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Flesh and Bone

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And I am alone, so don't speak
I find war, and I find peace
I find no heat, no love in me

And I am low and unwell
This is love, this is hell
This sweet plague that follows me“

Keaton Henson ~ Flesh and Bone

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The living being had no need of eyes because there was nothing outside of him to be seen; nor of ears because there was nothing to be heard; and there was no surrounding atmosphere to be breathed.

~Plato

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i

It's a day like any other, sunny, spring. They meet up at the bridge, Kakashi more than just fashionably late, they banter as they make their way to the training grounds. They could have been there hours ago, but even now their sensei only sets a leisured pace, strolling up ahead, nose buried in one of those garish books. Business as usual.

Naruto is trying to get Sakura's attention, Sakura is trying to get Sasuke's. Sasuke just tries to ignore them both.

“Nee, Sasuke-kun,” Sakura begins, sidling up to him. Her hands are coyly folded behind her back and he already knows what's coming.

“I was wondering what you were doing this weekend-” she begins, but he just cuts her off.

“Training.”

“Mm, maybe we could train together then?” she tries hopefully.

“I could train with you, Sakura-chan!” Naruto pipes up in the background but no one pays him any heed, just like Sasuke does with Sakura.

Because it's a day like any other and they've had this discussion dozens of times, her clumsy attempts to convince him to train with her, eat with her, go out with her. Sasuke's persistent refusal, blunt and brutal.

She's got guts, he's gotta give her that, but her tenacity only hardens his stubbornness.

“Not interested,” he turns her down, all of her, her girlish blushes and visions of the future, and shoves his hands into his pockets.

She deflates a little, but doesn't give up. “Maybe some other time th-”

He closes his eyes for a moment.

“Let me rephrase that,” he says flatly. "If you actually only wanted to train, I might say yes.”

She brightens, yet Sasuke only plows onward.

“But since your insistence to spend time with me only is a poorly disguised attempt to get one up on Ino,” he continues with brutal finality, “I am not interested.”

“It's got nothing to do with Ino!” Sakura objects vehemently. “I- I really do like you, Sasuke-kun, and...”

She trails off, head lowered. Naruto looks like he wants to strangle him, and Kakashi is very pointedly not interfering.

The mood has turned sour and will stay sour at this rate. Training will be a total waste of time, with Sakura distracted and dejected, and Naruto falling over himself to impress her or protect her virtue or something.

Sasuke suppresses a sigh.

“I've got no time for... fun or... dating, or any of that,” he says, trying to make himself sound more mellow. “So, get that out of your head.”

“O-oh,” she stammers, but then a somewhat calculating look crosses over her face, right along with a delicate blush. “B-but didn't you say you wanted to revive your clan?”

Sasuke stiffens. “So?

“Won't you have to start dating eventually?” she asks. “To find, um, a wife?”

Sasuke is acutely aware of Naruto making gagging noises while Kakashi's shoulders are shaking with mirth.

Dammit.

“I am engaged,” he says and surprises himself a little.

Sakura, however, trips over her own feet and almost falls to the ground. “What?”

“I am already engaged,” he repeats, hoping that it will deter her. “My parents arranged it even before I was born. So. No dating needed.”

“You're joking, right?” she laughs, rather uncertainly because of course he never jokes. “Because that's, um, no one can hold you to it anymore, right?”

It's a crude reminder of his family's death and she cowers under his glare.

“Who- who is she then?” she asks, timid now. “Is it... someone I know?”

She's probably afraid that it's Ino. As if his father would have ever agreed to an alliance with such an insignificant clan.

“I don't know,” he growls, fists clenching in his pockets.

Sakura stares. “You don't know who you're engaged to?”

“I never got the chance to ask,” he says, not looking at her.

He stomps past her then, stomps past Naruto and trips him up a little, just because he can, relishing in the angry outburst, stomps past Kakashi and keenly feels his gaze between his shoulder blades.

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ii

He hadn't even thought about it in ages.

Arranged marriages had been a common practice among the Uchiha, and still were among several of the older clans with bloodline limits. His parents had been third cousins. Itachi, too, had been engaged to one of their relatives, yet he had merely killed her as well.

Often enough, those engagements were broken off for various reasons. For shinobi the most common cause was death, of course.

In his case, however, it was the parents' death that had prevented a furthering of the relationship.

His mother had told him about it, and only once, with a sad smile on her face, absentmindedly running her fingers through his hair.

They weren't Uchiha, she had said, It was a silly idea anyway. I don't even know how I convinced your father. I thought it would help- But then they died, so I guess the contract is null and void now.

She had never mentioned the name of the clan, or of his fiancée. But the girl was probably still alive.

She would have been from a good family, shinobi of course, but without any bloodline limit to tarnish the Sharingan. Orphaned then, and apparently without any guardians who would insist on marriage after all.

Much like himself, he muses wryly. It wasn't like he really paid attention to the girls his age, but he couldn't recall a single one whom the description might apply to. With a shudder he thinks that she might well be one of his fangirls.

The thought doesn't leave him alone for the rest of the day. After training, he makes his way to the Hokage Tower, hoping to get some answers.

“I need to see some documents,” he tells the old woman behind the counter. “Regarding the Uchiha.”

She cocks a thin eyebrow at him. “There's a ton of those. Can you be more specific?”

“An engagement contract,” he replies, keeping his face neutral. “Dated thirteen years ago.”

“Hm,” she hums between narrow lips, staring him down thoughtfully, but then her hawk eyes shoot up to something behind him. “That brat belong to you, Hatake?”

Sasuke groans inwardly. This was really the last thing he needed.

“Sorry for the trouble, Kaneko-san,” Kakashi simpers, stepping closer and placing a hand on Sasuke's shoulder. “I'll get him off your hands right away.”

With gentle but relentless pressure, he leads Sasuke away from the counter and down the hallway. As soon as they are out of sight, Sasuke shrugs him off.

“What the hell was that about?” he hisses, angrily glaring at the man. “This is none of your business.”

“It isn't,” Kakashi agrees. “But you'll be happy to hear that I have answers anyway.”

Sasuke stills. “You do?”

“Yes,” Kakashi nods and then saunters over to a stairway. “Sandaime-sama has made some time for us.”

With quick steps, Sasuke catches up with him, wondering what the hell the Hokage could have to do with this. He is even more, surprised, however, when they enter the Sandaime's office and it's not just the old man waiting there, but Naruto of all people.

“What the hell is he doing here?” Sasuke scowls, first at his teammate and then at their teacher.

Kakashi looks back, unimpressed. “After this morning's conversation, I thought we might just sort things out in one go.”

“Sort what out?” Naruto is fidgeting, playing with the hem of his sleeve. “I didn't get in trouble, did I? I haven't pranked anyone in ages, I swear-”

“It's nothing like that, Naruto-kun,” the Hokage says in his calm, soothing voice. “You've done nothing wrong. But this concerns you as well.”

“What does?” Naruto asks helplessly.

The Sandaime rubs a withered hand over his mouth, seeming rather weary.

“Sasuke-kun,” he addresses him directly. “Kakashi mentioned you only know that you are betrothed, but not to whom.”

Sasuke purses his lips, gives a curt nod. The Hokage inclines his head.

“Then this might comes a bit of a shock to you,” he admits and then clears his throat. “Your parents agreed on the contract before either child was even born.”

“And then her parents died and the contract was rendered inactive,” Sasuke agrees. “I know that much.”

“Ah, but here is the problem,” Sandaime hedges. “The gender of the children was not yet known.”

Sasuke stares a little, trying to work through that, wondering why it was relevant. Suddenly, Naruto's presence in the room makes terrible sense.

“No way,” he says, taking a step back and shaking his head in denial. “There's no way my parents-”

“What's going on?” Naruto asks, a nervous hitch in his voice. “Why is Sasuke-teme engaged? And what does that have to do with me? Why did Kaka-sensei bring me along-?”

“Naruto-kun,” the old man says gently. “You are the other party the contract mentions.”

Naruto blinks slowly. “What's that supposed to mean?”

“He says we are engaged to each other, you moron,” Sasuke bites out, clenching his fists so hard his nails are digging deeply into his palms.

“What?!” Naruto jumps, frantically looking between Sasuke, Kakashi and the Hokage, as though hoping for an elaborate joke. But Sasuke of course never jokes.

“My parents would never have agreed to that,” he insists, gritting his teeth. Naruto was not only deadlast, he was outcast of the village. Everybody shunned him. Why on earth would the Uchiha, who rarely ever married outside of the clan, agree to such an outrageous contract?

“Your mothers were close friends, actually,” the Sandaime reveals. “And Naruto's parents were both from prestigious families.”

“I've never heard of the Uzumaki,” Sasuke snarls, not missing how the Sandaime and Kakashi exchange a meaningful look.

“They were not from here,” the Hokage says. “But they were great, indeed.”

Naruto, instead of focusing on the problem at hand, seems to have other priorities.

