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It’s like this: years have passed, too many, and yet the trees still whisper home, home, he’s home, home with each gentle sigh of wind.

It’s like this: years have passed, too many, and the faces that have lived timelessly in memories are edged with somber lines, now, but they’re no less beautiful.

And like this: years have passed, too many, and yet between deeds done and letters sent and weeks and months and years on the road, this is still home, they are still home, he is still home.

 

 

Sakura’s eyes are too bright, spilling over as she pulls him into a firm hug and she’s laughing even as she’s sniffling great, snotty sniffles and he can feel her grinning into his shoulder and it’s so good to see her. It’s so good to see her.

There’s something different about her, now; it’s not quite the same aggressive confidence he’d learned to recognize during the– while he was– - back then–– but something calmer, quieter, more tempered, more open.

But then she squawks, an undignified and quavery hey!, and Sasuke finds an altogether-too-warm arm cantilevering itself around his waist, yanking him around, and their heads all knock together and there’s an indignant ouch that comes from somewhere and then the esteemed Seventh Lord Hokage, leader of Konohagakure, widely regarded as the single most powerful shinobi in the world, is squeezing the utter life out of him, laughing, crushing Sakura’s arm against his ribcage, smearing his tears across Sasuke’s cheeks and into his hair.

“Your hair is long!”

That’s what you have to say to me?”

He shoves his way out of what is more human contact than he’s had in months (years, actually, and he misses it instantly) and runs a hand over said hair, wipes at the wetness on his face, pretends that none of it is his own.

Sakura lets out an exasperated noise and straightens her vest and Sasuke finds himself rolling his eyes in tandem and Naruto is still laughing and suddenly they’re twelve years old again, trying to catch that fucking cat, covered in dirt and scratches and full of hopes and bad ideas.

But then Naruto pulls him into another hug with his characteristic careless grace and he presses his face into Sasuke’s neck and Sasuke is drowning, just a little, as Naruto mumbles, “welcome home.”

 

 

They’d met him at the very, very edge of what could barely still be called the outskirts of Konohagakure, where the trees are just starting to grow thick and wild and dark in a way that breathes home. Naruto fills him in on the past week’s mundane goings-on as they walk, slow and at ease: that one bakery’s announcement that they’re (finally) opening another location on the east side of town, Sakura’s newest group of interns and their impending first day, Sai’s latest batch of unusual culinary experiments. (All of which have been a resounding success thus far, according to both Sakura and Naruto; Sai’s got a real knack for cooking.)

They weave in and out of good-natured bickering (because really, they wouldn't be themselves without it) and Naruto tries to argue no less than four times that he should be accompanying Sasuke to meet the Suna envoy, and what's more, that Sasuke shouldn't go because he's been traveling for over a week now.

(They settle nothing and arrive right back at their previous “compromise”: that they'll both go, with no other escorts, so as to not draw attention. Why the Hokage thinks it necessary to personally meet an envoy that's doesn't even include Gaara is quite beyond Sasuke, and he expresses as much. Sakura looks to be three seconds away from plugging her ears.)

The gates still stand massive and tall, and Sasuke finds their presence and their weight just as reassuring and grand as he had when he was a child. Naruto leads them through the streets, still talking aimlessly, rather at Sasuke and Sakura than to them. Sakura confesses to being exhausted after a particularly grueling 72-hour shift while Naruto ducks away from them to greet a pair of chūnin whose young faces Sasuke doesn’t remember, and by the time Naruto has ushered them into his home and under his blessedly warm kotatsu, Sakura is swaying with sleep.

She bravely makes it through another hour of quiet, aimless conversation before she falls asleep with her hands still cupped around her tea, and Sasuke lunges forward in tandem with Naruto to catch her before she can pitch forward straight into the tabletop.

“You know, Naruto, I'm sorry,” Sasuke says, watching as Naruto gently transfers Sakura onto his couch. From the looks of it, this isn’t too uncommon an occurrence, and judging by the indignant anger building on Naruto’s face as he looks back over at Sasuke, he knows exactly what Sasuke is on about.

“You don't have to apologize,” Naruto says sharply. “Neither of us holds anything against you. You know that.”

“I know,” Sasuke replies, and he can't stop a note of annoyance from crawling into his voice. He'd stopped with the self-flagellation a good long time ago, and he’d written a lengthy and long-overdue letter at that point. Several, in fact. So Naruto should know this. “I want to apologize. It feels good to.”

Naruto studies his face with an almost frightening intensity. Bathed in gold and solemn blue, Sasuke thinks, watching his steady and sharp eyes, the distant kitchen light spilling over one shoulder, lighting up his still-perpetually-messy hair, the careful set of his jaw.

“Well,” Naruto finally mutters under his breath, looking away, sufficiently placated and deflating, and he gives Sasuke a small smile. “Alright.”

Naruto starts to slowly tidy up, collecting their cups and drifting towards the kitchen, and Sasuke follows him, thinking idly about moths and flames as he puts away the kettle and empties out the dregs from the teapot.

It's quiet, but not tense; Sakura’s slow, even breaths are a comfortable metronome that Sasuke finds both himself and Naruto adjusting to, moving around the house quietly and in tandem to pull out blankets, readjust space, and Sasuke finds himself accepting the fact that he’s sharing a bed tonight with an unusual, if welcome, lack of unease or– well, not nervousness, because he doesn’t get nervous, thank you very much. But in this sleepy silence, nothing seems out of place; nothing seems worth talking himself out of.

Naruto, on the other hand, is chewing on a thought, clearly mulling something over. It goes on for long enough that it starts charging the air, and Sasuke is about to tell him to just spit it the fuck out already when Naruto opens his mouth.

“Sasuke,” Naruto starts, in that tone of voice, and Sasuke thinks, oh here we go, “are you sure you need to escort me out of the village tomorrow? You've only just gotten here, and–”

“Yes,” Sasuke replies firmly. “It’s you who shouldn’t be going. And besides, if there's anything that's a threat to you, there's no one better than me to protect you.”

He feels an intense surge of– of something, at this. It's like a tidal wave, an immense push-and-pull, the simple thought that they are this; two matching pieces, two notes in harmony, better together than they could ever be apart.

Naruto huffs in temporary defeat.

“I still don’t understand why everyone insists on assigning me escorts,” he complains, standing in the doorway, arms crossed and leaning, rather ineffectively attempting to block Sasuke from getting past. “It’s a waste of resources. And besides, they should know that you’re the only one who can match me in a fight.”

Beat you,” Sasuke corrects, and bumps their shoulders together as he slides past.

“You wish, asshole,” Naruto bites back, turning to shove him in retaliation, and Sasuke smiles.

 

 

He can’t sleep. Oh, how very naive of him it had been to assume that he’d be able to fall asleep.

In spite of the sharp fall air coming through the window so painfully familiar, in spite of Naruto’s sleepy warmth and even breaths and sprawling chakra next to him, in spite of Sakura’s soft presence in the other room, his skin itches like someone’s woven live wires into his bloodstream.

He gets up, quietly, carefully; Naruto is still dead asleep, and while it’s unlikely the open window will bother him because he’s a fucking living furnace, Sasuke fixes the covers anyways. He pulls on socks before ghosting down the hallway; drafty here, too, because Naruto clearly loves breathing fresh air and Sasuke can’t say he disagrees. He checks on Sakura: still dead asleep, too, though the blanket has fallen off of her feet and started a slow, lethargic slide towards the floor. He fixes this as well, and brushes a sweep of bangs away from her nose.

He’s home, and yet he’s still restless.

He pulls his shoes on silently, grabs his cloak (hem still caked in dust, damn, he’s got to take care of that soon), and heads onto the rooftops.

Sasuke is so awake it’s slightly absurd. Half his mind is a whirl of thought and forethought and plans and backups and tomorrow’s happenings will go wrong over his dead fucking body– - and the other half is electrified, alive, home.

His momentum brings him to a stop on the sloping roof of the Hokage tower and he closes his eyes, just for a minute, and takes a deep breath. There’s no dust in the air, no blood soaking the ground, no sharp tang of weaponized chakra; instead it’s crisp, cold, and a breeze brings the promise of winter with it. Naruto’s knot of warm chakra is calm, down to its Kurama-flavored center, and Sakura’s chakra is still flowing through her absurdly neat pathways, organized like a library of everything she can do and more.

The time period between Orochimaru’s death and Itachi’s is a blur. The time between Itachi’s death and the start of the War is–– even worse. He feels like he’d just been a passenger, at that point; disconnected, just going through the motions.

Now, though, these past few years, he’s learned to ground himself, to be present, to not be running towards something he barely lets himself conceptualize. Forcing himself to live aimlessly was the single most difficult thing he’s ever had to do, but he did it, and he came out the other end understanding several dozen more things about himself and his brother and his best friend and his village than he had before.

Several dozen things. And some choice new words he hadn’t known had existed to describe himself and his experiences and his relationships.

He takes another breath, sets aside the half of his brain that’s a screaming maelstrom of planning, and studies the monument that’s immortalizing the faces of his teacher and his best friend.

It’s a little bizarre.

There’s also someone else on the roof.

“Sai,” Sasuke says evenly.

“Sasuke,” they reply, voice just as even. This time, Sasuke’s mental image holds up next to the real thing. Sai still holds themself in the same way: shoulders relaxed, face mild, hands free, eternally projecting an air of unsettling danger. “Can’t sleep?”

“It’s a nice night,” Sasuke deflects.

“I see.” A pause; Sai moves to stand next to him, face turning up towards the monument. “And yet you left Naruto asleep.” Their face is perfectly, dangerously mild. “I hear it's common for people to panic and leave after displays of intimacy.”

Sasuke feels his eyes roll so hard he might have dislodged something.

“Nothing that dramatic.”

“Something to keep in mind for the future, then.”

“Hmm.”

“Does it feel good to be back in Konoha?” Sai asks, after a slow minute of uninterrupted silence. There’s something slightly different in their voice now.

Sasuke tells them the truth.

Sai studies him for a long time and, eventually, their face softens into something small and genuine resembling a smile.

“Welcome home,” they finally say, and then they're gone.

Chapter Text

The alarm startles him awake. It’s not a sound he’s used to hearing.

He takes in his surroundings instantly — bars of early-morning sunlight spilling bright over the windowsill, a slightly messy bookshelf, a folded pile of laundry not quite put away, all picked out in monocolor red; he closes his eyes, takes a breath, and bathes in the warm, sleepy flood of chakra flowing over him in slow waves.

There’s a groan from behind him that manages to sound both like fuck and mmmneugh. Sasuke turns onto his back, folds his arm behind his head, and looks over to the other side of the bed. Naruto’s mess of hair is buried in the pillow, one hand dragging over his face, nose wrinkled in displeasure, sleepy eyes peering at Sasuke from between his fingers.

The alarm is still beeping. Naruto pushes himself up on one elbow and sprawls himself over Sasuke to reach over and swat at it and oh, Naruto’s warm weight slung over him, this is so familiar but only in a wildly different context, and without the filter of rage and pain this is all so very——

“Your hair is in my face,” Naruto says, voice hoarse and sleepy, with said face currently shoved somewhere near Sasuke’s collarbone.

“Then get your face out of my hair,” Sasuke parries reflexively.

Naruto turns to spitefully press his face directly into Sasuke’s shoulder and then he laughs, muffled but so clearly happy, bubbling and clear. He pushes himself up and stands, still grinning, then stretches and yawns before heading down the hallway.

This is all so very… normal. It just— it feels regular, like it's something they've done for years. Sasuke digs in his pack for his toiletries and then follows the sound of a running shower to the bathroom to brush his teeth, as if he regularly just does this, like it’s natural to share space like this.

He knows he's got no sense of boundaries as defined by any normal fucking civilian; no shinobi does. Boundaries are not a luxury any of them can afford. This life doesn't allow for not having seen all his teammates in varying stages of undress and indecency, both inclusive and exclusive of Oiroke no fucking Jutsu, and so it doesn't feel outlandish to do the same shit he’d done as a part of Team Seven; to share a bed, to share a bathroom, to share sleep and meals and clothing and space. To share something that should, by all means, at least be a little intimate.

But the thing is, he doesn’t know anything else, because why should he, and what the fuck good is someone else’s yardstick for “intimacy,” anyways. If bickering with someone around a toothbrush and through a shower curtain is supposed to be special and intimate, then, well——

Well, shit.

(It’s not that he’s unaware of exactly how he feels about Naruto. The problem is that he’s quite painfully aware. Generally, he deals with this by trying not to think about it too much. But when Naruto is fucking flicking soapy shower water at him and Sasuke catches himself thinking about how he’d probably kill to have this every day? Yeah, that’s a problem.)

Sasuke heads to the kitchen and roots around in the cabinets as Naruto continues his shower, ignoring the frankly abhorrent amount of instant-or-otherwise-non-perishable “food” in favor of finding a well-used coffee dripper, a recently-opened bag of coffee, and the last handful of filters.

Naruto ambles into the kitchen and positively beams at Sasuke as the second cup is halfway done brewing, and Sasuke takes a drink of his own coffee to cover the way his heart leaps into his throat.

“Thanks,” Naruto says brightly, pinching the filter out of the dripper, leaving a dotted trail of coffee along the countertop as he throws it out.

“Mmm.”

Naruto nudges Sasuke’s shoulder with his own, then wipes up the coffee drips, dumps an unholy amount of sugar into his coffee, stirs, and leans against the counter next to Sasuke.

“I have things I need to take care of in the office,” Naruto says, and Sasuke has just a moment to revel in the way Naruto is talking so casually about his Hokage job at the Hokage office because he’s the Hokage, “and I know about fifteen people are gonna try to convince both of us to let someone else take care of this, which is only gonna waste everyone’s time, but we can leave after lunch. The Suna envoy won’t be at the border ‘till evening, anyways.”

“I’m sure I can find something to do here,” Sasuke says. Naruto laughs.

“Go terrify some genin,” Naruto suggests, grinning mischievously, and then he laughs, again, nudges their shoulders together, again. Sasuke finds himself hoping that his coffee will magically refill itself so that neither of them have to move. “Actually, don't, because I can think of at least five people who would kill me.” He frowns. “Maybe six.”

Naruto sets down his mug, then checks the time with an aw, shit and bounds into the other room, only to return pulling his cloak on, hand reaching for the coffee left in his mug.

“Right, so, if you want to meet me in the Tower past noon, and we can get something to eat, and then–” He pauses to take a swig. “–then we should be fine to leave. Oh! And if you see Sakura, whatever you do, don’t bring up the–”

“I know,” Sasuke interrupts, and his hand moves of its own accord to fix the collar of Naruto’s cloak where it’s curled in on itself.

“Oh, and, I do have everything ready when it comes to the Uchiha compound,” Naruto says, chugging the last of his coffee, “though I figure we’re leaving that for after we come back, yeah? Since–”

Go,” Sasuke interrupts again. “You’re not taking anything to eat?”

“Hinata owes me breakfast today and Ino owes me lunch,” he replies, grinning mischievously. “Just remember, noon at the T–”

“Naruto,” Sasuke snaps, and then pauses. “I won’t leave. I’m not– leaving. Okay?” He takes a breath. “I’m not leaving. Not without you, at least. Now go.”

The slow, brilliant smile that spreads across Naruto’s face could chase the darkness out of anything, Sasuke thinks.

 

 

The Hokage tower is much as he remembers it. It feels eternal in the way that the Monument does; it’s always been there, so it’ll always be there, because it’s always been.

He’s decided on an extended walk to pass the time, weaving his way around Konoha in a loose spiral. He’d taken his time after Naruto had left, and he’d reorganized his pack, showered, had another coffee, and restrained himself from tidying up. It’s been a similarly quiet morning, and he’s been doing a decent job of avoiding anyone who’d know him. (Except for Sai, who’d ghosted out of an alleyway and walked in silence next to him for about a minute, then smiled and disappeared. Sasuke’s still not sure what to make of this.)

It’s a brisk afternoon, and he’s greeted with warm air as he steps inside the administrative building. A few people smile politely, blankly at him, and he realizes that he really doesn’t know anyone here. No one knows who he is, except for the people he grew up with and a handful of adults who might remember him as a child. Finding anonymity in Konoha is surprising in how much it doesn’t sting.

He’s on the last staircase up when the distant commotion he’s been hearing for about two flights now becomes suddenly much less distant. He turns the corner and braces himself.

“——terrorizing my fucking girlfriend—”

“I'm not terrorizing her! She's the fucking director of the hospital, she needs to sleep, and I think we can both agree on that, so let’s not— oh, it's you.” It’s the most unaffected Sasuke has ever heard Karin sound. She spares him barely a glance before rounding on Ino again. “I swear, I will knock her the hell out myself in her own home if I have to.”

“I’m not her fucking babysitter! She’s an adult, and you can’t blame her for being this way because that’s who she is. That’s why she’s — don’t let Tsunade hear this — but that’s why Sakura is probably the single most gifted medical shinobi this goddamn world has ever seen. Do we seriously need to have this conversation every week? Sasuke,” Ino says, changing tack without taking a breath, “it’s good to see you. Thanks for taking care of Sakura last night.”

And before he can react, she pulls him into a short, gentle hug and kisses him on the cheek. It’s quick, friendly. He realizes he’s had her crystallized in his memory, in spite of the war, in spite of her momentous rise as she took her father’s place; eternally a twelve-year-old, too loud and too aggressive. There’s real maturity in her face now, something calm and centered and open, much like Sakura. Sasuke smiles at her.

Karin is standing behind Ino with her arms crossed and an uncharacteristically serious look on her face. She’s sensing, he realizes, though he’s frankly got no idea what she’ll find.

She looks good. When he'd said goodbye to her, over a year and a half ago, she'd been run ragged from traveling with him, trying desperately to find a place for herself somewhere, anywhere. Sasuke had finally just snapped at her to go the fuck back to Konoha because like hell they'd turn her away. She'd snapped back that she doesn't need to be a charity case. Sasuke had left her at the Fire Country border with a genuine (if awkward) hug, a week's worth of letters for Naruto, and an envious ache in his chest.

(In retrospect, and thinking about that knowing face Karin had made at him then, that moment is what made him decide to come home.)

Konoha clearly suits her. She’s got a medic’s haori folded and thrown over one shoulder and a stack of files tucked under her arm, and her hair is in a loose, thick braid, draped over one shoulder. She narrows her eyes at him, and then huffs quietly, rolling her eyes away away and pushing her glasses back up her nose.

“I guess it is good to see you,” she says, and then reaches out to squeeze his shoulder, brief and firm.

“But really, though,” Ino says, “for the–”

“Sasuke!”

Naruto appears in the hallway as if he’s been fucking Kuchiyose’d onto the spot, but judging by the frustrated shout of Naruto! that comes from down the hall, it’s nothing more than an attempted escape.

“Oh, good,” Ino says, before anyone else can get a word in edgewise, “I was looking for you. We need to talk about today.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Naruto replies, but his eyes haven’t left Sasuke’s face. It’s hard to focus on anything other than the way Naruto lights up at the sight of him, grinning, happy.

“Naruto,” comes another, much less distant shout, and Sasuke blinks in surprise at the sight of Hinata practically stalking down the hallway, fists clenched. “I need that paperwork done within the hour,” she says, pointing at him menacingly. If Ino had been crystallized in his memory, then Hinata had been ossified, calcified, and this Hinata absolutely shatters that memory. She sighs, weary. “Please, Naruto. And– oh! Sasuke, welcome back.” Her smile, on the other hand, small and always genuine and so warm, is exactly as he remembers it.

Sasuke inclines his head and smiles at her, too. If this is the collection of advisors keeping Naruto in line, Konoha’s got nothing to fear. Though, judging by the way Naruto is eyeballing Hinata’s still-clenched fists with apprehension, Naruto himself might have a thing or two to fear.

“I won’t keep you,” Sasuke says, and drowns for another handful of seconds as Naruto turns the full force of his attention back onto Sasuke.

“What? No, wait—” Naruto lunges to grab Sasuke’s arm and throws a dark look at both Ino and Hinata in the process. “Lunch? Before we go? Uh, that is, in an hour, after I finish the paperwork, which I will finish.”

