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Naruto was annoyed. He’d just received his mark back on an essay he had been rather proud of. Unfortunately, it appeared his professor did not agree. Naruto had approached his professor in private to ask him to further elaborate on his comments, but the professor brushed passed him, claiming he had no time for Naruto’s “trivial matters”. Naruto sighed. What was he to expect? This was the same old, male professor who he had caught having relations with a student. Naruto grimaced at the memory.

He made his way into the campus library, resolving not to let the mark get to him, and made his way to his usual spot. It was fairly hidden, tucked away in a corner behind a bookcase. No one ever sat there but him, which was how he liked it. Only, today was different. Naruto turned the corner and glanced across at his spot only to see the back of someone sitting there. Naruto groaned and did a quick look back to see if there were any other free desks, but there wasn’t — it was exam time, after all. Maybe he could sweet talk the person at his spot into leaving, or at least sharing.

When Naruto looked back to his spot, though, realisation dawned on his face. That distinctive hair style… he should’ve realised it from the moment he saw him. Sasuke Uchiha. Naruto clenched his fist and stormed over to him.

Naruto slammed his hands on the desk. “Oi, Bastard! You’re in my spot!” he said, a bit too loudly if the distant hush by the librarian was anything to go by.

Sasuke looked up from his work and raised an eyebrow. “Your spot? I don’t see your name anywhere, idiot.”

“Don’t play dumb. You know fine well this is where I sit!”

Sasuke smirked. “Then by all means,” he gestured to the chair opposite, “sit. But I'm not moving.”

Naruto narrowed his eyes and hesitated. Sasuke merely resumed his work so Naruto reluctantly sat in the chair opposite.

For the first few minutes Naruto felt awkward… they never sat in silence together; their relationship was, you could say, complicated but never silent. Naruto shook it off, though, knowing he had work to be done and set his mind to it.

Half an hour later Naruto broke his focus to take a drink, only when he put the bottle down and looked across Sasuke was looking right at him. Naruto frowned. “Take a picture, it’ll last longer.”

Sasuke ignored the taunt. “I bet I’ll get a better mark than you for our next essay.”

“Ha! As if. I bet that I’ll score better,” Naruto said, but he sounded more confident than he felt. After all, this was Orochimaru’s class… the professor who not only had just marked him poorly, but had a freakishly disturbing interest in Sasuke. But still, Naruto’s pride was on the line here. He refused to admit defeat to Sasuke.

Sasuke smirked. “What do I get if I win?”

Naruto thought about it for a moment. “I’ll let you keep this spot.” It was pretty generous of him, he thought. He did really love this spot.

Sasuke rolled his eyes. “No. It’s not even your spot to bargain with. Instead I want you to admit to the class that I am better than you.”

Naruto gaped but quickly collected himself. “Fine. But if I win, you have to tell the class that I’m the best!”

Sasuke packed his belongings and stood. He walked around to Naruto’s side and put out his hand. “Deal,” he said. Naruto turned in his chair and shook Sasuke’s hand. In the next moment, though, Sasuke was at Naruto’s ear. “Oh and Naruto, I hope you know I don’t lose.”

Naruto shivered. Sasuke smirked and withdrew, leaving Naruto on his own.

“Bastard,” Naruto muttered but he couldn’t hide his smile; he loved a challenge.

Naruto spent the next week studying and when he wasn’t studying he was taking exams. It was tiring, but come Friday afternoon his exams for the semester were all over. All he had left to do was his assessment for Orochimaru’s literature class, an essay analysing postcolonialism in a bunch of short stories. Literature wasn’t his favourite subject but his pride was at stake thanks to the bet he made with Sasuke. A niggling voice in the back of Naruto’s head told him to be give up, insisting that Orochimaru would never mark him higher than Sasuke, but Naruto was stubborn and refused to listen to it. The better man would win… and that man would be him.

As he was leaving his exam, Naruto was grabbed and pulled aside the building. He raised an eyebrow. “Sakura? Everything okay?”

Sakura brushed her pink hair back with her hand, she looked stressed. It was unusual for her, a med student, to be among the arts campus. “I need your help,” she said, biting her lip. Naruto nodded for her to continue. Sakura withdrew an envelope from her handbag. “Can you deliver this to Ino?”

“Sure,” Naruto said and accepted the envelope. “What’s in it?”

