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Something To Remember Me By

Chapter Text

Naruto burst out the door like a flood battering down the walls of a dam. He skipped every step on the porch, deciding to leap right off it onto the concrete. His cousin rushed out after him, red hair swinging, yelling something about it not being her fault if he got himself killed, but he wasn’t listening.

The second Karin had told him he could leave, Naruto had raced for the door. He could feel the edges of summer curling up, growing shorter. It made him want to move even faster, pedal as quickly as he could, away from responsibilities. His bike hit his legs as he pulled it up from where it had been abandoned in the grass the night before.

It was painted orange, like most of the shirts he wore, and Karin told him it made him look like a big stupid goldfish, but he thought it wasn’t so bad. Sakura had told him when he stood in front of the horizon right before dusk, he blended right into the sunset, and Naruto had liked that description a lot.

He pushed off and started riding, down the short driveway and then onto the empty street. It was late morning, but the little ocean town was sleepy anyway, still stretching its arms over its head. Naruto, on the other hand, felt nothing but uncontrollable energy.

Something Iruka always told Naruto after his teachers said he was “hyperactive” in parent meetings was: energy is potential. If that was the case, Naruto had potential for days, for years. They might as well just let him into any college he wants right this instant.

It ached, working his legs this hard, up and down with the pedals, but he couldn’t bare to go any slower. When he smiled into the wind, it tasted like salt. It stung his eyes, and he blinked it away. Iruka would never let him go this fast, but Iruka wasn’t here. The town was his track, and he was the youngest race car driver the world had ever seen.

Naruto was 13 years old, and while he didn’t see himself as king of world quite yet, he had the feeling he might be, someday. He came up upon a hill, and let it take him. If he was going any faster, he thought, he’d be catching fire. Just like rockets do, shooting from Earth to the moon...

In reality, he was only going a couple blocks, to Sakura’s house. Iruka hadn’t wanted to let him go visit his cousin and her mother on the coast, even just for one week. First, because he thought Naruto might get hurt; a very valid concern. The second was that he might not find any friends his age. Oceanview wasn’t as cruel of an environment as Iruka had worried. Naruto wasn’t sure if Sakura was a friend yet, but she was sweet like cotton candy and had hair the same color. Naruto thought about her a lot.

It was her friends that they would hang out with, so Naruto had to find Sakura first. He came to screeching halt in front of her house, nestled in ferns. There were 3 wind chimes hanging from the roof above the porch, clinking harmlessly. On the sidewalk there were two bikes already, a black and purple mess of spokes, so Naruto dumped his on top.

When he knocked on the front door, quickly, five times, Sakura answered. She was wearing basketball shorts and a big tie dye shirt. The sun broke through a cloud and she squinted.

“What time is it?” Naruto shook his head. He had no idea.

“You said we could go to the carnival today,” he said, jumping from one foot to the other. “My aunt gave me money and everything, so I can get tickets!”

Sakura jumped back and forth a little, too. “Okay! I can go, I just have to get Ino up and she’s always grumpy. Do you want to come in and wait at the table?”

Naruto stepped on the heel of one shoe to take it off, the way Iruka always told him would ruin them. He walked quietly into the kitchen, one mismatched sock in front of another. Sakura left, deeper into the house to wake up her friend Ino. Naruto didn’t like Ino much, but he did like Sakura and her other friends, so he put up with her.

He ran his fingers along the side of the chair he was sitting on. The wicker was bumpy, distracting. Naruto had never been good at waiting, nor was he known for succumbing to boredom. He had been running around Oceanview and Cobalt Beach all week, exploring every where his cousin let him go, as well as some places he wasn’t supposed to, and he wasn’t tired of it at all.

Tonight, of all the nights, was most exciting, because it was his last night before Iruka came to pick him up and take him home, and because he got to go to the carnival. The Oceanview Carnival; he’d seen posters for it all over, but the time he’d spent in Oceanview never overlapped with the event before.

Now, though, it seemed like a momentous occasion, the last big bang before the leaves turned brown and the winter clothes came out of the closet. The feeling of the wicker couldn't contain him anymore, and he tapped his feet erratically.

Finally, Ino walked into the kitchen, barefoot and yawning but otherwise dressed to go out. Naruto jumped up, nearly knocking the chair over, and Ino rolled her eyes. “What are you so excited about? Never been to a carnival before?”

“No,” Naruto said, with a touch of defensiveness, “but on New Years Eve I always watch fireworks from my balcony. It’s 15 floors up.”

“Everyone watches fireworks, dummy.”

“From 15 floors up?” He and Ino stared at each other, grasping for the upperhand in a pointless conversation.

Ino looked away first, turning to check her makeup in the reflection of the microwave door. “I think that’s weird,” she said, which is what she always said when she didn’t know what to say anymore. Naruto had mostly gotten used to it, but he flipped her off while she wasn’t looking anyway.

Sakura hopped in on one foot, pulling her shoes on. “Okay, my mom gave me money, too, but she said we have to eat something healthy.”

“What at the carnival is healthy?” said Ino.

“I heard they sell deep-fried candy bars,” added Naruto.

Sakura smiled slyly. “What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her. I’m sure funnel cake has some nutritional benefits we don’t know about.” Ino snorted, and Sakura poked her in the stomach, making her friend shriek. Naruto watched them shove each other, but he mostly watched Sakura.

He’d known her for a little less than a week, but she had already shown him much more kindness than any kid in his city. Naruto was going to be an 8th grader soon, top of the middle school heap, but for all anyone else cared, he was dirt. Several school days could slip by at home, blending into one another, like some other worldly being had taken his life under one finger and smudged it. There was nobody at school who could make one day stand out from another. He had known many people, but only liked one; his dad, Iruka.

Now, however, he liked Sakura, too. She had ridden past his cousin’s house on her bike, and saw him sitting there, digging up worms in the front yard. Sakura told him that it didn’t look very fun, and Naruto had told her that he was having plenty of fun, what was she talking about.

“Well,” she huffed, adjusting the red bandana holding her bangs back, “I’m going to chase down the ice cream truck and see if they have any of the cartoon character popsicles with the messed-up gumball faces. Do you want to come?” Naruto shot up, wiped his dirty hands on his shorts and grabbed his bike in 5 seconds flat.

“Karin!” He yelled back at the house. “I’m going to hang out with my friend!”

And that was it. They were off, hunting down the truck, any conversation cutting off abruptly when they thought they heard whimsical music. Pretty much since then Naruto had been invited to whatever Sakura and her friends were doing. Mostly it was riding their bikes to the corner store to buy gum or running around at the beach, but Naruto didn’t really care. He was included.

Outside, Naruto pulled his bike back up, while Sakura tried to untangle the other two. Her bike was purple, with reflectors on the wheels, and Ino’s was black with a basket. Ino took off first, blonde hair swinging, headed for Shikamaru’s house a block down.

Shikamaru was lazy, with a green bike, and his best friend was Choji, a big friendly boy. His bike had the wide wheels, that clunked over curbs but looked so cool. It was a lot of effort to get them out of the house and ready to ride, but Ino could do it, even if Shikamaru grumbled the whole way.

Naruto and Choji had the same type of smile, the one where you close your eyes. His hands were sometimes stained multicolored from fruit-flavored candy, but Naruto could tell that he didn’t like to be teased about it. Only Ino could sometimes get away with it, but her jokes always fell flat because Choji just took it. He never fired anything back, or laughed. He just let the mean things she’d say sit.

Shikamaru was Choji’s best friend and he was super smart but didn’t act like it. Not like some kids who went to Naruto’s school. There was a girl who sat in front of him who would always laugh when the teacher put his test on his desk face down. She’d cover her mouth with her hand, but Naruto could hear it, clear as day.

Shikamaru wasn’t that way at all; he’d much rather lay in the grass, staring up at the sky completely silent. Naruto tried to do this a few days ago but ended up just running to the top of the hill and rolling down it until he rolled over a napping Shikamaru by accident. He was pretty sure he’d been forgiven.

At long last, they were off. The distance to the boardwalk and surrounding area where the carnival took place was farther than just scooting around the neighborhood, but this is where Naruto’s boundless energy came in handy.

He was front of the pack, sun-soaked and crowing. The closer to the ocean they got, the more apparent the salt was in the air. Naruto wanted it to preserve him as this: a young boy with burning money and his friends behind him, with an endless afternoon. A boy with potential.

It was true, what he’d told Ino. He’d never been to a carnival before. Naruto grew up in a little apartment in a big, big city. Trees were few and far between, and the only water that moved outside of a faucet was a huge river that was much too dirty for swimming.

His dad was young and strung out, yet somehow everywhere at once. Iruka would work for hours, he would work extra jobs, he would work his fingers to the bone, but there he was. Naruto’s little league games, every birthday, every graduation of any kind, every… anything Naruto thought was important. Naruto often felt lonely at school, but he was never under any impression that he was truly alone.

All the working for the necessities left out some things, though. Movies in the theater and brand new shoes and dessert every night. Naruto guessed carnivals were some combination of the jam-packed city and his dad’s jam-packed schedule; they just fell by the wayside.

Now, though, he was ready. It was still the middle of the day, and Sakura had promised it would be prettier at night, but even if it wasn’t, it was a whole new world to Naruto.

Flashing colors, reds, blues, greens, were everywhere, uncontrollable. The smells were all the things Naruto craved but Iruka refused to get him: watermelon sugar and fried gold and drinks with bubbles that tickled his nose.

The screech of machines were there, too, with amusement park rides lining the boardwalk. Spinning, twisting, bumping metal, but not industrial like he’d known. It was working parts, lifting the ferris wheel upwards and making the swinging ship swing. Naruto was fascinated.

There was plenty more, things to buy, games to play, but Naruto ran his bike to the splintering guardrail. He’d seen it before, but he didn’t get tired of it; the sea. It felt like some great ceremony, the expense of ocean meeting a man-made marvel. Naruto could hardly contain his excitement. He turned around, grinning at his friends. They smiled back, even Ino.

All they had to do was lock up their bikes, and then there they were; five 13 year olds with scuffed sneakers and a total of 40 dollars. They crowded around the ticket booth as Shikamaru slid the money through the little semi-circle to the old lady running it, who curled her lip. To Naruto, they were five great adventurers, hacking through the jungle, but this woman saw them as five more middle schoolers who’d eat too much candy and get dizzy after rides and hurl everything up.

She gave them back 53 tickets, so everybody got 10 except Naruto who got 13. He’d put in the most money, after all.

“13 is an unlucky number,” Ino reminded him, but Naruto just waved them in her face, telling her she was just jealous. Sakura pulled on his shirt sleeve, pointing to an mechanical arm-wrestling game, and Naruto blushed. She let go, running towards it, but Naruto touched his sleeve where she’d touched before joining the others to run after her.

Sakura spent a ticket on the game, pulling up the sleeve of her t-shirt in preparation. Her elbow hit the pad and everyone cheered, besides Shikamaru who was eyeing a big bench in the sunlight. She won, easily, immediately, and Naruto was the only one who was surprised.

She raised her arms, flexing them. “I’m strong, I’ve been working out.”

“I’ve been working out, too!” said Naruto, even though he hadn’t, unless that included carrying grocery bags from the lobby up to the 15th floor with Iruka.

“Oh yeah? Arm wrestle me, then.”

A new game began, but now the teams were split; Ino backing up Sakura and Choji giving Naruto a slap on the back that was so hard he choked. Shikamaru had found his bench and was taking a nap.

They found a good surface, and locked hands. Sakura stuck out her tongue in concentration, which was cute, but once Ino called go, she was anything but. She instantly slammed Naruto’s hand down, his knuckles scraping against wood.

“Ow! No fair!”

“How was that not fair?”

“I hurt my arm yesterday,” Naruto grumbled, rubbing it, but Sakura just laughed.

“That’s what they all say,” she said, but there was no malice in her voice. She ran off to a new game, following Choji. His favorite was the one where you fish for rubber ducks, and Naruto had never done that, either.

The rest of the day continued in this fashion. Naruto was eager to explore and his friends were eager to show him, pulling him every which way as afternoon made its lethargic descent into evening.

Naruto was sure he’d eaten everything, seen everything, as the sun went down, but the carnival at night was twice what it’d been in the day. The lights had been comparable to the string variety during the day, but at night they were stars, a constellation surrounding every stall. He loved all of it, ate it with happy hunger.

Sakura was leader of the bunch, he had found out, and wasn’t overly excited often, but there was something she saw that made her eyes light up. She pointed, and smiled at Ino, who rolled her eyes. There was a fondness there, too, as she turned to explain.

“Sakura loves slugs. No one knows why, because I think they’re gross as hell, but she likes them. Snails are a close second; she collects snail stuff.” Ino gestured towards what Sakura had seen; a snail doll hanging outside of a stand, the one at the very end of the line. It was tucked way in the back, barely touched by the light, its stars not shining quite as brightly.

Sakura started towards it, then stopped, turning right back around. “What’s wrong?” Naruto asked. “Don’t you want the snail?”

“I do, but…” She put a hand over her eyes, as Ino squinted at the stall and then snickered.

“Oh, it’s him. Sakura used to have a crush on him.”

“Shut up! You did, too.” Sakura pushed her friend, who was still giggling. Naruto turned back to look at the stand, and he hadn’t noticed before, but there was a boy sitting there, perfectly still. There was a slight glow, Naruto guessed from a phone screen. Besides that, he couldn’t make much else out.

“Who is that?”

“Sasuke,” Ino finally got out after Sakura was done pulling her hair. Naruto looked, back at the boy, wide-eyed.

“...Sasuke?” There was something about the way the name sounded, how it felt in his mouth. Like the salt-water taffy they’d chewed before. It was hard to get out fast, it stuck to the roof of his mouth, and it was cinnamon, red. Naruto shook his head, and the second time he mouthed it, it was easy. The thought was gone.

“I’m…” Naruto looked at his tickets. They were dwindling, but there were still a few left, crumpled from his hand and hanging onto to each other. There were enough. “I’m going to go try it.”

Ino looked surprised. “I guess, if you want to. He’s a high school boy.”

That was something Naruto was going to be soon, in a year, but that still meant this guy knew things he didn’t. The tickets were crumpled again. “I don’t care about that. Obviously.”

“Okay, but he got all weird and quiet when he got into high school. All the girls used to like him, because he was… I don’t know, smart and good at sports and stuff. Nobody talks to him now-”

“I’m going to,” Naruto said, cutting Ino off, and started towards the booth. He was going to win that snail and give it to Sakura. His stride was confident, steady, as he marched right up to the booth. The boy, Sasuke, looked up, and then, he faltered.

Naruto hadn’t been able to make out what Sasuke looked like from a distance. He could see now: lithe body, but with bad posture, and dark hair that stuck up wrong in the most effortless way. But, this wasn’t special.

What was special was his eyes. They met Naruto’s and they were black, so black that there was no distinction between the iris and pupil. Naruto had never seen eyes like that before. If his blue ones were the waves on a sunny day, Sasuke’s were the sea beneath an eclipse. No light escaped them.

There wasn’t even an expression on his face when he first looked up, but after Naruto opened his mouth and no words came out, he looked annoyed. “Yes?” he said, low, and Naruto could see a tiny flick of pink as Sasuke’s tongue touched the bottom of his front teeth for the S.

“Uh. I want to play,” he said, cheeks burning. What had come over him? He stuck out his hand, and Sasuke put out his, and Naruto dropped the tickets to where he was waiting.

“It’s ring toss. You know how to play?” Like saying those words were the last thing he wanted to be doing. Naruto swallowed. He guessed he understood what Ino had meant about Sasuke being cool; Naruto wanted to be like that someday, effortless. That was Naruto’s thing, effort, trying. It just made people tease him. He bet Sasuke never gets teased.

“Of course. Duh.” Naruto found the rings in front of him: 10.

“If you get more than 7 over the bottles, you get something.” Back to his phone, not even scrolling or tapping. Naruto, a real human, was less than a rectangle of light. He huffed.

He picked up the first ring. It was faded, not quite the red of blood or Sasuke’s name. Naruto closed his eyes, ready for whatever may come, and then opened them, blue and blue. The ring left his fingers and- bounced off the bottles, clattering to the ground.

Sasuke eyes flicked to him, and then away, but it was enough for Naruto to burn even brighter. He glared at Sasuke’s profile, but he didn’t shift again, the only movement the tiny tick of his eyes under long eyelashes. This was the guy Sakura had liked? Whatever.

The second went much like the first, but Sasuke paid him no more attention. The rest were the same, and Naruto was very annoyed. He swiveled, hands clenched, to face Sasuke.

“I played baseball in little league,” was all he could get out.

“Good for you.”

“No, I’m saying, like, is this game rigged?”

“Yeah,” said Sasuke flatly, and then leaned closer. “You know what, kid? Everything in this whole carnival is fucking rigged.”

Naruto felt his anger spike, at the game and at Sasuke, his stupid sticking-up hair like rocks at the jetty that ships steered clear of. Naruto should steer clear of him, too.

He stomped away, his feet making satisfying thumps. He was going to tell Sakura Sasuke was a dick, and she was better off with someone else, someone like-

“Hey!”

Naruto stopped in surprise, turned. Sasuke was standing now, and he must have been the one that called out. His heart beat a little. Effort.

Just like that, Sasuke was cool again. An accessible cool, one Naruto wanted someday for himself.

He all but ran back, looking up at Sasuke, and his pale hands reached up, digging into the soft skin of a stuffed snail. “I saw you looking at it. The game’s rigged, so just take it. I won’t tell.”

Naruto blinked, at Sasuke, at the snail. He took it, and his hands did not touch Sasuke’s.

“Thanks,” he said, quietly. The moment for talking loudly had passed, and Sasuke was back to his phone.

“Sure, kid,” was all he said. Naruto wanted to tell him he wasn’t a kid, probably wasn’t even much younger than Sasuke himself, but when you’re a teenager every year feels like ten. Sasuke had maybe driven a car, or kissed a girl, or smoked. Naruto hugged the snail to his chest, and ran in the opposite direction.

He found his friends again, proudly showed Sakura the snail, which she put under one arm and told him she didn’t know what to name it, but Naruto should give her his number so she can text him it when he goes back home. Naruto glowed.

The next day he was tired, after having gone back to Choji’s and spent the whole night playing video games with guns and cars, something he left out to Iruka when he showed up in their old car. He hugged Naruto very tightly, and Naruto wondered if Iruka did anything while Naruto was away.

After it was clear he had made it through the week without dying, Naruto begged and begged Iruka to let him come back next summer. He begged halfway back to home until finally Iruka agreed. Naruto glowed even brighter.

He remembered them all. Pink-haired Sakura who he texted, mean Ino who he didn’t, Choji and Shikamaru, best friends. He remembered bikes and ice cream and that carnival. Even the boy at the ringtoss stand tugged at the corners of his mind.

Naruto didn’t know why he did, and the memory faded over time, but whenever he saw a dark eyed boy on the subway, it stuck to his mind like saltwater taffy. He thought of Sasuke.

Chapter Text

Naruto was careful, through the year, through the hell that was 8th grade, and the winter and the boredom, to not forget his friends in Oceanview. He was a whole year older, a 14 year old, on the edge of high school, which was the absolute last thing he wanted on his mind. Every back to school ad on TV had the effect of a horror movie, skin prickling and stomach churning, and he made Iruka change the channel.

Oceanview was something he held out for. Before school started, at the end of August, the sea was waiting to come crashing down on him and the wheels of his bike were begging to spin. It made him stretch out on his bed, mirroring the dried starfish he’d bought as a souvenir, and smile to himself. A tiny sun, blooming from his chest. A personal warmth. That was Oceanview.

He all but shoved Iruka into the car, drumming his hands on the dashboard in the rhythm of his thoughts: O-cean-view, O-cean-view. Iruka told him to stop banging around, that they needed to get gas first. He switched on the radio and let Naruto fiddle with the dial, which usually calmed him down. Iruka always had this line between his eyebrows, but his smile lines were there, too. Naruto knew he was always smiling at him, even when he wasn’t looking. He knew Iruka loved him a lot.

And it was because Iruka loved him so much that Naruto had to sit through the longest lecture of his life. He slumped in his seat until the belt choked him. The sound he let out sounded like a squirrel being strangled, and it was unconvincing. That’s what Iruka said, anyway.

More drumming, more fiddling with the dial, more bursts of conversation that were more just Iruka nodding as Naruto set the scene for the same stories he’d told again and again. He painted it, the dream of Oceanview, pushing out from his animated hands and growing, pressing against the windows. Naruto left a small area, so Iruka could see the road, but otherwise, he filled the space. He couldn’t not.

Though the drive was excruciatingly long, he made it through somehow. Naruto was throwing open the car door before it was stopped, so hard it bounced back and hit him as he leaped out.

Iruka yelled from the car, but Naruto heard it like he was underwater. And he was; drowning, mouth open. It was just like he’d remembered, the wind carrying the sea to him long before he could see it. There was no air he rather have in his lungs, and he filled them. Then he breathed out, give some of himself back. The wind accepted his offering, taking it with him.

His aunt reassured Iruka that she wouldn’t let Naruto get in trouble. Karin wasn’t around like she had been the year before to watch him. “She’s on a roadtrip with some of her friends,” said his aunt, with a half smile. “She doesn’t really like to be in Oceanview this time of year. But with Sakura, he’ll be fine. She’s a good girl.” Naruto beamed at the mention of her name, excited, practically vibrating, cracking the sidewalk beneath him like a jackhammer.

Iruka looked at him. There was worry in his eyes, there always was. Naruto wrapped his arms around him. While he felt like his heart belonged to Oceanview, his home was always his dad. And he wouldn’t give that up so easily. Iruka was a little teary, that salt water therapeutic like Naruto found the salt water of the sea. Finally, he reversed out of the driveway, waved and was gone.

This town now had custody of Naruto. He instantly grabbed for his bike, a friendly steed as his love for the color orange hadn’t diminished. Karin wasn’t there to stop him. He kicked off and headed to Sakura’s house.

The journey was the same as before, and Naruto was so happy he could scream. Eighth grade hadn’t been kind to him, not at all, and while he had only gone from 13 to 14, it felt like he’d aged. Not in a good way, either, where you get smarter. More like how fruit goes rotten.

Now, though, racing, he knew that wasn’t true. He was still himself, despite every one of his teachers and peers that had told him that was the wrong thing to be. Too bad. There was a whole damn town who couldn’t get enough of Naruto. He worked his legs. The burn remained and the stinging in his eyes. This pain was nothing like the burn of trying too hard at school, or the icy city air that climbs in through your ears to your brain, making you think cold things. It felt good.

Sakura’s house approached in the distance, unchanged besides two more windchimes joining the family. Naruto dumped his bike on the pile, just like before, and was up the stairs, knocking a little too loudly.

He waited in silence, outside of his heavy breathing, and for five murderous seconds he thought no one would answer. But then somebody did: Sakura, in a new oversized tie dye shirt. She smiled big at him, and she had braces now, with purple bands. When she hugged him, it was a strange feeling. Her hair brushed his cheek, cotton candy, and Naruto bent his arms to hug her, too. It was strange because nobody had hugged him but Iruka, not since he was a little kid. Maybe not even then.

He grinned at her as well, cheeks a little flushed. Iruka had teased him, saying he had a crush. Naruto wasn’t sure if that was true. Or maybe it was, but he had a bigger crush on the week he spent here, and wasn’t going to ruin it for anything.

