Actions

Work Header

The State of Us

Chapter Text

 

 

 

It begins with Uchiha Sasuke’s betrothal to Uzumaki Naruto.

 

Like a painting, tall trees with their rippling canopies and colourful buildings come into view, framed by the slim rectangle opening of the single window. The setting sun is a red ball suspended in the milky purple sky and it is a beautiful sight; a beautiful painting of a glorious setting, but Sasuke feels nothing. The palanquin moves slowly and he kneads his fingers into his thigh muscles to get the blood moving as he continues watching the outside world. Rich browns and every shade of green and dying golden sunlight saturate the scenery, unlike the muted colours of Oto. Behind everything, a mountain ridge carved with six imposing faces loom over the village. It is as though their blank eyes track the progression of their contingent and are staring down at him, seeing straight through him and into his soul. 

 

Sasuke stares right back at the sixth face before leaning back and away from the window. He closes his eyes. The air smells strange — not bad, but unlike anything he’s ever known. It does not smell like something, like wood or grass, because it smells like a feeling . Warm is the first word that comes to mind, even as the sun is falling faster and faster below the horizon. 

 

This is Konohagakure.

 

There are four other Oto shinobi bearing the palanquin, accompanied by two elite shinobi that flank the father of Otogakure: Orochimaru. Their two-day journey is almost over as they inch closer and closer towards the Hokage Mansion at the heart of Konoha, and once there, Sasuke can finally stretch out his legs and begin his longest mission yet. 

 

Clapping and excited chatter float into the space he’s sequestered in — most likely from excited villagers who line the street, trying to catch their first glimpse of the Sixth Hokage’s new bride. Everyone in the shinobi world knows what Uzumaki Naruto looks like. Very few people know what Uchiha Sasuke looks like. No one, other than Orochimaru and Kabuto, have seen what he looks like now. All they can see is a dark oak palanquin that houses someone important, carved with fine musical notes and inlaid with smooth shards of mother of pearl. Oto has not spared any expense on this farce. 

 

Finally, the palanquin lurches to a stop. It’s time. Sasuke gathers up the red veil by his side and adjusts it over his head as the chamber is set down gently onto the ground. It is as though a curtain falls over his world, because now everything is awash in crimson and all finer details are wiped away, leaving only broad shapes and hazy outlines behind. The silk is heavy. Bodies move on the outside and then the fluttering hangings of the palanquin part.  

 

A familiar rasp sounds out, steel running through still air. “Are you ready?”

 

“Yes,” he answers. His voice sounds different; it is light and airy and much higher than before.

 

Orochimaru must be pleased by the tone of his new voice, because he is the one who leans in and helps Sasuke out by taking his hand and guiding him down two low steps. The kimono swishes around his bare legs, cool as river water, as he steps onto Konoha soil. A deeper part of him seems to expect something, anything, but nothing happens. All air escapes his lungs in a quiet exhale. 

 

Sasuke straightens up in his glowing white kimono, the red veil cascading down over his shoulders, covering every inch of skin except for his exposed hands and fingers. Even his feet are socked in the geta, pure white against even more white. His veil and his kimono are unadorned and together it is just pure, smooth silk; ripples of fabric flowing off his frame. 

 

His outfit is plain because there are hidden bells sewn into the edges of the wide sleeves and between the two layers of fabric around his hips. As he moves faster, haunting chimes that mimic the sound of air and light melt from him, staining the air, and the crowd falls into a revered silence.

 

Where Sasuke moves, music follows.

 

There are several figures waiting in front of the Hokage Mansion waiting to welcome them, and Orochimaru leads him forward slowly with a hand on his shoulder. 

 

Behind them, the Otogakure shinobi who follow are silent shadows. 

 

A male voice calls out. Sasuke cannot tell what this man looks like even though they are standing in front of each other now. “Orochimaru-sama, welcome to Konoha.” 

 

“Thank you. We will formally introduce her in the presence of the Hokage.”

 

“Of course. Please follow us,” another voice says, from a man by his side. This voice sounds older. 

 

Sasuke is breathing quietly, shallowly, as they enter the building and into a long, dim hallway. The silence is only broken by the controlled tap tap tapping of his geta and the ethereal melody of bells. The two figures who had first spoken lead them and up close, he can tell from their backs that one of them has short dark hair while the other has spikey lighter hair. They are dressed in standard Konoha flak jackets. There are several more personnel in front of them, dressed in some sort of armoured vest. They turn around occasionally, and the first time Sasuke catches sight of their smooth, bone white faces that are marred with flashes of red and black, he feels a chill down his spine. A second later, he realises that they are ANBU. 

 

He grits his teeth and pulls his shoulder blades together to stand slightly straighter; this is barely the beginning and weaknesses cannot exist here and especially not now. Orochimaru and Kabuto had killed most of his fears in the months of preparation before this moment. Now it’s his job to eliminate the rest. Orochimaru’s fingernails dig into his shoulder like senbon, piercing through silk and skin. The sharp pain drags him out of his head and keeps him anchored to the present.

 

Sasuke does not falter.

 

They venture further into enemy territory until they enter a vast circular room, brightly lit with a ceiling that spirals high up above their head in a dome. There are only two figures seated on one side of the large, circular table. From their postures, they look aged. The Hokage is not present. Under the light, he can see that one of their ushers has white, spiked hair. He takes a seat at the side of the seated figures. Their other black-haired usher leads their contingent to the seats directly opposite the seated Konoha representatives. 

 

Orochimaru leads Sasuke to a seat slightly off to the side. Their leader and the rest of the party settle into the seats directly in front of the other four figures. Even without moving his neck, Sasuke can see ANBU figures lining the room. Sasuke sits with his hands folded on top of his lap, still as a statue. There can be no sound coming from him until it is time.

 

The black-haired man begins the meeting. “Welcome to Konohagakure, Orochimaru-sama and Otogakure. I am the Sixth Hokage’s advisor, Sai. Here we have Hatake Kakashi, Mitokado Homura, and Utatane Koharu present. Hatake-san is a senior advisor while Mitokado-san and Utatane-san are executive council members.”

 

Sasuke cannot tell who is who, but that does not matter — yet. There is only one person he has his eyes set on.

 

“Will the Hokage be gracing us with his presence?” Orochimaru asks smoothly. 

 

A beat of silence. “He will be here shortly. Please enjoy some refreshments before we begin our negotiations,” Sai says and the doors open as several figures come in holding trays. They arrange the cups in front of them. One of his fellow shinobi stops the server heading towards him by lifting an open palm. She stops in her tracks. He deftly lifts the sweating cup from her tray and serves Sasuke instead, placing it in front of him on the table. Sasuke keeps his eyes staring straight ahead.

 

A new voice introduces the drink to them. It must be either Mitokado or Utatane. “These are made from the honey extracted from the beehives kept by the Aburame clan. It is extremely rare and it is said to possess extremely healing properties.”

 

“Of course,” another voice adds, “we all know that Orochimaru-sama’s gifts for healing are next to none. Please enjoy it for its unique taste and not for its supposed properties.”

 

From his side, Orochimaru chuckles but he does not touch the drink. None of the Oto shinobi do. 

 

Before the tension in the room can simmer any more, the door clicks open and a figure rushes in. “I’m sorry I’m late. I’m here now—Sai?”

 

“Hokage-sama,” Sai says as he stands and points towards the seat at the side, diagonally from Sasuke. He turns back to their party. “We can begin the negotiations now.” 

 

Orochimaru begins. “It is a fact that Uzumaki Naruto is the youngest, most eligible bachelor in the shinobi world. It is also another known fact that Konoha wants to enter into a new alliance and it is between two key villages: us at Otogakure or Sunagakure. Do correct me if I am wrong about anything.”

 

“Please continue,” the man named Hatake replies. 

 

Sasuke can feel Uzumaki Naruto’s unblinking eyes on him.

 

“Suna is a larger village and they possess the power of a tailed beast because their Kage is a Jinchuriki, just like the Hokage. Whichever side Konoha chooses, they will make an enemy out of the other. We are here today because we want to be allied with Konoha. Tailed beasts and Jinchuriki are rare, but Oto has something no other village can offer: a bloodline once thought purged from our world forever.” 

 

Now every face is turned torwards him. 

 

“Yes,” Orochimaru continues, and Sasuke can hear the slick pride in his voice, dripping off the words. Even now, even here, it makes his blood run cold. “We have her. As the leader of my humble village, I am proposing an alliance between Otogakure and Konohagure through marriage.”

 

Of course, this is not brand-new information for Konoha. Sasuke knows negotiations have been going through Orochimaru and the Hokage’s office for several months now via hawks and messenger birds, but this is the first time these words have been uttered aloud. The weight of this proposal hangs heavy in the air, like the silence that surrounds them all. 

 

One of the eldery councillors speak. “And why would your village willingly surrender your most important bloodline to another?”

 

“Oto is powerful, but we are small. We don’t know how much longer she can be safe in Oto. She is a shinobi as capable as you or me but she — we — might not be able to fend off an entire army if they attack. Also, as they say, better to work with the devil you know than the one you don’t. As the Hokage’s wife, she will be safer here, I assume?”

 

“You assume correctly, Orochimaru-sama,” Hatake drawls.

 

“Wait.” The Hokage has finally spoken, and Sasuke can see Sai glance at him. “Are we really talking about my future marriage just like this?”

 

“With all due respect Hokage-sama, we are not talking about the marriage of Uzumaki Naruto. We are talking about the marriage of Konoha’s Sixth Hokage. For this, we have to take geopolitics and a mutually beneficial alliance into account.” Orochimaru’s voice is hypnotically smooth but this is not genjutsu — it is more powerful than that because this is the truth.

 

“Of course,” one of the councillors says.

 

“He’s right,” Sai adds quietly.

 

“Orochimaru-sama, why do you think Konoha would want another Sharingan user in the village after all that has happened with the Uchiha clan?” This query comes from Hatake.

 

“Because she has all the power, potential, and promise of an Uchiha without any of the bad luck or tragedy associated with its name,” Orochimaru answers smoothly. Hatake is silent. Sasuke cannot see Orochimaru’s face, but he knows the man is grinning, snake-like mouth carved wide open.

 

“Please allow me to introduce our princess before we continue any further,” Orochimaru continues. Everything is falling into place. “As outlined in previous letters, she belongs to a clan distantly related to the Uchiha family. Not unlike Konoha’s most tragic clan, their powers have been so feared that they have also been eliminated from villages around the world. Her parents arrived in Oto as refugees many years ago, where she was raised as an Oto kunoichi. The Sharingan didn’t take for her parents, but she was different. Special. Now her parents are dead, leaving the village as her only family. And now her new family will be Konoha, as the Hokage’s wife, if they are willing to accept her.” For the first time, Orochimaru turns to the side, looking straight at Sasuke. 

 

They have rehearsed this; he knows what to do and he knows what will follow.

 

Sasuke rises. His silk kimono shifts. The bells begin to chime, clear and true, as a sweet melody colours the air.  No one can look away even though this is not genjutsu either and this, Sasuke knows, is true power. Konoha’s most important eyes burn into him, transfixed.

 

He is here as harmony personified. 

 

The burning deep in his limbs have radiated outward and into his entire body. His heart still pounds, but there is nothing to feel because all he must do is focus on breathing properly. The brief interlude of music starts to die away as Sasuke stills. This is the moment that all future consequences will be borne upon.

 

Orochimaru stands and covers the short distance between them. Sasuke can feel his fingers catch the edge of his veil from the back, on both sides of his head. The silence is deafening because all music has ceased.

 

“She is the only person left alive with a bloodline that can awaken and control the Sharingan naturally,” Orochimaru says, and his voice is the loudest thing in the world. “The Uchiha were named after their ability to control fire. Her clan drew their name from another source of eternal light: the moon. This is Tsukino Sachi.”

 

With this, Orochimaru lifts the veil and the world and all its colours flood back to Sasuke but he does not react, doesn’t move: all he does is continue standing still, breath even, and most importantly, eyes lowered. All he can see is the Hokage’s scuffed shoes and the cuffs of his long, black pants. It is as though no one else is breathing in the room.

 

Without the red veil, Sasuke’s face and hair are revealed: a pale, poreless complexion is exposed, along with straight glossy hair that runs down his back and a long fringe that hang straight down in the dead air of the room. The only makeup he has on are on his lips, painted the same vivid shade as his veil. Against skin, it stands out like a wound: startling yet natural, like the promise of death. Everything else is an expanse of pale flesh, the bone white silk of his kimono, and the contrasting darkness of his hair.

 

This is not a henge. The hair is his own, grown out over months for this very mission and the fine features are his own; eyes and the smooth curve of a chin inherited from his dead mother and a nose from his dead father. At least, that is what he can see from the single photograph he has of them because he cannot trust his memories. There are many things Sasuke will have to conceal from here on out, but physical beauty is not one of them. 

 

“We want to verify her Sharingan,” the Hokage’s advisor says. Sai.

 

“She will show it to the Hokage first—”

 

“No,” the senior advisor says lightly. “Please show it to me. It is merely a precaution, but my own Sharingan can counteract genjutsu from another.”

 

“The implication is insulting, but this just tells us all how powerful and valuable the Sharingan truly is,” Orochimaru says smoothly.

 

Sasuke turns towards his left, eyes still downcast but he can already feel the Sharingan spinning slowly in his eyes. Without flourish, he looks up at Hatake to find a set of mismatched eyes. Staring into another Sharingan for the first time is unnerving and he cannot read anything in Hakate’s face because it’s just as blank as an ANBU mask; he merely nods and Sasuke drops his gaze.

 

“There is no doubt of its authenticity,” Hatake says, all lightness evaporating from his voice.

 

Now, slowly, slowly, Sasuke lifts his eyes again, still spinning red, until his gaze meets Uzumaki Naruto’s.

 

His eyes are even bluer in person, even more vivid than in the photos they’ve gathered of him and they are the same shade of cloudless skies and oceans that Sasuke has never seen but knows must exist. The Hokage’s mouth falls into a small ‘O’ but Sasuke does not allow his gaze to waver. There is also something else in those eyes, something he cannot place and Sasuke does not allow himself to be distracted.

 

Feeling the seconds flow by and even more slowly now, Sasuke drops his gaze and curls his lips up into a soft smile, making sure the Hokage catches sight of it. It does not feel as submissive as the one they made him practice, over and over again until the muscles in his face seized up and the edges of his mouth cracked and bled — Uzumaki Naruto’s dumb expression makes him look younger and more ordinary and it’s funnier than he expects. No, Orochimaru won’t notice how the edges of his mouth are turned up a tiny bit higher than needed, not when he’s busy analysing the quiet awe radiating off everyone who can only stare at him.

 

Sasuke stares back at his feet with his gaze set; his eyes will not lift any more. Now, again, he waits.

 

Uzumaki Naruto is the first one who speaks. It is just a single word, more breath than verbalised sound: “Wow.”

 

It’s almost disappointing, Sasuke thinks, how the Hokage, this famed Uzumaki Naruto, has turned out to be such an ordinary man and so easily swayed by beauty and power. This was exactly what they had planned, and now the most powerful man in the village has played right into their hands. 

 

Relief and sheer amusement spill brightly through him but his face is a mask. With absolute control, unblinkingly, Sasuke bends his knees to lower himself back into the seat. His gaze remains soft. Everyone in Oto is trained in music and the art of sound, and Sasuke had laboured over these bells on endless nights, a hammer in his blistered palm as he shaped pure silver into the bells that have been painstakingly sewn into silk, the same bells that have brought these exact notes to life. The music echoes — a domed ceiling could not have been more perfect because the notes continue dancing in the air long after Sasuke sits.

 

Sound lingers, ghost-like. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

In a way, this is a homecoming.

 

It has never been a secret to him that he was born and raised in Konoha. He knows he had grown up here, breathed in this very same air, ran through these winding streets. Sasuke does not remember anything but Orochimaru has reminded him of this fact so many times it almost feels like a memory. 

 

What he does remember was waking up in darkness — that is his earliest memory. Then, slowly, the light bled through from flickering lamps that lined the walls. Every inhale tasted like copper and raw dirt while every exhale hurt the space around his ribs. A face, smooth and almost reptilian and glowing like a moon, was the first face he ever saw. Orochimaru. The second face he saw was a man with silver hair, whose cold hands injected something even colder into his veins the moment the uncontrollable sobs and panic clawed its way out through his throat and mouth. Before he could cry out, before a single word could be spoken, he was dragged back into nothingness by the weightless pull of unconsciousness. 

 

He woke up again, in the same room that smelled raw : raw earth, raw fear, with a blank mind and a clean slate for a past. 

 

Welcome to our village, a rasping voice whispered. Later, he will find out the names of those who welcomed him home: Orochimaru and Kabuto. Uchiha Sasuke was nine when he was born in Otogakure.

 

And now, eleven years later, he is back in the village he was told was his first home, sitting in a circular room and watching the Hokage sign the papers for their marriage.

 

“Hokage-sama,” Sai says again, “we should take more time to—”

 

“Sai,” Naruto explains patiently as he continues signing paper after paper. Kabuto’s research is immaculate, which makes his contracts airtight and deadly. “Orochimaru-sama is right. I am not the only single, eligible bachelor around. If we don’t act fast, they could go over to Suna right after this, hand Sachi to Gaara, and create a new alliance before the week is over.” He catches himself a moment too late. He looks up at Sasuke apologetically. “Ah, I don’t mean to say you’re cattle or anything...”   

 

“Tsukino-hime understands,” Orochimaru answers on his behalf. “We only want the best for both our villages.”

 

They are all seated closer together now, Sasuke right opposite Naruto, Sachi’s papers already signed and stamped in front of him. 

 

Sai’s expression only darkens.

 

“The terms are straightforward,” Orochimaru continues. “There is a betrothal period of three months, followed by a wedding. This betrothal is legally binding for our villages because it acts as though the Hokage and Oto’s princess are already husband and wife. What it protects is the reputation of both parties because they are merely betrothed instead of married. In the event something adverse happens, the contract between our villages can be rescinded and the marriage called off without negative effects on Uzumaki Naruto or Tsukino Sachi’s standing.”



“The states are married, but the individuals are only engaged to each other until the trial period is over,” Sai says almost sharply, cutting straight through to the core of it. 

 

Three months is the length of the first part of his mission. If everything goes well, the second part of the plan will commence after they are married. And then the Hokage would be dead and Orochimaru, along with Oto’s deadliest shinobi, would be here, standing in the blood that will run through Konoha’s streets.

 

But that is later. 

 

Sasuke would be impressed if he is not so weary of Sai’s distrust over this alliance. Everyone else, especially the Hokage, have played their parts perfectly. The bloodless skin and those cutting dark eyes of the Hokage’s advisor doesn’t help, because they remind him of his fellow shinobi at Oto. It should make him feel more at home but here, even in the darkened room, Sai feels much too suspicious for someone from Konoha, like a puzzle piece that does not quite fit into its place. Like himself. 

 

Uzumaki Naruto has the charisma, but Sai has the wits. Sasuke tucks this first sliver of knowledge inside himself.

 

“Until the very last document is signed, there is still time to call off the bethotral if you are so inclined, Sai-san.”

 

This time, the eldery male councillor speaks. “That won’t be necessary.”

 

Sai remains silent as the Hokage works through the rest of the papers methodically. The very last document is one they both have to sign together — the actual betrothal contract. 

 

The Hokage signs it first, and under Sasuke’s watchful gaze, he can see that his grip is strong from the way the edges of his fingers have turned white, hand steady as his pen presses into the paper, leaving behind a solid signature. If the Hokage is unsure, it does not show. And then, another thought: he has nice fingers. Sasuke looks away quickly.

 

He turns to Sasuke with a bright but tentative smile. Sasuke immediately drops his gaze onto the paper. Somehow, everything feels like it’s moving a second too fast for him to catch.

 

As he picks up the pen to sign Tsukino Sachi’s name next to Uzumaki Naruto’s, he expects to feel nothing. He’s surprised, then, when the sheer gravity of the situation suddenly presses down on him and all at once, he feels the exhaustion of the past two days, the sharp, ringing of bells in his sleeve when it brushes against the table, and the looming weeks ahead. 

 

A warning in Orochimaru’s voice rises in his head like a siren call. Weaknesses are human but you cannot be human. You are our perfect soldier. You are Oto’s Uchiha Sasuke.

 

Black ink glides smoothly onto white paper and just like that, it’s over. 

 

And now, everything can begin.

 


 

Orochimaru, the palanquin, and the Oto shinobi head east out towards Konoha’s gates while Sasuke is led west, deeper into the village and towards his new home. 

 

It’s all part of the plan. Orochimaru’s presence is no longer needed because Sachi is now a subject of Konoha. They slip away into the shadows without parting words or fanfare and he has no trunk of clothes, no personal belongings, nothing but the clothes on his back, the veil arranged around his shoulders, and the tiny bells in his kimono.

 

Alone in enemy territory, night has fallen and a cold wind bites through his silken kimono. He ignores this like everything else; it’s merely a physical sensation. Konoha is colder than Oto but they have been trained well in Oto.

 

ANBU darts around them as the Hokage and Sai lead the way up ahead, heads angled together as they speak in low tones. Hatake Kakashi is the one walking next to him and thankfully, he is silent but this is also a problem. Sai is easy to read; the Hokage even easier. Hatake is different. Hands tucked into his pockets, he walks casually, almost lazily, and it doesn’t look like a front. The headband covers an eye, the Sharingan, but this man has light hair and he is definitely not a relative.

 

Kabuto’s intel has shown that there are Sharingan on the black market, relics from the massacre, but the Sharingan’s power is more than a mere body part. Eyes can be bought and replaced, but the blood and potential that run through his veins and the legendary reputation of the clan cannot.

 

They reach their destination soon after. There are street lights all around and the building is a double-storey circular home. It looks well-built and cosy but a lot more humble than what he would expect the Hokage to call home.

 

Sai and the Hokage stand on either side of the front door, waiting for him and Hatake to arrive.

 

“This is the Hokage’s home. And your home now, Tsukino-hime,” Sai says evenly, voice free from any emotion. 

 

The Hokage opens the door and Sasuke’s eyes actually widen. The door isn’t even locked. 

 

No one minds his surprise. Sai continues speaking as they all pour into the formal living room. “You will have your own room on a different floor from the Hokage. You can seek each other’s company in public areas of the home but you are not allowed into his bedroom until you are married. I’m sure you understand.”

 

Sasuke nods once. 

 

“Sai, Hokage-sama,” Hatake says, and everyone turns to him. “I need to return to the Hokage Mansion to file the paperwork; Shikamaru is already there. I will take my leave now. It’s nice meeting you, Tsukino-hime,” he says, turning to Sasuke.

 

Again, Sasuke nods.

 

“We’ll be there soon,” Sai replies before Hatake disappears in a cloud of smoke. “Let us show you to your room,” he says as he begins to walk, leading them deeper into the home.

 

The room is western-style, with a large bed at the centre and the open door inside shows an attached bathroom. There is a dresser in one corner, and a desk and chair in the opposite corner. The walls are bare. 

 

“My room is upstairs,” the Hokage says, the first words he’s spoken since they’ve entered the home. “ANBU will be bringing everything you need for tonight.”

 

With that, the window slides open and a gloved hand emerges from the centre of the curtain to push it aside. A figure leaps off the window ledge into the room, a large bag in hand. He places it by the foot of the bed. 

 

“They have great timing,’ the Hokage adds, almost sheepishly. 

 

“We trust you’ll be comfortable here,” Sai says. “The Hokage and I need to return to the office. Goodnight, Tsukino-hime.” 

 

“Goodnight, Tsukino-hime,” the Hokage says. 

 

The ANBU member leaves the room first before they both turn to leave. The Hokage is the last one to step beyond the threshold of the door. For the first time since his arrival in Konoha, Sasuke speaks. “Hokage-sama.” 

 

He freezes and spins around so quickly he almost loses his balance. The expression on his face betrays a pure, youthful nervousness and again, Sasuke needs to remind himself that this is the same man who rid the world from the clutches of the Akatsuki, defeating Pain and then the true mastermind of the organisation, Tobi, on his own. That was two years ago. Today, the world has settled back into a fragile peace spun from gossamer threads of secret treaties and unstable alliances.

 

Like this.  

 

“Please call me Sachi.” 

 

The nervousness softens. “You can call me Naruto. Welcome...home.” 

 

Sasuke allows a small smile to break through the mask that is Sachi’s face. “I’m happy to be here.” 

 


 

The first thing he does is check every inch of the bedroom for tags, traps and barriers. On all fours, he crawls around the edges of the room and presses his fingertips into dark corners. There is nothing, not even dust. The exercise takes a full hour according to the clock on top of the dresser. After the first complete sweep, he rechecks everything again.

 

It is midnight when he unpacks the duffle bag and it is filled with thick, cotton kimonos in warm shades of peach and red and several sets of plain, dark blue pants and long-sleeve shirts that look like a uniform. He takes the uniform for pajamas and finally locks himself in the bathroom. The kimono falls off his shoulders and body onto the ground as he undresses. Methodically, he takes off the padding that gives his chest shape and loosens the binding around his crotch, all while listening to the house. It is quiet.

 

At the sink, he washes off the lipstick as water the colour of blood swirls around the bowl before disappearing. He rubs at his lips until the water runs clear.

 

Next, Sasuke eyes the bath for a minute before he makes up his mind. Twisting the hot water knob, he watches as the bath fills and the steam saturates the air with a warm, comforting haze. When it is full, he steps into it and carefully lowers himself into the hot water and it’s better than he expects — it is a salve for all those sore, tight muscles. So this is a bath, he thinks. They have no bathtubs in Oto. 

 

He spends way too long in the tub and after he drains the bath, Sasuke rebinds his lower body and slips on the chest padding. The rhythm of winding the thick layers of bandages over his body is calming. 

 

Outside, in the bedroom, the bed is firm. The blanket is soft, softer than many things he’s run his hands over. Sasuke eases himself on the bed and under the covers, listening to the quiet house even though he knows he’s being watched and guarded by ANBU. It’s unnerving, because Oto was never quiet. There were always people moving around the tunnels and music being practiced. There were always the screams that came from the laboratories. 

 

He has never slept well in Oto, and he does not sleep on his first night in Konoha.

 

Uzumaki Naruto does not return home. 

 


 

At seven in the morning, Sasuke dresses in a red kimono, works a comb he finds in the duffle bag through his hair, and unlocks his bedroom door. Dust motes dance in the early morning light as he pads into the kitchen. It’s a simple area, adequate sized and looks brand-new. The countertop is smooth and unmarked. The sink gleams silver, not a watermark in sight.

 

He opens the fridge to find a carton of expired milk. He empties it out into the sink and throws the carton into the bin, which is also empty. In the cupboards, there is nothing but a few cups of instant ramen.

 

All that training has been for naught; those lessons on preparing meals and pairing flavours and knowing which poisons are tasteless and could be hidden in dishes, everything to mold him into a perfect wife. Sasuke stands by the sink, a housewife with no ingredients and no husband, and thinks.

 

He reaches out to slide open the window. “ANBU,” he calls out, and in an instant, there is a blurred movement by the corner of his eye before a masked figure steps forward. 

 

“I need ingredients for breakfast. I would go out myself but I don’t have any money. Could I get bread, butter, and eggs? Milk too, please,” he adds. Before he can complete his sentence, the figure is gone. 

 

Sasuke uses this time to explore the rest of the ground floor, taking in the formal dining area and the small bathroom. In the formal living room, there is nothing personal except for a large shelf of books on many different subjects. Every room looks just as spotless and unlived in and it sets his teeth on edge. 

 

He allows himself upstairs, finding a small office filled with opened scrolls that he glances at without pausing to read because he knows he’s still under watch. At the Hokage’s room, he only peeks his head in and takes in the simple, furnished room and the threadbare frog blanket and clothes littering the floor. There are two ink paintings on the wall, animals in mid-movement; the only decoration he has seen between both floors of the residence. This is the first sign that Konoha did not put him in a showhouse, and Sasuke feels some of the tension melt from his shoulders.

 

By the time he makes his way back down the stairs and into the kitchen, there’s a black plastic bag waiting for him on the kitchen table, arranged perfectly at its centre. This precision, coupled by the weight of the quiet, empty house, feels odd and menacing. There is a sharp, staticky tension that permeates the air and it tastes like a brewing storm.

 

Inside is nothing but the harmless ingredients he requested.

 

Sasuke toasts several slices of bread and cracks the large, brown eggs into a bowl he mixes it with a splash of creamy milk. Sachi hums an old song as she cooks even as Sasuke’s stomach turns at the sight of food. On the table, he arranges into a spread and lowers himself in one of the chairs.

 

Sasuke sits, settles into the stillness of the house, and waits. 

 


 

Distantly, a door slams open. Or shut.

 

Sasuke jolts and the present flows back to him all at once. His head is on the table, cheek resting against an arm, hair pooling in messy strands against the smooth wooden surface. He must have fallen asleep.

 

Something touches his arm and Sasuke flings himself back and away from it, kicking himself away from the table to land feet apart, knees bent, crouching in a defensive stance. Suddenly he remembers that the Hokage does not lock his front door. Chest heaving, breathless, he looks up but it’s only the Hokage with his hand extended, frozen in space in front of the table.

 

For a moment, they just look at each other. 

 

The Hokage has dark circles under his eyes. There is hair in his own eyes.

 

Sasuke straightens up and brushes the hair away from his eyes, smoothening it back behind his ears. 

 

“I’m sorry for frightening you, Tsukino-hime,” he says, pulling his hand back and running his fingers through his hair sheepishly. “I spent the night at the office and thought I should check on you before the start of today’s meetings.”

 

“Just Sachi.” It’s mortifying how his cheeks are burning from the embarrassment and shame of being caught unaware. 

 

“Right, sorry. Again. You didn’t sleep well last night?” The Hokage is wearing a white shirt under his white cape, and Sasuke can see the creases in them. He looks like had fallen asleep in it.

 

“The room is perfect. I must have just dozed off…”

 

“Why don’t we—” he removes his hand from his hair and makes a vague gesture, motioning to the sky, and then gives up by dropping his hands heavily by his sides. The awkwardness builds. Sasuke almost pities him. 

 

And then the Hokage turns around to walk away.

 

Sasuke stares, heart finally slowing down, and watches as he turns around at the front door and walks straight back into the kitchen. 

 

“Let’s start over! Good morning, Sachi.”

 

Sasuke blinks. “G-Good morning, Naruto.”

 

Something in the air shifts, changes. Naruto’s smile is more relieved than playful and when he looks around the table, he laughs. Sasuke’s eyes follow and only then does he notice the floor is covered with toast, shards from the plates, and congealed scrambled eggs. “You made breakfast?”

 

The place definitely looks lived in now.

 

The smile Sasuke returns is of practiced ease. “Let’s start over?”

 


 

Naruto rushes off for his first meeting with a slice of toast in his mouth barely two minutes after Sasuke finishes cooking a second batch of food, but not before he leaves the house keys, a rather thick envelope of money, and a messy, hand-drawn map of Konoha on the table.

 

It lists out landmarks and main shops. One of the locations is circled twice, implying importance, and while Sasuke can’t read the first part of the label because the paper is far too small, he can read the second character. It’s a ramen shop.

 

The rest of the day goes by quickly because Sasuke cleans up the kitchen once more — Naruto had cleared the shards and food from the ground as he was cooking — and then spends the rest of his time checking each and every room of tags and barriers. The Hokage’s office and bedroom upstairs are left untouched. Like his own room, there is nothing in the house. 

 

He does find a magnet in one of the kitchen drawers. It is a colourful plastic thing in the shape of a ramen cup and he, on impulse, pins Naruto’s map to the fridge. Taking two steps back to stare at it, Sasuke doesn’t know why it works until it hits him: now the place looks more like a real home. 

 

It makes Sachi feel a little more real. 

 

At dusk, there is a knock on the door. 

 

Sasuke opens it to find a female ANBU member staring back at him, the cat mask glowing from the glare of the street lamp. At least this one knows how to knock. 

 

“You are needed at the Hokage Mansion. Please bring what you have brought over from Oto -- I can help you carry anything, if needed.” 

 

“There is no need,” Sasuke replies. “Why am I being summoned?”

 

The ANBU is silent. 

 

He leaves the figure by the open door to make his way down the hallway. Inside his bedroom, he changes into a fresh kimono and pulls a comb through his hair. From the duffle bag he was given, there is a small set of makeup, coloured powers and paste in a heavy, lacquered box. Carefully, in a small mirror on the desk, he lines his lips and fills it in with rouge.

 

Only then does he move into the bathroom to gather the items, heaped on the floor from the night before. 

 

They set off with the only thing Sasuke has left from Oto: red and white silk, folded carefully in Sasuke's arms. 

 

This time, they enter the bowels of the building where the air is damp and the rock walls are much too high. Subterranean. Sasuke inhales deeply and allows himself a briefest moment of weakness to think of home. 

