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“I think...”

Sasuke pauses in flicking pebbles off of Minato’s head, glancing at Naruto out of the corner of his eye.

“I think I'm in love with you.”

His thoughts scatter.


Naruto is flexing his hand-- the left one, the only one still made of his own flesh and blood. The small sun branded into his palm glows softly in the dim light.

“Well, I s’pose it's more than I think . I've been thinking on this for awhile now, and I'm... uh...” The weight of his words finally seem to penetrate his own skull and his cheeks flush in the moonlight. His eyes are tired, the lights of Konohagakure reflecting dully on them as he ponders; the months since the end of the greatest shinobi world war haven’t been kind to him, but it’s a different kind of difficult. The Shaking-Hands, Accepting Gifts, Talking to Important People kind of difficult-- the kind of difficult that Naruto couldn’t just punch a rasengan through.

He rubs his face, sighing.

“I just... I love Sakura. I love Hinata. I love Kakashi-- though I have some words for him--" Sasuke snorts, but Naruto kept going. “I love Gaara and Lee and Tsunade, but when I think about you it feels... different. I don't know-- fuck, you know I've never been very self-observant.”

“You do have the introspective skills of a dead fish,” Sasuke supplies helpfully. Naruto socks him in the arm.

“Shut up!” He groans and keels back, throwing himself supine and tucking his hand behind his head. Sasuke allows himself a chuckle and then joins him on his back on the mountain. The stars glitter above them, a scatter of dust in an inky ocean not choked with smoke and dust for what felt like the first time in ages. It’s the height of summer and the night is sticky, humidity gripping them around their neck and under their arms, but the altitude pushes a breeze over them that makes the heat more bearable. It’s peaceful and, best of all, isolated , which is a blessing in disguise for both of them-- for Naruto, a reprieve from the demands of hundreds of grabbing hands; for Sasuke, an absence of prying eyes that bore into him distrustfully and fingers that twitch towards their weapons pouches whenever he so much as rubs his nose.

“I've spent so long chasing after you,” Naruto admits quietly. “I've invested so much of my life in you that I feel... off-balance when I think of you not being here.”

Guilt pangs in Sasuke’s stomach-- four years, a voice echoes. Four years you'll never be able to give back to him.

“That doesn't sound like love,” Sasuke mutters. He feels Naruto tense, his emotions rippling out like waves in a pool, impossible to ignore or misinterpret. He's upset, reasonably. But to his credit, he stays silent. Waiting for Sasuke to elaborate. That was something they did now-- waited, that is. No more chasing for either of them: a trusting patience had settle into them both, and so they waited and met in the middle.

Sasuke sighs, closing his eyes and laying his palm over his stomach.

“It sounds like a muscle memory. Like... reaching for a weapon that should be there but isn't. I think you’re confusing dependence for love.”

“That's not--!"

“But what if it is?” Sasuke says firmly. He opens his eyes, but doesn't meet the gaze he can feel drilling into the side of his head. “You're right-- you've spent a lot of time chasing me. More than I deserved. But... I remember feeling like that after I-- after Itachi...”

He drifts off, because he didn't need to keep going. Introspective as a dead fish he might have been, Naruto could read Sasuke like a picture book. The silence meanders around them for a moment.

“I felt... listless. I was looking for something. And that made me stupid. Easily manipulated. I'm not... I'm not saying that I don't ...” His cheeks burn but he pressed on. “But I don't want to jump to conclusions. You just saved the world, everything's changing. I want to... I want to settle. And figure things out with anybody trying to tell me what to do.”

Naruto was quiet-- but it was a loud kind of silence, bursting at the edges. His hand comes out from behind his head, resting between them. Heat radiates off him like the sun, and not for the first time Sasuke wishes it didn't feel like there was broken glass between them. Like if he reached out, he’d slice Naruto open and drive him away.

“That makes sense,” he says eventually. It felt anticlimactic compared to the weight to his silence. “I feel like it's been months since I've been able to just. Live. You know, without having to save somebody or stop the world from collapsing.”

Almost in sync, a breath passes between them-- in and out.

“Let's leave.”

There it was. Despite the fact that he was expecting something, it didn't prepare Sasuke for this. He shoots up, leaning on his elbow and staring down at Naruto, who had no right looking as nonplussed as did.


“Let's leave. Just travel. Not-- not abandoning the village, just like... a vacation, you know? I feel like we deserve one after all this shit we've been through.” Naruto looks up at him, stars swimming in his ocean eyes. The weight of it rushes around him and Sasuke doesn’t fight it-- he could drown in those eyes, willingly. There’s a gravity in them that he doesn’t fight, because he’s tried for years and it’s never worked, not once. And now there was no reason to, so he just... surrendered.

He returned back to his recumbent position before he could do something stupid.

“Oh. That... sounds nice actually...” he mumbles. Naruto nudges him, knuckles brushing over the back of his hand.

“I'm not as stupid as you.”


“Ow, bastard!”

Naruto rubs his arm, but it's hard to stay mad when Sasuke lets out this soft chuckle-- Naruto is always struck dumb by the lightness in these smiles, how much easier it is to read him now without layers of concrete keeping him cold and distant.

Sasuke likes this. He'd like time to just Be.



They tell Sakura first.

She isn't happy, but she's not... angry either. They're sitting at a private table in a restaurant, sake uncorked and untouched between them. Sakura lets out a breath and props her cheek in her hand, shoulders slumped.

“You really wanna leave me again?” She says quietly. The air seems to crackle for a second as both Sasuke and Naruto tense guiltily. Sasuke sighs, putting his hand on the sake bottle and sliding it towards himself. They ordered it, so he might as well indulge.

“I mean... we'll be coming back. I'll send letters-- so will Sasuke,” he elbows Sasuke hard, making him grunt, “ right?” Sasuke gives Naruto a dirty look as he pours himself a cup.

“No shit.”

Naruto doesn't seem to care about the language; he just smiles and turns back to Sakura. She's staring between them, one eyebrow slightly raised in a knowing manner, exasperation written all over her body language.

“You're both disasters. I don't know if I could trust you anywhere on your own.”

It's her own way of accepting it, Sasuke supposed. In the stubborn, bullheaded way of hers that Sasuke is still trying to adjust to. Eventually, Naruto bids them goodnight, leaving a few ryo on the table to cover his part, despite the fact that he hasn't had to pay for food or clothes or weapons in days-- “thanks for saving our home" and the like. He's a regular celebrity.

