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Something To Remember Me By

Chapter Text

Naruto burst out the door like a flood battering down the walls of a dam. He skipped every step on the porch, deciding to leap right off it onto the concrete. His cousin rushed out after him, red hair swinging, yelling something about it not being her fault if he got himself killed, but he wasn’t listening.

The second Karin had told him he could leave, Naruto had raced for the door. He could feel the edges of summer curling up, growing shorter. It made him want to move even faster, pedal as quickly as he could, away from responsibilities. His bike hit his legs as he pulled it up from where it had been abandoned in the grass the night before.

It was painted orange, like most of the shirts he wore, and Karin told him it made him look like a big stupid goldfish, but he thought it wasn’t so bad. Sakura had told him when he stood in front of the horizon right before dusk, he blended right into the sunset, and Naruto had liked that description a lot.

He pushed off and started riding, down the short driveway and then onto the empty street. It was late morning, but the little ocean town was sleepy anyway, still stretching its arms over its head. Naruto, on the other hand, felt nothing but uncontrollable energy.

Something Iruka always told Naruto after his teachers said he was “hyperactive” in parent meetings was: energy is potential. If that was the case, Naruto had potential for days, for years. They might as well just let him into any college he wants right this instant.

It ached, working his legs this hard, up and down with the pedals, but he couldn’t bare to go any slower. When he smiled into the wind, it tasted like salt. It stung his eyes, and he blinked it away. Iruka would never let him go this fast, but Iruka wasn’t here. The town was his track, and he was the youngest race car driver the world had ever seen.

Naruto was 13 years old, and while he didn’t see himself as king of world quite yet, he had the feeling he might be, someday. He came up upon a hill, and let it take him. If he was going any faster, he thought, he’d be catching fire. Just like rockets do, shooting from Earth to the moon...

In reality, he was only going a couple blocks, to Sakura’s house. Iruka hadn’t wanted to let him go visit his cousin and her mother on the coast, even just for one week. First, because he thought Naruto might get hurt; a very valid concern. The second was that he might not find any friends his age. Oceanview wasn’t as cruel of an environment as Iruka had worried. Naruto wasn’t sure if Sakura was a friend yet, but she was sweet like cotton candy and had hair the same color. Naruto thought about her a lot.

It was her friends that they would hang out with, so Naruto had to find Sakura first. He came to screeching halt in front of her house, nestled in ferns. There were 3 wind chimes hanging from the roof above the porch, clinking harmlessly. On the sidewalk there were two bikes already, a black and purple mess of spokes, so Naruto dumped his on top.

When he knocked on the front door, quickly, five times, Sakura answered. She was wearing basketball shorts and a big tie dye shirt. The sun broke through a cloud and she squinted.

“What time is it?” Naruto shook his head. He had no idea.

“You said we could go to the carnival today,” he said, jumping from one foot to the other. “My aunt gave me money and everything, so I can get tickets!”

Sakura jumped back and forth a little, too. “Okay! I can go, I just have to get Ino up and she’s always grumpy. Do you want to come in and wait at the table?”

Naruto stepped on the heel of one shoe to take it off, the way Iruka always told him would ruin them. He walked quietly into the kitchen, one mismatched sock in front of another. Sakura left, deeper into the house to wake up her friend Ino. Naruto didn’t like Ino much, but he did like Sakura and her other friends, so he put up with her.

He ran his fingers along the side of the chair he was sitting on. The wicker was bumpy, distracting. Naruto had never been good at waiting, nor was he known for succumbing to boredom. He had been running around Oceanview and Cobalt Beach all week, exploring every where his cousin let him go, as well as some places he wasn’t supposed to, and he wasn’t tired of it at all.

Tonight, of all the nights, was most exciting, because it was his last night before Iruka came to pick him up and take him home, and because he got to go to the carnival. The Oceanview Carnival; he’d seen posters for it all over, but the time he’d spent in Oceanview never overlapped with the event before.

Now, though, it seemed like a momentous occasion, the last big bang before the leaves turned brown and the winter clothes came out of the closet. The feeling of the wicker couldn't contain him anymore, and he tapped his feet erratically.

Finally, Ino walked into the kitchen, barefoot and yawning but otherwise dressed to go out. Naruto jumped up, nearly knocking the chair over, and Ino rolled her eyes. “What are you so excited about? Never been to a carnival before?”

“No,” Naruto said, with a touch of defensiveness, “but on New Years Eve I always watch fireworks from my balcony. It’s 15 floors up.”

“Everyone watches fireworks, dummy.”

“From 15 floors up?” He and Ino stared at each other, grasping for the upperhand in a pointless conversation.

Ino looked away first, turning to check her makeup in the reflection of the microwave door. “I think that’s weird,” she said, which is what she always said when she didn’t know what to say anymore. Naruto had mostly gotten used to it, but he flipped her off while she wasn’t looking anyway.

Sakura hopped in on one foot, pulling her shoes on. “Okay, my mom gave me money, too, but she said we have to eat something healthy.”

“What at the carnival is healthy?” said Ino.

“I heard they sell deep-fried candy bars,” added Naruto.

Sakura smiled slyly. “What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her. I’m sure funnel cake has some nutritional benefits we don’t know about.” Ino snorted, and Sakura poked her in the stomach, making her friend shriek. Naruto watched them shove each other, but he mostly watched Sakura.

He’d known her for a little less than a week, but she had already shown him much more kindness than any kid in his city. Naruto was going to be an 8th grader soon, top of the middle school heap, but for all anyone else cared, he was dirt. Several school days could slip by at home, blending into one another, like some other worldly being had taken his life under one finger and smudged it. There was nobody at school who could make one day stand out from another. He had known many people, but only liked one; his dad, Iruka.

Now, however, he liked Sakura, too. She had ridden past his cousin’s house on her bike, and saw him sitting there, digging up worms in the front yard. Sakura told him that it didn’t look very fun, and Naruto had told her that he was having plenty of fun, what was she talking about.

“Well,” she huffed, adjusting the red bandana holding her bangs back, “I’m going to chase down the ice cream truck and see if they have any of the cartoon character popsicles with the messed-up gumball faces. Do you want to come?” Naruto shot up, wiped his dirty hands on his shorts and grabbed his bike in 5 seconds flat.

“Karin!” He yelled back at the house. “I’m going to hang out with my friend!”

And that was it. They were off, hunting down the truck, any conversation cutting off abruptly when they thought they heard whimsical music. Pretty much since then Naruto had been invited to whatever Sakura and her friends were doing. Mostly it was riding their bikes to the corner store to buy gum or running around at the beach, but Naruto didn’t really care. He was included.

Outside, Naruto pulled his bike back up, while Sakura tried to untangle the other two. Her bike was purple, with reflectors on the wheels, and Ino’s was black with a basket. Ino took off first, blonde hair swinging, headed for Shikamaru’s house a block down.

Shikamaru was lazy, with a green bike, and his best friend was Choji, a big friendly boy. His bike had the wide wheels, that clunked over curbs but looked so cool. It was a lot of effort to get them out of the house and ready to ride, but Ino could do it, even if Shikamaru grumbled the whole way.

Naruto and Choji had the same type of smile, the one where you close your eyes. His hands were sometimes stained multicolored from fruit-flavored candy, but Naruto could tell that he didn’t like to be teased about it. Only Ino could sometimes get away with it, but her jokes always fell flat because Choji just took it. He never fired anything back, or laughed. He just let the mean things she’d say sit.

Shikamaru was Choji’s best friend and he was super smart but didn’t act like it. Not like some kids who went to Naruto’s school. There was a girl who sat in front of him who would always laugh when the teacher put his test on his desk face down. She’d cover her mouth with her hand, but Naruto could hear it, clear as day.

Shikamaru wasn’t that way at all; he’d much rather lay in the grass, staring up at the sky completely silent. Naruto tried to do this a few days ago but ended up just running to the top of the hill and rolling down it until he rolled over a napping Shikamaru by accident. He was pretty sure he’d been forgiven.

At long last, they were off. The distance to the boardwalk and surrounding area where the carnival took place was farther than just scooting around the neighborhood, but this is where Naruto’s boundless energy came in handy.

He was front of the pack, sun-soaked and crowing. The closer to the ocean they got, the more apparent the salt was in the air. Naruto wanted it to preserve him as this: a young boy with burning money and his friends behind him, with an endless afternoon. A boy with potential.

It was true, what he’d told Ino. He’d never been to a carnival before. Naruto grew up in a little apartment in a big, big city. Trees were few and far between, and the only water that moved outside of a faucet was a huge river that was much too dirty for swimming.

His dad was young and strung out, yet somehow everywhere at once. Iruka would work for hours, he would work extra jobs, he would work his fingers to the bone, but there he was. Naruto’s little league games, every birthday, every graduation of any kind, every… anything Naruto thought was important. Naruto often felt lonely at school, but he was never under any impression that he was truly alone.

All the working for the necessities left out some things, though. Movies in the theater and brand new shoes and dessert every night. Naruto guessed carnivals were some combination of the jam-packed city and his dad’s jam-packed schedule; they just fell by the wayside.

Now, though, he was ready. It was still the middle of the day, and Sakura had promised it would be prettier at night, but even if it wasn’t, it was a whole new world to Naruto.

Flashing colors, reds, blues, greens, were everywhere, uncontrollable. The smells were all the things Naruto craved but Iruka refused to get him: watermelon sugar and fried gold and drinks with bubbles that tickled his nose.

The screech of machines were there, too, with amusement park rides lining the boardwalk. Spinning, twisting, bumping metal, but not industrial like he’d known. It was working parts, lifting the ferris wheel upwards and making the swinging ship swing. Naruto was fascinated.

There was plenty more, things to buy, games to play, but Naruto ran his bike to the splintering guardrail. He’d seen it before, but he didn’t get tired of it; the sea. It felt like some great ceremony, the expense of ocean meeting a man-made marvel. Naruto could hardly contain his excitement. He turned around, grinning at his friends. They smiled back, even Ino.

All they had to do was lock up their bikes, and then there they were; five 13 year olds with scuffed sneakers and a total of 40 dollars. They crowded around the ticket booth as Shikamaru slid the money through the little semi-circle to the old lady running it, who curled her lip. To Naruto, they were five great adventurers, hacking through the jungle, but this woman saw them as five more middle schoolers who’d eat too much candy and get dizzy after rides and hurl everything up.

She gave them back 53 tickets, so everybody got 10 except Naruto who got 13. He’d put in the most money, after all.

“13 is an unlucky number,” Ino reminded him, but Naruto just waved them in her face, telling her she was just jealous. Sakura pulled on his shirt sleeve, pointing to an mechanical arm-wrestling game, and Naruto blushed. She let go, running towards it, but Naruto touched his sleeve where she’d touched before joining the others to run after her.

Sakura spent a ticket on the game, pulling up the sleeve of her t-shirt in preparation. Her elbow hit the pad and everyone cheered, besides Shikamaru who was eyeing a big bench in the sunlight. She won, easily, immediately, and Naruto was the only one who was surprised.

She raised her arms, flexing them. “I’m strong, I’ve been working out.”

“I’ve been working out, too!” said Naruto, even though he hadn’t, unless that included carrying grocery bags from the lobby up to the 15th floor with Iruka.

“Oh yeah? Arm wrestle me, then.”

A new game began, but now the teams were split; Ino backing up Sakura and Choji giving Naruto a slap on the back that was so hard he choked. Shikamaru had found his bench and was taking a nap.

They found a good surface, and locked hands. Sakura stuck out her tongue in concentration, which was cute, but once Ino called go, she was anything but. She instantly slammed Naruto’s hand down, his knuckles scraping against wood.

“Ow! No fair!”

“How was that not fair?”

“I hurt my arm yesterday,” Naruto grumbled, rubbing it, but Sakura just laughed.

“That’s what they all say,” she said, but there was no malice in her voice. She ran off to a new game, following Choji. His favorite was the one where you fish for rubber ducks, and Naruto had never done that, either.

The rest of the day continued in this fashion. Naruto was eager to explore and his friends were eager to show him, pulling him every which way as afternoon made its lethargic descent into evening.

Naruto was sure he’d eaten everything, seen everything, as the sun went down, but the carnival at night was twice what it’d been in the day. The lights had been comparable to the string variety during the day, but at night they were stars, a constellation surrounding every stall. He loved all of it, ate it with happy hunger.

Sakura was leader of the bunch, he had found out, and wasn’t overly excited often, but there was something she saw that made her eyes light up. She pointed, and smiled at Ino, who rolled her eyes. There was a fondness there, too, as she turned to explain.

“Sakura loves slugs. No one knows why, because I think they’re gross as hell, but she likes them. Snails are a close second; she collects snail stuff.” Ino gestured towards what Sakura had seen; a snail doll hanging outside of a stand, the one at the very end of the line. It was tucked way in the back, barely touched by the light, its stars not shining quite as brightly.

Sakura started towards it, then stopped, turning right back around. “What’s wrong?” Naruto asked. “Don’t you want the snail?”

“I do, but…” She put a hand over her eyes, as Ino squinted at the stall and then snickered.

“Oh, it’s him. Sakura used to have a crush on him.”

“Shut up! You did, too.” Sakura pushed her friend, who was still giggling. Naruto turned back to look at the stand, and he hadn’t noticed before, but there was a boy sitting there, perfectly still. There was a slight glow, Naruto guessed from a phone screen. Besides that, he couldn’t make much else out.

“Who is that?”

“Sasuke,” Ino finally got out after Sakura was done pulling her hair. Naruto looked, back at the boy, wide-eyed.

“...Sasuke?” There was something about the way the name sounded, how it felt in his mouth. Like the salt-water taffy they’d chewed before. It was hard to get out fast, it stuck to the roof of his mouth, and it was cinnamon, red. Naruto shook his head, and the second time he mouthed it, it was easy. The thought was gone.

“I’m…” Naruto looked at his tickets. They were dwindling, but there were still a few left, crumpled from his hand and hanging onto to each other. There were enough. “I’m going to go try it.”

Ino looked surprised. “I guess, if you want to. He’s a high school boy.”

That was something Naruto was going to be soon, in a year, but that still meant this guy knew things he didn’t. The tickets were crumpled again. “I don’t care about that. Obviously.”

“Okay, but he got all weird and quiet when he got into high school. All the girls used to like him, because he was… I don’t know, smart and good at sports and stuff. Nobody talks to him now-”

“I’m going to,” Naruto said, cutting Ino off, and started towards the booth. He was going to win that snail and give it to Sakura. His stride was confident, steady, as he marched right up to the booth. The boy, Sasuke, looked up, and then, he faltered.

Naruto hadn’t been able to make out what Sasuke looked like from a distance. He could see now: lithe body, but with bad posture, and dark hair that stuck up wrong in the most effortless way. But, this wasn’t special.

What was special was his eyes. They met Naruto’s and they were black, so black that there was no distinction between the iris and pupil. Naruto had never seen eyes like that before. If his blue ones were the waves on a sunny day, Sasuke’s were the sea beneath an eclipse. No light escaped them.

There wasn’t even an expression on his face when he first looked up, but after Naruto opened his mouth and no words came out, he looked annoyed. “Yes?” he said, low, and Naruto could see a tiny flick of pink as Sasuke’s tongue touched the bottom of his front teeth for the S.

“Uh. I want to play,” he said, cheeks burning. What had come over him? He stuck out his hand, and Sasuke put out his, and Naruto dropped the tickets to where he was waiting.

“It’s ring toss. You know how to play?” Like saying those words were the last thing he wanted to be doing. Naruto swallowed. He guessed he understood what Ino had meant about Sasuke being cool; Naruto wanted to be like that someday, effortless. That was Naruto’s thing, effort, trying. It just made people tease him. He bet Sasuke never gets teased.

“Of course. Duh.” Naruto found the rings in front of him: 10.

“If you get more than 7 over the bottles, you get something.” Back to his phone, not even scrolling or tapping. Naruto, a real human, was less than a rectangle of light. He huffed.

He picked up the first ring. It was faded, not quite the red of blood or Sasuke’s name. Naruto closed his eyes, ready for whatever may come, and then opened them, blue and blue. The ring left his fingers and- bounced off the bottles, clattering to the ground.

Sasuke eyes flicked to him, and then away, but it was enough for Naruto to burn even brighter. He glared at Sasuke’s profile, but he didn’t shift again, the only movement the tiny tick of his eyes under long eyelashes. This was the guy Sakura had liked? Whatever.

The second went much like the first, but Sasuke paid him no more attention. The rest were the same, and Naruto was very annoyed. He swiveled, hands clenched, to face Sasuke.

“I played baseball in little league,” was all he could get out.

“Good for you.”

“No, I’m saying, like, is this game rigged?”

“Yeah,” said Sasuke flatly, and then leaned closer. “You know what, kid? Everything in this whole carnival is fucking rigged.”

Naruto felt his anger spike, at the game and at Sasuke, his stupid sticking-up hair like rocks at the jetty that ships steered clear of. Naruto should steer clear of him, too.

He stomped away, his feet making satisfying thumps. He was going to tell Sakura Sasuke was a dick, and she was better off with someone else, someone like-

“Hey!”

Naruto stopped in surprise, turned. Sasuke was standing now, and he must have been the one that called out. His heart beat a little. Effort.

Just like that, Sasuke was cool again. An accessible cool, one Naruto wanted someday for himself.

He all but ran back, looking up at Sasuke, and his pale hands reached up, digging into the soft skin of a stuffed snail. “I saw you looking at it. The game’s rigged, so just take it. I won’t tell.”

Naruto blinked, at Sasuke, at the snail. He took it, and his hands did not touch Sasuke’s.

“Thanks,” he said, quietly. The moment for talking loudly had passed, and Sasuke was back to his phone.

“Sure, kid,” was all he said. Naruto wanted to tell him he wasn’t a kid, probably wasn’t even much younger than Sasuke himself, but when you’re a teenager every year feels like ten. Sasuke had maybe driven a car, or kissed a girl, or smoked. Naruto hugged the snail to his chest, and ran in the opposite direction.

He found his friends again, proudly showed Sakura the snail, which she put under one arm and told him she didn’t know what to name it, but Naruto should give her his number so she can text him it when he goes back home. Naruto glowed.

The next day he was tired, after having gone back to Choji’s and spent the whole night playing video games with guns and cars, something he left out to Iruka when he showed up in their old car. He hugged Naruto very tightly, and Naruto wondered if Iruka did anything while Naruto was away.

After it was clear he had made it through the week without dying, Naruto begged and begged Iruka to let him come back next summer. He begged halfway back to home until finally Iruka agreed. Naruto glowed even brighter.

He remembered them all. Pink-haired Sakura who he texted, mean Ino who he didn’t, Choji and Shikamaru, best friends. He remembered bikes and ice cream and that carnival. Even the boy at the ringtoss stand tugged at the corners of his mind.

Naruto didn’t know why he did, and the memory faded over time, but whenever he saw a dark eyed boy on the subway, it stuck to his mind like saltwater taffy. He thought of Sasuke.

Chapter Text

Naruto was careful, through the year, through the hell that was 8th grade, and the winter and the boredom, to not forget his friends in Oceanview. He was a whole year older, a 14 year old, on the edge of high school, which was the absolute last thing he wanted on his mind. Every back to school ad on TV had the effect of a horror movie, skin prickling and stomach churning, and he made Iruka change the channel.

Oceanview was something he held out for. Before school started, at the end of August, the sea was waiting to come crashing down on him and the wheels of his bike were begging to spin. It made him stretch out on his bed, mirroring the dried starfish he’d bought as a souvenir, and smile to himself. A tiny sun, blooming from his chest. A personal warmth. That was Oceanview.

He all but shoved Iruka into the car, drumming his hands on the dashboard in the rhythm of his thoughts: O-cean-view, O-cean-view. Iruka told him to stop banging around, that they needed to get gas first. He switched on the radio and let Naruto fiddle with the dial, which usually calmed him down. Iruka always had this line between his eyebrows, but his smile lines were there, too. Naruto knew he was always smiling at him, even when he wasn’t looking. He knew Iruka loved him a lot.

And it was because Iruka loved him so much that Naruto had to sit through the longest lecture of his life. He slumped in his seat until the belt choked him. The sound he let out sounded like a squirrel being strangled, and it was unconvincing. That’s what Iruka said, anyway.

More drumming, more fiddling with the dial, more bursts of conversation that were more just Iruka nodding as Naruto set the scene for the same stories he’d told again and again. He painted it, the dream of Oceanview, pushing out from his animated hands and growing, pressing against the windows. Naruto left a small area, so Iruka could see the road, but otherwise, he filled the space. He couldn’t not.

Though the drive was excruciatingly long, he made it through somehow. Naruto was throwing open the car door before it was stopped, so hard it bounced back and hit him as he leaped out.

Iruka yelled from the car, but Naruto heard it like he was underwater. And he was; drowning, mouth open. It was just like he’d remembered, the wind carrying the sea to him long before he could see it. There was no air he rather have in his lungs, and he filled them. Then he breathed out, give some of himself back. The wind accepted his offering, taking it with him.

His aunt reassured Iruka that she wouldn’t let Naruto get in trouble. Karin wasn’t around like she had been the year before to watch him. “She’s on a roadtrip with some of her friends,” said his aunt, with a half smile. “She doesn’t really like to be in Oceanview this time of year. But with Sakura, he’ll be fine. She’s a good girl.” Naruto beamed at the mention of her name, excited, practically vibrating, cracking the sidewalk beneath him like a jackhammer.

Iruka looked at him. There was worry in his eyes, there always was. Naruto wrapped his arms around him. While he felt like his heart belonged to Oceanview, his home was always his dad. And he wouldn’t give that up so easily. Iruka was a little teary, that salt water therapeutic like Naruto found the salt water of the sea. Finally, he reversed out of the driveway, waved and was gone.

This town now had custody of Naruto. He instantly grabbed for his bike, a friendly steed as his love for the color orange hadn’t diminished. Karin wasn’t there to stop him. He kicked off and headed to Sakura’s house.

The journey was the same as before, and Naruto was so happy he could scream. Eighth grade hadn’t been kind to him, not at all, and while he had only gone from 13 to 14, it felt like he’d aged. Not in a good way, either, where you get smarter. More like how fruit goes rotten.

Now, though, racing, he knew that wasn’t true. He was still himself, despite every one of his teachers and peers that had told him that was the wrong thing to be. Too bad. There was a whole damn town who couldn’t get enough of Naruto. He worked his legs. The burn remained and the stinging in his eyes. This pain was nothing like the burn of trying too hard at school, or the icy city air that climbs in through your ears to your brain, making you think cold things. It felt good.

Sakura’s house approached in the distance, unchanged besides two more windchimes joining the family. Naruto dumped his bike on the pile, just like before, and was up the stairs, knocking a little too loudly.

He waited in silence, outside of his heavy breathing, and for five murderous seconds he thought no one would answer. But then somebody did: Sakura, in a new oversized tie dye shirt. She smiled big at him, and she had braces now, with purple bands. When she hugged him, it was a strange feeling. Her hair brushed his cheek, cotton candy, and Naruto bent his arms to hug her, too. It was strange because nobody had hugged him but Iruka, not since he was a little kid. Maybe not even then.

He grinned at her as well, cheeks a little flushed. Iruka had teased him, saying he had a crush. Naruto wasn’t sure if that was true. Or maybe it was, but he had a bigger crush on the week he spent here, and wasn’t going to ruin it for anything.

“How have you been? Actually, let me get my shoes, and you can tell me while we ride over to Shikamaru’s, okay?” She disappeared into the house, leaving the door slightly cracked. Naruto could see those white wicker chairs in her kitchen. He tapped his feet.

She was back quickly, hopping to put her sneakers on, just like before. There was a flash of red as she tied her hair up with the bandana. More of a pink red, not a pure red. Sakura nodded at him, locked and loaded. They were off.

It was as if no time had passed at all. They still talked, Sakura still snorted when she laughed at something particularly funny. She didn’t mind when he started veering one way or another; she stayed steady in the road, trusting he’d never let his path cross hers. He never did.

They reached Shikamaru’s house, and everyone else was already outside. There was a blanket spread out, and Shikamaru was lying next to it, on the verge of a nap but eyes still on the sky. Ino and Choji were sitting with a plastic tupperware container full of little bottles. Choji looked like he was telling Ino something funny, and she listened, brushing paint onto his fingernails. Purple, like her shirt that showed her stomach, and like Sakura’s bike.

When Sakura called out to them, everyone looked up. “Well,” said Ino, and her voice is one Naruto assigned to any character called a ‘trickster’ in his English class. “If it isn’t Naruto, in an orange shirt and orange shoes. I’m shocked.”

“Hey!” said Choji, with that smile that was Naruto’s favorite. He waved a painted hand, which Ino grabbed, lowering it, telling him he better not mess up her hard work.

Shikamaru had sat up with a yawn. “What’s up?” he asked, still half-asleep but stuck out his fist for a bump anyway. Naruto obliged. They’d all remembered him, just like he’d remembered them. That’s all he had wanted.

“You here for about a week again?” Shikamaru asked, and Naruto nodded. “The carnival’s actually three days, you know. You can go to all the days now.”

Naruto felt his heart thrum. The Oceanview Carnival. Of all things, he hadn’t forgotten that. It’d been this spinning world of color his mind could retreat to amidst the grey. His time there had created a whole new feeling, one he couldn’t replicate, even though he’d tried to. He nodded. He wanted to go very badly.

“That’s not for a few days, though,” said Sakura, still on the sidewalk, one foot down and one on a pedal. “We have to do other stuff while we wait. I want to go to the store, are you guys coming?”

Shikamaru groaned that he was going broke, but got to his feet anyway. Ino was blowing onto Choji’s nails until she was satisfied that they were ready. They grabbed their bikes, pushing and pulling until the pile revealed three different bikes. Black, green, orange, red and purple. Five 14 year olds, now, but the same sense of limitlessness that only came with summer.

The store wasn’t anything special, just a corner store, same as the ones Naruto had at home, but he entered it like a dream. Just like real life, but everything looks a little different, just a little off. Ino gave him an odd look. “It’s just a corner store,” she said scornfully, but she bought him the gum he wanted. It was orange and she didn’t remark on it.

Everyone dumped their treats into the basket on Ino’s bike. It was a communal stockpile now, of candy and chips, to be rationed out when they got to wherever they were going. Choji asked if his house was good, and Naruto nodded. He didn’t care, he’d go anywhere.

When they got to Choji’s house, they flopped down on any surface. Shikamaru on the couch, Ino on his legs, Sakura on the floor and Choji in one of the beanbags. Naruto took the other, running and cannonballing into it with a dull thump. Everyone laughed, but Sakura the most, and Naruto laughed, too. With them. Kind laughter.

Most days went that way. Naruto would ride over to Sakura’s house, they’d ride to someone elses and slowly they’d collect everyone. Then they’d do what they affectionately called “whatever.” Riding until they got tired, walking around the sandy downtown of Oceanview, watching movies, playing videogames, watching Shikamaru play video games. Karin had told Naruto he wasn’t supposed to go the caves on Cobalt Beach because they’re dangerous the year before, but when they went to explore them there were only crabs in there, no harm.

His favorite thing to do was roll around on the beach. Ino liked the sand, Sakura liked the waves and Naruto liked both. He would go back and forth, because when he was with one he missed the other. Some people couldn’t stand the feeling of sand on wet skin, and Naruto wasn’t one of them. The cold of the water, the grit of sand; pleasant reminders of his life, his ability to feel…

Well, it was his favorite thing besides the carnival, so the first day it happened he was nearly pulling Sakura out of bed and begging Ino not to spend so much time on her hair because it looked fine.

Ino put her hands on the edge of the sink, mere inches from the mirror, squinting. Naruto didn’t understand it. He’d just rolled out of bed, as there wasn’t really anyone to impress here. Sakura, maybe, but her pajamas were just the basketball shorts and big shirt tied with a hair tie she wore the day before.

“You think it looks okay?” she asked, tilting her head.

“It looks perfect,” Naruto told her, and that got her out the door.

Choji and Shikamaru joined along the way, falling into the line perfectly like soldiers. They were on their way to capture summer.

Once their bikes were chained up safe to the rack, they were free, unleashed upon the carnival. Choji had convinced his dad to give him a ton of money, so they all got 15 tickets each this time.

The first thing Naruto wanted to do was go on the ride that goes upside-down. He’d been too nervous to the time before. It was like a small swinging ship, but it just kept swinging, going up and up and over.

Naruto didn’t like that part as much, and also the fact that there was a kind of cage over the top. It was for safety, he knew, but he imagined getting locked into it and never let off, forced to spin forever and ever. Rationally, this wouldn’t happen, but it was a chilling thought all the same.

This year, he was going to ride it. He announced it to his friends, who raised their eyebrows, except for Sakura. She loved scary things, mostly because she wasn’t scared of them at all. Horror movies just made her laugh. She clapped her hands.

“That sounds fun! How about I go with you?”

“Okay!” he excited, and started to the boardwalk to find it.

“Wait up,” Shikamaru said. “We’re all coming.”

“Yeah, I’ll believe you going on it when I see it.” Naruto stuck out his tongue at Ino.

Entering the carnival was much like the first time. There was a difference. It was still sweet and salty and metal and splinters and madness but this time it was familiar. Naruto was so proud this was a part of him now, something so wondrous. Distance makes the heart grow fonder, as they say.

He had the urge to wander, but shook his head. Today, he was going to face his fears, and Sakura was going to help him. They approached the ride, and it clanked, the way rattlesnakes rattle when a human gets too close. Go away, the noise said, I’m dangerous. But Sakura looked unbothered, smiling to herself gently. Naruto needed some of that courage, willed it into himself.

They waited in line, gave the man the ticket and then stepped into the ride, Sakura sitting right next to him, her side pressed flush to his. Naruto coughed, embarrassed at the position, but Sakura was again, unbothered. He acted like he was, too.

The ride began, and the clanking was louder, but not as loud as Sakura cheering. Through the cage, he could see their friends. They cheered back, Ino the loudest, waving at Sakura. She returned it, and then turned forward, set and ready.

Naruto was not set and ready, but the swinging began anyway. He clenched his teeth together tightly, if only to keep them in his mouth. His skin felt looser, like it was being blown off every time they hurtled forward, but when he looked at Sakura, at the pink hair waving in her face, it felt alright. Not fun by any means, but not scary.

What happened when the ride turned him upside-down? Naruto didn’t know. He tried his best in the moment not to think about it, and then they were right side up, just like that.

Sakura was laughing, just like at the horror movie. She waved again, and Naruto watched her. He’d thought he’d been confronting his feelings of fear, but now he realized it might have been something else.

He thought about Sakura, and her cherry blossom chair and oversized shirts. Her smile, too, was oversized. Her laugh as well. And he thought about all of that, and about Sakura’s leg pressed to his, and he felt… fondness. Something gentle, pushing on his heart. Not, as Iruka put it, a crush. Nothing so violent. That’s not what he felt for her.

Which was a relief, because he wanted to keep coming back here. Crushes just made his life difficult; he didn’t know what to do in general, so he didn’t need people he liked making him lose his train of thought, too.

Back on the ground, Naruto was congratulated on winning his showdown with the reaper, but that he looked a little green. Shikamaru suggested they find somewhere sunny to lie down, and everybody rolled their eyes at that.

It wasn’t until the second day of the carnival that Naruto remembered. Not that he had any reason to, as it didn’t really matter, but it was still there. He saw it, that evening, at the shadowy end of the boardwalk. Hard to spot, tucked behind palm trees. If you looked a little closer: the ring toss, and the boy who ran it, looking like he hadn’t moved the whole time Naruto had been gone.

Naruto put it out of his mind, avoided the stand, but he couldn’t help thinking: he was probably so much better at it, rigged or not. He’d started working out, for real this time, and it made a big difference, he thought. He could probably win it. That would be impressive, wouldn’t it?

Still, he waited, until he couldn’t wait anymore. He felt it running through his veins, I want to win, I want to win, let me win.

“I’m going to go try that game again,” he blurted out. It was late, the night sky blurring into the ocean. “The ring toss.”

Sakura raised her eyebrows. “Yeah? ...I didn’t think they still had that. Be careful, though-” she said. Naruto waved his hand. He didn’t need to hear her disclaimer about the boy who ran the stand again.

“I know, I know.”

Sakura shrugged. “Knock yourself out, then. I’m going to get ice cream with Ino.” Naruto nodded, watched her go, and then turned.

Something pulled him forwards, closer, closer, until he stopped.

He did better this time, than he had before. The black eyes weren’t so shocking; one look felt more like a punch in the stomach than a bullet in the heart. The hair was the same, something Naruto had absent mindedly drawn once, but it just looked like a duck. On him it looked cool.

“Yes?” Just like the before. Low, his tongue, just like before.

“I was here last year,” offered Naruto, and then felt monumentally stupid. He probably saw tons of people come and go, and Naruto had only spent five minutes here one night.

“I don’t recognize you,” he said, voice so cold, and Naruto blushed. Stupid. He coughed into his arm to try and hide it, but it burned. He wasn’t anything like the popular kids at school at all. He didn’t give a single shit what Naruto thought of him. He came off as perfectly self-controlled, and Naruto just wasn’t. He wanted to be.

The boy took pity, though very little. “What’s your name?”

“Naruto.”

“Doesn’t ring a bell.” Back to his phone, but it hurt less this time.

“What’s your name?” Naruto asked, with no idea why he did. He knew his name, but he hadn’t said it out loud in a year. Sakura had said it with a sigh, Ino had said it in scorn, Naruto had said it, softly, but nothing was exactly right. Naruto wanted to hear how he said it.

“Sasuke,” he said, and Naruto felt confused. He thought he’d hear something new, but it was such an empty word from him. He said it, and then it plummeted. Full of holes.

“Sasuke,” Naruto repeated, and there, that was right. It was a word with worth and life. It was a name, it was important. Sasuke didn’t even look up. He wanted Sasuke to look up, to hear and care. He didn’t know why it was so important.

“I’m not even going to play,” Naruto said, putting on a new voice, the one he used at school sometimes, the rare occasions he knew something someone else didn’t. “Like, I know it’s rigged, so-”

“Then why did you come here?”

It seemed like an honest question, one Naruto didn’t have an answer to. He just kicked the ground, shrugged. “Don’t know.” Look up. Hear. Care. Sasuke didn’t. “I just… I was going to play, but I can tell no one can win it, just by, you know, just by looking.”

Now Sasuke looked up, and he was interested. Naruto huffed out a breath as Sasuke jumped down, off the counter and put his phone in his pocket. Silently, he took his place in front of the rings, picking one up. Blue. He tossed one, then another, and seven more, and Naruto heard them clatter, but he was watching Sasuke’s face.

It wasn’t like Sakura’s when she concentrated, how she stuck her tongue out, or like Shikamaru, where his brow furrowed. Sasuke’s concentration, was kept to fixing his eyes on his target and never wavering until he’d hit it. After every throw, there was this little look of triumph, not a smile, but this sly look, like he knew he could do it. Naruto couldn’t look away, until-

“Are you even watching,” Sasuke said, and Naruto had been caught. He whipped his head to the bottles just as a Sasuke threw the last hoop, orange, and it landed. Sasuke had managed to land all ten hoops on the middle bottle, like a stack of rings on a finger, pointing up to the sky. See up there, it seemed to say. That’s him. Above you. Naruto clenched his fists.

Even after he got back to his aunt’s house, he was thinking about how good Sasuke was at that game. It wasn’t impossible, then, and if it wasn’t impossible than with some work, Naruto could do it, too. He tiptoed down the creaking stairs to the basement, careful not to wake his aunt.

After rooting around for a while, all he found was a bowling set and some horseshoes. That would have to do. He carried everything back upstairs, trying not to drop anything or sneeze from the dust that had accompanied every old yearbook and game and sports equipment; the ashes of abandoned lives.

He finally made it to the back yard and switched the porch light on with his chin. Yes, this would have to do. The bowling pins would be his bottles, and the horseshoes, his rings.

The first couple tries were unsuccessful. Beyond unsuccessful even, they were borderline atrocious. A few of the horseshoes didn’t even land remotely close to the pins, veering off on their own journey across the lawn, unauthorized.

Naruto tried again and again, to no avail. He sunk to the ground, and then rolled over to look at the sky. It was cloudless that night, and the stars were cheering him on, he thought. Come join us, they said. And so he tried again.

Sasuke had made it look so easy. A flick of his wrist sent the ring spinning to its rightful place, and it was as if he was born with this ability. Not to win ring toss specifically, but the ability, in general, to win. That wasn’t something Naruto was known for being much good at, but he was determined.

He put on the face, the one Sasuke had. Sasuke’s confidence was a glacier: cold, tall and intimidating, with only more to spare under the surface. Yes, Naruto was going to be like that, even though his own confidence felt more like a popsicle in comparison.

Air rushed in, air rushed out. He closed his eyes, lifted the horseshoe up to throw it. It touched his lips, and then, it flew.

Naruto didn’t open his eyes until he heard a thunk and then they were thrown open like the curtains on a snow day. There it was, a red horseshoe, curled around a pin. Naruto couldn’t help it; he jumped in excitement, a tiny squeak escaping him.

From then on, it was only easier. He threw them until his fingers were aching, but he was getting every single one around a pin. They were stacking up like those rings, twelve pale fingers pointing to the Heavens. See up there, they said again. That’s him, and that’s you, too.

Naruto went to sleep smiling.

The next day was, to everyone else, another day of doing “whatever” until the carnival opened, but to Naruto, it was the day he was going to show Sasuke that they weren’t so different. They could both win a rigged game.

He didn’t want to admit to his friends that he was going back to the ring toss stand. He’d met up with them after Sasuke had won, and he must have looked mad because Ino teased him all the way home. No, he’d rather not say. Then, he reminded himself absently, if you lose, it will just be between you and Sasuke. Not that Naruto was going to lose.

At the first opportunity, he was sneaking away. Sasuke was still sitting, like always, one leg tucked up. He almost looked like a gargoyle, hunched over his phone like that, but then he’d look up, and Naruto knew his description was wrong. His features were so undeniably human, they could never be replicated in something as static as stone.

“You. From yesterday,” was all Sasuke said, but Naruto felt like he was being poked fun at anyway.

“Yeah. I’m here to play the game.” He puffed up his chest, squared his shoulders, looked Sasuke right in those eyes. “I can win this time.”

Sasuke appraised him, tiredly. It wasn’t like his stand got a lot of business, anyway, thought Naruto. Probably because he’s so crabby. He has no right to look so utterly exhausted.

Then, he moved. He held out his hand. Naruto blinked; he hadn’t been expecting this. To gain Sasuke’s respect so early? He must look different today, older, stronger. The playing field was level now. Naruto reached out his hand, too.

“No. The ticket, dumbass,” and the stars fell right before his eyes.

“Oh, um, yeah,” he got out, looking down to get the tickets, but his fingers were suddenly five times their size, impossible to use. They tingled, too, on his right hand where he thought it would touch Sasuke’s, and he really was a dumbass. He just wasn’t cool, couldn’t pretend.

Finally, he got the ticket out, pink as his face, and lifted it. An offering, to whatever gods gave Sasuke the ability to be one step ahead. He took it, and motioned to the game.

And this was it. All his hard work, the ache in his shoulders from standing up so straight, it was all for this. He picked up the first ring, blue, just like Sasuke had the night before. He stared hard at the yellow and red lights, and then closed his eyes; in the dark, there were stars, slowly fading, but cheering him on still. He lifted the horseshoe up to throw it. It touched his lips. It flew.

His eyes went wide when he heard the clunk he wanted; the ring had found a bottle, spun around it six times, and then settled. Naruto wanted to jump, to squeak, like before, but he knew that’s not what Sasuke would do. Instead, he yawned, and picked up another ring.

Naruto didn’t get all of them, which was alright. He was new to this. Only last night had he decided he need to master this game, so considering that, he was doing well. All he wanted was to win the game. If only 8 rings found their mark, he would win, he wanted to win, let me win.

It was a cruel but not unexpected twist of fate that led him to having victory ride on his very last ring. His breathy was steady, his mind was made up, right until Sasuke put down his phone and looked over. Even tilted his body, put his hands on the counter, watching Naruto. Watching Naruto.

He swallowed. He hadn’t been expecting this. Naruto was doing this to prove to himself he could do it, a personal triumph, but partially because he wanted Sasuke to acknowledge him. This would catch his eye, he had thought. Now he was realizing he had no idea what to do with it.

The pressure was mounting and his face was getting hot. Sasuke didn’t even look really interested in the outcome, but just the looking was enough. The attention, however little, was an electric shock. It was stunning. To him. Sasuke was probably bored.

Naruto shook his head, ground his teeth and prayed. He didn’t pray a lot, but he did now, and threw the ring.

It hit the ground with a thump, and that was stunning, too. Not in the good way.

Tears clawed at his eyes. Naruto let them well but not fall. He’d tried so hard, put all his energy into it, all his potential, and still failed. With an audience. Naruto stared at the ground, at his orange feet, and he hated them. The last ring he’d thrown, orange as well. A stupid, bad color.

He turned quietly, embarrassed. Naruto had made a big show for nothing.

“Hey.” Sasuke’s voice harpooned him, reeled him back in. Naruto watched as Sasuke jumped into the booth, black sweatshirt flapping like a bat. He picked up the last hoop, the orange one, and dropped it over a bottle.

Naruto stared. “Um, that’s cheating?”

“So what?” asked Sasuke, and that’s what being a high schooler is like, Naruto thought. “You get a prize now, because you won.”

“Oh,” Naruto said, trying not the smile, but he was doing so badly. His feet tapped a little, and Sasuke didn’t look at him weird. “I don’t know what I want, I didn’t think I’d… I don’t even have stuffed animals anymore,” he finished with. That seemed like an older kid thing to say.

“I’m just going to pick one for you,” Sasuke said, and lifted his arms. Naruto couldn’t see his face anymore, as he sorted through the animals hanging in the stand above, but he knew Sasuke was trying to figure out which one Naruto wanted. And Naruto was thinking about Sasuke and his all-black outfit. There’s a feeling of connection, he thought, when two people are thinking about each other at the exact same time.

And then the connection was gone. Sasuke brought his arms back down, a stuffed snake in one hand and a frog in the other. He considered them for one second and then put the snake under his arm, handing Naruto the frog. He took it, and his hands did not touch Sasuke’s.

“How did you know I love frogs?” Naruto asked. “They’re my favorite animal.”

“I didn’t know,” Sasuke said. “It looks like you.”

Naruto looked down at the frog’s face, at the big pink circles on his cheeks, and it was a mirror. Sasuke was making fun of him.

“Thanks,” he said shortly, turning to hide how hot his face felt.

“Sure, kid.”

Naruto found his friends again, and they complimented him on his frog. Ino tried to take it from him, to throw it around, but he now felt a kinship with the blushing amphibian. Ino could rip it out of his cold dead hands.

It wasn’t until Naruto had to untie his shoes that he let it go, but still it sat next to him, his trophy. He’d won something, even if it was just ring toss. Him and Sasuke won it together.

Iruka would come to pick him up in less than 24 hours, so Naruto was tempted to stay up, extend his time in Oceanview. It’d been a long day, however, and Naruto could feel his eyes fluttering shut.

He hugged the frog to his chest, smushed his face against the top of it’s head, pressed into it. It smelled like the carnival he loved so much. It smelled like a summer of victories. There was almost a twinge of envy, a tiny prick that only touched before he descended into subconscious. This frog didn’t have a care in the world, while Naruto had many. It lived at the carnival, and Naruto only got to visit. It had touched Sasuke’s hands.

When Naruto woke up with the sun, he knew he had dreamt something good. He desperately tried to go back to sleep, to capture it again, but it was gone.

Chapter Text

The Monopoly board nearly went flying as Ino’s knees bumped the coffee table violently. She stood up with a screech, and everybody jumped.

“You cheated!”

Shikamaru sighed, thumbing through his money, multicolored paper wings flapping away. “I didn’t cheat, woman, I’m just good at this game,” he told her, in a way that let Naruto know she’d been told it many times before. Ino just stomped her foot. She had been mad earlier, too, because the extreme heat of that summer was making her hair frizz up.

“A summer like no other,” is what the weather man had said, and it was shaping up to be just so. Oceanview was experiencing higher temperatures than it’d felt in the last ten years, and it’s citizens were baking. There was at least one fan in every room, and all of Naruto’s friends had yelled at him when he unplugged one to charge his phone.

It died that day, which it rarely did. When it powered back on, Iruka was there, in several texts that increased in anxiety. The first was general worry. By the last, it seemed that Iruka was under the impression Naruto had been kidnapped, or murdered, or kidnapped then murdered. Naruto had only been phone-less for a few hours.

“It’s the heat,” he said, to his dad over the phone. He smiled, because he sounded like a citizen of Oceanview. That’s what everyone said around there: it’s the heat. Running late, or being mean, or slamming your fingers in the car door; it was all because of this damn heat.

“I swear you cheated. Stand up! Are you hiding money under your legs?” Shikamaru fixed her with a lazy glare. He couldn’t be bothered to. Sakura stood up instead and patted Ino’s shoulders, coaxing her back to her spot on the couch It was one that dipped right in the middle deeply. Like a shallow grave, Shikamaru told him the first time he sat there. Naruto just didn’t like it because it smelled like mothballs.

Everything in Sakura’s house was either brand new or very old. He leaned back in the armchair he was curled up on; the ceiling fan was free of dust and whirred quietly. The ceiling above it had a long crack that Sakura said her dad was going to fix, but it’d been two years since then.

Naruto lifted the collar of his shirt up, hoping to get some cool air on his chest. This paper money could probably stick right onto his skin. He didn’t mind the weather nearly as much as the rest of his friends, but it was getting beyond hot. The feeling of sweat trickling down his back, or sunburns, were the worst part. There wasn’t a single living thing on Earth that would enjoy time spent in a furnace.

He groaned, pushing his blonde hair off his face. “It doesn’t maaattteeerrrr. Can we just go outside? I’m dying.” To his right, Choji nodded, face blotchy. He didn’t complain about the heat, or about anything usually, but Naruto knew he’d rather be wading in cool water.

“Yeah, we should probably stop playing this game anyway. Shikamaru always wins.” Shikamaru could only shrug; it was true. Ino stomped out the door, but she wasn’t really mad. It was that way, with friends. You could tease and be teased and not be mad.

Naruto hadn’t experienced that with people his age before Sakura and her bunch, but after his first year of high school, life had gotten easier. Nobody cared as much, what Naruto looked like or the scores he got. Nobody cared that he tapped his feet.

(He wasn’t sure at first if he liked that part of high school. Before, his classmates looked at him and didn’t like what they saw. In high school, nobody looked at him at all.)

Just because his quirks were ignored by his peers didn’t mean he was a teacher’s pet by any means. When Naruto looked at one page for too long, the words started to crawl, heave themselves across the page, until it was one big writhing mess. Then, he’d start moving. Chewing pencils to the bone or shaking his legs. His teacher would look up from their desk at him, body working, and glare. He couldn’t help it.

One of these teachers suggested he should channel his energy into something. Anything. Like sports, he offered. So Naruto joined the cross country team, since everything else seemed expensive. He thought running was okay, but the wind picking up always reminded him of the ocean. The fact that he wasn’t there.

He was wearing his shorts now. Black and blue, his school’s colors, and they were slightly too small for him. The sweat was making his thighs stick where they were pressed together; separating them was like velcro.

Everyone followed Ino out, who already had her bike. She looked like an ad at the mall, poised with her sticker-covered bike. Her shirt was just a purple swimsuit, and her denim shorts were probably a smaller fit than Naruto’s. Her sneakers were pure white, like her teeth, and her ponytail had only gotten longer and more blonde as he’d known her.

Sakura ran her bike up next, ramming it into Ino’s with abandoned, and the magazine scene was gone. Ino went from the picture of lower-middle-class luxury to a grizzly bear, growling fiercely at Sakura and kicking her tire away with one flip-flopped foot.

The carnival was still an hour or so from opening, so they raced to Cobalt Beach; the last one there had to shove seaweed into their swimsuit. Naruto had done it before, and he had to admit, he wasn’t looking for a repeat performance. He led the way, laughing as Ino was right on his tail. He knew the way by heart.

Shikamaru came in last. He didn’t think anyone was going to hold him to it, but once they sunk their feet into sand, four pairs of eyes stared him down.

“I thought you guys were fucking kidding,” he insisted, putting up a hand to shield his eyes from the sun.

“You weren’t kidding when I had to do it,” said Naruto innocently.

They followed Shikamaru in line, a march to the gallows. The ocean waves crashed in before them, a pure blue, like the sky arching it’s back above it. The tide was far out, leaving plenty of piles. Jellyfish and sand dollars sometimes, but mostly seaweed.

Ino pointed, at what looked like a huge lump of soggy spinach. Shikamaru poked at it with his foot, and it let out a wet squelch. His nose scrunched up.

“Do I really have to?” he asked. One last plea, but it was drowned out by the waves and their communal 15-year-old thirst to see their friends do foolish things. Even Choji was biting his lip, trying not to laugh. Shikamaru could fall to his knees, begging, promising, forcing tears. There was no mercy here.

He seemed to sense that. Shikamaru sighed, muttering something, and then leaned down. His swim trunks were light green, like gummy apple rings, while the seaweed was much darker, a murky hue from the depths of the sea. They were the same color and yet they clashed. Shikamaru grabbed a handful, tugged on his waistband and shoved it down his shorts.

The crowd went wild. Sakura started laughing first, looking at Shikamaru’s uncharacteristically contorted face, and then started snorting when he didn’t a strange tap dance in the hot sand, seaweed dropping from the legs. Ino was laughing too, so hard she wasn’t making any noise, just wheezing. She sagged into Choji’s arms, who’s face was turning beet red from his efforts to stay silent.

Naruto, himself, was crying. Shikamaru was usually so composed, never moved or spoke without calculation, but there was nothing funnier than seeing him be so undone by a handful of sea leaves. He jumped up and down, laughing at Shikamaru, who was rooting around in his trunks, trying to get it all out.