“Lunch,” Sasuke agrees, and patiently wills himself to not dwell on the warmth of Naruto’s palm wrapped around his elbow.

“Okay, wait,” Ino says, frowning. “I need to talk to both of you, at the same time, and Sai, and whoever else you’re dragging into this.”

“Lunch,” Naruto repeats brightly.

Ino throws her hands up in defeat.

“Alright!” she says, exasperated. “I’ll go pick up some food and get everyone together. Your office, one hour. With me, Uchiha.” Ino tosses him a wicked grin. “I’ll be shocked if you tell me you’ve forgotten our dear Lord Hokage’s fine dining dish of choice.”

“I wish,” Sasuke replies, and flashes Naruto a smirk.

 

 

In the end, lunch is a much less uncomfortable affair than he thought it would be. Ino makes a stop for coffee, shoves a paper cup into his hand, and directs him back to the hospital to get Sakura while she rounds up the others. Ino is sweet-talking Ayame into some extra moyashi as Sasuke comes back with Sakura in tow, one of her hands holding a nearly-empty coffee cup, and the other curled gently around Sasuke’s elbow. It’ll be a decent crowd; Ino’s got Kiba and Chōji with her, though a number of people Sasuke would have thought would want to be around to attempt to talk some sense into him and Naruto are conspicuously absent, out of the village. Most notably Kakashi, whom Sasuke realizes, with a measure of what is possibly annoyance, he’d been looking forward to seeing.

As it stands, though, Naruto rather artfully directs the conversation away from their impending jaunt outside the village as he gives Hinata an actually genuinely thoughtful and inspiring pep talk around mouthfuls of noodles. She’s going to the Hyūga elders this evening to finally start finalizing the process of merging the Branch House and the Main House; she’d needed Naruto’s signature on a number of forms and declarations and papers, but most of all, Sasuke thinks, she needed this: reassurance from her friends. Kiba kissing the top of her head as he stands to leave, Sakura squeezing her hand, Ino putting an arm around her shoulders, and Naruto’s ironclad belief in her, Naruto’s somber belief that she can change things. Sasuke doesn’t know her fight, but he knows her resolve, and instead of empty platitudes he simply wishes her luck.

The conversation does, thankfully, keep anyone from starting one last argument over why exactly he and Naruto should not be leaving the village. It’s not like anyone could really win, though, not with the way that Naruto would doubtless a) come up with an impressive lecture about how he can’t just be uninvolved in the affairs of the village, that’s not his style, and b) the Suna envoy are all his friends, so why wouldn’t he want to go meet them, and c) Naruto would just fucking do it, anyways, and no one would be able to stop him no matter how they’d try.

Sakura looks wistful as she sees them off, and for a second Sasuke thinks she's going to ask to come with them. With him. But then she threads her fingers through Ino’s, and Ino bumps their hips together, and Sakura’s smile loses that edge of wistfulness as it warms.

“Be safe,” she tells them, “and come home soon.”

Chapter Text

They’re three hours out of the village, traveling at a moderate pace, when Sasuke slows and holds out an arm to stop Naruto.

“What?” Naruto asks, voice low.

Sasuke concentrates. He’s no sensor, and he’s no Hyūga, but he has gotten a fairly good grasp on how to use the Rinnegan and everything it entails. And there it is: the faint whisper of a someone. Several someones, unless he’s quite mistaken, which he rarely is.

“Nothing,” Sasuke finally replies.

“If you say so,” Naruto says easily, cheerfully, and shrugs.

“I do say so.” Sasuke raises an eyebrow, lets amusement bleed into his voice, then drops his arm and starts moving again. Naruto follows him immediately, nudging their shoulders together.

It’s nice to spend time with Naruto in a context that’s not fighting for survival. They’d spent a lot of time together after the War had ended, recovering, trying to find their feet in a world that had changed so radically, so rapidly for both of them. It had been… difficult. Difficult, and awkward, but nothing if not worth the effort spent to repair things, to take the threads between them that had frayed and to weave them back together. And now they’re here, walking side by side through the deepest parts of Konoha’s forest, and it’s nice.

“You know,” Naruto says, a little too casually, and Sasuke braces himself. “There's some stuff you could think about, since you're back now.”

“Like?”

“Like a genin team.”

Me?” Sasuke is absolutely baffled. “Me, a genin team.”

“Yeah! Why not?”

Sasuke knows intimately the futility of trying to convince himself to hate Naruto, but god, sometimes he really wishes he were capable of feeling anything other than this— this all-consuming thing where Naruto is concerned. But then, he supposes, he's really not one to do things by halves.

Though sometimes? Yeah, he wishes he could hate his best friend.

Sasuke, a jōnin-sensei. Really.

“Because I—— Naruto, I'm a walking example of making the worst choices.”

“Ah,” Naruto replies sagely, “but see, you learned from them, didn't you?”

“I’m not good with kids, either.” The statement comes out much more defensive than Sasuke would like it to be. “This is an awful idea.”

“Think about it,” Naruto says simply, and shrugs. “Doesn't have to be now, or even soon. But it's an option, if you want it.”

Naruto lets the subject drop with an encouraging smile. Sasuke frowns.

The thing is, he knows what his job is. Essentially, unofficially, he’s the spymaster. This is his way of protecting Konoha, of protecting Naruto, of protecting Sakura and the rest of the Konoha 11 and Kakashi, of protecting the great wooden walls themselves. He works in the shadows; he keeps an ear to the ground. He cleans up threats. He keeps the Hokage informed. He keeps Konoha’s allies informed. Because if the Alliance can work seamlessly, if the Alliance can work transparently, if everything — even ugly pasts and unsavory prejudices — can be brought to light, can be discussed and addressed without being swept under the rug for the sake of a spotless image, then, well, maybe things will be fine in the end.

Coming back to Konoha, living in Konoha, that won't change what he does except give him a place and people to return to. A genin team, on the other hand, is a type of variable that feels far too much like a wrench being thrown into the gears of his life as it stands right now.

But Sasuke, dutifully, will keep the thought in mind.

“Hey, you sense something?”

“Hmm?”

Naruto’s eyes track a hawk taking flight, pinion-feathers spread wide against the ribbon of dusk-blue sky where the trees break to bare the road, and then he looks at Sasuke. His eyes are sharp, in spite of his relaxed shoulders and easy pace.

Those whispers of chakra Sasuke had sensed earlier are decidedly closer now, though less whispers now and more of a low buzz.

“Eh, nevermind,” Naruto says. “I’m probably just being paranoid.”

“I wouldn’t blame you,” Sasuke replies. “In our lives, the price for not being vigilant is steep.”

“That’s why I keep you around,” Naruto says, grinning slyly. “It’s your job to do all that vigilance junk for me, right?”

Sasuke rolls his eyes, and precisely at that moment, a kunai flies straight for Naruto’s throat.

Naruto’s clone disappears in a puff of smoke.

Immediately, Sasuke whirls, pulls out his sword, and makes a clean cut upwards, all in one fluid movement. The tip of his blade slices just so between the eyebrows of the nin who'd been about to drive a kunai through his back, and a thin stream of blood pours out of the shallow, superficial cut and straight into her eyes. This one is clearly less experienced, and she's young; she stumbles back in surprise and automatically reaches up to paw the blood out of her eyes, in which time Sasuke slips back towards Naruto, the actual Naruto, sliding in front of him in clear defense, sword raised. He stares at the second nin, the one who'd thrown the kunai, in silent challenge.

“I search for the lapdog, and instead I find the lapdog and the master,” the nin says, gleeful, smug. Sasuke doesn’t dignify that statement with a response. “Out for a nice walk, Hokage-sama?”

“What do you want?” Naruto asks, quick and to the point. They really are astonishingly similar in that regard, Sasuke thinks. No patience for mincing words.

The man lunges forward with a kunai again, fakes out, and throws a handful of shuriken. Sasuke knocks them all away easily and sends a few spinning back towards their attacker, and then a dozen clones are surrounding them, pulling themselves out of the shadows. Naruto immediately sets upon them with taijutsu, all strength and no finesse and graceful all the same, ripping through clones like they're early-morning fog.

Sasuke, by contrast, finds himself faced with the real thing.

“You never answered his question,” Sasuke notes. In response, he gets one kunai slashing at his face, another arcing up in an attempt to gut him. He blocks and disarms both easily, and makes a mental note to write Omoi, Karui, and Darui some time. “Sparring” while the new Raikage had “graciously” “hosted” him “for diplomacy” a couple years ago is to date one of the most welcome challenges he's had, and he knows his kenjutsu is better for it.

This nin is nowhere near as skilled. Sasuke stoops to his level anyways and forces himself to make clumsy actions and clumsy mistakes, aims kicks and strikes to glance off the ribs rather than shatter them. He could down this man in the blink of an eye, but he and Naruto are here for a reason.

“No answer,” Sasuke continues, “is the wrong answer.”

The clones dissolve. Sasuke finds himself shoulder to shoulder with Naruto, and their mystery shinobi is now some feet away, crouched on a thick branch, leering down at them.

“I won't give you an answer,” he finally says, “but wouldn't it be a real shame if Sunagakure’s diplomatic envoy were to be found with a dead Hokage in their hands?”

Sasuke snorts before he can stop himself.

“You'd have to go through me first,” he says, no matter how abhorrently cliché the statement is. “And seeing as you have yet to manage that, I’d say your plan already has a big flaw in it.”

“I won't let you pin blame on anyone for anything,” Naruto adds sharply. “If you have an issue, you can take it up with me right here and right now.”

“Oh, I'll take it up with you,” the man says, going for some kind of smirk, “but that conversation will end in your death.”

The thing is, Sasuke would die for Naruto in a heartbeat, without any further thought, and he's known this ever since a fight on a bridge an entire lifetime ago. But now, though, the knowledge feels different; that fact has aged along with them, changed and grown, tinted by a quiet day spent on the verge of death at each other’s hands. So hearing someone hypothesize about Naruto’s death so flippantly, however absolutely unlikely it may be, feels like sandpaper grating across Sasuke's brain.

“Like I said–” Sasuke readjusts his grip on his sword pointedly. “–you'll have to go through me first.”

“Well, then, I’d say you’re doing a pretty pitiful job of defending your Hokage if you’ve allowed yourselves to get surrounded again.”

It takes every inch of Sasuke’s considerable self-control to not roll his eyes and explain that everything this buffoon is doing, Sasuke is allowing. His left eye positively itches with the urge to burn the new set of clones and stop this annoyance dead in his tracks already, but he holds himself back. They’re here for a reason.

Their mystery shinobi is fairly quick, at least by chūnin standards, and he's decent with kunai, again by chūnin standards. Sasuke meticulously blocks the real thing’s feints and cuts, again, as he and Naruto are surrounded by clones, again, and Naruto tasks himself with dispatching the clones, again. It’s very unlikely that this repetition is a way to lull them into a false sense of security, but rather just the hallmark of a very unimaginative man who’s severely overestimating himself and underestimating his opponents.

The girl, though—— that's worrying. For one, she's a child, and for another, she's likely got some kekkei genkai that can incapacitate them. Sasuke can always just absorb it away, and there's no doubt either of them could brute force their way out of anything, but he and Naruto are here for a reason. They're here to stall. Sasuke catches a flash of eyes and a ribbon of blood, dry and smeared and stemming from the small cut Sasuke had given her, and then the girl flits away back into the forest. Worrying.

Sasuke's attention is recaptured as he's attacked by the nin himself, flanked by two clones armed, like the original, with kunai. The challenge comes in the form of deliberately slowing his movements, of making it seems like he's struggling to keep up with three attackers as Naruto keeps another group of clones at bay, and as the nin lunges in and twists his knife, Sasuke opens his hand to switch to a reverse grip, and the kunai catches it just under the crossguard.

Sasuke watches his sword go spinning through the air to land in the roots of a particularly gnarled tree.

“What kind of fool can call himself a shinobi,” the man sneers, “if he’s dumb enough to lose an arm?”

Sasuke can feel Naruto’s temper snap.

“Naruto,” he says sharply, before his idiot best friend can make this into a lecture, “it’s not worth it.”

“He’s—”

“I know what he is,” Sasuke says, impatient. “He’s a coward who gets his money by using children to do his dirty work, and he's not worth wasting your breath over.”

“You don't know who I am.”

Right. This has gone on long enough. Sasuke has been keeping tabs on this man for over a year now, among mopping up other threats and oddities, and he’s reaching the end of his patience.

“Your name is Kuroyama Hiroto,” Sasuke informs him. “You're a missing-nin from Kusa who was never worth anything more than half a sentence in the bingo book. You keep trying to provoke nations into turning on each other by luring away orphans with clan jutsus and kekkei genkai and using them to make it look like clans are turning on each other, but you're going about it clumsily, to almost no effect, and you're endangering children who should be getting proper training. Though—” Sasuke pauses thoughtfully. “What you have been doing efficiently is making a number of powerful families in powerful nations want your head on a pike.”

Anger is gathering on Hiroto’s face. Sasuke hopes it'll make him even more incompetent. He shakes hair out of his face and goes on.

“You've also been trying to track me, by following the incredibly obvious trails I've been leaving for you, since your ego keeps you from conceptualizing someone who can outsmart you.” Someone is approaching them, carefully hidden, gathering chakra, and Sasuke subtly signals Naruto. “You were planning on capturing or killing me so that you could use me as a scapegoat for whoever you plan on murdering next, or as a catalyst to try and get Konoha to break the Alliance. Instead, you now have the two of us to contend with, as well as an envoy coming to whom I’ve been sending information on every one of your movements and attempted attacks.”

“And what you’ve been doing,” Hiroto snarls victoriously, “is running your mouth long enough to walk right into my trap.”

Sasuke has just enough time to roll his eyes and hold out a hand to stop Naruto from reacting to the wall of chakra that crashes around them, and then the world snaps.

 

 

It feels, mostly, like he’s had the air punched out of him, but he’s just sucking in water with every breath he tries to take. Beside him, Naruto looks like he’s trying to adjust as well, shoulders hunched in, one hand reflexively touching where Kurama’s seal used to be.

It’s the girl. She's young, dark hair spilling over her face, the cut between her brows still bleeding sluggishly, and her eyes are flat with determination; greenish-goldish-hazel, the same color as her chakra.

“So now you’re stuck,” Hiroto gloats. “This one’s jutsu is a particularly interesting way to die.” He spreads his hands. “If you can’t beat someone, let them do it for you. Chakra exhaustion the long way, or chakra exhaustion the short way.”

Yeah, Sasuke can feel it. Judging by the deep, calculating frown on Naruto’s face, he can feel it, too.

It’s not quite a drain, or a seal, or anything of the sort. Sasuke turns his head just a fraction, away from Hiroto, and closes his right eye.

Well. Impressive. On the surface it’s similar to any other imprisonment jutsu, using chakra as a barrier. But the girl’s kekkei genkai uses water and lightning release and he can feel the charge present in the wall around them, sparking live and dangerous. But it’s the other thing that makes this formidable. The sphere of chakra is– Sasuke squints and wracks his brain to find some way to describe it. It’s like diving underwater with a sealed jar, like they’ve been suspended in some kind of chakra-laden medium that their chakra systems are being forced to adapt to and equalize with. The air feels thick, heavy; Sasuke gathers the slightest amount of chakra in one foot and something wrenches, yanking easily twice the amount of chakra he’d intended out of him. Next to him, Naruto shifts suddenly, looks down at his own foot in surprise.

“I felt that,” Naruto says. “What did you do? It felt like you shoved me.”

Shh.

So chakra exhaustion the long way — and it will be long, with the sheer amount of chakra between himself, Naruto, and Kurama — is what will happen if they do nothing. Chakra exhaustion the short way is what will happen if they try to fight back.

Hiroto is studying him through the wall of sparking chakra between them.

“Interesting, isn’t it?” he repeats. “I knew it was too much to hope that you’d try something brash and kill yourselves using too much chakra. Thankfully, though, I can always just make this—” He brings his hands together violently, mimicking a crushing implosion, smirking in a way that makes it clear he’s trying to be intimidating. “Either way, I win.”

“Hmm,” Sasuke replies, uninterested, and turns to Naruto. “Hand.”

Naruto holds out his left, still frowning, albeit quizzically now. Sasuke braces himself for that strange wrenching sensation, touches the back of Naruto’s hand with just his fingertips, and tries to gather chakra in his palm. Lightning sparks across Naruto’s skin and sheathes his fingertips in light.

Ow, what the hell—” Naruto pulls his hand back, and then levels a glare at Hiroto before turning it on Sasuke.

Huh. He can’t see chakra pathways quite like the Hyuuga can, but between the Sharingan and the Rinnegan and some guesswork, he’s got a good idea of what this jutsu was supposed to be used for. What it should be used for. Because the pinched, desperate look on that girl’s face speaks volumes about how this is most definitely not it.

“I have an idea, and I’m going to test something,” Sasuke says, one corner of his mouth curling up. “It’ll be probably be painful, and very weird for you.”

He braces himself, and redirects a fraction of chakra away from his eyes. Immediately everything blurs back into color and oh, that’s unpleasant, the way there’s a sucking vacuum of chakra, like water rushing into his lungs. So that’s it, then: he needs to maintain the exact output level of chakra as the moment he’d gotten stuck in here. Right. That’ll come after this.

Sasuke steps closer to Naruto, shoves everything out of his brain and his chest except for this thread of curiosity he’s trying to follow, and lifts his fingers to gently touch Naruto’s face.

“Ready,” Sasuke says, blinks, and calls up his Sharingan.

They nearly stumble apart with the force of chakra that slams between them and Naruto blinks wildly, turning his head this way and that, looking down at his hands, and— -

Naruto laughs, bright and wild, and looks Sasuke right in the eyes.

Seeing his own Sharingan staring back at him from Naruto’s face is singularly unnerving.

“Look at you!” Naruto exclaims, grinning. “You’re so bright, Sasuke. Wow.” He looks around again, squints at Hiroto and the girl, inspects the sphere of chakra containing them, and then his eyes are on Sasuke again, tracking up from his chest to his eyes to his shoulder to his hand back to his chest, seemingly unable to settle on a single thing to look at. “You look so— I dunno, you’re blinding. Is this what it’s like, every time?”

“Every time,” Sasuke replies, his theory quite heavily supported at this point, and he finds himself mirroring Naruto’s smile. “You should see yourself.”

This is— - interesting, he firmly thinks, instead of some other word that would capture what it’s like to feel it as Naruto grins, skin warm under his fingers. Yes, decidedly interesting. And an uncomfortably huge drain on his chakra, at present.

Sasuke lets his hand fall away and that awful vacuum yanks chakra out of him again and this time, he feels himself sway. Between this and a week of hard travel and a scrap with some rogue civilians and maybe a bit of seeing how far he can push bending spacetime with the Rinnegan, he’ll likely be dipping into his reserves by the end of this, which hasn’t happened in a very long time. Oh well. He blinks and calls back his Rinnegan and his Sharingan and another massive amount of chakra is sucked out of him but it equalizes this time, at least, back to a relative trickle.

There’s a thoughtful look creeping into Naruto’s eyes and he studies Sasuke for a few seconds, brows starting to furrow with concentration, and then he holds out his fist expectantly. Sasuke wills every single cell in his body to keep a steady heart rate as he touches his knuckles to Naruto’s, and then Naruto grins, and then the world shifts.

“You again,” comes a low rumble. “You leave the doors to this place unlocked way too often, Naruto.”

“Hello, Kurama,” Sasuke says. A pair of luminous eyes study him placidly, and then Kurama snorts, crosses his paws, and turns to lay his head down on them.

“Sasuke,” Naruto says, excited and bright and bright, blinding. “That was great.”

“I think this jutsu was originally supposed to be used as some kind of… amplifier,” Sasuke explains, without preface. “Imagine being able to multiply the effects of a kekkei genkai or clan jutsu, to give it to multiple people temporarily, instantly, and without danger of them learning how to use it.” Naruto frowns thoughtfully. “When I shared the Sharingan with you, it formed temporary chakra pathways around and through your eyes, and then channeled my chakra through them.”

“Yeah, and it hurt,” Naruto mutters.