Sasuke and Sakura trade the sake bottle back and forth until they're both decently drunk. Sakura chats about whatever topics strike her fancy, and while once the idea of Sakura’s idle chatter made him want to yank his ears off, now it’s not so bad. She talks about her new job as head of the hospital, about how Zetsu’s cells are helping her craft living prosthetics for the many amputees the war has left, and speaking of the war, she’s afraid of the unseen consequences it could have-- namely, in the minds of the shinobi who fought in the thickest areas. She’s drunk and rambling, and some of the acronyms and medical jargon she’s using doesn’t make sense, but it’s interesting enough.

After awhile, Sakura stops herself and stares down at the sake bottle, her lower lip jutting out a little as she thinks.

“I really hope you put this trip to good use,” she mutters. “While watching you two dance around each other is the most fun I've had in years, it’s getting pretty exhausting. You're like a pair of roosters-- coupla chickenshits you are.”

Sasuke clicked his tongue, staring down at the cloudy rice wine.

“We're not... dancing,” he says. Sakura lets out a bark of laughter.

“And I'm not crushing on Ino,” she says sarcastically. Sasuke sits up, blinking.

“You're what?”

Sakura’s face suddenly turns bright red, only worsening the flush from the alcohol.

“Nevermind,” she snaps, snatching the bottle and taking two great gulps directly from it. Sasuke decides to let the subject drop-- the conversation wasn't supposed to be about gay crushes, it was supposed to be about travel plans.

Or something.

Sakura surprises him by leaning over and grasping his hand in both of hers. Her palms are rough, littered with callouses and scars and Sasuke wondered when that had happened.

“Listen... I'm not gonna stop you from taking this trip. I'll even vouch for you. I'm so happy that you're back and you're safe and you've finally gotten the bullshit knocked out of you,” she says with a chuckle. “I love you-- I'm sure you've heard my idiot mouth say it time and again but... you are my teammate. Always have been, always will be, and I'll support you as long as you're not doing dumb shit.” Her grip suddenly tightens, touching the edge of pain.

“But I swear to god, if you do some dumb shit and hurt Naruto again, I will castrate you. Understand?”

Sasuke shrank back into the seat, away from Sakura’s terrifyingly chirpy smile. He nods, and Sakura releases him, returning back to her chill, moderately drunk self.

Sasuke decides this is a good time to excuse himself.

“It's late,” he mumbles. “I should get going.”

Sakura waves her hand dismissively, pulling the nearly empty sake bottle towards herself more possessively.

“Goodnight, then. Make good decisions,” she said, giving him a saccharine smile with murder written all over it. Sasuke fled the restaurant, not even bothering to leave his share of the money. He had to remember to apologize later.



Tsunade was less happy when they told her. She was only recently able to pull her transformation jutsu back over her, and looked more youthful than she had any right be after being so close to death’s door. But she gave them a sour look, lowering the clipboard she had been staring at.

“No,” she says bluntly. “I need both of you here; I can’t have two of the world’s most dangerous shinobi just running off because they’re--”

“Well, why not?”

Tsunade’s chest swells with anger as she turns around to look at Kakashi, sitting on the window sill where he hadn’t been a moment before. His ankle rests on his knee, and he peers at them with tired gray eyes-- two of them, which is still unsettling.

“What do you mean, why not?” Tsunade snaps. Kakashi shrugs.

“The hard part is done with. It’s not like we’ll be dealing with any more Madaras or Kabutos in the near future,” he says. He blinks, and then leans forward and knocks on the wood of Tsunade’s desk.

“Hopefully,” he adds.

Tsunade purses her lips, crossing her arms over her chest. Her sandal taps a persistent beat on the wood floor-- click, click, click. She’s gathering her thoughts, reigning in her temper which has been on an increasingly short leash-- something about being cut in half will do that to a person.

“There are still bodies to recover. Stray rogue nin to round up, political alliances to smooth out. I can’t have the figurehead of this war disappearing on some... spiritual journey!”

She’s losing the argument and she knows it.

Naruto shrugged a little and slung his arm around Sasuke, grinning cheerfully. The lack of a glower on Sasuke’s face is noted by both of the adults in the room.

“C’mon, Granny, it’s not like we’d disappear. If you really wanted me back, all you have to do is send Katsuyu after me or something,” he says.

“I think you know more than anyone that Naruto deserves some time to himself,” Kakashi adds. Tsunade let out a grumble from deep in her chest. She aims a glare pointedly at Sasuke, still squashed almost comically to Naruto’s side.

“I don’t suppose you want to say something too,” she deadpans. Sasuke shrugs.

“Do I have to?”

Tsunade flicks her wrists in disgust, turning bodily away from the both of them.  Kakashi offered an eye smile, planting both feet on the floor.

“Fine. I expect regular updates with where you're at. And don't start shit.” She glares over her shoulder. “Looking at you, Uchiha.”

God, you threaten to kill the Kage once and nobody lets it go.

Sasuke mumbled some excuse and left the room, leaving Tsunade, Kakashi, and Naruto alone. With him gone, Tsunade deflates and eases herself gingerly into her chair. Her fingers go to her temples, rubbing in clockwise motions.

“You realize I have concerns, Naruto,” Tsunade says after a moment. Naruto leans his hip against the table, crossing his arms.

“I know, Granny. But this was my decision, not his. I think this’ll be good for both of us. I don't think Konoha is ready for...” he makes a vague hand gesture that somehow manages to encompass an incredibly specific emotion. “... Sasuke, y’know?”

Kakashi snorts.

“Fair enough. Just...” He gets that tired look in his eyes again, brows pinching in a way that makes Naruto notice wrinkles that hadn't been there a year ago. “Be careful. I want to retire early, so I can't have my successor vanishing into the forest.”

Naruto flushes with pride and he scuffs his foot.

“Yeah, yeah.”



They decide to leave under the blanket of night. Sakura is the only one there to see them off. They didn't tell her when they would be leaving, but of course she knew anyways.

She pulls them in close, drawing them into a tight hug that even Sasuke returns warmly. It was weird; both Sakura and Naruto had changed so much --longer limbs, heavier hands, broader shoulders-- but they still fit together like puzzle pieces. Deep down, Sasuke was grateful for that. He was still trying to unbury his feelings from years of suppressing them, but Naruto and Sakura were an easy place to start.

They were his red threads, leading him out of the woods.

“Sasuke, please make Naruto eat something other than ramen. Naruto, please make sure Sasuke eats anything at all.”

Sasuke frowns.

“What's that supposed to mean?’

“It means you look like you spent seven years in a room eating nothing but salted crackers and then decided to come out here. Get some protein in your diet for God’s sake,” she sighs, grabbing both boys by their ears and giving them a sharp twist. Naruto lets out high pitched whine, while Sasuke only allows himself a grimace.

“Stay safe, be smart,” she says, squeezing them one last time before releasing them entirely. Naruto grins and gives her a thumb up.