“How does it feel?” he asked, and Shikamaru gave him a look. Naruto knew full well what it felt like to have kelp down his pants. Cold, and slimy, and wrong . It reminded him of the only Halloween party he’d ever been to. Somebody blindfolded him and put his hand in a bowl of peeled grapes, and Naruto had known they weren’t actually eyeballs, obviously. The sensation made him shiver anyway, however. It was just something he shouldn’t be feeling.

Shikamaru flicked one of the pieces at Naruto, who pretended to gag. “That was in your pants, don’t throw it at me!”

Once that was out of the way, and the tears of laughter had dried, they were free to tumble around the beach. Ino and Shikamaru laid out in the sand, and Naruto wished he could take a picture. They were laying, side by side, in the exact same position. Their chins were on their folded arms, with ponytails pointing at the sky. Like twins.

Sakura wanted to run around in the surf. She liked making big stomping footprints, and then watch the beach fill them back in. “Like I was never here,” she told him brightly, and then sped away, looping in figure-8’s, chasing the waves, letting them chase her back.

Naruto stayed close to the water, too. It was still sweltering after all, and the occasional spray was helping him stay cool. He and Choji had pulled big smooth sticks from the piles of driftwood that seperated the sands of the beach from the town beyond it.

The game was tic-tac-toe, but with a twist. They run around in the wet sand, trading turns, recording points. Whenever a particularly big wave came, rolling in like a storm with seafoam clouds, they stepped back, letting the hurricane wipe their games away. Whoever had the most points then was allowed to splash water at the other.

It was a dumb game, kind of, but it kept them cool. Soon Sakura ran over, tackling Choji into the waves, and then it was over. Everyone was splashing each other, throwing seaweed. Naruto caught a mouthful of salt, but even that was good. He just spit it back, and ocean took it, and the water flowing over his body was simply a second skin.

It was then that Sakura got the idea to dump water on Ino as she slept. They asked a kid building a sandcastle if they could borrow his bucket for a minute. He had one front tooth missing and said yes, but they had to bring it back. Sakura promised him.

They filled it up to the brim with water, and then tugged it up the sand to where the pair were laying. Choji poked Shikamaru with his foot, and then put a finger to his lips. Shikamaru caught on quickly, like he always did, and silently rolled away. Once he was out the splash zone, he gave them a thumbs up.

Ino was not happy with them.

By then, the carnival was open. Ino insisted on them waiting while she air-dried. Anyone who tried to talk to her she gave looks dirtier than the inside of Iruka’s microwave the day Naruto decided to see what would happen if he heated up his corn flakes. Unfortunately his spoon was still in the bowl… Sometimes Naruto knew why his dad sent him 5 messages a day to check in on him.

Naruto was tapping his feet, willing Ino’s long hair to have mercy on him and dry. He was ready to go to the carnival again.

He was excited, like always, a good sick feeling. Naruto could never be tired of it, because it was endless. There was no way he could try everything in one visit, or two, or three. On top of that, it was always changing. The carnival would twist his memories in a kaleidoscope, showing him something new every time. He liked that; he was changing, too.

There was one thing he hoped hadn’t changed, however. The ring toss stand, in the dark part of the boardwalk, and the dark boy who lived there.

Naruto felt stupid about it, because he was 15 now, but shoved in the bottom of his suitcase was the frog Sasuke had given him. Bug-eyed and smiling. Naruto had kept it with his other frog things on his dresser. It wasn’t green, like all the others, but orange instead. His favorite color.

Because it stood out, Naruto would catch himself staring at it. It reminded him of his potential, of hard work, of what he could do if he put his mind to it. Then he’d notice the blushing, the two big circles on the cheeks, and his thoughts would freeze. A deer in pink headlights. “It looks like you,” Sasuke had said.

After that, when he looked at the frog, he didn’t think about winning. He thought about Sasuke, and him reaching up his arms to find the stuffed animal, black hair falling away from his face.

Naruto tried not to dwell on the frog too much.

Finally Ino was ready to go, though she was still acting like they dumped chemical waste on her face instead of water. She glared at their accomplice, the kid with the bucket, even after Sakura reminded her that he was like 5. Naruto and his friends stood up, shaking the sand off their bodies even though they’d still be dusted with it for the rest of the day.

From Cobalt Beach, it was just a short path to the boardwalk. There was a bigger stretch of sand, laying right in front of the boardwalk, but Cobalt Beach was quieter and all around better. It had driftwood, and caves, and a path leading up to a big cliff where you could see the ocean all the way until in drops off the edge of the horizon.

They walked through the gate to Cobalt Beach, open now but closed at dusk. They walked past their bikes, and were somehow always relieved to see them still there, even though they locked them up right. Sakura did a cartwheel on their way, which Naruto didn’t know how to do but tried anyway. Everybody laughed, him included.

And then they were back. Oceanview Carnival. Lovely. Beloved.

There were some things they had to do first. Get tickets, buy trashy food, ride all the new rides and then sit in silence, trying not to cough up that trashy food. And then repeat it all over again.

The only thing Naruto didn’t like about the carnival was that time seemed to fly by. He’d see it in the distance, the fun he’d have there, and then it was zooming by, leaving him in the dust. He only wanted the taste to linger in his mouth, for his body to sink into the carnival, but that wasn’t how it worked. Naruto would take what he could get.

The sky changed from blue to orange to purple to black, the street lamps flicked on, and Naruto was finally able to escape Sakura tugging on his arm.

He didn’t want to tell anybody where he was going. Sakura didn’t like Sasuke much anymore, and Naruto didn’t want to be teased. Not about this. He didn’t know why, but he wasn’t sure he could handle the things Ino would say. At the very least, he had no desire to test himself.

It had never occurred to him that someone else might be running the stand, as he peered down the boardwalk, expecting to see a familiar figure glued to his phone, but instead saw… no one. Naruto blinked. He walked closer, worn sneakers making barely any noise on the wood. Sakura had said the year before she was surprised they still had the ring toss. It didn’t seem very popular, he agreed, but there were still lights and prizes. So it must be someone else, and Naruto was close, before coming to an abrupt halt.

Sasuke was there. He hadn’t noticed before, because Sasuke was wearing all black again, his uniform. He was just one shadow among many. The dark creeped Naruto out, but Sasuke was bathing in it, engulfed in gloom, teasing the fingertips of the brilliant flare of light, the grasp of the carnival that held Naruto so tightly.

He had been hard to spot because he wasn’t moving. His head was looking upward, at the moon that was going to be full soon. Still, it was bright in the sky, a precious jewel.

It looked precious to Sasuke, anyway. His gaze was intense, and there was an affection in it that made Naruto’s eyes go wide. Sasuke opened his mouth, slightly. What was he saying to him, the man on the moon? Naruto wanted to know.

But he was intruding, he knew he was. It felt something like an inside joke, something he wasn’t a part of, and so he backed away, first slowly, and then turned. He ran to find his friends.

That night, he opened the window and crawled out onto the roof. He stared at the moon. The moon stared back.

“What were you guys talking about?” Naruto asked. The moon said nothing in return. He sighed; he hadn’t expected it to. Still, he wanted to see Sasuke again. Maybe he would remember him this time. He should go in the light of day this time, when... Naruto glared at the moon. When he wouldn’t have to compete for attention.

It was this that drove him to head to the carnival alone, earlier than when it opened. Naruto wasn’t supposed to go inside, but when there was nothing but yellow tape with Do Not Enter stopping him? How could he not slip underneath it.

He went mostly unnoticed. People were getting ready for the day, putting together piece by piece the wonderland. That was interesting, but not what he was here for. He sped past it all.

It was strange to think he’d never seen Sasuke in the light of day before, but he was there, sitting with his back to one of the wooden pillars holding up the rood and legs stretched out on the counter. There was nothing set up, no rings, no bottles, no prizes. It looked like Sasuke was taking his sweet time. Good.

Naruto walked up, casually, as if he just happened to stroll his way. He came to a stop, hands in his pockets, one foot forward and the other slightly to the side. Nonchalant.

It took Sasuke a few seconds to notice him, as he was distracted by his phone, as usual. He looked up, then, at Naruto. There was a few beats of silence, and while Sasuke’s onyx stare was familiar, there was no recognition in his eyes. It stung all over again. Naruto cursed himself for having expectations. He was only in Sasuke’s world one day out of 365.

Today, however, he wasn’t going to let Sasuke talk first. He didn’t want to hear the “ yes? ” that he was sure was coming.

“Let me help you set up.” Naruto didn’t let his face show it, but his stomach clenched. Sometimes Naruto would blurt things out, and Iruka was tell him “ well that was forward ,” in the same tone. This was Naruto being forward. Taking off on the race track instead of hesitating at the starting line.

“...I don’t think you’re supposed to be in here.”

“So what?” Just like Sasuke had said to him the summer before, and god, Naruto was on a roll.

Sasuke considered this, and then swung his legs down. “You’re right. If some kid wants to do my job for me, I should let him, right?”

“I’m not some kid,” Naruto growled, which Sasuke ignored. “I'm really not! I’m a high schooler. I’m probably not even that much younger than you, you know.” Sasuke shrugged, swinging his legs again, this time twisting and jumping down on the other side of the counter. “How… So how old are you, then?”

“I’m 17,” Sasuke told him.

“That’s not even that much older than me,” Naruto said, partially to Sasuke but mostly to himself. His chest felt full, for some reason. There was only 2 years between them; Naruto could totally catch up to Sasuke in the span of 2 years. “I’m 15, so. I’m going to be a Sophomore.” Sasuke didn’t respond, keys jingling as he unlocked something under the counter. “Let me help you.”

“I’m getting the prizes and stuff. If you stand on the counter, you can hang them up, like-” Sasuke picked up a bear, and he reached up, and Naruto looked at his body, Sasuke's chest and his hips. Naruto wondered if he’d look like that when he was 17. “Like that.”

“Naruto,” he suddenly said. “My name is that. Is Naruto.” Fuck. Any cool he’d been so desperately clinging to had slithered from his hands and right into a garbage disposal.

“I’m Sasuke,” said Sasuke, and Naruto bit his lip. I know, he thought. I know that.

Naruto got to work, climbing up on the counter and hanging up anything Sasuke handed him from the little cabinets he’d opened with the key. There were a lot of stuffed animals, much more than Naruto figured could ever be won here, considering how few customers there were.

Bears and tigers and snakes and monkeys and foxes, Naruto’s second favorite animal; he hung them all. The tilted back and forth gently whenever the wind blew, which was both cute and a little weird. This little army of stuffed creatures, dancing quietly in the light of day.

Finally, Sasuke started handing up the ones Naruto was waiting for: the snails and the frogs. The two that had brought him to the stand in the first place. He held the frog up to his face, and it was just like the one he had at home. Naruto returned its smile.

“Hey.” Naruto jumped, and quickly added the frog to the rest.

“Yeah?”

“Come here. I’ll show you how they fuck people over with this game.” Naruto nearly fell off the counter, he was so quick. In an instant he was by Sasuke’s side. He didn’t touch him, but he looked at their arms, inches from each other.

“They make you put the bottles really close together.” Sasuke had pulled out the cardboard box that held the bottles and the rings both. “So to win, you’d have to do it perfectly.” He picked up a ring to show him. Naruto watched him carefully lower it around a bottle just so. He held it there a moment, and Naruto thought about how Sasuke’s fingernails were longer than his own, which were all but stubs.

“The rings are different weights. You can’t get used to them.” Naruto picked up the rings, and Sasuke was right, they were different weights. He picked up every single one, and stacked them on top of the middle bottle.

“I can do that,” Sasuke said. “Throwing them.”

I know , Naruto thought. I know you can.

That was pretty much all that Sasuke needed help with. He put up his hood as the sun got higher in the sky, beating down. Naruto wondered if he wasn’t hot, but maybe wearing a hoodie in the summer was part of being cool.

The only other cool person Naruto knew was Kiba. They were kind of friends; Kiba was on his cross country team and they both were shit at school. If Naruto was the tapping of a foot, Kiba was slamming your fist down on a table with such force it cracked in half. He was wild, wilder than Naruto, and funny. Girls liked him. He was the class clown.

“People call me the class clown,” Kiba told him one day after a run, when they were both out of breath. “That isn’t what I thought I’d be in high school. It’s not bad, but it’s not what I thought.”

Sasuke was cool in a completely different way. Where Kiba wanted to please people, Sasuke didn’t seem to give a damn if he pleased you or not. He never yelled, barely spoke, and when he did, it felt like being blessed with some great wisdom.

Sakura had said Sasuke got weird and quiet, but Naruto wanted that for himself. He was weird and loud. He didn’t want to be anymore, now that he was getting older, but his weirdness would push and push until he burst at the seams.

Naruto watched Sasuke as he settled back into his perch at the counter. He was staring at a screen again, but he bit his lip absentmindedly, sucking it into his mouth and then letting it go. His bottom lip was bitten pink and glossy and Naruto watched him very closely. He’d give anything to be like Sasuke some day.

“You can come back tonight,” he told Naruto flatly when he’d asked what else he could do. “I have to clean everything up. You can help if you want to.” Naruto did want to.

When his friends showed up, he told them the daring tale of sneaking in early and scooting around the carnival without anyone noticing. Sakura whacked him with a stack of tickets. “You could have gotten banned for life! What would you have done then?” Naruto grinned sheepishly. The carnival was in it’s usual working order again, ready for the rest of the world to come inside.

Admittedly, Naruto lost track of time. He was really starting to feel permanent in the lives of his friends, even if he came and went to Oceanview so briefly. They treated him like one of their own, adopted him into the family. Ino took a picture with him on the carousel. “The blondes,” she said with a smile. They put their heads together, Naruto’s sunshine yellow to Ino’s icy pale one. They squished into the frame and stuck their tongues out. Ino said she’d text the picture to him.

It was late, late-late, when Naruto finally remembered his promise to Sasuke. His friends were heading home, but he said he forgot something, and then raced down the boardwalk.

When he showed up, Sasuke was already done, and it felt empty in his chest. “Sorry,” was all Sasuke said.

“You’re all done?”

“Yeah. Heading home.” Naruto nodded, turned, walked away. He wasn’t too distraught, there was one day of the carnival left. The morning still waited, another chance to help. He turned back, for one last glance at Sasuke, and stopped.

Sasuke had said he was going home. Right to Naruto’s face, he had. So why was he slinking away into the darkness, towards Cobalt Beach? There were several entrances, but by this time the gates were locked and the sands were empty. So what was he doing?

That question haunted Naruto’s mind when he was laying in bed that night. What was he doing? Nobody went to the beach at night. It was locked up, and it would be boring there, but that’s where Sasuke had been going.

Naruto stared at the ceiling in the darkness. Iruka had told him the definitions of words all throughout the year. Naruto would be reading a book, or trying to, and he’d yell out a word. Iruka, from the kitchen or the couch or his room would yell the definition. One of Naruto’s favorites had been elusive; it sounded like a snake slithering through sand.

And that’s what Sasuke was, elusive. No point losing sleep over it. Naruto shut his eyes. Maybe some mysteries should be left unsolved.

That’s something Iruka would say, he thought the next morning, as he pedaled his way to see Sasuke again. Mysteries were made to be solved. That was Naruto’s opinion.

“Sasuke!” he yelled out, startling the person running the booth next door. Sasuke looked up, same hoodie, same messy hair. “I’m here to help.”

“How did you get in here?”

“I climbed through the tape.”

Sasuke raised an eyebrow. “The ones that say ‘do not enter’ in all caps?”

“Well,” said Naruto with a shrug, “to be honest I felt like that was more of a suggestion than a solid rule.” And then, it happened.

Sasuke smiled. It was small, but it was genuine, the curl of his lips. He was looking right at Naruto, too, eyes looking less like inky depths and more like the blacken remnants of a campfire, still slightly warm. Naruto had said something, and Sasuke had smiled. He made Sasuke do that.

“You can do the same things as before.” Sasuke got up, and while the connection was broken, the moment wasn’t gone. Naruto clung to it, holding himself in it, committing it to memory. It felt important.

He did everything the same, putting up prizes and watching Sasuke set up the game. They never touched, again, but Naruto wanted to. He wanted some of Sasuke’s cool to rub off on him.

This time, he was determined not to show up late, but he also didn’t want to seem desperate. Naruto spent the rest of that day with his friends, but also watching the sun lower in the sky and eyes flicking to a clock every few minutes.

All the same, ditching his friends was no simple task, and by the time he could slip away, the sky was pitch. It didn’t seem that way, with a huge full moon looking like a new sun in the sky, but it was late.

It was too late, again, and Naruto wanted to kick himself. Sasuke was all done. Shrugged at him, didn’t have any work to give him. And then: “Heading home.” Those two words made Naruto falter. Maybe the night wasn’t done with after all.

Naruto walked away, but didn’t leave. Instead, he ducked around a corner and watched as Sasuke did it again. Headed for the beach, not home. Naruto bounced on the balls of his feet, once, twice, and then took off. Cross country wasn’t for nothing.

He knew a different, faster way to Cobalt Beach. It meant running through bushes and dodging tree branches, but he’d ran it once or twice with Sakura. Cuts and tiny tears in his clothes, he could feel them all, but he only sped faster. Naruto wanted to get to the beach first.

He did, and sighed a deep breath of relief. And now, to find a hiding place. He was curious. Sasuke had kept himself elusive far too long. In truth, Naruto wanted some proof Sasuke was human. Just a couple of his secrets, that was it. Nothing more.

There was a big pile of driftwood, fairly close to the waves but still in the sand; he waited there.

For a few minutes, Naruto thought he’d misjudged Sasuke, that he wasn’t coming, but then hush fell over him. Somebody was climbing the fence, closed to keep people out, and then dropping onto the sand. Naruto knew he was probably safe in his driftwood fort, but his heart still picked up a little. He could see all of Sasuke pretty clearly. He was just standing, looked around to make sure he was alone, and then up at the moon.

It was the same as before; he just stood and stared. Naruto rolled his eyes. He had gone to the effort to break into the beach to look at the moon?

Sasuke stared, and stared. Then, he took off his shoes and socks. He unzipped his hoodie, letting it fall into the sand. He started to pull his shirt over his head.

Naruto’s eyes went wide and his heart began to pound, so loudly he feared Sasuke might hear it. He didn’t… Sasuke’s skin was pale in the moonlight. He was skinny, but not weak. In fact, he looked the opposite. Naruto saw all of this, took it in.

What he couldn’t take was when Sasuke’s hands went to his pants, undoing the button and Naruto had to turn away. He wasn’t supposed to be here, or be seeing this. Sasuke would be so mad if he knew Naruto was seeing this and Naruto’s face was burning.

His curiosity, however, was burning even more so. When he let himself look back, Sasuke was almost completely naked. It was as if he didn’t care at all. Sasuke stood, facing the moon, like he hadn’t shrugged off almost every layer. He stepped out of his black jeans, and his underwear was the same color. The nakedness didn’t matter to him, and he started walking towards the sea.

It mattered to Naruto, though, as he watched Sasuke go. His stomach was starting to do something funny, tightening with every slight sway of Sasuke’s hips. When he ran his fingers through his black hair, Naruto nearly winced.

Sasuke walked into the waves, not too far, but he seemed to kneel, letting the water reach his neck and below. His own second skin, washing over him. Naruto couldn’t see his expression, but he wanted to. Did the ocean own Sasuke like it owned him?

He was kneeling, and then he wasn’t, and then he was walking back to his clothes. Naruto began to blush again, peeking through his fingers. Sasuke seemed to consider them, tilting his head, and decided against it. He flopped down onto the sand. He moved.

It was this Naruto couldn’t bear. It was this he couldn’t look away from. Sasuke was wet all over, every inch of him kissed by the sea. Sand stuck to his body wherever it rubbed against him, and Sasuke was submitting, letting it wherever it wanted. Nature was having it’s way with him.

He ended up on his stomach for a minute or so, face close to the ground, and Naruto watched, biting his lip until it nearly bled. His stomach was getting on tighter still, and then Sasuke rolled over.

He was looking up at the moon again, clearly, but he did something strange. Sasuke arched his back, feet lift slightly off the ground so only his toes dug into the shore. He tilted his head back, the black curtain of hair falling away. His fingers dug into the sand at his sides.

It looked painful, how stretched he was. Like he was offering himself to the heavens. Sand was all over him, and Naruto’s eyes traced it’s path. Down Sasuke’s neck, over his chest, his stomach, and lower. That arch of his back, around his curves. His hipbones and up. The insides of his thighs.

And then he closed his eyes. And he opened his mouth. And Naruto couldn’t breathe.

Sasuke looked like he was feeling. Naruto had never seen him feel before, not really. It didn't seem like Sasuke let himself do that often, didn't give into sensation or emotion. But the cold of the ocean, the rough texture of the sand; now, Sasuke was feeling it. The salty air had the most of it. Sasuke was laying underneath it, bare. He was letting it touch him everywhere, and Naruto was suddenly so envious he felt sick.

He didn’t know how long it had been, how long he watched Sasuke feeling, but he was jolted out of some kind of trance when he stood up, shook off the sand, and grabbed his clothes. That Sasuke was gone, and the old one was back. He got dressed again, pulling the clothes over sandy skin. Then he turned, heading farther down the beach. Once he was far enough away, Naruto ran.

He ran through the trees, feeling nothing, to his bike, and then he rode that through the darkness as fast as he could. Naruto wasn’t thinking, he wasn’t thinking, he was riding. He was hopping as silently as he could up the steps, sneaking back into his aunt’s house. He was forcing himself into bed, staring at the ceiling, catching his breath.

Naruto hadn’t meant for that to happen. Sasuke hadn’t meant for him to see that. That. What was that? What had happened?

One time, when he had Kiba over to his house, Kiba showed him some videos. Naruto knew what porn was, knew that he wasn’t supposed to watch it or Iruka was to take his phone until he was 30. But Kiba’s phone was fair game. Naruto hadn’t really like the videos that much; they just weren’t for him.

But with Sasuke, it was different. Naruto was aching to know why it was different, why his stomach felt like this. He felt hot, uncomfortable, the way the porn was supposed to make him feel. Why couldn’t he get the image of Sasuke out of his head?

Not only could he not stop thinking about what he’d seen, he couldn’t stop adding to it. What if when Sasuke had opened his mouth, noise had escaped him? What would it sound like? When he slid his hands against himself, how did his skin feel? Slick? Soft? 

Naruto’s mouth felt dry. He twisted in his sheets, trying to ignore the reaction his body was having.

“The moaning, it’s supposed to be hot,” Kiba had told him, when Naruto asked why the girl in the porn was making exaggerated noises. He had shrugged. Just like before, it wasn’t for him. That kind of sex, it wasn’t for him.

Naruto knew hot things, knew hot people, but whatever want that was wrecking his body was a completely different animal.

It’s the heat , he thought absently. Blame it on the heat. But he knew the truth.

Sasuke, on the beach, dripping wet, sand on naked skin. That kind of sex. That’s the kind of sex he wanted.

And once he made the leap from wanting to be like Sasuke to just wanting Sasuke, everything was easier. A floodgate opened.

Naruto wanted to kiss Sasuke, hard, pressing him against a wall, tongue in his mouth, and he wanted Sasuke to kiss him back, too. He wanted Sasuke to kiss his mouth, then his neck, his collarbone, his chest, and down, down. He wanted to touch everywhere the sand touched, and he wanted Sasuke to moan while he did it. Most of all, he wanted Sasuke to say his name.

Naruto was breathing fast, heart rattling his chest and his body ached. It wanted to be pressed against another, but more than that, it craved release. He turned, face pressed into his pillow.

Before it even started, he knew he wasn’t going to last very long. Naruto wasn’t in bed, he was on the beach, and he didn’t care that he wasn’t wearing clothes, just like Sasuke hadn’t. And Sasuke was just like in his memory, back arched, but this time, he wasn’t staring up at the moon. He was looking up at Naruto, blushing. That’s what was making him feel. Naruto was making him feel. Naruto was the kind of sex he wanted, too.

Naruto turned, taking a huge bite of his pillow. Sasuke’s name was completely muffled, but he still felt it in his mouth and it nearly burnt his tongue. His chest heaved as he let himself come down slowly, and his eyes were wide.

Never in his life had he felt this way about someone. There were girls at school he thought were pretty, or guys in movies that were cute, but usually when he thought about sex, there wasn’t someone it was attached to. It wasn’t something he actually wanted.

By tomorrow night, Naruto would be back in the city, at home, but he probably wouldn’t be thinking about anything else soon. It would probably linger around his mind, occasionally screaming out for his attention. He’d probably think about it on purpose, too. At night. His face blazed in the darkness. Memories of his time here would often grow dull through the year, but this night would be vivid for a long while.

Naruto’s breathing had returned to a steady rate. It was only then he noticed. There was an slight emptiness in him. It felt like the town had changed. The carnival, Cobalt Beach, all of it. Oceanview was different. He washed his hands in the bathroom, took a long scalding shower, tried to sleep it away, but the change was irreversible. He knew why, too.

Naruto still loved the beach. He always would. But not with the same childlike wonder as before. See, he just couldn’t forgive it for touching Sasuke that way. He simply couldn’t.

Chapter Text

This time, this summer, standing square on the boardwalk in new orange sneakers that still smelled like the store, Naruto wasn’t going to assume Sasuke remembered him. That was the mistake he’d made before, at age 14 and 15.

When he thought about Sasuke, it was like when he and Iruka dumped out their whole box of photos on the floor to sort them out. Naruto could makes piles of moments with Sasuke in them. Sasuke smiling, Sasuke sighing, Sasuke shining in moonlight like it’s celestial brother. These memories; he could bury himself in their warmth, sleep through the winter. That’s kind of what he’d done anyway.

But it wasn’t fair of him to expect Sasuke had done the same. He had thought about it a few times; Sasuke, laying in his own bed, losing himself to dreams of Naruto… This wasn’t the case, not in reality. Naruto knew well that nobody was bound to his emotions but himself.

All of that said, if Sasuke didn’t remember him, it might be for the better. Thinking about the way he acted even just three years prior made his fingers twitch. It could be anywhere, anytime; remember that joke you told four years ago? And how nobody laughed? And you thought they didn’t hear it, so you told it again, but actually they just didn’t think it was funny?

The pure nausea that came from the experience of middle school was worse than what any carnival ride could give him. That’s not the first impression he’d been hoping to make, especially not on someone like Sasuke.

This time, at 16-years-old. This was his new first impression.

And because he was meeting Sasuke for the first time, he had to be strategic. No fumbled introductions or unruly blushing. Naruto was in control. He was restrained. He was cool.

...He was trying his best to be cool.

Admittedly, approaching someone he liked without making a fool of himself wasn’t his strong suit. It usually looked similar to a girl trying to escape a killer in a horror movie. The girl would scream, running down a hallway and trying every door to find them locked. Behind her, the murderer would slowly gain, machete in hand, inevitable.

Naruto would try so hard, straining to impress. He’d think he got it and then, right before the credits rolled on the conversation, he’d trip on his tongue and gut himself. A fatal wound, bleeding out onto the boardwalk.

He shook his head, ridding his mind of the thoughts. Not this year. It was mid-afternoon, and while it wasn’t nearly as hot as last year, the temperature was nothing to scoff at. The carnival was in full swing around him, but Naruto only had eyes for one attraction. His favorite one. Sasuke.

Naruto had had a growth spurt in the spring. He had a new shirt that Ino told him he looked good in. He’d made a few friends, Kiba and his buddies. He’d kissed someone. He’d won a race.

The distance between him and Sasuke was shrinking. Naruto wasn’t going to act like it was gone, especially because Sasuke was bound to have no idea who he was. Still, Naruto liked who he saw in the mirror sometimes. He’d stare at himself, and his reflection was a little closer to the smart, capable guy that Iruka had been telling him he was for years. Liking himself seemed to make other people like him, too. Hopefully the effect would work on Sasuke.

Alright, enough. He was going to do it. He was going to make Sasuke remember him.

“Hey,” he said, hands in his pockets.

Sasuke looked up, and there were bags under his eyes that Naruto hadn’t noticed before. This didn’t diminish his beauty in anyway. He looked like he was tired because the universe wouldn’t let him sleep; it missed him too much while he was away.

There was no recognition. That was okay.

“Hey,” Sasuke said back, and Naruto let his feet tap just three times. He felt around in his pocket, pulling out a ticket, and held it up. Sasuke took it.

Come here. I’ll show you how they fuck people over. Naruto could hear him saying that so clearly. Every word Sasuke said, he remembered. The stand was set up like it always was. The bottles were too close together, making it difficult to win. The second morning Naruto had gone to help out, Sasuke had shown him the order of colors he should do.

“Start with blue,” he’d said, putting it in front of him. “It’s the heaviest, so feel the weight and then throw it to the bottle closest to you. After that, purple. Then green, red…” Sasuke continued, lining the hoops up across the counter, dull after years of use. “Always do orange last. It’s the lightest.” He stepped back, letting Naruto lean in and look. The ten circles looked like the planets, he thought. Sasuke wielded the power to rearrange them.

It was kind of funny, how clear the memory was. For the boy who had put a tray of pizza rolls in the oven and then instantly forgotten about it, leaving them to sizzle and char for no less than seven hours, he remembered the order of rings very well.

Iruka had wanted to know how he could possibly forget them, for that many hours, wearing oven mitts like boxing gloves. Naruto just guessed his brain had gotten rid of some critical functions to make room for Sasuke.

That aside, even if he’d had to scrape that tray for an hour, at least he could ace this game. He picked up the blue ring, smooth, the same temperature as his skin. The heaviest. When he threw it this time he didn’t close his eyes. There wasn’t a doubt in his mind that hoop would find its mark.

Sasuke was watching him, watching his fingers brush over the rings where they laid before him. Naruto took longer than he needed to. It went purple, green, dark red, black, yellow, pink, white, light red and then dead last: orange. Naruto’s eyes were open for every single one, arm stretching forward and back. Bullseye. Ten bullseyes, to be exact.

And then, his hands went back to his pockets. Cool.

He was sitting up, next to Naruto. He squinted, at the bottles and rings, and then at the boy who’d just gotten ten for ten without blinking an eye.

“How did you know the order?” was all he said, staring at the middle bottle. Blue on the bottom, orange on the top.

“You showed me,” Naruto said honestly. “Last year. I wanted to know your secret and you told me.”

I told you,” Sasuke repeated, still looking, like he wasn’t exactly shocked, but had encountered something surely improbable. and then brushed his bangs out of his face. “I don’t remember that at all. I don’t remember ever telling someone that.”

Naruto’s heart pressed against his chest. Did that mean he was the only one Sasuke had ever told? Sasuke hopped over the counter, collecting the rings, and laid them out again. Blue to orange. A map of a solar system, one only he and Sasuke could read.

He wanted to stay, wanted to see if he could make the impression he left on Sasuke as deep as he could, but down the boardwalk he could hear Sakura calling his name. There had been promises made between her and him and Choji, something about a hotdog eating contest. Naruto sighed.

“I’m Naruto, by the way. And I remember you. Sasuke.” Sasuke looked at him again, eyes blank, but that was okay.

“I have no idea why you remember me,” he said, and that was the only thing that threatened to turn Naruto’s face pink. He had plenty to remember about Sasuke. “You won. You want a prize?”

Naruto examined his options, bobbing in the thick ocean air. He thought about his frog. “Nah.” Sasuke raised his eyebrows, hopping up to sit on the counter again.

“You don’t want anything?”

“No,” Naruto told him, “I just like playing.”

“That’s a first. You’re just really into this game, then?”

It came out of his mouth before he could stop it. “It’s not the game I’m into.”

Sasuke’s eyes widened, a tiny amount; still, it was something. Naruto tilted his head slightly but kept his gaze steady, blue waves crashing against the dark jetty. His eyes flicked to Sasuke’s mouth, his lips parting, about to say something.

“...Oh.”

And it took everything in Naruto’s power to keep his feet still. He took a few steps back and then turned. “Later, Sasuke.” No response, at first, and then-

“Later.”

Naruto waited until he was out of view of Sasuke, and then he let his feet go wild, racing with a thump-thump-thump down the boardwalk. That went so much better than he could have ever expected. His skin burnt; he tried to calm down, but it was hard. Sasuke had looked at him a way he’d never seen before. Surprise, but not distaste.

Oh, Naruto was totally going to see him later, just like they’d agreed, he totally was. He was going to make Sasuke look like that again, as many times as he could. He’d draw him out, as far as Sasuke would let him.

Choji won the eating contest. Of course he did, Naruto wasn’t even sure why the contest had been called in the first place. They sat in Shikamaru’s backyard while his mom stood at the grill, cooking up hotdogs and coughing at the smoke. Ino and Shikamaru sat in the grass, eating one each like normal people. Naruto, Sakura and Choji had set themselves to a much more difficult task.

Naruto tapped out after only five. He could feel them tumbling around inside him, thumping around like the time he’d accidentally put a baseball in the dryer along with his pants. He fell out of his chair like he’d been shot, crumpling on the ground.

Sakura called him a bitch but then was right next to him, groaning. Choji didn’t seem to have any issues with it at all. He sat next to them, barefoot, patting their heads. “It’s okay, guys,” he consoled them. “I knew you couldn’t do it.”

Naruto hadn’t wanted to do anything after that except lay on the couch. He took a phone call from his dad, told him he was doing great, disguising his voice, and threw the phone on the ground once he was done. “This fucking sucks,” he moaned, holding his stomach. Shikamaru rolled his eyes.

Naruto was taking up most of the space on the couch, long and green. Green seemed to be a thing in Shikamaru’s house. Sakura was bent over the armrest. Choji sat on the floor next to Shikamaru, completely unaffected. Ino was rummaging through Shikamaru’s kitchen for food that wasn’t hot dogs.

When she came back in, Naruto was still complaining, so she ran across the living room and cannonballed right onto his stomach.

“Ino!” he yelled, as soon as he caught his breath. The demon girl was still sitting on his stomach, cackling, and he tried to push her off. “I could have thrown up on you! In fact, come here-” Ino shrieked as Sakura pushed her hands behind her back and pressed her forward. Naruto opened his mouth wide and retched.

“Here come the hotdogs,” warned Sakura.

Shikamaru told them if they didn’t shut the fuck up his mom would come in here and shove a swiffer so far up their asses they’d be tasting soap for days. That made them settle down pretty efficiently. They were still tired and bored, though, tangled up in the couch. Sakura threw a pillow at Shikamaru.

“Play some video games, entertain us.”

He did, sitting up and putting a disk into the console. It was a first-person shooter, and Shikamaru was good at it. He could probably rank pretty high, if he wanted to. If he tried. For now, though, the group of friends just watched him lazily, watching blood splatter, listening to the A/C whirr.

It was a nice constant sound, like floating on still water. Or at least, it would be, if Shikamaru would stop pausing the game every time his phone buzzed. The little clink of a bell would sound, and Shikamaru would reach.

They’d seen it before; Ino called it classical conditioning. “The alert rings, he picks up the phone as quick as he can, and he’s rewarded with a text back. It’s science. You think it’s just a snapchat conversation but someone’s training him.”

“Get off your fucking phone,” said Naruto, throwing another pillow, “who are you even talking to?”

“A girl,” said Choji, and if Shikamaru’s eyes could speak they’d be screaming. Which is what everyone else was doing now. Screaming.

“A girl!?” shrieked Ino. “A girl? Who? Does she go to our school? Who is it, oh my god?”

“Shut up, fuck off, you guys don’t know her.”

“So you admit it then? You admit it’s a girl?”

“Fuck off, yeah.”

“I thought you were going to die a virgin,” said Ino and everyone else nodded.

“I’m not even- I don’t want to talk about it.” Shikamaru put his phone face down and sat on top of it. If he thought that was going to stop anyone from trying to grab it, he was wrong.

Naruto watched Ino and Shikamaru scuffle on the carpet, Ino crying that she had to make sure he wasn’t doing dirty things and Shikamaru grappling for the phone with primal desperation. There didn’t seem to be any clear winner currently, so Naruto might tune back in when victory was assured.

If Naruto died right then and there, he thought, he’d die a virgin. If the roof caved in or the couch ate him, or if he was drinking soda and Sakura made him laugh so hard he choked, he’d be laid to rest without ever getting laid.

His year hadn’t been completely devoid of action. Kiba knew everybody and everyone knew him, but there were only a few people he actually called his friends. Naruto was one of them, always beaming, always running. Shino, an intimidating boy wearing dark glasses and a big jacket, who ended up just being a huge nerd about bugs. And Hinata, a quiet, smart girl with big grey eyes.

“She kinda likes you,” Kiba told him one day, nudging him, and Naruto turned. Hinata was sitting a few desks down from his, gently trying to help a classmate with their chemistry homework. If a girl had ever liked him before, Naruto had never known it. Maybe this was the first time.

The night it happened, Naruto had known it was going to happen. He pulled his best sweatshirt on, and the jeans with holes Iruka hated so much. “Hinata is gonna be there,” Kiba said when Naruto met up with him. His expression was saying much more than his mouth did. Grin, sharp-toothed. Naruto looked back, free from double meaning. Smile, uncertain.

Naruto didn’t remember most of the party. It was another memory of his life outside of Oceanview that faded while he was here. Or maybe it’s because he drank something. Not a lot, or Iruka would have actually throttled him, but enough that he felt fuzzy.

Mostly he sat on a couch, watching the other guests, bouncing off each other, occasionally sticking. Kiba had wandered, probably to do something that people would talk about at the school the next Monday. It was loud, a loud that was inside himself. Like putting your head underwater in the bath while the faucet was still running. It thumped and pounded and surrounded him.

The first time Hinata said hi, he didn’t even hear her. She waved a hand hesitantly, to get his attention, and she talked and he talked but it was loud . Naruto’s words only joined that noise; he didn’t know what they were.

The only thing worse than the noise was the heat; it wasn’t anything like summer in Oceanview. It was a flat heat, devoid of variation or breeze. It was an oven. Why were they all just fucking sitting in a oven? He wished he was home, with Iruka, listening to his old person music. Whenever Naruto wanted to say something, Iruka would just turn the music down to give him room.

Hinata turned away for a moment, and Naruto’s breath caught. Hinata’s hair was short and black. Not black like obsidian, more black like the crayon in the box. He’d noticed that, but never that her hair stuck up in the back.

His thoughts drifted. Back in August, he’d never felt about someone the way he felt about Sasuke. Now, half a year later, that was still the same.

Hinata turned around, and they said a few more things, and then they both leaned forward. For one second, he kissed her, and it was… just alright.

After that, he closed his eyes and he was kissing Sasuke. Putting his hands in Sasuke’s hair, smooth under his fingers. He didn’t know what Sasuke tasted like, but he’d had plenty of time to think about it, so he pretended. In elementary school, his teachers said he had an overactive imagination with disdain. In that moment, with his heart pounding hard, Naruto thought it was serving him pretty well.

At home, laying in his bed, however, Naruto felt like absolute shit. Kissing, the act itself, felt good, but opening his eyes to see Hinata’s face, so hopeful? He completely closed up. Doors slammed down around him, blocking out Hinata and Kiba and the party. His tongue felt heavy. He didn’t like alcohol.

Naruto had expected his misery had cooked him to his melting point. Iruka would walk in to find a puddle where his son should be. This wasn’t the case. “Don’t yell at me please,” he said softly, still wearing his jeans. Iruka didn’t. He sat on the floor and leaned against Naruto’s bed.

“I’m stupid,” he had told his dad, his thoughts hammering away. “I ruined something just like I ruin everything. Nobody at school likes me.” Iruka told him he liked Naruto enough for a million schools and there wasn’t anything Naruto couldn’t fix.

He told Ino this story, as she’d been kicked outside for excessively fighting in Shikamaru’s house and almost breaking his phone. “Come on, Naruto,” she said, pulling him outside. “Come gossip with me.” Sasuke’s name was swapped for a different name, but otherwise, he spilled onto the grass the events as they occurred. Ino listened, thinking, knees pulled up to her chest.

“And that was my Sophomore year. Kind of, like, there was other stuff, but… Yeah, it was weird.”

“Did you turn her down?”

“Yeah. I told Kiba to tell her I didn’t like her that way.”

“And she was cool?”

“Yeah! Hinata was a little disappointed, but I think she actually liked Kiba more. We’re friends now.”

“That’s nice.” Ino tilted her head, and then unfolded onto the lawn, long and slender. Naruto laid back, too, though it wasn’t nearly as graceful.

“You probably think it’s dumb,” Naruto said.

“You know,” Ino told him, “I spend all my time at Shikamaru’s and Sakura’s because whenever I go home, I start a fight with my mom. Like, a screaming fight. It’s all we do. I don’t like being there.”

That was all she said, and they both looked up at the sky. Cloudless. Neither of them were perfect when it came to other people. No one was.

Naruto tried to keep this in mind when he went to see Sasuke. Just because he’d didn’t immediately shoot his chances with the one person he was most anxious to please on day one didn’t mean he wouldn’t do something dumb soon. But, he was working on forgiving himself, for the dumb things, and on liking himself even more.

“Sasuke. Can I help you with set up?” Naruto had on the same ripped jeans he’d worn to the party; in the mornings, the heat wasn’t so bad.

Sasuke was still wearing his stormy outfit, black shoes, shirt, pants, hoodie. He was just unlocking the cabinets, so Naruto leaned over the counter to look at him. “I mean, I’m only asking because you let me help last year.”

The hands holding the key to the lock stopped. Sasuke tilted his head upwards, to where Naruto was leaning, and when he stood up, they were standing much closer than they were before.

“You claim to remember a lot of things I don’t,” Sasuke said lowly, keys clinking as he folded his arms. Naruto felt a rope being tied around his middle, his breathing made more difficult. He’d never been almost nose to nose with Sasuke. In terms of height, they were nearly evenly matched.

Naruto didn’t want to back down now. Machinery clunked in the distance as he thought about what he was going to say. “It’s not my fault you don’t remember me.” He swayed a little closer.

Sasuke’s hands clenched around the keys, and bent again. His face was hidden. “I feel like I would have remembered someone like you.”

Naruto jumped up so he was sitting on the counter. It was easier to flirt when he didn’t have to look at Sasuke; that’s usually what caused his tongue to trip. “Someone like me, huh? What does that mean?” he wondered out loud. Yes, it was much more straightforward to direct this to the wind. “Someone charismatic? Someone attractive?”

Sasuke stood, and Naruto could see out of the corner of his eye Sasuke’s hand, placed on the counter. He leaned on it, so he almost touched Naruto’s back but not quite. His voice was quiet; a lower volume for closer proximities. “I was going to say someone annoying.”

Naruto wondered if that was said to deter him or if it was part of the game. “I offered to help and now you’re being mean to me!”

“If you don’t like the working conditions, just quit,” was all he said, heaving the boxes of prizes up one by one. Naruto jumped over the counter, to the compartment with the bottles and rings. When he held out his hand for the key, Sasuke tossed it to him.

“Put the pegs really close together,” he reminded. Naruto could see it, pale fingers picking up the bottles one by one, placing them with such precision, like a game of chess. Or Naruto thought that’s what it looked like; he had never played chess, even though Shikamaru offered to teach him.

“That’s how they fuck you over, right? Make them too close together, so it looks easy, but it’s actually pretty difficult.”

Sasuke paused from his work, arms filled with stuffed foxes. “Yeah. They told me when I got this job, how to do it. But all the games here are rigged anyway.” Somewhere, farther into the carnival, the carousel started running. The music swam with the wind, surrounding them in symphony.

Naruto had come to the correct conclusion; looking at Sasuke was the most difficult part of the whole arrangement. Even if Sasuke was just working silently, unaware of his audience, every time his arms lifted enough to reveal that strip, pale skin and hipbones, Naruto twitched.

He had seen Sasuke almost naked. It had been unintentional, but yeah, he had. Not in an walked in on him in a dressing room way, either. More like walking in on him while he was seducing the cosmos. Call it what you want, but Naruto had seen everything.

This wasn’t something he was going to let Sasuke know. How would he begin to do that? There’s no way to casually tell someone they might have very well been your sexual awakening. No. Letting himself check Sasuke out every once in a while was fine, but anything more than that and he would be tinged red.

It probably felt like longer than it was, but soon, everything was finished. They both stood behind the counter, under stuffed animal shade.

“This stand isn’t very popular,” remarked Naruto.

Sasuke sighed. “I’m tucked at the very end of the boardwalk. I don’t care about looking inviting either, so that doesn’t help.”

In Naruto’s opinion, Sasuke looked very inviting.

“But I showed up. That counts for something.”

“You snuck into the carnival early and forced your assistance on me. I don’t get tickets for that.”

“Maybe you don’t get tickets, but you do get to hang out with me, which is pretty fucking great.”

Sasuke narrowed his eyes. “Pretty fucking great? High praise for some goofy-looking kid wearing jeans in August.” Naruto looked down at himself.

“Shit… I thought I looked cool. This is my one cool outfit,” he admitted. The carnival had opened and people were filtering in down the walk, but he and Sasuke were separated from it all. “I went to one party this year,” Naruto told him, sitting on the counter, facing Sasuke, “and it was horrible! But I wore this, and people liked it.”

Sasuke’s first response was to give him a look. The look teachers give students who over explain missing homework; why do you think I care? But then, he softened slightly. “I’ve been to horrible parties.”

“Yeah?”

“Someone I know got shitfaced and almost drowned in the pool. An ambulance came.

Naruto gawked. “What?! Okay, I take it back, my experience wasn’t that bad.”

“What happened to you?”

He opened his mouth, closed it. I got buzzed , he thought, I kissed a girl and pretended it was you. “I just got buzzed and I didn’t like it very much. I barely knew anyone at the party, and the people I did know… They, just, wanted something from me. It was just like those videos teachers make you watch in middle school,” he joked. “I… what’s the past tense of succumb? Succame?”

“Succumbed.”

“I succumbed to my greatest enemy. Peer pressure; coming to shove your face in a pile of cocaine and get you teenage pregnant.”

Sasuke smiled, the second time Naruto had ever seen it. That gentle curl. “Are you telling me you got teenage pregnant at this party?”

“No!” Naruto said with shock, “but I did do coke.” Sasuke laughed. It was a full smile, now, with a little bit of teeth showing, and that was a first. Naruto never wanted it to leave. “I’m kidding. About the drugs, not the pregnancy.”

“Glad to hear it,” Sasuke said, and the sun was outlining him in gold. “Imagine, handling all these stuffed animals alone. What would I do if my most worthless assistant had to take maternity leave?”

They talked a little longer after that, but Naruto was thinking about Sasuke saying that for the rest of the day. His most worthless assistant wasn’t a term of endearment by any means, but Sasuke had said it with a slight fondness. There was no bite to it.

And it was like that. He played arcade games with Choji and Shikamaru, but he kept messing up because he was distracted. Always in the back of his mind, curled in the pink folds, was Sasuke. Shikamaru told him he must have water in his head from the beach, and Naruto didn’t feel inclined to correct him.

The third day rolled around, and Naruto was back. “Back to torment me,” Sasuke tacked onto the end, rolling his eyes, but Naruto knew by the circles under his eyes he was just tired.

“Why are you so sure I’m here to rain on your parade?” Sasuke held out his hands, gesturing to himself, to black on black on black on black. “...to parade on your rain?”

Sasuke sighed, pulling out his keys, falling into routine until Naruto held out his hand.

“Let me do it all. I bet I can, without your directions.”

“A baby could do this without my directions.”

“Then you have nothing to worry about.” A pause, and then the keys were forked over. Naruto set to work.

The main colors of the stand were red and yellow, with white string lights hanging around the inside and from the roof. It was by no means the flashiest; only a small structure with the counter, the compartments underneath and then a big pedestal to set up the bottles on. That was painted with stripes, green and pink, lengthways. Almost any paint was chipping, showing the wood under it. It looked like a carnival stand who was tired of its job. To be fair, Sasuke was a carnival worker who looked tired of doing his job, too.

The last thing, which were somehow magically intact, were the tall mirrors. One on each side that were normal, and then a third in the middle, the kind that warped your appearance, made it bulge and twist.

Naruto had finally pulled out the cardboard box of bottles, and was arranging them, when he saw something that nearly made him stop. He was standing, his orange self probably clashing horribly with the green-pink pedestal, and Sasuke was behind him, sitting on the counter like always.

What made his heart leap was this: when the mirror fell into his sight, Sasuke was looking at him. Not making eye contact through the reflection; he was watching Naruto work. Sasuke didn’t know he’d been caught.

He was intent, black eyes paying attention. And it was a different kind of attention, too. Nothing like how he’d stared, trying to mess Naruto up during the ring toss years ago. Naruto dropped his jacket off his shoulder and then stripped it off his arms, pretending it was on a whim. Sasuke watched all this, too, with that new attention.

Sasuke didn’t call him kid anymore, either.

Running off to meet his friends was hard to do, but he propelled the energy thrumming through him into the experience. Even if his heart was somewhere else, he couldn’t forget his loyalty to the people who started it all.

When Sakura went on roller coasters, she didn’t scream going over the big hill. She laughed instead. Ino would scream, but the exhilarated kind, hands thrown up in the air, tiny shirt nearly blown off. Choji would grab the bar, knuckles white, teeth clench. Shikamaru would fold his arms, like it was a car ride to the city. Naruto liked all of their reactions. He liked all of them.

Once night time rolled around, he was compelled, though. Back to Sasuke.

“Hey. You should show me how you win this game again.”

Sasuke’s eyelashes cast a shadow on his face. His legs were folded, no phone in sight. The lights were little suns. “Easily.”

“This time, get them onnnn…” Naruto slipped inside the booth, relishing that he could, that only he was the only guest that could. “This one. All of them.”

“Like I said. Easily.”

“Then show me.”

“Got a ticket for my trouble?” Naruto flicked it at him, tongue stuck out. Sasuke squared up, rings spread before him like throwing stars. His aim was always precise, his execution cutthroat.

