There is no such thing as magic.
There are five drops of blood on the carpet like five neat holes snipped through to the timber beneath, rusty brown spots of hunched-over threads that his fingers press down upon one after another, for no real reason beyond the vague remembrance that pressure stops a bleed. Through the diagonal of the window comes fading light, washing the ledge with the memory of rain, and Naruto warms his bare feet with friction against the carpet and hates the way time slows down, the way it stretches itself out into a horizon of expectation, something that can never be reached. Five drops of blood and Naruto can't remember which of them bled onto this particular spot, in this particular pattern, surrendering such a frugal and precise amount.
His fingers lift and press, lift and press; he has always been restless against a background of fatigue and worry. He thinks about the boy who would have run out into the dusk and made violent noise until the universe delivered the person he wanted, wanted back, wanted now, wanted beside him and wanted for ever. Naruto misses that boy sometimes, but considers himself lucky to have learned new ways of stirring the air, and lucky to have finally internalised the lesson that all shinobi learn through loss: how and when to sit still.
The noise, when it comes, could almost be the casual scrabbling of leaves against the window, but when the rain skulked away it took the wind with it and left only a twilight heaviness: the leaves have been, and remain, silent. Noticing this kind of thing becomes automatic with enough training; Naruto is on his feet and opening the door within moments.
Just knock, he says. Why don't you ever just knock?
This is an old question, but it grows more comfortable and more comforting with each repetition, a piece of vocal furniture worn smooth and easy to the touch. It may be that Sasuke will never pick up the knack of knocking at his own door, but Naruto likes to remind him that he can and that he should.
Sasuke has the key half-raised in his hand and he shrugs the question away as he moves inside. To anyone's eye he is in pain; to Naruto's, which is well used to the way Sasuke will laugh under his breath and flip himself upright off a sprained wrist, he is in a considerable amount of it.
What happened? Did you run into trouble?
A little more than expected, Sasuke agrees. He puts one hand on Naruto's shoulder and transfers some of his weight, slowly, like water being poured out of a bottle; the moment when he stops with his centre of gravity precisely between the two of them is like the twist of a wrist which cuts the liquid flow. Naruto drinks in the hard pressure of Sasuke's fingertips and the fall of Sasuke's hair across his face, allowing himself this one moment of slaked need, and then he frowns and touches his hand to the ugly muddy purple which is blossoming on Sasuke's neck and upper chest. Hot bruising and shallow scrapes.
You should have gone to the hospital, he snaps, ignoring the fact that if Sasuke had gone anywhere else before coming here he would have been just as angry.
A wince. Waste of time. Their time.
Which means there's worse to be dealt with; Sasuke's infuriating stoicism doesn't stretch as far into the realms of reckless disregard for his own safety as it once did. Naruto doesn't ask who or what, just hooks his arm under Sasuke's shoulder and says, First thing tomorrow, then. I'll drag you there if I have to.
Don't be stupid, Sasuke says, and a strange laugh shakes his whole body and then blood flutters out of his mouth like silk.
There is no magic: there is only the fact that if you move fast enough then the other person might be fooled into thinking that they are standing absolutely still, the fact that your job is to unravel your opponent's tricks before they can cut the strings that allow you to perform yours. No one buys into the façade, not for an instant. Everyone is dancing on their toes and searching for the mirrors; for a way to escape and survive when the illusion is shattered; for the resultant shards of infinity which glue the universe together.
On the other side of the coin is the fact that sometimes the only way to keep someone intact is to slice them in half. Fold them up small to be carried in your pocket and then stick them with blades in perfect faith that they will unpack themselves again at the end of it all, forgiving and free of harm.
Blink. Something's changed.
Who do you have this week?
Ino's team. She's gone away for new training with an uncle or something.
Or something. Sasuke throws two apples at him in quick succession, looking disgusted. Naruto grins and catches them and puts them down on a table gone tacky with sake from some night or other, and never cleaned beyond a lazy swipe or three; they're still boys beneath the bewildering lattice of patience and strength, and he thinks that's the luckiest thing of all.
With that thought in his mind, he picks up the apples again. Hey, Sasuke.
Sasuke slices one of the apples midair with a shuriken, a flashy move which costs him the indignity of the other one hitting him in the shoulder. He recovers; lets it roll down his arm and somehow manouevres it into his hand, his other arm already snatching up more objects from the bench behind him, so that when the apple soars across the kitchen once again it is joined by a lemon and two boiled eggs.
Naruto makes a valiant effort, but he only has two hands and Sasuke has always been the faster, so one egg bounces off his wrist to crunch against the floor. The lemon flies past his shoulder and towards the open door, where Sakura catches it and then stands there looking just about ready to crush it in her fist; Naruto keeps grinning and imagines the juice tracing bitter paths against the skin of her forearm.
