed.”

“Shut up.”

“You shut up!”

“Oh, what, have you been in Sakura’s romance novels again? Think you’ve healed my torn soul with your love?”

Naruto snorts out a laugh. Maybe some of those romances are kind of nice, so what? “I think they call that healing cock, actually.” He chuckles. “You’re such a romantic.”

“Arranged marriage isn’t actually very romantic,” Sasuke points out. “You’re lucky I’m more of a pragmatist.”

Sasuke’s all tangled up about that: resenting the idea of losing control, of having things decided for him, particularly pertaining to intimacy, and yet generally disinterested in pursuing romantic love, and fiercely loyal to his people, amenable to the considerations that underpin arranged marriages.

Not that shifters can really have arranged marriages – or, arranged by anything but the bond.

“Yeah,” Naruto mumbles. “I’m definitely the manic pixie dream girl of the equation.”

Sasuke pokes his face. “Tch. Then learn to shave.”

Naruto wiggles his eyebrows. “Intimidated by my manly facial hair? That’s fine, I understand –”

He giggles helplessly as Sasuke pokes him again, rather harder this time. “I can see why you’d need to compensate.”

“Hey!”

Sasuke laughs, stopping the car at last and leaning over to shut Naruto up with a quick, hard kiss.

They’re in something too large to be a village but too small to be a town, and Naruto ambles out of the car, drawing up straight as the officials gather around him. Sasuke remains at the edge of the group as they walk towards the heights, above which the sky has grown midnight dark.

“Right then,” Naruto mumbles, letting Phanuel’s blades blaze to life in his hands.

Something blazes through his mind, this breathless pain at the very edge of immolation, and he doesn’t understand, there’s just the incomprehensible terror, a screaming in his head –

Sasuke’s on his hands and knees on the ground, his skin sizzling, erupting in angelfire flames.

“Fuck!” Naruto kneels beside him, dismissing Phanuel completely. Slowly, gradually, the worst of the burns start to scar over.

“What’s happening?” one of the officials demands.

“We’ve got to go,” Naruto decides, hoisting Sasuke to his feet. It’s tricky: he wants to draw on Taka’s strength, which would make it so easy to carry him, but Taka needs to focus on healing Sasuke, and Naruto’s not sure how to touch him without aggravating the burns. “My mobile’s in the car, I’ll call someone.”

He does call, and after rather a lot of arguing Dad concedes to send someone else. By then Naruto’s taken Sasuke away and Sasuke’s mostly healed, and most of the settlement has been eaten alive.

“We have to do something about this,” Naruto says. He’s walking around, hands waving through the air in uncoordinated gestures.

“Obviously,” Sasuke snaps. He’s still moving carefully, blistered on the inside of his skin.

Naruto makes a sound of frustration. “I’ve got to be able to exorcise. God damn it, how the hell do we fix this?”

“Put up a ward,” Sasuke suggests.

“Inside your head? That’d fry your brain!”

“So put it in yours!” Sasuke draws in a deep breath, wincing as his chest rises and then falls. “You can hardly bless me like one of those relics, so –”

“Of course I can! That’s genius!” He surges forward, presses a quick kiss to the side of Sasuke’s mouth. “You’ll be the best sacred sword ever.”

“That’s insane. I’m not an inanimate object, a sword doesn’t have any unclean magic of its own.”

“Well, no, but you’re – well, your body’s an object. It can be marked as an object. It’s not really that Taka’s unclean, that’s just how they like to say it. It’s just he’s not holy, and the swords aren’t either, before they’re blessed, they’re just metal. It’ll work.”

“What, marking me like cattle?” Sasuke spits. Naruto’s eyes are drawn involuntarily to the handprints, the black fingertips creeping over Sasuke’s left clavicle, cupping his chin, circling his wrists. Naruto knows now that they’re on his back and his chest, a thumbprint over his right nipple, over his stomach and hips and arse and legs, even on his feet.

But Sasuke’s fine, he is, and Naruto too can be relentless. “Come on,” he argues. “I need to be able to exorcise!”

“I know that!” Sasuke screams.

Naruto’s insides abruptly clench, cramping and ice cold. He settles next to Sasuke, puts his arms around Sasuke and presses his face into Sasuke’s throat, breathing Sasuke in. God, he could’ve lost this… there’s not even a question in his mind that he’ll die if he loses this.

“I love you,” he whispers. “This is something we’ve got to do.”

“I know,” Sasuke says. Taka’s claw, sharp and burning, settles around the nape of Naruto’s neck.

“Do you,” Naruto mumbles, feels his eyes hot with unshed tears. “Could you trust that I – do you believe…” It’s an impossible demand, a monstrous demand, and yet the demand he’s always made of Sasuke.

Sasuke forces Naruto’s chin up, Sasuke’s never let him hide, has always been able to take all of him. He’s so close now, eye to eye and almost mouth to mouth. “Yes,” Sasuke says, fierce and resentful. “I believe in you.”

Naruto thinks operatic and hysterical things like you’re my favourite person, without you nothing else matters. He kisses Sasuke and Sasuke’s still angry and on edge but Taka’s energy curls around Naruto’s leg, sinks through his skin and all the way into the marrow of his bones.

“This is something we’ve got to do,” Sasuke says, calmer now and decisive. He breathes in, almost like he’s smelling Naruto, and settles down.

xxxxx

It’s Sasuke who breaks the news to Itachi.

Naruto shouldn’t be watching this, but he’s – he’s part of Sasuke’s life, a central part. He’s finally entitled to reach for Sasuke. So he’s, well, spying is a strong word but it’s not necessarily the wrong one.

Sasuke sits down at the kitchen table where Itachi’s working. He doesn’t even wait for Itachi to finish his sentence before he says, graceless and so open that Naruto’s stomach clenches with jealousy and love, “So Naruto’s going to mark me.”

“You will need to explain that statement,” Itachi says, and Naruto abruptly remembers why he used to be afraid of Itachi.

“What happened with the exorcism,” Sasuke says, still talking in stops and starts. “That’s untenable. So he’s going to mark me like a sword.”

“Oh, Sasuke.”

Itachi touches Sasuke’s neck, a long brush of knuckles, and the tension bleeds out of Sasuke’s shoulders.

He swallows, but there’s no hesitation – if anything, he sounds defiant. “I’m not going to hold him back. And I’m not – going to let myself be held back. So I thought you should know.”

“I’m glad you thought that,” Itachi says. He holds Sasuke’s shoulder, fingers curling in the fabric of Sasuke’s jumper, and Sasuke – Naruto presumes subconsciously – leans closer to him. Itachi sighs. “If he can’t exorcise – the Council would make such trouble. But. There are other possibilities to look into.”

Sasuke shrugs. “This makes sense.”

“It does,” Itachi says. “It doesn’t mean I like it.”

Sasuke laughs a little, a thick low sound, and finally rests his head on Itachi’s shoulder. Itachi touches his hair, the look on his face a love so fierce and proprietary, it rivals Naruto’s own.

He corners Naruto later that evening. “If you hurt him…”

“I’ll die,” Naruto agrees.

Itachi clasps his shoulder. “Well. I do feel we’ve always understood each other when it comes to the important things.”

So a few days later, Naruto burns the mark of his holiness into Sasuke. He puts it on the juncture of Sasuke’s neck and shoulder, a mirror of Naruto’s bitemark. Sasuke hisses, Sasuke almost dies, but in the end it works: Phanuel claims Sasuke for his own, like Taka’s already claimed Naruto.

And Sasuke’s always been a prodigy, so it should come as no surprise at all when he tries his hand at exorcising himself, and is remarkably successful.

Naruto, miles and miles away, feels the adrenaline rush of fight or flight turn sour as Sasuke calculates the odds, and then sharpen as Sasuke refuses to accept them. Fact remains however that there are too many demons to be exorcised by a group of shifters, no matter how well armed, and that Naruto’s catastrophically too far away.

He tries to tell Phanuel to go to Sasuke, to shuffle off this mortal coil and flee to where he’s needed. Maybe Sasuke catches that thought, or maybe he was going to do it anyway. Naruto feels him grab Phanuel by the scruff of the neck – Sasuke who’s used to handling Taka, who needs a strong hand – and Phanuel bristles but Naruto forces him to quiet down.

It’s Dad who shows him the footage later, and Naruto can’t help smiling, proud and astonished and in love. It’s an incongruous image, Taka’s enormous beast claw holding an angelblade.

“Naruto,” Dad says, in the heavy voice he uses with the Council. Hiashi Hyuuga and Grandma Tsunade are flanking him, all of them unaccountably grim-faced after having just witnessed a miracle. “This has gone a long way too far.”

“Hmm?”

“The fact that you – involved yourself with him, that was one thing. This is heresy.”

“No,” Naruto says, slipping off his chair to stand up straight. “Oh, no. Fuck you. This is the best thing that’s ever happened.”

They disagree, predictably. He has no real cause for disappointment, because they’ve always been this way. Better people die than someone else saves them.

Because Sasuke, now, could give the shifters ideas, maybe even the humans too. The Council would never willingly accept that.

Naruto’s overlooked a lot from them, because they mean well – he wants to think they mean well – and he loves some of them. But there are limits, and they’re threatening to cross them now.

“You see,” Naruto tells them, “I get that you don’t get this. So I’m telling you – if he dies, I can’t live. And I’ll make sure I take all of you with me.”

“Naruto –”

But the time for listening is over. “If you do anything to Sasuke, ever, I’ll feed you to the demons myself.” He feels calm, but there’s a ringing in his ears, Phanuel a hot strain in his shoulders. “Let’s not pretend we’re all equals – that’s your usual line, isn’t it? Well, we all know I could take half the Council, easy. You move against Sasuke, I will.”

“Even if you did, that’d likely be the end of humanity. We don’t have an abundance of crusaders – losing half the Council, and probably you in the bargain – it’s unlikely the world could sustain that loss.”

Naruto feels himself smile, Taka’s fanged smile, because it’s so obvious: “A world without Sasuke isn’t worth saving.”

Chapter Text

Kakashi has the first reluctant inkling that Itachi might be right, that Itachi’s love for Sasuke might really be unclean, just after Lent.

“The rain is doing good things for your hair,” Kakashi points out. “Makes it less – how was it that paper put it – oh, yes, less the inhuman perfection of a raven’s wing, slick as the night just before dawn – well, less of that and more something you could touch.”

In the cold spring rain, it’s curling a little and looks softer, individual strands growing rebellious.

“Sometimes,” Itachi says, “I get the impression that you don’t take me very seriously.”

“Someone has to take you lightly. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I fulfil an important function. Like the jesters of old, you know – someone has to dismiss the Prince, make a little fun of him.”

Itachi snorts, but softly. “Are you going to show up in appropriate costume, then? No doubt the Council would be appreciative.”

“I always did fancy I’d look striking in those harlequin prints,” Kakashi agrees. “And Sasuke would be adorable. He could be my mascot.”

“You’re too fond of Sasuke,” Itachi tells him, walking a little more quickly.

“Are you jealous?”

“Jealousy is an unworthy emotion.”

“All the best ones are,” Kakashi tells him glibly. “But then you won’t mind if I seduce him?”

Itachi stops. He stares at Kakashi with those abyss eyes, blacker than a demon night. “He’s a child.”

Kakashi shrugs. “I play a long game.”

“Explain yourself.”

“I’m saying right now he’s a cute little brat. But he’ll grow into it one day.”

The rain has clustered Itachi’s lashes, leaving his eyes even sharper. “But one day you’ll fall in love with him?” He says this in that faintly amused, faintly quoting voice he often adopts when discussing human emotion, as though falling in love or being angry or grieving were abstract concepts.

“I expect so,” Kakashi says lightly.

“Why?” Itachi demands. It is a demand: a child’s way of asking for information. This is something that only happens to Itachi in relation to Sasuke.

“Why, to spite you, Itachi. Purely to spite you.”

“Hn.”

“Always so articulate, you Uchiha boys.”

The damp follows them inside, fading only in the constantly overheated lift. 

Fugaku doesn’t like having Naruto in the house, and Itachi doesn’t like Sasuke spending too much time in the shifter strongholds, which means Naruto and Sasuke are currently playing in Kakashi’s flat. He’s long since given Sasuke a key, to Naruto’s naked and indignant jealousy.

But you already have two places to go, don’t you? Minato’s and your mum’s.

Naruto had had to concede that he does. Also that he tends to break Kakashi’s things if left unsupervised.

Still Kakashi has to acknowledge Naruto’s dedication – Sasuke can’t be particularly fun to play with after the Lent fasting.

Kakashi, who’d never stoop to the stupidity of starving himself for no good reason, has offered him food, but Sasuke’s stubbornly shaken his head. Itachi’s word as always is law, the distant promise of Itachi’s approval a much stronger force than hunger. So Sasuke’s been listless and cranky, much like the Hyuuga kids and a lot of other exorcists. Flesh has sunken away, Sasuke’s chubby cheeks hollowed out to finally match his skinny body.

Naruto in contrast sounds like he’s on the sugar high of a lifetime, audible even through the door. Opening it, Kakashi discovers a particularly animal Naruto on all fours on the floor, with canines and an orange tail, nudging Sasuke with his head. Sasuke kicks him off, and then tumbles down on top of him as Naruto pulls his leg. Naruto woops and laughs, happy and triumphant as he rolls Sasuke under him.

“Usuratonkachi!”

“You lose!”

Sasuke growls but apparently isn’t prepared to burn him, and so doesn’t stand a chance. He glares up at Naruto, forehead set in a fearful scowl and mouth pouting cutely.

Kakashi grabs the back of Naruto’s shirt and lifts him off Sasuke before Itachi decides to immolate him. He’s heavier than Sasuke, there’s more muscle on him, but he too is a short, thin child: as long as he doesn’t struggle, it’s easy enough to remove him.

“Kakashi, hi!”

Sasuke huffs, brushing himself off. “Itachi-niisan.”

“It’s time you left,” Kakashi tells Naruto, and Naruto glances at Itachi and doesn’t protest when Kakashi dumps him outside the flat.

“Bye Sasuke!” he calls through the door. “See you tomorrow!” Then thankfully there are footsteps running down the stairs, and Itachi eases up a bit.

Sasuke stands next to Itachi, as if he’s hoping Itachi will take his hand or ruffle his hair. Instead Itachi moves towards the kitchen, and Sasuke follows, eventually grabbing onto the hem of Itachi’s shirt. Itachi looks down at him with fond amusement, finally lifting him onto the counter.

“You could’ve burnt your way free,” he says, putting the milk in the fridge.

Sasuke blinks. “Of course I could’ve.”

“You didn’t,” Itachi points out, shelfing the bread, the spices.

“It was just a game.”

Itachi gives him a thoughtful look, then brushes him down with his hands, as if brushing away Naruto’s touch. Sasuke squirms but doesn’t seem displeased, even when Itachi brushes rather roughly across a scrape on his arm. Sasuke looks delicate, but he’s ultimately not a delicate child, at all – Naruto’s not even the only shifter kid he’s ever tussled with.

Kakashi, lounging in the doorway, throws him an onigiri. “Lent’s over, right? Eat up.”

Sasuke glances up at Itachi, who nods. Finally Sasuke smiles, that little smile he probably imagines is secretive but which lights up the room. “Is it salmon?”

“Peach,” Kakashi says, and is surprised when it doesn’t take any persuasion before Sasuke bites into it – the unnatural child is picky about fruits, preferring vegetables. Perhaps he doesn’t know what the English word means.

That must be it, Kakashi decides with a smirk: Sasuke’s face immediately scrunches up in disgust, spluttering fruit juice and rice grains all over his face and hands.

“Tch,” Itachi mutters. He starts rubbing Sasuke’s cheeks clean with his fingers, but isn’t very successful. Then – Kakashi blinks, oddly speechless – then Itachi bends and licks Sasuke clean. Sasuke squirms again but doesn’t object as Itachi licks his cheeks and chin and finally his mouth clear of fruit juice, sucking rice grains from his jaw. “Go wash your hands.”

“Is that something you do?” Kakashi asks after Sasuke’s disappeared to the bathroom. “Lick children?”

“What are you implying? I’m a man of the Church.”

“So’s Orochimaru,” Kakashi points out. “That’s not helping your case.”

“I do not have a case and I do not require help.”

“Right,” Kakashi drawls.

They fall silent as Sasuke returns, bringing with him the drawings that must’ve been the origin of his and Naruto’s quarrel. Sasuke’s are photographically exact, blueprints of… Kakashi assumes the mecha of whatever anime he and Naruto are currently caught up in. They’re evidence of remarkable hand to eye coordination, and absolutely no artistic talent. To an adult eye, Naruto’s are far more interesting, emotion and atmosphere conveyed in shapes and colours. But Sasuke’s type of drawing takes much longer to complete – Naruto will have grown impatient, will have wanted attention, and one thing as always with them will have led to another until they were rolling on the floor.

“Can I have another onigiri?” Sasuke asks. “Not momo.”

Kakashi originally intended to give him an even sweeter fruit, but in the interest of avoiding another licking session tosses him a salmon one.

xxxxx

A few days later Kakashi conducts an experiment. He’s let Sasuke “help” him cook, and takes Sasuke’s hand when it’s sticky with lemon juice, licks his fingers clean.

Sasuke frowns at him, though makes no attempt to free his hand.

“Hmm?”

“That’s not,” Sasuke starts, before his mouth closes like a gate around whatever he can’t say. “Itachi doesn’t like that.”

“Itachi did it,” Kakashi points out. “Just a few days ago.”

Sasuke gives him an impatient glare. “He doesn’t like when other people.”

“Oh?”

Sasuke’s shoulders come up, half a shrug and half a defensive posture. “I got something on my cheek. Naruto just.” He makes a gesture of brushing off his own cheek. “Itachi backhanded him.”

“Did he indeed,” Kakashi drawls. “Well, then I suppose we’re lucky he’s not here. Get the flour, will you?”

“Hn.” Sasuke glances down, at his own knees. “He doesn’t – he says other people aren’t allowed to be close to me. Just him.”

Kakashi looks more closely at the bruises on Sasuke’s arm. He’d assumed they were from playing rough, or training – Sasuke’s so pale, and so careless with himself, he’s almost always bruised up – but closer perusal makes him ask, “After he backhanded Naruto, was he angry with you, too?”

Sasuke nods.

“Did he hurt you?”

Sasuke shrugs. “A little.” He bites his lip. “I have to be better. He expects better. It’s because he loves me. I have to deserve it.”

Kakashi drops a kiss on his head. “I love you, too. I’d never hurt you.”

“That’s different,” Sasuke grumbles.

“Why?”

Sasuke just glares.

Kakashi lifts an eyebrow.

“You always pay attention,” Sasuke says at last, and Kakashi thinks if he was as distant with Sasuke as Itachi often is, if Sasuke couldn’t count on him, maybe Sasuke would prefer Kakashi hurting him, too. He’s not afraid of pain, but he’s spent his whole life being disregard by his family, so maybe he’d rather have bad attention than no attention.

“Backhanded Naruto,” Kakashi muses. It’s not the first time Itachi’s threatened the boy – and with his shifter healing, Naruto won’t interpret a simple backhand as anything but that – but his threats have never been physical. Itachi doesn’t touch people, and for to him to lay hand on anyone… To be more precise, he doesn’t touch anyone but Sasuke, always the exception to any Itachi rule of behaviour. He holds Sasuke’s hand, he carries Sasuke, he lets Sasuke sit in his lap. Washes his hair, cleans his scrapes, pokes his forehead. Holds him, ruffles his hair, even kisses him. For that to extend, in any way, to Naruto – “Ah, ah, ah, no, that’s salt. Try again.”

Sasuke scowls at him but climbs back up on the counter, reaching for another container.

When he goes to Itachi for nightmares, Kakashi knows, Itachi touches him with remarkable alacrity. He strokes long calm waves up Sasuke’s body, from the soles of his feet and all the way up to the crown of his head. When Sasuke was very little, Itachi let him hide under Itachi’s shirt.

“This one?” Sasuke asks. “You could label them, you know.”

“Now where would be the fun in that?”

xxxxx

“No,” Kakashi says automatically, before Sasuke can even begin to play with the fire. He’s always liked that, has that stupid exorcist conviction that he won’t burn, as if earthly flames were as easily controllable as purgatory ones.

Before Sasuke can argue, Itachi returns.

Sasuke’s never been the most perceptive child in the world, but he now reacts like an animal smelling fire. Something cautious, something cold, settles around him. Kakashi too feels himself moving very slowly, pushing the shogi board away, reining in the instinct to erupt into movement.

It’s shortly after nine o’clock, October 10, the year Sasuke is eight.

Itachi settles on a chair – not next to Sasuke on the carpet, where he sat before Mikoto called him away – and stares into the fire.

Sasuke, defiant little brat that he is, reaches out to touch Itachi’s leg. Kakashi, tasting the threat in the air as clearly as Sasuke, catches Sasuke’s hand before he can. “Sasuke, go play somewhere else. Now.”

“I don’t want to.”

He puts his hand on Itachi’s knee, in that way he has: as if it’s obvious, the way any child might touch an adult who belongs to him. It only stands out because nobody else ever touches Itachi.

Itachi’s hands snaps out, for a frozen moment Kakashi’s entirely sure that Itachi’s going to hit, and hard – but he simply grabs Sasuke’s face. It’s a harsh grip, Itachi’s fingers digging into Sasuke’s cheeks, forcing his chin up. He tells Sasuke, “You’re the only thing on this earth that I’ve ever wanted.”

Kakashi’s never heard a more conclusive condemnation.

xxxxx

“Of course,” Minato says. “Always a pleasure having him. Naruto will be thrilled, of course.”

“I reckon so,” Kakashi says.

Sasuke, hanging motionless and stiff with displeasure in Kakashi’s arms, says nothing. He simply glares, though Minato will grant him that it’s an eloquent glare.

“Here,” Kakashi says, handing Minato Sasuke’s phone. “He’s not allowed to have that back.”

“All right,” Minato says, as Sasuke’s glare intensifies. Sasuke would never stand for a shifter denying him anything, but a shifter acting on behalf of Kakashi is a different matter.

No, that’s not quite fair. Sasuke doesn’t argue about following the same domestic rules as everyone else in the household, and he doesn’t generally take issue with Minato disciplining him, or with shifters kids being physical with him – but Itachi sometimes does.

“He will stay here,” Kakashi continues with a pointed look at Sasuke, “and he will behave.” He finally puts Sasuke down.

“I need to talk to Itachi,” Sasuke insists.

“And you will,” Kakashi agrees, patting his head. “As soon as I’m done with him.”

“I need to speak to him now.

“Hey.” Kakashi kneels, putting them on the same level and putting his hands on Sasuke’s shoulders. “You know as well as I do that something went wrong when he was talking to Mikoto. You also know I have much better truck with your parents than you do. So I’m going to sort this out. Trust me.”

Sasuke pouts, mouth pursed all stubborn, but finally he nods.

“Good kid,” Kakashi says. “Well, I’ll leave you to Naruto, then.” He wiggles his fingers, walking out of the room.

“All right, then,” Minato says. “Let’s get you up to Naruto’s room, shall we?”

Sasuke nods, still sulky. He knows the way, obviously, but Minato’s found it’s wiser to accompany him, to limit the flight risk. Sasuke says nothing as they walk through the corridors and up the stairs, until Minato pushes open Naruto’s door.

The room is a mess as usual, Naruto and the Sabaku children sitting on the floor in what looks like an explosion of Lego. Naruto immediately lights up. “Sasuke!”

“Dobe.”

“Yuna!” Naruto protests. “Dobe ja nai yo! Also, also! See – my ship’s way bigger now! It’s much cooler than yours!”

“Tch.”

Minato remains in the doorway for a few moments as Sasuke settles on the floor with the others, unearthing his Lego project from its protected hiding place under Naruto’s bed. The same thing happens that always happens, and Minato throws a sharp look at Gaara to avoid any unpleasantness – Sasuke’s lied to Itachi before about injuries he’s sustained from shifters, but he’s in a bad mood today and Minato wouldn’t like to count on him lying for them.

Gaara hisses at him, but doesn’t cross any lines as Naruto and Sasuke get all caught up in each other. Arguing about the superiority of their respective Lego ships, never mind that Temari’s is clearly far more sophisticated than either – this competition never involved anyone else. Naruto clearly catches on that something’s gone wrong in Casa Uchiha, and keeps bumping Sasuke’s shoulder until Sasuke starts talking to him in Japanese. He’s long since given up on whispering, there’s always a shifter who can hear, but none of them except Naruto knows enough Japanese to follow when he switches languages. Minato gets bits and pieces – Naruto mainly answers in English – but not enough to form a conclusive picture.

He’s turning from the children, shutting the door, as Kushina touches his arm. She gives him that steady, bracingly reassuring look that always makes him ask, almost like a child, “What’s wrong?”

“There’s a report of imminent demon activity. Out in the 17th ward.”

“God damn it.”

“Mmh. You know they leaked it so they could make a deal with us.”

The 17th ward is a shifter-heavy neighbourhood, lower class – not exorcist priority. He’s been trying to persuade Yui to move for years, has bought her so many flats she won’t enter. I need to stand on my own two feet, Minato.

“Do we know what they want?”

Kushina shrugs. “Maybe they just want to see you squirm.”

“Well. Why would we need to negotiate for an exorcist, when we’ve got one right here?”

“That’s risky.”

“If it was higher than a level two infestation, they’d have to send someone – it’s in the city. He can deal with that.”

“Obviously. But can you deal with Itachi?”

“I’m hoping I won’t have to.” He pushes open the door. “Naruto, I changed my mind. We’ll go get your plushie after all.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Come on. Sasuke, you come along too. Go on, hurry up and get your jackets.” He turns to Kushina as Naruto drags Sasuke towards the hallway. “Just remember we left before you talked to me about the infestation.”

xxxxx

“Aren’t you too old for plushies?” Sasuke asks in the car. It doesn’t sound very teasing, more like Itachi’s told him as a fact that children over a certain age are too old for certain kinds of toys.

“I’m mature enough to embrace my inner child,” Naruto claims.

“Tch.”

Naruto laughs. “Oh, very mature.”

“Wait.” They must be closing in on the infestation now, because Sasuke holds up his hand, focussing outward. “Demons.”

“What?” Naruto erupts. “This is close to Mum!”

“Which direction, Sasuke?” Minato asks.

Sasuke points.

“That’s where Mum lives!” Naruto protests. “Drive faster!”

“Let me out,” Sasuke says.

“It’s faster if we drive,” Naruto argues.

“I’ll call the demons to me, but you could – if I’m in the car with you, you could burn.”

“Are you sure you can take them?” Minato asks. “I need you to be honest with me now.”

Sasuke grins, the sharp gleeful grin of a predator enticed by the smell of prey. “Stop the car.”

Minato does, lets Sasuke slip out on the pavement and straight up into the sky.

Naruto’s up on his knees, nose pressed to the window glass. Minato would tell him to squint – if it was Konohamaru, he’d tell him to cover his eyes – but what’s the point? Naruto only ever learns by doing, and Kyuubi can regenerate his eyes.

Sasuke finishes quickly, climbing back into the car less than five minutes after he stepped out.

“That’s it? You’re done?” Naruto’s still coming out of his skin, vermillion energy breaking through in waves.

Sasuke smirks. “I’m done.”

“Then let’s go!”

They find Yui emerging from her designated shelter, still clutching a rosary from which the magic has long since faded. Naruto runs to her immediately, climbing into her arms like an over-amorous little monkey.

“Come with us back,” Minato says. It’s not a question.

Yui looks set to protest, only Naruto hums happily, head on her shoulder, and she sighs: submits. Naruto directs a blinding grin at her, snatching the rosary and chucking it at Sasuke. “Needs a refill!”

Sasuke glowers at him, but the rosary starts glowing. He hands it back to Yui still bickering with Naruto, who squirms until Yui lets him down. “It’s only a base level protection.”

“Is that the best you can do?” Naruto demands.

“It’s better than you can do,” Sasuke argues.

Naruto rolls his eyes. “Duh. Wanna compare how fast we can heal?” He sticks his tongue out. “I bet Kakashi could make a better one.”

“He’s an adult,” Sasuke points out, and Minato doesn’t mention that Sasuke’s terrifyingly stronger than most adult exorcists.

“Get in the car, kids,” Minato says, at the same time Yui says, “Thank you.”

Sasuke looks surprised. “It’s my duty.”

It’s fortunate that Minato’s given up on his youthful aspirations on being a good person, because he can’t help concluding once again that it’s enormously to his benefit that the exorcists are so shitty to their kids. Sasuke now and Kakashi before him are available in a way they’d never have been if their parents had looked after them properly.

“Will she not mind?” Yui asks quietly in the passenger seat.

“Kushina? No.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“Would you tell me if you weren’t?”

“No.” He smiles at her, checks that Naruto’s being too loud for them to be overheard. “She’s pragmatic about these things.”

“She’s had some – issues with Naruto.”

“Not really,” Minato has to say. “Naruto has issues with her. Perfectly natural, he’s a child and wants his parents to be together. But they’re his issues, not Kushina’s.”

“You can hardly expect me to believe that she cherishes the idea of you having another family.”

“Has she ever wished I’d never met you, that Naruto had never existed in the first place? Yes, I’m sure she has. But now he does exist, he’s pack. She’s not his mother, she’ll never be his mother, but she understands that we’re all family.” He doesn’t like to talk to Yui like she’s an outsider, like she’s the media, but it’s sometimes effective: “She did take a bullet for him, when BEAST had their little street revolution.”

“I know,” Yui says quietly, staring out the windshield, fingers knotted tight in her lap.

Minato’s ashamed, because it means the world to Yui but it was nothing to Kushina: a few seconds of pain, an almost automatic movement to protect a child in her care. 

Back home he sends the children to bed. By the time he goes to check on them, they’re already asleep. A few years earlier, he would’ve resented himself for this reaction, but tonight he doesn’t hesitate taking the photo: Naruto and Sasuke sleeping next to each other in Naruto’s bed. The nightlight is on, Sasuke as usual is in Naruto’s spare pyjamas because Kakashi rarely ever remembers to bring any such necessities.

It’s a great photo. His only hesitation is whether Itachi would think he crossed the line, publishing it.

He looks up from his phone when Yui says his name. He heard her coming, smelled her coming, but she doesn’t like being reminded of his superhuman senses.  

“Let’s talk in the kitchen,” he says, and Yui nods. The kitchen has always been their preferred space, and they settle around the table now as if nothing’s amiss. “Here.”

Yui smiles at him, presumably aware that he only keeps her favourite tea brands stocked in the hope that she’ll be here to enjoy them. It’s a shy expression, more in the eyes than on the mouth.

Nurture over nature really has a case in Naruto, who’s so brutally unlike Yui, so very reminiscent of Kushina.

“Do you think they’d mind, the exorcists?” he muses. “If I let that photo slip to the press.”

“I’d mind if someone photographed Naruto without my consent.”

“I’m afraid Sasuke’s parents aren’t always very doting.”

“I’m aware. He’s – well, you notice that they’re not, when you spend any time with him.”

“I would’ve thought that would make you more sympathetic to him?”

“A gazelle may feel sorry for a sick lion cub, but she’d be a fool to forget he’s a lion.”

“He’s not that bad.”

“Isn’t he? No, really, Minato. That interview with him that you love so much – it’s terrifying. And I know you don’t see that, but you have to understand that that kind of rhetoric sounds very different when it’s directed at you.”

She’s referring to the time a reporter went to Naruto’s school, ostensibly aiming to report on humans, shifters and exorcists all being integrated in the same classes. Less ostensibly, she was a survivor of a shifter attack, and rather freaked out when Naruto, always overly friendly and curious and attention seeking, approached her and didn’t take a hint. There were some rather harsh words uttered, though Minato chose not to prosecute for hate speech. On the contrary, it offered him such a spectacular opportunity to publicly be the bigger man. 

Then Sasuke appeared on the livestream. He seemed so genuinely baffled that the reporter should ever expect him to be willing to speak to her. Naruto’s my best friend. You’re nothing. And it got better, better than Sasuke Uchiha publicly acknowledging Naruto as his friend, because the reporter didn’t have the sense to stop. Of course exorcists are superior. But between humans and shifters? There’s nothing a human can do that a shifter can’t, but there’s no human can match a shifter. You don’t contribute, why should you get to decide anything?

There are other exorcists have said similar things – that you eat what you kill, that your value is contingent on your contribution. That the superiority of exorcists has been decided by God, and as such is absolute, whereas the relative superiority of humans has been decided by humans, and might need to be revisited.

“He openly called a shifter his best friend,” Minato points out. “I don’t see how he gets evil racist points for that.”

“He’s a little kid, I’m not trying to make him out to be evil, or even – he’s been taught to look down on humans and shifters his entire life, I don’t hold him personally responsible for that. But he’s not saying that everyone’s of equal value. He’s saying shifters are less to be despised than humans, because the exorcists have more use for them. That’s a terrible way of looking at the world.”

“He’s factually correct.”

“Jesus, Minto. Everyone being of equal value is an ideological statement, not a factual one. You don’t say that because you think every single person on the planet has the same ability to contribute to humanity, or because you think there’s some objective numerical value attached to people. You say that because you believe society should be built around valuing everyone equally, regardless of what they can or can’t contribute.”

“So if you had to choose between ten humans and one exorcist? Think about it – if you choose the humans, you save the ten but you might kill a hundred.”

“And if I choose between one human and ten humans, I might kill a million by saving the ten, because the one I sacrificed might have cured cancer. But don’t you see, the whole discussion is still caught on the premise of value as contribution. What I’m saying is every life is of inestimable value. Even someone who never has and never will contribute, who’s nothing but a resource drain. They too are a person, an absolute value, and must be protected.”

“So more able people should die, so this resource drain can live? Why would anyone contribute, if you’re only sacrificed on the altar of the useless?”

“Nobody should be sacrificed. That’s the fundamental issue, building a society that’s not predicated on anyone being sacrificed.”

“I’m not a fan of the exorcists generally, but let’s be real. If most of them didn’t go nova before they hit thirty, humanity would be extinct.”

“And I’m grateful. I’m incredibly grateful. I try to contribute, any way I can. But the fact that someone does something good, even something very brave and selfless, that doesn’t give them licence to oppress other people.” She makes a frustrated gesture, fingers drumming against her tea mug. “You remember that Nobel laurate, what’s his name, he revolutionised prosthetics. He made the world massively better for hundreds of thousands of people. And then it came out that he hated shifters, that BEAST had provided him with biological material to experiment on. Is his racism justified because he also helped humanity?”

“I can overlook it.”

“That’s insane. That’s – upsetting. Minato, really –”

“What’s next, are you going to call me a house ni–”

“No! Enough! You don’t have to constantly try to provoke me.”

“I thought you believed in the oppressed minority defining their own oppression? Look, would I prefer he not be a racist bastard? Of course. But has he earned the right to think whatever he likes? I’d say so.”

“You’ve become very pragmatic.”

“It’s funny,” Minato says, feeling sad suddenly. “Kushina says the same thing.”

“Are you just being polite? There’s no need.”

“Hmm?”

She smiles more openly, dimpling a little. “I do recall Kakashi at age nine openly considered me naïve.”

“That was rude of him.”

Yui shrugs a little. “He’s been fighting a war since he could stand. He’s earned it. Anyway I suppose he wasn’t wrong.” She sighs, rubbing her eyes. “I want to believe all these things, but… More and more I find myself coming around to your point of view. Looking at the world as it is, people are sacrificed. It would be nice to change that, but, well, that’s just a dream. A dream that generation after generation has dreamt, but in the end we all wake up. And if it’s sacrificing the one to save the many… Well. It’s the lesser evil, isn’t it? It would be selfish not to do it, to hold on to the dream.”

Chapter Text

“Mikoto-san,” Kakashi drawls, inclining his head.

She nods at him, smiling thinly. Doesn’t object to his juggling the apples from the fruit bowl.

“I couldn’t help noticing you said something to upset Itachi. About ten days ago.”

The sharp light from the window bleaches her face of all expression. “With all respect, shouldn’t you be directing this inquiry at Itachi?”

“You know how he feels about nonsense talk on missions,” Kakashi says lightly. Itachi’s barely set foot in the house since that evening. “Anyway one tends to get such histrionics from him. I thought I’d go to the source.”

“Well, I really think Itachi might be better able to account for his own emotional state.”

Kakashi chuckles. “Ah, yes, Itachi’s the expert on emotion.” He lets the apples take a last lap through the air before pouring back into the bowl. “But let me be clear. This is a courtesy call. If you tell me that’s what I need to do, I’ll ask Itachi, and we both know he’ll wind up telling me.”

“I suppose you do have a certain influence with him,” Mikoto remarks.

“Sometimes I think he wants me to, at least.” Maybe he’s using Kakashi as a stand-in for the reasonable, human side he can’t acknowledge in himself.

“Well,” Mikoto says again, pulling off her exquisite white gloves. “Then let me be frank with you.”

“Please.”

“You don’t believe me, do you?”

“I’ll withhold judgement until I’ve heard you out.”

“I suppose you’re not as stupid as you like to make yourself look.”

Kakashi leans against the fridge. “Are you negging me?”

“I’m afraid I’m not familiar with the expression. Irish coffee?” She surprises him by pouring almost a full mug of liquor, covering it with a thin sheen of coffee.

“I’ve been told never to let a lady drink alone.”

“By your mother, I assume? I seem to recall she tended to need such company.”

“She also told me not to speak ill of the dead,” he teases.

“Why not, truthfully? They’re the ones who aren’t hurt by it anymore.”

“You make a fair point, Mikoto-san. Also a mean Irish coffee.”

“That’s kind of you to say.” She remains by the sink, remains as expressionless as the stainless steel. “As for what I told Itachi. First I suppose I should say, I understand you’re rather fond of Sasuke.”

“I am,” Kakashi says placidly. “I still will be after we finish this conversation.”

Mikoto gives him an odd smile. “As I explained to Itachi, Orochimaru Sannin is convinced that Sasuke’s his child.”

“And are you?”

“I’m convinced of very little.”

“Ah. Well, of course if you didn’t believe it, things would’ve taken a very different turn.”

“We’ll never know.”

“I suppose we won’t.” He stands up straight, stretches out his shoulders. “Thank you for the coffee.”

“One more thing. I have a mission for you.”

“What a coincidence.”

“Indeed. But you’ve always liked China, haven’t you?”

“Indeed.”

On the way to the airport he calls Itachi and leaves a voicemail that he might have to reconsider, in light of his recent conversation with Mikoto: MILF might really be a thing after all.

xxxxx

Itachi’s never been the best at keeping in touch over the phone – Kakashi thinks nothing of it when Itachi doesn’t answer during Kakashi’s working vacation, until he steps off the airplane back home and Naruto’s there but Sasuke isn’t.

Naruto hangs on to his arm, there’s something drawn and frightened about his face and Kyuubi’s uncontrollable, surging around him. “Kakashi, Kakashi!”

“Shut up,” Kakashi orders, already calling Itachi. But it’s no use. “Where is he?”

“I don’t know, I – something’s wrong but nobody will bloody listen to me, and –”

“I’ll get him,” Kakashi cuts him off.

“You will?”

“Mmh.” He requisitions the first decent car he finds. “He was always my favourite. I’ll be damned if I’m not keeping him. Now you stay here and this nice man will look after you while I use his car.”

Itachi might believe he’s ineffable, Kakashi thinks, driving very fast, but Itachi’s a conceited bastard – the ways in which he works might be mysterious to Itachi himself, but Kakashi’s spent years learning them.

He basically crashes the car to a stop, just outside the park with the maple trees, close by Orochimaru’s compound. He slips through the leaves, half-running, shoes soaked through by the time he sees them: Itachi, standing there with Sasuke in his arms, and across from them Orochimaru.

You don’t often see Orochimaru alone, but he’ll not have wanted an audience for his humiliation in case Itachi changes his mind.

Even Orochimaru, then, knows that this is an uncertain thing: that it has nothing to do with political realities or keeping the peace, whatever Itachi might tell himself.

Itachi lifts Sasuke a bit, holds him out. Orochimaru reaches for him. And Sasuke’s too stupid, trusts Itachi too much, to fight it when Itachi hands him over. He’s never had to learn to be wary of Orochimaru, secure in the knowledge that nobody in the world is allowed to hurt what Itachi loves.

Itachi’s turning to leave – Orochimaru’s already gone, and Sasuke with him – when Kakashi catches his shoulder, forces him to turn back around. “Oh, no, Itachi.”

Itachi lifts an eyebrow. His face is even more impenetrable than usual, wearing the kind of incomprehensible expression you see on medieval saints in stained glass windows, as though Itachi’s face too is a medium not suited for human emotion.

“I thought we were clear,” Kakashi says, light as ice. “If you can’t live with him, you kill him. No half-measures.” They had agreed on this, Kakashi had made Itachi agree to this, just after he made Itachi tell him about the plan to hand Sasuke over to Orochimaru. It hadn’t been difficult, since Itachi doesn’t believe in compromise.

Itachi swallows. “Killing a crusader is a sin.”

“What Orochimaru wants with him is also a sin.”

“That’s between God and Orochimaru.”

“Ah, of course. Cheap excuses.” He grabs Itachi’s arm, feels Itachi shudder from the human touch, and starts dragging him towards Orochimaru’s compound. “If you’re set on doing this, you will fucking well watch it.”

Itachi strains against him, but Itachi’s tiny. He’s the strongest crusader who has ever lived, but until he calls on Lucifael he’s just a scrawny body, smaller and weaker than Kakashi. “There’s no point to these theatrics.”

Kakashi snaps around, catches Itachi’s throat between his fingers. His knife glitters against Itachi’s skin, and judging by Itachi’s vaguely surprised expression, he understands that Kakashi chose not to slit his throat. That Kakashi could’ve done it, before Itachi realised he had to stop him. “Let me be clear. I will kill you, if you don’t.” He smirks. “You might not be able to defend yourself without killing me, and as you so recently pointed out, that would be a sin to stain your soul forever. Now walk.”

“I didn’t realise you were so committed to this matter,” Itachi says.

“Yes, well, you’re not the only one who’s fallen for him,” Kakashi says, forestalling Itachi’s protests by wiping the guards outside Orochimaru’s gates. “Faster.”

“This won’t change anything,” Itachi says.

“In all the time I’ve known you, you’ve never been wrong as often as you have today.”

Kakashi stops them in the doorway to Orochimaru’s office. He’s confident that both Orochimaru and Sasuke are too caught up to notice them.

Orochimaru’s brutal and sadistic, Kakashi’s always known that: has found it sort of regrettable, but has never bothered to step in. He couldn’t step in now, because he’s not strong enough to kill Orochimaru, not when Samael’s already out, and unlike Itachi, Orochimaru doesn't trust him enough to let him close without calling on his archangel – it has to be Itachi.

He’s glad to see that Sasuke never for a second stops fighting, that when pushed too far, pushed into sound, he hisses, “I’m going to kill you.” Sasuke after all knows better than to expect mercy, and has never evidenced any interest in begging – not even in praying.

Unfortunately Orochimaru too seems pleased by this, laughing warmly even as he backhands Sasuke, sending him rolling across the carpet. “You’re going to be my best, Shinigami-chan. My masterpiece.” Sasuke knows how to fall, rolls back up on his feet and bares his teeth.

Kakashi keeps his hand on the nape of Itachi’s neck. It’s a sensitive spot for Sasuke, maybe it is for Itachi too. “Your mother mentioned that Orochimaru’s his father.”

Itachi’s never looked so much like Sasuke, staring up at him with those eyes like abysses, relentless and maybe lost in themselves. “You don’t care?”

“That’s between your mother and Orochimaru. It’s not about Sasuke.”

“But that made it clear, do you not see? It’s proof that he’s not for me. That he’s something to be thrown away, a temptation to be resisted.” Itachi swallows again, lips white. “That he’s a trial, so that I might show myself worthy of God.”

Orochimaru’s kneeling over Sasuke now, one hand around his throat: not giving him enough air to struggle or bite as Orochimaru kisses him, first on the mouth, then on his neck. Sasuke’s a fighter but so is Orochimaru, and Orochimaru must have almost a hundred and fifty pounds on him.

“Are you telling me you want to fuck him?” The question is unsurprised, non-judgemental. It’s easy to keep it that way, because Sasuke’s the only person Itachi’s ever touched, and who can blame him if he likes it or wants more? Kakashi would like to seduce Sasuke himself, in a few years, and it’s not like brother/brother incest risks any deficit children. Sasuke already loves Itachi, he’d hardly make trouble. 

“That’s irrelevant,” Itachi claims, his usual code for I don’t know. “What’s relevant is – loving him is already a sin, don’t you see? Which way I love him matters little, in view of that.”

“And he loves you,” Kakashi points out, raising his voice a little so Itachi will hear him over the sound of Sasuke’s clothes tearing.

“Yes,” Itachi agrees. All the time he’s been staring at Sasuke, unblinking. Sasuke’s skin tears now too, since he fights the stripping. Kakashi thinks that Orochimaru knows his Machiavelli: commit the worst atrocities quickly and at once, save the kindness and the manipulation for afterwards. Still, Kakashi had expected something more sophisticated, something less raw than a run of the mill child rape. “He loves me more than God.”

“Wouldn’t you be jealous if he didn’t?”

“Yes,” Itachi says again, unhesitating as if finally safe in the confession booth. “So I’m condemning him, because I allow him to love me more than God, the ultimate sin. And by condemning him in this way I condemn also myself – I lead him astray in the worst way possible, even as also I am led astray by my ungodly love.”

There’s a certain twisted logic to this. Kakashi takes heart, and is careful to remain relaxed, because he feels savage but needs to control the situation.

Sasuke’s making desperate sounds now, his mouth full of carpet so he can hardly breathe and he’s gagging on his own nosebleed.

“This is a sacrifice for the greater good,” Itachi intones. “Continued war would devastate humanity.”

“Oh bullshit. If you don’t want Orochimaru making war, you stop him. Don’t give me any excuses, we both know you could, and easily.”

Sasuke makes it up on his elbow, but Orochimaru’s much stronger, much heavier, and Sasuke’s arm bends under his weight. Sasuke never stood a chance.

“Anyway so what?” Kakashi continues. “All of humanity or one crusader? You already know which one God’s chosen, which one he’s singled out for salvation. Are you going to make a different choice?”

“No. But he won’t –”

Itachi stops there, because things are taking an unexpected turn. While Uriel is an archangel of the highest order, Sasuke at eight hasn’t come into his power in a way that allows him to challenge Samael – or he shouldn’t have. But he’s pushing through, impossibly breaking through Samael’s power to burn Orochimaru’s hand away from his neck, his light savage and nova bright.

Orochimaru starts sketching a seal.

“Wasn’t he always yours?” Kakashi whispers in Itachi’s ear. “God gave him to you. Isn’t it better this were you?”

Itachi again shudders, and Sasuke for the first time screams, a feral, unhinged scream.

“You were chosen, Itachi. God has already approved. You can do no wrong here, except in rejecting his gift.” He speaks so close to Itachi’s ear, the words are indistinguishable from a kiss. “Shouldn’t it be you?”

The seal is never finished. Itachi lifts a hand, and lets there be light.

Orochimaru screams as he burns, but that’s irrelevant now. Kakashi wastes no time bundling Sasuke into his arms. “We’re leaving.”

“Yes,” Itachi says tonelessly, letting Orochimaru topple burnt but breathing onto the floor.

Kakashi lifts an eyebrow, wrapping Sasuke up in his jacket.

“It would be a sin to kill him,” Itachi says. “This way, his nova potential remains.”

At this rate, with Orochimaru this injured, it won’t take Kakashi any effort to kill Orochimaru himself, so whatever. Sasuke’s fingers tighten in his jumper as he carries him outside, towards the car he stole at the airport. “I’ve got you,” he tells Sasuke, setting him down in the passenger seat. “I’m keeping you.”

Sasuke stares at him, unable or unwilling to speak, which in itself is nothing unusual. He rearranges the jacket Kakashi wrapped him in, and going by the way he’s moving he’s injured but not too badly. Kakashi thinks – decides to think – that at least Sasuke’s too young to understand any of this as sexual, that to him it will just be violence.

Itachi sits down in the backseat and Kakashi drives them home.

xxxxx

They haven’t been home long – and by home Kakashi meant his flat, because Sasuke for once should be spared his family’s rejection – when Mikoto stops by.

“I’ll take care of it,” Itachi says, so Kakashi remains with Sasuke in the bathroom, cleaning carpet dust and Orochimaru’s piss from the scratches on Sasuke’s cheek.

“I can do it myself,” Sasuke insists, dabbing harshly at his face.

Kakashi hums non-committaly.

Out in the hallway Itachi lets Mikoto in.

“Kabuto called me,” Mikoto says. “He seemed to be under the impression that you had reneged on transferring Sasuke’s custody and damaged Orochimaru.”

“Indeed. No, enough, Mother. I’ve decided to keep him. I will not allow any interference.”

“I thought I explained…”

“If you can’t keep your legs closed, that’s on you,” Itachi tells her. He’s always been respectful with Mikoto, it’s odd to hear him so crass. “Perhaps it was part of the divine plan. However, Sasuke is mine. Let the world burn if it must.”

Mikoto employs the same toneless, cutting voice as Itachi. “Do you want him for the same thing Orochimaru wanted him?”

“What I want him for is none of your concern. What you need to understand is simply that I want him, and that I will have him. For the avoidance of doubt, I repeat myself – I will not tolerate interference.”

“Kakashi’s turned your head,” Mikoto remarks. She sounds thoughtful, not at all accusatory.

“That’s irrelevant.”

“Perhaps. Well. You may wish to clarify your stance to the Council. For the avoidance of doubt.”

“I shall,” Itachi agrees. The door closes behind them.

Sasuke drops the disinfectant in the basin. He’s dressed now, but the neckline of his shirt has been pulled down to allow examination of the bite marks on his shoulder, the burn damage on his chest, and his sleeves are rolled up to reveal finger bruises covering his arms: he looks naked.

“Did you?” he demands. “Turn his head.”

“I think you did,” Kakashi says lightly. “But I did my best to help it along.”

Sasuke bites at his lip, licking it as a cut opens and blood smears down his chin. “Mother asked if he wanted me for the same thing.”

“I’m not sure,” Kakashi confesses, handing Sasuke a paper towel to wipe up the blood.

“Tch.”

“Itachi isn’t sure himself, that’s why I don’t know yet. But we’ll find out.”

Sasuke tilts his head back to ease the bleeding, the towel soaking through. “He hasn’t hurt me before. Not like that.”

“It’s not supposed to hurt.”

Sasuke frowns at him. Questions disguised as demands, that’s how they both work, he and Itachi.

“Sex,” Kakashi says. “She was asking if Itachi wants to have sex with you.”

“Huh,” Sasuke says. “But I’m – that’s an adult thing.”

“I know. Nothing’s happening now.”

Sasuke stares up at him, looking defiant and a bit destroyed. He grabs the washbasin, fingers white-knuckled and shaking, and Kakashi lifts an eyebrow as the porcelain actually starts incinerating. “There was an agreement to give Orochimaru custody of me…!”

Kakashi coaxes his fingers loose from the basin, keeps hold of his hand. “Maybe Itachi needed an excuse to debilitate Orochimaru.”

Sasuke snorts. He doesn’t spare any of them this: “Itachi despises excuses.”

“Maa. But in any case, he’s made it very clear he’s keeping you now. We can handle him, you and I.”

Sasuke nods.

“Good,” Kakashi says. “I’m keeping you too, you see.”

Sasuke picks the disinfectant back up and hands it to Kakashi. Then he pulls his shirt down even more and turns around. Kakashi takes the hint and disinfects the cuts on the back of Sasuke’s shoulders. He’s thinking that there’s more damage under Sasuke’s trousers, but Sasuke’s unlikely to let him examine that.

In the end he doesn’t have to make any decisions about that, because Itachi returns before he’s done with Sasuke’s shoulders. Without a word, Itachi kneels on the floor, reaching out for Kakashi to hand over the disinfectant. Sasuke offers no reaction as Kakashi stands up, letting Itachi take over cleaning the wounds.

Kakashi remains with them until there’s a certain familiar, suspicious sound from the living room. Going to investigate, he finds Naruto climbing in through the window: Kakashi’s had to cut back on security, after Naruto kept hurting himself trying to break through it. “No,” Kakashi tells him.

“But –”

“No.” He pushes Naruto back out, vaulting out of the window to catch him before he hits the ground. Naruto can fight all he likes – and he fights viciously and quite well – it makes no difference. Kakashi’s a grown crusader: Naruto’s as helpless as a human against Gabriel’s strength. So it’s not difficult to subdue the child, or to carry him grumbling and protesting back to the Hokage building.

Not unexpectedly, he finds Minato in his office, and dumps Naruto on his desk. “You need to keep this one in check.”

“I understood there’s been an upheaval in the exorcist community.”

“Sasuke wants to see me!” Naruto protests.

“Maybe. But I pushed Itachi over an edge today, and right now he’d wipe you on sight and there’s nobody could stop him.”

“But Sasuke…!”

“Sasuke’s all right,” Kakashi tells him. “I’ve got him.” He looks up, meeting Minato’s eyes. “I’m serious. You need to keep him locked up if you don’t want him wiped.”

“I’ll take care of it. Let me know when Itachi settles?”

“Of course.”

“Are my sources correct that –”

“Orochimaru’s done with, yes.” It’s freeing, in a way: for the first time, looking at Minato, he doesn’t see someone he wants anything to do with.

“Kakashi, you must understand why I…”

“I do.” He shrugs, Sasuke’s jerky little shrug. “I thought better of you, is all. But never mind that now.” It’s all true. He does understand why Minato would agree, why he’d think standing by as the Uchihas sold off Sasuke was a small price to pay, though it’s not something he ever wanted to understand about Minato. But it’s time Kakashi left that soiled childhood crush behind.

When he returns home, he finds Sasuke already asleep, curled up under Itachi’s arm. He quickly determines that Itachi too has fallen asleep, and settles on the edge of the bed next to them, stroking Sasuke’s cold cheek. It looks almost like Naruto's, marred by deep scratches. “Maa, you little fools.”

xxxxx

He wakes up in the morning with Sasuke’s knobbly knees digging into his hip, and the smell of coffee luring him from the bed. “Hey,” he mutters, awkward, touching Sasuke’s hair. “You’re okay.” He can only say this because Sasuke’s not awake.

In the kitchen Itachi’s drinking coffee, shower-wet hair gradually soaking through his shirt.

“You’re up,” Kakashi remarks, pouring coffee for himself and being generous with the sugar.

“You went to bed with us,” Itachi says.

Kakashi lifts an eyebrow, rather genuinely amused. “You’re the one who went to sleep in my bed.”

“Hn.”

“Exactly.”

“You’re responsible, now –” Itachi starts.

“I know.” Kakashi slouches against the counter, idly looking through the breadbox. “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. Or trapped, I suppose.”

“That’s a children’s book.”

“Maa, your mother tells me it’s a timeless classic. Though as I recall she also called it saccharine nonsense.”

At this point Sasuke wanders in, still rubbing his eyes open. Kakashi experiences a strange, stunning feeling: as if seeing something unendurably precious which is his and which he must keep. Sasuke leans a bit against Itachi’s leg, in what Kakashi expects Itachi to interpret as seeking comfort, while Kakashi himself interprets it as a challenge, and Itachi rests a hand on his head, messing up his hair even worse. Then Sasuke’s stomach rumbles, and Kakashi chuckles, as if this were a normal morning. “Let’s get you some breakfast.”

He makes Sasuke’s weird and disgusting nut porridge with soymilk, which he keeps in a jug so Itachi won’t notice he’s “coddling” Sasuke by not giving him regular milk just because he’s severely lactose intolerant.

“I’m thinking we’ll stop by the hospital,” Kakashi says. The way Sasuke hold his right arm pressed stiffly to his side and eats with his left hand indicates more damage than Kakashi had hoped. While Sasuke’s ambidextrous, he’s been taught since earliest childhood that using your left hand is a sign of the devil: that he does it in front of Itachi suggests he can’t use his right hand.

“Good,” Itachi decides. “I’m seeing the Council about handling Orochimaru’s estate.”

“Right.” Kakashi sneaks a spoonful of porridge from Sasuke’s bowl, and then promptly spits it out in the sink. “Okay, still disgusting.” Out of toast, he settles for some leftover crisps for breakfast.

“You’re a paragon of healthy living as always,” Itachi remarks.

Kakashi gives him the finger. “Be glad I’ve got Sasuke’s inedibles stocked. I’m losing all my street cred shopping in those health food places.”

“I’m done,” Sasuke says. “Let’s go.”

The boy’s no fool – he knows when his injuries need treatment, and he knows to get it quickly.

“I’ll see you later,” Itachi says.

“You sound like a 50s wife,” Kakashi tells him, bundling Sasuke into his jacket and leading him downstairs.

“Are you going to return the car?” Sasuke asks.

“He’ll get paid by some government agency or other.” He smirks, starting the motor. “You could tell I’d requisitioned it?”

“Naruto said.”

“Ah. Of course he did.”

“He left a million messages.”

“Did you answer?”

“He needs to stay out of it. I’m not an idiot.”

“Good. But Itachi seems to have settled.”

Sasuke makes a face, looking briefly out the window. “Naruto’ll go spare when he sees I’m all – injured. Itachi doesn’t like that.”

“The doctors will get you patched up.”

“Hn.”

“Do you need more painkillers?”

Sasuke shakes his head.

Kakashi nevertheless liberates the pill jar from his pocket, dropping it in Sasuke’s lap. “If you change your mind. Maximum six a day.”

It’s the same hospital they usually go to. “Violent assault,” Kakashi tells the doctor in an undertone.

“I see. Will he be wanting therapy?”

“I doubt it. But ask him, I suppose.”

He hangs round in the waiting room, rereading his favourite porn novel. Gradually, during the almost two hours Sasuke’s gone, he catches on that Orochimaru too is in this hospital.

When a nurse finally leads Sasuke out, Kabuto approaches, telling Sasuke, “He’d like to speak with you.”

Sasuke’s quiet for a speculative moment, but he’s never been one to hesitate, or to spare himself. Never one to flee when he can fight. “Lead the way.”

Kabuto and Sasuke both raise an eyebrow at Kakashi when he comes along. “What? I’m curious by nature.” Neither of them could stop him, and neither of them tries. Sasuke might even be glad of his presence, though of course he’d never say.

“In here,” Kabuto says, coming to a stop outside a patient room.

“Great. You don’t have to wait for us,” Kakashi tells him, closing the door in his face.

Inside the dimly lit room, Orochimaru’s stretched out on his back, white sheets and white bandages over his blackened skin. His eyes seem yellow, molten, the eyes of a bird.

Sasuke doesn’t hesitate approaching the bed, looking down on Orochimaru’s ruined face utterly void of compassion.

“Ureshii,” Orochimaru says. “Aitakatta, Shinigami-chan.”

Sasuke says something Kakashi doesn’t catch. He always talks more quickly in Japanese.

“Did your brother not tell you?” Orochimaru inquires. His hand twitches, as though he meant to reach for Sasuke but is unable. “You’re mine. You’ve always been mine. You were born my child.”

Sasuke frowns, mainly thoughtful. “Are you saying you’re my father?”

“Yes.”

“That makes sense,” Sasuke says after a long silence.

“Doesn’t it?” Orochimaru agrees.

“Well, the odds of a useless weakling like Fugaku siring two crusaders have to be minimal.”

“I love you,” Orochimaru tells him.

“Right. Well, I hate you.”

Orochimaru manages to move after all – perhaps his earlier inability was merely a ruse – curling a hand around Sasuke’s neck and bringing him down into a kiss.

Sasuke bites off part of Orochimaru’s lip and spits it out on Orochimaru’s face. Orochimaru looks positively besotted.

Sasuke fists his throat. His is a tiny, dainty child’s hand with dirt under the nails, and Kakashi doesn’t doubt for an instant that Sasuke’s going to strangle Orochimaru within seconds.

He’s reminded that Sasuke had killed before Kakashi ever met him, and they met when Sasuke was five. You can pretend all you like, Sasuke himself could pretend all he likes, but Sasuke’s a natural born killer.

He touches Sasuke’s shoulder. “Let me make a suggestion.”

Sasuke looks at him in question, not loosening his hold on Orochimaru’s throat.

“Instead of killing him outright, we could turn him into a nova bomb. As Itachi said, his nova potential remains, and we can activate it when we like.”

“I don’t know how to do that.”

Kakashi smiles. “Let me show you.”

Orochimaru tries to go nova, but Kakashi doesn’t let him. Together, they spend the next few hours turning Orochimaru from a human being into a thing, a lump of meat pulsing with desire to go nova under its restrictive seals. Sasuke’s always been a quick study, and tension bleeds out of him as the life bleeds out of Orochimaru.

He lets Kakashi hold his hand as they go home.

Chapter Text

Back in the apartment Sasuke yawns, flagging. Probably the doctor gave him more painkillers while stitching him up. “I’m going to bed.”

“Okay.”

Sasuke gives him a look.

“Okay. Let’s go.”

Sasuke nods. He falls asleep quickly, with Kakashi sitting next to him on the bed finishing his porn novel and stroking Sasuke’s hair, Sasuke’s hand fisted around the hem of his shirt.

Less than an hour later Sasuke startles awake, sits up with his legs drawn tight to his chest and keeps swallowing, as if he doesn’t get enough air. “This agreement. That people had with Orochimaru.”

“Yeah,” Kakashi says, the word dragging heavy as a sigh. “It was – everyone, really. You know Orochimaru kept threatening to start up the war again, let the anti-shifters loose. He wanted you in exchange for keeping them calm.”

“My parents don’t give a shit about shifters being cleansed.”

“The shifters do. I’m assuming they bribed the humans to argue for this, and – well, I don’t reckon your parents needed much convincing. The rest of the Council… they’ve never cared about individuals. They’ll always prioritise exorcist standing in the world, and they’d never go against something Orochimaru and Itachi had agreed on.”

Sasuke’s knuckles are white, tiny child hands fisted around his own knees. “Ibiki, Minato… I never thought they liked me or anything, but – I didn’t think they were people who did things like this.”

