A/N: Hey, mina-san! So here we are- finally reaching the last chapter of this story. Thank you all for reading and, as always, my extra heartfelt thanks to all you guys who took the time to review, pm me, email me- all the good stuff. You made this SO much fun! Because of this story I got to share thoughts with all you cool people and am coming out of it with a couple of precious friendships, so- all in all- I'm a damn lucky chick. ^.^ Special thanks to TWNJ, who reminded about how Sasuke got his Sharingan in the first place and suggested- strongly ;-)- that I include that somehow. You guys REALLY need to check out her art at deviantart- I'm so spoilt, it's not even funny! Muahs, troublesome woman. :3

My anon. readers. Counting out Koneko who is just LA-AZY! LOL ;-) Love you, babe. Kakashi's Dog – Thank you for the well wishes. :-D Yes, this is the last chapter… And you made it all the way here without making that account. LOL True to your word. Tee-hee! Insideout – You are so sweet- thank you! I'm glad to hear that you got a kick out of Naruto's reaction. It's a tough one to hear in any case and Kurenai wasn't even aware that she was talking about a guy. As to the Shika and Kurenai relationship, I think that since they are the closest people to Asuma, there would be a connection there- even as I imagine that it has to be hard as each is a constant reminder of their loss. I LOVE Shika/Tema and I tried to leave some hints about a possible Choji/Ino, so we're on the same page. ^.^

Note about the Title: Sine Qua Non is Latin. Literally it translates "without that nothing", but what it means is "That without which life loses its meaning". It refers to the one thing that every person needs in order for life to be worth living, the one thing that, as long as it exists, one can endure anything else. I thought it was appropriate. ;-)

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto. And as long as I say that, I can do whatever I want to the characters. Now how cool is that? :-D

Tides and Ebbs of Honesty

Tide 19: Sine Qua Non

The view from the Hokage monument was breathtaking, as much so now as it had been the very first time he had set foot on it- and any subsequent time that he had sought solace from troubles or even life itself. The panoramic aspect of his Village had always served to remind him of his dream- the bold declarations of his youth and crash realities of his adult life- almost instantly making him feel better. It wasn't working today.

However obsessed he might have felt with planning ahead, dreaming about his future relentlessly refused to let him deny the bizarre reality that was his life presently. Because his future had only included two destinations- bringing Sasuke back and becoming Hokage, in that exact order. Having reached the first- and passed it with flying colours- he had assumed that he was on his way to the second. There had never been any other plans- certainly not ones involving this little interlude. Andnow what? What he was supposed to do was take the next train out of la-la-land land and try to clean up the current mess that was staring him in the face. Said current mess had a face of its own, though. It was one that he wasn't entirely sure if he wanted to gawk at- because his past, secretly praising annotations about Sasuke's features were catching up on him something ugly, feeding his mounting paranoia- or beat to a bloody, unrecognizable pulp. The latter would also serve to take care of any future secretly praising annotations, so the prospect was rather tempting.

Uzumaki Naruto had walked for a while after leaving Kurenai-sensei's house, his brain throbbing with her advice and the implications of her observations. Now, perched on the Sandaime's head, he was trying to figure out- in vain, of course- how it was humanly possible to be that pissed off at anyone, but Sasuke, and not hate them. What had happened between them should have had the makings of a personal insult the likes of which only the Rasengan- and possibly the Kyuubi too- would resolve. Yet, it wasn't offense that was chomping away at him, but hurt and confusion. No one could have been more shocked than him, when he faced up to the fact that it wasn't that he was angry about the kiss- it was what Sasuke had said after that. And for all his frustration and righteous anger, Kurenai's words echoed loud and clear in his mind, creating a sense of urgency that had not been there before- and maybe it should have been. Because time could run out any moment and his precious person would die before he had the chance to-

To what?, his mind challenged brusquely and he had no answer. His aggravation with Teme notwithstanding- which made it really, really hard to accept him as his precious person- there was one thing that he did know. He couldn't bear the thought of Sasuke dying- nevermind that for the last week he swore that he could kill him with his bare hands, if he so much as breathed a word his way. Sasuke, who had taken the chatty pill and wanted to talk. About what happened in the cave. That's what he had said, not minding that Sai and Yamato were there either.

Naruto ran a hand through his hair- nervously, irritably.

What was there to say other than that it had all been a mistake- which it was- and then what? Pretend it had never happened? He supposed that maybe- maybe- they could try for that, if the stupid bastard stopped with the kissing routine. In the past week, Naruto had decided that it was no doubt Sasuke's fault that the kiss at the Academy, way back when, had even happened. All those rabid fangirls had been on him like hounds out of hell- like it was somehow his fault that he had been pushed into that kiss. His first kiss at that. Sasuke's too, he supposed but he didn't care- apparently the Uchiha found his way to his mouth a little too often. Well, maybe too often was overstating things- a little- but in his defense of the argument, Sasuke had always been somewhat- if not entirely- of the asexual persuasion, showing just about no interest in anything that couldn't slice and dice through people.