 

His footsteps are subdued by the soft ground and there is a breeze here, even underground. Air pockets for external ventilation, Sasuke thinks. Silhouettes are gathered in a semi-circle around a small bonfire, and the ANBU who leads him over melts away into the shadows as soon as the figures see him. Like apparitions, they slowly blur into existence. Sai stands next to the Hokage — along with several people he has never seen before, a mix of several young and old shinobi — and he eyes the item in Sasuke’s arms.

 

“Is that all you’ve brought from Oto?” Sai asks. His eyes are hard and dark, darker than the shadows cast around them, but his voice is perfectly colourless, betraying no emotion.

 

“Yes,” Sasuke replies simply. 

 

“Do you know what happens here?” the Hokage says and the way the Hokage sounds surprises him. His tone is the opposite of Sai’s — gentle, understanding, almost emotional. It’s even more surprising that he feels the shadow of a twitch in his chest, like the echo of a loss. He swallows away the strange weakness.

 

“Yes,” Sasuke says again, voice coming out as even as Sai’s. Orochimaru had predicted this. “I think so.”

 

“Sachi—” the Hokage says and without hesitation, Sasuke turns around and in one, graceful movement, throws the silk pieces into the fire. 

 

There is a roar of air and sound. They watch as the fire devours both kimono and veil as hungry shadows flicker across every face. The red, angry flames reaching up to the high ceiling remind him of claws.

 

Sai watches the fire. Sasuke watches the fire too but the Hokage does not because he is looking at him; the heat of the Hokage’s gaze is as real as the warmth radiating from the burning heap in front of them. 

 

Someone speaks; Sasuke does not recognise the voice. He does not turn his head to locate its owner; he knows he is being addressed. “In Konoha, we live by a philosophy known as the Will of Fire. These informal ceremonies are used to welcome new shinobi into our village, where their old lives are given to the fire. Some people burn symbolic items like their old headbands. Others burn everything.”

 

Only now does Sasuke look around to find the speaker. Short dark hair, dark eyes, medium height, dressed in a standard green flak jacket; he doesn’t recognise him from Kabuto’s intel, which means he is not in the Hokage’s inner circle. He looks at the faces of everyone gathered around, most dressed in jonin jackets but some, like the councillors, are in robes, and two are in full ANBU uniform. Those present must be important enough to the government and village for them to be invited to this ceremony centred around the Hokage’s wife; did some of them expect him to break down? Had others wanted to see him cry? In the light of the fire, the metal plates of their Konoha headbands gleam all too brightly.

 

He takes in each and every face carefully, because these shinobi will be the first ones to die once Oto attacks. 

 

Next to him, the Hokage shifts. When he turns towards him, he is holding a headband in his hands, one he extends towards him. Carefully, silently, Sasuke takes it with his eyes glued on the carved symbol of the village. Their fingers almost touch, but they don’t.

 

“Welcome to our village.” The Hokage’s tone is firm but his voice is soft, and it’s brutally intimate in a room full of shadowy figures.

 

A high, grating whine pierces through the moment: from the fire, the tiny bells are vibrating, filling the air with a thin, inhuman noise that he feels all the way to the bone. 

 

They sound, Sasuke thinks calmly, like screams.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday. 

 

Last night, wide awake in bed, Sasuke had heard the sharp click of the front door unlocking, followed by heavy footsteps climbing up the stairs. Four days into his arrival at Konoha and this is the first morning that the Hokage will wake up in his own home. 

 

As soon as the sky lightens, pale rays bleeding into the darkened horizon, Sasuke rises and begins his morning ritual: bindings, kimono, hairbrush, lip lacquer. Then he makes his way into the kitchen to prepare breakfast. 

 

It’s nine in the morning when the Hokage enters the kitchen and this time, Sasuke is not asleep at the table. He sits behind a spread of food, waiting.

 

“Good morning, Naruto.”

 

The Hokage stops in his tracks and Sasuke can see his thoughts falling over each other up in his brain right through those blue eyes. He is wearing a ratty shirt and boxers, hair a complete mess of blonde spikes. “Dammit, I forgot I’m engaged. I’ll uh, be right back!”

 

He practically turns around to race back down the hallway, and Sasuke smirks at his retreating back.

 

Ten minutes later, he returns looking much more awake, hair damp and combed down, dressed in a pair of respectable shorts. He chooses to keep the same worn shirt on, one with a large red spiral at its centre.

 

Laid out on the table are two small bowls of salad, dressed with a creamy sesame sauce. On two larger plates are plum onigiri: three for the Hokage, two for Sasuke. Two bowls of miso soup and a cup of fresh milk for the Hokage completes the breakfast spread.

 

The Hokage sits down across Sasuke and stares at the food. “This is...wow. It’s like a hotel breakfast in my own home.” 

 

Sasuke gives him a smile, one he hopes is kind instead of mocking. “Thank you, Naruto. I hope this is to your liking.”

 

So it begins. This is their first proper conversation together, and Sasuke is adamant that he will come out with one useful piece of information after this. Time and words are not to be wasted.

 

“It’s not ramen, but who doesn’t like rice and miso soup,” he replies brightly as he picks up an onigiri. 

 

Sasuke follows.

 

They eat in silence, the awkwardness stretching out like the rays of sunlight crawling across the wooden floor. Sasuke will not be the first one to break it.

 

In between tiny, trained bites that Kabuto said would look ‘beautiful and ladylike’, he watches the Hokage eat. He has a good appetite, not too messy, and he finishes everything — everything except the bowl of salad.

 

“You really don’t have to do all this,” the Hokage says finally.

 

Sasuke’s voice is smooth. “I will remember not to make salad the next time. Is it the dressing you don’t like? Or just the vegetables?”

 

The Hokage lifts both his palms in alarm and waves them in front of him. “No, no, I didn’t mean it that way! You don’t have to wait on me like a...a—” he trails off, thinking. He can’t seem to find the word.

 

Sasuke finishes the onigiri. He’s never had rice so fat and fragrant before; all they get in Oto are simple meals and cocktails of syrups and pills. Konoha’s produce alone is worth waging war over. “A housewife?”

 

“Exactly! You didn’t come here to be a housewife.”

 

“I came here to be your wife. This is your house,” Sasuke says plainly. He keeps his tone light in case the Hokage takes offense at his words, but he knows he will not. 

 

The Hokage looks down at his empty plate. “Your eyes, your power...they’re not to be kept at home.”

 

Sasuke’s interest is piqued; this is intel that can be weaponised. When he speaks, it’s in the same, controlled tone. “Konoha already has plans for me, like sending me on missions outside the village?” 

 

He looks up. “They—it’s being discussed. What do you want, Sachi? Your wishes are just as important as ours.”

 

Sasuke can only stare into the Hokage’s blue eyes and there is nothing to unearth because it is what it is: clear and true. He understands what the words mean when used in a sentence, but cognitively, emotionally, it makes absolutely no sense. No one has ever asked him what he has wanted before. Even stranger, he finds himself telling the man seated before him the truth. “I—don’t know.”

 

The Hokage’s smile is as confident and trusting as his answer. “We can work something out. For now, what’s important is you getting to know Konoha better.” 

 

“Yes,” Sasuke replies as he presses his back into the rigid back of the chair, fortifying his defences. The awkwardness in the air has evaporated but somehow it feels like that discomfort has found its way inside him; a smooth, solid thing humming in his chest. It would be easier if the Hokage was more like Sai, openly suspicious, or like any other ordinary shinobi who live in a perpetual state of weariness, because this is the way of their world. Sasuke knows he can tell a lie from the truth and as far as he can tell, the Hokage is speaking from the heart. The fact that he cares about someone who is just a political tool makes him different — the first thing they learn in Oto is that different is dangerous.

 

After breakfast, the Hokage volunteers to wash the dishes so Sasuke stands by his side, dish cloth in hand to wipe the plates dry. 

 

There is a light breeze coming in from the open window. It is a beautiful day. He brushes back a strand of hair that has blown free around his face. “Do you always sleep in the office, Naruto?” 

 

The name still feels strange in his mouth.

 

“There’s always so much paperwork so it just makes more sense to sleep there than come back to an empty house. And now…” The Hokage shrugs lightly and in the sunlight, the soap suds on his hands catch the sunlight and shine like jewels. “It’s a habit. There’s always people in the Hokage Mansion at all times of the night like personnel and ANBU agents.” He places two bowls onto the drying rack, which Sasuke picks up.

 

“I’m here now,” Sasuke replies as presses the cloth into the bowls. His voice is even but he looks at the Hokage from the corner of his eyes and softens the line of his mouth.   

 

At this, the Hokage grins. “Coming home to someone is different. It’s nicer than I imagined! I’m sorry for leaving you alone all those days — I’ll make it up to you by bringing you around.”

 

“I’d like that,” Sasuke answers dutifully. 

 

When the Hokage begins to talk about the different nearby places that surround the home, Sasuke does something he wouldn’t usually do: he tunes out of the words and listens to the lilt of his voice instead. It’s music in its own right; Sasuke allows this gentle morning routine to fall over him with its soft angles of sunlight and the smell of plum and fresh grass in the air. 

 

Moments like these never last.

 


 

Sasuke adds a small, neat square on the Hokage’s hand-drawn map.

 

“We have two main water tanks in the village, located at opposite ends of each other. The same goes for our electricity grid,” the Hokage explains.

 

He labels it carefully before slipping the paper and pencil into a small pouch. More invaluable information for Oto when the time comes.

 

It’s even more beautiful outside the house, under the warm sunlight and thick patches of shadows from the trees and their swaying canopies. There are families and couples, villagers in ordinary clothes and shinobi in their forehead protectors out on the streets. Everyone nods at the man next to him but Sasuke notices no one approaches the Hokage. Some have eyes that linger too long on himself -- it was agreed on by both villages that the masses will only need to know about the marriage of their beloved Sixth Hokage, not their betrothal. 

 

Konoha is so vibrant and bright that it almost hurts his eyes. 

 

“That is important information. What’s perhaps even more important is where that will lead us,” Sasuke says, pointing randomly at the general direction ahead of them. He has been around this area to restock the ingredients in the fridge so Naruto leads them across a small bridge, river gurgling happily beneath their feet, and into a different district of the village.

 

“How is Konoha compared to Oto?” Naruto asks as they walk. His voice is still hesitant even though there’s an artificially bright levity pushed into his tone. It does nothing to dispel the persistent awkwardness around them.

 

“The temperature is wilder. It’s more humid and darker too, because our village is largely underground.” It’s more fortified that way, Sasuke thinks but doesn’t add. And the acoustics are better for when they play music. 

 

“Do you miss it?”

 

“I don’t think about it because it doesn’t matter,” Sasuke replies. “This is my home now.” 

 

There are rows and rows of different shops around: bakeries and restaurants and tailors and weapon stores, and there are children who are running around this lively area, shrieking and soaking up the sun like budding leaves on a branch.

 

A little boy runs up to him and offers him a flower. “Yeah, Konoha is great,” Naruto says, accepting the gift with a kind, genuine smile. “Thanks!”

 

It’s a beautiful day, and it’s time to start digging a little deeper. Sasuke waits until the boy runs away, back towards his waving mother. “Have you always loved the village the way you do now?” 

 

“Of course!”

 

Sasuke keeps his tone light but colourless and to his own ears, he sounds almost like Sai. “Loving a village as its leader is easier than loving a place that has purposely made you its Jinchuriki.” He glances at the flower in the Hokage’s hand, a daisy with shockingly yellow petals, not unlike the Hokage’s hair. “We learnt that in history, villages have never treated those with chakra monsters sealed inside them well. There’s always fear and misunderstanding. Did they give you gifts back then, too?”

 

The Hokage goes quiet, contemplative. Finally, he says, “Harsh lessons are gifts too, aren’t they?”

 

Sasuke thinks about the scars mapped out on his skin and soul; the things they were made to do as children, first in laboratories and then the darkest parts of the forest that surround Oto, like how to cut through joints and cartilage instead of blunting the scalpel on bone. How they would learn on cadavers before practicing on living, breathing subjects. Many were prisoners. Some were fellow shinobi who had outlived their usefulness. “They are,” he says simply. 

 

The Hokage doesn’t say anything after that and Sasuke allows the moment to fall into a quiet, almost comfortable, understanding. 

 

They follow the meandering pathway that takes them through the shopping street and administrative buildings and out into the edges of the village. The path ends where a large open space begins, circled by tall, sturdy trees at its edge. 

 

“This is Training Ground Three,” the Hokage says as he leads them into the centre of the field. “There are ten training grounds in Konoha, and this is my favourite.” 

 

A bird chirps somewhere above their heads. The note is sharp, melodic. “Did you train here as a genin?”

 

“Yeah,” he says. “Thank god for Sakura-chan because Sai was such a pain — he’s still a pain a lot of the time now, but he was a lot worse when we were young. We were under Kakashi-sensei in Team 7.”

 

Sasuke is surprised they didn’t have this intel because it explains Hatake Kakashi’s role as senior advisor, Sai’s possessiveness, and their easy familiarity with the Hokage. “But Sai became your advisor.” 

 

“We grew closer over the years and now he’s like the brother I never had. Sai is methodical and annoyingly precise in everything he does which is why everyone says we work well together — and we do! I trust him with my life. Do you have siblings, Sachi?”

 

“No.” A breeze blows through the vast amount of space around them, and how exposed they are in the middle of this field makes Sasuke’s skin prickle. Over here, sunlight pours over them like a spotlight and he fights the urge to run into the trees and disappear into the comforting shadows. Konoha is still, and always will be, enemy territory. “Who is Sakura?” he asks.

 

The Hokage glances to his side, into the thick, shadowy depths of the trees even though the sun is high above their heads now. He turns back to him and, absurdly, whispers her name without breaking their eye contact. Sasuke himself can barely hear the name from his lips, let alone anyone else out there that he is calling for.

 

Like a summoning, a figure materialises in front of them, landing in a graceful crouch with one knee digging into the grassy ground. The figure lifts its head as a cat mask catches the bright midday sunlight. 

 

“I trust her with my life too,” the Hokage says. “She was at your Will of Fire ceremony. I could sense that you were on duty today, Sakura-chan.”  

 

“Yes, she escorted me from the house,” Sasuke replies, observing the figure as she straightens up to stand, eyes running from her pristine armour to the hilt of a sword poking up from behind her back to a head of bright hair, pink strands knotted into a tight bun.

 

The Hokage nods. “Have you met Sachi?”

 

“Not properly and you know I can’t do that here. That’s breaking protocol, Hokage-sama,” the figure says dryly. “I can’t just show my face on a whim or for social niceties.”

 

“Sai is better with the rules better than I am,” the Hokage replies with a shrug and an easy grin and the figure exhales loudly.

 

With a gloved hand, she peels down her mask to reveal the top half of a face. The person under it is a young woman who looks back at him with big, expressive eyes and a gaze far softer than he would imagine an ANBU possessing. “Hello, Sachi,” she says and it’s almost friendly even though she is sizing him up as she speaks. He keeps his expression passive and before there is time to reply, the mask is instantly pushed back into place and she is gone before his next breath. 

 

“She is one of the strongest members on the force and a pro at genjutsu,” the Hokage says, the palpable fondness clear in his voice and expression. “Haruno Sakura, my ANBU Captain.”

 

The Hokage may be a Jinchuriki and he may be strong, but there are chinks in his armour and now Sasuke knows they are cracked in the shapes of his genin team members. In his mind, he can hear a reminder, another lesson that echoes in Orochimaru’s low, rasping voice: Love is the ultimate weakness. Once you love, you have something that someone can take away. Once you have something to lose, you lose.

 


 

They escape the worst of the afternoon heat by returning home, back to its blank walls and musty air. Sasuke cracks open the kitchen window as the Hokage makes himself busy around him by pulling open cupboards, apparently searching for something.

 

“I’m making us lunch,” the Hokage says proudly as he finds what he’s looking for in one of the many cupboards.

 

One shrieking kettle and five minutes later, they are eating instant cup ramen. 

 

“What’s your favourite food?” the Hokage asks, in between mouthfuls of soup.

 

“Citrus fruits,” Sasuke lies. He doesn’t have strong likes or dislikes when it comes to many things because that is how they all grow up in Oto, but ordinary people do, which means Sachi likes citrus fruits and her favourite colour is green and in combat, she prefers kunai over shuriken.

 

“Any citrus fruit? All the citrus fruits?”

 

“I’m partial to yuzu,” he answers smoothly. He has never tried yuzu before.

 

“Wanna guess what my favourite food is?”

 

“Ramen,” Sasuke says. 

 

The Hokage’s eyes widen comically. “How did you know?”

 

“The map you drew me — the only place highlighted was a ramen place. The only edible food I found kept in the house on my first day here was instant ramen.” 

 

“I...really like ramen,” he answers lamely.

 

“It’s good,” Sasuke admits. Instant ramen is another one of the many things they don’t get in Oto and while the miso base is sharp and salty enough to make his toes curl, it’s not a lie when he tells the Hokage he likes it. 

 

It’s much too easy to make the Hokage happy, because he brightens up instantly. “Wait till you try Ichiraku!”

 

Sasuke smiles and it doesn’t feel quite so strange any more. When they finish their meal, Sasuke clears the table and the Hokage hovers by the entrance of the kitchen.

 

“I have some paperwork to catch up on upstairs,” he says apologetically. “Do you have anything you need to do?”

 

Sasuke thinks about the shelf of books in the living room. “I can read. Why don’t you bring your work to the living room? Unless the work is confidential?”

 

“Sai would kill me before he would allow me to take anything more important than reports on the stray cat population of Konoha out of the office.”

 

Sasuke walks up to him slowly as he speaks. “Then you can work downstairs. And we don’t have to be so lonely.” 

 

He stops in front of the Hokage. It’s not easy, standing still and looking right into a gaze this heavy, but Sasuke does. He watches the Hokage stare at him with that same indecipherable look he’s seen before, back during their first meeting.

 

“Yeah,” the Hokage says finally, quietly. “Okay.” 

 

They spend the rest of the day in the living room, the Hokage sitting on the floor, his documents spread out over the low table as Sasuke sits on the couch behind him, a book on Konoha’s history in his hands. From this angle, he can read everything from every scroll and sheet of paper. They’re just merchant permits and reports on administrative costs but this is an opening. Then, without warning, the Hokage tilts his head up to catch Sasuke staring down at him and his work instead of the book.

 

Sasuke doesn’t apologise.

 

The Hokage chuckles. “You’re actually interested in these?”

 

“Politics is fascinating,” Sasuke replies lighty.

 

The Hokage looks at him, assessing, and then pats the space next to him. The sound rings out in the silence of the house. “Two heads will complete the work faster than one.” 

 

Languidly, Sasuke makes his way off the couch and down onto the floor. “Sai might kill us.”

 

“He might,” the Hokage confesses.

 

He sits down next to him, curling his legs underneath the kimono, and now he is close enough to see the three straight and solid lines cut into his cheeks; close enough that when they bend over the papers, he can smell the day on the Hokage’s skin in the air between them, like salt and earth. They are close enough that if he had a kunai hidden in the sleeve of his kimono, he could reach out and slit the Hokage’s throat before Haruno Sakura or any other ANBU member could arrive through one of the many windows surrounding the living room.

 

They are so close.

 

The Hokage’s sharp exhale comes in the exact moment he inhales. Slowly and deeply, Sasuke uses the control of his breath to keep his mind clear as he forces the muscles that have relaxed to stay tense and on edge. 

 

What trust is capable of doing is dangerous.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Slowly, slowly, as surely as the days turn into weeks and the afternoons become cooler and the nights lengthens its reach, as the darkness starts to eat at the evenings, the Hokage starts sleeping at home. 

 

Sasuke spends most of his days reading or planning dinner, leaving the house only to restock groceries. For his own meals alone, there’s a bounty of fresh fruits or leftovers from dinner or instant ramen. Sasuke makes it a point to buy citrus fruits, and oranges are the easiest to find; he arranges these bright, round, ripe fruits in a sunny bowl at the corner of the kitchen. Now that the Hokage has started coming home, he has been experimenting with different dishes and ingredients, finding out through trial and error what the Hokage cares for and dislikes. 

 

He’s not an overly fussy eater, except he doesn’t enjoy vegetables and his go-to dish is still ramen.

 

Over stews and soups and grilled fish with crispy skin and white, flakey flesh, the Hokage tries to get him to open up with questions about his hobbies or life in Oto, but Sasuke demurs before finding a way to deftly change the subject onto the Hokage’s day instead. He learns about the paperwork, about the villagers’ concerns, and budgets for the jonin — all while ANBU listen. They both know this, so the Hokage keeps his stories light and Sasuke keeps a patient smile on his face and asks painfully general questions whenever appropriate. Sometimes, the Hokage slips because tiny bits of valuable information fall through, right into his lap, and it makes Sasuke’s smile grow sharper.

 

“Are you bored at home?” he asks abruptly one day and Sasuke looks up from his bowl of rice at this sudden change of subject. 

 

“You have a lot of books on the shelf,” Sasuke replies. 

 

“Is there anything that you want? Books on specific topics, specific...clothes? You have to be bored. You’re home alone most of the time and it’s council rules that you can’t get an allowance until we are formally married.” The Hokage’s cheeks colour lightly at this, but his voice barely wavers. “If you need anything, I’m sure I can find it for you.”

 

The words leave his mouth before Sasuke can stop himself. “Instruments. Musical instruments.”

 

“Right! Why didn’t didn’t I think of that,” the Hokage says sheepishly. “What do you play?”

 

“I learnt many instruments in Oto,” Sasuke replies, feeling the excitement rise like a tide within him but as fast as it comes, he quells it. It’s been weeks since he lost those silver bells to the raging fire. “But if I could pick anything, I’d like two things: a koto and a shakuhachi.” 

 

The Hokage smiles, and Sasuke understands how people lay all their trust in this man with his startling blue eyes and this strange, unwavering brightness. “I’ll get you what you want.”

 

This time, it is Sasuke’s cheeks that heat up. 

 

Two days later, in the middle of the afternoon, there’s a knock on the front door and he opens it to find two ANBU agents standing with their hands extended, bearing the Hokage’s gifts in two boxes — one large, the other smaller.

 

Sasuke murmurs his thanks as he brings in the gifts and shuts them out. On the living room floor, he opens the boxes and frees the instruments. The koto is a pale wood stained with clear varnish and in his hands, the shakuhachi is solid but light enough to be held comfortably in his hands. They are beautiful pieces and for a few suspended moments, Sasuke can only stare at the gifts. At Oto, all musical instruments were shared but these here are no one else’s but his. 

 

That night, he thanks the Hokage by kneading noodles from scratch. When the Hokage enters the kitchen after his bath, he is greeted by a steaming bowl of ramen topped with sweet-salty slices of pork. Miso wafts through the air, and the Hokage’s eyes almost fall out into the bowl. 

 

He is glowing when he looks back up, meeting his eyes. “ Wow .”

 

It actually makes Sasuke laugh.

 

Over the next few days, Sasuke loses time to melody and sound, and he has forgotten how much he missed the sweet ache of sore fingers and the way the tired muscles around his mouth feel after hours of practice. 

 

“Sachi,” the Hokage asks tonight, as they are washing the dishes, “can you show me how you play...?”

 

“Of course, Naruto. I would never deny my patron a show,” he says nonchalantly and the Hokage goes rigid next to him until Sasuke tilts his head towards his side.

 

“You’re teasing me,” the Hokage complains after Sasuke raises an eyebrow at him but there’s no bite in it, not when relief has extinguished every other emotion.

 

“I am,” Sasuke says.

 

The Hokage chuckles weakly.

 

When they’re done in the kitchen, they move into the living room, where his instruments are arranged carefully up against one of the walls. The Hokage settles into the couch, knees pressed together, back schoolboy straight. 

 

Sasuke takes the koto and lays it carefully onto the floor. He kneels in front of it, breathes in, and steadies his fingers over the strings. And then, as the Hokage watches, he allows it to speak through him.

 

It’s an old court piece, one that Orochimaru says is usually played in the Daimyo’s revered halls and it begins slow and mournful as Sasuke runs his hands over the thirteen strings, plucking at them, coaxing sound to life. People, books, paintings: everything lies because they can be coloured by bias and twisted by agenda.

 

Music is the only truth.

 

Immersing the self in a truth so pure is meditative because as reality crumbles away, nothing is left except for pure awareness within breath and emotion and sound. Eyes downcast, he guides the music to its feet because the crescendo is a cliff it must scale and so breath by breath, note by note, they climb. Before the piece can fly it must fall but before it can fall, another noise rings out and Sasuke’s finger slips over the strings as the flowing melody collapses and shatters onto itself. 

 

There is another knock on the door.

 

The Hokage is out of the couch and at the door before Sasuke can rise to his feet to make his careful way to the entrance. 

 

It’s a familiar face. 

 

“Ah,” the Hokage says. “Sai!”

 

“Sai-san,” Sasuke says as a greeting. 

 

“Tsukino-hime.” He is wearing his usual outfit, dressed head to toe in black. There is no inflection in his voice and under the streetlights, his skin looks even paler than usual. “I’m just here to pass the Hokage a few papers he missed out on for tomorrow’s meeting.”

 

“No wonder I felt like I was forgetting something important,” the Hokage replies with a wince. 

 

“You used to sleep at the office so this was never a problem,” Sai says, adding, “were you listening to the radio?” 

 

“No, that was Sachi. She was playing the koto and it sounds amazing. I’ve never heard anyone play the koto before but I’m sure she’s better than a professional. Do you want to come in?” he turns to Sasuke. “Is it okay if Sai hears you play?”

 

“Of course,” Sasuke says smoothly as Sai replies, at the exact same moment, “Maybe another time, Naruto. I should be getting home.”

 

“Don’t you like music, Sai? Art and music are in the same family, aren’t they?”

 

“They’re completely different things,” he says with a sigh but Sasuke sees an opening.

 

“Art? What sort of art?” Sasuke asks.

 

“Line drawing and calligraphy. It’s part of my jutsu.”  

 

He thinks about the delicate ink paintings hanging in the Hokage’s office upstairs. “I see. Yes,” he says, turning to the Hokage, “they’re completely different things.” 

 

“How about you, Tsukino-hime?” Sai questions, and Sasuke turns back to face him. “Is music a part of your fighting style as well? Are you able to cast a genjutsu on the Hokage with your instruments?” With the tone he is using, they could be talking about the weather.

 

“Sai—” the Hokage starts, but Sasuke is ready and prepared with a mild smile. 

 

“With my bloodline and these eyes, I don’t need to sully my artform and make it do my dirty work.”

 

Now the Hokage turns to him, eyes panicky. “Sachi—”

 

“Forgive my bluntness, but I don’t trust you,” Sai says evenly. “And even if I did, I’m not sure if I would like you.”

 

“Understandable. I cannot trust you either, but I like your honesty,” Sasuke replies just as plainly.

 

It’s enough to draw a ghost of a smile from Sai. “Goodnight, Tsukino-hime. Goodnight, Naruto. The meeting begins at nine.” He turns around to leave but before he disappears down the road and out of sight, he makes sure they can see him signalling for an ANBU and saying something to the figure that appears out of nowhere. They’re out of earshot, but he knows Sai is reminding him to keep a close watch on him and the Hokage. 

 

All it takes is several seconds, and when it is over the ANBU figure disappears back into the darkness and Sai starts to walk again. A breeze blows by, making the hinges of the door squeak shrilly into the darkening night. Sasuke closes the door and turns the lock. 

 

It’s all very calm and civil and it’s incredibly refreshing, compared to the usual fare of lies and subterfuge. The only one left flustered and sweating, apologising for the situation, for Sai’s behavior, for asking Sachi to even play in the first place, is the hero of the shinobi world and Jinchuriki of the most powerful chakra beast, the Sixth Hokage.

 


 

Another Saturday arrives, and the Hokage comes down dressed in Proper Clothes instead of his usual spiral tee shirt and soft pajama pants.

 

“Good morning, Sachi,” he says as he enters the kitchen.

 

“Good morning, Naruto,” Sasuke says as he eyes him from head to toe. “Do you have a meeting today?”

 

“No,” he says animatedly, “because I’m going to uh, take you out. On a date.”

 

Sasuke’s heart begins to race. This is unexpected, and unexpected situations are always dangerous. “Why? We are married.”

 

“We’re engaged to be married. I barely know you, and it’ll be fun. It’s a really nice day today, and we should go out before winter comes.”

 

“Okay,” Sasuke says, still cautious.

 

“Besides,” the Hokage adds happily, already walking backwards towards the front door, eyes still trained on him, “I haven’t had Ichiraku in forever.”

 

It’s too early for lunch but too late for breakfast, which means the tiny ramen stall is favourably empty. The stall owner and a younger lady greet their biggest fan happily, and when they ask who Sasuke is, the Hokage just tells them his name and they don’t press. It’s a comfortable place, and the rich scent of salt and miso fill the air, along with the deep, gurgling sound of hot, bubbling water. 

 

Sasuke settles into a hard, round seat. It’s worn, red paint flaking off plastic, and surprisingly comfortable. He orders the same thing as the Hokage: a miso ramen with sweet-salty sliced pork, except he replaces the pork with seasoned bamboo shoots instead.

 

“This place is great,” the Hokage says as he watches the man and the lady prepare their food, “it’s been here for me since the very beginning. Before I became a shinobi. Before I was even an Academy student.” 

 

“Before you became the Hokage or the hero of the village — and the world.” 

 

The Hokage smiles fondly. “Before I had anything, I had Ichiraku.”

 

“Was it difficult growing up as the village’s Jinchuriki?” Sasuke asks, voice barely louder than the ambient sounds of the kitchen.

 

“It wasn’t easy, but I knew I was going to become Hokage and there was nothing that could stop me from achieving that. Once you have a goal to work towards, you can focus on it without regrets and eventually, one day, someday , things will get easier. And that’s when you will reach your goal.”

 

Sasuke thinks about the cotton kimono wrapped around his body and Konoha’s destruction. This mission is nothing more than another order from Oto, issued by their leader. He has infiltrated hamlets, stolen secret scrolls of forbidden jutsu, killed with his eyes; terrible things have been under the symbol on his headband. It never gets easier, but all that matters is getting better and getting ahead in order to stay alive. “Spoken like a true Kage,” Sasuke replies. Spoken like a naive child, Sasuke thinks.

 

Two bowls are placed before them and the rich smell of miso in the air intensifies.

 

They eat in silence, but it’s not an uncomfortable one. Sasuke allows himself, for the first time, in this brief, tiny moment, to forget about who he is to become who he should be. Sachi chews at the seasoned bamboo shoots that burst into even more flavour inside her mouth and slurps up the noodles as quietly as she can and drinks every last drop of the broth. Sachi has no other mission except to enjoy this bowl of noodles, and it is the best bowl of ramen she has ever had. When the bowl is finally empty, he pulls Sachi back and away. 

 

“How was it?” the Hokage asks as he sets his chopsticks down.

 

“I understand why you love this place so much,” Sasuke replies solemnly.

 

The Hokage laughs as he pulls out a brilliant green frog wallet. “You have another fan, Teuchi!”

 

They walk under the trees as the sun shines down above them, casting broken shadows all around their feet. The Hokage takes them down quieter paths and they are undisturbed as he leads them towards their destination: the foot of the Hokage Monument. 

 

“Now I’m going to show you my favourite place — it’s the most beautiful place in the entire village.”

 

“Here?” Sasuke asks, looking up at the sheer mountain face.

 

“Up on top of my stone head. We can walk up the proper way like boring politicians do, or we can jump right up like shinobi. It’s your first time here, so you get to decide, Sachi.”

 

“I’m not a politician,” Sasuke replies. “I’m just engaged to one. Race you up.” He concentrates the chakra on his feet as he leaps up, leaving the Hokage behind. He’s never tried running in a kimono, but now he realises if he doesn’t take steps that are too wide, it’s a perfectly adequate outfit to climb up a stone wall in. Behind him, he hears a surprised yelp and the sound of someone scrambling up after him and Sasuke grins. 

 

His foot lands on the head just a breath faster than the Hokage’s does next to him, and he turns around to see Konoha sprawled out beneath them, colourful pinpricks of tiny people and buildings and open areas, encircled by the deep green hue of thick forests and mountain ranges and crowned by a dazzling blue horizon. 

 

It takes his breath away. 

 

Next to him, the Hokage surprises him by catching his wrist and Sasuke pulls away instinctively, but he holds on to tug him down to sit. His touch is so hot it burns at Sasuke’s pulse point. Sasuke stops resisting enough for them both to sit down on top of the giant carving of the Sixth Hokage’s head instead of toppling over, and then he lets go of Sasuke’s wrist.  

 

Sasuke glances at the Hokage who is staring intently up ahead, flushed in the face down to his neck, jaw tight. He is blushing. 

 

“Naruto, did the arrangement of our marriage take anyone away from you?” Sasuke asks as he presses his fingers into his own wrist.

 

The Hokage turns to him with wide, panicky eyes. “What do you mean?”

 

“Did you have a girlfriend before this? Someone you liked?”

