Stronger [Past Notwithstanding]

"A person is able to become truly strong when they wish to protect someone they cherish." - Haku

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begin

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They tussled together in the snow, and it was almost like old times—except this time no one was really hurting—at least not on the outside. The stark contrast of yellow and black, orange and blue, it might have been appealing if they hadn't known what it meant. It meant that there was Sasuke and there was Naruto, but right now there was another Sasuke. The Sasuke that Naruto couldn't look in the eyes, the Sasuke that made his throat clench and heart pump until he couldn't breath.

He was staring down at that Sasuke, pinned down at the wrists and straddled around the waist by broad orange-clad legs. An amused grin was plastered on his face, slick coal eyes pretentiously staring up at him. Sasuke might have looked worried and helpless—years ago—but not now, never now. Never helpless. His smile broadened. A silent, unknown language was spoken between them in the heaving of chests and the flickering of eyes.

Naruto took a deep breath, cerulean eyes wavering. He glanced to the side for reassurance, but he was met with nothing but white. Beneath him was nothing but black. The wind blew, but neither party shivered.

Who are you?

Naruto's fingers clenched as his body began to tremble. There beneath him, was the culmination of his life. There beneath him, was Naruto's first bond, his most important bond, their bond—was it already too late? This was the culmination of sweat and blood and tears?

Slowly, a tanned hand removed itself from Sasuke's wrists. The snow swirled around them, enveloping them in a pin-pricking soft blanket. It reminded Naruto of Haku.

Sasuke should have been cold. Shoulders drooped; blond hair covered eyes of a head hung low. His adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed. In a sudden fit of rage, widening even Sasuke's eyes, Naruto reeled back and hit him in the face. The crunch of bones breaking echoed in Sasuke's ears.

"This is what I get for saving you?" A raspy voice screamed, but the blond knew he hadn't saved anyone: not Gaara, and not Jaraiya, and definitely, definitely not Sasuke. Tree branches trembled and snow fell.

"Do you even know who I am?" The blond screeched loudly. He stood abruptly, holding Sasuke by the worn collar of his white shirt. "Do you care?" He threw the body across the blank landscape.

Sasuke laid in the snow, half covered in it, half covered in darkness, wicked smile still intact. Black eyes transfixed themselves upwards. A tree branch fell as he was thrown again, his body clashing against the thick tree trunk with a sickening thud.

Naruto ran after him, but this time Sasuke wasn't running. This time Sasuke couldn't run, and even he had, he'd nowhere to go. Besides, what use was running anymore? He laid soundly in the snow, silent and as blank as the empty canvas beneath him. Naruto stood over him. Looked down at him, for once. His body shuddered, but he kept breathing. Three years of training, and searching, and fighting, and swearing and looking like an idiot and being told to give up

"Uzumaki Naruto." Naruto's head swiveled instantly. Sasuke always had said Naruto's name differently than everyone else. This time, however, his name sounded like raw poison on Sasuke's tongue; foreign and disgusting and disturbingly formal. As if they hadn't been simultaneously trying to love and hate each other for the past five years. As if Naruto hadn't been thinking Sasuke Sasuke Sasuke for the past five years.

Sasuke was behind him suddenly. "I'd know that stupid voice anywhere." A hand grasped his shoulder, but Naruto wouldn't have it; turned and swung instantly, but Sasuke ducked. Overgrown black bangs nearly covered his face. The wind howled, a calling, and the trees shrunk back with fear because of it.

"Do you know who I am?" Sasuke asked, tone mocking, but nothing like the teasing remarks of dobe and usuratonkachi from when they were younger. A sharp blade was pressed to Naruto's throat. "Do you even care?" Naruto's breathing slowed and stilled until it was almost nonexistent. A calloused hand ruffled untamed hair in an a mockery of affection. Naruto had become faster, however, and pushed him away before he could do anything else. The kunai sunk deeply into snow. Disappeared forever.

Naruto veered back and shoved the other body down. They were the same height now. Naruto was faster now. Naruto could use Rasengan now. Naruto had trained, Naruto had seen death, had felt hatred, and still, Sasuke was far away, still Sasuke was out of reach. Still, Sasuke would not acknowledge him.