“You... you knew my parents?” he asks the Sandaime, his eyes round like saucers.

The man gives a slow nod. “Yes. Yes, I did. They were very dear to me.”

“You never told me,” Naruto stammers. “Why did you never- What were they like? Were they shinobi? Do I- do I look like them?”

“They were great shinobi and good people. Very kind-hearted. Your mother was brave and hot-headed. But your father was a patient man. You look a lot like him.”

“So... they are dead?” Naruto asks hesitantly.

Idiot, Sasuke thinks. Of course his parents would have to be dead. Did he honestly believe that they would miraculously show up in his life once more?”

“I'm afraid so,” the Hokage says, and sounds sad himself. “But they loved you very much.”

For some reason Naruto looks downright relieved at that, and Sasuke frowns. Why would anyone-? But of course. With the way everyone was treating the boy he must have assumed that his own parents had abandoned him as well. Sasuke bites the inside of his cheek to keep his face in check.

He's also wondering why this is apparently the first time Naruto even hears about his family, although Kakashi and the Hokage had obviously known.

“How...,” Naruto whispers, looking afraid of the answer. “How did they die?”

The Hokage closes his eyes. When he opens them again, he looks very old. “During the Kyuubi attack.”

Naruto chokes a little, clutching at his stomach, his face going pale. Sasuke has had enough.

“That's not the point here,” he hisses. “The point is that the contract is meaningless. We can't really- I need to revive my clan.”

“Yes,” the man nods. “Due to several conditions, the contract is considered to be dormant for the time being.”

“Dormant?” Sasuke repeats incredulously. “I can't very well be engaged to that idiot when I need to find an actual woman.”

The thought makes him shudder a little. Avenging his clan and killing Itachi never seems quite as daunting as the prospect of marrying and having children does.

“Technically, you would be allowed to break the agreement, yes,” Sandaime-sama rumbles. “But you still have official guardians who would need to be consulted on the matter.”

Despite Itachi's status as a missing nin, he was still Sasuke's last kin, and the reminder leaves a bitter taste in his mouth.

“Since they are unavailable,” the Hokage continues, “You will have to wait until you are sixteen and of age to annul the contract on your own.”

Sasuke grinds his jaw so hard it might break.

There could have been worse outcomes than this, he figures. He could have been engaged to some annoying girl who might have insisted on the betrothal. Or someone who was only after the Uchiha's wealth. But the embarrassment of being engaged to a boy, and the village's worst idiot of all people-

With an inward groan, he recalls how their former classmates were still poking fun at that accidental 'kiss' back at the academy. If anyone were to find out about this ridiculous contract, Sasuke would never be able to live it down.

This was definitely not what he had intended to find out when he had tried to get Sakura off his case this morning.

“So I just have to wait three more years and then I can call the whole thing off?” he asks to make sure. Three years is not a long time. It's not like he was planning to look for a wife as soon as possible. First, he had to kill his brother.

“Essentially,” the Sandaime affirms. “Since I had assumed you were unaware of the betrothal in the first place, I had planned on approaching you once you were old enough to make a decision.”

“Ano,” Naruto speaks up then, seeming more hesitant than Sasuke has ever seen him. “Why did... my, uh, parents want me to marry an Uchiha? I don't know much about all that clan business, but... if their name was almost extinct, wouldn't that have been bad?”

“There were certain political reasons that the village would have benefit from,” the Third admits because of course it was always about the village. “And also... neither of them had any family left. I think... they might have been afraid that you would end up on your own one day. They wanted to ensure your well-being.”

But of course, Naruto had been born a boy, rendering the contract useless. A girl might have been taken in by the Uchiha, raised as Sasuke's foster sister. But instead, Naruto had somehow ended up as the local troublemaker that was shunned for some unfathomable reason.

Or maybe Naruto's parents hadn't been as good as the Hokage had claimed. Maybe he had only meant to soften the blow. Maybe they were traitors instead, or deserters who tried to flee during the Kyuubi attack. Sometimes, such shame was carried through generations.

“O-oh,” Naruto stammers, sounding small. “That was... nice of them, I guess.”

“Are we done here?” Sasuke wants to know, already turning to leave even before the Third has nodded. “See you in three years then.”

“Thank you for your time, Sandaime-sama,” Kakashi says politely, but still sounding subdued for some reason Sasuke cannot pinpoint and, frankly, doesn't care about either.

He accompanies them out the office, leading Naruto by the shoulder as he had done before with Sasuke. The atmosphere is a strangely muted, Naruto not saying anything and Sasuke stubbornly staring at the path ahead.

Once outside the Tower, however, Kakashi perks up a little.

“Ja,” he says, offering them his typical one-eyed smile. “I'll be leaving then. Don't be late for training, boys.”

That at least makes Naruto fly into an angry flurry, “You're not the one who should be saying that, Kaka-sensei!”

But the man is already gone in a puff of smoke, leaving them alone. Immediately, Sasuke pushes Naruto up against the outer wall of the building.

“If you tell Sakura or anyone else about this, I will kill you in your sleep,” he threatens in a low hiss.

Naruto gives him a wide-eyed look, but then tries to push him off. “As if I would want anyone to know about this, you bastard!”

“Good,” Sasuke lets go off his collar. “Because I don't know what the juridical term for killing one's fiancé is, but I guess I will find out once they put me on trial for disposing of you.”

To his annoyance, Naruto only snorts a little. “You know, you talk a lot when you're angry, teme.”

“And you better not talk at all, you idiot,” Sasuke bares his teeth. “Not even to Iruka. It's bad enough that Kakashi knows.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Naruto ducks away. “'Don't talk to me, I don't want to be seen with you, just stay away.' I know the drill, okay.”

Sasuke narrows his eyes. “I just don't want to become the laughing stock of the village.”

“Don't worry,” Naruto sends him a sharp grin, jamming his hands into his pockets. “That's already my job.”

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iii

Training the next day is even worse than the day before. While Sakura seems to have accepted the revelation that Sasuke is theoretically promised to someone else, it is now Naruto who makes even more blunders than usual. And Sasuke himself is admittedly a little off his game as well.

Right now they are wrestling with each other, all the finesse of real taijutsu forgotten, rolling around in the dirt with jabbing elbows and angry grunts.

“Lover's spat?” Kakashi asks innocently. “They fight like an old married couple, don't you think, Sakura?”

“Uh." Sakura fidgets uncomfortably. “I don't think most couples punch each other in the face.”

“Well, to each their own,” Kakashi muses, flicking a page in his book. “There's actually a rather well-written scene about the dynamics of sadomasochism in this-”

With a burst of strength, Sasuke manages to roll Naruto off him. Before he can overwhelm him, however, Kakashi calls them off.

“Alright, boys,” he claps his hands. “That's enough for now. Let's have lunch.”

They settle down in the shade of a tree and pull their lunches from the packs. It's probably the only time of the day they look like an actually team, at least from an outsider's point of view.

Sasuke has his customary bento of rice, meat and tomatoes, while Naruto fumbles with the wrapping of his lone cereal bar.

“Oh no,” Sakura gives a slight moan as she uncovers her own lunchbox. “Why did my mother make squid? She knows I hate squid. Maybe I accidentally grabbed my father's bento.”

She gives it a disgusted look and then extends the lunchbox towards Naruto. “Trade you for your cereal bar?”

She doesn't have to ask twice and Naruto eagerly grabs the offered container that is filled with onigiri, squid and various vegetables. He takes a bite and his eyes grow wide. “Your mother made this for your father?”

“Yeah,” Sakura agrees, unhappily biting into the cereal bar.

“She must really love him,” Naruto muses, thoughtfully staring down the meal and Sakura blushes at that weird kind of assessment.

“Of course she does,” she sniffs. “That's why people get married in the first place. To always take care of each other and... and make sure the other is never hungry or lonely or anything like that.”

She steals a furtive glance at Sasuke then, but he acts like he doesn't notice and just keeps eating his tomatoes.

“Ah,” Naruto says and doesn't really look as though he understands what she means.

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For the rest of the week, Sasuke steadfastly ignores the fact that he is engaged to anyone at all, and especially to his idiot teammate.

Then, one evening, he steps out onto his balcony, only to find a plastic bag full of ripe tomatoes hanging off the railing.

His first intuition is that someone is out to poison him. Then he thinks that Kakashi might have dropped them off as some sort of reward for doing well in training. Or maybe Kakashi is trying to poison him.

He takes the tomatoes inside, but doesn't eat them, just stares at them as though their appearance would make any more sense. It doesn't.

It takes him two days to give in, not wanting the tomatoes go moldy. They are not poisoned. In fact, they are some of the best tomatoes he's ever had.

Maybe one of his fan girls was trying to butter him up? It certainly wasn't working, but he'd rather be given his favorite food than have strangers actively stalking him.

A week later there is another... well, present, probably. This time, however, it's not tomatoes. It's not even edible.

