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sne_mod ([personal profile] sne_mod) wrote in [community profile] sn_exchange2010-08-20 08:30 pm

for: [profile] chiyu_85

For: [profile] chiyu_85
Title: Trading Yesterday
Rating: NC-17
Summary: A relationship is like a jewel. No matter how much it’s cut and polished, it’s never perfect. Only different facets of it come to the surface over time, just like different shades of a jewel are revealed when it shifts in the light.
Warnings: Mild sex, nudity, slight voyeurism, frottage, overblown drama and much silliness. Hints of other pairings: Sasuke/Sakura, Naruto/Sakura, and if you squint, Neji/Hinata, Shino/Hinata, Shikamaru/Neji and whatever else I manage to squeeze in. Pitiful attempts at seme-uke stereotypes and dirty talk. Oh, and Sasuke.
A/N: The fic diverges from canon after manga chapter 393 and is based on the assumption that Sasuke returns to Konoha after killing Itachi. The story covers a time period of three years, and my main objective was to depict how relationships evolve over time and how it’s important, in the end, to accept and move forward. Sakura’s abilities are based on the third databook and Naruto and Sasuke’s on the second. I’ve tried to cut down on spoilers, as requested, but I fear it’s not as smexy/fluffy as it could’ve been. I hope you find it an enjoyable read, dear anon, because I had to kill a part of myself to write this horribly trite monstrosity. Still, it was a learning experience. 
Mod note: Reminder for the author/artist of this submission, please do not reply to comments signed in, if you want to reply anon commenting is enabled.


-|-


The first time they do it is something of a disaster.

It is awkward, to say the least. Not silent-embarrassed-awkward, just angry-frustrated-awkward. This is partly because Naruto can't be silent to save his own life – let alone Sasuke's – and has never had the decency to be embarrassed, but mostly because Sasuke is, and always has been, angry and frustrated.

It's also mainly because he's currently intent on sucking Naruto's soul out through his mouth.

It is more an inelegant collision of tongues and teeth rather than a kiss. Sloppily sliding mouths and hopelessly confused groans of what could've been pleasure or pain. Sasuke attacks with a ferocity reminiscent of battle, intense and unflinching, as his mouth works on long-suppressed carnal instinct alone, which does nothing to temper his lack of technique.

Naruto opens his mouth to let out a startled yell and Sasuke, ever the opportunist, shoves his tongue in without thought.

The tactless slide of tongues against teeth, tense jaw lines and Sasuke's desire to smother Naruto – nervousness – ends only in a poor imitation of a kiss. Naruto jerks back, his lips bleeding and his lungs burning with lack of oxygen.

Sasuke growls (actually growls!), tries to lean forward and kiss him again, but Naruto shoves a rough palm at Sasuke's chest, effectively putting some distance between them. He pants as if he's been smothered with a rather plump pillow and wipes his abused lips on his forearm with a cautiousness he rarely displays. His mouth still stings and bloody saliva comes away on his hand.

It’s kind of gross.

Naruto gapes, appalled.

Then, taking a leaf out of his lover-to-be's book, he glares at Sasuke. It's pretty obvious that Sasuke is nervous but of course, Naruto – being Naruto – is as oblivious as ever and doesn't notice.

Naruto gestures wildly towards his mouth. "You call that kissing?! Were you trying to suffocate me to death?"

Sasuke blinks as he registers the italics in Naruto words, still trying to process what the hell just happened, and then he catches sight of Naruto's torn lips. It isn't pretty.

Sasuke scowls and tries to save his wounded pride. "As if you could do any better."

A second later, he remembers to add, "Idiot."

"I—why you—what!" Naruto splutters. He grabs Sasuke's collar, because violence has now become the best course of action.

"I can!" Naruto boasts in his anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better voice, although truth be told, his experience in such matters is non-existent.

Sasuke eyes narrow – who exactly has he been practicing with? – but he's careful to direct only a look of bored disbelief at him. "Huh, that's hard to believe."

Then, without taking his eyes off of Naruto, he wipes the saliva from his lower lip with his thumb. The motion reminds Naruto of smearing blood across a summoning scroll, only sensual.

It suddenly doesn't matter that Sasuke is a terrible kisser because his lips look as irresistible as ramen right now, and – oh God – he's pouting.

Naruto figures it's his turn to get revenge. "Watch me."

Then he lunges and it all goes downhill from there.

-|-


The first time, they come out with more bruises than if they had beat the shit out of each other, hurting in places they never knew existed. They can't stop making thinly veiled insults pertaining to each other’s sexual prowess for days.

The second time, they are more hesitant because neither of them want a repeat of the first time and both are wary of accidentally prodding wounds not yet healed.

It takes only a stray comment to set them off again and this time, they come out worse than before. They walk with distinctive limps for days, asses pounding with indignation.

Naruto decides they're both suckers for punishment when they keep coming back for more.

The sixth time, they finally get it right—

—in the sense that Naruto doesn't slobber all over Sasuke, and Sasuke stops being an insensitive jerk. At least they aren't pulling at each other's hair anymore.

Of course, a scuffle is almost a requirement before any sort of intimacy can be pursued between them because it's just not the same otherwise.

Naruto doesn't quite know when he started thinking of their disastrous wrestling matches as foreplay.

And for once, he isn't enjoying the hurried pace, the frenzied clash of limb against limb, the persistent grappling for dominance, the fevered rush of adrenaline. For once, he just wants to feel Sasuke there, all of him, not just a few, frantic rubs of his pelvis or the dents his fingers press into Naruto's back.

It doesn't matter that he had 'accidentally' torn apart the front of Sasuke's shirt – his own isn't in better shape anyway. What matters now is that he needs more contact, so he grips Sasuke by the elbows to root him in place, thumbs ghosting over blue veins nestled in the bend, before he hooks a knee around Sasuke's leg and sends them both crashing to the floor, all lanky limbs and strangled breathing.

It is a moment before either of them does anything – their harsh pants sound loud in the ensuing silence.

Sasuke's head throbs from impact with the floor and if he has to have a lobotomy one of these days to treat mental illness, he's charging Naruto with the bill. Sasuke's sure he's cracked a hip bone – it's hard to tell, when Naruto is grinding against him like that. And he thinks that maybe a dislocated shoulder may pop back in place if he keeps struggling against Naruto long enough, but Naruto doesn't let him.

He leans down until their chests are pressed together, stone slabs melting into each other, skin and sweat. Sasuke freezes at the heat of Naruto's body against his, hearts hammering in unison in an untamed rhythm. Naruto regards him with an unreadable look, a look that makes him want to look away – but he doesn't.

Naruto's thumbs dig into the crook of his elbows, and that's all the warning he gets before Naruto swoops down, brushing his lips against Sasuke's.

Sasuke stays still and wonders if he cracked his spine when they fell. He can't move.

Naruto's lips are immobile upon his for a second that feels like an eternity before moving, each twitch of lips deliberate, each movement brazenly slow and uncharacteristic.

Naruto's brow furrows in concentration – Sasuke's breath hitches at the expression and he stares at Naruto's closed lids. He should probably say something – protest to being forcibly held down – but Naruto's tongue probes at one corner of his mouth, as if trying to twitch it into a smile and—

—it hits him all of a sudden.

They aren't wrestling anymore, they aren't clawing at each other just because they can, they aren't fighting for dominance. Naruto is trying to kiss him like he means it and it feels so good.

Move, he commands his fingers, because he knows he should do something, because this time it's different. His fingers twitch, but don't obey.

Naruto angles his mouth against his, sweeps his tongue over the tips of his teeth – teeth! – and exhales, and they tingle in a way that isn't at all unwelcome. Sasuke suddenly finds the willpower to grab his arms, to hold on to them and kiss him back with a fervor that takes Naruto aback and makes him choke out a surprised laugh against his lips.

Sasuke’s hands travel up broad shoulders and fist painfully in blonde hair. Naruto lets out a most interesting noise, a noise sends a flush of heat through Sasuke’s groin.

There's something stimulating about wet tongues sliding leisurely against each other, something addictive about feeling another's chest reverberate with moans that crawl out without permission (moans that crawl through their skins and stay there long after it's all over), something deeply arousing about nipples puckering in anticipation and Sasuke can't figure out why everything feels so different this time.

He wonders through a haze of arousal if it’s always supposed to feel like this.

Naruto pulls away, grinning breathlessly. Sasuke notices his face is flushed, a charming red dusting across his nose and scarred cheeks. He's sure his face isn't faring any better.

Sasuke recovers first and asks hoarsely, "What was that?"

"A… kiss," Naruto answers, sounding slightly surprised, as if he had just had an epiphany. "A kiss," he says again, this time with more conviction.

"I know that," Sasuke snaps, a blush that screams 'I'm-embarrassed-but-trying-to-hide-it' staining the tips of his ears. He struggles for words, eyes wide. "But that wasn't what I meant! That —was…"

"Good," Naruto catches his line of thought before it drowns unspoken. "That felt really good."

"…Yeah."

Silence reigns for a long moment in which they stare stupidly at each other, wondering what the hell they ought to do now. Naruto comes up with a simple solution.

"So, uh…" Naruto clears his throat and blurts out too eagerly, "Wanna do that again?"

Sasuke grunts, manages to sound annoyed. "What do you think?"

That's all the answer Naruto needs.

-|-


Blunt nails dig into tightly corded muscles and into dips created by straining biceps. Strong shoulders, scarred with bearing burdens alone, hover over him and block out the sparse neon streetlights filtering in through the curtains. The play of light and shadow throws Sasuke's features into sharp relief. Heat blooms behind his scarlet Sharingan eyes. Sasuke's tongue travels down his body, pausing only to dip into his navel – hey! That tickles! – before resuming its southward exploration. He feels the brush of Sasuke's artfully arranged mess of hair between his thighs, feels the long, pale digits – rough and deliberate – at the curve of his butt. Naruto knows it is only a matter of time before the bridge of Sasuke's aristocratic nose traces the vein on the underside of his pulsing cock, before that talented tongue – lazy and sure and aggressive – flicks out and licks his―

"What the hell do you think you're doing, you– you crazy, perverted bastard!"

The indignant protest is almost a shriek. A very high-pitched shriek. But Naruto is too embarrassed by the situation at hand to be embarrassed by something as trivial and inconsequential as a high-pitched shriek. That had just come out of his throat…damn, Sasuke would never let him live it down.

He is sure of one thing: if anyone is a pervert here, it's definitely Sasuke, and for the love of the Hokage, his tongue did not just go there.

Naruto isn't exactly sure when he had sat up flat on his ass, which he is suddenly very protective of, and he isn't really sure why Sasuke is holding his nose. He seems to recall his knee hitting something when he had leapt up in panic.

"You idiot," Sasuke – annoyed voice muffled by his hand – says in a carefully measured voice as they glare at each other. "Stop overreacting."

"Overreacting? I wasn't overreacting you bastard!" He spits out the word as if it is poison and Sasuke resists the urge to roll his eyes at the sheer amount of drama. And then, in an inadvertent contradiction, Naruto shouts, embarrassment stamped in big red letters all over his face, "How else was I supposed to react! You were about to lick my asshole, you asshole!"

Sasuke allows himself a small grimace at Naruto's graceless choice of words. Even a knee to the nose hasn't been able to deter his arousal and Sasuke isn't sure he would live a second longer if he doesn't abuse Naruto's ass. Now. "Forget that. Just— come here."

He tries to reach a hand out to Naruto and Naruto looks at him as if he has just grown horns. Sasuke is annoyed. He hasn't grown horns. He's just horny.

Naruto leaps from the bed with surprising fluidity before Sasuke can reach him.

He points an accusing finger at Sasuke. "Oh no, we're not doing this anymore. I'm outta here!"

Sasuke glares. "Naruto, don't be stubborn."

"I'm not being stubborn, you insensitive—" And then, as Sasuke starts moving —crawling—towards him: "Hey, hey!"

Naruto panics and regrets ever agreeing to this. Sasuke is looking at him like he’s edible.

"Don't come near me!” Naruto loudly warns in what he hopes is an intimidating voice, “I'm warning you!"

"Or what?" Sasuke mocks, smirking, and then he leaps at a flustered Naruto—

—and is punched in the jaw so hard that he see stars.

With triumphant cries of "Ha! Serves you right, bastard!" ringing in his ears, Sasuke blinks the black from his eyes and, when he recovers enough to gather his wits, glares.

Naruto stands in the middle of his room, naked and gleeful and as smug as the day he had stolen Sakura's tampon… and lived. Sasuke seethes.

This means war.

-|-


It takes a lot of growling and biting on Sasuke's part and insults and hair-pulling on Naruto's before Naruto goes down, kicking and screaming all the while. When he finally does, they're both panting— like two idiotic teenage boys who have just experienced the most arousing wrestling match they have ever known.

Shit, Sasuke curses when Naruto clocks him on the jaw. He manages to recover fast enough to drive a knee into Naruto's gut – carefully aiming away from the groin, because he hasn't stooped to Naruto's level yet and that underhanded move would do nothing to further his own goals.

When he finally manages to pin Naruto down, Naruto has a defiant snarl and a mutinous glare fixed on his face.

"That hurt, damn it!" Naruto growls, short of breath.

Sasuke manages an impressive sneer despite a split lip and a purple bruise blooming on his jaw. "That was the point."

"Fucking bastard."

They glare at each other, Naruto obstinate and Sasuke somewhat curiously. Silence falls.

After a beat, Sasuke notes blandly, "It's not like you haven't had bigger things up there before."

Naruto reddens and splutters. A few morsels of spit fly from his mouth and smack Sasuke's cheek, but Sasuke bears it with stoic dignity.

Then Sasuke tilts his head in contemplation and smirks in that patronizing way of his. "Or are you just not man enough….?"

The words are barely out of his mouth before Naruto headbutts him of all things. Sasuke lets out a cry of pain and swears to take revenge, but he mostly just swears. He tips to the side like a mechanical doll with dead batteries and ow fuck, that hurt. He tells Naruto so in no uncertain terms.

"That was the point," Naruto drawls in an absurdly accurate imitation of his voice, throwing his words right back at him.

Psychedelic, Sasuke thinks dizzily when Naruto, a canvas of blue and blond and purple and—are those stars?—leans over to laugh at him.

Naruto sadistically pokes him in the ribs and Sasuke decides he hates the world.

-|-


Naruto only agrees when Sasuke, exasperated, tells him, "Just trust me, okay?"

The next day, Kakashi doesn't say anything when he notices that Naruto winces with every other step. He only immerses himself deeper in his porn and wonders when they'll figure out to use lube.

-|-


Things mellowed out a year into their relationship.

Rivalry was a more appropriate label than relationship really, given how they competed to outdo each other even in bed (or against the wall, or on the couch, or on the kitchen table). Either way, Sasuke certainly wasn't complaining.

What he was complaining about was Naruto's stubborn refusal to make their relationship-cum-rivalry public.

He was frankly more frustrated about the fact that Naruto flat out refused to have sex in public—whether it be somewhere as dark and sequestered as an alley or somewhere as public as the training grounds. Sasuke never asked him why and so Naruto never answered, but damn it, Sasuke wanted it – wanted to kiss Naruto senseless when Naruto snarled at him during their training sessions and not care about who was watching.

It was none of their business anyway. Naruto didn’t seem to understand that.

There were times when Sasuke felt an irrepressible urge to just lean over and tug at blond hair; times that he wanted to do more than just stare when Naruto took off his shirt during training; times that he wanted to shove Naruto against the nearest solid surface and make him moan; times he wanted to indulge that secret part of him that liked doing outrageous things; times when his jaw clenched and his knuckles turned white from holding back.

Mere convenience (or that’s what he initially told himself it was) had slowly shifted to something else, something he couldn’t quite define. But it was that something that made him look at Naruto in a different way than before, made his glances linger a bit longer than necessary, made him want to say something more, made him want to just reach out and feel Naruto there. He didn’t know when convenience had turned to reliance – the change was so gradual that he hadn’t even noticed.

What he did know was that he wanted more.

That was the one thought running around Sasuke's pretty head like a hamster on steroids as he adopted a bored countenance and idly readjusted his arm warmers. Through lowered lashes, he stared at Naruto. Enough was enough.

On the other end of the training field, Naruto clumsily swept his hair back—it was growing rather long—and retied his headband before assessing his opponent… and was surprised to see Sasuke sizing him up. The look Sasuke was giving him was familiar—pure, unadulterated lust and damn it, usuratonkachi, there, right there— and it sent warning bells ringing at double frequency in his head.

On top of that, the bastard still managed to look bored. How someone managed to look bored and lustful at the same time, Naruto didn't know, and frankly, didn't care – he had bigger problems.

Problems that only got worse when Kakashi announced that their match was to be restricted to taijutsu, with no exceptions.

"What? But that's not fair!" Naruto yelled in indignation.

It was evident that Sasuke had the advantage in a taijutsu-only match. Naruto was bulkier than him, but raw strength wouldn't do any good against Sasuke's speed. He needed shadow clones to slow him down—

—and he did not want to get in close range with Sasuke when the evil bastard was smirking at him like that. Naruto wondered if he had picked that up from Orochimaru.

Kakashi smiled that mysterious, eye-creasing smile and Naruto became painfully aware that Kakashi knew exactly what Sasuke wanted. He didn't think he had hated anyone as much as he hated Kakashi right now. That sneaky bastard.

"Sorry, Naruto," Kakashi said complacently (gleefully, Naruto's mind supplied.) "But Tsunade-sama would have my head if Team 7 destroys another training ground. Sakura-chan's destroyed enough on her own."

"But— Oi, Kakashi-sensei!" Naruto incoherently fumed before he pointed a finger at Sasuke. "Sasuke's smirking!" he complained, as if that required no explication.

Sasuke's smirk grew. He and Kakashi shared a look that only they could understand. Naruto felt like the victim of a sordid conspiracy.

"Besides," Kakashi continued airily as if Naruto hadn't interrupted, "there are people watching. We wouldn't want them to get caught up in the crossfire now, would we?"

It was true—a few of their peers along with a group of curious genins and equally curious civilians were lounging around the edges of the field, waiting to see a match between two of the most temperamental ninja in Konoha.