 

“I liked Sakura-chan when we were genin, but that is ancient history,” he says with a laugh. “I’ve received confessions from girls here and there, but there’s no one I have really been interested in. I’m always in meetings or at the office, trapped by mountains of paperwork or Sai’s stifling focus.”

 

This makes Sasuke smile. “I see.”

 

“How about you?” the Hokage asks.

 

“No,” Sasuke replies, turning away to absorb the view. The Hokage’s village, bathed in sunlight, is truly beautiful.

 

“But here we are,” he says, planting both his palms behind him and stretching his legs straight out in front of him, shoes brushing against the edge of the head.

 

“Yes,” Sasuke says. “Thank you for this, Naruto.”

 

“The view?”

 

“And for the opportunity to be with you,” Sasuke adds softly. The scenery is beautiful, but beautiful things do not last. They never do.

 

The Hokage doesn’t respond and the silence that blankets them is soft, like the calm breeze that sends tendrils of silken hair dancing around his face. As Sasuke tucks a strand of hair carefully behind his ears, he glances at the Hokage to see that his ruddy cheeks have bloomed red again but this time, there is a small, bashful smile playing on his lips.

 


 

On their way home, they take a different route back and they pass another wide, open area but this time, it’s not a training field. A red spiral sculpture rises from the ground to tower over them, shadow curled and long, painted in sharp relief on the ground.

 

“Konoha Cemetery,” the Hokage explains. “This Will of Fire sculpture watches over our dead.”

 

Sasuke stares out at the endless rows of smooth, concrete headstones arranged into neat, nearly endless, grids. At Oto, they burn their dead to render every bone, every belonging, every trace of their existence, obsolete but here at Konoha, they are memorialised. This is a historical record of the village’s dead, and it can hold extremely valuable information. 

 

“Can I...?” he asks, and the Hokage nods but in his eyes lies an unasked question. “I like history,” Sasuke offers as he steps forward smoothly, past the Hokage who stands with his hands in his pockets, and makes his careful way onto the grounds. 

 

Across each stone, there is the simple curve of Konoha’s symbol and a date of death. Under that, a name is carved carefully onto concrete. Many tombstones have the same white flowers with paper-thin petals laying across them or propped into the small vases that frame each somber rectangle. All are immaculate, free from dead leaves and dried grass.

 

The air feels heavy against his skin; it’s a physical pressure, like the moments before a rainstorm. Unlike the rest of the village, there are no cooing birds, no sounds of noisy life, no whispering leaves. There is only a simple, profound silence. Sasuke looks behind his shoulder, and the Hokage is still standing in place, gazing at the spiraling red sculpture. 

 

Sasuke continues walking, eyes flitting across the many different names by his feet. There are a few names he does recognise, names attached to acts or ideals that have been recorded by history and taught in Kabuto’s classroom. But most are just names that time has already forgotten.

 

His feet take him to the far edge of the cemetery, the furthest point away from the main path, where the grid ends and tall forest trees begin. It’s the most beautiful part of the grounds. When he looks down, he sees the same things repeated across every other stone: Konoha’s mark, a date, and a name, but somehow, in this moment, everything changes. It’s not just another simple grave. 

 

It feels like genjutsu and Sasuke wakes his Sharingan as he glances around, but there is nothing in the air or around him. ANBU are hiding, but they are not manipulating his vision. He forces himself to look back down.

 

He can read the characters on the stone but somehow, he doesn’t understand it. The sun burns down on him, but it does nothing to stop the shiver that runs down his spine. He whispers the name aloud, and it still makes no sense. 

 

Uchiha Sasuke.

 

The air is still, the world remains quiet, and Sasuke can only stare at his grave.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Sasuke’s tenth birthday, he receives his first and only present in Oto. 

 

It’s a photograph, and the glossy surface catches the light from the flickering lamps that line the stone walls. There are four figures in it.

 

“This was before,” Orochimaru explains. “They were your first family from Konoha.”

 

Sasuke studies the contours of their calm expressions; he takes in the similarities of their pale faces and dark hair to his own. It feels just like studying a map. “Okay,” he says. 

 

“That is your parents,” Orochimaru says softly. “This is your brother.”

 

“Okay,” he says, tracing a finger over lines and faded colours. 

 

“Your parents are dead because your entire clan is dead. Your brother killed them all.”

 

Sasuke looks up from the photograph and sees his own wide eyes mirrored in Orochimaru’s cool, amber gaze. It is surprise he feels — an automatic response to these shocking words instead of an emotional one, just like how his eyes fill with tears even though they are just four frozen strangers in a photo.

 

“Focus. This is not important. That is your past,” Orochimaru says, the lilt of his voice as soothing as a musical piece. “Your future is here and you are safe in Oto.” 

 

He can only continue to stare mutely at him before looking back down at the photograph. Fear rises up within him, as suffocating as thick smoke, that if he speaks or breathes or blinks, the tears that will roll down his cheeks cannot stop and he will be left crying forever, even if he has no reason to. Crying is a weakness and he cannot show Orochimaru he is weak. They are just strange faces and this is nothing more than a frightening story.

 

There is a second gift, because Orochimaru continues speaking. “You are safe because you cannot remember their deaths and your brother’s actions. You are safe as long as you don’t feel anything, Sasuke-kun.” 

 


 

“Sasuke,” he repeats as the edges of his reality threaten to fray all so easily apart.

 

“Sachi,” a voice calls out, and it’s muscle memory that forces his Sharingan to deactivate as he’s jolted back to the present. Looking up, he sees the Hokage jogging towards him and up close, he can see the Hokage’s curious stare and Sasuke blinks, forcing himself to focus even though his heart feels like it is pounding out of his ribcage and there’s a faint buzzing in his head.

 

“Uchiha Sasuke?” Sasuke says again, louder and stronger. He keeps his voice even.

 

The Hokage exhales. “Have you heard about the Uchiha massacre? 

 

Sasuke nods slowly.

 

“He survived it and was the last member of the Uchiha clan. Later on, there was an incident...a kidnapping. Uchiha Sasuke was taken from the village, and ANBU found his body a few days later at the border of Fire country. This was—”

 

“—Eleven years ago,” Sasuke says, staring at the date engraved in stone. 

 

“Yeah. From what I have learnt as Hokage, it was one of Konoha’s darkest moments. Back then, I was too young to understand what happened. We were the same age, so we were in the same Academy class. One day he stopped turning up, like he just disappeared into thin air. None of the teachers ever mentioned his name ever again and we were just Academy students, so no one told us anything. After a while, everyone just forgot about it. Everything I know now, I only knew as an adult,” the Hokage explains, voice low. “I found out later he was buried here quietly, without ceremony.”

 

Only one person comes to mind: Orochimaru. The fact that he was born in Konoha was never a mystery, but that was all Sasuke had known. Perfect soldiers do not ask questions. Sasuke’s face must be paler than usual, because the Hokage adds, gently, “He was a distant relative, right?” 

 

He manages to force a word out. “Yes.”

 

“I’m sorry,” the Hokage says, and the grief in his voice sounds as real as the ground they are standing on, as true as the impossibly blue sky hanging above their heads. This is the first reminder, outside stories that sound like nothing more than myths and a single photograph of people he does not recognise, that something he cannot remember is real .

 

“Who…?”

 

“There were scrolls with short reports of investigations held to find the perpetrators, but nothing was ever found.”

 

Sasuke wraps his arms around himself, fingers digging into the kimono and then into soft flesh, forcing his mind to anchor itself to the present in order to process this as just another problem to solve. It’s not easy to focus, not when this truth slides around his head like rainwater on glass.

 

Konoha’s Uchiha Sasuke had to die so that he could live.

 

The walk home is silent.

 

That night, after a simple dinner of steamed rice and miso soup, the Hokage brings a cup of green tea to the living room for him. He places it down on the low table, and Sasuke looks up to see pale steam melting into the cool air before finding a pair of concerned blue eyes. 

 

“Naruto,” Sasuke says, closing the cover of the book in his lap carefully. He is sitting on the floor, trying to concentrate and finish the obviously biased account of Konoha’s history. “Thank you.”

 

The Hokage is kneeling in front of the table, opposite him. “Are you alright? You’ve been quiet since the cemetery.”

 

“I am,” he says, shaking his head lightly. His hair brushes against his neck. “I’m sorry. It was just...strange.”

 

“I kinda get it. I grew up an orphan so I never knew my parents. When I found out through historical records that most of my mother’s clan was systematically wiped out for their powers, it was a weird feeling. I never knew them, but I still felt like I had lost something. Like there is a gap I can never cross over.”

 

Sasuke nods. It’s strange and surprising and uncomfortable that the Hokage understands. “Yes.”

 

“But life goes on.”

 

“It does,” Sasuke replies.

 

Now the Hokage smiles, and it’s a soft, tentative one. “I had fun today, despite everything.”

 

“I hope I didn’t ruin the date,” Sasuke replies, “because it was fun for me too. I know how busy you are.”

 

“I like spending time with you,” the Hokage says plainly, honestly, and it draws out an almost effortless smile from him.

 

“I’m glad.”

 

The Hokage continues staring at him and Sasuke holds his gaze. There’s something about the way he looks at him, like something is crumbling down behind that vivid gaze and it takes Sasuke a second, when it should have been instant, to know an opening when he sees it. 

 

“Naruto,” Sasuke says and the Hokage blinks suddenly, as though dazed.

 

“Yeah?”

 

It always begins with the little things: the barest nudge, the tiniest, simplest requests. 

 

“Can you call off ANBU surveillance? For just one night? After today, it would be nice to have a single night knowing there is no one watching me sleep. I’ve been reading about Konoha’s chain of command, and it is said ANBU are under direct purview of the Hokage. That means...anything you say, they will do?” 

 

“Yes,” the Hokage replies, and then, only after the slightest hesitation: “Okay.”

 

Sasuke smiles, and it’s a real one this time because he is exhausted and it’s not something he feels in the flesh. It’s a deeper sort of weariness, similar to the kind that comes after a bout of genjutsu, leaving the spirit soft and sore. Tomorrow, Sachi will wake up stronger. Tonight, he wants to sleep through the night. “Thank you, Naruto.”

 


 

The next week is a busy one for the Hokage. 

 

Sasuke knows there is something going on in the government because he keeps his upstairs office locked in the day and barely comes home before midnight, but Sasuke waits up with hot food simmering on the stove and an instrument in his hand to pass the time.

 

“Screw it,” the Hokage says one night, in the middle of a late dinner. “I want to be able to talk to you without being presented a transcript of it the next day.” The Hokage stands and walks to the kitchen window, and he slides it open. “ANBU!” he says into the darkness. “You are dismissed for the night.” 

 

The window closes with a solid thump and instantly, Sasuke feels a weight dissolve off his shoulders as the air is cleared of hazy whirls of foreign chakra. Now, there is only the two of them. 

 

He stands to brew them both fresh cups of tea and as the leaves seep, as Sasuke slides back into the dining room chair, the Hokage talks about the unease at Suna’s borders, about rumours of Akatsuki sympathizers and brand new shadow organisations, about the issues closer to home. The world is not as peaceful as it seems, and this is the information he is here for. 

 

More important is what he learns about the Hokage: he is not weak, but there is something, not so much a weakness but an essential part of his spirit that is made out of a cripping, cloying loneliness. Outside, in the village, Sasuke has noticed little things, like how the people love their Hokage but it is all done from afar. They don’t approach, and the ones that do are young children bearing gifts of fruit and flowers. There is not two-way communication; it is mere hero worship. The people, Sasuke has realised, still fear the Hokage. Not the same way as they did before when he was merely their Jinchuriki, but there is no doubt that the Hokage is one of the most powerful shinobi in the world, one who is almost more god than human. Fear is still fear.

 

This he understands. Oto is a handpicked collection of exquisite bloodlines and venerated abilities, and even in a group this rare, Sasuke knows his eyes are special. If Orochimaru could play favourites, he thinks he would be it but Orochimaru cannot, because attachments are weaknesses.

 

The Hokage hides his loneliness well but he has always had a good eye, even without the Sharingan. 

 

Here, across him, he doesn’t offer any recommendations, he does not make soft noises of consolation; Sasuke just listens, fingers around his cup, eyes never wavering as he drinks in the man opposite him.

 

And then, once it’s closer to dawn than it is still night, when the Hokage retires upstairs to sleep, Sasuke gathers a few books and documents from the library. He will be unwatched and undisturbed until daybreak. They are of different maps from Konoha throughout history, and he carries them carefully into his bedroom before he begins making notes on the Uchiha clan compound.

 

By morning, before the Hokage is awake and ANBU return to their posts around this house, Sasuke notices a pattern: the Uchiha compound had started out in the heart of the village, beating alongside the Hokage Mansion, only to be pushed aside and outwards towards the forests as the years passed until the compound was abandoned when Uchiha Sasuke was taken and found dead. Today, it is no more. The compound that once housed over thirty families was destroyed during Pain’s attack on Konoha. 

 

It was never restored, rebuilt, or remembered.

 


 

It’s another busy week when one day, the Hokage returns home early. It’s late, but this is earlier than any of the previous nights.

 

He walks into the living room with one hand hidden by his back, where Sasuke is kneeling on the floor with the koto. He looks up as his fingers still slowly upon the strings and, wordlessly, Sasuke rises to his feet. The Hokage draws his hand in front of his body, in between the two of them, and there is something hidden within his fist.

 

Fingers curl open like flower petals blossoming, revealing a single yellow fruit. It’s somewhat small and curiously misshapen, but still, Sasuke’s sharp, quiet inhale catches in his chest.

 

“I saw a basket arriving at a fruit vendor’s stall from my office window, and I just walked out of the room in the middle of Sai’s report because I heard that the best ones come all the way from Lightning country and I had to get some. This is all the shopkeeper could spare me, because a dessert shop owner had ordered it specially from him,” the Hokage says, chuckling a little too loudly to conceal a tremor of some sort in his voice. “It-it made me think of you.”

 

It is Sasuke’s most innocent lie. It’s Sachi’s favourite fruit — a yuzu.

 


 

There’s a storm outside, and this is a quiet weekend at home. 

 

The temperature has fallen and the weather has turned wetter — this is a Konoha winter, the Hokage explained. It’s warm and cosy under the buttery lights of home, and it’s the perfect opportunity to gather more information.

 

“Naruto,” Sasuke says after dinner, “can I see Sai’s drawings? The ones in your office upstairs?”

 

“Sure,” the Hokages says.

 

“But Sai did say I cannot enter your office nor are we allowed to be in a private room with each other…”

 

“Sai and the rest of the councillors also agreed that ANBU must watch us at all times, but there’s no one watching us tonight. Again.”

 

It’s true, because the Hokage has been dismissing the guards more and more often lately, which suits Sasuke extremely well. He smiles. “Let’s go upstairs, then.” 

 

The Hokage leads the way.

 

Up close, in this office, the drawings are good: fine strokes in black ink drawn with expert control. Sasuke cannot appreciate art like with music, but he knows something beautiful when he sees it. “Sai is good,” Sasuke says.

 

Next to him, the Hokage nods. “It’s even better when he brings these drawings to life during a fight. Drawing well is a skill, but drawing well when every jutsu in the world is being thrown at your head is a gift.”

 

“It would be great to see him in action. Hopefully I’ll have the chance one day, because I don’t think Sai likes me very much.”

 

“Sai’s...a little different. Complicated,” the Hokage says. “He doesn’t trust easily, even now.” Sasuke tilts his head to the side, questioning, and the Hokage continues. “Sai didn’t grow up like me or Sakura as a normal shinobi in the village. He was a young orphan taken in by Root. They were a division of ANBU that was closed and cleaned out some time ago because they got too comfortable in the shadows. One day, he just appeared in our class at the Academy and he was the strangest kid: never talking, only drawing. Even his smiles were weird. He was freakishly good at ninjutsu and taijutsu — I was so sure he was deadlier than Iruka-sensei and the rest of the teachers and I hated him for being so good.”

 

“But you guys became friends,” Sasuke prompts.

 

“We were put in the same genin team, so we didn’t really have a choice. He was conditioned with a different set of values in Root, and Sai doesn’t talk a lot about the time he spent there but when I became Hokage, I gained access to Root’s training manuals and it’s not...normal. Sakura-chan and Kakashi-sensei and I have really rubbed off on him because he’s fine now. Mostly. He has a really soft heart under that front.”

 

It’s intriguing how he has much more he seems to have in common with Sai than he does with the Hokage. “How many years do you think it’ll take for me to get to that level of comfort with him?” Sasuke asks in mock seriousness.

 

The Hokage laughs. “It took me seven years. If we get Sakura-chan in our corner, I think we can cut that time in half.”

 

Sasuke blinks. “Why Sakura?”

 

“Sakura-chan and Sai are together,” he says, like it’s the most obvious thing i’m the world. “My advisor and ANBU Captain are practically a married couple.”

 

Out of everything he’s learnt today, this is the most important piece of information. The key to breaking any person is a weakness called love . “So you’re the third wheel,” Sasuke replies. 

 

“Hah,” the Hokage chuckles. “That was my first response as well! But it’s really not so bad -- they’re both so painfully professional and secretive that only a handful of people know about the relationship even now, and they’ve been together since after Akatsuki’s defeat, so it’s already been...four years. I don’t have to suffer through any weird moments whenever we have meetings together.” 

 

Sasuke nods. “There’s something else I just realised...why did Sai appear in your Academy class so suddenly?”

 

The Hokage’s demeanor dims. “We were one student short. He came in to fill Uchiha Sasuke’s spot.” 

 

Outside, the rain suddenly sounds louder, falling more violently against the window than before. The walls in the office seem closer, and out of the corner of his eye, he thinks he sees the lines of Sai’s drawing shift imperceptibly. It reminds him of one of the many snakes in the forests around Oto, lying in wait for its prey.

 

Rationally, Sasuke knows Sai was too young to be involved in his disappearance even as a member of Root, and this is why it is surprising when the tiniest spark of something flares up brightly behind his ribcage. It takes a second to place it, because they’ve been taught to think clearly and complete missions with complete detachment. Emotions are dangerous and nothing they do is personal: not when they are asked to poison entire towns, not when they are told to cut down every target, from babies who crawl and slip and slide through puddles from the blood of their parents to headstrong, eldery people who face them with steel in their eyes and makeshift weapons in their trembling hands.

 

It’s irrational but still, this cuts a little too close and the emotion that razes through him is pure, white-hot hatred.

 


 

It takes longer than he thinks it would take him to ask the Hokage the question that has settled heavily in his mind as he pieces together the Uchiha’s past. 

 

His second month in Konoha is marked by how their days have settled into a familiar routine: weeknights of shared dinners and light conversation followed by time spent in the living room after the dishes are done, Sasuke with a book in hand or bringing sound to life and the Hokage with his extra readings.   

 

He waits until they have another day free from ANBU surveillance and when one such day arrives, they’re in the living room together. It’s a cold night. Sasuke starts with a simpler question and poses it lightly, offhandedly. “Naruto...what happened during the Uchiha massacre?” 

 

“Huh?” the Hokage looks up from the scroll he is absorbed in. He blinks.

 

“The Uchiha massacre,” Sasuke repeats. “What happened?”

 

“Oh...Uchiha Itachi, eldest son of the clan’s leader, snapped. He wiped out the entire clan and left the village to join Akatsuki,” the Hokage says, straightening up and stretching his arms over his head.

 

“Almost the entire clan,” Sasuke corrects him.

 

“Yeah, he spared his only brother,” the Hokage replies. 

 

“Is that all from the village’s reports — that Uchiha Itachi just snapped?”

 

“That’s what was implied in the archives,” he replies. “A lot of these things aren’t talked about; they’re hidden from the general public and all the way up to specialised jonin. Only high-ranking jonin and members of the government have access to the information. It’s sensitive stuff.”

 

Sasuke takes a deep, quiet breath. “What happened to Uchiha Itachi? Why was he not brought back and tried for his crime against his own clan?” 

 

“In the reports, it was noted he was being pursued by Root. As a member of Akatsuki, he wasn’t easy to find. But in the end, we didn’t have to find him — Uchiha Itachi came to us.”

 

Sasuke frowns. “What do you mean?”

 

“He came back to the village looking for Danzo,” he explains. At Sasuke’s expression, he elaborates. “Shimura Danzo was Root’s leader. He was also an expert on the Sharingan because his agents were the ones who cleared the Uchiha compound of the bodies, and the Third Hokage allowed them to keep their eyes so Danzo could study them.”

 

Involuntarily, Sasuke shudders. “Why would he return?”

 

“There’s a lot we don’t know...we don’t know how Itachi did it, but he managed to lure Danzo out of the village. They fought at the border of Fire country for two days and two nights, and at the end of the fight, the battleground was completely destroyed. Danzo was extremely powerful and Uchiha Itachi was a prodigy. The result was complete destruction and they were both found dead. Root was dissolved, and Uchiha Itachi’s eyes were brought back to the village. The Valley of the End was never rebuilt.”

 

He’s read about this place in books on Konoha’s history. “The Valley of the End? The place where the First Hokage built two statues, one of himself and the other of his rival, Uchiha Madara?”

 

The Hokage nods. “A fitting battleground.”

 

“So that was how the Uchiha line was extinguished,” Sasuke says conversationally, as though it means nothing to him. “Who died first? Uchiha Itachi or Uchiha Sasuke?”

 

“Uchiha Itachi came for Danzo eleven years ago,” the Hokage explains, voice grim. “He returned to the village a month after Uchiha Sasuke was found dead.”

 

“A tragedy,” Sasuke replies, slipping in only the barest of emotions into his tone and to show how unaffected he is, he stands. “I’m going to boil some water. Would you like some tea, Naruto?”

 

If this change of subject happens too quickly, the Hokage doesn’t show it. “Ah, instant ramen takes hot water too. I’ll follow you to the kitchen.”

 

“Please let me do it. I’ll make you a cup and I’ll be right back,” Sasuke says, leaving the living room before the Hokage can follow.

 

In the kitchen, he moves carefully as he fills the kettle with water from the tap before bringing it to a boil. His mind is calm as it processes the given information methodically: Uchiha Itachi, Danzo, Uchiha Sasuke, death, endings. Emotions are dangerous; he knows this, and this is why he does not feel anything. After that night in the Hokage’s office upstairs, he has to work harder at controlling inconvenient emotions and a clean slate is the easiest foundation to work from.

 

But here, even though he tells himself he doesn’t feel anything, for some baffling reason as he pours the hot water into a plastic cup of instant ramen, Sasuke’s hands cannot stop shaking.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sasuke decides on something different for today’s date. 

 

“I want to spar with you.”

 

The Hokage is eating his breakfast, but now he is choking on it. Sasuke walks over to the kettle to pour him a glass of warm water, sets it on the table in front of him, and waits.

 

The Hokage stops coughing long enough to take a long drag of water. His voice is hoarse when he finally speaks. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”

 

“Think of it as a date. It’ll be fun,” Sasuke adds.

 

The look on his face is apprehensive. “Trying to hurt each other will be fun?” 

 

“Putting our powers into practice is fun. It’s not bad being at home all the time but before I came here, I was a kunoichi on active duty. I went on missions; I got my hands dirty. Also, I’m not sure if you can even hurt me.”

 

The Hokage grins. “Is that a challenge?”

 

It’s getting harder and harder to separate himself from the emotions that arise and cloud his thoughts, so this will be a good opportunity to work through any stagnant, lingering feelings. Sasuke stares directly into his eyes. He smiles. “It is. I challenge you, Hokage-sama, to a fight.”  

 

It works like a dream because twenty minutes later, they are headed out towards Training Ground Three and for the first time, Sasuke is not dressed in his usual kimono out in public. His pyjamas are finally being used for its intended purpose: in a dark blue long sleeve shirt and matching slacks, with the Konoha headband tied around his waist, he can now pass for any ordinary Konoha shinobi. 

 

It’s perfect because the uniform is baggy around his chest, high around his neck, and long around his arms and legs, hiding everything that needs to be hidden.

 

The Hokage is dressed in an identical outfit, except his headband is tied around his forehead and he sports an unzipped army green flak jacket. The Hokage’s uniform is much more fitted than his, and this is the first time Sasuke notices the definition in those arms and shoulders and the way the fabric strains across those muscles. 

 

It’s early on a Sunday morning and the village is still slumbering. 

 

Out on the field, the Hokage attempts to set some ground rules as they face each other. “No ninjutsu—”

 

“—That’s boring,” Sasuke interjects. 


“You wanna hit me with a special jutsu?”

 

He has a few options and that’s not a bad idea, he thinks, but Sasuke shakes his head. “I just don’t think we need rules,” Sasuke replies. “We’re being watched by ANBU anyway.”

 

The Hokage scratches his cheek, looking amused. “I’m not sure if you understand the extent of my strength...”

 

“I’m not sure if you understand the extent of my power,” Sasuke says with a smirk as he combs his fingers through his long hair. He has a plain, black hair tie with him from home, and it loops easily around his smooth hair, fastening it in a low ponytail.

 

“Fine,” the Hokage says, trying to sound serious but it doesn’t work, not when excitement bleeds into his voice. “No rules except to use our powers responsibly, no destroying the field, and no damaging my right hand.” He raises it up high and wiggles his fingers. “I have too many documents to sign tomorrow.”

 

“Let’s go,” Sasuke says, leaping backwards and jumping up high, bringing his hands together into seamless seals as a familiar flow of chakra builds up within his chest. Fingers encircled in front of his mouth, he pushes the chakra outward smoothly and a brilliant fireball rages into existence. He directs it down towards the Hokage.

 

His opponent is ready, because when the fire clears and Sasuke is back on the ground, four more Hokages stand amid the clearing tendrils of smoke. 

 

“Don’t hold back,” Sasuke says, adjusting the headband around his waist in a casual, offhanded gesture. 

 

The Hokages move all at once as Sasuke’s eyes flash red, and he feels it with his Sharingan a second before he actually sees it: a glowing blue ball behind his head, wielded by a new clone. “Rasengan!”

 

Stepping a single step to the left, he twists and dodges the spiraling form of concentrated chakra and blocks the blows from the bodies that come punching and kicking up. The Sharingan catches everything in perfect clarity, and even though he knows the Hokage is a Jinchuriki, the fist he catches in his own hand still surprises him: the brutal power behind that punch is not normal, not human. Molten chakra leaches into his palm and he pushes the Hokage’s fist away, blocks kicks aimed at his torso, and ducks down low to somersault out of the way, bringing more space between them.

 

He aims another fireball at the Hokage, a smaller but faster one, and it does the trick because several bodies are caught in it, incinerating them with sharp, loud cracks. 

 

This time, when the smoke clears, the Hokage has transformed: his eyelids are coloured orange and his pupils are no longer a familiar blue. This amber is sharp and strange, so foreign to the blue he has gotten used to. His arms are crossed loosely in front of his chest and he looks amused and inside, Sasuke grins. So this is the Hokage’s legendary Sanin mode, and from the smile on his face, he looks ready to show off. 

 

The Hokage flies towards him and he’s faster now, covering the entire distance with just one leap, moving less predictably. The moves he throws are even more powerful than before and Sasuke narrowly avoids each one by the tiniest margin until a punch breaks through his defense to connect solidly with his shoulder. 

 

The brute force of it is the first thing he feels, knocking the air clean from his lungs, and then a burst of bright, intoxicating pain follows.

 

Sasuke flies across the field, wind sharp against his skin, and barely manages to land upright because his feet slip and slide on the grass, struggling to find purchase. When he finally comes to a stop, he looks up to see the Hokage coming after him — bent forward, body close to the ground, and moving with sheer intention. Frustration and a thrill of something more sings in his blood. This is not part of the plan but there’s no loss of control yet, not when he’s merely upping the stakes because it’s automatic how the Sharingan shifts and the way it feels for the tomoe to melt and bind together effortlessly, like streams of water flowing into a lake. Power throbs behind his eyeballs and radiates through his skull.

 

When he blinks again, he stares at the Hokage with new eyes, pupils engraved with a new pattern, like six petals of a flower. The Mangekyou Sharingan is awake. 

 

He has had the Sharingan ever since he could remember, so it must have been unlocked before his life began in Oto. The Mangekyou Sharingan is different, because it was awakened in Oto as one of Orochimaru’s many projects. Coaxed into existence after rounds of experimentations, each more cruel than the last, it took several long, exhausting months. What worked, in the end, was the slow torture and dismemberment of his roomate by Sasuke’s own hand with his own kunai: a boy with no name, only a number and barely older than he was, he was someone Sasuke never considered a friend, but it was still someone who slept in the same cell as him, who understood what he was going through, who lived through similar things as he did.      

 

When the boy finally died, these new eyes came to life.

 

Focusing on a point in front of the Hokage and not directly at him, Sasuke invokes the name of a goddess and a fire bursts to life in front of him in rich, spiralising flames. It’s no ordinary fire, because no fire in the world is the colour of shadows and darkness. It’s not ordinary heat either, because this one is infernal, almost sticky, and even here, at this distance, it draws beads of sweat from his pores, coating his own skin with something that feels wrong . Thankfully, the Hokage has enough common sense to come to a complete stop before the wall of unholy heat.

 

With his other eye, he manipulates the fire until they can see each other over it. It flails and falls, almost alive, as he makes his way towards the Hokage. The strain of chakra is already leadening his muscles. By the time he stands across the Hokage, the fire is dancing only waist-high and the Hokage is extending a hand out to poke the mysterious black flames.

 

“Don’t!” Sasuke shouts and the force of it stuns the both of them. The Hokage’s hand draws back, safe. “It’s Amaterasu,” he continues, softer now, back in control. “A fire that never goes out. You don’t want to touch it, especially not with your right hand. You need that for tomorrow.”

 

The Hokage looks more mesmerised than afraid. “It’s beautiful.” 

 

Sasuke kills the flames completely and without a second thought, Sasuke is paying him back for that punch with one of his own. He throws all his weight behind the fist that connects with the Hokage’s chest and the contact is solid and satisfying under his hand. It’s a simple move, but his opponent will be feeling that in the days to come. The Hokage’s left arm comes flying up and Sasuke dodges that, but it’s a feint because he uses his right hand to grab onto Sasuke’s wrist as he falls back, dragging Sasuke along with him.

 

They land in an unceremonious heap on the charred ground. 

 

The Hokage cushions his fall and Sasuke finds himself on the Hokage’s thighs and the Hokage is staring up at him, concern etched across his face. Slowly, the orange marks fade away from around his eyes and the amber of his irises freeze over into a familiar blue. 

 

“Sachi,” he says. “You’re—” 

 

Sasuke can anticipate what the Hokage will do in perfect clarity because he knows what his eyes can do, but before he is able to bring his body to move, the Hokage reaches up. He can’t help it; he flinches. The fingers that brush across his cheek are hot, too hot, like concentrated sunlight, and the touch is soft, almost tender, unlike anything he’s ever felt before. It lingers. Sasuke exhales and opens his eyes when the Hokage draws his hand away, blood glistening across his fingers. 

 

“This is normal.” Sticky blood comes away onto the back of his own hand when he brings it up to his face. “It’s the price one pays for the Mangekyou Sharingan. I’m fine.”

 

Naruto’s hand falls down to his side. His expression loses its worry and shifts to something more wonderstruck. “You fight really well.”

 

It would only take a second for him to trap the Hokage in a genjutsu now that he is staring so intently into his eyes, but Sasuke deactivates his Mangekyou Sharingan. It’s not the right time nor place. For a moment, everything blurs before the Hokage sharpens into view and his blue eyes are the brightest thing Sasuke has ever seen. “For a girl?” he questions. 

 

Turning on the Mangekyou Sharingan in front of their audience — ANBU — is not a wise decision. Now they will know his Sharingan is this refined; now they have seen how Amaterasu can be applied. A careless, elementary mistake.

 

“For anyone I’ve ever faced,” the Hokage replies breathily, still trying to catch his breath. “You could keep up against Frog Kata — no, you could defend against it! I shouldn’t have activated sage mode but it was a heat-of-the-moment thing. It’s been way too long since I last sparred with someone, let alone someone like you.” His face heats up. “Sorry for punching you in the shoulder like that.”

 

“I’m not sorry for returning that punch,” Sasuke says with a shrug, and the Hokage laughs. It’s a carefree, infectious sound and it draws out a quiet laugh from him in spite of himself. Perhaps, for this, it was worth going all out for.

 

No no no, a voice at the back of his head chants. No. it’s foolish and downright dangerous to lower his guard like this.

 

That look in the Hokage’s eyes changes. Sasuke turns away quickly before steadying himself to slide off the Hokage’s legs. 

 

“Sachi.”

 

Even if he wanted to move, he couldn’t — there’s something in the Hokage’s voice that calls out to him to stay. Sasuke turns back towards the Hokage as casually as he can for someone straddling the other. His hand is lifted up in his direction. Much too slowly, the Hokage’s hand reaches out in one smooth motion to tuck a strand of hair behind Sasuke’s ear, a single wispy strand that had escaped his ponytail during the fight. For someone capable of destroying the entire field mere moments ago, this gentleness is unnerving. A shiver runs down his spine. Some distance is kept because the boundary is only being tested, not broken; his hand does not brush against the shell of his ear, but still he can feel the heat from the Hokage’s hand burning through because it comes so very close.