Instead, it's a potted plant. A cactus, of all things.

Sasuke eyes it critically and then leaves it standing on the outer window sill. If the tomatoes weren't poisoned, then this plant probably wasn't gonna hurt him either.

He finds more presents after that. A scroll with a landscape painting on it. A rather nice kunai. Some dango.

The person must be a shinobi to even get up on the balcony, but other than that their identity is a mystery. Maybe it's Sakura. His teammates know where he lives, after all. But she never drops any hints, like he would have expected her to, so he quickly dismisses the idea.

He sets up traps and even tries catching the culprit red-headed, but they appear at irregular intervals and he does have training to attend. His traps are all disassembled whenever he checks them.

Eventually, though, Sasuke's secret gift-giver makes a mistake. By leaving two cups of instant ramen on the window sill.

Sasuke stares at them, purses his lips, and then jumps off the balcony.

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Naruto lives on the other side of town, so it takes Sasuke a while to get there. When he does, he doesn't even bother with the doorbell, just jumps straight through the open window.

“Gah!” Naruto yelps and promptly falls off his bed where he had been reading a manga.

“You!” Sasuke growls and hauls him up by the collar. “Stop leaving stuff at my place.”

It's a rather random accusation and he expects Naruto to feign ignorance, deny it vehemently. He doesn't, though.

“You can just throw it away if you don't want it,” Naruto grumbles and pries his hands off. In his surprise, Sasuke simply lets go, watching as the other boy picks the paperback off the floor.

“Why the hell are you putting it there in the first place?” he wants to know. “I don't even like instant ramen, it tastes like crap.”

“Oh,” Naruto's shoulders slump. “Did you like the tomatoes?”

“... Yeah,” Sasuke admits and Naruto looks relieved.

“You have to water Kenji once a month, okay,” he says and Sasuke stares.

“Who the fuck is Kenji.”

“The cactus,” Naruto replies as though it where obvious.

“You give your potted plants human names?” Sasuke asks, unimpressed. Against his will, his gaze is drawn towards the plethora of plants that sit along the wall under the window, mostly succulents and some vines.

“If you don't want him, just give him back,” Naruto mumbles, scuffing his naked heel against the wooden floorboards.

“Why did you put him- it, why did you put it and all that other stuff on my balcony anyway?” Sasuke demands with a glare.

“W-well,” Naruto stammers, staring down at his fumbling hands. “You heard what the old man said, right? Our mothers were friends, so I figured-”

“Just because our mothers were friends doesn't mean that we have to be,” Sasuke drawls. “Also, I think I told you to never bring up that conversation again.”

“You said I can't talk about it with other people,” Naruto points out. “Not that I can't talk about it with you.”

“Don't talk about it to me either, idiot,” Sasuke corrects, then thinks for a moment, eyes narrowing. “This whole... leaving gifts thing... doesn't have to do anything with the engagement thing, right?”

The way Naruto ducks his head is answer enough.

“Usuratonkachi,” Sasuke cuffs him over the head. “What are you even trying to achieve with that? Are you trying to buy my silence or-”

“I've just been thinking,” Naruto begins and Sasuke rolls his eyes. “Here we go.”

“I've just been thinking,” Naruto repeats pointedly. “Our parents wanted this, right? Like, us, together. Not... not married, I guess, we're both boys, so, uh, but... they thought we'd be good together.”

“We weren't even born yet, you moron,” Sasuke replies scathingly. “They hoped one of us would be a girl and that a marriage would unite the families or some such crap. But in case you haven't noticed, we don't have any families anymore.”

“Exactly,” Naruto says.

Sasuke purses his lips, “What?”

“Exactly,” Naruto repeats with more certainty, head lifting. “They're all dead. The only thing that is left of them is their will and... they wanted us to get along. So.”

“So you try to feed me?” Sasuke asks skeptically, but before the words have even left his mouth, he remembers something else.

“This is about what Sakura said the other day, isn't it?” he realizes. “Somehow you've gotten it into your head that this is, what – your marital duty?”

Immediately, Naruto ducks his head again, blushing hotly. It's certainly answer enough.

“I just thought,” he mumbles into the collar of his jacket, “It might be nice?”

“What, playing house?”

A blue-eyed glare, but Naruto's voice still sounds meek when he retorts, “Having someone.”

Sasuke's eyes narrow. “What do you mean?”

“I never had anyone to take care of,” Naruto says quietly, leaving out the glaring fact that he never really had anyone take care of him either. “So, um, if you don't mind I could-”

“I do mind,” Sasuke interrupts him before he can even find out just what Naruto has in mind. “So don't even try.”

“Oh,” Naruto bites his lower lip. “Okay.”

Sasuke huffs and turns to leave, already jumping up onto the window sill.

“Ano,” Naruo calls after him, making him glance back over his shoulder. “Just- please don't throw Kenji into the trash?”

For a moment, Sasuke stills.

“Whatever,” is what he finally says and then catapults himself outside.

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iv

The next day, Sasuke makes a point of giving Naruto a thorough thrashing under the guise of training.

Kakashi watches them, keen-eyed, and then pairs off Sasuke and Sakura instead. It's a cheap respite, because Kakashi doesn't exactly go easy on Naruto easier, but at least he does it without malicious intent.

When the sun sets, Sasuke watches as Naruto begins to limp home and wonders whether he should feel remorse, but it seems more like Naruto's wounded pride than any physical injury is the cause. He had always been rather resilient in that regard. Still, his long shadow slinks after him, his sole companion, slow and silent.

Sakura had already hurried home, not wanting to be late for dinner, and Kakashi had puffed away as soon as he declared training was over. Sasuke bites the inside of his cheek and contemplates Naruto's dejected expression from the evening before.

It's not like he doesn't get loneliness. It's that he has learned to accept it as a blessing while Naruto still thinks it a burden.

Sasuke sighs, already regretting his next words.

“Hey, usuratonkachi,” he calls out and Naruto glances back at him, suspicious.

Sasuke rolls his eyes so he doesn't have to look at him.

“Wanna grab some ramen?” he asks and, despite the fact that he is not looking, he can easily imagine Naruto's entire face light up.

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They go to Ichiraku's because that's what Naruto insists on and what Sasuke wouldn't even bother to object to. Ramen isn't his first choice, but Teuchi's is certainly the best in the village.

The old man seems surprised to see the two of them together, but doesn't comment on it, just smiles and asks for their orders. He has more tact than most other people do because on their way here they had run into Team 10 who had all looked at them in askance. Ino had simpered but not as much as she would have had in Sakura's presence, Azuma had inquired after Kakashi, Chouji had asked where they were going and whether they wanted to get BBQ with them instead, which Naruto had obviously declined, and Shikamaru had given them a long thoughtful look which eventually morphed into an indifferent expression that showed he couldn't be arsed to really try and figure out the situation.

Teuchi asks about Iruka-sensei and the rest of Team 7 and their training and missions and what has Naruto gotten up to lately, not too many pranks he hopes. Naruto eats and laughs and allows Teuchi's daughter Ayame to fawn over his scratches, and maybe Sasuke understands why the boy is such a loyal costumer. Some things just cannot be bought.

“My treat,” he says under his breath, sliding the money across the counter. Teuchi's eyebrows lift a bit, but then he just accepts the money with a smile.

Naruto's astonishment is not quite as covert.

“Eeh?” he says, eyes wide. “Are you sick?”

Sasuke glares.

“I mean, I mean,” Naruto hurries. “Did you hit your head when we were sparring? Sakura-chan throws a mean punch. Why are you being nice?”

“It's just ramen,” Sasuke grumbles, pushing his empty bowl away. “Don't get so excited about it.”

Naruto not getting excited about ramen is, of course, a paradox. Still, the idiot calms down remarkably quickly.

“Okaaay,” he says at length, as though expecting there to be strings attached. “Thanks, teme.”

“Don't get used to it,” Sasuke huffs and hops off his bar stool. “This was just payback for before.”

.

.

When he gets home, he opens the door to the balcony to let in some fresh air. On the window sill still sits the small round cactus in its plain earthen pot. Sasuke considers it for a moment.

Eventually, he returns inside, but not without grabbing the cactus and placing in on the shelf next to his picture frame of Team 7.

Watering it once a month doesn't seem like too much of a chore.

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v

If they spend more time with each other after that, it's only because Kakashi keeps pestering them about the importance of teamwork, and Naruto just so happens to be the preferable sparring partner.

Sakura is always focused during training and puts in much more effort than before, but it will still take her a while to get anywhere near Sasuke's level. And Naruto's taijutsu skills are sloppy at best, but he fights with a ferocity that easily makes up for his other shortcomings. Not to mention that Sasuke never feels bad about grinding him face-first into the ground.

The styles differ greatly. Sasuke tries to be silent, fast and precise. Naruto makes a lot of unnecessary movements and certainly a lot of unnecessary noise. He puts too much force into hits he must know will miss anyway.