“I warned you,” Sasuke reminds him. “I think, in here, any jutsu we’d try would end up doubled between us, requiring… probably four times the chakra it’d normally need. Maybe more.”

One of Kurama’s eyes is cracked open, staring accusingly at Sasuke.

“So that’s what you did,” Kurama says. “Don’t do it again, Uchiha. That felt nasty.”

“It was cool,” Naruto insists.

“You just complained about it hurting,” Kurama snaps, but there’s a good-natured flash of teeth in there.

“Additionally,” Sasuke says, cutting across them both, “that barrier is self-sustaining. That girl is there to give it shape and to hold it, and the initial chakra came from her, but the rest is being siphoned off of us. If we can slam enough chakra into that barrier, we can break it.” He meets Naruto’s eyes. “I could just absorb it, or move out of here. But I’d like to know what kind of limit this jutsu has, and—” He shrugs. “—why not break a few things today.”

“We have to save that girl,” Naruto says, firmly, fiercely. “She doesn't deserve this. And you found other kids he's gotten too, right? We have to—” He crosses his arms, clenches his jaw, shakes his head distractedly. “What a bastard.”

“That’s why we’re here,” Sasuke reminds him. “The other kids have to be nearby, he’s never kept his prizes too far out of reach. We take him, we find the girl, we get the other kids, we go home. With the envoy and Anbu coming, this can be taken care of transparently, legally, and without ruffling any feathers.”

“Okay,” Naruto says, and un-crosses his arms. “Let’s get out of here, then.”

The warm, white emptiness bleeds away as the pressure of Naruto’s knuckles leaves his fist, and Sasuke is once more faced with a shimmering, shifting wall of chakra, and two faces behind it. The girl is whispering something insistently to Hiroto, and Hiroto seems to be ignoring her entirely.

Right.

Sasuke methodically forms a chain of seals and lets fire take shape in the palm of his hand, burning hot and reassuring. That resonant hum starts to build as Naruto gathers wind, tight and neat, and then it’s time to layer in one lick of Amaterasu’s flames, then another, then another, and then he’s weaved an undying inferno between his fingers, a wildfire waiting to be unleashed, already starting to push the edges of his control as Naruto’s gale becomes a maelstrom.

Their hands come together like magnet poles, perfectly balanced, perfectly aligned, and distantly Sasuke hears Hiroto and the girl both shouting something in dissonance but then the barrier snaps and Sasuke feels it physically, like a boom deep in his chest, and his and Naruto’s chakra suddenly quadruples without the pressure of the barrier and—

Sasuke is hyperaware of every single cell in his body as he moves to throw himself over Naruto, as Susano-o’s ribcage flares proud and strong around them, as wind and fire come together with a blast that rattles his teeth.

(A largely symbolic gesture, he thinks a little belatedly as he lifts his arm from over Naruto’s shoulders and blinks Amaterasu back out of existence before it can start burning the forest. Naruto can protect himself, and Kurama would have protected Naruto just as readily. He stamps out guilt before it can settle heavily in his stomach.)

The air reeks like smoke and ozone. The girl is 30 feet away, not moving, but alive and conscious. Hiroto is on the move. There: the whisper-whistle of a kunai. Before Sasuke can act, Naruto blurs forward and snatches it out of the air, and then Naruto’s fist meets Hiroto’s face with a resounding thump.

“Your actions aren't doing anything to destabilize the Alliance,” Naruto tells Hiroto, voice sharp with determination. “You're just hurting innocent people.”

Hiroto throws up a thick wall of earth and forces Naruto to jump back, skidding; Sasuke darts forward in his place, sorely wishing he had his sword. Hiroto will never even vaguely approach anything resembling a challenge; it’s nothing more than wanting the comfort of a familiar weapon in his hand. And really, the only reason he strung Hiroto along to such lengths was so that there could be a nice, peaceful, diplomatic resolution to the sleeping dog Hiroto was stubbornly trying to not let lie. Certainly not for a fair fight.

Sasuke finds vicious pleasure in how shaken Hiroto looks. Clearly he hadn't been planning on them breaking out of the girl’s jutsu, and now he's likely wholly unprepared to face them. Hiroto’s hands fly through another string of seals, and Sasuke’s in the air before the ground can even begin to liquefy into mud in a wave that spreads down along the road. He lands behind Hiroto and lands a few very light, glancing blows, makes an obvious move to sweep his feet out from under him, sends a gout of flame his way for good measure. Naruto keeps Hiroto occupied on the opposite flank, never quite in range, and Sasuke watches as the childish rage builds on Hiroto’s face.

Hiroto’s techniques are getting sloppier, and he’s also dipping into techniques that he’s clearly borrowed, things he has little to no mastery over. He sends a rippling dome of rock over Naruto, who breaks through it in a whirling gust of wind; he tries some kind of water release immobilization on Sasuke next, equally to no effect, and his frustration is absolutely palpable.

Distantly, Sasuke can feel a pinpricks of chakra rapidly closing on their location, tightly wound and ready to act.

Fuck it. Sasuke is running out of patience, and they don't need to stall for much longer. He closes his eyes, inhales, and opens them again, and the giant, spectral form of Susano-o rises around him, half-submerged in the ground, bones lit with chakra like sea-glass at twilight.

“What is this?” Hiroto snarls. “You can’t hope to trap me in some kind of illusion.”

This man is even more dense than Sasuke had thought previously. It’s a wonder he’d been able to do what he’d done — to kill skilled shinobi, to shake up clans — but then, Sasuke himself knows just how much power can be found in stubbornness. And in exceptionally talented children with kekkei genkai.

Naruto leaps over Hiroto and slips easily between Susano-o’s ribs, sliding to a halt at Sasuke’s side.

“Listen, Hi… roto? Hiroto?” Naruto wrinkles his nose in concentration. “That sounds right. Anyways, what you’ve been doing is wrong, but I’m sure you know that. Why?

“Why do this?” Hiroto’s face is twisted, angry. Sasuke holds an arrow loosely between Susano-o’s spectral fingers, resting lightly against the bow. “Because your peace ruined my way of life. Ever read a bingo book? I’m a bounty hunter. Your farce of an Alliance destroyed my prey. And you—” His rage-filled eyes turn to Sasuke. “You keep getting in my way when I try to collect.”

Sasuke raises his eyebrows.

“I what?” He lets out a bark of laughter. What a deplorable man. “I hadn’t even realized you’d been trying to hunt people down.”

It’s a lie. Sasuke had known, but he hadn’t given it any semblance of care, and now it’s working to get under Hiroto’s skin. His face is flushed and ugly as he throws an entire sealing scroll’s worth of weapons at them. They each clatter uselessly off of Susano-o.

“The Alliance is trying to create a world where we don’t need people like you,” Naruto says. “No more for-hire murderers killing people for petty reasons. No more blood money spent on politicking. It’s not going to happen immediately, but taking care of people like you is where we start. So you can either surrender now, and we can talk about things, or you can keep attacking like some kind of bullheaded idiot.”

“Takes one to know one,” Sasuke mutters. Naruto elbows him.

“I,” Hiroto snarls, sneering, raging, “will never surrender to the likes of you.”

Hiroto’s hands blur in a series of seals that's– no, that's impossible, if he's gotten hold of this jutsu the Yamanaka clan may actually skin him alive, and Sasuke closes his right eye because Shintenshin is on the list of things he really does not want to deal with today, and just before the last seal Hiroto—— freezes.

“That doesn't belong to you,” a mild voice calls from somewhere behind Hiroto. Hiroto, face straining, moves suddenly to stand on one leg, the other kicked straight up, hands pinned to his sides. “And I'm pretty sure the clan head is going to have your head for this.”

Sasuke feels a smirk pull at the corners of his mouth.

“Don’t have much of a choice now, do you?”

Hiroto’s face is flushed with anger. The effect is lessened somewhat by how he's wiggling his shoulders now, shuffling from foot to foot.

“You were— impossible, you were supposed to— you can't do this, you can't be capable of——”

Pride, dark and virulent, rises in Sasuke’s throat.

“You have,” he says, “no idea what i'm capable of.”

Susano-o rises to its full height, armor shining, Amaterasu’s flames burning dark at the tip of a nocked arrow. The ground trembles with the force of chakra that radiates from him, from Susano-o, and Sasuke finally shakes hair out of both of his eyes to stare evenly at Hiroto.

Sasuke finds an absolutely vicious satisfaction in watching the blood drain out of his face.

“You lose,” Sasuke says, and Hiroto, so enraged, so incapable of thinking, strains to raise his chin in defiance, and meets Sasuke's eyes.

Sleep, Sasuke wills.

And Hiroto does.

His face slackens, and when Shikamaru drops his jutsu, Hiroto crumples unceremoniously to the ground.

“Good to see you, Sasuke,” Shikamaru says, and nods as he returns to his usual casual slouch.

A low whistle sounds from behind him.

“No kill like overkill, huh?” Temari is wearing a look of sharp amusement as she walks up past Shikamaru to nudge Hiroto with her foot. “You keep this up and Konoha’s gonna have a reputation of having the most overdramatic shinobi in the Alliance.” A few shinobi — mostly chūnin, and what looks like one genin team — are looking at Susano-o in slack-jawed awe.

“Oh, please, everyone knows we're the best at everything,” Naruto says, grinning at her.

Sasuke lets go of Susano-o and lets all of that chakra melt away, blinks away the Sharingan and lets his shoulders relax.

Interestingly enough, the world looks like it's being swirled around in a fishbowl.

“Whoa,” Naruto murmurs, much too close to his ear, and Sasuke feels an arm curl around his back.

“I'm fine,” Sasuke snaps reflexively.

Naruto laughs, quietly, gently, still somewhere way too close, and Sasuke screws his eyes shut, then reopens them, and the world is swaying substantially less this time.

Naruto still has an arm firmly around his waist and he's peering at Sasuke with gentle concern. There's a smudge of ash across the bridge of Naruto's nose.

“I’m fine,” Sasuke repeats, firmly, and gently slides out of Naruto’s hold. Naruto’s hand lingers on Sasuke’s back. Sasuke clenches his jaw and banishes the thoughts leering at him from the corners of his mind.

Naruto gives him one last I very much don’t believe that you’re ‘fine’ look before he heaves out a sigh, plants a hand on his hip, and frowns down at Hiroto.

“I hate holding back,” he grouses. “This wasn't a fun fight at all. Hey!” He snaps his fingers. “Let's spar sometime, Sasuke. Go all out.”

“I only have so many more limbs to spare,” Sasuke replies wryly, and he brushes a white streak of ash off of his cloak before turning away. “Go find those kids Hiroto had with him. There were five, last week.”

“Where are you going?” Naruto asks. Sasuke can hear the frown in his voice. In lieu of an answer, Sasuke flips out his cloak, gestures at his conspicuously empty sheath, and keeps walking.

 

 

His sword had been blown deeper into the forest with the force of that blast, and it’s covered in dirt and soot and blood, nearly unrecognizable. He kneels to pick it up, then guides a sparking lance of chakra down the blade. Everything crusting it vaporizes, and drifts through the air as fine ash. He stands, flicks off any residue for good measure, and sheathes his sword.

It’s a good weapon. Its logic is simple. Cut, or be cut down. It suits him, Sasuke thinks, and more than that, he’s made it his. It’s not an inheritance, not something he mantled from Itachi; it’s not even really something Orochimaru had given him, not really. His kenjutsu is his own, wrenched and wrought by his own hand, honed by use.

“There's no sense trying that,” he announces to the trees. “You won't touch me.”

Behind him, there's a nearly silent thump as a small body lands in the grass.

“What are you?” accuses a young voice. “Your chakra is just as unreal as that— as the Hokage’s is. I've never felt anything like him before, but you— you're just as bizarre. Are you going to kill me now, too?”

“I’m just a shinobi from Konoha,” Sasuke replies, turning, and he shrugs. “And Hiroto isn't dead. The Kages will deal with him as they see fit.”

The girl is still crouched low to the grass, still holding the kunai she'd doubtless intended to stab him in the back with, and there's a part-terrified, part-determined, part-wild, entirely stubborn look on her face.

“What's your name?” Sasuke asks.

“Yumi.”

“Clan?”

“Dead.” Her eyes are hard. “The War. The Kages’ War.”

Ah.

“Hiroto is— was— training you,” he says. It’s not a question. “He told you that he’ll help you take revenge, that you’ll be stronger together, that your goals are the same. Am I right?” Slowly, Yumi nods. “Hmm.”

Naruto’s chakra is moving slowly, steadily closer. He’s likely looking at least for Sasuke, if not for Yumi as well.

“What?” she snaps. “Are you gonna tell me he was using me? I heard what you said to him earlier. I don’t care. I just want—”

“You want it to just consume you already,” Sasuke interrupts. “It’s been eating at you for so long, you just want it over already. You want it gone. You can’t stop thinking about how you can’t stop thinking about it.” Yumi’s face is flashing through an impressive series of emotions. “You know how to make it stop?”

“By making them pay,” she shouts, face flushed with how upset she is. “What would you know? You have a village, you have—”

“You surround yourself with people,” Sasuke continues, talking over her evenly, hand in his pocket. “You find someone worth protecting, and you become someone worth protecting. You find people willing to share your pain, willing to shoulder it sometimes when it’s too much for you.” He waits; she says nothing, refusing to meet his eyes. “And if you’re really lucky, cosmically lucky, you’ll find someone willing to knock sense into you when you do something monumentally stupid.”

“You can’t possibly– you don’t know what it’s like to–”

“I know exactly what it’s like,” Sasuke snaps, much more sharply than he’d meant to. She flinches. “My entire family was killed for the sake of politics. Revenge drove me to the point that I nearly murdered my best friend, multiple times, and I didn’t care how many people got in my way. I know a thing or two about grief.” Yumi’s wide eyes flick up at him, and then behind him, and then back at the ground. “And I know,” he continues, trying, trying to be gentle, “that it’s miserable, and it’s awful, and it feels like it’ll never change. But you have to face it, and you have to give letting go a chance.”

Naruto stops his slow walk to them just behind Sasuke, and lays a very gentle hand on his back.

“I don’t— I can’t, I can’t just–” Yumi knots a hand in her dark hair. “I can’t. I don’t know anything else. This is my path.”

“Come to Konoha,” Sasuke tries, rather than sharing an embarrassingly sentimental anecdote in front of Naruto. “We’ve offered sanctuary to a lot of people whose homes and families didn’t survive the war.”

Yumi blinks, clearly taken aback. Sasuke tries again.

“I know it feels like giving up,” he says. “But letting your life move forward isn’t giving up. Finding more people to care about doesn’t erase the ones who are gone.” Naruto is standing close to him, almost too close, shoulders brushing together, hand still on Sasuke’s back. “Stay or don’t, that’s up to you. But at least come back to the village with us.”

Yumi chews on her lip.

“Hiroto has been… captured?”

“Yes.” It’s Naruto who answers. Yumi’s eyes briefly flick over to him again, then back at Sasuke.

“I… he’s going with you, then.” Sasuke nods. “I’ll— I’ll walk with you. We’ll see. I don’t know.”

And hell, that’s good enough.

 

 

“You're a good man, Sasuke,” Naruto says, apropos of nothing, as they watch Yumi slowly pick her way out of the forest back towards the road.

“I am… glad you think that,” Sasuke replies, mouth twisting with the effort to be diplomatic, to not snap back that no he is not a good man, he hasn't ever been, and a few scant years of trying to do good things isn't shit in the face of what he's done. And, well, okay, maybe he's not entirely done with his self-flagellating, self-pitying bullshit, but he wouldn't be himself without any brooding, would he.

“Sasuke,” Naruto says, firmly, thunder building in his voice. “Sasuke. Look at me.”

Sasuke fully and completely understands the irony of not wanting to look someone in the eyes for fear of your will crumbling. Still, he determinedly looks forward, knowing full well that the second his eyes meet Naruto’s, which will surely be wide and imploring and bright and deep, it's over. The hand on his shoulder lifts and Sasuke feels warm fingers on the side of his jaw, turning his head, as Naruto leans over to look at him.

(He was right. He meets Naruto’s wide and imploring and bright and deep eyes and he can feel every stubborn inch of himself give way.)

“You're a good man,” Naruto repeats. “You made some fucking awful choices in the past, and there’s no changing that, but you're moving forward. You're here.” Naruto’s hand moves and he carefully tucks hair behind Sasuke's ear. “You came home.”

Sasuke— inhales.

Saying something like I haven’t been touched by another person outside of combat for years, nobody's ever touched me like this, not like you do sounds— - kinda bad. It sounds pretty bad. But it’s true. And he won't say it, because then Naruto will undoubtedly do something awfully, stubbornly sentimental like make sure he regularly touches Sasuke like this, like this, fingers warm where they're lingering, and Sasuke knows his limits, and knows he simply would not be able to handle this— this gifted intimacy, this tenderness that he steadily convinces himself isn't something Naruto means like that.

And god, he doesn't want to think about that, about the fact that the most intimate touch he's ever shared with Naruto involved putting an arm through his chest when they were still just fucking children—

But he stops, and thinks about it, because shoving all his monsters uncritically and indiscriminately under the bed is what got him in every single one of his messes in the first place.

“Naruto, I–” Sasuke lifts his hand, wraps it around Naruto’s, closes his eyes, and takes a deep breath.

“I know,” Naruto says, smiling his mostly-infuriating-partially-endearing I know everything about you better than you do smile.

And Sasuke nearly frowns because does he know? Does he really know that Sasuke had been so fucking foolishly close to telling Naruto that he——

...well, fuck, actions have always spoken much louder than words with them, haven't they. So Sasuke swallows words that have always felt hollow and formulaic when he's considered them, and he tries a smile instead.

“Hey,” calls Shikamaru’s voice, “we gonna get back home at some point tonight? I’ve been dreaming about a real bed instead of sandbags for weeks.”

“Okay,” Temari calls from further behind him, “Konoha shinobi are definitely the most overdramatic. You win. Whatever that means for you.”

Shikamaru winds his way through a few trees, and studies a dark streak scorched into the bark.

“She might be onto something,” he muses. “Let’s go, seriously. Anbu’s here, they’re waiting on your word for what to do with that bounty hunter, and Sai’s already excused themself to go find the rest of those kids.”

“Oh, good,” Naruto says, and start walking towards Shikamaru, towards the road back home. Sasuke follows him. “And the other kid, the one who was here?”

“Temari’s got her,” Shikamaru replies, and turns to join them. “She looks pretty shaken, but she’s okay.”

“Good,” Naruto says again. “Alright, let’s go home.”

Three Anbu are standing at attention around a very unconscious, very sealed, very incapacitated Hiroto, and their masks all turn towards Naruto expectantly as he walks up. Naruto looks down at Hiroto, nose wrinkled as he thinks, and then he runs a hand through his hair.

“Take him to Intelligence,” Naruto finally says. “Ino might, uh… have a thing or two to say to him. Send a preliminary report to the Alliance that he’s in custody, and Shikamaru and I can write something more formal and boring tomorrow.”

The Anbu squad nods; one of them stoops down to pick up Hiroto and lob him over one shoulder like a sack of rice, and then they all wordlessly, silently bound into the trees, dark shapes streaking west.

“I love being volunteered to write reports,” Shikamaru says flatly. Temari knees him in the thigh, but she’s smiling exasperatedly as she does it.

“Hey, I did say tomorrow,” Naruto reminds him. “Be grateful I have other, more important things to do tonight. Hokage business. So let’s get going, yeah?”

“Oh,” Shikamaru says, and a spark of genuine curiosity lights in his eyes as he reads between the lines. “You guys gonna get started on the compound? Tonight?” He nods at Sasuke.

“Yeah,” Sasuke says, which Naruto follows up with an emphatic, “hell yeah.”

“Cool,” Shikamaru replies, a slow smile spreading across his face. “Well, good luck.”

“Thanks,” Sasuke says, and he gets the vague feeling that Shikamaru is talking about something more than just the paperwork he and Naruto plan to get through.

It’s decidedly dusky, now; depending on how fast the envoy can move with those genin in tow, it’ll likely be at least another hour till they get back to Konoha, give or take. He and Naruto could do it in less, but it’ll admittedly be nice to move with the envoy.