“How have you been? Actually, let me get my shoes, and you can tell me while we ride over to Shikamaru’s, okay?” She disappeared into the house, leaving the door slightly cracked. Naruto could see those white wicker chairs in her kitchen. He tapped his feet.

She was back quickly, hopping to put her sneakers on, just like before. There was a flash of red as she tied her hair up with the bandana. More of a pink red, not a pure red. Sakura nodded at him, locked and loaded. They were off.

It was as if no time had passed at all. They still talked, Sakura still snorted when she laughed at something particularly funny. She didn’t mind when he started veering one way or another; she stayed steady in the road, trusting he’d never let his path cross hers. He never did.

They reached Shikamaru’s house, and everyone else was already outside. There was a blanket spread out, and Shikamaru was lying next to it, on the verge of a nap but eyes still on the sky. Ino and Choji were sitting with a plastic tupperware container full of little bottles. Choji looked like he was telling Ino something funny, and she listened, brushing paint onto his fingernails. Purple, like her shirt that showed her stomach, and like Sakura’s bike.

When Sakura called out to them, everyone looked up. “Well,” said Ino, and her voice is one Naruto assigned to any character called a ‘trickster’ in his English class. “If it isn’t Naruto, in an orange shirt and orange shoes. I’m shocked.”

“Hey!” said Choji, with that smile that was Naruto’s favorite. He waved a painted hand, which Ino grabbed, lowering it, telling him he better not mess up her hard work.

Shikamaru had sat up with a yawn. “What’s up?” he asked, still half-asleep but stuck out his fist for a bump anyway. Naruto obliged. They’d all remembered him, just like he’d remembered them. That’s all he had wanted.

“You here for about a week again?” Shikamaru asked, and Naruto nodded. “The carnival’s actually three days, you know. You can go to all the days now.”

Naruto felt his heart thrum. The Oceanview Carnival. Of all things, he hadn’t forgotten that. It’d been this spinning world of color his mind could retreat to amidst the grey. His time there had created a whole new feeling, one he couldn’t replicate, even though he’d tried to. He nodded. He wanted to go very badly.

“That’s not for a few days, though,” said Sakura, still on the sidewalk, one foot down and one on a pedal. “We have to do other stuff while we wait. I want to go to the store, are you guys coming?”

Shikamaru groaned that he was going broke, but got to his feet anyway. Ino was blowing onto Choji’s nails until she was satisfied that they were ready. They grabbed their bikes, pushing and pulling until the pile revealed three different bikes. Black, green, orange, red and purple. Five 14 year olds, now, but the same sense of limitlessness that only came with summer.

The store wasn’t anything special, just a corner store, same as the ones Naruto had at home, but he entered it like a dream. Just like real life, but everything looks a little different, just a little off. Ino gave him an odd look. “It’s just a corner store,” she said scornfully, but she bought him the gum he wanted. It was orange and she didn’t remark on it.

Everyone dumped their treats into the basket on Ino’s bike. It was a communal stockpile now, of candy and chips, to be rationed out when they got to wherever they were going. Choji asked if his house was good, and Naruto nodded. He didn’t care, he’d go anywhere.

When they got to Choji’s house, they flopped down on any surface. Shikamaru on the couch, Ino on his legs, Sakura on the floor and Choji in one of the beanbags. Naruto took the other, running and cannonballing into it with a dull thump. Everyone laughed, but Sakura the most, and Naruto laughed, too. With them. Kind laughter.

Most days went that way. Naruto would ride over to Sakura’s house, they’d ride to someone elses and slowly they’d collect everyone. Then they’d do what they affectionately called “whatever.” Riding until they got tired, walking around the sandy downtown of Oceanview, watching movies, playing videogames, watching Shikamaru play video games. Karin had told Naruto he wasn’t supposed to go the caves on Cobalt Beach because they’re dangerous the year before, but when they went to explore them there were only crabs in there, no harm.

His favorite thing to do was roll around on the beach. Ino liked the sand, Sakura liked the waves and Naruto liked both. He would go back and forth, because when he was with one he missed the other. Some people couldn’t stand the feeling of sand on wet skin, and Naruto wasn’t one of them. The cold of the water, the grit of sand; pleasant reminders of his life, his ability to feel…

Well, it was his favorite thing besides the carnival, so the first day it happened he was nearly pulling Sakura out of bed and begging Ino not to spend so much time on her hair because it looked fine.

Ino put her hands on the edge of the sink, mere inches from the mirror, squinting. Naruto didn’t understand it. He’d just rolled out of bed, as there wasn’t really anyone to impress here. Sakura, maybe, but her pajamas were just the basketball shorts and big shirt tied with a hair tie she wore the day before.

“You think it looks okay?” she asked, tilting her head.

“It looks perfect,” Naruto told her, and that got her out the door.

Choji and Shikamaru joined along the way, falling into the line perfectly like soldiers. They were on their way to capture summer.

Once their bikes were chained up safe to the rack, they were free, unleashed upon the carnival. Choji had convinced his dad to give him a ton of money, so they all got 15 tickets each this time.

The first thing Naruto wanted to do was go on the ride that goes upside-down. He’d been too nervous to the time before. It was like a small swinging ship, but it just kept swinging, going up and up and over.

Naruto didn’t like that part as much, and also the fact that there was a kind of cage over the top. It was for safety, he knew, but he imagined getting locked into it and never let off, forced to spin forever and ever. Rationally, this wouldn’t happen, but it was a chilling thought all the same.

This year, he was going to ride it. He announced it to his friends, who raised their eyebrows, except for Sakura. She loved scary things, mostly because she wasn’t scared of them at all. Horror movies just made her laugh. She clapped her hands.

“That sounds fun! How about I go with you?”

“Okay!” he excited, and started to the boardwalk to find it.

“Wait up,” Shikamaru said. “We’re all coming.”

“Yeah, I’ll believe you going on it when I see it.” Naruto stuck out his tongue at Ino.

Entering the carnival was much like the first time. There was a difference. It was still sweet and salty and metal and splinters and madness but this time it was familiar. Naruto was so proud this was a part of him now, something so wondrous. Distance makes the heart grow fonder, as they say.

He had the urge to wander, but shook his head. Today, he was going to face his fears, and Sakura was going to help him. They approached the ride, and it clanked, the way rattlesnakes rattle when a human gets too close. Go away, the noise said, I’m dangerous. But Sakura looked unbothered, smiling to herself gently. Naruto needed some of that courage, willed it into himself.

They waited in line, gave the man the ticket and then stepped into the ride, Sakura sitting right next to him, her side pressed flush to his. Naruto coughed, embarrassed at the position, but Sakura was again, unbothered. He acted like he was, too.

The ride began, and the clanking was louder, but not as loud as Sakura cheering. Through the cage, he could see their friends. They cheered back, Ino the loudest, waving at Sakura. She returned it, and then turned forward, set and ready.

Naruto was not set and ready, but the swinging began anyway. He clenched his teeth together tightly, if only to keep them in his mouth. His skin felt looser, like it was being blown off every time they hurtled forward, but when he looked at Sakura, at the pink hair waving in her face, it felt alright. Not fun by any means, but not scary.

What happened when the ride turned him upside-down? Naruto didn’t know. He tried his best in the moment not to think about it, and then they were right side up, just like that.

Sakura was laughing, just like at the horror movie. She waved again, and Naruto watched her. He’d thought he’d been confronting his feelings of fear, but now he realized it might have been something else.

He thought about Sakura, and her cherry blossom chair and oversized shirts. Her smile, too, was oversized. Her laugh as well. And he thought about all of that, and about Sakura’s leg pressed to his, and he felt… fondness. Something gentle, pushing on his heart. Not, as Iruka put it, a crush. Nothing so violent. That’s not what he felt for her.

Which was a relief, because he wanted to keep coming back here. Crushes just made his life difficult; he didn’t know what to do in general, so he didn’t need people he liked making him lose his train of thought, too.

Back on the ground, Naruto was congratulated on winning his showdown with the reaper, but that he looked a little green. Shikamaru suggested they find somewhere sunny to lie down, and everybody rolled their eyes at that.

It wasn’t until the second day of the carnival that Naruto remembered. Not that he had any reason to, as it didn’t really matter, but it was still there. He saw it, that evening, at the shadowy end of the boardwalk. Hard to spot, tucked behind palm trees. If you looked a little closer: the ring toss, and the boy who ran it, looking like he hadn’t moved the whole time Naruto had been gone.

Naruto put it out of his mind, avoided the stand, but he couldn’t help thinking: he was probably so much better at it, rigged or not. He’d started working out, for real this time, and it made a big difference, he thought. He could probably win it. That would be impressive, wouldn’t it?

Still, he waited, until he couldn’t wait anymore. He felt it running through his veins, I want to win, I want to win, let me win.

“I’m going to go try that game again,” he blurted out. It was late, the night sky blurring into the ocean. “The ring toss.”

Sakura raised her eyebrows. “Yeah? ...I didn’t think they still had that. Be careful, though-” she said. Naruto waved his hand. He didn’t need to hear her disclaimer about the boy who ran the stand again.

“I know, I know.”

Sakura shrugged. “Knock yourself out, then. I’m going to get ice cream with Ino.” Naruto nodded, watched her go, and then turned.

Something pulled him forwards, closer, closer, until he stopped.

He did better this time, than he had before. The black eyes weren’t so shocking; one look felt more like a punch in the stomach than a bullet in the heart. The hair was the same, something Naruto had absent mindedly drawn once, but it just looked like a duck. On him it looked cool.

“Yes?” Just like the before. Low, his tongue, just like before.

“I was here last year,” offered Naruto, and then felt monumentally stupid. He probably saw tons of people come and go, and Naruto had only spent five minutes here one night.

“I don’t recognize you,” he said, voice so cold, and Naruto blushed. Stupid. He coughed into his arm to try and hide it, but it burned. He wasn’t anything like the popular kids at school at all. He didn’t give a single shit what Naruto thought of him. He came off as perfectly self-controlled, and Naruto just wasn’t. He wanted to be.

The boy took pity, though very little. “What’s your name?”

“Naruto.”

“Doesn’t ring a bell.” Back to his phone, but it hurt less this time.

“What’s your name?” Naruto asked, with no idea why he did. He knew his name, but he hadn’t said it out loud in a year. Sakura had said it with a sigh, Ino had said it in scorn, Naruto had said it, softly, but nothing was exactly right. Naruto wanted to hear how he said it.

“Sasuke,” he said, and Naruto felt confused. He thought he’d hear something new, but it was such an empty word from him. He said it, and then it plummeted. Full of holes.

“Sasuke,” Naruto repeated, and there, that was right. It was a word with worth and life. It was a name, it was important. Sasuke didn’t even look up. He wanted Sasuke to look up, to hear and care. He didn’t know why it was so important.

“I’m not even going to play,” Naruto said, putting on a new voice, the one he used at school sometimes, the rare occasions he knew something someone else didn’t. “Like, I know it’s rigged, so-”

“Then why did you come here?”

It seemed like an honest question, one Naruto didn’t have an answer to. He just kicked the ground, shrugged. “Don’t know.” Look up. Hear. Care. Sasuke didn’t. “I just… I was going to play, but I can tell no one can win it, just by, you know, just by looking.”

Now Sasuke looked up, and he was interested. Naruto huffed out a breath as Sasuke jumped down, off the counter and put his phone in his pocket. Silently, he took his place in front of the rings, picking one up. Blue. He tossed one, then another, and seven more, and Naruto heard them clatter, but he was watching Sasuke’s face.

It wasn’t like Sakura’s when she concentrated, how she stuck her tongue out, or like Shikamaru, where his brow furrowed. Sasuke’s concentration, was kept to fixing his eyes on his target and never wavering until he’d hit it. After every throw, there was this little look of triumph, not a smile, but this sly look, like he knew he could do it. Naruto couldn’t look away, until-

“Are you even watching,” Sasuke said, and Naruto had been caught. He whipped his head to the bottles just as a Sasuke threw the last hoop, orange, and it landed. Sasuke had managed to land all ten hoops on the middle bottle, like a stack of rings on a finger, pointing up to the sky. See up there, it seemed to say. That’s him. Above you. Naruto clenched his fists.

Even after he got back to his aunt’s house, he was thinking about how good Sasuke was at that game. It wasn’t impossible, then, and if it wasn’t impossible than with some work, Naruto could do it, too. He tiptoed down the creaking stairs to the basement, careful not to wake his aunt.

After rooting around for a while, all he found was a bowling set and some horseshoes. That would have to do. He carried everything back upstairs, trying not to drop anything or sneeze from the dust that had accompanied every old yearbook and game and sports equipment; the ashes of abandoned lives.

He finally made it to the back yard and switched the porch light on with his chin. Yes, this would have to do. The bowling pins would be his bottles, and the horseshoes, his rings.

The first couple tries were unsuccessful. Beyond unsuccessful even, they were borderline atrocious. A few of the horseshoes didn’t even land remotely close to the pins, veering off on their own journey across the lawn, unauthorized.

Naruto tried again and again, to no avail. He sunk to the ground, and then rolled over to look at the sky. It was cloudless that night, and the stars were cheering him on, he thought. Come join us, they said. And so he tried again.

Sasuke had made it look so easy. A flick of his wrist sent the ring spinning to its rightful place, and it was as if he was born with this ability. Not to win ring toss specifically, but the ability, in general, to win. That wasn’t something Naruto was known for being much good at, but he was determined.

He put on the face, the one Sasuke had. Sasuke’s confidence was a glacier: cold, tall and intimidating, with only more to spare under the surface. Yes, Naruto was going to be like that, even though his own confidence felt more like a popsicle in comparison.

Air rushed in, air rushed out. He closed his eyes, lifted the horseshoe up to throw it. It touched his lips, and then, it flew.

Naruto didn’t open his eyes until he heard a thunk and then they were thrown open like the curtains on a snow day. There it was, a red horseshoe, curled around a pin. Naruto couldn’t help it; he jumped in excitement, a tiny squeak escaping him.

From then on, it was only easier. He threw them until his fingers were aching, but he was getting every single one around a pin. They were stacking up like those rings, twelve pale fingers pointing to the Heavens. See up there, they said again. That’s him, and that’s you, too.

Naruto went to sleep smiling.

The next day was, to everyone else, another day of doing “whatever” until the carnival opened, but to Naruto, it was the day he was going to show Sasuke that they weren’t so different. They could both win a rigged game.

He didn’t want to admit to his friends that he was going back to the ring toss stand. He’d met up with them after Sasuke had won, and he must have looked mad because Ino teased him all the way home. No, he’d rather not say. Then, he reminded himself absently, if you lose, it will just be between you and Sasuke. Not that Naruto was going to lose.

At the first opportunity, he was sneaking away. Sasuke was still sitting, like always, one leg tucked up. He almost looked like a gargoyle, hunched over his phone like that, but then he’d look up, and Naruto knew his description was wrong. His features were so undeniably human, they could never be replicated in something as static as stone.

“You. From yesterday,” was all Sasuke said, but Naruto felt like he was being poked fun at anyway.

“Yeah. I’m here to play the game.” He puffed up his chest, squared his shoulders, looked Sasuke right in those eyes. “I can win this time.”

Sasuke appraised him, tiredly. It wasn’t like his stand got a lot of business, anyway, thought Naruto. Probably because he’s so crabby. He has no right to look so utterly exhausted.

Then, he moved. He held out his hand. Naruto blinked; he hadn’t been expecting this. To gain Sasuke’s respect so early? He must look different today, older, stronger. The playing field was level now. Naruto reached out his hand, too.

“No. The ticket, dumbass,” and the stars fell right before his eyes.

“Oh, um, yeah,” he got out, looking down to get the tickets, but his fingers were suddenly five times their size, impossible to use. They tingled, too, on his right hand where he thought it would touch Sasuke’s, and he really was a dumbass. He just wasn’t cool, couldn’t pretend.

Finally, he got the ticket out, pink as his face, and lifted it. An offering, to whatever gods gave Sasuke the ability to be one step ahead. He took it, and motioned to the game.

And this was it. All his hard work, the ache in his shoulders from standing up so straight, it was all for this. He picked up the first ring, blue, just like Sasuke had the night before. He stared hard at the yellow and red lights, and then closed his eyes; in the dark, there were stars, slowly fading, but cheering him on still. He lifted the horseshoe up to throw it. It touched his lips. It flew.

His eyes went wide when he heard the clunk he wanted; the ring had found a bottle, spun around it six times, and then settled. Naruto wanted to jump, to squeak, like before, but he knew that’s not what Sasuke would do. Instead, he yawned, and picked up another ring.

Naruto didn’t get all of them, which was alright. He was new to this. Only last night had he decided he need to master this game, so considering that, he was doing well. All he wanted was to win the game. If only 8 rings found their mark, he would win, he wanted to win, let me win.

It was a cruel but not unexpected twist of fate that led him to having victory ride on his very last ring. His breathy was steady, his mind was made up, right until Sasuke put down his phone and looked over. Even tilted his body, put his hands on the counter, watching Naruto. Watching Naruto.

He swallowed. He hadn’t been expecting this. Naruto was doing this to prove to himself he could do it, a personal triumph, but partially because he wanted Sasuke to acknowledge him. This would catch his eye, he had thought. Now he was realizing he had no idea what to do with it.

The pressure was mounting and his face was getting hot. Sasuke didn’t even look really interested in the outcome, but just the looking was enough. The attention, however little, was an electric shock. It was stunning. To him. Sasuke was probably bored.

Naruto shook his head, ground his teeth and prayed. He didn’t pray a lot, but he did now, and threw the ring.

It hit the ground with a thump, and that was stunning, too. Not in the good way.

Tears clawed at his eyes. Naruto let them well but not fall. He’d tried so hard, put all his energy into it, all his potential, and still failed. With an audience. Naruto stared at the ground, at his orange feet, and he hated them. The last ring he’d thrown, orange as well. A stupid, bad color.

He turned quietly, embarrassed. Naruto had made a big show for nothing.

“Hey.” Sasuke’s voice harpooned him, reeled him back in. Naruto watched as Sasuke jumped into the booth, black sweatshirt flapping like a bat. He picked up the last hoop, the orange one, and dropped it over a bottle.

Naruto stared. “Um, that’s cheating?”

“So what?” asked Sasuke, and that’s what being a high schooler is like, Naruto thought. “You get a prize now, because you won.”

“Oh,” Naruto said, trying not the smile, but he was doing so badly. His feet tapped a little, and Sasuke didn’t look at him weird. “I don’t know what I want, I didn’t think I’d… I don’t even have stuffed animals anymore,” he finished with. That seemed like an older kid thing to say.

“I’m just going to pick one for you,” Sasuke said, and lifted his arms. Naruto couldn’t see his face anymore, as he sorted through the animals hanging in the stand above, but he knew Sasuke was trying to figure out which one Naruto wanted. And Naruto was thinking about Sasuke and his all-black outfit. There’s a feeling of connection, he thought, when two people are thinking about each other at the exact same time.

And then the connection was gone. Sasuke brought his arms back down, a stuffed snake in one hand and a frog in the other. He considered them for one second and then put the snake under his arm, handing Naruto the frog. He took it, and his hands did not touch Sasuke’s.

“How did you know I love frogs?” Naruto asked. “They’re my favorite animal.”

“I didn’t know,” Sasuke said. “It looks like you.”

Naruto looked down at the frog’s face, at the big pink circles on his cheeks, and it was a mirror. Sasuke was making fun of him.

“Thanks,” he said shortly, turning to hide how hot his face felt.

“Sure, kid.”

Naruto found his friends again, and they complimented him on his frog. Ino tried to take it from him, to throw it around, but he now felt a kinship with the blushing amphibian. Ino could rip it out of his cold dead hands.

It wasn’t until Naruto had to untie his shoes that he let it go, but still it sat next to him, his trophy. He’d won something, even if it was just ring toss. Him and Sasuke won it together.

Iruka would come to pick him up in less than 24 hours, so Naruto was tempted to stay up, extend his time in Oceanview. It’d been a long day, however, and Naruto could feel his eyes fluttering shut.

He hugged the frog to his chest, smushed his face against the top of it’s head, pressed into it. It smelled like the carnival he loved so much. It smelled like a summer of victories. There was almost a twinge of envy, a tiny prick that only touched before he descended into subconscious. This frog didn’t have a care in the world, while Naruto had many. It lived at the carnival, and Naruto only got to visit. It had touched Sasuke’s hands.

When Naruto woke up with the sun, he knew he had dreamt something good. He desperately tried to go back to sleep, to capture it again, but it was gone.

Chapter Text

The Monopoly board nearly went flying as Ino’s knees bumped the coffee table violently. She stood up with a screech, and everybody jumped.

“You cheated!”

Shikamaru sighed, thumbing through his money, multicolored paper wings flapping away. “I didn’t cheat, woman, I’m just good at this game,” he told her, in a way that let Naruto know she’d been told it many times before. Ino just stomped her foot. She had been mad earlier, too, because the extreme heat of that summer was making her hair frizz up.

“A summer like no other,” is what the weather man had said, and it was shaping up to be just so. Oceanview was experiencing higher temperatures than it’d felt in the last ten years, and it’s citizens were baking. There was at least one fan in every room, and all of Naruto’s friends had yelled at him when he unplugged one to charge his phone.

It died that day, which it rarely did. When it powered back on, Iruka was there, in several texts that increased in anxiety. The first was general worry. By the last, it seemed that Iruka was under the impression Naruto had been kidnapped, or murdered, or kidnapped then murdered. Naruto had only been phone-less for a few hours.

“It’s the heat,” he said, to his dad over the phone. He smiled, because he sounded like a citizen of Oceanview. That’s what everyone said around there: it’s the heat. Running late, or being mean, or slamming your fingers in the car door; it was all because of this damn heat.

“I swear you cheated. Stand up! Are you hiding money under your legs?” Shikamaru fixed her with a lazy glare. He couldn’t be bothered to. Sakura stood up instead and patted Ino’s shoulders, coaxing her back to her spot on the couch It was one that dipped right in the middle deeply. Like a shallow grave, Shikamaru told him the first time he sat there. Naruto just didn’t like it because it smelled like mothballs.

Everything in Sakura’s house was either brand new or very old. He leaned back in the armchair he was curled up on; the ceiling fan was free of dust and whirred quietly. The ceiling above it had a long crack that Sakura said her dad was going to fix, but it’d been two years since then.

Naruto lifted the collar of his shirt up, hoping to get some cool air on his chest. This paper money could probably stick right onto his skin. He didn’t mind the weather nearly as much as the rest of his friends, but it was getting beyond hot. The feeling of sweat trickling down his back, or sunburns, were the worst part. There wasn’t a single living thing on Earth that would enjoy time spent in a furnace.

He groaned, pushing his blonde hair off his face. “It doesn’t maaattteeerrrr. Can we just go outside? I’m dying.” To his right, Choji nodded, face blotchy. He didn’t complain about the heat, or about anything usually, but Naruto knew he’d rather be wading in cool water.

“Yeah, we should probably stop playing this game anyway. Shikamaru always wins.” Shikamaru could only shrug; it was true. Ino stomped out the door, but she wasn’t really mad. It was that way, with friends. You could tease and be teased and not be mad.

Naruto hadn’t experienced that with people his age before Sakura and her bunch, but after his first year of high school, life had gotten easier. Nobody cared as much, what Naruto looked like or the scores he got. Nobody cared that he tapped his feet.