Back at the academy, Iruka-sensei had often scolded him for it, claiming that it would make him run out of energy too quickly. But the thing is, he never does. When Sasuke has to acknowledge his own exhaustion and shortness of breath after a long afternoon of fighting, Naruto just dusts himself of and demands another round.

Frankly, Sasuke is just cutting his losses when he asks, “You hungry?”

Naruto's eyes positively glow.

.

.

They end up at Ichiraku's again, of course they do. What they did not expect was for Iruka to also be there.

“There you are, Naruto,” he greets with one of those muted smiles that gets warmer the longer he looks at the boy. “I must say it's quite difficult to get a hold of you lately.”

He runs his gaze over Naruto's dusty and disheveled figure, slides it over to Sasuke as well. His smile doesn't fade.

“A good shinobi has to stay in shape!” Naruto claims, hopping up onto one of the bar stools. “You taught us that yourself.”

“I believe I did,” Iruka nods. “I also remember mentioning that that includes eating all your vegetables.”

Naruto whines, but Iruka already slaps a hand down onto the counter.

“Extra serving of vegetables, Teuchi-san,” he orders and then adds. “For Sasuke-kun as well.”

Naruto's eyes narrow suspiciously. “What about you, sensei?”

“I'm an adult,” Iruka replies loftily. “I get to eat what I want.”

“Not fair!” Naruto complains. “I want dango instead!”

They eat their meal. Naruto bickering with Iruka in a way that makes Teuchi comment that they really act like brothers, while Sasuke wonders why his own brother never was that way. Maybe Naruto notices how sullen Sasuke has suddenly gone, because he tries to bicker with him instead.

Sasuke keeps his head down. It's one think to act childish in front of Naruto or even the rest of Team 7 since, in comparison, he will always seem much more mature.

But here, with outside witnesses, it seems like they are being watched and evaluated and always found wanting.

“It's nice to see you getting along so well,” Iruka comments idly when Naruto is being distracted by Teuchi. “I always thought you'd either tear each other apart or become really good friends.”

“We aren't friends,” Sasuke says, somewhat spitefully.

“Maybe,” Iruka says. “But you're something.”

Engaged, for one, Sasuke thinks, but doesn't say, doesn't choke. That reality seems like nothing but a stupid inside joke now that only he and Naruto, and maybe Kakashi and the Sandaime are in on. It's not even particularly funny, but there is a closeness to that secrecy, something that ties them together.

Three years, he reminds himself. Three years and then he can maybe learn to laugh about the joke.

.

.

Finally, a mission outside of Konoha's walls, their first one in a while, and Sasuke volunteers to take first watch. While Kakashi and Sakura have already settled into their sleeping bags, however, Naruto has chosen to sit down next to Sasuke, settling back against the fallen log.

“Go to sleep, dobe,” Sasuke warns because experience has shown that Naruto is even more useless than usual if he doesn't get at least six hours of shuteye.

“Not tired yet,” Naruto claims and Sasuke doesn't bother to disagree. Let Kakashi chew him out in the morning.

It's closing in on midnight which is when Naruto would take over sentry duty, and Sasuke is struggling to stay awake and attentive. This is not a mission where they expect to be ambushed but Kakashi wants them to hone their patience, their senses, their ability to keep alert at all times. It's poor training but a necessity nonetheless.

Sasuke muffles a yawn in his collar, resists the urge to try and get comfortable against the rough bark of the fallen tree.

“Are you tired?” Naruto whispers. “I can take over if you want to.”

Sasuke shakes his head. There is not point in this exercise if he can just opt out. Instead, he pokes their fire with a stick, stokes the embers, watches the flames, waiting for their brightness to rouse him a little.

“Nee, Sasuke,” Naruto says, gently nudging him with his elbow. Sasuke turns towards him almost on instinct, his eyes trying to adjust to the change in lighting.

Naruto's face is in front of him, too close for comfort, but still leaning in closer.

Suddenly, Sasuke is wide awake again.

“What the hell do you think you're doing?” he hisses angrily, mindful of not waking the others. Though, knowing Kakashi, the man probably still manages to listen in on them, even while asleep.

Strangely, he is not even entirely sure of what he is so upset about, but blaming his outburst on Naruto feels calming in its familiarity.

The corners of Naruto's mouth pull down, his shoulders hunch up, and then he is the one sullenly staring into the fire, never having answered Sasuke's question.

They sit in silence. Surreptitiously Sasuke checks the time for when his watch will be over.

“Nee, Sasuke,” Naruto echoes into the night. “What's kissing like?”

At once, Sasuke tenses because this feels like a strange transition from what has just happened, like acknowledging something that ought to be ignored.

“How the hell would I know?” he says defensively. Not just because he has no tales that speak of his prowess in that regard but because it feels awkward that Naruto would initiate such an odd conversation anyway. Kiba and Chouji might want to talk about that. But never Sasuke.

Naruto is quiet for a moment, long enough that Sasuke thinks he's given up on the subject.

“But...,” the boy tries hesitantly. “Didn't your mother ever kiss you?”

Immediately Sasuke can feel himself getting defensive for another reason. Logically, he knows it is not meant as an insult to his mother, yet he still cannot help but take it that way.

“Of course my mother kissed me,” he grits out. On the forehead usually, the same spot Itachi had always flicked his finger at.

“Yeah, so...,” Naruto shuffles on the spot. “What's it like?”

Dammit. Naruto didn't remember his parents, didn't remember ever having been kissed.

Slowly, Sasuke blows out a breath through his nose.

“Warm, I guess,” he admits. “But only for a moment.”

“Does it feel warm in your belly, too?” Naruto asks curiously.

“Why would you think that?”

“Ayame-nee-chan says that, if someone you like kisses you, you feel all warm and fuzzy in your belly.”

“I think she was talking about a different kind of kissing,” Sasuke huffs, but still cannot help but recall the happiness he felt whenever his mother kissed him, ran her fingers through his hair. “But... it's kinda warm, I guess.”

“Oh,” Naruto hums, as though in understanding. “Did your mother have soft lips?”

“... yes.”

“You don't have soft lips, I think,” Naruto muses. “When we kissed at the academy-”

Sasuke's cheeks burn at the shameful memory, of their teeth clicking and their classmates laughing, of the hot and cold shudders of embarrassment running up and down his spine.

“That wasn't a kiss, you idiot,” he claims. “That was an accident.”

“Oh,” Naruto says and this time he sounds disappointed.

Sasuke bites his tongue.

“Was that... your first kiss?” he asks with the strange off-kilter knowledge that for someone like Naruto a first kiss means something entirely different.

“... yeah,” Naruto admits, small-voiced.

Sasuke remembers that encounter, that impact, that pain of literally having someone face-plant on his mouth, his bruised lip, his gums hurting, someone's saliva on him, nearly choking on his own.

“That wasn't a kiss,” Sasuke repeats, quieter now. “It's not supposed to hurt.”

“Okay,” Naruto accepts and then makes a show of stretching his limbs. “Second watch now. You go ahead. Sakura-chan will cry if you don't get enough beauty sleep.”

Sasuke grunts, in agreement at the first part and in objection to the second. He pushes himself off the ground, shakes some stray leaves off his coat.

“Night, Sasuke-teme,” Naruto murmurs, arms around his drawn-up knees, and something about that roots Sasuke to the spot.

“Night,” he replies but before he walks over to his sleeping back he leans forward to fleetingly press his lips against the cold metal of Naruto's forehead protector.

.

.

vi

They have not mentioned it again. Not in words at least. Sometimes Naruto looks at him a little too long and when Sasuke glances over to catch him staring they both quickly look away.

There is nothing to be embarrassed about. No kiss, no sign of affection. Just token pity when Naruto had been lonely and Sasuke's own tired mind had let him slip into a gesture that spoke of too much familiarity.

Sasuke himself has no need for tender touches. He bears Kakashi's hand on his shoulder, Sakura's fingertips on his wrist. This is his horizon, limited but focused.

Naruto does not seem to know what personal boundaries are. It's as though he tries to make up for the neglect he had endured during his childhood. He gets up into people's faces when he is excited, pokes them to get their attention. But he is just as quick to dart away, dance out of reach as soon as someone moves in his direction.

Sasuke thinks of children throwing sand on the playground and shopkeepers raising their voices. Deep in his bones, he aches.

“Dammit, dammit, why can't I get this right?” Naruto complains when they stay longer after training and Sasuke still subdues him with ease.

“Your footing is too unsteady,” Sasuke points out and then slowly guides him through the steps. Hooks his foot over Naruto's ankle, upsets him, pushes, sends him down to the ground almost in slow motion.

“You focus too much on your hands,” he continues while he hold's Naruto's down. “In taijutsu you have be aware of your entire body.”

They stare each other down for a moment, Naruto fruitlessly struggling against the iron hold. Finally, however, he just bends his knees, braces his feet against the ground, bucks his hips. Sasuke sees it coming, but he still lets himself be unseated, spun around, landing in the grass.