Until recently, Naruto blushed at the memory of the Uchiha's lips against his, the rushed manner that those roaming hands had moved over his body- none of which was suggesting anything asexual and was definitely not lacking in zeal. Which had made it all too easy to give into and entirely impossible to put out of his mind. Sasuke had managed to make a spectacular leap from breezy indifference to cat-in-mating-season during some unaccounted , as if all that weren't bad enough, the icing on this botched cake had been Kurenai's words- in love- that had hit him harder than any jutsu that had ever landed on his stubborn body.

"Dammit…" he muttered.

He was still coming to terms with how those words even sounded. In love. With Sasuke. Not Sakura- not any girl of any nation far and wide. Sasuke.

"There you are, Dobe."

Naruto almost jumped out of his skin at the sound of that particular voice. He slowly turned to watch the Uchiha walk towards him in resolute steps, making eye contact with his those dark charcoal eyes that seemed to cast an uncanny spell on him- a sort of trance in which he couldn't bring himself to look away. A fact that begged the question if it had always been that way and he was just now noticing what had been there for years. What everyone might have noticed, but him.The thought pissed him off something awful- and it didn't really help that Sasuke was meeting his inner agony with what he could only describe as impeccable equanimity. What that aloof attitude made him feel, tasted like raw anger melting away at his nervousness very fast, very definitively- because the bastard shouldn't have the right to be this unruffled, after having turned his world upside down.

"How did you find me?" he asked, not really wanting an answer, but rather allowing his tone to speak in volumes as to how serious he was about not wanting him there.

Would Sasuke be as pained if he were to die- on a mission, choke on a noodle or, what was more likely at this time, shame- tomorrow? Would Sasuke feel anything like he would- like a vital part of him, more so than his heart was to his body, was being ripped out of his soul. A part of him that he could never- would never- be able to replace, a wound that would never heal- one that he was unsure what kind of medical jutsu might even help him survive. He found that he had never doubted what Sasuke was feeling as much as he did right then- not when he had tried to kill him, not all the time that he had been away.

Sasuke merely scoffed. "You really need a new hiding place."

Blue eyes narrowed at the nonchalant response. "And the fact that I came to my hiding place wasn't enough to tip you off, huh?" he said very curtly, lips thinning in a tense line. "I didn't want to be found, Teme."

The raven looked back unphased, though a passing flicker in his eyes suggested that the acrimony had registered in a non too painless manner. Good. He supposed that this kind of turnabout was only fair play. Back at the cave, maybe he had tried, but apparently Teme just couldn't shut up and not say those hurtful words- it was, after all, in his nature to simply, royally screw everything up. Naruto had to wonder why the hell he was even surprised. His best friend had always treated their bond like a puppy that he felt safe in kicking to vent, whenever his messed up past crept up on him, knowing that he would be forgiven at the first sign of a nearly decent behavior. And all would- always- be forgotten.

"Pity." Sasuke deadpanned, his mouth obviously still untrained to saying the right thing.

Another thing that Naruto had to wonder was how much better things would have been all around, if the bastard had no mouth. Period. "What the hell gives you the right?!"

"Your promise that we would talk." He replied reasonably.

The retort had taken him aback. He had promised. "I didn't say when or where." He said a little defensively.

"No, you didn't." Sasuke affirmed, effortlessly making his point.

They could run in circles trying to determine this chicken-and-egg situation, but he already knew that he could not beat the other boy in a verbal sparring session. Might as well get this over with. He folded his arms. "So talk then."

The Uchiha's trademark confidence and aloof poise was suddenly tainted by unexpected nervousness. He had pursued this, after all. "About what happened… I…" The only word that could possibly describe him at the prospect of touching on the subject was antsy. He took a deep breath and faced Naruto. "I handled it badly."

Well, wasn't this peachy? A half-uttered apology- which would have sufficed for just about anything, except- "You mean when you kissed me to shut me up?" he was angry enough to utter those words without blushing and found that this talk that he so feared was just fine by him. He was tired of playing out this little face-off in his mind anyway, with only Sasuke's spectral image to respond in the best or worst ways that he could imagine. "That what-happened."

Sasuke winced a little. "It wasn't like that." He said quickly, then paused as if trying to grasp for what he meant to say- some magical approach that would make this all right again. "I'm not good with words, Dobe-"

Well, they were fresh out of magic in Konoha. "So how about you don't do things that you'll need to explain?" Naruto suggested very dryly.