Kakashi's logic (logic being a word Naruto had come to hate) defeated him. Naruto fumbled for something to say and secretly wondered the consequences of burning a certain someone's stash of Icha Icha.

The undoubtedly brilliant plan forming in his mind was interrupted by Sasuke's bland – and only a trifle amused – voice. "Decided yet, Na-ru-to?"

Naruto grit his teeth. Did he have to say his name like that?

Sasuke's eyes darkened in anticipation. "Or are you just too much of a coward?"

"Yeah right, I can take you on any day!" Naruto exclaimed with more confidence than he felt. “Just don't cry when I kick your ass!"

And that was that.

-|-


Naruto had had a feeling that this would end disastrously, and he was right, because he found himself on his back and Sasuke over him, straddling him—

He shouldn't have even been in this situation right now. Sure, Sasuke was faster than him but Naruto could keep going at it much longer than he could. Even in his head, that sounded wrongwrongwrong. Actually, this entire situation was wrong, even though his body screamed right, and it was all Sasuke's fault.

-|-


The muscles that usually strained against pale skin were relaxed for once. Naruto wasn't fooled by those slender hands; he knew they were compact and housed a strength that was absurd for someone of Sasuke's slight build. Naruto knew better than to underestimate him.

Naruto was going to be focused and not let his mind wander around haplessly in hopes of discovering his rival-cum-best friend-cum-lover's ulterior motives. Just like a good ninja should.

What he hadn't counted on was Sasuke playing dirty.

Sasuke moved with a deadly grace that few ninja possessed. The movements were effective and effortless, seamlessly flowing into each other. They were strangely sensual because Sasuke possessed a contortionist's flexibility. It was like watching a light bulb blinking rapidly in a dark room, allowing the observer to see only disjointed snatches. In battle, Sasuke was the embodiment of that elusive flash of lightning, flickering in and out of existence.

But Naruto was going to kill him if he flickered one more time.

"Damn it, stop doing that, you wimp!" Naruto yelled, frustration palpable in his tone.

Sasuke smoothly avoided Naruto's fist and then neatly sidestepped an elbow to the jaw so that it met only the air beside his head. All that and not even a hair out of place.

Showoff.

"Getting tired already?" Sasuke smirked.

Sasuke's hands were in his pockets and his eyes were closed, that arrogant prick. He nimbly ducked and swerved, pivoting on his ankles with the grace of a samurai cutting through water, easily avoiding Naruto's furious attempts to hit him. As far as Naruto was concerned, he was doing more damage to the air around Sasuke than to the man himself.

Naruto snapped, "Shut up! Who says I'm getting tired?"

"And yet you still haven't been able to land a single hit because…?"

The asshole wasn't taking him seriously! Naruto muttered through gritted teeth, "I'd be able to if you'd just stand still."

Usually, Sasuke came at him head-on with that aggressive, in-your-face intensity that left them both shuddering in exalted exhilaration. They would match blow for blow, kick for kick, and beads of sweat would roll down their necks as their blood would hum in perfect sync to their deadly dance. They would feel the heat that radiated off the other's body before flying apart in opposite directions from the force of the intensity that simmered between them.

But this time, Sasuke was on the defensive, yet not. Sasuke was avoiding his assaults but he wasn't defending, not exactly— it was as if Sasuke was challenging him, in a different way.

As if he was mocking Naruto, taking one step back for every step Naruto took forward, challenging him to try and catch him. It almost felt like a game of cat and mouse, except that Naruto felt like the mouse even though Sasuke was the one running. And that incensed him more than any batch of spoiled ramen could.

"Damn it," stomp, thrust, kick, dodge, dodge, dodge, "Stop running away!"

Naruto stopped to catch his breath – he wasn't tired, really, he was just tired of whatever game Sasuke was playing. Unfortunately for him, he didn't realize his choice of wording had struck a chord within Sasuke, struck something buried deep.

Before he could even blink, Sasuke was leaning over him. His lips touched the shell of Naruto's ear —Naruto could feel the smirk curling against his skin—and then Sasuke was half embracing him, half restraining him. It reminded Naruto of the past and the way they'd acted in Sound, back when they first laid eyes on each other after three years.

Only this time, Sasuke's slender, calloused fingers caressed the nape of his neck, tracing a fine line of wispy blond hair that disappeared under the hem of his collar.
And then Naruto heard his voice, that voice that was low and seductive and made him want to writhe and curl his fingers around anything within reach.

"After all those years you chased me," a wet tongue flicked out to lick at his ear and Naruto went still. "you actually want me to stop running away, Naruto?"

The way Sasuke pronounced his name reminded Naruto of barren wastelands, of musty dungeons, of reptilian smiles, and effort – the futility of those wasted years when Sasuke had slipped through his fingers once more, like water—

Something snapped in that instant.

Whether it was Naruto's sanity, or his control, or the whip of the wind rushing in his ears or the crack of Sasuke's jaw, all he knew was that something snapped within him. Then Sasuke was flying in the air, skidding in the dirt.

Naruto didn’t bother trying to suppress the tremors of fury wracking through his body as he lowered his fist, which had shot out of its own volition.

That— that ungrateful bastard. He had no right to sound so damn entertained —as if Naruto’s efforts to bring him back were a source of amusement, something laughable— especially not when he had no idea of the hell he had put Naruto through. Not when he didn’t had no idea about the sleepless nights and suffocating depression, the hurt, the emptiness.

When Sasuke rose again, his sense of balance was temporarily disrupted and he swayed on shaky legs.

"What," Sasuke snapped in a dangerously low voice, "is wrong with you?"

He hadn't expected Naruto to react that violently to his teasing. Clearly, he had said something wrong—hn, unlikely—or the idiot had finally taken one too many blows to the head.

Naruto gaped, anger trickling into incredulity just as all the humor—or whatever little there ever was of it—trickled out of Sasuke's tone.

"What is—shouldn't you be asking yourself that question?" Naruto growled, fists clenching by his sides. "We're supposed to be fighting! So take it seriously already, damn it!"

Sasuke wiped the blood that trickled out of the corner of his lips. Sakura was going to kill him if that idiot had knocked a tooth loose. "You want me to take this seriously."

Naruto scowled, face crunching into an expression of challenge. Good, the bastard was going to stop running away; so now he could beat the shit out of him and show him who was boss.

Sasuke sighed, dramatically. "Fine, have it your way."

And then he disappeared and Naruto found himself with a face full of dirt.

-|-


Perched on a tree standing sentinel around the perimeter of the field, Kiba found himself thinking along the same lines as an irate Naruto: Sasuke was a fucking showoff.

Kiba scowled. This wasn't what he had been expecting when Hinata had bravely proposed they stay behind to watch the match. It wasn't like he had anything better to do, so he had agreed.

Actually, he had been more than psyched at the prospect of watching those two idiots from Team Seven beat the shit out of each other, but he couldn't let Hinata know that – he was at the unfortunate age where boys wanted to appear cool before girls they knew. Shino had tagged along because Kiba knew, as silent as Shino was, he loathed being left out.

Kiba hadn't been expecting a full-on game of cat-and-mouse between his two most temperamental year-mates. Even to someone of his dismal observational skills (because even after seven years of training under Kurenai, he still embarrassingly stumbled into every single one of her genjutsu), it was apparent that this match wasn't going to end anytime soon, but when it did, the results were bound to be disastrous. They were also bound to be entertaining.

Throughout the course of the fight, it had quickly become apparent that Uchiha Sasuke was easily the biggest showoff in the world.

Sasuke pissed him off to no end (Shino had once pointed out that Kiba was just bitter and jealous of his talent, which, Kiba protested, he was not). He had always known the bastard was arrogant, but as long as Kiba didn't look at him he could pretend Sasuke wasn't there.

But today, the guy was fighting Naruto with his eyes closed, hands in his pockets and he was grinning cockily, like he had invented the expression. He was showing off to the point that it actually tempted Kiba to throw away all the social inhibitions that his mother and sister had literally beat into him and to cheer for Naruto, that same orange-obsessed loser who had whooped his ass in the Chuunin Exams all those years ago.

"You're being bitter again," Shino calmly noted—only for the sake of souring his mood, Kiba was damned sure. His eyes were on the match.

"I'm not," Kiba growled. He sounded petulant even to his own ears. "And how would you know anyway? You weren't even looking at me!"

Shino quietly adjusted his glasses. "My kikai can detect disturbances in air current and temperature."

Kiba blinked. "Huh?"

"And it seems the match is getting interesting."

Kiba quickly switched his eyes to the match and nearly fell out of his tree. "What the—?"
Naruto and Sasuke were standing in the centre of the training ground, one tensed, the other relaxed and they were embracing? What the hell?

Something about their impromptu embrace looked off – and Kiba had a gut feeling he knew what it was. Friends – hell, even best friends or teammates or rivals or whatever they called each other these days – did not hug like that.

Kiba's hands expertly moved into familiar seals and in a moment, he could feel the changes: nails metamorphosing smoothly into claws, muscles constricting to restrain boosted power, nose tingling, ears pointed and buzzing with sounds of all frequencies and canines becoming razor-sharp.

With his enhanced sight he saw that Sasuke wasn't embracing Naruto and he wasn't restraining him either, not really, just…holding him. He sniffed, his keen nose twitching. They were only meters away and there it was, that faint smell of salt and dominance and arousal.

Kiba's eyes widened, pupils dilating in shock. Damn, he knew his observation powers were shit, but his nose had never failed him. How had he not noticed before?

Kiba's voice was for once devoid of its brash loudness, "Hey, Shino, man. Is that…you ain't thinkin'…are they—?"

A small-winged beetle came flying from the direction of the training ground and perched itself comfortably on Shino's offered finger.

"Yes," Shino replied without a shred of surprise. It was as though he'd known all along.
"It would seem so."

Well, fuck.

A few feet away, Akamaru's head rested on Hinata's lap. He nuzzled into her knee and whined softly when Hinata's fingers abruptly stilled while scratching his ears, and he looked up at her in confusion.

Her face was wiped clean of all emotion.

-|-


Naruto had really believed that Sasuke was finally – finally! – serious.

Apparently, Sasuke's definition of serious was different from that of normal people and involved muttering subtle (but no less obscene) innuendo into his victim's ears.

"Stop struggling—" Sasuke paused, in a way that made it clear his next words were anything but innocent. "—Like that."

Sasuke's tone made Naruto shiver but he just told himself he had a dirty teenage mind and was reading too much into it.

Naruto wriggled in the dirt like one of Sakura's slugs, trying to inch his way out from under Sasuke's weight to no avail. Sasuke had straddled him so that his legs were a touch more than useless. His hands were manacled behind his back at an awkward angle while Sasuke put his other hand to good use by shoving Naruto's face into the dirt.

The way they were positioned, one would think they were going to—

Oh no, he was not going to think about that right now, not when that bastard was literally grinding his pride—and him—into the ground.

Naruto's angry voice was muffled, "Geroff!"

"What was that?" Sasuke asked, mock-confused. He leaned in closer so that he was almost draped over Naruto's supine form, until Naruto could feel that chest against the jut of his elbows, could feel Sasuke's calves tighten around his— no, he...he wasn't going to think about that!

Unfortunately, he had no choice but to do exactly that when Sasuke's breath skittered against his ears, just like that jolt skittered down his spine to somewhere lower, and Sasuke breathed into his ears: "Say that again."

Naruto stilled, and it wasn't because he was tired of struggling for freedom. He had no idea how Sasuke managed to make a question sound like a demand, or how he managed make such a simple demand sound so sinful, and he didn't want to find out, not here.

"What is your problem, you retard!" Naruto managed to turn his head around enough to glare at him from the corner of one blue eye. "I thought you were finally getting serious!"

Sasuke stilled at his last words. "I am."

Something in Sasuke's tone or perhaps the way he was holding Naruto's gaze, staring at him contemplatively, left Naruto's lungs empty and his heart still. It was almost as if they were talking about two different things entirely.

And then Sasuke's emotions snapped shut just like that, locked beneath cool granite.

"Let's do this." He eased his grip on Naruto just enough so that could get free without effort, yet manage to make his escape look convincing. But he couldn't resist adding, "But there will be consequences...later."

"I'll kill you before that happens!" Naruto growled and promptly rolled over and managed to throw Sasuke off. His threat would have sounded more impressive had his face not been flushed and had he not actually been looking forward to later.

Sasuke landed gracefully on all fours like a cat and straightened, slowly, leisurely, until his muscles strained taut in a most entrancing manner. His smile was positively feral. "I'd like to see you try."

-|-


Lying back on a cluster of crumpled grass, which were sporadically spread out on the boundaries of the old training field, Shikamaru stared blankly at the clouds floating by. They looked like they were playing a game of tag, one cloud just close enough on the brink of touching the other, before a gust of wind intervened and pushed them apart.

Hey, that cloud over there looked like Chouji's head.

The sky was a big blue canvas—it was the kind of forget-me-not blue they showed in those civilian romance movies. The wind was mellow, sometimes coming in strong, punishing whips and at others, gently sneaking in through the casually opened collars and caressing sternums like the fingers of a lover. It was a perfect day for cloud-gazing.

Until, of course, Ino interrupted his pastoral dalliance. "Shikamaru! Get off your lazy ass and come watch the match!"

Shikamaru blinked blearily as Ino's scowling face blocked out the sun. The sudden change of lighting was disorienting.

"Huh?" Shikamau said intelligently.

Ino pouted in annoyance. In the next moment, he was pulled roughly to his feet by deceptively thin hands. Shikamaru gave out a startled cry and almost stumbled over his own feet. He would've nearly made quite an amiable acquaintance with the ground, had a large, powerful hand not grabbed his arm and righted his balance.

Chouji gave him a slightly pitying look at the rough treatment and patted him empathically on the back. "You ok, man?"

Shikamaru nodded and muttered a swift "thanks". They stood side by side in mutual commiseration, staring helplessly at the tyrant that ruled their team.

Ino was like a female version of Naruto, only more violent. Asuma had once told him that women were all forces of nature to be reckoned with. Shikamaru had abandoned all logic and believed him.

The aforementioned tyrant glared. "What? Is there something on my face?"

Chouji quickly busied himself with his chips and stepped away from Shikamaru, all camaraderie evaporating in the face of imminent violent wrath. Shikamaru didn't blame him.

Shikamaru muttered hastily, "Nothing, nothing."

Ino appeared unconvinced, eyebrows furrowing in suspicion before re-focusing on the match. Then she squealed.

And Shikamaru forgot to wince—it didn't take him long to discover what had been the cause of Ino's elation. Out in the middle of the training ground, Naruto had pinned Sasuke to the ground. Both were frozen in a conventional yaoi pose, gazing deeply into each other's eyes—Shikamaru was more than certain they were actually glaring at each other to see who blinked first—and communicating wordlessly like sexy bishounen from Ino's yaoi manga collection.

Chouji's chips fell from suddenly nerveless fingers with an audible thump. Even Lee had stopped spouting off mindless nonsense about the flames of youth.

Shikamaru sighed. He didn't know why everyone was so surprised. Hadn't they seen it coming? Naruto and Sasuke couldn't have been more obvious if they had tried.

Was it just him, or was it really getting hot out here? It was both—the sun was directly overhead now and Shikamaru could do without all the delicious gossip that would surely follow this match.

"I'm leaving," he announced, stifling a yawn behind his hand.

Chouji nodded dazedly before gluing his eyes back to the 'spar'. Ino didn't even glance at him, but as he walked away, he thought she could hear her say, "You don't know what you're missing, Shikamaru."

Shikamaru shrugged and stuffed his hands in his pockets before leisurely wandering towards the edge of the grounds. He faced the sky and squinted—honestly, Ino was right, if he kept staring at the sky like that on days this hot, he was going to go blind.

Strands of rough, spiky hair escaped from his hair tie and stuck to the nape of his sweaty neck with the tenacity of leeches. He had barely gone half a meter from the training ground when an itch developed in a very troublesome, hard-to-reach part of his back.

The high-collared jounin vest was stuffy and uncomfortable and made him sweat as if he had been running laps with the two beautiful and undeniably insane green beasts of Konoha. Shikamaru wasn't really sure why he was wearing the vest at all. It wasn’t as if anybody really cared whether or not wearing a vest was at all mandatory for Jounins. Ino had insisted that it made him look cooler—or, at least something other than perpetually bored.

Besides, she had told him, he needed to show everyone he had grown out of his troublesome complaining and was responsible now, just like a Jounin should be.

Shikamaru halted and huffed in indignation, eyes traveling listlessly around the surrounding area until they rested on a certain Hyuuga Neji. He stood beside his team, encompassing a stoic stillness befitting of a shinobi: proud, responsible, and handsome in an unconventional, delicate way – and everything Shikamaru was not.

Save for their intellect and weary distaste for the annoying, they had absolutely nothing in common.

Neji seemed to sense his gaze upon him because he inclined his head to stare back at Shikamaru. His face was impassive and the look could've been directed at anyone behind him, but something in the Hyuuga's expression—perhaps that subtle relaxation of the jaw or the almost indiscernible quirk of the eyebrow—told Shikamaru without a doubt that it was directed at him.

Shikamaru held his gaze—of course Neji would see him with the Byakugan—trying to decipher what Neji was thinking, what he was trying to tell him.

Neji stared a little longer before inclining his head slightly in what could only be a nod. The movement was so cautious that it was almost imperceptible.

Tonight.

Tension evaporated from his muscles like the tendrils of smoke. Shikamaru was relieved, almost excited, and nodded back before raising a lazy hand in goodbye.

The shogi match was still on.

-|-


Breathe.

Come close.

Come closer.

Reach out.

Touch him.

Fail.

Retreat.

Push away.

Come back.

Come together.

Their matches always followed this rhythm.

It was less like an exchange of blows and more like a challenge, something that radiated unhealthy passion and screamed 'come get me', a courtship of the strangest kind in existence. In the end, the outcome didn't matter; what mattered was that they felt alive.

