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Flip The Coin

Chapter Text

Something had happened.

Something bad. Not bad enough that the civilians were informed, but bad enough that even they somehow caught a whiff of it, whispering worriedly between themselves on street corners and in the shops.

Naruto wasn’t quite sure what it was. Someone was dead, but that was hardly noteworthy. They had been killed – better, but not that uncommon yet.

Not that he really cared. He was just bored, and trying to eavesdrop on the jounin was always good training. It also provided him with a lot of information and stories he thought might be of use someday, if only to get back at the nastier ones.

Soon he would start the Academy, at long last, and that would at least provide him with some entertainment and a place to be, things to do during the day. There was only so many hours a day he could train on his own in the forest and his pranks demanded less and less time and effort with how he had perfected them over the years. In the Academy he would learn to be a proper ninja, to get stronger, and once he was strong enough he wouldn’t be bothered by anyone anymore. For that, he was willing to sit through any number of boring lessons.

Speaking of the Academy, it was possible that Something had happened there. It was mentioned several times, although… No, not the place. The Someone.

An Academy teacher.

The name Umino Iruka only conjured a very vague image in Naruto’s mind, from passing by the Academy when the classes were done for the day. A man with a vertical scar on the bridge of his nose and a friendly smile. Well, a friendly smile for his students and their parents. Certainly not for Naruto.

The teacher had died. Had been killed.

What seemed to be really important though was the How and the Who. Naruto kept walking quietly the corridors of the Hokage Tower, slow enough that he could catch words of the whispered conversation around him but with enough purpose that he wouldn’t look like he was wandering and draw attention on himself. He still got some nasty looks, but they had to think he was here for a reason, whatever it was. Practicing this move day after day had paid off – half of the shinobis working at the Tower were convinced he had an actual reason to be there so often, instead of him just being nosy.

He had to find some joy somewhere.

The name Danzo was dropped off so low it was barely audible, not far from the Hokage’s office, by two jounins with grave expressions on their face. This one, Naruto knew, and he knew the face to go with it too, even if he had never dealt with the man directly. Naruto avoided him like the plague, partly because he was always looking like he wanted to talk to him when they happened to cross path, and mostly because he was terribly creepy. Not physically – ninjas hiding half or all of their faces and bodies and wearing weird clothes and weird objects were less than a curiosity in Konoha, and Naruto had grown up surrounded by people who looked way scarier than they actually were. But that Danzo guy, oh, he was a creep for real. Naruto hated to feel his look on himself. It always gave him the urge to hide away, to remove himself from that field of vision, to get out of reach. The man was supposed to be an elder of the council, from what Naruto had gathered, and also managed a lot of shady things it always felt best left alone.

It wasn’t Danzo who had killed the teacher, but he was responsible somehow.

The Danzo wouldn’t be seen around the village anymore is what Naruto got out of this. Good riddance. If he had caused the death of another shinobi without a good reason, it was understandable. Somehow, it felt like it was more than that though. It wasn’t just about the death of the teacher.

What Danzo did…

Naruto heard that several times. What Danzo did. And it wasn’t about the teacher. It was bigger, on the longer run. Things that had been unearthed, either by the teacher or by his death. Or maybe that’s the reason why he was dead? There were a few people looking sad when saying his name. He seemed well known and well loved around the Hokage Tower.

Naruto couldn’t relate.

After a third tour, he started to feel the eyes on him get suspicious, so he decided to finish up his visit by the Hokage’s office, to see if the old man’s mood and company could tell him more about what had happened. And if he could get an extra allowance this month to buy some more kunai at the weapon shop. That was the initial purpose of his visit.

The doors to the office were open, and even if the two jounins standing guard leveled him a disapproving look, they didn’t try to stop him when he stepped into the room.

The old man was sitting at his desk. Naruto’s steps faltered, because the man looked ten years older than the last time Naruto had seen him. The wrinkles on his face were deeper, the weariness in his expression, in his whole posture, heavy enough that Naruto could see them plain as day. The man barely glanced at him, and okay, Naruto had expected him to still be mad about his latest stunt at the fish market the week before, but it was more than that. The old man’s face didn’t budge, didn’t even try for a smile.

Maybe Something was worse than Naruto had thought.

“What is it, Naruto?” the old man asked, his tone clearly conveying now wasn’t a time for being rude or wasting his time. Naruto opened his mouth but was interrupted by a jounin rushing into the office and almost stepping on Naruto in his haste, who sidestepped him just in time with a long practice of avoiding hurried adults for whom he was just too small and unworthy to take notice of.

“Hokage-sama, yet another report. Among the children that were taken, there was…”

The old man raised a hand to silence the jounin and turned a pointed stare at Naruto, who had hoped to be forgotten long enough to catch some more information.

“Naruto. Leave. Don’t come back before…”

The old man got lost in thought for a moment, considering.

“…Before I visit you.”

Both men waited patiently until Naruto had cleared the room. He heard the Hokage extend the command to his guards so that they knew he wasn’t to be allowed in anymore.

Whatever. It didn’t matter. He could find other ways to occupy himself and other shinobi to stalk and spy on. He didn’t care much about those matters anyway. So what if that Danzo was out of the picture? That sounded like good news as far as he was concerned. Especially if there were… kidnapped children involved? He always knew this man was nasty.

As for the Academy teacher…

Well, it was certainly sad. Probably.

Naruto didn’t care much though. He had to go train, to become strong. Strong people didn’t fear death.

.

Something had happened, of that Sasuke was certain, but he had no idea what and no one would tell him anything.

Just because he was a kid didn’t mean he was an idiot. He caught on some things. Like how stressed his father had been lately, and how Itachi worked more and more and spent less and less time at home, even if he wasn’t on a mission. He caught on things being whispered around in the Uchiha district, how worried the adults looked sometimes.

That was nothing though compared to the chaos of this day. His father had been running around between the Hokage Tower and the Uchiha district since dawn, face screwed up into a worried frown, and his mother, although she hadn’t said it is so many words, had advised him not to get too far from the house.

But the most obvious sign was Itachi. Because Itachi actually looked affected too. For real. He was following their father, which was shocking in and on itself, since their relationship had been strained for months now, and that they hadn’t been seen sharing a space anymore that was strictly necessary – or imposed by their mother who would never stand by either of them eating in another room to avoid the tension of the dinner table.

Sasuke learned that one of the Academy teachers had died in mysterious circumstances. Itachi knew him, but he hadn’t been taught by him when he was at the Academy, and Sasuke doubted that was what made his stoic older brother so shaken up. Not that he looked shaken up. In fact for most people he probably looked as aloof and calm as ever. But Sasuke could see it and judging by the frown on his mother’s face, she could too. Itachi was upset, and Sasuke didn’t know why.

He went to see Shisui, since he was about the only one who didn’t treat Sasuke as a bothering kid, but even he was surprisingly tight-lipped this time. He looked sad too, and Sasuke couldn’t decide, between him and Itachi, on who the expression felt the most alien.

“You’re too young to be involved in all this,” he said, but when Sasuke started to protest, he got a dark look on his face and said, more serious than Sasuke had ever heard him be, “it’s a lucky thing, Sasuke.”

Frustrated, Sasuke went back home and sulked in his room for a while, until his mother called him down for dinner. Nothing of importance was discussed at the table – nothing was discussed at all, really – and Itachi followed their father in his office once they were done. They closed the door tightly behind them and his mother stopped him from approaching the room. She was apologetic but firm in the command that he was to leave this alone for now. He would be told when the time was right.

From experience, Sasuke knew it could be in literal years, but it’s not like he could do anything about it, so he decided to let it go for now.

Whatever it was that had happened, it didn’t seem inherently bad. There was no immediate danger, no sense of panic. On the contrary, Sasuke was surprised to notice subtle changes in the days and weeks that followed, that didn’t look much, but that he couldn’t help connect for some reasons. He had never realized how truly tense the residents of the Uchiha district were until it started to loosen bit by bit. He started to see more and more Uchiha in the streets outside of their own district, and even more surprising, to see non-Uchiha walking their own. They didn’t discuss it properly with the other kids, but they all got the feeling that an unspoken ban had been lifted. They went to play on the square next to the Academy and the feeling of being unwelcomed that had always clung to him when he was out of the Uchiha district was dimed out by a wild margin.

This was nothing though compared to the biggest change of them all – Itachi and their father started talking to each other again.

Like, talking for real. And spend time together too. Sasuke went back home several times to find them sitting in the garden, deep in conversation, or even, and he had to do a double take on that one, training together. Sasuke wasn’t sure it had ever happened in his lifetime, not since he was old enough to remember anyway.

It was a good thing, really, it was. His mother looked happier too, and she announced one day at dinner that she was going back to the shinobi forces as a jounin sensei. Sasuke had never even known she was one. Itachi took less and less mission outside the village, spending more and more time at the Hokage Tower and with the Intelligence. His father too spent a lot more time out, mostly with other clan heads, as far as Sasuke could tell. It was frustrating because he didn’t know what had prompted all those changes, but they weren’t bad changes, so he didn’t want to complain.

Except if his father had been a little more focused on Itachi than Sasuke before, it was nothing compared to how things were now.

Sasuke understood on some level that something bad had happened, or could have happened, and that Itachi had gone through something they needed to work out. And he had always known, always accepted that Itachi was simply better than him, more worthy of attention. It didn’t sting so much because his brother was better than anyone really. It looked like their father didn’t intend to let him to his own device anymore. He got involved in his training again, in his life in general.

Sasuke didn’t think his father could be any less involved in his life, but oh, how wrong he was.

Itachi and their father had mended whatever rift there was between them. And Sasuke had all but disappeared from their sight in the process.

They both promised to be there for his first day at the Academy, and made it as far as the gate to the Uchiha district before a chunin hurried toward them, telling them that they were needed urgently at the Hokage’s office. They both apologized before leaving Sasuke alone with his mother.

It was fine. Sasuke knew he had nothing on the village’s politics in their eyes. As it should have been, really. They were discussing important matters with important people, Sasuke’s first day at the Academy was meaningless in comparison.

He would have to be Hokage to hope to get their attention.

Huh. Now that was an idea.

Chapter Text

“Don’t come back before I visit you.”

Famous last words. Naruto hadn’t seen the old man in over a year.

It was probably petty of him to take the command so literally when he had never bothered to listen to anything the old man told him. He didn’t care. It was better this way, actually.

Whatever the details of that Thing that had happened, it was huge. It was easily seen in the way the masked shinobi that were supposed to keep an eye on him all but disappeared in the following weeks, obviously busy with more important matters. He still received his monthly allowance, albeit not exactly on time, but that was the extent of how involved in his life the old man and his shinobis became.

It was really better this way. Naruto was free to roam around the village and the forest without the constant presence of his guards on his back, or worse, their stern command for him to go back home when he had stayed out too long for their taste.

The only problem was it also meant he could no longer ask when he was short on money. Fortunately, this was easily solved by the latest skill he had decided to work on – pickpocketing. Giving that he was very likely to get thrown out or beaten when walking down the market anyway, he had decided that he might as well get something out of it. It was going pretty well. The few times he had been caught, the villagers had been strangely reluctant to actually go against him, and he’d slipped past their grasp before they could call the police.

He was seriously starting to consider this as his main career path, because the Academy, as it turned out, was B O R I N G.

Not only that though – it was disappointing in every way. Naruto had been excited to finally get proper reading and writing lessons – his meager knowledge from the orphanage drastically lacking for anything harder than deciphering a restaurant menu – but if they did indeed have lessons, it was clear that they were supposed to be for strengthening their level, not building it from scratch. All the kids around him could already read the textbooks and scrolls with ease, having been taught by various family members or mentors. Naruto did his best to follow, but he kept mixing everything, and it’s not the teachers that were going to be any help.

Speaking of the teachers, they were all assholes without fail. Naruto was used to being shunned for no reason, but it was one thing for a woman at the shop to cast him dirty looks from behind a counter, and it was another entirely to be targeted at every turn by a teacher in a class full of rowdy kids. No matter what happened and even if he was napping on his desk, he was always accused of every single misdeed in the classroom and sent out several times a day, which made it quite hard to follow any lesson. It was either that or being ignored completely, to the point where his turn was skipped during individual exercise, and he wasn’t paired with anyone during training.

To top it all, if the kids weren’t as outward hostile as the civilians were, or quietly disapproving like the shinobi, none of them looked like they wanted to befriend him either. They already had their friends, they groups and cliques, and he was made to feel like an outsider in every aspect of the Academy life.

Skipping class wasn’t going to make it any better, but going wouldn’t either. So Naruto had taken to go to the market instead, and to keep training on his own. He spied on the older shinobi working through their routine on the training grounds and did his best to copy them, but he lacked an actual adversary, instead of a tree or a wooden dummy.

Basically, everything sucked, if not harder, then the same amount as it did before.

“Shouldn’t you be going to class?”

Naruto shrugged as the old Teuchi put a ramen bowl in front of him. Naruto felt no remorse paying for it with the wallet of a mean old hag who had insisted she wanted to buy the last of the apples of the fruit merchant just when Naruto was eyeing them, the whole twenty of them. She had been mortified to have the man pack them all, only to be unable to locate her money.

“In a minute,” Naruto said, slurping loudly at his noodles. Old Teuchi was the one and only person in the entire village that didn’t treat Naruto like a chewing gum sticking to the sole of his shoe. Well, as long as Naruto paid for his meals, anyway.

“It’s important to go to class,” the old man insisted. Naruto didn’t answer. What could he say? How could he explain how awful it made him feel, to be alone in a room fool of kids his age, to be told constantly he was stupid, incompetent, insolent and troublesome? He wanted to learn, he did. But no one wanted him to.

The old Teuchi had been heartbroken by the death of that Academy teacher a few months back. He kept saying Konoha had lost one of its very best teachers, and Naruto couldn't help but wonder if it was true, if that man was really that good, good enough that he would have taught even Naruto, who was too dumb to even learn to read properly. He would never know, so it was pointless to imagine. But imagining ways his life would turn a little better was all he had sometimes.

Since he didn’t want to be lectured again, Naruto promised he would go to the Academy that afternoon. They had taijutsu practice after an hour on the history of the shinobi world, and he would actually get to beat up some of the other kids.

Naruto was decent at taijutsu, if only because he trained his body enough that he had more brute force than most of his classmates. What he lacked was proper practice at hand to hand combat, since all he knew he had learned by spying on older shinobis training, but he had never actually sparred with another person. The kids of his class made for poor opponents. Naruto had to hold on, actually, if he didn’t want to seriously injure one of them and get punished for his aggressiveness. Weak, the whole of them.

Except when it came to the Uchiha kid.

Uchiha Sasuke was the target to take down in taijutsu lessons. Not only was he stupidly fast and agile, he was also super efficient, never wasting a move, and usually laid Naruto down in five moves or less. He wasn’t even smug about it, just indifferent, like it was routine for him. To be fair, it kind of was, and at least Naruto did hold for five moves (or less), whereas others didn’t last even one. But it was still infuriating.

He was also the only one that Naruto could actually improve with, since none of the other put up a decent fight or even tried to. Being as diligent as he was, Sasuke didn’t have the other kids’ tendency to just pick another partner when paired off with Naruto because they knew the teacher wouldn’t care. Not that it mattered since they were all useless in a fight.

“Are you alright?” Sasuke asked, like the bastard he was, going as far as extending his hand to help Naruto up. Naruto had half a mind to swat it away, but he was well aware of what trouble any offense done to “Sasuke-kun” would bring down on him, courtesy of his gaggle of fangirls. Sasuke put him up to his feet before turning away, ready to move on to the next pairing.

Naruto wasn’t though. As much as he hated getting his ass handed to him, Sasuke was indeed the best of the class. Naruto wanted to get strong – it was the only reason why he hadn’t abandoned the Academy entirely. Sasuke was the strongest, therefore Naruto had to beat him, and then he would have gotten a little closer to his goal.

“Let’s go again.”

Sasuke raised a skeptical eyebrow, but Mizuki didn’t look like he gave a damn about what they were doing, busy as he was chewing one of the girls out, probably over a minor and unimportant mistake. Mizuki had to have the award for worse teacher of that goddamn school, and that was without taking into account how poorly he treated Naruto in particular. The man was nice enough, at first glance, but all had grown to quietly despise him. He was creepily praising and pampering to the clan kids and put down anyone else with a friendly smile. Naruto had seen even Sasuke, of all people, get tensed at his stupid comments.

Honestly, Naruto found his power of annoyance to be pretty mild compared to the insults he had received before. What really sucked was his tendency to systematically throw Naruto out after five minutes of class. Not that his lectures were interesting, but well… Naruto had to pass his classes somehow.

“…Fine,” Sasuke said eventually, falling back in position. Most of the kids had abandoned practice since their teacher didn’t look like has going to pay attention to any of them any time soon, but Naruto didn’t want to let go now. He wanted to punch someone, and dammit, he would.

The sole advantage Naruto had over Sasuke was that picking up all kind of moves from a wide variety of people had made his own fighting style unpredictable. Sasuke’s style was more complex and advanced than the Academy standard, but very academic still, and not all that diversified. Naruto had been slowly learning all his moves, and he intended to make good use of it.

He held on for six moves. The next time, seven. Sasuke was growing more serious and more into it, and it was probably the first time Naruto was seeing him kind of enjoying himself. Naruto didn’t get his appeal to the girls – the boy was gloomy and boring, never seen having any fun at all.

He was vaguely aware they were starting to draw attention from the rest of the class, but they were eight moves in and now wasn’t the time to lose his concentration.

That was without taking freaking Mizuki into account.

“Very good, Sasuke,” they heard from the side. “I see training with your brother is paying off.”

Sasuke’s sudden misstep and missed hit were so surprising and out of place that Naruto almost didn’t manage to take advantage of it. Spur of the moment moves where his forte though. He grabbed the fist that had missed him by a wide range and used it to pull Sasuke toward him, up over his back, and land him flat on the floor.

Boy did that feel good.

“NARUTO.”

For two hot seconds.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Mizuki asked. It was so out of place even the other kids exchanged puzzled looks, at a loss too as to what Naruto had done wrong exactly. They were used to it though, used to the randomness of Naruto’s punishment, and they didn’t question it. They didn’t care.

“It’s called sparring sensei. Maybe you’ve heard of it,” he answered mildly. The man was easy to piss off, and if he was sent out, he wasn’t actually skipping class, right?

“Sasuke, are you alright?” the teacher asked. Naruto was pleased to see that Sasuke was already on his feet and ready to go again, and that he was trying to kill their teacher by the sole force of his glare. He didn’t answer and Naruto turned away, ready to fall back into position.

“Get out of here Naruto. You’re dismissed.”

They both turned incredulous look at the man who launched into a lecture about reckless violence – in freaking hand-to-hand combat. Naruto felt the familiar heat of his anger rise from the pit of his stomach, the tension spreading in his muscles as he tensed all over, ready to snap. He wanted nothing more than to jump that moron and bite his fucking nose off, but he couldn’t afford that kind of trouble now that the old man had completely lost interest in his fate.

Naruto was sure he didn’t know yet just how bad he could be treated, and he was in no hurry to find out.

So he kept it all tightly lock inside and cast a last hateful look at their smug teacher before exiting the Academy, anxious to find a post in one of the training ground he could beat up to dust.

He was past caring anyway. Or well, it was more like he was actually in a state of constant anger that meant he wasn’t as prone to outburst as he once was. It’s not that he never lost his cool, it’s that he never had it in the first place.

What the day had proved though, was that sparing with Sasuke had to become a thing. It was stimulating in a way few things were in his life – and it felt like he was getting somewhere at last. It was the first step. Beating the best student of his class. Then the best of his rank, then the best of any rank. Then the best of the village. The best in the world. And then…

Then there would be no one left to bother him.

.

“I see training with your brother is paying off.”

There was no way Mizuki wasn’t doing this on purpose. No way. Had Sasuke been sparring with anyone else, he would have been convinced it was just their teacher’s tactic to destabilize him. But why would he do that for Naruto? He hated the boy. Everyone did, for some reason.

Granted, his classmates hated Mizuki even more.

“I see training with your brother is paying off.”

In what universe. Sasuke was lucky if he saw Itachi long enough for them to exchange “hellos” these days. If anything, it proved that the “missions” had always been a bullshit excuse. Itachi was no longer part of ANBU, and he was even less at home than before.

It was even more than that though. Sasuke was absolutely convinced that Itachi was avoiding him.

His mother kept telling him it was just an impression, but he wasn’t stupid. Itachi couldn’t get out of a room fast enough when Sasuke entered it. Sometimes he stared at him and it looked like he wanted to talk, to say something, but he never did. Instead he turned away and disappeared.