“Don't go easy on me, you bastard,” Naruto growls. “I won't learn if you just hold back.”

“Whatever,” Sasuke pushes him off, gets to his feet. “I'm leaving.”

“What?” Naruto complains, jumping up as well. “Why?”

“I'm famished,” Sasuke says and, when Naruto's stomach growls as if on cue, he adds, “No, I will not treat you to ramen.”

“Oh,” Naruto visibly deflates.

“I have leftover curry at home,” Sasuke points out.

Naruto squints at him. “Is that an invitation?”

Sasuke shoves his hands into his pockets. “I'm not repeating myself.”

When he strolls off, Naruto follows.

.

.

There's not much to be seen in his apartment, but Naruto's eyes are wide and wondrous as he looks around. Then he makes a surprised noise.

“You kept Kenji,” he says because of course the cactus is still standing on the shelf, round and prickly as ever.

“Don't read anything into it, dobe,” Sasuke huffs, grabbing two glasses from the cabinet and filling them with tab water. When he turns around again, Naruto is suddenly in front of him.

“Thanks, bastard,” he says softly and their lips brush. Sasuke does not push him away.

He wants to ask why. He wants to bully Naruto into blushing and never trying anything of that nature again. Yet at the same time he knows that Naruto could just block him with a counter question.

Because why exactly had Sasuke kissed him on the forehead two weeks ago? Forehead and lips were two very different things, but admitting that somehow feels too vast. Like naming something that ought not exist between them.

“Do you like tangerine in your curry?” he asks and neatly sidesteps Naruto to get to the fridge.

.

.

The situation loses some of its deniability when Naruto shows up with the rings.

“I found them on the market,” he says excitedly, shoving them into Sasuke's face, “Some old man was selling them. He said he made them out of old kunai. Isn't that cool??”

Sasuke jerks his head back, squints at the proffered rings. They are made of plain steel, round and shiny. There is nothing special to them, no embellishments that speak of the old mans's craftsmanship, but there is still a simple beauty that Sasuke can appreciate.

He's not about to admit that, though.

“And what am I supposed to do with those?” he drawls, carefully watching Naruto's reddening face. “Because if this is about the damned contract-”

“Friendship bracelets!” Naruto bursts out.

Sasuke stares. “What.”

“Friendship bracelets,” the other repeats with some more confidence. “Sakura and Ino have friendship bracelets. So.”

“You've got to be shitting me,” Sasuke says. “You honestly want me to believe that? And anyway, shinobi don't even wear rings. They get in the way of fighting and you could accidentally tear your fingers off.”

“Oh,” Naruto's shoulders slump. “I didn't think of that.”

“I wouldn't exactly qualify what you do as 'thinking' in the first place,” Sasuke taunts. “But you certainly do get points for effort.”

“Hey!”

And then Naruto is upon him and they wrestle around on the ground like the teenage boys they are.

Sasuke wins their little wrestling match, coming out on top, but Naruto claims it's only because he is such a fat-ass. On the floor next to them lie the twin rings that Naruto had let go off amid the spontaneous chaos. Sasuke snatches them up, weighs them in his hand.

“Only you would think jewelry made of old weapons cool,” he snorts, but Naruto only quirks a grin at him.

“What, you want diamonds instead?” he asks.

“Like you could afford them with your D-rank mission salary,” Sasuke rolls his eyes.

Naruto pulls a grimace, flounders, “W-well, if I only ate instant ramen for a couple of months-”

“As if you don't already do that anyway,” Sasuke chides and cuffs him over the head for good measure. “...You really want me to wear that thing?”

“Ano,” Naruto purses his lips and doesn't quite manage to look him in the eye. “I like having the reminder.”

“Of what?”

“Like, like-,” he waves his hand around a bit until it eventually settles on his hitai-ate. “This is Iruka-sensei's forehead protector.”

“Huh?”

“When he... when he let me graduate after I mastered kage bunshin, he gave me his own forehead protector right then and there,” Naruto elaborates. “So. I always have him with me wherever I go.”

Naruto did not have much in the way of mementos of his loved ones, did he? Sasuke had the blood in his veins, the family crest on his back, and his nightmares whenever the moon was full.

He clenches his fist.

“Fine,” he says at length, gracefully standing up from where he had still half-heartedly holding Naruto down with his body weight. “I'll keep your stupid ring. But I won't wear it.”

Naruto makes a muffled noise, somewhere between surprise and exhilaration, but doesn't comment any further, probably in fear of Sasuke changing his mind and just chucking the ring right at him.

This is not an engagement after all. Maybe Iruka was right. Maybe they are friends now. Nothing more than that.

And if Sasuke keeps the ring in his pocket, runs his fingers over it whenever he is agitated, then that is strictly coincidence and no one has to know.

.

.

vii

Sasuke questions Kakashi's decision to sign them up for the exam. Sasuke himself might be ready for it but Naruto and Sakura aren't. And you can't pass without a competent team.

He suspects that Kakashi means it as a lesson to them, to quench the hubris and the rivalry, but he has a feeling it might backfire on them. For now, though, he will make the best of it. For now, he'll help Naruto train.

Training is not all there is, however.

“There will be a written exam, too,” Sasuke reminds him. “And we all know how you always did on those.”

Naruto blanches, a stark contrast to how his face was previously flushed from their sparring session.

“Crap,” he rasps. “Please help me study.”

“No,” Sasuke shrugs him off easily. “You'll be thinking so loudly, I'll only end up distracted.”

But after some more arguing they actually do try to study together. And end up distracting each other instead.

It begins with a challenge as it always does between them and then they are catapulting dango through the room and into each others mouths, until Sasuke tries to eat the last one which Naruto claims is unfair, so once more they are griping and shoving and fighting.

The mitarashi dango are sticky and too sweet but Sasuke finds he doesn't mind the taste too much when it's on Naruto's lips.

.

.

It's not the first time Kakashi has dished out a strict training regimen but it's the first time Sasuke has had the man solely focused on him.

“What about Naruto,” Sasuke had asked on the third day and Kakashi had looked up from his sparse breakfast before turning away again.

“He found a more adequate teacher.”

Sasuke had narrowed his eyes at him. “What's that supposed to mean?”

“You and I are alike in fighting style and element affinity. Naruto's skills are entirely unlike mine. He is better off in someone else's care.”

Because shinobi are weapons and they need a smith who understands his craft.

By the end of the third week, Sasuke feels like his edges have been blunted on a rock. He is exhausted and he aches all over. The day has been harsh on him and the night promises little reprieve. He's been caught on this cliff face for too long to really remember what a good night's sleep feels like.

Unbeknowst to Kakashi, Sasuke lies awake and runs presses his fingertips to the curse seal on his neck. He cannot actually feel it now, but he easily recalls its location by the pain and sharp heat that had radiated from it during the first round of the chuunin exams.

Trying to survive in the woods had been hell, but there had also been something strangely light-hearted about it in oddly displaced moments. Sakura waking with leaves in her hair and disgruntledly letting Naruto pick them out, Naruto making a fool of himself trying to catch fish or demonstrating his questionable talent for shadow play when they were sitting around the fire one night.

“Stick to your shadow clones,” Sasuke had teased him and Naruto had stuck his tongue out at him, but later, when Sakura was already asleep, he had snuck a good night kiss from Sasuke and exchanged his glare for a grin.

It's different up here. Kakashi makes weird little jokes that Sasuke doesn't find particularly funny, but is otherwise very matter-of-fact and most of their sparse conversations are to do with training. They are both introverted so the arrangement isn't too bad.

Still, Sasuke feels uprooted. He blames it on the fact that he is eager to make chuunin, that he is thirsty to finish some of the fights that were started in the forest. He blames it on the curse mark and the itch it leaves under his skin.

He does not miss his team. He does not miss Naruto.

.

.

The Sandaime dies and the village is in shambles. Naruto's grief seems more severe than others' and Sasuke struggles to understand. But then again, this is the first time Naruto experiences what losing part of your family feels like.

It seems unfair that it happens so shortly after he had just gained a new parental figure in his life.

“Ero Sennin is my godfather and my guardian,” Naruto tells him excitedly when they try to catch up and make sense of the chaos that has descended upon them in the past week. “And I told him about the engagement and he said he already knew and asked whether he wanted me to annul it, but I told him no.”

Sasuke wonders how anyone could possibly call one of the Legendary Sannin Ero Sennin to his face. He wonders why it took that man thirteen years to appear in his godson's life. He wonders if Naruto realizes how they easily the word 'engagement' falls from his lips these days.

“Why?” he aks instead and watches as Naruto's head tilts to the side.

“Why what?”

“Why wouldn't you want him to annul it?”

Naruto blinks, blushes.

“Because... you were my first friend,” he says as though that simply semi-truth superseded all else. “And... even if I got Ero Sennin now, you were my first family, too.”