He casts a look over his shoulder. Temari is smiling encouragingly down at Yumi, who looks a little flustered, and one of the chūnin is rounding up the three genin into an approximate sort of formation near the back of their group before nodding at Temari and then at Naruto.

Sasuke turns his gaze west, at the last, faint glimmer of brilliant gold bleeding into the deep indigo of night, as Naruto takes a step forward and says, “let’s go home.”

Chapter Text

Sasuke looks up at the cracked, slumping gateway into the old Uchiha compound, and considers it for a moment.

“Sasuke?”

Naruto has that look on his face.

“If you’re going to spend the entire time asking me if I’m okay,” Sasuke replies, “then I’ll go alone.” Naruto opens his mouth to protest, and Sasuke cuts him off. “You know I’ve been here before, right?” A couple of times when he was staying in Konoha after the War, when he’d been living in an apartment bloc with Naruto and Sakura and the majority of the Konoha 11 and other shinobi still displaced by reconstruction. But that’s not what he’s thinking of. “Before— during the War.”

“Really?” Naruto asks, raising his eyebrows in surprise. “I didn’t know that. I mean, I know you stopped here when you came for the inauguration, but I didn’t know you came here during the War.”

“See? You don’t know everything about me.” Sasuke feels the corner of his mouth curl up in a familiar half-smirk, half-smile, reserved just for Naruto, and he tips his head, motioning for Naruto to follow as he steps onto the grounds of the compound. “We came here to… ah, resurrect the previous four Hokage.”

“Oh.” Naruto looks thoughtful. “You know, I’m really glad I had the chance to meet my dad. Even though the circumstances were a little—–” Naruto makes a face and waves his hand in a wishy-washy gesture.

“I’m glad I could meet your dad, too,” Sasuke says. He doesn’t say that all he remembers of his own father was a sense of disappointment, of never being good enough. He’ll let the memory of Minato — bright and determined and self-sacrificing, so unbelievably like Naruto — stand on its own.

“It’s kinda shitty,” Naruto adds, lowering his voice, looking away, “but I wish I could have seen my mom brought back with Edo Tensei, too. I met her... well, her chakra, uh, ghost, and I met my dad’s before, too, but it’s— you know, it’s not the same.”

Sasuke thinks about Itachi, and about killing Itachi, and about speaking with Itachi after he’d been brought back with Edo Tensei, and agrees.

 

 

The wing of the compound that had housed the Shrine once is still leveled, though the debris has long since been cleared from atop the entryway to the underground. Sasuke had re-sealed that stone slab himself before leaving Konoha, laid the legacy of his family to rest, and he doesn't do much more than glance in that direction before moving on. There’s grass growing there, now, thick and green as if to spite the autumnal chill, the impending frosty nights.

His feet take him on a long, slow arc around the compound, weaving near houses that range from even more dilapidated than he remembers having left them at twelve years old, to houses that look like they've seen some repair: new windows, brighter paint, freshly planted flowers. Naruto follows him, respectfully, unusually quiet, a warm presence at his side. When their hands bump together, neither of them say anything.

Eventually, Sasuke stops at the end of a familiar path. His childhood home is— it's essentially gone. The foundations are still there, mostly, but the walls have collapsed, and it's almost unrecognizable. Sasuke gives it a long look.

“I think I’m ready for it to be gone,” he says, quietly.

Naruto, uncharacteristically, says nothing. Instead, Sasuke feels warm fingers circle carefully, gently around his wrist. When Sasuke moves again, he doesn't pull his hand out of Naruto’s.

Finally, finally, he heads towards his goal: a house near the center of the compound, one of the handful of homes that had been unmarred by the massacre. The old woman living there had passed away just days before, following her wife’s passing a week prior, and Sasuke remembers asking Itachi what’ll happen to that empty home. He doesn't remember what Itachi’s answer had been.

It's also one of the homes that's been repaired, specifically at his request. The door is unlocked; he pushes it open, slowly, and pauses in the doorway. Naruto follows him closely, too close like he always is, crowding their shoulders in the doorframe, hand still around Sasuke’s wrist and inching down toward his palm.

The small house is quiet except for the sound of their breaths. It's dark, too, since Sasuke can't bring himself to turn the lights on; he gets the feeling it would be invasive in this moment, somehow. Naruto nudges him gently, and he takes a step into the house.

Sasuke is about to act on the executive decision to move his hand so that his palm fits against Naruto’s when——

“Shit!” Naruto gasps, and smacks a hand to his forehead, eyes wide. “I forgot the fucking paperwork!

“The—” Sasuke laughs. “The reason we came here, you forgot that?”

“That's not the whole reason we came here,” Naruto protests. “This is you moving in. You live here now, like, officially, since you walked in.” And then he groans. “The keys.

“You forgot the keys.”

“I forgot the keys.”

Naruto drags his hands down his face.

“I'll be right back,” he says, and then his face softens out of the look of mortified despair he'd been wearing. “I'll give you some time, okay?”

Some time. Right. It's probably going to take more than ten or fifteen minutes for Sasuke to accept that this is a house that he owns that's his now, but… yeah, he'll take it.

“Sure,” he replies.

“Sorry,” Naruto says, and grimaces. “Be back.”

He gently squeezes Sasuke's arm, and then he's gone.

 

 

Sasuke leans against the doorway and looks out over what is now his front yard. The whole thing isn't much, not really, but it's his. A bedroom, a spare room, a kitchen that opens up into a larger room; it’s all been furnished simply and sparingly. The veranda is wide and empty and clean save for a few leaves that have blown onto it, and Sasuke thinks he kind of likes it that way.

Actually, that's not entirely correct. At the far end of the veranda, something very small is crouched defensively, and as Sasuke turns, eyes flash in the darkness. Sasuke crouches slowly, holds out a hand, and clicks his tongue.

It's a cat, barely out of kittenhood. Her fur is streaked with dirt and she looks a little too thin, shoulders sticking up bony as she eyes him warily, and her ears go flat for a second before she streaks away.

Sasuke spares a few thoughts for Nekobaa and Tamaki as he fills a bowl with water to leave outside. Someone’s put some essentials and non-perishables in the cabinets — spices, sugar, flour, rice, even some garlic and a couple instant soups — but there's nothing he could leave out for a cat. Tomorrow, then, he can buy a can of food and see if she'll come back.

He’ll need to buy a lot of things, probably. It’s been so long since he last lived in anything that could be called a house (much less a home) that he doesn’t really know what to do with this space. He takes off his shoes, hangs up his coat, turns the kotatsu on after a moment of deliberation, rifles through the kitchen drawers and cupboards, runs the water in the bathroom, shakes out the soft comforter on the bed, opens the door to the spare room, stares into its intimidating emptiness, closes the door, moves back to the kitchen.

Well, the yard is big enough for a garden. He could work on that in the spring. There’s something immeasurably appealing about creating something that will last, about helping something grow, about putting down literal roots. The windowsill above the kitchen sink is wide enough to hold jars for hydroponic herbs; he can keep scallions, at the very least. The spare room, as intimidating as it currently is, can hold his weapons and the sealing scrolls he’s accumulated over the past decade or so. The rest is fine as it is; sparsity is alright for now.

(Distantly, a little sheepishly, he resolves to ask Sakura for a copy of their old, old team photo. The memory of that photo has never been able to leave him, embarrassing babyface chubby cheeks or no.)

He takes a breath, and inhales the scent of his house. This is his house. His home. Though it's missing something, the part of his brain that never shuts up tells him, it's missing someone, because he's never been able to think of the word home without thinking of Naruto.

The house is a start. It’s a good start. It’s spacious, but not cavernous and intimidating, and it's large enough to accommodate visitors, however sparingly he might be getting them. And with that thought, Sasuke steps outside onto the veranda again, because Naruto’s chakra is approaching.

It’s decidedly chilly outside, and Sasuke considers going back for his cloak, but at the same time the cold air is so sharp, so thoroughly revitalizing, that instead he steps down onto the dewy grass, drops his hand into the pocket of his pants, and watches Konoha’s skyline as he waits for Naruto to make his way through the compound.

After only a handful of heartbeats Naruto bounds around the corner, drenched in moonlight, then slows to a walk as he approaches the house.

“Hey,” Naruto calls, and it's subdued, softer than his usual reckless volume. He cuts a striking figure, cloak billowing out behind him, thick folder tucked under one arm, shoulders broad, hair its usual perpetual mess, all but glowing in the light of an almost-full moon.

“Hey.”

For some reason, Sasuke does not turn to accompany Naruto into the house, and instead he holds his ground as Naruto walks up to him. The night feels alive, somehow, compelling him to keep his voice low and soft, to not break this crisp calmness, not to chase away something that's just at the edges of his perception, something large that feels like a wave about to break.

“Thank you,” he finally says. “For letting me do this. For doing this for me.”

“Sasuke,” Naruto replies quietly, “of course I would do this for you. This is— I’d go to the ends of the goddamn earth for you. I did once, already.” Naruto steps closer. “I’d die for you. I told you that, before. And that hasn't changed. This— of course I’d do this for you.”

Sasuke feels lightheaded, dizzy. Naruto's right; he has told Sasuke this before. But not like this: not with Naruto too close to him, not with the street lamps casting a steady glow across both their faces, not with his feet bare and covered in the evening dew that's coating the grass in front of the house he’s about to start a new chapter of his life in.

“Naruto,” he begins.

And— to hell with it.

He lays a hand flat on Naruto’s chest, just at his collarbone, and he can feel Naruto watching him solemnly, patiently. Sasuke has been in love with his best friend for over a fucking decade now and probably even fucking longer than that, honestly, and empirically he knows that Naruto had chased him for four fucking years through half the countries in the Alliance and yet—— -

And yet. That awful, dark voice deep in him slithers through his ears, twists around his throat. He can't lose something he’s never had. And he's lost enough.

“Never mind,” he says shortly and takes a few steps back before turning away towards the house. “Let’s go in.”

“Don't do that,” Naruto says, and he's angry.

“What?”

Sasuke turns. Something sparks in the air between them, almost tangible. Naruto is standing with fists clenched and eyes burning and he is bright and beautiful and Sasuke can't quite breathe as Naruto speaks.

“You want it, then come and get it. And if you won't, I'll do it for you. I've had to before, I'll do it again.”

And if there's any ironclad way to galvanize Sasuke into action, it's a challenge.

He closes the distance between himself and Naruto and Naruto’s bright, luminescent anger and he shuts everything neatly out of his mind except for the way his hand fits so nicely against Naruto’s jaw, the way his thumb can sweep just so up his cheek, the way Naruto leans into him and meets him halfway as he's done in every other aspect of their lives.

Naruto allows him one measured, quiet kiss before making it his own; brash and overwhelming and full of energy and so much, it’s so much, and Sasuke is breathless. It's a little clumsy and neither of them is particularly great at this but Sasuke finds himself trembling anyways, maybe, just a bit, lightheadedness back in full force. He leans in and buries his face in Naruto’s shoulder, hand curled in short hair, and breathes.

“Let's go inside,” Naruto says, “or you'll catch a cold, and I don't think Sakura would let us hear the end of it.” He gently, carefully brushes hair off of Sasuke’s shoulder and presses a kiss to the slope of his neck.

It’s a logical request. Sasuke acquiesces slowly, because this is good and in fact it is absolutely great and he’d like to stay tangled up in Naruto’s limbs for probably the rest of his life, but— yes. Catching a cold would not be ideal.

He leans away, and Naruto is wearing a dead serious look on his face. Dread starts to collect in the pit of Sasuke’s stomach. Naruto closes his eyes and takes a deep breath.

“Sasuke,” he says, opening his eyes with determination, “I gotta touch your hair.”

“You— what?

“It’s so fucking long, I just— I gotta—”

Hey!

“—oh, come on, holy shit—”

“Maybe, if you asked, like a person, instead of—”

“How can you say no to this face!”

Sasuke snaps a leg out to sweep Naruto’s feet out from under him.

Which backfires immediately, of course, because Naruto just yanks him down to the ground as he falls. Sasuke narrowly avoid knocking their fucking skulls together and he opens his mouth to ask Naruto honestly what the fuck when Naruto just starts laughing, giddy and breathless, and he gently buries a hand in Sasuke’s hair, palm cradling his head, fingertips brushing slowly across his scalp. The files of paperwork lie next to them, momentarily discarded.

“You loser,” Sasuke manages, but it’s half-wheezed and missing any of the bite he’d intended for it because this simple, tender act has him positively boneless. Naruto is still laughing as Sasuke levers himself up on his forearm and kisses him, and as terribly, horribly clichè as the thought is, it’s the sweetest thing Sasuke’s ever tasted.

 

 

Naruto drops the thick folder onto the table, and it lands with a slightly ominous thud. The keys come next, shining and new, clinking together on their keyring.

This will take some getting used to, Sasuke realizes, with no small amount of surprise. It’s not the first time they’ve taken a big step forward in their lives together, but this is the first step they’ve taken like this, and it’ll take some adjustment. Naruto hesitates for a fraction of a second before reaching out to cup Sasuke’s face in his hand; Sasuke freezes for half a second before leaning into it. It’s uncharted territory; it’s new material to learn.

But even in its almost-daunting newness this feels so normal, like the most natural extension of everything they’ve shared so far. They’d mapped out each other’s faces with their fists over the course of years and now it’s time to do it all over again with their fingertips, their palms; this is a new arena to find their balance in, to find a middle ground between each other like they’ve always done. It’ll be a long path, but this is the path that they make: a path for the future, a path wide enough to walk side by side, a path that can be walked alone but it doesn’t have to be.

Naruto drops — flops — down next to the kotatsu and inches his way underneath the blanket, pulling Sasuke down as he goes. Sasuke sits down a little more gracefully, and then it occurs to him that crowding himself into the side of the kotatsu along with Naruto is the only thing that makes sense, so that’s exactly what he does. The house is chilly, unlived-in, and even though it’s steadily warming with two bodies in it, it still feels excellent to both shove his legs into a pocket of pure warmth, and to have Naruto-the-walking-furnace press himself against Sasuke’s side.

As he settles, Naruto twists his body, winds his arms around Sasuke, and holds. Sasuke spreads his palm flat against Naruto’s back and feels the way the air moves through him as he breathes, feels the thrum of chakra running through him.

When Naruto finally lets go, he presses one more kiss to the very center of Sasuke’s forehead, solemn and graceful in that particular way that Naruto has in quiet moments.

And then Naruto stretches, spine crackling, and Sasuke readjusts his feet under the kotatsu for maximum warmth, and the inches-thick folder of paperwork suddenly looms over them both from where it's sitting almost innocently on the table, and the quietness of the moment is somehow broken without a single word.

Sasuke has been planning this for… a while. He’d given it some amount of thought a few years ago, never too seriously, and when he’d come back to Konoha for Naruto’s inauguration, seeing the Uchiha compound again had made up his mind for him.

Metaphorically? He’s going to burn the compound to the ground.

Kakashi had asked Sasuke if he’d like the reconstruction efforts to extend to the compound. Sasuke had told him to do what he wanted, and take money out of whatever the clan still had left. In turn, Naruto had been surprised when Sasuke had approached him not as a friend, but as the de facto head of the Uchiha clan, and proposed to cede the compound to the village itself. Naruto had agreed. Sasuke had left the village again, and taken an amount of paperwork with him.

Before he cedes it, though, he’s going to rebuild. He’s going to rebuild this isolated prison brick by metaphorical goddamn brick and then he’s going to put it in the hands of the village; he’s going to give these homes to families who need them, to people who need families, to anyone who’s willing to erase and rewrite a legacy that’s been soaked in blood.

He’d resigned himself to at least a year’s worth of planning and cataloguing and paperworking after returning to Konoha, thinking out loud over the course of a few letters, but Naruto had stepped in as both his friend and his Hokage. Let us help you, Naruto’s awful scrawl had read, let us do this for you.

So now there's a huge, thick stack of mission reports cataloguing the state of the Uchiha compound, building status and inventory, with contributions from what seems to be half of Konoha; insistently neat print from genin, a handful of chūnin reports, jōnin captains (the Not-So-Rookie-Anymore 9, he thinks with some amount of amusement) signing off on their subordinates and, at the very bottom, a single, thoughtfully thorough report on his childhood home, written in Naruto’s nigh-incomprehensible hand.

Now, it's a matter of setting aside nostalgia and deciding which buildings to tear down and which to rebuild. Sasuke stares down at the file, meeting it in silent challenge, and exhales out a slow breath. He can feel Naruto’s eyes on him.

“Here's to new beginnings,” Sasuke says, and remembers that he's perfectly at will to reach out and carefully run his thumb down Naruto’s cheek, palm resting against his jaw.

“To new beginnings,” Naruto agrees, “and to old friends.”

 

 

Sasuke spends thirty minutes horrifically distracted by everything: the way the house creaks as it settles, the way the trees rustle in the night breeze, the way shadows spill down the ridge of Naruto’s knuckles as he flips through a stack of papers, the way the light hits his irises at the right angle and the whole world seems to light up.

And then, with no warning and no fanfare, something clicks. This is his normal, now. He can have this tomorrow, and the day after, and in six months, and in— well.

Contentment settles over his shoulders like a thick cloak, and this, Sasuke thinks as Naruto leans all his weight against Sasuke’s side, he could get used to.

The paperwork, though, he could do without.

Sasuke is squinting his way through a particularly chicken-scratch-y report on a building in the north end when there's a soft knock on the door, and then a quiet creak as it opens carefully.

“Sasuke?” Sakura peers in. “Oh! Naruto. I thought I'd find you here, too.”

“Well, come in,” Sasuke says, stating the obvious.

Sakura obliges and takes off her shoes and jacket, then shuts the door and looks down at them, hand on her hip. She's holding a bag.

“Ino’s working overnight?” Naruto asks.

“Yeah,” Sakura says wryly, and heads for the kitchen. “Thanks for that.” Naruto winces.

“Sorry.”

“It’s work,” Sakura replies, shrugging. “And I’ve got you two to keep me company, anyways. Speaking of work, what are you two doing?”

“Work,” Sasuke tells her mildly. Naruto kicks him under the kotatsu. Sakura rolls her eyes.

“Uh huh,” she says. “Right. Anyways, Sasuke, I brought some stuff for you. Some tea– I’m putting the kettle on, it’s freezing in here. I got a few of those buns, you know, those really fluffy ones? Eggs, coffee, I know I brought rice last week when I came by to help move things in…” She trails off, thinking.

“Oh,” Sasuke says, articulately.

“I feel like I forgot to buy something,” she adds, still frowning. “But anyways, I figured, maybe we could all go out for breakfast tomorrow?”

“Yeah!” Naruto answers immediately, then turns his grin to Sasuke and nudges him encouragingly. “Yeah? Yeah.”

“Sure,” Sasuke replies.

Somehow, of all the monumental gestures that multiple people have made in the past 48 hours, Sakura’s simple act of bringing groceries is something his brain cannot get itself unstuck off of. But then— - Naruto, in all his astounding, mystifying capability to understand what Sasuke needs in the most bizarre ways, presses their sides together as he leans back on his hands to watch Sakura.

“...considering buying a house now,” Sakura is saying, shaking her head, as Sasuke’s brain finally ceases to short out. She sets down the tray she's holding, steam slowly unfurling from the spout of the teapot. “So what are you guys working on?”

“Compound planning,” Sasuke tells her as he reaches over to pour tea evenly into all three cups.

“This couldn’t have waited until tomorrow? You two spent most of the day traveling, and you fought.” Sakura slides her way under the kotatsu with a shiver.

“I wanted to get this started,” Sasuke replies, and shrugs.

Sakura shrugs back, nonplussed, and then says, “Oh— those kids, they’re all fine. A little exhausted, but fine. No injuries, no poisons, no genjutsu or anything like that.” Naruto exhales in relief. “Naoko, from Iwa.” Sakura ticks off on her fingers. “Miho, from Taki. Ryōichi, from Kusa. Shunsuke, from Kumo. Yumi, the one who was with that guy, from Yu.” She folds her arms on the table. “Naoko wants to go back to Iwa. Miho and Ryōichi aren’t sure. Yumi and Shunsuke — I think they’re kind of a package deal. I’m sure you know how that is.” She gives him and Naruto a look that is likely supposed to be significant. Sasuke stares back at her, stony-faced. “I think they’re staying.”

