Sasuke’s phone buzzed. He just so happened to be in a situation to reach for it, Suigetsu, Karin, Juugo, and himself grabbing a bite to eat after closing shop. That taco place that opened around the corner earlier that day was giving out free burritos.
Sasuke glanced at the screen, only for Suigetsu to snicker.
“I wonder who that is,” Juugo teased.
“Hmmm,” Suigetsu interjected, his characteristically thick Russian accent peeping through, “I’m picturing someone blond. And muscular.”
“Do we have a psychic here?” Karin asked, jabbing Suigetsu’s bicep. “Or just a walking vodka drain, as per usual?”
Sasuke rolled his eyes.
“That could’ve just as easily been a customer.”
All three of his coworkers chuckled. Yes, they’d been right.
“Or a booty call,” Karin edged in.
“I don’t take booty calls these days. The rashes got too bad,” Sasuke answered, a completely deadpan expression on his face.
“Hah!” Suigetsu shouted back, cracking up. Karin was practically dying, supporting herself with her palm rested on the edge of the table. Sasuke still didn’t understand why people found his sarcasm so funny.
“I wanna see what it says,” Suigetsu answered.
“Don’t you dare,” Sasuke warned, looking down at his mobile.
“I need to tell you something. When can I see you next?” the screen read.
This was strange. Sasuke knew how much Naruto hated texting, and it was even rarer still for him to use proper capitalization and punctuation. Moreover, what was he talking about?
“Think you got him pregnant, Sasuke?” Karin asked.
“Oh, trouble in paradise?” Suigetsu jested, his snarky grin starting to piss Sasuke off.
As usual, Juugo was quiet, smoking a cigarette and calmly observing the other three.
“Look, I already told you I’m not settling down with this guy. Mind your own business.”
“I know,” Karin sighed. “Mr. Unattainable.”
Karin had actually asked him out, years ago. It was one of those things they just never talked about. Still, it was common knowledge amongst the group that Sasuke never allowed himself to be tied down.
“I have to go,” Sasuke answered, not waiting for a response before leaving for the men’s room.
Sasuke needed some privacy. He brought his cell out again, texting Naruto.
“Is something wrong?”
He waited for a couple minutes. Just as he was about to return to his friends, his phone buzzed again.
“I just want to see you.”
Sasuke glanced down. He hadn’t known this guy for long, but it seemed strange for him to speak this way.
“I’m eating by the shop. Is now good?”
“Meet me outside The Grip. We’ll talk in there.”
“I’ll be there in 20,” Naruto texted.
Just as Sasuke turned toward the shop, he received one more text.
“Thank you, Sasuke.”
Naruto leaned against a pole on the Metro, sluggishly resting his cold palm against it. He jostled with the stops, not bothering to brace himself. Despite the cool air outside, the air was stuffy in the subway cars. Finally, the proper stop was called.
He’d made a point to break the news to a friend before finding Sasuke. He didn’t want Sasuke to be the first person he told. He didn’t trust himself to keep it together. He wanted to be strong in front of him.
He knew that he should be enjoying this time. Hadn’t Sasuke said something to him about that? That all the uncertainty that lie ahead of him made the simple and happy moments of his life more important? But he couldn’t. As much as Kiba tried to cheer him up, Naruto couldn’t get himself to feel the warmth.
In all fairness, it had only been seven hours since he’d heard the news.
Despite the fact that so much was at stake, including his own life, he couldn’t rest until he told Sasuke. It baffled him, how Sasuke had become important to him in such a short period of time.
He was riding on the coattails of Kiba’s encouragement now. The guy could be such an ass sometimes, but it turned out that when things got serious, he pulled through. Naruto mused that this is the sort of thing you can never know about people until the time comes. He’d make it a point to hang on to him; Kiba was a good friend.
He muscled his way through pedestrians on a sidewalk, some of them drunk and boisterous. It was a Friday night in Manhattan. Nothing ever slowed down in this place.
Naruto was glad to see the Satin Grip once he approached. Sasuke was standing with one leg over the other, leaning back on the wall. The sight of him made Naruto smile, nearly made his eyes water.
Sasuke didn’t stir as Naruto approached him.
“So, what’s up dumbass?” Sasuke asked, appearing nothing but casual.
He stared at Sasuke mutely, words forsaking him. Sasuke patiently waited.
He’d prepared himself for this moment, but now that Sasuke stood in front of him, clueless and eagerly awaiting an answer, all of his plans fell to shit.
“I…” Naruto began. He looked down toward the call, sighed, and grit his teeth. Then he looked back at Sasuke, his face adopting the same stony expression it would hold when his drill sergeant screamed into his face. “My unit’s deploying. I’m leaving in two weeks.”
Sasuke’s eyes widened. They were both silent for several seconds, Sasuke appearing to need some time to determine his next words.
“That’s some heavy shit,” Sasuke said, shaking his head.
Naruto felt the need to apologize for leaving this guy high and dry just as they began to know each other. It was irrational; if anything, Sasuke was the one pulling away.
Even without him being deployed, winning Sasuke over would’ve been difficult. That difficulty had just been cranked up into another league.
But Naruto had never been the sort of person to give up when things got tough.