“Naruto would never.”

“Of course Naruto would never!” Sasuke snaps.

“Hey. Itachi changed his mind. The Council won’t oppose him. The deal’s over.”

“You made him come back for him,” Sasuke says with astonishing conviction. Kakashi hadn’t imagined Sasuke could bear understanding this, that someone had needed to make Itachi come back for him. “After he – gave me away.”

“Maa, I suppose.”

Sasuke nods. He’s a pragmatist at heart: he won’t expect Kakashi to go up against Orochimaru, not when he must realise that that could only end with Kakashi’s death. He stares up at Kakashi with enormous eyes, like they’re eating up the rest of his face, pale as frost and maybe as brittle. Kakashi read somewhere about little kids being cute, fine features and big eyes, so adults will be drawn in and take care of them. In this too Sasuke’s a survivor.

He ruffles Sasuke’s hair, unaccountably lost for words.

Sasuke starts to cry. He glares, betrayed by his own body, but obviously can’t stop. It’s shaking, choking, hysterical crying, he cries until he makes himself sick. Kakashi sighs and pulls him into his lap, letting him dry his snot on Kakashi’s shirt.

xxxxx

Afterwards, Sasuke simply doesn’t go home. Kakashi gets used to increased housekeeping, to school books on the kitchen table and Lego on the floor. Within a month he explains to his next door neighbour that she can either sell him her flat, or he’ll requisition it. He and Sasuke spend a few nights in a hotel, and come home to a much larger flat, the dividing wall torn down.

Shortly afterwards he stops by the Uchihas to pick up Sasuke’s favourite things, the ones that can’t be bought new. A certain stuffed dinosaur, not least.

“Isn’t he rather too old for that?” Mikoto asks. She’s watching him impassively from the doorway as he raids Sasuke’s room.

“I believe that’s up to him,” Kakashi says, instead of saying, He was, but then everyone in the world sold him to a nightmare, and suddenly inanimate objects are the only safe things to be attached to.

“You spoil him,” Mikoto says. “It’s time he came home.”

“That won’t be happening.”

“I am still his guardian.”

Kakashi finally straightens up, having successfully unearthed Sasuke’s insect book from under his bed. “Try me.”

“Really, Kakashi?”

“I’m afraid so.” He looks around for Sasuke’s backpack and starts stuffing Sasuke’s childhood treasures into it. “Orochimaru was one thing, but I’m a far stronger crusader than you’ll ever be: unless Itachi decides otherwise, Sasuke’s staying with me.”

Mikoto smiles, closed-lipped and condescending. “Isn’t Itachi also staying with you?”

“Usually.” He mirrors the smile. “I suppose you could say we’re sharing custody of him.”

He and Mikoto, sharing custody of Itachi; he and Itachi, sharing custody of Sasuke.

“I confess, I’m surprised.”

“Why? He wanted something he thought he couldn’t have. You told him to give it away, and I convinced him he could have it after all. Surely it’s obvious whom he’d prefer to listen to.”

Mikoto’s smile sharpens. “Are you grooming Sasuke, then?”

“If you’d looked after him – if you’d let him even pretend to be part of this family – he wouldn’t have looked elsewhere.”

“I notice that’s not a denial.”

“I’m sorry, are you trying to express concern about Sasuke being taken advantage of after you sold him off to a paedophile?”

“Yes, yes, we’re all hypocrites – you as well.”

Kakashi smiles his scarecrow smile, wide and empty like a wound in his face. “Of course.”

Back home Sasuke unpacks the dinosaur and smiles shyly, leaning against Kakashi’s side. He’s been much clingier with Kakashi after the Orochimaru incident: holding on to his shirts, sitting within reaching distance, even sleeping in his bed most nights. With Itachi he’s quiet, as if trying to erase himself, so Itachi won’t notice any new transgressions to punish him for.

That night, curled tight around the stuffed dinosaur, Sasuke demands, “Why does he hate me now?”

“He doesn’t,” Kakashi says. “He hates himself because he loves you.”

Sasuke’s face tells him that this makes no sense. Kakashi sighs, rubbing his eyes.

“You know he has these weird ideas? Loving God above all, that sort of bullshit?”

Sasuke nods.

“Well, right. But he doesn’t actually. He loves you. And he thinks that makes him a sinner. It’s like… you know when it’s Lent? You’re starving yourself and you’re so hungry you feel like it’ll kill you, and then there’s a perfect apple – the only way you can stop yourself eating it is throwing it away.”

“Is it because Orochimaru’s my father?”

“That only matters to stupid people. Itachi’s crazy, but he’s not stupid. Hmm, he’s…trying to cut himself off from people, you know? And usually he manages. But he can’t cut himself off from you. That’s why he tried to remove you from his life.”

“But then he changed his mind.”

“Yes. I told him it was all God’s plan. That he should keep you.”

Sasuke strains closer, and Kakashi pulls him in, lets his sharp edges dig into Kakashi’s chest. “Because he wants to… have sex with me?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. Probably. Yeah.”

Sasuke bites his lip. “I don’t know how.”

“I know. That’s good. He wouldn’t want you to know how.”

“But it’s like what Orochimaru did?”

“No.”

“But he put – that’s sex. Putting things inside you.”

“He did it wrong.”

“How’s it done right?”

“I’ll show you when you’re older.”

Sasuke gives him a suspicious look. “Promise?”

“Promise.” He kisses Sasuke’s forehead. “Now go to sleep.”

His explanations seem ultimately to have made sense to Sasuke, because Sasuke becomes more proactive with Itachi. At the next opportunity, he climbs into Itachi’s lap wearing his most determined expression. “Do you love me?” he demands, sounding like an inquisitor.

“Yes,” Itachi says, a sound of pain.

“Will you keep me?”

“Yes,” Itachi says again. “’Till death do us part.”

“Swear on your soul.”

“I do. I swear on my soul. Nobody will come between us.”

Sasuke nods. Itachi kisses him on the mouth. Just a brief peck, nothing he hasn’t done before.

Afterwards Sasuke starts acting more normally around Itachi, not that they ever had the healthiest relationship. But it’s Kakashi who’s his primary adult now, the safe point around which Sasuke arranges his life.

xxxxx

Ten years from now, Kakashi muses, the fate of the world will be decided by the playground fights and alliances of Sasuke’s class – who shared their lunch with whom, who stole someone’s crayons or tattled to the teachers.

This is your home, he told Sasuke. You don’t have to ask to bring someone over.

This was rather a stupid thing to say, as it means Kakashi has to get used to an assortment of rowdy children playing in his flat. Naruto’s here almost constantly, and often brings his shifter friends. He can’t or won’t forgive Minato for his involvement in trading Sasuke for peace – he’s living fulltime with his mother now, because he won’t speak to Minato. On top of that there’s the occasional exorcist child, mainly Neji and Hanabi Hyuuga, even that strawberry-blond human girl Naruto thinks he’s sweet on, as if everyone couldn’t see him looking at Sasuke like he’d die if Sasuke didn’t look back.

It’s all a bit of a mess for Kakashi, since the concept of an indoor voice is clearly foreign to Naruto, but there’s no denying that he’s good for Sasuke, who’s started to laugh and argue again.

“No,” Sasuke’s telling him now. “We have homework.”

It’s a good thing that Sasuke’s ridiculously conscientious and driven, since it would never occur to Kakashi to nag him about schoolwork, or cleaning, or eating healthy. He only learnt to iron because Sasuke expects his school uniform shirts to be unwrinkled; only learnt to cook properly because Sasuke gets hungry; he gives Sasuke a big allowance because it’s easier than trying to figure out what kind of books and games would be appropriate, and Sasuke mostly uses it for necessities like winter boots and good knives.

Naruto pouts, apparently feeling that homework is optional.

Kakashi leaves them be, taking a call from Minato. “Hmm?”

“Naruto’s with you, right?” Minato asks without preamble.

“Yeah. I’ve got eyes on him.”

“Thank God.”

“Explain.”

“Yui’s been taken. I need you to keep Naruto until we’ve got this sorted out.”

“Sure. Hey, Naruto. Your mum’s not home right now, we’re having a sleepover.”

“Thank you,” Minato says. For the first time he really sounds like he means it.

Days pass. The way Sasuke glances at him sometimes tells him Sasuke understands that something’s wrong, but Naruto’s often spent several days with them while Itachi’s away on mission, and any anxiety is very low level.

Then Tsunade arranges to speak with Kakashi, and essentially asks him to clean up the Yui mess.

Kakashi decides he wants nothing to do with it. “Tell Minato,” he says. “Or Kushina. I’m not touching this.”

Presumably she does, because shortly afterwards Yui is recovered. Only there’s not much left of Yui, minced meat and the eyes of someone wishing for death. Even so Minato doesn’t manage to mend things with Naruto, not really: it’s Sasuke’s hand Naruto grabs for, Sasuke’s shoulder he cries on, Sasuke’s arm he breaks. It’s Sasuke who fights with him and consoles him and finally drags him out of the hospital room after all the machines have gone silent, and Yui’s only cooling flesh.

Once more Kakashi finds himself sharing his bed with upset children. Times were simpler when he shared it with prostitutes, but of course that’s been out of the question since Sasuke moved in.

The tricky part is Itachi, who considers Naruto beneath notice at best, and is unlikely in the extreme to approve of Naruto essentially living with them.

It’s Sasuke who has the conversation with Itachi, Kakashi keeping Naruto quiet in the kitchen. “Can’t I keep him?” Sasuke asks. “Just for a while. You told Kakashi he could let me have a pet.”

“I was thinking in terms of something more suitable,” Itachi says dryly. “And housebroken.”

“It’s unusual now,” Sasuke says, “but a few hundred years ago, shifters were really popular pets.”

“You like him too much.”

“I like him.”

“Sometimes when we like something, that’s a sign we should turn away from it. Resist it.”

Sasuke stares up at him, unblinking. “Like you resisted?”

They have one of their moments, untouchable and incomprehensible to outsiders. Kakashi keeps his hand locked over Naruto’s mouth until Itachi finally nods.

xxxxx

Sasuke’s not quite thirteen when things go wrong.

It’s not the first time by far that he’s been wrestling with Naruto, but the atmosphere is new. They’re both breathing hard, which in Naruto’s case doesn’t make sense unless you take into consideration this change of mood, the way they’re looking at each other.

The whole thing isn’t made better by the fact that they’re on Sasuke’s bed, that Sasuke’s stretched out on his back with Naruto over him. Naruto’s leaning closer, open-mouthed and startled, and Sasuke swallows and shifts, as if he’s going to reach out for him.

It’s not really sexual, they’re too young for that. But it’s obvious that very soon it will be.

“Well, fuck,” Kakashi mutters.

Itachi steps past him, grabbing – actually grabbing – Naruto’s shoulder and pulling him off Sasuke. There’s a surprised yell, Naruto’s shirt catches fire and the flesh below seems to boil.

“Itachi!” Sasuke snaps upright, stumbling off the bed to get between Itachi and Naruto.

“We were clear,” Itachi says. “This is not up for discussion.” He lifts Sasuke’s chin. “Omae wa ore dake no mono da. Sutto.”

“Yes, right,” Sasuke agrees impatiently. “There’s no need to burn Naruto over it!”

“Let’s all calm down,” Kakashi cuts in. “No pets on the bed, okay.”

Naruto’s got his hand pressed to his shoulder, orange energy trying to heal the ashy handprint carved into his flesh. It’s no use, Kakashi could tell him. There will be no new skin to cover that. Naruto seems gradually to understand this, as the pain doesn’t stop. On the contrary, it will be growing worse, the handprint sinking down through flesh and sinew, to burn itself into his very skeleton. His head falls forward a little, sweaty face pressed to Sasuke’s shoulder.

Naruto’s a fool that way – keeps acting as if the fact that he needs Sasuke to live means he can have Sasuke.

“Itachi, no – Itachi, dame – yamerou –” Sasuke’s words fall on deaf ears. They’re beyond language now. Sasuke tackles Itachi, which means Itachi grabs Naruto’s leg instead of his head.

Then there is no leg.

Naruto’s face goes white, paler suddenly than Sasuke’s. Where a second ago there was a leg, there’s only air and ash. He stares at his knee, which ends in nothing.

“Okay,” Kakashi cuts in, angling to get beside Sasuke, in between Naruto and Itachi. “I think we’ve all got the reminder we needed. Let’s deescalate.” He bends down, gesturing for Naruto to climb onto his back. “I’m taking you home so Tsunade can look you over. You two stay here.”

All three of them are set to protest, but Sasuke and Naruto must understand that Sasuke needs to stay to keep Itachi from going berserk, and Itachi presumably sees little point in protesting. He’s got what he wanted, after all.

Kakashi tightens his grip on Naruto and elects to kick open the closest window rather than risk passing by Itachi. Naruto’s heavier now, old enough that Kakashi hasn’t carried him in years, but he’s always been on the short side. Kakashi lets him down on the pavement when he starts hyperventilating, but has to hold on to him because Naruto’s shocked, edging into panicked, and none too steady on his one leg.

“Oh my God, oh my God,” he gasps, a helpless litany. “Shit, shit, shit.”

He stares at the empty space where his foot used to be, his face twists with panic, and Kakashi congratulates himself on having known Naruto long enough to know to avoid the imminent projectile vomit. “Oh, lovely.”

“I – I –” He gags, panics.

“Hush,” Kakashi mutters, directing him to hold on to the closest wall. “I’m calling Minato.”

In the interest of avoiding any rash moves, he neglects to mention that Naruto’s crippled for life, simply explaining that he needs Tsunade urgently and discreetly.

“Well, shit,” is Tsunade’s assessment. “Right. Let’s get you in the car. No, shut up, in the car, now.”

Naruto sniffles but obeys, his face regaining a little colour.

“What the hell happened?” Tsunade demands. They’re on the road by then, Naruto essentially unconscious.

Kakashi meets her eyes in the rearview mirror. “You make a move on Itachi’s little princess, these things can happen.”

Tsunade lifts an eyebrow. “Really?”

Kakashi shrugs. “I doubt Naruto thought of it that way. But it was plenty obvious to everyone else.”

Tsunade shakes her head, upping Naruto’s sedation. “And what was Sasuke’s role in all this?”

“You mean aside from body tackling Itachi?”

“Ah. He’s not the worst of his kind, all things considered.”

“The situation’s untenable,” Kakashi says. “He’s all over Sasuke, they’re too old now for it to be really innocent. Worse, Sasuke likes it. Itachi won’t stand for it.”

Tsunade looks down at Naruto with commiseration, touching his face. Despite the sedation his expression remains strained, tense. “I know. We’ll have to send him away.”

xxxxx

“I don’t want you to take it out on Naruto,” Sasuke says. “He’s not my whipping boy.”

Itachi mumbles something, too low for Kakashi to catch the words.

“If I’ve disappointed you, then punish me for it. Not someone else.”

Kakashi debates stepping in as Itachi unbuttons Sasuke’s shirt. But Itachi stops halfway down, pushing the fabric away to expose the left side of Sasuke’s chest. “This isn’t a punishment so much as a reminder. A token.” He lays his hand over Sasuke’s heart, which must be beating furiously.

When he lifts it away, Sasuke’s face is drawn with pain and there’s a black handprint on his chest, as permanent as Naruto’s injuries, if far less debilitating.

He reaches up to touch it, and seems… Kakashi had expected smothered outrage, perhaps a feeling of betrayal, but Sasuke seems cautiously pleased.

“You don’t mind,” Itachi observes.

“No,” Sasuke agrees. “I’ve always been yours. Just – don’t burn Naruto.”

“You heard Kakashi,” Itachi says, which is pretty bloody rich. “No pets in the bed.”

“Right,” Sasuke says. Kakashi can already tell he’ll be interpreting that in the same good faith way as people who understand the virginity requirement to mean that anal is fine. Apparently the birds and the bees talk will have to include a section on carpet burn.

“You understand,” Itachi says, “that you cannot give yourself to anyone, because you’re not yours to give. You’re mine.”

“I wasn’t giving anything. We were just playing around.”

“Don’t lie to me, Sasuke.”

“I’m not!”

“I see that,” Itachi concedes, cupping Sasuke’s cheek. “You’re very innocent for someone who’s already ruined.”

xxxxx

“There’s nothing to be done,” Tsunade says. “That leg will never grow back.” She sighs, rubbing her forehead. “We’ll cut off a bit more, and then attach the prosthesis.”

“He’s lost enough,” Minato hears himself say. It’s a stupid thing to say.

“We want him to heal around the prosthesis, that means we need to attach it to flesh untouched by the angelburn.”

The selected prosthesis doesn’t look like a leg, which is a mercy. It would be far more disturbing to see something you could mistake for flesh and blood, and have to realise again and again that it wasn’t.

“He was practical about it,” Tsunade says, touching the metal pole.

Minato looks past her at Naruto, who’s either asleep or sedated into unconsciousness in an infirmary bed. He has another one of those stupid unstoppable thoughts: my little boy.

But even now Naruto rejects him. Minato wishes he could agree with that condemnation, so he could ask forgiveness. But what lost him Naruto’s trust were measures to save Naruto’s life, their whole pack. Sasuke’s only one person, and anyway a crusader prodigy. What could’ve really happened to him?

Well, a great deal of unpleasantness, since everyone knows about Orochimaru’s tastes, but he’d have lived…

Of course, with Orochimaru dead, everything turned out all right. The antishifter exorcists are on the loose, but badly organised, not currently a great threat.

“Minato.”

“Hmm?” He follows Tsunade’s look towards the window, and watches Sasuke climb through. For a moment he feels vicious resentment – this boy has cost Naruto his leg – but then remembers his guilt, how much more he was prepared to cost Sasuke, and the fact that Sasuke purportedly body tackled Itachi. It’s probably true: Sasuke smells burnt, smells of smoked meat.

He settles on Naruto’s bedside, and pokes Naruto’s face until Naruto wakes up.

“Sasuke!” Naruto makes it up on his elbows, smiling wanly but ardently. “Shit, you stink. Did he hurt you?”

“I’m still standing,” Sasuke snaps.

They both tense, both look towards Naruto’s missing leg. Naruto bites his lips and pulls away the blanket, exposing the emptiness under his knee.

“That’s it, then,” Sasuke says tightly. “It won’t heal.”

Naruto shakes his head. “I’ll get a really cool prosthesis though.”

Sasuke looks down, maybe ashamed, maybe collecting himself. Maybe just furious. His fingers fret and then fist in Naruto’s shirt. “You have to go.”

“What? No!”

“He was going to kill you.”

“It doesn’t make any sense!” Naruto protests, voice rising and breaking. “He never – he didn’t like but me he didn’t attack me!”

“He didn’t like… He thought – ” Sasuke cuts himself off looking angry the way he does when he’s uncomfortable.

“What?” Naruto demands.

Sasuke’s fingers tighten in Naruto’s shirt. He leans down quickly and lays one on Naruto, mouths pressed together. “That’s what he thought,” Sasuke says. “That’s what he didn’t like.”

Naruto blinks, sitting up quickly and ending up very close to Sasuke indeed. He sounds breathy, shocked and thrilled, “Sasuke…”

“You liked it,” Sasuke observes. His voice is in stark contrast to Naruto’s, dry and factual. “And you have no self-control, and he’s going to – you have to go.”

“No,” Naruto insists. “I need to stay with you.”

“Tch. You’re going to bond with someone, anyway.”

Naruto grabs his hand, holds it tight. “I’m going to bond with you!”

Sasuke frowns. “No, you’re not.”

“I am!”

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” Sasuke sneers.

“But I will. I will. Sasuke. I promise.”

“And if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”

Minato sighs. “He’s right. Naruto has to go.”

Tsunade nods. “I’ll need a day to attach the prosthesis, make sure it works right. You find a boarding school in the meanwhile.”

Chapter Text

Sasuke’s quieter after Naruto’s gone, a resentful, palely loitering quiet. They talk every day, but Sasuke stomps around the flat smouldering like a volcano. It’s obvious he misses Naruto’s physical presence, and Kakashi’s retroactively noticing how much they touched each other – frankly, were all over each other – how there was smell and warmth and skin, magic sinking into nerves.

Sasuke might not have been lying when he told Itachi he wasn’t giving Naruto anything, but he was clearly wrong.

“Hey,” Kakashi mutters, ruffling Sasuke’s hair.

Sasuke frowns at him but doesn’t protest having his head rubbed. “This isn’t working.”

“Sure it is,” Kakashi says. “Just – ease up a bit, and then wash it before you slice.”

In the interest of delegating some of his cooking duties, he’s taken on the monumental task of teaching Sasuke to make edible food.

“We could just order in,” Sasuke points out.

“It’s the principle of the thing.”

Sasuke gives him a narrow-eyed look. “Since when do you have principles?”

“Maa, I’m just a bit flexible about them.”

Sasuke gives him another odd look, finally handling the carrots right. “Do you understand what a principle is? Inflexibility is kind of at the core of it.”

“But aren’t you the same?” Kakashi asks, and when Sasuke looks up adds, “Anyone else who did that to Naruto, you’d have killed.”

“Yes,” Sasuke says without hesitation. No doubt he’d have enjoyed it, too.

“But not Itachi.”

Sasuke frowns, cutting himself on the peeler. “I can’t kill Itachi. Nobody can kill Itachi.”

“Do you want to?”

Sasuke actually looks upset. “Of course not!”

Kakashi hums tonelessly, slicing onions. “And if it were me? If I’d hurt him.”

“That’s different,” Sasuke grumbles. “You’d have had a reason.”

“Itachi had a reason.”

“But it was groundless. I wasn’t… anyway that’s no reason for him to – but it doesn’t matter now.”

“Maa, I suppose it doesn’t. Here, do the sweet potato.” He watches Sasuke’s neck, the tense set of his shoulders. “He probably gets less racism, in boarding school.” There won’t be any crusaders in the school, which means Naruto will shut any bigots up right quick.

Sasuke glares up at him, a glare like a stab.

Kakashi shrugs, trying to divert the burn of that glare. “He had to sit on the floor when he had dinner. You threw him scraps and he picked them up off the floor.”

“That’s just when Itachi was here,” Sasuke protests. “We let him sit at the table!”

“Mmh,” Kakashi agrees. “And we didn’t make him wear the rosary that burnt him, and we didn’t make him wash his hands in holy water. Or maim him for getting frisky with you.”

The smouldering grows more intense, Kakashi’s tensing in anticipation of eruption, when Itachi appears.

“It smells…edible,” he remarks, sounding insultingly surprised. He rests a hand on the small of Sasuke’s back, and Sasuke smiles up at him, and that’s not a very brotherly look on Itachi’s face.

Ah, Kakashi thinks. Sasuke’s thirteen, which means this is earlier than Kakashi had hoped but later than he’d feared.

They haven’t seen much of Itachi lately, not since he burnt Naruto: Sasuke makes Itachi human and happy, and Itachi’s always hated himself for that afterwards, and so limits his time with Sasuke. Now, perhaps, he’s able to relax – able to rest his cheek against the top of Sasuke’s head – because on some unspeakable level the ground has already crumbled under his feet, he’s begun his fall.

Kakashi must look amused, his default expression, because Itachi directs a furious look at him.

“You planted the idea like a sin,” he tells Kakashi later that evening, having taken him aside. “All those years ago. And now…”

“…now you can’t stop thinking about it, yes, quite.” Kakashi reflects that Itachi has a persistent tendency to blame anything he feels on other people, but better he blame Kakashi for this than Sasuke, or indeed Naruto, who no doubt gave him ideas by wrestling Sasuke down on the bed the day he lost his leg.

Itachi’s mouth thins, lips pressed together. His more ascetic, more condemning outlook on life tends to obscure this fact, but his mouth’s actually softer than Sasuke’s, his lips fuller, their curve more gentle.

“Well, try kissing him or something?” Kakashi suggests. “See if you like it.”

Itachi blinks.

“For reference, this is what a kiss feels like.” He lifts Itachi’s face, two fingers under his chin, and lays his mouth on Itachi’s. Itachi’s surprisingly more receptive than Kakashi thought he would be, by which he means Itachi doesn’t attempt to immolate him. “So you know what’s him and what’s just kissing.”

Itachi makes a thoughtful sound, and Kakashi stops himself laughing by licking across his lip.

xxxxx

That night Kakashi knocks on Sasuke’s doorframe. “Come sleep in with me.”

Sasuke looks up from his computer. His fringe falls forward into his eyes, he keeps brushing it away until Kakashi nicks one of Sakura’s forgotten bobby pins from the desk and fastens it. Pink glitter falls from the pin and onto Sasuke’s forehead. Kakashi smirks, because it would be unacceptable to just smile, neither of them would know what to do with that. “Cute.”

Sasuke scoffs. “I’ll be in after I finish this.”

It doesn’t take very long at all: Sasuke’s slept in his own room for years, the nights his spends in with Kakashi are mostly a form of mutual protection, when Itachi’s particularly unstable. They handle him better together, balance him between them. So Sasuke doesn’t linger tonight, after Kakashi’s issued such clear warning.

“What did he do?” he demands, crawling under the duvet on his side of Kakashi’s bed.

“You remember what we talked about,” Kakashi says carefully. “About what he might want with you.”

“Yes,” Sasuke agrees, no hesitation but his eyes very big, very young. “Does he – now?”

“I think so,” Kakashi says. “Soon.”

“I see.” He lies down with his forehead resting against the edge of Kakashi’s shoulder. “I wasn’t sure he was even interested in – things like that.”

“He doesn’t want to be.”

“Who does?” Sasuke snaps.

Kakashi shrugs, gently so he won’t jolt Sasuke. “Well, most people? You’ve never wanted to?”

Sasuke curls tighter in on himself. “No. I don’t know. I – kissed Naruto.”

“Really? He kissed you? That’s pretty bold, even for him.”

“No,” Sasuke says impatiently. “I kissed him. I just – wanted, or – anyway, I just did.”

“I see,” Kakashi says, letting his fingers sift through Sasuke’s hair. “Well, that’s good to hear.”

Sasuke squints at him, always suspicious. “It is?”

“Maa, why not?”

“But Itachi – you said, before. That he wouldn’t like if I knew what to do.”

“Mmh. I don’t think he would.”

“So we can’t practice, then.”

Kakashi feels his eyebrows arc. “Would you want to?”

Sasuke shrugs. “I like to be good at stuff.”

“Hmm.”

Sasuke gives him a belligerent glare. “Anyway it wouldn’t – it would be safe, with you.”

“You’ll be all right,” Kakashi says, when he can speak again.

“Of course I will!” Sasuke snaps.

Kakashi manages to laugh, tickling along Sasuke’s nose.

xxxxx

“I’m home,” Kakashi calls, trying to free himself from his coat without dropping the groceries. Nobody answers, which is odd because going by the shoe rack they’re both home.

In the living room, Sasuke sitting on the back of the sofa and Itachi’s lifting his chin. Sasuke handles it just the way Kakashi would’ve instructed him to: doesn’t resist, doesn’t encourage. Itachi kisses him on the mouth, lingers over it for a long time. At first it’s visibly the kiss Kakashi himself bestowed on Itachi a few days ago, but gradually it deepens, the student surpassing the master.

Still, Kakashi reflects, this doesn’t come naturally to Itachi the way exorcising does. He’s never been any good at reading other people. 

Eventually he lifts his head, and Sasuke meets his eyes like a head-on collision.

“I want what you want,” Sasuke says. “I want to make you happy.”

“It doesn’t seem wrong to you?” Itachi inquires. Already his hands have returned to Sasuke, stroking up his neck in a caress that could turn so easily into strangling.

“I trust you,” Sasuke tells him. “Itachi-niisan can do no wrong.”

Itachi grabs his face, fingers digging into Sasuke’s cheeks. There will be bruises tomorrow, maybe burn damage. “Did he instruct you to say that?”

“I speak for myself!” Sasuke snaps.

Itachi considers, fingers tightening further. He’s rarely hit Sasuke – has rarely had reason to, his disappointment or disinterest is so much worse to Sasuke – but it’s happened. He doesn’t hit him now.

Still Kakashi’s reminded of those childhood punishments. Sasuke held his hands out of his own volition, never protesting for all his face was white, already scrunching up with the anticipation of pain. Itachi burnt stigmata into his palms. A human would’ve had their hands ruined for life, but on Sasuke they healed afterwards, those holes boring straight through his palms, leaking blood and ash.

That’s torture, Kakashi pointed out, slapping Itachi’s punishing fingers away from Sasuke. That’s not something we do to our children.

Itachi seemed bemused, possibly even amused. Sasuke looked surprised, before he looked ashamed.

What else do you expect I should do to discipline him?

Kakashi stared. What should you do, except inflict torture on him for getting home late? Jeez, let me think.

Unfortunately Itachi’s never been very adept at sarcasm. Despite years of personal training from Kakashi, he still often gets it wrong.

Sasuke pursed his lips, careful, thoughtful. You could maybe spank me? That’s common.

But that would be too much contact, Kakashi saw that at once in Itachi’s perceptible shifting away.

Would you like that? Itachi’s voice was inhumanly neutral. He never helped you along, never gave you a clue what the right answer was.

Sasuke shrugged. I guess?

He really might, Kakashi thought. The pain would be negligible, compared to what Sasuke was used to, and it would mean contact with Itachi, the intimacy of skin on skin.

But Itachi would hate himself for that kind of humanity, and Itachi always took his self-hatred out on others, never took responsibility for his own feelings. It would be Sasuke who’d made him feel, and he’d make sure to punish Sasuke for that.

Corporeal punishment is beneath you, Kakashi said.

Itachi lifted an eyebrow. It’s quite legal.

Which makes you question why we live in this barbaric shithole. A country that allows child abuse isn’t civilised.

You hit him.

Hitting something during training and hitting someone for punishment is different.

Maybe, Itachi said. Well, you take care of him then.

And he walked away, and Sasuke was speechlessly furious with Kakashi all evening, because he’d taken Itachi away from him.

In the present Itachi finally releases Sasuke. “You don’t mind,” he reiterates.

“No,” Sasuke says. He’s never been a good liar and he’s not lying now.

“You’re mine to do with as I please,” Itachi says. There’s no need to convince Sasuke, so he must be trying to convince himself.

“Yes,” Sasuke says. He goes up on his tiptoes, kissing Itachi lightly, lightly on the mouth.

Itachi breathes out, eyes closed. He kisses Sasuke’s forehead, fingers clenching convulsively in Sasuke’s hair.

“I got the groceries,” Kakashi says from the doorway.

xxxxx

That evening Kakashi arranges for Itachi to be called away on a mission. He doesn’t have to wait long before Sasuke settles next to him in the bed, eyes bigger than usual over the dogged set of his mouth. He looks so young, absurdly thin the way people only really are during their teenage growth spurts, his face still retaining childhood proportions.

He crawls under Kakashi’s arm, almost into his lap, and at first Kakashi thinks he’s unexpectedly traumatised by Itachi’s advances. Then Sasuke kisses him on the mouth. Kakashi passively lets him, until Sasuke sits back and glares at him. “I need to practice! Work with me.”

“I’m not attracted to children.”

“Get over it,” Sasuke says. “It’s time you learnt.”

“I doubt Itachi will be very pleased if you don’t seem innocent in the ways of this.”

“He already got the virgin kiss. Anyway how would he know? It’s not like he’s ever fucked anyone.”

Kakashi snorts. “Harsh, but true.”

“Anyway he always expects me to get good at things quickly.”

“So now you mean to cheat?”

“Ha ha, you’re so hilarious about my impending incest child rape.”

He settles his arms more firmly around Sasuke. “Is that how you think of it?”

Sasuke shrugs. “Not really. I mean, technically it’s – but it’s not like with Orochimaru. I’d hardly tell Itachi no.”

“Your mother wouldn’t like this. She can have a certain sway with him sometimes, at least when she’s guilt tripping.”

“My mother,” Sasuke snaps, “sold me to Orochimaru. She gets no say.”

“You wouldn’t have to talk to her.”

“I’ll be fine,” Sasuke says. “I want him to want me.”

He kisses Kakashi again, more belligerently this time, with an ardency born of stress and desperation. Gradually, Kakashi starts kissing him back, slowly opening Sasuke’s mouth. As always, Sasuke’s a quick study. While he’s clumsy and sharp-toothed, there’s nothing shy about him. His fingers drum against Kakashi’s chest as Kakashi strokes up his back, up under his shirt, and kisses his face.

It’s all quite nice, if also completely absurd, until Sasuke gropes his dick.

“Um,” Kakashi says. “I’m not sure we’re ready for that.”

Sasuke frowns at him.

“Please let go.”

Sasuke looks down, his fingers loosening. “I wanted to know how big it was.” He looks up again, and his voice is small but there’s nothing vulnerable in his face. “Orochimaru was just fingers, so.”

“Okay,” Kakashi says.

Sasuke gives him another look, eyebrow arched in defiant question, and then nods, biting his lip and he fondles Kakashi’s soft penis. “It’s…” Bigger than he’d hoped, obviously.

“Itachi will be hard,” Kakashi says.

“Why aren’t you?”

“Because you’re thirteen, and I love you, and you don’t like this.”

Sasuke scoffs, but also curls up close, sleeping in Kakashi’s arms not like a lover but like a child.

“What’s it feel like?” he asks in the small hours of the night.

“Hmm, you remember how you felt with Naruto? Before Itachi burnt him. You wanted something, right? You wanted.”

“…yes.”

“Well, sex is more of that.”

“Hn,” Sasuke says, and can finally fall asleep.

xxxxx

When Kakashi walks in on them, they’re in Sasuke’s room and Kakashi’s fairly sure it’s the first time. Sasuke’s on his back, legs twitching awkwardly, brow furrowed. He stares blankly up at the ceiling.

“Close your eyes,” Itachi tells him, and Sasuke obeys.

Sasuke puts his hands on Itachi’s shoulders, and Itachi removes them.

It feels like it takes a long time, but it can’t really.

Kakashi keeps out of the way as, afterwards, Itachi touches Sasuke’s face with something almost gentleness, and Sasuke lights up. Itachi says something Kakashi can’t hear, and then adjusts his clothes – he was always mostly dressed – and leaves. Sasuke sits up naked on the bed. There’s no physical evidence of excitement. Indeed, when he stands up and reaches for a shirt, he moves carefully, as if cautious of aggravating an injury.

For once, Kakashi resents Itachi: it’s usually pointless, you resent Itachi the same way you resent a tsunami or an earthquake, but this is such a waste. It would’ve taken so little, Sasuke would’ve been happy to like it.

Sasuke wipes his eyes with the back of his knuckles, looking absolutely furious. Then he marches out of the room, the flat might as well have been his battlefield, and slams open Itachi’s door.

Itachi’s room is essentially a monk cell, an ascetic kind of chapel.

Under the eyes of Jesus Christ on his cross and all the saints, which have never been particularly real to Sasuke, and sounding like his voice might break into screams or tears, Sasuke snaps, “You left me.”

Itachi looks at him in mute despair.

“Don’t leave me.”

As if in a trance, Itachi opens his arms, and Sasuke falls on his knees and clings to him. They sit together on the floor of this strange chapel, holding on to each other convulsively.

As he kneels, arms wound like garrotte wire around Itachi’s neck, Sasuke’s shirt rides up, and it’s possible to watch Itachi’s sperm trickling out of him. It’s tinted pink, as if he’s bled.

xxxxx

Sasuke doesn’t ask to practice again. If he gets advice or treatment, he handles it on his own. Mainly he acts like nothing’s happened, which is the reasonable course of action – certainly it’s the one Kakashi adopts.

Finally one evening, when Kakashi’s wandered into Sasuke’s room in search of a spare charger, Sasuke looks up from his computer. He has a desk but never uses it, preferring to sit cross-legged on the bed with his laptop balanced on his knees. “Does it get better?”

Kakashi sits down next to him on the bed. “It’s bad?”

Sasuke shrugs. “It gets worse when it doesn’t have time to heal in between. So it’s better now he’s been away, but.”

“Heal,” Kakashi repeats.

“Hn. I figured – everyone bleeds the first time, right? Virginity, whatever. But I thought that was supposed to stop? That it got better.”

“That’s girls,” Kakashi says. “Or, actually, it’s a sexist myth about girls too. You’re not supposed to bleed.”

“I do,” Sasuke says. “I’m – defective?”

“Hardly. Does he use enough lube?”

Sasuke blinks, looking blank. “Lube?”

“Jesus Christ. Okay, let me channel Iruka here: it’s never supposed to hurt. If it doesn’t feel good for you, he’s doing it wrong.”

Sasuke all but rolls his eyes. “Like that could feel good for anyone. You let someone do it to you so it feels good for them. Just, skip the PC bullshit. I’m aiming for – avoiding stiches in the arse, not some kind of …liking it.”

“I really want to prove you wrong.”

“Tch.”

“Yes, yes, I’m going to be a responsible adult and talk to Itachi instead.”

“What?” Sasuke snaps. “No!”

Kakashi lifts an eyebrow. “Someone has to tell him about the birds and the bees, apparently. Lube is a life skill.” He ruffles Sasuke’s hair. “I’ll take care of it. It’ll be better. I promise.”

xxxxx

He throws a tube at Itachi, who catches it just before it impacts with his forehead. “What’s this now?”

“Lube,” Kakashi tells him. “It’s come to my attention that you’re still having sex like a selfish, know-nothing kid. Time to step up.”

Itachi lifts an eyebrow. “It’s come to your attention?”

“He didn’t say.” Kakashi shrugs. “I do the laundry, you fool. I notice if there’s blood.” It’s true in so far as Kakashi’s the one who pays the woman who does their laundry, but such details are below Itachi’s notice.

“It’s natural,” Itachi says, looking past Kakashi out the window. “One bleeds for one’s sins.”

“No. This is on you. Whether he bleeds or he likes it or whatever, this is your sin.”

“Perhaps.”

“You’re God’s chosen,” Kakashi reminds him. “You elected to do this. Sasuke trusts you.” He lets his mouth twist. “Are you not strong enough to carry your own sin?”

Itachi sighs. Kakashi can’t read his expression, maybe lost, maybe amused. “What is it that you’d have me do?”

Kakashi discovers Sasuke in the doorway, watching, watchful.

“All right. Assembly time. I’m only embarrassing myself by giving a birds and bees speech once.” It belatedly occurs to him to be grateful that he never had to give Naruto one – at least Itachi and Sasuke aren’t in the habit of asking over-enthusiastic questions.

“I assure you we’re involving neither birds nor bees,” Itachi tells him. But he sounds amused, and they both come along to Kakashi’s bedroom – it’s where most of his porn is stashed, in case he needs to provide illustrations. He settles on the bed in his best guru pose. “As you two geniuses might’ve figured out by now, the anus does not actually self-lubricate. Which means it tears easily. Luckily, science has provided us with a solution.” He squirts some of the lube on his fingers, rubbing it in to coat them properly.

Sasuke settles next to him on the bed, a warm weight against his arm. He touches Kakashi’s hand and makes a face. “Gross.”

“Slippery,” Kakashi corrects. “Which is the whole point. Now, I believe the standard trick is one finger, two fingers, three fingers.”

“To – be inserted,” Sasuke confirms after a brief silence. “You just – put them in?”

“Well, ideally you sort of wiggle them, to…”

Sasuke heaves an explosive sigh. “This is like trying to explain a combat move.”

Kakashi chuckles. “A little like that, perhaps.”

“Pointless, then,” Sasuke says. “Right.”

Kakashi blinks as Sasuke undoes his zipper, pulling down his trousers.

“I agree,” Itachi says. “Isn’t that what you always say, Kakashi? Talk is cheap.”

“I like cheap,” Kakashi points out.

They both ignore him. “Turn over so I can see properly,” Itachi instructs Sasuke, who shifts until he’s lying on his stomach, naked arse exposed.

“Go on,” he says tightly.

“Er…” But hesitation now would be unacceptable. He puts a hand lightly on the small of Sasuke’s back, which is tensed the way you tense a limb in battle, braced for impact. “Relax.”

Sasuke glares at him over his shoulder.

Kakashi rubs his back, short firm strokes like massaging an injury. “I’m not telling you to feel relaxed. Relax your muscles. It’s an act of will to prevent injury.”

Sasuke grumbles but obeys, forcing the worst of the tension to bleed away. He’s extremely tight, but he’s got great muscle control and the tip of Kakashi’s finger can slip in.

“Easy,” Kakashi drawls. “Fingers are tiny, you know? You realise when you take a dump it’s much bigger.”

“There are bones in fingers,” Sasuke points out.

To be fair, Kakashi hadn’t expected him to bring up that one time Orochimaru stuffed his fingers up inside him.

“Trust me,” he says, and Sasuke amazingly still does.

His index finger goes in, meeting more resistance than would be ideal, but not enough to go beyond discomfort and into pain. If he hadn’t had to worry about Itachi freaking out, if it had been just the two of them and Sasuke hadn’t been so desperately uncomfortable, he’d have told Sasuke to touch himself, or done it for him. But they’re not alone, and it wouldn’t be fair to expose Sasuke to helpless shocks of pleasure he has no desire to feel.

He twists his finger, moving slowly and carefully until Sasuke stops expecting pain and starts frowning in boredom, finally loosening up.

“How’s it feel?”

Sasuke shrugs.

“You silver-tongued devil,” Kakashi drawls, inserting another finger as gently as he knows how. Reminding himself that this is not about inducing any pleasure or excitement, which would likely only be bewildering and uncomfortable to Sasuke at this stage, but simply about stretching and massaging muscle until Itachi can penetrate him with minimal discomfort. He starts talking about nothing in particular, until Sasuke snorts at him and starts replying. That’s good, Kakashi thinks, scissoring his fingers, because the issue can never have been physical pain – the reason Sasuke’s tied all into knots has to be something else, and it doesn’t take a genius to come up with last time someone put their fingers inside him, on the worst day of Sasuke’s life.

He keeps going until Sasuke’s not really uncomfortable anymore, just embarrassed, and then he flicks Sasuke’s nose and reminds him that embarrassing himself in front of Kakashi is nothing new. While amazingly haughty given his current position, Sasuke’s snort isn’t entirely unlike a laugh.

When he finally brushes Sasuke’s prostate, it’s by mistake. He takes the opportunity, while Sasuke’s blinking in startlement, to push in a third finger.

“That was different,” Itachi says.

“Yeah, no shit,” Kakashi tells him. “Why don’t you pull down your pants, and I’ll demonstrate.”

Itachi lifts an eyebrow. Kakashi takes his hand, jabs at it hard with several fingers, then strokes across the palm, slowly and rather sensually. “Does that feel different?”

“Of course.”

“Then imagine how much more different if would feel in your pants.”

Itachi lifts an eyebrow again, but it’s hard to be particularly intimidated when his focus is so clearly on Sasuke’s arse.

“Right then,” Kakashi says, wiping his hand on the sheets, because Sasuke’s as loose as he’ll get. “You try.”

Itachi settles on Sasuke’s other side, coating his fingers with lube, and Kakashi stands up to leave. They both look at him oddly; Sasuke in fact with annoyance. He grabs Kakashi’s hand.

“Where are you going?” Itachi asks.

“Out,” Kakashi says, raising an eyebrow of his own. “I imagined you wanted some privacy.”

“You’re part of this,” Itachi says, which is…a thought Kakashi likes to repress.

What matters is Sasuke still holding onto his hand, those greedy little fingers that got hold of him years ago and has never let go. “If this was a combat move, you’d stay.”

“I would,” Kakashi agrees. You don’t leave your students alone to practice a new move, of course. “Right then.”

He sinks back down on the bed, and for several seconds, maybe a minute, Sasuke keeps holding his hand, under the pillow where Itachi can’t see.

He ruffles Sasuke’s hair as Itachi fingers him.

“You’re doing it differently,” Sasuke points out.

“Is that so?” Itachi shifts his hand. He looks at Kakashi. “Come here then. Demonstrate.”

“I think everyone finds their own style.”

“And I shall. After I’ve mastered yours.”

Kakashi looks at Sasuke, who nods. Kakashi heaves a sigh, scooting over. There’s an unspeakably disturbing moment where he and Itachi actually both have their fingers inside Sasuke.

Sasuke’s insides are hot. He’s such a cold person, always freezing in his extra layers, his fingertips icy even in summer, but inside his body he’s hot.

If Kakashi’s fantasised about this, he’s imagined Sasuke scowling and flushed, delivering biting comments and then sucking in his breath at unexpected sensations. He’s imagined Sasuke snorting, talking, moaning, even laughing. But Sasuke simply lays there, unspeaking and unexcited as he lets himself be prodded.

He’s so quiet with Itachi, Minato said once.

He’s a quiet kid.

Not with Naruto. Not with you.

Kakashi almost said, But that’s because he’s safe with us.

I reckoned – well. He’s the person Itachi cares for him, probably the only person Itachi cares for. I assumed that’d give him more leeway to speak up.

Maa. Of course it’s not like that, Kakashi could’ve said. Kakashi can talk, because Itachi only intermittently takes him seriously, and because Itachi to some degree is a creature of habit and has got used to considering Kakashi his friend, part of the interior decoration of his life. With Sasuke, he listens critically to every syllable. He loves Sasuke the way an abusive husband might love his wife: ferociously, jealously, possessively, needing to own him so completely that Sasuke becomes partly an object, not a person to be listened to but Itachi’s treasured property, to be kept as Itachi sees fit.

“Leave,” Itachi orders.

“Kind of you,” Kakashi drawls.

Chapter Text

Kakashi cooks pasta – resisting the urge to clatter with the dishes because he needs to hear if something goes wrong in the other room – and considers his options. He could talk to Mikoto, who resents the idea of either of her sons involving themselves with anyone at all, and can be counted on to oppose this strange incestuous affair. Between them, they might manage to guilt Itachi out of it. But Itachi’s tasted the forbidden fruit now, and would interpret Sasuke’s very existence as a sinful temptation… It would end badly, Kakashi thinks, Itachi might even send Sasuke straight to his grave in the sky.

He pours ketchup into the meat sauce. Sasuke might not enjoy sleeping with Itachi, but he doesn’t really mind and he’s always wanted Itachi to want him.

Kakashi sighs, letting the sauce simmer. Pragmatically, Itachi’s perversions aren’t much hurting Sasuke. In the context of Sasuke’s life, the psychological damage and physical injuries are negligible – certainly nothing compared to how hurt he’d be if Itachi rejected him. Even if Itachi by some miracle wasn’t hurtful or disgusting about it, being discarded by Itachi is Sasuke’s most primal horror.

“Fuck,” Kakashi says out loud, snagging the sauce pan just before the pasta boils over.

They emerge while the food’s still warm, and seem okay. Itachi’s more animated than usual, you could mistake his face for that of a normal person, and Sasuke acts comfortable around him. He leans into Itachi’s side, and Itachi has that soft little smile like a saint’s, and says something low, intimate, and Sasuke looks at him as if he’s hung the moon, enraptured and elated.

For twenty minutes, Itachi’s an excellent brother, maybe even a good lover. Sasuke talks to him without fear, and Itachi answers with some condescension but mainly with interest, honest and avid interest. He says good things, thoughtful, kind. 

It’s about halfway through dinner that he tilts his head that way he does when he’s hearing voices, the humanity bleeding out of his features.

Kakashi lets his fork screech against the plate, but noise distraction doesn’t work this time.

Sasuke shares a look with him then puts his hand on Itachi’s arm.

Itachi shudders. He doesn’t look human in the slightest anymore a he grabs Sasuke’s wrist, Sasuke’s sleeve catching fire.

“Let go,” Kakashi snaps.

“Itachi, you’re hurting me.”

For Sasuke to admit that, Itachi has to be hurting him a lot.

“Let him go,” Kakashi says again, watching the air around them grow hazy with angelfire.

“Why are you doing this to me?” Itachi demands. He sounds lost, a man at the edge of the abyss.

“I’m not doing anything to you!” Sasuke snaps. Uriel boils under his skin, trying to shield him from Lucifael.

Kakashi stands up, ready to intervene physically. “Itachi, fucking stop!”

Itachi blinks, finally allowing Sasuke to pull free. From across the table Kakashi can see the burn damage, fabric melted into skin and ashy fingerprints eating through Sasuke’s flesh.

“I hadn’t intended for that,” Itachi says.

Sasuke swallows, white-lipped. “Okay.”

“You make me upset.”

“I know.”

“If you didn’t make me feel this way, I wouldn’t have to – ”

“I know,” Sasuke says again. “I’m sorry. I’ll do better.”

Itachi nods. He takes Sasuke injured arm. That will scar, Kakashi thinks. “You try so hard,” Itachi says.

“I try for you.”

Itachi brushes his fingers lightly over the burns. Sasuke’s face whitens further, takes on the skull-like expression of extreme pain, but he’s also glowing with being chosen.

“I love you,” Itachi says. “That’s why you upset me so much.”

Kakashi’s heard these words a million times, they’re in every abusive relationship movie, in every pamphlet. They sound different in reality. They sound like truth, sound meaningful, because Itachi and Sasuke obviously believe them.

“I know,” Sasuke says. “I’m happy.”

Itachi lifts an eyebrow.

Sasuke shrugs awkwardly, looking a little shy and a lot pleased. “I mean. There’s no one else. Who can make you – feel like that.”

“No,” Itachi agrees. “There’s only you. You’ve always been special.”

Sasuke looks at him like Itachi’s the fucking sun, and not a sick man abusing his little brother.

“I need to be sure,” Itachi says. “Of you. That you’re mine.”

Sasuke tugs open his shirt, exposing the brand of Itachi’s hand over his heart. “See?” He places Itachi’s hand over the scar, leans forward to brush his cheek against Itachi’s, and finally the last of the heavenly fury bleeds out of Itachi.

“I’m calling the hospital,” Kakashi tells them.

“That sounds like a good idea,” Itachi agrees, calm now as if he weren’t responsible. Kakashi realises – has to keep realising again and again, because it beggars belief – that Itachi genuinely thinks Sasuke makes him do these things.

At least he’s letting them seek medical attention at once – some of Sasuke’s scars are due to Itachi making them pray first, so they arrived at the hospital too late to avoid scarring. Not for the first time, Kakashi thanks his lucky stars that Itachi’s not yet quite crazy enough to espouse faith healing.

xxxxx

What the hell is he going to do?

This can only end in death, and the way there will be painful. He can’t even plan frankly with Sasuke, because Sasuke’s only intermittently able to understand that anything’s wrong, clinging to the delusion that if he were better, Itachi wouldn’t have to hurt him – and he has to keep trying, he has to finally be good enough, because if he’s not then Itachi will discard him, and last time Itachi decided he didn’t want him, Sasuke was given to Orochimaru.

“What the hell,” Kakashi mumbles out loud, ruffling Sasuke’s hair. “What the hell are we gonna do, hmm?”

Sasuke just blinks at him, drugged and damp with pain sweat after hours of debriding. His head lies heavy on Kakashi’s shoulder. “Hmm?”

“He was about to kill you.”

“He wouldn’t.”

“Sasuke.”

Sasuke looks away, before looking back angrily. “So what? He didn’t. Anyway if he wanted me to die, then – then what’s the point? Then I might as well…”

“He’s mentally ill,” Kakashi points out. “You have to understand that he’s insane.”

“Shut up talking shit about him,” Sasuke hisses.

Kakashi heaves a sigh, hears some bite and more than a little impatience in his own voice. “He hears voices in his head.”

“So?”

“Do you believe in God, then?”

“I believe in Lucifael,” Sasuke says, with which it’s hard to argue.

But it’s not the first time they’ve had this conversation, and Kakashi too can be relentless. “But not in God?”

“Of course not. I’m not –” He cuts himself off.

“No, you’re not crazy. And why would it be crazy to believe in God?”

“The bible’s incompatible with observable reality,” Sasuke grumbles. “Any idiot can see that.”

“Itachi can’t.”

Sasuke stares at him, with no expression Kakashi can read. There’s no answer to be had.

“We’ll get this sorted,” Kakashi says, another reckless promise he has no idea how to keep, pressing a kiss to Sasuke’s hair. “I’ll take care of it.” It’s the closest he can come to saying, I’ll take care of you, which would be too bold a lie.

Sasuke nods, curling closer, already mostly asleep. Kakashi keeps hold of him, kisses the nape of his neck, and feels again with vertiginous intensity that Sasuke is his to keep. He breathes out, feels the intensity shift into a resigned certainty, steady as stone. “I’ve got you.”

When he finally, and rather reluctantly, brings Sasuke home, Itachi just glances at the gauze covering Sasuke’s arm.

“You need to take better care of him,” Kakashi says, after Sasuke’s crashed out on his bed.

“You keep telling me that,” Itachi says mildly, with a certain pride. “It was the same with the food, and the baths, and the milk. But I didn’t coddle him, and he’s done fine.”

“Right,” Kakashi says, since he can hardly tell Itachi that Sasuke’s done fine because Kakashi’s interfered. Sasuke himself has caught on, Kakashi still recalls him being little at ice cream stands and always picking sorbets, glancing knowingly up at Kakashi.

I’m not really cured, right? I don’t get sick from the milk at your place, but at home –

Kakashi had had to nod.

And Sasuke’s done fine with Itachi’s intermittent fasts, Itachi’s attempts to starve defiance and sin out of him, because Kakashi’s intermittently put him on a drip. It was a good solution, Kakashi thinks, because Sasuke didn’t eat, he could look Itachi in the eye and say truthfully that he hadn’t eaten. Fortunately by now the Council’s developed official guidelines for fasting, to avoid their exorcists being too starved to carry out God’s work, and Itachi’s calmed down about it.

Also Kakashi prevailed on the ground floor neighbours to install a sauna, to which he kept dragging an icy, teeth-chattering Sasuke during Itachi’s obsession with ice baths, when he considered warm water an ungodly luxury.

Kakashi could’ve argued harder against these things, but believes he was right not to, that it was the right call to save his objections for when Itachi started looking speculatively at hair shirts.

In the present he rubs his eyes, so tired suddenly. “Yeah, whatever.”

“You’re in a mood,” Itachi tells him.

“Your powers of observation are astonishing as usual. No, peace, I’ll sleep it off.”

He’d have liked to sleep in with Sasuke, but Itachi’s too unstable tonight. Usually he doesn’t object, rather as though Kakashi were the family dog, his presence not a threat – probably on some level he understands that Kakashi fulfils a necessary function in their dysfunctional family, that Itachi would’ve likely killed Sasuke by now if not for his interference. God knows Sasuke himself is too wilfully blind about Itachi to properly look after himself.

So Kakashi settles for his own bed, and in the morning gets up to find Itachi sleeping next to Sasuke. He watches Sasuke’s eyes blink slowly open, watches Sasuke perceive Itachi holding him. Sasuke smiles at Itachi and he’s radiant, Itachi even smiles back.

It’ll be one of the good days, then, when they can pretend they’re normal. Certainly Itachi’s crazy and dangerous, but sometimes he does something right, makes Sasuke happy. Sometimes he just doesn’t do anything wrong, gives them all some respite. It means more, becomes precious, becomes it’s so rare.

Why do you hit yourself with a hammer? Kakashi thinks. Because it feels so good when I stop.

Sasuke can get normal interaction and affection from Kakashi any time: so it’s easy, it’s cheap. From Itachi it’s a sign of being singled out and special, of being loved. 

Kakashi tries to stay unobtrusive and appreciate seeing Sasuke happy, how it’s like sunrise all over his face when Itachi keeps being sweet with him. Happiness is an unusual look on Sasuke, so bright and so shy, Sasuke must think he’s hiding the emotion but it glows under his skin, and good God he’s so beautiful and so fucking stupid. Kakashi’s used to thinking of him as a cute kid, as someone who’ll grow up gorgeous – but it’s not really in the future anymore. Sasuke hasn’t properly been a child for quite some time, and by now he doesn’t look like one either.

Itachi’s teaching him some obscure sealing technique, Sasuke’s focus shifting from Itachi to the magic. It’s funny, in a way: Itachi thinks Sasuke’s stupid, because Itachi hardly noticing other people means Itachi’s only point of reference is Itachi himself, and Sasuke’s not the most gifted crusader who has ever lived. So Itachi condescends to him, apparently finding Sasuke’s presumed stupidity rather charming. Maybe it’s for the best, to have Itachi underestimate him. Today he’s patient, even tactile, looking pleased as Sasuke masters the technique.

Their little study session is interrupted by the doorbell. Kakashi pulls off his earphones, ambling out to the hallway to find Mikoto.

Right, he thinks. Right: he’s been assigned a mission with her and Sasuke. In the tumult yesterday, he forgot.

His comment last night about Itachi needing to take better care of Sasuke seems to have hit home after all, because Itachi hovers over Sasuke, glancing at his bandaged arm. “Are you fit for this?”

“It’s been decided by the Council,” Mikoto points out.

“Quite,” Itachi says, “but the Council’s not in charge of Sasuke. I am.”

“It’s fine,” Sasuke says. “Let’s go.”

Kakashi thinks it’s maybe a relief to Sasuke, to leave when Itachi’s still good to him. Even the loving moments are an enormous strain, because the ground can disappear under your feet at any moment – you never quite know what will disappoint Itachi this time, exile you once more from his care.

As far as Kakashi knows, Sasuke and Mikoto haven’t spoken in years, possibly not since before Sasuke was given to Orochimaru. They nod at each other across rooms, in the age-old way of enemies and estranged family. All in all, it’s not without curiosity that he gets in the car.

Mikoto’s driving, Kakashi sprawling in the shotgun seat and Sasuke absently glowering in the backseat.

“Your arm,” Mikoto says after a long silence. It feels like the silence has swallowed them by then, like she forces its monstrous mouth open by speaking.

Sasuke meets her eyes in the rear-view mirror. He gives her nothing.

Finally she sighs, her voice bloodless as ever. “Will it impair you?”

“No.”

“I see.”

Kakashi thinks that she must see the mouth-shaped bruise on Sasuke’s neck, that she must understand that Itachi’s done that – obviously that Itachi’s damaged Sasuke’s hand, because who else could?

Kakashi turns on the radio, hums along with whatever’s playing.

It’s hours before Sasuke says, “What did you want?”

Mikoto lifts an eyebrow. “Hmm?”

“You arranged to go on a mission with me. What do you want with me?”

“The missions unit assigns these things.”

“Bullshit.”

“I assure you, it’s quite impartial. Why, your father heads it and –”

Sasuke snorts. He does scornful well, as easily as if his parents really did not matter to him. Perhaps they don’t. “You prove my point.”

“I’d have thought Itachi would have raised your more pious. Honour your mother and your father…”

Sasuke’s smirk looks like a slash across his face. “But I’ve understood he’s not my father.”

“Who gave you to understand that? Not Fugaku?”

“Why would I ever listen to Fugaku? He’s not even a crusader.”

“He’s an exorcist.”

“Yeah, so he’s earned the right to listen. He’s not qualified to talk back.”

“Unlike your shifter friends?” Mikoto’s voice remains soft, reasonable, the voice of a relentlessly successful negotiator. It’s a sad kind of funny that she’s never been able to understand Sasuke well enough to manipulate him, maybe just couldn’t bring herself to empathise enough with him for that.

“Hardly.”

“Indeed? I shall have to update my sources, then.”

Sasuke frowns. “Are you trying to flatter me?”

Mikoto blinks, a slow careful curve of her lashes. Kakashi can see when it dawns on her, that Sasuke doesn’t interpret being spied on, being kept track of, as a threat but as a promise, possibly even a sign of care. “No,” she says at last, “that wasn’t my intention.” She fastens a strand of hair behind her ear. “I am curious who claimed Fugaku’s not your father.”

“Orochimaru.”

“Oh?” She lifts an eyebrow. “I hadn’t expected that. Did you believe him?”

“It makes sense.”

“Does it?”

“Doesn’t it?” Sasuke tilts his head, cruel as an angel, alien to human compassion. “Did you want to have a child with him?”

“No.”

“My condolences.”

“Hmm?”

Sasuke shrugs, a jerky and uncomfortable movement, but doesn’t back down. “You know. That sucks.”

“It was unfortunate.”

“You still kept me,” Sasuke says after a while. “I mean, the pregnancy.”

“Anything else would’ve been a sin.”

For a moment, looking at his face like a cracked mask in the rear-view mirror, Kakashi can truly believe that Sasuke is Orochimaru’s child, beyond possible shared genes. “According to the God you love so much, aren’t you a harlot who should be stoned anyway?”

“The bible’s inane foolishness, but killing a crusader – a great sin.” She switches gears, overtaking another car. “Anyway one does not love God, one is god-fearing. The conceit of loving the Lord is mere presumptuous sentimentality, a worm daring to love the sun. Fear is the only relevant emotion in relation to the highest, the only meaningful worship.”

“Wasting a crusader as a sealed concubine seems pretty sinful too, then.”

Mikoto lifts an eyebrow. “He attempted to seal you? Well, that was unanticipated.”

“What did you anticipate?” Sasuke leers, a rather predatory expression. He switches back to the formal language of his earliest childhood, perhaps subconsciously, mimicking Mikoto’s way of putting words between herself and the world. “Given your apparent familiarity with his proclivities, it’s difficult to imagine you were surprised by what he wanted me for.”

“You should’ve killed him,” Mikoto says. “Proved yourself worthy of better than he wanted you for.”

“Like you did?” He sounds like Itachi when he says it: like someone who says cruel things without properly understanding that he does, or at least without understanding why he shouldn’t.

“No,” Mikoto says. “Unlike me. In fact, I don’t imagine we’re very much alike at all.”

“Probably,” Sasuke agrees.

Another bend in the road, and they’ve arrived. It’s not unlikely that that’s why Sasuke started talking when he did, when the conversation would shortly be cut off.

The exorcism is quickly dealt with. “Tch,” Sasuke says. “Tell me again you didn’t want to check up on me.”

Mikoto lifts an eyebrow.

Sasuke lifts one right back. “This was not a three crusader job.”

Mikoto hums tonelessly. “I didn’t aim to check up on you. But, yes – I wanted to check up on Itachi.”

“Through me.”

“Why, indeed.”

“I see.”

She tilts her head, in just the same way Sasuke does, her voice suggesting nothing but chilly curiosity. “You’re not going to ask what conclusions I’ve drawn?”