A bone-chilling laugh filled the air, and Naruto tensed at the sound of it. This was just Sasuke, he kept telling himself. This was the teme who thought he was better than everyone else, the teme who all the girls liked. The same bastard he'd trained alongside when he was younger.

Naruto threw a kick; got Sasuke in the the gut. His fighting was off, the blond could sense it almost immediately. The dark-haired youth threw a punch and missed. The trees had become whispering spectators, the wind screeching with worry. The sky was infinite. This was infinite.

Naruto was thinking of Haku again, couldn't help it. Was he that stupid? Would he become a tool at Sasuke's hands if he was asked, if it would make him happy? He could remember Sasuke's eyes that day when he'd jumped in front of Naruto to protect him. He could remember that self-sacrificing smirk. Sasuke had cared. Sasuke hadn't killed him when they'd fought. Couldn't have killed him. Could he kill him now?

Maybe, if he'd still been physically capable. If he'd still been stronger.

"I know what you're thinking Uzumaki—and I am not Zabuza," Sasuke interrupted his thoughts, "Not by a longshot." Something sharp pressed suddenly into exposed flesh and warm blood trickled down Naruto's forearm. Red blood dripped—Sharingan red marring white snow and melting innocence. Sharingan red on innocence.

Naruto choked on it.

He swung blindly, no longer caring if he hit or missed. He even closed his eyes for it, spinning and throwing punches into frigid air. It was a mockery of fun. He could feel his breath leave his lungs and drift away. A mockery of naivety and spinning in the snow and laughing. He could remember fun times with Sasuke, a time when he wasn't alone on that swing. A mockery of childhood.

Sasuke wondered if Naruto thought so lightly of him. That he wouldn't be able to kill him if he wanted to.

Or perhaps it was that he thought too highly of him? That Sasuke was too honorable to kill a man when his guard was down. Because he wasn't; he had no honor left. He had nothing but himself left, nothing but himself and hatred. Avengers needed only hatred. They had no bonds nor bounds, and they definitely didn't have friendship or love or whatever else Naruto and Lee and Gai liked proclaim and shout from rooftops.

Sasuke wanted to ask him what he was doing, but his pride held him back. He listened quietly.

"I'm spinning in the snow," Naruto said suddenly, and Sasuke wondered briefly if the dobe already knew.

"Want to join me, Sasuke-kun?" Naruto teased; behind him suddenly. Sasuke almost felt a ripple of fear at the kunai pressed into his back. But then he remembered that this was Naruto he was dealing with.

"Isn't that what that bastard always used to call you?" Naruto's words dripped with malice and his grip around Sasuke's arm tightened. The Uchiha wondered where it had come from and why; so suddenly.

"Sasuke-kun," Naruto purred, drawing out the s's. This time Sasuke did shiver, and when he felt the kunai rip his shirt, he did feel fear. He swallowed tightly and forced himself to breath evenly. This was nothing. Naruto was nothing. Sasuke had completed his tasks. There was nothing.

"No!" Naruto hissed, and then screamed suddenly, surging his body forward and slamming Sasuke against a tree. Pale skin tore from the rough bark, and Sasuke struggled weakly, but Naruto wasn't finished.

"No, no, no, no!" His voice was raw from the screaming, but he couldn't stop. He rammed Sasuke against another tree, head hitting brown with a thwack, before punching him and sending him flying. It reminded Sasuke of when they were twelve, of when they fought, of when Sasuke had finally learned his true meaning, of when Sasuke finally became Sasuke. It was the right choice, he assured himself.

"No!" Naruto screamed again, eyes wild and hair flying. Sasuke prayed that the other's eyes weren't red. He doubted he'd be able to escape with his life if it were the case. Not that it mattered, he reminded himself. Not that his life mattered.

There was a presence on top of him suddenly, and then Naruto began screaming incoherently, fists slamming into the snow on either side of Sasuke's head. Hitting him would not fix their bonds, Naruto knew it. But this anger, this rage

"No! Not Orochimaru! Sasuke-kun is what Sakura used to call you! Do you even remember Sakura!" Sasuke could feel angry tears on his face. It was just like Naruto, to get himself so worked up that he cried. Naruto had always contained too much emotion for a shinobi, too much love to become Hokage.