“I can't make any promises with the second one, but we will definitely come back in one piece,” he says. Sasuke just hums in agreement. Sakura mutters something under her breath; it kinda sounded like “why do I even bother?” But she crosses her arms and makes a shooing motion.

“Go. Before someone else comes along to bother you,” she says. Naruto elbows Sasuke with an excited grin.

“Ready to set off?”

“You were the one that kept going back to your apartment because you forgot something,” he mutters. Naruto makes a sour expression, sticking his tongue out childishly.

“Hey, I'm forgetful! We can't all have perfect memories like you, bastard,” he sniffed. Sasuke smirked and elbowed his other half.

“Which is why I grabbed your wallet on the way out.”

Naruto blinked slowly --twice-- and then slammed his palm into his forehead.

“Fuck off.”

They hadn't even realized they had already started walking until the gates of the village were passing them by.



It's two days out from the village before Sasuke asks The Question.

“Where are we going?”

Naruto looks up from the rock he's been kicking persistently for the past mile. He’s had the hood of his cloak pulled up for most of the way to avoid looks on the road from the people they passed on occasion, but for now the road was deserted, and his face is free to turn up and soak in the sun’s rays. Naruto makes a noncommittal noise low in his throat, flicking his ankle so that the rock skips into the air, where he dribbles it like a hacky sack.

“I dunno. I was thinking of heading to Suna to check on Gaara. He hasn't written me much since the war ended-- I'm kinda worried,” he says. A bad kick sends the rock skittering off the side of the ride, down into a ditch. Naruto whines pathetically.

“Aw man...”

Sasuke clicked his tongue yanking on Naruto’s collar as he passed him up.

“Suna it is, I guess. We're pretty close anyways.”

Inevitably, Naruto loses interest in dribbling rocks and balancing kunai on his nose. He starts to ramble-- not particularly at Sasuke, just anything that lights up in his hyperactive brain. Similar to Sakura, Sasuke finds himself enjoying it much more now that he has a proper appreciation for his teammates.

It's nice. The sound of Naruto’s drawl and quirky speech habits wasn't something Sasuke realized he'd missed until he'd gone without it for three years.

“So, like, Son Goku was super cool. You know he developed his own style of taijutsu? It's so badass-- he's been trying to teach it to me, but it's so hard . You've gotta like, wa-cha!” He makes two quick jabbing motions with his hand. “Y’know?”

Something clicks.

“He's been what?” Sasuke interjected. Naruto tilted his head.

“He's been... teaching me?”

“How does a bijuu teach you taijutsu?”

Naruto’s eyebrows rise into his hairline-- free to fall over his forehead since both boys had decided to leave their headbands behind.

“Oh-- I didn't tell you.”

Sasuke listens with utter bewilderment as Naruto gave him a crash course on his spiritual chats with all nine bijuu-- and how pieces of their chakra still lingered within him.

“It's like... I dunno, a bridge? Sometimes they visit me when I'm asleep or something. Gyūki visits all the time-- he loves telling embarrassing stories about Killer Bee. The others are mostly quiet though. I hope they're doing alright; I've told them they could always ask me for help if they need it, but man you wouldn't believe the egos on some of them--!” Naruto descends into a spiel about the bijuu, which Sasuke listens to with more attention than he'd been giving the first half of the conversation. Listening to someone chatter about primordial beings of pure chaotic energy like they were old friends was... an experience.

Naruto’s still talking when they hit the edge of the desert and decide to settle down for the night, but hits the pause button so that he can go hunt down a rabbit while Sasuke sets up the bedrolls. It’s arid and the dirt beneath their feet is gritty, and he spends a good few minutes sweeping away pebbles to make sleeping on the ground more bearable for the both of them.

Naruto returns with two jackrabbits and a shiteating grin.

“I hit two with the same shuriken,” he bragged. Sasuke grunted and poked at the fire he had started.

“Well, now you get to skin two rabbits.”

“Aw, c’mon man-- you barely did anything, just skin one!”


“Hrgh... well, if I do a shitty job it's your fault.”

Naruto sets himself down to Sasuke’s right, pinning the rabbit's ears to a tree to make skinning it easier. He's grumbling the whole time, but it only takes him a few minutes to skin and gut both of them. Sasuke could even say he did a good job.

Two rabbits stuff them both, with leftovers that Naruto tosses to a pair of curious foxes that peer at them from the underbrush.

“Haha, that one looks like Kurama,” he said, point at a red one with black marks dusted here and there. And then for seemingly no reason, he peels over onto his back laughing, holding his stomach and kicking his feet in the air. Sasuke blinks slowly at him, his expression flat.

“I don't get it.”

“I just-- I just--!” Naruto wheezes, wiping tears of mirth from his eyes. “I said that, and immediately after, Kurama just snapped don't insult me, like some kinda diva or something. He’s been quiet all day, and that’s what he comes up for.” He dissolves into cackles again, and Sasuke decides to just let him ride it out and goes about settling down into his bedroll.

He was beginning to realize that there was a lot he didn't really know about jinchuurikis. He winced, thinking about his aborted decision to try and kill the bijuu off. Would he ever be able to think back further than a year and not hate himself?

Probably not.

“So does he just... talk to you all the time?” Sasuke asks when Naruto finally settled down. Their bedrolls are are laid at an angle to each other around the fire, their heads almost brushing.

“No, not all the time. He's a quiet guy. But he's been a lot more chatty since the war and stuff. I'm glad on better terms with him.”

Naruto snorts.

“He just said to stop being mushy.”

Sasuke stared up at the stars visible between the sparse branches of the canopy.

“Can he... talk to me directly? Through you?” He asks slowly. Naruto is silent for several seconds.

“He can, but he doesn't want to. He's still, uh... mad at you.”

“Hn... fair enough.” He rolls over, putting his back to the fire. He hears Naruto swipe some dirt over the flames, dimming it to just glowing embers.

“Goodnight, bastard.”

“Goodnight, idiot.”



Sasuke isn’t really surprised when Gaara greets them at the gates. Naruto drops his bag as soon as he spots the head of red hair and sprints across the sand, arms waving like a lunatic.

“GAARA!” He whoops, crushing the Actual Kazekage into a hug that lifted him off his toes. To his credit, Gaara bore it with grace, returning the hug with a great deal more restraint and smiling softly as he was set back down. Sasuke catches up eventually, just in time to hear: “--to see you, too. It’s a surprise though-- why didn’t tell me you’d be visiting?”

Sasuke comes to a stop a bit behind Naruto and Gaara’s expression cools considerably as he looks the other man up and down.

“... Or that you’d be bringing a guest.”