Naruto panted, grinned, lunged. Sasuke sucked in an exhilarated breath and lunged back at him. They came at each other with the intent to kill, to measure, to counter, to touch.
Naruto wondered if this was what it felt like to be twelve again. He leaned back, feet already beginning to pivot to avoid the punch thrown at his solar plexus and hammered his elbows down on Sasuke's crouched form with a force meant to bruise.

Sasuke rolled away and Naruto lost his balance, tipping sideways, flailing comically.

Sasuke took the chance to charge for Naruto's unguarded left flank, but Naruto brought his arm around to catch Sasuke across the sternum.

Sasuke blocked, brought his arms up at the last minute to cushion the blow, but the force behind it was enough to push him back. His heels dug into the ground to increase friction, then he lowered his hands, flexed his fingers and looked at Naruto.

For someone who had been on the verge of smashing face-first into the ground, Naruto looked damn smug.

"Having fun?" Sasuke asked and didn't wait for his answer before he rushed at Naruto again, a blur of long limbs and reckless speed.

Naruto didn't defend like Sasuke expected him to, like a normal ninja of his stamina should to wear out his opponent. Instead he yelled a "Damn right!" and kicked off to meet him halfway once more. Sasuke was convinced that the idiot was going to get himself killed one of these days.

He tried to reel back – full frontal confrontation had never been his strong point – but Naruto was faster than he had given him credit for.

In a moment, Sasuke saw blue and blond and tan. He leaned his head back because he was suddenly struck with the bizarre notion that Naruto might headbutt him – again – as he was prone to do when all else failed.

Time slowed.

He managed to catch Naruto's right fist with his left, but Naruto had apparently had the same idea because he curled his free hand around Sasuke's right. For a moment, they were locked in a stalemate, locked in time. However, Naruto being the unstoppable force of nature he was, compelled time to suddenly accelerate and his forward momentum overpowered Sasuke's own.

And suddenly, all Sasuke knew was his center of gravity had shifted, somehow, somewhere along the way and he was falling, but Naruto was falling with him—

Of course, the novelty of such a revelation wore out when his back hit the ground and the breath rushed out of his lungs, the knuckles of his left hand bleeding, pinned against the ground as they were by Naruto's fist.

The sky looked blue.

And it took Sasuke's impact-addled head a moment to dismiss that nonsensical thought – it felt more like another revelation and there was only so many he could take. It was just Naruto's eyes that happen to be that annoying, happy shade of blue. Wasn't blue supposed to be a depressing color? He really needed to stop spouting poetic bullshit because he hadn't fallen that far yet, or so he denied.

Naruto grinned above him, eyes alight with that same burning intensity that a match like this usually entailed, and Sasuke suddenly went lax.

It took Naruto a while to register Sasuke's blatant lack of resistance; when he did, he froze. Sasuke looked at him through hooded eyes – eyes that were opaque and transparent at once – trying to tell him something without words and Naruto's grip on him slackened.

Naruto leaned back a little, shocked and suddenly scared. He caught a tantalizing glimpse of pale skin under Sasuke's collar, felt Sasuke's fingers ghost lightly around his wrists, felt Sasuke's thigh drag against his. There was a familiar rustle of fabric against fabric and his mouth went dry.

He wanted to ask Sasuke what the hell he thought he was doing, wanted to ask him – and himself – when they had stopped fighting and started wanting this instead. But he didn't.

He let out a nervous chuckle instead, because Sasuke was being submissive and Sasuke was never submissive and he liked it and he didn't know what to do, so he removed his hands from Sasuke altogether.

The match was decided, technically, since he had drawn first blood; Naruto leapt off of Sasuke. He had won but he wondered why he didn't feel victorious.

He tried to put on a smug, cheerful front as he looked for his jacket, which he had carelessly discarded because of the heat. He looked at anything but Sasuke.

Naruto snickered, loudly. The sound came out shakier than he would've liked and carried a tinge of panic. "Guess that means I win. In your face, bastard!"

He didn't receive an answer for a long time and when he turned back, donning his jacket and finally deciding that any further delay on his part would arouse suspicion, he couldn't see Sasuke's face.

Sasuke was turned slightly away from him, bangs hiding his profile and knuckles clenching and unclenching by his sides. Blood dripped from his left hand, one droplet at a time to the ground and Naruto knew something was wrong when Sasuke aggravated his injuries.

Naruto waited for him to say, "Hn, you just got lucky." or something to that effect, something that asserted Sasuke's supposed superiority over him, because it was predictable, it was safe, it was what should’ve happened.

The caustic reply never came.

"Oi, Sasuke, c'mon man," Naruto shouted to drown out the crescendo of panic and dread rising in his chest. He didn't succeed, not quite, so he continued, "Don't be such a sore loser – it's just a match!"

That seemed to get his attention, because Sasuke finally turned to face him; Naruto went still, his breathing stopped.

Sasuke looked angry. He looked more furious Naruto had seen him in years.

"This is all just a game to you, isn't it?" Sasuke hissed with all the vehemence of an angry snake.

Naruto's panic turned into confusion. His brows furrowed. "What're you talking about?"

"Don't lie!" Sasuke shouted, much to Naruto's shock – unless in battle or in bed, Sasuke never raised his voice. "This ends, now."

And before Naruto could even think to pre-empt him, perhaps take a step back or block or just do something, Sasuke disappeared with that inhuman speed and materialized instantly before him.

Then Naruto suddenly found himself yanked forward by the collars, staring in shock at dark bangs falling over closed eyes and his teeth clashing painfully with Sasuke's.

-|-


Well now... this was interesting.

Kakashi lowered his rare unedited edition of Icha Icha Assassin and pocketed it with practiced ease, never taking his eyes off the match. He had just taken up the book again when the winner had been decided – technically – and had been quite disappointed when nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.

Sure, it was unusual for Sasuke to be defensive, but that didn't mean the boy couldn't be defensive (sometimes verbally, more than physically). It had been quite amusing to watch Sasuke make Naruto eat dirt, but that was nothing unexpected either. Sasuke liked that particular move very, very much.

That embrace, Kakashi had assumed, had been the tip of the iceberg. After that, the fight had resumed its usual tenor and while to any other individual, that would've been quite the visually stimulating spectacle, there were only so many times you could memorize a match with the Sharingan before it got mind-numbingly boring.

Not even the constant threat of Sasuke and Naruto accidentally killing each other had been able to deter Kakashi from browsing the thirteenth chapter of Icha Icha Assassin.

Hiroshi had finally discovered that the mysterious, busty blonde kunoichi sent to assassinate him was in fact his long lost childhood friend, from whom he had been torn apart by war. In the stormy shudders of realization, fraternizing with the enemy was thrown to the wind and he ravished every inch of her luscious body, with years of wretched longing, and with such unbridled passion, and with – oh! – such blind emotion

That lasted until he noticed how defenseless Sasuke had allowed himself to be under Naruto. Kakashi didn't like the expression that had lingered on Sasuke's face long after Naruto had let go of him. It had strangely resembled something close to being rejected.

He had been sure the outcome of the match would be entertaining, but not this entertaining. And not this unpredictable either. Kakashi mused on whether he should use the Sharingan to embed this particular incident into his memory – he could always think back to it when he was bored, but decided he wasn't quite ready to join the ranks of the old and the depraved, though Anko insisted he was already there.

Despite his conventional preferences, watching Sasuke forcefully try to shove his tongue down Naruto's throat was more entertaining than Icha Icha anyway. If the crowd of equally shocked and equally mesmerized people were any indication, those boys – teenagers – really knew how to put on a show, Sasuke in particular.

If anyone had had any doubts about Sasuke's preferences, a much discussed topic of debate between their peers, they had their answers now.

Although, Kakashi wasn't sure if Sasuke was doing what he was doing out of passion or spite – attempting to devour someone wasn't exactly romantic.

Kakashi wondered if he should just go pull them apart, tell them to get a room and set them on the right track, because he was quite sure sex in public was illegal. It was his duty as a good citizen, a wise mentor and an exemplary adult to be proper about these things.

Sasuke pushed Naruto onto the ground and Naruto cursed.

Or maybe he should just watch this highly sexu- romantic scene unfold just like everyone else was, because Kakashi was now convinced that those kids, damaged as they were, didn't need his help. They looked like they were managing quite well on their own.

Then Naruto punched Sasuke.

-|-


Sai was extremely puzzled.

Frowning, he carefully read through the manual on forging friendships again and became even more bewildered at Sasuke-kun’s peculiar reaction.

The manual had stated that in order to forge stronger bonds with a person, it was often advantageous to show the person support when he/she faced relationship problems (given that they were in a relationship, of course). Sai had done exactly that.

He had spent half a day elaborately painting pictures of Naruto’s penis from memory and had gone to visit his more silent teammate, who had answered the door considerably fast, given the fact that he had twisted his right ankle and almost shattered the calf bone of his left. He shouldn’t even be walking, so grave were his injuries.

Sasuke’s glare (less impressive than usual, with one of his eyes black and swollen shut) had intensified tenfold when he saw who his visitor was.

“What.”

“Sasuke-kun,” Sai had said quite seriously, “I have discovered the reason for your current fall out with Naruto-kun.”

Then he had uncovered his paintings with a flourish and proceeded to inform, in detail, a shocked and horrified Sasuke of the benefits and conversely, the limitations of Naruto-kun’s tiny penis. And safe sex.

Sai really should’ve known there was something wrong when Sasuke started twitching all over, as if someone had just electrocuted him.

When he had finally finished his explanations, Sai had smiled, pleased with himself and looked back at Sasuke, expecting gratitude.

All he had gotten was a black eye and two broken ribs.

-|-


Dragging those two stubborn teenagers to the hospital hadn’t been the easiest of tasks, but Kakashi had managed – blackmail was most useful – and had been only too happy to hand them over to Tsunade-sama. He wasn’t about to have half of his team out of commission for a month over something like this.

The situation had escalated, going from bad to worse but unlike the rest of their fights, this one still hadn’t cooled down. He had never expected it to get this far out of hand.

He was more concerned about Naruto than Sasuke.

Sasuke was easy to read, but Naruto wasn’t.

People like Naruto who were so open all the time were also the best at shifting through masks. When they shut down, closed off their internal emotions just like that, it was hard to tell what was going on through their heads.

Sasuke was uncomplicated, a congenital masochist. The boy merely loved complicating things. Some part of Sasuke’s psyche had been permanently distorted when he was young, and now he had this warped idea that he deserved ever bit of pain shoved on him – a feeling that Kakashi could relate to all too well.

He couldn’t however relate to the resentful, vicious, wanting, but most of all, empty look in Sasuke’s eyes whenever he glared at Naruto. That emptiness was hidden behind a calm veneer of arrogance and taunts and apathy.

Sasuke was swimming in a repressed sort of depression and Naruto was oblivious. Or at least Kakashi thought he was, because he couldn’t read the boy at all.

That wasn’t even what he was most concerned about – it was Sakura.

There was something fond and heartbreaking in her eyes when she looked at Naruto, something distant and ambiguous when she looked at Sasuke and something pained, when she looked at them together.

Kakashi crouched on the ledge of the windy rooftop and squinted.

A lone figure was approaching the gates of Konoha.

Maybe he should tell her before she reached the gates, give her a heads up just in case Naruto and Sasuke ever decided for themselves to tell her.

But Kakashi knew better than to get himself involved with people in love, especially when it involved these three, all equally hardheaded and temperamental.

Sighing, Kakashi flipped out his trustworthy orange book and decided that he really hated teenagers.

-|-


The flat orange disk melted into the horizon, drowned in the wispy blankets of black clouds as twilight approached and the night chased away the day. The sky really was beautiful at this time of the day and Sakura admired the hues of tangerine in the east and the cobalt evening slowly spreading in the west, two extremes bridged by a soft, delicate shade of pastel pink.

It reminded her of her team.

She wasn't exactly a third wheel anymore – she hadn't felt like one in a long time. But she hadn't quite managed to get ahead of her stupid, reckless boys either, despite being the highest in rank. Somehow, somewhere along the way, she had ended up in the middle with them walking on either side. If Sasuke was black and Naruto was white, then Sakura was their shade of grey, that middle ground they always looked for, their solace.

Sakura looked up at the gates and smiled, green eyes reflecting the dying sun. She was swarmed by a sense of nostalgia. All those years wasted while indulging in their reckless pursuits required Naruto and Sasuke to spend another obligatory year as Jounin, while Sakura had already graduated from her term, and if her mission results were approved, she'd be taking her ANBU exams in three months.

Ha, she couldn't wait to rub it in their faces, especially in Sasuke's. When he had found out about her promotion to Jounin he had been comically, unexpectedly insecure and even jealous, before congratulating her. He had actually challenged her to a fight hours after her newly achieved status. She remembered Naruto had cheered enthusiastically for her all the way – it seemed like so long ago.

It had been exactly one week since she'd left on a diplomatic mission to Suna, to strengthen ties between the two villages.

The medical staff in Suna had been in need of rigorous training and Tsunade had entrusted her with the task of whipping them into shape. One week hadn’t nearly been enough, even with the all-night training regimes she had charted. But at least they weren’t making basic mistakes anymore.

The fact that she had gotten lost between the frustratingly identical-looking adobe houses had only added to the stress and she had loved every minute of it.

She had taken morbid satisfaction in pulling rank on the more cocky (and chauvinistic) of the bunch – there had hardly been any time to think. But there had been times, when she had walked to her temporary residence from the hospital and had been acute aware of the absence of Naruto and Sasuke's petulant bickering.

The comparative quiet had driven her nuts. After working those cocky beginners –and herself – raw to the bones, she mostly just missed yelling at them and exercising any pent-up violence...

Oh, who was she kidding? Missing them hadn't been part of the plan.

After all they had been through, it had been inevitable really. It had been nearly impossible not to miss them when she was constantly assaulted by the knowledge that they were under the same sky, had been impossible not to wonder if the stars in Suna looked exactly like the ones back at home, and if Naruto and Sasuke were feeling her absence too.

Sakura tucked wind-mussed hair behind her ear and adjusted her shoulder pack before looking up at the regal, imposing gates of Konoha.

"I'm back, guys," she whispered, a contemplative smile lighting her face.

With one last glance at the darkening sky, she stepped forward through the welcoming gates of Konoha and inhaled the scent of home.

-|-


Sakura soon realized that something was wrong.

Hinata had turned red and had looked as though she was teetering precariously on the verge of tears. She had fled the other way when Sakura had happened to see her on the street. Shino had merely told Sakura that he couldn't talk because he was busy with family matters, and Kiba had made up some lame excuse about his mother killing him if he didn't get home by seven.

Lee had been quite subdued about his proclamations of undying love, partly because Neji coughed loudly every time he mentioned Naruto-kun and Tenten clapped a hand over Lee's mouth every time he mentioned Sasuke-san. Before Sakura could even ask them about her team mates, Gai had intervened and sparkled, blinding her with his dashing smile.

Even Ino, whom she could count on to know everything – and she meant everything – was being highly uncooperative. When she had demanded that Ino spill it or else, the blonde had almost broken under the pressure (and the temptation) and would've told her too, if Shikamaru hadn’t not-so-subtly kicked her under the table. Chouji had suddenly thrown an inexplicable tantrum about not being obese, even though nobody had called him fat at all.

Finally, she had decided to find Sai and ask him if he knew anything – any possible explanation for why everyone had been walking on eggshells around her.

Sai hadn't been her first choice, given how clueless he was, but it was as if Kakashi-sensei had disappeared off the face of the planet. He was probably reading a new Icha Icha book in some dark, secluded corner and giggling disturbingly like a depraved old man.

If the man didn't want to be found, he wouldn't be and the only people who had the tenacity to drag him out of his hidey-holes were Anko and Gai, who were both quite insane in widely different ways.

Sai had been equally unhelpful. Usually she could shake anything out of Sai – she had been sure she had instilled the fear of hell into the emotionally and socially inept boy, but apparently not.

Apparently, there was someone scarier than she was. No matter how much she had badgered him, he wouldn't tell her who gave him that black eye and had only smiled, "Sasuke-kun doesn't like being informed."

He refused to tell her anything more and so Sakura went directly to the source – or rather, sources – of the problem. The last place she had expected to find them was in the hospital, shacked up in the same room. When she walked in, they were strapped to metal gurneys and glaring at each other like it was going out of style.

-|-


"You stupid, stupid boys!"

The building quivered on its foundations as an irate kunoichi stomped on the floor with all the strength of a rampaging rhino.

"I can't believe you two!” Sakura bellowed, “I told to behave while I was gone. And did you? No. And where exactly was Kakashi, huh? Huh?"

(Somewhere in Konoha, Kakashi sneezed. Maybe he was catching a cold.)

"One week. I'm gone for one—" and here both appropriately castigated boys flinched as Sakura used a particularly colorful word, "—week and this is what I find when I come back? Honestly,” Sakura crossed her arms, brows furrowing in irritation, “I thought both of you were finally growing up."

Her only response was a sullen mumble from the general vicinity of Naruto's hospital bed.

Sakura whirled on him in an instant. "Did you say something, Naruto?"

"No!" Naruto hastily amended, grinning nervously through all his bandages. It came out more like a cringe. Second degree burns weren't exactly fun. "I didn't say anything, Sakura-chan. I swear!"

Sakura nodded, pleased. "Thought so."

Naruto sagged in relief.

"Hn." Sasuke sneered.

Sakura's glare snapped to Sasuke. Sasuke sulked and avoided her eyes. She always let Naruto get off so easily.

He tensed when Sakura laid a seemingly harmless hand on his bruised shoulder. Naruto didn't like the crunch that followed as Sakura pressed her fingers deeper into the flesh.

"And you Sasuke-kun," she said, smilingly amiably all the while, "You should have been more responsible. I can understand Naruto because he's Naruto," both ignored Naruto's indignant 'hey!', "but I expected better from you. You understand, don't you?"

A vein popped on Sakura's forehead and her smile strained when Sasuke didn't respond.

He didn't see why he should. It wasn't his fault.

Another ominous silence followed and Naruto tried to melt into the white sheets and disappear. It wasn't awfully hard, given that he had been all but mummified with bandages.

"Well?" Sakura asked sweetly, patiently, through gritted teeth.