 

This time, Sasuke does not flinch. 

 

He has never seen it directed at him before; he has never paid any attention to it before today but somehow, he knows precisely what it is the moment it flashes through the Hokage’s eyes. Instead of disappearing like it should, like he expects, it shimmers, then takes hold and solidifies into a lucid realisation. It is as deep as the blue depths of his eyes and as real the sky above their heads and as solid as the ground beneath them. 

 

The Sixth Hokage is in love. 

 

When the knowledge comes crashing down upon him, it comes quietly: the ultimate weakness, the true danger, is not from every emotion. It is this particular emotion, and despite Orochimaru’s cruel rituals and heartless lessons, he had taught them well because he was right about this all along. 

 

This Weakness is terrifying.

 

For the first time, Sasuke can understand what is reflected in Naruto’s eyes as the forbidden thing in his chest shifts and flutters awake .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The house smells like yuzu.

 

It’s winter in Konoha, but it’s obviously not where these fruits are coming from because Naruto returns home with a cardboard box filled with those sunny, misshapen fruit.

 

“Too much?” Naruto asks after setting the box down on the kitchen counter.

 

Sasuke peers into the box. There’s at least twenty yuzu rolling around inside, and luckily Sachi isn’t the only one who loves yuzu — the strong, almost-bitter, flavour is pleasant and enjoyable. “I hope you like yuzu too. I’ll be cooking with these for weeks.” He looks back up. “Maybe even months.”

 

“Don’t worry! I’m willing to try anything at least once,” he replies gamely.

 

With rice wine and soy sauce, he makes a ponzu sauce to marinate chicken before boiling it in a stew. With the rinds he slices up in perfect, equal sizes, Sasuke steeps them in a glass jar of honey. When stirred in with boiling hot water, it turns into a fragrant drink that they enjoy on cold, late nights in the living room filled with music. Naruto tries everything and it’s obvious he enjoys it; these days, he even steals some of the leaves from Sasuke’s small bowl of salad. 

 

As one of his more ambitious projects, he turns yuzu into a curd with sugar, thick yolks, and butter before turning it into a Western-style tart, from a recipe discovered within a richly designed cookbook. As it sets in the fridge, Sasuke hums as he wipes down the countertops — an automatic sound of contentment that flows so easily from him these days. 

 

“Busy?”

 

Sasuke starts. He whirls around to find Naruto leaning against the kitchen doorway, grinning, back home for the day from the Hokage Mansion.

 

There’s a cardboard box in his hands. 

 

He arches an eyebrow. “More yuzu?”

 

“I stopped by that fruit store again on the way home and she didn’t have any more yuzu—”

 

“—I’m sure it’s not because you bought her entire shipment the last time--”

 

Naruto ignores him to continue talking. “—so I got you some blood oranges instead. And these, because she said they’re really hard to come by and are absolutely delicious and I would be a fool not to buy a few back for my—you.”

 

Sasuke wipes his hands on the apron as he walks towards Naruto, and up close, he can see the oranges and something else, something red and round.

 

“These are not blood oranges.” It takes him several seconds to recall the fruit from one of Kabuto’s lessons on common flora and fauna. “Tomatoes?”

 

“They’re not just ordinary tomatoes. They’re vine-ripened tomatoes!”

 

Sasuke looks up. “What’s the difference?”

 

“I...don’t know.” Naruto’s nose flushes pink.

 

Sasuke wants to smile, but he catches himself at the last moment and doesn’t. 

 

For dinner, Sasuke creates a big bowl of tomato salad to go with miso soup and tofu, along with a steaming bowl of rice each. He keeps the blood oranges for tomorrow. The shopkeeper is right because these tomatoes are the best he’s ever tasted, even though this is his first time trying them: sweet and juicy and it’s almost as though he can taste the very sunlight that had nurtured these red fruits into ripening. After he clears the dishes, Naruto slices into the yuzu tart and Sasuke watches as the luscious curd wobbles and holds. 

 

The house is warm; the smell of butter and yuzu envelopes them.

 

They eat Sasuke’s dessert: with yuzu on his tongue and Naruto’s steady presence opposite him, Sasuke still doesn’t allow himself to smile even though his heart feels as tender and as soft as the curd Naruto spoons into his mouth because this, this must be happiness.

 


 

Konoha’s most valuable scrolls are kept only in two places: in a classified area of Konoha Library and in an archive at the Hokage Mansion.

 

That’s why, on this ordinary Thursday, he is in Naruto’s office and Sai is staring at him with unconcealed trepidation.

 

“Tsukino-hime, this is a surprise.” From the faintest edge in Sai’s voice, he doesn’t mean it as a pleasant one. 

 

“Hello, Sai-san,” Sasuke replies smoothly from the chair. Naruto is seated behind his desk, absorbed in all those new reports.

 

“Is there anything I can help you with?”

 

“Yes. I am here for the scrolls on Uchiha Itachi and Shimura Danzo’s fight.”

 

The disbelief that flashes across Sai’s expression is priceless. “Hokage-sama?”

 

Naruto speaks without looking up from his papers. “Sachi is writing a report on Konoha’s history to get to know the village better. This is one of the areas she’s doing research on.”

 

“Those aren’t any ordinary scrolls — they’re ones related to our national security.”

 

“I’m a citizen of this village,” Sasuke says.

 

“Not officially. Not until the marriage ceremony takes place,” Sai counters.

 

“Okay,” Sasuke replies, “but I still would like access to all the scrolls related to that incident, please.”

 

Hokage-sama .”

 

“It’s fine, Sai,” Naruto says with a distracted wave of his hand.  

 

Sasuke’s smile is a picture of benevolence when Sai looks back at him. His expression hardens before it smoothes over professionally. 

 

“I’ll take you to the archive,” Sai says, and Sasuke nods before rising to his feet.

 

“Thank you.”

 

They walk down the corridor together, and it’s dimmer and narrower than he would expect. It's an intelligent design, Sasuke thinks, because it makes escape harder once this place is filled with ANBU in pursuit. The silence that envelops them is silken.

 

A question breaks the stillness and Sasuke feels his spine stiffen in preparation for whatever Sai wants to throw at him. “I take it that you are getting along well with the Hokage?”

 

“He is a good man,” Sasuke replies. “He...wears his heart on his sleeve.”

 

“Naruto is extremely trusting. It’s a fine trait to have, until it’s not.”  

 

Sasuke hates that he agrees with someone like Sai. “You think he is too trusting?”

 

“Of course. It’s why we’re here, walking to the archive.” Sasuke holds his tongue as Sai continues speaking. “If you cross the Hokage in any way, you will pay for it. I will make sure of that.”

 

“Is that a threat?” Sasuke asks innocently.

 

Sai’s reply is equally light. “It’s a promise.”  

 

Their conversation ends at a door and Sai makes a few signs with his hands, too quick for him to catch without using his Sharingan. It swings open, revealing an expansive room that looks exactly like a library: shelves are lined up against the walls while several large tables are grouped in the centre. Thankfully, it is empty. “This is our archive,” Sai says, looking around. “Take a seat and I’ll bring the relevant documents over.”

 

Sasuke walks towards the centre of the room while Sai heads off to the left side of the archive. The air hangs thick and heavy, as though weighted down by the secrets of the village. He watches as Sai returns to his table with an armful of scrolls. 

 

He drops them carefully onto the table. One nearly rolls off the table, but Sasuke catches it before it falls. 

 

Sai settles into a chair opposite him, watching with those dark, unreadable eyes as Sasuke straightens up in his seat, fingers tight around the scroll. He unravels it and under his fingers, the paper is smooth, its quality impeccable. “I’m honoured — is the Hokage’s most important advisor going to babysit me?” Sasuke asks.

 

“The Hokage is too trusting. I have the opposite problem,” Sai replies with a saccharine smile.

 


 

It is almost comfortable enough to sleep throughout the night. The room is familiar, bed comfortable, and the temperature is perfect underneath his blanket. 

 

The only problem is the nightmares.

 

He was never able to fall into a sleep deep enough to dream in Oto, but it’s different in Konoha. It always begins by slipping into a soft, soothing darkness. Sasuke floats suspended, feeling the shadows and shapes materialise around him before everything solidifies, line by line, colour by colour, into a familiar scene: green grass, grey tombstones, a blood red monument. Konoha Cemetery. 

 

All his nightmares begin like this: him standing before Uchiha Sasuke’s grave. The light around him is watery, like pre-dawn light. There is nothing alive around him, not even the birds. He knows what he has to do here.

 

He falls to his knees, claws his finger into the firm ground, and begins to dig.

 

It is hard work; it is taxing enough that he feels his chakra waver. Finally, with the smell of raw earth filling his senses, he hits something hard with his hands and it makes a low, hollow thump. 

 

A wooden coffin. His kunai pierces it effortlessly, cracking wood with a sound that screams out into the still air, and Sasuke braces himself for what he will see.

 

Inside, laying serenely in the coffin, is a perfectly intact body. It looks like a child, a boy, and his the area around his eyes are wrapped in a grey bandage. Holding his breath, Sasuke reaches out to pull at it, but it holds fast, forcing him to take his kunai to it to slit it apart. It unravels perfectly, like petals falling from a tree, and the boy looks exactly like him but he can’t be sure.

 

It’s a bizarre sight: his eyes are closed, eyelids sewn down with thick, black threads. It stands out in stark contrast against the bloodless hue of the corpse. The area looks unnaturally flat, as though there are no eyeballs left in his head. His eyes keep tracing own face on his younger body in his own grave and he can’t seem to look away even as the nausea builds within him, muscles paralysed.   

 

And then the music begins as sweet, haunting notes tarnish the heavy silence. It sinks into his skin like dread, seeping into muscle and eating through bone.

 

He always wakes up on the verge of screaming, mouth already open and heart beating out of his chest. It’s automatic how he rolls to his side and forces his face into the blanket, waiting as his body finds its bearings and for his mind to recalibrate back to reality. 

 

There is no dirt under his fingernails. 

 

There is no music playing in the air. 

 

He is in his bed, he is safe, he is alive

 

But what is true is what he had discovered back in the archive, in a single, offhanded sentence within a report outlining the discovery and subsequent preservation of Uchiha Itachi’s Sharingan:

 

Uchiha Sasuke’s body was found without his eyes.

 


 

As the betrothal date draws to an end, the wedding preparations begin. 

 

Three weeks from the ceremony, Naruto and Sasuke are both summoned by the most established tailor in Konoha — it is time for their wedding kimonos. 

 

They walk side by side, comfortably close. Sometimes, the backs of their hands brush, and Sasuke ignores it even though his skin burns and Naruto doesn’t seem to notice. He doesn’t know who is the one testing boundaries here, except that neither one of them moves away.

 

“Toyoko-obaachan has made the cloaks for every Hokage in the village,” Naruto explains. 

 

“That’s impressive.”

 

Naruto nods. “We’re getting measured separately, so we’ll each have an attendant with us.”

 

Before Sasuke can ask more questions, they’ve arrived at the tailor and it’s an elegant storefront, all expensive dark wood and swathed by an air of regal formality. The name of the shop is emblazoned over the door: Fujiwara. The front door slides open, and of course it is, most unfortunately, Sai.

 

“Naruto. Tsukino-hime. We’ve been expecting you.” 

 

Sasuke has given up trying to get him to call him Sachi. He turns to Naruto. “Sai is your attendant?”

 

“I am,” Sai says before Naruto can answer. “Come inside and we’ll meet yours.”

 

They step into the shop and inside, it is more wood and fine screened walls. The brightest colour there, other than Naruto’s sunny head of hair, is the lady with pink flowing hair. She turns around and smiles warmly at them. It’s Sakura, dressed in a casual red top and a navy skirt instead of the usual dull, grey armour. 

 

“Ah, Sakura-chan!”

 

“I’m so glad I can be here for such an important occasion,” she says. “Sachi-san, I hope my presence here is fine with you? I’m not here as ANBU today, but a friend of the Hokage’s — and hopefully yours too.”

 

“I am grateful,” Sasuke replies with a nod. 

 

A teenager with bright brown eyes and light brown hair assistant directs Naruto and Sai to one end of the shop, while Sasuke and Sakura make their way to the other. She leads them into a room, and it’s large and much brighter than the waiting area and hallway of the store. There are rows of fabric stacked neatly against the wall in giant rolls. 

 

She leads Sasuke to the center of the room. “Welcome to Fujiwara, but we’re better known as Toyoko-obaachan’s shop. If anyone addresses us as Fujiwara, we know that they’re foreigners because that’s who we are known as in other villages. In Konoha, we’re just the tailor,” she says, picking up a measuring tape. “I’m not Tokoyo-obaachan,” she adds helpfully. “I’m Mone, her grand-daughter. Matsu — that’s my brother — is in charge of the Hokage.”

 

Sasuke nods his greeting. “Will Toyoko-san be joining us?”

 

“Not today,” she says. “Obaachan handles the fabric. I take care of everything else first! I’ll be taking the measurements for your over-robe, under-robe, sash, and headpiece today. You will wear a shiromuku kimono during the wedding ceremony.”

 

Sasuke is amused. “Who decided on all this? The Hokage?”

 

Mone shrugs. “My brother processes all the orders and I do the deposits.”

 

It is Sakura who answers. “The council makes decisions on matters like this. The Hokage has just as much say in all this as you do, Sachi-san.”

 

“Are you on the council, Sakura-san?”

 

“As ANBU Captain, I am,” she replies. “This wedding is more a political display of power than anything else.”

 

“I understand,” Sasuke says. Mone pulls the tape around his shoulders, and Sasuke must remember to relax. This is the first time someone has come so close to him.

 

“Tsukino-hime, which village are you from?” Mone asks as she works.

 

“Otogakure.” 

 

“I’ve never heard of it,” she says bluntly. 

 

Sasuke smiles at the honesty. “It’s not a large village,” he replies, voice neutral.

 

“You’re really pretty, so it makes sense why the Hokage is marrying you,” she says, eyes twinking, “but you must be really special as well…”

 

“Why don’t you tell us what Sachi-san’s shiromuku kimono will be like?” Sakura asks suddenly, cutting into the conversation.

 

Ah, Sasuke thinks, so this is why they have attendants — it is to prevent gossip.

 

Mone is unfazed. “Everything will be crafted from white silk. The over-robe will be embroidered with wavy lines in silver thread, representing flames. On the inner-robe, spirals inspired by the Hokage’s clan symbol will be sewn in with white thread. The sash and headpiece will be pure white, dyed five times over for a pure, perfect slate.” A pause, and when she speaks again, her voice is lower, almost reverent. “You will look like a dream.”

 

Dreams make Sasuke think about nightmares and the body in his grave invades his thoughts, the one with his name and his face, blemishless except for the fact he has no eyes. It’s nothing, he reminds himself, but the way his blood instantly runs cold is a bitter contradiction. The only thing that matters is what Sachi does, so he makes her lips curl up demurely as Mone continues taking his measurements with light, quick touches, as Sakura continues keeping watch.

 


 

“You look better than I could have ever dreamed,” she admits. “I’ve sewn kimonos for many brides over my years at this shop, but no one has ever looked like they were born for an outfit as much as you, Tsukino-hime.” 

 

Toyoko is as old as he expects, slight, with a voice that is surprisingly deep. Those light eyes, staring at him from behind the thickest pair of glasses he’s ever seen, are sharp and Sasuke is glad she wasn’t the one taking down his measurements. If her hands were Mone’s, they would be far too close for comfort and his cover could have been blown. 

 

Today, he and Naruto are both back at Fujiwara’s for their fitting. The ceremony is one and a half weeks away and he is glad that they allowed him to keep his kimono on under the heavy layers of silk piled onto him. 

 

Toyoko only runs her hands over the trailing hem of the over-robe, smoothing out the thick material, while Mone tightens the sash around his body. This time, it’s only the three of them in the light-drenched studio. 

 

“I was right when I said you’d look better than a dream! What looks better than a dream, Obaachan?”

 

“Reality,” Toyoko says simply. 

 

Finally, when everyone around him is satisfied, Mone walks to the far side of the room and drags a tall mirror on wheels, the entire thing draped over with smooth beige fabric. She positions it right in front of him.

 

Sasuke raises his eyebrows. This is all very dramatic. 

 

Mone grins. “Are you ready?”

 

It’s an appropriate question and completely innocent, but still it almost takes his breath away because it’s the exact same question Orochimaru had whispered to him all those months ago. 

 

There has only ever been one correct answer. “Yes.” 

 

With one smooth, flourishing movement, she tugs at the beige fabric and it falls away with a sigh. 

 

In the mirror, Sasuke’s eyes meet Sachi’s and this time, his breath catches. The silk flows over his body in one smooth wave of immaculate white but as he breathes, the fabric shifts and the silver thread from the heavily embroidered outer robe catches the light and burns. When he runs a finger over the thread, the silver fire dances. 

 

The details on the inner robe are much more subtle: the circular spiral mark of Naruto’s Uzumaki clan is replicated repeatedly all over in fine stitches, branding him as his wife.

 

This blinding colour, Sasuke knows, is a symbol of a bride's willingness to be painted over by her new husband’s standards and ways, dyed in her new village’s customs and traditions.

 

A voice floats in from outside the studio. “Sachi? Toyoko-obaachan?”

 

All three of them turn towards the closed door. It is Naruto’s voice.

 

Toyoko almost flies to the door, Mone right at her heels. “I don’t care if you’re the Hokage or the Daimyo himself — no one sees a bride in her kimono before her wedding day,” she says through the door as Mone reinforces the sliding door by holding it in place with her hands. “Matsu! Take the Hokage back to the western studio! We’re almost done here.” 

 

The unintelligible sounds of protests from the outside become dimmer and dimmer as someone, presumably Matsu, leads the Hokage away. Toyoko sighs exasperatedly. 

 

“The Hokage seems smitten,” Mone says slyly, turning around to look at him.

 

“He’s always loud and easily excited,” Sasuke counters, smoothing out the edges of his voice until it is flat. 

 

“We’ve seen him around the village, and he was here two years ago when we fitted him for his Hokage cloak. It’s very obvious he’s happier now.”

 

Mone’s words lodge deep inside him where they seem to take hold and smoulder. A haze of some emotion endures, thick and needlessly warm as he and Naruto make their way back home, lasting when Naruto insists on stopping by the dessert shop to buy some dango back and persisting when, just a few steps away from their house and on the empty street, Naruto catches his hand. 

 

It’s a swift but clumsy movement, and Sasuke stares at him, not bothering to hide the surprise his eyes betray. Naruto turns towards him a breath later, all feigned casualness. At Sasuke’s expression, his face breaks into a vivid, earnest smile. 

 

A fire burns clean through him.

 

Happiness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text



 

 

 

 

 

 

Five days before the wedding ceremony, the contingent from Oto arrives.

 

Sasukle is summoned to the heart of the village. After lunch, an ANBU agent escorts him to the Hokage Mansion, where he waits at the front of the building with the Hokage, Sai and Hatake for their arrival. It is a bright, cool day, the air sharp enough to keep him on edge.

 

Watching the horizon, Sasuke doesn’t know how or what to feel. Emptiness swirls inside him, and it is a familiar blankness. It’s not like how he feels at home with Naruto: the ease of a day and contentment and that warm, dangerous feeling of home. He tells himself this is better, even though what he knows now is different.

 

When tiny figures appear, growing larger and larger, Sasuke keeps watching and there’s no palanquin this time. It’s just Orochimaru and Kabuto, who arrive with a small party of auxiliary shinobi trailing by their side. It will be no one he recognises. Despite the distance, despite the journey, Orochimaru’s hair is perfectly straight and glossy, and Kabuto’s glasses gleam dangerously in the early evening light. 

 

For Sasuke, this unnaturalness is unquestionably normal but for Sachi, a cold shiver runs down her spine. For the first time, he feels unmoored — he is an Oto spy who is losing his balance in Konoha. 

 

Finally, they stand face to face again.

 

“Hokage-sama,” Orochimaru says silkily even though he is looking at Sasuke, those amber eyes sliding straight through him. 

 

“Orochimaru-sama. Kabuto-san,” Naruto says.

 

Orochimaru looks at the Hokage, and smiles.

 

After more formal pleasantries are exchanged, two ANBU figures materialise quietly by their side, ready to escort them to their lodgings. Sasuke knows he will stay with the Oto contingent until the wedding, a provision that has been outlined clearly in their betrothal document. Its true purpose is simple: this is his time to debrief and bring his leaders up to date. 

 

“I’ll see you soon, Hokage-sama,” Sasuke says, playing up the distance between them with a small bow before they part. For some reason, the thought of Orochimaru and Kabuto witnessing them together makes his stomach churn with unease.

 

“Bye,” Naruto says, and the raw familiarity in his voice almost makes him flinch. 

 

He turns around and departs with the rest of Oto.

 

Their lodgings are closer to the edge of the village, where the dark forests begin. It’s an impressive structure built in an ornate, traditional style and one of the ANBU figures tell them it is reserved for Konoha’s most important guests: Kages, wealthy traders, ambassadors. They will be comfortable here. 

 

At the low steps, the two figures disappear, and Kabuto slides open the front door and leads the way inside. The corridor is well-lit with warm lights, and there are a series of closed doors on every side. They take a short walk to the end of the residence, where they come into a large living room that spills into a comfortable dining room and kitchen.

 

Still in the corridor, the shinobi are opening every door and examining each room methodically.

 

“This one,” one of the voices calls out, and again Kabuto leads the way.

 

“Tsukino-hime,” Orochimaru says as they enter the largest bedroom. “You look well.”

 

Quietly, Kabuto draws the screen door shut. Footsteps continue outside; the others will secure the place and cast barrier jutsus over the building to keep them from being overheard.

 

“I am.”

 

“Everything has gone perfectly so far,” Orochimaru continues.

 

“Yes,” Sasuke replies.

 

“Perhaps things have gone too well. You look...happy.” 

 

His heart begins to pound. He forces himself to breathe slowly, keeping his words steady. “I have a role to play here, Orochimaru-sama. I am playing it.” 

 

“The Hokage trusts you?” Kabuto asks from the side. He is on his knees, bent over a bag he is unpacking.

 

“Yes.”

 

Orochimaru begins to circle him, the arc small and tight. “How much?”

 

With every exhale, he forces Sachi’s skin to peel away, shedding her weaknesses and all her inconsequential, inconvenient feelings. “He is in love with Sachi.”

 

Kabuto chuckles and the sound sets his teeth on edge. “You managed this without bedding the Hokage?”

 

“Human emotions are easy to manipulate,” Orochimaru replies, still circling him, unimpressed. “What is important lies in concrete facts and information. What do you have for us?”

 

Sasuke tells them. 

 

He tells them about the amount of paperwork the Hokage is bogged down with on a daily basis which points to an administrative backlog, about how the Hokage is able to call off ANBU surveillance on the house, about the unease at Suna’s borders, about Akatsuki sympathizers.

 

While Orochimaru continues walking around him, Sasuke divulges Sai’s training in Root and highlights that ANBU’s identities are well-hidden, except that one of their captains is a certain Haruno Sakura. 

 

“These aren’t great, but there are some gems that can be exploited,” Orochimaru says when it’s over.

 

“It’s not a lot of information for three months,” Kabuto adds. 

 

“As you have pointed out, I haven’t had the chance to bed him yet, Kabuto-san.” 

 

“You won’t have to wait much longer,” Kabuto replies smoothly, unzipping one of the small brown pouches he had unpacked. “Come here, Sasuke-kun.”

 

Orochimaru stops walking to allow Sasuke to exit the circle. He pads across the room to where Kabuto is kneeling down, and he reaches into the pouch and draws out a frosted glass bottle. Kabuto shakes it, and whatever is inside rattles musically as it makes contact with the glass. 

 

Sasuke stares at it. “Pills?”

 

“A year of experimentation, perfected. All for this mission. All for you, Sasuke-kun. You see, a full-body henge takes too much chakra to maintain over a long period of time. It is also merely an illusion which means you look like a woman, but you will not feel like one. This is the solution,” Kabuto says, rattling the glass bottle once more. In the silence of the room, the sound is too loud. “I’ve created a single pill that can transform you, anatomically, into a woman for twelve full hours.”

 

Sasuke’s mouth dries out. He has always known this would be the next step in the grand scheme of things. That this is just another disguise, another mission; the Hokage as just another target. They’ve been trained well in Oto on how to use their gifts, weapons, and bodies: he has seduced both men and women and the only difference here is that he will do it in a woman’s body. The process and end result remains the same.

 

But this already does not feel like just another mission because he knows he can tell Orochimaru and Kabuto Konoha’s secrets, he can go over all the plans on betraying the Hokage, but when it comes down to the wire, he doesn’t know if he has it in him to see it through. 

 

Kabuto smiles. “You will be able to consummate your marriage. You can sleep in the Hokage’s bed and wake up next to him like a proper wife. It will also smoothen out your skin and remove all marks and scars. Even the Curse Seal.”

 

Sasuke’s hand flies up to the base of his neck to touch the circular mark, ringed in black tomoe. It feels like nothing because it is just a mark on the body; its weight is borne by the soul.

 

He drops his hand from his neck. “How long does it take to come into effect?”

 

“It’s instantaneous. One minute at most. There is a three month supply for you here, measured to the exact duration of this second part of your mission. Three months from the date of your marriage ceremony, Oto will attack Konoha using whatever intel you have collected as a guide.”

 

He forces his mind to focus on the moment. He will deal with this mission one step at a time. “I understand,” he says, then looks up across the room, where Orochimaru still stands unnaturally still. He’s never noticed how different they are, all of them Oto shinobi, and in the golden light of Konoha’s setting sun, the difference is startlingly clear. They are stitched together as shells who walk and talk and kill; all barely human. “Now I have my own questions for you, Orochimaru-sama.”

 

Orochimaru continues standing unnaturally still and his mouth is the only thing that moves. It cracks into a slow, humourless smile. The whites of his teeth glow in the dimness. “Ah, it is time. I have been waiting for this moment. Finding out the truth about your past was something I expected you to uncover the moment I sent you to Konoha.”

 

Sasuke ignores the glee in Orochimaru’s voice. “Who is buried under my name at Konoha Cemetery?” 

 

“Kabuto,” Orochimaru rasps through a growing smile, “tell Sasuke-kun.”

 

“A nameless Oto shinobi. We peeled off his original face and replaced it with the face of another. It took a few...trials, but we were able to replicate your face on another boy’s, surgically enhancing it with chakra and refined medical techniques. The boy’s body wasn’t right, so we transplanted it onto another to create the ultimate disguise. It can fool even the most observant shinobi. It has fooled everyone in Konoha.”

 

“But you cannot replicate the Sharingan, which is why you dug out his eyes first.”

 

“You found that out?” Orochimaru says lightly. “That is impressive. If only you had put that much effort into gathering more of Konoha’s important secrets.”

 

“Tell me about Shimura Danzo and Uchiha Itachi.”

 

The sun has almost completely set now, and the dying light casts shadows all around the room and across Orochimaru’s face. “Sasuke-kun,” he says, “on your tenth birthday I gave you two gifts. The first was the photo of your family. The second was some advice: that you are only safe because you cannot remember their deaths and your brother’s actions. You are safe as long as you don’t feel anything.”

 

Sasuke sharpens his voice until it is something cold and hard. Voice, just like sound, can be weaponised. “Tell me.” 

 

“Your insolence— ” Kabuto begins sharply, but Orochimaru holds up a hand and silence drops heavily around them.

 

“If the truth is what he wants, I will give it to him.” Orochimaru takes a single step forward towards Sasuke and when the shadows swallow him whole, he stops. “Shimura Danzo was an old friend. We kept in contact behind the scenes because we agreed on many things and stood for the same issues. He had grand plans for Konoha, whereas I decided to leave and build something new instead of trying to fix a broken system. And unlike me, he did not see all the benefits that came with the Sharingan’s power. He wanted to eliminate its users from Konoha, but it wasn’t so easy. The Uchiha were powerful, and politically, they were one of the founding clans of Konoha. Problems like these require careful solutions.”

 

Sasuke keeps his expression neutral.

 

“At the same time, the Uchiha clan were planning a coup. The village would not be able to defend its walls if a civil war broke out, and Danzo knew this. I knew this. Above all, Uchiha Itachi knew this. I was told he was a pacifist. As the architect of the massacre and with the approval of the Third Hokage and the councillors, Danzo issued him an ultimatum. Uchiha Itachi sided with the village to become its weapon, to keep the peace. He massacred the entire clan with nothing but his own two hands and eyes.”

 

“Except I am alive.”

 

Orochimaru’s eyes flash with mirth. “That is because you were the ultimatum. Uchiha Itachi did what he had to do because he was promised his precious baby brother’s safety in Konoha. He was also promised his actions would be kept a secret from everyone, most importantly from you.”

 

Sasuke cannot move. He doesn’t even blink.

 

“Leaving you in the hands of the village, Uchiha Itachi defected Konoha for Akatsuki. Several years later, Danzo decided to change the terms on his end. The Uchiha, even a single one, was still a liability for the village. There was a plot to kill you, another directive signed off by the Third Hokage and the councillors, but I managed to get to you before that happened.”

 

“You kidnapped me,” he manages to choke out.

 

“Yes,” Orochimaru says silkily. “But I also saved you. When Uchiha Itachi believed you were dead, he returned for Danzo. I myself couldn’t find any more information about what happened during the fight, except that it ended in complete destruction, unlike anything anyone has ever seen.” 

 

“You’re lying,” Sasuke says, the accusation tearing free from his throat and he hates how he sounds, voice high and ragged. He clenches his fist, feeling longer fingernails that he is used to bite into the soft flesh of his palm — these are Sachi’s fingernails. He is clinging on to the last vestige of control.

 

“I have never lied to you, Sasuke-kun. Your village lied to you. Your brother lied to you. I’m the only person in your life who has never lied to you.”

 

And then there is no more control, there is nothing except a mind in freefall and Sasuke staggers back until he feels his back hit the wall with a dull thud. The sound rings out in the room. His brother, no longer just a stranger in a photograph, but the only reason he was left alive. Orochimaru is not just the leader of Oto, but the sole reason he is still breathing. “No.”

 

“You don’t have to believe me because I can prove that I’m telling you the truth. Not through any scrolls or records on the village’s true role in the Uchiha massacre, because knowing Konoha, they would have never even recorded it down. Uchiha Itachi’s eyes are in Konoha’s possession. Take his eyes as your own, and you will be able to see exactly what your brother saw. This is another one of the Sharingan’s unholy gifts: when a sibling takes the eyes of another, they unlock a new power known as the Eternal Mangekyou Sharingan. You can verify your brother’s deal with Danzo, live through the massacre, and find out what really happened at the Valley of the End.”

 

In his mouth, his tongue feels thick and useless. The effort it takes to speak is enormous. “This is why you sent me here...this is why you chose me for this mission. Because I wouldn’t be able to fail once I knew the truth.”

 

“Call it insurance. There is only one reason why you are reacting so adversely to everything I have shared: you have forgotten the most important lesson because now you have feelings for this treacherous village, something you should have known better than to give in to. You have invited weakness into your heart, and this—” Orochimaru says, waving a hand in his direction, “—this is the price you pay.” 

 

“I don’t care about Konoha—”

 

“Maybe not as much as you care for Uzumaki Naruto. Who else embodies and upholds the ideals of a corrupt village more than the Hokage himself?”

 

He can’t help it; his knees give way like soft paper and he slides down the length of the wall, landing on his knees. It takes everything in him to keep his upper body upright because something else breaks through his chest, spilling out, and whatever it is, it hurts. He knows what pain is: there is a difference between how a broken bone feels and how a sliced muscle hurts. They’ve been trained to bear physical pain, but they have never been trained in pain like this. This is different. He thinks about the leafy trees that line the village pathways, some still green even in this weather; about a house that has started to feel like a home; about the soft warmth of Naruto’s hand around his. 

 

The truth is pain and it sings, light and pure and true, through him.

 

There’s a muted buzzing in his head and a strange wet, rasp fills the air. He will realise later that it is only his own staccato breaths and he struggles to keep his mind from spiralling apart.

 

Orochimaru’s cold voice drags him mercilessly back to the present. It is a command, a prophecy, a new lesson: “You can turn the weakness of love into a strength — vengeance is a power as well. When you betray the Hokage and destroy Konoha, you will do it with a smile.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The day he marries Uzumaki Naruto is a bright, cold one.

 

Clear sunlight pours down over the village, staining everything and everyone with a shimmering, liquid silver. Citizens and shinobi alike line the street, their jovial voices rising and falling around him like an orchestra as Sasuke keeps his gaze trained forward. His shiromuku kimono is decadent and heavy, layers of silk keep him both cool and warm at the same time while his long hair is braided up inside the ethereal white headpiece that rests like a hood on his head as he moves slowly, escorted by Orochimaru and Kabuto into the Hokage Mansion. Their deep purple outfits, dyed in Oto’s official colour, offset the blinding purity of his kimono perfectly.