“No,” Sasuke says, smiling at her. It’s a rather nasty smile, but not quite a smirk. “If you believe you can understand Itachi, that’s your own delusion.”

It’s true that Mikoto’s never understood Itachi on a meaningful level. They’re both chilly with people, not much afflicted by human emotion, but Itachi at least has great capacity for passion, only he channels it into his faith. That’s an irrational and corrosive love that Mikoto’s never been at all able to grasp.

“Yes,” Mikoto says, with some depth of feeling. “In the end we’re all alone with our delusions.”

Kakashi glances down at his phone, seeing a row of supposedly urgent messages from Minato. He touches Sasuke’s shoulder, angles the screen towards him. “How about it, you want to go?”

Glancing towards the car, Sasuke quickly decides that saving some shifters from a demonic demise is a far preferable option to driving back with his mother.

“Another exorcism?” She seems thoughtful now, cocking her head again. “I believe we’ve underestimated you.”

Sasuke shrugs.

“In which case,” she continues, “you held back just now. How come?”

Sasuke’s shark smile turns into his skull grin. “I wanted to burn you.” He waves at Kakashi, as though his mother’s ceased to exist. “See you later.”

xxxxx

Gaara didn’t want to die, but he’s not sure that being rescued by Sasuke fucking Uchiha is all that much better.

Shukaku hisses and snaps within him, robbed of its impossible prey and wanting to turn on Sasuke instead. In contrast Kiba, never the pride of the pack, is already relaxing. “Thanks, man! Shit, that was close!”

“What are you doing here?” Gaara demands.

Angelfire fading, Sasuke smells injured. More interestingly, smells burnt, which isn’t a common crusader injury. Looking at his bandaged arm makes Shukaku lick his maws, hungering.

“Minato called for backup,” Sasuke says. “Apparently your band of idiots bit off more than you could chew.”

He glances past Gaara, and Gaara sneers at him. “Naruto’s not here.”

“Lucky for you,” Sasuke snaps. The threat’s clear, and Gaara pauses, unsure how to respond to the plain implication that Sasuke would burn him for bringing Naruto danger. “Aren’t you supposed to be with him?”

Kiba rubs the back of his head in just the same way Naruto tends to. “He would’ve been here ordinarily. But Minato’s not letting him out – he keeps trying to run away, you know? If he got this close, there’s nothing could keep him from – well.”

From Sasuke.

Dormitory walls are thin, and Shukaku’s hearing doesn’t spare Gaara the knowledge that Naruto still talks to Sasuke all the time: laughs with Sasuke, screams at Sasuke, whispers all his secrets to Sasuke.

He stares Sasuke downs and thinks, not for the first time – if he bonded with Naruto, would he want this? Would he desire Sasuke? It seems impossible and yet Gaara knows this is what Naruto thinks of when he touches himself, Sasuke, Sasuke, Sasuke.

Kankurou leans forward, putting a restraining hand on Gaara’s shoulder. Shukaku bites down on it, energy fangs spearing his flesh, and Kankurou shows his teeth but also his throat. “Let’s calm down. Are you riding back with us, Sasuke?”

“I suppose so,” Sasuke decides.

The difference when they return to the closest city is palpable: there are no protestors now, only bowed heads, signs of the cross. It makes Gaara want to eat them alive.

Unsurprisingly, Sasuke doesn’t deign to look at the masses.

“We, ah, still got some business here,” Kankurou says. “You don’t mind, do you, Sasuke?”

Gaara thinks that’s one of the least subtle ways of telling Sasuke they plan to kill a few humans.

Sasuke shrugs. “That’s of no interest to me.”

“Great!”

Gaara sneers. He stays with Sasuke as Kankurou leaves with a few others.

The man in reception looks up sharply when they pour into the hotel lobby. “We don’t – oh. Welcome. Welcome, you honour us with your presence.”

Gaara shows his teeth, but the moment the receptionist spotted Sasuke, Gaara became irrelevant.

Gaara considers killing the man, but then happens to meet Sasuke’s eyes. He thinks they both remember the same thing: many years ago, the two of them and Naruto and a few other shifters, having run away on some harebrained adventure and needing someplace to sleep. Sasuke was tired and dirty and enveloped in the group, probably mistaken for just another shifter.

No shifters.

Come on, Naruto insisted. We can pay!

It’s not about the money. We don’t want your kind here.

That’s discrimination.

How so?

It’s in the law. People have to be treated equally.

Well, then I guess you’re not people, are you? Because we can certainly bar you. Out!

That was the last thing the man ever said, because the next moment he went on fire.

Naruto snapped around. Sasuke! He’d warned Gaara beforehand not to get violent, but he hadn’t said anything to Sasuke – not that Sasuke would’ve probably listened to him anyway.

Sasuke shrugged. I’m tired. Let’s just go up to the rooms.

You just killed someone!

Sasuke tilted his head sideways, all predator bird. He was a worthless human, why do you care?

Okay yeah he was a racist arsehole. For which he deserves, like, a dressing down – not being killed! You can’t just kill people!

Sasuke’s mouth curled. Then I guess he wasn’t really people, because I just did.

It was the same thing Sasuke had said when Naruto freaked out about Mist Town – but they’re not really people.

Gaara thought then and thinks again now that some people – supposedly most people – have a mental barrier that they need to cross in order to truly hurt others. For Naruto it seems to be a sturdy barrier, which is why he needs Kyuubi so much, why Gaara would’ve hated him intensely if not for Kyuubi’s influence. But Gaara doesn’t have that barrier – and neither does Sasuke. Gaara’s never had the impression that Sasuke takes the same kind of fleshy, visceral pleasure in killing as Gaara himself, but there’s no barrier to cross. It’s as easy for him to burn a person as a log.

“Why didn’t you?” Sasuke asks in the present. “Kill him.” He might be talking about the receptionist he himself killed all those years ago or about the receptionist presently handing him their room keys, it makes no difference: the answer is the same.

“Naruto.”

Sasuke’s mouth quirks, not quite into a sneer. “You didn’t agree with him. Why do you obey?”

“Pack is pack.”

“But you think differently,” Sasuke points out. “So why do you follow him?”

Gaara has no answer to give him.

Sasuke’s smirk turns crueller. “You follow him because you’re a follower.”

Gaara knows that this is true. He’s never going to stand beside Naruto, Naruto’s always going to look past him.

Sasuke’s lip curls. “You’re his Neji.”

When Gaara comes to again, he’s on the floor and he smells burnt, worse than Sasuke’s arm. He must’ve jumped Sasuke, in a fit of such berserker fury that he doesn’t even remember it.

Sasuke must’ve expected him to, Uriel must’ve shielded him, because Gaara has to drag himself up and Sasuke’s still standing. They bare their teeth at each other, and for the first time Gaara thinks it mightn’t be so impossible to want this, if he got infected by Naruto’s desire.

Sasuke after all would be good prey, and Gaara’s always liked playing with his food.

Sasuke lifts an eyebrow, tossing him a key.

xxxxx

“I don’t know what the hell I’m supposed to do,” Kakashi says. His voice sounds foreign, floaty.

He’s drunk on the floor of Minato’s office, leaning his head back against the coldness of the wall and tugging incessantly on the carpet. It’s too big, too soft, must be impossible to clean.

Minato leans forward in his chair. He’s emerged from behind his desk, and now reaches out, closing his hand for a little while around Kakashi’s leg.

How Kakashi used to long for that touch. It’s something he thinks about now in relation to Itachi, the torture practice of touch starvation: how Itachi starves for it and then gorges himself, greedy and gluttonous, when he finally gives in and binges. For his part Kakashi learnt to shake hands early, sometimes made deliberate mistakes in practice, so he could feel another human being on his skin. But the best was when he didn’t have to orchestrate, didn’t have to hide the shameful urge: when Minato gave it to him like a gift, every Christmas wish and birthday wish, every eyelash and shooting star consolidated in his warm hands.

Kakashi used to want, in a desperate and aggressive way he could never acknowledge, to burrow underneath Minato’s clothes, to feast on the warmth of his flesh, that solid connection of physicality. He wanted even more, he wanted to get in under Minato’s skin. Sometimes fantasised he was a vampire, and could drink Minato’s blood, suck his sunny laughing security into himself and maybe he’d stop being this sad, abandoned little scarecrow and become a real boy, someone that somebody could love, maybe even love enough to stay with him.

People tell him the same thing they tell all geniuses, that he’s remarkable and original and one of a kind. None of that’s true, any more than it is about any other prodigy. They all want the same thing, the thing every human wants: to matter to someone.

“What’s happened?” Minato asks. He’s holding a glass, not his first one, but it’s a fool’s game to drink with a shifter. A beast as strong as Minato’s can metabolise poison in a heartbeat, if Minato wants it to.

Kakashi shouldn’t be here, he doesn’t even respect Minato anymore, but where else could he go? “Itachi’s going to hurt him,” he says.

“Sasuke’s resilient.”

Kakashi lifts an eyebrow, or thinks he does. It’s harder to control his face now, after the last few drinks. “Itachi’s Itachi.”

“Quite,” Minato mumbles. “So he’s hurting him?”

Kakashi briefly closes his eyes. “Yes.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know,” Kakashi says. “He probably doesn’t even know himself. He’s – the way he is.”

Minato leaves the chair, settling next to Kakashi on the floor. Once, Kakashi would’ve gladly killed for the sensation of Minato’s arm pressing against his own. Today it means nothing beyond vague discomfort because he’s already too hot. He pulls at his shirt, rips out a button.

Minato stills his hand. “Kakashi.”

Kakashi laughs. “Trust me, it’s not an invite.”

Minato hums in agreement. “I’ve changed in your eyes.”

“Yeah,” Kakashi agrees, reaching for his glass and finding it empty. “I don’t know if you stopped being who I thought you were or if you were never that person in the first place. I suppose it doesn’t matter.”

“I have to say, your views on me are remarkably similar to Naruto’s.”

“Flatter me, why don’t you,” Kakashi drawls, refilling his glass.

“I understand your disappointment,” Minato says. “I’d never pretend I didn’t. But I have to say it seems a little strange you’re still living with Itachi.”

“I don’t have a much of choice about that, do I? Anyway don’t.”

“Hmm?”

“This whole melancholy drunk bonding manipulation, don’t.”

“You’ve become quite the cynic.”

“No shit.” He smiles wider than he usually does, showing a slice of teeth. “You taught me well.”

“Kakashi…”

“No. I still exorcise for you, okay? I want to keep doing that, for Naruto’s sake. So don’t piss me off, ne?”

Minato lifts his hands in a gesture of surrender. “I suppose there’s no point arguing about it.”

“No,” Kakashi agrees.

“Well then. You’re clearly worried, and of course Itachi’s actions can be difficult to predict, but I’m not understanding why he’d hurt Sasuke when he clearly decided to keep him.”

Kakashi rubs his eyes until the world turns into bright nonsense shapes. “But that’s why. He hates himself for keeping Sasuke. He takes it out on him.”

“What is it that he wants with Sasuke?”

Kakashi gives him an ugly grin, knowing this is all safe, all pointless, because Minato’s not going to do anything. Minato doesn’t step in for other people, and if he did step in here, Itachi would just kill him. “He wants to fuck him.”

There’s a bit of silence, as if Minato’s pretending to be shocked. “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.”

“That’s unexpected,” Minato says. He sounds surprisingly honest, and he’s not as good a liar as he thinks he is. Of course, Kakashi knows all too well that young boys hold no appeal for Minato. Right, he thinks, so the man’s a collaborator but at least he’s genuinely repulsed by the idea of fucking children. “Have you spoken to their mother?”

“Oh God, Minato. Like she’d step in. Like anyone would listen to her if she did.”

He spares them both having to articulate that of course Minato himself is entirely useless. Minato’s so relentlessly realistic, so motivated by self-perseverance. If anyone but Itachi had taken Naruto’s leg, Sasuke would’ve killed them, no matter how powerful they were, how dangerous it was – what stops him now isn’t Itachi’s strength but his misguided love for Itachi. Minato on the other hand has never tried.

Of course, he’d obviously have died if he’d attempted any kind of revenge, and probably most of his pack would’ve been purged. Minato would say it would be unforgivably selfish to act rashly in those circumstances, and it would be hard to say he’s wrong.

“Does Sasuke realise?”

“I’d imagine so.”

Minato draws in a deep breath, reaching for the bottle. “From the frying pan into the fire.”

Kakashi gives him what must be a strange look. “What? Of course that’s not the problem.”

“Of course being subjected to incestuous abuse is a problem.”

“Spare me the hypocrisy, he can deal with the sex. The problem is Itachi’s going to kill him one of these days. And he’ll be very sorry afterwards, but that’s never any use to anyone.”

“Couldn’t Sasuke be sent away?”

“Where would we go, that Itachi couldn’t follow? Anyway Sasuke would never leave him.” He sighs, deciding he’s not drunk enough, because he still minds that the room’s spinning a little. “Anyway. How’s Naruto?”

“Good, I think,” Minato says. “Still trying to run away and come back all the time, but – good. He’s started talking about wanting to be more involved in things, helping out up north. Obviously it’s out of the question, but it’s good he’s thinking about something other than…than returning here.”

“Maa,” Kakashi says. “He wouldn’t be the first person to work in order to distract himself.”

Beside him Minato sighs, honest for once in his silence.

Kakashi probably talks to Naruto more often than Minato does, since Kakashi’s the one usually picking up the landline, as well as the one usually answering Sasuke’s mobile phone when Sasuke doesn’t, whether because he’s in the shower or he’s sulking or Itachi’s presence makes it inadvisable. He keeps Minato updated because Minato did the right thing for once, sending Naruto away to safety. It’s one reason, he reckons, that Sasuke hasn’t killed Minato. He wonders idly if he’d step in if Sasuke finally decided to do it.

Then again, it’s hard to see Sasuke taking that step unless Naruto had died, or had been otherwise seriously hurt by something Minato failed to protect him from, and with Naruto dead there wouldn’t be much that could stop Sasuke, wouldn’t be much Kakashi could deny him.

“I miss you sometimes,” Minato admits. “The way that we were. That you were.”

“I miss you sometimes too,” Kakashi says. It’s a bloodless confession because in the end you can’t go home again, can’t run backwards. "The way that we were. That you were.”

“I miss that me, too, sometimes.”

“That’s sad,” Kakashi tells him. He doesn’t miss that him, the child he was. Such a runt, unlovely with being unloved, and left behind now even by Kakashi himself. He grew up at last, grew past all this. He puts a hand on the wall for support, gets to his feet. “It’s time I moved on.”

Chapter Text

He’s hangover depressed next morning, lying in bed for a long time watching the light fall punishing through the curtains. He really should start paying someone to wash them, to clean up the flat, but Itachi doesn’t like having strangers around. Neither does Sasuke, to be honest.

He’s made it through the shower and into the kitchen, watching over the coffee machine religiously, when Sasuke returns. He brings with him a sharp smell of wind and sun, the flat comes alive around him, and Kakashi thinks again, with this tired, horrifying simplicity: I love you. God, I fucking love you.

“You look like shit,” Sasuke says.

“Hello to you too, apple of my eye.”

“That’s such a dumb expression.”

“Maa ne.”

Sasuke gives him a scornful scowl but still approaches. He’s like a cat that way, sensing a human – his human –needing some kind of comfort and pretending he’s not giving it. Kakashi ruffles his hair and Sasuke frowns like he minds but still leans against his side. “You smell right again.”

“I keep telling you, switching soap brands isn’t some devilish betrayal.”

Sasuke scrunches up his nose. “It smelt wrong.”

“Yes, well, now all’s been put to right. Give me the cup.”

Sasuke hands it over, and Kakashi gratefully gulps down the coffee, sinking onto the stuffed chair Sasuke always gives him shit for using with the kitchen table.

Sasuke disappears to fetch some medical supplies, then returns and starts pulling the bandage off his arm.

“Here,” Kakashi says. “Let me.”

Sasuke does.

“It looks better,” Kakashi says, stroking softly against the skin just at the edge of the burn, which is healed now, shiny and new.

Sasuke tilts his head, ignoring this. “Are you sick?”

“Bit hungover.”

Sasuke peers at him suspiciously. “Why?”

“I went drinking with Minato. Itachi pissed me off.”

“You shouldn’t piss Itachi off too much,” Sasuke says, staring down at his arm, at Kakashi’s fingers anointing the burn and fastening the new bandage. “At least not when I’m not here to distract him if he gets too angry.”

“I know my limits. That’s why I shut myself up with a bottle.”

“Don’t make a habit of it.”

“I won’t.”

Sasuke nods sharply, then bustles around the kitchen making lunch. He must be feeling affectionate, or Kakashi must really look like shit, because he makes edible stuff, so Kakashi can steal from his plate.

“Minato’s an arse,” Sasuke points out.

“That he is,” Kakashi agrees, reaching for a piece of cheese. Sasuke doesn’t even like cheese, he’s only included it for Kakashi’s benefit.

Sasuke catches his hand, turns it over in his own. The light catches in a glass shard. “Did you clean these?”

“Hmm? No, I don’t think so. I was – pretty drunk.”

“Che.”

For a long time, they sit in the warming sunlight and Sasuke picks glass splinters and dirt out of the little cuts littering Kakashi’s palm. Once he’s cleared an area of visible debris, he examines it by touch, making Kakashi hiss as Sasuke’s fingers glide soft and cold against Kakashi’s skin and then strike glass.

“Did you have a good trip?” he asks. “Gaara still alive?”

“Tch.” Sasuke looks up through his lashes, rueful and teasing, such a teenager. “I maybe burnt him a little.”

“I’m sure he deserved it.”

Sasuke’s mouth quirks, lopsided. “Yeah.”

“I figured you’d be in a good mood,” Kakashi remarks, flexing his fingers.

Sasuke smacks his hand, intertwining their fingers to keep Kakashi still. “Hmm?”

Kakashi shrugs. “Maa, you came out on top with your mother.”

“It doesn’t count when you’re there.” He pulls out a glass shard, his fringe shadowing his eyes. “If she got the upper hand, you’d step in.”

“Maa.”

Sasuke huffs, smirking up at him. Then he stands up and walks around the table, sitting himself down in Kakashi’s lap and pulling at Kakashi’s arm to get a better angle with the tweezers. The effect is that Kakashi’s essentially got his arm around Sasuke, his cheek resting against Sasuke’s head. “Aren’t you being cosy?” But he’s already shifting, so Sasuke’s leaning against his chest, ensconced in his arms.

Sasuke snorts, elbowing him a bit, but quickly curls into a more comfortable position. He pulls out another splinter, and Kakashi tickles up his side in retaliation. Sasuke elbows him again, gentling only when Kakashi blows on the back of his neck. It’s always been a sensitive spot, it’s the place he used to stroke when Sasuke was little and didn’t want to fall asleep yet, needed settling.

“We’ve got that Russian book, right?” Sasuke asks. “About the woman who throws herself in front of the train.”

“We do,” Kakashi agrees, resting his chin on Sasuke’s shoulder. “Don’t tell me you’ve got a sudden classics craving? I still remember those hurtful remarks about Madam Bovary.”

“God she was useless,” Sasuke says with feeling.

“That was part of her charm.”

Sasuke scrunches up his nose, angling his head so their noses brush. “I used to think those damn porn novels was the weird part of your literary preferences.”

“I had one professor told me Anna Karenina was porn.”

“Tch. Sakura would hardly be nagging me about it if it was.”

“Ah, is she dragging you back to school, you little illiterate?”

Sasuke shrugs, resting heavy and warm against Kakashi’s chest. “There’s no point. It’s not like I need to get into university to qualify for a career.”

“I think ones goes to uni because one’s interested,” Kakashi says. His own literature/philosophy degree’s an obvious example, and Kabuto’s obsessed with his research, will have loved his studies.

“It’s not like I need a classroom to be able to read.”

“No,” Kakashi agrees, because Sasuke’s an occasionally voracious reader. “Though it might help you finally understand some of it.”

Sasuke makes a muted sound of outrage, twisting viciously in his arms, and Kakashi laughs at him, keeps hold, and – he meant to kiss the tip of Sasuke’s nose, a time-honoured tease. But Sasuke tilts his head up and the kiss lands on his mouth.

“I didn’t mean to do that,” Kakashi says. “Sorry.”

Sasuke shrugs. “No big.” His mouth quirks into that lopsided smirk. “We’re not even related.”

Kakashi laughs, and thinks again, yes, he loves this.

“Also I did grope you that one time.”

“How could I forget.”

“Tch.” Sasuke looks at him for a bit, then tilts his head, pressing their mouths together again.

It feels good. It feels much better than last time, much better than it should. Sasuke’s mouth quirks, his lips parting, and Kakashi abruptly realises that this could turn very sexual very quickly. Sasuke licks his own lower lip, which turns into licking Kakashi’s. Maybe he’s embarrassed, because he bites it, which turns into sucking on it.

He’s clumsier than he should be, given how long he’s been sleeping with Itachi – Kakashi suspects Itachi perhaps doesn’t believe in French kissing. More fool him, because Sasuke’s obviously curious. Kakashi hums against his mouth, and Sasuke glares up at him through his lashes, tilting his head and pressing his tongue between Kakashi’s lips.

Kakashi licks it, sucks on it, and Sasuke’s quick to return the favour. His hand comes up, curling around Kakashi’s jaw, pressing against the demon wound. Sasuke’s always liked that, teasing angelbright fingers on Kakashi’s face drawing the evil to the surface, chasing pins and needles through Kakashi’s skin and deeper, along the surface of his soul. Sasuke’s always been able to reach inside him that way, Kakashi’s stopped resenting it though he hasn’t quite stopped fearing it: how much he has to lose.

He retaliates by biting Sasuke. He feels Sasuke breathe in, sucks softly where he bit. Sasuke grabs his head, fingers tangling in Kakashi’s hair, and pulls him further down Sasuke’s neck, until he’s got him where he wants him. Kakashi smirks and bites again, feeling Sasuke tense and squirm and press him closer. Sasuke shifts until he’s straddling Kakashi, and Kakashi returns to his neck, finding all the best places and sucking on them quite roughly, his fingers circling the nape of Sasuke’s neck in the softest of caresses. Sasuke breathes against his ear, deep hissing breaths. This time, Sasuke’s becoming excited, and Kakashi had never even dreamt how hot that could be.

Kakashi returns to Sasuke’s mouth, which is open and greedy for him, curling an arm around Sasuke’s hips and stroking the small of his back, the slice of skin above his jeans, following his spine up under the shirt. He thinks again that it’s strange, given the affair with Itachi, that Sasuke seems so startled by his own reactions, so new to each pleasurable touch. Kakashi’s never been interested in virgins, but there’s something fascinating and exciting in watching Sasuke discover this, his skin heating under Kakashi’s fingers as sharply as if he’d suddenly turned on a heater.

Sasuke sits back a little, and Kakashi presses a last close-lipped kiss to his mouth, his cheekbone, the tip of his nose.

Sasuke frowns at him.

“You don’t have to,” Kakashi says. “You don’t ever have to do anything like this with me.”

Sasuke looks at him as if he’s painstakingly explained that the sky is blue. “I know that! What, you think I’m some sort of affection whore?”

Kakashi breathes out a laugh. “I assure you, those are not words I have ever associated with you.”

“Then what?”

Kakashi shrugs, leaning back in the stuffed chair. His hands remain on Sasuke’s hips. “You’re pretty young.”

“Like you were old and wise when you started.”  

“I was born wise,” Kakashi claims.

“Hn.” Sasuke touches Kakashi’s shoulders, his chest, and Kakashi lets him. His heart jumps under Sasuke’s palm, nipple pebbling, and Sasuke seems a little taken aback and a lot satisfied. Kakashi shakes his head and kisses him softly on the mouth, on his chin. “Itachi says you were in love with Minato.”

“Maa.”

Sasuke gives him a look.

“All right, yes. I was.”

“But not anymore.”

“The Minato I felt that way about isn’t there anymore. Maybe he never was.”

“He’s a hypocritical arsehole.”

“Maa, yes. Yes, he is.” He fingers Sasuke’s fringe behind his ear. “Itachi can be a hypocritical arsehole, too. You still love him.”

“At least Itachi’s not weak.”

“No,” Kakashi agrees. “He’s never had to scheme and depend on others.”

“Did you sleep with him?”

“With Minato? No, he never wanted to.”

“But you did.”

“Yes. I’d have done anything to make him want me, to get closer to him. I wanted it quite badly. But he likes adult women, so I never qualified.” 

“Stupid of him.”

“Maa, well, it would’ve been smarter politically to string me along, I suppose.”

“You didn’t kill him,” Sasuke points out.

“You’re such a little psychopath,” Kakashi says. “No, I didn’t kill him. I didn’t want him to die, I just wanted him to love me. But if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”

“Mmh.” Sasuke unstraddles him, curling close under his arm and resting his legs in Kakashi’s lap. “So if you had to pick.”

“Then Minato can burn.”

“And Itachi?”

“Then Itachi can burn.” He says it without hesitation, and Sasuke stares at him as if he’s committed heresy and Sasuke’s shocked by how much he likes it. Kakashi touches his face, tilts it up a little. “Look. If Minato died, I’d be sad and Naruto would be sad, but we’d get over it. If you died, that’s not something I could get over.”

“I’m not gonna die,” Sasuke says. “You wouldn’t let me.” He stretches, shifting his arm into a more comfortable position, shrugs. “It’s you and me.”

“It’s you and me,” Kakashi agrees, dropping a kiss on the top of his head. For the first time he seriously wonders what Itachi will do when he finds out about this.

“How old were you?” Sasuke asks. “If it wasn’t with Minato.”

“Twelve. With Kurenai, if you must know.”

Sasuke frowns. “And you call me young. She must’ve been like ten years older than you.”

“Maa, she was a few years older.” He shifts, stroking Sasuke’s nose. “She was horrified when she found out I was twelve. She thought – well, she thought Minato wouldn’t have worked me like that if I hadn’t been older.”

Kurenai had thought she abused him, took unforgiveable advantage. Kakashi had been completely confused by this at the time, and his memory of it remains warm and lovely. She was kind to him and made him feel good. He was grateful and awestruck, he never felt used.

“Were you sad when she died?”

“Maa, a bit? Not really? We hadn’t spoken in years. It was just a one-off.”

Sasuke frowns. “Why would you sleep with her if you didn’t love her? What’s the point?”

“It feels good? You can feel close to someone, and frankly getting off is pleasant.”

Sasuke looks unconvinced.

“Well, it’s not the same, obviously. You can talk to someone you don’t care about, and it can still be nice if you’re in the mood for talking. But it’s not the same as talking to someone you do care about. Ne?”

Sasuke frowns. He reaches up for a kiss. “All this kind of stuff – with a stranger, that would be disgusting.”

Kakashi leans down for another, rather more thorough kiss. Sasuke’s lashes scratch against his cheek. “Then I’m flattered.”

“Tch.”

Kakashi ruffles his hair, pets it. “How much do you think Itachi will mind?”

“He’ll be fine,” Sasuke says, with this rueful snort. “He already liked it when you put your fingers up my arse together.”

“Ah, yes. One day I’ll manage to repress that.” It hadn’t been sexy at the time, but it would be hot now, because now Sasuke would enjoy it, Kakashi could make sure of that. In fact he’d like very much to get Sasuke undressed, pull him closer until he was straddling Kakashi’s lap again, only naked this time. But he has to let Sasuke set the pace. “Is he better now?”

Sasuke nods. “Usually.”

“Do you come, when you’re with him?”

Sasuke shakes his head, face mostly hidden in Kakashi’s chest. “It’s been close sometimes, but – no. Anyway I don’t know if he wants me to.”

“Ah.” He imagines those close times will have been Itachi getting the angle right – he can’t imagine Itachi touching Sasuke’s genitals, or allowing Sasuke to touch them himself.

Sasuke phone goes off, and Sasuke smiles in the way that means it’s Naruto. He remains for a little bit after picking up – he speaks mainly Japanese with Naruto on the phone anyway, so as to avoid being understood by whatever shifters might be in range – sounding happy as they bicker. Kakashi loves hearing him talk to Naruto, how alive he sounds, how intense he becomes. He strokes Sasuke’s hair away and kisses behind his ear, feeling Sasuke shudder, watching him flush.

“Quit it,” Sasuke mouths at him, standing, but he’s still flushed, doesn’t seem really displeased as he wanders away towards his room.

xxxxx

“Do you believe in God?”

This is possibly the most dangerous question Itachi’s ever asked Sasuke. Kakashi quickens his step, wondering if he’ll be in time to beat Itachi unconscious with the crow bar from the hallway before Itachi martyrs Sasuke.

He’s asked Kakashi the same thing, years ago in summer and sounding bemused, and Kakashi said, no, and that was fine because Itachi’s accepted that Kakashi’s going to hell, that’s between Kakashi and the God he doesn’t believe in.

Itachi has not accepted Sasuke going to hell, and would believe his love requires him to save Sasuke’s soul by killing his body, come to that. Rather earthly suffering than eternal damnation, and all that.

“I believe in you,” Sasuke says, and Kakashi can stop in the doorway because Itachi’s face softens.

“Do you pray?” Itachi inquires. “When I don’t make you, do you pray to God?”

They’re in what Kakashi and Sasuke call the prayer room, which is to say Itachi’s bedroom. There’s a standing joke that when Sasuke gets on his knees in here, it’s not usually for praying.

“No.” Sasuke looks Itachi straight in the eye, and it’s dangerous again. “It’s an unworthy conceit. If there is a God who wants to interfere, He will interfere. It’s above me to instruct Him, and below me to implore.”

Kakashi can see that make sense to Itachi, which can be very good or very bad. He enters the scene, throwing an apple at Itachi, who catches it on reflex and then gives him an admonishing look. Sasuke snickers, which draws Itachi’s attention his way, until Kakashi says, “Well it’s tradition by now, isn’t it? Really we should’ve requisitioned Manda, I could’ve trained him to bring you apples.”

“Tch,” Sasuke says. “You be Eve, I can be Lilith. She was much less of a doormat, anyway.”

“She was a demon,” Itachi points out.

“And if Adam couldn’t even control one demon, what good was he?”

“Ah,” Itachi says, touching Sasuke’s cheek looking deranged and besotted. “I would not have driven you away. You’re right, I would have controlled your darkness and turned you back to the Lord.” His fingers curl tighter, stroking Sasuke’s lower lip. “We would’ve had beautiful children, much superior to Cain and Abel.”

Not for the first time, Kakashi’s intensely grateful that Sasuke’s utterly unable to bear a child, because there can be no doubt that otherwise Kakashi would shortly have had to arrange for an abortion and a tube tying, and then Itachi would’ve actually killed him.

“Tch, you’d be a horrible father,” Kakashi tells him. “And speaking of, it’s time you started doing your share of the household chores.”

Itachi’s brow furrows. Sasuke leans closer, letting his knee rest against Itachi’s thigh, and Itachi’s brow smooths out.

“Let’s go,” Kakashi says. “The vacuum cleaner’s waiting for your expert handling.”

Itachi smirks, looking for a moment astonishingly like Sasuke, as if he’s human after all.

This is how they handle Itachi, how the balance him between them. Switching his attention between them so there’s nowhere for his destructiveness to focus, distracting him with Kakashi’s ramblings and insults and Sasuke’s sharp eyes and sudden touches.

And the suspicion grows into certainty that evening that Sasuke and Kakashi touching each other can also be a distraction. Perhaps because Itachi’s fatalistically, masochistically drawn to Sasuke’s comfort and pleasure, which Itachi considers himself unable to provide without finally damning his soul.

Kakashi’s doing the dishes, barefoot because the floor’s still wet from its scrubbing, when Sasuke sneaks up behind him, wrapping his arms around Kakashi’s middle and resting his cheek in the furrow between Kakashi’s shoulder blades.

“Hey.”

“Hn.”

Kakashi lifts Sasuke’s hand, kisses his wrist, a sharp sucking kiss against the pulse point. Sasuke pushes his forehead into his back like an overstimulated cat, his fingers clenching.

Kakashi catches sight of Itachi in the doorway, returned from the broom cupboard, and moves slowly, alertly. He expects he and Sasuke are both staring at Itachi as he licks across Sasuke’s palm.

“I see you’re keeping him clean,” Itachi says.

“Ah, something like that.”

“Well,” Itachi says, dropping a kiss on Sasuke’s head. “Cleanliness is next to godliness.”

“You’d know,” Sasuke grouses, but he’s dimpling up at him, and even through his shirt Kakashi can feel Sasuke’s cheeks heat from the suction against his palm.

Itachi lifts Sasuke’s chin, and Sasuke’s fingers tighten. Kakashi can easily see how Itachi would be drawn to this, given that Sasuke’s so tense with him – how he could see Sasuke be warm and easy with someone, and want it for himself. If Sasuke was responsive now, more responsive than Itachi usually allows, Itachi could blame the sin of it on Kakashi.

Kakashi glances at Sasuke, who nods fractionally – Itachi might interpret it as him simply glancing down. In odd tandem, Kakashi and Itachi kiss each of Sasuke’s cheeks, each of his ears, each side of his neck.

Itachi must’ve trained this passivity into Sasuke – Close your eyes, Kakashi remembers, and Itachi pulling Sasuke’s hands off him, holding them away – because it’s such a far cry from Sasuke’s normal personality, or how he’s approached snogging when Itachi hasn’t been present. It still doesn’t come naturally to him, that’s obvious enough from the tension, the blank set of his face, as if he’s concentrating on not acting.

“Hey,” Kakashi mumbles, edging in front of Sasuke. “It’s you and me right now. Okay?”

Sasuke nods. The passivity melts away gradually, his face coming alive with expression. He’s always been stingy with them, but they’re there if you know how to read him. He grumbles and bites and kisses back, sneaking cold hands under Kakashi’s shirt and exploring his hips and stomach with interest. His fingers are full of energy, heating up with excitement and the fires of heaven. Kakashi slips a hand down the back of Sasuke’s shirt, tracing the back of his shoulder where Uriel’s wings attach. The tips of Gabriel’s fingers slip through Sasuke’s skin, whisper across the dormant wings, and Sasuke bites Kakashi’s chest and presses close. Kakashi slides his hands over Sasuke’s hips, down his thighs, then grabs them, lifting Sasuke onto the counter, putting them more on a level as he stands between Sasuke’s knees.

Like when you were with Naruto, he told Sasuke once. You wanted, right?

Tonight Sasuke digs his knees into Kakashi’s hips and he wants. Kakashi thinks he might even come from Itachi fucking him, this time.

Kakashi steps back a little as Itachi touches Sasuke’s neck. But before he lets Itachi take his place he leans forward, whispering into Sasuke’s ear, “Why don’t you imagine it’s Naruto?”

Sasuke startles – shudders? – looking completely flabbergasted and completely turned on.

Kakashi laughs. “I’m taking a walk.”

It’s coldish outside, the sun bright but offering little warmth. Sasuke will be turning fourteen very soon – this is the weather that always lingers around his birthday. Maybe Kakashi should make a peach cake.

When he returns there’s no one in the kitchen or living room, so he simply goes to bed. Wakes up to Sasuke’s hand on his shoulder, Sasuke climbing over him and into the bed. “Kakashi.”

“Hmm?”

Sasuke’s not keeping still, squirming close and touching Kakashi’s arm, his neck, finally curling his fingers in Kakashi’s hair. Kakashi leans up on an elbow, finding Sasuke’s mouth. It opens wide, Sasuke’s fingers pull and knead in his hair. Kakashi strokes down Sasuke’s side, feeling Sasuke’s chest stutter with his breathes, tracing the line of feverish skin between his shirt and trousers.

Catching his eye, a breathless chiaroscuro painting in the moonlit darkness, Sasuke takes Kakashi’s hand and presses it between his legs. He’s so hard, teeth clicking shut as Kakashi’s palm rubs along his groin. Kakashi lifts an eyebrow in question as he slips his thumb under Sasuke’s waistband. Sasuke nods, and Kakashi curls his fingers around his erection, watching Sasuke’s head fall back, his hips arching up.

He keeps kissing Sasuke as he jerks him off, brief wet kisses so he won’t miss a sound.

Sasuke mostly breathes, but that’s enough. Slit-eyed and sweat-damp, he finally comes in Kakashi’s hand. Kakashi wipes if off on the sheet and Sasuke pulls his trousers back up, rubbing his cheek against Kakashi’s chin.

He directs a questioning look down Kakashi’s body, moving his hand in offering. Kakashi keeps nuzzling his face and shakes his head.

Sasuke makes a sound of contentment and promptly falls asleep.

Kakashi puts an arm around him and goes to sleep too, waking briefly a few hours later as Itachi too settles on the bed, on the far side of Sasuke. Fortunately he’s fully dressed and his hair smells nice, so Kakashi just blinks before tightening his arm around Sasuke, falling back asleep.

Things are unexpectedly normal in the morning. Itachi’s got up to answer the doorbell, and Kakashi’s prevented from pulling the covers over his head and slumbering with his nose buried in Sasuke’s neck by the advent of a horde of teenagers. He looks up blearily and discovers Neji, Hanabi, Sakura – even that useless blond girl who only ever gets to hang out with the crusaders when Sakura invites her. Neji blushes, Hanabi raises an eyebrow, but at least everyone’s fully dressed.

Kakashi rubs his eyes. “To what do I owe this highly unexpected pleasure?”

Sakura giggles, as though she thinks he’s kidding. Kakashi wonders again how she and Sasuke ever became friends. “We’re here to kidnap him for his birthday! Like we do every year?”

“That’s today?”

Sasuke snorts, kicking the covers off his legs. “You always mix it up.”

“Maa, maa.” He flicks Sasuke’s nose, and Sasuke shows his teeth, mostly playful. His friends will of course assume that Kakashi’s sleeping with him, which is probably preferable to the alternative, because who else but he and Itachi is in a position to leave the occasional love bite or suspiciously placed bruise on Sasuke? Towards the edge of the group he spots that blond shifter girl, Gaara’s hot sister, so Naruto will go spare – but then Sasuke often likes that.

“Go on, then,” he says, and Itachi simply nods. They all know not to look a gift horse in the mouth, not to hang around and give Itachi time to get difficult: Sasuke leaves the apartment in his sleep clothes, they’ll have to find a toothbrush and shower somewhere else, once they’re out of Itachi’s range.

Kakashi turns over, discovering that his pillow smells of Sasuke and that this induces an unanticipated warm feeling in his stomach.

xxxxx

“Of course I don’t believe it!” Sasuke snaps, brushing sweaty hair out of his face and kicking Kakashi in the chest. Kakashi stumbles back, catching his foot.

Sasuke grins, savage, and lets Kakashi take his weight, using his free foot to kick Kakashi’s knee until they both go tumbling, roll to their feet, continue circling each other.

“But?” Kakashi demands, feinting.

“But it makes him happy.”

Keeping Itachi happy is an expression of self-preservation as well as of masochistic, limitless love. Sasuke doesn’t have the boundaries he needs to have with Itachi, which is good because Itachi would’ve probably broken through them and broken them both, and bad because it means he – well, that he gives Itachi liberties he rightly would never extend to anyone else.

“Pragmatically, there’s no avoiding a certain level of abuse from him,” Kakashi says, jumping back to avoid another vicious kick. “What concerns me is your attitude towards it.”

“He’s not abusing me!” Sasuke snaps. “What, you want me to sit around and cry about a few burns? I’m not some random little victim! I can handle him!”

“If it were anyone else in the world treating you like he does, we’d be planning how to get rid of him,” Kakashi points out. “Swiftly and painfully.”

“That’s different,” Sasuke says, his foot impacting with Kakashi’s elbow.

“How?”

“How dare you.”

He swipes Sasuke’s feet out from under him, steps back as Sasuke’s backvaults. “Tell me how it’s different.”

“Because I love him!” Sasuke hisses. “Is that what you need to hear?”

“No,” Kakashi sighs, bending backwards to avoid a hit. “No, I knew that.”

“Then why the fuck are you asking about it?”

“Loving someone doesn’t necessarily stop people hurting them. Or killing them, come to that.” He lifts his hands, making Sasuke stop. Sasuke stands sweaty and panting and almost vibrating with desire to continue the fight – and it is a fight now, not just training. “Let’s stop for now. I’m taking a swim instead.”

“What?”

“You’re too angry. Someone’s going to end up getting hurt, and I’ve had enough of the hospital.”

“Tch!” Sasuke stares at him in mute outrage, then stops away – presumably to find a shifter to beat the shit out of, someone who won’t complain about lethal injuries.

xxxxx

They’ve never fought like Sasuke and Naruto, with no holds barred: they hiss and snap and sneer at each other, but there’s no screaming, no violence, there are boundaries they don’t cross. They don’t lock each other out during snowy nights and yell and cry through the door. They don’t drive each other crazy.

So in the afternoon Sasuke’s calmed down. He returns to the flat only a little bruised up, and considers the monopoly board before making a purchase. The game’s been on for weeks: the board’s placed safely on a sidetable, and they all make the occasional move when inspiration strikes.

Kakashi wiggles his fingers in greeting, sprawled out on the couch watching reality dating shows.

“How do you watch that shit,” Sasuke comments, settling on top of Kakashi’s legs with Anna Karenina. “Also is Anna actually going to appear in the book? So far it’s only that farmer endlessly contemplating his cows.”

“It provides fascinating insight into the human condition,” Kakashi claims. “Also boobs.”

Sasuke snorts. “Since when are you a boob fanatic?”

“I appreciate beauty in all its forms.”

“Pervert.”

“Maa, maa.” He shifts, freeing one leg from under Sasuke’s weight to restore bloodflow to his foot. “By the way, did Naruto freak out yet?”

Sasuke shrugs. “Yeah. But he’s got no room to talk. He’s going to – he’ll bond with someone, no matter what he says. So he can shut the fuck up.”

“Mmh, I’m sure you’d be so pleased if he didn’t go insane with jealousy.”

“Tch.” He flicks Kakashi’s knee, quite hard. “It’s better he thinks it’s you, anyway. You’re not going to kill him, if he throws a fit about it.”

“No, I’ll just point and laugh. Much more my speed.”

“Tch.” But his mouth’s quirking up at the corner.

“While subtlety and discretion aren’t his finest points, I’d hoped he’d be a little more cautious after Itachi took his foot,” Kakashi says.

He can’t read Sasuke’s expression, turned inward and far away. “He has that blind faith that everything will turn out right. Also, he – I think he maybe thinks it’d be worth it. Even if Itachi killed him for it.”

“He say that?”

“No. He knows I’d strange him if he did.”

Kakashi hums, nudging Sasuke’s hip with his knee. “You thought about it.”

Sasuke lifts an eyebrow.

“You imagined what if it was Naruto.”

The kitchen that evening, just before Kakashi stepped away to make room for Itachi, when Sasuke was already flushed and tense and Kakashi spoke into his ear, Why don’t you imagine it’s Naruto.

Maybe just for a second, probably just for a second, but… “What did you think?”

Sasuke doesn’t back down, because he doesn’t have it in him. “That I wanted it to happen.”

“And you call me a pervert,” Kakashi says.

“It was your fault, anyway.”

“Maa.”

“Che.”

He knows Sasuke often talks to Naruto while in bed, at night or in the morning, not really dressed. Sasuke wouldn’t take those risks, but Kakashi would be shocked to learn Naruto didn’t touch himself, possibly during and very definitely after those conversations.

He wonders if Sasuke’s thought about it, fantasied about it: Naruto’s teeth meeting inside his body, a bond that could never be broken. He thinks no, not seriously, and Sasuke would resent that anyway. He’d probably like to carve his own mark so deep into Naruto it reached his skeleton and further, all the way into his soul, but being branded himself by unclean magic… On the other hand, he’s never resented Itachi’s black handprint over his heart.

“Aside from when I asked, have you ever done that? Thought about someone else when you were with Itachi? With me?”

“Of course not,” Sasuke says, as if he’s unsure what kind of teasing this is, Kakashi asking something so completely absurd. “That’d be weird. You’re you.”

“Mmh. I don’t think Anna Karenina’s really your type. Here, try Gogol.”

“If you learnt to play video games like a normal person, you wouldn’t have to slug through all these classics.”

“I never get any story from those.”

“That’s because you die before the story starts.”

“So show me how to get through the first few minutes, and we’ll see what happens.”

Chapter Text

Sasuke has bedroom eyes. Kakashi registers this at the same time as, and with considerably more interest than, he registers Sasuke’s bare feet and sharp elbows, the damp fall of his fringe.

He’s standing in the doorway to Kakashi’s bedroom, looking arrogant and searching and highly desirable. Again Kakashi experiences this furious tenderness, this sense of Sasuke being precious and irreplaceable and his.

“We could practice,” Sasuke says. “Just you and I.”

He’s dressed relaxed, not in the preppy clothes Itachi prefers but in the sloppy comfort he reverts to in Itachi’s absence: flannel, fleece, cotton washed almost transparent.

“Would you like that?” Kakashi mumbles, lifting Sasuke’s face with lingering, longing fingers.

Sasuke nods resolutely. “I think that would be good.”

He goes up on his tip-toes, slanting his mouth over Kakashi’s.

Kakashi’s wanted this for a long time. He runs his fingers lightly from the back of Sasuke’s head and down to the end of his spine, feeling Sasuke’s arms settle around his waist. Sasuke’s got viciously good at kissing, it feels like he eats through all Kakashi’s protective layers. It’s not long until he tugs at Kakashi’s shoulder.

“Get down.”

“Hmm?”

“Kneel or something.”

Kakashi lifts an eyebrow.

“Or lift me, whatever. You’re too far up.”

They both glance towards the bed at the same time. Kakashi thumbs Sasuke’s clavicles, bends to lick inside their hollows. Sasuke’s head falls back, his fingers digging into Kakashi’s hips.

“You’re wearing too much,” Sasuke tells him.

“Hmm. I want you naked.”

“Tit for tat,” Sasuke smirks. He undoes the buttons of Kakashi’s shirt, pushing it back over his shoulders.

Kakashi sinks his hands into the warm space between Sasuke’s tshirt and his skin, only the tips of his fingers occasionally brushing Sasuke’s body. Slowly, checking Sasuke’s face for hesitation, he gathers the fabric, inching it up and baring slice after enticing slice of skin before finally pulling it over Sasuke’s head.

Sasuke smiles at him, cocky and lovely. That’s a big part of why extraordinarily beautiful people are so attractive – the confidence of someone whose looks have never fallen short. He imagines it would never occur to Sasuke that someone Sasuke wanted wouldn’t want him back. He lets his hands settle on Sasuke’s hips, tease up his sides, feeling goose bumps and electricity.

Sasuke steps closer, resting his face against Kakashi’s chest and opening his mouth in a filthy kiss before nudging him towards the bed.

Kakashi lets himself fall, pulling Sasuke down on top of him. Sasuke grins down at him, flushed and shaky and open-mouthed, and Kakashi’s stupid with love. Maybe love, only love, can heal your brokenness after all, reveal yourself to yourself as someone you can live with.

Sasuke’s obviously been …curious… for a while, exploring Kakashi’s body with avarice and alacrity. He exhibits no timidity about putting Kakashi’s hands or mouth where he wants them, for all he occasionally blushes. Still Kakashi can delight in surprising him, teasing his elbows, the insides of his knees, behind his ears, leaving Sasuke startled and gasping.

“Harder,” Sasuke says, tugging at his hair.

Kakashi bites his neck a little harder.

Harder.”

Kakashi bites significantly harder than he himself would like to be bitten, and Sasuke moans in his ear.

Kakashi laughs at him and kisses his nose. “Kinky.”

Sasuke looks up, eyes hooded and pupils blown. “Hn?”

Curious, he tightens his hand a little around Sasuke’s neck, going from embrace to a hint of strangling. Sasuke clings to him and bites his lip, far from protesting. Kakashi remembers Sasuke being little and suggesting Itachi spank him instead of burn him – maybe he really would’ve liked that.

Then again, Kakashi’s smacked his arse a few times over the years, with his hand or with a towel, treading the fine line between teasing and sexual harassment, and Sasuke’s always reacted by kicking him in the shins, so maybe not.

Sasuke shifts, reaching between their bodies to close his hand around Kakashi’s penis. He no longer appears intimidated, for all it’s larger this time, harder.

Kakashi nudges at him. “Roll over.”

After a moment’s consideration Sasuke unstraddles him and rolls over onto his back. Kakashi kneels over him, licking down his stomach.

Sasuke pulls at his hair. “What’re you doing?”

“Sucking you?”

Sasuke appears rather stunned.

Kakashi slows his movements.

“People do that outside of porn?”

“Porn?”

Sasuke shrugs, impatient and possibly uncomfortable. “It’s research.”

“Yeah,” Kakashi says, thinking Sasuke won’t have seen anything particularly exciting, but rather an often distasteful instruction manual. “People have oral sex outside of porn. Let’s try. If you don’t like it, we’ll do something else.”

Sasuke looks unconvinced but doesn’t protest, nose scrunched up in the most adorable way. Kakashi scoots down and opens his mouth, because Sasuke’s patience for foreplay is highly limited once he gets uncomfortable. He squirms until Kakashi licks the tip of his penis, at which point he grows extremely still. Kakashi smirks and sucks him into his mouth.

He’s never seen Sasuke so tense, head thrown back, eyes slitted, hips straining upwards. Sasuke sounds choked when he says, “I like it.”

Kakashi laughs and then has to hold Sasuke’s hips down to keep from gagging.

Afterwards Sasuke’s sprawled out panting and beautiful. Kakashi edges forward to be able to kiss him, and Sasuke puts a lazy arm around his neck, spreading his legs further, obviously anticipating the next step.

It’s undeniably tempting, but… “You don’t wanna…?”

“Yes,” Sasuke says, with dawning certainty and interest. “I do.”

“Thought you might.” He kisses Sasuke, feels Sasuke’s teeth rasp against his tongue. “Maybe I should turn over. You’re a tiny imp, after all.”

Sasuke shakes his head. “I want to see you.”

“Ah. Come here then.” It’s Kakashi’s turn to roll over onto his back.

Sasuke hovers over him, quickly hardening again as they kiss. “You’re serious?”

“Maa… No, of course I’m serious. I’m always serious about you.”

Sasuke grins at him. He’s conscientious about prepping, about jerking Kakashi in time with his movements, but what’s most alluring is watching him, witnessing his pleasure and satisfaction. Kakashi puts his arms around him and doesn’t particularly want to let go when they’re done.

“You’re being silly,” Sasuke tells him, though he seems pleased. “It’s not like it’s the first time you’ve slept with someone.”

“Maa.” He rolls over, bundling Sasuke into his arms, letting the clinginess turn playful, into almost play wrestling. “It’s the first time I slept with someone I love.”

He’s pleasantly surprised to note that Sasuke’s too secure in Kakashi’s love for him, finds it too obvious, to be embarrassed by the admittance. He’s edgy and angular, difficult to cuddle, but some things are worth fighting for.

After a while they get up and rescue the burnt stew from the stove. Kakashi changes the sheets while Sasuke makes emergency salad; they end up eating and watching stupid shows in bed. Sasuke licks salad oil off his fingers and laughs, they bicker about cinematic choices, and Kakashi never knew he still possessed this astonishing capacity for happiness. He’s got Sasuke in his lap and keeps kissing the back of his neck, the wing-places on his shoulders, until Sasuke drops the tablet on the floor and pushes his hips back, twisting around until they’re kissing properly.

“Fuck me.”

“Yeah?” Kakashi lifts his chin to kiss softly beneath it. “You want that?”

“It’s what we actually need to practice, anyway.”

“Mmh.”

“What? You don’t want to?”

“I want you to want it,” Kakashi shrugs. “If you do, I want it very much. If you don’t, it holds no appeal to me.”

“Then I encourage you to encourage me to want it.”

Kakashi certainly does his best. He strokes and mouths, following the treasure trail of Sasuke’s little sounds, finally sinking his hands into Sasuke’s trousers, closing them around Sasuke’s buttocks. He pulls them up, apart, brushes a finger over the cleft and feels his own dick jerk, heavy between his legs.

“Up,” he mumbles to Sasuke, rearranging them until he can remove Sasuke’s trousers, have Sasuke naked. He reaches for the lube, opens it – perhaps he should offer to wear a condom, but he doesn’t particularly want to and he doesn’t expect it would even occur to Sasuke, since Itachi never has – and presses it into Sasuke’s hands. “Open up.”

Sasuke lifts an eyebrow. “You want to watch?”

He can barely get the word out. “Yes.”

Sasuke clearly thinks he’s being weird, scrunching up his nose, but he’s always taken a practical approach to these things. He coats his fingers with lube and starts inserting one, smirking at Kakashi.

Kakashi doesn’t expect he’s ever done this before. He leans forward to kiss him. “Touch yourself?”

“That’s weird.”

“That’s hot,” Kakashi argues, but obviously Sasuke doesn’t want to. “Can I?”

Sasuke nods, then hisses out a breath as Kakashi strokes his erection, his fingers playing against the insides of Sasuke’s thighs and his thumb rubbing the head of his penis.

Sasuke bites his lip and pushes another finger in, his hand moving quicker and more carelessly. Finally he strikes gold, teeth going through his lip. “I’m ready, let’s do it.”

Kakashi reaches for him, pulling him closer. “Here. Come here.” He’s sitting with his back against the headboard and encourages Sasuke to straddle him, Sasuke’s arse and genitals pressed against Kakashi’s hips, Sasuke’s thighs spread open.

Figuring that Sasuke’s willing but not yet wanting, Kakashi sneaks a finger into him after all, curling it until Sasuke clenches around him, sweat breaking out in his hairline and hips pushing back.

“There we go.”

“Shut up and fuck me already.”

He removes his fingers from inside Sasuke, taking hold of Sasuke’s hips and suggesting by touch that Sasuke lift himself up until the tip of Kakashi’s penis rubs against his arse. Sasuke, always more straightforward, grabs his erection and holds it still as he starts sinking down on it.

“Easy,” Kakashi mumbles, fighting to keep his eyes open as the head goes in. “You can take it slow.”

“It’s not like I came here a blushing virgin,” Sasuke points out, dropping down until Kakashi’s bottomed out. Sasuke frowns, not in pain but at least in discomfort, quickly shifting to get a better angle. Kakashi can’t stop himself thrusting up, just a little, when he finds it, because he clenches tight, resting his sweaty forehead on Kakashi’s shoulder. Sasuke responds to the movement, matching the thrust.

Kakashi leans forward, their foreheads meeting and then their mouths, and finally lets go.

During the night and most of the following morning, Sasuke proves himself an avid and relentless lover. “We should get up,” he says at last. He’s half-sitting, half-lying on top of Kakashi, his sharp start-stop motions slowed by soreness and satisfaction. “Itachi’ll be home soon.”

“Maa. He’ll know, anyway.”

Sasuke hides his yawn in Kakashi’s neck. “Mmh. But if he sees us like this he’ll –”

They both freeze as the door to the flat opens.

“Tadaima,” Itachi calls.

“Okaeri,” Sasuke says.

He hasn’t moved. There’ll be obscuring anything from Itachi: better he find them like this, and be allured, than that he finds them trying vainly to hide.

Kakashi pushes himself up on his elbows, which makes Sasuke scoot down his body, and slants his mouth over Sasuke’s. Itachi discovers them like that, with Kakashi’s tongue in Sasuke’s mouth and Kakashi’s cock pressed to Sasuke’s arse, on the very verge of slipping back inside it.

Itachi stops halfway between the door and the bed. He’s practically vibrating with rage and desire. No wonder – Sasuke’s always been beautiful and to Kakashi’s knowledge has never objected to Itachi’s sexual advances, but Itachi will have never seen him look sensual, and to Kakashi’s knowledge Sasuke has never encouraged Itachi’s advances, either. He looks like he enjoys it now, like he wants it.

“Hello, Itachi,” Kakashi says, stroking up Sasuke’s back. “We were practicing in anticipation of your return.”

“Sasuke,” Itachi says. “Come with me.”

Sasuke scrambles off Kakashi and follows Itachi to the living room naked.

Kakashi kicks the blankets off his legs and pulls on a dressing gown before following. “Shit.”

Itachi’s lifting Sasuke’s chin, his fingers leaving black prints. “Do you want to die?”

“I want you.” In a matter of speaking, Kakashi figures this is true. It’s still as close to lying to Itachi as Sasuke’s come in years. “I practised to be better for you.”

Itachi’s fingers dig more sharply into Sasuke’s face. Kakashi can see the bone of Sasuke’s jaw under Itachi’s thumb, which has eaten through skin and flesh.

Sasuke meets Itachi’s eyes without flinching. “Anyway Kakashi’s ours, right? We share him. We’ve practised with him before.”

Itachi finally releases Sasuke’s face, gesturing for him to get on the couch. “I can share my plenty with whomever I like. That does not entitle you to go behind my back.”

“Itachi –”

“Shut up,” Itachi snaps, placing Sasuke’s hands on the back of the couch. “A man may lend his chair to whomever he likes. But if another man takes the chair and uses it without his consent, that’s stealing.”

“I’m not your chair!” As far as Kakashi knows it’s the first time since Naruto lost his leg that Sasuke’s been angry with Itachi.

Nothing in Itachi suggests awareness that Sasuke’s spoken. “Much like a man may break his own chair, but if another man damages it, that’s vandalism. You’re mine or you’re dead, do you understand?”

“Itachi,” Kakashi cuts in, approaching. “Mea culpa. Given our previous interactions, I assumed it was all right.”

“There’s a crucial difference,” Itachi says, still looking only at Sasuke, who’s kneeling naked on the couch with his hands fisted around the back of it. “You may have nothing between you that I am not part of. However how I chose to share my property merely reiterates my possession.” He finally turns to Kakashi, glancing between him and Sasuke. “Well?”

“You wish to be…retroactively included?”

Itachi doesn’t answer, his usual way of saying yes. So this is where they end up, Sasuke’s fingers digging furiously into the couch and Kakashi expected to – what, take turns with Itachi? It’s so absurd he has to swallow waves of cold laughter.

But they’ve been living a black comedy for years, and Itachi’s in a destructive mood.

So Kakashi asks, “Sasuke?”

“It’s not his decision,” Itachi says. “It’s mine.”

“Actually if I’m going to be able to get it up, it has to be his.”

He’s not sure what happens afterwards. There’s a fractured impression of Itachi’s hand and Sasuke screaming, dizzily breathlessly angry. Kakashi’s on the floor and his face is burning, his left eye boiling over and leaking out of its socket, down the crackling, ashy plane of his cheek.

He doesn’t know how to move anymore.

The demon wound has torn open, a crippled devil ripping free of its constraints and clawing at his soul. Gabriel burns so bright his thoughts are immolated.

Someone’s screaming, and Sasuke’s on the floor too, reaching towards him. Fighting closer, fighting Itachi, his mouth so full of carpet he can hardly breathe and he’s gagging on his own nosebleed.

Kakashi tries to say something but it doesn’t work. He’s as helpless as he’s always been.

Sasuke makes it up on his elbow, but Itachi’s much stronger, and Sasuke’s arm bends under his hand. Sasuke never stood a chance.

He’s not fighting to avoid Itachi, though, only to get his hand on the ruptured demon wound. “Kyrie, eleison,” he sneers.

But Itachi’s kneeling over Sasuke now, one hand around his throat, not giving him enough air to struggle or speak. Sasuke’s a fighter but so is Itachi, and nobody in the world can stand against Lucifael.

Or shouldn’t be able to. But Itachi must be surprised and charmed – Sasuke’s never fought him before – because Sasuke struggles free.

“If he dies, we’re done,” he hisses. “I’ll never forgive you.”

Kakashi doesn’t believe him – Itachi and Sasuke will never conclusively be done with each other – but perhaps Itachi, who at odd times can be shockingly stupid and insecure, does. Anyway it will have unsettled him, tussling with a naked body on the underwashed floor, as if he were human like everyone else, a common sinner.

He must have let go of Sasuke’s throat, because it’s the voice of an archangel who snarls above Kakashi, “Kyrie, eleison, Christe, eleison, Kyrie, eleison.” It comes to him that this is Sasuke begging.

Sasuke’s not very good at begging, so it comes out a snarling order, his will forced raw and relentless into the void.

xxxxx

He wakes up in what must be a hospital room, lavender shadows and the numb feeing of opiates. He can’t feel the left side of his face, blinks his right eye open and sees mostly pillow, unable to turn his head. He keeps blinking, finally discovers a blurry impression of Itachi and Sasuke.

Itachi has a black eye and his arm appears to be broken.

“Get out,” Sasuke demands.

Itachi glances towards Kakashi.

“Fine,” Sasuke snaps, putting a hand on the broken arm. “What do you want, then? More punishment? Just tell me and we’ll get it over with. Right now.”

Itachi says something too low for Kakashi to make out the words.

“What do you want this time? Violence? Sex? Just…” Sasuke starts undoing his trousers. “Just fuck me or beat me or whatever it is you have to do, and then get lost.”

“You’re acting like a whore.”

“I’m hardly a virgin. You made sure of that.”

Itachi’s hand hovers over Sasuke’s buttock. It’s equal odds if he’s going to hit or caress. But in the end he simply steps back. “We’ll revisit this scenario later.”

“Whatever.”

Itachi backhands him. “You will not dismiss me.”

It’s Sasuke’s turn to look towards Kakashi. Then he bites his tongue and holds his peace, spitting blood in silence.

xxxxx

When he comes to properly, the left side of his face feels like it’s on fire, and Sasuke’s curled up next to him.

“Hi,” Kakashi says, and his voice sounds normal. Raspy, weak, but entirely normal. “How bad is it?”

“You’re better off,” Sasuke says. He’s white-faced, even his lips are white, but it might just be the contrast to the burns and his fat lip. There are a lot of new handprints, one of them cupping his chin. Kakashi presumes when the bandages come off there’ll be one around his throat, one around each of his wrists. “The demon wound’s exorcised. You’ve got all your magic back. Well. Your eye’s done for though.”

“But it’s a lesser handicap than the demon scar, magic wise.”

Sasuke nods.

“Right,” Kakashi says. “That makes sense.”

