Title: "Twenty-thirds"
Author: Erisabesu
Pairing(s): SasuNaruSasu
Genre(s): Angst, Romance
Rating: M
Summary: When one ritual dies, another is born.




Finding the house hadn't been the hard part. No one would ever want to live in the old Uchiha district again, so there were no gatekeepers to object to Naruto's presence or impede his sweeping search of the streets. He remembered just enough to find the right place, breaking in and moving in silence to the back of the house. He slid Sasuke's bedroom door closed behind him.

The room might have belonged to anyone; Naruto found very little anywhere in the house to show what sort of people had lived there, aside from the premiere location and subtle grandeur that set the home of the clan head apart. Naruto pushed his hair off his forehead, wiped away a trickle of sweat with his wrist and then crossed the room. The dresser was covered in a layer of thick, mottled dust. Naruto opened a drawer, and looked down into empty space; he wondered what Sasuke might have kept there, once upon a time. Whatever it had been Sasuke had taken it with him. He pushed the drawer closed, wiping dusty fingers on his orange jacket before reaching into his back pocket.

Naruto set the cards, three of them, on the top of the dresser propped against the wall. Picking them out hadn't been the hard part either—the hard part had been lying to Sakura about where he was going, convincing her to stay and make the cake so that he could make this trip alone. It was the first time Naruto had lied to her since returning to Konoha, but he knew he couldn't bring her with him. There were some things he and Sakura simply couldn't share.

And it had only been a half-lie; he still intended to swing by Kakashi-sensei's on his way to Sakura's, so the three of them could eat birthday cake together and pretend not to fear that one of their team might be lost forever.

He tugged a kunai from its sheath, and carved "Happy Birthday Sasuke" into the wall. Naruto stood in Sasuke's room until dusk, and then left the Uchiha complex as quietly as he'd come.



Sasuke took off his straw hat and shook out his hair before entering his parents' old house. He unclipped his nondescript traveling cloak and carried it with him, not wanting to linger in the place, walking straight to the small in-home shrine and kneeling, wordless. He wasn't sure how long he knelt. His mind seeped deep into subspace and back, before he reached a bandaged hand into his pocket and withdrew his offering: Uchiha Itachi's hitai-ate, appropriately saturated with the last of his blood.

It left flakes of rust on his palm. He brushed them off on the side of his pants before rising and moving deeper within the house, standing on the back porch to listen to Konoha's Cicadas buzzing in the wild, overgrown garden.

Konoha had changed; he'd nearly been apprehended by ANBU on his way inside the border, which said something of how security had increased and policies had become stricter than he remembered from Sandaime's second reign. War did that to a place, he mused, recalling the many construction sites he'd passed in the village on his way here, new throngs of homeless encampments popping up through all of Fire Country. He'd seen a lot on his wanderings, wanted man or no.

But it was finished: Itachi was dead, and the caged parts of Sasuke's soul were now free.

When the sun dipped behind the largest trees in the distance, Sasuke walked further around the house towards his old room from an inexplicable sense of nostalgia. He stopped when he saw the evidence of footprints—three sets?—disappearing under his bedroom door and back, but nowhere else. Sasuke sprang forward, shoving the door open to attack whoever was inside, but the room was empty.

Then he saw it, carved into the wall, a message in crudely worked characters that twisted his heart and gut alike. Oh, no. No. Sasuke's pulse beat in his ears at the sight of the careless desecration of his property. He touched the indentations with the edge of his fingernail, livid, scowling, and then snatched up the five cards on his dresser, all addressed in the same handwriting, handwriting he'd have recognized anywhere.

To: Sasuke, From: Naruto. To: Sasuke, From: Naruto. To: Sasuke, From…

Sasuke dropped them back on the dresser and moved a few paces away, covering his face with his hands and breathing through his clenched teeth. His nose, his ears, his mind were suddenly filled with memories of Uzumaki Naruto, rushing in from all directions, as overwhelming as if he were actually fighting off a horde of Kage Bunshin. They kept coming and coming, all vivid and bright and louder than any one person had the right to be—memories of eating, training, swimming, fighting, hating each other's very existence and wanting to blot it out forever, anything to kill that consuming fire inside them that just refused to die…

Sasuke screamed at the top of his lungs, fists clenched against his eye-sockets, until there was no more air left, and he sank to his knees for the second time that night, chest heaving until he felt he might be able to grasp some sort of composure once more. His skin was clammy, but he made himself confront the words inside the cards and then put them back as they were. Naruto was a Jounin now; it seemed absurd, though Sasuke felt a pang to read it. He'd tried so hard to forget, and it had worked—at least until tonight.

Sasuke shook with anger, recognizing Naruto's gait in the footprints on the floor though the sandals had differing tread; three sets of prints from three different visits, not three different people as he'd first thought. The third set was fresh, which meant that Naruto had already come and gone. It galled him to think of Naruto coming here at all, much less coming here each year to leave a birthday card and graffiti silly messages into walls. One action suggested he thought he'd never see Sasuke again, and the other suggested that he still believed they'd cross paths once more.

So which was it?

He picked up his cloak from the floor. Sasuke closed the door to his room and stepped out into the twilight, vanishing into the darkness.



Naruto fingered the edge of the card inside his pocket as he walked along the porch to Sasuke's old room. His flak jacket was heavy with weapons from his last mission; he'd come directly after turning in the report, stopping at his apartment only to grab the birthday card and sneak to this side of town before anyone heard he was back.

Naruto slid the door open and crossed beyond the orange rectangle of sunset over to the dusty dresser. He set the card in front of the one he'd left last year and stood for a moment, contemplative, before the hairs on his neck bristled. He had time to suck in a breath before being caught in a choke-hold, his senses reeling from a familiar scent as his body was held fast in a crushing grip.

"Too sl—"

Naruto didn't catch the last words, focusing his chakra and slipping out of Sasuke's hold with a teleportation-jutsu. They faced each other with similar stances, both leaking enough energy to stir the dust on the floor. Naruto's heart thudded painfully in his chest while Sasuke chuckled, red eyes brilliant in the semi-dark.

"Hn," Sasuke cocked his head, straightening to his full height. "So you've improved, somewhat."

