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Naruto had not wanted them to send the letter.

Kakashi, the least Hokage seeming Hokage that Naruto thought had ever existed (and he’d met all of them), leaned back in his chair, feet splayed haphazardly across piles of important looking documents and scrolls.

“It makes sense to ask, Naruto,” he said.

Naruto was always amazed at how expressive Kakashi could be when three fourths of the man’s face was covered. Right now, Naruto saw both concern and exasperation in the narrowing of his eyes.

“I know,” Naruto hedged. “I just think he won’t like it. He’ll probably say no. Also, we don’t even know how to find him!”

Kakashi tilted his head back and stared at the ceiling, considering. The argument had been the same since Kakashi first proposed using the former Uchiha compound as a location for a new orphanage—Kakashi would like to say they had simply outgrown the old one, but the sad fact was that an orphanage had never existed in the first place. He turned his head to gaze out the window towards the immaculate stone faces obscuring the mountainside and took a brief moment to consider the sins of his forefathers and the children who had paid the price.

Kakashi’s gaze returned to Naruto and he couldn’t help but think, There’s one right in front of me.

“We haven’t seen Sasuke since the end of the war, it’s true,” he said flatly, and didn’t miss Naruto’s small, involuntary flinch. “There is every indication that he will never return.” Naruto screwed his mouth up unhappily, and looked at anything but Kakashi’s eyes. “However, the problem is simple. We need land, Sasuke has it.”

“I know, I know,” Naruto said, twisting his hands in his shirt. “No one believes in the need for this orphanage more than me. That’s obvious. But don’t make it seem so simple! It’s more complicated than that and you know it.”

Kakashi nodded.

“I just think,” and here Naruto forced himself to face Kakashi again, his eyes filled with an almost incomprehensible grief. “I just think,” he repeated sadly, “that Sasuke has already lost enough. Konoha has taken enough from him. I can’t—I won’t ask for anything he doesn’t want to give, ever again.”

The silence that filled the room at Naruto’s words was vast.

Kakashi bowed his head for a moment. The fate of the Uchiha clan and the scale of their loss was a deep wound in the village, in Sasuke’s life. It was one that he did not think could ever truly be healed—but he was trying.

He set his feet back on the ground and made his way around the desk to Naruto. He placed his hand on Naruto’s shoulder, indulging for a brief moment to wonder at how close in height they were now. Age and experience had shaved off Naruto’s roughest edges, but he was still the loudmouthed brat he had always been—his essential nature remained true. However, in this moment Kakashi was reminded that some of Naruto’s newfound gravity had come not from age or experience, but from a particular loss. They never spoke of Sasuke’s absence other than to acknowledge it, but Kakashi could see the cost reflected in Naruto’s rigid shoulders and unhappy expression. This disagreement with Kakashi was also costing him but he clearly felt that he had to make his opinion known—all to keep Sasuke from suffering any form of additional pain.

“Naruto,” Kakashi said, reaching out and giving Naruto’s shoulder a small shake. “We aren’t taking anything from Sasuke. While I am Hokage, and even after that, I will never allow that to happen again.” Kakashi waited for Naruto’s eyes to meet his so he could comprehend the sincerity of Kakashi’s words. “But we need this land. Madara’s attack tripled the number of orphans in this village, a fact I know you don’t need to be reminded of.” Naruto nodded. “All we are doing,” and here he took the scroll with Uchiha Sasuke embossed across the side with fresh ink and passed it to Naruto, “is asking.”

Naruto stared at the scroll in his hand and then glanced back up at Kakashi in confusion. “I received intelligence that Sasuke was spotted in Kumogakure a few days ago,” Kakashi admitted.

“You found him? You found Sasuke?” Naruto’s voice shook and he seemed unable to speak for a moment, overwhelmed. “But—Kumogakure? What is he doing there? The Raikage said if he ever saw Sasuke again he would crush him into dust!”

Kakashi sighed. It was a well-known fact that it had been the Raikage who had required the most convincing at the end of the war to not execute Sasuke where he stood. It had taken the full force of Naruto’s exuberant personality (“I did just save the entire planet, y’know! I think you owe me one favor! He didn’t even kill anybody—he just tried to!”) and repeated assurances by Bee, in rap form, that he hadn’t minded being kind of kidnapped, and that it had actually been a pretty nice vacation, in fact. The Raikage, clearly hating every second that he spent in Sasuke’s presence that didn’t involve Sasuke’s immediate death, eventually relented, but made it very clear that the next time he saw Sasuke would be the last time Sasuke saw anything.

“Perhaps he’s gone there to…make amends,” Kakashi said, running a hand across his tired eyes. The loss of the sharingan still startled him, especially at moments like this when the absence of cloth across his left eye made him feel naked. “That’s actually how we even found him in the first place.” Sasuke’s whereabouts had been a mystery since the day he had been pronounced fit enough to be discharged from the hospital by Tsunade, Sakura, and the wave of other medic-nin Naruto had insisted on parading through Sasuke’s room in order to get a third, then fourth, then fifth opinion. In the end, Sasuke had left, and not even Kakashi’s most talented ANBU spies had been able to identify his location until a few days prior.

Kakashi tapped the scroll Naruto clutched between his hands. “Don’t you find that odd? He disappears for four years without even a whisper of where he could be and then he suddenly appears, right on the Raikage’s doorstep when we were practically guaranteed to hear of it?” Kakashi turned back to his desk and picked up a slim scroll with a message frantically scribbled across its surface and handed it to Naruto. He glanced over it, frowning. “We knew within hours that Sasuke was there.”

Naruto’s expression hid none of his anger. “Why didn’t you tell me the second you knew where he was?”

“Because I wanted him observed,” Kakashi said simply.

“Observed?” Naruto said, voice exploding with outrage. “Sasuke isn’t some target, he’s a Konoha ninja and your student, in case you forgot!”

“That is something I could never forget,” Kakashi said, the rebuke in his tone sharp and angry. “The moment he became my student, his actions reflected my successes and my failures. The blame for who he became, what he did, is on my shoulders, Naruto. I didn’t protect him and I don’t pretend otherwise.” He looked out the window again and his eyes fall immediately on the Yondaime’s beloved face. “But I can protect you.”

Naruto opened his mouth to protest but Kakashi waved his hand in dismissal. “Don’t argue with me. It’s been four years. We don’t know this Sasuke, Naruto. We haven’t truly known him for even longer than that. Who knows if he’s gotten better or worse in four years? I couldn’t let you go after him blind and risk getting hurt. I won’t allow that.”

“Allow that?” Naruto repeated incredulously. “Last time I checked, both of my parents were dead, Sensei. You can’t allow me anything, especially something like this. This goes way outside the scope of your duties as Hokage. You had no right!”

Kakashi ignored the hurt he felt at Naruto’s words—he had had only a taste of being an orphan as a child, but Naruto had never known his parents at all. Kakashi knew it wouldn’t be so easy for anyone to slip into that role, especially now that Naruto was in his twenties. Jiraiya could have, perhaps, but he was long dead and Iruka had never had the time to give Naruto the attention he really needed—the kind of attention and love a parent truly gives a child. Orphans taking care of orphans, Kakashi thought, and smiled to himself through the bitterness and grief.

“I didn’t do it as the Hokage,” Kakashi said, falling back into his chair. His eyes couldn’t seem to look away from Minato-sensei’s stone face. It was a strange image—the Yondaime had been such a happy, smiling man in reality. I won’t fail him again, Sensei. I will protect your son, even from himself.

Naruto stilled, suddenly deflated of his anger. “Well, I guess you did tell me now,” he allowed.

Kakashi tore his eyes away from the monument and smiled. “ANBU has not been able to decipher Sasuke’s purpose in Cloud, but we’ve been monitoring his movements since the moment he stepped foot there. He, of course, knows that we know and has been ignoring us in a way that’s really quite insulting,” Kakashi said, putting a little pout in his voice in the hopes of wringing a reluctant smile out of Naruto.

He gestured at the scroll still clutched tightly in Naruto’s hand. “Getting that scroll to Sasuke and securing his permission is of S-rank mission importance.” Naruto looked down at the scroll like had forgotten he was even holding it.

“S-rank?” Naruto asked. “Is Sasuke considered that dangerous?”

Kakashi shook his head. “It’s not a matter of danger, necessarily, as much as it’s a matter of urgency. We need to begin construction as soon as possible, which is part of it, but we also don’t know when Sasuke will disappear again. We can’t wait another four years for him to resurface.”

Naruto’s mouth twisted into another frown and Kakashi hated the wrongness of it on Naruto’s face. “If you accept this mission you’ll need to leave right away.”

Naruto’s voice was filled with indignation. “If? Kakashi-sensei, you really have lost it in your old age if you think I wasn’t already going to go the second you told me Sasuke had been spotted in Cloud.”

Kakashi allowed himself another small smile before his expression became serious once again. “Naruto,” he said, and something in his tone made Naruto stand up straighter, like a soldier. This was his Hokage speaking at that moment, not his sensei. “The mission is to present Uchiha Sasuke with a contract proposing that he concede his family’s ancestral lands over to the village. I don’t think Sasuke or you of all people underestimate the necessity of an orphanage in Konoha. The only thing keeping him from agreeing will be, I believe, his reluctance towards showing any good will to this village which has…already taken so much.” Naruto nodded. “That, however, is the mission. I am sending you because I think you are the only person alive who could get Sasuke to agree—or to do anything, really.”

Naruto nodded again and his face became an echo of the old Naruto’s expression, back when his two goals in life consisted of bringing Sasuke back to the village, and becoming Hokage. It had always seemed like Naruto had needed the first for the second to become possible—or like Naruto had seen it that way, at least.

“If Sasuke says no, that’s the end of it,” Naruto said, and it was in moments like that that Kakashi was truly reminded that Naruto was the son of Minato and Kushina.

“I agree,” Kakashi said. “We can technically still manage if Sasuke says no. There are possible alternatives I’ve been looking into for placement, but there are no other locations as large or with so much infrastructure already in place as there is with the Uchiha compound. The war hurt us. We’ll struggle. But the orphanage will be built within the year, Uchiha compound or no.”

Naruto nodded, but paused as he turned to leave. “Kakashi-sensei— did ANBU say how he looked?”

Kakashi materialized one of his Icha Icha romances into his hands, needing the distraction and the reminder of the past intensely in that moment. The haunted expression on Naruto’s face was one that he had perfected only in the years following Sasuke’s second absence.

“Well,” Kakashi said, eyes firmly on his book but seeing nothing. “They said he’s only gotten more handsome, actually.” He dared a glance back at Naruto’s face.

Naruto was grinning. “Gross. Of course he is. I’ll just have to punch him in his face and rearrange some of those pretty boy features and make things a little more even between us when I see him.” Then he was out the door.

Kakashi had to remind himself that he wasn’t lying, technically, to Naruto by not telling him exactly what the ANBU had reported back to him. They had commented on his looks – with Sasuke, it seemed as if people found it impossible not to. What Kakashi found most interesting, however, was not descriptions of Sasuke’s features, but rather the observation that several ANBU had made to Kakashi as they kept him updated on Sasuke’s movements across Cloud: He seems to be waiting for something—or someone.

Kakashi would bet his entire Icha Icha collection that he knew who that was. It was the why that worried him.

*****

The first thing that Sasuke said to Naruto after four years was, “I knew they would send you.”

The first thing Naruto says to Sasuke after four years is, “You’re an asshole.”

Sasuke doesn’t even have the courtesy to look surprised, Naruto thought bitterly. His eyes scanned over Sasuke’s face, once as familiar to him as his own and noted the changes. Sasuke had always been too handsome, too beautiful, for Naruto’s taste. His looks had always brought too much attention—or rather, they took too much attention away from Naruto, who had found it distressing but oddly hilarious in equal measure since he craved the attention so much and Sasuke just seemed to be repulsed by it.

Sasuke’s face had become leaner, harder, but all the more striking for it. Naruto had never met Sasuke’s mother, but he remembered glimpses of her from around the village, her long flowing dark hair and pale skin— he recalled her now as he gazed at Sasuke’s face. The resemblance between mother and son had become almost uncanny. There were shades of Itachi there now as well—and not just because of Sasuke’s eye. It was in the stillness of his expression, the total lack of emotion present on Sasuke’s sculpted face. Naruto knew Itachi had projected emptiness out of necessity and at great personal cost—he wondered what Sasuke had done or been through in order to master it himself. Kakashi-sensei’s warning echoed in his head for a moment as he met Sasuke’s expressionless eyes. We don’t know this Sasuke, Naruto.

Now, standing before Sasuke for the first time in four years, he felt the full effect of those words. Sasuke seemed nearly a stranger to him, and Naruto couldn’t help but feel ragged and small in comparison. Sasuke’s beauty had always been something people noticed (to their detriment), but Naruto had never paid it any mind. Sasuke was Sasuke, and the most important thing about him was his ninjutsu, in Naruto’s opinion. Now it felt like being hit with a ton of bricks— Sasuke, suddenly a man, suddenly unknown. This was a Sasuke in full control of the Sharingan and himself. Naruto felt off-balance, unsure of how to even speak to this new, strange incarnation of his former best friend. Before, he would have leapt across the table and grabbed Sasuke, shaking him as he yelled at him about bonds and friendship and the importance of their team. Naruto would babble on about promises, like any promise besides the one Sasuke had made to himself mattered at all to him. Naruto’s fingers tingled with the almost uncontrollable urge to reach out, to touch. Maybe, he thought to himself, if I could just get him to react to—something, anything, then it would be okay. I would know him again and he would know me and everything would be okay. Four years was such a long time.

But he did not reach out and Sasuke’s expression remained unchanged.

Sasuke sat on the far side of a low table and to an untrained eye appeared relaxed. He leaned casually across the back of the bench-style seating and his ankles were crossed loosely underneath the table. His hand toyed with a small earthen cup filled with what looked like water. However, Naruto could see the coiled tension in his body. At any moment Sasuke could rise with the fluid grace of a snake (and didn’t that sting—thinking about Sasuke and snakes had always filled Naruto’s mouth with the taste of ash) and strike. Naruto wasn’t fooled for a second, but he also wasn’t afraid.

He plopped down as ungracefully as possible across from Sasuke and didn’t even bother looking at the tattered menu on the table. He waved and shouted across the restaurant to the mama-san behind the bar for a beer and then turned back to look at Sasuke.

“Did the Rokudaime send you?” Sasuke asked, and Naruto had to actively fight the urge to punch some expression into his face. Even his voice sounded disaffected and bored.

“The Rokudaime?” Naruto scoffed. “Why are you acting like Kakashi-sensei is some stranger? The Rokudaime. Next you’ll be referring to me as,” he made his voice as low and mocking as possible, “the jinchuriki, as if you haven’t known us basically your entire life, you weirdo.”

Naruto could swear he saw a ripple of emotion on Sasuke’s face at that but it disappeared nearly instantly—still, even the possibility of a reaction thrilled Naruto. In that moment he felt the exact same way he did when he first mastered the Rasengan— exhilarated, like anything was possible. For the first time in four years, Sasuke was in front of him and he had almost made him smile. He felt lightheaded with relief.

“You didn’t answer my question,” Sasuke replied coolly.

Naruto wasn’t going to fall for his cool guy trick this time. “Where have you been for the past four years?” he demanded, his voice gaining in volume. He wasn’t to “Bring Back Sasuke to Konoha Through Sheer Force of Will (Part 1)” decibels yet, but give him some time and he would be.

Sasuke, his Sasuke, the Sasuke who had practically died for him was still in there and if he had to make a scene in some crummy bar in Lightning country then he would, a thousand times over.

“Why did he send you here?” Sasuke asked in return, acting as if Naruto had not spoken at all.

Naruto crossed his arms in front of his chest petulantly, feeling both delighted and resentful that Sasuke had reduced him to such frustrating, childish antics within only minutes of seeing each other. He broke his scowl for only a moment to smile brilliantly in thanks at the server who placed a sloppy, frothing beer in front of him but then immediately returned to frowning at Sasuke as if his life depended on it. “I’ll answer yours if you answer mine.”

Sasuke’s eyebrow twitched and Naruto’s heart raced like he’d just run a mile.

“I was here and there. Your turn.”

“You bastard, you know that’s not a real answer!” Naruto said, but Sasuke only gestured at him as if to say, “And?”

Naruto took a long pull of his beer and sighed in contentment as it settled warmly in his stomach. He rarely drank, but being around Sasuke for the first time in years, especially Sasuke who acted like this and looked like this, required some liquid courage on top of the regular kind.

“The Rokudaime,” and he let all of his disdain for Sasuke’s chosen form of address drip into his pronunciation of the word, “kind of sent me.” That earned him another eyebrow twitch.

“Kind of?” Sasuke said, and Naruto rejoiced at how reluctance colored his voice. He clearly knew what Naruto was doing—being his most loud, ridiculous self in order to force a reaction, to force something, anything out of Sasuke, and Sasuke hated himself for rising to the bait. But rising to the bait he was, Naruto noted gleefully.

Naruto took another pull of beer and made the same imperious “And?” gesture Sasuke had made earlier.

Naruto felt like he could actually see the effort it took for Sasuke not to roll his eyes. “I was in different hidden villages for the past four years, helping and doing mercenary work that came my way,” Sasuke said, tonelessly. “What does…Kakashi-sensei want with me?”

Naruto did not miss the pointed use of the Hokage’s name rather than title this time. “What makes you think he wants anything from you?”

“Like I said,” Sasuke replied, “they sent you.”

Naruto pushed away his half-empty beer with sudden violence. “What’s that supposed to mean?” He had forgotten the other half of being around Sasuke—the exhaustion, the mind games, the doublespeak. He had never been able to keep up. He wanted to shake Sasuke until his teeth rattled and scream, Say what you want to say, bastard. Spit it out! But he stayed on his side of the table and ground his own teeth together instead.