“I’m the one who should be worrying about you,” Sasuke said. “How are you holding up?”
“It feels better when I don’t think about it,” Naruto answered quietly.
He had no idea what to expect. Some people who were deployed weren’t even sent into combat. So far, it seemed that Sakura had been lucky. He was glad for this, at least.
“Then let’s not think about it,” Sasuke said, giving him a smile that seemed so mild but still quite warm.
“That’s a tall order,” Naruto mumbled.
“Are you hungry?” Sasuke asked.
Naruto nodded, knowing that Sasuke was trying to distract him. He was grateful for that.
“My coworkers are eating over at this new taco place around the corner. They’re giving away free food.”
Even in Naruto’s dire state of mind, those two words sounded just as beautifully together as they always did.
“You just said the two magic words.”
“Yeah, I don’t give a fuck how nice my loft is. You don’t turn that shit down.”
“Amen to that,” Naruto answered. If he were in a better mood, he would have laughed.
Given that both of them had grown up with hunger, they knew that skipping on free food was something one simply does not do. It was akin to drinking orange juice immediately after brushing your teeth. Just...why?
“Want to hang out with us?” Sasuke added after some silence had passed.
The idea of being able to meld with Sasuke’s social life made him feel a bit closer to Sasuke. He knew that this would only torture him over the time to come, but it was such a welcome relief that he couldn’t help but pursue it.
Naruto nodded wordlessly.
“I’ll tell them we’re coming,” Sasuke added, appearing to text his friends. Naruto didn’t look. He wondered if Sasuke had mentioned his situation.
“C’mon,” Sasuke answered, grabbing Naruto’s hand in his own and leading him.
Naruto didn’t know why the fact that they were holding hands made him feel this way, so happy despite everything. Clearly, whatever he felt for Sasuke was strong.
But did Sasuke feel the same way? He’d taken the news so well; he hardly even flinched. While Naruto was glad for Sasuke, it reminded him that he’d gotten nowhere near as close to Sasuke as Sasuke had gotten to him. He felt guilty for being a little disappointed about this, especially since Sasuke was being so understanding. He didn’t want him to hurt.
He found himself frowning and willed the gears in his head to stop turning. Sasuke hadn’t been kidding when he said the place was just around the corner. They’d arrived in not even three minutes.
Juugo, Suigetsu, and Karin were taking up a bench for four in an outdoor seating area, the air brisk. Sasuke quickly asked for and received a spare chair from a nearby table, placing Naruto at the table’s head. Suigetsu and Sasuke sat next to him, the two sharing a bench seat with Karin and Juugo, respectively. Having them all sit together like this really put Juugo’s size into perspective. He was a huge ball of muscles, possibly even stronger than he was.
“Hey, Mr. Low Blood Sugar!” Suigetsu called out, lifting up his beer to Naruto. “Nice to see you!”
“Nice to see you too,” Naruto answered, smiling. He was a little stiff, yes, but he knew how to smile through just about anything.
“Yeah! So happy you could join us, Naruto!” Karin added.
Naruto couldn’t help but pause as he noticed Karin’s new haircut. She’d buzzed the left side of her head, the right side a brilliant fire engine red that swooped over her scalp. It showed off the industrial piercing she had in her left ear.
“Woah, haircut! I love it. How do you...so much volume…”
Just being around people who were having fun was wearing off on him. Karin laughed.
“A lot of gel and a flat iron. It’s way lazier than you’d think.”
Jesus, how were all of the people he knew so fashionable? Sakura, now Sasuke and Karin… Sure, Manhattan was known for that, and Naruto was by no means a slouch. It did make him feel a little bummy in comparison, but his handsomeness came without trying. What a stud.
“So like…” Karin continued. “Sasuke was telling us about that convention in Berlin he went to. I’m so crazy jealous. I wish I could just take off to Europe every year.”
“Me too,” Naruto answered, finding a little more enthusiasm in himself. “I’ve barely even left the country. I just went to Toronto. Isn’t that boring?”
“Me too,” she pitched in.
“I did go to California a few months ago though,” Naruto said, looking upwards as his mind wandered.
“Have fun?” Karin asked.
Naruto chuckled, scratching his cheek.
“Ah… I don’t know if I’d call it fun…”
Sasuke had been looking down to eat his food, but Naruto noticed that his gaze discreetly moved over to him. Suigetsu tilted his head, confused.
“It was for a training exercise. I was out in the Mojave Desert for a month.”
“Woah, it must have been hot as balls,” Suigetsu pitched in. “I would die. I can handle the cold, but not the heat.”
“Yeah,” Naruto answered chuckling. “Mojave Viper. They work us pretty hard in the Marines.”
He was present in the moment. He felt, for an instant, that his mind was trying to wander to an inconvenient place. But he was thriving off of this social environment; it was a distraction.
“Mojave Viper?” Karin asked.
“Yeah, that’s the name of the training program.”
“Even I have to admit that code name sounds pretty cool,” Suigetsu admitted.
Naruto grinned in response, feeling himself blush just a little. He was confident in himself, but truth be told, Sasuke’s friends seemed pretty cool. For them to call him cool was quite the compliment. While generally well-liked, he’d never been “one of the cool kids.”