Naruto took two large steps and punched Sasuke in the face, snapping his head to the side from the impact. Sasuke's dark hair fell into his eyes and Naruto stood still, watching while Sasuke flexed his jaw and increased the flow of blood trickling from his split lip. Sasuke dabbed it with the back of his hand. Their eyes met.

"I suppose I deserved that."

Naruto flexed his stinging hand. "Where have you been, Sasuke? Most people think you're dead!"

"Tch." Sasuke crossed his arms, red pupils fading into deepest black. "What does that say about you? Naruto?" He nodded at the dresser.

"It says I know you," Naruto stepped forward, the shock of being in the same room as Sasuke after so many years of separation transforming into an ache of tangled emotion. A full-body ache. "And you don't die that easily."

"Whoever said it was easy?" Sasuke's expression hardened, and Naruto looked at him, really looked at him for the first time.

He was taller, older—Sasuke wore drab traveling clothes, but Naruto could see where he held weapons underneath the folds of cloth, and could detect the same lithe musculature he'd admired so often when they'd been boys. Naruto couldn't see it because of the cloak, but he could guess that Sasuke still kept a katana at his back, likely the same one he'd drawn in greeting back at Orochimaru's North Lake hideout.

"You were last sighted in Grass Country." Naruto ran a hand through his hair, aware of Sasuke's eyes on him, following the movement.

"I thought most people believed I was dead." Sasuke's voice was mocking, though he looked tired. Naruto didn't blame him for being tired—tired of running, tired of hiding, tired of evading the ones who wanted him dead, even if he was good at it. It wasn't how things were supposed to be.

"Nobody believed the ANBU who sighted you."

"Except for you."

"Yes," Naruto moved closer. They stood eye to eye. Naruto reached for the cloak's tie and tugged the knot; it fell to the floor in a heap around Sasuke's feet. Naruto noted the revealed edge of Kusanagi's sheath, but it didn't stop him from untucking Sasuke's shirt.

Sasuke grabbed his wrists. "Stop." Naruto looked at him, but didn't let go. He kept pulling, sliding his hands against Sasuke's skin underneath the cotton.

"No," Sasuke pushed him away. "We're not doing this."

"Yes," Naruto stepped closer, closing a hand around Sasuke's collar and yanking him forward. Sasuke's eyes glared directly into his.

"Why?" Sasuke reached his hand around Naruto's throat, squeezing a warning. Naruto was the one to chuckle this time.

"It's what we should have done."

Sasuke gasped; Naruto leaned forward and fit their mouths together in an awkward, urgent slide of lips and tongue. Sasuke's nails made blooded crescents in his skin, but any protests were short lived. Their hands soon relearned the contours of each other's bodies, stripping off clothing and weapons to lie naked together, over and over, long into the night.

Naruto bit into Sasuke's neck, thrusting hard and deep until Sasuke thrashed beneath him on their makeshift bed and groaned in ecstasy. Then Sasuke turned him over, forcing his way inside and making Naruto shudder from the exquisite rawness of it all, sweat-coated bodies making up for lost time—feeding what had been starved inside them for far too long.

And yet, even when it was over, it wasn't enough.



The rain hadn't stopped for three days. Sasuke didn't make it until late, long after dark, wet to the bone. He'd considered not coming at all.

Aside from the steady hiss of rainfall beating against grass and concrete, there was no sign of recent entry nor any sense of human presence within the boundaries of the Uchiha quarter. Sasuke moved with care, coming to face his old bedroom door. He reached for it, swallowing once before sliding it open, stepping across the threshold before he could possibly acknowledge the tightness in his chest for the fear he may have missed… something.

Sasuke closed the door, though it made no difference in the level of darkness; it only muted the noise of water sliding over cracked roof tiles. Naruto was there—his chakra cloaked—shirtless and watching him with pupils no normal shinobi possessed.

"Hey." Naruto was sitting against the wall beside the dresser, a bedroll uncurled perpendicular between them. Sasuke's Sharingan flicked over to Naruto's pack, katana and porcelain mask set carefully beside it. He said nothing. He wasn't ready to answer; every year Naruto showed up more and more powerful. Sasuke could taste it on the stale air of the abandoned house.

Sasuke wrung out his cloak and left it by the door. He sidestepped the bedroll and bent to pick up the ANBU mask, turning it over in his hands. He fingered the smooth protruding beak, then the swirls of red-orange branching out from the center that matched the coils of envy churning behind his ribs, familiar, but less uncomfortable than this new fear he still didn't understand.

"What is this?" Sasuke turned the face to Naruto. "A cock? You wear a cock on your face?"

"No, you jerk," Naruto leaned over to take it away, but Sasuke kept it out of his reach.

"I think it is," Sasuke held it balanced on the tip of his finger, letting it sway. "They gave you a glorified chicken to wear, Naruto."

"Oh fuck you," Naruto lunged at him, oddly graceful on the balls of his feet for someone with such bulky strength. "I'm not in the mood for any of your shit tonight, Sasuke."

Sasuke smirked, taunting him with the mask as they circled each other in the darkness, moving with senses besides sight until Naruto knocked the mask from his hand and shoved him into the wall. The mask clattered to the floor, an echo of their teeth clicking together from the anger on both sides of the kiss, an anger that didn't dissipate completely with opened mouths and roaming hands.

"It's a Phoenix," Naruto said directly against his lips, "It burns with a fire that can never be quenched." Then he murmured something with the last of his breath that might have been: Like you and me. Naruto shoved him back into the wall and let go. Sasuke stood speechless.

"Now get out of those wet clothes." Naruto turned away, shedding his pants as he moved to the bedroll. Sasuke watched him go, taking all the dryness and warmth with him, but offering so much more.

He stripped and followed Naruto's broad back, stepping over the Phoenix mask, the fire within him yearning for the only thing that could burn amid all the wetness of the early rain season, and the person who made him burn the brightest.



"Stay," Naruto said, curling his arm loosely around the front of Sasuke's body and holding him. Sasuke didn't answer, but Naruto hadn't thought he would. Not right away.

They sat together against the wall beside the dresser, in those still hours before dawn when the Cicadas have hushed, and even the bats have ceased their hunting to retire for the day. Sasuke finished pulling on his sandals and leaned back against Naruto's chest, head tilted downward. Naruto knew Sasuke was scowling, even if he couldn't see it.

"Stay," he repeated.