I won't come over for dinner again if you two are going to make a habit of destroying the kitchen, she says, but she throws the lemon back at Sasuke with such force that the loud slap of it against his palm seems to startle a rare smile onto his face.
Something's changed, but some things haven't changed a bit
Years ago Sakura left the hospital for just long enough to see her first team grow past the need for constant supervision, then slipped back into her sterile gloves without pausing for breath, having diluted her violence amongst the three of them like a careful drug. Naruto took on a team whose previous teacher had died protecting them in an ambush, during an easy mission which threw them into the path of a messy cobweb of political subterfuge. Shikamaru frowned and demoted two of his people for the bad intelligence; Naruto adopted the trio of scared kids and forged a fierce, healthy resilience out of their despair. Then there was a month where he took Neji's and Hinata's teams, both at once, teaching them new techniques while the Hyuugas dealt with a family crisis. Then. And then. And so on, in a pattern that he never expected to fall into but now enjoys enormously, having enough enthusiastic affection that spilling it across an entire village full of people takes no effort at all; most of Konoha's genin will race up to him in the street to say hello, and their parents are starting to gain the ability to look past more than two decades of fear. There might be better ways to lay groundwork for the day one becomes Hokage, but Naruto can't think of any.
The result being, of course, that to everyone's great but unspoken surprise Sasuke is the one who ended up a constant teacher to a promising team. And just as they themselves, all three of them, grew up in a maze of broken mirrors -- endlessly reflecting the incomplete images of the Sannin -- Naruto can see something achingly familiar in Haru's brashness, Izumi's loyalty, Yukura's gravity. He doesn't let it disturb him: Konoha's history seems to have a way of cycling itself through new faces.
Sasuke is a patient teacher and doesn't grumble at all about Yukura's habit of shadowing him, something akin to hero-worship in those solemn eyes.
Let him believe in heroes while he's young enough not to know better, Sasuke says.
Naruto laughs and allows it, because heroes don't disappear as you age: their flaws simply become more apparent, and this isn't a bad thing.
Love is a beautiful accident. Love is as easy as falling. Love is the hardest thing you will ever do in your life. One of these three statements contains the truth: pick it out, and the prize is everything you've ever wanted. Watch closely. Round and round and round they go, and where they stop --
On the other side of the coin is (blink) the same image. Which is how the trick works. In this above all other things there are no shortcuts: the trick looks easy only because it has been worked at, over and over again, with failures and arguments and silences and days when the coin slips through the gaps which exist even between two hands clasped together as tightly as possible. Nothing can be accomplished simply by saying a word and snapping one's fingers.
Through deaths and victories and a few purely perfect moments, Naruto has learned to chase the things that make him happy and then to hold onto them; to make believe they're iron bars even when they might be little more than morning mist, and let his belief fill the gaps that make lacework of any reality. He's had enough of tragedy: tragedy's the same ugly stupid thing no matter where you turn, no matter whose past or whose pain you try to describe. But happiness is the most personal thing in the world, and digging out the small things that make someone happy is what love means to Naruto.
The things that make Sasuke happy are: sleeping past noon but being allowed to pretend that he's annoyed at not being woken earlier, telling quiet stories about his team's progress, insulting Naruto's cooking, making tea with slow ceremony and drinking it in silence. Nothing difficult. Nothing ambitious. Sasuke's ambition has always been a knife sheathed close to his body, drawn only in pursuit of a goal, and Konoha has slowly unwound his anger over the years. Konoha and Naruto. Naruto and Konoha: one day the nouns will blur to mean the same thing and then Naruto's ambition will be realised.
There is no such thing as magic but there is the satisfaction of knowing exactly how to make one thing resemble another, and how to move without strings, and how fingers pressed down here can elicit a reaction there.
Sasuke hisses and looks displeased and says, Do that again.
Ask nicely. Naruto laughs.
Sasuke grabs hold of his wrist and scrapes his teeth across it and repeats -- Do that again -- in a tone that's even more of a command than it was the first time.
You never learn, Uchiha. He pretends that Sasuke's sharp voice isn't weakening his resolve. All these years and you're still under the illusion that you can tell me what to do. Will you ever accept that --
He stops. Sasuke's fingertips against his mouth, not even violent, just assured, and Naruto is distracted by the knowledge that nobody else sees Sasuke like this, with this openness to his face and that subtle kind of humour around his eyes. Naruto loves him so much he forgets to inhale.
Will you ever stop talking?
Will you ever loosen up? The slick inner surface of his lips moving against the whorls of Sasuke's fingerprints. Happiness is these ridges of skin: invisible, and tangible, and the most intensely individual aspect of anyone's being.
