There was a knock on the door.
It was enough to set Sasuke on edge even before opening it. There were very few people to knock on their door, especially unannounced. They weren’t expecting any visitor, and Naruto was out, so Sasuke would have to greet and try to send away whoever it was on his own.
He debated briefly just ignoring it, but the knock came again, and with a heavy sigh, he went to open the door and see who it was.
He vaguely registered there was an adult there, but he never got to look up to see who it was. His eyes were focused on Naruto.
Naruto bleeding from a wound somewhere on his head. Blood pouring all over his face. Splattered on his clothes and skin, a shocking red on the white of his shirt.
Sasuke’s first instinct was to lash out on whoever was next to him, to attack. But he found himself paralyzed. He couldn’t move, couldn’t think.
He saw blood. Blood on the floor, blood cutting a body in half, splashed on the walls, the clothes, everywhere. The red, the smell, the wetness under his fingers, under his foot as he slipped on it. Blood, death, despair.
Two hands gripped his head firmly. He was on the floor now somehow. He couldn’t hear anything, and he couldn’t breathe either.
“I’m okay, Sasuke! I’m okay, it’s nothing!”
It was Naruto talking. Naruto pressing his bloody forehead on Sasuke’s, and he didn’t sound hurt and could move just fine, so he was okay. He was okay.
“I’m okay, look, it’s nothing, it’s fine.”
He was okay.
Sasuke came back to himself as soon as he had left, feeling dizzy and weak as he tried to get back on his feet, on high alert now for whatever had caused this. They turned in the same movement toward the person still standing on the doorstep.
“I told you to let me clean up before coming back!” Naruto accused, upset.
“Is it my fault now? I told you you needed medical attention, and you refused to go to the hospital.”
“And I told you that I was fine! It’s gone already!”
He shook his arm – dirty with dry blood too – for emphasize. There was no wound in sight.
Sasuke wasn’t worried about that. Naruto’s insane healing speed was a fact of life at this point, something Sasuke had just accepted as a truth he couldn’t explain but couldn’t deny either. At least it meant he didn’t have to worry that much when Naruto climbed the side of their building or fell off a tree.
He focused his attention back on the stranger. Except he wasn’t a stranger, not really. Sasuke had seen him before, if only from a distance. Hanging out with Itachi in his Anbu uniform.
It did nothing to make him sympathetic to the boy.
“What happened?” he demanded.
Hatake Kakashi only had one eye to show for his face, which he dropped on Sasuke. He didn’t seem particularly concerned with the whole situation.
“Your little friend here fell from a roof trying to rescue a cat. Nasty fall. He didn’t want to get treated so I thought I would at least see that he got home safely.” He paused, maybe waiting for a reaction or just gathering his thoughts. “It’s good to see you, Sasuke. It’s been a while. Are you alright?”
They had been introduced once, and had seen each other maybe twice after that. Itachi was secretive of anything he did outside of the clan, and Sasuke didn’t really care either way. It was hard enough to interact with his brother that he didn’t bother to care about his friends too.
None of them had ever approached Sasuke after all was said and done. So they couldn’t have been such good friends after all.
“Fine. Thank you for bringing him back,” he said curtly, hating the scrutiny of that man, hating that he had just seen him lose it like this. He was getting better at handling this kind of panics, especially if Naruto was here to see him through it, and he didn’t want others to know. He didn’t want adults to know, and to force him to go talk to a doctor or something, force him to talk when they wouldn’t listen, when they couldn’t understand. When they didn’t really care.
Sasuke ushered Naruto inside, subtly assessing his injuries without looking away from the man more than a few seconds. He had to deal with him before focusing back on his friend.
Naruto resisted though. He turned back toward the man and held out his hands, confronting him head-on.
“Give it back.”
“Are you sure? I can drop it at the shelter if…”
“Give it back.”
Kakashi sighed but relented with a shrug and fetched from his weapon pouch… the smallest cat Sasuke had ever seen in his life.
He put it delicately into Naruto’s waiting hands who cradled the thing against his chest without looking away from Kakashi’s single, smiling eye. Naruto wasn’t smiling at all.
“Well, that’s all for me I guess. Get some rest – fast healing or not, you hit your head rather hard. Peace out kids.”
The man disappeared in a puff of smoke, leaving them a bit dumbstruck on their doorstep.
