Actions

Work Header

The dish ran away with the spoon

Chapter Text

Part One

 

One bright day in the middle of the night

 

“What are you doing...Sasuke?”

It was the question that temporarily snapped him out of his psychosis. It was the wrong question to ask. He could hear the throbbing of his heart in his rib cage. His stomach was empty and hollow. He couldn’t remember the last time he ate. His mouth was dry and his tongue felt like steel wool. Even if he wanted to he wasn’t able to speak. He couldn’t give an answer that explained his own psychosis. It wouldn’t make sense to the mind of a layperson, an outsider.

He knew who the voice belonged to without having to confirm and that infuriated him.

Not you! Anyone but you!

It was the last person he wanted to see him like this. It was partly his fault. It only made him more agitated. If he were to create a pie chart outlining all the reasons that drove him to this… ‘he’ would be a piece of the pie.

Time. What was the time? He was running out of time. His mother was going to be at school to pick him up at any moment. She was probably already walking through the school entrance to fetch her prized possession. His fear intensified. His eyes focused on the second hand that whirled around and around the face of the clock. Time was speeding up. It was working against him. If he didn’t do it now he wasn’t going to be able to do it at all.

“Sasuke?”

He could hear footsteps approaching him. It sounded like high heels click-clacking against the cement floor of the hallway. His eyes finally looked up to see cerulean eyes the color of a painter's rendition of the sky widening. ‘He’ was standing outside in the hallway walking towards the music room. It wasn’t his mother. He tried to tell himself but the image of his mother was superimposed on him and they became the same entity.

He found himself gasping for breath. Every breath he took sent sharp pains through his lungs and it spidered out until his whole chest felt inflamed. He gasped as every breath took more and more energy and he was afraid he wouldn’t have the strength to follow through. He felt sweat sting his eyes. He winced. The more he looked at ‘his’ eyes the more he took comfort in them. The water in his eyes looked warm and comforting like a crystal bay. Although those blue eyes kept shifting into penetrating brown eyes.

His four fingers were placed between the door’s two hinges. His first finger knuckles pressed against the frame of the door. His other hand was pressed against the door. It was simple really and in the moment it made perfect sense. No. It was the only choice really. He didn’t have any more options. It was this or jumping off the school building and the door to the rooftop was locked. He was going to slam his hand in the door and break his fingers. He stared back at his hand in the spine of the doorway. He’d break his hand, and live. When he thought about that and the relief that would follow his face flushed and he smiled. It had been so long since he found himself smiling. Really smiling. He could feel his lips spreading as his smile grew like weeds taking over and suffocating a garden. His cheeks felt warm and he felt the warmness spreading across the entirety of his face.

“NO!”

He couldn’t turn away from those comforting blue eyes. It was what gave him the last shred of strength. He made eye contact with him the whole time. He slammed his entire body up against the door. The door slammed shut. When the door shut he was forced to break eye contact. What followed was a beautiful cacophony of sounds. It was the sound of cracking bones snapping. The sound of screaming. Even though 'his' screams were muffled because he was on the other side of the door.

He still heard ‘him’ screaming. Just fine nonetheless.

He couldn’t help it. He started laughing. It was so ridiculous having been found out. It made sense. Nothing could ever go as planned. He was the one with the broken fingers so why was ‘he’ carrying on as if it were ‘his’ fingers that were shattered and useless. He turned the door handle and opened the door and there he was squatting in the hallway. He had stopped screaming and his face was pallid and his eyes as haunting as a snow moon.

He pulled his busted up hand out from the spine of the door. He was shaking uncontrollably. He lost function in his fingers. He couldn’t even make them twitch. He stared down at his handiwork. His smile grew and grew. He stared at his fingers. He watched them slowly engorge on blood. They were bent at the first knuckle and completely disconnected from the joint. This would work. He hoped he lost function in his hand altogether.

Now he wouldn’t have to perform. He stumbled and fell to one knee. He couldn’t stop smiling. This was his biggest accomplishment to date. His greatest performance.

He stared back at the blonde who was now rushing to his side. If only he knew then he would be celebrating with him instead of fretting.

So annoying.’

He heard his mother screaming. Her voice pulled him back to reality. She demanded what happened. He froze. It was all too perfect. He’d kill two birds one stone...and then he’d swallow the stone and destroy all evidence. He played his part well.

“He did it, mom! Naruto...slammed my hand in the door.”

*****

He tried to remember when it started. It was hard to pinpoint the exact catalyst and maybe there wasn’t one. It was a bunch of little things, numbered in sequential order, however, scattered across oblivion. Like a paint by number. If all the tiny million pieces were found and painted it would create the perfect case study of a beautiful disaster.

There were key vital characters in his life. ‘She’ took being a Tiger Mom to another plateau. She didn’t want to create geniuses, she wanted to create prodigies to live up to the Uchiha name.

If he just listened and responded like Itachi had things might have gone easier for him. It was formulated into his earliest memories. She had stitched it with a needle and thread into his skull. Obedience. He had absolutely no control over his life. He was just a puppet that she moved around.

In school he had to pick an extracurricular activity. It was an illusion of choice. The only extracurricular activity was the student council, and he had to be a class leader. After school, he had to go to cram school. There he’d study and reinforce what he learned in school. He had to pick an instrument. He wanted to play guitar instead he was forced to play the piano. He was enrolled in piano lessons. It was fun in the beginning. Until he started going to competitions. He had to win these competitions. If he didn’t. He would be forced to eat dish soap. Following several instances of vomiting and gagging on Palmolive dish soap he made sure to never lose a competition again.

He had to be number one in all subjects. He didn’t just need great scores he needed perfect scores. He needed to be valedictorian. He was meant to be extraordinary. A model student. Polite. Well-mannered. Impeccable. Groomed to go into an Ivy League university. If he wasn’t number one he might as well just die.

His schedule was pre-planned and color-coded. There were a series of chauffeurs shuffling him from one scheduled thing to another to another to another. Early on he noticed something. In elementary school, while he was eating lunch alone, he didn’t have any friends. The reason he noticed was the whispering of his classmates. Focusing solely on academics he had been socially stunted. He made the connection. He was a social outcast. It wasn’t like he went out of his way to ignore his classmates. They had never approached him and he had never approached them. The distance between them grew and grew until it became more and more awkward to reach out. So he didn’t. He heard whispering.

“Should we invite him to sit with us?”

“What? No. He’s a freak.”

“He doesn’t talk to anyone. All he does is suck up to the teachers.”

“He probably looks down on us.”

“Let’s leave the little freak alone.”

What followed was cruel laughter. He wasn’t able to see color anymore. Everything became monotone in shades of whites, greys, and blacks. All around him he could see the paint drain from the walls and pool on the floor.

He walked through the front door to find his mother standing there. Her face swollen with contempt. She walked over and smacked him across his face. Oh, there was another color he could see. Blood. He could see flecks of blood splatter across the floor and pinpricks. He felt his lip bust open.

“How dare you embarrass me!” She screamed. He could see specks of saliva fly out of her mouth. He didn’t know what he did. His hand flew up to his stinging cheek and blistering lip. He looked up at her through the strands of his hair. “I received a telephone call from your homeroom teacher. He’s very concerned with your well-being. He says you don’t socialize with any of your peers and that you look like something is upsetting you. He wanted to know how things were going at home.”

He didn’t move. He didn’t understand. He had perfect grades. He was well behaved, well mannered, polite. He did all the classroom chores and helped the teachers. She grabbed a fistful of hair and jerked him towards her. He knew it was rude not to look at her when she was talking to him. Ah. It was his face. It was too late. He figured out his mistake too late.

“Tell me Sasuke after all your father and I have provided you. Why are you so damn ungrateful? Why are you so unhappy that you have teachers calling and harassing me...and asking me why I’m such a bad mother?”

She began thrashing him around when he didn’t speak. His mind went blank and he detached. The world all around him vanished. The next thing he learned was how to control his face. He was forced to sit in front of a mirror and practice making different facial expressions.

“Again! Smile again! Again...do it properly!”

The more he messed up and didn’t form his face the exact way she wanted him to he was forced to go longer and longer. So he learned quickly what expressions to wear and what expressions not to wear in school.

*****

He had perfected the smile and was always mindful of his facial expressions by the time he entered middle school. He needed to give off the air of happiness and contentment. Things started to calm down. He preferred being in solitude. He was an introvert. He didn’t realize it was the calm before the storm. He was sitting in the second row next to the window when the homeroom teacher entered holding a piece of paper with squares and names written inside each square. It was a seating chart. It was the start of the new semester. So it was a new seating chart.

“Good morning class. Today we’ll be changing seats. Here is the new seating arrangement and your new assigned partners.”

Much to Sasuke’s surprise he didn’t change seats. He remained in the second row by the window. The seat next to him which was empty was suddenly taken. A scruffy blonde appeared and sat down. He didn’t know his name. He smiled politely nonetheless.

“I’m Naruto Namikaze...I guess we’re new partners, Sasuke.” The blonde spoke with a smile. The blonde knew his name. He stared at him. He didn’t know who he was at all.

He didn’t know how to answer. He looked at the homeroom teacher and saw a small smirk on his face. He continued to stare at the homeroom teacher as if expecting an explanation. The way the teacher was avoiding him solidified he knew, and was doing this on purpose. The teacher grabbed a piece of chalk and began writing on the board. He ignored the blonde and soon he’d forget his name. It was only a matter of time.

“Everyone get your mathematics textbooks out and turn to page 101 for today’s lesson.”

“I forgot my textbook at home, can I share yours?” Naruto whispered. He jabbed his arm with a pencil. He scrunched up his face and stared at him. Maybe it was going to be harder to ignore him than he thought. He didn’t need to share his textbook. He already memorized it. He placed it on his desk.

“Don’t you want to share it?” Naruto asked. He took the textbook and placed it in the middle of their desks.

“I already memorized it.” He spoke and pushed the textbook to Naruto’s desk.

“Wow...you’re amazing, huh?”

He stared at him and smiled politely before turning forward. He had completely forgotten about him until lunchtime. From the corner of his eye, he saw a group of kids approach him. They asked if he wanted to play soccer as it was the first day of nice weather. He did. He watched as the blonde stood up and walked away with them.

“See you later Sasuke.” Naruto spoke from the doorway. He looked up and stared at the blonde. He watched him wave at him and leave. He furrowed his eyebrows. He didn’t understand why he did that and didn’t think much of it. He was probably just being polite.

He always ate his lunch at his desk. He pulled out a book he was required to read from the neverending reading list his mother posted on the refrigerator. It wasn’t really a book but a play. He thought about correcting her. Hamlet. It infuriated him. He couldn’t identify with anyone except maybe Ophelia, and only in the sense that she entered a fit of madness and drowned. He always thought about how he was going to die.

The windows in the classroom were open to let the fresh air in. The air smelled sweet and flowery. He heard laughter coming from the courtyard outside. He turned to see the blonde. His deskmate. He was playing soccer. He watched as the blonde scored a goal. He watched as he was congratulated. He had always seen him surrounded by people. He never saw him alone. He wondered what was different about the two of them. He wondered what made them so different. Why he was eating lunch alone while he played soccer with the rest of their class outside.

It didn’t bother him. He turned around and continued reading. It was pointless to think about these things. He focused on the play instead and spent the rest of the lunch period in the Shakespearan world.

*****

“Sasuke can you bring these papers to the classroom and pass them out?”

“Yes, sir.”

He held the stack of papers. It was their mathematics homework for tonight. He walked towards the classroom. He didn’t enter. He sensed something. A shift in the air. It was heavy. A voice told him not to enter. To hide outside and listen. He heard something. He stopped outside the door and listened.

“Wanna hang out after school, Naruto? I got a new video game we can play.”

“Can’t. I’m on cleaning duty.”

“You’re on cleaning duty with Sasuke though.”

“Yeah, so?”

“Just ditch. Everyone knows if you’re partnered with Sasuke you can just ditch. Remember? Hinata never had to do cleaning duty.”

He felt his breath hitch. There was a long pause. Something changed inside the classroom. Even though he was hidden outside the classroom something happened inside that shifted the atmosphere. He could feel a negative vibration being emitted out...something electrical. The silence grew and he almost used the excuse to re-enter the classroom with the mathematics homework. There was a voice in the back of his mind warning him not to. The voice was screaming at him to stay put and if he entered now during this deafening silence he was going to be eaten alive.

“Sorry. I’m not a juvenile delinquent like you. If I’m on cleaning duty then I’m on cleaning duty.” Naruto breathed. His voice shook slightly.

“Tch. Whatever. Hang out with that loser all afternoon instead of us. Don’t cry to me afterward when you have a boring ass afternoon with the wet blanket.”

*****

“You don’t have to stay.” He told Naruto when it was just the two of them alone in the classroom. He told every partner he had they didn’t have to stay with him to clean the classroom.

“I’m on cleaning duty too.”

“You can go. I don’t mind cleaning by myself.” He really didn’t. He preferred solitude.

“I don’t mind cleaning either. I’m going to stay so you better stop trying to get me to leave, alright?” Naruto responded forcefully. There was a hint of agitation in his voice.

He didn’t know what else to say so he didn’t say anything else. He glanced to see Naruto was putting the chairs on top of each desk. He stared at his expression. He didn’t look bothered to be here. He didn’t look annoyed or anything even if his voice sounded annoyed. He couldn’t figure out what expression he was wearing. It looked as if he was in deep thought. Like he wanted to say something but couldn’t find the words. He decided to ignore him.

He walked over to the erasers and took them. He held them out the window and began beating them together. A plume of chalkdust wafted up just as the wind picked up. The chalkdust hit him in the face and he inhaled just as it happened. He started coughing and choking. He could feel the dust filling his lungs and it caused him to cough louder. The chalk dust coated his nose and throat.

“Are you okay?” Naruto asked. He nodded his head vigorously and tried to shoo him away.

His eyes watered up and he could feel his nose start to run. His sinuses were triggered. He reached in his pocket for a handkerchief forgetting he had put it in the dirty laundry last night and it was still in the dryer at home. He felt his sinuses running even more rampant to spite him forgetting his handkerchief.

“Here...take mine.” Naruto said and handed him a handkerchief.

“Thank you.” He said politely. He blew his nose and dabbed his eyes. He tried handing it back but Naruto waved his hand.

“You can keep it. I have another in my desk.”

“I’ll wash it and return it to you.”

Naruto shrugged as if he was fine either way. Naruto turned and began cleaning the chalkboard with a rag. He looked down to see the handkerchief in his hand. There were initials sewed into the corner of the handkerchief. N.N. Naruto Namikaze. It looked as if someone hand-sewed it. His fingers brushed over the initials. He looked at Naruto’s back as he stretched to clean the chalkboard. It was the first time he felt angry. He stuffed the handkerchief in his pocket and went to the garbage pail.

“You’re taking the garbage out, do you need any help?” Naruto asked as he reached the door.

“No.” It was a sharp no of finality. “I can do it by myself.”

He held onto the pail and dumped the garbage into the dumpster in the back of the school. He took out the handkerchief and stared at it. Without thinking he threw it into the dumpster and started walking away. He barely made it around the corner when panic started to set in. He felt hot and itchy. His stomach hurt. He didn’t expect guilt to hit him like a semi. He stopped, spun around, and ran towards the dumpster. He climbed on top of the pail and looked inside the dumpster. He saw the handkerchief. He leaned over and stretched his hand. It was just out of reach. He leaned over the edge, he balanced on one leg and stretched.

Just when he touched the cotton fabric he slipped off the pail. He fell face-first into the dumpster. The landing was surprisingly soft. He was assaulted with a multitude of different smells. It was the smell of spoiled milk, rotten eggs, rotten meat, wet dog, and methanol. All the horrible smells he had experienced his entire life all in one overpowering stench. It assaulted his eyes and nose and mouth. It burned his throat and stung his lungs. He fell into something wet and sticky and two trash bags burst open.

He pushed himself up and started gagging. He grabbed the handkerchief and climbed out of the dumpster. He wasn’t graceful at all. He was too preoccupied with not throwing up and getting out of the dumpster he stumbled and fell face-first out. His mind was whirling and his face reddened. He landed hard on his wrist. He was gagging and wheezing for breath as he stumbled away from the dumpster. He grabbed the pail and ran the rest of the way back to school. His nose was running again and he took the handkerchief out and blew his nose again.

It was a mistake. The smell of the dumpster had infiltrated the fabric of the handkerchief. He was assaulted again by the dumpster smell. He wasn’t strong enough. He ran into the nearest bathroom on the first floor, dropped the pail on the ground, and entered the first stall. He made it just in time before throwing up.

When he was done he stumbled out and looked at himself in the mirror. He was flushed, smelly, and parts of his uniform were stained. He barely recognized who was staring back. He quickly washed his hands, face, and neck. He looked back at his appearance. The boy in the mirror wasn’t smiling. He tried to smile politely but he couldn’t. He looked deranged. His hair was wild, his clothes stained. His mouth twisted. He gave up on smiling. His composure was all but lost. He ran a hand through his hair and shook his head. It would have to suffice. He grabbed the garbage pail and returned to the classroom.

“There you are...I was beginning to think you ditched me.” Naruto said half-heartedly. He leaned against the broom and smiled at him. He blinked, noticing his appearance. “What happened to you...and what’s that smell?” He stepped back and away from him.

“Nothing!” He was too embarrassed to even speak the words. He was flustered. He slammed the pail down and put a new garbage bag inside. “Just get back to work!” He knew he smelled Naruto didn’t have to point it out.

They cleaned the rest of the classroom in silence. He couldn’t even bring himself to look at him. His face was too red. It didn’t take nearly as long to finish cleaning. It was done in half the time it would have taken him. They walked towards the school gate together. He could see him fidgeting the entire time.

“I’m sorry if I upset you.” Naruto apologized when they reached the front gate. “If I did anything to upset you earlier I mean. I’m sorry.”

He couldn’t bring himself to look at him. He didn’t say anything. Not even goodbye. He just turned the corner and left. He heard footsteps behind him. He looked over his shoulder and saw that Naruto was following him. He panicked.

“Why are you following me?” He demanded.

“I’m not...I live this way.”

He turned back around. He felt himself grow more and more embarrassed. He felt paranoid with Naruto walking behind him. It felt like he was being followed by a predator. Especially when it was so windy. Naruto was downwind and he didn’t want him smelling how bad he smelled. He knew exactly what he smelled like. He stopped walking and cemented himself on the sidewalk.

“Go on ahead of me.” He said and stepped out of the way. He held out his arm to usher him forward. It made him too nervous to have him behind him. This was the only way.

“Ah...okay…we can walk together?”

“No. No. You go first!”

“O-okay.” Naruto answered and began walking away.

He walked approximately six feet behind Naruto. He didn’t know if Naruto was purposefully walking slow or if he was walking too fast. He kept his eyes on the sidewalk. He only glanced up a few times to see he was still there. It was perfectly timed because everytime he looked up he caught Naruto’s blue eyes staring over his shoulder at him. Embarrassed, he looked back down at the sidewalk. He didn’t know that they lived in the same neighborhood. He stopped when Naruto stopped. He watched as Naruto turned around. He froze. He didn’t want to talk to him anymore.

“Well. I live here. I’ll be leaving first. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Naruto said and disappeared into a gated house. He blinked. He didn’t know that Naruto’s family was so well off that they lived in a similar estate. He glanced at the house number plaque on the gated wall. He sighed in relief and walked the rest of the way home. It felt like a weight was lifted.

That night he gathered whatever dirty clothes including his dirty dumpster smelling uniform and tossed in the handkerchief in the washer before he climbed into the bath. There he soaked, and scrubbed, and washed himself until he didn’t smell bad anymore. He emerged from the bath composed. A clean boy. He glanced at himself in the mirror and smiled. The boy in the mirror was able to smile just as he was taught. The kind of charismatic smile his mother taught him to wear. He felt better.

The only thing he noticed was the stinging and swelling of his right wrist. He decided to bandage it up on his own. He knew his mother would want to know how he hurt himself and he was too exhausted to come up with a lie. It wasn’t his dominant hand so he was fine. He popped a few aspirin for the pain and went to sleep.

*****

He arrived at school later than usual. He wasn’t able to sleep well, he tossed and turned all night, and slept through his alarm. He overheard everyone talking about the mathematics homework and saw everyone comparing answers when he entered the classroom. He sat at his desk. The internal panic button went off. He had forgotten to do the homework. He was too worried about making sure he had laundered the handkerchief, taking care of his wrist, and thinking about cleaning duty he completely forgot about the homework.

This wasn’t like him at all. He felt dizzy like he was on the verge of fainting. He didn’t know how to process. He pulled the mathematics homework out of his school bag and sure enough everything was blank. He stared at the blank sheet wishing he could manifest a completed homework assignment. His heart thumped. He felt hot. He could feel sweat forming on his forehead.

“Did you forget to do the homework?” Naruto asked in a low voice. It was obvious the panic on his face when he looked up. “Here, just copy mine before the teacher comes.”

He didn’t want to get a 0. He could only imagine the repercussions that would have if his mother found out. His imagination never exceeded expectations as his mother always found new ways of ensuring he wouldn’t get another mark less than perfect. He didn’t know what he was doing. He took out his mechanical pencil and began copying the answers. He had never done this before either. Copied homework. His mind went completely blank and he was running on autopilot. It was better than getting a zero. He managed to finish just as the teacher came in and greeted them good morning.

He exhaled as Naruto took his homework and put it on his desk. It took a while for him to calm down. He smiled politely and greeted the teacher when he collected their homework. Inside he thought he was suffocating.

*****

During lunch he noticed that Naruto didn’t leave his desk. Even when the same group of kids approached him and asked him to eat outside with them.

“Aren’t you going to come eat with us, Naruto?”

“I’m going to eat lunch here. I stayed up too late playing video games. I barely have the energy to keep my eyes open.”

“We’ll join you.”

“Mhm.”

Sasuke froze again. He glanced to see Naruto had pulled out his lunch. He had a bowl of sesame soba noodles. It wasn’t just Naruto near him nearly half the class had pulled up desks and chairs and began eating around them. He felt like he was suffocating. He wanted to leave. He turned to leave and noticed he was landlocked. People were all around. They were laughing and talking about making plans tomorrow to go to the cinema to watch the new horror movie that came out. A slasher.

“Seems fun. Sasuke are you in?” Naruto asked casually. He said the invitation so freely some of their classmates stopped talking and stared. He said it as if they were old friends and this was a common occurrence that happened every weekend. The silence was unsettling. His ears stung. He heard a girl snort in disgust.

“N-” He was about to decline when he was interrupted.

“You wouldn’t want me to tell the teacher what happened this morning would you?” Naruto asked with a smirk. He balked. Naruto was blackmailing him. He could feel his face turning red. He didn’t want the teacher to find out he cheated. It was the worst outcome. His mind filled with worse possible outcomes.

“Whoa...what happened this morning?” One of their male classmates asked with a smirk. Naruto shrugged and didn’t answer.

“Why don’t you meet me outside my house at noon tomorrow, Sasuke? We’ll go together.” Naruto continued with a satisfied smile.

“He knows where you live?” A loud female asked. He was sure this was the same female who snorted.

“Yeah we walked home together yesterday after school. We live in the same neighborhood.” Naruto answered. His voice was so casual it was calming.

“Oh. You had cleaning duty together.” The same female stated. She spoke as if that was the only reason why.

Sasuke was speechless again. He didn’t understand why it was so difficult to speak to his classmates. He shifted in his seat. He wasn’t hungry anymore. His wrist had swollen over the night. He tried to focus on the pain and ignore Naruto but it didn’t last. His mind kept replaying Naruto’s invitation, solidifying plans by telling him to meet outside his house. At noon. Tomorrow.

He had Naruto’s handkerchief in his pocket. He thought about returning it to him. He figured now wasn’t the time. He’d return it to him later when he’s alone so he could appropriately thank him.

*****

“Where are you going?” His mother asked when he reached the front door.

“To the library to study. I need a change of scenery.” He lied.

He wasn’t expecting her to believe it. He even had his school bag with him. A black messenger bag over his shoulder. If she’d sent him back to his room he would be okay with it. He could just tell Naruto he couldn’t get permission. He knew she’d see right through it. He was afraid she was going to see he was having too much time on his hands and sign him up for another cram school, or extracurricular activity she had been mentioning sport lessons the past month.

“Just be back by dinner. Your father is coming home.”

“He...is?” He asked. He couldn’t hide the happiness in his voice.

“You know I don’t like repeating myself.” She stated as if she was annoyed by his excitement, and walked away.

He didn’t know why he was even going. He thought about just walking by Naruto’s house and going to the library like he said he was going to. To his surprise, he saw Naruto waiting outside his house. He stopped walking. Was he waiting for him? It was now impossible to just walk by. He thought about turning around and walking in the opposite direction. It was too late. He was spotted.

“Hey...Sasuke!” Naruto greeted him loudly and with a wave. “You did come. I’m so glad!” He was so glad he came? Naruto’s smile appeared genuine. It was bright and warm.

“I...was on my way to the library.” He said. He figured he’d protest one more time to gauge Naruto’s reaction. Did he really want him to go?

“Ay...common’ just come to the movies with us you can go to the library after. I really want you to come.” Naruto pleaded. The way he said it made things seem so easy. The only problem being he wouldn’t have time to go to the library after the movies he’d have to go right home and get ready.

“Okay.”

*****

The last time he went to the movies was when he was very young. He saw an animated movie. He forgot the plot and the name but remembered the main boy character turned into a dragon and the main girl character’s parents turned into pigs. He remembered enjoying that movie and wished his mother would turn into a pig but it never happened. He didn’t watch much television except for educational videos and documentaries. Occasionally the news was on at night. The news was always grim and some tragedy was always happening somewhere or another in the world. He hadn’t gone to the cinema since he was little. He had gone to the theater and the opera with his family; he wondered if anyone else went to the theater and opera.

He felt a little giddy walking into the cinema. It was large. Three stories. It smelled of popcorn and butter.

He walked beside Naruto. They purchased their tickets and met up with everyone else in the main lobby of the cinema. It was busy with moviegoers. Packed with families, students, and people on dates. He noticed the girl with the loud voice, the girl who snorted at him. Her pastel pink hair was pulled back with a barret. He noticed she had a large forehead she hadn’t yet grown into yet. Her emerald eyes met him for a moment. They sized him up and once she noticed he wasn’t a threat greeted Naruto enthusiastically. He watched as Naruto smiled back and watched as Naruto’s face seemed to flush pink in her presence. He looked back at the girl with pastel pink hair. It clicked. Naruto must like her-like her. He mulled that over some more. Thinking maybe he misinterpreted Naruto’s reaction to her. He didn’t.

Nobody formally greeted him but they did acknowledge him with a nod and a smile. He smiled back politely. He didn’t remember their names. They weren’t important to him. He decided he might make an effort to learn and remember their names.

They went to the snack bar. The menu was overwhelming. He decided to order a soda and popcorn. It hurt to hold his soda in his right hand so he held his popcorn in his right and the soda in his left. It was what everyone else was ordering. Everyone except Naruto. He watched as Naruto ordered nachos, a box of buncha crunch, a hotdog with the works, and popcorn with extra butter.

“Jeez Naruto, ordering half the menu.” One of their male classmates said sarcastically. Naruto laughed. Sasuke observed. Naruto had previously called him Kiba. He resembled a dog. His canines appeared sharper than the rest of theirs. He committed his name to memory. Kiba.

“Should I order the other half? I can get back in line.”

“Next time, dude. Come on let's go to our seats, the movie is going to start.”

Sasuke followed the rest into the theater. It was already packed with people. They found their seats and sat down. He was at the end and sat next to Naruto. He placed his drink in the cupholder and placed the box of popcorn in his lap. The seat was comfortable. He felt giddy.

“Do you get scared easily?” Naruto asked. He turned his whole body towards him. He could see the girl with pink hair was seated on the other side of him.

“No. I know it’s not real.” He was very pragmatic. He began to eat popcorn. Parents couldn’t really turn into pigs. Movies weren’t real and therefore couldn’t hurt him. If they couldn’t hurt him he wouldn’t need to be scared.

“This one is based on a true story though!” Naruto argued. He must have given him a confused look because Naruto continued. “Meaning this happened in real life.”

“Did they catch the killer?”

“No! He’s still out there!”

They never caught the killer? He had to recalculate everything he knew about movies. He never took into consideration movies based on true events. Documentaries were real. Was this similar to a documentary? Maybe it was a reenactment? They never caught the killer. It was no longer a question but a statement. The killer was still out there. The theater darkened and for a few seconds, everything remained in blackness. Then the previews started. His mind barely registered the previews as he was too preoccupied with calculating the probability of being attacked by a killer. His chances were low but not zero. The movie finally started.

Naruto was right. It opened up with a black title screen and white font. ‘This movie is based on a true story.’ He swallowed. He wasn’t expecting to be scared. The movie started playing and he sunk back into his seat. He switched from eating his popcorn causally to anxiously eating his popcorn. He couldn’t turn his eyes away. He finished his popcorn halfway through the movie.

The movie had a visceral reaction from him. He squirmed. He closed his eyes. He jumped. He gasped. Everything scared him because it was the first time experiencing all the tropes in a horror movie. The jump scares, someone standing behind a character and when the character looks they’re gone, loud noises, the bloodshed, and gore, holding a match in a darkened basement, tripping and falling and spraining an ankle. He looked at his own sprained wrist. Would he clumsily fall and sprain his ankle?

He found himself at the edge of his seat. The main protagonist was a girl. The proclaimed virgin. Everyone in her friend group only said it about a thousand times. She managed to escape the killer’s hands by trapping him in the basement while she found the car keys and sped away in the truck. She was the only survivor out of her friends and she reported the killer to the police. Was that the reason she lived because she was a virgin? He didn’t fully understand what that even meant. She was the only witness that could make a statement.

“Naruto wanna come over and play that new video game?” Kiba asked.

The female with the large forehead, whom he now knew to be Sakura, interrupted before Naruto could answer.

“I’m going to the mall to buy my mother a birthday present. You can come if you want.”

He turned to see Naruto’s face blushing again as he spoke to Sakura and Kiba. He turned and started walking away. He had to go home. His father was joining them for dinner. He wanted to make sure he got back in time so he could get ready and be presentable by the time he came home. He felt jittery when they left the inside theater. He was glad it was still daylight. He took relief and refuge in the sun. He felt protected in the daylight. He began to examine what he would do if he was one of the people in the friend group.

“So what did you think?” Naruto asked. He appeared beside him. “Were you scared?”

“I didn’t know the killer was still out there.” He answered a little confused that he had appeared so suddenly. He evaded the question that was originally asked.

“Admit it...you were scared.”

“A little.” He stated, though he didn’t want to admit it.

Naruto threw an arm around his shoulder and started laughing in clenched victory. It caused a startle reaction out of him and he pulled away from his touch.

“You’re jumpy…” Naruto commented and stared at him. “I’m not going to bite you or anything.” Naruto pulled back.

“I just don’t like being touched.” He spoke. His heartbeat fast in his chest. He could feel his cheeks redden. His blood pressure rising. He wasn’t used to being touched so casually.

“Okay-okay. I’m sorry.” Naruto said with a shrug. He didn’t seem affected one way or another. He threw his hands behind his head and continued to walk alongside him.

“Why didn’t you go with them?” He asked Naruto. The question blurted out without much thought. Naruto had two invitations and he must have declined both. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be here with him walking back home.

“I invited you to come and dragged you along. It would be rude to let you walk home by yourself. Besides...what if the killer jumps out of the shadows!” Naruto spoke. He jumped at him and grabbed his arm with his. It scared him and he gasped. He instinctively jerked away. It caused Naruto to laugh. His laughter was gratifying. He wasn’t angry with him; it was just a prank, and he began to start liking his laughter.

“I can walk home by myself. I don’t mind.” He replied, his eyes staring down at the sidewalk. Although he was kind of glad Naruto was walking with him. They had reached the bus stop and began waiting for the next bus. “I don’t need a chaperon.” He muttered.

“Think of me as your bodyguard. Incase the killer pops up.” Naruto answered. He pantomimed karate moves. They weren’t very good. He couldn’t help but laugh. He looked ridiculous. Naruto turned and stared at him. He flashed him his sparkling smile.

“I don’t think you could win against a machete.” He commented. He wondered what would work. Maybe a gun.

“Yeah...probably.” Naruto laughed. He glanced at him. “Are you excited about the class trip?” The bus pulled up to the bus stop and they got on. The class trip started at the end of next week.

“To Hawaii?” He asked. He remembered hearing their teacher mention it.

He wasn’t sure he was going to go. He thought about feigning an illness and resting. This was the first year they were allowed to take class trips. An earlier vote determined the location. He hadn’t voted at all because it didn’t concern him. His mother had the permission slip. He hadn’t anticipated the school mailing the permission slips home. He saw it on her desk in her office. He hadn’t brought up the permission slip and she hadn’t asked him about it.

“Mhm. I’ve never been. I’m pretty excited.” Naruto continued. They sat side by side on the bus. Naruto sat in the seat by the aisle. He looked out the window. He wasn’t sure if he was excited. He was...indifferent. He decided not to say this. He decided not to say anything.

“We’re partners so we would probably sit next to each other on the plane and share a hotel room.” Naruto continued. He was determined to keep the focus on the school trip. He brought up them being partners. Sitting next to each other on the plane and sharing a hotel room. Was that what being partners met? If he went would he do all these things with Naruto?

“I...don't know if I’m going to go.” He answered truthfully. He stared straight ahead watching the bus driver. He didn’t know why he was feeling guilty.

“Why not?”

“I...don’t know.” He found himself picking at the skin around his nails. It was a nervous tic he wasn’t able to break. He sometimes picked the skin so much he bled and needed to wear bandaids. Over the last few days, he found that he wasn’t picking the skin as much. He was actually proud that he would have a family dinner without bandaids on his fingers. But now he was picking his skin and the more he was aware the more nervous he became and the more he continued to pick at his skin.

“You should come. It will be fun. I bet you would have fun. The itinerary looks pretty fun too. Lots of places to go, and see. Going to see volcanoes, going to museums and luau. Plus my mom says it's cheaper on school trips. She loved all the school trips she went on.”

Naruto’s mother? He thought back to the handkerchief and the hand-sewed initials in the corner.

He hadn’t even looked at the itinerary. He hadn’t gone to Hawaii before. Volcanoes? Luaus? His father had gone there on multiple business trips, and it was the location of his parents' honeymoon. They go back every couple of years for their anniversary. He saw pictures. It looked like a tropical paradise.

“I want you to come. It wouldn’t be the same without you. It’s supposed to be a class trip...meaning everyone in the class goes.” Naruto spoke seriously. “If you don’t go. Who’s going to be my partner? I’ll be alone.”

It was the first time he heard a serious tone coming from Naruto. It was such a shock he turned and looked at him. Expecting him to break out into a smile and say something along the lines of kidding, or it was a joke, or he didn’t really care if he went. None of those things happened. Just his mind playing the worst-case scenario game like always. He didn’t say anything back. Naruto continued to stare at him with those powerful blue eyes. It felt as if he was being hypnotized by those eyes. His mind was processing Naruto’s words. It sounded like Naruto really wanted him to go. He didn’t understand...why. It made him happy.

He nodded his head up and down. “Maybe it would be fun...if I went.” He tested the waters he wanted to see how Naruto would react.

“So you’re coming?” Naruto’s eyes lit up. Sasuke’s heart fluttered.

“Yeah...maybe. I need to ask my parents.” He said softly. Remembering he needed to bring up the permission slip with his mother. It might be better to bring it up at dinner tonight. When both his parents were there. He’d have better luck with his father being present. “I’ll ask tonight over dinner.”

“Hey Sasuke.” Naruto asked curiously. He reached out and touched the bandage that was wrapped around his right wrist. “What happened to your wrist?” Naruto sounded concerned. His mother hadn’t even asked about his wrist. Naruto’s fingers felt warm. He could feel them even through the bandages.

“I fell.” He suddenly felt embarrassed. He thought back to the handkerchief. The dumpster. Falling in. Falling out. He had laundered the handkerchief and it was folded on his desk in his room. He forgot to bring it with him today. He needed to give it back. He needed to give it back and thank him. Properly.

“Does it hurt?”

“A little.”

“You should put ice on it when you get home. You should really be careful not to hurt yourself.”

Sasuke shrugged. He didn’t mind the pain. It was a dull throbbing every now and then. He didn’t even take any aspirin today. He didn’t mind the pain at all. It was liveable. It connected him to the world. Helped him stay grounded so he didn’t disconnect. He did listen to Naruto and when he got home he put ice on it.

*****

They had two dining rooms at their estate. A formal dining room where they entertained important guests and a casual dining room. He took his meals in the casual dining room. It was personable and comfortable. They always seemed to use the formal dining room when father was home. He was often gone on business trips overseas and seemed to sleep at the company more than sleeping home when he was back. There was a merger happening with another company and it had been stressful for his father. He didn’t know if it was his mother who wanted to use the formal dining room or his father. It was ridiculous to him why they even used the formal dining room when it was just them.

It seemed silly. The table was too large to seat three people. The room is too big. Itachi was still away at university. He had easily gotten into the Ivy League college their mother wanted them both to graduate from. He had come back for winter break but wasn’t going to return until he finished the year. He was left alone with his parents. He wished Itachi was here to soften the tension. The dining room had expensive artwork on the walls and an expensive diamond chandelier hanging from the ceiling. It always felt staged. The room. It felt impersonal. Cold. It wasn’t a place for a family. It was a place for business transactions. Maybe that was what their family had become. A business transaction.

His father sat on one end of the table, his mother on the other and he sat in the middle. His mother had prepared a seafood linguini dish with homemade focaccia bread. It was delicious. Everything she made was delicious. His mother was an amazing chef. She had often spoken about opening up her own restaurant when she didn’t have to raise children anymore. He heard in snippets she had wanted to run her own restaurant before she became pregnant with Itachi. She said now her responsibility was to raise two successful heirs to live up to the Uchiha name. He wished she’d just follow her dreams and open up a restaurant and leave him alone.

“How is everything going at school?” His father asked. He was wearing a tailored suit and his hair was slicked back. His father had always appeared powerful and strong. Someone he wanted to be when he grew up. Confident. Poised. Charming. He loved him. He wanted to be him when he grew up.

“Sasuke’s last report card was all A’s.” His mother answered for him. “He’s always doing well with his piano lessons and continues to attend cram school. I was wondering if we should enroll him in some golf lessons.”

His stomach sank. She finally brought up enrolling him in a sport. He knew she was catching on that he had too much free time. He wouldn’t be surprised if she knew he went to the movies this afternoon. He suddenly wasn’t hungry anymore. The food began to taste of soot.

“Golf would be useful. I closed many deals over a game of golf. I think it would be beneficial. What do you think, Sasuke?” His father asked him.

“Maybe tennis lessons too.” His mother continued before Sasuke could say one way or another. “The country club hired a new instructor. He was a gold medalist in the Olympics.” She didn’t just want to enroll him in golf...but tennis too?

“Itachi enjoyed golf. He never wanted to play tennis. Sasuke what do you think about playing tennis?” His father asked again.

It was another direct question. He waited for his mother to say something else. He wasn’t particularly interested in tennis or golf. He knew he had to pick something. He had pushed off the sports category for a while now. Itachi had chosen golf. His father played golf and as his father said golf would be the most useful for when he was a working adult. He tried to picture where in his schedule his golf lessons would be placed. He had finally gotten some free time and now it was being erased. He began picking at the skin around his nails.

“Sasuke?” His mother’s stern voice said. “Your father asked you a question.”

“It’s fine. He doesn’t have to answer right away. Let him think about it. Maybe something else is on your mind, Sasuke?”

There was. The class trip. He stopped picking his skin. He decided it was now or never to bring up the permission slip and the school trip.

“My class trip is next week. We’re going to Hawaii. I still need to turn in the permission slip.”

“I didn’t think you were interested in going on the class trip.” His mother commented. She sounded suspicious. “We also need to pay for it...it isn’t free Sasuke. Nothing is free in life.” She was going to say no all along.

He felt overwhelming guilt consume him. He shouldn’t have asked about the trip. It was difficult to breathe. He didn’t stop picking the flesh around his fingers. She didn’t want him to go on the class trip. He picked at the flesh of his index finger and pulled a piece of a hangnail off. It immediately started bleeding. He watched as the blood started trickling down his finger. The pain was barely registrable. He grabbed his cloth napkin and wrapped it around his bloody finger.

“Hawaii is a fun place, right Mikoto? I mean, we have lots of good memories there. It’s not going to make us go bankrupt paying for one class trip. I’ll wire the money tomorrow.” His father said with a charismatic smile.

He knew he was talking about their honeymoon and anniversaries spent there. He looked up at his father. He was surprised he was so casual about him going on a trip. He knew they were upper-middle-class but both parents hated spending money. His father was supportive of him going. He smiled appreciatively at his father. He was right to bring up the class trip while his father was present.

“Yes. I agree. I just wanted to make sure he really wanted to go.” She spoke and took a sip of her red wine. “I want to ensure he goes and doesn’t fool around with his friends and that he learns something. Kids these days don’t understand the value of education.”

“Ah he’ll be fine. Sasuke’s a good boy and an excellent student. Let him be a kid every once and a while. How much spending money do you think you’ll need, Sasuke?”

“I...don’t know. This is my first school trip.” He answered automatically. Monotone.

His mind was numb. Stuck repeating his mother’s words. He wanted to correct her. He didn’t have any friends. He wouldn’t mess around with any friends because he didn’t have any. He pulled the napkin away from his finger and watched the blood drip.

Chapter Text

Two dead men stood up to fight

 

“I’m glad you decided to come, Sasuke.”

The homeroom teacher commented when Sasuke checked in at the airport. He smiled politely back. He donned the mask easily and played the role perfectly. Inside he was panicking. He had been running late and got stuck in a long line at an airport security checkpoint. He was relieved he made it and the plane hadn’t taken off without him. He hated being late and it only made him more nervous.

“I can help you if you need any assistance.” He said politely to the teacher. He wanted to be useful and help in any way.

“That’s alright. Naruto has already checked in. Why don’t you go-”

“Hi Sasuke!” Naruto’s loud voice projected across the waiting area of the departure gate. He turned to see Naruto approach him. Naruto had a backpack and was wearing a baseball cap. He wore a bright pineapple printed button up, shorts, and bright printed socks with sneakers. He looked ridiculous. He didn’t have any sense of style and seemed to just roll around in a pile of clothes and whatever stuck was what he wore.

“Hi.” He greeted Naruto as he walked up to him. The teacher moved away to check in another classmate.

“I’m pumped! A few days off from school and nothing but playing in the sun.”

“Hi Naruto.” Sakura greeted. She appeared alongside Naruto. She glanced at him and mumbled. “Hi Sasuke.” She turned back to Naruto.

“Hi Sakura.” Naruto greeted back. He watched as his cheeks turned pink. He wondered if he was ever going to confess to Sakura he liked her.

“What seat are you sitting in?” She asked Naruto. She held her boarding pass in her hand.

“13B.” Naruto answered. “Sasuke is 13A.”

“Oh.” Sakura said disappointedly. She looked at her boarding pass. “Ino and I are 30A and B.”

Judging by her expression she wanted to sit next to Naruto.

“I figured we’d be scattered around the plane.” Naruto said logically. “We should be boarding soon.”

“Okay. Well, I’ll talk to you later.” Sakura spoke. She did a small wave and trudged away.

“How are you on planes?” Naruto asked Sasuke. “I need to take dramamine. I get nauseous otherwise.” He pulled out a bottle. Naruto offered one to Sasuke.

He accepted. It was chewable and he chewed it. He never took dramamine before and didn’t know the side effects. He should have asked because by the time he boarded the plane he was beginning to feel tired. Not just tired he felt exhausted. He sat in the seat next to the window and Naruto sat next to him. He yawned. It felt as if he closed his eyes he would fall asleep.

“The only part I don’t like is the takeoff and landing.” Naruto confessed. “I always feel like the plane is going to crash.”

“The odds are 1 in a million that you’ll die in a plane crash.” He said pragmatically. “You have a higher chance of being struck by lightning.”

“Er...that doesn’t make me feel any better. My mom always says I am 1 in a million...so…” Naruto laughed nervously. He sank in his seat and folded his hands in his lap.

“Most plane crashes happen at take off and landing.” He continued. He rested his hands on the armrests. He yawned again. “So you’re right to be nervous.”

“Are you trying to make me into a nervous wreck?” Naruto asked anxiously. It was the first time he saw Naruto so vulnerable. His face paled. His pupils dilated.

“If we are to crash I’d rather us be in the air. When the plane falls we lose cabin pressure and oxygen. We would pass out before we crashed. Otherwise if we crash at takeoff or landing we would be consciously aware and would feel everything.”

“Okay...stop it!” Naruto said and grabbed Sasuke’s arm. He was afraid. He wasn’t exaggerating.

“S-sorry.” He said softly. He hadn’t meant any harm. His eyes glanced to Naruto’s fingers wrapped around his arm. His fingers felt warm, soft. “When I’m afraid I tend to look up research on it so I’m not afraid anymore.” He was practical. He needed to become educated on the things that scared him, or the things he didn’t understand.

“What are you afraid of?” Naruto asked. He let go of his arm.

“The typical things. Being kidnapped, drowning, being in a house fire. Chances of any of these things happening are extremely low. So I guess I’m not really afraid as much as I am cautious.”

He lied to Naruto. He wasn’t afraid of any of those things. His fear ran raw. It cut deep. Gutted him like a fish. If he spoke about his real fears would Naruto laugh at him? He didn’t have time to think about it. The look on Naruto’s face already told him he didn’t believe him. There was already doubt outlined. The look Naruto gave him clearly said, ‘Why are you lying you coward?’.

“You’re...kinda weird aren’t you?” Naruto asked. There was a playful smile on his face. It bordered on cruelty. He blinked. Did he see right? He pulled back from Naruto. He couldn’t go far. He was strapped in his plane seat. Seatbelt fastened. It was too late to back out now. The plane was about to take off.

“I’m weird?” He asked and turned towards Naruto. He raised his eyebrows. It sounded like an insult. He felt embarrassed. His stomach began to hurt. He thought this was it. This was where Naruto was going to tell him he didn’t want to talk to him anymore and he wanted a new partner.

“I mean...you think differently. I like it. I like weird things. It means you’re not boring.” Naruto clarified. “You’re interesting. Makes me want to get to know you more.” He flashed another smile and this was more genuine. This smile was more kind. He felt relief.

Sasuke didn’t answer. He didn’t know how he should answer. How he should respond. He was struggling. He didn’t notice how socially inept he was until he started talking to Naruto. He was afraid of saying the wrong thing. He didn’t know how to start conversations or how to end them. He barely knew how to respond when the questions weren’t academically centered.

When the plane took off Naruto panicked and grabbed Sasuke’s hand. He didn’t just grab it he squeezed hard. Cutting the blood circulation off. Sasuke’s fingers had bandages wrapped around the tips. He had ugly hands. He didn’t understand why Naruto grabbed his hand. He felt his heart racing. He didn’t know how to respond. Was this a response to him being scared? Was he seeking comfort from him? He placed his other hand on top of Naruto’s. He didn’t know how to comfort anyone. Naruto deserved a comforting blanket but he saw himself as steel wool.

“It’s okay…” He tried to comfort Naruto. He tried using a calming ‘there-there’ voice. It was difficult as the plane angled as it ascended. “Think about being somewhere else. Think about playing soccer at school with everyone. The more you think about it, think about all the little details.”

“Playing soccer?” Naruto asked shakily. His eyes were squeezed closed.

“Describe it to me. Describe to me in detail playing soccer. Go on.”

“It’s during lunchtime. I finished lunch and I’m playing soccer. I intercepted the ball and now I’m running with the ball down the field. I see Kiba. He’s open. I need to pass the ball to him. The other team is almost on me. I kicked the ball to him just in time. They’re after him. He only has the ball for a little while before passing it back to me. I can see the goal. I kick it. The goalie misses. I score. Sakura sees me...”

He couldn’t take his eyes off Naruto as he described in detail him playing soccer. His face relaxed as he described it and lit up with excitement. His eyes remained closed and he could tell he was really envisioning it. When he spoke about Sakura he blushed. Pink tinted his cheeks.

“Do you like Sakura?” He asked. At this question Naruto’s eyes opened. There was panic etched back in his features. It wasn’t fear-associated, it was embarrassment-associated. Naruto moved his other hand and covered Sasuke’s mouth. Preventing him from saying anything else. He blinked in confusion and tensed up.

“Shhh!” Naruto hissed. “Don’t ask that question out loud!” Naruto looked apprehensively around. Sakura was rows and rows away. Seventeen rows away to be exact. They sat in row 13 and Sakura sat in row 30. He remembered. He didn’t know how to react to Naruto who continued to squeeze his hand and cover his mouth. His eyes widened. He wanted to disappear into oblivion. He knew one thing he was already reaching his limit on how much he was allowing Naruto to touch him.

The plane had finally reached the desired elevation and righted itself. Thirty-one thousand feet in the air. They were now flying straight. It immediately calmed Naruto. The fasten seatbelt sign was turned off and Naruto sighed in relief and composed himself. He wanted Naruto to stop touching him. He was counting down from ten before he could feel himself about to freak out.

“Sorry!” Naruto apologized. He immediately let go of Sasuke. The skin of his mouth and hand was cold in its absence. He felt relief.

“You do like Sakura.” He narrated. He was learning more about Naruto.

Naruto shrugged. “A little. She’s really cute right?” His voice was barely above a whisper.

Is Sakura cute? He thought back to her appearance. She was awkward. They were all awkward at this age. Nobody fit right in their body. Who was cute to him? He wasn’t sure he was attracted to any girl now that he thought about it. He tried to think about the animated movie he watched when he was younger. He was more attracted to the main boy character who turned into a dragon than the main character girl who whined too much for his liking. Thinking about that memory he felt warm. He didn’t understand not at first.

“I...don’t know?” He answered truthfully. “I guess?” He tried seeing what Naruto saw and couldn’t. He didn’t want to hurt Naruto’s feelings by saying he didn’t see Sakura as being cute especially if he did. He played it safe.

“She’s the cutest, and she’s funny and smart! She’s second only to you.”

“Huh?” He asked. He did not understand what Naruto was saying. His heart quickened. His face warmed. His mind whirled with incomprehensible thoughts.

“You’re first in our class. Sakura is second.”

“Oh...yeah.” He said and nodded his head in agreement. Obviously, Naruto was talking about class ranking. What else would he be talking about? “Where are you in the class ranking?” He decided to change the topic. He didn’t pay attention to class ranking. He was number 1 and everyone else faded into nothingness behind him.

“We...don’t talk about that.” Naruto said and waved his hand dismissively. The way he said it and the way he acted made him think he was nearer the bottom. Maybe failing? No it didn’t make sense he thought back to the mathematics homework.

“You must be smart. You got all the answers right on the math homework.” He commented. He remembered getting the homework back and he received a 100. The relief he felt was insurmountable. The red pen with the number 100 written in the corner. He still needed to thank Naruto but the more he procrastinated the harder it got.

“I’m okay. I guess.” Naruto answered. There was a long pause. He didn’t know why but he felt anxious in that pause. Naruto continued. “I’m not genius-smart like you and Sakura. But I’m not at the bottom of the class like Kiba either.”

He didn’t know what else to say. He never thought about love, or dating or anything like that. He was in the early stages of puberty like everyone else. He didn’t have time to sit and think about things. What were the next steps? He knew people dated, went on dates, fell in love, got married, had kids. He figured that was what everyone did. He thought back to his brother. If Itachi did date anyone he never told any of them. He thought to their mother. Her expectations were so high she probably wouldn’t approve of anyone. She would probably hand select their wives...arrange their marriages. His stomach sank thinking about being married to a girl. He wondered what their father would think.

He didn’t know what else to say to keep the conversation going and so he didn’t say anything at all. He watched Naruto lose interest and he put headphones in and started watching a movie. He didn’t have to think long. The dramamine officially took effect and in doing so he was knocked out. He closed his eyes telling himself he was just going to rest his eyes. Instead he fell right asleep.

*****

Sasuke woke up to someone holding his hand. He woke up startled to find the plane landing. His stomach dropped.

“Naruto?” He yawned and looked to see Naruto clutching his hand. He had a death grip and his fingers turned white. He tried to free himself but it was impossible.

“You jerk! You fell asleep!” Naruto mumbled angrily. His eyes remained closed.

He felt the wheels of the plane hit the airport runway. He felt himself jerking as the plane bumped as it slowed down. They had officially landed. Naruto held onto his hand until they officially stopped. After. Naruto let go of his hand and let out the biggest sigh he had ever heard someone release. He sighed like an old man coming to terms with death. He stifled a laugh.

“It’s good to be alive.” Naruto breathed and opened his eyes. “Right, Sasuke?”

Again Naruto was being cryptic and asking weird questions. He wasn’t so sure he agreed. He didn’t disagree either. He was stagnant. Somewhere in the middle. Life was living and death was finality a period at the end of a sentence. The rest of the time was spent unboarding, waiting at baggage claim to fetch their luggage, then filing into a rented bus that transported them to the hotel. On the bus Sakura and a girl with blonde hair named Ino sat across from them. Naruto sat in the aisle seat and spoke to Sakura the majority of the way to the hotel. He glanced at Ino and found her sleeping. He yawned. He was still exhausted.

“How was the plane ride?” Sakura asked.

“It was fine. I didn’t have any problems.” Naruto laughed. He glanced at Naruto. He was lying. He rolled his eyes.

“Oh really?” He challenged, shifting his eyes to Naruto.

“Yes.” Naruto answered and shot him a reproachful glance. “What about you?” He asked Sakura.

“We were stuck in front of two kids that wouldn’t stop kicking our seats. So I yelled at them. The kids started crying then we had to deal with them crying the rest of the way.” Sakura explained exhaustively. Her shoulders sagged. “I couldn’t sleep a wink!”

“Sasuke slept the majority of the time.” Naruto commented. “He used me as a pillow and drooled on me. He slept like a baby.” He spoke in a teasing voice. “I need to change shirts when we get back.”

He froze. It was the first he was hearing about this. He stared at Naruto. He didn’t seem bothered and had an impish glint in his blue eyes. He had fallen asleep on Naruto? Worse. He drooled on him? Was he lying? Sakura laughed with Naruto. He felt more than embarrassment. He felt mortified. Did Naruto let him sleep on him or did he push him away? His mind whirled. He shook his head. He didn’t want to think about it. He wanted Naruto to stop talking.

“Maybe you should tell her how afraid you were at take off and landing that you wouldn’t let go of my hand the whole time.” He said loudly.

“What?” Sakura asked. “You were afraid?” She looked at Naruto inquisitively.

Naruto’s face went from a soft blush to pink, to rose red in a matter of seconds. The red seeped into his neck and to the tips of his ears. He immediately began denying it. “No! That wasn’t what happened! He’s just kidding-He’s kidding.” Naruto again covered Sasuke’s mouth with one hand and waved his hand at Sakura with the other. He turned back to Sasuke. “Truce-truce, okay?”

He rolled his eyes and pulled Naruto’s hand from his mouth. He didn’t want Naruto to think he could embarrass him and get away with it. As the saying goes he was just giving him a taste of his own medicine. He didn’t say anything else. He continued to watch Naruto do damage control and he found himself smiling. He stifled a laugh and looked out the window. He decided to stop teasing Naruto and stayed out of their conversation. He had the ability to turn off whatever was going on around him and he did. It became silent. He had the ability to make everything around him disappear and he did. Everyone vanished. They no longer existed in his world. He was the only one on the bus.

It was night time in Hawaii. He saw the outline of palm trees. It was a cloudless night and the sky was speckled with hundreds of thousands of twinkling stars. They looked like fireflies that were trapped in ink. He could see the purples and blues of the milky way galaxy cutting the sky in two. It looked like an entrance to another dimension and if he stretched his hand out the window he could touch it. It was breathtaking as the bus curved around a cliff. The sand of the beach looked rugged like the surface of the moon. If he looked hard enough it looked as if he were on another planet at another part of the galaxy.

He felt a calmness slowly washing over him and he exhaled in relief.

*****

Sasuke unlocked the hotel room with the keycard. Even though he slept the majority of the flight he was still exhausted. Sleep clung to every muscle in his body. It was jetlag. He wouldn’t be surprised if the Sandman himself was hovering above him sprinkling magical sleeping sand over his head. Their hotel was on the beach and their room was facing the ocean. There were two twin sized beds, a small table with two chairs, a dresser, a TV, and a small refrigerator. They had a sliding glass door that led to a balcony. He watched Naruto drop his suitcase. He ran to the sliding glass door, opened the sliding glass door and gasped as he stepped onto the balcony. They had a view of the beach.

He joined Naruto on the balcony. He wrapped his hands around the railing of the balcony just as a warm breeze picked up. It was beautiful. He could hear the waves on the beach. The moon was full and it hung low in the sky. So low it looked like it was going to fall into the ocean.

“Hey diddle diddle. The cat and the fiddle. The cow jumped over the moon. The little dog laughed to see such sport and the dish ran away with the spoon.” Naruto spoke the nursery rhyme. His voice was low, barely above a whisper. So soft the night breeze swallowed up the words and carried them away. There was something off about the tone in his voice.

“Mhm?” He asked and turned to see Naruto leaving the balcony without another word. He didn’t know why Naruto made him feel both comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time. He decided to be cautious with him.

*****

He wore a baseball hat to try to protect himself from the sun and was slathered in sunscreen. It was humid in Hawaii. Sweat stuck to him and made him feel grimy. He could feel beads of sweat rolling down his face, neck, back. They were trekking through the Volcanoes National Park. The more he realized he was on a powerful active volcano the more excited he became knowing at any moment the volcano could erupt and kill them all. If the volcano did erupt and kill him he’d greet death with open arms. He had forgotten bug spray and the bugs seemed to have a smorgasbord of feasting on his blood.

They were following a Ranger through the park and were advised for their safety to stay out of closed areas and be prepared. He didn’t know how prepared they should be if the volcano erupted. What were their defenses against molten lava? Unless it was...be prepared to run. Be prepared to die?

The views were spectacular. He watched as plumes of large continuous white clouds extended from the ground up towards the sky. The plumes were so gigantic and wide it was as if it was making the earth’s clouds. From his vantage, he could see molten lava fall from the side of the mountain into the ocean. He was mesmerized. He watched as steam wafted off the ocean as the lava was dumped into the waters. They were on volcanic rock that had solidified and had a glossy sheen to it.

“What do you think, Sasuke?” Naruto asked. He was beside him. “Aren’t you glad you came?”

“Y-yeah.” He admitted hesitantly. He clutched the straps of his backpack for support. He smiled at Naruto. He was happy to see Naruto smiling back. He didn’t know why. He felt a warmness in his stomach and he turned away.

“Naruto!” Sakura’s voice rang out. She had appeared in front of them. “Do you feel that?” She grabbed his hand.

“Feel what?”

“The ground is shaking...what if the volcano explodes and we all die! I’m scared!”

“We won’t die.” Naruto answered and started to comfort her. “We’re at a safe distance, and nothing will happen. We just can’t cross any of these signs and ropes.”

“She’s right.” Sasuke interrupted. “About 60 volcanoes erupt each year. Last year 1,500 people died from being caught in a volcano. More people die from active volcanoes than plane crashes.” He spoke pragmatically and without any real emotion one way or another.

He watched as Sakura’s face twisted into fear. Her eyes watered up and she started crying. She wasn’t attempting to quiet herself. She was loud and raucous and unapologetic. Naruto wrapped an arm around her and gave him a disapproving look before lecturing, “Sasuke! Enough!”

He didn’t have time to say anything. He couldn’t. He wanted to support Sakura and give her validation for being fearful. Her fear was more valid of dying in a volcano than Naruto’s fear of being in a plane crash. He didn’t understand what was going on. Sakura’s crying had caused the rest of the class to surround them. Sakura pointed a finger at Sasuke and through tears, she said accusingly.

“He said we were all going to die because the volcano is going to erupt. He said more people die from volcanoes than plane crashes. I want to leave. I don’t want to be here anymore! I want to leave now he’s scaring me!”

“Why would you say that Sasuke?” The teacher emerged. He had a disproving expression on his face. “Why would you scare her?”

“It’s true. I didn’t say anything that wasn’t true.” He answered defensively.

He could feel the rest of his class glaring at him. They were comforting Sakura and whispering to one another and pointing at him. He watched as Naruto whose arm continued to be around Sakura guided her away from him. It was difficult to swallow. Naruto didn’t even turn around and soon he disappeared from view.

“We’ve spent enough time at the park. Let’s go back to the tour bus everyone.” The teacher announced loudly. There were loud groans and protests that went through the crowd like shockwaves.

A classmate bashed his shoulder into Sasuke’s and sneered as he walked by, “Good going, loser. Thanks to you now we all have to go back.”

“Why did you even come if you were going to be a nuisance?” Another voice spoke angrily as they bashed into his other shoulder. This caused Sasuke to trip and fall. He landed on his tailbone and stretched his hands out to catch himself behind him. Someone purposely stepped on his hand and he yelped in pain. They jammed their heel into his hand. He gasped and recoiled his hand. He saw skinny legs standing above him. As the crowd dispersed he looked up to see Ino staring down. She had large headphones around her neck.

“Don’t bother getting up.” Ino spoke. She was chewing bubble gum. She blew a large pink bubble. “You lost this round. Maybe you should just give up.”

Sasuke’s hand pulsated with pain. It was comforting. He was about to stand up but her words knocked him back down. He stared up at her. She was wearing overall shorts. She looked like a kid yet at the same time she looked like an adult. She looked disinterested, apathetic. Wise beyond her years. He remembered she was one of the kids who he went to the cinema with.

“Sasuke, Ino let’s go. Back to the bus!” The teacher’s authoritarian voice called after them. Saskuke stood up and stared down at Ino. He was taller than her. He was shocked to see just how much taller than her he was.

“What are you talking about?” He asked Ino.

“My advice is to stay back in the hotel for the rest of the day. You already lost. There’s no need to further embarrass yourself.”

“I don’t…” He didn’t understand anything she was saying. She sounded like a grim fortune cookie.

“You don’t know who Sakura is...do you?” He shook his head. It caused Ino to smile coldly. She looked annoyed. She looked him up and down. She looked disappointed like a voyeur who was promised a good show only to ask for a refund at the end. She pulled the headphones back over her ears. “I don’t know why you even bothered coming on the school trip. Nobody wants you here.”

He didn’t understand what had happened. He felt whiplash. As if someone forgot him on a rollercoaster that kept cycling through. On the bus he noticed that Naruto was sitting with Sakura. Both ignored him as he walked down the aisle. He and Ino sat in the remaining open seats. Ino didn’t say anything to him and he didn’t know what to say, or do, or react. She readjusted the headphones over her ears and he could hear rock music blaring out. He just sat there and pretended everyone vanished. It worked. The more he thought about it the more his classmates disappeared one by one until he was the only one who remained on the bus. The difference being yesterday he saw a beautiful night sky and today the outside world looked lackluster and foreboding. He wished the volcano erupted and killed them all.

*****

“Aren’t you coming to dinner?” Naruto asked. There were undertones of accusatory impatience in his voice. He didn’t know why Naruto was speaking this way. He didn’t look at Sasuke. He was at the door and his eyes seemed to look everywhere else in the room except for Sasuke. His tone put Sasuke on edge.

“No.” Sasuke answered. He was kneeling on the floor. He pulled a book from his suitcase. He avoided Naruto’s eyes just as much as Naruto avoided his. “I don’t feel like being with anyone right now. I’d rather be alone.” It was a lie. He didn’t want to be alone but he also didn’t want to be around classmates who accused him of ending their visit to the volcanoes early. Naruto’s tone backed him into a corner. He had no other choice but to cater to what he knew Naruto wanted to hear. He knew Naruto didn’t want him to join dinner.

Naruto paused. Sasuke peeked up at him. Naruto’s expression looked like he wanted to say something else. He was teetering on if he should ask it or not. It looked like he was about to leave, but he didn’t. His feet remained cemented at the door of their hotel room. Sasuke looked away. He looked back at Sasuke and watched him reading the book he pulled out.

“Why’d you do it?” Naruto asked. His voice was softer. “Why did you purposefully scare Sakura today?” Sasuke’s heart thumped. He didn’t mean to scare her, that wasn’t his intention.

“Because it was fun.” He lied. He gripped his book tightly. He didn’t want to scare her. He wanted to agree with her. Nobody saw it that way so he stopped trying to defend himself. He decided to play the villain. Was this what Naruto wanted? Maybe Naruto needed an excuse to stop talking to him.

