As Sasuke Uchiha stared at his reflection in the train window, the rain from the storm outside dripped down his mirrored cheeks in a mockery of tears. The windswept clouds colored the evening sky, turning it the hue of midnight. The howling wind drowned out the more cheerful noises of the other passengers, and a ghost conductor kept trying to punch his ticket. All in all, it was not the best way to start a trip.
It had been planned as a summer long family trip, but Sasuke's parents had backed out last minute. They had cited something to do with work, but he believed that the real reason lay more along the lines of not wanting to be far from his brother in his worsening condition. His parents owned and ran a large hospital, where his older brother, Itachi, currently resided in the premium white padded cell of the psychiatric division.
"May I please see your ticket?" The ghost conductor was back again, wearing a uniform indicative of an era at least fifty years prior.
Sasuke held his ticket in the air wordlessly, not looking at the specter. The conductor reached for it, but drew back with a confused look when his hand passed through the paper.
"I'm sorry..." He trailed off and walked a few steps before asking the same question of another passenger, who ignored the specter. The bemused expression returning to his face, he repeated the apology before moving on to the next passenger.
Oh, yeah. Sasuke Uchiha could see ghosts.
It was a power linked directly to the Uchiha bloodline. In fact, Sasuke had only discovered a single other person with a similar power: a man named Hyuga, whom he had met while interacting with same ghost. If Sasuke's father was to be believed, the power was a gift to ease the - well, not lives, but existences of the departed. Sasuke had once believed the same thing, until one fateful day when everything changed. It was the day that Itachi, Sasuke's beloved older brother, snapped under the pressure of the 'gift' and went insane.
Sasuke had been ten, young and impressionable, and the event had scarred him. Itachi had tried to blind his younger brother, and succeeded in taking his own sight when that failed, before he had been apprehended and brought to the deluxe hotel for crazies. Since then, Sasuke had regarded ghosts with a kind of passive aggressive animosity; not quite anger, but not the awe he used to think of them with. Almost eight years had passed since that day, and it still haunted him so much that Sasuke had refused to even say his brother's name since the incident.
The spectral conductor finished his round and came back to Sasuke, asking for a ticket, which Sasuke again proffered wordlessly. There were three main kinds of ghosts: the kind that haunted their home or place of work, or another place that was important in their lives, the kind that haunted the place where their bodies were buried, and the kind that haunted the place where they died. The conductor was the first kind, a type of ghost called a specter that acted out a simple action over and over, unable to let go of living. They were the most prolific and least dangerous out of all three.
Ghosts that haunted their place of rest were called figures, and they were slightly more dangerous than specters. They possessed rudimentary powers of telekinesis, but usually were only a threat if their resting place was disturbed. Most commonly found in either church cemeteries or family plots, figures cared so deeply about where they were buried that they were unable to leave it after death.
The rarest kind of ghost, the kind that haunted the scene of their own death, was the most dangerous. Either the victims of horrific accidents or violent crimes, hatred and anger kept these malignant spirits, called draugrs, present after their demise. Their strong emotions allowed them to hone powers of telekinesis and experiment with corporeality, giving them the power to greatly affect the living to the point that they could actually kill someone who was still alive. The older a draugr was, the more time it had to hone its powers, and the more dangerous it was. It was one of these draugrs, a serial killer named Orochimaru who had died during his attempted arrest, who had finally pushed Itachi over the edge.
There was a direct correlation between the age of a ghost and its level of power, no matter the kind. That being said, there was an age beyond which ghosts lost their powers and faded away, unable to support their mind without a body and keep sane any longer. Only perhaps five to ten percent of people became ghosts, and half of those, usually the specters, faded before twenty-five or thirty years had passed. Figures could last up fifty years, depending on their level of attachment, and draugrs could stay present for over seventy-five if they harbored particularly bad emotions pertaining to their death. That meant that this spectral conductor, with his half-century old uniform, was long overdue for rest.
"May I please see your ticket?" This time, Sasuke looked directly at the ghost and smiled pleasantly, raising his ticket high enough that the conductor could reach it with his puncher without having to grab for it, which would inevitably cause it to pass through the paper. The specter's eyes grew wide, and he extended his puncher with trembling hands, catching the ticket in its jaws and clicking it shut, punching a small hole.
"Thank you. I think you've done enough work. Why don't you rest now?" Sasuke asked quietly, fixing his gaze squarely on the conductor.
Tears formed in the specter's eyes. "Thank you," he whispered. "I just needed to punch one more ticket..." Then he began to blur around the edges, and dissolved into nothingness.
Sasuke lowered his ticket, noting its flawless state and ignoring the strange look he was getting from the woman across the aisle. He was used to it.
This was going to be a long trip.
It was still raining when the train arrived at the platform, and Sasuke had packed his umbrella in his suitcase. Not that he couldn't fish it out, but he didn't feel like showing off his collection of superhero underwear to get at it. Oh, and also his emergency supplies in case he ran into a dangerous draugr. It would be a little hard to explain why he had rock salt, silver knives, and exorcism quality holy water and crosses packed in with his tighty whities. Not that the religious artifacts always worked, only if the spirit had been religious in its lifetime, but it was often enough to slow down something hell-bent on harming him.
Sasuke was shocked out of his umbrella: to fetch, or not to fetch musings by the honk of a car horn. A man with a strange mask covering his lower face and one eye got out of the driver's seat of the solid, inelegant black vehicle, waving to the teenager.
"Uchiha! That you?"
Sasuke regarded the man in the rain with suspicion, staying under the canopy of the platform. "Who are you?"
The man slammed the car door and ran through the rain to stand next to Sasuke under the canopy. "Name's Kakashi. I own the place where your folks rented a suite for the summer. They sent me word that you'd be coming out alone, so I thought I'd come pick you up."
When the look of suspicion refused to slip from Sasuke's face, he thought Kakashi smiled in approval, but it was impossible to tell because of the mask. "Your folks sent me a picture so I'd be able to recognize you. Here."
He pulled out a phone and tapped a few times, then turned it around to show Sasuke the image of him and his parents that had been taken on their last family vacation, a hiking trip in Olympic National Park the previous summer that had been cut short when Itachi had reached a whole new level of crazy and the two concerned parents had rushed back. The picture had been taken on the top of Klahhane Ridge, an eight mile round trip hike from the Hurricane Ridge Visitor's Center. A passing hiker had offered to get them all together when he had seen them taking individual shots, and the moment, in all its sweaty, exhausted glory, had been immortalized. Had it really been that long since all three of them smiled together?
Sasuke nodded, deciding to trust the man. "Okay. How far is it?
"About ten minutes normally, but with the rain it may be closer to fifteen." Kakashi slipped the phone back in his pocket and offered a hand. "Can I take your suitcase?"
Sasuke's grip tightened around the handle. "I'd prefer to take it, but thank you."
Chuckling to himself, Kakashi pulled his collar higher to protect his neck against the rain in preparation for running back to the car. "Such a polite kid. We don't get many outta-state teens with good manners." He clapped Sasuke on the back. "Ready to run for it?"