And it was blue first. Purple, green, dark red, black, yellow, pink, white, light red. Nine perfect shots, about to be ten, and Naruto loved watching him do this.

Then Sasuke’s expression changed. From focus, to… Naruto followed his gaze.

Sasuke, in the mirror. And it was the same way Naruto had caught Sasuke watching him. However Naruto had looked when Sasuke was in his sight, Sasuke had now seen it for himself. Their eyes met. A pale hand wobbled.

An orange ring thumped against the ground.

Naruto’s head swung, to Sasuke in person, and he didn’t understand what was going on. Sasuke losing something was so rare Naruto was beginning to think it was extinct. He was surprised too, obviously. But Sasuke looked lost. He looked… angry.

His face was crumpled, sight never wavering from that orange ring. His hand was still raised and the fingers twitched slightly. Sasuke’s shield, it twitched, too. His control. And Naruto didn’t know what to do.

“Sasuke…” he said finally, and then tsked. “Don’t lose on purpose to make me feel better.” He collected the rings, setting them in a clattering pile. “I mean, I know I’m an idiot, but don’t cater to me.”

“I didn’t lose on purpose,” Sasuke told him, and his voice was hushed but his control was back. His face was put back together.

“Did you forget how to play?” Naruto teased, and he got a glare in return, but it was like the glare Shikamaru gave him when he won at a card game; no harm, no foul, just a reaction. “Can I teach you how?”

“I taught you how first,” Sasuke grumbled, but Naruto was already climbing over the counter to stand next to Sasuke.

“Blue is first,” he said, low, and Sasuke rolled his eyes again. He picked it up, raising his hand. It still shook, barely noticeable. Naruto stepped closer, reached up, so slowly, like they were standing at the bottom of the sea. He slipped his hand over Sasuke’s.

The second ring of the night fell, because Sasuke flinched so violently his whole body shuddered. His limbs had moved like they’d been struck by lightning, free of his control. A gasp escaped him, loud, hoarse, and he trembled.

Naruto’s jaw dropped, letting words fly from his mouth in a stream, a bandage to wrap Sasuke back together. “Holy shit, Sasuke, I’m sorry, fuck, I didn’t even think, shit, are you-”

Sasuke turned around, a blur of midnight in Naruto’s world. Naruto didn’t get a chance to look at his face before it was pressed against his shoulder, and Sasuke’s hands were gripping his hoodie so severely Naruto thought it’d be ripped from his body. And then there was no movement, just breathing, Sasuke’s hot against him through fabric.

Naruto didn’t know what to do about this either, but he had to try. He ignored the fact that his heart was beating at breakneck speed and Sasuke could probably feel it pounding against him. He brought his arms up, around Sasuke. Gently, as he was afraid of electrocuting him again, but it didn’t have the same effect. It was okay.

Naruto didn’t know how long he stood there, holding Sasuke in his arms. It was getting colder, the night deeper, and them deeper into it. There wasn’t a good way to end a moment like this, a good way to look someone in the eye again. Naruto knew he couldn’t ask what any of this had been about; Sasuke would never tell him.

“I want to see you tomorrow.”

That’s what Naruto said, when they had abruptly untangled and the counter was between them again. The blue hoop stayed on the ground; Naruto didn’t think either of them wanted to touch it.

“Outside the carnival, I mean. I leave tomorrow, back to the city, but I have some time before that.”

Sasuke was looking at his hands, folded on the counter. “So, you think something like that happens once and I owe you?” His voice was cold.

“No, I just- That’s not what I meant at all.”

“I’m busy tomorrow,” Sasuke said, and he wouldn’t look up so Naruto knew it was a lie. That stung. It stung so much worse than anything else Sasuke had said, more than all of it combined. And Naruto didn’t even understand why the night had taken this turn.

“I just don’t want you to forget me.” You always forget me.

Sasuke huffed, like a laugh but not the funny kind. “I don’t think I’ll forget someone like you. To be honest, I don’t know why you’re so dead set on me.” Naruto swallowed. Maybe if he was older, he would know what to say.

“I mean, yeah, who knows,” Naruto said, and he laughed in that not funny way, “maybe I’ll forget you.” He didn’t mean it, he didn’t, but Sasuke had lied, and it hurt. It hurt, but Naruto didn’t mean it.

Sasuke nodded, and then was silent, still. He couldn’t fool Naruto with that act anymore; only a minute ago, they’d been pressed together, and Naruto had never felt something more alive.

Then he reached up, a shadow growing taller in afternoon light. In his hands, brought to chest level: a frog.

“As payment. For helping. Don’t want to owe you anything.”

Naruto blinked, and then he laughed, real. “A frog?”

“It looks like you.”

A grin, lighting up the dark, crescent moon. “You’ve used that line on me, asshole.”

Sasuke hummed, returned the frog, and then took down a snake, curled around itself. Some of the scales were glittery, but as Naruto took it from him, it was still soft. The eyes were slits, but glinted gold, friendly.

“And this is my payment?”

Sasuke shrugged, brushed his hair from his face, still couldn’t meet Naruto’s eyes. “It’s something to remember me by until next time.”

For someone so smart, Naruto thought later, laying in bed, that was the stupidest thing he’d ever heard. Like he needed something to remember Sasuke by, like he’d ever forget Sasuke until the day he died. Maybe not even then.

The snake was having the breath squeezed from it, pressed to Naruto’s chest so hard it hurt. Sasuke had touched him, grabbed onto him because it was torture not to. No two people had ever fit together so well before. Like the tide rolling in across the shore; it was in their nature to meet, to feel. I was born to hold him, Naruto thought, eyes fluttering shut.

Sasuke, I was born to hold you.

Chapter Text

“If you don’t think you can fucking handle this, you better get the fuck out. We don’t take kindly to pussies in these parts. This isn’t a game, Naruto. This isn’t- Wait, look at me, don’t laugh, this isn’t a game .”

It was hard not to crack up, when Sakura was a mere three inches from his face, eyes blown, hissing through her teeth. Naruto had fallen down while pretending he was getting choked by his vest to make Choji laugh, and now Team Leader Sakura was leaning over him where he laid, like the grim reaper stealing a soul.

“I get it, I’m just kidding.” She seemed unconvinced. “Stop yelling, Sakura, you spit on my face.”

“Call me Captain Haruno.”

Naruto rolled his eyes. “You spit on my face, Captain Haruno.”

Sakura held out her hand to him and pulled him from the floor. She’d been kidding. Mostly. Laser tag seemed to be a pretty big deal in Oceanview.

Naruto had never been to the Lazer Fun Zone before with all his friends, but he had played it before. They rode their bikes down into town, kicking up dust, and right on the corner of 14th and Palm was a building that Naruto had never noticed before.

It gave him the sense of a building that used to be hard to miss, but the wind was always heavy with salt and sand, and that would dull down even the most obnoxious paint jobs. The bright red exterior was now maroon, and the Z in Lazer was a lightning bolt, that used to be a blinding yellow. Most of that had been chipped away. It reminded Naruto of the ring toss booth.

The inside, though, lived up to the cheesy name. It was, admittedly, a fun zone. The front portion was all arcade games, in long lines of machines each trying to be heard above the other. The windows were covered up with thick fabric, and the orange and green checkered carpet glowed under the blacklight.

It was a mini Oceanview Carnival, a bite-sized one to tide him over while he was waiting hungrily for the real one.

The real reason they were there, though, was to play easily the most high stakes laser tag game of his life.

He pulled the straps on his vest tight, the sensors on his chest blinking. It was a game he enjoyed, because it was like entering a video game. Naruto tended to be wired anyway. He hadn’t grown out of it, even now, at age 17. No actual caffeine was needed for Naruto to act like it had been injected straight into his bloodstream. In fact, he was banned from drinking coffee.

“I’d call him a ping pong ball for how much he bounces off the walls,” said Ino earlier, “but I wouldn’t want to insult the ball’s intelligence.” He’d beaned her in the head with a frisbee later that day, so they were even.

“I’m glad we can finally play,” Sakura said to him, adjusting her own vest, plastic gun hanging from a bungee cord, bumping her leg. “When we had five, no way, but now with six, we can have two teams of three!”

And that brought Naruto to the one thing that wasn’t excited about this evening. Sai.

Naruto depended on Oceanview. He got through some of the most difficult pinches of the year, whether academically or socially, by thinking about the one week when all that shit would magically disappear from his track record. He depended on it because it was predictable. He’d see the same people, do the same things. Only one wild card was allowed, and that spot was reserved for Sasuke.

And the summer had seemed like it was going to be reliable. Iruka dropped him off, worried like always, stalling in the driveway, making sure Naruto had everything he needed. Then, once his dad’s old car had rattled away into the distance, Naruto ignored all his warnings about wearing a helmet and hopped on his bike.

As he’d gotten older, the ride to Sakura seemed shorter, but it never went unappreciated by him. He’d see people step out of their houses to grab the paper on the step, and then retreat back inside, not even taking a moment to turn and face the sun. Naruto couldn’t understand that, but also couldn’t blame them. If they never left Oceanview, they might never know that city air tastes completely different, like exhaust pipes and exhaustion. They might never know that it doesn’t get dark where Naruto is from, and there are no stars in his sky.

It was the same as always; dump his bike, jump up the steps, probably get hit in the face by a wind chime. Sakura would hug him, but he was taller now and her arms would stretch in the short sleeves of her band t-shirt over his shoulders.

She’d pull on her shoes, drag her bike across the grass and they were off. Predictable. Naruto yelled into the wind, and his eyes would sting, and an old woman walking a tiny dog would glare at him. Again, predictable.

What wasn’t predictable was pulling up to Shikamaru’s house and finding four people instead of three.

“Naruto!” called Ino, and her flip flops slapped against the bottom of her feet as she ran over to greet him. “God, your shirt is ugly,” but she hugged him hard.

“Who…?”

Ino turned, arms still around him, looking back at the lawn. “Oh, that’s Sai. Sai! This is Naruto, the guy we were talking about. Come say hi!”

Naruto did not like Sai.

He glanced over to where Sai was talking to Ino. She was the one who introduced him to the group, the one who liked him best. They seemed to get along pretty well.

Sai caught his eye and smiled and Naruto did not like him. Part of Naruto didn’t like him because he had black eyes and hair to match, which made him seem like a bargain bin Sasuke. He didn’t like him because he could tell Sai’s smile was plastered on, fake. It made him uncomfortable; why didn’t he see what everyone else did? He just seemed like a dick to Naruto. He didn’t even have a bike; he drove there. How was Naruto supposed to trust someone who didn’t even have a fucking bike?

For now, though, for the sake of this game, Naruto would work with him. They were on the same team, with Sakura as their chief. Shikamaru was leading the other team, looking utterly bored but also very cool. Choji was next to him, arms crossed, probably trying to convince him to quit smoking again. Naruto could faintly hear it. “I know you keep saying you’re not going to die, but I’m just telling you, the dangers of nicotine are…”

They’d come to an agreement on the conditions for the game while playing skee-ball, waiting for the people before them to finish up.

“I think the winners kill the losers,” offered Sakura.

Naruto nodded. “Yeah, that sounds good.”

Ino rolled her eyes, eyelashes nearly reaching her eyebrows. “Okay. Does anyone have a real suggestion?”

“Losers have to pull all of their teeth out and eat them.”

“That’s horrifying. Sakura isn’t allowed to share anymore.”

“How about,” began Shikamaru, “the losers wave up their right to be mad after having a prank pulled on them.”

“And the prank is being mercilessly attacked with water guns by the winning team.”

Naruto was appalled. “And you’re not even allowed to get revenge? That’s brutal.”

“No, pulling out your teeth is brutal,” grumbled Sakura. “This is bullshit.”

“Are you really that sure you’re going to win?” asked Choji, examining his fingernails.

And then it was really on. Each team was absolutely sure of their victory, and would do (almost) anything to secure it. Naruto was going to work together with Sai, even though he was quiet and creepy and he closed his eyes when he smiled but not in the friendly way like Choji. Naruto clenched his hands on his gun. He would try to work together.

Which, as he expected, was easier said than done. Naruto realized the flaw in their team much too late for them to fix it; all three of them were too headstrong. Sai was determined to slink off on his own, to claim his own victories. Sakura wanted to be strategic and decisive, but she also wanted to be in charge and give directions. Naruto wanted to run around everywhere, shooting everything and nothing and hoping for the best. This was not the best mix.

In comparison, as Naruto ran in circles to the futuristic music and ducked behind walls with glow in the dark aliens painted on them, he could see the other team being a team.

Shikamaru held one of the the fortresses, acting as their sniper. He stayed at the top, watching as Naruto and his team ran around below them. Whenever Naruto was hit for what seemed like no reason, he knew it was Shikamaru.

Trying to take out Shikamaru might have been a good idea, if Choji hadn’t been assigned to the area around the fortress. Want to get to Shikamaru? You’d have to go through Choji, and you couldn’t go through Choji.

Ino ran around wherever, a silent killer. Where Naruto might try to outrun his assailant, Ino would duck behind a corner, wait for the opposition to pass her, and then shoot them in the back. She’d laugh, like it was the funniest thing she’d ever seen, and then she was gone.

It was stupid, how skilled those three were at this game. Did they practice? Did they go to some laser tag bootcamp?

They won, obviously. It didn’t matter by how much, but it was enough to make Naruto scowl at the trio. They didn’t look surprised at the outcome at all. Shikamaru even yawned. “Bad things come in threes,” Naruto told Ino pointedly, pulling off his vest, and she told him apparently losers do too.

They left the night at that. Sakura invited Naruto over to watch a movie on their new big television and eat a popsicle. Shikamaru and Choji were going to ride with Ino to her mom’s house, so she could pick up some stuff, and then probably back to Choji’s. Sai walked to his car.

“You aren’t mad?” Naruto asked Sakura. He said it quickly, so he could lick up the juice that was melting from his cherry popsicle and threatening to drip onto his fingers.

“No, not really. I mean, I like to win, but I just like having fun.” Sakura’s face scrunched up. “Aw, fuck, brain freeze. Fuck.” She wiggled in her seat. “Nooo, I hate these.”

Naruto wanted to say something, about Sai and how he’d insisted on going off on his own. Everything he’d ever said to Naruto seemed a little bit mean. Naruto felt like Sai was his understudy, and was just waiting for Naruto to slip up so he could take his place. Their team would be better off without him… Then, he imagined how it would feel if Sai did the same thing.

“Ino,” he’d say, “I think we’d be better off without Naruto. He’s a little stupid, and hyperactive. He’s only here for one week in a year anyway.” That would kill Naruto… He decided to keep his mouth shut.

Instead, he flipped over, so his feet were on the headrest and his head hung down. He pulled on the ends of his hair; longer this summer than he’d ever had it before, but just as messy. He liked it at this length, so it fell in his eyes.

“Why are you sitting like that?” Naruto held the popsicle upright above him, letting the juice fall into his mouth in drops. “If you stain my carpet I’m not going to your funeral.”

“Harsh.” He sat up.

“You know what we never talk about? But like, we should be talking about?” Naruto shook his head slightly. At this point, his popsicle was melting at a rate that he should just bite into it. His teeth hurt, but it was the right thing to do. “We never talk about your love life.”

Naruto’s stomach clenched. “We never talk about my love life because I don’t have one.”

“No, I don’t believe that. Even a lack of something is still something. Are you meaning to tell me that you’ve never had a crush on someone?”

He didn’t like this line of questioning. He thought he’d gotten out of it, jumped through every hoop placed by the nosy Ino, but now he had Sakura to answer to. “Well, what, do you have a crush on someone?”

Sakura had finished her popsicle and was chewing on the stick. “Yeah.”

“Really? Who?”

“Ino.” Naruto whipped around to look at her. She shrugged. “I don’t know, man, it was pretty obvious to me.

Naruto thought about it, and he didn’t have to think very long, but still he was confused. “I thought girls were just like that anyway. Like, hugging all the time and borrowing clothes and going to photo booths at the mall. How do you know if it’s romantic or if it’s just someone being girly?”

Sakura looked at him, an ancient tired look. “If you ever figure it out, please tell me.”

They talked about Ino a little longer, because Naruto was interested now. Whenever one of his Oceanview friends confided in him, he paid rapt attention. Knowing them, their lives; another thing he wouldn’t take for granted.

What he didn’t realize was that he was digging himself into a bigger hole with this whole love life thing. Once the conversation about Ino dulled, Sakura’s emerald eyes were flashing, a forest fire.

“So, I shared. Now you. Who do you like? You have to tell me.” He’d walked right over a pitfall and expected it to hold his weight.

Naruto pointed in Sakura’s face, who had leaned in closer to guilt him. He’d gotten himself into this; he’d get himself out. “I don’t have to tell you jack shit about him.”

“So it’s a him, then.”

Naruto was bad at this.

“Okay, look, I can tell you about him, but I don’t want to say his name. It’s… embarrassing, okay?” Naruto still wasn’t up to the task of admitting that he was in one-sided love affair with her middle school crush. He’d rather walk outside and suck the eyeballs out of the flattened racoon that was roasting on the sidewalk.

Wasn’t it enough to have your life end by being run over? Did you really have to sizzle, too? Stuck to the road like burnt scrambled eggs. Seemed like insult to injury.

“Hey!” Sakura snapped her fingers in front of his face. “Whatever, don’t give me a name, just tell me about him.”

So, even though Naruto had no idea where to start, he did..

“I don’t know if he likes me? I like him a lot. Whenever we’ve met, I don’t seem to make a big impression, but I’m trying to do better. He’s just… He’s really smart. He’s super cool, too, he’s like the coolest person I’ve ever met. He has eyes that are like the ocean at dusk, because they’re black, and his hair is black, too, and it’s weird but it’s really soft, too. Uhh, yeah.”

Sakura raised her eyebrows, and Naruto shrugged awkwardly. He didn’t talk to anybody about Sasuke, half because he didn’t want to share that part of himself and half because he didn’t know how to put his feelings into words.

“It sounds like you like him a lot, Naruto.”

“I do. I can’t believe he’s real.”

“Well,” Sakura said, with a smile. She put a hand over Naruto’s, and patted it. “I’ll do my best to help you.”

Naruto had no idea what that meant. It sounded very ominous.

The next day, he got up early, careful not to wake Sakura. When he inevitably did anyway, he just told her he had to go back to his aunt’s house before they all went to the carnival. Sakura nodded, yawning, and fell right back asleep.

Naruto couldn’t get there fast enough, his legs wouldn’t take him there fast enough. If he pushed them any harder they’d break. He flew through Oceanview, and it slipped past him easily. Just this once, he was taking for granted. He let the city fade, become his backdrop.

He wanted a story, after all. A better one. Naruto felt like this was the summer that he was the main character. He’d defeat the dragon and get the girl. In this case, the dragon and the girl were the same person, but damn it, he was going to do it. He was going to make a move.

Naruto slipped under the Do Not Enter tape, his backpack with extra clothes in case of a water gun attack catching on it.

He’d make a move, unless, of course, Sasuke had forgotten him again. Historically, that had been the case. His visit the summer before had been different, though. He’d actually learned about Sasuke, got to know him a little better. And then, there was that strange night, where he and Sasuke had held onto to each other, alone in the darkness. Sasuke gave him the stuffed snake, so he wouldn’t forget. And he hadn’t forgotten.

Now, to see if Sasuke had done the same for him. When he got within eyesight of Sasuke he slowed. He didn’t want to act too excited. Approaching Sasuke was like approaching a wild animal; he never knew how he’d react. Naruto swore Sasuke was a different species sometimes.

Sasuke was leaning over the counter, trying to reach something. When Naruto got closer he could see it was the keys, hanging on the lanyard around Sasuke’s neck, but caught on the corner of a cabinet. He was struggling to get it unhooked. Maybe he was human after all.

While he’d been gone, Naruto had only gotten taller. Iruka had him grab things from the top shelf at grocery stores now. He leaned over, next to Sasuke, making him still, and reached down, fiddling with the ring. It came loose, and Sasuke with it.

He sat up quickly, scooting away with alarm. His back hit the post that was holding up one corner of the stand, either hand clenching the sides of the counter. And then… his head tilted, eyes squinting at Naruto like he was the sun.

“...Naruto?”

That was the first time he’d ever heard Sasuke say his name. It sounded uncertain, but so, so soft.

Naruto couldn’t help it; his eyes brimmed. He bit his lip so it wouldn’t tremble. He’d been so scared Sasuke wouldn’t remember him, but Sasuke’s body was relaxing, which meant he knew Naruto. There was recognition there.

“What’s wrong?”

Naruto laughed, rubbed at his eyes. “No, nothing. Don’t worry about it.”

“You’re tearing up, did you really miss me that much?”

Yes. “No, no, I’m just… How are you?”

Sasuke still looked slightly skeptical, but decided to let it go. He slipped to the ground and took the lanyard off his neck. With a flick of his wrist, he threw it to Naruto. “You look like someone who wants to set up a ring toss stand free of charge.” The keys were warm in his hand; they’d been resting on Sasuke’s chest. “Is that assumption correct?”

Naruto pretended to groan and drag his feet. “God, why do I have to do everything around here?” He sighed, walking to the counter to hop over it, but lingered there.

Anyone else might make the mistake of thinking Sasuke looked the same as he always did, but Naruto knew better. There was an ease about him. Sasuke hadn’t completely dropped the shield that was keeping Naruto out and him in, but there was a smile threatening to overtake him, Naruto could tell. He was taller than Sasuke; From his height, Sasuke’s bottom lip jutted out just slightly, which was cute-

Naruto blinked. Squinted at Sasuke. “I’m taller than you.”

Sasuke narrowed his eyes, and they said tread carefully here . “And?”

“No, not like that.” Naruto shook his head, and then scratched it. It was just kind of weird that he was taller than Sasuke. He’d been catching up slowly since age 13, watching as they grew closer and closer, but Sasuke was still older than him. Maybe he was just short? “You’re two years older than me, so I’m surprised.”

Sasuke’s face was still flat, and again, to someone who hadn’t spent two whole years pining for him, he was emotionless. Naruto could see a twinge of confusion. “...Jesus, are you 15?”

“What?! Do I fucking look 15?”

“No,” Sasuke said, and Naruto was relieved to hear that. At the very least, Sasuke hadn’t been under the impression he was an underclassmen. That would be a tough barrier to hurdle. “That’s why I’m confused.”

“Well, how old are you?”

“17.”

Naruto was utterly baffled. Why was Sasuke saying he was 17? Didn’t he say the same two years ago? He remembered it; he’d been 15 and stupid and thought there really wasn’t that much growing up that’d happen in those 2 years. Thank god he hadn’t tried anything at that point. Naruto didn’t know what he’d do if 15-year-old him blew his chance with Sasuke…

“Prove it,” he told Sasuke, and Sasuke put up his hands, sleeves falling down his forearms. The motion for ‘ and why the hell should I do that ?’ “Two years ago, you told me you were 17.”

Sasuke turned up his chin. “I don’t remember that.” Of course he didn’t.

“Just show me. You have an I.D. or something?” Sasuke rolled his eyes, but patted his pockets for a wallet. It was black, like everything else, and when he opened it Naruto could see there was no cash inside it. Sasuke’s fingers picked through the cards, though there were only a few.

“I don’t have my driver’s license, but I have a school license…” He pulled it from it’s pocket, and glared. “I sure hope that’s alright, officer.” Naruto blushed and stuck out his hand. Sasuke reached to give it to him and their hands nearly brushed- “Wait.” The piece of plastic was withdrawn and Sasuke put his thumb squarely over the left half of it. “The picture is so bad.”

Naruto was surprised. Vanity. He’d thought Sasuke was free from care, about how he acted, how he appeared. But he was looking down at the dirt, at the toe of his shoe digging a little hole. So, maybe he cared what Naruto thought. He really didn’t have to. Naruto was already sold, but the gesture was nice.

The card was red and yellow, an obnoxious combination. Sasuke’s thumb couldn’t completely cover his picture, so Naruto caught a glimpse anyway. So bad, his ass; Sasuke looked hot. How Naruto looked in school photos was anything from half-baked banana bread to a cubist bird. That is to say, fucking ugly.

But there it was. Grade: Junior. Age: 17. Huh. Naruto had no idea why Sasuke had felt compelled to lie to him about his age, nor why he’d looked so much older. Had it been that important to look cool? Maybe he was one of those kids who looked like a college graduate by 6th grade, or maybe he just acted older than Naruto. It wasn’t very hard to act older than Naruto.

Above that, he noticed: Sasuke Uchiha. He repeated the name, held it in his mouth like his favorite flavor. “I didn’t know your full name until now.”

Sasuke retracted the card, shoved it back in his wallet. “I don’t know yours either.”

“Uzumaki.” Naruto stuck out his hand. “Nice to meet you, Sasuke Uchiha. I’m Naruto Uzumaki.” Sasuke glanced down for a long moment, and Naruto almost took his hand back, ready to say he was just kidding, when Sasuke grasped it.

“I’m not going to introduce myself again because that’s cheesy and stupid.” They shook on that, and it was normal. Well, Naruto’s heart was beating at a rate that should kill any mammal, but Sasuke didn’t have the reaction he had before. No fliching, no gasping. Whatever panic that had possessed him so suddenly last year at Naruto’s touch appeared to be gone.

They separated again, gently, to opposite sides of the shield. Watching the retreat was bittersweet; he didn’t like to see Sasuke draw back in to wherever he hid, but Naruto had gotten his foot in the door now.

“Anyway, now that you know I’m officially 17, can you start working? The carnival is going to open soon and if it’s not done they can and will fire you.”

Naruto hopped over. “No, they can’t and won’t, because I don’t work here.”

“You act like you do.” Sasuke was leaning on his hands, peeking over the counter at Naruto, which made him fumble with the keys for an embarrassing amount of time. “You’re not just here every morning I work here, but you sneak in every morning.” Naruto bit his lip, out of Sasuke’s view. He nodded. “So? You love it that much?”

Defeat the dragon. Get the girl. Make a move. Well, make more than one move, most likely. Naruto had already gotten the sense that flirting with Sasuke wasn’t so easy. He wasn’t a target, couldn’t be won with just one shot. It was closer to chess; calculated maneuvers. Naruto took a breath. As rare as it was, he was probably overthinking this.

“I told you last year,” he said, finally getting the key in the lock and turning until it clicked, “or I tried to tell you. I’m not into ring toss, or whatever, I’m-” He looked up at Sasuke. The sun was behind him. He was igniting. “I’m into you.”

Naruto could hardly see Sasuke’s face. There was silence, until a cloud floated past, interrupting the sun’s harsh rays.

He wasn’t smiling, exactly, but there was something tender about his disposition. Sasuke was tough, occasionally cold. He was built with steel, set with diamonds; that was breaking, for just a moment. There was something warm beneath it, something glowing.

“Idiot. I know that.”

Naruto swallowed. “You do?”

“Yeah. You’ve made it pretty obvious.”

“I do that a lot.” Naruto stayed down, crouching. He put his forehead on the cabinet, closed his eyes. “I don’t know what to say… Is that okay?”

“That you like me?”

Naruto could hardly speak, mostly because he could hardly breathe. He nodded.

“Yeah. That’s okay.”

The subject changed quickly after that and Naruto busied himself with setting up, mostly to hide the fact that he was incinerating. On his way back to his aunt’s house that afternoon, though, he let out a yell, crying out into the cool air, his only audience street lamps and the sinking sun. He was so excited, he hadn’t been so excited in years.

When he was younger, he would yell as loud as he could while he was biking, whenever he wanted to. It was a cry of pure joy, which admittedly didn’t make it any less obnoxious. It scared the shit out of the neighbors; most notably he had frightened a woman so badly she dropped a whole bowl of potato salad right onto the sidewalk. Naruto had felt guilty about that, but he hadn’t been able to help it. He was just beyond ecstatic to be alive, and he had to let the world know how happy he was to be on it.

Sasuke made him feel that way. He had to let the universe know how grateful he was that it let him and Sasuke exist at the same time.

That giddy feeling hadn’t worn off that evening, laying on Shikamaru’s lawn. Naruto knew he was acting ridiculous, because all Sasuke had said was that he was okay with Naruto liking him, but still. It was more progress than he’d ever made before. He’d never heard Sasuke talk that much in all his years at Oceanview. He wanted to hide his face in his hands and smile and laugh.

“Honestly, what is wrong with you,” Ino asked, rolling over to where Naruto was laying.

“Nothing,” he lied, “I’m just really, really happy to be here.” He stared up at the sky. There was one cloud left. “What shape do you think it is? I see a duck.”

“I think it’s a ‘you’re avoiding my question and trying to distract me with childhood nostalgia.’” Ino gave him a look, and Naruto only shrugged. “You’re not going to tell me? Fine. But you’re acting super weird and I’m watching you.” Naruto shrugged again. So what, if it was noticeable? He didn’t care. Ino could wonder. He closed his eyes.

His friends talked around him, about the beach, about their senior year, steadily approaching, and about Shikamaru’s love life. Most of this he tuned out, besides the last one. Shikamaru was dating the texting girl from a year ago who was now allegedly going to be in college and allegedly hot. Shikamaru hadn’t let anyone meet her yet, because, as he put it, “they would make him look like a huge dumbass”, to which Ino told him he didn’t need their help with that.

The sun sunk lower in the sky. Not quite dropping below the horizon in the distance, but low enough that shadows were stretching long and the air grew cooler. Orange diffused into what had been a bright blue, mellowing the summer, lowering its volume. It calmed Naruto as well.

Naruto was sure other people had felt this way before, that he wasn’t special, but… He remembered what Sakura had said all those years ago, about him blending into the horizon. That’s what he felt like he could do now, wrap himself into those precious minutes between the sun’s fall and its eventual set.

And just like those shining minutes, the feeling it gave him was fleeting, because he sat up and found himself exactly 2 inches from Sai. “Dude, what the fuck.” Naruto scooted away. His first instinct was reproachful. The guy wasn’t exactly his favorite one of the bunch, and now Naruto was seeing that smile close up. Like Sai had cut it out from a magazine and glued it right on. Creepy.

Naruto started to get up, grass-stained palms pushing him up, but then someone else was close to him; Sakura. “The rest of us are going inside for a little bit, okay?” she said, which wasn’t a question, really. If it had been, Naruto would have said no, I’m going inside, too. As it stood, Sakura’s nails were digging into his shoulders, pushing him down hard. He shrugged her off.

Why she’d been so dead-set on getting him cornered by Sai was a mystery to Naruto, but now he was. The lighting was getting lower, and Naruto was just staring out at the street in silence. God, this was killing his high. From the corner of his eye, Sai looked like Sasuke even more, which only made him irritated. What a cheap imitation, Naruto thought. If Sasuke was cool, Sai was lukewarm.

“You know,” said Sai, “I thought I might be threatened by you, but then I met you and I was not threatened at all.”

Naruto took it back; Sai was hot dog water.

He took a breath. “That’s a really rude thing to say, Sai.”

“Is it?”

“Yeah, kind of.”

“Well, everyone was only talking about you the week before you got here. They were so excited for you to visit. I thought you might not like me, but you have been generally nice. So, I’m not threatened.”

Naruto turned to look at Sai; his confession was slightly disconcerting. He hadn’t thought those were Sai’s feelings at all. His fake smile had faded, and was replaced by nothing. He appeared devoid of emotion. Naruto preferred this to anything artificial.

He crossed his feet in front of him, and sighed. “Well, that’s kind of a compliment. I didn’t think you liked me … Mostly because you said I looked like those fucked up Spongebob popsicles, which was uncalled for.”

“You did. I was just stating a fact.” Sai pointed to Naruto’s hair and face. “Yellow with a big ass smile.”

“Oh yeah? You kind of looked like him, too. Those creepy black watery eyes. Not to mention having a big stick up his ass, just like you.”

Sai snorted, and smiled. A genuine smile. He wasn’t one for open mouth smiles, but his eyes did close. Naruto smiled back. Maybe Sai wasn’t as bad as he thought. An acquired taste, definitely, but Naruto could see why Ino liked him so much. And, if you were thick-skinned enough for it, his insults were kind of clever.

“You’re not so bad, Sai,” Naruto told him.

Sai took this, and nodded. “Thank you. You know we don’t have to like each other, right?”

Naruto stood up, brushed grass off his butt and offered his hand to Sai. “Yeah. It’s better if we do, though.” Sai was hesitant, but took Naruto’s hand, letting him be pulled up. Together they walked back to the house, Sai telling Naruto that while some people have trouble with being emotionally vulnerable, Naruto was a little too vulnerable. Naruto couldn’t even be mad about that, as it was objectively true.

They knocked on the door and Sakura answered it. Sai slipped past her, but she stopped Naruto, a slight smirk on her face. “So?”

“...So what?”

“How’d it go with Sai?”

Naruto shrugged, slightly confused. “I mean, it’s not like we’re the best of friends, but I feel like we understand each other better? So, it went fine? I don’t- Why are you asking me?”

There had been many, many times where Naruto had gotten a look like he was the most oblivious person in the world, but rarely did it come from Sakura. She put a hand on her forehead, and then removed it. “I’m trying to help you with your crush, Naruto.”

He blinked, and then blushed instantly at the mention of Sasuke. “How, um, was this supposed to help that?”

“Black eyes, black hair, cool, smart. You meant Sai, right?”

This was horrifying, Naruto thought absently, as his soul left his body for a moment. He’d really let Sakura think he wanted Sai for at least a full 24 hours. He had just started thinking Sai was okay within the last 3 minutes, but that did not equate to wanting to fuck him whatsoever.

“Oh, Sakura, no, It’s a different black haired black eyed cool smart boy. Not Sai. At all.”

Sakura’s face fell. “Christ. That’s embarrassing. Sorry.”

“It’s okay. He’s… a boy from the city. I met him in one of my classes, so he’s not from here. You don’t know him.”

She nodded, still a little red from her mistake. “Ouch, I really misinterpreted that… But, I mean, you’re going to try something with him, right? Because I’m not going to be there to help, you know.”

It felt weird to be talking about this with Sakura still leaning on the doorframe, like Naruto was barred from entering until he committed to not chickening out. “Yeah, I will. I’ve been, um, flirting and stuff like that, so can I please come in?”

Sakura squinted. “Really flirting? Or you think it’s flirting and he thinks you really just want to borrow a pencil?”

“No! Real ass flirting! Why does everyone think I’m a baby bird when it comes to romance.” Sakura gave him a look.

“You’re wearing cargo shorts and are actually using every single pocket.”

“Yeah? You look like that pink-haired girl from Lazy Town if she got dressed in the dark.”

Sakura scoffed. “That’s character assassination.” Naruto ducked under her arm and into the house, sticking out his tongue at her over his shoulder. She could deck him for his bad shorts another day; he’d had enough of it for today. He’d flirted with Sasuke just fine, thank you, and damn it, he’d do the same tomorrow.

This proved to be more difficult than he thought it was going to be.

He got up the next morning, walked to the bathroom, stared at himself, decided that wasn’t helping, texted his dad back, ate something, brushed his teeth, stared in the mirror again, and changed into Not Cargo Shorts. Perfect, or as close as he was going to get.

After that, it was only a matter of doing his usual routine. Naruto grabbed his backpack and hopped on his bike. He hadn’t bothered to do his hair. One, because he couldn’t be bothered, and two, because the wind blasting into his face as he went down hills always messed it up anyway.

His positivity continued as he arrived at the harbor, locked up his bike and headed towards the boardwalk. It was here that disaster struck.

From around the corner of a building, Choji stepped out. Naruto stopped short. HIs friend, his trusted companion, looked at him with an expression of deep sadness. “I’m so sorry,” he said. He pulled out a water gun, aimed and fired.

Shikamaru and Ino suddenly appeared from wherever they’d been hiding, but their faces showed no regret. They closed in, firing round after round after round. Naruto curled into a ball on the wood planks, pleading for mercy. It wasn’t warm enough outside yet, and the bullets were freezing , seeping into his shirt, his skin.

“That’s what losers get,” Ino said finally, once she ran out of ammo. Naruto looked up, only to get one more faceful from Shikamaru.

“You guys are the worst friends anyone could ask for. I hope you trip and bump that one part of your elbow that hurts so much.”

“Sorry, Naruto!” called Choji, alreadying leading the pack of backstabbers to their bikes. “Sai is next!”

Well, at least Sai would be getting a similar fate. Still, this was putting a big fucking wrench in his plans. He was going to show up to see Sasuke looking like a drowned rat, which sucked ass, because Sasuke was sure to be looking like royalty, like always. Naruto rested his forehead on the ground, and water trickled down his face. Damn it.

Nonetheless, he got up. He’d said he was going to meet Sasuke, and that's what he was going to do, drenched or no.

“Let me guess,” said Sasuke when Naruto had presented himself, leaving a puddle where he stood. “You were waiting in the rain to profess your love and she just never showed up.” Naruto put his face in his hands. “Ok, maybe you forgot that you’re supposed to shower after you take your clothes off.” Sasuke tilted his head, smirked. “Or maybe you’re just really, really excited to see me.”

“No! None of those things! Jeez.” Naruto shook his head, water spraying off him like a dog. Sasuke jumped back to avoid it. “I got attacked by water guns, and now I’m going to die.”

“You’re not going to die.”

“I’m so cold, Sasuke! Look!” He held out one hand and pointed to it with the other; it was quivering slightly. “I’m shaking.”

Sasuke rolled his eyes. “Just go home and change, it’s really not that hard.”

“Oh!” Naruto snapped his fingers. “No, I kept a change of clothes in my backpack because I knew that my horrible friends were going to do this to me.” He shivered as he swung it off his back but was pleased to find a dry shirt and hoodie inside, both orange. Sasuke leaned forward, peeking inside.

“Everything you wear is orange. You look like a big traffic cone. I can’t decide if it’s more or less likely you’d get hit by a car.”

“Shut up, where can I change?”

“Well, you could use the-”

“Don’t you say porta-potties.” Sasuke closed his mouth, and then opened it.

“Well, you could change behind this stand. There’s a little bit of room. I don’t want you doing it out front. My employers didn’t technically say I couldn’t have some shirtless guy hanging out, but I think that’s assumed.” He stepped back, and gestured to a small shadowy place behind the structure. It was about half the square feet of the stand itself, and while it was full of cobwebs, Naruto hoped it was devoid of spiders.

“It’s spooky in here,” Naruto said, glancing around. There wasn’t much back there, some cardboard boxes, taped closed or open on their sides, and some cleaning supplies that looked like they could benefit from a cleaning of their own. There was a bench, too, as if this was a tiny break room. Besides that, it was just a panel of canvas, tied to the roof of the stand to the fence of the boardwalk behind it. It would be cute, like a little hideout, if it didn’t feel very haunted.

Sasuke just leaned against peeling red and yellow paint, arms crossed. He was halfway in the shade and half out, so his hair sticking up in the back looked like a different color than the front. Naruto pulled out his clothes, but found no place to put them; either near himself, dripping wet, or on the dusty ground.

“Here,” he said, tossing them to Sasuke who easily caught them. “Just hold those for a second.”

Naruto looked down at himself. His shirt really had gotten the brunt of it. It was like a second skin now, sticking so insistently to his body, not to mention being on the edge of see-through. He grabbed the bottom hem, ignoring the squelching and a twinge of insecurity, and pulled it over his head.

It peeled off slowly and then fell to the ground with a slap. When he picked it up it’d probably have so much dirt sticking to it it’d be brown instead of orange. Naruto ran a hand through his hair, trying to shake all the water he could out of it. It was still chilly, but a little less so when he had the ability to dry. “Well, I guess I’ll just have to deal with wet pants for the rest of the day,” he said, laughing, nervous. He looked up at Sasuke.

Sasuke was still leaning, arms folded over Naruto’s clothes. His face was still, devoid of expression, but he tilted his head slightly. He wasn’t looking at Naruto’s face.

Naruto looked down at himself again. He didn’t think he looked that bad; he’d been running all summer. Kiba would punch him in the stomach and nothing squished. Under Sasuke’s examination though, he was sure that he wasn’t good enough. He was never going to look the way Sasuke looked in moonlight, that was for sure, and he was inching closer and closer to dumb jock with every passing school year.

One of Sasuke’s hands went to his hair, brushing one of the longer pieces on either side of his face over his ear. It fell back to its original spot immediately. He opened his mouth. “You work out?”

Naruto blinked. “Oh, uh, yeah. Running, mostly, but I work out, too.” He internally cringed; just saying the words “I work out” to Sasuke’s face was embarrassing, even if Sasuke himself had asked.

No response was given, Sasuke stepped a little closer. His eyes flicked downwards.

“...Even your underwear is orange.”

Naruto’s hands went to where the orange waistband was showing above his jeans. “I like it, okay?” he said defensively. Sasuke tossed him his shirt and hoodie, and then stepped back out into the light. Naruto shoved them on, head spinning. He had no idea what just happened, but it felt significant. He hurried to follow Sasuke out.

The rest of the day was spent mostly with Sasuke. Just because Naruto wasn’t allowed to retaliate against his friends for dousing him with water didn’t mean he couldn’t be bitter about it. Naruto mostly laid across the counter in the sun, waiting for his pants to dry to mixed results.

He’d decided somebody had to hear the story of Sakura’s mistake, because while it was killing him, he didn’t want her to get made fun of for it by the others. Sasuke sat in the small space Naruto was leaving by his head, and when Naruto looked up, he could feel his hair brush against Sasuke’s fingers.

“So, after her I told her about who I had a crush on and stuff, she totally thought it was this guy Sai who is new to the friend group. She made us be alone together, like, manhandled me into it. And I talked to him, and he’s really not that bad, I guess, but she really thought I was trying to hook up with him… She said earlier ‘I’ll try my best to help you’, or something, which was super ominous. She was so embarrassed, though.”

Sasuke hummed, as if to confirm he’d heard the story but had nothing to say. Naruto paused, to stare up at the wooden planks, to feel the warmth that was almost too hot but not quite. There’s nowhere else he’d rather be. He opened his mouth, to tell a new story, but Sasuke spoke.

“You said you talked about your crush with her. Haven’t we thought of a new word for it already?”

“What do you mean?”

Sasuke shifted, not exactly like he was uncomfortable, but as if he was gearing up to speak more than two sentences at a time. “A crush is the girl who sits next to you in 5th grade who you think is pretty because she has bows in her hair. However, a crush could also be the man you’ve loved for years on end without it being acknowledged.” Naruto flushed slightly, turned his head so Sasuke wouldn’t see. “Shouldn’t there be something between a friend and a crush? Between a crush and a lover?”

Naruto thought about that. “What would we call those? What’s less or more intense than a crush?” He put his hands behind his head. “Between a friend and a crush should be… a scrunch. Or a smush.”

Sasuke nodded. “Alright. What about between a crush and a lover?”

Naruto smirked and poked Sasuke’s leg. “How about a smash?”

“A pound.”

“A slam.”

Sasuke paused. “I can’t think of anything that’s not aggressively sexual.”

“Me neither. Maybe that’s just how slams are.”

They were both quiet, Sasuke looking out towards the ocean and Naruto looking out towards Sasuke. He wasn’t quite there yet, wasn’t through the shield, but Sasuke smiling wasn’t uncommon anymore. Around Naruto, he did it all the time

“Now that we have the new words, is your crush still a crush?”

“Yes,” Naruto said, without thinking. “Yes, because… Well, my dad told me crushes are crushes because when you see them, it feels like they have your heart in their hands, and they’re squeezing it. Crushing it.” Naruto put his hands in front of him, clasping them tightly. When he let them go, his palms were pale until blood rushed to them again.

“Doesn’t that hurt?”

Naruto nodded. “Sometimes. But mostly it feels warm.”

“And that’s the way you feel about him.”

He opened his eyes, meeting Sasuke’s. Naruto remembered how it used to feel like blue was clashing against black; now it was more like watercolors, seeping into each other, harmonious. “Yes.” A thousand times over.

To his surprise, Sasuke looked away first, down at the ground, even though he didn’t seem like someone to back down from a fight. Naruto had made him uncomfortable, which wasn’t what he’d been intending.

“Uh, I’m glad we’re sitting like this,” he said quickly, and Sasuke faced him again. “From underneath? Not your best angle, man.”

Sasuke’s eyes flashed, and the discomfort was gone. “Well, I’d imagine you’d look the same. If I was under you.” Well, Sasuke’s discomfort was gone. Naruto laughed nervously. He had a hard enough time not picturing Sasuke under him anyway, and Sasuke’s gaze was only making it worse.

“No, I mean like, you’re always so… You know. but from here, I feel like I can compete.”

“Are we competing? For what?”

“Forget it. Point is, you look dumb.”

Sasuke twisted slightly and put his hands on either side of Naruto’s head. He looked down, his face above Naruto’s. His hair fell around his face in a fan of dark feathers while his eyes pierced like arrows, pinning Naruto in his place. In the middle of the drama, the war between pale skin and dark features, was his mouth. Soft, pink, the eye of the storm.

“Say it again,” he said, and Naruto was watching his mouth so intently he would have heard the words even if Sasuke hadn’t actually spoken them aloud. “Say I look dumb.”

Naruto swallowed. He didn’t know what to say, he couldn’t think of words for a moment. Don’t play with me , was what he wanted to say. Don’t play with me unless you mean it. But nothing came out.

Instead, he reached one hand up, slowly, so Sasuke could pull away. Naruto brushed the back of his fingers against Sasuke’s cheek. It felt warm. He moved to Sasuke’s hair, twisting one of those side pieces. It was soft, like he’d thought. His hand dropped.

“...I wouldn’t dare say something like that when you’ve got me cornered,” he finally got out. Sasuke sat up, pulled away. Either Naruto really was stupid or there was some deeply cryptic shit going on.

Naruto had never been good at moving slow. In fact, it was almost the thing he was worst at. The #1 thing he was worst at was forgetting Sasuke, though, so he was trying his best. Ideally, he would grab Sasuke by the front of that hoodie and slam him against a wall and just take what he’d been craving… But he wouldn’t do any of those things, not until he was absolutely sure it would be reciprocated.

The rest of his time with Sasuke was spent within that limbo. The jokes that were half-funny and half-true, and the touches that were just a little too long. It was exhausting; every moment where Naruto thought Sasuke was going to lean a little closer made his heart pound. His body was working overtime just to keep him on his feet, and even then his knees were weak. Naruto didn’t even bother to see his other friends; he knew he’d only be thinking about Sasuke.

The air growing cooler as the evening submerged Oceanview, but it made Sasuke only more unbearable. He belonged to the shadows, or rather, they belonged to him. With a smile or a glance, he was holding Naruto’s heart. He was crushing it.

Finally, the carnival had died down, and the ring toss stand was all packed up. Sasuke opened his mouth, and Naruto knew it was to tell him he was going home. “Hey, do you want to go to the beach?”

Sasuke squinted at him. “Cobalt Beach?” Naruto nodded. “It’s locked up for the night.”

Never stopped you , Naruto wanted to say. “Yeah, but you can just hop the fence. It’s really cool at night… You can see the stars so much better?” His tone was hopeful, possibly so hopeful it was off putting, but Sasuke only shrugged.

“Got nothing better to do.” A lukewarm response, but ultimately, a win!

They walked together, kicking a pinecone back and forth. Naruto was going to offer to climb the fence first, but instead Sasuke suggested they race. Sasuke was on it immediately, shooting up and jumping over like it was an art. Naruto grumbled, not even bothering to hurry now. He was not nearly as graceful in his descent. He ended up being dumped onto the dirt.

“You alright, dead last?” Sasuke asked, holding out his hand.

“Actually,” Naruto told him, “I got second place, which isn’t that bad.” He grabbed the hand offered to him, and raced onto the beach, feet digging in deep. There was already sand pouring into his sneakers, so he just took them off, balling his socks up inside.

“See? Look!” Naruto beamed up at the sky, reflecting its light. Sasuke sauntered up next to him.

“I know, dumbass. I live here, I come out here all the time.” He said that, but he was looking up, too. Away from smoke and city lights and distraction, it was hard not to.

The stars were scattered in patterns that appeared aimless at first glance, but with more time and examination, it’s clear there was destiny at play. Something too big to understand had made sure every tiny light made its way to Earth at the perfect moment, so Naruto could stand on the beach and see them exactly as the universe intended him to.

Sasuke didn’t seem like somebody who believed in fate. Or if he did think it existed, he’d never leave anything up to it. He probably fight it as hard as he possibly could, Naruto thought.

“I like how the stars are arranged. Like we’re supposed to see them. Fate, or something.”

“A star is a ball of gas, Naruto, and it’s certainly not sentient. I doubt it gives two shits about whatever the fuck we’re doing down here.” Naruto nodded. As he’d suspected.

“They’re not like this in the city at all. You can’t see more than three or four most of the time…” Naruto put his hands in his pockets and sighed. “I wish there were more at home, but it does make nights like this more special.”

Sasuke stayed silent. He’d turned away from the stars, instead towards the ocean, and then down the beach, to the forest. Curiously, Naruto looked that way, too. There wasn’t much to see but murky trees and the rough black rocks jutting up from the beach. It wasn’t surprising Sasuke would be more attracted to that stuff, but Naruto just found it eerie. He didn’t like how intensely Sasuke’s eyes could lock onto darkness sometimes.

“Hey.” Naruto elbowed him, and Sasuke turned his gaze away. “You wanna go swimming?”

“Swimming?”

“Yeah. It’s where you get in the water and move your arms around-”

“Oh, fuck off.” Sasuke huffed, and then he turned, leaning closer to Naruto. “And I know how this is going to go. Here we are, at the beach, under the moon, and the water looks great. But, oh no! We don’t have swimsuits!” Sasuke put his hands up in mock confusion. “There’s only one solution. I guess we better strip down.”

“That is-! That is not what I was thinking!” Naruto spluttered, but Sasuke still looked highly skeptical. “You’re going to be like that? Fine!” His hoodie came off, his phone thrown down on top of it with an exasperated puff of breath, and then he marched right into the surf.

