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sne_mod ([personal profile] sne_mod) wrote in [community profile] sn_exchange2010-08-21 02:07 pm

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For: [personal profile] kitarin
Title: All things of dearest value hang on slender strings.
Rating: R
Summary: Nothing sours a village’s mood faster than a heatwave, and with the anniversary of the Fourth Ninja War on the horizon, the Nanadaime Hokage knows something must be done about it. That’s where Sabaku no Gaara comes in, but Sasuke is not best pleased with his involvement.
Warnings: m/m sex, implied past torture
A/N: Dear prompter, this story was a joy and delight to write, even when I was stuck and tearing my hair out – which happened quite a bit! I have tried to include most of your kinks and the prompt scenario in here. I sincerely hope you enjoy it! This story would be nothing like what it is if it hadn’t been for the input of my beta, to whom I owe an enormous debt of gratitude for her steadfast belief in my writing abilities and her wise words of advice. She is truly a saint for having put up with me and put so much of herself into this story. The title comes from a quote by Edmund Waller. Thank you to all the mods for the wonderful work they are doing!
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.



All things of dearest value hang on slender strings.

It’s hot. Sweat is gathering at Naruto’s hairline, at his neck, at the base of his back where his Hokage robes won’t let the air in. Opposite him Gaara sits impassively and though Naruto imagines he’s used to the heat, he can still see a thin shine above his lip that means the weather is unbearable, even to the Kazekage.

Naruto knows they are not the only two people suffering. Konoha has been blanketed by the nastiest heat wave in recent memory and many people are floundering under its oppressive humidity. What Naruto wouldn’t give for a swim! This weather is good for nothing other than lounging somewhere on a beach, working on one’s suntan, he thinks idly.

Naruto’s thoughts drift, as they have often done the past few days, to the upcoming anniversary of the war. He knows that he is not the only one brooding and that it’s more than the heat that has the village subdued. ‘Too many gaps in the weave of familiar faces,’ is what Neji says, and Naruto knows he’s right. He is aware that he has recently started to focus more on the gaps than on the people actually there; he doesn’t like it. It’s not what Ero-sennin would have wanted, being mourned to the extent that it takes over his entire life, turning all enjoyment to ashes. Something needs to be done; as Hokage it falls on him to figure out what that something is. He has a number of advisors on all matters; surely someone can come up with something reasonable?

He sighs silently. This is not how he imagined his job as Hokage would be, and he wonders what Shizune had to do to keep Tsunade focused in meetings during her time as Godaime. These are peaceful times, however – he would go through a hundred more of these meetings if it ensured the safety and prosperity of his people. He has grown enough to understand that the more bored he is, the less trouble the village gets into. While he is not above complaining about it, he relishes it as the reminder it is – they have won, the war is over.

“You are thinking again,” Gaara observes, bringing Naruto’s musings to a stuttering halt.

“So I am,” he chuckles apologetically and rubs at the back of his hair, embarrassed at zoning out. He turns back to face Gaara, the slight breeze from the open window at his back teasing the damp hair at his nape. “Sorry about that. I’m not used to this sort of weather. I wish—“

Naruto seems to freeze for a moment, his eyes glazing slightly, and then he turns to look at Gaara with unrestrained excitement on his face. Gaara knows that look.

“I have an idea …” Naruto starts, but Gaara already knows that he does. He lifts an enquiring eyebrow, a feel of trepidation coming over him at the sight of Naruto’s twinkling eyes.

“How about we have a beach party?”

“A beach party,” Gaara repeats flatly.

“Yeah! A beach party. And Yamato-sensei can build a wooden swimming pool, and we can have the kids try surfing, and build sandcastles – and we can have a proper festival! A week-long festival! Maybe I could ask Prince Hikaru to lend us the Land of the Moon’s circus …”

Gaara will regret interrupting – “Have you forgotten where we are? Where are you going to get all this water and sand from?” – because the Nanadaime Hokage is now looking in his direction with a determined little sly smile at his mouth.

“You mean who am I going to get all this water and sand from.”

Gaara turns his gaze to stare pointedly at the window and Naruto doesn’t say anymore. He doesn’t need to. The heavy feel of the air and the gloomy mood of the people are things Gaara understands. In his own village he would have shaded them in a shield of sand; the duty of the Kage to provide for the needs of their subjects is something else he understands.

Gaara slides his focus away from the cloudless sky outside and with a sigh asks, “So who’s the water coming from?” and is not the least bit surprised that Naruto already has all of it planned.

***


Ino quickly drafts a short scroll to announce the event to the villagers. The result is everything Naruto had hoped for – as if a current passing through a livewire, the news makes the village shake off its detached frame of mind. Laughter is heard again, not just amongst the children, as everyone speculates on what activities there will be. Naruto and his advisors have decided that the daily itinery will be announced each morning in order to keep up the anticipation – the list of events will be read out an hour past sunrise, and everyone would be able to see if they have guessed correctly from seeing the enclosures that would be raised each night. Naturally, the Hokage and Kazekage will preside over many of these, and Naruto makes a note to have some prizes made out for the winners.

He is sitting in his office that afternoon, a mass of clones doing his paperwork behind him while he listens to Sakura wrapping up her report of the past fortnight at the hospital, when a whisper in the corner of the room signals the arrival of his ANBU captain. The fact that neither he nor Sakura can see him is irrelevant; the feel of his chakra is inscribed over both their hearts. There had been a time when they had feared they would never feel it again; or if they did, that it would be the final time. The novelty has yet to wear off even after five years.

Once Hawk is certain that the room is secure he steps forward as silently as he arrives. He reaches for his mask and tugs it off; Sasuke’s black eyes pin them to where they stand.

“Mission complete,” he murmurs softly.

“Hey, teme,” Naruto throws out casually, but his eyes drift over Sasuke from head to toe looking for anything out of place. When they find nothing, he relaxes imperceptibly. “Good to know. So, while you were away, I came up with the most awesome idea! We’re going to have a beach festival!”

Sasuke blinks in confusion. It’s always a little difficult throwing off his ‘mission’ frame of mind, and Naruto’s lightning-fast mood changes do not make the transition any easier.

“A beach party,” he says flatly.

Naruto huffs. “Why does everyone keep saying that?” he asks, sounding put-upon.

Sasuke raises an eyebrow at the outburst, but decides not to ask. “Did you miss the part where there are no beaches anywhere near here?”

“Oh, I got that covered!” Naruto says, waving a hand dismissively. “Gaara’s making one for us! I talked him into it this morning!”

Sasuke says nothing; he imagines he could recount that conversation fairly accurately even without having heard it. It is a good idea, he thinks, not least because it will get Naruto to relax a little. He imagines that being Hokage could get a little overbearing, especially with a certain date looming on the horizon. He smiles slightly, just a twitch of the lips.

“Did you make sure to warn Iruka-sensei before you announced it to the village, so he would be able to manage the bunch of over-excited pre-genin?”

“Kakashi did that,” Sakura says flatly. She observes him coolly, assessing for mission damage while at the same time giving nothing of her thoughts away. Their relationship has been … strained since he came back. He doesn’t quite know how to fix it; doesn’t know if he wants to.

He sees Naruto’s smile dim slightly and amends his thought – he doesn’t care about Sakura’s attitude except it upsets the dobe, so he probably will be doing something about it. He just hopes it isn’t one of those things broken beyond repair.

It’s difficult for him to see Naruto pretend not to be bothered by it, so he changes the topic – asks for details on the planned festival so that he can organise its defence. It’s then that Naruto drops his bombshell.

“I’ve issued a village-wide order for the cancellation of all missions and training over the one-week period. Everyone needs a break, and they can’t do that if they have work to worry about. I strongly suggest that you follow that guideline for ANBU.”

“Naruto, you know I can’t protect us adequately if I give all my men the time off. It is simply not feasible.”

An unseen but familiar voice enters the conversation then. “It can be done, however, on a skeleton crew of guards. It has been done before. Consider a four-man twenty-four-hour rotation, Sasuke. That way you can give most of the men at least three of the days completely off. We can’t afford to have a bunch of high-strung ANBU shinobi on our hands.” The voice comes from outside the window; it does not shock anyone – Kakashi has not bothered to shield his chakra from his former students for some time now. While he likes keeping them on their toes, it is not nearly as easy as it used to be.

Sasuke nods thoughtfully. “Yes, that would work. Very well, Hokage-sama, I will arrange for it.”

“I’ve told you time and time again; for fuck’s sake stop calling me that!”

“But it’s what you are. It’s what you’ve worked all your life to achieve.”

“Yeah, but the way you say it, it always sounds so damn sarcastic! I feel like you mock me all the time.” He bares his teeth in affront.

Sasuke smirks. It’s true that he can’t quite bring himself to say it with a straight face, but the dobe deserves the respectful title, he’s undoubtedly earned it. He should consider it a compliment Sasuke uses it at all.

“As Hokage-sama commands,” he says just to needle the idiot; he never gets tired of the way Naruto’s eyes narrow and his lips draw back in a snarl.

“Bastard,” Naruto hisses, but he’s smiling. Sasuke considers that a minor victory and moves on.

***


Later that evening when the sun is no longer baking the air, Gaara makes his way sedately over to the designated area listening to an overexcited Naruto yammer away in his ear. Yamato is already there, as are Gai and Lee, determined to give their best efforts to help set up this ‘admirable and noble youthful venture’. Gaara makes a few hand seals nobody out of Suna has seen and pretends not to notice when Uchiha’s Sharingan flares from his place just behind Naruto. Sand gathers in huge waves around them, smoothing over the broad grassy clearing and shaping itself into a large beach, complete with five small sand dunes. He steps back, satisfied.