Naruto was the first to recover and go back into the apartment, his precious bundle in hand. The cat wasn’t making any sound or moving, too weak maybe. Naruto set it down on the table and went to rubble through the cupboards, in search of something for the cat to eat maybe.
“Cats don’t actually drink milk,” Sasuke chipped in. Naruto stopped mid-gesture, milk carton in hand, and looked at Sasuke as if he’d forgotten he was even here until now. Sasuke took out some chopped pork from the fridge to feed it to the small cat who started to munch on it happily, content, for now, to stay put and take what was offered.
“Are you okay?” Naruto asked without looking at Sasuke, eyes fixed on the little ball of fur. “I’m sorry. I told him I would be fine.”
“It’s… It’s okay. I was just surprised.”
He preferred to tell himself that this kind of things wouldn’t happen in a real fight, if their lives were really at risk. That it would disappear with time. That it wasn't a problem.
“What about you?”
“You know I’m always fine. It’s all healed up, look.”
He agitated his arm absentmindedly, as if seeing dry blood coming from nowhere counted as reassurance.
“It’s not a reason not to be careful. It still hurts, doesn’t it?”
Naruto didn’t answer. They had had this argument before – Naruto wasn’t cautious enough to Sasuke’s taste, and he was too dismissive of his injuries. Sasuke didn’t want to antagonize him now though, and focused back on the cat too, for lack of a better option.
“What are we gonna do with it?”
Sasuke frowned. He had an idea that was the answer he would get, but they weren’t supposed to just impose that kind of things.
“I’m not sure we…”
“Let’s keep it Sasuke. Please.”
Their eyes met, and here it was again.
Naruto had been acting oddly, lately. He was even more reckless than usual, getting injured and brushing it off as if it was nothing. They had had to consult with Lee over the best way to remove blood stains from clothes, something Sasuke was quickly becoming an expert at. Naruto was quiet and withdrawn, lashed out for no reason, and kept to himself more than Sasuke had ever seen him do.
And he refused to talk. He refused to even acknowledge that anything was wrong. He just looked at Sasuke like he was right now – pleading, a little lost, distressed, and Sasuke didn’t know what made him feel that way, and it was driving him crazy.
“We can’t keep it locked in here.”
“He can go out through the balcony. I see cats walking the roofs all the time.”
“We don’t even know where it comes from. It could be sick or…”
“I’ll take it to Hana, she’ll have a look. We can’t just abandon it to its fate. I’ve been seeing it around a lot. I’m sure it doesn’t have any home to go to. It’s all on his own. We can’t just leave it.”
Naruto wasn’t fine, and Sasuke had no idea what he could do to help, but that was a start. He was very fond of cats, and his parents had never wanted one at home, but he was the one who made that kind of decisions now.
“Fine,” he agreed. He hoped it would at least draw a smile on Naruto’s face, but he merely nodded in gratitude before focusing back on the tiny cat. His face still looked bitter and sad, and still had blood on it.
Sasuke was at a complete loss.
“What’s going on with Naruto?”
Sasuke sighed, irritated. Sakura pouted.
“What? I’m just asking…”
“Sorry, it’s just… you’re like, the third one to ask me that this week. And the answer is the same. I don’t know.”
At least he knew that it wasn’t in his head. Both Shikamaru and Ino, and then even Kiba had come to him worrying about Naruto’s unusual quietness and moodiness. He was distant and sullen, snapping at others unprompted, and stubbornly insisting he was fine and nothing was wrong at every turn.
He didn’t want to hang out outside, going straight home after school. No trip to the Inuzuka estate, to the flower shop, or to go bother Shikamaru in his favorite napping spots. He had even managed to wriggle his way out of grocery shopping several times.
And now to top it all, he had talked back at Iruka during class, something that hadn't happened in months. Not in a playful way either, but with bite, anger, as Iruka berated him for not listening to a word of the lesson. Sasuke couldn’t get his words out of his head.
“What use is there for me to learn anything anyway.”
Claims that school was useless and a waste of time weren’t anything unusual – all kids subscribed to it at one point or another. But that wasn’t it. Naruto had clearly said “what use is there for me”. As if it was a real waste on him, more than the others. He was doing okay in class now, and he even enjoyed going to the Academy sometimes, so it didn’t make sense.
None of it made sense.