A waiter came to the table carrying Naruto’s burrito and a beer. It was the size of a brick, plentiful mounds of ground meat, cheese, sour cream, guacamole, and lettuce.
“Oh shiiit this looks delicious!” Naruto chimed in, now taking a bite. “Yum!”
Suigetsu, Juugo, and Karin all smiled at him. People tended to call him “cute” from time to time. He could never quite shake it.
“Last place I went was just Seattle,” Karin said, taking a generous bite of her burrito.
“I was born in Seattle,” Naruto added, more life seeping into him.
Karin was visibly excited, trying to respond but being forced to wait to finish the food in her mood. She raised her pointer finger, buying herself some time before swallowing.
“Ohh! Yeah, my dad lives out there, so I usually go at least once a year.”
“Man, I haven’t been to Seattle in foreeever. Like fifteen years. I kinda miss it.”
“Well, it hasn’t gotten any sunnier.”
Sasuke was quiet, letting Naruto and Karin catch up. He cast Naruto the most modest smile. It made Naruto feel safe.
“I go to Europe all the time. My parents are both in ‘Mother Russia,’” Suigetsu said boredly, using air quotations and he spoke those last two words. “Everything’s closer together over there.”
Naruto took a sip off his beer, followed by Sasuke.
“I’ve never talked to someone from Russia before. Were you born there?” Naruto asked.
He truly enjoyed getting to know Sasuke’s friends better.
“You mean the accent didn’t tip you off?” Suigetsu teased, tilting his head to the side. “I came over when I was eighteen.”
It took everything in Naruto not to ask Suigetsu to say something in Russian.
“Where in Russia?”
“Siberia. A town called Yakutsk.”
Suigetsu took a swig of beer, placing it back on the coaster once he was done.
“How was that?”
“Thanks for that; I wouldn’t have guessed.”
“I’m not kidding. Siberia has a reputation for being cold, but if you’re outside in the winter in Yakutsk, your teeth will freeze to your lips. It’s one of the coldest cities in the world.”
“Seriously?” Naruto asked.
“Yeah! The average temperature in Yakutsk over the winter is… I think that’s negative 34 degrees in Fahrenheit? But it can get down to the negative ‘80s Fahrenheit. If you go outside without gloves, you get frostbite in under 5 minutes.”
“Holy crap…” Naruto answered, gawking. “Manhattan must feel like a tropical paradise to you.”
“Yup,” Suigetsu answered with a grin. “People whine here when it gets below freezing. It’s kind of cute.”
“Juugo, where did you come from?”
It was only natural for Naruto to ensure that everyone is included in a conversation. He didn’t want anyone to feel ignored. People used to leave him out when he was a kid, and he hated it. He couldn’t place whether Juugo was shy or just quiet.
“Upstate, a few hours north. Nothing special.”
“Well, at least you’re not boring like Sasuke. He’s never even lived outside of New York City.”
“No, even more boring than Sasuke. My parents were corn farmers.”
“That’s actually pretty cool! Did you help out a lot?”
It actually did sound quite interesting to Naruto. He had no idea what life was like for someone growing up on a farm.
“Yeah, ever since I was big enough.”
“So you like corn?”
“No, I hate it,” Juugo smiled, and despite being a burly, brawny redhead covered in tattoos, the expression looked gentle. “But I still eat it.”
“Eh?” Suigetsu asked, raising his lip. “Why would you eat something you don’t like?”
“Tastes like home.”
Suigetsu quickly nodded.
“Ah, I totally understand. That’s like me and aspic.”
“What’s aspic?” Naruto couldn’t help but ask.
“Hah. You don’t want to know.”
“I dunno. I just miss In N Out.”
“In N Out?” Suigetsu asked, tilting his head. “That sounds kind of perverted.”
“Of course you’d be the one to make that connection,” Karin inserted, rolling her eyes.
“How the hell haven’t you heard of In N Out?” Naruto asked, now sitting on his calf out of his restlessness. “Have you been living under a rock?”
All three of his conversational partners looked at him with confusion.
“Gah! It’s this burger chain out in California. Oh my god it’s amaaazing. They’ve got like… These huge meaty burgers, and so much cheese, and the special spread, and…”
“Your level of obsession with this restaurant is unhealthy, comrade,” Suigetsu said as he took another bite of his food.
“Your mom is unhealthy.”
Karin laughed, only for Sasuke to grimace.
“You know, I am associated with you now.”
“Aw, did I embarrass you?” Naruto teased with a full-fledged grin.
“Those jokes are so lame,” Suigetsu chortled.
“I think they’re kind of funny,” Juugo mumbled, so quietly that Naruto hardly heard him.
“See!” Naruto almost shouted, standing up and pointing at Juugo. “This guy gets me!”
That set the tone for the next forty minutes. Naruto thrived off of the energy, finding himself feeling so comfortable. A couple more beers for everyone at the table didn’t hurt matters either.
He tried not to think about how he might never hang out with them like this again. What Sasuke had said at the beach that night was true. An uncertain future meant that enjoying the present was even more important.
Finally, they were leaving, all of them, other than Karin and Suigetsu, packing up their burritos.