“I think people in Konoha labor under the same misunderstanding they always have and that’s the reason they sent you.”

Naruto felt the return of an old grief. Way to twist the fucking knife in, Sasuke. As if his four year absence hadn’t spoken for itself.

“Well, Sasuke, what would that misunderstanding be exactly?” Naruto said through clenched teeth, hating himself but not being able to help asking. He wanted to hear Sasuke actually say it.

“That you hold any particular significance to me based on a brief childhood friendship,” Sasuke said, and his eyes gave nothing away—only darkness.

Naruto’s right arm twinged. He remembered lying next to Sasuke, thinking they had died, that they’d finally done it and killed each other off, all because Sasuke couldn’t control his own bullshitery. He remembered the sudden swoop of realization that, no, they weren’t dead, they’d just blown off each other’s arms instead, and even though they weren’t dead they probably would be soon. He remembered the relief, the earth-shattering relief, and he remembered the laughter that followed. He’s going to come back, he’d thought to himself, a little bit hysterical. It’s taken both of us losing an arm, but the bastard is going to come home, if we live through this. And if we don’t, well, there are worse ways to go. Naruto had always known the thing he had with Sasuke was going to end in blood but he hadn’t expected quite so much of it to be his own.

He glanced down at his arm and Sasuke followed his look. “You have an arm.”

Naruto felt his arm tense involuntarily and turned his hand over, palm up. Even after four years, it still didn’t work quite as well as his original arm had, but the Shodaime Hokage’s cells had done their job well. His ninjutsu was barely affected and his Rasengan was stronger than ever.

“Yeah, well, you would have one too if you had stayed for more than five seconds after they let you out of the hospital,” Naruto grumbled, clenching the hand into a fist.

Sasuke said nothing, his gaze impassive. Naruto wondered if he had hallucinated those small glimpses of expression from earlier. Also—

“Also, what do you mean, ‘brief childhood friendship’?” Naruto demanded. “You literally almost died for me, asshole! Multiple times! And remember how well all those times you tried to ‘break our bond’ went? I’m still sitting here, bastard! Historically speaking, you pretending to not care about me is an old trick that isn’t fooling anyone.”

Sasuke gave an elegant, small shrug. “We all do crazy things when we’re children.”

Naruto suddenly stood, and the screech of his bench across the rough wooden floor echoed unpleasantly across the bar. What am I doing here? he asked himself furiously. He doesn’t give a fuck about me, or at least he doesn’t want to. He’s made that clear repeatedly over the past four years and he just said it to my face. Shit, Naruto, when will you learn to take a hint that you’re not wanted?

It was the same small, mean voice that had whispered in his ear his entire childhood—maybe you are the monster they think you are, it had said, voice lilting and sweet. That must be why no one likes you or cares about you—why even your own parents abandoned you.

Naruto jerked his head violently to the side in an effort to clear his thoughts. He would leave, because he couldn’t stand to stay. This Sasuke was terrible in his familiarity and strangeness—his appearance had changed, but his pretended indifference towards Naruto remained the same. Naruto, however, had changed in their time apart. Sasuke’s second absence—so much less understandable than the first (and even that still puzzled Naruto—hadn’t Sasuke known that Naruto would have done anything to help him?) had shifted something inside Naruto, had opened a wound Naruto had thought long closed. Seeing Sasuke now, so changed yet unchanged and cruel, was not an unusual experience, but one that Naruto refused to put himself through again. Sasuke could spout his empty rhetoric to an empty table—it was what he deserved when all he had to say were lies. If Sasuke still wanted to pretend that Naruto meant nothing to him, that his friends in the village meant nothing to him, fine—but Naruto was not going to sit around and listen.

Half of Naruto was screaming, stay, stay you idiot, make him see, while the other half curled around itself like a wounded animal and just wanted to get away as quickly as possible. Some reunion.

The village would figure out another plan for the orphanage. They did not need Uchiha land and they certainly did not need Uchiha Sasuke. Let the compound rot for all he cared. A fitting end to the Uchiha legacy—ruin and dust.

“You could have just told me to leave, Sasuke,” he said, and he didn’t even try to hide the anguish in his voice. “After all this time, you don’t have to be unkind. You could have just asked and I would have gone.”

He laid out a fistful of coins on the table to pay for his drink, way more than it actually cost, but he didn’t care. The sense of history repeating itself—Sasuke, distant and uncaring and Naruto, beating himself up over and over again just to get something, anything out of Sasuke—was filling Naruto’s brain and it was painful to be near him. Why had he thought things would go any differently? Their laughter as they lay prone on the ground, bleeding to death but happy, together, came back to him again in a rush, but he pushed it away just as suddenly.

For the first time since Naruto had come into the bar, Sasuke allowed an expression to grace his features. If Naruto was being generous he would say it was regret, but it was perhaps closer to surprise. Naruto really did not know how to read this Sasuke, whose expression was written in a language Naruto had long given up trying to learn.

He supposed it made sense that Sasuke would be surprised. The Naruto of old would not have given up or retreated. He would have only screamed louder, maybe given Sasuke a good punch or two, or at least tried to. He would rage and pout and wheedle, but he would not give up and walk away. Naruto guessed four years had made him as much a stranger to Sasuke as Sasuke was to him.

However, it was the expression that made Naruto do it. He reached into his pack and threw down the scroll from Kakashi onto the table.

“Before I go—you wanted to know why Kakashi-sensei sent me? That’s why. Read it, burn it, use it as toilet paper, I don’t care. I’ve successfully completed my mission by handing it off to you, so do with it what you will.” Sasuke glanced at the scroll on the table before looking back at Naruto. He began to speak but Naruto cut him off. “You don’t have to say anything else. I get it.” He turned towards the door. “And for the record, I told them asking you would be a waste of time. Thanks for proving me right.” And then he was gone.

***

“So let me get this straight,” Sakura said, voice filled with disbelief. “You see Sasuke for the first time in…four years…and all you do is argue with him for a few minutes before coming straight back home?”

Naruto rubbed the back of his head nervously. “You didn’t see him Sakura-chan! You weren’t there! He was,” and his excuse sounded pathetic to his own ears, “really mean.”

“When has Sasuke ever not been mean?” Sakura yelled, fists on her hips and eyes blazing. “Naruto, you complete idiot! We had him right where we wanted him and you just let him walk away again! What the hell were you thinking, Naruto, really, it’s like you don’t even want him to come—”

“Sakura, enough,” Kakashi-sensei said. “I’m sure Naruto had a reason for what he did, even if you can’t understand it. And he did complete his mission—technically.”

Naruto nodded quickly. “I did, I did! That stupid jerk got the contract.” But who knows what he did with it, he silently added.

They were in Kakashi’s office. Sakura was standing, towering over Naruto in her rage while Naruto made himself as small as possible in his chair. Kakashi was seated, elbows on his desk’s surface, rubbing his forehead with both hands in small circles. He sighed as Sakura continued to pester Naruto with questions about Sasuke’s appearance, temperament, height, what he thought Sasuke had been eating, did he think Sasuke had been getting enough sleep – “How the hell would I know any of that Sakura? I talked to the man for five minutes! And he was sitting down!”

Naruto had been back from Cloud for only three days before Sakura found out about Sasuke’s sudden reappearance. Naruto had been in Kakashi’s office, poring over maps and land deeds when the doors to the room burst inward, disgruntled ANBU protesting in the distance, “Sakura-san! Please!” and then the long-suffering sigh of, “Ah, why do we even bother with those two?” when she slammed the door shut behind her. Naruto had a sinking feeling that he was one of the two being referred to, which, fair enough.

Sakura had heard through a source that she would only describe as “a nin-dog with a big mouth” (and Kakashi was really going to have a talk with Pakkun one of these days about what “top secret” actually meant) that Sasuke had been seen, and that Naruto was the only person who had actually spoken with him, brief as it was.

“So you’re saying you can’t tell me anything, except that he was alive and, somehow, impossibly, better looking than he was before?”

“Your words, not mine!” Naruto blustered, shaking his finger in her face. “I just said he was still breathing! Don’t project your weird fantasies onto me!”

“Well Pakk—” she glanced anxiously at Kakashi and then coughed into her hand, knocking her fist into her chest a few times as if to clear it, “my source has informed me that, and I quote, ‘Sasuke has become so beautiful now it’s disgusting.’” She stared Naruto down as if daring him to disagree. “Well? Do you deny it?”

Naruto rubbed the back of his head and stared at the ceiling. “Wellllll,” he started. “I did notice his cheekbones more than I had before, I guess.”

“Cheekbones,” Sakura said to herself, collapsing back into her chair. “Of course.”

Maybe now is the moment someone will have the guts to try to assassinate me, Kakashi thought to himself hopefully.

There was an unexpected rapping on the window behind him, and Kakashi turned to see an ANBU, perched silently on the sill with a scroll proffered, head bowed.

Kakashi glanced over its contents as the ANBU waited for his response. He stopped reading. He started over. He read it again. And then again. He looked at the ANBU. “You can’t be serious.”

Kakashi could swear that behind the mask she was grinning. “He was spotted outside the main gates only moments ago, Hokage-sama.”

Kakashi, feeling grossly inadequate for what was about to happen, could only ball up the message and toss it directly at the side of Naruto’s face.

“Hey, Kakashi-sensei! What was that for?” Naruto said, rubbing his face petulantly. The boy had had his arm blown off but still pouted about being hit by a piece of paper, Kakashi thought with both affection and exasperation.

“There’s something interesting in there, Unpredictable Ninja-kun. Read it.”

Naruto picked the piece of paper up from the floor where it had bounced off his face, grumbling all the while. He unfurled it, smoothing it out against the surface of Kakashi’s desk, face frowning with concentration as he read the message and took in its contents. Sakura, perched behind Naruto and reading over his shoulder, was a much faster reader and came to the realization way before Naruto did.

“Kakashi-sensei, does this really mean—?”

Naruto, finally caught up, looked at Kakashi with wide eyes, shocked into silence.

“If what this message says is true,” and Kakashi didn’t have to see the ANBU to know that she was actually laughing now, “then Sasuke has returned to Konohagakure.”

Naruto scrambled to escape.

He had one leg out the window before Sakura yanked him back inside. “Hey—hey—c’mon,” he protested, pulling his vest out of her hand before lunging away again.

“What if he’s coming here to attack the Hokage!” Sakura said, grabbing him again and then shaking him furiously. “Aren’t you a Konoha shinobi? Where’s your pride?”

“Sakura-chan—” he said, sounding pathetic and miserable and twelve-years old again. “How about,” and then his hands moved furiously for a moment and there was another Naruto in the room. “I’ll leave this guy here and I’ll talk to you later. Let me know how the meeting goes! Hope you don’t get assassinated, Kakashi-sensei!” And then he was out of Sakura’s grasp and out the window again in a matter of seconds.

Kakashi frowned behind his mask and held out a hand to forestall Sakura from jumping out the window to follow him. “He’s fine, Sakura. Let him go.” She opened her mouth, eyes wide and concerned, but Kakashi cut her off, saying: “He doesn’t want to be here. Respect that.” He gestured at the clone who looked at them both with a grimace and a shrug as if to say, Don’t blame me. I think he’s a chicken too. “At least he left a clone,” he added helpfully.

Sakura, mouth screwed up in displeasure and hands still balled into fists, was reluctant to turn away from the window and let Naruto get away so easily, but she turned quickly enough when there was a knock on the door.

Clone-Naruto eyed Kakashi with a questioning glance, half-serious, half-joking. “You don’t think he’s really here to try and assassinate you, do you?”

Kakashi sighed. “I can’t think of anything I’ve done lately to deserve it, but with him? It’s entirely possible.”

Clone-Naruto nodded and slowly pulled out a kunai as the door to the Hokage’s office was pushed open and Sasuke stepped back into Kakashi and Sakura’s presence for the first time in four years.

Of course, his first question was, “Where’s Naruto?”

Sakura, in the middle of a very heartfelt whisper of Sasuke’s name, all the sudden wanted to throw a table at him instead. It had been years since he had seen her or Kakashi-sensei, and yet the first thing he says is still about Naruto? She wanted to laugh but she also wanted to cry. The feelings about Sasuke had always been mixed up like that.

“He—” she began weakly, but Kakashi cut her off. “He had other things to do. He left a clone though, as you can see.”

Sakura thought the clone was acting quite odd. Normally they were even more expressive and obnoxious than the original, but this one was petulant and guarded, staring down Sasuke from directly behind where Kakashi was seated at his desk.

“I can see that,” Sasuke said, and Sakura was struck with why exactly Naruto had run rather than face Sasuke again. This Sasuke was, and there was no other word for it, ridiculous. Sakura had not had feelings, real feelings, for Sasuke in many years—she often questioned whether she’d had them in the first place. Either way, it had been a long time since Sakura’s head had been turned by a pretty face, especially one belonging to Uchiha Sasuke. But—damn.

Kakashi leaned back in his chair and gestured for Sasuke to sit. Sasuke did not sit.

“Sasuke-kun,” Sakura said, feeling uncomfortable but not anything like she was in danger. Apparently the burden of small talk was going to fall to her. “It’s been a long time.” Sasuke nodded but didn’t respond.

“What have you been doing since you left?”

Sasuke’s gaze was firmly attached to Naruto’s clone. “Didn’t he already tell you that?” The clone glared back.

Sakura, feeling annoyed at Kakashi-sensei for not even attempting to make this less awkward, decided to try a different approach. “You know Sasuke, it’s great you’re back in the village. I don’t know how long you’re staying but it’s changed so much since you were here last. In fact—”

“That’s actually what I’m here about,” Sasuke said, and he tossed a worn scroll onto Kakashi’s desk. Kakashi made no move to pick it up.

“You want my family’s land.”

Kakashi nodded. “Part of it.”

“Why?”

Kakashi gestured at the scroll. “Was that not clear?”

Sasuke was silent for a moment before addressing Naruto’s clone. “I came here to speak to Naruto. Not his shadow. Tell him if he wants his precious orphanage he needs to be here to ask for it himself, instead of running away like a coward.”

“A coward?” the clone yelled incredulously. “Hey buddy, if anybody is an expert on running away and being a coward in this room, it’s—” The clone disappeared in a puff of smoke before it could finish its sentence.

Kakashi sighed and stood to pluck a kunai that had become embedded in the wall a few inches away from his face. “Please don’t put holes in the walls, Sasuke-kun.”

Sasuke didn’t respond. He just gazed out the window patiently.

“Sasuke-kun,” Sakura said, feeling more and more like she and Kakashi-sensei should just leave, honestly. “Don’t you think there was a more polite way to do that?”

Sasuke looked away from the window and Sakura felt the full force of his gaze. He had a look in his eye she couldn’t quite place. “Since when does Naruto care about politeness?”

She had no answer to that, because the answer was so obvious: never.

Kakashi came around the desk and handed the kunai to Sasuke, firmly. “You know Sasuke-kun, I have the strangest feeling you did not come to the Hokage’s office to speak with the Hokage.”

Sasuke said nothing but his expression, the emotion in his eyes, came to Sakura in that moment: anticipation.

“So what we’re going to do now is Sakura-chan and I,” he slung an arm around her shoulder and began steering her towards the door, “are going to leave. We will be back sometime,” he glanced at his wrist where he was not wearing a watch, “later. It seems you and Naruto-kun have some things you need to settle. Please don’t damage my office any more than you have.” He pushed Sakura out of the door and, before turning to shut it behind himself, looked at Sasuke standing in the middle of his office. Sasuke, who had proven himself not as much a stranger as Kakashi had thought he would be. They locked eyes, and even though Sasuke was now the only living user of the Sharingan, Kakashi spoke with the authority of someone who had once shared its power. “Be kind to him, Sasuke. He waited for you.”

It took only a few minutes for Naruto to arrive. Sasuke could hear him coming.

“—and you think you can just waltz right back into our village, thinking you’re better than everyone else, making demands on other people the second you get here, unbelievable—”

Naruto leapt through the window, glanced around the room, and then pointed furiously at Sasuke. “Where the hell are Sakura-chan and Kakashi-sensei? What did you do with them, bastard?”

Sasuke fought the urge to cover his ears. “They left, you moron.”

Naruto scoffed. “You expect me to believe Kakashi-sensei left you alone in here with all of his…important documents?” He gestured at the massive desk of the Hokage, looking as if it was ready to buckle under the weight of the assortment of papers scattered across its surface. There was no clear organization and it resembled nothing more than a very official looking pile of garbage.

“I didn’t come here for Konoha’s secrets,” Sasuke said, and he let himself roll his eyes—it was incredible how quickly Naruto could reduce him to such childish antics.

“Really,” Naruto huffed, and crossed his arms across his chest. “Then why are you here, Sasuke? You said you came to talk to me. Well, now I’m here. Talk to me.”

Sasuke ran a weary hand across his face before settling it back into its customary blankness. The transition was all the more difficult for Naruto standing so nearby.

“This orphanage. That’s why you came to talk to me in Cloud?”

“That’s why I was sent there, yes.”

Sasuke sat down. “Tell me more about this orphanage.”

Naruto’s mouth gaped open. “You’re…interested?”

Sasuke gestured around the room. “I’m here, aren’t I?”

Naruto nodded, stared blankly at Sasuke for a moment, and then nodded again. He sat down across from Sasuke. “Right. Okay. The orphanage. You are here because you want to know about the orphanage.”

“We’ve already established that, genius,” Sasuke said.

“Yeah, well you can’t blame a guy for being a little confused when his old best friend suddenly shows up out of nowhere for the first time in four years so he can, I don’t know, talk business!” Naruto retorted heatedly. “This doesn’t happen to me every day, oddly enough!”

Sasuke sighed. “I—did not come here to fight with you.”