Sasuke does not quite smile but his expression lightens, amusement into affection, as he says no for the both of them and bends down to give Naruto a dragging kiss, one which creates long moments of perfect stillness. Naruto's kisses are incapable of such stillness, but this one is Sasuke's -- they were rivals first and are rivals still and they take possession of all things, snatching them up, tossing them to and fro -- and so he pulls Naruto's lip down with his thumb and kisses and then holds, and a tiny pulse can be felt between their mouths. Someone's heart shoving blood to the surface at an excited rate; it could be either of them but Sasuke claims it because everything about this kiss is his: every noise that Naruto makes, every shift of fabric, every drop of the rushing contentment and desire.
The real question is: will you ever be anything less?
The answer is the same.
-- nobody knows.
Because when your life is on the line you play with rigged tools, so the truth could be that love is easy and difficult and the thing that happens to you when you are making other plans.
Sakura said once that the day they run out of things to fight about is the day she will allow herself to worry about their relationship. Naruto trusts her implicitly and loves her for saying that, because their fights can be apocalyptic in scale: Sasuke has a way of closing doors behind him that seems to signal the end of everything, and it took Naruto -- Naruto, who prides himself on being a fast learner -- a very long time to realise that such an exit was not Sasuke leaving him forever; was, in fact, just Sasuke making a point.
Naruto is never the one to close the door. Naruto will argue for hours if Sasuke will let him, because after a given length of time one or other of them will throw the first punch and they will force all of their fury out from the tiny blood vessels below their skin. Enough broken furniture and enough bruises and everything will be made whole, but that only happens when Sasuke will stay in one place, and today's fight is too cold for that to be possible. Today's fight stems from crisis and responsibility, because Sasuke has been at the hospital for eight hours already today, his face set in glass and his hand on a sleeping Yukura's shoulder. Sakura says that Izumi will live, but will probably lose her sight in one eye.
Naruto is trying not to think about the harsh circles of Konoha's history, about lines of succession and the price they all pay for power. He's trying not to wonder if anyone's told Kakashi yet. He wants to lift his fist and shatter Sasuke's guilt into a thousand pieces, but this is the wrong fight for that.
Like hell I'm not staying, he says instead; Sasuke's face doesn't change, which is an insult in and of itself.
You can't help me with this, Sasuke says.
Stick them with blades.
You're so full of shit, Naruto says.
All you need is faith.
Sasuke's hand dry and elusive like snakeskin underneath his own; Sasuke trying to break contact entirely because his lightning anger crackles best across empty air. Naruto grabs hold and refuses to surrender the distance. Every wrong thing in their lives has arisen from a time when he made the mistake of letting Sasuke go; when Sasuke took the distance and built a fortress out of it. So Naruto's first instinct during conflict is not to run, nor to strike out, but to enclose.
Sasuke looks down at where Naruto's fingers are clamped around his hand at an awkward angle. Naruto, he says then, let go, but something has changed in his face -- finally -- so it sounds more like trust me.
One day out of every year Naruto visits Jiraiya's grave and Sasuke visits Itachi's, both of them alone. Some rituals remain secret no matter how completely you give your heart away. Some silences are important. Some histories must be paid tribute to so that they do not circle around, so that they cannot rise up and swallow the present.
Naruto thinks: the lessons you learn through loss.
And he lets go.
Restoration: that which was sliced in half is revealed to be as good as new. Sasuke has a scar down the side of his face from a wound which healed well under Sakura's hands, and it can only be seen now under certain lights: a pale sliver of a reminder that it doesn't matter how the illusion works, whether the thing was ever destroyed in the first place or whether it was simply replaced. The result is the same.
Naruto, watching the evening enclose his village, stretches out his scarless limbs to catch what heat remains in the air. The things that make Naruto happy are the soft promising click of chopsticks being snapped in half above a steaming bowl, the smell of Sakura's hair as she leans against his shoulder, the first rain after long weeks of constant sun, the way Sasuke laughs without making a sound when they're fighting and the way he shivers when Naruto's fingers press into the side of his neck, waking up at midnight to the startling discovery that your life contains everything you can imagine wanting, and this particular time of day: the graceful swirl of day into night.
First one to count ten stars doesn't have to wash up for a week, he calls.
You're an idiot, Sasuke calls back, and Naruto smiles. To know someone in this world of theirs means to know their tricks. Peeling away the tissue of power with a knife applied from the inside out, hooking hidden secrets and letting them coil upwards into the light, you are left with an empty sleeve and two mirrors set at right angles to one another and, if you are very lucky, someone worth loving.
Are you turning down a challenge, Uchiha? He grins and tilts his head back; four stars so far in his field of vision; four stars and a dryly amused smile.
Don't you have anything better to do with your time? Sasuke sits down very close so that his free hand is separated from Naruto's by the thickness of a blade; an invitation, stronger than the spoken question. Held in his other hand is a cup of tea which spills gentle steam into the falling night.
Not really. Naruto watches the sky and tangles his fingers over Sasuke's by touch, shards of infinity filling the gaps, and they sit: silent, and happy, and still.