"And Kakashi and Lee, and Gaara—do you even remember them? Do you remember team seven at all! What is wrong with you!" Sasuke's eyes didn't waver, didn't even flicker in recognition. It didn't even feel as though Sasuke was looking at him at all, but rather, directly through him, or maybe even behind him, bored and uninterested.

Did Sasuke really care so little?

He grabbed Sasuke by the collar, jerking his face close to his own and staring him in the eyes. He could feel the rage building as Sasuke continued to give him a blank, unrecognizable stare.

Naruto was so close that Sasuke could feel the warmth from his breath on his face, could smell stale food and unbrushed teeth.

"Do you even care—" Naruto stopped abruptly, his breath hitched in his throat.

So, the dobe had finally noticed.

"Are you—are you blind?" He could hear the blond swallow, his voice cracking.

"What is wrong with you!" Naruto screeched. He gave a loud disgruntled groan. "Is this what you call a fair fight? You fucking—you call me out here for what? To kill you because you're too much of a pansy to do it yourself?"

Sasuke turned away. He wasn't sure why.

"I'm not going to kill you! No one is going to kill you! You're not going to kill you!" Sasuke moved suddenly, flinging Naruto backwards and switching their positions.

"You know nothing."

Nails dug into his wrists, but the blond could barely feel it through the adrenaline. Hell, he couldn't even feel the cold anymore—the snow. It was snow, wasn't it? Or was it their past that they were rolling around in, fighting on top of, and destroying? Where had all the red come from? Naruto wondered suddenly. He glanced at his wrist, but it was already healed.

Then Sasuke?

"I know just as much as you do!"

"You know nothing! It is my job as an avenger—"

"To do what? What are you going to destroy now Sasuke? Me? What are you avenging?" Naruto asked, voice enraged. "Do you even know anymore?" Sasuke remained silent. Of course he knew what he was avenging.

"Are you going to kill me now? After all these years, have you finally gotten rid of your emotions?" Naruto's face was angry and streaked with tears and dirt and blood. "Because that's what you've been trying to do all this time, right? Live with only yourself? Destroy your emotions?" His anger was searing; red-hot.

"C'mon Sasuke, tell me that in these past three years you've done something other than kill two people who were half-dead already!"

"Shut up!" Sasuke wrapped his hands around the others' throat. "Uzumaki, you know nothing." His black hair curtained their faces as Sasuke leaned down to whisper into Naruto's ear.

"I may be blind, but you see just as little. You will never understand me. Stop wasting your time." His grip tightened.

Naruto coughed, but didn't struggle. Struggling would not help to prove his point. "So we're on name last name basis again—" cough, "Uchiha?"

"C'mon, Sasuke, tell me about your way of the ninja!"

Naruto wondered if the nearby animals could sense their fury. If they too were angered because of the way they were tainting the snow. It was slowly being defiled with human traits: betrayal, hatred, anger, and passion. It was filling out with red.

"You do not know me." Sasuke spoke slowly. Nails pricked the skin above an orange and black collar.

"What do you want, Sasuke?" Naruto managed between gasps. "You really want to die?" Sasuke's grip loosened without notice. "If you really wanna be that selfish—ignore all the people who care about you—ignore our bonds, then fine." Naruto breathed in as deeply as possible.

"I'll kill you myself, if you can honestly tell me that you feel nothing when you look at me, that you feel nothing when you remember Konoha and team seven and Kakashi-sensei. C'mon, tell me about being being avenger, Sasuke, tell me how you've got no emotions!"

Silence enveloped them, the wilderness stilled. The sun had long ago hidden behind misty clouds to hide its discomfort. Too afraid to watch any longer, the trees turned their backs, but silenced, attempting to listen quietly. The wind stilled.

Sasuke blinked. It could all be over, right now, he told himself. He had completed his tasks, hadn't he?

"Sasuke, you're right. You're not Zabuza, and I'm not Haku! We're better than that. Do you really want to wait until it's too late—until you're dying, before admitting what we both already know is the truth? I know pain—I know hatred and death now—I understand wanting to avenge someone who is close to you, but you can overcome it!"