“Could have fooled me,” Naruto muttered.

Sasuke held out a placating hand. “The orphanage. Please.”

Naruto’s entire disposition transformed once he began to talk about the plans he and Kakashi-sensei (and Shikamaru, and Iruka-sensei, and Tsunade-baachan, and Sakura-chan, and, it seemed, the entire village) had made together to create and plan out the orphanage.

“The most important thing,” Naruto said, “is to keep what happened to kids like us from ever happening again.” He looked thoughtful for a moment and stared out the window towards the Hokage monument. “Y’know, it’s crazy but I don’t really hate the Sandaime for what happened to me. He was just…doing what they had always done with kids like us. The bare minimum, of course, but still—tradition.”

Sasuke opened his mouth, ready to protest that the Third Hokage could have done more, should have done more. For all of his “This village is my family!” rhetoric, he had certainly found it quite easy to neglect children like Naruto and Sasuke. What kind of family left its children to be raised alone in empty apartments and empty houses? Sasuke, the last Uchiha, and Naruto, jinchuriki and son of the Yondaime— he couldn’t imagine how children with less important lineages were left to fend for themselves, when it seemed like he and Naruto had only received the barest amount of attention.

Naruto held up a hand. “I know what you’re going to say. I know. I just can’t bring myself to hate the old man. In the end, I guess it’s not really in my nature to hate, even when people deserve it,” he said. His smile was pained.

Sasuke knew that they were both thinking then of the hate Sasuke deserved from Naruto a thousand times over, yet had always refused to give. It was just another one of the simple, stupid, ridiculous things that made Naruto, Naruto.

But that’s fine, Sasuke thought. I’ve got enough hate inside me for both of us. He always had.

Silence filled the room, noxious and cloying. Both of them had so much to say to the other—but the need to speak had never been the problem. The problem had always been the words.

Naruto, of course, because he was Naruto, was the first to break it. “It might not look it, but we’re working on fixing the entire system.” He looked at Sasuke in the eye. “Kids don’t have to be soldiers anymore.” He leaned forward and tapped the blueprints of the orphanage he had pulled out to show Sasuke. “It all starts with this, though.”

Sasuke was struck with how Naruto had always had this—ability—or an almost hypnotic sway over people when he put his mind to it. Naruto made you want to believe, even if his ideas were ridiculous and impossible.

It’s why being around him was so dangerous for Sasuke.

“Do you want to see it?” Naruto asked, and Sasuke was suddenly conscious that his eyes had been lingering on Naruto’s mouth.

“See what? You haven’t even broken ground yet. For that matter, you haven’t even chosen a site yet.”

Naruto frowned a little at the reminder that Sasuke still hadn’t given them permission to use the Uchiha compound. It was far from a done deal at this point. Sasuke being here was a huge indicator that he was going to agree, but with Sasuke, nothing was guaranteed.

Naruto rubbed his right arm absently.

“I know that, jerk. I’m just saying, I could show you the temporary one we’ve got set up, or we could go visit—”

“You’ve already got an orphanage up and running?”

“That’s what I’m trying to explain to you, if you’d shut up and listen!”

Sasuke narrowed his eyes at Naruto but resisted the urge to hurl back an insult like he would have done when they were younger. Sasuke thought that the ANBU had been more than understanding about him strolling back into the village and straight into the Hokage’s chambers after four years of zero contact, but getting into a fist fight with the Hokage’s heir apparent might be a bit too much for them to allow. He hadn’t come back to Konoha to make a scene.

“Once Kakashi-sensei became Hokage, his first official act, besides pardoning you, was to set up a temporary headquarters to deal with all of the people who had been displaced by the battle. We lost…most of the village.” He swallowed hard. “But after we got through sorting out new living quarters for everybody, we realized how many kids were left with nowhere to go. No one to go home to.”

“So where have you been keeping them?”

“Well, at first we kept them in the Academy.” Naruto waved a hand at Sasuke’s concerned expression. “I know, I know, not really a place to keep a bunch of kids. But it was the best we had in the immediate aftermath. Now, we’ve been able to build a temporary location where the kids have been staying. It’s pretty nice—it’s got bedrooms, showers, even classrooms for the kids. But it’s crowded.” He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “The real goal in the end isn’t even really for the orphanage to just be this great place for kids to grow up. It’s to be a great place for kids to make a family. Something like w—” he caught himself, “I never had as a kid.”

Sasuke said nothing for a long moment. He thought about Naruto, desperate and unloved. He thought about himself, roaming alone across the Uchiha compound. The bloodstains had never even been properly cleaned up.

He stood. “Take me there. The Uchiha compound, I mean. Show me what the village wants to do with what’s left of my clan.”

***

The giant fan of the Uchiha clan loomed large in front of them.

They had been standing there for minutes, neither speaking. Sasuke had not been there for years—even before he left Konoha to train with Orochimaru, he had spent most of his time outside the compound at the academy or at the apartment he had eventually gotten further into the village. He felt as if he was trespassing. The memories of those he had lost were like a physical weight.

“Do you want to go in?” Naruto asked. His voice was even, calm—no judgement or pity.

Sasuke hesitated, only for a moment, and then nodded before he pushed the compound’s gate open with a steady hand.

Memory glosses over things. It smooths rough edges and everything takes on the hue of rose-colored nostalgia. Or at least that’s how it is for most people—for Sasuke, memory had done nothing to diminish the horror of his experiences. The Sharingan had guaranteed Sasuke received no reprieve. Everything from the moment Itachi appeared before him in the darkened room of his parent’s home stood out in sharp, life-like detail, unflinching and unforgiving. The smell of blood and viscera, the battered buildings and streets littered with bodies and weapons. All of it was irrevocably etched into Sasuke’s memory and would be until he died. His hand, ever so slightly, began to tremble.

The day Uchiha Sasuke returned to the ancestral lands of his people was an unforgivably sunny day. Clouds were rolling gently in the sky, but they were few and far between. There was a light breeze that ruffled his hair and he could smell hyacinth on the air. His mother had grown hyacinth.

The dread he felt at returning home diminished, if only for a moment. He closed his eyes and inhaled. After a few minutes of this he felt something soft slip into his hand. Naruto grasped his palm firmly and interlaced their fingers.

“It’s not because I think you need to be comforted or anything,” Naruto reassured Sasuke. “I just always get lost in here so I’m going to need you to hold my hand while you show me around. For safety.”

Sasuke nodded. Naruto had always understood how to reassure Sasuke—how to defuse his anger or his sadness with his jokes or antics—until Sasuke hadn’t let him anymore.

But now they were back in Konoha together, back to where the Uchiha clan had lived and died, and Sasuke was man enough to admit that he needed someone to hold his hand.

Sasuke lifted their entwined hands to gesture towards a small building a few yards away. “That was where my favorite taiyaki stand was,” he said.

Naruto whipped his head around. “All this time, you’ve been holding back on the fact that you do like sweets?”

Sasuke shrugged and yanked Naruto further into the compound. “I grew out of it.”

If Naruto noticed how Sasuke avoided a certain part of the compound, he didn’t mention it. They walked the narrow streets of Sasuke’s childhood home, pausing every few minutes so Sasuke could stop and examine an old building or step inside empty houses, conjuring the ghosts of the people who had once lived there, telling Naruto their stories.

One building gave Sasuke more than a momentary pause, however. Sasuke’s hand tightened to the point of pain around Naruto’s as they stepped in front of the Uchiha run police station. “You know, my father worked here,” he told Naruto.

“Really?” Naruto asked, squinting up at the Uchiha fan emblazoned across the building’s exterior. “Did he like it?”

Sasuke considered the question. “Honestly, I don’t think enjoyment was something my father would have ever even thought about. Working wasn’t something he was supposed to enjoy—it was all about duty. Duty to the clan above everything else.” He looked at the crumbling façade of the place his father had dedicated so much of his time. Look at what duty brings you, he thought. Nothing but death and ruin.

“He did care about other stuff besides duty, though. I mean, he cared about you, and your mom, and your brother.”

Sasuke stilled. For years, he would have disputed Naruto’s words—my father never saw me as anything but a shadow of Itachi, he would have said, and he would have truly believed it. But with time comes distance, and with distance comes understanding. Fugaku was a cold man. He was a hard man. He had not been the best father. But Fugaku, in his own way, had loved his family and wanted to do what was best for them. He had truly loved Sasuke. Sasuke understood that now, when it was too late.

Sasuke wished, in an irrational flash, that Naruto wasn’t there, that he was alone, so he could Chidori the building into ash. The Uchiha fan mocked him.

Sasuke swallowed convulsively, and then remembered that Naruto had spoken. “He did. My father loved us very much.”

He pulled Naruto away quickly. He did not look back.

***

“Essentially we’d only be using about a third of the compound at this point,” Naruto said. He released Sasuke’s hand for a moment to summon a scroll, and laid it out gently across a patch of overgrown grass. “It all depends on what you’re comfortable with.”

He gestured expansively across the map’s surface. “Most of the buildings are salvageable. Uchihas built things to last.” Sasuke pretended the comment didn’t please him.

Naruto circled a cluster of homes with his finger. “This is honestly the ideal location. Separate homes, but in super close proximity. Not that the kids will be living alone in the houses, of course, but we want them to have their own space. That way they can feel a real sense of independence, but also they can feel that sense of family. They never have to be alone; they’ll always have other people to take care of and to take care of them. That’s what we’ll try to do, at least.”

He paused for a moment, finger tapping gently against the map and then looked back at Sasuke. His eyes were sad. “Have you ever thought, Sasuke, about how pretty much every person we’ve ever fought, every person who’s tried to hurt us or hurt the village has been an orphan?” He rocked back on his heels as he looked back down at the map. “Orochimaru was an orphan, y’know. Kabuto. Nagato, the guy behind Pein—him and his two best friends were all orphans. Haku—remember him? He was an orphan too.” He ran a hand across his eyes. “The suffering we went through as kids it—it spreads. It gets into everything. Not having anyone to love you, to care about you. It’s so easy to hate. Think about what that shit did to Gaara. He was so lost, he didn’t care about anything but hurting other people.”

Sasuke didn’t have to say what they were both thinking: no one understood the cost of loneliness more than the two of them: Naruto, who had never succumb to it, and Sasuke, who had welcomed the hate eventually—thinking, as people usually do, that it would protect him.

“When they first approached me with the compound as an option,” Naruto continued, “I pretty much shut it down right away. I told them no way, no fucking way.”

“Why?” Sasuke asked.

“Because it’s yours,” Naruto said, as if it was obvious. “This is your family’s. I could never let them take that from you, on top of everything else.”

Naruto began to roll the map back up. “I don’t have anything of my mom or dad’s,” he said. “Just memories. And if anyone ever tried to take those from me, I would kill them.” He slung the scroll across his back and reached for Sasuke’s hand again. “I would never take anything from you that you didn’t want to give.”

His hand hung in the air between them.

Sasuke looked at it for a long moment. He thought about what Naruto had said about orphans, and love, and families, and hate. He thought about life coming out of death. He glanced back at the compound. He remembered so much life there. It could be that way again, he knew. All he had to do was agree.

He took Naruto’s hand and linked their fingers.

“When can they start construction?”

Naruto’s hand squeezed his. “Is that a yes?” He pulled Sasuke to face him as he looked intently into his eyes. “I know you’re not the kind of person to ever do anything you don’t want to, so I won’t insult you by asking if you’re sure. But—are you okay with this, really?”

Sasuke began walking again, yanking Naruto’s hand close to force him to follow. “I think this place has been a tomb long enough.”

Naruto yanked back, forcing Sasuke to face him again. “Is that a yes, Sasuke?”

Sasuke shrugged. “I don’t see why you couldn’t. I’ve got no use for it.”

Naruto knew Sasuke was being purposefully flippant. The reverent way Sasuke had approached every building, every overturned stall, every shattered window, disproved his words, but Naruto understood their purpose. Sasuke was giving something up— pretending like it cost him nothing made it easier. Naruto practically invented that tactic.

“You know,” Naruto said, hating himself for the words as soon as they left his mouth, “you could stay. You could stay and help, I mean.”

Sasuke gazed back at Naruto impassively. Naruto was suddenly conscious of the fact that he was still holding Sasuke’s hand. He dropped it.

“Um, well, we could just really use the help is all,” Naruto said, laughing and rubbing the back of his head ruefully. “Kakashi-sensei is completely hopeless. Whenever we try to get him to help with any of the building stuff he just uses a substitution jutsu and runs away. He says he’s more of a money man.” Naruto shrugged and grimaced at that. “I know that it would really mean a lot to…Saukura-chan. If you stayed. I mean. For a little while. And if you stayed,” he added, gaining enthusiasm, “you could make sure we treat the Uchiha compound right. Make sure we’re restoring everything correctly and being respectful. You could, um, meet some of the kids. You’d hate them, but they’d love you. Oh man, there’s one kid named Hiroshi who you would just murder because he always does this—”

“Naruto,” Sasuke said, cutting him off mid-ramble. “I would be interested in staying. Not permanently,” he added pointedly. “But what you’ve said about the orphanage, what you’re trying to do with it, intrigues me.” He began to walk back out of the compound and Naruto ran to catch up, head swirling frantically with the same thought: Sasuke’s staying. Sasuke’s staying. “Besides, I’ve been here less than a day and I can already see Konoha is a different village than the one I left four years ago. I’m curious if it’s become a place worthy of my brother’s sacrifice.”

Naruto grabbed his hand again, a fierce joy swooping low in his stomach. Sasuke was staying. The inevitable storm—he had said he would only stay for now, this was just temporary—was far away on the horizon.

“I’ll make it that,” he swore, and Sasuke was struck by the strength, the certainty in Naruto’s voice. It reminded him of those moments in their childhood when Naruto dropped the harmless clown act and showed his teeth. Those were the moments that pushed the two of them together—Sasuke saw himself in Naruto’s wounded places and Naruto saw someone just as desperate for love as he was.

“When I become Hokage,” Naruto continued, and his grip tightened around Sasuke’s hand, “I’ll make Konoha into a village that would make Itachi proud.”

Sasuke allowed himself a small private thought before letting the doors of the Uchiha compound slam shut behind them: I might stay around for that.

Chapter Text

“Here,” Naruto said. He shoved a box into Sasuke’s chest. “Your stuff’s been cluttering up my apartment for too long. Take it back.”

Sasuke had been back in Konoha for days. He’d spent a large part of it being debriefed by Ibiki – a man he had not interacted with since the beginning of the Chunin exams. Ibiki’s questioning was impersonal and judicious, but Sasuke could sense the violence underneath his calm veneer. Konoha required a coherent and complete explanation of his whereabouts from the past four years—and while Kakashi had ensured Ibiki would not be allowed to employ his less savory methods of extracting information, the possibility of violence was palpable throughout the interview. Sasuke had responded as truthfully as possible—he had nothing to hide. He understood that Konoha had shown great lenience in allowing him total freedom of movement, a right once enjoyed only by the Legendary Sannin—but he believed he had shown great lenience in not wiping the entire village off of the map, so.

Now he was at the door of Naruto’s apartment and there was a box in his hands. “What stuff?”

“Your stuff!” Naruto said, waving his hands angrily. “All your stuff you just left, I might add, and stuff that would have been thrown away if it wasn’t for me!”

Sasuke lowered the box. It was taped shut and scribbled across the top in Naruto’s juvenile handwriting was simply the word: Garbage.

“It says garbage.”

“Well—” Naruto said, rubbing the back of his head, “I might have been a little mad at you when I wrote that,” he admitted. “But it’s not garbage, it’s your stuff.”

Sasuke shrugged and tried to hand it back to Naruto. “If I left it that means it wasn’t important enough to keep. Throw it away.”

Something flickered in Naruto’s eyes before he shoved the box back at Sasuke, harder than necessary. “Listen, asshole, that’s really important stuff in there that I’ve kept for you for a really, really long time! You could at least look at it!”

Sasuke stilled and looked back down at the box. He ran his hand across its seam. He couldn’t help but feel that the conversation had become about something other than the box.

“Could I go through it here?” he asked. “I still don’t…really have a place yet.” Kakashi had offered him the use of the Hokage’s quarters, which Sasuke accepted with relish. ANBU were upset on two fronts—with Kakashi, for flat out refusing to move out of the apartment he’d had since childhood, therefore leaving the Hokage’s apartment empty and unused, and with the fact that a (pardoned) war criminal now had full access to the leader of their village’s home, even on an impermanent basis. Sasuke was under constant ANBU surveillance whenever he was there, as if they were afraid he was going to make off with the official Hokage bath towel or something.

“Oh,” Naruto said, taken aback, as if it had never occurred to him that inviting Sasuke to his home might actually involve having to let him come inside. “Here? In my apartment?” He glanced backwards and shoved the door a little more closed. “It’s kind of a mess in here.”

Sasuke rolled his eyes. “I’ve seen how you live, stupid. You’re the one who called me all the way over here for some box of, and I quote, ‘garbage,’ so the least you could do is let me open it here where I won’t have half of Konoha looking over my shoulder.” He edged his foot into the increasingly smaller gap of the doorway. “Let me in.”

Naruto pushed the door hard against Sasuke’s foot. “No!”

Sasuke shoved back. “I said, let me in!”

“And I said no!” Naruto began to thrust the door closed in earnest.

Sasuke pressed his shoulder and arm back against the door and pushed.

“You—goddamn—bastard! I—said—no!” Naruto gritted out, pushing back. The door was tense and frozen between them, wavering back and forth slightly as both Sasuke and Naruto pressed against it.

“Why are you even trying to get in here?” Naruto asked, feeling suddenly furious. Sasuke always had to have his way. “Since when are you interested in spending any time with me?” The tenderness of Sasuke’s hand in his as they walked through the Uchiha compound only days before seemed like a ridiculous dream.