Sasuke made a cynical noise, resting his head on Naruto's shoulder. "You know I can't."

"It's been long enough—"

"—No." Sasuke's voice left no room for argument. "I can't."

Naruto sighed; so much between them was anger and frustration. He didn't think it had to be like this—he didn't want it to be like this. Not forever.

Sasuke reached up and slid the latest birthday card off the top of the dresser, scraping the edge against his palm, a lazy and worried gesture. "Then come with me."

Naruto tensed. Sasuke rotated his head to look at him, brows lowered in a mirror expression of consternation. "What did you say?" Naruto whispered, mouth dry from the unexpected offer.

"You heard me," Sasuke dropped his gaze.

Naruto swallowed past the lump in his throat. "Sasuke… I can't do that…"

"You could—but you won't. There's a difference."

Naruto tightened his arms. "I can't. Not if I'm going to be Hokage." His voice broke on the last word.

Sasuke slid his fingers along Naruto's arm and twined their fingers. Then he looked up, just in time to see a tear spill over Naruto's blond lashes. Naruto blinked, turning away and trying to pull his hand free, but Sasuke wouldn't let go.

"Idiot," Sasuke frowned, setting the card aside and using his free hand to wipe the wetness from Naruto's whiskered cheek. Sasuke looked at him for a long time, and then got up.

Naruto watched Sasuke strap the katana to his back, fasten his new black cloak, and leave without another word.



On instinct, Naruto snatched the weapon pouch from the pile and rolled across the blankets, out of Sasuke's reach. This was dangerous territory and he knew it; Sasuke didn't reveal himself easily, not even to him.

"Don't," Sasuke glared, while Naruto peeked inside, running quick hands over the contents and frowning at the evidence. He held up a single-pronged kunai, a hand's width longer than the ones in his own pack. He'd seen them before, but not in circumstances he'd ever want to repeat.

"These aren't made anywhere near Fire Country."

"So?" Sasuke's eyes spoke the challenge: What are you going to do about it?

Naruto bared his teeth, "What do you think you're doing with enemy-forged weapons, Sasuke?"

Sasuke moved with a leopard's grace, slow and deadly, on all fours. "I have no allegiances," Sasuke wrenched the kunai from his hand, and threw it into the far wall where it cracked the cement. A tinkling of rubble fell to the wooden floor, though Naruto kept his eyes fixed on Sasuke.

"Bullshit," Naruto sneered, when Sasuke's face was inches from his own.

Sasuke moved so quickly—Naruto hated and envied it with equal measure—he was nearly tackled before he could get the leverage to block. They grappled, teeth clenched from the effort, disrupting their makeshift pallet until Sasuke tried to break his arm. Naruto twisted to avoid the injury, and ended up pinned, his left arm held painfully behind his back, his cheek shoved into the folds of a graying cotton-wool camp blanket.

Sasuke held him on the floor with his body, both of them naked, both of them panting. Naruto struggled on principle, and Sasuke tightened his hold; his fingers pressed on the braided leather bracelet tied to Naruto's wrist, digging the edges into his skin.

"And what's this?" Sasuke hissed in his ear, twisting arm and wrist so that Naruto bit his lip to keep from voicing any protest.

"A gift; just a gift," Naruto answered, holding still underneath Sasuke's rage. Sasuke made a noise of disgust, and worked his fingers under the bracelet to rip it off. Naruto bucked in panic.

"Wait, Sasuke, don't," Naruto pleaded, twisting despite the added pain in his arm and shoulder, "It was supposed to be for you—"

Sasuke froze, and Naruto rushed on while he could. "—she only gave it to me because she thinks you're—"

"—Shut up." Sasuke grabbed a handful of his hair and yanked his head back, exposing his throat. "Enough talking."

Sasuke let go of Naruto's arm, keeping him on his stomach by the fingers wound tight in his hair. Naruto unfurled his limbs one by one, but Sasuke didn't move away, staying in his dominant position and radiating heat. "Is this what you want, then?" Naruto rocked his buttocks upward, unsurprised when Sasuke widened his legs with impatient knees.

"Shut up," Sasuke repeated, though Naruto recognized the husky timbre in the command. He shifted his body to help put their friction to better use, gritting his teeth as Sasuke solidified their connection and underlined it with round after round of inarguable truths.

At some point Sasuke pressed their left arms together to twine their fingers; afterward, Naruto traced the imbedded braided texture with his tongue, moistening Sasuke's skin with a tenderness that needed no words after all.



The reports couldn't have been wrong. Not one, but two ANBU teams had seen him just last month, before losing his trail somewhere near Hidden Rock. Naruto had received the reports from the Captains directly—so why the hell wasn't Sasuke here yet?

Naruto paced, restless, knowing it was three hours past midnight and far later than Sasuke had ever shown up. He went out onto the secluded porch for a change of scenery, though it hardly helped.

He tried to disregard what had been in the other reports he'd read from teams deployed in Earth country. Rumors of insurgence, of a new and savage Tsuchikage had reached the ears of both Suna and Konoha. Anyone caught in the crossfire was as good as dead.

Is this how he'd learn of Sasuke's death? One missed rendezvous… and then another? So many questions without answers; so many hours stolen from a fate that kept them apart, perhaps for good.

"Sasuke…" Naruto whispered on the wind, hoping it would reach his lover wherever he was. He gripped the single-pronged kunai within his pocket, taken from an enemy prisoner that very morning, the implications grim.

"You better come back to me."



Sasuke could tell something was wrong, even though Naruto was making an effort to hide it.

It was there in every touch, in every harsh investigation of the new scars marring Sasuke's pale skin. It was there in the way Naruto called out his name, an added nuance attached like an invisible tick that Sasuke wanted to dig out—with Kusanagi if necessary—though he couldn't quite make himself ask any questions. He knew he probably wouldn't like the answers, and so it was easier to do what they always did, hips grinding into buttocks, teeth marking skin, one position, then another, then another…

Sasuke groaned into the blankets, the golden fronds of Naruto's second necklace tickling between his shoulder blades. Sweat from Naruto's forehead dripped on the back of his neck, and slid forward to wrap a ring around his throat. Sasuke concentrated on keeping himself from passing out, the movements of Naruto's cock overwhelming him with sensation. He clenched his fists, Naruto's whip-cord strength driving him into a fifth orgasm of the night, something he'd never dreamed possible with anyone before Naruto, oh God Naruto—

—everything went white behind his eyes, nothing in his awareness but the feel of their joined flesh, their accelerated heartbeats, and the suspended moment of pure joy.