"If I must."
"On three, then. Three!"
The masked man took off before Sasuke could react. Cursing a bit under his breath, he darted out into the pelting rain towards the dark car. Kakashi had obviously expected him to take shotgun, but Sasuke jumped in the backseat, unwilling to part with his suitcase. No one but him would see the trappings inside. If Kakashi was perturbed, he hid it well and simply started the engine.
"Well, Mr. Uchiha, welcome to Konoha, Maine, the cutest, most historic fishing village you're likely to find on the Atlantic Coast, currently in the middle of a hurricane."
Sasuke absorbed the information, reacting to only one part of the statement. "Mr. Uchiha is my father. Please call me Sasuke."
"Alright... Sasuke." Kakashi regarded him in the rearview mirror. "Would you like a tour of sorts? I can point out some things you can do yourself before your folks get here, if you'd like."
"Thank you. I'd like that very much."
"Hm." Kakashi's eye flickered back to the road. "Well, you can find lots of little hole-in-a-wall stores within a quarter hour's walk in any direction of the inn, but out here there's some nature trails, a bike path and a hidden swimming hole that some of the locals go to. If you make any friends, maybe one of them might show you the way."
Sasuke snorted before he could help it. "Not very likely." At Kakashi's questioning glance, he blushed. "Sorry. I just tend not to make friends very easily."
"Hm." That noise was going to drive Sasuke crazy. "Anyway, if you like books, there's the ANBU Book Shop and Cafe. They cater to some weird tastes, though, so be careful in there. Konoha also has a public library. If you're interested, I could probably get you signed up for a card."
"I like books..." Sasuke trailed off as he spied an old church. Three figures, their ghostly shapes barely visible in the rain, roamed the cemetery. "What's that?"
"An official historic landmark of Konoha. There's a walking trail between some of the bigger ones, like the Freedom Trail in Boston." Kakashi's one eye gleamed. "There's also haunted tours that go around the village at night, and people have sworn they've seen ghosts on them."
Great. More ghosts. "So, is there a lot of supernatural culture in this community?"
"Supernatural culture!?" Kakashi nearly slammed on the breaks in shock. "You mean you came here, and you don't even know?"
"Know what?" Sasuke asked apprehensively.
"Sasuke, Konoha is one of the most haunted places in the world! That's how we attract most of our tourists! This is the 'historic Maine village with a dark underbelly.' Why, even my inn, the Hokage, has a few resident ghosts!"
Sasuke almost groaned aloud. "And my father knew this before he booked our reservation?"
"I would assume so. It's advertised right on the website."
At Sasuke's muffled silence, Kakashi gave a concerned glance into the backseat. "You okay? Afraid of ghosts or something?"
"I'm fine." A thought struck him. "How do you know that the Hokage has ghosts?"
"Because I've seen them."
Sasuke blanched. Kakashi couldn't see ghosts: Sasuke had already seen his eye, and it was perfectly normal. But what motive did the masked man have for lies? Other than to sell more rooms, but the Uchihas had already reserved for the whole summer. Kakashi was probably just trying to create an image and a reputation, one that would gain him revenue. This town definitely had ghosts - Sasuke had already seen some - but no more than a big city like Chicago, his home, did. He would just ignore them as he always did, or help them pass if they were ready. This summer would be peaceful and devoid of significant supernatural happenings.
"We're here." The words abruptly cut into Sasuke's musings with the silence of the engine, and it was only then that he realized that the older man had remained silent for the rest of the ride. He looked out the window, and beheld one of the most beautiful buildings he had ever seen. It was an old fashioned New England Victorian Style home, painted and repaired faithfully to keep it as true as possible to the original.
"It's amazing," Sasuke said in awe.
"You really like it?" Kakashi seemed pleased.
"Yes. It's much more beautiful than my home in Chicago."
"Hm." An unseen smile briefly played across Kakashi's features. "It's still raining pretty hard, so we'll have to run for it. You good for it?"
Sasuke hefted his suitcase against his body. "I'll manage."
With the barest hint of a smile, Sasuke replied, "Only if I can count."
For the longest time, it seemed like Kakashi was not going to respond. Then, abruptly, he nodded. "Three, your count."
Gripping the handle of the car door, Sasuke started to count. "One... Two..."
"Three!" Kakashi called the number and started ahead of Sasuke, looking back over his shoulder in challenge. Cursing louder than under his breath this time, Sasuke followed in an undignified scramble, fumbling with the handle and almost shutting the door on his suitcase. The dash to the door was a mad slip-n-slide of wet gravel and puddles, deceptive in their depth.
When Sasuke made it to the door, it was to find Kakashi holding it open with a gloating air. "Glad to see you made it- ah!"
The words cut off in a yelp as Sasuke, unable to control his speed, lost traction between his wet sneakers and the smooth floor, and crashed right into Kakashi. The two went tumbling to the floor, landing on their respective asses. Wide-eyed, Sasuke stared at the older man, afraid that he had hurt him. That one eye gazed back, inscrutable, for a long moment before a low rumble started behind the mask. The rumble soon broke into laughter so infectious, Sasuke had no choice but to join in. Standing up, Kakashi wiped a single tear of mirth from his eye before extending a hand to the still seated Uchiha.
As Sasuke accepted the hand, Kakashi shook his head. "That was somethin', kid. I ain't been knocked off my block for a long time."
Sasuke blushed. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be. It felt good." Kakashi clapped him on the shoulder. "I think it's gonna be a great summer with you here, Sasuke."
Glancing at a large grandfather clock, Kakashi whistled at the time. "Gosh, I didn't realize it was so late! The rain makes it hard to tell, don't it? Anyways, you're probably wanting to get settled in, right? You must have had a long day of travel, not to mention the time zone difference."
"Yeah, I am," Sasuke replied, not bothering to tell Kakashi that the time zone difference actually worked in his favor, and it was earlier in the evening there than it was here. Still, he was tired from the day of constant traveling, so he wasn’t about to complain.
"Suite's second at the top of the stairs. Door's labeled 2B. You should be able to find it easily enough."
With a warm smile, Sasuke shook Kakashi's hand. "Thank you for picking me up. I mean it. And sorry about… you know."
"Hey, don't mention it."
Sasuke was halfway up the stairs when Kakashi called after him. "And be careful of the ghosts!"
A cold chill slipped up Sasuke's spine, and he was suddenly wide awake again, all tiredness gone. "I will," he called back in a jovial tone, though he felt anything but. Eyes wide and mind alert, he ascended the rest of the stairs and turned to the suite his parents had rented, 2B. Shutting the door quickly behind him, Sasuke slipped past the two larger bedrooms and into the smallest of the three bedrooms, closing that door firmly as well.