Sasuke winced as he felt a bone crack in this shoulder. He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it, finally settled for, "...Aa."

Sakura removed her hand, satisfied. She felt bad for injuring an already injured person –
really, she did – but it had to be done.

"Good enough."

-|-


Sasuke glared.

Naruto glared.

Sakura cracked her knuckles.

Naruto and Sasuke quickly looked away.

"Will you two stop glaring at each other for one second?" she yelled, irritated. At this rate, she was never going to finish filling out their physical evaluation charts. Not to mention the other medical reports piling up into mountains on her desk. "I'm trying to work here!"

"He started it!" they said at the same time, glared at each other in surprise and then turned their noses up, facing opposite directions.

The pencil in Sakura's hand snapped in half. Honestly, sometimes she felt like she was still dealing with twelve year old brats. The only difference was that they were more willing to listen to her.

They hadn't spoken for four days.

They had been fighting for far too long, Sakura decided as she sighed and rubbed her temples. Even though nobody mentioned the stifling undercurrents of tension that pervaded the room, she could sense it. The unnatural silence that graced the room wasn't the result of one of their pointless and ultimately headache inducing bickering sessions.

Something was seriously wrong – she had felt it ever since she had handed in her mission report.

Even her own mentor, Tsunade, hadn't been forthcoming about what the hell was going on. She wouldn't tell Sakura why her peers were uneasy around her or why Sasuke and Naruto refused to talk to each other. Sakura wasn't hurt, really. She had recalled her mentor's words and channeled all of the hurt into a burning anger. At least that way, she could blow off steam.

If nobody was going to tell her what was going on, then that was fine. She'd just have to find out on her own.

Sakura was tired, she was grouchy, and she needed a bath and she wanted her team to go back to the way they were. Her boys weren't making it any easier by pretending the other didn't exist. Not only was it irritating, it was awfully immature. She had had enough.

Sakura slammed the file down on her desk so hard that it left a spidery crack on the lacquered mahogany surface. "That's it! I don't know what happened between you two, but whatever it was I suggest you guys sort it the hell out. And you can start doing that by actually talking."

By this point, she had already slung her medical pack over her shoulder and was striding furiously towards the door. Dark eyes slid defiantly to starched white sheets while blue ones watched her depart in desperation.

Naruto opened his mouth to say something – anything – but stopped when Sakura paused at the door, her back to them.

"Look," Sakura sighed and her shoulders slumped in resignation. After all her ire evaporated, she was always left feeling hollow. "I've been away for a while, you know... and while it was nice, it just wasn't the same without you two there."

Here, she swallowed a little and gathering whatever resolve she could scrape up under the circumstances, she turned around and faced them.

"I just wanted to say, I missed you guys and... I just want my team back."

And then she left without waiting to see their reactions, leaving a ringing silence behind.

-|-


A few weeks later, after she had deemed their condition stable enough to function as a team, Tsunade assigned them a retrieval mission. Get the scroll, avoid confrontation, get out. It was simple. Too simple, for Jounin of their caliber.

Sakura suspected that Kakashi had had something to do with it (he seemed more amused than normal) but chose not to say anything. She was just glad that she had her team back.

The day after that episode in the hospital, she had returned home, exhausted from all the effort that went into healing, and had been surprised to find Sasuke and Naruto on her couch, fighting over the remote when she walked in. Naruto had greeted her with an exuberant "Sakura-chan!". Sasuke had told her she looked like hell.

Undercurrents of tension still lingered (in Sasuke's stiff body language, in the strain of Naruto's grin) but as long as no one spoke about it, she could pretend it wasn't there. Sakura figured that was the best anyone could expect under the circumstances. Even though nobody had exactly told her what they were.

But, Sakura sighed, at least they were talking again.

-|-


They weren’t talking.

Not in the exact sense of the word.

But Sakura was smiling again, and that should be enough.

On some days, it was. It was nice to see someone so positive about the future when everything was falling apart inside of him, when the hairline cracks in his psyche spread further, at a seemingly innocuous pace every day.

On others, Sasuke could barely bear to look at her. He could barely stand himself for envying her blissful ignorance and on those days, he was unusually curt with her. Later when she would lay a hand on his arm and ask him what was wrong – did I do something wrong? – Sasuke would mutter a quiet “Nothing” cover her hand lightly with his and wallow in suppressed guilt.

For Sakura had done nothing wrong – she was just like them in a way, seeking recognition – just like he had from a brother that had killed some intrinsic part of him, along with his happiness; like Naruto had from a village that despised him and wanted him dead.

And when the person you sought recognition from would barely give you the time of the day, it hurt.

Sasuke knew that all too well and that did nothing to alleviate his guilt. Sakura had done nothing wrong – if anything, he was the one causing them both pain. That came naturally to him, it seemed. He had asked Sakura, once, why she cared about him, his opinion.

“There’s something about you that draws people,” she had told him under the lanterns of Ichiraku. There had been something forlorn in her expression back then, something Sasuke hadn’t been able to put a finger on. Maybe it had been a trick of the light, but she had looked unusually distant at that moment.

“There’s something about Naruto that draws people too, you know,” Sakura had added, a smile playing at her lips. “He makes me wish I were a better person.”

You’re a much better person that I’ll ever be, Sasuke wanted to tell her but refrained.

Some things were better left unsaid.

“It’s like when Naruto smiles at you, there’s no one else in the world but you. It happens when you smile as well.”

Sasuke had blinked, slowly.

“I don’t smile.”

Sakura faced him finally, and smiled as one might when indulging the whims of a stubborn child.

“Whatever you say, Sasuke-kun. But… maybe, that’s why you’re friends. Naruto and you… draw each other.”

Sasuke had given her a look. “That’s stupid.”

Sakura had laughed as if he had said something incredibly funny, all the while wishing she could draw them both to her.

He remembered that day at Ichiraku’s, and remembered Sakura’s words as he watched the ramen boil on the pot.

His fridge was stacked with tomatoes and yet he had decided to have ramen for dinner. He didn’t remember taking it out of the cupboard.

Actually, he didn’t remember much these days, except the times Naruto companionably punched him in the shoulder or made fun of him. It was amazing how he fooled everyone.

Sasuke quickly turned off the stove and dumped the half-cooked ramen into the trash-can. The sound of water running in the bathroom was conspicuously absent. There was no blond figure to barge out of the bathroom half-naked and complain that he smelled like flowers and what was up with that girly shampoo?

Sasuke’s sighed, struggling to put the match –Naruto – out of his mind. He didn’t want to think about how he had allowed himself to be completely defenseless under Naruto, had stopped fighting and bared his neck and waited for Naruto to do something, anything, to show that maybe this wasn’t merely just a convenience to him.

When all that hadn’t worked, he had gone up and kissed him, trying to make Naruto understand that he wanted more, that he wanted Naruto to want more.

And Naruto had punched him for it.

He still remembered clearly the shock in Naruto’s eyes, the confusion, the fury, when Naruto had thrown him off and punched him.

One moment, he was trying to kiss Naruto with all he had, and the next, he had been sprawled on the ground, clutching his jaw, blinking and trying to figure out what that sudden, crushing weight on his chest meant.

The same weight that made it hard to breathe right now in the stifling silence.

He couldn’t afford to be alone now, not when his mind was filled with thoughts of a warm breath fluttering past his ears, a husky growl that he hadn’t heard in days. The only lights in the entire Uchiha district were flicked off before he left the compound.

When he finally reached Sakura’s place – a small apartment standing halfway between the training field and the hospital – she was wearing casual shorts and a T-shirt she had stolen from Naruto and looking a weary as he felt.

“Sasuke?” she blinked. Obviously, she hadn’t expected him to come over given how curt he had been during training today.

“Can I come in?”

“Uh, sure,” She stepped back, and held the door open to let him in – Sasuke was already making his way to the kitchen. It was in a state of shambolic disorder, a scattering of half-opened scrolls and medical notes with ink-tipped edges.

An ink bottle rested precariously close to the edge of the kitchen table, liable to roll down and meet its untimely demise at any moment.

“Sorry,” came Sakura’s voice from behind him. It sounded just a tiny bit bashful. “Tsunade-shishou had me doing paperwork along with training and research, so it’s a bit messy.”

‘A bit messy’ was an understatement, Sasuke thought.

“I can tell,” Sasuke muttered, and quite bluntly stated, “She’s a slave driver.”

Sakura rubbed her temples, “Don’t remind me.”

Sasuke maneuvered through the haphazardly strewn papers on the floor and lifted the lid off the pot cooking on the stove.

“Anmitsu?” Sasuke inquired with distaste. He hated sweets.

Sakura made herself comfortable on the floor, already picking through a manual on poison extraction. “You know, Sasuke-kun,” she answered, “if you wanted dinner, you could’ve just asked.”

Sasuke shot her a frown.

“There’s onigiri on the box to your right, if you want.”

Sasuke shrugged and helped himself.

The rest of dinner was spent in relative silence, as they sat on the floor, Sasuke with his onigiri and Sakura with her anmitsu. Sasuke went through a few medical jutsu scrolls – chakra scalpels and the like – out of curiosity. That he could not perform any of the jutsu he was reading about made him frown.

“Do these always require perfect chakra control?” Sasuke asked.

“Of course,” Sakura replied absently. She was scanning over a detailed document on the properties of chakra.

Sasuke didn’t say much after that.

“So… what’s wrong?” she asked him after they had finished eating.

Sasuke stilled. “Why do you think anything’s wrong?”

“I can tell,” Sakura said cryptically, “You never come around unless something’s bothering you. So what is it?”

“It’s nothing,” Sasuke replied automatically.

Sakura was silent for a moment and Sasuke stared at the clock on the wall. It stared back.

“Is it Naruto?”

He wondered when the words ‘Naruto’ and ‘rejection’ had become synonymous.

“No,” he answered quickly. Too quickly.

A quiet rustle of paper and some shuffling later, Sakura was sitting in front of him, staring at him in a way that made him feel like a lab experiment.

“It is Naruto, isn’t it?” she stated softly. Her eyes were probing, inquisitive. “He’s the only one who can make you this sulky.”

Sasuke dropped his gaze to his lap – sometimes, he hated how perceptive she had become. Sometimes, even when she was this close, Sakura felt far away, like a stranger.

“It isn’t about that idiot,” Sasuke lied through gritted teeth. He had gotten quite good at it.

He expected Sakura to push, to tell her about Naruto. She didn’t.

“Then what is it about?” Sakura pressed and Sasuke hated the steely glint in her eyes. “Tell me.”

“How can I when there’s nothing to tell?” Sasuke snapped, and that flicker of hurt on Sakura’s face made him feel like the worst scumbag alive.

“Fine!” Sakura snapped back and stood up without looking at him, gathering the plates and dumping them in the dishwasher with more force than necessary. “Make yourself at home while I wash this.”

He shouldn’t have come. The only thing he seemed to be good at doing these days was making everyone around him miserable.

The warm yellow light in the kitchen lent it a quaint atmosphere. Some dissolute flies buzzed and swarmed around the light bulb overhead.

Sakura was wiping the plates with a dry cloth in stony silence, hunched over her work with her back turned pointedly at him.

Sasuke knew she was cursing him in colorful ways in her head. She was mad at him again and Sasuke stood up. He had come here just to get away from the silence – because silence gave him plenty of opportunity to think and he didn’t want to think – and now he found himself being suffocated by it.

The clatter of two plates clinking against each other as they were arranged into a neat stack seemed unnaturally loud in the room. When Sakura pulled the stopper back, the water ran down the drain, swirling and swirling down the hole until the basin was empty and Sasuke finally relented under the pressure.

He had already screwed up with one of his teammates and now he was doing the same thing with another, even though he really had no idea what he had done wrong.

“Sakura,” he sighed, calling forth every single ounce of patience he had. He sighed again. He seemed to be doing that a lot lately. “Look—”

“Why won’t you ever tell me anything?”

Sasuke paused, staring at slumped shoulders, something like regret stirring sadly in his chest; the tone reminded him of cloudless skies and cold winter nights and moonlight crawling across the streets.

The silence that followed was nothing short of awkward, a thousand words left unsaid. Sometimes, dredging up memories better left buried could cut deeper through skin than shards of glass.

Sakura turned around, eyes enormous – she looked as shocked as he felt, as if she herself had just realized what had left her mouth. He vaguely thought she looked too young, like that lovesick twelve year old girl he had left on a cold stone bench.

It had always been like this between them. Some things were better left unsaid. Some memories better left unrecalled.

Sakura slipped on a smile on her face as easily as a mask, like Naruto was so good a doing these days, and let out a nervous, trying-not-to-be-bitter (and failing) laugh.

She waved a hand in casual dismissal of her statement as she walked past him, eyes staring straight ahead at a point over his right shoulder.

“I’ll go get some blankets if you want to sleep over, Sasuke-kun!” she announced cheerfully, and then airily added, “Forget I said any—”

“Like I said, there’s nothing to tell.”

Sakura stopped in her tracks, the floor feeling as cold as that stone bench under her feet. It hurt to hear the truth.

“I know that—”

“Except it’s annoying that you’re so happy,” Sasuke quietly admitted, looking at his feet. Sakura heard the admission in his voice, that repressed envy and it pained her to know how jealous Sasuke got over the little things.

Perhaps he had been jealous of her always, jealous of the normalcy she took for granted. She didn’t blame him.

“It’s even more annoying when you cry,” he mumbled. That confirmed it – he shouldn’t have come here.

He stiffened when thin arms wrapped around his waist. He felt a nose bury into the fabric of the shirt on his back, felt moisture from her still-wet hands suffuse into the front of his shirt.

He felt her sigh into it, and then relaxed when she leaned more fully against him. They stayed still like that for a while.

It was odd that Sasuke allowed such an intimate invasion of his personal space and it only strengthened her belief that something was wrong.

If Sasuke wasn’t going to tell her, then that was alright. For now, being able to hold him like this had to be enough, even when it wasn’t. When Sasuke laid a hand over hers, as if searching for something to hold onto (as if reassuring himself that at least she was still there and he wasn’t alone), she wondered what Naruto might’ve done had he been present to share this.

His absence wrapped around them, almost tangible and knocked tentatively at the doors of their suddenly hollow chests.

“Hey, Sasuke-kun,” Sakura mumbled into his back. Sasuke was kind, in twisted ways – here he was breaking inside – she knew he was, even if he didn’t show it – and he was comforting her by calling her annoying of all things.

Sometimes, he knew all the right words to say. She wished she could do the same for him too.

“You didn’t have to say anything,” her voice sounded strangely subdued; “I would’ve forgiven you eventually. I know you think I don’t notice, but I do.”

Sasukes heart plummeted to his toes – did she know? He couldn’t be bothered to give a damn about what others thought about him and Naruto but Sakura… she was different.

Even so, he was reluctant to tell her what they had been doing furtively behind closed doors, what they had kept from her. He could’ve kicked himself for what he had recklessly done (destroyed) the other day.

He forced himself not to stiffen and was grateful she couldn’t see his face

“Something’s not right but—” Sasuke closed his eyes in relief; she didn’t know. “—I keep telling myself that if I pretend everything’s okay, things will go back to normal. Eventually.”

“Things are normal,” Sasuke insisted half-heartedly.

“If they were, you wouldn’t be here,” Sakura countered, “You’d be off training with Naruto.”

He would’ve been doing more than just training, but Sakura didn’t need to know that.

“And things aren’t the best right now but… we’re Team Seven. We’ve pulled through much worse, right?” she asked and then chuckled at how small their current problem sounded compared to what they had been through, because she didn’t know the full extent of it.

“It’ll be okay,” she said and Sasuke desperately wanted to believe her.

-|-


Sasuke pulled the blanket around himself – the couch was a little too small to fully accommodate his tall frame, but if he bent his knees, he could easily fit in.

Shallow grey light fell into the room from Sakura’s kitchen – she was still studying under a lamp. Sasuke rolled over to face away from the light and tried to believe the words of the one person who still made him feel he was worth something.

Maybe that was why he had come – to distract himself, to find some semblance of comfort from someone who wouldn’t judge him for showing weakness.

He closed his eyes and grimly wondered when he had become so dependent on Sakura and Naruto.

Naruto hadn’t said anything about the fight, and Sasuke wasn’t about to anytime soon either. He wondered where that left them.

Sighing, he clasped a hand over his eyes, feeling the bitter stab of emptiness wash all over him. It weighed his bones down with exhaustion. So this was what rejection felt like, huh?

It had been twelve days since their fight and Naruto was still pretending they were the best of friends.

Friends. That had to be the worst f-word in the dictionary.

-|-


The thin mattress was spread neatly on the ground and little, pointy bits of coarse grass peeked in through its surface. They poked him insistently on the side. Naruto ignored it, having grown used to the less than glamorous side of camping outside long ago. The mission had gone well (what was Granny thinking, giving them a mission that was this embarrassingly easy?); the scroll was tucked away safely in Sakura's medical kit.

Really, he could have gotten the scroll all by himself, Naruto grumbled inwardly, had Sai's little ink buddies not gotten in the way and intentionally tripped him. Speaking of Sai...

Wasn't he sharing a tent with Sakura-chan right now? Kakashi, being the team leader got his own tent, of course (Naruto was sure that was complete bullshit and the pervert just wanted to read that precious book of his in blessed solitude), but that wasn't even why he was irritated.

What he was pissed about, in fact, was he had to share a tent with him of all people.

Naruto lay on his side of the tent, facing defiantly away from Sasuke. Just because they had agreed on a temporary truce, if only to see Sakura smile again, didn't mean he had to get friendly with the bastard when no one was looking. He didn't realize the subtle innuendo that punctuated his thoughts and picked at the frayed edges of the well-worn blanket.

Come to think of it, the blanket – cotton, starched and smelling of detergents – was really warm and comfortable and sort of made him want to wrap himself up with it in winter mornings and lie in bed till noon, curled like a cocoon. It was that comfy. So he tugged at it and pulled it closer.

"Oi, what're you doing? Quit hogging the blanket."

Naruto's heart leapt to his throat for a second at the rough, irritated growl – great, Sasuke's shitty personality was a turn on now – before he reminded himself he had no reason to feel that way, not after the humiliating stunt Sasuke had pulled, and he could do whatever the hell he wanted.