Barefoot, the wet sand felt cool, gritty between his toes. His steps were definant, so they landed firmly, leaving a clear-cut trail all the way to the water. First to his ankles, then his calves, his thighs. It was fairly calm; there were waves, but nothing unmanageable. It was cold, but not freezing. Besides, it was less about swimming now and more about proving a point.

Naruto wasn’t trying to trick Sasuke, or use him. Sasuke seemed to be one to jump to conclusions, and it hurt Naruto how cynical those conclusions turned up to be. He wouldn’t ask why, because Sasuke would never tell him, but he could offer a hand. He held it out his.

“Come on, Sasuke!” he called. He was submerged to his hips now. “It’s so nice in here! Totally not cold at all!” Sasuke just stood, looking at Naruto with disbelief.

“You look like an idiot.”

“Oh, it’s not just a look, I really am an idiot.”

Sasuke hesitated, one second, two, and then his hoodie joined Naruto’s on the sand. His walk was slower, calmer, cooler, just like always, but in the end, regardless of how they got there, they were standing waist deep in the sea.

“Now you look like an idiot, too,” Naruto said, and he tried to make it sound like a joke but he knew he just sounded happy.

“I’m only in here so you don’t feel so self conscious,” Sasuke sniffed.

Naruto squinted at him. They were in the same dumb boat; Sasuke could use a little humbling. He stepped back, and then jumped forward, ramming his shoulder hard against Sasuke’s and shoving him right into the water just as a wave rolled in.

In a second Sasuke was back up, gasping, murder in his eyes. “You little bitch ,” he hissed fiercely, which was scary, but also kind of sexy with him all dripping wet and hair slicked back. Altogether, a conflicting experience.

That much must have been obvious on Naruto’s face because Sasuke stepped closer, still dangerous, inches from his face. “Taste your own medicine,” he said, and grabbed Naruto by the front of the shirt.

All he wanted from that moment was to be pulled forward, against Sasuke, but he was launched into the water at a vicious speed. He breathed seaweed and salt, in his mouth and his nose. He deserved to get dunked, but god, he didn’t want a taste of his own medicine; he wanted a taste of Sasuke.

“Fuck, I thought you were going to kill me,” Naruto breathed. “And you know what? You should have when you had the chance.”

For the record, it wasn’t Kiba who taught him how to fight, even though that’s what people thought; it was his dad. Iruka was a fairly mild-mannered elementary school teacher who did the crossword in the newspaper and genuinely liked classical music. He also had a vicious tongue when it came to winning arguments and was a wrestling champion in high school

Naruto didn’t think Iruka had taught him these moves to use on the boy he was trying to romance, but god damn it if Naruto didn’t suplex the fuck out of Sasuke anyway. He moved towards him, ducking underneath Sasuke’s arms and spinning behind him. Naruto’s arms locked around him, hands clasped on his stomach. Sasuke wasn’t as light as he thought he’d be, but with the element of surprise on his hands, it wasn’t too difficult to lift him up, over, slamming into the sea.

In hindsight, if Naruto had known that pissed off Sasuke doubled as pro-fighter Sasuke, he might have decided not to escalate things to that level. It was clear that he inexplicably knew ten times more than Naruto did, and was ready to show it off.

From an athlete standpoint, Sasuke’s form was perfect, his concentration enviable. From a human standpoint, having your crush hold your hand for the first time in preparation for a short arm clothesline is pretty depressing.

“Oh my god! Sasuke! Truce!” Naruto said this with water dripping out of his mouth, hair sticking to his face, hands up. Sasuke eyed him, and then stepped out of his fighting stance, and rubbed his eyes. Naruto took this as an opportunity to bulldoze him over one last time. “Sorry!” he called behind him as he booked it back to shore, not sorry at all.

There was a splash of water and a growl, but Naruto was already back on the sand, free from the waves. He turned around to see Sasuke, still riled but breathing heavily. His clothes were plastered to him, showing the physique that was usually hidden underneath his sweatshirt so clearly it was as if he had no shirt on at all. He opened his mouth to speak, but Naruto cut him off.

“And you thought I was trying to get you to take your clothes off! Don’t you feel silly.”

“Well, Naruto, nobody, and I mean nobody ,” Sasuke put emphasis on the word, like it wasn’t necessarily a good thing, “has invited to the beach late at night because they just really felt like throwing hands. Congratulations. You proved me wrong.” He folded his arms, eyes narrowed at the ocean they’d both left paths from. The footsteps they’d made leading to the surf had long since been washed away.

“I think I actually made it much more difficult for you to get your pants off,” Naruto said, eyeing Sasuke’s black skinny jeans that were already skintight. “Can’t imagine it’d be easy to get you out of those, huh?”

“I don’t know. You’d be surprised.”

Naruto laughed nervously, and decided not to read too far into that for his own sanity. “Your hair,” he said instead, pointing. “It’s not sticking up in the back anymore.” Sasuke gave him a look as if to say of course it’s fucking not , but Naruto stepped closer. “What happens when it dries?”

“It just slowly sticks right back up again. I don’t know why. It just does it.” Sasuke looked a lot different beyond just that. His hair was so dark it looked like negative space, a tear in the world. While his posture said annoyance, his face was calm. Black eyes softened by pink rims from the salt water. His nose, too, and the tips of his ears; pink from the cold.

Naruto hadn’t thought he was being so obvious, but Sasuke didn’t even have to look at him to know. “Stop looking at me that way.”

Naruto blushed, rubbed his nose. “What… What way?”

Sasuke met Naruto’s eyes, then he tilted his head up, peering into darkness. “The same way you looked at the stars. Don’t look at me like that.”

There were many things Naruto thought to say in response to that. I can’t not , for example. Or that’s easier said than done . Or but that’s the way you make me feel, I can’t feel any other way, I’ve tried. He couldn’t say any of those things. So he sighed, letting the disappointment seep out through his breath, his unspoken words, and sat on the sand, facing the moon. Sasuke sat down next to him. Their pinkies touched.

There was silence, but not the comfortable type. For better or for worse, Sasuke rarely made him feel comfortable . There was always tension between them. Naruto dug his right hand into the sand, lifiting a fistfull, letting it sift through his fingers. He didn’t dare move his other hand as it was touching Sasuke’s. His feet couldn’t tap against anything so they flapped. He was nervous.

And when Naruto is nervous, he talks. Quickly, and far too much.

“So, I’m not as good at fighting as you are, but I could probably beat you at running. Not that we should race, anyway, I’m not challenging you, I’m just saying. My dad taught me what I knew, and he was like ‘it’s for self defense, that’s all’ which I kind of think is bullshit. It just makes him seem cool, and also there’s this guy who works out at the gym who I think he likes and Iruka wanted an excuse to show off. I don’t feel used, because he looked really happy to teach me something, but-”

“Naruto.”

“Yeah?”

“What do you want to say?”

“Oh.” Sasuke had seen through him, not that it was particularly difficult to. His phone was in reaching distance, and his fingers twitched for a distraction. Nervous, nervous. “I said I was into you, and you said that was okay,” he said finally. “That’s nice and all, but not…”

“Reciprocal?” Naruto nodded, even though he didn’t exactly know what that meant. It sounded like the right word. His knees curled to his chest, in fear of what came next. The rejection, the one that he hadn’t even let himself consider as a possibility because it was terrifying to him.

But it didn’t come. Instead, Sasuke went from sitting up to laying down, facing the sky. Naruto watching him for one moment and then couldn’t take it. The sight was reminiscent of that night, when Sasuke was shining, godlike, and it was far too intimidating at the moment. He quickly laid down as well, opting to observe the stars.

“I told you it was okay because I’m not sure if I’m into you yet. In turn, I’m not sure if you’re genuinely into me.”

That only raised more questions than it answered for Naruto. “Is there something that being into someone means that I don’t understand?”

“What does it mean to you?”

“It means you like talk to someone and spend time with them, and you get, you know, butterflies- Why am I explaining this? This is just embarrassing.”

Sasuke suddenly rolled over, on his side, elbow supporting him. Naruto turned his head, and Sasuke was much closer than usual. There was an intensity in his gaze that wasn’t unheard of but was certainly uncommon. “Is that all?” he asked. “Is that all being into someone is?”

Naruto rolled over, too, so he could face Sasuke straight on. “What do you mean?”

“Wanting to be near to them, closer, all the time, even though it makes your stomach hurt and your heart pound. Sound familiar?”

Of course it did. It sounded all too familiar. Naruto had no idea where Sasuke was going with this, especially with a look like that. “I don’t know,” he lied, because what else was he supposed to do?

Sasuke watched him a minute longer. “Well, after tonight, I think I know. If I’m into to you.” His tone, that was different, too. Lower, softer. A voice that could suggest Naruto walk right off a cliff and he’d take it as an order. “But you say you don’t know. Want to figure it out?”

Naruto was nodding, quickly, even though he wasn’t completely sure what that meant. He was raising his hand off the sand, just slightly, even though he wasn’t sure where it was supposed to go.

Sasuke raised his own hand, but pressed it to Naruto’s chest, over his heart. “Figure it out, then.”

Naruto’s mind was still reeling at the turn of events, but he reached out hesitantly regardless. It wasn’t far with how close they were together. His hand ended up on Sasuke’s waist, wet shirt growing cold. It was thin, though, and Sasuke skin was warm underneath.

His eyes flicked to Sasuke, who raised his eyebrows. Anything else?

He moved down, to Sasuke’s waistband. His thumb pressed into the soft skin above Sasuke’s hip bone where his shirt was riding up, and then pulled the hem more.

Naruto was always annoyed by the things that kept him from Sasuke, but never before had he been so sick of clothing . He wanting nothing between them. Sasuke was born of moonlight and smelled like the sea; Naruto wanted to bathe in him.

The arm that had been propping him up slid over sand, under Sasuke, hand pressing against the small of Sasuke’s back and pulling him closer. Sasuke let him. He pushed his palm flat against Sasuke’s stomach, over, trailing up the curve of his body with his fingertips, and then back again. Whenever his fingers slid closer to Sasuke’s waistband, he didn’t make sound, but his hand would grip Naruto’s shirt.

“Your-” Naruto pressed his mouth to the space right above Sasuke’s collarbone, open, which cut him off with a quick inhale. He likes that , Naruto thought. Me kissing him, he likes that. “Your heart is pounding.” Sasuke sounded smug, but breathless, too.

Naruto lifted his hand and placed two fingers gently against Sasuke’s neck, just under the edge of his jaw. It wasn’t like their pulses were much different here; both fast, excited.

“So you think you know, how you feel about me,” Naruto said, quietly, because he was so close. He focused on their points of connection, on the thrum of Sasuke’s pulse. It was a timer, ticking, marking every second he was wasting without Sasuke’s mouth pressed to his. “You into me?”

“Hm,” Sasuke hummed, as if he was still deliberating. He sat up abruptly. Naruto could see that his hair had begun to stick up again, and watched as Sasuke pulled down his shirt again where Naruto had lifted it up.

After thinking a moment longer, Sasuke stood up, turned and promptly sat back down, straddling Naruto. Naruto made a noise, something like a squeak, but his hands went to Sasuke’s thighs anyway. Gripping tight, holding on for dear life. Sasuke watched him calmly, leaning over him, just like at the stand before.

“Yes,” he said finally, “I am.”

Naruto’s feet flapped wildly. It was far too much for him to handle. Sasuke and his voice and his body and all his attention. He positioned himself, higher up Naruto’s thighs. “How about you?” he asked, teasing. Naruto’s hands were on Sasuke’s hips, which didn’t mean he had any control over them. Sasuke pressed them close, and even in dim light his smirk burned. “How’s that crush doing?”

There was somewhere, buried in the inner workings of Naruto’s mind, that registered Sasuke had asked him a question. More important thoughts were taking precedence.

For example: the body that was against him now was one he felt he knew best, next to his own, without ever having touched it this way. Now that he was, he hardly knew what to do. He felt dizzy, fingernails pressing into Sasuke’s skin. Dizzier than when he’d been 14, and rode the tilt-a-whirl 20 consecutive times; Sasuke was a ride like no other.

And also happened to be riding him. Sasuke’s thighs squeezed his waist, hips making slow circles. Naruto gripped him tighter, hissing, and Sasuke looked so smug. Probably because Naruto couldn’t hide the fact he was turned on in any capacity; neither body nor mind.

What was it he had said? How’s that crush doing?

“I think... it’s more... of a slam now,” Naruto gasped, tilting his hips. Fuck , he was hard. “Yeah, definitely a slam.” Sasuke nodded, still looking slightly self-satisfied, but Naruto realized then; he’d never seen Sasuke blush.

Blushing was a poor habit of Naruto’s. It always made him throw his hand of cards face up on the table, revealing him as someone utterly unable to keep their cool. For Sasuke, however, this was new. His cheeks were pink, lips parted, eyes lidded. His expression was one of intense affection. Maybe he wasn’t as forthright as Naruto, but no matter how subtly, Sasuke wanted him.

He had Naruto pinned to the sand so effectively. It’d been foolish to think he’d been persuing Sasuke. His fate was Sasuke’s plaything, Naruto realized. For pure sport, Sasuke had let him wonder if he’d ever have his feelings returned or not. Now, with his desire reflected in dark eyes, it was obvious he shouldn’t have worried.

There was still a tension between them, however, and a nervousness that was belonged to them both. It hit Naruto; he was supposed to kiss Sasuke now. He was supposed to reach up, pull Sasuke down and kiss him. Or roll them over, press Sasuke into the sand and kiss him. Kiss him. That’s why Sasuke was stalling after all; he was giving Naruto a chance to make the last move. Kiss him. Now.

And Naruto couldn’t. He’d imagined this moment, in class, in the shower, the precise moment before he fell asleep, and he knew Sasuke would live up to every fantasy. But he couldn’t. It was because he’d imagined it so much that he couldn't. He was going to let Sasuke down.

“I…” He stared hard at Sasuke, and then sat up, effectively pushing Sasuke away. “I gotta go.”

And he did. He went. He grabbed his shit, and climbed the fence, and found his bike, and rode into the dark. Naruto pedaled until his legs hurt and until his stomach didn’t. Without Sasuke around, he could finally breathe, but the oxygen relieving the pounding in his chest only fueled his racing thoughts. In an attempt to not fuck it up, he’d fucked it up, and there was nothing unusual about that, was there?

Yes, I am, Sasuke had said. Yes, Sasuke knew what he wanted. He’d pressed his hand to Naruto’s chest, felt his heartbeat, felt for himself how desperate Naruto was for his love. And then he’d handed Naruto the key to it. And what had Naruto done? He took it, threw it into the ocean and ran as fast as he could in the opposite direction.

He really was a fucking idiot. More of an idiot than Ino, who while watching a movie, tried to put on lipstick with a baby carrot. More of an idiot than Choji, who looked for his phone for 20 minutes before realizing it was in his front pocket. More of an idiot than Kiba, who thought his left over butter chicken from three days ago was “most likely just fine”, so he took it back out the trash can and ate it, only to spend the rest of the night hurling it right back in.

Yes, more than all of that, Naruto was truly stupid. For getting a chance with Sasuke, a boy who was more heaven than human, and spoiled it. Like Kiba’s Indian food. Utterly spoiled it, and now it was making him sick.

If you don’t think you can fucking handle this, you better get the fuck out. Isn’t that what Sakura had said to him, right before the laser tag game? Naruto climbed the steps to the bathroom, his bike abandoned outside. He didn’t look in the mirror, just stripped off his wet clothes, threw them in the tub and fell into bed, the disaster that he was.

Chapter Text

The next morning woke Naruto up with a beam of light shooting from the gap in his curtains. He would have gladly slept until he died, but no, blood was still running through his veins. Just like Naruto ran last night. He thumped his head against the pillow, one, two, three times. He didn’t want to think about it anymore, but his mind wasn’t so merciful.

At least, his dad was coming today. One whole day early, so Naruto could show him around the carnival he loved so much, that had definitely not been ruined by his chicken-like behavior. Yeah.

Naruto sat up, groaned, and shuffled out of bed. He put on clothes properly, so Iruka would be fooled into thinking he was a functioning human being, but didn’t bother to tame his bed head. It looked very similar to his regular hairstyle anyway.

It had been less than a week since Naruto had seen Iruka last, but when his old car came clunking up the driveway, Naruto was running out of the house and waiting at the door. It swung open, his dad stepped out and Naruto hugged him as tightly as he possibly could.

“Whoa!” Iruka’s bag was knocked from his hands in his surprise, but he laughed, his arms encircling Naruto. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing, I just missed you.” And he had. Iruka was the only person that he felt understood and accepted him completely, which was exactly what he needed right now. “I’m excited you’re here.”

“Well, let me get my bag inside and say hi to your aunt,” Iruka said, untangling himself from Naruto and ruffling his hair. “Then we can do whatever you want. What do you say?”

Naruto nodded. Iruka had a smile that tended to have a calming effect on everybody it encountered, but especially Naruto. He didn’t have much family, but Iruka had done what he could to fill every vacant role Naruto needed. He didn’t know anybody with such an expansive heart; Iruka always made space for him there.

Iruka and his aunt talked for a while. It was mostly about traffic and weather, nothing interesting. Iruka said he couldn’t believe he was finally spending time in Oceanview. How long had it been? Since he was in college? But his kid had been coming here for years. Naruto tuned them out, tapping his feet. Even just seeing his dad had given him some new energy.

Finally, Naruto could pull Iruka out the door. “Everybody is hanging out at Shikamaru’s house, I want you to meet them!”

“Everybody? So Sakura, too? Ino and Choji? I’m glad you’ve found them. They seem like good friends for you.” That was a very parent thing to say, but Naruto had to agree with it.

The distance between where he stayed and Shikamaru’s house wasn’t far, but Naruto prodded Iruka for details about what he’d been doing while Naruto was away. His response was vague, which Naruto suspected was because Iruka had a boyfriend he wasn’t telling Naruto about.

He couldn’t remember the last time Iruka had introduced somebody he was dating to Naruto, only because it made it twice as painful when the break up happened. Naruto wasn’t a secret by any means, but he knew his dad would do anything to protect him. This made him feel safe, but he didn’t like Iruka being lonely. Didn’t Iruka get tired of it, too?

His dad had made the mistake of leaving his phone on the coffee table when he went into the kitchen to make tea last week, though, and a couple texts came in that were… questionable in nature, to say the least. Naruto was glad; Iruka wouldn’t be lonely. Now if only Naruto could say the same…

He’d been doing such a good job pushing Sasuke to the back of his mind, and he was determined to keep it up. Naruto marched up the sidewalk, covered with haphazard chalk drawings and around the corner. Shikamaru’s was the two-story house with steps leading up to the door and green grass on either side. Predictably, everyone was sprawled around. Shikamaru and Ino dozing, Choji and Sakura playing Uno. Sai was nowhere to be seen, but maybe that was for the best.

“Hey!” he called, making Ino jolt awake. Naruto jogged up, waving for Iruka to move faster. To each of the four, he pointed and said their names. “Everybody, this is my dad.”

Iruka waved, giving that smile. His friends were silent.

Finally, Sakura spoke. “Naruto talks about you all the time! It’s so nice to finally meet you!” Everybody else gave similar greetings, sitting up straighter.

“It’s nice to meet you, too,” said Iruka, and then looked around. “Shikamaru, could I say hello to your parents? It sounds like my son’s been living here part-time, so I’d like to meet them.” Shikamaru nodded and Naruto rolled his eyes. Another parent thing to say. Iruka thanked him, and then walked past, up the steps and inside.

The second he was out of sight, four faces whipped around to stare at Naruto.

“Why,” Ino said, through her teeth, “is your dad so fucking hot?”

“How old is he? He’s so young. And, yeah. Hot.”

“He’s 37. And what?” Naruto wrinkled his nose. “No, he’s not hot.”

Ino shook her head. “No, like his hair looks so smooth. And that scar? Sexy.

“Gross, Ino.” He turned to Shikamaru. “He’s not.”

Shikamaru shrugged at him. “Sorry, Naruto. He kind of is.”

“Are you adopted?” Sakura asked, and Naruto nodded. “How? Why didn’t you tell us?”

“Because I don’t think about it a lot? Iruka’s just my dad. My biological parents died when I was really little, and I didn’t have any family I knew of. Iruka was one of my biological dad’s students? He adopted me. I don’t…” Naruto shook his head. “I just don’t really think about it very much. Iruka told me about my parents, and I have their pictures, but he’s my real dad.”

“And he’s hot?”

“I wish you’d stop saying that, it’s super weird.”

Soon Iruka was walking back out into the sun. Naruto could tell that his conversation had gone well; Shikaku, Shikamaru’s father, had a tranquil demeanor that probably put Iruka’s fears that his son was in bad hands to rest.

“I don’t have a bike,” Iruka said, “but I would like to go to this carnival I’m always hearing so much about from Naruto.” Naruto smiled, but felt his stomach turn as well. The carnival meant Sasuke, and he wasn’t sure if he could ever face him again.

They were going to go anyway. He and Iruka went to a taco truck and did their usual routine; they’d order two different dishes and then split them half and half. After that, he pulled Iruka around town. He was stalling, he knew it, but he was going to do it as long as he could without Iruka noticing.

Unfortunately, Iruka was sharp, and Naruto couldn’t avoid it anymore. He, and his dad, and all his friends, stepped into the Oceanview Carnival. With that, Naruto’s nerves only doubled. He felt like he had one foot in the grave and the other hovering over a landmine.

Naruto was doing his best not to show it. There was so much to see and to do that Iruka hadn’t experienced. In some ways, it was like seeing everything for the first time all over again. His friends seemed comfortable in Iruka’s company as well, joking around like always (minus the excessive swearing and sex jokes that we usually the right and left hook of 17 year olds).

Whatever made Naruto happy seemed to make Iruka happiest, which made things easier, but it also made Naruto wonder what Iruka would like to do if he were here alone. Once the sun went down and the lights came on, though, he seemed just as fascinated by them as Naruto had been.

“It’s like strolling around in outer space, isn’t it?” remarked Iruka. “So many little stars.”

Naruto smiled, watching Iruka look at a cotton candy stand, scattered with glowing yellow string light and big blinking pink bulbs. And then, his smile faded. Iruka had always loved lights like this; both his and Naruto’s bedrooms, while otherwise sparse, had string lights hanging around the ceiling. It was his favorite part of the holidays, too, ever since he was a kid. And Naruto could see it, that long-time love and childlike wonder, in his eyes, when he stood only feet from chromatic constellations.

Stop looking at me that way. The same way you looked at the stars. Naruto understood what Sasuke had said a little better.

Don’t look at me like that.

“Hey.” Naruto blinked, and now Iruka was looking at him, worried. Sakura and the rest had wandered elsewhere without him noticing.  “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine.”

“Are you sure? You look a little upset.” Naruto felt a little upset, too. He felt like he’d been inches from understanding why the attraction between him and Sasuke felt so much bigger than just some flirting and fleeting touches. He’d been so close last night.

“I guess I messed something up. I don’t want to talk about what,” he added quickly before Iruka could ask. “I just could have been brave, but instead I was... scared.”

“That’s unlike you. You’re usually very brave.”

“I know!” said Naruto, throwing his hands up. “Usually I just do whatever, but this time I was so worried and I pussied out.” Iruka gave him a sharp look. “Sorry, chickened out.”

“Why were you worried?”

“I felt like… I’ve been fooling them. I’ve been making them think I’m someone who knows what he’s doing, when I’m actually just confused. They seem so sure of themselves. I’m not.”

Iruka thought about this for a moment. “Being brave doesn’t mean never having times when you falter. It means you have the courage to pick yourself back up.” Naruto rolled his eyes. Iruka always said cheesy stuff. “Don’t do that, I mean it! Just stressing out about it or shaming yourself won’t help you. Either figure out how you want to fix your mistake, or just let this one go.”

Just let this one go? Naruto clenched his fists. No, he couldn’t just let Sasuke go. His dad was right; he had to stop feeling sorry for himself.

Unfortunately, while Iruka had given Naruto the confidence boost he needed to get back on track, in the process Naruto had made Iruka worry about him. When Iruka was worried about Naruto, he tended not to let him out of his sight. This threw a wrench in any plan Naruto might have; sneaking away was impossible.

It was getting later and later, and Naruto could physically feel the minutes ticking away. It was the last hour, of the last day, and if Naruto didn’t see Sasuke soon he’d detonate. He had to ditch Iruka, even for just five minutes.

Naruto was holding out hope for an unlikely hero to arrive, and at long last, one did. It just wasn’t who’d he’d been expecting.

Sai was sitting alone at a picnic bench under a street lamp. He was huddled over a sketchbook as if for warmth, scribbling away. This seemed to be Sai at his most peaceful, and Naruto under normal circumstances wouldn’t have bothered him. There was an earnestness in his expression that spoke to the cultivation of a craft. Naruto hadn’t known he took art so seriously. Well, he could doodle another day; Naruto had business to take care of.

While Iruka was talking to Choji about one thing or another, Naruto approached Sai. Before he could even open his mouth, Sai cut him off. “What do you want me to do?”

“Wow. How did you know?” Naruto asked, sliding onto the bench across from Sai. Sai tilted his head.

“You look anxious. I hope you’re not looking for advice or a shoulder to cry on. I’m not very good at that.”

Naruto shook his head; he didn’t expect that Sai would be very good at that either. “I want you to distract my dad so I can sneak away for five minutes. That’s all I need.”

Sai went back to drawing, pencil scratching paper. “Why do you need to sneak away?”

“Does that affect whether or not you’ll help me?”

Sai shrugged.

Naruto sighed. He and Sai were cool now, no doubt about it, but that didn’t mean he felt like laying his soul out on this old splintered table. On the other hand, it might be kind of nice to talk to someone who probably hardly knows Sasuke, if at all. “I don’t want you to talk to everyone about it. Can you keep a secret?”

Sai snorted, which nearly made Naruto jump; it was an unexpected sound from such a stoic person. “I can keep secrets like you wouldn’t believe.”

“...Okay,” said Naruto, uncertainly. “I guess I’ll trust you.” Sai looked up at him, but his hand was still moving. Naruto ignored it.

“There’s this guy I like, his name is Sasuke…” Naruto remembered telling Sakura about him, but he felt like he could do better now. “I know he’s not perfect or anything. I’m sure he has flaws, but when I look at him, I can’t see them. When I first met him, he wouldn’t smile at all, at anything. He’s more comfortable with me now, though…” Nevermind, he was still doing a bad job explaining his feelings. “I just want to make him happy, that’s all I want. And last night, I think I did the opposite. So I have to fix that.”

Sai finished whatever he was drawing with a few more lines, glanced down at it, and then back at Naruto. “Sure,” he said, “I’ll help.”

“Really?” Naruto wondered what it was that made Sai want to lend him a hand or not. Most likely, he had already made up his mind before Naruto told him anything and just wanted more information.

Sai nodded. “Just tell me some things about your dad that would help me distract him.”

“Um, um, he’s a teacher for little kids? He’s… He’s my dad. Uh… Shit.”

With a highly unimpressed look on his face, Sai stood up. “I suppose I’ll just have to wing it, then.” He folded up his sketched book, slid the pencil into the wire binding and stood up. Iruka was still talking to the others, but in typical fashion, Sai just marched right up and interrupted them.

“Iruka?” he asked, and put on a big bright smile when Iruka nodded. “Naruto has told me so much about you! I’m sorry we didn’t get to meet earlier. I want to go into education, because I love working with kids, but my parents aren’t very encouraging… Could I ask you some questions?”

Sai continued, but he’d already hit enough buzzwords to have Iruka’s full attention. His dad loved his job so much. Naruto felt a little bad to have Sai lie right to his face, but it was very successful in distracting him. He lingered a moment longer, until Sai tilted his head slightly, shooing him away. Naruto didn’t need to be told twice.

He walked, trying to restrain himself, then gave up and ran. Naruto had no idea what he was going to say to Sasuke, but he’d do what he did best; making the most of a bad situation. Whatever he was going to do or say would be exactly what it needed to be. He hoped it would be. If his options were to fix it or let it go, as Iruka told him, he knew the latter was impossible. So, he’d fix it. He knew what he wanted to do.

Naruto skidded around a corner, nearly knocking over a worker carrying a tall stack of boxes, to whom he could only apologize and continue on his way. He waded further into the carnival, to the deep end, where he knew Sasuke would be.

And he was. Sasuke stood in front of one of the pillars, untying a flap that rolled down, covering the open portion between the awning and the counter. He looked detached, eyes foggy. Not in the way they’d been at the beach, full of fondness. Instead, he looked lonely. I’ll fix that, too , Naruto thought, setting his sights on Sasuke.

“Hey, Sasuke.”

Sasuke flinched, nearly unnoticeably. Then he sighed, and went back to tying the cover down. “I didn’t think I was ever going to see you again,” he said, offhand.

“Unfortunately not the case. Here I am.” Naruto approached, not stepping within Sasuke’s bubble but waiting outside it. Sasuke continued to ignore him, but there was a tinge of pink in his cheeks that Naruto knew wasn’t from the cold. His fingers were moving slower than they usually would, the rope slipping between them.

His eyes, however, never wavered from their task. Understandable, as Sasuke probably wasn’t expecting Naruto to dump him into the sand last night. Sasuke didn’t strike him as someone who took hits to his ego easily. Naruto was going to have to make him forget about all that.

“I’m sorry about last night,” he said, and he looked down. At his orange shoes, firmly planted on the aging boardwalk. Naruto was giving Sasuke the ability to have whatever reaction to that he wanted, without worrying about how Naruto would interpret it. “You surprised me and I wasn’t ready and I panicked, but that’s only because I like you. If I didn’t like you it wouldn’t matter.”

Sasuke said nothing in response to this, besides his stance softening. His eyes, still, were narrowed.

“I wish I would have kissed you.”

There was silence, a gust of wind, and another sigh before Sasuke finally spoke. “You could’ve.” That was all. Naruto looked up; Sasuke had finished his job and was now standing, arms crossed, voice steady.

Naruto stepped closer, inching into Sasuke’s personal space. “Really?” he asked. He needed to know.

Sasuke huffed, smiling slightly but not in a happy way. “You could’ve done a lot more than that if I’m being-”

That was all he’d been waiting for; Naruto grabbed Sasuke by the front of his hoodie, slammed him against the pillar, and kissed him hard.

It was like how he’d always pictured; Naruto poured years of want and need into that kiss, trying to show Sasuke his devotion in a way his words could never hope to convey.

Sasuke made a noise of surprise, but then was putting his weight against the pillar, leaning. Like his knees were getting weak. Naruto hands untangled from his hoodie and he tilted Sasuke’s face slightly, coaxing his mouth open. Now, finally, Naruto knew what he tasted like.

Oxygen wasn’t so high on his list of basics needs anymore. It’d been replaced by Sasuke. Breathing was purely a technicality; after each gasp of air, they were pressed together again, Sasuke’s tongue was in his mouth and his fingers in Sasuke’s hair. Just like a year ago, it was painful to be anything but close. Not being with Sasuke was torture. Naruto didn’t know how he’d possibly held out as long as he had.

It was almost perfect. There was only one revision he made. He could feel Sasuke’s hands, leaving fire in their wake, pressing to his chest and sliding down. Sasuke knew what he wanted. He’d showed that, on the beach. But Naruto knew what he wanted too; it was his move, his kiss. He wouldn’t let Sasuke steal it.

Naruto broke it off and flashed that smirk, the one Sasuke loved slipping on. He caught Sasuke’s wrists, pressing them over his head with one hand. “Let me make it up to you,” he said. Gentle. And then brought his mouth to Sasuke’s neck. Anything but gentle. It was bruising, he was most definitely leaving a mark, and Sasuke moaned softly, making no move to escape Naruto. Rather, all of Sasuke, his unsteady breath, the heat of his body, the slight arch of his back so he could fit against Naruto perfectly: all of it was begging Naruto to give him more. To give him everything .

And that was something, though it killed him, that Naruto couldn’t give. The carnival was shutting down around them, and if Iruka caught him in this position, then he would actually be killed. He had to let go of Sasuke’s hands; he had to force himself to step away.

This had been a risky move. A very risky move, but it paid off. Sasuke seemed to be a loss for words. He stood, fingers touching his neck where Naruto had made his claim, eyes wide. Sasuke always had something to say. Maybe it was Naruto’s turn.

“That’s something to remember me by,” he said, still out of breath, “until next time.”

Naruto didn’t know if Sasuke remembered saying that same thing to him, one year before, but he hoped he did. Naruto turned, to disappear into the night the same way he’d come. The last glimpses he got of Sasuke before leaving were strange.

Sasuke looked, in some ways, how he’d expected. Surprised, obviously, and turned on. There was no regret, but there was fear. Sasuke looked scared, deeply so, in a caged way, eyes big and wide and seeing all. Sasuke was afraid.

It was gone in a split second, almost so Naruto could think he imagined it. Instead, Sasuke waved, weakly, and Naruto knew then for sure; he’d fixed it. He’d done more than that. Naruto tried not to looked like he’d just been making out for five minutes when he found his dad again, still talking to Sai. Whether he pulled it off or not, he didn’t know, but Iruka didn’t say anything about it. That was good enough for him.

Naruto knew it was only visible to him, but he felt light. Glowing. Sasuke was the strongest painkiller he’d ever taken, and the effects lasted through the night, and easily into the next day. Iruka was asking him if he was alright, because he looked dazed. Yes, he was dazed. Yes, he was more than alright.

It wasn’t until he was sitting in the passenger seat of Iruka’s car that he forced himself to think about leaving Oceanside. He didn’t want to, wished the summer would stretch far into fall. Stretch into winter, spring, and the following summer. He’d be so far from Sasuke in the city, and just after they’d been so close, too.

Naruto put his head on the window and closed his eyes. Maybe his glow would last that long, until Sasuke could touch him and bring it back again. He hoped so, at least.

A tap at his window made him jump. He turned; Sai was standing outside, leaning down to look inside the car. Naruto rolled down the window, using the lever on the door, and squinted. “What’s up, Sai? We were just leaving.”

“I know,” he said, and waved at Iruka. “I had something I wanted to give you.” He handed Naruto a small stack of papers, and then turned, without even bothering to say goodbye. Naruto rolled his eyes; some parts of Sai would probably never change.

“What are they?” asked Iruka, leaning over to look, and Naruto examined them, too.

They were drawings. Most of them just sketches, but it was easy to tell; they were drawings of Naruto and their friends. Sai must have been sneaky, or at least very quick; Naruto hadn’t noticed him with his sketchbook out often. He’d captured Sakura and Choji perfectly, their big smiles. Ino, rolling her eyes. And Shikamaru looked properly bored in almost every sketch. Naruto himself was in several, and he could see himself in them, too.

Iruka smiled, ruffled his hair. “What a nice gift.” Naruto nodded, looking through them all. They were better than photographs, because there wasn’t anything posed. It was just Oceanview, and his favorite people who lived in it, existing. He was tearing up slightly; embarrassing.

He didn’t get to the bottom of the pile until Iruka was speeding down the highway, but there was one that was different from the others. It was just Naruto, from the shoulders up.

Sasuke ” was written underneath it in quotes. Naruto tilted his head at it, looking at the interesting shadows of his face, and then he knew. Sai most likely drew it when Naruto had told him about Sasuke, under the streetlamp at the picnic table. Again, Sai had expertly transferred life to paper. Naruto’s eyes widened.

It had clicked. Why Sasuke had told him not to look that way at him.

Naruto looked like he was in love.

The paper trembled slightly in his hands, and then he shoved it back to the bottom of the pile. He didn’t want to think about it. The glowing was okay, the fond summer memories were okay, but he didn’t want to be in love with someone he was leaving behind. Naruto would miss him so much, think about him all the time. If he was in love. If.

He leaned against the window again, willing himself out of it, back to Oceanview. Naruto tried his best to convince himself he had any say in his emotions towards Sasuke, but that was a lie. The way Sasuke made him feel wasn’t like any other sensation he’d ever felt. If this was love, if he was in love, he’d be helpless to it, he knew it. It would own him. Naruto began to mouth the words, hoping they’d feel wrong on his tongue. I’m in love with...

He didn’t want to think about it.

Chapter Text

This was, hands down, one of the weirdest arguments Naruto had ever had.

Weirder than the fight he’d had with his dad after finding erotica in his room while stealing socks. “So I’m not allowed to have porn, but you can have porn?” Naruto asked at the kitchen table. “This isn’t even good porn, Iruka.” Iruka, completely red in the face, told him they belonged to his boyfriend, not him, and also Iruka was a grown up and he could do whatever he wanted and where had Naruto even found that anyway?

Weirder than an argument with Hinata, when the friend group watched a nature documentary about Antarctica. He’d made the mistake of saying that polar bears were cold-blooded. Obviously, because they lived in the snow. Hinata looked at him like he was an idiot, and told him that wasn’t true at all. Voices were raised. Shino just watched. Kiba walked in from a snack run to see Hinata standing on a table with murder in her eyes and Naruto yelling “So you’re telling me, if I went and hugged a damn lizard right now, that fucker wouldn’t be nice and warm?!”

Weirder than when Oceanview was completely divided on what Shikamaru had been talking about on the phone with his girlfriend. He’d stepped out of Choji’s house to take a call, but it was easy to hear his voice from the open windows upstairs that they crowded around. It had started out normal, up until Shikamaru paused for an extended period of time, and then said, in this low voice, “well not if I do it first.” The four friends had stopped, looked at each other, and then the fight began.

“It was about fucking, or sexting, or something!” shouted Ino, loud enough to be angry but quiet enough so Choji’s dad wouldn’t hear. “I know that tone of voice, he’s using that boy voice.” Naruto nodded; he knew the voice.

“No!” insisted Sakura. “You guys are gross, it could have been about like… picking up milk from the store. Leave him alone, leave him and his hot girlfriend alone!”

It escalated from there, until Shikamaru walked in to witness Sakura pulling Ino’s hair while Choji and Naruto pointed fingers in each others faces. “I feel like I don’t want to know what this is about,” he said, and that was probably true.

All of those arguments happened in this last year, the year he’d turned 18. Technically, he was an adult, but Naruto had quickly learned that what he’d thought being an adult meant wasn’t true at all.

When he was little, he’d thought he’d suddenly know what to do and say, in any situation. A switch would flip on in his head with a body-shaking click, making him suddenly capable and charismatic. In reality, he was pretty much one year closer to death and just as confused about what he was doing.

Because the difference between 17 and 18 wasn’t nearly as drastic as he’d hoped it would be, Naruto had tried to act more adult instead. Taking responsibility for his own actions, becoming more independent, and being honest. Naruto felt like he’d grown up a lot in the past year, and he was proud of that.

He’d always felt one step behind the people around him, like they knew something he didn’t. There wasn’t anybody this was more true for than Sasuke; Sasuke was always cooler, smarter, stronger. Now, Naruto had thought, striding through the morning mist down the boardwalk, they were better matched. Naruto could just level with him.

So why was it, now that Naruto finally had the confidence he’d spent three years building up, Sasuke was dragging his feet? Why, the second Naruto grew up, Sasuke wanted to act like a brat?

And he really was. He looked like a little kid, arms folded and face turned away. Naruto half expected him to stomp his foot in the next 5 minutes. He was starting to get annoyed; he’d had every intention about being the bigger person here, but if Sasuke was be this way, and even worse, lie ? Naruto hadn’t grown up that much.

“It’s so obvious you’re not telling the truth!” Naruto said. He stood opposite Sasuke, the counter of the ring toss stand between them. Sasuke was glaring fiercely, the swing of a blade, but it didn’t cut clean; it clashed, against Naruto’s own. “It’s not that you have to be attracted to me, it’s that you totally are and you’re just lying right to my face! I don’t even understand why you would do that!”

“I’m not lying,” Sasuke huffed, arms folded tightly over his chest, his own personal life jacket. Naruto just wasn’t buying it. He walked up to find the stand already set up, and Sasuke barricaded within it, protected by little stuffed warriors. Naruto hadn’t known what to expect; there was something between them, something that had been set alight the summer before, but who was Naruto to say the icy winter months hadn’t killed it?

For his own sake, just like summers before, he wasn’t going to assume anything about how Sasuke felt. For Naruto, the kiss might as well have been yesterday for how well he remembered it. But maybe Sasuke gets kissed within an inch of his life every Tuesday afternoon, who knows. He’d felt less anxious when their eyes locked, Naruto with an easy smile and Sasuke tucked just within the shadows of the stand; Sasuke hadn’t forgotten, and if Naruto’s memory was sound, he knew exactly what that look meant.

Whatever signals Sasuke’s body language was giving him were directly contradicted by Sasuke’s words. The small talk bounced back and forth between them until Naruto had decided to fast-forward to the part where they talk about their feelings. That was the absolute last thing Sasuke wanted to talk about in the light of day, which really wasn’t much of a surprise.

Reluctance, uncertainty, Naruto could understand it. But when Sasuke had stood in front of him, blushing, biting his lip, and then saying I don’t know, I don’t really remember what happened ? Uncalled for.

Sasuke appeared annoyed with himself as well. Naruto remembered all those years ago, when the usually immaculate competitor lost his concentration on the last ring. In the moment, Naruto had been confused; why had Sasuke looked angry? But after getting to know Sasuke, his emotions were much more legible. Reading him wasn’t like deciphering a different language anymore; it was obvious.

Sasuke ran a tight ship and held the reins even tighter. That is, he liked control. How he felt about Naruto was out of his control, apparently, and now it was giving them both grief.

“It’s not even a big deal to like someone.”

“I know it’s not,” Sasuke hissed. “I know that.”

“Then literally what’s the problem here?”

“Have you ever considered the fact that I might have a boyfriend?” Sasuke snapped.

Naruto blinked, because no, he’d never genuinely considered that. Or if the thought ever possessed him, he’d exorcised it as soon as possible. The thought of someone else loving Sasuke was a knife in his stomach, and the thought of Sasuke loving them back only twisted it.

But of course Sasuke might have a boyfriend. He was beautiful, one of a kind; he wasn’t pining for some boy he saw only once a year. No, only an idiot would do that…

“Do you have a boyfriend, then?”

“No.”

Sasuke was being fucking impossible .

Naruto sighed and shoved his hands in his pockets. He made eye contact with one of the stuffed frogs, with the big pink cheeks. Perpetually embarrassed and swinging, weak to the will of the wind.

“You know,” Naruto began, stepping forward slightly, “I bet you're just upset because you like me and can’t control it. This is some weird mental obstacle course you’re putting yourself through, to see if you can stop your feelings.” Sasuke’s expression didn’t change, but his fingers twitched. “You really don’t have to do that to yourself.”

“What I choose to do is none of your business,” Sasuke told him coldly. Naruto rolled his eyes.

“Or… Maybe…” Naruto added, as if Sasuke hadn’t spoken. He’d have to be a little tricky here, but he could probably make it work. “Maybe you’re just afraid to pick up where we left off. It’s okay, I get it. I mean,” he said, offhand, “you couldn’t get up the courage to kiss me. You just waited for me to do it.”

Sasuke’s eyes widened. His palms went to the counter, and then his face was in Naruto’s, teeth bared. “Speak plainly.”

“Being with me? You couldn’t. Bet you can’t even kiss me. You’re either too proud,” Naruto smirked, “or too scared.”

In a second, Sasuke’s hands were clenched in Naruto’s shirt and tugging him forward. Close, but not quite. Their mouths remained only inches from the other’s, but not touching. Sasuke’s breath hissed through his teeth; he was effectively pissed off. But still he held Naruto there.

“I can’t believe that worked on you,” Naruto said softly. Sasuke’s grip tightened, and then slipped away. He pushed Naruto back, one palm against his chest, but not hard. “You’re so easy to provoke, I’m shocked.”

“I don’t like being called scared,” was all Sasuke said, and then turned, collecting the stack of rings from the back of the stand. “Then again, I don’t like a lot of things.” Like Naruto was one of those things, even though Naruto knew he couldn’t possibly be.

“But, you’re right.” He set the hoops down with a clatter, and looked Naruto in the eye. “I keep to myself, because I can control myself. But you’re unpredictable. You’re touch and go,” Sasuke said, and then smirked. “Sometimes literally.”

Naruto flushed. He’d done a good job blocking the memory of dumping Sasuke off his lap into the sand out of his mind, but now it was coming back to him. Painstakingly. “Ugh, why did you have to remind me?” Sasuke hopped up to sit on the counter, his back to Naruto. He patted the space to his right. Naruto wasted no time climbing over and sat, his heels tapping against the compartments under the counter with dull thumps.

Sasuke looked deep in thought, and then nodded slightly before speaking, as if he’d come to a conclusion. “You marched up here so sure of yourself. I could see it, when you were walking down the boardwalk towards me. I could hear the pep-talk you were giving yourself. Now I wouldn’t say you were intimidating, because I’m not sure if you’re capable of that-”

“Thanks.”

“-but you were certainly confident. Very confident.”

“Yeah, I’m confident. Why are you telling me this?

“Here.” The ten rings landed in his lap. “Sit here and play.” Sasuke was expressionless, just looking forward at the bottles in formation, glass soldiers who rarely lost their battle against the rings. “I’ll make it easy, too. Blue, purple, green, dark red, black, yellow, pink, white, light red and orange.”

“I remember, jeez,” Naruto grumbled, even though he’d definitely forgotten the order of the weights. It’d been a while since he’d had to remember them. He organized them like that, in two rows of five. After that, the execution would be simple.

He picked up the blue, and didn’t even bother to hope it would land where he wanted it to; he didn’t need to. It spun around the bottle one, twice, three times, clinking all the way. Naruto had pretty much maxed out his ability at ring toss, which wasn't surprising considering the sheer amount of time that he spent at this stand.

This continued for four more rings. Once he’d firmly grasped the yellow ring, he felt Sasuke move closer to him, so their legs were pressed against each other. Naruto turned quickly, and Sasuke was still expressionless. The ring flew, and landed successfully, just like all the others.

Pink was next, and it was all downhill from there.

Sasuke reached out and placed his hand on Naruto’s knee. Just there, that was all, but his pointer finger was making a little figure-eight on his skin. He swallowed, held the ring up; pink, like Sasuke’s cute blush, and his tongue. Naruto blinked hard and threw. Clink, clink, clink, thump. Another win.

White was next, but Naruto was hardly paying attention, because Sasuke was distracting him. His hand had started to wander, sliding up the inside of Naruto’s thigh. The touch was leaning more towards suggestive than explicit, but Naruto could feel his face starting to burn.

“Uh, Sasuke?”

“Play the game.” Sasuke’s voice was low, and Naruto was prisoner to it. He threw, and the ring wobbled but hit the mark. How he did it, he had no idea; it was the last thing on his mind.

Light red. He wasn’t even through picking it up before Sasuke’s mouth was on his neck. Naruto inhaled sharply, letting the ring drop back on the counter. It was a soft kiss, and then another. He took a breath; he could deal with that. He raised the hoop, slowly, as if in water.

Sasuke sealed one more kiss and then opened his mouth, sucking slightly. His fingernails dug into Naruto’s skin, and then: “You only need your dominant hand to throw, right?” He picked up Naruto’s left hand, placing it on his leg, and then turned his attention back to Naruto.

Ring in one hand, Sasuke in the other. Naruto was hesitant at first, black denim under the slide of his palm. His hand dipped between Sasuke’s legs and squeezed one of his thighs and Sasuke let out this soft moan against Naruto’s neck and then Naruto’s fingers inched a little higher and he did it again, a little louder.

“If you win, you get a prize,” Sasuke purred, and put his hand over Naruto’s, pushing it closer to where it wanted to be. “I’ll think you’ll like it.”

His grip on the ring was feeble. He didn’t care about it anymore. Sasuke’s tone had dirty implications but Naruto’s mind was easily dirtier; He wanted Sasuke, and he couldn’t think of much else. The only thing he was sure of right now was his desire. Naruto threw anyway.

He missed. Of course he missed, how could he not? It hit the back wall and then to the ground. He’d shot for the moon, missed that and the stars both, tumbling back to Earth. Sasuke was off him in a moment, collecting the rings. Naruto just focused on breathing. Sasuke had taken a baseball bat to his stomach; touching him, then tearing it away. Not to mention making him fucking lose.

“...Why?” That was all he could ask. Naruto had no idea what that show was supposed to do, besides drive him insane.

“Because,” Sasuke said calmly, setting the rings back into a neat pile. “I think you were getting a little too cocky.” Naruto still looked at him blankly. “That, and to show you how ruined concentration feels. Not great, huh?”

“I’m not the one who has control issues, Sasuke, you do. Though I, uh, I get why it’s so uncomfortable for you now,” Naruto said, shifting awkwardly, “but… Can you give me a chance? Not just flirting or fucking around, like a real chance? You won’t regret it,” he tacked on at the end, and he meant it. Naruto would never make Sasuke regret meeting him.

“I don’t know,” Sasuke replied, and Naruto could tell it was an honest answer now. “I’d rather assess my emotions first.” He made it sound so medical, like picking apart his own mind required a scalpel. Naruto’s shoulders slumped. And Sasuke had called him unpredictable. They really were a matching pair; wild cards.

“Well… Can I still get my prize?” Sasuke glared at him, but Naruto put on his best pouting face. “Please? I tried really hard, and I swear the other team was cheating.”

“The other team was playing by the rules; the only one was to get the ring over the bottles. It doesn’t say anything about interference.” Sasuke paused. “Lucky for you, you only have to seven to win.”

Naruto brightened up. “Oh! Well, lay it on me.”

Sasuke rolled his eyes, but there was a half smile on his face, too. He leaned and pressed his lips against Naruto’s. It wasn’t a long kiss or a deep one, but he could feel emotion in it. Innocence, affection, uncertainty

If Sasuke’s bite on his neck felt dirty, this kiss made him feel clean. Weightless. Naruto liked both for different reasons, though that may not be saying much; Naruto liked just about everything about Sasuke.