Yamato moves forward next – several minutes later a large wooden enclosure is dug in at ground level, and he easily siphons water from the nearby waterfall to fill it up. The makeshift pool looks sturdy enough so Naruto tries out a Wind jutsu on it, raising meter-high waves with ease.

“That should be good enough for the surfing contest!” he exclaims happily.

“Yosh!” Lee shouts. “I challenge you, Gaara-sama, my eternal rival, to find out who can stay up the longest on a single wave! If I do not win, I shall swim eight hundred laps of the pool by sundown!”

“You’ve created a monster,” Yamato says wearily to Gai, who is beaming with pride at his beloved student.

Gaara looks at Lee’s excited face and gently sighs in exasperation.

***


The sand is scorching under Gaara’s bare feet the next morning; he’s not used to it doing that. He’s not used to not wearing sandals, either, but Naruto has pestering down to a fine art and he’s never been able to refuse him much, no matter how idiotic, not when it makes him this happy. As a result he’s left his gourd in his room – not that he needs it with this much sand readily available. He’s also left off most of his clothes, sporting only a pair of red swimming trunks and feeling exposed. He would already be sunburnt if it weren’t for the fine protective shell of sand that he always wraps around himself.

He looks around to where Naruto is in his element, surrounded by a large group of squealing kids vying for his regard, effortlessly paying attention to each and every one of them. Gaara has never been at his best with kids, but he concedes that Naruto is a natural. With his wild mane of blond spikes and his orange swimming trunks he is the brightest spot on the beach, a beaming supernova around which everyone orbits whether they are aware of it or not. His second shadow is conspicuously absent, however. Gaara idly wonders where he is, and whether Naruto has managed to convince the sullen Uchiha to unwind for a few hours. He walks amongst Konoha’s people, taking in the happy chatter, eager calls and exuberant greetings, a far cry from the ghost town that had greeted him when he arrived a few days ago – heads down, work done in silence, the only raised voices those of the smaller children who didn’t know any better. Naruto was right; morale couldn’t be higher, and while there are still many faces missing, they do not dampen the spirits as much.

Gaara sees children wherever he turns. A side effect of the war is the many, many war orphans who abound in all the shinobi villages. Most of them still have at least one parent, but orphanages to house them all had been amongst the first domains to be rebuilt. As soon as Naruto had been appointed as the Nanadaime Hokage, he had begun improving their conditions in Konoha. He, better than most, knew what was desperately needed, and what necessities no one under his protection would go without. Gaara has the same issue back in Suna; he copes with it by opening academies left and right, combining housing with lessons. He knows Naruto is working to copy that system – but strangely enough that is somewhat of a sore point for the Hokage.


When Tsunade had learned the truth of the Uchiha massacre over a decade ago, ripped out of a newly returned Sasuke’s unwilling mind by Yamanaka Inoichi’s Mind Borrowing jutsu, she had been livid. A trial had immediately been held where the remaining village elders had been deposed and exiled – Tsunade’s last act as Godaime Hokage before handing off the position to Kakashi for a few years’ safekeeping. However, the Uchiha compound had been seized by the village council a long time before that, leaving Sasuke for all intents and purposes homeless when he had been officially released. The compound had been the perfect size for a number of connected buildings to be raised and used to provide homes for all the kids; the village council had strongly urged Naruto to consider utilising it, but – it had been Sasuke’s home, and Naruto had found it impossible to tear it away from him. Raping his mind for information was one thing, but taking away the only reminder of his family was not something Naruto was capable of doing, and he had told the council so in no uncertain terms.

After the elders had gone, it had taken Sasuke a long time to get himself back together, months and months of futile raging, insomnia, violent nightmares when he had managed to doze, refusing to leave the holding cell – ‘classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder’, Sakura had said, and Sasuke had despised her for thinking she could put a name to the raw desolation that was his existence. The only person who had gotten through had been Naruto. At first Sasuke had fought him savagely, leaving both of them bruised and battered – broken bones and torn muscles had not been unusual. Sakura had begged Naruto to stop killing himself, but it had been like talking to the wind – Naruto had smiled sadly, said “I’m sorry, Sakura-chan, I can’t do that”, and kept going back to the holding cell whose door no longer locked.

Some time later – almost a year after Sasuke had come back Naruto had returned a month late from a mission that had only been supposed to last a fortnight. Sasuke had been horrified to realise he’d missed the blond menace. His shutters had slammed down and he had yelled and snarled at him for the entire hour Naruto had visited. He had also been unable to stop glancing at him every few minutes to make sure he was really back, alive and whole. Something had shifted that day for Sasuke; he could not unlearn what had become apparent. Steadily he had got better; another year later he had fought to get reinstated for active duty, because the only thing he knew how to be was a shinobi. His promotion through the ranks had been swift, and by that point, inevitable – it hadn’t taken him long to get where he is now.

***


Gaara’s wander takes him to the outskirts of the clearing – that is where he spots Sasuke, perfectly positioned to react instantly to any threat from the vulnerable forest area. Hyuuga Neji stands tall and collected next to him, long dark hair hanging in a silky sheet down his shoulders and back, calmly nodding in his direction with a murmured ‘Gaara-sama’. Sasuke nods an acknowledgement at him too, but his eyes continue darting from target to target. Gaara notices that his gaze strays most often to the centre where Naruto holds his people’s attention effortlessly, tanned skin gleaming in the sunlight. Naruto seems to sense him looking; he glances up and throws a small but sincere smile at Sasuke, whose eyes glaze slightly and who leans forward unconsciously towards the direction the blond is coming from.

Naruto bounces over, spares a grin for Gaara and Neji, but his eyes are focused on Sasuke.

“Teme, I thought I told you I did not want to see a damned uniform on you today!”

Sasuke raises an eyebrow, looking unruffled at being berated by his commander. “Then where would you suggest I put my kunai and senbon, Hokage-sama?”

“Want me to show you?” Naruto drawls. Sasuke sighs in exasperation.

“Shouldn’t you be getting the surfing competition ready for the genin?” he nods over at the pool.

Naruto turns to look at the kids all lined up with their little boards, and misses Sasuke’s mildly affectionate glance at him. “So I should,” he muses; a moment later he grins broadly. “Hey, hey, teme, I bet I can kick your ass at surfing!” he looks back at him, eyes narrowed in contemplation.

“What, you?” Sasuke smirks. “You couldn’t even stay on the board long enough for it to float.”

Sasuke smiles at the flush of resentment in Naruto’s face, the spat promise of victory now so predictable in their conversations. He follows the comfortable rhythm of their argument with his own insults, sneers, snide remarks until Naruto cracks and—

“That’s it! You’re on! Let’s go!”

—and Sasuke looks down on Naruto with all the condescension his childish challenge deserves. “I’m on duty. And besides, it’s stupid. Who am I proving myself to? You?”

“You just don’t have any swimming trucks, do you? You can borrow a pair of mine—”

“No,” Sasuke counters immediately. The thought of himself in orange swimming trucks is horrifying.

“Scaredy-cat!”

“What are you, four?”

“Fuck, you are so frustrating sometimes!”

“Leave, dead-last.”

“Damn it!” Naruto growls menacingly, kicks viciously at the sand at Sasuke’s feet and stalks away. Sasuke flashes a rare smile at his back, enjoying himself for the first time in weeks.

“Do you wish to tell us something, Sasuke?” Neji enquires dryly.

Sasuke whips his head around to look at him, “What are you talking about?” he asks, his tone a warning in itself.

“I merely assumed that you and Naruto-sama had taken your relationship to the next level,” Neji says candidly and yet as respectful as he’s ever been.

Sasuke scrutinises him carefully; he finds nothing but the barest hints of amiable teasing.

‘And what do you think the next level would be?” he enquires with barely suppressed ire.

“Do you need me to spell it out for you, Sasuke?” Neji smirks, enjoying his friend’s irritation, a sure sign he was getting to him.

“I was asking after your own delusions.”

“Hmm. Could it be that you have no intentions regarding Naruto-sama? Perhaps you wouldn’t mind if I invited him to dinner, then? It has been some time since we’ve had a chance to talk.”

The very idea makes Sasuke nauseous. Neji with his long, pale fingers wrapped around Naruto’s own; Neji smiling into Naruto’s eyes, Neji pressing closer to Naruto to claim a kiss … No. This is not to be allowed to happen. Not if he has anything to say about it.

Neji observes Sasuke’s pallid complexion with satisfaction. Has he at last managed to get the message through to him? If not – then Sasuke is beyond help.

“I would really rather you didn’t, Neji,” Sasuke forces from behind gritted teeth.

“Do I take it that you are going to invite him out in my place?” he asks, hopeful for an end to this charade.

“You can take it however you want, so long as you stay away from him.” Sasuke states calmly. He does not need to palm the hilt of his sword to make his point. He’s sure both Neji and Gaara understand him loud and clear.

“You may wish to keep in mind that Naruto and I used to be in a relationship,” Gaara says suddenly. “I would very much appreciate it if you could make sure that I never have to see a look on his face like the one he would get when he came back after yet another fruitless hunt for you.”

“What look?” Sasuke snaps; he dislikes being lectured, but the calmly stated fact of their relationship rankles even more.

“Like his heart had been ripped out of his chest and trampled. You have been making him miserable with your constant rejections for years, and it needs to stop.”

Sasuke is completely taken aback. “What? I never—“

“Yes, you have. Cast your mind to five minutes ago.”

I’m on duty! Hokage-sama is not always at his most alert when he’s enjoying himself. Someone has to watch his back.”

“Unless I am very much mistaken, there are three more ANBU guards on duty in the forest trees behind us at this moment. That is no excuse.”

“I don’t want to strut around in a fucking swimsuit!”

Swearing, Gaara thinks. Swearing is good. His shell is cracking.