Naruto’s sheepish laughter dispels the tension for a beat.

“Yeah, I uh... I only decided to leave like two days ago actually. Didn’t have much time to send out letters and stuff,” he says, rubbing the back of his head. Gaara frowns a little.


“Not, like, go rogue!” Naruto blurts immediately, throwing his hands out. “We’re on a vacation... of sorts. I thought we’d stop here before we keep going.” Gaara makes a thoughtful noise in the back of his throat but his steady gaze still rests on Sasuke. He refuses to squirm but it’s... a close battle.

Finally, his eyes slide back to Naruto, warming up once more.

“Well, you’re both welcome regardless. How long will you be staying?” He asks. Naruto turns back to look at Sasuke, who just shrugs.

“A few days maybe? Not too long-- I don’t wanna be a burden and I know you’ve got all sorts of responsibilities,” Naruto replies. Gaara turns, heading back into the village, Naruto falling behind him without question. Sasuke clicks his tongue and tosses Naruto’s bag at him, which he had been fully prepared to leave in the sand twenty feet back.

“You’re forgetting something, idiot.”

Naruto catches it without looking back.

“Nah, I knew you’d grab it for me.”

Sasuke scowls, but trails after the pair anyways.

They’re offered a room in the Kazekage’s Tower in the center of the village. It’s cozy-- two small beds pushed against the opposite walls, with a desk and a large, circular window that looks over the village. A few shelves hold some flowering cacti, and the hardwood beneath their feet is dark and sun-warmed. Naruto wastes no time in dropping his pack and throwing himself upon the bed with a bounce.

“Man, I’ll never get used to sleeping on the ground,” he sighs, stretching until various joints give some vaguely worrying pops. Sasuke sets his pack down neatly by the bed and then shrugs off his travel cloak as well.

“Thank you for the hospitality,” Sasuke murmurs over his shoulder, to where Gaara is still hovering in the doorway. He just crosses his arms and shifts his weight a little.

“It’s the least I can do.”

Naruto launches himself out of bed, landing on his feet in a power pose, hands on his hips.

“Are Kankuro and Temari here? I’d like to say hi to them too,” Naruto chatters. Gaara huffs and steps backwards out of the room.

“Temari is away on a mission in Iwa, but she should be back within the next day or two. Kankuro is probably in his workshop,” he says. Then sighs at the look at Naruto’s face. “It’s in the basement, at the end of the hall.”

Naruto whooped, clicked his heels together, and then ran out the door, vanishing down the hallway, not giving a damn that he was crashing around the most politically important building in the village. But Sasuke supposed that didn’t really matter when you’re best friends with the most politically important figure, did it?

No, Sasuke was more concerned with the fact that Naruto had ditched him, not giving a damn that he left Sasuke and Gaara alone. Together.

Sasuke feels the back of his neck begin to prickle uncomfortably. The feeling only worsens when Gaara turns his attention to him.

“Would you mind joining me for tea?” He asks placidly.

The prickling stops, but Sasuke is only left even more bewildered in its absence. But he nods cautiously anyways.


They end up in his office, Gaara pouring tea into two mugs between them, Sasuke sitting on one side and Gaara standing on the other. His sand winds around the mug and lifts it into his hands as he leans his shoulder against the wall, staring out one of the many small, circular windows that surround the room. Just like the guest room, there are cacti and succulents in here too, taking up any available horizontal space and even dangling from the ceiling in glass orbs. The sun is beginning to set, spilling honeyed rays across the floor, causing multi colored splotches here and there as the light darts through the terrariums hung here and there. Dust motes in the air swirl as the light catches them. The light falls across the bridge of Gaara’s nose, turning his maroon clothing almost orange.

Sasuke thinks back to the first time he met the man-- a boy with sickly pale skin and shadowed eyes who reeked with the stench of blood. The change is stark: Gaara seems nothing but peaceful, his silence soft instead of searing.

“Have you ever died, Sasuke?” Gaara asks out of nowhere. Sasuke pauses, his mug of tea halfway to his lips. The question swirls around in his head for a second like the dust motes, struggling to find the purpose. Giving up, he eventually resumes with his slow sipping.

“I came close. Near the end of the war,” he answers carefully. “Why?”

“I have. About a year and a half ago, when I had the ichibi extracted from my body. I don’t remember much, but I was well and truly dead.” He huffs a little to himself, as if finding the moment funny. He sips his tea again, and turns his gaze, meeting Sasuke’s.

“I was told afterwards of the grief Naruto went through in the small time I was dead. He wept for me: something that I never would have dreamed of a mere handful of years earlier,” he says. Sasuke’s lips purse. Naruto had mentioned this, briefly, back in the village, but he still didn’t see the purpose of the question.

“What’s the point?” He says bluntly.

“My point is that despite Naruto being my best friend, I caused him unimaginable pain without even meaning to.” Gaara sets his mug down on the desk, empty, and suddenly his gaze feels like a blanket of lead laying upon Sasuke’s shoulders. “You’re an intelligent man, Sasuke-- I hope you’re aware of the power you hold over Naruto.”

Sasuke narrows his eyes, setting down his mug.

“Let me guess, if I hurt Naruto, I’ll pay?” He drawls irritably. “Believe me--”

“It’s not a threat,” Gaara interjects easily. “I think we both know that when it comes down to it, you are leagues ahead of me.” Sasuke should be flattered but he isn’t. “No, I’m simply warning you. You hold Naruto’s heart in your hands-- whether or not you want to. I’d prefer it if you didn’t break it.”

Sasuke thinks back to their conversation on top of Hokage mountain-- humiliatingly, he feels his cheeks warm up.

“Are you in love with him?” He says tightly, trying to throw the conversation back in his favor. Normally, Sasuke is immune to intimidation and interrogation tactics, but this isn’t either of those-- Gaara’s eyes are hard, but not hateful and what he says strikes frightening close to a place he isn’t quite ready to acknowledge yet.“Is that why you’re so concerned about him?” Gaara’s eyes narrow a fraction of an inch.

“I do love him, hence my concern, but if you’re implying that my feelings are anything but platonic, you’re off the mark. Naruto pulled me out of a dark place, and I’ll be grateful for that every day for the rest of my life. I’ve watched him suffer and bleed to bring you out of it too, and you shouldn't take that for granted."

Sasuke falls into a humbled silence, staring down at his mug upon the desk, at the harsh shadows cut by the setting sun.

“I think you’re overestimating me,” he mutters.  

Gaara smiles almost knowingly.

“No, I don’t think I am.”

Just then, Naruto takes the opportunity to throw the door of the office open, one arm around Kankuro who was dressed down in a pair of cargo pants and an oil-stained tank top, his face paint-free.