(He wasn’t sure at first if he liked that part of high school. Before, his classmates looked at him and didn’t like what they saw. In high school, nobody looked at him at all.)

Just because his quirks were ignored by his peers didn’t mean he was a teacher’s pet by any means. When Naruto looked at one page for too long, the words started to crawl, heave themselves across the page, until it was one big writhing mess. Then, he’d start moving. Chewing pencils to the bone or shaking his legs. His teacher would look up from their desk at him, body working, and glare. He couldn’t help it.

One of these teachers suggested he should channel his energy into something. Anything. Like sports, he offered. So Naruto joined the cross country team, since everything else seemed expensive. He thought running was okay, but the wind picking up always reminded him of the ocean. The fact that he wasn’t there.

He was wearing his shorts now. Black and blue, his school’s colors, and they were slightly too small for him. The sweat was making his thighs stick where they were pressed together; separating them was like velcro.

Everyone followed Ino out, who already had her bike. She looked like an ad at the mall, poised with her sticker-covered bike. Her shirt was just a purple swimsuit, and her denim shorts were probably a smaller fit than Naruto’s. Her sneakers were pure white, like her teeth, and her ponytail had only gotten longer and more blonde as he’d known her.

Sakura ran her bike up next, ramming it into Ino’s with abandoned, and the magazine scene was gone. Ino went from the picture of lower-middle-class luxury to a grizzly bear, growling fiercely at Sakura and kicking her tire away with one flip-flopped foot.

The carnival was still an hour or so from opening, so they raced to Cobalt Beach; the last one there had to shove seaweed into their swimsuit. Naruto had done it before, and he had to admit, he wasn’t looking for a repeat performance. He led the way, laughing as Ino was right on his tail. He knew the way by heart.

Shikamaru came in last. He didn’t think anyone was going to hold him to it, but once they sunk their feet into sand, four pairs of eyes stared him down.

“I thought you guys were fucking kidding,” he insisted, putting up a hand to shield his eyes from the sun.

“You weren’t kidding when I had to do it,” said Naruto innocently.

They followed Shikamaru in line, a march to the gallows. The ocean waves crashed in before them, a pure blue, like the sky arching it’s back above it. The tide was far out, leaving plenty of piles. Jellyfish and sand dollars sometimes, but mostly seaweed.

Ino pointed, at what looked like a huge lump of soggy spinach. Shikamaru poked at it with his foot, and it let out a wet squelch. His nose scrunched up.

“Do I really have to?” he asked. One last plea, but it was drowned out by the waves and their communal 15-year-old thirst to see their friends do foolish things. Even Choji was biting his lip, trying not to laugh. Shikamaru could fall to his knees, begging, promising, forcing tears. There was no mercy here.

He seemed to sense that. Shikamaru sighed, muttering something, and then leaned down. His swim trunks were light green, like gummy apple rings, while the seaweed was much darker, a murky hue from the depths of the sea. They were the same color and yet they clashed. Shikamaru grabbed a handful, tugged on his waistband and shoved it down his shorts.

The crowd went wild. Sakura started laughing first, looking at Shikamaru’s uncharacteristically contorted face, and then started snorting when he didn’t a strange tap dance in the hot sand, seaweed dropping from the legs. Ino was laughing too, so hard she wasn’t making any noise, just wheezing. She sagged into Choji’s arms, who’s face was turning beet red from his efforts to stay silent.

Naruto, himself, was crying. Shikamaru was usually so composed, never moved or spoke without calculation, but there was nothing funnier than seeing him be so undone by a handful of sea leaves. He jumped up and down, laughing at Shikamaru, who was rooting around in his trunks, trying to get it all out.

“How does it feel?” he asked, and Shikamaru gave him a look. Naruto knew full well what it felt like to have kelp down his pants. Cold, and slimy, and wrong . It reminded him of the only Halloween party he’d ever been to. Somebody blindfolded him and put his hand in a bowl of peeled grapes, and Naruto had known they weren’t actually eyeballs, obviously. The sensation made him shiver anyway, however. It was just something he shouldn’t be feeling.

Shikamaru flicked one of the pieces at Naruto, who pretended to gag. “That was in your pants, don’t throw it at me!”

Once that was out of the way, and the tears of laughter had dried, they were free to tumble around the beach. Ino and Shikamaru laid out in the sand, and Naruto wished he could take a picture. They were laying, side by side, in the exact same position. Their chins were on their folded arms, with ponytails pointing at the sky. Like twins.

Sakura wanted to run around in the surf. She liked making big stomping footprints, and then watch the beach fill them back in. “Like I was never here,” she told him brightly, and then sped away, looping in figure-8’s, chasing the waves, letting them chase her back.

Naruto stayed close to the water, too. It was still sweltering after all, and the occasional spray was helping him stay cool. He and Choji had pulled big smooth sticks from the piles of driftwood that seperated the sands of the beach from the town beyond it.

The game was tic-tac-toe, but with a twist. They run around in the wet sand, trading turns, recording points. Whenever a particularly big wave came, rolling in like a storm with seafoam clouds, they stepped back, letting the hurricane wipe their games away. Whoever had the most points then was allowed to splash water at the other.

It was a dumb game, kind of, but it kept them cool. Soon Sakura ran over, tackling Choji into the waves, and then it was over. Everyone was splashing each other, throwing seaweed. Naruto caught a mouthful of salt, but even that was good. He just spit it back, and ocean took it, and the water flowing over his body was simply a second skin.

It was then that Sakura got the idea to dump water on Ino as she slept. They asked a kid building a sandcastle if they could borrow his bucket for a minute. He had one front tooth missing and said yes, but they had to bring it back. Sakura promised him.

They filled it up to the brim with water, and then tugged it up the sand to where the pair were laying. Choji poked Shikamaru with his foot, and then put a finger to his lips. Shikamaru caught on quickly, like he always did, and silently rolled away. Once he was out the splash zone, he gave them a thumbs up.

Ino was not happy with them.

By then, the carnival was open. Ino insisted on them waiting while she air-dried. Anyone who tried to talk to her she gave looks dirtier than the inside of Iruka’s microwave the day Naruto decided to see what would happen if he heated up his corn flakes. Unfortunately his spoon was still in the bowl… Sometimes Naruto knew why his dad sent him 5 messages a day to check in on him.

Naruto was tapping his feet, willing Ino’s long hair to have mercy on him and dry. He was ready to go to the carnival again.

He was excited, like always, a good sick feeling. Naruto could never be tired of it, because it was endless. There was no way he could try everything in one visit, or two, or three. On top of that, it was always changing. The carnival would twist his memories in a kaleidoscope, showing him something new every time. He liked that; he was changing, too.

There was one thing he hoped hadn’t changed, however. The ring toss stand, in the dark part of the boardwalk, and the dark boy who lived there.

Naruto felt stupid about it, because he was 15 now, but shoved in the bottom of his suitcase was the frog Sasuke had given him. Bug-eyed and smiling. Naruto had kept it with his other frog things on his dresser. It wasn’t green, like all the others, but orange instead. His favorite color.

Because it stood out, Naruto would catch himself staring at it. It reminded him of his potential, of hard work, of what he could do if he put his mind to it. Then he’d notice the blushing, the two big circles on the cheeks, and his thoughts would freeze. A deer in pink headlights. “It looks like you,” Sasuke had said.

After that, when he looked at the frog, he didn’t think about winning. He thought about Sasuke, and him reaching up his arms to find the stuffed animal, black hair falling away from his face.

Naruto tried not to dwell on the frog too much.

Finally Ino was ready to go, though she was still acting like they dumped chemical waste on her face instead of water. She glared at their accomplice, the kid with the bucket, even after Sakura reminded her that he was like 5. Naruto and his friends stood up, shaking the sand off their bodies even though they’d still be dusted with it for the rest of the day.

From Cobalt Beach, it was just a short path to the boardwalk. There was a bigger stretch of sand, laying right in front of the boardwalk, but Cobalt Beach was quieter and all around better. It had driftwood, and caves, and a path leading up to a big cliff where you could see the ocean all the way until in drops off the edge of the horizon.

They walked through the gate to Cobalt Beach, open now but closed at dusk. They walked past their bikes, and were somehow always relieved to see them still there, even though they locked them up right. Sakura did a cartwheel on their way, which Naruto didn’t know how to do but tried anyway. Everybody laughed, him included.

And then they were back. Oceanview Carnival. Lovely. Beloved.

There were some things they had to do first. Get tickets, buy trashy food, ride all the new rides and then sit in silence, trying not to cough up that trashy food. And then repeat it all over again.

The only thing Naruto didn’t like about the carnival was that time seemed to fly by. He’d see it in the distance, the fun he’d have there, and then it was zooming by, leaving him in the dust. He only wanted the taste to linger in his mouth, for his body to sink into the carnival, but that wasn’t how it worked. Naruto would take what he could get.

The sky changed from blue to orange to purple to black, the street lamps flicked on, and Naruto was finally able to escape Sakura tugging on his arm.

He didn’t want to tell anybody where he was going. Sakura didn’t like Sasuke much anymore, and Naruto didn’t want to be teased. Not about this. He didn’t know why, but he wasn’t sure he could handle the things Ino would say. At the very least, he had no desire to test himself.

It had never occurred to him that someone else might be running the stand, as he peered down the boardwalk, expecting to see a familiar figure glued to his phone, but instead saw… no one. Naruto blinked. He walked closer, worn sneakers making barely any noise on the wood. Sakura had said the year before she was surprised they still had the ring toss. It didn’t seem very popular, he agreed, but there were still lights and prizes. So it must be someone else, and Naruto was close, before coming to an abrupt halt.

Sasuke was there. He hadn’t noticed before, because Sasuke was wearing all black again, his uniform. He was just one shadow among many. The dark creeped Naruto out, but Sasuke was bathing in it, engulfed in gloom, teasing the fingertips of the brilliant flare of light, the grasp of the carnival that held Naruto so tightly.

He had been hard to spot because he wasn’t moving. His head was looking upward, at the moon that was going to be full soon. Still, it was bright in the sky, a precious jewel.

It looked precious to Sasuke, anyway. His gaze was intense, and there was an affection in it that made Naruto’s eyes go wide. Sasuke opened his mouth, slightly. What was he saying to him, the man on the moon? Naruto wanted to know.

But he was intruding, he knew he was. It felt something like an inside joke, something he wasn’t a part of, and so he backed away, first slowly, and then turned. He ran to find his friends.

That night, he opened the window and crawled out onto the roof. He stared at the moon. The moon stared back.

“What were you guys talking about?” Naruto asked. The moon said nothing in return. He sighed; he hadn’t expected it to. Still, he wanted to see Sasuke again. Maybe he would remember him this time. He should go in the light of day this time, when... Naruto glared at the moon. When he wouldn’t have to compete for attention.

It was this that drove him to head to the carnival alone, earlier than when it opened. Naruto wasn’t supposed to go inside, but when there was nothing but yellow tape with Do Not Enter stopping him? How could he not slip underneath it.

He went mostly unnoticed. People were getting ready for the day, putting together piece by piece the wonderland. That was interesting, but not what he was here for. He sped past it all.

It was strange to think he’d never seen Sasuke in the light of day before, but he was there, sitting with his back to one of the wooden pillars holding up the rood and legs stretched out on the counter. There was nothing set up, no rings, no bottles, no prizes. It looked like Sasuke was taking his sweet time. Good.

Naruto walked up, casually, as if he just happened to stroll his way. He came to a stop, hands in his pockets, one foot forward and the other slightly to the side. Nonchalant.

It took Sasuke a few seconds to notice him, as he was distracted by his phone, as usual. He looked up, then, at Naruto. There was a few beats of silence, and while Sasuke’s onyx stare was familiar, there was no recognition in his eyes. It stung all over again. Naruto cursed himself for having expectations. He was only in Sasuke’s world one day out of 365.

Today, however, he wasn’t going to let Sasuke talk first. He didn’t want to hear the “ yes? ” that he was sure was coming.

“Let me help you set up.” Naruto didn’t let his face show it, but his stomach clenched. Sometimes Naruto would blurt things out, and Iruka was tell him “ well that was forward ,” in the same tone. This was Naruto being forward. Taking off on the race track instead of hesitating at the starting line.

“...I don’t think you’re supposed to be in here.”

“So what?” Just like Sasuke had said to him the summer before, and god, Naruto was on a roll.

Sasuke considered this, and then swung his legs down. “You’re right. If some kid wants to do my job for me, I should let him, right?”

“I’m not some kid,” Naruto growled, which Sasuke ignored. “I'm really not! I’m a high schooler. I’m probably not even that much younger than you, you know.” Sasuke shrugged, swinging his legs again, this time twisting and jumping down on the other side of the counter. “How… So how old are you, then?”

“I’m 17,” Sasuke told him.

“That’s not even that much older than me,” Naruto said, partially to Sasuke but mostly to himself. His chest felt full, for some reason. There was only 2 years between them; Naruto could totally catch up to Sasuke in the span of 2 years. “I’m 15, so. I’m going to be a Sophomore.” Sasuke didn’t respond, keys jingling as he unlocked something under the counter. “Let me help you.”

“I’m getting the prizes and stuff. If you stand on the counter, you can hang them up, like-” Sasuke picked up a bear, and he reached up, and Naruto looked at his body, Sasuke's chest and his hips. Naruto wondered if he’d look like that when he was 17. “Like that.”

“Naruto,” he suddenly said. “My name is that. Is Naruto.” Fuck. Any cool he’d been so desperately clinging to had slithered from his hands and right into a garbage disposal.

“I’m Sasuke,” said Sasuke, and Naruto bit his lip. I know, he thought. I know that.

Naruto got to work, climbing up on the counter and hanging up anything Sasuke handed him from the little cabinets he’d opened with the key. There were a lot of stuffed animals, much more than Naruto figured could ever be won here, considering how few customers there were.

Bears and tigers and snakes and monkeys and foxes, Naruto’s second favorite animal; he hung them all. The tilted back and forth gently whenever the wind blew, which was both cute and a little weird. This little army of stuffed creatures, dancing quietly in the light of day.

Finally, Sasuke started handing up the ones Naruto was waiting for: the snails and the frogs. The two that had brought him to the stand in the first place. He held the frog up to his face, and it was just like the one he had at home. Naruto returned its smile.

“Hey.” Naruto jumped, and quickly added the frog to the rest.

“Yeah?”

“Come here. I’ll show you how they fuck people over with this game.” Naruto nearly fell off the counter, he was so quick. In an instant he was by Sasuke’s side. He didn’t touch him, but he looked at their arms, inches from each other.

“They make you put the bottles really close together.” Sasuke had pulled out the cardboard box that held the bottles and the rings both. “So to win, you’d have to do it perfectly.” He picked up a ring to show him. Naruto watched him carefully lower it around a bottle just so. He held it there a moment, and Naruto thought about how Sasuke’s fingernails were longer than his own, which were all but stubs.

“The rings are different weights. You can’t get used to them.” Naruto picked up the rings, and Sasuke was right, they were different weights. He picked up every single one, and stacked them on top of the middle bottle.

“I can do that,” Sasuke said. “Throwing them.”

I know , Naruto thought. I know you can.

That was pretty much all that Sasuke needed help with. He put up his hood as the sun got higher in the sky, beating down. Naruto wondered if he wasn’t hot, but maybe wearing a hoodie in the summer was part of being cool.

The only other cool person Naruto knew was Kiba. They were kind of friends; Kiba was on his cross country team and they both were shit at school. If Naruto was the tapping of a foot, Kiba was slamming your fist down on a table with such force it cracked in half. He was wild, wilder than Naruto, and funny. Girls liked him. He was the class clown.

“People call me the class clown,” Kiba told him one day after a run, when they were both out of breath. “That isn’t what I thought I’d be in high school. It’s not bad, but it’s not what I thought.”

Sasuke was cool in a completely different way. Where Kiba wanted to please people, Sasuke didn’t seem to give a damn if he pleased you or not. He never yelled, barely spoke, and when he did, it felt like being blessed with some great wisdom.

Sakura had said Sasuke got weird and quiet, but Naruto wanted that for himself. He was weird and loud. He didn’t want to be anymore, now that he was getting older, but his weirdness would push and push until he burst at the seams.

Naruto watched Sasuke as he settled back into his perch at the counter. He was staring at a screen again, but he bit his lip absentmindedly, sucking it into his mouth and then letting it go. His bottom lip was bitten pink and glossy and Naruto watched him very closely. He’d give anything to be like Sasuke some day.

“You can come back tonight,” he told Naruto flatly when he’d asked what else he could do. “I have to clean everything up. You can help if you want to.” Naruto did want to.

When his friends showed up, he told them the daring tale of sneaking in early and scooting around the carnival without anyone noticing. Sakura whacked him with a stack of tickets. “You could have gotten banned for life! What would you have done then?” Naruto grinned sheepishly. The carnival was in it’s usual working order again, ready for the rest of the world to come inside.

Admittedly, Naruto lost track of time. He was really starting to feel permanent in the lives of his friends, even if he came and went to Oceanview so briefly. They treated him like one of their own, adopted him into the family. Ino took a picture with him on the carousel. “The blondes,” she said with a smile. They put their heads together, Naruto’s sunshine yellow to Ino’s icy pale one. They squished into the frame and stuck their tongues out. Ino said she’d text the picture to him.

It was late, late-late, when Naruto finally remembered his promise to Sasuke. His friends were heading home, but he said he forgot something, and then raced down the boardwalk.

When he showed up, Sasuke was already done, and it felt empty in his chest. “Sorry,” was all Sasuke said.

“You’re all done?”

“Yeah. Heading home.” Naruto nodded, turned, walked away. He wasn’t too distraught, there was one day of the carnival left. The morning still waited, another chance to help. He turned back, for one last glance at Sasuke, and stopped.

Sasuke had said he was going home. Right to Naruto’s face, he had. So why was he slinking away into the darkness, towards Cobalt Beach? There were several entrances, but by this time the gates were locked and the sands were empty. So what was he doing?

That question haunted Naruto’s mind when he was laying in bed that night. What was he doing? Nobody went to the beach at night. It was locked up, and it would be boring there, but that’s where Sasuke had been going.

Naruto stared at the ceiling in the darkness. Iruka had told him the definitions of words all throughout the year. Naruto would be reading a book, or trying to, and he’d yell out a word. Iruka, from the kitchen or the couch or his room would yell the definition. One of Naruto’s favorites had been elusive; it sounded like a snake slithering through sand.

And that’s what Sasuke was, elusive. No point losing sleep over it. Naruto shut his eyes. Maybe some mysteries should be left unsolved.

That’s something Iruka would say, he thought the next morning, as he pedaled his way to see Sasuke again. Mysteries were made to be solved. That was Naruto’s opinion.

“Sasuke!” he yelled out, startling the person running the booth next door. Sasuke looked up, same hoodie, same messy hair. “I’m here to help.”

“How did you get in here?”

“I climbed through the tape.”

Sasuke raised an eyebrow. “The ones that say ‘do not enter’ in all caps?”

“Well,” said Naruto with a shrug, “to be honest I felt like that was more of a suggestion than a solid rule.” And then, it happened.

Sasuke smiled. It was small, but it was genuine, the curl of his lips. He was looking right at Naruto, too, eyes looking less like inky depths and more like the blacken remnants of a campfire, still slightly warm. Naruto had said something, and Sasuke had smiled. He made Sasuke do that.

“You can do the same things as before.” Sasuke got up, and while the connection was broken, the moment wasn’t gone. Naruto clung to it, holding himself in it, committing it to memory. It felt important.

He did everything the same, putting up prizes and watching Sasuke set up the game. They never touched, again, but Naruto wanted to. He wanted some of Sasuke’s cool to rub off on him.

This time, he was determined not to show up late, but he also didn’t want to seem desperate. Naruto spent the rest of that day with his friends, but also watching the sun lower in the sky and eyes flicking to a clock every few minutes.

All the same, ditching his friends was no simple task, and by the time he could slip away, the sky was pitch. It didn’t seem that way, with a huge full moon looking like a new sun in the sky, but it was late.

It was too late, again, and Naruto wanted to kick himself. Sasuke was all done. Shrugged at him, didn’t have any work to give him. And then: “Heading home.” Those two words made Naruto falter. Maybe the night wasn’t done with after all.

Naruto walked away, but didn’t leave. Instead, he ducked around a corner and watched as Sasuke did it again. Headed for the beach, not home. Naruto bounced on the balls of his feet, once, twice, and then took off. Cross country wasn’t for nothing.

He knew a different, faster way to Cobalt Beach. It meant running through bushes and dodging tree branches, but he’d ran it once or twice with Sakura. Cuts and tiny tears in his clothes, he could feel them all, but he only sped faster. Naruto wanted to get to the beach first.

He did, and sighed a deep breath of relief. And now, to find a hiding place. He was curious. Sasuke had kept himself elusive far too long. In truth, Naruto wanted some proof Sasuke was human. Just a couple of his secrets, that was it. Nothing more.

There was a big pile of driftwood, fairly close to the waves but still in the sand; he waited there.

For a few minutes, Naruto thought he’d misjudged Sasuke, that he wasn’t coming, but then hush fell over him. Somebody was climbing the fence, closed to keep people out, and then dropping onto the sand. Naruto knew he was probably safe in his driftwood fort, but his heart still picked up a little. He could see all of Sasuke pretty clearly. He was just standing, looked around to make sure he was alone, and then up at the moon.

It was the same as before; he just stood and stared. Naruto rolled his eyes. He had gone to the effort to break into the beach to look at the moon?

Sasuke stared, and stared. Then, he took off his shoes and socks. He unzipped his hoodie, letting it fall into the sand. He started to pull his shirt over his head.

Naruto’s eyes went wide and his heart began to pound, so loudly he feared Sasuke might hear it. He didn’t… Sasuke’s skin was pale in the moonlight. He was skinny, but not weak. In fact, he looked the opposite. Naruto saw all of this, took it in.

What he couldn’t take was when Sasuke’s hands went to his pants, undoing the button and Naruto had to turn away. He wasn’t supposed to be here, or be seeing this. Sasuke would be so mad if he knew Naruto was seeing this and Naruto’s face was burning.

His curiosity, however, was burning even more so. When he let himself look back, Sasuke was almost completely naked. It was as if he didn’t care at all. Sasuke stood, facing the moon, like he hadn’t shrugged off almost every layer. He stepped out of his black jeans, and his underwear was the same color. The nakedness didn’t matter to him, and he started walking towards the sea.

It mattered to Naruto, though, as he watched Sasuke go. His stomach was starting to do something funny, tightening with every slight sway of Sasuke’s hips. When he ran his fingers through his black hair, Naruto nearly winced.

Sasuke walked into the waves, not too far, but he seemed to kneel, letting the water reach his neck and below. His own second skin, washing over him. Naruto couldn’t see his expression, but he wanted to. Did the ocean own Sasuke like it owned him?

He was kneeling, and then he wasn’t, and then he was walking back to his clothes. Naruto began to blush again, peeking through his fingers. Sasuke seemed to consider them, tilting his head, and decided against it. He flopped down onto the sand. He moved.

It was this Naruto couldn’t bear. It was this he couldn’t look away from. Sasuke was wet all over, every inch of him kissed by the sea. Sand stuck to his body wherever it rubbed against him, and Sasuke was submitting, letting it wherever it wanted. Nature was having it’s way with him.