“You did the same thing to me on the plane.” Naruto continued. His voice was knotted up. His body was tense. Sasuke could sense the other’s body language. He didn’t know what Naruto wanted to hear. He felt conflicted.

“So? I didn’t think you’d be such a scaredy-cat, and I didn’t think Sakura would be such a weak baby. You two suit each other. Now leave me alone. I want to be alone. GO!” He shouted. He felt confused.

Naruto didn’t say anything else. He left. The door closed and automatically locked behind him. He threw the book across the room. He felt a hopelessness wash over him. It dumped bile in his stomach and he found himself shaking. He wanted to cry but no tears came out. Not yet. His body shook as if he was crying. He wasn’t allowed to cry yet. He closed the blinds. He stripped down to his underwear and crawled under his blankets. He buried his head into his pillow. He wanted to cry but couldn’t. Everything remained bottled up inside. Under lock and key. He remained like that until sheer emotional exhaustion moved him into an uneasy sleep.

He didn’t know how long he was sleeping for. He heard the hotel door opening and close again. He slowly opened his eyes to see Naruto had returned and he was carrying a plate of food. He walked to the small table they had in their room and placed the plate down. He looked over to Sasuke and locked eyes with him.

“I brought you food. Don’t worry I’m not staying.” Naruto continued. He didn’t say anything else.

Sasuke watched as Naruto left the room and the hotel door closed after. He felt relief because he didn’t want Naruto to see him in his underwear. He pushed himself up from the bed and saw the plate of food on the table. He didn’t realize how hungry he was until he sat at the table and began eating. He finished the plate of food in record time. He still felt emotionally exhausted. The walls of the hotel seemed to shrink.

He gathered his pajamas and went to the bathroom. He decided to bathe and complete his bedtime routine. Even if it was early. He’d rather be asleep than awake. Sleeping was as close as he could get to death. When he came out of the bathroom he saw Naruto was changing his clothes. He jumped. He wasn’t expecting him back and he wasn’t expecting him to be naked. He averted his eyes.

“What…what are you doing?” He gasped and turned around. Naruto glanced at him and didn’t say anything else. He continued changing until he was dressed in his pajamas.

“You were in the bathroom for so long I decided to change out here.” Naruto defended. “We have the same parts. Why are you embarrassed?”

“It doesn’t mean I want to see you! Have some modesty...how would you react if you came back and I was naked in the room?” He covered his face with his hands.

“You’re acting...silly.” Naruto mumbled. He folded his arms. “I don’t want to see you naked either. I was just saying we have the same parts.”

“It’s...still early. Why are you back?” Sasuke asked. He looked at the digital clock on the nightstand. It was a little after 8:00 PM.

“It’s my room. I can come back if I want to come back.” Naruto answered. He sounded exhausted. He fell back on his bed and watched Sasuke. “I’m staying here for the rest of the night. So get used to it.”

He didn’t say anything else to Naruto. To him...Naruto was...moody and he didn’t understand why. Naruto’s tone and body language made him unpredictable. He couldn’t read him. He picked up his book and crawled into his bed. He decided to ignore him and started reading the book. He couldn’t concentrate on the book. His mind kept wandering to Naruto. He expected Naruto to hang out with everyone down at the beach. He knew tonight was the luau. He memorized the itinerary. He tried to focus on the book. He couldn’t concentrate on the words. They jumbled and blurred together. He could feel Naruto staring at him. He turned and looked at him.

“Why are you staring at me?” Sasuke asked. He felt uncomfortable.

“I wanted to apologize for how I acted earlier.” Naruto answered. His voice was soft. Gentle.

He was speechless and he didn’t know how to react. He didn’t know what Naruto was apologizing for. He had already thought it over and he lacked tact when it came to socializing. He often speaks without thinking about how his words would come across. How his words affect others. He had scared Naruto on the plane and scared Sakura at the park. Not on purpose but he did. The more he thought it over the more of a big misunderstanding everything was. It wasn’t his fault and it wasn’t their fault. It was just...a misunderstanding.

“It’s...okay...I should have been more tactful.” He answered shyly. “I didn’t mean to scare Sakura, and I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“I get protective when one of my friends...cries.” Naruto continued. “Sakura is homesick. This is the first time she has been so far away from her parents.” Sasuke noticed when Naruto spoke about being homesick and her parents his eyes glossed over. A layer of liquid coated his blue eyes. He was on the verge of crying. Suddenly Sasuke realized it wasn’t necessarily Sakura Naruto was talking about. He was talking about himself. Naruto wasn’t moody...he was homesick and that made him irritable and out of sorts. He cracked the case.

“Are you homesick? Is this your first time so far away from home?” Sasuke asked. He felt himself soften. He lowered his book. He barely thought about his home or his parents. He was relieved to be free from his mother’s controlling hands.

“A little...and I’ve never been this far from home.” Naruto confessed. He watched as Naruto jumped off his bed and crawled into his bed.

“What are you…” Sasuke hesitated and pushed himself back and away from Naruto.

“Let me sleep with you tonight.” Naruto answered. He pulled the blankets back and wiggled inside. “I miss my mom and dad. Be nice to me.” He made a face.

“Can’t you miss them...in your own bed? Why do you have to miss them in my bed?” Sasuke gasped. It was difficult to breathe. He didn’t want Naruto so close to him. The bed was a twin. Barely enough space for him let alone another body. The room was small and looking around the room again it appeared to have shrunk even more. He felt claustrophobic. The room kept shrinking and shrinking and soon it would be no bigger than a shoebox.

“I feel less sad here.” Naruto answered. He curled on his side and stared at Sasuke. “Just for tonight. Let me sleep here, please. I won’t touch you.” It was the first time that Naruto looked young...he didn’t know why it felt as if Naruto was older and braver and stronger than him. Looking at him now he looked just like...any other middle schooler. Just like any other kid.

“O-okay.” Sasuke answered.

“Don’t tell anyone.” Naruto warned. “Especially...Sakura. I don’t want people to think I’m a scaredy-cat...sissy. Because I’m not!”

“But you are.” He answered pragmatically.

“Don’t tell anyone...okay?” Naruto grabbed Sasuke’s arm and squeezed it. It was hypnotic. He shouldn’t look too long into his blue eyes. It was like looking into the eyes of a Basilisk. Naruto wasn’t just homesick..he was frightened...but he didn’t know what frightened him and he was too scared to ask.

“Fine. Just don’t hog the blankets.” He answered shakily. Naruto fell asleep almost as soon as he laid down next to him. His body was curled towards him and he slept on his side.

He didn’t understand Naruto at all. He was at a loss for words. His mind vibrated. Just who was Naruto Namikaze? He was scared on the plane and held his hand, and now he was homesick and sleeping in his bed? He didn’t understand why Naruto was so comfortable around him that he acted like this. It didn’t make sense they barely knew each other. Why was he comfortable with showing this side to him and keeping it a secret from everyone else? And why couldn’t he say anything to anyone? It must be because he wants to continue to impress Sakura. If that was the case...why did he leave the luau early? Was he so homesick he couldn’t be there any longer without exposing himself? His mind did somersaults as it tried to figure out why and he became frustrated when he couldn’t find an adequate answer.

He thought about waking Naruto up and asking except his face was so soft and peaceful it felt illegal to disturb him. He wasn’t able to sleep that night. Naruto appeared to sleep like a baby throughout the night. At least one of them was able to get a good night's rest. He on the other hand tossed and turned until the sky went from an insufferable black to a calming baby blue.

*****

The next day Naruto acted as if nothing was out of the ordinary. Naruto was back to being on speaking terms with him. He acted as if he hadn't slept with him all night because he was homesick and frightened. Naruto did hog the blankets the majority of the night even though he said he wouldn’t. The rest of the class was ambivalent. Nobody went out of their way to speak to him and he didn’t go out of his way to speak to any of them. He didn’t mind. He would rather his classmates ignore him than whisper behind his back. Most importantly he didn’t hear anything being whispered behind his back. Was it because Naruto was back to talking to him that everyone backed off?

“You should watch your back today.” Ino mumbled under her breath. They had exited the tour bus and began forming a large crowd at the entrance of the Honolulu Museum of Art. She said it deliberately. She stopped next to him and said it between smacking her gum and blowing bubbles. Her voice was low so that only he heard. It sent goosebumps down his spine. He heard every word.

“Why?” He asked, turning towards her. She smiled secretively. A smile that said if she told him it would ruin her fun so she wasn’t going to tell. She was a devil. He knew what she meant. She was warning him about Sakura.

He looked to see Naruto was in deep conversation with Sakura. He had jumped off the bus and went to her immediately. He stared at them for a moment. Sakura turned her head slightly and caught his eyes. She didn’t just give him a death glare; it was a threatening look, a promise, she was going to kill him if he interfered in their conversation. He could feel an invisible barrier forming around her and Naruto. A magical spell was formed only allowing Sakura and Naruto inside. He suddenly felt cold even though he was standing on a tropical island. He looked away.

He suddenly didn’t want to be near Sakura or Naruto. He felt sick to his stomach. He was shaken.

“Everyone pick partners and line up in two’s, please.” Their teacher announced. He had come up from behind them. He panicked. He didn’t want to be near Naruto.

“Do we have to be partners with our roommates?” He asked the teacher. He had reached out and grabbed the teacher’s arm. He immediately let go when the teacher looked down surprised to see him and Ino standing there.

“No, I guess not. S’long as everyone has a partner.” The teacher spoke with a smile.

“Ino is going to be my partner.” He answered quickly. Too quickly. “Naruto can be someone else’s partner.”

“What?” Ino asked her jaw dropping. “I am?”

“Yes. We’re partners.” He said and crossed his arms.

“Okay. Line up.” The teacher said with a smile. He put one hand on Ino’s back and the other on his back and ushered them to the front of the line. “Everyone line up with your partners behind Ino and Sasuke!”

“Hey...Sasuke?” Naruto greeted and ran up to him. “Let’s…” He looked from Ino to Sasuke then at the teacher. The teacher’s words seemed to register in his mind. “Line up?” There was a look of confusion on his face.

“I’m Ino’s partner.” He clarified dryly and turned away. He jutted a thumb at Ino. “You should be Sakura’s partner.” His blue eyes widened at his remark. Naruto had an expression of shock before it melted into a smile. He saw it from the corner of his eye. Naruto wasn’t leaving. “If you don’t want me to tell Sakura what you did last night...leave.” He threatened. It seemed to be the magic words. Naruto jumped.

“Okay...uh...Bye.” Naruto’s words blurred together. He vanished and reappeared in front of Sakura no doubt explaining they were switching partners.

*****

“So...what’s the deal?” He asked Ino as they split off from the group and began exploring the museum by themselves. They had to meet at the front entrance in two hours, until then, they were free to explore the museum at their leisure. Ino had her hands around her headphones ready to fit them back on her ears. She was still smacking her gum. He succeeded in catching her off guard.

“The deal?” Ino asked coyly. “What do you mean?”

“Don’t say cryptic things to me again. I don’t want to play your stupid games.” He demanded as he grabbed hold of her headphones and ripped them from around her neck. Ino had a backward reaction. She didn’t scream or cry or yell at him like he’d thought she’d do. She smiled. Her eyes lit up. She came to life like a wind-up toy.

“Sakura is...dangerous. If I were you...I’d watch my back.”

“What do you mean?”

“Do you remember Hinata Hyuuga?” The way she said it made it sound like she knew he didn’t know who she was.

He tried to conjure up an image of Hinata. He couldn’t. He had stopped paying attention to his classmates. He blocked them all out. Their faces and names were erased from his memory. Everyone walked around with misshapen heads that looked more like Picasso paintings.

“The end of last semester Hinata fell down the school stairs. She broke her neck and hasn’t been back to school since. It was in the back corridor leading to the gym. There weren’t any cameras in the hallway. They ruled it an accident.”

He had a memory. He remembered police and ambulances outside the school. His mother had come to escort him out of the school that day. It was a coincidence. She was bringing him to the doctors for his yearly physical. He remembered hearing in passing that a student was injured and was being transported to the hospital. He blinked. He remembered seeing a girl with black hair being wheeled out of the school on a stretcher. He remembered hearing a girl had snapped her neck falling down the stairs. Small fragments collected together. He didn’t ask any questions because he had no connection to any of his classmates. He didn’t give her another look as he left the school with his mother.

His eyes locked to Ino’s. He took notice of her seafoam green eyes. They reminded him of a mermaid...no...Ino was a siren. Her blonde hair was pulled up into two buns. She had a presence that said she would lead grown sailors to their death. He didn’t say anything else. She wasn’t ugly. He tried to find an outward fault he could focus on and discredit everything she was saying. Sakura’s forehead was too big and her nose too small for her face. He could sense an ugliness on the inside of Ino. Something rotten...something contagious. His thinking was flawed. He just wanted an excuse not to believe her because he knew what she was going to say. Even before she said it.

“It wasn’t an accident.” Ino spoke sullenly. Her voice was low. Her eyes darkened and sunk back into her skull. “Sakura pushed Hinata down the stairs.”

“Why-”

“Why didn’t I say anything?” Ino finished his sentence. She shrugged. His stomach hurt. He could feel the hotel continental breakfast churning in his stomach. Ino wrapped an arm around Sasuke’s arm and began leading him around the museum. Her touch made him feel sick. He pretended to look at the artwork but everything was blank on the walls. He could only focus on one thing at a time.

“The first reason. It wasn’t any of my business. Hinata said she couldn’t remember anything of that day...either she’s lying or she really doesn’t remember. The second reason. Sakura is an actress and she's part of the Playhouse Theater. I’m also affiliated with the theater...but my skill is dancing not acting. Sakura is always cast as the female lead. Everyone will believe anything she says because she’s that good. But. The final reason is...we all are trauma bonded.”

“Trauma bonded?”

“You really are a nutcase, huh?” Ino spoke with disgust. She stared at him. “You really know nothing about any of us.” She was aghast. Almost like she had doubts but was now confirmed. She stared at him expecting him to say ‘just kidding’. He didn’t, because she was right. He didn’t know anything about anyone in his class. “Fucking priceless.” She smiled coldly at him. He was feeling unknown guilt fill him slowly.

“Me...Naruto, Kiba, Sakura, and Neji...we were playing on the train tracks last year. We were climbing in and out of the boxcars. When we shut the door to one...it locked on us. We couldn’t get out. That wasn’t all. The train started moving. We screamed...and screamed for help, but nobody heard us. We were trapped in that boxcar without food and water for five days. When they found us...we were across the country...and Neji was dead.” Ino’s voice was trancelike as if she had repeated the story over a thousand times and it just came naturally now. Her grip tightened around his arm. She was a boa constrictor and she was ready to snap his humerus.

He stopped moving. His head felt fuzzy. He didn’t recall any of this. He had been so involved in the schedule and routine his mother created he didn’t know any of this. His classmates didn’t talk to him and he didn’t talk to them. It was a mutual agreement. Being on this trip was uncharacteristic. There were two categories. They were on one side and he was on the other with a barrier between them. Now that he was thinking about it. He wasn’t supposed to be here. He wasn’t supposed to be hearing these horrible things that have happened to his classmates. It was all a big mistake. Why was he here? He was here only because a blonde haired blue-eyed boy smiled at him, talked to him a little, and asked him to come? If that was all it took for him to agree...his fate would be no different than the fate of those sailors who came across Ino.

“Neji...died?” He shuddered. He didn’t know who Neji was but suddenly felt an emotional connection. Neji died...and they were all trapped in the same boxcar with a dead body. The images flooded his mind and they terrified him. Hinata was pushed down the stairs and her neck snapped.

“Mhm.” Ino murmured. She sounded distant. Faraway. As if she was still in that boxcar. Maybe they all were still in the boxcar.

“So what’s the connection with Hinata?”

“Hinata is Neji’s cousin. The day she was pushed down the stairs. She and Sakura got into an argument. Sakura told her that Naruto was her’s and to stay away from him. Hinata said that Sakura was the reason Neji died because it was her idea to play on the train tracks. Sakura pushed her after she said that.”

“You were there...with Sakura...weren’t you?” He asked and stared at Ino. He knew he was right. Sakura wasn’t the only one who was dangerous. “Sakura...knows you know...doesn’t she?”

“Mhm. We all know Sakura pushed Hinata. Naruto and Kiba too. We all know she pushed her down the stairs. We. Were. All. There. I was with Sakura at the top of the stairs, and Naruto and Kiba were at the bottom of the stairs.”

Naruto...was there?

His heart thumped. He remembered Naruto telling him how homesick he was and demanding to sleep with him in his bed. He remembered Naruto hogging the blankets and sleeping like a baby throughout the night while he tossed and turned restlessly all night. How was he able to sleep so peacefully after what he witnessed? He remembered him grabbing his hand on the plane. He remembered how friendly Naruto was when his new assigned seat was next to him. How diligent he worked during after school classroom cleanup. How nice he had been to him. He shuddered.

No. No. No. It didn’t matter. Naruto had witnessed Sakura pushing Hinata down the stairs and didn’t say...or do anything? They were all wolves in sheepskin. Naruto was just as dangerous as Ino and Sakura.

“Why...are you...telling...me...this?” He asked. He felt dizzy. His knees began to shake. He didn’t want to know any of this and now he was burdened. The bones in his legs felt like they were slowly transitioning into wet noodles. He felt...scared.

“First. I think you should find a new group of friends to associate with. Because it’s not going to be us. Second. Sakura doesn’t want anyone new taking Naruto’s attention away from her. Kiba and I...we’re trauma bonded. She won’t touch us...but everyone else...is free game.”

“I don’t...understand. What did I do?”

“You went with us to the movie theater. Naruto walked home with you that day and didn’t go with any of us...especially Sakura. You’re here on this trip...as Naruto’s partner. Naruto was supposed to be Kiba’s partner...not yours. Whatever you did last night caused Naruto to leave us at the luau and he returned to your hotel room...stunts like that is what is going to get you hurt. So it’s best if you just don’t try to be friendly with Naruto.” Her voice was dangerous. Her voice was unhinged. He didn’t understand. She was a kid...like him but her eyes were ancient. She wasn’t smacking her gum anymore. He wondered if she swallowed it. Her gaze was penetrating. She reminded him of his mother’s gaze. She stared at him and it felt like he was standing there naked. He felt embarrassed.

“GET AWAY FROM ME!” He screamed.

He didn’t know what he was doing. He dropped Ino’s headphones. He just reacted. He used both hands and shoved her away from him. He used his whole strength, which wasn’t very strong, but enough to knock her off her feet. She stumbled backward and fell on her tailbone. He ran from her. It was the thing he noted while watching the slasher movie. The characters made stupid decisions when evading the killer. Decisions where they ended up dead. He wasn’t going to make the same mistakes. He wasn’t going to be a victim. His fight or flight mode turned on and he was fleeing. His body moved on autopilot. His feet took him to the nearest restroom and he found himself emptying half-digested breakfast out of his stomach. Not only that but his vision blurred and he couldn’t stop shaking.

He was right to believe Ino was a siren. Sakura too. They worked together. That wasn’t all. Naruto was aware of what Sakura did to their classmate...to Neji’s cousin. He slammed his back up against the stall door and covered his mouth with his hands. He didn’t understand why he was hyperventilating. Why he was becoming so emotionally attached to two people he had no clear memories of. Maybe because he was so close. He was so close to being at the edge of the stairs with Sakura pushing him down...down...down. He envisioned himself with a broken neck bleeding out at the foot of the stairs with Naruto smiling down at him.

He was thinking back to all of them being trapped in the boxcar for five days as the train crossed the country. All of them trapped inside. Was that the reason why they all kept it a secret? If that was their purpose why did Ino tell him anything? Was it really a warning? Why even tell him anything wasn’t she afraid he was going to tell?

Ino was right about one thing. He wanted nothing to do with any of them...especially he didn’t want anything to do with Naruto.

*****

“You do have a temperature…” The teacher spoke softly. He placed his hand on Sasuke’s forehead. He stared at the thermometer. “100.4. A low-grade fever. Take these...and if your fever doesn’t go down I’ll take you to the clinic.” The teacher gave him 2 Tylenol which he took with a glass of water. He didn’t know if it was stress-induced or if he was really sick. He hadn’t felt good since Ino spilled the beans on what has been happening under his nose at school.

He was back in his hotel room. He was allowed to remain in the hotel room for the rest of the day. He was given the menu to order room service, and he was given the teacher’s cell phone number to call if he needed anything. The rest of the class was going to continue the excursions of the day. He felt relieved to stay behind. The stress of everything really did make him sick and he didn’t have to fake anything.

“I can stay.” Naruto offered. “He’s my partner after all.” He spoke as if being partners had any substance to it beyond a formality for keeping track of students on a class trip.

“NO!” He argued. “I want to be by myself...you’re only going to make things worse!” He didn’t mean to be so forceful and horrible. He didn’t want Naruto near him, and him staying here was only going to make him sicker. He knew it.

“Did something happen, Sasuke?” The teacher asked. Naruto’s face was twisted into confusion.

“No. I just...want to be by myself and rest. If anyone stays with me I know I’ll feel too guilty to rest.” He stated plainly. It was partly true. He knew he needed a good enough reason to satisfy the teacher. He avoided Naruto’s gaze.

The answer satisfied the teacher and he nodded in agreement. He didn’t know why he hadn’t told the teacher yet. He should have immediately told him what Ino said. He was afraid...that he wouldn’t be believed. It would have been his word against theirs, right? Nobody was on his side. He was the perfect person to tell the secret to because what exactly would he be able to do? Nothing. That’s right.

“That makes sense. Naruto let’s go. You heard him...you’re going to need to have fun in his place for the rest of the day. Sasuke get some rest and I’ll check on you later tonight.”

Naruto reluctantly nodded his head in agreement. He trudged after the teacher. “Okay. I hope you get better soon...Sasuke. I’ll see you later...goodbye.” He didn’t say anything to Naruto. He turned on his side and stared at the wall until they left.

After he was sure they were gone he stood up. He counted six-hundred seconds before moving. He looked at Naruto’s belongings. He began to go through them. It didn’t take long to find what he was looking for. The bottle of dramamine. He wanted nothing more than to sleep. He chewed three tablets. His mouth was dry and he could feel the paste-like substance sticking to his tongue and roof of his mouth. He drank more water before crawling back into his twin sized bed.

*****

Sasuke woke up to feeling something on his head. It was cold. He didn’t remember falling asleep. He opened his eyes and a blurry image shifted into focus. It was Naruto. He jolted up. Naruto must have put a washcloth on his forehead because when he moved to a sitting position it fell into his lap. He picked it up and stared at Naruto. He felt groggy.

“I didn’t mean to scare you. How are you feeling?” Naruto asked.

He blinked. He was a little delirious. His heart was thumping painfully in his chest. Every single thing Ino exposed to him bled back into memory. He was hoping it was just a nightmare. He furrowed his eyebrows. He looked at the digital clock on the nightstand between their twin sized beds. It was early. Barely past 7:00 PM. He looked back to see Naruto was sitting on his bed and staring at him. The look Naruto gave him was worried, anxious, as if he wanted to help but didn’t know what to do, unease.

How was he feeling? Exhausted. His head wasn’t pounding anymore but he felt...off.

“Sasuke?” Naruto asked. “Are you okay?” The question was repeated but this time-shifted to a yes or no answer.

“Yeah…” He answered and fell back down to bed. His head hit the pillows and he exhaled. It was just Naruto and him alone in the room.

“The teacher checked on you a little while ago. He said you appeared to rest peacefully and he wasn’t concerned.” Naruto explained. “He thought you broke your fever. I wanted to make sure that’s why I put the washcloth on you.”

“Why are you here?” He asked Nartuo. He didn’t mean to sound so disgusted it just happened. Ino told him Naruto witnessed Sakura pushing Hinata down the stairs. He held the washcloth tightly in his hand. He witnessed Sakura and Naruto still liked-her-liked-her. Ino’s words ricocheted inside his skull.

“I was worried and I thought I should stay with you for the rest of the night in case you need anything.”

“No...why are you here? I never asked you to stay with me. I told you earlier I didn’t want anyone to take care of me.”

“Because you’re my partner.”

“It doesn’t mean anything...you know that right? Us being partners is only a formality. It doesn’t mean we’re friends.”

“I...I know that!” Naruto snapped. He looked uncomfortable and he shifted his eyes away from him. Naruto’s fingers began fidgeting with the comforter and he bit his lower lip in hesitation. He looked like he was trying to find the right words. It was something he found out about Naruto he was always struggling to come up with the right words. “It’s like you said earlier if anyone stayed with you today you’d feel too guilty. I felt guilty all day not staying behind. It ruined my day so you should have just let me stay with you. It wasn’t like it would have made a difference. You slept all day anyways. So let me stay with you now.”

“How do you know I slept all day?”

“Because you took my dramamine!”

“I don’t need you.” He snapped. He felt embarrassed that Naruto realized he had taken some of his motion sickness medication.

“What?” Naruto asked. His face paled and he gave Sasuke an expression as if he was just slapped across the face. His eyes widened with apprehension. The dramamine was forgotten. It was never about the dramamine. He wanted to tell Naruto what Ino told him but he wasn’t strong enough to open that can of worms and have that conversation.

“I said. I don’t need you.” He repeated. “I don’t need you to take care of me. I don’t want you to take care of me. I don’t even want you to be next to me. So why don’t you just go and hang out with your friends and leave me alone, because that’s what I want!”

“What...what about you?” Naruto’s voice was soft, barely audible. He had to strain his ears to hear him. “I want to be your friend too.” It was too late. Being friends with Naruto was too late. It was over the moment he found out what happened to Hinata. It was dangerous to be his friend.

He didn’t know what else to say. He felt his face redden. He could feel hotness stinging his cheeks. He felt nervous and embarrassed. He wanted to be Naruto’s friend but not anymore. Not after what Ino said to him this morning. He was feeling embarrassed whenever he was around Naruto. It wasn’t just embarrassment he was feeling, it felt like he was on the verge of crying, and he didn’t know why. He didn’t know who Neji and Hinata were and yet they became stitched into his life. He had felt more sadness at that moment than he felt in a really long time and he didn’t know how to cope.

“Who says I even want to be your friend?” He yelled. Didn’t he have a say in things?

“Me!” Naruto yelled back.

“GO AWAY!”

“NO!”

He didn’t know what else to do. He pulled the blankets over his face and curled up into a ball. “I’m not talking to you!” It was childish and it was the only thing he could think of doing.

“Fine. I’m not leaving. This is my room too!” Naruto yelled back. “I’m staying right here! Better get used to it.”

“FINE!” He yelled from under the blankets.

He could hear the hotel TV being turned on and could hear Naruto flipping through the channels. He could feel Naruto was still sitting on his bed. It appeared not only wasn’t Naruto moving he felt him get comfortable. His mind was numb. It hurt to think about anything and so he stopped thinking. Naruto settled on a cartoon. He could hear the high-pitched over the top voice actors. He wasn’t sure what it was about. Cartoons weren’t allowed in his house as it offered no academic benefits and didn’t provide the stimulation his mother wanted.

He didn’t know how long he was under the blankets for when he felt himself becoming overheated he pulled the blankets down slowly. He peeked from over the blankets and his eyes wandered to the television. He didn’t understand what was going on. It was an animated dog and he was overexerting himself trying to save the old woman from a tornado. He watched as the old woman was changed into a little girl and she demanded mac and cheese. He was so focused on the cartoon he erupted into laughter at a joke. No matter how many times the dog made mac and cheese it wasn’t right for the little girl and at the end she said she didn’t like mac and cheese. Naruto also laughed at the same joke. They laughed in unison.

“I love this show.” Naruto commented to Sasuke as if the two were having a shared conversation. He didn’t answer. He continued watching cartoons with Naruto. It was a marathon of the same show. Each episode was better than the last and each episode he found himself both loving and rooting for the cowardly dog.

It was getting late. He got up, took a bath, and got ready for bed. He felt better once he was cleaned, his teeth were brushed, and his hair combed. He walked back into the room and saw Naruto was still on his bed. His mouth moved into a thin line.

“Are you going to sleep in your own bed tonight?” He asked. Naruto looked at him.

“No.”

“Fine. Take my bed. I’m going to sleep in yours then.” He answered and walked to Naruto’s empty bed and pulled back the covers.

“That’s my bed!” Naruto argued. He watched as Naruto leaped from his bed to the other twin sized bed. Naruto tackled Sasuke as soon as he climbed into the other bed.

“It’s time to grow up!” He argued as he tried to shove Naruto off him. He grabbed Naruto’s arms and tried to push him from the bed. “...and sleep in your own bed!”

“You let me sleep with you last night! What’s another night?”

“Yeah...for one night! You didn’t sleep in my bed the first night we were here.”

“I didn’t sleep at all the first night we were here!”

“Why not?”

“Because I was afraid!” Naruto shouted. He saw images of Naruto being locked in the dark boxcar.

Naruto’s defenses let up and Sasuke tackled him back down on the bed. He pinned Naruto’s arms down on either side of his head and stared down at him. He wasn’t expecting Naruto to admit he really was frightened of something. He was right. Naruto was frightened of something last night. His stomach dropped. Naruto hadn’t slept the whole first night they were in the hotel? Did he toss and turn all night like he did last night?

“We’re even then because I couldn’t sleep all last night because of you!” He accused. He wasn’t going to allow Naruto to guilt-trip him.

“Why not?” Naruto breathed. Sasuke let go of him and sat back. Why? Didn’t he know how weird it was?

“Because it was weird...us sleeping in the same bed.”

“Really? I didn’t think it was weird. It’s not like I like-you-like you or anything.”

“Wh...what?” Sasuke stuttered. “Why would you bring that up...you made it even weirder!” He could feel his face redden, his neck redden, and his ears redden.

“I’m just saying. If I liked you it would make it weird.” Naruto answered nonchalantly.

“It’s still weird!”

“Do you like-me-like-me?”

“NO! I don’t even like you as a friend.”

“Then it’s not weird.” Naruto shrugged. He acted like Sasuke was overreacting. It made Sasuke realize just how poor Naruto’s boundaries were. It frightened him even more.

“YES IT IS!” He could feel all the blood rushing to his face. He stumbled out of Naruto’s bed and stumbled to the mini-refrigerator. He walked as if he was drunk. He pulled out a water bottle and drank half the bottle in one gulp. His head was still whirling and he tried to keep his body steady. The whole room was spinning. He felt dizzy. Out of breath.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know you felt that way. I’ll sleep in my own bed tonight.” Naruto spoke. He slipped off the bed, gathered his nighttime toiletries, and went into the bathroom.

It took him a moment to catch his breath. He finished up the water bottle and crawled back into his bed. He pressed his fingers up against his chest. He could feel a whole orchestra performing Beethoven’s 5th Symphony inside his rib cage. He didn’t know why he was acting this way. Why Naruto’s words made him breathless and feel weird. He heard Naruto exit the bathroom. He glanced and saw Naruto climbing into his own bed. He sighed in relief. Good. At least he was learning what was appropriate and what wasn’t.

“Sasuke. I’m sorry if I made you feel weird. It wasn’t my intention...I also just want to say I hope we can be friends. Maybe not now...hopefully in the future.” Naruto spoke. He wanted to tell him that he didn’t want to be friends but he wanted the conversation to end.

“You can leave the lights on. I don’t mind.” He answered. All he wanted was for Naruto to shut up and go to sleep. He thought back to the first night. The lights were off and the curtains to the balcony were drawn closed. It was dark. He thought back to Naruto being in the dark boxcar. “You can leave the television on too...I can sleep through anything.” He really could.

There was a long pause. “Okay. Thank you...goodnight.” Naruto answered. He heard the television being turned back on. He could still feel the effects of the dramamine and he closed his eyes and went back to sleep.

*****

“Was...Hinata in our class?” Sasuke asked the teacher. It was their last day in Hawaii and they were souvenir shopping. He had felt well enough to go out on today’s excursions. He couldn’t shake Naruto. He stuck to him like a shadow. He finally lost him in the shops. He cornered their teacher amongst the seashell jewelry.

“Hinata Hyuuga? Yes. She was in our class. Don’t you remember?” The teacher asked. His voice was concerned. There was a sadness in his eyes as he stared down at him. He didn’t understand why he sounded sad when he asked the last question. He acted as if he had amnesia. Maybe he did. He had shut out everyone around him and now was fumbling in the dark trying to find answers to questions he didn’t know in the first place.

“No.” He answered truthfully.

“Why are you asking about Hinata?” The teacher’s sadness melted into confusion.

“I wanted to get her a souvenir...she should be here with everyone, and she’s not.”

“It was a terrible accident.” The teacher stated and shook his head in disbelief. His voice was distant as if remembering the 'terrible accident'. Sasuke looked at him from the corner of his eyes. He swallowed painfully. Everybody really does believe it was an accident. “I bet she would love it if you picked her out a souvenir.”

“Was it really an accident?” He blurted. He immediately regretted it. “There are no cameras in that stairway...right?”

“What is with all these questions, Sasuke? Do you know something I don’t? Is there something you want to tell me?”

Was there something he wanted to tell him? If he told the teacher...would he believe him? He opened his mouth to speak.

“There you are, Sasuke!” Ino’s voice filtered over the racks of seashell bracelets. She appeared next to him. He moved to see a curt smile peeling her lips. “Naruto and Sakura have partnered up...so it’s you and me.”

“Are you and Ino friends?” The teacher asked and smiled warmly. He looked proud. His eyes gleamed. Sasuke stared at him. He wasn’t friends with Ino. He wanted to correct him.

“Kinda…” Ino answered for him. “We bonded over this trip.”

“That’s great! Maybe Ino can help you pick out a souvenir for Hinata. She can give you an insight into what a girl wants.” The teacher answered happily. He clapped his hands. He appeared overly thrilled it was laughable. He was clueless. An airhead. He wondered how such an obtuse person could become a teacher. No wonder Sakura got away with what she did. The teacher was clueless and everyone who witnessed it was going to take the secret to the grave.

Sasuke could feel goosebumps ripple across his flesh. He felt cold again. He saw Ino’s expression when the teacher mentioned Hinata. Her smile flattened. Her eyes became vacant. She was holding her smile with tape and wire. She slowly turned her head and body until it was facing him. Her smile became void of happiness. It looked cruel. He felt his stomach plunge down. His heart quickened. He didn’t want Ino to know he asked about Hinata. He could feel stomach acid burn his esophagus.

“I’ll let you guys be. I’ll see you at the bus after lunch.”

Ino waited until the teacher was completely out of earshot before talking.

“Why were you talking about Hinata to the teacher?”

She didn’t hear. He felt relieved. He could lie and it wouldn’t be a problem because she didn’t hear their conversation. She appeared at the tail-end. He didn’t have to worry. He could lie and she wouldn’t be able to prove anything.

“I asked the teacher if I should get Hinata a souvenir because she’s not here.” He spoke confidently even though he was panicking inside. He had gotten used to being presentable in front of his judgmental mother. He could keep his composure in front of Ino. At least for a little while.

“What happened last night?” Ino questioned.

“I don’t want to be Naruto’s friend. Didn’t you see me ignore him all day? Aren’t you wondering why I am here, alone? Stop acting like I am even doing anything except avoid him!” He responded angrily. He hated feeling like he had to explain himself to Ino...he hated feeling like he was doing something wrong.

“I know. It’s weird.” Ino commented. He couldn’t read her. She began looking through the racks of jewelry specifically at a rack of cowry shelled bracelets. “I thought about things more, and it isn’t Sakura you should be worried about.”

He stared at Ino. He didn’t understand why she was changing her hypothesis. What new evidence did she obtain? “Why?” He asked. He decided to play along.

“It’s Naruto you should be worried about. I don’t know what ulterior motive he has...maybe you should ask him. Why is he suddenly giving a shit about you now, and don’t give me crap about it’s because ‘you guys are now partners’. You and Hinata were partners and you didn’t even know she was in our class let alone what happened to her.”

His breathing stopped. He could feel goosebumps cover his skin. An electric shock went up and down his spine. He was partnered with Hinata? He thought back to the empty desk next to him. The longer he focused on the empty desk next to him a blurry image appeared. A girl with a razor-sharp bob appeared next to him. Her face was blurry. Eyes, nose, mouth swirled around the face. As soon as she was there her image popped and she was gone. The person sitting next to him in class was now Naruto. Ino was right. Hinata was his partner before Naruto. Ino smirked as if she could read his mind and figure out the connection he was making.

Was Naruto talking to him because he was partnered with Hinata?

“It’s probably because you were Hinata’s partner. Maybe he wants to silence you himself. It’s pretty unexpected...sickening even. I can understand Sakura...but Naruto? It would be the perfect crime.”

“Crime?” Sasuke repeated. Fear didn’t just grip him it possessed him. Slithered through his veins like a poison slowly crippling and paralyzing him.

“Here I was thinking I was protecting you against Sakura when it was Naruto I should have been worried about this whole time.” Ino pulled one of the cowry bracelets from the rack and handed it to Sasuke and like a fool he reached out and grabbed it. Just a human reflex. “Hinata would like this type of bracelet. She had a matching necklace she used to wear a lot.” Sasuke looked down at the bracelet. When he looked back up Ino was gone.

He decided to purchase the bracelet for Hinata. He went to the register and opted for the pretty box and tissue paper. He wasn’t even sure he would have the opportunity to give her the gift and even if he did he had no idea what he would say to her. ‘Sorry Sakura pushed you down the stairs and nobody said anything. Here is this bracelet I thought you might like it?’ He was the first to return to the bus. They had ample time to spend shopping. He couldn’t. He was barely keeping it together and decided to take the time needed alone on the bus to build back his composure.

He was thankful tomorrow they were going to fly back home.

“THERE YOU ARE!” Naruto’s voice filled the tour bus and it caused the hair on the back of Sasuke’s neck to stand on end. He snapped his head to see the scruffy blonde walking down the aisle towards him. Baffled, he found him so quickly. “I was looking all over for you.” He plopped down in the seat next to him. Sasuke immediately ignored him. He looked out the window and clutched the jewelry box tightly in his hand.

“What souvenir did you get?” Naruto asked as he took notice of the jewelry box in his hand.

It was the only thing he purchased. A bracelet for a girl he didn’t even know and probably would never even give to.

“A bracelet.” He answered coldly.

“Why a bracelet?” Naruto asked in confusion. “Is it a gift for someone?”

“Yes.”

“For who? Your mom?” His voice was carefree and curious.

“No. For Hinata.”

His answer caused Naruto to stop speaking. His careless demeanor turned rigid. He turned to see a look of horror on Naruto’s features and he looked like he swallowed his own tongue. He thought back to when he was bringing the mathematics homework to the classroom and overheard the conversation. The same energy he felt when Kiba mentioned Hinata was the same energy he felt exuding from Naruto right now. It was something electrical. If he touched Naruto now he wondered if he would get shocked.

“Why did you buy a gift for Hinata?” Naruto’s voice was shaky. He heard other emotions seeping through his words. Including anger and apprehension. Resentment. Was this Naruto’s true personality? It must be. Whatever facade he wore was cracking. He was afraid of what was underneath the mask Naruto wore.

“You aren’t friends with her.” Naruto’s voice shifted into something cold and devoid of humanity. The way he phrased it solidified that Naruto knew he had no friends and almost took pleasure in that fact. Ino was right. Naruto was not to be trusted.

“She was my partner before you.” He answered. He tried to maintain his composure and confidence as well as keeping himself distant from Naruto. Even though he and Naruto were the only ones on the bus and next to each other. He wanted to keep Naruto at an arm's length away.

“So?” Naruto asked angrily. His face twisted up into something frightening. “You never talked to her before...so why are you buying her a present now? I’m your partner now! Did you buy me a present?” His voice was desperate at the end. Naruto had reached out and grabbed Sasuke’s wrist and jerked his hand towards his chest.

Sasuke felt afraid again. He sucked in his breath. Ino was right. Naruto was acting exactly like someone who witnessed their classmate being pushed down the stairs. Someone who pretended like it was an accident and now went into hysterics whenever their name was brought up. There had to be more to the story. To their dynamics. He wanted to know more...to know more about Hinata...more about Neji. More importantly, he knew he didn’t want to know anything about Naruto.

“No.” He answered. “I didn’t buy you a gift.” He tried pulling his arm back from Naruto.

“You’re making it really hard to be your friend!” Naruto yelled. He refused to let go of his wrist.

“Let...go!”

“NARUTO!” Another voice filtered from the front of the bus. Both Sasuke and Naruto jerked their heads to see Kiba standing in the middle of the aisle. “What are you doing?” Naruto immediately let go of Sasuke’s wrist and stood up.

“I was just teasing, Sasuke. He bought a girl a present and I was...just teasing him because he didn’t buy me a gift.” Naruto lied so effortlessly. He had donned his mask and smiled. His demeanor shifted back into his carefree, happy-go-lucky-self. His stance became easy and he relaxed back into the role of everyone’s friend. Charisma oozed from his pores.

“We still have time. Sakura and Ino want to take some photos before we leave.”

Naruto didn’t answer, and he didn’t move. He continued to stare at Kiba. He looked to see Kiba and Naruto exchanging unreadable looks as if they were having a telepathic conversation.

“Okay. I’ll catch you later, Sasuke!” Naruto answered with a laugh.

He watched as Naruto left the bus with Kiba. When he was alone he gasped and clutched his chest. He began hyperventilating. It was a mistake going on the class trip. He wished he could rewind time and go back to when Naruto asked him on the city bus if he was going. He would have punched his past self in the face and refused. He made a mental note not to bring up Hinata's name in conversation with Naruto. He just needed to lie low and stay alive until they flew back home tomorrow. He continued to hyperventilate. He could make it...he could stay alive.

Chapter Text

Back to back

 

Naruto shuffled his feet outside the teacher’s office. It was early. He was one of the only students in the building. It was the earliest he has ever come to school. His mother made sure he was up, dressed, and out the door so that he would be an hour early before classes started. He was too nervous to enter. He was stalling. He had already stalled forty-five minutes. He decided to re-tie his shoelaces. They didn’t feel tight. He wanted his shoes tight against his feet. If he didn’t he was afraid they were going to come undone and he was going to trip and fall.

He had been feeling anxious since the teacher requested to speak with him before the new semester started. He wished his teacher left some iota on what he wanted to discuss with him. It caused his mind to wander. He hadn't slept all last night as a result. The teacher left a message with his mother to have him go to the teacher’s office before school started. His mind immediately went to the teacher finding out what happened. He had to tell himself not to get ahead of himself and if that was the case police would be at the school escorting them out. He checked the parking lot and kept peeking out the windows. He hadn’t seen any police cars. He was getting worked up over nothing.

Hinata already gave a statement. She said she had tripped and fallen. She said it was an accident. He didn’t have to keep thinking about it and he didn’t have to keep worrying. He kept telling himself to get it together.

The longer he waited the more he could feel guilt creeping up. It felt like shadows encasing around him. They scratched at him and grabbed at him all over. It was a massive black hole encircling him. The air became thin and low. It made breathing difficult as if he were gasping for breath on top of Mt. Everest. In the darkness, he saw Hinata sprawled on the bottom of the stairs and liquid red forming a halo around her head. He blinked and she was gone.

He touched his face. He didn’t know what expression he was making. He had to make sure he had a relaxed face so as not to reveal anything. The office door opened and he stifled a gasp of surprise. He was still bent over feigning tying his shoes.

“Ah. There you are. I was worried you wouldn’t come.” The teacher spoke. His voice was calm.

“Just tying my shoes.” Naruto finished tying his shoes and answered calmly. He picked his backpack up by the strap and followed the teacher into the room. It was a large open room with desks pushed together in rows. Naruto followed the teacher to his desk and sat down in the hardback chair. It felt like he was about to get into trouble. They were alone. He wondered if the other teachers were already in the classroom preparing for the beginning semester.

“You’re probably wondering why I called you here.” The teacher spoke.

“Am...I in trouble?” Naruto asked with a forced smile. He tried acting nonchalant like it was a joke. His hands wouldn’t stop shaking and his leg kept bobbing up and down. He felt unknown energy surging through him and it made him jittery as if he drank three pots of coffee. He suddenly had to go to the bathroom.

“No. Of course not. I just wanted to talk to you about your grades.” The teacher pulled out a manilla folder with Namikaze written across it. His academic file. He pulled out a grade sheet and handed it to Naruto. He took it and began looking at his grades. They were all over with no succinct pattern. He had 0’s, 30’s, 70’s, 60’s, 40’s, 50’s, 20’s. He almost sighed in relief. He just wanted to discuss grades.

“I’ll try harder.” Naruto answered and handed the grade sheet back. “I’ve just been spending a lot of time playing video games...” He couldn’t even finish the lukewarm lie. His grades have been slowly slipping since the beginning of the school year.

“At the rate you’re going you’re going to fail.” The teacher spoke clearly and firmly. His face was serious. He wasn’t joking. This was reality.

“What...do you mean I’m going to fail?” He asked and stared at him. It was the first time he was hearing it. He knew his grades were slipping. Yeah. He stopped doing his homework, stopped studying, and went in on tests blindly. The last battery of tests resulted in the lowest grades he has ever gotten. He remembered ripping them up and throwing them in the trashcan on his way home from school. He knew his class ranking slipped from the top ten to near the bottom.

“You’re failing every class. If you keep going as you are even if you get perfect grades you won’t be able to pass this grade.”

“No! That can’t happen...I can’t fail!” He shouted. He thought back to his parents. It would break their hearts if they found out he was failing. He had been lying to them this whole time and telling them he was still in the top ten. How could he tell them he was going to fail? What would he tell them was the reason? Could he keep blaming Neji? Would they continue to allow him to use that excuse? What if they asked about Hinata? What if the school re-investigated the incident?

“Is...everything going okay at home?”

“Home is fine!” He defended. Home wasn’t the problem. School was the problem. He sat at the edge of his seat. He kept bobbing his foot up and down and he was fidgeting with his fingers.

“Is this...about Neji?”

“Y...yes.” He answered. He didn’t look at the teacher. He kept his eyes on the floor. He knew he couldn’t keep using Neji as an excuse...he couldn’t keep blaming him. It was insulting. It was degrading. Yet it was so easy. It was low picking fruit. It was a get out of jail free card. What else was he supposed to say? Sakura was right, they could just keep using Neji as an excuse and all their problems would be solved. He didn’t want to keep blaming Neji...but it was all he had.

The teacher sighed and nodded his head understandingly. There was a moment of silence as if the teacher was saying a prayer for Neji. Naruto kept his head down and eyes closed to show him he was also praying for Neji.

“You’re a bright student. A popular student. You’re good at sports, and I know your father is a great man so you take after him. I also understand that kids sometimes get into problems over their heads. So I decided to give you a proposition.”

“Proposition?” He didn’t understand. He felt embarrassed by the teacher praising him. It made him feel even more guilty. He didn’t deserve any praises and he didn’t deserve any of those compliments he listed off.

“I’m going to make you a deal. Give you an assignment. I’ll allow you to do makeup work so you do not fail, but I want you to do something for me.”

“Okay...what do you want me to do?” He asked suspiciously.

“I want you to become friends with Sasuke Uchiha.”

“Who?” The name sounded familiar but he couldn’t put a face with the name. Not at first.

“He’s in your class. I want you to befriend Sasuke.”

“Is he a loner or something?” He asked inquisitively. He still didn’t understand what the teacher was saying. Maybe he was overthinking things. Was all he had to do besides complete makeup work was to befriend someone? It sounded easy enough. It sounded too easy. He remained cautious.

“Mhm. He doesn’t socialize with any classmates. Sasuke is number one in the class rankings. He’s extremely bright but he doesn’t have any friends. I want you to befriend him. I am going to redo the seating arrangement and change up class partners.”

“Wait...wait...wait. So you’re saying if I befriend Sasuke...you’ll let me do makeup work and I won’t fail? You promise?”

“Yes. I promise. Part of the deal is from here until the end of the year I want all homework assignments completed and I want passing grades on every assignment. Got it? I’m handing out mathematics homework tonight. I want it completed and turned in on time tomorrow.”

“That’s fine. I’ll do it. You know I’m smart...so I just befriend Sasuke and I’m good?” He wanted to make sure he understood the terms and conditions.

“Yes.”

Naruto leaned back in the chair. He stopped bobbing his leg up and down and he stopped fidgeting with his hands. He bit his lip. He tried to conjure Sasuke up. He had a lightbulb moment. He remembered him. He had dark hair, almond eyes, and pale skin. He didn’t look very athletic. He looked like a bookworm. He was quiet and easily forgettable. He remembered where he sat in the classroom and who his old partner was. He could feel his heart-stopping. It felt as if he was flatlining.

“He was partnered with Hinata.” The teacher answered what Naruto was thinking. “She’s not coming back to school for a while. I do not know when she will be returning.”

Naruto nodded his head up and down. His grades were slipping since the beginning of the school year. Hinata’s accident had nothing to do with his grades. They couldn’t be able to draw connections. He stood up and grabbed his schoolbag.

“Also. I want you to get Sasuke to agree to go on the school trip. I haven’t gotten the permission slip back from him.”

“Sure. I’ll do it. It can’t be that hard, can it? I’ll be off first.”

“Thank you, Naruto.”

“Just don’t go back on your word!” Naruto said seriously and pointed at the teacher. It caused the teacher to laugh and nod his head in agreement.

*****

“Hey...Sasuke. I wanted to apologize for how I acted earlier today.” Naruto had cornered him in their hotel room. Sasuke was packing his belongings. He made sure the jewelry box was packed safely in his carryon. He had been giving Naruto the silent treatment since the incident on the bus. “Sasuke?” He still didn’t answer him. Static filled his head.

Naruto walked over and touched Sasuke’s shoulder. He flinched and pulled back from his hand. Electricity jolted through him and he shuddered. He glared up at Naruto as if he had punched him. He didn’t understand him at all.

“Will you...go on a walk with me? I want to tell you something.” Naruto asked. He watched Naruto’s face soften. His eyes looked sad. They were round and reminded him of a shelter puppy wanting nothing more than to be adopted and loved. He could feel himself soften.

“Please...hear me out?” Naruto continued. “Just this once. Hear me out?” He clasped his hands together and pleaded.

He didn’t know why he was complying. He stood up and nodded his head in agreement. It wasn’t such an impossible request. All he asked was to go on a walk, in public, so he could tell him something. Naruto’s face broke out into the biggest smile and he didn’t understand. He didn’t understand why Naruto was trying so hard to repair and maintain a friendship that he was trying so hard to rebel against. He thought back to Ino’s words then thought about Naruto’s behaviors on the bus. It was better to be outside than inside a stifling hotel room.

He followed Naruto out of their hotel. It was warm outside and the sun was setting. It was the perfect temperature. He wore flip flops. They wandered down to the beach. The sand was hot and he could feel it as his feet sunk into the sand. He was curious to know what Naruto was going to say. He could feel a soft breeze coming off the ocean. He could smell saltwater, suntan lotion, and citrus.

“Do you remember what happened to us?” Naruto asked. “And Neji?”

He thought back to Ino’s explanation and nodded his head. He had no clear memories of what Ino said.

“It was an accident. We were just exploring the train tracks. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. We got locked in the boxcar and nobody could hear us. It was dark inside. It was a steel boxcar and it was dark inside. That’s why...I was afraid and why I wanted to sleep next to you. At home I sleep with the lights and television on. It’s not an excuse but earlier when you brought up Hinata...all I could think about was Neji.”

Naruto’s eyes started to tear up. He balled his hands into fists and wiped the tears away before they fell. Sasuke found himself holding his breath. He froze.

“It was true…” Sasuke commented. “Neji...died in the boxcar...didn’t he.” He couldn’t believe he had been oblivious to the whole ordeal. It must have been all over television and the talk of the school.

Naruto nodded his head up and down. “Hinata blamed us...specifically...Sakura for Neji’s death.”

“Why Sakura?”

“It was Sakura’s idea to explore the train tracks. The day we explored the train tracks. Hinata told Neji he had to go home early...for a family thing, but Neji refused. They argued and Hinata left without him. Neji was coming down with a cold. When we were trapped in the boxcar he became sicker...and sicker. We didn’t have any food and we didn’t have any water.”

“I’m...sorry.” Sasuke spoke gently. He didn’t know what else to say. It was tragic. What Naruto experienced. It was something ripped from the headlines. An unforeseen tragedy. An accident. He swallowed painfully. He looked down at the rivets in the sand. “I’m sorry you had to experience that…” Nobody should have to experience such a tragic thing.

“Then...Hinata accidentally fell down the stairs.” Naruto spoke. “We weren’t able to make up with her properly.”

“It was an accident?” Sasuke blurted out on impulse.

“What do you mean?”

“Hinata falling down the stairs...was it really an accident, Naruto?” He did it. He asked Naruto clearly, and directly. He locked eyes with him and held his gaze. He forced him to answer.

“Yes!” Naruto answered. “It was an accident! I need to apologize to her and make things up with her...we all do. We will. All of us we’re going to apologize and make things right with her. She’s our friend too. We never stopped being friends...it’s just...a misunderstanding.” Naruto’s answer sounded genuine. He didn’t turn away. He didn’t hesitate. He didn’t fidget. He spoke clearly.

Sasuke wondered if Ino was lying. That was a possibility. She could have lied about Sakura pushing Hinata down the stairs to scare him. Kids lied too. She could have been lying about it this whole time. He didn’t know if he trusted Naruto fully...but throughout their conversation, he never got the impression that Naruto was lying or hiding anything.

“You’re going to make up with Hinata?” He asked. He didn’t understand why he was taking the role of a referee in mending their friendship.

“Yes! Hinata is a precious friend. She’s my precious friend.”

He wondered if there was someone Naruto wasn’t friends with. Did he consider all his friends...precious? Just what was a precious friend? He didn’t know. He thought about the definition. It also meant a beloved person. Of great value not to be wasted or treated carelessly. He didn’t know Naruto yet somehow he could see it being in Naruto’s character to apologize and mend friendships. Would there ever be a time when he became a precious person to Naruto?

“I also wanted to ask...when you give Hinata her gift can you let her know we all miss her?” Naruto asked.

“Y...yeah.” He answered. He didn’t want to say that he would probably never give the gift to her because he didn’t know her. He bought it on impulse. He got the gift box on impulse. He was probably going to put it in the drawer of his desk at home next to Naruto’s handkerchief.

“Thank you, Sasuke!” Naruto said with his dazzling smile. It was contagious. Sasuke found himself smiling back. He was just mirroring Naruto. It came naturally, human reaction.

The sun hit Naruto and bathed him in a golden glow. His hair looked like it was on fire and he looked like a lion taking step on pride rock. He gasped at how Naruto looked. Maybe Ino was lying. He didn’t understand how Naruto could have actually witnessed Hinata being pushed down the stairs and not doing anything. If that happened...why would he want to mend their friendship? Wouldn’t he be afraid? It was as if a weight was being lifted off his shoulder. He felt...relief. It made sense. Ino was lying. She was a siren who stood back waiting to see a good show and if she wasn’t pleased she was going to drag him down to the depths of the ocean.

Besides...wouldn’t anyone be a little psychotic after experiencing what they all experienced? How could he fault any of them? Naruto. Sakura. Ino. Kiba. They all experienced the same tragedy. Something as traumatic as that would have residual effects for a long time if not for the rest of their lives. He was feeling...empathy. His heart panged thinking about what they all experienced and survived through. So what if Sakura was clingy and Ino lied? If that was the only side effect...it meant they were slowly healing didn’t it?

*****

Naruto slept in his own bed that night. He didn’t ask to sleep with him today. He wondered if he asked if he would have agreed. He probably would just based on what Naruto disclosed to him earlier. It was the last night they were in Hawaii. Tomorrow they were flying home. The television was on. There wasn’t anything good on. It was just background noise for Naruto to fall asleep to. He had fallen asleep pretty quickly whereas he hadn’t been able to sleep so readily.

His mind was full. It felt as if he was forgetting something important. It gnawed at him. He couldn’t put his finger on it. He was replaying the conversation with Naruto on the beach. He was hung up on the fact he didn’t ask directly if Sakura pushed Hinata down the stairs...all he had asked Naruto was if Hinata falling down the stairs was an accident. He wasn’t clear enough. Did it matter? He believed Naruto...it was...just an accident. Why was he still thinking about this?

“Sasuke?” Naruto asked from his bed. “Are you still awake?”

“Hm?” He responded. He blinked and pushed himself up to see Naruto was leaning up in bed.

“Why are you still up?” Naruto asked.

“I...can’t sleep.” He admitted.

“Is it because the television and lights are on?”

“No.” It wasn’t. It was because he was thinking about the loopholes in the conversation they had on the beach. He felt too anxious to ask. Fear burrowed a hole in his chest.

“Oh...it’s kind of bittersweet. It’s like I want to go home but at the same time I don’t.” Naruto shifted into a conversation.

“Yeah…” He agreed. Tomorrow he had to go home. Back to the color-coded, pre-planned, schedule...worse. He had to choose a sports lesson. Golf or tennis. He had to make a decision or else he knew his mother would enroll him in both just to brag to the other country club moms about his accomplishments.

“Ugh...I can’t sleep either!”

“Naruto…” He decided to ask Naruto his opinion on the two.

“Hm?”

“If you had to pick between golf or tennis what would you pick?”

“Mhm. Golf looks boring so I guess tennis. I mean is it miniature golf? Because that’s pretty fun.”

“It’s not...just regular golf.”

“Oh definitely tennis.”

“It does sound more fun…” He agreed.

Golf seemed stifling. It was serious. He remembered his father telling him he would purposely lose to potential clients. He had to make sure it was close...within a few strokes so he could clinch the deal. His father wanted to make sure the client wins but also wanted to make sure it was close enough so that the deal was still appealing. His father had to show them he had impeccable form and skill. He remembered it also depended on the client. A few clients he had to purposefully win given their personality. It was why it was important to read people.

He didn’t know anything about tennis. Just that a ball was hit back and forth with a racket across a net. The only reason tennis was even an option was because an olympian was teaching lessons down at the country club. His only fear was that his lessons would evolve to competing like what happened to his piano lessons. His stomach churned.

“Why do you ask?”

“I...have to choose between golf lessons or tennis lessons.”

“You should pick tennis. You look like you need to be more active.”

“Wh...what did you say?” He asked hesitantly because it sounded like an insult. The more he thought of it the angrier he became.

“You don’t look very athletic and you’re kind of a little skinny too. It would do you good to become more athletic...and eat more you’re a beanpole.”

He could feel his cheeks turning red. It was true. He wasn’t athletic. He rarely went outside. He looked down at his body. Was he too skinny? A beanpole? He was still growing. He was still a child. The meals he ate were well-balanced and followed the food pyramid. His mother was an aspiring chef and read every brain-food recipe book. He rarely ate sugary or processed foods. He turned and looked at Naruto. He was athletic. He was tan...and although he wasn’t fat..was bigger than he was. He was someone who spent the majority of their time outside in the sun. Healthy. Naruto looked healthy. He didn’t know why Naruto’s words stung maybe because he didn’t want to look like that to Naruto.

“I...don’t mean anything bad. It’s just...maybe it wouldn’t hurt to become more active. I may not be a super genius but I do have excellent hand-eye coordination.” Naruto continued. He flashed a peace sign. He was bragging. Sasuke stared at him from the corner of his eyes.

“Fine. I’ll show you. I’ll soon have excellent hand-eye coordination.” He was now determined to take tennis lessons, and show Naruto he could become athletic. “Better than you.”

Naruto laughed. His laughter was carefree and full of delight. He wondered how he could laugh so...freely. It was refreshing. He found himself hypnotized as Naruto laughed. He wasn’t able to turn away.

“I bet I’m better at tennis than you, and I haven’t even played it properly before.” Naruto teased. “I’m gifted when it comes to sports.” He was bragging again.

“Hold your tongue. Just wait.”

“Ok-ok-ok...I’ll wait. I also bet if I try...I can become number one in class ranking.”

“Huh?”

“I bet if I tried I could usurp you in the class rankings.”

“Usurp?”

“Yeah. Do you not know what it means?” Naruto asked mischievously. He pushed himself up and smiled smugly at Sasuke.

“I know what it means...do you?” He laughed. It was ridiculous what Naruto was insinuating. His laughter must have come off as mockery because Naruto straightened up even more and stared at him without smiling. Sasuke held up his hand and he couldn’t stop laughing.

“It’s funny...I mean you think...you can beat me? You fall asleep in class and consistently forget your textbooks at home. Don’t make me laugh...it hurts.” He held his rib cage as he continued to laugh. He could feel tears brimming his eyes.

“Hey!” Naruto yelled. His cheeks flushed pink. “I’m smart. You said so yourself...wasn’t it you who copied my homework? Or did you forget?”

“I’m sorry...you’re right. You’re smart.” He immediately stopped laughing when Naruto brought up him copying his homework. He hadn’t forgotten. He muttered under his breath. “Just not as smart as me.”

“I heard that!” Naruto yelled. Naruto’s reaction caused Sasuke to break out into more laughter. Naruto picked up a pillow and threw it at Sasuke’s head. It hit him square in the face and he erupted into another fit of giggles. It didn’t stop Sasuke from laughing, it seemed the pillow hitting him only caused him to laugh harder.

Naruto stopped laughing. He kept staring over at Sasuke who continued laughing. He watched as Sasuke pulled the pillow from his head and tossed the pillow to the side.

“Your laugh…” Naruto commented. “It’s...really nice.”

“Ey?” Sasuke asked. He was thrown from the compliment and the shock of it caused him to stop laughing.

“You have a good laugh...and an even better smile.”

Sasuke was dumbfounded. He stopped smiling. He stopped laughing. His face, neck, and ears reddened. Nobody has ever told him that before. He was self-conscious. He didn’t know how to react. He felt his breathing becoming erratic. His heart fluttered. Why did Naruto have to say these things so freely and unabashedly? He didn’t know how to react. He simply froze.

“You should smile and laugh more.” Naruto continued. He said everything so casually and without shame. Was it because he was so confident? Where did he get such confidence?

“Th-thanks.” He yammered. He didn’t know what else to say. He fell back on manners.

“I’m glad you decided to come on the class trip. I had a lot of fun.” Naruto continued. He flopped back on the bed and stared up at the ceiling. “Yeah...I had a lot of fun with you.”

“Mhm.” He didn’t know what else to say.

When Naruto switched to these types of conversations he didn’t know how to respond. He didn’t know if he had fun. He had spent the majority of the time confused, scared, and anxious. Most of the reason was Ino using scare tactics on him to make him leave Naruto alone...even when he left Naruto alone it wasn’t like he could shake him. He also didn’t want to admit he kind of liked it that Naruto didn’t leave him alone. Was there something wrong with him?

“I know you didn’t have as much fun as you should. I promise when we get back home I’ll make sure you experience a lot of fun things, okay Sasuke?”

Naruto’s words had a way of wrapping around him and comforting him like an electric heating blanket. It made him feel safe and secure. He wanted to trust those words but there was something inside him that prevented him from fully trusting him. An invisible barrier came down when he reached his hand out he felt the invisible forcefield. He wasn’t able to move any closer to Naruto. He wondered if it was the magical barrier that he witnessed whenever Naruto was around Sakura. The loopholes in the conversation he had with him on the beach.

“Sasuke...did you hear me?”

He didn’t answer Naruto. His mind was still whirling and recovering from his words. They weren’t just any words...it was a promise. He promised to have him experience more fun things. The words were foreign. A promise. I promise. He wasn’t sure he was able to answer. It didn’t make sense. He felt something heavy colliding into him. It felt as if he was struck by an asteroid. It knocked the breath out of him and he gasped. Fighting to breathe he looked up and saw Naruto was on top of him. He had grabbed a pillow and slammed it down on Sasuke’s chest before placing his own weight on top of the pillow.

“I said...did you hear me?”

“Y...e..s. Get-off!” He choked. Naruto laughed and rolled off him and moved to his side on Sasuke’s bed. He began wheezing for breath. “You...choked me!”

“Sorry-sorry. I just wanted to make sure you heard me.”

“What are…” He balked as he turned to see Naruto wiggling himself under the comforter next to him.

“I’m already here, might as well sleep right?”

“Wh...at?” His mind was whirling again. “No...that’s not how things work…”

“Goodnight Sasuke!” Naruto spoke before curling up into a ball and rolling in the opposite direction.

He stared at Naruto’s spine. He was in disbelief that Naruto had seemingly conned his way back into his bed. He didn’t understand...why. Was it because Naruto was really afraid? It must be. He must have been right. He wasn’t as upset as he was last night. He could feel his heart beating in his throat. He wasn’t upset. He was just...well...he didn’t know how he felt. He wasn’t...angry. He was...exhausted?