“Let’s go out tonight!” Naruto cheers. “I’ve eaten nothing but roasted rabbit for the past two nights, I want some real food!” Kankuro gives Gaara a look of utter exhaustion.

“A little warning next time would be nice,” he mutters. “I was working with poison gas.”

Gaara smiles obliviously.

“My apologies.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah...”

They give Kankuro enough time to change into something not stained with paint and grease, but barely. Sasuke doesn’t know why Kankuro bothered listing out places to eat: as soon as he mentioned the noodle bar, Naruto had made a beeline for it despite Kankuro’s protests.

The owner of the restaurant is a mountain of a man, but that doesn't stop his bald forehead from perspiring heavily and his hands from wringing nervously when he comes to greet the Kazekage and his guests. He leads them to the back corner, where a private booth sits, sectioned off from the rest of the restaurant with a curtain of beads. Kankuro and Gaara take one side, Naruto and Sasuke take the other.

“I've never had Suna ramen before-- how different is it?” Naruto asks, excitement practically bubbling out of him as he stares down at the menu. Kankuro shrugs, leaning back and flipping through his own menu lazily.

“It's spicier. Different seasonings and shit-- I dunno, try it and compare it yourself. I'm not a ramen guru,” he says. Naruto hums, almost drooling as he stares down at the pictures artfully arranged amidst dish titles and prices. A thought suddenly strikes him, or he might have just been doing a fantastic impression of a person getting struck by lightning. He seizes Sasuke’s shoulders, his expression deathly serious.

“I should be a ramen guru,” Naruto says. There’s silence at the table.

“What?” Sasuke blurts.

“A ramen guru! We’re travelling, aren’t we? I should try the ramen from all the places we go to!” He clasps his hands together and gazes up at the ceiling, a blissed out expression on his face. “Imagine that-- all different kinds of ramen from around the world!”

“Sounds like hell,” Sasuke deadpanned. Naruto’s expression drops and he whacks Sasuke’s arm, turning away from him.

“Well I never said you had to try them with me. You can just enjoy your boring normie food, I guess.” Gaara props his cheek in his hand, watching the exchange with an amused glint in his eye.

“I think it’s a great idea,” he says.

Sasuke gives him a stink eye.

“Don’t encourage him.”

“TOO LATE! It’s decided, I’m a ramen guru now. Gaara, do you have any paper? I wanna write this down-- I’m gonna keep track of all the ramen places I go from now on.” Gaara stares Sasuke straight in the eye as he reaches into his coat and pulls out a small notepad, a pen tucked into the spiral binding.

“I’m sure you’ll be great at it, Naruto.”

Sasuke sighs and buries his face in his menu-- looks like he was stuck with this now. Gaara’s face was utterly expressionless, but he could tell he was taking immense joy in irritating the unflappable Uchiha. Kankuro wasn’t even being subtle about it: he was snorting unabashedly. At least, until Gaara kicks him under the table, forcing him to school his expression. He clears his throat, shifts in his chair.

“So, how has Konoha been doing? Aside from the official junk sent in the reports,” Kankuro asks, changing the topic with all of the social grace of a three-legged bull. Naruto glances up from where he’s already rapidly scribbling something in the notepad.

“Good!” Naruto chirps.

“Getting better,” Sasuke murmurs, deciding on his dish and closing the menu. “A lot of reforms are happening, especially with who we let run the village.” Kankuro hums and unwraps his cutlery and begins making his fork walk across the table with chakra strings.

“That sounds like a pain in the ass.”

“It is. The daimyo have been bitching every step of the way.”

“Of course they are.”

Brief rivalry forgotten, Kankuro and Sasuke dissolve into a political conversation and Naruto loses interest quickly. He already knew all of this stuff-- Tsunade was already taking him under her wing and allowing him in on some of the more sensitive processes of being Hokage: a thought that made him extremely excited. He tried not to think about it too hard, though, because he knew it was probably still a long ways off.

The waitress approaches, halting the darker haired duo in the middle of discussing alternative methods of separating power, and orders are taken. Naruto is in the middle of his (unnecessarily long) order when the owner of the restaurant shuffles up, hands fluttering.

“Lord Kazekage, your sister is requesting to be sat with you.”

Gaara blinks, his only show of surprise, before waving his hand.


Barely a moment later, Temari is flicking the beaded curtains aside with a grin. She's still dressed for combat, only missing her massive fan and the smell of campfires and desert sand clinging to her, but she's grinning slyly as she pulls up a chair from another table and plops herself down on it.

“What, you're having a family dinner and you didn't invite me?” She drawls, raising an eyebrow. Gaara chuckles, passing his menu to her to glance at.

“I didn't think you'd be back till tomorrow,” he admits. “Everything alright in Iwa?”

Temari makes a noise in the back of her throat, wrinkling her nose as if smelling something awful.

“Everything’s fine, I'll give you the details later. No mission talk during dinner, I'm starving .” Temari glances at the menu for half a second before shrugging and closing it. “I'll have the special. And can we get a bottle of sake for the table? I'm disappointed you guys don't have one already, you squares.”

The chatter devolves into meaningless little conversations, drifting from some of Kankuro’s latest puppet upgrades to Gaara’s newfound love of raising cacti and succulents to Naruto’s incredibly detailed review and comparison of his ramen to--

“Kankuro, did your thing with Shino go anywhe-- ow, shit!” The table jerks almost violently as Kankuro kicks Temari under the table.


Too late.

“Did your what with who?!” Naruto blurts, slapping his hands down on the table. Kankuro’s face, already flushed from the alcohol, turns beet red and he crosses his arms tightly.

“Nothing! My nothing with nobody! Shut up!” He snaps. Gaara drains his latest dish of sake with a straight face and sets it down gently.

“He made out with Shino the last time he came to visit,” he says placidly.

“Gaara.” Kankuro looks absolutely mortified, and it only gets worse when Naruto bursts out in howling laughter. Temari is right there with him, and even Sasuke cracks a smile behind his own dish of sake. He’s slouched against the chair, the drinks making his limbs feel heavy and loose; every once in awhile Naruto’s elbow or shoulder will jostle him, but he finds that he doesn't mind it all that much.

Temari and Naruto tease Kankuro for a little while more, interrogating him for details on how good of a kisser Shino was (which he didn't answer) and when he planned on properly asking him out (which was never , because he probably doesn't even like him like that!)

As the sand siblings argue and tease, Sasuke glances down at his bowl, which still has a some broth and noodles in it. He pushes it to the side, nudging Naruto.

“You want the rest of mine?”

Fuck yeah.”