It was a fairly bare room, but that was to be expected. A queen size bed rested against the far wall, sporting an elaborate head and footboard. A small table sat beside the bed, and a bureau stood up next to a second door that let to a slim closet. On the side nearer to the door was an old fashioned secretary's desk and wooden chair with a wicker bottom. The pale blue walls were bare except for an old sepia picture of a plow in a field. After taking note of his surroundings, Sasuke dropped his suitcase in the middle of the floor and knelt next to it.
With a certain sense of urgency, Sasuke opened the lid of his suitcase and took out all the equipment related to the supernatural and sorted it onto the bedside table. Then, with quick, practiced movements, he took the mason jar of rock salt and sprinkled a thick line of it across the doorjamb.
Spirits could pass through walls, of course, but specters tended to stay within the limits of their mortal bodies, so it was doubtful one would pass through a wall in the night. A figure might, since they tended to have more mental awareness, but there hadn't been any hint of a cemetery nearby, so the chances of a figure were slim. A draugr wouldn't be stopped by a line of salt, even one all the way around the room, but then, if a draugr came after Sasuke, he had bigger things to worry about than a night of uninterrupted sleep, so the salt provided fair enough protection.
His room secure, Sasuke now sat on the bed and gazed at his phone, the least pleasant part of the evening eminent. With a sigh, he dialed his father's number and pressed the phone against his ear.
It picked up after the first ring. "You in Konoha?"
That was it. No 'how was your day,' or 'did you have a good trip?' Just 'you in Konoha?' But then again, Sasuke was used to it.
"Yeah, I'm in Konoha. It was raining when I got off the train, so Kakashi - that's the guy that owns the place we rented the rooms from - drove out to get me."
"I see." Suspicion entered his father's voice. "Did he try to take your suitcase? Did you give him a tip for it?"
"Yeah, I did, and no, he didn’t." Sasuke stood up and raked a hand through his hair to quell his emotions. "I don’t think he would have taken it if I had offered, so I slipped a twenty dollar bill into the cupholder when he wasn’t looking, and I handled the suitcase myself."
An almost painful silence hung before Sasuke's father asked stiltedly, "Did you have a good trip?"
Sasuke would have been happy to hear the question, but he had heard his mother whisper instructions to ask in the background. "It was fine. A little eventful. I had a run-in with a spectral conductor on the train, but-"
"Did you lay him to rest?" His father interrupted with biting words.
"Yeah, I just let him punch my ticket and he faded." Sasuke sat back down on the bed, too tired to stand anymore. "Hey, did you know that Konoha was supposed to be one of the most haunted places in the world when you decided to have a family vacation here?"
"What?" The news clearly stunned his father as much as it had stunned him.
"It's a tourist attraction, apparently. Kakashi even swore up and down that The Hokage's haunted."
"Did you put a line of salt across your door?"
Sighing, Sasuke placed his arm across his eyes. "Yes. I'm not stupid." A suspicion overtook him. "You didn't know, did you? Tell me, did you even make the reservation yourself, or did you make your secretary do it?"
"Never mind. I don't want to know."
The silence hung, heavy, until Sasuke's father broke it again. "Do you want to speak to your mother?"
Sasuke blinked back tears. "Sure."
There was some white noise as the phone was transferring hands, then the cheerful voice of Sasuke's mother serenaded his ear. "Sasuke? How are you? How was your trip? Are you alright there on your own?"
A smile briefly lifted the corners of his mouth. "Yeah, I'm fine. Trip was good."
"That's good to hear! I was worried about sending my baby off on his own, but I knew you could do it! Tell me, do you have any ideas about what you're going to do before we get there?"
"Not really. There's a bookshop and a library I might check out, and some nature trails. That's all I've thought about so far."
Her voice turned mischievous. "See any cute girls?"
His smile evaporated. "Mom, there's two hours different between Chicago and Maine, so it's dark, and it's raining outside. Besides, you know I'm-"
"Well, that doesn't matter. I'm sure you'll meet some cute locals soon."
Sasuke bit his lip, stopping the last word he was going to say from coming out. "It's late here, Mom. I think I want to go to bed."
"Oh. Okay." Her disappointment was palpable. "Will you call again tomorrow?"
"Alright. Goodnight, then."
"Goodnight. And tell Dad I said the same to him."
"You can just tell him yourself! I'll hand the phone over, and-" click.
Sasuke hung up on his parents, suddenly feeling a lot more tired than he probably had any right to be. Placing the phone carefully on the bedside table, he gave one last check of the line of salt before kicking off his shoes and turning off the light. Fully clothed, he fell onto the bed, too exhausted and drained to care. Though he wanted nothing more than to sleep and forget the harrowing day of travel, the blissful abyss of slumber evaded him for a long time.
If Sasuke hadn't already known that it was going to be a long trip, the sight he beheld when he woke up the next morning would have confirmed it. A blond boy, perhaps ten years old, sat at the end of his bed, looking mighty pleased with himself. A brief glance around the room confirmed that the mischievous ghost had ransacked his entire unpacked suitcase and placed every single article of clothing around the room as some form of decoration.
Sasuke had always thought of himself as a little emo, and most of his wardrobe was black, so the room looked like an explosion of shadow. Socks had been placed over all four bedposts, standing like sentinels of his waking doom. Over each blade of the ceiling fan hung one of Sasuke's t-shirts, including one he particularly liked that had a single red eye centered on the black fabric, and another that had a red and white symbol that looked a little like a ping pong paddle. Every single pair of boxers, without fail, had been flung in the highest locations about the room. One was even hanging from the light fixture. The one nice outfit he had brought, a suit-like jacket and tie with dress pants, had been set up in the chair on the far side of the room, and a top hat he knew wasn't his sat balanced on the chair back, completing the ensemble.
"How do you like it?"
Sasuke stuffed his head back under the pillow. Now was not the time for- whatever this was.
"Hellooooooooo! I know you can hear me!" The sound of the ghost's voice grew closer. "Good morning, sunshine!"
"Go away!" Sasuke lashed out with his pillow, going right through the little spirit.
"No way! That actually worked?" The blond ghost tackled Sasuke, suddenly very corporeal, and pinned him to the bed. Startled eyes of vibrant cerulean stared down into sleepy black ones. "You can hear me? For realsies?"
Sasuke groaned, knowing he should have left well enough alone. "For realsies? Who even says that?"
A hand flew up to cover the ghost's mouth. "You really can hear hear me? Can you see me? How many fingers am I holding up?" He waved a finger so vehemently it almost went up Sasuke's nose.
"One, and you're going to poke my eye out if you're not careful. Get off, moron!" The last was accompanied by a shove against a surprisingly firm chest.
The ghost tumbled a bit in the air before righting himself and floating, cross legged, at the foot of the bed. With a shimmer, he adopted the form of a five year old with the same blond hair and blue eyes before turning a fakely tearful puppy dog gaze on Sasuke. "You wouldn't say that to a little kid, would you?"
Sasuke jumped so badly, he cracked his head back against the headboard. "Ow! How the hell did you do that?"
"Do what? This?" The ghost gestured to his small form, then gave a grin that could only be described as self-satisfied. "Practice, duh! How does anyone learn anything new?"