They told him it was possible to exorcise the wound, back when he sustained it. He was given a seventeen percent survival chance. Sasuke would’ve taken those odds, but not Kakashi. I’m not an idiot, he told Sasuke when Sasuke demanded why the hell not.

But the choice was taken out of his hands and he made it after all.

He reaches up to touch his face and feels only burn dressings.

“They’re transparent,” Sasuke says.

Kakashi nods, and Sasuke hands him a mirror.

It’s bad.

His eye socket’s filled with a mess of black and red, like there’s a glowing ember instead of an eye inside it. His skin looks like leprosy, pink and grey and black, uneven and cracked. There are bumps and hollows, his face has melted into something unrecognisable.

“Your depth perception will be fucked,” Sasuke points out.

“Ah. I liked my face.”

Sasuke shrugs heartlessly. “You’ve still got half of it.”

Kakashi laughs, which hurts rather enormously. Sasuke presses closer, though he seems to have trouble finding a position that doesn’t aggravate his burns. As he shifts, Kakashi catches sight of more dressings poking out of the waistband of his trousers.

“You tore?”

Sasuke snorts. “No. I was pretty well prepped.”

“Well, fuck. He burnt you.”

Sasuke nods.

He has to ask, cold under the burning of his face. “Not inside?” That would’ve fused his intestines, that would –

“No. Just more bloody hand prints.”

Kakashi touches his chest, right over his heart. “You never minded before.”

Sasuke scowls.

“Ah,” Kakashi agrees.

That first handprint was a love token, primitive and painful perhaps but it made sense to Sasuke. These new ones are about being marked like cattle, and cheapen the first.

“Don’t worry,” he drawls. “You’re still a pretty little thing.”

Sasuke scowls harder, fingers tightening in Kakashi’s shirt. “Makes one of us.”

“You wound me.”

There’s an interlude of silence, Kakashi’s raspy breaths and Sasuke’s head heavy on his shoulder.

“I really thought he’d be – upset probably but more enticed.”

“He was,” Sasuke points out. “He wanted to see.”

“He wanted to take turns.”

“Yeah, so if you hadn’t made trouble –”

“You wanted me to take turns with Itachi fucking you on the couch?”

“Of course not! But it’s not that bad. It’s not like you don’t want to, anyway.”

“Of course I don’t.”

“What the hell are you talking about? You’d just –”

“You not wanting it is about the least appealing thing I can imagine.”

“It’s not fair to put that on me,” Sasuke snaps. “You expect me to pretend like I want to just so you can get excited about it?”

“No, of course not.”

“Then you’d better get over it, because he’s going to want to do it when we get out of here.”

“Yeah,” Kakashi sighs. “I’ll make sure to get some Viagra.”

“Hn.”

He touches Sasuke’s face, a fumbling brush of fingers. “I love you alive and bitching, not just lying there.”

“Hn,” Sasuke says again, rather more softly.

“Hey. We’re…”

“It’s you and me,” Sasuke agrees.

He touches Sasuke’s face again, feels slow with drugs. “I…”

Sasuke’s mouth quirks. “I know.”

Kakashi must’ve dozed off again, because when he opens his eyes – his eye – Mikoto’s in the doorway. His side is cold: Sasuke’s left the bed.

“This is none of your concern,” Sasuke tells her. He sounds like he means it, like there’s no more lingering resentment that she’s made it none of her concern.

“We have three damaged crusaders, one almost killed,” Mikoto points out. “This is certainly Council business.”

Sasuke stares at her impassively.

Mikoto sighs, a bloodless sound. “We might have some common interests at last, you and I. The Council is concerned that its crusader resources not be depleted. I assume you are concerned that you not be injured.”

“If you think you have any says what Itachi does, you’re delusional.”

“We might devise a strategy.”

“Let me be even clearer. If you think you have any say what I do, you’re delusional.”

“Kakashi, perhaps –”

Kakashi shrugs, struggling into a half-sitting position. Trying to, at least – he fails. “I’m afraid you’re no use in this situation.”

She directs a frank, assessing look at Sasuke. “I realise of course that you resent me.”

“I get that you don’t like me,” Sasuke says. “That you can’t stand me, even. I feel bad for you about the Orochimaru thing. What I don’t get is why you don’t do something about it. Abort me, kill him – have some fucking self-respect and avenge yourself instead of pandering to him.”

She touches his cheek, just below the black fingerprint like a mole on his cheek bone. Sasuke’s justifiably too startled to object – she can’t have touched him since he was six or seven, half his life ago. “Maybe that’s what I was trying to do.”

“Use me as your poisoned apple.”

“There would have been a certain poetic justice to it, don’t you think?”

“I’m not very interested in justice.”

“No,” Mikoto agrees. “You never have been.”

Sasuke’s got an odd expression, one Kakashi can’t decipher. “I suppose in the end you’ll survive us all. Now get the hell out.”

Their next unwelcome visitor appears late in the evening, which is for the best – if Sasuke had been awake, he’d hardly have tolerated Minato’s presence.

“Jesus,” Minato says, making as though to touch the ruined side of Kakashi’s face. “It’s worse than I thought.”

“Yes, well, that’s very flattering.”

“I came as soon as I could.”

“Mmh.”

“You sound like you don’t believe me.”

“No, I sound like it doesn’t matter and I hadn’t counted on you coming at all.”

Minato sighs. “I apologise. How are you feeling? How is he?”

“I feel like shit, and I don’t discuss Sasuke with you.”

“Fair enough. Is there something I can do?”

Kakashi closes his eyes, and feels horrifically old and terrifyingly young. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.” In sleep, Sasuke breathes against his neck. He’s lying on his stomach, partially on top of Kakashi – not at all how he usually sleeps, but he can’t roll over onto his back without aggravating the burns on his arse, so Kakashi keeps his arm around him and doesn’t let him turn.

“I know,” Minato says. “It’s like that with kids. You have to be responsible for them but there’s no way not to fuck up.”

Kakashi laughs weakly. “Then I suppose I’m doing everything right.”

Minato’s mouth quirks. Kakashi used to love that expression: younger, more accessible, realer. “At least yours is still talking to you.”

“Try having your face burnt off and I’m sure Naruto’ll come around.”

It’s Minato’s turn to laugh weakly. “But there must be something we can do to ameliorate things. If he keeps going like this…”

“I miscalculated,” Kakashi says. “I thought I had more leeway than I actually did.”

“He hasn’t hurt you before,” Minato says, the closest to a question he can come.

“No. I suppose I haven’t made him jealous before, or not enough that he could admit it.”

“Naruto did.”

“Ah. But that was always different.”

“Why? Sasuke obviously loves you.”

“But he loves Itachi as well, so that’s all right.”

“I’m not following.”

“He’s in love with Naruto.”

Minato looks at once terrified and proud. “But that’s – surely Itachi’s not –”

“Of course he is,” Kakashi sighs. “He’s been in love with Sasuke for years.”

“It’s his brother.”

“Bloody hell, Minato, what did you think I meant when I said Itachi wants to fuck him?”

“I preferred to think it was an exaggeration.”  

“Oh for God’s sake.”

Chapter Text

When Sasuke reaches for his water glass, his sleeve falls away, revealing a black scar like a handcuff around his wrist. There’s another handprint covering his throat, one cupping his chin, and a distracting fingerprint on his cheek. The way he’s reluctant to sit down suggests … well, there’s a joke about more marked cheeks to be made, but that’s never been Neji’s style.

“At least you still look better than Kakashi,” Hanabi points out.

Temari snorts – Neji’s not certain why a shifter is allowed in the room, but Sakura doesn’t like what she calls racist comments and Sasuke doesn’t like when they make Sakura uncomfortable – sprawling in her chair. “He’ll never have to shop for Halloween costumes again.”

Sakura gives her a shocked look. Neji himself finds it in extraordinarily poor taste.

Sasuke, who can be unpredictable about these things, shrugs. “Let’s go.”

He doesn’t bother with the door, simply opening the closest window.

“Sasuke…” Sakura reminds him.

Sasuke holds out his hand. Sakura’s obvious uncomfortable about it, but she climbs out the window after him and hangs on to his shoulders, letting him take her weight and keep them both in the sky.

Hanabi shrugs, following them. Neji has little choice but to do the same.

They alight on the ground shortly, Temari dropping down after them, asphalt shattering around her feet.

It’s all awkward and awful, because it’s so painfully obvious that Itachi’s beaten the shit out of Sasuke, and presumably he’s also – well. Done some unspeakable things. If Neji had been alone with Sasuke, they could have acknowledged it indirectly and moved on; Temari or Hanabi would’ve said something direct and offensive, and Sasuke would’ve sneered, and it would’ve been fine – but none of that is permissible with Sakura, and unlike her the rest of them aren’t able to look away from the issue.

In the end it’s Temari who cuts to the chase, because she’s not here as Sasuke’s friend but as Naruto’s. “He thinks you’re sleeping with Kakashi.”

“I know,” Sasuke tells her.

She lifts an eyebrow.

“He thinks that because I told him that,” Sasuke says.

“Oh la,” Hanabi drawls.

“Is it true?” Sakura asks.

“Yes.”

Neji had assumed as much. He was more jealous before he saw what Itachi had done to Kakashi’s face.

Sakura hesitates. “Isn’t he – kind of old?”

Sasuke shrugs.  

“Anyway,” Temari cuts in.

Sasuke appears aggravated, impatient. “Kakashi’s not the problem.”

“No,” Temari agrees. “And Naruto’ll never believe Kakashi did this to you, so I’m wondering what the fuck we’re gonna tell him, since you keep lying to him about Itachi.”

“I don’t lie to him, not that it’s any of your business.”

“Lies of omission –”

God, she’s insolent.

“What you tell him is your business,” Sasuke snaps.

“Right,” Temari says. “Then I think we’re done here.”

Nobody protests when she leaves.

Sakura hesitates, but ultimately makes another attempt at conversation, turning to Neji. “I hear congratulations are in order?”

Hanabi laughs.

Neji briefly wishes for death.

“Oh yes,” Hanabi leers. “He’s thrilled.”

His engagement to Hinata was made official a few days ago, though Itachi’s latest psychotic episode rather overshadowed the news: he’s inheriting Hyuuga after all, because Hanabi’s been confirmed as the next head of Oto.

He imagines Sasuke approves of this solution, which is really rather elegant. Neji’s not wasted as a branch member but will be head of Hyuuga. Hinata at last can fulfil a purpose as his wife, though Neji shudders to think how they’ll manage to consummate. Hanabi, brilliant crusader princess chosen by the archangel who commands the armies of God, will get her own clan. God knows if anyone can call the fanatics to heel, it’ll be Hanabi. Mikoto likes the idea because Hanabi agrees with her moderate politics, and Hiashi of course supports his beloved daughter being so elevated.

“As long as you’re happy,” Sakura starts uncertainly.

Hanabi snorts. “I’d have better luck seducing her myself. I mean, since the Council obviously approves of sibling incest these days.”

“That’s what’s held you back all these years?” Sasuke snorts. “How flattering for Hinata.”

“Nah.” Hanabi shrugs. “Though I am contemplating an affair with Ino.”

Sakura strangles a shocked sound.

Hanabi laughs. “Yes, you may pass that on to her.”

“I don’t think Ino’s interested in girls,” Sakura says.

“Ino’s interested in crusaders,” Hanabi points out.

“I like to think you could do better,” Neji interjects, before Sakura has an apoplectic fit.

“I don’t know, slim pickings. Though Gaara would be hot if he wasn’t so psychotic.”

Neji’s happy to see that he’s not the only one who clearly thinks she’s lost her mind.

“Oh, what? I hear shifters have great stamina.” She shrugs, basking in the shock and censure. “Though I don’t suppose I have time for dalliances right now. I assume you’re coming tomorrow, Neji?” She glances at Sasuke’s visible injuries. “I mean, you’re not really in a condition to carry out major exorcisms.”

Sasuke looks annoyed before checking his phone. “I have to go.”

“Oh, are you sore about it? Because – ”

“Itachi’s back,” Sasuke cuts her off. “I can’t leave Kakashi alone with him until he’s settled.”

xxxxx

Kakashi’s never been very good at obeying doctor’s orders. He attributes it to growing up amongst shifters, who never had to bother.

“You’ll get infected,” Sasuke snaps, and Kakashi lets his hand drop from the ruin of his face. It’s better now, after a few skin grafts, the lower half of it might look almost normal after the swelling goes down. He touches the gauze covering his eye socket, feels emptiness and pain and nothing else.

“You’ll get used to it,” Itachi says from the other room.

“I expect so,” Kakashi agrees.

Beside him Sasuke tenses.

“Easy,” Kakashi mutters, nudging his shoulder.

Sasuke’s lips thin. Itachi was a fool to call him a chair, to suggest sharing him, because Sasuke might overlook Itachi burning and outright raping him, but the idea of being an object to Itachi, something to give away… That, he could never accept.

Kakashi reflects once again that Itachi’s an idiot if he thinks he can make Sasuke bend before he breaks, and anyway a lynx can only pretend to be a housecat for so long.

Still he grabs Sasuke’s chin, digging his fingers into the black handprint Sasuke hates. “Not now. Trust me.”

There’s an explosive sigh – Sasuke’s been livid for days, the air around him static with arctic berserker fury – and Sasuke starts climbing out the window.

“He might –”

“Punish me? He’ll punish me regardless. I’d better be in a headspace where I don’t fight back.”

“Fair point,” Kakashi concedes, watching Sasuke drop through the sky.

Itachi comes in shortly afterwards, when Kakashi’s smearing antibiotic cream over his face. Since Itachi’s understanding of social boundaries is limited at best, he tends in these matters to follow Kakashi’s and Sasuke’s examples, which means he no longer hesitates intruding on half-dressed moments. That’s different, Kakashi initially tried to explain, but the only logical follow-up would’ve been, I’m in a relationship with Sasuke, which isn’t something he can say to Itachi.

“He’s angry with me,” Itachi says, pretending it’s not a question.

Kakashi lifts his functioning eyebrow. “What reaction were you expecting?”

Itachi stares at him blankly.

“Right,” Kakashi says tightly, reaching for his jumper.

“I understand his anger about what I did to you,” Itachi says. “It was unfortunate that your eye was damaged. But he was angry before that.”

“You did call him a chair that was yours to break apart or share with whoever you like.”

“He belongs to me.”

“Yes,” Kakashi agrees, feeling the pain from his empty eye socket bore through his skull. He feels sick with it, dizzy. “But he’s a person. He needs to feel that he matters to you.”

“He’s the only person who matters to me.”

“He needs to hear that.” He takes a step away, unexpectedly stumbles – more unexpectedly, Itachi catches him, helping him back to bed and then perching on the closest chair. It’s quite a distance away, since it’s usually Sasuke in here, and Sasuke of course settles directly on the bed.

But Itachi seems to be having a good day, with no voices telling him to cleanse the world of its sin by way of fire and heavenly fury. They talk simply, pleasantly, and Kakashi’s reminded that Itachi the person, Itachi the human being, he likes. It feels like shrapnel, the idea of this brilliant, lovely man who gave Kakashi back his place in the world being trapped inside a maze of psychotic delusions. Itachi will never regret what he’s done, because Itachi’s not capable of understanding that he might be wrong.

They’re playing chess and talking about inconsequential things – always a gift with Itachi – when Sasuke returns. He climbs through the window looking like a rain-soaked stray, his hair heavy and wild.

“Ah,” Itachi says in his mildest voice, which still tolerates no disobedience. “Come sit with us.”

By this point Itachi’s migrated to the bedside to be able to reach the chessboard, and Kakashi’s half-sitting, propped against a stack of pillows. Sasuke nestles between them, almost in Itachi’s lap. Itachi startles: Sasuke’s a quiet kid but his presence has always been loud, he’s someone who changes a room by entering it.

Itachi picks up a discarded shirt and uses it to towel Sasuke’s hair. Sasuke twists around, they stare at each other in that way they have, a lifetime of obsession between them.

Kakashi feels like he fades away. That was something Yui talked about, after she’d read a dissertation on the internalised alienation of shifters. One of the interviewees had talked about their experience of living in a human-majority neighbourhood and continually having their self eroded. On s’efface, they’d said: that they erased themselves, faded away. Acceded to the norms according to which they should not exist. 

It’s a privileged and disgusting thing to say, of course, Yui had said, but I feel a little like that now, with the shifters. All this power, all this passion, this certainty of clinging to pack identity to survive in the face of adversity – and then who am I? It’s better to be discreet, not to draw too much of their attention, it’s safer that way. So I suppose je m’efface.

She’d had to read the dissertation via a translation programme, because she didn’t actually speak French. Kakashi, who once learnt the languages of his favourite authors and is fairly fluent in French as well as Russian, had skimmed it. It was the kind of text Minato would dismiss as too inaccessible, too academic, to be good propaganda material, and Naruto would dismiss as passivising, an ode to victimhood. Kakashi can easily imagine Sasuke scornful, nose scrunched up: if your identity is based on group culture, there’s not much there to erase in the first place.

But Yui was like that, trying to understand people by reading about them instead of by interacting with them, and then schooling her reactions to what she’d read, interpreting through a moral lens, as if one could teach oneself to be a good person.

The shirt drops to the floor. Itachi’s hand remains on Sasuke’s head. “Let’s pray together.”

They all close their eyes, only of course Sasuke and Kakashi open theirs again long before Itachi. It’s always been this way: Sasuke’s accepted and possibly enjoyed prayer as a way of soaking in magic, and as a way of being close to Itachi, but the practice quickly becomes boring nonsense when one doesn’t believe. Of course, if Sasuke had believed in anything like the biblical god, Kakashi still can’t imagine him praying: Sasuke wouldn’t see a master, he’d see a challenge.

Itachi has his hands clasped around Sasuke’s, incidentally embracing Sasuke. He startles, his eyes opening, when Sasuke leans back against his chest. “Are you being affectionate?” he mumbles. He’s not meeting Sasuke’s eyes: fixing his gaze just below them, as he often does, like a man who knows better than to stare directly at the sun. “I wish you’d learn to pray better. To submit to God.”

This is what he always does: trying to limit his time with Sasuke, and striving to remain unaffected and condescendingly kind, instructional, in order to cut Sasuke down to size, to someone who can’t disrupt Itachi’s life, doesn’t hit him like a tornado.

Kakashi once read about a man who loved volcanoes, so he filled one with cement, neutered it so he could live next to it without burning up. It’s no more absurd than Itachi’s attempts to neutralise Sasuke, as if he could turn his love into something controllable and acceptable by turning Sasuke into something controllable and acceptable, as if people haven’t always loved people more than they love God.

Kakashi sighs, thinking once more, Yet each man kills the thing he loves/ By each let this be heard/Some do it with a bitter look/ Some with a flattering word//The coward does it with a kiss. 

Sasuke stares back at Itachi. Not for the first time, Kakashi reflects that one would have very boring conversations with Sasuke if one only went by what Sasuke actually said. You have to look beneath the words, underneath the underneath.

Itachi kisses Sasuke’s face: forehead, lips, cheek, cheek, making the sign of the cross with his mouth. Kakashi imagines Sasuke normally likes that, going by Itachi’s reaction when he remains stiff and unaffected. Itachi touches Sasuke’s jaw, finally lifting Sasuke’s chin, his fingers partially overlapping with his own black fingerprints. “You didn’t like these.”

Sasuke touches Itachi’s broken arm. The black eye has faded, but the arm’s taking longer, and it’s broken bad: even when it heals, there will be an unevenness. “Did you like this?”

“I understood it,” Itachi says. “You act out sometimes. While it’s regrettable, it was at least for a good cause, in that you were attempting to assist another crusader.”

“While you were too busy asserting your possession of me to aid this other crusader?” Sasuke hisses.

Itachi touches Sasuke’s neck, a slow pained brush of fingers, and then his hand lingers. “You’re more important.” He swallows. “I had assumed this was too obvious to need stating, but perhaps it could be said more clearly. You come first, you’re the most precious to me.”

“I’m not a chair.”

“No,” Itachi agrees softly. “It was meant to be an illuminating metaphor, but it seems only to have caused confusion.” His fingers are back on Sasuke’s face, tracing his mouth – Itachi hardly seems aware of it. “Would it have been better if I talked about a pet?”

“I’m your brother,” Sasuke snaps.

Itachi swallows. “Incest isn’t truly a Christian taboo, looking at the Old Testament.”

“I don’t care about that. The point is I’m a person. Your person.” He makes a frustrated face. “It’s – we’re family. It’s a two-way street.”

Itachi kisses him softly on the mouth. “You are my brother, and I love you. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be concerned with – sin. I wish you to be more godly because I love you.”

“And by more godly, in context you mean you don’t want me protesting when you sleep with me.”

Itachi doesn’t let himself shudder. “I want you to trust in my judgement.”

“He’d have died. If I’d waited until you were finished, he’d be dead.”

“If you hadn’t defied me in the first place, none of it would have needed to occur.”

Sasuke heaves an annoyed sigh, glaring up at Itachi. “Don’t steal from me because someone else pisses you off.”

“You stole from me by involving yourself with someone behind my back.”

“It wasn’t behind your back,” Sasuke argues. “You were into – sharing with him, before.”

“Yes, but when I attempted to restore equilibrium that way, there was protest.” He strokes Sasuke’s cheek, tangles his fingers in Sasuke’s hair. “You attempted to resist me. Do you no longer want to…?”

“Would you stop if I didn’t want to?”

“I need to know that I own you.” His fingers play through Sasuke’s hair, as if caught in a web. “Why would you turn traitor and resist me?”

Sasuke slides down to the floor, kneeling between Itachi’s legs. Kakashi doesn’t let himself sigh, thinking he’d be a fool to look away but that he doesn’t particularly want to watch Sasuke pull down Itachi’s trousers, open his mouth to suck him in. He seems more comfortable with it than Kakashi had expected – then again, Sasuke has no gag reflect to speak of. It was always a nightmare when he got the flu, hot and miserable with needing to vomit but unable for hours to get it out of his system. In the end Itachi usually put his fingers in Sasuke’s mouth, forced them far back and teased his throat relentlessly until he could puke. When Itachi wasn’t there, Kakashi tried giving him salt water to drink, which didn’t work, and instructed him to push a towel into his mouth until he could throw up, which didn’t work either. Naruto’s projectile vomiting has never fazed Sasuke, never triggered a hint of sympathy vomit.

Kakashi comforts himself with the knowledge that if Itachi becomes inconsiderate, Sasuke will have no hesitation letting his teeth be felt: for Sasuke, after all, sex and violence connect. Indeed, for all Sasuke’s the molested child, Kakashi was the one mumbling, mmh, hold on, little more gently. In fact if Sasuke had just been excited enough, the lack of lube in the beginning mightn’t have been a problem in the heat of the moment – he welcomed the sting of Kakashi’s teeth, the pressure of his hands.

Of course, it might simply be that Sasuke trusts absolutely and unthinkingly that Kakashi won’t actually hurt him. That’s a trust Kakashi can’t quite reciprocate, because Sasuke’s a wild animal at heart, and it’s a desperately vulnerable position to love someone more than they love you.

Sasuke sits back on his heels rather quickly, looking….not satisfied or aroused, but somewhat pleased with himself. His slick, tight little mouth has grown rather pink. “You see?” he says to Itachi. “I’m not keeping anything from you.”

“Hmm.”

Sasuke gives him a cheeky smirk. “I told you I was getting better for you.”

“I will take it under consideration,” Itachi says.

After he’s left Sasuke returns to the bedside, inspecting the healing burn on Kakashi’s face.

“Quite the exhibitionist,” Kakashi drawls, perhaps with some edge.

Sasuke snorts. “We needed to ease him into it.” He adjusts the wrapping, harsh proprietary fingers brushing over nerves laid desperately bare. “I mean it’s not like we’re never going to fuck again. Can’t have him freaking out every time.”

“Ah,” Kakashi says, touching Sasuke’s hand, which is still fiddling with the burn damage. “You don’t mind?”

Sasuke frowns at him. “What’s your face ever had to do with any of it?”

xxxxx

Kakashi’s face has mostly healed, the skin no longer porous but rather hard and glossy, when Itachi decides it’s time to re-enact that unfortunate evening. Kakashi gets it, really: that Itachi desires Sasuke’s desire, and can’t get at it on his own, because he needs someone else there to blame for it, someone to carry the sin away from himself and Sasuke.

They’re in the living room again and Kakashi reflects that Itachi must’ve paid someone to clean the carpet, because it’s unstained under his feet, and Itachi indicates for Sasuke to undress.

Sasuke looks ready to spit.

“Maa, maa,” Kakashi mumbles, putting a hand on his shoulder. It’s in the right position to disjoint Sasuke’s arm, should he need to. “Let’s get there gradually?”

Sasuke tilts his head, looking square at Itachi. “If I refuse?”

“Pain can be clarifying.”

“Tch.” Sasuke’s never had enough respect for pain – his was a childhood of playing with fire, climbing the high places of the world, never shying away from a fight – but he glances now at Kakashi’s ruined eye and unbuttons the topmost buttons of his shirt.

“Sasuke.” Incredibly, Itachi reaches out, touching softly under Sasuke’s chin, tilting his face towards Itachi. It would look loving, even tender, if not for the livid black handprint marring Sasuke’s chin. “The purpose of punishment is redemption. So show me that punishment has been effective, and that you have learnt better.” He kisses Sasuke’s forehead. His tone is mild, the tone of a man saying obvious things in an obvious way. “You may have nothing between you that I am not privy to, that is not on my sufferance.”

“You’re a very disturbed man,” Kakashi remarks lightly, putting his hands on Sasuke’s hips. Sasuke’s attention shifts away from Itachi, he meets Kakashi’s eye. Kakashi assesses that he’s pissed but not uncontrollably so – fortunately, since a fight about this can’t be expected to end any better than last time. Sasuke breathes out sharply, winding his arms around Kakashi’s waist.

He becomes passive with Itachi around, taking only the tiniest and most timid initiatives. But Kakashi knows now how to touch him, where to scratch, where to stroke, where to brush and where to press. Sasuke’s body wakes under his hands, though Sasuke himself remains distant.

This is something they both know: when you hurt, you shut down and fight through.

“Sasuke,” he mumbles, trying to check in.

“Hn.” Sasuke twists in his arms, until he’s leaning sideways against Kakashi’s body, the edge of his shoulder digging into Kakashi’s chest. He reaches out until he can bury his fingers in Itachi’s hair, tugging Itachi forward into a kiss.

So it happens that must happen, mainly in a blur – Kakashi might’ve taken something beforehand, because he knows he’s better off not remembering any details.

It’s not like he’s never been in a threesome before, but even then it was depressing, a fracturing of intimacy, as if one simply couldn’t stand being alone with either of the other participants. At the time that had been what he needed, because he couldn’t stand even being alone with himself and couldn’t stand meeting anyone’s eyes frankly – but he wouldn’t have wanted that with Sasuke, even if Sasuke hadn’t been fundamentally opposed to this.

He thinks he might’ve liked to see Sasuke with Naruto, since God knows that would be a volcanic eruption of desire…but then again, Sasuke and Naruto become focused on each other in a way that’s brutally exclusive to the rest of the world, as if everyone else might as well have ceased to exist.

Afterwards Itachi sits on the couch, Sasuke curled up on the floor with his head in Itachi’s lap.

Kakashi too slumps on the floor, as far away from them as possible while still being able to rest his back against the couch.

Itachi and Sasuke speak softly, amicably, there’s Itachi’s mild little smile like a gift and Sasuke glows for a moment. Sweat dries on his neck and Itachi strokes his hair.

xxxxx

Kakashi’s chopping onions. Knives and cooking calm him down.

Sasuke comes over and stands next to him, within touching distance and utterly unreachable. The tension rackets up measurably, every muscle knotting tight.

“That was not okay,” Sasuke says.

“No,” Kakashi says.

He chops the onions lengthwise. There’s a quote like that, isn’t there? Chop them lengthwise, like a heart. It’s the same with wrists.

There’s a moment of stunned pain. He’s chopped off his ring finger.

“Well, shit.”

“Put it on ice,” Sasuke tells him, then leans out of the doorframe. “Itachi! We’re going to the hospital. The fool’s cut off his finger.”

xxxxx

He’s sitting at the baby grand, trying to get his reattached finger back in line. Debussy doesn’t quite come out right, for all he’s known these melodies since before his parents died, back when his mother liked to consider herself cultured and made time to teach him.

Sasuke circles him, thrumming with frustrated energy. He’s…trying to take care of Kakashi, and of course failing miserably because he’s no good at taking care of people, he’s not built for it. Kakashi supposes they’re the same in that regard.

“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” Kakashi confesses, his voice raw and taut and almost inaudible over the music, not a way one speaks to a child in one’s care, but then Sasuke’s not a child anymore and Kakashi’s not exactly taking good care of him.

“This vapid, floundering neediness is unattractive,” Sasuke snaps.

“Ah, yes,” Kakashi sneers back, soft as rotting silk. “Like your own pathetic inability to stand up to Itachi about the smallest thing?”

“Did you want to lose your other eye?” Sasuke snaps.

“We’ve both known for years that the only way out of this is killing him. You’re just too weak.”

But planning Itachi’s death in cold blood is not something Sasuke can do. So they have their first adult fight, and Kakashi hadn’t imagined he could be this fucking awful to Sasuke. Turning self-hatred into a weapon is nothing new, but he’s never turned it on Sasuke before, thrown the failures and hurts of a lifetime in his face.

And he knew, he did know, that Sasuke’s vicious, that he lacks many of those mental barriers meant to soften people to each other. Still, this time, it’s Sasuke who finally steps back.

“Are you turning tail?” Kakashi hisses.

Sasuke directs a clinical gaze at Kakashi’s still smarting face, at his eye-patch. “You’re not fully recovered. I’ll wind up damaging you.” There’s no emotional disturbance at the idea, Sasuke’s simply aware that he’d regret it later, that they’d better stop when things are still mendable.

“You like hurting people,” Kakashi points out. And violence has always been close to the surface in Sasuke, he’s never been slower than any of the shifters to hit out.

They had a kitten once, or Kakashi had one on behalf of Sasuke – this was before the Orochimaru incident, before Sasuke moved in. He’d been trying to convince Itachi he could have a pet, and persuaded Kakashi to aid and abet. At the time, Kakashi hadn’t realised this was merely a step in Sasuke’s plan, that he ultimately wanted to keep Naruto and was selling it to Itachi as having a pet. So there had been a kitten, quite a cute little thing that shredded all the curtains and which Kakashi had of course named Sasuke-chan. He’d had it for about five days when it bit Sasuke’s thumb, and Sasuke wrung its neck. There had not been an instant of hesitation, and there was not an instant of regret.

“I do like hurting people,” Sasuke agrees. “Which is why I should go now.”

Kakashi nods, and Sasuke steps out the window.

Kakashi plays through a strand of Vivaldi and thinks that he’s called Sasuke by many ridiculous pet names – Ducky-hime, sugarplum, chibichan – but Orochimaru had it right all along. Sasuke’s a right little Shinigami-chan, a sweetheart sociopath, a wild animal at heart.

“Maa,” he says aloud, closing the piano lid when the bandage around his finger starts bleeding through. Maybe Itachi wasn’t so far wrong, to call his baby brother honey bee. The sting’s what you remember, burning under your tongue.

Chapter Text

“What the fuck,” Gaara says.

The battlefield around them has stopped, freeze-frame still.

A bunch of BEASTERs and their sympathisers have attacked the school – and must, he thinks sourly, have got a tip from the exorcists, because the attack is taking place now, when a substantial number of the guards are occupied with a demon infestation, which is very uncommon in these parts. Going by their hacked transmitters, BEAST is even calling the attack Operation: Darkness at Noon.

Koestler would roll in his grave, Shikamaru had groaned.

Actually the timing’s for the best, because it means the students don’t have to go through the guards in order to join the fight.

Only now the fight has stopped, and Gaara turns to stare over his shoulder.

“Well,” Kankurou says. “It’s a classy neighbourhood. Of course they’d send an exorcist.”

They both know the infestation’s nothing major – of course someone would be sent to cover it, but it should’ve been someone like Ino or Hinata. It should not have been crusader royalty, and yet Gaara can’t deny that he smells and quickly spots Sasuke.

The last tendrils of darkness fade, Sasuke comes to a stop next to them, and Gaara discovers that he looks like shit. Gaara had understood from Temari that there was some facial scarring, but he hadn’t expected Itachi to actually mark his little brother like chattle, a black handprint perpetually cupping Sasuke’s chin, a fingerprint marring his cheek.

Gaara feels himself smirk. He can’t decide if he wants to garrotte Sasuke with his own scarf or rip it off, reveal the strangling black handprints that allegedly cover his throat.

Sasuke lifts a hand, burning away a stray demon, and his sleeve rolls down, and – there’s a burn like a handcuff. Gaara wants to laugh with glee, with triumph.

Sasuke lifts an eyebrow. Even aside from the burns he looks drawn, his skin waxy with fatigue.

“Not that I’m not glad to see you,” Kankurou says. “But what’re you doing here?”

“I was over in Firtown when this came in.”

Ah, Gaara thinks. Firtown suffered from a massive infestation covered heavily in the news, and it’s close enough that it makes sense for Sasuke to nip over here after finishing up.

“Was there really a devil?” Kankurou inquires.

“Two.”

Gaara considers. Last time he jumped Sasuke, Sasuke was prepared, and had only handled demons. If he jumped him now – well, Gaara wouldn’t be the one on the ground.

Then he sees it, just out of the corner of his eye. A trigger-happy BEASTer, resuming fighting now that the demons are gone. And at this distance, with Uriel disengaged, Sasuke will be indistinguishable from the rest of them.

If Uriel had been released, a bullet would evaporate on contact with the heavenly energy, it would never touch Sasuke. But keeping your archangel released burns your cells, burns years off your life, and anyway Sasuke’s tired and – incredibly – feels safe among them. Uriel’s dormant: Sasuke’s just a human body.

It's so very tempting to do nothing. To simply stand his ground, and he’d be rid of Sasuke forever.

But he thinks of Naruto, and takes that crucial step forward, faster than any human could ever hope to move. The bullet hits him just above his eye, stops inside his head. It doesn’t continue out the other side, into Sasuke’s face.

He lets Shukaku’s claws dig for it, cracking his own skull and ripping out bone and tissue until he gets to the bullet, and can finally heal.

“Shit,” Kankurou says. “You okay?”

Gaara snaps his teeth at him, and Kankurou steps back.

Sasuke gives him a shrewd look, then glances towards the BEASTers. A few of them evaporate in a shower of light. “You’ve got my blessing, if that’s what you were angling for.”

“Fuck yeah,” Kankurou grins.

Gaara snorts, spits blood on Sasuke’s shoes, and rages forward. Kankurou’s been so concerned about trying to hold him back, buying into Shikamaru’s media strategy bullshit – keeping it clean, painting themselves as the persecuted victims. But none of that matters anymore. BEAST shot at en exorcist: the lives of everyone here even vaguely associated with them are forfeit.

Rumour has it BEAST’s been desperate since Hanabi was confirmed as the upcoming head of Oto, as it’s well known that she considers shifter persecution nonsense, far below exorcist dignity, and does not tolerate disobedience. No doubt that’s part of why BEAST’s here in the first place, and no doubt they’d like to go to the media with some sob stories – but breathe a word about shooting at Itachi Uchiha’s beloved brother, and the Lord will punish your children unto the seventh generation.

Shukaku explodes through Gaara’s skin, a beast the size of a house, energy so thick it’s almost solid.

Afterwards, when the humans don’t look human anymore, don’t look like anything but red dew, Gaara discovers Sasuke in his car, helping himself to an energy drink and grimacing at the taste.

Gaara supposes there’s little point questioning the fact that Sasuke clearly intends to return to the school with them – largely because Naruto would rip anyone who tried to prevent it apart. He just gets in the driver’s seat and turns the car around.

Still, “You’re not welcome.”

Sasuke shrugs, still preoccupied with the energy drink. “Whatever.”

“You’re such a bitch.”

Sasuke lifts an eyebrow, smirking at him. “Aren’t you going to fall in love with me?”

Gaara strikes out without thought. Shukaku’s claws shred Sasuke’s shirt, scratch across his skin – but not deeply, because they burn on contact. Gaara’s going to have to cut off his fingers, for the tips to grow back.

Sasuke glances at the shallow cuts on his shoulder, shrugs them off. “You’re trying to bond with him, aren’t you.”

It’s below Gaara’s dignity to lie to Sasuke, so he can’t say no. And it’s below Gaara’s dignity to lie to himself, so he can’t say he’s not – however indirectly – trying to fall in love with Sasuke, revolting as the notion might be.

“What do you care?” he snaps. “You’re fucking Hatake.”

Sasuke shrugs, as if he can’t imagine what this has to do with anything.

Gaara tilts his head, showing teeth. “Are you actually fucking Hatake, or is he just your beard because you don’t want to tell people you’re bending over for your brother?”

He’d have thought Sasuke would want that, since he was always all over Itachi, but the burns suggest otherwise, suggest Sasuke fighting back, however unsuccessfully. Undeniably there’s something funny about a prissy, racist exorcist preferring the Hokage’s bastard love child over the greatest crusader who’s ever lived.

“Your sudden fascination with my sex life is a bit pathetic.”

Gaara gives him his most predatory grin. “Like you said, I’ll be part of it soon, won’t I?” He considers making an aggressive move, trying to see if he can get Sasuke to shudder – if Itachi’s been raping him, he might be sensitive to sexual violence, and Gaara could finally get the upper hand.

Then again he just ripped Sasuke’s shirt, and Sasuke didn’t even blink, just burnt his fingers. Also there’s always been the understanding between them, the root of Gaara’s hatred, that Sasuke accepts him because Naruto has to bond with someone, and Sasuke considers Gaara the lesser evil: at least he’s strong, at least he’s loyal. But if Gaara makes himself troublesome, Sasuke will remove him from contention by killing him before there’s a bond – and if Gaara ever truly hurt Sasuke, Naruto would kill him, but there’s nothing Naruto wouldn’t forgive Sasuke.

Naruto? Temari once demanded. Forget about Naruto. Itachi will let the hoards of hell feast on your soul.

But Gaara’s always known that he’s perfectly safe from Itachi. Even if he ripped off Sasuke arms, even if he cut his face or raped him or damaged him, Sasuke would lie for him, because if he breathed a word to Itachi, Itachi would exterminate their entire pack – including Naruto.

He fantasies about putting his hand over Itachi’s handprint and letting it turn into a claw, forcing Sasuke to bare his throat. He doesn’t want Sasuke, but finally dominating him, forcing him to the ground in submission – yes, he wants that, he could get hard for that.

Sasuke lifts an eyebrow, his mouth quirking in scorn. “You do realise that just because you’re infected by Naruto’s desire doesn’t mean I’ll reciprocate?”

Gaara shrugs, mimicking Sasuke. “Bonded mates share.”

The air changes, until it feels like he’s breathing in frost. When he glances at Sasuke, thrilled and tense, all the humanity is gone from him. They can play at being frenemies, but they’re beyond that now – what’s left is the natural born killer, the superhuman predator to whom Gaara could never be a person, who looks at Gaara the same way Gaara looks at humans. If people ever caught on that this is what hides under Sasuke’s sweet human features, would they still worship him? Probably.

Sasuke gives him an odd look, as if he’s not understanding why he has to say this, how it could possibly not have been obvious to Gaara all along. “If he ever for a second wanted to share, if he doesn’t always love me best, I will kill him for that.”

xxxxx

“Naruto! Look, wait up!”

The collar around his neck tightens, and Naruto snaps around on his heel. “What!”

“Don’t,” Asuma says. “I let you come on the condition that you behave.”

“You let me come because this is in the opposite direction of the capital and I agreed to put on this fucking electric collar,” Naruto corrects him.

“And because I can see you’re going stir-crazy, and I thought I’d give you another chance, despite all our previous… tiffs.”

“Are you threatening to lock me up in the cellar again?”

He spent most of his first year there, in a cage made of blessed steel, steel he couldn’t touch without burning.

Naruto’s never got a straight answer if they got Kakashi to bless it or if they bought it off someone like Orochimaru, but they thought it was more merciful than the other option, the one they’d used until they obtained it. Before the cage, they impaled him on steel rods reaching from floor to ceiling, so there was no way off them. He couldn’t dig his way out, below the floor there’s only mountain, and he couldn’t pull free because there were just too many rods, he’d have to rip his entire body apart, and he couldn’t heal because they were right there, inside his flesh, and he couldn’t get out and he couldn’t think.

In the cage, he can think. Often, that’s worse, because he ends up in the cage when he’s tried to run: when he has to have Sasuke, when he cannot be apart anymore. Like he’s lost a part of himself, a crucial piece, and he has to have it back.

Asuma had turned away from all that, he hadn’t wanted to look. He’d said things like, Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind. Sasuke, who’d never have looked away, was more straightforward: Better you’re alive and in pain than you’re dead, you get that that’s your option, right? Dobe.

Asuma sighs. “Naruto… Look, let’s just get through this together?”

“So what’s the hold-up?”

“The attack’s over. There’s nothing left of BEAST – someone sent over an exorcist and the idiots shot at him, so we were in the clear to eliminate them.”

“So let’s hunt down the scouts out here like we planned, and – ” His phone pings, and he glances at it expecting an update from Gaara. But it’s not from Gaara.

Sasuke’s sent him a photo. It’s sloppily taken, but it shows him Sasuke staring straight into the camera standing in Naruto’s bedroom.

Naruto blinks. His heart’s beating so hard he really thinks his ribs might break. His body temperature’s spiking, he can’t even tell if it’s blood or Kyuubi burning just under his skin. He turns on his heel.

“Naruto!”

“I’ve got to go.”

“You know you can’t.”

“I’m going back to the school.”

It’s no surprise that Asuma doesn’t believe him, that the collar tightens when Naruto keeps walking. Naruto rips it off. It electrocutes him, and he almost breaks his neck tearing it off, but pain means nothing, Kyuubi eats pain, feasts on it: better it’s someone else’s, but he can fuel his berserker rages on his own hurt too.

“Naruto, I need you to stop. Right now.”

Naruto turns around, feels himself grin Kyuubi’s feral grin, the one that’s too wide to fit on a human mouth. Asuma’s pointing a gun at him.

Naruto almost laughs, it comes out a growl. People say Asuma’s strong, but his beast is nothing to Kyuubi – and Naruto doesn’t like to let Kyuubi out like this, to force his will raw on other people, dominate them into ruthless obedience, but he does it now. “Stand down.”

Asuma’s hand drops. Naruto’s just stronger.

He runs, Kyuubi’s superhuman run, and gets in the nearest car. Asuma will unfreeze soon and send people after him, but they’ll think he’s trying to escape – there won’t be anyone out to prevent him from going back to the school.

He’s hardly aware of his surrounding as he drives. They became unreal the moment he saw Sasuke, like his entire life here, the existence he’s been forced to try to carve out. It was always just a parenthesis, his real life put on hold.

He lets the car crash into a tree, jumping out and running the last kilometre before scaling the walls, finally climbing in through his own window. They’ve put bars on it, and Naruto’s politely pretend he couldn’t have removed them at any time, but he rips them out now, lands on the floor, and the whole room smells overwhelmingly of Sasuke, he becomes dizzy with it, his entire body cramping.

Sasuke’s lying in his bed. As Naruto enters the room, he pushes himself up on an elbow, rubbing his eye with his knuckles.

Then Naruto’s on the bed too. He has no conception of how that happened, or even of how to talk. Finally, finally he’s got his hands on Sasuke again, back where he belongs. It feels a little like he’s spent forty years in a desert, and now he’s in front of a stream, and he has to throw himself in it. He’s touching too hard, he gets that, pressing as close as he can get, his hands stroking and stuttering and stumbling all over Sasuke, Kyuubi’s energy sinking aggressively through Sasuke’s skin. His chest shakes with a sound like growling, like purring.

Sasuke struggles with him, but it’s no matter – if he were serious, Naruto would burn. It might be Sasuke’s fighting with his full strength, it’s been too long since Naruto got physical with a non-shifter to be able to tell, but Sasuke’s always appreciated that with Naruto, the option of going all out and Naruto being able to take it. Much like Naruto loves being able to push himself as hard as he can with Sasuke, not holding Kyuubi’s energy back, knowing he doesn’t have to be careful, doesn’t have to limit himself, that Sasuke can handle all of him. He’s missed that too, over the years of growing stronger, of growing past being able to fight on equal footing with anyone else. Gaara comes close, but even with him there’s a risk of damage, one Naruto doesn’t want to take.

He growls louder at the handprints, which look worse in reality than they did onscreen, stink of Lucifael. Sasuke’s shirt – Naruto’s shirt, God Sasuke’s wearing his clothes – tears open, exposing more brands. The one over his heart makes Naruto lightheaded.

He puts his hand on it, covers it completely because his hand’s larger than Itachi’s, hears an utterly inhuman sound issue from his throat.

Sasuke meets his eyes like a fullfrontal collision. “You’d have loved it if it was yours.”

Naruto stops breathing, can’t talk, only moan. If he thought he was lightheaded before…

He nuzzles Sasuke’s neck, the place where it turns into Sasuke’s shoulder. His fangs are fully out, scratching against Sasuke’s skin, just starting to sink through.

“No,” Sasuke says, and this time it’s Uriel’s hand pressing against Naruto’s forehead, pushing him away. “No marks. He’ll kill you if he knows.”

Naruto growls again, desperate and overwhelmed, but – Sasuke’s primary objective is keeping him alive, and the reason, right now the only reason Sasuke doesn’t want Naruto to mark him forever as Naruto’s is that Sasuke wants him to live.

He rubs his face against Sasuke’s, and Sasuke shifts under him, and there’s Sasuke’s mouth pressed to his, open-lipped and pugnacious. They’re beyond struggling now. Sasuke’s legs wound tight around his hips, Naruto loses control completely, rutting as hard as he can without breaking Sasuke’s pelvis.

Sasuke snorts into his ear, a hoarse sound on the edge of laughter. “I see Hanabi was misled on the matter of shifter stamina.”

“Shut up!” Naruto protests, red-cheeked and belligerent and ready to laugh with being so astonishingly in love. “Anyway you’re no better!”

“Hn.” He’s still got his arms around Naruto, they’re still kissing, even though their bodies have slowed to a stop. Finally Sasuke pushes at him. “Get off me.”

“No,” Naruto whines, pressing closer and sucking on Sasuke’s throat, lightly, lightly so it won’t leave a mark. Fuck, he wants to bite.

“Get off me so I can take off my pants.”

Naruto rolls off him very quickly indeed.

Sasuke laughs at him, a brief dark sound that makes Naruto see white with desire. He watches, completely enraptured, as Sasuke pulls down his trousers and underwear, dropping them over the edge of the bed.

There are more handprints on his left hip, just finger-pads, like the mark on his cheek. Air hisses between Naruto’s teeth. He reaches out to touch them and Sasuke catches his hand, pressing it harder against his skin. He gives Naruto this look of – of defiance and challenge and wild desire, and rolls over onto his stomach.

“Shit,” Naruto breathes. There’s a black handprint on each of Sasuke’s buttocks, the burnt imprint of Itachi’s cupping hands. Naruto can’t even tell if it’s rage or desire making his head spin. He covers the handprints with his own hands, clenches his fingers, and Sasuke makes a strangled sound into the mattress. Naruto loosens his grip, though doesn’t release it. “Sasuke?”

Sasuke turns over, eyelids heavy over blown pupils. His hand presses against Naruto’s solar plexus, then slides down his stomach, finally taking hold of his zipper and pulling it down.

“Oh God, Sasuke.” His hands clench, in the sheets, around Sasuke’s arms.

“Let’s fight about it after we fu –”

Naruto can’t even think how that’s the smartest thing Sasuke’s ever said, he just needs more. Just needs Sasuke.

It’s several hours later that he can think again. Sasuke seems half asleep by then, thoroughly fucked out, but Naruto’s high on Kyuubi’s euphoria. He keeps his forehead pressed to Sasuke’s, feeling as though he could burst into song or start screaming. “I love you. I need you so much, the way I miss you, I –”

“You’re alive,” Sasuke tells him, kicking lightly, meaningfully, at the prosthesis.

“That’s not enough.”

“Yes, it is,” Sasuke snaps. “Live for me if you can’t live for yourself.”

“Sasuke –”

“If you want to die so bad, I’ll kill you myself!”

Naruto growls at him, his mouth full of Kyuubi’s fangs. He glances at the handprints around Sasuke’s throat. “Itachi’s really – he’s – he’s really sleeping with you.”

Sasuke’s eyes are level and relentless. “You knew that.”

“Kind of. I didn’t – know it know it. I – fuck!”

Sasuke lifts an eyebrow. “You never brought it up.”

“Incest rape is kind of a face to face conversation?”

“It’s not – I only said no once.”

“Jesus Christ, Sasuke.” He might shake Sasuke until his teeth rattle, or he might pass out. What the fuck, what the fuck!

“What’s your problem?”

“What’s the – he’s your brother! What, he got you back from Orochimaru just so he could take what he wanted himself?”

“At least it was with someone I love!” Sasuke screams back at him.

“He’s forcing himself on you! For fuck’s sake! And these fucking burns! That’s so far beyond okay, I don’t even –”

“It’s fine. It’s how it is.”

“You belong with me.”

“And if wishes were horses, beggars would ride,” Sasuke snaps. “Itachi’s the way he is. There’s no changing that.”

“Then we need to –”

“No,” Sasuke snaps. “I’ve had some ideas how to deal with Minato, with BEAST – but you didn’t want that, and it’s because you’re a sentimental idiot but that was your call because these are your issues. How I deal with Itachi, that’s up to me.”

Naruto finds himself beyond speech again. He grabs for Sasuke, there’s a brief tussle, mostly energy. It turns sexual very quickly, they fuck furiously and violently. Naruto ends up with his face buried in Sasuke’s throat. “I need to be with you, don’t you get that? I need to belong to you.”

He feels Sasuke’s heart stop before it starts rushing. He grabs Naruto’s face with clenching hands, lifts it to his own. “You want to belong to me?” He rubs his thumb, burning with a suggestion of angelfire, over Naruto’s cheek.

Naruto nods desperately. Sasuke drags his fingers over his cheeks, drawing lines that will never be erased. Putting his mark all over Naruto’s face, through skin and bone and blood, all the way into his soul. Kyuubi makes a keening sound, trying to heal around the burns and unable, and pleased somehow with that inability. There are a few lines already, Itachi’s work, from when Naruto was little and cocky. He likes even them now, euphoric and overwhelmed.

His face heats, a panicked kind of pain like the handprint on his shoulder, like the purgatory phantom pain under his knee, and he’s fully hard again. Pulls Sasuke’s face to his, and Sasuke bites his mouth and presses his fingers to the whisker scars, and Naruto hums against his skin and feels happy. He’s been either okay or not okay for so long, he’d forgotten real happiness was something one can feel too. They move more softly now, Naruto tries to be mindful that Sasuke’s not a shifter and won’t heal like a shifter – even if he doesn’t mind playing rough in the moment, he’ll be grumpy about it tomorrow.

“I will never let you go,” he whispers in Sasuke’s ear.

“Usuratonkachi,” Sasuke mutters, but he’s muttering it into Naruto’s throat, his lashes brushing against Naruto’s jugular. Naruto remains awake for a long time, holding him tight. It feels like his reality’s been cut into two: either this isn’t real, or none of the rest, the years of missing and need and regret, can be real. And this has to be real, this is the baseline of his reality, and – “Sasuke,” he whispers again. It sounds animal and like a prayer.

In the morning he wakes up slowly, gradually, with the feeling that there’s something unspeakably wonderful to look forward to, every wish suddenly granted. He’s hot, sweaty almost, even though he’s slept naked, and something’s digging into his thigh, and his arm’s numb.

He opens his eyes and what’s digging into his thigh is Sasuke’s knobbly knee, and his arm’s fallen asleep under the weight of Sasuke’s head. Their energies are entwined even more tightly than their bodies.

His cheeks are pounding with heat, under the scorching marks of Sasuke’s possession. He kisses Sasuke’s forehead, lightly, feeling suddenly almost shy.

Sasuke grumbles, shifts closer, and his mouth quirks up in that satisfied little smirk he gets. His arm comes up around Naruto’s shoulders, and Kyuubi’s energy breaks through at once, winding itself around Sasuke’s fingers and arm. In the morning light Naruto can see everything, every detail, as Sasuke stretches himself out, rolling on top of him.

It must be noon by the time they let off. Any attempt to leave the bed has incited a scuffle, which has turned to wrestling, which has turned into more sex. Now Naruto digs through his backpack for some rations, because it’s imprudent to go down for lunch – partly because this has to be kept as hush hush from Itachi as possible, partly because the idea of Sasuke getting dressed again is the worst.

“You’d better get them to shut up,” Sasuke points out, biting into a mealbar with gusto. “Itachi won’t just kill you, he’ll feed you to the demons and burn the rest of them as well.”

“I’ll let them know,” Naruto says, nudging Sasuke’s shoulder, Sasuke’s elbow, Sasuke’s hip. “Though I mean. They’ll all have heard. The only reasons no one’s come in and been obnoxious must be Gaara keeping them away.”

“So he is useful for something,” Sasuke snorts.

Naruto shrugs. “He looks out for me.”

“I know. Why do you think I haven’t immolated him?”

“Er, because you’re not a completely psycho prepared to kill my friends for no reason?”

“You’re clearly eager to kill mine, so –”

“If Gaara was, like, actually hurting me, it wouldn’t be for no reason!”

“You can’t pass judgement on Itachi,” Sasuke snaps. “You’re not qualified.”

“But that’s bullshit, though. All these ideas, like the Lord works in mysterious ways or whatever – if his standards are so different from human morality that we can’t even understand them, then he’s irrelevant for our ethics. Like, like, if there’s an accident or something and a human who could help just stands by, or if they’ve caused the accident in the first place, maybe even deliberately – then everyone’s on board that they’re a piece of shit. But when there’s a catastrophe, and God doesn’t do jack shit, that’s fine? That makes no sense! You can’t hold more powerful, more capable entities to a lower standard than a run of the mill human. I mean, Hitler killed six million and he’s a monster. God drowned the entire human population except this one family, which actually, I guess Itachi’s not the only one who’s into incest... But! My point is, it’s the same with Itachi. You can’t just say nobody can judge him, and that makes everything he does okay, that’s not how it works.”

“Itachi’s saved millions of people from actual hell,” Sasuke points out.

“That doesn’t entitle him to treat other people like shit! So he’s good at exorcising, that’s got nothing to do with burning you, or taking my leg, or anything! It doesn’t work like that, you can’t just trade one good deed for a bad one and call it even.”

“Is a man evil if he steps on a worm? From the worm’s perspective, no doubt.”

“You are not a worm!”

“Hn, sou ne.” Sasuke stretches out on his back, lazy and aching and flushed from Naruto’s attentions.

“Also, well, I mean if you picked up a worm and started playing torture dungeon with it, I’d say there was a problem.”

Sasuke snorts, but softly so it could be a laugh. “Idiot.”

“If Itachi doesn’t get that you’re brilliant, he’s the idiot, idiot.”

Sasuke shrugs, looking for a moment very far away. “He loves me. Anyway, he doesn’t – have anyone else.”

Naruto puts his hand on Sasuke’s stomach, traces it up his chest. “I need to have you.”

“You’ve just had me like twenty times.”

“I didn’t mean like that. Well, I meant like that too. I meant –”

Sasuke puts a hand over his mouth, mercifully shutting him up. Naruto still bites his fingers, lightly, on principle.

He stretches out next to Sasuke, sprawling on his stomach and letting his tails sweep over Sasuke. Sasuke starts carding his fingers through them, and Naruto’s heart clenches and stutters and explodes.

“I gotta ask, we’ve got pretty good predictive equipment here, but we didn’t even get a hint that there were demons coming. Did someone…”

“I sent them,” Sasuke says.

“What?”

“They were leftovers from Firtown. Shut up, you know Itachi would go spare if I just came here for no reason.”

“But you didn’t tell BEAST,” Naruto points out. “And someone had to have told them, they were too coordinated with the demons for it to be coincidence.”

“Kakashi told them,” Sasuke says, as if it’s the most obvious, least upsetting thing in the world.

“What?” Naruto snaps. “What the hell!”

“It would’ve obviously been suspicious if a bunch of demons just happened to appear here when I was close by. But everyone knows I have”, he makes an insulted face, “shifter sympathies, so the idea of me tipping off BEAST is ludicrous.”

“Kakashi’s way more shifter sympathetic than you.”

“As far as BEAST knows, he hasn’t been that close to Minato for years. He’ll have killed them by now, anyway, so there won’t be any witnesses.”

“You are so fucked up. Also brilliant.”

Sasuke smirks at him. “Like it wouldn’t have been worth it to you even if you didn’t get to slaughter BEAST.”

“Mmh.” He rests his chin on Sasuke’s shoulder. “Why now?”

Sasuke looks distant again. He touches the handprint cupping his chin. “He thought I needed a break.”

“Kakashi?”

“Mmh.” Sasuke rolls over, so they’re face to face, so close Naruto could drown in him. “Anyway you’re mine, right? You’re mine to take whatever stupid risks I want with.”

xxxxx

“You came back,” Kakashi says.

Sasuke lifts an eyebrow. “I live here?”

“Maa, maa. I thought I’d have to come get you.”

Sasuke shrugs, stepping out of his shoes. “We need things to settle before Itachi gets back.”

“Did you have to maim Naruto to get away?”

Sasuke makes a face, half smirk and half sneer. “We – had some disagreements. But he needs to stay out of this.”

Kakashi translates had some disagreements to had a wild shouting match and probably a physical and/or magical fight as well, and expects Naruto’s either injured or locked up.

“Mmh,” he says non-committaly, noting that Sasuke looks better. There’s colour in his cheeks, he moves sharply as always but like he’s sore and satisfied.

“It’s exorcist business,” Sasuke says. “He has no place in it.”

Kakashi lifts an eyebrow. “You’d have no issue with an exorcist intruding on your private life?”

Sasuke shrugs again. “If they want to commit suicide by crusader, that’s their business. They know the rules.”

Kakashi lifts his functional eyebrow. “Naruto knows the rules. Or he should, anyway.”

“That’s different. Naruto’s mine. I won’t be stolen from.” He makes a face at once rueful and hateful and viciously proud. “He can’t come here, Itachi can’t see him. I went too far.”

“We all knew you were going to sleep with him,” Kakashi points out. “And I trust he still has his other leg.”

Sasuke frowns. “I got – carried away. Marked him, a bit. On his face.”

Kakashi glances at the marks on Sasuke’s own face, is reminded once more of his ruined eye. “How considerate.”

“Tch, he wanted it. But Itachi will be able to smell Uriel on him.”

“Well, that was stupid,” Kakashi shrugs. “The shifters will smell it on him too, it’ll be hard to keep quiet.”

“He’d better learn to keep them in line, anyway.”

“Ah,” Kakashi agrees, stretching out his arms.

Sasuke snorts at him, settling next to him, close enough that his foot’s pressing against Kakashi’s hip. “Old man. Was it strenuous, killing a few humans?”

“Insolent brat,” Kakashi grumbles. “I’ll have you know I actually killed a few of them physically and dumped the corpses on Orochimaru’s leftovers.”

Sasuke snickers. He presses his toes against Kakashi’s leg, stretching out a cramp. “Fucking BEASTers. Will you believe they shot at me?”

“I take it there’s not much left of them.”

“You take it right.”

“Mmh.” He leans back, pushing away the newspaper he was reading. “So did you solve things?”

“No, that wasn’t – ” Sasuke makes a frustrated gesture, like he wants to stab something. “We talk all the time, it’s not like we were ever – gone from each other. But touching him – I missed that. I wanted that.”

“Ah,” Kakashi agrees.

“Hn.”

Kakashi smirks at him. “So you spent the last twenty-four hours fucking non-stop, nobody’s surprised.”

Sasuke tilts his head in that birdlike way. “You don’t mind.”

“Well, what is it they say? If you love something, let it go – if it comes back, it’s yours. If it doesn’t, it never was.”

“Cocky,” Sasuke snorts.

“Maa.” He leans forward, brushes away Sasuke’s wild hair and kisses briefly behind his ear. “I’d have minded if you didn’t come back.”

Sasuke gives him a quizzical look. “You sound like you thought that was an option.”

Kakashi shrugs. “You’re in love with Naruto.”

“But you’re my family.” Sasuke shrugs too, a jerkier but at the same time more natural movement. “It’s you and me.”

“Ah,” Kakashi agrees. He skims another article before speaking again. “I’m not going to, because I don’t want to, but if I were to – ”

“No,” Sasuke cuts him off.

“Oh?”

“You’re with me,” Sasuke tells him. “I don’t share well. You knew that before you got involved with me.”

“I did,” Kakashi says, stroking Sasuke’s nose and poking the tip.

“Tch. Anyway you’re a pervert. You’d probably like to watch.”

Kakashi laughs. “You’d never let me.”

“Of course not. Naruto and I are Naruto and I. You and I are you and I.”

“I know. You hate it when it’s me and Itachi.”

“Obviously,” Sasuke snaps. “It’s private.”

“Mmh. Anyway if you were in a steady relationship with Naruto, we’d have to revisit this conversation, but as it stands…” He shrugs.

Sasuke snorts. “How magnanimous of you. I’m taking a bath.”

Kakashi leers at him, mostly playful. “Is that an invite?”

“No.”

“All right.” He picks the paper back up, then surprises himself by leaning forward, catching the back of Sasuke’s head and giving him probably the most aggressive kiss he ever has, plundering Sasuke’s mouth until Sasuke bites his tongue.

Sasuke smirks at him. “Are we staking claim after all?”

Kakashi touches a thoughtful hand to his mouth. “Maybe a little.”

“Hn.” Sasuke presses briefly close before disappearing towards the bathroom, and Kakashi finishes his article before returning Anko’s call.

Chapter Text

It’s not quite true that he sleeps better like this, with Sasuke next to him. Kakashi’s a notorious insomniac, he wakes up every few hours regardless. The difference is he can feel happy, when he opens his eye and sees Sasuke.