“You may have noticed that Suna’s Kazekage is, in fact, ‘strutting around in a fucking swimsuit’, and is no less dignified for it,” Neji refutes, earning himself a considering look from the man in question.

“Uchiha, you’ll do it, and you’ll look happy to be there. Am I clear?” Gaara states flatly, having had enough of Sasuke’s evasion.

“Do not presume to tell me what to do in my village, Kazekage-sama,” Sasuke snarls back, infuriated.

When Gaara merely raises his nonexistent eyebrows at him, Sasuke scowls at the two meddling ninjas.

“I’ll do it my way,” he tells them and stalks off purposefully towards the place where Naruto is cheering on the kids from the nearby orphanage compound as they do their best to stay on the boards. Neji looks after him for a bit; then he turns to share another look with Gaara.

“That went well,” he opines. Gaara smirks.

***


As Sasuke nears, he sees three or four of the younger kids lose their balance on the boards and flop over in the water, all of them shrieking with laughter. A nineteen-year-old Konohamaru-sensei watches his own genin team with amusement as they pester him to let them try out. He nods and they’re off; Naruto makes sure to keep the waves as small as before so that the three twelve-year-olds don’t capsize straight away. Sasuke snorts – soft-hearted moron. Naruto looks up, spots him and winks; the next second a friendly wave pushes gently under the surfboards and the kids are floating on its crest, almost passing out with excitement. Naruto sets them down just as gently over the edge of the pool and they run off over to their sensei to brag about how good they are, yelling all the way. Naruto watches them, a faint bittersweet tilt to his lips that Sasuke almost doesn’t catch. Sasuke is sure that he is thinking about his own childhood, so different from the way these kids are growing up, orphans and yet not. Naruto waves to Konohamaru and passes his wave-making duties on to him, then walks over to join Sasuke under the tarp shading a section of the beach, where five or six heavily pregnant civilian ladies and kunoichi are sitting on decking chairs watching the events and chatting idly.

“Changed your mind?” Naruto asks, smiling warmly at him; Sasuke wants to call himself the idiot that he is, because it’s so very obvious how Naruto feels about him when he knows what to look for.

“I was thinking more that you need your ego knocked down a peg for everyone’s good,” he smirks back; Naruto glares at him.

‘What?! You are lecturing me about the size of my ego? Fucking hypocrite! I’m taking you down!”

He grabs Sasuke’s wrist in one large hand and drags him off to the changing rooms on the other side of the clearing, pushing him into the nearest cubicle.

“Strip,” he orders. “I’ll be right back with a pair of swim trunks.”

“Don’t bother, I have mine on,” Sasuke advises and watches Naruto slowly turn red with fury.

“Bastard! I can’t believe you’ve been having me on!”

Sasuke smirks and reaches for the hem of his sleeveless top, tugging it off slowly, revealing a stretch of pale skin. Naruto bushes darkly before resolutely turning his back to him, muttering something about ‘going blind’, and ‘common decency’, and ‘close the damned door’.

Sasuke smirks at the dark pink colour on the back of his neck and ears before tugging the door of the stall closed.

***


Naruto can’t remember the last time he paid so much attention to not tripping. His composure is severely rattled by the way Sasuke prowls at his side, and he thinks he may have an inkling as to why Sasuke did not want to undress. His skin is littered with scars, but this will only encourage all the women who trail behind them surreptitiously. God knows it makes him want to trail his fingers over each of them, to learn their story one by one. He really hopes the teme doesn’t catch him staring – he’ll never let him live it down.

Sasuke walks next to Naruto, pretending not to notice the exaggerated attention the blond pays to his feet and the barely noticeable sideways glances thrown at him from under lowered eyelashes. The sand feels good slipping between his bare toes; Sasuke takes a moment to simply bask in the glorious day, moving fluidly side by side with the one constant presence in his life. The crowd parts for them – two tall, powerful young men enjoying each other’s company. They reach the pool quickly, and Sasuke’s blood already stirs with the thought of competing against his rival after all this time.

“Okay! Everyone, we’re going to have a friendly little competition,” Naruto says, an untamed grin overtaking his face – nobody present believes there’s going to be anything friendly about it.

He outlines the details and conditions of the contest in a long, drawn out speech; Sasuke tunes him out and selects a decent-sized board, aerodynamic enough to please him. He gives it an experimental flex and is happy with the results. He sees Kakashi watching him, raising a suggestive eyebrow and grinning his filthy grin behind the mask; he suppresses the urge to flush. The way Kakashi keeps glancing between him and Naruto is extremely unsettling – hasn’t Kakashi heard of subtlety? Kakashi winks at him with his uncovered eye – Sasuke tries out his best blank look, but it only makes Kakashi actually start laughing. He scowls; he hates being teased as if he were twelve again, especially with Naruto now throwing curious looks at the two of them. He makes a note to get the pervert back for that.

Naruto finishes his rambling, swaggers over to Sasuke looking like he’s won already, and casually signals at Gaara. Gaara doesn’t move, but sand swirls in the air before Naruto and shapes itself in a perfect surfing board, hard enough to hold its shape but soft enough to flow with the water to a perfect speed. He glances slyly at Sasuke, looking far-too-pleased with himself. Sasuke is blindsided for a moment – what is Naruto playing at? For that matter, what the hell is Gaara up to, playing favourites? Sasuke had thought he had made his thoughts on the matter of Naruto quite plain!

Naruto shoots a triumphant smile at Sasuke, delighted with the dark scowl on his face. Sasuke bares his teeth in irritation and pushes him in the pool. This turns out to be a mistake – Naruto latches on to his wrist and pulls him in after him. Sasuke emerges, wet hair unflatteringly stuck to his face, forehead drawn and eyes narrowed in a severe frown at his tormentor. Naruto takes one look at him and falls over laughing, almost swallowing water the wrong way. He sits in the shallow depth and giggles like a toddler, shoulders shaking, spluttering incoherently what Sasuke strongly suspects are insults he should bite his head off for. He makes to walk off –he’s going to be having another chat with Gaara, when Naruto jumps up and grabs his wrist again.

“Oh, no,” he gasps, “you’re not getting away that easily. Come on, teme. Time for a challenge.”

Konohamaru sets off his Wind jutsu again, much stronger than when Naruto was casting it for the kids earlier. Two-metre-high waves flow on the surface and the two of them jump right in, swimming deeper as fast as they can. Naruto is the first to try balancing on top of his sand-board, but he’s misjudged – he yelps loudly and disappears under the foaming waves not three seconds after. Sasuke spares him a glance to check if he’s okay. Noticing the blond head reappear, hair flattened and eyes determined, he returns his mind to the challenge. He bides his time much better than his rival, Sharingan whirling, selecting the perfect wave with ease. He flips to standing on top of the board, channelling a little chakra to the soles of his feet to help him stabilise and stay up easier. Naruto yells a protest and copies him, crouching slightly from the speed.

Sasuke’s knees are only slightly bent; his chakra control perfect, he judges the speed and angle of landing with every movement. Naruto catches up to him in moments and whoops in exhilaration, the wind making his spiky hair flop against his head, grinning so wide it almost splits his face in two. Sasuke can’t find it in himself to begrudge him the pleasure, so he decides not to knock him over as he had planned to, but let him enjoy the ride.

As Sasuke had known it would happen, they reach the shore at the same time and in the same position. Naruto winks at him and, with a burst of wind chakra, accelerates to pass him at the last moment. Sasuke would be livid if Naruto had not miscalculated again – the wind spurs him on slightly too well and he sails over the sand to bury himself head-first in the nearest sand dune. Sasuke steps off his own board calmly and struggles not to laugh as he watches Naruto battle to re-emerge to a chorus of giggling from every kid present. He finally steps out with sand trailing from every part of his body, but Sasuke sees to his pleasure that he’s still grinning.

“Brilliant,” he laughs. “I win!”

“Yes, yes,” Sasuke waves him off. Naruto sends him a smaller, self-depreciating smile that seems to be saved just for him; warmth suffuses his chest again, and he lets it.

***


The next day it’s time for a sandcastle-building competition, and Sasuke is back to wearing his ANBU uniform; he has left the protective breastplate off in honour of the occasion. He feels secure enough in his preparations to let it go – there are three other trusted ANBU members on guard around the beach-clearing.

Naruto has assigned Gai to lifeguarding duties today, which is doubly effective – Gai is in his element, and people are very, very careful not to go into the water too deep and put themselves in danger – nobody wants Gai’s muscled presence bearing down on them full-speed, yelling reassurances of imminent restoration of their youthful force. Naruto wishes he’d thought of that yesterday; Sai says nothing but sets up his easel, capturing Gai as a bird of prey mid-flight and ignoring the dozens of kids gathered behind him, curiously looking on as he flicks his brush incessantly.

There are teams of kids and adults, some mixed and some not, standing ready by the many small piles of sand that Gaara set up before dawn, looking determined and glaring around at their competition. All eight genin teams of the current generation have turned up to compete against each other, their senseis looking on from the sidelines. There are smaller, pre-genin kids, too, taking part with their parents. At the signal each team dives in the sand piles; a cloud of dust flies into the air. Some of the teams attempt to work with chakra – the eldest Hyuuga boy doing particularly well, while some are not so successful – the youngest Inuzuka girl has to be dug out by her dog and dragged out of the hole she’s made by her frowning teammates.

Naruto parades the lines, dressed in a lightweight mesh shirt and his usual orange trousers and white Hokage coat. Whenever he passes a team, they stand to attention like soldiers; at his warm smiles they relax and preen like the kids they really are. Sasuke shakes his head. The Nanadaime Hokage commands not only his people’s respect, but their love, too – that is why he is just as strong, if not stronger than his predecessors.

