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


They tussled together in the snow, and it was almost like old times. The stark contrast of yellow and black-orange and blue-it might have been appealing if they didn't know what it meant. It meant there was Sasuke and there was Naruto, but right now there was another Sasuke. The one 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 at the wrists and straddled around the waist by broad legs. An amused smirk was plastered on his face, slick coal eyes staring up at Naruto contemptuously. Sasuke might have looked worried and helpless—years ago—but not now, never now. Never helpless. His smile broadened and a silent, unknown language passed between them.

Naruto took a deep breath, hands trembling. He glanced away for reassurance, but his eyes met nothing but white. Beneath him was nothing but black. The wind blew, but neither party shivered.

Who are you?

Naruto's fingers tightened with a spasm. 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, he removed his tanned hands from Sasuke's wrists and released him. The snow swirled around them, enveloping them in a pin-prickling soft blanket. It reminded Naruto of Haku.

Sasuke should have been cold. Shoulders drooped; blond hair covering the 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. The crunch of bones breaking echoed in Naruto's ears.

"This is what I get for saving you?" a raspy voice screamed. Naruto 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?" 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 half covered in snow, half covered in darkness, wicked smile intact. Black eyes transfixed themselves upwards. A tree branch fell as he was thrown again, body crashing 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 if he had, there was nowhere for him to go. Besides, what use was running anymore? He laid soundly in the snow, silent and 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. His name sounded like poison on Sasuke's tongue. 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.

Suddenly, Naruto felt a presence behind him. "I'd know that stupid voice anywhere."

A hand grasped his shoulder, but Naruto wouldn't have it. He swung instantly, but Sasuke ducked. Overgrown black bangs nearly covered his face. The wind howled, a calling, and the trees shrunk back in fear.

"Do you know who I am?" Sasuke asked, teasing, but nothing like the remarks of dobe and usuratonkachi from when they were younger. A sharp blade pressed into Naruto's throat. "Do you even care?"

Naruto's breathing slowed and stilled until it was almost nonexistent. A calloused hand ruffled his 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.

He veered away and shoved Sasuke 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.

Bone-chilling laughter filled the air, and Naruto tensed. 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 a child.

Naruto threw a kick; got Sasuke in the the gut. His fighting was off. Sasuke threw a punch and missed. The trees became whispering spectators, the wind screeching with worry. The sky was infinite. They were 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 the day 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 into his exposed flesh and warm blood trickled down Naruto's forearm. Red blood dripped—Sharingan red marring white snow and melting innocence. Naruto choked on it.

He swung blindly, no longer caring if he hit or missed. Instead he closed his eyes, spinning and throwing punches into the frigid air. He could feel his breath leave his lungs and drift away. He remembered old times with Sasuke, a time when he wasn't alone on that swing.

Sasuke wondered if Naruto thought that lightly of him. Did he think he wouldn't be able to kill him if he wanted to? Or maybe Naruto thought too highly of him? That Sasuke was too honorable to kill a man when his guard was down. Sasuke wasn't. He had no honor left. He had nothing but himself left, nothing but himself and his own hatred. Avengers needed nothing else. They had no bonds, and they definitely didn't have friendship or love or whatever else Naruto and Lee and Might Gai liked shouting 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 announced, and Sasuke wondered briefly if the dobe already knew.

"Want to join me, Sasuke-kun?" Naruto said, creeping up behind him. 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 the bastard always used to call you?" Naruto's words dripped with malice and his grip around Sasuke's arm tightened. "Sasuke-kun," Naruto purred.

This time Sasuke did shiver, and when he felt the kunai rip his shirt, he shook with fear. He forced himself to breath evenly anyway. This was nothing. Naruto was nothing. Sasuke had completed his task. There was nothing else left.

"No!" Naruto screamed, surging forward and slamming Sasuke against another 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 shoved Sasuke before winding into a punch that sent him flying. It reminded Sasuke of their first fight, when he finally found his true purpose. When Sasuke finally became Sasuke. It was the right choice, he assured himself.

"No!" Naruto yelled once more, eyes wild and hair flying. Sasuke wondered if Naruto's eyes were red. He doubted he'd be able to escape with his life as it were. Not that it mattered, he reminded himself. Not that his life mattered.

A warm presence covered him, and then Naruto let loose, fists slamming into the snow on either side of Sasuke's head. Hitting him would not fix their bond, 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 dripping onto his face from above. It was just like Naruto, to get himself so worked up that he cried. Naruto always contained too much emotion for a shinobi, too much love to become a real Hokage.

"And Kakashi and Lee, and Gaara—do you even remember them? Do you remember team seven or Konoha at all? What is wrong with you!"

Sasuke's eyes didn't waver in recognition. It didn't even feel as though Sasuke was looking at him at all, but rather, straight through him. Did he really care so little?