Unfortunately the reason he’s waking up this time is Itachi settling on the bed too, on the far side of Sasuke. Itachi puts his hand on the small of Sasuke’s back, rubbing it up under Sasuke’s shirt – Sasuke doesn’t like sleeping in the raw, tends to get dressed again after sex, though he prefers Kakashi staying naked.

Sasuke frowns and edges away from Itachi’s hand. The movement leaves him pressed to Kakashi’s chest, and Kakashi’s arm tightens like cramping around him. His insides clench and it feels for a stupid moment like he’s far out at sea, the dinghy collapsing under him, and he should’ve at least been able to keep Sasuke afloat.

“Why not try me instead?” he hears himself say, his voice light and easy. “If you’re feeling randy.”

Itachi gives him a bemused look.

Kakashi shrugs. “Sasuke hasn’t had any complaints.”

“I think I’ll pass, all the same.”

“Ah,” says Kakashi, and then more loudly, “Sasuke.”

Sasuke grumbles awake, and stills under Itachi’s hand. There’s no more twisting away from it, though Sasuke remains tense: anyone who can read people at all would read rejection in every line of his body.

“Go back to sleep,” Itachi says, and Sasuke does.

When Kakashi recounts this night-time conversation to Sasuke later, trying to turn it into a joke, Sasuke gives him an appalled look. “How stupid can you be?”

Kakashi shrugs. “Maa, it wasn’t my most brilliant moment, granted, but… Well, if you can take it, so can I. Might give you a bit of a break, too.”

Once, Sasuke would’ve been jealous and resentful of Itachi touching someone else. But Itachi called him a chair and tried to share him, and things changed. Itachi probably didn’t know what he had until he lost it, blind fool that he can be.

Kakashi shrugs again. “Do you think he’d let me say no? If he decides he fancies the idea.”

Sasuke gives him a look like he’s brain damaged, which is fair enough.

“Well, all right. I suppose either way it would only lead to undesirable outcomes if I tried to decline.”

Sasuke smacks the toaster into submission. “When he’d given me to Orochimaru, you stayed and watched, right? You and him.”

“We did.”

“I know you didn’t like it, but him – did it turn him on?”

Kakashi swallows a sigh, remembering Itachi’s hungry eyes and the shudder that ran through him when Kakashi whispered, Shouldn’t it be you? But he wouldn’t know how to speak of that, even if he thought any good could come of disclosing details. On the other hand, lying to Sasuke never ends well, so: “Yeah.”

Sasuke’s still for a moment before hurling the toaster through the window. “Fucker.”

“Calm down,” Kakashi snaps. While Itachi ultimately left them alone during the night, Sasuke turning away from him, even in sleep, can’t have been conductive to a good mood this morning.

But Itachi definitely isn’t the only Uchiha brother with anger management issues, and fury is crackling like static electricity around Sasuke. Kakashi uses his thumb to lift Sasuke’s chin and then flicks his nose, reprimand and warning disguised as teasing. “Not like this,” he tells Sasuke.

Sasuke scowls at him, berserker rage simmering just under his skin.

Kakashi speaks in a low, intimate voice, in a tone he hasn’t used with Sasuke in years, the voice of someone in charge. “Either you settle down, or we make a real plan, together. None of this bullshit.”

Any reply from Sasuke is interrupted by the advent of Itachi, who unfortunately seems to be reading from Kakashi’s most embarrassing notebook. “…his cerulean eyes sparkled with animal desire, their colour brought out by his golden hair and the smooth tan skin stretched taut over his rippling muscles. Satsuki felt herself flush, excitement rising like a rosy tide in her ivory cheeks. Her nipples tightened and tingled, pressing against the fabric of her dress. For such a delicate girl, built like a fairy, she had remarkably ample tits, triangular and pale like snow-covered Alps.

Menma’s burning gaze followed their movement as her breathing increased, and he took a step closer. It seemed to Satsuki that the fire in his eye burnt away all the oxygen in the room. It was perhaps a betrayal of Shiro, to feel this way for Menma – kind, safe, familiar Shiro, who’d guided her through girlhood and finally into womanhood – but there was no denying the connection between her and the ruggedly handsome Menma, who now stepped even closer, an impressive bulge in his pants…” Itachi finally stops reading aloud. “What is this?”

“Um,” Kakashi says. “Er. It’s an – expression of literary genius?”

“You wrote this?” Itachi confirms.

“Maa, it’s ages until the next Icha Icha volume is set to be released. I had to take measures to cope in the meantime.”

Itachi gives him a highly suspicious glance. “Somehow, the characters remind me of certain people.”

Kakashi gives him a blank look. “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.”

Itachi unfortunately remains unconvinced. More unfortunately still, he reaches out and snags Sasuke’s phone. “I believe I might have been misled concerning a certain excursion to Firtown.”

“No!” Sasuke protests. He grabs Itachi’s wrist, there’s grappling, the phone goes flying.

Kakashi catches it and thanks God that Sasuke isn’t particularly creative about his passwords. There are hundreds of thousands of texts, chat messages, emails, photos, and call logs that Itachi can under no circumstances see. Kakashi starts deleting while Sasuke struggles with Itachi, who fortunately has been more careful about burning Sasuke since the night he put him in hospital with a third of his body covered in black handprints. For the first time, Kakashi gets confirmation that on a purely physical level, Sasuke’s by far the stronger fighter – no surprise, since Sasuke’s spent much of his life grappling and tumbling with shifters, while Itachi holds himself above human touch.

Kakashi takes care to read a number of safe messages aloud, keeping his voice calm and gloating – the kind of messages that will embarrass Sasuke, that he would believably want to keep from Itachi, but won’t make Itachi light a pyre for Naruto. “See?” He finally hands the purged phone to Itachi, and Sasuke stops struggling, submitting to Itachi’s hand gripping the back of his neck.

There’s no doubt there’ll be punishment, which is dangerous in a very different way now. Kakashi’s fear used to be that Sasuke didn’t have the sense to resent it, that he wouldn’t defend himself until it was too late – but he can no longer count on Sasuke considering himself deserving of punishment, and Sasuke’s never been one to roll over when he can fight, however bad the odds.

“Leave us, Kakashi,” Itachi orders.

“Really, let's just–”

“Now.”

xxxxx

When he can finally return, Sasuke’s shirtless in his room, towelling his hair and reading something on his computer. It’s actually funny – Itachi’s finally lowered himself to belting him, thin red stripes crisscrossing Sasuke’s back. There can be little doubt they continue below the waistline of his trousers as well, since Sasuke would normally be sitting while using his laptop. Of course, there might be other reasons he’s reluctant to sit.

Sasuke scowls at him. “Sastuki?

Kakashi makes a disarming gesture. “Maa, I had to change it up somehow. You’d have hated it even more otherwise.”

Sasuke snorts in agreement. “And what kind of idiot name is Menma, anyway? Jesus Christ. And since when do you have, like, sexual fantasies about Naruto?”

“I don’t,” Kakashi says, waiting until Sasuke looks at him properly. “I really don’t. I was just amusing myself with a silly story.” He shrugs. “I may be a pervert, but I’m not the one with a kink for ADD and Tourette’s.”

Sasuke lifts an eyebrow. “A few shots down the line, he’d probably start looking a bit like young Minato.”

Kakashi laughs. “I hope not.”

Sasuke grumbles, “It is just the kind of trash you love reading.”

“Maa, it’s just a coping mechanism. There’s no need to take it seriously.” Sasuke’s by no means a small personality: there’s more than enough of him to share, and anyway Kakashi wants Sasuke to be happy, and being with Naruto makes him happy…but Kakashi wouldn’t like to be relegated to Sasuke’s past, to an also-ran. He’s well aware that Naruto does not want to share, and that there’s not much Sasuke wouldn’t sacrifice for Naruto.

“It’s disgusting. And why was I the girl?”

“Out of the two of us, I don’t imagine I’d make a very palatable woman. You’ll notice I did give myself a normal face, though. Two eyes, the works.”

Sasuke’s scowl turns into a snort turns into a frown. “Look. That was a shitty thing to do. But Shiro doesn’t have to worry about being discarded, so get over it.”

“Of course not,” Kakashi mumbles. “Shiro’s a catch.”

Sasuke gives him an odd look. “No, he reads like a pathetic creep trying to take advantage of that idiot Satsuki girl. He’s just as stupid and – he’s nothing like you. It’s as different as – I didn’t hesitate, and I didn’t think about you at all, and I never felt I did anything wrong with Naruto. Who does not have an impressive bulge, so yeah. It’s nothing like any of us.”

“Good,” Kakashi mumbles. “Though what would poor Menma say if Satsuki kept on with Shiro?”

“Since Menma’s getting arranged married to Gaa Gaa, he doesn’t get to say shit.”

“Mmh. Let’s see if those belt marks need antiseptics.”

“He only broke the skin in one place,” Sasuke dismisses.

“Good,” Kakashi says again, and must sound surprised, because Sasuke makes a face.

“He was more concerned with rebaptising and – asserting his possession.”

“Ah,” Kakashi says, as lightly as he can, translating that to Itachi holding Sasuke’s face underwater until he stopped struggling. “Let’s see the place where the skin broke, then.”

“You really don’t have to –”

“I really do.”

Sasuke all but rolls his eyes, but eventually turns around and edges his trousers down. There’s a sharp red line across his buttocks, but the only places where the skin’s broken is where Itachi’s dug his fingers in, kneading the red skin.

“Fucker,” Kakashi mutters under his breath. “I suddenly take issue with being considered the pervert of the family.”

Sasuke snorts, one of the snorts that’s close to a chuckle. “Yeah, well. Stop writing porn about us, then.”

“Mmh,” Kakashi agrees, ruffling Sasuke’s hair. “Promise.”

Later that night he calls Mikoto. “You need to arrange for a long-distance exorcism for Sasuke. Something plausible, something Itachi won’t oppose. No, he has to settle down – they both do. Do you actually want Itachi to kill him? Yes, that’s very much where we’re headed. And before you decide, let me remind you that not only is Sasuke one of the strongest crusaders in the world, but there’s no way on earth that Itachi will last even five minutes after killing him without going nova. Yes, that’s what I thought. I look forward to hearing from you, then.”

xxxxx

Itachi’s looking at him.

As a joke, Kakashi drops his book and bends over for it, but of course Itachi doesn’t get that kind of humour. If Sasuke were here, Kakashi would ask, Do you think he’s actually considering…?

So it’s for the best that Sasuke’s not here.

“Years ago,” Itachi says, “you kissed me. You said for reference, so I’d know what was him and what was just kissing.”

Kakashi doesn’t turn around. “I remember.”

Itachi doesn’t approach. He simply sits at the table, fingers caught in a rosary. For a moment he seems almost normal.

Kakashi sighs and comes to sit next to him. They’ve had a thousand nights like this, back before Lucifacel burnt it away from them: the two of them in silence at day’s end, and realising loneliness could be softened, sweetened, by being alone together.

Kakashi’s parents hadn’t wanted him, he hadn’t even been good enough to die with them, but Itachi had chosen him. Itachi, who always acknowledged him as Gabriel’s chosen but never needed any power from him; who dismissed his own parents and the Council, but would listen to Kakashi and respond in earnest; Itachi, who opened the door to his home and led Kakashi in, who took his hand when everyone else had shunned it and stood by his side. Itachi’s the only friend he’s ever had, and Itachi’s the reason the exorcists reclaimed him, saw him as a crusader prince again instead of a compromised, rejected runt.

Itachi’s even trusted him with Sasuke, which is as good as closing Kakashi’s hand around Itachi’s own beating heart.

He was adrift, and Itachi pulled him back on solid ground. Another traumatised, over-powered adult in a child’s body, someone who could finally validate his existence beyond the spare few seconds a day that Minato would look at him. It felt like Kakashi finally became solid again, when Itachi looked at him and made the world look with him, after years of thinning away like mist.

And Itachi was, Kakashi remembers, so very proud of Sasuke. Of everything Sasuke accomplished – tying his school tie, mastering Uriel, learning to read in English – and most of all of Sasuke’s devotion to him. He’d glow like a smitten parent when Sasuke waved at him or smiled at him or snuggled close.

Kakashi had hoped, vaguely and on a level too delicate and desperate to ever put it into words, that getting involved with Sasuke would help Itachi hold on to his humanity, that it might keep him anchored when the dangerous voices spoke. But hope is a fool’s poison, and in the end being involved with Sasuke has only made Itachi struggle harder against everything that makes him worthwhile, everything they love in him.

He reaches out and touches Itachi’s hand, just a brush against his knuckles. “You’re the only family I ever wanted. If you want me, you can have me.”

He remembers that line again, the line that’s haunted him for years though he can’t remember what book it’s from: you can love a rabid dog and still understand that it needs to be put down. Kakashi’s loved Itachi for many yeas, and would grieve him. It’s just love isn’t always enough, and at some point you have to cut your losses. He likes to pretend, too, that this isn’t who Itachi would’ve wanted to be. That he might’ve wanted to be stopped.

Itachi looks at him with those fathomless black eyes, so much like and so sharply different from Sasuke’s. Once upon a time he could be uncannily funny, Kakashi recalls, irreverently and unexpectedly funny. That’s long gone, but there’s still recognition in his eyes: he still knows Kakashi as someone who matters to him.

“Isn’t Sasuke your family?”

“Of course he is,” Kakashi says. “But that wasn’t what I wanted from him.”

“You love Sasuke more than you’ve ever loved me.”

“Yes,” Kakashi says, and then chooses a truth he can tell Itachi: “He needs me to.”

“Ah,” Itachi says, rather as if that makes sense to him.

“I suppose every child needs someone to love it more than it loves them,” Kakashi muses.

“Hmm?”

“Normally you’d get that from your mother, but of course in Sasuke’s case… Well, here I am.” He neglects to mention Naruto, and indeed Itachi himself – Sasuke loves them desperately, but Sasuke could survive them. In contrast, Kakashi remains absolutely convinced that neither of them would last a day past Sasuke’s demise.

Kakashi himself would. It would be a smaller, meaner life, with no glory and no joy left in it, but it’d be a life. Cold comfort is still comfort, and all that.

His fingers remain tangled with Itachi’s, playing idly with the rosary beads.

He thinks how Sasuke met Naruto and Kakashi and everyone else only after the Uchihas moved from Japan, when Sasuke was five – how up until then, the only consistent meaningful human contact he had was Itachi. They’ve never explicitly spoken of this, but there have been hints, Itachi’s careful suggestions and Sasuke’s blunter admissions, back before he understood that the kind of neglect and rejection he’d got from his parents wasn’t normal, was indeed criminal under human law. So it’s always been clear that for the first formative years of Sasuke’s life, Itachi was what he had. Kakashi’s understood that Sasuke learnt to speak unusually late, because when Itachi wasn’t home, nobody would talk to him. Maybe he’d have been as great as Itachi, as glorious a crusader, if isolation hadn’t hampered his childhood development.

“Lately,” Itachi says. “He said no.”

“So I heard,” Kakashi agrees. When Kakashi was on the floor, his eye leaking out of its socket, and Sasuke finally fought back. Broke Itachi’s arm and blackened his eye, screamed and yelled in protest. And then the pointed question, Would you stop if I said no?

Itachi hadn’t answered which is, of course, an answer. Anyway if Itachi was able to stop, he’d never have begun.

“He wants it to be about your love for him,” Kakashi says, tracing the lifeline across Itachi’s palm. “Not punishment, or obedience.”

“It is,” Itachi says. “My love for him is why I must master the unclean parts of him, subjugate him to God’s light.”

“Maa,” Kakashi says non-committaly, just putting sound between himself and the crazy. “But it’s better now, in general? When it’s not punishment?” He smirks. “After my expert tutorials.” He knows it’s been better for Sasuke, at least on a physical level.

“The glide is better,” Itachi says thoughtfully. “Not as tight.”

Kakashi’s reminded that sometimes he really doesn’t like Itachi. “He’ll tighten up when you make him like it.”

There’s an interlude of silence before Itachi says, “Lately, when we have all joined – you did not wish it.”

“No,” Kakashi says, feeling the ruined side of his face tighten in anticipation of renewed pain.

It doesn’t come, this time. “You’ve indicated you wanted to sleep with him.”

“I wanted to sleep with him because he wanted to sleep with me, not because he was afraid of displeasing you.”

“Afraid of me?”

“Everyone’s afraid of you,” Kakashi says tiredly.

Itachi lifts an eyebrow, looking for a moment astonishingly like Sasuke, which is to say familiar and beloved, known by heart. “Even you?”

Kakashi smiles, closing his eye for the imminent kiss. “Oh, terrified.”

xxxxx

“It’s not bullshit anymore,” Gaara says. He’s used Naruto’s phone and called Minato fifteen times, and Minato’s finally picked up. “He’s fucking matesick for Uchiha.”

Naruto himself is sitting in the cage in the basement, because they can’t have him running off to be martyred by Itachi. Though if he continues to degenerate at this rate, they might be able to let him out soon, as he’ll no longer be able to stand on his own.

Gaara can just imagine what’s triggered this incredibly fucking stupid catastrophe, and curses Sasuke’s little conjugal visit of three months ago.

Back then, Gaara opened the door to Naruto’s room, just once. They didn’t notice him.

It wasn’t something he’d wanted to see, and already at the time it’d made him uncomfortable because what if Naruto was right after all, about bonding with Sasuke, it certainly looked like it… Gaara dismissed those crazy thoughts afterwards, Naruto dreams big but one doesn’t bond with shifters, but then – well, here they are.

“You can’t be serious,” Minato says.

They’ve kept this very, very quiet, as they’ve struggled through denial and towards anger. But denial’s useless now, it’s for cowards and fools. “Wake up,” Gaara snaps, and then waits him out.

Minato breathes in deeply. “Shit. Bloody hell.”

“We can solve this,” Gaara says. “I’ll speak to Sasuke.”

“Of course you won’t,” Minato tells him, as if he thinks he’d have better luck with Sasuke. “We’re fortunate that he’s likely to be amenable to some – ameliorating contact, but there’s no way he’d agree to be mated. We’ll need to investigate other avenues… I’ll reach out to Kakashi.”

“Yes he will,” Gaara cuts in.

“Don’t be absurd. He might be friendly, but that’s a world away from –”

“You know he came here, right? The whole twenty hours he was here, Naruto can’t have been outside of him more than five minutes.”

There’s a stunned silence. He imagines Minato blinking.

“Get him ready for transport,” Minato says. “In the cage, mind. I’ll reach out to Kakashi.”

xxxxx

The way Kakashi’s watching Sasuke doesn’t change as Minto talks. “No,” he tells Minato, in a low even voice, watching Sasuke bicker – mostly amicably – with Itachi and stretch out his arms after knife practice.

The ground feels unsteady under Kakashi’s feet. It’s not necessarily a bad feeling, surreal and vertiginous like when he first learnt to walk on air.

What happened between him and Itachi isn’t something he can discuss with Sasuke – or indeed with Itachi – and he hasn’t found a way to think about it that places the necessary distance between himself and the event. He needs to find the amusement, the irony, but it just feels like something ardent and inevitable and painful, raw like it’s under his skin, right up against his nerves.

“Look,” Minato says, “Naruto’s really –”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Kakashi says, which is true but doesn’t change anything. “But in the end you’re looking out for your kid and I’m looking out for mine.”

Minato still doesn’t sound as if he’s taking Kakashi’s refusal seriously. “You’re telling me you’re going to stand by and let Naruto die? After everything… Even if you don’t care for him, you know that I do.”

“You stood by and let Sasuke be given to Orochimaru. After everything… Even if you didn’t care for him, you knew that I did.”

“And I regret that. No, don’t dismiss me – I wouldn’t do anything different but I regret the necessity. Are you going to kill my child out of revenge?”

Kakashi could tell Minato he doesn’t believe in revenge, that they had that conversation years ago and he’d have expected Minato to remember it. But there’s no point now pretending they ever knew each other the way Kakashi, as a child, needed to pretend they did. “I’d like to help him, if I could. But not at Sasuke’s expense.”

“I –”

“Goodbye, Minato.”

He thinks again, with some relief, that Sasuke will be able to survive Naruto. He’ll be devastated, Kakashi will need to be very careful managing him and Itachi for the foreseeable future, but he’ll live. In fact if Naruto has to die, at least this way it’s because of Sasuke, who’ll finally know for certain that someone loved him enough to die for him.

Wildly, improbably, he wants to take Sasuke in his arms, as if he could keep him safe.

But Sasuke walks away, and Kakashi takes his place next to Itachi, trying to give Sasuke some respite. There’s a meat shield joke somewhere in there…

“Sometimes,” Itachi says, “he talks like he really doesn’t believe in God.”

“Most people don’t,” Kakashi points out.

Itachi’s face looks like a question.

Kakashi shrugs. “Oh, a lot of people like to tell themselves they believe, have the idea that it’d be nice if there was someone looking out for them. But deep down, everyone who’s not incredibly stupid or psychotic – everyone who can separate fantasy from reality – knows there’s nothing like that.”

“Millions of people throughout history have died for their beliefs.”

“God is what people come up with when they’re afraid of death, and when they want to justify unfairness, or when their science isn’t evolved enough to explain the world. But at the end of the day, God’s no different from any other fairytale. It’s time for humanity to outgrow it.”

Itachi appears mildly amused. “Science can’t explain God. You’re well aware that hundreds of years of research have yielded no progress in the study of exorcism.”

“Science not having an answer yet only means that: science not having an answer yet. That we didn’t have cars for thousands of years, that we didn’t realise the earth is round – it just meant we weren’t able to invent it or understand it yet. Not that it couldn’t be done.”

 “You can still repent,” Itachi tells him, to all appearances completely serious.

“I’m afraid it’s too late for me.”

“God is forgiving.”

“Having read the bible, I really have to say I find no support for that characterisation. No, I’ll see you in hell.” He snorts, smirks. “Based on how he doesn’t follow any of his own rules, I guess we’ll see God there as well.”

For a strange moment, a moment of ordinary morning and Itachi’s face human and young with surprise, Kakashi loves him.

xxxxx

Gaara presses the doorbell for the second time. It’s been five seconds and he’s decided to simply break in when Sakura opens it.

“Gaara! Um, hi.” She looks over his shoulder, obviously searching for a reason for him to be here, such as Naruto or Sasuke hiding behind him.

“You’re going to need to come with me,” Gaara tells her.

She frowns in concern. “Has something happened?”

It would be much preferable to knock her out and carry her off, but it’s a very high security building and he hasn’t got much time for dealing with pursuers. “We’re going to help Naruto.” Improbably, he must’ve said the right thing, because she doesn’t protest when he grabs her wrist and drags her along, down the stairs and into his car.

“Naruto’s in trouble? How can I help?”

“Sasuke can help him,” Gaara says, though the words are enough to make him gag. “I need leverage to make sure he does.”

Sakura blinks. “I’m your – hostage?”

Gaara offers her an approximation of a smile. “I guess we’d both better hope he’s not prepared to let you get hurt.”

Sakura must believe he’s not, since she remains calm when Gaara leaves her in the car with Kiba. Gaara reflects again that he’s never understood what either Naruto or Sasuke sees in her, she's so useless, but at least she’s not making trouble. “Don’t be stupid, now,” he warns Kiba, who can be sentimental about these things. Kiba nods, and Gaara slams the car door shut behind him.

Luckily security in the building’s a joke. As far as Gaara’s heard, Kakashi cut down on it years ago because Naruto kept hurting himself trying to break through it, and with three crusaders living here they must not have felt much need to build it back up. He doesn’t doubt that he sets off alarms, but there’s nothing stopping him entering. He just rides the elevator up and forces open the door, and he’s in.

Going by Gaara’s sense of smell, he’s lucked out: Itachi’s not at home.

He finds Sasuke and Kakashi in the living room. They’re standing close to each other, and Gaara concludes that Kakashi’s not just a beard, Sasuke really is sleeping with him. At least Sasuke's not picky, because fuck, Kakashi's deformed, Itachi's insanity etched across his face in lines of molten skin, under the hollow of his eye socket. In different circumstances, it would've been funny.

“Sasuke,” he says. “It’s time for us to go.”

Sasuke looks at him like he’s gone off the deep end. Fucking Minato must not have spoken directly to him, and fucking Kakashi must have forgotten to mention the little detail of Naruto’s imminent death. “What are you on about?”

Kakashi sighs. “This is what I had to tell you. It appears Menma’s not getting arranged married to Gaa Gaa after all.”

For a long moment Sasuke’s face is blank as he stares at Kakashi. Gaara doesn’t know him well enough to read the expression that comes afterwards, after the shock.

“Yeah, sure you were going to tell him, it’s a complete coincidence that I just had to show up first.” He sneers. “We don’t have much time left.”

“Would you have liked me to bring it up while Itachi was listening?” Kakashi drawls. He’s not speaking to Gaara, who doesn’t believe him but notices that Sasuke does. Shit, they’re not just fucking, there are real feelings there… Good thing Gaara picked up the girl.

But in the end he doesn’t need to mention the little kidnapping incident to Sasuke. He’s never seen Sasuke hesitate, and he doesn’t start now: “Let’s go.”

Kakashi touches his arm. “Sasuke.”

Sasuke turns to Kakashi, not looking annoyed like Gaara had hoped but actually rather tender. There’s still no hesitation though. “It’s something I have to do.”

“I know.” Kakashi drags his finger down Sasuke’s nose, a touch that’s clearly ritual. “You know Itachi won’t be out long.”

Sasuke nods sharply. “Give us as much time as you can.” He turns to Gaara. “Lead the way.”

The time for discretion is over, Gaara thinks, and anyway it’s better if Sasuke doesn’t know about Sakura until he stops cooperating. Gaara nods towards the window. “Over the roofs is quicker.” He kicks through the glass and leads Sasuke towards the building where they’ve stashed Naruto, still locked in that bloody cage from the school.

They enter through another window. “Gaara,” Temari snaps, and then apparently has nothing more she’s prepared to say in front of Sasuke, even though Sasuke ignores them all completely, has eyes only for the cage.

He throws his phone at Gaara, though. “Call Hanabi. Neji too. Do it now, you’ll want them here if Itachi comes.”

Inside the cage, Naruto’s sitting up.

He hasn’t been able to for a while – Gaara actually worried that he’d return to a corpse, because after days of beastmad raging against the cage, Naruto’s been semi-conscious for the last long while. His face is the colour of vomit, drenched in sweat, the skin cracking open into little cuts. Disintegrating, like Naruto’s disintegrating.

“Naruto.”

There’s not much left of Naruto, it’ll probably only be Kyuubi who can respond, and he does so by growling, but Sasuke reaches into the cage and Naruto grabs him. Sasuke’s smashed into the bars, which is of no concern since they won’t burn an exorcist.  

Naruto on the other hand has long stripes of burnt skin all over him, unable to heal anymore. The fucking irony, Gaara thinks. Sasuke can touch the cage but he has no way of tearing it open; any shifter, who could rip steel like paper, will burn before the cage budges.

Sasuke says something in Japanese that sounds like a curse, trying to free his arm from Naruto’s grasp. Naruto just growls, holding on even harder.

“Fuck it,” Sasuke mutters, undoing his trousers with his free hand.

Naruto visibly stops breathing as the trousers hit the floor, even though Sasuke’s oversize jumper covers all the important bits.

Sasuke tries to tug free again. “Let go, idiot. I can’t turn around unless you let go.”

But Naruto’s unable to release him. Gaara feels his mouth thin as he steps forward and reaches into the cage, careful not to touch it, and forces open Naruto’s hand. “Turn around now.”

Lips pressed tightly together, Sasuke turns around, back against the cage and legs spread open. Gaara quickly steps back as Naruto surges forward and grabs for Sasuke, one arm around his waist and another around his neck. It doesn’t seem to matter to Naruto if the cage burns him anymore, he just has to get closer to Sasuke. Gaara thinks of wild animals chewing off their own limbs to get out of traps, and looks the other way: he’s never wanted to watch them fuck, to see himself conclusively found useless to Naruto.

The sounds are explicit enough: heavy breathing, the growling like a moan of unbelievable relief and pleasure, of life triumphant after all in the leering face of death, the noise of flesh hitting flesh.

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Naruto pressing his face to the cage, his ear burning off as he angles his head. He’s forced Sasuke’s shoulder halfway between the bars, and bites where neck meets shoulder.

Gaara figured there’d finally be a sound from Sasuke at this point, but it’s the other way around. Sasuke’s part of the heavy breathing stops.

Gaara glances up despite himself. They seem to be done now, anyway.

Sasuke takes a step forward, away from the cage, unsteady and his face so white he hardly looks alive.

But Naruto’s face is human again, and whole, aware of his surroundings. “Sasuke!”

Sasuke stumbles around, feet caught in his own jeans, he has to grab onto the bars to keep from falling. He seems to have trouble breathing.

It’s a long time before Gaara understands what’s wrong, because Naruto wasn’t that rough with him and anyway it’s not like Sasuke’s never had bad sex before – and of course Gaara’s never seen or heard of anyone adversely affected by a bond, because to shifters it’s completion, a panacea, and humans hardly feel it.

It’s the way Sasuke keeps clawing at the bite mark, the symbol of the bond, that finally clues him in. That and the way he’s obviously ready to hyperventilate but never tries to avoid Naruto, who takes his hands, leans his forehead against Sasuke’s, whispers to him in Japanese. Gaara’s interested to see that the cage doesn’t seem to burn Naruto so badly anymore, as if Sasuke’s immunity is contagious. Well, it would be.

“Hey, come on, Sasuke, I’m right here. Trust me, okay? We’ve got this. It’s just the bond. I’ve got you.”

Naruto must manage to shut it down a bit, because Sasuke’s shuddering eases. He still sounds like he’s gagging when he says, “I hate the bond.” Naruto makes a wet sound, pressing his forehead harder against Sasuke’s. Sasuke swallows, steadies. “Fuck. Okay. I’m getting you out.”

For the first time Gaara, surprised and not sure how he feels about it, can believe that Sasuke loves Naruto – really loves Naruto, no holds barred, would die for you kind of loves him.

“You’re strong now,” Naruto points out, letting orange energy glitter in Sasuke’s hands.

But Naruto never makes it out of the cage.

Itachi steps into the room, and the world freezes. Shit, Gaara thinks. He should’ve taken the extra time to be discreet after all, should’ve listened to bloody Kakashi.

“Itachi,” Sasuke says, keeping himself between Itachi and the cage. He looks his version of stricken and terrified, which is to say rabid. Even now he doesn’t beg.

There’ll be no hiding anything: Kyuubi’s bite mark is plainly visible on Sasuke’s shoulder, vermilion energy still glitters under his skin, Naruto’s sperm is literally leaking out of him.

Gaara tries to move but it’s impossible. The heavenly fury radiating off Itachi paralyses him, scorches his skin. His knees buckle, hit the floor. He’s never felt so helpless.

“Itachi, hold on –” It’s Kakashi’s voice this time, he staggers into the room clearly injured but reaching for Itachi’s arm.

But it’s all too late. Time has gone strange. It moves slowly, slowly, every breath takes an agonising eon, there’s a merciless amount of time to absorb everything that’s happening. And yet it’s moving too quickly for anything to be done.

Itachi lifts his hand.

Naruto’s just gone.

Gaara blinks and the cage is still empty. It seems like a magic trick, not like Naruto’s been killed, because there’s so utterly no trace left. He’s been wiped from existence so cleanly, he might as well never have been born.

Sasuke makes a sound Gaara had never thought he’d hear from someone who didn’t have a beast. He looks – well, he looks like someone who’s had his mate killed. Like the living dead, half his soul ripped away.

Itachi walks up to him, putting his hands on Sasuke’s shoulders and resting his chin on top of Sasuke’s head. “It will be better now. You can finally be pure for me.”

Time stops again. Maybe it’s shock, Gaara thinks, that it seems to stop and start this way.

Sasuke moves his arm. Itachi takes a slow step backwards, then collapses on the floor. There’s a great amount of blood, around the hole in his solar plexus.

Kyuubi’s strength must still be lingering, because, Gaara understands, Sasuke’s hand went in there, just under Itachi’s ribs and then deep inside his body. Itachi’s heart and lungs dangle from his fingers.

Sasuke still looks like a corpse, Gaara’s not sure he understands what he’s done. He sways, unsteady knees, and looks ready to howl, to burn the world.

There’s not much left to burn, Gaara thinks. They’ve left a smaller world behind, Naruto and Itachi.   

But the world doesn’t, in fact, end.

Kakashi steps up next to Sasuke, putting an arm around his shoulders and drawing him in close, so they can both stay standing, leaning on each other. “Come here,” he says lightly, and Sasuke leans his face against his chest, and there’s a way forward after all. “We’re okay. It’s you and me.”

Chapter Text

”He’s a child,” Minato says, with no small amount of disgust. The words are stale in his mouth, stale like breadcrumbs dropped to let him find his way back to a situation he can live with: he’s spoken them so often that they’re losing sense. Only the underlying meaning remains: objection, refusal, protest, the nouns of adolescence.

“Well, yes,” Yui says. She touches his hair, one of those kindly gestures he associates with mothers, though his own mother’s never been one to touch him this way. “I wish he were older. But it – now here we are.” She breathes out, her voice growing thinner. “He seems …at peace with the idea, at least?”

Minato thinks that she’s being far more charitable to both himself and Kakashi than either of them deserves – certainly far more charitable than Kakashi’s ever been to her. He’s never said a word against her and he’s never been unkind to Naruto, but Minato’s seen him around children he likes, mothers he likes – Sasuke, Mikoto – and however he acts towards Yui and Naruto, it’s the opposite of that.  

It took Minato a long time to see that that’s what it was, but Kakashi’s relationship to Naruto is a relationship to Sasuke’s friend, not to Minato’s son.

It was even longer before he accepted that this was a good thing: that it was only after this re-categorisation that Kakashi was finally at ease around Naruto. Minato can recall years of Kakashi shying away from touching Naruto, answering Naruto’s babbling questions with silences that grew strained and helpless: he’d have never let Naruto get hurt, but he plainly wanted nothing to do with him. Minato hadn’t wanted to understand that, and it’s not like Kakashi’s ever been comfortable with people…but this was a particular rejection.

But these days Kakashi drawls and smirks at Naruto and lifts him without discomfort or hesitation, responds to him as a child in his care. It’s not the same way he is with Sasuke – Naruto’s his responsibility, not his family – but it’s enough for Naruto to adopt him as a kind of honorary big brother. After all, the boy’s never been one to cease and desist even in the face of open rejection.

“Have you spoken to him?” Yui asks.

“No,” Minato admits on an exhale. The horrified realisation, and how he’s tried to flee from it by fleeing from Kakashi, who’s so tense now in his presence, so painfully attuned to any minute change in Minato’s demeanour. Minato never wanted to notice that when Kakashi’s too tired and forgets himself, when the easy masks crack open and slip off, Kakashi looks like he’s been struck every time Minato turns away from him, and constantly steeled for a new blow.

The scarecrow prince, Minato’s heard the exorcists call him. Minato, as shifters usually do, think in terms of animals: a beaten dog, a bird with a wing that’s broken but not too badly to fly with. No, that’s not right. Say rather a badly tamed wolf cub, at the edge of the flock and savage underneath.

“It seems like something you should discuss,” Yui says. He looks up at her, with something like accusation, but her face and her voice remain mild and sensible. “This is a big deal. He deserves to hear about it from you. And you need to understand how he feels about it. If he – if he’s apprehensive, then…” She swallows. “You’ll need to figure out quite quickly if that’s something he can get past – something he’s willing to get past – or you’ll have to get your affairs in order.”

Minato’s ridiculously old to be matesick. Closer to twenty-five than to twenty, when textbooks will tell you it’s one in a hundred thousand who mates over the age of nineteen. He’s been relived about it, smug almost, to remain free of that yoke, an arranged marriage mandated by his own body as if he were a victim in a horror story of medieval patriarchy. He’s a person: he should be able to choose who he loves, who he builds his life with.

Only now he wishes it had happened a long time ago, so he wouldn’t be so terrifyingly old enough to see that Kakashi’s a little boy, years away from being ready to have an adult touch him. More than half a year shy of fourteen, which is just a roundabout way of saying thirteen. Something inside Minato wants to fuck a traumatised thirteen year old who trusts him.

“Speak to him,” Yui says again. “Explain.”

“If it was Naruto,” Minato says, which is an unworthy thing to say but he needs her to stop being so bloody reasonable about this, when he has no idea how to live with himself if he – if he – “If he was barely even a teenager, and a grown man wanted to defile him.”

Yui remains calm, a little pale around the mouth. “I would find that unacceptable. But – let me finish, please, Minato – I would understand that that’s because I love Naruto. And that from the perspective of those who loved this man and didn’t want to lose him, it might look very different. This isn’t a clear-cut situation.”

“He doesn’t even have anyone looking out for him.”

“You’re looking out for him.”

“That makes it worse. This – I’m supposed to do better by him.”

“I should hardly imagine he wants you to die without even being consulted on the matter,” Yui says, always getting more formal as she gets more upset, building protective walls around vulnerable emotions, as if careful language could keep out the hurt. “He loves you. Anyone can see that.” She sounds like she’s trying to convince herself – she’s never understood Kakashi at all, and is in fact, Minato suspects, rather intimidated by him.

But Minato knows it’s true. It’s just he also knows he doesn’t deserve that love.

Isn’t it always that way? Yui would say, if he brought that up. Love isn’t about right or wrong, it’s not about deserving. Actually it’s not about anything. It just is.

“I’ll talk to him.”

“Good,” Yui says. “That’s all I ask.”

If it had been anyone else saying that – that’s all I ask – he wouldn’t have believed it, but Yui has never asked for much, has always kept her expectations too low to be disappointed. Even now, years after they met, after they had a child, she seems startled and uncomfortable to find herself close to the centre of power. When he lets himself think about it, Minato knows she would never have pursued their relationship. He chased and she let herself be caught, easily, with this faint little smile like she was puzzled about the whole thing, couldn’t quite take the idea seriously: couldn’t truly envision herself as the object of his affections. The pregnancy happened quickly and accidentally, and they never discussed options. It was years later, when Naruto was almost four, that Yui said, off-hand as if it was nothing, Well, I knew you wanted to keep him. I – well, I wasn’t sure, but I was glad that you were. So I just… let nature take its course.

Mousy, Tsunade’s always said.

She lives most of her life internally, inside her head, Minato might’ve replied. A shy, artistic, intellectual girl who wants to do the right thing and considers carefully and from many angles what that is.

She’s always had very liberal opinions on shifters, voted and argued for equal rights beyond what Minato himself believes to be strictly possible, and yet he can see she’s afraid, that beast energy breaking out in an argument between shifters makes her freeze, terrifyingly aware of herself as prey, as not their kind.

Of course, people like his mother have made sure of that.

But fact remains, she’s human. Naruto’s hurt her, entirely by mistake and too little to understand it, because Naruto even at two years old could bite through bone, and Yui couldn’t stop him and couldn’t heal. Naruto has a smudge of a burn scar at the edge of his mouth, almost entirely faded by now, from Kakashi forcing his mouth open, lifting him off Yui’s mangled arm. This is a perfect example of why interracial daycare isn’t something Minato’s ever pushed for, as a shifter younger than four simply doesn’t possess the control necessary to avoid hurting their weaker surroundings.

Also Minato imagines that while of course Naruto loves and adores his mother completely, Kyuubi is ambivalent at best.

 “I’ll talk to him,” Minato repeats, viciously clamping down on Arashi’s excitement, the blue energy that wants to leak through his skin and lead him – Minato reminds his beast sharply that Kakashi isn’t home. Arashi’s like Kyuubi that way: disinterested in Yui at best. He’s been obsessed with Kakashi for some time now, it started with a mumble, turned to an insistent whisper, rising now to a scream echoing through Minato’s skull. His skin feels fragile, like the very air could cut it open, his joints heavy and leaden. He will either die or mate quite soon. “Can we just…” He turns over, rests his face against her shoulder and puts his arm around her.

It’s been hopeless, lately. He’s tried, increasingly baffled and frustrated, but Arashi’s rejection is absolute. The only way Minato can become excited is by thinking of someone else, is if he chances to close his eyes and instantly Yui is forgotten, there’s a flash of silver hair and the sharp line of a boy’s chin, and Minato opens his eyes in horror and rolls away, shocked and disgusted with himself.

Yui pats his arm, kisses his cheek. “Go. I’ll still be here.”

“Yui.” He sits up, meets her eyes. “Do you want me to do this? Could you even look at me, if I –”

She breathes in, breathes out. “I want what’s best for Naruto. Anyway there’s no point discussing this before we know the facts. Speak to Kakashi. See where he stands. Then we can talk.”

xxxxx

Technically Kakashi has a flat. In practice he lives here, interspersed with increasingly frequent stays at the Uchihas’.

Minato passes by the desk, the dead flower on the windowsill, and finds Kakashi asleep in his bed despite it nearing noon. He’s lying on his back, an arm thrown over his eyes. Minato’s shocked still by the relief, like hearing water rushing after days of thirst. Here are Kakashi’s feet sticking out of the blanket, long and thin and absurdly prone to blisters, he has to wear plasters constantly even in shoes he’s had for years; here is Kakashi’s smell, young and exorcist and night sweet; here is his pianist’s hands and washed-soft tshirt, his bony jaw with the black taint of evil, his wide expressive mouth and his ridiculous hair like moonlight on snow. He still looks small, delicate, though there’s starting to be a hint of gangliness. He was a short, thin kid, but Minato expects he’ll grow tall: his parents were.

That’s a debt Minato owed before Kakashi had ever done anything for him, that Kakashi’s parents died for taking a stance for shifters, for their refusal to cleanse a civilian settlement on some unfounded pretext or other.

And Kakashi’s done much for him – for them, Minato would like to think, but Kakashi’s not ideological like his parents, he’s in this for Minato – since then. The first time, Minato didn’t ask. It would’ve never occurred to him to ask. It had been one of those horrible, regular situations: they were at an outpost and the demons came, not directly at them but at their sister posting, visible in the distance but too far away for DEW guns to be any help. Too many demons for that outpost to make it, Minato realised. It was just a small posting, and it would’ve been awful but not terrible except his mother was there, and he cursed and cursed and he kept ordering people to move there, faster, hurry, now, and to call the Council, to negotiate someone, even though it would be too late and it was all useless.

Then Kakashi touched his side. It was a quick, shy touch, but his eyes were steady. It’s just – why don’t you want me to?

And the scene froze, Minato started and him and Jiraiya did too, and everything was changed and made new. The edge of Kakashi’s mouth came up, this expression too was shy, private, but he glowed with it. He raised his hand.

Minato swallowed. You don’t have a Council order for this. And their disobeying the Council had already cost Kakashi his parents, and –

Kakashi’s smile quirked deeper, with that exorcist arrogance. I don’t need an order to follow my calling. I can – I can help.

Minato’s faced must have showed his shocked relief, his disbelieving gratitude, because there was light then. He blinked his eyes and when he opened them again the demons were gone.

Jiraiya had actually lifted Kakashi off his feet, thrown him up into the air in jubilation as one does with children. Of course, technically Kakashi had been a child. And Kakashi had let him, there had been no smiting.

Minato had touched his hair, not quite ruffling it, and Kakashi had looked up at him in that way he had sometimes, as if Minato was the sun. He’d said quickly, in whisper but so sure, You can ask.

Minato has asked, after that. Kakashi seemed pleased about the whole thing, and there was limited unpleasantness from the Council, and by now Kakashi’s performed thousands of exorcisms at Minato’s behest. It’s saved so many people, and he hasn’t been forced to crawl for the Council; he’s been able to strengthen his position with the shifters, despite Yui, and shut down the worst of the Sabaku craziness.

In the present Kakashi shifts, making an inarticulate sound that has Arashi salivating.

“Kakashi,” Minato says, keeping his voice carefully human.

“Mmh.” It’s almost a moan, Kakashi’s eyes slitting open. Even his lashes are pale, especially in contrast to the dark lines under his eyes – he’s never been an easy sleeper. Midday light doesn’t gild his skin or make him look soft. It washes him out, leaves pallor and sharp lines, and nowhere to hide.

God, but he’s lovely.

Kakashi blinks, pushing himself up on his elbow. “Is it demons? I’ll be right up.”

“No, no,” Minato says. He touches Kakashi’s shoulder, natural as breathing, and then snatches his hand back because it feels better than breathing after being underwater until your lungs almost burst. “It’s nothing like that.”

“All right,” Kakashi says warily. He remains in bed, still warm and tussled with sleep.

Is Minato looking? Surely not, surely – he’s obviously looking, because Kakashi’s trying to follow his gaze and frowning. The worn cotton of his shirt suggests so much, the hue and softness of his skin underneath, the sheet’s tangled between his legs and there’s a little cut on the inside of his elbow.

“It’s almost noon, you know,” Minato says, and his voice comes warm but at least not husky. He likes to think it sounds normal, teasing.

“Mmh,” Kakashi says. “I got in late.”

“Ah, youth. Out adventuring?” Minato keeps losing track of what he’s saying: words said because he can’t say, I will die if I can’t have you, and I feel… I feel as if I am entitled to it, as if you have always been meant for me, and of course that’s not at all the case. He could never ask, and he knows no way of saying this that wouldn’t amount to asking.

“No,” Kakashi says, frowning at him as if he’s being weird. Of course, when has Kakashi ever been out adventuring? "I had an exorcism out in – well, in nowhere, basically. Anyway I flew in late.”

“Sorry,” Minato says.

“It’s nothing.”

Minato swallows. There’s a ringing in his ears. He thinks he’s sweating, it feels like he’s drowning. “I think you must have heard – the rumours.”

“Yes.” Kakashi gives him nothing more than that, wide steady grey eyes never flickering away from his.

“Then…”

“I’ve heard a lot of rumours,” Kakashi interrupts. “I like rumours, I start rumours, I – I’ve heard a lot. I’m not stupid, I know it’s – people saying something doesn’t make it true.”

“This one’s true.”

Kakashi wets his lip, almost bites it. “Tell me.”

“I – Kakashi – you see…”

But Kakashi can be relentless. “If you’re matesick for me, say it.” He sounds tense and like even now, with Minato clearly coming out of his skin with desire for him, it strikes him as wildly improbable, a ludicrous proposition dreamt up by rumour mongers.

“I’m matesick.” Minato swallows, feels the words like a live grenade in his mouth. “For you.”

A change comes over Kakashi’s face, it’s like the sun rising over his features. He still seems incredulous, as if given something precious and deadly and hopelessly fragile that he’s desperate not to lose. He reaches out in that sharp, shy was of his, doing it quickly as if he thinks given time someone would stop him. His fingertips rest lightly on Minato’s side.

Arashi roars in approval, and for a moment Minato’s frozen with keeping himself under control.

Kakashi reaches for him, closing his fingers around Minato’s wrist and pulling him in. Lightly, softly, but it would be simpler to resist a tsunami wave than to resist that pull. He’s sitting on the edge of the bed then, and Kakashi’s so close, skin and smell and his for the taking. Minato thinks that, before he can stop himself – mine for the taking. Mine – and after wiping that thought away his mind is blank, every thought that comes to him is unacceptable.

“Please,” Kakashi says, some extremity of emotion cracking through his voice, and Minato doesn’t understand. Kakashi’s arm comes up around his neck, Kakashi’s cheek brushes his. “Minato, please.”

Minato’s so tense with not moving that he’s shaking: it takes him a moment to understand that Kakashi’s shaking too.

Arashi’s energy breaks through his skin as it hasn’t in years, blue and wild. Kakashi doesn’t care. Minato can feel his heart beating where Kakashi’s body presses against his, and it’s a mad beat, stumbling and rushing ahead. Kakashi’s mouth is open, Minato’s breathing in his exhalations. “Please,” Kakashi says for the third time. “I love you.”

Minato understands his body language in a new way then, understands that Kakashi would open his arms, would fall back on the bed for Minato.

He can even imagine it, all too vividly: how he’d flush all the way down to his chest, his arms lying above his head on the pillow, the picture of trust before he reached for Minato, eager and greedy, his knees spread open. Arashi purrs his approval.

“You don’t know what you’re saying,” Minato says. He can barely hear his own words. “This isn’t something I can just – let you do. Take from you, when you…”

Kakashi sits back from him, which feels rather like being dropped in an ice hole. “You wouldn’t be taking anything from me that I didn’t – want to give you.” He tilts his head. “Are you trying to salvage your conscience by having me persuade you?”

“No! I – I’m sorry. This is a deeply unfair position to place you in, and I – I’ve tried to come up with a way to put it right, and I can’t. There’s no right way to put it.” He stands up, and feels his entire body crash back into disorder and pain: the cutting joint pain, the simmering blood and his skin ready to erupt, all so easily forgotten, so perfectly healed, the moment Kakashi touched him. “I’ve tried to give you a place here, a family if you wanted it, to see you as any other child here –”

“I have never wanted you to see me as any other child here,” Kakashi says. He sounds savage now, like he’s angry enough, hurt enough, to be cruel with it.

“No,” Minato says. “But anything else wasn’t fair.”

“Nothing’s fair,” Kakashi snaps. “I’ve never wanted fair from you.” His voice rises and cracks, there’s an undertone in it that will shortly make Minato’s ears bleed, an angelic chorus echoing his words.

Of course Kakashi was never any other child. Kakashi is an immensely powerful crusader; Kakashi is the manifestation of sacrifices made for shifters, the guilt; and Kakashi is brilliant, this strange, unstoppable little kid who loves so fully and artlessly, with his bizarre humour and his ruthless intellect and his frightening capacity to sacrifice. There was never any way to acknowledge any of this without taking advantage of him – he offers so much and so freely, and the way he idolises Minato… It was only ever a matter of time before Minato disappointed Kakashi, and he had to try not to use Kakashi’s affections, not to encourage them. It wouldn’t have been right, when Kakashi’s so hungry for a place to belong, for someone to claim him for their own, and he thinks so impossibly highly of Minato, gives Minato so much power over him that it’s terrifying, Minato doesn’t trust himself with it, and now here they are, and Minato’s ruining everything. He’d thought he could give Kakashi a place to crash until Kakashi found a family he preferred, when Kakashi was asking for a home.

None of this changes the fact that Kakashi’s a little boy. “You’ve no idea what you’re agreeing to.”

“Do you think I’ve never thought about it?” Kakashi cuts in. He sounds odd, here at the end of all things when there’s no more place for secrets, everything laid brutally bare. “That I’ve never imagined it was you when I – touch myself.”

When Minato’s able to look at him, he’s got his head cocked sideways. His cheeks are pink but he doesn’t look embarrassed.

“I see I’ve made you uncomfortable. Well, I suppose I prefer you’re uncomfortable about that than about thinking you’re going to get arrested for child rape.” He snorts, gestures to his jaw: actual evil trapped under his skin, a constant pressure against his thoughts. “A bit of statutory will hardly kill me.”

“That’s,” Minato starts with difficulty.

“Jesus, Minto, do you think I’m a virgin?”

“Yes!” Minato snaps. “Of course I think that, you’re – for God’s sake, you’re thirteen! Of course you shouldn’t have had anything like that done to you, that’s – Jesus. Are you okay? What happened?”

Kakashi’s looking at him oddly. “I’m fine. It was great. I hope it happens again.”

“Who did this?”

Kakashi lifts an eyebrow. “While your unwarranted protectiveness is flattering in a ridiculous, cave man kind of way, that’s not really any of your business.”

“I don’t want you getting hurt.”

“She didn’t hurt me. She was kind to me, it felt good, I wanted it.” He shrugs. “She thought I was older, if that makes you happier.”

Minato finds himself back on the bedside. “Did you tell her you were older?”

Kakashi frowns. “No. She assumed on her own, I only realised after.”

“Is this someone you – have feelings for?”

“No,” Kakashi tells him impatiently. “It was just, it didn’t mean anything. We met and it happened and it was – I felt warm, and it was lovely, and it’s nothing more than that. You have to know that I – that I love you.”

Kakashi’s always cold, Minato knows. His fingers go white and numb with cold, he starts sneezing at the slightest provocation. But he felt warm when he –

Minato wants to – take him in his arms, erase any trace of chill, make sure he’s never cold again and he can never leave again and –

“Normally,” Kakashi says, and his voice is tight and young with the strain of keeping it light. “I’d imagine that would be – a complication for you. Unwelcome and just, uncomfortable. But in these circumstances, I’d think that’s a good thing. You’ve got – stuff to live for. You don’t – love me, but you – you’ll need to do this, and doesn’t this make it easier? So just…”

“Of course I love you,” Minato cuts in, because he has to say that, Kakashi has to hear that. God, what has he been thinking…

And Kakashi’s in his arms again, tentative and almost trembling, and absolutely ready to climb into Minato’s lap, to give him anything he should ask for.

“This isn’t just sex,” he says, even as his arms come up around Kakashi, settling around his waist. Kakashi’s growth spurt thin, the ridge of his spine right there against Minato’s palm.

“I get that.”

“I don’t think you do.” Words are difficult now. “It’s – I’m not going to be able to control Arashi completely, and – the bond – “

Kakashi makes an extremely teenaged sound of exasperation and affection. “You do know I read a million trashy romance novels. Trust me when I say bonds are a recurring theme.”

Of course they are, Minato thinks distantly, and probably as realistically represented as bdsm or historical periods, which is to say not at all.

Kakashi holds on to him in that way he has, at once skittish and tenacious, and it all reminds Minato so horribly that Kakashi’s little. This makes absolutely no difference to Arashi, who breaks through his skin in waves, until he’s embracing Kakashi with clawed hands and tails. He freezes but Kakashi remains unfazed, stupidly trusting, with no idea how on edge Minato is, how quickly this could turn into something very, very dirty –

He’s not let Arashi out this way since he was a young teenager himself. Yui is discomfited by sudden shifter energies, by fangs and claws and tails, and for years there hasn’t been a single incident.

Of course, Arashi’s never exhibited a blind bit of interest in Yui. Minato realises with extreme discomfort that with Kakashi it will be a very different matter.

“Don’t push me,” he grits out, which is so unfair it’s ridiculous. He’s the adult who went to Kakashi’s bedroom, not the other way around.

“To quote many of my favourite authors, shut up and kiss me.” The levity leaves Kakashi’s voice halfway through the sentence, but he doesn’t back down at all.

Minato pushes him away because the alternative is pulling him closer, and is dismayed to see he’s pushed hard enough that Kakashi’s on his back, his shoulder hitting the headboard. “This is what I mean,” he says, and the words don’t sound entirely human anymore. It comes out a snarl, he’s not sure anymore if he’s fighting with Kakashi or with Arashi. “You have need idea – I can’t control – I could hurt you, I – and you just keep pushing, like it’s nothing, you have to understand what you’re dealing with!”

“So show me,” Kakashi snaps, and somehow or other Minato’s leaning over him. Every touch sings and sparks through him, he cups his hand around the back of Kakashi’s head and it’s a huge hand, a monster’s enormous claw, and he lifts Kakashi’s head and kisses his mouth, not gently. His mouth is open and hungry and full of fangs, and his free hand slips down Kakashi’s body, shredding his tshirt as it goes. Just a smudge too hard and the claws would shred Kakashi, already their energy is sinking into him, pooling under his skin, and Minato’s kissing him and kissing him, he feels like a starved vampire finally sinking his teeth into someone’s lifeblood, and what the hell is he doing?

He feels wild and lost with horror as he forces himself to stop, to look up and meet Kakashi’s eyes.

He’d expected the betrayal he deserves: rejection, resentment, revulsion.

Kakashi’s face is hazy and flushed with desire, knees drawn up to his chest and breathing in gasps. “Do what you want with me,” he says. “Please.”

“Oh God,” Minato says, and suddenly sitting up is easy the way even cutting off your limb is easy when it’s the only way you can survive, the only way out of a trap you can’t live in.

This is why it has been necessary to keep a certain distance to Kakashi, how terrifyingly easy it would be to take advantage and use him up. Minato’s aware of how very, very little there is that Kakashi wouldn’t give him, and Minato… wants so many things, he’s responsible for so many people, wants to see so many dreams realised – and by using Kakashi, he can.

But Kakashi’s been used enough, has spent his whole life being only as good as his ability to exorcise, and there’s so much more. His grit and his love for Russian poetry and trashy novels, how he’s petrified by fear of rejection but otherwise so completely fearless, so reckless with himself. His careful, careful way of approaching people, as if he isn’t sure how to do it without hurting either them or himself. The way he plays Bach but listens to boy bands, and thinks switching out salt for sugar is a perfectly reasonable cooking choice.

Of course Minato loves him.

And he likes to think he’s a decent person, but he doesn’t trust himself not to use this love, and nobody should have the kind of power over another person that Kakashi is giving Minato, there’s no way for it not to corrupt… And this, in any event, is not how to treat a beloved child in your care.

He stands up and paces, two steps, three, turns his back to collect himself.

When he looks again Kakashi’s still lying on the bed, shirt ripped open and hanging on by a thread. He’s not flushed anymore. He looks small and cold and lonely, which Minato is unhappy to note is his usual look.

“Right then,” Kakashi says, sitting up. “I suppose it’s up to you.”

“Kakashi…”

The vulnerability’s gone now, that blazing senseless love hidden away. Kakashi builds his walls, paints on layer after layer of masks until his face is serene and amused, his mouth quirked faintly. It’s a mouth now for drawling and quipping, not a mouth that could say please I love you and mean please love me. Minato’s not sure if it’s done to protect Kakashi himself or to protect Minato. “You’re being stupid,” he tells Minato, easy and careless, the words a verbal shrug-off. He finds a hoodie and puts it on. “But like I said, I suppose that’s your prerogative.”

“How am I being stupid?” Minato asks, trying to ask to be let in again, to speak frankly.

Kakashi’s got his head tilted in that birdlike way that Minato associates with exorcists. “I’m perfect,” he says. “You need a crusader, I’m one of the handful strongest crusaders in the world. There’s no one better who’d ever accept mating with you. If you’re worried about statutory rape, you’ve got a supreme court ruling on your side saying this qualifies as a justified emergency. There’s no family you have to negotiate with or convince. I know your life, I’m – I’m widely considered already part of your family, or at least your household. I realise I’m not an adult woman, but you seem to be able to get over that, so.” He shrugs. “I’m offering. Did you want to persuade me? To force me? Because if you wanted to role-play you should’ve said.”

“I,” Minato says, and swallows. “I’ve wanted to hurt a lot of people – admittedly, not like this – but. Never you.”

Kakashi gives him that lopsided little half-smile that Minato imagines will come naturally to him one day, as an adult, a half-smile like a drawl. “If wishes were horses…”

Minato makes a gesture that has to be aborted halfway through, because it turns into reaching for Kakashi. Currently, the idea of touching Kakashi is not only tempting and dangerous but also calls to mind the hedgehog’s dilemma: the inability to get close without cutting each other up. He keeps his voice level, like one adult speaking to another, “It can hardly surprise you that I wanted an adult.”

“No,” Kakashi says, light as winter air. “You wanted to pick for yourself. You wanted Yui.”

“I wanted to choose for myself, yes,” Minato admits.

“That’s – more selfish than I wanted to think you were. It’s stupid.”

“The heart wants what it wants. It can’t always be about political advantage, or gaining strength. Love isn’t – reasonable.”

“Quite. But aside from all of that. You have to know if you bonded with her she’d die.” He cocks his head in that predator bird fashion, calm and cruel and entirely correct. “Oh, she’d agree. She’d keep all hesitation to herself. But it wouldn’t matter, we all know Arashi would eat her alive, shred her soul until she was just a body with nothing left inside it.”

“She’s got some grit,” Minato says.

Kakashi doesn’t reply, which is, of course, reply enough. Yui is an ordinary human woman, and Arashi is a monstrously powerful beast with no concern for her. There’d be nothing left of her.

“I doubt you can understand what it’s like,” he says. “I think it’s something that has to be lived to be understood. To be forced by this feeling like by an outside force. Enslaved by something inside you, and…”

Kakashi looks at him like he’s stupid, and insulting besides. “That’s what feelings are like. You think anyone chooses who they love? You think people who aren’t shifters don’t die for love? Jesus.” The last word, said quickly and impatiently, sizzles through Minato’s ear.

“Emotions can be mastered,” Minato points out. “They don’t kill you.”

Kakashi looks at him bleakly. “Then I expect you’ve never felt anything that mattered. But never mind, I don’t have time for this.”

Minato only just stops himself reaching for him when Kakashi turns around. “Where are you going?” It sounds marginally saner than don’t abandon me.

“Do you no longer wish me to cleanse Iverten?”

“I –” Minato starts, because Iverten shouldn’t have to die because he can’t find the right words to say to Kakashi, and needs more time to search for them.

“That’s what I thought. And I need to get back in time to pick Sasuke up, so…” His expression suggests Minato should leave.

“You’re picking up Sasuke,” Minato repeats. Leaving seems impossible.

“I promised I’d teach him to walk on water.” Kakashi’s voice softens, turns private. It’s new, that there are things he cares about that Minato’s shut out of.

Minato has told himself that this is a good thing, has tried to want it for Kakashi. He bristles, wants every one of Kakashi’s expression, every one of his secrets, for himself. “I thought he already knew how.”

“He knows how to walk on air,” Kakashi says, and sounds – proud, Minato thinks, the way Minato himself is proud of Naruto doing well at something. “Water’s different.”

“I’d imagined his brother would teach him.”

Kakashi’s smile deepens, a sharp curve Minato can’t quite read but wants to taste. “Itachi doesn’t waste his time on useless things.”

“But he’s pleased that you do?”

Kakashi shrugs. “I imagine he thinks of it more as an English lesson for Sasuke than anything else. Actually he asked me to take Neji too, but we all know Sasuke’d rather have Naruto.”

It makes sense, Minato thinks. He’s been pleased about the Uchihas, because Mikoto will sit at table with shifters and speak as though they are people, but it’s extremely clear that they don’t indulge Sasuke.

Thinking this is a distraction. He discovers that under guise of it he’s stepped closer to Kakashi, has caught Kakashi’s wrist in his hand. Kakashi looks at him without expression but the pulse in his wrist beats like a sledgehammer. The memory of him spread out for Minato on the bed seems equally surreal and vivid. “About what we talked about. About what I wanted.”