He ended up on his stomach for a minute or so, face close to the ground, and Naruto watched, biting his lip until it nearly bled. His stomach was getting on tighter still, and then Sasuke rolled over.

He was looking up at the moon again, clearly, but he did something strange. Sasuke arched his back, feet lift slightly off the ground so only his toes dug into the shore. He tilted his head back, the black curtain of hair falling away. His fingers dug into the sand at his sides.

It looked painful, how stretched he was. Like he was offering himself to the heavens. Sand was all over him, and Naruto’s eyes traced it’s path. Down Sasuke’s neck, over his chest, his stomach, and lower. That arch of his back, around his curves. His hipbones and up. The insides of his thighs.

And then he closed his eyes. And he opened his mouth. And Naruto couldn’t breathe.

Sasuke looked like he was feeling. Naruto had never seen him feel before, not really. It didn't seem like Sasuke let himself do that often, didn't give into sensation or emotion. But the cold of the ocean, the rough texture of the sand; now, Sasuke was feeling it. The salty air had the most of it. Sasuke was laying underneath it, bare. He was letting it touch him everywhere, and Naruto was suddenly so envious he felt sick.

He didn’t know how long it had been, how long he watched Sasuke feeling, but he was jolted out of some kind of trance when he stood up, shook off the sand, and grabbed his clothes. That Sasuke was gone, and the old one was back. He got dressed again, pulling the clothes over sandy skin. Then he turned, heading farther down the beach. Once he was far enough away, Naruto ran.

He ran through the trees, feeling nothing, to his bike, and then he rode that through the darkness as fast as he could. Naruto wasn’t thinking, he wasn’t thinking, he was riding. He was hopping as silently as he could up the steps, sneaking back into his aunt’s house. He was forcing himself into bed, staring at the ceiling, catching his breath.

Naruto hadn’t meant for that to happen. Sasuke hadn’t meant for him to see that. That. What was that? What had happened?

One time, when he had Kiba over to his house, Kiba showed him some videos. Naruto knew what porn was, knew that he wasn’t supposed to watch it or Iruka was to take his phone until he was 30. But Kiba’s phone was fair game. Naruto hadn’t really like the videos that much; they just weren’t for him.

But with Sasuke, it was different. Naruto was aching to know why it was different, why his stomach felt like this. He felt hot, uncomfortable, the way the porn was supposed to make him feel. Why couldn’t he get the image of Sasuke out of his head?

Not only could he not stop thinking about what he’d seen, he couldn’t stop adding to it. What if when Sasuke had opened his mouth, noise had escaped him? What would it sound like? When he slid his hands against himself, how did his skin feel? Slick? Soft? 

Naruto’s mouth felt dry. He twisted in his sheets, trying to ignore the reaction his body was having.

“The moaning, it’s supposed to be hot,” Kiba had told him, when Naruto asked why the girl in the porn was making exaggerated noises. He had shrugged. Just like before, it wasn’t for him. That kind of sex, it wasn’t for him.

Naruto knew hot things, knew hot people, but whatever want that was wrecking his body was a completely different animal.

It’s the heat , he thought absently. Blame it on the heat. But he knew the truth.

Sasuke, on the beach, dripping wet, sand on naked skin. That kind of sex. That’s the kind of sex he wanted.

And once he made the leap from wanting to be like Sasuke to just wanting Sasuke, everything was easier. A floodgate opened.

Naruto wanted to kiss Sasuke, hard, pressing him against a wall, tongue in his mouth, and he wanted Sasuke to kiss him back, too. He wanted Sasuke to kiss his mouth, then his neck, his collarbone, his chest, and down, down. He wanted to touch everywhere the sand touched, and he wanted Sasuke to moan while he did it. Most of all, he wanted Sasuke to say his name.

Naruto was breathing fast, heart rattling his chest and his body ached. It wanted to be pressed against another, but more than that, it craved release. He turned, face pressed into his pillow.

Before it even started, he knew he wasn’t going to last very long. Naruto wasn’t in bed, he was on the beach, and he didn’t care that he wasn’t wearing clothes, just like Sasuke hadn’t. And Sasuke was just like in his memory, back arched, but this time, he wasn’t staring up at the moon. He was looking up at Naruto, blushing. That’s what was making him feel. Naruto was making him feel. Naruto was the kind of sex he wanted, too.

Naruto turned, taking a huge bite of his pillow. Sasuke’s name was completely muffled, but he still felt it in his mouth and it nearly burnt his tongue. His chest heaved as he let himself come down slowly, and his eyes were wide.

Never in his life had he felt this way about someone. There were girls at school he thought were pretty, or guys in movies that were cute, but usually when he thought about sex, there wasn’t someone it was attached to. It wasn’t something he actually wanted.

By tomorrow night, Naruto would be back in the city, at home, but he probably wouldn’t be thinking about anything else soon. It would probably linger around his mind, occasionally screaming out for his attention. He’d probably think about it on purpose, too. At night. His face blazed in the darkness. Memories of his time here would often grow dull through the year, but this night would be vivid for a long while.

Naruto’s breathing had returned to a steady rate. It was only then he noticed. There was an slight emptiness in him. It felt like the town had changed. The carnival, Cobalt Beach, all of it. Oceanview was different. He washed his hands in the bathroom, took a long scalding shower, tried to sleep it away, but the change was irreversible. He knew why, too.

Naruto still loved the beach. He always would. But not with the same childlike wonder as before. See, he just couldn’t forgive it for touching Sasuke that way. He simply couldn’t.

Chapter Text

This time, this summer, standing square on the boardwalk in new orange sneakers that still smelled like the store, Naruto wasn’t going to assume Sasuke remembered him. That was the mistake he’d made before, at age 14 and 15.

When he thought about Sasuke, it was like when he and Iruka dumped out their whole box of photos on the floor to sort them out. Naruto could makes piles of moments with Sasuke in them. Sasuke smiling, Sasuke sighing, Sasuke shining in moonlight like it’s celestial brother. These memories; he could bury himself in their warmth, sleep through the winter. That’s kind of what he’d done anyway.

But it wasn’t fair of him to expect Sasuke had done the same. He had thought about it a few times; Sasuke, laying in his own bed, losing himself to dreams of Naruto… This wasn’t the case, not in reality. Naruto knew well that nobody was bound to his emotions but himself.

All of that said, if Sasuke didn’t remember him, it might be for the better. Thinking about the way he acted even just three years prior made his fingers twitch. It could be anywhere, anytime; remember that joke you told four years ago? And how nobody laughed? And you thought they didn’t hear it, so you told it again, but actually they just didn’t think it was funny?

The pure nausea that came from the experience of middle school was worse than what any carnival ride could give him. That’s not the first impression he’d been hoping to make, especially not on someone like Sasuke.

This time, at 16-years-old. This was his new first impression.

And because he was meeting Sasuke for the first time, he had to be strategic. No fumbled introductions or unruly blushing. Naruto was in control. He was restrained. He was cool.

...He was trying his best to be cool.

Admittedly, approaching someone he liked without making a fool of himself wasn’t his strong suit. It usually looked similar to a girl trying to escape a killer in a horror movie. The girl would scream, running down a hallway and trying every door to find them locked. Behind her, the murderer would slowly gain, machete in hand, inevitable.

Naruto would try so hard, straining to impress. He’d think he got it and then, right before the credits rolled on the conversation, he’d trip on his tongue and gut himself. A fatal wound, bleeding out onto the boardwalk.

He shook his head, ridding his mind of the thoughts. Not this year. It was mid-afternoon, and while it wasn’t nearly as hot as last year, the temperature was nothing to scoff at. The carnival was in full swing around him, but Naruto only had eyes for one attraction. His favorite one. Sasuke.

Naruto had had a growth spurt in the spring. He had a new shirt that Ino told him he looked good in. He’d made a few friends, Kiba and his buddies. He’d kissed someone. He’d won a race.

The distance between him and Sasuke was shrinking. Naruto wasn’t going to act like it was gone, especially because Sasuke was bound to have no idea who he was. Still, Naruto liked who he saw in the mirror sometimes. He’d stare at himself, and his reflection was a little closer to the smart, capable guy that Iruka had been telling him he was for years. Liking himself seemed to make other people like him, too. Hopefully the effect would work on Sasuke.

Alright, enough. He was going to do it. He was going to make Sasuke remember him.

“Hey,” he said, hands in his pockets.

Sasuke looked up, and there were bags under his eyes that Naruto hadn’t noticed before. This didn’t diminish his beauty in anyway. He looked like he was tired because the universe wouldn’t let him sleep; it missed him too much while he was away.

There was no recognition. That was okay.

“Hey,” Sasuke said back, and Naruto let his feet tap just three times. He felt around in his pocket, pulling out a ticket, and held it up. Sasuke took it.

Come here. I’ll show you how they fuck people over. Naruto could hear him saying that so clearly. Every word Sasuke said, he remembered. The stand was set up like it always was. The bottles were too close together, making it difficult to win. The second morning Naruto had gone to help out, Sasuke had shown him the order of colors he should do.

“Start with blue,” he’d said, putting it in front of him. “It’s the heaviest, so feel the weight and then throw it to the bottle closest to you. After that, purple. Then green, red…” Sasuke continued, lining the hoops up across the counter, dull after years of use. “Always do orange last. It’s the lightest.” He stepped back, letting Naruto lean in and look. The ten circles looked like the planets, he thought. Sasuke wielded the power to rearrange them.

It was kind of funny, how clear the memory was. For the boy who had put a tray of pizza rolls in the oven and then instantly forgotten about it, leaving them to sizzle and char for no less than seven hours, he remembered the order of rings very well.

Iruka had wanted to know how he could possibly forget them, for that many hours, wearing oven mitts like boxing gloves. Naruto just guessed his brain had gotten rid of some critical functions to make room for Sasuke.

That aside, even if he’d had to scrape that tray for an hour, at least he could ace this game. He picked up the blue ring, smooth, the same temperature as his skin. The heaviest. When he threw it this time he didn’t close his eyes. There wasn’t a doubt in his mind that hoop would find its mark.

Sasuke was watching him, watching his fingers brush over the rings where they laid before him. Naruto took longer than he needed to. It went purple, green, dark red, black, yellow, pink, white, light red and then dead last: orange. Naruto’s eyes were open for every single one, arm stretching forward and back. Bullseye. Ten bullseyes, to be exact.

And then, his hands went back to his pockets. Cool.

He was sitting up, next to Naruto. He squinted, at the bottles and rings, and then at the boy who’d just gotten ten for ten without blinking an eye.

“How did you know the order?” was all he said, staring at the middle bottle. Blue on the bottom, orange on the top.

“You showed me,” Naruto said honestly. “Last year. I wanted to know your secret and you told me.”

I told you,” Sasuke repeated, still looking, like he wasn’t exactly shocked, but had encountered something surely improbable. and then brushed his bangs out of his face. “I don’t remember that at all. I don’t remember ever telling someone that.”

Naruto’s heart pressed against his chest. Did that mean he was the only one Sasuke had ever told? Sasuke hopped over the counter, collecting the rings, and laid them out again. Blue to orange. A map of a solar system, one only he and Sasuke could read.

He wanted to stay, wanted to see if he could make the impression he left on Sasuke as deep as he could, but down the boardwalk he could hear Sakura calling his name. There had been promises made between her and him and Choji, something about a hotdog eating contest. Naruto sighed.

“I’m Naruto, by the way. And I remember you. Sasuke.” Sasuke looked at him again, eyes blank, but that was okay.

“I have no idea why you remember me,” he said, and that was the only thing that threatened to turn Naruto’s face pink. He had plenty to remember about Sasuke. “You won. You want a prize?”

Naruto examined his options, bobbing in the thick ocean air. He thought about his frog. “Nah.” Sasuke raised his eyebrows, hopping up to sit on the counter again.

“You don’t want anything?”

“No,” Naruto told him, “I just like playing.”

“That’s a first. You’re just really into this game, then?”

It came out of his mouth before he could stop it. “It’s not the game I’m into.”

Sasuke’s eyes widened, a tiny amount; still, it was something. Naruto tilted his head slightly but kept his gaze steady, blue waves crashing against the dark jetty. His eyes flicked to Sasuke’s mouth, his lips parting, about to say something.

“...Oh.”

And it took everything in Naruto’s power to keep his feet still. He took a few steps back and then turned. “Later, Sasuke.” No response, at first, and then-

“Later.”

Naruto waited until he was out of view of Sasuke, and then he let his feet go wild, racing with a thump-thump-thump down the boardwalk. That went so much better than he could have ever expected. His skin burnt; he tried to calm down, but it was hard. Sasuke had looked at him a way he’d never seen before. Surprise, but not distaste.

Oh, Naruto was totally going to see him later, just like they’d agreed, he totally was. He was going to make Sasuke look like that again, as many times as he could. He’d draw him out, as far as Sasuke would let him.

Choji won the eating contest. Of course he did, Naruto wasn’t even sure why the contest had been called in the first place. They sat in Shikamaru’s backyard while his mom stood at the grill, cooking up hotdogs and coughing at the smoke. Ino and Shikamaru sat in the grass, eating one each like normal people. Naruto, Sakura and Choji had set themselves to a much more difficult task.

Naruto tapped out after only five. He could feel them tumbling around inside him, thumping around like the time he’d accidentally put a baseball in the dryer along with his pants. He fell out of his chair like he’d been shot, crumpling on the ground.

Sakura called him a bitch but then was right next to him, groaning. Choji didn’t seem to have any issues with it at all. He sat next to them, barefoot, patting their heads. “It’s okay, guys,” he consoled them. “I knew you couldn’t do it.”

Naruto hadn’t wanted to do anything after that except lay on the couch. He took a phone call from his dad, told him he was doing great, disguising his voice, and threw the phone on the ground once he was done. “This fucking sucks,” he moaned, holding his stomach. Shikamaru rolled his eyes.

Naruto was taking up most of the space on the couch, long and green. Green seemed to be a thing in Shikamaru’s house. Sakura was bent over the armrest. Choji sat on the floor next to Shikamaru, completely unaffected. Ino was rummaging through Shikamaru’s kitchen for food that wasn’t hot dogs.

When she came back in, Naruto was still complaining, so she ran across the living room and cannonballed right onto his stomach.

“Ino!” he yelled, as soon as he caught his breath. The demon girl was still sitting on his stomach, cackling, and he tried to push her off. “I could have thrown up on you! In fact, come here-” Ino shrieked as Sakura pushed her hands behind her back and pressed her forward. Naruto opened his mouth wide and retched.

“Here come the hotdogs,” warned Sakura.

Shikamaru told them if they didn’t shut the fuck up his mom would come in here and shove a swiffer so far up their asses they’d be tasting soap for days. That made them settle down pretty efficiently. They were still tired and bored, though, tangled up in the couch. Sakura threw a pillow at Shikamaru.

“Play some video games, entertain us.”

He did, sitting up and putting a disk into the console. It was a first-person shooter, and Shikamaru was good at it. He could probably rank pretty high, if he wanted to. If he tried. For now, though, the group of friends just watched him lazily, watching blood splatter, listening to the A/C whirr.

It was a nice constant sound, like floating on still water. Or at least, it would be, if Shikamaru would stop pausing the game every time his phone buzzed. The little clink of a bell would sound, and Shikamaru would reach.

They’d seen it before; Ino called it classical conditioning. “The alert rings, he picks up the phone as quick as he can, and he’s rewarded with a text back. It’s science. You think it’s just a snapchat conversation but someone’s training him.”

“Get off your fucking phone,” said Naruto, throwing another pillow, “who are you even talking to?”

“A girl,” said Choji, and if Shikamaru’s eyes could speak they’d be screaming. Which is what everyone else was doing now. Screaming.

“A girl!?” shrieked Ino. “A girl? Who? Does she go to our school? Who is it, oh my god?”

“Shut up, fuck off, you guys don’t know her.”

“So you admit it then? You admit it’s a girl?”

“Fuck off, yeah.”

“I thought you were going to die a virgin,” said Ino and everyone else nodded.

“I’m not even- I don’t want to talk about it.” Shikamaru put his phone face down and sat on top of it. If he thought that was going to stop anyone from trying to grab it, he was wrong.

Naruto watched Ino and Shikamaru scuffle on the carpet, Ino crying that she had to make sure he wasn’t doing dirty things and Shikamaru grappling for the phone with primal desperation. There didn’t seem to be any clear winner currently, so Naruto might tune back in when victory was assured.

If Naruto died right then and there, he thought, he’d die a virgin. If the roof caved in or the couch ate him, or if he was drinking soda and Sakura made him laugh so hard he choked, he’d be laid to rest without ever getting laid.

His year hadn’t been completely devoid of action. Kiba knew everybody and everyone knew him, but there were only a few people he actually called his friends. Naruto was one of them, always beaming, always running. Shino, an intimidating boy wearing dark glasses and a big jacket, who ended up just being a huge nerd about bugs. And Hinata, a quiet, smart girl with big grey eyes.

“She kinda likes you,” Kiba told him one day, nudging him, and Naruto turned. Hinata was sitting a few desks down from his, gently trying to help a classmate with their chemistry homework. If a girl had ever liked him before, Naruto had never known it. Maybe this was the first time.

The night it happened, Naruto had known it was going to happen. He pulled his best sweatshirt on, and the jeans with holes Iruka hated so much. “Hinata is gonna be there,” Kiba said when Naruto met up with him. His expression was saying much more than his mouth did. Grin, sharp-toothed. Naruto looked back, free from double meaning. Smile, uncertain.

Naruto didn’t remember most of the party. It was another memory of his life outside of Oceanview that faded while he was here. Or maybe it’s because he drank something. Not a lot, or Iruka would have actually throttled him, but enough that he felt fuzzy.

Mostly he sat on a couch, watching the other guests, bouncing off each other, occasionally sticking. Kiba had wandered, probably to do something that people would talk about at the school the next Monday. It was loud, a loud that was inside himself. Like putting your head underwater in the bath while the faucet was still running. It thumped and pounded and surrounded him.

The first time Hinata said hi, he didn’t even hear her. She waved a hand hesitantly, to get his attention, and she talked and he talked but it was loud . Naruto’s words only joined that noise; he didn’t know what they were.

The only thing worse than the noise was the heat; it wasn’t anything like summer in Oceanview. It was a flat heat, devoid of variation or breeze. It was an oven. Why were they all just fucking sitting in a oven? He wished he was home, with Iruka, listening to his old person music. Whenever Naruto wanted to say something, Iruka would just turn the music down to give him room.

Hinata turned away for a moment, and Naruto’s breath caught. Hinata’s hair was short and black. Not black like obsidian, more black like the crayon in the box. He’d noticed that, but never that her hair stuck up in the back.

His thoughts drifted. Back in August, he’d never felt about someone the way he felt about Sasuke. Now, half a year later, that was still the same.

Hinata turned around, and they said a few more things, and then they both leaned forward. For one second, he kissed her, and it was… just alright.

After that, he closed his eyes and he was kissing Sasuke. Putting his hands in Sasuke’s hair, smooth under his fingers. He didn’t know what Sasuke tasted like, but he’d had plenty of time to think about it, so he pretended. In elementary school, his teachers said he had an overactive imagination with disdain. In that moment, with his heart pounding hard, Naruto thought it was serving him pretty well.

At home, laying in his bed, however, Naruto felt like absolute shit. Kissing, the act itself, felt good, but opening his eyes to see Hinata’s face, so hopeful? He completely closed up. Doors slammed down around him, blocking out Hinata and Kiba and the party. His tongue felt heavy. He didn’t like alcohol.

Naruto had expected his misery had cooked him to his melting point. Iruka would walk in to find a puddle where his son should be. This wasn’t the case. “Don’t yell at me please,” he said softly, still wearing his jeans. Iruka didn’t. He sat on the floor and leaned against Naruto’s bed.

“I’m stupid,” he had told his dad, his thoughts hammering away. “I ruined something just like I ruin everything. Nobody at school likes me.” Iruka told him he liked Naruto enough for a million schools and there wasn’t anything Naruto couldn’t fix.

He told Ino this story, as she’d been kicked outside for excessively fighting in Shikamaru’s house and almost breaking his phone. “Come on, Naruto,” she said, pulling him outside. “Come gossip with me.” Sasuke’s name was swapped for a different name, but otherwise, he spilled onto the grass the events as they occurred. Ino listened, thinking, knees pulled up to her chest.

“And that was my Sophomore year. Kind of, like, there was other stuff, but… Yeah, it was weird.”

“Did you turn her down?”

“Yeah. I told Kiba to tell her I didn’t like her that way.”

“And she was cool?”

“Yeah! Hinata was a little disappointed, but I think she actually liked Kiba more. We’re friends now.”

“That’s nice.” Ino tilted her head, and then unfolded onto the lawn, long and slender. Naruto laid back, too, though it wasn’t nearly as graceful.

“You probably think it’s dumb,” Naruto said.

“You know,” Ino told him, “I spend all my time at Shikamaru’s and Sakura’s because whenever I go home, I start a fight with my mom. Like, a screaming fight. It’s all we do. I don’t like being there.”

That was all she said, and they both looked up at the sky. Cloudless. Neither of them were perfect when it came to other people. No one was.

Naruto tried to keep this in mind when he went to see Sasuke. Just because he’d didn’t immediately shoot his chances with the one person he was most anxious to please on day one didn’t mean he wouldn’t do something dumb soon. But, he was working on forgiving himself, for the dumb things, and on liking himself even more.

“Sasuke. Can I help you with set up?” Naruto had on the same ripped jeans he’d worn to the party; in the mornings, the heat wasn’t so bad.

Sasuke was still wearing his stormy outfit, black shoes, shirt, pants, hoodie. He was just unlocking the cabinets, so Naruto leaned over the counter to look at him. “I mean, I’m only asking because you let me help last year.”

The hands holding the key to the lock stopped. Sasuke tilted his head upwards, to where Naruto was leaning, and when he stood up, they were standing much closer than they were before.

“You claim to remember a lot of things I don’t,” Sasuke said lowly, keys clinking as he folded his arms. Naruto felt a rope being tied around his middle, his breathing made more difficult. He’d never been almost nose to nose with Sasuke. In terms of height, they were nearly evenly matched.

Naruto didn’t want to back down now. Machinery clunked in the distance as he thought about what he was going to say. “It’s not my fault you don’t remember me.” He swayed a little closer.

Sasuke’s hands clenched around the keys, and bent again. His face was hidden. “I feel like I would have remembered someone like you.”

Naruto jumped up so he was sitting on the counter. It was easier to flirt when he didn’t have to look at Sasuke; that’s usually what caused his tongue to trip. “Someone like me, huh? What does that mean?” he wondered out loud. Yes, it was much more straightforward to direct this to the wind. “Someone charismatic? Someone attractive?”

Sasuke stood, and Naruto could see out of the corner of his eye Sasuke’s hand, placed on the counter. He leaned on it, so he almost touched Naruto’s back but not quite. His voice was quiet; a lower volume for closer proximities. “I was going to say someone annoying.”

Naruto wondered if that was said to deter him or if it was part of the game. “I offered to help and now you’re being mean to me!”

“If you don’t like the working conditions, just quit,” was all he said, heaving the boxes of prizes up one by one. Naruto jumped over the counter, to the compartment with the bottles and rings. When he held out his hand for the key, Sasuke tossed it to him.