“Good,” Naruto says, and rests his chin in his hand. “I want to give them some space for a day or two. We’ll ask them again after they’ve had some time.”

“They're all around ten, eleven years old,” Sakura muses. “So what, two years? Maybe three, depending? At the Academy, and then off to a jōnin-sensei. Ugh—” She drops her head into her hands. “I gotta think about my interns. I don't wanna think about my interns.”

“So do some paperwork instead,” Sasuke suggests blithely, and pushes one of the stacks towards her. She rolls her eyes, but takes it anyways.

“What are you trying to do right now?”

“Salvageable,” Naruto says, and points at one pile, “and unsalvageable. First round of eliminations.”

“Okay,” Sakura says, and flips through her stack in a quick once-over. “Are you going to rebuild what you're tearing down?”

“Maybe,” Sasuke says. It's a good question. “But not exactly how it was. There's no sense in making a carbon copy of this place. Let it change. I want it to change. I—” He pauses. He’s not very good at this. “I appreciate your support. Both of you. It— means a lot to me, that I don't... that I’m not doing this alone.”

“Of course,” Naruto says, fiercely, immediately, and Sakura echoes him. “We’re your friends. We’ll be here for you, always.”

And suddenly that always feels so, so different from any other time Sasuke has heard it and he finds himself disconcertingly flustered, to the point where all he can do is turn away reflexively to hide the way he can’t quite fight back a decidedly wobbly smile.

Here for him, always. Naruto’s never been one to declare these things without absolute conviction, and it took Sasuke much too long to realize this. Even though he’s now been on good terms with Naruto and Sakura and Kakashi and the rest of Konoha for longer than he’d been on bad terms with them, those four years still burn a hole in his chest. But — Sasuke feels warm fingers brushing hair behind his ear — it’s getting better. It’s not perfect; he still finds resentment lurking around the edges of his mind, darkness that yawns when he can’t quite sleep, but it’s easier and easier to chase it all away. Especially — especially like this.

He turns his head, and his eyes catch on how Sakura’s face is soft in a way that makes Sasuke's chest squeeze.

“What?”

“Nothing,” she replies, still smiling.

What?” Sasuke asks again.

No-thing,” Sakura repeats, and laughs. “Nothing.” She reaches out and covers his hand with hers. “It's just good to have you back.”

“It is,” Naruto agrees, leaning his elbow on the table and his chin in his hand, and Sasuke thinks that this house might just already be feeling like home.

Chapter Text

two or so years later——-

 

Naruto opens his eyes to see a mass of white fur atop a worn, ratty shirt that probably used to be black. There’s a scroll unrolled down the length of the bed, curling first over crossed legs and then drooping off the edge of the bed.

A warm hand settles on top of his hair, thumb brushing over his cheek, and he lets his eyes close again.

“You warm enough there?” Naruto mumbles, voice raspy with sleep.

“If Haruko wanted to sit in my lap in the middle of the summer in Wind Country, I’d accept my fate.”

“Would you? Would you really?

“Of course I would.” Naruto pushes himself up, drags a hand down his face, and opens his eyes to see Sasuke shoot him a look, comically serious. Haruko’s ears twitch; Sasuke turns his attention back to her. “Anything for this lovely lady,” Sasuke croons, scratching her under the chin, even as Naruto laughs and curls himself up into Sasuke’s side, worming up under the crook of his arm.

She is the sweetest of the cats, Naruto will give him that.

He curls himself in closer and Sasuke readjusts his arm and Haruko graciously resettles herself, still purring loudly. Sasuke’s abandoned his reading for the moment and a soft smile is curving up his mouth; it used to be a rare one, the kind of smile Naruto only saw a handful of times when they were kids and teens and then that happened— - but Sasuke gives it more freely now, smiles at Naruto and at Sakura and at all of their friends. Maybe not often, but it's enough.

Naruto brushes hair out of Sasuke’s face, tucks it behind his ear. If he were poetically inclined, he thinks he could describe Sasuke's eyes as… well, as something pretty. Using real nice words. But instead he settles for stroking his thumb across Sasuke's cheek, slow and soft and warm like this summer morning.

And then, as he leans forward, several things happen in rapid succession.

There’s a scuffling outside, and Haruko’s ears prick up as she turns and sits up to stare down the hallway towards the kitchen. There’s a loud thump as another set of paws hits the floor heavily, and a speedier-than-normal tup tup tup tup of said paws against the kitchen floor. More scuffling. Hushed whispers. A deceptively sweet-sounding meow from the kitchen. And then, finally, a monstrous sneeze followed by a young voice plaintively wailing, “Cats?

Sasuke’s chakra sharpens like the edge of a knife. He signs for Naruto to stay put, be quiet. Naruto frowns at him.

“Lard,” Sasuke calls down the hall, “please don’t terrorize our guests.”

The gray, stripey asshole of a cat spares Sasuke an extremely offended look as he abandons the kitchen to saunter down the hall towards the bedroom, whiskers twitching.

Sasuke gently lifts Haruko off of his lap; she stretches, butts her splotchy calico head against Naruto’s shoulder, and purrs. Definitely the sweetest of the cats.

Naruto can see the controlled tension in Sasuke’s shoulders as he stands up to pad down the hall, feet silent and body language deceptively casual. It's highly unlikely they're in any kind of danger — no assassin worth their salt would sneeze — but a little caution never killed anybody. Naruto is about to completely ignore Sasuke’s directions and follow him when he realizes that, perhaps, whoever this is might feel affronted at the sight of their humble and esteemed Hokage shirtless and in boxer briefs. He snatches up the clean shirt that Lard is eyeballing as his next conquest.

“Not today, you menace,” he mutters, and Lard spares him another scandalized look as he settles his considerable girth into Sasuke’s side of the bed next to Haruko’s graceful sprawl. Lucky assholes, the both of them.

Pants. He needs pants.

“—wanted to, um, do something, uh… nice, and…”

Another sneeze.

Naruto walks into the kitchen to find Sasuke staring down a trio of genin-aged kids wearing med-nin intern haori. One of the girls has short hair, shaved on both sides and sticking straight up elsewhere, wearing a look of determination under her light flush. The other has a dark ponytail, watery and red-rimmed eyes, and she’s sniffling periodically. The last kid is flushed to the tips of his ears, and blanches completely upon seeing Naruto walk in. His face is now an interesting (if concerning) shade of greenish-purple. Incidentally, all three of them look more or less terrified of Sasuke.

“Sorry,” Naruto says, as kindly as he knows how, “what's going on?”

“Uh,” Allergies starts, “we have the wrong, um, house, Hokage-sama, and we are so sorry—”

“Bad intel,” insists Hair, and glares over at Blush.

“But I saw her! Leaving this—!” Blush’s eyes dart up at Sasuke, and then at anywhere but Sasuke.

“I thought you lived in the city center,” Hair says, staring accusingly at Naruto. “What are you doing all the way out here?” Her teammates turn to give her frantic looks.

“Technically,” Sasuke says, voice deeply amused, “he doesn't live here, I do.”

“I—” Naruto pinches the bridge of his nose, breathes in, and lets it go. For the moment. “If you kids can explain who it is you're looking for, we might be able to help.”

“Haruno-sensei,” they chorus, and then Allergies goes on to explain, “Haruno Sakura, director of the hospital? She's, um, worked a lot this week and we thought, maybe we can... do something nice? For her? Takeshi is really good at cooking which is why Haruno-sensei says he'll make a good medic, because of control and details and multitasking and stuff—” The blush on must-be-Takeshi’s face deepens as Allergies goes on, oblivious. “—so we were thinking, uh… we wanted to make breakfast? Since she's been on such a long shift, and…” Allergies finally trails off, looking at Hair and Takeshi imploringly for some kind of backup.

Huh.

“Wait a minute,” Naruto says, “does this mean—”

Sasuke leans out the open kitchen window and calls, “Ino!”

“Oh sh—oot,” Naruto amends quickly. “Sakura’s been at the hospital for way past her 72, hasn't she?”

Three solemn, emphatic nods.

What?” comes a distant shout.

“Someone's looking for you.”

There’s a loud half-groan, half-scoff as Ino withdraws from her own window next door, and Naruto gives her about twenty seconds to figure out what’s going on.

Ten seconds later, Ino slams their front door open.

“Make it quick,” she snarls, yanking her hair up into a ponytail, clothes clearly thrown on in a haphazard rush. “I gotta go murder my goddamn wife.”

The interns look positively terrified. Sasuke smirks.

“Right,” Naruto says, and claps his hands together. “Interns — sorry, you guys are gonna have to introduce yourselves—” Must-be-Takeshi blanches again, and Allergies flushes. “—we’ve got a bigger kitchen than they do, so you can make your breakfast here, and maybe set a few extra places at the table?” He gives them his best imploring grin before continuing. “Ino will go get Sakura in the meantime, and then we can all eat. Yeah?”

Ino is already out the door by the time Naruto finishes his sentence.

“Right, so,” Naruto continues, “I was thinking, you know—”

“Oh, do you do that now?”

He elbows Sasuke without a second thought.

“Shut up, that wasn't even a good one.”

“Made you lose your train of thought, though,” Sasuke points out smugly. There's humor and challenge both deep in Sasuke’s eyes and in the slight, subtle curve to his mouth and god, Naruto adores him and can't stand him all at once.

“You can't talk to the Hokage like that!” explodes Hair, immediately. “How— who do you think you are?

Sasuke’s eyebrows disappear entirely into his still-disheveled hair and then he laughs, turns around, scoops Haruko up off the floor where she's followed them, and then walks back towards the bedroom, still laughing to himself.

“What the—” Allergies elbows Hair, expelling Hair’s next word in a wheeze. “—hell?

“Just— ignore him, he's just like that. So we're all agreed on breakfast here, yeah? I need your names now.”

The kids are all still looking somewhere between thunderstruck and terrified. Hair is the first to recover.

“I’m Matsu,” she says, and she still looks affronted on Naruto's behalf. It's— alright, it’s pretty endearing, honestly.

“Um, Umeko,” Allergies adds. “And that's Takeshi.”

“Great!” Naruto says, and knows full well that's he's going to forget at least one of their names at some point today. “So, Takeshi, you're the cook, so you're in charge. What do you need to make breakfast?”

“Uh—” Takeshi’s eyes are wide, and he glances at… Umeko? who grins encouragingly at him. “Um, rice, miso, eggs, salt, pepper, scallions, chicken, onion, demi-glace, butter, oil, daikon, cucumbers, tomatoes but the little ones, parsley not root.” He rattles it all off, keeping track on his fingers as he goes. “We were gonna go to the store,” he adds, voice small.

“Well,” Naruto says, thinking, “we've got rice and eggs and salt and pepper and oil— wait, no, we need eggs. And as far as the vegetables go, you can ask that guy for whatever it is you need.” He jerks a thumb over his shoulder down the hallway Sasuke had retreated through, and grins. “He's in charge of the garden.”

“Oh,” Takeshi says, voice even smaller.

“I feel like I'm asking you to run errands for us, which is weird, but let me give you some money for what you need to get.” Immediately, all the kids make noises of protest. “Whoa, hey, Sakura is my friend, too! If I’m not doing the cooking, at least I can help out like this. Also, we definitely need eggs, so, uh, if you could get an extra dozen on top of what you need?”

“Rice,” comes Sasuke’s voice from somewhere in the bedroom.

“You're out of rice?” Takeshi asks suspiciously.

Naruto pauses for a second, and thinks.

“We’re out of rice?” he calls down the hallway in Sasuke’s general direction.

I,” Sasuke calls back, “am not out of rice. However, there's only about a week’s worth left, so if they're going to the store, they might as well get more.”

Naruto winces.

“Okay, now it really sounds like I'm asking you to run our errands.”

“No, it's okay,” Allergies says in a rush, at the same time as Hair– Matsu? says, “I mean we're going anyways, we can do that!”

“Well, alright,” Naruto tells them, and shrugs. Wallet. Wallet. Oh, right, he’d left it next to the couch yesterday. He fishes out what feels like an appropriate amount of money, and then hands it to Takeshi. “If that's not enough, let me know what I owe you.”

“I— um, okay,” Takeshi says, and Naruto is starting to wonder how this kid hasn’t passed out from blushing so hard for so long. Takeshi glances at his teammates. “I guess we should… go?”

“Yes,” Matsu says firmly. “Let’s——”

She turns, and all but jumps out of her skin, words dying in her throat with a strangled noise. The other two, to their credit, whirl around in a combat stance.

“The rice,” Sasuke says, and holds out a scrap of paper. “This kind.”

Matsu, still clearly in fight-or-flight mode, snatches it out of his hand. Sasuke looks down at her, eyebrows raised mildly. Naruto still doesn't know how Sasuke manages to look both kind of ridiculous and pretty dashing with his hair pushed out of his face haphazardly like that. But then, he supposes, he's a little biased. Allergies sneezes.

“Right,” Matsu manages, and then she flees out the front door, teammates hot on her heels.

Through the kitchen window, Naruto can see the three of them huddled together, heads bent as they walk towards the street. Allergies — fuck, Umeko — is the first to do some mental math and arrive at 4.

“That's Sasuke,” she hisses at Takeshi and Matsu, “Uchiha Sasuke.”

“Shut the fuck up,” Matsu whispers back in absolute disbelief, and throws a look over her shoulder before increasing her pace. The three of them dissolve into heated whispers as they cross the narrow street, already hosting people out to enjoy the early-summer-morning sunlight.

“Doesn't it ever weird you out that everyone knows your name but not your face?” Naruto asks, winding an arm around Sasuke's waist.

“No,” Sasuke snorts. “And the longer the old lady at the bakery keeps calling Sai Uchiwa-san, the funnier it gets.”

Sasuke punctuates his sentence by leaning in and kissing him, really kissing him, gently cupping Naruto’s cheek as he presses in close, and Naruto is reasonably sure that Sasuke can feel the way his heartbeat stutters. There are certain things that never cease to amaze him, and this is probably at the top of his list.

“Not that I'm complaining,” Naruto murmurs, lacing his fingers together behind Sasuke’s neck, “but what was that for?”

“Good morning,” Sasuke says by way of answer, and smiles. “You got interrupted earlier.”

“And I'm gonna interrupt again, because I'm gonna go shower,” Naruto replies, but he makes no move to leave, and instead just leans in and kisses Sasuke again.

Feels good. Feels great. Every so often he has these moments where he fully realizes the scope of where he is in life right now, and this is one of them: he is Hokage, he has saved the world, he has saved his friends, he wakes up every morning next to one of his best friends, and the other is his next-door neighbor.

Well. Almost every morning.

“I missed you when you were out there digging around in the shadows.”

“Naruto, that was two weeks ago,” Sasuke replies, smile turning wry.

“I know! I still missed you, geeze.” Naruto kisses his temple, then his cheek, then the corner of his mouth. “I'm glad you don't leave as often anymore.”

“Me too,” Sasuke sighs. “I'm glad there's less out there that requires my— attention.”

“All your hard work, paying off,” Naruto says, and pride rises strong and happy in his chest. “Hey, I appreciate you, and everything you do for Konoha, and for being you, you know that?”

“I know,” Sasuke replies smoothly, easily, but there's a faint flush rising in his cheeks. Ha. Triumph. Naruto laughs, grabs Sasuke's face between his hands, kisses his forehead, and then leaps away towards the bathroom.

 

 

By the time Naruto is done toweling off his hair, Sasuke has taken to absently tidying up the house while fielding the pitiful looks Lard is throwing him from by the food bowl.

“Don't even bother,” Sasuke is telling Lard sternly. “Everyone here knows when you get fed, and right now is not it.”

“I should change your bingo book entry,” Naruto says. “Something like, ‘S-class opponent. Extremely skilled with all jutsu. Fire affinity. Prefers swords. Devilishly handsome. Talks to his cats. If seen, do not engage at all costs.’”

“Sorry, what was that last bit? I can't hear you over the sound of how devilishly handsome I am.”

“You're going to be smug about this for the next two weeks, aren't you?”

“Absolutely.” Sasuke draws him in with a hand around his waist, and dramatically shakes hair out of his face. “I always knew you only liked me for my looks.”

“Of course!” Naruto cups a hand under his chin and grins. “Your handsomeness is definitely why I chased your sorry ass across the entire planet.”

“Of course,” Sasuke agrees, inclining his head gracefully, and then he huffs out a breath. “The one weekend Yumi isn't busting down the door to get my ‘help’ with her homework, and our home gets flooded with people anyways.”

“Oh, so now it's ‘our’ home.”

Sasuke gently butts his forehead against Naruto’s and lets it rest there.

“It's always our home,” he replies. “It's just too easy to tease you about not having your name on the papers.”

“Hey, technically, as the Hokage, my name is on the papers.”

“Hmm.”

“And I… You know, I mean, my name could be— it could be— our. Name, that is.”

Sasuke's eyes widen, just a fraction, eyebrows lifted just slightly, and his eyes are filling with something that Naruto has no words for.

“If you want,” Naruto adds hastily, “because that's super not anything that needs to happen and seriously, at this point, it'd really just be a formality, and there's a lot of talking about stuff that we'd have to do and also we're hosting the exams next year again and planning anything before that's over with is honestly out of the question, and— you know. With Temari and Shikamaru, I just had it on my mind because I had about 50 diplomacy forms I had to sign off on, so—–”

Sasuke kisses him.

It's sudden and rushed and intense and Naruto feels himself melt instantly.

“Keep it on your mind,” Sasuke murmurs.

“Okay,” Naruto murmurs back, a little dazed, and he feels a grin building as he leans in and touches their foreheads together. Sasuke inhales, then exhales out a short, huffed laugh, and then buries his face in Naruto’s shoulder, no doubt to hide the big, big smile that Naruto can feel pressed against his shoulder.

The door swings open with zero warning, and all Naruto hears is a mortified oh god before someone short immediately U-turns back out of the door. Sasuke heaves out a world-weary sigh and straightens up, though he doesn’t stray too far from Naruto’s side. Also, Naruto doesn’t really want to move his arm from around Sasuke’s waist right now, or ever, so Sasuke is stuck here whether he likes it or not.

There’s a hushed conversation happening outside their door, and then a very familiar, very tired laugh as the door swings open again, albeit more slowly this time.

“I promise,” Sakura is saying dryly, “neither of them is worth being scared of, for any reason. They’re both utter pushovers.”

Three heads cautiously poke their way around Sakura’s back. Aller– Umeko’s face is bright red, Matsu looks flustered, Takeshi is half-hidden by the “supplies” he’s carrying, and Ino brings up the rear.

“I am very worth being scared of,” Sasuke says, voice low and flat and dangerous.

Umeko looks like she’s about to faint.

“You’re impossible,” Sakura snaps irritatedly. “This is why no one likes you.”

“Hey,” Naruto protests, “I like h—”

“You don’t count.”

“I don’t need anyone to like me,” Sasuke tells her coolly.

“Oh my god,” Ino interjects, “we get it, Sasuke, you’re above the nonsense that plagues us mere mortals.”

“Anyways, Sakura,” Naruto says, cutting across the pointed glare Sasuke is sending Ino, “you're one of my very best friends, and I love you dearly, but you need to stop overworking yourself.”

“Thank you!” Ino huffs, and throws her hands up. “Sakura, listen to the Hokage, why don't you.”

“I know,” Sakura says. “But emergencies are emergencies, you know that.”

“Yeah, I do know, but—” Naruto gestures helplessly with his free hand. “Moderation!”

“Naruto,” Sasuke says dryly, “you have never in your life done anything in moderation. What would you know?”

“Oh, that's rich, coming from you,” Ino butts in. “How you three are still alive at this point is honestly beyond me. How Kakashi dealt with you three is just– even more beyond me. You're all a bunch of all-out reckless idiots.”

“Ah, but you’re the one who married one of us idiots,” Sakura points out.

“Yes I did,” Ino says proudly, hands on her hips.