They had not trained together for months. Sasuke was busting his ass off all on his own, thank you very much – and with Shisui sometimes, who took pity on him. He was no longer in ANBU either. Sasuke still didn’t know what that was all about.

And the worst thing was, for how little Itachi was in his life now, he was still there constantly. Mizuki was the worse but he was far from the only one. None of their teachers could resist making the comparison. All. The. Time. “You’re very good at this, just like Itachi!”. "I remember when your brother learned this." "I would have thought you’d get a grasp at this sooner seeing how your brother…”

His classmates were in this too. Half of the girls fawning over him were just doing it by proxy, like their sisters with Itachi before them, or hoping to get closer to the real deal. "Your brother is so cool. You’re so lucky. How is he like?"

Like a ghost was how he was.

Sasuke didn’t especially like the Academy. He went through the motion, doing what was asked of him and keeping to himself. He had been trained in the Uchiha’s way from a young age and most of the things they studied at school, he'd known them for at least a few years. Sometimes he had a hard time understanding how his classmates could fell at such basic things, but then he remembered the stern voice of his mother telling him that he was privileged among them and that it was never an excuse to be condescending.

He didn’t feel like he was in the wrong though, when he saw half of them focusing more on the latest manga, game, or flower arrangement than on their training and study. Most of them didn’t seem to care much about being good shinobi, to the point where he wondered what they were doing here exactly.

He hadn’t made any friends. He hung out with the other Uchiha kids, or he stayed on his own. He didn’t have time for friends anyway – he had to train if he ever wanted to be a blip on his father and his brother’s radar one day.

He was supposed to walk back home, but he was angry and frustrated and his mother would ask him “are you alright?” and if he said yes she’d know he was lying and if he said no he’d have to tell her why.

Walking in circles seemed like a much better idea.

“Oï, Sasuke!”

If people would just leave him alone.

Naruto fell into step with him, unconcerned with his murderous expression.

“What do you want?”

“I need us to train together.”

Sasuke stopped in his track to cast an incredulous look at his classmate to whom he had literally never spoken to before today. The boy was dead serious.

“What.”

"I need to get stronger and that won't happen by sparring with a tree. And you're the best in our class so it has to be you."

Sasuke was. He was the best of their year, but it hardly seemed to matter. Sasuke could best the entire Konoha shinobi force, he would still be second best.

“Why don’t you ask Itachi?” he spat, fed up with this discussion already. Naruto was a troublemaker with no friends, a permanent scowl and the worst grades out of them all. Sasuke had zero interest in training with him.

That was, until the next sentence that came out of his mouth.

“Who the hell is Itachi? Why would I ask him? Is he better than you?”

Naruto started to look mildly worried at how long it took Sasuke to produce an answer. It was just a lot to take in, since never before in his life had someone not known the name Uchiha Itachi.

“You… don’t know who Itachi is?”

"Sorry, I don't know every last loser of that village.”

Sasuke held back a snort but felt obligated to defend his brother. “He’s the best shinobi of the Uchiha clan, a prodigy. He was the youngest one ever to make it jounin. He…”

“You know what, that’s great. You two should get married. But will you train with me or not?”

This was beyond surreal.

“What?”

“Are you dense? I doubt mister super jounin will want to be caught within a mile radius of my vicinity, so let’s say I’m stuck with you yeah? Are you in or not? We’ll see about beating that guy later.”

“Beating… Itachi?”

“Yeah. Isn’t that the point of the strong ones?”

Sasuke was vaguely aware that Naruto was a training freak obsessed with getting stronger, and dismissive of absolutely everything else. He didn’t care about making friends, didn’t care about being nice, and he annoyed the hell out of most of the adults around them.

Including his own parents.

It was perfect.

“You know what. I’m in.”

Naruto’s eyes open wide, clearly not expecting this turn of event.

“You are?”

“Yeah. Let’s do this.”

He had no idea what he was getting himself into, but that was part of the appeal. It was something that he would do all on his own. No clan, no parents, no brother, something for himself, that he needed no one’s opinion to decide.

“Awesome.”

Naruto grinned. Sasuke smiled back.

Chapter Text

On one hand, it made Sasuke feel horribly terrible that it took so long for anyone at home to discover this new development. On the other hand, the more time passed, the more it meant he would be justified in being pissed off once they finally confronted him about it.

In the meantime, he trained with Naruto.

He honestly thought it would be a walk in the park. Naruto had strength, sure, but he had zero technic or finesse, and all his hits seemed to be lucky ones. Sasuke just had to be more serious than usual and it would be fine.

It took Naruto laying him flat on his back after one minute for him to review this judgment.

It hadn’t occurred to him that if he himself was holding back in academic training, so was Naruto. Sasuke was making an effort not to use the most advanced moves he knew, which were unfair to his undertrained classmates. Naruto was making an effort not to throw his sparring partners across the field, apparently.

He was ruthless. Sasuke was kind of used to going easy during training because, well. It was training. Naruto didn’t even apologize though, for making him bite the dust so hard he bit himself for real and spat blood for their entire sparring session. He wasn’t there to do this the easy way, apparently.

His mother had frowned the first few times at his ruined clothes and bruised face, but Sasuke could adapt quickly. And as Naruto learned to be less of an unruly brut, Sasuke learned to fight for real. 

Naruto observed older shinobis train all the time – Sasuke had no idea when he actually went home – and brought new moves and technics to try during their sparring. Sasuke was reluctant to include foreign moves in his own styles, but Naruto didn’t have such qualms. After months of this, he was still 100% unpredictable and kept Sasuke constantly on his toes.

Sasuke had to admit it wasn’t so bad.

He had suggested they trained on ninjutsu and chakra control too, while they were at it, but Naruto had declined, claiming he already had someone else for that. Sasuke had a hard time believing it, for Naruto was always on his own. There was just Haruno Sakura who had been sticking to him for no reason the past few weeks, but they didn’t seem to even talk to each other. Sasuke and Naruto still didn’t interact at the Academy either. In fact, outside from the training field they favored, often empty because too far away from the heart of the village and half hidden in the trees, they didn’t even acknowledge each other’s presence. At first it was both their doing, but as time passed, Sasuke began to entertain the idea of befriending the other boy for real, if only because they spent so much time together.

Naruto was impermeable to the idea though. He just wasn’t interested. Anyone approaching him at school or in the streets got a snarl and a menacing glare. Sasuke was special in the sense that Naruto was civil to him during training, but that was it.

Oh, well. If Naruto didn’t want to be friends, Sasuke wasn’t going to insist.

Except if his father told him not to.

He was late again. It happened more and more as Sasuke’s stamina improved. Naruto was never the one to call off training expect on laundry day, because he was tireless, and he was greatly annoyed by the limits of Sasuke’s body.

They had practiced grab-and-throw moves as Naruto called it and Sasuke was sore all over for being tossed against the hard-packed dirt again and again. His pain tolerance was also increasing – Shisui had commented a few weeks ago that he was “much less of a crybaby lately”. He guessed it was meant as a sort of compliment.

“I’m home,” he called once the front door was closed behind him, fully expecting to get nothing in return. His mother was on a mission with her genin team and not due back before the next day. As for the other residents of the house, who knew. Not Sasuke.

As it was, he was very surprised to see his father emerged from the kitchen with a scowl firmly in place, the one that guaranteed Sasuke was in for a lecture.

“We need to talk Sasuke. Come.”

His mother was sitting at the table, Itachi too, which told him it wasn’t about just being late for dinner. In fact dinner wasn’t even set. His mother was still in her jounin uniform – freshly back, he guessed.

“Is there a problem?” he asked, even if he could imagine where this was going. Indeed his father wasted no time cutting through the heart of the issue.

“You’ve been training with Uzumaki Naruto,” he stated. Sasuke nodded. No use in denying it.

“This ends today, Sasuke. I don’t want you to see that boy anymore.”

Oh. Oh.

It wasn’t so long ago, Sasuke thought bleakly, that he would have agreed without even uttering a word. He wanted nothing more than to please his father and that included never disobeying, never stepping out of line.

But this had been going on for months. Months. He’d met with Naruto almost every single school day. They weren’t advertising it but they weren’t making a big secret out of it either.

And now, out of the blue, his father wanted to forbid it?

No way.

“Why?” he asked, anger already rising. He never used to be angry before. He didn’t really like it.

“Because I said so. That boy is bad news and a bad influence and I don’t want you to mix up with him.”

The thing was, Sasuke was tongue-tied in front of his father. His anger and frustrating were boiling inside of him but he didn’t know what to do, what to say. Didn’t know how to outright defy him.

“He’s not! And-and we’re helping each other out. What is wrong with that?”

“You don’t need him to train.”

“Who am I supposed to ask?”

That, at least, gave his father a pause. Sasuke saw Itachi stiffen out of the corner of his eyes, but he said nothing. He never did.

“I made great progress training with him. I-I’m not gonna stop!”

The look of his father was priceless. Sasuke was sweating nervously, but he didn’t take it back.

“Yes,” his father growled carefully, “you are.”

“N-no I’m not,” Sasuke muttered, much less assured now. He wanted this conversation to be over. Why was it such a big deal suddenly? Naruto wasn’t a poster child but he wasn’t a criminal either. This was absurd, unfair.

“Yes you are!”

“No, he’s not.”

They all turned toward his mother.

She had been silent until then, as she usually was. It was their father who held the authority, who made this kind of decisions. They may argue privately about it, but she always deferred to him in the end.

Sasuke felt instantly forgotten as his parents glared at each other. There was a world unsaid between them, things he couldn’t begin to comprehend. He exchanged a quick glance with Itachi who seemed just as puzzled as he was. Small comfort.

“We’ve talked about this, Mikoto,” their father said in a warning tone.

“You’ve talked about it, and I didn’t say a thing. But I’m not going to stand by it any longer. This is wrong, has been from the start, and I know I can’t do anything about it, but I’ll be damned if I stop him too.”

Sasuke had never seen her like this. Her face was hardened by anger and… grief? She seemed so resentful, so hurt. He had no idea what they were talking about.

“We’ll talk about this later.”

It was their father’s way of cutting the discussion short, and meant they had to abide by whatever he had said last and probably never actually discuss it again. Except she didn’t follow suit this time.

“We will. But in the meantime, Sasuke,” she turned toward him, instantly losing some of her hardness to smile at him. “It would make me very happy, if you were to befriend Naruto.”

Their father started to protest. Sasuke only nodded dumbly and, seeing that they were about to get serious about that argument, elected to exit the room as fast as he could.

Itachi got the same idea and they bumped into each other in the corridor. Itachi was always on his side even when he said nothing and Sasuke knew he had interceded in his favor to their father many times, but it would have been nice to have some actual support for once. All he wanted was for them to talk again. He didn’t know where it went, their bond, the things they used to share.

He didn’t know what he had done wrong.

“What should I do?” he asked, hoping that Itachi wouldn’t turn away this time. That he’d say something, anything.

He took his time, as he always did. He was careful with words like they scared him. Sasuke could understand that – he didn’t trust words either.

“You should do what you want, Sasuke.”

And it could have sounded dismissive but coming from Itachi, it was a huge deal. Sasuke had the nagging feeling that he had never seen Itachi do something he actually wanted to do his whole life. He always looked so pained by everything, forced to do, forced to be. No wonder he was exhausted all the time.

“Won’t you train with me?” Sasuke asked, both challenging and a little desperate. No matter that Naruto was kind of fun and no matter his mother’s blessing – if Itachi said he wanted to train with him, Sasuke would ditch the blonde in a heartbeat.

But his brother’s face soured like he had bitten on a lemon and he shook his head.

“I’d rather not.”

And that hurt. There was not even an explanation, no excuse. At least it was clear. He simply didn’t want to.

Sasuke blinked back tears and went straight to his room.

He was planning to sulk there and skip dinner, but they didn’t even have dinner that night.

.

Naruto expected that kind of talk much sooner. He’d been waiting for months for the ball to drop, for Sasuke telling him that his parents, for whatever reasons, didn’t want them to hang out anymore. It had happened with every kid he ever had the slightest interactions with – including when it was just him being bullied.

The two teenagers waiting for him at their usual training ground where unfamiliar to him but it wasn’t hard to guess who they were. Dark eyes, dark hair, dark clothes, white skin, the only splash of color being the blood red of the fan on their back. They were obviously related to Sasuke, and most likely here to tell him not to approach him ever again. They were also early. He wondered if they were just planning on waiting around like idiots or if they knew he would ditch class and be here sooner than he was supposed to.

“Hi. Can I help you?”

One had long hair tied in a low ponytail and looked bored and boring. The other was more open and cheerful, and he was the one to answer.

“Hello. You’re Naruto, right? I’m Sasuke’s cousin Shisui, and this is his brother Itachi.”

Ha. So that was the famous Itachi Sasuke couldn’t shut up about. Be it to rage or praise him, Sasuke referred to the other boy at least once a day – or Itachi was referred to Sasuke by whoever. It was hilarious to watch.

“Cool. What do you want?”

The training ground was remote, it was part of its appeal, but it had no appeal to Naruto now. They could do whatever they wanted to him. No one would come looking. No one would care.

“We know you’ve been training with Sasuke a lot, lately, so we just wanted to… get acquainted.”

At least the boy wasn’t trying to look convincing. Naruto didn’t read him as a threat, but shinobis were good at looking friendly while planning a murder.

“You should know that our parents disapprove of this,” the brother said in a deep, even voice.

“Their father disapproves,” the cousin corrected, smile still in place. “But Sasuke is free, right?”

The question was aimed more at the other Uchiha than at Naruto.

“Should I care?” Naruto challenged, fed up already. The brother didn’t like it.

“If you care about him,” he answered. Naruto snarled. Sasuke wasn’t his friends. They were sparring partners and it was already more of a connection than he had ever had with anyone, than he ever wanted, and that didn’t mean he had to braid him friendship bracelets. Sasuke’s parents weren’t his problem.

Naruto had lied, when he’d say he didn’t know who Uchiha Itachi was, that first time he’d talked to Sasuke. Well, not exactly lied – he didn’t know who he was, but he had heard his name before. Shisui’s too. Just because he was no longer welcome at the Hokage tower didn’t mean he had given up on his spying habits. He’d never went as far as peeking at official documents and meetings, but he didn’t need to. Shinobis were so nosy, and chatty. Had he cared about their secrets at all, he would have made a report to the old man about their dramatic lack of discipline and discretion.

He didn’t care though. And he had no scruple using what he’d learned.

“Wait, Itachi and Shisui, it rings a bell now… You were friends with Danzo, right?”

He still knew next to nothing about that whole affair, but he knew at least that, even if of course “friends” wasn’t the right word at all. They seemed to agree, for they both tensed, face falling into matching expressions of wariness and resentment.

“You know nothing about us,” Itachi said through gritted teeth. He was right. Naruto wasn’t about to tell him that. The boy looked ready to attack and Naruto couldn’t help but match his posture. He was never smart enough to know when to shut up, when to lay low. Better to fight, even if he lost, than to surrender.

“You wish. Leave me the hell alone. If Sasuke wants to ditch me, he can do it all on his own.”

For some reasons this loosened the cousin somehow. He put a hand on Itachi’s shoulder, and it spoke volume about their closeness that the other teen relaxed immediately. They exchanged a meaningful look, charged with unsaid understandings.

Naruto wanted to punch them.

“There’s no need to be aggressive,” Shisui said after a pause. “He can do what he wants indeed, and he told that to his father actually.”

Naruto faltered, caught off guard

“He… did?”

“Hm hm. We just wanted you to know that things were kind of tensed. Because he probably won’t tell you himself. For what it’s worth, I think it’s a great thing personally.  As long as you two get along, we don’t have a problem with you.”

But they would at Naruto’s first misstep. The threat was clear as day, although they probably had no idea what they were supposed to be wary for when it came to the blonde.

It’s not like he knew himself.

“Do you know why?” he asked, unable to stop himself. “Why they don’t want this,” he added at their puzzled expression. They crossed gaze again.

“No,” Itachi admitted. Naruto rolled his eyes. They were useless, to top it all.

“Seriously though. What do you know? About us,” the cousin asked, grave despite his open expression. Naruto shrugged.

“Nothing more,” he assured them. It was almost the truth. “You should leave. Sasuke will be here soon.”

“Right.” Shisui turned to leave but he had to grab his cousin’s sleeve to make him move too. Itachi was staring at him with an intensity that was beyond uncomfortable. Naruto held his gaze all the same.

Sasuke reached the training ground a mere five minutes after they were gone. Naruto debated keeping the encounter from him for two whole seconds before deciding that there was no reason he was the only one in a sour mood.

“You didn’t tell me that super-jounin was your brother.”

Sasuke never looked especially joyful, but it was funny to see that he could always get gloomier.

“You met him?”

“He came to warn me about your parents. Something you want to share?”

Naruto would deny to the day he died how badly he wanted to hear Sasuke actually say it.

“No. It’s none of your business.”

It was music to his ears.

“That’s what I told them.”

“Forget about it then. So, where were we?”

For all that he complained about his parents Sasuke was very much a mama’s boy. It felt significant somehow that he was actively going against their will by being here with Naruto. And even if that was the appeal for the other boy, even if he was just looking for some rebellion, it was still nice. To not be alone, just for a little while.

.

“You do know, right? What’s up with the boy.”

Itachi shrugged. Shisui sighed heavily. It had become his mission in life to manage to drag Itachi out of the pit of gloom and despair he had crawled in, but it wasn’t for today, obviously. Danzo was long gone, never to return again, and their clan was safe. But it wasn’t thanks to them, and it didn’t do anything to alleviate the weight on Itachi’s mind.

“I think I do,” Itachi conceded after a few more steps.

“I guess it makes sense they wouldn’t want them to become friends,” Shisui pondered aloud. He had his doubts too. It had never been said in so many words, but Shisui was good at letting his ears wander, and shinobis were terrible gossips.

“Maybe so,” Itachi said. “None of us has any right to determine who’s the monster though.”

Shisui didn’t answer, but he couldn’t disagree. The boy looked like an insufferable brat, but he was also a freaking child. Not that it meant much of anything of course, there was no such thing as innocence to be protected for the village. They were shinobis first and maybe people second, or maybe not even that.

That’s how it had been for them anyway. But he was convinced it didn’t have to be for those who were to come, for the kids growing up right now, for Sasuke, who was so cute and kind of hilarious with his childish tantrums and his fierce will to one-up everyone else. Shisui loved that brat, and he would do his damn best to protect him from this fucked up world.

“I guess we’ll just keep an eye on them both,” he concluded. Itachi nodded. Keeping an eye on Sasuke was pretty much his sole activity in life, besides brooding. He still wasn’t talking to his little brother though.

Shisui sighed again. They still had a long, long way to go.

.

“Why did you go to Naruto?”

Itachi didn’t jump – Sasuke had yet to manage to take his brother off guard – but he still turned a surprised gaze to Sasuke who had just barged into his room unannounced. He set down his brush carefully and turned away from the scroll he was filling with his neat handwriting.

“I just wanted to meet him. I was curious, that’s all.”

“If you were curious about my life, you could ask me about it.”

He didn’t know what had possessed him to be so blunt all of the sudden. Maybe he was still high on his sparring with Naruto that never failed to pump him up. He’d dropped the subject quickly with the other boy because he didn’t want him to know how he was affected by this. It had been nice that Naruto didn’t know Itachi, even in passing, because Sasuke could rant about him all he wanted without getting a disapproving or offended look. Not that Naruto was offended by much.

Just before they had parted though, Naruto had told him, casual and unbothered, “I’m kinda mad at you for suggesting I train with him. He looks like the dullest guy ever.”

It was pretty mean and entirely untrue. Sasuke had snorted all the same. He didn’t like being this petty, didn’t like resenting Itachi this way. But Itachi had taken the time to stalk his friend while he couldn’t be bothered to say two words to him.

“What have I done?” he asked through gritted teeth. His fists were closed, nails digging into his palms as he bit his lips to keep more words from spilling out. He was shaking with pent-up frustration. He just wanted to know.

“It’s not… It’s not like that, Sasuke. It’s not your fault.”

“What is it then?”

“I can’t tell you.”

Sasuke threw his arms in the air, fed up with that same song he’d heard a million times before.

“Whatever,” he mumbled and made to leave the room, determined not to speak to his brother ever again. It was Itachi who spoke though.

“I’m sorry, Sasuke.”

It gave him a pause. Not so much the words as the tone, and the look on his face when he turned back toward his brother. Whatever it was he was talking about, it was more than the distance he kept between them, more than bothering his friend behind his back. Itachi was sorry and Sasuke didn’t even know about what. It was stupid.