There was a long moment of heavy silence before Naruto felt himself tumbling against his side of the door, his momentum slamming it shut.

He heard Sasuke’s muffled voice through the door. “Fine. I’ll go.”

Naruto yanked his door open in surprise to see Sasuke’s back as he retreated down the hallway. He felt something on a basic, instinctual level seize up tight at the image of Sasuke walking away from him. He spoke without thinking. “Wait, wait, okay, Sasuke, okay. You can come in.”

Sasuke paused before turning back to face Naruto incredulously. “Seriously? What was that whole melodrama for just now?”

Naruto smiled grimly. “You’ll see.”

It looked as if a bomb had gone off in Naruto’s apartment. Several bombs. Had Naruto been attacked in here or something?

Sasuke, whose inclination had always run to cleanliness, stood in the doorway. “You know what, never mind, I think I’ll open my stuff somewhere else.”

He was caught in his retreat by Naruto who pulled him further into the apartment by his shoulders. “No, no, you wanted this.” He lifted a stack of manga off of his only chair and gave the crumbs across its surface a cursory swipe. He gestured towards the chair to Sasuke who looked as if he would rather stand for the rest of his life. “Sit.”

Sasuke moved forward slowly and sat as much on the edge of the chair that he could and still have it be considered sitting. Naruto extended a kunai towards him, handle first. “Are you going to open it up?”

“What happened in here?” Sasuke countered, accepting the blade.

“Well,” Naruto said. He looked around the apartment and felt the need to ask himself the very same question. “I guess it started off as spring cleaning.”

Sasuke paused, kunai lowered. “Spring cleaning? It’s August.”

Naruto held out his hands defensively. “Well, okay, but listen! I was all—whooo—going to get organized! Going to have the cleanest house ever! And then I had a really long mission. Sakura-chan and I were in Kirigakure for about a month and then we were only back for a week before we got sent off again and now we’ve been so busy working at and planning the orphanage and—it kind of got away from me.”

Sasuke surveyed the wasteland that was Naruto’s apartment. “I think you should just move.”

“Well nobody asked you!” Naruto said, and pointed at the box still sitting unopened on Sasuke’s lap. “Now open the box.” He stepped forward to peer at it. “Honestly, even I don’t remember what’s in there. I packed it all up right after you left…the first time.”

His words lingered in the air for a moment, a heavy reminder of all that still remained unsaid between the two of them.

“Well, we’re about to find out,” Sasuke said, pushing past the awkwardness, and slid the kunai cleanly across the top of the box. He pulled back the flaps and lifted out the first object he saw: a small picture frame.

“Oh,” was all Naruto said. Sasuke didn’t react at all. It was his framed photograph of Team Seven. He held it for a moment, staring at his own face. This picture was before the curse mark, before Orochimaru, before Itachi’s death. His eyes were still his own. He remembered holding it in his hand the night he left Konoha, feeling torn between the desire to free himself of all attachments completely, and the desire to cling to those he had grown to love, although he would not have used that word back then. He still struggled to acknowledge the depth of his feelings for the rest of Team Seven—especially Naruto. Always Naruto.

He placed the picture frame back in the box.

Everything else in the box lived up to Naruto’s original label. There were extras of Sasuke’s hitai-ate, along with several kunai and shuriken and some of Sasuke’s old clothes. It was slightly surreal to see the small blue shirt with the Uchiha fan emblazoned across the back that had practically been his uniform before he left for Orochimaru, but that was it. He had never been one for trinkets or mementos. He did not want to remember the past—he had only wanted it to exist as a reminder for what he thought he had to do in the present.

He stood, cradling the box under his arm. “Thank you,” he said, “for keeping this.”

Naruto shrugged and avoided Sasuke’s eyes, abruptly reticent and unsure. Perhaps the photograph had brought unpleasant memories back for Naruto as well.

“Why did you do it?” Sasuke asked, surprising himself.

Naruto stared. “Well, I wanted your stuff to be there for you when you got back,” he said, as if it was obvious.

“You had no idea when, or even if, I was coming back, though,” Sasuke pointed out.

Naruto nodded. “That’s true. But it was just something I felt like I had to do.” He began to absently clean empty food containers off of the kitchen table and counter. “Especially after I got out of the hospital,” he crumpled an instant ramen cup in his hand and threw it into the overflowing trashcan. “I was feeling pretty depressed. So I went over to your apartment to see if you’d left any clues or anything, but it was just…empty. And I saw the picture of us, all turned down on your windowsill and it felt so final and sad. So I packed up everything you’d left that I thought was important and put it in a box for you. I was going to give it to you when you finally came back.” His shoulders jerked upwards in a quick shrug. “It made me feel hopeful, I guess. Like if I did these little things to prepare for you coming home it meant it would actually happen.” He turned back to face Sasuke and his smile was terrible and forced. “It’s stupid, I know.”

“No,” Sasuke said, and it felt like the words were being squeezed out of him, like the pain in his chest would crack his ribs open if he didn’t speak them aloud. “I don’t think that was stupid.” He looked down at the box and then back up at Naruto. He shook it gently and the kunai and shuriken jangled noisily inside. “It worked didn’t it?” The terrible smile on Naruto’s face fell away as he looked back at Sasuke. His eyes were bright. “You saved the box to give back to me when I came home. And I’m here, and you gave it to me, so you were right. It wasn’t stupid,” he repeated.

Naruto didn’t say anything for a long moment and Sasuke felt the pain in his chest begin to swell again before Naruto smiled—a genuine one this time, nothing fake or pained about it. “Well, next time you leave make sure you pack up all of your shit yourself, okay? I’m not your maid!”

Sasuke looked around the apartment pointedly. “I don’t think you have to worry about anyone ever, ever mistaking you for a maid.”

***

Konoha had changed.

The landscape that Sasuke had grown up with had shifted. Familiar landmarks remained, such as the Academy, the Uchiha compound, the Hokage’s tower—but large areas of the village were either completely absent or permanently altered. When Sasuke left the village, the Hokage monument’s latest addition had been Naruto’s father. Now the Godaime and Kakashi-sensei loomed large over the village. Sasuke felt a strange lightness in his chest at the thought of Naruto’s stupid face being the next one to be set in stone—the permanence of it felt right.

However, Konoha had changed more than in appearance.

“They’re planning on electing the next Hokage?”

Sakura nodded, then threw back her cup of sake and sighed contentedly. “Naruto suggested it.”

“Naruto?” Sasuke repeated, disbelieving.

Sakura smiled at Sasuke’s expression. “Don’t worry. Popular vote or Kakashi’s decision, either way, Naruto will be the next Hokage.” She poured another cup of sake but sipped at it this time. “If he even wants it anymore, that is.”

Sasuke looked at Sakura to gauge if she was joking—sometimes he had trouble telling the difference between sarcasm and blunt truth. The expression on her face was clear, however. She was serious. Sasuke’s words left him all in a rush. Naruto giving up his dream of becoming Hokage was as foreign to him as—he struggled to even think of an equivalent absurdity.

He and Sakura were in a small bar near the Hokage’s residence. Sakura had dragged him out of Kakashi’s would-be apartment late that night, claiming that she didn’t like to drink alone and she knew Sasuke kept vampire hours. The barkeep was turned away from them, idly thumbing through a thick paperback and fanning himself as they talked. If he was impressed that two of Konoha’s most famous shinobi were patronizing his bar, he did not show it. The beer in front of Sasuke had gone tepid.

“What do you mean if he even wants it anymore?”

Sakura’s eyes cut across him as she took another sip of her sake and shrugged. “Don’t get upset. It’s just pure speculation on my part, honestly. But think about it—why did Naruto want to become Hokage in the first place?”

“He wanted everyone in the village to acknowledge him,” Sasuke said, words thick with familiar venom. Naruto’s treatment at the hands of Konoha angered Sasuke to the point of distraction. What happened to his clan was one thing – at least there had been a sort of twisted, rotten logic to the massacre – a supposed higher purpose. But what they did to Naruto? The adults would whisper about him to their children, call him monster to his face, take away every semblance of kindness, and their children could only help but to follow suit. Sasuke knew that they saw it as their only recourse, their vengeance against the Nine Tails and their fear of its presence in Naruto’s small body—but that was not, and never would be, a good enough excuse for what they did to him. Of course, Naruto had forgiven Konoha years ago. Sasuke never would.

Sakura gestured as if to encompass the entirety of the village. “He has that now, though. He’s had it for years.”

Sasuke remembered the shock he felt when he first returned to Konoha—Naruto, previously a monster, previously a danger to the entire village, had transformed into its savior. He had become the favorite of the current Hokage, was the son of the previous, and the student of the Godaime’s heir apparent. It was to Naruto whom more experienced Shinobi turned to in the battle against Madara, and it was Naruto who was celebrated as a hero across the Five Great Nations in its wake. People smiled at him in the street, shook his hand, kissed his cheek, said hello and waved goodbye. Parents pushed their daughters at him—even some of their sons. He was welcome in every doorway and beloved by all.

Sasuke’s contempt for these people, for their fickle, self-serving, meaningless love, almost overwhelmed him. Naruto was worth the entire village of Konoha, ten times over. They only loved him because of the things he had done for them, not for the person he was. Or rather, it had taken Naruto saving them, time and time again, for the villagers of Konoha to realize the inherent fact of Naruto’s worth.

“What else would he do?” Sasuke asked, because despite everything he felt, he was at a loss to imagine Naruto’s future involving anything but the Hokage’s robe and Will of Fire.

Sakura poured a cup of sake for herself and then another, offering it to Sasuke. He accepted it gratefully.

“Well,” Sakura said, looking into her cup as if it held all the answers. “Right now he’s got the orphanage.” She took a sip and paused, considering her next words. “And you’re here.”

Sasuke’s cup paused midway to his lips. “What does me being here have to do with anything?”

Sakura smiled, looking down at the counter as if laughing at her own private joke. “Do you know, Sasuke-kun, this is the most I think we’ve talked outside of a mission? Ever?” She looked at him then and he was struck by the directness of her gaze.

But surely, Sasuke thought—

“I’m not exaggerating,” Sakura said, responding to his unspoken protest. She placed her hand under her chin and smiled at him steadily. “For so long I was so consumed with this idea of you. You were this sad, beautiful boy I was going to make love me and then we’d have this perfect life together.” She rolled her eyes. “I don’t think I really knew a single thing about you. Like I said, it was just this idea of you that I had in my head, this box I was trying to fit you into.” Sakura leaned back and crossed her arms, face thoughtful. Her gaze was locked on a point somewhere in the distance. “Naruto always saw through that, though.”

Sasuke didn’t—couldn’t— respond. He only nodded. They both sipped at their sake, turning her words over in their minds.

“Why did you come back to Konoha?” Sakura asked abruptly, her gaze back on him with a focus as sharp as a kunai blade.

“What?”

“I asked why you came back to Konoha?”

Sasuke frowned. “I thought that was obvious. The village wanted to use my family’s land so I—”

“Yeah, yeah,” Sakura said, waving a hand dismissively. “You couldn’t have sent a letter? You couldn’t have signed the document and just sent it back?”

“I wanted to make sure—”

“Why were you in Kumogakure?”

“I was—”

“You must have realized that our ANBU would know you were there within hours. So why did you go there, specifically?”

Sasuke stood. He hadn’t come here for this. Sakura was holding up a mirror to emotions that Sasuke was only beginning to fully comprehend, and he wanted to look away. “I was not aware you invited me out for an interrogation,” he said stiffly, tossing a handful of coins onto the table. “I already discussed all of this with Ibiki—if you or Konoha have a problem with any of my answers, take it up with him, or drag me back down to the dungeons yourself and do this properly.”

His words hung in the air for a tense moment before Sakura stood as well, eyes heavy with regret. She put a hand on his shoulder to stall his movements. “You’re right, Sasuke-kun. I didn’t invite you out here to question you.” She smiled sadly and it plucked at some part of Sasuke’s heart he’d thought long dormant. “I just wanted to spend time with my teammate.” She touched her forehead gently. “I don’t know what came over me. Too much sake, I guess.”

Sasuke said nothing—he felt raw and visible in ways he had not felt in years. Being back in Konoha did this to him. It was part of why he had stayed away for so long.

Sakura sat back down and gestured for Sasuke to do the same. “Please, sit. I’ll catch you up on the village gossip. We don’t have to talk about anything serious.”

Sasuke could not care less about the sordid lives of Konoha’s villagers, but he sat down regardless. It was Sakura’s soft pleading expression, so reminiscent of her face all those years ago when she had begged him to stay in the village, to not leave her, that made him settle back down onto the uncomfortable bar stool. He didn’t love Sakura in the way she had wanted when they were younger, but he did love her in his own way—he could admit that now.

Sasuke struggled to follow along with the conversation as Sakura delved into the lives of strangers. He honestly remembered maybe five of his old classmates, and that was only because he had considered their strength worth noting during the long ago Chunin exams. The Academy had never been a place for making friends—it had always been about getting stronger.

“Wait—Rock Lee?” he asked, finally recognizing someone’s name. “The one who kept screaming about youth and springtime? You two are together?”

Sakura blushed lightly. “He’s changed a lot since we were kids. I mean, he’s still obnoxiously excited about everything most of the time but,” she sighed and pressed her fingers across her lips in an unconscious gesture. “I don’t know, I think it’s sweet.”

“He’s incredible at Taijutsu,” was all Sasuke could think to say, haltingly but sincerely.

Sakura laughed. “I’m glad you approve.”

Sasuke shrugged and looked away, embarrassed. It was surreal to talk to Sakura like this. The Sakura of old had been fawning, hanging on his every word and expression, obsessed with some version of Sasuke that only existed in her imagination—she’d even admitted as much. He hadn’t gotten to see the angry side of her, the mean side, the sarcastic, funny side. He hadn’t, he was coming to realize, known her at all. He felt like, in many ways, he was meeting his teammate for the first time.

Sakura, oblivious to Sasuke’s turmoil, continued. “And Naruto—”

Sasuke’s full attention returned to the conversation, whiplash fast. “What did that idiot do?” he asked.

Sakura rolled her eyes internally.Of course that’s what gets his attention. “Well, I was talking about how he and Hinata tried to make it work for a little while, but—”

“The Hyuga?”

Hinata,” Sakura corrected.

Sasuke’s thoughts roiled like a storm cloud. How perfect would that union be—Naruto, son of the martyred Yondaime, Konoha’s future Hokage, married to the heir of the most powerful clan in Konoha. She even had a kekkei genkai. Their children would be immeasurably powerful.

“They’re together?”

“Were you even listening, Sasuke-kun? I said tried. As in past tense. As in they haven’t been anything but friends for three years.”

Sasuke took a sip of his sake and ignored the traitorous tremor of his heart. It was another thing to be pushed aside and examined later in the darkness of his rooms, not out here in the light with Sakura’s too knowing eyes.

“What happened between them?”

Sakura tilted her head, considering. “Hinata has loved Naruto practically her whole life.” She smiled wryly at Sasuke’s surprised expression. “Yes, even when we were in the Academy and he wore those ridiculous goggles.”

Sasuke frowned. “He didn’t even know she existed.”

Sakura lifted her cup up to Sasuke in a toast. “And therein lies the problem.” She downed her drink and poured another one. “I think Hinata fell into the same trap I did. She mistook projection and fantasy for love, for a real person. Not the she was far off the mark with Naruto—everything she loved about him is real. He’s kind, generous, brave to the point of stupidity, loyal to a fault—but,” she grimaced, struggling for the words. “Those are things that Naruto has, but it isn’t what he is. And Hinata is kind too, and smart and loyal, but she has never been brave like Naruto. And like what I did with you, I think she built up this idea of Naruto in her head because he was everything she wanted to be, and then when they actually got together it just—all fell apart. The fantasy wasn’t enough.”

“It was a bad breakup?”

Sakura shook her head, laughing a little. “No, not at all. It was kind of ridiculous to watch, honestly. You couldn’t find two people less interested in hurting one another. But by staying together, that’s what they were doing.”

“So what happened?” Sasuke asked again, pouring himself another cup of sake. He felt like he would need it.

“Well, after you and Naruto blew each other’s arms off and you abandoned us again,” and oof, Sakura thought to herself, I guess I need to lay off the sake for the rest of the evening, “Hinata was the person who stepped in. I was so busy at the hospital, and Kakashi-sensei and Tsunade-shishou were running the village. But Hinata never left Naruto’s side. She just sat there and held his hand. It was all he needed, and she was the only one who took the time to give it to him.”

Sasuke could picture it. It was story book perfect—the lovesick heiress and the poor heroic orphan coming together in the wake of a tragic war.

“And Naruto, well, he just jumps headfirst into everything, no consideration or thought put into it. She’d told him she loved him. Before—when Pein attacked. And so they tried to make it work. You know how Naruto is, always trying to make everyone happy.”

Sakura remembered the aftermath of the war. Thousands of bodies scattered across the countryside, rubble and chaos everywhere. No one had time for anything but rebuilding, not even for the hero of Konoha who was lying in a hospital bed without an arm and a newly-broken heart. Because that’s what happened when Sasuke left again—he wrecked Naruto afresh.

“I honestly think that Hinata would have been satisfied just to hold his hand for the rest of their lives,” Sakura said, idly twirling her cup in her hand. “But it doesn’t work that way, and they realized that. They both deserve more.”

Sasuke placed his hand slowly, carefully on the counter in front of them. He looked at its contours, its brittle bones, its callouses and imperfections. It wasn’t the hand that had pushed through Naruto’s chest or blown off Naruto’s arm. Naruto had held it not that long ago. He clenched it into a fist.

“Why are you telling me all of the details of these people’s small lives, Sakura?” he asked, voice low and emotionless in the way he knew would cut deepest. People reacted to apathy so much more strongly than they did to anger, he found.