Sasuke rolls his eyes.

“You three,” he says to the kids, “with me. Outside.”

“Why?” Matsu asks, wary.

“You needed vegetables, didn't you?” Sasuke says, as if it's the most obvious thing in the world and not a total non-sequitur or weirdly threatening coming from him. “Get on with it.” And with that he walks out into the yard.

“I'm pretty sure he hates that he's good with kids,” Sakura muses as she watches her interns practically trip over themselves to follow Sasuke.

“Oh, he definitely does,” Naruto replies, and grins. “Yumi and the rest of those kids absolutely adore him, and he likes to pretend that he doesn't care that they're all starry-eyed and hanging off his every word.”

“So when’s he gonna get a genin team, then, huh?” Sakura comes to stand next to him at the window. Sasuke is currently pointing emphatically, yet patiently, at several bushes in the small garden as he explains something. Naruto puffs out a sigh and runs a hand through his hair.

“Whenever he accepts that he’ll be a good teacher,” he replies. “He still won’t give me an actual answer. I know he’s been thinking about it with Academy graduation coming up in a few months, but I won’t push him.”

“It's daunting,” Sakura agrees. “Being responsible for kids is intimidating. I mean, hell, I put off interns for ages. But it's worth it.” She smiles as she watches Sasuke stalk back towards the house, aforementioned interns traipsing after him, and then threads her arm through Naruto's and gives him a shrewd look. “When are you gonna get a genin team?”

The question startles a nervous laugh out of him.

“Hah, uh— I'm really busy, you know, with all the… stuff,” he tries. Sakura doesn't fall for it.

“So you're gonna let Sasuke get a genin team first? Really?”

See, the thing is, Naruto knows he's being baited, he knows that this was a calculated move on Sakura’s part, and yet that spark flares into a blaze anyways.

“Hey! It's not a‐ you can't just be a better teacher because you did it f—-” He points a finger at her threateningly. “I know what you're doing, Sakura, and it's not gonna work.”

“Sure,” she says, but her smile is sharp, with a wicked edge, and at that moment the door swings open.

Sasuke walks back into the house, interns trailing after him. Naruto whirls.

“Listen,” he says, voice heated, “whenever the hell it is you get off your ass about a genin team, you just know they'll never be as good as mine.”

Sasuke’s eyes flick over at Naruto as he takes in the situation in half a second and then he—— smirks.

“What genin team?” he asks, voice low, chin raised. “At the rate you're going, you're going to be the last of all of us to teach anyone anything.”

All Naruto can hear is a rushing in his ears as the world narrows down to one point, to this, to the space between him and Sasuke, to the air heavy with potential energy, crackling between them. As it always is. As it always has been.

Watch me,” Naruto snaps back. “I’m–”

“Okay, okay,” Sakura interjects, stepping between them and raising her hands. “Enough, you two. Damn.”

“I swear,” Ino says, shaking her head, “you two haven't grown a day past being twelve.”

Naruto manages half an indignant noise. Sasuke bristles visibly. Sakura lifts her eyes to the ceiling.

“Um,” says Takeshi, bravely, in the deafening silence, “Matsu, can you help me dice the vegetables?”

“Excellent idea,” Sakura says firmly. “Sasuke, coffee?” Sasuke gives her a long, cool look before moving towards the kitchen. “Takeshi, do you need Naruto’s help with anything?”

Takeshi goes scarlet.

“Uh,” he starts, “er— I need some dishes?”

“Sure!” Naruto bounds forward.

“Umeko,” Sakura continues, “let's go outside and get the cushions out. Less cat hair out there.”

Umeko’s relief is palpable, broken by another well-timed sneeze as she follows Sakura outside.

Dishes. Dishes. Naruto pulls out two— three, four, five–six, seven— - bowls for rice, somewhere-in-the-teens number of chopsticks, and then something small and dark whizzes past his nose. He catches it, reflexively, and shoots a nonplussed glare at Sasuke over Matsu’s hair.

“Pull my hair back, dead last,” Sasuke says, leaning against the countertop. Matsu’s head whips over at Naruto, gauging his reaction with wide eyes.

“You're an asshole, you know that?” Naruto replies, slingshotting the hairband back at him.

“So I've been told,” Sasuke answers, and catches the hairband easily. His eyes are bright with amusement, eyebrows lifted, and he stands patiently as Naruto circles behind him.

The kettle rumbles as Naruto shakes out Sasuke's veritable goddamn waterfall of hair and combs it all up and back with his fingers before tugging the band out of Sasuke's hand. Pull the hair through once, twice, halfway, and Sasuke runs his hand over his head, checking Naruto’s very much masterful handiwork before reaching back and gently knocking his knuckles against Naruto’s forehead.

“You’re welcome,” Naruto tells him, and goes back to pulling out dishes, though not without noticing the misty, exceptionally goofy smile that Sasuke is currently unable to hide behind his hair.

It takes Takeshi a few minutes to get into it, but once he settles, he runs the kitchen with an iron fist; no hesitation in telling the three of them exactly what he needs done, and how, and where, and Naruto can catch the echo of Sakura in his demeanor, clear and quick. Whatever the hell he’s doing to the salmon smells about as good as Sai’s cooking, or possibly even better — a slight throb of guilt, chased immediately by the thought that holy shit, Sai should meet this kid immediately — and somehow even the plain old rice smells like the best thing on the planet. Umeko is directed to carefully portion out all of the basics, interrupted only by a look of the highest offense that Sasuke gives her at the sight of natto within a foot of his rice, clearly a look he’s picked up from Lard. Matsu gets the honor of laying everything out neatly on trays; her movements are precise, no motion wasted, and Naruto can see Sakura in the calculation of her movements, too.

This, really, is the root of his hesitation when it comes to a genin team. Sasuke’s too, Naruto knows. It's daunting to think that there's going to be one person who impacts a trio of kids this much, and that it might be him, and Sasuke thinks of himself as kind of a wreck of a person still so he doesn’t want to pass that on to impressionable youngsters, while Naruto knows that’s not really true most of the time anymore, and, like, shit, with all the crap Naruto pulled as a kid he’s still not entirely convinced he himself is the best authority figure of any kind, and especially when it comes to being specifically in charge of a few someones. It’s a lot to take on.

Naruto pauses with three trays in his hands, half a step out onto the veranda, and it occurs to him that maybe he should talk to Kakashi some time about this stuff. Kakashi wasn’t an—– awful influence on them. His whole thing about never turning your back on your teammates? Yeah, Naruto can say that stuck with him. Right. Mental note to have some kind of conversation with Kakashi, at some point, or something.

Move, Naruto,” Sakura says crossly from behind him, and Naruto bites back the urge to stick his tongue out at her. Barely. Instead, he drops himself down on one of the cushions right next to Sasuke, and Sakura sits down neatly on his other side. “Takeshi, Umeko, Matsu, thank you all so much. I really appreciate it.” Unless his eyes deceive him, Sakura is looking a little misty as she says this.

“Let’s eat before it gets cold,” Matsu declares, with a proud, satisfied look at her teammates. “And— so you can go to sleep soon, sensei,” she adds sheepishly.

“Hell yeah,” Naruto says, and digs in.

It’s— holy shit. It’s one of the best meals Naruto’s had, which is saying something. On second thought, maybe not, because Naruto loves and appreciates every meal, but this meal. This meal. The fried egg is positively perfect, the rice is just right, the miso is great, and he even cleans out all the vegetables, because whatever kind of magic Takeshi worked on this food is unreal. He hopes Sakura knows just how lucky she is. (Judging by the sleepy contentment, happiness, pride on her face, she does.)

The morning slows, as it is wont to do after a good meal, and when the morning is the particular kind of night-cool that heralds a day where the air will be thick and warm like syrup. Sakura starts flagging immediately after clearing her plate, and within minutes her head is on Naruto’s shoulder and her breaths are deep. Ino gets the kids fired up easily asking them about their studies, and as she cheerfully prods them into a few rounds of three-on-one sparring, Sasuke ghosts inside the house to grab some reading and some paperwork, pausing to rest his hand briefly over Sakura’s hair.

This wasn't precisely what he'd had in mind originally for today's inevitably lazy summer day — that had involved a hell of a lot more napping — but this is far from the worst change of plans. Matsu shouts out a loud, frustrated noise as Ino dances her way out of the kids’ reach yet again, laughing, and the reports Naruto is holding are starting to feel less and less important. This is what’s important: Ino’s grin as she dances circles around the kids, Sakura’s peaceful, even breaths as she dozes against his side, Sasuke sitting back down so their thighs are pressed together, the joy and determination on the kids’ faces as they chase Ino through the yard.

Things aren’t perfect. He’s older and wiser enough to recognize that they likely never will be. That won’t stop him from trying, though. The Alliance is stronger than ever; there are fewer and fewer entries in the bingo book, less need for organizations like what Root had originally been intended for. Sasuke is here— it had taken long enough for Naruto to finally wrap his head around that fact two-and-change years ago, but on a smaller scale, Sasuke is here and not out chasing shadows; he’s here, and the village is safe. It’s safe. This is what they worked so hard for; this is what they shed so much blood for, all those years ago; this is what they all dedicate their lives to, every day. This is what’s important: everyone he loves, together.

And this house — this whole compound — no longer a haunted monument to Konoha’s sins but a chapter closed, a weight lifted, and Naruto knows that Sasuke sleeps easier for it. This wing of the village is properly alive, now, with shops and people passing through and people living here. Naruto could never understand how difficult of a choice, of a process this had been, but Sasuke did great. Naruto is proud of him every morning as he crosses the compound towards the Hokage Tower and gets cheerful good mornings from the people he meets along the way, starting on their own daily routines.

Kurama rumbles lazily, contentedly against Naruto’s mind. Sakura shifts in her sleep. Out of the corner of his eye — ooh, that was close, Umeko nearly nicked Ino with that shuriken, great throw — he can see Sasuke’s interest in his reading approaching abandonment, too. Sure enough, after a few minutes Sasuke finally gives up on his scroll, leans in, and kisses Naruto on the cheek before setting a sheet of paper down on top of Naruto’s stack. Naruto looks down at it in surprise.

It’s the upcoming Academy graduation exam roster. Three names are circled. One of them is Yumi’s.

“Maybe,” Sasuke murmurs, and curls his arm around Naruto’s shoulders, settling in against his side to watch the “sparring” “match” as it's getting properly heated.

“Yeah?” Naruto says, smiling.

“Yeah.”

Chapter Text

It's been two weeks.

Sasuke has never in his life felt this drained.

Really, it’s been more like one week. The previous week he’d spent mostly asleep, exhausted beyond comprehension, sleeping off not just what felt like a year straight of fight after fight after fight, but also his entire life’s worth of emotional trauma coming to a head.

(Well–- he can’t say he’s slept off the latter. Not yet, at least. But there are many nights ahead of him.)

He'd stood, bleary-eyed and weak, through several funerals, and he'd thought of Itachi during each one. No energy to feel guilt for selfishly bringing his own grief.

His movements are clumsy now. Still. Intellectually, he's already wrapped his head around losing a limb, around needing to make the shift to one-handed seals, around needing to adjust the way his body will balance. This is the way it is, now.

And yet instinct, not intellect, is the hurdle he's currently fighting. It'll take time to stop automatically reaching for things with a left hand that doesn't exist anymore, to stop stumbling with any movement that hasn't been carefully calculated. The pain is manageable. The adjustment is what's making him want to rip out of his own skin in frustration.

But worse than that – worse than anything, comparable only to the sucking black hole of what he's done, what he'd been prepared to do, the thought of Naruto’s death forever bitter on his tongue – is the phantom sensation of Naruto’s hand in his, the thrum of power in harmony as they released the Infinite Tsukuyomi together. An itch in his brain that won't ease, like a gate being slammed shut by the wind only to bounce back, over and over. They'd fought together against Obito, against Madara, against Kaguya, but in that simple moment in a silent, sleeping world, they'd been something else entirely.

 


 

“I want to keep believing in the idea of you. It's up to you to live up to that, I guess.”

“That's an impossible standard, Sakura. Let me be what I am.” He looks away. “To be anything else would be fatal, after all.”

“Naruto–”

“Naruto has no illusions about me,” Sasuke says sharply. “It's his decision to– feel how he feels in spite of everything. You don't need to hold yourself to the things he's capable of. You're not him.” She looks stricken. “Clear your eyes and come to your own conclusions about me. Okay? I–” He closes his eyes. “I'd like to repair our friendship. But you're not Naruto. You don't have to pretend to be him. You either accept me as I am, or–”

“Do you, Sasuke? Accept yourself as you are? Or isn’t the point of this that you want to be the person that Naruto has always believed you to be?”

 


 

Tazuna and Inari remember his face. It's much more of a shock than he thought it would be, to see them shout in happiness as they recognize him.

They ply him with endless questions as Tsunami loads some pork-bone broth with more vegetables than strictly necessary. (You're a twig, Sasuke! she says. You need some good, hearty soup, especially if you're traveling. He tries his best to hold back a smile.) How's the reconstruction of Konoha going, they ask, how's the work they did? How are things after the war, now? How does Kakashi enjoy being Hokage? When are Naruto and Sakura going to stop by, too?

He leaves Wave Country with a surplus of food, and a surprisingly light heart. He crosses the bridge he’d first given his life for Naruto on and it feels like peace, like one turn of a cycle has just passed. Great Naruto Bridge, the sign reads, more weather-worn now than it had been last time he saw it. Sasuke smiles.

 


 

Attached is a list of

No.

I need the following

No. Feels weird. Sakura takes a breath, scraps another sheet of paper, and starts over.

Sasuke–

Kakashi says you're headed towards Suna. I hope you don't mind being a messenger hawk. I need a few things from Suna’s greenhouses; there's a list at the bottom here.

Ugh. Awkward. Better than before, though.

It's been almost two years – wild, isn't it. Time flies. I hope you're doing alright. Naruto's almost done with the requirements for jōnin rank qualification, I don't know if he's told you. He's so determined to get it done as fast as possible, but it's a flat two years of study, not a jutsu he can brute-force in a week of no sleep. But yeah – determined. Something about not being the last one of us. Anyways, it would be nice to hear from you occasionally, instead of rifling through Kakashi’s reports to see how you are.

Stay safe.

– Sakura

 

Naruto–

Can't read half your chicken scratch. I'm doing fine. Met up with Tak Karin, Jūgo, Suigetsu; they have things to do in Kiri they could use a four-man cell for.

Passed through Wave Country again last month. Flowers all over the bridge on your birthday. Don't let it get to your head, I'm sure it was just celebrating the end of the War.

Sakura–

Maybe he can dictate his letters to you. That way I might be able to read them. At least you don't have doctors’ handwriting yet.

Overheard someone last week praising about Konoha’s hospitals. You're making a name for yourself.

...Both of you are. Weird to keep hearing both of your names abroad. Not too bad, though. Keeps me on my toes.

– Sasuke.

 

Sasuke!!

Wow, took you long enough to write back. Geeze. I hope you’re coming back to Konoha soon, even for like a day, because let me tell you sparring is BORING. Kiba complains, Shikamaru complains, Kurama complains about all of them complaining, Sakura is… kinda scary, I don’t want her to land a hit on me, you know? Plus she’s so busy. Anyways sparring against anyone but you feels so lacking. You know me well enough to trip me up when I start getting repetitive. I’m gonna get out of shape if you don’t come back (is the guilt thing working yet)

Joking, joking, just kidding. I know it’s important for you to not be in Konoha right now, and I wouldn't want you to come back for any reason other than you wanting to. I dunno if Kakashi’s told you this, but he really appreciates your reports, and having an eye on the ground and stuff. I feel better too, knowing you're out there. Watching over things in your own way.

And I actually miss seeing you around! Even though you're still clearly an asshole. Ha, some things never change. Stay safe, Sasuke. If you died somewhere I think I'd kill you.

– Naruto

 


 

He runs into a group of Orochimaru’s former test subjects, wreaking a path of destruction towards a small village. He still feels a strange, warped sense of kinship, when it comes to all of these people. They were all searching for something. They all walked the same path, once.

There’s one left standing, the rest incapacitated. There’s only so much Sasuke can do about this person’s curse-seal state involving chitinous plates covering the eyes, and he dodges another volley of hard-packed earth singing with chakra. His opponent laughs, mirthless and edged in hysteria, curling with disgust.

“You were going to change things and now what? You're the Hokage’s lapdog? Why?”

Sticky wetness wells up in Sasuke's right eye and as a thick bead spills over, leaving a tacky, warm track of blood down his cheek, Sasuke replies, “Because I’m willing to try changing things this way.”

 


 

The man has been here three evenings in a row now, always sitting in the same spot. To his credit, at least he's ordered different things each time. Michi has no idea how some of her regulars survive ordering the exact same thing every single day.

He's–- strange, is the right word, probably. She's seen her share of dangerous patrons coming through her shop, but this man doesn't seem dangerous somehow, even though Michi would bet good, good money that he's a shinobi. Normal people don't travel alone, even these days.

“Quite the novel you're writing,” Michi says, folding up her rag and leaning an elbow on the counter.

The man lifts his gaze and regards her with a single dark eye.

“Letters,” he corrects.

“Katsudon,” Aiko shouts from the kitchen, and Michi turns to pass the bowl along.

 

It’s miso ramen the man orders the next day, and a strange, pinched look passes quickly across his face as he does so. He's still a mystery, and yet Michi finds herself liking him for no particular reason. He's polite and well-dressed and, well, sorta handsome in his own way, she supposes, though she may not be the greatest judge of such things. (It’s a low bar, she knows, but them’s the breaks, working at a restaurant.)

“Miso ramen for the letter-writer,” she says cheerfully, and sets down the bowl. “Careful not to get any on your paper, there. Not sure your addressees would appreciate a ramen-flavored letter.”

Another strange look passes across his face, and he huffs out something quiet that sounds like, “Well.”

Michi opens her mouth to ask, and right then a trio of people duck in.

“Welcome,” she calls to them instead, “what'll it be?”

This crew looks a little more rough around the edges. She doesn't see any hitai-ate, but the vests, the packs, the flash of a holster: they're ninja, that's for sure. Letter Man ignores them, as he's ignored anyone else who’s come in over the course of the past four days.

“Uh, three of those,” one shinobi says, waving a hand at Letter Man’s bowl.

“Sure thing,” Michi says, then shouts the order back at Aiko.

“Yeah, it's some fucking kid.” The shinobi who'd ordered shakes his head and goes on. “A war hero, they called him. Man, Fire Country’s gonna go to the dogs just like Wind if they go through with making some shithead the Hokage.”

Letter Man has stilled. Completely, unnaturally. Michi finds her eyes on him.

Another ninja from the trio shakes his head in turn.

“I don't like this shit,” he complains. “I mean, friendship? Peace? It's bullshit idealism being blabbered by all these children who've never seen a real war. Ha. Wonder what those kids in Konoha would do if we invaded them, eh? Try to talk peace into us?” All three of the ninja guffaw loudly. Michi finds herself drifting towards the end of the counter that's got Letter Man sitting at it.

“Did you fight?” Letter Man’s voice is even, flat. He gets uncomprehending looks in response. “In the Fourth Great Shinobi War. Did you fight?”

“Hell no,” one of the men snorts. “Chakra monsters? Tree men? Dead people walking? Poorest excuse for getting dirt on other shinobi I’ve ever heard of. Countries’ll be stabbing each other in the back any day now, mark my words.”

Michi feels the breath catch in her throat. Unbidden, the image of horrific, gnarled tree roots sinks into her mind, the feeling of branches wrapping around her chest, the fuzz of sleep washing off of her brain, waking up to find the entire town covered in––

“Funny,” Letter Man says, setting down his chopsticks, “you’d think it’s necessary to actually fight in a war to deem it real or not.”

“Who the hell are you to say, huh?” The shinobi are getting riled up now, visibly. Michi backs up further, slowly, towards the kitchen. “You’re not old enough to have seen the last real war. You even old enough to shave, beanpole?”

“Michi,” Aiko shouts over the usual din of the kitchen; running water, boiling pots, sizzling pans. Michi takes the excuse for what it is and flees. Aiko is standing by the stock pot, eyebrows drawn, and then she silently tips her head towards the front of the shop, eyes asking a clear question.