“Concert ticket for tonight. We were supposed to go together but my exam got rescheduled so I told her I’d meet her there. Didn’t want her to miss the supporting act, since she’s a huge fan.”

Naruto grinned. “Is this like a date?”

Sakura blushed. “No!” Naruto raised an eyebrow, which had Sakura cursing under her breath. “Okay, maybe! Yes! Happy?”

Naruto could read her like a book; they had grown up together, after all. He smiled and patted her shoulder. “Finally!”

Sakura rolled her eyes. “Just make sure she gets it.”

“You can count on me,” Naruto said and gave her a thumbs up.

“Thanks, Naruto. Now I really have to go or I’m gonna be late for my exam. I’ll see you around, yeah?”

“For sure. Good luck with your exam!”

Sakura pulled Naruto in for a brief hug and then shot off. Naruto watched as she quickly disappeared among the crowd of arts students. He looked down at the envelope in his hand, noting that there was a heart after Ino’s name. He couldn’t suppress the goofy smile that came to his face. Ino and Sakura had been skirting around one another for the longest time, and Naruto — friend to both of them — had been the piggy in the middle. Heck, their relationship had a history almost as complicated as his and Sasuke’s. They had been enemies, rivals, best friends, and most recently each other’s crush. It had been a great source of amusement and frustration for Naruto. To him it was only a matter of time until they finally got their shit together.

Naruto tucked the envelope into his bag and withdrew his phone. It was nearing four pm. He and Ino had a few classes together — she was also in the arts — but he wasn’t sure of her current whereabouts. He unlocked his phone and composed a message to her.

hey, where you at?

The reply was instant. cookie cafe. referencing is tedious :(

Naruto replied. yup. don’t go i’m omw!

Naruto pocketed his phone and headed to the Cookie Cafe. It was a small joint, tucked away behind the campus art gallery but it did the sweetest desserts and was one of the better places on campus for a decent cup of coffee.

“Naruto. Over here!” Ino called out, waving. Naruto joined her at the table she was working at. She had her laptop right in front of her and papers spread over the entire table, some stained with coffee.

“You okay?” Naruto said.

Ino took a deep breath and closed her laptop lid. She sat back on the chair, stretching her arms in front of her. “Yeah. Almost done.”

“Hey,” Naruto said as he read one of the pieces of paper, “is this for Orochimaru’s class?”

Ino hummed and took a sip from her cup. “Yeah, he drilled me last time for forgetting to italicise journal names. Anyway. What’s up?”

Naruto smirked as he dug into his back and withdrew the envelope. “This!” he said and offered the envelope. “Sakura asked me to deliver it.”

Ino accepted the envelope and looked inside. Her blue eyes sparkled as she gazed at the concert ticket but a moment later she was frowning. “I wish Sakura’s exam hadn’t been rescheduled,” she said.

“She’s still gonna go! She just might not make it in time for the supporting act,” Naruto said.

Ino let her head fall backward, her blond ponytail swishing behind her. “I know, but still. It’s like the world is trying to prevent us from getting together.”

“Now you’re being dramatic.”

Ino’s head whipped up. “Naruto! You’re meant to play the supportive friend in times like this!”

Naruto laughed and shrugged. “As if you’d have me any other way.”

Ino’s face softened and she gave his shoulder a light punch. “Yeah, you’re right. Thanks for delivering the ticket. I appreciate it.”

“No worries.” Naruto looked at the paperwork and sighed. “Suppose I should finish my lit essay, too.”

“You have much left to do?” Ino asked.

“Nah. Just want to go over it once more. Make sure it’s better than Sasuke’s.”

Ino perked up upon hearing Sasuke’s name. She leaned forward, arms crossed. “Oh? Go on.”

Naruto looked around. The Cookie Cafe had calmed down, only a handful of people remained. He watched a waitress bring out some chocolate drink that looked truly tempting, but Naruto was tight for money — such was student life — and it was an indulgence his body didn’t need, or so he wanted to believe. Ino snapped her fingers in front of his face and he turned to her. “Sorry. You were saying?” he said.

“Sasuke! You mentioned Sasuke… did something happen again?”