"That's not what I meant," Sasuke grumbled. "Are you altering my perception?"
"No, just myself. I was this old at one point, so I can look it if I want to."
Without warning, Sasuke leaned forward and grabbed the mischievous spirit's arm. To his surprise, it really was as thin as a five-year-old's. "You really are altering yourself!"
"Well, duh," the ghost said with that same grin.
Suspicion entered the Uchiha's mind. Body alteration was a highly advanced draugr ability, as well as the telekinesis and corporeality abilities the little ghost had already displayed. He let go of the spirit's arm as if it had burned him, backing himself up as close to the headboard as he could get. Sasuke reached stealthily for a silver blade on the bedside table, feeling slightly more secure when his fingers curled around the hilt. The spirit hummed to himself at the foot of the bed, clearly pleased with the reaction he was sponsoring.
"My name's Naruto. What's yours?"
Sasuke chose not to reply, instead gripping his silver blade tighter as suspicion, in turn, gripped him. Just who was this little ghost, and what did he want with him? More importantly, why hadn’t it already attacked him in his sleep if it intended to do so now?
"Helloooo. I asked you a question!" With a pout, Naruto leaned closer to Sasuke.
Eyes widening in fear, Sasuke whipped the knife out in between them, and Naruto was barely able to stop his forward momentum in enough time to avoid touching the glimmering metal.
"What the Hell, man! That shit's silver! Do you know how much that could fuck me up?"
Blinking in surprise at the tirade, Sasuke was almost tempted to lower the knife. Almost. "That's a dirty mouth for a kid."
"Who the Hell did you expect, a fucking angel? You obviously know your shit about ghosts, so why pull a silver knife? That's just cruel." His eyes widened, then Naruto quickly floated off the bed, reverting to a state where he resembled a fifteen year old. "Wait, you aren't actually using that for self-protection, are you? Jesus, it was a prank! I'm not going to hurt you!"
Sasuke lowered the knife, but didn't relinquish it. "Why are you in my room?"
"The line of salt, duh!" Naruto hooked a thumb toward the door. "You can't do that and expect me not to pull something, can you? To any ghost who's not brain-dead, it's like an invitation, a 'look at me, I actually know something about ghosts!' Though, in this town, we get lots of weirdos who just like to play along, and they run out in their undies the second they realize a real ghost lives here."
Sasuke felt his shoulders slump. That meant if he had just left things alone and hadn't acted so smart with the line of salt, he wouldn't have had the dubious pleasure of meeting the troublesome spirit, who was currently brushing imaginary dust off the borrowed top hat.
Warming up to Naruto, but still unsure whether to trust him, Sasuke asked, "Do you remember how you died?"
"Hm? Nah, but I do know I was buried in the cemetery a town over, so it must have been when I was away. My old man used to own The Hokage a long time ago, so I like it here the best. Anyway, sometimes we get people staying here who can actually sense ghosts, maybe once every ten years or so, but people who can see them are really rare. The last one was this guy, maybe a few decades ago, who had invented a special filter to go over the lense of his camera, and he took some really good pictures of me. That's how he could see ghosts, through his camera lens..."
Sasuke tuned out the mindless drabble spilling forth from Naruto. If the information was true, it meant that Naruto had to be a specter; with his body and place of demise so far away, it was impossible for him to be either a figure or a draugr. However, with his advanced powers, it was possible that Naruto could be classified in a special class of specter, the phantasma specter, also known as phantoms.
Phantoms had such big personalities, they couldn't let go of their humanity when they died, and thus were the most human-like of all ghosts. Because of this, the specter would have the unaffected disposition of a specter, the mental dexterity of a figure, and could gain the powers of a draugr by experimentation, something he would do for amusement but a draugr did with the goal of revenge.
"I'm going out," Sasuke decided suddenly, cutting off the blond ghost's bothersome tirade.
"-But, man, was he a- wait, you're leaving?"
He looked so crestfallen that Sasuke couldn't help but feel a little bad. "I'll come back. I just need to get out and look around, that's all. I'm going to be here the whole summer, so I have to make a few arrangements."
"You're here the whole summer!?" Excitement flashed in Naruto's eyes and practically dripped from his voice.
"Yeah," Sasuke answered, mentally kicking himself. He didn't want to spend his vacation being bothered by a mischievous spirit, but he minorly comforted himself with the knowledge that Naruto would have found out anyway.
"Awesome! Maybe we can do stuff together! I never get to play with humans. Ooh, maybe I can introduce you to some of my friends! We would have so much fun together!"
"Hn." Sasuke grunted neutrally, not agreeing or disagreeing. For now, he decided that Naruto wasn't going to hurt him, so he laid down the knife, but more research was in order.
Stretching, Sasuke got out of bed, and promptly tripped over a pair of pants sticking out from under his suitcase as if the heavy box had smashed down on a person's torso. Naruto gave a sheepish grin in light of Sasuke's baleful glare. Walking to the door, he issued an ultimatum to the ghost. "I'm going to the bathroom, and if you're still here when I come back, you're going to get an eyeful. And don't think I won't, because I will."
"Roger that," Naruto said with a cheerful salute. Sasuke ignored him and, leaving the room, disturbing the line of salt as he did so, headed for the bathroom. Shutting the door behind him, Sasuke regarded his reflection in the mirror.
Surprisingly, he found he was smiling slightly. More of a smirk, really, but still a genuine smile. Get it together , he warned himself as he turned on the faucet to splash his face with cool water.
Running his wet fingers through his messy hair, Sasuke finally gave up on getting it to lay down and fluffed it up in some semblance of care. Upon realizing he was bereft of a toothbrush, Sasuke found that he didn't quite care enough to fetch it, and instead swished some water around in his mouth and spit it out. His teenage morning toilet now complete, he gazed slightly less blearily at his reflection before trekking back to his room.
True to his word, Naruto was no longer invading the private space of Sasuke's room when he returned. With a sigh, he had set about planning the best way to retrieve a fresh set of clothes when a flash of black on the bed caught his eye. There, against the downy comforter, was an entire clean outfit, complete with a soft black shirt - the one with the red eye - pulled down from the ceiling fan and and a pair of socks, neatly folded, taken from their spot as decoration on the bedposts.
Shaking his head slightly, Sasuke quickly dressed. He grabbed a satchel from inside his suitcase and hid a silver knife and some holy water inside the bag, packing them in a secret compartment in case someone frisky decided to take a peek. It was probably too much protection and too much secrecy, but Sasuke had always found it was better to be safe than sorry. To divert attention, he threw a few extra things in the satchel, like a book he was supposed to read over the summer for his first college English class and his phone.
The last thing Sasuke did before leaving the room was grab the mysterious top hat. Perhaps, he reasoned, he could find its owner downstairs, before he or she left for the day.