Sakura’s mouth fell open in surprise. “I was just—”

“You seem to be laboring under some misapprehension that I am here to become part of the village again,” Sasuke said, and in moments like these he did not have to strain to hear Orochimaru’s sibilant whisper underlying his words. He had learned cruelty at the knee of a master. “I won’t deny that I have ties here. You, Naruto, even the Hokage. But don’t overestimate my attachments. I’ll be gone before the year is out and the ties I have now are the ties I will leave with. Don’t try to entice me into further entanglements. It won’t work.”

Sakura’s eyes narrowed with true anger. “Entanglements? Ties? You never could say friendship, could you? Never mind love.”

“So what are we talking about here?” Sasuke asked, voice slipping from toneless into anger as well. “Friendship or love?”

“They’re the same, Sasuke-kun,” Sakura said, and the anger had been replaced with something like pity, which was worse. “You never have understood that they’re the same.”

Sasuke stood. He felt like smoke was crawling under his skin, heavy and noxious. “Love. Friendship. Maybe you’re right, and I don’t understand what they really mean. Maybe I never have. But you’re missing an important part Sakura,” he leaned forward, close, close enough so that Sakura could see the Rinnegan. “I don’t want to.”

He pulled back and added a few more crumpled bills to his pile of coins to cover Sakura’s drinks as well. “This was nice,” he said, aware of the incongruity of his words. His heartbeat was pounding in his ears. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

He was only few feet away before Sakura spoke again. “You know what you sound like, when you talk about not needing love or friendship, Sasuke-kun? What you’ve always sounded like?”

He stood, frozen to the spot. He did not turn around.

“You sound desperate.”

Sasuke fled.

***

The next morning was strange.

“It’s time for you to meet the kids,” Naruto announced, slamming open Sasuke’s bedroom door at some unspeakable hour. Sasuke struggled to rise—he’d had much more sake the night before than he’d realized.

“What kids?” he asked, raising his hand to rub against his aching head. “And how did you get in here?”

“The kids from the orphanage!” Naruto answered cheerfully, drawing open the window shades to let the morning light stream in. Sasuke pulled his pillow over his face. “And the ANBU let me in. They love me,” he added conspiratorially. “And they really don’t like you.”

Sasuke pulled the pillow off his face enough to say, “Tell me something I don’t know.”

He felt the bed shift with Naruto’s weight as he perched on its edge. Naruto yanked at the pillow but Sasuke held it steadfast. “Are you trying to suffocate yourself?” he asked.

“Yes, if that means you’ll go away,” Sasuke said, voice muffled.

“If you don’t get up now,” Naruto said, carefully neutral, “I’ll send Sakura-chan up here to get you instead, and she’s much less nice than I am.”

Sasuke kept the pillow firmly pressed against his face for a few moments longer to preserve his dignity, then pulled it away.

“I knew you’d see it my way,” Naruto said, exultant. He grabbed the pillow out of Sasuke’s hands and tossed it aside. “Now c’mon, get dressed, we’re meeting the kids!”

Sasuke sat up. A small victory.

“Can I ask why I’m meeting these children?”

Naruto looked puzzled. “They want to meet you! It’s your house they’re going to be living in!”

Sasuke didn’t bother correcting Naruto that they weren’t going to be living in Sasuke’s house. The particular section the orphanage would initially occupy was in the southeast area of the Uchiha compound, whereas Sasuke’s home had been towards the center. Sasuke understood Naruto’s meaning, however—as the last Uchiha, every house there was his house.

Sasuke sighed. “And I suppose you already told them I was going to meet them?”

“Of course, that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you! So get up, and let’s go!”

Sasuke had no desire to meet another orphan. He knew from personal experience that all orphans were essentially the same—fine, perhaps, on the surface, but with insides like jagged pieces of glass.

Sasuke swung his legs over the edge of the bed, letting his thin blanket fall away from his shoulders and pool at his waist. “I would like to be alone while I change into my clothes, please.”

Naruto’s eyes caught onto Sasuke’s newly exposed chest and wrenched away from it just as quickly. “Oh! Right! I’ll just be—outside.” He began backing away. “Waiting. For you. Okay. You’re getting dressed. I’ll be outside—did I say that already? Alright, see you!” He practically flew out of the room.

Sasuke ignored the low, pleased thrum in his heart.

He stepped outside a few minutes later. Naruto was there, sparring with three of his clones who disappeared in a puff of smoke once Naruto noticed Sasuke.

Sasuke held out his hand in an impatient gesture. His head hurt too much to actually formulate speech.

Naruto grinned, understanding. “Let’s go!”

As they raced across Konoha’s rooftops, Sasuke thought about the non-Ninja villages he’d visited during his travels—how strange the horizon had been with the absence of figures constantly shooting from building to building, streaming across the sky.

Their pace slowed as they approached the Uchiha compound. Naruto came to a stop in front of its heavy gates, left ajar. “I told the kids to wait for us around here so they wouldn’t get lost.” He stood, hands in fists on his hips, reminding Sasuke sharply of Iruka-sensei from their Academy days. “Where could they have gotten off to?”

The sound of a small explosion and the acrid smell of smoke answered his question. Naruto sighed. “What did I tell them about smoke bombs?” he muttered angrily, and ran forward through the compound’s gates. Sasuke followed behind, bemused.

“Smoke bombs, Naruto?”

Naruto kept his eyes forward as he ran but pitched his voice so Sasuke could hear over the sound of their footsteps. “They think setting them off is funny. Don’t ask me why.”

Sasuke frowned—as if Naruto hadn’t set off dozens of smoke bombs when they were kids. He should remember that getting a laugh wasn’t even necessarily the purpose of the bombs. Rather, they were guaranteed attention-getters, and for an orphan like Naruto, like these kids, that was as good as love.

They hurried forward for a few more moments before Naruto came to a stop. In front of him were a rag tag group of about twenty kids. Sasuke took them in. Some of the children were laughing and playing a game of tag, while others sparred or wrestled. A few of the kids were simply sitting and watching, mouths gaping in laughter at the other children’s antics. One boy stood alone. He leaned against the Uchiha compound wall, face impassive as he watched everyone else at play. Sasuke’s eyes fixed on him. He had a haunted, hollow look.

“Okay everyone,” and Sasuke had to stifle the sudden urge to laugh. If only Naruto could see how much he resembled Iruka-sensei right now—it was uncanny. “Gather round.” The children ran forward, faces gleaming and expectant at the return of their beloved sensei. Even Sasuke, in these scant moments of interaction, could see that that was exactly what Naruto was by these children—deeply beloved. Adored, even. The young man with the expressionless face didn’t outwardly react at all to Naruto’s return, but Sasuke noticed the way his body oriented itself towards Naruto, like a plant towards the sun.

“Is this everybody?” Naruto wondered aloud, doing a quick headcount. Once he was satisfied that he wasn’t missing anyone, he clapped his hands together once and grinned. “Okay! Today is a very special day. Does anyone know why?”

Most of the children seemed exasperated by Naruto’s over the top exuberance, but Sasuke could also see their endearment. He knew the feeling well.

One of the kids stepped forward and pointed at Sasuke. “Does it have to do with this guy you brought with you?”

Sasuke had once held the power to reconfigure time. He had singlehandedly defeated one of the Legendary Sannin when he was only sixteen years old. He was the last of the Uchiha clan and user of both the Rinnegan and the eternal Mangekyou Sharingan. He was not a “guy.”

Naruto must have sensed Sasuke’s irritation burning off of his skin. He glanced back at him nervously and then jerked him forward so they were standing side by side. “Hey, show some respect! This isn’t just some random guy.” He placed his hand on Sasuke’s shoulder. “This is Uchiha Sasuke!”

The children stared back blankly.

“My best friend!” Naruto continued, frowning at them. “I’ve told you guys about him like a thousand times!” Still no response. “U-chi-ha,” Naruto enunciated. He pointed at one of the compound’s ubiquitous Uchiha fans and then at the fan on Sasuke’s shirt. “Sound familiar for some reason?”

“Oh!” another kid exclaimed, one who hadn’t spoken before. “Is this the ojisan who’s letting us use his houses?”

Sasuke frowned. “I’m starting to regret that decision.” Ojisan?

“Hey, hey,” Naruto said, shooting his elbow into Sasuke’s ribs none too gently. “They’re just kidding around, Sasuke. They’re,” and he turned to stare at them all, eyes wide in threatening emphasis, “very grateful to you for letting us use your family’s compound. Aren’t we, everyone?”

The kids all nodded and chorused their agreement, albeit reluctantly, with one notable exception. The boy who had drawn Sasuke’s attention when they first arrived remained silent, but now he stared at Sasuke like he was trying to understand something.

“So Sasuke—” Naruto began, only to be cut off as the young man began to speak.

“Uchiha Sasuke?” he asked, stepping forward with his head tilted in consideration. “Hokage-sama told us about you.”

The other children whipped around to look at the boy in shock. Even Naruto looked surprised. Sasuke supposed that this was a rare occurrence.

“And what did the Hokage have to say about me?” Sasuke asked.

“He said you were the only person besides him who knew how to use his Jutsu, Chidori. That you learned it when you were only a genin.”

Sasuke shrugged and wondered at the strange intensity on the boy’s face. It’s not like his mastery of the Chidori was a secret—although it originated with Kakashi, it had quickly become Sasuke’s signature weapon. Naruto and his bandaged right arm were a living testament to its power and Sasuke’s use of it.

A growing awareness was dawning on the other children’s faces. The Chidori they had apparently heard of, and a powerful genin who had wielded it—the stories their parents had whispered to them of Uchiha Sasuke, the famous missing-nin who had abandoned Konoha, were surfacing slowly in their minds.

“What of it?” Sasuke asked. He was beginning to feel like an animal in a zoo, on display for these children and their grasping eyes.

“Could you teach it to me?” the boy asked, and now Sasuke understood. The strange expression on the boy’s face and his solitude, or rather, his deliberate aloneness all made a sort of terrible sense.

The other children chimed in, all climbing over themselves to beg Sasuke to please, please teach them Chidori too, please, please Sasuke-san.

The boy who had asked didn’t seem to even hear them. His eyes were locked on Sasuke in expectation.

“Why don’t you ask the Hokage to teach you that justu?” he said.

The boy’s face screwed up in anger—and Sasuke saw the naturalness of it, knew that for the boy the anger was always there, bubbling under the surface, that it never really went away. Sasuke looked at this boy and all he could see was himself as he had been in the not so distant past. He wondered if Naruto could see it too.

“The Hokage said it was too dangerous,” another boy said, arms pulled tight across his chest with a stubborn tilt to his chin. “He said ‘he would never make that mistake again’ or something like that.” He frowned at the boy across from Sasuke who stared and frowned right back. “You know you’re not allowed to learn it, Subaru-kun.”

“And who’s going to stop me?” the boy, Subaru, asked. “My parents?”

The other children fell silent. Subaru continued staring at the other kid, visibly shaking with fury. The other boy stared back, unflinching, but didn’t answer. They both knew there was nothing to say—of course his parents couldn’t stop him. That was the problem.

Sasuke opened his mouth to speak—he felt compelled to set this right, to say something that would be a salve to this boy who has a walking open wound. I’ve been there, he wanted to scream, shaking the boy. I’ve been there in ways you cannot possibly conceive. You think you understand loss?

However, Naruto beat him to it. “Boys. Enough.” His words were not loud but the boys jerked their attention back to him as if they had been scalded.

Sasuke forgot Naruto could be like this. He was used to Naruto as he was around friends—rambunctious, even childish, always drawing attention from every corner of the room with his enthusiasm and antics. But the Naruto in front of him wasn’t his friend. He was the future leader of the village, the children’s sensei, and possibly the only true parental figure these kids had left.

Even Subaru’s eyes, so defiant only moments before, became downcast at the sound of Naruto’s blatant disapproval. Naruto put a hand on his shoulder and leaned down so he was eye-level with the boy. “Subaru, you’re not in trouble. I’m not upset. But we’re going to talk about this later, okay?” His voice was pitched soft and undemanding, for the boy’s ears only.

Subaru nodded, eyes determinedly avoiding Naruto’s. Naruto smiled and squeezed his shoulder comfortingly before letting go and turning to the other children.

“Great first impression, everyone,” Naruto said, and with anyone else the sarcastic words might be seen as mean or flippant—with Naruto, the children just laughed. “I actually brought Sasuke here today,” and he pulled Sasuke back by his side, letting his arm rest gently across Sasuke’s shoulders, “so you guys could show him all the hard work you’ve put into your houses.”

The mood shifted considerably as Naruto spoke. The kids looked excited and anticipatory. Naruto grinned. “Okay brats, you know the drill. First one there gets free Ichiraku!”

“But sensei!” one of the kids protested. “It’s not fair! You always win!”

Naruto shrugged and grinned. “And the ramen is always delicious!”

“You race against children?” Sasuke asked with a raised eyebrow.

Naruto pointed a finger at the children. “They’re actually very fast! I have to work hard to beat them!”

“So whoever wins this race gets a free bowl of ramen?” Sasuke said. He began to stretch. “Just so I understand all the rules.”

“Wait—what are you doing?” Naruto frowned while the children snickered. “You can’t be in the race!”

“Kids, what are the rules for the race again?”

“Just be the first one there!” one girl said, while another interjected—“And beat Naruto-sensei!”

“So there’s no rule against me joining in, is there?” Naruto scrambled to think of something.

“I mean, not technically but—”

“Scared, Naruto-sensei?” Sasuke asked, and he didn’t miss the way Naruto’s back straightened at his words.

Naruto turned to address the kids. “Well, now everyone has to beat both me and Sasuke-san, so good job everyone!” The kids weren’t too distressed by this—they knew they’d never really had a chance, but now perhaps they’d have the opportunity to watch Naruto-sensei get his butt handed to him by someone for once. “Let’s go on the count of three, okay?”

The kids nodded and everyone tensed for the countdown. Naruto leaned down and stuck his tongue out at Sasuke before speaking. “One. Two. Three—” As soon as the word left Naruto’s mouth both he and Sasuke were practically blurs on the horizon, rushing towards the children’s section of the compound. The kids lagged behind, mouths hanging in shock. Naruto-sensei had never beaten them this badly before.

“He’s been holding out on us!” one of the kids protested as they sped along after Naruto-sensei.

“We never stood a chance to get that ramen,” another added sadly.

By the time most of the kids arrived, Naruto looked downcast and Sasuke quietly pleased. The kids didn’t have to guess who had won the race.

“I still think you cheated,” Naruto hissed, arms crossed and face screwed up in a pout. “You left about a half-second before I finished counting.”

“Want to have another go?” Sasuke asked challengingly. “I’ll even give you a head start. Maybe then you won’t lose quite so badly.”

“Okay you bastard, let’s—” Naruto abruptly fell silent as he noticed the children had finally caught up with them. “Took you all long enough!”

“Who won, Sensei?” one of them asked innocently, eyes gleaming.

“Well, you know,” Naruto said, rubbing the back of his head, “it was such a close race, it’s really hard to tell who won exactly, I mean—what even is winning, really?”

“I did,” Sasuke said flatly, “and winning is winning.” The children cheered at that, much to Naruto’s chagrin.

“Are you going to buy him ramen, Sensei?” another of the kids asked, and they were really starting to grow on Sasuke.

“Uh, I don’t even think Sasuke likes ramen,” Naruto started before the kids began jeering and booing.

“You have to Sensei! It’s the rules!” The children’s voices clamored together, protesting Naruto’s cheap tactics and selective reinforcement of the rules.

“Okay, okay!” Naruto said, sighing and holding up his hands in defeat. “I promise to take Sasuke and buy him ramen after this, since he won the race and those are the rules.”

“With an extra egg!” a kid exclaimed, and then the other children chimed in with their ideas about all of the extra food Naruto should buy on top of the regular ramen. Naruto frowned in consternation.

“How rich do you guys think I am?” he asked, hands on his hips again. He took out his frog wallet, looking decidedly unplump, and shook it. “Naruto-sensei isn’t made of money!”

Just before the kids began to argue back, Sasuke stepped in. “I’m fine with plain ramen,” he said. “And didn’t we come here for a reason?” He looked around the closely connected houses that had been selected for use by the orphanage.  “You’ve done something to the houses?”

“Right!” Naruto said, hitting his palm with his fist in realization.  “Everyone, go to your rooms and I’ll bring Sasuke by so all of you can show him the improvements we’ve made!”

“Yes, Sensei!” the children chorused, and then scattered.

For the first time in what felt like forever, but was really only a matter of minutes, Naruto and Sasuke were alone.

“They’re great, right?” Naruto said, grinning. Sasuke could practically feel the happiness radiating off of him like a small sun.

“They’re something,” Sasuke replied, but Naruto could tell he liked them from the small uptick of his mouth and the warmth in his eyes.

Naruto pointed to four of the houses closest to them. “The group of kids we have staying here are kind of like an experiment. We want to see how well this will work out before we move everyone out here.”

Sasuke nodded. He had noticed that the number of children he’d met that afternoon had been noticeably low compared to the actual number of Konoha orphans. “So what are these improvements you’ve mentioned?”

Naruto laughed and waved his hand. “Well, mostly the kids are excited that they’ve all got their own rooms and can decorate them however they want. They were doubled up when they were back at the Academy,” he added as way of explanation.

Sasuke wasn’t disinterested and it surprised him—the children that he’d met for such a brief time had proven themselves to be funny, quick-witted, and best of all, enjoyed making fun of Naruto as much as Sasuke did. He wanted to see how they lived on Uchiha land.

Sasuke looked at the four buildings, nearly identical. “Where do we start?”