 

The excitement is palpable in the air, and it coats his mouth with a distinct taste. Bitter, like yuzu peel. 

 

Inside the dark, cool building, Sai and Hatake await. Both of the Hokage’s advisors are dressed in formal wear, and Sai barely glances at him. Hatake wears a bland, courteous smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. The atmosphere is different inside here — it’s not excitement but a sharp, almost solid tension. Sasuke turns to his right, and Orochimaru is smiling a slick, unnerving smile. On his left, Kabuto appears relaxed but the way his eyes dart around the empty hallway tells the truth.

 

This journey is painfully reminiscent of their first meeting, all those months ago. Back when he thought this was just going to be a straightforward, if not long, mission. Back when it was nothing more than a mission. Now nothing is simple because his head is a mess of questions and new strategies and his heart beats heavily in his chest, like an alien object. It feels like a lifetime ago. 

 

As they take a corner, the back of a figure waiting by the door floods into their view. Even the person turning around, Sasuke knows exactly who it is. Spirals winding in onto itself, a family crest, are embroidered in white, standing out in stark contrast to the black, formal haori. Naruto turns at the sound of their footsteps and his face melts into a slack-jawed look of awe.

 

Despite the mask he wears, despite everything that he has learnt from Orochimaru, Sasuke’s traitorous heart still begins to race. 

 

From the front, the outfit that Hokage wears is beautiful and delicate, but nothing is as beautiful as the smile on the Hokage’s face. Sasuke knows now how hard it is to fake authenticity, but it always comes so effortlessly, so easily, to Naruto.

 

“Sachi! I—wow. You look beautiful.”

 

“Thank you,” Sasuke replies. It comes out a little too robotically. 

 

Before Naruto can say anything more, Sai steps around him to open the door, ushering them all inside. It’s the same circular room, filled with similar people: the elderly councillors are there. The rest of the executive council are too, talking quietly amongst themselves, and Sasuke recognises Sakura as one of today’s seated guests. It’s a small group, and they are all sitting in a semi-circle facing a table and two empty chairs. In the corner, ANBU figures line the wall. As they enter, a hush blankets the room.

 

Sasuke glides onwards, the silk hem of his kimono making delicate swishing sounds as he moves towards the front of the room to take his seat. Naruto settles in next to him, shifting noisily in the chair. 

 

Hatake is the only one left standing. “This is the official wedding ceremony between the Sixth Hokage and Tsukino Sachi. Welcome,” he says. 

 

A deep, ringing sound fills the air. Someone at the back of the room has struck a gong. 

 

“The official part of the wedding is simple and incredibly straightforward — the bride and the groom sign the wedding certificate. With that, Tsukino-hime will become a naturalised citizen of Konohagakure. After this, the Hokage and his bride will show themselves to the citizens of Konoha on the top of the Hokage Mansion before joining the wedding reception, made up of prominent shinobi, the Hokage’s friends, and our guests from Oto.” Hatake turns to his side. “Sai?”

 

Sai stands and approaches their table in the middle of the room. In his hand is a scroll and an ornate pen carved with spirals that mimic flames. 

 

It’s enough to make Sasuke want to smile: here he is, sitting before Konoha’s most important figures, playing with fire.

 

Sai unravels the scroll in front of the Hokage before handing him the pen. The Hokage takes it and signs the scroll, his hand wobbling, and Sasuke can see his signature comes out askew. When it is his turn, his head is steady and his signature flows perfectly, without a second thought. In his hand, the pen is warm. 

 

There’s still one more part to go, and Sai flips open the ornate ink pad between them. Naruto rolls his thumb in the red ink first. Sasuke follows, feeling the cold liquid stain skin. They press their fingerprints into the space next to their signatures and it feels like nothing, but this is a momentous occasion — he is not only a Konoha shinobi now, but the Sixth Hokage’s lawful spouse.  

 

When Sasuke looks up, Orochimaru is still smiling that unsettling smile. From Konoha’s ranks, the faces look a little more relieved. Sasuke can understand why: anything that happens here on out to him is up to Konoha’s discretion. As a shinobi, he is, in theory, no longer under the control of Oto. Konoha can just as easily kill him as they did his family and clansmen. 

 

Before anger can saturate his thoughts, Sasuke draws his eyes back to the person in front of him and focuses on the Hokage’s advisor. Mind blank, he observes two attendants walking up to the table as Sai rolls up the scroll with careful fingers. A muscle jumps in his jaw.

 

The attendants have arrived with towels for them to wipe their inked thumbs on. Sasuke accepts the fluffy white towel and as he unwraps it, a rush of steam rises, followed by the smell of jasmine.

 

“Congratulations,” Sai says when he binds the scroll with a red string. To his credit, his gaze on the Hokage is warm and the words sound genuine. 

 

Next to him, Naruto beams. “This is it,” he says. Turning to Sasuke, he adds, “we’re really married now.”

 

Sasuke’s heart clenches.

 

They’re led outside into the hallway as everyone else pours out of the room and they head upstairs to the rooftop, where they hear the cheering citizens before they actually see them. 

 

Below, a sea of people stand waiting. Children sit on their father’s shoulders while everyone, young and old, sends up waves and beaming smiles. Next to him, Naruto waves back and Sasuke bows his head deferentially to the crowd.  

 

“Are you okay?” Naruto asks softly as he continues waving to the crowd, when Sasuke straightens back up. “You’re quiet.”

 

“Aren’t I always quiet?”

 

“This is a...different kind of quiet.”

 

Sasuke lifts his head and he can feel the heat of their collective gazes burning into him. It makes him think of the Will of Fire ceremony. “All this is a little overwhelming, isn’t it?”

 

“It is,” Naruto admits. “But I’m glad it’s with you,” he adds, softer now, and Sasuke can’t deny what he feels, no matter how much he represses it, not when his heart still thrums at the Hokage’s words, not when his stomach falls as the Naruto takes his hand in his and gives it a gentle, reassuring squeeze.

 

He has been tainted by the ultimate Weakness. 

 

After several more minutes of waving to the crowd, Sai calls out Naruto’s name and when Sasuke looks around, he notices there are now tables and chairs set up on the roof of the Hokage’s Mansion. There are more tables around the edges, staffed by people preparing food and drinks. In the corner, Sasuke sees Orochimaru and Kabuto talking to a group of other shinobi. That will keep their eyes off him for the time being. 

 

“The guests have arrived,’ Sai says, and Naruto nods.

 

“I can finally introduce you to my friends,” Naruto says happily to Sasuke. He holds out his hand and after a beat, Sasuke takes it. “Let’s go.”

 

He understands that Naruto’s friends are made out mostly of his Academy classmates and Sasuke etches their faces and identities to memory. This is vital information. A stray thought flits into his mind: if these are Naruto’s classmates, it means that these were also Konoha’s Uchiha Sasuke’s classmates. At one point in time, they were all in the same classroom, learning the same lessons, practicing the same drills. 

 

Konoha’s Uchiha Sasuke is dead, Sasuke reminds himself.

 

Some names and faces will be less important to Orochimaru than others, like a woman called Ten Ten and an exuberant man named Lee, who don’t belong to any of Konoha’s notable clans. Still, they are jonin, and they shouldn’t be underestimated. Lee bows sharply at Sachi after introducing himself, and he takes Naruto’s hand in both of his to congratulate him. It takes several long moments for Lee to stop shaking Naruto’s hand and finally let go.

 

As Naruto introduces a new bunch of people who have meandered over, he massages his shoulder. A quiet man named Aburame Shino and his complete opposite, a loudmouth named Inuzuka Kiba, come from clans who work with insects and dogs respectively. Shino is a teacher, Naruto explains, while Kiba is working towards leading a genin team of his own.

 

The most powerful team has to be the legendary Ino-Shika-Cho team, a formation that Sasuke read in Konoha’s history books that has lasted for decades. Akimichi Choji is as big as he is friendly, while Nara Shikamaru is more guarded. Shikamaru. He recognises the name because Kakashi had mentioned it on his first day in Konoha, back at the house — this man must work in one division of Naruto’s administrative government even though he is not a member of the executive council. The third member of their team gushes over his kimono. 

 

“I’m Yamanaka Ino,” the blonde woman says brightly, eyes glowing as she takes in Sasuke’s outfit. “I’ve known Naruto since we were dumb kids. I can’t believe he’s married to someone so out of his league and beautiful .”

 

“Thank you, Ino,” Sasuke says. “Do you work in the government as well?”

 

“Not quite. I’m an agent at the Konoha Torture and Interrogation Force.” Sasuke’s eyebrows raise, and Ino laughs. “Interrogation side, not torture. It sounds much cooler than it actually is.”

 

Sasuke smiles demurely, but despite Ino’s words, he knows she — and the rest of her team — are ones to watch. Her laughter comes out light, but her eyes are sharp and observant.

 

The last two who join their small group are the two people Sasuke is most interested in. 

 

“Neji! Hinata!” Naruto calls out as they walk in their direction. 

 

From his research, he knows they belong to the aristocratic Hyuga clan, Konoha’s most powerful dojutsu users ever since the Uchiha were wiped out. Up close, their eyes are a disquieting, sightless white. 

 

“This is Tsukino Sachi,” Naruto says, introducing him to the two. 

 

“Hyuga Hinata,” the dark-haired woman says, so softly that Sasuke has to lean in.

 

“Hyuga Neji,” the man with hair almost as long as his own says. “Nice to finally meet you.” 

 

Sasuke gives them a demure bow. When he straightens up, he asks, “Are you siblings?”

 

Neji shakes his head. “We’re cousins, but we see each other more than Hinata sees her sister because we work together at the hospital.” 

 

“Medical ninjutsu,” Sasuke says. Hinata nods.

 

She gravitates towards Kiba, while Ten Ten steps forward and leans into Neji, much too closely for it to be platonic. Sasuke stays quiet as he allows the conversations around him to dim as he observes them all. He can feel a pair of eyes burning into his back and when he turns around, he finds it’s only Orochimaru, staring at him with those sharp, subhuman eyes. 

 

Sasuke knows a warning when he sees one, and this one is crystal clear: You know what you have to do. 

 

Orochimaru breaks his gaze as he and Kabuto leave the rooftop, disappearing through the door.

 

“Are the rumours true?” Ten Ten’s voice floats back up as Sasuke refocuses his attention back onto the group. 

 

“Which one? There are so many rumours about me,” Naruto says.

 

Ten Ten looks at Sasuke. There is no judgement in her eyes, only plain curiosity. “That you come from a bloodline that wields the Sharingan.”

 

All eyes pivot onto him at the same time, so unnaturally precise it’s almost mechanical. 

 

“Yes,” Sasuke says and for one tiny moment, there is absolute silence. Around them, it is as though the wind dies down and everyone on the rooftop stops moving for a hairbreadth of a second.

 

It is Sai who breaks the silence. “The food is ready. Please help yourself.” 

 

The sounds roar back to life as the group breaks apart organically, Kiba with Hinata, Neji with Ten Ten, Lee and Shino with the Ino-Shika-Cho gang. Sakura is next to Sai, standing close enough for people to wonder, but still far enough for it to be ambiguous. 

 

Out of all of Naruto’s friends, his ex-team members are still the most dangerous.

 

“When are you guys going to tell the rest?” Naruto mutters. 

 

Sai’s shoulders stiffen and Sakura rolls her eyes. “Unlike you, Naruto, our personal lives do not need to be public fodder.” 

 

“Tsukino-hime knows about us?” Sai asks Naruto sharply.

 

“Of course,” Naruto replies. “Why wouldn’t she know?”

 

“Sai-san,” Sasuke says. “Please call me Sachi.”

 

Sai does not hear him because he exhales loudly and it’s a harsh sound of barely concealed frustration. Sakura touches his shoulder and squeezes. “Ino’s waving us over. Come on, let’s get something to eat.”

 

They leave Naruto and Sasuke standing by the edge of the party and Sasuke’s eyes never leave Sai’s back. “He really doesn’t trust me,” he says observationally.

 

Naruto does not look worried. “Sai will come around. It’ll just take some time.”

 

Out of all of Naruto’s friends, his advisor is the smartest one.

 

“Naruto,” Sasuke asks, turning towards him. “Do you trust me?”

 

Naruto’s answer comes instantly. “Yes.”

 

“...Why?”

 

The Hokage shrugs, and it’s an easy, carefree gesture. “Because there's no reason not to.”

 

Something in his chest twists and holds. It’s almost impressive, this effect Naruto has on him because even though Naruto is the Hokage of this damned village, even as he is surrounded by the enemy, Naruto can still take his breath away like this.

 


 

They return home late, and by the time Sasuke is in his own bathroom, peeling off layer after layer, his mind is racing and his palms leave damp stains on white silk. He can’t do it, at least not tonight — he can’t take the pill, share a bed with the Hokage, and consummate the marriage.

 

The Weakness inside him is winning. 

 

Sasuke swears and swings a clenched fist out into the tiled wall. The first hit sends pure pain racing through him, stealing a gasp of air that comes out as a sharp inhale in his small, tiled bathroom. The second time it makes contact with the wall is even better — this sensation that follows is simple and easy to understand unlike whatever it is inside his chest. Changing the angle of his fist and applying precise control because he needs just enough for a numb, cleansing pain but not enough to break anything; Sasuke punches the wall several times for good measure, feeling a familiar ache spread.

 

When he’s left panting and satisfied, he runs a bath. Sasuke soaks himself in the hot water, feeling the heat work through tired muscles and relishing in the pain from his hand he keeps close to his body. The warmth intensifies the throbbing, and his eyes close as he breathes into the pain.

 

By the time he emerges from his bedroom, Naruto is waiting in the living room, face angled at the TV but he’s not really watching. Sasuke can tell, because he has that familiar, blank expression on his face, the same one he wears when he’s doing something but thinking about something else. 

 

“Naruto,” he says softly, and Naruto jolts. 

 

“Ah, Sachi. I thought you fell asleep.”

 

He shakes his head. 

 

“...Do you want some tea?”

 

“Are you having any?”

 

“Yeah,” Naruto replies, strangely on edge. 

 

It takes a moment for Sasuke to place it: Naruto is nervous. “Okay,” Sasuke says, walking towards the couch.

 

Naruto practically leaps up from it and flies to the kitchen. 

 

Sasuke settles down into one edge of the couch and looks down, assessing his left hand for the first time. It is an ugly, swollen mass, and one part is already turning yellow. Carefully, he uses his other hand to press into the top part of his hand and the knuckles and the pain is consistent. Of course nothing is broken; everything is under control. He exhales and when he looks up again, he sees that Naruto has returned with two cups in hand.

 

“Green tea,” Naruto says, placing their cups on the table. He glances at Sasuke but instead of looking at his face, his eyes land on his hand. “I—Sachi! What happened to your hand?”

 

He drops to his knees in front of Sasuke, blue eyes blown wide open in concern. 

 

“I...fell,” Sasuke replies lamely as the control he thinks he has evaporates even as he speaks. It’s pathetic how the Weakness has even robbed him of the ability to lie convincingly. 

 

“It looks broken.

 

“It’s not. I’m fine,” he says, moving his hand away but it’s a mistake, because he winces and Naruto stands so suddenly that Sasuke falls back deeper into the couch.

 

He turns around and rummages around the cupboards in the living room until he finds what he is looking for. He returns with a small first aid kit, one that he opens on the low living room table before kneeling back down before Sasuke.

 

“Gimme your hand.”

 

“Please don’t overreact Naruto, it’s not broken—”

 

“No, let me see—”

 

“I’m a trained kunoichi I know when something is broken or not—”

 

“Hand,” Naruto says flatly and the severity of his tone shocks Sasuke into silence. His eyes are hard, jaw clenched, but it is not from anger or frustration. It is something else, so thick it’s almost solid, hanging oppressively in air between them. Fear . This is the first time Sasuke has seen it in another person’s eyes for him, instead of directed at him.

 

Mouth dry and much too slowly, knowing it is a bad idea, Sasuke extends his hand.


With a touch far too gentle, Naruto takes his wrist and turns it around before poking and pressing gently into his hand. The sting that radiates is almost soothing. Sasuke sucks in a breath of air, but he does not make any more sound.

 

“It’s not broken,” Naruto says finally and Sasuke lifts up a leg to kick lightly at Naruto. “Hey!”


“I wonder who told you that.”

 

Naruto ignores the jab. “Do you want to go to the hospital? Someone can heal you up in no time.”

 

Sasuke shakes his head. “I don’t want to bother them with something like this.”

 

“Okay but put some ice on it so the swelling can go down. Or is it heat?”

 

This time, Sasuke sighs loudly. “Ice for fresh injuries, heat for old injuries.”

 

Naruto disappears into the kitchen once again and comes back with cubes of ice wrapped up in a dish towel. Sasuke takes the makeshift ice pack wordlessly from him and presses it into his swollen hand. The relief is instantaneous.

 

He sits down next to Sasuke but not too closely. They both pretend to watch the TV, where a black and white movie about samurai plays.

 

“Sachi,” Naruto begins. “I uh, just wanted to let you know we can take things as slowly as you need. We don’t have to rush into...anything.”

 

“Like marriage?” Sasuke quips, turning towards him. 

 

“You know what I mean,” Naruto replies with long exhale, still staring straight ahead. Sasuke can see the flush spreading across his cheeks. 

 

The solace that inundates him is immediate, even though a deeper part of him knows that this is nothing but Weakness. “One step at a time.”

 

“Yes,” Naruto replies, overemphasising the point with several rapid nods.

 

They spend a few more long minutes staring at the TV screen until the cloth is nothing but a cold, damp thing in his hands. Sasuke shifts to rise because he needs to get more ice for his hand, but Naruto is faster because he reaches over to take the cloth from Sasuke’s uninjured hand. 

 

“I’ll get it for you.”

 

“It’s my hand that hurts, not my legs,” Sasuke replies, trying to yank the cloth from him.

 

Naruto holds on tight and doesn’t let go. Worse still, he leaves his hand resting heavily on top of his and Sasuke can feel the heat from his skin bleeding through. Now they're staring at each other, neither one willing to back down.

 

Those blue eyes are so close, and slowly, slowly, they move closer. Sasuke blinks, knowing he should stop it because the fact that he wants this, whatever this is, is much too dangerous. Wanting is perilous. I can stop it, Sasuke repeats in his mind, as Naruto draws even closer. 

 

In the end, it’s Naruto who stops at the very last moment, lips mere centimetres away from Sasuke’s. “I—” Naruto whispers but then he can’t say any more because Sasuke is the one who leans in to close the distance in one smooth, decisive action. It’s part of my role, Sasuke tells himself, I’m playing the part. He has kissed targets before, even more gently than this, but none of them have ever clouded his judgement this way. 

 

None of them have ever been Uzumaki Naruto.

 

The angle is awkward but Naruto’s lips are hot and the heady smell of his skin, like soap and home, renders his mind smooth and blank.  

 

“Coward,” Sasuke whispers several moments later when he pulls back as the awareness slowly drips back around him. He doesn’t know which one of them he means.

 

Naruto’s hands come around his head, fingers sliding into soft dark hair and digging into his scalp as he draws Sasuke’s face back into his. The gentleness of his touch, combined with the pressure from his fingertips and the way their lips brush, sends Sasuke’s heart pounding so hard, it is surely beating out of his chest. In reflex, his right hand reaches out to press against Naruto’s chest, preventing their bodies from moving any closer — the bind around his groin is set tightly but he can feel himself hardening. If Naruto finds out about his disguise now, it would be all over even before Orochimaru and Kabuto can return to Oto. Under the thin fabric of the Hokage’s shirt, Sasuke can feel solid muscle shift under his palm and it does nothing but get him harder. 

 

And the kiss gets even better, because when Naruto opens his mouth to deepen the kiss, heat and wetness and the taste of Naruto on his tongue overwhelms every other sense. Sasuke feels his good hand clench around the shirt as he pants into Naruto’s mouth, until there is a ball of fabric balled tight in his trembling fist. 

 

By this time, even as he fights to hold onto the last of his control, there is nothing left inside Sasuke except a dangerous, dangerous wanting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Daimyo’s official residence in Konoha is close to where he was housed with Orochimaru, Kabuto, and the rest of the Oto contingent, but that is where the similarities end. By the west side of this traditional-styled building, there is a large lake that glitters under the sunlight. Behind it, dark trees rise from Fire country’s lush forest.

 

It’s a sanctuary by the water, encircled by nature. 

 

It is also their home for the next week as their honeymoon residence. 

 

The layout on the inside is expansive and elaborate; fit for royalty. Dark wooden furniture inlaid with mother of pearl decorate every corner and there are many rooms, but their bedroom is the largest one on the first floor, with its own traditional sitting room and a large futon in the sleeping chamber. Downstairs in the kitchen, a large fridge hums quietly, stocked with a medley of fresh ingredients and ready meals. 

 

They arrived via ANBU escort less than twenty four hours after the day of their wedding ceremony, which, when Sasuke thinks about it, is good timing because it meant he didn’t have to address that moment on the couch, where they had kissed and done nothing but kiss because not long after, Sasuke pulled away for the final time said a stiff goodnight to the Hokage before disappearing into his own room. 

 

But now they are alone again — truly gone, because their honeymoon will be in complete privacy, and Sasuke knows he has to be ready. The pills are tucked away inside his bag. The problem is not that he can’t do it; it is that he wants to. There’s a new dimension to his Weakness now, one that yearns and hungers to take and take . Desire lives inside him like a creature of its own — the hardest part of this would be to not allow it to consume him and take over.

 

His left hand is less swollen now but it’s still tender and he clenches it, allowing the deep pain that follows to wipe out lingering distractions and damper the Weakness. No matter what, Konoha will be destroyed and the Hokage must die. 

 

“Keep the ice pack on your hand!” Naruto’s voice floats out from the kitchen over the loud clang of pots and utensils. He’s preparing their lunch.  

 

At the low dining table, seated cross legged on the floor, Sasuke scoffs quietly but does as he is told only because Naruto can’t see him and because any impairment, even one as minor as this, is foolish within an enemy state. 

 

When Naruto emerges from the kitchen, he approaches the table with a tray in hand, the sweet smell of meat and sake rising from two bowls. 

 

“Gyudon,” Sasuke says, pleased, as Naruto sets the tray down before him. The simple bowl of thinly sliced beef and sweet onions over a bowl of steaming rice makes his mouth water. “I didn’t know you could cook like this.”

 

“After all your dishes, it’s time for me to step up my game. Don’t look so happy until you actually try it first…” Naruto replies, settling himself down across Sasuke and pulling a bowl towards his end.

 

The first mouthful is good. The second one is even better. “You pass,” he tells Naruto, who nods happily because his mouth is full of food. 

 

“Food tastes better when somebody else makes it for you, doesn’t it?” Naruto teases, after he swallows. 

 

Sasuke makes a face. “You’re such a romantic.” 

 

“Don’t say it like it’s something bad!”

 

The rest of the meal is finished in comfortable banter and Naruto doesn’t let him clear the table or do the dishes, so Sasuke sits at the table, full and relaxed and a little sleepy. When Naruto returns to the dining room, Sasuke tells him he is going to take a nap.


“Go rest in the master bedroom,” he says.

 

Sasuke freezes. “I—”

 

“I’ll be here watching TV and you should sleep in the comfiest bed here,” Naruto says casually. “You can take the master bedroom tonight and for the rest of the nights too. It doesn’t matter to me.”

 

“Okay,” Sasuke replies and leaves before any other complicated questions arise.

 

Upstairs, in the largest bedroom, the futon is firm yet fluffy and the sheets are heaven against his skin. It’s the most comfortable bed he’s ever laid on. In mere minutes, without even changing into his pajamas, he sinks into sleep. 

 

Sasuke wakes up to a soft screech of wood against wood: the bedroom door is sliding open quietly. From the watery light that streams through the window over his head, it appears to be early evening. He hasn’t been asleep for long. From this angle, all he can see is a shadowy figure padding quietly into the room as Sasuke forces himself awake, adrenaline replacing the fog of sleep. His hand feels thick and hot and he tries to remember if he had slept with a kunai strapped to his thigh.

 

The figure steps into the light and of course it’s only Naruto. “Sorry,” he says softly. “Did I wake you?”

 

He pushes himself upright and shakes his head, even though by now he should have a kunai against the throat of any intruder. 

 

“Okay,” Naruto says, using his normal voice now. He kneels next to the futon. “I just wanted to leave this by your bedside. It’s a special balm for your hand from the hospital. I got it from Hinata. Hyuga Hinata, remember her?”

 

Sasuke frowns at him. “I told you I’m fine.”

 

Naruto shrugs. “It doesn’t look fine to me and it’s nothing — I didn’t tell her who or what it was for. I had ANBU pick it up from her at the hospital, and it’s some sort of chakra-infused cream. It works like magic.”

 

“I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. Thank you,” Sasuke replies.   

 

“I’ll leave it here,” Naruto says as he rises to stand. “Time for me to prepare dinner.” 

 

The plan takes him less than a hundredth of a second to consider, assess, and implement. “Naruto.”

 

Naruto stills.

 

“Can you help me apply it?”

 

Naruto laughs and nods, but it sounds more like a jittery exhale than anything else. 

 

Sleepily, Sasuke smiles at him, even though he has never felt so awake. His heart is already pounding. “Thank you. Hold on — I need to use the bathroom first.”

 

He slides his legs onto the floor and heads towards the adjoining bathroom. Inside, the lights are bright and everything is modern and sleek and shiny in contrast to the traditional look and feel of the residence. The door locks with an efficient click. After a quick brush of his teeth, he releases the binding around his chest and groin and it takes longer than usual because of his hand. When he’s done, he moves towards what he came here for: a small, ordinary brown pouch that he tucked into a small cupboard next to the mirror before he fell asleep. The bandages are stuffed back into a different pouch he has prepared. He slips his fingers into the open compartment of the brown pouch to draw out a glass bottle and, for a moment, he holds it up to his eye level and just observes it. 

 

The pit of his stomach churns. Is it fear or anticipation or both? 

 

He will not think about it; he will just do it. Sasuke takes one round pill out and places it under his tongue as Kabuto had directed. Now he has to wait as it dissolves, maddeningly slowly, tasting surprisingly of...nothing. There’s only the taste of mint in his mouth from the toothpaste. He expects the intense bitterness of poison or the cloying sweetness of love potions, but there is nothing. Only a faint flavour of sour lemon coats his mouth over the mint, and the pill fizzes under his tongue, as though whispering to him that it will work.

 

The changes to his body don’t happen gradually, but all at once. In a blink of an eye, his body feels completely different. There’s a weight on his chest while there is none between his legs. He stares at his bare body in the mirror and his face is still exactly the same but the body reflected in it isn’t his own. It’s Sachi’s now — pert breasts and a triangle of dark hair down below. Sasuke turns around and sees that the back of his shoulder is nothing but an expanse of smooth, unmarked skin. Good. As he turns back around, the back of his arm brushes against his nipple and a jolt of pure electricity courses through his body, causing a new wave of molten heat to pool in his stomach and move further south. No, this is definitely still his body. 

 

“Fuck,” he swears softly. Kabuto is right — a major side effect is extreme sensitivity.

 

Moving quickly, trying to regulate his breath, he redresses himself and unlocks the door. Everything has taken less than four minutes. 

 

Outside, Naruto is sitting at the edge of the futon and moves a circular container from one hand to the other, back and forth, over and over again. He looks up as Sasuke approaches the bed.

 

“Let’s do this,” Naruto says, shaking the container with one hand. 

 

“Yes,” Sasuke says as he lowers himself back onto the edge of the bed. 

 

The cover of the container unscrews easily, and the cream inside is white and unassuming. Naruto dips a finger in and holds his other hand out. Sasuke moves a little closer, and extends his left hand at him. 

 

Naruto’s touch is light and the cream is surprisingly soothing as it sinks into his skin with a strange but pleasant hum. “The healing chakra is reacting with your own chakra,” Naruto says as he massages his hand carefully, and Sasuke can feel Naruto’s eyes on him, watching his expression, making sure he’s not hurting him. His mouth is dry.  

 

The steady pressure and heat of Naruto’s hand on his is starting to make his head spin from sheer desire. He thinks about their kiss on the couch just yesterday, the way Naruto had used his tongue, the way Naruto tasted. This intimacy is intoxicating and his body is already reacting: nipples hard, and a dampness is his underwear. 

 

“Naruto,” he says shakily. “Naruto—” He doesn’t even know what he wants to say because his brain is short circuiting. 

 

Across him, Naruto moves his hands from his left hand, up his arms and over his shoulders, leaving a trail of goosebumps in his wake until they’re cupping his face. The same desire he feels raging inside of him is mirrored in Naruto’s eyes, clouding them because they look darker than usual. No one is breathing. 

 

And then he leans in and kisses Sasuke. 

 

Naruto’s palms burn into his face and his mouth is even hotter. Breath by heated breath, Sasuke melts around him: spine, muscle, resolve. For several moments they stay like this, Naruto holding him posessively in place, Sasuke sucking on his bottom lip, heart racing uncontrollably. 

 

After a while, it dawns on Sasuke that he has no reason to keep Naruto so far away. He leans into the kiss until they both fall over onto the futon, Naruto’s hands falling away from his cheeks in surprise and Sasuke using his elbows to brace himself above Naruto. The angle is slight but it’s intentional, because it keeps his chest pressed up against Naruto’s. He dips his head down, pressing their lips together again, and then he starts to move. Naruto is rock hard and the pressure against his groin is pure and simple ecstasy. He grinds down on top of Naruto, hips rocking against each other, as he feels the pressure inside him build. It’s different to how it feels in his normal body because this like a coil, tightening more as one of Naruto’s hands grip his hips while the other holds the back of his head, tightening even more as fingers dig simultaneously into his scalp and soft skin as Naruto holds him close and thrusts up against him.

 

On missions, something like this is no different to any physical contact — sex and assasination both require mastery of the body and a focused mind. There is a slight difference between being with a man and being with a woman, and Sasuke has come to realise that he prefers a male body over him instead of being on top of the female form but time is wasted focusing on desires like this. His preferences do not factor into a mission’s success and at the end of the day, the outcome of the mission is the only goal. 

 

But here, now, things feel different. The kisses become wetter and sloppier, and any scrap of control Sasuke has left is gone.

 

The pressure builds to an unbearable high. When Naruto turns his head away from face to moan, lust staining his voice deeper and words unintelligible, into his ear, the pressure snaps. A shockwave of pleasure slams into him, fast and hard enough to wipe away all thought and coordination, and all he can do is bury his face into Naruto’s neck to ride out his orgasm against Naruto’s erection. 

 

It feels like it lasts a lifetime. Sasuke surrenders it all: to the way his body continues shuddering, to the sound of Naruto panting and moaning, to the way time itself drips away. 

 

Finally, when his body stops trembling, Sasuke presses the palm of his good hand onto the bed to push himself up. He looks down at Naruto, who has an arm flung over his face, hiding his eyes. It does not hide his flushed cheeks.

 

“Naruto?” Sasuke asks. His voice comes out surprisingly weak. “What’s wrong?”

 

“I, uh,” he begins before giving up with a sigh. 

 

Sasuke shifts to an upright position with some difficulty, because his limbs are still heavy and soft, and then oh, he feels it. Naruto’s pants and shirt are damp, as with the front of his own clothes.  

 

“It’s good that I wasn’t the only one who came,” Sasuke replies and Naruto slides his arm away to meet his eyes. Sasuke tilts his head and smiles down at him. 

 

“I didn’t know what to expect...it was my first time.”

 

The smile freezes across his face. “This is your first time with...someone?” 

 

Naruto’s eyes shine with panic. “I told you I’ve never had a girlfriend before—”

 

“—But you’re a shinobi,” Sasuke replies, brows furrowed in confusion.

 

Naruto blinks. “...Yeah.”

 

“Does Konoha not teach her shinobi to use their bodies like any other weapon on missions? Were you not trained in the art of seduction?”

 

Naruto shakes his head. 

 

Innocence. Sasuke leans back down towards Naruto. The dampness is cooling fast against their clothes and skin, and Naruto exhales in one swift, sharp sound. Against better judgement, against any judgement, Sasuke presses a soft, gentle kiss against his swollen lips. When they break apart, Naruto tucks a strand of hair behind Sasuke’s ears. 

 

“I’m glad you’re my first. And only one,” Naruto says, and the honesty in his voice cuts straight through, leaving complicated emotions in its wake, emotions that Sasuke does not want to deal with right now. 

 

Instead, Sasuke kisses him again, making it wetter and deeper and drawing it out this time until there’s a heat between them again, until he can feel Naruto lengthening and hardening under him once more. 

 

Sasuke breaks away, panting, but it’s too late because hunger stirs in him once more. “Do you want to touch me?”

 

Dumbly, Naruto nods. His hands come up to Sasuke’s chest, wandering, exploring. When Sasuke sucks in a harsh breath as he brushes against his nipples, Naruto’s fingers stop. He brushes a thumb over Sasuke’s nipple, maddeningly slowly, as Sasuke gasps again and jerks under his touch. His nipples have never been sensitive, but here, now, he feels that he can come undone with nothing more than Naruto’s fingers on them.