“What… You’re just going to leave it there?” Naruto asked, looking at both of them like they were crazy.
“Uh, yeah?” Karin answered. “Why wouldn’t we?”
“What...what…” Naruto quickly shook his head. “You don’t take leftovers home?”
“I usually do,” Suigetsu said. “But I’m going to a party after this.”
Why was Naruto not surprised? From everything he’d heard, Suigetsu sounded like a party animal.
“You could keep it in the shop’s minifridge,” Sasuke remarked.
“Eh…” Suigetsu shrugged.
“Sorry, but that is fucked up. You don’t just...not take leftovers. Juugo, please tell me that you take home leftovers.”
Naruto was passionate now, gesticulating with his arms.
“Of course. My parents would’ve disowned me if I didn’t take my leftovers. It’s engrained.”
“See! Again, Juugo is the voice of reason here. It’s two against two.”
Suigetsu sneered at Sasuke - the tie breaker.
“C’mon, tell me you can take or leave the leftovers.”
“No, the hell is wrong with you?” Sasuke answered. “You don’t just leave perfectly good food on the table.”
Karin sighed and shrugged.
“What if I have things that taste better in my fridge?”
“They’ll keep,” Sasuke grunted. “Feed yourself for another day with that burrito.”
“Seriously?” Karin asked. “Sasuke, you’re loaded. You could eat filet mignon tomorrow morning if you wanted to.”
“And it’s such a pain in the ass,” Suigetsu tacked on. “Having to ask them to bring you a box and waiting for it.”
“Then you ask them to bring it with the damned check. Is that too much effort?”
Naruto couldn’t help but smile, fully relating to Sasuke in this moment.
“Guys, you gotta understand that if I leave food on the table, every cell in my body is screaming to take it with me,” Naruto said. “It feels so inherently wrong to leave it there.”
“Well put,” Sasuke added.
“Fine, well there are situations where it’s acceptable to leave leftovers,” Karin said. “What about french fries? They get all soggy the next day from the condensation.”
Naruto looked at Sasuke, as if he was awaiting his input. Sasuke shrugged.
“Okay, there are exceptions,” Naruto conceded. “But you could put those in an omelette.”
“You guys…” Karin laughed, shaking her head. “I used to work at Fairway before I became a piercer. At the end of the day, they’d dump so much food in the trash.”
The look on Naruto’s face made Suigetsu snicker. Was this what Naruto looked like when he discovered that Santa wasn’t real?
“Like boxes full of food like produce, milk, whatever that were totally good to eat.”
“Why?” Naruto asked. “The hell, why would they throw all of that away?! The people that could feed…”
Sasuke let out a sigh.
“This is why I don’t get people. Never will, never want to.”
“Yeah, it was messed up. They wouldn’t even let us bring any home. They said it was for liability reasons.”
“Shit!” Suigetsu called out, looking down at his watch. “It’s almost midnight. The party’s about to start!”
“It’ll be on until the sun rises, Suigetsu,” Karin answered with a yawn. “It’s not like you’re missing much of it.”
Naruto remembered when he used to party like that, before he buckled down and started saving for college.
“All the good stuff happens around midnight. Damn, I totally lost track of time.”
“I should probably be going soon too,” Karin added.
“With your leftovers?” Naruto clarified.
“If you’re so insistent. I’ll just throw them away as soon as I round the corner,” Karin said with a mischievous grin, likely enjoying messing around with Naruto.
“There’s a special place in hell for people like you,” Naruto answered, narrowing his eyes.
“I’m leaving, whether you follow me or not,” Suigetsu said, getting up and walking away. “Nice seeing you again, Mr. Low Blood Sugar!”
Suigetsu shouted that last sentence, as he’d already placed considerable distance between them.
Karin just laughed.
“You can take them home. How about that? I have to go.”
Karin gave Sasuke and Naruto both a pat on the shoulder as she got up to leave.
“Don’t get into trouble, you two,” she said, walking backwards for a few paces before turning around and following Suigetsu.
The restaurant’s patrons were still bustling around them, but Sasuke and Naruto sat quietly at their large table. A few seconds passed.
“You gonna take that home?” Sasuke asked, gesturing to the burrito.
“Oh hell yes.”
“Nice,” Sasuke snickered, raising his fist up to Naruto.
Their fists bumped, and Naruto felt like the coolest guy alive to get a fistbump out of Sasuke. He didn’t seem like the type to give out cheap fist-bumps. No, you have to work for those.
Naruto allowed himself to slump now, leaning against Sasuke. Sasuke moved neither toward nor away from Naruto, finishing his beer in one last swallow.
“These burritos are the loss leaders. They get you on the beer,” Sasuke remarked.
“Yeah. Products sold at a loss to attract customers.”
“Oh, Mr. Fancy Pants and his college degree.”
Sasuke rolled his eyes.
“What was your major?”
“Was it boring?” Naruto asked.
“Sometimes,” Sasuke shrugged. “But I was building my business while I went to school, so I took what I needed out of it.”
“Yeah?” Naruto asked, toying with Sasuke’s sleeve, which was rolled up just below his elbow. “What was your favorite class?”
“History of economics. My professor might have been an actual fossil.”