He was too tired to argue with Naruto.

He thought about slipping out of bed and sleeping in Naruto’s bed but decided against it. He didn’t not like sleeping in the same bed as him. This would also be the last time. They wouldn’t do this again. When he thought about that he felt his chest sting. He focused on his breathing and calmed down. It didn’t take long the pain in his chest left. This was the last time. He could feel the emitting warmness coming off of Naruto. It was a comforting feeling to have someone so close. Was this what Naruto felt? It was...comforting to him. He closed his eyes and within seconds finally drifted off into sleep.

*****

“Sasuke.”

His mother’s voice rang out. He was next to Naruto. They had just picked up their suitcases from the conveyor belt. She was dressed in a Ralph Lauren wellesley dress. She looked powerful. She was wearing gold jewelry and designer pumps. He watched as her eyes went immediately to Naruto. He knew she disproved in the 2.4 seconds she looked at him. Naruto was...scruffy. He was an alley dog and she only wanted her sons hanging out with purebred pedigrees. He said goodbye to Naruto and left.

“Who was that?” She asked as he followed her out of the airport.

“My partner.”

“Does that mean anything to me? What is his name, Sasuke.” She asked angrily. She sounded exhausted as if she was already fed up with him. He was always on eggshells with her. He could never just do what she wanted.

“Naruto Namikaze.”

“Namikaze?” She clarified.

“Mhm.”

“Minato!” His mother changed before his eyes. Her face warmed and brightened. She smiled and her voice became higher pitched. She talked with a sweetness she used when hosting in the formal dining room. She had brought her arm up and waved to a messy, blonde-haired, blue-eyed man. He could tell by looking at him this was Naruto’s father. He didn’t need a DNA test to prove that. He was staring at an adult Naruto and he found himself blushing.

“Is that you...Mikoto?” Minato greeted her with a warm smile. He had to do a double-take. He saw that smile before...that was Naruto’s smile.

“I didn’t realize our sons went to the same school...let alone were in the same class. Sasuke was just telling me he had fun on his trip to Hawaii and that Naruto was his partner.”

His mother lied effortlessly. It came naturally to her. She wrapped an arm around his shoulder and squeezed gently. He knew that from an outsider’s view it was a loving gesture a mother did when talking about their child. Only he knew he had messed up by not telling her something she needed to know. He hated it when she wanted him to be a clairvoyant and tell her things he didn’t even know she wanted to know. Case in point. That Naruto Namikaze was in his class. He knew by her demeanor and her cheap charismatic smile that Minato Namikaze was a business associate working with his father. He was quick on the uptick.

“I’m just picking him up now!” Minato said with a smile. “A little late.”

“Since our sons are friends we should have you guys over for dinner one of these nights.” She offered the invitation in her sweetest voice. She was a hypocrite. She hated Naruto the moment she laid eyes on him. Her tone changed when she found out who he was.

“If you’re cooking...I wouldn’t turn down an invitation from you. Have you gone back into cooking professionally?”

“Nope. My arms are tied, raising Sasuke. I just do it for fun.” She gushed and wrapped her other arm around him. He knew to smile and play the role of the pious child. Her grip acted like an anchor ready to pull him down and drown him if he embarrassed her. “I have to get going but I’ll have Fukaku reach out on a date to come over for dinner. Take care!”

“I’ll let Kushina know. I’ll talk to you later. I need to get Naruto before he thinks I’ve abandoned him.” Minato’s laughter was contagious. His eyes brightened when he looked at him. Naruto was the spitting image of him. He was in disbelief. His mother wasn’t just smart she was clever. She was always five steps ahead in the chess game of life.

“Who...is Minato Namikaze?” He asked.

“He’s the head of H Firm, the company your father’s company is in the process of merging with. This is a very important merger for your father’s company. If this merger isn’t successful your father’s company could go bankrupt.”

He put his suitcase in the trunk of the SUV and slid into the passenger seat.

“Are you friends with Naruto?” His mother asked when he fastened his seatbelt.

“I’m not...sure.” He answered honestly. “We’re assignment partners in class, and we were partners on the trip.”

“I want you to become Naruto’s friend.” She commanded. Her voice was back to being short and sharp.

She didn’t ask him how his trip went. She didn’t ask if he had fun. She didn’t even ask if he brought home any souvenirs. He wouldn’t be able to tell her that he only bought one souvenir. She continued to talk about the importance of befriending certain people depending on who their parents are. He lost interest. He ignored her. He started picking the skin around his fingers.

“That reminds me. Are you going to take golf or tennis lessons?”

“Tennis.” He answered quickly.

“Perfect. I’ll introduce you to the new tennis coach down at the country club. He was in the Olympics.”

He stared out the window. It had started to rain. It was so bright, sunny, and warm in Hawaii. The sky was clear and everything was cheerful. He looked at the murky sky. It was still bleak here. He stopped listening to his mother again. She continued to talk about the business merger, tennis lessons, his upcoming piano recital, followed by a lecture on maintaining his grades. His mind kept slipping back to Naruto. He and his parents were going to come over for dinner? Naruto was going to come to his house? He couldn’t help but smile. Maybe this wouldn’t have been a terrible outcome after all. She had no choice but to approve of Naruto as a friend. He counted this as a victory.

“You’ll start lessons with Hizashi Hyuuga this week.”

Sasuke shifted back into reality. The name sounded familiar. He blinked. “Hyuuga?” He asked.

“Yes. his name is Hizashi Hyuuga.”

“Is he related to Hinata Hyuuga?”

“Yes. Hinata is his niece although I heard she fell down the stairs last semester at your school and broke her neck. Poor thing is currently confined to a wheelchair. She has a long road of recovery before she is able to walk again. The Hyuuga’s are a powerful family. Old money. She’ll be fine. I saw her at the country club when I met Hizashi. He has been taking her to the club when he goes. She has become severely depressed. Maybe you can talk to her when you go. I wouldn’t mind our families becoming friends. It’s good to have allies like the Hyuuga’s.”

His mind went blank again. Hinata was Hizashi's niece...and she would be at the country club when he was getting his tennis lessons? He thought back to the gift box in his backpack. He would be able to give her the gift after all...and he would be able to speak to her. He wondered if there was a God sometimes because the universe had a funny way of aligning just so.

Chapter Text

They faced each other

 

He heard muffled giggling and whispers before entering the classroom. It was the first day of school following their class trip to Hawaii. He walked in and instantaneously knew what all the hushed fuss was about. His desk and chair were covered in trash, and he could see written phrases across the top of his desk. He walked closer to his desk. His shoes felt like they were cement blocks. His messenger bag felt like it was loaded with rocks. The giggles erupted into laughter. He could hear his classmates talking. It sounded like he was underwater. His voice caught in the back of his throat. A sea witch stole it and kept it in a necklace around her neck.

He froze. He couldn’t move. Couldn’t think. He simply shut down. Hawaii seemed an eternity ago.

“What’s all the ruckus about? Everyone back to their desks.” The teacher spoke loudly as he entered the classroom. Everyone immediately shut up and returned to their seats. “Sasuke?” The teacher asked. “Alright. Who did this?” The teacher reprimanded. “I will not tolerate bullying in this classroom.” His voice was firm. The class grew eerily silent. “The whole class will stay after school for detention until I find the culprit!”

“WHAT?!” There were collective protests across the room. He could feel the vibrations.

“Mr. Umino...it was like that when I got here. Why should we all be punished for a silly prank?”

“It isn’t fair! I didn’t see anything.”

“Yeah it was like that when we came into the classroom.”

“Who says it was even someone from our class?”

“Yea it could be anyone in the school. It was like that when we got here!”

“Honestly. If I knew who it was I would tell you. I have rehearsal after school. I can’t miss it. We perform in two weeks.” Sakura said abruptly. Her voice cut over everyone else’s. She slammed her hands on the desk as she stood up. Her chair moved back and Sasuke could hear the skidding of the chair feet across the floor. He saw her from the corner of his eye. She picked up the classroom garbage pail and walked over to Sasuke’s desk and began picking up the trash.

“Thank you Sakura.” The teacher spoke.

“What’s going on?” Ino asked from the doorway.

“One of your classmates thought it funny to bully Sasuke by writing on his desk and dumping trash on it. This is unacceptable behavior and everyone will stay after school for detention until the culprit comes forward.”

“I just got here.” Ino protested.

“Everyone.” The teacher clarified.

There were still loud protests erupting around the classroom. Sakura finished cleaning up the trash. She didn’t look at Sasuke. He couldn’t read her face. “I’m going to wash my hands.” She announced and the teacher nodded his head. She left the classroom as Ino entered. If Sakura did it she performed beautifully.

“Sasuke I will notify the maintenance worker at lunchtime to bring you a new desk.” The teacher said and put a hand on his shoulder. “Until then why don’t you sit at Naruto’s desk. He’s out sick for the day.”

He was running on autopilot. He pulled Naruto’s chair out and sat at his desk. He tried to avoid what was written on his desk but it drew him in like a venus fly trap. The words were vulgar. No friends. Useless. Kill yourself. Pathetic. Teacher’s pet. His eyes kept wandering back to that one phrase. He didn’t understand why. He felt someone staring at him. He turned his head and saw Ino was looking directly at him. He caught her gaze and she smirked. She held that smug satisfaction smile for a few more seconds before turning away.

It was Ino. It had to be. Or Sakura. Or they did it together...maybe Kiba. Who else could it be? Maybe they were all working together. He was going to get to the bottom of it.

*****

He cornered Ino as she exited the bathroom. It was during lunch time and there were kids moving around the hallway. They weren’t alone. It was out in public. She stopped and looked up at him. She was surprised. It was similar to how it was in the Art Museum. Ino didn’t make a fuss.

“Are you stalking the girl’s bathroom you pervert?” She asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Why did you do it?”

“Do what? Oh. You mean trashed your desk?” She laughed.

“Yes.”

“I didn’t.” Ino said matter-of-factly and with a shrug of her shoulder. She dropped her smile. “I was late to school.”

“Then who did?”

“How should I know? Do you think I keep tabs on everyone in our class at all times?”

“Did Sakura do it?”

“Of course not. She wouldn’t do something so...public.” Her eyes shifted away and he knew the only person left was...

“Kiba?”

Ino shrugged. She became annoyed. Her face scrunched up. “I don’t know! Stop asking me. I don’t care what happens to you, or who did it.” He wasn’t sure if he believed her or not. She had come in late to school. She could be telling the truth. If it was Sakura...would she tell? She could be covering up for her, or it could have been Kiba. Although he didn’t understand the motive for Kiba. He remembered Kiba walking on the bus and seeing Naruto grabbing his wrist. That couldn’t be a reason...could it?

Were they all just obsessed with Naruto?

“Ask him.” Sasuke demanded. He wasn’t going to let her leave. Their voices were at normal pitch and tone. They weren’t suspicious.

“Why should I?” Ino asked and she had a ‘what’s in it for me’ expression.

“You like watching entertaining things don’t you?”

“You make it sound like I’m some peeping tom when you’re the one posted outside the girl’s bathroom. You pervert.”

“Ask him.” Sasuke repeated. He was firm. He didn’t say anything else. He walked to the teacher’s office. He was summoned there by the teacher to discuss what had happened this morning. He was dreading this conversation. He was fearful the teacher would call home and tell his mother he was being bullied.

*****

“I want to apologize for what happened to you this morning.” The teacher spoke. His voice was kind.

“It’s okay. I’m not upset or anything. They didn’t ruin any of my belongings. No real damage happened.” It was true. When he reached into his desk to pull out his school supplies everything was in mint condition. It was all surface level.

“No, Sasuke. It shouldn’t have happened. I’ll get to the bottom of it. Naruto is out sick for the day I was wondering if you would drop off his school work for him today. I know he lives in the same neighborhood as you.”

The teacher handed him a large tan-colored envelope. He took it. He didn’t know why he felt anxious. Like he shouldn’t talk to Naruto. They had left on good terms at the airport. He couldn’t help but think of Ino warning him about getting too close to Naruto. He didn’t want the bullying to escalate. That was it. He knew what he needed to do. He was going to look for Sakura. He found her sitting outside under the large oak tree in the courtyard. She was surrounded by others he didn’t recognize. He walked up to her.

“Hi Sakura.” He greeted her with a charismatic smile. The one his mother helped him perfect. She stared up at him. She wasn’t smiling. There was a coldness in her eyes. She looked at him as if he was as insignificant as a speck in the universe.

“What do you want?” She demanded. She wasn’t acting sweet and nice like all the other times before. Her face twisted into disgust.

“Here.” He handed her the tan envelope. He just wanted things to stop. He was waving a white flag.

“What is it?”

“It’s Naruto’s schoolwork for today will you bring it to him for me?”

“Huh?” Her mouth made a perfect ‘o’ as she registered what he was saying. She held out both hands and took the envelope. “Yeah...sure.”

“Thank you.” He didn’t say anything else and left.

*****

The teacher kept his word. Everyone except him was held back after school. Including Ino. He was free to leave. It didn’t matter to him. He had to go home and get changed as he was going to be attending his first tennis lessons tonight. He knew he looked ridiculous. He had a headband around his forehead to help soak up the sweat but it was useless. He wore shorts and a form-fitting t-shirt that immediately became drenched in sweat.

He didn’t know that Hizashi was a male version of his mother. He wasn’t just going to teach him the basics of tennis. Hizashi was training him as if he were going to go to the Olympics. It was a two-hour lesson to gauge where his skill level was. The first thirty minutes Hizashi pelted tennis balls at him and he was made to strike the tennis ball with his racquet across the net. He failed miserably. The remaining hour and a half He made him do different exercises. He found himself collapsed on the court at the country club wheezing.

“He’s out of shape.” Hizashi commented to his mother. “He has the flexibility of a metal pole and the hand-eye coordination of a toddler.”

“I’m raising geniuses, Hizashi. Not professional sports players.”

He stopped listening to their conversation. They were going to get a drink while he washed up. After he was finished showering he changed clothes and dried his hair. He began walking through the club looking for his mother...no that wasn’t true. He was pretending to look for his mother. He really wanted to find Hinata. He wondered if she was here today. Hizashi has been bringing Hinata to the country club on the days he gives tennis lessons. That’s what his mother said.

He was about to give up when he found her. He had flashes of her image in his memory. They were pixelated and large parts were missing as if she was nothing more than a hologram. It was her. He knew it. Even if he hadn’t formally met her he knew it was her because she was wearing a neck brace. She wasn’t seated in a wheelchair as his mother claimed. She was sitting at one of the tables and she appeared to be sketching.

He didn’t know what he was doing. His body walked up to her and he just stood there. Next to the table and stared down at her. She looked up. She had upturned eyes with thick eyelashes. Her nose was small and suited her face. Her eyes were a milky blue as if someone poured cream into her corneas. Her hair was just as inky black as his own and touched her shoulders with blunted bangs.

She didn’t say anything, and he didn’t say anything.

It was silent with neither saying anything. The silence was growing louder. He thought about saying something, anything, to break the silence. His mind went blank. He expected her to say something...ask him what he wanted, ask him why he was here, standing over her, and not saying anything. She didn’t. She just kept staring. The silence was growing uncomfortably long. He didn’t know how much time was lapsing. He also couldn’t look away. His eyes were locked with hers. He blurted out the first sentence that ran across his mind.

“I bought you a shelled bracelet in Hawaii.”

She didn’t say anything. She blinked a few times.

“You...what?” She asked. Her voice was small. Almost as if she was talking barely above a whisper. It strained his ears to listen.

“The class trip we went to Hawaii and you weren’t there so I purchased you a souvenir.” He explained. She smiled.

“You went on the class trip?”

He nodded his head. She pushed herself back. It was hard for her to move her head with the neckbrace. She had to turn at her waist. She shifted in her chair so that she was comfortably facing him.

“I didn’t think you would.” She stated softly. “What made you go?”

“Naruto.” He blurted out again. Again he said the first word that popped across his mind. “He’s my new assigned partner since...since…”

“I fell down the stairs?”

“Uh...yeah…” He hesitated. He wanted to confirm with Hinata that it was an accident but he couldn’t. It felt as if that was a forbidden question he wasn’t allowed to ask. Not yet at least.

“Naruto is your partner? That’s good. How are things going?” The way she said it sent a tingle down his spine. It was as if she was in on the secret. Maybe she was. He had a good belief that Neji, Hinata, Naruto, Kiba, Ino, and Sakura were close friends at one point. Until the incident with the boxcars followed by Hinata tumbling down the stairs. He was Sherlock Holmes piecing everything together.

“Awful!” He blurted out again. He didn’t know why talking to Hinata felt like he had drunk a truth serum. This was the first time ever talking to her but it felt as if he knew her. He did. They were partners for the entire first part of the school year. Maybe that was why he felt so comfortable with her. She sat next to him every day at school.

She laughed. “You’re the first one that has ever said being Naruto’s partner is awful.”

Maybe she didn’t know how obsessive Sakura was with Naruto.

“Why?” He asked.

“Naruto is liked by everyone. He doesn’t have any enemies and even adults like him. He’s like...the sun. Liked and loved by everyone.”

Sasuke shrugged. He remembered Naruto’s behaviors when they were alone on the bus. They were frightening. Erratic. Desperate. Rough. He remembered Naruto slipping into his hotel bed stating he was afraid. He was vulnerable and appeared small and childlike. He didn’t know who the real Naruto was. Maybe he was somewhere in the middle.

“You don’t think so?” Hinata asked curiously.

“I don’t think we’re friends.”

“Naruto...is a wonderful person. He’s athletic, he’s charming, he’s nice, he’s smart...he’s perfect!” She praised him as if he were an Olympian God. He watched as her cheeks became beat red. He saw it. Hinata liked Naruto more than a friend.

“You like-him-like-him, too.” He blurted out again. He remembered Sakura’s cheeks turning pink when she was around him.

“Ey?” Hinata gasped and raised her hands. “It’s...not...I mean...I…” She couldn’t even bring herself to lie. She covered her face with her hands. Sasuke pulled a chair out and officially joined her at the table. She moved her fingers so she could peek out. “Is it that obvious?” She asked.

He nodded his head up and down. It was obvious.

“I’m still working up the courage to tell him how I feel. I just hope...he doesn’t hate me.” The happiness and sparkle on her face vanished. Darkness washed over her face. A realization.

“Hate you? Why would he hate you?” He couldn’t picture Naruto hating anyone. He was friendly to everyone.

“We got into an argument before I fell.” Hinata confessed. “I...I couldn’t remember anything at first after I woke up in the hospital. I’ve been getting my memory back little by little and I know Naruto and I argued.

“You...don’t remember the accident?” He asked.

“No...I just remember walking down the hallway towards the stairs then it’s all blank. The next thing I remember is waking up in the hospital.”

“What did you and Naruto-”

“There you are Sasuke!” His mother's voice silenced him. She had appeared next to Hizashi. His mother always had the worst timing. He could see the glimmer in her eyes. She was pleased he was talking to Hinata. “It’s time for us to go. We’ll see you next week, Hizashi. Again thank you so much.”

He wasn’t able to say anything else to Hinata and she offered no words. They both became quiet. Neither said goodbye. He wondered if she would be here next week. He had more questions he wanted to ask her, more importantly, he wanted to know what she and Naruto argued about.

*****

The next day when he entered the classroom he saw Naruto sitting at his desk. He was wearing a white mask over his face. Was he still sick? He looked around the classroom. Everyone avoided his eyes. It felt like he was a pariah. Naruto was turned around in his seat and he was talking to several classmates, Sakura specifically. His blue eyes were focused on her.

“Who did it?” Naruto asked. His voice was muffled from the mask.

“I don’t know.” Sakura answered. “I would have already told the teacher if I knew something! You know this.” Sakura’s voice was flustered. She was acting as if she was defending herself. Her face was pink with embarrassment. He knew what the conversation was about without having to ask. Naruto had found out what happened yesterday.

“I hate this kind of thing the most.” Naruto commented.

Naruto turned back around in his seat and ignored Sakura. She didn’t say anything else and stormed back to her seat. She caught him looking at her and glared at him as if everything was his fault. Everything happened so fast. He had no choice but to go and sit at his desk. He didn’t understand why she was angry with him. His old desk was replaced and even though the new desk was clean he could still see the words written in black sharpie.

“G’mornin’ Sasuke!” Naruto greeted happily.

“Why are you in school...you still look sick.” He commented as he sat at his desk.

“I couldn’t stand another day of my mother fussing over me. It was suffocating. I’d rather be here than with her babying me.”

He couldn’t relate. The last time he was sick his mother gave him medicine and left him alone to fight the fever. He didn’t say anything else to Naruto. He pulled out his mathematics textbook.

“I forgot my text-” Naruto said but before he could finish he slid the textbook over to him. “Thanks!”

That lunch he wanted to be alone. Naruto had decided to stay in the classroom as he was still recovering, and he knew Sakura, Ino, and Kiba would be with him. He didn’t have the energy to deal with any of them. He left first and went to the library. He chose a table in the way back where nobody ventured. He brought his history textbook with him and read the entire lunch period. He returned to the classroom just before the teacher did and sat down next to Naruto.

“Where did you go during lunch? I wanted to eat lunch with you.” Naruto asked. He shrugged and didn’t answer as the teacher started the lecture. Naruto looked disappointed and turned in his seat to see the teacher.

After school, again, their teacher held everyone back for one hour. He allowed Naruto to leave as he was absent, and Naruto walked with him out of school. It was impossible to shake him.

“Sakura brought me my school work yesterday.” Naruto commented. He didn’t say anything. He just kept walking. “Why didn’t you bring it?” Naruto asked. He swallowed and his eyes focused on the ground. “I figured the teacher would ask you to bring it since we’re partners.”

“I didn’t want to.” He answered. It was the truth. “I knew Sakura did.”

“Okay...” Naruto elongated the word into three syllables. “When are you going to come over to my house?”

“Why would I come over?”

“Because we’re friends.”

“No we’re not.” He corrected.

“If you come over we’ll be closer...”

“Pass.”

“That’s not fair. I get to see your room but you won’t come to mine?”

He stopped walking and stared at Naruto. “What do you mean? I didn’t invite you over.”

“Your mother invited our family to dinner this Friday.”

“Oh.” He said and started walking down the sidewalk. He had forgotten his mother invited their family over. He stopped in front of the bus sign. Naruto stopped next to him.

“Are you okay?” Naruto asked. He sounded genuine.

“Mhm.”

“About yesterday and what-”

“Naruto it’s fine. Don’t bring it up again. I’m over it.” He snapped. He knew he was going to bring up the defacing of his desk and trash being dumped everywhere. Naruto became quiet. Nothing else was spoken.

*****

Nobody had fessed up. The teacher kept everyone in the classroom for one hour after school ended the whole week. He wondered how long he was going to keep doing this. Maybe it was a power move on the teacher’s half as well as teaching them there are consequences to actions. He had barely spoken to Naruto all week. He was confused. He had taken his lunches in the library and declined Naruto’s invitations to go to his house every time he asked. Friday night had come quickly and he was anxious. He didn’t know why seeing Naruto was making him more anxious even his father being present didn’t settle his nerves. He picked at the skin nervously around his nails.

He walked into the foyer of their house where the Namikaze’s were being greeted. He was made to dress nicely. Business casual. A polo shirt and khakis. He recognized Naruto’s father, Minato. He was also dressed business casual in a button-up shirt. The next person he was introduced to was Naruto’s mother, Kushina. She was a beautiful woman dressed in a flowing emerald dress. She had long flowing auburn hair with woven gold. Everything..flowed with her. She was expressive and warm and radiant. It clicked. Of course, someone like Naruto would have parents like these.

Naruto, surprisingly enough, was also dressed nicely. It didn’t suit him. It looked forced. He could tell by Naruto’s expression he was forced to wear these clothes. He looked uncomfortable. He smiled because Naruto was just as uncomfortable as him. They dined in the formal dining room. The table was still too big even with six people filling it. Minato and Kushina sat next to each other on one side of the table, and he and Naruto sat on the other side of the table. Posted at both ends were his parents.

Tonight's menu was surf and turf. Steak and lobster with risotto and a vegetable medley. He tried not zoning out at dinner. It was automatic. His mind filtered out everyone and he was alone at the table eating.

“Sasuke has recently started tennis lessons.” His mother spoke. This was the part of the dinner where his mother was going to talk as if he wasn’t here. “I think it’s very important for a child to be well-rounded and versed in many extracurricular activities. He attends several cram schools, piano lessons, and now tennis lessons.”

“We just let Naruto do what he wants, we don’t force anything on him.”

He didn’t know why he was beginning to resent Naruto. He couldn’t sit another minute. He felt sick. He felt lightheaded. He stood up.

“Excuse me. I’m not feeling well. I’m going to go lay down.” He spoke politely before excusing himself. He could feel the penetrating eyes of his mother following him disapprovingly. The moment he left the dining room, and the door closed behind him, he started inhaling deeply. It felt good to breathe. He started walking away when he heard the door opening up behind him. He froze and turned slowly expecting his mother to be there to berate him. Instead, it was Naruto. He exhaled in relief.

“What are you doing?” He asked.

“Following you, what else does it look like I’m doing? I wanted to make sure you’re okay.” Naruto answered bluntly and closed the door behind him.

“I don’t feel good, I'm going to go lay down.” He said and turned around. He hoped Naruto would get the message he wanted to be alone. He didn’t and started following him up the stairs. He was too mentally exhausted to argue with him and let him follow. Naruto trailed behind him like a lost puppy. His room was rather boring. It was monochrome. There weren’t any posters on the walls, or gaming systems, or even a television. It was minimalistic.

“I knew it...your room is exactly like a serial killer’s!” Naruto exclaimed as he entered his room.

“A serial killer?”

“Yes. Serial killers are the quiet, smart, methodical types that are easily overlooked. You fit the description.”

He didn’t say anything else and just stared at Naruto for a few moments. He didn’t understand how his brain worked. He turned around and did what he said he was going to do. He went on his bed and laid down. He could hear Naruto walking across his room and sitting down at his desk chair. His room was boring. There was nothing to do except sleep and study.

“Did I do...something to upset you?” Naruto asked. “If I did...let me know so I can apologize or fix it.”

“What are you talking about?” He asked and pushed himself into a sitting position.

“You...you’ve been giving me the cold shoulder all week. I don’t understand. I thought we patched things up in Hawaii.” Naruto stared at him waiting for an answer and when he didn’t get one he began talking again. “The only thing that I can think of...is what happened to your desk.”

“Do you know who did it?” He asked. Naruto looked away. “You do know.” He jumped off his bed and walked towards Naruto. “Who is it?” He demanded. He was standing over Naruto.

“Kiba...he did it as a prank.”

“Why did he do it?”

Naruto didn’t answer.

He exhaled loudly. He knew it had to be one of the three. Ino must have asked Kiba, and either Ino or Kiba told Naruto what had happened. The conversation he entered in the classroom made sense. Naruto wasn’t just asking about who did it out of all their classmates. He was asking who did it out of their little group.

“You’re going to protect him...aren’t you?” He asked Naruto. He waited for a response. Now it was Naruto’s turn to stop talking. He clammed up and looked down, avoiding his eyes. Naruto didn’t answer why Kiba did it and he clearly said he was going to protect him even knowing what he had done. He didn’t know why he asked. He walked back to his bed.

“Would it change anything between us if I told the teacher it was Kiba?” Naruto asked.

“I just want things to stop.” He admitted. “I want to keep my distance from you because I don’t want these things to continue, or escalate...and I don’t want to be pushed down the stairs.”

“What do you mean I told you it was an accident!” Naruto’s desperate voice was back. He reverted back to how he was acting on the bus. His mask didn’t just fall off it shattered.

“Look. I’m...getting exhausted…” Naruto spoke. “I can’t be around them all the time like they want. It’s exhausting. That’s why I kept staying with you in the hotel room. It gave me a break and being around you isn’t exhausting. Even if you’re as prickly as a porcupine...I’m not exhausted when I’m around you.”

He lost count of how many times Naruto said he was exhausted. His voice and expression told him he was telling the truth. He was exhausted being around Sakura, Ino, and Kiba all the time.

“I would rather spend the night watching cartoons with you...than another minute with them at the luau. It was suffocating and it felt like I couldn’t breathe.”

He felt his heart flutter again and he could feel his cheeks warming. He did wonder why Naruto was spending so much time with him. Why he left the luau to spend the night watching cartoons with him. He was cold to Naruto. He barely spoke to him.

“If I talk to you...will stuff like that keep happening to me?” He asked.

“No. I already told them to leave you alone. It won’t happen again...I promise.”

“I don’t know why you want to be my friend so badly.” He commented out loud. He had meant to think it but it was blurted out. He didn’t like that his filter was beginning to weaken.

“I can be myself around you.” Naruto answered with a smile. He flipped a switch again. His mask was glued back together and he was wearing it. Naruto changed moods faster than a speeding bullet.

Naruto was...scary. He felt nervous again.

“If anything happens to me again I’m not going to talk to you.” He cemented. He was drawing a line. If it was crossed he was going to wipe his hands clean from him, all of them.

“Okay!” Naruto answered confidently. “So what’s the deal with the serial killer room?”

“It-it’s not! If you don’t like it, leave.”

Naruto erupted into laughter. “I was only kidding. You don’t have to be so serious all the time. I like it better when you laugh...or at least smile.”

“Nothing you said was funny.” He mumbled. He looked at his bookcase. There was a chess game on it. He looked back at Naruto. “Do you know how to play chess?”

“A little.”

“Do you want to play?”

“Yeah!” Naruto answered happily. He was momentarily stunned by his smile. Hinata was right. Naruto was as bright as the sun. He filled his room with warmth. He could feel it.

He stood up and grabbed the chess game from the shelf and placed it on the floor. His room was clean and his floor was spotless. It was a glass set. One side was black-glass and the other clear-white glass. The board was also made of glass. He had gotten it as a Christmas gift from his mother. He often wondered if he dropped it high enough if it would shatter beyond recognition.

He looked up at him. Naruto was in front of him and crossed his legs. He kneeled down. They finished setting up the board.

“I’m white?” Naruto asked. He nodded his head. “So I go first?” He nodded his head again.

Naruto moved his pawn. It was a standard move. In response, he moved his pawn and blocked Naruto’s pawn. It was a standoff. Both pawns were stuck in the middle of the board for now. Naruto moved a knight. He moved another pawn. He was surprised to find Naruto quiet. He didn’t say anything and his focus remained on the board. His blue eyes seemed to look at every piece and he appeared in deep thought. Was he actually trying to come up with a strategy?

Naruto moved another pawn. He moved his bishop. He didn’t understand Naruto’s movements. Naruto captured his pawn. The game went back and forth. Neither spoke. It was a game of concentration. He had felt Naruto was taking it seriously. He had checked Naruto the first time. He wanted to exert dominance. It didn’t phase Nartuo. The game continued. Naruto was now on the offense. He misread one of his moves and before he knew it Naruto said.

“Check.”

He looked at the board and saw Naruto’s queen in the back row with his king in her path. He moved his knight and took out Naruto’s queen. Naruto moved his rook.

“Checkmate.” Naruto spoke clearly and confidently. He leaned back and smiled smugly.

“Huh?!”

What? He looked at the board again. He looked at all the pieces. He couldn’t move. Naruto won. He pushed his King over and exhaled. He didn’t expect Naruto to be so...good.

“I won!” Naruto cheered and clapped his hands.

“You’re really good.” He commented. “More than a little good.” He narrowed his eyes. It felt as if he was cheated somehow.

Naruto flashed a mischievous smile. “You asked me if I played chess...not if I was good at chess. My dad taught me and we play from time to time. I have only managed to beat him one time.”

“Oh really?”

“Yeah...you’re pretty good, but you’re completely readable on what you were going to do.”

Sasuke’s door opened and his mother popped her head in. He was in transit with Naruto’s words. He was saying that he was easily readable? Naruto read every move he was going to make? How? He turned to see his mother smiling warmly from the doorway. “Naruto, your parents are ready to leave now.”

He hadn’t realized how much time had passed. For a moment. He didn’t want Naruto to leave. For a fraction of a second, he wanted a rematch. He wanted to protest and beg for a little more time. He wanted to do a rematch and he wanted to win. At that moment he wanted nothing more than to beat Naruto and have him look at him in awe. He didn’t say anything. He watched as Naruto stood up.

“Bye Sasuke. I’ll see you in school on Monday.”

“Bye.” He spoke softly.

He watched as his mother escorted Naruto out of his room. She closed the door behind her without another word. He was alone in his room again. It felt cold. He sat there for a few moments processing what had happened. He looked at the board. At his fallen king. He looked at Naruto’s side.

He didn’t understand Naruto at all. He left him confused.

*****

“What do you think of Naruto?” Hinata asked. She had been sitting at the same table. She was drinking orange juice through a straw and she had her sketchbook with a set of pencils and an eraser. He glanced down to see she was sketching hands. Detailed hands in different poses. She was really talented.

“He’s pushy...you can’t say no to him. He seems to always get his way. He’s spoiled and I think he’s hiding a secret.” Every muscle in his body ached from his tennis lesson. It was a repeat of last week. It also didn’t help that Hinata gave off the aura of a psychologist offering up advice for five cents. He felt comfortable with her. Was this how Naruto felt with him? Comfortable?

“Hiding a secret?” Hinata repeated. “What kind of secret?” She didn’t know. He wanted to tell her but didn’t.

“I don’t know...it just feels like he has a secret.”

“Did you bring my souvenir?” She asked. He had forgotten. He frowned. It was still in his top drawer next to Naruto’s handkerchief. His stomach churned. He still hadn’t given Naruto’s handkerchief back.

“I didn’t know if you would be here or not…” He answered truthfully. He was happy when he found her here.

“I come here Monday nights with my Uncle. I can’t bear to come more than once. I can’t do anything.”

He nodded in agreement. Hinata was healing from a broken neck. It isn't like she could fully participate in any of the club’s activities, lessons, and groups. All she could do was sit at a table and draw.

“How was Naruto on the classtrip?”

“He wouldn’t leave me alone; it felt like he was glued to me the majority of the time.”

“I wonder why.” Hinata thought out loud. “Did he not hang out with Ino, Kiba, and Sakura?” Her eyes widened in curiosity.

“Yeah...from time to time. I guess he did.”

“Do you eat lunch with him at school?”

“Not anymore. I eat lunch in the library.”

“Maybe you should eat lunch with him again. I bet he would like that.”

He thought back to Naruto’s words of him confessing being around Ino, Kiba, and Sakura was exhausting, suffocating. Then he thought about what Hinata said last week. He wanted to know what they fought about.

“Last week...last week you said you and Naruto got into an argument. What was that argument about?”

Hinata’s eyes widened before they rounded and softened. She looked down and to the side as if remembering. Her face looked pained as if she was remembering something bad. He thought she wasn’t going to tell him. She cleared her throat and told him nonetheless.

“I told Naruto he needed to make more friends beside Ino, Kiba, and Sakura. I told him he was changing the more time he spent with them. I asked him not to keep shutting everyone else out. He was upset with me and thought I was telling him to stop being friends with them altogether. I was just telling him to make another friend besides them.”

“Naruto is friends with everyone though.”

“No. He’s friendly with everyone. He only spends his time with them three. He’s only friends with them. He even stopped spending time with me. They all did, and I was excluded and I didn’t understand why.”

Hinata knew it too. She knew how obsessed they all were with each other. It was unhealthy. He could feel the barrier around Naruto and Sakura, a forcefield he wasn’t able to breach. Her behavior at the volcano park. Feigning sadness and fear and blaming him. It was frightening. He remembered Ino’s icy warning in the Art Museum. Her eyes were vicious and cruel. He remembered Kiba coming on the bus and leaving with Naruto. He tried to understand the expression Kiba wore but he couldn’t put it into words. Was it...resentment? A bitterness? Was this the reason why Kiba trashed his desk? Ino said Sakura wouldn’t be so bold. He agreed. So Kiba was the bold one. Was Kiba punishing him for spending time with Naruto?

The only wildcard was Ino. She may have been a bystander but she was letting everything happen without saying a word, and she was the one who warned him.

“Naruto told me he was exhausted being around them all the time.”

“He did?!” Hinata exclaimed. Her face lit up and she smiled as if she was told she won the lottery. “That’s great...he’s finally branching out! I’m so happy!”

“Naruto said he wanted to patch things up with you. He said you were a precious friend.”

“He...did? Really? He isn’t mad at me or anything?” She said and her eyes watered up.

He shook his head no. She exhaled and leaned back. She wiped away a few tears that escaped her eyes. She was so happy she was...crying? She still couldn’t move around and she remained as stiff as a board yet she felt emotions and didn’t hide from them like he did. She brought a hand to her heart and exhaled. “I’m so relieved.”

“Why...aren’t you in school?” He asked. He felt envious of Hinata and how genuine and honest she was. Even if he didn’t have any evidence he knew if Hinata returned to the class things might settle down with the trio.

“I can’t return until my neck is healed. It’s too risky. I could easily fall and hurt myself all over again. The doctor says I can return when my neck brace comes off.”

“So you’re not avoiding school?”

“What? No of course not!”

“I hope you heal quickly and come back to school.”

“Really?” Hinata’s face lit up again. “Thank you...that makes me happy!”

“Yeah...if you want Naruto to be friends with other people he needs your help. I can’t do it by myself.”

He heard his mother calling his name.

“I’ll talk to you next week?” Hinata asked as he stood up to leave. Her voice was upbeat and she was smiling. He turned to look at her.

“Yeah I’ll be here…bye.”

“Bye, Sasuke!”

*****

“Ey...what are you doing here? Are you stalking me?” Ino asked sharply. She kept her voice low as they were both in the library. It was during the lunch period. He was getting over the shock of finding her here.

“What? No. This is where I eat lunch.” He defended. He wasn’t expecting anyone to be here during the lunch hour let alone Ino. She had coincidently been seated in the back of the library where he normally spent time studying. Today he had forgotten his lunch and he had to buy a few pastries from the cafeteria.

He looked to see Ino had their last history test in front of her. She had received a 37. It was written in red pen. She saw him looking and quickly covered up her test results. There was a mixture of shame and anger outlined on her face.

“The teacher said if I made corrections during the lunch period he would raise my grade.” She defended. She was a prideful person. It made sense why she was hiding in the back. Nobody rarely walks through the back and it’s a ghost town during the lunch period.

“If I fail another test my parents are going to pull me from my dance lessons. I can’t let that happen...dancing is everything to me!” Ino continued to defend. Her cheeks burned red. She was looking off to the side as if he was standing over there.

He didn’t say anything else to Ino and chose another table. He didn’t want Naruto to find him and he was afraid that if he sat in the front of the library Naruto might pop his head in and see him. He remained in the back, hiding, with Ino.

He opened up his history textbook. He was just going to ignore Ino and study. He read for about ten minutes before he saw Ino turning in her chair. He could feel her eyes staring at him. He looked up. He was right. She was staring at him. There was an intensity in her eyes, no, a need. She wanted something that he had. She wasn’t looking at him per se she was staring at the textbook.

“Is that...is that the history textbook?” She asked.

“Yes.”

“Do you mind if I borrow it? I left mine at home. I asked the librarian if they had any extra copies and they don’t.”

“How were you planning on making corrections without the textbook in the first place?” He inquired.

“I don’t know. I just thought maybe I could come up with different answers and hopefully get a higher grade.”

He stared at her. He was tempted to tell her no. He wanted to tell her to ask Sakura, or Kiba, or Naruto for their textbook. Even though his brain was telling him to ice her out, ignore her, be cruel. His stomach wasn’t having it. He felt anxious and guilty if he did any of those actions. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. He sighed and gave in. He closed the textbook and handed it to her. She grabbed it as if she was offered a stack of cash and turned around like a gremlin.

For the remainder of the lunch period she was hunched over re-writing answers on the test. He watched her as he ate the few pastries he bought at the cafeteria. She worked diligently. Dancing must have been very important to her if she was going to hide out in the back of the library making test corrections.

Ino was still a wildcard. He was the first to leave. She told him she just had a few more answers to write. She said she would give the textbook back. He didn’t care. History was this morning he wouldn’t need it until tomorrow. Ino had been arriving late to class and school more frequently. He knew the teacher would give her detention if she arrived late again. He held his tongue and didn’t say anything to her. It didn’t concern him.

He sat back at his desk and Naruto was already seated next to him.

“Where do you go during lunch?” Naruto asked. “It’s like you vanish every time. I couldn’t find you.”

He shrugged. He didn’t answer. Naruto continued. “Are you ignoring me because I beat you at chess?” He flashed a smug smile. “We can always do a rematch. I can come over and we can do a rematch.”

“No…no.” He stammered. He didn’t want Naruto back in his room. He wasn’t ignoring Naruto because he won at chess. “I go to the library to study. It’s quiet there.” Naruto nodded his head up and down.

“What are you doing after school today?” Naruto asked.

“I have piano lessons.”

“What about tomorrow?”

“Cram school.”

“The next day?”

“Cram school.”

“Saturday?”

Naruto was exhausting. He wore people down until they submitted. He thought back to Hinata.

“Nothing.” He admitted. He couldn’t come up with anything.

“Let’s do something. You can come over to my house, we can go to the mall...hang out in the park. Play another rematch of chess. Whatever you want. It’ll just be you and me, promise.”

“Okay.” He answered and covered his hand up with his mouth. He did want to spend a day with just Naruto.

“Really?” Naruto’s face lit up. He nodded his head in agreement. His hand remained locked around his mouth. “Okay-okay-okay, yes!”

He agreed because it was just going to be Naruto. He could handle being alone with Naruto. What he couldn’t handle was everyone else hovering around. The teacher had come in and the class began. He noticed Ino wasn’t back yet. She was going to get in trouble. Sure enough fifteen minutes later during the lesson, Ino appeared at the doorway.

“You’re late.” The teacher spoke without turning his back. “This makes 3 times, Ino which means you have detention.”

“We already have detention...because of what happened to Sasuke’s desk!”

“You can stay an extra hour to clean the classroom.”

Ino bowed. “I’m sorry. I got caught up studying in the library. Please let me slide this once.”

“Were you really in the library?” The teacher asked and turned to her.

“Yes. Sasuke was there too!” She exclaimed and pointed to Sasuke. She pulled out the history textbook. “He let me borrow his history book...see?” Ino walked across the classroom and handed him back his book. He took it. She pulled him into her mess.

“I’ll let it slide this time but next time it will be detention.”

He could feel eyes on him. It felt as if they were lasers pointed at him. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end. The teacher continued the lesson. He saw Naruto fidgeting next to him.

Naruto leaned over and whispered. “You were in the library with Ino all lunch?”

“Mhm.”

Naruto didn’t say anything else. He shifted his attention back to the blackboard. He wanted to tell Naruto it wasn’t what he was thinking. Well. He didn’t know what Naruto was thinking. It was a coincidence that Ino was in the library, a coincidence that she needed to borrow a textbook he had with him at the time. He also wanted to let Sakura and Kiba know the truth as well. He figured Ino would fill them in later. She would explain it was all a coincidence. He exhaled and focused back on the lesson.

*****

“Morning, Sasuke.” Naruto greeted as he sat down at the desk. He stifled a yawn. Naruto was late to class. He would have been late. The teacher was nowhere in sight. He watched as Naruto started getting ready for class. He yawned again this time louder. Naruto had gotten away with being late. He didn’t understand how Naruto was so...lucky.

“Did you not sleep last night?” He asked.

“I was up all night playing a new video game. I couldn’t complete a mission...I eventually had to give up.”

The teacher walked in. He was holding a piece of paper. He walked to the front of the classroom. He didn’t greet them good morning. He didn’t say hello. He didn’t even jump into the lesson which he would do if he was running late. He just stared at them and the expression on his face told them they were in trouble, somehow. The teacher looked disappointed. His jaw was firm. His mouth a straight line. His eyebrows furrowed. The creases on the sides of his eyes deepened. The classroom became quiet. Everyone turned and stared at him. A wave of realization that something serious was about to happen.

“I have in my hand an affidavit.” He spoke and held up the piece of paper. “Who knows what an affidavit is?”

He knew what it was but it somehow felt like a trick question. A rhetorical question in which he really didn’t want an answer.

“A written statement confirmed by oath or affirmation to be used as evidence in court.” He answered his own question. “I know this classroom isn’t a court of law, but it’s a court of your peers. So I’m treating it as such.”

Nobody said anything. Everyone continued to stare.

“I said I would keep you all after school for one hour every day until someone comes forward. I have a written statement signed by a witness. Following an interview with this witness and two other teachers it was determined this witness was credible, and so Kiba I want you to tell me, and the class, why you did it.”

Everyone seemed to gasp and turn around to stare at Kiba. He was in the back of the classroom.

“Who told?” Kiba asked. He stood up. His voice was shaky. He sounded like Caesar who was stabbed. He could feel the betrayal in his voice. Kiba’s eyes immediately bounced off Ino, Sakura, Naruto...and finally landed on him.

“That wasn’t the question I asked you. Why did you do it?”

“It was just a prank...it wasn’t anything serious.” Kiba tried to mitigate everything.

“Come on I’m bringing you to the principal’s office. We’ll finish our conversation there. While I’m gone I want you all to decide on a fitting consequence for Kiba.”

He didn’t know why he felt fear. It slinked around him like a python. He struggled to breathe. He didn’t tell the teacher. He didn’t tell. Yet he knew somehow it was going to fall back on him. His heartbeat quickened. It banged in his chest like a gong going off. He didn’t know who told either. He moved his body and shifted his eyes back to the front of the classroom. He panicked. He did it again. He blinked and everyone around him vanished. He couldn’t hear anything. He was alone in the classroom and he used this time to compose himself. It didn’t work.

He didn’t know who gave a written statement attesting to revealing the culprit but it wasn’t him.

Naruto turned to him. He reached out and touched his arm forcing him back into reality.

“Hey...Sasuke...did you tell?”

Chapter Text

Drew their swords

 

Ino slammed her hands on her desk. It immediately silenced the fragmented conversations around the classroom. All eyes shifted to her. The teacher had left with the culprit and they were left to their own devices. Twelve angry men took the form of a classroom. Her eyes flashed first to Sakura. She was poised perfectly in her chair, hands folded on her desk, and whose attention wasn’t just glowering at Sasuke but she was deep in thought about how to use this as her advantage and completely sever whatever relationship Naruto had with Sasuke.

Ino shifted her eyes to Naruto who held an accusatory stare at Sasuke. She was impressed with how quickly Naruto’s mood shifted when it came to Sasuke. She had only known Sasuke for a fraction of the time and knew he wouldn’t have told the teacher what happened. She had been suspicious of Naruto’s sudden interest with Sasuke. She didn’t want another person to get hurt playing with them. If Sasuke continued to cling to Naruto he was going to get hurt, severely hurt, Hinata tumbling down the stairs hurt.

“That’s all it takes, huh Naruto?” Ino quipped loudly for all to hear. “I was wondering why you were sticking to Sasuke like glue.” She stood up. Her hands were still pressed to her desk and her eyes rested solely on Naruto. She watched as Naruto turned his attention slowly to her. From the corner of her eyes, she saw Sakura turning her attention and focusing on her. Naruto’s face was at first unreadable as if he wasn’t sure how to react like he didn’t know if he should play along or take the role of victim.

“There were four of us who knew what happened. It’s not hard to figure out who told the teacher. Come on, Naruto. Think about it logically.” Ino explained. She looked and sounded like a police investigator during an interrogation. She already had the evidence and laid it out neatly in front of Naruto. “Why would Sasuke know who did it...unless you told him? Is that why you suspected him first? Was this another one of your tests? Or. Did you tell Sasuke who did it to see if he would tell?”

Naruto feigned a smile. “What are you talking about, Ino?”

“I know Kiba did it. Sakura knows Kiba did it. Kiba knows he did it...and you know Kiba did it. You must have told Sasuke that Kiba did it...otherwise, why would you immediately suspect him? Is it because you think he was the one who told?”

Naruto’s smile faltered. There was a coldness frosting across his eyes making his eyes look like icebergs. His eyes narrowed. Jagged icicles were the perfect murder weapon. He didn’t like being put on the spot. Ino smirked. All eyes shifted to Naruto.

“I’ll take things real slow for you, Naruto. Sakura wouldn’t tell. You wouldn’t tell. We all know Kiba wouldn’t admit it. Why do you think Sasuke would tell...what would he possibly gain by telling? I can’t think of one reason why Sasuke would tell. If you think Sasuke told. Tell us. What reason would he have for telling?”

Naruto didn’t say anything.

“That just leaves you, Ino.” Sakura commented on what Naruto was thinking. “If Sasuke didn’t tell...it means you told.”

“Of course it leaves me. I told you. I’m the only one with a motive. I can’t afford to miss an hour of dance rehearsal every day. They threatened to take away my solo! I told the teacher it was Kiba. It had nothing to do with me. It wasn’t until my conversation with the teacher that I finally figured out why you were sticking so close to Sasuke.”

“Ino stop.” Naruto warned. His voice sounded dangerous. His demeanor changed. His jaw clenched. His muscles flexed. Shadows filled his face. He looked like a caricature. A villain who revealed himself at the eleventh hour.

“I have a debt to repay to Sasuke and I’m repaying it right now.” Ino looked at Sasuke. He had become sickly pale as if any second he was going to pass out. It wasn’t Ino’s nature to sugar-coat. She warned Sasuke multiple times in Hawaii and he didn’t heed any of her warnings. “The only reason Naruto is pretending to be your friend is that he made a deal with the teacher. In exchange for befriending you, Naruto is able to redo assignments so he doesn’t flunk eighth grade!”

Ino spun on her heels and walked to the blackboard. She took a piece of chalk and began writing across the board. Her letters were flowy and looped in smooth eloquence. She wrote like she must have danced. Controlled. Mastered. Persuasive. Her penmanship was breathtaking as if she could make a career from it. She dropped the chalk back down and turned back to stare at them. The words written behind her read as the following...

Discipline: Kiba will be on cleaning duty for one month to reflect on his transgressions.

She waited for someone to protest or offer another suggestion. The classroom remained so quiet as if everyone was holding their breath. Her seafoam green eyes peered around the classroom. She smirked. She flipped her blonde hair and walked back to her desk. She sat down just as the teacher walked back into class sans Kiba. His eyes went immediately to the blackboard and he nodded his head in agreement.

“I see nothing wrong with this discipline. We have a zero-tolerance policy for bullying, but I do not believe suspension or expulsion is a teachable moment and may do more harm than good. Who knows the difference between discipline and punishment?” The teacher picked up his lesson plans and jumped into the lecture.

“Sakura.”

“Discipline is like you said, a teachable moment. It is meant for you to learn and grown. Punishment is a negative form where the purpose isn’t to learn but to hurt.”

“Correct.”

“Do you think people learn from praise or punishment?”

“Praise.”

“Correct again.”

Sasuke stopped listening to the lecture. He heard a buzzing sound. It was white noise that drowned out all other sounds in the classroom. He blinked. Everyone in the classroom vanished. He was the only one sitting in the classroom. He could hear his heart slowing as if at any moment he was going to flatline. Everything slowed down. His eyes narrowed into pinpricks. His breathing slowed and labored.

He was replaying Ino’s words. Going over everything she had told him methodically and carefully as if to uncover a secret of the universe.

She warned him about Naruto in Hawaii. He didn’t believe her. She told him that Sakura pushed Hinata down the stairs. Hinata didn’t remember and had believed it was an accident. His conversation with Naruto left too many holes and loose ends. Naruto claimed it was an accident and maybe it was an accident at the time. Sakura may have reacted on pure impulse. It wasn’t premeditated. It was a crime of passion. It could have been an accident. But wasn’t that why there were charges such as manslaughter and criminal negligence? It was a continuum. Ino warned Sasuke that it wasn’t Sakura he needed to worry about. It was Naruto. She had left a seed of doubt when she told him her new hypothesis. He didn’t want to believe her but the seed was planted.

Ino figured it out. A means-tested theory.

Naruto was only pretending to be his friend. He was pretending to be his friend in exchange for not failing eighth grade. It made sense. He knew something was right when Naruto abruptly started talking to him, why he clung to him, why he appeared everywhere. He didn’t want to like Naruto. He didn’t...but he did. He cursed at himself for being so lonely that he would fall victim to such endless blue eyes. A little small talk, a smile, and he was hooked.

How pathetic.

*****

“Sasuke...please...let me explain things.” Naruto called out as he chased Sasuke from the classroom. Sasuke was walking to the staircase that led down to the first floor where the library was. He wanted to eat lunch in peace. He wanted to be alone so he could calm himself down. It felt like he was on the verge of crying or screaming or both.

“Leave me alone, Naruto.” Sasuke snapped. He stopped at the top of the stairs.

“Sasuke, please! Hear me out...it isn’t what you’re thinking.”

“Why did you immediately suspect me?” Sasuke asked and spun around. His back to the staircase. He watched as Naruto almost collided into him. He watched as Naruto took a step back. He was still close and he didn’t want him any closer. He flinched. “Like Ino said...what would I have gained if I told? What would be the reason?”

“I…”

“You’re cheap and fake, Naruto. You’re the worst kind. Someone who smiles nicely and tries to be friendly with everyone but the reality is you’re laughing at everyone. Is it fun for you? Were you laughing at me this whole time?”

“No! I really like you, Sasuke! I’m telling the truth! Please let me explain!” Naruto protested and shook his head. The facade Naruto had was broken. He wasn’t smiling. There was desperation cracking through his expression. There was a mixture of hurt and fear. Sasuke didn’t believe it. It was just another act. He wasn’t going to fall for it again. He couldn’t believe anything Naruto said, or how he looked and acted when he said it.

“You may fool everyone in the classroom, but I know who you really are, and you disgust me!”

“Sasuke...please. It may have started out like that but I, I really do like you. Everything I told you I meant it. I really do want to be your friend.”

“I hate you! Everything about you disgusts me! Leave me alone!”

Naruto reached out with his hand. It happened fast. Something that if it was being recorded would have needed to be replayed in slow motion to figure out what really happened. Otherwise, it left too much up for speculation. Naruto’s hand pushed Sasuke and Sasuke’s arm flung up in protest. He stretched his arms out and tried to step back to get away from Naruto. He forgot he was at the top of the stairs and when his foot went backwards it didn’t hit the floor. His foot fell through nothingness and he lost his balance. He felt his body falling backwards.

‘Oh’. Sasuke thought. He was at the top of the stairs.

“SASUKE!” Naruto cried out. “WATCH OUT!”

He watched as Naruto reached his hands out and jumped forward. Sasuke’s eyes filled with fear. He thought Naruto was going to push him again. His mind went blank. He completely froze. He closed his eyes. He thought he would have been stronger, smarter when faced with a horror movie villain. He thought himself box clever. He could easily escape and survive. When push comes to shove the reality was it wasn’t the case. He felt arms grabbing his arm. He felt his shoulder and side slamming against the stairs. Someone was holding onto his arm and like a rag doll, he went from being headfirst towards the bottom of the stairs to someone righting him. His body swung to where the momentum was and he felt his knees, and shins, slamming against the stairs. He opened his eyes and he was looking up at the top of the stairs. He had only fallen ten steps down and Naruto was holding onto him.

“Are you okay?” Naruto asked. He refused to let go. “Sasuke?”

Sasuke’s hand steadied against one of the stairs. He shifted into a sitting position. He was panting. His shoulder, pelvis bone, and shins stung. Sharp pains shot up and down Sasuke’s arm. He looked back up to see Naruto was still holding onto his left arm. He had stopped him from falling down the stairs. He was in complete shock; he couldn’t do anything but catch his breath. His vision blurred and faded. His skin felt on fire.

“I’m sorry...I’m sorry I didn’t mean to frighten you!” Naruto wouldn’t stop talking.

“Let. Go. Of. Me.” Sasuke emphasized each word. He watched as Naruto complied and he immediately let go. Sasuke retracted his arm. He continued panting. Beads of sweat rolled down his face. He continued sitting on the stairs. His hands pressing against one of the stairs in an attempt to steady his beating heart.

“I didn’t...I didn’t push you…!” Naruto cried. His eyes were watering. “Please believe me!”

Sasuke didn’t know what to believe. His heart beat continued to thump painfully. He gathered enough strength and stood up. His legs felt wobbly. He grabbed hold of the railing with a death grip and continued his way down the stairs. He didn’t say anything to Naruto and Naruto didn’t say anything to him. He didn’t turn back. He didn’t know if Naruto was still there or not. He walked into the library. He breathed recklessly through his mouth until he reached the back of the library. He felt instant relief when he saw that he was alone. He collapsed at one of the tables and began hyperventilating until he was in a full-blown panic attack.

*****

Sasuke splashed water on his face. He gripped the sides of the sink and inhaled and exhaled. The faucet was still on. He watched as the water hit the bowl of the sink and was swallowed up by the drain. He continued breathing through his mouth. He raised his eyes up and caught his reflection staring back. He was telling himself he was going to be okay. He was going to be alright. He remembered practicing with his mother how to smile. The Duchenne smile. The most influential of human emotions. His smile reached his eyes and wrinkled the corners. An authentic expression of happiness.

He dried his face off, straightened up his clothes, and returned to the classroom as if he didn’t have a breakdown in the back of the library. He didn’t just avoid Naruto, he eliminated him completely. He used his magical ability and made everyone in the classroom disappear except the teacher. He focused all his energy on the teacher and the lessons. He hyper-focused on note-taking.

Afterschool. He left. Naruto didn’t leave him alone. He followed him like a shadow.

“Sasuke. It’s true. That’s how it started out but it wasn’t how I feel now. I told you I like being around you. It’s why I spent all that time with you in Hawaii.” Naruto was still trying to explain himself.

“No.” Sasuke snapped. “You used me in Hawaii because you felt lonely and homesick. You didn’t care at all how I felt!”

“How you felt?” Naruto asked. He grabbed Sasuke’s arm and forced him to stop waking. He stood in front of him. It hurt. His grip was too hard. His voice changed. He laughed coldly. “Don’t pretend you didn’t like it. You liked that I gave you all of my attention. Admit it. You loved that I gave you attention. You fucking ate it up didn’t you?”

Sasuke’s eyes widened. This was the Naruto he saw on the bus, only it was evolved. Was this his true personality? His heart fluttered. He wanted to argue and protest but what Naruto said was true. He felt his face flushing. His stomach cramped. He didn’t like this Naruto. It frightened him. He felt himself shrinking and he saw Naruto growing.

He did. He did like having all of Naruto’s attention. He felt disgusted with himself.

“I wish you would have just pushed me down the stairs.” Sasuke admitted. “No. I’d rather you just stand there and do nothing as I fell down the stairs like you stood there and did nothing when Hinata fell.”

Naruto shoved Sasuke with both hands. “Why are you being so difficult? Just be my friend!”

“You’re insane.” Sasuke rebuked. He stumbled backwards and caught himself. “In what world do you think I would ever be your friend?”

“Don’t you have to because of our parents?” Naruto snapped.

“W-what?” Sasuke hesitated. He remembered his mother telling him that Naruto’s dad was the head of H Company, the same company his father had been putting sweat, blood, and tears into merging with. If the merger didn’t happen his father’s company was going to go bankrupt.

“Isn’t your father’s company merging with my father’s company?” Naruto asked. “Shouldn’t we get along? Or should I tell my father how you bully me? How you almost pushed me down the stairs today. How I cried alone in the library because I was so afraid of you.”

“Why...why would you do that?” Sasuke asked. It felt as if he were choking on his heart. He felt his chest tightening up. Why was Naruto using everything that happened to him today and trying to pass it off as if it happened to him?

“I told you. I want to be friends. I want to be your friend Sasuke and I want you to be my friend!”

“Okay.” Sasuke exhaled. His heart thumped painfully in his throat. He tried to swallow it but failed. “Okay. Let’s be friends.”

Naruto smiled sweetly. His eyes lit up and he shifted back to the same scruffy blonde he was first introduced to who emitted charm and charisma like a plugged in diffuser. “I’m glad you said you wanted to be friends. Otherwise, it would be really awkward when your family comes over for dinner on Friday.”

“We’re going over to your place for dinner?” Sasuke asked. His mother hadn’t told him of this. He was always the last to know.

“Mhm. My parents told me last night. I asked if you could stay the night since we already had plans to hang out on Saturday.”

Sasuke was frightened of Naruto. He was so frightened he couldn’t move his body. He was so frightened it felt like he was on the cusp of crying, no, he was so frightened he was beyond wanting to cry. It felt like he was shutting down. His vision blurred and darkened.

“I’m not allowed to spend the night at other people’s houses.” Sasuke spoke. He didn’t know how he was supposed to act. Naruto was blackmailing him. Was it just because he didn’t want to fail the eighth grade? He wouldn’t have to be friends with Naruto forever, would he? Just until eighth grade is over...no...only until the merger was finalized.

Naruto thought about Sasuke’s answer. “Your parents really are strict. Well. We’re still going to hang out Saturday. You promised.”

“Y-yea.” Sasuke nodded his head. He lost feeling in his hands. He lost feeling in his face. It was numb and tingly.

“Okay.” Naruto continued smiling. “Let’s walk home together.”

*****

Sasuke was forced to dress nicely. His mother had lectured him the whole way over about making a good impression. She had styled his hair and made him wear the suit that he often wore when they hosted dinner parties at their house. He hated this suit. It made him feel stuffy and hot. The buttons were too tight around his neck it felt like he was choking. He felt pangs of guilt every time he looked at how happy his father was. How happy his father was for this dinner. It was a last-minute proposal from the Namikaze’s.

“I’m really glad you’ve become friends with Naruto.” His father praised. He was smiling. He could count on one hand the number of times his father looked relaxed and cheerful. He hated Naruto more and more the more he saw his father’s smiling face. His fists clenched up as he remembered Naruto threatening to lie to his parents about him.

“Sasuke is also befriending Hinata Hyuga.” His mother chirped. It was the closest she has come to praise him. It was more Sasuke meeting the minimum requirements than anything else. He clenched his jaw. “He’s been talking to her after his tennis lessons.”

Befriending? He didn’t know what his relationship with Hinata was...he wanted to tell her about Naruto. He was counting down the days until he could see her. He wanted to know how she would react and what she would say. He wanted her to help him.

The front door opened and it was Kushina. She was smiling widely and greeted them as if they were long friends reuniting. It took Sasuke by surprise. He wondered if his parents were putting on an act, or if they didn’t know their son was a monster. Sasuke smiled and played his part as the prodigal son. He stiffened when he was led into their home and saw Naruto. It was an understatement to say Naruto’s house was bigger than his. It wasn’t a home, it was an estate. A multi-million dollar home that gave the feeling as if he were in Tuscany, Italy.

Naruto was dressed down in a button-up and a sweater tied around his shoulders like he was about to spend an afternoon at the racetrack. He looked presentable. He looked like he could be a model for H&M. Sasuke nodded his head in polite greeting. Naruto smiled widely at him and became glued at his side. Sasuke could feel the baby hairs on his arms prickle up.

They were ushered into a formal dining room that was three times the size of theirs. There were paintings hanging up on the wall that were so beautiful they looked like original pieces and not copies. His mother immediately went into complimenting and praising Kushina as his father followed Minato to the liquor cart to discuss which whiskey they should pair with tonight’s dinner. Sasuke stopped listening when they started comparing dry and sweet whiskey.

Sasuke knew from a young age that these dinner parties always had an imbalance of power dynamic. One party always needed something from the other party and thus took a submissive role. In this case. His parents became submissive because it was Sasuke’s father who was completely dependent on the merger.

Naruto sat next to him at the dining room table as the first course was served. He was glad Naruto sat next to him so he could keep his attention forward and didn’t have to look at him. Naruto’s family had a team of servants that began filling their glasses and serving the courses. The first course was ahi tuna tartare. Sasuke inhaled as the charade began.

“Sasuke has been enjoying his tennis lessons at the country club. Hizashi has been doing wonders. I regret not signing him up for sports sooner.” His mother praised. She was always great at praising him to other parents.

“Naruto was just telling us he wanted to get lessons from Hizashi since Sasuke has been getting lessons.” Kushina mentioned. “We were going to reach out to Hizashi and see if he will take one more student.”

Sasuke gripped his fork. His eyes glanced in Naruto’s direction. He wanted to spend less time with Naruto, not more.

“I think it would be fun to take tennis lessons with Sasuke.” Naruto smiled. “I was getting bored with soccer anyways. It’s time for a change. I wonder who would win in a tennis match...me or you, Sasuke?”

It was a direct question. Sasuke laughed and feigned modesty. “You’re more athletic than me so you would win for sure.” Sasuke flashed a warm smile. He knew he needed to take the backseat with Naruto when he performed in front of the parents. He watched Naruto arch an eyebrow at his response.