"What does it look like? I'm cold."

Then he tugged the blanket closer to his side to demonstrate his point and pinned it down partly with his left flank, even though he wasn't feeling that cold at all.

He felt Sasuke shift closer to him, slowly, deliberately, and tried not to tense at the thought of Sasuke so close to him. And then Sasuke pulled at the blanket so hard and so suddenly that Naruto felt a cold gust of wind smack him in the face.

Naruto shivered and blinked when he registered what had just happened.

"Give it back." Naruto hissed, furious.

"No."

"Why not?"

"It's mine."

"…Would it kill you to be nice for once?"

"Yes," Sasuke replied honestly.

Naruto gaped, tried to say something, and decided that he wasn't going to maul Sasuke for once. For once, he was going to be the bigger man, and ask nicely and if Sasuke didn't want to play nice, then that was too bad.

"Hey, c'mon!" Naruto tried his damnedest to inject some amiability into his voice – it took more effort than expected. "You know what Kakashi-sensei says. Sharing is caring!"

This time, it took Sasuke a bit longer to answer. Naruto wouldn't have noticed if he hadn’t been counting the seconds.

"I don't care about you."

The tan finger that had been picking at blades of grass stilled, just for a second, before Naruto vehemently reminded himself he didn't care either and ignored the icy pinpricks of pain that stabbed at his heart.

"It's cold," he said, perhaps more to himself than Sasuke.

"You practically have a built-in heater, idiot." Sasuke grumbled and pointedly kept his back to the aforementioned idiot. He didn't bother leaving even half of the blanket for Naruto.

Naruto leaned up on his side, supported on his elbow, while his other hand clutched at the blanket. He pursed his lips in annoyance.

"So what!" he retorted hotly, before remembering to temper his voice. The others were still sleeping. They hadn't bothered to put up a watch this close to the village. "It's itchy on my side. I need it."

Sasuke finally deigned to shift a little so he was half-facing Naruto. A tic had developed under his left eye. "Stop whining. You don't need it."

"Yes I do!" Naruto insisted, as he tried to pull the blanket over his shoulder. He didn’t need it, really, but this was turning into more than just about the blanket. Sasuke was talking to him, even if it was about something so trivial, and Naruto couldn’t remember the last time he had voluntarily done that.

He didn’t care, not really, but Sasuke was talking to him and— Naruto cut his errant thoughts off before they had a chance to manifest into that hollow, sinking feeling he had been experiencing recently.

Naruto glared at him, indignantly. Sasuke glared back and said in a measured voice, "You don’t. Go back to sleep."

Sasuke's tone was final, and with one last glare he turned away.

Naruto didn’t notice the strain in Sasuke’s voice or the tenseness in the set of his shoulders. The only thing that registered on his mind was the easy dismissal in Sasuke's expression and for a moment, he couldn't breathe, throat clogging with emotions. He felt as if someone had just torn his heart out of his chest and squeezed it until it bled.

Naruto sucked in a deep breath and let it out discreetly to avoid alerting Sasuke that he was affected by anything the bastard said. Because he wasn't.

"Oi! How can I sleep when you won't give it to me?"

Naruto didn't notice Sasuke tense at his words. He only noticed Sasuke's silence.

"Hey, don't just ignore me, you bastard!" Naruto laid a hand on Sasuke's shoulder, in an attempt to turn him around.

He didn't expect Sasuke to leap up and flinch away from his touch like it burned. His hand stayed uncertainly in mid-air as blue eyes stared, stunned, at Sasuke's countenance.

"Don't touch me," Sasuke said, voice hoarse, but coated with steel.

Inky hair was plastered to his forehead where beads of sweat formed and trickled down his temples. His breaths came in short, sudden spurts and his chest heaved up and down as if there wasn't enough space, enough air in the tent for two. The blanket pooled at his waist.

Questions whirled in Naruto mind, each fighting for prevalence, as emotions warred with each other. Finally he settled on anger (and not the pang of emptiness in his chest) because anger was easy, anger came naturally and he didn't care, remember?

The hand that had been suspended in mid-air suddenly shot forward and clutched at Sasuke's collar before Sasuke could even blink and yanked him forward so that they were face to face.

"What crawled up your ass and died? It's just a bloody blanket!" Naruto yelled in his face, the grip on Sasuke's collars tightening as he used his body weight to push Sasuke back. Sasuke's hands immediately came up to manacle Naruto's wrists and Sharingan eyes whirled dangerously.

“Let go,” he muttered, nails digging into wrists less slender than his own.

“Make me,” Naruto challenged.

Sasuke tried to push Naruto backwards, but it was difficult with the idiot leaning over him like that. It took only a moment's hesitation before he brought his right knee up and drove it into Naruto’s ribs. The barrier of blanket and clothes lessened the impact somewhat, but the force behind it was enough to shock Naruto into loosening his grip on Sasuke's collar and choking on his breath.

It gave Sasuke a chance to sit up and shove Naruto away from him. It wasn't very effective because sometime in their short scuffle, their legs had ended up tangled in the blankets and Naruto wasn't the easiest person to push around.

"I thought I told you not to touch me."

Sasuke backed away, meticulously, discreetly taking care to ensure some of the blanket still pooled around his waist. He leaned back against the tent lightly and ran a hand through his hair.

It was damp with sweat, a tangled mess and Sasuke stayed like that for a while, for once enjoying the distance between him and Naruto before letting out a fevered breath.

He couldn't bear this much longer. He should've shared a tent with Sakura, no matter what lame excuses Kakashi conjured up. Hell, he would've even settled for The Replacement, despite that weirdo's tendencies to constantly inform him (incorrectly) of Naruto's family jewels. At this rate, he wasn't going to last.

"Hey, what's wrong?"

Sasuke glanced away from the flap of the tent, which he had been listlessly staring at, and towards the source of the voice. Naruto was clutching at his left flank, but didn't look winded. Surprisingly, he didn't look angry either, not like Sasuke had expected him to be.

Naruto frowned at Sasuke's unusual pallor – he was paler than usual, but his cheeks were stained a shade of pink he could make out, even through the darkness. Sasuke looked famished.

"What?" Sasuke asked, and the his smile was just a bit cynical, and mostly defeated. Naruto didn't like that look on his face. "You aren't going to come charging at me again?"

"Cut the bullshit," Naruto snapped, eyes glaring at Sasuke's lax form. Sasuke stared back at him, scrutinizing, impassive. God, why hadn't he noticed before? "You look like you're burning up."

"I'm not," Sasuke insisted, even though he was burning up, inside.

Naruto pretended not to hear him. "Here, let me see."

Naruto reached out to brush away Sasuke's bangs, all his anger evaporating as he looked at a Sasuke who wasn't acting like himself at all. Before his hand could even get within a foot of Sasuke, however, the black-haired boy swatted it away with a fury that was unprecedented.

"How many times do I have to tell you? Don't touch me," Sasuke snapped, muscles tensing for action, because he didn't know what he'd do if Naruto touched him, again.

Naruto blinked, and it wasn't long before the anger surged again. Why did Sasuke always have to be this difficult?

"What's your problem? I was just trying to help, dammit!" Naruto yelled and if that woke anybody up, then that was their problem, not his.

"What's my problem?" Sasuke echoed, almost to himself, mind becoming a bit hazy with the heat.

Naruto was looking at him, cheeks flushed with anger, facial muscles stretched in a way that made those whisker marks etched on his face look more feral.

Maybe it was the heat, the humidity, the hidden concern behind Naruto’s pissed-off facade or the arousal, or the fact that Naruto was so close, but suddenly it didn't matter that Naruto only seemed to smile at Sakura these days, or that he hadn't really given him a genuine grin for weeks, or that he hadn't raked his claws over Sasuke's back in forever.

He wanted Naruto right now, wanted him in every way possible, even though he had no idea if Naruto still wanted him back.

He hated being dependent on Naruto like this, but the need wasn't his to control, and Sasuke thought maybe it wouldn't be bad to lose control for once, to just reach out and touch him.

So that’s what he did. Reached out and touched him, traced the scars on Naruto's cheek with the pad of his thumb and leaned forward, the blanket falling from his lap as he pressed his body close to Naruto's, leaving only a tiny distance between them.

"What's my problem?" he asked Naruto's eerily still form again, smiling the smile of someone who had nothing to lose. It felt so good to touch Naruto again. "How about I just show you?"

And then he pushed Naruto down and wasn't really surprised when Naruto didn't offer any resistance, just watched him with uncomprehending eyes, muttering a startled, "Sasuke!" before his back hit the mattress and Sasuke straddled him.

Black tomoes spun lazily, in a beautifully dark contrast against red, as he looked down at Naruto. Naruto met his cursed eyes in a hypnotic trance.

Slender hands slipped soundlessly, with practiced ease, under Naruto’s jacket; he raked his fingers over well-defined pectorals and trailed his palms upward in a way that left no doubt about his intentions.

Naruto was warm, despite his claims to the contrary.

Hands still lightly grasping either side of Naruto’s hips, he dipped down and mouthed the skin under Naruto’s jaw in a way he knew would leave Naruto unsatisfied, unfulfilled and craving more. As expected, Naruto squeezed his eyes shut and reached out blindly to clutch at Sasuke’s shirt, sharp gasps escaping from his lips.

He had missed this.

“I can make this feel good, Naruto,” he murmured in Naruto’s ear, eyes half-lidded with want, “Or have you forgotten?”

As if to remind him, he lowered himself onto Naruto, sticking chest against chest, hips rising slightly before coming down and pressing against Naruto's crotch, in a deliberately brazen manner, showing Naruto exactly how good he could make it for him.

He hissed at the relief provided by the friction, the searing heat caused by the contact, and took grim, sadistic pleasure in the way Naruto's dazed gaze snapped up from his collarbone to his face, how the breath rushed out of him and how his stomach clenched against his.

Naruto could choose to throw him off any time he wanted to. He could choose to break free of the hypnotic grip of the Sharingan anytime he wanted; Sasuke wouldn’t stop him, he wasn't restraining him in any way – he was just idly fingering through blond locks as if he had all the time in the world. And yet, Naruto was immobile under him, frozen.

Sasuke liked it, liked the power he exercised over Naruto.

"Does it bother you, Naruto," Sasuke asked, heat in his eyes, his voice, his body, "that I'm not a woman?"

And then he felt Naruto go still as a corpse under him. The harsht, hurried fluttering of his breath against Sasuke’s jaw ceased abruptly and the hand fisted desperately in Sasuke’s shirt fell away.

"What?" Naruto croaked, as if he couldn't believe what he had just heard.

And it was that disbelieving tone that had Sasuke snap out of his lust-induced stupor.

He blinked once, red eyes receding to a pitch black, and exhaled – it was like breaking the surface after staying underwater for too long. He looked down at Naruto who still looked as shocked as Sasuke was panicked.

What was he doing?

He had practically seduced – manipulated – Naruto into being submissive to him, consciously or not, and he never wanted it to be like this. He had never intended to take things this far. He had never even intended to start things again; this had to end.

Now.

Abruptly, he removed his hand from Naruto’s hips, a wild look entering his eyes as he leapt off of Naruto, hardly able to believe his own stupidity.

God, what had he done?

"I'm sorry," he said in a voice not quite his own as he sat back, staring in utter bafflement at Naruto. It scared him, how much he had needed that.

Naruto was staring back at him, mirroring his expression and suddenly the tent seemed too small. He needed to get out of here.

"But—" Naruto shouted, as Sasuke headed towards the entrance, "Wait!"

Sasuke paused at the flap of the tent, one hand already on the verge of opening it. He waited.

"Go to sleep, Naruto," Sasuke said in that infuriatingly calm tone before stepping out.

"Just wait!" Naruto shouted frantically.

He didn’t know what he was doing, couldn’t exactly recall what had just happened, but he knew he didn’t want it all to end like this.

A second later, he was barging out of the tent – but Sasuke was already gone.

-|-


It was a warped case of menstrual discomfort, Sakura decided, when she bit back a gasp at the uncomfortable churning in her belly.

She blinked the sleep from her eyes, trying to make sense of the pondering darkness around her in her disorganized state of mind. When her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she sat up carefully and looked around to confirm her whereabouts out of habit.

She was sharing a tent with Sai, who was sleeping rather soundly, a sketchbook placed beside his head. Sakura smiled fondly at him – the mission must have taken a lot out of him, given how many ink summons he had had to call forth in order to investigate the mansion where the scroll was hidden. Had it been a year ago, she doubted whether he'd even be sleeping so unguardedly right now.

She threw the blanket they were sharing away and crawled on all fours towards the flap. She caught a glimpse of her red shoulder bag, slumped indolently outside the tent and thought maybe a bit of water and some fresh air would do her some good. It was starting to feel slightly humid already.

Careful not to make any noise, so as not to disturb her tent-mate, she poked her head outside and looked around, scanning the trees to ascertain whether anyone was in the immediate area. She guessed not.

Then Sasuke crawled out of his tent.

Sasuke-kun?

Sakura blinked, about to call out to him and ask what he was doing out of curiosity, but stopped when she really noticed Sasuke's countenance – stony expression and white knuckles. He was staring straight ahead with a caged look in his eyes – he hadn't noticed her yet, which was surprising, considering Sasuke always noticed everything.

And then he was gone, flickering out of existence with his absurd speed and looking around frantically, she only managed to catch a glimpse of black disappearing in the cover of trees and darkness, towards a small spring that was half a mile from here.

Sakura's breath hitched – something was undeniably not right with Sasuke. She hadn't seen him look like that – that unraveled and resentful in years. Just as she was about to go after him, she heard a familiar rustle of taut fabric and Naruto emerged.

His name caught on her throat when she noticed that he had much the same expression that Sasuke had been wearing, all repressed desperation and clenched fists. Then before she even had a chance to call him back, Naruto, too, was gone with a muttered "Dammit!" left behind in the air.

"Naruto..." Sakura whispered, as she tried to sort out just what must’ve happened and what the hell she was supposed to do about it. Something strange – a sixth sense maybe – made her bite her lip and scramble out of the tent in a hurry.

Something had occurred between them – that much was obvious from how they had been acting the past couple of days – and if this impromptu episode had anything to do with it, then she was going to find out what.

Her boys hadn't been themselves for a long time and she'd be damned, if they were going off to somewhere quiet to beat the shit out of each other over some petty argument.

Quickly strapping on her boots, she took one last glance at the tent and her shoulder bag, and decided that the water could wait until after she had dragged those two idiots back and intimidated them into telling her whatever the hell they had been hiding from her.

Pumping chakra into her feet, she leapt up and disappeared into the foliage, leaving dust in her wake.

-|-


Vines crept along the boles of those ancient trees like snakes. That was strangely, the first thing that registered in Sakura's mind as she kneeled in the shadows, on a particularly thick branch of a birch tree. The smell of fresh water impregnated the air and the night was gravely silent with expectation.

Her stomach churned restlessly, either due to her cramps or due to that bad feeling prodding insistently. It just wouldn’t go away.

Sakura’s heart hammered in her chest. She swallowed down the irrational fear that they would hear it, that she'd be detected any moment. As long as she didn't breach this range of distance and kept her chakra signal suppressed, they wouldn't notice.

Sasuke was bare-chested, standing in the middle of the spring on equally bare feet. If Sakura hadn't known that Sasuke was a perfectly logical individual who would never deliberately let himself get sick, then she would've thought he was about to take a dip.

The glassy surface of the spring glinted invitingly.

Sasuke hadn't noticed her yet. Good.

In front of Sasuke stood Naruto, glaring furiously at him. Their mouths were moving, slow and deliberate, and Sakura could hear only snatches of conversation.

"—coward?"

"—Maybe not— I am?"

"—that back."

"ashamed, of me—?"

"—shut up!"

Sakura's fingers tensed, digging hard into the trunk when Naruto grabbed Sasuke's wrist and snarled into his face and Sasuke merely smirked, tauntingly.

That seemed to infuriate Naruto even more and Sakura knew a fight would break out any moment now, and that Naruto would be the first one to break.

She sharply sucked in a gust of cold air, and directed chakra to her feet, muscles tensing, prepared to intervene when Naruto went rigid for a second, an iota of eternity. Then he yanked Sasuke forward, raised his hand—

—and kissed him. And Sasuke wasn't pushing him away.

Sakura reeled back in shock, twigs imitating the crackles of a dying flame under her feet. She froze, more concerned with getting caught for a moment than witnessing what she was sure was supposed to be a private scene.

The enormity of what her eyes told her hit and she sank down to her suddenly weak knees from the shock. Her blood ran cold with the unpleasant beginnings of realization.

For a second, her face was a mask, a perfect rendition of shocked apathy and she wondered if this was someone’s cruel idea of a joke.

She watched, confounded, as the hand Naruto had raised weaved into Sasuke's hair, and Sasuke's feet suddenly gave out, sending transient ripples spreading in all directions. She watched Sasuke cling to Naruto, dig long fingers into muscled arms, murmur something incoherent against his wet lips and they stood in the middle of the water, like lovers from a tale eternal, wrapped up in each other, in a world where she did not belong—

—and told herself to breathe. She must not forget to breathe because that was important.

The hand that had come up to grab her throat fell to her breast, clutching the red fabric there as if trying to tell her heart to calm down, this was just an illusion (that did not exist).

"All this time—" Sakura stopped, her tongue feeling like lead inside her mouth. She didn't realize she was shaking.

Their names tumbled out of her quivering lips, along with the all the stabbing pain of hurt and betrayal in the form of tears.

All this time, Naruto alone had seen the passion simmering, repressed, under Sasuke’s skin, that terrible rage that threatened to burn everything in its way. That want, that desire, to hold on to something – his revenge, his clan (Naruto, some long-forgotten part of her whispered) – because he was too afraid to stand on his own.

She knew she should turn her gaze away because it felt like a violation intruding on such a private moment – but her eyes remained fixated on them. She had to blink away the tears that insisted on clinging stubbornly to her lashes and by the time her eyes had cleared they weren't standing where she had last seen them anymore.