He had said he wanted to think about it, so Naruto would respect that. He’d wanted an answer, instead of Sasuke just dodging the questions, and “I don’t know” was a perfectly fine response. But Naruto could hope, and he hoped Sasuke would say yes.

The rest of the day continued like that; Sasuke thinking and Naruto hoping. For a few hours, Naruto left to find Sakura and do a mad dash around the carnival. The money they shoved through the semi-circle window in the glass at the old ticket lady was money they’d earned. It felt both satisfying and a little ridiculous.

That’s another thing that Naruto had gotten wrong about being an adult; he was worried he wouldn’t be able to get excited about something like the Oceanview Carnival. But, he’d showed up, and soon he and Sakura were beaming at each other and eating way too much cotton candy. It was reassuring; not everything has to change.

Sakura had told him that he looked different, reaching out her hand to cover his face. He’d swatted it away and asked in what way. “I don’t know,” she said, reaching for where her hair used to be before remembering that she’d lopped it off. “You just look… glowy, and stuff.” She leaned forward, squinting, making the rickety bench beneath her squeak. “Are you pregnant or something?”

Holding his own stare through the tiny mirror in the porta-potties revealed nothing. Inside, Naruto could feel it, the warmth that had taken root in his heart and bloomed from there. It grew even brighter in Sasuke’s presence, that much was obvious. On the outside, he couldn’t see whatever Sakura saw; he looked like he always did. Maybe it’s something only other people can see, he thought. Or maybe the sickly green lighting wasn’t doing him any favors anyway.

Naruto saw the others, Shikamaru, Ino, Choji, Sai, but his mind was frantically clicking the fast-forward button. It wasn’t something he wanted to admit, but he’d spent the majority of the week with his friends, and now they just felt like the previews he had to sit through before he got to see Sasuke. Patience; another thing he thought came with adulthood and certainly doesn’t.

He held out as long as he could, in the tug-of-war game between his resolve to not act as desperate as he felt, and his need to see Sasuke. Finally the former gave up. Desperation took it’s victory so thoroughly level-headedness got rope burns. Naruto told his friends he was heading home for a bit, and he’d catch them later, only to loop back around.

“Hey. Any customers?”

“No, and I hope it stays that way. Management was pretty successful in hiding me away.”

“Why do you work here, anyway?” Naruto asked, finding his seat next to Sasuke as usual. He’d been wondering that for a while. Sasuke, often icy, always hot, dressed from head to toe in jet black; he wasn’t exactly the picture of “carnival employee.” Naruto would imagine somebody with rosy cheeks and big pants or bad eyebrows and smelling of cheap cigarettes (it seemed there was no inbetween).

Sasuke looked away from Naruto, down to where the boardwalk met its dead end and was lost to the elements. Towards the beach. His pause was so long, Naruto thought he might not answer at all.

“My dad.” Naruto’s eyes widened. He’d never heard Sasuke talk about anyone else in his life; about himself, sure, Naruto had learned how to coax that out of him, but never someone else. “He told me I had to get a job this summer, even though… He wanted me to be productive, and use my talents. So, I got a job that a racoon could do, and for three days only. Just to spite him.”

“A racoon could do your job?”

“Take tickets and stare blankly at patrons.”

“Oh.” Naruto considered what Sasuke had told him. In all honesty he couldn’t understand wanting to spite his dad. Iruka was always trying his best; even when he messed up, he was just trying to be the best dad he could be. Naruto had realized that at a certain age, and decided he’d be the best son he could be, with mixed results. “Well,” he said finally, “a job is a job. And, it’s summer.”

Sasuke looked up at the sky; blue and clear, one big stained glass window to the heavens above. Shikamaru had told Naruto temperatures had been climbing lately, but the world wasn’t doing it’s worst for today.

“Speaking of summer...” Besides his all-black attire clashing with the throne of red and yellow he sat upon, it covered everything but his hands, neck and face. Sometimes there might be a glimpse of his midriff or ankles, which didn’t really do anything in terms of cooling him off. Naruto wondered if he owned anything not black, or maybe jeans that weren’t one size too small so they stuck to him like honey. “In that outfit, aren’t you hot?”

“I don’t know,” Sasuke said, face perfectly straight, “but you certainly seem to think so.”

“That’s-” Naruto went pink and kicked his foot. “You know what I mean!”

Sasuke looked down at himself. “No, not really. I usually run cold.” That was something Naruto would have to disagree with; Sasuke’s attitude could drop below freezing, but once you were close enough to touch, that just wasn’t true at all.

“I feel like I’m super warm, all the time. Like, there was a ton of snow in the city last winter, and I ran around outside in my shorts like it was nothing.”

“I bet Iruka didn’t like that.” Naruto was surprised, again. That Sasuke had remembered his dad’s name. To be fair, Iruka was Naruto’s only close family; where someone else might mention a brother, an aunt, a grandpa, Naruto had only Iruka. He came up a lot. But still. Naruto looked at Sasuke, and Sasuke looked back expectantly.

“Yeah, he didn’t. I got a cold because of it and he tore me a new one.” Sasuke nodded, and Naruto wondered if Iruka would like Sasuke. The summer before, when Iruka came to the carnival, the things that made Naruto happy also made him happy. If that trend continued, Iruka would love Sasuke.

That was a thought that he was trying not to have, especially since Sasuke was still thinking about how he felt. Somehow, the thoughts that were romantic felt embarrassing. Well, everything was embarrassing; it wasn’t like imagining what it’d be like to fuck Sasuke while standing alone in the shower was 100% guilt free. But the day-dreams about dating, holding hands, waking up next to him? Those made his heart jump and his skin crawl. Two kisses and heavy flirting in and Naruto was essentially ready to propose? Ugh .

“My dad raises his voice a lot, but it’s never really angry? It’s more just… worried. So it sounds different from other people yelling.” Naruto sighed, and as if on queue, his phone chimed; a special sound, because it was assigned to only one person. Iruka was probably checking on him. “He worries about me all the time.”

“Are you really that rebellious?” Naruto laughed, and shook his head.

“No, I’m not. My friends are all right, I don’t party too much, I passed my classes, I don’t do drugs.”

“What about peer pressure?”

Naruto could vaguely remember a joke about peer pressure and cocaine from years ago, though no specific details came to mind. Sasuke had some memory. “Well, my ‘peers’ did pressure me into some drugs, but not the hard ones or anything. Mostly we just smoke weed and play cards, or watch whatever’s on… Iruka would have never even found out, except for my pupils were dilated or whatever.” Naruto huffed; Iruka had been so pissed they got noise complaints from the bitchy old man that lived above them. “I thought your eyes only got dilated from looking someone you like, you know? My friend Hinata says that happens.” Naruto rolled his eyes. “Didn’t say anything about weed, though.”

The breeze was gentle, carrying the smells and sounds of the carnival to Naruto, but for once he had no desire to follow it.

“I’ve never gotten caught,” Sasuke remarked, leaning back on his hands and watching two seagulls fight over half a hot dog down the pier a ways. “My dad’s like a hawk, but hasn’t caught me yet. I think it’s because I’m careful, and I usually look emotionless. That, and my eyes.” Naruto waited until Sasuke turned to look at him.

Naruto had suspected it before, but at close range, it was true; Sasuke’s eyes were so pure black, the line between iris and pupil was nonexistent. “Wow, you’re right. That’s almost spooky. You could totally be high right now.”

“True. Or looking at someone I like.” Sasuke held Naruto’s stare, and he was trying to gain something from them, insight, inside Sasuke’s head. But Sasuke was on lockdown again, back in charge of himself. Naruto got nothing. He must have look confused because Sasuke laughed. “Don’t overthink it.”

Naruto was going to overthink it.

His prediction was correct; he over thought it for hours. Naruto had always thought it’d be better once he had Sasuke’s attention; it used to be just disinterest, Sasuke on his phone, ignoring him. He wasn’t so sure anymore. Every smile, laugh, touch had Naruto sinking further into his feelings. It had been okay before, but now he was in neck deep. At one point, he made Sasuke laugh, a real laugh, and Sasuke bumped his shoulder against Naruto’s. He was drowning.

The sun, too, was drowning, slipping into the waves in the distance. Naruto had no idea how long they’d been sitting there, just talking about anything. They didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things, that much was clear, but there was no real bite to any argument. If Naruto didn’t know better, he’d think he’d known Sasuke much longer than he actually had. Or that’s how it felt.

Sasuke felt it, too. He had to. Why else would he be spending all this time with Naruto, smiling more than he ever had before? And they had kissed, just this morning, not to mention engaged in some spontaneous ring toss power play, which, by the way, was not a sentence Naruto could have pieced together in his wildest imagination.

They gotten closer over the hours, until they were almost pressed together, voices quiet because they didn’t need to be any louder. The world was calming down around them, while Naruto only got more antsy. Was Sasuke done thinking? Why was he looking at Naruto with that look if he wasn’t done thinking?

Naruto opened his mouth to ask him, but Sasuke cut him off. “I wanted to ask you. Last year, when you marched over here and kissed me.” Naruto tensed; he had no idea where Sasuke was going to go with this. “You said ‘let me make it up to you’, and then put my hands over my head. What did you mean by that?”

He tried to think back, to a year ago. “Well, um, it was kind of an apology for running away the night before. But also you’re always… You always know what you’re doing, and I could tell you were trying to take control, but it was my move, you know?” Sasuke considered this and then nodded. “Why? Was it bad?”

“No,” Sasuke said, and then turned to look at Naruto. “It was fucking sexy.”

Naruto was fairly sure his soul left his body at that moment. It floated above him, because surely he hadn’t heard that right, and he must be dead. His mouth opened, but he didn’t know why because he had nothing good to say. “...Thank you.”

Yes, he was dead. He must be.

“That was some summer. You made me swim fully-clothed in the ocean.”

“That’s because you were so sure I was trying to get you naked! I wasn’t even!”

Sasuke gave him a look, almost withering, if Naruto didn’t know better. “I was making fun of you, Naruto. I would have stripped.”

“Oh.” Naruto swallowed, and then put his hand over his eyes. “I’m an idiot.”

Sasuke ignored this comment, slipping off the counter and stretching. The lights of the carnival were still on, but almost all of the patrons were gone. The shadows were tricky, and the ocean much louder than before. “Come on,” Sasuke said, tilting his head towards the back of the stand. “I have something for you.”

Naruto had no idea what Sasuke could possibly have for him, but jumped down as well, following him back. The little space was just as he remembered, besides being in much better shape. The boxes were stacked off to one side, the bench wasn’t nearly as dusty and it was thankfully rid of the spiderwebs that Naruto hated so much. But, that was it. Nothing else to be seen.

“What is it?”

“It’s an answer.”

Naruto didn’t even react; he didn’t want to get his hopes up. It would hurt far too much to be let down. “And what’s that?”

Sasuke stepped closer, closer, until they were almost chest to chest. It didn’t take too much effort, for how small the space was. Shorter than Naruto, not by much, but he was looking up. A set gaze, revealing a mind already made up.

A pause, one that felt longer than his life played in reverse. Then, finally. “God, Naruto, what do you think?” Sasuke asked, and pulled Naruto in.

It wasn’t like their first kiss; they didn’t have to introduce themselves. Sasuke’s hands were clenched in the front of his shirt, holding him closely, and Naruto’s moved to his waist. The kiss was long, and that warmth, that blossom in his chest, was scorching.

Air. Curse air. They broke apart, but stayed close to each other. Breathing, in and out, but only because they had to. Naruto tapped one foot and his fingers drummed against Sasuke’s sides. He didn’t want to not be kissing Sasuke ever again. He leaned in, pressed his lips to Sasuke’s, paused, did it again, almost deliriously happy that he could.

Naruto pulled Sasuke closer, pressing his cheek against Sasuke’s hair. He was going to say something embarrassing, it was unavoidable, he could feel it bubbling in his stomach. Every once and a while, Naruto would think of the perfect thing to say. By the time it made it out of his mouth, however, it sounded stupid.

“I think we fit together,” he said quietly, and kissed Sasuke’s neck. “We match.” Sasuke said nothing, but tilted his head, giving Naruto room. A subtle command. Sasuke was very good at saying what he didn’t like, Naruto thought as he complied. It seemed to be much harder to say what he did like.

And he clearly liked this. Naruto wasn’t shy anymore; he opened his mouth, teeth and tongue brushing against skin. Sasuke was squirming, especially when Naruto touched the space between his neck and shoulder. His hand tightened around Sasuke’s waist and he bit down. Not deep enough to hurt whatsoever, but enough to made Sasuke slide his hand up to the back of Naruto’s neck.

“Harder,” he whispered, in that voice that owned Naruto, and he complied. He bit again, teeth sinking in slightly, and sucked. Sasuke’s fingers were in his hair, pulling, his body pulled, too. Everywhere they touched was fire in the dim light.

Naruto brushed a kiss over his skin, but in the moment Sasuke’s hand was there, running his fingers over the the twin arches indented in his skin. He was breathing heavy and staring at Naruto with a hunger he’d never seen. Even on the beach, everything had been slower; this Sasuke wanted Naruto. Right now.

“You want me to show you?” Sasuke said, and his voice was low. Low like the depths of the ocean; Naruto had no idea what it held. “You want me to show you what I wanted to do on that beach?” His pointer fingers curled around Naruto’s belt loops and he yanked him forward, making Naruto squeak. “I think you’ll like it.”

Naruto could remember how he’d felt that night, otherworldly, finally getting to touch Sasuke and let his heart run wild. All of that was important, but on a more primitive level, it’d been really, really hot. Naruto had a few past flings, so he had a form of reference. Sasuke blew them so far out of the water that Naruto couldn’t even recall their names.

That memory, of Sasuke on top, grinding against him, looking down at Naruto with that smug look. Like he’d read Naruto’s mind and knew what he fantasized about. Like he was taunting Naruto with it. “ Yes ,” Naruto breathed. Sasuke stepped away. He touched the mark on his neck one last time, and then took Naruto’s hand, pulling him to the bench.

“Here?” he asked, uncertain, and Sasuke rolled his eyes.

“It’s fine, nobody ever comes back here. And which one’s worse, Naruto, your bunk bed in a room with no lock or trying to sneak you in past my asshole dad?” Naruto considered this, and sighed. That was a fair point.

“Yeah. Especially since there’s no spiders anymore. I guess it just seems a little messy.”

“Well,” said Sasuke, voice level, “we’re going to get a little messy.”

...Damn.

“Sit.” Naruto sat without hesitation. He was starting to not care so much where this happened, as long as it happened. There was nowhere he should be than on this bench, and nowhere Sasuke should be other than on him. Sasuke stood in front of him, expression knowing. But he wasn’t making a move; Naruto couldn’t fucking wait anymore.

He reached out, hands on Sasuke’s hips, his favorite place so far. Naruto pulled him forward, pressing his face against his stomach. Sasuke was warm, and Naruto kissed him there. Gently, though that might be because the rest of him was behaving differently.

His hands went from Sasuke’s hips to gliding up his waist, pushing Sasuke’s shirt up enough that Naruto’s mouth could reach skin. Then they sliding down, over Sasuke’s ass and down to his thighs. He rested his forehead against Sasuke, so he could watch as he reached, fingers tracing up the inseam. While Naruto usually hated these damn jeans for being so unreasonably tight, he wasn’t hating them at all now.

Naruto was suddenly swatted away. “Alright. My turn,” Sasuke said, and found his place again, straddling Naruto. He braced himself on the back of the bench with one arm, and gave Naruto a slight smile. “I’d rather get right to it. Hopefully you don’t mind,” he said, and brought his free hand down to Naruto’s cock.

Naruto clamped down on Sasuke’s waist so tightly it was nearly bruising, but Sasuke had meant it. The heel of his hand pressed, grinding down, and then fingers traced his outline, obvious through the fabric. “We can do better than that,” he said, mostly to himself, and undid the button of Naruto’s pants.

Sasuke’s lips hit Naruto’s the same time his hand slid between Naruto’s legs, and he couldn’t help moaning into Sasuke’s mouth. Sasuke’s skin on his was too good, his tongue pushing into Naruto’s mouth tasted like heaven. They were too close for much movement, but Sasuke was making do, stroking him in time with the subtle rock of Naruto’s hips.

Their kiss broke, leaving them gasping, but Sasuke continued. He was a sight; eyes looking down, at his hand working, mouth open, panting. There was desperate want in his expression. Naruto would give anything to fuck Sasuke. He liked that look, he wanted it burned in his memory. He wanted to pull Sasuke’s legs around his waist, get out of these clothes, he was so sick of clothes .

Naruto couldn’t, not now, but even just the thought was making it hard to breathe. His hands slid down to Sasuke’s ass again, fucking tight , and pulled him forward, so the only thing keeping Sasuke from being completely pressed to him was Sasuke’s hand.

“You like this.” Sasuke huffed out, teasing. He moved his hand away, and then his dick was pressed to Naruto’s, and his hips were moving like he was born for it. Sasuke kissed Naruto again, wet, and then looked at him squarely. Sasuke brought one hand down to cover Naruto’s where it was squeezing and smirked. “You want me?” As if to confirm it.

Sasuke had no idea. If Naruto could, he’d have Sasuke anyway he wanted, anyway he could think of. He could ride Naruto, sure, but it’d be a mistake to think Naruto didn’t pull his weight. Sasuke looked smug now, but he wouldn’t be when Naruto pushed in, teasing, so slow he’d be begging. When Naruto made him scream.

Naruto shut his eyes tight and grabbed Sasuke’s arm. While Naruto desperately wanted to do all those things, there was a more pressing matter at hand. “Sasuke, if you keep… It’s good, so good, but if you keep going, I’m gonna, like-”

“Come in your pants?” Sasuke finished for him. Naruto nodded, feeling a little sheepish; he just didn’t feel like that’d be particularly comfortable or hot. Sasuke sighed. “We can’t have that.” He stood up, but only for a moment; Sasuke got on his knees.

Naruto was going to pass out.

“Spread your legs.” Naruto barely heard it, but he did it anyway. “You look dazed,” Sasuke said, and Naruto could hear the sly smile before he saw it. Sasuke’s hands went to his knees and then slid up his thighs, tugging at his waistband. “Have you thought about this, too?”

Naruto nodded, biting his lip. “But.” His voice was hoarse. “I think about you a lot. Only a small percentage of that involves you sucking me off.” Sasuke gave him a withering look.

“Wow. What a gentleman.”

“I’m just saying.”

“Shut up,” Sasuke told him softly, and reached to Naruto’s already undone pants. “Well,” he added, “if you can.”

The air was cold when Sasuke pulled down his waistband, but the heat of arousal made it almost unnoticeable. Sasuke was staring, that hungry look again. His hand reached out, running along the underside, and it made Naruto want to squirm from the attention. Sasuke held his gaze, reins tight. Along with Sasuke’s tone when it got low, that look had powers over Naruto that were beyond the divine; he dropped his insecurities. Sasuke licked his lips, and then slid his tongue over the head of Naruto’s cock. He slowly lapped up the precum that was dripping, and then ran the tip of his tongue over the slit, teasing it, making Naruto moan.

“Stop playing with me,” he finally got out, and Sasuke looked up at him. There was a smirk on his face.

“But you’re so endearing when you’re desperate,” he said, and before Naruto could disagree, he took Naruto in his mouth.

It was just the head first, sucking on it, and then the whole length. Naruto sunk into wet crushed velvet heat, and then Sasuke moved . He had to put one arm over his mouth to keep from being any louder than he was. Sasuke was treating him like something desirable, something seductive, and Naruto had never felt that way in his life. But Sasuke was doing it, looking up every once in a while, occasionally with Naruto’s cock pressed against his lips before it slipped inside his mouth again.

At one point, Naruto reached out with his free hand, the one that wasn’t muffling his noises, and he placed it on Sasuke’s head, fingers in his hair. Sasuke took him deeper than before, and he pulled instinctively. Immediately, Sasuke let out a kind of whine and Naruto could see his legs spread wider beneath him. He pulled away for a moment, and Naruto could see he was red, blushing more than Naruto had ever seen. Probably because he’d involuntarily revealed something about himself.

Well, if Naruto’s embarrassment could go get fucked, so could Sasuke’s. Next time he pulled Sasuke’s hair on purpose. This made Sasuke keen again, and then Sasuke’s hand was between his own legs, and there was no way that wasn’t going to push Naruto over the edge.

“Ah, Sasuke, I’m-!” That was the best warning he could give. His hand on Sasuke’s head pushed him away, but only a moment; then Sasuke was back, mouth occupied, swallowing Naruto down. If Naruto was going to pass out before, this was bordering on cardiac arrest.

There was not a single humiliating teenage wet dream that could have ever prepared Naruto for the sight before him now; Sasuke, panting, still pink, hair messed up. They were staring each other like they’d gotten away with murder, like they shouldn’t be allowed to feel this good but somehow they’d done it anyway. It was intense. It was too much. They looked away.

Naruto breathed, and tucked himself back in, and then pulled Sasuke back up to his level, possessing Sasuke’s mouth. It tasted a little weird, but he wanted to taste himself on Sasuke. Sasuke kissed him back, and it was languid, ice melting and suns setting.

“You liked it,” Sasuke told him, and the smirk was back. “I told you.” Naruto looked at him, and then snorted. Sasuke’s eyes narrowed. “What? Why are you laughing?”

“I’m so sorry, you’re right, but I can’t take you seriously when-” Naruto tapped his cheek.

Sasuke looked at him blankly, touched his cheek and then folded his hands with a deep sigh. “I have cum on my face.” Naruto patted his shoulder.

“I think it’s endearing,” he told Sasuke, who rolled his eyes. He wiped his face, and Naruto put his knees up, resting his forehead against them and groaning.

“Something wrong?” Sasuke asked from beside him.

“No. Everything is right. I’m just…” Naruto trailed off. It was going to take him more than a minute to come back to Earth. “You’re the hottest person I’ve ever met. Ever. And like we were kissing? And that was so good, but then…” He couldn’t string together any collection of words that would make sense. Sasuke just patted his face.

There was still some surprise, but what had he expected from Sasuke? Something sweet, something slow? No. When it got down to it, Sasuke was the type to kick down doors with guns blazing; no wonder he blew Naruto’s mind.

That next morning, when Naruto walked up to the stand, he pulled Sasuke in for a kiss. Before anything else. Because he could. And Sasuke said something but he was blushing a little too. Naruto’s chest hurt.

He kissed Sasuke again. The morning mist billowed around them like the smoke that plumed from Shikamaru’s mouth when he smoked. “Yeah, it’s addictive ,” he told Naruto once, “but I’m not going to get addicted .” Fog swirled. Yeah. Him and Shikamaru both.

Once the stand was completely set up, Naruto wanted to suggest they walk around, go somewhere else, but he didn’t. Partially, admittedly, because if he felt the urge to press Sasuke against a wall again, he didn’t want to be in the middle of a crowd of people. More than that, though, he didn’t think Sasuke would want to. Sasuke didn’t seem to like other people much at all.

Every time somebody would wander a little too close, his eyes would either widen or narrow. Dread that they might come too close and irritation that they would even dare. Naruto was just going to accept that he couldn’t understand it; he felt the opposite. He had the general assumption that there was something good in everyone, and liked talking just to talk.

Sasuke wasn’t somebody who could be unraveled over a few days, months, maybe years. There was a lot tangled up and stitched closed behind a composed cover. It reminded him of the summer he was 16, when he’d touched Sasuke’s hand and he’d taken it like a bullet. It had terrified Naruto, because he didn’t know what he had done wrong. Maybe if that’s how Naruto felt when people got too close, that intense anxiety, he wouldn’t want to be around people either. So he let it go. They could wander around the carnival some other time.

Instead, they played a game Naruto had suggested and Sasuke couldn’t say no to. “You know the order the rings are supposed to go in, right?” Sasuke nodded. “Can you do it out of order?”

“Of course I can fucking do it out of order, I’ve been working here forever. I can play this game with my eyes closed.”

“Oh!” Naruto said loudly, and clapped his hands. “That’s even better!”

So, Sasuke was standing, eyes shut, holding his hand out for a ring. Naruto had put the rings out of order: orange, white, yellow, green, black, pink, purple, blue, and then the two reds, dark fist and light last. Orange was first because Naruto was tired of his favorite color always being at the end. It deserved better than that.

This was a test of Sasuke’s skill. If he was going to make claims like he can do it with his eyes closed, he’d better be able to back it up. Besides, Sasuke was nice to look at, and it was much less intimidating to do it when Sasuke couldn’t see him. He’d probably deck Naruto if he ever used the word ‘beautiful’, but he was truly at a lack for a better word.

Sasuke’s appearance was constantly at war with itself. He was built lithe but strong, sharp jaw, electric eyes, and a voice like tinted glass; dark and clear. But he was finespun, too. The fluttering of the hair that framed his face in the breeze, pale fingers that moved with thought and precision, and those cherry blossom lips; delicate. It seemed foolish, to keep the fine china beside a battle axe, but Sasuke made the balance work for him. Naruto never got tired of looking at him.

He kicked his feet happily. Sasuke held his hand out expectantly and Naruto gave him the first ring. Sasuke smirked. “You put the orange one first? You’re so predictable.”

“Wha-? Hey! Are you peeking?” Naruto leaned closer in suspicion, but Sasuke’s eyes seemed to be completely shut.

He lifted the hoop up and tapped the edge. “See here? There’s two little nicks, right next to each other. No other color has that.” Naruto was surprised, though maybe he shouldn't be. Sasuke’s memory was insane; Naruto wouldn’t have bothered to remember the orange ring has two nicks on it. That’s why Sasuke was throwing and Naruto was handing him the hoops.

Even though the initial purpose of the game had been a dare, but Naruto wasn’t really paying attention to it anymore. Instead he decided to ask Sasuke questions, most of which Sasuke answered. If he didn’t want to, he wouldn’t say anything, and Naruto moved on.

“What’s your favorite color, then? You know mine.”

“Red,” Sasuke said. “Bright red.”

“So like candy apple red, not bricks.”

Sasuke lifted the orange ring. “Like fresh blood, not dried.”

Naruto wrinkled his nose. “Gross.” Sasuke shrugged, and tossed. It landed perfectly.

“Favorite food?”

“Tomatoes.”

“Because they’re red?” Sasuke held out his hand for the next. “Or is red your favorite color because that’s the color of tomatoes?”

That continued, the back and forth, as Sasuke proved his talents. He weighed every ring in his hand, thought for a moment, and then set them free.

There were only a few questions that Sasuke didn’t answer. He wouldn’t say anything about his parents, he wouldn’t say anything about his school and he wouldn’t tell Naruto if he had siblings. That last one brought out a miniscule reaction in Sasuke, just a slight twitch, and Naruto had no idea what that meant.

He’d only barely gotten an answer out of Sasuke when he’d asked about his friends. “I have… a few.” Sasuke said. “We’re not very close. Just some people. My dad doesn’t really like them, besides Juugo. He thinks Juugo is okay. I guess it seems like anyone who loves birds that much can’t be a bad influence.”

“Is he a bad influence?”

Sasuke opened his eyes and tilted his head at Naruto. “I’m the bad influence. Obviously.”

Oh.

Sasuke didn’t seem like he wanted to talk more about it, so Naruto chattered for a little while about his Oceanview friends. Sasuke didn’t know any of them, but Naruto was getting the idea that he didn’t know much of anybody and didn’t want to. There was one ring left that he passed to Sasuke, hands brushing. Light red. Sasuke’s favorite.

He got a bullseye, of course he did, but then held out his hand again. Naruto had no rings left to give him. He looked at Sasuke, eyes closed. He wondered if this meant more to Sasuke than he’d initially first. Usually he kept a careful eye on everything around him, perceived more than Naruto ever could, but now he had turned all that off. Because he trusted Naruto.

Naruto’s heart brimmed. He took Sasuke’s hand, turned it, brought his knuckles to his lips. “You won,” he said softly. “I figured you would.” When he looked up again, Sasuke’s eyes were open

Naruto’s life had gotten a whole lot easier when he admitted he was in love with Sasuke.

At first, he’d wanted to avoid it. The truth would mean that he loved someone so inaccessible, for a number of reasons. Naruto barely saw Sasuke, and when he did, progress came slow. Well, until recently.

He’d tried to find other people, but he had trouble holding anything down. He convinced himself that his longing for Sasuke was longing for love in general, and then spent the course of the relationship wishing the person sitting across the table from him was Sasuke. And sex was even worse; it felt like he was cheating.

Once Naruto gave himself permission to be in love, everything was simpler. He’d been getting sick of lying to his own face in the mirror, and while it was painful to feel so strongly for someone so distant, Naruto had come to peace with it. Naruto didn’t have to lay hands on the sun to enjoy it’s warmth. The fact that he could now, however, was thrilling.

He was doing his best to act cool. Something told him Sasuke wouldn’t take a genuine confession well, and Naruto did feel a little creepy about exactly how long he’d wanted Sasuke. 3 years now? Yeah. Probably best not to bring that up.

So he put his love into easy touches, hands and lips, and into getting to know Sasuke better. Naruto had no idea where this was going, but he refused to let it be a dead end. There were too many points of connection, places where they were bonded; a permanent split would tear him apart.

Naruto was pretty sure all this friends thought he was having a fling with someone, considering how often he ditched them for Sasuke. That was alright. All they did were give him suspicious looks, but there were no accusations. Naruto was enjoying keeping it between him and Sasuke, and besides… He really didn’t want anybody to tell him he shouldn’t. It wouldn’t stop him, it was too late for that, but it would make him guilty. And he was so happy now. He just smiled and waved as he walked away. Let them wonder.

The sun was starting to go down. Naruto had been bothering Sasuke for hours, and he wasn’t sick of it. Usually he felt the need to move, to run around, but never before had he been happier staying put. He watched Sasuke lock everything up, feet tapping. He didn’t want to say goodbye yet.

“Hey, do you want to go to the beach again?” Sasuke looked at him skeptically, but Naruto put up his hands in defense. “I’m not going to make you swim in your clothes again, we can just look at stars or whatever.”

“You planned this,” Sasuke said later, standing with his feet in the sand. Naruto stuck out his tongue, still unrolling the biggest beach towel he could find in his aunt’s linen closet.

“Yeah, so what? You want sand to get everywhere?”

“Everywhere?” Sasuke’s voice was amused. “How exactly would it get everywhere?”

Naruto laid down on his side, back on the towel, and patted the other. “Don’t overthink it.” Sasuke complied, laying down beside him. Sasuke faced the night sky and Naruto faced Sasuke. He was a painting, wide strokes of black in the hair falling away from his face and thinner ones for his eyelashes.

Naruto found art museums boring. Nothing moved and he didn’t get the paintings’ obscure meanings. Iruka had dragged him to a couple, pointing to shapes and colors, but that only made it more confusing. Everyone else saw something he couldn’t. Now, though, he was feeling the opposite; Sasuke had beauty and secrets, too, but he was only letting Naruto see it.

“You realize you spent the whole day at a ring toss stand,” Sasuke said, like it was a bad thing. Naruto had grown very fond of that rickety old stand and the game it held, so he didn’t mind spending time there. More than that, wherever Sasuke was, that’s where he’d be.

“I like it there. Besides, you’d be so lonely without me there.”

Sasuke snorted. “Sure.”

“Don’t lie! I know you would be.”

“Your friends. They don’t notice you’re gone?”

“Nah, they do. But it’s not a big deal. Sometimes you just gotta say la vie, you know?”

Sasuke paused for a moment, and then sat up. He turned quickly, and his stare was razor sharp. “Excuse me?”

“Like, saying la vie? It means, like, you just say that’s how it is sometimes.”

Sasuke just looked at him, with a strange expression. “Please tell me you’re not trying to say c’est la vie. Naruto, please.”

“Yeah, say la vie, we’re saying the same thing?”

“Oh my god,” Sasuke said, pulling his knees up and rest his face on them. “I don’t even know how to explain this to you.” Naruto didn’t know what the issue was; his dad said la vie all the time, especially after Naruto accidentally destroyed something in their apartment.

“Look, I don’t speak Spanish or anything,” he said defensively, “I barely passed that class.”

“It’s French.” Sasuke’s voice was small. “Not Spanish, French.”

“Most languages are pretty much the same though.

“No, they’re not. What does that even mean?”

“I didn’t take French in school. I thought French was mostly about food, like bread? But then it turned out to be a whole language. Go figure.” Sasuke remained, curled up in his ball.

“He’s an idiot,” he said, quietly, and completely to himself. Naruto rolled his eyes. God forbid he be a dumbass sometimes. “You have feelings for an idiot.” This was said even softer, and Naruto barely caught it, but when he did, it was wonderful.

“You walk around completely content with not knowing things,” Sasuke finally said, lifting his head. “Do you know to look both ways before crossing a street? Do you know what a fraction is?”

“Don’t be a dick.”

“I’m just worried for you. I’m not convinced you know you’re doing.”

Perfect. A place where Naruto could slide back in. “How could I convince you, then?”

Sasuke started to say something, and then squinted at Naruto. “You’re changing the subject .

“Look, if you want to keep talking about how dumb I am, we sure can. I’d rather be making out on the beach, but take your pick.”

For all of Sasuke’s grumbling and sarcastic comments, it didn’t take much to get him liplocked. He dropped back down to the sand and let Naruto pull him in. It was a slow kiss, imitating the one from the night before, when Sasuke tasted like him.

“See?” Naruto said, and Sasuke only hummed in response. “I’m really bad at French language, but really good at French kissing.”

“Shut up, don’t ruin it,” Sasuke said lowly. “You were doing so well.” He bridged the short distance that had been left between them. There was no work involved, and no worry, just the languid movement of Sasuke’s mouth against his. Naruto had thought before that he was never comfortable around Sasuke, but that wasn’t true anymore. He used to be afraid of messing up, of being something Sasuke wouldn’t want, and it turned out he shouldn’t have been. Sasuke liked Naruto.

Their first kiss had been hard and fast, an explosive release of tension, but the aftermath was lava, hot and slow. His hand was on Sasuke’s chest, lightly, but he wanted to push inside, hold Sasuke’s heart just like Sasuke had held his. If Sasuke would let him, Naruto would be impossibly kind to it.

He hugged Sasuke around his waist, bringing them flush against each other, and tilted his head slightly. Sasuke hummed, one hand on the nape of his neck, brushing through his hair. Deeper, now. Naruto slid his hand down to the back of Sasuke’s knee, bending his leg up until Naruto could push his thigh between Sasuke’s.

Sasuke suddenly shifted, minisculely, but when they were that close any movement that was out of place was glaring. He’d stiffened slightly. Naruto pulled away. “Are you okay?”

“I’m… Yeah, it’s fine.”

“Really?” Naruto asked. He was thinking back to touching Sasuke’s hand that night, scaring him so badly. Naruto didn’t want that to happen again. “We don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, Sasuke.”

“I know that,” Sasuke responded, and there was a twinge of annoyance in his voice, a little line between his eyebrows. It didn’t seem to be directed outwards, but rather in. Like Sasuke was irritated with himself. Naruto cupped his cheek to bring his gaze back in focus. That excuse, the ‘ Sasuke wouldn’t tell him anyway ’ one, wasn’t a good enough reason not to talk to Sasuke at this point.

“What’s wrong? Am I doing something to make you uncomfortable? ...Was yesterday-”

“No, Naruto, you’re not, I’m just-” Sasuke exhaled deeply and shook his head slightly, making his bangs fall over his eyes. “Yesterday was good. It’s just I’m still getting used to being touched, that’s all.” Naruto blinked. He tried to meet Sasuke’s eyes, but Sasuke wouldn’t look at him.

He didn’t know what that meant, couldn’t understand what it would be like to be so unused to touch it made you uncomfortable. Naruto didn’t have a lot of friends as a child, but Iruka was always hugging him and giving him piggyback rides and kissing the top of his head, even though Naruto thought it was gross. And now, Naruto couldn’t imagine his life without touch; no fighting with Kiba, no arm wrestling Sakura, no dancing with Hinata at parties, no falling asleep on Iruka’s shoulder and no kissing Sasuke. He’d be so lonely without all that, and Sasuke must have been lonely for a long time.

“...I don’t have to-”

“No,” Sasuke looked at him now, squarely. “I want you to.”

Naruto swallowed. This was it, his golden opportunity to be good to Sasuke. He wouldn’t waste it. “I’m going to move slow, and you stop me whenever you want to, okay?” Sasuke nodded, and his hand on Naruto’s neck dragged him back in.

Night fell around them. He hesitantly moved his leg, pushing Sasuke’s thighs apart farther still, but Sasuke only canted his hips forward. With every movement, the sand under the towel shifted with them. This beach had always been where he felt most himself, with the sea and the salt and the sky. To be so earnestly himself, with Sasuke by his side, was more than he could have ever hoped for.

“I have to tell you something.” Sasuke’s lips were swollen, his gaze distracted, but he was listening. Naruto brought his hand down, fiddling with the hem of Sasuke’s shirt and then lifting it. Sasuke’s breath caught, but moved his arm to give Naruto room.

His naked skin glowed, ethereal. Naruto had never seen someone so casually gorgeous. Sasuke was blushing now, and Naruto matched; there was something about having his shirt not completely off, just disregarded, that made it hotter. Sasuke’s stomach was smooth and he ran his fingers across lightly, forcing a laugh out of Sasuke. Next was the bump of Sasuke’s rib cage, more prominent than Naruto’s own. Then his chest, right in the center.

“I’ve always liked you,” he said, barely more than a whisper, but once he’d gotten the idea to say all the things he’d never dared to, he couldn’t get it out. “You were cool, cooler than I’ll ever be, and beautiful. I could barely imagine touching you, you were so beautiful…” Naruto pressed a kiss to Sasuke’s lips. “Well, I can now.”

Sasuke didn’t say anything in return, but his face burned more than it ever had before. “The first time I saw you, I lost my breath. I still do, sometimes, when you look at me and I’m not ready for it.” His hand brushed across Sasuke’s chest, and Sasuke’s breath hitched. Naruto dragged his pointer finger, down, fingernail scraping just slightly, until he could hook it in his waistband. He tugged. “You don’t know what you do to me, Sasuke.”

Sasuke pressed his face to Naruto’s shoulder, hidden, still saying nothing, but his hips continued to move slightly against Naruto’s. “You make me feel so good, all the time. I want to make you feel good, too,” he told Sasuke softly, and let his fingers travel to undo Sasuke’s pants. Sasuke lifted himself from the ground slightly so Naruto could push them down, his stuttering breath hot against Naruto’s neck.

“You’re doing fine,” Naruto promised him, finding the waistband of Sasuke’s underwear, pushing that down, too. Naruto bit his lip. He couldn’t count the number of times he’d imagined Sasuke like this. He splayed his hand on Sasuke’s bare hip, just looking. Sasuke growled quietly in his ear, but Naruto didn’t want to hurry through it. Sasuke, close, hard, almost naked. He rubbed his thumb over Sasuke’s hipbone.

“You’re fucking gorgeous,” Naruto said, and when he finally let his hand drift lower, it was met with a low moan. “Those noises, too.” He wrapped his hand around Sasuke’s cock, moving slow, just like their kiss. Sasuke was pressing his mouth against Naruto now, muffling himself, and his hips were grinding into Naruto’s touch.

Naruto let a thumb slip over the tip of Sasuke’s cock, dripping wet. “Do you like that? Me talking?” No answer, just quiet panting and a muted noise. “If you can’t, I get it, but I want to hear you.” Naruto pushed his thigh back between Sasuke’s legs.

Sasuke was trapped between them now, and his cock pressed beside Naruto’s clothed one. Naruto’s pace was still languid, pulling, but Sasuke was grinding harder now, his breathing growing more ragged.

Naruto parted them momentarily, to roll Sasuke onto his back and to sit up on his knees. Sasuke was still red in the face, laid out like this, but Naruto wanted to see it. His nearly naked body, soft skin over sharp edges. His hands were up, back arched; so much like that moonlit night years ago.

This time Sasuke didn’t cover his mouth; he whined loud, pushing his hands into his hair. With every slick stroke, Sasuke let out another moan, slowly ramping up. His eyes were closed, mouth open, and his body was begging for release like they’d been at it for hours.

“Naruto…” That was the first word Sasuke had said in a long while, and it was slightly slurred. Naruto flushed further, only working him faster. “Ah, Naruto , fuck.” The way Sasuke said his name, like he didn’t want to let it leave his mouth but couldn’t help it.

Sasuke was always so strong, but he was beautiful like this, too; needy, wanting, turned so far on the switch was broken. “You’re about to finish, aren’t you? I can tell.” Sasuke bit his lip but a whine still escaped when Naruto slowed down just a little. “Come for me, Sasuke.

Then Naruto leaned down and bit, that spot on Sasuke’s neck that he loved so much, and that was it. He dissolved into disarray, overflowing. He cried out Naruto’s name into the stars like a new constellation. Naruto kept his pace, sitting up, fingers slick, and just watched his hand move, until Sasuke let out a shaky sigh.

Sasuke was breathing heavily, covering his eyes. Naruto looked around them; they hadn’t gotten sand everywhere, thank god. Then he turned to Sasuke. Messy, perfect Sasuke. Naruto was in love with him. God, he was so in love. He should tell Sasuke.

And he couldn’t.

“I love… being with you,” he finally choked out. It was so quiet he wasn’t even sure if Sasuke heard him.

It didn’t take very long for Sasuke to snap back to his regular efficient self; using the towel, pulling his clothes back into place, brushing his hair down. Naruto watched him. It was methodical and Sasuke did it seriously. He never gives himself enough time , Naruto thought, to really feel things . Maybe some other time.

Finally they were sitting again, where they started, but this time with the towel balled up next to them. Naruto dragged his fingers through the sand absentmindedly. Where to go from here, he wasn’t sure. Had it been too intense?

“Was that too intense? For you?”

Sasuke thought for a moment, leaning back on his hands, and then shook his head. “No. Not exactly. I thought the touching was going to be hard, but it was the talking.”

“Oh.” Embarrassment flooded Naruto. He hadn’t planned what he was going to say, not that he ever did, but he’d really showed his hand. Cool air blew softly and he was grateful for it.

“No one…” Sasuke started, trailing off. “No one has said things like that. To me. Not for a long time.”

Again, Naruto was surprised. He’d figured someone like Sasuke would be drowning in attention. Maybe he was wrong about that. “That’s fucking stupid.” Sasuke shrugged.

“C’est la vie.”

Naruto put his head on Sasuke’s shoulder, just for a moment. “Not nobody. I’ll say things like that to you.” Then he was back in his own space. He didn’t want to overwhelm Sasuke anymore than he already had. So, together, they were quiet. They were lovers, staring up at the sky, daring the stars to cross them.

It wasn’t until hours later that Naruto felt even the slightest twinge of discomfort. Sasuke had taken all pain away once again. He didn’t feel numb or immune to distress, exactly, but more like he could feel everything, and all of it was glowing. Leaving Sasuke hadn’t been easy, but he’d pulled Naruto in, kissing him sweetly, and told him to come back in the morning.

The air was cool as he sliced through it, zipping over pavement, slipping in and out of the artificial light cast by street lamps. Naruto could hardly believe it. While he hadn’t told Sasuke those three words, the ones that were supposed to change everything, he had been able to say more than ever before. Naruto was horrible at not blurting things out; usually if there was something on his mind, it would come out his mouth. But, he’d made an effort not to scare Sasuke away, so he kept it to himself. An incredible feat of strength on his part.

Now that he had let Sasuke see how far devotion went, he didn’t want to stop.

Which brought him to laying in his bed, looking up at the ceiling, and aching. It didn’t make sense to him anymore; why was he sleeping alone? Why wasn’t Sasuke with him always? The bond between them never broke, even with distance, but when Sasuke wasn’t there to smile, to kiss him, to confirm their connection, Naruto felt lost.

He huffed and rolled over. This was so stupid. Sasuke should be with him, growling at him for stealing the blankets, falling asleep with his head on Naruto’s shoulder. It was still embarrassing, thinking like this, but Naruto didn’t want a summer fling. He’d take what Sasuke would give him, but he’d be lying if he said he’d be satisfied with anything less than Sasuke being his and Naruto being Sasuke’s.

Naruto wasn’t going to feel like this with anyone else. He didn’t want to pretend that was an option anymore. His future was Sasuke. Their destiny, even if Sasuke didn’t believe in it, was each other.

That wasn’t going to be easy to break to Sasuke, Naruto thought as he coasted up to the boardwalk. There wasn’t a good way to tell someone who seemed a little afraid of commitment that they were potentially stuck with you forever. Telling Sasuke that he was in love was the first step, though. Not that that would be easy, either. Naruto locked up his bike, sighing. That was one thing he’d realized since becoming an adult; nothing got less confusing, but everything got more difficult. Somewhat depressing, but say le vie.

Time was passing quicker now, on the last day of the carnival. Naruto’s last full day in Oceanview. He’d fallen into the routine of talking with Sasuke, kicking his feet as he sat on the counter, and because of that, minutes were flying past, barely brushing by him before disappearing into the distance. It was pointless, trying to slow everything down, and it was hard to accept that. Naruto wished he had all the time in the world and more.

Because he didn’t, he’d have to get his point across quicker than he was comfortable with. The day was winding down as Naruto’s anxiety only wound up, clattering around in his stomach. Sasuke seemed the same as always, though maybe a little less talkative. He was standing on one side of the counter, and Naruto on the other, a familiar position.

“I have to close up early,” Sasuke was telling him, looking up a the row of stuffed prizes and batting one with his hand. “My mom’s been worried about me staying out so late, so she wants me home as soon as possible.” Naruto’s heart dropped; that meant he had even less time than he thought. Stupid of him to wait for sunset, but the things he had to say were still too close to his heart to set them loose in the harsh light of day.

“So that means…” Sasuke pulled out his phone, looked at the screen. “Pretty soon.” And then he looked at Naruto. Expectantly.

First in order was kissing him, Naruto knew that. He put his hands over Sasuke’s on the counter and leaned into him, their mouths meeting in a way that felt instinctive, even if it had only been a few days. I love you , Naruto thought, tilting his head to deepen the kiss. Sasuke made a soft noise and smiled against Naruto’s lips and Naruto was overcome. I love you, I love you, I love you.

“I don’t want to let you go.” He said this, instead of that. Sasuke was still very close to him, their mouths only inches apart. “I want to see you tomorrow. After that, too.” He poured all of himself into those words. He wanted every single one of Sasuke’s tomorrows, even if it was selfish. Naruto had never wanted something so much, and his heart was beating like it was about to stop.

“Naruto,” Sasuke said, quietly. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.

It stopped. His heart.

Naruto pulled away. He was trying not to jump to conclusions, he was trying with all his might. “...What?”

Sasuke wasn’t looking at him, he was looking at his hands, still where they were when Naruto had covered them. “I’m not saying I don’t like you, or that I didn’t have a good time, but I have a whole life, outside of this.”

“I know you do, so do I. Why does that make a difference?”

“There’s…” Sasuke started, “There’s commitments I have.”

Naruto stared at him. He felt cold. “You have a boyfriend.”

“What? No, don’t be stupid. I’m just saying you have your life in the city, and I have my life here.”

“That’s something someone with a boyfriend would say.”

“I don’t, Naruto. It’s not that kind of commitment.” He said this, and then fell silent. Sasuke wouldn’t look at Naruto still, why wouldn’t he look up?

“So what kind of commitment is it?” Sasuke didn’t respond to this either, which only made Naruto start to get irritated. He wasn’t making up their connection; how they felt was not another creation of his overactive imagination. So what was the disconnect? Sasuke liked him. Sasuke probably more than liked him. “You’re always hiding yourself away. Where do you go, when you do that?” Sasuke looked up now, eyes flashing. “Why won’t you tell me anything, Sasuke?”

“Why do you care about me so much?” Sasuke snapped, glaring at him. “Answer that first.”

Naruto opened his mouth, but couldn’t get the words out. Sasuke’s expression was daring him to say the wrong thing, which was making it impossible for him to get out anything at all. On top of that, Sasuke was no fool. Naruto was borderline obsessed; to someone as smart as Sasuke that much should be obvious. But still, he wondered why Naruto cared.

“Because I’m…”

I’m in love with you.

“Because I’m your friend. Sasuke, even if you don’t want anything else, I’ll always be your friend.” Naruto swallowed his feelings, even though they dragged their claws down his throat and made him sick. Everything he wanted, the time, the connection, the waking up together, he shoved it down. His feet were still. “Please, just… Don’t tell me it would be a bad idea.”

Sasuke sighed, not as though he was tired of Naruto, but just a release of tension. There was barely any sunlight left coming over the water; the sky was orange and blue. Usually Naruto thought it was beautiful, but today it clashed.

Finally, he held out his hand. “Give me your phone. I’ll put my number in it.” Naruto was already fumbling for it, forking it over. Sasuke took it and there were a few moments of silence as his thumbs tapped. His face, lit by the screen, was blank. Truly blank.

Then it was done and he returned the phone. Naruto looked down at it. 10 numbers lined up and above them: Sasuke Uchiha. Some of tightness left his chest. This, at least, was something. Something he could see and use, a tie between them. “Thank you,” Naruto told him, giving him the sliver of a smile.

Sasuke shook his head. “No problem.”

Naruto looked at his phone again, and then at Sasuke suspiciously. “If I call, you better pick up.”

“Who calls people anymore?”

“Me. So pick up.”

Sasuke sighed again, and smiled slightly himself. “Alright. I promise.” Naruto nodded, having that confirmed, and then despite his fear kissed Sasuke hard. He wanted to feel that promise between them, the promise that they wouldn’t fizzle out. Naruto refused to let his flame die, and he was kissing Sasuke to prove it.

He couldn’t stay forever though; he never could. Naruto pulled away quickly, tearing off the bandaid. “I’ll see you soon, Sasuke. Okay?” Sasuke’s eyes were locked on his, and he looked like he nodded without being conscious of it.

“Bye, Naruto.” Naruto nodded back, and then turned around and walked away.