The Uchiha's brows mingled in exasperation. "I didn't think-"

"No you didn't!" he cut again and this time his tone was much sharper. For being a genius Sasuke spent remarkably little time doing any actual thinking. "You just went off and tried your little experiment in whatever." he tried to sound dismissive, but failed. Raw emotion could have that unwelcome effect even in people who had spent their lives hiding their hurt about menial and meaningful things. "Did I prove that I'm the idiot you always said I was, when I fell for your prank?"

Charcoal eyes blinked in surprise. There had to have been some invisible crossroad that the conversation had come to, because he definitely looked like it had hit a wrong turn for him. "Prank-?" he started in unconcealed puzzlement.

The clear confusion currently registering on the pale boy's face did little to deter him or put a dent on the certainty of his conclusions. "Yes. Prank." He reiterated accusingly. "It must have been a big joke to you that I didn't punch you or anything- that I fucking kissed you back!" the last part was practically yelled at the cool boy, who didn't seem quite that cool anymore.

A slight blush dusting over the Uchiha's pale features that Naruto couldn't guess what it might mean. Was it shame? Was the memory of the whole thing so mortifying that he could not keep his disgust to himself, even as the purpose of this little talk seemed to be an apology- of sorts? Come to think of it, if they were to talk the shame and disgust talk, shouldn't he have blushed when he had done the actual kissing instead of when hearing about it? Everything about that guy was half-ass backwards and tied into a knot. How had he even survived co-existing with himself, let alone dealing with other people was anyone's guess.

In spite of the rosy tint across his cheeks, Sasuke's voice came out stern as he- futilely- tried to intercept the torrent of allegations. "Usuratonkachi-"

Naruto glared- because Usuratonkachi had- unintentionally, but irrevocably- gained a bit of an affectionate hue to it over the course of the past year and the Uchiha had not nearly earned the right to even try and use it on him. Not by a longshot. It was so silly. Even before all this- before he had brought Sasuke back, all that time that they had been apart- he had longed to hear the Uchiha's mock-dismissive tone as he called him that once again. It had been so long since the word had even carried any real insult with him. It was familiar- it was something that only Sasuke would ever call him that way and held in it so much of the history of their bond.

How sappy was that?

When he had crossed paths with him, found him again- after 3 years of dreadful silence and deep hurt and hard training- Sasuke had addressed him by his given name- "Naruto ka?"- in that empty, unreverberant tone. It was terribly out of place. It had scared him. That voice spoke of Sasuke having been hollowed out until all that was left was that shell- that adult that still looked like the boy he had known so well, that he had sworn to protect from himself and bring back home. His first, his most important bond.

For all those reasons, that she could not have possibly suspected at the time, Kurenai-sensei had suggested that he cleared his side of the pavement. Well, he wasn't just clearing, he was freakin' sweeping. "And then you went on to make me feel like, if I were to crawl under a rock and keel over there and then, it still wouldn't be enough to take this sick feeling from my stomach." He spat, instinctively clutching on his shirt.

The Uchiha's lips parted as though he was going to say something, his hands flexing as though they intended to move. The blonde boy experienced something akin to panic and took a step back. Sasuke mirrored him, not stepping back physically per se, but his mouth set and fists clenched- clearly holding back whatever bold move he had been planning. It was such things that had created this mess in the first place and the pale boy's hold over his reason at close proximity just about petrified him. Naruto thought that his rib cage might crack open the way his heart was pounding. It was not the flu, like he had been telling himself for a while now- when trying to explain his flustered skin, the weird haze in his mind as well as the fact that his resting heart rate was 200 around the Uchiha. It was- simply, frightfully- his emotions, confusing him as to whether the person he was finding himself- grudgingly, but nonetheless undeniably- attracted to was the stuff that dreams were made of, or really, really not. Not that the answer would impact on his feelings either way. He felt what he felt. That was real.

Pathetic…, he chastised himself once more- because, really, just this once what he felt should adhere to what made sense. And feeling the way he did, was not it. It couldn't be.

Things would have been a lot easier, if eye-contact wasn't so important. All he wanted was to look away, but he could allow no mistaking in how serious he was. To do that, he was willing to suffer the shrill intensity of those charcoal eyes and pretend that it didn't affect him in more ways that his mind could positively relay. "But you know what's the big difference between us? We don't have the same things at stake. You gave up on the idea of a family, you don't care what the Villagers think of you."

Sasuke winced a little- because it was all too true. The raven could have lived the rest of his days unchained by and uncaring of anyone's opinions or expectations. In his young age the Uchiha had already seen his life's goal to its fateful end, where Naruto hadn't even started yet. Then again, it was easier to spiral down a dark path- even as no one would ever suggest that defeating Uchiha Itachi in a battle to the death was easy- than try to do something good, build the future in hope for better days. Create a reality in which the people one cared about might be safe and even happy. And that future had always- always- included Sasuke. He had refused to meet it, to strive for it until the Uchiha was a clear-cut element of it.