As soon as Sasuke shut the door to the suit firmly behind him, the delectable smell of pancakes assaulted his nostrils. Following his nose down the stairs to a dining area, Sasuke found a pink-haired girl serving plates of fresh, steaming breakfast to a few other guests. When she saw Sasuke standing in the entranceway to the dining area, she waved at him.
"Hey! You must be Uchiha! Come in!"
Doing as he was bid, Sasuke sat down at an empty table, making sure his satchel didn't leave his side. To his surprise, the pink-haired girl plopped down opposite him.
"Hi! I'm Sakura. I work here in the Hokage’s restaurant, serving people and stuff."
"Sasuke," he acknowledged.
"Cool." Sakura fingered the strands of her short hair absentmindedly. "So, can I get you something to eat?"
"Probably not," Sasuke grimaced. "I don't tend to eat a whole lot the day after travel."
Sakura's eyes lit up. "Right, you just got here last night! Did you have a good trip? Folks still sleeping?"
"They didn't come."
The abrupt answer shocked the peppy girl. "I- I'm sorry?" She offered uncertainly.
"It's fine. They just got tied up, is all. They'll probably be along in a few days." The unrehearsed lie fell easily - too easily - from Sasuke's lips. It always bothered him how often he had to give excuses for his parent's continued absences, thanks to his "far more needy" older brother.
"That's good." Sakura flipped her hair behind her shoulder, back in professional mode. "Can I at least get an apple or something? To take with you? If you're going to be out all day, you're going to get hungry."
"Sure," Sasuke accepted, thinking it couldn't hurt. "By the way, do you know who this belongs to?" He gestured to the top hat previously settled on the table. "I found it earlier this morning."
"My hat!" The shout from behind Sasuke made him jump, and a hand entered his field of vision to snatch the offending article of clothing up. Kakashi stepped around the table, affixing the hat on his head at a jaunty angle. "Wherever did you find it?"
Sasuke shook his head. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
"Hm." Kakashi's single eye glittered knowingly.
Sasuke ignored the look before remembering a thought from that morning. "That reminds me, though; I had something to ask you, Kakashi."
Sasuke stood to better talk with the masked man. "Yesterday, you mentioned something about a library, and I was thinking I'd like to check it out. Can I get some directions?"
The next thing Sasuke knew, the older man was pumping his hand vigorously, cries of "He reads! He reads!" ringing in his ears.
After that, everything passed in a loud blur of swirling bodies, crinkling paper and cacophonous voices until Sasuke found himself outside the front door of The Hokage, an apple in one hand, a piece of paper with directions to the library and a note from Kakashi for Iruka, head librarian, in the other, and wondering how people survived living in Konoha year-round. He lived in a city with hundreds of thousands more residents than this tiny town, but it felt busier when they were all so invested in his private business.
The library was a simple, if long, walk away, about twenty minutes by foot but it took longer since Sasuke was savoring the journey, munching on the apple while picking out places he might like to visit later. Konoha was a bustling, one-street downtown, historic culture preservation kind of village, the quintessential tourist attraction for those looking for a laid back vacation, and, Sasuke noted as he passed a sign advertising midnight haunted tours, those with a flair for the dramatic and supernatural.
Except for a single old specter seated on the sidewalk, repairing a hole in a spectral net, the downtown area was devoid of ghosts, but held a mysterious aura that made Sasuke decide to never walk there alone after dark unless he was prepared for a fight. As he neared the edges of the busiest spots, the aura decreased. The darkness rapidly disappearing into imperceptibility made Sasuke suspicious. Konoha was called haunted for a reason; it wouldn't be a stretch of the imagination to count on a least a few resident draugrs.
Sasuke had to check his hastily scribbled directions twice when he reached his destination. A large Victorian style house, much like The Hokage except it was yellow where the inn was blue, stood proudly a little ways back from the road, reminiscent in all its glory of a mansion on a hill. It looked so little like a library that for a minute, he wondered if he had taken a wrong turn until he saw the small sign on the door, proclaiming the hours. With a slightly nervous deep breath, Sasuke opened the door and walked into the cool, climate-controlled interior.
A man from behind a desk looked up at the tinkle of a bell announcing Sasuke's arrival. "Hello, and welcome to Konoha Public Library. Can I help you with something?"
Relief washed over Sasuke; he did have the right place after all. "I'm looking for someone named Iruka. I'm supposed to tell him Kakashi sent me."
"Ah, a reader!" The man behind the desk stood up with a wide smile. "Kakashi sometimes sends me people he thinks will fit in here. I'm Iruka," he said by way of explanation.
Iruka was of average build, taller than Sasuke but shorter than Kakashi had been, and inexplicably tan for a man who worked inside. Brown locks were held in control by a black hair tie, glossy and smooth. All in all, he was a rather plain man, with one exception. The most remarkable thing about him was a long scar across his nose, marring the planes of his face.
"Nice to meet you," Sasuke said cordially. "I'm Sasuke. Here, this is from Kakashi." He held out the note.
"Thank." Iruka took the paper. While reading it, he remarked absentmindedly, "You like the Hokage?"
"It's... unique," Sasuke managed to say.
Iruka snorted in amusement. "That's one way to describe it. So, you wanna look around? Or have you got something specific in mind?"
"Actually, I do," Sasuke replied. "I'm looking to do some research into the history of this town. Do you have any old newspapers, photos, birth and death records, that sort of thing?"
"Hm." Iruka carefully considered for a moment. "We do have a digital anthology of old newspapers. Anything in particular you looking for?"
Sasuke hesitated before answering, not sure if Iruka could be trusted. "I'm looking for a particular person, but I only have a first name: Naruto. I do know he's connected in some way to the Hokage, though."
"Naruto, hm?" Iruka's eyes sharpened. "I don't recognize the name, but you could look through the early records of ownership, and I do know that there's some old photo albums of the Hokage that have been preserved. You're more than welcome to look through them, if you like. They're in the back room, through the shelves."
"Thanks," Sasuke said with gratitude, heading towards the back room. He didn't notice Iruka pick up his phone and stealthily dial a number.
Kakashi picked up on the first ring. "What is it, my dearest?"
"Stop it," Iruka whispered with a blush staining his cheeks. Then he shook his head to clear his thoughts and spoke in a low voice. "He's made contact."
A sigh came through the phone line. "I thought as much, with the hat this morning. But why hasn't he said anything?"
"God only knows why teenagers do the things they do."
"That's true." A lengthy pause resonated between them. "But if he has the ability I think he does, Iruka, he may be just what we've been looking for."
That's what it took Sasuke to spend the morning cramped up, looking through old photo albums for any sign of Naruto, learning everything he never wanted to know about the Hokage's previous owners, including an old doctor named Tsunade, a frog collecting enthusiast named Jiraiya, and a grandfather and grandson dual ownership of Hiruzen Saritobi and Konohamaru. There was an album for every owner, starting in 1903 with the opening of the Hokage and ending with a partial one for Kakashi, the current owner. Sasuke had started in the sixties and worked back, sure that Naruto couldn't be less than a half century old, but he grew more irritated as time went on, and he was forced to delve deeper into the archives.