***

Sasuke wished he could remember who had once lived in these houses. Had it been an aunt? A cousin? A family friend? Each room he entered had the feeling of an echo, as if someone had just left it and would soon return. He couldn’t shake the feeling of having been there before, but his memory failed him and the echoes eventually faded with each newly transformed room he went into. The homes had clearly been cleaned and renovated – over a decade’s worth of dust, grime, and memory, wiped away.

The children were a mixture of embarrassed, shy, and deeply pleased to show Sasuke and Naruto the little sanctuaries they made in these old, forgotten homes. Each kid’s room was a lesson in difference, but all shared the same kind of tender care and attention to detail—carelessness was a luxury kids with families got to have. These children knew what it meant to have nothing, so everything was precious and impermanent in their eyes because of it.

Subaru, the boy whose pain had struck such a sympathetic chord in Sasuke, refused to let them in his room. He stood outside of it, back pressed against the door, looking anywhere but at their faces. “There’s nothing good in here,” he muttered, frowning. “Just a bed and my clothes and stuff.”

Naruto smiled understandingly. “You don’t have to let us in if you don’t want to Subaru-kun, but maybe as time goes by you’ll change your mind and let some of the other kids in here at least?”

Sasuke saw what the boy was thinking as clear as day: Fat chance.  Subaru watched them with his strange, baleful eyes from the moment they walked away until they disappeared into the next room. It unsettled Sasuke, but he put it away as a thought to be brought up later.

Sasuke was struck again by how Naruto interacted with each child. He was Naruto the friend for many of them, Naruto the sensei for the ones who needed it, or Naruto the parent for the very young ones—but mostly he was a combination of all three.

Sasuke was generally silent as they visited each room. He was content to listen to the patter between Naruto and each individual child, with Naruto exclaiming over every little thing and the kid explaining the details of their space patiently and thoughtfully, Naruto nodding in approval all the while. Sasuke watched the way Naruto’s face flitted from emotion to emotion as he spoke, nothing hidden or diluted. Naruto was completely and utterly himself. What is that like? Sasuke wondered, and he knew with a sudden vicious clarity that he could learn, the way was there, but he’d lived in darkness and self-denial for so long it felt impossible to take that step. He also knew, like he knew the most concrete things about himself to be true (he is an Uchiha, he is the last of his clan, he murdered the person he loved most) that Naruto would help him learn, if only he’d let him.

His mind shivered away from the thought. It was another one to be examined in the darkness of his rooms, away from the light of other people and their eyes.

As they exited the last child’s room and moved into the afternoon sunlight, Sasuke raised a hand to his stomach and eyed Naruto pointedly. He wanted to be out of this place, quickly, but he felt like he needed to stick around Naruto, at least for a little bit longer. “Are you going to be a man of your word or do I need to go back inside and tell the kids their sensei is a liar?”

“Shut up,” Naruto hissed, pulling Sasuke away as quickly as possible. “You’ll get your free ramen, you asshole. No need for threats!” Naruto paused, head tilted up and face brightening suddenly. “Actually, Teuchi-san said they were trying out a new limited edition flavor this week!” He slapped Sasuke on the shoulder in delight. “Perfect timing!”

“I live to please you,” Sasuke said dryly.

“Hah!” Naruto exclaimed. “I wish!” He missed the way Sasuke’s eyes narrowed at that. “Well, how about we make this interesting, Sasuke? Double or nothing!”

Sasuke stared impassively. He wanted to make Naruto work for it.

“Aw c’mon! You’re not being any fun!”

Sasuke’s expression was like stone.

Naruto stuck out his tongue, for the second time that day. Sasuke knew he shouldn’t find such a childish gesture so endearing, but he did.

“I’ll take your silence as agreement to double or nothing, then! First one to Ichiraku has to buy the other one two orders of ramen!” The corner of Sasuke’s mouth ticked up in a smile and Naruto knew he had him.

“On the count of three again, okay?” He stretched his legs for a moment and held out his arms, preparing to run. “One, two, three—go!”

Sasuke hoped Naruto had enough money in his little frog wallet for three bowls of ramen.  He was going to need it.

Chapter Text

Ramen, Sasuke decided, was okay. He didn’t say this aloud to Naruto, of course. He would rather die before giving him the satisfaction.

Conversation between the two of them had stilled as they entered the restaurant. This was largely because Naruto was consuming massive quantities of ramen like it was his job, but also because Sasuke found himself feeling strangely out of place.

Sitting with Naruto in Ichiraku felt like a moment stolen from another person’s life—or rather, another version of Sasuke’s life, one where he had never left. Naruto had accepted him back so easily, so comfortably, that Sasuke knew it would be equally simple to act as if everything that stood between them no longer existed. Sasuke felt as if he could simply reach out his hand and bridge the distance between them if he wished. Naruto held no grudges, no hard feelings—he only wanted Sasuke near him, and he’d forget the rest.

But to Sasuke, the past and the present were impossibly intertwined. He could not forget the things Konoha had done, never mind the things that Sasuke himself had done, and in the small, dark part of his heart, still wished to do. He was not reformed and he was barely repentant—he had simply come back because, for reasons he still could not name or articulate, he missed Naruto. He could admit that much at least, but only to himself. Even then, however, he struggled with the particularities of his need: what did he want, exactly? Could Naruto give it to him?

Would he allow himself to have it?

Spending time with Naruto in Konoha was temporary, Sasuke reminded himself firmly. Don’t get used to it. Don’t want what you can’t have. The majority of Sasuke’s life was made up by longing and regret—he knew he would survive this, whatever this was turning into, as well.

Naruto placed his now-empty bowl onto the counter and sighed contentedly. He looked at Sasuke out of the corner of his eye, smiling smugly. “So, Sasuke, what did you think of the kids? They’re great, right?”

They reminded him of Naruto. “They were fine.”

“Just fine?” Naruto asked, edging closer to Sasuke as his face screwed up in outrage. “They’re the best!”

“Compared to what?”

“Compared to—to—every other kid in Konoha, basically! My students have been through it all and still came out the other side total badasses.” He bumped his shoulder against Sasuke’s and looked down for a moment. “They’re like us, y’know? We never really had anybody but…we turned out okay.”

Sasuke seriously doubted anyone besides Naruto would describe Sasuke as turning out “okay.”

“I can tell how much they respect you, Naruto-sensei.”

Naruto’s face turned scarlet. “Don’t, you idiot!” he hissed. “I’m no sensei!”

“Then why do they call you that?” Sasuke asked, faking a vague sort of confusion.

“Because—” Naruto sputtered, “they just do! They did it on their own! I didn’t ask them to!”

“Okay,” Sasuke said, letting silence fall before adding, “sensei."

Naruto groaned. “You’re an evil man, Uchiha Sasuke.”

Sasuke’s smile was nearly imperceptible, but it was there. “Glad you’re finally understanding, Uzumaki Naruto.”

Naruto grimaced at him for a long moment before his face turned serious. “Really, Sasuke, I want to hear what you think. These kids are in your home. Things are different there, but it’s still your home.” He lowered his voice. “What are you feeling?”

What am I feeling? Sasuke wondered. He felt the perpetual wound of the Uchiha massacre pulse inside of him, but not quite so sharply as it always had. It had felt good to see people there, to see the compound turn from a grave—cold, lifeless, empty—back into a place filled with people, happiness, life.

“I like them,” he said softly. “They’re…funny. They remind me of you,” he admitted, surprising himself.

Naruto’s face was unreadable. “One of them reminds me a lot of you, actually.”

Sasuke nodded. “Subaru.”

Naruto sighed. “So you saw it, too.”

Sasuke’s fist tightened under the table. “How could I miss it?”

“His family was killed during the war. He doesn’t even know who did it, or how it happened—he just…woke up and everyone was dead.” Naruto took a sip of his water and ran a tired hand across his eyes. “He wants to get revenge on everyone. Everything. He’s so full of hate, I don’t know what to do with him. I don’t want him to—”

“Turn out like me?”

“No!” Naruto said, reaching forward to grab Sasuke’s hand between both of his, grip and eyes insistent. “He would be so lucky to turn out like you, Sasuke. I just don’t want him to suffer like you did. Hate—” and here he struggled for words for a moment. “It doesn’t leave room for anything else. Friendships or—or love. I don’t want that for him. I don’t want him to close himself off to life just because his family isn’t here to live it with him.”

“Is that what you think I did?”

Naruto dropped Sasuke’s hand and turned his face away. “I actually wasn’t talking about you but—do you really want to have that conversation in Ichiraku?”

Sasuke opened his mouth – to say what, he had no idea – before a loud voice interrupted.

“Naruto! How’d I know we’d find you in here?”

Three shinobi, two of whom Sasuke only vaguely recoginzed, entered through the flaps of Ichiraku. The one who had called out was clearly an Inuzuka—the large dog that followed him into the restaurant gave his identity away immediately. The second ninja was an Aburame. Sasuke could sense his strange, unsettling chakra— his mind flinched away from it as soon as he perceived it. The last shinobi that entered was one Sasuke had no trouble naming—Hinata Hyuga. She was the kunoichi that had confessed to Naruto during the Pein attack, the one who had nearly died to save him, the one who had held his hand after Sasuke’s most recent abandonment. She blushed prettily as she stepped into the restaurant, but there was no hesitation in her voice as she called out a greeting to Naruto.

“Kiba! Shino! Hinata! When did you guys get back?” Naruto said, grinning in that absurdly ecstatic way he did when he spoke with anyone he was even vaguely familiar with.

“We just got done reporting to the Rokudaime,” Kiba said, but his eyes weren’t on Naruto. They were shifting dramatically between Naruto and Sasuke in what could only be described as complete and total confusion.

Naruto, noticing this, clapped Sasuke on the shoulder and let his hand linger there comfortably. It took everything in Sasuke not to shrug it off. He did not look at the Hyuga. “Look who came back!”

Shino and Hinata’s expressions reflected Kiba’s. “Well,” Naruto added hastily, his hand sliding off Sasuke’s shoulder to wave in front of his face, “not back back. He’s just here for a little while to help with the orphanage.”

Shino was the first to speak. “Welcome home, Sasuke-kun.”

Sasuke fought the urge to disparage his choice of phrase—this village had not been home to him for many years—but he let the moment go by. Living in Konoha again, however temporarily, was teaching Sasuke the importance of choosing his battles.

“Thank you,” he responded coolly.

Kiba said nothing while Hinata echoed Shino’s greeting. Sasuke nodded in acknowledgement and then there was silence.

Naruto, in typical Naruto fashion, was the one to fill it. “How did the mission go?” he asked, shifting his body toward them intently, as if he didn’t want to miss a single word. “I haven’t been on one in months,” he said unhappily. “Building the orphanage is fun and all but I just want to fight something sometimes, y’know?”

Kiba grinned. “Getting soft, Uzumaki?”

“It feels like it,” Naruto pouted. “But c’mon, the mission. How did it go?”

“As much as we would like to regale you with stories of our various deeds and adventures, Naruto-kun, we are actually under orders from the Hokage. He’s instructed us to request your presence in his office as soon as possible,” Shino said.

Naruto glanced regretfully at Sasuke, then stood up. “Teuchi-san!” he called out. “How much do I owe you?” His words had the air of ritual.

“Your money’s no good here Naruto-kun, you know that,” Teuchi-san said, frowning as he dried a glass. He held it up to the light, looking for missed spots. He didn’t spare Naruto a glance.

Naruto leaned close to Sasuke’s ear. “I haven’t paid for a meal here in years. Perks of being the hero of Konoha,” he added, smiling and waggling his eyebrows annoyingly. Sasuke knew it wasn’t as simple as that—Naruto was not one to take needless charity, even in the name of heroism. Sasuke suspected it was a gesture that Teuchi-san had insisted on. In Sasuke’s opinion, giving free ramen to Naruto was only the beginning of the ways in which Konoha should repay Naruto for everything he’d done for them—but it was a good start.

Naruto’s smile fell away abruptly and his eyes looked strangely grave. “We can finish our conversation later, okay? I want to talk about this.” He seemed to hesitate over his next words before shoving them out in a rush. “Don’t shut me out.” Then he was leaning back, waving his goodbyes to Shino, Kiba, and Hinata, and hurrying towards the office of the Hokage.

Sasuke, bill apparently taken care of, stood as well.

“Sasuke, a word?” Kiba asked, and Sasuke did not think he was imagining the aggressive turn of his voice.

Sasuke stood there expectantly.

“Is what he said true?” Kiba asked, Shino and Hinata standing by his side. Shino’s face was expressionless while Hinata merely looked worried. However, Sasuke sensed an identical resolve between the three of them. Kiba clearly spoke for the group.

“Which part?” Sasuke asked, making his voice as inflectionless, and therefore as annoying, as possible.

“You’re just here temporarily,” Kiba said slowly.

“Why is that any of your concern?”

Kiba’s dog began to growl. “Okay then. I’ll cut to the chase. We barely know you, but we know Naruto, and we know you’re not good for him. Every time he starts to be okay, you show up out of nowhere like clockwork to fuck everything up. Just how many times have you tried to kill him exactly?”

“That’s between me and Naruto,” Sasuke said, his voice sharp— so much for apathy.

“Have you even thought about what’s going to happen when you leave again? Because that’s what you always do, isn’t it? You make him think you’re going to be friends again, that it’ll be just like it was when you were Team Seven, and then you leave. Is this some kind of game to you?”

Sasuke felt sick. He had no words to defend himself. He had never been confronted so directly about his actions, even by Sakura. Kiba was wrong, of course—he made it sound like Sasuke’s decisions to leave were arbitrary or meaningless, which was far from the truth. But, Sasuke couldn’t help but wonder, is this how Naruto felt—?

“If you were really his friend,” Kiba continued, chest heaving now with anger, “you would do what you always do and leave now, before he really gets his hopes up. For whatever reason, he cares about you. If you cared about him at all, you wouldn’t even be here.”

Hinata placed her hand on Kiba’s shoulder. “Kiba-kun.”

He shrugged it off. “I’m only saying what we’re all thinking,” he said, looking between Shino and Hinata as if daring them to disagree. “Remember how he was when this asshole left him in the hospital? You’re a cold-blooded son of a bitch,” he added, turning back to Sasuke with something like real hate directed in his eyes.

Hinata put her hand back on Kiba’s shoulder and her fathomless Hyuga stare met Sasuke’s. “All Kiba-kun is trying to say is that we don’t want to see Naruto-kun hurt again. We know that you do care about Naruto-kun,” Kiba scoffed loudly at that, “but whether or not you mean to, you’ve been responsible for much of his unhappiness.”

“I’ve always made my feelings on the Leaf absolutely clear,” Sasuke said, anger opening his mouth and letting his words pour out. Who did these people, these interlopers, think that they were to lecture him on his relationship with Naruto? “If Naruto misunderstood, then that’s Naruto’s responsibility. And he’s a big boy—you don’t need to try and scare me away from him as if he’s a child who can’t be trusted to make his own decisions.”

“About you? He hasn’t made a good decision since he met you,” Kiba said, interrupting viciously. “We tried to convince him to kill you once. He wouldn’t do it. See? Bad decisions.”

“Is that what this is, Inuzuka? Trying to right a wrong?” Sasuke tilted his head so the Rinnegan was visible. His Sharingan swirled lazily in his other eye. It was a senseless show of power—Sasuke could defeat Kiba blindfolded and with his one arm tied behind his back.

Hinata stepped in front of Kiba. “We just want what’s best for Naruto-kun,” she said firmly.

Sasuke’s Sharingan faded as he considered her. “And you don’t think that’s me.”

“If you’re just going to leave again, then no,” Hinata said, shaking her head sadly. “Naruto-kun deserves more than that.”

Her words echoed Sakura’s from the night before. Sakura had told him that she believed Naruto and Hinata had deserved more than the other was able to give, and here were those words again. What, Sasuke wondered, did Naruto deserve? Who could give it to him?

“And what do you think is best for him?” he asked out loud, not truly knowing the answer himself but wanting to twist the knife, wanting it to hurt. “You?”

Hinata didn’t even flinch. “I used to think so,” she acknowledged. “I wanted it to be me very badly. But it’s impossible to make someone love you that’s already in love with someone else.”

Sasuke felt his body go cold.

“Sasuke-kun,” Shino cut in. His bugs, Sasuke saw, were hovering around him in a vague cloud. “All we ask is that you take Naruto-kun’s feelings into consideration as you make decisions regarding your presence in the village. He places a high value on your friendship, one which you would do well to reciprocate.”

Sasuke said nothing. Their words were, in the end, nothing new to him—he’d had essentially identical conversations with himself over and over the past four years and he’d always come to the same conclusion: I don’t care, I want to see him, even if it hurts. He’d fought the impulse as long as he could. He wondered how long he would last once he left again. Another four years?

Kiba practically growled with frustration. “Do you see?” he said, pointing angrily at Sasuke. “He’s got nothing to say because he knows it’s true. He—”

“That’s enough, Kiba-kun,” Hinata said softly. Her eyes had never left Sasuke’s face. Sasuke felt a stab of dread at what she’d probably seen. “He understands.”

Kiba frowned, but allowed himself to be reluctantly steered out of the restaurant by his teammates. Only Hinata spared him a backwards glance, and a very small smile.

“For what it’s worth,” another voice began, and Sasuke turned to find Teuchi-san wiping down the counter slowly while water boiled behind him. Sasuke couldn’t believe he was about to get lectured by the ramen stand owner, of all people. Teuchi-san stopped wiping and looked Sasuke right in the eyes. “I haven’t seen him this happy in years,” he said, and returned to wiping the counter, humming tunelessly under his breath.

************************

Kakashi was standing at the window, hands clasped behind his back, when Naruto burst unceremoniously into the office of the Hokage. He didn’t turn around—only one person would open the door that way.

“How did it go?”

“How did what go?” Naruto wondered for a panicked moment if there was a mission assignment he had forgotten in his preoccupation with Sasuke.