“I… I just miss you.”

Sasuke felt the blush creep up his cheeks as he found a sudden interest in his socks. The left one had a hole in it – he would have to bring it to his mother so that she could mend it. Or maybe he’d do it himself. She’d been teaching him, saying it was a good skill to have. She didn’t go on that much extended missions but she too wasn’t as much at home as she used to.

Sasuke felt lonely.

“I’ll… try my best to change that,” Itachi said lamely. He seemed to found it a great ordeal, but Sasuke wasn’t asking for the moon.

“Leave Naruto alone though,” he warned. “He’s my friend.”

That made Itachi smile for some reasons.

“I will.”

Sasuke nodded and left the room, feeling a little better but still very much annoyed, and decided mending socks was as good a way as any to distract himself from his stupid family.

.

The next day, Sasuke was first at the training ground, which was unusual. Naruto strolled him a few minutes later, supremely unconcerned.

But most importantly, not alone.

“Yo, Sasuke. This is Sakura. Sakura, Sasuke.”

“We’re in the same class, idiot. We already know each other.”

It was something of an overstatement – Sasuke wouldn’t have bet his life on having spoken to the girl even once before. She used to be more feisty and loud before the Academy, when she was friend with Yamanaka Ino, but she went unnoticed nowadays. Sasuke’s eyes flicked involuntarily to her chopped hair and the clean scare running from her left cheek to the side of her skull, cutting her ear neatly in half. She looked away.

“Yeah, yeah, alright mister sociable. Sakura here has been helping me with ninjutsu, but it turns out she sucks massively at taijutsu. Like, it’s shameful really. And since you’re still too weak to go for more than a few hours, I figured an extra would keep us running, even such a bad one.”

Sasuke waited a bit, just in case this was a joke on the boy’s part, but for all his devil-may-care attitude, hands up behind his head and bored expression on his face, he was serious. Sasuke expected Sakura to take offense on the way he talked about her, but she didn’t say a thing. Despite avoiding eye contact, she looked determined, and she even found her voice when she bowed and gave out a low “thank you for having me” to the both of them.

“We are?” Sasuke couldn’t help asking, skeptic.

“Yeah, we are,” Naruto confirmed. They glared at each other for a while until Naruto sighed. “It’s gonna be great, Sas’. It’s about time you make some respectable friends yeah? And by that I mean friends you can be seen out in public with.”

Sasuke’s eyes widened, surprised enough that he didn’t pick on the absurd nickname. Was this… about his parents? It’s true that Sasuke taking on a project such as training an average shinobi into something more would sit better with his father, but it didn’t matter to him. He didn’t want to please his father.

Then again, it guaranteed his life to be easier.

He looked at the girl. There was nothing remarkable about Haruno Sakura. She was the daughter of two low-level shinobis and was pretty low-level herself, especially since she seemed to care more about being pretty than training. But a few weeks before, she had disappeared from class for days with no explanation except a "Sakura is sick" from one of the teachers. When she returned, her hair was gone, she had that scar, and she couldn’t be found more than two meters away from Naruto anymore.

No one knew what happened to her, although the rumors were running wild. Sasuke hadn’t cared much. It’s not like she had become friend with Naruto. More like he was tolerating her – she sat beside him in class and stuck close to him during breaks. They didn’t talk or interact much in any way, but more importantly, Sasuke supposed, no one talked to or approach them. Not just Naruto but Sakura as well, by extension. She had been bullied heavily since the beginning of the school year, with no one stepping in to help and no teacher to care.

Naruto was a powerful deterrent. If he had been bullied when they were younger, it had stopped when he started punching back, and later hurling kids who were mean at him across the field.

From Sakura’s perspective, Sasuke could see the boy’s appeal.

“…Fine,” he agreed eventually, with the distinct impression that he didn’t have much of a choice anyway. Naruto gave him an easy smile – he knew from the start how it was going to end. It was frustrating how often he got what he wanted by the sheer force of his power of annoyance.

“Awesome. Sakura, get in first. And I’m warning you, neither blood nor tears are a good reason to stop a fight. If you want out you’d better be dying.”

Again, where Sasuke expected the girl to protest or chicken out, she only nodded seriously. She wasn’t paying attention to Sasuke at all – her eyes were on Naruto like he was the one who would grant all her wishes.

If she wished to get stronger, it wasn’t entirely untrue. Sasuke could understand. He wanted to get stronger too.

Well. Why not, then.

Chapter Text

Sakura didn’t know people could be so cruel.

She didn’t know they’d be so cruel for no reason.

Sakura, in many many ways, was average. Average looking girl with average parents of average class leading an average life. There had never been anything remarkable about her, good or bad. She was pretty good at school, but Mizuki sensei said it’s just because she was a good bookworm, not because she was smart or anything. She picked up on thing at a speed above average, but that was all.

Average girl with average complexes about her face, her big forehead that others mock like they could have mocked any other aspect of her. She’d made friend with Ino who was far from average, who was beautiful and strong and cool, and who lifted Sakura above her average status just by being friends with her.

And then she’d gotten an average crush.

Sasuke was pretty, far prettier than any of the other boys. He was also more mature, mainly because he stayed silent instead of making crude joked and inappropriate comments all day long. He was nice and polite to all, including her. One day she’d seen him at the market with his older brother, and she’d seen him smile like he never did with the other kids, happy and soft, unrestrained. Sasuke was soft. That’s what she liked about him.

She’d decided she’d be in love with him then. It made her feel warm and hopeful. It was a very nice feeling.

She had no idea what it would bring down on her.

She lost Ino’s friendship. At first she thought it was just a phase. They had fought before, had given each other the cold shoulder, but they always made up after a few days. Not this time though. Ino was serious about that rivalry thing, and Sakura followed suit, and then discovered that all of her other friends were in fact Ino’s friends. She started the Academy alone and alone she remained.

It wasn’t so bad. She studied and daydreamed about Sasuke addressing her in class so that she wouldn’t be so alone anymore. It wasn’t so bad until it started.

She didn’t know people could be cruel for no reason.

There was a reason of course. Several, in fact, depending on the day. She was too arrogant with her good grades and good answers in class. Too arrogant to be after Sasuke with how ugly and average she was (because she could be both those things, apparently). She had a big forehead, she had too pink hair, she had no friend, she was okay with having no friend. There were reasons, and at the same time, there weren’t. It could have been anything. It’s not what mattered.

What mattered is that the girls in her class started to call her names. Then they stole her things, her lunch, her homework. Then they tripped her up in the corridor or beat her during training.

The teachers said nothing, looked away or told her that “adversity builds character”. The other kids said nothing because they didn’t care.

Ino said nothing, and that hurt the most maybe, even if she never participated, even if she was never the one to pull her hair and spill ink on her clothes. She said nothing and that hurt the most.

But it was okay. It would pass. School wouldn’t last forever. Maybe Sasuke would sweep in to save the day, to protect her. She was pretty good at ignoring all of this, at enduring until it went away. They were just mean and stupid, she wasn’t about to care, it wasn’t so bad. She wasn’t the only victim, no one had it easy at school. It didn’t matter. She built up huge fantasies in her head where she got strong and beat every single one of them, or became so good and successful they all fawned over her and begged for her forgiveness, and it was enough, because what did she care about them.

Until one day she discovered just how cruel, exactly, people could be.

It had been a good day. She had been left alone, mostly, and she’d been paired up with Sasuke for genjutsu practice. She could break out of most jutsu easily, and their teacher had praised her since she was running against an Uchiha and they were notoriously very good at genjutsu. Sasuke had even nodded to her at the end of the class, like to acknowledge her skill.

So it had been a very good day.

She was walking home after class, playing it back in her head, wondering what she could do to get that nod again, that look, to exist in his eyes. They were paired up more and more by skill level and affinities, so she rarely ended up with him. He was slightly better than her in ninjutsu and worlds better in taijutsu.

Maybe she needed to train more. She didn’t want to look all bulky and unfeminine, but rumor had it that Sasuke liked strong kunoichi… Besides, being strong could be nice, if only to get some peace.

“You’re getting way too confident, ugly.”

Sakura was yanked out of her own head to realize she was surrounded by several of her classmates in a small, empty side street.

Fear spiked instantly but she tried to reign it in. They weren’t going to hurt her, not really.

They weren’t.

“What do you want?” she asked, far more defiant than she actually felt. There was no way out of the street. There were two girls in front of her and three at her back. She was trapped.

“We saw you getting cozy with Sasuke today,” Kara said. She was the chief of the little band, and as such, her chief tormentor. She was taller and stronger than Sakura.

“We were just practicing,” she tried to defend, already knowing it was pointless. It wasn’t about that. “Let me go.”

“Don’t get cocky!”

She didn’t want to anger them further but she couldn’t not roll her eyes. How was she getting cocky? She just wanted to leave!

“You think you’re pretty enough to get his attention?” Sasaki asked, taking a step forward. Sakura took a step back, only to feel the other three closing in on her.

“No I don’t,” she answered without thinking. It was the truth. She knew she wasn’t pretty enough, wasn’t pretty at all. She dreamed, but she was aware it would never come to be. Sasuke would never notice her. Why would he? She was unremarkable.

Why wasn’t she unremarkable to them too? She just wanted to be left alone.

“That’s right, you’re not,” Sasaki said after a hesitation, caught off guard by Sakura’s blunt declaration.

“You’ve been growing your hair out for him right?”

Sakura didn’t answer. It had been told at some point that Sasuke preferred girls with long hair. Now that she thought about it, she was very skeptical about how the girl who had started that rumor could have possibly gotten that information, since every single one of them had yet to successfully hold a conversation with the boy.

She had followed it anyway. She liked her hair, despite everything, she liked its color and how it flowed in waves, brushing against her back, and she liked to take care of it. She liked her mother braiding them or running her hand through them too. Having someone else doing it would be nice, surely.

“Leave me alone,” she said weakly. Fear was rising inside of her, wild and uncontrollable. The girls were getting closer and the look in their eyes scared her. She was hyper-aware of how alone she was in that street, how there was no one around to see what was happening. No one to stop it.

“Shorter hair would suit you better, Sakura,” Kara said.

She pulled a kunai from her bag.

Time seemed to stop on its track. There was a short second suspended in time and space where nothing happened, nothing moved. The next few minutes played very fast in Sakura’s head, but she didn’t manage to make sense of them, to understand. It wasn’t possible. They wouldn’t hurt her.

People weren’t that cruel.

The others hesitated, but not for long. Kara ordered, “grab her”, and they did.

Sakura only started to struggle weakly when hands closed around her arms and neck, but there were four of them and one of her. A kick at the back of her knees sent her to the ground. The kunai got closer to her head.

“What are you doing? What are you doing? Stop, stop, stop!”

Nothing happened. She tried to move but her body was paralyzed by fear and shock, her mind refusing to face what was playing before her eyes. There was nothing she could do, and no one would come.

Kara grabbed a handful of her hear and cut through the mass.

The tug of the blade, not sharp enough to slice in one motion, was what got her out of her trance. She started trashing in earnest, screaming, anything she could do to stop it, stop it all, to make them disappear. Kara cursed, the grips hardened. Sakura kept trying to get away, seized by panic, unable to “stay still” like they were asking her too. Kara’s grip on her hair didn’t relent though. She cut again, again, again.

Then, two things happen at the very same time.

Someone screamed “what the hell are you doing you psycho?”. And Sakura, tugging hard enough to feel hair get ripped out of her skull, sent her head straight toward the kunai still in Kara’s hand.

The next few moments were a blur, because she was in shock, and because there was blood running down her face and into her eyes, making the world a literal blur. Until finally, the fighting stopped and silence returned to the scene as her tormentors ran off in the distance promising retribution.

“You know where to find me,” the boy who had come to her aid said. Because yeah, it was a boy, and even a boy she knew.

“N-Naruto? Is that you?”

“You need medical care. Come on.”

He pulled her to her feet, an arm hooked around her elbow, both to stir her and to support her. Her legs were wobbly and for a moment she wasn’t confident she would be able to walk, but he pulled mercilessly and she stumbled behind him without much of a choice.

“It’s doesn’t seem too bad, it just bleeds a lot. But you’ll have a scar.”

A scar. She brought a hand to her head. Her cheek was bleeding and starting to hurt badly. Most of her hair was gone.

The tears came only then.

“Come on,” Naruto repeated, uncomfortable. She bawled her eyes out all the way to Konoha’s hospital, the salt of her tears stinging as they ran into the cut. Sakura could taste blood – she realized with mild horror that the blade had pierced the flesh all the way through her mouth. An adult addressed them at some point. The words parted the fog clouding her head a little.

“Oh my, what happened? Naruto, what did you do?”

Sakura blinked around the tears and blood crowding her eyes. She recognized the man as one of their teachers.

“She needs help,” was all Naruto said, before letting go of her arm. She almost reached out. She didn’t want him to go.

“Stay here Naruto! You have explanations to give!”

“It… it wasn’t him,” she said, finally founding her voice. “He helped me. It was…”

She might as well have been talking to a wall. Naruto didn’t listen and ran away. The chunin sighed, cursing after him, before he seemed to remember Sakura’s presence and stirred her toward the hospital.

She felt numb, completely out of it. The man talked to a nurse but she didn’t get a word of what they were saying. She heard Naruto’s name – she wanted to tell them again, wanted to say it was Kara and her crew and that Naruto had saved her, but her throat was hoarse and they didn’t seem interested in what she had to say. The nurse stitched the cut on her cheek with uncaring moves. She patched kids up all the time, teens and adults too, who hurt themselves in training, cut flesh and broke bones in mock fights.

It was all routine to her.

“For your ear I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do. Sorry, Sakura.”

The nurse tapped gauze to her face and told her her parents were on the way, before leaving her alone in the consultation room.

She couldn’t have said how much time passed, how long she stayed in that room with her thoughts and the pain radiating from the left side of her face. Eventually, her mother burst through the door with panic on her face and the beginning of tears in her eyes, her father following more stoically but no less worried. They wrapped her in a hug, murmuring reassurance. Sakura heard none of it.

.

She hated the pain. She hated it. She hated that there was nothing to do against it, that it was impossible to fight, that the painkillers killed nothing at all. Her skin itched and tugged and burnt, and she could do nothing but stay still and bear it.

She was excused from school for a whole week, which only added hurt to injury in her eyes. She could picture how the other kids were talking, gossiping, speculating. What they would say once she returned.

Her mother had cut the rest of her hair – better to get rid of it all that to leave the pitiful strands she had left. Her mother told her they would grow back in no time.

Sakura wasn’t sure she would let it.

The day before she was due back to school, she went back to the hospital to have the wound checked and stitches removed. She had avoided mirrors when her mother was changing the dressing. She didn’t want to see.

“The scar will resorb in time,” the nurse assured. She was talking to her mother, not to her, probably because of the look on her face as she stared at Sakura. She wasn’t making eye contact – she was looking at the side of her face.

A voice in Sakura’s head told her she better get used to it.

She went straight to her room when they got back home, refusing to talk to her parents. She heard her mother’s worried voice, her father’s angry tone. “Can’t they do anything?” She closed the door firmly.

She sat down in the middle of the room, facing her full-length mirror but looking at the side, trying to find the strength somewhere to look, to face herself. She had never felt so alone as she did at that moment. She had no friend to turn to, no one to tell her it would be all right, it wasn’t so bad, it didn’t matter. The little hole in her chest she associated with the place Ino used to fill ached more than it usually did. She missed her friend all the time, but never as much as she did now. She doubted the teachers had told the class about her ordeal, Ino had no idea what had happened, except if Naruto had gossiped.

She was sure he hadn’t. Naruto didn’t talk to anyone and no one talked to him. He was a savage, barely civilized, snarling and snapping like a wild animal at everyone approaching him, doing his damn best to never be close to anyone.

He had still come to her aid. He didn’t have to do that, there was no reason to put himself on the line like that. They had never interacted properly except when she mocked him with the others, a common practice everybody indulged into in their class.

She promised herself she would never do that again.

She still didn’t look in the mirror.

She didn’t understand why it had happened. What had she done, to deserve this, what was so wrong with her that others would wish her harm so badly. What had possibly gone through those girls' heads to go through with it. This wasn’t pushing someone into a puddle or stomping their snack. This was…

Sakura made eye contact with her reflection.

With long hair, it would have been barely noticeable probably, especially face front. But she didn’t have long hair. She had no hair at all – her pink strand where now barely five centimeters long, so short that they didn’t even fall back and were sticking awkwardly at all angles. Leaving her face completely exposed – her massive forehead, her&washed out eyes, and a swollen red line starting close to the corner of her mouth and climbing her face up to her ear. The shell of which was cut in the middle, a little triangle of light shining through where flesh should have been.

She had never been beautiful, but now, she was ugly for sure.

There was nothing to do to hide it, except start wearing a mask or a high collar like Shino. It almost felt worth the change of wardrobe – how could she go to school like this, how could she face the others? She was disfigured. And it wasn’t even a glorious scar, something she would have gotten in battle, something that proved her strength, the fit she had accomplished.

No, it only served as a reminder that she was too weak to protect herself.

“Are you alright, Sakura?” her mother asked from the other side of the door. Sakura closed her eyes tight to escape her reflection and to keep the tears in. She was sick of crying – it gave her a headache, it was exhausting and gross. It didn’t help in any way.

And it hurt, when salty water ran down her tender scar. This was her life now.

“Yes, I’m fine.”

Her mother didn’t call her up on the lie.

.

She had to look straight ahead. Not let her eyes wander. She couldn’t keep her eyes on the ground and risk bumping into something or someone, even if she really wanted to. She used to keep her eyes on the ground, and let her hair fall in front of her face and hide her from the world.

It would be useless now. The longest strand of hair she had left barely reached her eyebrows, the rest brushed the top of her forehead. There was no hiding.

She could feel the other students’ eyes on her like a physical weight, their whispers following her around, wrapping around her head like snakes. She kept walking toward the classroom, posture rigid and gaze unwavering, determined not to make eye contact with anyone.

She usually arrived earlier than this, but she had hoped coming in as late as possible would cut the amount of time people would talk among themselves or worse, walk up to her. But it also meant the classroom was almost full when she reached it.

Silence fell on her gathered classmates who stared at her openly, not bothering to be discreet in any way. She did all she could not to look at any of them, but when she tried to make it to her usual seat, she caught, out of the corner of her eyes, the girl that was sitting right behind her in class.

Kara.

Sakura didn’t think. She took an abrupt turn and sat down at the closest seat available, several rows away from the girl. She looked up subtly, to see who she had sat next to.

It was Naruto.

For a breathless moment she was terrified he was going to tell her off. He had been known to scare other kids away when he wasn’t in the mood to have anyone in his close proximity – it wasn’t rare that their classmates bumped elbows four at one table instead of three, because he was alone at his own.

They stared at each other for an eternity of a few seconds. His eyes traveled deliberately to the side of her face before going back to hers, a slight frown breaking the bored indifference of his expression. She couldn’t begin to imagine what he was thinking, what he was looking for. Eventually, he turned away without a word, settling his head on his crossed arms, ready to take a nap. Sakura let out a relieved breath.

She should have moved as soon as she could. The next period, or after the morning break, of for lunch. But she was terrified beyond measures of coming face to face with Kara and her goons, so she stayed right where she was.

Because, and it became clear immediately, they surely weren’t to approach her. Not as long as she stayed there. They weren’t going to approach him.

She wanted to thank him. For stepping in, for helping her. But it was hard to talk to him. He so rarely seemed to want it. Lunch break was coming to an end and she was building up the courage to open her mouth, but just when she was finally resolute, Mizuki-sensei entered the room.

“Naruto. Come with me.”

He looked friendly enough, he always did. Sakura couldn’t buy it though. The man creeped her out despite how nice she was, she couldn’t bring herself to trust him. She couldn’t believe he wished any of them any good.

The kids whispered as Naruto sighed and got up to follow the teacher out of the room, while Daikoku-sensei entered for their theory lesson.

Sakura just had the time to catch a glimpse of her parents on the other side of the door.

She jumped to her feet, only to realize that the class was starting. The teacher cast her a puzzled look.

“Sakura, is there a problem?”

She almost gave up then. She almost sat back down and let it go. She could just ignore the empty seat at her side, forget about it, wash her hands off of Naruto's fate like everyone else did. But she couldn’t. She didn’t know why. She just couldn't.

“I need to go.”

“Do you feel bad?”

“I need to go.”

She bolted out of the classroom.

On a guess, she headed straight to the teacher’s lounge, and walked in on Mizuki screaming his lungs out at Naruto, while her parents watched from the side in uncomfortable silence.