With sudden diamond-hard force Sasuke realizes for how long they have been separated. That they have not had not had a single moment for themselves since before the chuunin exam, and even then they had mostly be sparring with each other.

All by itself, Sasuke's gaze drops down to Naruto's lips. And despite how dense and oblivious Naruto seems to be in almost all other situations, in these things he is curiously perceptive.

“Nee, Sasuke,” he says with a sly grin. “Did you miss me?”

“Hn,” Sasuke huffs. “I was busy learning chidori.”

“I was busy summoning toads,” Naruto admits easily. “But I still missed you.”

So they kiss, close-mouthed and chaste, something that can be brushed off later on. This is nothing but solace, comfort in the aftermath of the trauma that has befallen them and their village. Somehow, their hands find each other, their fingers curling, intertwining. Naruto's palms are warm and he does not let go.

.

.

viii

You have to kill your closest friend, Itachi whispers in his head. And, Go back to your fiancé, little brother.

In his red dreams, Sasuke watches his clan fall before his eyes, watches a harvest moon, watches Naruto stand in a vast burning room.

Sasuke wakes in denial.

He is in a hospital room, the smell of the antiseptic battling the fresh air from the open window. The curtains flutter in the wind and Naruto's cheek is pressed against the starched sheets where he is slumped and sleeping over Sasuke's bedside.

Disoriented though he may be from what he instinctively knows must have been weeks of coma, Sasuke finds a sudden hatred slam into him like a flood wave.

Why did Naruto care? Why did Naruto waste his time on him when he could be getting close to achieving his dream of becoming Hokage? How could he be dozing here or goofing off with his friends or reading stupid manga when Sasuke seemed to spent every waking moment of his life fighting to get stronger.

Naruto had improved so vastly in such a short amount of time, while Sasuke, after years and years of training, was still unable to even touch his brother in a battle.

Itachi had been thirteen years old when he murdered their entire clan. Sasuke could barely even hold his own against their generation's supposed dead last. And for some reason Itachi and his entire shady organization wanted to get their hands on that very same dead last.

He thinks he might have actually growled out loud, but then Naruto is already stirring, sleepily blinking up at at him. He is immediately more on alert when he realizes that Sasuke is awake as well.

“I'll get you something to drink,” Naruto hurries to say, already jumping up from his chair. “And! And! A nurse or something! You were out for a while!”

He's out of the room in a flash and Sasuke stares after him, before he blinks, shakes his head at himself, looks around.

On the bedside table sits his ring. He picks it up, wonders who put it there, wonders who noticed it, who asked themselves why he would be carrying it with him. When Naruto returns to the room, he stuffs it deep into the flimsy pocket of the pajama shorts he is wearing.

“They said a medic will be here in a bit,” Naruto says and looks so relieved to see Sasuke finally awake.

Looks like he wants to kiss him.

“Fight me,” Sasuke demands instead.

.

.

The glare of the sun reflects off the flat concrete roof and the shredded metal of the water tanks. The water itself is luke warm between their bare toes. Now that the heat of the battle has cooled down, the look on Naruto's face speaks of betrayal and shock. But this, too, he would forgive blindly.

“Trouble in paradise?” Kakashi drawls, the first time since the original reveal that he has even hinted at knowing about the stupid contract, but the sharpness in his gaze belies the severity of the situation.

“This is none of your business,” Sasuke hisses at him, pulling free from his iron grasp. Kakashi lets go easily enough.

“I'm sure you'll find the Hokage would disagree if she found out two of my students had killed each other,” Kakashi points out. “Especially since one of them is her patient and the other her new mascot.”

It takes Sasuke a moment to work through that, to understand that the council has chosen a new Hokage, that she is a medic nin, and that she has taken a shining to Naruto.

Naruto, always making friends left and right. Naruto, leaving him behind, in more ways than just one.

Sasuke throws him such a glare of contempt that the other boy physically flinches back from it.

“Sasuke,” he tries, but Sasuke whirls away.

“I'm out of here,” he announces, and he does not just mean the tense situation or the hospital, but the entire village and everything in it.

.

.

He only packs the essentials. Material possessions hold no value for him. He grabs a few sets of clothes, some kunai, basic provisions. He imagines everything that is needed will be provided by Orochimaru as soon as he will get to Oto.

By the end of it he stands in his room that is always so much tidier and emptier than Naruto's.

Next to his picture of Team 7, Kenji the cactus is sporting a single white blossom, despite the fact that no one seems to have been inside his apartment while he was at the hospital.

With a decisive finality, Sasuke pulls the ring from his discarded hospital clothes and places it on the shelf.

His hunger for revenge is greater than his wish for home. He does not look back.

.

.

ix

You lack hatred, Itachi had told him and maybe he was right. Sasuke needs hatred for this, or at least indifference. So he watches the emotions play across the canvas of Naruto's face while he maintains his own composure.

This is not a loss, he reminds himself. This is a triumph.

Like an animal biting off its own limb, he too would escape this trap that had ensnared him. He would not die for Konoha without getting his revenge first. He would not settle into whatever peace Naruto had planned for them.

His fight against Gaara during the second round of the chuunin exams had ended prematurely, but now he was still just a genin. There was no advancement to be had in the Leaf, not like what Orochimaru had promised.

And Sasuke does not trust the snake, but he has seen what Naruto does to him, how his mere presence keeps him mellow and complacent. With Naruto, Sasuke does not mind staying a genin. And that is not something he can afford.

“You are my friend!” Naruto yells like a broken record, as though he doesn't have a dozen others waiting for him back home.

“You are- We are-,” he adds and then seems at a loss for words.

Don't say it, don't say it, Sasuke prays, and Naruto doesn't.

If they were a little older or a little less jaded, if someone had taught them them something apart from fighting, then this might have gone over quite differently.

But this is all they have now.

Sasuke does not know whether he fights to kill. He moves on instinct and mere adrenaline.

But he and Naruto know each other too well, know their strengths and their weaknesses inside out, and it seems impossible for either of them to gain the upper hand.

But then they decide to step up their game. Sasuke releases the creeping black of the curse seal, and Naruto is enveloped in that strange inhuman chakra that seems to eat away at him like a flame. Their eyes are red and their jutsu readied. Chidori screams in Sasuke's ears and perhaps it will make him forget the sound of Naruto's desperate voice.

.

.

The knot of his hitai-ate comes undone and after too short a fall it lands with a dull clang. Sasuke's knees buckle, give in, hit the ground.

If Naruto had not been knocked unconscious he would have won the fight, his chakra reserves much greater than Sasuke's would ever be. If Naruto had not this little thing called scruple, he would have fought more viciously. He would have won.

Bent over him like this, Sasuke can see Naruto's golden eyelashes and the faint freckles on his cheek. He can see bruises underneath his eyes and wonders whether they were from insisting on staying in the hospital and by Sasuke's side, or from crying.

Bent over him like this, he could kiss him. He doesn't.

Instead, a solitary ray of sunlight breaks through the storm clouds and an odd metal glint distracts Sasuke's gaze.

On Naruto's left hand, the one he does not much use for fighting, sits a simple ring. The ring that is not an engagement ring, not a promise, but just a boy's stupid dream. Sasuke had warned him of wearing it and he had gone and done it anyway, had risked losing his hand and his life for it.

Almost on instinct, Sasuke reaches out and slips the ring off his finger, trembling. It is still too big for Naruto, too big for Sasuke, too, so he stares at it for a long moment, contemplates casting it away, throwing it into the deep waters. But that would feel like too grand a gesture, like he allows it to have some sort of influence on him when it holds no meaning at all.

He slips it into his pocket instead and swears to forget all about it, just like he swears to forget Konoha and Team 7 and Naruto.

.

.

.

.

xiii

Orochimaru and, by extension, Kabuto seem to know about the engagement. It is no surprise, really. Orochimaru is one of the Legendary Sannin and he had been the Third's student. Not to mention that Jiraiya is Naruto's godfather.

They don't acknowledge it outright, but sometimes they make sly and teasing remarks. Not like children tittering on the playground, but like a thousand paper cuts all across Sasuke's skin, never given time to heal. This is what you could have had. This is what you gave up. You are ours now.

He is not, though.

So he disobeys orders when he hears of the hideout has been breached and in a curious way he know whom to expect.

There is a man that is not Kakashi, a young woman who used to be Sakura, and a dark-haired boy who looks too much like Sasuke to not seem like a cheap replacement.

But it is the first time in three years that he sees Naruto and when their eyes meet across the parched distance of the tundra between them, Sasuke suddenly realizes that Time still exists in the outside world.

They both have grown. Naruto seems strong and sturdy in a way his slight build as a child had never hinted at, but there is something fragile in his marble eyes, like mirror glass, like tender trust. Sasuke aims to shatter it.