“Oh man, that bad?” Naruto chuckled.
“Yeah, tenure is a bitch. He couldn’t stay on topic and was boring as hell. It was clear that he was an academic with no real business experience.”
“You think you could do better?”
“I’d shoot myself before I’d teach. Half the students only attended because their parents paid their way, then forced them to go. Blew all opportunity right out of their ungrateful asses.”
“Hm, I’d like to hope I could teach them to care,” Naruto said passively.
“You must have the patience for that. I sure as hell don’t.”
Naruto smiled, and it looked a little bittersweet.
“I wasn’t so different from them. Iruka made me care, slowly but surely.”
Sasuke glanced over at Naruto, his curious expression encouraging Naruto to continue.
“He was my science teacher, sophomore year. If something wasn’t fun, I didn’t want to do it. I hated it at home, so I’d stay out causing mischief by sneaking in places or vandalizing shit.”
“I used to graffiti when I was a kid,” Sasuke murmured. “They should’ve thanked me. It was a facelift for that ghetto shit.”
“I wasn’t very good,” Naruto admitted. “I wasn’t happy with life. I was under no illusion that my family at the time gave a flying fuck about me, so I acted out.”
“You keep talking about that teacher. What was so great about him?”
Naruto sighed, letting his head hang back as he looked up at the night sky. The stars were almost invisible. At the very least, when he looked up at the stars from halfway across the world, he was sure that they’d shine more brightly.
“He gave a shit. Everyone else gave up on me. Most teachers wanted to be nowhere near me, but he kept sending me to detention. I didn’t mind. It meant more time away from home.”
“He told me once… When you take a compass out, the needle spins around for a while until it finds its direction. He said I was like that compass needle. It was too early to know what my direction was, but soon I’d find it, and then there would be no denying it.”
Sasuke was silent, Naruto still leaning against him.
“I laughed in his face, but he persisted. Since he was a lot like me when I was a kid, he understood. And he was right.”
Naruto found himself smiling now. He was livening up, and it wasn’t just that extra boost he gave himself when Sasuke’s friends were around. This was true and came from within.
“That’s why I want to… No, that’s why I’m going to be a teacher. I want to work in a rough neighborhood with the kids everyone else gave up on. If I can be to even one kid what he was to me, I’d die happy.”
Sasuke was silent. It seemed he was giving Naruto the chance to continue.
“Damn,” Sasuke sighed after what seemed like a while, shaking his head. “The extent of your sappiness never ceases to amaze me.”
Naruto shoved his shoulder against Sasuke’s playfully, a mild smile on his face
“I didn’t see the war coming, but in the end, it’s going to be an afterthought. And if it isn’t…” Naruto paused, looking out into the crowd. “Then it isn’t. But nothing yet has taken me down.”
Naruto continued leaning against Sasuke. Finally, Sasuke draped his arm around Naruto. It made Naruto feel much safer than he actually was.
“You are a good teacher,” Sasuke mused. “I wouldn’t let myself mess up in front of most people.”
Naruto couldn’t help but chuckle when he remembered the look on Sasuke’s face when he played that mangled F chord. Sasuke truly was a perfectionist if he still remembered this detail.
“I don’t think you’d be a bad teacher, Sasuke. You’d be a hardass.”
They paused again, and it was comfortable.
“Who taught you how to tattoo, Sasuke?”
“His name was Kakashi. He owned the shop I apprenticed at in Brooklyn. I was actually twelve when I first started working.”
“Yeah, but at first it was admin shit like paperwork and filing. My family needed money. He took a risk and paid me under the table. He...wasn’t that different from that teacher you liked so much.”
“Does that mean you misbehaved too?”
Sasuke shrugged but gave no response.
“I’ve always wondered… How do you teach someone to tattoo? It’s not exactly like you can afford to make mistakes.”
“Want me to show you?”
Naruto flinched, leaning back to look up at Sasuke.
“Ahh... Um… Yes but… How?”
“There’s a wait,” Sasuke said, pointing to a line of people gathering outside to sit down. “Let’s leave.”
“Okay,” Naruto answered, not really sure what exactly they were going to do now.
Regardless, he gathered the boxes and bags, bundling up Karin’s burrito. Naruto and Suigetsu had finished their own, and Sasuke boxed what was left of his own.
“To the shop,” Sasuke said, though it seemed more like an order. Without even waiting for a response, he started walking in that direction.
Naruto quickly followed Sasuke, only for Sasuke to peel out and walk into a small convenience store. He found himself feeling both excited and nervous. He had no idea what to expect.
“Sasuke, what are you doing?” Naruto asked, only for Sasuke to ignore him again.
Sasuke walked towards the limited produce selection the shop had - only apples and oranges. Sasuke grabbed two oranges and walked to the front. He paid, and they were quickly on their way.
“Okay, that was random.”
“Vitamin C,” Sasuke said, clearly playing with Naruto.
In almost no time, they’d arrived at the shop. Just like it had been the night Sasuke had pierced Naruto’s ears, it was completely dark. Sasuke pulled up the metal grating and unlocked the door, flipping the lights on.
“What are we doin’ now?”
It’d be nice if Sasuke would give him a clue.
“Use your imagination,” Sasuke said dully.