“Are we going to have this out? All right. She’s useless.”

“I realise the two of you have never been close.”

“Do not fucking patronise me,” Kakashi says, his arm tense but not trying to tug free. “I don’t like her, fine. I don’t like a lot of people. But she’s objectively useless. If you’d wanted – if you’d wanted Kushina, or Anko, or Hayate, or Kurenai or Asuma or bloody Mikoto Uchiha, that would be something else. I get that you don’t want me, that’s one thing. With someone like Kushina – I wouldn’t want her, but I could see why someone else might be drawn to her. With Yui? There’s nothing there. She’s nothing. And you’re doing all this, taking these risks and undermining your own position and not taking responsibility for all these people you claim to care about, for her.” There’s a long, shuddering exhale. “It makes no sense, it never did. I never wanted to think you were stupid in addition to being so jealous it feels like poison. And it’s still none of my business, and do please let go of my arm now.”

Minato surprises himself by drawing Kakashi in, until they’re pressed close together and Kakashi glares up at him. One of Arashi’s tails winds around his neck, a gaudy blue sparkle of a scarf.

He should, perhaps, speak up in defence of Yui. But everything Kakashi has said is true, Yui has never made sense and Minato doesn’t need her to make sense to anyone else; and there was pain in those words, a sharp torrent of it, and Kakashi hasn’t been this frank with him in years.

“Well?” Kakashi says, his mouth set and his cheeks flushed, and it would be so easy. Kakashi wouldn’t stop him: it would only take seconds, Minato could rip his clothes out of the way, could let his hands slide lower, grab Kakashi’s thighs and lift him. Or turn him around, or push him to the floor, on the bed… He could be inside him in a matter of seconds.

He presses his forehead to Kakashis and feels, for a dizzy and absurd instant, like a teenager overwhelmed by first love. “We need to talk this through.”

Kakashi leans away from him. “I’ve said what I have to say. Now I’m going to have a shower. Do you want to be here for that? No, that’s what I thought.”

Chapter Text

“What’s got into you?” Jiraiya demands – accuses, really. “No. No, you don’t get to talk back. Look, we’ve all amused ourselves with some human at one point or another, and if you insist on to keeping on with her on the side, then I assume that can be arranged. But why the hell are you trying to orphan your son?”

Minato puts down the papers he’s been trying and failing to read. “Naruto is not the only child to whom I have a responsibility.”

Jiraiya snorts. “I’m going to assume you’re not referring to the hundreds of thousands of shifter children who’d benefit from you staying alive and keeping Sabaku in check, and just point out that Kakashi’s hardly a child. If he can work like an adult, it stands to reason he can fuck like one.”

“Thank you for that mental image,” Minato says tightly.

Jiraiya’s quiet for a second, then says, “He’s a good kid.” He sounds grudging about it, and completely sincere.

“The best,” Minato agrees, standing.

“Minato, don’t bloody run away.”

“I’m going to see him.”

“Good.” Jiraiya sighs. “Look. Whether you fuck him or not, that’s not really up to you, anymore. But whether you hurt him – that’s something you decide.”

“It’s not like that, I – need to pick up Naruto. He’s snuck along, Kakashi was going to teach Sasuke to walk on water or something.” He says the name like it’s ordinary, just another word, and is absurdly proud of it, and wants to laugh at himself.

Jiraiya looks tempted to spit. “If you’d got an exorcist like that, I’d understand balking at it. But Kakashi’s not the worst of them.” He makes one of those grand, oratory gestures of his, almost sweeps Minato’s computer off the desk. “Look, we all like him. And he likes you. It shouldn’t take you this long to persuade him.”

Minato swallows hysterical laughter and an assurance that actually there was no need for persuasion, he could have just – reached out and taken.

On the way to the car he gets a call from Iverten, and is reminded that aside from being a teenager, aside from being lovely and difficult and his, Kakashi is also the current incarnation of the archangel Gabriel, the divine messenger of the Lord. The hand of God upon this earth, as the exorcists like to say. Minato’s only heard Kakashi say it once, and he said it simply and with a snort, said it like it was obvious, and for the first time Minato really believed it. In the sky, in the heavenly light of exorcism, Kakashi’s hand is God’s hand.

He’s held it, cold and shy and clinging to his fingers.

He accepts Iverten’s gratitude as gracefully and more importantly as quickly as he can, feeling Arashi like a hot pull inside him, like Kakashi’s grabbed hold of his intestines and is pulling.

Fortunately it’s a short drive, before he can leave the car and continue on foot towards the clearing with the lake. Even from far off he can hear Naruto’s delighted shouts.

Emerging from the trees, he stops short to – to catch his breath, which is so difficult these days, to rein in Arashi’s wild energy. To despair of himself, of his insipid helplessness in this farcical situation

On the surface of the lake, gilded by summer sun, Kakashi’s waltzing around in what appears to be – not a kimono, but that simpler version of it, what’s it called – a yukata. It’s blue and looks mostly like a dress, maybe he’s nicked it off Mikoto. He moves careless and laughing, pretending to figure skate and teasing the kids with the ruthlessness of any older brother.

Sasuke’s complaining in a language Minato can’t understand, and going by his frown and Kakashi’s poking at his forehead isn’t doing too well with the water walking. “…know for a fact you can’t swim,” Kakashi says.

“What?” Naruto yells, swimming closer to splash water on Sasuke.

“Not now, Naruto.” Kakashi picks him up and throws him, and Naruto again shouts laughing, tumbling through the air and then into the water.

He’d never be that careless with Sasuke, Minato thinks. Of course, this kind of rough handling would probably damage Sasuke – and he’d never speak to Naruto the way he does to Sasuke now, in a language that would make Kyuubi whine and scream in pain.

Sasuke repeats the incantation, and Minato winces. Twenty metres away, Naruto covers his ears.

“Ease up,” Kakashi says. “You’re pushing too much power.”

He’s said the same thing to Naruto a hundred times, they all have, but it was only after he was enrolled in interracial kindergarten that Naruto started listening: understood that he had to control his power or he’d hurt people, and found hurting anyone unacceptable. He’s still not very good at control, immense power wasted because Naruto can’t utilise it properly, but at least there haven’t been any serious incidents.

Even to Minato it’s obvious when Sasuke finally gets his footing on the water. He smirks with triumph, and it’s this stingy, smug little expression, and he’s radiant with it. Kakashi touches his hair, an awkward touch like they’re not quite at the ruffling stage, smiles back at him, and Minato – would like, maybe, for Kakashi to smile that way at him.

By this time Naruto’s rallied, swimming over and pulling at Sasuke’s leg until they go tumbling and wrestling in the water. Minato’s reminded that Sasuke spoke functionally no English when he first arrived: he’s more verbal now than Minato’s ever heard him before, spluttering and argumentative, and Minato understands none of what he’s saying. More startlingly, Naruto apparently does, shouting back in partially the same language with dandelion-yellow hair plastered wetly to his face.

That’s when Kakashi catches sight of Minato, and stills. He’s been dancing around like nobody could see him; now he straightens, falls into that stillness he’s had ever since childhood, waiting for the world to be safe again.

“Dad!” Naruto calls, waving. Sasuke scrunches up his nose.

“Go get dried off,” Kakashi says, and they scamper out of the lake, towards the pile of towels and dry clothes.

Minato makes a helpless gesture.

“Was there something you wanted to say?” Kakashi asks. He sounds neutral, which isn’t a good sign.

“You’re dressed funny,” Minato says. Kakashi glances down at the yukata, which exposes quite a bit of his chest. Yes, Minato thinks, it’s a woman’s garment. It’s cut for curves, and it smells faintly of a woman’s perfume. For a moment he’s overcome with the idea of Kakashi in his clothes, smelling of him… “Is it Mikoto’s?”

“Oh yes,” Kakashi says, sharp as a paper cut. He’s angry, which means he’s hurt. Minato’s insides contract with desire to soothe him, even as a weak, selfish, disgusting part of him is gratified that Kakashi cares enough that Minato can hurt him. “I have mummy issues in addition to my daddy issues. So don’t worry, you’re not special.”  

“Kakashi… let’s go home.”

But Sasuke appears at Kakashi’s side, standing much closer than he normally does to people – or perhaps it’s simply that he doesn’t consider shifters people, and has just made an inexplicable exception for Naruto. The effect is that he’s laying claim on Kakashi’s attention and care: claiming Kakashi for his own. And again Minato thinks: but I wanted that. For Kakashi to have a home among the exorcists, where of course he has always belonged, in a sense he can never belong to Minato. There’s no reason for this desperate sense of loss.

And perhaps it wasn’t only for Kakashi’s sake, this distance he has tried to maintain. Perhaps he was concerned for his own sake as well, perhaps he strove to avoid having too much to lose: Minato always knew Kakashi wasn’t his for keeps. A fish may love a bird, but where would they live…

“I am going home,” Kakashi says. “Ne, Sasuke?”

There’s a silent exchange between them, which ends in Kakashi lifting him. He’s tall compared to Sasuke, and Sauske and Naruto both behave towards him as though he’s an adult, but seeing him holding the child you can’t help but remember that Kakashi himself is very young, hardly even a teenager.

“Daaad!” And Naruto clings to him, holding on to his leg.

“Yes,” Minato says, and his voice sounds distant and strange. “Let’s go home.” He can’t take his eyes off Kakashi, even as he hefts Naruto. He tries to look past him, over his shoulder, but every part of the woodlands becomes somewhere he could press Kakashi up against. The trees, the grass, they could be in the lake and he could pull that stupid dress up… He imagines the way Kakashi’s elbow would dig into the bark of a tree, his hair bright and messy in the grass. How his back would draw taut under Minato’s hand, how his long coltish legs would twitch. A million unacceptable fantasies, fuelled on the memory of this morning, in Kakashi’s room, and shocking partially because Kakashi’s always been so difficult to touch, tense and disinviting under your hand.

Do what you want with me. I love you. Do you think I’ve never imagined it was you when I – touch myself.

“Dad!” Naruto’s climbed up his body like a tree and presently elbows him in the head. Minato’s reminded of what Yui always says, that Naruto’s a lot. It’s a kinder, more careful thing to say than the more common sentiment: he’s a bit much, isn’t he?

It’s funny, Minato tries to think it’s funny: physically, Kakashi could pass for Naruto’s brother, at least for his half-brother. Both blond and white, both a little gangly, though Kakahsi’s paler and his features sharper. And yet Sasuke, who’s visibly from an entirely different part of the world, seems natural and obvious in his arms as Naruto never has. It’s in the way they speak to each other, look at each other, touch each other. You can see it with animals, who’s pack and who’s not.

xxxxx

The evening breeze hits his face. It feels like a slap, like winter, against his overheated skin. As usual his skeleton seems to him the skeleton of a snowman, frozen through and transported improbably into human flesh. Today, he fears it will melt.

The imprint of Minato’s hand – Arashi’s hand – around the back of his head feels burnt into him. Minato’s weight, braced over him, the way Minato looked at him… the way he’s looked at Kakashi in about a thousand sordid daydreams, always unattainable in reality. Only now it’s not.

He braces his arms against the balcony railing, pressing his face into the crook of his elbow.

“I understood Minato spoke to you at last,” Tsunade says behind him.

“Yes,” Kakashi agrees, turning around after a moment to face her.

Tsunade smiles faintly, commiserating. “Then you know. Though I should imagine it was hardly a shock.”

“It wasn’t a surprise,” says Kakashi, who’s still shell-shocked.

“Well,” Tsunade says, leaning on the railing next to him. Her bosom almost escapes the confinement of her shirt, and there’s the little sardonic smile he likes best. For a moment he wishes she’d ruffle his hair, like she did sometimes when he was little and pretended to bristle at it. But he supposes she’s got a real grandson now. “I take it it didn’t go well. Since you’re up here being pensive, and he’s coming out of his skin.”

Kakashi shrugs.

“Well,” Tsunade says again, and there’s a brief touch to his shoulder. He feels himself relax under it; they smirk at each other. It’s not manipulation when he knows that she knows that he knows that it’s manipulative. “There’s no point mincing words about it. You’re younger than any of us had hoped for, and of course it’s a big ask. But of course I want him alive, there’s no way around that. And we could do a lot worse for an in-law. Is there – what can I do to make you more comfortable with the idea?”

“I think you’d do better speaking to Minato,” Kakashi says, pleased that his voice doesn’t break on the name. He sounds collected, adult. In time the chilly amusement will come, cool the emotion down, like putting ice on an injury.

“Oh?”

“He’s the one who doesn’t seem – how did you put it? Comfortable with the idea.” His voice sharpens now, before he can stop it.

“Kakashi,” she says, in what he thinks of as her mum voice, and he feels himself still, steadying as he submits to it. “I think you’d better tell me what happened.”

He stares out across the city lights. “He – told me. I made it clear that I – wasn’t opposed to the idea. That he could’ve – right then, he could’ve just… But he didn’t want to. He had this whole – he didn’t want me. So he left.”

The memory is so real, he has to hold on to the railing to keep himself grounded. Minato over him, between his legs and in his mouth, under his clothes, so hungry for him. And Minato’s horror, Minato’s apparent willingness to die rather than touch Kakashi –

“I suppose it’s insulting,” he says, the words so light they’re almost weightless. They flay his tongue, leave it skinless. His mouth tastes of metal and ash. “The ultimate rejection, ne?”

“I think he’s being a big baby about the whole thing,” Tsunade says, and Kakashi can laugh, a short thick sound that isn’t a sob. “But also that it’s all too the good if he’s reluctant to impose himself on a child. He might be – I sympathise that he might be concerned that you’re not really ready for what you’re agreeing to, or that he’d be taking advantage of the fact that you care for him. If there was any hesitation, then –”

Kakashi feels cold again, and like laughing. He sounds perfectly controlled when he says, “I told him to do whatever he wanted with me. I told him I think about him when I – when I touch myself.”

A thousand times he’s pretended it’s Minato. Staring into the light above the bathroom mirror until his eyes tear up and his reflection blurs, until he can imagine it’s the reflection of someone standing behind him. Minato’s lips on his shoulder, his soft laugh like an endearment in Kakashi’s hair. Minato’s hands on his skin, curling around him, pressing inside him.

“Oh,” says Tsunade.

“Oh,” Kakashi agrees. “I – want him, with or without the bond. I’m not the problem.”

“Well, that’s a relief.”

“How so,” Kakahsi says tightly.

Tsunade shrugs, giving him another of those lopsided smirks. “I’d feel much worse pressuring a thirteen year old into possibly violent sex than about pressuring my grown son to save his own life.” She touches his face, the pack of her hand pressing against his cheek. He leans into it, into her. “I’m grateful for you, you know.”

“Likewise,” he says, so quiet he’s not sure if she can hear it.

“Now then,” she says, comfortably brisk once more. “I assume you’re inexperienced. Have you done anything at all?”

“I’m not a virgin, if that’s what you’re asking.”

Tsunade lifts an eyebrow. “Really? Does Minato know that?”

“He does.”

“Who?”

He shrugs, still close enough their arms touch. “Kurenai.”

Tsunade whistles. “Not bad for a beginner, little Casanova.” She sobers then, though her voice remains warm. “You didn’t tell Minato that.”

“No.”

“Also I’m assuming that was something you wanted.”

“Yes.” He’d just come down from an exorcism, the ground was unsteady under his feet like walking on water, and she was there and she was kind, she paid attention to him and she was warm. She was an ambassador of some kind, presumably someone Minato wanted to impress with his mastery of a crusader, but Kakashi didn’t much care about that. She laughed and she touched him and they were under the heavy colourful blankets in her room, and it was…quite wonderful. He’d been old enough to want, with this restless unceasing fervor that tires him out and pleases him and flushes under his skin.

It’s not just Minato, though he’s wanted Minato always. It’s Kurenai’s elegant wrists and kind way of looking at him; Hayate’s mind for chess and the creases and dimples around his mouth; Anko’s strident tones and perfect breasts; Mikoto’s cold fingertips and relentless elegance; it’s Itachi.

They snuck communion wine once, got drunk on the floor of the clock tower. Uneven stone under him, and Itachi strange and almost laughing beside him, his intensity softened by inebriation. You always do this with Sasuke, Kakashi said. He leaned forward and kissed Itachi’s face: forehead, lips, cheekbone, cheekbone. Itachi simply looked at him, bemused and suddenly – suddenly somehow attainable, reachable. Kakashi had never been so aroused in his life. His body stopped functioning, stuck for a moment like a key in a rusty lock and then collapsing in on itself like a house on fire and the walls giving way.

“Good,” Tsunade says briskly. “I’ll work on Minato. He’ll come around.”

“Yes,” Kakashi says tonelessly. “That’ll be so great for me, when he’s desperate enough he loses control entirely.”

“Oh, he’ll come around much sooner than that. He just needs to reassure himself that he had moral qualms before he can do it. You know what he’s like.”

“I do,” Kakashi agrees. Minato’s goodness, his need not to just do the easy thing but the right thing. “I don’t want to take that from him. I thought – I thought I could be his shadow. I could do the unpleasant things, the necessary things. He wouldn’t have to, so he could still be – all that he is.”

“You’re quite pragmatic for someone so young.”

“In some matters,” Kakashi says quietly, “Minato’s the child.”

Minato wouldn’t purge a town as a show of power, wouldn’t assassinate inconvenient opponents before they grew strong, isn’t built for bribery or blackmail. He pulls his punches. He thinks well of people.

That’s one of the reasons he needs Kakashi so much, and one of the reasons Kakashi loves him so much.

xxxxx

Minato’s heard of other parents reading goodnight stories to their children – with Naruto, it’s the other way around, Naruto telling stories and babbling away until his words run together and his eyelids drop, talking himself to sleep. Lately all his stories have been about Sasuke.

“I’m going to bite him,” Naruto says with terrifying certainty.

“You’re a little young for biting.”

“Mmh. Why haven’t you bitten Mum?”

“Arashi doesn’t want to.”

“Hmm.” But Naruto will understand that. It’s part of why Minato can’t dismiss Naruto’s insistence that he’ll bond with Sasuke: that Naruto knows with every fibre of his being what it means to have your beast focussed on someone, and that it’s not at all the same as you caring for someone, that you can love someone and your beast can just not care…

Minato sighs. Naruto’s obsessed with Sasuke, that’s one thing. Far more worrying is the fact that Kyuubi is every bit as obsessed with the littlest Uchiha. Minato may need to start negotiating with Mikoto very soon to see this safely settled: for all Sasuke’s clearly not a coddled favourite, she’d hardly just give a highborn crusader to a shifter…but there must be something they can offer as a bride price.

He stops his thoughts before they go inevitably to Kakashi, who’ll have a much clearer idea of what the Uchihas value. Once more he shudders to think what their situation would be like if exorcist bonds weren’t relatively common, if the exorcists didn’t value the healing and strength.

Naruto peers up at him from the cocoon of his blankets, fearless and inquisitive, so unhurt still by the world. “Are you going to bite Kakashi? What? People say!”

“I don’t know, Naruto. We’re talking.”

Naruto frowns, growing unfortunately more awake, upset energy glittering orange under his skin. “What’s there to talk about? You’d die! And he’s family. This is being family.”

“Letting someone bite you is family?”

“Doing your best for each other,” Naruto says, curled around his frog plushie. “That’s family.”

Minato never envisioned himself having a child before he hit twenty, but Naruto’s one reason that this protest of his, this reluctance, is a farce. He loves Naruto and he’s not going to leave him. He hasn’t even had to ask, Kakashi offered, and he can’t promise he would’ve left Naruto behind, left his whole life behind, even if Kakashi had needed persuading. He’s just not sure how to live with this fact.

“Go to sleep,” he tells Naruto.

“I’m not sleepy,” Naruto says, defiant despite his yawn.

“Uh huh.” In this at least, Sasuke’s the easy child: just put him in a bed and he’ll be asleep within minutes, and Naruto will quiet down so as not to disturb him. Minato supposes that’s one of the benefits of the exorcists working their children to the bone from an early age. He ruffles Naruto’s hair, tweaks Kyuubi’s ear, and listens to Naruto’s breathing finally evening out.

Then, out of Naruto’s bedroom, Minato feels like he runs amok through the building, until finally he finds him, and everything is still and bright, the world put to rights. Somewhat less than perfectly composed, Kakashi’s standing on the edge of the roof like bloody spider man, always drawn to the high places of the world. Typical of exorcists, the children of heaven drawn to the sky.

God, Kakashi looks so little next to Tsunade, so young and touchable and inarguably Minato’s own. There’s a sound echoing in his head, Arashi growling and purring, painfully awake after years of relative quiescence.

“I need to go,” Kakashi says to Tsunade out on the roof. “I’ve got – a mess of exorcisms lined up. I should’ve slept while I could.” He looks tired, his face always pale but drawn now too, around the flush of his cheeks. They work him hard, the exorcists. Still he’s rarely ever said no when Minato has asked, for all he’s slept in the car going to and going back from exorcisms sometimes. Worse, he’s been hospitalised more than once, grey with fatigue and on a drip, his skin almost transparent around the demon mark.

You work him too hard, that Kurenai woman had the gall to tell Minato.

The Council works him too hard.

No. What they give him would be manageable if he didn’t freelance for you. They’re not going to cut back to make allowances for that. She’d looked at him, steady and sad. So you need to cut back.

He says he’s fine. Minato has asked. Kakashi has seemed variously surprised, impatient and gratified, but the answer has always been the same. And these are Minato’s people who would die if the answer changed, and so Minato has accepted that Kakashi knows his own limits, and how far past them he’s able to push.

He’d say it was fine if you asked him to cut his heart out for you. He can’t say no to the Council, that’s treason – and he can’t say no to you. You’ve got to realise that.

Fortunately Sasuke’s been helpful, lately. If Kakashi should happen to be asked to exorcise while he’s also babysitting Sasuke, he of course brings Sasuke, and there’s no reason for the boy to stand idly by.

Even the older Uchiha brother has been occasionally useful, though Minato doubts very much that Itachi knows or cares whom he’s saved from the occasional demons he’s vanquished in Kakashi’s company.

“Mmh,” Tsunade says in the present. She manhandles Kakashi until she can kiss his temple, and Kakashi surprisingly lets her, even seems pleased. “I’ll see you soon.”

Kakashi vaults over the railing and walks away through the air, feet treading lightly on nothing at all.

“Come on out,” Tsunade says, and Minato does.

“You spoke to him,” he says.

“Of course I spoke to him. I do have a relationship with Kakashi independent of you, you know.”

“You didn’t want me to take him in.”

“I was wrong,” she says. It’s probably the first time he’s ever heard her say that.

“I don’t want you pushing him.”

She laughs, a mirthless laugh. He thinks, uncomfortably, that she hasn’t been happy for a long time. That happiness probably isn’t something she’s trying for or can achieve anymore. “He doesn’t need any pushing. There’s nothing you could ask for that he wouldn’t give you, and don’t you pretend otherwise.”

Minato thinks again of what Kurenai said, has an uncomfortably vivid image of Kakashi cutting open his own chest. He’d be efficient about it, no fuss. And he’d reach inside and pull out his beating heart, and hold it out to Minato in his open hands, see, for you, here it is.

“That’s the terrible part,” Minato says. “If he was – rational about it, then we could reach an agreement, some compromise. But he’s – he’s asking for nothing or for everything.”

“You’re being selfish. Don’t interrupt – in relation to him, too. Who are you really helping, holding off like this? In the end Arashi will take over, and Kakashi won’t stop him, so you’ll be fine, and you’ll be able to tell yourself afterwards it wasn’t really you, it was instinct, Arashi, and after all he could’ve stopped you. So I imagine that will make it easier for you to live with it, to shirk responsibility? You won’t have to blame yourself?”

Breathing becomes difficult.

“Do you think that will make it better for him?” Tsunade continues. “To be taken none too gently, and not really by you – by your beast. He’ll feel you couldn’t even make yourself touch him on pain of death, and don’t you kid yourself that Arashi will be sweet with him. And he will blame himself, because that’s what children do, but you and I, Minato, you and I will know that it’s on you. Take some fucking responsibility, while you still can.”

“You must understand,” he says very lightly, feeling he’s standing on new ice and it can break open under his feet any second, “that I don’t much like the idea of being compelled to cheat on someone I’ve chosen with – with a child.”

“Yui is irrelevant to this,” Tsunade says, and at his look elaborates, “She’s a grown woman. She knew what she was getting herself into when she started seeing you.”

“That’s true,” Minato says. He rubs his eyes. “You always did prefer Kakashi.”

“You know how I feel about humans.”

“I do.”

Really it’s a miracle that she’s as tolerant of them as she is. Nawaki got a human mate who wouldn’t have him: Nawaki died.

And Tsunade’s bonded to his father, is friends with his father, but Minato has grown to understand that there’s never been any romantic love between her and Jiraiya, at least not on her end. There was Dan, but Dan’s dead too, also by human hands.

A brother and a lover, lost to her long since.

“I’m surprised you’re happier with an exorcist,” he says.

Tsunade shrugs. “However one feels about them, exorcists are useful. They may be arrogant, they may claim they’re God’s chosen ones – but then, they are. One has to work around that, and Kakashi’s a good kid. But humans, what have they ever been good for?”

“I can think of one or two things.”

“Something a shifter or an exorcist couldn’t have done? But never mind.” She gives him a thoughtful look, too tired to be challenging. She was never a maternal woman, at least not after Nawaki was lost: she’s looked at him for a long time as one adult at another, with a shared responsibility for their tribe. “If it hadn’t been for Naruto, for the fact that people were against it and you put your foot down, would you have even liked her very much, in the long run?”

“I don’t know,” Minato says. “Does it matter? I love her.”

“Humour me. I always thought it would burn out, and maybe it would have if we hadn’t all been so set against it that you came over all stubborn about it. You always wanted something that was just for you, something that wasn’t politics or Arashi or approved of. And with her, it’s all very – safe. She’s been a challenge you could throw at us, but she’s never been a challenge for you. Oh, she has her different perspectives, but you’re always still in charge, aren’t you? She’s too sheltered, too soft, to ever win an argument. If you really wanted to duke out politics or morals, you’d go talk to the exorcists, or to someone like Ibiki. Not to a girl who’s never even had to kill for her beliefs.”

“Maybe,” Minato says. He imagines discussing these things with Kakashi, who has a mind like a labyrinth and a tongue like a knife. Who knows exactly what he’d kill for, whom he’d die for.

xxxxx

Kakashi’s gone for days. Up in the mountains sorting out demons, Sasuke says – rather, that’s what Naruto says that Sasuke says. Sasuke himself is none too communicative, not when it’s Minato addressing him, and Minato has difficulties understanding his stingy, incomplete sentences, his English so mispronounced that Minato can’t always tell what’s his accent and what’s genuinely a Japanese word snuck incongruously into a sentence with the words all in the wrong order. It must be a matter of experience, and probably of interest in understanding him, because Kakashi and Naruto act like it’s easy. In fact Naruto looks at Minato like he’s being strange and stupid when he can’t follow anything Sasuke’s saying, but then Naruto can read Sauske’s face, his voice, and so has much less need for the words.

Minato’s noticed, now that he’s looking, that Mikoto and Fugaku, who are stern and exacting but also proud of Itachi and even Kakashi, don’t speak to Sasuke at all.

I’d like to get along with you, he’s told Sasuke. Being straightforward like that has worked well with Kakashi.

In response Sasuke said something Minato took to mean that it was up to Kakashi, perhaps indeed that Minato was Kakashi’s business or possibly even Kakashi’s property.

He supposes that’s fine, as long as Sasuke will agree to be Naruto’s business. He’s been happy to notice that Sasuke, in his silent way, protects Naruto: that the times Sasuke turns away from Naruto is when Itachi’s present, that Sasuke places himself always between Naruto and his brother. He’s never hesitated exorcising for them, either.  

Minato thinks about this because he needs to stop thinking about Kakashi. It’s been getting worse, the last few days. Arashi’s ready to burst out of his skin, which rips open for no reason, thin lines of blood trickling down his body. His temperature’s constantly spiking, it feels now like his skeleton is starting to boil. He knows what he needs to feel better, but Kakashi’s not here.

“Yes, quite remarkable,” he says. He has no idea whom he’s speaking too. They’re hosting a function and hopefully she’ll just assume he’s drunk.

Tsunade touches his arm, and Arashi hisses. The guests are thinning out, he thinks.

“Minato. Pull yourself together.”

He blinks, keeps blinking, because the room won’t resolve itself into anything that makes sense. He thinks he might – fall apart, his body separating into useless pieces.

Then, from one beat of his heart to another, the madness stops. The room is just a room. His body is weakened by functional, alert to his will.

Kakashi’s back.

Nobody tries to interrupt as Minato walks towards him. He knows where to go, compass needle seeking true north. Up the stairs, to the left, he opens the bathroom door and Kakashi looks at him over his shoulder before spitting toothpaste into the sink.

It belatedly occurs to Minato that the door was locked.

Kakashi doesn’t seem bothered, though. His eyebrow and the edge of his mouth quirk up. “Hi.” He looks softer than usual, in the warm light, his hair so frizzy he reminds Minato a bit of a wizened dandelion. He smells of toothpaste and clean skin, and underneath of brimstone and a long flight.

“I’d like,” Minato starts, and has to stop because he left words behind when he saw Kakashi and it’s difficult to find them again. “I’d like to touch you.”

“Go ahead.”

Everything is simple now, and right. Minato puts one hand on Kakashi’s hip, curls his fingers around the edge of Kakashi’s shoulder. He feels the warmth of him and the sharpness, his heart beating blood through his body, the way his breathing increases under Minato’s touch.

This type of desire is new to Minato: he’s been hungry for sex, had had an appetite for it, but he’s never been starving before. He stares at Kakashi with dumb wonder. It’s a face with the markings of future attractiveness, features that will probably turn out good looking when Kakashi grows into them, but which at present are mostly edges. A very thin face, with blond lashes and a lot of sharp nose.

Minato tilts it up to his, rubs his cheek with helpless instinct against Kakashi’s. Arashi’s tails are out, winding around Kakashi and sinking through his skin. Kakashi’s never minded about Arashi one way or the other, and he hardly reacts now. His arms were already twining themselves around Minato, his lips opening around words he doesn’t manage to speak.

Arahsi has touched humans, and just sank through the layers of them, body and soul, without meeting any resistance. He’s touched other shifters, and met a predator of his own kind. He’s never touched an exorcist, brushed against the immensity of the creature that lives inside Kakashi, a power to span galaxies and light every star in the heavens.

Kakashi’s fingers twist in his hair, sink under his shirt. Minato lifts him onto the cabinet next to the sink, toiletries scattering on the floor and Kakashi’s back hitting the mirror.

Minato has never in his life wanted a man, and is shocked at how arousing it is to touch the hard planes of Kakashi’s body, to press himself against the narrow hips. The back of Kakashi’s head impacts with the mirror, hard, and he pulls at Minato’s head, slides his mouth open and hot against Minato’s.

“Are you – are you sure?” Minato asks. Somehow or other Kakashi’s shirt is open, almost entirely gone. Minato’s hands look huge on him, he must be three times Kakashi’s weight, is about twice his age: Kakashi is about twice the age of Minato’s son.

Kakashi blinks. “I don’t see why you keep acting like I’m some helpless victim you’re going to violate.” There’s a suggestion, suddenly, of wings, a million times too large to fit in the room. Kakashi’s pallid skin glows, a glow that will burn Minato’s eyes, blind him, if he looks too hard. The energy that’s sunk into Kakashi is exterminated, wiped from existence. “If I decide I don’t want this, it stops.”

“Good,” says Minato, or thinks he says. Arashi, inflamed and thwarted, has never wanted Kakashi more.

xxxxx

It’s good, at first. Very, very good. It gets uncomfortable after Minato mumbles, Good, and things start progressing much more quickly. It’s still good, but overwhelming too, Minato’s hands all over him and Arashi’s energy sinking under his skin, and Kakashi doesn’t know how to breathe around his own desire. He clutches at Minato, tries to pull him closer and push him away, and is so tense he shakes.

Gabriel could do whatever he wanted with Minato, but without drawing on Gabriel Kakashi can do nothing. He can’t pull Minato closer, can’t push him away, can’t make him slow down or go faster, and isn’t sure which he would want even if he could.

The mirror breaks behind him, a shard sizzling down his back. He’s dizzy with lust, his knees spread open around Minato’s hips. Minato’s hands linger on his face, gently, as if Kakashi were precious, something Minato needs to keep, and he thinks he could melt. He hasn’t been this close to crying since before his parents died: he gulps in air and thinks, I could die now. He’s in a place not meant for mortals, a place where wishes are granted and yearning ends.

It hurts when Minato sinks into him, but not too much: it burns because Kakashi’s too tense, but the idea of it, of Minato inside him, turns him on so much it hardly registers. He’s lost control of his body, he’s locked in place and hanging on as Minato moves them both.

Then Minato bites him, and it hurts enormously.

Chapter Text

Minato had not grasped in any meaningful sense what an archangel is. He’s almost eradicated as the bond slots into placed, faced with this immeasurable light, a light that could incinerate humanity, could set the galaxy aflame. For the first time, he truly understands that exorcists are even less human than shifters, are a different order of being altogether.  

He also sees with horrific clarity that everything he’s suspected is true. Kakashi loves him with the ardent hunger of an abandoned child, loves him as if he’s the sun in a bleak empty world where everything else is frozen. It’s not a kind love. It’s a love that would cut off limbs, a love that would devour. Kakashi certainly would die for him. Kakashi, also, would be glad to kill Yui.

Mintao has to understand, too, that Kakashi might be a child in the way he loves, with a limitlessness that would be hard to find in an adult, but he’s not an innocent. There’s very little he’s not prepared to do, very little he wouldn’t sacrifice, for the right incentive.

He does not think highly of shifters. He thinks even less of humans.

He certainly thinks very little of himself.

He’s also in a great deal of pain, hates himself for all the wrong reasons.

“Kakashi,” Minato says.

Kakashi looks up. He looks like a scarecrow.

It’s not the bond hurting him, Minato thinks: the bite has healed, and Kakashi has the power to control unclean magic.

Then –

Kakashi gives him a smirk. It’s a mirthless, seasick expression. “It’s not the sex.”

“You’re unhappy,” Minato says carefully.

“Maa,” Kakashi drawls. “I knew you didn’t want me. I knew it would be different to – feel it. That it would hurt. Now it does.”

“I love you.”

“Not in a way that matters. It’s not enough.” His face breaks up into a mess of an expression, like a shattered mirror. “Arashi loves me. But that’s not – I never cared about him.”

Minato touches his cheek. The skin is clammy under his hand, remains cold.

“I care for different people in different ways,” he says. “If you wanted me to feel as I do for Yui –”

Kakashi looks at him as though he’s speaking a different language, one that Kakashi can barely make sense of. “I don’t want what Yui has from you.” Another wave of pain rolls over them, breaks on the bond. “I wanted you to love me like you love Naruto.”

Minato recoils in horror.

Kakashi laughs, a bitter and hateful sound turned spitefully in on itself. “Oh, not like a child. But with the – like you’d burn the world for me.” And he’s so young now, Minato’s bones ache with how little he is.

“I’m not like that.”

“No,” Kakashi agrees, and his voice sounds distant, disconnected. “You’re smaller than I wanted to think you were.”

He catches Kakashi’s face between his hands with unaccustomed desperation. “What can I do?”

“Nothing,” Kakashi says. He pushes at Minto, gets down off the counter. “I need to go.”

“Stay. Kakashi, let me help.”

Kakashi inspects his ruined clothes. He walks past Minato, finds a bathrobe and puts it on. “You don’t actually owe me anything. If I want more from you than you can give me, that’s not your problem.”

“It is, though.”

“You are who you are,” Kakashi tells him, almost kindly. “And you don’t want me. So you can’t help me.”

For a moment, it feels like his blood is tar, boiling black through his veins. Minato had not understood – frankly, had not wanted to understand – how much pain Kakashi is used to, how much rejection and self-hatred he lives with, the depth of his abandonment issues. Usually practical, tonight Kakashi seems almost helpless in the face of it, as if he doesn’t know how to begin to live through it.

Then he doesn’t feel anything like it: Kakashi shuts down the bond. Arashi might well have thrown himself against Gabriel, because Kakashi’s not really going to burn him, not beyond what can be healed – but Kakashi’s drawn on the demon taint, has placed it like a wall across the bond. Any brush against it, and Minato’s soul will be devoured.

“I’m going to go,” Kakashi says, every word slow and slotted carefully into place. “You got what you needed, you’ll be fine now.”

Minato thinks: I have ruined everything.

It’s not a surprise, he can’t tell himself that it’s really a surprise, that Kakashi wants Minato to love him the way Arashi loves him: absolutely and insanely, with no limits and no conditions.

That’s not how Minato loves people, not how he’s built.

Except…when Naruto was just born and they placed him in Minato’s arms, he was stunned and dumb with love. Shocked at his own reactions, at his own capacity for emotion, and Naruto stared up at him expecting the world, his head fragile as an eggshell in Minato’s palm.

He'd been very little – extremely premature, C-sectioned out so early that he probably wouldn’t have survived if he’d been human. You have to do that, when a human woman carries a shifter baby, or an exorcist baby for that matter though that’s wildly uncommon: you have to take the baby out before they damage their mother beyond repair, before they eat through her uterus or burn her from the inside out.

Minato felt then that Naruto was infinitely, unspeakably precious and unquestionably his own.

But that was love for a baby, the almost impersonal passion of a parent. It’s now how you love another adult, not how you feel for someone you love as a person, as opposed to someone you love simply as your child.

xxxxx

If Minto had loved him the way Kakashi wants him to, he wouldn’t have let him go. He’d have reached out and kept hold, no matter what.

But of course Minto lets him go.

Kakashi has tunnel vision as he walks through the familiar corridors turned suddenly strange. There’s carpet under his feet for a bit, and then stone, and he has no idea where he is but his legs keep walking and eventually he reaches a window and climbs out of it.

It's raining heavily outside, which is a relief. He walks at random, through the sky, past the clouds. The bond pounds in his head. Perhaps he’s hurting Minato, drawing on Gabriel like this, but it’s not his concern. Anyway Minato, now, will be able to heal himself. He doesn’t need Kakashi anymore.

His flat is welcoming, in its way. He hasn’t been here for some time, but it’s home: small, worn, with nothing flashy or falsely homey. The furniture is second hand or standard issue, not too carefully cleaned.

It hurts more than it should, but then he’s known for a long time that bracing for a blow doesn’t lessen it.

He rubs his arms, lightly at first and then harder, and finally with his nails, digging them in. There’ll be bruises tomorrow and cuts overlying them.

It’s said that happy people are alike, but that each unhappy person is unhappy in their own way. That’s not true. There’s nothing special about Kakashi’s unhappiness, it’s the same lonely miserable unhappiness as plagues a million other people just the same, nothing unique about his paltry coping strategies.

He takes a deep breath and cauterises the cuts. They don’t need it, they’re no deeper than a cat’s claw would leave, but he lets Gabriel’s finger trace them and close them with fire, leaving ashy lines.

It’s a lightheaded, almost disembodied kind of pain, which is a relief until he can breathe again and the room smells of his own brunt flesh.

He’s been inadequate his whole life.

He sits on the balcony railing with that knowledge for a bit, far above the dark town.

“Well,” he says out loud. “This too shall pass.” An atheist’s prayer, Itachi calls that.

It is unbearable.

It must be born.

When he leaves, he leaves the door unlocked – there’s nothing of value here, nothing worth protecting – and walks again across the sky.

Itachi opens the window on the first knock, looking stuffy and silly in his conservative pyjamas and with his hair piled in a bun on top of his head. His face retains the pudginess of a child around eyes like an old man’s.

Kakashi climbs through leaking rainwater, the filthy bathrobe wrapped around him, only just obscuring his ripped clothes. Itachi closes the window behind him.

Kakashi swallows, keeps swallowing. “I,” he says at last. “Can I have Sasuke?”

Itachi nods. “Dry yourself.” He leaves the room and Kakashi drops the bathrobe on the floor, steps out of the remains of his clothes. Itachi’s spare clothes don’t fit him but at least they’re dry.

Through the open doorway he sees Itachi, returning with Sasuke cradled in his arms, and follows him towards the guest room. Mikoto doesn’t approve of Itachi letting Sasuke sleep with him, and so Itachi’s room isn’t designed to allow for visitors. Because of this Itachi uses the guest room when sharing his bed with Sasuke, or for that matter with Kakashi.

“Here,” Itachi says. He keeps hold of Sasuke, possessive and so proud of his possession. Sasuke blinks, half-asleep, as Itachi settles on the bed with him. He mumbles something in Japanese and Itachi replies in the same language.

Kakashi lies down on the far side of the bed, so that Sasuke’s between them. With Itachi there, Sasuke’s relaxed enough to let Kakashi hold on to him. It still seems impossibly strange, to be able to touch another person: to reach out and find a body, warm and breathing, available to him. He can bury his face in Sasuke’s hair, and Sasuke’s so little, so sleepy, that it’s almost like cuddling an animal rather than a human being, particularly as Sasuke at night doesn’t manage any English: Kakashi registers only noises from him, nothing like words. This is a treat Itachi allows him, lets him share in, and Kakashi’s grateful.

He closes his eyes, feels Sasuke breathe against his neck, and cries a little, silently.

Like this, in darkness and with Sasuke between them, it’s permissible to reach out and take hold of Itachi’s wrist. His thumb presses against Itachi’s palm, and Itachi’s fingers tighten, let him hold on.

Sasuke falls asleep almost immediately, Itachi not long after. Kakashi doesn’t. He hadn’t expected to.

He scrolls through nonsense on his phone until his head is filled with white static and nothing more, his eyes burning with tiredness and nothing else. Carefully, he pulls at Sasuke, until Sauske’s lying curled tight on top of him, head tucked under Kakashi’s chin.

A year ago, this would have been impossible. Even half a year ago, Sasuke would have woken, would have been cautious and cranky. But he decided at some point that Kakashi is his, and Kakashi’s been startled and pleased to discover that this means that Sasuke is also, to an extent, his. He is allowed the liberties of a family member.

He keeps an arm around Sasuke, tangles his free hand in Itachi’s ridiculous hair, and counts their breaths until he falls asleep.

xxxxx

“You let the beast mark you,” Itachi says in the morning. He sounds factual, as though he’s not being melodramatic at all.

“Yes,” Kakashi agrees. The sun’s too bright, he keeps a hand over his eyes.

“I don’t understand why you would do that.”

Kakashi shrugs. “Chalk it up to carnal desires.”

The bond’s more open now, though the main blockage – the demon wall – remains in place. He can feel agitation and hunger, and frustration. Last night Arashi couldn’t even heal his cuts before he burnt them closed; today he reaches for the bedframe to pull himself up, and it breaks in his hand. His body, cold and sore a few hours ago, is disgustingly healthy, thrumming with energy.

“I don’t understand that,” Itachi says, head tilted a bit.

“Sure you do,” Kakashi says, sitting up. “It’s nice, touching people.”

Itachi considers this. “I like touching Sauske.”

“That’s different.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m too busy feeling sorry for myself to deal with an incest crisis right now.”

Itachi snickers at him. “Are you planning to steal Mum’s clothes again, or should I get you something that’ll fit?”

“Please,” Kakashi says, rubbing sleep out of his eyes as Itachi shakes his head and leaves.

In Itachi’s absence Sasuke clambers onto the bed, knees red from morning prayers on the church floor. Kakashi checks him for damage: he knows there’s corporeal punishment if Sasuke’s not sufficiently pious, and he also knows Sasuke’s neither religious nor a convincing actor. Fortunately Itachi can’t read people for shit, and Sasuke seems fine.

“You really let him,” Sasuke says, frowning and staring at the place on Kakashi’s shoulder where the fangs went in. It meant white-hot pain, bone pain, when it happened, but today all that’s left is teeth marks, already scarred over. It’d be more discreet than an ordinary hickey, if not for the taint of shifter magic.

“Sure,” Kakashi says. “Wouldn’t you let Naruto?”

Sasuke frowns harder, biting at his lip. “I don’t know how to make Itachi not kill him.” No, that’s not what he says: the words are in the wrong order and some are missing, but Kakashi’s got used to that and autocorrects Sasuke’s speech even as he hears it.

“Yeah,” Kakashi agrees. “I’m working on that.”

Sasuke nods, edging closer to inspect the bond mark. With some trepidation Kakashi lets him: Sasuke’s not careful about what he scrutinises, enjoys poking the demon taint until it swirls and erupts under Kakashi’s skin. His fingers are small and warm, and Kakashi thinks again that children are much like animals, haven’t really grown into their personhood yet. They think differently than adults, smell differently. He couldn’t do this with an adult, keep an easy hand on Sasuke’s back and let Sasuke prod at his most private scars, the ones that still feel like open wounds under his skin.  

He goes to the bathroom and belatedly washes off the traces of Minato. It all swirls down the drain and he feels numb, which is frankly a bit of a relief.

Less than five kilometres away, Minato’s hungry for him. It’s terrifying how much that still matters to him.

xxxxx

In the kitchen Mikoto and Sasuke are having breakfast. Kakashi imagines Sauske must have once reacted to the way Mikoto ignores him, but he doesn’t anymore. He’s quiet and a little stiff, but then that’s normal for him, drinking sour green tea and eating porridge.

“Good morning, Kakashi,” Mikoto says. “I trust you know your way to the coffee pot.”

“Good morning,” Kakashi echoes, reaching for the coffee and ruffling Sasuke’s hair in passing. Sasuke turns into his hand like a cat, then shakes it off just as quickly.

It’s like any morning in the Uchiha kitchen, in that Kakashi follows the example set by Itachi and carries on two conversations that never overlap. Sasuke and Mikoto both act as though Kakashi’s talking to them alone, as though they don’t notice anyone else despite sitting less than a metre away from each other.  

“I was meaning to assign you an exorcism in Firtown,” Mikoto remarks. “Today would be ideal.”

“I can’t,” Kakashi says, staring down into his coffee. “I – I can tomorrow. But I need to put the seals on Minato first, or there’ll be an international incident.”

“I’ll send someone else,” Mikoto says.

Kakashi nods jerkily, unable to look up.

“Oh, Kakashi…” She touches his neck, a brief cold touch. He wants very badly to lean into it, to be mothered. But the reason he gets even this is that she knows that he knows better than to reach for her.

Maybe that’s the problem with Sasuke, that he’s never satisfied with just a taste of love, that he’s never known how to stop halfway.

“It was awful,” Mikoto surmises.

“Maa.” He tires to shrug, tries to smile, and eventually succeeds. “I liked the sex,” he says, because he knows what she’ll assume and they don’t need any of that. “The rest was – the rest was awful.”

“Well,” Mikoto says, lightly and with the dryness of exorbitantly expensive champagne. “It’s all to the best that we’re securing the appropriate influence with the shifters.”

He laughs, steals some of Sasuke’s blueberries and then doesn’t eat them.

Mikoto smiles back, tolerantly. “I’m quite serious. You must understand that you’re essentially their prince consort now, and we’d all of course much rather speak with you. I’m sure we’ll be able to reach an understanding.”

Kakashi blinks, drinks some more coffee. “Well, why not?”

xxxxx

“You look better,” Yui says. “How are you?”

Minato shrugs, fails to find the words. “I’m alive.” He hasn’t slept but he glanced at himself in the mirror and was shocked how healthy and energised he looks. It’s like a fever has broken, his body strong again and free of pain. But there’s this hunger still, this gnawing, longing… He’d imagine it would ease up, but every time he turns around and Kakashi isn’t there, there’s a shock of loss, ice cold in the marrow of his bones.

Yui nods. “I haven’t seen him this morning.”

“He left,” Minato forces himself to say. He feels like it’s none of her business but that’s just Arashi.

“I see,” says Yui, who hasn’t seen anything: the bathroom with the broken mirror, the emptiness of Kakashi. She wets her lips. “Did you hurt him?”

“Yes,” Minato says. “Not physically.”

But Yui after all isn’t one to run away. “Shifter scale or human scale?”

On a human scale, Minato thinks, he supposes he hurt Kakashi. Fangs through the bone of his shoulder, of course that would be physically painful. It’s just that didn’t matter – Kakashi wouldn’t have thought that mattered. It would never have made him leave.

“Exorcist scale,” he says. He’s never yet seen an exorcist who wouldn’t walk into the sky on broken legs, come to that. Mind over matter, soul over sinful body.

And it was – it was awful sex, quick and clumsy, but Kakashi wanted him, really wanted him. Minato’s never been with anyone who was so desperate for him, who enjoyed his touch so much or so transparently. He’s also never been with someone he’d die if he didn’t get to touch, someone who could…well, who could make him feel better than he ever has, just by putting an arm around him.

Yui takes his hand and it feels like holding the hand of a corpse. It’s dead to him, right now, whatever was between them.

But Arashi’s hackles come down then, he forgets about Yui entirely: Kakashi’s entered the building.

“Hold on,” he says, and could not honestly tell if Yui’s even still in the room when Kakashi opens the door.

Minato’s standing just inside the doorway by then, and tells himself helplessly not to crowd him, to take a step back.

“Um,” Kakashi says. “Well. Hi.”

“Hello, Kakashi.” He hears his own voice come soft and strange, Arashi turned to liquid warmth and want. It seems the most natural thing in the world to reach out, to touch Kakashi’s jaw, lift his face.

Kakashi gives him a look that makes him drop his hand, before he quite touches.

“I’m glad to see you,” he says.

The bond’s still closed tight on Kakashi’s feelings, and Minato finds it difficult to read his face beyond the surface wariness.

“Okay,” Kakashi says, toneless. Minato’s not sure if Kakashi believes him – strongly suspects that Kakashi doesn’t quite know himself. “I came bay to mark you. Before I go to work.”

“Right,” Minato says. “Shall we…”

Kakashi shrugs. “You’d probably better lie down.”

“Right,” Minato says again, retreating to the couch.

Kakashi nods. Pale with lack of sleep, he seems particularly wraithlike as he approaches, putting a knee on the couch and reaching forward to unbutton Minato’s shirt.

Yui must have left, he thinks absently, putting thoughts between himself and the feeling of Kakashi’s cold fingertips very close to his skin.

Kakashi sits back. “It’s not,” he says. “I’m too upset.”

“We’ll do fine,” Minato says.

“The process of sealing involves drawing a great deal of heavenly energy through you,” Kakashi tells him. “And as far as Gabriel’s concerned, you’re unclean filth to be cleansed from the world. To avoid that happening, I need to feel – more strongly. That you’re ours, to keep, to protect.”

“I see,” Minato says. “That makes sense.” He rubs his forehead. “What do you need from me?”

Kakashi smiles bleakly, standing. “But that’s just it. If I have to ask for it, it’s not enough.”

“If you’re – disappointed in me, angry with me – I wonder that you came.” He says it softly, makes it a question.

Kakashi gives him a look like he considers Minato unclean filth to be cleansed from the world. “There’s a middle ground between being your besotted bride and wanting you to suffer and die! I’m – finding it.”

And Minato’s filled with this difficult, overwhelming tenderness, thorns and embers under his skin. He cups Kakashi’s face in his hands, the sharp triangle of Kakashi’s chin caught between his palms. “Hey,” he mumbles. “We’ve known each other for a long time. Cared for each other for a long time.” Arashi’s energy brushes insistently against Kakashi’s knee, which Kakashi passively permits. Minato’s thumb brushes his cheek, close by his mouth, and – well, Minato had expected a reaction. Had expected blood rushing hot and sweet under his touch, lips falling open. There’s nothing. “Is there something wrong?”

Kakashi lifts an eyebrow. “Because I’m not throwing myself at you?”

“You wanted me yesterday,” Minato points out. He manages to keep his voice light, kind.

Kakashi shrugs away from him. “It’s not that I don’t – that I’m not – I just – ” He sighs, steadies. “I feel too – rejected.”

“This is hard for me to say,” Minato says after some time, “I find it bewildering and – and it’s now how I expected things to turn out. But I want you more than I’ve ever wanted anyone. You know that’s true: I can’t lie to you anymore, even if I’d wanted to. It might not be – I might not be – everything you’d hoped, but the deficit lies with me. Never with you.”

Kakashi tenses desperately under his hands. His eyes are glossy.

“Come here,” Minato says, putting an arm around Kakashi’s shoulders and drawing him in until he’s curled tight and all elbows into Minato’s chest. For a moment Minto feels parental, and then so disgusted with himself he doesn’t know how to function – putting fatherly hands on this child that he’s penetrated, that he’s ejaculated inside of – but he has to repress that. His upsets can come later, after they’ve dealt with Kakashi’s.

It’s like touching a bird, all bones, bones that feel fragile but can soar through the skies. The wild cloud of Kakashi’s absurd hair tickles his face.

“Where did you go?” he asks, when enough time has passed that Kakashi’s probably prepared to speak.

Kakashi fiddles with the tail wrapped around his knee, long curious fingers pulling and twisting at strands of energy. “Home.” He shifts, breathes. “To Itachi.”

“Mmh,” Minto says. To Itachi, Kakashi told him, but what Minato gleans is a flash of Sasuke, sleep-slitted eyes and an elbow digging into his sternum, the breathing weight of a child. He experiences a surge of helpless, furious tenderness, and realises with no small amount of consternation that Sasuke matters to him now, the he cares for Sasuke in his own right, not just as someone who’s important to Naruto, to Kakashi.  

He vividly, viscerally recalls seeing the light still on in Naruto’s room one evening, and stepping in to find Naruto and Kakashi both asleep in Naruto’s bed. Naruto was sprawled on his back, still fisting Mr Frog. Kakashi must have been reading to him, must have fallen asleep like that: he was half-sitting, an open book on the floor next to the bed, his hand close to Naruto’s on the pillow.

Looking at them Minato had felt, mine, with the fierce inevitability of an avalanche.

xxxxx

“Shall we?”

Kakashi nods.

He sits back, lets Minato lift his chin. It still feels wonderful, above the thwarted emptiness: Minato’s hands on him, Minato’s face close to his, Minato’s eyes meeting his. “I believe the strategic approach would be to pretend, for this, that there was no disappointment.”

“Oh?”

Minato has that voice he gets, warm and amused, the one Kakashi longs for and then is disappointed in because there’s not enough there to back it up. He tilts his head and maybe he meant to free himself from Minato’s fingers and maybe he meant all along to end up in a kiss.

He keeps the bond carefully blocked and pretends this is everything he needs it to be.

His body turns into air and then into flame, he’s effervescent, dizzy.

He finds himself straddling Minato’s thighs, unbuttoning the last buttons of Minto’s shirt. Minato’s stomach is hot under his hand, a flat canvas to draw seals on. “Hold on,” he mumbles. He loves every part of Minto’s body, wants to touch so bad his fingers burn. The bright garish hair that always needs cutting, the square, traditionally handsome face, all the smooth olive skin, the shifter muscles, the thick thighs. Minato’s beautiful hands and the dimple in his left cheek, the funny shape of his ears and his perfect teeth.

“Hmm?”

Minato’s mouth slides over his jaw, up under his ear, and anything he might have said turns into a stutter, into a moan. If this continues Kakashi’s hands will quest lower, he’s almost already grinding down – but it stops. Minato kisses him lightly on the mouth, on the tip of his nose. Kakashi sits back on his heels and makes the seal, marks Minato as a vessel through which he can pull Gabriel’s power. Minato will function like a human mate, unable to use the power himself and mostly unaffected by it, but safe from it. It’s supposedly possible to make more advanced seals, seals that would let the shifter command heavenly power, but of course that’s heresy.

He stands up.

They’ve stopped pretending now, that there was no disappointment.

Minato touches the seal. “I hadn’t expected this.”

“You took me in,” Kakashi says, carefully toneless. “I don’t like owing people.”

That’s not necessarily true, as owing someone is a strong tangled bond, but right now he needs it to be.

“You owe me nothing.”

“No, I’ve paid my depts.”

“I owe you, probably more than I can ever repay, seal or no seal.”

Kakashi has nothing to say to that.

Minato leans back on the couch, looking tired and sick, and stomach-turningly familiar. Kakashi can barely remember a time when he didn’t know this man, didn’t consider this man family.

“What would you have liked me to do?” Minato finally asks. “You feel I messed up, I feel I messed up. But I really – perhaps that’s what so frustrating – I don’t know what I should’ve done instead.”

Kakashi’s not going to say: you should’ve kept me for yourself. You should've loved me too much to ever let me go, to even give me a choice.

“It doesn’t matter,” he says.

“Kakashi, please. Talk to me.”

“I don’t have anything to say. I wanted a lot of things, I suppose most people do, but if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”

“I do love you,” Minato says, and the worst part is that Kakashi believes him, that the bond means Kakashi knows it’s true. “I wish that was enough.”

xxxxx

Kakashi’s gone again, Yui notices. Nobody’s told her anything, but then usually nobody does. Minato’s unsettled by it, doesn’t hide it well. When she finally asks him he only says Kakashi’s away working and finding his middle ground. Whatever that means seems not to be any of her business.

She’d expected, perhaps, a further decrease in civility, her relationships with the shifters growing even colder, in view of how she’s been conclusively replaced. In fact it’s the opposite. She surmises they can be kind now, when it can only be a matter of time until they no longer need to deal with her at all.

It’s not that she can’t understand their disinterest, because it’s true that she has nothing to offer. She came to Minato with empty hands.

“…speak for us,” Minato’s telling someone on the phone. “Yes, I’ll most definitely reach out to him regarding this.”

She settles on the desk chair in what used to be – no, it was always his office, his rooms, but he used to call them theirs, when he remembered to. That’s in the past now. They will always have a child together, and he claims still to be in love with her, but having had Kakashi he doesn’t want her. There’s no pleasure left for him in touching her – on the contrary, there’s sometimes a faint grimace, Arashi stealing over his face, and always he steels himself.

It’s hard not to think of it as the natural order of things reasserting itself, even as she resents the idea of someone she loves desiring a thirteen year old.

Still, she’s very fond of Minato, and doesn’t like to see him unhappy.

Presently he puts the phone away. “Will you believe I just spoke to Fugaku? They consider Kakashi to represent us now. They haven’t even – they mentioned the Graystone bill to him in passing, he shrugged it off, and they’ve interpreted that as if I’d signed it.”

“So they think he speaks for you?”

Minato snorts. “Oh, no. They think he decides for me.”

“Oh. Does he – does Kakashi think that?”

“Hardly. No, no, he wouldn’t think that, though he might not see the extent of the problem.”

“Then isn’t this for the best? You’ll speak with him, about what you do decide, and you’ll finally have an ambassador with the exorcists that they’ll listen to. Once he’s of age you’ll have a voice on the Crusader Council.”

Minto moves through the room, seemingly without destination. He looks thoughtful, over an underlying and ceaseless agitation. “I’m afraid Kakashi’s not very happy with me at present.”

“A system where the fancies and heartbreaks of individuals – and predominately very young, badly educated individuals – control the fate of the world is frighteningly flawed.”

“It’s what we’ve got,” says Minato, who himself is not even thirty. Not even particularly close to thirty, and does not possess even a master’s degree in political science, or law, or political economy, or anything else that would be obviously useful for a leader of men, for someone who sets the course of society.

“It’s all very medieval.”

“Don’t you like that?” Minato teases. “You took all those extra history classes.” He glances down at his phone. “I’m sorry, I’ve got to take this.”

“It’s fine,” she says. She even means it.

She wanders around for a bit, until she catches sight of Naruto and the other children out in the gardens. For an uncharitable, unmotherly moment she thinks it’s good if he tires himself out.

It’s not a kind thought, but Naruto’s exhausting – would be exhausting even if he was human, without the extra energy and the physical fearlessness of being a shifter. He’s so intense, so over-brimming with life, and so demanding – it can be very rewarding for people who love him, but for someone who doesn’t it must be hard to stomach. Yui herself is the opposite. She bothers no one, but offers very little.

Out in the garden Naruto plays with the Sabaku children – wild little beasts, though she thinks it fondly – with Sasuke and with Sakura. It startled her, that either of them should’ve taken an interest in the girl: in anyone so manifestly, so profoundly human. But the three of them were paired up for some kindergarten project, and have kept playing since. Perhaps, she thinks, it’s an attempt to approach, to investigate, humanity, embodied in this little girl. Perhaps she’s a break from the high-strung, too-adult realities they ordinarily inhabit.

Perhaps they just like her. Frankly it’s a miracle that no one’s got hurt, but all the same Sakura’s easier to stomach than Sasuke.

Kakashi at least makes some attempt to hide it, but Sasuke looks at her frankly as at an insect or a worm. He once stepped between her and Gaara, when Shukaku was in one of his rages, got his shirt clawed up but not his skin because Uriel shielded him. She must have seemed askance, because he said as though in answer, “You’re Naruto’s mother.”

Any importance she has is an importance by proxy: she matters in so far as she matters to someone else. Naruto’s mother, Minato’s human tramp. She can’t remember the last time anyone paid attention her, Yui, the person that she is independent of her relationships to other people.

Sasuke, a kindergartener, considers her unable to protect herself, and to some extent is willing to do it for her because of her connection to Naruto. It would be more absurd if Sasuke wasn’t so manifestly something other than human, if one didn’t glean the vastness of God’s heavens sometimes in his eyes, or the echo of angles sometimes in his voice. Of course, Sasuke also makes her uncomfortable because suddenly, with him, she’s the racist one: can’t avoid the fact that he seems to her even less human because she can’t really talk to him, because he doesn’t have to language to show that he’s a person like her, with a mind like hers.

Then again, language isn’t enough. Kakashi’s always spoken excellent, nuanced, educated English, and he often doesn’t make a lick of sense to her: inhabits a different world.

The exorcists are all like that, really. She wants to admire Mikoto Uchiha, but the woman terrifies her – and while Yui doesn’t know Sasuke well, doesn’t care for him, she can’t condone the fact that his home life is clearly abusive. The beloved brother who occasionally doles out corporeal punishments that would be considered torture if applied to grown men, to soldiers in a war, and the parents who ignore him. At least, she thinks, Kakashi seems to have put paid to the worst of that.