"I am so pathetic." He smiled bitterly, finally voicing that recurring thought. "However angry I was with you, there were all those times these past days that something would happen and I'd think to myself 'Wait till Teme hears this' or 'I have to tell Sasuke that'." His voice picked an excited hue, in spite of himself, as those memories flashed behind cobalt eyes, before dimming again. "I've spent years doing that- just making lists and notes of all the things I was going to say to you."

"I do that too." Sasuke said then, taking a step forward.

It was one of those things that had been so unlikely in his mind that he had to check if he had heard right. "Huh?"

"I do it too…" he reiterated, this time with a prominent blush, looking away defiantly, his voice becoming softer as he added. "I just never tell you."

Naruto wore an expression of disbelief, akin to someone's who had just been informed of a vicious goldfish massacre. "Like when?" he asked sceptically.

The Uchiha continued to stare at that vague- albeit particularly intriguing- spot on his side. "Like… a couple of days ago. The waiter at the restaurant that I had lunch with Kakashi was wearing a frog pin as hideous as your wallet."

Naruto blinked slowly. "What makes you think I'd want to hear this?"

The Uchiha looked back uninsulted, in spite of the deadpan tone. "Like a couple of years ago, when I had crossed the Great Naruto Bridge." He amended. "I wanted to tell you that the old man had kept his promise and named it after you."

The mention created a series of misfires in his brain in the form of sundry memories and heaving emotion. The first time that they had been in the Country of Waves, before there ever had been a Great Naruto Bridge, he and Sasuke had trained together well past sundown. He and Sasuke and dragged their feet back to old man Tazuna's home, diffidently using each other's shoulders for support while their feet were giving way from under them. He and Sasuke had worked together as a formidable team for the first time- to save Kakashi, to protect Sakura. It had felt so good- that wordless communication that had been so clear once their objectives entwined. And it was there that he had thought that Sasuke had died- died to save him, fatuously absorbing the burnt of an attack that had been meant to finish him. It had been then that he had first experienced what it would mean to lose Sasuke- and he had nearly lost himself in it.

The emotional sledgehammer forged his voice to a more gravelly tone than he had intended. "Most people can understand the importance of a promise."

"I wanted to tell you…" Sasuke continued almost ignoring the harsh retort- almost cowering out of what he had intended to say next. But then his jaw set, his intense gaze bearing heavily into the cobalt eyes. "I wanted to tell you that seeing you getting hurt was what woke my Sharingan in the first place."

This time the blonde looked down and he frowned. He had nothing to say, because he had never thought about it- he had kind of always simply accepted things as they came, not daring to measure his part in them. Especially the important things- especially as important as the Sharingan was to an Uchiha. It was almost funny that getting beaten up gave him credit for the Sharingan, because thinking that Sasuke was dead had woken the Kyuubi in him. That was something that he didn't want Sasuke to know. Over the years he had come to terms with being a demon vessel, but he had never really discussed it with the Uchiha- who had been physically hurt by the Fox more than once, at the Valley of the End and during training, but not once shared his thoughts on it.

Other that one time

When he had caught up to him, about two years ago, Sasuke had invited himself in his mind where he had proceeded to push the Kyuubi back. I can see it now… Something had sunk in Naruto at the tone that simply hit rock bottom when the other boy's strange, red eyes moved over to him over a conceited smile. Who would have thought that something like that would be in you. It had sounded like everything he was capable of had been chalked up to the Kyuubi's power- and that wasn't so, it wasn't who he was. They had come a long way from that moment, but, even now, he had to wonder if Sasuke's idea of him had moved past that misperception.

Enough time had passed for the dark boy to accept that his words would not be met with a response. He closed his eyes in frustration, as nothing appeared to be having the intended effect. "My point is", he started, striving for the usual fluency that characterized his speech- when he actually chose to utter more than a couple of words at a time, "that I always thought that all I needed was time to get around to all the things I wanted to say or do."

Sometimes there was no real filter between his brain and his mouth- or so he had been accused by a lot of people. His next words made him wonder if they might have a point. "Time is not infinite, Teme, no matter what Orochimaru might have told you." He said matter-of-factly, though he really hadn't intended to go there.

Cheap shots were just not him and he had forgiven Sasuke- who, even when he had apologized at Ino's party, had never asked for absolution. He had, hadn't he? He had forgiven him for all those things that the other boy didn't seem to regret- the abandonment, the absence, the fear, the doubt, the hurt, the dejection- right? And here he was, with a few well aimed words, wounding the proud, unrepentant Uchiha more mortally than he ever had- or ever could- with other, more traditional weapons. The riposting stunned look in those charcoal eyes, seething with all those dark, painful undertones, made him feel like scum. All the certainty in the world about the justness of his words would not make him wish any less that he could stifle the pang of guilt, when Sasuke had looked at him like that- like he had never expected this of him. It was the first time he had been faced with that expression- and prayed to Kami it would be the last.