“You didn’t have a fight?” Sakura asked as they took the way back home – Naruto had disappeared right after class again, and Sakura’s house wasn’t far from theirs.
“No,” Sasuke answered firmly, even if he was starting to seriously doubt that. He wasn’t the best to interpret social interactions, especially with Naruto when he had decided he was going to hide every and all emotions under false bravado. Maybe Sasuke had said something, or done something? But for it to put Naruto in that state, it had to be big enough that he would remember it. He hoped.
“Maybe he had a fight with someone else.”
“If so, they don’t want to admit to it.”
Sasuke had maybe scared their friends a bit by interrogating them one by one, looking for a culprit. Nothing had come up though.
Sakura laid a hand on his shoulder, making him jump. They were already in front of her house – he hadn’t noticed.
“I’m sure you’ll figure it out,” she said, encouraging. He thanked her with a nod, although he wasn’t convinced. He was beginning to be really worried.
And finding Naruto sitting knees to his chest on the kitchen floor when he arrived home did nothing to reassure him.
“Naruto?” he called, rushing to his side. “What happened, are you alright?”
“He hates me.”
Sasuke followed the blonde’s gaze to the bundle of fur that was making a poor job at hiding behind a table foot. They had brought the cat to Kiba’s sister as agreed – it was a male, barely old enough to be on his own without its mother, but she had given her green light for them to keep him.
They had yet to agree on a name though.
“Why do you say that?” Sasuke asked, approaching more carefully, not sure which between Naruto and the cat he was most likely to spook first.
“He won’t let me approach him. He hisses when I try. He won’t even eat when I’m around.”
Sasuke crouched down to get on the cat’s level and catch his attention, so that he wouldn’t surprise him when he went to retrieve him from his hiding spot. The cat came willingly enough. Naruto’s face fell.
“I’m good with cats,” Sasuke tried to justify. It was the truth. Cats loved him for some reasons – it happened often that a cat or several would follow him at random when he walked down the streets. He could easily approach even the wildest ones.
Naruto seemed to take it as confirmation though, that he was the problem here.
“Take care of him then,” he said, and Sasuke thought he would sound bitter or jealous, but it was only sorrow he could hear in his voice, deep and inconsolable. He looked so distressed, so upset, Sasuke felt compelled to comfort him, but he didn’t know from what.
Naruto disappeared in his room before Sasuke could come up with anything to say.
The next day, Naruto didn’t even show up at school.
It wasn’t unusual for them to make it to class at different times – Sasuke liked to get in early and Naruto often got distracted on the way. But this time, he didn’t come at all. Sasuke had to fight down the urge to skip too and go investigate, but the rules stated that they were both “entitled to their decisions”, a nice sounding sentence Sasuke had found in a book and that they weren’t entirely sure of the meaning, but they got the gist of it. Naruto wasn’t sick, since he never was, so he was absent on purpose, and it was his right.
Besides, Iruka didn’t look too surprised by that for some reasons. He didn’t even comment on it, when he noticed the empty seat by Sasuke’s side. He just shook his head and finished calling rolls as if nothing was amiss.
Maybe he knew what was up with Naruto.
Sasuke hadn’t gone to him yet for advice, because he wanted to solve that one on his own. Iruka wouldn’t always be there to take care of their problems for them, and Naruto always seemed so attuned to Sasuke’s mood and emotions, always knew what was going on and what to do, Sasuke wanted to do the same for once. Wanted to understand without outside cues.
"Before we get into today's topic, there are a few things we need to discuss," Iruka said as he leaned against his desk. He crossed his arms on his chest and was lost in thought for a second, silence briefly filling the classroom as they waited in awkward tension for him to come back to himself.
Come to think of it, he hadn’t been quite at the top of his form lately either.
“As you may remember, we won’t have class on Thursday and Friday. I won’t give you any homework for next week either.”
A murmur ran through the class, but it wasn’t of excitement as one would have thought for such news. Sasuke tried to remember why that was.
“I’ll see you all at the memorial ceremony on Friday.”
Oh. Right. It was that time of the year.
He had completely forgotten about it. Sasuke wasn’t good with dates and didn’t pay much attention to what day it was usually, but come to think of it, it was true that October had just begun. That explained why everything felt so much solemn and somber around them these days, the air heavy with gloom and unspoken grief.
It was time for the anniversary of the Kyuubi’s attack.