Michi shakes her head in response, mimes a hitai-ate, holds up three fingers, and then rethinks, wiggles a bit, and holds up four fingers. Aiko rolls her eyes in resignation and finishes topping the three bowls in a series of smooth, practiced motions. Michi takes two of the bowls without a word, braces herself, and walks back out towards the front.

“Weapons down, please, gentlemen,” she says smoothly, plastering on a smile as she sets the bowls down. “Your food’s here, gonna need both hands to eat it.”

Letter Man hasn’t moved aside from turning his head, and he looks precisely as unruffled as before. Somehow, that’s even more unsettling than the way the other three have half-risen from their seats. One of the ninja slams his knife down into the counter, cracking the wood as the blade sinks in.

Excuse me,” Michi says sharply.

She is summarily ignored.

“If you’re going to threaten me, you should do so in such a way that doesn’t involve ruining furniture,” Letter Man tells the ninja who's close to getting in his face, voice flat, almost bored, and he reaches for his chopsticks.

Michi– - entirely misses just what the fuck happens in the following three seconds. Two seconds? Hell if she knows. She sees as one of the shinobi lunges forward towards Letter Man, snarl on his face, and then suddenly there’s a dull thump and a flash and a high-pitched squeal of- of something, just for a half a heartbeat, and then she lowers the arms she’d thrown up instinctively to cover her face.

There’s a smell of ozone, sharp and overwhelming. Letter Man is standing over three prone figures – how and when the fuck did that even happen – and he’s got a sword in his hand, unsheathed, blade gleaming. The air feels charged; Michi feels the hair on her arms stand straight up, and a spark arcs its way from Letter Man’s hand down to the very tip of the blade.

“You're right, you know,” Letter Man tells the shinobi, voice still flat. “Peace is the more difficult option. But if a mercenary like you can't look past the end of their nose to see the things worth protecting, worth working for, then I won't waste my time on you.” Faster than Michi can blink, the sword is gone, Letter Man pulls the knife out from where its tip had been embedded in the counter, and he throws it. It lands a hair’s-breadth away from the loudest man’s face. “And read a bingo book before you pick your next fight.”

The three shinobi are gone in a heartbeat, and the last thing Michi registers is the looks of genuine fear twisting their faces.

Aiko’s concerned face pops out from the kitchen. Michi gives her a wave and a slow nod; Aiko’s eyes scan the counter, the untouched bowls, and her lip lifts in a sneer before she’s gone.

Letter Man’s dark eyes – dark eye – turns to Michi, and she feels a shiver run down her spine.

“Injured?” he asks, and the question completely throws her for a loop.

“Uh– I’m, uh, fine.”

“I can pay for their meal.” Letter Man flips through his stack of papers, as if checking that nothing is missing.

“No no, that's okay,” Michi says, raising a hand. “It's all on them, you weren't the one picking a fight.” That bingo book comment floats to the surface of her mind. She doesn't know much about ninja, but she knows that. She tries a more oblique angle. “You… did you say you fought in the War?”

Letter Man gives her a long look.

“I didn’t say that,” he finally replies, “but I did fight in the War.”

“Oh.” Well, if he fought in the War, and survived, that might be enough to warrant him having a bingo book entry. Michi scratches at her scalp, then mentally smacks herself for the nervous habit. “Well, then, thanks. For helping save the world.”

“You're welcome,” he replies, with a distinct note of amusement, or maybe sarcasm. Michi grabs a rag and busies herself.

“I dunno what kind of problem those guys had,” she says, wiping down her side of the counter slowly, methodically. “We didn't see much of the fighting thanks to the evacuations, but it was still– that thing still–” Michi brings her hand and the rag to a stop. “From the stories I heard, what you fought against was awful. But you still did it. And you ninja saved us all. So… thanks.”

For the first time in the four days he's come here, a very small smile graces the careful composure of his face.

“You're welcome,” he repeats. Michi smiles back.

 


  

Naruto–

Hope you're ready.

Writing from just inside the border of Fire Country. Going to be weird to see Konoha again. Don't worry about me, I'll be fine. Worry about you.

I don't know how long I'll stay. I'd say “as long as you need me,” but, well. I can't. Not yet. But I am here for you. Part of me still can't believe that you did it. Other part of me is thinking “of course he did, he'd never have settled for anything less.” Hokage, I mean. Not just trivial things like saving the world.

In case I don't get to telling you this – Naruto, I am so proud of you. You are an amazing man, and I am honored to call you my friend, and my Kage.

See you soon.

– Sasuke

 


 

He doesn't cry during the inauguration. At least, not until Naruto solemnly accepts the hat and cloak. And it's not crying, not really, it's more that his body didn't seem to have any idea what to do about the sheer scope and intensity of emotion he's feeling, and things are coming through the cracks.

Sakura’s hand finds his and squeezes, and with the other she clings to Ino as she cries openly, as the crowd roars and surges forward to meet their new Hokage, as Naruto vaults over the railing to meet his people.

NARUTO,” Sakura bellows – sobs – and dives forward to crush him in a hug, lifting him off the ground.

“Sakura– Sakura, I can't–” But Naruto is laughing as he wheezes out protests, hat askew.

“Congratulations,” Sakura finally manages, then paws at the tears on her face, grin wobbling. She takes Naruto's face between her hands, pulls him down, and presses a kiss to his forehead.

“Love you, Sakura,” Naruto tells her, beaming, and then he turns to look at Sasuke, who––

Who's been standing absolutely dumbstruck, because it's one thing to know that Naruto was next in line for the title, one thing to watch the ceremony from afar, and another entirely to see Naruto standing in front of him clad in the regalia of the station he's worked his entire life to earn.

Sasuke’s body moves without his command and the next thing he knows he's got his arm wrapped around Naruto’s shoulders, holding tight, and his entire ribcage aches in a way that may or may not have anything to do with how tightly Naruto is holding him in return.

“I'm so proud of you,” Sasuke mumbles into Naruto’s shoulder, words tumbling out haphazard and honest. “I'm so proud of you, Naruto. I'm so proud.”

And Naruto, in turn, replies with a handful of words that makes Sasuke go weak, limbs tingling, head spinning, and he is hyper-aware of his body as Naruto laughs against him, warm hand moving up to cradle the back of his head, just briefly, before pulling back. His eyes are bright with tears. Sasuke thinks his own might be, too.

Gaara is next, embracing Naruto with a kind of solemnity that Sasuke still has trouble reconciling with the haunted, unhinged child he'd met during the chūnin exams. Gaara says something to Naruto that's too quiet to be heard over the roar of people. Naruto laughs in response, a little sheepishly, and lifts a hand to scrub away the tears that have finally spilled from his eyes. Naruto meets Sasuke's eyes over Gaara’s shoulder and says, “Yeah, I know.”

In this moment – Sakura back to clinging to his palm with one hand and crushing Ino’s with the other, Gaara smiling as he watches Tsunade cry into Naruto's shoulder, Kakashi coming up to rest a hand on Naruto's back – Sasuke feels a sensation of peace unlike anything he's ever felt before, settling around his shoulders like a cloak.

It's not that he's just connected the dots; it's that the dots have been connected for a long, long time, and he can finally see it. For years he’s pushed himself forward following nothing but the strength of his conviction, the strength of Naruto’s conviction. Faith might be a good word for it, but that doesn't feel like enough, and there's little room in the definition for this sense of fulfillment. This is right, he knows. This is the right path. He's made the right choices.

So maybe if he cries, a bit, maybe, then it's justified.

 


 

Sasuke–

All this paperwork is no joke. It just never stops coming. Not your stuff– that’s all done for now– just in general. Oh yeah that’s right, all your paperwork is done now. Ready for whenever you’re ready.

I can't believe I'm saying this, but I understand completely now why Granny Tsunade just slept all fucking day in the office. If I start comparing myself to Kakashi, it's time for a mercy killing.

But anyways– thanks for that last report from Yu. We’ll be keeping an eye out; patrols have been notified, and I’ve sent messages to Taki, Iwa, and Kumo, too.

Stay safe, Sasuke. Take care of yourself. I miss you.

– Naruto

 


 

The chakra is bright, like the sun on a hot summer day, and it's making her want to sneeze. It's also– she wrinkles her nose. There's also an undertone to it that's calling out, searching for any hum of resonance, a response in kind. It's a lot to take in, so many layers to comprehend, and that's not even tackling the incalculably vast sum that lies even deeper, momentarily dormant.

Well, at least it’s easy to follow. She shoves her glasses up on her nose, takes a breath, and knocks.

The chakra shifts, condensing as it moves, and then the door swings open. Uzumaki Naruto, ostensibly the only family member she has, stares at her from the doorway.

“Wait, aren't you–? What are you doing here?”

“For you,” she says, and thrusts a sheaf of paper into his hand.

“Okay, but, what are you… you know, doing here? In Konoha?” He frowns at her, but it's not in suspicion; his chakra swirls with curiosity and surprise, bumping up gently against her own.

“Things,” Karin answers defensively. “I'm–” She takes a deep breath, and she can feel that cursed, cursed fucking flush rising in her face. “You said we could have a place in Konoha if we ever wanted one. So I'm– here. Now. For now.”

“Oh! You are? That's awesome!” Wow, okay. Not the reaction she'd expected. Naruto grins at her and waves her in properly, holding open the door to his office. “So, you looking at joining the Sensor Division or something? I remember Sasuke said you're super damn good at that, and I know Ino would be over the moon.”

“I–” She's approximately the color of her hair now, she knows, and it's getting increasingly more difficult to string words together. “He– you––”

“We can get to all that stuff in a sec, I think this is actually gonna require a shitload of signatures–” He splits off a shadow clone, who waves cheerfully before exiting into the hallway. The original leafs through the papers he's holding. “–but anyways, what's all–– oh!”

His chakra positively blazes. He – quite literally – lights up. It's such an incredible wash of emotion that Karin’s breath catches in her throat. Naruto looks up from the letters with a smile that’s somehow completely different from the one he’d been wearing just seconds ago.

“How is he?” Naruto asks.

“He's– he's good,” Karin replies, a little weakly. She's got no idea what to do with the raw, unbridled joy she's just sensed. Save it for a rainy day, maybe.

That look she'd seen on Sasuke's face as they'd parted ways comes to mind. Not quite wistful, not quite pained, not quite plaintive; something she'd never call pining out loud. Not to his face, anyways. The same look he wears when writing letters, most of the time. Karin thinks she might understand it a little better, now. Still looks ridiculously goofy.

“I think he misses home,” she adds, and the happiness in Naruto’s chakra surges again, like rays of sunlight in the winter.

Konoha’s alright, she thinks. She can work with this.

 

(The top letter, Karin knows, was scrawled out quickly, almost like Sasuke had needed to get the words out before he could overthink them. It reads like this: Sending these with Karin instead of by hawk. Heading towards Oto now. Thinking of Konoha. Always. Miss you, Naruto.)

 


  

It’s different now, the way he misses Naruto. He never really considered the possibility of missing not just the obvious things, not just Naruto’s laugh and his smile and his presence and the bright burn of his chakra, but it’s an entirely different set of things Sasuke has folded into his life now that he can’t bring with him outside of Konoha.

It’s things like this: the way Naruto’s grin is still a little sheepish when he steps into the house with the intention of staying the night, the shape of his silhouette against dim moonlight and streetlamps, the sight of shirts in Sasuke’s room that are not his, a slowly growing dent in the couch cushions from the weight of two people.

Sasuke’s no stranger to the sudden switch to traveling alone after being around others, but it’s different now, and damn it all, even the cold space of an empty half of the bed feels different when he’s home with the knowledge that Naruto is a short sprint away come morning.

And it’s all the worse because— Sasuke heaves out a sigh and searches in his pocket for the keys. God, he feels old sometimes. It’s worse because Naruto won’t be back from Iwa till tomorrow evening and of course the first time Sasuke’s had to leave Konoha since coming back, it’s overlapped with Naruto leaving, too.

The house is dark, and Sasuke smiles as he catches the sound of paws surreptitiously slinking away, and then eyes flash at him from down the hallway.

“I’m home,” he announces quietly to her, and closes the door. She’s gotten less shy since Sasuke had wrangled her into the house and started actually feeding her rather than the squirrels hell-bent on the food bowl outside, and most evenings Sasuke can’t un-glue her from his lap, but the door still spooks her, every time.

Home.

He’s home.

It’s a bit of a revelation, really. This is the first time he’s left and come back to this house. This home.

His bed is both enticing and not, because he wants to sleep without rocks and roots and one eye open, but— no Naruto. Not even his presence, pressing gently against Sasuke’s awareness from across the village.

He sighs again.

“Just you and me, Haruko,” he says out loud, and a splotchy calico head peers around the corner at the sound of his voice.

 

He senses Naruto enter the very edges of his awareness like ripples in water. It’s the faintest pressure; a window opening on the far side of a house, the first whisper of fresh air. The envoy is still far, maybe an hour away even though they’re likely moving at top speed, but even with so much distance yet to go Sasuke feels like he can breathe again.

 

Sasuke waits patiently as the envoy files through the gates, windswept and travel-worn. Naruto’s face is unexpectedly serious, even at a distance, and Shikamaru’s face is thunderous, deep in thought.

“Storm’s brewing,” Kakashi notes lightly, dropping down from the roof he’d been lurking on. Sasuke hums in agreement.

“I think I know what this is about,” Sasuke tells him, and it’s Kakashi’s turn to hum. “I left my report with Ino.” He tips his chin up, pointing out the flash of pale blonde hair moving through the small knot of people that makes up the envoy. “I expect they’ll want me in person.”

“I’m sure that’s exactly why you decided to take a stroll so late in the evening,” Kakashi says. Sasuke doesn’t even bother dignifying the jab with an eyeroll, but Kakashi’s eyes are dancing good-naturedly, and Sasuke lets it slide.

Sasuke watches as Naruto’s attention frays the closer he and Kakashi get, eyes flicking over to them, but only when Kakashi finally raises a hand with his customary hey does Naruto allow himself to turn and greet them, hand gripping Sasuke’s shoulder like a vice, eyes creased with tiredness even through his smile.

Sasuke’s hunch was right, as it turns out. The whispers he’d chased — shinobi gone missing, disappearing without a word, foul play likely considering some of the people missing were reported to be loyal to a fault — are the likely the same thing Shikamaru has been trying to puzzle out, news of a country northeast of Iwa.

The impromptu jōnin council meeting is rough. It’s late, half the council have been traveling for two days, none of the news is good, and Shikamaru finally ends the meeting with the first display of a temper Sasuke has ever seen from him, voice sharp as he snaps that he’ll be traveling to check out what lies northeast of Iwa himself. The mood is not so much sour as it is exhausted by the time everyone dismissed themselves, and Naruto leans against the doorway to his office with a deep sigh.

“Never a dull moment,” he muses, staring down the hall. “That was a shitshow.”

“Let’s save the commiseration for tomorrow,” Sasuke suggests, and bumps their shoulders together. “Get some rest first.” Naruto’s hand searches blindly for Sasuke’s, finds it, and squeezes. “C’mon, Naruto. Let’s go home.”

 

Naruto takes Sasuke’s face between his hands and kisses him, firmly, crowding close.

“I—”

“I missed you,” Sasuke says, in a rush, a little breathless, because it feels incredible to let himself say it.

“I missed you too,” Naruto sighs, and leans their foreheads together. “Wow. I really missed you.”

They’re barely inside, still dressed in cloaks, and the only light is the dim lamp in the living room, painting everything in soft, somber shades, catching Naruto’s eyes as he blinks slowly.

“Naruto—“ Something in his voice must prompt Naruto lean away, just enough for them to properly meet eyes, and Naruto carefully reaches out to fold his hands around Sasuke’s. “Stay.”

“Well, yeah. Of course.”

“No, I mean— permanently.”

Naruto blinks in surprise, and he answers after a beat.

“I— you mean it?”

“Of course I mean it,” Sasuke says exasperatedly, all seriousness abandoning him immediately. “I wouldn’t have asked if I didn’t mean it.”

“I… well, I’m kinda messy, and probably not the best— you’re sure?” Naruto’s eyes are wide, and there's something deep, deep in there that Sasuke doesn’t think he’s seen since they were children.

“Naruto, if you’d let me, I'd spend the rest of my life with you,” Sasuke says before this well of unfiltered truth shuts itself, and before Naruto can protest again, Sasuke leans forward to gently kiss him. “Just as you are.”

“‘If I’d let you,’” Naruto repeats back. “I’d do more than let you, Sasuke.” He squeezes Sasuke’s hand, gently, and leans in to kiss him in turn. “If you want me, I'm yours.”

It’s— big. It’s a big thing that’s sitting between them; something approaching a topic that’s frankly terrifying, dizzying, and they won’t be talking about that quite yet, Sasuke thinks, but oh, it’s present now, and understood by them both, if the solemn look in Naruto’s eyes is anything to go by.

“Yes,” Sasuke says simply, and kisses him back. “Always.”

 


 

“I’m gonna puke,” Sakura says firmly.

“No, you're not,” Kakashi replies, as calm and easy as ever.

“Oh my god.” Sakura buries her face in her hands. “Why is this so– ugh! Why am I nervous?” She glares accusingly at Kakashi in a fit of childishness, even though, logically, of course, it's not his fault, and neither does he have an answer. “It's not like I–- I don't know, it’s not like I’m scared she'll leave me at the altar, or something.”

“Well, you're putting an intimate relationship on show for all of your friends and family to see and to judge,” Kakashi answers easily. “It's a stressful thing. That, and all the pomp and circumstance of it.”

Sakura lets her head drop back into her hands. She hates it when Kakashi makes sense.

“I hate it when you make sense,” she says aloud, voice muffled by her palms.

A gentle hand rests on top of her head.

“Chin up,” Kakashi says. “It’ll be over before you know it.”

“That makes it sound like it's something really bad,” Sakura says, lifting her head to stare up at him with narrowed eyes.

“See? There you go, it’s not that bad.”

Kakashi is, truthfully, one of her oldest and dearest friends at this point in her life. And it’s strange to think that, still. He’s more her family than her blood has ever been, and she hadn’t hesitated for a second when asking him to stand as her family. He’d looked like she’d just punched him in the face, but he’d agreed, and it’d been the most misty-eyed Sakura has ever seen him. She sighs and rearranges all her millions of layers before standing.

“Thanks,” she says, and smiles. In these shoes, she’s nearly as tall as him, and it’s really, genuinely weird. God. She might be taller than Ino. That’d make it so weird. Holy shit. What shoes is Ino wearing? They didn't practice this part in full dress. What if they botch the kiss? What if–– -

There’s a knock at the door.

“Come in,” Sakura says, through the lump in her throat the size of a meteor.

Naruto stands in the doorway, Sasuke hovering over his shoulder and both of them dressed to the nines, and of all things it’s that that makes the panicked tears start to well up in her eyes.

“Whoa, hey, now––”

“Shhhhhh, don’t– -”

“I’m fine,” Sakura insists, voice breaking about a million times in two words, “I just–” She takes a giant, snotty breath and wow, shit, where did all these tears come from? So fast? Holy shit. “This is stressful and you’re all here and you look so fancy and I’m– I love her, and I love you all, and I just–” She heaves out a really, truly pathetic-sounding sob, gestures helplessly, and then raises a hand to wipe away the mess of tears on her face.

Don’t,” Sasuke snaps, and her wrist is in his hand before she knows it. “Use a tissue. Don’t fuck up your makeup.”

“Okay,” Sakura says meekly, voice watery, and why can’t she stop crying, this is absolutely ridiculous and she is an adult woman who is about to get fucking married.

“Don’t you start too,” Sasuke mutters to Naruto as he hands Sakura the box of tissues, and oh no, Naruto’s bottom lip is all quivery and–

“I’m so happy for you, Sakura,” he chokes out, and then she’s got her arms full of nearly-bawling Naruto.

“Alright, all of you, save some for later,” Kakashi says evenly, and pats both Sakura and Naruto on the head this time. “Let’s get you cleaned up, Sakura. Can’t keep her waiting for too long.”