…and she’s back to Kakashi, who, surely, is in a sense a victim of this situation. If he were human she’d have to say he was an orphaned child labourer, and in addition to this now there’s the bond, which plainly, undeniably is statutory rape. She doesn’t understand how he could want Minato. She also doesn’t understand how he could have refused, as that would mean condemning a man to death, but to desire that kind of union…

She still hasn’t made sense of it by the time he returns, a few weeks later. There are fraught conversations, there’s longing and resentment, and Minato’s in bits and she stays out of the way, until at last she finds herself faced with Kakashi. He’s looking out a window and she stands next to him, makes herself stay there.

She feels again that she should be on his side, should look out for him, take care of him… but she doesn’t know where to start.

“Are you,” she asks suddenly, interrupting her own insipid conversation and his silences. She’s used to those, he’s always shut down when she speaks to him. “I understand you’re uncomfortable. Are you – uncomfortable about Arashi? It makes sense to be – afraid of –”

Kakshi gives her a rather amused look. There’s scorn there too, and bitterness, but apparently she’s said something funny. “It makes sense for you to be afraid of Arashi,” he says. He doesn’t sound insulting now, it’s just facts. “You’re an unarmed human on the savannah faced with a lion. Fear is the appropriate response.” His mouth quirks into an expression too complicated to be just a smirk. The shadows under his eyes tint purple. “But it’s a bit different for me. For someone armed, there’s very little reason to be afraid of the lion.”

“I…” And she makes herself still, takes control of herself. “Do you want me to move out?”

Kakashi gives her probably the frankest look he ever has. “I never wanted you here. It was never my call. None of that has changed.”

That’s true, she supposes. It’s true as well what Minato says, that Naruto’s the one who’d suffer for it if she left. But it’s time she stood up on her own two feet.

Chapter Text

They do find a middle ground. The weeks pass and then the months, and the ground gets steadier under Minato’s feet.

In a sense, bonding with Kakashi was a great anti-climax – all the anxiety and awfulness beforehand, and now it’s all so easy, so much the same as it always was. Kakashi was right when he said he was already a part of Minato’s life: already he lived here for long stretches of time, already he knew everyone who’s important to Minato, already they were in touch almost every day.

So they are what Kakashi, with a filthy snigger that leaves Minato no doubt that he’s picked the term up from one of his horrid novels, calls sex friends.

Which means there are Kakashi’s books on Minato’s nightstand, classics and romances and many in languages Minato can’t read, Kakashi’s clothes on Minato’s floor, Kakashi’s smell all over his rooms.

There’s also, finally, Kakashi’s hand on his shoulder.

Minato rolls over, and his face must reveal something because Kakashi’s relaxes into a grin. He settles on the bed, leans down for a kiss.

“You just got back?” Minato mumbles. It’s still very early, the sun not yet risen.

“Mmh. Tsunade basically jumped me the moment I got off the plane. About the new hospital legislation – Hiashi’s really pushing for this. We’ll need to pull the statistics.”

“I did,” Minato says, his fingers trailing idly up Kakashi’s arm.

“Good. I’ll talk to Ibiki.”

Minato tussles Kakashi’s hair, pulls at the knot holding Kakashi’s dressing gown together. “You just want to flirt with Anko again.”

Kakashi offers a crooked smirk. “Maybe I do.”

“She’s bonded to Hayate, you know.”

“And if Hayate wants to join in, that sounds like a great plan to me.”

“Oh it does, does it?” He rolls Kakashi under him, and Kakashi laughs and lets himself be rolled. The gown gapes open, and is easy to push up his thighs.

“What?”

“Nothing,” Minato mumbles into his throat. “Just reminded me of that kimono dress you wore. On the lake.”

Kakashi makes a breathy sound, fingers carding proprietary through Minato’s hair. “Would you like that? If I put on a dress for you?”

Minato lifts his head to blink at him. “Would you?”

Kakashi shrugs. “It’s like with the tails. It’s not something I fantasise about, but if you like it I don’t mind.”

The tails are out in force, Arashi purring as they sink through Kakashi’s skin. This doesn’t do anything for Kakashi, but it’s also never bothered him in the least.

Arashi’s desire to bite him is a different matter. Kakashi never said anything, and it was some time before Minato noticed his face, which did not express pleasure.

I can deal with pain, Kakashi said, as if confused what the issue was.

Minato stroked his face, all frustrated tenderness. But do you like it?

Again Kakashi frowned in confusion. Of course not. It’s pain.

Kakashi heals like a shifter now, but Minato’s been careful after that not to bite, to prep him more carefully, and Kakashi’s seemed pleased.

It’s in this indirect, unspoken way that Minato’s learnt that Kakashi doesn’t like rough sex, doesn’t like being held down, doesn’t like any dominance games. He’s learnt that Kakashi likes to laugh, likes to give pleasure, likes to be shown when something feels good. Also that he has the most astonishingly filthy mouth, born no doubt of serious over-consumption of porn novels and a dirty, inventive mind, and able to go on for hours whispering in Minato’s ear.

“I missed you,” he says.

“Yeah?” Kakashi sounds shy and gratified, legs falling open around Minato’s hips.

It’s the truth but it might still be unfair. What really does it for Kakashi, how Minato can make him come so hard he’s crying, open and raw and unravelling, is simple. Minato just has to touch his face, gently, sweetly, meet his eyes: I love you.

If he does, Kakashi’s overwhelmed afterwards, hiding his leaking eyes in Minato’s chest and trembling like he might fall apart.

So Minato hardly ever says he loves him, though it’s the truth, hardly ever offers gestures of romantic love, though they feel less and less foreign: it’s completely unacceptable but he finds himself falling in love with a fourteen year old.

But he had his chance and he blew it, before this feeling grew strong in him, and Kakashi doesn’t trust him anymore, doesn’t take him seriously. Which makes sense, because Kakashi’s had to learn to protect himself. He offered Minato everything he had to give, he was turned away, and there will not be another offer. Kakashi acts like it never happened, like they’re sex friends, convenient and pleasurable and non-committal.

Minato’s aware he can’t ask for more without being able to offer an equivalent exchange, love for love. And this feeling, this dawning golden feeling, is not yet a love that could move mountains, change the paths of the stars. So he waits, collecting pieces of Kakashi in his memory, in his hands.

Kakashi puts an arm around Minato’s shoulders, pressing his other hand against the small of Minato’s back, urging him closer. “I’d like to at least come before I fall sleep. Get on with it.”

“If you’re tired…”

“Tired of waiting, definitely.”

He arcs up under Minato’s touch, mumbling nonsense and making low, encouraging sounds. But he must be very sleepy, languorous and more passive than usual. He’s unconscious less than ten seconds after he’s climaxed, leaving Minato to laugh, helplessly fond, kiss the tip of his nose, and pull out to finish himself off.

Afterwards he bundles Kakashi into his arms and closes his eyes. He doesn’t sleep well without Kakashi anymore, Arashi restless and robbed.

Everything is right when he wakes the second time, Arashi finally settled and Kakashi pressed warm against his body. He usually wakes up with Minato, despite his grumbling in the mornings: he keeps the bond closed tight, but it eases open in sleep, leaves him vulnerable to Minato’s waking.

“Sleepyhead,” Minato mumbles, stroking his face.

“Mmh.” Kakashi rubs his eyes, then sits up and straddles Minato’s lap.

“Why, hello there,” Minato drawls, even as his hands settle on Kakashi’s hips.

Kakashi lifts an eyebrow. “You don’t want a second round? I won’t even fall sleep this time.”

“How flattering,” Minato teases, already stroking up his spine, bending to kiss a nipple. “How do you want it?”

“Hmm. Actually I’d kind of like to fuck you.”

Minato feels himself freeze.

Kakashi looks amused, curious. “No?”

“I hadn’t – I suppose that’s stupid, but I’d never thought about it.”

“And you don’t particularly like the thought, I take it?”

“…give me some time to get used to the idea.”

Kakashi shrugs. “If you don’t want to, you don’t want to.”

“It’s not – oh.”

Kakashi sniggers, grinding down on him and leaning forward to whisper filthy, filthy things in his ear.

Afterwards Kakashi remains in his lap, sated and lovely and tentatively at home. He’s even bonier now: taller already than he was half a year ago, and constantly hungry in the way of teenage boys, flesh melting away to let his bones grow.

Minato would like to bask, but that would amount to keeping things from Kakashi that should not be kept from him. He sighs. “Naruto’s been antsy lately. You know he was visiting his mother last week, apparently he was a nightmare and he hasn’t settled back here yet. We were talking – well, Yui and I were talking about her maybe coming to stay here for a bit.”

“I see.”

“Kakashi…”

“It sounds sensible.”

“It’s nothing like that,” Minato says with something almost anger, which he has absolutely no right to. Of course Kakashi’s skittish. Minato told him he didn’t want this, what they have, that he wanted to choose Yui.

“It’s none of my business,” Kakashi says, extracting himself from Minato’s hold. Minto would like to hold on, to keep him, but having shifter strength used against him that way makes Kakashi furious. “Isn’t that what we said? You do you.”

“I don’t care what we said, I –”

“You don’t want to have this conversation with me.”

He takes Kakashi’s hand after all, keeps hold of it even as Kakashi glares at him. Whether you fuck him, that’s not really up to you anymore, he remembers Jiraiya saying. But whether you hurt him, that’s something you decide. “Kakashi. No matter what we’ve said, I don’t want anyone but you.”

“I don’t want you saying things that aren’t true.”

“It is true. I don’t lie to you. You’d know that, if you let yourself feel it.”

Kakashi draws in a deep breath and resettles next to him, legs drawn up to his chest. He rests his chin on his knees, his expression speculative and almost helpless, and – always – a challenge. “If we’re being honest. It’s not something you want to hear, but I’ve imagined killing her a thousand times. I think I’d – I’d feel shitty about it afterwards, but in the moment I think I’d really enjoy it.”

“I know.” Minato breathes in deeply too, and then out. “But you’re not going to.”

“No,” Kakashi says. “Be glad you got someone reasonable.”

“Hmm?”

Kakashi snorts. “Imagine if Naruto ever even looked at anyone else. Sasuke would kill them in a heartbeat, and you know it.”

“He’s fond of that girl,” Minato points out. “And Sasuke’s friends with her, too.”

Kakashi gives him a look like he’s being stupid. “Not enough for it to matter, if it came down to it. Well, you should be happy about this. He’d never agree to a bond if he felt any other way.”

“No?” Minato says, suddenly cautious.

“Of course not.” Kakashi sighs. “Itachi will be furious.”

Minato’s digesting that, opening his mouth to speak, when the door eases open, revealing the littlest Uchiha. He can talk now, Sasuke, can make himself understood, but he never speaks to Minato. He’s here for Kakashi, the same way Naruto comes here for Minato: the way a child approaches an adult it’s chosen and lays claim on.

Kakashi reacts to it the same way Minato does, with a sort of incredulous pride. Minato’s rendered irrelevant, Kakashi finds the dressing gown on the floor and kneels in front of Sasuke. They talk in low voices, in a language that doesn’t burn Minato’s ears anymore but which he can’t understand, until Kakashi takes Sasuke’s hand – in that way he has, as if Sasuke can be touched – and they leave together.

xxxxx

Strange, Sasuke said, and then wouldn’t say anything more.

Kakashi’s well aware that Itachi’s been deeply strange for years, but usually Sasuke doesn’t see that.

Fortunately or otherwise, Itachi’s never been one to hide his oddities, and tends to treat the rest of the world as wallpaper: it wouldn’t have been hard to discover this, if Kakashi had been around lately.

He steps quietly, inches open the door to the guest room that is in effect Itachi’s room.

As usual, Sasuke’s settled with his head tucked under Itachi’s chin, curled small and content under Itachi’s arm. It’s probably the place Sasuke most wants to be, next to Itachi’s heart.

Itachi’s touching him, as he does at times like this, carding his fingers through Sasuke’s hair the way Sasuke likes best, stroking Sasuke’s neck, Sasuke’s arms, Sasuke’s back up under his shirt, Sasuke’s legs. It’s not a kind of touching that Sasuke would permit anyone else, but he’s content enough now, his breathing almost sounds like purring.

One of Itachi’s hands stays in his hair, stroking and pulling. The other strokes down Sasuke’s body, down under the blanket.

“How does that feel?” Itachi asks.

“Strange.”

“What does it feel like?”

Sasuke’s voice is steady in the darkness. “Sin.”

“Oh,” Itachi says. He moves his arm, until it curves over Sasuke’s back on top of the blankets.

“Well, fuck,” Kakashi says.

xxxxx

Very early next morning, he finds Mikoto having tea and reading briefs in the kitchen.

She offers him a thin slice of a smile as he pulls out a chair for himself and takes the first big gulp of coffee. They’ve worked together, since he bonded with Minato – she’s awful but he’s always admired her, and he flatters himself that he knows her now, in so far as she lets herself be known.

“You’re too young for coffee,” she says.

He smiles. “At least it’s not Irish.” He’d actually quite like it to be, to blur the day’s sharp edges before he cuts himself, but that’s never a good idea around Mikoto.

“That’s true,” she says. She seems amused by him, as she does sometimes now, since they’ve established a baseline respect. She angles one of the papers towards him. “Why don’t you have a look at this. See what you think?”

Kakashi skims it, snorts. “That’s ridiculous.”

Still she smiles that mild, perennial smile. “That’s my opinion as well. But perhaps we should appease them. Throw them a bone to keep them quiet.”

“We should just exterminate them,” Kakashi says. “These fanatics, they’re just an archaic remain.”

“Well. There is Orochimaru.”

Kakashi makes a dismissive gesture and spills coffee on his fingers. “He’s disturbed, sure, he’s not actually insane. He doesn’t believe this. Just offer him a trade and he’ll drop it.”

Mikoto tilts her head. “He does want Sasuke.”

“No.”

“No?”

“It’s out of the question.” He leans back, licks the coffee off his fingers, considers how to approach the issue. “Though we do need to – settle things about Sasuke.”

“Are you referring to the Hokage bastard’s aspirations on his hand?”

“I wish I was. But no, I’m actually talking about Itachi.”

Mikoto puts down her papers, steepling her fingers. “Tell me.”

“Well.” Kakashi suppresses a wry face, keeps his voice light and steady. “Though I suspect our reasons may be very different, I assume we both want to avoid an actual incest crisis.”

“Fuck,” Mikoto says. Kakashi’s never heard her swear before, and it’s – well, it’s extremely hot, actually. He suspects he really does have mummy issues, given that he’s always so drawn to these older women pushing him around. “Sasuke needs to go away.”

“Agreed, actually. That might be the best idea.”

Not that Sasuke would necessarily be very damaged by some inappropriate touching – indeed, given the shit he’s already put up with from Itachi, even outright incest sex might not be all that devastating – but it would be nice to avoid it. Most importantly, Itachi’s already spiralling, and they need him not to descend any further down the rabbit hole.

Also, Kakashi needs all his hard work convincing Itachi not to go berserk and kill Naruto when Naruto finally bites Sasuke not to be in vain.

“I’ll be frank,” Mikoto says, “I don’t want Orochimaru to have him. But perhaps after all… Itachi must be shielded.”

“How do you feel about WW4?” Kakashi inquires. “Because that’s where we’re headed in that case.”

“You exaggerate.”

“I’m afraid I don’t. Minato loves Naruto like you love Itachi. He wouldn’t hesitate to start a war for him.”

“You can’t know he’ll bond with Sasuke.”

“We can never know anything with absolute certainty. But I find Itachi coming out as an atheist more likely than Naruto bonding with anyone else. So that might be our solution – give him to the shifters. We can sell it to the Council, I’ll take responsibility for him. And you can negotiate a deal with Minato, there’s nothing he wouldn’t agree to, in order to secure Naruto’s safety.”

Mikoto smiles faintly. It feels almost like one of her rare touches, the back of her hand cold against his cheek. “We’ve trained you well.”

He likes to pretend sometimes that she reminds him of his parents, but it’s not true. She’s whom his mother might’ve wished to be, rather: his mother was a warm-handed, tittering, curly-haired woman, ill-suited really for the strict, high-born man she’d married, a man who’d speak of principles and parables or not at all.

He assumes they probably loved him. After all, most parents do. He used to be certain they were proud of him, until they left him behind and there was nothing left to take pride in, certainly not their memory. He always knew he was a duty fulfilled, not a love child, though his father had married for love.

He wonders sometimes if he’d have liked them, respected them, if he’d just met them. Probably he’d have just been faintly amused, faintly annoyed, as though they were any people. He sees the world so differently, they might’ve seemed too alien for any other reaction, for there to seem any meaning investing any care into a relationship. It’s different when it’s family, someone who’s already in your blood and your bones and you can never free yourself no matter how strange you are to each other, but they decided not to be his family when they left him behind.

“I’m honoured,” he drawls. “The problem here of course is Itachi.”

“Yes,” Mikoto agrees. “How to convince him… I know you disapprove, but I’ve of course let him understand that Sasuke is – unsuitable. I could concretise that.”

He can hear she wouldn’t like to, and he wouldn’t like that either. Bad enough what she’ll already have insinuated. “Just tell him it’s a test for Sasuke. Let him prove himself unworthy of Itachi’s interest by allowing himself to be defiled by a beast.”

“It has the convincing ring of truth,” Mikoto decides. “You assume Sasuke will succumb to the beast?”

“I’ve never doubted it,” Kakashi says. “Though ‘succumb’ isn’t the word I’d use.”

Mikoto glances at Kakashi’s shoulder. “No insult intended.”

“I meant more Sasuke’s not the succumbing type. But never mind that.”

“Mmh. Fact remains, if Itachi has urges, we need to provide him with a different outlet. Repression has clearly lead him astray.”

Kakashi sighs, emptying his coffee cup. “He does have urges. He’s just not sure what to do with them.”

If everything except matrimonial intercourse for the purpose of begetting children is sin, then does it really matter if you touch yourself, if you pursue a consensual relationship, or if you rape your little brother? It’s all sin anyway.

Mikoto gives him a curious look that warms his stomach. “If it came down to it, would you be able to seduce him?”

“Yes,” Kakashi says, measured and certain. That’s something he’s learnt from this thing with Minato, something Minato’s given him, the knowledge that his touch can matter to people. That he can give people the sort of pleasure that matters to them. Itachi’s always liked him, and …”Well actually I always – I’m drawn to him. I used to sublimate it, you know, I pretended it was because he reminded me of you.” Mikoto lifts an eyebrow and Kakashi smiles. “That was safe, because of course with you nothing could ever happen.”

“But with Itachi…”

“It could, yes.”

Mikoto touches his hand. “Then we’ll do this, you and I.”

“I think I’ll do the doing,” Kakashi says, curling his fingers lightly around hers and holding on for a moment only.

xxxxx

“Mikoto’s going to sell you Sasuke,” Kakashi says.

Minato looks up sharply from his computer.

“This stays between us,” Kakashi adds, stepping forward to perch on Minato’s desk. “But she wants him away from Itachi, and – well, voila.”

“What will this cost us?”

Kakashi shrugs. “Does it matter?”

“Well, a bit, I should think.”

“Well, you’ll have to bend your neck, I suppose. But that was only ever a matter of time, ne?”

This is a fight they’ve had before, once or twice, though fight might be the wrong word: Kakashi never seems angry, just puzzled.

I need to handle Sasuke. Just talk to the Council, they’ll arrange for someone else.

I’ll have to cede ground to them, in that case.

So cede. Or let the settlement die, I don’t actually care which.

Minato had had to do it, of course. He can’t allow thousands of people to die to protect his pride, or even the sovereignty of his people. The same way he can’t sacrifice the sovereignty of his people for just a few hundred people.

The only way out of these impossible choices is Kakashi, and if Kakashi says no the choice has to be made even though it’s impossible, and Minato can feel pieces of his soul die every time. What kind of leader even is he? He can’t protect his people without relying on a teenager.

He can count on his fingers the times Kakashi’s said no over the years, most of which involved Kakashi so over-worked that he couldn’t get out of bed, his legs folded under him and he seemed surprised, he sat there on the floor and he laughed an empty laugh and Minato had put him back to bed and whispered, I’m sorry I’m sorry.

If it’s not that, it’s Sasuke. To Kakashi it’s so simple, so obvious: of course Sasuke’s more important than a few thousand strangers.

Minato’s not hypocritical enough to pretend he’d feel any different himself, if it was Naruto.

“She had in mind giving him to Orochimaru,” Kakashi points out.

“That’s out of the question.”

“That’s what I told her.”

“Good,” Minato says. He squeezes Kakashi’s hand. “You’re brilliant, though I don’t expect I need to tell you that.”

Kakashi laughs, looking pleased. He glances at the computer screen but dismisses the document as uninteresting.

“How will Sasuke take it?” Minato inquires.

“He’ll be furious,” Kakashi sighs. “Expect some casualties. But if Naruto can’t handle him furious they’ll never make it anyway.”

“Fair enough,” Minato says.

So they’re sitting there, in his safe sunny office, it’s early afternoon and Kakashi’s arm is warm against his side, and he’s just about to solve the last of the Graystone bill issues. Everything’s ordinary and better than ordinary.

Tsunade leans in through the doorway. “Minato,” she says in her worst voice, the one that tells him not to freak out: that there’s something to freak out about that must not be given into. “Naruto’s been taken.”

xxxxx

Minato’s world has shattered and stopped. He hasn’t been able to breathe for seventeen hours.

As of six hours ago Naruto was alive, was fine. They’ve got hold of some of the people who first took him, and who didn’t hurt him.

He was – human, one of them said in bewildered wonder. He was a person, he talked like a person.

The higher-ups in the organisation hadn’t liked people starting to think that, people being taken in by Naruto’s jokes and curiosity and big cute eyes.

He’s with BEAST now, the real BEAST.

Minato’s lungs are atrophied, his heart cramping.

He spoke to Yui on the phone, seven seconds, and then vomited.

He’d like Kakashi to tell him to get his shit together and that they’ll sort this out, but Kakashi’s dealing with the exorcists. Because this is, of course, an exorcist-sponsored abduction. Orochimaru’s presumably bankrolling it, annoyed by Mikoto’s continued refusal to give him access to Sasuke.

At the moment Minato would gladly give Sasuke to a sadistic paedophile who leads a racist faction, if only he could have Naruto back – if only he could know that Naruto’s alive. But of course that would just seal Naruto’s fate.

“Minato,” Jiraiya says. “We’ve got someone.”

They have in fact got an exorcist, one of Orochimaru’s. Not a strong one, or he wouldn’t be here, but connected enough to know where Naruto is being held.

My child, Minato thinks helplessly. That’s been the furious litany of his thoughts ever since Naruto was gone.

Minato realises he has no limits now, none at all. The problem is simply that he doesn’t know how to make the exorcist talk without killing him. The fanatic isn’t afraid of physical pain, or not of physical pain on the level that he’ll survive.

Minato needs to get Kakashi, Mikoto, someone who can reach inside that twisted mind and just –

There’s a thud, he turns around to find one of the guards hitting the floor. The man had apparently been blocking Sasuke’s and Gaara’s path, and Shukaku’s hamstrung him, cuts his throat.

For once the kids aren’t at each other’s throats, stepping forward in perfect synch.

“Naruto is where?” Sasuke demands.

The exorcist looks at him very differently than he did Minato. “Are you going to burn me for taking the beast pup?”

Sasuke shows his teeth, head tilted in that predator bird way. “Of course no. The body is not concern.”

His accent’s thicker than it’s been in months, he’s too upset to get the words right. Minato understands gradually that Sasuke’s forcing himself to speak English so that Minato can understand, can act immediately on anything the exorcist says.  

Sasuke opens his fist, holding a demon in his palm.

He’s still smiling that horrific smile, Itachi’s smile, as he kneels on the ground next to the injured exorcist. “Hold him down,” he tells Gaara, who grabs the man’s shoulder and immobilises him. Gaara’s hands are too small to even fist around an adult’s shoulders, but Shukaku holds the exorcist effortlessly even as Sasuke puts his hands on the man's knee, letting the demon sink into him.

Minato’s never heard anyone scream that way, the sound of pure terror the echoes in his own head yelled out.

“Tell where Naruto is, you can go nova,” Sasuke says. “Not tell, lie – I eat your soul.”

There’s no worse sin than this, Minato knows. Exorcist killing exorcist, exorcist turning demons on someone – people burn for that. Sasuke won’t, of course. But he might as well be burning down churches, spitting on the bible.

The exorcist talks.

“He go with,” Sasuke says, standing. “If lie.”

Minato nods, gestures for the guards to bundle the man into the car with them.

Only when they’re driving, when he has to say something other than what if it’s too late, what if Naruto – what if Naruto – does he say, carefully measured, “Do you understand what that means?” He’s looking at Sasuke’s hand in the rear-view mirror, the hand in which Sasuke is cupping an demon, actual evil imprisoned within his fingers, which are Uriel’s fingers. The hand of God upon this earth.

“I understand what it means,” Sasuke says. He meets Minato’s eyes in the mirror, for the first time without overt hostility. “I understand what Naruto means.”

xxxxx

“Dad,” Naruto mumbles. He’s hardly conscious, looks like another mangled body among the carnage. There’s nothing left of BEAST and not enough life left in Naruto.

They’ve beaten and cut and chained him with blessed steel: Minato’s hands tingle with the potential of pain as he pulls the restraints away, bundling Naruto into his arms and shaking apart. My baby.

Tsunade kneels beside them, examining Naruto with a doctor’s impersonal briskness and the glossy eyes of a grandmother seeing a beloved child hurt.

Naruto twitches, violently, and Minato follows his gaze: Sasuke’s taken a gun from a dead man’s hand and aims it at his own shoulder, making a face as he pulls the trigger.

“What the hell!” Tsunade says.

Sasuke gestures at the room like a slaughterhouse. With his left hand, so the bullet must’ve just grazed him. “Excuse.”

Right, Minto thinks. The kidnapping, torture and potential death of his child would not justify, would not even excuse, the killing of these rabid criminals. A mere scratch on Sasuke, and their lives are utterly forfeit.

Kakashi must’ve had the same thought: he took a bullet outside, pulled it grimacing and complaining out of his cheek, before he wiped the BEAST exorcists.

“We’re set,” Tsunade says. “Let’s go.”

Naruto’s so light in his arms, so limp. His face is scrunched tight in pain, blotchy but ashy underneath. Kyuubi rages fruitlessly around his injuries.

Kakashi touches his arm. “I’m going to nip this in the bud with the Council. Keep Sasuke with you.”

So Minato doesn’t protest when Sasuke sticks close to him as he hurries Naruto to the car, towards the infirmary wing of the Hokage building. Most hospitals have made sure they don’t have to treat shifters, one way or another, so they’ve set up shop on their own.

He puts Naruto down in the backseat, and his arms cry out at the emptiness. Letting go is one of the hardest things he’s ever done.

Sasuke’s the one who sits with Naruto, because Sasuke’s the one who’s small enough to fit without imposing on Naruto’s ability to stretch out. Only later, when they’re already driving, does Minato realises that this was actually for the best: that Sasuke can extract the pieces of blessed metal from inside Naruto. There’s no digging around in Naruto, no extra pain. Sasuke just hold out his hand, in that imperious way of his that looks faintly ridiculous even though it works, and the metal comes to him, like an animal called to its master’s side. Naruto can heal a little.

Sasuke’s humming something, low and tuneless and never stopping, and it drives Minato mad until he finally recognises the words. Kyrie, eleison.

Chapter Text

Naruto’s asleep. Unconscious, really, but asleep sounds better, sounds safer.

Or that’s what Jiraiya says. Tsunade’s found that which words you dress it up in doesn’t change the baseline shittiness of the world.

She forced Minato away to deal with things, now that it’s clear that Naruto will survive, and she should get going too. She can admit to herself that she’s pleased to leave Sasuke sitting on Naruto’s bedside, to all appearances enraptured by the rise and fall of Naruto’s chest. The Sabaku kids are on the floor, positioned defensively around the doorway.

Yui’s standing by the bedside, stroking Naruto’s hair, again and again, like the motions of prayer.

I’d like to be alone with him, she said.

Sasuke hadn’t looked away from Naruto’s breathing. You can’t protect him. We can.

It’s the first time he’s made a we with a shifter other than Naruto.

So things have settled and Tsunade’s leaving, only then she has to pick up her phone very quickly, praying for Kakashi to come on, come on, answer already, because Itachi Uchiha is bearing down on them.

Tsunade doesn’t exist to him, she never has. This means she has the doubtful pleasure of watching from quite close by as he drags Sasuke out of Naruto’s room. They’re hissing at each other, slipping between languages; she realises she’s never seen Itachi express emotion before and that he’s absolutely livid right now.

“…doing what it takes!” Sasuke yells, just as furious. “As if you wouldn’t!”

“That’s different,” Itachi snaps. “You’re mine.”

“And Naruto’s mine!” Sasuke screams back, and then seems to realise his mistake as Itachi comes to a stop, turning back towards Naruto’s room. “Iie da! Itachi, yamerou!” He’s hanging on to Itachi physically, pulling and dragging with all his might. It’s completely useless and Tsunade’s going to have to get between Itachi and the door, buy time for Kakashi to get here, and –

And thank God, there he is, running full tilt down the corridor.

“…dame da,” Sasuke’s insisting, “it’s my sin, hurt me instead, Itachi-niisan, boku dake…”

And then Kakashi’s really there, putting his hands on Itachi’s shoulders as if Itachi’s a person who can be touched and not heavenly fury and God’s judgement in the shape of a person. Kakashi twists him around until he’s turned away from Naruto’s room and lifts an eyebrow, as if nothing much is going on.

“The Council sanctioned that rescue mission, you know,” he tells Itachi. His voice is light and careful and amused, as if Itachi’s someone who can be talked to, someone who understands human reason. Even so Kakashi keeps hold of his shoulders, standing very close and keeping himself between Itachi and Naruto’s door. They look – like they’re embracing, almost. “Anyway Naruto’s irrelevant to this.”

“Hn.”

Kakashi tilts Itachi’s face to his. “Always so articulate, you Uchiha boys. One might wonder if you’re really your mother’s sons.” He seems to steel himself, his drawl sharpening as he stops babbling. “But this is about Sasuke, right? So let’s take Sasuke home and do penance. Ne, Sasuke?”

Sasuke keeps his eyes downcast, Tsunade imagines in order to hide simmering fury or painful relief, and takes Itachi’s hand.

“Ikuzo, Itachi-niisan.”

Kakashi takes Itachi’s other hand, and between them they lead him away.

xxxxx

“Talk to Itachi before he does something irrevocable,” Kakashi snaps. For the first time in years, he’s so angry it’s difficult to stand still.

Mikoto lifts an eyebrow. “I agreed to hand over Sasuke’s care. You need to start getting Itachi towards accepting that.”

“I’m working on it! I’ve been a little distracted just now making sure he doesn’t actually murder Sasuke. I realise fratricide is a fine biblical tradition, but really.”

“We will both increase our efforts,” Mikoto says after a short silence. “Now get back in there, and I’ll have word with him at first opportunity about Council guidelines for children’s penance.”

Kakashi nods, returning to the guest room that is in effect Itachi’s and Sasuke’s room. Sasuke’s lying on his stomach on the bed, breathing carefully as though he’s trying to trick the pain into easing up enough that he escape into sleep.

“Hey, you,” Kakashi mumbles, settling next to him and stroking his hair. Sasuke glares at him half-heartedly, eyelids heavy. But Sasuke’s ultimately irrelevant to this: Sasuke’s a prop. What matters is Itachi coming in a few minutes later, and seeing Kakashi touching Sasuke just the way Itachi likes to – building the association between desirable touch and Kakashi. “Come join us,” he suggests to Itachi, making an inviting gesture almost like holding out his hand.

After a little bit, Itachi does. He sits on the other side of Sasuke’s semi-conscious body, and together they pet Sasuke like petting a cat, until Kakashi’s stroking Itachi’s hand stroking Sasuke’s face.

Itachi looks at him in question. His eyes at times like these are the eyes of a child, wide open and absolutely serious, so extremely focussed on the person he demands answers of.

Kakashi shrugs, indolent. “You like touching Sasuke. I like touching you.”

“You like touching Sasuke too.”

“Maa, yes. But he’s asleep now.” There’s a pause, Kakashi’s hand lying unmoving over Itachi’s. He’s extremely aware of it, the slight curl of Itachi’s fingers around the curve of Sasuke’s head, the thin bones and the blood and light flowing just under his skin. It’s like touching a person and it’s like reaching up and touching the heavens, having them tangible as flesh in your grip. “Did you mind?”

Itachi thinks about it. “No,” he says at last, cautiously.

Kakashi offers him the glitter of a practiced smile. “Good.”

He’s been touching Itachi more, lately. Leant against him, rested his chin on his shoulder, stood and sat very close indeed. Itachi hasn’t said anything.

It’s not something Kakashi could have done before Minato: before he was comfortable in his body, secure in its ability to appeal. Before he had a place with the shifters, and consequently with the exorcists. Steady ground under his feet, someplace he matters and is wanted.

He turns Itachi’s hand over in his own and strokes Itachi’s wrist, his thumb pressing gently against Itachi’s flesh. Itachi’s pulse jumps towards him.

“What are you doing?”

Kakashi smirks at him, lopsided and close. “Perhaps I’m seducing you.”

“I thought you wanted Sasuke.”

“I’m not interested in little children.”

Itachi squints at him, head tilted just the same way as Sasuke’s. “Do you want…?”

“I’ve wanted this for a long time.”

“Oh.” He looks at Kakashi as though at a revelation, as if something familiar has been made new in front of his eyes.

Slowly, gently, Kakashi puts his hand on Itachi’s face, drawing him in. He leans forward over Sasuke’s sleeping body and kisses Itachi on the mouth, eyes open, suddenly desperate not to miss an instant. Itachi shudders, when Kakashi leans back he’s wild-eyed, his breath stuttering. “This –”

“I will carry this sin,” Kakashi cuts him off, sees Itachi’s eyes and then his pupils widen. “All this, between us – it will be my sin, not yours. I can bear it.”

Itachi swallows. When Kakashi inches forward again, he doesn’t turn away. His mouth tingles and hums with heavenly fire under Kakashi’s, Lucifael extremely present just under the thin skin of his lips. Gabriel rises in response, Kakashi feels suddenly and ridiculously like a shifter, with an inner being taking a sudden interest in carnal proceedings.

Itachi’s hair catches in his fingers, slicker and smoother than Sasuke’s wild cowlicks.

It’s nothing like with Minato. Minato has technique, kindness; Itachi has ardency, shrapnel sharpness.

Kakashi makes sure to stop himself before Itachi stops him, lying back and sprawling as best he can despite being relegated to a third of the bed. He keeps hold of a strand of Itachi’s hair, lets his hand lay on Sasuke’s back as his fingers play with the hair, idly braiding and unbraiding.

Eventually, Itachi too lies down, on the far side of Sasuke.

After some time he laughs. His laughs have always been strange, low and a little guttural, animal-sounding. “What would Mother say? She already thinks I’m too intimate with Sasuke.”

“Actually,” Kakashi tells him airily, “she approves.”

Itachi lifts an eyebrow in question. Kakashi fancies he would’ve felt the movement, even if he couldn’t see it over the top of Sasuke’s head.

He shrugs, absently re-braiding Itachi’s hair. “Well, the way she sees it, I’m already taking one for the team with Minato, so a few more sins for me to carry won’t matter. It’s all for the greater good, and etcetera. And she thinks I’m better for you than Sasuke.”

“You’re nothing like Sasuke.”

Kakashi collects his breaths, controls them. He looks at his own fingers tangled in Itachi’s silly hair. “He’s your brother. He’ll always be your brother. But if you want – adult intimacy, I fancy I’m a better option.”

“Carnal pleasures are sinful.”

“I’m okay with that.”

“You don’t care about God.” It’s half statement, half question.

“I care about people. Look, it’s – Lucifael doesn’t interest me. You do.”

“You talk as though we are entirely separate,” Itachi says carefully.

“Maa, there’s some overlap, of course, but – I’m not Gabriel. And Gabriel’s okay with that.”

Itachi levers himself up on an elbow, his eyes finding Kakashi over the top of Sasuke’s head. “Does he speak to you?”

“Hmm, not in words? There’s a presence, sometimes when I exorcise there’s a humming, like he’s singing and I can almost make out the melody? It feels like – grace, and glory, and home. I can never quite reach it. Perhaps going nova is going there.” He sits up a bit, keeps hold of Itachi’s hair. “And I will still get to go nova, I’ll still get to go there, despite my carnal sins. We were created human: human frailties are forgiven us.”

“Tch. Cherry picking.”

“Oh really, and you’re not? When have you ever gone with blessed are the meek? You certainly won’t inherit the earth in that case.”

“There’s a logic to it,” Itachi insists. “It’s just – hidden from unclean eyes. One has to see underneath the underneath, to the Lord’s plan.”

“Maa. I don’t know, if I’d made man this way – made him so the only way he could have any happiness was by sinning, and even so happiness was just a few seconds in a whole life of suffering… I don’t see how I could forgive myself. I could’ve just made him happy.”

“Happiness is overrated.”

“Au contraire. It’s the only thing worth anything.”

They breathe together in thoughtful silence. It must be almost an hour later when Itachi rouses Kakashi from his slumber by saying, “Mother’s sending us out together for a slew of exorcisms. Is that part of your seduction plan?”

“Knowing your mother, probably.”

“You like her,” Itachi says. He sounds thoughtful, as if this is interesting.

“A lot,” Kakashi agrees.

“You think she’s horrible to Sasuke.”

Kakashi breathes out until his lungs are empty. “I think you’re horrible to Sasuke too. I don’t stop liking people because they’re horrible.” He tries a laugh, a breathy sound that comes out more like a sigh. “If I did, I’d never manage to like myself.”

“You hate yourself,” Itachi points out.

“Well,” Kakashi says blankly. He feels flayed. “I try to like myself aside from that.”

Itachi makes a low sound.

“You hate yourself too.” He’s never dared to say that to Itachi before.

“I love God,” Itachi says.

“A love that makes you hate yourself, what’s the good of that?” But Kakashi recovers himself, forces levity back into his voice and schools it into a lazy drawl, into a voice that won’t draw blood. “Jesus, it’s like you’re in an abusive relationship with God.”

“You’re strange,” Itachi says, which is actually no denial.

“Always have been,” Kakashi agrees. “You know, when we leave for the mission… I want to leave Sasuke with the shifters.”

It’s heartening, he supposes, that Itachi demands, “Why?” instead of just saying, No.

“Your mother wants him gone. She actually brought up trading him away to Orochimaru.”

Itachi becomes extremely stiff. “That’s out of the question.”

“Of course that’s what I told her, but it might be better he’s somewhere else. Minato wants him for Naruto, so he’d never hand him over.”

“You’re sure of that?”

“I’m staking my life on it, aren’t I?” Kakashi says dryly.

Itachi snorts, sounding rather amused.

“Anyway,” Kakashi continues, entering land mind territory. He thinks how this is why Sasuke never gets anywhere with Itachi: that Itachi cares too much about him, listens too carefully for any fault, but also that managing and manipulating people is very much not Sasuke’s skill set. That Sasuke doesn’t know how to talk around things until people lose track of what they didn’t mean to agree to. “It might be a good test, in its own way. If Sasuke is – the way you want him to be, he’ll reject all of it, even without any guidance. And if he doesn’t, well, then he might not be worthy of quite so much of your interest.”

Itachi sits up, leans over Sasuke to look at Kakashi properly. “Are you trying to trick me?”

“Maa, I do feel I should’ve ideally been born a trickster, but – no more than usual?”

“Hn.”

Kakashi leans up, startles Itachi by kissing his cheek, at the edge of his mouth. “Good night, Itachi.”

xxxxx

Through some magic of Kakashi’s, Itachi eventually agrees to countenance a change of residence for Sasuke. He talks as though he considers it a test, on which Minato chooses not to comment.

Sasuke is absolutely livid. It’s mostly a silent fury, white-faced and stomping, but it erupts every now and then into screaming in languages Minato can’t understand. Several shifters have fallen to the force of Sasuke’s anger, burnt beyond what they can heal. Sasuke has never evidenced a shred of regret: Minato’s prepared to believe he really does see little difference between immolating shifters and trashing furniture.

Presently Kakashi kneels in front of Sasuke, still taller but no longer towering over him, and catches Sasuke’s face in his hands. “You remember what we talked about? When I said I was working on Itachi, to make him not kill Naruto.”

Sasuke stills. It’s a moment that makes Minato think of horses not yet broken in, skittish under your touch.

“Well,” Kakashi continues. “This is part of that. He needs to loosen his hold on you. So this is what you have to do to ensure that Naruto escapes a hellfire ending.”

Sasuke doesn’t try to leave anymore after that, though he still smoulders with resentment. Itachi seems pleased at least, with how plainly Sasuke wants to stay with him.

Do well, little brother, Minato remembers him saying, when he’d come here with Sasuke and left alone. He’d kissed the nape of Sasuke’s neck before forcibly putting him down. Don’t be weak. Don’t be foolish.

Naruto too is pleased, for all he fights ferociously and constantly with Sasuke. Largely because of their fighting, Minato’s coming to understand that Kyuubi is monstrously strong, stronger possibly than any beast on record. He’s not a subconscious presence rising occasionally to the surface like Arashi, not a power for Naruto to call on, but rather a constant pressure against Naruto’s thoughts, an almost separate awareness.

Minato’s seen what that kind of pseudo-schizophrenia has done to Gaara, and frets.

It’s easier to worry about something concrete, like the fact that Naruto’s and Sasuke’s fighting has reached the point where they’re damaging each other. Naruto turns up with black lines on his cheeks, burnt into his skin and deeper, the lines of a child’s hand scratching, tipped with heavenly fire. Sasuke has claw marks on his face and broken fingers.

“That’ll scar,” Tsunade says. “Not too badly, but if you look it’ll be there.” She’s sewn up Sasuke’s face and anticipates thin white lines after the skin has closed and the swelling gone down. “Well, he was too pretty for his own good, anyway.”

For all this, Sasuke still sleeps next to Naruto, their heads on the same pillow and Kyuubi’s tails caught around Sasuke. Kakashi’s never had much of a reaction to that one way or the other, but Minato gets the impression that Sasuke likes it.

“Of course,” Kakashi shrugs, later on when Minato mentions it. “He’s used to sleeping in with Itachi as a treat. It wasn’t uncommon for Itachi to have his wings out a bit.”

It must be a strong memory for Kakashi: their bond is extremely closed off, but Minato has a vague image of the Uchiha brothers in a room that feels almost but never quite like home, white sheets and white moonlight and white wings.

“Don’t,” Kakashi says.

“Sorry. It wasn’t intentional.”

“I know.” It’s part admittance, part annoyance. “Don’t worry about his face, he’s used to much worse from his family. He knows to tell Itachi it was an accident.”

“That’s horrifying,” Minato says, and at Kakashi’s raised eyebrow adds, “Also a relief, yes.”

“Because he doesn’t have to be asked to lie, or because it allows you to feel better about his relocation?”

“Both,” Minato admits. “Of course both.”

“Ah,” Kakashi agrees. He seems – antsy, jittery, keeps pacing the room. It’s distracting because he’s usually so still. This is one of those times that Minato lets Arashi sneak up to the very edge of the demonic wall bisecting the bond and cutting him off from Kakashi. It’s been there for a long time, that wall, and appears to baffle other shifters with its permanence, its strength, with how little he feels Kakashi and how vague those impressions usually are. Kakashi only lets the wall down if either of them is in danger and their location needs to be broadcast.

How do you live? Jiraiya asked, but Minato thinks it’s for the best. They’re both separate, individual people who don’t like to be forced into closeness, don’t like someone tearing their way into the private hurts and shames and dreams. 

He didn’t always think like this. He used to believe it was possible to understand other people, and that understanding was acceptance: that you could love someone into loving you, that people need people and belong to people. That they could all do better.

Suddenly he feels hopelessly old, like all the best parts of life are gone from him and he’s not young enough to fool himself otherwise anymore. “All these things I said,” he says, and his voice comes crackling and rough, “That I used to say, all the promises I made. I believed them at the time. I still want them. But I have no way of realising them. So they’re just words now.”

It’s always been easy for Minato, he’s never had to try very hard. He’s powerful and well loved, gifted and popular, with a strong beast and the right pedigree. People have always listened to him and cared about him, about what he thinks: he’s been perceived as a leader, and he guesses on some level he’s thought of himself that way too. As someone who’d find the right way forward.

Now he’s losing himself in the futility of it all, failure creeping up on him and hollowing out those golden boyhood ideals, but he has to keep trying, he has to do better, because after all what’s the alternative?

Kakashi gives him a level look and nothing else.

“Say something,” Minato says, suddenly needy. “Please.”

“I’m not a politician.”

“All the better,” Minato tries, holding out his hand.

Kakashi takes it, squeezes it. Drops it. He’s drawn to the window, like any bloody exorcist, feeling the call of the sky.

“Kakashi,” he tries again. It feels like he’s saying, Let me in, about a house he’s lived in so long he never realised he could find himself locked out of it.

“Mmh.” Kakashi drums his fingers against the window, leaving cracks. “You know Yahweh never made sense to me. The olden gods, the Greeks and the Egyptians and the lords of Asgård, you can figure them out. They don’t pretend to be sympathetic, they’re pathetic and egoistical like us, they love and they revenge themselves and take what they want. You can respect that. But with Yahweh, everything he does seems so pointless.”

“I thought you didn’t believe in God,” Minato says.

“Of course not.”

“So this is about Itachi, then.”

“I should’ve hoped that was obvious.”

There’s something thorny here, something that matters to Kakashi, burns like wasps under his skin. Usually he’s amused and dismissive when Minato brings up the Uchihas, shutting Minato out with a knowing little smile. Perhaps Minato could take it as a sign of trust that Kakashi’s being openly caught up now in – not distress, not anticipation, but something that eats at him.

It’s the opposite of the cold chasm that opened when Naruto stopped headbutting his arm and whining about everything Sasuke had done to piss him off that day: when Naruto’s loyalty to Sasuke completely eclipsed his desire to tell Minato about what is clearly the central part of his life.

“Do we need to be concerned about him reclaiming Sasuke?”

“No,” Kakashi says. “Mikoto and I have him in hand.”

There’s a flash then, of his hand in Itachi’s hair, Itachi’s hair wet and feathered out across a pillow.

“What,” Minato says blankly. He almost laughs, a cold hateful laugh that tints his voice, “What the hell?”

Kakashi blinks at him. It looks like an honest question, as if he doesn’t know what Minato’s talking about.

Minato doesn’t know how to get the words out but then he does. They leave a taste like after he’s vomited. “Are you sleeping with Itachi Uchiha?”

Kakashi lifts an eyebrow. “Not that it’s really any of your concern, but not yet, no.”

Minato feels himself blink. It’s an automatic response, as if he has to keep closing his eyes until he can open them to a world that makes sense again. “You’re – trying to sleep with Itachi?”

“It’s going quite well,” Kakashi drawls. He’s leaning back against the window, looking shy and pleased the way he does when people give him things he wants too much to ever ask for.

“This is insane.”

“No? Mikoto and I are in agreement. It’s a good distraction for him.”

For some reason Minato’s standing up. “You’re sleeping with Itachi as a distraction for him?”

Kakashi seems only now to catch on to Minato being actually upset. “So?”

“That is completely unacceptable.”

Kakashi still doesn’t seem angry, or even upset. Surprised, even baffled, maybe a little hurt. “I’m sleeping with you, aren’t I?”

“You love me,” Minato points out.

“I love Itachi,” Kakashi says, as though this is obvious and Minato makes no sense.

“Well, yes, quite, but – but you want me.”

“And I want Itachi.” Kakashi makes a gesture as though caught between impatience and tenderness, as if Minato were the child. “Look. I want a lot of people. I’m hardly being a martyr here, with either of you.”

“Jesus.”

Kakashi gives him another frowning, helpless look. “I never expected you to be faithful. I mean, I know better than to ask.”

He means, of course: I know better than to expect you to be faithful.

“Since we – started this,” Minato says, “I’ve never once looked at anyone else with desire.”

“That strikes me as odd,” Kakashi remarks, and then interrupts himself, “No, but that’s not what this is about. It doesn’t matter.”

“I thought we were doing better,” Minato says, the ground unsteady suddenly under his feet. “You were – happier.”

“It’s not enough, Minato.” It’s said softly and almost sweetly, like Kakashi’s a very good executioner and lets the axe fall without pain. “Look, it’s like,” and he makes a frustrated gesture, hiding his own eyes before letting his hand drop. “If nothing good and nothing bad happens, you’re okay. Your baseline is being happy. I’m – not like that. I’m just, I don’t know, I’m not built for just being happy. I always ask too much, and then I don’t get it, and – well. That’s how it is.”

Minato walks around the desk, but Kakashi’s face, cynical and too old for his years, does not invite closeness. “I’m not sure what I can say to make this better.”

Kakashi shrugs. “You don’t owe me what I want. In fact I think you can’t offer it, whether you want to or not. So there’s little point to this discussion.”

Carefully, trying to dig his way up without starting any avalanches, Minato points out, “You love Sasuke more than he loves you.”

“Of course I do,” Kakashi says. “And of course that’s – how it’s meant to be. He’s the child, I’m his adult.” The impatience bleeds out of his voice, its sharpness dulling as he shrugs, like he’s trying to shrug all these feelings off, remove them from his person. “But. I just – you were my adult.”

“I see what you mean,” Minato says. “Naruto will never love me best.”

Kakashi turns away, glances out the window. He seems calmer: he doesn’t mind Naruto anymore, hasn’t minded him in years. Certainly not since he became Sasuke’s adult, and perhaps understood some of the useless, ground-breaking love of a parent.

“I suppose it’s funny,” Minato says, wanting to rest a hand on the small of Kakashi’s back and holding himself back from the gesture. “I always thought it was Sasuke you wanted.”

Kakashi twists back around. “Why does everyone think that?”

Minato keeps his expression warm and kindly, as though he were speaking to a child. It makes him realise that he hasn’t spoken that way to Kakashi for a long time. “Possibly because you obviously care more for him than for Itachi?”

“Of course I do,” Kakashi says, as though he really cannot understand that this is not obvious: “Sasuke’s little. He has to come first. But that’s exactly it, he’s tiny, how could you think –”

Minato shrugs. “I didn’t mean now, of course. But he’ll grow up.”

“Well, yeah, sure. If he were older. I mean, yes. I’d want. But of course that’s never going to happen.”

“Oh? Because of Itachi?”

Kakashi gives him a look like he’s a complete tool. “Because of Naruto. We all know Sasuke doesn’t do well with sharing.”

“Right,” Minato says rather weakly. That’s the kind of feeling Kakashi respects, love as ruthless as a force of nature, a love that will stop at nothing: the kind of feeling that Kakashi himself has never inspired in anyone.

So that’s where they are: Minato isn’t enough, and finds himself sharing his…well, his boyfriend, he supposes… with a crusader prodigy teetering on the crumbling edge of insanity.

Kakashi’s smoother about it than Minato had expected was possible, classier and more discreet. There are no awkward chance encounters, very few lingering smells. He never suggests that he prioritises one of them over the other.

Minato might choose to be blind to the whole thing, if not for the sudden intermittent flashes, slices of scenes he could never have dreamt up: Itachi laughing, gravelly with sleep, Itachi’s bones bird-like under the soft casing of flesh, Itachi smirking at him over an open book, Itachi being grouchy and stealing his conditioner, Itachi taking his hand and pulling him to his feet, Itachi hyperventilating into his ear as his skin burns with desire, Itachi talking about the Lord’s plan and the weaknesses of the Council and how to interpret Russian literature and make vegan lasagne, and which character he prefers in the reality shows Kakashi persists in watching. He wears hair shirts and dreams in Latin, he’s saved and condemned hundreds of thousands of people and loved and tortured and given up his brother, but he also plays the occasional video game and appreciates raspberry/liquorice sweets.

For the first time, Minato truly understands that beyond all the insanity and fanaticism and holiness, beyond Lucifael, Itachi Uchiha is a human being, a boy scarcely out of childhood.

Since he is also the most powerful creature who has ever lived or likely ever will live, in all the long history of the world, this is a truly terrifying realisation.

“I’ve got it handled,” Kakashi insists, yawning.

“Something like that can’t be controlled.”

Kakashi lifts an eyebrow, his face still swollen with sleep so it looks ridiculous. “No, and that’s way I said handle. Well, also I suppose I was going for some grade school level innuendo, but… Anyway my point is, I’m not controlling him, that’s impossible. I’m managing him.”

“You manipulate him.”

“Only with the truth.”

“Oh?”

“Mmh.”

For the first time, Minato permits himself to ask, “So how does he feel about me, then?”

Kakashi shrugs, then dives for the blanket as it slips off his shoulder, always sensitive to the cold. “He’s a realist about some things, it doesn’t bother him. He’s long since accepted that I’m a whorish temptress.”

Minato laughs, putting his arm around Kakashi and feeling Kakashi relax into his warmth. “Is that so?”

“Mmh. I tried, once – you know, I said some stuff. Like I do with you. He, well, I think he was mostly bemused. He took it literally.”

“Oh dear,” Minato says, trying and failing to imagine Itachi’s reaction to creative and utterly filthy dirty talk.  

Kakashi snorts, rueful. “Yeah. But it worked out well enough in the end.”

Chapter Text

This is foolish, Kabuto knows. Stupidity kills, and this is so very stupid...

He adjusts his binoculars and watches Orochimaru bend delightedly towards the boy.

For all his follies, Orochimaru’s an intelligent man: he too knew this was a monumentally bad idea before Kabuto ever pointed it out, and they’re past the point now where Kabuto can speak up regarding the idiocy of their endeavour. 

So he waits in the car, watching the interaction. He can’t tell what they’re saying – he was never properly schooled in lip reading, even at close distance – but it’s evident that Sasuke has never had to learn to worry about Orochimaru. More than one crusader as well as the strongest shifter faction in the world lay claim to him, and why would anybody suspect Orochimaru of being stupid enough to act against him in light of all this?

So he stands there looking chosen and superior and beautiful, the perfect crusader princeling, his eyebrow up and the corner of his mouth, as though he’s not sure what Orochimaru’s getting at but prepared to be interested. He’s thirteen but looks younger, his face still round atop the thin stalk of his neck, everything about him small and finely cut – all of which is rather unfortunate for Sasuke, in view of Orochimaru’s tastes. Personally Kabuto limits himself to thinking Sasuke would make an excellent taxidermy subject, but then Kabuto’s never understood the compulsion to involve other people in one’s sex life.

He knows it’s not the first time Orochimaru’s spoken to Sasuke: while Sasuke’s not much interested in people, he is interested in power, and Kabuto’s noticed he has surprisingly good instincts for who likes him. Orochimaru of course has never needed to fake being drawn to him, and is well known to be one of the strongest crusaders in history, and so when he’s nodded to Sasuke, spoken to Sasuke, Sasuke’s paused to reply. 

Another boy that age might’ve taken issue with the way Orochimaru stares at him, the way he sometimes brushes his hands against him, but Sasuke’s appeared clueless. Kabuto supposes that makes sense, as the only people who’ve ever touched Sasuke, who’ve ever been close to him, are his brother, Kakashi Hatake, and the mutt: people who have all wanted him this way.

You could almost pity Hatake, for being too soft to claim his due while he still can. Then again, one Uchiha brother might be enough for anyone…

Orochimaru mumbles something, lifting his hand and touching Sasuke’s shoulder. Kabuto doesn’t even see the glint of metal between his fingers, but he knows what happens when Sasuke’s knees give out. It’s Kabuto who mixed the sedative: its effectiveness is the one aspect of this hare-brained scheme that doesn’t worry him as Orochimaru hefts Sasuke’s limp body, carrying him to the car.

While Kabuto does his best to keep his eyes on the road, he can’t help catching glimpses of Orochimaru’s besotted expression in the rearview mirror. “Itoshii,” he mumbles, stroking Sasuke’s hair from his forehead. Kabuto imagines his pronunciation leaves something to be desired: it sounds like an English word. Orochimaru’s half Japanese by birth, but he’s lived his entire life here, and only learnt Japanese as an adult. English is the language of his dreams and desires, of the nursery rhymes from his earliest memories.

Sasuke’s eyes move, staking out the car. Kabuto’s not sure if he’s being racist or just finely attuned to his prey instinct, but meeting Sasuke’s eyes feels like meeting the eyes of an animal waiting to get out of its cage. Mere fancy, because Sasuke’s face is too lax from the drugs to form any expression, and eyes are just eyes.

“My boy,” Orochimaru mumbles, tracing Sasuke’s lips. “I always knew you were for me.”

Sasuke’s jaw moves, as though he’s trying to bite. Kabuto imagines Orochimaru would be less delighted about this if Sasuke wasn’t currently neutered. 

And never mind Sasuke, really: what about Itachi?

But he already gave Sasuke to the shifters, has been Orochimaru’s line. He’s taken his hand from him, and surely better I should have him than the beasts.

Kabuto remains supremely unconvinced, but there’s no talking to Orochimaru when it comes to Sasuke.

xxxxx

It’s not violent.

Well, Kabuto muses, given the amount of drugs running through Sasuke’s system, there’s no need for violence. So Sasuke’s unrestrained, and Orochimaru’s really quite sweet about his assaults. It reminds Kabuto of a 19th century deflowering: the child-bride trying weakly to fight free as the assailant/lover whispers victoriously of his love, teases out unwanted pleasure, and repeatedly defiles his victim.

Things don’t go wrong until the second day.

Sasuke’s able to move a little by then, which means they need to administer more sedative, but Orochimaru’s charmed by the possibility of Sasuke being responsive and so waves Kabuto away. Sasuke moves like someone who’s still learning to move, twisting and pushing with the effectiveness of toddler. He still makes no sound: all the time since they took him he’s been silent. It’s been like glancing at a muted movie, something unreal – Sasuke’s face trying to twist into expressions and never quite succeeding, the uncoordinated movements like twitches, and all the time the silence.

Orochimaru chuckles, pressing Sasuke’s leg up towards his chest. He bends to suck on the hollow of his knee.

Hold on, Kabuto thinks. That’s not right.

Because he can see muscles moving inside Orochimaru’s arm, and Orochimaru shouldn’t have to press that hard to get Sasuke’s legs open.

But he can’t interrupt now, not when Orochimaru’s leaning forward, sliding back inside’s Sasuke’s abused rectum.

It’s just a few thrusts in that Sasuke’s hands come up, fumbling at Orochimaru’s face. Orochimaru mumbles in approval, leaning down to lick Sasuke’s eyelids.

Fool, Kabuto thinks. Kabuto would never have allowed Sasuke’s hands to settle on his face, tangling in his hair.

Orochimaru’s hips slide forward anew, and Sasuke’s clumsy, childish hands suddenly steady. He’s still very weak, but you don’t need a lot of strength to push your fingers into someone’s eyes. You just need a strong stomach, a cold and ruthless kind of determination.

Orochimaru howls, Samael burning around him, but it doesn’t last long. He collapses on top of Sasuke with his life bleeding out of the hollows of his eyes sockets.

Sasuke pushes at him with increasing frustration, it takes him several tries to get free from under the weight of the corpse. Kabuto had expected distaste but Sasuke’s clinical about it, getting his hands into position, pushing with his whole body.

What’s Kabuto supposed to do now?

He watches, considering his options, as Sasuke tumbles to the floor, clinging to the bedframe to keep his footing. The boy pats down the pile of Orochimaru’s discarded clothes, putting on Orochimaru’s shirt and appropriating a knife.

Slowly, painstakingly, he edges back up the body of the corpse, and slits Orochimaru’s throat.

Then he stands and tries to walk, falls without the support of the wall.

It’s time for Kabuto to act, if he’s going to.

He could return Sasuke to the shifters, to Itachi, could claim he had no part in this, or that his part was coerced. But of course nobody would believe him.

So he’ll have to subdue Sasuke somehow, and decide what to do with him, how to hide his own part in this unbelievable mess.

Fortunately Sasuke will make a small corpse, easily managed.

Kabuto picks up the sledgehammer left in the corridor outside the room – they’re in an almost finished building, still a work site except the workers have been paid and sent home weeks ago – and enters the bedroom. He’s not used to subduing people, to killing unrestrained specimens, but Sasuke’s not exactly steady on his feet. Kabuto’s pleased to note that while he kept the knife, he has to hold it in his left hand, because the two first fingers of his right hand are gone. They burnt inside Orochimarus’s eye sockets, poking at his brain.

Sasuke throws the knife.

Kabuto stands stunned, unable to fully comprehend that the pain he’s experiencing is real: that a knife is buried in his stomach.

He knows better than to pull it out, but for a moment instinct is too strong, he’s fiddling with the handle. Only it hurts too much to touch it: it’s not sense making him keep it inside, but fear of further pain.

He swings the sledgehammer, and Sasuke tries to get away but isn’t quick enough, Kabuto can feel the momentary resistance of flesh and bone under his swing. Sasuke falls and rolls, into Kabuto’s legs, and Kabuto feels faint with his stomach wound and then they’re both on the floor and he’s dropped the hammer.

Still he’s warm and alight with pleasure and relief as he realises Sasuke won’t be able to get up, that his leg’s crushed and bone is poking out of the torn skin.

He grabs Sasuke’s arm but has to release it because it burns: Orochimaru could touch Sasuke with impunity, because Sasuke’s too drugged to have any meaningful control over his magic and Orochimaru is – Orochimaru was – a crusader. Kabuto is not, and so Kabuto’s fingers incinerate on contact, even now.

Sasuke sneers at him and grabs the knife, slices it free of Kabuto’s stomach.

Kabuto kicks him, starts getting up, but Sasuke’s on him again, and something happens to Kabuto’s legs. There’s a sharp pain like he’s cut himself on ice, and then they don’t work.

This is the problem, Kabuto realises. This was the problem all along. Exorcists are trained to fight with magic, at a distance, but Sasuke doesn’t fight like an exorcist. He fights like a shifter, like someone who knows exactly how to cut to incapacitate, and how much pain he can deal with in order to manage it.