Naruto sat down on the bench in the shop’s lobby as Sasuke rummaged around the back. He set the oranges at his station. Curious, Naruto walked over to him.
“This is what we’re going to do,” Sasuke told him.
He took out one of the oranges, as well as a blue ballpoint pen. He began to draw what looked like a rose on the orange.
Naruto finally understood. It had taken him a while.
Sasuke was done in a matter of seconds. He drew so quickly, though it wasn’t surprising given that he was a professional artist. Then he took out his machine, setting it on his desk.
Naruto couldn’t help but glance over at it. The silver handle housed two long coils. From there, a long metal rod descended with a round metal grip residing just below the base of the barrel. Sasuke reached over and loosened a screw, adding a metal tip before screwing the machine together again.
“Hey, what are you doing?” Naruto asked, shoving his face into view.
“Take a guess.”
“I thought you were going to teach me!”
Sasuke sighed, already appearing a little impatient. He was still assembling the machine.
“I’ll show you the fun parts.”
Naruto pouted, crossing his arms but seeming to relent. Sasuke plugged the machine into the power source by his station. He sat and lightly pressed the pedal by his foot. That familiar buzzing filled the shop yet again.
“Do you see what I’m doing?” Sasuke asked.
Naruto tilted his head.
“I’ve hooked my machine up to the power supply. When I press on the pedal, it sends energy through the machine. That electricity magnetizes the two coils in the handle.”
When Naruto nodded, Sasuke continued, “That magnetism moves this bar at the top. They call it an armature bar. That’s what fuels the needle. Get it?”
Naruto smiled while Sasuke put on a pair of gloves.
“Heh, of course. This is easy stuff.”
“You hold it a little like a pen,” Sasuke told him, letting Naruto watch him grasp it. “The rest of it sits behind the knuckles, and you rest your hand on the skin. Orange in this case.”
“Press down on the pedal…”
The machine’s boring noise resumed again.
“And then press it to the outline.”
The needle connected to Sasuke’s machine moved so quickly that it blurred, soon pressing into the orange and following the outline. He left a smooth black line behind, with just a bit of ink smudging onto the rind just outside of the rind. Sasuke wiped the residual ink off, leaving a neat and stark black line behind.
“So cool!” Naruto said, trying not to shout. “Lemme try!”
Naruto practically charged for it, with Sasuke shooting him a nasty look back.
“Cool your tits. Put on gloves.”
Naruto puckered his lips.
“Why? Afraid I’m gonna give the orange hepatitis or somethin’?”
“It’s best practice. And you’ll get ink all over your hands.”
Naruto sighed, placing a glove over his hand and making a loud smacking sound as he tugged at the wrist and released. He replaced Sasuke in his seat, grabbing for the machine with his right hand. Sasuke handed over his irons placing it into Naruto’s hand so that the heavy part of the machine rested on the back of his hand.
The touch of Sasuke’s hand on his made his heart stir. It was also interesting to finally be holding one of these.
Even if he wasn’t about to use it on anyone, it excited him. It was similar to the way he felt when he held his first gun. The tool he held in his hands had the power to mark skin forever.
It was a little heavier than he’d through it would be. He readjusted his hand.
“Step on the pedal.”
And Naruto did, only for that same buzzing to punctuate the room.
Even knowing what to expect, it shocked him. The vibrations of the heavy metal were strong against his hand. Ink was falling down from the needle’s tip now, coating a splotch of the orange. Naruto took his foot off the pedal.
Sasuke offered him a wipe, rolling his eyes.
“Want to try making actual contact this time?”
Naruto supposed he was glad he was wearing gloves after all.
“Hnf,” Naruto pouted, looking up at Sasuke. He placed his foot on the pedal once more.
This time he slowly brought the tip onto the orange rind, moving it forward. Some ink still escaped the tip, but much less than last time.
“It’s normal for that to happen, especially when it’s not skin. Just wipe it off so you can see what you’re doing.”
Naruto nodded, wiping off the ink. He saw the slightly raised black line he’d left behind on the orange. It was of varying thicknesses and quite shaky. It looked terrible.
“Try to apply a more consistent amount of pressure. Make smaller movements.”
Naruto felt himself blush. He hadn’t expected to be good, but he also hoped he wouldn’t be this horrible. He continued to follow the blue ink Sasuke’s pen had left behind.
The vibrations of the tattoo machine weren’t dramatic, but they threw him off. Naruto worked for several more seconds before wiping off the orange again.
“Hm. Better,” Sasuke remarked. “You’re going at too steep of an angle. Here.”
Sasuke came back with a stack of papers, just tall enough for Naruto to rest his arm on. It was a much more comfortable angle for his wrist.
“Press down on the pedal.”
Naruto obeyed, applying pressure and bringing the machine back to life. Sasuke reached forward, and Naruto felt the heat of his body as he did so. He placed his right hand directly over Naruto’s, guiding him.
The support of Sasuke’s hand insulated the impact of the vibrations and helped balance the irons. Even as uncharacteristically focused as he was at that moment, he couldn’t help but notice the small crest tattoo on the web of Sasuke’s hand. Thirteen years old, huh?
