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It’s been two months since he’s left Konoha, about a month since he’s last seen a village, and about a week since he’s even seen a house.

And about a half hour since he’s last seen Naruto.

When he’d said goodbye two months ago, Sasuke had thought that would be the end of it. Meeting his former comrades (and Naruto) again would happen at a time of his own choosing. Alone, he would be granted both space and time to… see the world with unclouded eyes, see light that had up until recently been missing from his life. But, again, he had assumed he would be doing this alone.

He should have known better than to think Naruto would ever let that happen. If Sasuke hadn’t changed in his desire for solitude, why would Naruto ever change in letting that far off dream come true?

Sasuke first noticed him about a week ago, back by the small farm stall along the road he’d stopped in for supplies. At first, he’d thought he’d imagined the presence of his chakra. Loathe as he was to admit it, Naruto had been on his mind more than once during his travels. Though a stretch, it was entirely possible that in his preoccupied state, his mind had conjured Naruto’s presence. It wouldn’t be the first time.

The second time he’d caught sight of him was the very next night. Just as he had been settling into his small camp, miles away from any other living soul, Naruto’s chakra had flared in the wasteland, bright and unmistakable.

Sasuke had frozen, tense, keeping his already suppressed chakra close to his core, waiting. But nothing ever came, and Naruto didn’t dare to show his face yet, so Sasuke had eventually drifted into a fitful sleep.

After that, the “sightings” grew in frequency, day by day, hour by hour. Today, he’s counted at least eight different occasions that he had either caught a brief flash of blonde hair, or a spark of Naruto’s chakra since he’d risen and packed up camp.

Needless to say, his patience is wearing thin.

It’s as he’s setting up camp for the night that he feels Naruto’s presence again, this time closer than ever. If he’s right, Naruto’s no further away than just behind the copse of trees to his back.

Coincidentally, this is also the exact moment that Sasuke’s patience snaps.

His body moves like clockwork, muscle memory pushing the motions step by step--pouch, shuriken, and a forceful toss towards the tree Naruto is so obviously hiding in.

The telltale squawk is all he needs to confirm that Naruto really is there, and then his face pops out from behind a cluster of leaves, flushed and scrunched up in displeasure.

“Hey, hey, Sasuke, you didn’t have to throw those so close, you know,” he says, indignant.

Relaxing his stance, Sasuke snorts and watches as Naruto takes a (surprisingly) graceful leap for the ground below. “If you didn’t want to get hit, hide yourself better.”

He scowls at that, shaking a few misplaced leaves from his shoulders, before drawing closer--close enough that Sasuke can see he hasn’t bathed in about as long as he’s been following him, and there are deep circles under his eyes. “How long did you know I was there?” he asks, sheepishly.

“About a week,” Sasuke answers, honestly.

“Huh, really?” he asks, blinking in surprise. It’s almost as if he isn’t aware of how terrible he is at being a ninja.

“Yes,” he scoffs, and turns back to where he had begun setting up camp. If he wasn’t so annoyed about Naruto’s sudden presence, he might have felt a wave of nostalgia for their days as genin. They had shared plenty of similar skirmishes before hunkering down for the night, but with less grace and far less accuracy.

Naruto hesitates behind him, and Sasuke can feel his eyes on the back of his neck as he finishes setting up the camp. Originally, he had only planned on it being just his bedroll, but with Naruto’s presence, he supposes he might have to get a fire going and a hot meal to go with it. He can only imagine the fuss if otherwise. That is… if Naruto really hadn’t changed since the last time they’d been in the same space like this.

He decides not to dwell too long on that thought.

The silence drags on as Sasuke begins to set up a fire. It’s uncharacteristic of Naruto, really, and by now he almost expects to have heard about every detail of Naruto’s life since they’d parted, or at least an explanation for why he’s here, but he remains silent, watching Sasuke with soft, tentative eyes.

He doesn’t like it. Silence has never been an unwelcome presence in his life, ever, but he supposes the exception could be made in Naruto’s case. The silence is overwhelming, unnatural. It pounds against Sasuke’s head, a million fists hammering against his skull in rapid succession. It’s more than he can take.