“Sasuke’s visit to the orphanage. Didn’t you take him there today?”

“Oh! Well, actually it went great! Sasuke and the kids really hit it off. I think that he’s happy with what we’ve done with the place so far, but we, um, haven’t really had time to talk about it yet.” Naruto’s voice trailed off uncertainly.

Kakashi turned and placed his palms against the worn wood of the Hokage’s desk. He rubbed it absently. “You’re aware Sasuke is being monitored at all times by ANBU,” he said flatly.

Naruto rolled his eyes and placed his fists on his hips. “I may not be smart but I’m not that dumb.”

Kakashi smiled for a moment before his face turned serious—even resigned. “Then you understand that a few hours ago I was made aware that Sasuke had reentered the Uchiha compound.”

Naruto’s chest prickled with irritation. He felt as if they were having two separate conversations. “Why is ANBU bothering to tell you about someone visiting their own property?”

“Technically,” Kakashi said, and his words took on an air of repetition, “the portion he visited is no longer his property.”

Naruto narrowed his eyes. “Kakashi-sensei, what’s all this about? ‘No longer his property’?”

Kakashi sat down, moving with a sudden weariness that belied his youth. “The Council,” he said, as if that explained everything—and for Naruto, it did.

His lips curled down in a frown. “What do those old bastards want this time, huh? They’re lucky Sasuke didn’t put their heads on a stick and now they’re deciding to get pissed over property rights?”

Kakashi shook his head. “That’s what they’re pinning their complaint on, but it’s more than that. They claim that Sasuke is a bad influence.”

“A bad influence,” Naruto repeated.

Kakashi nodded.

“A bad influence on who?”

Kakashi raised his hand and began to count off with his fingers. “You. Me. Sakura. The children in the orphanage. The entire village. Who knows. The longer he stays here the unhappier they become.”

Naruto felt his eyes shift red. “Let them be unhappy, then. Sasuke’s staying as long as he wants to stay.”

“That, right there,” Kakashi said, pointing at Naruto, “is exactly what they’re afraid of. When was the last time you lost control enough that the Kyuubi’s chakra came through when you didn’t intend it to?”

Naruto slammed his fist on the Hokage’s desk and it buckled under the pressure. He continued as if Kakashi had not spoken. “Where was the council during the war? I forgot, did they help kill Madara freaking Uchiha or that freaky space princess? Or, wait, was that Sasuke?”

“Naruto—”

“Was it Sasuke who ordered the annihilation of an entire clan? Hundreds of men, women, and children murdered because of something they might do?”

“Naruto.”

“When will it be enough, huh?” Naruto asked, and his canines began to peak sharply behind his grimacing lips. “When will Sasuke have given enough? When he’s dead? Then we can just, I don’t know, conveniently forget the Uchihas ever existed?”

“Naruto,” Kakashi said again, rising from his seat. He held out an imploring hand. “I’m not your enemy here—I agree with you completely. It’s just that the council—”

“The council, the council, the council,” Naruto repeated, disdain dripping from every syllable. “They’re the ones who are a bad influence. All of the blood on their hands, everything Sasuke’s done, has been because of what they made happen. And now they have the—the nerve to question Sasuke coming back to Konoha. They didn’t see Sasuke with those kids today. He’s trying, okay, he’s trying so hard to be here, to be good, but they don’t care. They don’t want him here because he’s a reminder of what they did! It’s so easy to use Sasuke to justify murdering his clan when he’s not here—they can make him into the boogeyman, a monster, a demon, whatever they want him to be! They can point at him and say look! We did what we had to do! But when he’s here, their bullshit falls apart and they hate it.” Tears began to stream down Naruto’s face, unnoticed.

Kakashi was there in a moment, hands gently resting on Naruto’s heaving shoulders. “He’s one of the best people I know,” Naruto said pleadingly. “He’s just been through so much. He never stood a chance.”

Kakashi watched as Naruto’s teeth retracted and his eyes faded back to blue. “I know.” He gave Naruto’s shoulders a gentle shake. “And I’m trying to protect him from anything else happening to him, I swear to you.”

Naruto closed his eyes for a moment before nodding and exhaling sharply. He slapped his cheeks with sudden vigor and when he opened his eyes they were filled with a single-minded focus that Kakashi rarely saw from Naruto. “Okay! So what’s the game plan with the old farts going to be, then?”

“Let me handle that,” Kakashi said, hands falling away from his shoulders as he moved back behind his desk. His tone left no room for disagreement. “One of the unfortunate side effects of becoming Hokage is that I’ve now become fluent in politics, which is the only language those,” and Naruto knew he was smiling behind the mask, “old farts speak.”

“Why aren’t those bastards locked up?” Naruto muttered, crossing his arms across his chest and frowning.

Kakashi sighed. He did that much more frequently since he had become Hokage. “A lot has changed since the Sandaime was in power, Naruto. Danzo’s gone, the Foundation is gone—all of the old power structures are crumbling. But there are those,” his gaze slid out the window towards the Hokage monument, “who cling to the ways of the past.” He gestured helplessly around his office. “The Hokage isn’t meant to be a dictator, nor should they be. But—the Council. They only understand power one way and other people, too many people, agree with them. As much as I’d like to, I’m not able to just lock them away. Not yet, at least.”

“Why don’t we talk to them, change their minds. I know if they just spent a little time with Sasuke, they would see he’s no danger to Konoha—”

“You said it yourself. They need Sasuke to keep being a monster. They don’t want to talk to him, or to you.”

“So if it’s so impossible for me to fix anything, why did you call me in here in the first place?” Naruto asked, his frustration rising once more.

“I wanted you to know what was happening. I’ll say it plainly: the Council is maneuvering against Sasuke. They don’t want him here, and they’re going to do everything in their power to make sure he leaves. And that little display from earlier?” He gestured to Naruto’s eyes and mouth. “That’s just fuel for their fire.”

Naruto rolled his eyes. “Kurama and I are buds now. I’m not ever going to lose control—”

I know that, and they know that, but Konoha? The hatred towards the Kyuubi runs deep. People are afraid of it, even if you did manage to tame him. And when people are afraid, they’re irrational. The Council knows this. They will use you to take Sasuke out, do not doubt that for a moment.”

“So, you’re saying I’m being watched too?”

“Undoubtedly. They’ll be looking for any angle they can use to manipulate the rest of the village into getting rid of Sasuke. They know that they can’t be open about it—he does have Konoha’s hero,” Naruto grimaced at that, “and the Hokage on his side, after all. But they’re going to fight dirty, and if that means using you against him as the Jinchuriki, they’ll do it in a heartbeat.”

“So I need to be on my best behavior.”

“Sasuke, too,” Kakashi added. He saw Naruto’s shoulders tighten with resolve and he was struck yet again with how much Naruto resembled his father. It made his heart quake.

“I know Sasuke is probably leaving of his own accord sometime soon anyway,” Kakashi continued, “but while he wants to be here, he’s here, and the Council can come to terms with that, or they can deal with me.”

Naruto smiled, and it was more like a baring of teeth. He rubbed his fist into his palm. “I’m thinking it’s going to be option B on that one, Sensei.”

Kakashi held up his hand and let a little spark of lightning shoot forth. “I look forward to it.”

*********************

Naruto found him later, because of course he did.

“I can kind of sense, like, everyone’s chakra now,” Naruto offered by way of explanation and apology.

Sasuke was lying flat on his back on top of the Hokage monument—on the Nidaime’s head, to be specific. He was the one Sasuke had liked best—or rather, the one whose anger most reflected Sasuke’s own. He’d appreciated that, even if it had been directed at him.

Naruto lay down next to him and joined him in staring up at the starry night sky. They didn’t speak for a long time.

Naruto was the one to break the silence, because of course he was.

“Y’know, I used to come up here,” he said, voice uncharacteristically hushed. He turned onto his side and toyed with a small scrubby plant growing through the monument’s minute cracks. “I didn’t just vandalize this thing back in the day. I would come up here and take naps or come up here and read or just, I don’t know, be by myself where everyone wasn’t staring at me or whispering about me. It was nice.”

“I know.”

Naruto shoved himself up into a sitting position and stared at Sasuke, slack-jawed in surprise. “You knew?”

Sasuke, still prone, just shrugged and kept his gaze on the sky. “I watched you a lot back then. I wondered where you would disappear to, so one day I followed you here. Big secret— you’d just come up here and lay around.”

“You watched me back then?” Naruto repeated. “I didn’t, um – I didn’t think anyone paid me any attention back then.”

Sasuke felt abruptly naked. He sat up as well, casual posture forgotten. “You watched me too, didn’t you?” he demanded. He didn’t know why that part was important, but it was.

“Well yeah,” Naruto admitted (So easily, Sasuke thought, it was always so easy for him to say these things). “I noticed you right away at the academy. You were,” he looked away, voice becoming strained, “somebody I thought was like me. I mean, I know you weren’t, not really,” he added hastily, hands up to forestall Sasuke’s argument. “But it just felt like you were. Back then,” he finished softly.

Sasuke said nothing. He lay back down. He thought about Naruto’s words, the terrible sound of his voice. He thought about an empty home, with blood stains on the floor no one ever bothered to clean up.

“We were the same,” he said. He’d taken so long to speak that Naruto had feared the worst, but instead—“In the ways that matter, I mean. We were the same.”

“Oh,” Naruto said, easing himself back down onto the ground, closer this time. “That’s, well, I don’t want to say good exactly but, it’s—”

“Naruto.”

“Yes?”

“We don’t have to talk.”

The silence enveloped them as they gazed up at the sky. A rough, tentative hand found its way to Sasuke’s, intertwining their fingers slowly, giving Sasuke every chance to pull away.

He didn’t.

“Sasuke—” Naruto said, whispering now.

“That counts as talking, dobe. Just because your voice is softer, doesn’t mean you’re not talking.”

Naruto didn’t rise to the bait.

“Why do you let me do this?” Naruto’s hand squeezed Sasuke’s to punctuate his question. “If I tried to do this with somebody like Kiba, he’d punch me in the face.”

Sasuke swallowed roughly. “Have you tried to do this with Kiba?” he asked, hating himself but wanting to know.

Naruto snickered. “Hold hands? With Kiba?” His voice was incredulous. “He’s so into Hinata it’s painful.” He thought about it for another moment. “Or really, he’s into any girl that pays attention to him, and that’s pretty painful, too.”

Naruto shook their clasped hands. “This is pretty Sasuke-exclusive,” he said, and Sasuke could hear the shyness in his voice. The smile.

Words flitted quickly through Sasuke’s mind. He could answer Naruto’s question. The dangerous possibility hung in the air— but Sasuke knew it would shift something integral between them. Something permanent.

You’re not good for him Kiba had told him earlier that day, and Sasuke knew it was true. He knew that reaching out to him, opening his mouth and letting the words spill out like so much blood, would do more harm than good.

But—temporarily, they could be happy. Temporarily, he could be Naruto’s, and Naruto could be his. But any longer than that, and Sasuke was a ghost. He would leave, like Kiba knew he would, and Naruto would be back at the beginning, where Sasuke always left him—heart in hand with nothing to show for it.

Coming back to Konoha had been a mistake, he knew. But seeing Naruto at that bar in Cloud—he just—hadn’t been able to help himself. Naruto had been so angry, but so terribly familiar—so vibrant and alive. Sasuke had known the moment Naruto had opened his mouth he would do anything he asked. He had no other choice.

Sasuke thought, just this once, he could delay the inevitable. Just this once, he could enjoy the rise and forget about the fall. The pain would come, as it always did—but perhaps this time he could earn it.

“I used to sleep outside like this,” Sasuke said. “While I was gone.”

Naruto’s eyes widened with shock. Sasuke had never spoken about what he done during his time away from the village.

“I would lie on the ground and I would picture your face,” he continued. “Not just you—I would think about my parents. Itachi. Sakura. Kakashi-sensei. But mostly,” he swallowed roughly, “I thought about you.”

“Sasuke—”

“That’s why,” Sasuke said. “You asked why I sit there and let you hold my hand. That’s it.” He stared furiously up at the sky. He couldn’t look at Naruto.

He felt Naruto’s hand in his loosen and fall away. He felt Naruto sit up next to him.

“Sasuke.”

Sasuke turned, fearing the worst, cursing himself for showing too much, and then Naruto was there. His lips were hot and insistent against Sasuke’s, the feeling far removed from the simple comfort of holding hands.

They broke apart.

“Is this okay?” Naruto asked, his forehead resting against Sasuke. “I’ve, um, I’ve wanted this for—”

“Shut up.”

Sasuke pulled Naruto as close as possible, lining their bodies up as he licked across the seam of Naruto’s mouth. His hand was furious, frantic, pulling at Naruto’s hair, his shirt, any inch of skin that it came across. Naruto responded in kind—his bandaged hand cradled the back of Sasuke’s head firmly while the other trailed down Sasuke’s back to grasp firmly at the curve of his ass.

“Shouldn’t we—” Naruto breathed out between kisses, “go someplace else? Not outside? On a mountain?”

Sasuke pressed a lingering kiss against Naruto’s lips, then cheek, then chin. He couldn’t get enough. He was doing this with Naruto. His whole body shook with the revelation but he managed to move away enough that they were both able to stand.

Naruto reached out a hand and ran it through Sasuke’s hair, pulling it back so he could see his eyes. As he lowered his hand back to his side he caught Sasuke’s and brought it up to his mouth, kissing it softly.

“Is this—are we—” he began, but Sasuke shook his head.

“Talking has never been our strong suit,” he said. “I know what I want. And I know what you want.” His eyes slid across Naruto’s body pointedly. “Take me back to your apartment.”

Naruto’s eyes glanced to Sasuke’s lips and then back up. He frowned. “We will need to talk about this eventually, Sasuke.”

Sasuke nodded. He knew the conversation that would follow, about what they were, what they owed each other, would be difficult. Disappointing, even. But for now, they had this and he wanted to have it as much as he could.

Sasuke tugged at Naruto’s hand clenched around his. “Let’s go,” he said, and they did.

Chapter Text

Sasuke had been with other people before. His years on the road after the end of the war were isolated, but he’d had his moments. As much as other people bothered him, some people were – nice. Nice in the sense, of course, that they hadn’t annoyed him too terribly, and their understanding of “no strings attached” lined up perfectly with Sasuke’s burgeoning desires.

He would find someone who smiled at him in a certain way, the uptick of their lips or the narrowing of their eyes signaling their desire, and that would be it. Afterwards, Sasuke wondered at the emotionality attached to the act, the way people would obsess over its meaning and their own feelings. That concept was completely foreign to him. The people he slept with were simply the people he slept with— they existed in a mutually pleasurable relationship that ended the second the sex did. It was exactly what he wanted.

His only hard rule was to stay away from other shinobi. The Rinnegan rendered him too visible—the second someone noticed it, he could see the inevitable connection. Rinnegan meant Uchiha Sasuke. For many, that only increased their desire to sleep with him—the idea of having the famous missing-nin as some kind of exploit, some kind of story they could tell their friends, was attractive to a disappointingly large number of ninja. However, they were only persistent until they remembered the other half of Uchiha Sasuke’s legend: the eternal Mangekyou Sharingan, and what it meant as well: Amaterasu.

So, with all of Sasuke’s experience, the way he felt with Naruto was…unexpected. Sasuke had no framework for it. He had chased pleasure with so many others, but he’d never had someone whisper his name like Naruto did, with such reverence. He could feel Naruto smiling, smiling, smiling as he kissed Sasuke over and over, his mouth lingering across Sasuke’s body like it was a precious thing.

Sasuke rarely gave thought to his missing limb—hardly any of his skills as a shinobi were dependent on his ability to weave two-handed signs—but right now, confronted with so much of Naruto, he regretted not sticking around for the replacement arm like Naruto had. There was just so much to touch.

Naruto’s hips bucked against Sasuke’s as he scrambled to find some semblance of self-control. His mouth skimmed along a shoulder, a nipple, the sharp line of Sasuke’s jaw—he wanted to be everywhere, touch everywhere, all at once. He wanted to crawl inside Sasuke’s skin and stay there. His hips rolled against Sasuke’s and he swallowed Sasuke’s gasp with his mouth, pouring a lifetime’s worth of feeling into every press of flesh. When you leave me again, he thought furiously, his brain in a frenzy, you’ll at least remember this. I’ll make you remember this.

Sasuke’s hand swept across Naruto’s back, so smooth and unmarked. The Kyuubi had removed every trace of violence Sasuke had visited on it, and any mark Sasuke left tonight would be gone in the morning. Sasuke imagined that the fox found the idea of letting an Uchiha strike any form of claim, even a temporary one, intolerable.

The sound of Naruto’s ragged breath filled the room. “Sasuke—” he whispered, and his voice was low and harsh. Strained. “Can I—” His hips stuttered against Sasuke’s again, and he choked back a groan. “Just my hand?”

Sasuke, far from any sort of virgin, had somehow never felt more exposed than with Naruto lying on top of him fully clothed, asking if he could give him a hand job.

“Don’t ask, idiot. Just do it.”

Naruto’s grin turned feral as he made quick work of Sasuke’s jeans and his own. By the time both pairs of pants hit the floor, however, reality seemed to come crashing back into Naruto’s microscopic brain. He fell back on his heels, panting over Sasuke’s prone form, frowning. Are we really about to—?

Sasuke sighed, sitting up as well. Naruto wouldn’t look him in the eye so Sasuke punched him on the shoulder. Lightly.

“Ow, you asshole! That hurt.”

“If you’re going to keep being annoying about this, you’ll get worse,” Sasuke said, impressed at how unaffected he sounded with his dick bobbing inside his underwear.