At the height of the Great Depression, a man named Zabuza was tried for the murder of his son, Haku. His reason for the kill had been that the inn was doing so badly, he couldn't afford to feed the boy, and didn't want him to starve. Zabuza committed suicide before he was convicted. Sasuke shuddered at the thought - how did one have the strength to kill someone they loved to save them from an even greater horror?
During the roaring twenties, the Hokage changed hands several times, from a man named Nara to one named Aburame to another named Inuzuka, unable to find a steady owner. Inuzuka was even accused of running a speakeasy in the basement of the Hokage, with his children as bootleggers.
An hour into his search, Sasuke slammed the second to last photo album closed in frustration. Not a single image of Naruto could be found in any of the archives! Sasuke was almost ready to give up, but the memory of the mischievous smile little spirit's face that morning came up in his mind. His need to find out Naruto's identity was slowly turning from a simple assurance that he was a phantom and not a draugr to an obsession to know what had happened in the boy's past. The burning smile haunted him, driving fingers to turn pages.
With a sigh, Sasuke reached for the last and oldest album: 1903, the opening of the Hokage. Ghosts couldn't live for over a hundred years, they simply didn't have the mental stamina to remain awake and aware for that long. Hell, even humans couldn't live a hundred years without turning into a slobbering, forgetful mess. Thus, the chances of finding Naruto in the album were very slim, but Sasuke still cracked it open.
There, looking up at Sasuke as if to mock his assumptions, was an image of the Hokage in its early days, complete with the first owner and his family. The caption read, "The Hokage opens, 1903, under the direction of Minato Namikaze, pictured here with wife Kushina Uzumaki and son Naruto Uzumaki."
Even without the name, Sasuke would have recognized him. The mischievous grin gave him away, seeming to bleed blue into the the sepia eyes so full of glee. In the photo, Naruto looked to be about eight or ten years old, and, curiously, was holding a pair of fox kits, identical except for a white patch on the head of one kit.
Sasuke had what he was looking for - a last name, the name of his father, and a relative time period - yet he couldn't bare to tear his eyes away from the colorless continence. It drew him in with the power of a whirlpool intent on a victim, raising new questions to take the place of the answered ones. Why did the father have a different surname from his wife? Were they not married? Considering the time period, that was unlikely, but then, what other circumstance would allow different surnames in the same family? Additionally, why did Naruto take his mother's surname, and not his father's?
Unable to help himself, Sasuke turned a few more pages, hoping to be rewarded with another glimpse of a colorless Naruto, but they were all of Minato and the Hokage, showing off the different rooms. With a sigh, he closed the photo album and placed it back on the shelf.
According to the second photo album, the Hokage had changed hands in 1912, but it didn't say why it had changed hands. In other words, Sasuke could count on at least Naruto's father being alive and in Konoha until 1912, but after that, it was anyone's guess as to where the family ended up.
A box labeled Death Records seemed promising, but Sasuke found that it only went as far back as 1943, so it was useless. He stood in the center of the room, gazing around for another lead.
At the far end of the room, Sasuke spotted a desktop computer, and remembered Iruka mentioning something about digitized newspaper articles. He sat down before it and hit the power button. It gave a loud tone as it started up, and Sasuke jumped, looking around guiltily even though he knew he wasn't doing anything wrong.
The clunky desktop started up slowly, loading with graphics at least ten years out of date. Sasuke wrinkled his nose at it, used to the much more sophisticated technology in Chicago libraries. But it did the job, he soon found out, as it opened up to a homepage with three folders, each labeled with a different newspaper. He clicked on the one labeled "Konoha Journal-1908-1933". It was the oldest one, probably an early monthly paper that went out of business during the Great Depression.
Someone had taken many hours to scan in every page of every available issue of the newspaper into the computer. Some were missing pages, and a few time a whole issue was marked as "unable to find this edition", but on the whole, it was the most complete collection of old newspapers Sasuke had ever seen. He started in January of 1911, looking for any mention of the Hokage, Naruto, or Minato Namikaze.
It was in the June issue of 1912 where Sasuke found his answer. The front page headline was unassuming, something about a two-headed cow born a town over, but a smaller article halfway down the page caught his eye. The title read, The Hokage Changes Hands after the Death of Owner and Family. Reading further, he found little pertaining to the deaths of Naruto and his family, only the crossover. Frustrated, he was about to give up when the last line caught his attention. "Namikaze and family died in a train accident in the neighboring town of Sunagakure, and were laid to rest there in the Namikaze family plot."
There was the answer. Naruto had to be a phantom, because both his place of death and his place of rest were outside of Konoha. Sasuke leaned back in his chair, feeling an unexpected relief spark through his chest. It shouldn't matter to him; this was just a precaution, a measure to know how careful he had to be around the spirit. It wasn't as if Sasuke had taken Naruto's proposition of spending time together that morning into actual consideration. Besides, humans and ghosts couldn't coexist. Uchihas put ghosts to rest; that's all there was to it, and all there would ever be.
"Find what you were looking for?"
The unexpected voice directly behind him made Sasuke jump so high, he fully left the seat and dropped the mouse on the floor.
Iruka laughed as Sasuke turned to face him, but in a kind way. "I take it you were concentrating pretty hard. You look like you've seen a ghost!"
"Something like that," Sasuke muttered.
Iruka leaned forward to see the page Sasuke had been looking at. "Ooh, two-headed cows! Some people think that the birth of a double-headed calf heralded a year with a particularly large number of spiritual sightings! You believe in that kind of stuff?"
Sasuke just shrugged, uncomfortable with the question. It was hard for him to talk openly about any kind of spiritual happenings, since his power gave him much greater insight than normal people.
"Well, anyway, library's closing soon, so I hate to boot you out, but you're gonna have to leave." Iruka picked up the mouse from the floor and closed the newspaper article, then shut down the computer. "I hope you found what you wanted, about that guy. What was his name? Naraki?"
"Naruto," Sasuke corrected automatically. "Yeah, I found out what I needed. Thanks."
"Hey, it's no problem." Iruka smiled sadly. "Did you see anyone else come in here? No teenager around here would spend a glorious summer Sunday in a library."
Sasuke looked around, aware for the first time that the library had been unoccupied except for him this whole time. He picked up his satchel in preparation to leave, and pulled out his phone to check the time. "Why is the library closing at 2:30 in the afternoon?"
"It's Sunday," Iruka explained as he started shutting off lights. Sasuke quickly hurried to the main part of the library, not wanting to get in the way. "All business have shortened hours on a Sunday; it's a town law. What can I say, there's just too many backwoods religious nut jobs around here. At least we can open on Sunday's now; it used to be that everything went on lockdown except for churches."
No wanting to hear a history of religious nut jobs, Sasuke started edging toward the door, but Iruka stopped him with a shout.
"Hey, don't leave yet! I got something for ya." He grabbed a white card off his desk and thrust it into Sasuke's hands.