Still, after taking a moment to study the blonde, none of those emotions that had flashed so clearly in his eyes touched his tone. "In all this time that I've taken for granted, I've learned that you can't give what you've never received." He continued tightly, then sighed deeply. "There's no aquifer of love, there's no distillery of faith within me- so I have to receive it."

"What more do you want from me?" Naruto burst, in utter exasperation and profound bewilderment, because anything that he was, anything that he wanted to be had all been set in orbit around Sasuke. He had torn himself down and built it back up from scratch for him. "What more can I give you?"

It was questions that he didn't seem to have expected. Because in all those years that they had known each other, Naruto had never demanded anything- just gratefully accepted what Sasuke was willing to give. "I-" he tried tentatively.

Anything the Uchiha had to say to contradict that truth would be drivel. "My whole life has revolved around you- your rivalry, your approval, your respect, you leaving, becoming stronger for you, catching up to you… bringing you home. I thought that when- when, Sasuke, not if- I brought you back, I'd finally have some space for me in my life too. Time to be your best friend and maybe someone's boyfriend- a girl's boyfriend." He paused to catch his breath, his mind spinning. No one had ever made him feel as much as Sasuke- and though the good times had made for his dearest memories, there was just too much heartbreak. "You have always been the one to decide when things changed and how. You left and decided I wasn't enough to help you get to your goal- to keep you here. You kissed me- I don't even know what the hell you were thinking with that one. Who the hell even told you that I was ready for something like that?"

"It's not like I had planned it all out, Dobe." He fended in a wary tone.

Naruto just glared at that. "And does it take a genius to know that there are consequences for stuff like that?"

A sense of foreboding touched Sasuke's expression, shading it with that icy feeling, as if his blood had run cold. Naruto didn't know anymore what he had to say- or what he needed to hear, for that matter- to make things okay between them again. He was punch-drunk by Sasuke's many a blows to his heart over the years. It dawned on him that, even though he couldn't imagine life without the Uchiha, he didn't know how to imagine life with him either. In all honesty, having been everything one could be to another being, but never something definitive, he couldn't decide what they were to each other anymore. It made him ooze of the helplessness, more so than anger, which was what Sasuke was reacting to with genuine apprehension.

The raven had never been one to succumb to his fears though, always pushing through for the hurtful truths and continuing undaunted down his crooked path. "What do you mean?"

Bracing for the answers to such questions required courage that he respected- and it made him feel unfathomably sad. Sasuke's thought process originated from the idea that he couldn't be happy, that nothing very good could ever become of him. He hated that- he found it entirely insulting, because he had bent over backwards to try and put a smile on the stoic face. "What do I mean? We were fine a week ago and look at us now. I have wanted your reinstatement since I brought you back and we didn't even get celebrate, because…" his voice trailed off for a few moments as he weighed his next words in his mind. "Because, I don't know how to be around you anymore." He finished and watched the dark eyes widen more than a little, yet he didn't know what the Uchiha might be feeling. It was an easy answer for himself though. "It hurts."

The gravity of his words sunk in somewhere in those bottomless eyes in a moment of complete silence- chocking and thick, making him want to run away. Because Sasuke wasn't looking away and his eyes were suddenly too animated. Because Naruto hadn't been trained on how to read all the emotions in those dark depths that had always been opaque and guarded until now. He couldn't decipher what that gaze was begging him to understand, except for that maybe- maybe- the raven hadn't really imagined his life without him either.

Finally- almost mercifully- Sasuke closed his terribly vocal eyes and heaved a sigh. "I was afraid." He said, very quietly.

Nothing short of the whole truth or a startling epiphany would have made Naruto pause- that's what he had sworn to himself, no matter how ugly things got. This truth was enough to make him take several steps mentally back and one physically forth, for the first time since this talk started, unconsciously inching closer to Sasuke. He blinked. "What did you just say?" he asked almost as quietly.

"I was afraid, okay? Satisfied?" he said louder, his brimming frustration spilling over his tone. "I didn't know what to do. I still don't." he confessed and allowed a long moment to go by before adding gently, half-heartedly. "This doesn't have to change anything."

It was all too rare that he would hear Sasuke's voice this soft and reluctant. If sound had texture, he would have called it velvet- smooth, but somehow tarrying on his skin- dallying about his senses and almost scattering his thoughts. It amazed him that something so basic and ever-present about the dark boy was only now frightening him. Naruto straightened his body in an attempt to break through the enchantment. At first he had thought that it was the charcoal eyes that made his resolve budge and evoked all kinds of storms, but he was quickly finding that it was everything that the raven did or didn't do. It posed a very good question that filled him with something akin to anguish. If this was how it was going to be and he couldn't really function around the Uchiha, how was he supposed to explain that to Tsunade, when she started teaming them up for missions? A question that he avoided altogether was whether he could even deal with this abstruse- unplumbed- chasm between them, even if he did find a way to get a grip.