He remembered how passionate Sasuke had been, even at such an early age, to do the very thing they were doing together now. Sasuke’s skillful hand guided him, and it made his heart beat harder. He licked his lips, finding that his mouth felt dry. He looked behind him, Sasuke’s muscular chest leaning over him...
“Oi,” Sasuke called out, flicking his pointer finger against Naruto’s ear. Whack. Naruto felt his ear go warm from the impact.
“Don’t take your eyes off of your subject, dumbass.”
He’d totally just been called out.
“I wasn’t,” Naruto insisted, glaring up at Sasuke.
“You’re still not looking at the damned orange.”
“Yes, I am!”
“Really?” Sasuke asked.
Now that Naruto looked back at the orange, he noticed that Sasuke had let Naruto’s hand stray for the past second. A rogue line went down the side of the orange.
“That would be game over.”
The nerve… It was Sasuke’s fault!
“I only messed up because you suddenly stopped doing your job.”
Sasuke’s hand was still over his. They hadn’t even moved from their prior position, though Naruto had taken his foot off of the pedal. He still held the irons in his hand.
“My job?” Sasuke scoffed. “I just taught you a lesson. When tattooing, concentration is crucial.”
It hurt to admit it, but Sasuke was right. What an asshole!
“Though this certainly wouldn’t be the first time I’ve distracted you.”
Oh hell no.
“Hey, are you coming onto me?” Naruto asked, his voice rising as he became defensive.
“So what if I am?” Sasuke answered. “Please, your arousal over the past few minutes has been beyond obvious.”
Ugh. Why didn’t Sasuke just stake him in the heart while he was at it?
“Ah, is that something we should be doing when I’m holding a tattoo gun?” Naruto asked, laughing nervously.
Sasuke clucked his tongue.
“It’s not a gun.”
If anything, Naruto found the frown on Sasuke’s face endearing.
“Testy,” Naruto teased with a grin.
He cast Sasuke a smirk over his shoulder, feeling confident in this moment. He pressed down on the pedal yet again, tracing over the lines Sasuke left and wiping it away.
He could sense that Sasuke was casually watching him, even as he stared at the orange so intently. As Sasuke had told him to, he wiped away the ink as soon as it became difficult for him to discern the lines Sasuke had left.
Naruto paused for a moment, re-adjusting the irons in his hand. His muscles were starting to get tired. Graciously, Sasuke said nothing.
Naruto could only imagine how difficult it would be to continue this for a period of hours, as Sasuke did every day. He was sure that the unique muscles used must have built up for Sasuke, just like how his own did when he played the guitar day and night. The vibrations were also tasking his muscles. He stretched his hand, returning to his work soon after with a furrowed brow.
Naruto couldn’t say his lines were very nice. They were of uneven thicknesses, shaky and sometimes leaving the blue trace of Sasuke’s marks altogether. He’d never been the type to master things on the first try; he had to work at things for a while. He’d immersed himself in his work, not thinking of the news he’d brought Sasuke that night, and for a moment, not even thinking of Sasuke. He continued, completely focused and dedicated to finishing the work in front of him.
He heard Sasuke rummage around, getting himself a glass of water to drink. Finally, Sasuke fetched his sketchpad from the lockers in the back. He sat next to Naruto, crossed his legs, and rested the pad on them, leisurely sketching away.
The warm friendliness of Sasuke’s friends distracted him. He’d met with plenty of his own friends as well. It was when he was alone that he couldn’t think. He couldn’t concentrate. The best he’d done…
He had to admit that his music sounded wonderful in the precious hour he played to sooth his nerves before speaking with Sasuke. Raw, brutal, and meaningful… It sounded like he truly put his heart into it, because he did. Seasons were soon to come and go without it by his side. It was bound to be tough, but Naruto was no stranger to trouble.
The sound of the irons dulled his hearing somewhat, but he did sometimes notice Sasuke move in his chair, or hear him flip a page in his sketchbook. Even if he wasn’t speaking with Sasuke, simply knowing that he was there soothed him.
Naruto finished at last, putting the machine down and looking down at the orange. He heard Sasuke walk up to them, both of them looking at it.
At the very least, one could tell it was a flower. Naruto had poked into the rind in a place, and the lines were jumbled. Now that Naruto’s focus had relented, he felt embarrassed by how horrible the product of his work had been, especially in front of a nationally (maybe even internationally?) renowned tattooist.
“It’s horrible…” Naruto said, with a little laughter in his tone.
“Whose first attempt isn’t?”
Naruto had honestly expected Sasuke to chide him for this. To tell him that he wasn’t focusing enough, that his lines looked like shit, that there were pits in the orange now…
“You’re not such a bad teacher after all,” Naruto said, smiling at Sasuke.
“I watched more than I taught,” Sasuke told him. “As spastic as you are, it’s not often I see you so focused.”
Naruto felt himself blush. He’d probably blushed more in the past month than he’d blushed in his entire life up until this point. It wasn’t that he even blushed that much naturally. Around Sasuke, it just seemed to happen.
The thought that Sasuke was watching him, that he cared…
Naruto was glad that Sasuke took his departure so well. After a mere several seconds of shock, he returned to his usual composure. He didn’t even look upset. And as much as he told himself that this should come as nothing but a relief, he felt a pain in his chest.