Three years and it takes him a split second to close the chasm between them, his sword raised. And Naruto is slower but not slow enough. His fingers are around Sasuke's wrist, Kusanagi looming above them, stalled but dangerous still. They are so close their hearts seem to beat against each other.

“Sasuke,” Naruto breathes, his voice raspy, and it could be puberty but it seems like passion.

“That,” Sasuke drawls, “Was the right move.”

.

.

He knows of the Kyuubi now, knows that Naruto carries the murderer of his own parents in the depths of his being. He knows that Naruto is the last heir of the Namikaze.

The child of the Yondaime Hokage offered on a silver platter. No wonder Uchiha Fugaku would have been eager to join their families. Even if Sasuke had been born a girl, the unity would have brought much influence to the clan.

As in-laws to the Hokage, they would have been able to trickle mild ideas into the man's ear until they took root.

Sasuke tries to imagine this impossible future, of his elders instructing him, of himself beguiling Naruto, his husband, and of Naruto unwittingly carrying those notions on to his own father like a little bird.

Or maybe, maybe it would have been nothing like that. If what the Sandaime had claimed was the truth, if their mothers had been friends, close enough to promise their children to each other, they would have grown up together. They would have played and trained together, happier days than the poor facsimile they had ended up with instead.

Would they have fought against the engagement or welcomed it?

Yet it is nothing but a fickle day dream. If the Uchiha had not been massacred, he would not be the man he is today. If Naruto had not lost his parents, had not been shunned as the equivalent of the Kyuubi, he would be someone else as well.

And still, Sasuke cannot help but think. And still we would be bound, in name and in blood.

He had claimed that, back at the Valley of the End, he had not killed Naruto on a whim. Now he tries to tell himself that it was outside interference that stopped him from finishing what he had started so many years ago.

Instead, however, there is a small insignificant weight in the depths of his pocket, in the abyss of his heart, and somehow, somehow it had stilled his hand.

Sasuke weighs his options and picks up his sword.

.

.

xiv

He thought killing Orochimaru would give him vindication or at least satisfaction. It doesn't but it gives him freedom and that, in a way, is enough.

The idea to finally be done with his master was not a new one, was long overdue, but he does not dare to name any reasons that might have influenced him beyond that. Sentimentality does not suit him.

He rounds up a team of misfits and calls them Hebi, in sarcastic homage to their captor and slaver.

He ignores Suigetsu's crude jokes and the passes Karin makes at him. They are not his old team. He doesn't want them to be.

One night, when they are sitting around a fire in relatively amicable silence and Sasuke is done is polishing his katana, he pulls out Naruto's ring instead, turning it over in his hands, watching as it catches the glint of the flames. The Will of Fire had never done him any good but it certainly suited to remind him of Naruto.

He can feel someone watching him and when he looks up it is to find Juugo's kind and gentle eyes.

“Who did it belong to?” Juugo asks in a voice that does not press for an answer.

“No one,” Sasuke claims and hides the ring in his fist.

But it's too late and now he has the curiosity of the other two set on him.

“Do you have a girlfriend, Sasuke-kun?” Karin asks slyly, adjusting her glasses as she eyes him.

Sasuke doesn't even bother to answer, just clenches his fist tighter. His silence, however, is his doom.

“Oh man,” Suigetsu suddenly lets out a surprised chuckle. “Oh man, don't tell me that rumor is true.”

“What rumor?” Karin needles while Sasuke grits his teeth. He was already well aware that Suigetsu had soaked up all kinds of talk and secrets while he was caught at the lab. He didn't need any more proof.

Already, Suigetsu is laughing his head off.

“I don't believe it,” he gasps, holding his belly in exaggeration. “You're engaged to the fox brat! Holy shit!”

Juugo and Karin stare in disbelief. Sasuke resists the urge to stab the freshly tended Kusanagi through Suigetsu's watery body.

Slowly, he uncurls his fingers, revealing the memory on his palm not to them but to himself.

The ring is still plain and cheap, its metal dulled after three years of constant handling.

But like an ouroboros, a snake devouring its own tail, this, too, means eternity.

.

.

xv

When they run into each other, it is a coincidence. Or maybe it is not. Maybe they just both deny the strange pull that had driven them here, alone and at night.

There is something about the darkness that stills them, that lets any accusations perish in their mouths.

Three years and it is the first time that neither of them is injured or unconscious. Three years and no one could stop them now if they were to fight. End that battle of their boyhood in this insignificant clearing among the pines.

Sasuke doesn't quite know who makes the first step, but it's him who pushes Naruto up against a tree, his forearm braced across the other boy's chest as he grabs him by the collar.

Naruto looks as though he expects a punch but he does not raise his hands to defend himself. So Sasuke attacks.

He kisses because it seems like a more elegant alternative to headbutting and it certainly catches Naruto more off guard, so Sasuke presses closer, deepens the touch.

Naruto smells different, a little more masculine, a little more grown-up. They are not children anymore. Naruto must think so, too, because he nibs at his lower lip, swipes his tongue into Sasuke's mouth.

It's a different kind of kiss, nothing like what they used to share in strict silence, for if you did not acknowledge it it simply wasn't real. It's as though Naruto knows what he is doing now.

Sasuke pulls away, glares harshly.

“Who else?” he growls, the first words spoken between them. “Who else did you do this with?”

Naruto seems confused by the sudden change in atmosphere.

“N-no one,” he stammers out. “Why would you-?”

In that moment, however, understanding flickers across his face and then he turns unbearably smug.

“I just read some of Ero Sennin's books,” he claims with a cocky grin. “Were you jealous?”

“No,” Sasuke scoffs but to himself he thinks, I have never liked people touching what is mine.

He also doesn't like the idea that Naruto might have one up on him, that he has if not more experience then at least more theoretical knowledge. Perhaps Naruto can read it one his face, because his grin only widens.

“I could teach you,” he offers magnanimously. “It's not so difficult, y'know.”

Idly, Sasuke wonders whether he could study kissing by using the Sharingan, but he dismisses the notion at once. Some things ought to be learned in person.

So they stand in the dark and kiss, and Sasuke is not disgusted by someone else's tongue and their saliva in his mouth, their breath hot on his face. He thinks he could do this forever.

But they do not have much time. The night is short and their absence will be noticed soon.

“One month,” Naruto says when they finally have to part. “I can be back here in a month.”

“So?” Sasuke shrugs, turning away already in nonchalance. Naruto does not buy it.

“I will be here,” he says and Sasuke doesn't even need to acknowledge it for both of them to know that he will be there, too.

.

.

Naruto's skin is warm after what was a long stretch of winter.

Sasuke thinks of magnets and comet's crashing as soon as they enter a planet's orbit. He thinks of how, with the Sharingan, he could make most people do his bidding. And yet he is powerless here.

Naruto kisses him as though the outside world does not exist, as though he wants to hide forever in Sasuke's arms.

“You are aware,” Sasuke warns, “That it might look like you are in cahoots with the enemy?”

“And what would I tell you?” Naruto snorts against his shoulder. “All of those secrets the council has entrusted me with?”

“Possibly.”

“Or maybe-” Naruto's tongue peeks out between his lips for only just a moment as he glances up. “You are in cahoots with me. Maybe you've been a double agent all along and are passing vital intel on to me.”

He starts out jokingly, but by the end of it there is a somber acceptance to his words. This is why they never acknowledge the rest of the world when they meet. They both know that this is nothing but make-belief. Sasuke is a deserter. And whatever they are doing here, at the fringes of what anyone would be able to understand, might well get Naruto branded a traitor as well.

Sasuke takes a deep breath, considers the odds.

He's sixteen now. They both are. They could break the engagement. Technically, since he is a missing nin, it probably has already been broken.

Naruto seems to be the only one who doesn't understand that yet. Sasuke is trying to get there.

“I'm happy you're here,” Naruto says softly. If Sasuke kisses him again, then it's merely to shut him up.

.

.

xvi

The next time they meet, they are both grieving, each in their own way.

Naruto has lost his godfather. Sasuke has killed his brother.

They throw themselves at each other in a way that only vaguely resembles the innocence with which they had touched as boys. Back then they had tried to be soft and warm for each other. Now it is all heat.

When they kiss, their teeth click and absurdly Sasuke is reminded of the incident at their last day at the academy. Turns out, real kisses could hurt, too. Turns out, some kinds of pain allowed for pleasure as well.

If Naruto had only send a bunshin instead of showing up himself, he would have disappeared upon impact. But he is here, Konoha blissfully unaware of his absence, while Sasuke has once more abandoned his team without a second thought.

He has named them Taka now instead of Hebi. The hawk feeds on the snake. The hawk is free. It has no place to return to.

“Come home,” Naruto pleads against his lips, as though that would set the world right again. “Come home.”

You are my home, he almost says, Come with me.

Instead he slides his knee up between Naruto's legs and presses it against his crotch. Naruto's breath hitches, surprise, anticipation, something in between.

They have never crossed that line before. It had never been carnal, not in its essence.