"It changes everything, Teme. Unlike you, I'm not good at pretending. I know it felt good." He admitted and tried to gauge the raven's reaction. He was watching him back intently, but this time Naruto couldn't fathom what he might be thinking. "That's with me now."

Sasuke's now unreadable gaze stayed on him for another long, silent moment in which the blonde tried to hold back that rising wave of panic. "Okay…" he said with a nod, in an exasperatingly calm voice. "Then maybe we should do it again."

Okay, he had lost him there. "… Do what?"

The Uchiha couldn't have been that composed- it was inhuman. "Kiss." He said simply.

Naruto blinked uncomprehendingly for a moment, before beet-red embarrassment washed over his features. "Wha-?!" he chocked out the single, half-uttered word belling in the confines of his mind. He shook his head, almost like he was hoping that its contents would fall back into place. "How is doing that going to help with anything?!"

A couple of things floated in the wobbly sphere of perception that was presently his brain. One was that, for the life of him, he couldn't figure out why he would be attracted to a sadistic bastard like Sasuke. Maybe it was one of those things that people were supposed to think of this as a gift and avoid shaking the box until it was time to open it. Then get justly scared about its contents. The other was that, despite the scare and the sadistic-bastard part, he wasn't too opposed to kissing him again. Suppose that answered Iruka-sensei's question. He rolled his eyes at himself, before getting startled when the Uchiha spoke again.

"This may be a fluke." He said in that same quiet, brutally calm tone.

The raven might as well had been speaking gibberish. "A fluke?" he reiterated after a moment, under a disbelieving golden scowl. Could something feel like that- that agonizing, that gratifying- and be spurious? "You really believe that?"

Whether he was unwilling to answer or didn't know what exactly he believed was impossible to tell. Dark brows drew together into a frown as his enigmatic gaze dropped to the rocky ground beneath his feet. "Maybe it was just a reaction to the odd circumstances or the stale air." He reasoned ineffectually. "In any case, it might not have meant anything and we can just get past it." he continued, eyes snapping to Naruto, who felt very indecisive and probably looked it. Sasuke exhaled slowly, almost as if he was steadying his breathing. Maybe he had resolved that it was time to take a step forward and stop taking time for granted. "I don't want to lose you over this. I won't." He said, his tone no longer quiet and guarded- and becoming firmer as he added. "I can't."

I won't. That had landed almost like a stab- one that didn't exactly hurt, but flawlessly hit its target just the same. Because Naruto had been longing to hear something- anything- like that, even before any of this had happened. I can't. But this one felt entirely surreal- that there was this one thing that the powerful, proud Uchiha could not do and it was losing him. It was improbable, mindboggling and made his heart beat insanely fast- so fast that he thought it just might give out on him if Sasuke moved any closer- but a moment later he realized that he was nodding in agreement.

Naruto moved in slowly, almost suspiciously, and noticed that Sasuke didn't seem to be jumping into this either. It was different this time- it was a choice, not some sort of haphazard interaction that just spiralled out of control. Whatever happened it would be for real and that meant that one of them would have to accept the defenceless spot of giving into this- whatever it was- first. It didn't seem like there could be a winner, yet, true to the nature of their relationship, that ultimate submission turned into a challenge. The stakes were higher than victory or defeat- what awaited them could be lasting discomfort and, most assuredly, heartbreak. Perhaps for both of them, but Naruto feared that it was really just going to be him- because it had always been him that was left behind.

So they watched each other the same way they used to before sparring- though, admittedly, there were aspects to the stand-off that made it significantly different. The way that, at close proximity, the pale skin shimmered with a flimsy coat of sweat, giving it an almost otherworldly glow under the last rays of the setting sun. The way the way the raven hair fell on the side of the Uchiha's face like heavy curtains that might hide this moment from the world. The way the light reflected in those beautiful charcoal eyes that kept flickering between his eyes and his lips. Yeah- this was a fluke alright…

After a long moment of simply hovering a breath's space apart, Sasuke sighed in exasperation- "Usuratonkachi…"- and leaned in, crashing his lips on Naruto's.

For a while all that was there was an awkward stiffness and the sound of muffled, fast paced breathing. His eyes were wide open watching the Uchiha, who allowed his eyelids to fall lazily shut- entrusting the next move to him. Although he had known what was going to happen and had even agreed to it, all sorts of mental and emotional alarms went off in his head at the feel of those familiar lips against his- familiar, not because only Sasuke had ever kissed him, but because he had never forgotten the sensation. His traitorous body remembered too well, welcomed it too much. It was more than enough to scare him into a suspended state in which his mind refused to allow his body to follow through with what he had consented to. His body had gone rigid and he could tell that Sasuke was about to move away and call this experiment over. This was it- fight or flight,

He had never chosen flight in the past.