 

“Does it feel good?” Naruto whispers, half curious and completely teasing, as he circles his thumbs over hard nipples and the heat, pressure, and feel of rough fabric against flushed skin wipes his mind clear.

 

“Yes,” Sasuke gasps. “Very.”

 

Naruto works fast. He moves Sasuke off his thighs and onto his back on the futon. This time, Naruto kneels over him, both knees framing his hips as he tugs the top of his kimono down and over his shoulders, peeling away fabric and exposing his breasts and pink nipples. Naruto continues playing with him, alternating between light flicks and harder pinches, drawing out all sorts of airy, breathless sounds from him he never knew he could make. 


When his back arches, Naruto brings a knee in between his groin and unthinkingly, driven by a deeper, carnal desire, Sasuke grinds down into Naruto’s leg, feeling a tight, familiar pressure start to build up again. It’s bearable because he knows what to expect now and Sasuke can still pretend he is in control, but that only lasts until Naruto dips his head down and brings his mouth over his breast, close but not touching, and exhales. The sensation of heat and air leaves him shaking and trembling under Naruto’s mercy, spine twisting upwards but Naruto holds the distance between his open mouth and nipple steady.

 

“Please,” Sasuke finally finds himself begging. “ Naruto.

 

Naruto brings his mouth down, and sucks. 

 

This wet, delicious heat that explodes over the oversensitized nipple is enough to make his eyes roll back into his head. A different warmth pools behind his head and surges forward into his eyes — there is only one sensation like this, and it comes from the chakra in his system activating his Sharingan. Distantly, as though from a different world, he can hear broken moans and wet sucking, leaving behind nothing but darkness and his rutting hips and Naruto’s hot mouth and quick tongue. 

 

He comes instantly under Naruto’s mouth, fingers digging into the smooth sheets and toes curling as another orgasm pulses through him, wave after neverending wave. When the world restablises itself on its axis and he’s finally able to blink open his eyes, the first thing he sees is Naruto staring down at him. The second thing that registers is how his hair is spread out in a sweaty mess of strands all over the pillow. The third thing he notices is the hardness straining against Naruto’s dark pants. 

 

“You made me cum,” Sasuke says, hoarse and accusatory, as he sits up. The Sharingan spins lazily in his eyes. 

 

“You’re welcome,” Naruto replies with a smile, staring intently into his deadly gaze. No one in their right mind would ever look at him like this but here Naruto sits before him, fearless and happy and looking devastatingly in love. He touches Sasuke’s cheek, making his eyelids flutter from the warmth of his fingers. “Why are your eyes…?”

 

“It doesn’t happen often. It only happens when I’m—” Sasuke pauses, finding the word. “—Overwhelmed.” He catches Naruto’s hand and pulls him back down onto the bed. 

 

Forehead to forehead, Sasuke inhales as Naruto exhales and they lay there together, just breathing each other in. Naruto closes his eyes, and this closeness is almost too much for his heart to stand. He suppresses his Sharingan, feeling the moment already seared into his psyche. It’s just another gift, another curse: how every moment that the Sharingan records becomes a part of him, more branded into the soul than committed to memory.

 

“Your turn,” Sasuke says when it gets too much. With a quick kiss, he’s back on top of Naruto, helping him out of his shirt and sliding off his pants and boxers in one quick movement. Freed, his dick lays hard against his flat stomach, already leaking precum, and Sasuke takes a moment to admire the length and its girth, taking in the hard muscles of his abdomen and the black, spiral seal painted on his stomach. The mark of his fate.

 

Sasuke traces a finger across the mark, tracing flesh and leaving goosebumps in its wake. Naruto shivers. 

 

He draws back his hand and sinks down onto his knees. Sasuke begins by kissing the inside of Naruto’s thighs and sucking against soft skin, alternating between each side and feeling him begin to tremble under the pressure of his lips. The taste of his skin, musky with arousal, is enough to make him wetter. He only moves upward when Naruto gasps out Sachi’s name, harsh and strained, and when Sasuke licks around the head of his dick, a strand of slick precum clings onto his tongue as he pulls away slowly. This time, it’s enough to make Naruto swear shakily.

 

Sasuke looks up and a sheen of sweat has gathered on his chest and in the dips of his abdominal muscles, all taut with tension. In one swift movement, Sasuke brings his mouth around the head and sucks, causing Naruto’s hips to jerk up involuntarily. 

 

“Fuck,” he manages to choke out over the moans. “Fuckfuckfuck.”

 

Around his dick, Sasuke smiles. He slides up and down, taking in as much of Naruto as he can while he works his tongue in quick, swirling movements around the shaft, as his right fingers wrap around the base and hand begins to stroke in tandem with his mouth. A steady pace, a steady pressure, and soon Naruto’s dick is harder than ever and leaking even more. He’s done this many times with different targets, but doing it with feeling is a brand new experience. 

 

Once satisfied, Sasuke sinks his mouth down over Naruto’s dick, taking as much of him into his mouth. Loosening the back of his throat, Sasuke takes in that little bit more, feeling the deliciously heavy weight fill his throat. Naruto is left whining and straining up against him but even here, he’s careful not to thrust up too hard. 

 

He’s still in control. Sasuke does not like it.

 

The effort it takes Naruto to speak betrays his crumbling control. “Don’t—I’m going to—”

 

Sasuke releases him from his mouth, drawing a sharp gasp from Naruto. “No. Not yet,” Sasuke says. “Not until you beg for it.”

 

The sound of Naruto’s garbled response makes the desire in his blood sing. Keeping eye contact, Sasuke kisses down to his balls and sucks, hollowing his cheeks, swirling his tongue and coaxing out a symphony of sounds from Naruto. 

 

He moves back up to his dick and laps at the head, teasing, until the sounds melt into strained, garbled words and then, finally, the Sixth Hokage is pleading.

 

“I can’t—ah! Fuck. I— Please. ” 

 

In one movement, Sasuke takes Naruto all the way to the back of his throat. Holding eye contact, he hums around his dick, the low sound cutting through the gasps and chokes, vibrations enveloping the head and shaft. And then, Sasuke swallows.

 

The Hokage breaks apart under him. 

 

Sasuke is rewarded with a strangled cry as Naruto’s hips buck wildly and every semblance of control comes undone. One hand flat against his stomach, Sasuke feels the muscles of Naruto’s core tense and contract rhythmically and as he continues cumming, Sasuke pulls back slightly so he doesn’t choke. Swollen lips seal around the shaft as bitter heat empties out into his mouth and coats his tongue, spurt after spurt. 

 

After Naruto finally stills, spent and boneless onto the bed, he pulls away with a loud, sloppy sound and for the first time he’s done this, he swallows. The texture isn’t as bad as he expects, but the taste is worse. It barely registers, because when he lowers himself down onto the bed, he sees Naruto, eyes closed and messy hair sticking to his sweaty forehead, much too vulnerable and innocent and completely perfect. There are no more walls between them now, except his own tangle of lies. He brushes the strands away with a touch as tender as his heart; watching as Naruto’s chest heaves from the orgasm he had just wrought from him.  

 

When Sasuke looks back up to his face, Naruto is staring, hazy blue eyes slowly focusing onto him. With obvious effort, he reaches up to pull Sasuke into his arms and for the briefest moment, Sasuke hesitates before allowing his spine to melt as he relaxes in Naruto’s embrace. Here, the steady thrum of a still-racing heart hammers into the bare skin of his back. Butterfly wing-light, Naruto kisses a spot on his shoulder, close to his neck, so very close to where the Curse Seal hides. It makes him want to cry.    

 

“You are amazing. What can’t you do?” Naruto asks in a tiny, awed voice.

 

Tell you my real name, Sasuke thinks but pretends not to hear. Instead, he blinks the Sharingan awake because the Weakness gripped tight around his heart is solid and real and true, as much a part of the self now as everything else that has made him into Uchiha Sasuke and Tsukino Sachi. He wants to remember this three months from now, no matter what happens. 

 

In the still air of the quiet room, he sinks a little heavier into Naruto’s arms while he still can, while they still have time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The rest of the honeymoon falls away in a blur of bruising kisses and brand new sensations and dizzying heights of pleasure.

 

When they return back to the real world of other people, something is different. Sasuke looks around at the trees and buildings; he studies the furniture and the way the air of home smells. Nothing has changed, but a stain of otherness lingers like a haze. It doesn’t send the hairs at the back of his neck tingling but it is strange and surreal enough, and he knows better than to ignore it because different will never stop being dangerous.

 

At home, they find Naruto’s small, old bed gone. In its place, under Naruto’s direction, is a larger futon for two, one that looks identical to the one they had spent entire days in at the Daimyo’s residence. But this is a physical change and it does not explain the way he feels

 

It’s only on his second day back, the first night after waking up in their shared bed in their shared home, that it dawns on him: nothing has changed. 

 

He has. 

 

Where once there was only a rational mind to filter thoughts and decisions and colour the world in black and white, now there is another: a heart. A fragile thing in his chest; a Weakness. It makes focusing on the things that actually matter harder, because feelings are soft like the kisses Naruto presses to his eyelids and his forehead and the tip of his nose, and they are all-consuming, like the way Naruto thrusts inside him; feelings are as real as the instruments he continues to practice and the music that flow from them and the meals they share under the roof of this home. 

 

Sometimes, he almost forgets about the mission. Worse are the times when his mind slides straight through over the truth about the village.

 

Everything changes two weeks after the honeymoon.

 

It’s an ordinary working day. Sasuke is at the Hokage Mansion, trying to gather more historical information from the archive because now he has the clearance. He works alone in the cool silence; there is no need for a chaperone. A knock on the door drags him from the scroll he is combing through, and a junior administrative staff steps through into the room. 

 

“T-The Hokage would like to see you in his office.” The man keeps his eyes trained on the floor, never moving from Sasuke’s sandals, and he is almost used to it. This is something he’s noticed -- most people in Konoha don’t look him in the eyes, even though they are dark and never red. A decade after Sasuke was buried, they still fear Uchiha.

 

A tiny frown creases the space between Sasuke’s eyebrows, because it’s not like Naruto to send someone else as a messenger — he would summon him himself. This, Sasuke thinks, must be official business.

 

“Okay,” Sasuke says, and the man draws back with another small bow and darts away. 

 

Five minutes later, as he nears the Hokage’s office, he can already hear the raised voices from within. 

 

“You can't just—”

 

“The village needs—”

 

Sasuke brings his hand to the door, and when the knock sounds out, the silence that follows is almost comical. 

 

“Come in,” Naruto’s voice rings out. It is rough, almost unhappy.

 

The door swings open and the office is empty, save for occupants in the two chairs in front of the Hokage’s desk. They turn around, revealing only two figures, but perhaps Konoha’s most important ones, with blank faces and stiff spines. It is the elderly councilors, and Naruto looks weary. 

 

Whatever this is, it is serious enough to have them both gathered here but it’s not a security issue or his cover being blown. It’s instant, pure instinct and honed through training, how a plan forms and is ready at the forefront of his mind, set for the worst case scenario: secure the doorway and cast a genjutsu on Naruto first, because then he can deal with the sitting ducks at a languid, leisurely pace. 

 

Sasuke shuts the door behind him and he smiles in polite greeting.

 

Naruto exhales loudly. 

 

Utatane, with her low voice, breaks the silence. “We have a mission for you, Tsukino Sachi.” 

 

Sasuke keeps the mild smile on his face even though out of all the scenarios, this is not one he expects. “A mission?” he parrots.

 

“We received a report of Kumogakure-nin with an extremely powerful dojutsu, one extremely similar to the Sharingan. We have reason to believe it is a black market Sharingan. Over the years, Hatake Kakashi has been the one sent to eliminate those with these eyes. But Kakashi is not getting any younger, and now we have our own natural Sharingan user to hunt down these threats,” Mitokado explains. 

 

Sasuke remembers Kabuto’s intel about black market Sharingan. His blood freezes over as he realises where they must come from. Feigning innocence, he frowns. “Black market Sharingan?”

 

The councilors exchange a look. 

 

“Many disappeared from Konoha before Danzo’s death. It appears that they were smuggled out of the village by moles, then traded and sold across the land as weapons,” Mitokado says.  

 

Rage and nausea churn in his stomach. Expression mild, his only response is a passive nod.

 

“This happened years ago, and the culprits were caught and executed for treason. Hatake has the complete mission brief. You will leave in two days—”

 

“—No,” Naruto says sharply, cutting Utatane off, “this is not an order. It is a discussion.” 

 

“This has never been a discussion, Hokage-sama.” Utatane’s tone is steady, but her glare is venomous. “It is an order, because if not, why did we decide to take in Tsukino-hime? Every deal has to be mutually beneficial for both parties. She is safe in Konoha as its citizen and in return for that safety, she will be assigned to missions tailored to her ability, just as any other shinobi of the village would. Just because she is your wife does not mean she is exempt from the system.”

 

Naruto slams his hands onto the table and the sound that cracks through the oppressive air of the room is deafening. “Do not treat me like a child, Koharu-san. I read the treaty before I signed it. I understand the terms perfectly. This is Sachi’s first mission for the village — she deserves some consideration for that.”

 

Sasuke has never seen Naruto like this before. Distilled anger radiates from him through the edge that glints in his eyes, the tightness of his jaw, and the way his hands are now clenched into fists. For a second, he swears Naruto’s eyes glow a feral, crimson red. 

 

Anger is met with Mitokado’s cold reprimand. “Hokage-sama, do I need to remind you that the First Hokage’s wife was brought here as the very first human vessel for the Kyubi? That was a sacrifice. This is merely duty. Sending Tsukino-hime on a mission like this is nothing compared to that.” 

 

Against the dark wood of the Hokage’s desk, Naruto’s knuckles glow white.

 

The air vibrates from the tension and there is something else seeping into the air, high and sharp, prickling uncomfortably like foreign chakra as he watches Naruto stare down at Mitokado, as Utatane looks between the two of them. Kyubi chakra, he thinks, throat dry. Konoha’s government appears more fractured than he would have guessed, and Naruto is losing control.

 

“I accept the mission.” Sasuke’s smooth answer cuts into the rising tension, instantly killing the standoff. All at once, everyone looks at him; Naruto’s tense shoulders soften and vindication blooms across both councilors’ expressions. “Hokage-sama, thank you for your concern but I am ready to serve my village.” He gives Naruto a small smile and a nod, and watches as Naruto’s fists unclench. He still looks worried, but the anger and the toxic cloud in the air has dissipated, leaving him looking like his usual self once more as he drops heavily back down into the chair.

 

The smile on his own face is genuine; it must be because it twists deep inside him and spending any more time analysing what this feeling is or what it means is meaningless. At least his answer is simple, because it comes from the mind, clear and rational, and it is nothing more than a means to an end. 

 

This mission can be used to his advantage, and it will.

 


 

“What supplies do you need?” Hatake asks, after he takes Sasuke through the mission brief.  

 

“A katana.” 

 

Hatake looks at him. “Kenjutsu?” 

 

“At Oto, we are trained in many things,” Sasuke says in reply.

 

He nods. “Anything else?”

 

“Some information would be helpful,” Sasuke says, and Hatake’s single eye does not blink or appear surprised. He just watches him, waiting, and Sasuke continues. “Have you really been sent out to hunt down these black market Sharingan over the years?” 

 

The answer he receives is plain and simple. “Yes.”

 

They are in one of the many briefing rooms at the Hokage Mansion located in the basement, more a windowless square box of concrete furnished with a metal table and two metal chairs than anything else. The harsh, white light that pours over them highlights the deep lines in Hatake’s face. 

 

He has to tread carefully, so his voice is kept light and emotionless. “It appears the higher ups are trying to fix what they have lost control over — Shimura Danzo and his collection of Sharingan. Perhaps it would have been better to have destroyed all those eyes after the massacre.”

 

“That is merely your opinion, even though it’s one I sometimes agree with. Others covet such powers, and the more dangerous, the better.” The words bounce around the small space between them, making it seem even more claustrophobic.

 

“How did you get your eye?”

 

Hatake speaks like him: guarded, softly, slowly. “When I was on a mission, a long time ago, something went wrong. A good friend gave it to me.”

 

“An Uchiha?”

 

A slow nod. “An extraordinary shinobi.”

 

“Are there more spare Sharingan?”

 

“Konoha has a collection stored at the hospital,” Hatake replies as he leans back into his chair. The sound of metal against the concrete ground is shrill, causing the goosebumps to rise across his arms. “The Sharingan is only monstrous when it falls outside village control. Within Kohona, our eyes are first-class weapons.”

 

Sasuke smiles even though the anger is pulsing through him in sick, heavy throbs. He keeps smiling and the only way to keep it steady across his face is by concentrating on the fact that he has a lead. “I would do anything for my village.”

 

“You will.” Hatake’s voice is soft. 

 

It sounds like a warning. It also sounds like a lament. 

 


 

There are a few more hours left before he leaves but right now he is on top of the  Hokage, riding him with a force that is only rivalled by the way Naruto thrusts up inside him. He tells himself that this is all to portray the image of a devoted wife, but Sasuke knows it’s not that complicated: it is because he’ll be gone for weeks, and this is all that he wants at this very moment. Naruto’s breathless grunts, Naruto’s cum in his mouth, Naruto deep inside him. Moonlight falls into the bedroom in silver swatches and under him, Naruto’s sweaty skin glows.

 

From the way Naruto’s hips are bucking, he knows that he is close. Sasuke leans forward, bringing his elbows onto the futon, framing Naruto’s head. Hungrily, Naruto kisses him, lips fumbling over his and Sasuke pants into his mouth. Skin to skin, heated breath against heated breath, this is the closest they can get to each other. This is the closest Sasuke will ever get to another person. 

 

Sasuke breaks the kiss to suck at a vein by Naruto’s neck, tasting salt and skin, and the harsh intake of breath that Naruto makes is music to his ears. He grinds down a little more, feeling the heat inside him tighten, and sucks a little bit harder. In response, Naruto’s fingers dig even deeper into his hips, hard enough to bruise. 

 

This is something he has come to love most about Naruto: he is not treated like glass. He is not fragile, and Naruto understands this because he always kisses back just as hard, his thrusts deep, and that hot mouth and strong fingers marking him in the most intimate of places. They are equals, and this recognition is beautiful and terrifying because it is nothing that Sasuke wants but everything he has ever needed. 

 

Sasuke is close now. He trails his lips up higher, moving across slick skin, up to the shell of his ear and whispers Naruto’s name. Under him, Naruto shivers and moans, the broken sound cutting into the night, sharp as the crescent moon that hangs in the sky. He repeats his name like a chant, and it’s enough to send Naruto over the edge because he shudders and spills inside him. Letting go, Sasuke falls into that ecstasy, muscles gripping and contracting around Naruto as the world dissolves into nothing. There is only the sound of a single name torn from his lips, over and over again.

 

Naruto.

 

Slowly, as it always does, the world floats back, fragment by brilliant fragment. He slides himself off Naruto’s overheated body and feels the thick, familiar wetness drip from him. The pill is more magic than medicine, because it gives him all of the benefits of a female body with none of the risks of pregnancy and together with his sensitivity and Naruto’s endless stamina, he has been putting the pills to good use. Mind hazy, he can feel himself dozing off already, even though there are only a few more hours before the mission call time.

 

Next to his ear, Naruto’s fierce plea sounds so far away. “Make sure you come back home.” 

 

The sleep he surrenders to is dreamless.

 

His body clock is perfect, because he jolts awake a minute before his alarm is set to go off. Outside, the sky is dark, moon hidden by murky clouds as he clicks off the alarm. He eases himself off the futon and Naruto shifts with a sleepy sigh, but does not wake. A cold shower allows the clarity of what is ahead to flow over him like rivets of water, bright and cleansing. He dresses carefully in Konoha’s standard uniform, this time complete with a flak jacket. He does not put on his village headband. By the time he slides his katana into the attachment at the back of his jacket and loops a red hair tie around his hair, gathering it into a low ponytail, he is no longer Tsukino Sachi. This is Uchiha Sasuke, ready for a brand new mission.

 

Still, he stands by the doorway of the bedroom for a heartbeat too long, watching Naruto sleep soundly, the blanket pooled around his hips and expression smooth and untroubled. Weakness compels him to turn on his Sharingan, but he fights the urge. And loses. 

 

When Sasuke finally turns to leave, he does not look back. 

 

Lightning country is far; it’s the furthest place he has ever traveled to. As he makes his way out of the village gates and into Fire country’s dense forests, he goes over the mission once more. It is straightforward: in Kumo, there is a shinobi with the Sharingan. Kill him, take the eye, bring it back to the village as proof. He will complete this mission alone. He has two weeks.

 

Sasuke knows it’s just as much a test as it is a mission, and as the sky breaks into light over his head, he begins to run. Adrenaline courses through his system, awakening tense muscles and quieting the heart, leaving nothing but a clear mind and a sharp, unyielding focus.

 


 

He’s never seen the ocean before and Kumogakure is surrounded by it. Wherever he turns, the clean smell of salt chases him.

 

Unlike Konoha’s wide lanes and narrow, snaking pathways or Oto’s cold rock tunnels, Kumo is a village built upon many different small mountaintops, each a different height. Bridges connect each platform to another, and the sheer drop from the bridges to the ocean below makes his knees weak.

 

At the most secluded inn he can find, he pays extra for a room that faces the sea. The inn is on a lower level compared to the other accommodations, bringing him closer to the sea. Inside, the double window is as large as the small room and from it, as though presented in a picture frame, the churning, frothy water crashes up against the cliffside in all its beautiful fury. He has made good time, arriving in Kumo in under four days instead of the standard five according to average calculations. 

 

The first stop is a clothing shop, where he buys what everyone around him is outfitted in: a long top with matching coloured pants in a dull, deep grey, material as soft as water. 

 

The first proper meal he has is ramen. It’s completely accidental, because when he stumbles across a small stall with one counter and empty red seats, looking uncomfortably familiar to Ichiraku, he stands and stares until it’s too rude to leave. He walks inside and takes the corner seat, ordering their speciality without glancing at the menu. A bowl of crab ramen arrives minutes later, and the broth is rich and sweet on his tongue. It tastes like the sea. It’s delicious and almost unsettlingly familiar. After several more sips, it hits him — it tastes like a place that should not exist. 

 

Home. 

 

Heart in his mouth, he pushes the bowl away with a sharp, scraping sound. Behind the counter, the chef frowns at him. 

 

He chokes down the rest of his meal.

 

Back in the room, Sasuke watches the water, thick like syrup, turn from blue to black as the sun sets. 

 

The target’s name is Kazu. The mission brief does not report his last name or age; there is no indication whether he has parents who will mourn his death or a wife and children he will be leaving behind. The only thing that matters is to find this man with a brown eye patch, and on his third day in Kumo, Sasuke finds him.

 

Average height, average short brown hair, average skills. In the two days he’s been here, Sasuke has familiarised himself with Kumo’s landmarks and landscapes, and on the empty street, he throws himself at the man and they both crash through the rotting door of an abandoned warehouse. 

 

It’s perfect, because the sound is muffled by the damp floor as they land inside. The warehouse is empty, save for a few moldy wooden crates and deflated, soggy sacks. Stale air, musty wood, and salt fill his senses as he straightens up to release his katana from a scroll. Kazu rises slowly, his single eye trained on him as Sasuke unsheathes the katana. Konoha has given him a fine weapon, as beautiful as it is deadly. 

 

“Assassin?” 

 

Sasuke does not reply.

 

“Let’s see how you fare against the Sharingan.” Kazu rips off the eye patch and Sasuke drops his gaze on the man’s mouth, fingers trembling with anticipation. There’s no need to awaken the Sharingan now, not yet, and it’s been far too long since he’s been in combat. 

 

The man smiles, revealing a mouthful of sharp, uneven teeth that remind him of Kumo’s cliffs, sharp edges visible from his window. 

 

Sasuke tightens his grip around the katana and only moves once the man rushes towards him. Kazu wields a kunai and predictably, every one of his moves are matched by him with the foresight of the Sharingan. He counters every one of Kazu’s attacks at the very last moment, keeping up the farce, moving as one with his weapon until his muscles are loose and warm. 

 

When their weapons meet again with the sharp grinding sound of metal against metal, Sasuke looks up to meet Kazu’s eyes with his own spinning Sharingan.

 

There’s a sharp intake of air but Kazu’s kunai holds steady. He laughs. “I can’t believe this.”

 

“Where did you get your eye from?” Sasuke asks. 

 

“Who did you get yours from?”

 

“Konoha?”

 

“Everyone knows the Sharingan only comes from one village,” Kazu replies. 

 

Why do you want the Sharingan?”

 

“Why does anyone want power? I fell out of favour with the Raikage but once I returned to the village with this, I was promoted. You must want power even more than the rest of us because you’re special. No one has ever survived a double-eye transplant before.”

 

“They’re not transplants,” Sasuke says evenly even though he allows the anger to flood through him. This eye does not belong to Konoha; it does not even belong to him. It belongs to someone from the Uchiha, name long forgotten, body reduced to ash, eyes stolen and misused so easily. The man’s eyes widen. Bad move, Sasuke thinks, because that is enough to drag Kazu into an effortless genjutsu.

 

Kazu crumples onto the ground like a heap of bones, and Sasuke bends down and gets to work. Enough questions. Enough talking. He pushes aside his mission for a moment; now there is only his own agenda. 

 

Sasuke extracts another scroll from his pocket, this time releasing a spool of thin wire that pools at the centre of his palm. He binds the man’s hands and feet with it, before dragging him into a darkened corner and setting him upright against a crate. 

 

Using genjutsu to wake a person up strains the system, but it’s the fastest way to drag a person back to consciousness. When Kazu comes to, his gaze is unfocused and a thin line of saliva runs down the side of mouth. Crouched down on his knees, Sasuke stares at the man. 

 

“What—”

 

“Don’t speak,” Sasuke whispers and Kazu shuts up. “Do you know the Sixth Hokage?”

 

The man blinks dumbly at him.

 

“Uzumaki Naruto,” Sasuke says. The forced calm of his voice comes out harsher. “Do you know what he looks like?”

 

“Don’t kill me,” Kazu mumbles, fear making his eyes slide away, and Sasuke grabs his chin to force him to look back at him.

 

“Focus,” Sasuke says, fighting to keep his voice smooth and slow. “Tell me you know what the Sixth Hokage looks like.” 

 

His voice grows louder, clearer. “There is no one alive who does not know who Uzumaki Naruto is.” 

 

“Use a henge. Show me,” Sasuke rasps, releasing his chin and allowing his hand to fall away to his side.

 

It takes Kazu three tries to get it right. The first time is laughably amateur, because he still looks like Kazu, just with dirty blonde hair. On his second try, he gets the colouring right but the features are all wrong — he stares into Naruto’s eyes and only sees a bad imitation. Sasuke sighs impatiently, fingers twitching on the handle of his katana, and Kazu must be scared enough because finally, this time, he gets it right: sky blue eyes, that open expression, and the familiar curve of those lips.

 

Sasuke stares and stares. “Naruto.” 

 

“I want to live,” Naruto says, and it breaks the illusion a little because it is not the same husky baritone he is used to hearing. This voice is high, made even higher with fear but still, the sight of Naruto pleading is terrifying. “What do you want?”

 

Despite this glaring flaw, he cannot look away. This is more captivating than any genjutsu he’s been trained to withstand under Orochimaru and Kabuto and around the handle of the katana, his palms sweat. This body can betray him, his heart can be as soft as it wants, but the mind is a stronger weapon than most. He tightens his grip, as though it is possible to draw strength from this quiet blade. 

 

“Who are you?” Naruto continues, staring at the weapon. “I only paid for the eye so I could serve the Raikage — my village —better. I don’t want to die.” He struggles against the restraints but stops immediately with a soft gasp of pain, because thin wire sinks so easily into soft flesh. Blood drips into his lap from those bound hands, blossoming into smears against grey fabric. 

 

This is a test Sasuke is already failing. Looking into Naruto’s blue eyes, staring at his bleeding wrists without feeling the shadow of any doubt is the true reason he is here, to test his resolve for his true mission, but how can he complete that if he cannot even kill an imposter? How can he kill Naruto, when there is nothing but doubt swirling inside him?

 

Through sheer focus and willpower. 

 

With a flick of the wrist, he steadies the katana before him in a straight, horizontal line. The past on one side, the future on the other. Sasuke focuses on the bright metal and in front of it, on the other side of the blade, from the future, Naruto begins to cry. The katana trembles. 

 

Focus. 

 

He thinks about his brother’s sacrifice and channels every ounce of energy into the fact that the village had betrayed their entire clan and left him for dead. Konoha buried him and their history, but Oto brought him back to life. Sasuke meets Naruto’s eyes and pushes through, into the future. A gentle, controlled movement, one small arc of the katana. There is only the slightest resistance when steel meets skin before it sinks into Naruto’s throat, slicing through flesh and muscle like a promise.

 

Through the Sharingan and pure willpower, Sasuke watches Naruto die. 

 

Blood, far too much of it, gushes out. The henge breaks with a sharp crack, but Sasuke doesn’t see the body falling down, thrashing around on the floor in a widening sea of blood, not when the katana slips from his hand and falls quietly on the damp floor. Vision swimming, Sasuke drops to his hands and knees as bile rushes up and sears his throat. The last dredges of energy left within keeps him upright as he turns his head away from the body and vomits. 

 

The sound of his retching melts into Kazu’s desperate, dying breaths and for a while, that is all he can hear. 

 

When his stomach stops heaving and his body is hollowed out, he can finally see Kazu, throat open like a smile, eyes glassy. Dead. Surrender comes easily as his limbs give way because the mission — at least his own mission — is complete. Laying on the floor and curling up into his side, his burning eyes close. The air smells of seaweed and mould and copper and bile and soon, he tastes salt. 

 

There is no more focus, no more strength, left. There are no more wet, rasping exhales. Only a single sound remains: under the floorboards, far below, weary waves pound against the cliff in a resonant, melancholic melody.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s dusk when he arrives in Konoha, sun bleeding across a darkening sky — he has planned it this way.

 

Sasuke makes his way home first, going from treetop to treetop until the familiar red roof comes into view. His skin itches and something sharp like lightning courses through his veins because returning to Konoha feels different from the first time he had arrived with Orochimaru and the palanquin. There is a wrongness to it and as he leaps off a branch to walk the rest of the way home, he feels it slowly dissipate. The fact that he’s getting closer and closer to Naruto means nothing, he’s sure of it. Most of Konoha are asleep because there is no sign of life on the street. All is dark and quiet.

 

He unlocks the front door soundlessly and inside, the ground floor is just as dark and even quieter. He makes his way up the stairs silently, back against the wall, and sees the bedroom door cracked open. Everything is just as dark up here as downstairs.

 

Naruto is fast asleep on the futon but the moment he takes a step into the room, barely breathing, a pair of blue eyes flicker open. Sasuke stops to lean against the door frame, shrouded in shadow, and watches as Naruto pushes himself upright.

 

“Sachi.” His voice is hoarse with sleep but nothing has ever sounded more soothing, more comforting.

 

Sasuke doesn’t trust himself to speak so he walks straight towards the futon instead, the unease he felt when he first returned completely gone. Now there is only calm and dread, a strange mix that makes him feel like he’s walking on air. When he’s close enough, Naruto’s arms extend slowly, tugging at his sleeve to coax him down to his knees. Sasuke complies. When Naruto’s palms catch both sides of Sasuke’s cheeks, grounding him into the moment with the heat of his hands and turning his face from one side to the other, gentle and so very tender, he can only close his eyes. 

 

There has never been a moment in his life where he has shied away from meeting someone’s gaze — it’s understandable that others are afraid of his eyes, but there has never been anything to fear in the eyes of others. The fear now is uncharted, because he is scared of what Naruto might see reflected within his black eyes. It could show Naruto’s death in Kazu’s henge or a vision of a betrayal that will come. 

 

Closing his eyes is safer; easier.

 

“You’re home.” 

 

Kabuto once told them that the hardest part of any mission wasn’t fulfilling its objectives, but returning alive. Many shinobi never do. 

 

But here he is, breathing and alive. Naruto still is, too.

 

He feels soft lips pressing into his forehead as steady hands run down his shoulders and arms, pressing against the bulky front of his flak jacket, searching for injuries. The warmth makes him tremble. Naruto’s lips travel down to his eyelids, then to his nose before making their way across his cheeks in fervent kisses, each mark more intense than the one before. All Sasuke can trust himself to do is breathe. 

 

By the time Naruto kisses him on the lips, open-mouthed and feverish, Sasuke is no longer shivering. He burns from desire, from guilt, from the sheer sense of home ; set alight from inside out. 

 


 

“Naruto,” he says sometime later, in between kisses. “I have to go.”

 

Sasuke is still kneeling on the floor, legs numb, because he cannot move closer to Naruto, not without his pill. It’s a calculated risk and they’ve done nothing since his return except kiss. 

 

Naruto moves from his mouth to a place where his pulse throbs, stopping long enough to say a single word: “No.”