Naruto yanked him up by his shirt collar, bringing his face close to his own to stare him directly in the eyes. He could feel his anger mounting as Sasuke continued to give him a blank, unrecognizable stare. They were close enough that Sasuke felt the warmth from his breath, inhaling the scent of stale ramen and unbrushed teeth.

"Do you even care?" Naruto stopped abruptly, words caught in his throat.

And so, the dobe had finally noticed.

"Are you—are you blind?" Naruto's voice cracked, despite himself. "What is wrong with you?" Naruto screeched. "Is this what you call a fair fight? You call me out here for what? To kill you because you're too much of a pussy to do it yourself?"

Sasuke turned away.

"Well I'm not going to kill you! No one is going to kill you! You're not going to kill you!"

Sasuke reeled back and and clocked their heads together, flinging Naruto backward with the force of his locked elbows to switch their positions.

"You know nothing."

Sasuke dug his nails into Naruto's skin, but he could barely feel it through the adrenaline. Hell, he couldn't even feel the cold anymore, not the the gusts of wind nor the snow. It was snow, wasn't it? Or was it their past that they were out here rolling around in? Where had all the red come from?

"I know just as much as you do!" Naruto insisted.

Sasuke could barely stomach it. "You know nothing! It is my job as an avenger—"

"To do what? What are you going to destroy now? Me? Who are you avenging?" Naruto asked, softer. "Do you even know anymore?"

Sasuke remained silent. Of course he knew what his purpose was.

"Are you going to kill me now? After all these years, have you finally gotten rid of your emotions?" Naruto's cheeks were streaked with tears and blood. "Because that's what you've been trying to do all this time, right? Live with only yourself? Destroy anything that isn't hatred?"

His anger was seared his veins, red-hot.

"C'mon Sasuke, tell me how 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 Naruto's throat. "You know nothing, Uzamaki." 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, and you will never understand me. Stop wasting your time."

Naruto coughed, but didn't struggle. Struggling wouldn't prove his point. "So we're on name last name basis again, is that right, Uchiha?" The forest was silent save for their fury. "C'mon, Sasuke, tell me about your way of the ninja!"

"You don't know me." Sasuke's nails pricked the skin above of Naruto's throat, but he didn't appear to notice.

"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 took a deep, shuddering breath. "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. 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 forest was eerily quiet.

Sasuke blinked. It could all be over, right now. 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 precious, 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 unpredictable ninja for nothing. He'd seen people forsake their principles after hearing just one speech. Sasuke was not going to be one of them.

"Tell me you've got no emotions Sasuke. I dare you."

"Shut up."

"Tell me you don't care anymore."

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

"I love you, Sasuke." Naruto declared quietly. He was sure Sasuke already knew, but had he ever spoken the words out loud? Had anyone ever told Sasuke he was loved?

"You don't know what you're saying," Sasuke mumbled, resolve weakening with each beat of his heart.

"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 bit at his lips, tongue licking its way inside Naruto's mouth. Sasuke was tearing at Naruto's clothes before he could protest, trying to get at his skin. Heat began pooling in the pit of his stomach. The snow around them was melting, exposing the frozen dirt beneath them. Neither noticed. The wind held its breath.

They continued to attack each other, teeth gnashing, tongue dragging across Sasuke's palette. Naruto squirmed beneath him, pulling rudely at his hair—like everything else he did. Sasuke was different. He touched Naruto nothing like the way he fought him. On this battlefield he was rushed and inexperienced and confused.

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

"Get off of you? You were holding me down!"

Sasuke remained silent, blood still thrumming in his veins, eyes lowered and confused. Naruto wiped slobber from his mouth with the back of his hand. His heart was pounding in his chest. He shivered, for the first time in a while, as his jacket blew in the breeze, wide open.

"You are always Sasuke to me," Naruto said solemnly, grabbing Sasuke's wrist gently. "No matter what."

Sasuke never cried. He was not reevaluating his goals. He was not feeling guilt. Sasuke didn't feel guilt, because Sasuke didn't feel. Naruto's words were not getting to him, and he wasn't reassessing his life because of one conversation with Konoha's number one most unpredictable ninja.

He tackled Naruto again, in a fit of anger-not desire-and held him there panting. They fought without hurtful words or throwing punches. It was just the two of them rolling around in the snow, in their past, remembering and learning and hoping. Coping. Naruto was beneath him, but Sasuke wasn't holding him down this time. He didn't have to. He closed his eyes, and for a moment, they both were blind.

When Sasuke kissed him, he made sure Naruto felt it. He almost pulled back, but changed his mind and pushed down harder, further, deeper into the snow, until Naruto's back scraped the frozen ground.

Soon he was fumbling with the front of Naruto's pants, and then his own. Muscled legs wrapped around Sasuke's waist, blue eyes scrunched shut. Steam filled the air, with words better left unsaid. They began a new rhythm, finally departing from innocence, and dared to search for something new, something better.

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.