“I’m not being annoying!” Naruto protested. “This is just a really huge step and I want to make sure—”

“I’m going to touch your cock,” Sasuke said, interrupting smoothly as Naruto sputtered in shock. “This would actually be a lot easier if you helped out.” Naruto seemed to have short-circuited the moment Sasuke said ‘cock.’ “You have two hands,” Sasuke added helpfully.

“Um,” Naruto said, hand hovering awkwardly. “Can you—I don’t know what to do,” he admitted.

Oh.

“With a guy, I mean,” Naruto added.

Oh.

Of course someone like Naruto, someone who insisted on connections and expressed feelings as easily as he breathed, would have trouble with one-night stands.

Sasuke lifted his hips as he pulled off his underwear. He slid his hand across Naruto’s thigh to pull at Naruto’s until he also got the message, stripping out of them so quickly it almost seemed like a jutsu.

“Come here,” he said, lying back down, hoping against hope that Naruto’s sheets were at least slightly cleaner than the rest of his apartment. “Get on top of me.”

Naruto crawled between the V of Sasuke’s sprawled out legs. Their cocks brushed against each other and he inhaled sharply.

“Wait—” Sasuke said, “do you have—?”

Naruto nodded and, with great difficultly, extracted himself to fumble around in one of the many boxes stacked haphazardly across his home. When he returned, bottle in hand, Sasuke wasted no time in hooking his ankles around his back and yanking him forward.

“Open the lube,” he said, voice soft. Naruto nodded, breathing harshly as he spread a generous dollop across his hand, spilling some down onto Sasuke’s thigh and onto the sheets. Naruto looked back up at him, eyes wide but not in the least bit shy.

“Just—” Sasuke grabbed Naruto’s hand and placed it between them. “Touch me.”

Naruto’s hand encircled Sasuke’s cock and began pumping, slowly. His forehead rested against Sasuke’s shoulder where he panted wetly, alternating between marking him with small bites and breathing nonsense words out between stifled groans. His dick dragged against the spot on Sasuke where thigh met stomach, hot like a brand.

Sasuke’s hand clutched Naruto’s hair, pulling in encouragement as Naruto began to work him faster. He guessed Naruto had finally gotten over the awkward positioning of touching someone else’s cock for the first time because—

“Wait, wait,” he sighed, slapping his hand against Naruto’s back. Naruto raised his head, eyes glazed. “I don’t want to come like this.”

Naruto swallowed audibly.

“Okay. So—how?”

Sasuke smiled and Naruto felt something inside of him ache violently with longing, sharp and sudden like a branch breaking. He pushed it away, choosing to focus on Sasuke here, now.

Sasuke unhooked his ankles and flipped them over in one smooth motion. He lifted himself easily on one arm as he wedged his way between Naruto’s legs, a complete mirror image of their previous position.

“You’re going to,” Sasuke said, flicking his tongue against Naruto’s nipple, “enjoy this.”

“What—” Naruto began, before his words collapsed into moans. Sasuke, still leveraging himself on one arm, was thrusting messily against Naruto’s cock, the lube from earlier and precum easing his way.

Naruto’s hands clawed into the sheets, hips rocking up to meet Sasuke’s. He slowly eased his hands up into Sasuke’s hair, pulling him down for a brutal kiss that he punctuated with a harsh thrust of his hips.

“You’re learning quickly,” Sasuke said before licking a stripe down Naruto’s neck. “Think you can make us both come?”

Naruto gasped at a particularly exquisite roll of Sasuke’s cock against his, and then nodded. He reached out blindly, feeling around for the bottle of lube before pouring more between them. His hand grasped as much of his cock and Sasuke’s as it could while Sasuke continued to rock forward into the tunnel of Naruto’s hand.

All it took was a few more thrusts before Naruto came, shaking and open-mouthed. Sasuke followed soon after, shuddering apart into Naruto’s tight grip that still encircled him before collapsing bonelessly onto Naruto’s chest.

They lay there together for a long while, Naruto weaving his fingers into Sasuke’s hair, gently pulling it back and then letting it fall, the gesture repetitive and soothing. Sasuke felt something settle inside of his chest as an unspoken, unrealized fear faded before it could even grip him: this hadn’t ruined anything between them—

“Sasuke, are we going to—”

And he’d like to keep it that way.

Without lifting his head, he placed a palm against Naruto’s mouth, who promptly licked it. “That was disgusting,” Sasuke said flatly, but he could feel Naruto smile beneath his hand. “However, my point,” and he pushed Naruto’s head side to side with his hand, “remains.”

Naruto pulled the hand away but kept it clasped between his own. “Which is?”

Sasuke, sighing, looked up. “Tonight was good.”

Naruto nodded fervently. “It was! Which is why I want to—”

“Let me finish.”

Naruto’s mouth snapped shut.

“I have a feeling this is going to be a conversation we should, I don’t know, both be fully clothed for?” Sasuke said, eyes darting pointedly to the messy mixture of come and lube that still coated parts of their thighs and stomachs. Naruto bit his lip, flushing.

“I’m not saying never,” Sasuke continued, intent. “I’m only saying not tonight.”

The silence stretched to the point where Sasuke was about to speak again, to say anything that would take that terrible blank look off of Naruto’s face, before Naruto nodded.

“I understand.”

That had been suspiciously easy.

“That was suspiciously easy,” Sasuke said.

Naruto clasped Sasuke tighter to his chest, pulling Sasuke upward so that his head rested against Naruto’s shoulder and Naruto’s face was no longer visible.

“I’m okay with waiting until later,” he finally said. “I’m great at waiting. Waiting is practically my nindo at this point.”

Sasuke wanted to argue, but then realized how ridiculous that was. He was the one who had suggested that they waited until the next day to discuss anything—but this, like everything else with Naruto, had somehow become turned around.

He sighed and Naruto began laughing. “Oh, am I boring you?” he teased. “Because I can think of some things we could do to fix that.”

Sasuke, never one to back down from a challenge, especially one from Naruto, let his hand slide idly across Naruto’s chest before going lower, lower—

“I wonder if the Kyuubi’s chakra effects your refractory period,” Sasuke mused out loud.

Naruto laughed again. “We’ve got all night to find out.”

*****************************

The morning came and Naruto was gone.

“I have a lot of stuff to do at the orphanage,” the clone that Naruto left behind informed Sasuke helpfully.

Sasuke groaned and covered his face with a pillow. This was starting to become a habit.

“Real me also wanted to let you know that you can join him there once you’re up and ready.” The clone was leaning against the one large window in Naruto’s apartment, light streaming in and framing him as he smirked.

“What are you smiling about?”

“I know what you look like naked,” Clone Naruto said, sticking his tongue out and making a gruesome face. “Assholllleee.”

Sasuke sighed. Why did all of Naruto’s clones hate him?

“I’ll be at the orphanage soon,” Sasuke told the clone—or rather, Naruto, who should be receiving the message just about— now, as the clone dissipated and the kunai he’d thrown hit the wall opposite Sasuke.

Sasuke stood, determined to ignore the roiling anxiety in his gut as he washed away the remnants of the night before from his body.

The fact was—Naruto had run away. Naruto, who Sasuke had never known to run from anything before in his life, had run away from Sasuke.

Sasuke laid his forehead against the cool tiles of the shower and focused on breathing. I haven’t ruined anything, he told himself. Naruto just needed some time. Nothing is ruined. Everything is fine.
He needed to see Naruto.

By the time he arrived at the orphanage, he was second guessing the whole “seeing Naruto” plan.

“Please tell me,” Sasuke said, rubbing his eyes and cursing his unfortunately quite perfect vision, “you’re not showing a bunch of children your sexy no jutsu. Please.”

Naruto appeared to not hear him over the loud cheers of the kids as they fell over themselves laughing at their sensei. Naruto was hamming it up, striking pose after pose and fluttering his ridiculously long eyelashes, to the utter disgust and delight of his students. At least the version he was showing the children was clothed, Sasuke thought.

“Sensei!” one of the kids called out. “Do the boy one now!”

There was a quick shout of “Okay!” before the girl Naruto evaporated and in her place stood about fifteen different beautiful men, all in various stages of undress (but none, thankfully, fully nude) who threw out their hands, blowing kisses and winking as the students collapsed into even greater bouts of hysteria. Sasuke steadfastly ignored the fact that one or two of them closely resembled himself.

He must have made some kind of involuntary noise of distress because one of the kids turned around, noticing him.

“Naruto-sensei! It’s that ojisan from the other day again!”

Sasuke’s eye twitched. Ojisan

The clones disappeared and a waving, grinning Naruto stood in their place. “Hey Sasuke! Everyone, say hello to Sasuke!”

The children chorused a greeting to him and Sasuke raised a reluctant hand to return it.

“Are you here to race Naruto-sensei?” one of them called out.

“I wouldn’t want to embarrass him.”

“Again!” another kid cackled.

“He didn’t beat me that badly!” Naruto yelled, shaking his fist.

“Whatever makes you feel good about yourself sensei!”

Naruto covered his face with his hands and peered at Sasuke from the cracks between his fingers. “Why is it that when you’re here, my sweet, precious students suddenly turn against me like this?”

Sasuke raised an eyebrow. “Haven’t you noticed that I’m just an incredibly likeable person?”

Naruto burst into shocked laughter and his hands fell away from his face. “I love it when you do that.”

“Do what?”

“Surprise me,” Naruto said, shrugging.

“Does it happen a lot?”

Naruto’s smile fell away but his voice was light. “Not as often as I’d like.”

Sasuke opened his mouth to reply—to say what, he had no idea, before one of the younger children toddled up to Naruto’s side and pulled at his shirt.

“Hey, sensei, didn’t you say we were going to eat soon?”

“Of course!” Naruto said, scooping the kid up into his arms. “Everyone!” he called out. “Time for lunch!”

Naruto’s little ramshackle group of orphans formed themselves into a hasty line and started to head in the direction of their homes.

The kid, a young girl of four or five, was now perched comfortably on Naruto’s shoulders and entertaining herself by running her hands through Naruto’s thick hair.

“We’ve got a whole kitchen set up for the kids,” he told Sasuke. “Since we started, we’ve been bringing in different people to cook the meals and show the kids how to make things for themselves, too. And I know from experience to make sure that there’s always someone to check the expiration date on the milk!” he added, laughing. Sasuke didn’t.

“Why do you do that?” Sasuke knew how he sounded but was too angry to care.

“Do what?”

“Mitigate your own suffering. Make jokes about what you went through as a kid. It’s not funny. You don’t have to make it funny for other people.”

Naruto’s eyes widened. “I don’t do that.”

“You just did.”

“I was just joking around, it wasn’t about anything specific—”

“Please,” Sasuke said, cutting in dismissively. “With the amount of times you were late to training because of an upset stomach? Others might not know enough to call you out on your bullshit, but I was there. I know.”

Naruto glanced up nervously to the girl on his shoulders but she sat silently, glazing placidly off into the distance, not paying an ounce of attention to the adults’ around her conversation.

“What are you doing?” Naruto hissed, lowering his voice. “Why are you picking a fight with me? Right now, of all times?”

“I’m not,” Sasuke insisted harshly. “I just can’t stand when you—” pretend with me, he couldn’t say. When you treat me like a stranger.

Sasuke closed his eyes, breathed in deeply, and opened them again.

“Never mind.”

Naruto was frowning but didn’t press Sasuke any further. They walked the rest of the way in awkward silence until they arrived at a low roofed building Sasuke didn’t recognize.

Naruto noticed his confusion. “Yamato-taichou added this on for us.” He lifted the girl off his shoulders who, after a quick pat on the head, hurried off to join the other children in a line that snaked around the building and through its front door. “Wood style is ridiculously useful.”

Inside the building were a series of low, long tables. It was more than enough to seat the small number of orphans currently living inside the Uchiha compound, but Sasuke supposed this was just them planning ahead for the larger number that would inevitably follow.

The kitchen in the back was similarly massive, but that wasn’t the first thing that Sasuke noticed.

“Hey everyone!” Naruto yelled, acting as if he hadn’t seen Kiba, Shino, and Hinata just the day before. The three other people standing there were surprisingly familiar to Sasuke as well—the tall one with the pale eyes was undoubtedly a Hyuga. Neji, if Sasuke recalled correctly. They used to call him a genius.

The very green, very excited one with the bowl cut was Rock Lee, who was dating Sakura Sasuke remembered with a jolt.

The girl with them was a weapon’s expert, but that was the limit of Sasuke’s memory. Naruto solved it for him a moment later as he excitedly called out their names– “Neji! Bushy brow! Tenten!”

Neji looked pained but happy to see Naruto. “We weren’t gone that long this time, Naruto-kun.”

Tenten sighed. “It felt like a long time. I’m exhausted.”

Lee thrust a finger at Tenten. “You’ll be rejuvenated, dear Tenten, by the spirit of the youth whom we are about to serve! There is nothing that builds strength more than helping our fellow shinobi!”

“They’re not shinobi, Lee,” Tenten said, exasperated. “They’re little kids.”

Still, the flames of Lee’s passion would not be put out. “Youth is youth!” he exclaimed.

Sasuke stood unnoticed in the doorway but moved forward into the kitchen in order to get the introductions over with. When would Naruto learn the only person that was happy he was back in Konoha was him?

He saw Kiba’s head rise in surprise, sniffing at the air.

“Naruto, can I talk to you?” Kiba asked in a strange, flat voice.

“Oh, well, sure,” Naruto said, fumbling his attention between his friend and the rest of the group, “but first, everyone, look who’s back!” He pointed at Sasuke gleefully.

Neji, Tenten, and Lee exchanged glances.

“Welcome back, Sasuke-kun,” Neji finally said, inclining his head. Tenten gave a friendly wave as Lee huffed in a mouthful of air in order to scream out how glad he was Sasuke had finally returned to Konoha. Sasuke had not thought there was anyone who could possibly be more loud and annoying than Naruto, yet here he was.

A quiet knock on the kitchen’s door frame saved him from responding.

“Ah, Mina-chan!” Naruto said, smiling as he ushered her and several other children into the kitchen. “Did you wash your hands?” The children held them up for examination. Naruto screwed up his face in mock concentration as he looked them over, before proclaiming them all clean. “Now let’s serve some lunch!”

The children gathered all the food laid out across the kitchen tables and took them into the larger dining room. Everyone followed behind, except for Sasuke, hovering awkwardly in the kitchen, unsure of his welcome and hating himself for it.

He felt a hand on his shoulder and it was only his strong awareness of the children nearby that kept his hand off a kunai. He realized he’d been wrong to think everyone had followed Naruto.

“I need to talk to you,” Kiba said, oversized Inuzuka incisors flashing in the light. His very large dog, whose name escaped Sasuke but Sasuke assumed was stupid on principle, sat next to Kiba, growling lowly.

“We have to stop meeting like this,” Sasuke drawled, pushing Kiba’s hand away. He could have snapped it instead, but doing that would piss off Naruto and one fight per day with him was Sasuke’s current limit.

Kiba rolled his eyes. He did, however lift his hand from Sasuke’s shoulder, but only to offer it to his dog who sniffed it before barking. Kiba’s head fell to his chest. “Naruto is, without a doubt, the stupidest person in the world,” he groaned.

Sasuke smiled thinly. “No argument here.”

He could hear the volume in the other room rising as the rest of the children filed in for their lunch. Lee’s enthusiastic shouts of greeting echoed off the walls and he could hear Naruto laughing. He turned back towards the door, intent on joining them, welcome be damned.

“I’m—” he began, before Kiba’s words stopped him cold.

“I know you and Naruto slept together.”

Sasuke shifted to face Kiba again and lifted an eyebrow, curious. “How would you know?”

Kiba smiled at that, all teeth. “You guys reek of each other. More than usual, I mean.” He tapped the side of his nose. “The Inuzuka nose doesn’t lie—and Akamaru confirmed it.”

Sasuke’s hand fiddled idly with the hilt of his sword. “And?”

Kiba’s mouth gaped. “I really can’t believe— what does he even see in you?”

Sasuke shrugged. “Question of the century. Now, if you’re done defending Naruto’s non-existent honor, I’d like to—”

“We don’t hate you, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

Kiba said the words so sincerely, but Sasuke knew them to be a lie. “You don’t,” he said, disbelief coloring his words.

“No,” Kiba said, shaking his head. “We remember how the last war ended. We know that without you, we’d all still be unconscious chakra body bags.”

Sasuke said nothing. It was true.

“Um, well, like I said, we don’t hate you,” Kiba continued awkwardly, like he didn’t quite know what to do with Sasuke’s full attention now that he had it. “It just never made any sense.”

Sasuke knew he shouldn’t encourage this conversation any more than he already had but—“What didn’t make sense?”

“How obsessed he was with you!” Kiba said exasperatedly. “I mean, for example, he would chase you everywhere. Get beaten up for you. Wouldn’t let us kill you, even after you joined the Akatsuki! The people that were literally hunting him! And even after you tried to kill that Cloud jinchuriki he still supported you. Wouldn’t let us, or them, lay a finger on you. You even left him again after the end of the last war. I just—I could never understand it. You managed to hurt him more than anyone else. But this—this kind of makes a little more sense. If you guys are in some kind of—”

“We’re not in a relationship,” Sasuke said, pushing the denial out of his throat and into the air. Hearing all of his past sins against Naruto made his chest ache.

Kiba’s head tilted to the side, like the dogs his family was famous for. “You’re not,” he said flatly. “Well what are you doing, then?”

“Kiba.”

Sasuke and Kiba both startled and turned at the sound of Naruto’s voice coming from the doorway. They must have been making a lot of noise.

“We need you in here,” he said, looking only at Kiba. He didn’t sound angry, or upset. His voice was level and his face expressionless. Had he heard?

Kiba glanced back at Sasuke as he left the room. He seemed almost apologetic.

“Naruto—” Sasuke said, tongue tripping over his name.

Naruto sighed then held out a hand. “Come on. You need to help too. No special treatment.”