It occurred to her, as she barged into the room and started yelling to leave him alone, that it wasn’t his fault, that it was the first time in her whole life she was standing up to an adult. Or to anyone really.

Naruto looked unconcerned by Mizuki’s temper, but the look on his face when he spotted her and understood what she was doing here was one of pure astonishment, and probably the most expressive thing she had ever seen on his face. Her parents tried to step in. She didn’t listen.

“There’s no need to cover for him, Sakura.”

“I’m not! I told you, it wasn’t him! It was Kara!”

“Now, now, that’s a bold accusation to make, Sakura…”

She was tensed all over, tears of frustration building up behind her eyes.

“What won’t you listen to me?” she screamed. She was at a complete loss as to what was happening here. She had seen who it was, it had happened to her. How could there possibly be any doubt? Why wouldn’t they believe her?

"Sakura, come on. Calm down. It's okay," her mother said, trying to be soothing. It only raised Sakura's hackles up. How could she say that? How could she stand idle and do nothing?

“It’s not!”

“Sakura.”

She turned a surprised look toward Naruto. She didn’t expect him to say anything at all. His voice was firm, commanding. He looked angry, like he always did, but she didn’t feel it was directed at her, when his eyes bore into hers.

“Kara won’t be punished.”

She was vaguely aware that Mizuki answered something to that, something about Naruto not having to spew lies or to try to confuse her. She didn’t listen. His eyes were fixed on her and she didn’t look away. He was trying to tell her something, to make her understand.

She did.

Kara was an Uchiha. From a minor branch, but an Uchiha nonetheless, she never failed to remind it at every turn, to everyone. Same went for her friends, who were from various prestigious clans too. Not heirs or major branches, but still ranking higher than Sakura and her family by a wild margin. And than Naruto by even more.

Naruto just shrugged, as she was losing her mind. Was that it? Was that how it was going to be? Naruto was always blamed for everything, she knew, but this wasn’t a stupid prank, this wasn’t spilled ink or stolen goods. This was her face, changed forever, an attack five on one outside of school for no reason, this was serious.

Wasn’t it?

Naruto just shrugged, and she understood it wasn’t.

Her mother stirred her away as Mizuki resumed yelling. Sakura followed numbly, eyes fixed on the boy the entire time. He remained stoic, almost unconcerned, but his shoulders were tensed and his fists tightly closed.

And the look on his face. The hatred, the rage.

Her parents shut the door on the boy getting unjustly punished for their daughter getting knifed by someone else.

“It wasn’t him,” Sakura said again, despaired. “Why are you doing this? It wasn’t him.”

“Sakura… It’s okay. Forget about it.”

“Forget?”

Sakura felt like she was seeing her mother for the first time. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing, what was happening.

“They won’t be punished. They did this to me, and nothing will happen to them. Naruto saved me, and he’ll take the blame. And I should just…”

She choked on it, unable to say it. Her mother shook her head but didn’t say a thing. Her father didn’t either.

Sakura didn’t know people could be so cruel. She didn’t know they could be such cowards either.

Sakura had just learned a very bitter lesson.

.

The next day, it’s with determination that she walked into class and sat down next to Naruto. He raised an eyebrow but said nothing, just looked at her, waiting.

“I didn’t get to thank you,” she said with a small voice, both because she didn’t want the others to hear and because he was terribly intimidating. “For saving me. And I’m sorry, I’m so sorry it went that way. If I’d just…”

“Forget about it. That’s just how things are. It’s doesn’t matter.”

“Yes it does!”

All eyes turned on them, surprised at the outburst. She hunched her shoulders, feeling blood rushing to her face.

“Yes, it does,” she repeated quietly. He studied her with an unreadable expression before shrugging.

“Whatever.”

She didn’t understand how he could stay so calm, so unbothered. But then again, maybe he wasn’t. That fury she had seen on his face the previous day, maybe it was just buried deep because there was nothing he could do about it. They were powerless in this world. There was nothing they could do.

“How can I repay you?”

He frowned at her, wary. She wondered if there was anyone in his life he trusted, anyone he could let his guard down around. She had never given much thoughts about him before but now it’s all she could think about. Had he had a parent to look after him, to at least soften the blow, to seek justice for him… But he was alone. No one cared about him, no one would fight for him.

And still, still, he had fought for her.

“I don’t need nothing from you,” he said, and there was a threat in his voice, a warning.

“There as to be something. Anything.”

Maybe that wasn’t a very clever thing to offer to the crazy guy who scared half the class, she thought distantly.

“Drop it Sakura.”

He had growled, and she found it wiser to let it go for now, but she would find a way to thank him, whatever it was and whether he disagreed or not.

Something quite fascinating happened then. His expression softened, lost some of its edges, and for the first time he looked like a regular boy, like just another kid. He scratched at the marks on his cheek. He was… embarrassed.

“You don’t need to repay me. It was enough, what you did yesterday. It was… I could be the one to thank you. For that.”

For a second she didn’t see what he was talking about, but then it hit her.

She had stood up to the adults, for him. It shouldn’t have been a big deal, it should have been completely mundane, for her to tell the truth and defend him because he had done nothing wrong. But it wasn’t.

No one had ever defended him before. No one had ever stepped him to lay blame where it should be laid. They were all too happy to have a designated scapegoat that meant they could get away with anything, and those who disagreed stayed silent anyway.

“It… It was nothing,” she said lamely.

“It wasn’t.”

She didn’t argue. His gaze was still as intense, scrutinizing.

“Besides…” He lifted a hand and gently poked at her cheek, a hair away from her scar. His thumb came to rest at the curve of her jaw, and he tipped her head lightly to have a better look. His touch lingered, and she saw pain on his face that wasn’t his own, but hers, that he reflected like he was feeling it just as deeply.

“I could have gotten there sooner.”

She felt like crying. She fought it hard – she couldn’t cry in class.

“You could have gotten there later too. Or not at all. I’m grateful.”

And she was. Things had happened the way they had. They would never know what could have gone differently. She tried to focus on what amount of luck she had had into this, not to have lost an eye, not to be have been left abandoned in the street when the deed was done, to be found hours later by a passerby or to have to make her way back on her own, scared and ashamed.

He took his hand back, no longer looking at her. She made to stand up, to go back to her usual seat, even if the thought made it hard to swallow around the lump in her throat. But she would have to eventually. She would have to face them. To stand up alone.

Were they even sorry about what they had done? Kara, Sasaki and the others, did they regret it in any way? She had no idea. Why would they though? They would suffer no consequences, no one would know, or care. What would prevent them from doing it again?

Next time, she wouldn’t be so helpless, she vowed. Next time…

“You can stay here. If you want to.”

She froze. She was almost out of her seat already, awkwardly half standing, but the proposition caught her so off guard she couldn’t move. His cheek was resting in his palm, his eyes half-lidded, the picture of boredom and detachment, but it was there, the red on his cheek, the slight hesitation.

It was stupid of her to realize it now, but Naruto was, after all, just another kid.

“Okay.”

She sat back down. The teacher entered.

Things were like that, from then on.

.

“You know what? There is something you can do for me.”

“Really? What?”

“Teach me chakra control.”

Chapter Text

It was just… so very hard. To fight this.

Rationally, there were plenty of reasons why he should have been. Fighting this. Naruto hadn’t spent the first ten years of his life completely on his own to start relying on other people now. It was dangerous, precarious. They could pull the rug from under his feet at any time. They (or their parents, families, teachers, mentors, Hokage) could decide one day that enough was enough, that hanging around Naruto was just no good, and not talk to him or approach him ever again.

It had happened before.

He hated himself a little for not fighting it anyway.

He’d fallen for it so many times. When he was younger he’d done countless pointless actions and challenges, agreed to the dumbest errands and the worst pranks, with the hope that it would finally get him accepted by someone. He’d swore to himself many times that he would stop falling for it, but the appeal was too strong.

Until that one time when trying to retrieve a trophy of battle in the forest had nearly gotten him killed by enemy shinobi, and the boys who had sent him to his death had laughed it out while some chunin told him off for being so reckless.

Naruto had stopped after that. Stopped trying to make friends, stopped trying to get any positive attention. He’d decided that he would just get strong and fight anyone who tried to hurt him. It had worked out well.

With Sasuke and Sakura it was more insidious. He needed someone to help him train, he wasn’t getting a mentor anytime soon so his dumb classmates had to do.

The problem was they were so damn nice about it.

He thought Sakura would quit upon realizing that his problem with ninjutsu ran far deeper than just some lack of practice, but it was the opposite. She was now passionate about figuring out what the hell was wrong with his chakra control. He could tell she needed something to focus on, other than herself. He was too desperate for her to actually find out why he couldn’t perform the most basic technics to call her out on it.

As for Sasuke… Naruto couldn’t believe it at first, but Sasuke was… was trying to become his friend.

Not at the Academy of course. Sakura was still the only one who approached him, and they didn’t even share a word or even a look. He didn’t mind acting as a protective shield to her – it made it easier to deal with it actually, assuming that she stayed by his side because she needed something out of him, and not because… something else.

So at the Academy Sasuke was as aloof as ever to the both of them. Naruto wasn’t sure he cared all that much about school hierarchy and social convenience. It’s more that Sasuke’s social interaction quota was very low. Hanging out with people without a specific purpose was too much for him.

Also, Sakura didn’t want to be seen anywhere near him so. There was that.

What was Naruto supposed to make of the fact that Sasuke kept inviting him to get a snack after their training then? That he bought sweets and drinks for the both of them – the three of them now, often enough – without question, without ever commenting on the fact that he had to because the shop owners refused to serve Naruto? Sasuke was a boy of very few words, maybe even fewer words than Naruto, but his actions meant a lot.

Meant too much.

Naruto should have been fighting this. But it was so hard.

Because it was so freaking nice.

Even if it was only for a few hours between the end of class and dinnertime, even if it was in a remote location with no one around because they had to sort of keep it a secret, even if no one else knew, even if they ignored each other the rest of the time… For those few hours, Naruto wasn’t on his own. He wasn’t getting insulted or mocked, he didn’t have to keep all his hackles up. He knew it was bad, that he couldn’t get used to it, that it was dangerous for him, but he was helpless to fight it.

He just wanted to enjoy it. Just for a little while. While it lasted. They would get tired of him eventually. They would make other friends, who were nicer and who they could actually invite to their home, could be seen with without getting dirty looks and unsubtle warnings.

A few days ago, Ino had entered the classroom and walked up to Kara. She had grabbed the girl’s bag and tapped an explosive tag to it before hurling the thing out the window. The scandalized scream of Kara had been covered the sound by the tag exploding, shredding her possessions to pieces. She’d made to take it out on Ino, but Ino was easily the scariest girl of their whole year. She’d look Kara dead in the eye – “careful”, she’d said, “I know what you did”. And then she had pointedly sat next to Sakura on their desk, glaring Kara and her friends to death the whole time, who hadn’t dare do or say anything.

Sakura looked less depressed and gloomy since then. It was good thing. The two girls still weren’t talking, but it was only a question of time. Everyday Naruto expected them to have move out of his table and rejoined the regular world. It hadn’t happened yet, but it would soon, once the ongoing war between the various groups died down and they remembered that they could always unite in their common dismissal of Naruto.

They didn’t need him. And he didn’t need them either. He didn’t need anyone.

.

At first, Sasuke didn’t like Sakura.

She wasn’t annoying or mean or anything, but she was… always there. He honestly thought she would drop out after three sessions, but he had underestimated her endurance and determination. She came, days after days, weeks after weeks, to get her ass handed to her for hours on end. Sometimes she broke down and got angry, started to yell or cry, but Naruto remained unfazed. He waited in silence until she calmed down, and she was ready to go again when she did.

She was even starting not to suck so hard.

So she was always there, and he couldn’t explain to himself what was so bad about it. It gave him someone to talk to that wouldn’t rudely ignore him, and that wouldn’t try to break his bones with every hit when they spared.

Puzzled, he had taken the issue to his mother.

Turned out he was jealous.

It was embarrassing, but she had a point. Sasuke liked the idea of being Naruto’s only friend, of being the only one with the privilege to approach him without getting his head bit off. He recognized though, that it was selfish and not very nice. His mother encouraged him to see it from the other boy’s perspective – he now had two friends, where he had zero a few months ago.

So how much as it annoyed him that Naruto’s attention was now split in two, Sasuke admitted that it wasn’t so bad.

It didn’t help though that Naruto knew about what had happened to Sakura, and he didn’t. He had gathered that the blond was even involved in some (good?) way, but Sakura remained stubbornly tight-lipped about it, and Naruto, it wasn’t even worth asking him anything. Whatever had happened, it had created a closeness between them that Sasuke felt excluded from.

But he wasn’t a kid anymore. He wasn’t about to get petty or upset by something so stupid. They could have their secrets if they wanted. He was happy Naruto had someone else who was nice to him, he was.

Even if they got to spend time with each other at school, while Sasuke was still kept at a distance. Surprisingly, it was Sakura who seemed the most wary of being seen in Sasuke’s vicinity, even if she hadn’t said it in so many words. Sasuke didn’t like to think about why that was. He was aware of that strange competition for his attention and feelings that went on between some of the girls of their class. It made him beyond uncomfortable but it’s not like he could do anything about it.

Sakura was among those who had a crush on him, or so he thought. It surely didn’t look like it now. She had been different, since her "accident". 

He would really need to find out about what that was someday.

Since he had decided not to make an enemy out of her, she had become a little more open during their little training sessions. They had bonded over one thing in particular – the quest for finding a way to teach basic jutsu to Naruto.

They trained in all fields now that it was the three of them, and they couldn’t explain why Naruto had such a hard time with it. He knew the drill, wasn’t too bad at molding chakra, but his jutsu always failed mid-process for some reasons. It drove Sakura crazy and she had robbed Sasuke into fixing this. She knew more than him about the theory – way more, it was absurd how much – but he was the only one who had actual shinobi experience around him. He had been tasked with the mission to hook someone he knew over the problem.

The thing was, he wasn’t sure who would be willing to help. His father was still sulking about Sasuke befriending Naruto, and he wouldn’t add fuel to the fire by asking his mother to get involved. As for Itachi… Sasuke wasn’t sure if he could handle Itachi helping Naruto train when he still refused to give Sasuke a hand.

Maybe he could ask Shisui? He wasn’t sure his cousin was so fond of Naruto though… the blond had a certain talent for getting under people’s skin. Now that he thought about it, Shisui did too. He wasn’t sure it was a common point that would make them friends though.

He was there in his reflection when he got back home from the Academy – no training today, Naruto needed to go grocery shopping since he had just received his monthly allowance. Another thing that Sasuke didn’t think about, because of how unreasonably angry it made him. Especially seeing that he wanted nothing more than to invite Naruto to his house, so that he would get to eat something else than instant meals, but his parents had forbidden it.

Well, not exactly.

“We can’t,” his mother had said. Like they had no say on the matter. Like it was out of their control.

What even.

He was distracted from working himself up by the echo of light laughter ringing through the house. It was weird in itself – the ambiance at home was still pretty chilly weeks after his parents’ argument over his friendship with Naruto. Sasuke was aware the issue ran much deeper than him hanging out with a youth offender to be, and he had promised himself to investigate it in time.

He followed the sound to the kitchen, where he had the pleasant surprise of finding his mother, Itachi, and most importantly…

“Izumi!”

“Hey, Sasuke! I was getting desperate of seeing your cute little face. It’s been a while!”

She got up to smother him in a hug despite his protest, laughing heartily at his weak escape attempts.

“It’s true we haven’t seen much of you lately…” he said, taking a seat around the table. His mother put a fresh cup of tea in front of him with a smile. She seemed happy, and Sasuke couldn’t only be grateful for Izumi’s presence.

“I know, I know, I’ve been busy since I made chunin! I go on a lot of missions with Anko.”

“Ah, yeah, I heard,” his mother said. “She’s treating you alright?”

“Well, she’s ruthless, that’s for sure. But she’s so cool! And strong. And she likes to have all-girl teams for her infiltration missions, it’s pretty nice. She’s requested me personally a couple of times!”

Izumi beamed with pride. She could – she had only been a chunin for a few months, and she had already caught the eyes of a jounin.

“An all-girl team… That must be nice.”

“Mom!”

“What? I’m surrounded by boys all day here, it sounds like a dream!”

Izumi laughed as Sasuke pouted. His mother smiled warmly and ruffled his hair even as he tried to dodge.

“I’m happy for you, Izumi,” she said after she was done ruining his hair. “And proud. I’m sure your father would be too.”

The girl ducked her head, a light blush reddening her cheeks.

“Thank you, Mikoto.”

She seemed sad for a second, lost in painful memories, but she recovered quickly to focus on Sasuke.

“What about you, little brat? How is it going at the Academy?”

“I’m not a brat!”

“Oh, you sure are!”

He grumbled that she was always making fun of him, but he told her about his study nonetheless. He liked her a lot and he had missed her for real – compared to all their other relatives, she was the most open and friendly. She was very warm, much more than the other Uchiha, even more than his mother. When she asked about him, she always seemed interested for real, she asked for details and made helpful comments. She was one of the only people in the world that didn’t make him feel like he was Itachi’s brother, despite them being friends first.

“Ah, yes, I’ve heard about that Naruto. A little troublemaker, right?”

“He’s not that bad!” Sasuke exclaimed. Her eyes widened in surprise and he looked away, embarrassed by the outburst.

“I didn’t mean it in a bad way. Sorry,” she said easily. That was another thing he liked about her – she was patient and caring, and she rarely got angry. She had an understanding of people he couldn’t hope to get and had rarely seen in others too.

“I’m… Sorry too. It’s just… people say a lot of mean things about him, but they're wrong. He’s not that bad. He’s just… lonely.”

It all came down to this in the end. It wasn’t that hard to get. Naruto didn’t know what to do with people. He was even worse at it than Sasuke, than Itachi even. He was always wary, always assuming the worst of the ones who approached him. Sadly, they often proved him right.

“Are you two friends then?”

“I don’t know. I’m not sure. I’d like to be but…”

“He doesn’t want to?”

“That’s not it. Maybe he does. But he’s…”

“He’s scared.”

He looked at his mother, before nodding. Yeah, that made sense. Every time he enjoyed himself a little, every time he relaxed a bit with Sasuke and Sakura, he always tensed up after a moment, worried like they were going to suddenly lash out.

“Say, Sakura… do you think Naruto is our friend?” he had asked the girl a few days before, as they watched him storm off right after congratulating her for a good hit.

“I think he’s our friend,” she’d said, “but we’re not his.” Her parents refused that she invited the boy to their house too. When she had announced it to them, confused and apologetic, he had shrugged, careless, with a “told ya” that had given Sasuke the urge to punch a tree.

"He doesn't want friends," Sasuke confirmed. "He says it all the time. But at the same time…"

Naruto got that look on his face sometimes when they were together. A little awed, a little disbelieving. Once Sasuke had taken his face into his hands to check for injuries because he’d hit him hard with his feet, and Naruto had looked… So lost. He’d frozen completely under his touch and Sasuke had seen fear in his eyes, for just a second. Fear of his hands, so close to his face, of that sudden proximity. Sasuke had honestly thought he was going to cry.

He’d discovered quickly that friendly touches always had the same effect. The same element of surprise, of novelty.

It sucked. It sucked massively.

“If he’s always been on his own, it’s normal that he tries to keep you at bay,” Izumi said. “Keep trying, okay? Don’t give up on him.”

She cast a furtive look at Itachi, who was following the conversation in silence. Sasuke nodded seriously.

“I won’t.”

She gave him a warm smile he couldn’t help but respond to. She always made him feel better about things in general.

“Oh! Say, Izumi, do you think you could help us some times?”

“With what?”

“Naruto’s having trouble with ninjutsu and we can’t figure out why. Maybe you could give us a hand? You’re good at ninjutsu. And you have the Sharingan. Maybe you’ll see something.”

Izumi exchanged a loaded gaze with his mother, and for a second he was convinced she was going to refuse for whatever flimsy reason she would come up with. But after a silent conversation conveyed through looks only, she nodded.

“Why not, if he’s on board. I shouldn’t be going on missions for a while so…”

“Really? Thank you!”

Sasuke saw Itachi tense up by his side, but he ignored him. It was his fault, if they didn’t hang out together anymore. Sasuke didn’t have to feel bad about it, or about asking someone else’s help.

“I’d better go now,” Izumi said after gulping the rest of her tea.

“Don’t you want to stay for dinner?”

“Thank you Mikoto, but my mother will surely cry if I try to dine out for the next three weeks, at least.”

“She just misses you,” his mother said, indulgent. “Another time? Both of you are welcome here.”