But Sasuke wants carnality now. He wants to have something besides his thoughts and his regrets and the memories Itachi pushed into his brain with gentle insistence. If he can have this then he might be able to forget.

They grind their hips against each other, hot and hard, Naruto's breath hitching in his throat, and Sasuke can feel it on his lips when he presses them against Naruto's pulse, quick, quivering.

If Sasuke were to leave a mark on him, it would only fade within minutes, thanks to the Kyuubi. Another reminder how even those precious moments are always beyond their power. Does the fox sit and laugh in its cage when it erases Sasuke's touch from Naruto's body? Does it like to watch them suffer?
Sasuke bites down anyway, listening to Naruto moan. If they have nothing else, they'll at least have memories of this.

.

.

Kakashi and Sakura have given up on him. It's in their poisoned blades and barbed words. They do not know that, once in a while, he and Naruto will meet in secret and remind each other of what not fighting feels like, rushing each other into ecstasy of a different kind.

Had anyone foreseen this? Does Kakashi suspect it when he cautions Naruto to see reason.

But this is long since beyond logic. People said Sasuke was obsessed but they must have never spoke to Naruto before.

So this is a test for both of them.

Sasuke says, Kill me now or die. Become a hero either way.

Naruto says, If we fight next, we will die. And there will be nothing between us then. No names, no demons. Just you and me.

He says it not like a promise, not like a threat, but like a simple truth. There is a certain wistfulness to his voice, a certain longing. Had he not wanted to become Hokage? How easily can he throw away his own dreams in favor of chasing away Sasuke's nightmares?

Don't pledge your life to me, Sasuke thinks. Don't speak your vows.

He is undeserving of it, unrepentant, unrelenting. What has he done to earn Naruto's loyalty but to buy him food and sometimes talk to him? Yet Naruto is like a stray dog, kicked and beaten and still coming back.

Sasuke will no longer call for him.

.

.

xvii

There will be a war. There are few things Sasuke knows with certainty, but he knows this much. And he knows how to use it to his advantage.

He wants revenge, on Konoha now, because he has known little else.

He will no longer revive the name of the Uchiha. He will restore their honor.

Between the fronts of the councils and the kage, the villages and the villains, it is almost easy to take out Danzo. Easier still to get away unscathed.

Then it is only to wait for the nations to call to arms, for the rats to crawl from the sewers. They call it the Fourth Great Shinobi War already, but this time they do so in unity. For their foe is a common one and overwhelming still.

What used to be long weeks of wandering without ever getting much closer to his ephemeral destination turns into frenzied days in blood and battle. Sasuke cannot stand the smell of dust or the sounds of dying anymore.

For perhaps the first time, he appreciates the true value of peace. For the first time he wonders whether he should fight for something larger than his own pride.

.

.

xviii

Sasuke dreams of walking on water in a space where there is no sky.

The Sage of the Six Paths looks at him with the fondness of a father who has carried too many of his children to the grave. He is not just old beyond his years, he is older than time.

Sasuke feels no surprise at the revelation that he carries Indra's spirit within him. The idea of rebirth and reincarnation does not baffle him, in its essence.

But his mind rebels at the thought that everything might have been predestined from the very beginning.

Does this explain the strange pull that had always existed between him and Naruto? Had it been out of their control all along?

The Sage says that he has been watching his sons wage wars time and time again. Is it the first time he has seen them kiss? Is the the thing that finally prevents history from repeating itself?

“I don't believe in fate,” Sasuke tells the sage, despite the fact that the waves reflect another man's face at his feet.

When he wakes, there is a crescent moon in his palm and Naruto by his side.

.

.

Together, they will fight Madara. They will fight Kaguya.

They have knowledge now and power and the semblance of a chance. They can make it.

“You better believe it,” Naruto mutters under his breath, slipping into a battle stance as easy as breathing.

But this is not a day like any other. This is beyond chuunin exams or even S-rank misssions or anything they can truly comprehend. Kakashi speaks to them about the importance of teamwork as though he has not just seen Naruto and Sasuke fighting side by side. Sakura watches them warily. Does she wonder why they are so in tune with each other, as if barely any time passed at all?

Sasuke does not care for them or their opinion. He would let them fall to their fiery death and shed no tear.

“If either of us dies, this world ends,” Sasuke points out unflinchingly and Naruto's shoulders tense only marginally. He has probably known all along.

After all, Uzumaki Naruto does not do anything half-heartedly. Sasuke would know. For when Naruto loves he does it with his entire being.

.

.

xix

Naruto is lonely. Naruto has a thousand clones, a thousand friends, a thousand happy memories. By all rights, Naruto should have no need for him. And yet he is here, chasing him to the ends of the world, as he always has, as though he could not conceive of anything else.

They are back at the valley, where some of it began. Today, it will end here.

Sasuke can barely remain standing. This day has been too long. This fight, this war, this life, everything has always been too long. Finally, something's got to give.

He does not know what he wants anymore. His entire existence has been turned upside down and inside down again and again.

He is of the Leaf but a traitor. Of Team 7 but replaced. He is an avenger who killed those who deserved it and some who didn't. He is a boy but a child no more. He is the last of the Uchiha but he curses their name. He is the rebirth of Otsutsuki Indra yet spits upon destiny.

What is there to him but this last tie, this unique bond, this promise that chains him to his past self?

Naruto talks against the walls Sasuke has built around himself. Sasuke hears but does not listen, looks but does not see. The Mangekyou was always meant to turn him blind.

“Whatever began here,” he says and his voice echoes loudly through the valley. “I will see it finished.”

Naruto bares his teeth like a feral animal, but is seems more like a vaguely defeated smile.

“Bring it on,” he says and cracks his knuckles.

.

.

How often have they done this? Chidori versus Rasengan, Kakashi's jutsu versus the Yondaime's. A valley, a rooftop, a thousand garish nightmares. The Uchiha were born of fire, but Sasuke held lightening at his fingertips. He would not let Naruto's wind fuel the flames.

The surge forward, across the abyss, the bodies battered but not yet broken. Meters, inches, the static between them, the force, and it's getting harder to breathe. Then-

A glint like a weapon, like a blade, and yet it strikes Sasuke in an entirely unexpected way, cuts him deep. For on Naruto's left hand sits a ring, almost forgotten yet familiar.

At the very last moment, Sasuke dodges the attack, wrests his body to the side, lands heavily on the ground below. Chidori sizzles in his grasp, dies as he comes to a halt.

Naruto flounders, stumbles, nearly crashes into the side of the cliff. He catches himself, turns, looks at Sasuke in obvious confusion. In a way, they had both come here with the very real possibility of death skirting the fringes of their consciousness. This sudden turn in events leaves them both speechless.

The rasengan fades from Naruto's palm but his stance remains defensive. He is not as trusting and gullible as he once used to be.

His own breath loud in his ears, Sasuke reaches into his pocket and draws out the ring to hold it up into the light.

Naruto stares.

“Is that... mine?” he asks haltingly, his voice trailing off in vague disbelief before he manages to add. “I thought I lost it in the fight back then.”

“I picked it up,” Sasuke claims, desperately clinging to that last lie to preserve his dignity.

“Huh,” Naruto gives a helpless little laugh, holding up his own hand. “I picked up yours when you left it. ...Wanna trade?”

Slowly, Sasuke nods. Slowly, he takes a step forward. Naruto does the same.

He drops the ring into Naruto's outstretched palm without touching him and in turn accepts the one he had left in Konohoa almost four years ago. He stares at it a little numbly. In all this time it had never once occurred to him that Naruto might have kept it.

Hesitantly he slips it on. And the ring that he had never tried on before, because he knew that it would have been too big for him, fits perfectly around the finger of his bruised and bloodied hand.

When he looks up, Naruto is staring at his own ring, obviously just as disbelieving. But after all, the entire situation is just too bizarre.

“I think I want to sit down,” Naruto says, and then just does, right there on the uneven rocks. Sasuke contemplates it for a moment and then his aching body tells him to do the same. His feet and knees and back hurt. Everything hurts. He has not allowed himself even a moment's rest in what must have been more than a day.

His head, at least, is blissfully silent for now, filled with cotton and underlying confusion. He had a plan, didn't he. He had meant to die or kill here. Neither of that had happened. What was he going to do now? What else was there in his life but death?

“Nee, Sasuke,” Naruto begins, pauses. “Could we even get married? Legally, I mean?”

Cards on the table, easy as that, no warning, no hesitation. Here's the rest of my life, now give me yours. But maybe, maybe that had been the point all along. Maybe the engagement had nothing to do with it.

“Probably not,” Sasuke knows. After all, shinobi are far too rigid to shake the pillars of their traditions.

“One more reason to become hokage then,” Naruto sighs happily as though that were the solution to everything. Maybe it is.

You're going to change the law just to be with me, Sasuke wonders and, as always, Naruto's eyes just say, I'm gonna change the world.