and when I touch you in each of the places we meet in all of the lives we are, it’s with hands that are dying and resurrected.
When I don’t touch you it’s a mistake in any life, in each place and forever.
—Other Lives and Dimensions and Finally a Love Poem, Bob Hicok
“You’re leaving again.”
It’s not a question; Naruto knows this as an unshakeable truth.
Still, he can’t help but stare at the way Sasuke lingers at the doorway, lurking like a foreign ghost who is aching to pass on. Naruto knows that Sasuke has an insatiable itch to be on the move, a nomad looking for his kill. Naruto admires him for that. Wanderlust is a wonderful thing that Naruto can’t exactly chase given his duties. It’s just that it makes Sasuke unchaseable too.
“Band of rogues in Kiri. They’re headed this way, and I can catch them before they get too close to the border,” Sasuke says simply, shrugging his coat over his shoulders with his one arm, the motion well-practiced and swift.
Naruto smiles. “You just want an excuse to go to the beach, bastard.”
“Shut it. I do your dirty work around here.”
“I know,” Naruto replies. And he does: a few months or so after Naruto’s inauguration as the Seventh Hokage, rumors started spreading of mysterious disappearings of missing-nin and dangerous threats to Konoha. Sasuke gained notoreity quickly — in no small part of his existing fame as the last Uchiha, the only Rinnegan user across the lands, previous stints of international terrorism, and his subsequent saving of the world from an apocalypse. After half a year, they added another identifier to the list: the Shadow Hokage. That title is what he’s most known for by now, and the thought makes Naruto’s heart ache with swelling pride. The whole world knows that Sasuke works at his side, and even if they are seldom together, they still fight seamlessly across the rivers and mountains of villages far away.
“I want you back in five weeks,” Naruto instructs, “Boruto’s graduation from the academy is then. He wants you there.”
“He didn’t say that,” Sasuke snorts. “He’s a petulant little shit. Takes after you, when you were at that age.”
“No, he didn’t,” Naruto agrees. “But I would be a bad father if I didn’t recognize that he adores you.”
Sasuke is quiet for a moment, and then says. “I can’t guarantee it.”
“Do your best,” Naruto insists. “It’d take me weeks to cheer him up if you didn’t come.”
“You Uzumakis are a needy bunch.”
I know. “Not all of us are so stoic, you know.”
Sasuke hums. Then, he glances out the window of Naruto’s office, as if estimating the time of day with the way the afternoon sun hits the glass pane. “I should go.”
“Send an eagle if you need anything,” Naruto recites, the goodbye memorized on his tongue.
But the words fall on deaf ears. Sasuke is already gone by the time Naruto’s mouth forms around the word eagle. He sighs, and looks at the pile of paperwork on his desk, hands automatically moving to the files in routine, as if Sasuke had never even been there in the first place.
Bones weary, Naruto picks up a form and wonders when his body became so used to Sasuke’s absence. He remembers the brazen determination he had as a stupid boy in love; every muscle in his body working to feel the warmth of Sasuke at his side, all the blood in his body flowing in longing for the thought that one day Sasuke would be home again. Now, his fingers no longer reach out of a man who never stays, and Naruto thinks to himself, huh.
I don’t know how to miss him anymore.
Outside, the flap of a bird’s wings. A raven soars towards the sun.
Though Naruto agrees with Sasuke that Boruto is just as boisterous as he was as a kid, Naruto watches Boruto throw kunai at the wooden fence in their backyard and thinks of Sasuke as a boy with the same daggers in his hands. Boruto’s steeled determination is quieter than his younger self’s incessant yelling, but it’s there all the same in how Boruto trains tirelessly even at the tender age of twelve.
“Dad,” Boruto acknowledges, eyes wide. “You’re home early.”
Naruto winces. It’s around nine-thirty at night; hardly early by any normal standards. “I thought you were at Hinata’s today.”
“She doesn’t like me training at home and the training grounds are closed for maintenance today.”
Naruto nods. Boruto spends most of his week at his mother’s place — being Hokage means that Naruto is barely home enough to justify having Boruto live in his flat, so he usually gets him on the weekends instead of a sleepy Wednesday. Hinata has always been kind yet strict; it only makes sense that she wouldn’t allow Boruto to run amok with knives in his hands in the Hyuuga compound. Naruto reaches out to ruffle his son’s hair fondly. “How is she?”