Naruto had dragged them both out of the water, and they lay in the muddy banks and Sasuke's fingers were frantically tugging at Naruto's jacket.

Naruto pushed them away and the hasty agitation in their movements was gone, replaced by something between them that was undefined, intense, tangible. Sakura watched, eyes wide, as Sasuke let Naruto's fingers ghost along his jaw, as he parted his legs and let Naruto press their most intimate junctures together, let Naruto lick softly at his lower lip and whisper his name, let Naruto in like he had never let her.

Sasuke threw his head back, something like pleasure, pain, anguish, delirium, ecstasy marring his face, making him look so, so vulnerable and beautiful.

She watched them through a thin but impenetrable sheen of glass, and it was only after she blinked in muted disbelief that she became aware of the wetness staining her cheeks.

It was silly to cry, she told herself as her nails bit into the tree trunk, tears dragging silently along smooth cheeks. The accumulated at her chin and took a fearless downward plunge together. It was silly to cry when she had brought this on herself, refused to see what had been there in front of her eyes all along.

All those times they had fought, the fond undertones in their bickering, those accidental bumping of shoulders, the brief brushes of fingers… it all made sense now.

But she had refused to see it, because it hurt to even think of them without her, hurt to see them so engrossed in each other that they didn’t notice her at all, hurt to blame them for it.

Some perverse part of her wanted to watch, wanted to engrave into her memory that uncharacteristically serious expression on Naruto's face and the want and wonder on Sasuke's. But she didn't.

Sasuke slipped a hand down the front of Naruto's pants and she didn't wait to see anything more.

-|-


Sasuke hadn't expected the idiot to follow him. But Naruto was never the complacent type, and had never been able to get the message of ‘leave me the hell alone’. He should've known.

"What're you doing here?" Sasuke sighed as he pulled his shirt over his head and left it at the bank. He took one step on the water. It was fairly cold. He kept his tone apathetic. "I thought I told you to go to sleep."

"Yeah, since when have I ever listened to you?"

Never, Sasuke thought.

A quiet splash of water sounded with each of his measured steps and he deduced that Naruto had followed him to the middle of the spring. He really shouldn't have been surprised – something told him that Naruto would gladly follow him to the ends of the earth and not regret it. He wondered what he had done to deserve that. And quickly reigned in that dangerous line of thought.

"Why are you here?" Sasuke asked calmly, in a voice he would use to refer to a business acquaintance.

Keeping the chakra concentrated and balanced at the soles of his feet, he crouched down on one knee to splash some water onto his face. It was refreshing and helped him clear the daze his mind had been in for the past few minutes. He didn’t feel as lifeless anymore.

He had been planning to take a dip in order to cam the red anguish gushing through his veins, but it seemed that plan had been shot to hell the moment he discarded the possibility of Naruto, infernal nuisance that he was, following him. Sasuke stared at his reflection on the water.

His expression gave nothing away. Good.

"To talk," Naruto answered after a while, and Sasuke couldn't imagine what his expression might have been. He hadn't glanced at Naruto once.

Sasuke stood up, slowly, deliberately, water cooling on his face. He glanced at Naruto, finally, and held his gaze if only to satisfy that sudden curiosity.

Naruto's face was almost a blank slate, with nothing but determination written on it. He knew that expression, knew all too well the intensity in Naruto's eyes – it was the same look he adopted when he was trying to set everything right, the idealistic fool that he was.

How naive. Didn't he know there was nothing left to fix?

Naruto forewent beating around the bushes. "What was that?"

Sasuke raised a calm, disinterested eyebrow.

"What was what?" he asked even though he knew what Naruto meant. If Naruto wanted answers from him, then he would have to spell it out.

Tanned fists clenched and unclenched as Naruto exhaled shakily, breathed out his anger, before demanding, "What happened back there? In the tent?"

"Nothing," Sasuke answered, his tone free of all inflection. He felt like a stranger in his own body – a passenger watching a head-on collision in the backseat, staring in wide-eyed shock, while some dark, twisted manifestation of apathy sat at the driver’s wheel.

He waited for Naruto to come charging at him, waited for him to scream profanities and insults and pointless crap about feelings, Sasuke thought with casual disdain. The outburst never came.

Naruto laughed and it sounded bitter and resentful and too much like Sasuke. There wasn’t nearly enough of Naruto in the quiet echo. Naruto should never sound like that.

Sasuke quickly killed that disgustingly frail thing called hope that was rising in his chest, whispering falsities into his ear, telling him that maybe Naruto had felt the same agony that he had in the last few days, days that felt like decades.

"Nothing, huh?" Naruto dropped his gaze to the water spreading out in gentle ripples around his feet. When he looked up again, his gaze was angry. "First you don't talk to me straight for days and ignore me whenever Sakura's not around, as if I don’t exist and then you come onto me, just like that. And you call that nothing?"

"Aa," Sasuke answered with a straight face. "It was a mistake."

"A mistake?" Naruto snarled and Sasuke smirked, taking deep satisfaction at breaking that calm facade. "You bastard. Is that what you call it? You practically seduced me!"

"I didn't see you complaining. I recall you were even enjoying it,” Sasuke sneered and almost laughed at how easy this was. How easy it was to fool Naruto, how easy it was to make Naruto feel the same anguish that he had, how easy it was to just destroy it all.

“You could’ve thrown me off anytime,” Sasuke observed curiously, and then asked, amused, “So why didn’t you, Naruto?”

Whatever he had expected Sasuke to say, it certainly hadn’t been that because for the first time since the start of this unwanted conversation, it seemed like Naruto had nothing to say.

“I—” Naruto’s lips parted to say something, then closed. He looked lost. “How could I, dammit!” he yelled suddenly, the anger returning with a vengeance as he squeezed his eyes shut and looked away, trying to tell the thoughts— when you were looking at me like that and fuck, I wanted it. I didn’t want to want it. I didn’t want it to—— to just disappear.

“You were— you bastard, you were—” touching me, like that “—Why did you come onto me in the first place? What were you trying to pull?” Naruto settled for saying, a thin sheen of anger coating his words.

Eyes as dark as the water they were standing on narrowed slightly.

"Like I said, it was a mistake. And you were easy."

Naruto took a step forward, fists clenching by his sides.

"You expect me to believe that?" he growled, "Then you're more of a coward than I thought you were."

And suddenly it wasn't as easy anymore to keep up the facade.

"A coward?" the smile spreading slowly on his face was anything but pleasant. "Look who's talking."

Naruto's eyes widened in shock, breath lodged in his throat. "What! I'm not the one who keeps running away from every damn thing. And you're calling me the coward here?"

"Maybe, maybe not." Sasuke scrutinized Naruto's expression and liked what he saw. Naruto was livid. "So what if I am?"

"Take that back!"

"Why?" Sasuke challenged calmly when all he really wanted to do was laugh at the absurdity of it all. He hadn't wanted to laugh so much in a long time. The idiot was always going on and on about bonds and how they were never truly broken. Well, this one was breaking, right now, right in front of his eyes. "I'm not the one who fucks his teammate and refuses to tell anyone about it."

Naruto was facing the water, his expression shadowed.

Sasuke was enjoying this talk, enjoying torturing him like this, enjoying seeing him in pain because maybe, then Naruto would understand... Suddenly, he felt like being reckless.

This was his chance, to say something to infuriate Naruto, to finally see if all this really meant so little to him.

He tilted his head in feigned contemplation and asked, as one might ask about the newest brand of kunai, "Tell me, are you ashamed of me, Naruto? Am I your dirty little secret now?"

And Naruto was in front of him a second later, sharing the same breath as him, holding his wrist in a bruising grip. Sasuke had expected this – and wasn't surprised when Naruto looked up at him, eyes glinting with fury, and shouted an enraged "Shut up!" in his face.

So he didn’t care after all.

Sasuke had expected that too. It was almost too easy to keep that smirk on his face and mutter a soft, resigned "Thought so."

What he didn't expect was for Naruto's eyes to widen, in something akin to realization.

In the next moment, Naruto pulled him forward and crushed their mouths together.

-|-


He doesn't know when the ground gives out from under his feet, and he thinks he might drown, inevitably, and take Naruto with him. For a split second, he entertains the morbid thought but strong, sure hands drag him up before he can drown completely and his feet feel cold when air hits it and his mouth feels hot and moist

"Fuck, what're you–"

A familiar tongue swipes over his lips and silences him. Hands pull carelessly at his hair. He mutters incoherent threats that are swallowed up feverishly and Sasuke's mind goes off on a tangent, asking questions and not finding answers.

If his fingers cling a bit too desperately to Naruto, it is only because he's temporarily forgotten how to channel chakra and doesn't want to get wet. Naruto tries to drag him towards the shore, mumbling nonsense – god, this. I missed this – and it's awkward, with Sasuke clutching at him like that, trying to root him in place.

They stumble a grand total of four times on the water’s surface and neither would’ve noticed if they had almost drowned, as busy as they are with biting each other.

The shore is an exotic combination of mud and fine silt and wet saplings of grass and it feels cool and pleasant against his back. His chest feels hot despite the cool night air when Naruto sucks on his nipple.

Sasuke moans, and hates himself for it. He never moans, not even when Naruto sucks him off and teases his cock with sharp canines. It is a game between them, to push each other to the limits but this time, all pretenses fall short because Naruto is looking at him like that, all serious and contemplative, and when Naruto looks at him like that, it's as if he's the only person on earth.

It’s been too long.

Sasuke sucks in air and lowers his gaze to Naruto's chest, the black material of his jacket, because he's stubborn and good at denying himself everything he wants. His hands concentrate on Naruto’s zipper and fumble as he ignores the gaze. He doesn’t really care about what’s going inside Naruto’s head at the moment, to suddenly kiss him like that – he just wants it now, before Naruto changes his mind.

More than that, he wants to ask Naruto what this means, what they mean, but he figures he's expended his emotional quota for the day and deserves a rest and that fucking sounds like an excuse to avoid confrontation. Naruto's right – he's good at running.

But not this time, because this time Naruto swats his hands away and presses their chests together and pins him down. Sasuke wants to protest, and his hands, so rudely removed, rise from the ground to do... something.

He never does that something, because idiocy is contagious, Sasuke decides, and he mentally kicks himself for freezing when Naruto's hand softly caresses his jaw. He wants to berate himself for letting Naruto treat him like this fragile little thing and nearly dies of mortification, heat rising to his cheeks, when he finds himself liking it.

"Why didn't you tell me?" Naruto asks him softly, confused.

Sasuke tries to look away but Naruto's gentle grip on his jaw immediately becomes firm – he looks at Sasuke, daring him to run away from this too and Sasuke has never been able to resist a challenge.

"Tell you what?" For someone who's undergoing a turbulent emotional revelation, he sounds awfully acerbic.

"That you wanted this again," Naruto answers, and he looks lost. The starless night sky is blocked out by his shoulders. “I thought you didn’t want to anymore.”

"Shut up," Sasuke snaps, heart stopping temporarily at Naruto's words. He'll be damned if he agrees. Sharingan eyes flare. "I didn't want this. I never wanted this. So don't delude yourself."

Naruto hears the confession in his voice and knows it's the closest Sasuke will ever come to admitting that he needs this too, needs – wants – Naruto. Naruto grins, eyes locking with Sasuke's in tacit confirmation of what they both know.

He leans down and drops a kiss, an emotion, on Sasuke’s neck.

Sasuke grits his teeth, struggles to suck in scattered gasps of air, tells himself not to moan.

It’s like the first time all over again, only this time their movements are imbued with a sense of desperation, of longing that sprouts from a certain emptiness. It’s a confused frenzy of limbs, but there is clarity in all the confusion, a prickling awareness of the way Naruto drags his teeth along the veins on his wrist as he traces the lines of fate on his palm.

It feels like Naruto is trying to tell him something and Sasuke pulls him down by the hair and traces the whisker marks engraved on his cheek with his tongue.

Then he pushes his mouth on Naruto’s, tongue tracing the seam of Naruto’s lips, asking to be let inside.

It isn’t like the first time anymore – the confusion, the passion, the intensity has petered out into something indefinable, something foreign. Naruto’s breath leaves his lungs in a rush when long, calloused fingers graze up his spine and he throws his head back, shamelessly bares his neck.

It isn’t supposed to be like this —not between them, not this gentle, Naruto thinks with no small amount of confusion as Sasuke’s mouth presses fleeting kisses up the side of his neck to the back of his ear. It has always been about passion of the rawest kind – a need to tear each other apart, a desire to see everything they were – between them, but even when it’s this gentle, this new, Naruto figures he doesn’t mind. It feels good, in a different way.

Sasuke discovers that as spectacularly hopeless as he is at expressing himself with words, he excels at communicating through skin.

He bites at the tender spot below Naruto’s navel in a way he knows Naruto will remember; sucks the sensitive skin right over the seal that is the source of all of Naruto’s sorrow, leaving behind traces of scorching passion. Naruto’s eyes narrow with sudden ferocity.

An ardent mouth closes over the curse etched indelibly on Sasuke’s neck. Clawed hands leave red tracks on a pale, arching back until they halt impatiently against the waistband of his pants.

He wants Sasuke stripped down to the bones. Sasuke wants him between his legs.

“I missed this—” Naruto’s words are an honest admission against his lips and Sasuke can almost pretend he’s the one saying them. But he only bucks back when Naruto grinds their cocks together and curses in between gasps of air.

“I missed this,” Naruto growls again because it’s true. Sasuke believes him. “Fuck, I want this— I want to—”

Sasuke knows what they both want.

He parts his legs and forgets not to moan.

Lips brush against sweaty temples. Teeth bite the soft skin in the hollow of ribs. Nipples pucker in anticipation.

How does this feel?

Moans come out muffled against a strong shoulder. Pale legs wrap around a sculpted back and heels dig in.

Harder. More.

A hand slips in between sweaty bodies. Rough fingers wrap around a thick cock and squeeze.

Like this...?

Pale fingers leave approving dents on narrow hips.

Good, just like that.

-|-


When Sasuke asked him why Naruto wanted to keep this – them – a secret, in his own subtle way, Naruto got the hint and decided maybe honesty really was the best policy and yes, Sasuke deserved to know.

Naruto opened his mouth and started to explain and almost immediately, found himself at a loss as to how to attach labels to such turbulent emotions and tugged at his hair in frustration.

Sasuke wondered if two weeks without sex had finally taken their toll. Maybe now Naruto would understand the sheer agony Sasuke had suffered through. The thought was highly satisfying.

Naruto stomped on the ground; he couldn’t form an answer and it was all Sasuke's fault. Verbal impairment was surely a side effect of spending time with Sasuke and even if he could articulate his thoughts – feelings – Sasuke wouldn't understand.

So Naruto kissed him instead and hoped feelings could diffuse through skin, hoped Sasuke would understand. Sasuke didn't, if his unmoving lips and confounded onyx eyes were any indication.

That only prompted Naruto to fist his hands into Sasuke's hair, steel his resolve and kiss him harder, tongue forcefully shoving their way past soft, dry lips without a thought. He shoved a thigh between Sasuke's legs and concentrated on the tedious task of making Sasuke moan.

Naruto had never considered himself to be particularly selfish – it was hard to be selfish when you had never had anything to be selfish about.

Sasuke wouldn't understand because while he had had a family to be selfish about, Naruto had been alone from the start. He had been prepared to give away everything and ask for nothing but acceptance in return.

Acceptance had been given to Sasuke so readily that Sasuke never thought about it much – he had only thought about revenge and even after the incense sticks had burned out, he had been selfish in keeping his kin close to his heart – to the extent it hurt those around him – and he hadn't given a damn.

Sasuke was selfish and Naruto wasn't selfish enough.

It should be a perfect combination, a much-sought-after equilibrium, but it was not.

Because for once, Naruto wanted to be selfish. Because for once, he had something – someone – that no one else had and the knowledge thrilled him, made his chest ache with joy, made him want to keep it all to himself and share with no one that knowledge that he was not only accepted, but needed, wanted.

To Naruto, being wanted was something like air, and being wanted by Sasuke was something sacred, something he wanted to keep a secret, to be certain that this knowledge was his, and his alone.

When Naruto pulled away, panting, hands digging into slim hipbones in a desperate show of possessiveness, Sasuke was part astonished (because Naruto had never been that aggressive with his tongue), part aroused, but really just confused at the rambunctious blond's unprecedented enthusiasm.

Because as bad as he was with words, with feelings, he was worse.

Naruto sighed in acknowledgement of that universal truth and when all Sasuke murmured was a bewildered "What was that about?" after being kissed to within an inch of his life, Naruto decided that whoever said actions spoke louder than words, had been completely, utterly wrong.

It took both feelings and words to get to Sasuke.

Naruto's hands came up to cup Sasuke's face and he finally whispered a single word, soft and simple, against parted lips: "Mine."

And Sasuke understood.

-|-


The ground tore open with a guttural roar when her fist made contact. Jagged rocks and debris rained down in torrents and obscured his vision.

Sharingan eyes activated. Sasuke was annoyed – he hated it when she used that move. It impeded his speed.

He squinted hard through the veil of dust to get a flare of her chakra – a light green signal – and it was only at the last moment that he avoided another punch as Sakura charged at him, taking advantage of the screen of dust.

Shit, Sasuke cursed as a chakra-powered fist came dangerously close to dislodging his head.

He was well aware that one hit could be fatal, and wasn’t about to let her get near him anytime soon. He felt the rush of wind on his face and the unfamiliar mixture of irritation and a repressed but nonetheless gripping focus that guided his instincts.

Sasuke flipped up to put some distance between them, hands shifting deftly through the motions of a fireball jutsu. He felt his lungs fill with chakra, warm and turbulent, before exhaling with all his might.

Sakura’s gaze flicked up to his airborne form, her teeth gritting in concentration, only to see a massive array of flames devouring everything in its way as it headed towards her.

Hot air flapping against his airborne body, he saw Sakura’s eyes widen in muted surprise, her breath hitching. And for a heart-stopping moment, Sasuke thought she was just going to stand there, looking terrified, and he couldn’t breathe; he had to remind himself that Sakura was no longer the helpless little girl he had abandoned on that fateful night.