“Okay, I’m leaving the rest to you, now,” he announces. “You have another ninety minutes to complete your projects before me and Kazekage-sama come back to determine the winners.” An increase in frenzied activity follows this statement while Naruto makes his way over to the food stands.

Unsurprisingly, every single proprietor of a catering establishment in the village is out here, from dango stands, to barbeque, to ice cream and candyfloss, to Ichiraku’s ramen, where Naruto has a free all-you-can-eat pass from the old man himself for the duration of the festival. Sasuke reminds himself to at least try to limit the damage Naruto is going to wreck on Ichiraku’s supplies. God knows Chouji and his youngest nephew are already having a good go at decimating the barbeque stand, but he’s paying for it.

Jounin and chuunin are everywhere, making the most of this impromptu holiday and milling amongst the civilians, catching up with friends. Many of them are lounging in the sun, playing cards, and chess, and go, and backgammon very loudly, as is their habit. There are bottles of sake in practically every place that two or more people are sitting together, but Sasuke supposes they deserve it after a whole year of working hard to preserve Konoha’s integrity and prosperity.

While Sasuke’s been looking around, Naruto has already put away two bowls of ramen and is making progress on his third under the smiling eyes of old man Ichiraku. Ayame winks at Sasuke when he meanders over, placing a bowl of tomato ramen before him with a smile.

“On the house,” she says, but he shakes his head.

“You’re in enough trouble with this one as it is,” he says, nodding over at the slurping Naruto on his left.

“Hey!” Naruto protests, mouth still full.

“Honestly, Uchiha-san, it’s no trouble. We’ll hardly notice it with the amount Hokage-sama puts away.”

Sasuke nods in thanks and digs in – it’s long since gone lunchtime, and he’s ravenous.

When three other patrons make their way to the stand, Naruto shifts closer to Sasuke to make space for them. His thigh is warm where it slides firmly against Sasuke’s while he makes himself comfortable. Sasuke feels himself flush slightly at the ease with which Naruto acts around him – like they have been a couple for years when he’s only just realised being with him is even possible. He presses back, tentatively, and Naruto pauses in stuffing his face to smile at him happily. He can’t quite stop the answering smile that curves his lips when he looks at the blond, sitting next to him like nothing has changed since they were twelve and yet minding his white Hokage coat so carefully, still unused to the weight of it. Sasuke cannot remember a time when he has felt this content.

Then one of the customers trips and jostles Naruto as he exits, turning to apologise profusely at his Hokage. Naruto removes himself from Sasuke’s arms which have tightened automatically around him, and smiles benevolently at the man assuring him he is fine. Sasuke’s chest tingles where Naruto’s warm weight had settled for those brief moments. His fingers twitch, wanting to tug Naruto closer again; but Naruto has already turned back to his first love that is ramen, and pays him no attention.

***


The judging of the sandcastle-building competition is a momentous occasion. The children are suitably in awe of Hokage-sama’s grave expression and Kazekage-sama’s considering look, fairly shaking with anticipation and nervousness. Sasuke is impressed by the variety – there are castles with spirals and leaves etched into their turrets, others with actual ninjas keeping guard, there’s even a team who has a half-naked shinobi climbing out of the window of their sand villa – sure enough, they are Konohamaru’s crew, the cheeky monkeys. There are magnificent towers weaved with sand flowers and vines, villas guarded by giant dogs, even a copy of the Hokage monument, Naruto’s grinning face featuring prominently at the end with the six whisker marks etched deeply into his cheeks. There are birds with every feather lovingly chiselled, giant hydras, a heavily reinforced fortress and even a fountain letting forth sand every few seconds.

Naruto has to make four passes around the entries before coming to a decision. He is distracted and deep in thought, though Gaara can see that he’s not really thinking about the competition they are judging. When Gaara has to remind him for the second time which three entries are their top choices, he knows something isn’t quite right and looks at him more carefully. Naruto keeps touching his right arm, as if there is something that bothers him, but Gaara sees no change in the fluidity of his movements so it can’t be from pain or discomfort. It’s as if he fell against something and can’t get away from the feel of it.

“Everything okay?” Gaara murmurs softly, but Naruto starts as if he has yelled in his ear.

“Yes! Fine!” he answers, too quickly, but Gaara lets it go for the moment.

First prize goes to a gorgeous rendition of a phoenix by Nara Shiomi, Hyuuga Hisae and Sarutobi Kazuki, the genin team that Naruto had bullied Tenten into taking on. The two girls and one boy are beside themselves with glee; Naruto bestows a beautiful scroll upon their team, on which Sai has very quickly sketched a stylised rendition of their flaming bird. Gaara shakes each of them by the hand, looking grave – the kids are utterly in awe of him and dare only speak timid ‘thank-you-Kazekage-sama’-s to his congratulations.

***


That evening, members of the Hokage’s advisory committee gather at the Hokage tower to plan out the upcoming festival four days from now. They decide that the clearing should be returned to its previous condition and stalls can be erected there the night before. The sixth and seventh day will be entirely reserved for the festival. Hinata is delegated the organisation of activities for the children, with Sai to help her. Naruto still can’t get over how well those two are getting on – the soft-spoken Hyuuga heiress seems to know just what to say to make the social outcast feel less alienated; he in turn is devoted to her for her unfailing kindness to everyone she meets regardless of rank or ability, which he does not understand but appreciates nonetheless.

Chouji takes over the catering organisation, naturally; no-one else can do a more thorough job of sorting out which stand should go where. For the circus coming into Konoha on the sixth day, lent to them by the Land of the Moon’s Prince Hikaru, Naruto chooses Kiba to take care of everything they should need.

“Just because I’m an Inuzuka does not mean that I like any other animals besides our dogs, you know!” Kiba grumbles, put-out.

“But you’re the only one who knows what they might need, though. Go on, take one for the team,” Naruto urges and the rest nod. Kiba, outnumbered, sulkily agrees.

“Tell you what,” Naruto says when he sees this, “I’ll build you that training enclosure you’ve been hampering on about in exchange.”

Kiba brightens immediately.

Some time later, duties divided, the meeting breaks up. As soon as everyone but Sasuke’s gone, Naruto yawns widely and stretches. “Crap, that was a long day,” he mumbles.

Sasuke agrees – he’s exhausted himself.

“Do you want a drink?” Naruto asks, so casually that Sasuke almost misses the nervous flicker of eyes in his direction.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, dobe,” Sasuke tells him reluctantly. He hates to say no to him, but it would be a really bad idea to lower their inhibitions further at this point in time when they are already so tired. “I’m on duty tonight,” he adds to make the rejection less abrupt.

“Another time, maybe,” Naruto shrugs dismissively. Sasuke isn’t fooled – he sees the way his refusal makes Naruto hunch his shoulders inwards. It makes Sasuke hate himself.

Naruto bids him goodnight in a husky voice that rushes straight to Sasuke’s groin. With another yawn that almost dislocates his jaw, he wanders off up the stairs to his bedroom.

Sasuke doesn’t head home – he’s on first watch; even as tired as he is he won’t be swapping with anyone else. The ANBU are on a tight rotation this week, four members covering all the weak points while their comrades rest up a little. Second and third watch at Hokage tower belong to Tortoise and Rabbit, so he only technically has until midnight to go until he gets relieved. Utterly silent, Uchiha Sasuke withdraws his mask – Hawk slips it over his face. He drops out of the Hokage tower’s eastern window, disappearing into the falling darkness.

***


It was raining again. It often rained in his dreams. The thunder of the nearby waterfall covered the sound the raindrops made when they splattered over his face, almost blinding him, making it hard to breathe. His body hurt so bad – he looked down, taking in all the blood soaking through his shirt and into the muddy ground underneath. His chest was ripped open, a fist-sized hole all the way through. His heart was broken; he could see the two halves plain as day, held together by nothing but a thin red thread. He turned his head with some effort, looked to his side. He saw a pair of feet standing very close. Someone waiting to finish the job, perhaps? He knew he was dead anyway, could not live without the other half of his heart; and that had walked away from him just like those feet were turning around and walking away. The barely-there red line stretched from the halves of his heart to the man’s hand, wrapping around the fist. He knew that if that man chose to, he could repair his heart as if it had never been broken, or break him altogether.

The man hesitated, looked back – a pair of dark eyes bore into his from behind a wet fringe of black hair. The eyes were cold; they seared through his soul. He tried to call out – he wanted the man to come back. He needed the man to come back so he could carry on living. If the man went away, well, he might as well let go right there, in this godforsaken valley at the end of the world. His voice came out in a croak, tears streaming down his throat, desperate.

“S-Sasuke …”

The man turned, but did not come back. He waited.

“Please don’t—“ was as far as he got before the man’s eyes narrowed as he took hold of the line and tugged, stretching it far-too-tight …

***


Hawk watches his Hokage sleep. He takes in the open face, slack in relaxation; the blond eyelashes, fluttering on his cheeks as he dreams; the finely muscled body, at rest for once. This man, to whom he has been connected since the day he was born. This man, whom he has saved twice – who has saved Hawk back more times than he can count. This man, who had kept Hawk going even when he had hated him, whom he failed to kill so many times. This man, who is the reason for everything Hawk does, from the moment he wakes to the rare moments he sleeps. The man whom Hawk loves, who commands his every muscle, every thought. Should Hawk let him know? He does not need the complication, that’s for sure – he’s Hokage-sama, he has an image to uphold. Hawk stands guard anyway – he will stand guard over him until the moment either dies. There was a time when he had turning his back on this man, left him behind, not caring about the things that broke and bled in a place he no longer belonged. He cannot imagine doing so now.

His Hokage shifts slightly in his sleep, burrowing his head into his pillow. His breath is coming more rapidly than it had a minute ago, but he is still unconscious. Hawk looks at the moon and listens – a faint hoot signals that the presence he feels is the arrival of the ANBU officer on second watch. Hawk takes a final glance at the Hokage and, sure he is as safe as can be, he silently shimmers to the Hokage tower’s roof.