Izumi’s smile dimmed a little as she nodded. Sasuke knew that it wasn’t exactly true – Izumi’s mother had left the Uchiha clan to marry an outsider, and even if they both bore the Uchiha name and lived in the Uchiha district since the man’s death, they still endured a form of rejection from the rest of the clan, who had not forgiven the offense.

Sasuke thought it was super stupid.

“Sasuke, go wash up. Dinner will be ready soon.”

“Yeah, yeah. Bye Izumi! I’ll see you soon, right?”

“You bet, little brat! We’ll found a moment, promise. Goodbye!”

.

“Izumi, wait!”

She stopped on her track in the middle of the road and Itachi loosened a bit. He didn’t know why he had been afraid she would ignore him. Maybe because she kind of had, the whole time she was at their home, they had barely talked.

“What’s up, Itachi?”

“I was just… wondering how you were. It’s been a while,” he said lamely. He was only now realizing that she usually was the one to carry the conversation between them. He didn’t have to scramble for words like this.

“I know, I know, I’m sorry. I really was busy. I wanted to make a good impression so I took up a lot of missions. I train a lot with some of the girls too.”

Izumi was far more sociable than the rest of the clan, she had friends outside of the Uchiha, and trained with others too. Itachi knew part of it was due to the clan’s dismissal of her family, but she never seemed to hold a grudge over it. She had simply found support elsewhere.

The silence stretched between them, awkward and uncomfortable. Itachi felt off balance, unhinged. Izumi was supposed to be one of the very few people he could actually interact with, but it was all going wrong tonight.

“Are you… mad at me?” he tried, at a loss.

“Not… especially. I just… I figured out a lot of things, since I became a chunin,” she said.

“Can I… Can you tell me?” he tried, when she didn’t look like she was going to elaborate. She pursed her lips, gathering her thoughts.

“You remember that time we visited Shinko at the tea shop? She said she quit being a ninja because it was no use, seeing how strong you already were despite being younger.”

He grimaced but nodded. He had hoped it wasn’t about that. He had suggested she followed the same example then, so that she would stay safe. She didn’t need to be a ninja, to risk her life. She had been so mad at him, and he knew things had changed between them ever since.

After that he had been caught up in the nightmare with Danzo, and they had never really mended that bridge.

“Well, she was wrong. And I couldn’t articulate it back then, but I can now. So…”

She inhaled deeply, like she was about to give a speech she had rehearsed a million time.

“Being a chunin, going on real missions, I realized that I simply didn’t need to be as strong as you. Not now, and not ever. It’s… it’s no use. I’m not the strongest, I’m not the weakest either. But I still get it done. I still complete my mission. We were sent to rescue the daughter of the chief of a tiny, poor village deep in fire country. She was six years old. They scraped up all the money they could to offer our services, so that we would take her back from the bandits that had kidnapped her, because the village could no longer pay some stupid taxes they had made up… So we went, and we saved her. We beat up those guys, made it clear that the village was under our protection and that they’d better not return. And Anko… she said we had taken too long, that the mission should have been wrapped up much sooner, so she cut the price by half. The guy at the Mission Assignment Desk was livid, but what could he do?”

She was animated and smiling as she told her story, like he hadn’t seen her in a long time.

“They were so happy, those people. They thanked us again and again, it was almost embarrassing. And that’s… that’s why I became a shinobi. That’s why I train. So I don’t have super jutsu and I didn’t graduate first of my class but… But it really doesn’t matter. I was still able to protect my teammates, to carry our mission and save that girl. And I know that it won’t always be like that. We have much less glorious jobs, and sometimes we don’t get there in time. But… But I’m happy with that. This is what I want to do, where I want to be. And since you can’t understand that…”

“I can.”

She cast him a dubious look, where he could still see the hurt he had caused her, that day at the teashop, by suggesting she gave up on her dream, since she was never going to be that good.

She was right though. Itachi was strong, a prodigy, the strongest of his generation… and he had still been powerless, faced with his clan’s rebellious tendencies, faced with forces and influences he couldn’t handle, faced with Danzo’s implacable power. It had been no use at all.

Izumi would have fared better than him. She would have been able to sway the others, or to alert someone, to do something.

“You’re right. Being the best, it’s… It’s useless.”

She frowned.

“Did something happen, Itachi?”

She didn’t know. No one did. Only Shisui, his parents, and some of the higher-ups, the Hokage and the other clan leaders. But the others didn’t know. They didn’t know how close they had come to a complete disaster, to a terrible end.

They didn’t know that Itachi was a traitor and a monster.

He said nothing. And still she took a step forward, still she wrapped her arms around his shoulders to pull him into a hug, like she understood anyway. He stayed still, arms hanging limply, barely able to move his head so that he could rest his forehead on her shoulder.

“It’s true I was pretty mad at you,” she whispered in his ear, “but we are still friends, Itachi. I care about you. I’m not giving up on you.”

Just like she had told Sasuke. Itachi knew he was hard to deal with, hard to befriend, hard to love. He would have understood, if she did give up on him, it would have been fair. But he desperately, selfishly didn’t want her to.

“I’m sorry,” he said, hoping she would believe him, hoping she could tell he was sincere, and not just saying what he supposed the other wanted to hear, like he often did. It was easier than to try and understand people. But he had to be better, if he didn’t want her to turn her back on him.

“It’s okay, silly. Just remember… It’s a pretty freeing thought, you know. To realize that you don’t have to be the absolute best. You don’t have to win it all, you don’t have to… carry it all yourself. You’re not alone, Itachi. Ours isn’t a lonely life. We have friends and teammates, people who have our back. If there is something you can’t do, or don’t want to… You can rely on others. You’re… You can be free.”

Could he, really? When he was only realizing now how much he wasn’t? He had never felt like he was acting in spite of himself, like he was being forced to do things. It’s not that he didn’t want to be in Anbu, to train so hard. The thing was, he had no idea what he did, or did not want. He had always just… gone with the flow.

“You’re not in Anbu anymore, right?" she asked, releasing him so that they could face each other. He nodded. Another decision that had been out of his control, even if that one, he could say for sure he agreed with. It was just too ambiguous, after having played the double spy for months. And… well, Itachi was indeed skilled enough to be in Anbu. But for the first time he had questioned whether or not that meant he had to be.

For now he was in a bit of a standby situation. Shisui and him, there weren't many people left who trusted them. They didn’t really trust themselves either.

The break wasn’t so bad.

“You should think about what you want to do, Itachi. What you really want, you.”

She knew he had no idea. He had hinted at it before, but it was shameful to admit. It should have been obvious, right? Everyone else seemed to know what they wanted out of life, where they were going. Everyone else seemed to know what he was supposed to want too.

“Whatever it is, you’ll always have my support.”

It was nice to hear, because whatever it was, Itachi had the very strong feeling that it wouldn’t please a lot of people. His father first and foremost.

“Thank you, Izumi. And… and congratulations, for your promotion. I don’t think I ever got to tell you.”

She beamed and hit him playfully on the shoulder, blushing lightly.

“Thank you, you dork.”

Itachi smiled. It felt good.

.

“Who’s that?” Naruto spat out, when Sasuke arrived at the training field with an unknown girl in tow. Another Uchiha, he bet, despite the brown hair, if only because Sasuke only hung out with his clan.

The boy glared at him.

“Hi, I’m Uchiha Izumi. I’m a friend of Sasuke, and he asked for my help with ninjutsu training. It’s nice to meet you.”

Thrown off balance, Naruto forgot to scold or snarl at her. She had a friendly smile and a casual, open demeanor, that didn’t look faked at all – or she was really, really good.

“You sure you’re an Uchiha, with a smile like that?” he asked, not with as much heat as he wanted. Sasuke glared harder. She only laughed.

“I’m half Uchiha, so I was spared the gloom. You must be Naruto! I heard you weren’t shy with words.”

“I bet that’s not all you heard,” he snapped, annoyed by her good mood and good humor.

“True. I also heard you were useless at ninjutsu, but that Sakura right here was pretty good. It’s Sakura, right?”

Naruto sputtered, indignant, but Izumi ignored him to smile at Sakura, who reddened under the praise.

“Sasuke! Why did you bring her here you sucker?”

“You’re the one who sucks! We need help, deal with it!”

“Sasuke!” Izumi called him out, both hand on her hips. “I told you you had to ask him about it first!”

Sasuke mumbled something unintelligible into his big collar, arms crossed in a defensive position. When he wanted, he could hide almost all his face in it, which was great to escape unwanted conversations. She hooked a finger into the fabric to bring it down, exposing him.

“Well?”

“He would’ve said no!”

“It was his right,” she sighed. “Well, sorry Naruto, that little brat doesn’t have any manners. Now that I’m here though, why don’t we try to figure out a better training program for you?”

Naruto was dumbstruck and at a loss as to how to react. Everything in her behavior screamed taming technics, trying to be cool and pretending she was on his side. The thing was, he couldn’t say for certain that it was a strategy. She was ruffling Sasuke’s hair harshly as a punishment under his half-hearted protestations – it was obvious he had great affection for her. Sakura was won over already.

Naruto was not on board with that thing of adding more people to his circle. Not at all. Two was too much already.

“Don’t worry, I won’t bother you long,” Izumi said, as if to answer his deepest worries. “I’m in between mission now, but I do have a life.”

“What life? Hanging out with Itachi? You’re better off here,” Sasuke grumbled.

“Don’t talk about your brother like that. He had it rough, and he is my friend.”

“Yeah, yeah…”

“I can still leave, Naruto. If you want.”

Right then, Naruto was convinced it was the truth. She would leave, if he asked. She wouldn’t even be mad about it. She was giving him the choice for real, not trying to guilt trip him or anything.

Unlike those two idiots, one making puppy, watery eyes, the other scowling angrily, daring him to send her away. They were the worst.

“Whatever,” he said with a dismissive wave. The girl let out a bright, easy laugh.

“Cool. Let’s get started then!”

It was humiliating enough to produce half-dead clone after botched transformation in front of Sasuke and Sakura, but under the scrutinizing gaze of a chunin from Sasuke’s family, it was ten times worse, and he actually managed to summon what had to be the worst clone of the history of the world. She didn’t laugh though, nor did she mock or sighed or shook her head. She observed carefully, with great concentration.

“Do it again?” she asked. He snarled at her, but complied.

This time the clone didn’t even reach physical form before blowing off in a puff of smoke. Naruto closed his fists tightly, face burning with shame. All of their classmates, and even younger kids, were able to produce at least one clone, that could stand on their own, even if on wobbly legs. Why couldn’t he do it? What was wrong with him?

“Do you mind if I use the Sharingan to watch you?" she asked. He shrugged, uncaring, but Sakura pitched in, bright-eyed.

“You can use the Sharingan?”

“She was the youngest person of the clan to ever activate it,” Sasuke answered, proud enough for two. The girl smiled, red dusting her cheeks as she confirmed.

“Even before super jounin?” Naruto asked.

“Is that how you call Itachi?” she laughed, amused. “Yes, before him too.”

Sasuke was nodding by her side, like her managing to one-up Itachi had something to do with him. He had probably been desperate to manage that same fit, but Naruto knew he couldn’t use his family’s dojutsu yet.

“Go ahead then, super chunin,” he said. She closed her eyes with an exasperated sigh that was also… kind of fond? Naruto couldn’t help but be curious.

Her eyelids opened on blood red irises, pierced with three dots triangulating her pupils, and Naruto howled.

In the next moment he was at the other side of the training field, heart beating rapidly, all his senses on high alert. Even then he could still see it though, the bleeding red fixated on him, and he wanted it gone. He wanted it to look away.

“Don’t look at me!” he screamed. He sounded more desperate than threatening but he was just… scared. He was scared beyond measure, and he had no idea why.

“Don’t look at me, don’t look at me!”

The red disappeared.

The three of them rushed toward him, Izumi staying at a safe distance as Sasuke pulled him to his feet. Naruto kept his eyes fixated on the ground, still shaking slightly.

He was battling an overwhelming desire to deck Izumi in the face.

It made no sense, but just thinking about the swirling spirals of those red eyes made him want to set everything on fire. It was a primal fear he couldn’t identify, couldn’t trace back to any rational source.

“We’ll keep the eyes out from now on, okay?” Izumi said, not unkindly, even if she looked worried. Naruto wanted to disappear. As if he wasn’t enough of a freak, what had possessed him to react like that?

“Are you alright?” Sakura asked, her big eyes even wider with concern, matching the expression of Sasuke’s face. Why couldn’t they just mock him like a normal person? Instead of… caring. For him.

He hated it.

So he did the only sensible thing to do. He shrugged off their hands from his shoulders, and he ran away.

Chapter Text

“How did training with Izumi go?”

Mikoto had wanted to wait for Sasuke to broach the subject on his own, but whatever had happened, it had made him broody and sullen. Which wasn’t that worrying in itself – it was his reaction to most things, including the smallest inconvenience or things that weren’t even bad.

She felt a bit guilty about how eager she was to hear from Naruto through him, but it was all she had to get close to the other boy. She had learned to live with the rage and grief that caused her, but lately she had been thinking that maybe she shouldn’t have.

She should have fought this more. She should have banged her hand on the table, demand the boy’s guardianship and not let go until she had it. But things were so tense at that moment and she had put her family and her clan first. By the time she had realized no one else was going to step in, that everyone had turned their back on Kushina and Minato’s son, it was too late.

“It was fine,” her boy mumbled, picking at his rice without eating. She never imagined he would become so moody growing up, but she knew it was vastly due to abrupt changes in their life that he had had to endure without understanding them. He was young to detach himself from them like this. She didn’t want to admit to herself how maybe that was a good thing.

“Really? Was she able to help?”

“Hm. She says Naruto’s probably too stored up with chakra to use it properly. Like, he has a lot of it, way more than any of us, so the Academy training doesn’t work for him.”

She hid a smile – she had been the one to put Izumi on that line of thoughts. The girl had asked for advice before going out to help them. Mikoto had told her that regarding Naruto’s lineage and the reputation of his clan, it was the most likely explanation. Kushina had struggled with it all the same, unable to perform very low-level jutsu because she didn't have control refined enough to use so little chakra.

Izumi had asked if that would be the explanation, and not “Naruto’s condition”, as she had put it.

It angered Mikoto so much. Izumi wasn’t supposed to know, but it was probably the worst kept secret of the whole village, which was saying something, because badly kept secrets, they had plenty. Mikoto had comforted herself with the knowledge that Naruto wouldn’t suffer the consequences of the Kyuubi sealed inside him, but she had been terribly mistaken. It was an open secret that wasn’t secret at all. Only the youngest didn’t know, and still knew to stay clear of him, thanks to their parents. It was handled casually, without care, despite the prime reason for it being kept under the radar being Naruto’s safety.

But who cared about that? Half the village hated his guts and wanted him dead. The other half would look away if that happened.

“Are you okay mom?”

She snapped back into the present to address the concerned looks Itachi was throwing at her. He knew too, she was sure. With all the confidential information he had been privy to, it was an illusion to assume this wasn’t among the pile.

He had still encouraged Sasuke to stick to Naruto’s side if he wanted to. She was grateful for it. Itachi was old enough when the Kyuubi had attacked to remember some of it.

Now that she thought about it, Izumi was too. Her father had died protecting his family that night, she had awakened her Sharingan out of sheer fear and anguish. And yet, she had agreed to help Naruto.

Why were those unfinished kids better than all the adults around them? Mikoto was ashamed of her generation, of their close-mindedness and cruelty.

Damn, what would Kushina think of them. Think of her.

“I’m fine, sorry.”

Fugaku stayed silent, face hidden in his bowl. Her victory over the matter of Naruto and Sasuke’s friendship tasted bitter on her tongue because of how unwilling he was to forgive her about it. It was her own fault, really. She had never gone against him, never pitched in in any way. She thought she had to leave the politics to him, focused as she was on raising their kids.

But in a life like theirs, the two were irremediably linked. Proof enough, Itachi had…

She closed her eyes, inhaled deeply. Now wasn’t the time to think about that again.

“There’s… There is something,” Sasuke said, putting his bowl down. He cast a furtive glance at his father and oh, the animosity brewing their promised some spectacular fights once Sasuke was a teenager. She hadn’t pegged him for the one who would rebel against them, but now that she was seeing it building up, it seemed inevitable. Fugaku hadn’t drilled the clan’s values and interests into Sasuke like he had with Itachi. Something he surely regretting now.

“Something did happen. And it’s… I can’t explain. But it feels important. I don’t want you to get mad though. It’s not Naruto’s fault. He did nothing wrong.”

“What is it Sasuke?” Fugaku asked, impatient, opening his mouth for the first time this evening. Oh how he exasperated her these days with his all-powerful patriarch act. The sooner he realized his days of absolute control over their family were over, the better it would be for everyone. For her, but also for Sasuke, and his relationship with his father. Itachi was still too shaken to put up much of a fight, but Sasuke was gearing up to fight back his father at every turn, and he would do it just to be contradictory if Fugaku didn’t start to be more reasonable.

The bad part of her, the one that would have made Kushina laugh, couldn’t wait to see it.

“Naruto is… Naruto is afraid of the Sharingan.”

All thought about laughing deserted Mikoto’s head.

“Izumi tried to look and he… I don’t know. He freaked out. And it’s weird, because he’d never seen it before. He said it. And it’s not like he just thought it was creepy or anything, he really… He was really scared for real.”

People being uncomfortable when faced with dojutsu was nothing new. This was something else entirely.

She made eye contact with Fugaku, and for once they were on the same page. She could see the same gears turning in his brain, the same worry in his eyes.

The same fear.

“Did he… say why?” Fugaku asked, making a good effort to hide his turmoil and impatience.

“No. He ran away. But he asked her not to look at him.”

Sasuke seemed shaken by this too. Mikoto could understand – the Sharingan was the pride of their clan, the thing all their kids looked forward to as they grew up. That Naruto would be wary of it had to upset him greatly, especially if he didn’t know why.

“You did good by telling us, Sasuke,” she said gently. “He’s not in trouble and we’re not mad, don’t worry.”

“But why would that be? You didn’t see him mom. He was… He was so defensive. Like Izumi was going to hurt him.”

Itachi was silent and stoic by her side, but he was staring at his father with unblinking eyes, studying him carefully.

“I don’t know, Sasuke,” she said, and Itachi looked at her then.

And he knew it was a lie.

But how was it possible, that the boy could feel it? How close the fox had to be to the surface, that he could transmit the danger of the Sharingan to his host? And really, fear? Kushina had never manifested such a thing. Sure, the Uchiha were technically able to control any creature, including the tailed beasts, but apart from Madara, no one had ever actually done it.

Right?

“You’ll just have to be mindful of using it around him,” she said, trying to reassure him. Sasuke pouted.

“I don’t have anything to use anyway…” he mumbled, sulking. She smiled fondly. Acquiring the Sharingan was a competitive race for all the children of the clan. Sasuke wasn’t late by any mean, but he was already older than Itachi when he had awoken his, and that was enough to make him bitter.

She was a bit worried about that competition between them, especially since Fugaku, despite all her nagging, made no effort to temper it. He thought it was good for Sasuke to have Itachi as a goal to reach, but it wasn’t like Itachi had gotten as far as he had just by hard work and strong will. He was gifted, more than anyone, and it was a blessing as much as a curse. There was no point in Sasuke comparing himself to his older brother.

And given what had happened, she wasn’t so keen on the idea of Sasuke following his footsteps either.

They finished dinner quickly, Sasuke bolting despite his father's protestations. Instead of disappearing too, to his room or to the study as usual, Itachi lingered in the kitchen.

“Isn’t it strange? That he would manifest that fear?” he asked Fugaku bluntly. He was slowly, slowly growing more confident in his voice and his opinion, something her husband had a hard time handling.

“It is,” Fugaku admitted reluctantly, probably regretting not being able to avoid the subject entirely. Itachi wasn’t supposed to know about that either, but well. Was it such an open secret that he didn’t feel the need to pretend he wasn’t in on it? It was depressing.

“Maybe we should look into it,” Itachi pressed. She knew what he wanted his father to say.

“We will.”

Itachi stared at him, insistent, unblinking. She waited with impatience, to see if Fugaku was going to concede, to take that step toward him.

"We will… with the others' help," he finally conceded. It was like pulling a tooth, but Itachi seemed satisfied, as he disappeared from the room a moment later.

“Will you?” she asked, harsher than she intended.

“The next Clan Heads meeting is next week. We’ll talk about it then.”

She nodded. She would make sure of it. She would be there too.

.