“What were you drawing?” Naruto asked, pointing over at Sasuke’s sketchbook.
Sasuke grabbed the book, handing it to Naruto.
Naruto opened it to find a large drawing of a lion, the style completely realistic. The way Sasuke drew each hair in the mane, in such detail, was captivating. It made the mane, and all of the lion’s fur, seem so full, so soft that Naruto could reach out and actually touch it. Sasuke had such a fine attention to detail.
“It’s not meant to be a tattoo, if you’re wondering,” Sasuke said. “I’ve been branching out.”
“Jesus, it’s…” Naruto could hardly finish his sentence without getting lost in the details of Sasuke’s drawing. “It’s amazing.”
Sasuke merely shrugged.
“Hey, Sasuke…” Naruto spoke. He wondered if he should broach the topic he was considering.
“How do you feel?”
Sasuke seemed confused for a moment, but as soon as their gazes connected, the understanding on Sasuke’s face was obvious.
“Shouldn’t I be thinking about how you feel right now?”
Was Sasuke being kind, Naruto wondered? Or simply evading?
“That’s not what I’m asking. I’m asking how you feel.”
Their gazes met for several seconds, Sasuke’s dark and unreadable eyes following his own.
“I admit, I was surprised.”
Was that really all that Sasuke had felt?
Sasuke simply shrugged.
“Come on, Sasuke. Be honest with me.”
What had Sasuke said, about the nights making one honest? The serenity of the tattoo parlor brought the feeling of safety. And Naruto knew that Sasuke was most comfortable here, in his own shop.
“It sucks. But for you much more than for me.”
As much as he didn’t like the idea of Sasuke hurting, it relieved Naruto to hear that.
It was Naruto’s second time saying these two words that night.
Sasuke waved it off.
“Don’t worry about me. I don’t get attached easily.”
As quickly as Sasuke caught his mistake, it was too late. He opened his mouth to correct himself but had nothing to say.
“Naruto, listen… While you’re away, I think it’s best if you forget about me.”
Naruto felt his eyes water. No, not now. Not in front of him. He bit his lip hard. He’d been so emotional since he heard the news. Even the slightest of things set him off, but this hurt.
“Bastard, you think I would do that?” he asked, his voice shaking. “Didn’t I say that you could count on me? I won't give up!”
Sasuke stared at Naruto, shaking his head.
“I don’t get it. Why do you care so much? Why would you remember me all of that time?”
“Sasuke…” Naruto said, his voice still raw. “Like you said, we haven’t known each other that long, so you’ll have to take my word on this.”
Naruto paused for a moment, his eyes fastening right onto Sasuke’s.
“When I say something, I mean it. I never go back on my word.”
It was difficult to read the look on Sasuke’s face. He was surprised, clearly. But what other thoughts were in his brain? He fielded Naruto’s intense stare for several seconds, the air so quiet between them that should even a piece of paper drop, they could hear it flip through each spiraling turn on the way to the floor. Neither of them moved a single hair, their gazes never falling out of sync.
Finally, Sasuke fell out of his daze.
“Naruto, you’re not thinking this through. You don’t know me very well. You don’t even know what you’re waiting for all this time.”
“I understand where you’re coming from. I know it sounds crazy, but I just know, okay? It’s a gut feeling, so strong that I could never ignore it.”
“Are you sure that’s instinct talking?”
Of course, Naruto read into the implication. He could see why Sasuke would suspect that his devotion was infatuation. He hadn’t realized it at the time, but Sasuke had been aware of his crush from the first day they met. In the beginning, it truly was simple infatuation.
Yet Sasuke couldn’t feel what Naruto was feeling right now. If he could, Naruto was sure that he’d have no doubts in his mind.
“Look… I may seem like a space case at times. I know you don’t get it, but I know I’m right about you. I can feel it.”
Naruto paused for a second, but he found himself continuing against even his own will.
“It doesn’t matter what other people say; you just know sometimes. You know what that’s like, if that tat on your hand tells me anything. And when shit gets rough, it’s that desire, that hope that keeps you moving, step after step. And when I’m over there, it’ll be that hope that gets me through.”
Naruto could tell that something clicked in Sasuke’s brain. Despite the fact that such little time had passed since they met each other, Naruto did know that about Sasuke. He was decisive, and he’d follow his goals to the end, even if others found them unreasonable. It had been a long road for him; he surely needed that hope.
Sasuke cast his gaze downward.
“I just don’t want you to hope for something so badly all this time, only to find that what you’d hoped for doesn’t exist.”
“Sasuke, look at me. Stop staring at the ground.”
“That’s a risk I’m willing to take. The good things in life don’t come from playing it safe. You know that.”
It was clear as day to Naruto that this intimacy was making Sasuke uncomfortable.
“I’m not trying to guilt you,” Naruto said. “You said from the beginning that you weren’t committing to this. It would be unfair of me to expect you to put your life on hold, and in all reality, I might never come back.”
The corner of Sasuke’s lips sunk down, but his eyes stayed locked onto Naruto’s. As unpleasant as his words might be, they were true.
“Good. That’s all I need to hear.”