Boruto pouts at the feeling of Naruto’s hand on his head. “Good. Says you should come over for dinner sometime.”
Hinata’s cooking — the thought makes Naruto’s stomach grumble, a reminder that he’s only had a cup of instant ramen to eat today. “That would be nice. Maybe next weekend?”
Naruto and Hinata, even with their differences and time apart, are still on friendly terms. It’s not as if they had a messy breakup or anything since they didn’t even date in the first place. Boruto is a product of a drunken tumble in the sheets over a decade back, and both Hinata and Naruto agreed to keep him despite protests from the Hyuuga elders that shunned a child born out of wedlock. They, however, quickly realized the benefits of having an heir to the main house with Uzumaki blood and direct ties to the Hokage, so thankfully Boruto’s childhood was relatively fuss free, with the rigid structure of the Hyuuga family instilling a quiet sense of discipline into Boruto that Naruto could have never given him. It’s strange, seeing a child so like him and unlike him at the same time, like staring into a wrong mirror.
“Okay, I’ll tell her.” Boruto throws another kunai at the fence.
“Are you excited to graduate soon? Looking forward to being a genin?”
“I’m already as good as most of them,” Boruto grumbles. “Sasuke-sensei teaches me way more things that most jonin-sensei do.”
At that, Naruto aches, a warm feeling of loss and nostalgia lurching in his chest. Hearing the words Sasuke and jonin-sensei in the same sentence displaces him, his mind immediately imagining a world where Sasuke is home in Konoha in olive-green and navy, a red swirl on his back and his headband tied around his forehead. In that world, Sasuke is safe and stationary and the sensei to his son, who so admires him. In that world, Sasuke is real, and not a ghost or a dream or someone who keeps leaving.
Still, the truth: “Sasuke isn’t around enough to be your actual jonin-sensei, Boruto. I’m glad he’s teaching you so much, but you have to learn from your team and sensei when you graduate, okay?”
“I know that.” Boruto kicks at a rock on the ground. “He’s just the best.”
I know that, too. I wish he would stay, too. But Naruto just pats Boruto on the shoulder and says, “Dinner?”
Naruto knows he has come a long way since surviving exclusively off of take-out and cup ramen; it makes him feel terribly old, in a way, that he’s a decent cook now. At the very least, it means he can care for Boruto in the small ways he can, since he can’t be around as much as a normal father would. Naruto tries to squeeze as much love as he can in the little things — a breakfast, or homegrown strawberries, or saying goodnight to a Boruto fast asleep.
Boruto brightens. “Can you make omurice again? With the chicken? Mom has been shoving brussel sprouts and peas down my throat.”
“Vegetables are important,” Naruto preaches, like a hypocrite.
“Omurice?” Boruto repeats.
But Naruto laughs and waves Boruto in, and his son’s laughter is alive with glee and untempered joy, and it soothes the ache of a distant burn all the same.
Sasuke is back sooner than either of them expects.
“Jesus Christ, Sasuke,” Naruto snaps, startled out of his reverie when Sasuke appears out of seemingly nowhere in the middle of the office. It’s two weeks after they saw each other last, and three weeks before Naruto asked for him back. Sasuke looks unperturbed, not a single scratch or scuff that Naruto can see. “You need to stop using your Rinnegan to sneak up on me like that.”
“You’re getting old if you can’t sense it coming,” Sasuke snips. “Old and senile in your cushy job cozied up here. When was the last time you trained?”
“I don’t need any more damn training, I’m the Hokage.”
“So if we spar you’re going down in two seconds. Got it.”
“Fuck you, Sasuke,” Naruto says without malice. Then, he turns serious. “Report.”
“I took care of them. It was easier than I thought.”
Naruto nods. “Did you discover any connections to other rogue bands around?”
“No. They were acting alone. I dug around, but the rumors of other gangs are few and far between.”
Naruto snorts. “Because you keep getting rid of them all before they can pop up.”
“I like my efficiency,” Sasuke says, raising an eyebrow.
“You’re too good at your job.” Then, carefully, he says, “I don’t have any missions for you. Stay for a while. Boruto wants to see you.”
“I hope his taijutsu has improved. It was abysmal when I trained him last.”