Naruto slightly cringed at the “again”, reminded of his most recent embarrassing incident at the hands of the devil that was Sasuke Uchiha. The guy had pointed out all the flaws in Naruto’s thesis at the end of Naruto’s presentation. He had been clever about it, too, and posed his thoughts as well-worded questions. Naruto clenched his jaw at the memory.

He crossed his arms. “He bet me I couldn’t beat his mark on our lit essay.”

Ino’s eyes went wide. “Oh no. What did you bet him? Naruto, Orochimaru loves Sasuke. Even without the favouritism he’d be nearly impossible to beat.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Ino. I appreciate it,” Naruto said drily. He let his head fall to the table. “I know I’m doomed but it’s not like I could’ve said no.”

Ino reached across and ruffled his blond hair. “Hey, I said nearly impossible. I thought you liked to defy the odds.”

Naruto sat up. “You’re right.” He grabbed his bag and stood. “I can do it!”

“That’s more like it,” Ino said. “Now go so I can finish this damn assessment.”

Naruto leaned down and pressed a kiss to her forehead. “Good luck. Also, enjoy your date.”

Ino hummed and Naruto shot her one last grin before he left the cafe.

“That’s all for today. I trust you all submitted your essays on time. Late submissions without an approved extension will be penalised,” Orochimaru said. He started to pack up his desk and looked out to the class, making eye contact with Sasuke. “See you when class next resumes.”

Sasuke clenched his jaw ever so slightly. No one would really pick up on it but Naruto had plenty of experience reading Sasuke’s subtle signs.

As everyone packed their bags and left the lecture theatre, Naruto approached Sasuke who remained at his desk and was otherwise occupied by his phone.

“Stressing out about our bet, Sasuke?” Naruto said with a smirk.

Sasuke pocketed his phone and turned to Naruto. “What’s there to stress about, idiot?”

“The fact that my essay is better than yours,” Naruto said and emphasised his words by poking Sasuke’s chest.

Sasuke took hold of Naruto’s hand and removed it from his chest. Sasuke’s hand was cool in contrast to Naruto’s own. “Hn. Doubtful,” he said and let go. He picked up his bag and brushed past Naruto.

“Just you wait and see, bastard!” Naruto called out after him. Sasuke didn’t even acknowledge him.

Naruto was the last student to leave, but as he headed to the exit of the lecture theatre Orochimaru called out to him. “Naruto? A moment please.” Naruto held in a groan and reluctantly made his way over to his professor’s desk.

“Yes, Professor?” Naruto said.

Orochimaru leaned back on his desk and crossed his arms. “Rumour is that you and Sasuke have a bet going on.”

Naruto froze. How did Orochimaru know about that? Surely Sasuke hadn’t told him; he was an asshole but he always played fair.

When Naruto didn’t respond immediately, Orochimaru smiled and gestured for him to speak. The smile itself made Naruto feel very uncomfortable and managed to pressure him into speaking.

“Maybe. What’s it to you?” Naruto said. Orochimaru smirked and Naruto instantly regretted the defensive tone.

“I hear it has a lot to do with me,” Orochimaru said, smirk in place.

“Not really,” Naruto tried but Orochimaru chuckled.

With his arms crossed, Orochimaru drummed his fingers along his bicep. “What would you offer me if I could guarantee you would win this little bet?”

Naruto’s eyes widened. He looked around to see if anyone else heard what he had just heard, but he was all alone in the vast space that was the lecture theatre. Orochimaru’s smirk remained in place. “Well?”

Naruto frowned, his fists clenched by his sides. “Nothing. I play fair. I don’t need your help. Besides, I don’t think the other professors would be happy to hear that you’re bargaining with students.”

Orochimaru chuckled. “Oh, Naruto. You do amuse me. Let me know if they believe you.” His expression turned dark. “Now get out my sight.” Naruto didn’t need to be told twice and left without looking back, though he could feel Orochimaru’s watchful eyes on him.

Once he was far away from the building, Naruto withdrew his phone from his pocket and composed a text to Ino.

you won’t believe what just happened.

Within moments, he received a reply.

!??? we’re at Ichiraku. tell us everything!

Naruto quickly responded with omw as he exited the campus grounds. Ichiraku happened to be his favourite ramen joint. It was only half a kilometre away from campus and despite the great service and even better ramen it offered, it was never really busy. It did have a lot of Japanese businesses nearby to contend with, though. Naruto and his friends certainly gave them enough business.