Izumi was a genius. It had to be it, it had to be. The more Sakura looked into it, the more she was convinced the girl had been spot on about Naruto. It would explain everything really, why he seemed to have the handle on the theory but still failed all his ninjutsu, even why he could still perform Transformation. An excess of chakra wasn't a problem for this one since the chakra looped around the body of the caster. With every other technic, the amount of chakra poured in was determinant to the result.

It had to be it, but she didn’t know how to confirm it.

They had to know how much was “a lot”, exactly. How much chakra could Naruto yield, how much more than them? There were devices that could measure up that kind of things, but nothing available to academy students.

She had discussed it with Sasuke, who was by far the most resourceful of them, but he didn’t seem confident in his ability to convince someone in his family to hand him sensitive equipment no question asked. And it that case, questions asked would probably make it worse, if he had to admit he needed it for Naruto of all people… But maybe Izumi could help? Izumi was amazing.

If they solved this, it would be a win. Having too much chakra could barely be considered an issue. Sakura could teach Naruto to be more restrictive in his chakra use, and then…

Then he wouldn’t need her any longer.

She shook her head to get rid of that line of thought. She genuinely wanted to help him, and she would be happy she had, regardless of what came after.

Deep in thought, she had walked all the way to the Academy without even noticing. Most of the gut-wrenching anxiety that had made going to school a torture for the first few weeks after The Incident had receded, both because Naruto had been acting as an unofficial bodyguard and because recently… Ino had kind of assumed the role too.

Sakura didn’t know what to make of it. They still didn’t really talk? But Ino often sat next to Sakura, so that she was sandwiched between the two blondest and scariest students of their class.

It’s not that Ino was giving the cold shoulders to the other girls of the class, or even just ignoring them. She was downright hostile, picking up fights with Kara and her band on a regular basis, ever since the day she had blown up Kara’s bag like a psycho. It made little sense to Sakura, but Ino had always been prone to sudden whims and abrupt mood swings. Sakura was just glad they were sort of hanging out again.

It was early – the classroom was mostly empty. Sakura spotted Sasuke keeping to himself in his corner of the room, and she managed to reply to his slight nod but made no move to approach him. She could tell he wouldn’t have minded them talking to each other at school – even suspected he was kind of jealous she got to talk to Naruto, even if Naruto said a maximum of five words on his best days – but she couldn’t help being afraid of Sasuke.

Well, not of him, but of what them being seen interacting in the smallest way would bring down on her. Sakura was getting steadily stronger by virtue of Naruto beating the shit out of her on a regular basis, and keeping a consistent training which was the only way to go about getting better really, but she was nowhere near strong enough to defend herself yet. And there wouldn’t always be a blond to stand between herself and the meanest of their classmates.

Besides… who was to say which side Sasuke would take in the matter? Between Kara and her? Kara was an Uchiha and if Sasuke wasn’t as vocal as her about the pride that fact brought him, it was still an integrant part of his personality and values. If he knew what they’d done to Sakura, what would he say?

She didn’t want to find out.

She sat down next to Naruto, who was sleeping at his usual desk. She didn’t know when he went home and when he slept. He was always there when she arrived, always staying at the training ground after she left. Always bruised and battered, his clothes dirty, bag under his eyes, but eyes always sharp, alert.

He led a life she couldn't fathom or understand, and it made her sad, sometimes. There was nothing she could do about it though.

The day passed slowly, with Naruto barely lifting his head from his arms the whole time. She had been pestering him about studying more, to no avail – Naruto wanted to be stronger, but she was starting to wonder if he had any interest in being an actual ninja. A few months ago, she was kind of the same. She had entered the Academy mostly on Ino’s impulse. Her parents were chunin, but they weren’t especially keen on her following that path. They said they wanted her to do whatever she wanted – she thought they didn’t really care either way.

But she wanted to be a ninja. For real. She wanted to be someone people could rely on, she wanted to be able to protect herself and others, to be useful to the village and contribute to its safety. Those were new feelings, which had grown the more she learned about the shinobi way, the more she learned about the hardships of this world.

When she was a shinobi, she would make sure no kids were treated badly. Not like she had been, and not like Naruto was either. But Naruto was dead right on one point – you had to be strong to have any power.

With that in mind, she resolved to go train with the boys today too, even if she usually didn’t go three days in a row. Her stamina was improving though, and she had to manage somehow. They managed to train every day, and she wanted to too. She didn’t want to lag behind anymore.

Ino held her back though, when class ended and she made to leave for the training ground.

“Wait, Sakura. I need to talk to you about something.”

Puzzled, Sakura followed Ino out of the classroom and down a few corridors, until they found an area that was relatively empty. Sakura couldn’t help being nervous about finding herself alone with someone else like this. She touched a finger to her scar – it no longer itched or tugged, but she could feel it stretch when she smiled or ate, and she could never really forget about it. If only because people’s gaze around her were constantly drawn to it one moment or another.

“What do you want?” she said, somewhat defiant despite her wavering confidence.

“I have something for you,” Ino said. She rummaged in her bag until she found what she was looking for – a stack of paper held together by a thick red string tied around it like a bow around a gift. She handed it to a puzzled Sakura, who had to read the tag attached to the string to understand what it was.

Her eyes widened and she looked back at Ino fast enough for her neck to crack.

“What…”

“I heard you talking about it. With Naruto.”

This was insane. Sakura knew about Ino’s talented habit of eavesdropping on every and all conversations, but she was almost certain they had never actively discussed that subject at school. She frowned, not liking what that could mean, but Ino didn’t look phased.

“Just take it,” the blond girl said, impatient.

“How did you even get this?”

Ino frowned, debating whether or not she was going to answer, before sighing at Sakura’s stubborn expression.

“You know about Sai right? In our class.”

Sakura nodded, although she had never so much as spoken to the new boy. Granted, not much had – Ino was maybe the only one who had had any contact with him at all.

He had appeared in the middle of the previous year, from literally nowhere. He wasn’t from another village, he wasn’t from anywhere, they didn’t know who his family was. He was just there. Mizuki had said he was going to be a part of their class from then on, and his older brother, Shin, was joining the next level. The boy was the most quiet Sakura had ever seen – and that included Naruto, Sasuke, and even Shino. He answered to any question by a soft smile that said nothing at all, and spent all his free time with his brother, who seemed more chatty, but just as wary about engaging with any other students.

They went to and back from school with Ino. Sakura didn’t know what that was about.

Sai was very mysterious, and looked like Sasuke a little, which had sparked a strong interest in him from the class’s girls. For a while. However, he was also slightly creepy and made others uncomfortable with his unblinking gaze and plastic smile. They had soon let it go.

“He’s… He can… get a lot of things.”

Sakura knew from Ino's expression that she would say nothing more. It spelled trouble in big letters and Sakura wanted no part in it. Ino had a knack for getting involved with weird, shady things around the village. Sakura thought it was due to her father’s status – he was the head of the Konoha’s Intelligence, and Ino’s actions were a result both of his particular training, and of her obsessive desire to manage to go behind his back. This was a big deal for her, to know things he didn’t, and she could get very far to achieve that.

“Okay. Okay,” Sakura relented. She couldn’t refuse it – they needed it. There was something, though…

“But why?”

“Why what?”

“Why do that for me? For us?”

They hadn’t talked in ages, they weren’t friends anymore, and Ino and Naruto had a weird sort of hateful rivalry going on, probably because they were competing for the “most threatening kid of the class” spot. There was no lost love between them, that was for sure.

Instead of answering, Ino took a step forward and raised a hand. Sakura couldn’t help but flinch and Ino’ expression turned thunderous, but she didn’t interrupt her gesture. She rested gentler fingers on the side of Sakura’s face, right under her scar.

“It’s my way of thanking him. I know he was there, when I wasn’t.”

Sakura was frozen in place, completely thrown off balance by the rage and the regrets she could see on Ino’s face. Ino had blown up Kara’s bag. No one knew why, she had said nothing about it. Well, Shikamaru and Choji knew, probably, but it’s not like they were going to talk either.

Did that mean…

Was that… for her?

“You need to get stronger, Sakura,” Ino said with a hard tone, but it wasn’t nearly as biting or mocking as how she used to say it, back when they hung out and she would outdo Sakura in absolutely everything.

“I know. I will.”

She put the stack of papers in her bag, careful to hide it under the rest of her things, just in case. Ino took her hand away, turned around, and left.

.

“Come on, come on! You’re getting sloppy!”

Sasuke would have yelled back that it was Naruto who was being exceptionally vindictive today, but he didn’t have enough focus and lung capacity while they were sparing like this. He’d been backed into mostly defending because Naruto was more ruthless than ever, almost enraged. He had jumped Sasuke as soon as he’d set foot on the training ground and had been attacking relentlessly, apparently determined to pummel Sasuke into the ground.

Ever since their session with Izumi, Naruto was being harsh and vicious, more so than usual. He had refused for the subject to be broached in any way, apart from refusing to see the eyes again. Sasuke had a feeling that he didn’t want to explain why because he didn’t really know himself.

“Hey boys!”

Sasuke was distracted by Sakura’s loud call – Naruto wasn’t. His focus would have been admirable if it wasn’t downright creepy, because Sasuke was convinced someone could have been murdered in the goriest way ten meters away and the blond wouldn’t have noticed.

As it was, Sasuke was distracted and Naruto wasn’t, and Sasuke received Naruto’s foot square in the jaw.

He rolled in the dirt, face sore and pride wounded, and Sakura rushed to his side. Naruto surely didn’t.

“Dammit Naruto! I told you to calm down during sparing!”

That was also new. As she was recovering from the trauma of her ordeal – that Sasuke still had no idea about dammit – Sakura had been getting increasingly more confident, during those sessions at least. At school she was the same, so quiet and withdrawn she could as well have been a piece of furniture, but with them she was emboldened by the knowledge that she was probably the only one who could be of any help regarding the Naruto situation.

Sasuke blamed Izumi, while recognizing that it had started before the troublesome chunin had crashed their practice. She had made it worse though, because she had praised Sakura for her excellent chakra control, and claimed that it was better than Sasuke’s, and maybe even hers.

Boy, what hadn’t she said.

Sakura was now officially better than both Naruto and Sasuke at something ninja-related, and that was enough to tip her definitely in the “we’re equals and therefore I can call yell at you all I want” pit.

“Pff. If he can’t take it, I might as well find myself a new rival.”

Sasuke tripped on his feet on his way to getting up and almost crashed into Sakura.

Naruto looked as bored and uninterested as ever, while Sasuke’s blood was boiling. There was no way. No way.

“You’d better not,” he growled, menacing. Naruto only shrugged.

“Don’t lag behind then,” he shot back. They glared at each other until Sakura stepped in between them with a heavy sigh that was getting more and more frequent too, and that looked like the one his mother’s made when she said “I’m surrounded by idiots”.

“Stop it, both of you. We have more important things to discuss!”

They complied reluctantly and focused on what she was presenting them.

A stack of paper. Groundbreaking.

“Huh, Sakura…”

“Geez, you guys know nothing about anything,” she said dramatically. He could tell she was proud to be holding the cards for once, to know something they didn’t.

She ought to get used to it by now. There were lots she knew and they didn’t.

“It’s chakra paper!” she explained excitedly. “There are different types. Some are for determining your element. These are for getting a rough estimation of your reserves.”

They frowned at the blank, ordinary piece of papers. The tag attached read “Chakra Measuring Paper”, which was pretty self-explanatory.

"Where did you get that?" Sasuke asked with a frown. It had been his job to somehow get his hands on something like this. The girl looked sideways and said "I, huh, have my ways" in the least convincing manner possible.

“How does it work?” Naruto asked. He usually tried to hide how curious he naturally was, how eager he was to learn about all and everything. The rare times he paid attention in class, he looked enraptured, up until he got kicked out for one reason or another.

“I’m… not entirely sure. I think you’re supposed to…”

“Hey trouble kids! What are you up to?”

The three of them jumped out of their skin and bumped into each other under Shisui’s earthy laugh, while Izumi smiled sympathetically and Itachi didn’t react in any way.

“Nothing! What are you doing here?”

“Relax cousin. Can’t we just visit you and your friends?”

“No!”

Sasuke fought down the beginning of a blush. They were so embarrassing! Why couldn’t they leave them alone?

“Is that chakra paper?”

Sakura was frozen in place, looking like a wild animal watching kunai come to its face, as Itachi pointed to the stack she was holding hard enough to fold it. Itachi didn’t seem to notice the effect he was having on her, but Izumi did.

“Step back, Itachi! You’re scaring the girl with your gloomy face.”

It occurred to Sasuke that Sakura had never met his brother, nor his cousin, and that he would have very much liked to keep that from happening.

“Kids are wild these days. What are you doing with this?” Shisui asked, his usual lazy smile in place.

“Nothing! Please leave.”

“Oh, so you don’t need help with that?”

Sasuke opened his mouth, but they did, indeed, need help, didn’t they. He snapped his mouth shut and buried inside his collar, Shisui laughing yet again.

Peeking above the fabric, Sasuke cast a worried glance at Naruto, who hadn’t said a word since the intruders’ arrival. He was eyeing them warily, alternating between the three of them like he couldn’t decide which one he was supposed to worry about the most. Sasuke wished he didn’t worry at all.

“It’s pretty simple,” Izumi said, and with an engaging smile, she pried a paper out of Sakura’s hands. Sakura glanced at Sasuke’s briefly, looking for support, and he nodded slightly. It’s not like they were going to let it go anyway.

“You just hold it, and pour some chakra into it. Like this,” Izumi said. A second later, blue light shone briefly between her hands, and they peered curiously at the paper. The sheets were squared, about the size of a weapon pouch, but the one she was holding, instead of being blank, was now sporting an irregular circle the size of a plum in the middle.

“Here you go! There’s probably a chart or something to measure it properly, but mostly you do it by comparison. Come on, try it,” she told Sakura. The girl hesitantly took out another sheet and repeated the process.

The circle was much smaller this time, barely half the size of Izumi’s, but it was perfect. Sakura looked down, shoulders hunched, looking embarrassed, before Shisui took a look.

“Well, girl, your control is off the chart!”

Sakura looked up just enough to cross his gaze before nose-diving immediately. She was probably trying to hide behind her hair like she used to, but she didn’t have enough to do that. They were growing back, slowly. She often played with the short strands with a thoughtful expression on her face.

“Those papers tell about chakra reserve, but also the level of chakra control,” Izumi explained. “See, my circle is much more uneven, because my chakra is not so stable. That’s impressive, Sakura.”

Sakura’s blush spread all the way to her ears.

“Give, give! I want to try too!” Shisui exclaimed, ever childish. He made Sakura jump when he took three sheets out of her hand.

“Come on, Itachi, I want to see who has it best. You two Sasuke!”

Sasuke took the sheet reluctantly, both excited and anxious to find out what it would reveal. What if his reserves were terribly low, or his control super wobbly? He would have much rather do this with just his two friends, or even on his own. Not one to be outdone though, he imitated his elders and gave a small burst of chakra to the sheet.

His circle was smaller than Izumi’s, but not that much. It was pretty uneven though, almost wavy like a very badly drawn flower.

“Ouch, Sasuke, you’ll catch up to me soon if I’m not careful…” Izumi said with a smile. Sasuke couldn’t help but blush too, and that made Sakura relax a little somehow. He pouted.

He didn’t want to look at Itachi’s paper, but… he wanted to.

Shisui’s was the biggest and barely more even than Sasuke’s own. It was the size of a big apple, and Itachi’s… a smaller apple, but precise and neat. More than twice as big as Sasuke’s.

“I have more reserve and you have more control. No surprise here,” Shisui said. Itachi nodded, already disregarding the paper.

“Does it change a lot of things?” Sasuke couldn’t help but ask. That was two distinct areas to work on, he thought.

“It matters, yes. Itachi and I, I guess we’re roughly the same in term of stamina, because I have more chakra, but since I don’t use it so well, I spend more than he would for the same jutsu. Chakra control amount to the chakra you lose when you perform ninjutsu. Between you and Sakura, she would need much less than you to make a clone, for example, so she could make more with less. Since she doesn’t have much, it makes a huge difference.”

Sasuke frowned, thoughtful. That made sense, and matched what he remembered from class. Sakura was nodding eagerly, probably familiar with all that already. That nerd.

Sasuke caught Naruto’s gaze then. He looked supremely uncomfortable, but also very curious, as he eyed the stack in Sakura’s hands, smaller now than it was a few minutes ago. He didn’t want to talk though, probably didn’t want to bring the attention on himself. He was standing by Sakura’s side, as far as possible from the Uchihas of the party, all four of them.

Sasuke couldn’t have that. Naruto could be wary of his dumb relatives all he wanted, but he had no reason nor right to be wary of him.

So he crossed the group as casually as he could and took another sheet without making eye contact with Sakura. He handed it to Naruto without a word.

Naruto glanced at the others, but they were either oblivious or smart enough to pretend like they weren’t paying attention. He finally took the paper, repeating the exercise they had all partaken into.

Nothing happened.

His frowned deepen – it was crazy how it was always possible, just when Sasuke thought it couldn’t possibly get worse – and blue chakra danced at his fingertips, but still the paper remained blank. Sasuke cast a distressed look back at Izumi – Naruto was getting frustrated, and Sasuke didn’t want him to be disappointed or angry.

Naruto was bad at chakra control, but he couldn’t be that bad, that he couldn’t activate a device they used on toddlers. Izumi took a few steps toward them, but stopped when Naruto snarled at her, daring her to approach. The sheet was crinkling in his too hard grip.

“Huh, I think…”

The full force of Naruto’s glare killed Sakura’s words in her throat, so she just pointed at a corner of the sheet.

There was a single line, cutting the corner in a minuscule triangle.

“What the…”

“Just a minute,” Itachi said, cutting off Naruto’s profanity. He reached into his weapon pouch and took out a brush and an ink stone, before hanging a hand toward Sakura.

“Can I?” he asked as an afterthought after she flinched slightly. She gave a small nod, and he took four sheets that he laid on the dirt, as to form a bigger square. He drew four small ink signs between each sheet – when he picked them up again, they were sticking into a big one like he had just glued them together.

“Try again,” he said to Naruto. The boy eyed him for a long, uncomfortable moment, before taking the sheet with two fingers. Chakra sparked.

If Sasuke’s circle was wobbly, this one was so jaded and irregular “circle” was too generous of a term for it.

But most importantly, it was now obvious why it hadn’t shown on the single sheet.

It was too big to fit on there.

They stared at the shape the size of a dinner plate in complete astonishment. Naruto’s eyes were wide and his lips pinched, brows furrowed in confusion.

There was nothing to be confused about though.

“Well,” Izumi said after a while, dragging the “e”. “I guess it’s a definite yes for the “more chakra than the norm” theory, Naruto.”

.

“It’s crazy,” Izumi said for maybe the tenth time since they had left the kids to their own device at their training ground. The Naruto boy was shaken and Sasuke had glared at them hard enough Shisui thought he was going to pop out a Sharingan right there and then. The girl Sakura had seemed on fire, vibrating out of her skin with excitement, now that she knew how to tackle her friend’s chakra problem. What a nerd.

“Not but really… It’s crazy!”

“We know it is, Izumi,” Itachi said blankly, and it was hard to know if he was mocking her or agreeing earnestly. It was always hard to tell with him. Depending on your take on the matter, he had either never made fun of anyone in his life ever, or was the worst asshole known to man. Shisui was still reserving his judgment.

“Do you think it has to do with… You know.”

She trailed off, casting them uncertain glances as they walked back to the Uchiha district. She was testing to see if they knew what she was talking about, probably. Since none of them were supposed to know.

“I don’t think so. I think it’s on him,” Shisui answered. Naruto wasn’t supposed to be able to tap into the demon’s chakra so easily, and honestly, a tailed beast would have drawn a circle the size of the freaking village, no?

“I’ll ask my parents,” Itachi said. Izumi raised an eyebrow in Shisui’s direction, in a classic “what the hell” expression. It’s true that the last time Izumi had properly interacted with Itachi before their fight, his cousin was barely in speaking term with his father. Shisui wondered what Itachi had told the girl, but he also knew that she wouldn’t pry, and could still offer comfort.

She was a beacon of warmth and sanity in the gloomy Uchiha clan.

“They’re cute though," she said, completely changing the subject.

“What?”

“The three of them. It’s nice to see Sasuke with kids his age.”

The declaration was subtle, but unmistakable. The kids had her support – Naruto and his relationship with Sasuke included. She looked at her friends sideways, waiting for their reaction.

“It is nice,” Itachi confirmed. Izumi rolled her eyes at his complete lack of enthusiasm, but she was smiling too. Shisui nodded at her, and wasn’t it cool, for once, that they were all on the same page.

.

“Okay, Naruto. Imagine… Like, the jutsu we perform at school. Let’s take the clone technic. Imagine that exercise is actually filling a glass of water.”