Will you stay this time, then? “He keeps on complaining about how the academy can’t compare to your teachings. Don’t get him too ahead of everyone else, he’s going to have no friends.”
“I teach him as much as I can when I’m around.” Sasuke shrugs. “I won’t stay now; I’ll come back in time for Boruto’s graduation, don’t worry.”
Naruto’s heart seizes in his chest, and he blurts out, “Where are you going, then?”
“West. Karin’s having a kid.”
“Jesus Christ,” Naruto laughs, hoping it covers the disappointment. “Another, huh?”
“That woman keeps popping out babies like she has nothing better to do, highly-trained spy and sensor abilities be damned. I’m starting to feel bad for Suigetsu. He’s basically doomed to be a housewife.”
“Sheesh. Say hi for me.”
A silence, a tense pause. Naruto breaks it as softly as he can. “You know, you’re always welcome to stay at mine.”
“You just don’t want to.”
“You know how I feel about this place, Naruto,” Sasuke sighs, sounding weary. Naruto wants to smooth the tired wrinkles under Sasuke’s eyes, kiss them away, hold him by the waist. “I am loyal to you, and I am loyal to Itachi and the love he had for this village. I, however, will never forget what they did to my family.”
“I know that,” Naruto murmurs. I just wish you would let me help you relearn this place of ours that we protect. Maybe you can call it home if you tried.
He doesn’t say the words out loud, but it’s as if Sasuke hears them anyway, because Sasuke runs a hand through his hair and sighs again, deep and shaky. “I’ll be back for Boruto’s graduation,” he says tightly. “I’ll be at yours for a few days, then.”
Stay longer, Naruto wants to plead. Stay forever. You’ve worked so hard to keep the danger away from here and you won’t even stay and enjoy this peace we’ve made. Stay for Boruto. Stay for me. I don’t know what it’s like to miss you anymore because it’s so ingrained in me that it feels like breathing — a habit so familiar that it is forgotten.
“Boruto misses you,” he says eventually. I miss you.
Sasuke exhales, and it’s as if he hears the unspoken yet again, because he steps back and says, “I’ll see you both soon,” and disappears as abruptly as he came: quiet, sudden, and as if he had never been there in the first place. As he does, always.
Naruto stares at the space Sasuke just was and feels like he’s in a purgatory of hope and loss. Suspended, stuck, and unwilling to let go.
When the sun meets the moon in the sky, do you think they kiss in their reunion, holy in their matrimony? In those moments, where the halo of eclipse adorns the stars, do you think the sunlight hugs the torso of the moon? Two bodies suspended in the forever of a second. When the moon breaks away the sun’s arms, do you think the sun mourns? Empty and longing and hot with grief. This is how Sasuke leaves Naruto: it’s celestial timing. Naruto watches after him like the sun looks at the moon’s back.
Sasuke is tugged by the gravity of his own desire to leave, like a migrating bird flying south.
You see, they say ravens are loyal, clever birds, learning and remembering humans who treat them with kindness. Sometimes, if a person helps them when a raven is in need, a raven will visit bearing gifts of gratitude — in the rarest cases, they will find their home at a human’s side. Naruto wonders how much kindness he has to give for Sasuke to stay. How much this wound of yearning will bleed before Sasuke comes finally home, only to find him dead on arrival. A slow demise, a body that grows colder and colder with each passing day.
So Naruto keeps a place for Sasuke in his heart as best as he can. Keeping himself warm enough with a hope that flickers, dims, and flares with Sasuke’s revolving orbit.
Dinner at Hinata’s is a quiet but cozy affair, the smell of gently simmered miso glazed fish and fluffy rice wafting through the spacious dining room of the Hyuuga compound. Hinata’s a wonderful if fussy host, preparing dishes upon dishes of food that are enough to serve a small army even though there are only four of them at the table.
Speaking of which, Hinata and Kiba are engaged — something that doesn’t entirely surprise Naruto but did catch him off guard when she mentions it softly between bites of broccoli. Kiba, seated next to her, looks proud and fond at the same time, and Akamaru wags his tail helpfully in simple-minded happiness on the tatami mat next to him.
“Congratulations,” Naruto says genuinely, “When’s the wedding?”
“In three months. You’re coming, of course,” Hinata ushers.