“All clear,” Hawk reports. “It’s been a silent night so far.”

“Copy that,” Tortoise says softly. “Get some rest, Hawk, you look tired. I’ll take over now.”

Hawk nods and disappears, only to reappear back where he had been a minute ago, chakra tightly shielded. His subordinates don’t know that he spends his nights right here, alert for any sound out of place. His training to sleep with one eye open, get as much rest as he can while still remaining vigilant, dates back almost a decade – it is child’s play for him by now. He trusts his men with his life, but not with the life of his Hokage-sama, not when he knows better than anyone just how fragile he really is beyond the Kyuubi’s powers of healing. It would take very little to break this indestructible man – just a tiny seed of doubt planted in the right place.

The sleeping form stirs; Hawk stays where he is. Hokage-sama has nightmares sometimes, but he wakes quickly enough, no doubt the Kyuubi sensing its host’s distress and rousing him straight away. This time is different, though.

“Sasuke,” Hokage-sama gasps, the sound barely making it out of his dry throat. He reaches towards Hawk, patently still asleep. “Sasuke, please,” he begs in a broken voice.

Hawk cannot stay out here any longer. He cannot leave, either, not when his Hokage is calling for him. He takes a step forward, closer than he’s ever been to the interior of this room. Another leap and he’s inside, a dark shadow blocking the light from the window. The sleeping man chokes, desperately reaching for him. Before Hawk knows it he’s at the bed, taking the Hokage’s hand in his gloved one. The hand grips him hard, almost cutting off his circulation. It tugs him forward; he is caught off-guard, pulled to kneel on the bed beside him.

“Sasuke,” Naruto pleads hoarsely.

“I’m here,” Hawk finds himself saying. “I’m here, Hokage-sama.”

Hokage-sama frowns, still asleep. “Sasuke,” he insists.

Hawk reaches up with his free hand and tugs his mask off. Sasuke slumps over the corner of the bed where he’s kneeling. “I’m here, Naruto.” His own voice is just as hoarse.

“Don’t leave, Sasuke. Please don’t leave me again.”

Sasuke stares down at him. It’s very dark in the room, but he can see Naruto’s eyes are still closed tightly. He wonders what Naruto could be dreaming of, to keep him from waking, to make him this desperate for him. He wonders if he can promise something that would trap him in this village for the rest of his life, tie him so firmly to its people and their leader. He never thought he would be facing this choice in his lifetime; he expected to die long ago, taking this village with him. Still, Konoha has been changing, improving, evolving into a village where Itachi would never have been forced to make that sacrifice, where his father would never have contemplated staging a coup d’état in the first place. A village they would have been proud to be a part of, live in, give their lives for. If he is honest with himself, he has made his choice long ago.

“I won’t,” he murmurs, saying it out loud for the first time. He chose this man. He always will. Saying it makes the choice real; he won’t back out of a promise freely made. For the first time, it doesn’t leave the bitter taste of defeat in his mouth. It feels like a fresh start instead.

He makes to let go of the hand so he can move to a chair, but it holds on tight; Naruto makes a distressed sound in the back of his throat. Sighing, Sasuke shifts and curls up at the corner of the bed over the sheets, trying not to jostle him enough to wake up. Naruto’s breathing slows and eases; a faint smile curves his lips. He inhales deeply, lets it out in a long sigh. “Sasuke,” he murmurs, and is silent for the rest of the night. Sasuke spends the hours looking at him, memorising his face, his scent, the breath falling over his face, the feel of his body so close to his. He doesn’t touch him but for the hand holding his, which Naruto tugs further across and curls his body around, as if afraid it would disappear if he doesn’t hold on to it as tight as he can. The sleeping man’s chest rises and falls along his arm, heat warming him like his very own furnace.

He contemplates all the twists and turns that have led him here, to this bed, even if he’s not entirely permitted to be in it, not consciously. That is why he does not touch Naruto any more than he is already. When he does, he wants Naruto to be awake for it, to want it, to need it the way he needs Naruto’s touch to make him feel whole.

Naruto turns, still clutching at his hand; the moonlight falls on his bare chest. The skin is smooth, toned, unblemished, but Sasuke can easily imagine the ragged-edged hole that had once been there.

***


Naruto wakes up slowly – he is perfectly warm and drowsy, and the sheets smell like his favourite scent in the whole world. He inhales deeply and turns his face further into his pillow. He’s clutching something unyielding to his chest, he realises; something that feels oddly familiar. He starts to look down just as an exhale hits the side of his face. He freezes, then he turns his head very slowly so as not to startle the sleeping intruder, and finds himself nose-to-nose with an unconscious Sasuke.

Sasuke hmmms and curls closer to him. Their lips are practically touching now, only a couple of inches apart. Naruto studies the beloved face from closer than he’s ever been allowed before without them pummelling the stuffing out of each other. He takes in the deep dark valleys under Sasuke’s eyes, making him look so very much like Itachi used to. How long has it been since Sasuke last slept?! And how has he not noticed those before? Has Sasuke been concealing them with a jutsu of some sort? Never mind that, why isn’t Sasuke sleeping? Is he having nightmares again? The thought worries Naruto enough to make him snap out of his daze.

He glances at the open window – dawn is only just starting to break over the sky. It’s very early – must be just after 5 a.m., but Naruto is wide awake, having been asleep for longer than he normally has time for. He makes to stretch – and realises just what it is he has been clutching to his chest all this time. He stares at Sasuke’s hand held tight in his, a puzzled expression on his face, and then suddenly the memory of his dream slams back into him and he inhales sharply in surprise. The pale, dark man from his dreams had tugged the string tight, almost to breaking point; then he had walked back slowly, letting the string wrap back up around the two broken halves of his heart, knitting them whole. He had moulded his chest closed with his hands, had taken Naruto’s wrist and tied the leftover red string over it. Naruto had grabbed at the withdrawing hand, tugged a bit of string away from his chest and tied a matching length around the pale wrist.

Naruto blinks rapidly when Sasuke exhales in a huff, breath teasing at his lips. They tingle pleasantly, and Naruto realises that Sasuke is curled up in bed next to him. A single move from either of them will brush their lips together, and to his surprise there is nothing he wants more in the world. Sasuke’s arm is warm against his chest where he clutches it, and he’s never felt anything better than holding his best friend and rival’s hand. He has no idea why this is so easy when nothing between them ever has been, but it is.

He can’t think properly, not with Sasuke’s eyelids fluttering like that, the bruised skin of his cheekbones close enough to nuzzle gently, and Sasuke smelling like that and how come he’s never realised it was Sasuke’s smell that made him so happy?

Unlike Naruto, Sasuke snaps awake immediately, urgently scanning his surroundings for possible danger. The only thing he discovers is Naruto, pressed tightly against his front, gently nipping at his parted lips. He catches his breath in surprise; Naruto takes the opportunity to slip his tongue in his mouth, twining deliciously with his. Sasuke stays very, very still, a deer in the headlights – Naruto shifts closer, slipping a muscled thigh between his legs. Lips catch and drag against his – he is still dazed from the thought that Naruto is actually kissing him – Naruto bites down. The small shock helps convince him that this is real. The late morning light shines into azure eyes dancing with warmth – Naruto is awake, then, and Sasuke’s lying next to him. Sasuke had been sleeping next to him, he realises with a rush of displeasure. He must have dropped off, lulled by the peaceful rising and falling of Naruto’s chest and dawn lightening the pitch-black sky.

Naruto pulls back after a moment, discouraged by Sasuke’s lack of response. He looks at him, takes in the dazed look in his eyes, the way he’s clutching at the sheets, as if afraid to let go.

“Did I talk in my sleep?” Naruto asks, figuring that if there wasn’t going to be any kissing, at least they could talk.

“You called my name,” Sasuke rasps, throat dry from sleep.

“And you came. And you stayed.”

“You wouldn’t let go of my hand.”

Naruto scoffs at Sasuke’s feeble protest. “As if you couldn’t break my hold! What if I never want to let go of your hand again? Will you still stay?”

Sasuke knows that despite Naruto’s teasing grin they’re not talking about handholding anymore. He hesitates, taking in the way Naruto’s eyes widen at his prolonged silence, and answers simply, “Yes.”

***


Sasuke walks the perimeter, heart lighter than it has been for almost two decades. His lips still tingle from Naruto’s snatched kisses as they had rushed to dress and jutsu to the clearing – it had been much later in the day than either of them was used to getting up at. The knowing glances from their fellow shinobi do not go unnoticed, but he’s in much too good of a mood to care about the bruise he found on the side of his neck that Naruto had claimed for his own that morning; he is perfectly capable of healing it, of course, but he opts to leave it as a declaration of intent. He smiles darkly – there’s an activity on the planner today that is going to give him the opportunity he’s been looking for to get his own back at Kakashi.

Everyone at the committee had been profoundly unsurprised that it had been Iruka-sensei to come up with what promised to be the most enjoyable event of the festival – paintballing. It’s fun for all the ages, and it’s scheduled for noon today. It’s already gone 11 am; the enclosure is being set up right now, complete with chakra-infused metal wiring to stop the audience getting paint all over them by missiles gone awry, and huge boulders scattered across the space for players to take cover behind, courtesy of the Akimichi clan’s Baika no Jutsu. The paintballs are being lined up, to be dispatched by hand (with the help of a little chakra flare). It is a great exercise to improve the kids’ aim and chakra control; with the added incentive of getting one over on their senseis, the event promises to be the most popular one in the entire festival – even the Nanadaime himself is participating.