“That would be interesting to see.” His mother commented. “Sasuke continues to be at the top of the class. What ranking is Naruto?” His mother asked Kushina.

“He’s in the top ten.” Kushina answered proudly.

“Are you sure?” Sasuke asked. It slipped out. Kushina’s attention shifted to Sasuke. His mother’s mouth went into a thin line as she scowled at him. Sasuke could feel Naruto tensing up beside him. He immediately regretted it.

“He’s kidding!” Naruto laughed. “I told him I was going to actually put effort into my studies. I told him I could easily place first place if I put the effort in. Right, mom?”

This was the second time Naruto had brought up ousting him from the top of the class. The first time he thought Naruto was just teasing him, to get under his skin, this time it sounded like Naruto was being serious. He thought back to the math homework assignment when he copied off Naruto’s and got a perfect score. Especially since Naruto mentioned he spent all night playing video games. Was he really...smart?

“I know you’re smart. You just like to play more than work. That’s okay. Whatever makes you happy. I know you’ll get into your father’s alma mater for college.” Kushina agreed. The way she said it sounded as if she was accepting of Naruto. She saw him as a kid who wanted to play and didn’t want to study. She was satisfied with this. It only angered Sasuke more. His eyes shifted to Minato and he was smiling and nodding in agreement.

“Sasuke likes studying. He attends two cram schools right now.” His mother commented.

“Ah. Who really likes studying?” Minato laughed. His father joined in.

“You liked partying a little too much in college didn’t you Minato?” His father laughed. It was another revelation. His father knew Naruto’s father in college. They went to the same university.

“Ah...we don’t talk about my college days.” Minato waved his hand and his face flushed. “I’m a father now and run a little business. Speaking of business, after dinner we should talk about some of the terms of the merger. My lawyer highlighted some things he said we should discuss.”

“If you want.” His father spoke casually. It was a method he was used to witnessing. Not wanting to act eager and acting nonchalant. He told Sasuke with certain clients he needed to be nonchalant because too much eagerness was a turn-off. It was about reading people.

Sasuke felt full by the time the dessert rolled around. It was Naruto who interrupted. He must have been feeling too antsy. “Sasuke and I are going to have dessert in my room. Come on, Sasuke. I’ll show you my room.” He sounded giddy. It only worsened Sasuke’s mood. He didn’t want to be alone with Naruto. His stomach started cramping again.

“Please excuse us.” Sasuke spoke politely and bowed. He saw Naruto watching him. “Thank you for the meal, it was delicious.”

“So polite.” Kushina gushed. “You’ve raised a fine gentleman, Mikoto.”

 

*****

Naruto’s room was three times the size of his. It included a full size couch, coffee table, and flatscreen television bolted to the wall. It included a king size bed, and a master bathroom. It was decorated with movie posters and music posters. He had every single game system and shelves and shelves of video games. He had multiple headsets and controllers. Every time he looked around his room he saw something different. Something new and shiny. Something expensive.

“What do you think?” Naruto asked and looked around his room. Sasuke stood there and didn’t say anything. Naruto stared at him. “It’s too much isn’t it? That’s what I thought too.” Sasuke still didn’t say anything.

“Want to play chess?” Naruto asked. He walked to a shelf and picked up his chess set. It was made from Italian wood and leather. “I bet you anything you can’t beat me.” Sasuke glared at Naruto goading him.

“Fine. Let’s play.” Sasuke answered coldly. He wanted a rematch. He wanted to slap that smile off Naruto’s face. He joined Naruto at the coffee table. He sat on one of the plush pillows that were thrown around the table. He watched as Naruto began setting up the board. He held his breath.

“What should we bet?” Naruto asked. “How about this. If you win...we don’t have to hang out tomorrow.” Sasuke straightened up.

“Fine.”

Naruto smiled. “Do you want to be white or black?”

“White.” Sasuke answered. Naruto didn’t protest and moved the board accordingly.

“White goes first.” Naruto gestured towards Sasuke.

Sasuke was five years old when he first played chess. His mother read a study that said the younger children were when they first learned chess the smarter they would be. He often played against Itachi and he never was able to win once. He didn’t expect Naruto to be good. He wondered if it was beginner's luck the first time they played.

Sasuke moved his pawn. Naruto moved the same pawn and opposed him. Sasuke moved his knight. Naruto moved another pawn. Sasuke moved a pawn. He looked at Naruto. He was expecting Naruto to be watching the board but instead, Naruto focused his eyes on him. He remembered Naruto telling him that he was easy to read. How? What was he doing that was giving him away? What was his tell? Naruto moved his bishop. Sasuke captured one of Naruto’s pawns. Naruto moved his bishop and captured Sasuke’s knight. Sasuke moved his queen and smacked Naruto’s bishop. The bishop rolled and rolled off the board.

“Do you really think you’re going to win?” Naruto asked slyly. He watched the bishop rolling on the floor. Naruto took one of his pawns and captured one of Sasuke’s rooks. He was poised and polite. He wasn’t violent like Sasuke. He placed the rook gently on the table. In the graveyard.

“Yes.” Sasuke answered.

The game continued.

“Check.” Naruto spoke calmly. Sasuke looked at the board. Naruto had checked his king with his other bishop. Sasuke was forced to use his knight to block. The game continued and Naruto smiled as he moved his queen.

“Check.” Naruto taunted. Sasuke took his knight and captured the black queen. He was forceful again. Violent. He bashed the knight against the black queen and sent her flying, envisioning the queen as Naruto.

“Are you upset, Sasuke?” Naruto asked and tilted his head. Sasuke stared at him. “Aren’t you supposed to be polite and mild-tempered? A good boy? A model student?” Sasuke felt his blood boil. “All I see is someone who has a lot of pent-up anger.”

Naruto moved his rook. He let go. He leaned back and smiled. “Checkmate.” It was a cocky smile. The air of confidence surrounding Naruto was suffocating. He hated that cocky smile. He hated losing to him for the second time. He wanted to hit up. He used every restraint not to reach over the table and smack him across the face.

Sasuke looked at the board. He didn’t know what overcame him. He shoved the chessboard with both hands and sent it flying towards Naruto. It struck him in the chest at full force. He watched as chess pieces went flying everywhere. It temporarily shocked Naruto. The smile left his lips finally.

“That hurt!” Naruto cried out as his hands went to his chest. “You’re really a sore loser.” Sasuke didn’t say anything. He didn’t have anything nice to say so he didn’t say anything at all. He was too upset and embarrassed with himself for losing to Naruto, again. He had lost control and made a scene.

“Stop ignoring me...talk to me.” Naruto spoke as he began picking up the chess pieces. Naruto’s mood shifted. He went from cockiness to trying to sound sweet. “What should we do tomorrow? Do you want to see another movie?”

Naruto placed the board back on the table and began setting up the board again as if they were going to play another game. Naruto moved his body so that he was collecting pieces that had fallen next to Sasuke. When Naruto turned his back to him Sasuke quickly picked up the white king. He stuffed it in his coat pocket. He was going to make sure they couldn’t play another game.

“Sasuke?” Naruto asked. His voice was softer. He turned and looked back at Sasuke. Naruto leaned over and grabbed Sasuke’s tie and pulled it close to him. “Please talk to me?” Naruto wasn’t rough, he didn’t choke him, it was just forcing Sasuke to give Naruto attention. There was sadness in his expression. His eyebrows furrowed together. “Can’t you just pretend you didn’t hear anything from Ino? Why can’t we act like we did in Hawaii? I liked you more when we were in Hawaii. Why can’t you act like that Sasuke again?” Naruto wrapped the fabric of Sasuke’s tie around his fingers.

“We’re not in Hawaii anymore...so why would I act like I’m in Hawaii?” Sasuke asked bitterly. Sasuke placed one hand over Naruto’s hand and with the other unwrapped his tie from around Naruto’s fingers. Sasuke’s fingers were cold and Naruto’s hands were hot. It sent electric shocks through his hand and arm.

“Do you want to play another game of chess?” Naruto asked and leaned in once more.

“No.” Sasuke pushed himself away from Naruto. He didn’t want Naruto so close to him. He felt his beating heart sounding like an alarm.

Naruto stopped picking up the chess pieces. He went quiet. He didn’t move for a second. He was in deep thought. Sasuke didn’t break the silence. He continued sitting there. He felt the white king in his pocket. He was glad Naruto stopped picking up the pieces. His heart was fluttering again. The more the silence grew the more frightened Sasuke became. Naruto had blackmailed him. Was he going to blackmail him again? He lost his confidence. He was afraid Naruto was going to make a scene. Naruto seemed to think of something else and he grabbed the remote and turned the television on.

“Let’s watch Courage the Cowardly Dog.” Naruto suggested.

Sasuke swallowed as Naruto put on an episode of the cartoon. It was the same cartoon they had marathon watched in their hotel room in Hawaii. He didn’t understand why Naruto was trying so hard to replicate Hawaii. It wasn’t anything special. He did however start watching the cartoon. He did like watching it and it was something he couldn’t watch at home. Sasuke reluctantly joined Naruto on the couch and looked at the television. He didn’t have a television in his room.

He loosened the tie around his neck, unbuttoned his shirt a few buttons from the top, and shifted into a more comfortable position. He started watching the episode with Naruto. He preferred this to talking. Despite the couch being big enough for four people, Naruto stuck close to him and Sasuke could feel Naruto’s body heat. It was probably why he felt so hot and uncomfortable and argued with himself over wanting to take his dress jacket off but not wanting to remove any articles of clothing off with Naruto present.

It was a bodily response. Sasuke laughed at a moment in the cartoon. He could feel Naruto’s eyes on him.

“Who's your favorite character?” Naruto leaned in closer and smiled.

“Courage.”

“I like Muriel. She loves Courage unconditionally and Courage would do anything for her.”

“I hate Muriel.” Sasuke snapped.

“Liar. How can you hate Muriel?”

“She’s always getting herself into trouble. If she just stayed put, Courage wouldn’t have to save her all the time.”

“If that was the case then...there wouldn’t be a show.”

Sasuke didn’t say anything. Naruto was right. If Courage didn’t have to save Muriel all the time there wouldn’t be a television show, because, what would move the plot forward?

“Sasuke do you want to take your jacket off?” Naruto asked. His eyes looked at a bead of sweat that rolled down the side of Sasuke’s face. “You’re sweating.” Naruto reached out and attempted to take Sasuke’s jacket off. It sent Sasuke into a panic.

“No...it’s fine!” Sasuke’s face flushed. His back hit the arm of the couch and he couldn’t move. Naruto was on top of him with both hands grabbing Sasuke’s jacket and attempting to push the fabric off his arms.

“If you’re uncomfortable just take it off.” Naruto spoke softly. “You’re uncomfortable right?” Sasuke froze as Naruto slipped between his legs. He didn’t know why this position both excited and disgusted Sasuke.

“L-l-let me do it by myself! I don’t need you stripping me!” Sasuke yelled. At the sudden revelation, Naruto realizing the questionable position they were both in may send the wrong message. He immediately pulled himself back. This time it was Naruto’s face that flushed pinks and reds.

“I...wasn’t stripping you. Don’t get the wrong idea!”

Sasuke took his jacket off himself. He placed the jacket between him and Naruto as if drawing an invisible line. He unbuttoned a few more buttons and caught his breath. He did feel better. He could feel Naruto’s eyes on him. He refused to look at Naruto. He was still in the process of calming himself down and if he looked at Naruto so soon he was going to get worked up again.

“Let’s watch a movie tomorrow.” Naruto suggested. He hadn’t taken his eyes off Sasuke and Sasuke felt uncomfortable again.

“Okay. Are you inviting Sakura?” Sasuke asked.

“No.”

“Why not? You should invite her.”

“I want to hang out with you alone. You want it to just be you and me right?”

Sasuke caught Naruto’s eyes when he said that. His heart fluttered. He didn’t know why he felt excited hearing that. Why? Why did he still react when he heard Naruto saying these words? Was he a masochist? He felt his face flushing all over again. Naruto was as mad as a hatter and Sasuke was Alice trying to survive in wonderland. Naruto was a predator. He knew how to catch his prey. What to do and say to cause Sasuke to stumble.

Sasuke didn’t want to be prey. He didn’t want to keep being cornered by Naruto. Why couldn’t he be the one to corner Naruto?

He thought back to his father. Everything he told him about closing a deal. He thought about the chess game with Naruto. He was hustled again. Naruto wasn’t just good at chess he was brilliant. Naruto knew he was going to win and it was why he suggested the game to Sasuke. And he fell for it. He was tired of floundering whenever he was with Naruto. He was tired of being submissive. He only needed to be Naruto’s friend until the merger was finalized and then he would break up with him for good.

“Mhm.” Sasuke nodded his head and smiled. “I want it to just be us.” He lied.

He watched as Naruto’s face brightened up. Naruto leaned closer and disregarded the invisible line, Sasuke’s dress jacket, between them. “We’ll go to the movies tomorrow?”

“Yeah. It’ll be fun.” Sasuke agreed and held his forced smile.

*****

He started to unravel Naruto. Once things went his way he was back to being the happy-go-lucky kid. He was sunny and bright as a midsummer's day. There was another positive Sasuke experienced pretending to be Naruto’s friend. His mother let him leave the house to go to the movies with him on a Saturday. She was thrilled that they were spending time together. He knew what her reaction would be if he told her Naruto was blackmailing him. She wouldn’t defend him. She’d take Naruto’s side.

She would only make him cater to Naruto’s whims like he was some jester trying to please the king. He hated every second of it.

Naruto picked the movie. This time he ordered the second half of the menu. Sasuke stuck with a popcorn and cola. Seeing how much Naruto ordered nauseated him. The cinema was packed. There was a new blockbuster movie that was released. A superhero movie that Naruto wanted to watch. Sasuke hadn’t been exposed to the superhero genre and throughout the movie, he was utterly lost as if everyone was speaking in Latin and he was expected to understand. He was left more confused as the movie progressed. He ate his popcorn not anxiously like he did during the horror movie but something to keep him busy as his brain tried to make sense of the plot.

Something happened.

Every time the male superhero was shirtless Sasuke couldn’t take his eyes away from his chiseled abs. They were taut and shimmered as if dipped in oil. It left a warmness in the pit of Sasuke’s stomach. He felt excited. A giddiness as if he was being filled with helium and was going to float out of his seat. It was the only part of the movie he understood. His brain started shifting. He started thinking about what it might feel like to kiss the superhero. He brought a finger to his lips. When he thought about kissing him he felt a warmness blooming in his gut.

“Sasuke?” Naruto asked. He blinked and turned to Naruto. He watched as Naruto’s face flushed and he pulled back. “Sorry. It’s nothing.” He waved his hands and turned back to the movie. Sasuke’s face soured because when he turned back the scene had changed and the superhero was fully clothed.

“How did you like the movie?” Naruto asked as they walked out of the cinema.

“It was boring. I didn’t follow it at all.” Sasuke answered truthfully.

“Next time we don’t have to watch a superhero movie.” Naruto offered. “We can watch whatever you want to watch.”

Sasuke nodded his head. He was exhausted. He wanted to go home. Sasuke started walking in the direction of the bus stop. He stopped when he noticed Naruto wasn’t beside him. He turned around and saw Naruto wasn’t moving.

“You can go back without me. I have other plans. I’ll see you Monday!” Naruto waved. The way Naruto said ‘other plays’ felt like a slap across the face. Sasuke’s mouth went agape as he watched Naruto turn and walk in the opposite direction.

Sasuke’s eyes widened then glared at Naruto. He hated him more and more. He was self-indulgent. He was a spoiled brat who didn’t have any consequences in his life. He did whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, to whoever he wanted.

He acted like Marie Antoinette. Let them eat cake.

He just wished he had a similar ending. With his head cut off. He hated him more and more. He envisioned Naruto on his knees with his hands tied behind his back. The executioner placed Naruto’s head in the guillotine and Sasuke held the rope in his hand. He envisioned himself pulling the role and the blade slicing through the air in a beautiful noise of slicing through blood and bone. He could hear blood spurting across as Naruto’s head detached from his body, bounced, and rolled to a stop.

*****

Sasuke was sitting at the table with Hinata. She had chosen the same table every week. She had her sketchbook and set of drawing pencils out. She continued to sketch hands. He wondered if she sketched anything else. He had remembered the cowrie bracelet. He gave her the decorative box and her face lit up.

“Is...this for me?” Hinata asked her voice was melodious. The more he looked at her face the more beautiful she became. She remembered Sasuke from the Hellenistic period. She was carved from marble. Her eyes almond-shaped and milky white. Her face was delicate and soft. She belonged in a museum.

There was a calming aura that emitted from Hinata as if she were the only person in the world that wasn’t crazy. It was the cowrie shell bracelet on a turquoise string that Ino picked out. She held it in her slender fingers that were stained with graphite. Her features were overcome with happiness.

“You really got this for me? I love it!” Hinata cried out. “Can you help me put it on?” It caused Sasuke to blush. He had never bought a gift for someone outside his family before. He was afraid she would hate it. He smiled. He helped her put the bracelet on. It was hard to fasten the clasp but he did it. Hinata examined it and her eyes sparkled as she moved the shells around.

“Thank you, Sasuke.” She held his gaze as she spoke. It left Sasuke feeling warm and fuzzy. He regretted not talking to her before the accident.

“How have things been going?” Hinata asked.

“Actually I...I want to tell you something.” Sasuke hesitated on how he should phrase things. The more he overthought things the more tongue-tied he became. He decided to just pick a point and tell her. “It’s about Naruto.”

He started from the beginning. To his desk being defaced and trashed.

“I didn’t care, and I didn’t expect the teacher to hold everyone after school for detention until the culprit was found.” Sasuke admitted.

“Then the teacher came in one day and said that there was a witness. Ino said she was the one who told. She told me that Naruto was only pretending to be my friend because he made a deal with the teacher. To be my friend in exchange for doing makeup assignments so he didn’t fail. Naruto didn’t deny it. I told Naruto I didn’t want to be his friend, and then, he threatened me. He said he would lie to his parents that I bullied him, almost pushed him down the stairs and that he was afraid of me. He said he would do this if I stopped being his friend.”

He didn’t know if Hinata would believe him. He didn’t know how she would react, especially since he knew she liked-him-liked-him. He left out the part of him almost falling down the stairs whether it was accidental or on purpose Naruto’s hand went out and pushed him. Naruto also took the initiative to pull him back so he didn’t tumble down and break his crown like jack and jill and...Hinata. He watched Hinata.

There was a look of mortification washing over her. She reached out and held his hand. “I’m sorry that happened to you.”

“Do you believe me?” Sasuke asked.

Hinata nodded her head. “Naruto...wasn’t always like this…he changed after Neji died.”

Sasuke’s stomach churned. It went back to Neji and Naruto and Ino and Kiba and Sakura being locked in a boxcar. Five went in and four walked out.

“It’s why I wanted him to make new friends.”

“You can’t make friends like this!” Sasuke protested.

“I-I know! This wasn’t what I meant.” Hinata confessed. She was distraught. There was worry and apprehension swirling in her eyes and her eyebrows scrunched up. “I know he wouldn’t hurt you.”

“Really? Do you really think he wouldn’t hurt me?” Sasuke pushed back.

“Y-yes. He wouldn’t!” Hinata tried to speak more confidently but it missed the mark. “Maybe, maybe he’s just desperate to keep you as a friend.”

“He scares me, Hinata. I don’t want to be his friend anymore. I’m...I’m only going to pretend to be his friend until the merger is finalized. My father says if the merger doesn’t happen his company is going bankrupt. I can’t afford Naruto doing anything that might jeopardize it.”

Hinata didn’t say anything. She was from the Hyuga clan. They were blue-blooded and old money. Her family owned half the city. She wasn’t shy when it came to company politics. She experienced the same dinner parties Sasuke did except the Hyuga clan was always the side of the dominant party. People flocked to them wanting something. She couldn’t possibly understand how desperate his parents were to keep their heads above water. Nonetheless. She nodded her head slowly in agreement.

“Maybe that’s best for you.” Hinata spoke quietly. “I would do the same thing if I were you.”

Hearing these words perked Sasuke up. He relaxed. He didn’t realize how he needed someone else to tell him he was making the right decision until he heard Hinata’s words. It felt like a weight was lifted off his shoulders. He exhaled loudly and pushed back in his seat. He was exhausted, emotionally and physically.

“If it’s any consolation I really think Naruto wants to be your friend. I’ve never seen him work this hard to keep someone his friend. He used to make friends so easily before...before the accident. Now. I think he struggles to connect with anyone. It doesn’t help that Sakura and Kiba won’t let him make friends.”

“Why?” Sasuke asked.

Hinata shrugged. “I...don’t know. After the accident, Sakura, Ino, Kiba, and Naruto became closed off from everyone. They stopped really talking with everyone else. They stopped hanging out with everyone else...they even stopped talking and hanging out with me.”

“Ino’s different.” Sasuke offered. Ino was the one who told the teacher it was Kiba, and told Sasuke the truth about Naruto.

“She’s also sick. They’re all sick. Ino doesn’t have any other friends except them.”

“Sick?” Sasuke asked.

“Aren’t they sick?” Hinata asked.

It was a word that fit the description. They were sick. Something inside of them was sick. Not in a disgusting way but in a broken way.

“It doesn’t excuse their behavior.” Sasuke spoke coldly. Because it was true. It didn’t.

“No. You’re right.” Hinata exhaled loudly and leaned back. She looked defeated. She looked even more powerless because she wasn’t cleared to go back to school. She was still in a neckbrace. She still needed to turn at her waist to move.

He wanted to ask Hinata if she remembered anything else from when she fell down the stairs but he couldn’t bring himself to say it. Just like he couldn’t bring himself to say that he thought Naruto pushed him when he was at the top of the stairs. From his vantage. It looked like he impulsively pushed him, and had immediate regret which was why he grabbed him. He didn’t say any of this. He still wasn’t sure if what he saw was accurate. It happened so fast.

Hinata said that Naruto wouldn’t hurt him. He wanted to believe her. Even if he didn’t physically hurt him he was still emotionally hurting him with blackmail.

“How has tennis been?” Hinata asked, shifting topics. Sasuke welcomed the change.

“I didn’t think I could hate anything more than piano.” Sasuke admitted. “Until I started tennis lessons.”

Hinata laughed. Her eyes lit up. “I’m in piano lessons too. I’ve been in a few piano competitions.”

“Mhm. Me too.” Sasuke nodded his head in agreement. He didn’t just compete. He took home grand prizes.

“Maybe we should play together. It might be more fun for you. I know when I’m playing with someone I’m having more fun. Maybe we can play piano together next Monday. The country club has a piano in the music room.”

“Okay.” Sasuke agreed. “That does sound fun.” It did. He wondered how it would sound if he played a duet with Hinata. He was curious to see how she would play. She looked like she’d play soft and delicately.

“Sasuke, are you ready?” His mother appeared. She greeted Hinata warmly. “Hi Hinata. Thank you for keeping my son company on Mondays.”

“Oh I think it’s Sasuke who has been keeping me company. I also thanked him for buying me this bracelet in Hawaii.” Hinata spoke genuinely and she showed her the bracelet. His mother’s eyes lit up.

“That’s a beautiful bracelet.” There was something hidden in her voice. It was disapproval. It wasn’t that she disapproved of him buying her a gift, she disapproved that it was such a cheap, tourist-trap, gift and not an expensive gift.

“Bye, Hinata.” Sasuke waved goodbye and left with his mother. He felt his neck redden as she immediately began lecturing him.

“Why did you buy her such cheap trash? Have I raised you to treat girls so poorly?”

“She really liked the bracelet.” Sasuke defended.

“She doesn’t know what she likes! She’s young. It’s why you need to set the bar high from the get-go. Honestly, Sasuke. How did I end up with a brainless child like you?”

Sasuke lowered his eyes and didn’t say anything. He knew when to shut up. He knew when his mother was in these moods no matter what he said she would pick it apart and harass him. He was always falling short of her expectations. He allowed his mother to lecture him on the act of gift-giving and what message certain gifts conveyed.

“That's why we brought the Namikaze’s a 1989 Bordeaux wine. It’s both a luxury item and a sign of maintaining professional relationships. The wine is not meant to be drunk, it’s meant to be collected and the value rises the longer it sits.” His mother continued her lecture all the way until she drove into their driveway, and the gate closed behind them.

“When will the merger be finalized?” Sasuke asked.

“June 15.” His mother answered.

It was less than two months. It was bearable. Not only would the merger finalize it was his last month of school before summer break. Next year they would move to high school. He didn’t have to pretend to be Naruto’s friend anymore. He could do it. He could pretend for the next two months. He saw light at the end of the tunnel.

*****

Since he started going along with Naruto’s whims and pretending this one-sided friendship. It had the impact and effect Sasuke wanted. Naruto stopped being so forceful and after they went to the movies Naruto hadn’t demanded Sasuke spend another weekend day with him. He didn’t threaten him again and he started acting like the Naruto he was first introduced to. Naruto was even beginning to leave him alone during lunch in favor of playing soccer with the rest of the class. It gave Sasuke a break.

He went to the library to study when he found Ino. It had been two weeks since the fallout of Kiba, and Ino had been elusive and evasive with him the whole time. She dropped a bomb and then scattered during the fallout. He was surprised to see her sitting at the table he used and she looked like she was waiting for him. She straightened up and pulled her headphones off her ears.

“Naruto is still clinging to you.” Ino observed. “What gives?”

“What gives? He’s blackmailing me!” Sasuke confessed.

He didn’t need to hide things with Ino. She was a wildcard and remained a wildcard. He was surprised she was even here. She was very clear the day she confessed to the teacher it was Kiba. It was her way of repaying Sasuke’s kindness for loaning her his history textbook. He learned something about Ino. The thing she cared about most in the world was dancing. Her fear of her mother pulling her from the recital if she failed. Her fear of the recital pulling her solo because she kept missing practice. She couldn’t bear it and it was why she told.

“He is?” Ino asked.

“Mn.”

Ino looked concerned. She was in deep thought. She didn’t bother asking what Naruto was using for blackmail. It didn’t matter. Whatever he had...worked and it didn’t change the outcome.

“I don’t like Naruto.” Sasuke spoke seriously. He hadn’t. He was only tolerating him. Entertaining him. Like the jester to the king. He felt like Alice playing croquet with the queen of hearts knowing at any minute her head could be taken off.

“I guess there is nothing to do if he’s blackmailing you.” Ino commented.

“I wanted to tell you. I gave Hinata the bracelet you picked out. She really liked it.” Sasuke changed the topic. Ino straightened up. Her face lit up and she looked both mortified and elated.

“She did?” Ino asked in the same mortified elation.

“Mn.”

“So it’s true. You really have become friends with Hinata.” There was a sense of awe in her voice.

“I see her Mondays after my tennis lessons.”

“You’re in tennis lessons?” Ino asked. “At the country club with Hizashi Hyuga?”

“How...do you know?”

“Naruto told us he’s going to begin tennis lessons with Hizashi this Monday. He said he wouldn’t be able to play with us on Mondays anymore. Sakura and Kiba weren’t happy at all. They’re growing angrier and angrier the less Naruto plays with them.”

“What about you?” Sasuke asked.

“What about me?”

“Are you getting angrier that Naruto isn’t playing with you?”

“No.” Ino admitted. Her honestly caused him to stumble. “Why else do you think I’m here and not outside playing soccer?”

“I think you’re lying.” Sasuke postulated. “I think you care more about Naruto and what he’s doing, or not doing, and why he’s doing it. Otherwise. Why do you keep appearing and asking questions about him? Unless. You’ve asked Naruto and he refused to answer.”

Ino didn’t say anything. She became rigid. She gave him a thousand-yard stare. He had hit the nail on the head. Ino may have been right in that she wasn’t necessarily angry that Naruto was spending his time and attention with someone else but she wanted to know why. The only thing Sasuke didn’t know was why she wanted to know, and what she was going to do with that information when she found out.

“I don’t plan on being Naruto’s friend after June.” Sasuke was honest with Ino. “I didn’t think I could hate anyone more than I hate Naruto.”

“Do you really hate Naruto? Now, who's the one lying?”

“You’ll see in the end if I’m lying or not. I’m going to think of a perfect reason to break up one way or another.”

“Break up? It’s not like you guys are dating.” Ino rolled her eyes.

“Doesn’t it feel that way? Doesn’t it look like that? It’s an abusive relationship even if it’s not romantic. What would you call it?” If this was what Naruto’s friendship looked like he didn’t even want to think what Naruto’s romantic relationship would look like.

Ino was left speechless again.

She bit her lower lip and looked away. Ino was short. She was shorter than Sakura. She was the shortest girl in their class. She had a face that looked both older and younger depending on the lighting. Right now she looked younger. Pouting because she was left speechless. Yet there was an eloquence around her. He thought he hated her when he first met her but hate wasn’t the right word. Hate was a very strong, polarizing word and he needed to be careful how he used it. Less he watered down the definition and made the definition pointless from it’s overuse.

Ino was actually a very honest girl. She hadn’t lied to him. Everything she told him was how she saw the world. It was her truth and perspective. He didn’t know her motives and maybe he never would. There seemed to be a peace treaty between them. He didn’t feel animosity or hostility. She was just there. He saw her.

“I wonder if you would break Naruto.” Ino hypothesized. “Or if Naruto would break you in the end.”

“If Naruto gets broken at least he has you, Kiba, and Sakura to pick up the pieces, and he’ll finally leave me alone.” Sasuke snapped.

“That’s true. You don’t have anyone who would pick the pieces up. Do you?” Ino’s words stung. Sasuke forced a smile. No. He didn’t have anyone to help pick up the pieces if Naruto broke him which was why he wasn’t going to let that happen.

“I’m going back to the classroom.” Sasuke remarked.

“I’ll come with you. I was only here to talk to you anyways.”

“Obviously. We didn’t have a test where you needed to make corrections on. Why else would you be in the library?” Sasuke retorted. He saw Ino’s body go rigid as the two walked back to the classroom. They had made a slew of jabs at each other all the way back.

He walked into the classroom and saw Naruto sitting impatiently at his desk. There was an anxious expression on Naruto’s face. He turned and saw Sasuke and Ino enter the classroom together. His blue eyes widened and Sasuke saw him and Ino reflected. Naruto practically pole-vaulted over to them.

“Where were you?” Naruto directed his question to Ino. Naruto was purposefully ignoring Sasuke.

“In the library with Sasuke. Why are you so noisy.” Ino shot back.

She brushed her hand up and made a shoo’ing gesture at Naruto before sitting in her desk. Naruto looked at Sasuke but didn’t say anything. He didn’t say anything else and went back to his desk. Sasuke could feel sets of eyes on him. He didn’t have to look to see who was staring at him. It was Kiba and Sakura. He could feel holes being burned into them as he made his way to the desk next to Naruto. They followed him every step of the way. He wondered if Ino purposefully wanted to walk back to the classroom with him because she was banking on this reaction.

“Let me guess. You’d rather eat lunch with Ino than me?” Naruto pouted as he sat back down at his desk. He wasn’t looking at him even though he was talking to him.

“Why are you pouting?” Sasuke asked warmly. “It was you who left me to play soccer.” He rested his head in the palm of his hand and didn’t take his eyes off Naruto. He watched as Naruto’s face flushed. Naruto turned and looked at him. They stared at each other for a moment.

“Oh. Right.” Naruto murmured. Naruto immediately looked away and didn’t look back at him. He didn’t know why Naruto was acting like this. He didn’t care. It was easier when Naruto wasn’t looking at him. He felt less gross.

“Ino told me you’re going to be taking tennis lessons with me on Monday.” Sasuke commented. Changing topics. He began taking his history textbook and notebook out of his desk. “I think it’ll be fun. I usually talk with Hinata after lessons. She’s become a good friend.”

At the ‘friend’ Naruto jerked his head. He could feel Naruto unraveling. Sasuke was feeding off it. He didn’t stop. He didn’t know why. He didn’t want to play mind games with him; he had only wanted to pretend to be his friend then cut him off when the merger went through.

“I gave her the bracelet I bought her in Hawaii. She really loves it. She’s been wearing it every time I see her.” Sasuke smiled at Naruto. “I’m really glad she loves it, and I’m glad I bought her the bracelet.” He remembered how upset Naruto was on the bus when he found out he bought her a bracelet. How upset he was when he asked Sasuke why he didn’t buy him a gift. He didn’t know why Naruto was so upset at the time but he was using this as fodder.

Naruto looked...jealous.

It did the trick. Naruto turned from him. He became standoffish. He didn’t just turn from him, he turned his whole back to Sasuke. He didn’t talk to him. He didn’t look at him. He pretended that Sasuke didn’t exist. It was like this for the rest of the week. He didn’t even eat lunch with him.

Sasuke rather enjoyed this outcome of Naruto ignoring him, and he wondered how long Naruto was going to ignore him for. It wasn’t until Monday night when he arrived at his tennis lesson did he get the answer.

Chapter Text

And shot each other

 

Naruto was already on the tennis court speaking with Hizashi. He was dressed in a regulation tennis outfit. A bleach-white shirt that buttoned up four times around the neck and a bleach-white starched collar. He wore bleach-white shorts that hugged his legs. There was a newness about his outfit as if it had come from a bleach commercial set. Even though he was still young, and had baby fat on his face, his legs were muscular. Naruto was wearing bleach-white socks, and bleach-white tennis shoes. He was so squeaky clean Sasuke had the urge to push him in the mud. He wouldn’t be satisfied with that he’d want to smear the mud across Naruto’s face and see it dripping off.

He was swinging a tennis racket in his hand and his face lit up when he saw Sasuke walking out onto the court. He waved ecstatically. “Hi Sasuke!” Sasuke’s stomach tightened as he walked over to join them. He held his own tennis racket in his hand. He just nodded his head in greeting. Naruto was back to being on speaking terms with him.

“Hello, Mr. Hyuga.” Sasuke bowed his head to Hizashi who bowed his head in return.

For the first part of the lesson he watched Hizashi testing Naruto’s skill level. He pelted tennis balls at Naruto from across the net and Sasuke watched in awe as Naruto managed to hit approximately 90% and return them back over the net. He watched Naruto’s form as he appeared to glide through the air, being able to predict where the ball was going to go. Naruto ran backwards, forwards, he ran to the sides and didn’t appear out of breath. Sasuke remembered he was drenched in sweat before even getting to the exercise portion.

Sasuke couldn’t take his eyes off Naruto even though Hizashi instructed him to do his warm up stretches and try to hit the ball in the air with his racket without the ball falling and hitting the ground. Naruto was like a warm sun spot dancing in the corner of his eyes making it impossible to concentrate. Naruto easily completed the exercises that Hizashi requested.

“Let’s do a match between you two.” Hizashi announced. Sasuke nodded. He had been taking tennis lessons for approximately a month. He was hopeful that he could beat Naruto who had just learned the basics.

Naruto served first. It was clear within the first ten minutes that Naruto’s skills far exceeded Sasuke’s. He tried running towards the ball but he tripped over his own feet and skid across the floor landing on his stomach with the racket falling out of his hand.

“Sasuke. Where is your mind? How have you managed to become even worse?” Hizashi lectured. He was a drill sergeant.

Sasuke stood up. His knees felt wobbly. He served the ball back over the net. Naruto appeared in the exact place as the ball and hit the ball back so fluidly. Sasuke tried to keep up, he returned the ball and he felt himself running out of breath. He caught sight of Naruto’s face. He was smirking. Naruto used his whole strength to hit the ball back. The ball landed behind him and in the corner a few inches from being out of bounds.

Hizashi clapped his hands and praised. “Naruto, you have excellent form. Some people are just naturally talented.”

Sasuke felt his face burning. How could their skill be so far apart? How could Naruto pick up this so easily? It infuriated him. He gripped the handle of the tennis racket as Hizashi yelled.

“Again. This time Sasuke move around the court. You can’t just keep your feet planted in one spot and hope the ball comes to you.”

The second game Hizashi’s instructions were focused solely on Sasuke. He didn’t have anything to say to Naruto probably because of the huge gap between their skills. He wanted to focus on Sasuke so he could bridge the gap. Sasuke tried avoiding Naruto but everytime his eyes locked onto him he was still smirking.

“You’ve been in lessons for what...a month?” Naruto called out. “And this is where your skill level is at? Aren’t you insulting Hizashi, Sasuke?” Naruto used his strength to send the ball back and it was just out of reach. Sasuke swung his racket but came short by two inches. He was panting. He was drenched in sweat all over again.

“40-Love.” Hizashi shouted the score. Sasuke still hadn’t managed to score once.

“Maybe you should have picked golf?” Naruto questioned as he hit the ball. Sasuke ran to the ball and struck it with his racket, sending the ball back over the net. “Are you regretting not picking up golf?” Naruto laughed recklessly.

Sasuke didn’t bother responding. He was trying to concentrate on the game. Sasuke’s racket swung through nothingness again.

“Game.” Hizashi shouted. Naruto won again. The goal wasn’t even to win, the goal had become to score at least once and Sasuke couldn’t even do that. Sasuke collapsed on his knees. He was breathing heavily. He had been drained of all energy. His eyes looked out in front of him and he saw a shadow.

“I told you when we were playing chess, Sasuke. I can read your every move. You can’t beat me.” Naruto snickered as he stood a few feet away from Sasuke. He could feel his blood boiling as he looked up to see Naruto was smirking down at him. Naruto balanced the head of the racket against his shoulder. He wasn’t even breaking a sweat. He appeared cool, calm, and collected. There was a radiance that was blinding and Sasuke immediately looked away.

“Sasuke, I want you to run around the tennis court four times before you shower. Naruto I’m glad I agreed to train you, you have real natural talent. You can go ahead and wash up.” Hizashi dismissed them and left.

“Want me to run with you so you’re not lonely?” Naruto asked and squatted down so they were on the same eye level.

“No.” Sasuke gritted his teeth. Naruto shrugged and left without another word.

He placed his racket in its case and zipped it up. He completed four laps around the tennis court before stumbling into the locker room. He did a quick look around the locker room and surmised he was alone. He grabbed his toiletries bag and went to one of the showers and stripped. The hot water felt warm against his skin. The sweat and grime he felt from the practice was going down the drain with soap bubbles. He lathered himself with soap.

“Sasuke.” Naruto’s voice came from behind him.

It frightened Sasuke. He turned over his shoulder to see Naruto had opened the shower curtain. Naruto’s eyes were looking elsewhere. He wasn’t looking at Sasuke. It reminded Sasuke when he accidentally walked in on Naruto changing into his pajamas at their hotel room. How nonchalant Naruto was because they had the same parts so it shouldn’t matter.

“What are you doing?” Sasuke yelled and tried covering up. Luckily he had always taken scorching hot showers so the white steam offered him some protection. He also knew it wasn’t like Naruto was purposefully peeping at him. It didn’t change the fact that Sasuke was still rattled. He felt his face, neck, and ears beating red.

“I’m going to keep doing tennis lessons. It would be nice if you could improve your skill so I wouldn’t feel like I’m bullying you when we’re playing against each other.” Naruto was smiling smugly. It only enraged Sasuke and if he wasn’t stark naked and vulnerable in every way he would have thrashed Naruto.

“Let me guess you’ve taken tennis lessons before?” Sasuke snarled.

“A little.” Naruto confessed with a laugh. A little. That’s what he said when Sasuke first asked him if he played chess. A little. It reminded Sasuke of Minato saying he ran a little business. Apparently the Namikaze’s didn’t know what ‘a little’ actually meant. “It was boring so I quit.”

“Is there anything you’ve haven’t done?” Sasuke asked bitterly. The money Naruto’s parents had probably meant Naruto was exposed to a lot of different extracurricular activities.

“Mhm.” Naruto thought about it. “Probably not. I’m going to talk to Hinata. Join us when you’ve finished washing up.”

Sasuke peeked over his shoulder and Naruto was gone. He exhaled. Naruto was going to meet up with Hinata. He didn’t know what to think. He finished rinsing off the soap from his body and hair. Hurried up and dried off. Changed into clean, dry, clothes. Stuffed everything into a duffle bag and ran from the locker room. He ran to the table that Hinata was always sitting at and his heart sank when he saw neither Hinata or Naruto were there. Before panic set in he remembered today they were going to meet in the music room as Hinata wanted to duet the piano with him.

He walked towards the music room. He stopped to see at one of the cabana bars his mother was having wine with Kushina and Hizashi. All three were laughing and in deep conversation. Kushina’s smile was warm. Naruto was the perfect combination of both his parents as if they only took the best parts of each and made him. He quickly left before anyone saw him and walked to the music room. He stopped outside the open door. That feeling he felt when he was carrying the mathmatic’s homework from the teacher’s room to the classroom overpowered him.

“This is the bracelet Sasuke bought you?” Naruto asked. His voice was filled with dissatisfaction.

“Mhm. Isn’t it beautiful?”

“It’s alright I guess. It’s nothing special. There were like hundreds of the same bracelet everywhere.” Naruto’s voice was discouraging. He had the same attitude his mother had when she looked at the bracelet.

“I think it’s special.” Hinata defended. Sasuke felt his face flush and warmness filled him. “I think it’s special because Sasuke picked it out and bought it. I don’t care if there are hundreds or millions of the same bracelet.”

“What do you like him or something?” Naruto asked.

“I like him a lot. He’s my friend.”

“Well. He’s only talking to you because of me. He didn’t care about you, or talk to you before. He’s only talking to you because~”

“Naruto.” Hinata’s voice cut him off. Although her voice was soft it carried with it authority. “Do you like Sasuke?”

“Yes.” Naruto answered honestly yet it was the first time Sasuke heard Naruto’s voice crack and quiver. “I do.”

“Sasuke can have more friends than just you, Naruto.” Hinata spoke. “Just like you are allowed to have more friends than just Ino, Sakura, and Kiba. If you like Sasuke you shouldn’t talk badly about him in front of people.”

“I...I know! It’s just~”

“I am Sasuke’s friend. I am also your friend too.”

Sasuke couldn’t hide any longer. He didn’t want to give them any more time alone. He knew it was only a matter of time before his mother found him and brought him back home. He walked through the door and saw that Hinata was sitting in front of the piano and Naruto was standing up and drumming his fingers impatiently on the top.

“Sasuke!” Hinata greeted. “It’s so good to see you. I didn’t know that Naruto would be joining you for tennis lessons. Naruto was just telling me he wanted to join so he could spend more time with you.”

“I didn’t...say it like that!” Naruto spoke and turned his head.

“Here. Sit next to me, Sasuke.” Hinata spoke. She moved down the bench seat allowing Sasuke to sit down beside her. Naruto stared at them from the corner of his eyes. “Sasuke and I have been talking every Monday. He’s been keeping me company. We decided to meet in the music room today to play piano together.” Hinata explained to Naruto.

Sasuke refused to look at Naruto. He looked to see Hinata was still wearing the cowrie bracelet. He smiled. The words Hinata spoke still warmed his insides. Hinata’s long fingers spread out across the keys. Sasuke watched where she was placing her fingers.

“How about we play Ludovico’s Night.” Hinata suggested. She began playing parts of the song. Sasuke’s fingers went to his side of the piano. As Hinata played, Sasuke started to play. The song first fragmented and started to come along as the two fell into harmony.

“You know it!” Hinata praised. She kept playing. She started moving faster with the keys in the same chord. Sasuke played slower and further carried the melody. The song was beautiful. Maybe because he was able to be comfortable with himself when he was with Hinata, he was able to relax and lose himself in the music as he played in succession. He didn’t think he could duet this easily with anyone else.

He found himself smiling as his eyes kept focusing on Hinata’s fingers and the keys she was playing. Sasuke played the same chords. He was heavier when he pressed on the chords. Hinata was lighter and faster. It was why they meshed so perfectly. He looked up to see Hinata was also smiling. She didn’t move her neck. She remained in the neck brace. Her arms moved on their own as her body remained perfectly straight and rigid. She did lean in and out from the piano in the beat. Sasuke found his own body leaning in and out as he played, falling into perfect tempo with Hinata’s.

When they finished the song Sasuke heard clapping.

“That was beautiful!” Kushina congratulated. Her voice was genuine and it tugged at Sasuke’s heart. Sasuke turned to see Kushina, Hizashi, and his mother watching them from the doorway. Hinata blushed. His mother had a small, satisfied smile on her lips. He had met her expectations again.

“My niece has won several piano competitions. Maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea for Sasuke and Hinata to enter some competitions together.” Hizashi suggested.

“Sasuke is a grand prize winner. I am sure the two would turn heads if they had entered a duo competition together.” His mother spoke and her smile grew. It was too late. It wasn’t something that was merely said in passing. His mother didn’t say things so flippantly. When she said things she meant things. When she said she wanted Sasuke and Hinata to enter a duo piano competition together she meant it as if she said the sky was blue and water was wet. She would move heaven and earth.

Sasuke glanced at Hinata. She looked embarrassed. Even if she was a Hyuga she was still a child. They all were. They were powerless when it came to the whims of their families. Hinata still entered piano competitions. It didn’t mean she could hide behind the Hyuga name she needed to excel and make a name for herself. She needed to prove she was a Hyuga.

“I think the only thing Naruto isn’t good at is playing instruments. I guess you can’t be good at everything can you?” Kushina said. Her words weren’t critical, but there was a layer of sadness.

Sasuke was used to the inflections in people’s speech he picked up on it rather quickly. Still. Hearing that Naruto was bad at something caused Sasuke to smile. He turned to look at Naruto. It was the first time he was looking at Naruto since entering the music room. He had forgotten he was even there. Naruto’s expression was unreadable. His eyes were cast downwards and blonde hair fell over his face. He wasn’t moving. Naruto must have been uncomfortable and it caused Sasuke to become smug.

“Naruto is a prodigy when it comes to sports. His brain is just wired differently.” Hizashi nodded his head. Sasuke’s stomach cramped at these words.

“I...can still play the piano.” Naruto attempted to defend but his voice was quiet and drowned out by the adults. Sasuke smirked. He watched as Naruto fell back into oblivion. Everyone stopped talking about him and he was ignored.

“Sasuke, Hinata, your playing was really beautiful. Have you played together before?” Kushina asked. She had taken an unusual interest in them. Sasuke turned back to her.

“No. This was our first time.” Hinata answered.

“The Uzumaki Theater hosts junior duo piano competitions every year. Maybe it is something you should consider when you are healed, Hinata.” Kushina suggested. “I really do mean it when I say you two played beautifully.”

Sasuke glanced at Kushina. Her maiden name was Uzumaki. Of course, Naruto’s parents weren’t just rich from Minato’s company. His mother came from money. The Uzumaki Theater was the prominent theater in downtown Konoha where plays were performed, dance competitions were held, and orchestras played. There was an added layer to why Kushina had a tinge of sadness when she lamented that Naruto was not good at playing with musical instruments. Kushina’s background was music; her family owned the Uzumaki theater.

“I can get in touch with my cousin, Mito Uzumaki. I am very passionate when it comes to music. If you are interested in Sasuke having lessons with Mito I am sure she would take him on as a student.” Kushina suggested it to his mother. “Hizashi, this offer is extended to Hinata as well.”

“Mito Uzumaki?” His mother asked. Her eyes lit up. Mito was a prominent name in the music world and the current director of the Uzumaki Theater. It was olympian level fame and she only chose a handful of students at a time. She was so unreachable that his mother had given up on trying to catch her attention. “I wouldn’t want to impose.”

“No. I insist. Let me give you her contact information.” Kushina began speaking to his mother and Hizashi. “Duo piano players have become more popular over the last few years~”

“I’m sorry…” Sasuke whispered to Hinata.

He drowned out the conversation of the adults. He hadn’t met to put Hinata in an uncomfortable position. He was fine with his mother making him do things out of her own volition; it was another thing entirely to drag others with him. Names like Mito Uzumaki were prominent yes, but it didn’t mean anything to Sasuke except he was going to have another slot in his schedule taken up.

“It’s okay. If we enter a duo piano competition it might be fun.” Hinata admitted. Sasuke’s eyes lit up. “At least...we wouldn’t be entering a competition alone.” Her voice was low, it was barely audible but Sasuke heard it loud and clear. He smiled again.

“If it’s with you I am sure I would have fun.” Sasuke commented. He could feel Naruto stirring beside him.

“Mom.” Naruto interrupted. He was brash. He had the confidence to interrupt the adults when they were talking and because he had no consequences Kushina turned and gave him all of her attention. “Don’t forget to ask if Sasuke can spend the night this weekend.”

Sasuke’s stomach plummeted and he felt sick. His eyes locked on Naruto and all he could see was Naruto’s back. His eyes moved back to Kushina who laughed.

“Naruto is having a sleepover this weekend. He hasn’t invited anyone over in a long time. I was getting worried. He said that he asked Sasuke to spend the night last weekend but Sasuke said he wasn’t allowed. I told Naruto I would ask you, Mikoto, if it’s alright if Sasuke comes over for a sleepover.”

“Sasuke is correct.” His mother defended him. “I suppose I can allow him to spend the night this one time.” Sasuke felt queasy. His cheeks turned green. Naruto was sly and slick. He purposely made a scene especially when his mother was flying high at the opportunity of getting him enrolled in piano lessons with Mito Uzumaki. She wouldn’t have said no. The word no had been removed when it came to the Namikaze’s. “I am happy that you are getting along with my son, Naruto. Thank you for inviting him over.”

“Thank you for letting Sasuke spend the night this weekend!” Naruto was loud. He had come back to life and was acting like his normal self especially since he was getting what he wanted.

It was something Sasuke was just getting used to. Naruto got whatever he wanted as if the gods themselves favored him. Now he was going to be forced to spend a sleepover with Naruto. He was dreading every second of it. He’d rather spend the night in the dumpster outside the school than spend the night with Naruto.

“I’ll see you next week, Sasuke.” Hinata waved goodbye.

“Bye.” Sasuke waved back. He felt devastated as he climbed into his mother’s car and left.

*****

Sasuke sat at his desk in his room. His overnight bag was packed. He was staring at the inside of his drawer. He was looking at the handkerchief that had the initials N.N handsewn on one of the corners and next to the handkerchief there was the white king. He had stolen the chess piece the last time he was at Naruto’s house. He felt guilt washing over him as he stared at both the handkerchief and the white king. He didn’t understand why he had either. The longer he spent not giving them back the more guilt filled him.

He was thinking about packing them in his bag and when Naruto was sleeping tonight putting the chess piece back on the board and leaving the handkerchief in the laundry basket. He wasn’t able to. His door opened and Sasuke immediately closed the door of the drawer. Hiding the evidence.

“Are you ready?” His mother asked. “You better make sure you do everything Naruto asks and you don’t mess things up. The merger is close to being finalized.”

“Mn.” Sasuke nodded his head. He grabbed his overnight bag. He couldn’t keep his mind off the handkerchief and white knight chess piece. He needed to return these to Naruto before officially ending their friendship. He didn’t know why he kept dragging his feet.

*****

Sasuke sat on one of the cushions in Naruto’s room at the coffee table. Naruto was dressed casually. There was an uncomfortability about Naruto. They had spent the last fifteen minutes in total silence. Neither saying anything. Naruto sat on the couch. Sasuke remained kneeling on the cushion. He thought back to Kushina’s words, revealing that Naruto hadn’t invited any of his friends over in a long time. He wondered why. They seemed to be inseparable in school and even hang out on the weekends.

“Naruto.” Sasuke asked. He broke the silence and he watched Naruto’s face coming back to life. “Why haven’t you invited your friends over to your house?”

“I don’t know.” Naruto was evasive.

“Why did you invite me over?”

“I wanted you to spend the night.”

“Why?”

“I couldn’t sleep.” Naruto confessed. It only left Sasuke confused. He wrinkled his eyebrows and continued staring at Naruto. “I mean. I can’t sleep at night. I struggle with being able to sleep. But, when we were in Hawaii I was able to sleep because you were there with me. I wanted to see if I could sleep if you were here.”

Sasuke swallowed. He scoffed. It made perfect sense. Naruto didn’t want Sasuke spending the night because he wanted to be friends with him. He invited him over to use him again. It was endless just what attempts Naruto went to fulfill his needs. It was the same manner that Naruto slept in Sasuke’s twin-sized hotel bed with him. Naruto claimed he couldn’t sleep both times. He didn’t understand why Naruto was saying he could sleep just because Sasuke was there.

“That doesn’t make sense.” Sasuke snapped. He was irritable again.

“Why can’t we just use each other a little?” Naruto asked. “You can use me so our parents' companies can merge, and I can use you a little.”

“I don’t want to use you.”

“What?” Naruto tilted his head and a condescending smile spread his lips. “You’re going to lie to me? Isn’t the reason why you’re here because of your father’s company?”

Sasuke looked down and began fidgeting. He felt nervous again. He began picking at the skin around his fingers. It had been a while since the last time he did it. It came back so easily. He was attacking the skin around his thumb. Naruto was right. He was using him. It wasn’t that he wasn’t using him, he hated that he was using him. He had no choice. He didn’t want to use him but here he was and using him.

“You’re right.” Sasuke admitted. He looked up and held Naruto’s gaze. “I am using you.”

“Are you using Hinata?” Naruto asked and narrowed his eyes.

“No. Why are you acting like someone who is jealous that I’m talking to her?” Sasuke asked.
“I thought you liked Sakura anyways?”

“I-I’m not!” Naruto snapped and turned away. “I’m not jealous!”

“Why are you worrying about Hinata when you know Sakura pushed her down the~” Sasuke couldn’t finish his sentence. He ripped a piece of skin around his nail and he started bleeding. His eyes looked at the bead of blood red that formed from the cut. He felt pain and endorphins filling him.

Naruto leapt from the couch and within seconds he pinned Sasuke down to the ground. He was caught off guard in every aspect. Naruto’s hands wrapped firmly around Sasuke’s shoulders. One of Naruto’s knees was pressed between Sasuke’s legs and his other knee was on the outside of his right leg. It knocked the breath from Sasuke.

“Shut up!” Naruto warned. His eyes were ice cold and his voice even icier.

“Don’t be angry at me.” Sasuke’s voice was soft. He lifted his hand and touched Naruto’s cheek. “You said you’re going to use me. What do you want me to do?” He cupped Naruto’s cheek with his hand. He needed to calm Naruto down. He needed to be submissive. He had pushed Naruto over the breaking point and he wanted to coddle him back into being sweet.

Naruto froze when Sasuke’s hand touched him. His eyes dilated. He stared at Sasuke and loosened his grip and pulled back until he was in a sitting position. He looked at Sasuke’s hand and saw the blood on his thumb. His eyes widened.

“You’re bleeding!” Naruto shouted. He ran to his bathroom. He came back with a first aid kit. He took Sasuke’s hand and examined his thumbnail that was covered in blood. He frowned. He took some gauze pads and soaked up the blood. He sprayed neosporin and wrapped the cut with a bandaid that had cartoon frogs all over it. It hurt all over again. Naruto’s kindness as he fretted about him. It hurt. It was difficult to breathe.

“There.” Naruto concluded as he saw that Sasuke was no longer bleeding. Sasuke felt lightheaded. He struggled to keep up with Naruto’s mood swings.

“Thank you.” Sasuke whispered. He curled his hand to his chest. His fingers vibrated from Naruto’s touch.

“Let’s watch a horror movie. I picked out a few for us to watch. What snacks do you like? We have a lot.”

Sasuke caught his breath. His heart was back in his throat again. He felt woozy. He tried calming himself down. He needed to give Naruto a direct answer. “Do you have popcorn and cola?”

“Che, don’t you want anything else?” Naruto asked impatiently.

“I just want popcorn and cola.” Sasuke answered. He didn’t know why but the popcorn and cola was the most comforting thing when it came to watching movies with Naruto. It had become his comfort meal. He watched as Naruto nodded his head and he left his room. Sasuke examined the bandage on his thumb. He remembered Naruto asking him about his bandaged wrist. He didn’t understand Naruto’s motives. Did he really want to be friends and didn’t know how? He came back with popcorn, cola, candy, chips, and homemade cookies.

Sasuke reluctantly joined Naruto on the couch. He wanted to keep Naruto at arm's length. Naruto had several throw blankets on the couch and Sasuke took one to cover himself up with. Naruto turned the lights off and started playing one of the horror movies. They watched the movie and it was the first time Sasuke was introduced to a new genre of horror: torture porn. It had taken Sasuke completely out of his comfort zone.

Sasuke cried out and covered his face. They were on the second movie and Sasuke couldn’t sit through another movie.

“This is too scary!” Sasuke protested. It was the combination of nudity and gore that broke him. He could muster the courage to sit through the first movie but the second movie started and it was already too much to handle.

“So you are afraid.” Naruto commented. He slid closer to Sasuke and stared at him. “I thought movies aren’t scary because they can’t hurt you. What makes it so scary?”

“I...don’t want to see naked people!” Sasuke argued. He kept his eyes covered.

“You don’t want to see naked people...or you don’t want to see naked girls?” Naruto asked.

“I don’t want to see any naked people dying!” Sasuke didn’t understand why Naruto was phrasing it like that. He had seen so many breasts and asses it was enough to last for a lifetime. He couldn’t even tell if any of their private parts between their legs were shown because he immediately closed his eyes. It frightened him. He hadn’t seen any of the guys naked, just them shirtless and bloodied. It was always the women that were stark naked.

“You have to watch.” Naruto demanded. “You have to watch it with me!”

“No!” Sasuke protested.

“Stop being a scaredy-cat and just watch it with me!” Naruto grabbed Sasuke’s wrists and pulled his hands away from his face.

Sasuke’s eyes went back to the television where graphic brutality was happening in the form of a naked woman being hacked to death. He watched the naked woman’s large breasts become bloodsoaked as she fell over and died. Sasuke squirmed as Naruto continued to hold his wrists, refusing to let go. Naruto’s grip was strong. He kept forgetting just how much stronger Naruto was.

“I don’t like it! It’s scary!” Sasuke protested and closed his eyes. “Please...let's watch something else!”

“I like the retribution the main character gets when they take revenge.” Naruto commented. He continued watching the movie and disregarded Sasuke’s protests.

“Do they have to do it with so much nudity and gore?” Sasuke questioned. His eyes kept fluttering back to the television. It was like watching a gruesome car accident, something he couldn’t turn away from. His stomach churned and he fought the urge to throw up. His eyes moved to Naruto when he didn’t say anything. Naruto appeared in a daze. His eyes were glassed over.

“Naruto?” Sasuke called out his name. Naruto wasn’t moving. He wasn’t even blinking. Sasuke pushed forward. “Naruto?” He called out his name again. The lifeless expression Naruto had frightened Sasuke more than the movie. Sasuke grabbed the remote and turned the television off. They were bathed in darkness and silence.

“Naruto?” Sasuke whispered. He reached out and felt Naruto’s arm. He shook him. “Naruto?!” he was scared. He didn’t know what was happening to Naruto. Panic set in. Was there something medically wrong with Naruto? He almost screamed.

“Mhm?” Naruto stirred. “Why did you turn the TV off?” Sasuke felt relief hearing his voice and the normalcy of his voice.

“I...didn’t want to watch that movie anymore.”

“Okay. We don’t have to watch it.”

“What’s wrong?” Sasuke asked. “Why were you acting like that?”

“Like what?” Naruto asked. Sasuke could hear and feel Naruto moving closer.

“You were acting...scary.”

“I’m sorry I scared you, Sasuke.” Naruto wrapped his arms around Sasuke and he froze. Naruto was hugging him. His arms wrapped tightly around him. Sasuke stiffened and stopped breathing. “I don’t like the dark. Can you turn the TV back on, please? You can close your eyes and I’ll turn the movie off.” Naruto whispered in Sasuke’s ear. Naruto’s body was warmly pressed against his. It was too hard to think.

Naruto was afraid of flying. He was afraid of the dark.

It caused Sasuke to shudder. He closed his eyes and turned the television back on just as requested. He felt Naruto pushing away. The coldness that filled him. He heard Naruto move to the DVD player and hit the button and the disc popped out. Naruto turned the lights in his room back on. He opened his eyes and saw Naruto was back to normal. He was still hesitant but Naruto did as he said and they stopped watching those movies and he put on a comedy sitcom.

“I don’t like those movies.” Sasuke repeated. “Don’t make me watch those ever again!”

“Okay.” Naruto complied. “It’s just...I just wanted you to know how I felt.”

“How you felt?”

“That’s how I feel at night. That’s how I feel in the dark and I can’t sleep because I’m so afraid.”

Sasuke didn’t answer right away. His heart pounded. Naruto said he had difficulty sleeping at night and the reason was that he was afraid. His heart hurt. He remembered how vulnerable Naruto looked in the hotel room. He remembered telling Naruto he could keep the lights on and the television on. He knew Naruto was afraid of the dark, he just didn’t know to what extent. He thought Naruto was homesick; he didn’t know that he had felt afraid every single night. He felt his heart soften.

“You’re afraid every night?” Sasuke asked.

“Mhm.”

“How can I help?”

“Sleep next to me.”

“Okay.”

*****

Naruto had a star constellation that projected on the ceiling and walls. It was a breathtaking sight that moved around the purple and blue nebulas of the milky way galaxy. Sasuke was dressed in his pajamas and laying on his back watching the stars on the ceiling. Naruto was curled up next to him in bed. He was fast asleep. He remembered Hawaii. How deep and peaceful he slept next to him.

Sasuke was conflicted again. He didn’t understand Naruto’s hot and cold personality and he couldn’t tell what version of Naruto was the real one. As if Naruto was fighting with each personality, each version of himself, to see who was dominant.

He recounted the cocky, smug Naruto on the tennis courts. The jealous Naruto that pestered Hinata over the cowrie bracelet Sasuke gifted her. How bold and brash he was when he asked about him spending the night. He had thought Naruto wasn’t going to talk to him again after he purposely made him upset by bringing up Hinata and the bracelet. It must have bothered Naruto this whole time because he confronted Hinata about it. He wished he had finished showering sooner so he could have heard more of their conversation.

What did they talk about before Sasuke stumbled upon them? From Hinata’s relaxed state when talking to Naruto she still hadn’t remembered anything from the accident. All she remembered was arguing with Naruto about him making more friends.

“Naruto?” Sasuke whispered his name. The boy next to him didn’t stir. Even if Sasuke shook him he was in such a deep sleep he wouldn’t rouse. He reached his hand out and brushed his fingers against Naruto’s cheek. His face was warm and soft. He looked innocent and vulnerable. He pulled his hand back. He examined the bandaid one more time around his thumb.

“You spoiled brat. I hate you.”

He felt tiredness and exhaustion overcome him. He rolled to his side, his back facing Naruto, and closed his eyes.

*****

“S-sasuke?”

Sasuke looked up to see a burly boy the shape of a boulder standing in front of his desk. The boy had messy hair the color of a carrot. His face looked older without any trace of baby fat, he had a strong jawline and was sloe-eyed. He looked familiar but Sasuke hadn’t exchanged words with him before.

“My name is Jugo, we're in the same class.” Jugo spoke hesitantly. Sasuke nodded his head. He rarely spoke to his classmates. He felt guilty not knowing his name. “I wanted to ask you if you could help me make corrections on the mathematics test we took. I just remember Ino saying you helped her. But I can’t understand when I look at the problems.”

Sasuke looked at his math text he was studying from and looked back up at Jugo. He smiled. “Okay. Let me see.”

Jugo was dressed nicely and even though he was taller than Sasuke and looked quite formidable there was a softness. Sasuke spent the rest of his lunch helping Jugo make corrections.

“Wow! That makes sense!” Jugo exclaimed. His face lit up as the connections inside his brain fit together. He began solving the last problem on his own and Sasuke looked to see if it was the correct answer.

“That’s correct.”

Jugo’s smile widened. He had a handsome smile. “Let me buy you a drink after school to thank you.” Sasuke smiled weakly. His schedule made it impossible to become friends with people. His mother had already scheduled piano lessons with Mito Uzumaki and his schedule became even more crammed. It was something he was used to but it still hurt.

“I have to go to cram school.”

“Let me buy you a drink on your way to cram school.”

“Okay.” The genuine smile and eagerness of Jugo made it impossible to protest any further. He wanted human interaction even if it was walking to the boba store near his cram school with a classmate.

After school he was relieved to see Naruto had left with Ino, Sakura, and Kiba. Naruto was back to being cold with him. It didn’t bother him. He rather enjoyed it when Naruto was cold with him. Only this time he couldn’t figure out why. Sasuke looked up to see Jugo waiting for him and he smiled. He thought the conversation would be forced with Jugo and it was the opposite. There was a calming air around Jugo as if he were the embodiment of Taoism. There was a peacefulness that Sasuke relished.