Naruto closed his eyes and parted his lips- almost fearfully, preparing for an impact that he wouldn't see coming- melding into the kiss. The Uchiha seemed to tense up for a short moment- eyes fluttering in surprise- but then one hand curled at the back of his neck, clutching on strands of blonde hair pulling himself closer, his lips moving against his, greedy and demanding. It seemed like that was the only way that the dark boy knew to go about things. He realized that he didn't know what to do with his hands, that soared over Sasuke's back- in part because he really did lack experience, but also because he still couldn't wrap his mind around what was happening and was afraid that the little, fragile bubble that this moment had been allowed to exist in, would burst at the softest touch. Unintentionally, his fingers brushed over Sasuke's spine, who shivered, releasing a ragged breath into his mouth. And so he did it again- this time quite deliberately- the idea that he did have power over Sasuke after all, intoxicating him with the wildest of intentions.

After that, everything drifted to a shallow haze as the kiss deepened all too easily- which made no sense whatsoever. Fortunately for him, at the moment what little sense he never even had in abundance was fading into the eager, sloppy battle of the lips and tongues. It was all happening with an unforeseen ease that could be considered improper almost, because he had never thought that kissing a guy- this guy, his best friend- could engulf him in such a languorous rapture. His heart beat faster, his breathing rose and fell rapidly and full drawn as he recognized that his heart had been aching for this feeling that he had experienced during their exchange in the cave, had been hurting that a cold wall that had replaced it, had been fearing that he might never experience it again. The sensation vying through him was consummate and his knees felt weak- so weak that he thought they'd give way any time now- but, to his immense surprise, it was Sasuke, who pulled him down with him. Even as his back lay safely flat on the rocky ground, there was a strange vertigo and a sense of free-falling as the comfortable weight of Sasuke's body evened across his torso, pressing hard against his- grinding against him on some kind of basic, primitive instinct that soundlessly whispered of ways that this tension might find release.

The sensation was quite maddening, setting his every sense on the threshold of what could be, but not crossing it. Naruto grunted deeply inside his throat- in frustration, in pure need for something he had never even received before- and rolled his body, reversing their positions as he pinned Sasuke's wrists over his head. His laboured breathing cooled his lips that were rather tender and somewhat sore after the abuse of Sasuke's mouth. He looked down at the Uchiha, searching for all those unspoken responses to his mind's questions in those beautiful eyes and his heart missed several beats. Not too long ago, there was a certain dream that he had and Sasuke had looked just like that- sans clothing. He blushed at the thought- and that immediate urge to explore how much of that dream was real.

Naruto grasped for a semblance of what his voice used to be, before the ache for Sasuke had spread through his body- and certain places in particular. "Any other bright ideas?" his breathing hitched a more than bit, making his words sound hushed.

More and more he was finding that Sasuke's patience was a fickle virtue that was swayed by his passions- so much so, in fact, that he needed to reel it back just a tad, or pieces of garment might be flying off very soon. Those pale, rough hands had been roaming the skin under his shirt, paying him back tenfold for the shivers he had invoked. He didn't remember if he had done the same. That little factoid lead him to another provoking insight- that there was just no trusting his own body when it came to Sasuke.

"No." Sasuke breathed huskily and reclaimed his lips.

What little time had been required for the raven to catch his breath enough to articulate a reply, had been just enough to alert him to his surroundings, their positioning and the fact that they had been at it for longer than it seemed. The sun was down. "Whah! Wait, Teme!" he said suddenly alarmed. "Not here!"

The last Uchiha blinked confused, not actually releasing him, as his pale hand remained clutched around the back of his neck, holding him firmly in place.

Naruto gestured to the side. "You do remember that the entire village has a clear view of the Hokage monument, right? I want my face up here, but not like this." He looked around and cringed. "And on the Sandaime's head?! What were you thinking?!"

The dark boy's wide eyes got a mischievous gleam about them as he smirked. It wasn't what was proper and he was not supposed to do it, not supposed to like it and was most definitely something that went against everything he had been told to never, ever even think about by his esteemed, prissy family- and he was well on his way to giving it a shot- and enjoy it, too. Naruto found it strange how, apparently, if it was strictly taboo, completely forbidden or something that no one the Uchiha was related to would even consider for a millisecond, he was game- if not outright eager- to try blonde had never imagined that he would ever think of the word exotic when describing Sasuke- or that he would be thinking of words to describe him in this way.

The familiar smirk curved the edge of the raven's lips. "I wasn't thinking."