Sasuke makes his way over there, circling milling families and groups of kids with their heads together and evil smiles on their usually cherubic faces. Iruka-sensei stands guard by the neck-high pile of paintballs, divided conveniently in compact egg-shaped pouches to be strapped to one’s belt. Naruto is there already, chatting happily with his old teacher and eyeing up the nearest pouch; he’s hat-and-coat-less now, for fear of ruining them with the paint – he’ll never hear the end of it from Ino if he does. He notices Sasuke’s approach and sends him a private smile, just a hitch of his lips, but, oh, his eyes, they promise to fulfil Sasuke’s every wish and fantasy as soon as the day is over. Sasuke returns it, lets his own eyes fall to stare intently at Naruto’s lips as he walks past him and watches him blush and squirm with a twist of warmth in his chest.

The contestants line up around the inside of the vast enclosure that takes up half of the designated beach space, all of them dressed in protective coveralls, each clutching at their first choice of projectile. Naruto is standing directly opposite Sasuke, making no secret of the fact that as soon as the whistle goes he’s heading straight for him. His shit-eating grin is stretching his face wide, and his eyes twinkle behind the protective plastic shades Iruka-sensei had insisted they all put on. Sasuke wishes there was a way to discourage him until he’s finished with a certain silver-haired pervert, but knows better than to hold out hope for reprieve.

He eyes his target carefully. Kakashi is looking as bored as always, nose stuck in his ragged copy of Icha Icha Violence, the hand not holding the book stuffed in the coverall’s only pocket. Naruto notices the direction of his gaze; his eyes widen and he lets out an involuntary snort of laughter. He looks back at Sasuke and nods surreptitiously – they’re on, then; Kakashi remains oblivious.

The whistle goes and the enclosure is filled with yelling, war cries and victorious laughter. Shinobi take their wars very seriously, even mock ones. Sasuke doesn’t need to signal at Naruto – a shared look is enough. Together they dodge missiles from Konohamaru and Tenten’s teams, only barely manage to duck under Lee’s deadly aim and let go several paintballs that blur with speed as they reach Kakashi. Their teacher sidesteps their trajectory without even looking up from his book. Unfortunately for him, Sasuke and Naruto are no longer his twelve-year-old genin students. The two paintballs collide right above where his head is now, showering him in blue and red paint from top to toe. He stands there looking astonished as his assailants celebrate, one smirking smugly and the other leaning one arm on the first’s shoulder, bent in two with laughter. That is, until a well-aimed projectile smacks him straight on his arse, propelling him forward to the ground. He looks up with an affronted expression, rubbing at the painful soon-to-be-bruise – Gaara smirks at him from the other side of the enclosure, completely spotless.

Sasuke stifles the urge to laugh at the scowl on Naruto’s face, but a snort escapes him none-the-less. This only serves to remind Naruto of his original purpose – he’s back on his feet in a flash, advancing menacingly on him. Crap, he thinks with a small burst of panic; he reaches in his pouch to arm himself. Naruto grins wolfishly just before Sasuke’s attacked from behind, jumped on by two clones and held still long enough for Naruto’s bright orange paintball to splatter him all over. Right, he thinks and hefts his own weapon, narrowing his eyes. He sees Naruto’s smile slip from his face; oh shit, he lip-reads before he pounces.

***


As soon as all the paintballs are used up and everyone but Gaara has at least one splatter on their person, the event ends. There aren’t any winners – that isn’t the point – but the losers are clearly marked by only their eyes being visible in a stripe of clean skin across their faces. They call it a day – it’s gone 6 p.m. anyway, but also, everyone needs to clean up quite desperately.

“Are you on duty tonight?” Naruto asks, expression innocently hopeful.

“No, thank god. I need a long soak in the bath after that.”

“Excellent!” Naruto gloats. “My place it is.”

Sasuke tries to swallow, throat suddenly dry from anticipation.

They remove their coveralls, along with all the other participants – they go in a huge pile that Yamato has promised to hose down before putting them away at Naruto’s request. Sasuke would not be the least bit surprised if the festival becomes a yearly occurrence – everyone has had a chance to relax more in the past two days than during the previous six months.

Naruto is having a difficult time leaving the place – almost everyone present wants a chance to thank their Hokage personally for the wonderful day. Naruto, being Naruto, can’t say no to a single person – so he chats, and smiles, and nods, all the while barely able to stop himself from glancing at Sasuke every few moments. Sasuke can’t stop looking at him either – the tall, imposing figure with the widest smile in the world, his kindness, strength and sheer love for the world and his people shining clearly through everything he does. How, Sasuke wonders, can someone like Naruto limit himself to loving just one person out of a whole village?

The answer is clear in the way Naruto smiles at him from the middle of the throng of bodies and excited faces. He can’t. He will always have to share Naruto’s love with the world. But, Sasuke knows, he will be the one to welcome Naruto home in the evenings; he will be the one to take care of him when he is tired, to hold him when he is upset, to kiss him goodnight and then kiss him awake again in the morning. To give him all that he is, to dedicate his life to making him happy. He may not be Naruto’s only love, but he will be the rock around which Naruto’s world shapes itself. Sasuke finds that it is enough for him.

Naruto finally extricates himself from the villagers and hastily makes his way over to Sasuke.

“Come on, quickly, before someone else thinks of something else I should be doing right now,” he pleads and, grabbing his hand, tugs him quickly away. Sasuke matches his pace easily, just as eager to get away. They jump up on the roofs when they get back inside the village, hopping from building to building with exhilarating speed.

Naruto looks at him over his shoulder, grins his face-splitting smile at him; it holds an edge Sasuke recognises from years ago. It happens less and less often these days, but there are still times when Naruto looks at him like this, a faint surprise in his eyes and smile, as if he didn’t expect Sasuke to still be there, by his side, chasing the wind with him. Sasuke hates that look, hates what that look implies, hates that it holds years of loneliness and pain and fighting to be better, stronger, to prove that he is worthy enough to bring his most important person back home. It causes an unpleasant tightness in his chest and stinging in his eyes and the back of his throat.

Sasuke shakes his contemplation at the sight of the Hokage tower rushing at them with dizzying speed. Naruto only slows down when they jump through the open window and into his suite of rooms on the top floor. Sasuke follows him through, suddenly dry-mouthed. He has been in this small sitting room hundreds of times before but, strangely, it’s as if this is the first time he’s seen it.

Naruto steps out of his sandals, picks them up and carries them – past the large squashy orange sofa, the small coffee table covered in mugs, magazines, scrolls, and empty instant noodle cartons, past the tidy bookshelf near the far wall and the not-so-tidy desk heaped with more scrolls and paperwork in the nearby corner, and over to the front door where he drops them by the door frame. Sasuke tentatively follows suit, bare feet treading softly onto a yellow carpet spotted with large red swirls. Naruto stands by the door, looking at him, drinking him in.

“So, uh, I guess – shower?” he says, rubbing at the back of his head uncertainly, eyes peeking from under lowered blond eyelashes, and suddenly it hits Sasuke just how nervous Naruto really is about this. They stand there looking at each other for an unknown time; shadows are starting to drift into the room from the open window – evening is falling slowly over Konoha. Naruto’s eyes trace his face, linger on his eyes, nose, mouth, jaw line, falling lower to fasten onto the bruise he had left this morning, still clearly visible. His eyes narrow, his nostrils flare; he inhales sharply and licks his dry lips unconsciously – and it’s like a dam breaking loose.

Sasuke surges forward, pinning Naruto to the door with his body, catching his wrists and holding on tight. He leans into him and brings their lips close, so close; his nose twitches at the smell of paint, and sweat, and ramen, and Naruto. He inhales slowly, burying his nose just behind Naruto’s ear, gathering in his scent, relishing the way Naruto sighs, leans his head back on the wall to give him more space, presses closer to him at the same time. The smell of paint is jarring and he resents it; he wants to smell Naruto, he wants Naruto’s scent mixing with his own.

“Sasuke,” Naruto murmurs, voice husky with want. Sasuke licks at the heated skin on offer and Naruto shudders against him.

Mine, Sasuke thinks as he scrapes his teeth down the tanned neck, and yes, and oh god, finally when Naruto turns his head and presses their lips together at last, tongues searching and finding each other. Sasuke wishes there was a Sharingan for the senses, so that he could memorise the way Naruto’s breath hitches in his chest, the way he twists his wrists to free them and turns his fingers to clutch at Sasuke’s, the way he raises his leg and hooks it behind Sasuke’s thigh, pulls him desperately further into his body with a quiet moan, the way their clothes are a hindrance not to be borne, the way Naruto’s tongue traces every part of his mouth, the way their lips rub together, too delicious to leave alone.

Naruto growls when they separate for breath, “Clothes off” in a deep seductive rumble that passes straight through Sasuke’s chest and pools heat low in his belly. Naruto bites hard onto Sasuke’s lip when Sasuke pushes into him, sliding their damp arousals together, then soothes it with his tongue in apology. Sasuke releases Naruto’s hands, which immediately lift to grab hold of his hair, tilt his head so that he can kiss him deeper.

“You said something about a shower?” Sasuke murmurs against his lips, and Naruto nods vigorously.

He turns and leads the way into his bedroom without looking back to see if Sasuke follows. Sasuke tugs his ANBU uniform off piece by piece – the protective vest, the sleeveless top, the metal-plated gloves all find their way to the bedroom floor revealing pale, scarred skin to Naruto’s heated gaze. Sasuke reaches for his training pants and Naruto looks away, cheeks rising with a different kind of heat now, suddenly shy in the face of a naked Sasuke. Sasuke wants to smirk, but just the thought of an equally naked Naruto makes his hands shake where they unwrap the bandages strapping weapons to his legs.