Sakura had been thinking hard on her analogies and she wasn’t about to let them go to waste. The two boys were listening to her intently, matching frown of confused concentration on their face. She held back a sigh. This was going to be long.

“So, the exercise is filling a glass of water – water being chakra. All of us, we have like… a gourd of water, and we have to fill the glass. Some are more clumsy than other so they spill more or less water on the side, but generally speaking we can all do it.”

This was a great analogy, cause it also explained why very young kids, lacking the strength and coordination, couldn’t do it. She was the best.

“Okay. I get it, I guess,” Naruto grumbled, probably vexed by the “all can do it” part. She was coming to it though.

“Well in that example, it’s like we all had a gourd and you had… I don’t know. Like, a barrel.”

Their frowned deepened. She chuckled.

“You have a barrel of water to fill a glass. And you’ve been taught to fill it like with a gourd – by tipping it over and targeting the glass. Except it’s like, impossible, with a barrel. Either you can’t even tip it at all, or you tip it and there’s water everywhere but in the glass.”

She paused a little for dramatics.

“And that’s why you can’t perform ninjutsu. You can’t fill the glass.”

It took a few seconds, and then matching expressions of sudden illumination lit up the boys’ face.

“I get it!” Naruto explained. “Sakura, you’re smart.”

Sasuke nodded silently, reluctantly impressed. Sakura blushed a little.

“Huh, so, next question. How do you fill a glass of water with a barrel?”

They thought about it long and hard before Sasuke answered, “you just scoop water with the glass.”

“Yes! And that’s actually… Okay there’s probably some technical term or something, but that’s actually a method of chakra molding. Instead of pouring you chakra into you jutsu, it’s the jutsu that taps into your reserve. And we’d have to do research and stuff but it’s… like, legit. It’s a thing!”

They were probably a bit weirded out by her excitement, but she couldn’t control it. They had figured it out! They could do something about that issue! It wasn’t an issue anymore!

She could help Naruto!

“You could also pierce the barrel.”

“Huh?”

“You could pierce the barrel,” Naruto repeated, mumbling like when he wasn’t sure about being right. “You know, you make a hole at the bottom and the water just flow out. Then you’d need a cork I guess but…”

She was glad to see the analogy had worked so well. She thought about it. That would amount to accessing a continuous flow of chakra, steady and strong until it ran out. On a gourd, it would be absurd, since it would be empty in seconds, but with a barrel…

There was something she was sure, that required that kind of technics. Vast amounts of chakra and a steady feed…

“Ha!” she exclaimed. “That’s Fuinjutsu!”

“Sealing?” Sasuke asked. Naruto looked lost. She nodded.

“We don’t study it at the Academy cause it’s so chakra consuming. I don’t think much people use it at all… But you’d be great at it Naruto!”

He raised his eyebrows, looking both skeptic and enthusiastic, and like he didn't want to showcase either. Sakura was getting good at reading his moods though.

“You think?”

“Yes! Control doesn’t have to be that precise for sealing, since it’s mostly a question of pouring enough chakra into it. What matters the most are the signs and the drawings.”

And chakra control could be improved on, of course, but so could dexterity. More easily, even.

“That’s… good,” he said, not looking especially impressed. It was fine though. He was slow to get worked up, but once there, he would stay on. Sakura just had to actually show him, they just had to have him accomplish it just once, and he would be on board.

For now, she was excited enough for the both of them.

.

“I want you to train me.”

Both Shisui and Itachi raised their heads from the mission reports they were reviewing. They weren’t sent on active missions lately, but that didn’t mean they were on vacation.

Itachi sighed, uncomfortable.

“Sasuke, I told you…”

“No. I don’t care about… whatever it is that you won’t tell me, whatever it is that you feel bad about. I’m not asking as your little brother. You are the most powerful member of the Uchiha clan and I need, I need to get stronger.”

There was a fire in Sasuke’s eyes that was rarely seen on his grumpy little brother. Itachi stared at him in silence for a while, surprised by this sudden rage.

“Why?” he asked eventually

Sasuke pinched his lips. He was tensed all over, ready for a fight, ready to insist and argue until Itachi caved. When had his brother become so forceful? He used to be just as passive and obedient as Itachi himself.

As much a pain as it was, Itachi couldn’t see it as a bad change.

“I can’t let Naruto beat me.”

It could have been misplaced pride, except it wasn’t, was it? “Why?” Itachi asked again, wondering if Sasuke actually knew, if he would be able to put it into words.

“He’s… he’ll get stronger every day, and if he gets stronger than me, he’ll… We’re not friends enough yet. He’ll leave me behind, and I won’t let that happen.”

Naruto was probably the first person of which Sasuke had the full attention, barely split with their girl friend. But Sasuke wasn’t in competition with Sakura, so he could tolerate it.

Itachi had often wished he wasn’t born as he was. Gifted, as they said, a rare genius. Among the many torments it had brought him, the inferiority complex and resentment it had cultivated in Sasuke was one of the worsts, especially seeing how Itachi had no idea how to fight them. There had to be a lot of siblings that got along just fine despite one being better than the other.

“And if I want to be Hokage, I have to anyway,” Sasuke added as an afterthought, but one he had carefully pondered. Sasuke didn’t mention it that often, but often enough. Their father was convinced it was a childish whim – Itachi wasn’t so sure.

Itachi looked at Shisui. For a moment they stared at each other and Itachi was comforted by the fact that his cousin knew exactly what he was thinking about. He wasn’t sure he had made himself very clear, when he had tried to explain to him why he was so reluctant to spend time with Sasuke these days, but Shisui understood Itachi probably better than even Itachi did.

Mostly, Itachi was afraid of the influence he could have on Sasuke. Sasuke wished to be like him, and Itachi couldn’t think of a worse thing.

“How about this, Sasuke,” Shisui stepped in, a savior as always. “You’ll split your training between Itachi and I. Two teachers are better than one, right?”

Sasuke frowned, deep in thought, looking on all account like he was about to perform open-heart surgery. Finally, he sighed dramatically.

“Fine,” he said, crossing his arms on his torso to appear firm probably. “But Shisui, you have to hold Itachi to it. I count on you!”

“I’ll kick his ass if I have to cousin, I promise.”

That seemed to finally satisfy Sasuke, who exited the living room looking as pleased as could be.

“Your brother is fucking adorable,” Shisui commented with a laugh. His face soften into an indulgent smile when he caught Itachi’s sullen expression.

“It’s going to be fine, Itachi. I think it’s a good thing.”

“What if…”

“Nothing will happen to him. You won’t transmit him some sort of angst disease of whatever it is you’re worried about.”

“But…”

“Itachi.”

Shisui’s tone had hardened and Itachi willed himself to stay silent, despite the protestation bubbling on his lips.

“We can’t stay back forever. We have to move on now.”

It seemed so easy for him. Itachi was starting to feel he had been cheated, this entire time.

Everyone around seemed to be actually stronger than him.

The only thing Itachi could do for now was follow their lead. Shisui, Izumi… even Sasuke.

“Alright.”

Shisui smiled, at least. That was always nice.

Chapter Text

Fugaku remembered it all too clearly. It kept looping in his head, over and over. It kept him up at night.

A chunin had burst into his office to hand him a quick report explaining that a teacher from the Academy had been killed by Danzo’s men after bringing sensitive information to the Hokage, and by sensitive he meant decades of illegal missions, child snatching and warmongering.

The very next moment, Itachi had walked into his office, and he was in tears.

Itachi, in tears. Fugaku hadn’t seen his oldest son cry since he was five years old probably. Shisui was following close behind, white as a sheet, eyes dry but shining.

“Dad…” Itachi had said. Third shock. That had also been gone for years.

And then Itachi had told him about Danzo, about Anbu, about being a spy and about how their plot for overthrowing the Hokage was well known up above. About what was intended to be done about it.

The next moment, it was Hyuuga Hiashi who marched up into the room.

“What the hell, Fugaku?”

This time he could count in decades the last occurrence of the man being so familiar with him. And Fugaku, world crashing down around him, had blurted out, “the Uchiha have been planning a coup, and Danzo has been plotting to wipe us all out.”

The only thing Hiashi had to say to that was “I should have known walking in here that things could get even worse than they already were.”

Fugaku had been so sure, so sure that the other clan heads would side with the Hokage. None of them had lifted a finger when the Uchiha had been humiliated and ostracized publicly, Fugaku had assumed they were all too happy to see his clan fall, to see them put in their place like they had always wanted. It had never even occurred to him to seek their support, to make his case to them before deciding no one would be on their side.

Hiashi, and the others too, had things to say to that. They had been mad at Fugaku, of course, for wanting to bring war back to their doorstep instead of taking his grievance to them, for assuming they would be deaf to his pleas. But it was nothing compared to the wrath they held against Danzo, and, as time passed and the stories unfurled, against the Sandaime. Nothing compared to their sense of betrayal when they discovered that Danzo’s – and the Hokage’s to some extent they still didn’t fully know – solution to a dissident clan trying to stir trouble was to have them all murdered. Potentially by one of their own children.

At that point most of them were already on the warpath. Inoichi and Shibi, notably, after rescuing Yamanaka Fu and Aburame Torune from Danzo’s Roots, children of their own they had reluctantly let go, only to find out their supposed special training was getting brainwashed in the bottom of a cave. There were dozen more children, some thought dead for years, a lot of them snatched during the chaos brought by the Kyuubi’s attack.

That’s what Danzo had been up to then.

There was no way the Hokage didn’t know. No way he didn’t at least suspect. He had either been absurdly blind or purposefully obtuse – both were crimes that couldn’t just be swept under the rug.

Two years now they had been having these meetings regularly, diving back into issues they had left unattended for decades, no longer able to trust their leaders, be it the Hokage or his old councilors. There was no one to take the old Sandaime’s place for now, and they couldn’t afford to appear leaderless in front of the other villages, so they had to maintain the status quo. The Sandaime remained in place, his image intact to the general population. There were no other options, for now.

The various ninja clans of Konoha had never had such good relationships. As terrible as all the events leading to this had been, this part was… surprisingly nice.

Where had it gone, all these years? They used to be friends, all of them. They had gone to the Academy together, had been teammates, had fought side by side. They had sworn, once upon a time, as only young and foolish teens could, that they wouldn’t fall into the same trap their parents had. That they wouldn’t cross out their friendship, wouldn’t put their clan before everything else, wouldn’t ever end up pitching against each other.

Every day they were rediscovering the magnitude with which they had failed this.

But here they were now.

Holding those meetings at the Hokage tower seemed wrong somehow, even if it was the administration center, so they did it in the Nara district, for the sole reason that they were the only one to have a table big enough for them all. Especially since their number had slowly grown.

Mikoto, first. “I’m coming with you,” she had said the very first time, and it wasn’t always, but sometimes at least Fugaku knew not to argue with his wife. It bothered him, but he had figured she would keep to herself and see that there was no need for her there, and not come back.

Ha. Right.

As soon as she had stepped in the room Shikaku had made some comments about what she was doing here. “If you don’t like it, you can fuck right off, Shikaku. And I’m inviting Yoshino, next time.”

Shikaku had shut his damn mouth, and both their wives were around the table the next time. Shibi’s wife came when he couldn’t – although Fugaku wasn’t sure that was actually his wife. The Aburame weren’t big on marriage, or on monogamy for that matter. But she was his son’s mother and his second in command, and held the same power he did. Tsume had been bringing his daughter Hana for a few months now, as she would take the lead of the clan in a few years, and Tsume wanted to start preparing her as soon as possible.

If not for their subject of conversation, this would have felt very domestic indeed.

They had discussed Hokage succession, again, and came up short on solutions, again. Fugaku had almost, almost gave up on bringing up the Naruto case.

One scalding look from Mikoto, and he was explaining to his fellow clan leaders Naruto’s seemingly troubled relationship with the Uchiha’s dojutsu.

“Why do you find it so concerning?” Shikaku asked when he was done. Fugaku took his time to answer. Maybe he shouldn’t have. Maybe they were worrying over nothing. But he couldn’t let it go – it was a mix of a gut feeling, Mikoto’s own worries, and the still burning shame of such issues he had overlooked before, that had nearly lead all he knew and loved to ruins.

“You know how the Uchiha clan was accused of having brought the Beast down onto the village,” Fugaku started. He saw them frown in annoyance, unwilling to argue about this again.

“No one ever took it seriously,” Tsume said. She hadn’t, probably, and most hadn’t either, but it would be a lie to say no one had bought into the theory.

“We did,” Mikoto intervened, cutting through their murmurs.

“We took it very seriously,” Fugaku went on. “We actually accounted for the whereabouts of all the active Sharingan users at the time. It wasn’t… that unreasonable a claim. The Clan had nothing to do with it, but not everyone follows the wishes of their clan."

They all nodded somberly, having all dealt with their fair share of internal struggles.

“I supposed you found nothing,” Inoichi said to pick up the thread.

“No. At the time we concluded none of us committed that terrible betrayal. However…”

He was bearing the full weight of their attention now. Everyone had more or less accepted the fact that the Beast had fallen upon them by the whim of fate, and nothing more. They had come to term with the random cruelty of that day, with the Kyuubi breaking free despite the precaution taken for Kushina to give birth to her son. The beast freed, it had attacked, and that was the end of it.

“We’ve come to believe that there might be… someone, out of the village, in possession of the Sharingan.”

The admission was humiliating to say the least. The Uchiha had always prided themselves of the perfect grasp they had over their dojutsu. Never stolen or fallen into enemies' hands, like the Byakugan. The only bump in their track record was the eye of Hatake Kakashi, but it still remained in the confine of the village.

“A rogue Uchiha?” Hiashi asked.

“Or a thief,” Fugaku retorted, even if he wasn’t sure which one would be worse. A thief was more likely, because they hadn’t had any deserters in decades, but who knew?

“What put you on that track then?” Shikaku asked, never one to lose focus. Fugaku exchanged a look with Mikoto who nodded slightly, determined.

"Itachi was approached by a man. In regard to… Well. You know."

He couldn’t say it. He could barely fathom in on his best days, there was no way he could just acknowledge it out loud. That it had only remained in the realm of distant possibility didn’t change a thing. Danzo had asked it of his son. He had actually asked him.

It was a good thing the man was far away from them now.

They nodded, sporting matching expression of horror and resentment on their face for just a second. They were all thinking the same thing – it could have been my clan, my family, my child. Granted, none of them had a history quite as shaky as the Uchiha’s with the village, but it was delusional to think Danzo would have stopped there. He hadn’t hesitated to snatch clan kids, to have important people from other villages murdered, to plan the extermination of an entire clan. Where would he have stopped?

“The man offered… help. He didn’t reveal his name or identity but… The Sharingan doesn’t need to be activated to be detected.”

And Itachi was paranoid enough by then that he had looked for it with his own, just in case.

“Itachi could only say for sure the man had a powerful dojutsu.”

“And his interest in him is enough to make a leap as to what dojutsu exactly,” Inoichi concluded.

“Kushina never displayed any fear of the Sharingan,” Mikoto said. “But we can imagine Naruto would if… the fox’s experience of it is more recent. With a Sharingan out there…”

“It becomes plausible.”

Plausible, alarming, and life-changing. It would mean it wasn’t fate, it wasn’t bad luck, it wasn’t the wrath of a god.

It was deliberate.

“Why bring that up now, Fugaku? If you’ve suspected it for so long,” Chouza asked, with a surprising lack of reproach in his voice. Fugaku considered getting out of this one, spinning a quick excuse. It was a reflex at this point, he was used to lying by default, to never be outright and honest about anything.

He muzzled the urge as he felt Mikoto’s eyes bore a hole into his skull from his side.

“I wouldn’t have,” he said bluntly. “We’ve been investigating the matter for a long time and are no closer to solving it, but I would rather keep it an Uchiha’s business still, even if additional resources would be welcomed. It was… our failure,” he said through gritted teeth, “whether as Uchiha, or as the Konoha police force, if there was someone indeed who infiltrated the village to subdue the Kyuubi, we failed to prevent it, and we should be the ones to right that wrong. But…”

He wasn’t a fan of that honesty policy. It complicated interactions that a quick lie would have easily smoothed over, and it made him look bad more often than not. He felt vulnerable, exposed, and like he was giving ammunition to the people listening.

But Fugaku remembered it all too clearly. It kept looping in his head, over and over. It kept him up at night.

Itachi’s crying face, the horror of a fate that had been narrowly avoided, out of sheer dumb luck.

“But Itachi asked me to,” he admitted.

It should have been a bad thing to admit. Something that could be used against him, that made him appear weak. He didn’t keep the truth close to his chest, never to be shared, out of vindication or pleasure – he honestly thought it was the best thing to do. To protect himself and his own.

Except the other clan heads around the table didn’t show mockery or disdain, nor calculation or threat. If anything, they looked pleasantly surprised, that of all he could have said, this was what he was going for.

He wondered if they believed him or just appreciated he would choose such an excuse, wasn’t sure which one would please them the most – and which he would find less offensive. But Fugaku was forced to admit something he had refused to see for so long.

The people around that table weren’t his enemies.

“We will look into it then,” Yoshino summarized, unfazed. “And keep a close eye on the boy. But I believe your son is ahead of us on the matter, isn’t he?”

Fugaku didn’t have to turn around to picture his wife snickering and trying badly to hide it. She shouldn’t have been so careless on the matter. Just because their friends had made no comment over Sasuke and Naruto’s friendship didn’t make it any better an idea than it was. The ground was too shifty under their feet still, and they had just openly confessed that an Uchiha behind the Kyuubi’s attack was a possibility. Naruto was a danger even without factoring in the power he could yield.

Now wasn’t the time to pick up that particular fight though.

“He is. And Itachi’s watching them.”

“How is Itachi anyway?” Inoichi asked. He often did. He had insisted for a long time that Itachi saw one the therapists specializing in shinobi and their trauma at the Konoha hospital, but Itachi had always refused. Fugaku had been of a mind to make him go anyway, and it had resulted in a few frustrating sessions where Itachi had stayed silent as a tombstone despite the therapist’s best efforts. Inoichi had reasoned that the boy would go on his own term when he felt the need. Shisui had agreed without a fuss, at least. There was no telling what good it did him though – despite his easy demeanor, Shisui was guarded, opening up only to Itachi, or so Fugaku assumed.

He had to restrain himself from just requesting answers from them, or ordering them to deal with what had happened. He had a feeling they wouldn’t obey anyway. Not anymore.

Besides, Mikoto would probably behead him.

“We’re not sure,” she answered in his place, traces of concern in her otherwise steady voice. “He seems to hold it together, but it’s not like he’s sharing much with us.”

That was another thing that had surprised Fugaku greatly – the overwhelming sympathy Itachi had received from those in the known, seeing that, at the bottom of it, he had come very close to becoming a traitor to the village, and to weaken it greatly. But if none of them were particularly good at recognizing children for what they were – children – they were still all better than him.

Itachi was thirteen years old then. Thirteen.

“What about the kids, Inoichi?” Mikoto asked, as much out of genuine concern as to change the subject, Fugaku presumed. Inoichi sighed and exchanged a heavy glance with Shibi.

“Torune and Fu are doing fine, all things considered, along with most of those who were returned to their family. Kids are resilient. As for those others…”

“The orphans, right? The ones you took in,” Hiashi asked. Fugaku couldn’t decide if there was reprobation in his voice. He had never been able to tell if he just naturally looked and sounded judgmental – that’s why he was so infuriating.

“Shin and Sai, although those names were only assigned to them once for mission purposes. We couldn’t find anything in Danzo’s files that would give an inkling to their background and family. They’re not causing any troubles. I would say the issue is quite the opposite.”

In front of the others’ questioning expression, Inoichi sighed again.

“For all intent and purposes, they are fully formed Anbu soldiers despite their age. A lifetime of conditioning isn’t that easily shaken.”

Fugaku was among the dispatched jounin who had raided the Root headquarter the first time after Danzo’s arrest. The resistance they had found there had been incomprehensible – the older members were enraged, pushed into a fanatical frenzy by the downfall of their leader, despite it being legitimate. Most had had to be incapacitated – a few had been killed.

And then there were the children.

Sitting on bunk beds in a common dormitory, waiting for their fate calmly. The boy that would later call himself Shin was standing in the middle of the room, protecting the one that would call himself Sai. He had looked at Fugaku with quiet resolve as he asked “are you going to kill us, sir?”

He seemed fully expectant to hear an affirmative.

They didn’t look scared. They didn’t look anything, blank faces and still postures. Fugaku was sure they would have fought to the death though, had they been pushed to.