 

He can’t help but chuckle as he tries to extract himself from the man opposite him. “My mission isn’t over until I return the Sharingan.” 

 

An impatient exhale sears his cheek. “Okay, but be quick. This is an order.” 

 

Sasuke frees himself and stands. “Yes, Hokage-sama.”

 

Naruto throws a pillow at him, one that Sasuke dodges easily as climbs out the window and leaps out into the cool night. Even from this distance, he can see his destination shining like a beacon: Konoha Hospital.

 

When he walks inside, the building is staffed but at this time, voices are low in contrast to the harsh, fluorescent light that burns down around him. Someone with long, dark hair walks in his direction and Sasuke moves quickly to the other side of the hallway, out of sight of Hyuga Neji and his dangerous eyes. Destination locked into mind, he makes his way towards the empty stairwell. It is just as bright here as it is outside in the hallway. Large glass windows frame the dark night’s sky, removing any feeling of claustrophobia from the stairwell. He descends deeper and deeper into the bowels of the hospital until there are no more windows but plain concrete walls, until there are no more stairs to descend. There is only a door, beige and nondescript, waiting for him at the end. He pushes past it and enters a long, sterile corridor. 

 

This is the basement, and this is where Konoha’s stolen Sharingan are housed. Identical metal doors line both sides of the corridor. From the reports he has combed through, most are laboratories. Only one will be the vault where the eyes are housed. 

 

Uchiha Itachi’s eyes are in one of these rooms.

 

He doesn’t have time to speculate because a figure comes strolling down the hallway, each footstep a solid sound that echoes. “Shinobi, state your name and purpose.” 

 

Under the glare of the brilliant light, he is not dressed as a nurse or in the standard green flak jacket, but the dull grey uniform and red spiral tattoo of an ANBU agent. Under this much light, the ANBU uniform looks grotesque and inhuman; it’s a uniform better kept in the shadows. Sasuke doesn’t recognise the head of dark hair or the mask. “Tsukino Sachi,” he says, walking right up to the masked figure and stopping inches away. “I’m here to deposit the eye I was tasked to retrieve from Kumogakure.”

 

From a scroll he frees from one of the pockets of the flak jacket, Sasuke brings forth a sealed plastic bag with a single eye. He lifts it up and the ANBU agent reaches for it.

 

Sasuke takes a step backwards, causing the ANBU’s fingers to catch air. 

 

Tension floods the airless hallway so quickly that he can almost feel it coating his mouth, oily and thick. “What will happen to this?” Sasuke asks.

 

The clinical tone of the ANBU agent does not match the force of the glare that burns into Sasuke’s dark eyes. “I am not here to answer your questions or play any games.”

 

“I am no ordinary shinobi and this is not a game,” Sasuke replies just as evenly.

 

The ANBU does not move and Sasuke watches him strategise. He can almost see the man’s brain ticking behind that porcelain mask. An ANBU position outranks his shinobi status but as the Hokage’s wife, he exists in a class of his own — and they both know this.

 

Finally, the person behind the mask clears his throat. “It will first be catalogued, and either destroyed or returned to the collection.” His hands, now hanging loosely by his side, are clenched into fists.

 

He lets go of the plastic bag and the ANBU catches it by instinct, via sheer muscle memory, before it hits the floor. 

 

“Thank you,” Sasuke says politely. He leaves the still figure standing alone in the hall as he walks down the hall, up the stairs, and through the calm waiting room of the hospital. Out in the velvety night, he begins to run and he doesn’t stop until he makes it home. 

 

Naruto is asleep and after a hot shower that scrubs the hospital and grime and ocean spray off his skin, he places a pill under his tongue and crawls into the soft, warm bed that belongs to a kinder, simpler world.

 


 

Sasuke spends his first day back in Konoha completing the mission report. He knows, from Naruto, that they will catalogue the eye today so by tomorrow, the next part of his plan can be put into action. 

 

The next morning, he completes the chores around the house as usual. He plays his instruments as usual. When Naruto gets home, they eat in the dining room as usual and share a pot of tea in the living room, as usual. Naruto retires up to bed first. 

 

“I’ll be right up,” Sasuke says as Naruto’s heavy footsteps make their way up the stairs. He sits on the living room floor, steadies his thoughts and stills his mind, and waits. 

 

At midnight, he pads upstairs and Naruto is asleep. Silently, he changes into the Konoha uniform, attaches a weapon pouch to the back of his pants, and slips out into the night. 

 

He brings the katana with him.

 

Outside the hospital, he finds the closest tallest tree within the area. It’s a majestic one that looks at least a hundred years old, and he finds a branch closest to the wall of the hospital and this is how he makes his way into the building, breaking through one of the stairwell windows. Quietly but quickly, he makes his way deeper and deeper down into the hospital, crimson eyes scanning every empty corner.

 

The moment he arrives before the doors of the basement, Sasuke takes one deep, steady breath. Exhaling smoothly, he pushes past the doors and yells out a word: “Hey!”

 

As expected, a masked figure rushes down the hallway at him. The figure has his eyes set on Sasuke, which is a perfectly natural mistake because halfway towards Sasuke, he drops down onto the floor, body rendered useless and mind bound by genjutsu. 

 

There is no time to waste. Using explosive tag after explosive tag that he draws from his weapon pouch, he checks disarms every door and. The explosion rings out in the stale air but this is all part of the plan because there’s not much choice: this is the time for speed, not stealth.

 

The ninth door he opens is the vault. It’s dimmer inside here compared to the corridor and the rest of the rooms. Endless jars of liquid line steel shelves built into the wall, each one of them holding a single, floating eyeball. Sasuke approaches carefully, drinking in the sight: the red irises, jet black tomoe, milky white spheres. An entire clan reduced to a collection of lonely eyeballs. 

 

The rage keeps him going, as he scans through the labels, committing each name to memory as he searches for the eyes he needs. 

 

Uchiha Itachi’s eyes are not here.

 

Below the wall of eyeballs are metal drawers, and only one of them is locked. The rest are filled with scrolls, papers and gauze. He grabs a handful of the white material. There is only one place to keep Uchiha Itachi’s eyes, and it is behind a locked drawer. 

 

“Amaterasu,” he whispers, and black fire crawls around the metal, eating away at it like water on paper. When a hole emerges, he kills the fire. Crouching down, he sees two identical glass jars inside, one labelled ‘Uchiha Itachi’. On the other, ‘Mangekyou Sharingan’. Both of the eyes have a strange pattern, one he’s never seen before: a fluid black shape, edges sharp like snake tongues, and pinwheel centres.

 

Breathing deeply, Sasuke lowers himself to the cold tiled floor and extracts one jar from its confines at a time. He fishes out an eyeball and holds it in his right hand. Then, still breathing into his stomach to keep his heart rate low and calm, he brings his left hand out in front of his face and readies himself for the most crucial part of this task.

 

At Oto, they have been tortured. They have been trained. They have all been prepared for moments like this because Orochimaru has taught them well: to inflict pain, one must be able to withstand it. Sasuke stuffs the gauze into his mouth, biting down. The fabric sits in his dry mouth. One last inhale, one final exhale, and his left palm glows green.

 

They have all been trained in basic medical ninjutsu.

 

Pain is the body’s natural response of protecting itself. What he feels when his fingers sink into his eye is pain; clean, pure, bright pain, and it is nothing compared to what he feels when he tugs at his eyeball. This pain is not natural, but then again, the act of removing one’s own eye isn’t natural either. He can already feel the edges of his vision blurring as thick, warm blood streams down his cheek -- he is already starting to lose consciousness. He bites down harder onto the gauze and pulls even harder, until he feels something give inside his head with pain so harsh he blacks out for a second. The screams that tear through his throat ground him back to the present moment as he coughs the material out from his mouth. He tries to swallow, but there is only pain. 

 

There is no time to lose, not when he’s losing blood and consciousness so quickly. The movements come automatically, as though rehearsed: press his brother’s eyeball from his right palm into the empty socket and it enters his head with a sickening, wet sound. The last thing he remembers is clamping both hands over his left eye, palms shaking, sending healing chakra into his head through green, ethereal light.

 

And when everything fractures: sound, sight, pain, Sasuke welcomes the darkness that consumes him whole.

 

Sasuke blinks away the fog to find himself standing at the edge of a bank. Around him, the world looks strange and surreal, colours less vivid and semi-transparent. It’s not reality; this is a memory. There is only the faintest throb of pain to remind him that he is alive. The roar of water from a surging waterfall right ahead drowns out every other thought and sound, but not sight: in front of the sandaled foot of a giant statue, two figures appear to be speaking. Sasuke walks slowly towards the figure dressed in a long, dark coat emblazoned with crimson clouds, black hair swept into a low ponytail.

 

His heart begins to race as his palms sweat.

 

Uchiha Itachi. 

 

Facing him is an old man in a black and white robe, yin with yang, head and half his face heavily bandaged. He is talking. “What do you think could possibly happen here?”

 

“You did not keep your end of our deal, which is why you have to understand why I must kill you.” His brother’s voice is soft, slow.

 

“I did not kill him—”

 

Sasuke stands by the side, watching, reliving this memory.

 

There is a weight in his brother’s words, and it takes Sasuke several seconds to realise it is agony. “You did not protect him. The end result remains the same: Uchiha Sasuke is dead when he shouldn’t be.”

 

“Your sentimentality is blinding you; I thought I trained you to be better than this, Itachi. By killing me, you will destabilise your beloved village. Everything we have worked for together will come undone,” Shimura Danzo says while unwrapping the bandage across his head.

 

His brother watches with red eyes. “Maybe. But the Third Hokage is alive, and so are the councillors and many other competent shinobi who will continue protecting Konoha. This is a chance I am willing to take.”

 

Danzo moves quickly, much quicker than Sasuke expects, attacking first, and this stranger who is his brother summons a Susanoo to shield him from a ferocious wind jutsu. It towers over the landscape, red and terrifyingly large, and for the briefest moment, Itachi’s summoning looks down, staring straight at him with those translucent eyes. Everything that Orochimaru had told him was true, Sasuke thinks, allowing his knees to give way. On the bank, fingernails digging into the rough ground, he watches history play out as it all ends at the Valley of the End.

 

When it is over, there is nothing more than pieces of flesh and rubble strewn around. Sasuke stands. He focuses on an event and seamlessly, this place, this memory fades away. Massacre, he repeats in his head, until a street he doesn’t recognise materialises around him. There are a mixture of shops and quaint houses all around.

 

The trees all around are tall and healthy, so it must be Konoha. This must be the Uchiha compound.

 

A figure comes rushing past him in a blur of grey and a flash of silver. He enters a home; Sasuke follows.

 

It is his brother, in an ANBU uniform, katana raised up high. It falls down and into the cowering family, sending blood splattering across the ceiling, on the walls, and sullying the photo frames lining a table. The sharp stench of copper floods the small room. When Itachi leaves the house, his shadow passes over the Uchiha symbol painted onto the wall, and Sasuke can only follow him out into the darkness. 

 

It goes on and on like this, house after house, family after family — it is only proper to bear witness to history. When they reach the largest home in the compound, his feet hover just beyond the front door because he knows . He forces himself inside. There are voices; low and composed and somehow it’s even more horrifying than the screams from the other families. Sasuke stands by the entrance of the living room as he listens to his parents’ voices for the first time and watches Itachi cry for the only time during the entire massacre. When the katana slides into two soft bodies, Sasuke forces himself to watch and then, just like that, it is over. Itachi wipes the tears from his face, and waits. 

 

They hear him before they see him. 

 

A young boy bursts into the room, screaming and crying. It’s unnerving how he has his face. Sasuke watches as he tries to fight with Itachi, movements jerky and uncoordinated. From grief? From fear? Sasuke doesn’t know; he will never know because he does not remember anything from his life before. In a brief lull, with his brother staring down at him, the young boy’s eyes shine red as two perfectly formed blood-moons glow in the darkened room. 

 

So this is how his Sharingan was awakened. 

 

Itachi seems satisfied, because he finally ends the fight with a genjutsu that cuts down Konoha’s Uchiha Sasuke, leaving nothing left but a shell of a boy facedown on the floor, drool pooling from his parted lips.

 

His brother flees into the moonlit night, and Sasuke has to force his feet to follow. He cannot run; everything is far too heavy so instead he trudges along, half-stumbling until he makes it outside. Itachi stands in the middle of the deserted compound, staring sightlessly at the moon, back straight and shoulders still. There are a few bodies littered around them. Sasuke doesn’t need to see his face to know he is mourning: waves of anguish rise within the illusion, coating his own body and clouding the mind and sinking into the depths of his soul. 

 

There is something else too, something even more painful than the agonising pain, something that stains even darker than anguish — love. His brother’s love for his village; Itachi’s love for his only brother.

 

Eleven years ago, Uchiha Itachi and Uchiha Sasuke were left breathing, but it does not mean they escaped alive. On this night, every single Uchiha member was annihilated. 

 

In the unnatural calm of the night, Sasuke stands behind his brother, watching, waiting, feeling a spectrum of these two terrible emotions live within him. 

 

It is almost a relief when something cold bites into his throat, breaking the illusion. Thrown back into reality, the first thing he feels is his back against the cold tiles, pinned on the floor by something against his neck, and pain throbs incessantly in his left eye and throughout his entire head. He blinks open his eyes and everything is murky and dark before it brightens into startling clarity. 

 

Sai’s unblinking eyes stare down at him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sai smiles, lips stretching over bared teeth, and his dark eyes are even darker with rage. “I wish it felt better to be proven right.”

 

Sasuke lets out a long breath, urging his mind to process the situation faster but everything is still hazy: there’s a throbbing in his head from the transplant and the edges of his mind feel soft from breaking through his brother’s memories. Sai presses the kunai deeper in response to Sasuke’s sigh, until a light sting and a rush of warmth indicates that the metal has broken through skin. “Don’t you want to find out more about me and my true intentions before killing me, Sai-san?”

 

“You are an Oto spy. That is all I need to know.”

 

He needs to keep Sai talking; his strength is already returning slowly. “Then why did I break into the hospital’s Sharingan collection instead of the Hokage’s office? Konoha’s secrets are in there, not here.”

 

“I don’t have your mission brief. Your orders could be to steal these eyes for Oto.” Sai’s eyes flit to the two jars next to his body, one empty, and this is the only opening he needs: pulling his knees into his chest, Sasuke kicks up to throw Sai away from him. The force is enough to propel Sai into the wall of glass jars across the room and it all falls down onto the ground and around him, exploding in a deafening show of glass and liquid. Without wasting another second, Sasuke brings his hands into seals and aims a fireball at the other glass jar near his feet, incinerating Uchiha Itachi’s other eye. He will not let Konoha keep it.

 

He will not let Konoha keep any of the other Sharingan.

 

Sai crawls back to his feet, leaps away from the broken glass to the other side of the room, and pulls a scroll out from his pocket. Sasuke’s new eye surges with power; adrenaline has dulled the pain even though his mind is still tender. The shapes Sai draws are dark, wriggling lines that make him think of snakes — this is a good sign because Sai’s aim now seems to be capture instead of kill. There is only one objective now: evade capture and destroy the rest of the eyes.   

 

The snakes crawl from the paper, impossibly quickly, and Sasuke creates more seals with his hand. The next fireball that he conjures in the air is monstrous, and he sends it towards the jars, away from Sai. He has to keep moving, side stepping here and jumping there, to evade the snakes, but his eyes are clearer now. Sharper. 

 

“Get down!” Sasuke shouts out automatically, pulling a metal cart down with him as slides behind it. He can hear Sai scrambling and when the blistering fireball envelops the jars, they explode all at once, sending glass flying everywhere. 

 

The force of the blast sucks all the air from his lungs.

 

In the aftermath of the explosion, the silence and the bitter, acrid smoke that hangs around him is stifling. Slowly, he stands. Behind him, nothing moves. Sasuke moves ahead cautiously.

 

When Sai surges out at him, he only has enough time to turn his head so that Sai’s kunai bites into the wall, mere inches from where his face was at. Sasuke turns back around, breathing heavily. Sai has him pinned up against the wall with an arm around his throat.

 

“Why didn’t you kill me? Why did you warn me to stay down?” Sai whispers, breath hot against Sasuke’s cheek.

 

“It wasn’t for your sake,” Sasuke says bitterly, cursing his weakness, because all he sees when he looks at Sai is Naruto’s best friend. A look of understanding flashes through Sai’s eyes.

 

Sai slides out another kunai from his pouch. “I told you I wouldn’t forgive you if you betrayed Naruto.”

 

He can’t help the way his breath escapes noisily from his mouth. Naruto. “I haven’t betrayed him yet.” Not completely, and he hopes this at least counts for something. Sai’s grip around the kunai is firm, and they both know he will not miss this time. There’s so many things he should tell Sai, but Sasuke understands the look in those eyes -- it’s the same eyes he used to see staring back at him in Oto. Sai will not stop at anything other than his death. 

 

“Sai, I—” he says, even though he doesn’t know where to start, even though it’s too late.

 

The kunai cuts down.

 

Instead of pain, there is only the harsh, ringing sound of metal meeting metal. A moment ago, the room was empty save for the both of them, but now there is someone else standing by their side. A katana blocks the trajectory of the kunai to his throat. 

 

At the end of the katana stands Sakura. Dressed in her ANBU outfit, her face is plain and exposed. Her long hair is damp, like she had rushed right out of a shower.

 

“We shouldn’t be so rash, Sai,” she says quietly, fingers tightening across her weapon. “If we kill her now, we wouldn’t know what Oto wants.”

 

“You’re assuming she will tell us,” he replies just as softly. “You’re assuming Tsukino Sachi deserves to live after making fools out of every one of us.” 

 

“She had every opportunity to kill the Hokage, but didn’t.” Sakura turns to stare straight at him, eyes as cool as the steel of her blade that she moves closer to his throat. “Why?”

 

This, Sasuke understands, is the moment. In this brief window of a single second, there is a decision that needs to be made. To begin the final part of his mission, he will first need to kill Sakura and Sai. Everything else hinges on this decision: Oto or Konoha, the future or the past, vengeance or forgiveness.

 

The decision has never been any clearer — Konoha has to pay for its sins. But even here, he cannot bring himself to hurt the two most important people in Naruto’s life. Was the mission doomed the moment Naruto drew him that map of Konoha? Or maybe it was the time he brought back those yuzu. Perhaps failure was built into the walls of their home, in the spaces filled with his music; in Naruto’s loud stories and quiet acceptance. 

 

Kumo was supposed to be the turning point; that false Naruto’s death was definite proof that he could carry out his mission, act as one of Oto’s deadliest shinobi, and kill Naruto. All he felt, as he watched the stranger bleed out, was the death of his resolve.

 

In the face of all the things Naruto had shared with him, trust and comfort and love, Sasuke was always destined to lose.

 

Villages are irrelevant now; there is no more loyalty left within him. There is only his brother. There is only Naruto.  

 

There is no more winning or losing. He needs Naruto to live, and he needs to live to avenge his brother. 

 

“I can tell you how to protect the Hokage,” he says after a steadying breath. “And Tsukino Sachi does not exist.”

 

Sai glares and Sasuke grabs Sakura’s wrist before Sai’s patience runs out and decides to kill him anyway. She won’t believe his words, but she will believe what she feels. He pulls her palm into his chest and instantly, her eyes widen in realisation.

 

Sasuke lets go of her wrist. 

 

“What—” Sai begins, but Sakura pulls back her weapon. 

 

“Sai, please move aside.” From the tone of her voice, it is a command, not a request, and Sai draws back unquestioningly. Before he can blink, her katana glints as it flashes down, slicing away at the front of his uniform in shallow, expert strokes. The fabric hangs across his chest in ribbons.

 

It cuts through the bandages padding his chest as well, revealing nothing but flat, smooth skin. 

 

He turns to look at each of them in turn, and no one breathes. Sai’s expression is tense and angry. When he finds Sakura’s gaze, there is only wild disbelief and raw terror reflected back. And then, as they stand surrounded by the glass and ashes from the incinerated Sharingan, with a river of dried blood staining his left cheek, something in Sakura’s eyes changes as her mouth falls open.

 

“My name is Uchiha Sasuke.” 

 

Her katana falls to the ground in an explosion of sound.

 


 

The rest of the night moves swiftly. 

 

Sai binds his wrists with ink snakes that circle, cold and smooth, around his skin. It feels like water. Outside, the air from the dark night bites into his exposed chest, making him cough and Sakura’s hand grips harder into his shoulder, making him move faster -- Sai leading the way, Sakura guiding him, and Sasuke following. 

 

The streets are brightly-lit but deserted, and Sasuke could find his way on these streets with his eyes closed. He expects to be moved to an interrogation room or something similar, but they are not heading towards the Hokage Mansion. Strangely, horrifyingly, Sasuke knows they are rushing back to the Hokage’s home.

 

The thought of confronting Naruto, of telling him the truth, makes cold sweat beat across his forehead. It’s an unconscious response, how he starts to fidget against his restraints and Sakura can reprimand him, something sharp sinks into the skin around his wrists, drawing a harsh exhale from him. Sai glances back for a moment, and Sasuke bites down, feeling his jaw clench. The snakes have sharp teeth. 

 

There is nothing he can say to Naruto. 

 

The front door is locked but it doesn’t matter, not when Sai rams his shoulder into it and breaks it down like a cardboard box. Sai disappears down the hallway as Sakura flicks on the lights and guides him to the living room couch, pressing into his shoulder to force him to sit. Sai returns with a blanket from his old room, arranging it roughly around his shoulders to keep him warm. 

 

And then, all at once, the three of them turn towards the sound from the stairs. It’s Naruto, hand rubbing across his eyes, his blonde hair a mess. 

 

He stops at the foot of the stairs and blinks sleepily at them. When he notices the broken door, their disheveled appearances, and Sakura’s uniform, the drowsiness drains away. 

 

Sakura is the first one who breaks the silence. Her voice quivers. “We have a situation.”

 

Naruto strides towards them, eyes filled with confusion. “Sachi?”

 

It’s Sai who answers for him, voice as hard as his expression. “He is an Oto spy.”

 

Naruto crouches down in front of the couch and Sasuke cannot help it — he closes his eyes. The least he can do is look Naruto in the eye, but this is easier. Cowardice is far less painful. “ He?

 

“Naruto.” Sasuke can feel Sakura’s trembling voice enveloping them. “He says he is Uchiha Sasuke.”

 

A laugh. It’s a familiar laugh, something Naruto does often, something Sasuke has gotten used to hearing; to being around. “Is this some sort of prank? That’s impossible. Sachi cannot be Uchiha Sasuke.” 

 

“Uchiha Sasuke,” Sai says. 

 

Sasuke remains frozen and Sai repeats his name. 

 

His body is unresponsive; tongue is useless in his mouth, and he never wants to open his eyes again. The darkness is forgiving. 

 

Sakura’s voice echoes his name. “S-Sasuke?” 

 

He cannot speak. He doesn’t move, not even when someone rips the blanket off his body, exposing his bare chest. The silence that follows is agonising. 

 

When the first syllable of his name finds its way out of Naruto’s mouth, Sasuke forces himself to focus. He forces his eyes open and he uses all his strength to make his mouth move. He forces himself to confess, staring into those achingly blue eyes, because if he speaks, he doesn’t have to hear Naruto use his false name. He doesn’t have to hear Naruto repeat his own lies. “Upstairs, in the bathroom cupboard. There is a pouch with pills in them. They’re protected by a seal, but you can unlock them with three signs: Bear-Snake-Horse. That was how I perfected my disguise,” he says in one breath. 

 

Sai is gone before he can finish speaking.

 

Sasuke doesn’t know how he knows, but he just does: something inside Naruto breaks. Slowly, he sees it — betrayal cracks through, staining those blue eyes that are trained on him.

 

“No. There’s no way you can be Uchiha Sasuke,” Naruto whispers, his disbelief a live wire that runs through his words.

 

I’m sorry, Sasuke thinks but the words die in his throat. This betrayal physically hurts, like a gaping wound, like a severed limb. Naruto stands slowly to turn towards Sakura, whose front is slowly falling apart from the way she trembles. They stand there, mismatched and strange, Naruto in his soft pajamas, Sakura in full armour, Naruto immobilised, Sakura shaking. It does not make sense why no one is hitting him or interrogating him harder. People in shock react differently, he tells himself. His punishment will come later even though some part of him wishes something would happen to him — anything would be better than this. He is well-versed in Konoha’s laws: treason against the Hokage and the village is punishable by death.

 

But nothing matters except that Naruto lives. Nothing except Naruto’s survival and how he will get rid of the councillors, the last two surviving architects of his brother’s doomed mission.

 

“Was it all an act? Did you have to act like you didn’t...remember us at all?” Sakura asks in a strangled voice, pulling his thoughts back to the living room.

 

He looks at her and searches her face, finding horror and disbelief instead of rage. There is no way he can bear to look at Naruto, so he doesn’t even try. “No. I don’t remember anything about Konoha. I cannot remember anyone.”

 

Naruto opens his mouth but Sai comes back down the stairs with a brown pouch in his hand. “The pills are here. We can get it analysed at the lab,” he says and Sakura stands up taller but her face is ashen. Sai places the pouch down on the table. “Now tell us why you were sent here. What does Oto want from Konoha?”

 

Again, this brief moment where everything is suspended in time returns. There is always this moment: before you take a life, before you uncover the truth, before you tell a lie — the line between the present and the future, before the world you know is changed forever. Sasuke straddles this moment for as long as he can, because no one can go back from here. And then, when Naruto’s jaw twitches, he tells them everything. 

 

It’s only when he speaks, confessing everything he knows, that he realises he does not know much about Orochimaru and Kabuto’s ultimate goal for Konoha’s takeover. It’s for power, it’s for increased resources and influence, but beyond that, he doesn’t know what happens from here. 

 

“The plan will not change. In less than two months, Oto will arrive in Konoha.”

 

“This means we have this amount of time to figure out a plan,” Sai says, thinking aloud and Sasuke shakes his head. 

 

“It would be in Konoha’s best interest to strike first. Incapacitate Oto. You don’t know the extent of their power.”

 

Silence falls like a sword slicing down, absolute and final.

 

“It’s not that simple,” Naruto says at last. His voice is steady, but he doesn’t sound like himself. He sounds like the Hokage because he is now speaking as the head of the village, no longer as Uzumaki Naruto. “We cannot attack Oto outright because it will be seen as a declaration of war to the other villages. It will destabilise the world order and call secret treaties into play. Let’s deal with this one step at a time. Sai, call an emergency meeting. Sakura, move Sa-Sasuke to a secure location.”

 


 

Dawn trickles into the cell in weak rays of light by the time the bars are locked behind him.

 

His wrists are free but he’s clothed in prison garbs — light grey shirt and pants, the rough cotton chafing his skin but he can barely notice it. 

 

Someone he doesn’t recognise, a jonin on duty, cataloged him when he arrived. Before Sakura left him, she sounded almost apologetic. This is the safest place for you to be, she said. Things will be okay, Sasuke-kun. But he is no longer the same Academy friend they once knew; Konoha’s Uchiha Sasuke is as good as dead. 

 

She handed him a damp rag then, and after a moment realised there was blood across his cheek from the new eye, and a shallow wound on his neck. He cleaned himself up, each stroke ruining the white cloth with red.

 

When she left, he was asked to strip. His Curse Seal was documented, along with the myriad of scars that criss-cross his back and body. The report will reach the Hokage, and soon he will have to answer more questions.

 

Sasuke does not want to think of that now. One step at a time, as Naruto had said, and his heart twists.

 

The dark stones of his cell are not as cold as he expects, but the air smells exactly the same as he remembers in Oto: damp and musky, like the spirit of forgotten things. He lowers himself numbly to the floor in one corner; this prison is someplace deep in the bowels of the Hokage Mansion. In every shadowy corner, from the corners of his eyes, he sees his brother shifting just out of sight — the pale grey armour of his uniform, the dull hilt of a sword strapped to his back, spine curved from the weight he bears, a lingering flash of red.

 

His eyelids fly shut, but they cannot block out what isn’t a vision. These are memories, and this is a haunting.

 

There is no difference between here and now with then and Oto: the stone walls, the shadows, the solitude. Sasuke sits as the weight of it all bears down and it’s just like before — he does not sleep because he cannot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Night bleeds into day and falls back into night, whole and unbroken, before Sai arrives on his second day of incarceration. 

 

It’s barely dawn, and Sai wastes no time on pleasantries. 

 

“We need all the intel you have on Otogakure.”

 

Sasuke doesn’t move from his position; back against the wall, he turns to watch Sai from the shadows. “Are you planning an attack?”

 

In the watery light, Sai’s skin looks even paler, and his dark eyes are trained on the ground. “Just answer the question.” There’s no bite in his voice, not like that time at the hospital’s basement. It’s devoid of emotion. Sai compartmentalises, and he does it well -- Sasuke understands, because he’s been trained the same way.

 

“Oto is made out of many hideouts and bases, but the main one is in the Land of Sound,” he says. “There are three smaller bases: the Southern, Northern and Eastern ones. Orochimaru and Kabuto could be in any of these four.”

 

A muscle in Sai’s jaw tightens. “Can you map out the entrances?”

 

“Yes.”  

 

He pulls out several scrolls from his pouch and rolls them to Sasuke through the bars. Sasuke picks one up, and finds a brush and ink pad attached. He looks up, and for a moment, Sai’s eyes meet his. Sai does not need to break the silence, not when his eyes speak so clearly: Start drawing .

 

They both understand the allure of silence — Naruto doesn’t operate this way and he doubts Sakura is any different. Perhaps everything that they’ve learnt about sound in Oto, from audio-based genjutsu to lessons in different instruments, was to train them into weaponising silence and Sai could have been brought up similarly in Root. For people like them, silence is powerful because in it, every possibility exists. The past does not matter. The future does not exist. There is only the present, hanging in the balance of what will be said and decisions that will be made.  

 

When Sasuke presses the brush to the smooth surface of the paper, its quiet sound is too loud. 

 


 

The Hokage visits on the third day. 

 

Naruto’s hair is too bright for a place like this. His clothes hang off his frame, wrinkled, and the dark rings under his eyes appear even darker in the shadowy light. He finds Sasuke’s gaze easily; instantly. Those blue eyes are exactly as he remembers them, and Sasuke is the one who looks away because it hurts to look at him: it’s like staring at the sun. The pain that follows, blooming inside his chest, is exquisite.

 

“Sasuke,” Naruto says from the other side of the bars and it sounds like a sigh. No one comes to unlock it, and Sasuke thinks he understands why — he is now Konoha’s prisoner. “Why did you take Uchiha Itachi’s eyes?”

 

Sasuke counts the stones in the wall for the hundredth time instead of answering. 

 

“What does that seal on your body do?”

 

The silence grows in between them, among the shadows.

 

“What will happen to you once we attack Oto?” Naruto presses on. “Sasuke, I’m not asking only for Konoha or as Hokage. You can tell me anything.” His voice is firm but patient, and Sasuke knows he is telling the truth because this tone is agonisingly familiar. Friendly. Trusting.  

 

He doesn’t deserve kindness, especially not Naruto’s. It’s difficult enough hearing the compassion in Sakura’s voice because it makes absolutely no sense, but coming from Naruto, it’s even worse. Sakura is confusing him with a boy who is long dead, and Naruto is just being the self that Sasuke remembers, unchanging and unyielding, even in the face of a betrayal like this.

 

“What does it matter to you?” Sasuke snaps.


Naruto’s voice shakes. “It matters because you are willing to betray your village for me.”


Sasuke speaks to the stone wall, keeping his gaze trained straight ahead. “I’ll die. Orochimaru will know that I have turned on him once Konoha attacks, and he will activate the Curse Seal. It’s a killswitch for traitors.”  

 

“We will save you.”

 

“You can try,” Sasuke says, disbelief flattening his voice. He wants to live; he needs to live, but he spent two whole nights awake thinking about the Curse Seal branded on his skin and knowing it can never be broken. 

 

“I won’t let you die.”

 

“Why not? I deceived you this entire time.”

 

“You cannot be lying about everything. There are some things that cannot be faked,” Naruto says fiercely. “And you’re no ordinary liar. You’re Uchiha Sasuke, a citizen of Konoha. As Hokage, I will defend each and every citizen.” His brother’s face flashes into his mind’s eye and he thinks, no, not every citizen. 

 

But looking at Naruto, seeing his eyes blaze bright and hard with determination, he knows the Hokage is not lying. Can both of these things be true? Maybe, because if there is one single person capable of reforming the village, it would be Uzumaki Naruto.

“Why would you go so far for me?” The words bounce off the stone walls, leaving behind the ghost of an echo.

 

“Do you remember? When you asked me if it was difficult growing up as the village’s Jinchuriki?” Naruto asks, voice rough.

 

Of course he remembers. Miso in the air, Naruto by his side, and the shimmering lies festering inside him.