“Put the pegs really close together,” he reminded. Naruto could see it, pale fingers picking up the bottles one by one, placing them with such precision, like a game of chess. Or Naruto thought that’s what it looked like; he had never played chess, even though Shikamaru offered to teach him.

“That’s how they fuck you over, right? Make them too close together, so it looks easy, but it’s actually pretty difficult.”

Sasuke paused from his work, arms filled with stuffed foxes. “Yeah. They told me when I got this job, how to do it. But all the games here are rigged anyway.” Somewhere, farther into the carnival, the carousel started running. The music swam with the wind, surrounding them in symphony.

Naruto had come to the correct conclusion; looking at Sasuke was the most difficult part of the whole arrangement. Even if Sasuke was just working silently, unaware of his audience, every time his arms lifted enough to reveal that strip, pale skin and hipbones, Naruto twitched.

He had seen Sasuke almost naked. It had been unintentional, but yeah, he had. Not in an walked in on him in a dressing room way, either. More like walking in on him while he was seducing the cosmos. Call it what you want, but Naruto had seen everything.

This wasn’t something he was going to let Sasuke know. How would he begin to do that? There’s no way to casually tell someone they might have very well been your sexual awakening. No. Letting himself check Sasuke out every once in a while was fine, but anything more than that and he would be tinged red.

It probably felt like longer than it was, but soon, everything was finished. They both stood behind the counter, under stuffed animal shade.

“This stand isn’t very popular,” remarked Naruto.

Sasuke sighed. “I’m tucked at the very end of the boardwalk. I don’t care about looking inviting either, so that doesn’t help.”

In Naruto’s opinion, Sasuke looked very inviting.

“But I showed up. That counts for something.”

“You snuck into the carnival early and forced your assistance on me. I don’t get tickets for that.”

“Maybe you don’t get tickets, but you do get to hang out with me, which is pretty fucking great.”

Sasuke narrowed his eyes. “Pretty fucking great? High praise for some goofy-looking kid wearing jeans in August.” Naruto looked down at himself.

“Shit… I thought I looked cool. This is my one cool outfit,” he admitted. The carnival had opened and people were filtering in down the walk, but he and Sasuke were separated from it all. “I went to one party this year,” Naruto told him, sitting on the counter, facing Sasuke, “and it was horrible! But I wore this, and people liked it.”

Sasuke’s first response was to give him a look. The look teachers give students who over explain missing homework; why do you think I care? But then, he softened slightly. “I’ve been to horrible parties.”

“Yeah?”

“Someone I know got shitfaced and almost drowned in the pool. An ambulance came.

Naruto gawked. “What?! Okay, I take it back, my experience wasn’t that bad.”

“What happened to you?”

He opened his mouth, closed it. I got buzzed , he thought, I kissed a girl and pretended it was you. “I just got buzzed and I didn’t like it very much. I barely knew anyone at the party, and the people I did know… They, just, wanted something from me. It was just like those videos teachers make you watch in middle school,” he joked. “I… what’s the past tense of succumb? Succame?”

“Succumbed.”

“I succumbed to my greatest enemy. Peer pressure; coming to shove your face in a pile of cocaine and get you teenage pregnant.”

Sasuke smiled, the second time Naruto had ever seen it. That gentle curl. “Are you telling me you got teenage pregnant at this party?”

“No!” Naruto said with shock, “but I did do coke.” Sasuke laughed. It was a full smile, now, with a little bit of teeth showing, and that was a first. Naruto never wanted it to leave. “I’m kidding. About the drugs, not the pregnancy.”

“Glad to hear it,” Sasuke said, and the sun was outlining him in gold. “Imagine, handling all these stuffed animals alone. What would I do if my most worthless assistant had to take maternity leave?”

They talked a little longer after that, but Naruto was thinking about Sasuke saying that for the rest of the day. His most worthless assistant wasn’t a term of endearment by any means, but Sasuke had said it with a slight fondness. There was no bite to it.

And it was like that. He played arcade games with Choji and Shikamaru, but he kept messing up because he was distracted. Always in the back of his mind, curled in the pink folds, was Sasuke. Shikamaru told him he must have water in his head from the beach, and Naruto didn’t feel inclined to correct him.

The third day rolled around, and Naruto was back. “Back to torment me,” Sasuke tacked onto the end, rolling his eyes, but Naruto knew by the circles under his eyes he was just tired.

“Why are you so sure I’m here to rain on your parade?” Sasuke held out his hands, gesturing to himself, to black on black on black on black. “...to parade on your rain?”

Sasuke sighed, pulling out his keys, falling into routine until Naruto held out his hand.

“Let me do it all. I bet I can, without your directions.”

“A baby could do this without my directions.”

“Then you have nothing to worry about.” A pause, and then the keys were forked over. Naruto set to work.

The main colors of the stand were red and yellow, with white string lights hanging around the inside and from the roof. It was by no means the flashiest; only a small structure with the counter, the compartments underneath and then a big pedestal to set up the bottles on. That was painted with stripes, green and pink, lengthways. Almost any paint was chipping, showing the wood under it. It looked like a carnival stand who was tired of its job. To be fair, Sasuke was a carnival worker who looked tired of doing his job, too.

The last thing, which were somehow magically intact, were the tall mirrors. One on each side that were normal, and then a third in the middle, the kind that warped your appearance, made it bulge and twist.

Naruto had finally pulled out the cardboard box of bottles, and was arranging them, when he saw something that nearly made him stop. He was standing, his orange self probably clashing horribly with the green-pink pedestal, and Sasuke was behind him, sitting on the counter like always.

What made his heart leap was this: when the mirror fell into his sight, Sasuke was looking at him. Not making eye contact through the reflection; he was watching Naruto work. Sasuke didn’t know he’d been caught.

He was intent, black eyes paying attention. And it was a different kind of attention, too. Nothing like how he’d stared, trying to mess Naruto up during the ring toss years ago. Naruto dropped his jacket off his shoulder and then stripped it off his arms, pretending it was on a whim. Sasuke watched all this, too, with that new attention.

Sasuke didn’t call him kid anymore, either.

Running off to meet his friends was hard to do, but he propelled the energy thrumming through him into the experience. Even if his heart was somewhere else, he couldn’t forget his loyalty to the people who started it all.

When Sakura went on roller coasters, she didn’t scream going over the big hill. She laughed instead. Ino would scream, but the exhilarated kind, hands thrown up in the air, tiny shirt nearly blown off. Choji would grab the bar, knuckles white, teeth clench. Shikamaru would fold his arms, like it was a car ride to the city. Naruto liked all of their reactions. He liked all of them.

Once night time rolled around, he was compelled, though. Back to Sasuke.

“Hey. You should show me how you win this game again.”

Sasuke’s eyelashes cast a shadow on his face. His legs were folded, no phone in sight. The lights were little suns. “Easily.”

“This time, get them onnnn…” Naruto slipped inside the booth, relishing that he could, that only he was the only guest that could. “This one. All of them.”

“Like I said. Easily.”

“Then show me.”

“Got a ticket for my trouble?” Naruto flicked it at him, tongue stuck out. Sasuke squared up, rings spread before him like throwing stars. His aim was always precise, his execution cutthroat.

And it was blue first. Purple, green, dark red, black, yellow, pink, white, light red. Nine perfect shots, about to be ten, and Naruto loved watching him do this.

Then Sasuke’s expression changed. From focus, to… Naruto followed his gaze.

Sasuke, in the mirror. And it was the same way Naruto had caught Sasuke watching him. However Naruto had looked when Sasuke was in his sight, Sasuke had now seen it for himself. Their eyes met. A pale hand wobbled.

An orange ring thumped against the ground.

Naruto’s head swung, to Sasuke in person, and he didn’t understand what was going on. Sasuke losing something was so rare Naruto was beginning to think it was extinct. He was surprised too, obviously. But Sasuke looked lost. He looked… angry.

His face was crumpled, sight never wavering from that orange ring. His hand was still raised and the fingers twitched slightly. Sasuke’s shield, it twitched, too. His control. And Naruto didn’t know what to do.

“Sasuke…” he said finally, and then tsked. “Don’t lose on purpose to make me feel better.” He collected the rings, setting them in a clattering pile. “I mean, I know I’m an idiot, but don’t cater to me.”

“I didn’t lose on purpose,” Sasuke told him, and his voice was hushed but his control was back. His face was put back together.

“Did you forget how to play?” Naruto teased, and he got a glare in return, but it was like the glare Shikamaru gave him when he won at a card game; no harm, no foul, just a reaction. “Can I teach you how?”

“I taught you how first,” Sasuke grumbled, but Naruto was already climbing over the counter to stand next to Sasuke.

“Blue is first,” he said, low, and Sasuke rolled his eyes again. He picked it up, raising his hand. It still shook, barely noticeable. Naruto stepped closer, reached up, so slowly, like they were standing at the bottom of the sea. He slipped his hand over Sasuke’s.

The second ring of the night fell, because Sasuke flinched so violently his whole body shuddered. His limbs had moved like they’d been struck by lightning, free of his control. A gasp escaped him, loud, hoarse, and he trembled.

Naruto’s jaw dropped, letting words fly from his mouth in a stream, a bandage to wrap Sasuke back together. “Holy shit, Sasuke, I’m sorry, fuck, I didn’t even think, shit, are you-”

Sasuke turned around, a blur of midnight in Naruto’s world. Naruto didn’t get a chance to look at his face before it was pressed against his shoulder, and Sasuke’s hands were gripping his hoodie so severely Naruto thought it’d be ripped from his body. And then there was no movement, just breathing, Sasuke’s hot against him through fabric.

Naruto didn’t know what to do about this either, but he had to try. He ignored the fact that his heart was beating at breakneck speed and Sasuke could probably feel it pounding against him. He brought his arms up, around Sasuke. Gently, as he was afraid of electrocuting him again, but it didn’t have the same effect. It was okay.

Naruto didn’t know how long he stood there, holding Sasuke in his arms. It was getting colder, the night deeper, and them deeper into it. There wasn’t a good way to end a moment like this, a good way to look someone in the eye again. Naruto knew he couldn’t ask what any of this had been about; Sasuke would never tell him.

“I want to see you tomorrow.”

That’s what Naruto said, when they had abruptly untangled and the counter was between them again. The blue hoop stayed on the ground; Naruto didn’t think either of them wanted to touch it.

“Outside the carnival, I mean. I leave tomorrow, back to the city, but I have some time before that.”

Sasuke was looking at his hands, folded on the counter. “So, you think something like that happens once and I owe you?” His voice was cold.

“No, I just- That’s not what I meant at all.”

“I’m busy tomorrow,” Sasuke said, and he wouldn’t look up so Naruto knew it was a lie. That stung. It stung so much worse than anything else Sasuke had said, more than all of it combined. And Naruto didn’t even understand why the night had taken this turn.

“I just don’t want you to forget me.” You always forget me.

Sasuke huffed, like a laugh but not the funny kind. “I don’t think I’ll forget someone like you. To be honest, I don’t know why you’re so dead set on me.” Naruto swallowed. Maybe if he was older, he would know what to say.

“I mean, yeah, who knows,” Naruto said, and he laughed in that not funny way, “maybe I’ll forget you.” He didn’t mean it, he didn’t, but Sasuke had lied, and it hurt. It hurt, but Naruto didn’t mean it.

Sasuke nodded, and then was silent, still. He couldn’t fool Naruto with that act anymore; only a minute ago, they’d been pressed together, and Naruto had never felt something more alive.

Then he reached up, a shadow growing taller in afternoon light. In his hands, brought to chest level: a frog.

“As payment. For helping. Don’t want to owe you anything.”

Naruto blinked, and then he laughed, real. “A frog?”

“It looks like you.”

A grin, lighting up the dark, crescent moon. “You’ve used that line on me, asshole.”

Sasuke hummed, returned the frog, and then took down a snake, curled around itself. Some of the scales were glittery, but as Naruto took it from him, it was still soft. The eyes were slits, but glinted gold, friendly.

“And this is my payment?”

Sasuke shrugged, brushed his hair from his face, still couldn’t meet Naruto’s eyes. “It’s something to remember me by until next time.”

For someone so smart, Naruto thought later, laying in bed, that was the stupidest thing he’d ever heard. Like he needed something to remember Sasuke by, like he’d ever forget Sasuke until the day he died. Maybe not even then.

The snake was having the breath squeezed from it, pressed to Naruto’s chest so hard it hurt. Sasuke had touched him, grabbed onto him because it was torture not to. No two people had ever fit together so well before. Like the tide rolling in across the shore; it was in their nature to meet, to feel. I was born to hold him, Naruto thought, eyes fluttering shut.

Sasuke, I was born to hold you.

Chapter Text

“If you don’t think you can fucking handle this, you better get the fuck out. We don’t take kindly to pussies in these parts. This isn’t a game, Naruto. This isn’t- Wait, look at me, don’t laugh, this isn’t a game .”

It was hard not to crack up, when Sakura was a mere three inches from his face, eyes blown, hissing through her teeth. Naruto had fallen down while pretending he was getting choked by his vest to make Choji laugh, and now Team Leader Sakura was leaning over him where he laid, like the grim reaper stealing a soul.

“I get it, I’m just kidding.” She seemed unconvinced. “Stop yelling, Sakura, you spit on my face.”

“Call me Captain Haruno.”

Naruto rolled his eyes. “You spit on my face, Captain Haruno.”

Sakura held out her hand to him and pulled him from the floor. She’d been kidding. Mostly. Laser tag seemed to be a pretty big deal in Oceanview.

Naruto had never been to the Lazer Fun Zone before with all his friends, but he had played it before. They rode their bikes down into town, kicking up dust, and right on the corner of 14th and Palm was a building that Naruto had never noticed before.

It gave him the sense of a building that used to be hard to miss, but the wind was always heavy with salt and sand, and that would dull down even the most obnoxious paint jobs. The bright red exterior was now maroon, and the Z in Lazer was a lightning bolt, that used to be a blinding yellow. Most of that had been chipped away. It reminded Naruto of the ring toss booth.

The inside, though, lived up to the cheesy name. It was, admittedly, a fun zone. The front portion was all arcade games, in long lines of machines each trying to be heard above the other. The windows were covered up with thick fabric, and the orange and green checkered carpet glowed under the blacklight.

It was a mini Oceanview Carnival, a bite-sized one to tide him over while he was waiting hungrily for the real one.

The real reason they were there, though, was to play easily the most high stakes laser tag game of his life.

He pulled the straps on his vest tight, the sensors on his chest blinking. It was a game he enjoyed, because it was like entering a video game. Naruto tended to be wired anyway. He hadn’t grown out of it, even now, at age 17. No actual caffeine was needed for Naruto to act like it had been injected straight into his bloodstream. In fact, he was banned from drinking coffee.

“I’d call him a ping pong ball for how much he bounces off the walls,” said Ino earlier, “but I wouldn’t want to insult the ball’s intelligence.” He’d beaned her in the head with a frisbee later that day, so they were even.

“I’m glad we can finally play,” Sakura said to him, adjusting her own vest, plastic gun hanging from a bungee cord, bumping her leg. “When we had five, no way, but now with six, we can have two teams of three!”

And that brought Naruto to the one thing that wasn’t excited about this evening. Sai.

Naruto depended on Oceanview. He got through some of the most difficult pinches of the year, whether academically or socially, by thinking about the one week when all that shit would magically disappear from his track record. He depended on it because it was predictable. He’d see the same people, do the same things. Only one wild card was allowed, and that spot was reserved for Sasuke.

And the summer had seemed like it was going to be reliable. Iruka dropped him off, worried like always, stalling in the driveway, making sure Naruto had everything he needed. Then, once his dad’s old car had rattled away into the distance, Naruto ignored all his warnings about wearing a helmet and hopped on his bike.

As he’d gotten older, the ride to Sakura seemed shorter, but it never went unappreciated by him. He’d see people step out of their houses to grab the paper on the step, and then retreat back inside, not even taking a moment to turn and face the sun. Naruto couldn’t understand that, but also couldn’t blame them. If they never left Oceanview, they might never know that city air tastes completely different, like exhaust pipes and exhaustion. They might never know that it doesn’t get dark where Naruto is from, and there are no stars in his sky.

It was the same as always; dump his bike, jump up the steps, probably get hit in the face by a wind chime. Sakura would hug him, but he was taller now and her arms would stretch in the short sleeves of her band t-shirt over his shoulders.

She’d pull on her shoes, drag her bike across the grass and they were off. Predictable. Naruto yelled into the wind, and his eyes would sting, and an old woman walking a tiny dog would glare at him. Again, predictable.

What wasn’t predictable was pulling up to Shikamaru’s house and finding four people instead of three.

“Naruto!” called Ino, and her flip flops slapped against the bottom of her feet as she ran over to greet him. “God, your shirt is ugly,” but she hugged him hard.

“Who…?”

Ino turned, arms still around him, looking back at the lawn. “Oh, that’s Sai. Sai! This is Naruto, the guy we were talking about. Come say hi!”

Naruto did not like Sai.

He glanced over to where Sai was talking to Ino. She was the one who introduced him to the group, the one who liked him best. They seemed to get along pretty well.

Sai caught his eye and smiled and Naruto did not like him. Part of Naruto didn’t like him because he had black eyes and hair to match, which made him seem like a bargain bin Sasuke. He didn’t like him because he could tell Sai’s smile was plastered on, fake. It made him uncomfortable; why didn’t he see what everyone else did? He just seemed like a dick to Naruto. He didn’t even have a bike; he drove there. How was Naruto supposed to trust someone who didn’t even have a fucking bike?

For now, though, for the sake of this game, Naruto would work with him. They were on the same team, with Sakura as their chief. Shikamaru was leading the other team, looking utterly bored but also very cool. Choji was next to him, arms crossed, probably trying to convince him to quit smoking again. Naruto could faintly hear it. “I know you keep saying you’re not going to die, but I’m just telling you, the dangers of nicotine are…”

They’d come to an agreement on the conditions for the game while playing skee-ball, waiting for the people before them to finish up.

“I think the winners kill the losers,” offered Sakura.

Naruto nodded. “Yeah, that sounds good.”

Ino rolled her eyes, eyelashes nearly reaching her eyebrows. “Okay. Does anyone have a real suggestion?”

“Losers have to pull all of their teeth out and eat them.”

“That’s horrifying. Sakura isn’t allowed to share anymore.”

“How about,” began Shikamaru, “the losers wave up their right to be mad after having a prank pulled on them.”

“And the prank is being mercilessly attacked with water guns by the winning team.”

Naruto was appalled. “And you’re not even allowed to get revenge? That’s brutal.”

“No, pulling out your teeth is brutal,” grumbled Sakura. “This is bullshit.”

“Are you really that sure you’re going to win?” asked Choji, examining his fingernails.

And then it was really on. Each team was absolutely sure of their victory, and would do (almost) anything to secure it. Naruto was going to work together with Sai, even though he was quiet and creepy and he closed his eyes when he smiled but not in the friendly way like Choji. Naruto clenched his hands on his gun. He would try to work together.

Which, as he expected, was easier said than done. Naruto realized the flaw in their team much too late for them to fix it; all three of them were too headstrong. Sai was determined to slink off on his own, to claim his own victories. Sakura wanted to be strategic and decisive, but she also wanted to be in charge and give directions. Naruto wanted to run around everywhere, shooting everything and nothing and hoping for the best. This was not the best mix.

In comparison, as Naruto ran in circles to the futuristic music and ducked behind walls with glow in the dark aliens painted on them, he could see the other team being a team.

Shikamaru held one of the the fortresses, acting as their sniper. He stayed at the top, watching as Naruto and his team ran around below them. Whenever Naruto was hit for what seemed like no reason, he knew it was Shikamaru.

Trying to take out Shikamaru might have been a good idea, if Choji hadn’t been assigned to the area around the fortress. Want to get to Shikamaru? You’d have to go through Choji, and you couldn’t go through Choji.

Ino ran around wherever, a silent killer. Where Naruto might try to outrun his assailant, Ino would duck behind a corner, wait for the opposition to pass her, and then shoot them in the back. She’d laugh, like it was the funniest thing she’d ever seen, and then she was gone.

It was stupid, how skilled those three were at this game. Did they practice? Did they go to some laser tag bootcamp?

They won, obviously. It didn’t matter by how much, but it was enough to make Naruto scowl at the trio. They didn’t look surprised at the outcome at all. Shikamaru even yawned. “Bad things come in threes,” Naruto told Ino pointedly, pulling off his vest, and she told him apparently losers do too.

They left the night at that. Sakura invited Naruto over to watch a movie on their new big television and eat a popsicle. Shikamaru and Choji were going to ride with Ino to her mom’s house, so she could pick up some stuff, and then probably back to Choji’s. Sai walked to his car.

“You aren’t mad?” Naruto asked Sakura. He said it quickly, so he could lick up the juice that was melting from his cherry popsicle and threatening to drip onto his fingers.

“No, not really. I mean, I like to win, but I just like having fun.” Sakura’s face scrunched up. “Aw, fuck, brain freeze. Fuck.” She wiggled in her seat. “Nooo, I hate these.”

Naruto wanted to say something, about Sai and how he’d insisted on going off on his own. Everything he’d ever said to Naruto seemed a little bit mean. Naruto felt like Sai was his understudy, and was just waiting for Naruto to slip up so he could take his place. Their team would be better off without him… Then, he imagined how it would feel if Sai did the same thing.

“Ino,” he’d say, “I think we’d be better off without Naruto. He’s a little stupid, and hyperactive. He’s only here for one week in a year anyway.” That would kill Naruto… He decided to keep his mouth shut.

Instead, he flipped over, so his feet were on the headrest and his head hung down. He pulled on the ends of his hair; longer this summer than he’d ever had it before, but just as messy. He liked it at this length, so it fell in his eyes.

“Why are you sitting like that?” Naruto held the popsicle upright above him, letting the juice fall into his mouth in drops. “If you stain my carpet I’m not going to your funeral.”

“Harsh.” He sat up.

“You know what we never talk about? But like, we should be talking about?” Naruto shook his head slightly. At this point, his popsicle was melting at a rate that he should just bite into it. His teeth hurt, but it was the right thing to do. “We never talk about your love life.”

Naruto’s stomach clenched. “We never talk about my love life because I don’t have one.”

“No, I don’t believe that. Even a lack of something is still something. Are you meaning to tell me that you’ve never had a crush on someone?”

He didn’t like this line of questioning. He thought he’d gotten out of it, jumped through every hoop placed by the nosy Ino, but now he had Sakura to answer to. “Well, what, do you have a crush on someone?”

Sakura had finished her popsicle and was chewing on the stick. “Yeah.”

“Really? Who?”

“Ino.” Naruto whipped around to look at her. She shrugged. “I don’t know, man, it was pretty obvious to me.

Naruto thought about it, and he didn’t have to think very long, but still he was confused. “I thought girls were just like that anyway. Like, hugging all the time and borrowing clothes and going to photo booths at the mall. How do you know if it’s romantic or if it’s just someone being girly?”

Sakura looked at him, an ancient tired look. “If you ever figure it out, please tell me.”

They talked about Ino a little longer, because Naruto was interested now. Whenever one of his Oceanview friends confided in him, he paid rapt attention. Knowing them, their lives; another thing he wouldn’t take for granted.

What he didn’t realize was that he was digging himself into a bigger hole with this whole love life thing. Once the conversation about Ino dulled, Sakura’s emerald eyes were flashing, a forest fire.