Naruto snatches the bowl and tips it up, draining it in a few slurps. He lets out a small burp as he finishes, licking his lips.

“You're the best, Sasuke,” he compliments. He's smiling widely, and it feels like sunlight on Sasuke’s face. He blames the warmth on the sake and glances away.


Eventually Temari gets tired of drilling Kankuro about his Definitely-Not-A-Crush and stands up, stretching languidly.

“I'm gonna head home, I'm beat. It's good seeing you Naruto. And Sasuke, I guess.” She shrugs, sniggering to herself. She pulls a few bills from the pouch on her hip and lays them on the table. “Don't get lost heading home!”

With that, she slips between the beaded strings of the curtain and weaves her way through the tables and out the door. Kankuro mimics her, standing up with a grumble.

“I have a mission tomorrow, I need some sleep. And I need to get away from you heathens.” He gives Naruto a pointed stink eye. He leaves some money on the table and heads out as well. Sasuke leans forward and picks up the sake bottle-- there's still a little left, so he upends it and drains the last mouthful. Gaara waves for the check, only to have the owner cheerfully explain that the Kazekage and his guests are always on the house.

Sasuke leaves a bundle of bills under the plate anyways.

Gaara drank the least, so he takes the lead out of the restaurant. If you didn't see the slight flush on his cheeks, you wouldn't have even realized he had anything to drink. Sasuke, much to his chagrin, is having trouble getting out of the chair. Naruto notices and wastes no time poking fun.

“Having a little trouble there, bastard?” He teases. Sasuke purses his lips, glaring.

“Shut up, I'm fine,” he mutters, extracting himself from the table and beginning to weave through the mostly empty restaurant. What time was it even? Well, late, at least.


Naruto is suddenly ahead of him and Sasuke sneers.

“You drank almost as much as I did, how are you moving like that?” He complains as he pushes open the restaurant doors and nearly stumbles out onto the street. A cool breeze kisses his face and it’s a relief-- at leas the desert nights are kind. The sun had completely set, and the light that spilled across the street in burnt clay tones came from lanterns and string lights on the shops lining the streets.

“I can't actually get drunk,” Naruto says simply. “Kurama won't let me.”

Of course.

He feels Naruto slip under his arm, pulling it over his shoulder and putting his hand on Sasuke’s hip.

“What are you doing?”

“Dude, you were about to run into that old lady.”

“I was not, I saw her!”

“Sure but you still nearly knocked her over.”

“Shut up.”

“Make me, bastard.”

Despite the bickering, Sasuke doesn't attempt to extract himself from Naruto’s grip; the relief from the chill in the air has faded and now he’s just plain cold, but Naruto radiates heat like a furnace, so this is the most logical course of action at the moment.

Tch, logical. Like that's the word for this.

They manage to make it back to the Kazekage tower without incident, but Naruto was practically carrying Sasuke by that point. He was so tired.

Naruto tosses him in bed, which is kind of shocking because Sasuke didn't remember going up a flight of stairs. Part of him says he should be terrified of the vulnerability, but another part of him smothers it-- Naruto’s still got his wits about him, which is safe enough for the time being.

Naruto’s saying something.

“...lightweight, you big baby.”

“Shut up,” Sasuke muttered instinctively. Naruto laughs and Sasuke feels his sandals being pried off. He cracks open one eye and watches as Naruto loosens and peels off his tool belt, setting it down on the pack he had abandoned earlier.

Naruto notices him watching.


The leaden weight of a familiar set of words weighs on his tongue, but now he's too tipsy to keep them in check.

“Why are you here?” He murmurs. Naruto raises an eyebrow, a bemused smile tugging at his lips.

“‘Cause you're drunk and incapable?” He says. Sasuke screws his eyes shut, covering them with his arm.

“No, I mean... why are you here?”

Naruto pauses, the true meaning of the question sinking in. Sasuke feels the bed dip as he sits, and he's rubbing at that mark on his hand again-- a new thoughtless tic he’s picked up.

“Because you're one of the most important people in my life,” he says eventually. His mouth opens and closes wordlessly for a moment, searching for the right words. The anticipation is excruciating, but Sasuke forces himself to be patient. Because that’s what they did, isn’t it? Waited.

“You're the only one who... doesn't look at me weird. You get me, you know?” He looks down at Sasuke, a soft, crooked smile in his face. “I like that. I like you, despite everything.”

Sasuke drops his arm and sighs. It’s enough, for now.

“You're so sappy.”

“Shut up.”

A chuckle bubbles up between them and Naruto pushes himself up off the bed, moving over to his own.

“Goodnight, you clingy drunk.”

“Goodnight, Mr. Sappy.”



Naruto spends the next two days in Suna pinballing around the village. Several shinobi from the war heard of his presence in and Naruto was flagged down at every turn, shaking hands, accepting thanks, pausing for photos. It irritates him, Sasuke can tell. The whole point of this trip was to get away from public pressures, but it’s hard to sneak around when you’re wearing eye-watering orange. They’d have to change that soon.

Sasuke, on the rare occasion he was recognized, was met with cool looks at best, blatant ignorance at worst. So, he spent the majority of his time in the little guest room they occupied, reading books or writing letters back to Konoha.

Though the latter activity wasn't as easy at it sounded.

Tsunade’s reports were simple enough. He told her they were in Suna, and their plans to move north after this. A promise that he was definitely staying out of trouble came at the end.

Sakura’s were... harder.

His interactions with her over the past several years had been sparse, and that was putting it nicely. Most of the time his head was too far up his own ass to take notice of her. He didn't know much of what she had been up to, how she had changed, or what she was doing post-war, aside from her ramblings from the night before they had left.

He felt decently ashamed.

In the end, he kept his letter blunt and simple, but even then it took nearly an hour to fill up the small scroll he had requested. He passed both scrolls to a chunin in the halls, who took them to the roostery where the messenger birds were kept.

Naruto returns as the sun is setting, snorting a little as he watches Sasuke stretch himself out across the floor, his bangs pinned back for once.

“I didn't know you were into yoga,” he taunts. Sasuke gives him a flat look as he lifts up from his straddle.

“It's just stretching. You should do it more often-- you'd complain less about cramps on the road,” Sasuke shoots back easily. Naruto scrunches up his face, sticking his tongue out. He crosses to his bed and begins shoving his stray clothes into his backpack, making sure everything is tucked away.

“Why do you always turn everything into a lecture? You're like my mom.”

Sasuke watches him move about and ceases his movements, instead leaning back against the bed frame.

“We’re leaving?” He asks. Naruto pauses and looks over.

“Yeah, Gaara’s been postponing some of his duties to spend more time with me, but I don't want it to pile up too bad. Plus I can tell big villages make you uncomfortable.”