Naruto quickened his pace as he thought back to Orochimaru’s offer. He was still processing what had just happened. What had Orochimaru wanted him to say? Why was he even willing to make a deal like that when Sasuke was his favourite student? Naruto groaned. Nothing made sense.

As he entered Ichiraku Ramen, three of the six stools that lined the counter were occupied. In them sat Ino, Sakura, and Shikamaru, with almost empty bowls. “Hey!” he greeted them all. They greeted him back as he sat on the stool next to Shikamaru.

“What’s up, Naruto? Haven’t seen you around in ages,” Shikamaru said.

Naruto rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah, exams and assessments have been keeping me busy. How are you going?”

“Yeah, know the feeling. I’m same as usual. Life still drags on,” Shikamaru said but his smile said otherwise.

Ino groaned. “Okay, that’s enough. Naruto, your text. What happened?”

Naruto held his hands up. “Easy does it. I’ll tell you. Let me order some ramen first.” He gave Teuchi, the owner of Ichiraku, his order… which wasn’t really difficult since Teuchi knew his usual.

He turned back to the others. They were staring on in anticipation. “Okay. Right. Get this,” Naruto said, he took a deep breath. “ Orochimaru somehow found out about mine and Sasuke’s bet—”

Shikamaru frowned. “What bet?”

“We bet that whoever scores lower on Orochimaru’s next essay has to admit to the whole class that the winner is better.”

Shikamaru shook his head. “Sounds troublesome.”

Naruto shrugged. “Anyway, so Orochimaru found out about it and guess what? He asked me what I would offer him if he could guarantee I’d win the bet.”

All three pairs of eyes widened. “Holy shit!” Ino said. “What did you say?”

Teuchi served up Naruto’s ramen. Naruto eyed it up. “I said I don’t need his help, that I play fair, and that other professors might not like hearing about him bribing students,” he said while pulling apart his chopsticks.

Sakura slammed her fist on the counter multiple times. The empty bowls shook. Ayame, Teuchi’s daughter, took them away. “You did not threaten him!” Sakura looked at him, torn between disbelief and amusement. “Did you...?”

Naruto swallowed his food. “I have no reason to lie.”

Ino cackled. “So what did he say when you threatened to expose him?”

Naruto grinned. “Wished me luck and told me to get out of his sight.”

Everyone burst into laughter. “Oh man, you know what this means, though?” Shikamaru said. Naruto shook his head. “Means you’re fucked now.”

“Crap!” Naruto said after swallowing some more noodles. “I didn’t even think of the consequences… oh man.” He smacked his forehead.

Sakura crossed her arms and looked thoughtful. “Maybe you should follow through on your threat and tell a professor. Kakashi would be a good option.”

Naruto wasn’t sure how Sakura knew Kakashi, given that he was in the arts faculty not medicine, but guessed it was probably through Ino.

“No, Kakashi’s cool. I don’t want to put him in a difficult spot,” he said.

“But —”

“Don’t worry. I’ll be fine. I have a feeling today’s conversation will change nothing.”

Sakura and Ino exchanged glances. Their eyebrows furrowed in concern. Shikamaru sighed. “If you say so,” he said. He looked at his phone. “Man, I need to get going.” He stood up and placed money on the counter before gathering his belongings. “Good seeing you again, Naruto. Come by anytime — Kiba and Chouji have been wanting to catch up.”

Naruto turned from his ramen and nodded. “Yeah, I will. Good seeing you too. Catch you later.”

“Bye girls,” Shikamaru said and gave a half-assed wave as he left the joint.

It wasn’t until Naruto had finished eating his ramen that he noticed Sakura and Ino had been very quiet. He wiped his mouth with a napkin and turned to them. “Why so quiet?”

Sakura and Ino looked at one another and nodded. Sakura smiled. “We wanted you to be the first to know…”

Naruto raised an eyebrow. “Know what?”

Sakura and Ino raised their joint hands and grinned. “The date was a success,” Ino said.

Naruto’s eyes widened for a fraction of a second before he punched the air and cheered. “Yes! About time!” He stood up and withdrew some money from his wallet and placed it on the counter. “Dinner’s on me. Thank you for the meal!” He turned back to Sakura and Ino and tilted his head in the direction of the street. “Let’s go celebrate!”