At the top, in a fancy font, were the words "Konoha Public Library". Under that was Sasuke's name and a five digit number. "What's this?"
"A library card. I don't usually give them to people who just come for the summer, but Kakashi insisted."
So that's what had been in the note. Sasuke gazed at the card, then shook his head and proffered it back to Iruka. "I'm sorry, but I really can't accept this."
"Of course you can." Iruka pushed his hand back. "Any avid reader is welcome here. And I can guarantee you'll like it here, because in Konoha Public Library, there are books you can find nowhere else. We have a collection of stories by local authors that remain unpublished, and the only copies that exist live inside this Library."
"Really?" Sasuke's curiosity was piqued against his will.
"Of course!" Iruka seized a novel from off a nearby bookcase and dumped it in Sasuke's arms. "Here, take one with you!"
Not knowing what else to say, Sasuke managed a weak, "Thank you."
Iruka flustered about him then, and for the second time that day, Sasuke found himself suddenly outside of a door, wondering how people in Konoha survived day to day life with such boisterous neighbors.
With a start, Sasuke realized that the book had just been a ploy to get him back to the library, one concocted by a lonely librarian. If he took it, he would have to return it. Without even looking at it, he thrust the book, with the card, into his satchel in annoyance and, turning on his heel, marched away from the library.
Two minutes later, Sasuke realized he was heading in the opposite direction from the Hokage. He kept going, however, not yet ready to relinquish the rest of his day to the indoors. Yesterday, in the car, Kakashi had mentioned something about nature trails this way, and Sasuke felt in dire need of some nature. The business with Naruto, on top of his frustration at his parents, was putting his mind in a turmoil that only green living things could straighten out.
Sasuke didn't find the nature trails, but he did come to a small park with a memorial stone erected in the center. The park was deserted, but well cared for, with a beautifully tended garden and a recently mowed lawn, and the memorial stone was clear of moss. Somehow, Sasuke felt a little like an outsider as he stepped onto the clipped grass, but the feeling was soon eclipsed by peace as he made his way further into the park. More calm than he had been since his parents had informed him of their decision to stay behind, Sasuke sat down on a bench to enjoy the serenity of the moment.
Too much of a perfectionist to let a moment slide idly by, Sasuke reached inside his satchel for the book he had brought, the one he was supposed to read for his summer assignment. It was open in his lap before he realized that it was much lighter than A Tale of Two Cities . Flipping it closed, he looked at the cover, which read The Girl and the Stone , by Kage Bushin.
"Figures," Sasuke sighed. The book he had pulled out was the one Iruka had shoved in his hands. He had to admit, though, that it was quite a work of art. The cover was a detailed watercolor painting depicting a young girl lying in a bed of flowers next to a stone shaped suspiciously like a grave marker, and the book itself was beautifully hand-bound, though that was be expected of a one-of-a-kind tome. The pen name was clever, too: Kage Bushin, or Shadow Clone, for someone anonymously writing a novel.
"Why am I doing this?" Sasuke muttered to himself as he flipped the book open to the first page and started to read.
The next time Sasuke looked up from the book, it was almost sunset, and the clock on his phone said 5:43. Shaken from the story not by boredom but by hunger, Sasuke realized for the first time that the only thing he had eaten the whole day had been an apple, and his stomach was now loudly complaining of the fact. With a sigh of real regret, he closed the book and stowed it in his satchel, still partially caught in the world of the unnamed girl who took it upon herself to carve a message on her brother's gravestone.
Sasuke was a well-read self-proclaimed writing expert, and he could tell that this book was undiscovered gold. So simply, yet elegantly written, heavy with description and yet light overall, traveling down a plot road neither straight nor twisted, the book had sucked Sasuke in and refused to let him go. In fact, if his stomach hadn't protested, Sasuke might have stayed in that very same spot for another three hours, lost in the fictitious land.
But his stomach had protested, and so Sasuke set off back toward the Hokage, hoping the kitchen that had smelled so deliciously of pancakes in the morning also made dinner.
Sasuke wasn't disappointed, for when he pushed open the front door of the Hokage, the delectable smell of ham with honey glaze rushed out to meet him. Sniffing deeply, he allowed a contented smile to grace his face. I could get used to this, Sasuke thought to himself suddenly. No parents, amazing food, and the whole summer to do what I want. The only problem is that pestering phantom.
A girlish giggle cut into his thoughts. "You're right, he is really hot."
"Shh!" A second voice shushed the first. "He'll hear you! Besides, he already knows me."
"You can't just call dibs like that!"
"I wasn't! I just wanted to let you know that I'd be serving him dinner, because I met him already."
Sasuke felt his good mood evaporate like fine mist on a summer morning. Everywhere he went, he had to contend with this. Just because of his looks and the money his father had, girls had a tendency to freak out around him, and it bothered him to know end. Other than his powers, it was the reason he wasn't able to make friends. Well, those things and one other thing about himself that his parents still refused to believe.
With a fake smile plastered to his countenance, Sasuke turned in the direction of the voices. To his surprise and slight disappointment, one of the speakers was the pink haired girl who had given him the apple this morning; Sakura, if he remembered correctly. The other was a blond he didn't recognize. Sasuke had looked forward to seeing Sakura again, thinking her above such vapid reactions as fangirling, but apparently he had been wrong.
Catching sight of him looking in their direction, Sakura straightened her back, hauling on the other girl's arm with a very audible hiss of, "Be good!" before advancing on Sasuke.
"Hey, Sasuke! Did you have a good time at the library today?"
"Yes." It was the only answer that would satisfy her and not leave Sasuke with a bitter taste in his mouth.
"Good." Sakura gestured to the blond beside her. "I'd like you to meet my friend Ino. She works in the restaurant with me here at the Hokage, but she was off duty early this morning so she missed meeting you."
Ino smiled daintily at Sasuke, offering a hand to shake. "Nice to meet you, Sasuke."
If Ino had one good point, it was that she had a firm handshake and was able to keep herself together at his touch. "Likewise, Miss Ino."
"There's no need to be so formal!" Ino said, though she did blush at the added formality. "We work casually here. We don't even have uniforms, see?"
Sure enough, the two girls were casually clad in shorts and Ino wore a flowy blouse while Sakura had on a tank top in a shade nearly identical to her hair. It didn't make Sasuke any more comfortable, though.
Sakura flipped her hair over her shoulder. "So, can we get you something, or is your stomach still on travel mode?"
"No, I'm hungry now." The words were barely out of his lips before the two girls each clasped their hands in identical delight before pushing him to an unoccupied table for two in the dining area.
"Do you have any allergies?" Ino asked as the two girls practically shoved Sasuke into the chair.
"I don't think so," he answered, a little off balance. Why was it that people in Konoha were so intent on pushing him around?
"Any particular dislikes?" Sakura asked.
Thrown a little by the question, he managed, "Junk food." The two girls stared at him. "What?"
"Nothing. It's just not something we get very often." They shared a glance before Sakura turned back to Sasuke. "Any favorites?"