Sasuke had long ago stopped listening. He knew that Naruto's words were tricks. People didn't call him the world's number one most surprising shinobi for nothing. He'd seen people convinced of his words just from listening. Sasuke would not be one of them.

"Tell me you have no emotions Sasuke, I dare you." Naruto refused to give up, give in, continued to berate the obsidian haired shinobi with unrelenting words.

"Shut up."

"Tell me you don't care anymore, Sasuke."

"Shut up! I don't care, you—this is nothing!"

"I love you, Sasuke." Naruto finally declared quietly. He wasn't sure if he'd ever told the other this. He was sure that the other already knew, but he wasn't sure if he'd ever actually spoken the words out loud. If anyone had spoken the words out loud to him, ever.

Sasuke's breath hitched and his heartbeat doubled.

"You don't know what you're saying." Sasuke mumbled, resolve becoming weaker and weaker with each heartbeat.

"I know exactly what I'm saying, you think I'd go through all this—this shit, if I didn't love you? Because if you did, then you're a bigger idiot than I am—" Sasuke was kissing him, suddenly, blindly—literally.

Teeth wrapped around soft lips, tugging and biting. They were fighting in an entirely new way, on an entirely different level. A soft tongue invaded Naruto's mouth. Sasuke was tearing at Naruto's clothes before the blond could protest, trying to get at heated skin; more and faster. Heat bloomed where fingertips touched and Sasuke could already feel heat pooling in the pit of his stomach.

The snow around them was melting, cold, frozen dirt exposed beneath them. Neither noticed. The wind held its breath.

They continued to attack each other—nothing had changed—with teeth and licks and nips. Naruto squirmed beneath him, pulled at black locks harshly and rudely—like everything he did. Sasuke was different. He touched Naruto nothing like the way he fought him. He was rushed and inexperienced and confused. He'd little training, little planning, this wasn't like Sasuke—because with Sasuke nothing was so rushed because nothing was so important, because as avenger, there was nothing—

"Get off of me!" Sasuke screeched suddenly, flinching as if he were burned, almost tumbling backwards.

"Get off of you? You were holding me down!" Sasuke remained silent, heat still pulsing in his veins, eyes lowered and confused. That was merely a lapse in judgment, he told himself, a lapse into primal urges that his body though he needed.

Naruto wiped slobber from his mouth with the back of his hand. His heart was pounding in his chest. He shivered, the first in a while, as his jacket blew in the breeze, still open.

"You are always Sasuke to me." Naruto said solemnly, grabbing Sasuke's wrist. "No matter what." Sasuke's eyes were not tearing, he was sure of it, and if they were, it was with sexual frustration at the most. He was not reevaluating his goals and everything he'd done. He was not feeling guilt. Sasuke didn't feel guilt. Sasuke didn't feel.

Naruto's words were not getting to him.

He tackled Naruto again, in a fit of anger, he told himself, not desire, and held him there panting. They continued to fight, without words or punches, no kicks being thrown. It was just the two of them in the snow, in their past, remembering and learning and hoping. A secret language was being communicated here, without words but in terms of heaving chests and the flickering of eyes.

Naruto was beneath him, but Sasuke wasn't holding him down anymore. He didn't need to. Naruto closed his eyes and they both were blind. He smiled slowly as Sasuke kissed him, made sure that the other could feel it. Sasuke almost pulled back, but instead pushed him down harder, further, deeper into the snow, his back scraping against frozen dirt.

Soon he was fumbling with Naruto's pants, and then his own. Muscled legs wrapped around Sasuke's waist, blue eyes clenched in pain. Steam filled the air, words better left unsaid. They began a rhythm, a mockery of dance, departing from childhood and innocence—too stained—they dared to search for something new, something better: in each other.

They tussled together in the snow, and it was almost like old times—except this time no one was really hurting—at least not for long. Naruto would fix things, if it took him a thousand lifetimes to get it right. He knew Sasuke was no longer the same Sasuke, but he was still Sasuke, and for as long as he lived, Naruto would love him for it.

This was the culmination of sweat and blood and tears

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end

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