“So, I shared. Now you. Who do you like? You have to tell me.” He’d walked right over a pitfall and expected it to hold his weight.

Naruto pointed in Sakura’s face, who had leaned in closer to guilt him. He’d gotten himself into this; he’d get himself out. “I don’t have to tell you jack shit about him.”

“So it’s a him, then.”

Naruto was bad at this.

“Okay, look, I can tell you about him, but I don’t want to say his name. It’s… embarrassing, okay?” Naruto still wasn’t up to the task of admitting that he was in one-sided love affair with her middle school crush. He’d rather walk outside and suck the eyeballs out of the flattened racoon that was roasting on the sidewalk.

Wasn’t it enough to have your life end by being run over? Did you really have to sizzle, too? Stuck to the road like burnt scrambled eggs. Seemed like insult to injury.

“Hey!” Sakura snapped her fingers in front of his face. “Whatever, don’t give me a name, just tell me about him.”

So, even though Naruto had no idea where to start, he did..

“I don’t know if he likes me? I like him a lot. Whenever we’ve met, I don’t seem to make a big impression, but I’m trying to do better. He’s just… He’s really smart. He’s super cool, too, he’s like the coolest person I’ve ever met. He has eyes that are like the ocean at dusk, because they’re black, and his hair is black, too, and it’s weird but it’s really soft, too. Uhh, yeah.”

Sakura raised her eyebrows, and Naruto shrugged awkwardly. He didn’t talk to anybody about Sasuke, half because he didn’t want to share that part of himself and half because he didn’t know how to put his feelings into words.

“It sounds like you like him a lot, Naruto.”

“I do. I can’t believe he’s real.”

“Well,” Sakura said, with a smile. She put a hand over Naruto’s, and patted it. “I’ll do my best to help you.”

Naruto had no idea what that meant. It sounded very ominous.

The next day, he got up early, careful not to wake Sakura. When he inevitably did anyway, he just told her he had to go back to his aunt’s house before they all went to the carnival. Sakura nodded, yawning, and fell right back asleep.

Naruto couldn’t get there fast enough, his legs wouldn’t take him there fast enough. If he pushed them any harder they’d break. He flew through Oceanview, and it slipped past him easily. Just this once, he was taking for granted. He let the city fade, become his backdrop.

He wanted a story, after all. A better one. Naruto felt like this was the summer that he was the main character. He’d defeat the dragon and get the girl. In this case, the dragon and the girl were the same person, but damn it, he was going to do it. He was going to make a move.

Naruto slipped under the Do Not Enter tape, his backpack with extra clothes in case of a water gun attack catching on it.

He’d make a move, unless, of course, Sasuke had forgotten him again. Historically, that had been the case. His visit the summer before had been different, though. He’d actually learned about Sasuke, got to know him a little better. And then, there was that strange night, where he and Sasuke had held onto to each other, alone in the darkness. Sasuke gave him the stuffed snake, so he wouldn’t forget. And he hadn’t forgotten.

Now, to see if Sasuke had done the same for him. When he got within eyesight of Sasuke he slowed. He didn’t want to act too excited. Approaching Sasuke was like approaching a wild animal; he never knew how he’d react. Naruto swore Sasuke was a different species sometimes.

Sasuke was leaning over the counter, trying to reach something. When Naruto got closer he could see it was the keys, hanging on the lanyard around Sasuke’s neck, but caught on the corner of a cabinet. He was struggling to get it unhooked. Maybe he was human after all.

While he’d been gone, Naruto had only gotten taller. Iruka had him grab things from the top shelf at grocery stores now. He leaned over, next to Sasuke, making him still, and reached down, fiddling with the ring. It came loose, and Sasuke with it.

He sat up quickly, scooting away with alarm. His back hit the post that was holding up one corner of the stand, either hand clenching the sides of the counter. And then… his head tilted, eyes squinting at Naruto like he was the sun.

“...Naruto?”

That was the first time he’d ever heard Sasuke say his name. It sounded uncertain, but so, so soft.

Naruto couldn’t help it; his eyes brimmed. He bit his lip so it wouldn’t tremble. He’d been so scared Sasuke wouldn’t remember him, but Sasuke’s body was relaxing, which meant he knew Naruto. There was recognition there.

“What’s wrong?”

Naruto laughed, rubbed at his eyes. “No, nothing. Don’t worry about it.”

“You’re tearing up, did you really miss me that much?”

Yes. “No, no, I’m just… How are you?”

Sasuke still looked slightly skeptical, but decided to let it go. He slipped to the ground and took the lanyard off his neck. With a flick of his wrist, he threw it to Naruto. “You look like someone who wants to set up a ring toss stand free of charge.” The keys were warm in his hand; they’d been resting on Sasuke’s chest. “Is that assumption correct?”

Naruto pretended to groan and drag his feet. “God, why do I have to do everything around here?” He sighed, walking to the counter to hop over it, but lingered there.

Anyone else might make the mistake of thinking Sasuke looked the same as he always did, but Naruto knew better. There was an ease about him. Sasuke hadn’t completely dropped the shield that was keeping Naruto out and him in, but there was a smile threatening to overtake him, Naruto could tell. He was taller than Sasuke; From his height, Sasuke’s bottom lip jutted out just slightly, which was cute-

Naruto blinked. Squinted at Sasuke. “I’m taller than you.”

Sasuke narrowed his eyes, and they said tread carefully here . “And?”

“No, not like that.” Naruto shook his head, and then scratched it. It was just kind of weird that he was taller than Sasuke. He’d been catching up slowly since age 13, watching as they grew closer and closer, but Sasuke was still older than him. Maybe he was just short? “You’re two years older than me, so I’m surprised.”

Sasuke’s face was still flat, and again, to someone who hadn’t spent two whole years pining for him, he was emotionless. Naruto could see a twinge of confusion. “...Jesus, are you 15?”

“What?! Do I fucking look 15?”

“No,” Sasuke said, and Naruto was relieved to hear that. At the very least, Sasuke hadn’t been under the impression he was an underclassmen. That would be a tough barrier to hurdle. “That’s why I’m confused.”

“Well, how old are you?”

“17.”

Naruto was utterly baffled. Why was Sasuke saying he was 17? Didn’t he say the same two years ago? He remembered it; he’d been 15 and stupid and thought there really wasn’t that much growing up that’d happen in those 2 years. Thank god he hadn’t tried anything at that point. Naruto didn’t know what he’d do if 15-year-old him blew his chance with Sasuke…

“Prove it,” he told Sasuke, and Sasuke put up his hands, sleeves falling down his forearms. The motion for ‘ and why the hell should I do that ?’ “Two years ago, you told me you were 17.”

Sasuke turned up his chin. “I don’t remember that.” Of course he didn’t.

“Just show me. You have an I.D. or something?” Sasuke rolled his eyes, but patted his pockets for a wallet. It was black, like everything else, and when he opened it Naruto could see there was no cash inside it. Sasuke’s fingers picked through the cards, though there were only a few.

“I don’t have my driver’s license, but I have a school license…” He pulled it from it’s pocket, and glared. “I sure hope that’s alright, officer.” Naruto blushed and stuck out his hand. Sasuke reached to give it to him and their hands nearly brushed- “Wait.” The piece of plastic was withdrawn and Sasuke put his thumb squarely over the left half of it. “The picture is so bad.”

Naruto was surprised. Vanity. He’d thought Sasuke was free from care, about how he acted, how he appeared. But he was looking down at the dirt, at the toe of his shoe digging a little hole. So, maybe he cared what Naruto thought. He really didn’t have to. Naruto was already sold, but the gesture was nice.

The card was red and yellow, an obnoxious combination. Sasuke’s thumb couldn’t completely cover his picture, so Naruto caught a glimpse anyway. So bad, his ass; Sasuke looked hot. How Naruto looked in school photos was anything from half-baked banana bread to a cubist bird. That is to say, fucking ugly.

But there it was. Grade: Junior. Age: 17. Huh. Naruto had no idea why Sasuke had felt compelled to lie to him about his age, nor why he’d looked so much older. Had it been that important to look cool? Maybe he was one of those kids who looked like a college graduate by 6th grade, or maybe he just acted older than Naruto. It wasn’t very hard to act older than Naruto.

Above that, he noticed: Sasuke Uchiha. He repeated the name, held it in his mouth like his favorite flavor. “I didn’t know your full name until now.”

Sasuke retracted the card, shoved it back in his wallet. “I don’t know yours either.”

“Uzumaki.” Naruto stuck out his hand. “Nice to meet you, Sasuke Uchiha. I’m Naruto Uzumaki.” Sasuke glanced down for a long moment, and Naruto almost took his hand back, ready to say he was just kidding, when Sasuke grasped it.

“I’m not going to introduce myself again because that’s cheesy and stupid.” They shook on that, and it was normal. Well, Naruto’s heart was beating at a rate that should kill any mammal, but Sasuke didn’t have the reaction he had before. No fliching, no gasping. Whatever panic that had possessed him so suddenly last year at Naruto’s touch appeared to be gone.

They separated again, gently, to opposite sides of the shield. Watching the retreat was bittersweet; he didn’t like to see Sasuke draw back in to wherever he hid, but Naruto had gotten his foot in the door now.

“Anyway, now that you know I’m officially 17, can you start working? The carnival is going to open soon and if it’s not done they can and will fire you.”

Naruto hopped over. “No, they can’t and won’t, because I don’t work here.”

“You act like you do.” Sasuke was leaning on his hands, peeking over the counter at Naruto, which made him fumble with the keys for an embarrassing amount of time. “You’re not just here every morning I work here, but you sneak in every morning.” Naruto bit his lip, out of Sasuke’s view. He nodded. “So? You love it that much?”

Defeat the dragon. Get the girl. Make a move. Well, make more than one move, most likely. Naruto had already gotten the sense that flirting with Sasuke wasn’t so easy. He wasn’t a target, couldn’t be won with just one shot. It was closer to chess; calculated maneuvers. Naruto took a breath. As rare as it was, he was probably overthinking this.

“I told you last year,” he said, finally getting the key in the lock and turning until it clicked, “or I tried to tell you. I’m not into ring toss, or whatever, I’m-” He looked up at Sasuke. The sun was behind him. He was igniting. “I’m into you.”

Naruto could hardly see Sasuke’s face. There was silence, until a cloud floated past, interrupting the sun’s harsh rays.

He wasn’t smiling, exactly, but there was something tender about his disposition. Sasuke was tough, occasionally cold. He was built with steel, set with diamonds; that was breaking, for just a moment. There was something warm beneath it, something glowing.

“Idiot. I know that.”

Naruto swallowed. “You do?”

“Yeah. You’ve made it pretty obvious.”

“I do that a lot.” Naruto stayed down, crouching. He put his forehead on the cabinet, closed his eyes. “I don’t know what to say… Is that okay?”

“That you like me?”

Naruto could hardly speak, mostly because he could hardly breathe. He nodded.

“Yeah. That’s okay.”

The subject changed quickly after that and Naruto busied himself with setting up, mostly to hide the fact that he was incinerating. On his way back to his aunt’s house that afternoon, though, he let out a yell, crying out into the cool air, his only audience street lamps and the sinking sun. He was so excited, he hadn’t been so excited in years.

When he was younger, he would yell as loud as he could while he was biking, whenever he wanted to. It was a cry of pure joy, which admittedly didn’t make it any less obnoxious. It scared the shit out of the neighbors; most notably he had frightened a woman so badly she dropped a whole bowl of potato salad right onto the sidewalk. Naruto had felt guilty about that, but he hadn’t been able to help it. He was just beyond ecstatic to be alive, and he had to let the world know how happy he was to be on it.

Sasuke made him feel that way. He had to let the universe know how grateful he was that it let him and Sasuke exist at the same time.

That giddy feeling hadn’t worn off that evening, laying on Shikamaru’s lawn. Naruto knew he was acting ridiculous, because all Sasuke had said was that he was okay with Naruto liking him, but still. It was more progress than he’d ever made before. He’d never heard Sasuke talk that much in all his years at Oceanview. He wanted to hide his face in his hands and smile and laugh.

“Honestly, what is wrong with you,” Ino asked, rolling over to where Naruto was laying.

“Nothing,” he lied, “I’m just really, really happy to be here.” He stared up at the sky. There was one cloud left. “What shape do you think it is? I see a duck.”

“I think it’s a ‘you’re avoiding my question and trying to distract me with childhood nostalgia.’” Ino gave him a look, and Naruto only shrugged. “You’re not going to tell me? Fine. But you’re acting super weird and I’m watching you.” Naruto shrugged again. So what, if it was noticeable? He didn’t care. Ino could wonder. He closed his eyes.

His friends talked around him, about the beach, about their senior year, steadily approaching, and about Shikamaru’s love life. Most of this he tuned out, besides the last one. Shikamaru was dating the texting girl from a year ago who was now allegedly going to be in college and allegedly hot. Shikamaru hadn’t let anyone meet her yet, because, as he put it, “they would make him look like a huge dumbass”, to which Ino told him he didn’t need their help with that.

The sun sunk lower in the sky. Not quite dropping below the horizon in the distance, but low enough that shadows were stretching long and the air grew cooler. Orange diffused into what had been a bright blue, mellowing the summer, lowering its volume. It calmed Naruto as well.

Naruto was sure other people had felt this way before, that he wasn’t special, but… He remembered what Sakura had said all those years ago, about him blending into the horizon. That’s what he felt like he could do now, wrap himself into those precious minutes between the sun’s fall and its eventual set.

And just like those shining minutes, the feeling it gave him was fleeting, because he sat up and found himself exactly 2 inches from Sai. “Dude, what the fuck.” Naruto scooted away. His first instinct was reproachful. The guy wasn’t exactly his favorite one of the bunch, and now Naruto was seeing that smile close up. Like Sai had cut it out from a magazine and glued it right on. Creepy.

Naruto started to get up, grass-stained palms pushing him up, but then someone else was close to him; Sakura. “The rest of us are going inside for a little bit, okay?” she said, which wasn’t a question, really. If it had been, Naruto would have said no, I’m going inside, too. As it stood, Sakura’s nails were digging into his shoulders, pushing him down hard. He shrugged her off.

Why she’d been so dead-set on getting him cornered by Sai was a mystery to Naruto, but now he was. The lighting was getting lower, and Naruto was just staring out at the street in silence. God, this was killing his high. From the corner of his eye, Sai looked like Sasuke even more, which only made him irritated. What a cheap imitation, Naruto thought. If Sasuke was cool, Sai was lukewarm.

“You know,” said Sai, “I thought I might be threatened by you, but then I met you and I was not threatened at all.”

Naruto took it back; Sai was hot dog water.

He took a breath. “That’s a really rude thing to say, Sai.”

“Is it?”

“Yeah, kind of.”

“Well, everyone was only talking about you the week before you got here. They were so excited for you to visit. I thought you might not like me, but you have been generally nice. So, I’m not threatened.”

Naruto turned to look at Sai; his confession was slightly disconcerting. He hadn’t thought those were Sai’s feelings at all. His fake smile had faded, and was replaced by nothing. He appeared devoid of emotion. Naruto preferred this to anything artificial.

He crossed his feet in front of him, and sighed. “Well, that’s kind of a compliment. I didn’t think you liked me … Mostly because you said I looked like those fucked up Spongebob popsicles, which was uncalled for.”

“You did. I was just stating a fact.” Sai pointed to Naruto’s hair and face. “Yellow with a big ass smile.”

“Oh yeah? You kind of looked like him, too. Those creepy black watery eyes. Not to mention having a big stick up his ass, just like you.”

Sai snorted, and smiled. A genuine smile. He wasn’t one for open mouth smiles, but his eyes did close. Naruto smiled back. Maybe Sai wasn’t as bad as he thought. An acquired taste, definitely, but Naruto could see why Ino liked him so much. And, if you were thick-skinned enough for it, his insults were kind of clever.

“You’re not so bad, Sai,” Naruto told him.

Sai took this, and nodded. “Thank you. You know we don’t have to like each other, right?”

Naruto stood up, brushed grass off his butt and offered his hand to Sai. “Yeah. It’s better if we do, though.” Sai was hesitant, but took Naruto’s hand, letting him be pulled up. Together they walked back to the house, Sai telling Naruto that while some people have trouble with being emotionally vulnerable, Naruto was a little too vulnerable. Naruto couldn’t even be mad about that, as it was objectively true.

They knocked on the door and Sakura answered it. Sai slipped past her, but she stopped Naruto, a slight smirk on her face. “So?”

“...So what?”

“How’d it go with Sai?”

Naruto shrugged, slightly confused. “I mean, it’s not like we’re the best of friends, but I feel like we understand each other better? So, it went fine? I don’t- Why are you asking me?”

There had been many, many times where Naruto had gotten a look like he was the most oblivious person in the world, but rarely did it come from Sakura. She put a hand on her forehead, and then removed it. “I’m trying to help you with your crush, Naruto.”

He blinked, and then blushed instantly at the mention of Sasuke. “How, um, was this supposed to help that?”

“Black eyes, black hair, cool, smart. You meant Sai, right?”

This was horrifying, Naruto thought absently, as his soul left his body for a moment. He’d really let Sakura think he wanted Sai for at least a full 24 hours. He had just started thinking Sai was okay within the last 3 minutes, but that did not equate to wanting to fuck him whatsoever.

“Oh, Sakura, no, It’s a different black haired black eyed cool smart boy. Not Sai. At all.”

Sakura’s face fell. “Christ. That’s embarrassing. Sorry.”

“It’s okay. He’s… a boy from the city. I met him in one of my classes, so he’s not from here. You don’t know him.”

She nodded, still a little red from her mistake. “Ouch, I really misinterpreted that… But, I mean, you’re going to try something with him, right? Because I’m not going to be there to help, you know.”

It felt weird to be talking about this with Sakura still leaning on the doorframe, like Naruto was barred from entering until he committed to not chickening out. “Yeah, I will. I’ve been, um, flirting and stuff like that, so can I please come in?”

Sakura squinted. “Really flirting? Or you think it’s flirting and he thinks you really just want to borrow a pencil?”

“No! Real ass flirting! Why does everyone think I’m a baby bird when it comes to romance.” Sakura gave him a look.

“You’re wearing cargo shorts and are actually using every single pocket.”

“Yeah? You look like that pink-haired girl from Lazy Town if she got dressed in the dark.”

Sakura scoffed. “That’s character assassination.” Naruto ducked under her arm and into the house, sticking out his tongue at her over his shoulder. She could deck him for his bad shorts another day; he’d had enough of it for today. He’d flirted with Sasuke just fine, thank you, and damn it, he’d do the same tomorrow.

This proved to be more difficult than he thought it was going to be.

He got up the next morning, walked to the bathroom, stared at himself, decided that wasn’t helping, texted his dad back, ate something, brushed his teeth, stared in the mirror again, and changed into Not Cargo Shorts. Perfect, or as close as he was going to get.

After that, it was only a matter of doing his usual routine. Naruto grabbed his backpack and hopped on his bike. He hadn’t bothered to do his hair. One, because he couldn’t be bothered, and two, because the wind blasting into his face as he went down hills always messed it up anyway.

His positivity continued as he arrived at the harbor, locked up his bike and headed towards the boardwalk. It was here that disaster struck.

From around the corner of a building, Choji stepped out. Naruto stopped short. HIs friend, his trusted companion, looked at him with an expression of deep sadness. “I’m so sorry,” he said. He pulled out a water gun, aimed and fired.

Shikamaru and Ino suddenly appeared from wherever they’d been hiding, but their faces showed no regret. They closed in, firing round after round after round. Naruto curled into a ball on the wood planks, pleading for mercy. It wasn’t warm enough outside yet, and the bullets were freezing , seeping into his shirt, his skin.

“That’s what losers get,” Ino said finally, once she ran out of ammo. Naruto looked up, only to get one more faceful from Shikamaru.

“You guys are the worst friends anyone could ask for. I hope you trip and bump that one part of your elbow that hurts so much.”

“Sorry, Naruto!” called Choji, alreadying leading the pack of backstabbers to their bikes. “Sai is next!”

Well, at least Sai would be getting a similar fate. Still, this was putting a big fucking wrench in his plans. He was going to show up to see Sasuke looking like a drowned rat, which sucked ass, because Sasuke was sure to be looking like royalty, like always. Naruto rested his forehead on the ground, and water trickled down his face. Damn it.

Nonetheless, he got up. He’d said he was going to meet Sasuke, and that's what he was going to do, drenched or no.

“Let me guess,” said Sasuke when Naruto had presented himself, leaving a puddle where he stood. “You were waiting in the rain to profess your love and she just never showed up.” Naruto put his face in his hands. “Ok, maybe you forgot that you’re supposed to shower after you take your clothes off.” Sasuke tilted his head, smirked. “Or maybe you’re just really, really excited to see me.”

“No! None of those things! Jeez.” Naruto shook his head, water spraying off him like a dog. Sasuke jumped back to avoid it. “I got attacked by water guns, and now I’m going to die.”

“You’re not going to die.”

“I’m so cold, Sasuke! Look!” He held out one hand and pointed to it with the other; it was quivering slightly. “I’m shaking.”

Sasuke rolled his eyes. “Just go home and change, it’s really not that hard.”

“Oh!” Naruto snapped his fingers. “No, I kept a change of clothes in my backpack because I knew that my horrible friends were going to do this to me.” He shivered as he swung it off his back but was pleased to find a dry shirt and hoodie inside, both orange. Sasuke leaned forward, peeking inside.

“Everything you wear is orange. You look like a big traffic cone. I can’t decide if it’s more or less likely you’d get hit by a car.”

“Shut up, where can I change?”

“Well, you could use the-”

“Don’t you say porta-potties.” Sasuke closed his mouth, and then opened it.

“Well, you could change behind this stand. There’s a little bit of room. I don’t want you doing it out front. My employers didn’t technically say I couldn’t have some shirtless guy hanging out, but I think that’s assumed.” He stepped back, and gestured to a small shadowy place behind the structure. It was about half the square feet of the stand itself, and while it was full of cobwebs, Naruto hoped it was devoid of spiders.

“It’s spooky in here,” Naruto said, glancing around. There wasn’t much back there, some cardboard boxes, taped closed or open on their sides, and some cleaning supplies that looked like they could benefit from a cleaning of their own. There was a bench, too, as if this was a tiny break room. Besides that, it was just a panel of canvas, tied to the roof of the stand to the fence of the boardwalk behind it. It would be cute, like a little hideout, if it didn’t feel very haunted.

Sasuke just leaned against peeling red and yellow paint, arms crossed. He was halfway in the shade and half out, so his hair sticking up in the back looked like a different color than the front. Naruto pulled out his clothes, but found no place to put them; either near himself, dripping wet, or on the dusty ground.

“Here,” he said, tossing them to Sasuke who easily caught them. “Just hold those for a second.”

Naruto looked down at himself. His shirt really had gotten the brunt of it. It was like a second skin now, sticking so insistently to his body, not to mention being on the edge of see-through. He grabbed the bottom hem, ignoring the squelching and a twinge of insecurity, and pulled it over his head.

It peeled off slowly and then fell to the ground with a slap. When he picked it up it’d probably have so much dirt sticking to it it’d be brown instead of orange. Naruto ran a hand through his hair, trying to shake all the water he could out of it. It was still chilly, but a little less so when he had the ability to dry. “Well, I guess I’ll just have to deal with wet pants for the rest of the day,” he said, laughing, nervous. He looked up at Sasuke.