Naruto’s eyes flicker over to Kiba, who peers at him curiously. Thankfully, Kiba has never seemed jealous or spiteful that Naruto and Hinata have a child together, or that Hinata harbored a schoolgirl crush on Naruto for years. They’ve all matured now, with Hinata’s feelings for Naruto fading away to nothing but a distant fact and Kiba’s territoriality wisening to a steadfast, stubborn love for her. They’re good together, Naruto thinks, and he can’t help the pang of loneliness that hits him at his gut at the thought.
“You’ll have two dads now, Boruto,” Naruto jokes. “The more the merrier?”
Kiba barks out a laugh. “We’re all a pack now, I suppose.”
“Whatever,” Boruto shrugs. “Kiba is cool.”
“Your dad is the Hokage,” Naruto says, slightly affronted. “Am I not cool too?”
Kiba laughs even harder than that, and Hinata smiles too in a soft giggle. Naruto flicks Boruto on the forehead. “Stubborn little brat.”
“Hey!” Boruto yelps. Then, turning to Hinata, he asks politely, “May I be excused to my room?”
His son scampers away. Naruto’s impressed at Boruto’s manners, then feels a little bit annoyed that Boruto doesn’t show the same respect to him. He sighs. “That kid.”
“He loves you, you know,” Kiba says seriously.
“I know that. We’re a little too similar in personality, though.” Naruto grins. “Hope you can handle a sort-of mini-me some days of the week.”
“You were a piece of shit,” Kiba scoffs, “but I handled you just fine as a kid, and I sure as hell can handle it now. He called me cool.”
Before Naruto can retort anything back, Hinata cuts in asking, “How are you, Naruto?”
“Ah,” Naruto says. Hinata’s expression is concerned, eyebrows knitting together and mouth slightly downturned. Then, he understands — Hinata called this dinner not only as a kind gesture and to share the news about their engagement, but also because she’s worried for Naruto for some reason. “I’m doing fine. Just busy, but you already know that.”
I’m lonely, actually, and it’s been especially bad lately, but you don’t need to hear that from me.
“I see,” Hinata murmurs. Then, “You know, at this point, you and Sasuke are the only ones who haven’t married.”
Naruto stills. He’s never talked about his feelings for Sasuke with Hinata, but being how observant she is, he doesn’t doubt that she knows. Regardless, that wasn’t a topic that he particularly wanted to discuss out loud — not when his child is in the other room. “I guess it just worked out that way, huh?”
“You two,” Hinata says gently, “have always had the world on your shoulders, you know. We’re nearing our mid-thirties. Most ninjas retire by their fourties. We are in peacetime, you can afford to take some time for yourself. Sasuke too.”
“Try convincing him that,” Naruto says bitterly. “The fucker keeps circling around the world looking for problems.”
“When is he back next?” Kiba cuts in. “Boruto’s graduation, I assume?”
“Yeah,” Naruto sighs. “Yeah, he’ll be at my place for a few days then.”
“Talk to him,” Hinata presses gently. “I’m worried for you. We all are. You look so unhappy these days, even though you’ve achieved your dreams of being Hokage.”
Naruto stares at Hinata. “That obvious?”
Hinata’s smile is sad, somehow. “You don’t have anyone to share your dreams with, Naruto.”
“I—” Naruto starts.
He is so fucking lonely. He always has been. The thought is like a deep weight in his stomach, a heavy stone sinking to the bottom of a river, this current of solitude taking him downstream through the years of his life.
“It’s always been him, hasn’t it?” Hinata says, and Naruto feels swept away by the sheer force of his love for Sasuke being acknowledged out loud. There’s something very overwhelming about being told about your feelings by the mother of your child, a girl who used to love you and that you couldn’t love back because your love has always belonged to a ghost-boy who haunts the world and the chambers of your heart.
“I don’t even know what to say to that,” Naruto admits eventually.
“That’s okay,” Hinata says. “After all, I’m not the one you should have things to say to.”
Hinata, as always, is right — Naruto is grateful that Boruto’s mother is so kind. He turns his gaze upward towards the ceiling and sighs.
Flicker, dim, and flare: Naruto’s love for Sasuke is a flame that won’t go out. He tends to this fire in his chest, the hearth of his care a smouldering mess of desperation and hurt until it roars alive when he sees Sasuke again.