Sasuke gives him a considering look and readjusts his grip on the knife. Kabuto realises then, truly realises, that Sasuke is going to kill him.

That thought is unacceptable, he strains for the hammer and swings wildly, and Sasuke clearly decides he can’t approach. He drops the knife during his retreat, Kabuto discovers with triumph.

But he cuts another look at Kabuto’s stomach, and then crawls further away. Kabuto grows even colder then: it’s a look of Sasuke deciding he doesn’t need to kill Kabuto, because he already has.

At least I’m not going to go alone, Kabuto thinks, which is absolutely nonsensical. He starts dragging himself towards Sasuke.

Sasuke crawls away, they must look ridiculous, a grown man and a mostly naked child, unable either of them to get to their feet. He finds the hammer again, swings, this time it hits glass, cracks through the French windows.

It’s getting harder to move.

Sasuke slashes out with a glass shard, and Kabuto hisses, retreats.

Sasuke rolls out through the broken window.

It’s a steep drop. Kabuto wonders idly if he’ll survive it.

Kabuto’s alone then, in a bedroom where nobody’s ever lived, lying on the floor a few metres away from Orochimaru’s corpse. He fumbles for his phone, his movements oddly slow, reluctant to obey his will.

He feels ridiculous, he laughs a little and it turns into a hiss, even though everything hurts less now.

xxxxx

“Dad!” Naruto screams. It’s ear-splitting, it sounds like Kyuubi screaming but it’s a happy sound. “Dad! Trace the call, trace the call!”

Minato gestures for Hatake, who’s already on it.

It’s obvious that Naruto’s talking to Sasuke, the way it’s always obvious. Everyone else in the room ceased to exist the moment he heard Sasuke’s voice.

This time, Minato certainly can’t blame him. He does his best to communicate the knowledge to Kakashi that Sasuke’s alive, feels a stab of relief like a hot poker through his brain.

“I’ve got his position,” Hatake says.

“Let’s go,” Minato says. Naruto’s already halfway out the door. He’s been insane since they realised Sasuke was gone, to the surprise of absolutely nobody at all.

That’s what happens, when you realise someone’s reached inside you and scoped out your insides, everything that was warm, everything that meant something, everything you need to live as a person, and you don’t know how to get it back.

Nonsensically, Minato remembers reading – probably in one of Kakashi’s books – a description of a loved one as the piece of me that I had lost. It struck him as unexpectedly poetic for a porn novel. Kakashi had laughed and talked about Plato, about the idea of the beloved as the missing half of oneself and separateness as the cause of human unhappiness.

It’s funny how Kakashi, chosen by a Christian god’s archangel, is plainly more drawn to the Eastern philosophies: to the idea of nirvana, of brahman, and how he seems to consider individuality both the basic human condition and the base cause of suffering.

But all of that can wait. There’s no room now for anything but Naruto’s staggering, desperate relief as they move towards the place Sasuke called from.

Incongruously, it turns out to be countryside village, quite isolated. Naruto and several other people take point the last stretch of road, firing warning shots at any lingering demons with the DEW guns.

It’s not a good sign, Minato thinks, that that is necessary.

But Sasuke’s still alive: Minato can hear him breathing through the phone, connected by the call that Naruto has wisely refused to hang up on.

In the end they find him hiding in a hawthorn bush outside a building that has almost but not quite finished its transition from construction site to house. There’s the smell of blood and smoke and drugs, and then Naruto’s there, dragging Sasuke the last bit out of the bush – he’s not moving well, obviously injured as well as sedated.

“Sasuke!” Naruto babbles, almost yells, his eyes wet and his hands waving wildly until he finally puts them on Sasuke, and melts into calm.

“Hn,” Sasuke says. The moment Naruto’s got hold of him, he passes out on Naruto’s shoulder.

Predictably, Naruto refuses to let go, mumbling incessantly to Sasuke about nothing much coherent. Minato ushers him away, back to Tsunade and the infirmary.

Then he calls Kakashi, and explains about Sasuke being a bit maimed but never mind that, because Orochimaru’s no longer with us and Kabuto’s hanging on by a thread.

“I need to manage Itachi,” Kakashi tells him, his voice curt and strained and wonderful with warm relief.

So it’s much later that Kakashi joins Minato, in the infirmary corridor outside Sasuke’s room. Sasuke’s either asleep or sedated into unconsciousness, his leg in a cast that Tsunade suspects will prove insufficient – splintered bone, she told Minato, this will leave lasting damage – and his right hand encased in burn dressings.

Naruto’s curled up next to him, his tails wound tight around Sasuke and his forehead pressed to Sasuke’s shoulder.

Minato’s surprised when Kakashi stops next to him instead of entering the room. Kakashi glances at him, mouth twitching up in a tired smile. “He didn’t call me, did he? When worse came to worst, he didn’t want Itachi, he didn’t want me. He wanted Naruto.”

They watch as Sasuke’s eyelids twitch open. Naruto stops breathing, leaning up on an elbow, touching Sasuke’s face. “Hey,” he mumbles. Minato’s not sure whether Kakashi can hear it at this distance, but to him the word is loud and clear.

Sasuke frowns, tries to rub at his eyes with his ruined hand and frowns even harder as he struggles into a sitting position.

That’s breaking point for Kakashi, who slips away into the room, alighting on the bedside. 

Minato supposes he should leave, but he – well, he justifies the fact that he doesn’t with how Sasuke knows perfectly well that there’s not really any such thing as privacy in a large shifter household. Usually it doesn’t seem to bother him, and why would it when he considers shifters typically beneath notice.

Kakashi ruffles his hair and Sasuke seems to steady.

“Did I kill Kabuto too?”

“He’s dying as we speak,” Kakashi says. “Itachi’s – having words with him.”

“Ah,” Sasuke says.

“Did you want him to come?”

Sasuke shrugs.

“Maa, it might not be – safe, yet.”

“I know,” Sasuke agrees. He touches his neck, which is swollen with love bites. “Orochimaru’s dead.”

“Yeah,” Kakashi agrees. “Good job.”

“Hn.”

“We all know he had it coming. And he doesn’t seem to have been very discreet about his – transgressions. Regardless of how severe –”

Sasuke lifts an eyebrow. His expressions are coming back to him, the sedation bleeding out. “Are you asking if I’m ruined for marriage?”

“Are you?”

“Well, yeah. Pretty much.”

“I figured,” Kakashi says. “Too bad.”

“Mmh,” Sasuke mumbles, only now leaning into Kakashi’s hand a little.

“Well,” Kakashi says. “I’m going to sort out the last of this mess with the Council, and make sure dealing with Kabuto wasn’t too exciting for your dear brother.”

He waves at Minato in passing, and then is gone.

In the room, Naruto’s sneaking his arms around Sasuke, fingers closing tight around his right wrist, inspecting the mess of burn dressings. “How bad is it? It looked pretty rough.”

Sasuke glances down at his useless leg. “Just bite me.”

“Um.”

“I’ll heal, right?”

Minato hears himself exhale. He hadn’t allowed himself this selfish, petty thought, and so it had lingered in the shadows of his mind: what if Sasuke rejected the idea of mating, now, what if one sexual assault was enough and he refused, what if…

Naruto rubs his head against Sasuke’s shoulder. “’S not gonna work yet. Soon, though.”

Sasuke picks at one of the tails tangled around his arm. “I don’t like crutches.”

It’s not the first time he’s had a broken leg, Minato recalls. It’s not the first time he’s hated it.

Good thing he’s ambidextrous, too, because even with shifter healing those fingers may not grow back.

Naruto nuzzles at his shoulder. “How does it feel?”

Sasuke shrugs, almost braining him. “Strange.”

“What does it feel like?”

“Like hurry up and do it.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Mmh.” Naruto looks up at him through his fringe, face angled towards Sasuke’s and so close his lips almost brush Sasuke’s jaw. It looks a little bit like a kiss and Minato surprises himself by how certain he is, thinking: it’s not the first time he’s done that. If he kissed Sasuke now, it wouldn’t be the first time. “Is that something you’d want, now? Mating? With the – with the sex stuff.”

Sasuke doesn’t move away from him, even as he shrugs. “It’d be something I chose.”

“Would it?”

A fair question, Minato supposes, because what after all is a free choice? A choice at gunpoint, even if the gun’s pointed at a loved one, is that a choice?

“Wouldn’t it?” Sasuke demands. “Would you do it if I didn’t?”

“No.”

“So you’d die.”

It’s Naruto’s turn to shrug. He remains comfortable, at home, with his nose buried in Sasuke’s neck. “If you don’t choose me, I can’t live anyway. I mean, not just – that’s not a life I’d want.”

“Dobe,” Sasuke mumbles, settling in the crook of Naruto’s arm and falling back asleep.

When Itachi comes by a few hours later, Minato has the sense to physically drag Naruto out of the room and restrain him. It doesn’t end up too badly: Itachi paces the room, touches Sasuke’s face with lingering fingers, and they scream at each other for a bit. When Itachi leaves, Sasuke remains.

Minato releases Naruto, who rushes back inside, and now it’s him and Sasuke screaming at each other for a bit. Minato expects they’ll sort it out quickly enough, even as he leaves Naruto in a sullen heap on the floor, engaged in a glaring contest with his intended.

“Ah, young love,” Kakashi snorts.

Minato chuckles, luxuriously tired now that the tension has released its stranglehold. “Speaking of, are you going after your erstwhile Uchiha?”

“I suppose,” Kakashi says, with something that on an older face would be fond exasperation. “But I think Mikoto’s dealing with him now. I’ll be Good Cop tomorrow, when he’s had time to mull over Bad Cop’s wisdom.”

“Ah,” Minato agrees. “Come to bed with me.”

Kakashi smiles at him, wiggling his eyebrows.

xxxxx

Gaara doesn’t like to think about the world in terms of fair and unfair. It’s for people who can’t forge their own destinies.

Of course, look at him now: nineteen years old, and Shukaku won’t be quiet anymore about his mad desire, has bitten through every muzzle.

“Yes?” says Hanabi Hyuuga. “Are you beyond speech? Your sister insisted you had something to communicate to me.” She grins then, wide as a wolf, and a little of her resemblance to Neji fades. She’s got the same hair and the same eyes and the same pale round face, but Neji’s prettier and Hanabi’s a lot more comfortable with her features.

Gaara only knows her as Sasuke’s friend’s cousin, as another bloody crusader princess, but at least she’s strong. He can smell the magic on her, a lingering scent of starlight and hellfire that never goes away.

At least she’s not human, unlike Temari’s useless boyfriend and Kankurou’s mad girl, locked up and restrained: kept safe from herself as the horror eats her mind.

“I don’t like this,” Gaara says.

“You shock me,” Hanabi drawls. “Be grateful it’s not Neji, he’d laugh himself to death before you managed to bite him.”

Gaara thinks that in fact Neji would be too disgusted to find it funny, despite having been around Sasuke and Naruto for years.

Again he thinks: but it’s unfair.

He laid claim on Naruto before Sasuke ever met Naruto. That should count for something, but it never has.

“Right then,” Temari says. “So here we all are, cards on the table. Gaara, you’re matesick. For you, Hanabi.”

The denial burns under Gaara’s tongue, but his blood burns too. His skin feels papery, transparent: fundamentally unequal to its task of holding him together, keeping Shukakau inside.

“I noticed,” Hanabi says, still sounding amused, the way a child might be amused at the sight of someone else tripping and falling.

“I’m leaving,” Gaara decides.

“Really?” Hanabi asks. “How long are you going to be able to keep it together?”

“I’m fine,” Gaara snaps, feels the motion echoed by Shukakau’s monstrous, immaterial jaws.

“Let me clarify,” Hanabi says, chillier now. Gaara hates how his pulse races when she takes even a step closer. “I’m prepared to agree to this. It’s a stupid waste to have people die of what is essentially a curable disease, and to be frank it’s not like I’ve never fantasied about fucking a shifter. But I’m not in this for you. If you lose control, if you hurt me, I will smite you. In this state, there’s no way you’d survive that.”

Beyond her pupils there’s a shadow, like in Gaara’s own eyes, the shadow of the other. Gaara’s heard so much about Lucifael, best beloved of all of heaven’s children, of Uriel, to whom has been entrusted the vengeance of the Lord, of Gabriel, who bears the message of the Lord unto the earth. He’s reminded now that Michael is God’s champion: the warrior of the Lord, to whom has been entrusted the command of all the armies of heaven.

“I’m not some – animal,” he snaps. He’s never said that before. Has never been insulted by anyone calling him that either, because he’s never for a moment felt like one. He kind of does now.

“Obviously,” Hanabi dismisses. “But if bond compulsion wasn’t a force to be reckoned with, you’d hardly be here in the first place.” She tilts her head, sounds amused, “I’m hardly your type, am I?”

“No,” Gaara agrees. He thinks how the only person he’s ever loved, that he’s ever really wanted anything to do with, is Naruto, a world away from this chilly, collected crusader girl.

“Still, I suppose it’s flattering to be desired,” Hanabi muses. She’s standing quite close to him now. If he reached out, he could touch her. She smells strongly of mint – some kind of shampoo, he supposes.

Gaara’s never in his life wanted anyone sexually, not beyond a vague desire for closeness, and in spite of everything is surprised at the inevitability with which his gaze follows her fingers as she undoes the topmost buttons of her blouse, revealing the curve of her breasts.

Is it like this? This helpless, base, stupid feeling.

It takes a certain considerable amount of self-control to keep his hands still.

He remembers how flushed Naruto was, how bright and brilliant with happiness and pleasure, how he could never for a second stop searching out Sasuke in the days of matesickness. And it never got very bad for Naruto, he didn’t have to wait, didn’t have to overcome his own or anyone else’s reluctance.

Gaara had thought maybe he’d have to, since everyone knew Sasuke had failed to stop Orochimaru from fucking him like a little bitch less than a year before, but that didn’t seem to matter very much.

I’m glad we’d – done some stuff beforehand, Naruto said. Gaara was never sure if he meant before Orochimaru or before the bonding, but probably it was both.

Gaara has never done anything.

But it shouldn’t be difficult, he thinks. It’s a base act, even animals manage.

And it shouldn’t be too hard to force himself. When pressed, Sasuke even admitted, about Orochmaru: Of course I hated it, but on a physical level it – felt good.

Gaara’s body isn’t defective: it’s capable of experiencing sexual pleasure, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t with Hanabi.

He thinks in a way he’d rather have Neji, because he gets Neji. Looks down on Neji the same way Neji looks down on him, as someone following an increasingly distant star: yearning for someone who’ll never look back at you, never stand beside you.

Hanabi’s never wanted anything she hasn’t got.

Give him Hinata, even. He’ll trade places with Neji and take the worthless Hyuuga girl, someone easy to dominate and keep in check, someone on whom he could take out every frustration he’s ever felt for an exorcist…

Hanabi smirks and drops a rosary in his palm.

She might as well have given him a collar: it’ll mark him as hers, give him entrance to exorcist spaces, some protection from the demons, the way a collared animal is protected. He remembers that she’s going to want to put her seal on his body as well, etch ownership into his skin and deeper, into his soul.

He hated seeing those marks on Naruto, though predictably Naruto loved them. At least with Naruto it was a bit more of an even trade, as Sasuke still has faint scars on his face from Kyuubi’s claws, matching the black lines on Naruto’s cheeks.

But never mind that, now.

He reminds himself it could be worse.

I’d trade you in a heartbeat, Temari said, and Kankurou nodded agreement. It’s probably the most sensible thing she’s ever said, or Kankurou either.

He wraps the rosary around his wrist, feels Shukaku shudder through waves of pleasure-pain as the energy intertwines with his own.

Hanabi puts her hands on his shoulders.

Gaara stares.

“What? It’s not like you’re not hot.”

Of all the things that might lead someone to bond with him, Gaara had never imagined that physical attractiveness would matter. That it all – Gaara’s survival, the shaping of the rest of his life – might be a small, simple, shrugged-off decision.

“You’re strange,” he says.

“You’d know.” She lifts an eyebrow. “Are you going to kiss me or not?”

“My sister’s here,” Gaara hears himself say.

Hanabi snorts lout a laugh. “I don’t mind an audience.”

“Crazy bitch,” Gaara mumbles.

“Stupid bastard.”

Her mouth looks oddly desirable, shaped around the words. It presses against Gaara’s, an odd and unpleasant sensation like being struck by lightning and wanting more, and Gaara decides this might work out after all.

xxxxx

A/N: As always, thank you so much to everyone who’s reading and responding, it’s a huge encouragement and I love getting to talk to you about the fic. I regret that updates have been slow lately, and unfortunately will continue to be slow for a while: I’ve recently started my clerkship, which means a new and hectic place of work and very little writing time.

That said, I’m looking forward to getting back to main!grave (this was the last Chances chapter, so the only AU stuff left to post is the one-chapter Never epilogue), where we’re approaching the end. And that’s really what I wanted to talk about. I’ve got a bit of it written, and there are certain storylines that I’ve always known how they will end and certain scenes that I always knew I wanted to include, but I wanted to sort of reach out, because all the details are very much not set in stone.

And, like. Anyone who reads the comments will probably recognise this sentiment, but I tend to focus mostly on the “internal” storylines: when I write longfic, of course there’s plot and there’s world building and other characters and all kinds of stuff, but, to me, at heart the stories are usually about getting the main couple where I need to get them. It’s happened before, in my fledgling writing days, that I felt a certain fic was finished, because the main couple had dealt with their shit to the best of their ability and their relationship issues were basically resolved, so I kind of just wrapped up the fic right quick, thus leaving quite a bit of ambiguity and not going into any detail about the external stuff. Upon which quite a few readers expressed (very kindly and politely) that this was incredibly frustrating – a sentiment I might well have shared if I hadn’t been the author. And I don’t want to do that again: when Grave ends, I would like it to feel finished not just to me but to everyone who’s been reading.

So I’m just putting the question out there: what do you need for Grave to feel properly finished? Scenes that need to be included, issues that need to be dealt with? Conversations that need to happen, plotlines that need to be resolved? I will of course finish Grave to the best of my ability either way, and no guarantees that I can include or do justice to every possible suggestion, but if you have input on what you want to see, I welcome that, and will try to take it into account.

Chapter Text

When Sasuke finally cries it’s three, almost four, years later. It doesn’t make him feel better.

Kakashi had maybe imagined it would make him look softer, but it’s rather the opposite. He sits on the floor, in a corner of the living room, and his face is white and livid under the tears. If they’d been further into the future, in a place where they could speak of their dead, Kakashi imagines him saying, The idiot was always crying, what the fuck, it just makes it worse, stupid fucking idiot.

But that’s not where they are. You can’t touch new wounds without risking death by infection, and years after the fact this loss is still raw.

Sasuke was never a crier. In the face of hurt, he goes quiet, then he starts snapping, then he hits out. This is alien to him, but then grief is like that: a new world you have to wander through, lost. Uncharted territory, Kakashi thinks, his mind fracturing into over-tired nonsense. White spots on the map, and in the place Sasuke grew up white means death. Here there be dragons.

“Hey,” Kakashi says at last, almost an hour later. Sasuke’s crying just as hard, just as helplessly, and isn’t breathing very well.

He crouches on the floor next to Sasuke, and Sasuke glares at him, and he puts an arm around Sasuke, and it doesn’t make it better and it doesn’t make it worse.

Grief is a lonely place. Even if you went there together, you end up alone.

“I still think maybe we should move,” he says.

He first suggested it immediately following the event, when every floorboard creaked with Itachi’s steps and Itachi’s voice echoed from every corner. Sasuke refused, though it took Kakashi some time to realise that that was what it was: this was before Sasuke started talking again. It was months before he spoke at all, and for a long time words came slowly and singularly, dropped with great effort and at distance from each other.

Sasuke shakes his head, looking all of five years old. He’s never going to be taller than he is now, Kakashi thinks idly. He’d expected a growth spurt at some point, but Sasuke’s almost an adult in human terms and he’s still a midget. Maybe all that childhood fasting stunted his growth.

Then again, Kakashi’s usually the tallest person in the room, so maybe it’s an unfair comparison.

He feels muddled and tired, like a fireplace in which the fire’s burnt out. There’s sooth and emptiness and dead coals, and underneath the threat of a new fire, something that might consume you.

He sighs, leans the back of his head against the wall. He keeps one hand on Sasuke’s thigh, using the other to scroll through messages on his phone. As per usual, there’s stupidity brewing in the Council. He can’t wait until Hiashi finally retires – Neji mightn’t be much better, but Neji will listen to Sasuke, and Sasuke, who refuses to get into politics and hasn’t said a word to Hiashi in years, will speak to Neji.

xxxxx

People think she’s naïve. They’re not wrong: she can see that, that they’re not wrong about her.

“Sasuke,” she tries.

There’s no response. No, wait, he glances at her, out of the corner of his eye.

Right, then, Sakura decides. She holds out her hand. “A little help?”

Sasuke reaches down and helps pull her up onto the roof. It’s not a difficult climb, but his grip feels a little like a safety net: a promise of wings in the event of a fall.

He lets go of her hand the second she’s securely on the roof, and she settles next to him, a careful distance away. It was never easy to touch Sasuke, and since Naruto’s death – Itachi’s death – two years ago it’s been even harder.

Her relationship with Sasuke was always part of a triumvirate, she was a parenthesis in Sasuke’s relationship with Naruto. Something to dilute it with, when things got too intense, when they couldn’t stand it and needed a neutral party to balance them out.

She’s occasionally considered herself a place they go to in order to get a break from their lives. Somewhere with no stakes.

She’d expected him to escape to her after Naruto’s death, but she’s barely seen him. She went to the funeral – to Naruto’s, not Itachi’s – and cried, and had expected to have him next to her, to share grief and eventually feel better.

Sasuke wasn’t at the funeral. She saw Kakashi, briefly, over by Naruto’s father, but it became clear as the ceremony wore on that Sasuke was nowhere around.

I was working, he said, weeks later, when she asked, and kept asking against his silence.

He’s been working too much. He seems worn down, she knows he doesn’t sleep and barely eats, and she’s not sure if the matter is that he’s pale with being ill or that he’s too close to the nova limit, but there’s light dancing just under his skin, a weak but perpetual glow.

She thinks of a boat that’s got cut loose from its anchor, drifting towards the deeps.

It was a sham, anyway, he added, about the funeral.

That’s kind of true, in the sense that there was of course no body.

But funerals aren’t about bodies. It’s a ceremony for the living, a goodbye ritual. Naruto’s dad had cried. Someone had read a poem, one that’s stuck with Sakura ever since. Tell me about the dream where we pull the bodies out of the lake/and dress them in warm clothes again. Sakura had choked crying, but what cut at her, cut through her, were the later stanzas.

how we rolled up the carpet so we could dance, and the days

were bright red, and every time we kissed there was another apple

to slice into pieces.

She’s had so many hours like that with Naruto. He made the world brighter around him, more colourful, made it somewhere you danced, somewhere plentiful: someplace there was always more of what you needed, more of what you wanted. She recalls him singing along to the radio while jumping on her bed; calling out to them on a beach so early the world was grey with dawn; slurping up ramen and laughing through his nose. He could be serious, she knows that well enough, could look up with this sudden piercing gravitas, but so often he set them free: showed them a world that was sunny and simple, a secret place made just for them.

Look at the light through the windowpane. That means it’s noon, that means

we’re inconsolable.

Tell me how all this, and love too, will ruin us.

These, our bodies, possessed by light.

Tell me we’ll never get used to it.

But somehow you do get used to it. They were inconsolable because love, too, had ruined Naruto, and his body was possessed by the light, but minutes turned to hours turned to days, and there was a new reality to inhabit, one smaller and meaner for lack of Naruto but liveable all the same. People are like that, they grow according to their soil, change to survive their circumstances. The screech of the world crashing to a stop becomes background noise.

It doesn’t seem to have been that way for Sasuke. She thinks sometimes that time stopped for him, in the seconds between Naruto disappearing and Sasuke ripping Itachi’s heart out of his chest: Sasuke’s existence now is a stop-gap, he’s waiting for time to start moving again, but how could it? This double loss isn’t something he’s able to move on from.

Anyway, he said, I wasn’t invited.

Sakura had blinked, unable to believe it.

Maa, Kakashi had finally said, probably just to shut her up. It would’ve been a little like inviting the bride to the wedding, no?

I don’t…

You don’t invite next of kin to the funeral. That’s how the shifters would see it, you know. They were bonded, before Naruto died.

Again Sakura had blinked. Sasuke must have felt it, then, must have actually shared Naruto’s experience of – not even really dying, of being erased. Sakura’s found herself wondering, is that something you can come back from? The experience of disappearing, the knowledge that you too shall pass?

Maybe that’s really why Sasuke killed Itachi: because Itachi had just, in a sense, killed Sasuke. For some reason Sakura finds this idea easier to stomach than the commonly accepted narrative that Sasuke murdered his brother for taking Naruto from him – Naruto after all was already dead. She can understand killing as a protective measure, but not as revenge, not for someone who can never come back anyway, so that it’s just adding more death, more loss.

He didn’t go to Itachi’s funeral either, if you were wondering.

“Ne, Sasuke.”

There’s no reply.

She remembers that Naruto was exhausting because he threw so much energy at you, filled up every space he occupied, you could hardly get a word in edgewise – Sasuke’s exhausting because you have to drag any response out of him, he gives you nothing to build on.

“Can’t we talk?” she tries. “This isn’t – healthy.”

She almost laughs at herself, because really. It’s not her place to say, but Itachi was dangerous and unstable – abusive, if he’d been human she’d have called social services and the police, he would’ve been stopped from laying hand on Sasuke. Or on Kakashi, come to that, with his ruined face and his lost eye. What’s really more unhealthy, living with him or killing him?

“You’re not – happy,” she says, touching his knee.

“I don’t aspire to happiness.”

“That’s sad.”

Sasuke shrugs. “That’s life. This too shall pass.”

“Very zen.”

“Time is on my side.”

She feels stupid: only then does she realise he means that this, that life, too will pass, that grief will pass because one day in the not so distant future he’ll die. She’s never been sure whether he believes in Heaven. She doesn’t dare to bring it up because knowing Sasuke, it seems likelier he’d believe in Hell.

She reaches out and takes his hand. It feels like holding a frozen twig, nothing like touching another human being. “Okay, Sasuke, I’m going to be pushy now, but. We’ve got to deal with this.”

He glares at her, eyes red. It would probably be more terrifying if she hadn’t seen him glare that way at Naruto for years, and it still takes her breath away a little. Sasuke has a way of embodying all those stupid metaphors, glaring daggers and pinning you with a stare, like he hails from a different, more hyperbolic reality.

She’s always known he’s not hers for keeps, that she’s only got him on loan. Payback is due now, probably, very soon, and it occurs to her the interest may be higher than she can pay.

It was the same with Naruto, but of course that’s over now. What is it they say, whom the gods love die young?

It hasn’t changed her life. It seems however sometimes to have functionally ended Sasuke’s.

“Naruto wouldn’t have wanted this,” she says, feeling Sasuke’s hand tense in hers. “For you to be miserable. Or okay, let’s be real, he’d probably have liked you to be miserable for a little bit, to feel himself properly mourned. But not like this. You’ve given him his due grief. It’s time to feel better. You know he’d have wanted that.”

“What Naruto wants doesn’t matter,” Sasuke says.

“How can you…”

“Naruto’s dead. Whatever he wanted, it makes no difference now.”

“He lives on in our memories.”

“That’s not how it works.”

“Sasuke –”

“If you think that, then you can shut up minding me killing people. After all they’ll live on in memory, so what’s the problem?” His voice finally rises, sharp and spitting furious.

Sakura shudders away. It’s an involuntary movement, and a new one. She used to know, down to her bones, that Sasuke wouldn’t really hurt her. She doesn’t know that anymore.

But Sasuke subsides, sinks back into himself. That’s how it seems, like he’s far under the surface of his skin, only peripherally aware of the outside world. He looks tired. He always does, these days, starved and sleep deprived and working himself towards an early grave.

Maybe he thinks it would be cheating, to just kill himself. Maybe he doesn’t want to leave Kakashi hanging. But the result will be the same, if he keeps pushing himself this way. He’s already too close to the nova limit, and you can see it glittering in his eyes, the only time they’re really alive, the knowledge that he’s about to go over the precipice and finally fall.

“Do you think you’ll reunite with him? If you die?”

Sasuke’s eyebrow goes up. “With Itachi? I doubt it.”

“No, I meant –”

“There’s nothing left of Naruto to reunite with,” Sasuke snaps.

“I know his body’s gone, but –”

“Shut up.”

“No, Sasuke, I can’t let you do this to yourself. I know his body’s gone, but his soul – surely that’s not something that can just – disappear, I – I refuse to believe that, and –”

“For your own sake, Sakura, shut up now.”

“It’s worth remembering,” she insists, “the kind of person he was, the kind of life you might’ve had with him, to – “

There’s no third warning. Light boils under his skin, agitation and – in spite of everything – survival instinct: he needs her to shut up, because these are not words he can hear.

Something strange is happening to her, something behind what she can comprehend: immeasurable light, light beyond human endurance, the annihilating holiness of heaven.

xxxxx

“I didn’t mean to,” Sasuke says, rather sullenly: he looks old, his body hunched around exhaustion, but the words are unmistakably a teenager’s.

“Maa, at least there’s no inconvenient corpse,” Kakashi says.

“You never liked her,” Sasuke remarks.

“I think it’s fairer to say she never interested me. But I suppose the end result is the same.”

She was useless, there’s no way around that. Useless people can still be fun, but he never saw that in her. “But you liked her,” he points out.

“Yes,” Sasuke says, simply and rather bleakly. “But that’s all so far away now.”

Kakashi remembers reading something like that: he had hated and he had loved, he had hoped and he had ceased to care, and it was all so far away.

“Yeah, well, I’ll deal with it if I have to.”

Sasuke snorts. “You’ll take the opportunity to hit on Anko, you mean.”

“Maa, that too. Though I fear she won’t be too enamoured by the untimely demise of her step-daughter. She’s already pissed about Iverten.”

“They provoked me.”

Kakashi shrugs. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t, that’s no longer the point. Sasuke’s cleansed enough cities that even the humans have taken against him. Orochimaru’s old nickname has taken: the angel of death.

Kakashi personally finds it a stupid waste, of human lives and of Sasuke’s energy, but it is what it is.

He sighs, swigging orange juice. This is a calm patch, a calm time. They were vicious with each other about a year after the loss, screamed and fought and hurled the ugliest accusations, the ones that are true. They’ll be vicious with each other again. But right now Sasuke’s drowning in himself and sort of fragile, and Kakashi keeps his peace. He feels stretched thin, almost transparent with it.

Back then, in the immediate aftermath, he’d rolled grief ahead of him like Sisyphus’ boulder. Sasuke had been in pieces, and there had been the Council to deal with, keeping the world steady when it tried to splinter apart under their feet. He’d been numb and practical and grateful for it: he’d minded Sasuke and he’d herded the Council where he needed them, and there was no WW4, no attempts to have Sasuke executed, or none after he made a united front with Hanabi and Neji Hyuuga and put his foot down. Murdering Itachi was very much a killing offence, but everyone knew Itachi was mad, bad and dangerous to know, and it wasn’t like they could afford to lose Sasuke as well, not when Sasuke was the strongest crusader left alive – and certainly not when Hanabi Hyuuga smirked and pointed out that if the Council tried to take the four of them, it’d be the Council losing. A sensible girl, Kakashi’s always thought.

Sasuke himself seemed disinterested in the matter, hardly even aware of it, though Kakashi imagines he’d have perked up if anyone had actually tried to lay hand on him. Sasuke’s like Itachi that way, dismissing politics as the dealings of the weak and useless, the ones who have to band together to get anywhere.

Kakashi meanwhile has grown to enjoy it: the pettiness and intricacies and routine of it, the people. He doesn’t always trust himself alone. He’s grown friendly with Mikoto, with Hanabi – even to an extent with Fugaku, who might be a useless exorcist and a useless person but who’s a competent politician. At least as long as he and Sasuke are kept away from each other, as Sasuke tends to smile that horrid little smile of a child preparing to tear the wings off a fly and call him “Father”, which understandably sets Fugaku off.

He only approaches the shifters indirectly, through their human connections – hardly a sacrifice, since Anko has miles of excellent legs and Hayate has darling dimples, even Temari’s boy is quite useful – now that Gaara’s Hokage.

It was difficult to forgive Sasuke that. Inevitable, but a hard thing, the resentment strangled and burnt through his nerves.

Sasuke of course had been unrepentant. I only ever let him live for Naruto, and Naruto doesn’t care anymore.

Minato should’ve known better, certainly, than to presume any kind of kinship through grief with Sasuke.

I’d hoped you’d let him live for me.

Sasuke had blinked, uncertain and human suddenly, as if Kakashi had become real to him again. He’d said, I’m sorry, and it had not been about Minato.

Okay, Kakashi said tiredly. Sasuke rested his face against Kakashi’s arm in that way he had, seeking contact and hiding from it, and Kakashi put his arm around him on reflex. He’d hated him and he’d loved him, and it had had to be enough.

xxxxx

“Did you sleep with Itachi?” Sasuke asks. It’s sunset and they’re on a beach, Kakashi’s pulled up the legs of his trousers and waded out into the set of a romance movie on his blistered feet. His organs feel heavy, like he’s unequal to carrying them around.

He often feels like that lately, like his body’s not a living thing anymore but an uncomfortable, mechanical manacle he’s inhabiting. Scarecrow prince, once more, though he’s too old for silly nicknames like that.

He thinks maybe it was a meant as a kindness, Minato asking for this exorcism: this is before Sasuke kills Minato, before Kakashi has to conclusively become the adult generation of his own life. So here they are, he and Sasuke, in a slice of idyllic sunset peace.

“Yes,” he says. He looks at the sky, luscious pinks and oranges bleeding out and revealing the dark grey underneath, before turning to face Sasuke. “Once.”

“Did you like it?”

“No. It was just something I had to do.”

Sasuke nods. He’s taken his shoes off but he never enters the water.

Naruto would’ve splashed him, Kakashi thinks. Grinned at him, yelled at him, enticed him into the water.

Kakashi feels so tired he’s not sure he’s alive.

It’s later, back in the hotel room, that Sasuke says, “Did he make you?”

“No,” Kakashi says. He sighs, lets his knees give up and collapse him into a chair. He drinks from his glass, some kind of sloppy cocktail, too much vodka covered by a thin sheen of orange juice. “I wanted to. I don’t know how to put it. I wanted to because I had to? Compulsively? Not because I was in love with him, or particularly wanted to have sex with him, but because… I don’t know. Maybe I wanted to connect. To get closer, get a fuller understanding. Get him. I suppose I did always want to get under his skin. Anyway we weren’t very good at having sex with each other. He’s – the way he was, and I don’t think I’m serious enough to really suit him. You know. I laugh. I say these – silly things.”

Sasuke lets him have one more mouthful before he takes the glass and walks away. Seconds later Kakashi can hear the toilet flushing.

Sasuke’s never understood the allure of alcohol. Kakashi might argue that blurring the edges by day drinking is a healthier coping mechanism than mass murder thinly disguised as enforcing God’s will, but he doesn’t expect Sasuke would let himself be convinced.

Sasuke’s only had to see him drunk a very few times, but transparently hated it, and Kakashi’s kept his promise not to go there again. So he doesn’t get blackout drunk, he just…has stretches of time, the bad times when loss and memory are raw, when he’s never quite sober.

I’m just…inebriated. Easy, chibi-chan, just take it easy.

Sasuke will snort, will stare daggers, but Kakashi knew better than to promise never to get a little lush. Occasionally Sasuke will throw away his bottles. Kakashi chooses to see it as a sign that Sasuke cares.

Because that’s what happened when the grief finally hit, when he’d pushed the boulder of it almost all the way up and he slipped and it hit him: he feels empty and like a failure, and tries to keep busy, and tells himself everything will look better in the morning but it never does, and he…stopped being sober. He stares at the ceiling, at the inside of his eyelids, and the realisation of his failure hits and keeps hitting. He’s failed at almost everything that ever mattered to him.

He’s never been good enough for anyone, never worth enough to keep. He can see why.

He misses Sasuke. They live together, he’s closer to Sasuke than anyone else in the world, he has Sasuke’s fingerprints all over his thoughts, but there are parts of Sasuke now that are gone, dead or anyway inaccessible, and Kakashi’s numb and dumb with his failure, with the loss of everyone he’s ever cared about except for Sasuke, and doesn’t have it in him anymore to climb over Sasuke’s walls. He can only search out the little cracks in them, whisper through them.

xxxxx

This is how he likes Sasuke, Gaara thinks. How he’d like any exorcist: on the floor, on their hands and knees.

He discovered sexual pleasure when matesickness hit, hated it then and has hated it ever since. Konohamaru’s never given him much of it, either. He’s too easy to dominate, a domesticated puppy to Shukaku’s alpha wolf.

It’s different with Sasuke. It’s compulsive, the satisfaction Gaara gets from this, a feeling like blood and fire and metal edges.

He pulls Sasuke’s hips back, panting at the idea of pressing finger bruises into Sasuke’s flesh. He’d enjoy it even more if Sasuke wasn’t fine with it.

He leans forward to bite, his fangs rasping up Sasuke’s spine towards his neck.

Sasuke twists around and elbows him in the head. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”

Gaara leers at him. “Isn’t that part of the fantasy?”

Sasuke frowns at him in what looks like genuine incomprehension.

Gaara takes the opportunity to sink back inside him. Sasuke’s even tighter now, less excited. “You’re not telling me you’re not pretending I’m someone else.”

Sasuke makes a low, raspy sound. It takes Gaara two thrusts to categorise it as a laugh, and then recategorize it as a snort.

“Get off me,” Sasuke says.

Gaara hesitates very briefly before pulling out, settling on the floor.

“Naruto was good at sex,” Sasuke says, as if it’s absurd that Gaara should’ve assumed that Sasuke letting Naruto’s best and shifter friend fuck him had anything to do with Naruto.

But it makes sense, Gaara supposes, that Naruto would be good at sex. Tactile, adventurous, enthusiastic, and he’d have been very concerned with Sasuke’s pleasure: he’d have wanted it to be making love as well as fucking. He likely wouldn’t have taken Sasuke from behind, either, would’ve wanted to see his face.

Gaara remembers glancing into Naruto’s bedroom at the boarding school, when Sasuke had snuck out to visit. He hadn’t been able to see much of Naruto, since Naruto had been on top of Sasuke, his face hidden in Sasuke’s neck. Sasuke’s face had been visible, though, and Gaara had been disturbed by his rapturous expression, still remembers it clearly: seeing Sasuke come like he was coming utterly apart.

More importantly, it hadn’t just been Naruto: it had been Kyuubi as well. The tails slithering under Sasuke’s skin, those huge clawed hands touching Sasuke’s body, how Naruto had kissed him with the fanged, triangular jaws of a monster fox.

It’s funny, Gaara had said afterwards, how Itachi’s little princess let an actual beast fuck him.

Naruto had given him a weird look.

Gaara had shrugged. You didn’t have to hide being a monster. You could just – glory in it, and he just took it.

Gaara… And Naruto had frowned, and reached out to touch his arm. We’re not monsters. All right? You get that?

But that was Naruto’s softness talking. Gaara has always known the humans have it right: he’s a monster. It’s just being a monster is much preferable to being prey, to being useless and helpless.

“You’re not pretending I’m Naruto,” Gaara says. It’s mostly a statement. That’s how they ask questions of each other.

“No,” Sasuke says. Unfortunately, Gaara believes him. “Why? Are you pretending you’re Naruto?”

It’s not a real question, just an insult. Gaara shows his teeth but lets it pass. “Then there’s not much in this for you. You don’t even come.”

“If I just wanted to come,” Sasuke shrugs. “I wouldn’t need to go elsewhere for that.”

No, Gaara imagines he wouldn’t. Given how much porn Kakashi consumes, he should certainly be able to get Sasuke off. They seem cosy and intimate with each other, they did even before Naruto died… But Sasuke has wilder and darker urges than simply orgasming, and Kakashi is not, Gaara thinks, a violent man. He’s not someone who’d hurt Sasuke the way Sasuke apparently feels he needs to be hurt. Naruto would’ve, come to that, but while Kakashi’s good at violence, he doesn’t enjoy it: it’s a skill, not an instinct.

He can imagine them fighting, Sasuke going from hissing to shouting, vitriol and awfulness spilling smooth as spoilt cream from Kakashi’s lips. He can be breathlessly nasty, edges hidden in that lazy drawl. But he never breaks what isn’t mendable, stops before he shatters.

If Sasuke pushes at him – let’s be real, when Sasuke pushes at him – Gaara figures he’d push back. Holding his ground, but not escalating. There might be grappling, a kind of awful wrestling, but he wouldn’t hurt Sasuke. There’d be no cuts, no threat of broken bones, no deep bruising, though Sasuke bruises easily. And when a physical fight would turn logically into sex, Gaara’s sure that Kakashi would stop. That’s not a connection he’d make, he’d sit back and feel cold and awful and shaky, and Sasuke would simmer with frustration and maybe feel bad to have pushed too hard. Gaara can imagine him putting a hand on Kakashi’s arm and then, when Kakashi’s breathing evens out under his touch, resting his chin on Kakashi’s shoulder.

Then he imagines him coming here, because Gaara certainly doesn’t stop when rough fighting turns into rough sex. He can only regret that Sasuke’s only recreationally self-destructive, that he doesn’t let Gaara really damage him.

As usual, Sasuke looks more comfortable than expected sitting on the floor. Gaara attributes it to his Japanese childhood. “I assume you’re still keeping little Namikaze in the doghouse.”

Gaara makes a sound of agreement. He has little use for Konohamaru, who’s weak enough and cowardly enough to be afraid of Gaara and wish to avoid him. Smart enough, some would say.

For a black moment he remembers: Sasuke got Naruto, Gaara got the worthless baby brother, forever a reminder of what they’ve lost, what Konohamaru can’t measure up to.

At least Konohamaru hates Sasuke, which makes their couplings even sweeter for Gaara. Unfortunately it’s a misguided hatred, as useless as Konohamaru himself. Konohamaru blames Sasuke for Minato’s and by extension Kushina’s deaths, which is one thing. More interestingly, Konohamaru blames Sasuke for Naruto’s death. Gaara would like to do that, but he doesn’t lie to himself to make the world easier, and he was there and it wasn’t like that.

Sasuke succeeded where Gaara had failed, saving Naruto from a matesick death. Sasuke succeeded where Gaara hadn’t even been able to try, killing Itachi.

Sasuke failed where Gaara failed, at protecting Naruto. He’s paying for it now like Gaara’s paying for it, living in the empty afterwards of the post-Naruto world. There’s very little left that matters. But it’s been enough, so far, to live on.

He surprises himself by putting a hand on Sasuke’s knee, pulling at it until he can crawl between Sasuke’s legs. Sasuke lets himself be pushed down onto his back. He’s always been a quiet and undemonstrative lover, but his flesh heats under Gaara’s attentions. He strokes and pinches and sucks, until he’s reasonably sure Sasuke won’t immolate him for penetrating him. He’d actually like to fuck Sasuke’s mouth, come all over his face, but Sasuke’s a bit too liberal with his teeth.

Sasuke looks blankly past Gaara’s shoulder, his breathing very shallow.

Gaara claws up his thighs, digs his knuckles into his buttocks. There was no prep, so the way Gaara’s thrusting into him has to hurt. Gaara likes the idea of that. He makes no effort to generate pleasure for Sasuke: that’s not the point of this exercise. Sasuke’s kind of half-hard, anyway.

“You’re such a sinner,” Gaara says, off-hand and somehow enraged.

Sasuke smiles an odd smile, the grin really of a skull. He’s still looking past Gaara, as though Gaara’s irrelevant to what’s happening even buried balls-deep inside him. “Pater noster, qui es in caelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum. Adveniat regnum tuum…”

Gaara would interpret it as a threat, only Sasuke’s voice remains human, soft and thready and engendering only the barest flicker of power. Climax hits him suddenly and overwhelmingly, like a sinkhole opening under his feet. Sasuke gives him less than a minute to shudder through it before pushing him off.

Gaara lingers on the floor as Sasuke stands up, fastening his clothes.

“You’re just going home to him like this,” he says, not for the first time.

Sasuke lifts an eyebrow, locating his shoe. “I don’t try to hide things from him.”

“You think about him,” he hears himself say. They’re not talking about Kakashi now.

“As do you.”

They’re quiet for a bit, the silence of Naruto’s absence. It’s a violent kind of silence, and one they share now.

“It’s hard to think you’d want me this way if it hadn’t been for him,” Sasuke remarks. It’s very obviously a question.

“I don’t know,” Gaara says, reduced to the truth because he can’t tell which lie would hurt more, and it’s impossible to think of Sasuke without thinking of Naruto, they’re too tightly entwined for Gaara to have any kind of relationship with Sasuke that isn’t built around what Sasuke meant to Naruto. “It’d be in a different way.”

They nod at each other, and Sasuke walks out the window, feet treading lightly on nothing at all.

Gaara figures Sasuke, never one to hide his transgressions and thoughtlessly secure in Kakashi’s perennial forgiveness, will walk straight home to their bedroom and curl up under Kakashi’s arm. He imagines Kakashi grumbling and kissing his hair and maybe getting him off.

It’s days later that their conversation clicks. You’re not telling me you’re not pretending I’m someone else. Naruto was good at sex. It’s such a strange idea, it comes to him as though from the outside, in a drawling, pinching voice that could be Temari’s or Kakashi’s: someone he spread his legs for that sucked at sex? Sounds like Itachi to me.

“Well, fuck,” Gaara says, and laughs a laugh that hurts his throat.

xxxxx

It’s sad, Neji supposes, but he and Sasuke understand each other better now.

Neji realises he used to be incomprehensible to Sasuke: his calm, his resignation, his simmering acceptance of fate. How Neji’s whole life is the negotiation of his capitulation, where Sasuke would’ve fought to death.

It’s different now, when Sasuke has nothing left to fight for or fight against.

Fire’s out, but he’s still such an arse, was Hanabi’s judgement. She’s not wrong, but then if Sasuke being a bit of a bastard had been a dealbreaker, they never would’ve been friends with him in the first place.

We’re all trying to live, the best we know how, Neji opinioned. Survive in the face of adversity, which is to say life.

Hanabi snorted. Deep. Then she added, He’s not very good at it.

I suppose that’s a matter of perspective.

Sasuke is very, very good at surviving. Living, he’s not very good at, at all.

“Will you be all right?” Hinata asks in the present. Her voice is soft, more breath than word, but he’s learnt to listen. “I mean no insult, it just seems a – a large exorcism for o-only two crusaders.”

“Not when one of them’s Sasuke,” Neji mutters.

“I see. I – worry about him.”

“Yes,” Neji says, tonelessly, and then makes himself kinder. “Are you booked in for anything today?”

“Some ward reinforcement. I should get up soon, too.” She stretches, the blanket slipping off her shoulders. She’s been decidedly more comfortable in their marital bed after she realised he’s even less interested in consummating their union than she is, and even less impressed with her father’s wisdom.

“I’ll see you later,” he says, only a little awkwardly.

“See you later,” Hinata echoes. She sounds happy: she rewards him for making an effort, for being considerate, trying to show an interest in her.

Neji walks out into the sky, towards what Hanabi calls Exorcist HQ. He stops a way off, seeing Sasuke standing on the balcony where they’ve agreed to meet up. He’s leaning on the railing, scruffy trainers and a fleece shirt. Left to his own devices, he’s never dressed well.

A careful distance away stands Mikoto Uchiha. They’re not usually in the same room, and Neji’s struck now by how extremely alike they look. Mikoto looks young, the youth of an expensive skin care regimen, and Sasuke’s careworn these days, so that even the age difference is blurred: and it’s the same shape of their face, the same eyes, same eyebrows, the same nose and mouth and cheeks and necks and hands. More interestingly, their mannerisms however are different, their modes of speech and their expressions. It’s plain to see that Mikoto didn’t raise Sasuke.

“Did you understand the issue?” she asks. She sounds professional, a councillor speaking to a contact.

“No,” Sasuke says. He offers her a quick, dirty grin, just a slice of teeth.

“Given recent events, I had assumed you no longer entertained shifter sympathies.”

“It was about shifters?”

Mikoto directs a mild, not quite mocking smile at him. “You really do allow Kakashi to dictate your political stance, then.”

“I don’t have a political stance. I show up for him when he wants me to. Usually when idiots on the Council need their place explained to them.”

“How romantic.”

Sasuke shrugs. “It is what it is.”

“You sound like Itachi.”

Sasuke shrugs again. “Perhaps.”

“I am loath to bring this up,” Mikoto says then, in the direct, relentless and utterly tactless way of Sasuke himself, “but however. Did Itachi sleep with you?”

Sasuke turns away from his contemplation of the skyline and gives her a steady, possibly amused look. His voice allows no discussion, “That’s none of your concern.”

Neji decides that this is an opportune moment to alight on the balcony railing next to Sasuke’s elbow. He nods stiffly, deferentially, to Mikoto. “Good morning.”

“Good morning, Neji.”

Sasuke snorts. He doesn’t look at her again before vaulting over the railing and walking away towards the clouds.

Neji thinks again, with fondness and exasperation and something like envy, that one can tell that Sasuke was raised by a socially inept brother and…whatever one should call Kakashi, but a stickler for proper manners he clearly isn’t. Neji would never be able to behave this way, to simply disregard what is and isn’t done. But Sasuke rarely even seems to notice the rules that govern Neji’s life.

They’re mostly quiet on the way to the exorcism. Neji didn’t use to realise this, but they’re both quiet people, and now that Sasuke’s presence isn’t so loud anymore, Neji’s able to appreciate it more; now that Sasuke’s lost the shouting, shining, overwhelming people he always preferred, he seems less impatient with Neji, too.

Remembering his tween poetry aspirations, Neji thinks he could perhaps liken Sasuke to a forest fire. Where they stand now, there’s nothing left to burn, so the fire’s dormant, waiting for something it can latch onto and burn itself out. Or perhaps a volcano would be a better simile – he recalls Hinata once saying she felt a little like Pompeii next to Sasuke.

He’s rather fond of Hinata these days, so no longer automatically dismisses it as a high-strung absurdity.

“Your mother was surprisingly straightforward,” he says after some time. He keeps watch over Sasuke’s reactions out of the corner of his eye.

“Not really.”

“Oh?”

Sasuke shrugs, directs a tired smirk at him. “If she wanted to know, she’d ask Kakashi.”

“Well.”

Sasuke leans back in his seat, eyes half-closed. “Everyone knows we were fucking. If she wanted an eye witness account or details or whatever – like I said, Kakashi.”

“Ah,” Neji says. Uncertainly or just very carefully. “Yes, I suppose he might tell her.”

Sasuke snorts. “Of course he’d tell her.”

“They’ve seemed – close.”

“He’d fuck her in a heartbeat if she let him, if that’s what you’re asking.” Sasuke doesn’t seem pissed about it, surprisingly. Of course, there’s no way on earth Mikoto would ever allow anything of the kind. “He’s got a hardcore thing for Uchihas, I suppose.”

“I never got that,” Neji says. He dares a quick touch to the back of Sasuke’s hand, keeps an inscrutable smile on his face as Sasuke looks at him. “You’re very different from your family.”

“Don’t.”

“Hmm?”

Sasuke gives him a cynical, amused look that could be Kakashi’s. “You wouldn’t even wear a used coat, and I’m very much used goods. This is not a good idea.”

“I was surprised about Gaara,” Neji says.

Sasuke fortunately seems to take it as a question rather than a condemnation, though he must know Neji finds the idea of intimacy with a shifter nauseating. “You wouldn’t want what Gaara gets from me.”

“Perhaps not,” Neji decides.

Sasuke shifts, stretching out his legs. “How’s the wife?”

Neji keeps his voice soft. “Do you care?”

Sasuke suddenly sounds young, catastrophically too young to manage his own life. “I’m trying to.”

Neji breathes in, breathes out. “She’s well, I believe.”

Sasuke blinks. His lashes, always thick, look heavier these days, as though it’s heavy lifting keeping his eyes open. “You like her.”

“You liked Sakura,” Neji defends himself. Hinata at least is an exorcist.

“I killed Sakura,” Sasuke points out.

Neji suddenly feels searching, like he needs to catch Sasuke and hold on to him before – he couldn’t say, perhaps before Sasuke disappears. “Are you sorry about it?” He’s certain it was an accident…

Sasuke shrugs. He’s looking straight ahead but Neji would bet he doesn’t see anything. “I don’t have any sorry left for it.”

Then there is the exorcism, and Hinata was correct: it’s a very large infestation for two crusaders to handle. Fortunately or otherwise, Neji was equally correct: not when one of them is Sasuke. He channels too much power, he has for a long time, turning into simply a howl, a promise of salvation and eradication.

At last, in desperation, because what the hell, what if Sasuke actually slips over the edge right here, right in front of Neji, and – he flicks Sasuke’s nose. He’s never done that before, but he’s seen Itachi and Kakashi do it thousands of times. It works: Sasuke blinks, stabilises, heavenly fury bleeding away and leaving dwindling humanity behind.

“Try harder,” Neji snaps.

Sasuke gives him an awful leer. It seems a little like he’s asking for something he can’t name. “For you?”

“I’ve never fancied I’m enough for anyone to live for.”

“For Naruto? Because it’s what he would’ve wanted?”

“I’ve no idea what Naruto would’ve wanted,” Neji tells him, “and frankly I don’t think it matters. What Naruto wanted stopped mattering years ago, and there’s no point now doing anything for him.”

Sasuke nods. For the first time, Neji reaches for him, puts an arm around him, mostly but not only because he’s not sure Sasuke can remain standing on his own for very long.

“I don’t think one can live for other people,” he says, with Sasuke’s head heavy on his shoulder. “It’s not tenable, it’s not – sustainable in the long run.”

They’re not to be underestimated, one’s bonds to other people: certainly Neji thanks Kakashi for the fact that Sasuke’s refrained from killing himself. But for Sasuke to live, rather than just drag himself precariously from one day to the next – that’s not something Sasuke can do for someone else.

On the way back Sasuke sleeps on his shoulder. Dignity’s been eroded away, perhaps, because God knows he’s never been tactile with Neji.

But afterwards Sasuke sometimes seeks his company. They’re quiet together, usually, but that too, Neji thinks, can be a way of communicating: it’s not an empty silence between them. And when spoken to, Sasuke will usually reply. He can be shockingly frank, there’s no dancing around even what Neji considers sensitive issues.

“Are you going to rule Uchiha? I meant to ask, will you take an active role with Council?” He leaves unspoken: or will you let Kakashi govern it by proxy?

Sasuke lifts an eyebrow. “I’ll never inherit.”

“Of course you will. In fact you could probably claim Oto too, if you wanted it.”

“It’s Hanabi’s. I’ve no interest in it.”

“But Uchiha’s yours. You’re the sole heir.”

“I’m going to die long before Mother.”

Neji bites his tongue on the truth of it. After a while he says, “Did you forgive her? For the – incident with Orochimaru.”

“No. But forgiveness is irrelevant for her.”

Neji grows bolder. “Did you forgive her for Itachi?”

“I killed Itachi, not her.” He makes an odd face. “In this too forgiveness is irrelevant.”

“How do you mean?”

“It’s not something that can be forgiven. It’s not something that can be regretted, either.”

“Heartening,” Neji says dryly.

“Hm?”

“I’d have hated to hear you regretted it.”

“No,” Sasuke says, with an echo of his old certainty, his lack of hesitation. “It was something I had to do. Anyway regret is a useless emotion.”

“Do you not regret bonding with Naruto?”

“No.”

“I don’t get that.”

“I know.”

“But Itachi…I get that.”

“Do you?” It’s a challenge, but not born on any aggression. “You haven’t even killed Hiashi.”

The man in whose shadow Neji has lived all his life, the monster who rules his and Hinata’s nightmares, eating their sounds and making them fail so he could punish them for their failures.

“He’s Hanabi’s.”

“She’d get over it.”

“That’s different.”

“It’s always different.” Sasuke stops there, which is a kind of mercy.

Neji’s angry now, mostly with himself, which is nothing unusual. It just feels sharper than usual, because he’d got…unused to it. With Hanabi out of the house and out of his hair, ruling Oto, with Hiashi finally growing older and his grip on them all slackening a bit. With Hinata beside him instead of against him. “Itachi was good riddance.”

Neji does know Sasuke loved Itachi, in a misplaced and endless kind of way, not a sort of love that goes away, and if Neji had been someone else – if he’d been Naruto, or even Gaara – Sasuke would’ve been angry. Of course, if Neji had been Naruto, he’d have beaten the shit out of Sasuke for Sakura, not talked about it coldly and curiously…

“I think you don’t understand what you’re talking about,” Sasuke says.

“Maybe so.”

But Sasuke apparently feels little need to defend Itachi’s soiled honour. What might set him off is the response that cuts deeper, into the marrow of his bones; the response only Mikoto or Kakashi could offer him, that probably only Kakashi could offer him and live: I miss him too, you know.

xxxxx

Kakashi falls back on the bed. He was up, for an hour or two, made coffee and a few phone calls. Then… Well, then it started to seem a wonderful, a necessary, idea to return to bed. That happens sometimes, though Kakashi only lets himself give in to it – to the day needing to be put off because it’s an unbearable stretch of time until he can fall asleep again – when he’s worked through the night.

Sasuke doesn’t like it, and they snapped at each other and had another ugly fight and another bout of angry sex. Now there’s the part Kakashi likes better, the silence that’s restful instead of empty because it’s shared, the quiet support of Sasuke’s breathing next to him.

He supposes he should get up.

It seems impossible.

He’ll do it soon, he tells himself.

He manages to redo his buttons, pointlessly straightening the front of his shirt.

He could get up later. In a little while.

“Hn.” It’s almost a hum, though Sasuke’s not a humming person. He rests his forehead against the edge of Kakashi’s shoulder, puts his hand on Kakashi’s chest. It gets easier to breathe.

“Are you leaving?” Kakashi asks.

Sasuke makes a questioning sound.

He’s on the wrong side for Kakashi to see him, but Kakashi imagines a frown line across the bridge of his nose. Kakashi gives up on his buttons, playing with Sasuke’s fingers instead. “Isn’t this usually when you storm off to Gaara?”

Sasuke has more anger to work through, has rage left long after Kakashi’s burnt through his fury and is just sad again.

Sasuke shakes his head. “I don’t need that anymore.”

“Oh.”

“Mh.” Sasuke yawns against his arm, stretches. His pulse is steady, rather soft. Kakashi turns his head to look at him, and the corner of Sasuke’s mouth quirks up. It’s cold in the room and Sasuke sits up briefly to pull on his jumper. It’s the same blue, woollen one that used to be Naruto’s and that Sasuke wore one evening maybe eight weeks ago. He was home for dinner, they were both home for dinner, and Kakashi was talking idly about Council stuff – not that Sasuke was really listening but he should have the option of knowing what’s going on – and skimming some of his favourite passages from a poetry collection.

It was some forgotten Nobel laurate, one whose writing Kakashi hated and hated until he loved it.

I am so grateful to those I do not love/

With such ease I accept that they are closer to someone else//

I am calm with them, I feel free with them, but this is something that love can neither give nor take/

I do not wait for them from window to door/

Patiently, almost like a sun dial, I understand what love cannot understand, forgive easily what love would never forgive/

From the meeting to the letter it’s not an eternity, only some weeks or days/

Trips with them are always successful, concerts heard to the end, cathedrals visited, landscapes clear/

And when I am separated from them by seven mountains and seven rivers, these are mountains and rivers known from geography/

They themselves do not know how much they hold in their empty hands/

”I don’t owe them anything,” love would say.

Maybe he’d mumbled a line or two aloud.

Sasuke chair screeched against the floor as he stood up and threw his plate – a favourite of Itachi’s, religiously guarded until then – against the wall.

He spent most of the rest of the night hyperventilating in Itachi’s room. Kakashi dozed on the floor next to him, looking through Itachi’s old bible, full of Itachi’s in-depth and oddly irreverent scribblings, and making inappropriate comments until Sasuke snapped at him and then laughed at him.

It all meant, I am angry too, I miss them too, I don’t know what to do with myself either.

Please love me.

In the present Kakashi puts an arm around him, feeling the softness of the jumper and the different softness of Sasuke’s skin.

“Are you sleeping with other people?” Sasuke asks.

“A few times.”

Anko, when she’d had a tiff with Ibiki and they played the piano together and got drunk together. In the morning they forgave each other what they couldn’t forgive the people they love.

Hayate, because he has dimples and doesn’t push, doesn’t ask for anything that’s hard to give.

A human or two, an exorcist or two. Hanabi, in a stunning show of poor judgement on her part, and he felt filthy about it afterwards though she only smirked. Sleeping with his own friends is one thing. He shouldn’t sleep with Sasuke’s.

Though surprisingly Sasuke – who must have heard about it – never seemed bothered. Perhaps he might’ve said, you already slept with my brother, but he’s never brought it up.

“Mmh,” Sasuke says. He reaches past Kakashi’s head and plays with Itachi’s rosary, which hangs over the bed. “Stop.”

“All right.”

“All right?”

Kakashi shrugs. Sasuke resettles next to him, looking down at him and suddenly approachable, Kakashi’s arm curled loosely around his hips. “It’s when I’m lonely and weak,” Kakashi says lightly. He shrugs again, keeps his face blasé and half-smiling. “You’re what I want. It’s easy to say I want nothing else now it feels like I can have you.”

It’s hard to sit up, but with Sasuke next to him, sitting with him, Kakashi can get up. Sasuke smirks at him, arrogant with discomfort but his mouth quirked into almost a smile, and suddenly it’s easy. Sasuke says, “You have me. Idiot.”

“Hmm.”

“Tch. You know. It’s you and me.”

Kakashi feels more certain, smiling back an equally crooked smile, that there’s enough left after all to build a liveable life on. That there are horrible days and bad days, followed by bad days and okay days, and eventually there will be a good day.