Sasuke was still leaning, arms folded over Naruto’s clothes. His face was still, devoid of expression, but he tilted his head slightly. He wasn’t looking at Naruto’s face.

Naruto looked down at himself again. He didn’t think he looked that bad; he’d been running all summer. Kiba would punch him in the stomach and nothing squished. Under Sasuke’s examination though, he was sure that he wasn’t good enough. He was never going to look the way Sasuke looked in moonlight, that was for sure, and he was inching closer and closer to dumb jock with every passing school year.

One of Sasuke’s hands went to his hair, brushing one of the longer pieces on either side of his face over his ear. It fell back to its original spot immediately. He opened his mouth. “You work out?”

Naruto blinked. “Oh, uh, yeah. Running, mostly, but I work out, too.” He internally cringed; just saying the words “I work out” to Sasuke’s face was embarrassing, even if Sasuke himself had asked.

No response was given, Sasuke stepped a little closer. His eyes flicked downwards.

“...Even your underwear is orange.”

Naruto’s hands went to where the orange waistband was showing above his jeans. “I like it, okay?” he said defensively. Sasuke tossed him his shirt and hoodie, and then stepped back out into the light. Naruto shoved them on, head spinning. He had no idea what just happened, but it felt significant. He hurried to follow Sasuke out.

The rest of the day was spent mostly with Sasuke. Just because Naruto wasn’t allowed to retaliate against his friends for dousing him with water didn’t mean he couldn’t be bitter about it. Naruto mostly laid across the counter in the sun, waiting for his pants to dry to mixed results.

He’d decided somebody had to hear the story of Sakura’s mistake, because while it was killing him, he didn’t want her to get made fun of for it by the others. Sasuke sat in the small space Naruto was leaving by his head, and when Naruto looked up, he could feel his hair brush against Sasuke’s fingers.

“So, after her I told her about who I had a crush on and stuff, she totally thought it was this guy Sai who is new to the friend group. She made us be alone together, like, manhandled me into it. And I talked to him, and he’s really not that bad, I guess, but she really thought I was trying to hook up with him… She said earlier ‘I’ll try my best to help you’, or something, which was super ominous. She was so embarrassed, though.”

Sasuke hummed, as if to confirm he’d heard the story but had nothing to say. Naruto paused, to stare up at the wooden planks, to feel the warmth that was almost too hot but not quite. There’s nowhere else he’d rather be. He opened his mouth, to tell a new story, but Sasuke spoke.

“You said you talked about your crush with her. Haven’t we thought of a new word for it already?”

“What do you mean?”

Sasuke shifted, not exactly like he was uncomfortable, but as if he was gearing up to speak more than two sentences at a time. “A crush is the girl who sits next to you in 5th grade who you think is pretty because she has bows in her hair. However, a crush could also be the man you’ve loved for years on end without it being acknowledged.” Naruto flushed slightly, turned his head so Sasuke wouldn’t see. “Shouldn’t there be something between a friend and a crush? Between a crush and a lover?”

Naruto thought about that. “What would we call those? What’s less or more intense than a crush?” He put his hands behind his head. “Between a friend and a crush should be… a scrunch. Or a smush.”

Sasuke nodded. “Alright. What about between a crush and a lover?”

Naruto smirked and poked Sasuke’s leg. “How about a smash?”

“A pound.”

“A slam.”

Sasuke paused. “I can’t think of anything that’s not aggressively sexual.”

“Me neither. Maybe that’s just how slams are.”

They were both quiet, Sasuke looking out towards the ocean and Naruto looking out towards Sasuke. He wasn’t quite there yet, wasn’t through the shield, but Sasuke smiling wasn’t uncommon anymore. Around Naruto, he did it all the time

“Now that we have the new words, is your crush still a crush?”

“Yes,” Naruto said, without thinking. “Yes, because… Well, my dad told me crushes are crushes because when you see them, it feels like they have your heart in their hands, and they’re squeezing it. Crushing it.” Naruto put his hands in front of him, clasping them tightly. When he let them go, his palms were pale until blood rushed to them again.

“Doesn’t that hurt?”

Naruto nodded. “Sometimes. But mostly it feels warm.”

“And that’s the way you feel about him.”

He opened his eyes, meeting Sasuke’s. Naruto remembered how it used to feel like blue was clashing against black; now it was more like watercolors, seeping into each other, harmonious. “Yes.” A thousand times over.

To his surprise, Sasuke looked away first, down at the ground, even though he didn’t seem like someone to back down from a fight. Naruto had made him uncomfortable, which wasn’t what he’d been intending.

“Uh, I’m glad we’re sitting like this,” he said quickly, and Sasuke faced him again. “From underneath? Not your best angle, man.”

Sasuke’s eyes flashed, and the discomfort was gone. “Well, I’d imagine you’d look the same. If I was under you.” Well, Sasuke’s discomfort was gone. Naruto laughed nervously. He had a hard enough time not picturing Sasuke under him anyway, and Sasuke’s gaze was only making it worse.

“No, I mean like, you’re always so… You know. but from here, I feel like I can compete.”

“Are we competing? For what?”

“Forget it. Point is, you look dumb.”

Sasuke twisted slightly and put his hands on either side of Naruto’s head. He looked down, his face above Naruto’s. His hair fell around his face in a fan of dark feathers while his eyes pierced like arrows, pinning Naruto in his place. In the middle of the drama, the war between pale skin and dark features, was his mouth. Soft, pink, the eye of the storm.

“Say it again,” he said, and Naruto was watching his mouth so intently he would have heard the words even if Sasuke hadn’t actually spoken them aloud. “Say I look dumb.”

Naruto swallowed. He didn’t know what to say, he couldn’t think of words for a moment. Don’t play with me , was what he wanted to say. Don’t play with me unless you mean it. But nothing came out.

Instead, he reached one hand up, slowly, so Sasuke could pull away. Naruto brushed the back of his fingers against Sasuke’s cheek. It felt warm. He moved to Sasuke’s hair, twisting one of those side pieces. It was soft, like he’d thought. His hand dropped.

“...I wouldn’t dare say something like that when you’ve got me cornered,” he finally got out. Sasuke sat up, pulled away. Either Naruto really was stupid or there was some deeply cryptic shit going on.

Naruto had never been good at moving slow. In fact, it was almost the thing he was worst at. The #1 thing he was worst at was forgetting Sasuke, though, so he was trying his best. Ideally, he would grab Sasuke by the front of that hoodie and slam him against a wall and just take what he’d been craving… But he wouldn’t do any of those things, not until he was absolutely sure it would be reciprocated.

The rest of his time with Sasuke was spent within that limbo. The jokes that were half-funny and half-true, and the touches that were just a little too long. It was exhausting; every moment where Naruto thought Sasuke was going to lean a little closer made his heart pound. His body was working overtime just to keep him on his feet, and even then his knees were weak. Naruto didn’t even bother to see his other friends; he knew he’d only be thinking about Sasuke.

The air growing cooler as the evening submerged Oceanview, but it made Sasuke only more unbearable. He belonged to the shadows, or rather, they belonged to him. With a smile or a glance, he was holding Naruto’s heart. He was crushing it.

Finally, the carnival had died down, and the ring toss stand was all packed up. Sasuke opened his mouth, and Naruto knew it was to tell him he was going home. “Hey, do you want to go to the beach?”

Sasuke squinted at him. “Cobalt Beach?” Naruto nodded. “It’s locked up for the night.”

Never stopped you , Naruto wanted to say. “Yeah, but you can just hop the fence. It’s really cool at night… You can see the stars so much better?” His tone was hopeful, possibly so hopeful it was off putting, but Sasuke only shrugged.

“Got nothing better to do.” A lukewarm response, but ultimately, a win!

They walked together, kicking a pinecone back and forth. Naruto was going to offer to climb the fence first, but instead Sasuke suggested they race. Sasuke was on it immediately, shooting up and jumping over like it was an art. Naruto grumbled, not even bothering to hurry now. He was not nearly as graceful in his descent. He ended up being dumped onto the dirt.

“You alright, dead last?” Sasuke asked, holding out his hand.

“Actually,” Naruto told him, “I got second place, which isn’t that bad.” He grabbed the hand offered to him, and raced onto the beach, feet digging in deep. There was already sand pouring into his sneakers, so he just took them off, balling his socks up inside.

“See? Look!” Naruto beamed up at the sky, reflecting its light. Sasuke sauntered up next to him.

“I know, dumbass. I live here, I come out here all the time.” He said that, but he was looking up, too. Away from smoke and city lights and distraction, it was hard not to.

The stars were scattered in patterns that appeared aimless at first glance, but with more time and examination, it’s clear there was destiny at play. Something too big to understand had made sure every tiny light made its way to Earth at the perfect moment, so Naruto could stand on the beach and see them exactly as the universe intended him to.

Sasuke didn’t seem like somebody who believed in fate. Or if he did think it existed, he’d never leave anything up to it. He probably fight it as hard as he possibly could, Naruto thought.

“I like how the stars are arranged. Like we’re supposed to see them. Fate, or something.”

“A star is a ball of gas, Naruto, and it’s certainly not sentient. I doubt it gives two shits about whatever the fuck we’re doing down here.” Naruto nodded. As he’d suspected.

“They’re not like this in the city at all. You can’t see more than three or four most of the time…” Naruto put his hands in his pockets and sighed. “I wish there were more at home, but it does make nights like this more special.”

Sasuke stayed silent. He’d turned away from the stars, instead towards the ocean, and then down the beach, to the forest. Curiously, Naruto looked that way, too. There wasn’t much to see but murky trees and the rough black rocks jutting up from the beach. It wasn’t surprising Sasuke would be more attracted to that stuff, but Naruto just found it eerie. He didn’t like how intensely Sasuke’s eyes could lock onto darkness sometimes.

“Hey.” Naruto elbowed him, and Sasuke turned his gaze away. “You wanna go swimming?”

“Swimming?”

“Yeah. It’s where you get in the water and move your arms around-”

“Oh, fuck off.” Sasuke huffed, and then he turned, leaning closer to Naruto. “And I know how this is going to go. Here we are, at the beach, under the moon, and the water looks great. But, oh no! We don’t have swimsuits!” Sasuke put his hands up in mock confusion. “There’s only one solution. I guess we better strip down.”

“That is-! That is not what I was thinking!” Naruto spluttered, but Sasuke still looked highly skeptical. “You’re going to be like that? Fine!” His hoodie came off, his phone thrown down on top of it with an exasperated puff of breath, and then he marched right into the surf.

Barefoot, the wet sand felt cool, gritty between his toes. His steps were definant, so they landed firmly, leaving a clear-cut trail all the way to the water. First to his ankles, then his calves, his thighs. It was fairly calm; there were waves, but nothing unmanageable. It was cold, but not freezing. Besides, it was less about swimming now and more about proving a point.

Naruto wasn’t trying to trick Sasuke, or use him. Sasuke seemed to be one to jump to conclusions, and it hurt Naruto how cynical those conclusions turned up to be. He wouldn’t ask why, because Sasuke would never tell him, but he could offer a hand. He held it out his.

“Come on, Sasuke!” he called. He was submerged to his hips now. “It’s so nice in here! Totally not cold at all!” Sasuke just stood, looking at Naruto with disbelief.

“You look like an idiot.”

“Oh, it’s not just a look, I really am an idiot.”

Sasuke hesitated, one second, two, and then his hoodie joined Naruto’s on the sand. His walk was slower, calmer, cooler, just like always, but in the end, regardless of how they got there, they were standing waist deep in the sea.

“Now you look like an idiot, too,” Naruto said, and he tried to make it sound like a joke but he knew he just sounded happy.

“I’m only in here so you don’t feel so self conscious,” Sasuke sniffed.

Naruto squinted at him. They were in the same dumb boat; Sasuke could use a little humbling. He stepped back, and then jumped forward, ramming his shoulder hard against Sasuke’s and shoving him right into the water just as a wave rolled in.

In a second Sasuke was back up, gasping, murder in his eyes. “You little bitch ,” he hissed fiercely, which was scary, but also kind of sexy with him all dripping wet and hair slicked back. Altogether, a conflicting experience.

That much must have been obvious on Naruto’s face because Sasuke stepped closer, still dangerous, inches from his face. “Taste your own medicine,” he said, and grabbed Naruto by the front of the shirt.

All he wanted from that moment was to be pulled forward, against Sasuke, but he was launched into the water at a vicious speed. He breathed seaweed and salt, in his mouth and his nose. He deserved to get dunked, but god, he didn’t want a taste of his own medicine; he wanted a taste of Sasuke.

“Fuck, I thought you were going to kill me,” Naruto breathed. “And you know what? You should have when you had the chance.”

For the record, it wasn’t Kiba who taught him how to fight, even though that’s what people thought; it was his dad. Iruka was a fairly mild-mannered elementary school teacher who did the crossword in the newspaper and genuinely liked classical music. He also had a vicious tongue when it came to winning arguments and was a wrestling champion in high school

Naruto didn’t think Iruka had taught him these moves to use on the boy he was trying to romance, but god damn it if Naruto didn’t suplex the fuck out of Sasuke anyway. He moved towards him, ducking underneath Sasuke’s arms and spinning behind him. Naruto’s arms locked around him, hands clasped on his stomach. Sasuke wasn’t as light as he thought he’d be, but with the element of surprise on his hands, it wasn’t too difficult to lift him up, over, slamming into the sea.

In hindsight, if Naruto had known that pissed off Sasuke doubled as pro-fighter Sasuke, he might have decided not to escalate things to that level. It was clear that he inexplicably knew ten times more than Naruto did, and was ready to show it off.

From an athlete standpoint, Sasuke’s form was perfect, his concentration enviable. From a human standpoint, having your crush hold your hand for the first time in preparation for a short arm clothesline is pretty depressing.

“Oh my god! Sasuke! Truce!” Naruto said this with water dripping out of his mouth, hair sticking to his face, hands up. Sasuke eyed him, and then stepped out of his fighting stance, and rubbed his eyes. Naruto took this as an opportunity to bulldoze him over one last time. “Sorry!” he called behind him as he booked it back to shore, not sorry at all.

There was a splash of water and a growl, but Naruto was already back on the sand, free from the waves. He turned around to see Sasuke, still riled but breathing heavily. His clothes were plastered to him, showing the physique that was usually hidden underneath his sweatshirt so clearly it was as if he had no shirt on at all. He opened his mouth to speak, but Naruto cut him off.

“And you thought I was trying to get you to take your clothes off! Don’t you feel silly.”

“Well, Naruto, nobody, and I mean nobody ,” Sasuke put emphasis on the word, like it wasn’t necessarily a good thing, “has invited to the beach late at night because they just really felt like throwing hands. Congratulations. You proved me wrong.” He folded his arms, eyes narrowed at the ocean they’d both left paths from. The footsteps they’d made leading to the surf had long since been washed away.

“I think I actually made it much more difficult for you to get your pants off,” Naruto said, eyeing Sasuke’s black skinny jeans that were already skintight. “Can’t imagine it’d be easy to get you out of those, huh?”

“I don’t know. You’d be surprised.”

Naruto laughed nervously, and decided not to read too far into that for his own sanity. “Your hair,” he said instead, pointing. “It’s not sticking up in the back anymore.” Sasuke gave him a look as if to say of course it’s fucking not , but Naruto stepped closer. “What happens when it dries?”

“It just slowly sticks right back up again. I don’t know why. It just does it.” Sasuke looked a lot different beyond just that. His hair was so dark it looked like negative space, a tear in the world. While his posture said annoyance, his face was calm. Black eyes softened by pink rims from the salt water. His nose, too, and the tips of his ears; pink from the cold.

Naruto hadn’t thought he was being so obvious, but Sasuke didn’t even have to look at him to know. “Stop looking at me that way.”

Naruto blushed, rubbed his nose. “What… What way?”

Sasuke met Naruto’s eyes, then he tilted his head up, peering into darkness. “The same way you looked at the stars. Don’t look at me like that.”

There were many things Naruto thought to say in response to that. I can’t not , for example. Or that’s easier said than done . Or but that’s the way you make me feel, I can’t feel any other way, I’ve tried. He couldn’t say any of those things. So he sighed, letting the disappointment seep out through his breath, his unspoken words, and sat on the sand, facing the moon. Sasuke sat down next to him. Their pinkies touched.

There was silence, but not the comfortable type. For better or for worse, Sasuke rarely made him feel comfortable . There was always tension between them. Naruto dug his right hand into the sand, lifiting a fistfull, letting it sift through his fingers. He didn’t dare move his other hand as it was touching Sasuke’s. His feet couldn’t tap against anything so they flapped. He was nervous.

And when Naruto is nervous, he talks. Quickly, and far too much.

“So, I’m not as good at fighting as you are, but I could probably beat you at running. Not that we should race, anyway, I’m not challenging you, I’m just saying. My dad taught me what I knew, and he was like ‘it’s for self defense, that’s all’ which I kind of think is bullshit. It just makes him seem cool, and also there’s this guy who works out at the gym who I think he likes and Iruka wanted an excuse to show off. I don’t feel used, because he looked really happy to teach me something, but-”

“Naruto.”

“Yeah?”

“What do you want to say?”

“Oh.” Sasuke had seen through him, not that it was particularly difficult to. His phone was in reaching distance, and his fingers twitched for a distraction. Nervous, nervous. “I said I was into you, and you said that was okay,” he said finally. “That’s nice and all, but not…”

“Reciprocal?” Naruto nodded, even though he didn’t exactly know what that meant. It sounded like the right word. His knees curled to his chest, in fear of what came next. The rejection, the one that he hadn’t even let himself consider as a possibility because it was terrifying to him.

But it didn’t come. Instead, Sasuke went from sitting up to laying down, facing the sky. Naruto watching him for one moment and then couldn’t take it. The sight was reminiscent of that night, when Sasuke was shining, godlike, and it was far too intimidating at the moment. He quickly laid down as well, opting to observe the stars.

“I told you it was okay because I’m not sure if I’m into you yet. In turn, I’m not sure if you’re genuinely into me.”

That only raised more questions than it answered for Naruto. “Is there something that being into someone means that I don’t understand?”

“What does it mean to you?”

“It means you like talk to someone and spend time with them, and you get, you know, butterflies- Why am I explaining this? This is just embarrassing.”

Sasuke suddenly rolled over, on his side, elbow supporting him. Naruto turned his head, and Sasuke was much closer than usual. There was an intensity in his gaze that wasn’t unheard of but was certainly uncommon. “Is that all?” he asked. “Is that all being into someone is?”

Naruto rolled over, too, so he could face Sasuke straight on. “What do you mean?”

“Wanting to be near to them, closer, all the time, even though it makes your stomach hurt and your heart pound. Sound familiar?”

Of course it did. It sounded all too familiar. Naruto had no idea where Sasuke was going with this, especially with a look like that. “I don’t know,” he lied, because what else was he supposed to do?

Sasuke watched him a minute longer. “Well, after tonight, I think I know. If I’m into to you.” His tone, that was different, too. Lower, softer. A voice that could suggest Naruto walk right off a cliff and he’d take it as an order. “But you say you don’t know. Want to figure it out?”

Naruto was nodding, quickly, even though he wasn’t completely sure what that meant. He was raising his hand off the sand, just slightly, even though he wasn’t sure where it was supposed to go.

Sasuke raised his own hand, but pressed it to Naruto’s chest, over his heart. “Figure it out, then.”

Naruto’s mind was still reeling at the turn of events, but he reached out hesitantly regardless. It wasn’t far with how close they were together. His hand ended up on Sasuke’s waist, wet shirt growing cold. It was thin, though, and Sasuke skin was warm underneath.

His eyes flicked to Sasuke, who raised his eyebrows. Anything else?

He moved down, to Sasuke’s waistband. His thumb pressed into the soft skin above Sasuke’s hip bone where his shirt was riding up, and then pulled the hem more.

Naruto was always annoyed by the things that kept him from Sasuke, but never before had he been so sick of clothing . He wanting nothing between them. Sasuke was born of moonlight and smelled like the sea; Naruto wanted to bathe in him.

The arm that had been propping him up slid over sand, under Sasuke, hand pressing against the small of Sasuke’s back and pulling him closer. Sasuke let him. He pushed his palm flat against Sasuke’s stomach, over, trailing up the curve of his body with his fingertips, and then back again. Whenever his fingers slid closer to Sasuke’s waistband, he didn’t make sound, but his hand would grip Naruto’s shirt.

“Your-” Naruto pressed his mouth to the space right above Sasuke’s collarbone, open, which cut him off with a quick inhale. He likes that , Naruto thought. Me kissing him, he likes that. “Your heart is pounding.” Sasuke sounded smug, but breathless, too.

Naruto lifted his hand and placed two fingers gently against Sasuke’s neck, just under the edge of his jaw. It wasn’t like their pulses were much different here; both fast, excited.

“So you think you know, how you feel about me,” Naruto said, quietly, because he was so close. He focused on their points of connection, on the thrum of Sasuke’s pulse. It was a timer, ticking, marking every second he was wasting without Sasuke’s mouth pressed to his. “You into me?”

“Hm,” Sasuke hummed, as if he was still deliberating. He sat up abruptly. Naruto could see that his hair had begun to stick up again, and watched as Sasuke pulled down his shirt again where Naruto had lifted it up.

After thinking a moment longer, Sasuke stood up, turned and promptly sat back down, straddling Naruto. Naruto made a noise, something like a squeak, but his hands went to Sasuke’s thighs anyway. Gripping tight, holding on for dear life. Sasuke watched him calmly, leaning over him, just like at the stand before.

“Yes,” he said finally, “I am.”

Naruto’s feet flapped wildly. It was far too much for him to handle. Sasuke and his voice and his body and all his attention. He positioned himself, higher up Naruto’s thighs. “How about you?” he asked, teasing. Naruto’s hands were on Sasuke’s hips, which didn’t mean he had any control over them. Sasuke pressed them close, and even in dim light his smirk burned. “How’s that crush doing?”

There was somewhere, buried in the inner workings of Naruto’s mind, that registered Sasuke had asked him a question. More important thoughts were taking precedence.

For example: the body that was against him now was one he felt he knew best, next to his own, without ever having touched it this way. Now that he was, he hardly knew what to do. He felt dizzy, fingernails pressing into Sasuke’s skin. Dizzier than when he’d been 14, and rode the tilt-a-whirl 20 consecutive times; Sasuke was a ride like no other.

And also happened to be riding him. Sasuke’s thighs squeezed his waist, hips making slow circles. Naruto gripped him tighter, hissing, and Sasuke looked so smug. Probably because Naruto couldn’t hide the fact he was turned on in any capacity; neither body nor mind.

What was it he had said? How’s that crush doing?

“I think... it’s more... of a slam now,” Naruto gasped, tilting his hips. Fuck , he was hard. “Yeah, definitely a slam.” Sasuke nodded, still looking slightly self-satisfied, but Naruto realized then; he’d never seen Sasuke blush.

Blushing was a poor habit of Naruto’s. It always made him throw his hand of cards face up on the table, revealing him as someone utterly unable to keep their cool. For Sasuke, however, this was new. His cheeks were pink, lips parted, eyes lidded. His expression was one of intense affection. Maybe he wasn’t as forthright as Naruto, but no matter how subtly, Sasuke wanted him.