“Your schedule is rather hectic.” Jugo commented as Sasuke finished telling him how he had little time to hang out. “Let’s eat lunch together sometime. The truth is...I’ve wanted to talk to you for a while.”

“You did?” Sasuke asked. He hadn’t meant for it to sound so suspicious.

“It has nothing to do with the teacher!” Jugo defended. “I just wanted to talk to you, but it felt like there was a barrier around you. After what Ino said I didn’t want to approach you right away because I didn’t want you to think I had any ulterior motives.”

“Oh.” Sasuke exhaled. He had believed Jugo. He spoke with such innocence it was impossible to think he ever had any ulterior motives. “I’m sorry for accusing you.”

“I don’t blame you. I would act suspicious too if I were you.”

They walked in silence and neared the boba shop. It was a place that Sasuke saw other kids who went to his cram school stopping at before going in. Sasuke never stopped before.

“You go to this cram school?” Jugo asked and pointed. Sasuke nodded his head. “You go to the same one as Suigetsu.” Sasuke wondered if Suigetsu was also in their class. He didn’t have to wonder for long because Jugo answered him. “He doesn’t go to our school. I’ve known Suigetsu since we were younger. He is planning on attending the same high school.”

Sasuke ordered a tea with herbal jelly. Jugo ordered a matcha milk tea. He was surprised at how big his drink was. “Thank you.”

“No. Thank you for helping me with the corrections. Thanks to you I didn’t fail.”

Sasuke smiled and took a sip from his drink. It was delicious. He checked the time on the digital clock that was hanging up at the shop. He needed to go. Jugo watched where his eyes lingered and noticed the time.

“I should introduce you to Suigetsu.” Jugo commented as they left the store. Sasuke didn’t say anything and followed Jugo towards his cram school. He didn’t have to go far before Jugo shouted. “SUIGETSU!” A lanky boy with hair so fine it looked white appeared. Sasuke hadn’t recognized him but it appeared that Suigetsu recognized him.

“Hi Jugo...what are you doing with Sasuke?” Suigetsu asked. Suigetsu’s teeth appeared sharper than the average person’s and his eyes were violet. Suigetsu was drinking from a big gulp.

“He’s in the same class as me. I didn’t know you already knew each other. I was going to introduce you.” Jugo commented.

“We don’t really know each other. He’s just in the same cram school. Everybody knows Sasuke though. He’s really smart.”

“Hi, Suigetsu.” Sasuke greeted. He felt awkward again. He didn’t know how to handle things when people knew him, knew his name, and he felt exposed and vulnerable. He never raised his hand in cram school and the only time he answered questions was when the teacher called on him. He didn’t like to splash waves and sat in the back of the class.

“Sasuke helped me with my math test corrections so I was treating him to a drink.” Jugo explained.

“Maybe you should be the one going to cram school.” Suigetsu joked with a playful smile.

“Sasuke, do you like cats?” Jugo asked.

“Cats?” Sasuke asked. He had no opinion on cats. His family didn’t own any pets.

“My family runs a veterinary. A pregnant mother just gave birth and she’s been having postpartum and won’t feed her kittens so we’ve been having to hand feed them. If you want I can show you the kittens after cram school.” Jugo suggested. It didn’t seem forced.

“You guys got kittens?” Suigetsu perked up. “I wanna see!”

“We’re only monitoring them until they’re strong enough to be released to the animal shelter.” Jugo nodded his head.

“Won’t it be too late?” Sasuke asked.

“We’re open all hours. We live above the clinic so we technically never close.”

“O-okay.”

Sasuke didn’t understand what was happening. He hadn’t expected things to go so smoothly. Suigetsu sat next to him in cram school. He expected things to be awkward with Suigetsu but he felt similarly to Jugo. It was casual and natural. It was easier talking to people. He thought back to Naruto. How difficult it was to speak to him in the beginning. He thought back to Ino how forceful he was with her on several occasions. He had been talking more and more with Hinata. He tried to pinpoint that exact moment when he hadn’t become so flustered and tongue-tied.

Jugo met both Suigetsu and Sasuke outside of the cram school and led them to his family’s vet clinic. It was very clean and had a calming, nurturing, aura just like the aura that surrounded Jugo. They went to the back where there was a box of kittens mewling. They were small furballs that groped the blanket they were on looking for a nipple of milk. Their eyes were still closed. They were completely vulnerable and if Jugo and his parents hadn’t stepped up they would have been neglected and died.

“Here. You can feed them with this syringe. If you drip a little of the formula on their nose they’ll open up their mouth.” Jugo explained. He instructed both Suigetsu and Sasuke. “Just be gentle and don’t squeeze too tightly.”

Sasuke was handed a black kitten with a white tuft on its belly. Its eyes remained closed. Sasuke held the syringe to the nose and dripped some formula onto its pink nose. The cat opened its mouth and wrapped its mouth around the syringe and began sucking. The syringe was specially made to feed newborn kittens and the formula was specially made to ensure the kittens had the same nutrients they would if they were being fed from mom.

“Why isn’t the mama cat taking care of them? Isn’t it supposed to be in its nature?” Suigetsu asked. Sasuke looked to see Suigetsu was handling the all-white furball delicately and saw that his kitten had latched on and was suckling.

“The mama cat is young herself, barely a teenager. Probably got pregnant after her first heat. The birth was traumatic and she herself probably was dumped at a young age.” Jugo explained.

“I guess even cat moms can be mean and abandon their young.” Suigetsu commented. Sasuke glanced at Suigetsu. The way he spoke and his sad facial expression hinted that ‘mother’ was a sensitive topic. There was a long silence following Suigetsu’s comment. The sadness on Suigetsu’s face melted away into a smile as he began feeding another mewling, squirming, kitten.

“Too bad Karin was sick today. She would have loved this.” Suigetsu commented. Sasuke looked at Suigetsu. It felt like he should know who Karin is but didn’t. Suigetsu looked at him and explained. “Karin goes to the same cram school as us. You may know her last name, Uzumaki.”

Karin Uzumaki. Was she related to Naruto? He pushed both thoughts from his mind and focused on the kittens.

Sasuke felt unusual happiness as he fed the kittens alongside Jugo and Suigetsu. The feeling of being needed. The mewls of the kittens as they became fat with formula. The kittens going from crying messes to sleeping curled up into one big fur pit. He felt a sense of accomplishment and he enjoyed this feeling. His opinion of cats changed and he had decided that he liked cats.

“Do you have any pets, Sasuke?” Jugo asked.

“No. My mother doesn’t understand the concept of pets. She said they’re pointless.” Sasuke answered.

“Oh I thought you had a pet cat.”

“You did?” Sasuke asked and looked at him. “Why?”

“You remind me of a cat person. I can tell who's a cat person and who's a dog person.” Jugo nodded his head.

“What’s a cat person like?”

“Subtle. Graceful. Independent.”

“What’s a dog person like?”

“Agreeable. Extraverted. Conscientious.”

Sasuke didn’t know why he immediately thought of Naruto. He stared at the kittens sleeping and purring. He wondered what Naruto was doing right now. No sooner did he ponder this did he shake his head. He didn’t care what Naruto was doing. He stood up and brushed himself off.

“I have to get going. Thank you, Jugo.” Sasuke spoke.

“You can come by anytime. We’ll have them for the next couple of weeks.” Jugo smiled.

*****

Sasuke’s life changed after the day he met Jugo. He stopped eating lunch alone and began eating with Jugo. He got to know Jugo better. Jugo was very sensitive and although he struggled with certain topics in school, like math and science, he excelled when it came to animals and caring for animals. He was going to become a veterinarian just like his parents and eventually take over the clinic. He had an affinity for animals.

When Sasuke went to cram school again he was introduced to Karin Uzumaki. She was different than he envisioned. The Uzumaki’s were a well-known name in the city especially their contributions to the arts. When he first met Karin her hair was stuffed inside a baseball cap and she wore frumpy clothes that were too big on her and a pair of shoes that look like the soles would peel off. If he hadn’t known she was an Uzumaki he wouldn’t have believed it. She wore thick-rimmed glasses. She was skinny and was all elbows and knees. She was wearing a black face mask and her skin was pink as if she still had a fever.

“This is Sasuke, he's in the same class as Jugo.” Suigetsu introduced.

“So you’re in the same class as my cousin, Naruto?” Karin asked. “I feel sorry for you. He’s a brat ain't he? I’ve been planning on hitting him the next time I see him. I think he knows this and it’s why he’s been avoiding me.” She clenched a fist and swung it menacingly in the air.

Sasuke stared at her. Did she know Naruto’s true personality? She must. They were related and they were both kids. She was going to hit him. She was the only one that could strike Naruto and get away with it. She had nothing to lose. They were related, they were blood, she could do it and Sasuke felt envious. He felt relief too. That there was someone in this world that could put Naruto in his place.

“I bet you hate Naruto. Jugo told us what he did. Jugo wanted to talk to you for a while but he’s unusually shy and often keeps to himself.” Suigetsu explained. “He was afraid you wouldn’t want to talk to him after what happened with Naruto.”

“He’s a right bastard.” Karin continued. Her glasses kept fogging up from the mask and she kept having to take them off and clean them. “If he does anything else to you let me know. I have no problems giving him a bloody nose. I’m not scared of him. Jugo is better than Naruto in every conceivable way. Heck. Jugo is a better person than I am!”

“I second that!” Suigetsu quipped.

Karin was rough. There was a coarseness to her like a porcupine but there was also a softness to her. She came off strong but Sasuke didn’t mind it. He didn’t understand if she was purposefully dressing sloppily to hide her identity or if she really did just dress this way. She carried herself as if she deserved to have the Uzumaki name but she wasn’t cocky and smug. She was a fierce protector of her friends and she embodied loyalty.

“Sasuke Uchiha?” Karin asked. Her eyes looked like she thought of something.

“Mn.” Sasuke nodded his head.

“You’re going to be taking piano lessons with my mom.”

“Y-yeah.”

“You must be pretty good, dude!” Suigetsu praised. Sasuke felt his face flushing. “Karin has no choice but to be a prodigy but it’s no joke if you were able to get lessons with her mom. Thee Mito Uzumaki!”

“My mother is insane. I apologize for her behavior.” Karin continued. “You don’t need to praise my mom like she’s some god, Suigetsu. She still gets wine drunk on Wednesdays with all the other parents at the country club.” Karin mumbled something under her breath but it was inaudible.

“Oh.” Sasuke murmured.

Was Karin’s mother the same as his mother? A tiger mother who demanded perfection from their offspring? Someone who wouldn’t settle for anything less than a gold medal. He could still taste the dish soap on his tongue. Karin said her mother still drank and became drunk. He hadn’t witnessed either parent become drunk from alcohol. They both exerted absolute control when they drank. He watched his mother nurse one glass of wine through whole dinner parties. His father did the same with whiskey. They told him he shouldn’t drink in excess. It made people look foolish and it was a turn-off.

“My mother wants me to enter the duo piano competition with Hinata Hyuga.” Sasuke confessed.

“Interesting. So she wants you to marry Hinata.”

“Ey?!” Sasuke’s face turned fire-engine red and he pushed back in his seat. It felt like several steps were skipped from playing piano to marriage. It caught Sasuke off guard. Karin and Suigetsu looked unaffected. They stared at Sasuke as if his reaction was over the top. When it was a perfectly acceptable reaction to Sasuke.

“Why are you surprised? You’re an Uchiha, right? It wouldn’t be shocking if you married into either a Uzumaki or Hyuga family. Isn’t that how families keep their wealth by marrying into other wealthy families?”

“I’m not...I’m not wealthy.” He attributed wealth to how Naruto lived.

“Yes you are, babydoll.” Karin spoke. There was a rawness with her words. She was being serious but with an air of ease. She sounded like someone who already understood the rules of their parent’s world and was already playing. She pointed her pencil at him. “Look at the clothes you’re wearing. How you carry yourself. Ain’t nothing wrong with having money. Your mom belongs to the same country club as my mom. It may not be the same level of wealth but you’re still wealthy. Besides, haven't you heard? Arranged marriages are all the rage.” She tossed her hand in the air as if throwing invisible confetti.

“I...haven’t thought of it like that...I’m only thirteen.” Sasuke confessed.

He felt younger. He felt like a small child waiting for his mother to pick him up from preschool. He was just getting used to some of the rules and now Karin threw arranged marriages into the ring. It wasn’t like the idea was foreign. He knew his mother would have selected his wife. He just envisioned it being a complete stranger. Not someone he saw as a friend. He shuddered.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to upset ya!” Karin continued.

“No, it’s just...frustrating like I don’t have any~”

“Free will?” Karin asked. He caught Karin’s eyes. She got it.

“Mn.”

“Well. Forget all that boring crap. Let’s visit Jugo after and feed the kittens again!” Suigetsu interrupted.

*****

“I want to eat lunch with you.” Naruto said. He reached out and grabbed Sasuke’s arm as he stood up. Sasuke glanced outside. It was a beautiful, sunny day. Perfect for playing soccer. Naruto stopped giving him the cold shoulder and was back to being hot with him.

“Aren’t you going to play soccer?” Sasuke asked. He tried pulling his arm back but Naruto refused to let go.

“No.”

Sasuke glanced in the direction of where Jugo sat. He sat on the opposite side of the room in the back row. Jugo smiled at him. Maybe he would understand the predicament he was in. Sasuke sat back down at his desk. He hesitated. He watched as Naruto let go of him. He wanted to quickly shake Naruto so he could join Jugo.

“I met your cousin, Karin.” Sasuke spoke. He wanted to rile Naruto up again. He wanted to make him uncomfortable.

“Aren’t you taking piano lessons with her mom?” Naruto asked as he started unpacking his lunch. He spoke in a manner that said he wasn’t surprised as if he was bound to meet Karin eventually it was just a matter of time.

“She goes to the same cram school as me.” Sasuke replied. “I like her.”

“A lot of people like Karin.” Naruto spoke plainly. He was hard to read. “She’s a better piano player than me. She’s better than Hinata.”

“Is everything okay, Naruto? You look...off.” Sasuke spoke before thinking. Naruto’s skin was pale. There were dark circles under his eyes. He looked exhausted. He appeared dull.

“I haven’t been able to sleep.” Naruto spoke. “Will you spend the night again? Or if you’d like. I can spend the night at your place.”

It was only eight more days until June 15th. He was able to hold out until then. Sasuke nodded his head. “I’ll spend the night.”

“Really?” Naruto asked. He was smiling.

“This Saturday. Now if you will excuse me. I already made plans to eat lunch with Jugo.” Sasuke said. He picked up his lunch and walked away. It left Naruto shocked and Naruto turned in his seat to watch Sasuke and Jugo exiting the classroom. His eyes never left Sasuke’s back.

*****

“Naruto. Why do you keep inviting Sasuke to spend the night? It’s really pissing me off.” Kiba asked. They were sitting in a boba cafe after school. Ino was looking at her MP3 player changing songs and looked up. Kiba’s voice was cold and harsh. He said Sasuke’s name like a slur. Her eyebrows raised in curiosity. Her eyes shifted to Naruto and she smiled.

“He’s blackmailing Sasuke.” Ino commented. “What choice does Sasuke have?” She flickered her eyes to Kiba and smiled sweetly.

“Why? What does Sasuke have that we don’t?” Kiba snarled. “You never invite us over anymore. What gives?”

“Naruto won’t tell me.” Ino answered. Sakura sat down with her drink and stared at everyone. She caught the tail end. “It’s like he thinks Sasuke is better than us.”

“How do you know I’m blackmailing him?” Naruto asked Ino. He narrowed his eyes.

“Sasuke told me.”

“Since when are you good friends with Sasuke?” Sakura demanded.

“I’m not friends with Sasuke. We just talk from time to time. Do you want to know the truth, Naruto? He hates your fucking guts. Do you really think you can keep deluding yourself into believing you’re friends with Sasuke? It’s not going to last forever.” Ino spoke, in the same manner, she did when she exposed it was her who told the teacher that Kiba defaced Sasuke’s desk. Unafraid and confident.

“You’re lying. Sasuke likes me.” Naruto spat.

“Why don’t you invite me over to spend the night too?” Kiba asked.

“Why can’t I invite everyone over to spend the night?” Naruto compromised. “Kiba, Ino, and Sakura. We have enough guest rooms and I’m sure it would make my mom happy.”

“Really? I can spend the night at your house?” Sakura asked. Her face flushed in excitement.

“When?” Ino asked.

“This Saturday.”

“Ino and I have practice...but we can come after!” Sakura exclaimed. She reached over and grabbed Ino’s hand and squeezed.

“Uninvite, Sasuke.” Ino spoke. She settled her eyes on Naruto and held Sakura’s hand.

“No.” Naruto spoke with a smile as if what Ino said was absurd and out of the question.

“What do you think it’ll take to make Sasuke cry?” Kiba asked and leaned back putting his hands behind his head.

“He’s going to hate you more. Uninvite him.” Ino repeated. She continued to challenge Naruto.

“I said, no.” Naruto repeated. His cold smile didn’t leave his lips. The air thinned and grew colder. Naruto stirred his drink with his straw. His eyes kept focused on Ino. She shifted in her seat. She looked to Sakura for support.

“How long do you think it’ll take for us to make Sasuke cry?” Sakura asked and pulled her hand from Ino’s. She was joining in Kiba’s fun. “Maybe we should strip him and take pictures.” Sakura’s eyes were lifeless but her smile was maddening. Kiba nodded his head in agreement.

“Sasuke didn’t do anything! He doesn’t even like you, Naruto. You’re the one blackmailing him. He hates you! He doesn’t want to spend the night at your house!” Ino cried out. They were in the back of the shop. It didn’t matter if they made a scene. The shop owner knew who Naruto was and wouldn’t dare kick out the son of Minato and Kushina.

Sakura slapped Ino across the face. She didn’t hold back. It was open-palmed but it still stung and Ino’s cheek instantly reddened like the deck of cards painting the white roses red. It dripped and stained her skin in the shape of five fingers. Naruto’s eyes widened.

“Why do you keep taking Sasuke’s side! You’re supposed to be our friend, Ino. Not Sasuke’s! OURS!” Sakura took her drink and was ready to dump the contents over Ino’s head when Naruto stopped her. He grabbed Sakura’s wrist. Intervening before things escalated.

“Don’t be mad at Ino.” Naruto spoke calmly. “She just doesn’t want me to get hurt. Do you, Ino? Isn’t that why you keep asking Sasuke questions?”

“He told me he’s going to stop being your friend when the school ends. He’s going to break up with you!” Ino yelled. Her hand went to her cheek. Her eyes watered but tears didn’t fall. She was still being unabashedly determined but hope was slipping through her fingers as if she was trying to grab the strings of one hundred balloons as they floated up to the sky.

“Break up? What does he think he’s dating Naruto? What a delusional freak!” Kiba spat. “He makes my skin crawl! Naruto, dude, what’s your obsession with him? Tell us. You don’t really like him do you?”

Naruto snapped.

He let go of Sakura’s wrist and turned his attention to Kiba. In a flash, he grabbed a fistful of Kiba’s hair and jerked his head back so that it cranked his neck and he was forced to look up at the ceiling. Naruto didn’t care if he made a scene in public. He was angry. He pulled Kiba’s hair with all his strength and it caused Kiba to cry out. Naruto slammed a foot on the chair between Kiba’s legs. He stared down at Kiba. Sakura lowered her hand and watched Naruto with fascination.

“Yes. I like him. He treats me so coldly and I’m sick and tired of it. So what should we do to punish him and make him cry?” Naruto purred. His facial expressions darkened. “Why can’t our group have a pet dog? Dogs are supposed to be loyal to their owners.” Ino cringed and rolled her eyes.

“Dog?” Kiba asked. His face lit up as the idea came to him. He nodded his head fervently up and down. “Yeah. He can be our dog.”

“You!” Sakura pointed a finger threateningly at Ino. “If you do anything to get in our way we’ll punish you too!”

“I told you. That solo was everything to me!” Ino snapped. “Even Naruto said it was fine what I did!”

“Leave Ino alone. She doesn’t have a performance coming up. She’ll be a good girl, won’t you, Ino?” Naruto asked. He still gripped Kiba’s hair, he still cranked Kiba’s head all the way back as if he wanted to snap his neck in two. He turned his fierce eyes to Ino. His eyes were simultaneously hot and cold.

“Whatever.” Ino mumbled. “It doesn’t concern me.”

She placed her headphones over her ears and turned her music on. She popped a piece of bubble gum in her mouth and started to chew anxiously. She didn’t like it. It felt like history was repeating itself. She was having flashbacks of Hinata and how it ended with Hinata being pushed down the stairs. She grabbed her MP3 player and turned the volume all the way up to help drown out her own thoughts.

*****

Saturday night.

Kushina answered the door. She was wearing a form-fitting yellow dress that looked like a bed of daffodils. Her hair was styled in an updo and she had a full face of makeup. She greeted Sasuke with such a genuinely warm smile it broke Sasuke’s heart. He had no memory of his own mother looking at him with such warmth.

“Hello, Mrs. Namikaze. Thank you for allowing me to spend the night.” Sasuke greeted politely and bowed.

“I am so glad that Naruto is back to having slumber parties. He used to have his classmates over all the time and then he stopped. I hope everyone has fun tonight.”

“Everyone?” Sasuke asked. He felt nauseous. His abdomen cramped.

“Yes. He’s invited Sakura, Ino, and Kiba over. Everyone is in Naruto’s room. Don’t worry we have enough guest rooms, everyone should be able to sleep comfortably.” Kushina assured. It didn’t assure Sasuke. It had the opposite effect.

“Minato and I are going to a dinner party and we’ll be back late. Don’t let us interrupt your fun.” Kushina explained as she began leading Sasuke up to Naruto’s room. It felt like he was walking down death row towards the electric chair. His breathing became shallow. His vision blurred. The ominous feeling filled him up a little more with every step he took towards Naruto’s room. Until it burst over and leaked through every orifice in his body.

Kushina knocked on Naruto’s door and opened it up. She wrapped an arm around Sasuke’s shoulder and led him into Naruto’s massive bedroom. His eyes widened as he saw that everyone was there. His eyes went to Kiba, then Sakura, to Ino and finally Naruto.

“Everyone, Sasuke is here! I hope you guys have fun tonight. Naruto, you have our number if anything happens. Goodbye.” Kushina left.

“Bye mom!” Naruto called out with a bright, impish, smile. Naruto waited a few moments before walking up to Sasuke. He glanced out the door before closing and locking it.

“I got to thinking Sasuke. This is really your fault. You should have just told me you wanted it to just be you and me tonight.” Naruto spoke casually as he put an arm around Sasuke’s shoulder and led him into the room.

Sasuke was utterly speechless.

Chapter Text

One blind man to see fair play

 

Three days. It was only three more days until the merger was finalized. It didn’t seem all that long in the grand scheme of things. It was a heartbeat, a blink of the eye, nothing when it came to how old the earth was. It was minute. Less than a week. It wasn’t that much time at all yet every second within Naruto’s room was unbearable. The ominous feeling he felt in the house he had entered the source.

“Hi Uchiha-bitch.” Kiba greeted viciously. “I got you a present.” He held in his hands a dog collar. Sasuke frowned. He tried to swallow but the fear that balled in the back of his throat refused to go down.

“What’s going on?” Sasuke asked shakily. His vision blurred when he saw the dog collar.

“You’re a bitch, right? Shouldn’t bitches wear leashes and collars?” Kiba challenged. “Here. Let me help you put it on.” The collar snapped around Sasuke’s neck. His eyes widened and his hands went to his neck.

“Stop!” Sasuke yelled. “I don’t even want to be Naruto’s friend!” He unclicked the collar and threw it on the ground.

“Isn’t this the last fun we’ll have together?” Naruto asked and crouched down to pick up the collar. Naruto raised his icy blue eyes to look up at Sasuke. “I want it to be memorable. Ino said you were going to break up with me.”

“I told you...I never wanted to be your friend!” Sasuke yelled and backed up.

His eyes turned to look at everyone in the room. They had all grown mad. Their eyes flashed with the same shared delusions. He looked at Ino who appeared apathetic yet she did nothing to stop things from escalating. She was popping a pink bubble and continued to smack her bubblegum. She was wearing the same overall shorts from Hawaii. She was barefooted and her hands were stuffed in her pockets. Her expression changed from apathetic to a look of warning as if she were conveying with her eyes that Sasuke should just play along or things were going to get worse.

“You could have just been my friend!” Naruto argued. “That was the only thing I wanted! You didn’t have to keep making things so difficult.”

“This wasn’t what Hinata meant when she wanted you to make friends!” Sasuke yelled back. He wanted to knock some sense into Naruto but he didn’t know how.

“If you like Hinata so much why don’t you just marry her?” Naruto screamed.

“I’d rather marry her than spend another second with you!” Sasuke argued back. He felt a blow to the stomach. It erupted in pain as his body fell with the impact. Kiba had swung and kicked him in the stomach. He fell to his bottom and his arms wrapped around his stomach protectively. It knocked the breath from him. Kiba picked the collar up from Naruto’s hand and fastened it back around Sasuke as he remained dazed.

“A bitch shouldn’t bark back to it’s owner.” Kiba snapped. He reached for the leash that Sakura held and clipped it around the collar. He held the leash in his hand and snickered. Ino huffed and turned away. She put headphones over her ears and turned the volume up on her MP3 player.

Naruto didn’t stop them. Sakura held a two liter of cola. She shook it up. “Naruto said you liked cola and popcorn. Look what I got you? You look pretty thirsty.”

She continued shaking the liter of cola until she could feel the pressure building and building inside the plastic bottle. She aimed the top of the cola at Sasuke’s face and opened up the top. In a burst of absolute pressure the bubbled cola spurted out and struck Sasuke in the face. Instantly drenching him in the sticky liquid. It caused Sasuke to cover his face with his hands. He coughed and choked as his clothes became wet. The cola went up his nose, in his mouth, and stung his eyes.

Sakura’s hysterical laughter filled the room. She sounded like a deranged clown high on laughing gas threatening to pull his teeth out at the dentist.

“Since you’ve gotten your drink why don’t we go for a walk?” Kiba sneered. He jerked the collar. It caused Sasuke to choke and cough. It was three days. He only had to last three days. He was in the homestretch. He had run past third base and was running home. He was so close.

He wanted to break Naruto. He didn’t want Naruto to break him. No. Sasuke wasn’t going to break.

He saw the desperation in his father’s face. How tired he was over the last few weeks. The dark circles under his eyes. His smile was gone. The new grey hairs that speckled through his brunette hair. He lost a few pounds because he worked so hard he stopped eating. It was going to be worth it to see his father’s smiling, relaxed face. He didn’t do it for his mother. She had paraded him around like a show dog all his life. It didn’t matter if he did it on all fours and with a leash and collar in Naruto’s room. He could bear it.

What would his mother say if she saw him now? He didn’t have to think of her response. She would command him to act like the show dog she had raised since birth.

Sasuke swallowed his pride. He did as he was told and crawled around on all fours as Kiba and Sakura led him around the room. Their laughter felt like claws against his skin and his stomach twisted. He detached from his body. He crawled into a hole and disappeared. He shifted over to autopilot. He’d gotten used to it when he was alone. When nobody talked to him, he shuffled from cram school, to private tutoring sessions, to piano lessons, to competitions, to school. When his mother forced dish soap down his throat so he wouldn’t mess up another key when he performed. Muscle memory was a wondrous, lifesaving, mechanism.

“Speak.” Kiba taunted.

“Woof.” Sasuke answered.

“Louder, Uchiha-bitch.” Sakura demanded and pulled on the leash.

“WOOF!”

She went into another fit of giggles. “Do you think he’s hungry?”

“Maybe we should make him a sundae.” Sakura suggested. “Naruto. Do you have stuff to make a sundae in your kitchen?”

“Mn.” Naruto answered. He was still crouched down and didn't interrupt. Sasuke didn’t know what expression he was making as he refused to look at him. He didn’t know why Naruto remained crouching on the floor. He wasn't actively participating in this cruel game but he wasn't stopping it either.

“Let’s go get the stuff!” Sakura spoke to Kiba. He released the leash and the two ran from the room.

Sasuke didn’t move. He turned slowly and caught Naruto’s eyes watching him. Naruto looked dead. Lifeless. Like the time they were watching the torture porn horror movie. He wasn’t there. His body was there but his mind wasn’t. It was somewhere else, and he hoped it was trapped in the boxcar with Neji’s rotting body. He hoped his mind was in hell. He watched Naruto’s eyes become glass.

“I hope it’s worth it.” Sasuke spoke to Naruto. The longer he looked at Naruto the more he hated him. The more his heart hardened. The more his teeth clenched and he could feel blood filling his mouth as he bit into the insides of his cheeks.

“If you cry...they’ll stop.” Ino spoke from the couch. She had lifted one headphone from her ear and she looked at him. “The game won’t stop unless you cry.” She glanced at Naruto. There was another way the game would end, but Naruto wasn’t here. "Just start crying."

He didn’t have time to respond. This was a sick, twisted, game. He didn’t just hate Naruto. He began to hate the teacher. He wanted the teacher to suffer. He wanted the teacher to suffer in the same manner he was suffering for making Naruto befriend him. How could he be so brainless as to allow monsters to roam freely inside his classroom. He heard the laughter and giggling of Sakura and Kiba as they came back from the kitchen. They were carrying armfulls of supplies. Ino's words rattled inside his skull. Just cry and they'll stop? Just how dark and twisted were their hearts?

“We’re back, puppy-bitch!” Sakura sang.

“Take him to the bathroom. I don’t want you guys staining anything else in my room.” Naruto spoke. He remained in the crouched position. There was the same dead look in his eyes. Was he running on autopilot too?

Kiba pulled on the leash and practically dragged Sasuke into the master bathroom with Sakura. Everything hit the bathroom floor. A bucket of ice cream, chocolate syrup, cherries, whipped cream, and sprinkles. Sakura looked at the door and closed it. She turned to Kiba and smiled viciously.

“Maybe we should strip him.” Her voice was lowered.

Sasuke froze. He was still sticky and wet from the cola. His skin itched. He started trembling as he looked up. He saw hands reaching towards him and he tried to protest. The leash was pulled and it cut the circulation of oxygen.

“Please~wait!” Sasuke cried out.

“Shut up!” The leash was pulled again and he started coughing. Kiba pulled his shirt off and Sakura unbuttoned his pants. He kicked at her to try and stop her but Kiba pulled the leash again. He pulled upwards and Sasuke’s eyes watered as his oxygen was cut off. He was left in his underwear. But he might as well been naked the thin piece of fabric did nothing.

“Do you like vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry?” Sakura asked as he pulled the plastic cover of the plastic tub of ice cream off to reveal all three favors. “You’re greedy so you probably like all three flavors at once, right?” She used the ice cream scoop and dragged it across the top. She dumped it on his head. It hit his head, and rolled off the top of his head. It hit his bare chest and dropped to the floor. She did it two more times and cackled.

“Eat it.” Kiba demanded as he pointed to the scoop of ice cream on the tiled floor.

All Sasuke had to do was cry? He was trying to remember the last time he did cry. Sasuke did as he was told in the meantime. He lowered his body and began licking the ice cream. He felt Kiba's foot slamming into the back of his head pushing his face into the pile of ice cream on the floor. The last two times he cried involved Naruto. The first time in Hawaii when he thought he'd lost Naruto as a friend. The second time. It was when he found out Naruto was only his friend because he made a deal with the teacher. How heartbroken he was when he found out that the facade Naruto put on was fake. He didn’t know why he liked Naruto. Why he still liked Naruto. He liked Naruto even when he spent the night and saw him sleeping. How innocent and vulnerable he looked when he was sleeping and he hoped that part of him was the real Naruto.

That small sliver of him that liked Naruto shattered. The ice cream was cold as it smeared across his mouth, and face.

"How can he eat the ice cream when I haven't finished making it into a sundae?" Sakura protested. She grabbed a fist full of his hair and lifted his head up.

Sakura took the chocolate syrup and shoved Sasuke so that he was laying down. She began to pour the chocolate syrup over his body. It covered his skin and he felt his skin crawling as if ants were walking across him. She grabbed the whipped cream bottle, shook it, and began spraying him with whipped cream. She took the bottle of cherries and dumped the whole bottle over his head. He closed his eyes as he felt the liquid maraschino cherry juice rolling down his head, across his face, and down his neck and chest. Finally she took the sprinkles and dumped them on him.

Kiba’s laughs filled the bathroom.

“Hold his arms back for me.” Sakura instructed. Kiba didn’t protest and pushed Sasuke up and held his arms behind his back. Sakura crouched in front of him and stared at him.

“Why is it...that you’re still so...cute?” Sakura asked. She reached her hand out and touched his cheek. He flinched as if she hit him. Her touch was nauseating.

“Ey?” Kiba asked.

“Isn’t he...kinda hot?” Sakura asked Kiba.

She leaned over and licked his cheek. Her tongue was wet and warm. She licked the cherry juice and chocolate syrup that was on his cheek. Sasuke jerked his body back but the only person behind him was Kiba and he firmly held him in place. His neck hurt. He could feel the collar rubbed his neck raw. It was sore and tender. He felt goosebumps forming on his skin. Sakura’s tongue made him gag. He shuddered and waves of nausea washed over him. Her tongue was more sick and revolting than everything he was forced to do so far.

“No!” Kiba argued.

“Don’t lick me again you ugly bitch!” Sasuke screamed. It was the first time he swore. It didn’t detour Sakura. She licked him again and the bathroom door opened.

“What are you doing?” It was Naruto. Sasuke didn’t know if Nartuo was back to reality yet or if he was still dazed and trapped in hell.

He appeared in the doorway and looked to see Kiba holding Sasuke’s hands behind his back and Sakura licking his cheek. His eyes widened. Sasuke was covered in ice cream, chocolate syrup, whipped cream, cherry juice, and sprinkles. He was stripped to his underwear and even his underwear was stained. The spell that was around Sakura broke and she pushed herself back. Her face flushed.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” Naruto screamed again. “LET GO OF HIM!”

Kiba let go, jumped to his feet, and backed away. “The game isn’t over.”

“The game?” Naruto asked and turned to Kiba. “Do you think I care about a game? He’s going to have a mark around his neck. How are we supposed to explain that? Look at how raw his skin is!”

“That’s not fair. You said the game stops when he cries and he hasn’t cried yet!” Sakura argued, coming to Kiba’s defense. Her mood had soured when the fun was interrupted. "He hasn't cried yet, Naruto!"

“Why were you licking him?” Naruto demanded turning his attention to Sakura. “That wasn’t part of the game!”

“I~” Sakura’s face reddened and she couldn’t finish her sentence.

“You licked him, Sakura?” Ino appeared next to Naruto. Her headphones were hanging around her neck. Her eyes widened at the state of the bathroom. Her jaw dropped. It took her a moment to comprehend what she was looking at and the scene disgusted her. She looked up to see Sakura and Kiba’s face red with embarrassment and anger. Ino was looking for shame in their expressions but she didn’t find it. "Is this what you wanted, Naruto?" Ino spoke directly to Naruto. It appeared that she had been talking to him the moment the bathroom door closed.

“You stripped him and licked him.” Ino pieced the parts together. She looked at Sakura. “Aren’t you a pervert, Sakura. What porn have you been watching? Did you kiss him too?”

Naruto’s eyes flashed. He glared at Sakura. His voice was dangerous. “Get. Out.”

“I didn’t kiss him!” Sakura defended and stomped her foot.

“Get out both of you!” Naruto cried and Kiba and Sakura left.

“Are you trying to be the hero now, Naruto?” Ino questioned and stared up at him. Naruto didn’t say anything to her. He turned and walked away only to return a few seconds later holding Sasuke’s overnight bag. He placed it on the other side of the room. “You’re as cruel as ever. No wonder you haven’t got any friends but us.” Ino didn't stop talking.

“There are towels in the closet. You can clean yourself up. Nobody will bother you.” Naruto spoke. He grabbed Ino’s arm and pulled her from the bathroom, closing the door behind them.

It took Sasuke a few moments to come back to his body and when he did his breathing was labored. He stumbled up and his body trembled and his knees shook as he locked the bathroom door from the inside. He looked at the messy floor. He held his arms out and stumbled to the shower. It was a walk-in shower with glass windows on two sides. There wasn’t just one shower head there were three. It was so fancy it took Sasuke a moment to figure out how the shower even worked. He refused to look at himself in the mirror. He didn’t want to see this version of him ever. He refused. He wanted to forget this happened.

He turned the faucet and moved the dial until warm water came from the showerheads. He couldn’t stop shivering. His body ached. He undid the collar and took his underwear off. Every part of him was sticky. He focused first on his cheek. He took the washcloth and began violently scrubbing the spot that Sakura licked him. How disgusted he felt when he remembered. He scrubbed and lathered and cleaned two three times over. Then he sat on the floor of the shower with his knees drawn to his chest and his head buried in his arms. He didn’t leave the shower until the water started to turn cold. He didn’t know how long he remained in the bathroom. He was afraid. He was afraid to leave the room.

Three more days. He needed to last three more days and then he was free from the monster.

He dried himself off. The mirrors were covered with steam. Sasuke took the hairdryer and began drying his hair off. He felt better. He felt cleaner. He didn’t feel as weak as he did. The shower helped. He brushed his hair and changed into his pajamas. He brushed his teeth. He looked at his appearance when the mirrors were cleaned off. He looked like himself. He exhaled in relief. The only noticeable thing was a red circle around his neck from where the collar was. His fingers went to the tender red skin and he flinched. It hurt. He hoped it would be gone by tomorrow. Even if there was a mark his mother wouldn't bother to ask him about it.

He couldn’t be in the bathroom forever. He glanced at the door. He was scared, but he was hopeful at least for the time being Naruto was back to being somewhat sane. He took his overnight bag and left the bathroom. He glanced around Naruto’s bedroom. It was empty. He walked deeper into the room when the bedroom door opened and Sasuke froze. He braced himself in case the madness seeped back.

“It’s just me.” Naruto stated. “Everyone is in one of the guest rooms. I told them they’re not allowed to come back.” Sasuke glared at him. He acted like he was doing him a favor when he was the one to push him into the lion's den in the first place.

I want to sleep in a guest room.” Sasuke spoke with clenched teeth.

“I think it’s best if you just stayed here.”

“Do you think it’s best or do you just want me here so you can sleep?”

“What does it matter...you’re not going to talk to me after June 15th. Why can’t I use you a little more?” Naruto asked.

“At least you know.” Sasuke answered.

“You can watch TV. I’m going to clean up the bathroom.”

Sasuke watched as Naruto went to the bathroom and Sasuke walked to the couch. He picked up the remote and did as he was told. He turned the TV on and began flipping through the channels. He didn’t even know what he wanted to watch. It was too much freedom and he flipped through the channels mindlessly until he saw cartoons. He stopped. It was Courage the Cowardly Dog. He perked up and felt a little better.

He watched the TV as Naruto cleaned up any evidence of what happened tonight. It seethed in anger as he knew Naruto wasn’t going to have any consequences for what happened tonight. Three more days. He could last three more days. Naruto already knew. He already knew Sasuke was going to have nothing to do with him after June 15th. His obligation was over. The cartoon after Courage was one he hadn’t seen before he watched it nonetheless. The cartoon after was another one he hadn’t seen before none of them were interesting. He sat there and stared emptily at the TV until he saw Naruto appear. Sasuke straightened up.

“Sasuke.” Naruto called out his name. He turned to look at him. “I’m~”

“Don’t.” Sasuke cut him off.

He wasn’t in the right mindset to hear Naruto’s pretend apology. If he heard Naruto apologize he really might cry and then he would lose the game. Naruto never had to deal with any consequences in his life. It wasn’t fair. It was only going to make him hate him more if he heard him pretend to apologize.

“Will you sleep next to me?” Naruto asked.

“Mhm.” Sasuke agreed. If it met he was allowed to sleep and end the night as soon as possible he’d do anything.

*****

He thought about smothering Naruto. He thought about holding a pillow over his face. He wondered how long it would take to suffocate him to death. His mouth felt dry. He rolled onto Naruto’s bed and watched as he turned the night constellation on and turned his lights off. He reached for the glass of water Naruto gave him for bed and took a sip. He made sure he was as far away from Naruto as possible without falling off the bed. His heart was in his throat. He didn’t know how long they both laid there before the silence was broken.

“Sasuke…” Naruto called out his name. “Did Sakura kiss you?”

“No.”

“Have you ever...kissed anyone before?”

“No.”

Sasuke shuddered. He felt Naruto pressing his hand to his back. He pulled away and pushed himself up. He turned to see Naruto was inches from him. He stopped breathing. The way Naruto’s blonde hair fell across his face and the innocence of his expression struck Sasuke in the heart all over again. It paraliyzed him because the way Naruto’s lips parted and the way he looked at him made him think that...Naruto was cute.

“I’m going to fall off the bed.” Sasuke commented. "Back off."

“Sasuke.” Naruto pushed himself up and stared at him. “Can I kiss you?”

“What?!” Sasuke felt his face becoming hot and itchy. He forgot how to breathe. His mind went blank and he felt panicky.

“I know you’re not going to be my friend after June 15th...this will be the last thing I’ll ask of you. I promise.” Naruto spoke quietly.

“W-why do you...w-why do you w-wanna kiss me?” Sasuke fumbled and tripped over his words. He didn’t understand. Didn’t kissing someone mean that you liked them more than a friend? His heart pounded. He wanted Naruto to tell him the truth.

“I like you.” Naruto answered.

Liar. He wanted to hit Naruto across the face. He wanted to grab him by the collar of his pajama shirt and drag him across the room. To put the dog collar around his neck and drag him by a leash. To make him lick ice cream off the bathroom floor.

“I don’t like you.” Sasuke spoke his voice even softer. “I hate you.” He didn’t know why he even bothered to ask Naruto why he wanted to kiss him. It wasn’t like he was going to believe anything that came out of his wretched mouth. He was just using him again.

“I’ll give you to the count of five. If you haven't moved away I’m going to kiss you.” Naruto spoke. It was confusing. It left Sasuke feeling numb. He forgot how to function as a human.

“One.”

“Two.”

“Three.”

“Four.”

“Five.”

He heard Naruto counting. He didn’t stop him. Naruto gave him the option of leaving. He saw Naruto leaning closer. The boy who beat him at chess. The boy who bullied him on the tennis court. The boy who emitted charisma and whose smile brightened up his life before realizing he wasn’t the sun but a meteor sent to destroy him. He didn’t stop Naruto who leaned over and pressed his lips to his. He thought the kiss was going to disgust him. Maybe that was why he didn’t stop Naruto. He was hoping the kiss would send him into the same whirl of disgust and repulsion as Sakura’s tongue. He was banking on that reaction.

At first he just felt Naruto’s lips pressing against him. He had watched people kissing before and he knew there were different kisses. He thought Naruto was going to pull away but he didn’t. He felt Naruto’s hand cupping the cheek that Sakura licked, his hand moved to the back of Sasuke’s head and his fingers combed through his hair. Naruto pushed Sasuke’s head closer to him. Sasuke didn’t know why but his mouth opened and he felt Naruto’s tongue entering his mouth. He welcomed Naruto’s tongue with his own. It felt different. Feeling Naruto’s wet tongue inside his mouth left him weak and dumped excitement into his stomach and twisted his bowels. Blood flowed to different parts of him.

The kiss didn’t stop. If Sasuke let this go on for any longer he knew he was going to lose himself within Naruto. It was dangerous. Sasuke was going to keep hating him and if he kissed him any longer he didn’t think he would be able to keep hating him. Sasuke shoved Naruto away with both hands. He jumped off the bed and backed away. The back of his hand moved to cover his mouth and swollen lips.

“You spoiled brat, I hate you so much!” Sasuke cried out. He was trembling again. “You just do whatever you want, whenever you want, and don’t care about anyone else’s feelings!”

“You...I told you I was going to count to five.” Naruto was breathless. His face was flushed and he appeared frozen in the same spot that Sasuke shoved him in. He pushed himself up and steadied himself. “I gave you a chance to leave.”

Sasuke’s face reddened. He didn’t say anything.

“You wanted to kiss me too...didn’t you?” Naruto asked. “I gave you a choice!”

“As if...as if I had any real choice. Do you think I wanted to lick ice cream off the bathroom floor? Or have Sakura lick me twice? You gave me a choice? Ha! Don’t lie. I didn’t have any choices tonight Naruto and you know it!”

It was the thing that shut Naruto up. He stopped pushing Sasuke to admit that he wanted to kiss him too. He went quiet as Sasuke’s words sunk deep into him. Words that made sense. It left Naruto feeling out of sorts. It left Naruto confused and his heart ached. He had wanted to kiss Sasuke and he wanted Sasuke to kiss him back. He didn’t want to force him. Thinking about tonight he went numb and guilt and bile dumped into his stomach. He felt anxious and fidgety. He heard Sasuke’s and Ino’s words swirling around him.

Was it worth it?

Are you trying to be the hero now, Naruto? You’re as cruel as ever. No wonder you haven’t got any friends but us.

I didn’t have any choices tonight Naruto and you know it!

That night. Sasuke slept on the couch, and even though Naruto had wanted to sleep he couldn’t. He couldn’t sleep all night because he was thinking of everything he had done to Sasuke and now he didn’t have anything that could force Sasuke to keep being his friend. He started liking Sasuke when they were on the plane. When he held Sasuke’s hand as the plane took off from the runway, and Sasuke talked him out of a panic attack. He noticed how calming Sasuke was and how relaxed he was whenever he was around him. How he was able to sleep, actually, sleep when he was next to him. He liked that Sasuke was smart and he liked his smile and laugh.

He was so afraid he would lose Sasuke and it was the only reason he blackmailed him. He was so desperate to keep him he would do anything even if it hurt him. Then, he just wanted to hurt Sasuke and make him cry. To punish him for continually ignoring him and being cold and callous. It was the first time things didn’t go his way. Not only that but he forced Sasuke to kiss him and thinking about that made Naruto feel disgusted with himself. He wanted to apologize but no matter how he tried to apologize to Sasuke in the past it didn’t work.

It was that night that Naruto cried. He had wanted to play the game to make Sauske cry and look a mess, but it backfired. In the end it was Naruto who cried into his pillow, and it was Naruto who ended up looking a mess, a complete wreck, and on the precipice of breaking.

*****

They didn’t celebrate on June 15th. It was a school day. A work day. They celebrated that following Friday. Sasuke felt like he was walking on cloud 9. The celebration was held at the Gala and it was filled to the brim in capacity. He felt like an innocent man who served time and was finally exonerated and given the key to the city. He didn’t have to force a smile tonight because he was really, truly, happy.

“Sasuke. You clean up nicely.” Karin’s voice rang through the crowd. Sasuke turned to see Karin and his jaw dropped. It was a 180 degree turn. Karin’s poppy red hair normally stuffed in a baseball cap was curled into ringlets. She looked like a princess. She wasn’t wearing glasses and her makeup was done. She was wearing a ballgown and white gloves. The dress glittered like a chandelier in the light.

“Don’t. You. Dare. Say. A. Word. About. My. Appearance. Or. I’ll. Punch. Your. Lights. Out.” Karin spoke with clenched teeth and a vein throbbed on her forehead. She clenched her fist. He placed a hand over his mouth to prevent himself from saying anything that would upset her.

“I was looking for you.” Sasuke said eventually. He had spoken to her everyday they attended cram school and he knew she would be attending. This merger didn’t just affect Sasuke’s father’s company, it had a rippling effect throughout the city.

“Here I am with 110% of my mother’s effort to look like a cash cow.” Karin held her hands out and posed. “I know a secret room in the back we can go and hide if you want!”

“Alright, let’s go!” Sasuke answered excitedly.

He would have taken any excuse to leave this party. He had already seen the happiness and relaxation of his father. The company officially, and legally, merged, and his father’s company wouldn’t go bankrupt. His father was happy and celebrating alongside Minato. He didn’t want to see Naruto or Naruto’s parents anymore than he was already forced to. Karin didn’t lie there was a small broom-sized closet that the two sat in. Being inside this cramped room was a thousand times better than being out there.

Karin revealed a bottle of sparkling wine. “Ta~da!”

“Er~I don’t drink.” Sasuke admitted.

“I don’t either! But, let’s have a few drinks anyways.” Karin suggested. She popped the cork and Sasuke shrugged. Karin took the first drink. “It’s sweeter than I thought. It’s not bad.” She handed the bottle to Sasuke. He took it and drank. Karin was right. It was sweet and bubbly. There was a kick to it but he didn’t mind the flavor. He gave the bottle back to Karin.

“I am finally free of Naruto.” Sasuke admitted. “It feels great. He can’t blackmail me anymore.”

“I can’t believe the little brat had the balls to blackmail you. I’ll kick him in the shins the next time I see him. Except...he always runs away when he sees me.” Karin contemplated. “Little brat, if he wasn’t so fast I could chase him down. Kick him twice.”

“Is it true you’re going to the same high school as us?” Sasuke asked.

“Mhm.” Karin answered as she took another swig and pushed the bottle back to Sasuke. “Private school is private school. Although I will miss my all girls middle school. I ‘pose they’ll be girls in a coed school.” Her cheeks went pink as she spoke.

Sasuke watched Karin. Her legs were spread out and she looked uncomfortable in her ball gown. “Do you not like boys?” He asked.

“Not in the way you’re asking. I’m wondering how long I can go before telling my mom. Honestly. I’ve been stalling for time. Although she’s in the art world it’s a different story working with a colleague whose gay than if it’s your own daughter is. What about you?”

“What about me?”

“Do you like girls?”

“I...don’t know I never really thought about it.” Sasuke spoke and took a swig of the sparkling wine. It went down easier. His tongue numbed over and he couldn’t taste it anymore. He just felt the bubbles that tickled his tongue. “When did you know...when did you know that you liked girls?”

“At a sleepover when we played spin the bottle. Turns out we were all girls and it turns out only me and this one girl wanted to do the kissing.”

“Spin the bottle?”

“You spin a bottle and if it lands on someone you kiss them. It’s just an excuse to kiss someone really. You can also rig it...which was how me and that girl ended up kissing so much.” Karin laughed. Her laughter was carefree.

“I’ve never kissed a girl before.” Sasuke confessed. “The thought of it grosses me out.”

“Wanna kiss me? I’m the perfect girl to try it on because I don’t even like boys like that!” Karin offered and pointed to herself.

“Have you...kissed with tongue before?” Sasuke asked.

He remembered his kiss with Naruto. It was something he tried forgetting but it lingered in and out of his mind at random times. It was the only thing that connected Sasuke to Naruto, and it was probably the reason Naruto wanted to kiss him in the first place. For Naruto to continue to hold something over Sasuke.

“Once or twice with that girl I was telling you about.” Karin confessed.

“Okay. Let me kiss you and see.” Sasuke felt confident. Maybe it was the alcohol that loosened him up. He expected Karin to protest but she didn’t. She nodded her head. He leaned over and kissed her on the lips. She pulled away and stared at him. He felt absolutely nothing. He might as well have kissed a piece of meat at the butchers.

“Did you feel anything?” Karin asked.

“No.”

“Do you wanna kiss with tongue?” Karin asked.

“Let’s try it with tongue.” Sasuke confessed.

They leaned back over and Karin pressed her lips to his. He wondered if it was because Karin had lipstick on but it tasted funny. He didn’t hate her lips against his but he didn’t like it either. He felt indifferent. He opened his mouth and he slipped his tongue into Karin’s mouth. Her tongue felt small and hesitant. He pressed her tongue against his and the awkwardness filled both their cavities. Karin pulled away and started laughing. It felt like he was kissing his own cousin and he shuddered. He didn't get the excitement and warmness like he did when he kissed Naruto.

“Yep! That confirms it. If I can kiss you who is totally hot in every way and I can’t feel anything. It means I really and truly do like girls and only girls!”

“I’m hot?” Sasuke asked. It was the second time hearing these words. The first time it was from Sakura and he didn’t want to remember the circumstances. He thought she was being mean and was teasing him. Karin said it with such confidence it confused him. She wasn’t mocking or teasing him.

“Duh! Have you looked in the mirror? Sasuke, babydoll, you’re pretty hot. From your hair, to your skin, and bone structure. You're intelligent. You play the piano.” Karin gestured from the top to the bottom. “Are you pulling my leg, or do you just want to hear me compliment you?”

“I...didn’t know. Maybe I don’t know what...hot is supposed to look like.” Sasuke confessed. Everytime he looked in the mirror he saw a fragmented person staring back. Sometimes when he looked at himself he couldn’t envision the boy staring back. Karin gave him a deadpan expression and gestured towards his face as if to say ‘this, this is what hot looks like’.

“Okay-okay-okay. Let me kiss you one more time just to be sure. Wait, did you feel anything?” Karin emphasized the ‘you’ as Sasuke had been silent this whole time about how he felt when they kissed.

“No. I didn’t feel anything at all.” Sasuke admitted.

“One more try, common’.”

Just as their lips met for the third time the broom closet door swung open. It was Kushina. Her eyes widened as she looked down to see Sasuke and Karin kissing as a half empty bottle of sparkling wine sat between them.

“Karin...Sasuke?” Kushina asked.

"Aunt Kushina!"

“We were looking for you two. Karin, your mother wanted you two to perform together.” Kushina’s eyes darted behind her and she turned back to them. “Do you want to be caught? Hurry up and clean yourselves up! Quick! Quick!”

Sasuke realized that not only was Kushina a loving, doting mother, she was also considered the cool aunt.

“Here wipe your mouth, you have lipstick all over it! Quickly!” Kushina spoke briskly as she handed Sasuke a napkin she had taken from her purse. She was muttering about how children were so quick to grow up under her breath.

“Mom?” Naruto’s voice rang out.

Sasuke froze as he saw Naruto appearing next to Kushina. Naruto’s eyes locked to Sasuke and his eyes moved to the lipstick on Sasuke’s lips then his eyes shifted to Karin’s mouth. Karin glared at Naruto and it caused Naruto to hide behind his mother as if Karin really was going to kick him in the shins. The lipstick was smudged. Sasuke immediately began wiping the lipstick from his mouth and looked away from Naruto. He was the last person in the universe he wanted to see.

“Not now, Naruto.” Kushina spoke hurriedly as she began fixing the smudges of Karin’s lip. “Here take a breath mint both your breaths smell like alcohol!” She gave each of them a tic-tac. Sasuke was shocked to see Kushina so prepared, and shocked to see that she didn’t lecture them.

“Alright-alright let's go everyone is waiting!” Kushina placed a hand on Sasuke’s and Karin’s back and ushered them out, and into the main room where a piano was set up.

It wasn’t the first time that Sasuke was commanded to play the piano but the circumstances were different. He had never just kissed a girl in a broom closet, drank from a bottle of sparkling wine, and been caught by an adult all at once. He was always warned when he was going to play. He wasn’t warned about tonight. He didn’t think this was his mother’s idea as cruel as she was; she always gave him the heads up so he wouldn’t embarrass her.

“I have been giving Sasuke piano lessons at the request of Kushina. I was surprised to find someone who was as pitch-perfect as my daughter, Karin. I have been in the process of training Sasuke Uchiha and Hinata Hyuga, and I would have liked them both to perform tonight, however, Hinata is still recovering from the accident. Instead, I would like Sasuke and Karin to perform for you as these children are our legacy and future.” Mito Uzumaki spoke diligently through the microphone. She was dramatic in her tone and gestures. He wondered how Karin became so animated when she spoke. He watched the source.

“She didn’t tell me anything.” Karin mumbled under her breath as she and Sasuke walked to the piano. The stage light was focused on their back.

“Me either.” Sasuke confessed. “What are we going to play?”

“Obviously what you’ve been working on. Ludovico Einaudi’s Night.”

He had a handful of piano lessons with Mito Uzumaki. Her technique included blindfolding him and having him play by sound and memory alone. When he couldn’t see it threw him off. When he missed a key he was struck lightly in the hand with a baton. Karin wasn’t kidding when she said her mother was insane. He joined Karin at the bench and they sat side by side. He hadn’t played with Karin before but it was Karin who took the lead. It was Karin who needed to adjust her playing style to match Sasuke’s whereas when he played with Hinata they were both on the same skill level.

Sasuke watched as Karin played the piano with her white gloves on. He knew she could play blindfolded and he wondered what a sight it would be if he could see her playing blindfolded. Karin’s fingers were longer than Hinata’s and they were deft and precise. He remembered watching how expertly and eloquently Ino wrote across the chalkboard. The way Karin played reminded him of that. The eloquence and mastery. She was a true genius.

Sasuke’s left hand played between Karin’s hands and he kept switching to playing between her hands when she moved her hands down the piano. It was an easy pattern they fell into. Karin’s eyes were focused on Sasuke’s hands just like his eyes were focused on Karin’s hands. They continued playing and Sasuke found himself smiling just as he had played with Hinata. He and Karin’s bodies moved as if connected as one. When they were finished he looked to see Karin was smiling and he knew just from Karin’s expression neither had made a mistake. He didn’t need anyone else’s approval, not even Mito’s, he only needed Karin’s. She nodded her head.

He heard the applause. He looked up. He forgot he was performing in front of an audience. The light continued to focus on them and then the rest of the lights in the Gala turned on. Sasuke was blinded for a moment.

“Beautiful. Didn’t I tell you...beautiful!” Mito Uzumaki spoke through the microphone. “Thank you for the performance!”

Karin grabbed Sasuke’s hand. She led him in front of the piano and the two bowed in unison with Karin still holding his hand. It was comforting. He caught his parents instantly in the crowd. Both were smiling. His father was clapping loudly and his smile was even bigger than the last time he saw him. It filled Sasuke with happiness. At least this time he hadn’t embarrassed his parents. At least this time he met his mother’s expectations. And...and he wouldn’t have to put up with Naruto any longer. He was glad that Naruto was there when he was caught kissing Karin in the broom closet. He wanted Naruto to know insignificant he was in his life. How meaningless their kiss was.

After their performance his mother engrossed in conversation with Karin’s mother. They were talking about competitions and more piano lessons. It was always business. Their parents only ever talked about business. It looked exhaustive being an adult and Sasuke didn’t want to grow up. He wasn’t allowed to slip away with Karin and the two were forced to stick by their parent's side as they bragged about who was the better kid.

*****

The last days of school he had completely ignored Naruto. Sasuke spent all his free time with Jugo during school hours. Jugo had invited him to a graduation party and Sasuke ensured he was going to switch his schedule to make sure he was able to attend. He thought things were going to be awkward with Naruto but it wasn’t.

Sasuke wasn’t the only one ignoring Naruto...Naruto was ignoring him. Ino, Sakura, and Kiba were also ignoring him and the four of them remained glued to each other during every free period they had, which was a lot, now that final exams were over. He finally felt peace. It wasn’t in Sasuke’s nature to retaliate, especially, since everyone was purposefully leaving him alone.

Sasuke was called into the teacher’s room. He sat down and stared at his teacher. He hated this man. This was the man who stitched Naruto into his life. A man who couldn’t tell the difference between a sheep and a wolf in sheepskin. Pathetic. This was the type of pathetic man who needed to be steamrolled.

“I wanted to talk to you about your grades. You have, again, finished the top of the year and you will be this class's valedictorian.”

Sasuke nodded his head.

“I also saw that you’ve become friends with Naruto and I’m so gla~”

“Mr. Umino. I would have liked to thank you but what you did was cruel. You made a decision all on your own without talking to me first.”

His teacher was left speechless. His eyes widened and he shifted back in his seat. Sasuke didn’t let it interrupt him. He continued talking. His voice was calculated and filled with malice.

“The whole class knows that you forced Naruto to be my friend. I have never met such a spoiled brat in my entire life. I did not become friends with Naruto so I would rather not talk about him. I became friends with Jugo. If you paid any attention you would have known that. Maybe this summer you should reflect before you go manipulating your student’s lives again. It’s really heartless and makes me wonder why you ever became a teacher in the first place.”

His teacher’s face was drained of all colors. He looked like a corpse. Sasuke didn’t stay a second longer. He stood up and left. The world was about power balances. As it stood his teacher never had any real power. When it came to Sasuke his teacher did such a despicable thing it was evident that Sasuke had all the power the moment he sat down. It was why the teacher didn’t reprimand him and allowed him to leave.

It was the last day of school. He met Jugo outside the teacher’s room.

“Want to go to the boba shop before cram school?” Jugo asked and Sasuke nodded his head. They began walking.

“Sasuke.” Naruto called him from behind. Sasuke didn’t stop, he continued to ignore Naruto. “Sasuke, please!”

“Is everything okay?” Jugo asked Sasuke as they continued walking.

“Of course? I don’t hear anything.”

“Sasuke!” Naruto grabbed his arm and it was a visceral reaction. Sasuke pulled his hand from Naruto and pushed him back all in one fluid motion. He took all the restraint not to punch him in the face.

“Don’t touch me!” Sasuke snapped and spun around to glare at him. He was fuming. He wanted Naruto to continue to ignore him so he could live in peace. But having him touch him and call out to him riled him up again.

“I want to talk to you. Please. Just five minutes?” Naruto asked.

“I don’t want to talk to you! I don’t have to talk to you. There’s nothing left to say. Jugo let’s go.” Sasuke ended the conversation and walked away with Jugo. He didn’t look back and Naruto didn’t press the matter any further. It felt nice. Being able to walk away without any regrets was the best feeling in the world.

*****

The only time he was forced to see Naruto was during their tennis lessons. Even though Sasuke’s skills improved, Naruto's improved more. It was too heartless to make them have matches against each other. Especially when the winner was so evidently, Naruto. Hizashi decided they would make a better team and they played doubles to use all the skills and techniques they were practicing to good use.

Sasuke hated to admit that his teamwork with Naruto was more efficient than working against him. Still. Even though they were on the same team Naruto was far superior and it was the reason why they were unbeatable. Sasuke was still covered in sweat every time they ended lessons. This time Naruto was sweating but he wasn’t drenched in sweat like Sasuke was. Even though Sasuke went into the showers last he was the first to get out. He looked to see that Naruto's stuff was still in the locker room.

He didn’t think too much about things and joined Hinata. He stopped when she saw him. She wasn’t wearing her neck brace. She stood up and turned her neck and greeted him. She jumped up and down. “Look! Look! I’m neck brace free! The doctors said I’m completely healed and there are no risks!”

“Really? I’m so happy for you!” Sasuke exclaimed as he ran up to her. Her hair bounced up and down.

“I can go back to school in the fall! Whoa. I never thought I’d be happy to go back to school.” Hinata giggled and sat down at the table. “I had my first piano lesson with Mito. She said she’s going to work one on one with me a few more times before you and I start to have joint lessons.”

“Did she blindfold you?” Sasuke asked.

“Huh? No...she’s going to blindfold me?” Hinata looked mortified.

“Uh-huh. I’m still not used to it, and she’ll hit your hands with a baton if you get a note wrong. It doesn’t leave any marks but it does sting.”

“Oh.” Hinata frowned and looked at her hands as if envisioning it already.

“Hinata, your neck brace is off!” Naruto’s carefree voice filtered through the air. It caused Sasuke to stiffen as if all his blood vessels turned to cement.

“I did! Look, I can move my neck!” Hinata was back to being happy and boasting as she maneuvered her neck all around.

“I’m glad you’re all healed up. Are you able to come to my graduation party?” Naruto asked. “Did you get my invitation in the mail?”

“I did! I’m going! I’m so excited to be able to see everyone again!”

“I invited the whole class.” Naruto spoke to Sasuke. He hadn’t said anything back. He continued to ignore Naruto. Naruto looked at him for a few more seconds before turning back to Hinata.

“I’m glad you’re able to come back to school. We all miss you, and I know we’re all excited for you to come to the graduation party. Is there any particular food you want?”

“Cinnamon rolls!” Hinata spoke excitedly. “My parents won’t let me have any at home. They’re afraid I’m going to gain weight.” Hinata remained happy-go-lucky and today she was more silly and carefree. Sasuke glanced at Hinata. She was skinny. Were they restricting her calories?

“What about you, Sasuke? Any particular food you want?” Naruto asked and turned his attention back to Sasuke. He still didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to say anything. They weren’t on the tennis court anymore.

“Are you going, Sasuke?” Hinata asked.

“Depends. Who did the invitation go to in the mail? Me or my mother?” Although Sasuke answered Hinata’s question it was directed towards Naruto who mailed the invitation.

“Your mother.” Naruto answered honestly. “If it was mailed to you...you wouldn’t have gone.”