“If you’re going to be here, you can at least bring back my shuriken,” he says at last.

“What? You threw them! Get them yourself, bastard.” His face twists into a scowl that Sasuke is much more familiar with.

He only shrugs in response, but makes no move to get them himself, instead removing a pot and two of the food packs he’d been carrying with him. As expected, it doesn’t take long for Naruto to lose patience, and he grunts loudly before the sounds of rustling leaves means he’s gone and retrieved them. He throws the metal stars back, sharp and direct, but Sasuke expects this and moves just out of their way so they land with a soft thunk into the dirt beside him.

He says nothing, instead continues to get dinner set up, and with a quick flare of his chakra, he starts a small fire. It had taken some time to learn jutsu one-handed, but now that he’s gotten the hang of it, the flames come forth from his lungs with ease, lighting the small pile of twigs in an instant. Naruto is sitting beside him moments later, lip jutting forward as he sulks. “You totally could have gotten that yourself,” he pouts.

Ignoring him, Sasuke continues to focus on their dinner, eyeing the broth suspiciously. It’s unfortunately of the instant variety, but given his style of travel… it’s not realistic to carry an entire kitchen with him. Naruto watches as he cooks, falling into the unnerving silence again, bright eyes quiet with thought. It envelopes them both, surrounding their small camp in a quiet thicker than the earliest morning fog.

And just when Sasuke can’t bear it any longer, just when he decides it’s about time he ask Naruto what he’s doing here, demand why, and how--

“Sasuke,” Naruto says, quiet, and there’s a sincerity, an emotion so deep in his voice and in his name that Sasuke hasn’t heard since the valley, since the time they had both lost their arms, since the time they had almost killed each other, since--“Sasuke, I want to see the world with you.”

He feels something deep in the pit of his stomach tighten. Oh. “No,” he says, and he’s almost surprised at how even and normal his voice sounds, like there isn’t a flurry of mixed emotions scrambling his brain into a fine mush right now.

“I wasn’t exactly asking, damn it.” The opening in Naruto’s voice grows wider, raw, and he can tell that he’s trying to meet his eyes.

“And my answer is not up for debate,” he replies smoothly back, and keeps his gaze firmly on the broth in front of them. It bubbles, a welcome sound in the suddenly angry silence. He knows if he meets them, he’ll see too far into Naruto’s heart, too deep. “You know why I decided to travel,” he continues after a moment. “And you especially know why I decided to do it alone. I need to--”

“See the world with clear eyes, yeah yeah.” The disdain in Naruto’s voice is enough to spark Sasuke’s temper, and he snaps his head up to look at Naruto, lip curling up to say something far too nasty to be deserved, but Naruto’s already pushing forward, earnestly leaning forward and finally taking hold of Sasuke’s gaze. Shit. “Sasuke, I know why you want to travel, I know you want to see what it means to be a shinobi, how the world really looks, I know but… I… so do I.”

Sasuke releases a breath, searching deep into Naruto’s eyes for a moment, allowing himself to test the waters of that ocean, before shaking his head and turning back to the simmering pot. “Naruto, you of all people have always been clear about how you see the world and why. I left the village again not only to see the world with vision clear of… hate, but to understand your perspective, why you would protect the Leaf as fiercely as you did.”

“And I left the village to see yours!”

Sasuke stops, freezes in all motion, and a wave of guilt crashes over him, and icy sting that rushes across his whole body. Had Naruto not done just that for the last three years? Had he not time and again done his best to get inside his head, even despite Sasuke’s most violent retaliation? “Naruto--” he begins, but he’s interrupted before he can get another word out.

“Sasuke, something has to change,” Naruto says, “and truth be told I still… Being back in the village, it’s--” He makes a noise of frustration, squeezing his eyes shut and pulling at his greasy hair, as if tugging the golden strands will somehow loosen the ideas in his head. “I was never any good at explaining things, you know, but it hurts to be back there. It hurts that so many people act like nothing’s happened, like they didn’t--”

“Shun you your whole life?”

“Yeah.”

Sasuke gives him another long look. “I thought you’d forgiven them.”