Sasuke huffs under his breath but doesn't correct him. He keeps forgetting that things he thinks he's hiding are plain as day to Naruto. Speaking of which, he's still talking...

“I've already talked to Gaara about us leaving. He says the guards will let us go whenever we decide to.”

Sasuke feels a bit of relief trickle into him. That meant--

“Ready to go?” Naruto shoulders his pack, bouncing on the balls of his feet. Sasuke stands, stepping into his shoes and picking up his bag.

“Yeah, sure.”


Moving north brings dropping temperatures, especially as the year begins to shift into fall, and eventually it gets too cold to sleep without shelter.

Investing in a two-person tent isn't the fight Sasuke thought it would be: another example of the ways Naruto’s changed without Sasuke realizing it. You stay on your side and I stay on mine, he had said with a shrug. It’s a thin but respected boundary that both frustrates and relieves Sasuke.

He doesn’t think too much about the “frustrate” part.

They slowly meander their way north, crossing into the Land of Earth. The country lives up to the name, and much of the time is spent rock climbing, alternating between thick forests and barren, rocky shelves. Time seems to stand still in areas like these; the days don't really matter when you're this far out of the way. Birdsong and wildlife surround them, creating a tentative veil that both are reluctant to tear. So they filled the time with quiet conversation, their bickering at an all time low.

And boy did they have a lot to converse about.

It's almost like a methodical unboxing. Naruto’s never been the type to hide his feelings: he brandishes his heart on his sleeve and it's been one of his most formidable weapons so far.

But these are... different kinds of emotions-- selfishly, Sasuke feels like they were made only to be seen by him. They're not the kind that Naruto yells, but the kind he whispers with fidgeting fingers, eyes casting this way and that. It’s peeling apart layers of old hurts, old shames that he’s buried under training and fighting and chasing. It’s the kind he mumbles while laying on his back, staring up at off-yellow canvas, his arm almost brushing Sasuke’s. Sometimes his voice cracks, but Sasuke doesn't comment.

Sasuke realizes that he didn't quite understand the searing truth of his own words from back then: “you had nothing, you were alone from the start!”

“I dunno... I agreed with everyone when they said I was stupid for a long time. But nobody ever told me these things! Everyone takes them for granted, knowing about chakra systems and diets and stuff. Nobody told me about those things; I had to figure everything out on my own. Everything.

Sasuke thinks, achingly, about his early days. Back when Itachi had sat him in his lap with a scroll and told him about the energy that made a ninja.

“Itachi taught me about that,” Sasuke murmurs. “Chakra, I mean. He gathered some in his hand and I accidentally headbutted him in the face because I thought his hand was on fire.” Naruto sniggers, elbowing Sasuke gently.

“Some prodigy you are.”

“Bite me, asshole.”

The silence stretches and Sasuke yawns, shifting.

“When I'm Hokage, nothing like that is ever going to happen.”

Something cold slices through his gut, and sudden Sasuke isn’t tired anymore..


“I talked to Tsunade about... what happened with the Uchiha clan. Turns out, she didn't even know. We had to dig up some old files but... nothing like that should have ever happened. I'm sorry about Itachi.”

“Tch...” Sasuke rolls over, turning his back to Naruto. “It's not like you had anything to do with it.”

His voice is wavering but thankfully it doesn't crack.

“It's still not fair.”

“Just drop it, Naruto.”


“I said drop it.”

Naruto growls, low in his chest, but he rolls over, putting himself as far away as he could in the small tent. He mutters something but Sasuke is just too fucking tired to care.


Naruto isn't there when he wakes up.

Sasuke shoots up into a sitting position, rubbing sleep from his eyes. How did he sneak out so easily? Why didn't he say anything?

Sasuke burst out of the tent, only to stop dead as he saw Naruto stepping over a bush, two strange looking birds dangling in his fist. His eyes catch on Sasuke and he stops, holding up the birds with a grin.

“I caught breakfast.”

Sasuke heaves out an irritated sigh: his breath plumes in front of him in the frigid morning air.

“Tell me when you're gonna go off on your own,” he mutters, stalking back into the tent because his feet are fucking freezing.

“Sorry, sorry!” Naruto drawls, not sounding sorry at all. He sits down and begins plucking the birds, humming to himself. “I found some eggs, too. Maybe we could have an omelette or something.”

Sasuke exits the tent again, this time dressed and with his shoes on. He starts up the fire and sits down heavily beside it, warming his hand on the budding flames. His hair is still a bedheaded nightmare, but it's too early to care-- dawn is only just beginning to break and it's not like they're going to be seeing people today anyways.

“Sorry,” Sasuke mutters eventually, when the birds are skewered and roasting over the fire.


“For last night. For yelling.”

Apologizing isn't something his good at, but Naruto’s face splits into a smile anyways.

“Nah, don't sweat it. If I held on to every pissy thing you've said, I'd have died of a heart attack years ago.”

Sasuke scowls, which only makes Naruto laugh again.

“Thanks, though. It's nice to hear. And besides...” Naruto picks up his roasted bird and points it at Sasuke, and there's suddenly a fire in his eyes-- a look that makes Sasuke’s heart trip over itself and the last vestiges of sleep to slip from his mind.

“I meant what I said last night. I'm gonna be the best fucking Hokage Konoha has ever seen. I’m gonna change the world.

He tears a chunk off of his bird, but the moment is ruined when he squawks, fanning his mouth with tears in his eyes.

“Hot! Hot, hot, hot!”

Sasuke covers his face with his hands, shaking with laughter. It’s so ridiculous, the way Naruto can wield his words like a brand in one second, and then burn his tongue on hot food in the next. Sasuke bursts out in warm genuine laughter, sliding one hand over his face. He looks up at Naruto, a crooked grin on his face.

“God, I don’t doubt it.”

If there’s anyone who could shift the axis of the world, it was Naruto Uzumaki.


“Hey, the river! Bet I can make a bigger splash than you, bastard!”

“Wait, what-- oi, Naruto!”

Naruto dodges his swipe, cackling as he throws his pack down at the base of a tree, stripping with impressive speed as he darts through the trees and launches himself into the mountain creek that they’ve heard on and off for the past few miles. Sasuke curses under his breath and follows after him, dropping his pack as well-- they weren’t going anywhere anytime soon, apparently.

He searches up and down the patch of river; it’s a good twenty feet across, with a small waterfall a ways to the left. A cloud of bubbles appears near the middle of the creek and Naruto pops from below the surface with a gasp. He grins cheekily at Sasuke, still very much fully clothed and not very tempted to jump in as well.

“You’re an idiot.”

“Aw, c’mon! The water’s great!”