“Pff.” Sasuke scoffed. He couldn’t do it anymore. He stood up and left Hinata and Naruto by themselves. This time he found his mother first. She was talking to Kushina and Hizashi. He groaned. Monday’s used to be his favorite day because he got to speak to Hinata. Now he dreaded it because he saw Naruto. He was counting down to the days when he would begin piano lessons with Hinata and Mito. Even if he was blindfolded and struck with a baton.

“Sasuke! I was just telling your mother about Naruto’s graduation party. She said you guys just received the invitation in the mail. I’m so glad you’ll be coming. I know Naruto adores you!”

Kushina gushed. He wanted to hate Kushina but he felt indebted to her. She caught him and Karin kissing and drinking in the broom closet and it could have become a mountain easily if she told on them. The reality was they had taken turns drinking sparkling wine and Karin confessed she didn’t like boys. If anything, Karin being caught kissing Sasuke in the broom closet probably helped her keep her secret a little longer.

Sasuke smiled politely at Kushina. “I’m sure it will be fun. The Namikaze’s know how to throw a party that everyone talks about for weeks.” It was the flattery he learned from his parents. The words he used to butter adults up.

“Aren’t you just the cutest thing!” Kushina gushed and ruffled his hair.

“I...actually wanted to come and say I have a headache and I’m not feeling well.” Sasuke lied to his mother. He tried to look as sick as possible. She looked at him and frowned. She didn’t like to be interrupted but if she didn’t take him home she would look like a bad mother. Sasuke was only able to use this excuse once in a blue moon so he needed to use it sparingly.

“I don’t want you catching a cold. Let’s go home so you can rest. Kushina and Hizashi. I’ll see you at Naruto’s graduation party.” His mother spoke diplomatically and left with him.

“Mother. Do I have to keep pretending to like Naruto?” Sasuke asked as he climbed into the passenger side of the vehicle.

“Only for appearance's sake. Important events like birthdays and graduation events, or company dinner parties.” His mother laid out his new expectations. They no longer needed to grovel to the Namikaze’s but they needed to keep happy relations to make their lives easier. His father and Naruto’s father were now business partners. They were on equal standing.

“Good.” Sasuke murmured.

“Do you not like Naruto anymore?”

“No. I hate him.”

“Good. I never liked the little brat the moment I laid eyes on him. I knew he was trouble. Keep away from him. He’ll only bring you down.”

“Mhm. I know.”

“Kushina…” His mother glanced at him and turned her attention back to the road. “She told me that she found you kissing Karin in a closet at the Gala.” There was a smile on his mother’s lips almost as if she were proud.

Sasuke stiffened. Every kind thought he had of Kushina went out the window and his heart hardened. He prepared for a tongue-lashing from his mother. It stung less when he prepared.

“I’m not going to lecture you about how to treat girls. When it comes to the girls you’re chasing you have champagne taste but the way you treat them you’re acting like you’re on a beer budget. You gave Hinata a cheap bracelet, and you kissed Karin in some filthy broom closet. Are you a barbarian? Are you a player already, Sasuke?”

“Player?” Sasuke asked. He didn’t understand.

“Someone who leads women on. I like both Karin and Hinata. They come from respectable families. You shouldn’t play around with high society girls, Sasuke, and if you do...do it more discreetly so you’re not caught!”

The way his mother sounded it wasn’t that she was disapproving of him ‘flirting’ with Hinata and Karin, which he wasn’t, she was disapproving that he was caught. This was a different side to his mother. He wanted to correct her and say it wasn’t like that but just like Sasuke kissing Karin benefited Karin and her secret he could also benefit from being caught kissing Karin. He shuddered to think of her reaction if he was caught kissing Naruto.

“Oh.” Sasuke murmured.

“Well. Pick one. If you had to marry Karin or Hinata, who would it be?”

Sasuke froze again. He remembered Karin talking about arranged marriages. His blood ran cold. He didn’t want to marry either of them. He especially didn’t want to marry Karin who didn’t even fancy boys but fancied girls. He tried to play ignorant. He exhaled.

“I can’t think about any girl like that...I’m still too young.”

“Wait until you hit puberty then come talk to me.” His mother chided. She didn’t say anything else on the topic. His thoughts went back to puberty. Maybe that was the reason why he didn’t feel anything when he kissed Karin. Maybe he just needed to hit puberty first.

He stared out the window. He really did have a headache now. His mind wandered to Naruto again. How relieved he was when nobody opened the door and caught them kissing. Just when he thought he could shake Naruto stupid formalities got in the way. This time taking the shape of a graduation party. He was filled with dread. It was lessened when he thought of Hinata. He smiled. It would be okay. It wouldn’t just be those four monsters and him, it was going to be the whole class and a bunch of adults. He needed to ask Karin if she was going to be attending as well.

It wouldn’t be another repeated disaster...would it?

Chapter Text

40 mutes to yell hooray!

 

Naruto was given the marshmallow test when he was five years old. A large, plump, white marshmallow was placed on a circular plate in front of him. Picture this. Large turquoise eyes with hope and life billowing out. A head too large for his body and round, tiny, fat hands. His mouth started salivating. He was reminded of smores. He knew what marshmallows tasted like and he wanted to taste it now. The sugary confectionery. He giggled and clapped at the sight of the marshmallow.

“I’m going to go into the other room. If you don’t eat this marshmallow when I come back I will give you another marshmallow.” His mother said. “If you do, eat it. I will not give you another marshmallow.”

Naruto stared up at her with unwavering turquoise eyes. Naruto watched his mother leave. He did think about it. If he waited until his mother came back he could have two marshmallows. Two marshmallows were better than one marshmallow. He wasn’t stupid. Then he got to thinking. What if his mother took a long time? What if she didn’t come back all day and he was forced to stare at the tempting marshmallow? It was cruel and unusual punishment. He didn’t care about having another marshmallow. Not when there was one marshmallow in front of him. He reached over and grabbed the marshmallow and began eating it. It was even more heavenly and delectable than he anticipated.

“Naruto!” His mother’s voice filled the room. She came back just as he swallowed the last bite. Naruto smiled gleefully up at his mother as if he had gotten away with murder. “Didn’t you want another marshmallow?”

“I did! But I couldn’t wait!” Naruto confessed. He rocked back on his feet. His mother laughed. She crouched down and gave him another marshmallow.

“Really? I can have another marshmallow even if I didn’t wait?” Naruto asked. His eyes sparkled. He couldn’t believe his luck that he broke the rules and was still able to get another marshmallow.

“Mhm. How can I expect a five year old to have impulse control?” His mother confessed.

Naruto took the marshmallow and happily ate it. She had attempted to test him on delayed gratification. Not only did he fail, he was rewarded.

Kushina wanted more children. She had dreamed of having a whole school of children, however, birthing complications when she had Naruto caused a uterine rupture. She survived and Naruto survived, but she was no longer able to have any more children. To make up for it she spoiled and indulged Naruto and granted his every wish and whim. He was a child that grew up without any consequences. He was a child that grew up with everything he’s ever wanted.

It was a recipe for a perfect disaster. Naruto wasn’t used to not getting what he wanted. It was why he reacted so cruelly when it came to Sasuke. He wanted to be Sasuke’s friend and Sasuke said no. Any other person would have backed off. There was another problem. There was something broken inside him. Wires were severed. Things were unplugged. Switches were switched off. He didn’t know how to be friends with someone anymore. Maybe his mother should have gotten him help after the accident. Maybe she shouldn’t have believed him when he said he was ‘fine’, ‘alright’, ‘okay’. The truth was Naruto wasn’t okay, he wasn’t alright, and he wasn’t fine. Even though he was spoiled rotten he didn’t want to disappoint his parents. He hated seeing his beautiful mother crying and that was all she did when he was hospitalized. She cried the entire time.

She cried so much she could drown him.

When they found them in the boxcar after five days. Naruto had held onto Neji’s dead body. He refused to give him up even when the police officers and EMT’s pulled him away. The dehydration, starvation, and witnessing his friend dying inside that dark, damp, boxcar broke him. Even though it happened to Naruto it was his mother’s reaction that frightened him. She cried, she screamed, she succumbed to madness because she was afraid that her only son was going to be damaged goods and ruined for life from experiencing the trauma. He remembered his mother curled up next to him on the hospital gurney. She was fast asleep but she was still crying. He leaned over and wiped the tears that streamed down her face.

His mother never let him feel, and if his mother reacted like this when he didn’t cry, and scream, and go mad he was afraid, frightened, how she would react if he did. It was why he forced a smile and said.

“I’m okay mommy!” He used his childish voice and brilliant white smile to dazzle and convince her. And it worked and she stopped crying and started smiling again. It was that easy.

Even though he lied.

Even though he had nightmares every night. Even though he became frightened of the dark. The dark, damp, boxcar. The rickety sounds of train tracks. The motion sickness of being bounced around as they screamed for help. The train that went cross country and didn’t make one stop until the end. He struggled with sleeping. It was a cycle he would go weeks with only sleeping 2-3 hours every night. He’d stay up playing video games or computer games. During these times he could feel his mood becoming foul. He could feel himself slipping away from reality.

Then. Hinata kept pestering him about making friends.

She kept going on and on and on about how Ino, Sakura, and Kiba were making him sicker. She kept using that word: sick. She said Naruto was sick. She said Ino was sick. She said Sakura was sick. She said Kiba was sick and they wouldn’t become well again if they continued to stick together. Hinata didn’t understand what she was saying, how all four of them needed each other because they were the only ones who got it.

They were able to share their experience and he didn’t have to say anything for them to just get it because they were all there.

He remembered yelling at her. “Leave me alone, Hinata! I don’t want to talk to you right now.”

“Naruto, please just eat lunch with me. I'm not asking you to stop being their friend but it’s okay to make more friends!”

“I have friends! I don’t need any more friends!”

“I’m worried about you...I’m...I’m going to tell your mom about my concerns!”

He spun around and glared at her. She was going to tell his mother? He remembered the state his mother was in. How it nearly tore her apart. He was enraged. How dare Hinata put his mother through that again.

“I hate you!” He screamed at her. He meant it. He meant every word. It stunned her. He walked down the staircase that led to the gym. “LEAVE ME ALONE!”

“What’s Hinata yapping about?” Kiba asked as Naruto stepped off the last stair.

“Naruto, wait!” Hinata appeared at the top of the stairs. “I’m sorry...I won’t tell your mom! I’m just worried. I just want you~”

“Hinata!” Sakura appeared behind Hinata. Naruto watched as Hinata turned around and looked at Sakura. “How dare you tell Naruto to stop being our friend! Isn’t it your fault that Neji died? If you didn’t argue with him he would have gone back to the house with you! He only stayed with us because he couldn’t bear being with you for another second!”

“No!” Hinata yelled. “It wasn’t my fault. If you didn’t suggest playing on the train tracks none of this would have happened! It’s your fault!” She turned around and argued with Sakura.

Naruto watched it as if it happened in slow motion. Something detached within Sakura. The light in her eyes was blown out. Her pupils became pinpricks. There was empty, blackness, filling her emerald eyes. A film of grey was placed over Sakura’s face. Dark shadows clawed at her skin. They all had nightmares of those five days within the dark, damp, boxcar. Sakura pushed Hinata. She used both her hands and shoved Hinata in the chest. Hinata must have been so shocked she forgot to scream.

The sight was nauseating. Hinata fell through nothingness. The staircase that led to the gym was the skinniest and longest staircase in the school. Her spine struck the stairs. Her legs tumbled over her head and she became upside down. She tumbled and spiraled out of control. She fell again on her neck and her body continued to spiral down as it picked up momentum. The sound of her bones slamming against the stairs followed by the sound of her neck snapping as her skull landed at the foot of the stairs were unforgettable. Her head split open and blood began pouring across the floor.

Naruto backed up as the blood crept closer to his sneakers.

“I...I didn’t mean it.” Sakura confessed. Ino was next to her. She grabbed Sakura’s hand.

None of them had to say anything. That was the beauty of their friendship. The message was conveyed. Kiba and Naruto took one last look at Hinata. They watched the crimson bleed from the gash on her head before they ran in the direction of the gym. Ino, still holding on to Sakura’s hand, ran into the girl’s bathroom. They didn’t have to do, or say, anything. They were scared kids that ran away, hid, and kept their mouths shut. Hinata was discovered by their teacher fifteen minutes later. There weren't any cameras in the stairway. It was deemed an accident. Nobody suspected them and they kept the secret.

They looked out for each other.

Hinata wasn’t there when Neji died. What Sakura said was true. Neji and Hinata were water and oil. There was animosity between them when it came to their family. Neji held resentment against Hinata and even though he was coming down with a cold that day, refused to go back to the house with Hinata. He didn’t care if he got in trouble.

Hinata left and the rest of them went and played on the train tracks. It was Sakura’s idea but they had all agreed. Sakura didn’t force them. It was Naruto’s idea to jump into a boxcar. They all agreed. It was Kiba’s idea to close the door. They all agreed. It was Ino’s idea to pretend they were runaways train jumping. They all agreed. It just so happened the door locked from the outside and the train started moving before anyone noticed they were gone. They screamed for help until they were all hoarse.

Everyone had a little piece to play. Saying it was Sakura’s fault was wrong. It was cruel.

They all resented Hinata for accusing Sakura. They all kept the secret of Sakura pushing Hinata down the stairs. They decided even if Hinata remembered. They were all prepared to lie and say Hinata was making it up because she blamed them for Neji’s death. It was a blood pact.

Except.

There were two weak links. Naruto and Ino. Naruto couldn’t speak for Ino. He thought Ino was going to be the first to break away from the group. Naruto didn’t think it was going to be him when Sasuke entered his life.

He thought when he was going to pretend to be Sasuke’s friend. He was going to be superficial. He was going to do just enough to get him to go on the school trip then the bare minimum during school hours to keep up appearances with the teacher. Everything changed when they were in Hawaii. It was hard to balance pretending to be Sasuke’s friend, and his friend group. It was why he was so hot and cold with Sasuke. The noise in his skull stopped when he was with Sasuke, and the noise in his skull became unbearable when he was with Sakura, Kiba, and Ino.

At night time just Sasuke’s presence was enough to allow him to sleep a full ten hours. He was like a drug he needed.

He tested it out when he skipped the luau. The noise in his skull stopped and he felt at peace. He wondered if he would feel even better if he slept next to Sasuke, and he was surprised that Sasuke agreed. It was obvious to everyone that Sasuke immediately liked Naruto. It made Naruto cocky and feel superior that he could get away with more things. He could use him anyway he wanted.

He didn’t really care about how Sasuke felt, or what he was thinking, or really anything about Sasuke. He was just using him.

He had no excuse why he bailed on his friends for the luau. He didn’t expect them to become so upset, so clingy, so hostile. Ino was the one to approach Sasuke and not only warn him about them but tell him the truth about Hinata. Naruto was infuriated. They all were and didn’t trust Sasuke would keep his mouth shut. Naruto was infuriated because Ino’s words turned Sasuke against him and he needed to work harder to smooth things over with him.

“Let’s push him off a cliff!” Sakura protested. Naruto scowled at her. “Fine. Let’s lock him in a closet and forget about him!”

“I only told him the truth so he will stay away from Naruto!” Ino defended. “Sasuke isn’t going to tell anyone and even if he does, who's going to believe him? He doesn’t have any friends!”

“Let’s beat him up, scare him away, so he’ll leave Naruto alone!” Kiba suggested. Naruto was afraid, like Ino was afraid, that Sasuke was going to end up like Hinata. Ino was trying to prevent that from happening. Ino was doing a better job protecting Sasuke than Naruto.

“Nobody is going to touch him. He’s my partner. I'll deal with him.” Naruto snapped and folded his arms. “I’m going to get blamed if anything happens to him.”

“Naruto...you don’t really like him do you?” Kiba asked.

“No. Not at all.” Naruto lied.

Part of it was that Naruto liked having a secret to himself. There was something about being Sasuke’s only friend that made Naruto feel special. As he continued monopolizing Sasuke’s time and attention he realized that he liked it when Sasuke gave him attention. It got to the point where Naruto only wanted Sasuke’s attention. He had a beautiful smile and every time he smiled Naruto was mesmerized. He was transfixed. It was the type of smile that he wanted to capture and look at every day he didn’t see Sasuke.

Still. Ino’s words changed Sasuke. Sakura and Kiba scared Sasuke.

When Naruto was sick he was expecting Sasuke to deliver his missed assignments and was shocked when Sakura entered his room. He was visibly upset and pouted. She wasn’t who he wanted to see. She fretted over him just like his mother fretted over him and it was nearly impossible to get her to leave. He liked Sakura, he really liked her, but it wasn’t the same. He had wanted Sasuke to fret over him and take care of him. He wanted to be babied and tended to by Sasuke.

He was already in a foul mood. He hadn’t slept and the next day at school he found out that Kiba defaced Sasuke’s desk and dumped trash all over it. He purposefully did this when Naruto was absent. Sasuke evaded him and this time when Naruto attempted to hang out with him he kept refusing. If it wasn’t for his parents agreeing to have dinner at the Uchiha’s he wouldn’t have been able to see Sasuke.

Then he figured it out. How to keep Sasuke’s attention locked on him. He had to be better than him. When they played chess and Naruto won, Sasuke couldn’t take his eyes off him. It was the same as when they were in tennis lessons. He could feel Sasuke’s eyes locked on him. It clicked. He just needed to continue to be better than Sasuke. It was something that was easy to do. He just needed to start studying hard so he could surpass Sasuke in the class rankings. Then he knew Sasuke would always pay attention to him.

Except. Other people kept getting in the way. Hinata was getting in the way. Again.

He was upset with Sasuke. The only reason Sasuke became obsessed with Hinata was because Ino told Sasuke that Naruto witnessed Sakura pushing Hinata down the stairs. Sasuke bought Hinata an ugly, cowrie bracelet, and she continued to wear it every single day as if it was a tennis bracelet from Tiffany’s. Naruto hated it every time he saw the bracelet on her. He was upset that Sasuke gave Hinata his undivided attention whenever the three of them were together and he kept ignoring him.

*****

Naruto had crossed a line. When he heard Ino saying that Sasuke wanted to end their friendship he snapped. He didn’t know how to keep Sasuke’s attention. It was already ruined. He already found out about the deal with the teacher. He already found out about what happened to Hinata. Naruto was already blackmailing him. He kept thinking he was going to find something that would compel Sasuke to be his friend, really be his friend, and start liking him like in the beginning.

It wasn’t fair. He wondered if he was able to wait for his mother to come back before eating the marshmallow. If his mother didn’t give him another marshmallow even though he broke the rules. If his mother didn’t break down when he was in the hospital. If none of these things happened. Could he have done things differently with Sasuke? His insides were dark and all he wanted was to get his way.

He was a spoiled brat. In every conceivable way. There was no excuse. He thought he could end things with Sasuke and get him out of his mind. He thought if he kissed him it would be easier to let go because if he stole his first kiss it might mean that Sasuke would still think about him from time to time. And. Naruto would have been happy with that if not for the night of the Gala. When he witnessed his mother pulling Karin and Sasuke out of a broom closet. They had been drinking together and kissing. There was lipstick on Sasuke’s lips and Karin’s lipstick was smeared.

He could have handled Sasuke kissing anyone else. He could have handled Sasuke kissing Hinata...but the fact that he kissed his cousin, his own blood, was too much. It wasn’t fair. He was jealous of Karin. He was jealous of how popular she was. How every family member loved and adored her. They put her on a pedestal. She had the Uzumaki musical talent. It didn’t click with him in the genius, prodigy level as Karin. Compared to Karin. He fumbled at the keys. He fumbled at string instruments. He didn’t have the lung capacity for wind instruments. But Karin. She excelled.

Karin. She was a girl.

Even though she was caught drinking and kissing Sasuke in the closet nobody batted an eye. It was a cute story that would be shared at family gatherings. If he was caught drinking and kissing Sasuke in the same closet he could feel the scorn and rejection. It would be viewed differently. He could hear the hateful comments and remarks.

He snapped again. It wasn’t fair. He knew Sasuke kissed Karin so he could forget their kiss. He didn’t know why it upset him so much. Why he wanted to cry. Why he wanted to apologize to Sasuke. He wanted to get on his hands and knees and beg and cry for Sasuke to forgive him. He tried to get Sasuke’s attention on the last day of school and he was ignored. The only way he could trap and corner Sasuke was at his graduation party. Even then he couldn’t come up with the right words to say to him.

It was driving him mad that Sasuke was making friends. He had befriended Jugo, Karin, and Hinata. He didn’t know about Ino. She was a wildcard. She said she didn’t care about Sasuke but her behavior tells another story. He was beginning to feel jealous of Ino. Jealous of her private talks with Sasuke. Jealous of Karin. Jealous of Hinata. Jealous of anyone Sasuke gave his attention to that wasn’t him.

It left Naruto desperate. He thought if he just cornered Sasuke and apologized they could move past this and go back to being friends.

*****

The night of his graduation his parents had overdone it, again, and invited more people than he anticipated. It was suffocating. Even though he begged his mom not to invite Karin, she didn’t listen, and she was there. Not only that, she clung to Sasuke. Not only that Karin had hit him, punched him, kicked him so many times in his life he flinched every time he saw her. Like Pavlov’s dog. He had invited the whole class, as promised, and Sasuke was surrounded by Karin, Jugo, and Hinata. It was nearly impossible to get close to him. Especially when Ino, Kiba, and Sakura clung to his side all night.

His eyes didn’t leave Sasuke. He tried to gage Sasuke’s mood in the beginning.

“Hi Sasuke. I’m glad you were able to come.” Naruto greeted him.

He was meant with an icy gaze. Sasuke was dressed up and his hair was styled and gelled. He looked older and more sophisticated. He was clean-cut and well-mannered. He didn’t have the air of a child. Naruto liked how cool he was. How attractive he was. Sasuke rolled his eyes and looked away.

“I was forced to come.” Sasuke spoke irritably. His mood had even worsened than when they were at their tennis lesson. He watched Sasuke walking away and Karin running up next to him. She was holding sparkling grape juice in two champagne flutes and handed him one. He smiled at her and took it, and Naruto scowled at Karin.

“Naruto, I made you a graduation gift.” Hinata spoke and handed him a wrapped present.

“You did?” Naruto asked happily.

He glanced at Sasuke before taking the gift. Sasuke was engrossed in conversation with Karin; he wasn’t even looking in his direction. It wasn’t like he expected any gifts from anyone, it was a graduation party from middle school, and it wasn’t like Sasuke was going to buy him, or make him anything. He turned his attention to the red and white striped wrapping paper. He felt conflicted opening up Hinata’s gift. Part of him wanted to open it and the other part didn’t

Naruto unwrapped the gift carefully. She said she made him a gift? He opened the box and inside was a picture frame. He picked it up with one hand. Inside the picture frame was a drawing. He knew Hinata could draw. She had been taking drawing lessons since she was younger. He looked at the drawing. It was a sketch of Naruto, Ino, Kiba, Sakura, and Neji. It was during the summer before the accident. He remembered this day. They had all gone to the beach and Hinata had a polaroid camera that she used to snap this picture. They had a white unicorn blowup floatie. They had all been taking turns playing with it.

The picture Hinata snapped and the subsequent sketch she made was of all of them in the water. Neji had the unicorn floatie around his waist. He looked embarrassed. Naruto had thrown his arm over Neji’s shoulder and was laughing while he was teasing him that the unicorn suited him more than any of them. Ino and Sakura were holding hands and their hands stretched towards the sky as they jumped over a crashing wave together. Kiba had been knocked down by the wave and he was in the process of standing up.

It was a blooper picture. It wasn’t the perfect picture. Hinata retook the photo. He couldn’t remember who grabbed the retook photo as a memento. The perfect picture of everyone with their arms over each other's shoulders and smiling at the camera. He remembered Hinata taking the blooper picture home with her.

“Wow.” Naruto breathed as he looked at the sketch. “I remember this day.” He felt nostalgic. He felt a bitter sadness. He felt happy remembering this day as all six of them had fun playing at the beach. Then he thought about how suddenly their group went from six, to five, to four. “You’re really talented. The drawing looks realistic.”

“Do you like it?” Hinata asked.

“Mhm. I like it a lot. Thank you, Hinata. I’m going to put it in my room. I’ll be right back.” Naruto left with the gift.

He felt like crying all over again. It was a heavy sadness sitting on his chest. It made breathing difficult. Why is it when he thought of Neji it was always the boxcar memory? The boxcar fallout memory. Hinata being pushed down the stairs memory. Why couldn’t he remember these memories? Going to the beach memories. Sleepover memories. Sneaking out of his house and meeting Neji at the local convenience store and eating popsicles together memories.

Naruto looked around his room. It was quiet. The party was in his backyard and dining halls. It was quiet in this wing of the house. He looked for a good place to put the picture frame. He decided on his shelf that had his chessboard. He placed it next to the chessboard. His eyes looked to the missing white king piece. He lost the piece when Sasuke shoved the chessboard at him, sending all the chess pieces flying around his room. He figured it would turn up eventually. He didn’t have anyone to play with anyways it was a decoration at this point.

He rejoined the party.

“Naruto~” Sakura greeted. “We should plan a time to go to that new water park that opened!” She wrapped her arms around his arm and pulled him to sit next to her on one of the wicker loveseats. She had become much more physical the last few weeks. He didn’t stop her. Naruto glanced at her. She started to wear makeup and she wasn’t good at applying it. He looked away.

“It’s summertime so we’ll have more freedom.” Ino spoke. She held a plate that was loaded with different finger foods and had been stuffing her face. “If we go during the week it might be less crowded.”

“They have the world's highest waterslide!” Kiba announced.

Naruto stopped listening. He looked over and saw Sasuke was seated with Jugo, Karin, and Hinata.

“Naruto, when do you want to go?” Sakura asked.

“What about next week?” Naruto suggested.

“Wednesday works for me!”

Naruto stopped listening to the conversation again. He was watching Sasuke. Sasuke was laughing at a joke Karin was telling. He liked the way Sasuke smiled and laughed. It was refreshing. It was captivating. Sasuke's skin was the color of smooth white jade. It was a sharp contrast with his inky black hair and soft locks fell over his face. His eyes were smoldering coal. His lips were red and full. He remembered how soft they were when he kissed him. He found himself blushing thinking about the kiss. How he felt Sasuke’s bone structure with his fingers and slid his hand behind Sasuke’s head. His hair was even softer than he imagined.

He blinked. He looked again and Sasuke was missing. There was Karin, Hinata, and Jugo and they were in deep conversation. He looked around. Sasuke was missing. He stood up.

“I’ll be right back, I have to go to the bathroom.” Naruto excused himself.

This was his chance to corner Sasuke. Except. He didn’t know where Sasuke went. He first thought he went to the bathroom and he waited outside two bathrooms. When they opened and he wasn’t there he continued looking. He checked the dining room. He thought the Uchiha’s left but he saw Sasuke’s parents drinking with Mito and Hizashi. He wasn’t in the backyard, he wasn’t inside the main areas of the party. He even checked the front of the house and the street. He wasn’t anywhere. Then his heart thumped.

Was Sasuke in his room?

He opened his bedroom door and froze. He saw Sasuke standing at the shelf holding the picture frame that Hinata gifted him. He watched as Sasuke turned around slowly and their eyes locked. Naruto looked at the picture in Sasuke’s hands. He watched as Sasuke placed the frame back where it was and ran a hand nervously through his hair. The way his hair fell over his face caused Naruto to stumble for a fraction of a second. Sasuke went as white as a ghost.

“What are you doing?” Naruto asked, regaining his composure.

“I…” Sasuke trailed off. He was embarrassed. He shifted his eyes away. He was caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Naruto watched as a pink blush kissed his white jade cheeks making him look human again. “I was just returning this.” Sasuke pulled from his pocket a small decorative box.

Naruto closed the door behind him and walked up to him. He held his hand out and Sasuke passed him the decorative box.

“Is it a gift?” Naruto asked.

“No. I’m returning~” Sasuke spoke coldly. Naruto opened the top and looked down. It was the white king piece and underneath was a handkerchief. It was the one Naruto gave him during class cleaning duty when Sasuke coughed and sneezed from the chalkboard dust. “~it.”

“You took the white king?” Naruto asked and picked it up from the box. He remembered how angry Sasuke was when he lost. So angry he shoved the chessboard at him. He didn’t know why knowing Sasuke had it this whole time caused him to smile.

“Yeah. I didn’t mean to steal it.” As Sasuke spoke he avoided his eyes. “I just didn’t want to play with you anymore.”

“I told you that you could keep the handkerchief.” Naruto spoke as he picked the laundered handkerchief out of the box.

“No. I have my own.”

“You can keep the white king. Take it.” Naruto handed Sasuke the white king back. He wanted Sasuke to keep something, anything of his, as a memento.

“I don’t want it.”

“You went through the trouble of stealing it. Why not just keep it? It’s a memento from when you lost to me, again.” Naruto thrust the white king at Sasuke and he watched as Sasuke latched his hands behind his back. Refusing to take it.

“I didn’t-I didn’t steal it! I’m returning it! I don’t want anything from you!”

“You were just going to sneak into my room and pretend you didn’t steal it?” Naruto asked.

“Yea, that’s the whole point.” Sasuke confessed.

“Fine.” Naruto spoke and leaned over. He watched as Sasuke froze.

His body pressed up against Sasuke’s as he leaned over and placed the white king back on it’s rightful spot on the chessboard. He watched Sasuke flinching and closing his eyes. Sasuke’s face was so close to him he could feel him breathing. Naruto looked at his lips again. He swallowed. Naruto didn’t back away.

“Hey, Sasuke...I wanted to apologize for everything I put you through. Please tell me what I can do to make it up.” Naruto kept his voice soft and gentle. “I’ll do anything!”

“No.” Sasuke spoke. He opened his eyes. Startled to see Naruto so close. His voice was icy cold. It sent shivers through Naruto. It made his feet numb and tingly. His eyes were smoldering. They looked like they would eat Naruto up. They were so dark, so black, it was frightening.

“It’s too late, Naruto. I really do hate you. Our relationship is really over. Nothing you can say, nothing you can do, can ever make me like you again.” Sasuke continued when Naruto didn’t say anything.

“Sasuke...please!” Naruto grabbed Sasuke’s hand. He felt like crying but he was stuck. He couldn’t remember the last time he cried. The crying was always stuck in the back of his throat and his eyes would become dryer, not wetter.

“You put me through hell, Naruto!” Sasuke yelled and jerked his hand from Naruto’s. “Don’t you get it? You’re a spoiled brat.”

Naruto watched as Sasuke left. His heart ached. “What about...what about our parents?”

“I can’t avoid you...can I?” Sasuke smirked as he looked over his shoulder. The revelation of their fathers running the same business cemented them in each other’s lives. “I’ll smile and still greet you, but that’s as far as I’ll ever go with you. Take care.”

Sasuke left. There was nothing else Naruto could do. He looked at the white king and collapsed to his hands and knees trying not to have a panic attack but failing miserably.

*****

It started off as a joke. A gag gift. Something Naruto wanted to do that seemed special but really wasn’t. He wanted to give Sasuke the memory of him beating Sasuke twice at chess. Sasuke was so easily read it was laughable how he thought he could beat him in the first place. It was Sasuke’s birthday. July 23rd. The Uchiha’s had a small dinner party. It was strange that Sasuke was only allowed to invite certain people over. It clicked with Naruto. Sasuke’s mother was controlling who she allowed to get close to him.

From Sasuke’s friend group only Hinata and Karin were personally invited. Naruto was there by default because of their parents' relationship. Specifically, their fathers’ being business partners. He watched how uncomfortable Sasuke was at opening gifts. He never saw him this uncomfortable before. He was sweating and his cheeks were flushed. It caused Naruto to chuckle. Sasuke looked up and glared at him. Naruto smiled back. Naruto decided even if Sasuke hated him he would still accept any form of attention Sasuke gave him.

Naruto gave Sasuke his gift. It was in a medium box. Naruto noticed that Sasuke hardened his expression. There was annihilation in his eyes as if he was already deciding he was going to destroy and throw the gift out when nobody was looking. It was why it was the perfect gift.

“What is it?” Mikoto asked.

Sasuke held the gift in his hand. It was the white king chess piece. Sasuke took his fiery glare and rested it on Naruto, and Naruto couldn’t help but burst out laughing. All eyes shifted to him then shifted back to Sasuke. It was an inside joke and nobody in the room understood it but them. Unlike the other gifts, Sasuke didn’t thank him instead stuffed the chess piece back into the box and moved on to the next gift.

*****

Naruto’s birthday was celebrated by renting out a Karaoke Bar downtown. Naruto’s birthday was in October and it was their ninth grade year. Their first year of high school. Sasuke had become more confident. Naruto knew that Sasuke was forced to come. His mother forced him to dress up and his hair was styled when he arrived but as soon as he arrived he disappeared into the bathroom and purposefully messed it up. He pulled his sleeves up and glared daggers at Naruto wanting Naruto to know he was here against his will.

Naruto had invited a large chunk of their ninth grade class and everyone he invited came. His parents rented out the whole place so everyone was able to enjoy it. They ordered drinks and food and sang. When Naruto started opening presents he was surprised that there was a gift from Sasuke.

“Happy birthday.” Sasuke mocked.

Sasuke was in the room and his eyes were resting on him. He didn’t know why but it made him nervous. He wondered what gift Sasuke got him. He was excited and when he opened it he found himself laughing. He knew why Sasuke was watching him so intently. The gift was the white king chess piece. Naruto laughed because he thought Sasuke threw the gift out. He hadn’t expected Sasuke to keep it these last two months and regift it back.

“That’s a stupid gift.” Sakura commented loudly for everyone to see. “Sasuke, you act like your parents are poor. Unless. They are in financial trouble?” Her voice sounded hopeful.

“A stupid gift for a stupid person.” Sasuke corrected. He pushed himself up from the wall he was leaning against and walked out of the room. No doubt to join another karaoke room.

“Why did you invite him?” Sakura yelled at Naruto.

“I’m going to beat the shit out of him if he says one more thing!” Kiba seethed.

Naruto pocketed the white king. He was too afraid that if he left it in the box Sakura was going to steal it.

*****

It was the company’s Christmas party. They had rented out the Gala. It was decorated in reds and greens. The company spared no expense. It was a good year and they had far exceeded profits. The stocks soared and everyone in the company had a Christmas bonus. Naruto hated these events. He wasn’t allowed to invite Kiba, Sakura, or Ino. He felt alone at these stupid parties. He hadn’t been sleeping and he was exhausted. He just wanted to go home.

Karin and Hinata were glued to Sasuke. The three of them were clustered together. They were all going to be performing tonight for the party. Sasuke and Hinata had won a city duo competition and were set to compete in Nationals. Hinata had stopped going to the country club. She got her neck brace off and she was able to rejoin society again. She started taking painting classes. Her schedule quickly filled up. Naruto didn’t have an opportunity to talk to Sasuke during their tennis lessons, and after their lessons, Sasuke became closed off and if Naruto pried he was fearful the curse of King Tut would haunt him.

Naruto was feeling antsy. He had received his report card and school rankings. He wanted to see Sasuke’s face. Watching him at the Christmas party it was evident that he hadn’t opened his letter yet. He couldn’t contain himself. He wondered what expression Sasuke would make when he found out he was no longer the top of the class.

Naruto had pushed him to second place. He wasn’t lying when he said he would oust Sasuke from the number one spot. If he was better than Sasuke it meant that Sasuke had no choice but to look at him.

Naruto was coming out of the bathroom and Sasuke was heading in.

“Hey.” Naruto greeted with a charming smile. He was met with an icy stare. Sasuke had grown taller. Puberty hit him. “Here. Merry Christmas.” Naruto handed him a decorative box.

Sasuke took it automatically and without thinking. Naruto didn’t say anything else. He walked back to the Christmas party and Sasuke walked into the bathroom. He wondered if Sasuke would open the box, or if he would throw it away without opening it.

Naruto had regifted the white king chess piece.

“Yo!” Karin appeared next to Naruto. He flinched. “So what’s the deal? When did you become interested in studying?”

“You got the letter. What place are you?” Naruto asked with a forced smile. He already knew the answer.

“Third.” Karin quipped.

She was dressed in a lavish ballgown. Her hair was in an updo with a tiara. Naruto was used to her sloppy appearance during school. She was always being cited for not being in regulation when it came to her high school uniform. She would wear pants under her skirt. Her uniform would be stained. Purposefully buttoned wrong. She’d wear the same uniform every day for a week without laundering it, and twice she was cited for wearing a baseball cap.

“You act like it’s the end of the world.” Naruto commented boredly. He wasn’t interested in Karin’s reaction, he was interested in Sasuke’s.

“Sasuke doesn’t know yet.” Karin continued and her eyes turned into slits of scarlet.

“I wonder what kind of expression he would make.” Naruto smirked. “When I try it’s impossible for him to beat me”

“You’re doing this on purpose!” Karin argued. “Leave him alone, haven't you done enough?”

“I’m just studying and being number one in class ranking. How am I doing this on purpose? I’m just studying. I’m just doing the assignments, the extra credit, taking the tests. How is it my fault if I am scoring better than Sasuke? It sounds more like Sasuke’s problem.” He smirked.

“You~!” Karin’s face turned red but she wasn’t able to finish her sentence.

“I think I’ll run for class president next year.” Naruto commented. “It’s just a popularity contest, and who's more popular than me? You know what they say: these are the years to pad your university application.”

“You only have friends because you invite people out and charge it on daddy’s credit card! Nobody actually likes you!” Karin quipped. Her words stung.

“So?” Naruto defended. He was getting angry. Karin always managed to get under his skin and he was powerless to touch her. “You’re just jealous that I’m actually allowed to have fun. Are you feeling upset that you were born to the wrong Uzumaki sister? It must be lonely up there on your pedestal...maybe you’re thinking of jumping off?”

“You’re a bastard, no wonder Sasuke hates you!”

“Well. Hate is just as strong as love isn’t it?” Naruto questioned. “It means I’m still on his mind. It means he’s still thinking about me.”

“Pathetic. You’re hung up on a guy that dumped you and moved on. Get a life.”

“Karin~” Mito Uzumaki appeared. Karin straightened up when her mother appeared. Naruto and Karin both snapped back into smiles. “I’ve been looking for you. Come to the stage. Hinata and Sasuke are already there. It’s time to perform.”

Naruto’s eyes went immediately to the stage. There was one grand piano. Ivory white. Sasuke and Hinata were sitting side by side at the piano. Did that mean Karin was going to play the violin? She excelled at string instruments and the piano. Karin got on the stage and grabbed the violin.

“Hinata, Sasuke, and Karin have agreed to perform a few songs for you tonight. I have been personally training Hinata and Sasuke for the National Duo Piano Competition. Tonight however Sasuke and Hinata will be performing blindfolded. Please enjoy.”

Naruto’s eyes went to Sasuke who tied a black blindfold around his eyes. He watched as Hinata did the same. The audience began whispering to each other. Karin was not blindfolded, although she could perform blindfolded if instructed. Tonight wasn’t to showcase her skills. It was to showcase the fruits of her labor: Hinata and Sasuke. Naruto was feeling jealousy welling up in his chest.

He watched as Sasuke’s fingers spread out across the piano. He watched as his fingers brushed against Hinata’s and they both smiled as they adjusted themselves. They started playing Danse Macabre. The first notes were the violin. The piano came softly after. There was a short piano solo, then a violin solo, and finally the violin and piano began playing together. It was powerful. The chemistry Sasuke and Hinata had was extraordinary. They fit so perfectly together. They were both blindfolded and when they fell into rhythm they played perfectly. Their hands crisscrossed without interruption. Their hands playing the piano as if they were reading sheet music.

When they finished the audience clapped. Naruto couldn’t watch another second of it. He left the Gala. He thought about calming down and returning. He didn’t want to see Sasuke again. He left and even though it was late he walked to Kiba’s house. He’d deal with the fallout of his parents later. He called Kiba as he walked.

*****

“Since when did you care about studying and class rankings?” Sasuke spoke and slammed his hands down on the desk Naruto was sitting at.

They were in the library. Naruto had originally gone to the library to attempt to sleep. He was exhausted and every muscle in his body ached. No sooner did he lay his head down did Sasuke appear. Naruto pushed himself up and looked up to see Sasuke. He had emotions flooding him like he did when he pushed the chessboard at him. He looked unhinged. Anger. Resentment. Hatred. They wrinkled and darkened his face.

“I don’t understand.” Naruto spoke casually. “You’re asking me questions? I thought we weren’t anything to each other?” He spoke with a hint of a smirk. He couldn’t help but feel cocky. “Why do I have to explain myself to you if we’re nothing?”

“What do you want?” Sasuke asked. There was desperation and frustration in his voice. What did Naruto want? He wanted to be Sasuke’s friend. He wanted Sasuke to pay attention to him.

“I got what I wanted. I wanted to be first in class rankings. I liked it so much I think I’ll keep this spot. Second place suits you...maybe a little too well.” Naruto explained. “It was easier than I thought. It only took two semesters. I must be a prodigy, right? I don’t even have a tutor, or go to cram school. If you didn’t have all that, where would you be realistically? I bet you wouldn’t even place in the top ten.”

“You don’t think I’ll get my first place back?” Sasuke's eyes became incandescent. Sasuke leaned over the table and grabbed Naruto’s tie. He jerked it hard, and it forced Naruto to lean in or he wouldn’t be able to breathe. The tie tightened around his neck. “You only got first place because I’ve been preoccupied with the national piano competition. You don’t enter competitions, do you? I have shelves and shelves of trophies, blue ribbons, and medals. What do you have? A chessboard with a missing white king piece.”

Naruto’s eyes widened and then he smirked. He licked his lips. “You didn’t throw it away? You still have it?” He felt excited. Sasuke still had the white king. It made him happy. He was still connected to him. “Let’s make a deal.”

“Why would I ever make a deal with someone as heartless as you?” Sasuke gritted and pulled Naruto’s tie harder. He looked like he was contemplating strangling him in the autobiography section of the library. It excited and terrified Naruto.

“If you’re able to beat me the next time they do the class rankings I’ll do whatever you want. If you can't, you have to play a game of chess with me.” Naruto suggested.

“You’ll stay out of my life forever?” Sasuke asked. His grip loosened on Naruto’s tie.

“Mhm.” Naruto nodded his head.

“Fine.” Sasuke was about to let go of Naruto’s tie when Naruto stood up. It startled him. Naruto reached out and brushed his fingers against Sasuke’s cheek and grabbed the wrist of the arm that held Naruto’s tie. He pushed his fingers underneath the school uniform jacket until his fingers brushed against Sasuke’s flesh and he moved his fingers up Sasuke’s arm.

“You don’t really want me out of your life do you?” Naruto asked softly. He leaned in. “If you really didn’t care about me...then why are you here?” Sasuke’s skin was soft. He wondered what lotion he used.

“Get away from me!” Sasuke yelled and let go of Naruto’s tie and pushed him away with his hand. Naruto stumbled back. He smiled as Sasuke turned and left.

*****

Sasuke and Hinata won the National Duo Piano Competition.

Hizashi congratulated him at the start of their tennis lesson. Naruto smirked. He saw how embarrassed Sasuke was. He really couldn’t stand being praised for his accomplishments. It made Naruto want to tease him.

“Piano must be the only thing you’re good at.” Naruto quipped. He held his tennis racket and began spinning it in the air and catching it. His eyes didn’t leave Sasuke. “Do you want to see if your skills improved with a tennis match?”

“Naruto. Your skills are better. There is no point in a tennis match. We’re just going to practice another double. I have spoken with your parents about signing you up for the junior tennis competition this summer.”

“Wait...I...was only taking tennis lessons. I never planned on entering competitions.” Sasuke spoke. Naruto glanced at him. Sasuke had paled. All blood in his face drained. His bottom lip quivered. He looked distraught. His eyes widened and his hands trembled.

“You’re not entering alone. I have signed you and Naruto up to play doubles.” Hizashi clarified. “I wouldn’t have signed you both up if I didn’t think you would bring home the grand prize. It just shows you how much your skills improved in the year you’ve had lessons.”

Naruto looked at Sasuke’s face. He didn’t look happy. Hizashi’s words didn’t relieve any emotions he was feeling. Naruto raised an eyebrow.

“Don’t worry, Sasuke. With me, we’ll definitely win and you can add another first place trophy to your collection.” Naruto teased. “I know how important first place is to you.”

Sasuke shot him a look of reproach. It worsened Sasuke’s mood. Sasuke didn’t say another word, he just walked to the tennis court. He started doing his warming stretches and exercises. For the rest of the lesson, Sasuke appeared in a daze. His eyes glossed over. He looked like a robot going through the motions.

It left Naruto feeling guilty that he pushed him too hard again. He always seemed to cross the line. It was just difficult to know where the line was.

“Sasuke...I’m sorry.” Naruto spoke softly as he stood next to Sasuke. “Are you upset that you’re competing with me?”

“The world doesn’t revolve around you, Naruto. This has nothing to do with you!” Sasuke snapped and turned his back to him.

“Then...what is it about?”

“We’re not anything to each other. Why do I have to explain myself to you?”

“Have you been studying?”

“Yes.”

“Remember. If you can’t beat me. You have to come to my house and play a game of chess with me.”

“I’m not going to lose.”

*****

Naruto studied every night. His sleep schedule didn’t improve yet it didn’t worsen. It was a constant 2-3 hours of sleep, sometimes 4-5 hours of sleep, and on rare occasions, he could sleep 6 hours. Sometimes his body would crash on the weekends and he would sleep ten hours. It wasn’t healthy. He didn’t have a choice. He wanted to make sure he remained at the top of the class. He lied to Sasuke. It was a white lie. He said he didn’t have a private tutor. The truth was his parents did pay for a private tutor, a university student who had gotten in on a full academic scholarship and needed extra spending money.

Naruto studied with the private tutor three times a week. It meant less and less time with Ino, Sakura, and Kiba. It was during these long absences that Naruto realized he didn’t like being alone. He thought he liked the quietness of his room. But the quietness wasn’t quiet anymore. The quietness became filled with the loudness of his head. It was filled with his thoughts. It was filled with the boxcar. It was filled with Hinata falling down the stairs. It was filled with Sasuke wearing a dog collar and being forced to walk around his room on all fours and bark.

Coupled with his lack of sleep sometimes it felt like he was going crazy.

It was the end of the school year. Class rankings were released. Naruto stood at the board at the entrance of the school and saw the first three people.

1)Naruto Namikaze
2)Sasuke Uchiha
3)Karin Uzumaki

He smirked and stuffed his hands in his pockets and left. He was exhausted. He could feel his body wanting to shut down and sleep for ten hours. It was the last week of school before summer break. This summer was the tennis competition. He would be able to see Sasuke again. His heart thumped. He smiled thinking about it. He was looking forward to it.

“Naruto...can...can I talk to you?” Sakura asked. It was during their free period and Naruto was on his way to the library. He nodded his head. “It feels like we haven’t seen much of you. You keep telling us that you’re going home to study. I mean I can see from the class rankings that you placed first all year long.”

“Mhm.” Naruto nodded his head and yawned. He stretched his arms in the air. “School’s over. Let’s have another fun summer together!” Naruto smiled at her. He cranked up the charisma by fifty percent. He hadn’t paid her any attention lately and he wanted to make up for it.

“Naruto. We’re getting older.”

“Mhm.” Naruto nodded his head. It felt like if he closed his eyes he would fall right asleep.

“I really-really-really like you, Naruto. I want us to be official and I want us to really be boyfriend and girlfriend.” Sakura grabbed Naruto’s hand and sandwiched it with her hands. She stood in front of him and all he saw was her sparkling emerald eyes swirling with affection, love, and devotion. It left him breathless and he didn’t know how to respond. His mind went blank.

“I’m sorry to interrupt this love confession. But I have business with Naruto.” Sasuke appeared in the hallway. Naruto was wide awake and looked behind Sakura to see Sasuke. There was a look of annoyance on Sasuke’s face. He was already in a foul mood. Naruto smiled at him.

“You piece of dog shit! Go away!” Sakura cried out as she turned to see it really was Sasuke.

“This shouldn’t take long.” Sasuke wasn’t smiling. His eyes locked on Naruto. “You. How’d you do it? Did you bribe them to keep you number one? Did you cheat on the tests?”

Ah. He looked at the class rankings.

“That would be illegal. My family doesn’t participate in illegal affairs.” Naruto commented coolly. He stuffed his hands in his pockets.

“If Naruto really bribed the school he wouldn’t have to pay for a private tutor!” Sakura interrupted. She had refused to let go of Naruto’s hand and continued to stand between Naruto and Sasuke. Her face was twisted into a permanent scowl. Her eyebrows were so furrowed they were practically touching. If someone slapped her hard enough on the back her face might get stuck like that.

“Ah. I. See.” Sasuke nodded his head and smiled cruelly. He chuckled. “So you did lie. You do have a private tutor. Probably the best tutor money can buy for Naruto.” Sasuke was taunting him.

Naruto swallowed. He didn’t want Sasuke to find out. He didn’t have a comeback. He was trying to figure out why he was approaching him so suddenly. Was it just to talk about class rankings...or...it clicked why Sasuke approached him. His smile grew.

“Are you just going to harass Naruto because you’re not smart enough to get first place? Hurry up and leave!”

Sasuke rolled his eyes. “What are you doing after school today?” He ignored Sakura and continued to look at Naruto. It only caused Sakura to become even angrier-- if it was even possible.

“Why?” Naruto asked. He wanted to go home and shut down for ten hours.

“So we can hurry up and play chess or whatever!” Sasuke was agitated. He was losing his composure again. The longer they talked the more distraught Sasuke became as if being in the same space as him broke him down mentally and physically.

“Are you able to do it another day, what about tomorrow?” Naruto asked. His eyelids felt heavy. His body was already beyond exhausted.

“I’m busy. My schedule is already packed, and with what little free time I have I want to spend it with my friends. We do it today or we don’t do it at all!” Sasuke was giving him an ultimatum.

“Fine. Today after school.” Naruto agreed. Sasuke didn’t say anything else. He stormed past them purposefully hitting Naruto’s shoulder with his own as he walked away. It caused Naruto to stumble but Sakura held firmly to his hand.

“What...what was that about, Naruto?” Sakura was about to explode.

“We made a bet and he lost.”

“So he has to play chess at your house?” Sakura asked.

“Something like that, yes. Don’t worry. It’s just a one time thing. Nothing is going to change so don’t worry.”

“I don’t care about that...what about us!” Sakura demanded. There was no longer affection in her voice, it was desperation.

“We’re too young.” Naruto yawned.

“Then when?”

“Sixteen?” Naruto suggested.

“Fi~ne.” Sakura pouted. She let go of Naruto’s hand and followed him to the library.

*****

Naruto was exhausted. He went immediately home after school. Sasuke never told him what time he was coming. He told his mother Sasuke was coming over to hang out. She offered to make tea sandwiches and cut fruit for them for snacks.

“Is he staying for dinner?” His mother asked.

“I’m not sure.” Naruto answered honestly. Knowing Sasuke they would play one game of chess and he would immediately go home. He was surprised Sasuke was holding up his end of the bargain. Yet. When he thought about Sasuke more it was within his personality to hold up his end.

Naruto tossed his school bag in the middle of his room and collapsed on his couch. He looked at the large decorative clock on his wall. He told himself he was only going to shut his eyes for a catnap. His eyes felt unbelievably heavy as if each eyelid was holding one sumo wrestler each. He didn’t even realize he had fallen asleep until his body jerked and his bloodshot eyes jolted open. He pushed himself up. He was in a cold sweat. His school uniform stuck to him. He was panting. He couldn’t remember the nightmare; it rescinded into the darkness the moment he woke up.

He looked frantically at the clock on his wall. It was already past 9 PM. He overslept. He was about to stand up when he stopped. His eyes locked on Sasuke. He was sitting on one of the cushions at the coffee table. His head rested on his arms and he was fast asleep. His heart fluttered. Why was he still here? Did he fall asleep waiting for him to wake up? He felt his cheeks burn.

He decided to wake him up. He climbed off the couch and kneeled next to Sasuke. He was about to shake his shoulder to wake him up when he stopped. He noticed how long and thick Sasuke’s eyelashes were. They curled beautifully. His lips were the color of poppies blooming in the winter. He was startled at how attracted Sasuke was. He heard whispers at school. From the girls as they gossiped about boys. They had all collectively agreed Sasuke was the most attractive boy in their grade.

Naruto pulled his hand back. Sasuke was sleeping so peacefully it felt like a crime to wake him up. His face was gentle, with a sense of serenity. He hadn’t witnessed this expression from him. He had grown used to the angry scowl whenever Sasuke looked at him. The accusatory glare. The fake smile when he had to mock niceness. He continued staring at him not wanting to look away.

Naruto’s stomach growled. He was starving. He stood up and left. He found his mother in the kitchen eating a snack. She turned and looked at him.

“Why, hello sleepyhead. I didn’t think you’d sleep this long.” His mother narrated. “I was going to wake you up but Sasuke said not to. He said you had been studying hard and he was going to leave. I checked on you a little while later and you both were sleeping. You two looked so cute I couldn’t possibly wake you up. I snapped a picture.”

“You...you what?” Naruto was stuck on the last part.

“I took a picture.”

“Mom! That’s so embarrassing!”

“Is Sasuke still here? I figured he was going to spend the night. It’s already late outside. I called and spoke to his mother so she wouldn’t worry.”

“Delete that picture!” Naruto argued.

“Nonsense. These are the best parts of being a mother. If you’re looking for the tea sandwiches and fruit they’re in the fridge.”

Naruto glared at her. She had an embarrassing photo and he wasn’t happy. She had a whole album filled with embarrassing photos. It was hidden in the house somewhere. He long ago gave up looking for it. He went to the fridge and grabbed a plate of different tea sandwiches and a bowl of strawberries returning to his room. He saw that Sasuke was awake. Sasuke was groggy, his body swayed, and he was rubbing his eyes.

“What time is it?” Sasuke asked. He still sounded sleepy.

“9:30PM.” Naruto answered.

“What?!” Sasuke shouted. He was wide awake.

“My mom told me she already told your mom that you’re staying the night as it’s already so late.” Naruto spoke and placed the plate of sandwiches down, and the bowl of strawberries.

“We were only supposed to play chess. Why were you sleeping?” Sasuke asked irritably. He glared at Naruto as if he planned this out. But even if he did plan it out he didn’t think he could plan things out so perfectly.

“My mom said you were going to leave when you saw I was sleeping. Why did you stay?” Naruto asked curiously.

“Don’t get any ideas. I figured I’d wait a little bit because I didn’t want to have to come back. I fell asleep waiting.” Sasuke explained the situation. He reached out and grabbed a toothpick. He jabbed it into a strawberry and brought it to his mouth.

“I didn’t mean to fall asleep. I hadn’t slept much this last week.” Naruto spoke and picked up a tea sandwich and brought it to his mouth.

Sasuke didn’t say anything. He reached for a tea sandwich and began eating too.

“Are you and Sakura officially dating now?” Sasuke asked. He wasn’t looking at Naruto. The question caught Naruto off guard. It felt like he was caught with his pants around his ankles. His face flushed.

“Why do you wanna know? Are you jealous?” Naruto asked as he tried to collect himself.

“I’m not jealous. I figured you two suit each other. Perfect monsters. What a perfect pair.”

Naruto frowned. He didn’t say anything. He grabbed another sandwich. “Since you asked. No. We’re not dating. What about you? Are you dating anyone?”

“Like I would tell you anything about my personal life.” Sasuke rebuked.

“Then...why are you asking about mine?” Naruto argued.

“You didn’t have to answer. I didn’t force you.” Sasuke’s tongue was sharp. He still hadn’t looked at him.

“Knowing your parents...you couldn’t date so casually could you?” Naruto wagered. “They would probably arrange your marriage.”

“Don’t talk about my parents.” Sasuke’s voice was cold. He stopped eating.

“Okay.” Naruto agreed. He didn’t know why he kept wanting to say things that he knew would set Sasuke off. “Are you worried about the tennis competition?”

“I hate tennis.” Sasuke answered as he looked down. “I should have taken golf lessons.”

“If you took golf lessons. You never would have crossed paths with Hinata.”

Sasuke turned and looked at him. It was the first time. Sasuke’s eyes looked at him top to bottom before turning away. He didn’t say anything.

“Now, look how close you two are. Competing in competitions.” Naruto continued.

“Mn.”

“I don’t know why you’re sulking. Didn’t you say you have hundreds of first prize trophies, blue ribbons, gold medals? What’s wrong with a few more?” Naruto asked.

“What do you know about the pressure of competing? You’re allowed to do whatever you want!”

“You don’t know anything about me!” Naruto was irritable.

He was tired of Sasuke assuming things. Naruto stood up. He entered his walk-in closet that was the size of a small bedroom and the light automatically came on. He picked up a large decorative box that was crammed in the corner and walked out carrying it. He opened the top cover and dumped the contents of the box out. Tumbling from the box were trophies, medals, blue ribbons.

“What the hell do you think I was doing the majority of my life?” Naruto yelled. He crouched down and began picking up one thing at a time. “I won this by horseback riding. I won this by playing piano. I won this by playing chess. I won this during a snowboarding competition. All of these I competed in and won!”

“What are you now just smearing in my face how brilliant you are?” Sasuke yelled.

“No! I’m just telling you I’ve competed before. I know the pressure. I just have parents that didn’t force me when things stopped being fun. When I focus on something I put all my time and energy into it. It’s how I was able to beat you in the class ranking.”

“Why’d you do it?”

“I wanted you to pay attention to me, and the only way I knew how was to be better than you.”

Sasuke’s face flushed red. He didn’t say anything. His eyes focused on the medals and ribbons and trophies on the floor. Naruto stopped pursuing everything the moment the boxcar door closed and locked. Sasuke moved his head towards the chessboard.

“Want to play a game of chess?” Sasuke asked.

“Yea.” Naruto smiled. He stood up and placed the chessboard on the coffee table. The only piece missing was the white king. As if on cue Sasuke reached over and placed the white king on the board. “I’m surprised you kept it.”

“I don’t want it anymore.” Sasuke snapped. “Do you want to be white or black?”

“White.” Naruto said and he turned the board accordingly. “Let’s make another bet.”

“No...this was the bet! You can’t just make bets on top of bets!”

“If I win...let me kiss you again.”

“NO!”

“Let me hug you?”

“No.”

“Sleep next to me on the bed?”

Sasuke glared at him. “You’re being a spoiled brat!”

“Are you scared to make another bet with me because you think you’re going to lose?”

“I’ve been playing chess a lot more recently.”

“With who?” Naruto asked. He didn’t bother hiding his jealousy.

“With a friend.” Sasuke smiled.

“The last time I played was with you. You must have improved. So why not make a bet?”

“There’s...nothing I want from you.”

“I won’t bother you for one year.” Naruto suggested. Sasuke stared at him. Naruto continued. “If you win I won’t bother you for one year, I promise.”

“We have the tennis competition coming up.” Sasuke was already picking apart the exceptions.

“How about this. I win, you sleep next to me on the bed. You win and after the tennis competition I’ll leave you alone for one year.”

“Okay.” Sasuke agreed.

He agreed too quickly. The smile on his lips was hard to describe. Like he was keeping a secret he was dying to spill. Naruto didn’t dwell too much on it. He had entered chess competitions when he was younger and won. Even if he hadn’t played since last year. He was confident in his abilities, besides, Sasuke was easy to read. The game started with Naruto going first. He moved a pawn. Sasuke moved the black knight right away. Naruto watched Sasuke but his face became unreadable as if he had switched to playing poker. The game continued.

“Check.” Sasuke smiled. Naruto moved his bishop to block. Sasuke took the bishop out with his black knight. “Checkmate.” Naruto stared at the board.

The game was over in record time. He blinked. He stared at the board going over every move in his head, thinking what Sasuke said was a mistake. Every piece he moved in his head didn’t prevent the white knight from falling. Naruto rested his elbow on the coffee table and his cheek in his hand and stared at Sasuke. He was feeling cheated.

“Who do you play chess with?” Naruto repeated the question.

“You have to leave me alone for a year. No more gifts. No more talking to me outside mandatory events. No more staring at me. Got it?”

“Mn.” Naruto kept staring at Sasuke. “Who do you play chess with?”

“I told you. A friend who's better at chess than you.”

“You...planned this.” Naruto accused.

“Of course I did. How does it feel?” Sasuke spoke with a cold smile.

Naruto pushed himself back. He tilted his head up to the ceiling and exhaled loudly. How did it feel? It didn’t feel great. It felt like the rug was taken from beneath his feet and he was attempting to grab onto something so he didn’t fall hard on the ground. Naruto rolled his eyes back to stare at Sasuke.

“Are you going to give me pajamas to change into?” Sasuke asked. He appeared to be gloating.

“Yes.” Naruto answered. He pushed himself up and returned with a set of pajamas. Sasuke took it and went into Naruto’s bathroom, closing the door behind him. Naruto ate a few strawberries. He didn’t know what else to do. He felt defeated. He heard the bathroom door opening and Sasuke appeared standing in front of him.

“I want to sleep in a guest room.” Sasuke demanded.

“Okay. Follow me.” Naruto stood up and led Sasuke down the hall. He chose one that the servants had recently washed the bedding and turned the light on for him. “The bed is particularly comfortable in this one. Goodnight, Sasuke.”

Sasuke didn’t say anything. Naruto left and closed the door. He rested his back against the closed door for a moment. He exhaled again and grabbed his chest. It ached. Did he really have to leave Sasuke alone for one year? He was hoping he could renegotiate during the tennis match. Maybe corner Sasuke and make a deal with him. Threaten to purposefully lose the match if he doesn’t renegotiate. Yeah. That’s what he’d do. He’d threaten to throw the tennis match if Sasuke doesn’t listen to him.

Chapter Text

A deaf policeman heard the noise

 

It was difficult to breathe. His mother had been on the warpath ever since she received his final report card and discovered his class ranking dropped to second place. To add insult to injury he was behind Naruto Namikaze. If it was anyone else he didn’t think she would react as she had. She slammed his report card down in front of him. He didn’t know why she was making such a big spectacle. He already knew. He didn’t look at the report card, and kept his eyes staring straight ahead. He tried to focus on breathing but he kept holding his breath. He was nervously picking at the skin around his nails.

He knew his mother was going to react this way. It was why he was so desperate and wanted to hurry up and play chess with Naruto before the fallout. He never expected to fall asleep waiting for him to wake up. His mother rounded on him the second he walked through the front door. She ushered him into the dining room. The formal dining room that felt like the whole universe could fit within the four walls and still leave space.

“What have you been doing this past school year? Have I given you too much free time?” His mother yelled. “I know...it’s those nobodies you keep hanging around!”

“They’re not nobodies, they're my friends.” Sasuke defended.

“One owns a rundown vet and the other’s parents work no name desk jobs. You didn’t think I wouldn’t look into their family’s background? I can smell the debt on them. You don’t need people like them around you, Sasuke.” His mother’s voice was cruel. “Bottom feeders. They’re bringing you down with them.”

“It had nothing to do with them. I’ve been busy preparing for the piano competition. I barely had time to hangout with them!” Sasuke continued to defend. He slept surprisingly well in one of the guest rooms in the Namikaze household. He regained his strength to withstand his mother’s tongue lashing.

Did his mother seriously think he had free time to...fool around? He didn’t have free time every moment he wasn’t at cram school, or with the private tutor, or at his tennis lessons, or doing school work, studying for tests, writing papers. Any free time he had was spent living, breathing, and playing piano.

“You barely won the piano competition. If Hinata didn’t correct your mistake in the second movement you wouldn’t have won. You should thank Hinata for having to clean up your mess. It was such an embarrassment, Sasuke. Just when I didn’t think you could embarrass me more, you dropped to second place!”

His chest hurt. He was forced to remain seated in the dining room chair as his mother berated him. He’d rather it be the electric chair. Have her pull the lever and electrocute him. It was a shame the electric chair was deemed inhumane. Get it over with. No. He’d pull the lever himself if it meant escaping this moment. Could he be tried for crimes against humanity if he was already dead?

“Sasuke, look at me when I’m talking to you!” His mother slammed her hand on the table and like clockwork, Sasuke turned his head and stared at her. “All those piano lessons and you messed up! Are you laughing at me?” Sasuke swallowed. It was a rhetorical question. He kept silent.

She was just rubbing salt into his wounds at this point. Beating a dead horse to the ground. He had messed up once during the performance. He could win a hundred competitions and it wasn’t enough. She would focus on the one mistake he made; she'd blow it up and act like he stripped naked during the piano performance. He played it perfectly when he was practicing with Hinata at Mito Uzumaki’s house. He had just been a bundle of nerves and didn’t sleep the night before. If he wasn’t playing with Hinata he knew he would have made more mistakes. He never wanted to do the competition.