“To be honest, I don’t really know what’s going on with them. It’s… Well. Ino has been having much more success than me at breaking through them. It’s better than nothing, so I’m leaving it to her right now.”

The way he was saying it, he didn’t have much of a choice. Fugaku was unfamiliar with the offspring of the various clans, but even he had heard about Yamanaka Ino’s notorious reputation for mischief of the highest level, far from the harmless shenanigans regular kids got up to.

Had he felt like he could have any say in this, Fugaku would have probably advised Sasuke to stay away from her. But seeing how the boy had been acting up lately, it would only encourage him to befriend her.

Kids were exhausting.

“It doesn’t help that we can’t seem to convince them that Danzo isn’t coming back. They just can’t fully believe it. Frankly, I don’t blame them.”

It was by far the heaviest weight on the clans’ relationship with the Hokage right now. After everything that had happened, everything that Danzo had been accused of… The Sandaime had refused to have him executed.

So many had been killed for far less. Treason was the worst possible crime in the shinobi world, and that Danzo fancied himself the most loyal of them all, acting solely for the village’s interest, did nothing to alleviate the weight of his crimes.

The Hokage was protecting him, even now, and none could forgive him for it.

Danzo had been sent to an isolated location deep into the fire country, effectively imprisoned, but still alive and well, and still able to talk. To reach out. Would it have been so hard to at least cut off his tongue? The symbolism would have been great too, after the lengths they had had to go to have him remove the seals that bound his subordinates’ voice.

None of them felt safe from his influence and meddling. How could the Sandaime not see that? Danzo was still a threat. He would be as long as he was alive.

“Well, on that cheery note, I think we can call off that meeting for the day,” Shikaku exclaimed with his usual gruffness. If Hiashi always sounded pedantic, Shikaku always sounded annoyed, and it was impossible to tell at what. Fugaku would have appreciated a little formality for once, but he knew not to expect anything resembling protocol from his fellow clan leaders.

They all packed their notes, chattering amicably. Fugaku made plans to meet with Inoichi at the Intelligence division to talk at length about the rogue Uchiha case. Inuzuka Hana approached him just as Mikoto and him were taking their leave.

“Are you going back to the headquarter, Uchiha-san?” she asked pleasantly, always polite. He exchanged a brief look with Mikoto, who nodded.

“I am. You can walk with me.”

The girl smiled and fell into step with him. Mikoto took the direction of the training ground to meet with her genin team, and Fugaku and Hana started to make their way to the Konoha Police Headquarter.

It was so strange, how they got used to everything, even changed they were convinced would never truly set in. When it had been suggested that a step toward the reintegration of the Uchiha clan in the village could be to end their exclusive hold on the police force, most of them had protested, although they had complained about it being a mean of confining the clan to the village before. But they had made the most of that assignment and they took great pride in being the force that protected Konoha within its walls. The Anbu for outside threats, the Konoha police for inside ones, and the rest of the ninja force to carry on missions for the reputation and prosperity of the village.

Except it meant everyone was wary of them and their power to meddle and snoop around people’s business. And the fact that they could cover up whatever they wanted, including a traitor in their rank. Those who didn’t think the clan as a whole was responsible for the Kyuubi thought it had at least hidden the traitor, because how come the police of police had let that slip? Fugaku didn’t know either. It was their greatest failure.

Well, that, and the entire operating of Root. Years, years of Danzo’s shinobi carrying unauthorized missions, taking out those he thought were threats to the village or himself, kidnapping children. And they had never suspected a thing. Those kids’ life ruined, it was on Fugaku and his fellow clansmen. They should have put a stop to it, but they were busy enough trying to battle off the villagers growing mistrust.

Mistrust due partly to their inability to find those children.

Sage, what a mess. Fugaku had been forced to admit fresh blood within their ranks was a necessity, but had asked that in turn that his clan would no longer be restrained either.

So, no more Uchiha excluded from the administration, and no more non-Uchiha excluded from the police force.

It had caused outrage, at first, but no one batted an eye now, as Hana entered the building on his heels. Refusing changes wasn’t an option. They had to move forward now.

But seriously, why couldn’t they cut off Danzo’s head.

.

“Ino!”

Sakura felt her face redden immediately and she cursed herself for getting overwhelmed by something so simple as calling out a sort of friend in the middle of the corridor. It’s just, these days it felt like she wasn’t ever using her voice a school. She wasn’t even answering the teachers’ questions anymore – every time she wanted to raise her hand, she thought of all the comments she had received about how she was an arrogant bookworm who thought she was smarter than everyone else because she always knew the answers to everything, and she kept her hand down. Mizuki had called her out on it one day after class, saying that it was weird they weren’t hearing her during lessons anymore, and Sakura had felt a wave of rage and bitterness rise inside of her, a strong feeling impossible to stifle down that was showing more and more often lately. He knew what had happened, he knew what the others thought of her. He had to know why she was scared to display her good academics. And yet he had phrased it like it was too bad, a disappointment really, and why was it that way?

She hated his guts.

Anyway, she was quiet at school, and when she talked she felt like her voice carried all across the room, all across the entire building, that everyone could hear her, and nobody liked it.

In practice, only Ino stopped in her track and turned, instead of following Shikamaru and Choji outside for recess. Sakura waited for the corridor to empty out. Soon enough, they were alone.

“Do you want something?” Ino asked, not unkindly despite her rough tone. Now that Sakura handled Naruto on a regular basis, even Ino’s grumpy demeanor appeared nice and refreshing in comparison.

“I wanted to thank you for the paper. And… huh, you mentioned you could acquire… other things. If need be.”

For some reason, this seemed to please Ino, who relaxed and took a step to get closer to Sakura, a conspiratorial smile on her face.

“Need you some more illegal material, Sakura?” she said mischievously. Sakura blushed.

“It’s not… illegal. Just, huh…”

“Relax. Just tell me what you need.”

“I need some sort of resource on sealing. Scrolls, books… to learn the basics, something like that.”

Ino stared at her with enough intensity that Sakura squirmed a little, feeling exposed.

“I’ll ask Sai,” Ino finally agreed. “But you need to give him something in return.”

“What, like… he asks for payment?”

“He doesn’t ask,” Ino said. Her expression had darkened, her mouth set in an upset fold. “Whatever is asked of him, he will do it.”

She seemed greatly distressed by the fact.

“We’re trying to break him out of it though, hence the reward. Anything you want, but you’ll have to trade it with him in person.”

It had been a while since Sakura hadn’t been caught in Ino’s weird schemes, she had forgotten the utter oddity of her ways. Their classmates who feared her had no idea they should have actually feared her more.

“…Okay.”

“Cool.”

Ino walked off with a light strut and without a care in the world, as if they hadn’t just discussed a shady deal like some petty criminals in a back alley.

Sakura chuckled helplessly. What was even her life.

.

“Alright. This should be… simple.”

Naruto raised a skeptical eyebrow at Sakura, who had been studying the scroll for a good twenty minutes and seemed no closer to deciphering it. She had refused once again to say where she had gotten it, but Naruto had anticipated this time – he had been stalking her for a few days, and was now reasonably certain that that Sai weirdo from their class dealt shinobi material against baked goods. A terrible deal really, since Naruto had tasted Sakura’s cookies before, but the results were the same – here they were with a scroll on Base Sealing.

According to Sakura, anyway.

Naruto couldn’t decipher any of the scroll. He could only recognize what was written instruction and what was actual seals to reproduce, and that was about it.

“What is it supposed to do?” Sasuke asked, brows furrowed, and Naruto took great comfort in the fact that Sasuke could read, and still looked about as lost as Naruto felt.

“It’s a simple charging seal. To store up chakra. It’s entry level, so it’s only for one jutsu. You put chakra in, so you can use it later, when you’re all run out I guess. Huh. This is just the storing part though, there’s nothing on how you’re supposed to release it…”

“What the point then…” Sasuke mumbled. He had made no secret of what he thought, personally, on sealing. He wanted to spar, not waste time on an art he would make no use of, or something. He was less available lately, seen a lot with his two annoying relatives – not that Naruto cared. Naruto knew how to rile him up anyway – a simple comment about how he was just afraid he couldn’t do it, and Sasuke was on board to try it with them.

“Quit whining! Okay, take the scroll and try to… draw that.”

Naruto had never been particularly good at drawing or calligraphy – he could barely write his own name. But copying the seal wasn’t that hard. In fact, it was pretty easy – there was a symmetry there, a pattern, that made the design obvious once he’d studied it long enough. Even the kanjis scattered around the circles and at the end of the various branches made more sense to him than they ever had. They had a reason to be there. Their meaning was obvious. The ink smeared a little, but it was simple enough to work it into the symbols, and it was barely visible once he was done.

He looked at the final product and found… something didn’t add up. He couldn’t have said why, but he didn’t like it. He checked on the scroll again, but he has made no mistake. Still, something felt off.

Without thinking, he added just a few extra lines under some of the branches that formed a sort of sun around the blank space in the middle where he supposed the sealing would take place. Now, that was better. Not perfect yet, but better.

He looked up to glance at the other’s scroll. Sasuke’s was the worst by far, all wobbly and uneven. Sasuke had extraordinary steady and sure hands for throwing weapons, but it looked like it didn’t extend to handling a brush. Sakura’s was better, but Naruto didn’t like it for some reasons. He almost said something, but refrained – what did he know about this anyway? Hers was probably better, he just couldn’t see it.

“Alright, and then…”

They glanced together at the hand signs drawn hastily at the bottom of the scroll.

“There’s not much of an instruction, you just… Send chakra at it? And that final sign is to complete the sealing.”

Sasuke was the best at mudras, able to do them faster than everyone in their class, but this wasn’t a combat situation or even a combat techniques. There was no rush. Naruto formed the signs carefully, satisfied that the combination felt natural, flowing. There had been something on mudra theory the other day in class, about how certain pattern would feel easier to handle than others depending on chakra affinity, but Naruto wasn’t paying much attention then. Since he had no idea how much chakra he was supposed to use, he just called up whatever came to him, but contrary to Sakura and Sasuke who slapped their hands on the paper as soon as their sings were done, he paused, hands joined in the tiger sign.

Let it come up. Let it be.

Just as his two companions flopped back with defeated sighs, Naruto pressed his hands on the paper. There was an indication on the scroll about where they were supposed to go, but he hadn’t looked, so he just put them where he thought would work best. The signs would guide the chakra anyway, that’s what they were there for. He felt it rush out – he didn’t have to control it. He just had to stop the flow, whenever he wanted.

When he felt like it was enough, he cut the flow and lifted his hands, only to clap them together immediately. It felt final that way. The jutsu fell away – in the circle that was once blank now stood the “chakra” kanjis written in a lighter color than the ink spread around it.

Naruto turns to the others, only to see theirs were still blank, and that they were looking at his scrolls with no little envy.

“Huh,” Sasuke commented helpfully.

.

Sasuke remembered clearly the first time he had tried the Katon jutsu. He had been disappointed then because his father had, but at the time, he remembered how easy it had been to just make the signs and call up the fire. Despite his father’s feeble explanations, he had managed it on the first time, albeit on a ridiculously small scale. Ninjutsu had always come easily to him, but this was different. This felt natural.

He had been reminded, a bit, when Naruto had tried to explain to them how he had managed to make that seal work. Despite their best effort, neither Sasuke nor Sakura had been able to. It wasn’t that bad – Sasuke had no interest in seals, a chakra consuming and complicated art, and having Naruto manage it on the very first try while his two friends couldn’t figure it out could have been frustrating but it was… nice, instead. He had been happy, even he’d tried to hide it. Sasuke was content with that.

However, Naruto wasn’t the prime example Sasuke had of innate talent. That award, of course, went to Itachi, who had never struggled at anything in his life, to whom everything came effortlessly.

Sasuke remembered his first Katon now, in the middle of training with his brother and cousin, because shortly after, as he complained to his mother about none of the other kids at school being any good at ninjutsu which was easy, right?, she had explained to him how things that came easy for him wouldn’t come so easy to others. That being able to understand that, and to reach through to the ones who couldn’t figure things out as fast as he did, it was what would make him truly great at his skill. He had understood, vaguely, that she was talking about the talent of teaching others. It was hard indeed, as proven by his attempt to teach ninjutsu to Naruto, and by… well. What was happening right now.

His mother had said that genius often made for terrible teachers, and she was right.

It’s not that Itachi was mean about it, or too severe or anything like this. But he was utterly incapable of explaining anything clearly.

Sasuke supposed that it made sense – he didn’t have to think about it. He had barely needed to learn those things himself, they had been minimally explained to him before he could reproduce them on the spot.

Which led to his current level of frustration.

“No, not like that.”

How then?”

“…Not like that.”

Sasuke threw his arms up. This was pointless. Itachi couldn’t impart any of his wisdom, it was beyond him. Sasuke would have been tempted to think he was doing it on purpose, if not for the confused and slightly distressed look growing on Itachi’s face as he failed to explain himself to his brother. Sasuke cast a helpless look at Shisui, looking greatly amused by what he was watching.

“You’re rushing Sasuke. Being able to form signs quickly is a good skill, but only if they’re still flawless. This is a much more advanced jutsu than the simple fireball. You can’t be sloppy in any way.”

Itachi was sporting a puzzled expression that belonged on Sasuke’s face, not his. Itachi was supposed to know these things. Supposed to know what he was doing.

But maybe he just… wasn’t.

“Thanks, Shisui,” Itachi said. Shisui grinned.

“What would you do without me, I wonder.”

Sasuke had always assumed that Itachi treated Shisui differently than… well, than the rest of the entire world, because he saw something in him, something that had made them friends beyond their blood connection, something that set Shisui apart. He was starting to understand it was the other way around.

It’s Shisui who treated Itachi differently. Not from how he treated the others, but from how the others treated Itachi. His talent was well-advertised in the village – everyone was always a little awed over the Uchiha prodigy. Even his classmates, people his age, even people he had never met before. They were respectful and full of praise, but also a little distant, like they didn’t feel like they could actually approach him. There were those who tried to gain his attention and his favors. There were those who openly despised him.

And then there was Shisui, of whom the first distinct memory Sasuke had was him tugging Itachi's ponytail lose to bind to kunais together in a failed attempt to invent a new kind of weapon that had resulted in a broken window and a very long lecture.

Shisui had always treated him like a friend. He wasn’t envious or jealous, even when there were some to whisper behind their back that he must have been bitter, for Itachi was younger but better than him already. But Shisui had no care for any of this.

“It’s… It’s normal not to make it on the first try,” Itachi tried lamely. Sasuke shrugged.

“Tss, thanks, I know that.”

Shisui clicked his tongue with a frown, to Sasuke’s puzzlement. Itachi looked upset.

“No but, really, I… I know that. I wasn’t expecting to. I just need to keep practicing,” he added for good measure. He was annoyed at the way they relaxed – did they really think he was such a brat? He wasn’t an idiot. He knew learning jutsu took time, for the vast majority of people. Itachi was the exception, not the rule.

Sasuke truly didn’t care about that, no more than Shisui did. It wasn’t Itachi being the best at everything that bothered him. His brother was like he was – it was a good thing. He was strong, he could protect himself and protect others, he was respected. Those were good things.

The anger Sasuke had over this wasn’t toward Itachi. He was plenty angry at Itachi, but not about that. It’s the others that enraged him. If Sasuke wanted to beat Itachi, it wasn’t so that he would get to be stronger than him. It was just so that he too would be seen, finally. Would be recognized.

“What?” he asked angrily at their open surprise.

“We would have thought you’d be more upset about this,” Shisui said calmly, honest as ever. Sasuke focused back on repeating the mudras to avoid their gaze.

“What does it matter,” he mumbled. “I’ll get it eventually. When you use a jutsu in battle, no one’s gonna point a finger and say “yeah but it took him two years to learn it!”. They’ll say “aaaah” and “it burns” and then they’ll die.”

Sasuke was broken out of his concentration by a sound. A weird, ridiculous sound, the kind people made when a laugh was startled out of them and they didn’t have time to stifle it entirely, a dirty mix between a groan and sneeze.

Itachi was snickering into his collar.

Sasuke wasn’t sure why it gave him a pause. Maybe because it was hard to conjure up the image of Itachi laughing. Maybe because here they were, the three of them in that clearing, training together and now laughing too.

Truth be told, Sasuke had never cared that much about training with Itachi. But it was the only way that maybe Itachi would agree to hang out, since he was always so busy. Sasuke just wanted them to spend time together.

Well, now, he really needed to train. But this was nice all the same.

“We underestimated you, Sasuke. Sorry,” Shisui said, and his tone was mocking but gentle too, very fond. Itachi’s smile faded away, as it often did. Sasuke wondered was dark thoughts plagued him to the point that he couldn’t be content for more than a few moments.

Maybe he’d ask, one day.

“So, like that?” Sasuke asked again, intent on making the most of that session.

“Huh, no, not like that.”

“How then?”

“…Not like that.”

Shisui’s laugh rung clearly through the woods.

.

“Yo.”

Sai raised his head from his notebook to see who was suddenly blocking the sun. It was a boy. Blond. From his class. Sai searched his memory for a second.

Uzumaki Naruto. Person of interest, but the reason why was classified. Terrible student, known not to be very friendly.

Addressing him, apparently.

“Hello.”

Shin and Ino, sitting on each side of him on the bench, tensed visibly as they interrupted their conversation to assess the newcomer. They said nothing though.

“I need you to teach me,” Naruto said. Sai was going to ask what, but saw that Naruto was pointing at his notebook, where he had been drawing absentmindedly, small animals running around the pages as he waited for recess to be over and class to resume. They had so much leisure time now, it was exhausting. He didn’t get how people came up constantly with ways to fill their time, with how much they had. 

“Why?”

"Learning seals. Need to be better with a brush," Naruto said curtly, seemingly fed up with the conversation already. Low tolerance for social interactions? At least with strangers. Spent enough time with Uchiha Sasuke and Haruno Sakura, could be labeled as friends. Never seen talking all that much though. Sai could relate.

“I see.”

Sai was going to agree, since he had no reason not to, but Ino cleared her throat loudly by his side, and he cast her a long, puzzled look, trying to decipher what she was trying to tell him. After a while she just sighed, exasperated.

“And what will he get in return?” she asked Naruto. Ah, that was that. He was supposed to ask, but he always forgot, because he didn’t care. He didn’t need nor want anything. What was the point?

“I’m not paying you,” Naruto replied immediately, like the mere suggestion offended him.

“Thank you,” Sai answered. Money was yet another issue he could go without for now. It confused him to the highest level. Just owning things made his head hurt.

Naruto frowned.

“You could teach me something,” Sai offered, struck with inspiration. That would placate Ino, wouldn’t it? Sai was interested in learning things. It seemed to be all he was doing beside drawing, ever since they had been placed in the Yamanaka’s care, and he was okay with continuing on that path for now.

“Well. I guess I could.”

“Could you? Is there anything you can do?” Ino asked. She was more aggressive than necessary – Sai took it to mean they had history together. Ex-partners maybe? Ino talked a lot about love and boys, even if she wasn’t seen often in the company of one or the other, present company notwithstanding.

Naruto glared at her, either vexed or hurt, it was hard to tell.

“I can teach you to pickpocket,” Naruto said after a moment of reflection.

“What? That’s out of the question!”

Sai turned toward Shin this time – it was annoying this habit him and Ino had to bracket him, it meant he couldn’t look at both at the same time.

“Why not?” Sai asked.

“It’s a good skill to have,” Ino admitted. “Are you any good though?”

“Was I ever arrested? That’s your answer.”

“It’s really not.”

“It’s not the question!” Shin said again, louder this time, flustered at the way he was being ignored. “Sai is not learning to pickpocket!"

Sai shrugged. He didn’t care either way but if Shin was against it, then he wouldn’t.

“Anything else?” he asked politely. The teacher would be calling them one moment or another, and he wanted that conversation to be over. Naruto managed to look even sourer, if possible, before sighing in defeat over whatever debate he was having in his head.

“What about how to cook?”

Ino scoffed.

“You can cook?”

“Why wouldn’t I?”

“I’ve seen your bento.”

“I’ve been taking care of myself for ten years out of ten so yes, I know how to cook.”

For some reasons, Sai expected an insult at the end of that sentence. Aware that he had the power to stop all this noise, he nodded.

“I agree.”

Ino seemed ready to protest, but Shin most likely did something to stop her – Sai still couldn’t look at both at the same time – because she let it go, her mouth clicking shut on a mean grimace.

“Great,” Naruto said without looking like he found any of this particularly great. “See you after class.”

And without waiting for an answer, he was gone.

“Cool,” Sai said as he believed kids were supposed to, to no one in particular. Ino still disagreed.