“Well yes--no, sort of.” He makes another noise, almost like the sound of a dying cat, and drags his hands down his face, his nails leaving skid marks on his dirt-crusted skin. “I don’t think this is the answer I’ve been looking for, moving forward and pretending nothing happened to me, to-to you, forgiving everyone for the sake of peace.”

As Naruto continues to speak, something bubbles up in Sasuke’s chest, a familiar grief, violent and streaked red with anger. “So, you came to listen to what I had explained to you back then? Knowing it involved your death?”

“No!” Naruto says, instant in his rejection. “I don’t want to die or anything. Those times you stabbed me really hurt, you know. I don’t need a refresher course any time soon.”

Sasuke flinches at that, returning his focus to the pot in front of him. “But you came to see why I felt that way, feel this way?”

“I already know why you feel the way you do,” he says, and Sasuke bristles at the self-assured confidence in his voice. Could he really know? But he knows the answer to that already, and while it’s not a complete yes, Naruto has been the only one to ever see himself in Sasuke, to ever understand him. “And I still don’t think your answer is the right one,” Naruto presses. “Nagato’s wasn’t, yours wasn’t, mine isn’t… but--”

“Do you have a bowl?” Sasuke interrupts, ignoring the look Naruto is giving him.

“A wh--well yeah, b--”

“Hand it over.” Sasuke holds out an expectant hand (his only hand), and he watches as Naruto fusses around in his own pack before procuring a small wooden bowl. Sasuke takes it and balances it in his lap before spooning the hot broth into it, careful not to spill. Then he hands it back, careful to avoid Naruto’s eyes again, before helping himself to his own dinner.

“Sasuke,” Naruto starts, but he shakes his head.

“Just eat,” he insists, and begins to gently sip at his own meal. He doesn’t have to glance over at Naruto to know the look he’s giving him could send him careening through the woods with its sheer force, but he settles in and eats anyway. Naruto’s words ricochet in his skull, too fast that he can barely process a single one. It’s only when he can feel the warmth spreading in his belly, like a cat curling on top of him to take its afternoon nap, that he breaks the silence.

“This journey is not just about seeing the world, Naruto,” he says, and again dares to meet his gaze once more. “Part of this is because yes, I can’t quite manage to look at everyone’s smiling faces just yet, to walk in a fabricated peace that was built on blood--my blood. And part of it is because I know my answer was wrong, and I know I--” The grief bubbles up again, but it’s different, the anger doesn’t come with it, just pure, unfiltered grief. Sasuke grits his teeth. “Part of this is to atone for what I’ve done.”

Naruto looks at him like he always does--part like he wants to open his mouth and call Sasuke something along the lines of “a steaming pile of shit” and part like he’s eating up each and every one of Sasuke’s words. He feels like a young genin again, and for a moment, the face of a twelve year old boy, bright-eyed and yammering on about the Ichiraku he’d had the night before, hovers over Naruto’s features.

“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” Naruto says, and the moment is broken just like that.

Sasuke opens his mouth, intending to tell Naruto that maybe if he’d grown more than half a brain he’d know none of what he’d just said was stupid, but Naruto, as always, bulldozes ahead. “If you wanted to atone for the things you did, you would have stayed in the village, or you would have gone over to Kumogakure and talked with Octopops. Talked to that redhead girl you traveled with all the time...” Naruto inhales, and his breath goes in shaky. It’s his turn to avoid Sasuke’s gaze. “You would have stayed with me, Sasuke. But this? You’re just running away again. But uh… maybe more literally this time.” He laughs a bit at that, like he’s hoping he softened the blow because the stupid idiot doesn’t know how to keep things totally serious, no matter the weight of the truth he delivers.

“This isn’t running away,” Sasuke protests, but there’s no push behind it. Not even he really believes it.

Naruto snorts, shaking his head, and then takes a particularly audible gulp of soup before continuing. Sasuke watches as the broth trickles down the side of his mouth. It’s all he can do right now, all he can manage to process. “Sasuke, didn’t we say all those months ago that we know each other’s hearts? Huh? That we understand each other? You can’t fool me, you know.”