Naruto pulls his own shirt, training pants and boxers off quickly, and steps out of them looking uncertain. Sasuke stands there, fighting with his own nervousness to let Naruto look his fill. Naruto’s eyes are a little glazed, Sasuke notes – a surge of heat flares low in his abdomen at the sight of blow pupils drowning out the blue. He shifts, leaning slowly towards him, and Naruto comes out of his daze, his blush deepening as he stares into Sasuke’s eyes for a moment. Biting his lip, he turns at last and leads the way into the shower, muscles shifting under tanned skin. They enter the bathroom one after the other; Sasuke nearly drools at the sight of the wide bathtub taking up almost the entire wall. He wants desperately to sink into a warm bath, let it soothe his sore muscles and refresh his body. He knows his and Naruto’s hair is filthy, the only thing left unprotected by the makeshift coveralls, but for a moment it’s all he can think about.

He feels fingers trail over his shoulder, a palm caress his nape soothingly before Naruto moves around him and starts the water to fill the bathtub. Sasuke looks at him with grateful eyes and a small smile. Naruto smiles back gently, catches his hand and pushes at his side, guiding him to climb in. Sasuke does; with a sigh of delight he slips under the warm water. Naruto opens a jar and sprinkles a handful of bath salts in the bath; the scent of bergamot fills the room. He steps over the side and sits down opposite Sasuke, dunking his head in the water quickly. Sasuke frowns at him, reaches for his hand and tugs and prods and mutters at him until Naruto has shifted and is sitting between Sasuke’s legs, leaning his back against his chest and hiding his smile. He drops his head on Sasuke’s shoulder, sighing contentedly. Sasuke kisses the wet shoulder gently. Their arousal simmers under the surface, not as urgent as it had been before the slight awkwardness of undressing in front of one another intentionally for the first time.

Naruto reaches for the soap and turns in Sasuke’s arms. He kisses him softly, just a peck of the lips, before he starts soaping up his skin, sliding the bar slowly over muscles, bruises from training, scars – some healed long ago, some more recent; along elbows and knees and feet and thighs and stomach and neck. He makes him dunk his head to wet his hair, reaches for the shampoo to clean it when Sasuke takes the soap from him and starts returning his ministrations. Naruto works carefully, wary not to let suds fall into black eyes. Sasuke reaches around to wash Naruto’s back while he presses their slick fronts together. The slide makes Naruto throw his head back in pleasure and groan, deepening the contact.

“Here, Sasuke,” he directs him to wash the shampoo out. Sasuke does, shifting further between Naruto’s spread thighs, holding onto the sides for balance. Naruto quickly rubs at his scalp, rinsing it and urging him back up.

He kisses him then – just because he can. He raises his arms to lock them behind Sasuke’s neck and lowers himself to sit on Sasuke’s thighs, turns his head to deepen the kiss. Sasuke pulls him closer, soapy hands sliding over the sinewy back, tracing his spine, caressing each bump with careful fingers. One hand slips lower to fasten around a taut buttock and Naruto moans into his mouth, the needy sound echoing around the room.

They slide against each other, more and more insistently with each moment of contact. Their arousals rub deliciously together, faster and faster. Sasuke reaches between them and curls long fingers around both of them, stroking firmly. Naruto breaks the kiss, throws his head back and whimpers, gritting his teeth at the feel of it.

“Fuck,” he drawls breathlessly when Sasuke dips his thumb inside his slit, hips jerking reflexively and thighs tightening around Sasuke’s back. Sasuke’s other hand descends into the water and a finger probes between the spread ass cheeks, rubs relentlessly around the rim of the small hole, making Naruto yelp and slam himself forward into Sasuke’s hold, thrusting hard.

“Sasuke,” he groans, muffling the sound into his neck. Sasuke bites his lip at the feel of Naruto’s breath tickling his skin and speeds up his strokes, trying to thrust up himself – but the heavy body on top of him limits his movements.

“Oh, god,” he manages instead, and “Naruto”, and that voice saying his name makes Naruto lose it completely. He bites hard onto the firm shoulder as he jerks again and again, spilling himself all over Sasuke’s twitching stomach.

Sasuke strains desperately for his own release, letting Naruto’s limp member slip from his hold and tightening his hand around his painfully rigid one, mind overwhelmed with the sight of Naruto taking his pleasure from him, just needing that last sensation to tip him over. Naruto curls around him, holding him tightly.

“Let go,” he whispers into Sasuke’s ear softly. “Sasuke,” he sighs and sucks firmly onto the already bruised neck.

Sasuke’s eyes roll into the back of his head as his climax crashes over him, leaving him shaking. He rests his head on Naruto’s shoulder, clutching at him tightly enough to hurt. He sits there for a while, catching his breath, relishing being so close to the one person he has no qualms about letting get so near, burrow under the mask keeping the outside world at a distance.

“The water’s getting cold. Feel like getting out yet?” Naruto asks, pulling back slightly to look at him.

“Yeah.”

They help each other out of the tub, a trickle of chakra making sure their unsteady legs don’t slip on the drenched floor. Naruto looks down with a chuckle – they haven’t been too careful about the water actually staying in the bath. He reaches for the towels thrown over the metal bar, passes one over to Sasuke and gets distracted watching him dry himself off.

Sasuke smirks, drops his towel, grabs the dry one from Naruto’s slack fingers and rubs it briskly over his dripping frame. Naruto bats his hands away after a minute, rubbing at his multicoloured hair briskly. They never got to wash it, but he doesn’t mind too much. He could just as easily do that tomorrow morning.

The bed beckons them, crisp sheets folded down invitingly. The sight reminds Naruto of something.

“Sasuke.”

Sasuke turns, wary at that tone. Oh god, let Naruto not say this has been a mistake.

“Have you looked at yourself in the mirror lately?”

Sasuke looks at him blankly.

“You look like Itachi. How long has it been since you’ve had a decent night’s sleep?”

Sasuke winces.

“Can we maybe not talk about that?”

Naruto scowls. “Not when my boyfriend seems to be killing himself without me realising.”

The warmth in Sasuke’s chest returns.

“Dobe,” he murmurs and tugs him closer.

Naruto’s scowl remains, but the kiss gets rid of it quickly enough.

“We’re not done,” he protests weakly.

“You’re right about that,” Sasuke smirks. “It’s a lovely bed. Let’s mess it up.”

***


It takes Sasuke another two days to completely wash out the paint from his hair. The annoyance is made marginally better by the fact that Kakashi looks like he’ll be sporting a blue rinse for at least four more days. In all honesty, nothing much can piss him off at the moment, not with Naruto filling his days with little smiles, stolen kisses and heated looks. He’s still a little sore from this morning – he’d have to remember not to wind Naruto up so much with the clear indication that sex is on the cards. He hasn’t checked, but he thinks he will very likely have bruises on his hips from where Naruto gripped him to keep him still as he thrust as deep as he could go inside him.

They had spent the day before resting, walking, arguing – simply being together. There hadn’t been an event to judge, so Naruto had taken his time strolling through the throng of villagers and catching up on all the gossip and goings-on – who had given birth, who was going out with whom, who was getting married – the everyday details that his hectic life as their leader left him with little time to follow. Sasuke marvelled at the way Naruto remembered every name, every family connection, every detail of his people’s lives. Unlike Kakashi, Naruto is not just a shrewd military leader but a dedicated civic one, too. Under his governance the village and its people prosper like they haven’t for decades.

Today is sports day – there is sand shuriken evasion, running on water, swimming lengths, chakra moulding, speed eating and as many challenges Gai and Lee can come up with. Naruto is extremely busy – all the winners to be praised, losers to be consoled, speeches to be made – Sasuke leaves him to get on with it. He confers with his ANBU instead, all of them but the four on duty dressed in civilian clothing, so that none of the villagers suspect that the small group goofing around the dango stand are the most elite fighters of the village. Lee has taken a break from Gaara-baiting, and so has Neji – though his is a rather different sort of baiting. Sasuke is just grateful that the Godaime Kazekage has mellowed considerably in the past few years, and that he doesn’t have to deal with the results of his Sand Coffin jutsu on his men.

Gaara looks at Sasuke now and he knows that he and Naruto have worked it out. Sasuke seems happy in a way Gaara has never seen, and earlier Naruto had looked content with life for the first time in a very long while. Gaara wonders how the two will decide to let Konoha know that their Hokage and ANBU captain have a somewhat more than professional relationship, especially considering the fact that such fraternisation between the Hokage and the leader of Konoha’s special defence squad will not be endorsed by everyone. Gaara would go as far as to say that Sasuke may have to resign from the position of Captain over this. Gaara is certain that Sasuke has considered this.

When it comes, the revelation is handled in a typically Naruto-ish way.

“Oi, teme! Come over here! Gai wants to take some pictures!”

Sasuke wanders over unhurriedly while Gai snaps away at the winners of the day, then moves on to group shots of friends standing together making silly faces and giving each other bunny ears behind their backs. Naruto reaches for Sasuke’s hand, tugs him close and throws his arm over his shoulder, a wide, happy smile spread over his whiskered cheeks. Sasuke smiles at him for an unguarded moment that Gai captures with flawless timing. Sasuke’s immediate scowl at Gai does nothing to dampen Naruto’s joy as he immediately asks him for a framed copy to put on his desk. Gai assures him he will have one ready for him for as soon as the next day.

Then Naruto turns, pulls Sasuke nearer and kisses his frown away in plain view of everyone standing in the clearing. Sasuke gives in for a second, then pushes him away and sweeps his eyes over every corner, just in case something has gone wrong in that split second that his attention was diverted. With the way Naruto is looking at him, all affectionate exasperation, no one can mistake how he feels about him.