“I’m not jumping in.”

“If you don’t jump in, I’ll drag you in.”

“You wouldn’t.”

“Do you wanna test that?”

Naruto’s grin is absolutely shit-eating. Sasuke decides that he does not actually want to test that. So he heaves a massive sigh and begins stripping off his clothes, prompting Naruto to whoop with delight. Down to his boxers, Sasuke toes the water with a grimace-- it’s freezing, of course.


Sasuke only has the time to whip his head around frantically before a shadow clone is launching at him from behind, grabbing his head and yanking him forward into the water.

Sasuke bursts out of the water with an involuntary gasp-- it’s so cold, it’s so fucking cold. Familiar howling laughter makes him whirl around, absolutely furious.

“You dick!”

Naruto is still cackling as he nimbly dodges away from Sasuke’s angry jabs, vanishing under the surface only to appear several feet away. Eventually, Sasuke decides it’s not worth the time and kicks to the river bank, finally putting his feet down on soft silt and sand. He shakes his hair out, pushing it back off his forehead.

“Aw, I’m sorry Sasuke! Don’t get out, please?” Sasuke turns around, still glowering. Naruto gives him puppy eyes, sticking his lip out in a fantastically childish pout.

Childish though it might have been, Sasuke couldn’t deny that it was effective.

He sighs and turns around, wading back into the water. After the initial cold shock wore off, he couldn’t deny that it was refreshing-- despite the frigid night temperatures, it got absolutely boiling during midday, especially with the sun beating down on them.

Naruto splashes him, drawing his attention.

“Seriously, sorry for pushing you in. I couldn’t resist,” he says with a sheepish grin. Sasuke huffs, pushing off the bottom and gliding through the water.

“I don’t know why I expected anything less.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Whatever you want it to mean, idiot.”

Naruto narrows his eyes suspiciously, but apparently decides it means something nice because he shrugs and begins swimming circles around Sasuke.

“You know, I had to cut a waterfall in half when I was learning the rasenshuriken,” he says thoughtfully, eyeing the waterfall at the end of the creek. Sasuke raises an eyebrow, treading in place as he watches Naruto flounder about.


“I was learning wind release. Man, that feels like so long ago,” he sighs, shifting onto his back and letting his natural buoyancy keep him afloat. “Before Pein destroyed the village and all the shit with Obito kicked off. Before everything got complicated.” Sasuke grunts in agreement, drawing in a breath before submerging below the surface. The sounds of the world fade away, reduced to the faint sound of crashing water and his own heartbeat.

A minute or two later, he pops up again, shaking out his hair. He clicks his tongue irritably and forces it back-- he really should get a haircut soon.

Naruto pops up an inch from his face, making him flinch back.

“Race you to that driftwood and back,” he says deviously, pointing down the creek. “Loser has to catch dinner, ready GO!” Without even waiting for Sasuke to agree, he sucks in a breath and darts off, stroking easily with the current.

“Asshole!” Sasuke dives after without a thought-- like hell he was going to be stuck with tracking down rabbits if he could help it.

It could have only been a few minutes, but when both boys drag themselves onto the bank, they’re panting like hounds. Naruto laughs breathlessly, socking Sasuke in the arm.

“HA! One to zero, me,” he snickers. Sasuke sniffs, nursing his bruised pride.

“You got a head start.”

“I said “ready, go”, it’s not my fault you have shit reflexes.”

“Go jump off a cliff.”

“You know you’d miss me.”


Sasuke stares up through the tree canopy, listening as the wind pushes splatters of sunlight over his chest and arms. Goosebumps rise on his skin, but he lets them run their course, and eventually the sun chases them away. He tries to fight his heavy lids, but then the realization hits them that there’s no reason not to-- it’s not like their under any time restraints; he could just lay here all day if he wanted to.

So he closes his eyes and lets out a breath and thinks.

For a long time, Sasuke defined his life in moments. Milestone to milestone with little care for what happened in between. After all, why did it matter? His entire life had been leading up to single moments-- killing Itachi, destroying Konoha, ending Kabuto’s jutsu. So much of his life had been miserable , so why bother holding onto it? Nothing ever stayed.

He opens his eyes and glances to his side; Naruto looks to be on the verge of falling asleep, his breaths coming slow and easy.

Nobody had ever stayed but Naruto.

He didn’t... want to bury things anymore. He didn’t want to forget about moments like these: quiet, simple moments, unremarkable but for the fact that he was spending them with Naruto at his side, without an obligation in the world. All of the twisted things inside his gut, all the regrets and trauma seemed to relax for just a moment, making things seem... more clear. It makes the big things seem easier to put in perspective.

It had seemed so easy before, throwing himself into the darkness because if he didn’t do it, who would? There would always be darkness in the world, just because the world was at peace now didn’t mean it would stay that way. Logically, he knew it had to be done.

... But did it have to be him?

Selfish it might have been, but the thought of burrowing away from Naruto’s light made his chest ache. He had tasted what it was light to bask in the sun, to feel the amber warmth of Naruto’s infectious enthusiasm, and he was hopelessly addicted. Despite the blood, despite the hurt and the hate that plagued their relationship for so long, if he had to pick someone to follow to hell, he’d pick Naruto-- without hesitation, without regret, every time. Shadows are fine when you have nothing, but when you have Naruto, it’s impossible want anything but light.

That’s the thing, wasn’t it? Even without the marks branded into their hands, Naruto had chosen him again and again and again. They were here, laying on a riverbank, feet in the water, because Naruto had chosen to bring them here. Sasuke had chosen to go with him.

The leaves rustle, the sunlight shifts. Sasuke lets a slow breath pass through his lungs, and it feels like he’s letting something go. Like washing an acrid taste out of his mouth that he didn’t know was there.

Gently, he works his fingers under Naruto’s hand where it rests in the sand. Naruto hums, but doesn’t say anything-- only lets their finger intertwine loosely.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Sasuke murmurs softly. Naruto squeezes his hand briefly.

“I’m glad you’re here, too.”

There’s the sound of shifting sand and Sasuke turns his head, only to see Naruto already looking at him. His crystalline eyes are soft, somewhat sleepy, and he’s smiling. Sunlight caresses his tan face in unidentifiable shapes, there’s sand in his hair, but that doesn’t stop lightning-like flash of clarity in his mind: Naruto was absolutely, utterly, undeniably gorgeous. Sasuke feels the tug in his chest, like he’s an asteroid being pulled into Naruto’s impossibly powerful gravity. Naruto is the sun, and Sasuke is a pebble of a planet, helpless to resist the feelings that bubble up in his chest.

Sasuke’s heart stutters, and the only thought in his brain is oh.

This is what it feels like.