He had Naruto pinned to the sand so effectively. It’d been foolish to think he’d been persuing Sasuke. His fate was Sasuke’s plaything, Naruto realized. For pure sport, Sasuke had let him wonder if he’d ever have his feelings returned or not. Now, with his desire reflected in dark eyes, it was obvious he shouldn’t have worried.

There was still a tension between them, however, and a nervousness that was belonged to them both. It hit Naruto; he was supposed to kiss Sasuke now. He was supposed to reach up, pull Sasuke down and kiss him. Or roll them over, press Sasuke into the sand and kiss him. Kiss him. That’s why Sasuke was stalling after all; he was giving Naruto a chance to make the last move. Kiss him. Now.

And Naruto couldn’t. He’d imagined this moment, in class, in the shower, the precise moment before he fell asleep, and he knew Sasuke would live up to every fantasy. But he couldn’t. It was because he’d imagined it so much that he couldn't. He was going to let Sasuke down.

“I…” He stared hard at Sasuke, and then sat up, effectively pushing Sasuke away. “I gotta go.”

And he did. He went. He grabbed his shit, and climbed the fence, and found his bike, and rode into the dark. Naruto pedaled until his legs hurt and until his stomach didn’t. Without Sasuke around, he could finally breathe, but the oxygen relieving the pounding in his chest only fueled his racing thoughts. In an attempt to not fuck it up, he’d fucked it up, and there was nothing unusual about that, was there?

Yes, I am, Sasuke had said. Yes, Sasuke knew what he wanted. He’d pressed his hand to Naruto’s chest, felt his heartbeat, felt for himself how desperate Naruto was for his love. And then he’d handed Naruto the key to it. And what had Naruto done? He took it, threw it into the ocean and ran as fast as he could in the opposite direction.

He really was a fucking idiot. More of an idiot than Ino, who while watching a movie, tried to put on lipstick with a baby carrot. More of an idiot than Choji, who looked for his phone for 20 minutes before realizing it was in his front pocket. More of an idiot than Kiba, who thought his left over butter chicken from three days ago was “most likely just fine”, so he took it back out the trash can and ate it, only to spend the rest of the night hurling it right back in.

Yes, more than all of that, Naruto was truly stupid. For getting a chance with Sasuke, a boy who was more heaven than human, and spoiled it. Like Kiba’s Indian food. Utterly spoiled it, and now it was making him sick.

If you don’t think you can fucking handle this, you better get the fuck out. Isn’t that what Sakura had said to him, right before the laser tag game? Naruto climbed the steps to the bathroom, his bike abandoned outside. He didn’t look in the mirror, just stripped off his wet clothes, threw them in the tub and fell into bed, the disaster that he was.

Chapter Text

The next morning woke Naruto up with a beam of light shooting from the gap in his curtains. He would have gladly slept until he died, but no, blood was still running through his veins. Just like Naruto ran last night. He thumped his head against the pillow, one, two, three times. He didn’t want to think about it anymore, but his mind wasn’t so merciful.

At least, his dad was coming today. One whole day early, so Naruto could show him around the carnival he loved so much, that had definitely not been ruined by his chicken-like behavior. Yeah.

Naruto sat up, groaned, and shuffled out of bed. He put on clothes properly, so Iruka would be fooled into thinking he was a functioning human being, but didn’t bother to tame his bed head. It looked very similar to his regular hairstyle anyway.

It had been less than a week since Naruto had seen Iruka last, but when his old car came clunking up the driveway, Naruto was running out of the house and waiting at the door. It swung open, his dad stepped out and Naruto hugged him as tightly as he possibly could.

“Whoa!” Iruka’s bag was knocked from his hands in his surprise, but he laughed, his arms encircling Naruto. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing, I just missed you.” And he had. Iruka was the only person that he felt understood and accepted him completely, which was exactly what he needed right now. “I’m excited you’re here.”

“Well, let me get my bag inside and say hi to your aunt,” Iruka said, untangling himself from Naruto and ruffling his hair. “Then we can do whatever you want. What do you say?”

Naruto nodded. Iruka had a smile that tended to have a calming effect on everybody it encountered, but especially Naruto. He didn’t have much family, but Iruka had done what he could to fill every vacant role Naruto needed. He didn’t know anybody with such an expansive heart; Iruka always made space for him there.

Iruka and his aunt talked for a while. It was mostly about traffic and weather, nothing interesting. Iruka said he couldn’t believe he was finally spending time in Oceanview. How long had it been? Since he was in college? But his kid had been coming here for years. Naruto tuned them out, tapping his feet. Even just seeing his dad had given him some new energy.

Finally, Naruto could pull Iruka out the door. “Everybody is hanging out at Shikamaru’s house, I want you to meet them!”

“Everybody? So Sakura, too? Ino and Choji? I’m glad you’ve found them. They seem like good friends for you.” That was a very parent thing to say, but Naruto had to agree with it.

The distance between where he stayed and Shikamaru’s house wasn’t far, but Naruto prodded Iruka for details about what he’d been doing while Naruto was away. His response was vague, which Naruto suspected was because Iruka had a boyfriend he wasn’t telling Naruto about.

He couldn’t remember the last time Iruka had introduced somebody he was dating to Naruto, only because it made it twice as painful when the break up happened. Naruto wasn’t a secret by any means, but he knew his dad would do anything to protect him. This made him feel safe, but he didn’t like Iruka being lonely. Didn’t Iruka get tired of it, too?

His dad had made the mistake of leaving his phone on the coffee table when he went into the kitchen to make tea last week, though, and a couple texts came in that were… questionable in nature, to say the least. Naruto was glad; Iruka wouldn’t be lonely. Now if only Naruto could say the same…

He’d been doing such a good job pushing Sasuke to the back of his mind, and he was determined to keep it up. Naruto marched up the sidewalk, covered with haphazard chalk drawings and around the corner. Shikamaru’s was the two-story house with steps leading up to the door and green grass on either side. Predictably, everyone was sprawled around. Shikamaru and Ino dozing, Choji and Sakura playing Uno. Sai was nowhere to be seen, but maybe that was for the best.

“Hey!” he called, making Ino jolt awake. Naruto jogged up, waving for Iruka to move faster. To each of the four, he pointed and said their names. “Everybody, this is my dad.”

Iruka waved, giving that smile. His friends were silent.

Finally, Sakura spoke. “Naruto talks about you all the time! It’s so nice to finally meet you!” Everybody else gave similar greetings, sitting up straighter.

“It’s nice to meet you, too,” said Iruka, and then looked around. “Shikamaru, could I say hello to your parents? It sounds like my son’s been living here part-time, so I’d like to meet them.” Shikamaru nodded and Naruto rolled his eyes. Another parent thing to say. Iruka thanked him, and then walked past, up the steps and inside.

The second he was out of sight, four faces whipped around to stare at Naruto.

“Why,” Ino said, through her teeth, “is your dad so fucking hot?”

“How old is he? He’s so young. And, yeah. Hot.”

“He’s 37. And what?” Naruto wrinkled his nose. “No, he’s not hot.”

Ino shook her head. “No, like his hair looks so smooth. And that scar? Sexy.

“Gross, Ino.” He turned to Shikamaru. “He’s not.”Shikamaru shrugged at him. “Sorry, Naruto. He kind of is.”

“Are you adopted?” Sakura asked, and Naruto nodded. “How? Why didn’t you tell us?”

“Because I don’t think about it a lot? Iruka’s just my dad. My biological parents died when I was really little, and I didn’t have any family I knew of. Iruka was one of my biological dad’s students? He adopted me. I don’t…” Naruto shook his head. “I just don’t really think about it very much. Iruka told me about my parents, and I have their pictures, but he’s my real dad.”

“And he’s hot?”

“I wish you’d stop saying that, it’s super weird.”

Soon Iruka was walking back out into the sun. Naruto could tell that his conversation had gone well; Shikaku, Shikamaru’s father, had a tranquil demeanor that probably put Iruka’s fears that his son was in bad hands to rest.

“I don’t have a bike,” Iruka said, “but I would like to go to this carnival I’m always hearing so much about from Naruto.” Naruto smiled, but felt his stomach turn as well. The carnival meant Sasuke, and he wasn’t sure if he could ever face him again.

They were going to go anyway. He and Iruka went to a taco truck and did their usual routine; they’d order two different dishes and then split them half and half. After that, he pulled Iruka around town. He was stalling, he knew it, but he was going to do it as long as he could without Iruka noticing.

Unfortunately, Iruka was sharp, and Naruto couldn’t avoid it anymore. He, and his dad, and all his friends, stepped into the Oceanview Carnival. With that, Naruto’s nerves only doubled. He felt like he had one foot in the grave and the other hovering over a landmine.

Naruto was doing his best not to show it. There was so much to see and to do that Iruka hadn’t experienced. In some ways, it was like seeing everything for the first time all over again. His friends seemed comfortable in Iruka’s company as well, joking around like always (minus the excessive swearing and sex jokes that we usually the right and left hook of 17 year olds).

Whatever made Naruto happy seemed to make Iruka happiest, which made things easier, but it also made Naruto wonder what Iruka would like to do if he were here alone. Once the sun went down and the lights came on, though, he seemed just as fascinated by them as Naruto had been.

“It’s like strolling around in outer space, isn’t it?” remarked Iruka. “So many little stars.”

Naruto smiled, watching Iruka look at a cotton candy stand, scattered with glowing yellow string light and big blinking pink bulbs. And then, his smile faded. Iruka had always loved lights like this; both his and Naruto’s bedrooms, while otherwise sparse, had string lights hanging around the ceiling. It was his favorite part of the holidays, too, ever since he was a kid. And Naruto could see it, that long-time love and childlike wonder, in his eyes, when he stood only feet from chromatic constellations.

Stop looking at me that way. The same way you looked at the stars. Naruto understood what Sasuke had said a little better.

Don’t look at me like that.

“Hey.” Naruto blinked, and now Iruka was looking at him, worried. Sakura and the rest had wandered elsewhere without him noticing.  “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine.”

“Are you sure? You look a little upset.” Naruto felt a little upset, too. He felt like he’d been inches from understanding why the attraction between him and Sasuke felt so much bigger than just some flirting and fleeting touches. He’d been so close last night.

“I guess I messed something up. I don’t want to talk about what,” he added quickly before Iruka could ask. “I just could have been brave, but instead I was... scared.”

“That’s unlike you. You’re usually very brave.”

“I know!” said Naruto, throwing his hands up. “Usually I just do whatever, but this time I was so worried and I pussied out.” Iruka gave him a sharp look. “Sorry, chickened out.”

“Why were you worried?”

“I felt like… I’ve been fooling them. I’ve been making them think I’m someone who knows what he’s doing, when I’m actually just confused. They seem so sure of themselves. I’m not.”

Iruka thought about this for a moment. “Being brave doesn’t mean never having times when you falter. It means you have the courage to pick yourself back up.” Naruto rolled his eyes. Iruka always said cheesy stuff. “Don’t do that, I mean it! Just stressing out about it or shaming yourself won’t help you. Either figure out how you want to fix your mistake, or just let this one go.”

Just let this one go? Naruto clenched his fists. No, he couldn’t just let Sasuke go. His dad was right; he had to stop feeling sorry for himself.

Unfortunately, while Iruka had given Naruto the confidence boost he needed to get back on track, in the process Naruto had made Iruka worry about him. When Iruka was worried about Naruto, he tended not to let him out of his sight. This threw a wrench in any plan Naruto might have; sneaking away was impossible.

It was getting later and later, and Naruto could physically feel the minutes ticking away. It was the last hour, of the last day, and if Naruto didn’t see Sasuke soon he’d detonate. He had to ditch Iruka, even for just five minutes.

Naruto was holding out hope for an unlikely hero to arrive, and at long last, one did. It just wasn’t who’d he’d been expecting.

Sai was sitting alone at a picnic bench under a street lamp. He was huddled over a sketchbook as if for warmth, scribbling away. This seemed to be Sai at his most peaceful, and Naruto under normal circumstances wouldn’t have bothered him. There was an earnestness in his expression that spoke to the cultivation of a craft. Naruto hadn’t known he took art so seriously. Well, he could doodle another day; Naruto had business to take care of.

While Iruka was talking to Choji about one thing or another, Naruto approached Sai. Before he could even open his mouth, Sai cut him off. “What do you want me to do?”

“Wow. How did you know?” Naruto asked, sliding onto the bench across from Sai. Sai tilted his head.

“You look anxious. I hope you’re not looking for advice or a shoulder to cry on. I’m not very good at that.”

Naruto shook his head; he didn’t expect that Sai would be very good at that either. “I want you to distract my dad so I can sneak away for five minutes. That’s all I need.”

Sai went back to drawing, pencil scratching paper. “Why do you need to sneak away?”

“Does that affect whether or not you’ll help me?”

Sai shrugged.

Naruto sighed. He and Sai were cool now, no doubt about it, but that didn’t mean he felt like laying his soul out on this old splintered table. On the other hand, it might be kind of nice to talk to someone who probably hardly knows Sasuke, if at all. “I don’t want you to talk to everyone about it. Can you keep a secret?”

Sai snorted, which nearly made Naruto jump; it was an unexpected sound from such a stoic person. “I can keep secrets like you wouldn’t believe.”

“...Okay,” said Naruto, uncertainly. “I guess I’ll trust you.” Sai looked up at him, but his hand was still moving. Naruto ignored it.

“There’s this guy I like, his name is Sasuke…” Naruto remembered telling Sakura about him, but he felt like he could do better now. “I know he’s not perfect or anything. I’m sure he has flaws, but when I look at him, I can’t see them. When I first met him, he wouldn’t smile at all, at anything. He’s more comfortable with me now, though…” Nevermind, he was still doing a bad job explaining his feelings. “I just want to make him happy, that’s all I want. And last night, I think I did the opposite. So I have to fix that.”

Sai finished whatever he was drawing with a few more lines, glanced down at it, and then back at Naruto. “Sure,” he said, “I’ll help.”

“Really?” Naruto wondered what it was that made Sai want to lend him a hand or not. Most likely, he had already made up his mind before Naruto told him anything and just wanted more information.

Sai nodded. “Just tell me some things about your dad that would help me distract him.”

“Um, um, he’s a teacher for little kids? He’s… He’s my dad. Uh… Shit.”

With a highly unimpressed look on his face, Sai stood up. “I suppose I’ll just have to wing it, then.” He folded up his sketched book, slid the pencil into the wire binding and stood up. Iruka was still talking to the others, but in typical fashion, Sai just marched right up and interrupted them.

“Iruka?” he asked, and put on a big bright smile when Iruka nodded. “Naruto has told me so much about you! I’m sorry we didn’t get to meet earlier. I want to go into education, because I love working with kids, but my parents aren’t very encouraging… Could I ask you some questions?”

Sai continued, but he’d already hit enough buzzwords to have Iruka’s full attention. His dad loved his job so much. Naruto felt a little bad to have Sai lie right to his face, but it was very successful in distracting him. He lingered a moment longer, until Sai tilted his head slightly, shooing him away. Naruto didn’t need to be told twice.

He walked, trying to restrain himself, then gave up and ran. Naruto had no idea what he was going to say to Sasuke, but he’d do what he did best; making the most of a bad situation. Whatever he was going to do or say would be exactly what it needed to be. He hoped it would be. If his options were to fix it or let it go, as Iruka told him, he knew the latter was impossible. So, he’d fix it. He knew what he wanted to do.

Naruto skidded around a corner, nearly knocking over a worker carrying a tall stack of boxes, to whom he could only apologize and continue on his way. He waded further into the carnival, to the deep end, where he knew Sasuke would be.

And he was. Sasuke stood in front of one of the pillars, untying a flap that rolled down, covering the open portion between the awning and the counter. He looked detached, eyes foggy. Not in the way they’d been at the beach, full of fondness. Instead, he looked lonely. I’ll fix that, too , Naruto thought, setting his sights on Sasuke.

“Hey, Sasuke.”

Sasuke flinched, nearly unnoticeably. Then he sighed, and went back to tying the cover down. “I didn’t think I was ever going to see you again,” he said, offhand.

“Unfortunately not the case. Here I am.” Naruto approached, not stepping within Sasuke’s bubble but waiting outside it. Sasuke continued to ignore him, but there was a tinge of pink in his cheeks that Naruto knew wasn’t from the cold. His fingers were moving slower than they usually would, the rope slipping between them.

His eyes, however, never wavered from their task. Understandable, as Sasuke probably wasn’t expecting Naruto to dump him into the sand last night. Sasuke didn’t strike him as someone who took hits to his ego easily. Naruto was going to have to make him forget about all that.

“I’m sorry about last night,” he said, and he looked down. At his orange shoes, firmly planted on the aging boardwalk. Naruto was giving Sasuke the ability to have whatever reaction to that he wanted, without worrying about how Naruto would interpret it. “You surprised me and I wasn’t ready and I panicked, but that’s only because I like you. If I didn’t like you it wouldn’t matter.”

Sasuke said nothing in response to this, besides his stance softening. His eyes, still, were narrowed.

“I wish I would have kissed you.”

There was silence, a gust of wind, and another sigh before Sasuke finally spoke. “You could’ve.” That was all. Naruto looked up; Sasuke had finished his job and was now standing, arms crossed, voice steady.

Naruto stepped closer, inching into Sasuke’s personal space. “Really?” he asked. He needed to know.

Sasuke huffed, smiling slightly but not in a happy way. “You could’ve done a lot more than that if I’m being-”

That was all he’d been waiting for; Naruto grabbed Sasuke by the front of his hoodie, slammed him against the pillar, and kissed him hard.

It was like how he’d always pictured; Naruto poured years of want and need into that kiss, trying to show Sasuke his devotion in a way his words could never hope to convey.

Sasuke made a noise of surprise, but then was putting his weight against the pillar, leaning. Like his knees were getting weak. Naruto hands untangled from his hoodie and he tilted Sasuke’s face slightly, coaxing his mouth open. Now, finally, Naruto knew what he tasted like.

Oxygen wasn’t so high on his list of basics needs anymore. It’d been replaced by Sasuke. Breathing was purely a technicality; after each gasp of air, they were pressed together again, Sasuke’s tongue was in his mouth and his fingers in Sasuke’s hair. Just like a year ago, it was painful to be anything but close. Not being with Sasuke was torture. Naruto didn’t know how he’d possibly held out as long as he had.

It was almost perfect. There was only one revision he made. He could feel Sasuke’s hands, leaving fire in their wake, pressing to his chest and sliding down. Sasuke knew what he wanted. He’d showed that, on the beach. But Naruto knew what he wanted too; it was his move, his kiss. He wouldn’t let Sasuke steal it.

Naruto broke it off and flashed that smirk, the one Sasuke loved slipping on. He caught Sasuke’s wrists, pressing them over his head with one hand. “Let me make it up to you,” he said. Gentle. And then brought his mouth to Sasuke’s neck. Anything but gentle. It was bruising, he was most definitely leaving a mark, and Sasuke moaned softly, making no move to escape Naruto. Rather, all of Sasuke, his unsteady breath, the heat of his body, the slight arch of his back so he could fit against Naruto perfectly: all of it was begging Naruto to give him more. To give him everything .

And that was something, though it killed him, that Naruto couldn’t give. The carnival was shutting down around them, and if Iruka caught him in this position, then he would actually be killed. He had to let go of Sasuke’s hands; he had to force himself to step away.

This had been a risky move. A very risky move, but it paid off. Sasuke seemed to be a loss for words. He stood, fingers touching his neck where Naruto had made his claim, eyes wide. Sasuke always had something to say. Maybe it was Naruto’s turn.

“That’s something to remember me by,” he said, still out of breath, “until next time.”

Naruto didn’t know if Sasuke remembered saying that same thing to him, one year before, but he hoped he did. Naruto turned, to disappear into the night the same way he’d come. The last glimpses he got of Sasuke before leaving were strange.

Sasuke looked, in some ways, how he’d expected. Surprised, obviously, and turned on. There was no regret, but there was fear. Sasuke looked scared, deeply so, in a caged way, eyes big and wide and seeing all. Sasuke was afraid.

It was gone in a split second, almost so Naruto could think he imagined it. Instead, Sasuke waved, weakly, and Naruto knew then for sure; he’d fixed it. He’d done more than that. Naruto tried not to looked like he’d just been making out for five minutes when he found his dad again, still talking to Sai. Whether he pulled it off or not, he didn’t know, but Iruka didn’t say anything about it. That was good enough for him.

Naruto knew it was only visible to him, but he felt light. Glowing. Sasuke was the strongest painkiller he’d ever taken, and the effects lasted through the night, and easily into the next day. Iruka was asking him if he was alright, because he looked dazed. Yes, he was dazed. Yes, he was more than alright.

It wasn’t until he was sitting in the passenger seat of Iruka’s car that he forced himself to think about leaving Oceanside. He didn’t want to, wished the summer would stretch far into fall. Stretch into winter, spring, and the following summer. He’d be so far from Sasuke in the city, and just after they’d been so close, too.

Naruto put his head on the window and closed his eyes. Maybe his glow would last that long, until Sasuke could touch him and bring it back again. He hoped so, at least.

A tap at his window made him jump. He turned; Sai was standing outside, leaning down to look inside the car. Naruto rolled down the window, using the lever on the door, and squinted. “What’s up, Sai? We were just leaving.”

“I know,” he said, and waved at Iruka. “I had something I wanted to give you.” He handed Naruto a small stack of papers, and then turned, without even bothering to say goodbye. Naruto rolled his eyes; some parts of Sai would probably never change.

“What are they?” asked Iruka, leaning over to look, and Naruto examined them, too.

They were drawings. Most of them just sketches, but it was easy to tell; they were drawings of Naruto and their friends. Sai must have been sneaky, or at least very quick; Naruto hadn’t noticed him with his sketchbook out often. He’d captured Sakura and Choji perfectly, their big smiles. Ino, rolling her eyes. And Shikamaru looked properly bored in almost every sketch. Naruto himself was in several, and he could see himself in them, too.

Iruka smiled, ruffled his hair. “What a nice gift.” Naruto nodded, looking through them all. They were better than photographs, because there wasn’t anything posed. It was just Oceanview, and his favorite people who lived in it, existing. He was tearing up slightly; embarrassing.

He didn’t get to the bottom of the pile until Iruka was speeding down the highway, but there was one that was different from the others. It was just Naruto, from the shoulders up.

Sasuke ” was written underneath it in quotes. Naruto tilted his head at it, looking at the interesting shadows of his face, and then he knew. Sai most likely drew it when Naruto had told him about Sasuke, under the streetlamp at the picnic table. Again, Sai had expertly transferred life to paper. Naruto’s eyes widened.

It had clicked. Why Sasuke had told him not to look that way at him.

Naruto looked like he was in love.

The paper trembled slightly in his hands, and then he shoved it back to the bottom of the pile. He didn’t want to think about it. The glowing was okay, the fond summer memories were okay, but he didn’t want to be in love with someone he was leaving behind. Naruto would miss him so much, think about him all the time. If he was in love. If.

He leaned against the window again, willing himself out of it, back to Oceanview. Naruto tried his best to convince himself he had any say in his emotions towards Sasuke, but that was a lie. The way Sasuke made him feel wasn’t like any other sensation he’d ever felt. If this was love, if he was in love, he’d be helpless to it, he knew it. It would own him. Naruto began to mouth the words, hoping they’d feel wrong on his tongue. I’m in love with...

He didn’t want to think about it.