True enough, he saw Sakura widen her stance, the momentary shock in her eyes turning to a burning wrath, as she leapt backwards, retreating.

Good, that should keep her away for a while.

Then Sakura punched the ground. Again.

Sasuke gritted his teeth in frustration. What was she doing?

He cursed as a filter of dust clouded his vision, blinking rapidly to get tiny morsels of sand out. The ground beneath his feet cracked like china clay when he landed, stumbling slightly on the serrated edges of rocks before regaining his balance. His right calf was still sore from when she had just managed to nick him with a chakra scalpel.

A chakra scalpel modified to maul – flesh, bones and ligaments – instead of cutting concisely through target organs, like a real scalpel should.

It was almost as if she didn’t care what she hit, as long as she hit something. This was supposed to be a spar, not a full-on, cut-throat death match.

She’s taking things too far, Sasuke thought, a frown pulling at the corners of his lips as he breathed in and exhaled. The air smelled like smoke and tasted like sand.

He watched with a dispassionate expression as a tidal wave of flames crashed with the spontaneous explosion of dust and debris and disfigured rocks. The flames dispersed, scattering in the wind like glowing amber feathers as the life was snuffed out of them by a constant onslaught of dirt and debris, flying everywhere.

The ground felt like molten lava, red heat seeping in through the soles of his ninja sandals to his nerve endings. It was official – teaching that girl inhuman strength was the worst thing that that crazy lady Hokage could’ve done.

Going up against a stamina freak like Naruto was like trying to scale an insurmountable amount of boiling chakra. With Sakura, it was all about trying to force back sheer, unrefined power and brute strength, which was no better.

Black tomoes dilated, then contracted, and whirled liked windmills as the dust pervading the training ground scattered, blown away by a sudden gust of wind. He quickly discerned the path between rocks and mini crevasses and searched for the colour of her chakra – a pale soapy green. He found it, flickering dimly, calmly, in the middle of the surrounding chaos.

Sakura stood in the middle of the smoking crater she had just created, cheeks smudged with dirt and glove fraying at the knuckles from punching the ground one too many times.

Expending chakra unnecessarily like that hadn’t been the smartest plan she had ever had, but Sasuke wasn’t going to ruminate on her intentions right now. If his predictions proved correct, then she was preparing for a final attack and would be charging at him any—

Sakura kicked off with a burst of chakra at her heels and he lowered his stance, let her come to him. His Sharingan easily predicted the sequence of her attack – an uppercut, which would be followed by a knee to his gut – and he ducked under her arm to drive an elbow into her gut instead before she could bring her knee up.

Sakura stumbled, winded, and for a moment, Sasuke thought she’d crumble, but then put the notion out of his mind. He had to get rid of that habit of treating her like glass.

And that suddenly sounded like a great idea because in the next instant, he felt a crushing grip on his left shoulder and before he knew what was happening – shit! being he only thing to cross his mind — Sakura had flung him around like a rag doll and thrown him a good few meters across the field.

Sasuke quickly activated a thick stream of Chidori Nagashi and when he crashed into a rock, the lightning chakra enveloping him cushioned the impact considerably. That still didn’t stop him from cursing though.

Just great, Sasuke thought sarcastically as he gripped his left shoulder, which he had almost dislocated twice now in the span of two weeks. He had no idea what he had done this time, but she was mad at him again.

That was the least of his concerns, though, because Sakura had decided that flinging a goddamn huge rock at him was a great idea and she proceeded to do just that: viciously sliced a helpless boulder in half with lethal chakra scalpels, hefted it up like a toy and threw it in his general direction with all the fury of a woman scorned, accuracy be damned.

By the time he had looked up from the ground, three hundred tons of solid earth was hurtling towards him, eager to flatten him. Sasuke seethed.

Apparently Sakura thought squashing teammates like cockroaches was damn funny. Sasuke really didn’t see the humor

Enough, he decided, this was going to end now. The match wasn’t helping either of them if she was just going to rush in without thinking.

Black pupils contracted in concentration as chakra shot down his right arm to accumulate in his palm. Blue lighting sparked and hissed in his hand as the cries of a thousand birds filled the air.

Sasuke bent his knees, braced his heels against rubble and waited for the boulder to come closer. One second, two, thr—

And then he was running, wind in his ears, eyes stinging with a thrum of chakra and he lunged, leaping up to meet it—

The boulder shattered like brittle china when his Chidori made contact, and Sasuke smirked as he flew through… only to encounter Sakura in mid-air.

Sasuke’s eyes widened in shock.

When did she—?

Apparently, she had taken advantage of the boulder’s girth to hide herself from view.

He had to twist in mid-air with all his inhuman speed in order to avoid the chakra-powered fist aimed for his head. It barely grazed his cheek, but their momentum propelled them forwards and they slammed into each other, Sasuke’s larger frame involuntarily knocking Sakura back.

His breath left burning lungs in a rush when the sharp edge of a slender shoulder accidentally collided with his ribs.

One moment, they were suspended in air and the next they were plunging downwards, compelled by gravity, towards an array of sharp, pointed rocks that waited to eagerly spear them.

Sakura was falling with her back to the ground, pink locks flapping in disarray. Even in such a seemingly helpless position her eyes were fierce and her hands were already flying into the seals for a substitution jutsu.

Sasuke didn’t let her. He wasn’t about to draw this match out any longer.

Painfully aware of each passing second, his hand shot out to grab one of her wrists.

Green her snapped to his in shock.

“What the hell are you doing? Sasuke!” Sakura yelled the first words she had spoken in the match, outrage coating every syllable. Did he want to die?

Sasuke ignored the panicked look on Sakua’s face as they plunged ever closer to the ground, towards rocky spikes, and concentrated on one-handed seals for a teleportation justu, never relenting his grip on Sakura’s wrist.

The last seal was done the next instant, and they disappeared in a cloudy burst of smoke.

Sasuke felt a weird twisting sensation in the pits of his stomach, as if his innards were being strangulated and wondered how Kakashi could stand this on a daily basis. The training field they had gracelessly landed in was even on the surface – not littered with razor sharp rocks, thankfully. It had been spared the misfortune of Sakura’s infamous wrath.

Speaking of Sakura…

Sasuke braced himself on hands and knees and tried to clear the dots blurring his vision. His eyes blinked rapidly with the strain of prolonged activation, coupled with the chakra depletion from Chidori. Red eyes darkened to black as he stood up, careful not to put pressure on his left leg, and took in is surroundings.

A flash of vivid pink caught his eye not three meters away.

Sakura was crouching on her knees, using her left elbow to support herself. Her limp right arm look frail and emaciated, red lines miring the sore chakra pathways through which destructive power had been channeled just one time too many. She was in no condition to keep fighting.

Sasuke tried to approach her as carefully as he could but a slight limp evidently accompanied his steps. He gripped his left flank and crouched down in front of her, valiantly suppressing a wince when his ribs creaked ominously.

He allowed himself a small internal grimace. He had a feeling she wasn’t going to heal them anytime soon.

He leaned forward a little to get a look at her dirt-smudged face and almost reeled back in shock at the anguish he saw there, hidden by a veneer of hollow-eyed resentment and aimless anger.

There was something defeated about her countenance as she stared unseeingly at her scraped knees, teeth biting hard into her lips, as if trying to keep something in.

It was a familiar expression, one that had graced his face more times than he could count – it didn’t belong on Sakura’s features.

“Sakura,” he spoke calmly, but it took more effort than expected to speak. His throat felt scratchy, like coarse sandpaper, and he knew this wasn’t going to end well, not when Sakura looked so openly distraught.

Sakura didn’t respond, merely squeezed her eyes shut and faced pointedly away from him.

“Look at me!” Sasuke snapped, a hand reaching out to grab her shoulder and turn her towards him.

Sakura’s eyes snapped open at the contact, and violently slapped his hand away. “No!”

Somewhat taken aback by the unexpected outburst, Sasuke let his hand hang uncertainly in midair before dropping it slowly to his side. His lips tightened in acute displeasure. Sakura was going to be stubborn again.

He stared for a while at her fatigued form and it was a long time before Sakura moved to get up, eyes still avoiding his. Either she did not want him to see the emotion gathered there, or, for some inexplicable reason, she did not want to see him.

"Sakura, you're injured," Sasuke stated, trying to sound unconcerned. It still didn't stop her from standing on unsteady legs and when she finally met his eyes, it was only to level him with a mutinous glare.

She broke the eye contact and took one step forward... and swayed. She'd have fallen, too, had Sasuke’s hand not instinctively shot out to grab her wrist and steadied her. Sakura stiffened abruptly at the unprecedented contact – she hadn't really thought Sasuke cared at this point, if his disgruntled expression had been any indication.

"Let go," Sakura said, forcing anger into her voice as she struggled to wrench her wrist form his steel grasp.

Sasuke's eyes looked at her impassively, but his frown deepened. "No," Sasuke said as if talking to a particularly difficult child, "Sit down, Sakura. You're in no condition to move."

Something about his tone – perhaps the clear cut lilt f logic, the fact that he was right – caused the tension boiling in her chest to snap. She was the medic here, she was the one who should be saying that, she was the one who should be right and Sakura's eyebrows furrowed in resentment.

"I said, let go!" she screamed, and she was about to use chakra-enhanced strength to wrench her still-functioning left arm away but Sasuke-pre-empted her. In a flash he pulled her down to the ground, ignoring her startled protest and pinned her face-first into it, her nose inhaling the scent of rain on mud.

It was the disorientation caused by the teleportation jutsu and a temporary case of wobbly knees that caused her to lose her balance so easily.

She tried to move her hands, but found them restrained gently, but firmly, behind her back by Sasuke’s. Before she could utilize her strength to escape (and perhaps kick him in the balls, just for the heck of it), Sasuke quickly sent a thin stream of lightning chakra through her wrists, just enough to render her motionless for a minute.

Sakura’s form jolted as if galvanized, and then lay still.

“Now,” Sasuke said with forced calmness, when he was sure she wouldn’t be able to flail around, “I need you tell me why, exactly, you’ve trying to kill me for the past one hour.”

Sakura didn’t answer, just glared defiantly at the ground.

“Sakura,” he said in a monotone but the slight edge to his voice indicated that his patience was fraying at the edges, “What’s wrong? This isn’t like you.”

“Shut up,” Sakura muttered sullenly, trying to twist around to glare at him, “Nothing’s wrong. So just let me go!”

She tried to get a stream of chakra to circulate and jolt-start her receptors and it seemed to work, because she could move her limbs now, slightly.

“Stop struggling,” Sasuke growled. Dammit, she was just making it harder with all her stubbornness. Sasuke pressed a palm down into her back when she almost managed to throw him off by sheer will alone. “Sakura, just calm down!”

Her struggles only got more violent as she tried to free her wrists from his grasp.

“Calm down?” She shouted through gritted teeth, “No, I’ll not just calm down – not until you actually tell me what the hell you’ve been doing with Naruto!”

A beat later Sakura had managed to wrestle her freedom away from Sasuke, whose grip had slackened in utter shock. She panted as she sat up, body shaking with tremors of exhaustion, and rage. She didn’t remember a time she had been so damn furious, and at Sasuke, of all people.

Sasuke, for his part, was looking at her with disbelief written in every feature, from the miniscule widening of panicked eyes, to the confusion stamped on furrowed brows, to the slightly parted, speechless mouth.

“What?” he finally managed to croak out and Sakura felt that tiny hope in her heart, nursed by that naïve, long-forgotten part of her, die, withering along with any notion of Sasuke at least denying it.

All she wanted to do, as she stared at Sasuke’s tense countenance, was to punch his head in, lunge and hit him, hug him, tell him, or perhaps just go home and cry in solitude because that was safe, and no one would be there to see it.

“Dammit,” Sakura whispered, as she felt a familiar stinging behind her eyes. She squeezed her eyes shut, embracing the darkness and blamed the emotional mess she had become on her time of the month. Why did it have to be now of all times?

There were times she hated being a girl, and this was one of them. Maybe if she hadn’t been a girl, Kakashi would’ve looked at her more, trained her hidden potential instead of dismissing her with a glance; maybe then, Sasuke would’ve acknowledged her as something more than and annoyance and Naruto would’ve actually seen her and not the pretty picture she made. Maybe then, she wouldn’t be in love.

“Goddammit,” Sakura whispered again and hated how broken it came out. Sasuke was staring at her still, disbelief slowly morphing into apprehension, probably wondering if she was going to start crying again.

Sakura laughed, and it sounded more like a bitter symphony. “Just stop it, okay? Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about, Sasuke.”

Her shoulder slumped and hands fisted in the dirt, “I’m just sick and tired of always being left behind, left out.”

Sasuke’s mouth worked, but no sound came out. Sakura suddenly looked so small, sitting on her knees and trying to brush her hopelessly curling bangs back with her hand. He never really thought about it, about the pain he had probably caused, about how little he really knew her.

“I know about you and Naruto,” she told him, meeting his gaze without hesitation.

She knew.

Sasuke swallowed. “How?” he asked, and wondered if either Kakashi or Sai had bailed on him, despite his repeated threats of mutilation. Those idiots.

Sakura’s answer, though, was not what he had been expecting. Nothing seemed to go as he expected them to these days.

“I saw you,” Sasuke confessed, “I saw you and Naruto together in our last mission.”

“You followed us,” Sasuke succinctly stated, eyes narrowing, disbelief bleeding into anger.

Sakura stared defiantly back at him. For a moment, all they did was stare, engaged in a battle of wills before Sasuke sighed, looking away. The sun was setting already, he noted.

There was no point denying it now, no point in running away from this as well – not when she already knew, even if he had never intended for her to find out this way.

“How much did you see?” he asked her, eyes staring transfixed at the horizon.

“Enough,” Sakura murmured, trying to keep the crushing sadness from her voice, “Enough to figure out what was going on.”

Sasuke had no answer to that, so he stared at the ground, unable to face her and merely hoped that Sakura would fill the silence that stretched between them. Their shadows, shapeless streaks of black, ran parallel to each other, but never met.

It was a long time before Sakura spoke and Sasuke’s head snapped up at her unusually subdued voice.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Sakura murmured and then almost laughed because that was a silly question to ask. Since when had Sasuke ever told her anything? Since when had he ever told anyone anything? “I guess I just don’t matter enough,” she said with a self-deprecating smile.

“That’s not it!” Sasuke shouted and Sakura’s breath hitched at the sudden outburst of anger – Sasuke never shouted. Not with her, at least.

“It was never that,” Sasuke mumbled, more softly this time, and all the times he had something important to say, “We— Naruto didn’t want to hurt you.”

“Well, you’re hurting me right now!” she yelled, anger flaring before quickly petering out into an intangible sadness. “What did you— you idiots think you’d gain my not telling me? I’d have found out eventually, one way or another.”

“I know that,” Sasuke said, staring blindly at his palm and wondering where it had all gone wrong. She wasn’t supposed to find out this way. “I just– never thought—”

“That I’d find out this way?” Sakura interrupted, and smiled, her entire body sagging in defeat, “Me neither.”

Maybe in another world, they would be together, but not in this one, especially when they seemed to do nothing but hurt each other. Sakura met Sasuke’s eyes and was sure that he was aware of that too.

Sorry wasn’t going to cut it, Sasuke knew, but he had to try anyhow, because Naruto never gave up, did he? Swallowing in mild horror at how much Naruto had literally rubbed off on him, Sasuke opened his mouth to let out an abject apology.

“Sakura, I’m—”

The words died in his mouth when he felt soft lips pressing tenderly against his forehead and small hands tightly gripping his shoulders. He hadn’t even sensed her getting so close. Had he really been that distracted?

He opened his eyes – when had he closed them? – to see Sakura sitting in front of him, a smile on her face. Her thumbs traced over his cheekbones, as if wiping away invisible tears. It felt like a goodbye.

“Don’t be,” Sakura told him and her voice carried not a hint of bitterness. Sasuke wondered what he had done to deserve such devotion.

Nothing, really. If anything, she should hate him right now. He looked away.

The hands on his face tensed suddenly and when Sakura turned him to look at her again, Sasuke didn’t protest.

“I think Naruto deserves to be happy more than any of us,” She stated, suddenly serious. “And you make him happy, Sasuke-kun. So…”

Sakura suddenly grabbed hold of his collar and yanked him forward, chakra humming menacingly through her fist.

“Just promise me you’ll take care of him,” She told him resolutely, eyes hard as flint.

For someone who had been an emotional mess not a minute ago, Sakura looked very calm. Actually, she looked like she wanted to murder him.

Sasuke was very aware of two things right now.

Thing One being, Sakura was scary.

Thing Two being that Naruto must’ve been fucking suicidal to have pursued her for so long.

“Well?” Sakura repeated.

“…Aa.”

Sasuke nodded warily and Sakura let him live.

-|-


They say things can change in a day, and after that day, things do change.

Not in a way that an outsider would notice, of course – the signs are there but very subtle. Little signs that would be missed if you blink.

Things don't change drastically within the team; there are changes, but in little ways that hardly affect the team dynamic.

Nowadays, Kakashi sends Sasuke and Naruto to collect firewood together for camps and is more amused than disapproving when Sasuke comes back with a hickey on his neck and Naruto comes back with a sated grin. Sai is on the receiving end of Sasuke's wrath more often (drawing a picture of Naruto's penis and presenting it in friendship isn't exactly the way into Uchiha Sasuke's limited good graces) but that is balanced out by the curious fact that Sakura seems to have taken a liking to tormenting Sasuke in subtle ways, always with a benign (evil, Sasuke thinks) smile pasted on her face.

"Don't forget. You promised, Sasuke-kun," she mutters discreetly to him while they eat ramen, and Sasuke never remembers actually promising to take care of Naruto, not in the I’ll-always-be-there-for-him way because he can’t promise that to anyone, but he appropriately flinches anyway when Sakura levels him with a pissed off glare.

Sasuke doesn't think Naruto is as oblivious as he pretends – surely, he must have some idea that Sakura's aware of the exact nature of their relationship?

Naruto is just smarter than Sasuke gives him credit for – playing oblivious is what he does best, his method of self-preservation (which, he's been repeatedly told, is lacking).