That one was easy. "Tomatoes."
Ino wrinkled her nose. "Really?"
"Ino!" Sakura gave her friend a not-too-gentle shove. "The kitchen is serving ham tonight, but we like to personalize every plate for our residents. It adds to the pleasant, homey atmosphere of the Hokage."
"Sounds... good," Sasuke managed, now understanding the nature of the questions but still a little perturbed the exuberance of the two girls.
"Excellent!" Ino grabbed Sakura's arm, and the two backed away from the table. "Your food will be out in a few minutes."
Sasuke shook his head as the girls disappeared into the kitchen, then took advantage of the moment to look around the dining area. The only other people sitting at the mismatched tables was a couple sitting at a table under the window and a family of three, two women with their daughter, at a large round table in the center of the room. The girl couldn't have been more than four, and she was cheerfully scribbling on a placemat with crayons.
As Sasuke watched, Ino and Sakura brought plates to the family. Ino, having brought the adult's plates, quickly took her leave, but the little girl tugged on Sakura's sleeve.
"I don't like peas!"
"They're good for you," Sakura admonished.
The little girl pouted. "I still don't like 'em."
"But what did you tell me you did like?" Sakura asked with a smile.
"And what goes on pizza?"
"Um..." The girl thought a little. "Cheese!"
"That's right." Sakura picked up the girl's fork and stuck it in her peas. "And that's why I put some special spices and cheese on your peas, so they'll taste a little like pizza."
The child's eyes got a round as saucers. "Really?"
Sakura laughed. "Try some!"
Gleefully, the little girl stuffed some of the peas in her mouth, then exclaimed something unintelligible around the mouthful of food.
"You're welcome," Sakura answered before heading back to the kitchen.
Though he hated to admit it, Sasuke had been amused by the display. With a shake of his head, he pulled The Girl and the Stone from his satchel and started reading while he waited for his food.
Annoyed at being torn away from his book, Sasuke looked up to find Sakura in front of him, holding a plate of food.
"I've been standing here for a whole minute! You must be really into that book."
"It's good," he muttered as he closed it. Sakura placed his food in front of him, then, much to Sasuke's dismay, plopped down opposite him. "Aren't you on duty?"
"Do you see anyone else waiting for food?" It was true: everyone else in the dining area already had food. Sakura glanced around before lowering her voice. "Actually, I wanted to apologize. You heard us earlier, didn't you?"
Sasuke didn't know what say to that, so he just nodded. Perhaps his initial thoughts about Sakura had been right, after all.
Sakura winced. "God, that's embarrassing. Ino's kind've a boy freak and you’re exactly her type, so I thought I'd warn her to be good but it just blew up in my face."
"I noticed," Sasuke commented dryly.
"Anyway, I just wanted you know that when I said I'd serve you, it wasn't me 'calling dibs' as Ino so bluntly put it. I thought you'd feel awkward if Ino started flirting with you, which she would. That's all."
Sakura was clearly waiting for some response, pulling on a lock of her hair nervously, so Sasuke graced her with a smile. "Naw, it's cool."
Her eyes lit up. "Really? We're good?"
"We're good," he confirmed.
"Thank god! I thought I was going to have to go the whole summer with that, and stuff would get super awkward."
Smiling and shaking his head at the delight caused so easily in the pink haired girl, Sasuke turned his attention to the food Sakura had brought him. There was the ham, but next to it, instead of the normal fare of potato and vegetable, was a salad. He frowned slightly, a little thrown off by the nontraditional side dish, until he noticed the thick slices of fresh tomato atop the salad. We like to personalize every plate , Sakura had said. Sasuke was unable to keep a small smile from stealing to his lips.
"Oh my God, is this a Kage Bushin? I love him!" Sakura's voice abruptly shocked Sasuke out of his thoughts. She had grabbed his book and was looking at it. " The Girl and the Stone. Huh, I've never read this one, but I've read a lot of his other books. Must be new. My favorite's Entanglements of Destiny. "
She read! He had someone to talk books with! Sasuke was ecstatic. "What's it about?"
"Forbidden love, but nothing so cliche as a Romeo and Juliet knockoff. It's completely original." Sakura examined the cover. "What's this one about? The stone looks a little like a gravestone."
"It is. It's about a girl that carves a message into her brother's gravestone after his death, even though it takes her a long time and her fingers bleed and everyone tells her to stop."
"Wow." Sakura placed the book back down on the table. "That's kind of dark."
Sasuke shrugged. "I like dark stuff. It makes you think, you know?"
"Yeah, I know what you mean, but I can't read it very often or I get too many thoughts running around, and then I have to read something nice and light to clear my head." Sakura passed the book back across the table. "Well, I have to get back to the kitchen. Those dishes aren’t going to wash themselves. Nice talking to you."
"You too." Sakura had gotten halfway across the room before Sasuke called after her. "Sakura?"
"Thank you," Sasuke said, really meaning it.
A grin broke across her face. "Don't mention it."
And then she was gone, leaving Sasuke alone.
He ate while reading, sucked back into the realm of the book. When he left the dining area, he couldn't bear to put it down long enough to traverse the stairs, so he climbed them while holding the book open in front of his face. It was only at his bedroom door that he closed it, remembering for the first time since leaving the library his trouble with Naruto.
With bated breath, Sasuke pushed the door to his bedroom open, half expecting some prank to come crashing down on his head. At least now he knew it would be a harmless prank, rather than a life threatening one.
When no audible crash came, Sasuke strode into the bedroom, and stood in shock at what he found. The massive shadow explosion of this morning was gone, every article of clothing folded neatly and placed in still-open drawers. Sasuke felt hope sizzle in his heart; perhaps Naruto had decided to leave him alone, and he could have the normal vacation he wanted.
Quickly, Sasuke put on a pair of pajamas and texted a single line to his parents, telling them that he was fine and going to bed. When his phone rang a minute later, he shut it off, not wanting them to spoil his good mood.
Sasuke shut off the lights and, after climbing into bed, turned on a bedside lamp, picking up The Girl and the Stone , determined to finish it before going to sleep. It was a short novel, and Sasuke was a fast reader, but it still took him several more hours of emotional rollercoasters as he explored the soul of the girl trying to erect a memorial for her brother.
Well past midnight, Sasuke turned the final page, a few tears escaping from his eyes as he read of the girl refusing to leave her brother's grave when it was in danger of being destroyed, and how she perished atop his resting place, happier than could be imagined because she was going to be with her beloved brother at last.
The book shook in his grasp, and Sasuke was almost afraid to put it down; he’d already decided that he needed to go back to the library the next day, no matter that he was playing directly into Iruka's hands. If the bait was this sweet, Sasuke would gladly sit in the trap the whole summer.
When he turned off the light, bright images of the girl still flashed behind Sasuke's eyelids, not dissipating even when sleep encroached upon him. The last thing that he thought before falling into an easy slumber, so unlike his sleep of the previous night, was that perhaps this vacation wasn't going to be so bad after all.