They collapsed on the worn futon, panting and slick with sweat and stickier fluids. For a long time they lay speechless, hidden in this room they'd used for so many years. Sasuke felt a pang of guilt, for the house had become saturated with memories of Naruto, as if the tragedy orchestrated by his elder brother had happened deep in the past to some other Sasuke. When had it changed? When had Naruto become so important to him?

Beside him, Naruto slid his fingers into Sasuke's hair. Sasuke closed his eyes and stayed where he was; the room was too hot for more contact than that. Naruto's strokes were equally lazy and agitated, possessive in a way that Sasuke thought he'd somehow miss when they were apart, though he'd never admit it aloud.

"I don't suppose you've ever reconsidered," Naruto said, hesitant, and expectant.

Sasuke held his breath, and didn't move. Was Naruto really asking him to stay…? After all this time?

He heard Naruto roll over on his side, and prop his head on his elbow. Sasuke opened his eyes, then, and looked at him; gold pendants fanned beneath his neck from one collarbone to the other, the blue crystal nestled in the center. Sasuke swallowed; Naruto really would become Hokage. It had happened before his very eyes.


"It's not too late," Naruto continued, reaching to touch his face, then thinking better of it and smoothing his palm along the space of blanket between them. After a long moment, Sasuke shook his head, unable to say the words: No. I can't. It's torture to even think about it, torture to see your face—please, please don't ask me this again.

Naruto chuckled, though it might have started out as a sob. "I know, I know," Naruto tried to shrug it off, looking away but obviously troubled. Then he shifted closer, his face the most serious Sasuke had ever seen it. Naruto did touch him then, cupping his jaw and stretching out his body beside him, bringing them intimately close. Sasuke wanted to move away, but he forced himself to stay still.

"Listen, Sasuke." Naruto traced his cheekbone with his thumb.

"Naruto, wha—"

"—Just listen," Naruto insisted, twining their legs together. Sasuke nodded, pressing his lips into a thin line to keep from interrupting, a heavy pressure in his heart. Don't say any more.

Naruto held his gaze unflinching. "I'm getting married."

Sasuke jerked. "What?"

Naruto rushed on, "It's just something I have to do; it doesn't change anything—no matter what, I love you, Sasuke, and nothing is going to change that, and I don't care if you don't want to hear it, because it's true."

Sasuke shoved Naruto away, but Naruto caught his hands and trapped him with his body, an unspoken plea on his whiskered face. Sasuke seethed, eyes dropping to the leather bracelet knotted around Naruto's wrist, the color having deepened into rich burgundy from years of absorbing the oils on Naruto's skin.

"Anyone I know?" Sasuke asked, daring Naruto to cross their boundaries further by giving a name, by speaking of the life he had apart from these secret, sordid meetings.

"Heh," Naruto turned away, as if seeing something far in the past, something that brought him mostly pain. Blue eyes swiveled back to meet his, and Sasuke swallowed. "No. You don't know her."

Sasuke didn't look away, though his chest was so tight he wasn't sure he was still breathing. Naruto continued to caress his face, a fevered anxiety in his blue eyes that Sasuke wasn't used to seeing. He never wanted to see it again.

He'd never wanted to feel like this again.

"Sasuke, I love you. It's true, okay? Okay?"

When he could speak, Sasuke whispered, "Okay," more to appease Naruto than anything else. Naruto kissed him then, long and slow, and with a tenderness that tugged on Sasuke's heartstrings until he thought he might shatter from all the different versions of heartbreak wrestling inside him.

"Promise me you'll be here next year," Naruto murmured near his ear. Sasuke twined his fingers in Naruto's blond hair, holding him tight. It had come down to this: One path would destroy him; the other would destroy them.

"You promise," he said, and felt wetness on his shoulder that he knew would taste of salt.

"I promise. Always. Always." Naruto clung to him, and for once Sasuke allowed it, although he suspected it might be the very last time. Who were they kidding?

After all, nothing good ever seemed to last in this house.



It was four in the morning, and Naruto still hadn't come.

Sasuke stood in the doorway, half on the porch and half inside the room. He'd found he couldn't sit still anymore, though he hated himself for keeping the more obvious lookout. The hours alone in darkness had toyed with his mind, conjuring images of Naruto in bed with someone else, someone who could sleep beside him every night and do all the things that Sasuke couldn't do.

So much for promises, Sasuke thought, angry that Naruto hadn't come, and even more angry at himself for believing that Naruto would choose him, tonight, the night that had always been theirs and no one else's.

And what had he really expected? What had he thought would happen after that first time? How could either of them have expected this to be anything more than what it was?

Sasuke turned on his heel and slammed the door shut. He put the unused futon back into the closet, and collected his things, leaving no trace of his presence should Naruto feel guilty and come the next day. Before leaving, his eyes dropped to the dresser and its pile of birthday cards. Sasuke felt a sudden rage at the sight of them, these pitiful excuses for Naruto to invade this room and thus invade Sasuke.

He swept them onto the floor with an angry motion, and then walked straight to the door, where he left without looking back, and without knowing that at that very moment Naruto was running across Konoha with all his might, chest heaving from the desperate effort to keep the promise he'd made to his most precious person.

Sasuke crossed Konoha's border before learning that Naruto had been delayed at the hospital for the premature birth of his son, and then the near-death of his wife, unable to leave before both were in stable condition no matter how badly he wanted things to be different.

For the next two months Sasuke was haunted by a vivid nightmare in which Naruto came into that old bedroom, breathless from exertion and searching for him. Instead of Sasuke, however, Naruto found the cards scattered on the floor and knew he'd missed his chance, collapsing to his knees and screaming with grief, clawing at his heart while his eyes overflowed with tears of despair.

And every night after, Sasuke jerked awake from a mind filled with the horrifying screeches of a Phoenix writhing in agony before withering into curls of ash. Uncontrollable tears streamed down his face, sticking to his eyelashes and tightening his throat until exhaustion allowed him to fall into slumber once more.