“I didn’t think things had gotten this bad, Sasuke.” His mother hissed. “You’ve been coming in second place to Naruto. I thought you weren’t talking to him anymore and here you are spending the night at his house. Are you some slave to him? Have you been able to beat him in anything? Are you doing this on purpose? Answer me Sasuke!”

“No.” He hadn’t expected his mother to become so angry he had spent the night at Naruto’s house, however, given the situation he could understand. He had come in second place. Again.

“No, what?”

“I’m not doing this on purpose, ma’am.” Sasuke was sarcastic with the last bit but his mother wasn’t actually listening to him. She wasn’t talking with him. She was talking at him.

“I don’t want you seeing them bottom feeders anymore. I forbid it.” His mother dished out her punishment. Withholding friends. She was refusing to allow him to see Jugo and Suigetsu outside of school. His heart quickened and he felt sweaty. He was thinking he could still see them at cram school. “I’m changing your cram school too.”

“Mom...please! Karin attends that cram school!” He lost his composure and his voice was desperate. “I told you it was because I spent too much time on the piano!”

“No. I am your mother and I know what’s best for you. I sent you to cram school so you can keep your first place ranking not to horse around and be demoted to second place. Uchiha’s aren’t second place, you're a shame to the family. I never had this problem with Itachi. If only you were a fraction of Itachi, maybe I wouldn’t be so disappointed in you!”

“Mother.” Itachi’s voice rang through the dining room. She turned her head to see Itachi. “I’m home.”

“Itachi welcome home. I am so happy you’re back for the summer! Why didn’t you call me from the airport? Did you catch an earlier flight?” His mother shifted her attention to the good son. She checked the time on her luxury watch. She looked back at Itachi. The prodigal, filial, son. Sasuke felt his blood boiling. How quick his mother softened. Her voice became gentler. She turned from a tiger to a kitten. Her eyes filled with admiration as she greeted Itachi. “Welcome home!”

“I took an earlier flight. It was faster to take a taxi. I didn’t want you to get trapped in rush hour traffic.” Itachi stated in his deadpan voice. His face was expressionless. “What’s going on...why are you yelling at Sasuke?”

Sasuke didn’t dare look at Itachi. His relationship with Itachi had been strained from the beginning. It had nothing to do with Itachi himself, it was just the circumstance. Always being compared to Itachi. It was impossible to touch the bar he had set let alone surpass it. It was unbearable. Being in the same room with Itachi was unbearable. No matter how hard Sasuke studied, practiced, and performed his fingers were always a few inches short from even grazing the bar. The bar had been set so high by Itachi, Sasuke would have to become a god to reach it. Every time he tried to reach it he realized the bar wasn’t just a few inches, it was a giant chasm away.

“He has been fooling around this school year with his friends. He dropped in school rankings. He keeps coming in second place to Naruto Namikaze. He claims he doesn’t like him yet spent the night at his house last night without telling me. Without me giving him permission. He’s becoming uncontrollable.” His mother berated. “Pathetic.” That word struck Sasuke’s heart and he felt himself freezing. It felt like he was turning to stone one inch at a time. That one word hurt more than anything she said. It knocked the breath from him.

“I wouldn’t be too concerned. Sasuke is a bright child. He’ll catch up.” Itachi complimented. Sasuke could hear Itachi’s voice softening. Sasuke didn’t take it as a compliment. It sounded like he was insulting him. He could feel the bar moving further from his reach. “I invited Orochimaru over for dinner.” He changed the conversation so effortlessly. Sasuke straightened up attempting to force air into his lungs.

“Orochimaru? Hiruzen Sarutobi's adopted son? I haven’t seen him since you were in high school. How is he doing?” His mother asked. Sasuke watched Itachi from the corner of his eyes. Orochimaru was the adopted son of the mayor.

“He took a year off for sabbatical. He will be returning to school in the fall.” Itachi answered.

“Why did he go and do a foolish thing like that?”

Itachi remained quiet. He didn’t answer right away. Sasuke turned his head so he was able to get a closer look at his brother. He mirrored his brother in appearance. They were both put together with every strand of hair in place. Their clothes were laundered and ironed. They both wore navy, white, and khaki. How graceful and poised they were. How they were able to keep in absolute control. Mask their emotions. Perform when needed.

Sasuke watched Itachi’s hand twitch. It was another family secret. His brother had always been elusive. Itachi’s jaw clenched. It was a family rule not to talk about it. Sasuke’s heart thumped. His mother was setting Itachi up as if testing him. He shifted his eyes to their mother. She appeared unbothered. Or had she actually forgotten? He shifted his eyes back to Itachi. Was Itachi going to bring it up?

“Why did Orochimaru take a year off for sabbatical?” Itachi repeated the question asking for clarity. His eyes widened. Something flashed across his brother’s almond eyes.

“Yes, why would he do a stupid thing like that he was a brilliant student. Taking a year off from university would put him further behind. Would he even be able to catch up? He probably won’t graduate.”

“He took a year off because Shisui hung himself.” Itachi spoke deliberately impassive and expressionless. “He took a year off because Shisui is dead.” His eyes transfixed on their mother. Sasuke couldn’t take his eyes off his brother. He brought it up. Not only that Shisui was no longer part of the living, he brought up the method he used to escape the world.

“Itachi! I told you not to bring up his name in this household!” His mother yelled. Her face turned scarlet. Her eyes bulged. The vein in her forehead throbbed. This was the look their mother had when she reached the boiling point. It was just surprising that Itachi had pushed her to it.

“I was only answering your question, mother.” Itachi spoke as if he wasn’t witnessing his mother unraveling. Itachi’s expression hardened.

The reason Itachi hadn’t been home for so long was because of Shisui. Itachi hadn’t come home for any holiday, birthday, or even the summer vacation since the year Shisui killed himself. Sasuke counted the months. This was the first time Itachi has been home, since the funeral, in almost two years. He almost expected Itachi to cancel at the last minute like he's done so the last few years.

Shisui Uchiha. He was their cousin. Shisui’s suicide demoralized and weakened the family and after the funeral, his name was blacklisted. After his death, his name had become taboo. As if anyone who said his name was going to be cursed for a thousand years and so Shisui slowly began to fade from everyone’s memories. It was easier to forget than to question what drove Shisui to such desperation.

“You didn’t have to say his name!” His mother’s voice screeched. She acted as if Itachi was going to be cursed for a thousand years. Her voice hurt Sasuke’s ears, the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. He winced.

“Orochimaru will be coming over for dinner. I am going to unpack, wash up, and take a nap. I’ll see you at dinner.” Itachi remained unfazed. He bowed politely and left.

*****

It was dinner time.

They were using the formal dining room. To celebrate Itachi’s homecoming for the summer and to show off to the invited guest. The room always felt big and empty regardless of how many people were inside. Today it wasn’t just the room that felt bigger, the dining room table felt bigger. As if the table had been taken from the mad tea party stretching infinitely in both directions. There were five people sitting at the table and everyone was so spread out it was comical.

Sasuke wasn’t hungry. He lost his appetite. His eyes were locked to the invited guest.

Orochimaru was beautiful. His face was delicate. He looked fragile and needed to be handled with care. He had long black hair and golden eyes. Eyes that looked like liquid sunshine. He looked like a doll. There was a melancholy aura shrouding him. He looked like a beautiful bride in perpetual mourning because the love of his life left this earth the day of their wedding. It was hard to not look at something so beautiful and tragic.

“Orochimaru told me he has been meeting you in the library, Sasuke. He told me you’ve been playing chess together.” Itachi had commandeered the dinnertime conversation. Sasuke forgot how easily his brother took control of a situation. He glanced at his brother. He knew Itachi caught him staring at Orochimaru. He felt embarrassed.

“You’ve been playing chess again?” His father asked and smiled. He looked pleased. “You and Itachi used to play all the time when you were younger.” His eyes misted over and Sasuke smiled.

“I hope Sasuke wasn’t bothering you, Orochimaru. I sent him to the library to study, not to harass people.” His mother quipped. Sasuke lost his smile. She was still angry about the class rankings.

“I wasn’t harassed. It was a break from my research.” Orochimaru answered with a melancholy smile. He smiled as if he forgot how to smile and was only smiling based on memory. “I’ll be returning to university in the fall. I have plenty of time to continue.”

“Research? I thought Itachi said you were on a sabbatical?” His mother questioned.

“It’s for my dissertation. I have been doing little pieces here and there throughout my leave.”

“So you weren’t wasting your time this last year mourning.” His mother sounded pleased. “Good. You should learn from Itachi. Mimick how he has handled it. He didn't let it affect his studying.”

Sasuke froze. His eyes went to Orochimaru. His features remained delicate as if he purposefully didn’t hear the underlying meaning of his mother’s words. Sasuke moved his eyes to Itachi. His brother didn’t pretend not to hear and he tightened his grip on his fork and knife. His eyes bore holes into their mother’s head. His jaw clenched and he looked like he was about to interrupt.

“Mikoto.” His father voiced before Itachi could say anything. He felt the energy in the room and was playing referee. It was a stern voice and his eyes were hard. “Now is not the time. Itachi has come home for the first time in two years. Let’s not chase him away. I miss my son.”

“Chase your son away? He’s my son. He came from my womb. He has been studying. Nothing gets in the way of his studies, not like our other son. He dropped in school ranking. Naruto beat him!” His mother managed to circle the conversation back to school rankings. Her ability to compare him to Itachi in every possible situation was poetic.

“Have you been stressed out, Sasuke? Are we pushing you too hard?” His father asked. The concern in his voice scratched at Sasuke’s heart and made it even more difficult to breathe. He looked away from his father’s eyes. How was he expected to answer that question? He felt numb inside when he repeated his father’s questions.

“We’re not pushing him hard enough. You're always too soft with Sasuke! That’s why he’s slacking off.” His mother argued.

Sasuke lowered his eyes and stared at his plate. He hadn’t said a single word. Nobody noticed. He used to wonder how long he could go without speaking. He didn’t have to. Someone would always answer for him. How long would someone notice he hadn’t spoken? He stopped playing this game when he once went a week without speaking. Games were supposed to be fun and that game was devastating.

The conversation continued as if Sasuke wasn’t even in the room. Itachi spoke about university. Orochimaru spoke about his dissertation. His father spoke about the company. They had lower earnings last quarter but the summer they had already exceeded expectations things should balance out. Everything pitter-pattered into oblivion. Sasuke closed his eyes and when he reopened them everybody had vanished. He was alone at the dining room table and there he remained as he finally started eating his dinner.

*****

“Sasuke.” Orochimaru greeted. “I didn’t expect to run into you here. It’s late.” He held a glass of water in his hand.

Sasuke was startled. He jumped at seeing and hearing him. He had gone to get a glass of water. Orochimaru was wearing a pair of his brother’s pajamas. It was the color of seaweed. He remembered the distaste his brother had when he was given these pajamas. It was a color that wouldn’t look good with their skin, but the color was beautiful against Orochimaru’s skin. He looked regal. Like a long-lost prince.

“You’re staying the night?” Sasuke asked. Sasuke looked at the glass in Orochimaru's hand. It had strawberries painted on the outside.

“Itachi asked me to. How did things go with the chess match? Did Naruto challenge you to another game?” Orochimaru asked. Sasuke remembered last night. Playing against Naruto and finishing the game in record time.

“Mhm. He did, and I won.” Sasuke smiled triumphantly. He remembered Naruto’s incessant questioning asking him who he was playing chess with. He stared at Orochimaru. It was his brother’s best friend.

“What did you bet?”

“For him to leave me alone for a year.” Sasuke smiled. He poured himself a glass of water from the pitcher in the fridge. He had chosen a matching glass with painted strawberries on the outside.

“Aren’t you two playing in a tennis competition in a few weeks?”

“Unfortunately. He said he’ll leave me alone after the tennis competition.” Sasuke felt completely at ease when he spoke to Orochimaru. Naruto was the kind of spoiled brat he didn’t think he’d actually follow through. Still. It was something he could hold against him. He had beat him.

“Mhm.” Orochimaru was staring off into space. “A good friend would follow the terms and conditions of the bet.”

“He isn’t my friend.” Sasuke snapped.

“Then...what is he to you?”

Sasuke stared at Orochimaru and his question fell on deaf ears.

He didn’t know when it started. He knew about Orochimaru when his brother was in high school. He was the only friend, besides Shisui, that Itachi invited over. He had no opinion of him other than he was his brother’s friend. He wondered if it started the first time Orochimaru called out his name in the library. He was surprised to see Orochimaru. The last thing he remembered was that he attended the same university as Itachi.

It made sense even without Orochimaru having to explain. Orochimaru fell completely apart when Shisui died. He remembered seeing Orochimaru break down crying during the funeral. How openly he cried with little regard for how people viewed him. He wondered how Itachi was able to remain so composed. Itachi stood next to Orochimaru during the funeral, stone faced. Itachi had been close with Shisui since they were little. He wondered why Itachi never cried.

His brother had a family best friend and a best outside friend. Sasuke didn’t have any family friends and when it came to friends. He wanted to call Jugo, Suigetsu, Karin, and Hinata his friends, but he thought about his mother’s words. She wasn’t allowing him to hang out with Jugo and Suigetsu. It was only a matter of time before they drifted apart. It hurt. His chest ached. His mother never interfered with Itachi’s friends. Then again Itachi was friends with the mayor's adopted son and Shisui who was brilliant. Maybe if Sasuke was perfect she wouldn’t interfere with his friends.

It was a pattern from birth. Sasuke had always been alone. Maybe he should just remain alone.

“Why are you up?” Sasuke asked. Purposefully changing the topic. He didn’t have the mastery his brother had when it came to changing conversational topics. Orochimaru went along with it and it was why Sasuke felt calm in his presence.

“I couldn’t sleep. I was thinking of Shisui.” Orochimaru answered honestly.

Sasuke found himself hanging on every word. It was a one-sided crush. He figured it out the second time at the library. He found Orochimaru at the same desk at the library. When they began playing chess together. He liked him. There had been a clear boundary Orochimaru placed on the ground. He only saw Sasuke as the younger brother to Itachi. He first thought Orochimaru was the most beautiful person he had ever seen. It left him breathless. He wanted to tell Karin about this feeling. He wanted to ask her what it meant. The warmness in the pit of his stomach. The nervousness when he spoke to him. His clammy palms. Then he figured it out. It was because he liked him.

When Shisui died it took a part of Orochimaru with him, and Sasuke was afraid that part was lost forever. That part was burned up in the crematorium along with Shisui’s body.

“I’m sorry for what my mother said. That’s just how my mother is.” Sasuke felt the urge to apologize for his mother’s behavior. He wanted to sincerely apologize but the words were stuck in his throat.

“I know.” Orochimaru flashed a smile. It warmed Sasuke’s heart. “You don’t have to apologize. Itachi already apologized on her behalf. I do not feel guilty for being on sabbatical this past year. Her words didn’t bother me.”

“So, you’ve decided to go back to university?” Sasuke asked. He had a crush on Orochimaru but he also knew nothing would come of it. He was too young. Orochimaru wasn’t a part of his world. Their paths only crossed because Shisui died and Orochimaru took a sabbatical. It was okay. It was enough to just talk to him, look at him. It wasn’t like Sasuke expected anything in return.

“Mhm. A year isn’t enough time to heal, but Itachi had asked me every day for the past year to come back to school with him.” Orochimaru smiled as he spoke about Itachi. Sasuke felt jealous of his brother again. He had everything.

He wondered.

“What exactly is your relationship with my brother?” Sasuke asked. Something told him they weren’t just friends. But something said they weren’t romantically involved either. It felt like it was somewhere in the middle. Halted when Shisui died. Forever in the grey.

“Orochimaru. There you are.” Itachi appeared. He sounded relieved. He had a habit of appearing out of thin air and interrupting conversations. “Are you okay? I woke up and you were gone.” There was concern in Itachi’s voice. Itachi looked human. There was emotion on his face. There was emotion in his voice. A warmness circled Itachi as he walked up to Orochimaru.

“I was getting a glass of water.” Orochimaru answered and held up the glass with the painted strawberries. “I was speaking with Sasuke. We were talking about chess, and the person he wanted to beat.”

“Did you win?” Itachi asked Sasuke. It was a direct question. Sasuke felt obligated to answer him. “Mother said you spent the night at Naruto Namikaze’s house last night. Was he who you wanted to win against?”

“Mhm. I won.” Sasuke answered proudly. Itachi nodded his head in approval. He looked nervous. It was an expression Sasuke wasn’t used to seeing on his brother. This wasn’t the brother he saw at the formal dining room table. The expressionless, monotone, brother that controlled the dinner conversation. It was someone else.

“Sasuke. Don’t listen to mom.” Itachi spoke. “Her expectations of you are too high. I’ll talk to her.”

“You don’t think I can meet her expectations do you?” Sasuke snapped. It was hard to listen to his brother talking without getting worked up.

“No sane person can meet her expectations!” Itachi argued. It was the first time Sasuke heard Itachi...arguing back with him. It threw him off guard and he became defensive.

“YOU DID!” Sasuke yelled.

“No, I didn’t.” Itachi defended quietly. “Nobody can meet her expectations...not even me.” He emphasized the last three words.

Sasuke opened his mouth to argue when he felt Orochimaru’s hand resting on his shoulder. It sent a chill down his spine. It calmed him. Orochimaru had a pacifying effect. He closed his mouth. He looked at the floor completely subdued. His brother’s words sinking into him. Orochimaru’s hand stopping him from arguing further.

“Itachi, I'm tired. Let’s go to bed. Goodnight, Sasuke.” Orochimaru lifted his hand from Sasuke’s shoulder and followed Itachi.

“Good...night.” Sasuke whispered.

 

*****

Sasuke. I do not want you to embarrass me.” His mother’s voice was stern. “I expect first place. Uchiha’s are first place winners, not second place trash.

His mother’s voice echoed around his head as he wheeled his suitcase into the hotel lobby. Hizashi was explaining the competition. They were in another city six hours away, for the tennis competition. His stomach was dissatisfied. It was angry and couldn’t make up its mind. It went from hunger to nausea. He never wanted to compete. He hated tennis. It wasn’t fun. He didn’t like being around Naruto. It made him uncomfortable. The only relief he got was being six hours away from his home.

“There will be many competitors. Don’t let them get to you.” Hizashi explained. “I wouldn’t have signed you two up if I didn’t think we’d take the gold. You’ll need to wake up tomorrow at 5:00 AM. I rented the practice court at 6:00 AM. We’ll be able to use it one last time before it starts.”

Sasuke glanced at Naruto. Naruto had been swirling his tennis racket around half-listening. He watched as Naruto’s sparkling blue eyes darted around the hotel lobby as Hizashi spoke. The hotel was filled with teen competitors and their families. He saw Naruto smirking. His confidence was brazen. It was magnetic.

“They don’t seem like much of a competition.” Naruto boasted. It caught the attention of a teen with blood red hair. The teen looked unhinged. Naruto caught the red-haired teen staring at him. He pointed his racket as if mimicking a gun. He pulled the racket back as if he shot the teen between the eyes. “No, competition at all.”

Sasuke rolled his eyes and turned away.

“You two will be sharing a room. Here is your room key.” Hizashi handed the room key to Naruto. Sasuke frowned. “I suggest you two eat, wash up, and sleep. Tomorrow is the first day. I’ll see you two in the lobby at 5:45AM.”

*****

“Let’s drop our luggage off at the room and get something to eat!” Naruto exclaimed as he pulled the room key from his pocket when they got off the elevator.

Sasuke didn’t say anything. He followed Naruto to the room. He watched Naruto struggling with the room key. He watched Naruto attempt to open the door three times before losing patience.

“Are you even doing it right?” Sasuke asked. He was irritated.

“Yes. How am I doing it wrong? There’s only one way to use it. They must have given us a faulty key, or maybe the lock is broken!”

Naruto continued to slide the electromagnetic card across the lock. He swiped it like a credit card. The red light would flash green then immediately turn back to red.

“You’re not pulling the handle quick enough!” Sasuke argued. He reached out and held the door handle. “Now do it.” He watched as Naruto slid the card through. As soon as he saw the green light he slammed down on the handle and the door unlocked. “See?” He pushed the door open.

“We shouldn’t have to do this to get into our room.” Naruto answered as he pulled his luggage first into the hotel room. Sasuke rolled his eyes and followed.

“No.” Sasuke’s mouth fell open. He looked at the room. Instead of two beds. There was one king-sized bed. “No. I’m not doing this with you!” He glared at Naruto as if he purposefully made this reservation. “You did this!”

“It’s not my fault. I didn’t book the room.”

“I can’t sleep like this!”

“It’s a bed, Sasuke. It’s not like we didn’t share a bed before, why are you getting so worked up over it?” Naruto’s voiced with a smile on his lips. He was teasing Sasuke. His nonchalant attitude only further irritated Sasuke.

“Call the front desk and get a cot.” Sasuke demanded.

“No. You call the front desk and get a cot. I’ll throw my back out if I sleep on their lumpy, old, cot. If you couldn’t tell from my bedroom I’m accustomed to a certain level of comfort.” Naruto turned his nose up in the air and walked deeper into the room. He started unzipping his luggage.

“Naruto!”

“I’m not the one with the problem.”

Sasuke thought about it and Naruto was right. He didn’t want to sleep on a cot. He didn’t want to jeopardize the competition with back pain. He needed to start strong on the first day of the competition. He exhaled all his frustrations with the sleeping arrangements and sucked it up. He rolled his luggage into the room and unzipped it. He grabbed his racket and examined it for any faults. It was in pristine condition. He pulled his tennis uniform out and laid it neatly on the dresser then pulled out his tennis shoes and placed them on the floor. He made sure everything was ready for tomorrow.

“Sasuke, are you going to eat dinner with me?” Naruto asked. He was antsy and moved around the room. Sasuke’s stomach decided it wanted to be hungry and growled loudly. He couldn’t even lie and say he wasn’t hungry.

“Can’t we just order room service? I don’t want to leave the room.” Sasuke asked. He was feeling nervous again. He didn’t wear confidence like armor the way Naruto did. He felt anxious and the more he thought about it the more he could hear his mother’s voice telling him not to embarrass her. He didn’t want to run into any more competitors until tomorrow. He needed to compose himself and that took time.

“Okay!” Naruto answered happily. He took the leather bound menu off the table and began looking it over. Sasuke stood up and looked over Naruto’s shoulder at the menu. He could smell Naruto’s cologne.

“I’ll have the half roast chicken.” Sasuke gave his order to Naruto.

“You want me to order?” Naruto asked and looked at him.

“Yeah. Aren’t you?” Sasuke smiled.

“I can order.” Naruto walked over to the phone and dialed room service. He sat on the bed. Sasuke sat next to him on the bed and made sure he ordered correctly. He Ordered 2 half roast chicken dinners. Naruto hung up the phone and leaned back. The two sat side by side neither saying anything else. Sasuke was thinking about Naruto’s cologne. He was wearing a new one. The room became quiet as they waited for their food.

“Sasuke.” Naruto called out his name and it snapped Sasuke from his mind. “Who are you playing chess with?” Sasuke glanced at Naruto from the corner of his eyes.

“You don’t know them.” Sasuke answered briskly. “Stop asking me.”

“Oh. I see. Is it some retired chess companion who is coaching you?”

“No. My life isn’t a movie.” He rolled his eyes.

“You sure? Hizashi is a retired olympian and here we are at a tennis competition. Not too far-fetched if you snagged some Bobby Fisher to coach you.”

“Don’t remind me of the tennis competition.” Sasuke groaned. The last thing he wanted was his mother to get the idea of making him an olympian. He glanced at Naruto. Out of the two of them Naruto was more likely to go to the Olympics than him.

“Speaking of the competition~” Naruto began speaking with a smile. He was quickly cut off.

Sasuke wrapped his fingers around Naruto’s wrist and the other hand slammed against Naruto’s mouth. It caught Naruto off guard and he trailed off as his hand pressed harder against his mouth. Sasuke hadn’t meant it but he pushed Naruto back and it caused Naruto to lose his balance and land flat on his back. Sasuke moved so he was balancing on his knees and continued holding his hand over Naruto’s mouth and holding Naruto’s wrist flat against the bed. Naruto’s blue eyes locked on Sasuke's and he froze.

“Please. Stop talking about the competition. It’s only going to upset me.” Sasuke spoke sharply. He waited a second staring Naruto down before pulling his hands back. He pulled his hand back from his mouth and let go of his wrist. He watched as Naruto went to massage his wrist with his other hand. He remained laying down on the bed.

“Okay.” Naruto breathed. “Sasuke...since I’m going to leave you alone for a year. Does this mean you’ll talk to me this weekend? It’ll improve our teamwork if you’re not mad at me.” Naruto pushed himself back into a seated position on the bed. His blonde face was a few inches from Sasuke’s and it frightened him.

“I’ll talk to you.” Sasuke spoke and stood up. He wanted to put distance between them.

If he was going to talk to Naruto he didn’t want to sit next to him and do it. He sat at the table and watched him from across the room. His heart thumping. Naruto kicked his shoes off and made himself comfortable on the bed. He was smiling. He didn’t have the energy to ignore Naruto when they were sharing a hotel room and in a competition together.

They were teammates, not opponents. It wasn’t like anyone was around. Sakura. Kiba. Ino. Hinata. Jugo. Suigetsu. They were six hours away.

“How are things going at home?” Naruto asked.

“Fine.” Sasuke rested his hand on the table and began tapping his finger. He glanced at Naruto. He was still watching him. “My brother is back for the summer.”

“Itachi?” Naruto asked. Everyone knew Itachi’s name. His mother made sure even strangers knew who Itachi was. “I take it that things are worse at home since he’s been back?” Sasuke glanced at him again. How did Naruto know? He looked away.

“Kinda.” Sasuke didn’t know how to answer. Orochimaru was coming over more now that Itachi was home. Orochimaru spent the majority of the time inside Itachi’s room. It was nice seeing Orochimaru. It was the only part he liked about Itachi being home for the summer.

“How are things going with Jugo and Suigetsu?”

“We’re fine.” Sasuke lied. His mother hadn’t allowed him to call or talk to them since school ended and was forced to change cram schools. He hadn’t seen Karin since she’s gone away to some elite music camp overseas.

“They’re my real friends. They’re not pretending to be my friend.” Sasuke smiled. He hoped that was the case. He hoped he could explain the situation when he saw them and they would believe him. Naruto frowned as Sasuke kept talking. “And they didn’t push anyone down the stairs and try to cover it up.”

Naruto went quiet. He turned away and didn’t say anything. He didn’t know what Naruto was thinking about. He expected Naruto to argue or say something in defense. He just remained quiet. Uncharacteristically quiet. Sasuke didn’t say anything else. Just watched Naruto.

“I’m going to wash up first. You can just leave my food on the table. I don’t care if it’s cold.” Naruto spoke as he gathered up clothes and his toiletries bag. He stopped looking at him and hurried into the bathroom as if he couldn’t wait to get away from him.

Sasuke stared at the closed door. He sighed. It was repellant. Bringing up Hinata and the secret was repellant. It pushed Naruto away. Yet. Sasuke looked around the hotel room. He was alone. He heard his mother’s voice again rattling in his skull. He turned the TV on and put it on a random show. It was for background noise. To drown out the noise from his head that spilled into the empty room. Of all his insecurities and fears bouncing off the walls and echoing. It was maddening. Thoughts about Jugo and Suigetsu. Karin being overseas. He hadn’t even seen Hinata. They went back to individual piano practices. He was back to being alone under house arrest.

There was a knock at the door. Sasuke opened the door. It was room service. They wheeled a cart in and delivered two platters with a golden covering. Sasuke stared at the golden covering and saw his warped reflection.

Sasuke was halfway through eating when Naruto came out of the bathroom. He was dressed in pajamas. His face lit up when he saw the platter of food. Naruto didn’t say anything to Sasuke as he started eating. He was thankful there was the noise coming from the TV drowning out the silence between them. There was a laugh track playing every five minutes in response to a poorly written and poorly timed joke. He glanced at Naruto as Naruto continued to ignore him. He didn’t know why he was uncomfortable again. He didn’t know why Naruto not saying anything to him was making him anxious.

“I’m going to wash up.” Sasuke announced. He stared at Naruto who remained quiet.

When Sasuke came out he saw that the platters were gone and Naruto was laying down on one side of the bed, practically falling off the side he was pressed up against the edge. He was watching TV. Sasuke walked to the alarm on the nightstand.

“I already set it.” Naruto spoke.

Sasuke pulled back his hand. He remembered Naruto telling him he knew the pressures that competitions brought as he competed before. He walked to the other side of the bed and slipped under the covers. He remembered the medals, blue ribbons, and trophies that fell from the box. How envious he was when Naruto said he stopped when things weren’t fun anymore. Sasuke never had fun and the only time he had any trace of what ‘fun’ might be was during piano practice with Hinata. He didn’t enjoy himself. Even winning first place didn’t do anything for him, it just made him sigh in relief. He didn’t want dish soap squeezed in his mouth.

“Naruto.” Sasuke broke the silence between them. “Are you...nervous for tomorrow?”

“No. Why should I be nervous? If you haven’t noticed, I'm really good.”

Sasuke smiled at Naruto’s cocky confidence. He rolled on his side and looked at Naruto’s back. “I am. What if someone is better than us...what if we lose?” He watched as Naruto rolled over and he saw Naruto’s blue eyes staring back at him.

“We’re not going to lose. Even if you make a mistake. I’ll be there to fix it.” Naruto smiled.

His chest ached. Was that all he was able to do? He made a mistake during the piano competition and if Hinata didn’t correct it they would have gotten more points off their score. They only won by a few points. If he made a mistake Naruto would be there to back him up and fix it. He didn’t want to make a mistake. He wanted to be the one who helped fix other’s mistakes.

“Buuut. That implies you’re going to make a mistake, and I do not think you’ll make a mistake.” Naruto continued. It was as if Naruto could read his mind. Naruto’s smile was bright. It was the bright smile he remembered when Naruto first started talking to him. A smile so dazzling it stung Sasuke’s eyes. “Hizashi was right. You’re really good at tennis, Sasuke. I bet if you actually liked tennis you would have already surpassed me.”

“Liar.” Sasuke scoffed.

“No-no! I’m being honest. You’re a genius in your own right, Sasuke. Here. Hold my hand for a second.” Naruto reached his hand out towards Sasuke. It took Sasuke by surprise. He didn’t move. He just kept staring at Naruto’s stretched out hand. “Come on just for a second. I’m not going to bite you.”

Sasuke reached out to hold Naruto’s hand. Slowly at first. His fingers brushed against Naruto's fingers. Their index, middle, ring, and pinky fingers brushed against each other. Sasuke hesitated before he laced their fingers together. Naruto’s fingers were warm and his thumb wrapped around his thumb. He was back under Naruto’s spell. He knew how it happened. It was the smile. His pretty words. The attention he lavished onto him. The flattery as if he read his mind and knew exactly what to say and how to say it. He was bewitched and he would have done anything Naruto asked of him. He didn’t know why he had such an effect on him. Why his chest tightened. Why it felt like butterflies were swirling in his stomach. Naruto’s hands were calloused. They mirrored his own fingers. Years of playing piano and added tennis. His fingers were calloused and hardened. Still, he continued to hold Naruto’s hand and their hands fit so perfectly together.

“Here. I’m giving you some of my strength and confidence!” Naruto explained. Naruto squeezed Sasuke's hand harder and Sasuke yelped. “Just like you gave me strength and confidence on the plane.” Sasuke remembered Naruto’s death grip when they were flying as if Naruto was remembering too. He squeezed Sasuke’s hand with all his strength.

“That hurts!” Sasuke yelped.

“It’s supposed to hurt, transferring strength and confidence is hard work!” Naruto let go of Sasuke’s hand. His fingers throbbed. “There. All done. Now you have strength and confidence. You might not feel it right now but you’ll feel it tomorrow. Just wait and see.” Sasuke pulled his hand back and looked at the lines on his palm. He expected to see a difference in his hand but it looked the same.

“You better not have cursed me.” Sasuke warned as he looked back at Naruto who didn’t stop smiling.

“No. I wouldn’t do that to you. You’re precious to me.” Naruto’s voice was low. It caused Sasuke to become paralyzed for a few moments.

“You’re a spoiled brat.” Sasuke spoke softly before rolling over and facing the wall. Finally breaking the spell Naruto had over him.

*****

It happened. It was their last game on the first day. Sasuke was exhausted. His mind wandered and when he drifted back into consciousness he miscalculated. He swung his racket but swung through the air. The tennis ball soared past him. He watched as Naruto ran, dove, and swung his racket. It struck the tennis ball. Naruto had been gifted when it came to sports. The tennis ball went flying over the net and hit the back corner before going out of bounds. They scored the winning point. He watched as Naruto’s body twisted, his ankle rolled, and he fell forwards.

Sasuke turned to see Hizashi clapping loudly. He watched as Hizashi ran to Naruto who hadn’t gotten up yet from the court. Naruto’s head was down and blonde hair fell over his eyes.

“Wow.” It was the red headed boy he saw in the lobby yesterday. He must have been watching the game from the sidelines. He approached Sasuke. “I knew handicaps existed. I just didn’t think it took the form of a teammate.”

“What?” Sasuke asked.

“The blonde is doing all the work. He won that game single handedly. Aren’t you being a little cruel?” The red head smirked. Now that he was standing so close Sasuke saw that the boy had bottle neck green eyes and eyebrows so thin and sparse they were almost nonexistent. “I was looking forward to when we played against him but...looks like he might not be able to stand.”

The boy was shorter than he was and he was forced to look down at him. Sasuke followed the boy’s eyes and saw that Hizashi had an arm around Naruto’s waist and the other around his shoulder helping him to his feet. Naruto was limping.

“Here I was thinking there was going to be someone who might be able to beat me, but I was worried over nothing.” The red head boy continued smirking before walking away. He bashed into Sauske’s shoulder as he left.

“What’s wrong?” Sasuke asked Hizashi as he looked at Naruto’s right ankle.

“I’m fine. It’s just a little sore.” Naruto commented but Hizashi didn’t let him go. “I can walk.” He protested.

“Then walk.” Hizashi demanded as he let go of Naruto and stepped back. Sasuke watched Naruto. He attempted to walk but the moment he placed any weight on his right foot he winced and shuddered and quickly shifted the weight back to his left foot. Sasuke frowned. It hadn’t clicked in his head the severity of the situation. It was only the first day of the competition they were going into the semifinals.

“We’re going to the hospital to get it looked at. Sasuke, return to the hotel room.” Hizashi spoke as he handed over Naruto’s tennis racket. Sasuke took it and he watched as Hizashi and Naruto left.

“It’s really not that serious, Hizashi.” Naruto protested as Hizashi lead him away.

“Shut up or I’m going to call your mom!” Hizashi threatened.

Was it possible? Naruto was really hurt? He started to feel guilt seeping in. It came through the cracks. His heart thumped. Was it his fault? His stomach twisted. His mind wasn’t in the game. It kept wandering. He was relying on Naruto too much. He never wanted to be in this competition in the first place. Still. He didn’t expect Naruto to get hurt. Still. It wasn’t like he wanted Naruto to get hurt and end up having to go to the hospital. He never asked for Naruto to dive towards the tennis ball he missed and score a point.

Did he?

*****

Sasuke hadn’t slept and he hadn’t eaten. He remained sitting on the hotel bed staring at the digital alarm clock on the nightstand. It was past 9:00 PM when he heard a knock at the door. It snapped him back into consciousness. He opened it to see Naruto sans Hizashi. Sasuke immediately looked at Naruto’s foot to see it was bandaged and Naruto was still limping and in crutches.

“What’s wrong?” Sasuke asked as he stepped aside and watched Naruto enter the room. As soon as Naruto entered the hotel he placed the crutches up against the wall.

“It’s just a sprain. I’ll be fine. I’ve played entire soccer games with a sprained ankle before so I’m not too worried.” Naruto boasted. Sasuke looked at the crutches then back to Naruto.

Sasuke wasn’t sure if Naruto was still being cocky or just saying this to make him feel better. Naruto was holding a bag. He handed the bag to Sasuke and he took it and looked inside. There were medication, ice packs, and bandages. Naruto flopped back on the bed and stared at the ceiling.

“So annoying. Making a fuss over something so stupid.” Naruto huffed.

“I’m sorry.” Sasuke confessed as he sat on the bed. He took the ice pack out and placed it on Naruto’s ankle.

There wasn’t any warning. Sasuke felt his tears spilling over before his brain could even comprehend he was crying. He couldn’t remember the last time he cried but he knew it was because of Naruto and even now he was crying because of Naruto. He couldn’t stop crying. It went from a small hole in the dam, to a total collapse of the dam and water rushing angrily all over. He couldn't stop and he cried out in anguish.

“Sasuke...what’s wrong?” Naruto’s voice was saturated with concern. He could feel Naruto’s hands gripping his shoulders. Sasuke covered his face with his hands and screamed.

“We’re going to lose!” Sasuke cried out. “I can’t lose...I can’t!” He screamed out an inaudible animalistic cry of aggro. “I can’t lose Naruto...I can’t!”

Sasuke could feel Naruto’s arms wrapping around his body and he was being pulled into a hug. At first, Sasuke wanted to rebuke this form of affection but his mind wandered to Naruto’s sprained ankle, and it was Sasuke’s fault for his mind wandering. He wrapped his arms around Naruto and grabbed fistfuls of his shirt from the back. He buried his face in Naruto’s neck and continued to sob. He could feel sweat, snot, and tears rolling down his face and dirtying Naruto. He felt Naruto holding him tighter, harder, and refused to let go. He could feel the heat from Naruto’s body up against him and it was making him sweat more.

“Naruto...I can’t lose! Please help me! We have to win! Please, please, please, Naruto!” Sasuke cried out again. He could hear his mother’s voice. All her words echoing louder, and louder, and louder in his head until she was the only thing he could hear. Her words cut through him and he felt like throwing up.

“Shh. It’s okay, Sasuke. I’m fine. I told you~”

“You’re hurt!” Sasuke interrupted.

“Don’t. Do this.” Naruto answered roughly. His voice was cold and detached against his ear. “This just makes me feel more guilty.”

“Guilty? I should be the guilty one!”

“No. This is my punishment. I was going to throw the competition.” Naruto admitted. The words caused Sasuke to immediately stop crying. He was pulled from his hysterics as quickly as if he was being hypnotized and the magician snapped his fingers to wake him up. Sasuke pushed back. His hands still balled fists of Naruto’s shirt.

Although Naruto admitted his true intentions Sasuke didn’t feel any true remorse or guilt coming from the blonde. Sasuke furrowed his eyebrows and stared at Naruto waiting for an explanation. Naruto read Sasuke’s mind.

“I was going to make a deal with you...to be my friend in exchange for me not throwing the competition. I never expected I’d get a sprained ankle.” Naruto confessed. Sasuke let go of Naruto’s shirt.

“You…” Sasuke shouted and stood up. His face a complete mess. Beat red. He could feel the sweat and snot rolling down his face. He left it. He could feel his blood pressure rising. He had spent the entire day feeling guilty and ashamed. He spent the day alone in the hotel room thinking of worst case scenarios. He spent the remainder of the day thinking about Naruto and thinking of ways to make it up to him. He had just cried hysterically into Naruto’s arms.

How quickly everything went out the window with Naruto’s confession. How easy it was to hate him all over again. It was unbelievable.

“You are a spoiled brat!” Sasuke screamed. Even if Naruto intended on blackmailing him again he couldn’t shake that guilty feeling. If he had just paid attention and tried harder during the match, he could have returned that tennis ball and Naruto wouldn’t have gotten hurt.

“I know.” Naruto admitted and pushed himself up. He grabbed the ice pack and repositioned it on his ankle. His blue eyes appeared darker and they were focused on Sasuke. “That's why I’m telling you the truth...and I wanted to tell you even with a sprained ankle it’s not going to prevent me from winning. We’re going to win, Sasuke.”

“Are you really that cocky?” Sasuke spat. His blood was still boiling. He was fighting back the urge to scream and cry all over again. To throw a tantrum at how maddening Naruto made him. He was all dried up. Just when he thought he could figure him out a curve ball was thrown.

“Yeah.” Naruto smiled smugly. The confidence oozed out of him and it took Sasuke by surprise. It left him breathless. “It’s not like you can beat me.” Sasuke found his face flushing.

“You’re the absolute worst.”

“Isn’t this...partly your fault?” Naruto questioned. His eyes flashed and Sasuke moved backwards. “If you paid a little more attention I~”

“Shhh!” Sasuke hissed. He didn’t want to admit that it was partly his fault. He wanted to harden his heart all over again when it came to Naruto. Naruto was going to blackmail him if he wasn’t injured. How low would Naruto stoop? It was sickening. He needed to distance himself from him as quickly as possible.

“I told you. I’m serious when it comes to competing. If I put my mind and body into something I always see it through, and nobody can beat me.” Naruto hadn’t stopped smiling. There was determination illuminating his eyes. His smile was a sealed contract that reflected his desire to win. Sasuke wondered if it was this unwavering determination that allowed Naruto to overtake him in the class rankings.

Naruto really was composed of only the best parts of his parents. He wondered what would make Naruto crack. Even if he knew what would make Naruto fold he didn’t think he had the confidence to follow through with it, and maybe that was the difference between them. Naruto had the confidence and Sasuke didn’t.

“Prove it. Don’t just say we’ll win, show me that we’ll win!” Sasuke shot back. If this was Naruto’s karma of his bad intentions it was only fitting that Naruto play with a sprained ankle.

Sasuke only cared about winning so that it would satisfy his mother. He hoped with the gold she would allow him to leave the house this summer vacation. He wanted nothing more than to find Jugo and Suigetsu and explain that he wanted to still be friends. In order to do that he needed to win first place.

“Don’t worry...I will. I never go back on my word. When I say something I mean it.”

“You lie so easily I can never tell if what you’re saying is truthful. You’re an awful person, Naruto. A spoiled brat!”

“It’s like you said...I’ll just show you.”

*****

Sasuke watched Naruto like a hawk stalking its prey scurrying around on the ground. He watched Naruto doing his warm up stretches. He was paying particular attention to leg and foot stretches. His foot was still bandaged and even when he walked he placed all his weight onto his left foot. Naruto had elevated his foot and had ice packs on it all night. There was still an air of confidence around Naruto and it was nauseating. He watched as Naruto swung his racket in his hands. He was bored as the competition started for the second day.

It was the semifinals. All the teams that won the first day were competing against each other.

Sasuke’s eyes were glued to the competition but Naruto appeared bored and yawned as he watched the tennis matches.

“Sasuke. Why do you want to win?” Naruto asked. Sasuke glared at him. He didn’t say anything and Naruto continued talking. “Is it for you...or is it for your mother?”

“What do you think? I told you I hate tennis.”

“It’s for your mother...is there anything that you want to do?” Naruto asked.

“No.” Sasuke snapped. Even if there was something Sasuke took an interest in he knew that his mother would hijack it and turn it into another competition. She’d make him hate it.

“Who did you play chess with?” Naruto asked the question again.

“You don’t know them and you’ll never meet them. So why do I have to tell you?” Sasuke snapped. He hated that Naruto kept bringing it up. He felt possessive over Orochimaru. He wanted to keep him hidden. He still didn’t have the guts to tell Karin even though he wanted to tell her to see what she would say.

“I’m jealous.” Naruto answered and turned to stare at him. It caught Sasuke off guard and he pulled away. The intensity of Naruto’s eyes made him uncomfortable. “I went easy on you during that game. If we played again I know I would win.”

“In another year we can play.” Sasuke answered.

“Ah.” Naruto nodded his head. “I have to leave you alone for a year.”

“Mhm. Don’t just say you’ll leave me alone. Show me you’ll leave me alone.”

“Okay.” Naruto leaned forward. His eyes bore deep into Sasuke. His face was so close Sasuke could see his face in vivid detail. “Then in a year, we’ll play.” Sasuke felt his heart pounding. Was Naruto going to listen and follow through with the deal?

“Really?”

“Mhm. I won’t see or talk to you unless I absolutely have to.” Naruto leaned back and flashed a smile. His smile was cool and collected. “But after a year we have to play another game of chess.”

“Don’t tell me...show me.” Sasuke repeated. Naruto was back to being nonchalant.

“If it means we can keep playing. Of course. I’ll do anything.” Naruto slid closer to Sasuke and it caused Sasuke to freeze. He was too close. He felt a jolt running down his spine. He watched as Naruto leaned closer. He held his breath. Naruto’s lips brushed against his ear and he felt a tickle running through his ear, down his spine, through his legs, and tickle his toes as Naruto whispered. “We’re up. Are you ready?”

He didn’t know why he felt weak and breathless.

He watched as Naruto stood up first, he rested the racket on his shoulder, and walked onto the tennis court. This time Sasuke’s head was in the game. His mind hadn’t wondered. He remained sharp, focused, and he moved his body like a well oiled machine. He wondered if his mother would have been proud. They won. They were going to the final round. He watched as the red-haired boy appeared. He had a wicked smile on his lips. His bottle neck green eyes lit up. They were going to be playing against him tonight after a three hour intermission.

“Guess it’s a story that the audience will eat up. Playing with a sprained ankle. He’s still better than you.” The red-haired boy taunted. “You’re still a handicap.”

“We’re teammates. We’re not in competition with each other. What matters is if I’m better than you, and watching you play I can already see I am.” Naruto’s cocky voice came from behind the red-haired boy. “Talk to my teammate again and I’ll break your ankle.” Naruto’s voice was icy.

“Relax, Naruto. It’s just a little psychological warfare. It’s nothing you haven’t seen, or done, before.” The red-haired boy spoke sardonically. He turned his back to Sasuke and faced Naruto.

“You’re not qualified to say my name.” Naruto answered. His face hardened. It was obvious they knew each other. Sasuke didn’t know why he was curious to find out how they knew each other. “Sasuke, escort me to the medics.”

Sasuke didn’t say anything. He held his tongue and left with Naruto.

*****

During the intermission Sasuke had taken Naruto to the medic team where he was given an examination. He did some physical therapy and stretches to make sure he was still cleared to play. Naruto’s foot was rewrapped. He refused to take pain medication. Sasuke continued to watch him closely. The sprained ankle didn’t appear to bother Naruto but it bothered Hizashi and Hizashi was the only one fretting over it.

Hizashi left to get them a light snack and water. Sasuke looked at Naruto.

“You know him?” Sasuke asked, referring to the red-haired boy from before.

“Yea. He’s an expert at shit-talking. He’s all bite and no action.”

“Who is he?”

“His father runs a rival company. At one point my father’s company and his father’s company were going to merge together. The merger never went through and things ended on bad terms. Then. My father’s company merged with your father’s company.” Naruto explained.

Sasuke wanted to ask what his name was but Hizashi returned. He handed them bottles of water and each a parfait. He watched as Hizashi began to fret over Naruto again.

He wondered if Naruto was uncomfortable with people fretting over him when he was sick or injured. He remembered when Naruto came to school wearing a face mask after being home sick. He remembered Naruto saying he was annoyed that his mother fretted over him the entire time and he wanted to return to school as quickly as he could.

“Sasuke, you played better today than yesterday. I expect the same level during the final game.” Hizashi lectured. Sasuke nodded his head. “You’ll be playing against Suna. They won the championship last year. We’ll win it this year.”

“There’s no need to lecture us, Hizashi.” Naruto spoke. He was being cocky again. So overconfident and brazen. “You said it yourself that you wouldn’t have entered us into the competition if you didn’t think we’d win first place. Right, Sasuke? We’re going to win.”

“Yeah.” Sasuke answered and nodded his head.

*****

Sasuke was envious of Naruto playing with a sprained ankle. He was envious that Naruto acted as if he wasn’t playing with a handicap. During the final game, he kept looking at Naruto’s right ankle. If it wasn’t for the bandages wrapped on his right ankle he couldn’t tell which one was the injured foot. Naruto used both feet to their full potential. He wondered if Naruto was able to turn off the pain. He refused pain medication and he wondered if it was to prevent the side effects of drowsiness and confusion that often came with pain medication. Side effects that could interfere with the tennis match.

The last game was brutal. The red headed teen was confident for a reason. It forced Sasuke to work harder. He wanted to win. He wanted to show the red headed teen, even if he didn’t want to be here, he wasn’t a hindrance to Naruto. He could stand on the same level as them and hold his own. He took every single thing he learned in tennis practice and used it. It came forward. His teamwork with Naruto flourished on the tennis court. Even if he missed the tennis ball Naruto was there and if Naruto missed a tennis ball Sasuke was there.

The winning point was scored by Naruto. It was the first time he witnessed Naruto be soaked in sweat. His blonde hair was soaked. It dripped down his face and rolled off his jawline. It caused his shirt and tennis shorts to stick to him. He saw the veins in Naruto’s hands and forearms becoming prominent. The muscles in his legs flexed. It was the first time Sasuke saw Naruto in such a state. He couldn’t take his eyes off him.

They had won. No. Even though this was the best game he played. Naruto had won.

He knew Naruto played better. He knew if it wasn’t for Naruto’s natural skill and talent they wouldn’t have won. Even with a sprained ankle Naruto still outperformed every other competitor. He saw the redhead throw his racket in rage to the tennis court when he lost and stormed out. Naruto ran a hand through his hair slicking his blonde hair back. He flashed a smug smile and rested his racket on his shoulder. Naruto hadn’t paid the redhead any attention.

“See?” Naruto spoke smugly to Sasuke. “I told you we’d win.”

Hizashi’s loud voice cheered and praised them. Sasuke nodded his head. He didn’t know why even though they had won, even though they placed first, even though they would take home the gold. He felt an emptiness inside him. It was in his chest. A loneliness that grew whenever he looked at Naruto’s smiling face. It ached.

“You spoiled brat.” Sasuke murmured and looked away. It only caused Naruto to toss his head back and laugh.

*****

Sasuke lay in bed. He could hear Naruto stirring beside him. It ruffled the blankets. He was wide awake and staring through the darkness. His eyes adjusted and he could see the outline of the room. His eyes glanced in Naruto’s direction. He wondered if Naruto was sleeping or if he was awake. It was their last night together. They would be checking out early tomorrow morning and going home.

“Sasuke? Are you awake?” Naruto whispered. It startled Sasuke.

“Mhm.”

“I’ve decided to quit tennis. It’s become boring.” Naruto announced. “I figured I’d tell you now.”

That ache in Sasuke’s chest grew larger. Naruto was quitting tennis lessons. Was this because he was going to leave him alone for a year?

He wanted Naruto to leave him alone and yet at this moment he didn’t want Naruto to leave him alone. When he thought about it he knew Naruto being out of his life was for the better. He didn’t trust Sakura, Kiba, and Ino. He saw the viciousness in their eyes. How they were during the sleepover when the collar was fastened around his neck. He didn’t forget. How Naruto allowed it to continue until ice cream and syrup were poured all over him in the bathroom. He would never forget.

He didn’t trust Naruto. He knew Naruto was going to revert to that spoiled brat who only thought about himself and nobody else. Even if he was fine now he’d change within a blink of an eye.

He didn’t say anything. He knew it was for the best and he wanted to go home as quickly as possible. To get away from Naruto as quickly as possible.

“I told you I would leave you alone for the next year and I’ll keep my word. But...” Naruto spoke and moved closer to Sasuke. “Are you sure you won’t miss me?” Naruto was less than a foot away and he stopped.

“I’m sure.” Sasuke snapped.

“I deserve that…” Naruto’s voice dropped. “I hope during this year you’ll see that I really am sorry, and I really do want us to be friends in the future. Just watch. I’ll leave you alone. Next year you have to play another game of chess with me.”

“Mhm.” Sasuke agreed. “Okay.”

“G’night, Sasuke.” Naruto whispered. He didn’t say anything else. He yawned and stretched like a cat and repositioned himself.

Sasuke didn’t say anything else. He couldn’t sleep that night. He kept telling himself this was the best thing for him, yet even though he kept telling himself that, a voice from the back of his head questioned him, and asked him if it really was for the best.

*****

“Hizashi called me. You took the tennis competition seriously.” His mother began speaking the moment he entered the house. He rolled his suitcase behind him. “It’s what I wanted to say. After the phone call with Hizashi, it appears that isn’t the case.”

Sasuke clenched his jaw. Her face was hardened. Her eyes were cold. As bleak, and dark, as a winter’s night. An icy tundra for hundreds of miles in all directions. His mother was beautiful when she smiled. He wished he was able to make her smile. He won and it still wasn’t enough. He thought if he won she would have backed off and given him some space. He hadn’t reached her expectations.

“You’re not cut out for tennis. Maybe you’ll be more suited for golf.” Her words were sharp. They cut through him like a thousand needles. Sasuke started walking away. “Why can’t you beat Naruto at least once? Hizashi told me Naruto played with a sprained ankle and carried you to victory.”

Sasuke stiffened. He tightened his hold on his suitcase. He stopped walking.

“I beat him in chess.” Sasuke defended.

“Chess? Do you think I care about a board game behind closed doors? What’s the merit in a child’s game of chess? Was it in a competition for the world to see?” Her voice grew louder with each question she hurled at him. It echoed around the entrance. The chandelier above them shook as her voice reverberated around. He wished the chandelier would drop and crush them both.

“No.” Sasuke answered her rhetorical question.

“Exactly. So why even bring it up as if it constitutes anything.”

“Mother.” Itachi appeared in the doorway. He moved around the world like a ghost. His movements were so soft and silent as if he wasn’t even walking, just hovering and gliding like an ethereal being. “He won first place. It was doubles. The point is teamwork. Why should he be pitted against his teammate?”

“Do you know how much your father had to sacrifice to get this merger with Minato Namikaze?”

“What does that have to do with Sasuke?” Itachi rebuked. Sasuke wasn’t used to this Itachi. The Itachi he remembered had listened dutifully and followed whatever command their mother barked beautifully. The Itachi in front of him challenged his mother.

“Sasuke is losing to him in tennis, and in class ranking. It’s insulting. The least he can do after your father suffered such embarrassment is to beat him!”

“You want me to take over father’s position with the company. What do you want Sasuke to do?” Itachi questioned. Mikoto looked stunned and she looked at Sasuke as if noticing he was there the whole time. Her eyes raked over him like a piece of fruit she was inspecting in the grocery store for any bruises or blemishes.

“I haven’t decided yet. Mito says he has a promising music career. He clearly isn’t going to make it as a tennis player, and with his slipping academics it’s not like I expect him to be a successful doctor or lawyer.”

It was difficult to breathe again. The air felt thin as if he were hiking on top of a mountain that jutted past the clouds. He felt woozy and he pulled his suitcase closer to him. He fought back the urge to collapse to the floor. He felt lightheaded and faint every time his future was discussed. His mother didn’t have a response on what she wanted Sasuke to do or accomplish. This time she mentioned a music career.

“If he’s going to focus on music. Why are you hellbent on forcing him to focus on academics and sports?” Itachi challenged.

“Itachi!” Mikoto yelled. “Why are you aggravating me? You’re supposed to be the good son! The son I don’t have to worry about why do you keep challenging me?

“Because, mother. I don’t want what happened to Shisui to happen to Sasuke.” Itachi answered bluntly.

If they knew the reason why Shisui took his own life it wasn’t talked about. His death was swept under the rug. He thought his brother would have forgotten Shisui. Remembering how openly Orochimaru cried and how stoic his brother was at the funeral. Sasuke thought Itachi was going to sweep Shisui under the rug and walk away. Maybe he didn’t know his brother at all. It was clear Itachi hadn’t forgotten about Shisui and he brought him up every chance he got.

The way Mikoto was staring at Itachi, it was clear to Sasuke that Mikoto didn’t know Itachi anymore either.

“Sasuke, go to your room!” His mother screamed. She had reached her boiling point. Her face was a mixture of green and red as if she was fighting back the urge to scream bloody murder, or throw up, and caught somewhere in the middle. It frightened him. He didn’t say another word and left with his suitcase.

*****

Sasuke didn’t know what to do after he unpacked, showered, and tidied up his room. He felt like he should be doing something but anxiety swirled in his stomach and it left him paralyzed with his thoughts racing. He felt hot and cold flashes as he sat at his desk. He heard a knock at the door. He turned to see it was opened and Itachi had appeared. He didn’t know what to say to his brother. This was the first time since he’s been back that Itachi approached him. Then again. They never had the type of brotherly relationship he saw televised.

“Congratulations on winning the tennis competition.”

“Mhm.” Sasuke answered.

“What is Naruto like? Is he as amazing as our mother thinks?” Itachi asked.

“He’s a spoiled brat.” Sasuke answered. It was the first thought that ran through his mind whenever he thought of Naruto. His smiling smug face appeared in his mind. “He’s selfish and only thinks about himself. He’s mean and heartless. I hate him.”

“Ah.” Itachi nodded his head. “So he’s your rival?”

Sasuke shrugged. He didn’t know what his relationship with Naruto was but hearing the word rival clicked inside him. They were equals. Since the merger. Sasuke had stood on equal ground as Naruto. It was just his dumb luck he wasn’t brilliant enough to beat Naruto. He nodded his head. He wanted to hate Naruto and it was easy to hate him when he thought of all the cruel things he’s done to him.

Now all he wanted to do was dethrone him and take back the first place spot.

“Yeah...I guess he is.” Sasuke clarified. “My rival.” It was the perfect word to describe his relationship with Naruto.

“Naruto Namikaze...wasn’t he one of the children in the boxcar?” Itachi asked. He looked like he was recalling the headlines and news broadcasts from the time. Sasuke nodded his head.

“It must be hard for him.” Itachi sympathized. “He lost a friend that day.” A look of subtle sadness painted his brother’s features. Was he thinking of Shisui again? His eyes softened and the corners of his lips turned down. His brother looked human again. Sasuke’s stomach hurt. Yes. Naruto was in the boxcar. He wasn’t a good person. He was a spoiled brat who got away with everything.

“Who are your other friends?” Itachi asked.

“Karin Uzumaki and Hinata Hyuga.” Sasuke answered automatically.

“Hinata...she is Neji’s cousin. Didn’t she fall down the stairs and break her neck?”

“Y-yeah.” Sasuke stared at Itachi. How did he know so much? He was away at university studying. He hadn’t been back in two years. How did he know so much about the kids in his class?

“Who are your other friends?” Itachi asked curiously. “The ones our mother doesn’t want you to be friends with.”

“Jugo and Suigetsu.” Sasuke didn’t bother saying their last names because their last names weren’t prestigious. They were commoners as their mother would say. Itachi nodded his head and smiled. He looked content as if a weight was lifted off his shoulders.

“That’s good.” Itachi turned to leave when Sasuke stopped him.

“Wait. When you said you were worried that what happened to Shisui would happen to me. What did you mean?”

“Oh that? I only said it to stop our mother’s irrational thinking and give her some perspective.” Itachi spoke to him with his back still turned. He couldn’t see the expression on his face. "You can leave the house tomorrow. I've spoken to mother you're not under house arrest. You can see Jugo and Suigetsu."

“Do you know why Shisui~”

“I’ll see you at dinner.” Itachi cut Sasuke off and left his room quickly.

*****

It was his fifteenth birthday. He wasn’t allowed to invite Jugo or Suigetsu. Karin remained overseas at the music camp. Hinata was dressed nicely and seated at the table. Her hair had gotten longer. It was past her shoulders. Her bangs were cut bluntly across her forehead. He expected Naruto to appear but he hadn’t. He didn’t know why his eyes kept darting to the dining room doorway.

“Naruto said he wasn’t feeling well.” Hinata spoke as if to clarify why Naruto was absent. Sasuke smiled and chuckled to himself. Naruto was telling the truth when he said he’d leave him alone for the next year. “We’ll have to celebrate properly when Karin comes back.” Hinata lowered her voice and Sasuke smiled at her words. “With Jugo and Suigetsu as well.”

“Thank you...for being here, Hinata.” Sasuke spoke quietly. He didn’t know why he felt nervous. His chest ached. He looked at her wrist and paused. She was wearing the cowrie bracelet. Looking at it now he saw what his mother saw. He was amazed it hadn’t fallen apart with how cheaply it was made. “I’ve always hated my birthday, and I hate celebrating it. But being here with you makes me...happy. Thank you.” He smiled warmly at Hinata.

Hinata’s face erupted into a bloom of reds and she waved her hands nervously in front of her. “No, thank you for inviting me. You don’t know how much I appreciate you, Sasuke. And how much I enjoy you being in my life!”

Sasuke felt warmth inside him. Hinata’s words weren’t just comforting, they were soothing. She spoke with such honesty it was hard not to believe her. Staring at her he felt anger wash over him. Anger at how Sakura could have pushed Hinata down the stairs, and Naruto after witnessing Hinata break her neck and bash her head open, left her to bleed out, and not tell anyone. He was enraged with Naruto all over again.

“Sasuke...I’ve been meaning to ask. What do you think about Naruto...or what is your relationship with him?”

First he was angry that Naruto was doing what he said he’d do: leaving him alone. Second, for not showing up to his birthday. Third, for doing what he’d done to Hinata without any guilt or remorse. And finally for getting away with everything and living his life as if nothing had happened at all. As if people like him and Hinata were insignificant specks of dust.

“Hinata. What do you remember the day of the accident...the day you fell down the stairs? Have you ever thought about maybe it wasn’t an accident...and maybe instead you were pushed?”

Chapter Text

And came and shot the two dead boys

 

Hinata’s eyes were the first thing people noticed. Two rounded opals, upturned eyes, behind lush eyelashes. Her eyes were on loan from a celestial goddess. A light beaconing amongst the black heavens. Before Sasuke asked the question there was a sparkle in her eyes, a glint of happiness, and an unwavering smile on her lips. When Sasuke postulated that Hinata might have been pushed down the stairs he watched as the sparkle in her eye dimmed until it was blown out. Her eyes darkened. A total lunar eclipse. Her smile turned forced as if being held up by twine. It looked painful. She blinked as if she misheard.

“What did you say?” Hinata asked for clarification. Her appearance chilled as if mimicking the coldness of the universe.

“What if you were pushed?” Sasuke answered seriously. It was the second time he broached this topic. The first time was when he was introduced to Hinata at the country club and he asked her if it really was an accident.

“I...wasn’t.” Hinata spoke briskly. She averted her eyes. The smile left her face completely. A grimace took its place. She sounded like she was trying to convince herself that she wasn’t pushed and not convince Sasuke. “Why would...why would someone push me?” She sounded like she was in blissful denial. “It’s absurd.”

It’s absurd? Sasuke didn’t allow Hinata a breather.

“You said the last thing you remember was arguing with Naruto...you don’t remember anything else?” Sasuke pried. He leaned over. “It means you could have been pushed. Right?”

“Are you saying...Naruto pushed me?” Hinata asked. She gave a frightening expression. The lines on her forehead deepened as her rounded eyebrows furrowed together. Her eyes widened and sunk back into her skull. She gave the expression that clearly said even if Naruto was the one who pushed her she wouldn’t believe it.

“No.” Sasuke answered quietly. “Not, Naruto.” He was on the cusp of telling Hinata it was Sakura but the words were trapped in the back of his throat and his tongue wasn’t cooperating anymore.

“Then...who?” Hinata asked desperately. She reached over and grabbed the sleeve of his dress jacket. It was a new tailored suit, the one his mother wanted him to wear for special occasions as he outgrew the last one.

Before Sasuke could answer they were interrupted by his family. His eyes shifted to see his mother and father coming into the dining room. The lights were immediately turned off by Itachi as his mother led them in singing ‘happy birthday’. In his mother’s hands was a handmade birthday cake with fifteen lit candles. The glow of the candles twisted his mother’s expression as she continued singing.

Sasuke watched as Hinata let go of Sasuke’s sleeve and withdrew into herself. Her eyes raced back and forth as if combing through her memory of that day. He watched as Hinata’s demeanor shifted once more into the smiling girl from before he broached this topic with her. The air around her warmed and the glint in her eyes returned. She started clapping. Hinata could outperform him and it pained him.

Sasuke turned his attention to his nuclear family feeling hollowness inside his chest. His heart echoed inside his ribcage. He didn’t want to be the messenger. He just wanted to sow the seeds inside Hinata’s brain and let her uncover the truth for herself. He just didn’t expect things to turn out so devastatingly. If he had known the outcome from him knocking over one domino he never would have brought up this topic with Hinata. Much like the flap of a butterfly wing could trigger a tsunami across the world that domino he pushed over brought with it the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

Sasuke didn’t have a wish. He closed his eyes and blew out the candles.