Sasuke, this time, does not appear mysteriously in Naruto’s office in the Hokage tower; instead, he is on Naruto’s couch when Naruto comes home at two in the morning.
“You need better security,” Sasuke says flippantly as if he isn’t on Naruto’s fucking couch with a cup of coffee that Naruto isn’t quite sure where he got from — hell, he didn’t even realize he had coffee in his apartment.
“It’s not my fault that you can Sharingan whatever’s in my house and then Rinnegan your way in,” Naruto retorts as if he wasn’t still reeling from the shock at Sasuke. On his couch. “How’s Karin?”
“A bitch as usual. She wanted me to give you this.”
Sasuke reaches into his cloak to pull out a scroll. Immediately from the fuinjutsu symbol Naruto can tell that it’s coded for him only, so Naruto unhooks a kunai from his belt and knicks the skin on his thumb, pressing the bead of blood into the seal. It loosens and unravels itself, and Naruto’s eyes widen.
“Wow,” Naruto mutters. “Classified information on the council in Kumo. God, she really knows how to get her hands on anything.”
Sasuke nods. Naruto finds comfort in the fact that he can trace the sense of pride in Sasuke’s expression, even though he looks stoic as usual. Despite the insults, Sasuke does care for Karin and all of Taka deeply. “Anything we need to worry about?”
“No,” Naruto affirms. “Probably just keeping me updated, since Kumo is so inaccessible and undiplomatic. I’ll keep an eye out, but it’s nothing that you need to go out for.”
The tension slips from Sasuke’s shoulders. “Good. Is Boruto at Hinata’s tonight?”
“Yeah. He’ll be back tomorrow. Hinata and Kiba are coming over to celebrate.” Naruto laughs softly under his breath. “They’re engaged.”
“Good for them.” An exhale. “Christ, we’re old.”
The life expectancy of a shinobi is thirty years old. Both Naruto and Sasuke are pushing thirty-four; they are child soldiers grown past their expiration date, both once kids who were given a dagger at the age of four and were told to fight for their country before they could even hold a pencil in the same fingers.
And yet, the two of them are still fighting for their country, when nearly all of their classmates have retired to settle down, passing the mantle onto their children. It’s a fucked up system, Naruto knows, but the two of them have worked tirelessly to maintain peacetime so that the next generation are being taught to fight and protect instead of being bred for war. This peace is their burden.
Or so Naruto thought. Hinata thinks differently. Naruto is starting to believe her, watching Sasuke lean back in his couch with a cup of fucking coffee in his hand and he looks so at home.
And so when Naruto opens his mouth and the next thing he says is, “We should retire,” he doesn’t think before he says it. Instead, he thinks of Sasuke resting his tired bones here in his home, and imagines a world where Naruto can grow tomatoes in his yard and pick them fresh in the summer, dirt caked between his nails, blisteringly happy to have cultivated a harvest for someone he loves. It’s a fantasy, but it could be real.
Sasuke’s eyes widen slightly. “Now?”
“I mean—” Naruto flusters. Then takes a deep breath. “Not now. But maybe soon. We can… lessen our duties. We’re in a peaceful era; there are no conflicts, just little skirmishes that are for the most part unpreventable.”
“You—” Sasuke, for once, seems at a loss for words. “You became Hokage less than five years ago. You really want to give up the mantle so soon?”
Naruto looks down at Sasuke’s missing arm.
“I was fully prepared to die for you at the age of sixteen.”
Then: “I didn’t know being Hokage was going to mean so little when I don’t have time to enjoy the very village I work to protect every single day.”
And then: “I wanted to be Hokage so you can live in a Konoha that’s safe for you, Sasuke.”
“Don’t lie to me,” Sasuke says, but it’s shaky. “You wanted to be Hokage because you wanted people to see you.”
“And people are seeing me now.” Naruto suddenly feels exhausted. “And so what.”
“And so what.” Naruto sits down on the couch next to Sasuke, who looks at him in shock, or in awe, or in fear. “I’m thirty-four and alone.”
Sasuke’s grip around his mug tightens. “If this is about marriage—”
“It’s not, Sasuke,” Naruto sighs. Then, with the devastating light of a raging fire, he says, “it’s about you.”