It didn’t take him more than a dozen steps to turn back around. He wanted Sasuke to be watching him leave, wanted to see him looking just as lost as Naruto was without him. He turned, and wished he hadn’t; Sasuke was doing what he always did. Like it was any other day. Naruto’s eyes watered and he rubbed at them. He kept walking.

This hurt. This hurt so fucking much Naruto felt numb and he could hardly believe it. For months, he’d known he loved Sasuke, and had been waiting forever to tell him. But Sasuke didn’t think it was a good idea for them to have anything more than a fling. The issue wasn’t that Naruto couldn’t love someone who didn’t want him, but that he could, easily; Naruto could probably chase after Sasuke for years. But he was tired. He didn’t want to.

This crush, this damn crush. Sasuke was holding his heart, just like always, but this time, his fingers were digging in. Heartbroken. Naruto understood that now, too. When someone squeezes too hard and is left with red running down their arm.

Naruto felt red. Sasuke’s favorite color.

When he found his friends, they could instantly tell something was wrong, probably because none of them had ever seen him in a bad mood. And this was worse than that; Naruto was disappointed and ashamed of himself, for being so stupid as to think Sasuke would ever acknowledge his feelings.

Sakura took Naruto’s arm and told everyone else they were going to walk around. He was glad for that; there was no way to explain what had just happened and why he was reacting this way. To someone else, being turned down might be a pain, but you’ll eventually get over it. But this was Sasuke. You don’t get over Sasuke , Naruto thought,  you just eventually forget how he mae you feel .

...He sounded like some lovesick middle schooler. Naruto himself couldn’t fully explain why the situation was so intense. Just something about the two of them spoke of destiny, Naruto had been sure of it. Sasuke was the one. Maybe that’s why it was so painful now. Naruto had been proven wrong.

“What’s wrong, dear?” Sakura asked him, tugging him back to reality. There were lights still twinkling around them, but they weren’t stars anymore. There bulbs, nothing more, Their plugs could be pulled.

“I don’t want to talk about it, Sakura.” She looked at him in shock, as it wasn’t often he had nothing to say. They lingered near the edge of the pier, looking out over the sea. The water was calm, the waves a familiar ebb and flow.

They leaned against the railing, side by side. “You always want to talk about everything.” Naruto only shrugged. Sasuke squinted, wind whistling through her pastel hair. “You’re bottling it up, I can tell. Where did you get that idea?”

“I don’t know. Sometimes it’s better to leave some things unsaid. Sometimes things don’t quite…” He lifted his hands, palms facing each other, but didn’t let them touch. “Don’t quite connect, you know? Like, you try your best, and things don’t work out.”

“Why are you being so vague?” Sakura asked. “All these metaphors and shit? You sound funny. Just tell me what actually happened.”

Naruto put his head in his hands, elbows scraping against splintering wood. He’d kill to be home right now, in his bed, ignoring the turning of the planet. “I really wanted to tell someone I’m in love with them, and was planning to, but they kind of… They don’t think it’s a good idea. I don’t want to say more than that,” he finished. Honestly, the thought of talking about Sasuke now made him feel ridiculous. Even if Sakura didn’t care, he didn’t want to admit to falling for someone he only saw 3 days a year.

Sakura considered this. “That sounds pretty serious. Don’t you think you should tell them anyway?” Naruto gave her a look, like she had suggested he eat worms. “What?! I’m serious!”

“What if it hurts?”

“It looks to me like it hurts pretty bad right now. In my opinion, they deserve to know. Maybe they have other reasons for saying what they said. Maybe they’re scared, or they’re hurting, too. More than that,” she added, turning to look at him, “you owe it to yourself to tell them. Don’t you think so?”

No one has said things like that. To me. Not for a long time.

Sasuke’s words from the night before came back to him, and if he didn’t know it then, he felt sure of it now; Sasuke didn’t have a lot of experience with being loved. He didn’t seem to think he needed it anymore, that it would somehow get in the way of whatever plans he had. That was a desolate way to exist.

Maybe if he told Sasuke, that would be okay. Even if Sasuke didn’t love him back, would never love him back, at least he would know; there was somebody who loved him with all their heart. It would make him uncomfortable, even angry, but underneath it all, hopefully he’d feel relieved. Yes, he was loveable. Naruto would confirm it.

“Yeah. You’re right.” Naruto let out a long sigh; for the second summer in a row, he was going to run and try to fix things with Sasuke. This wasn’t a very promising record, but he’d do what he had to. Sakura smiled at him, really big, and slapped him on the back so violently he choked.

“Go get ‘em, tiger! You can do it!” Naruto caught his breath. Then he took her blessings with him, speeding back the way he came. The route was so ingrained in him he could have done it with his eyes closed; halfway down the main stretch of stands, take a right at the kettle corn, and run further down, to the very last lonely stand, partially hidden behind palm trees.

Naruto was breathless by the time he got there, saving only the smallest amount for what he had to say, but Sasuke was nowhere to be seen. He wanted to kick himself; Sasuke had said he had to go home early. The stand was all packed away, lights dead and closed up. That tended to be a tedious task, so Sasuke probably only just left. Naruto had no idea which way he could have gone. The wind whirled. Sasuke had never told him which part of town he lived in.

Naruto clenched his hands, tiny crescent moons forming on his palms. If he didn’t tell Sasuke soon, it’d drive him insane. That’s what they needed, the both of them. Honesty would make them or break them. Either way, Naruto could live on; he just wanted to know which.

He started to walk away, and then stopped. The wind was whispering, curling around his ankles, trying to uproot him. Naruto paused, letting the chill run down his back. Something wasn’t exactly right. Sasuke, when he’d said he was going home, Naruto thought. He lied. He hadn’t been able to look Naruto in the eye.

Why had he lied about that? It seemed pretty irrelevant. Naruto tried to take another step, but now the sea was calling him, too. The crashing waves were loud, almost as if they were inside his head, causing chaos. Naruto turned, stopped, and it got a little quieter. He was looking at the entrance to Cobalt Beach.

He remembered Iruka, poking Naruto in the chest, and telling him to trust what’s in there. Intuition. Naruto’s intuition told him Sasuke had decided to go to the beach instead of going home. He started at a walk, but broke into a run, speeding through the trees just like when he was 15. The cuts on his legs felt like nothing to him now, though.

One branch gave him a particularly brutal lash across the face, but then he was out, feet sinking deep into sand. And there was Sasuke, farther down the beach. He was just walking, hands in pockets, occasionally stopping to look at something on the ground.

Naruto’s first instinct was to call out to him, hunt him down, but he was beginning to feel that familiar doubt. Sakura’s pep talk had given him a decent amount of drive, but it was dwindling. Hesitation was always his worst enemy when it came to Sasuke, he knew that, but Sasuke looked so at peace. Just observing everything, the full moon, the surf, the stranded driftwood.

He walked further, and Naruto followed, still nursing that sick feelings and forcing himself not to turn around.

When Sasuke reached the edge of the trees, he just kept walking. Naruto faltered slightly; Shikamaru and Sakura had ventured up there way back when, the year they met. Naruto had been far too scared. He hated horror movies, and it was always in these dark forests where someone would get picked off. Sasuke, naturally, seemed to think nothing of it. Just waltzed in. Completely unafraid of possession. Naruto shivered, but followed anyway, out of sand and back onto ground.

Also in typical Sasuke form, he picked a path that had Naruto wheezing. The uphill was harsh in some places, and while Naruto might have leapt up any other time, he wasn’t operating in peak condition. Sasuke was having no problem. Naruto rolled his eyes. The full moon cast a bright light through the dark trees, sending long shadows twisting and leaning into their brothers. Even though Naruto was questioning the sanity of this choice, Sasuke was in his eyesight always.

Naruto only lost him for a moment, when he broke out of the woods. A huff of breath, and up a few more boulders, watching for the snaggled roots of trees was all it took. He’d followed Sasuke fairly closely after all. Naruto stepped from the forest, out into the direct light. It reflected off the black rock under his feet and danced among the branches of the pines; like some great play, the spotlight landing on him and Sasuke.

Sasuke was closer than he’d been before, staring up at the moon. He was turned slightly, so Naruto could see the curve of his face, and he was perfectly still. Sasuke is so beautiful , Naruto thought, for the thousandth time.

He was glowing, angelic, like he was finally in his homeland, and Naruto’s love was overwhelming him. I love you. Sasuke walked towards the moon, a few short steps, and Naruto moved to follow, still breathless. No one, no one, made him feel this way. I love you. He was going to tell Sasuke, and took a step forward.

With a step of his own, Sasuke hit the guardrail at the end of the cliff. He climbed over, took one last look at the moon, and jumped.

Naruto opened his mouth. Nothing came out. He reached out a hand, as if to stop him, and then it started shaking. Naruto ran, that short distance, and his hips hit the rail. He stared down at the waves and the jagged jetty and the wind was suddenly screaming. The sea was black, all powerful, and gave him nothing. It took Sasuke, and gave him nothing.

He couldn’t breathe, he wasn’t breathing, this couldn’t be right. Sasuke had been here just moments ago, it didn’t make sense. Somebody like that didn’t just disappear. Somebody like Sasuke, who rivaled the moon itself; he was above all that. He couldn’t drown. He couldn’t die. Something was wrong.

Before his mind could think anything more, his legs were moving, running faster than he ever had before. It was an ache he’d feel later, but the pure dynamite running in his blood kept him up. His veins were fuses. Naruto only got more bruises and scrapes, but it didn’t matter. His mind was spinning at an inhuman pace.

I’ll see you soon, Sasuke. Okay?

Bye, Naruto.

Naruto couldn’t think about it, he refused to. He wouldn’t think until he got help.

He sped out of the trees, completely barreling over Sakura in the process. “I was worried about- Ow, Naruto, Christ,” she rubbed her head sitting up in the sand, but Naruto was yanking her up.

“Sasuke,” his voice was so hoarse it didn’t sound like his, and Sakura’s eyes went wide at his panic. “Sasuke, he jumped, I can’t- What the fuck are you supposed to do when this happens!?” he all but yelled, and Sakura grabbed his shoulders with sharp pressure, forcing his eyes to focus on her.

“Sasuke, you said Sasuke. Sasuke who?”

Naruto was still shaking, and his feet starting tapping painfully. “What do you- Sasuke Uchiha, who the fuck else-”

“Naruto?” Sakura said. There was uncertainty in her voice and a strange look on her face that made him pause, breathing still ragged.

“Naruto, Sasuke Uchiha died five years ago.”

Naruto just stared. “What?”

“Sasuke commited suicide five years ago. When we were like 13 years old, on the last night of the carnival.”

“I literally-” Naruto didn’t know what to say to that, so he just laughed. It sounded wrong to his ears. “Sakura, I saw him five minutes ago. I…” Naruto swallowed, serious again. “I saw him jump. I followed him from the stand.” But Sakura only shook her head.

“Nobody uses that stand anymore. They think it’s cursed or haunted or something. Or it just feels uncomfortable to take it down, because that’s the last place he was before… You know.”

“Show me,” was all Naruto could say. He knew, with confidence, he’d just seen the ring toss stand in working condition. It always had been, as long as he could remember. Sakura took his hand, but he couldn’t feel it. Together they ran.

Through the trees, cuts and burns, but who gave a fuck. Back into Oceanview carnival, almost closed down for the night. Back to the ring toss stand, which was-

Abandoned. Completely. It was dusty, covered in spider webs. The inside of the stand was completely cut off from the outside world, boarded up. There was some graffiti on it, but not much. One caught his eye, written in red, but not the kind Sasuke liked. Dried blood red. One name atop the other, and then a short message.

Juugo, Suigetsu, Karin, Sasuke. We were here.

Naruto’s eyes widened at the names. Juugo, Sasuke had mentioned as one of his friends. And Karin. That was his cousin.

He suddenly remembered his aunt saying “Karin usually goes on a road trip around this time. Her and her friends don’t like to be in town,” with this slightly sad look on her face. Naruto’s breathing was getting quicker, reaching out and touching Karin’s name. She was 22 years old now. Five years ago she would have been… 17.

“Naruto?” Sakura’s voice was more worried now, a higher pitch. “Naruto, please talk to me.”

Talk to me. Had he ever seen Sasuke talk to anyone else? In all his time at the stand, had anyone ever approached? Naruto strained, trying to remember, but no. People just acted like it wasn’t there. Naruto had been so distracted by Sasuke, he hadn’t noticed something like that: why hadn’t he noticed something like that?

“No,” was all he could say. “No, Sakura, I was going to tell him I loved him.”

She put a hand to her mouth, and grabbed one of his with the other. It was clear she didn’t understand what was happening, but there must have been something in Naruto’s expression that was so true she couldn’t question him anymore.

“I don’t understand,” she confirmed, “but Naruto, I’m so sorry.”

The tears were coming. Naruto had always been a crybaby, or so he’d been told. The adrenaline kept them away, but now they were flowing freely and fast. The ocean was pouring itself through him, and it was the most painful thing he’d ever felt. He choked through them, even though his voice was caving in.

“Why didn’t anyone tell me?”

“It was five years ago, and it happened right when you left. When you came back it was a year later, and nobody... “ Remembered? Cared? “I would have, but I didn’t think he was so important to you.”

Naruto made a noise he’d never made before, something sharp and full of disbelief. Sasuke, not being important to him. He couldn’t see through his tears anymore. Sasuke, Sasuke, the Sasuke he loved… And Naruto hadn’t told him. He’d let Sasuke go, and Naruto never told him.

Sakura was pulling him somewhere, saying something, and Naruto wasn’t listening. There was a ringing in his ears, like an arrow was shoved in one and out the other. Naruto never told him. Naruto never fucking told him.

He only regained some sense of self when Sakura was shaking him slightly. “I don’t think you can ride right now, so get on the back of mine. All you have to do is keep your footing and hold onto my shoulders. Can you do that?” Naruto nodded and followed her directions.

The cold air rushing past him was drying his tears as they still silently pooled and streamed. It also kept him awake enough. Not so much to think, but enough to feel Sakura’s shoulders and know that she was real right now.

“Where are we going?”

“My house. I’m not leaving you alone like this.”

“Can we stop at my aunt’s?” Sakura paused in front of him, and then nodded, taking a right turn instead of heading straight ahead to her house. She must be so confused, not to mention he’d scared the shit out of her and knocked her over. Naruto couldn’t process most of this, but he was glad he wasn’t alone. He was especially grateful when he quietly unlocked the front door, crept across the first floor to the basement door and found what he’d came here for.

Naruto had seen them in a cardboard box last time he was down here; yearbooks. Karin’s, all four years of high school. They were out of order, dumped in and shoved away, and at the bottom of the stack was her junior years. Naruto opened it, coughing at the dust, and Sakura leaned over his shoulder.

There, in the junior class, he was. Naruto ran his finger under the names, until… Sasuke Uchiha. He looked exactly how Naruto remembered him looking on his stupid I.D. card. 17.

Naruto really was a fucking idiot. Sasuke had been 17 for five years, and Naruto hadn’t thought twice, so blinded by everything else. His head was pounding, but he kept flipping through the book, desperate for another photo. There was only one; Sasuke, clearly unaware a photo was being taken, sitting alone on a bench, on his phone. Just how Naruto remembered him. Naruto tore out this page and the school photo, and then nodded at Sakura.

They left, Naruto putting the pages under his hoodie, against his chest. Sakura hadn’t spoken the entire time they’d been in his aunt’s house, and didn’t again until they were in her room, laying on her big bed, side by side.

“Can you talk about it? I want to help. I want to understand.”

Naruto stared up at her ugly popcorn ceiling. He wasn’t crying anymore, but only because he'd exhausted his ability to. Everything was surreal, but Sakura’s hand found his, holding him down.

“I met Sasuke when I was 13, when I played the game, but after that… His stand was never closed to me. He was always there. I’m not crazy, Sasuke was there. And I kept coming back. I really, really didn’t know until now.”

“Do you think he was a ghost?” Naruto looked at her sharply. “Sorry, I mean… People always said the stand was haunted, and the beach at night. Could that be it?”

“...Maybe. Do you believe in ghosts?”

“I’m startin’ to.”

Naruto could feel it, his chest constricting, his breathing speeding up again. There was so much he wanted to say, and he didn’t know where to start. The panic was starting again, and he couldn’t bear it; he had to talk to Sakura about it. His silence was an infection, making him ill. Cut it out.

After all that deliberation about how to start this conversation, only one thing came out: “Does this mean I made out with a ghost?”

Sakura sat bolt upright and leaned over him, her face right above him. “What the fuck did you just say to me? Did you have sex with a ghost?”

“No! Well, not like sex sex, but, like, almost.” Naruto was blushing, which he desperately hated, but this was lessening the tension.

“No way. No way, Naruto.”

“Should I… Should we be talking about this?” Naruto asked. “He just.. I’m kind of-”

“You cried for over an hour, okay? You need a break or you’ll explode.” Sakura sat back. “I’m shocked you kept this from me for so long. And Sasuke? Naruto, he’s out of your league.” Naruto laughed, his first real laugh since the cliff, and nodded. “He’s literally so hot, and you’re just okay.”

“Shut up! I know. He’s…” Naruto let out a groan and rolled over, the pain in his stomach returning. “No, no, I’m thinking too much.”

“Look, he was here every year for you. He’ll be back next year, right?” Naruto thought about this. “And if ghosts are real, who’s to say he can’t come back to life? Don’t give up yet.”

Naruto tried to think about this, too, but it just made everything hurt again. “I don’t want to get my hopes up. Not tonight.” His hands clenched in the bedsheets. “I loved him, Sakura.”

She ruffled his hair lightly, like his dad did. “I know you did.”

“I didn’t tell him.

“I know, it’s okay. You will.” Naruto didn’t know if he really believed that, but he knew he had to, at least for now. It was the only way to keep half of himself alive; the other half that would die with Sasuke.

“Okay.” Only a tiny murmur. The pages were still pressed against him, but he couldn’t look at them now.

“Do you want to stop talking about it?” Naruto shook his head. “Well, then,” Sakura said, leaning back against her headboard. “Tell me everything I missed.” He couldn’t not.

Sasuke was his person, his favorite thing, and once Sakura asked, he couldn’t not tell her every damn thing. All the stuffed animals, the snail, the frog, the snake. Every game of ring toss and the orders. Naruto thinking it was just admiration until he knew it was something more. Sasuke on the beach when he was 15, heaven on Earth. Being 16, and thinking he could flirt. How there was no room for any other romance once Sasuke had possessed him.

17 years old; seeing Sasuke laugh and smile and teasing him, almost kissing him on the beach and then really kissing him later. Sai’s drawing of him. And then 18, convincing Sasuke to give him a chance, and then every kiss; the soft one as his prize, the messy one behind the stand, the slow burn one in the sand. Talking to Sasuke. Knowing Sasuke. Wanting Sasuke.

“When did you know you loved him?” Sakura asked once he was finished.

Naruto couldn’t answer. He’d fallen in love so many times over, but the most important one came first. The tears were starting again.

“The second I saw him.”

Naruto was still shaky the next morning, and probably would be for a long while to come. Sakura was the only person he said goodbye to; he couldn’t see everyone else and pretend everything was okay. She helped him pack and waited with him. She held his hand right up until the car door shut.

Iruka knew there was something wrong. Usually Naruto would be bouncing, telling him everything, but he felt like he could hardly move. His dad radiated worry, and Naruto couldn’t reassure him. He couldn’t lie to his dad like that.

Iruka switched on the radio, some old hit that Naruto knew well but had no desire to sing. He shifted, and there was a crinkle. The pages. He slid them out, and there was Sasuke. Sasuke, yes. Not the Sasuke he knew. The kind one, the funny one, the one who could relax into his touch. But this would have to do.

Something occurred to him. He pulled out his phone, went to contacts, scrolled and there: Sasuke’s number. Still there. A connection to the time he’d spent with Sasuke; Sasuke had put his number in there. Naruto pulled his knees up, hit it, and lifted the phone to his ear. He didn’t have to to wait long.

We're sorry, you have reached a number that has been disconnected or is no longer in service.

Disconnected. It rang in his ears and tears welled up. Disconnected.

Sasuke promised he’d pick up.

Naruto didn’t know what he’d expected. He slid the papers back against his chest, put his head on his knees, and sobbed.

Chapter Text

Naruto could count on one hand the number of times he’d woken up feeling like he’d slept all this year.

Sometimes it was nightmares, about cliffs and jagged rocks, and he’d wake up trying to catch his breath. Naruto would usually end up staring up at his ceiling for the rest of the night. The string lights hanging around his room twinkled peacefully. He watched those golden eyes blink and blinked back. They reminded him of the carnival lights.

Sometimes it was good dreams, and those were much worse. It was always the touch of soft black hair and hands pressed to Naruto’s. Laughter and warmth and emotion and then Naruto would wake up. Alone. Again. Like always.

Mostly, though, his nights were empty. Naruto closed his eyes, and then opened them the next morning. No time seemed to pass in between.

Iruka was always worried about him, but Naruto had to admit, his dad had pretty good reason to be now. There was something different between the 18 year old he’d dropped off in Oceanview and the one that he picked up. After Naruto had broken down crying in Iruka’s car, he’d been forced to explain what had happened. Well, in part.

How do you sit down with your father and tell him you accidentally fucked around and fell in love with a ghost? You don’t. Naruto just told him there was a guy he’d really liked who came in to town for the carnival. Every year, Naruto would see him and they’d hang out, and then, one year, he didn’t show up. He had died.

That wasn’t the truth, but it was close enough to it that Naruto could tell it convincingly and Iruka believed him. He’d ended up pulling the car over and the position was awkward, between the driver’s seat and passenger’s, but Iruka hugged him like he was a little kid again. That only made Naruto cry harder, but it was safe. Naruto had never felt so small in his whole life.

For the first few days, trying to continue on, after Oceanview, felt impossible. High school was over and done with; the rest of his life was on its way, but he didn’t have any desire to wade into the world, into his potential. It was a tsunami, rather, crashing down. Naruto didn’t want any of who he was to be washed away with it. He didn’t want to forget anything.

So for a few days, he just didn’t get out of bed. Without Sakura by his side, understanding his feelings better than anyone else, he had no idea how to cope with them. He didn’t answer calls or texts, he barely ate, wore the same shirt. It drove Iruka absolutely insane with worry the entire time. He’d come to Naruto’s door, knock slightly, radiating concern. Naruto wondered if he thought he would never bounce back.

Even if he didn’t want to, Naruto did. That was his nature, after all. Bouncing off the walls, bouncing back, leaping up. Even if he hated it, he couldn’t sit still. Eventually, regrettably, he got out of bed. At first he was dead on his feet, but it got easier. He told the same story to Kiba and Hinata and Shino, and they were sympathetic. They didn’t get it, obviously, but they made the weight easier on him. They made him laugh.

What he did that year? A blur to him. School, work, nothing notable, nothing that stood out. His 19th birthday came and went, but the aging was sour. He was rotting fruit, with that pit in his stomach. He was one more year away from 17 years old, and Naruto was begging time to stop and it didn’t care.

There was conflict inside him, a war between getting over what had happened so he could survive and never letting go so he could live.

The strangest thing was, the grief hadn’t left him like it was supposed to. It was a tattoo, the circles under his eyes that ranged from red to bruising purple and then almost black. It looked wrong on him; so hollow and strained in a way that he couldn’t hide. People he didn’t know well asked him if he was sick, and he wasn’t sure how to respond. A doctor would find nothing wrong with him physically, but Naruto certainly wasn’t well. Sick with misery, maybe, and that’s what kept him up at night. Needless to say, mirrors weren’t friends to him.

Those who were friends to him could see it; Naruto wasn’t good at hiding it. They never gave up on him, held onto his hand so he didn’t fall. And, he had to admit, watching Kiba completely bite it in a Denny’s parking lot after bragging about how he could do a kickflip was funny.

So, he could do nothing but normalize his grief, make it part of his life. Accept the fact that some songs on the radio made him smile, while others made him punch his dashboard as he drove. Looking at the stars too long made him upset, too. The yearbook pictures, deep in his desk drawer, those made him cry. Naruto just accepted all that; the sadness was inevitable, and he’d take it.

An unlikely hero, somebody who understood, was Kakashi. Iruka’s boyfriend was still around, despite not doing much besides being late to stuff and reading weird books and wearing a face mask that Naruto hadn’t seen him go without until he’d known him for about a year. And he always sent texts that made his dad go completely red in the face after reading; Naruto just… didn’t need to know. But, he loved his dad. He wasn’t going to complain.

One time Naruto turned a corner to see Kakashi trace the scar on his dad’s face with his thumb, and then kiss him. It was kind of gross, but also kind of sweet, so the overall consensus was it was okay.

Naruto hadn’t really expected Kakashi to be the person to believe him. He had a sense of humor, but was a realist; he wasn’t the type to trust what he couldn’t see, or so Naruto thought.

About three months after Naruto returning home for Oceanview, he went out to get coffee with Kakashi. Secretly, of course; Iruka still thought he shouldn’t be allowed to drink it. They ordered, Kakashi looking slightly disgusted when Naruto heaped his cup with cream and sugar, but minded his own business like a marginal stepdad should, and drank his bitter bean water.

They sat down at a little table, Naruto talking mindlessly about the classes he was still having trouble forcing himself to care about. He took a sip, before something caught his eye; there was a number and name written on the side of the cup, with a little heart next to it. His eyes widened, darting up to the counter, and there was a girl with dark black hair standing there, smiling at him slightly before turning away.

It was the hair, he knew it. It wasn’t like midnight, not that dark river he longed to run his fingers through, but it was enough. Naruto felt this little spark of interest in his stomach.

He dreamt about that, too, even though he felt guilty as hell. Everything they’d done in the sand on the beach, the hand pressed over his heart, and that mouth, those soft lips everywhere. Naruto’s head knew that he wasn’t around anymore, but damn it, he couldn’t convince his body; he longed for contact.

I could barely imagine touching you, you were so beautiful, you don’t know what you do to me, you make me feel so good, all the time, I want to make you feel good, too. I love being with you. Words swam in his head until he was drowning and he’d have to press to face hard into the pillow until he ran out of breath and then force sleep upon himself.

So, that swish of black hair; he wasn’t thinking about the girl.

He stared at the cup. Numbers lined up. He felt sick; he didn’t want them. The thought of being with someone else, even the thought of being wanted by someone else made him freeze, a rush of cold blood.

He hadn’t thought he’d been so obvious, but he must have been, because when he looked up to smile weakly, Kakashi was looking at him intensely.

“What’s wrong.” Naruto didn’t know how to answer that. He settled with a shrug. Kakashi glanced at his cup, reflected in the coffee, and sighed behind his mask. He leaned back in his chair. “Clearly something is bothering you. Every time somebody shows interest in you, you fold in on yourself. Why is that.”

“I’m just not interested. I don’t really want… attention.”

“That’s out of character.”

Naruto rolled his eyes at that. “Look, it’s not worth it to date anyone. I wouldn’t be able to, you know. Give all of myself to them. So it’s pointless.”

Kakashi tilted his head. “Is that because of that Oceanview boy? The one who died.” Naruto’s eyes widened. His feet tapped. “Are you still in love with him, then.”

This isn’t what Naruto wanted to talk about at all.

“I… I don’t know,” Naruto lied. “I mean, he’s gone.”

Kakashi was silent for a moment, and then sighed. “I’m not sure what Iruka has told you, if anything. When I was young, younger than you, my best friends died. Two of them. Don’t say sorry,” he added before Naruto could cut in. “I’m only telling you this to say I understand. The clinging on. I didn’t have friends for a long time after that. I didn’t want them.”

“That’s how I feel, too, I-” Naruto stopped; he’d grown more careful with age. “The Oceanview boy, he didn’t leave last year. He did when I was younger. I just didn’t know until last summer. It was like he was coming back to life only for me.” Naruto was uncomfortable, folding his hands and unfolding them. “I know that sounds crazy.”

Kakashi only sipped quietly. “I don’t care much about crazy when it comes to death. The world doesn’t get use from rationality when someone leaves you forever. So he’s dead, and he’s somehow attached to you. Rin and Obito follow me around sometimes. Pain in my ass, especially Obito. But I’ve made my peace.”

Hearing this from Kakashi was strange, because he so rarely spoke this much, but it was making Naruto feel better, about having flown so high and then gotten caught in branches.

“Do you want him to leave you alone?” Kakashi asks finally.

“No,” Naruto says quickly. “No, not ever. But he feels far away. I want to talk to him.”

Kakashi raised an eyebrow. “So do it.”

Huh.

That night, Naruto went to bed early. He laid on top of the blankets, arms at his sides, his familiar ceiling a grey stormy sky. He didn’t know how he was supposed to do this; he felt so stupid. What if he couldn’t hear Naruto, from wherever he was? Or worse, what if he could? That’d be so embarassing, Naruto just chatting away in his silent room, and being overheard by a spirit. He would think that was dumb, Naruto thought. Still, it was worth a try.

“Um… Hey…” Ugh, this felt so weird. “I really… I want to talk to you.”

Who?

The voice came to him, almost making him jump. Not out loud; clearly, in his head. Supplied by himself, surely, but still strange. A low tone, one he hadn’t heard anywhere but his dreams. It was dark, like always, but still easy to see through. Tinted glass. He was amused, in that one word.

“What do you mean ‘who?’”

You’ve been avoiding my name for months. Do six letters have all that power over you?

Naruto swallowed. “No. I want to talk to you, S… Um, S-sasuke.”

Laughter. A weak attempt.

Narrowed blue eyes now. “Sasuke.”

Better.

“Thanks.”

You’re nervous. You missed me.

“Oh, god,” Naruto breathed, closing his eyes, “god, I’ve missed you so much. It’s been hell, you don’t even know.”

Well, I might know. You don’t make yourself easy to forget. Though that might just be your awful orange clothes. Though I can see that hasn’t changed.

Naruto cracked a smile, finally. Sasuke would say that. He pinched the fabric of his orange t-shirt. “Is that why you were desperate to get them off me?”

Don’t get cocky, I’m not the one who was so determined hook up on the beach.

Pink tinged Naruto’s face. It felt strange, talking about this with someone who wasn’t even on the planet at the moment. “For someone without a physical form you’re not shy.”

I never have been.

That’s true.

“What kind of stuff are you supposed to talk about with a ghost?”

I don’t know. I don’t spend much time doing that.

“Makes sense.”

Why are you talking to me?

What a stupid question for his mind to ask. “I went out to coffee today and this random girl gave me her number. I was super guilty about it, I felt sick. So I wanted to talk to you, I guess.”

Guilty. Are we dating?

“I don’t know. Not really. We’re not nothing either though.”

No, he agreed, but that was it. Naruto rolled to his side, lifted his hands to look at them. The lines on his palms, winding, connecting. Every choice he’d made that led him to this moment; talking to probably no one about practically nothing.

“You seem like the jealous type,” Naruto said finally, more thought than accusation. Sasuke had never shown himself to want attention. Keeping everything guarded, locked away. He much preferred that. “I mean, I wouldn’t know. Just feels like you wouldn’t want me flirting with some barista. And I, personally, can’t forget about you, so it all winds up with me and this sick feeling in my stomach.”

Sasuke hummed. I wouldn’t call myself the jealous type, but that doesn’t mean I don’t… get that way. During summer, whenever you’d leave for the year, I’d just think about it. All the people you were going to meet. I’d think, they’re probably going to like him, and want to get closer. I’d think about how they get to have you.

“Me too,” said Naruto after a pause. Sasuke didn’t usually say so much at once, but Naruto could listen to him talk forever. Music, his song, repeating on and on. That wouldn’t be too bad.

Then don’t go pointing fingers. Maybe you’re the jealous type.

Naruto laughed. “I’m not! Not usually. I’m not jealous, I’m… protective.”

Sasuke snorted. Sure.

They talked for a while after that, about what Naruto had been up to, even as Naruto began to grow tired. That was a rare occurrence, but something about listening to Sasuke, pretending Sasuke could hear him, calmed him more than any ocean. It washed over him, cool. Repeating on.

Do you still have those stuffed animals?

Naruto nodded, smiling softly. “Yeah, of course. I like the frog best. I named him Gamabunta. He’s in my closet somewhere.

You’re tired. Naruto’s yawn was his answer. I thought so.

“I don’t want you to go,” he complained, pouting. “You only just started talking and-”

“Naruto?”

He bolted upright, hands clenched in his sheets. His father was at the door, letting in a unwelcome beam of light; it was a spear, bursting the balloon Naruto had been aimlessly floating in. His embarrassment was immediate. How much had his dad heard?

“I’m sorry, I just heard you talking, so I was worried about you… Is everything alright?”

Naruto nodded quickly, face red, and the heels of his feet tapped. “Totally alright, I was just talking to Sakura on the phone, so…” God, that was such an obvious lie, and Iruka saw right through it, which only made that line between his eyebrows go deeper.

“If you’re sure.”

“I’m sure. About to go to bed.” Iruka nodded. He cast one last anxious look in Naruto’s direction and then the door slowly swung shut.

Naruto slammed back down onto his bed. Who had he been kidding, talking to a Sasuke who couldn’t even hear him? His head made up everything Sasuke said, which was wishful thinking at best and at worst denial. It felt pathetic.

Naruto felt a genuine need to sleep. Usually he would stay up until he dropped, but now he wanted to curl up, put the blanket over his ears to trap that voice inside.

Naruto realized he had one question left.

“Am I going to see you? Next summer?”

No answer.

Naruto let sleep drag him away.

He didn’t talk to Sasuke very often after that. It calmed him down, but right after, his anxiety doubled. If Naruto spent too long thinking about never seeing Sasuke, he felt as though his heart was in his throat, so he kept his mouth shut.

Besides, Sasuke didn’t always answer. For a figment of Naruto’s imagination, he was just as elusive as he had been in real life; he didn’t talk unless he wanted to. At least, there was the consolation of not being abandoned in his time of most need. Sasuke seemed unable to ignore his tears, and even though he told Naruto it was awkward to talk to thin air like an old friend in a diner at 3 am, he reluctantly spoke back. The waitress thinks you’re crazy, he’d say. Just buy some pancakes and say your girlfriend cheated on you or something.

It only happened once in front of his friends, but they didn’t really seem to care. Well, they were concerned, obviously, but they didn’t think he was strange. Sometimes Naruto longed to be more like Sasuke, cool exterior even with emotions that could burn down a forest in seconds. But, no. He was kind of a mess half of the time. And even if he smiled wide, the sunshine he used to be, sometimes those dark circles eclipsed them. He just couldn’t lie.

After an evening spent watching really bad horror movies turned into a Naruto-being-weird night, Hinata patted his arm quietly and told him her cousin had passed away a couple years ago. They used to fight all the time when they were kids, but it was only because they cared so much. And then they grew up, and they were friends, and then he died and they weren’t. “There’s no straight path when someone great is gone,” she reminded him. “You might be lost for a long time. I still am, I think.” That was some comfort.

It took Naruto a few months after that, into early February, before he could confront what he knew he had to do.

Karin. What the hell would he say? What the hell would he do? Even as Naruto got in his car, throwing his duffel bag in the back, he was questioning himself. To open her wound. Naruto had gotten much better at ripping bandages off injuries than rewrapping them.

Naruto clenched his hands on the steering wheel, and turned the key. He could see his breath even inside the car, and shivered. She never even liked him anyway. He’d always been so entranced with her, with her long red hair that looked like his late mother’s, from the pictures. Naruto looked so much more like his biological father; he liked the reminder that his mother was part of him, too.

Karin didn’t like it, however. Naruto was four years younger than her, and pulled her hair and spilled nail polish on her carpet. He was so annoying, so she didn’t like him, and now he was going to force her into this conversation.

Okay, not completely forced. He texted her beforehand, telling her he was going to visit, and that he needed to talk to her. When she asked about what, he told her honestly. There was no response from her for days, and then a simple: “Alright.”

That would have to do.

Naruto had never been to Oceanview in the winter, and it seemed like a completely different place. Everything that had been green was dry and brown, and crackled under his feet. The air wasn’t warm how he wanted it; the salt on it tasted bitter. He wondered if the ocean was frozen over. It wasn’t obviously, that was stupid, but… Naruto winced, put a hand to his forehead. He just didn’t want Sasuke to be somewhere cold. Stupid.

He almost slipped and fell on his way up the steps. Already, he felt like a child, about to have this conversation. That would have been a horrible first impression. Naruto hadn’t seen Karin since he was 13, but he could guess she had the same sarcastic voice and sour expression.

He was right. She answered the door, her glare immediate, and her fingers going to her glasses to observe him, up and down. Karin herself hadn’t changed much, except being 23 instead of 17. Same crop tops and shorts even in the dead of winter, and unbelievably bright red hair pouring down the sides of her face and onto her shoulders. She had pierced her septum and shaved part of her head.

Naruto wondered what he looked like to her. Still like a kid? He’d asked his friends to describe what he looked like objectively as possible a few weeks ago, and once they gotten past the jokes (a dumbass, a human pufferfish, like he was made out of tinkertoys), they said he looked strong. He used to look more hopeful, in his own opinion, but strong wasn’t so bad, was it?

“...Hey,” she said flatly, and then left the door open, walking away into the house Naruto had come to know so well. He followed quickly, dumping his bag by the door. For once, he wasn’t wearing orange. Getting made fun of by Karin for something so trivial… He just didn’t want to do it.

Are you sure about this?

Naruto froze, stepped back away from the shadows of the kitchen. “What do you mean? Do you know something I don’t?”

I would say generally I know more things than you. Naruto rolled his eyes. But in this case, no. You’re just very stressed. Your heart is pounding. What if you find out something that makes you feel worse?

“I can’t feel much worse than this, I think.”

Fair enough. And he was gone. Naruto sighed, shook his head. He couldn’t let that shake him.

As he walked into the living room, what he hadn’t anticipated was for three people to greet him instead of one. His eyes widened; he had no idea what to expect from this.

The three clearly were good friends, arms slung over the back of the couch and knees bumping each others. Naruto’s eyes were immediately drawn to one of the biggest people he’d ever seen. They were tall, and they could almost definitely kick the shit out of Naruto. However, as their eyes flicked to his and then away, Naruto could see not only nervousness, but a gentleness, too. There was no coldness in the light brown, nothing like the brittle grass outside.

The other wasn’t as easy to read. He was barely taller than Karin, a small frame, but his hair was pure white. His lips were curled into a smirk, whereas Karin and the other were serious. He was drinking something out of a travel cup with a straw and slouching. Why was he here?

It dawned on Naruto before Karin had to say anything. The writing on the stand. And Sasuke himself, what had it been? Something like Juugo wasn’t a bad influence because he liked birds. It wasn’t too hard to figure it out.

“Suigetsu,” he said, to the white-haired boy, who tilted his head slightly. “And Juugo, it’s nice to meet you. I’m Naruto.”

“Oh we know you’re Naruto,” Suigetsu said, leaning back on the couch. “How do you know who we are? Did you tell him or something?” Karin shook her head. “Huh, fuckin’ creepy.”

Off the bat, Naruto would have to say he didn’t like Suigetsu very much. He glanced at Juugo, who looked a little worried, but ultimately nodded. “It’s nice to meet you, too.”

And then… Silence. Naruto’s mortal enemy. He wasn’t sure if he was supposed to talk now, or how to say it. He’d run it over and over and over in his head, but he’d only ended up with aching legs.

“I want to be honest with you. I know none of you really know me, and have no reason to sit through this, but I need some answers.” Naruto laughed nervously, toe of his sneaker tapping quietly. “I’m going to sound crazy, I can tell you that right now, but please listen to me.”

The friends all glanced at each other, and Naruto knew what the look meant. It was the private ‘ok what the fuck’ look that he, Kiba, Hinata and Shino gave each other when somebody from high school tries to hit them up. What their individual expressions meant, however; not something he could decode.

Finally, Karin sighs. “Okay, fine. We’ll listen, even if you’re crazy.”

That was probably the best answer he could hope for. Okay. Yes. He was breathing, he was breathing, he was going to be fine.

You’re going to be fine, idiot. Get it over with.

His eyes opened. Here goes.

“I met Sasuke when I was 13 years old, the first time I went to the carnival. It was also the night before he… he died, which I didn’t find out until like, last summer. He was 17, then- Uh, you guys know that. But that’s not the last time I saw him?”

“Is that a question?”

“No.”

“You said it like a question, so-”

Naruto put his hands over his face, muffling his voice. “Look, Sasuke came back every year during the carnival. I don’t know how, I don’t know how any of it works, but he was there, I swear. Like, his number is in my phone, because he put it there.”

“So we’re supposed to believe you knew ghost Sasuke ? You could have gotten his number from Karin’s mom, or anyone who might have known him,” said Suigetsu, with a roll of his eyes. “I mean, I understand cries for help, but you didn’t have to drag us into whatever fucking attention-getting stunt this is.”

Naruto grit his teeth, but exhaled, turned to Karin. She looked extremely skeptical as well, though not quite as scornful as Suigetsu. Juugo looked perfectly blank. “I understand you not wanting to believe me, but don’t be a dick, okay? Is there- Is there anything I can do to make you trust me on this one?”

“God I feel like in some shitty teen TV-show,” Karin groaned, pushing up her glasses to rub her eyes. “Like, Juugo, what were we just watching that had this shit happen? I don’t remember. Whatever. How about if you knew Sasuke all that well, why don’t you give us some information you couldn’t possibly know otherwise.”

That was easy enough; any and all information about Sasuke Naruto could remember was defended against time, almost territorially.

“His eyes are so black you can’t notice dilated pupils. His favorite food is tomatoes. He got the job at the carnival to spite his dad. Suigetsu is a bad influence, but not Juugo, because he likes birds. He hates his Junior year book photo. When his hair gets wet, it just sticks right back up. Right where his neck meets his shoulder he has this sensitive area. His favorite color is red, but not dark. Like fresh blood, not dried... “

Naruto wasn’t running out of information, but the three in front of him were looking at him very strangely. Even Suigetsu was letting his straw sit mindlessly on his bottom lip, blue eyes almost purple as his face darkened.

“I didn’t know he… got that job to piss off his dad,” said Karin finally. “But I guess that makes sense, doesn’t it? When I think about it. Fugaku was always on his ass about everything, and Sasuke wasn’t exactly cheery.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever, everything else was right, but I don’t think any of us knew about that part on his neck,” Suigetsu added, eyes narrowing. “If it’s true, how could you possibly fuckin’ know that?

Naruto went completely red. Why had he just opened his mouth? He had no idea what to say, and his blush was only making him look more guilty. He remembered holding Sasuke close, biting, making him moan- No , not thinking about that now.

“He, um, he like, told me, I guess,” he said nervously, smiling weakly. “I don’t know how it came up in conversation, ha, it just did so, you know…”

Very smooth, Naruto. God, I can’t believe I like you .

A pang in Naruto’s chest. “Anyway, is that enough? He was just… really quiet, always in black, always with a guard up to keep people out. It took me years before he would even talk to me like a real person. Sasuke was always cool, though. Smart, and capable. I’ve never met anyone else like him.” Naruto twisted his hands painfully in his lap, watching them contort. “I wouldn’t make you guys listen to it if it wasn’t so important to me. Still, I’m… I’m sorry.”

Juugo didn’t consider it a second longer. “I believe him,” he said, voice low. He nodded at Naruto, not meeting his eyes, stood up and walked out. Naruto heard the front door open and close. Quietly, but that last click sounded like a lock closing, trapping Naruto with whatever hurt he’d caused Juugo.

Karin scoffed, standing up quickly. “Juugo, he- I’m going to go make sure he’s okay,” she told Suigetsu, who nodded, waving her away. Another click, another lock, and more pain.

“Man,” said Suigetsu, after a long sip of whatever was in his cup, “I’d never admit it to those two, but I believe in ghosts. I think the concept is for dumbasses who want to pretend dead people are still here, but there’s some shit in this world that can’t be explained. Sounds like you’re the dumbass here, but you’re right. I would advise against fucking around with ghost shit.”

Naruto nearly rolled his eyes. “Great, thanks.”

“And if you were gonna worry about Juugo and Karin, just don’t. They’re too sensitive, they should know better. Them being like that, Sasuke would just be annoyed.” Naruto frowned. He didn’t know if that was true. Maybe when he’d first met Sasuke, but not now. Although… his friends never got to meet that him. Only Naruto

“Were all of you really good friends?”

“We were each other’s only friends, so you could call it that. Me and Sasuke, anyway. Juugo and Karin idolized him. They thought there was no one better, so it really fucked them up when Sasuke killed himself.” Naruto tried not the flinch at the phrase. “See, Juugo used to be completely different. Getting in fights, anger issues, all that. But somehow, Sasuke could calm him down. Changed him. Some might say for the better, but I think he’s gone soft.

“Karin, well, she liked him right up until she realized she didn’t like boys at all. She should have known sooner, Sasuke only fucked boys who suffered from the same amount of emotional constipation as him.” Naruto decided to ignore that. “But, later, of all the boys she didn’t like, he was her favorite. Maybe she was kind of like you? Reaching for something you’ll never have?” Naruto opened his mouth to protest, but Suigetsu laughed. “Though judging by your knowledge of him, maybe you’ve already fuckin’ had him.”

“What about you?”

“Me? I’m fine. I’m glad the bastard’s gone. He was always fuckin’ bringing me down.”

Naruto felt a surge of anger, one that made it almost impossible to sit still and keep his mouth shut, but something was telling him Suigetsu was lying. Even as he said it, his eyes revealed him, showing a sorrow that Naruto knew all too well. He didn’t like Suigetsu, no, but he understood him.

“I don’t want to talk to you much longer, but you wanted answers.” Suigetsu sighed. “You can't get them from his family anyway; they fuckin' booked it when he died. So. Sasuke was never really that happy as a child. He pushed himself too hard, in every part of his life. It made him popular, made everyone like him, but the only person he wanted to like him was his dad. And Fugaku just kind of… cared more about his older brother, Itachi.” Naruto had never heard about Itachi; it was one of the topics Sasuke refused to talk about.

“Don’t fuckin’ know how Itachi died, the Uchihas are mad private, but I’m pretty sure Sasuke blamed himself or something. Like he needed to take responsibility. And then, even with Itachi gone, Fugaku was always too distracted for him. Sasuke just…” Suigetsu lifted a palm, crushing it into a fist. “...crumpled. He didn’t care about school or people or anything he used to.

“After that, well, you don’t need some great tragedy. Life is fuckin’ hard, Naruto. It hurts. So what do you think happened?” Naruto swallowed. He wanted to hear Sasuke’s voice again, but it was gone.

“Living can be really painful, and sometimes you just can’t do it anymore,” he said quietly. Suigetsu nodded and made a loud sucking noise as he reached the end of the cup.

“No point in thinking about how it could have been if things had worked out a certain way. It’s too late.”

“Are the other two… are they really going to be okay?”

“Yeah, of course. I think they’re just upset that Sasuke wouldn’t come back for his friends who loved him for years, but he would for some fucking nobody who didn’t know a damn thing about him.”

“Is that how you feel, too?”

Suigetsu tapped his chin, and smiled a toothy grin. Shark-like.  “Yeah, I’m pretty sure it is.”

Naruto spent a long time thinking about this. The whole ride back to his city, he drove with the radio on but turned down way low. He didn’t understand it either anymore, why he had so magical power to bring Sasuke back to life. Why him? Sasuke was so much greater, so much bigger, than someone like Naruto. Having any kind of control over when Sasuke came and went was akin to having the power to make the sun rise and set. He couldn’t possibly be worthy.

You’re so stupid. Where’s that Naruto in Oceanview? You were so cocky, it was annoying. Naruto didn’t say anything in response, just turned the radio up higher. Be that way then, but you’re not the same as them.

It made him feel guilty, thinking that, but that’s definitely something Sasuke would say. Naruto made the choice he never wanted to talk to Juugo or Suigetsu again. It hadn’t been a bad idea in the long run, but it wasn’t something he wanted to revisit. Even though Naruto thought about it everyday, running away to Oceanview, he only went once more before August.

He hadn’t thought visiting Sasuke’s grave would be easy. Standing in the cemetery, standing in rows and rows of gravestones but only one really mattering, Naruto didn’t know what he felt, but it wasn’t easy. Sakura had told him to take an umbrella, giving him a hug before he left, but it stayed at his side. It was April, and it was raining, and Naruto remembered Sasuke saying he liked the rain.

17 years, between one 4 digit number and another. A little dash in between. And that’s all Sasuke’s life had to show. Naruto bent down, crouching, squinting. He reached out; the stone was grainy and cold. It felt wrong. Sasuke hadn’t been that way at all.

Naruto ending up just sitting down, water soaking into his pants. His face was very close to the stone. He didn’t know what he wanted.

A finger reached out to touch the start of the S in Sasuke, carved in. Slowly, his finger slid. Like a snake, wiggling out of his grasp. Then the A was next, another, another, until the last A at the end of Uchiha.

He didn’t know what he wanted. He didn’t know how to feel. The rain was pouring down, soaking through his hoodie, orange. The clothes Sasuke would have teased him about. Naruto finally gave up, laying down onto his back and letting water have its way. Just like at the beach, in the ocean. Nature was going to do what it willed.

“I’m pissed off.” It slipped out. Naruto hadn’t meant to say, not now or ever, but now it was floating in the air, sizzling and popping loudly as rain fell around it. “I’m so mad at you.” There was no response. Naruto dug his fingers into the grass.

“I know it’s wrong to hate you for it, but I can’t believe you left me. I’m so alone, and you left me. It’s… I’m really fucked up, Sasuke. You fucked me up.” His words sounded sloppy, face wet, but there was meaning behind them all the same.

I didn’t mean to. Naruto blinked. Sasuke sounded soft. He might have missed it with the pounding in his ears. I didn’t even know someone like you existed, and even then…

“You don’t know if you could have kept going?”

I left. I’m not going to deny you that. But I didn’t mean to leave you. I… get it. I’d be furious with you, too. If you tried to leave me behind.

“Do you mean that?” Naruto asked, and then laughed. “Or is it just my mind?”