He jabs the finger of his right hand in Sasuke’s direction, and before Sasuke can look away, can escape the power of that gaze, Naruto’s blue eyes have him locked, the waves of that ocean pulling him further and further out to sea. He sucks a sharp breath through his teeth, to say something, to turn Naruto’s words away before they even start, but nothing comes out, and a tender smile creeps over Naruto’s face. “I’m not letting you be alone ever again.”

And suddenly they’re both in the valley again, lying side to side, hurting, dying, nothing but their hearts to bear to the world all over again, and Sasuke has to catch his breath, hold back the tears that threaten to well up just like before. The surety of Naruto’s desire to be there, the consistency of his presence, no matter the circumstances, the eternal warmth that he has radiated for him, just for him--it’s all too much.

And of course, because Naruto understands him, knows his heart, knows that words won’t come just yet, his smile widens just a little, and he reaches over to rest his hand on Sasuke’s shoulder. “So, I’m coming with you. And we’ll find our answer. Together.”

Their gazes remain interlocked, twisted together for what seems like hours but in reality is only the briefest of moments, and if Sasuke didn’t know any better, he’d swear Naruto had learned genjutsu just to trap him. He can’t help but smile back--small, hesitant, but a smile nevertheless as Naruto guides him back to shore.

Gingerly, he reaches up and takes Naruto’s hand from his shoulder, holds it in his grasp for a moment, feels the surprising warmth it radiates, savors it, and then drops it, lets it swing back to Naruto’s side.

“You can tag along,” he says at last, and lifts his bowl back to his lips, “if you promise to bathe regularly.”

“I wasn’t asking permission, remember?” Naruto shoots back, falling immediately into their usual banter, and sheepishly ruffles his grease-ridden hair. “And it’s hard to find places to bathe this far out in the wilderness, you know, Sasuke.”

“Something tells me you weren’t looking hard enough,” he says, and pulls out his sleeping pack. Naruto does the same, scowling at him but nevertheless putting aside his finished dinner to begin setting up his own sleeping arrangements. The sun is now nothing more than a fiery sliver on the horizon, shining its last light on the world before the moon took its place for the evening.

The silence is comfortable now, like old times, but more personal, closer, like they’d crossed a bridge neither of them had known existed, and now they stand together on the other side. It’s a feeling Sasuke is entirely unfamiliar with, but… welcomes it nonetheless.

Settling into his sleeping bag, he watches as Naruto squirms into his with all the grace of a butterfly trying to return to its chrysalis, thinks of the countless nights ahead of him that will be just the same as this one. He catches Sasuke watching, and makes a face back, scrunching his nose up in obvious distaste. “What?”

“That’s new,” he says, and makes a vague gesture towards Naruto’s right arm.

“Wh-oh yeah. Granny and Sakura finished our arms a month or so back. Pretty neat, huh?” He wiggles his fingers, as if to demonstrate its effectiveness, and then starts digging in his pack with it. “I brought yours, too,” he continues, and makes a noise of frustration before all but sticking his entire head into the bag.

Sasuke finds himself holding back a laugh as he watches, shaking his head. “Keep it, Naruto. I’m fine as I am.”

His head pops back out of the bag, golden hair more ruffled than ever, and now holding a far too wiggly looking arm-shaped… thing. “Huh? What am I supposed to do with this then? I carried it all the way out here, you know, and arms are no small weight!” He shakes the arm in Sasuke’s direction as if to prove just how heavy it is. It wriggles like a limp noodle, lifeless and… far too gelatinous in nature for Sasuke to be able to stomach having it connected to his body, or… even near him for that matter.

With a grimace, Sasuke turns onto his other side, facing away from Naruto, and settles further into his sleeping bag. “Fertilizer.”

“Fertilizer?” he squawks, incredulous, and Sasuke grunts in affirmation. There’s the sound of muttering, and Sasuke catches a few curses in his direction before the rustling of his sleeping bag, and then the quick foum! as Naruto puts out the fire with a short burst of chakra.

And then all that remains are the chittering of the woods around them, and Naruto’s soft and even breathing to his left.