Sakura feels all of twelve years old, or maybe six, as Sasuke gently dabs at whatever kind of mess she’s made of her face. This is just. It is just.

Wow. She’s getting married. She’s gonna marry Ino. Sakura closes her eyes and takes a deep breath.

It’s funny to think of how similar she and Ino are to Naruto and Sasuke, in their own weird way. Best friends from childhood, driven apart by a ferocious rivalry that’s so hilariously trivial in retrospect, but at ten years old, twelve, thirteen, there’d been nothing more serious. And then the chūnin exams, and then they’d fallen back into step together, and then too many events had thrown all their lives into chaos, and somehow she and Ino had found each other in spite of everything, and then Sakura had woken up one day in their shared apartment, in their shared bed, curled around Ino, had kissed her good morning like she always does, and she’d thought, huh.

“Hey,” Sasuke says, and takes her chin in his hand. “Congratulations. Now let’s go.”

He leans forward and kisses her forehead. Of course, never to be outdone, Naruto leaps forward and gives her another, much less teary hug, and kisses her cheek, and then even Kakashi bends down to– well, that mask is forever in place, but Sakura can extrapolate the kiss he leaves on top of her head, and she appreciates it, and oh good god no she’s got a handle on her tears this time.

She’s learned how to clear her mind, how to shut out stress and anxiety on command. It’s a skill she must have, as a medical ninja, as a shinobi who risks her life in combat. No tool is greater in the face of stress than a still mind.

But this – this isn’t combat. This isn’t Sakura risking her life. She can’t flip that switch because it can’t be flipped; there’s nothing for her to face except herself.

And yet the second she walks through the doors, the second her eyes meet Ino’s, the second she sees the rush of happiness and affection flood across Ino’s face, everything clears. Silent and calm. Sakura takes a deep breath and walks forward.

 


 

“Hey.” Natsuko elbows her teammate, and goes on in a hushed whisper. “Is that the Hokage?

Yumi inches over on her belly and peers through the bushes they’re hiding in. A few feet away, Natsuko can see Shunsuke doing the same.

“What’s he doing here?” Yumi whispers back, frowning even as she tries to slink back, press herself even further into the underbrush. The Hokage’s trajectory will have him walking right past them.

“I dunno, but we should definitely use this as a distraction,” Shunsuke hisses.

The Hokage passes by their bush, strides long and even, and then he glances down, and… winks.

Natsuko looks at Shunsuke. Shunsuke looks at Yumi. Yumi grins. Natsuko readies a kunai, and shifts to lie in wait.

The Hokage calls out to Sasuke as he walks up and leans against one of the thick wooden posts at the other end of the training ground, and Sasuke… lets him. Even though he'd shooed out a group of Academy kids who'd stumbled through, two days ago. (Though Natsuko supposes it's one thing to chase out some kids, and another thing entirely to tell the Hokage to fuck off.) Sasuke’s body language doesn't seem annoyed at being interrupted, like Natsuko thought it would be, and it's not even the usual uptight better-than-you shoulders-back chin-tilt thing he usually does. He looks almost relaxed. And even at this distance–

“Is sensei smiling?” Natsuko wrinkles her nose. “I didn't even know his face could, like, do that.”

Yumi muffles a snort into her hand.

“Let's get moving, c’mon,” Shunsuke hisses, and starts slowly slinking forward.

 

They have a Plan, capital P, and Natsuko is very ready to hand their jōnin-sensei’s ass to him. She'd known Uchiha Sasuke by name because who doesn't, she can kinda vaguely recall seeing him around the village once or twice, but she hadn't actually known anything anything about Konoha’s local cryptid until last week. She'd come to the training ground in her first day as a genin, ready to make the Sarutobi clan proud, and had been appraised and set aside by a sharp eye and a half-raised eyebrow.

Sasuke-sensei? Absolute asshole. He hasn’t done jack shit during any of their training sessions the whole week they’ve known him, and Natsuko has had it up to here with the sight of his coolly expressionless face standing there for hours in the middle of the training ground, bells looped through his belt. Every time they’ve tried attacking him – sneak attacks, brute-force frontal attacks, anything – he brushes them off like they’re dirt.

But this time, they’ve got an ally. This time, Sasuke is clearly distracted. This time, they’re getting those goddamn bells.

 

Natsuko looks at Shunsuke, then over at Yumi, and then nods. It's set.

Yumi runs forward out of her spot.

“Hokage-sama!” she calls cheerfully, waving. “Good to see you!”

“Hey, Yumi,” the Hokage replies, grinning at her. Yumi taps her toes on the grass twice as Sasuke turns to look at her.

The signal. Natsuko moves.

She moves her hands in the series of seals she's been drilling in secret for months and with her team all week and there it is, that heat lining her throat as she fills her lungs, and she breathes out a stream of fire that's even steadier than it was yesterday, and it’s awesome, and she's totally getting the hang of this.

Shunsuke’s swords shine across from her as the two of them pincer in towards Sasuke, carefully avoiding the Hokage, and they absolutely nailed this formation this time and Natsuko can see the bells and––-

Her jutsu is gone, wiped out seconds after she cast it by a fireball that scorches what seems like half the training ground, and possibly her eyebrows. When the heat clears, the first thing Natsuko sees is Shunsuke, lip curled in a snarl. His swords are lying a good number of feet away from him and next to Yumi, who is flat on her ass.

“Points for creativity in using your environment,” Sasuke tells them, a little less boredly than usual. “Always take advantage of outside variables.”

“You're nothing but a mean old loser!” Natsuko shouts. She is at the fucking end of her damn patience. “Does your life suck so much that you have to pick on us for fun?”

“Oh, to be genin again,” Sasuke says, angling a strange look at the Hokage, and was that… a joke? Did their sensei just make a joke? Natsuko finds herself deflating instantly with the shock.

“It hasn't been that long since you were a genin, in case you've forgotten,” the Hokage tells him, grinning, clearly fighting back the urge to laugh at him. Yeah, whatever. Natsuko would love to hear the Hokage laugh at Sasuke. He deserves it.

“The same goes for you, so don't get too comfortable on your high horse,” Sasuke replies easily. Yumi stands and dusts herself off, scowling, and then exchanges a look with Shunsuke that Natsuko doesn't know how to interpret.

“Anyways–” The Hokage clears his throat loudly, feigning embarrassment, but his eyes are dancing. “You don't wanna go easy on these kids? You remember how bad we did the first time we took this test.”

“Yes, but we passed.”

Barely. And by accident, honestly. And even though these three haven't ‘passed,’ you do have yet to fail them.”

“They have time to improve.” And unless Natsuko is suddenly hallucinating and/or losing her vision, Sasuke looks almost defensive, turning to look at the three of them. Emotions? Coming from their jōnin-sensei? Wow. The Hokage sure is a powerful ninja, then, if he can manage to pull that out of thin air. Natsuko meets Yumi’s eyes and shoots her a brief, smug smile.

“You know, Sasuke–” The Hokage is hiding an absolutely massive shit-eating grin behind their jōnin-sensei’s back. “You're still the only one of us who never got a bell off Kakashi.”

Natsuko’s eyes snap over to Sasuke. Yumi whirls around so fast she immediately starts to rub out a crick in her neck.

Sasuke turns back to the Hokage. Within seconds the air is so heavy that Natsuko feels like her knees might buckle.

What?

“Yeah,” the Hokage says, shrugging offhandedly, “Sakura and I each got one, Kakashi did the test with us after I came back to Konoha with Jiraiya.”

Sasuke's spine is rigid. In a movement so quick that Natsuko barely sees it, Sasuke takes the bells off of his belt and tosses them to the Hokage.

“What? You pawning your team off on me now to go beat up an old man?” The Hokage shakes the bells in his palm, and they chime innocently.

“No,” Sasuke says simply. “He's not an appropriate challenge. But you are.” The air is charged now alongside its heaviness, like a storm cell ready to burst, and Yumi is looking faintly ill. Natsuko is silently glad she’s not a sensor herself. This pressure is bad enough as it is, and… wow, if this is what the famous (still an asshole) Uchiha Sasuke can do with barely any effort, then maybe he really is strong. “Team 3, pay close attention. I hope you're ready for a demonstration of how to pass this test.”

 

It's evening by the time it's all over. At least ten training grounds have been razed to the ground, and the match – if it can be called that – had to be moved outside the village limits, along with gawkers comprised of approximately most of the village’s civilians, all the off-duty shinobi, and a couple on-duty, no one able to tear their eyes off of two of the strongest shinobi in the world having a bit of a spar. Natsuko stopped counting how many times her jaw dropped.

Konoha’s citizens finally start to filter back into town from where they'd been spectating the big show, talking excitedly, but Natsuko can't bring herself to focus on anything except what she's just witnessed. Yumi had nearly passed out a few times, sensing abilities overloaded, and Natsuko had never actually physically felt chakra before like that.

A kunai lands at Shunsuke’s feet with two very battered, very singed bells attached to it. All three of them look down at it, and then back up at the approaching figures.

Sasuke and the Hokage are leaning heavily on each other, both panting, both smeared with sweat and dirt and soot.

“That, my dear genin, is how you pass a bell test,” the Hokage tells them once he's in earshot, out of breath, proud and triumphant as if he'd been the one to pass it.

Sasuke is not, in fact, wearing the smirk that Natsuko had expected of him, and instead his eyes are half-closed, whole body tilted in towards the Hokage’s, relying heavily on the arm he’s got around the Hokage’s waist to keep himself upright. He stares at the Hokage’s face for a few moments before seeming to remember that his team exists.

“Same time tomorrow,” Sasuke finally says to them, after he’s caught his breath. “Don’t be late.”

“Yes, sensei,” Yumi says, half-dazed, and Natsuko manages a slow nod. They’d all just watched these two men accidentally flatten a mountain. If Sasuke asked them to dance in a thunderstorm wrapped in foil, she’d do it without hesitation.

The Hokage laughs, still catching his breath, and leans hard into Sasuke, lays a hand on his chest and pats as if placating him.

“Time to recoup,” he says, blinking slowly, tiredly, even as he's grinning. “C’mon.”

Sasuke hesitates as he turns to leave, and then looks back at his team.

“You three are– doing well,” he says, and later Natsuko will think about how the awkwardness in his voice was likely honesty. “You– have the key to this test. You're using it. Just… a little more.”

And with that cryptic and entirely unhelpful statement, their jōnin-sensei and the Hokage head back towards the city proper, taking slow, unsteady leaps together across the rooftops.

Natsuko’s had her mouth open for so long her tongue is dry. She finally remembers to close it, and does so with an audible click.

“You, uh… you guys wanna spar before going home?” Shunsuke croaks.

“Sure,” Yumi replies weakly.

 


 

Sasuke feels the shift of weight on the mattress, and then the gentle press of a hand on his back.

“Hey,” Naruto murmurs, voice scratchy and soft and sweet with sleep, “don’t be nervous.”

Sasuke snorts dismissively, but he does lean back as Naruto sits up and winds his arms around Sasuke’s waist, leaning in to drape himself across Sasuke’s back.

“Really,” Naruto continues, voice now muffled by Sasuke’s hair, “they’ll do fine. They’re skilled kids, and you’ve done a great job with their training.”

“You’re biased,” Sasuke murmurs back, and threads his fingers through the hand Naruto’s got curled loosely around him.

“Nah.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Nope.” A yawn overtakes Naruto, interrupting him. “Anyways, stop moping and go get ready.”

“I’m not moping,” Sasuke scoffs and, just to be contrary, leans back even further against Naruto, tipping his head back so it rests on Naruto’s shoulder. Naruto takes it in stride, as he always does, laughs and leans down to kiss Sasuke’s forehead.

“You definitely are. Now get up, I’m hungry and we need to get going early.”

Sasuke hums in response and shifts all his weight back to tip a not-very-resisting Naruto over, pulling his legs up behind him for leverage and to curl more comfortably into Naruto’s side. Efficient.

“Asshole,” Naruto huffs, but his arms are warm and pliant around Sasuke, and the kisses he peppers down Sasuke’s neck and shoulder are sweet.

“I’m not an asshole,” Sasuke replies, closing his eyes, “I just want some peace and quiet before I have to deal with three nightmare teenagers for a week.”

“Nightmare teenagers, wow. Who put you in charge of kids?”

“My husband,” Sasuke replies, without missing a beat, and Naruto buries a laugh in the crook of Sasuke’s shoulder, arms tightening. Sasuke twists over and uses the opportunity to kiss Naruto, soft and light, and he’s rewarded with the press of a smile against his lips.

Naruto’s hand finds its way under the rumpled edge of Sasuke’s shirt, fingertips drawing aimless spirals over his skin, and Sasuke leans up to steal another kiss, and another.

“I think you did — mmm — a great job teaching them,” Naruto murmurs between kisses. “It would take a lot for them to not pass, you know?”

“I know,” Sasuke replies, smiling.

Naruto— freezes. Sasuke opens his eyes and frowns in question.

“That’s it,” Naruto says, triumphant. “You don’t want to be done with them, do you?”

It’s Sasuke’s turn to freeze.

“That’s not true.”

“Yes it is,” Naruto crows gleefully, and his arms tighten around Sasuke’s waist like a vice as he laughs.

“Absolutely not,” Sasuke declares, and wrenches himself up and out of bed as Naruto continues to laugh at him.

Now is an excellent time to go shower with the bathroom door locked.

 


 

It’s quite the procession they all make, over twenty groups from seven different nations pouring through Iron Country on the way to Iwa. They meet Suna first, housing their three squads for a night in Konoha, and together they push north, folding Kusa and Ame into their group before meeting Kiri and Kumo and Oto at the border of Iron Country.

The hall that’s hosting them for the night is packed with shinobi and samurai alike, and Sasuke thinks – again – that it’s a bit of a wonder he’s still allowed to be on these premises.

He shakes the thought and does does a quick sweep of the room: Shunsuke and Yumi are still with a couple of Suna kids listening raptly as Omoi explains something about swords, no doubt; Natsuko is still still talking Hinata’s ears off; and Naruto—

“–my husband’s thing more than mine, really, so you should ask him.”

Sasuke meets Naruto’s eyes from across the hall, and he knows he’s failing spectacularly at hiding both his smile and the color rising in his face.

Naruto waves him over, then grins over at the Kiri envoy coming through the door. Sasuke ghosts his way through the hall to Naruto’s side.

“Oh! Well,” the samurai Naruto walked in with is saying, “we’d be honored to test our kenjutsu skills against Kon–” She stops as Sasuke walks up, visibly reaching for a sword that’s not currently on her waist. “Ah.”

“Keiko, this is Sasuke,” Naruto says obliviously, clapping a hand on Sasuke’s back. “Sasuke, Keiko. Captain of the Guard.”

Sasuke inclines his head politely; she returns the gesture, rather stiffly, and warily eyes the headband he’s displaying looped through his belt: worn, clearly showing its age, and with a single ragged slash through it. Sasuke meets her gaze mildly.

“Forgive my rudeness,” she says, still stiff, hands still reflexively hovering near her waist. “I believe the last time you visited Iron Country, it… did not go well.”

Sasuke raises his eyebrows.

“Iron Country has a good memory,” he says. “This time, I’m here as part of the Hokage’s security detail, among other things. I’m not looking for trouble.” Naruto opens his mouth, surely to protest security detail, and Sasuke cuts him off with a quick look. “Naruto is right, though. I’d be very interested in a friendly spar.”

A truly impressive series of emotions flashes across Keiko’s face as she puts two and two together.

“Of– course,” she says, rapidly trying to regain her composure. “We’ve started clearing an arena for the Kumogakure envoy. You’re more than welcome to join them, I expect they’ll be beginning shortly.”

Sasuke inclines his head again.

“Great!” Naruto replies. “We need to get going, but it was good to talk to you, Keiko.”

“If you need anything, please don’t hesitate to ask.”

And with that Keiko bows graciously, neatly, light shining off of her beautifully lacquered armor, and moves on through the great hall.

“Oh my god,” comes Natsuko’s voice from near Sasuke’s elbow, “sensei, can you just lock them up in a room to get their shit sorted out? I’ve seriously had it.”

“Language,” Sasuke chides, without any real bite. “And no, I can’t.”

Natsuko groans in frustration.

“You know, they learned all those fancy words from you, Sasuke,” Naruto cuts in.

“I don’t actually care. They just should know to watch their tongues when we’re acting as representatives of Konoha.” Sasuke turns to look at Natsuko, and lowers his voice. “Natsuko, if how they’re acting is bothering you – really bothering you, you know what I mean – then you need to tell them. It’s not alright for you to be uncomfortable.”

“I’m not uncomfortable,” she replies, picking sulkily at one of her nails, “it’s just really sucky when one of them suddenly remembers they’re supposed to be flirting or pining or something and then our plan gets fucked up because Shunsuke’s trying to impress Yumi even though she’s already head over heels for him. Messed up, sorry.” Natsuko finishes with a roll of her eyes.

Sasuke sighs.

“Fine,” he says. “I’ll talk to them before the exam. Remember that you’re all evaluated separately, anyways.”

“Thanks, sensei,” Natsuko says, and then adds something in a mutter under her breath.

“What was that?” Sasuke frowns down at her.

“I said, sometimes you’re just as bad as they are,” Natsuko huffs, crossing her arms. Sasuke pointedly does not look at Naruto. He can feel the shit-eating grin. “See what I mean! The Hokage smiles within like 2 miles of you, and you’re all red. You people are so embarrassing.” She rolls her eyes and flips her braid over her shoulder with the kind of finality only a thirteen-year-old can manage. “I’m gonna go watch the samurai warm up, I guess some people from Kumo are gonna spar. You should go too, sensei. Kick all their asses.”

And then she’s off like a shot, weaving through the crowd, dark braid swinging.

“I do not,” Sasuke says carefully, “go red every time you smile.”

“You do, just a little,” Naruto tells him, quite sympathetically.

 


 

He finds Yumi, Shunsuke, and Natsuko huddled together in a corner of Iwa's massive arena, and all of them are glaring sullenly as Sasuke walks up.

“Relax,” Sasuke tells them, without preamble. “This isn’t a death sentence. You’ve done fine up till now, and you’ll do fine in the fights.”

“Haruno-san came by to check on all participating teams,” Shunsuke says, and Sasuke isn’t sure why there’s an accusing glare attached to this statement. “We asked how her first chūnin exam went and she got all weird and refused to tell us.”

“And then she told us to not worry and that things would be just fine,” Natsuko adds, eyes narrowed.

Ah. That’s why.

“Well,” Sasuke says, “all three of us failed, that’s for one. I also nearly died— actually, so did Naruto and Sakura, for different reasons— and an S-class criminal launched an assault on Konoha during the third phase of the exams, during which he killed our Third Hokage and a tailed beast rampaged through half the forest.”

Silence.

Natsuko’s eyes slowly drift up to the kages’ raised seating area with growing apprehension. Shunsuke stares blankly down at his hands.

“What,” Yumi says, “the fuck.”

“Language,” Sasuke replies, mildly. “I’m telling you this because it can’t get any worse than that. If we survived as a joke of a team with zero cohesion and barely any missions under our belts, you’ll do fine.”

“But you’re you,” Shunsuke mutters. “You’re Uchiha Sasuke and Haruno Sakura and our Hokage. Of course you’d do fine.”

“At the time, we were a selfish idiot who refused to cooperate, a bookworm with no practical skills, and the village loser who knew one jutsu.” Sasuke rests a hand on his hip and looks down at his team. “Yumi, your control over your kekkei genkai is getting better every day, and you have a good instinct for how to use your teammates’ abilities together. Shunsuke, your chakra control is getting formidable, and so is your kenjutsu. I have no doubt that no other genin could best you with weapons. Natsuko, you make me wonder where in your ancestry the Sarutobi clan got hold of an Uchiha, your talent and instincts for using fire are that strong.”

Shunsuke is beet red. Natsuko is blinking rapidly, clearly trying to process this. Yumi looks like she's been hit in the face.

“And besides, you’re forgetting one thing.” They look up at him, still dazed, and Sasuke lets a proud smile curl the edges of his lips. “You’re my students, after all.”