Sasuke waited in the comfortable darkness of his old bedroom, motionless, silent, not sure if there was any purpose to his presence here after difficult years alone. Outside, the sun was descending in its usual splendor, too bright for comfort, the half-light unnecessary. He reached into the pouch at his hip and squeezed the tiny scroll inside it. The decision weighed heavily on his mind.

He'd heard the news in a foreign land that Naruto had achieved his dream at last; it seemed doubtful that the Hokage could slip away from whatever life he'd built in order to chance a meeting with an outlaw. Sasuke's eyes glanced once more to the pile of cards on the dresser, the evidence that Naruto had been there since that last time. But Sasuke didn't touch them. It was never about the cards anyway.

The evening stretched unending. Sasuke stood with his back to the wall, listening for signs of shinobi movement with ears as trained as his eyes. The currents of the wind shifted in the gnarled trees that survived ungroomed on this forgotten side of the village, the outskirts of what had become a thriving community. The shift in the wind brought with it the cadence of human voices—Sasuke opened his eyes and marked the approach from his position inside the room until he sensed that the intruders, plural, had crossed into the front entryway.

Sasuke moved to the door and stood on the porch, livid that Naruto would come accompanied. It was an insult he couldn't overlook; his pulse beat out an accelerated rhythm and echoed in the burn of the Sharingan, all of him determined to make Naruto pay.

The sun's rays were so low they could barely reach through the trees and buildings, but Naruto wouldn't need them to move freely through a house swathed in shadow; Sasuke held still as Naruto came around the corner, holding a small lantern in the air. Sasuke's heart faltered, squeezing painfully in his chest at the sight of Naruto's companion though he betrayed no emotion in his visage.

Naruto halted, perhaps equally stunned to see him after so long. The small boy at his side shifted behind Naruto's body, tugging on the edge of a long coat. "Papa, who's that?"

Sasuke's heart pumped with a furious lurch, his mouth dry. Oh God. Naruto—a metallic fringe of gold visible inside the collar of the magnificent white coat—didn't take his eyes off of Sasuke. He ruffled his son's hair, putting him at ease.

"How 'bout I introduce you?"

Naruto kept his hand on the back of his son's head, steering them forward together until they were a handshake's distance away from Sasuke. Sasuke couldn't look away from Naruto, taking in the faint lines at his eyes and lips that he guessed would crinkle with laughter, or with each bright smile, though he saw neither right then. The longing in his gut was nearly unbearable.

"Papa is that your friend?"

Naruto chuckled, looking right into Sasuke's red eyes. "Yes," he answered. "This is Sasuke. My very best friend."

Sasuke held his gaze, and then his eyes dropped to the boy at his side who was moving closer, holding something inside his loose sleeve that wriggled. As if on cue, the boy began to introduce himself. "I'm Uzumaki Konosuke, and it's my birthday. Papa says we have the same birthday—is that true?"

Sasuke's frown deepened at the edges; a glance showed Naruto biting his lip. Sasuke cleared his throat. "Yes. Today is my birthday."

Konosuke continued without much pause. "I'm five. I already had my party, but this is for you," he stepped forward and thrust out his hands, which held a squirming black and white kitten.

"Hang on, there," Naruto reached towards the frightened animal, "Remember how you have to hold its feet?"

"I know!" Konosuke hugged it back to his chest, and Naruto dropped his hands, smirking in amusement. "I can do it myself!"

The boy adjusted the kitten in his arms, which growled, clearly wanting freedom. "I picked out the strongest one, 'cause Papa says you can train him but you need one with lots of catra," Konosuke looked up at Sasuke with big eyes, while Naruto whispered "Chakra" from the sidelines to correct him.

Emotions at war, Sasuke knelt down on one knee to get a better look at this boy Naruto had fathered, this boy who shared his same birth date. Sasuke scratched the kitten between the ears, and Konosuke grinned at him while they both pet its fur, though Sasuke's eyes never left his face. It might have been the flickering of the lantern, or a trick of the setting sun, but Sasuke caught the faintest tinge of pink in the boy's blond, unruly hair, and hints of green in the eyes that shone with Naruto's same aquamarine brilliance. The truth was a devastating blow.

"Konosuke-kun," Sasuke's voice was smooth, gentle, totally unlike the boiling revenge welling up in his belly. "Why don't you play here with the kitten for a bit? I'd like to talk to your… Papa."

"That's a good idea," Naruto ruffled his son's hair for a second time; Sasuke stood up, unable to keep the angry glare from his eyes. "Sasuke and I need to catch up, okay?" Naruto stepped to the side, hanging the lantern on an aged hook protruding from the closest wooden pillar. The glow cast a friendly pool of light on the porch, which didn't quite reach where Sasuke stood.

"Then can I show Sasuke my new technique?"

"You bet," Naruto grinned. "But stay out here and play for a while." Sasuke paled, watching the exchange between Naruto in miniature, and Naruto the Hokage.

"Okay," Konosuke agreed, sitting down on the walkway and letting the kitten crawl over his lap to explore.

Sasuke moved to the bedroom door and slid it open; he let Naruto pass, pulling the door closed behind them and gathering chakra in his fist. Naruto faced him, too many expressions on his face for Sasuke to decipher.

"It's good to se—"

The force of Sasuke's punch cut off Naruto's words, catching him square in the jaw and vibrating Sasuke's entire arm. Naruto staggered, reaching careful fingers to his cheek. His lips split in the flash of a grin, then settled into something more intense as he spit blood on the floor, a natural display of fierceness that had once made Sasuke's stomach flip with the ache of desire.

"I suppose I deserved that," Naruto admitted, straightening, still touching his swelling face.

"What the hell are you thinking?" Sasuke hissed, "Why didn't you…? Why are you…?" The dam burst all at once. All he could do was point at the wall which separated them temporarily from a five year old boy, unable to explain his fury. "You should have told me!"

"Told you what?" Naruto's bared his teeth. "Would you have stayed? Would it have made a difference?"

Sasuke saw red in his fury. "You promised me you would be here!"

"And you left before I could make it!" Naruto's eyes flashed. "I never go back on my word, Sasuke, never!"

Sasuke scowled, momentarily speechless. How dare he turn this around?!

"Look, look," Naruto held out his hands, coming closer. Sasuke moved away and Naruto glared, but didn't push the issue. "I wasn't going to bring him, Sasuke, but he really wanted to come. He had his heart set on it. I couldn't say no to him on his birthday."