Not to be rude, but I don’t think your own mind would be nearly this nice to you.

Naruto spent a long time thinking about that, too. He hadn’t ever considered Sasuke might like him more than he liked himself. The thought that he wasn’t making up Sasuke’s voice was too much to comprehend at the moment, but the thought that there was some part of him still so intertwined with Sasuke? That brought him comfort. Made it easier for April to pass, and then May, June, July.

The first few weeks of August were... Weird. Naruto had kept in touch with all his Oceanview friends, though he knew he acted strange. Distant. He’d left without a word to any of them the summer before, and had no idea what Sakura had told them as a cover.

As much as Naruto still loved them so, so much, talking to them exhausted him very quickly. Watching them take off and fly high above him, hearing the smiles on their lips when they talked on the phone with him, feeling their warmth from miles away. It was painful. To know they had all that, and Naruto was stuck in how he felt, had been for months on end.

Even conversations with Sakura became a chore. Her and Ino had gotten together. Naruto didn’t know how it happened or if they were doing well, because he didn’t listen when Sakura talked about it. He was envious, dead at breakfast, reading her texts and kicking the leg of the table so hard his food nearly landed on the floor.

How was it going to be when he showed up? Naruto stared in the mirror. He didn’t look the same. Not that he was supposed to, but his hair had grown as long as his biological dad’s had in the pictures. On Minato it looked cool; on Naruto it looked like he was hiding. Those dark circles, ugh.

He ended up having Iruka cut his hair, like he used to do when Naruto was a kid. His dad was overjoyed. He was such a parent, telling Naruto to sit still and saying “now I can see your eyes again!” Next time he looked in the mirror, he was more himself.

And that was decidedly the best he could do. The dark circles he worked on; he told Iruka it was going to bed early, but it was mostly melatonin. Naruto realized if he was going to see Sasuke, he didn’t want to look like shit.

Then it was getting in the car, telling Iruka he wasn’t going to speed, telling Kakashi he was probably going to speed, and he was on his way. Naruto was staying with Sakura this time around; he didn’t want a run-in with Karin.

Sakura nearly made him lose his balance and fall back down the porch steps for how wildly she jumped into his arms. “I missed you!” she shouted, “I missed you, I missed you!” She smelled like cherry blossoms, and wore her regular ugly tye-dye shirt, pulled tight in a hair tie. A swinging fern plant hit her head but she only wiggled happily.

Naruto laughed, genuinely. “I missed you, too! It should be me jumping into you, Sakura.” He carried her back into her house, where Ino was sitting at the table. She’d only gotten prettier, blonde hair the longest it had ever been and in a braid winding down her back. She asked him ‘what he thought he was doing with her girlfriend’ but still ended up launching herself out of the wicker chair at him.

This resulted in a dumb giggly pile on the kitchen floor, and Sakura was snorting because a perfect imprint of Ino’s eye makeup had ended up on Naruto’s shirt. “I guess you should just throw it out, then?” she offered. “With that orange, I think I did you a favor.” They stuck out their tongues at the same time as each other, which only made them crack up more.

Choji, Sai and Shikamaru were being lazy on his lawn again. As they approached, Ino stopped them. “Hey, we should get Shikamaru back for letting you guys dump ocean water on me, don’t you think?” She stood with a sly smile in platform sandals that made her easily taller than both Sakura and Naruto, hands on her hips.

“You still remember that? That was like 5 years ago.”

“Well,” Sakura sighed, pointing at Ino’s towering shoes, “an elephant never forgets.”

“Shut the fuck up and help me.”

They poked Choji and Sai awake with fingers over their mouths, though Choji almost woke Shikamaru up with the bone-cracking hug he gave Naruto. Sai found an old bucket, and they filled it up with water from the hose in the back. Naruto gave a nod to Sai; he was on Naruto’s good side, but he still wasn’t huggable.

The water was ice cold. Perfect. The group made their way back around front as quietly as they possibly could, ignoring what they knew they looked like; five 19 year olds about to pull a prank a 9 year old could have thought of.

They were careful to not let water slosh around in the can, but regardless of that, Shikamaru’s eye twitched as they approached.

“You really didn’t think you could sneak up on me like that, did you?” he asked, and the whole group groaned, except Sai, who promptly dumped the bucket on him anyway. Shikamaru sat up, rubbing water out of his eyes, cussing. Ino was very pleased.

Naruto hadn’t shown up a week before the Oceanview carnival, as he usually would, but just a couple days. He didn’t want to spend too much time pretending to be happy, or worse, being actually happy. Oceanview felt like a trick that the universe kept playing on Naruto, and one he kept falling for.

But during those days, he hung out with his Oceanview friends, getting used to who he used to be. It ended up being a relief. Everything was normal, except for Naruto’s absolute refusal to go to the beach. He didn’t care to explain it, but he couldn’t be convinced.

At nights, he stayed up with Sakura, spreading out on her carpet with the fan whirring above them, or biking around alone until the early hours of the morning. ...It didn’t feel the same as when Naruto was a kid.

Naruto didn’t know what he was going to say. Even after all that time. Somehow, he didn’t have a plan, or at least not one that sat right with him. He thought about this, on one of his evenings out. Night fell hard on him, heavy on his chest. Still, Naruto wasn’t tired in the slightest. He laid in the grass, staring at the light of a streetlamp until he could see it with his eyes closed. Between his nervous fingers, green blades twisted.

If he’d learned anything from knowing Sasuke, it was that he was difficult. Captivating, yes, but just really fucking difficult. Naruto had to force himself to remember Sasuke hadn’t spent the last year torn apart, spent the last year trying to fold everything back together and only getting papercuts.

He had to tell Sasuke he was in love with him, that was obvious. Naruto wasn’t willing to spend a single day, a single hour without telling Sasuke how loved he was. And he already knew he wasn’t going to cry around Sasuke; Sasuke wouldn’t like it at all. Anything beyond that… Naruto would have to wait and see. Which he hated. Waiting.

The only night he remotely got sleep was the night before he had to go to the carnival, and it was only to make the time pass quicker. He was excited and he was terrified.

It all resulted in feeling sicker than he ever had before, like there was a storm building in his chest, desperate, thundering against his ribcage. He felt conductive, in that dark room, waiting for some flash of panic to strike. Ultimately, though, Naruto could take it.

Right before he fell asleep, he thought he’d ask once more.

“...Are you going to be there?”

No answer.

And then there it was. The morning Naruto had been waiting almost a year for. He didn’t bother to wake up Sakura and say goodbye, only looked in the mirror to be sure he wasn’t missing any essential pieces of clothing and then sprinted out the door.

For old times sake, maybe he should have taken his bike, but Naruto hardly cared. The car would get him there faster. The streets of sleepy Oceanview were mostly clear; when he was younger, that would have meant swerving around, but now it just meant speeding. Naruto was pretty sure he was biting through his lip at this point.

He hadn’t considered what would happen if Sasuke wasn’t here. Key pulled out of the ignition. He couldn’t imagine it. Feet thumping against the boardwalk. He didn’t dare. Caution tape all but torn away.

Naruto was running, gaining strange looks from the other people setting up. Sometimes Naruto forgot it wasn’t supposed to be here. This path, he could have taken it with his eyes closed. In this case, they were wide open, burning with salt and wind.

His heart was pounding against his chest, threatening to be ripped from him. Naruto rounded the corner, and it stopped dead.

Sasuke. His feet swinging slightly as he sat on the counter. Not distracted by anything, but instead staring straight at Naruto. Like he’d been waiting for him. There was that tiny smirk on his face.

Naruto felt like his legs were giving out on him but forced them forward anyway. He had no idea what his face looked like. Sasuke tilted his head slightly as Naruto got closer.

“You look a little worse for wear, Uzumaki. Are you-”

Naruto grabbed Sasuke roughly, tugging him off the counter and tight against his body. Warm, real Sasuke. Sasuke let out a noise of surprise, but his hands clenched in the fabric of Naruto’s shirt. Everything Naruto had been keeping inside, his fear and regret and unspoken words; it was threatening to come crashing down.

“You’re shaking,” Sasuke said, worry in his voice.

“I know.” It came out ragged, and then again, through his teeth. “I know.” Air hissed through them; Naruto was trying so hard not to cry. “About you killing yourself, years ago. I saw you jump.”

The arms around him went slightly limp, shock, and then pulled Naruto to him so it hurt. His hair was soft against Naruto’s neck, and then he turned his head, breath warm. “I’m sorry,” he said, barely there. “You shouldn’t have seen that.” Sasuke had never apologized to Naruto before. And he hadn’t wanted to cry, didn’t want Sasuke to see him like that, but it was a losing battle.

Naruto sniffed, and Sasuke slid a hand up, fingers at the nape of Naruto’s neck. “Naruto, it’s… It’s okay,” he said. It sounded hesitant; Naruto had no choice but to believe him. He could feel the familiar in and out of Sasuke breathing. Once the first tear fell, it was impossible to stop the rest.

Sasuke held his weight, even though Naruto could tell he was uncertain. For him, last summer ended the way he expected it would; Naruto had been forced to continue onward. And big shows of emotion, or emotions at all, tended to make Sasuke close up.

Still, Sasuke held him, as tightly as he could.

When Naruto could speak again, his voice sounded broken. “I’m so sorry. I wasn’t going to do this.”

“What? Cry?” Sasuke snorted, still an odd sound to hear from someone who looked so reserved. “You’re the biggest crybaby I know, I could have seen this coming from a mile away.”

“Don’t make fun of me, it’s been a really hard year,” Naruto complained, sniffing loudly. He’d overflowed a little, but not nearly enough to flood the place. He was keeping it together

“Okay, okay, sorry. ...Was it really that bad?”

Naruto lifted his face, and Sasuke stepped back. He’s sure his eyes were swollen and there was snot on his upper lip, but Sasuke doesn’t seem disgusted. Sasuke lifted his hands, touching underneath his eyes lightly. His eyebrows drew together, and he looked questioningly. “I don’t really sleep well without you now, I guess,” Naruto said. “I’m not sure if I do anything well without you, actually.”

Sasuke looked at the boardwalk beneath his feet. He had nothing to say in response to that. Naruto wasn’t guilt tripping him; lying wouldn’t make anything better. Maybe Sasuke wasn’t ready to be honest about the real consequences of his death, but damn, Naruto had been living them.

And maybe he wasn’t ready for Naruto’s feelings. Naruto took a breath; steady. Well, that’s just too bad. Naruto lifts a hand, tilting Sasuke’s chin upwards.

He starts to speak. “Naruto-”

“I’m in love with you.”

Black eyes go wide, jaw slightly slack. “What?”

“I’m in love with you. I meant to tell you, last year, but I never got the chance to. So there it is. I love you.” Naruto’s biggest regret, out of anything he’d ever done, was not telling Sasuke. He wouldn’t let it happen again. So it would have to do, even though Sasuke looked like he’d been shot.

“You… can’t,” was all Sasuke said, and he stood perfectly still, his face red.

“I can love you, actually. And I do,” Naruto told him, his thumb running over Sasuke’s bottom lip, only making him redder. His mouth opened slightly before he quickly closed it again. Naruto smiled, sniffing one last time. That was the Sasuke he remembered.

Naruto leaned forward slowly, giving Sasuke time to stop him. He didn’t move, eyes still wide, locked on Naruto’s.

The kiss was tense at first. They both knew nothing was easy anymore, and Naruto knew he wasn’t the same person he had been. There was fear, that they wouldn’t fit together so perfectly anymore, that the shine had faded. Then Sasuke made a soft noise, one of relief, and opened his mouth to Naruto’s. His arms wound over Naruto’s shoulders, going on his toes to pull Naruto closer, deep.

A slight ache, one he could ignore; it lingered in the back of his mind that Sasuke hadn’t said he loved him back. But when they broke apart, Naruto got a flash of Sasuke’s face before Sasuke let out an annoyed huff and pulled him back in.

It was an expression he hadn’t seen on Sasuke before. Eyes shining, flitting from Naruto’s eyes to his mouth and back. A smile so slight it almost wasn’t there, lips slightly parted, in awe. He was looking at Naruto like he was the stars. He was looking at Naruto like he was in love.

Everything that Naruto poured in his words, Sasuke returned to him silently, through the heat of his body and his refusal to take a breath until Naruto forced him to. He guided Sasuke backwards, pressing his hips against the counter of the stand and then lifting him to sit on it. Sasuke’s legs wrapped around him, too, and Naruto couldn’t help but smile against him. “What?” asks Sasuke, only inches from his mouth, and he was breathing heavy. His tone bordered on anxious, thighs squeezing Naruto’s waist.

“I’m just remembering you trying to convince-” Sasuke didn’t deem that important enough and kissed him again, humming and trailing his hands down Naruto’s chest. “-Let me get a word in, you tried to convince me you weren’t interested in me.”

Sasuke lifted his hands to Naruto’s face, and his own was still pink from Naruto’s confession. His thumb ran under Naruto’s eyes, like he was trying to erase the shadows. “I didn’t want to get… attached. Not to you.” ‘ But I did anyway’ was unspoken; Sasuke kissed Naruto again, so Naruto could hear it anyway.

He told Sasuke he was dizzy, to which Sasuke only nodded in return. “Are you going to cry again?” he asked finally.

Naruto faltered. There was so much more to be said, to be explained. And while seeing Sasuke felt like removing the dagger in his side, the wound was still bleeding. He still hurt. But trying to talk to Sasuke with his emotions running high might only result in a nosedive; it’d make Sasuke uncomfortable, so he’d shut down or get angry.

“Not right now. No promises about later.”

They stuck around the ring toss stand like they always did. Naruto wasn’t sure what would happen if Sasuke wandered out of that area. The idea that he could disappear without warning was frightening to Naruto; he didn’t want to test it. Cobalt Beach was out of the question, for both of them. However, now that it had been confirmed that Sasuke was, indeed, a ghost, the possibilities were endless. Well, not endless, but certainly more entertaining.

The current game was “Ring Toss 2.” Naruto put air quotes around it, because it wasn’t ring toss whatsoever. It involved finding a baseball bat behind the stand and Sasuke tossing stuffed animals for Naruto to swing at, sending it sailing as far into the carnival as it could possibly go. Did they disappear (ghost stuffed animals) or were they hitting patrons? Who knows. That’s part of the fun!

Sasuke didn't seem to want to talk much about what had happened, nor about being a ghost. He made a lot of it sound kind of hazy, like only moments with Naruto held significance. Flattering, but Naruto had questions.

“So… I talked to you when I was stressed sometimes, and it was like I could hear your voice,” Naruto told Sasuke, poised to beat the shit out of a stuffed cat. Sasuke was sitting on the counter, the doors of the cabinets filled with prizes swung open wide. He’d taken off his sweatshirt, and left his socks in little bundles in his shoes.

It was odd to see him that way, skin showing and leaning back on one hand. The confirmation that he couldn’t be seen by anyone but Naruto seemed to have relaxed him. The breeze made his hair flutter into his face, and a pale hand pushed it back in a casual motion. As if nothing had happened.

“How are you sure it was me?” he asked, hoisting the cat up over his head.

“It sounded like you. Also kind of bitchy?” Sasuke flipped him off. “It said stuff that you would say to me. It was weird.” Naruto stood still, watching as Sasuke wound back and then sent the cat flying. There wasn’t satisfying crack when he hit the stuffed animal, but it did launch off into the carnival somewhere, or nowhere.

“If that’s your way of asking if it was me, I don’t know,” Sasuke told him. “Outside these 3 days, I don’t know where I am. I don’t think I’m anywhere. It’s just all black, and no time seems to pass, so it all becomes a blur I don’t remember.”

This rolled off Sasuke’s tongue like a grocery list, or the lyrics to the song on the radio that won’t stop playing. He shrugged; he was toeing the line of bored.

“So you just… didn’t do anything? The whole time?”

“Maybe. I wouldn’t know now if I ever did,” Sasuke said, and then studied his fingernails. Naruto kicked a rock with his shoe. “Usually I’m left in a state of confusion, a fog. The difference between the years didn’t matter until you touched me.”

Naruto snapped his head to look at Sasuke. All those years, all those walks down the boardwalk reeking of feigned confidence, in hopes that Sasuke would remember him. “You mean when you freaked out after the ring toss game you lost?”

“I didn’t freak out, I was a little shaken,” Sasuke said reproachfully. “But days just came and went before. I didn’t care much. But physical contact, it made me realize you were… real. Not something I made up.”

Still, he said it all without blinking. Admitting to spending most of his time in limbo, and then only recently even remembering the days he spent on Earth wasn’t as insignificant as he was making it out to be

Naruto only nodded, numbly. How was he supposed to take that information? He’d spent the whole past year feeling alone in the world, but Sasuke literally had been. That storm; lightning crackled. Naruto ignored it, swallowed, drowned it. Not now, not when he was finally feeling happy again. Just let me feel sunlight , he begged, before those clouds close up again

He spent the rest of the day basking in that. Or close of the rest of the day; now that he was around Sasuke, Naruto was beginning to actually feel tired. Sasuke’s voice, his body heat, his smell; all of it, regrettably, made Naruto want to sleep for days.

“I’m sorry, but-” Naruto cut himself off with a yawn. He was sitting on the counter next to Sasuke, leaning on his shoulder. The sun hadn’t even gone down yet. “I honestly got 6 hours of sleep this past week, so I’m fucking tired.”

Sasuke patted his head lightly. “You can sleep for a while, if you want to. The night is young.” Naruto was nodding before Sasuke had even finished his sentence; he was about to pass out, even if it meant falling forward onto the boardwalk. He felt topheavy.

“Fine, but don’t do something stupid,” he said lightly, and Sasuke only sighed, scooting over, so Naruto could put his head in his lap. He didn’t hear what Sasuke’s response was, but it sounded so sweet to his ears, and he’d been waiting so long…

When he woke up, Sasuke was gone.

Naruto sat up, blinking; the sun had set and the artificial stars were lit up, blinding. His first feeling was confusion. Hadn’t… Hadn’t he just been here? He rubbed at his eyes, letting his body wake up just enough to run cold. His hand slammed to the counter; underneath his head only a black sweatshirt.

Everything stopped, frozen, and Naruto was back. Back on the cliff, hyperventilating, staring into black water. Except this time, he wasn’t surprised. That made him feel worse. He’d been an fucking idiot, again. Because he craved feeling safe. He longed to be loved. He could eat and eat, gorge himself on happiness until he threw it all back up; that’s what was happening now. Naruto deserved it.

He deserved it, but he started running anyway, paying tears no mind. They didn’t help him anymore. Cuts and bruises from the path he took to Cobalt Beach, that helped him. The more pain, and the more blood the slashes drew, the better. He could show how beaten up Naruto had become inside, contort and twist until it faced open air.

Naruto’s fear about remaining how he used to be for the sake of Sasuke had been shallow; he never would be again. He broke through the trees, muscles screaming like sirens, and there, down the beach. He was dragged back through his memories, to thinking speaking his heart could wait, stupid, fucking stupid .

This time, he ran. Like he should of before. Naruto chased after Sasuke like he always had, since he was 13, but this time he had no doubts. He would catch up. He had to.

When he did, he slammed Sasuke into the sand with all the power he contained in him. Sasuke made a choked noise of surprise, but Naruto didn’t care. The sand was slightly wet, scraping against his knees where they’d landed heavy. He turned Sasuke over to face him, meeting wide eyes and pale skin. Sasuke’s wrists; one in each hand, fingernails digging in, pressing them down to frame his shocked expression.

“Naru-”

“No. Shut up. Listen to me, for once, and shut the fuck up.

Naruto was livid. He had never been so angry in his life, never been so scared and ashamed and betrayed. This thing, where he stayed comfortable and Sasuke died? He wasn’t going to do it anymore.

“I tried to act like everything was fine. I did that for you. But if you want me to be honest? You fucked me over, Sasuke!” Naruto was yelling, the way his dad used to yell, and only now did he really understand it.

“I don’t sleep right, I feel sick when I eat, I cry when there’s nothing to cry about! My dad, he’s so worried about me, and I can’t tell him he shouldn’t be!” Sasuke’s mouth was still open but no words came out; Sasuke was pulling at his wrists, but was completely stuck under Naruto’s words and the tears dripping down onto his face. “Sometimes I call that number you gave me, that you promised you’d pick up, and no one answers. But I just keep. Fucking. Calling .

“And you know what? I fucked you over, too! Because I’ve been in love with you for years and years and I was too afraid to tell you! But you were so loved by me, so adored by me, and you didn’t even know it. I tried to keep you safe, from something that would upset you, but I only upset you more, didn’t I?” Sasuke’s face twisted in a way Naruto had never seen before, lip trembling and eyebrows pulling together.

“I’m not going to pretend I don’t need you, and you’re not going to pretend that nothing matters anymore! Because you’re dying, Sasuke-” Naruto’s voice broke on that, but he picked it back up. “Right in front of me, and that’s not okay. It has to stop, I will not let you do that to the person I love most.”

Naruto had never seen Sasuke cry, but he was crying now, tears flowing easily down his cheeks and mouth clamped shut to not let anything escape it. Noise did anyway, something broken from the depths of his chest. The moonlight hid nothing, and Naruto was seeing Sasuke honestly now. Not some angel, not the stars; a boy who was just as sad and scared as everyone else.

“It has to stop,” Naruto said finally, and stood up, even though he felt like he was sinking into the earth. He stepped off Sasuke, and didn’t offer a hand so much as he forced Sasuke up. He was still crying, a hand up to his face, but his other gripped Naruto’s tightly. His head tilted slightly; to look behind him, at the forest, the cliffs.

Naruto pulled him in the opposite direction. Not tonight. He didn’t care what else happened, not tonight.

He marched Sasuke through the trees, both in complete silence, back to the stand. It wasn’t same as it had been. Sasuke’s sweatshirt still laid on the ground where Naruto had dropped it, but the stand had returned to its true state, broken down and messed up. Sasuke’s eyes widened, but he didn’t say anything, only brought himself closer to Naruto’s side.

At this point, on a usual night, Naruto would be out of the carnival. Sasuke would be dead, killed by the jagged teeth of sharp rocks, or if that didn’t do it, deep biting water. Maybe whatever higher power that exists wasn’t sure what to do with them at this point.

Naruto set his sights outwards, into the rest of the carnival. His heart was pounding. What would happen to Sasuke if Naruto forced him out of his regular haunts. Would he just disappear? Would they break something about the universe?

Naruto had no idea, but he had meant it. He wasn't going to let Sasuke die again. He took a deep breath, and began to lead Sasuke towards the rest of the world, for the first time in 6 years.

Chapter Text

Naruto felt hollow; an old soul, collapsing, rotting, but still somehow hoping for something to grow. It felt as though his only connection to this physical world was Sasuke’s hand. And even that must be flimsy, him being a ghost. A ghost holding on so tight that Naruto nearly expected his fingers to snap, but a ghost all the same. He grit his teeth.

Sasuke disappearing is better than Sasuke dying. Sasuke disappearing is better than Sasuke dying. Naruto repeated that until it felt true. He squeezed back; fingers intertwined, tight, teeth daring the universe to pry them apart. Breathe. Breathe.

He pulled, pushing forward through the weight of the world, to the other side-

...Nothing happened. Nothing at all. Naruto held his breath, looking back, and let it out. Sasuke was still with him, head down, tears dripping onto the boardwalk. Still shaking, overwhelmed with emotion.

“It’s alright, Sasuke. You’re with me, okay?” Sasuke didn’t respond, just stood, and Naruto figured the only way they’d ever move was with his fire lighting the way. He could conjure that, he knew it. The same way his father would poke him in the chest, over his heart, and tell him everything he needed to know to make it in the real world was there. Sasuke had only just been brought back to the real world; he might not have that same fire yet.

Naruto led him forward again, biting his lip. He still had no idea what the rules were about being a ghost, but he knew that usually, by this time of night, Sasuke would be dead. Being so presumptuous to say that he rescued Sasuke… Well, he’d done something to change Sasuke’s fate, anyway.

Their walk wasn’t slow, Naruto couldn’t let it be. He still had to drive somewhere, and he felt like he could collapse under the weight of his lack of sleep. Dragging a slightly shattered Sasuke through still flickering bright lights and sounds and smells and plenty of things he hadn’t experienced in a long time was probably very jarring for him, and yet a necessary evil.

The thumps of footsteps on wood and the beat of his heart were the pounding drums that made him march onward. That was good enough.

He stiffened at a gasp; Naruto turned his head to see an older woman, jaw loose and hanging. She raised her hand slightly to point. Naruto’s eyes widened. She wasn’t looking at him, but at Sasuke.

Naruto towed him around a corner, into shadows. There was a new rush in him. Other people could see Sasuke now? Whatever that meant. He bit back a smile; maybe it wasn’t ghost holding him down, then, but something realer. He dropped Sasuke’s hand momentarily, unzipping his sweatshirt and draping it over Sasuke’s shoulders.

“Put the hood up. You’re supposed to be dead, remember?” Sasuke followed his directions, face bathed in darkness ending at a stark line against the pale skin just under his eyes. His lips were bright pink, jaw still working slightly. Naruto took his hand again; relief. “Come on. I’ve had enough of this place.”

Nothing with Sasuke was ever the same, was ever what he expected, and the car ride back to Sakura’s was no exception. It was… weird. Surreal. He had to strap Sasuke into the car himself, sliding the belt over him, knuckles brushing against Sasuke’s chest. He basically sprinted around the car to open his door, hoping Sasuke wouldn’t vanish. He didn’t.

Driving that neighborhood wasn’t the same with Sasuke riding shotgun; every spotlight cast by street lamps felt like searchlights, the underworld looking to reclaim a missing person. Too bad. They could take Naruto first before he’d let them take Sasuke.

They didn’t talk the whole way. Naruto couldn’t resist looking at Sasuke every few seconds; he couldn’t relax, also predictable. Sasuke was blinking, wet lashes, wet eyes. Alive. That’s all he could ask for now.

The key to Sakura’s front door was under the welcome mat. Sasuke was expressionless on the porch, but stood out from the swaying plants. The ferns were airborne, hoping to fly away, bright; then, Sasuke, rooted to the spot, dark eyes turned from the sky. Sasuke had spent so much time in an act, the same scene rewinded again and again. Now he wasn’t, and clearly had no idea what to do. The key slid into the lock with a click, and then a turn. Naruto motioned him forward.

Sasuke’s footsteps were lighter than Naruto’s; he suddenly recalled something about Sasuke sneaking in and out of his father’s house. Naruto imagined Sasuke slinking out of back doors or windows, that sly grin he wears when he gets away with something. This was a different kind of quiet, though. More like every other large green and white tile on the floor of Sakura’s kitchen was a land mine.

Finally, up the stairs, and a slight creak as the door to the guest bedroom opened. It was dark, but didn’t seep into him, not poison. The light of the moon broke through a sky light. Why had Naruto been so entranced by the man-made lights of the carnival? He didn’t know anymore.

“Sit,” Naruto commanded, pointing to the edge of the bed. Sasuke complied. “I’m going to go tell Sakura that everything is okay, because she’ll worry if I don’t. Don’t fall asleep yet, and don’t go anywhere. Don’t. ” Sasuke nods slightly, and Naruto takes that as the most he’s going to get.

Sakura’s room is just down the hall; he leaves the door to his room open, so he can still see part of Sasuke. Naruto pushes open the door to see Sakura partially in bed and partially out, wearing black shorts and Ino’s purple shirt. She probably had been waiting up for him.

“Hey.” He poked her with his foot. Nothing. He leaned down and poked her again. She snorted, jerking up from her sleep, hair jutting out strangely.

“Naruto!” She rubbed her eyes, but sleep still remained. “Naruto, are you okay? What happened?”

He let himself really smile for the first time in what felt like ages. “It went really well, but I’m so tired, Sakura.”

Sakura reached up to pat his cheek. “That boy really takes it out of you, doesn’t he?”

“Huh, something like that, I guess. I’ll tell you everything in the morning, don’t worry. I just have to crash.” Sakura nodded, patted him again, calling him a shipwreck, and then crashed herself.

Sasuke was still there. Same spot. Naruto had no idea what he was thinking, but something told him the shield was back up. Sitting with his arms at his side, but they might as well be held up in defense. He radiated unease, the type that would typically deter Naruto, but he couldn’t let that happen now.

He sorted through his clothes, finding something warm. Nothing special, but it’d make him feel better to see them on Sasuke instead of his same old outfit. He pulled Sasuke’s hood back. “We’re going to get you out of these.” His voice was softer than the skin that brushed against his fingers.

Sasuke was some help with this; that pride of his, everpresent. He was basically covered in sand, like he might have been born half-human half-beach. Naruto unzipped his hoodie, off his shoulders, and then helped pull his shirt over his head. Next was Sasuke’s pants, a little more difficult, those dumb jeans.

It stuck Naruto as an unexpectedly intimate act, watching Sasuke step into his old sweatpants, pulling until they were low on his hips, too big for him. To see Sasuke undress and then get dressed again; no specific want in him, just a body he couldn’t help but find beautiful, to find comfort in because it belonged to who he loved most.

The shirt was orange, of course it was, but Sasuke held no complaints. “You’re freezing,” Naruto told him, pulling one of the blankets off the bed and wrapping Sasuke in it tight. Naruto, on the other hand, was too hot. He felt fevered, worried sick, probably like how Iruka worried; yet another piece of his father he better understood now.

Soon, Sasuke was in bed. Most likely another strange feeling for him. Naruto stepped into the bathroom, not making eye contact with himself, just pulling off his shirt and wetting a cloth.

When he first tried to put in near Sasuke, Sasuke flinched away; a harsh blow. “Let me,” he insisted. There was sand and salt and a few cuts, either from being shoved into the beach or pulled through thorns. Naruto took care of them as gently as he could. He just didn’t want Sasuke to hurt, and this was all he could do. “I’m done,” he said finally, and Sasuke turned away, and Naruto’s heart fell before he could catch it. There wasn’t anyone to take care of Naruto right now, and that was okay.

Naruto was in bed himself soon after, facing up, hand resting under the blanket where Sasuke could grab it. Sasuke didn’t; he was turned in the other direction. Naruto wasn’t going to bother him.

He could tell when Sasuke had fallen asleep; Naruto wasn’t going to sleep until he had, anyway. Sleep was claiming him, too, as soon as Sasuke’s breathing was steady. Exhaustion was falling heavy, a year’s worth of it.

The last thing he remembered, still up but only barely, dreams that he wasn’t sure he wanted waiting patiently to seize him, was Sasuke, moving. Rolling over Naruto’s arm, sighing slightly, and letting his forehead rest on Naruto’s shoulder. It was completely unconscious, the little noise Sasuke made at the contact, but that made it feel better. That rush of relief was enough to make Naruto fall away.

When Naruto woke up, Sasuke was staring at the ceiling, hands folded on his stomach. The room was warm, not uncomfortably so, and sunlight streamed through the skylight. Naruto had no idea how late they’d slept in. The pillow was wet under his face; he couldn’t remember what he dreamed about, but if his mouth had been open, he had probably been pretty deep in it. Embarrassed, Naruto wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Sasuke? How long…” He rubbed his eyes, voice rough with sleep wearing off. “How long have you been up?”

“Not long.” Emotionless, two words prying apart lips that didn’t seem to want to.

Naruto wasn’t sure how to approach this. Talking about feelings with Sasuke, needless to say, was an arduous process. And for both of them, when things got too intense, they backed off. They’d circle each other like wolves, snap their teeth and whine but never engage. So, Sasuke was backing off, but again, no matter how painful, Naruto wouldn’t return to where’d they’d been.

He rolled onto his side, staring hard at Sasuke’s profile. Nearly a minute passed before Sasuke’s eyes flicked to him and then away. His fingers twitched on his chest.

“Are you afraid of me?”

Sasuke’s brow furrowed slightly. “Afraid of you. Why would I be?”

“I was kind of… fierce, last night. And you were upset, so… I don’t know, I just don’t want you to hold back on me. About anything you feel.”

This seemed to spark some kind of intrigue in Sasuke, and he rolled over to face Naruto. His face still seemed slightly swollen, but his eyes less sunken. Naruto’s shirt was slightly too big on him, and Sasuke’s collar bones were showing just over it.

“Nothing scares me. And you, I don’t think you could possibly scare me, Naruto. I’m not as easily spooked as you seem to believe.” Naruto nodded; that was probably true. “If my silence was confusing to you…” Sasuke tilted his head, looking around at the small room. “This world is confusing to me.” That made sense, too.

“I was still worried.”

“What happened to carefree Naruto?”

He died when you did , Naruto thought, and then scratched it straight away. Making Sasuke’s death about himself wasn’t something he wanted to be guilty of doing. It affected him, yes, but it wasn’t his choice or his burden to bear. Instead, Naruto just shrugged.

“No, what is it you want to say? I’m not breakable.” There was still that slight unease in Sasuke’s voice that revealed the fear he claimed to be above. A fear of what, Naruto still couldn’t exactly be sure.

“I’ve, um, I’ve loved you for a long time, so sometimes I’d think about waking up with you, or whatever. I’m just thinking about that, you’re, um. In spite of it all, I like being here with you. In the morning.” That came out just as eloquently as Naruto could hope; he’d kick himself if it wouldn’t be obvious under the covers. All that wasn’t what Sasuke had been referring to, but it is what Naruto wanted to say. Those nights, laying with the blanket all but thrown off him, wondering why Sasuke couldn’t be with him. This felt like an end to those, and they’d been so lonely.

Sasuke studied Naruto silently, waiting until he was done speaking and then some, to the point that Naruto wanted to say he was kidding. And then: “Don’t move.” Naruto swallowed, but kept still. Sasuke leaned forward, pressing his lips to Naruto’s.

He was hesitant, more than he had been after Naruto had told him he loved him the first time. Sasuke said he wasn’t scared, yes, but Naruto could feel that twinge of fear again anyway. At first, Naruto had thought it had to be he himself, but he was beginning to suspect Sasuke was more afraid of the love Naruto could give him. Like it was something stolen, something he wasn’t supposed to have.

It was a short kiss, a breath, and then another, building confidence. Sasuke lifted one of his hands, pausing in mid air, before it slid behind Naruto’s neck, pulling him in a little more. More kisses, Naruto following directions, quiet. He knew this was Sasuke talking to him and he didn’t want to interrupt it.

“Okay.” Lips barely apart, close and warm. “Move.”

Naruto leaned forward now, closing the distance. Sasuke responded easily. Some of that fear seemed to be overpowered by the gratification of Naruto being so stupidly in love. He knew he came off that way; whenever Sasuke gave him the go ahead, Naruto couldn’t resist getting as close as he possibly could.

His arms went around Sasuke, all but dragging him into Naruto’s half of the bed by his waist. Sasuke was smiling slightly against him, he could feel it. Teasing him, maybe. Naruto hid his face, grumbling into Sasuke’s neck: “You said to move.”

“I did.” Sasuke’s fingers ran through his hair lightly, the other hand smoothing down Naruto’s shoulder. Naruto only held him tighter, pressing himself to Sasuke in any and every way he could.

“This is what I’d think about. Being warm in bed with you.” He said this, too, not at Sasuke, but into him, mouth almost pressed to his neck. “Is that..” He shifted under the covers, hands sliding under Sasuke’s shirt and pressing to the small of his back. “Is that stupid?”

“No,” Sasuke said, quicker than they both expected. He cleared his throat. “No, it’s not stupid.”

Naruto lifted his face, and they just… looked at each other. Naruto’s more awestruck while Sasuke’s was more studious, but still. He could remember what he’d thought when he was younger, that there was some magic connection between two people when they were thinking about each other at the same time. That magic, he felt it right now.

“God,” he breathed, “I love you.”

Sasuke blinked, and tilted his head. The fingers on Naruto’s neck kept circling, circling, and then finally: “...Say it again.”

Nothing with Sasuke was ever, ever expected. He wouldn’t meet Naruto’s eyes now. Probably thought he was being selfish or something along those lines. Probably was trying to help Naruto break down his barrier, too, from the inside. That had never happened before.

“I love you. I’ve always loved you. You’re always on my mind, always. I’d think about you in class and before I knew it, the period would be over. I’d talk my friends in the city about you so much they’d smack me over the head with things. When I’m with you, I feel things I didn’t know I could feel…” Naruto was feeling his face go hot. He’d talked like this before on the beach, but he hadn’t be able to say…

“I love you.” He circled Sasuke’s wrist, taking it from his neck to his chest, skin on skin. Over his heart, as close as Sasuke could get to it. “This is all yours, Sasuke.”

Sasuke looked at his hand for a long moment, feeling the beat under his palm. Just like he had on the beach, years ago.

“All I said was say it again, not give me a monologue,” he said, voice light, fingers curling on Naruto’s chest.

“Oh. Sorry. I love you. Is that what you wanted?” Sasuke rolled his eyes. “What about you, huh? I spend all my time embarrassing myself with declarations. Got anything to say?” Naruto said this as if it was a joke, something to be brushed off, but inside he was hoping it stuck.

“I was annoyed at you when you didn’t kiss me on the beach.”

Naruto pulled away to look at Sasuke. “That’s not really what I-”

“I kept thinking you were going to kiss me that whole day. There were so many opportunities. It drove me insane.” He said this very casually, but Naruto was shocked he was saying anything at all.

You could have kissed me, dumbass,” Naruto snorted, but Sasuke only shook his head.

“I still wasn’t completely sure I didn’t make you up one day when I was feeling lonely. How pathetic would I be to fall for some self-indulgent illusion?”

Naruto felt a pang in his stomach, the one he got whenever he thought about how lonely Sasuke must have been. He still didn’t exactly understand, what being a ghost meant, but it sounded so empty and cold. He’d never want that for Sasuke. He opened his mouth to remark on that but Sasuke bulldozed through. “And you made me miss at ring toss. I could have decked you for that. Your crush was so obvious, but I fell for giving it attention anyway.”

Naruto laughed, bringing Sasuke back to him. “I did have a big crush. And for every moment you were wondering why I didn’t kiss you, I was kicking myself for not.” That was probably all he was going to get out of Sasuke in terms of confessions. He kissed Sasuke. “And see, now I can. Feels good.”

Sasuke sighed, kissed him back. “To be honest…” He let his mouth wander to Naruto’s cheek, his jaw. “You had me from that first kiss.”

“Did I?” Naruto found the hem of Sasuke’s shirt under the covers, pulling it over Sasuke’s head and throwing it… somewhere. “Always complaining about the orange, but in reality, it’s a turn-on?”

“Fuck no, that’s why I want it off,” Sasuke growled. Naruto vaguely remembered saying something like that to Sasuke, back when he’d speak to Sasuke and it was all in his head. Then Sasuke’s lips were on Naruto again, his neck, and his body was pressed closer, warm skin against Naruto’s. Their legs tangled together, and Sasuke in sweatpants was so much better than Sasuke in jeans.

“I really love you,” Naruto reminded him, hands squeezing his hips. He rolled over, pulling Sasuke with him. “You look good in the morning.”

Sasuke held himself up with one hand on either side of Naruto’s head. “That can’t possibly be true. I haven’t showered or slept in six years.”

“Then I’m only more impressed that you’re so hot.”

“We fucked around behind a carnival stand. Your standards are low.”

“It was still hot. Also, I mean, imagine how much better it’d be in, like, a bed.”

Sasuke looked down at him with the most unimpressed look. “Very subtle, Naruto,” he said tiredly, but still leaned down to kiss him. His mouth trailed from Naruto’s lips, to his neck again, his chest. “Not a horrible idea, though.” Naruto’s eyes widened, his heart picking up a little. Sasuke was real. and he seemed determined to prove it now.

Sasuke hummed against Naruto, tongue trailing lower. “You don’t look so bad in the morning either,” he said softly, fingers finding the drawstrings of Naruto’s sweatpants, pulling-

“NARUTO!” Sakura kicked the door down with a thundering yell. “How did-!”

She gasped and froze. Sakura’s eyes widened, taking it in; Naruto, red marks all over and Sasuke, face hovering. He turned, to look at Sakura, who took a breath in that was so sharp her lungs nearly popped.

“Oh my god. Oh my god what the fuck what the fuck . Naruto, you... What the fuck?!”

Sasuke sat up and Naruto put a hand up quickly in his defence. “Sakura, it’s okay! Calm down.”

Sakura put her hands over her face. “No, no, no, okay, Sasuke is actually alive again, after six years of being dead, and he’s kissing my best friend! That’s fine! Wow that’s fine!”

“We do a lot more than that,” Sasuke said flatly, sitting back. “Just give us a few more minutes.”

Both Sakura and Naruto gaped at Sasuke, who looked back blankly. His expression was something not foreign to Naruto, but very old. It was cool, bored, flat; it was the face that had greeted Naruto the first few times he’d ventured towards the ring toss stand. Sasuke’s eyes flicked to Naruto’s and then back to Sakura, a sharp stare to contrast with her dumbfounded expression.

“Sasuke, this is my friend Sakura.” Naruto gestured between them.

“Obviously. We’re in her house,” was all Sasuke said, and then nodded at her. That was all. Sakura just twisted her shirt in her hands, and Naruto could kick Sasuke. Why was he acting that way?

“Nice to meet you, Sasuke! Uh, you probably don’t remember me, by the time I was in 6th grade you had just gone into highschool, so…” Naruto winced; this was giving him very unfair and vivid flashbacks of being 13, of making a complete fool of himself in front of Sasuke. He’d been able to forget about thinking Sasuke was reaching to shake his hand instead of take a ticket for five whole years, and now the walls were crashing back down.

“Sorry, it’s really disorienting, seeing you now that we’re all adults!” Sakura finally finished with a smile, though her eyes were screaming for mercy. Naruto had clearly been dumb enough to not completely anticipate others who had really known Sasuke while he was alive would be at the very least surprised to see him up and walking around instead of, say, six feet under.

Sasuke tilted his head. “But I’m not an adult. I’m 17.”

If Sasuke continued like this, he was going to give both Sakura and Naruto a panic attack. How had Naruto forgotten they were now two years older than Sasuke? That was a technicality, obviously, as Sasuke had been stuck at 17, but the weird look Sakura was giving him? Naruto shook his head minisculely, daring her to say something.

Now Sakura just looked intensely uncomfortable, and Sasuke wasn’t doing anything to help break the tension. He just sat on Naruto’s legs, wearing his orange clothes, staring at Sakura like he was patiently waiting for her to get out of his way. This was the Sasuke he showed to the outside world, nothing like the one Naruto had come to know.

Sakura looked at her wrist, completely devoid of a watch. “Well, this has been super weird, so I’m going to go change and I’ll see you guys in like 20 minutes?”

“Yeah, sorry, sure.”

“And can you guys not have sex, if possible?” Naruto winced but gave her a weak thumbs up. She returned it and was out the door even quicker than she’d burst in.

Naruto waited a minute and then jabbed a finger at Sasuke. “You can be such a little shit sometimes.”

“Oh, no, you’re hurting my feelings,” Sasuke said flatly, finally getting off Naruto’s legs. He stood up, stretching his back like the sway of the palm tree just outside the window. There were things on the floor, on the end of the bed, and Sasuke started collecting it.

They were going somewhere, then.

“Where do you want to go?”

Naruto finally asked that question, once they were sitting in his car. He’d said goodbye to Sakura, who looked highly perturbed, but still happy for him.The key was in the ignition, but not turned; Naruto had no idea where Sasuke wanted to go from here, but he was ready for whatever request he might have. Sasuke had clearly heard him, and didn’t seem to have any immediate answer. He turned away from Naruto, to stare through the window.

Down the street, the neighborhood was starting to wake up. Unfurling it’s petals with the slams of screen doors, facing the sun. It was going to be hot, Naruto could already tell, the sky clear and bright, but while everyone else was looking up, Sasuke was clearly looking out. Speeding across Oceanview, cutting through trees, and away into some distant land. It felt funny, almost, considering how much time Naruto had spent in that distant land, wishing instead to be in Oceanview. He knew better than to compare his experience to Sasuke’s, though; Naruto had no idea what it was like to look around at place he had been raised from the ground up and feel as though it had changed its mind, now only trying to bury him alive.

“We could see your friends, if you wanted to,” Naruto offered, even though he really didn’t want to. Talking to any of them wasn’t high on his list of priorities, and seeing how Sasuke had changed to act around Sakura, Naruto wasn’t sure if it’d be bearable to see Sasuke do the same for his old friends. But still, he offered anyway, because he should.

Sasuke laughed, short. “Are you kidding? Suigetsu would be so disappointed to find that I made it back.” A flash of anger tugged for Naruto’s attention, though he gave it none. “The other two… have probably had it bad enough,” he admitted, and his hair was falling in his eyes. “I don’t feel like ripping off band aids right now.” Naruto sighed in relief; he didn’t, either.

“And… your parents. I have no idea where they are, but-”

“No,” Sasuke said, even more firmly, no laughter now. “Seeing my father… would be pointless.” His voice was cold, hard, but then it melted without his permission with his coming words. “And I wrote Mom a letter before I left, so I already said goodbye to her.”

Naruto immediately fiddled with his keychain; he was tearing up slightly and trying very hard not to. He couldn’t imagine ever saying goodbye to his dad. Hell, he couldn’t even imagine leaving his dad on purpose. What would he say? What had Sasuke said? What do you say to the person who brought you into existence the day you check back out?

“Then where?” Naruto asked again, and in his opinion, he sounded normal.

Sasuke dragged his eyes from that distant land, to lock them on Naruto’s. “Anywhere else but here,” he said simply.

Naruto nodded and turned the key. That was a start.

The only person Naruto had ever been on long car rides with was Iruka, so when he’d decided where “anywhere else” was (a few hours up the coast, some town where no one would know Sasuke), he had no idea what they were supposed to do to pass the time. He and his dad would usually sing along to music or tell stories or, if Naruto was really lucky, Iruka would give him one of his famous long-winded lectures.

With Sasuke, though; no stories to tell, no music they shared and while there may be grievances one of them might want to air with the other, now wasn’t really the time. Naruto just tapped away nervously, getting directions. Sasuke watched him with interest, and peered down at Naruto’s phone when he dumped it in one of the empty cup holders.

“Why is your phone so big? Why would it possibly need to be that big?” Naruto glanced at it; it didn’t look that big.

“What do you mean?”

Sasuke picked it up to examine it. “It’s almost the size of my face.”

Naruto glanced at him in confusion, and then turned his gaze back to the road; obviously, in the six years Sasuke had been in his own little world, everything else had kept moving without him. It was unnerving, but Naruto brushed it off the best he could. “You sound like an old man. Do you need me to re explain what wifi is, or are you good?” Sasuke only snorted, flipping the device around in his fingers, and then clicked it on.

“I wonder what’s in here,” he said lightly, as if he wasn’t really all that interested, but Naruto could tell it was him asking for permission.

“You can look in it if you want to. I have nothing to hide.”

“There’s a passcode.”

“Oh.” Naruto’s face burned. He’d really walked right into that one, hadn’t he? Turn signal, switch lanes, cough. “It’s, like, 7-2-7-8-5-3.” He could hear the quiet clicks as Sasuke typed in the number, and then the louder one as his phone was unlocked. The car chugged along, creating noise between them where otherwise there would be none.

“...Your passcode isn’t my name, is it?”

Fuck.

“No! Why would it be your name, I just… I just randomly chose those numbers, you know?”

“Honestly I don’t know wether that’s cute or sad, Naruto.” Naruto groaned; he didn’t know either. ‘Sasuke’ had become his password on a day when Naruto was so scared he was forgetting Sasuke. He’d been hanging out with Kiba on his day off, rolling around in the winter weather like they were kids; snow angels. It had been happy, but too happy. The guilt, it froze him much more than December ever could. He’d thought, if he had to think of Sasuke’s name every time he opened his phone, he couldn’t possibly forget. It’d been a phase, but he’d just never gotten around to changing it to something less embarrassing. Now it was biting him in the ass.

“I walk the line between sad and cute pretty often nowadays.”

“Don’t you just,” Sasuke said back. His fingers were tapping away softly and Naruto bit his lip. It wasn’t like he had anything to hide, but still; there was a whole other him that lived far away, in a much faster world. He wasn’t sure if that was Sasuke’s speed.

After a minute, Sasuke snorted. “Who’s Hinata?”

“Oh. A friend.”

“That girl you had your first kiss with.” Naruto blinked. Not only had he forgotten he’d told Sasuke that story, he’d forgotten that’d even happened at all. Year 16, parties packed with mindless bodies, felt so far from him now. And even more so, kissing Hinata of all people; she was nothing beyond a friend now. It made him cringe.

“God, I hadn’t thought of that in a while.”

“She just texted you. Asked if you and Kiba broke her recliner chair.”

“Oh, fuck, yeah, I guess we did. Shino fell asleep with it completely back, so we were trying to figure out we could release it and make him sit back up fast enough to knock his glasses off.”

“Did it work?”

“No. Shino just punched Kiba in the stomach so hard he almost threw up.” Naruto laughed a little at the memory, and Sasuke slumped down in the seat, putting his feet on the dash.

“One time Suigetsu pretended to put one of Juugo’s birds in the microwave, and Juugo literally picked him up and threw him.” The cool air blowing from the vents made his hair flutter. “He could easily bench press all of us.”

And then Sasuke was back to tapping, and that’s how it was. Getting information about him, about his life, was a slow process. Collecting all the pieces Sasuke let slip from his grasp and trying to fit them together in a mind that couldn’t focus on more than one thing at a time was slightly exhausting. Maybe that’s why Naruto was slightly on edge; he was worried he’d run out of time before he knew Sasuke completely.

“Who’s this.” Nothing Sasuke asked even sounded like questions. He held Naruto’s phone up into Naruto’s field of vision, and he knew his expression visibly soured. It was himself, smiling the big smile he’d gotten so used to seeing in the mirror he could put it on even when he didn’t feel like it. He had his arm slung around the waist of someone he’d been dating, and they looked… happy enough. It felt so long ago; the name of the person wasn’t even coming back to him.