Ino is speechless. “You mean, you finally—Oh, thank god for that!” she sighs and immediately goes to find Sakura. Gai’s face is as unguarded as it has ever been when he shakes Naruto and Sasuke by the hand, sincerely happy for them. Kakashi says nothing, for a change – Sasuke had expected something so dirty that he would have felt obliged to punch his old sensei hard for. He just curves his visible eye in the familiar arch and claps the grinning Naruto on the shoulder. Then he nudges Sasuke and offers him a book – Sasuke glimpses “Joy of” and “gay” and decides that, to hell with it, he’s going to kill Kakashi.

He assumes that the news will leak out to every corner of the village by nightfall, and he resolves to be even more vigilant – they cannot be certain how everyone is going to react. He hopes for Naruto’s sake that the reaction will mostly be positive. Why does Naruto never listen to him anymore? He had suggested they not say anything for a while, only tell their closest friends and evaluate the results carefully before jumping all the way. But it’s Naruto; he shouldn’t have expected that plan to work in the first place. He supposes he’ll just have to keep an eye out, try to protect Naruto from the more negative reactions, even if Naruto will learn about it eventually. He’ll deal with it when it happens, he resolves, and leans against Naruto’s shoulder in silent support.

***


The circus arrives on the morning of the sixth day of the week-long holiday. The kids are absolutely unbearable in their excitement. Their parents have withdrawn into the provided shade, having given up disciplining them under such duress. Enclosures have been put up the day before, which was spent preparing for the festival – food stands line the forest path that leads over to where the circus tents are to be set up when they make it there; the air is filled with anticipation, elation and the joy of being alive on such a glorious day.

Sasuke accompanies Naruto – resplendent in full Hokage formal regalia and tugging at his high collar every few minutes – through Konoha to the Central Gate where the delegation from the Land of the Moon is expected presently. They can see the bright flags a mile away flutter in the light breeze that barely moves the air. The kids are knee-deep around them, making a horrendous racket. Sasuke can barely hear himself think, but Naruto is in his element, hoisting the littlest ones on the backs of several clones so that they can see what’s happening, and chattering away a mile a minute.

Finally, after what feels like an eternity, the first caravans arrive through the gates. Prince Hikaru steps down from his transport and embraces the real Naruto, who put a little girl back down to greet him properly; he has to look up to do so.

“Well, would you look at you? The last time I saw you, you barely reached my shoulders! I can’t believe how tall you’ve grown!”

Hikaru must be over 6’ 8’’ tall, but he’s not nearly as muscled as him or Naruto, Sasuke muses, disliking the way he smiles at his dobe. Sasuke can take him, easy.

“What a pleasure to meet with you again, Naruto-kun! Or, should I say, Hokage-sama?” Hikaru says in a pleasant, melodious voice. Sasuke hates him already.

“Don’t be silly! You’re my friend, there’s no need for formalities. Otherwise I shall have to call you Your Highness, Prince Hikaru every time I want to speak to you, and I haven’t the patience for it,” he jokes, smiling widely. Hikaru chuckles, nodding in agreement.

“Shall we?” Naruto turns to lead the way. Sasuke allows the impostor to move past him while he picks up the rear. He nods an acknowledgement to the Prince’s guards, who return the gesture – they understand each other. The Prince is under Konoha protection from the moment he steps foot inside to the moment he leaves, provided he doesn’t try to disturb the peace. Oh, how Sasuke hopes he would!

The Prince spares him a contemplative glance as he moves past him; Sasuke has to fight with himself not to scowl. He shifts his expression into his impassive façade – The Prince says nothing, just nods at him with a slight smile and steps up to where Naruto is waiting for him. Naruto does flick a glance his way, amused. Sasuke has no qualms about scowling at him, though, and does so with intent. Incredibly, it makes Naruto’s smile wider, and he seems to be stifling laughter behind tightly bitten lips. Sasuke blinks; he is unused to being confused, but Naruto’s odd behaviour has him feeling as if he’s been left out in the dark. What the hell’s he thinking?

Naruto presses his lips tightly together; it would really not do to laugh at Sasuke’s wrinkled forehead in front of the gathered crowd. He’s jealous! his inner troublemaker cackles gleefully – Naruto wants to shake his head. As if there’s anyone in the world who could understand him better, or give him what he really needs. Honestly, teme, he wants to chide. Maybe he should share an insight or two with him on that front; unfortunately, that’ll have to wait until tonight. Right now he has a Prince to pay attention to and catch up with. He smiles at Hikaru without a care in the world and leads the way through his village.

Sasuke follows a few steps behind them. He wonders why he dislikes the Prince so deeply when he has only just met the man. Then the Prince smiles warmly down at his blond, and Sasuke wants to shove his fist through the smug face. He can’t believe he is jealous of some stranger, but it looks like Hikaru and Naruto have a history he knows nothing about. And while he knows that Naruto is a one-man kind of guy, their relationship is still so new, so fragile, that for the first time in his life Sasuke is terrified he won’t be able to make it work, terrified that he has let something mean so much to him that its loss may well succeed where Madara failed.

He grits his teeth and, with an effort that leaves him weak, shoves the darkness back inside where it belongs. Naruto has never faltered in his belief in Sasuke; it is time he returned the favour, no matter what it cost him.

***


Naruto doesn’t come to find him until much, much later, after the animals have been marvelled at, the first evening’s performance has been played, tons of barbeque, dango, candied apples, candyfloss and juice or sake depending on one’s age has been consumed, and people have trampled all over the restored forest clearing’s mossy carpet in an effort to see everything at once.

Sasuke has been watching him all this time, of course; just because he’s wearing a formal dark-blue yukata with the Uchiha fan embroidered on the back does not mean he’s forgotten all his shinobi skills, or that he’ll ever be completely off-duty. He’s made it his ANBU self’s purpose to know where his Hokage is at all times, and he carries on doing so without conscious thought.

So, when arms close around his waist and he’s pulled against a warm chest, he relaxes against it instead of reaching for Kusanagi secreted in its sheath along his spine. Naruto inhales deeply along the open collar that shows his neck in its entirety and exhales contentedly, his ramen-scented breath tickling Sasuke’s earlobe.

“You done for tonight?” Sasuke says with unconcealed hope in his voice, stepping out of his arms so that he has freedom of movement – just in case. He’s had enough of people and crowds and not being able to keep an eye on all the potential threats to Naruto’s safety. He doesn’t move away from him, however.

“I think so, unless Ino comes up with something I haven’t thought of. You know what that means, though, don’t you?”

“What’s that?”

“A whole day off tomorrow,” Naruto says dreamily, leaning against Sasuke’s shoulder and laying his head on it in not entirely exaggerated exhaustion. “I’m going to do some R&R, hangover recovery, and getting ready to plunge back into the fray come Wednesday. The kids can do whatever they like tomorrow; I’ve had enough of competitions and prizes to last me for the rest of the year. I just want to spend the day in bed with you. And make sure you actually get some sleep! Don’t think I’ve let you off about those black circles, bastard, just because you distracted me earlier! We’ll be having a long talk about that, and we’re not going to stand nowhere near a bed this time!”

Sasuke cringes. Naruto’s going to blow his top when he tells him how long it’s actually been since he slept in a proper bed before this week. He’d do it all again, though, if it keeps the idiot safe. He smirks; it may be that the time to test out the sofa has finally come.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Naruto murmurs, distracted by the cornucopia of colourful formal dress and happy people milling around, talking, laughing, eating and drinking, honouring their dead by celebrating the life their sacrifice had made possible. Sasuke, too, takes the time to remember his own dead, and give thanks he has somehow managed to keep the most important person in his life from that same fate.

“Yes, it is,” he replies now, not even pretending to look around. Naruto doesn’t comment, but his lips twitch and he brushes his hand against Sasuke’s. Sasuke looks around – nobody is paying them the slightest attention – he twines their fingers together, rubs his thumb gently against the back of his hand. Naruto tightens his hold briefly, resisting the urge to kiss the overcautious teme then and there. There will be enough time for that later; time to set a few things straight, too.

“Let’s go home,” he says.

***


The last day of the holiday week dawns just as overwhelmingly hot as the previous six; the air is heavy and oppressive and Sasuke feels sticky and sweaty and unpleasantly clammy where he lies on top of Naruto’s chest, a leg and an arm thrown possessively over the muscled frame. He wrinkles his nose in irritation.

“That’s awfully cute, you know,” Naruto supplies into his hair, playing with the length of chakra-infused, woven red string he had tied onto the pale wrist of Sasuke’s left arm last night.

Sasuke scowls. “Call me cute again and I’ll gut you,” he threatens, glaring up into smiling blue eyes. Naruto chuckles and stretches carefully so that he doesn’t throw off the prone body plastered to his. He yawns and rubs at his eyes like a sleepy toddler, a matching piece of string tied to his own wrist; Sasuke smirks.

“I think you still hold the marked on ‘cute’, dobe,” he teases, kissing the exposed throat on offer. Naruto punches his shoulder lightly at the jibe, but hums contentedly nonetheless.

“I wish this fucking heat wave would break already. I mean, I know it’s the end of July and all, but really.”

Sasuke pauses, fine-tuning to what his body is trying to tell him; his bones seem to vibrate with barely concealed impatience, and his right hand tingles.

“There’s going to be a thunderstorm tonight; I can feel the lightning gathering somewhere to the North.”

“Oh, thank fuck,” Naruto exhales explosively. “I’ve had enough. I just hope it doesn’t come before we can set off the fireworks for the big finale tonight, the kids are going to be devastated.”

“You never know; maybe Nature’ll listen to you. God knows everyone else does,” he snarks.

Naruto grins up at him. “Jealous?”

“Not in the least. You do what I tell you to, so there’s no reason, is there?”

“I do not!”

“You do, too.”

“Oh yeah? And when was the last time I did something you told me to?” Naruto challenges.

“Kiss me,” Sasuke murmurs.

END

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