"What about—" Sasuke's throat closed on her name. "—his mother?"

Naruto looked pained. "She understands," he said. They fell silent, Sasuke tense and still, Naruto moving to the dresser and touching the pile of cards, the last few thick with enclosed letters.

"You didn't read them, did you," Naruto glanced over his shoulder and back.

"No." Sasuke watched Naruto's back, as strong and broad under the coat as he'd remembered. Rokudaime, it read down the center, the hem swirled in embroidered flames. Sasuke remembered the Phoenix mask, and had to close his eyes—anything to shut out the memories.

"Konosuke was born two months early," Naruto commented. "Both of them almost died; that's why I was so late." Sasuke cracked his eyes open to find Naruto leaning against the dresser, arms crossed and eyes on the floor just beyond his feet.

"He was born just before midnight, though, so he shares your birthday. He's a great kid," Naruto chuckled, glancing up. "He's heard a lot about you over the years."

Sasuke frowned, not sure how he felt about this. Naruto offered a half-smile. "'Konohamaru' was already taken, so we named him for the things we loved most." Time slowed down, and Sasuke's insides seized up at the realization of what was coming, an admittance he couldn't bear to hear and yet couldn't stop the words from clearing Naruto's lips:

"Konoha," Naruto paused, "And Sa—"

"—Shut up!" Sasuke shouted to drown him out, recoiling from the idea.

Naruto straightened, "It's the tru—"

"Just shut up!" Sasuke was there in an instant, fists on Naruto's collar shaking him. "I don't want to hear anymore!"

"Not hearing it doesn't make it less true," Naruto's hands gripped Sasuke's shoulders. Sasuke could see the blood on Naruto's teeth from the cut inside his mouth. Naruto swallowed, and then licked his lips. Neither of them let go.

"I don't want to fight with you," Naruto gave him a small shake.

"Then you shouldn't have come," Sasuke sneered.

Naruto scowled. "Oh come off it, you jackass. You're the one who went to all the trouble to get past my ANBU—don't blame me because you were too chicken to come for the last four years!"

Infuriated, Sasuke slammed his fist at Naruto's face but hit empty air—Naruto winked out of sight and the two of them teleported in a mad frenzy of attacking and weaving, trapped inside the small room as they were, evenly matched without drawing weapons or using any jutsu. Sasuke dodged a kick to his stomach, but Naruto caught hold of his cloak, twisted and then slammed him to the ground, pinning him with his weight unless Sasuke was willing to rip the cloak to shreds.

Sasuke glared as Naruto settled himself above him, and he made his decision—he blinked once and caught Naruto's eyes with his, activating his last resort, his most coveted technique: Mangekyo Sharingan.

Instantly the world around them reversed, what negligible color there had been in the room switching to flat black or white, the ceiling a rushing sky of blood red. Naruto blinked in confusion, and Sasuke chuckled, slowing time down to nothing and relishing the feeling of complete control, motivated by the need to lash out at the one who'd hurt him the worst, save only the one who'd died to give him this jutsu.

Now you'll see exactly what you've lost—for the next twenty-four hours you'll relive everything over and over again with every painful detail, knowing it's the last time, Uzumaki Naruto…

And the Mangekyo world became Naruto's prison, caging him from all sides while Sasuke projected each of their encounters over the years in extreme detail. Every word spoken, every caress, every instance of their bodies joining became Sasuke's weapons, a kunai in the breast, a katana in the gut. Naruto growled and roared at the onslaught, forced to see all of Sasuke's best and worst memories, including the pain of a clawed hand punching into Naruto's chest and wishing for his death.

It went on and on; Sasuke didn't hold back. Not even when Naruto's pupils became slits and his grimace showed fangs—Sasuke would not stop until Naruto admitted his mistake and begged him to end the torture. Sasuke savored the look on Naruto's face as he watched their most intimate moments, his own heart filled with renewed longing at what had been lost. And then something went wrong.

A flash of color broke through the constructed black and white, and Sasuke felt a jolt of something heavy tingling on the front of his body. He concentrated, struggling to keep the Mangekyo world intact while the trapped white-and-black Naruto somehow picked him out of the shadows and charged straight for him.

Sasuke gasped at the brain-splitting pop as his doujutsu crumbled, his eyes hardly able to look at the fire-coated beast pinning him to the floor. There was a rushing in his ears as if he'd fallen from a great height to land in this old bedroom, Naruto's orange-red chakra stirring everything in the room and flapping their hair and clothing. Sasuke opened his mouth in shock, seeing three chakra tails waving behind Naruto that matches his pointed ears. Naruto growled and bent lower, the chakra so hot Sasuke could barely stand the feel of it and so he reacted on instinct—

In a whoosh he was standing inside that waterlogged basement, facing the enormous snout of the Kyuubi whose body had leaked halfway past its bars. Naruto stood within the bubbling chakra, covered from head to waist, glaring at Sasuke's intrusion while fighting to keep the lower half of himself free. Kyuubi began to laugh, and Sasuke charged forward with a barbaric cry and clawed through the demon's nose—the poisonous chakra receded and both Kyuubi and Naruto began to yell in outrage—

Naruto shoved Sasuke's head into the floor, and Sasuke saw stars, though he was finally able to breathe properly. He was aware of his head aching both inside and out, and of Naruto's body still pinning his to the floor before some new attack caught him off guard—

Naruto's tongue slid into his mouth, warm and wet and so good that Sasuke thought his toes might curl inside his sandals. He wanted to pull Naruto closer, and fought to move his arms outside the tight folds of his cloak. Naruto didn't help him, but he did stroke his fingers into Sasuke's hair sending gooseflesh all down his neck, and he did move their bodies into a more comfortable, tighter fit. Naruto kissed him with a fierce passion, and all too soon he broke away, looking boldly into Sasuke's eyes and saying, "God I hate you."

Sasuke scowled, trying to shove Naruto off of him. "Then get the fuck off me, you total moron," he ground out between clenched teeth.

Finally Naruto let him go, and they stood up and dusted themselves off. Naruto looked particularly bad; Sasuke wasn't sure he wanted to know what he looked like if his chakra had been zapped to such an extent. He was too amazed even to begin to process what they'd just done. He was equally amazed the house was still standing, although the dresser had been smashed to pieces, and the cards had flown all about the room. Naruto rubbed his arms as if they still tingled, moving to the door and making a series of hand seals before checking on his son. Sasuke clenched his hands into fists—when the hell had Naruto found the time to set up a shield?