 

“I always knew I wanted to be Hokage but I never understood what it took until you disappeared,” Naruto continues, without waiting for his answer. “Missing people don’t achieve goals because they can’t. I was always envious of you and in life you pushed me to be better but in your absence, you taught me the importance of action, of moving ahead without regrets. You changed my life.”

 

“I am not that Uchiha Sasuke!” The force of his words stun even himself and he allows this feeling to burn through him. “I don’t know who he was or how he felt — he does not exist any more!”

 

“It doesn’t change the fact that I care about you. With you around, I didn’t feel like I was living in a house. It was a home. It’s not important if you’re Tsukino Sachi or Uchiha Sasuke. I don’t care—”

 

Sasuke doesn’t hear the rest of Naruto’s speech because he has to turn away. His back slams into the wall, the force of it winding him as he gulps in deep breaths of air that doesn’t reach his lungs. In the long reaches of the cell’s shadows, he can hide from Naruto. The cold that leaches into his bones from the wall is a familiar one because Oto is dark and damp and this feels safe the way childhood memories are, because Oto is the only thing his mind can hold onto from the past. In the comforting darkness, he shakes so hard his teeth chatter. 

 

It takes everything he can scrape together inside of him to hold himself in place as Naruto yells, the force of his words reverberating against the stone walls. When that doesn’t work, he taunts and pleads until his hoarse voice bounces around inside Sasuke’s skull. Sachi would give in. Konoha’s Uchiha Sasuke would understand. But he is neither, so all he can do is sit in the shadows and breathe through the pain — his own, and Naruto’s. 

 

It feels like hours until he leaves. Finally, Sasuke can let go. Muscle by aching muscle, he relaxes until he can curl into himself. When the tears come, they burn their way down. He doesn’t know how he can even cry when he feels this empty but all he knows is all that matters: like time and his seal and destiny, it cannot be stopped. 

 

He cries for his brother, for the only mission he has ever failed, for the Weakness that makes Naruto’s forgiveness too hard to bear. 

 

Itachi loved too much. 

 

Naruto loves too much. 

 

Sasuke weeps because love is the greatest, most terrible force that each and every one of them will ever have to live with.  

 


 

He is not surprised when Sakura arrives the next day.

 

Her hair is arranged in a tight, neat bun above her head and she’s armoured up in her ANBU uniform but her body language is relaxed and just like Naruto, her eyes search his face first. When their eyes meet, her gaze is open and unflinching. The key in her hand opens the cell door and when their eyes meet, his stomach drops. She looks at him like she sees a friend, and Sasuke has to look down and away. 

 

“I’m taking you to the Hokage’s office. Naruto has made some plans,” she says. The hope in her voice burns like a small flame in this dark space. 

 

Sasuke steps out cautiously, glancing around. The entire place is just as silent as it was before, and there are no other ANBU agents hiding in the shadows. Thankfully, Sakura doesn’t say anything else as they ascend the stairs, leaving the basement. When they emerge on the upper level and into the corridor, it is clear and empty. It appears as though the entire building has been evacuated, and Sasuke feels his defences rise. This could be a good sign — or a very bad one.

 

He can feel Sakura glancing at him in intervals and finally, as they make their way closer and closer to the Hokage’s office, she finally speaks. “You look like him.” He jerks up to look at her and her cheeks flush red. “The Sasuke-kun I remember. You have the same eyes and the way you act in certain situations are really similar.”

 

Against better judgement, the question slips out. “What do you mean?”

 

“You...you had a wall up because you were so focused on your work or the lesson, but there were some days when you let it fall and let us in. There was once where we were put into groups and assigned a fake mission to prepare us for genin life. It was out in the backyard of the Academy and during our break, we had to share lunch together, picnic-style. I brought a potato salad and all Naruto had to offer was a single cup of instant ramen. Your mother made a bento box. There were egg rolls and tomatoes sliced into different animals. It was definitely not enough food for all three of us but you let us — Naruto — have it all. You weren’t the easiest person to understand, but you always did the right thing.”

 

His eyes widen as his heart crawls into his throat and it’s just as well that a door ahead clicks open at that very moment. They’ve arrived at the Hokage’s office and Sakura’s demeanor changes as she leads the way in. 

 

When she walks into the office, she enters as ANBU Captain.

 

Naruto is leaning against the edge of his desk, staring out the giant windows, and Sasuke sees only two other figures in the room — Sai and Hatake Kakashi. Hatake’s expression is inscrutable and Sai eyebrows are knitted together in frustration. Naruto’s calm is a front because Sasuke notices the way his fingers dig into the underside of the desk, knuckles a stark white. He makes sure to look away, because he does not want to catch Naruto’s gaze.

 

“Sakura!” Sai says, striding towards her from the corner of the room. This time, there is emotion in his voice — far too much of it, and it distorts his words into a quiver. There’s anger, but something more. Fear. “Did you know about the plan?”

 

“Of course. I’m ANBU Captain.”

 

“How could you agree to such a thing?” 

 

“Guys…” he hears Naruto start and it’s startling how tired he sounds. It’s almost enough to make him reach out to grab Naruto, to make sure he’s still himself, before Hatake cuts in.

 

“Uchiha Sasuke is here. Let’s go over the plan, shall we?”

 

His hand trembles, and he presses it into the side of his body. Sai continues to glower at Sakura and from the corner of his eye, he watches Naruto run a hand through his hair roughly. His Hokage uniform is creased, his hair hangs limp instead of poking out in all directions and the shadows under his eyes make him look like he hasn’t slept in weeks. Sasuke can only force himself to stand in place, concentrating on his breathing.

 

“We’re sending out 4 small teams to infiltrate each of Oto’s bases all at once. Sakura will be leading one of the teams, and the rest will be a mixture of ANBU and jonin-level shinobi. We are going to find Orochimaru and Kabuto and quietly dispose of them. The rest of Oto’s shinobi will be left alive. A power struggle will ensue, and in the chaos that follows, no one from the other villages will need to know or find out that Konoha has attacked and removed Oto’s leader and his right-hand man,” Sai grits out.

 

This explains why Sai is so angry — Sakura is being sent into the snake’s den and now it’s not just his fault because it’s by the Hokage’s orders, too.

 

“To deal with Sasuke’s Curse Seal, we’ll call on Tsunade-obaachan to examine it and find a way to contain it. Hopefully this can be done by tonight or tomorrow,” Naruto says. “The teams will be sent out after that and Sasuke will be monitored constantly until we ambush Oto and neutralise the seal.”

 

And this means the Hokage, and by extension Konoha, will save him. It sounds practical and so simple in theory, but the doubts are too numerous to contain and they spread like wildfire. Everything burns down to the ashes of what cannot be changed: there is no one in the world who can rival Kabuto’s medical ninjutsu, not even Konoha’s Fifth Hokage. 

 

As if reading his thoughts, Hatake adds, “Tsunade-sama and Orochimaru were trained in the same team. When Orochimaru defected, he brought many of Tsunade-sama’s personal scrolls with him. Everything Kabuto learnt was stolen from Tsunade-sama.”

 

“And Tsunade-obaachan has an apprentice with a power that even Orochimaru doesn’t have,” Naruto says defiantly. 

 

This confidence is foolhardy but hope is a siren, one he is unable to fight because this time, he finds himself raising his eyes to Naruto’s own. 

 

“Told you we’d save you,” Naruto tells him, words hard and tone set, bright eyes burning blue. 

 


 

They wait for Tsunade and her apprentice in the secret medical bay hidden behind in the Hokage’s office — it’s a small but fully-equipped room built for emergencies, all beige walls and lined with flickering machines. 

 

Sasuke is forced to sit on one of the two beds in the room because there’s barely enough standing space and they wait, tense energy building up with every quiet exhale because no one speaks. He stares at his hands, and allows his thoughts to wander.

 

Orochimaru and Kabuto have never talked about Tsunade, so everything he knows about her and her legendary healing powers is gleaned from Konoha’s historical texts. 

 

When a blonde woman strides into the room, she doesn’t even wait for introductions. Tsunade stops by the bed and studies him without pretence: there is no fear, no kindness, no familiarity in her eyes. “Uchiha Sasuke?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Another person walks into the room, footsteps echoing purposefully across the tiles. There was no mental energy left for him to try guessing who the apprentice would be but now that he is here, it makes complete sense. 

 

Hyuga Neji comes to a stop beside Tsunade and his eyes, trained on Sasuke, are clear but unreadable. 

 

“What are we working with?” Tsunade asks, tone clipped and all business. 

 

For a moment, no one moves. “I am marked with a Cursed Seal,” Sasuke says because the faster Tsunade finds out it’s hopeless, the faster he’ll be back in the cell, where he can try to think of a way to avenge his brother with the limited amount of time he has left instead of sitting here, watching time fall through like water in cupped hands. “It’s connected to the chakra pathway. It’s also impossible to disable.”

 

“Orochimaru told you all this?” she asks, not sounding the very least surprised. 

 

“Kabuto did. They use it to scare us and keep us in check.”

 

“Why are we going to war to save him?” Tsunade asks, turning towards Naruto, her voice even. It’s a rational question with zero judgement in her words, but it still makes Sakura’s breath catch and Naruto’s eyes close briefly. “Isn’t it easier to let the kill switch activate?”

 

“Because he’s one of us. He’s a citizen of Konoha,” Naruto says. 

 

Tsunade shakes her head. “This is unnecessary and dangerous. I wanted to believe I trained the current Hokage to know better than to put his personal feelings before that of his village,” she says, without masking the warning in her voice. 

 

Naruto’s reply comes swiftly. “My decision is final.” 

 

Her grin is humourless but still, she turns to Sasuke. “Where is it?” 

 

He pulls down his collar and shifts his body so that the dark brand faces her. She runs a cool finger over the mark and Sasuke feels the thrumming pulse of medical chakra flowing into him. “Kabuto is right - the mark is bound to the chakra pathways. It’ll be impossible to surgically remove something like this without killing the patient in the process, Hokage.” 

 

Tsunade allows her hand to fall away. 

 

Nothing moves. Not the air, not time itself.

 

“Impossible for me,” Tsunade adds after a beat. She turns towards the man by her side, thick veins bulging out from the sides of his face, white eyes running over his entire body. “Not impossible for the Byakugan.”

 

“It is not going to be easy,” Neji says calmly as everyone turns to him but eyes never leave Sasuke. “The mark is entwined with his pathway but if I can break the flow of chakra with my own when the kill switch is activated, it could contain it so it wouldn’t reach the heart. I’ll have several seconds to try, and only one chance to get it right.” 

 

“Rate of success?” Tsunade asks by his side.

 

“Low. But not impossible.”

 

“Good enough,” Naruto says and the way his voice trembles is what makes Sasuke’s heart pound, not the risk involved. “One chance is enough.”

 


 

The teams are sent out by nightfall and Tsunade and Neji are the only ones left in the tiny ward. Sasuke lays on his back as Tsunade sits on the only chair in the room, and Neji is staring at him. They have to stay close to him, because Neji has outlined the process to them all: he has one shot to get this right, and the chance will present itself within the fraction of a second. The earliest they will be dragged into action will be in two days, when Sakura’s team is expected to reach the base in the Land of Sound, the closest one to Konoha. 

 

Neither one of them bothers to ask him any questions about his past or his lie, which is both unsettling and good.

 

The silence drags on for hours and Sasuke closes his eyes but sleep evades him as always so he can only pretend. His mind is filled with the many useless solutions to an unsolvable problem that is Uchiha Itachi’s precadiment. Still, there is nothing but time to think, over and over again. 

 

Sometime close to dawn, someone starts pacing in the Hokage’s office and soon it fades into the back of his mind like a lullaby. The rhythmic steps only stop when they begin to come closer and closer to the ward, until it stops and Sasuke opens his eyes because he can sense his presence — Naruto is at the door. 

 

He steps through, nodding a greeting at Tsunade, who ignores him because she’s half-asleep, and Neji, who stares at the Hokage. 

 

“I need to talk to Sasuke in private, but I won’t take him out of this room.” 

 

Neji nods and takes a step closer to the small window of the room, giving them as much space as they will possibly get in the small ward. Naruto sits down onto his small bed as Sasuke rises up to sit, slow and controlled. 

 

There is only the slightest hesitation before Naruto leans into his ear and the proximity feels far too close, and much too comfortable. It feels almost right. “We have to whisper. Sai told me about Uchiha Itachi’s eyes. What did...you see?” he asks, breath hot against his ear.

 

Sasuke moves back, as though scalded, and when his eyes meet Naruto’s, the sight makes his heart ram up against his ribcage because Naruto is still here, solid and impossibly real. He doesn’t dissolve like the ghost of his brother, he doesn’t waver like an illusion. Naruto is Naruto, because even after everything, he is here. Naruto sits here as the answer to his unsolvable problem. It would mean entrusting his purpose to this man, but the end is close. Every moment here in Konoha has been made up by seconds stacked on top of another, making minutes, making days, making a life together. And time is slipping away with every beat of this still-steady heart. 

 

It’s his turn to lean in and when he does, he can feel Naruto’s body turning rigid as he speaks. There is no way to tell if it’s from the lack of space or his words. “The truth about Konoha.”

 

Naruto exhales audibly and murmurs, “You can show me, right?”

 

Sasuke pulls away and when their eyes meet this time, he does what he has never thought of doing: he drags Naruto into a genjutsu. The act is noiseless to its victims but Sasuke has learnt that there is a sound he can hear whenever the Sharingan is activated. As soft as a shadow but it is clear, like a temple bell. It rings out, once, as Naruto is dragged into his mirror world and this is the only time a sound has ever broken his heart. In several short seconds, in the place of a few breaths, they cover years and years of Itachi’s memories. 

 

He blinks and the illusion releases. The weight on his heart doesn’t let up.

 

As Naruto’s eyes regain their focus, a sheen of sweat beads his forehead. “Are you sure?” he whispers.

 

“You shouldn’t trust me, but I know you do. It is the truth. I want to avenge my brother’s death. I don’t know whether that’s possible after this and I don’t expect you to do anything for my sake, but I need you to know this,” Sasuke says, as quickly as he can. “You deserve to know the truth about Konoha.”

 

It’s ironic how he was sent to learn Konoha’s secrets and discovered more than the Sixth Hokage knows about his own village. Still, if there is someone who could — would — do something with this truth, it is Naruto.

 

They sit there in borrowed time, Naruto looking faintly sick with his ashen complexion, Sasuke’s fingers digging into the bed, their shoulders almost touching.

 

The moment breaks when Sai bursts into the room, he knows, in that exact moment, what has happened before Sai even opens his mouth: “Team Three has breached Land of Sound’s base.” 

 

He has run out of seconds.

 

The small ward explodes into chaos. Something metal clatters against the floor — it could be Tsunade’s chair or one of the many instruments laid out across the table, and Naruto voice booms impossibly loudly in his ear, after all that whispering: “A full day ahead of schedule?”

 

Muscles seizing, Sasuke crumples onto the bed and when he feels it, he feels it all at once: molten heat spreading in his veins, a vice gripped around his throat, and two sets of hands on his skin. The cooling waves of medical chakra pushed into his body cannot contain the fire moving inside; it rages like guilt and regret. 

 

The seal is collapsing into itself inside his body. 

 

Specks of bright dots cloud his vision as the seal breaks open and starts eating away at his lifeforce, paralysis setting in. A flash of blue appears in front of him before all sight gives way to darkness. 

 

I’m sorry for lying to you. For destroying your idea of a perfect village. “I’m sorry,” is all Sasuke has time to say as searing pain devours him whole. The only thing he hears is his own garbled choke, apology lost, and Naruto screaming.

 

When the end arrives, it is without sound.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is a funeral.

 

It is a small one, with several figures dressed in dark robes, all facing a single headstone. Naruto stands straight even as his shoulders shake uncontrollably, like a tree at the mercy of a storm. Tears stream down his face in rivulets. Next to him, Sai is weeping openly, grief carved into every part of his being, heartbreak curling his back into a crescent moon and rendering the features across his face unrecognisable. Hatake Kakashi stands behind the two, and the only time he moves is to place one hand on Naruto and Sai’s back, resting on the dark fabric of their mourning garbs for a fraction of a second before allowing his hand to fall away.  

 

Sasuke’s hearing is magnified, and everything sounds clearer than it should: the shift of fabric as Hatake’s hand drops, the whispering wind, Sai’s discomforting cries. From his position, Sasuke watches as Sai’s knees abruptly give way. As his body shifts and falls onto the ground, he finally catches sight of the name engraved on the headstone: Haruno Sakura. 

 

Sai’s broken sobs intensify into a deep, piercing howl of pain.

 

He inhales sharply, and the noise is swallowed by a sudden moan of the wind. Thick incense stains the air and it smells like sorrow and defeat. A pressure lands on his right shoulder and Sasuke almost falls because he turns so quickly.

 

It’s Sakura, standing behind him, her hand ice-cold and even colder than the chilly breeze that continues to blow its way through the cemetery. Her face is a little paler but the way she smiles is normal when it shouldn’t be, because Sai’s cries only grow louder in the background. 

 

“Sasuke-kun,” she says calmly, softly.  

 

His mouth is bone dry, and it takes effort to get the words out. “What are you doing here? You are supposed to be—"

 

“—Dead? I know,” she says. 

 

It’s only then that his gaze falls from her face, and what he sees is a gaping wound right above her heart, cutting clean through the armour of her ANBU uniform. He meets her eyes again in muted horror. She is dead because of Oto. She is dead because of him.

 

“Did you know that the louder the living mourn over a dead person, the faster their spirit can return? I could hear Naruto crying from where I was waiting, and he hasn’t stopped crying since yesterday. He’s grieving over my death,” Sakura says, “but those tears are for you.”

 

He opens his mouth, but there’s nothing to say. Sasuke raises his hands in front of his face, only to find the pale flesh of his arms mottled with dark flowers. The bruises are deep purple, edged with yellow. 

 

“We’re both dead,” Sakura adds with a tiny shrug, like it’s no big deal, like Sai isn’t falling apart in front of her grave and Naruto isn’t a shell of a person, like it isn’t the end of everything. 

 

Sasuke jerks awake in a cold sweat. 

 

There’s a scream in his throat, one he manages to swallow just in time. The sheets around him are damp and the air is warm against his skin, not cool like the nightmare. When he opens his eyes, he sees white — the colour he imagines the afterlife being, but it’s also the ceiling of the hospital. 

 

He’s not dead because there is nothing here but pain, clean and simple, pulsing through him. Pain is good because it is a reminder you are alive; another one of Orochimaru’s lessons.

 

To his right there is a large window and outside, the sun is only just beginning to set. Tall trees sway in the breeze, drenched in golden light, their brilliant green leaves bright and lush. People stroll around, their footsteps light and their expressions carefree. The village is safe, and it is as beautiful as he remembers. 

 

It’s springtime in Konoha.

 

The weather has turned warmer, and he is alive. Going by dream logic, if he is alive, then so is Sakura.

 

Sasuke pushes himself upright and it takes several tries because his limbs feel like lead and his head pounds to the thudding against his ribs, but he is alive. Cautiously, he concentrates on the flow of chakra and he can feel it moving around inside him, weak but perceptible. His Sharingan works too. He looks down and around him, barely believing his arms are unbounded and his legs are free, even though there is a thick tube running down his throat and a thinner one feeding into the top of his hand. He yanks them all out. 

 

He notices the simple cotton outfit he’s dressed in: dark pants and a blue shirt, and they are not the usual white uniforms he remembers Konoha’s patients wearing. His hair is longer than before. The ward is shrouded in a comfortable silence — the entrance to the ward is unguarded.

 

Next to his bed, a stack of scrolls lie in disarray next to a vase of yellow flowers, a jar of water and an empty glass. The ward looks less like a patient’s room because colour surrounds him and this space has been decorated, however simply, to be as comfortable as possible. 


It looks like a home.

 

Gingerly, he reaches for a scroll and it’s heavy enough to make his weakened muscles scream. This is good paper and he recognises its quality: it belongs to the Hokage’s office. 

 

When he was making notes on Konoha’s history, he had written down key events into scrolls just like this, mainly to keep up a show for Naruto. It was also to learn about his own past. These scrolls are not signed with a name but it doesn’t matter, not when he recognises this messy, spiky handwriting with an aching familiarity.

 

Inside is a date and a report of events.

 

Councillors Mitokado Homura and Utatane Koharu were taken into questioning by the T&I team on the truth about the Uchiha clan massacre. Enough evidence has been found about their involvement and they have been imprisoned. I don’t think there needs to be a trial Ino’s investigation was extremely thorough.

 

His heart races. It’s not what he would have planned because prison is a mercy compared to what they deserve, but still, it is action. The councillors have been punished. 

 

In another, dated three months ago: 

 

The mission went according to plan. Orochimaru is dead and Kabuto disappeared, heavily wounded. We lost some shinobi, but Sakura-chan came back fine!

 

The truth bubbles bright in his blood and the relief that follows leaves him lightheaded — Sakura is okay. Sai hasn’t broken down. Naruto hasn’t lost a friend because of him. Orochimaru might be dead now, but that is never a certainty. His head begins to ache in earnest now. Sasuke pours himself a glass of water and when he swallows, he feels the coolness run down his sore throat. He eases himself back into the bed, listening to the sound of his breath. 

 

Mind reeling, he sorts through the information he has.

 

Mitokado and Utatane wouldn’t be easy to kill now, not in prison. There is nothing left to accomplish in Konoha and there is a reason he has been left unguarded. It means one of two things — that someone powerful wants him gone or is allowing him to leave, to disappear.

 

Sasuke doesn’t think twice — he sits back up and goes through the rest of the scrolls, catching up to what he had missed. There are reports tracking Kabuto’s whereabouts and the condition of Oto’s other bases. There are also a few scrolls detailing domestic events, ones not written by the Hokage because they are filled with Naruto’s rambling thoughts. These are the only reports he skims, because they hurt to read. Guilt, like pain, comes in waves. 

 

The moment he finishes the last scroll, he reaches for the window and it slides open with a soft click. There’s a pair of brand new sandals underneath the bed, and Sasuke slips them on before leaping out, only a little clumsily. When his feet touch the ground, he puts his weakened muscles and every ounce of endurance to use: he runs. 

 

Night has fallen, and the barest chill in the air is invigorating. The more he runs, the more strength floods back into his muscles. There is still a part of him that doesn’t believe he is alive, because it shouldn’t be possible. He should have died the moment Sakura’s team stormed the base. He should have woken up in a cell as a traitor.

 

Instead, he is running. Whatever that has happened in the months he was in a coma, whatever the Sixth Hokage has done — it is working. In the shinobi world, each and every one of them has a part to play. Some will live to change the world. Others die as sacrifices of the state. His role now is clear.

 

He needs to disappear. He will watch Konoha from the shadows, waiting for the day, if and when it comes, for the councillors to be freed. Then he will kill them. Away from the village, he can wait for Orochimaru’s return. In the shadows, he can protect Naruto as the Hokage continues to fix what needs to be fixed. 

 

At last, the mighty gates of Konoha loom ahead. 

 

A silhouette stands in the middle of the path and unknowingly, his feet slow down. Heart pounding, breath catching in his throat, he approaches the figure warily, each step heavier than the last.

 

It’s not Naruto. 

 

Sasuke doesn’t know whether it is relief or disappointment that floods through him. Sai stares at him with something unreadable in those black eyes and Sasuke stares right back.

 

“Finally,” he says, leaning away from the gate and straightening up.

 

Sasuke stops right under the entrance of the gate, right at the boundary of Konoha and beyond. The air here smells rich, of sweet, thick earth and decaying leaves. “Are you here to stop me?”

 

“After everything that Naruto has done for you, you still want to leave Konoha.”

 

He shifts the weight to his heels and back towards his toes. His muscles are tense and taut, but he knows he has a chance to outrun Sai if it comes down to that. “My presence in the village will be more difficult for Naruto than my disappearance.”

 

“Do you think you’re doing him a favour?” Sai asks.

 

“I don’t want to hurt him any more than I already have.” 

 

“Where will you go? Oto is in shambles now, in case you’re thinking of going back home.”

 

Sasuke can’t help it; he laughs and it is a sharp, hollow sound. “It was never a home.”

 

“But it has been different here.”

 

He shakes his head. “No,” he says. “I’m sure you already know what the village did to my brother. To my clan. I can never forgive Konoha, and it will never be a home.”

 

“Home doesn’t have to be a place,” Sai says as his eyes slide off Sasuke and onto a point behind him. Sasuke turns around, weight shifting to his toes and he’s ready to flee at any moment. But there’s no one running up to them. They are alone, and there is only the village glowing with light and life. “Can you find comfort in a village you’ve been trained to protect at any cost? You and I both know it doesn’t work that way. Home is where you feel like you belong and you can find that in a person. In people. The concept of home didn’t make sense until I made friends. Until they taught me how to love. Until Naruto and Sakura.”

 

And Sasuke understands that this is the closest Sai will come to admitting that he understands how he feels; that they were orphans moulded from the same clay and fed the same lies and lessons. Sai stands here as a mirror of sorts — if someone like him can find his place in the village through its people, so can Sasuke. 

 

These rationalisations and realisations have flitted through his head, from the hospital and up to this point; it’s been clouding his mind from the moment he fell in love with Naruto to that time he sat in the empty cell, sobbing until he fell into a troubled sleep.

 

It’s not that simple because there is a difference, and this difference is another painful lesson he has learned here in Konoha: there are some things that cannot be forgiven. Like his brother’s final mission, like the weight of his betrayal. 

 

Something sits heavy across his chest and he tells himself it is not grief. “Tell him I’m sorry,” is the only thing Sasuke can say.

 

Night has fallen, and Sai’s face is a granite mask cast in shadow. “Tell him yourself,” he replies before taking a step back and vanishing in a sharp crack of opaque smoke. A clone, not the real Sai. By now, the memories would be flooding back to the real body and Sasuke knows that the only time he has to leave is now.

 

The dirt pathway that leads away from Konoha stretches onwards, infinite and eternal. There is nothing but darkness ahead and the woods are treacherous at night, filled with wild animals and bandits, but the night sky is awash with stars. 

 

Sasuke runs because he can, because he has to, leaving the brightly-lit streets, the sleepy buildings of Konoha, and its greatest Hokage behind. 

 


 

He doesn’t head east, because he doesn’t want to see another ocean for as long as he lives. North is where he had come from at the beginning of it all, and there is nothing left for him there. Sasuke chooses to run straight ahead, feet carving new pathways, and he doesn’t know how many hours have passed except the moon is at its highest point and the night is at its darkest. He stops, panting. 

 

This part of the forest is just like the rest: quiet, where the only sound around is his harsh exhales and the whispering wind. Sasuke walks up to the closest tree, bark smooth against his palm, and lowers himself onto the grass to rest his back against it. Exhaustion crashes down as one great wave and before he knows it, he is asleep.

 

It is thick and dark, because there are no scenes that play across his eyes, no alternate worlds where his brother is alive or a reality where he was never taken from Konoha. Slowly, a sound grows in this vast darkness, a sound that is both dream and nightmare: Naruto’s disembodied voice, talking about everything and nothing. There is no form or meaning to his sentences and soon, Sasuke gives up trying to decode what he means and gives in to its lilt.  

 

When Naruto laughs, raspy and warm, and when he says something Sasuke hears in perfect clarity, it sounds so close that it jolts him awake. 

 

Tell me yourself.

 

Darkness surrounds him, but night is lifting. He’s still leaning against the tree and Sasuke lifts his arms, stretching to feel aching muscles burn and around him, the forest buzzes with mating insects and the calming swoosh swooshing of leaves played by the breeze. Everything pales in comparison to what churns inside him so torridly he can barely breathe.

 

With his brother’s eye in his head and his brother’s memories now carved into his psyche, he knows what it feels like to love unconditionally. He understands anguish. But nothing, nothing, is as suffocating as regret.

 

Right from the beginning, Sasuke had sensed it. What started as a pinprick in a young ANBU agent the moment his blade was unsheathed had consumed the man who faced Danzo at the Valley of the End.

 

In this chasm that exists at the edge of night and a new day, in the boundary between what is real and what isn’t, Sasuke is unmoored. It would be foolish to go back and yet he knows it is impossible to push on, not with dream Naruto, speaking Sai’s final three words, haunting him. Regret will hold him back. Regret will destroy. Mind still fuzzy, he doesn’t know if it’s from sleep, the dream, or the coma, and he doesn’t want to think — it’s time to act upon what feels right.

 

This will be his final mission: instead of pushing ahead, Sasuke moves faster than his mind can catch up and begins to retrace his steps. Itachi exchanged the future for his present, and he will not repeat his brother’s mistake. 

 

By the time the first rays break through the horizon in a crown of light, he is back at where he started. 

 

Konoha at dawn, laminated pale yellow by morning light, is peaceful. 

 

He doesn’t run back to the house. He doesn’t run back to the Hokage’s office. Sasuke runs along the boundary of the village, past the cemetary, until he reaches the sheer mountain face. When he looks up, a giant stone face gazes ahead. 

 

It takes much longer than he expects to make it up the mountain — his chakra reserves have been compromised, and halfway up, he hears it: a haunting, airy sound, played terribly off-tune. 

 

He moves higher, faster. The first thing he sees, as he steps onto the top of the stone head, is the Sixth Hokage seated cross-legged with a shakuhachi up against his lips. It’s his shakuhachi.

 

Their eyes meet and Sasuke has to steel himself to not turn away. The Sixth Hokage looks tired, but not in any way sleep can fix. There is new depth in those eyes; new creases in the smooth expanse of his forehead. He looks older. 

 

“You came back,” he says calmly, and Sasuke doesn’t know which terrifies him more to the core — how unsurprised he sounds or how perfectly his dream had mimicked the Sixth Hokage’s voice. It was less a dream, and more like his subconsciousness.

 

Knees weak, Sasuke comes to a seat. “To apologise.” 

 

The Sixth Hokage lowers the instrument and rests it on his lap. He nods and his eyes are a piece of the vast sky they are under, cloudless and endlessly blue. “How do you feel? Are you okay?”

 

“I’m fine,” Sasuke replies. “I didn’t want to leave without thanking you. For punishing the councillors,” he adds.

 

The Hokage exhales loudly, and it sounds like a sigh. “Before you brought the truth to light, I was pouring over paperwork and signing drafted policies. It was nothing that really mattered or changed things and I guess I...never learnt what was important. A Hokage has the power to put his citizens first and right the wrongs, and you reminded me I could use this power to change things.”

 

Sasuke looks down at the village and it looks no different. But there is something thrumming in the air, shimmering like sunlight — things are changing in Konoha. He cannot see it, but he can feel it. He should know; they both have learned that perception is just as important as what is.

 

“I also wanted to thank you for not making me stay,” Sasuke adds, turning back to him. At this, the Sixth Hokage lowers his eyes but not quickly enough to hide what flashes through them. It makes Sasuke freeze. “...I betrayed your trust, yet you still want me here,” Sasuke whispers, barely above the sound of the wind.

 

“The law requires you to stay — apparently a marriage is between whoever’s fingerprints mark the paper, not the names written down on it. What I want isn’t the only thing that matters,” the Sixth Hokage replies instead. Now it is his turn to look down at the village. “What do you want, Sasuke?” 

 

Sasuke carefully places aside the unbelievable fact that he’s still legally married to Uzumaki Naruto and mulls over the more pressing issue at hand. The longer he sits with the question, the heavier it becomes. 

 

This is something no one has ever offered him before: a choice. The lives of shinobi are not their own. They belong to their village, to its leaders, as weapons of war. When faced with any question, his only answer has ever been yes; Oto’s betrayal was his first no. And now, an even harder decision awaits because there is no yes-no dichotomy to fall back upon here. There is no mission objective. The only thing that exists here is what he wants.

 

On top of the village, wind surging around them, Sasuke realises for the very first time there are so many things he wants: I want Konoha to remember my brother for the boy he was, not the murder he was forced to become. I want to be happy. I want to go back to our home with you. They are also seemingly impossible things.

 

“I want you to play better,” he says at last, pointing at the instrument. And then: “I can teach you.”

 

The Sixth Hokage’s head snaps around in a blur of yellow, so quickly that Sasuke finds his hand gripping the sleeve of his Hokage outfit, holding him in place in case he topples over the edge. In the instant it takes for him to act, he releases the fabric as the Sixth Hokage responds with a voice as heavy as the weight pressing into Sasuke’s chest, “I heard it’s not an easy instrument to learn.”

 

“It’s not. It’ll take time.”

 

He chuckles, and it feels like a lifetime has come and gone since Sasuke had last heard something so effortless. It sounds different from the dream; reality is always better. He knows he cannot stay forever, but for now, this is enough. Sai is right because home isn’t a place, and his mind lingers on Sakura’s anecdote about his past — how he has always been able to do the right thing. 

 

The thing in his chest shifts and lightens. 

 

Perhaps she had mistaken the intentions and motivations of Konoha’s Uchiha Sasuke, because who he is now has learnt it’s not about doing what’s right. No single answer or decision can ever be the right one — his brother has taught him that. The only thing anyone can hope to do is choose what they will regret least. 

 

All Naruto does is hand him the shakuhachi, and smile.