“We went out for a few months last year. Doesn’t really matter.” Naruto didn’t know what to say further. It was embarrassing, admitting that he’d failed in being committed to anyone but Sasuke.

His first kiss had happened with him pretending Hinata was Sasuke, and the rest of his firsts had come and gone in a very, very similar fashion. That really wasn’t one of his finer moments. Where others might let an afterglow wash over them, Naruto tended to experience a wave of shame. Letting his eyes focus completely to see… not Sasuke. Spectacularly disappointing. He silently begged Sasuke to let it slide.

He did. Sasuke didn’t seem keen to hear about Naruto’s past relationships anyway. He was silent again. One hand was holding the phone, the other was fiddling with the collar of his shirt absentmindedly. He was still wearing Naruto’s clothes and didn’t seem to mind them too much.

“This guy. Your dad?”

Naruto looked at the phone again. “Yeah, that’s Iruka. It was his birthday so I made him a cake.”

“It looks really bad.”

“It always does, that’s why it’s funny.” Sasuke looked at the photo, tilting his head slightly.

“You look like him.”

Naruto blinked. That was a first. “People usually say I don’t look like him at all. I mean, I’m adopted, so-”

“No, I mean there’s a similar look in your eyes.” A video of Iruka’s birthday started playing in his hand, Naruto could tell because of Kakashi laughing behind the camera. “See, you smile the exact same way.” Sasuke paused the video, pushing it towards Naruto again. It was true; in that moment, they did look very similar.

“Nobody’s really said that before,” said Naruto, and his chest felt tight in a good way. “But that’s a really nice way to look at it.”

Sasuke nodded.

“I love you.”

Sasuke nodded again, and his feet tapped on the dashboard.

The rest of the ride went like that, Sasuke going through Naruto’s phone and Naruto having to answer for all the questionable content he’d consumed and the weird texts he’d sent over the past year. When they finally got the hotel, it was mid-afternoon, and Naruto was done with being interrogated.

“Okay, I’m going to be completely honest with you. This hotel is somewhere between not-gross-enough-to-have-bed-bugs and not-so-expensive-I-die.” Sasuke rolled his eyes, opening his door. Clearly it didn’t seem to matter much to him. Naruto stepped out and looked at the place himself.

It was pretty mundane, exactly what you’d expect for a moderately cheap hotel; two floors of rooms, small office, paint chipping but only slightly. He looked over the roof of his car at Sasuke. Somehow, the more ordinary the activity or location was, the happier it made him. This is what normal people do, what normal couples do. He felt… normal with Sasuke. It was heaven.

Sasuke straightened his shirt and then headed towards the office. Naruto hurried to catch up. “I’ve never gotten a hotel room by myself before. I’ve only stayed in one a couple times, but my dad always took care of it.”

“It’s not that hard. Karin used to work at a hotel like this, as the receptionist. Usually they’re just bored out of their minds.”

He was right. The woman at the counter didn’t seem to care that they were two men getting a one-bed room, nor did she appear to care about much of anything at all. Naruto was glad he’d spent the whole year working; he had money of his own, to spend on something like this. He smiled slightly, remembering how he’d felt that way buying tickets for the carnival at 16. Times have changed.

Naruto slid the key card into the slot in their room door, hearing the buzz and click. “I’m in,” he said quietly, making Sasuke roll his eyes. He dumped his stuff on the foot of the bed and looked around. Beige walls, brown carpet, an ugly painting of green and yellow flowers hung above the telephone. Boring. Perfect.

“I love it.”

“It looks like a normal hotel room, Naruto.”

“I love it,” he insisted, over the loud rumbling of his stomach. “Oh. So much has happened I forgot that I have to eat to survive.” Sasuke could probably understand that. “Do you want to get something to eat?”

“Where?”

“There’s vending machines.”

“I haven’t eaten, in 6 years, and you’re honestly suggesting corn nuts from a hotel vending machine?”

They went to a diner instead.

Naruto went ahead of Sasuke, plopping down in a booth and looking at him eagerly. Sasuke only shook his head slightly. “I don’t know why you’re so excited,” he told Naruto, sliding into his own seat. “This is just a plain old diner.”

That might be true, but Naruto could see in Sasuke’s expression that he was happy to be there, too. It was funny sometimes, how different they could be. For Naruto, when he felt excited, it was easy to tell; in his voice, his movement, his eyes, just written all over. Sasuke, on the other hand, favored invisible ink. He didn’t like to be read, even by Naruto.

Still, for someone that could hardly be defined as detail-oriented, Naruto had been instilled with a love for intricacy. Years of observing Sasuke helped him focus, decide what to pinpoint and what to ignore. Naruto had given up trying to get Sasuke to be more loose with his emotions, and instead had just gotten better at deciphering them.

So, now, Sasuke was happy. A half smile played at his lips as he flipped open a menu, checked out a page and then snuck a look at Naruto, who was looking right back.

“What are you thinking?”

Sasuke sniffed. “The top of the table is so fucking sticky.” Naruto only smiled wider, flipping open his own menu. He didn’t mind at all. In fact, it added to the general atmosphere of the whole place. Bright, comfortable, a little messy; just like home.

Everything around them was either red, yellow or checkered, which was probably killing Sasuke but Naruto found charming. It was busy enough to make him want to lean closer to Sasuke, but not too busy that he felt suffocated. The waitstaff looked friendly, if tired; Naruto had worked this kind of job before, and he knew what it could take out of people.

Somehow, while this little town was still closer to Oceanview than to the city on a map, it was more similar to what Naruto was used to. In Oceanview, everything was too close. Every good memory, he kept close to his chest and every bad memory hit home hard. Where Naruto grew up, though, people just went on with their lives, parallel lines, running side by side but not having any reason to connect.

Here, Sasuke blended right in. He wasn’t the strange boy bathed in shadows while the world around him sparkled in lights; Sasuke was just any tired teenager with messy hair staring at the dollar menu. Naruto didn’t know what to make of that (besides that his suspicions that it was impossible for Sasuke to look bad were being confirmed.)

Naruto dumped the bowl filled with tiny plastic containers of jam onto the table and began to stack them on top of each other. “What are you going to get as your first meal back in the land of the living?” Sasuke’s hands were folded under his chin as he looked down at the menu.

“It’s hard to choose. Do I want rubbery eggs or burnt toast?”

“Don’t be an ass.” Sasuke tilted his head one last time and then closed it, setting the menu to the side. He watched Naruto stack the containers.

“Me watching used to mess you up.”

Naruto had almost reached the top of the tower, just three more to go. “Well… You being near me used to make me think I was going to mess up, but that was stupid.” Two more; blackberry and tangerine. “Now you being near me just makes me stronger,” he told Sasuke brightly, who just looked down at the table. “Sorry, was that too cheesy? Should I have fucked it up on purpose for you?”

Sasuke flicked the tower, sending one container flying into Naruto’s chest and the rest cascading down onto the table. “No!” Naruto whispered, the heels of his hands pressing to his forehead. “My kingdom, in ruins! How could you? I ca-”

“Are you two ready to order, or do you need a couple minutes?” A sweet voice sounded from above Naruto, almost making him jump. He looked up to see a girl about his age, holding a pad of paper and wearing a buttercup yellow shirt with a little white name and a red skirt. She was smiling halfheartedly.

“Oh, yeah, shit, sorry,” Naurto said, quickly trying to right the bowl of jam that he’d been using as building blocks. He could hear Sasuke sigh and order, black coffee and their regular breakfast plate minus the pancakes. The waitress nodded, writing it down. “Wait, still bring his pancakes, but I’ll eat them instead.”

She nodded with a smile, crossing out Sasuke’s modification. “And for you?”

“Same as him, but add all-you-can-eat-pancakes with blueberries. And orange juice.”

“Are you five years old?” Sasuke asked him once the waitress had left. “Also if you’re getting all-you-can-eat-pancakes, why would you need my pancakes?”

“I feel like they’ll taste better if they’re yours,” was the only reasoning he could offer. He thought it would gain him another eyeroll, but Sasuke smiled at this. A small, private smile, but it was there. Sasuke seemed extremely reluctant to express affection in public, which was definitely another example of how much he loathed to be known. The fact that Naruto could ever coax him out at all was a feat, so he’d appreciate what Sasuke would give him.

“So you wanted to know more about everything,” Sasuke said suddenly. Naruto blinked, then nodded. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to answer all your questions, but I’ll try my best.

“I told the truth before. My time in between the carnival was just empty. It felt almost as if it took no time at all from year to year, because the nothingness was so consuming. I don’t know what to call it besides a void,” Sasuke said, and his expression twinged, as though it was uncomfortable to recall. “I hardly even remember it. So much of the past six years is out of focus. Like a dream, that you wake up and forget.”

It was difficult for Naruto to wrap his head around what Sasuke was saying. It didn’t make sense to him, how someone could get pulled in and out of existence. And not only that, but the opposite of existence wasn’t nothing at all, just the absence of a physical form or location? It made his head hurt. His feet tapped, and his fingers unstuck from the table top only to press back down.

“So… those three days, you were brought back to life for the carnival, and even that was hazy?” Sasuke nodded; it wasn’t likely Sasuke would lie about anything now anyway. “But you started to remember after that one summer we touched.”

The chatter filled the air around them. “...I didn’t remember you, because I couldn’t be convinced I was anything but alone. Something changed, when you touched me.” He ran a finger along the edge of the table. “That’s why I… held onto you. And after that, it was hard to not touch you or be near you. All the time.”

Naruto swallowed. This was a lot for Sasuke to admit, and that memory of holding Sasuke close in cool night air was also so vivid to him. “You didn’t have to hold yourself back, you know,” he said finally. Sasuke gave him a look and Naruto sighed; there was no way Sasuke would have given in to that vice, no matter the intensity of the pull.

“So then those nights you went to the cliffs. Do you remember those?”

“Of course. Every night, all three, I relived that. And you don’t forget it, the water or the rocks.” Naruto winced, and Sasuke waved again. “Most times it was instant.”

“That really doesn’t make me feel better,” Naruto said, trying to not let his voice strain and failing.

Sasuke looked apologetic but continued on. “There was a strong force pulling me, every time. It didn’t matter what happened preceding it,” he added, but what he meant was: “It didn’t matter what you did.”

“I shouldn’t have left you alone,” Naruto said quietly, staring at his hands. He’d been… a child. So could he really be blamed? In his mind, it didn’t matter; he’d let it happen, so how could he act innocent? Naruto felt like he’d pushed Sasuke towards danger rather than pulled him into his arms, into safety.

To his surprise, Sasuke reached suddenly, gently placing a hand over Naruto’s. His fingers were tight, and it was clear it wasn’t easy, but the warmth was there anyway. “Stop it. I’m not sure exactly what you’re thinking, but fucking stop it. Don’t do that to yourself.” His voice was steady, a command. Naruto wanted to shake his head, but he nodded instead, and Sasuke took his hand back.

“Anyway, I assume I was trapped around the carnival and the beach because that’s where I was last, before my death. I probably needed someone to release me from the repeating cycle. That being you.”

Naruto nodded, still struggling to wrap his head around everything. “Then why were you a ghost in the first place? And why am I the one to bring you back?”

Sasuke looked out the window to his left, at the palm trees and sizzling asphalt. He went completely still, just for a second, and he looked like a photograph, caught in a single moment, unaware and beautiful. Then, he shrugged. “I have no idea,” he said.

He was lying. Naruto knew it, knew he was lying, but had no clue as to why. He thought it over himself, trying to answer his own questions, but he couldn’t without Sasuke.

“Why won’t you tell me?”

Sasuke looked him in the eyes now. “I don’t know for certain, and I don’t know how to say it.” His voice was calm, even if his words struck Naruto with an intense anxiety, and he touched Naruto’s hand again, just slightly. Together, they took a breath in, and one back out. “Don’t think about it too much.”

Naruto scrunched his eyebrows together. “That’s easier said than done.” In the past, there were words that Sasuke had chosen not to say, for his own supposed protection or Naruto’s, but it was a rare occasion that he just didn’t know how to say it. Naruto’s feet tapped, and it was audible now, making Sasuke look glance down to the table, and so it was noticeable. Nobody ever, ever said anything good following “I don’t know how to say it.”

“Relax,” Sasuke told him. “I’m just thinking things through.” Naruto could accept that answer, even if it didn’t relieve him of his fear. Whatever dark Sasuke intended to keep Naruto in, he didn’t like it. He folded his arms and put his face in them with a quiet whine. There was a pause, then Sasuke’s hand on his head, patting. “Naruto, relax.”

Naruto kept his head down. He didn’t want Sasuke to take his hand off him again. The give and take, he had no interest in it. If he could tie them together, he would. It was less like Naruto felt as though there was something missing when he wasn’t close to Sasuke, but more like he felt ten times himself when he was. Sasuke’s fingers brushed through Naruto’s hair, and his distress was melting away.

Somewhere, between being the cold boy at the end of the boardwalk and being the one sitting across from him, Sasuke had developed a blindingly obvious soft spot for Naruto. His words may bite and sting from time to time, but his touch revealed only deep affection, an earnest kind of love. Naruto smiled against his sleeve

It was yanked away quickly, like he’d been caught stealing. Naruto looked up, blinking at the lights, and was met with the waitress just arriving with their food.

Naruto’s mouth was watering instantly. Sasuke looked only mildly pleased, which either meant he really wasn’t all that hungry after 6 years or he was holding himself back to look cool. Either way, Naruto was hungry, and he wanted his body to be at least 60% pancake by the time he got out of the diner.

The waitress set down Naruto’s plates in front of him, three in total, as Sasuke looked on, raising his eyebrows. Naruto clapped his hands quietly, waiting for the waitress to go so he could inhale everything.

But she didn’t immediately. Instead, she smiled down at Naruto. “I like your shirt,” she said, and he looked down to see: orange, of course.

“Really? Most people think it’s so obnoxious.”

“They’re wrong!” she insisted with a little laugh, smoothing her red hair over her shoulder, and then holding out her hand to show fingernails painted bright orange. “It’s my favorite color.”

“Mine too! I knew I wasn’t crazy.” Naruto glanced at Sasuke as if to say ‘see?’, but Sasuke had a strange look on his face; he was staring intently at the waitress, and Naruto could almost hear the rumble, distant thunder in his expression.

“No, no.” She placed a hand lightly on his shoulder. “I think you have excellent taste.” They beamed at each other for one more moment, Naruto the way he always did with kind strangers. Her hand slid from his arm.

“Oh! I just remembered your orange juice, I’ll be right back,” she said, hurrying away.  Naruto thanked her, and then immediately tackled this perfect stack of too-sweet pancakes wielding his fork like a weapon. Fuck, they were good, they were so good.

Sasuke just sipped his coffee and watched, neither disgusted nor impressed. He was leaning back in his seat, one arm slung over the back. Naruto glanced up at him occasionally, but Sasuke didn’t seem to have anything to say, so Naruto would eat his pancakes how he liked.

After a few minutes, Sasuke set his coffee down, making almost no sound on the surface of the table. “You’re tearing through those. Is there some primal need for pancakes everyone else was born with?”

Naruto shrugged. “I was born with it at least. And well, sometimes it looks messy, but the goal was kind of to just get them in my mouth as soon as possible.”

Sasuke picked up his mug again, looking down at the swirling coffee and then eyes flashing to look at Naruto. “Huh. Almost makes me jealous.”

Naruto’s jaw went loose slightly, and Sasuke had that- That fucking smirk! It’d been a while since he’d seen it, but it was back in full force, slightly slanted, like a cat stretching, sharp claws.  “...Excuse me?”

“You heard me just fine. Making such a big deal, about my ‘first meal’. What if that’s not what I really want?”

“You…” Naruto was going red. “You can’t just say stuff like that without warning, Sasuke.”

“Oh, no?” he asked, foot nudging Naruto’s. “So that waitress can come on to you all she wants, but when I do it, it’s embarrassing?”

Processing that sentence was a whole task within itself, but once he did, it was impossible not to laugh. Naruto snorted, putting his hand over his eyes. Sasuke was being petty. “See? I knew it.” Naruto pointed his fork in accusation. “You’re the jealous type.”

Sasuke tilted his head, considering this. “No. I’m wouldn’t call myself the jealous type, but she was…” He sighed, frustration creeping in. “You’re used to it. Other people. I’m not.”

This sparked Naruto’s interest. Sasuke had said almost the same thing to him, the first time Naruto had talked to him in his head, back in winter at Kakashi’s suggestion. It might mean nothing, it might mean Naruto just had gotten in Sasuke’s head enough to be able to replicate the things he’d say, but on the other hand, it could mean that he’d had an actual connection to Sasuke. Wherever that cold nothing that had stolen Sasuke existed, maybe there was still a bond to his world. Quiet, unreliable, like two children speaking with tin cans and string, but a bond still. It made him hopeful.

Naruto leaned forward, doing his best not to stick to any syrup puddle. “Are you so surprised I’m so popular?,” he teased. “I’m not some hidden gem only you’ve discovered, Sasuke. I’m kind of a catch.”

Sasuke narrowed his eyes. Naruto gave him a nervous smile; he wasn’t trying to genuinely piss Sasuke off. He sighed, as if this was such a hassle, and leaned forward himself. His hand went to Naruto’s chin, tilting his face up. He studied Naruto, and then put his thumb at the corner of Naruto’s mouth, swiping along his bottom lip.

He guided Naruto’s mouth open just slightly, thumb resting right on the edge. Naruto’s heart tripped, like it always did, one beat going missing. Technically, Sasuke could kiss him right here, if he wanted to. Now that Naruto was thinking about it, he kind of wanted him to; shouldn’t he be used to that feeling by now? The warm hum of electricity spreading from wherever Sasuke touched him, automatic system being switched on, thrumming to life.

“Are you going to kiss me or something?” Naruto finally asked him weakly. “Because if not, this is such a dick move.”

Sasuke seemed to agree as he released Naruto, and they both pulled back into their respective spaces, Naruto pink and Sasuke unaffected. Naruto couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed, even though he knew that was the point of Sasuke’s tiny games.

“I hate it when you do that!” Naruto got out. “I don’t even know the point of it anymore. I’m pretty clearly down to fuck, dude. You don’t have to prove it to me.”

There was a clink as a glass was set down in front of Naruto. “Um, there you go,” said the waitress, smile now awkward instead of sunny. “Enjoy!” She turned and rushed to another table. Naruto watched her departure before turning back, accusations at the ready.

You fucking did that on purpose.

“I didn’t, actually,” Sasuke corrected him, “but my timing was impeccable.”

Sasuke seemed to have found his appetite suddenly, pulling his fork out from where it had been wrapped in a paper napkin. “I know you’re a catch. All I care about is that I’ve caught you.”

Then he was silent, and it was Naruto’s turn to watch him. At first Sasuke seemed hesitant, as if he’d forgotten how to chew, but he was picking it up just fine. Hunger was such a human experience; food, water, sleep, all the things Sasuke hadn’t needed as a ghost but would certainly need now. Naruto liked watching him indulge in those.

“And I’ve caught you, too?”

“What is it with you making me spell everything out for you?” was all he said, and that was answer enough.

Naruto forced Sasuke into a trip to a drug store to get instant ramen, which made Sasuke wrinkle his nose but otherwise said nothing. Once they got back, Naruto flopped down on the bed, kicking his shoes off. Sasuke sat rifling through Naruto’s things next to him, keeping everything slightly folded how Naruto had left it but just sorting through it. It didn’t seem as though he was looking for anything in particular, but he did stop when he got to a pair of old jeans, holding them up.

“You wore these when I beat you up in the ocean,” he said, fingers poking through a hole in the knee. “I remember.”

“I think you mean when I beat you up, but other than that, I think you’re right.” Sasuke rolled his eyes, putting the jeans back. He didn’t speak, but there were some items he smoothed his hand across, running over the bumps of zippers and buttons. He must have memories with them that Naruto didn’t share; to him, they were just clothes. But if Sasuke’s only recent memories was the time he spent with Naruto, it must be clearer to him.

Naruto had never let himself fantasize that he might occupy Sasuke's mind the same way Sasuke occupied his. He bit his lip as Sasuke lifted a shirt, letting it fall out of its fold and holding it closer to his face. No, he’d never dared think it, but he was filled with what-ifs now.

What if he could take Sasuke’s breath away with a smile? What if the sound of his voice sounded impossibly sweet? He couldn’t imagine someone loving more than him, but what if Sasuke could match him?

He put a hand on Sasuke’s leg until he met his eyes. Dark, but shining. “Hey. I have an idea.”

“I look like an idiot.”

Naruto laughed, sitting on the side of the pool, legs dangling into the water. He had jeans on, completely soaked from his knees down. Sasuke’s words reflected what he’d said at first, back on Cobalt Beach, watching Naruto charge into the surf with disbelief. Now, he was wading into the water, still disbelieving.

“Yeah, we both do. But that’s the point. We’re bonding.”

“I’d say we’re pretty well bonded at this juncture,” Sasuke grumbled; not like the roll of a brewing storm, but rather the low tone of a disgruntled animal. He looked down at this clothes, and sighed. “This wasn’t something I thought I’d be doing twice.”

The lukewarm chlorinated water wasn’t any match to the cold moonlight waves, rolling in like drums, crashing like cymbals, yet somehow harmonizing perfectly; music to Naruto’s ears. But this would do as a substitute for now. He lowered himself into the water, sinking in to his waist.

“Spare me that. There’s no way I’m not making you do this again.” Naruto looked down at his hands, how clumsy they looked under the pool lens. “It’ll be an anniversary of me fucking up what could have been our first kiss, and you can make fun of me, and I’ll peer-pressure you into swimming in skinny jeans. What do you say?”

There was silence. Not even the swish or splash of movement. Naruto looked up. Sasuke was perfectly still, head turned towards Naruto. Just the ends of his hair were wet, but his was submerged as well. In the same way Naruto’s hands had looked clumsy, so was Sasuke’s expression.

“Did I say something wrong?” Naruto asked meekly, moving towards him slightly, and Sasuke just shook his head. He pushed through the water slowly to meet Naruto, and it was deceiving for the power with which he kissed Naruto.

His hands curled in the front of Naruto’s shirt, a familiar move, pulling Naruto into him. He stayed controlled, mouth moving with practice, precision. How satisfying it was, to be kissed by someone who knew him, and Naruto’s hands clenched in his wet clothes, too, the fabric around Sasuke’s waist pulling him closer.

For all the authority Sasuke took in his kiss, Naruto realized his hand was shaking against Naruto’s chest. “Sasuke,” Naruto finally asked, catching his breath. “What’s wrong?”

Everything was dripping down, and Sasuke especially, like paper dissolving. His mouth was still inches from Naruto’s, and Naruto knew him too, knew his face better than his own. Sasuke’s mind, though, continued to surprise him.

Sasuke’s arms slid over Naruto’s shoulders. “I’m trying not to get you so attached. It’s not working.”

Something twisted sharply inside Naruto. He had said something wrong, he knew now. Sasuke still felt paper thin, fragile and torn. Naruto could remember Sasuke saying something about getting attached yesterday, something similar.

I didn’t want to get… attached. Not to you.

And so, Sasuke still felt that way. Yet they were attached as closely as two people could be, at best by choice and at worst against their own will. Naruto could see that conflict written all over Sasuke’s face, between acting on emotion and crushing it. Usually it would be the latter, but Sasuke seemed to be weak to his feelings.

Naruto wanted to fix it, the pieces of Sasuke longing to fit together and failing, but this wasn’t something that his love and a good day could fix. Sasuke was pressing him against the edge of the pool, body speaking a different language than his own, his tongue much more articulate than the words that could roll off them. But still, there was something specific Sasuke wanted him to understand, and Naruto's thoughts were much too loud to receive the message.

He could already see Sasuke closing up again, kissing along his jaw, avoiding words completely. He held Sasuke closely; still, he’d fix it.

They remained like that for a little while, but the sun was almost set, nightfall threatening to drown them if they stayed. Eventually, they walked back to their room, leaving a trail of dripping water. Sasuke was becoming more and more himself with every step, or at least the himself he decided to present. Naruto half expected Sasuke to tell him to forget about what he’d said, but he didn’t.

The first thing Sasuke did when they returned was stare in the mirror. Naruto was worried he was having some kind of showdown with himself, until Sasuke picked up a strand of hair. “I hate chlorine.”

“I don’t know if anyone likes chlorine. You should take a shower, though. Give me a minute, then you can.”

Naruto ended up being very literal; it took him about one minute to wash off. He still had that stupid fear, that Sasuke was going vanish and Naruto wouldn’t get to… Not that it mattered, because when he stepped out, water from his wet hair trickling down his neck to wet his collar, Sasuke was stilling looking grumpy and waiting his turn. Naruto sighed in relief.

There wasn’t much else to do but wait for Sasuke in turn.

All that was on his mind was what Sasuke had said. It made him twist again, wringing out his good mood. Because he knew it now, staring at the ceiling, what Sasuke was trying to tell him. And at the same time, Naruto knew it couldn’t possibly true. One belief was much heavier than the other, so they separated, the implications of Sasuke’s words threatening to retreat into subconsciousness.

The shower squeaked on in the bathroom, and soon Naruto could see steam puffing out through the doorway. He focused on the heat and the sound. It was still amazing to him, watching Sasuke do mundane things that everyone else does. He’d focus on that, then.

He almost fell asleep waiting; he hadn’t gotten that much sleep the night before, after all. The door creaked as it opened all the way, and Naruto lifted his head from the pillow. Sasuke was quite a dramatic figure, arriving with a cloud of steam and hair still dripping down his bare shoulders. He had just put Naruto’s sweatpants on again.

“How does it feel to not wear skinny jeans all the time?”

“I have no opinion whatsoever.” Sasuke looked down at the soft grey fabric. “They’re less restricting movement-wise, and aren’t hell to get off, but again, I have very little care for my pants.”

“Interesting,” was all Naruto said and patted the bed next to him.

“Weren’t you just sleeping?” Sasuke asked him, sliding onto the sheets next to him, and Naruto waved him away.

“No, don’t worry about it. I have endless energy.” Sasuke opened his mouth to be cut off. “I’m not kidding. I used to do crazy things because I was bored. My dad used to have to make me wear those monkey backpacks with a leash, and everyone else thought he was a bad parent when we went to the grocery store, but it’s because one time I ran away from him and hid behind the boxes in the cereal aisle and no one could find me for an hour.”

“How I am supposed to respond to that? Do you still need it? Should you be wearing a leash right now?”

“Realistically? Maybe. One time I heard my dad say I was shortening his lifespan under his breath.”

“Every time you did something stupid, it’d take a year off his life.”

“He’d be gone by now.”

He opened his mouth to start into another story, but Sasuke put up a finger. “Can you save it? I don’t want to talk about your dad right now.”

Naruto frowned. “Why not?”

Sasuke shifted forward, propping himself up on an elbow. His pointer finger poked Naruto in the chest, and then trailed slowly down his stomach. “No reason.”

Naruto was skeptical of this, heartbeat picking up. “Really? No reason at all?” He squeezed Sasuke’s waist, pulling him closer, and then pushed his hand under Sasuke’s waistband, smoothing down his hip.

“Someone’s feeling forward,” Sasuke said, but his hand was doing the same and his voice didn’t sound as teasing as his words and then his mouth was on Naruto’s.

It was like they’d done it a thousand times before, Sasuke pushing their clothes off, rolling over, letting Naruto press him into the mattress. Naruto had always told him they matched, and he’d never felt a better example. Every movement of Sasuke’s, every noise; Naruto knew them.

It didn’t mean he loved them any less, but this intimate knowledge of him ran deep. He wasn’t clumsy, wasn’t the confused kid of the few years before. When to be gentle, when to be rough, when Sasuke wanted to speak and when he wanted to be occupied.

Sasuke sighed against his lips and his legs raised to wrap around Naruto’s waist, the slide of wet on wet. His mouth opened with breathless sound. Hair still wet, soaking to the pillow under it. Naruto couldn’t help but smile, press his mouth to Sasuke’s.

“What?” Sasuke asked quietly. He didn’t need to be any louder for how close they were.

Naruto lifted to his knees slightly, making Sasuke arch his back to keep their bodies touching. Sasuke whined slightly, first in annoyance and then mounting desperation when Naruto moved against him, Sasuke's fingernails digging into his upper arms.

“Mm, I don’t know,” Naruto said finally, and they had found a rhythm, and he wasn’t sure Sasuke was paying much attention. “Your face is all pink, it’s cute.”

“F-fuck off,” was the only reply he got, through Sasuke’s teeth as a hiss, but Naruto could tell he didn’t care.

Naruto felt free like this. The past two days had taken almost everything out of him, but more than that, it made him feel like there wasn’t anything he could do for Sasuke. But here, he’d let Naruto take care of him. Let himself be fragile because he trusted Naruto not to break him.

Everything was red. Not the red of embarrassment or anger he’d felt at Sasuke’s hands before, but blood and summer and Sasuke’s parted lips. Naruto pushed past Sasuke’s defenses, pushed into him; heat. Lava, a type of burning Naruto had never known flowing over him.

“I love you,” Naruto told him, again, because it was hard to stop now that he’d started saying it. He kissed Sasuke, trailed down to his neck, bit his shoulder only slightly. Sasuke’s breath was stuttering, lip bitten, rocking back against him. He bit again and Sasuke moaned, thighs holding tight, pushing down harder.

Naruto drew it out as long as he could, moving slow, words low, but eventually he could hear Sasuke’s breathing speeding up, noises pitching higher. He pulled Naruto down to him, kissing him painfully hard and hands clenching in his hair. Then, he released him, and Sasuke was lost in whatever he was feeling. It wasn’t difficult to Naruto to follow.

After that, coming down, when they finally focused again, Sasuke looked like he was about to cry. Naruto opened his mouth, but Sasuke shook his head, still shifting against him. “I’m fine, I’m just…” He searched for words, and then laughed openly, a rare sight, throwing an arm over his eyes. “That felt really good.”

Naruto untangled himself from Sasuke, rolling over onto the bed, catching his breath. For all the talking he could do during the act, he had no idea what to say afterwards. What could he say to convey the happiness it brought him to be able to know Sasuke as well as he did? Naruto stretched out and winced. “My arms hurt.” Wow, perfect.

“At least it’s only your arms that hurt,” mumbled Sasuke, pulling the blanket over him and burrowing into the pillows. Naruto ruffled his hair and got up, making it to the bathroom despite feeling light-headed. By the time the water pouring from the sink faucet had gotten hot enough, Naruto could see through the doorway; Sasuke, already sound asleep.

Not that Naruto could blame him. The dark circles under his eyes showed that even when Sasuke was alive, he hadn’t gotten good sleep at all. Eventually, he was back in bed, turned towards Sasuke.

When Sasuke was asleep, he looked almost blank but a little blissful. It was revelation to see that Sasuke’s resting face wasn’t actually the bored expression he tended to wear. That what he chose to put on, obviously, but it wasn’t how he was born. While the construction had deviated from it, the blueprint was calm and empathetic.

Naruto found himself drifting away, too, right after his hand reached out to find Sasuke’s. Just a soft connection, one that made his descent into sleep even easier.

When he woke up, Sasuke was already awake but still drowsy. “Hey,” he said, eyes slightly lidded. He looked down at where their hands were still linked, but didn’t say anything.

“Hey,” Naruto repeated, and then pushed some of Sasuke’s hair that was sticking in the completely wrong direction back into place. He studied Sasuke, and was slowly deciding that this might be his favorite version of Sasuke. No disrespect to the others, none at all, but Sasuke looked happy. Not the type of happy that he felt like he didn’t deserve, though Sasuke did still seem a little shy to be experiencing it in the presence of someone else. His face was loose, a little out of it, but still he had a small smile.

“Can I take a photo of you?” Naruto asked suddenly, and Sasuke’s eyes widened.

“I don’t like photos being taken of me. At all.”

Naruto frowned. He couldn’t imagine why. “Okay, but…” He reached for his phone on the nightstand anyway. “Please? It would mean a lot to me.”

Sasuke groaned, putting his face into a pillow. “Fine. But only three.”

“Three? Why only three?”

“Because I said so.”

Typical. Naruto opened his phone, the camera. Through it, Sasuke was scowling at him, just positively glowering. He took a picture of that; he might as well have one of how Sasuke looked most of the time.

“Can you try to smile? Or, like, look approachable?” Sasuke looked even more put off by that, but he lightened up. It wasn’t a smile at all, maybe still wasn’t approachable, but it was a little better. Naruto tilted his head at the two he’d gotten. They’d do, but they weren’t capturing what he wanted them to.

“Was that the three?”

Naruto blinked, and then looked down at his phone. “Uh, yeah. Though you did have a piece of your bangs sticking straight up.”

“Fuck off, no I didn’t,” Sasuke said, hands going to his hair.

Naruto laughed. “Stop, I’ll get it for you.” He reached out, brushing it back down. Just before he was about to retreat, Sasuke tilted his head, leaning into Naruto’s hand affectionately. He looked up, black and blue but painless, and Naruto was taking a photo before he knew he was. Sasuke didn’t notice, turning his face to press his forehead to Naruto palm, but Naruto knew that that was the photo he wanted.

The rest of day was spent in and out of sleep and of conversation. Kissing, talking, hearing Sasuke’s breath slow and even out as his head rested on Naruto’s shoulder; things he never thought he’d get to do so easily. Is this what being with Sasuke forever would be like? He hoped so.

Eventually, though, Sasuke was shaking him awake, handing him his jacket. “You said we could go to the beach,” he said, “and it’s getting late, so get a move on, dead last.” Naruto snatched his jacket away, telling Sasuke he still didn’t appreciate the nickname.

Sasuke was ready, sitting on the edge of the bed, watching Naruto pull on the rest of his clothes and then find the car keys, which he’d obviously misplaced. His dad always used to tell him that old saying, about him losing his head if it wasn’t screwed on. Naruto would argue that he didn’t always feel as though his head was screwed on well anyway, but whatever.

They drove to the beach, and it was already dark, but there were still other cars on the road. They made fun of stupid vanity plates they saw, talking about who the people who owned them must be. And Naruto missed the turn for the beach twice. The first was because he was forgetful. The second, well, he couldn’t be sure.

This beach was similar to Cobalt Beach; same sand, same sky, same familiar rise and fall of the ocean. Which was to be expected, of course, as they were only just down the coast. It wasn’t similar in that there was no forest, no cliffs. That made Naruto breath a sigh of relief, and then smile at Sasuke. There was light from the road behind them, but most of it came from the full moon above them.

Naruto didn’t have the right shoes on, so he was going to get sand in them, but that had never stopped him before. Sasuke followed just one step behind. They talked, about whatever, mostly Naruto telling stories and Sasuke providing critical commentary.

“So, the rest of us were fine, but Kiba said he had to be drunk to deal with senior prom. You know how it is.”

“Well, I never went to my senior prom,” Sasuke said, “which I don’t mind whatsoever. I can’t imagine I would have gone anyway.”

“I went. It was okay, but that’s because I mostly just danced with my friends.” Sasuke didn’t have any reaction to that, just looked at the skyline. “Do you like dancing?”

“I don’t know. I don’t spend a lot of time dancing.”

“That’s sad. Do you know how?”

“Of course I know how,” Sasuke said, disgruntled, “but that doesn’t mean I’m going to do it.”

Naruto turned and sized Sasuke up with suspicion. “Oh, yeah? Why don’t you prove it?”

“What? Prove I know how to dance?”

Naruto held out a hand to Sasuke, one finger beckoning him closer. “Come on.”

“No!” But Naruto held steady, wiggling his eyebrows.

“You know you want to.”

“I don’t,” Sasuke corrected, “but I’ll humor you.” He took Naruto’s hand, and Naruto put his other on Sasuke’s shoulder. He didn’t want to deal with Sasuke’s complaints about having to be the girl.

Forward, back; clearly Sasuke knew how to dance, but his movements were stiff. “Come on,” Naruto said again, “there’s more you can do than just this.” Sasuke shot him a glare but finally relaxed, letting Naruto take him through different steps.

“This is my favorite part,” Naruto told him with a smile, and let Sasuke spin out. For a moment they balanced, Naruto keeping Sasuke from falling, hand in hand. And then with a pull he was in Naruto’s arms again. “Okay, I believe you now. You’re a great dance partner.”

Sasuke looked at Naruto’s hand in his, squeezing it. He looked up, those special eyes that had been the first thing to catch Naruto, the sea beneath an eclipse.

“I love you.”

Naruto froze. He wouldn’t have believed Sasuke said it, except that he'd seen his mouth move. Warmth filled him, and he was gripping Sasuke’s hand so tightly it hurt. Those weren’t words he thought he’d hear from Sasuke for a long time. He didn’t think Sasuke would be ready.

But then, looking at Sasuke, really looking, it was obvious. He wasn’t ready at all. Sasuke was uncomfortable. Naruto’s spirits fell. Why was Sasuke forcing himself..?

“No, wait,” Naruto said, stepping away. His warmth had been quickly extinguished with a deep chill shooting through him. Terror. “Why are you telling me that?”

Sasuke’s eyes searched Naruto’s, longing for him to say it first, but Naruto couldn’t.

“Naruto,” he said softly, half-reaching for him and then letting his hands fall. “Naruto, we both know I can’t stay here.”

Naruto started shaking and he was tearing up before the last word had left Sasuke’s mouth. “No,” was all he could say, because everything was wrong when just moments ago it’d been right.

Sasuke grabbed one of his hands, holding tight. “Without you, I would have been stuck there forever. But you freed me. Don’t forget it.”

“Stop. Stop it, it sounds like you’re trying to say goodbye to me.”

“I can’t stay here. I’m still dead. Nothing can change that.”

Naruto shook his head, because Sasuke was saying a lot of things that couldn’t possibly be true. “There’s nothing I can’t fix.” His dad’s own words came out of his mouth, but when he said it, it sounded weak.

“It’s not something to fix. It’s the end of the third day. I can feel myself-” Sasuke took a deep breath, but kept his eyes on Naruto. “I can feel myself leaving. Let me say goodbye.”

“You can’t leave me here,” Naruto choked out, “you can’t. I only just got you back, you can’t leave me.”

“I’m sorry. I wish I could go back, to six years ago,” Sasuke said, and his voice was breaking too. “I don’t know how to tell you how much I regret it. I never want to leave you. That’s all I want.”

“So don’t ,” Naruto pleaded. “Fuck, please.” Sasuke only shook his head. Naruto let out a long hissing breath. Whatever nightmare this was, he wanted Sasuke to shake him out of it. To wake up and feel Sasuke’s body next to his and his hands wiping away Naruto’s tears. But it didn’t happen. They were still standing on the beach, in the dark, and Sasuke was trying to leave him again.

He sank to his knees. He couldn’t feel the sand underneath him, it was nothing. Sasuke followed, and Naruto didn’t want to look at him anymore. For one, long, horrible moment, he wished he’d never met Sasuke at all.

He wished than when he was 13, when Sakura had told him about that stand at the end of the boardwalk, that he hadn’t walked down there. He wished he hadn’t cared, that Sasuke hadn’t stayed on his mind. Or that he hadn’t wanted to win the game, or hadn’t wanted to know Sasuke. That he hadn’t kissed him, or when he had kissed him, he hadn’t instantly fallen for Sasuke hard.

Maybe if he’d never experienced the love Sasuke could give him, he wouldn’t spend the rest of his life needing it.

And then the moment was over, and he couldn’t believe he’d tried to wish Sasuke away.

“I don’t think you understand,” he said finally. “You’re the only person I’ve ever loved like this, and I don’t think I’m ever going to love someone like this again. Please don’t take that away from me.”

“I’m sorry, I feel the same-”

“Don’t tell me you feel the same! You’re not the one who has to live without me.”

Sasuke was quiet. He paused and then reached for one of Naruto’s hands, and they were trembling together. Sasuke lifted it, pressing it to his chest, hard. His heartbeat felt faint, but still there. “This. This is all yours. It always was.”

“I hate this. I hate goodbyes.”

“I know.” Sasuke lifted Naruto’s hand from his chest to his mouth, kissing his palm.

“I love you so fucking much.”

Sasuke laughed, breath warm against Naruto’s skin. “I know that, too. You’re not good at hiding it.”

Naruto smiled, but it fell almost instantly. “I’m afraid.”

“I am, too,” Sasuke told him, and Naruto remembered how Sasuke wasn’t supposed to be scared of anything. “But, it doesn’t matter. I can… I can feel it. Most of me isn’t in this world anymore.”

Naruto reached out, pulling Sasuke to him, and that couldn’t be true. Sasuke was so real in his arms, the familiar shape of his body, alive and warm. He was trying to stay calm but it felt impossible. It was like he was leaving this world with Sasuke.

“It’s okay, breathe,” Sasuke told him softly, even though he barely got through it. He was clearly pushing himself, to say what he usually wouldn’t. His arms were keeping Naruto from crumbling. He loosened his grasp only to press his mouth against Naruto’s, moving slow, pouring himself out. It was hopeless, the last kiss of lovers who will never touch again, but there was still a fierce devotion in it, one that Naruto knew he was going to feel long after Sasuke was gone.

“Ready?”

What a stupid question. Naruto shook his head, body shuddering. He wanted to accept it, for Sasuke’s final peace of mind, but he couldn’t. “Please, I’m begging you. Don’t go.”

Sasuke only brought his hands to Naruto’s face, lifting it up. “Look at me, Naruto.” He tried to blink away his tears the best he could, bringing Sasuke into focus. He was smiling, impossibly sad, and his dark eyes were spilling over, the ocean Naruto could always tell was inside him wearing down his sharp edges.

Naruto tried to memorize it all. He wouldn’t shut his eyes until he could add Sasuke’s expression in this moment to every other memory that haunted him both awake and asleep. Sasuke stared right back, smile beginning to falter but none of the adoration. Naruto had never thought anyone would look at him that way. Not like the stars, but beyond that. Like the entire world, the whole universe.

His eyes burned, his whole body burned, and Sasuke looked at him like an antidote, and for one second, he thought everything was going to be okay.

Then he blinked, and Sasuke was gone.

Naruto let out a noise, something guttural and harsh against his ears. Sasuke was gone. Not just from before his eyes, no, but Naruto could feel it; Sasuke wasn’t in this world anymore. He fell forward, one hand into the sand, while the other clawed against his chest. There was something important to him, essential to survival, that had been torn from him. Ruthlessly ripped out of his body, without a care for the pain it would cause him.

And it did. Even watching Sasuke fall from that cliff hadn’t tortured him like this. Before, he hadn’t be able to stop Sasuke because he was ignorant. But now… His hand slid through the sand to the imprint Sasuke had made. No, nothing before had hurt him like this.

His face tilted up. The constellations, the bonds between one star and another. They weren’t beautiful; they were mocking him.

Naruto put his head back down, only inches from the sand, and then he couldn’t be quiet anymore. Not words, just sound; desperate and loud, some scared animal. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, couldn’t feel his heart pounding against his palm. Anything that made him rational and human were lost to him in that moment, and there was nothing to do but bow under the weight of this pain and mourn.

How long he stayed there, he couldn’t be sure. Time was thick and liquid; the thought of having to swim through it for the rest of his life was terrifying. But eventually, Naruto had cried until he couldn’t cry anymore, screamed until his voice was hoarse, kept his body curled up until his limbs were numb.

Naruto rolled over finally, spreading out, and the feeling of releasing his muscles made him feel like he was floating. He didn’t know what he looked like right now, staring blankly at the sky, completely still except for twitching feet. If Sasuke were here, he’d probably tell Naruto he looked dumb and hold out a hand to help him up, and Naruto couldn’t think about things like that anymore.

He lifted his hand to his chest; still felt no heartbeat. It slid away, but not before Naruto heard a crinkle. He paused, not sure if he cared enough to investigate, but curiosity must persevere for him even in the worst of times.

In his jacket, slipped in the inner pocket, was a folded piece of paper. Naruto had no memory of putting it there himself. It was a letter; he could see blurry writing through his half open eyes. He rubbed at them, holding the paper close to his face.

Naruto,

His heart leaped, suddenly coming back to life. In that one word, he could feel Sasuke again, if only a whisper. He sat up, continuing.

Naruto,

I’m writing this first and foremost to say I love you. Which you should know without me having to tell you, but I’ll put it in writing so you know for certain. Maybe that will get it through your thick skull.

The second reason is to let you know that I think the universe fucked up. It made me born too early, or you born too late, or separated us, or made it harder to understand each other. I didn’t believe in fate, and while I still don’t, I may believe in exceptions. Maybe me sticking around, getting to know you, was fate trying to fix its mistake. Trying to let you love me, perhaps. Just a theory.

Another theory: we’re going to see each other again. Not in this life, but another, if those do exist. One where things are easier for us. I’m sorry that life couldn’t be this one. I know later today, at the time I’m writing this, we’ll be saying goodbye, but I don’t think I could ever get rid of you that easily.

I didn’t write this to make you cry, which I’m sure you’re doing, anyway. And this letter isn’t a promise that we’ll meet again. It’s just something to remember me by.

Sasuke

Naruto reread the letter several times, and then pressed it to his chest. Just earlier today, Sasuke had written this. It must have been while Naruto was asleep. He could imagine that; Sasuke, back pressed against the headboard and paper on his bent knees. The writing didn’t look hurried, but patient, carved into paper as if it was his epitaph.

He could sense Sasuke through his letter. Not Naruto just grasping at the threads after the cord had been cut, but the feeling of his hands brushing against a rope in the darkness, one that could pull him out. It was slipping through his fingers, still, but he could almost hear Sasuke taunting him. Is that all you’ve got? Just in Naruto’s head, but still.

Sasuke had repeated Naruto’s actions by pressing Naruto to his heart and telling him it belonged to him, but Naruto now wished he’d told Sasuke the truth. Not just his heart, his love, but his mind and his life, too. They all sat in Sasuke’s hands. He hoped if Sasuke had the power to crush them like he had, he could give Naruto the power to put them back together.

This wasn’t the Oceanview beach where he’d been with Sasuke most, but Naruto assumed he’d never be on a beach again that wouldn’t force him to twist around and face his past, everything he’d experienced with Sasuke in the sand. Happiness, fear, anxiety, humor. Anger like the sea was boiling and sadness like the sun had set, never to be seen again. Everything. Everything.

And despite the turmoil it caused him to stay, the thought of leaving made him sick. Because what if, when he left, he’d forget all this? That would  be unbearable. That, he truly couldn’t live with.

Naruto slid one hand to his pocket, finding his phone and switching it on.

He wasn’t sure why he thought the pictures of Sasuke would be gone. Maybe because that happened in movies; people fading away from photos the same way they faded away from life. But, no, he was still there. Mostly looking like he didn’t want to have his picture taken, and then the third, the last, was completely different. When Naruto had reached out to brush his hair out of his face and Sasuke leaned into his hand. He wasn’t looking at the camera, but slightly above it. At Naruto. His eyes were shining, moonlight rippling gently on dark water. The Sasuke he’d first met, the apathetic one; Naruto couldn’t have ever imagined him being like that.

Naruto sits up. Sasuke was in love with him. That still feels unfair, because Naruto is in love with Sasuke. Present tense. His fingers dig deep into the sand underneath him, gritty under his nails, and then sighs. Releases.

We’re going to see each other again. Naruto stands, almost falling, but keeping his balance somehow. Those seven words, he can run on those. For how long, he doesn’t know. Probably not his whole life. But for now, he can. He kept going on that for the last six years, anyway. The promise that he’d see Sasuke again.

Naruto had never been good at waiting; he doesn’t imagine that’s going to change. He tries not to think about it, slowly forcing his legs to move him onward. He can only assume this is going to get easier rather than harder, regardless if that’s true.

Not in this life, but another, if those do exist. One where things are easier for us. I’m sorry that life couldn’t be this one.

Yeah. Naruto is sorry, too. The walk should only be a few minutes, but Naruto keeps stopping, because he keeps thinking, which he’s trying not to do. His phone with the photos in one pocket, the letter in the other; he keeps them resting against his knuckles.

He halts abruptly when he gets to his car, the same car that had always led him to Oceanview, and here, he stalls.

Sasuke didn’t believe in fate. He doesn’t believe in fate.

I like how the stars are arranged. Like we’re supposed to see them. Fate, or something.

A star is a ball of gas, Naruto, and it’s certainly not sentient. I doubt it gives two shits about whatever the fuck we’re doing down here.

Naruto rests his forehead against the side of the car and snorts. He can perfectly replicate that bored, cool tone of Sasuke’s, infuriating and lovable. He smiles, because he’s pretty sure it would make Sasuke smile, too.

So, fate doesn’t exist, but they might be an exception. Naruto hopes so. He doesn’t want anyone else’s heart broken like this.

He had to believe it, but… Naruto wipes his eyes on the back of his sleeve, sniffing.

Crybaby.

He looks at his reflection in the window and can’t make himself like it.

You look a little worse for wear, Uzumaki.

Naruto closes his eyes. Soon, his memory might shift, slip away.

You claim to remember a lot of things I don’t.

All this, it feels like some cruel trick was being played on him.

You know what, kid? Everything in this whole carnival is fucking rigged.

He didn’t know what to do.

Figure it out, then.

He blinks. Those words were much clearer than the others. Sasuke urging him, like he always did, to just figure it out.

So, Naruto. Bad at waiting, bad at timing, bad at talking, and apparently he had a target on his back when it came to the universe. All of that was true, and nothing could be undone. But if Sasuke, once lonely and cynical, could believe they could find each other in a kinder place, Naruto would have to believe that, too.

Naruto puts his hand on the car door handle, but still, stalls. His face tilts up, eyes red-rimmed and sore, up at the sky, filled with stars. Through everything, they hadn’t changed, glinting peacefully. Somewhere else, in that other world; another Naruto could be looking up at the same stars. That Naruto would be strong enough to save Sasuke from himself. He had to believe it.

He took one, last, long look, at the stars he’d loved so much. Then, he got in his car, and drove away.