"What are you doing in there, Papa? Playing?" Konosuke must have moved away from the house; his voice seemed to come from out in the yard.

"Something like that," Naruto smiled, though it had a falseness to it Sasuke was appalled to recognize.

"We're still going to see Mama's grave, right?"

Sasuke's head snapped up, but Naruto didn't acknowledge him or his questions. He answered his son, "Of course we are. We always go to see Mama on your birthday, right?"


"Okay, you keep on playing out here. We won't be much longer." Naruto turned as he said this, meeting Sasuke's gaze. He closed the door once more. A silence fell over the room, broken only by the soft noises of the kitten and child outside. Light from the lantern seeped through the cracks around the door. Naruto fingered the tattered bracelet on his left wrist.

Sasuke cleared his throat. "When?" he asked, a better sense of Naruto's side of the story sinking in, though it didn't abate the feelings of betrayal.

"Two years," Naruto answered.

"What… happened?" Sasuke asked, softly, so that Naruto could choose whether or not to answer.

"She wanted another child. Neither of them survived, no matter what old lady Tsunade tried." Naruto took a deep breath, and let it out. "It just wasn't meant to be."

Sasuke had no words. It surprised him to feel her death so strongly, though he knew he couldn't have withstood her love. Not like Naruto.

"Listen," Naruto moved closer, but made no attempt to touch him. "This hasn't exactly gone like either of us wanted. I'll take Konosuke in a minute. Just do me a favor and take the kitten, will you?"

Sasuke frowned, remembering the boy's comment. "How did you know?"

Naruto chuckled, rubbing the back of his neck. "Well I am Hokage." Sasuke lowered his brows in disbelief. Naruto tried not to grin, but clearly enjoyed the moment. "I've got access to all of Jiraiya's spy network, of course."

"That doesn't mean—" Sasuke's protest was cut off by Naruto's hand sweeping over his shoulder and arm, gliding over the cloak.

Naruto held up a single cat hair, triumphant. "See? You've had these on your cloak since the beginning."

Sasuke gaped, while Naruto laughed a laugh of purest happiness so infectious that Sasuke's soul ached from the beauty of it. Naruto must have seen the change in his expression, for he closed that remaining distance and Sasuke backed away before he could do anything else—he wasn't sure he could take it. He wanted it so much.

Naruto slowed to a stop, the smile faltering and then slipping away. He shrugged off the rejection much as he had several years before, then shoved his hands in his pockets. "Guess I'll be off, then."

Sasuke nodded, the tiny scroll feeling like lead in his pouch, a last decision to be made. Could he really let this man die? If he couldn't do it himself—and God knows he'd tried—could he live with someone else snuffing out Naruto's will of fire, and everything it stood for?

"I'm sorry," Naruto flashed him a sad, half smile. "For everything." He opened the door, and Sasuke followed a few steps behind, thoughts swirling inside his aching mind.

"Konosuke?" Naruto called. There was no immediate sign of the boy.

"Papa, Papa!" Konosuke's small, distressed voice was muffled by rustling grass.

"I thought I told you to stay close?" Naruto called back to him. Konosuke had moved so far down the porch walkway that the lantern's glow could hardly reach him. Sasuke followed Naruto closely as he moved towards his son. After another moment of rustling, they saw a blond head pop up into the grass as he wriggled out from under the porch.

"He's stuck! The kitten is stuck and I can't get him out!"

"We'll get him out," Naruto said, moving into the grass and peering beneath the porch into the black. Naruto wiped the dirt from Konosuke's cheeks with his big hands and brushed off his clothing. They were now standing close enough that Sasuke could make out the frightened mews of the kitten. "He's just scared I think… not stuck…"

"You'll never fit under there," Sasuke pointed out, more than familiar with the house's secret hiding spots.

Konosuke had taken Naruto's hand, and was tugging on it. "We have to get him out, Papa!"

"We will," Naruto squeezed his hand, squatting beside him so they were nearly the same height. Naruto bent lower and peered harder, apparently with no obvious plan in mind. Sasuke rolled his eyes, and muttered under his breath, annoyed by the situation.

Without a word, he reached into his cloak and brought out a small bottle, moving past Naruto with a haughty air. He crouched near the porch steps and uncapped the bottle, whispering to the kitten in a voice inaudible to either Naruto or his son.

"Ew, what is that?" Naruto pinched his nose and made a face.

Sasuke raised a brow, surprised he could smell it, but didn't close the bottle. He whispered to the kitten once more, and heard the scratching noises he'd been expecting to hear once the smell of the cat-treats reached it. Soon enough, the kitten climbed out of its own accord and Sasuke felt a small, purring body nudge his hand, curling its tail around his wrist and rubbing its head along the underside of his fingers where they gripped the bottle. Sasuke shook out a treat and fed it to the kitten, while Naruto and Konosuke watched—awestruck.

"Wow!" Konosuke dashed towards him, and Sasuke plucked the kitten out of the grass and placed it on his knee, where it began to rub both cheeks on Sasuke's pants. Sasuke closed the bottle and slipped it back into his cloak, meeting Naruto's eyes with decidedly superior smirk, no matter how ridiculous it was.

"Papa, he's okay!" Konosuke called, laughter bubbling up and out of the boy as he lavished attention on the kitten. "Sasuke saved him!"

"Yes, I see that," Naruto's smile was wry as he stood, watching the scene before him with undisguised enjoyment. Sasuke balked at the sight of it. He stood up, blushing like an idiot and thankful that the limited light would hide the transgression. He held the kitten on his forearm, half-sorry that he was taking it away from Konosuke, who seemed to adore it.

"You picked out just the right one, Konosuke. Sasuke likes him," Naruto beamed at his son as they all climbed back to the porch. Sasuke felt a twinge watching it; Konosuke's happy grin was just how Sasuke imagined the boy's mother's would have been.

"Are we going to see Mama now?" Konosuke asked, and Naruto nodded, catching Sasuke's eye.

"Say goodnight to Sasuke first," Naruto prompted, and before either of them could react the boy ran at Sasuke and latched onto his hips, burying his face in Sasuke's stomach from the fierceness of the hug. Sasuke froze, utterly shocked.