Besides, Sakura-chan doesn't seem to be in a hurry regarding confronting him about what exactly he's been doing with Sasuke, so Naruto can wait. He suspects Sakura secretly enjoys torturing Sasuke alone. He can't blame her, especially when he loves to push Sasuke's buttons himself.

Sasuke, for his part, just sighs and pretends he doesn't know them when they barge into his personal space without the slightest consideration for his privacy. It's gotten worse, since Sakura found out.

There are little things that have changed though – things like how Sakura punches him more freely now, without holding back, as if a weight's been lifted off her chest.

Kakashi isn't merely amused these days – he's happy that his students are happy and Sasuke thinks that's a good thing, because he was starting to get tired of being on the receiving end of that pervert's all-knowing gaze. He’ll never admit that he’s happy too.

He also tries to murder Sai when the well-meaning boy thoughtfully gives him a packet of tomato-flavored condoms for his twentieth birthday.

As for Naruto... Sasuke glances away when Naruto grins at him, bright and happy and with too much emotion – all for him – in his eyes.

They're walking aimlessly around Konoha, Sasuke broodingly observant and Naruto looking at him, into the future. It is brief, the glances, the light dance of fingers against wrists, the soft, knowing touches, but it is there.

Sasuke knows forever does not exist (everything is relative, even eternity), but on days like these, when Naruto walks with him, matching him step for step, he wishes it did.

-|-


There is a crack in the ground beneath her feet and Hinata stares at it.

There is also a crack in her heart.

She absent-mindedly tugs at the weed cautiously peeking out of broken ground, as if afraid some heartless soul may thoughtlessly trample it the moment it reaches out to embrace the first touches of wind and light.

Hinata frowns and pulls her hand away. The plant sways a little in gratitude.

A small smile graces her lips – she decides she likes the weed. It overcomes all adversity with a stubbornness that makes her envious and while that doesn’t bear good news for the herbs and petunia in her garden, Hinata still admires it for its persistence.

It is strong.

She remembers that once she had admired someone like that too. And she still does and always will from afar.

It hurts to think about it, even after a year, and the crack in her heart spreads a little bit more every time she does. Hinata bears it like she bears everything else: passively.

Only sometimes though, the pain is too much and on those days, Neji casually comments that her tea is more bitter than usual.

Everyone thinks there is a Thing going on with Naruto and Sasuke – something obsessive, something complex, and something solid but brittle and at times so packed with tension that they might break anytime.

Hinata knows it’s simple; she also knows that Naruto-kun will be fine. She doesn’t know him, but she thinks Sasuke-san is kind.

Hyuuga Hinata is never the best. She’s just adequate – but where her cousin has the genius to effortlessly strip down the walls of the human mind with a glance, Hinata has an insight, a peculiar ability to look into people’s hearts, see them for what they are and offer empathy, if nothing else.

Hinata doesn’t think about what-could’ve-beens because she’s never been allowed to think about that. There are rules, and there are traditions; there are mask-like faces with dead stares and reflected in them is the atavistic superstition that there is only one destiny for each Hyuuga.

Hers is to be heiress; Neji’s is to serve.

It’s simple. Hinata knows it’s not.

What-could’ve-beens are a forlorn fantasy in the Hyuuga house, hidden behind white bandages and blank eyes. But that still doesn’t stop the voice which rises in the back of her mind some nights, under full moons, as the tea gets cold on the porch.

“Hinata.”

Hinata looks up from her place on the ground when a shadow falls over her to see Shino.

“Uh, Shino-kun!” she exclaims, startled out of her musings.

His tall stature blocks out the sun and shadowed as his features are, he looks intimidating. But Hinata has eyes better than most – she can make out the almost imperceptible frown between thin brows and she knows it to be concern.

She’s made him worry again and Hinata sighs, in guilt and exasperation. As touching as it is for Kiba and Shino to worry about her, sometimes, she wishes they would not.

There are long bouts of silence from her these days, when she simply spaces out, but Hinata wants to tell them that that should not garner concern; that she just needs the time to herself.

She feels the silence shrouding her mind ebbing away; she’s slowly starting to feel like speaking again. She’s starting to feel like herself again.

Hinata doesn’t know how she knows. She just knows.

“Where is Kiba-kun?” she asks curiously as she makes to get up. Shino offers her a hand, which she takes.

“He’s left,” Shino replies, hands falling back comfortably into his pockets. “Tsume-san feels that he is of age to meet prospective spouses.”

The voice is so dry that Hinata can’t help but let out a small laugh, hidden instinctively behind her hand. Her father has been dropping subtle hints about marriage now that she’s finally twenty, but it seems Kiba-kun has it harder than she does.

Shino hides a small smile beneath high collars, diverting his attention to the far end of the training field when a ladybug

“There is someone waiting for you.”

She follows his line of sight. Neji-niisan is waiting there, arms crossed and back straight, waiting to escort her back to the manor. He carries himself every bit like she herself is supposed to, with dignity, and Hinata’s heart clenches in her chest for him, at the unfairness of their roles.

“I… should probably go…” Hinata murmurs, the word ‘home’ lingering like an unspoken question in the air.

Shino nods in understanding. Home to her is with them – Hinata never tells them that she is happiest when she’s with them, but Kiba and Shino know anyway.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, Shino-kun?”

This time, it is a question, and Shino finds it strange that she needs an answer. But something in her eyes, something desperate, compels him to reassure her and he says, “Aa. Tomorrow.”

Hinata’s eyes light up at the affirmative response and she gives him a quick smile in goodbye before running across the training field toward her cousin.

Her run slows to a jog and finally to a composed walk as she approaches him, her fingers twitching nervously by her sides, as they’re prone to do whenever she gets near Neji. She ignores them and smiles at her cousin instead.

It almost feels rewarding to see the corner of Neji-niisan’s lips twitch and Hinata relaxes, her smile becoming less hesitant.

“Are you ready, Hinata-sama?” Neji inclines his head in greeting.

There’s something different about his expression when he looks her in the eye, blatantly holding her gaze when it should be lowered; there’s something there, just beneath the surface, but Hinata doesn’t notice. Hyuuga, despite their ability to see far, are blind to matters near to the heart.

Hinata does notice, however, how light her shoulders feel, how easy, unrestrained her smile is when nii-san is there. He’s always been there – a strong, solid shadow behind her, and she’s grateful.

The Hyuuga manor is a house of ancient secrets and timeless traditions. It is a house where the floors are cold, and words, when spoken, are colder. The silence speaks for itself. But with Neji-niisan there, it gets somehow easier to breathe and the tea doesn’t taste as bitter.

“Hai,” Hinata says softly, an exuberant blush staining her cheeks a pleased pink, “Let’s go home, nii-san.”

When Neji falls into step beside her, the walk home doesn’t feel as dreadful as it had moments before.

Hinata notices that there are cracks in the sidewalk and closes her eyes in acceptance.

There are wounds time can heal, and wounds it cannot.

There is a crack in the ground and cracks in the sidewalk.

There is also a crack in her heart, but it’s mending, slowly but surely.

-|-


There’s just enough space for another body between them.

Sakura kneels down on the ground cautiously, and wonders if she is welcome. She bites her lip apprehensively and glances towards the campfire, still crackling merrily into the windy winter night.

But it’s still cold.

Naruto and Sasuke are asleep in their respective sleeping bags, the light from the fire flickering softly across their features.

Naruto looks so calm and peaceful and Sasuke’s face is devoid of its apathy, as if just having the other beside them is enough. It is during moments like this that Sakura feels that resigned acceptance rise in her chest.

She’s not welcome.

Sakura sighs, steeling herself for enduring another night of biting cold, and makes to get up.

A hand stops her before she can, and Sakura’s startled eyes flick to Naruto, who’s suddenly awake. His blue eyes look luminescent in the orange glow of the campfire.

“Ah, Naruto… I was just about to…” Sakura says uncertainly and tries to tug her hand away. Naruto’s grip tightens.

“Sakura-chan,” Naruto murmurs sleepily, softly but firmly, “Just stay.”

Sakura wants to protest, but the words die on her lips when she sees Naruto’s eyes. You’re important to me, too, they say, and it just about melts her heart, makes her want to hug him so tight that he’ll never have to feel alone again.

Naruto looks at her expectantly and tugs once at her hand. There’s something so childlike about the gesture that Sakura it makes her chest clench with sadness.

“Okay,” she agrees softly and doesn’t protest when Naruto pulls her back against this chest.

It is a while before she allows herself to fall asleep (because she want s to savor this moment, prolong it) and just before she does, she thinks she sees Sasuke’s eyes staring at her. A larger hand is nudging hers and Sakura grips it loosely and smiles.

Things are different now, but nothing’s really changed.

They’re still her boys, they’re still team seven but most of all, they’re together.

There’s still a space between them, for her and her only, and as Naruto pulls her closer and Sasuke squeezes her hand back, Sakura knows that that’s enough.

-|-


Sometimes, Sasuke overindulges his misanthropic tendencies and sinks into himself, like a forlorn flotilla sinking slowly in still waters. When this happens, Naruto is always there to anchor him. He usually forces Sasuke onto his back with an unsurpassed determination and sucks him off desperately.

Sasuke is stubborn at first. He refuses to let Naruto touch him; flinches when Naruto does anyway, laying a soothing, tentative hand on slouched shoulders. Sasuke glares and viciously shoves Naruto – off the couch and onto the floor –and tells him, politely, to fuck off, I don't need this.

But Naruto's stubborn too – yes. you. do! – and the threat of physical violence and permanent disfiguration has never deterred him before, especially not when it comes from Sasuke. He knows the bastard's all bark and no bite, he knows he just wants a discreet grope or two of his ass under the pretence of a brawl, he knows he just wants an excuse to have Naruto that close.

A heavily sexual scuffle entailing broken furniture, hot-headed insults that neither of them really mean and clumsy progress towards the bedroom usually ensues, before Sasuke – pride finally appeased – allows himself to be pinned down, to go supine, pliant and boneless under Naruto's heaving form.

Then, in a charming contradiction, their heart beats slow and at the same time, speed up in anticipation of what's to come.

"Naruto…" Sasuke whispers hoarsely, and then turns away, hair falling over his face.
With one word he's given himself away.

Naruto takes that as his cue and gets to work. The shirts disappear first. Naruto tugs Sasuke's zipper down with his teeth before licking down the thin line of hair that starts from Sasuke's navel.

The psychic evaluation had deemed Sasuke "stable" enough to return to society on parole – Naruto had read the initial evaluation results, courtesy of one Hokage's apprentice, and it had made him sick. And it had made him angry, because god damn it, Sasuke isn't a rabid animal to be euthanized, and he isn't "mentally unhinged" either.

Sasuke is just a complex contradiction: focused and confused; intense and fragile.

Naruto's thoughts must reflect in his ridiculously tender ministrations, because pale, impatient fingers weave through his hair and yank him up none-too-gently from his particularly engaging task somewhere between black curls and white thighs.

"Damn it." Sasuke hisses, tone saturated with frustration rather than anger. "Stop treating me like a woman."

The heat is absent from his tone but his eyes are filled with liquid. Naruto never mistakes that glassy sheen for unshed tears because Sasuke has never been that weak. It is the reflection of desperation that Sasuke will never voice, because that almost borders on begging and Sasuke doesn't beg.

Naruto knows desperation when he sees it – he had been once desperate for people to see him – and something inside him breaks. He abruptly manacles Sasuke's wrists and crushes their mouths together, all zeal and zero finesse. In a move that is debatably better suited to a battlefield than a bedroom, he throws his bodyweight onto Sasuke and staples his wrists down on sheets more than acquainted with the stale stench of sweat and the heady odor of mutual arousal.

The reckless downward plunge leaves them both breathless and burning for more.
They come apart for air and a second later Naruto is parting his legs, pressing their cocks together and licking the saliva that dribbles down Sasuke's chin with the feverish enthusiasm of an addict.

"Fuck," Sasuke groans through clenched teeth when Naruto gyrates against him and Naruto can't help but think that Sasuke makes profanities sound sexy beyond reason.

He lightly, lazily, lavishly drags his sharpening teeth over the taut lines of Sasuke's neck, claws dragging across the blue blush of veins on pale wrists. Sasuke goes still as a corpse beneath him, but Sasuke’s pulse skyrockets under his lips, under his fingers. Naruto wonders what it would be like to live in his skin for a while.

"What do you think you're doing?" Sasuke doesn't ask so much as demand because Naruto’s never dominated him like that before, has never been this possessive and glares when Naruto doesn't release his wrists.

"Treating you," Naruto tells him, lazily lapping at his lower lip before his voice drops to a coarse, unrefined whisper, "like a man."

And Sasuke doesn't quite know what to say to that but he's grateful he doesn't have to respond when Naruto sloppily molds their mouths together and starts muttering obscenities against his lips.

-|-


There are some things they never talk about.

Things like the way Sasuke writhes wantonly under Naruto and commands —begs— him to just fuck me already, or the way Naruto clings to him afterwards, like he's afraid Sasuke'll run away again if he lets go.

Sometimes, the darkness wakes him up and Naruto stays up on those nights, and merely watches Sasuke sleep. He never tells Sasuke that he falls asleep only after he’s sure Sasuke has. He has a feeling that Sasuke knows anyway.

Sasuke’s eyes blink open when he feels Naruto’s stare. There’s something comforting about the darkness, something intimate, because Naruto tenderly cups the back of his head and murmurs a confession against his lips, Sometimes, I just feel like I’ll wake up one day and you won’t be there.

Idiot, Sasuke tells him, annoyed, I’m not going anywhere.

On those nights, Sasuke lets Naruto do anything he wants to his body, anything that’ll remind him that Sasuke doesn’t plan on giving this up anytime soon. The morning after, Sasuke wraps his arm around Naruto’s sleeping form and breathes him in when Nauto isn’t looking, because he’s afraid of losing this too.

Some nights, Naruto wakes up to find his limbs bound and Sasuke makes him promise to stay still while he takes his time. Naruto does his best to comply, partly because some secret part of him finds bondage erotic, but mostly because he knows Sasuke needs this reassurance that he has Naruto like nobody else does.

Naruto’s attempt at imitating a statue fails spectacularly however, when even after an inordinate amount of time has passed, Sasuke purposely refuses to touch him where he needs it the most.

Sasuke discovers that passion mellows with time, even though feelings only grow. That knowledge allows him to slow down, to observe, to etch into his memory how Naruto screams I'll kill you, I'll kill you, I swear! every time Sasuke roughly parts his thighs the way he likes it best, plunging in and setting an excruciatingly slow pace.

He never takes Naruto's threats seriously because all he hears is More, I want this, I want you and he loves it. He loves it when sometimes Naruto presses their naked bodies together like he's trying to melt into him, like he's trying to crawl under his skin and under his scars in an attempt to feel all of him, if only for a while.

When Naruto presses their foreheads together afterwards, Sasuke closes his eyes and wonders if this is what it's like to share the same fate.

-|-


The sunlight wakes him up.

Sasuke opens his eyes, slowly, and sees light playing on the nape of a tanned neck. Naruto looks peaceful, draped in that inviting, golden light and Sasuke doesn’t fight the impulse to weave his fingers into messy blonde hair.

Sunlight shouldn’t have a smell. Sunlight shouldn’t have a taste. But it does.

He smells it in the crook of Naruto’s neck, warm and crisp. Tastes it, salty and wet, when he licks at the exact same spot. Sasuke leans over and embraces Naruto sleepily, his arms pulling the other man closer of their own volition.

He sighs, exhausted, into Naruto’s hair and wishes this could go on, just a bit longer.

When the watery light from the curtained windows strikes his eyes, he closes them and concentrates instead on the sound of Naruto’s breathing, the beat of his heart, the heat of his skin. Sunlight feels like Naruto.

“Oi… didn’t know you liked to cuddle.”

Sasuke’s eyes snap open, the haziness pervading his mind vanishing in an instant, and he tries to jerk back immediately. Naruto’s arm closes around his back and stops him and he wonders for a second if he should struggle more or just begrudgingly allow himself to remain there.

It’s an easy decision and Sasuke allows himself to leisurely feel Naruto’s skin against his, to relax (but only because he’s too tired to resist right now, he tells himself).

“I don’t cuddle,” Sasuke tells the man under him, murmurs the words into his ear.

Naruto chuckles, deep and husky, against Sasuke’s neck. “Yeah, well you’re doing it right now.”

“Shut up,” Sasuke grumbles lazily, lips moving against the hollow of Naruto’s throat. He feels it vibrate when Naruto hums, just as indolently – the hum turns into am almost- purr when Sasuke scratches behind Naruto’s ear and bites at the skin on his clavicle.

The sheets rustle when Naruto’s thigh drags against his, slow and languorous, and that’s all Sasuke needs to tilt his head up and kiss Naruto.

It happens, unhurried and subtle, each touch carrying a secret meaning, each moan a declaration, each kiss an emotion.

This time, when Naruto’s fingers thread into his hair, they don’t yank – they tug, gently, as a sure, familiar mouth moves against his, pulling away before coming back together, again and again. This time, Sasuke’s eyes don’t turn red when Naruto’s hand grabs his left hipbone, where he is unusually sensitive, and drags his palm down – Sasuke’s eyes fall close and he just feels.

Naruto’s blunt nails don’t dig into his hips when Sasuke thrusts in and moves; they don’t clutch at the sheets or scratch at Sasuke’s back. They intertwine with pale fingers. Rough hands grip each other in ecstasy.

It’s a strange, surreal sort of fulfillment, a sliver of solace and everything of each other.

Sasuke’s life is filled with things gone wrong and things he’s done wrong. But when Naruto squeezes his hand like a lifeline, like he never wants this to end, Sasuke knows he’s finally done something right.

It takes three years for Sasuke to come back, two to admit that they’re something more, one to finally kiss Naruto and another three to get here. But, at twenty-one, he has learned to trade yesterday for tomorrow and knows that none of that really matters.

In the end, all the matters is that they’re here, that this is real.

When Naruto asks if he’s up for another round, Uchiha Sasuke smothers a chuckle into his shoulder and closes his eyes.

—End—



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