You, and the boy you used to be, bright-eyed with cherry cheeks. You, with your anger and your love and everything in between. You, who I love.
Naruto looks at Sasuke and hopes his eyes say everything.
Sasuke looks like he’s been stabbed. Choked, he gets out, “I was doing all that travelling for you because I thought that’s what you wanted.”
“It’s what I thought I wanted too,” Naruto says tiredly, “but I missed you too much.”
Heavy, tired devotion. The weight of it thickens the silence that follows. Distantly, Naruto wonders if love is supposed to feel like a burden to be carried on a broken back, and wonders if maybe one day he can feel the love of a warm home, of a hand by his side, of bodies holding each other at night.
“You can be a jonin-sensei,” Naruto says eventually. “Boruto’s.”
“What other brats would I train?” Sasuke asks, but he doesn’t reject the idea outright, which Naruto knows is practically agreeing to do the job.
“Sakura and Lee’s kid, Metal. That’s one. We can figure out the others later. They get assigned in two weeks.”
“Me…” Naruto trails off. “Well, I’ll still be Hokage. I’ll just… relax a bit more. I imagine things are going to be a lot more simpler if we just focus on domestic issues instead of international ones, and deal with problems when they arise instead of before they happen.”
“Knew you wouldn’t give up your dream job that easily,” Sasuke teases, but it’s gentle, full of fondness that Naruto can’t help but ache at.
“I’ll be less busy.” Naruto bites his lip. “And then maybe I can finally be a better father to Boruto.”
“You’re a good father,” Sasuke says quietly. “Don’t say that.”
“And you would be a good father if you wanted.”
Sasuke stiffens. “Hey—”
“I love you. You know that.”
Sasuke slumps where he sits. “I know,” he mumbles, “Look, Naruto, I—”
He stops, but Naruto can hear it too, the I love you that’s just as tired and weary and old, broken and reforged over and over again. It sounds like an old story. And maybe it is: the two of them as boys, longing for each other’s care at a distance, the two of them as teenagers pulled and pushed together by the magnetic force of their gravity, circling each other like celestial bodies in orbit, the two of them as adults, separated by land and sea yet together in the way that Sasuke returns to Konoha after a mission and Naruto says, welcome back, and Sasuke doesn’t quite say I’m home or I missed you but he shows up and lingers like a ghost in purgatory, never wanting to let go. It’s obvious, the way they love each other, even though it feels foreign, because they’ve never practiced their love in a way that didn’t feel like loss and desperation.
“I know,” Naruto says, when Sasuke can’t finish the phrase. He doesn’t need to hear it. He knows that Sasuke’s love in the way his voice tightens around Naruto’s name. “This is your home, if you want it to be.”
“I love you,” Sasuke tries again.
“I always have—” Sasuke struggles. “... Jesus fuck.”
“I know,” Naruto laughs. “I didn’t even realize we had coffee, where the fuck did you get that?”
“I bought it. To have here.”
“For the three days you were going to stay?”
“I—” Sasuke sighs. “I guess I wanted something here to anchor me even if I wasn’t around.”
At that, Naruto reaches out and curls his hand on top of Sasuke’s hand around the mug. “You don’t need anything like that.” Brazenly, he adds, “Because you have me.”
“Fuck you, Naruto, you sentimental fuck,” Sasuke grunts, but he smiles anyway, and for the first time, Naruto feels like he has something that he can keep. This home of his, of theirs, and the scent of roasted coffee wafting through the air is like a warm reminder that this, this. This is love.
Boruto’s graduation is an uneventful affair, but when he looks out to the stands and sees Sasuke by Naruto’s side, he lights up with such unfiltered happiness that Sasuke visibly stiffens next to him. Naruto just rolls his eyes and says, “Relax. He loves you like a father already.”
Sasuke strangles on whatever he was going to say, and Naruto just smiles and holds his hand.
On their way home, Naruto buys a small tomato sprout from Ino’s shop and a black mug from the ceramics shop next door, custom painted with the Uchiha symbol on the clay. He plants the sprout in the backyard next to all the strawberries and sets the mug down next to Naruto’s chipped one, and thinks of the love that has taken root right here. This old yet new tenderness, and Sasuke at his side: an unshakeable truth.
Outside the window, a raven lands on their fence, and stays.