"G'night Sasuke," Konosuke said, his voice muffled by Sasuke's shirt.

"Goodnight," Sasuke replied, finally slipping his arms around the boy as best he could after settling the kitten on his shoulder. He stroked Konosuke's pink-blond hair, and then the boy laughed and raced back to his father, as quick as he'd come.

Sasuke watched, speechless, as Naruto raised a hand and waved his goodbye, then took the lantern down from the hook and began to walk away, the white coat flaring behind him. This is it, Sasuke thought. He knew it with every particle in his body. This was the moment where he'd decide to act, or not act, to mend or stay broken, to save a life or to doom thousands because of his goddamn Uchiha pride—

"Naruto!" he called, moving forward. His hand was already around the scroll, clutching it tight as Naruto and his son both turned around, curious looks on their twin faces.

"Wait," he said, hating his heart for beating so fast and making this so much harder. Naruto met him partway, passing the lantern to Konosuke. Sasuke took Naruto's hand and placed the scroll inside it.

"What is this?" Naruto asked.

"Take it," Sasuke insisted, squeezing their hands together before letting go. "You'll need it."

Naruto's face grew stern. "Where did you get this?"

"What does it matter?" Sasuke made a frustrated noise. "Take it." Naruto pressed his lips thin and broke the seal, pulling it open.

"Not here," Sasuke moved to snatch it back, but Naruto had already seen the mark of the Tsuchikage and the beginnings of the first diagram.

He grabbed Sasuke by the arm, "What the hell are you thinking? Are you with them, with Hidden Rock? So help me I'll—"

"No, dammit!" Sasuke shook his arm free, careful of the kitten clinging to the top of his shoulder.

"Then what are you doing with this kind of information?" Naruto demanded.

"What do you think I've been doing all these years?" Sasuke shot back, annoyed that Naruto was missing the point.

"How the hell should I know?" Naruto gestured in frustration, "You're not exactly easy to chat with! And you're the one who always insisted on keeping secrets, not me!"

"Then give it back!" Sasuke glared, holding out his hand. "I didn't have to bring it at all, you know."

"So why did you?" Naruto ignored the hand, tucking the scroll someplace safe on his belt.

Sasuke pointed at the startled boy clutching the lantern behind his father. "Maybe I don't want that kid to become an orphan when they invade Konoha!"

"Wait—" Naruto's face changed. His whole body became serious, like a switch that had flipped. "Rock is coming? I haven't heard anything like that."

Sasuke took a deep breath. "I heard that Jiraiya…" He paused, knowing the man's death had been painful for many, and perhaps worst for Naruto.

"Yeah," Naruto ran a hand through his hair. "A year ago, just about."

Sasuke folded his arms. "Parts of his network have fallen."

"Shit." Naruto hands made fists. Sasuke's pulse beat hot under his skin—it was now or never.

He cleared his throat. "My network is larger. Stronger."

Naruto looked dumbfounded. "Sasuke…"

"That's got most of what we know," Sasuke pointed at the general spot where Naruto had hidden the scroll. "We're still watching them, though."

"But how... How can you...?" Naruto lifted a hand, at a loss.

Sasuke cocked his head, folding his arms across his chest. "You should know--everyone thinks I'm dead. I just used that to my advantage."

"Then…" Naruto hesitated, "You're willing to share this kind of information? With Konoha?"

Sasuke shrugged as if it were trivial, dropping his eyes from the intensity of Naruto's gaze. "I would have used the dresser to pass the messages… but as it's been demolished, I guess I'll have to send reports with this guy." Sasuke scratched under the kitten's chin, and then Naruto caught him in a full grown version of Konosuke's bear hug, squeezing hard enough that Sasuke had trouble breathing.

"Tch," Sasuke pushed impatiently at Naruto's middle, but Naruto only slid his knee in-between Sasuke's thighs and held him closer, changing the hug into something desperate as well as full of gratitude. Sasuke sighed and gave in, hugging Naruto back and enjoying the moment with resignation.

Naruto pressed his mouth to Sasuke's neck and whispered "Oh God, Sasuke...Thank you," and Sasuke might have replied in similar fashion if he hadn't caught Konosuke's eye and realized the boy was watching them, his face a mixture of curiousity and bewilderment at what he probably saw as one of the many strange behaviors of adults.

"Get off," Sasuke hissed, stepping on Naruto's foot from the embarrassment. Naruto chuckled and loosened his hold, looking Sasuke in the eye.

"I have a better idea," he tilted his head in challenge.

Sasuke narrowed his eyes. "You better not say anything stupid."

"How 'bout you come with me," Naruto whispered, not a trace of a joke anywhere on his whiskered, handsome face. Sasuke began to protest, but Naruto cut him off.

"Stay with me—just for tonight," he insisted. "I'll take Konosuke to see his mother, and you can follow us secretly from a distance. She'd want you to visit, Sasuke."

"Naruto…" Sasuke wasn't sure about this. It was a huge risk, though the fact that Naruto believed so highly in his skills made him want to do it—as Naruto could no doubt guess.

"Then you can sneak into my house, for a change," Naruto's expression shifted to one of hunger, something charged that sparked a similar sensation in Sasuke, making his mouth water. "Unless you think the Rokudaime Hokage's residence would be too difficult for someone your age..."

"Shut up," Sasuke smirked, and something familiar—something right—passed between them for the first time in years. They both shuddered, though Naruto let go first; Sasuke was sorry he had to move away now that he didn't want to. The kitten mewed, further disrupting the mood and giving them the needed excuse to go separate ways.

"See you," Naruto waved, patting his son on the head who was also waving.

"See you," Sasuke nodded, lifting a hand as he watched them disappear around the corner.

For what might be the last time—an idea that made his palms moist and itchy—Sasuke stood in the doorway of his old bedroom. His eyes flicked over the debris of paper and wood, but he felt no need to tidy the evidence from earlier that night. He stroked the kitten's small body, and then followed the walkway around the house, coming once more to the understated family shrine.

Sasuke knelt, pressing his palms together, the will of fire rekindled in his heart and growing stronger with every beat.

Then he slipped off into the night, speeding over rooftops with his cloak billowing behind him, like the wings of a newborn bird that has just learned how to fly home.


the end. ♥