Maybe it was the torrent of sensations brought on by the kiss, or maybe the incomparable delight to discover that Sasuke did have a very naturally playful side about this- even as what the reply's effect was not amusement or even joy, but rather a feeling that pooled in the pit of his stomach, warm and liquid. He also realized that he had pinned the Uchiha down with a manoeuvre undemanding of guidance that had crossed through the dream into his reality. And same as that dream, the pale skin was slightly flustered, those startling eyes somewhat clouded over with the aftershock of their exchange, the raven hair looking lush, making him crave to touch it.

"What are you looking at, Dobe?" he asked then, about as breathless as in the dream, his voice coloured by something Naruto had never heard before. It sounded fragile- so much so that it was enthralling.

"You." He answered- and felt as though as he had been holding on to that word, like a breath that had been seeking release for an obscene amount of time and he could finally inhale again.

Like the dream- like a dream he had never realized he even had- Sasuke's flustered skin gained a more rosy hue as he blushed a little. "Usuratonkachi…" he blurted- with a little anger that he had managed to make him blush, some affection, but mostly an attempt to seize his- presently unattainable- typical cool.

So maybe they wouldn't be caught dead holding hands or anything of the sort. There were a thousand reasons why this could not work- funny how ridiculously little such not-so-ridiculous numbers meant in life. In feelings. Because for all those thousands of reasons why they shouldn't even be entertaining the notion, there was only one that mattered: neither of them knew and they both wanted to know. He wanted to explore this bizarre feeling to its deepest, most secret reaches- wanted to get used to the dark, dark eyes looking at him without holding back, with no more secrets, always conveying so palpably what he felt in those moment. By the way Sasuke's blush stubbornly remained in place, he knew that the Uchiha knew what he was thinking. He knew that he shared that yearning- really knew for the first time in so many years- and wanted to know more, everything there was to know. Maybe, at last, they could read each other's mind.

And there was a matter to be addressed. Sasuke was the first to approach it. "Kakashi hasn't moved out yet." He said with meaning.

Naruto's face lit up with a blush, then fell a little as his mind started to catch up with the world. "I promised to drop by Iruka's tonight…" he said regretfully, replying to the raven's unspoken implication that they meet at his place. "There's no telling when I'll get home." A part of him was quite uneasy with the idea of letting things cool off. Sasuke's alone time thinking was a recipe for disaster. "Tomorrow then?"

It seemed though that maybe he was worrying too much, because the Uchiha nodded absently with a small- almost shy- smile, before charcoal eyes met cobalt blue intensely. "Now what?"

Naruto rolled to lie on his back next to Sasuke, eyes turning towards the sky, feeling exhausted, yet all too animated. "I don't know."

There was a moment of silent, before he reluctantly reached for the blonde's hand and said. "Let's find out together… ne, Naruto?"

It wasn't a passing touch and the choice of words wasn't random. The pale hand stayed on his- surprisingly warm and rougher than he had ever realized it was- squeezing slightly as Sasuke quoted his own urging words from about a year ago. So maybe, just this once, they could hold hands for a while.

"Ah." He said, blushing a little as he squeezed back, feeling the dawn of a smile that warmed his lips only for Sasuke.

Right then, just for a while, that moment seemed infinite and they had all the time in the universe. Lying underneath the shadows of innumerous rising constellations neither could name, Naruto felt alone- and for once it was all right, because he was alone with Sasuke. Though this had never been what he had imagined, it felt right somehow and all those things that he was never able to explain were melding into it, like raindrops in a vast ocean, whose tides and ebbs had careened him to this moment.

He stole a quick look at the Uchiha who lay still- eyes reflecting the prickles of light that were the stars, darkening under the night sky, as his pale skin gave off a silver shine under the moonlight- still firmly holding on to his hand and smiled a little.

The only thing he felt more deeply than that startling need for the Uchiha, was his need for him to exist in his world. Sasuke was there- breathtaking, back, alive. Maybe he could even say his. As long as he could think that, as long as wherever missions might take either of them, both of them returned there- home, to each other- he knew that he could deal with anything. Somewhere along the line, Sasuke had become what gave his life meaning and, judging by the way his hand was falling asleep in the Uchiha's tight grip, the feeling was not one-sided.

As long as they had each other, they'd be alright.

~ Owari~

And with that this part of the story ends. I have mentioned this before… probably… but from here, there will be two oneshots that will deal with "and then what happened?". The first one will be Sasuke's pov and the other Naruto's pov. T&E was about getting the boys together and I believe I owe you the "being together" part. They are meant to provide closure for you guys and wean me off a bit more easily… I have been writing this for almost 2 years. Wow… O.o

Many thanks to ALL of you who took the time to read my story and have been patient with how long these last chapters took, whether you reviewed or not. TONS of huggies to my reviewers, who dealt with all my yapping and blabbing in my replies. This was SO much fun! I hope that you approve of the way I leave it off and I promise to write the oneshots soon as possible.

Take good care… Kisses and Huggies to you all.

Ja, ne?