*****

Sasuke had forgotten the conversation he had with Hinata about the possibility of someone pushing her down the stairs instead of her tripping and falling down the stairs. It was done on complete impulse fueled by his rage towards Naruto. He completely forgot about the conversation and didn’t think there were any repercussions from sowing the seeds of doubt. The new school year began.

Much to his surprise, Naruto had pulled himself from the race for student council, withdrawing his application for class president, and so the default votes went to Sasuke. He knew in the back of his mind if Naruto hadn’t withdrawn he would have won the election. He pushed the thought to the back of his head and tried to forget about it.

It was the second week of the new school year. School had ended and Sasuke had just finished helping a teacher staple packets together for chemistry. He had just arrived at his locker when he felt someone pushing him from behind.

“You’re a dead man!” Ino yelled. Her hands were small and barely did any damage. Sasuke turned and looked down at her. He was almost a foot taller than her. He had another growth spurt over the summer and Ino looked like she barely grew at all. She remained the shortest girl in their grade.

“I’m a dead man?” Sasuke mocked and glared down at her.

“You told Hinata she was pushed down the stairs!” Ino lowered her voice. They were alone in the hallway. It had already been an hour since school ended. Ino remained cautious. Her eyes slanted into two compressed emeralds.

“So?” Sasuke recalled the brief conversation he had with Hinata on his birthday.

“She thinks one of us pushed her!” Ino raged as if throwing caution to the wind. Sasuke looked at her. She had cut her hair into a sharp bob with a side fringe. There were highlights throughout her hair that added dimension. The style made her neck look long and slender. The hairstyle suited her.

“So? If you didn’t want people to find out why did you tell me in the first place?” Sasuke turned back and opened up his locker.

“I did it so you’d leave Naruto alone. I told you to warn you what could happen to you. You better watch your back. We all know you were the only one who spoke to Hinata about this.” Ino spoke wildly. She leaned up against the locker next to his and kept her accusatory gaze on him. She had an adidas duffle bag around her shoulder. She looked like she was on her way to the dance studio.

He wanted to ask Ino how long she waited stalking his locker but he thought against it.

“It worked. I am leaving Naruto alone and he’s leaving me alone.” Sasuke spat. “If Hinata is remembering what does that have to do with me?”

“Hinata talked to Naruto. She asked him about the day of the accident. She said she’s been having nightmares about it and she thinks one of us pushed her. She told Naruto everything!”

“This isn’t my problem! What you guys did was a crime!” Sasuke stuffed his bag with notebooks and textbooks before throwing a strap over his shoulder. “If I were you I’d start writing a statement you’re going to share in court. Maybe they’ll go easier on you during sentencing.”

Sasuke walked away leaving Ino behind. Apparently, even though the conversation was done for Sasuke it wasn’t over for Ino and she hurried after him.

“Do you actually think we’re going to be punished through the court of law?” Ino asked as she caught up with him. “Do you know who my father is?” Sasuke glanced at Ino. He didn’t know who her father was. “He’s the commissioner of police.”

“You think you have some immunity or something?” Sasuke shot back. He was in a foul mood. He hadn’t thought about the bigger picture. He was beginning to realize how the system was rigged. He reached the front of the school when he stopped walking. Exiting the main office was a familiar red-haired teen.

A memory of the tennis competition flashed across his mind of Naruto exchanging words with the red-haired teen. How they spoke familiarly with one another and Naruto later admitting he had known him. How this nameless red-haired boy’s father was in talks with Minato Namikaze to merge their companies together. How the deal soured and fizzled away. The way Naruto spoke and acted was as if Naruto washed his hands of this red-haired teen.

“Ah.” The red-haired boy felt someone staring at him and he caught Sasuke’s gaze. “I didn’t expect to run into you so soon.”

The red-haired boy walked up to Sasuke and Ino. Unconsciously Sasuke tightened his hold on his bag’s strap. His knuckles turned white. He felt it. The air thinned. A powerful aura of brutality was being emitted from this teen and it was frightening. Sasuke unconsciously stopped breathing and he cringed as if he heard nails scraping across a chalkboard.

“What are you doing here?” Ino interrupted. Again they spoke with familiarity.

“We decided to transfer back.” The red-haired boy spoke with a cruel smile. Even though he was shorter than Sasuke, his presence filled the main entrance and spilled out into the corridors of the school.

“Why?” Ino asked. Sasuke sensed Ino tensing up. Whatever the relationship was, it was strained. It was the same reaction Naruto had during the tennis competition except Naruto was in control and confident.

“I got bored.” The red-haired boy lolled and his half-lidded eyes rolled to stare at Ino.

Ino crossed her arms. It gave the illusion that she didn’t care but the reality was it gave her security as if putting up a barrier. “Oh?” Ino’s voice shifted back into being sharp. Apparently, she knew the translation of 'I got bored’. “You were expelled from boarding school?”

“Something like that.” The red-haired boy didn’t deny it but didn’t agree either. He shifted his eyes back to Sasuke and he pointed at him. “Sasuke Uchiha, right?”

“You know him?” Ino balked. Her question was directed at Sasuke but it was the red-haired boy who answered.

“We met at the tennis competition. Naruto didn’t tell you?” He kept staring at Sasuke even though he had answered Ino’s question. Sasuke felt two sets of eyes on him and he froze. Sasuke was able to see that everything the red-haired teen was wearing was designer and looked brand new as if it was the first time he was wearing it.

“No? Why would he mention something as insignificant as that?” Ino snorted. “It’s not like Naruto is your friend, remember?”

It was the first time that Sasuke saw the red-haired teen frown. It was twisted with contempt as if he had been insulted. He paused and then a cold laugh was emitted from his lips. He rolled his eyes and ran a hand through his hair.

“Well, that won’t due. He seems to have forgotten and maybe I should refresh his memory. We used to be very good friends, very close. Unless.” The red-haired teen pressed his index finger to Sasuke’s chest. There was weight and strength with that jab and a small dull pain emitted across his chest. “Are you telling me someone like this replaced me?”

“No! Sasuke hates Naruto!” Ino defended. She slapped Gaara’s hand away from Sasuke as if she had become his protector.

It was happening again. Sasuke wasn’t speaking. Others were speaking for him. He was willing himself not to vanish. He remembered Orochimaru telling him he needed to speak more. He wanted to speak but his mouth was cemented shut. There was something wicked about this teen and it twisted Sasuke’s intestines. He knew this teen was very twisted, rotten to the core, and very powerful. Someone that he was no match for he could barely handle Naruto.

Whoever he was and whatever relationship he had with Naruto, Sasuke wanted no part of it.

“Really? That’s perfect. Why don’t you hurry up and tell Naruto I’m back.” His twisted smile refocused on Ino. Gaara looked at the gold and diamond-encrusted watch around his wrist. “Ah. I have to finish registering. I lied and said I needed to use the bathroom. It was just an excuse to stretch my legs. Any longer and they’ll think I’m constipated. Ciao.”

“I’m not your messenger. He’ll figure it out himself tomorrow. Stupid.” Ino mumbled obscenities. “I hope everyone thinks you can’t shit, asshole.”

“Who was that?” Sasuke asked. The moment the red-haired teen left his sight and returned to the main office he regained the ability to speak.

“Gaara Sabaku. Out of the three siblings, he’s the worst. Naruto can’t be his friend again...he can’t!” Ino spoke with hatred spewing out of her mouth. The possibility of them becoming friends must have washed over her. “Great. Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse this asshole shows up! Fucking great.”

He wanted to know what Gaara’s relationship with Naruto entailed, but he didn’t want to ask the question. He didn’t want to sound like he was taking an interest in Naruto.

“If bad shit starts happening to you...you have nobody to blame but yourself!” Ino threatened. She reverted back to the conversation they were having yet it also alluded to the fact that Gaara was enrolling in their school.

“Are you warning me again?” Sasuke asked with a smile. “I thought you hated me.”

“I do!”

“If you hate me so much why do you keep warning me?” Sasuke turned his attention to Ino. He watched as her face flushed. She had warned him multiple times even with her warnings it didn’t stop the doom that followed. “It’s not like your warnings have actually helped in any way.”

“I feel guilty. I don’t want to owe you anything!” Ino admitted.

“Guilty?”

“The sleepover.” Those two words caused Sasuke to remember.

Naruto crouched on the bedroom floor watching the scene unfurl. Ino with her headphones over her ears on the couch. While Kiba and Sakura held the leash that was attached to the collar around Sasuke’s neck. Walking him around the bedroom as if they were in a competitive dog show. Him on all fours feeling the weight of sheer humiliation on his shoulders.

“You’re not a good person.” Sasuke seethed. His blood froze over. He had become as cold and rigid as an iceberg. He remembered the strength he had when he yanked Ino’s headphones off at the art museum in Hawaii. His face hardened. “You’re good at standing and watching things happen. You try to pretend you’re a good person just because you weren’t participating. But you’re not. You're just as guilty as the ones participating...no...you’re worse than the ones participating!”

Ino’s face turned as white as a ghost. Her eyes widened. All expression was wiped clean and she reverted back to a little girl again. She didn’t say anything and the two stared at each other. Sasuke didn’t know what he expected Ino to say but looking at her expression caused his chest to ache. It didn’t make him feel any better and it didn’t make him feel superior. Ino has always been a wildcard. She was the most dangerous one because he didn’t know what she’d do. He’d much prefer her to never speak to him again.

Sasuke opened the front door with Ino trailing behind him and as if on cue a torrential downpour started. The two stood on top of the five stone stairs that led down. There was a stone awning above the stone steps that lead down. Both their eyes trailed up towards the grey clouds that only darkened as time went by. He opened his backpack just as he watched Ino take a step to leave.

“You didn’t bring an umbrella?” Sasuke asked and pulled out his umbrella from his bag.

“No.” Ino paused with her back to him.

“Why not just wait a bit, you're going to be drenched.”

“I have to go to dance.” Ino answered stubbornly. Sasuke looked at the beautifully manicured grounds. There were patches of flowers, hedges that were cut into animals, and a stone path that led to the road. The ground had been assaulted with so much rain it puddled and pooled instantly.

Sasuke looked at the duffle bag around Ino’s shoulder.

The only thing Ino was deeply passionate about was dancing. He remembered it was Ino who confessed to the teacher that Kiba was the one to deface his desk. She stated it was because she was at risk of losing her solo and being bumped from the recital. Ino had cleared his name. He thought about Ino saying she felt guilty and didn’t want to owe him anything.

He sighed. “Here. Take my umbrella.”

Ino turned around and looked at the umbrella in his outstretched hand. She looked up and hesitated. “Why are you giving me this?”

“Maybe because I envy you a little.” Sasuke admitted.

“Huh?” The shock was apparent on Ino’s face.

“You’ve been passionate with your dancing, it's commendable. You sold out your friend so you wouldn’t be bumped from your solo. You’ll run to practice in a torrential downpour. I never felt that way about anything.” Sasuke admitted honestly. He wasn’t sure why he was being so honest with Ino. He went from yelling at her and calling her the worst amongst all of them to lending her his umbrella. He didn’t blame Ino for being so cautious and hesitant. Ino bit her lip and her eyes turned thoughtful as if deconstructing his words.

“Alright.” Ino reached out and grabbed the umbrella. “I’m not going to say thank you.”

Sasuke smiled and didn’t say anything. He watched as Ino opened up the umbrella and dashed out into the rainfall. She didn’t turn back. He sighed again and leaned against the building with his arms crossed. He continued watching the clouds that only darkened even more. He heard the rumblings of thunder in the distance. He was thinking about his options when the front door opened and Sasuke’s stomach sank once more.

Gaara appeared but he wasn’t alone. Ino mentioned there were three siblings in total. The Sabaku siblings appeared together and it looked like they walked out of a magazine. If royalty existed it felt like they were of royal blood. It was the first time that Sasuke noticed just how attractive Gaara was. His skin was smooth and poreless as if he skipped the awkwardness of pimples and breakouts of puberty. His ears were pierced in multiple places but it didn’t look tacky.

His sister was taller than Sasuke and he glanced at her feet. She was in heels he guessed if she wasn’t in heels they would be the same height. She had the body of a runway model and she carried herself as such. Her neck was long and her dirty-blonde hair was styled into two messy buns on top of her head. She had the same shallow green eyes as Gaara. Her lips were swollen and pouted. Jewelry covered her neck and wrists with rings on her fingers. It didn’t look excessive on her everything looked right.

The brother was taller than Sasuke, taller than Temari. He looked as if he played defense. His shoulders were wide and there was a rugged handsomeness. He looked as if he were a person of few words. His hair the color of aged mahogany was messy but styled as if it were done purposefully, and his eyes an earthy brown. He gave the air of an authentic middle child.

He watched as all three of their faces turned into identical frowns of annoyance at the sky. The thunder had crept closer. Another bang of thunder rippled. He thought they would leave without noticing him as when the door opened it hid him from view. He remained leaning against the wall without a word. He watched as Gaara turned around as if sensing his presence. His face lit up.

“You again.” Gaara spoke with a smile. His siblings turned and looked at Sasuke as if he were a new exhibit at a zoo. “You didn’t bring an umbrella?”

“Apparently, not.” Sasuke answered rigidly.

“Are you going to walk home in this weather?” Gaara asked. As he spoke a crack of lightning lit up the sky followed by the booming sound of thunder. Sasuke wanted to wait until the rain let up but it appeared the opposite was happening.

“Let’s go.” His sister urged. “The driver is here.” He watched as the sister and brother ran out into the downpour towards a large black SUV.

“Want us to bring you home?” Gaara asked. He hadn’t budged.

“Why are you offering?” Sasuke asked. He knew there was an ulterior motive, he just didn’t know what.

“Truthfully? I know it’ll make my siblings mad.” Gaara answered. “And I want to know your relationship with Naruto.”

“Fine. Let’s go.” Sasuke exhaled.

He didn’t know why he agreed so readily. He thought about clearing any misunderstanding Gaara had about his relationship with Naruto so he wouldn’t be caught in the middle. The two ran the short distance through the manicured lawn, across the stone pathway, through the torrential downfall. By the time they entered the SUV they were drenched.

“Fuck.” Gaara exhaled as he sat in the seat next to Sasuke. His siblings were in the back of the SUV. “Why didn’t you warn us it was going to rain?” He asked the driver. The way Gaara spoke was as if he were speaking down to the driver but holding back due to Sasuke being present.

“My apologies young master. The storm was not expected to hit until later tonight.” The driver apologized.

“You should have brought us umbrellas!” Gaara argued.

“My apologies, young master. Next time I will be more prepared.” The driver answered.

“We’re giving my classmate a ride home. Where do you live?” Gaara asked and both tone and attitude changed when he looked at Sasuke.

“The Oaks neighborhood.” Sasuke answered.

“In Naruto’s neighborhood?” Gaara asked. Sasuke’s stomach hurt. Sasuke gave the driver his address. Gaara kept watching Sasuke as they drove away. “So. What is your relationship with Naruto?”

“There isn’t any.”

“You two were in a tennis competition.” Gaara remarked. “There’s something.”

“I no longer play tennis. I was only enrolled in tennis because some olympian was doing lessons at the country club. I now play golf.” Sasuke answered succinctly. “The only relationship I have with Naruto is that his father and my father are business partners.”

“Ah~” Gaara made the one-syllable word stretch out with inflections of tone. “So your father was foolish enough to jump onto a sinking ship.” Sasuke’s jaw unconsciously clenched.

Sasuke didn’t say anything and his silence only seemed to provoke Gaara. “Don’t tell me you didn’t know that the Namikaze’s business was floundering?” Gaara asked with mock shock.

“It’s not. The last two years there have been record numbers.” Sasuke answered calmly. He wondered if what Gaara was saying was truthful or if he was just needling to get a response from him. Regardless if his father’s company didn’t merge they would have gone bankrupt. Did it matter if two sinking ships merged into one strong ship?

“It’s all in the past. So there isn’t any relationship between you two?”

“No.” Sasuke answered bluntly. “Ask anyone...ask Karin.”

“Karin also attends?” Gaara’s sister asked from the back of the seat. He hadn’t expected her to sound so eager and hopeful. It was hard for people to hate Karin and this wasn’t an exception. The sister appeared to genuinely like Karin.

“Yes.” Sasuke answered.

Gaara introduced his siblings. Temari and Kankuro. The intensity he felt back at school in the main room had vanished. Gaara appeared laidback as if he was putting on a show before. It left Sasuke feeling uneasy and yet there was a familiarity about everything.

“Our family along with the Uzumaki family have long had a partnership. Our father’s company is an entertainment and PR corporation and a top funder to the Uzumaki arts. Kankuro and I attended the same school as Naruto while Temari and Karin attended the all girls private school.” Gaara filled in the blanks for Sasuke.

“Until daddy shipped us off to boarding school when he remarried.” Temari’s shrill voice of resentment filtered from the backseat.

It sounded as if the step-children were shipped off to boarding school while the newlyweds had a two year honeymoon. It was a trope he read about in the endless books his mother assigned but he hadn’t thought it a reality. Sasuke swallowed. He wasn’t sure how to respond so he remained silent.

“It’s alright. We’re back.” Gaara spoke with a smile. “And we have full use of the condo. Sasuke you should come over and hangout with us this Friday.”

“My schedule won’t allow it.” Sasuke answered truthfully.

“Why not?” Gaara asked harshly. It clicked. He wondered why he was getting a familiar feeling in the pit of his stomach when he was speaking to Gaara. It was the same feeling he had when he spoke to Naruto. How Gaara could move from a smile and being easygoing to becoming cold and harsh the second things didn’t go his way.

“I am preparing for an upcoming piano competition.” Sasuke answered. He turned to hold Gaara’s gaze. “Mito Uzumaki is my piano teacher.” He clarified. “I’ll be at her house.”

“Karin’s house?” Temari asked.

“Mhm.” Sasuke answered.

The reason he gave was valid and Gaara didn’t find any holes. The answer satisfied Gaara and he felt the rigidness soften and the smile return to his lips.

“Next time. You must come over. I want to become friends with you.” Gaara spoke candidly.

“We’ve only just met.” Sasuke’s voice was strained. Internally he was screaming ‘no’ repeatedly. He had managed to shake Naruto off but he was replaced with a red-haired version.

“Mhm.” Gaara nodded his head in agreement.

“You want to be his friend?” Temari asked Gaara. She had picked up interest. Temari had reacted as Ino reacted when Gaara said ‘I got bored’. It translated into something Sasuke didn’t understand. It caused Sasuke to believe ‘friend’ was coded more as a ‘play toy’ and not at all like a real friendship.

“Something like that.” Gaara confirmed Sasuke’s suspicions. She giggled.

The conversation petered off as the SUV pulled out in front of the gate of Sasuke’s house.

“Thank you for the ride.” Sasuke spoke politely.

“I’ll see you tomorrow at school. I hope you’ll take care of me.” Gaara answered with a smile.

*****

“Dammit.” Karin slammed her lunch tray down. Flecks of food flew in all directions. “You should stay away from the Sabaku siblings.” Karin hastily spoke as she sat in the chair next to him. “Especially that brat Gaara.”

“I’m trying.” Sasuke admitted no sooner had he finished speaking did a tray appear in front of him. Karin’s eyes widened as Gaara sat down in the empty chair. Karin had turned white as if she was caught with her hand in the cookie jar. If Gaara heard he pretended he didn’t.

“Hello, Sasuke!” Gaara greeted warmly. “Karin, I know Temari was looking for you.”

“I know.” Karin answered with a smile. “I’m not avoiding her, I was just busy with student council matters. Actually, Sasuke, we should eat in the student council room. We have to make preparations for the homecoming dance.”

“You’re on the student council?” Gaara asked Sasuke. Sasuke nodded his head.

“I’m the class president. Karin is vice president, and Hinata is treasurer.” Sasuke announced their titles as if giving a presentation. He was even-tempered.

Gaara stared at each of them. For a second Sasuke didn’t know what he was searching for. Gaara was dressed in the regulated uniform. His clothes were laundered and fit perfectly to his body. His hair was styled and everything was in place.

Gaara’s eyes moved from Sasuke’s uniform to Karin’s.

“Karin, you're a member of the student council yet you dress so sloppily.” Gaara commented coolly. “Is this the image the student council brings? I’ve read the student handbook. You get demerits if you’re not in a regulated uniform. There is a reason our parents pay the tuition here. They want us to be productive members of society, not pigs running amok.”

Sasuke realized that Gaara did hear Karin calling him a brat and this was his thought-out response.

“Did you just call me a pig?” Karin balked.

“Isn’t that what they call fascist police officers? Pigs. You’re in a position of power and so you think you’re above the rules?” Gaara questioned. His tongue was sharper than Ino’s. That immense aura he felt yesterday had come back threefolds.

“And you.” Gaara turned his attention to Sasuke. “I thought you were the by-the-books-type. You’re the class president and yet you turn a cheek to a member of your cabinet's wayward ways? I do not know what is worse. Karin for willfully abusing her power or you for not reprimanding her and taking demerits away.”

Sasuke couldn’t swallow. It formed in the back of his throat and refused to go down. He suddenly felt hot and itchy as if someone cranked up the thermostat in the cafeteria. He recalled his conversation with Ino. How he blatantly told Ino she was worse because she stood by and did nothing. Was this karma? His brain filled with white noise.

“Are you going to give her demerits?” Gaara questioned sharply.

“No.” Sasuke answered.

“I have no choice but to file a complaint.” Gaara answered with a shrug.

“Karin, I am giving you a warning.” Sasuke continued speaking. “An official warning. The next time I see you without a regulated uniform I’ll write you up.”

Two things simultaneously happened. Gaara smirked as if he were in complete and utter control and Karin’s face twisted up into distress.

“Sasuke!” Karin harped. Today she was wearing her glasses. They slid down her nose. Her hair was hastily pulled back into a ponytail. Her jaw dropped. She had nothing else to say.

“You read the school handbook?” Sasuke dismissed Karin’s death stare and focused on Gaara.

“Of course.” Gaara spoke with a conniving smile.

“You’re unbelievable!” Karin raged. Sasuke didn’t know who those words were directed at. “I’m going to the student council room!” She picked up her tray and left.

“I expect you to follow every single rule.” Sasuke continued. He felt the urge to catch Gaara breaking a rule and write him up.

“Of course. I wouldn’t think to break a single rule.” Gaara continued. “Watch me closely if you don’t believe me.” Gaara reached out his hand and placed it on top of Sasuke’s hand. The action caused Sasuke to freeze. Gaara’s hand was cold and the moment he squeezed his hand it felt as if Gaara was sucking out the warmth from Sasuke’s body putting him into a cold sweat. “Actually, don’t take your eyes off me.”

Gaara smirked as a shadow appeared across the table.

“You’re back?” Naruto appeared and slammed his hands on the table. He leaned over and his eyes stared down at Gaara. “Since when?” His voice was the same hostility as during the tennis match.

“Ino should have told you I was back. I spoke to her yesterday.” Gaara answered and retracted his hand. There was a mischievous glint in Gaara’s eyes as if he had proved one of his hypotheses. He leaned back in his seat.

Naruto’s eyebrows raised. Sasuke noticed that Naruto had grown taller. He had seen Naruto on the first day of school but Naruto hadn’t spoken to him and this was the first time since the tennis competition he was so close to him. He could smell Naruto’s cologne. It was the same cologne he wore during the tennis competition.

“She didn’t tell me.” Naruto answered coldly as if trying to catch Gaara in a lie. Sasuke wasn’t sure if Naruto was mad at Ino for not telling him, or mad at Gaara for moving back, or both.

“That’s funny. I did tell Ino to tell you I was back. Didn’t I, Sasuke? You were there. You heard me tell Ino to hurry up and tell Naruto I was back.” Gaara asked Sasuke, roping him into a conversation he wanted nothing to do with. Sasuke stopped breathing. Gaara turned his attention back to Naruto and teased. “Yeah. I spoke to Ino right before giving Sasuke a ride home.”

Naruto refused to look at or acknowledge Sasuke’s presence. He was still doing everything he told Sasuke he would do...leave him alone for a year.

“Since you’re officially back.” Naruto spoke and his attitude changed. He relaxed. “Why not celebrate? You’re back at the condo?”

“We left everything on bad terms.” Gaara answered and fixed his eyes on Naruto. “Then you treated me so coldly when I ran into you at the tennis competition. You’re giving me mixed signals, Naruto.”

When Naruto didn’t immediately respond Gaara jumped on this. “I saw you watching me from across the cafeteria, Naruto. You didn’t come over until I touched Sasuke’s hand.” Gaara fixed his attention back to Sasuke who felt like he was about to have a stroke. “Naruto does this yet you say there is nothing between you two, Sasuke.” Gaara gestured towards Naruto.

Naruto remained quiet, but Sasuke saw Naruto’s hands clenching into fists.

“I do not know what your relationship with Naruto is nor do I care. I have not lied to you. Whatever this is...I want nothing to do with it.” Sasuke’s voice was cold and detached. “I’m going to the student council room.”

This was exactly what he wanted to avoid. He avoided Naruto’s face completely. He didn’t know what expression Naruto was wearing. He picked up his tray and left. He felt his face redden as he walked away. Gaara’s words jumbled inside as if shaking up the tiles in a scrabble game. His heart became as taut as a string on a harp. Naruto was watching Gaara the whole time and only came over when Gaara touched his hand? Sasuke shook the thought from his head. He needed to continue to avoid Naruto and getting mixed up with Gaara wasn’t going to help matters.

*****

The only subtle difference Sasuke noticed over the last three weeks was Gaara had become glued to Naruto, inseparable as if they had become conjoined twins. He saw the dynamics shifting as Kiba, Ino, and Sakura begrudgingly accepted this and treated Gaara as if he hadn’t gone to boarding school for two years. He didn’t know why seeing this caused his insides to twist with rage and jealousy. He felt as if he had been drinking nothing but vinegar every day.

Temari had attempted to befriend Karin and she refused. Karin had become tight lipped on her relationship with Temari and every time someone asked what happened at the all girls school Karin refused to answer and changed the subject. Sasuke didn’t understand the dynamics. The prettiest girl in the school had become Temari overnight. The boys had flocked to her and he never saw Temari by herself. She had a mixture of both enjoying the attention yet hating it at the same time, and other times she had a look of boredom and detachment.

He hadn’t meant to notice so much but Temari had been glued to Karin and it was impossible not to notice things.

Whether because of their father or by pure talent and beauty alone Temari was a teen model and spokesperson to a teen targeted skin care products called Desert Bloom, a phenomenon of flowers blooming in the aridest of places where all lush flowers and plant life ceased to exist.

Kankuro had joined the school’s rugby team. The only ones exempt from wearing the school uniform were those students on sports teams and the most popular were the rugby members. Kankuro lived in his rugby uniform. He often left his siblings alone during school and was joined by other rugby members. Kankuro was in a grade above them and he virtually never saw him.

The Sabaku siblings had become royalty of the school. They become even more popular than Naruto.

Sasuke was in the student council room. He glanced to see Temari sitting next to Karin who was wholeheartedly ignoring her. Karin was going over a checklist for the homecoming dance this Friday. Temari was looking over Karin’s shoulder and nodded her head every time Karin checked off a box. Karin was dressed in the regulated uniform. Her clothes were laundered. Her buttons were fastened correctly. Her tie was done exceptionally well. She chose to wear a sweater vest instead of a cardigan.

Even though he wouldn’t have written her up and would have allowed Gaara to file a complaint about favoritism Karin hadn’t been out of uniform. He never spoke to Karin about it and Karin never brought it up. He smiled in his heart.

Sasuke was recounting the money when he was finished he sighed in relief. “Hinata.” He called her name. She was sitting at her desk but her eyes were focused downwards. “Hinata.” He called out louder. She hadn’t moved and her eyes remained down. Karin looked up and looked at Hinata with a big question mark over her head.

“Hinata!” Sasuke called out even louder. It caused Hinata to look up.

“Hm?” Her eyes were glazed over but Sasuke watched as life and consciousness moved back in. She looked as if she were sleeping with her eyes open. It frightened him, but now she was back.

“You must have miscounted. All the money is here.” Sasuke spoke with a smile.

“Oh! Good! I’m relieved I thought I lost some money!”

“Is...everything okay Hinata?” Karin asked and shifted her attention to Hinata. Temari’s face immediately began pouting as she watched Karin’s attention being diverted.

“What? Oh yeah. I didn’t sleep well last night.” Hinata spoke as if on cue she yawned and stretched her arms up. She looked at Sasuke and offered half a smile. “I’ve been practicing for the piano competition.”

It was a national piano competition six hours away in the same city as the tennis competition. Instead of duos both Hinata and Sasuke were entered individually. They would be competing against each other. Sasuke didn’t see it as a big deal and secretly wanted Hinata to win. She played better than him. Whoever won would go to an international competition overseas. It was this international competition that Karin easily won and she was indoctrinated into an overseas music camp every summer. The way Karin spoke about this magical musical camp sounded more like a cult than a fun summer camp.

“Ah.” Sasuke nodded his head as if understanding. He had little free time.

“Sasuke, are you going to the homecoming dance?” Karin asked, shifting her attention to him.

“It coincides with my student council duties. I was granted permission.” Sasuke answered. His stomach flipped. He had never gone to a school dance and to say he was nervous was an understatement.

“Are you going to the dance with anyone?” Temari asked Karin.

“School dances aren’t your thing. Aren’t you going to an exclusive VIP party with your model friends?” Karin snapped. Even though Karin was cold towards Temari it didn’t deter her.

The Sabaku siblings were referred to as triplets. When Temari was born their mother was pregnant with Kankuro 1.5 months later. They were 10.5 months apart. They were so close in age they were raised like twins and due to their closeness of age they were in the same grade. A year after giving birth to Kankuro their mother was pregnant with Gaara. Three single births in less than three years.

“If you’re going to be at the school dance I’m going too.” Temari answered. She wore a button-up cardigan and her hands were hidden in the sleeves.

“Temari.” Sasuke called her name out. Her expression soured as she looked at him. “The school wants to take pictures of you to use for the website and brochures~”

“Tell the school to ask daddy. He’s made it very clear he owns my body.” Temari’s voice was icy cold and it penetrated Sasuke’s heart as if a steel rod was flung through his chest. Her words caused Karin to frown. Sasuke’s expression must have told Temari that her words weren’t taken as she meant. “I have a modeling contract with my daddy’s company. All modeling gigs go through him.” She clarified with a huff.

“I will notify the principal of this.” Sasuke answered.

“This is boring...how much longer?” Temari asked Karin.

“You don’t have to stay!” Karin argued.

“I wanted to treat you to boba!” Temari answered with a smile. “I mean...I want to treat the whole student council as my treat for working so...uh...diligently!” She quickly rephrased her words when the look Karin gave her showed immediate rejection. Karin stared at Sasuke pleading with him to help.

“Uh…” Sasuke stalled for time and looked at Hinata. “Hinata?”

“Mhm?” Hinata asked and looked up.

“Do you have time for boba...Temari’s treat?”

“Yeah.” She nodded her head when she looked at Karin’s pleading eyes, misreading the signals she was sending.

“Perfect! Let’s go!” Temari beamed.

*****

“Sasuke.” Hinata spoke.

The two were standing at the bus stop. They had missed the bus by a minute and were waiting for the next one. After drinking boba at the boba tea shop Temari had practically kidnapped Karin by pushing her into the same big black SUV Sasuke road in saying she was bringing Karin home. Sasuke assured he and Hinata would be able to go home together much to Karin’s disappointment and Temari’s happiness. He didn’t know why but even though he heard Karin protest she wasn’t really cold and distant with Temari there was a softness to her actions and words.

“Mhm?” Sasuke answered. “What’s on your mind?”

“I’m going to confess to Naruto at the homecoming dance.” Hinata answered.

Sasuke’s blood ran cold. He remembered Ino’s words three weeks ago about him being a deadman but nothing came of his warning. He wondered if things were derailed the moment the Sabaku siblings burst onto the scene like Charlie's angels. Ino said that Hinata told them she was thinking someone pushed her down the stairs. He had completely forgotten. He wanted to ask about it sooner, but it was never the right time. They were alone for the first time since his birthday and now was the perfect time to ask her.

“I’ve decided. Even if he rejects me...I’ll at least have an answer.” Hinata continued talking. “I know he likes Sakura...but…”

A sudden memory filled him up. He had caught the tail end of Sakura’s confession towards Naruto at the end of last school year. The day he went to Naruto’s house to play chess. He remembered asking Naruto if he was dating Sakura and he said no. His heart thumped. He was sure Sakura both confessed to him and asked him out but Naruto said they weren’t dating. It never occurred to him to ask Naruto...why they weren’t. He remembered Naruto saying he liked-liked Sakura during their school trip to Hawaii so why weren’t they dating now?

“He’s not dating Sakura so maybe...there’s a chance he’ll like me.” Hinata concluded. “What do you think, Sasuke?”

“Hinata.” Sasuke spoke her name and she looked at him. “Ino told me you were talking to Naruto about you falling down the stairs. Ino said that you thought someone pushed you. What did you mean?”

“That?” Hinata sounded insulted. She had been contemplating her confession to Naruto and Sasuke kept bringing up the second worst day of her life. Sasuke immediately felt guilty for bringing it up and he wanted to apologize. “Even if I was pushed...I know in my heart and soul that Naruto didn’t do it. It doesn’t change how I feel about him!”

“Do you love him?” Sasuke asked the words without thinking. Much like he asked Naruto if he was dating Sakura without thinking.

“Yes! I do!” Hinata was honest and pure in her words. She was the protagonist in books whose love was pure and unbreakable. She was someone Sasuke couldn’t help but root for but there was something dark lurking just around the corner. The words ‘Naruto isn’t good enough for you’ filtered through his mind and then burst into a thousand fireflies and flew off in opposite directions.

“Sasuke. I’ve been meaning to ask you.” Hinata’s tone sounded like she was changing the topic. “When you asked me if there was a possibility I was pushed. I started having nightmares where I remember being pushed down the stairs. I remember seeing two people in front of me but only one of them pushed me. I didn’t know what this meant and when I asked Naruto about it he laughed. He told me you only asked me this because you were bored.”

“He said what?” Sasuke yelled. He knew he didn’t like Naruto and this was just another reason. Was Naruto going to do whatever he could to keep the truth buried, even smear Sasuke’s name through the mud?

“He said you were probably bored.” Hinata repeated. “I didn’t believe that, but, Sasuke. Why did you ask me if there was a possibility I was pushed?”

“Because…” Sasuke trailed off. It felt like he was playing a game and pitted against Naruto, Sakura, Ino, and Kiba. He knew even if he told Hinata that Sakura was the one who pushed her down the stairs Hinata wouldn’t believe him. “Because there was a rumor after the accident that you were pushed.”

“Did the rumor say who pushed me?”

“The names Naruto, Kiba, Sakura, and Ino were all thrown around.” Sasuke lied. He was making it worse and he didn’t know how to stop. “You’re so composed and elegant...how could someone like you possibly fall down the stairs?”

Hinata remained quiet. Her expression darkened in deep contemplation.

“I didn’t ask you because I was bored!” Sasuke defended.

“I...I know.” Hinata nodded her head. “I told Naruto I didn’t believe that was the reason.”

The bus pulled up and he and Hinata got on. They scanned their bus passes and sat down next to each other. They remained silent as the bus lurched forward. Sasuke swallowed and cleared his throat.

“Karin said I should stay away from the Sabaku siblings, but I really think she meant I should just stay away from Gaara.” Sasuke changed the topic yet again. “What are your thoughts on Gaara?”

“Gaara? I know Naruto and Gaara used to be inseparable.” She paused as if recalling the events. “It was during the time when it was announced that I would succeed as the family’s head over Neji. It…” Hinata’s eyes turned vacant and she paused again before shaking her head. “Anyways. Gaara used this information to insult Neji, and Naruto took Neji’s side in this argument. I remember their fathers were going to merge companies….but it didn’t happen, and then Gaara and his siblings were sent overseas to a boarding school.”

‘Left in bad terms.’ Was this the ‘bad terms’ Gaara was speaking about?

“Do you think Gaara is a good person?” Sasuke asked.

“We were all young at the time. I’m not going to blame Gaara...we were all young.” Hinata stopped trying to evaded the question. “I think he is a good person, yes.”

She looked as if she were lost in thought like she had been whisked away by past memories and reliving moments of her life. Moments that Sasuke should have remembered but he had shut out everyone from the world. He turned everyone’s faces into masked beings and tunneled into himself. He had no memories of the time when Gaara went to school with them. No memories until Naruto smiled at him the day their desks were reassigned.

“If that was all that happened...why would Karin warn me?” Sasuke asked. Karin had gone to a completely different school. It meant something else happened. The Sabaku family and Uzumaki family were connected and Gaara even said there was a partnership with money involved. Karin had known Gaara outside of school and he knew something occurred that made Karin warn him.

“I...don’t know. Maybe you should ask her.” Hinata spoke with a shrug. Maybe it was a moot point. Gaara had left him alone all this time, seemingly satisfied to be friends with Naruto once more.

“Hinata. I am rooting for you and your confession. I really want you to be happy.” Sasuke spoke after a long absence of silence. They hadn’t taken an express bus, instead a bus that had stopped at every bus stop along the way.

“Thank you!” Hinata beamed with the light of a thousand suns. Even though Sasuke tried to ignore it, the air between him and Hinata had changed.

*****

Even though it was called a homecoming dance it occurred the first week of October. A month after school was in session. It was to welcome students back from the summer. Gaara was right in that it wasn’t a public school they attended but a private school in which their parents paid yearly tuition. The dance didn’t happen in the school’s gymnasium. Instead this year it was in the Uzumaki Gala. Arranged by Karin as a fitting venue for the prestige. It wasn’t the run-of-the-mill dances. It was catered with a professional DJ with flashing lights and a fog machine to set the ambiance.

Sasuke wore the tailored suit he hated. He had originally just wanted to wear the school uniform but his mother refused to let him leave the house unless he chanced. Her words cut through him the entirety of the time he was changing. He sat at the desk in front collecting everyone’s tickets who bought them ahead of time. Instead of the money going back into the school the money was going towards a charity. Everyone was entered into a raffle for prizes. Prizes were compiled by Hinata and Karin. It didn’t include movie tickets, but full-on spa packages and gift cards to Michelin-starred restaurants.

Karin sat next to Sasuke and helped him collect tickets and payment. They both were keeping a tally on the money on a notepad of paper.

“Isn’t Hinata supposed to be with me?” Sasuke asked after a while.

“I switched with her.” Karin answered as she worked.

“Does it have to do with avoiding Temari?”

“...” Karin remained silent.

“Are you ever going to tell me about your relationship with her?”

“No.” Karin answered like a Judge who slammed down the gavel after sentencing.

“Do you want me to guess?” Sasuke asked and immediately went silent.

Sasuke looked up and saw Naruto and Sakura together. He froze. Naruto went to Karin and Sakura stood in front of him. She looked at Sasuke as if he were a bug she wanted to smoosh with her shoe. He collected her money and handed her a ticket for the raffle. She grabbed it out of his hand practically ripping it in two in the process, and walked away without a word.

“I don’t get it. I tried to be friends with Naruto and I was bullied relentlessly. Gaara befriends Naruto and everything is fine and dandy?” The words slipped from his mouth and it caused Karin to raise her eyebrows in curiosity. She eyed him from the corner of her eyes.

“You don’t want to be friends with Naruto.” Karin commented as she worked.

“I don’t. It’s the principal.” Sasuke defended.

“I told you to stay away from the Sabaku siblings, especially Gaara.”

“Why?”

“He’s a monster. He uses blackmail to control and manipulate people. He doesn’t have feelings of empathy; he's a borderline psychopath.” Karin spoke in a very matter-of-fact tone.

“No wonder he reminded me of Naruto.” Sasuke scoffed.

“Mhm. To a degree. If I had to pick the better person it would be Naruto.” Karin answered truthfully.

“Why is Gaara stuck to Naruto like glue?”

“Our families have been intertwined since the time I was born. Things just happened that way with Gaara and Naruto being friends. Gaara’s mother died when she gave birth to him and after his father blamed him for her death. Naruto was the only one who accepted Gaara and treated him as an equal I suppose.” Karin spilled this family drama as easily as if she were opening up presents on Christmas. It left Sasuke feeling devastated. There were layers and layers added to Gaara.

“Listen. Their father is equally as cold and detached. He sees his children like commodities. You see how he is with Temari. It’s no different than my mom or your mom. But...at least our parents actually love us and wouldn’t ship us off to boarding school overseas if they were remarried.”

Sasuke thought back to his mother. His heartstrings tightened. It was debatable. He knew deep inside if he and Itachi were dangling over a cliff she would instinctively save Itachi first. He heard Orochimaru’s voice drift through his disturbing thoughts. Telling him not to compare himself to Itachi, and telling him that he is worth it. He missed Orochimaru. He recalled every conversation he shared with Orochimaru this past summer as nostalgia painted him grey.

Karin sighed deeply. “But. All of that pushed aside. The reason I told you to avoid him is due to the reason he was expelled at boarding school.”

“Oh?” Gaara appeared behind Karin. He walked up alongside her and rested a hand on the table. It caused Sasuke’s soul to leap from his body in fright. Karin stiffened up. It was momentary. Although Gaara may have had the upper hand using her uniform as leverage during lunch they stood on equal ground and Karin treated Gaara no differently than her attitude towards Naruto.

“Yes, Gaara. Your father and my mother~”

“Are sleeping together?” Gaara interrupted. “What do they call it...oh yes...adultery.”

Karin was left speechless. Her eyes widened and the blood slowly drained from her face. “You’re lying!”

“Grow up.” Gaara spoke coldly and tilted his head to the side. Sasuke couldn’t help but feel an unknown attraction towards Gaara. The way he was dressed, the angle of his face, his sharp jawline. The confidence. The power. It caused unknown feelings to stir within Sasuke as if he understood why the female protagonist always fell for the ‘bad boy’ trope. “Our parents have been banging each other for years.”

“Clean your rotten mouth out with soap!” Karin yelled and stood up. Karin was the same height as Gaara and so she stared him directly in the eyes.

“Finish your sentence. Why was I expelled?” Gaara asked and his eyes flashed. “What lie did my father say this time that I did?”

“Enough.” Sasuke interrupted and stood up. He walked up and stood between Gaara and Karin. “We’re at a school function. The handbook still applies, Gaara.” Sasuke warned.

“What? I didn’t use any vulgar language.” Gaara answered sharply. A cocky smile spread across his lips. He fixed his gaze on Sasuke and continued. “I used the words ‘banging’, ‘sleeping together’, and ‘adultery’. I didn’t use the word that fit the most.” Sasuke found himself blushing. The word Gaara wanted to use started with an F and ended in an ‘ing’.

“I’m just reminding you.” Sasuke responded. “Naruto is already here. Why don’t you find him?”

“Naruto? Why are you bringing him up?” Gaara asked. “I’m here to see you.”

“What do you want, Gaara?” Sasuke asked rigidly.

“I wanted to ask you to come hangout with me. I didn’t realize you were gossiping about me.” Gaara answered sharply. Gaara had a way of controlling the situation and making Sasuke feel like he had to apologize. His chest tightened. He managed to make him feel like he was in the wrong. Was this part of the manipulation Karin was talking about?

“Is it gossip if the reason came from your own father’s mouth?” Karin challenged.

“It’s easier to blame me. If the real reason we came back had to do with Temari would you be so cold?” Gaara asked. “Everyone is so willing to condemn me but Temari gets a free pass? Of course, he wouldn’t badmouth Temari...she’s the only cash cow of the siblings right now.”

“Can everyone stop talking about why we’re back?” Temari snapped. She appeared in the front door of the Gala. She held a ticket in her hand. Temari looked stunning. She really did look like she walked off the runway. Everything was styled in, put together. “Karin, don’t believe anything daddy says. He talks out his ass.”

Sasuke’s heart skipped. If the reason didn’t have anything to do with Gaara but Temari...did that mean Gaara really hasn’t done anything worth hating him for?

“Who was the reason why we’re back?” Gaara asked Temari. “Me or you?”

“How about we say a group effort?” Temari asked. “I hated that boarding school. If I had to stay there another year I would have killed myself.” Although her answer was dramatic, Sasuke picked up the subtle notes of truth and authenticity.

Her answer was enough to prove the reason they were ‘expelled’ has something to do with Temari with Kankuro and Gaara coming to her aid, or as Temari put it ‘a group effort’. Sasuke’s heart sank. Was the reason he hated Gaara have solely to do with his involvement with Naruto? He thought back to Hinata’s words. She had said Gaara was a good person.

“I’m sorry.” Sasuke spoke. He was being genuine. He had judged purely on heresy. “I’m sorry for gossiping about you, Gaara.”

Gaara looked like he was at a loss of words but recovered quickly. He moved his head away and folded his hands. “It’s fine. I’m used to taking the blame.” Those words hurt especially when he found out Gaara’s mother died during childbirth with him.

“Karin stop being so quick to judge. It’s been two years since we’ve interacted. Stop filling people’s heads with your image of me.” Gaara turned to lecture Karin once again.

It was shocking to see Karin recoil back, not once, but twice. Sasuke had never seen Karin recoil when she interacted with Naruto. Much like Naruto who always took the initiative to leave when he spent too much time with Karin, it appeared Karin had a limit when she interacted with Gaara.

“Whatever. I’ll get Hinata.” Karin barked and left inside. Both times it looked as if Karin had admitted defeat and admitted she was wrong. Sasuke swallowed.

Temari sat in the seat that Karin was sitting on. “Be nice to her, she’s off limits.” Temari warned Gaara who rolled his eyes in response.

“I don’t know why Naruto is so afraid of her. Look at how she runs away with her tail between her legs.” Gaara spoke to Temari. “It kinda makes me want to make her cry.”

“I said be nice. She’s off limits.” Temari’s voice darkened as if she wasn’t joking anymore. Gaara sighed.

“I didn’t think tonight was going to be the night everyone confesses to Naruto.” Gaara announced. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have come.” Gaara sat in the seat Sasuke was sitting in and it forced Sasuke to remain standing as the two Sabaku siblings took over the table.

“Don’t you know it’s our curse?” Temari answered her brother and sat back. Her bottom lip pouted out. “We can’t have anyone we like. They never like us back. If that’s not a curse I don’t know what is.”

Suddenly it clicked. He remembered Karin telling him a story while they shared sparkling wine inside the broom closet. She told him of a girl she attended the all girls school with who she had kissed numerous times during a sleepover. He stared at Temari. Was the girl Karin kissed Temari? He didn’t know why he felt excited as if he solved a major crime on one piece of overlooked evidence.

“Well maybe we should be normal and like the opposite sex.” Gaara spoke with a tilt of his head. Although he spoke to Temari Gaara’s eyes were locked on Sasuke as if admitting he didn’t just like Naruto as a friend. He liked Naruto more than a friend. He liked Naruto in the same way Temari liked Karin. He wondered what was in the water to make the Sabaku siblings fall for someone of Uzumaki bloodline.

“What do you think, Sasuke? Since everyone is confessing to Naruto tonight should I?” Gaara’s words made it clear his intentions.

“No.” Sasuke answered. “If I am rooting for anyone to date the spoiled brat it’s going to be Hinata.”

“Spoiled brat?” Temari giggled at the nickname. “Did you hear that, Gaara? He called Naruto a spoiled brat...if he’s a spoiled brat what does that make you?” Her words teetered on teasing and seriousness. Gaara ignored her completely.

“Hinata? She looked like she would pee herself before she was able to confess.” Gaara snorted. The way he said her name sent Sasuke into an immediate rage. He said it with such an insult Sasuke used everything he had not to reach out and punch Gaara in the face. He was the class president who needed to set an example and lead the way.

“I bet the spoiled brat would say yes to her.” Temari spoke, joining the conversation. There was a glint in her eyes that Sasuke couldn’t place. Somewhere between maleficent and beneficent. “You know because of the survivor's guilt.”

“Really? He’d date her because of Neji?” Gaara asked. He truly sounded shocked as if the thought never occurred. Suddenly his impression of Hinata changed with this new information and he hardened. The darkness returned and that violent energy was back. He didn’t see her as a girl who’d wet herself but a viable threat.

“Don’t move.” Temari spoke and grabbed Gaara’s arm. She held him firmly. “Make a bet with me. I bet you the spoiled brat will agree to Hinata’s confession.”

“He wouldn’t.” Gaara snapped.

“That’s why it’s a bet, silly.” Temari laughed. Her grip tightened on Gaara’s arm. “If I lose the next time daddy yells at you I’ll take the blame. If I win. I want the condo, alone, for a month.” She smiled cruelly as if willingly aware that Gaara was the black sheep of the siblings and using it to her advantage.

“Fine.” Gaara answered, the violent energy only grew. Just when he thought he could overlook the heresy concerning Gaara, Sasuke was faced with how he was presenting now. “If I win. Let’s start playing the simon says game. If I lose...” Gaara flickered his eyes to Sasuke for a brief second. “The same penalty as always.”

“Oh you’re wicked!” Temari giggled. They were speaking in code again and it only made Sasuke more uncomfortable as if he were thrown into a foreign country and forced to acclimate. “Deal.”

*****

Sasuke remained posted at the table. He was alone. He didn’t want to enter the homecoming dance. They had raffled off the prizes and it was nearing the end of the dance and people were leaving.

He felt the safest at the table. He wondered if he would be more comfortable if Suigetsu and Jugo were here. They both declined to come. As it stood even though Suigetsu’s and Jugo’s families weren’t rich they were both admitted on an academic scholarship. He wanted to visit Jugo at his family’s vet clinic. He felt guilty.

Although he was able to explain his absence this past summer due to his mother’s insufferable ways, him being class president shaved off what little free time he had. He was going through his mental calendar trying to move things around so he could see Suigetsu and Jugo outside of school.

“Sasuke?” Hinata sat down next to him. “Have you gone in at all tonight?”

“No. These things always make me uncomfortable.”

Hinata reached out and held the lockbox filled with the money they were going to donate. She placed it protectively in her lap. She was still the treasurer. Sasuke looked at her and her expression was unreadable. According to Gaara tonight was the night of girls confessing to Naruto. He could only think of two, even though he knew the girls in their school liked Naruto. They were Sakura and Hinata in his mind.

“How did things go with the confession?” Sasuke asked. He was curious to know and he didn’t know why he needed an answer.

“The confession? Oh.” Hinata spoke in and out of a trance. “He rejected me. He told me he liked someone else.” Hinata tightened her grip on the lockbox, her knuckles turned white. Sasuke didn’t know what to say. He felt trapped as if he didn’t know what the right words were to comfort her and he was afraid he was going to say the wrong thing.

“Hinata.” Naruto called. It caused Hinata to lift her head towards him. Her face lit up with delight. “Do you want to go home with us?”

Sasuke didn’t have to wait to know who the ‘us’ was. Appearing next to Naruto was Gaara.

“Yeah!” Hinata agreed and stood up. In a flash, Sasuke grabbed Hinata’s wrist. An unknown strength had been unleashed and Sasuke held onto Hinata protectively. He didn’t want to let her go.

“No.” Sasuke objected and stood up. “Are you mocking her right now, Naruto?” Sasuke spoke and looked directly at Naruto. He watched as Naruto first avoided his eyes completely and when realizing he had spoken directly to him and asked a direct question Naruto stared back. Naruto took a moment to respond as if carefully pulling out the correct words.

“This has nothing to do with you, Sasuke, so I don’t understand why you’re getting involved.” Naruto answered. His words stung and it only angered Sasuke.

“Gaara doesn’t even live in our neighborhood!” Sasuke objected.

“I’m spending the night at Naruto’s.” Gaara answered coyly.

Sasuke felt his cheeks flushing as the temperature inside his body spiked and he became delirious. He remembered Naruto’s mother saying how he rarely invited people to spend the night and commented how she was happy Naruto had invited him to spend the night. He didn’t understand why Gaara was so welcomed and treated differently being next to Naruto when he had a collar fashioned around his neck and the fixings of an ice cream sundae poured over his head.

How Naruto wanted so desperately to be his friend only to replace him with Gaara. He had felt jealousy and rage towards Gaara and was trying to mask it as being overprotective of Hinata. He hated himself.

“I can take Hinata home!” Sasuke announced. “We’re part of the student council. It does concern me. I want to make sure nothing happens to the donation money.” He glared at both Naruto and Gaara. It caused Gaara to smirk.

“It’s okay, Sasuke.” Hinata spoke. “I want to go home with them.” He realized just how much Hinata loved Naruto. It ached. Even after confessing and being rejected she would still get into a car with him and go home. Sasuke fought back the urge to vomit. “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of the donation money.” She reassured and smiled up at him. Sasuke had no choice but to let go of Hinata’s arm and exhale.

“As long as you’re okay.” Sasuke murmured and stepped aside. He refused to look at either Naruto or Gaara. He kept his attention focused on Hinata. “Don’t lose the money.”

“I’m fine. I’ll see you in school on Monday.” Hinata smiled. She carried the lockbox and left with Naruto and Gaara.

Sasuke watched the backs of Naruto, Gaara, and Hinata leaving and darkness crept over his heart.

*****

Sasuke walked into the student council room. He saw Hinata at her desk going over some paperwork and Karin was half asleep with her head propped up by her hand. He saw drool about to roll from the corner of her mouth. He rolled his eyes and snapped.

“Hinata!” His voice had never been as sharp and strict with Hinata before and it snapped Hinata to attention and Karin woke up with a startle. “Where is the donation money? I thought you already submitted it, but when I called to follow up they said they never got it!”

“The...donation money?” Hinata repeated as if she didn’t know what he was talking about. Sasuke scowled at her as if he couldn’t believe what he was seeing and hearing. Karin was the first to speak.

“Hinata...stop acting dumb. You took the lockbox home with you. Did you forget it at home?”

“No...I brought it back.” Hinata spoke and placed her hand on a section of her desk. “I placed it here this morning.”

“Why didn’t you drop off the donation money this weekend? Why bring it back?” Karin asked. “It just makes more work for you and us.”

Sasuke looked at Karin who looked back, both sharing puzzled and confused looks.

“I forgot.” Hinata was looking at the corner of her desk. Her eyes focused as if she was willing something into existence. “It’s gone.” Hinata admitted. “I think someone took it.” It was an accusation that Sasuke didn’t understand coming from Hinata.

“You think?” Sasuke challenged. He didn’t know why his tone was so cold. “Maybe if you didn’t leave with Naruto and Gaara Friday night you wouldn’t have lost it!” Sasuke was accusatory. Karin straightened up. The air between him and Hinata shifted even more.

“What happened?” Karin asked for clarification. “Explain it so I understand.”

“It has nothing to do with them. I misplaced it!” Hinata avoided everyone’s eyes. “I haven’t...been sleeping well…” It happened. Hinata started crying. It was the first time he watched a girl cry. She didn’t just cry, she cried as if she were Alice and had grown too big for the room she was in and became trapped. “I’m sorry!”

Sasuke’s heart immediately softened. “It’s...okay…it’s okay...everything will be fine, right, Karin?”

He watched as Karin remained planted to the ground. Karin was nodding her head towards Hinata, communicating that she wanted Sasuke to comfort her. It was a silent conversation. Sasuke motioned back asking her that she should comfort Hinata on the basis of Karin being a girl, and Karin motioned back that she shouldn’t have to comfort anyone just because she was a girl.

Sasuke gave in and wrapped an arm around Hinata’s shoulder and tried to comfort her the best he could. “If you brought it to school and placed it here.” Sasuke touched the spot that Hinata had previously touched indicating where she left it. “And it’s gone. I didn’t, and Karin didn’t touch it. It means someone stole it, right?”

“Who would steal it?” Karin asked. It was a valid point.

Sasuke shrugged. “I’ll report it to the principal. If anything happens I’ll take the blame.”

“No!” Hinata protested. “It’s my fault. I'm the treasurer! I’ll take the blame.”

“I’m not blaming you. It’s not your fault. It’s the person who stole its fault.” Sasuke emphasized. Hinata continued to sob.

“This hasn’t happened before...are we going to get in trouble?” Karin asked. There was fear in her voice. Sasuke didn’t know what would happen, because it hadn’t happened before.

“Uhh...did I come at a bad time?” Ino had appeared in the doorway. She was holding the umbrella that Sasuke gave her nearly a month ago. Her eyes raked over everyone. Karin who appeared paralyzed in fear. Sasuke who was awkwardly comforting Hinata who was sobbing.

“What are you doing here?” Sasuke snapped at the interruption, not really noticing that she was returning the umbrella.

“Returning your umbrella.” Ino answered and stepped into the room. “Why are you bullying Hinata?”

“I’m not!” Sasuke protested.

“Hinata, let’s go. Naruto wants you to eat lunch with us.” Ino announced. It was strange. The whole interaction was strange. Sasuke watched as Ino placed the borrowed umbrella down on Sasuke’s desk and walked up to the other side of Hinata. He watched as Hinata nodded her head and left with Ino without another word. In a blink of an eye, Hinata was gone.

“She said she would take the blame and then leaves to go have lunch?” Karin asked, mortified.

The strangeness wasn’t just in Sasuke’s head Karin witnessed it too.

“Since when?” Karin asked. She had meant. Since when was Hinata hanging out with Naruto, Sakura, Ino, and Kiba again?

“Hinata confessed to Naruto the night of the homecoming.” Sasuke answered.

“She what?! Why am I the last to know?”

“They’re not dating at least according to Hinata...but then this happened.”

“Something doesn’t smell right.” Karin concluded. “You said that Hinata went home with Naruto and Gaara the night of homecoming with the lockbox?”

“Mhm. Gaara was spending the night at Naruto’s and so they must have driven Hinata home.”

“Che. What is my cousin scheming?” Karin folded her arms. She looked like she should be wearing a cap and a pipe.

“Do you think Naruto took the money?”

“If not him...Gaara! I told you Gaara is a bad person!” Karin shot back. “Naruto and Gaara together is like a tornado meeting a tsunami!”

“Figuring that out is above our paygrade and we’re not even paid. Come on, let's report the missing money to the principal.” Even if Hinata had willingly left and tried to avoid the severity of everything, Karin and Sasuke remained responsible.

*****

Sasuke didn’t think that the school would take things so seriously. The moment he and Karin officially told the principal what happened with the donation money the school went on lockdown. He had practiced different lockdown drills but none of them were the result of missing money. It was during lunch and everyone was forced to remain where they were.

Sasuke and Karin sat side by side in the principal’s room. They were alone and neither of them spoke. They both felt like they were being punished. Both had toed the line of straight and narrow their whole lives and they both felt as if they had committed a huge crime. While Sasuke and Karin were sweating buckets in the principal’s office Hinata was in the cafeteria eating. It wasn’t wrong to say both Sasuke and Karin were peeved at Hinata.

The school officials locked the school down and went from locker to locker going through everyone’s belongings. They moved next to the student’s belongings on their persons. It was a private school and so it was exempt from search and seizure laws. Everything was allowed because there were certain rights that were forfeited when being admitted. One of them being if a crime was committed on school property everyone was treated as a criminal while the investigation happened.

Sasuke and Karin both stood up when they saw the red and blue flashing lights of police as they pulled up to the school. The principal’s office faced the entrance of the school and he watched as uniformed policemen entered.

“What the…” Karin gasped.

Sasuke was speechless. He was hitting the internal panic button. “We raised over $10,000. If someone did steal the money it’s grand larceny.”

Karin’s pupils constricted. Her eyes reddened and glossed over. She sniffled and rubbed her nose with her sleeve. She looked like she was about to cry. “Do you think someone really stole it?”

“Do you think Hinata misplaced it? If she said she brought the lockbox to school she brought the lockbox to school!” Sasuke answered.

He didn’t believe Hinata was the type of person to misplace it; she probably hadn’t slept a wink this weekend and was drowsy. She probably brought the lockbox in, placed it on the desk, and went to class probably thinking that she didn’t have to worry about anyone stealing it.

After an hour of search and seizure Hinata appeared in the principal’s office. Both Sasuke and Karin jumped to their feet. Hinata’s eyes were bloodshot. Following Hinata was the principal. A beefy man who looked liked he suffered from gout with the amount of food and wine he consumed. The principal was still dressed in an impeccable suit and his hair was combed over. He was still a respectable man and had poured years into the academic achievements of the school.

“Sit.” The principal announced and all three of them sat down. “It is alright.” Two policemen entered the room and they were both carrying small ringed notepads. “You don’t have to look so nervous you’re not under arrest. You did nothing wrong.” His voice was soft and gentle and it swept away the fears and anxieties that were clogging Sasuke's arteries as if he had gone on a weekend juice cleanse.

“We found the money and they will be prosecuted. I do not tolerate criminals in my school!” The principal announced and his voice was so loud it shook the windows. “We just need a statement from each of you about where the money was exchanged from the beginning until the very end.”

Sasuke and Karin exchanged glances. Hinata had tears streaming down her face but it looked as if she was unconsciously crying more so due to the situation than anything else.

And so one by one they gave their statements. Starting from the beginning with Sasuke and Karin manning the door, collecting money, and giving out ticket stubs used for the raffle. They both confirmed they had written out each amount on notepads and confirmed with one another. Sasuke stated he had recounted the money and had written it down and placed it into the lockbox. The lockbox was exchanged from Sasuke to Hinata.

“It should be noted the night of homecoming. Hinata took the lockbox and got into a black SUV with Naruto Namikaze and Gaara Sabaku.” Sasuke interjected.

“Why would that be of importance?” The principal snapped. “Naruto and Gaara are from respectable families. Naruto’s family has been donating to this school for years and Gaara’s father had just written us a check to redo the auditorium.”

Karin shot Sasuke a look that clearly said ‘shut up’ and when that didn’t work she kicked him.

“It’s important sir because from Hinata’s statement she never checked the lockbox to see if the money was in it this whole weekend. If she didn’t check the lockbox to see if there was any money then it’s safe to speculate if someone took the money out before...say during a drive home...then when Hinata brought the lockbox into the student council room it was already empty.”

His statement caused one of the police officers to laugh coldly. It was unsettling. It caused Sasuke to become doubtful that things weren’t going accordingly. Sasuke looked at Hinata and he hadn’t given up.

“You didn’t open the lockbox at all did you?” Sasuke questioned.

“No.” Hinata admitted.

“So if someone took the money out during the car ride...the lockbox would have been empty when you brought it~”

“Mr. Uchiha!” The principal interrupted. “I think you misunderstood. We found the stolen money in a student’s locker. There is no need to accuse Ms. Hyuga, nor bring in Mr. Namikaze and Mr. Sabaku into this small matter. Do you hear that?” The principal turned to the two police officers. “Remove their names from any statement.”

“It should be worth nothing!” Sasuke argued.

“Ah. Mr. Uchiha. Your family has donated to the school since your brother was here. Your father’s business is merged with Naruto Namikaze’s father’s business. You are practically married, your families are so close. Why would you attempt to smear their name by speculating he has committed a crime?”

Practically married to Naruto? Sasuke couldn’t breathe again. His mind went completely blank. Was the principal right? Was he grasping at straws to try and smear Naruto and Gaara’s name on circumstantial evidence? What was his problem? His problem was Naruto was stuck in his mind and it was driving him crazy. He wanted to scream.

“You said you found the money in a student’s locker.” Karin spoke up. She had regained her confidence when she realized the blame lay elsewhere. She regained her posture and straightened up. She acted as a member of the Uzumaki family with nothing to fear. She acted as the third-ranked student. “See, Sasuke? If someone took the money out of the lockbox on Friday night how could it appear in a student’s locker on Monday?”

“See, Ms. Uzumaki here is highlighting the important facts!” The principal smiled and praised as he gestured towards Karin. It made Karin feel proud and she gave a shy smile. Sasuke looked down at his hands. He felt the urge to pick at the skin around his fingernails. To pick until he drew blood. What the principal said made sense. What Karin said made sense. But his own thoughts and speculation made sense too.

“That...makes sense. If I had stolen money on a Friday night. I wouldn’t bring it to school that Monday.” Sasuke concluded. He exhaled. He really was leading a witch hunt when there weren’t any real witches in Salem.

“Principal.” Karin spoke up. “Who was the student that stole the money?”

“One of the academic scholarship students. Suigetsu Kondo.”

“LIAR!” Sasuke shouted and stood up. He felt the blood rushing to his head he stood up so violently his vision blurred and blackened and he thought he was going to faint.

It also frightened Karin hearing his name. She shook her head back and forth and yelled. “That’s impossible! You’ve got the wrong person!”

Hinata squeaked and shut down completely. She became nonverbal and essentially useless for the time being.

“Mr. Uchiha and Ms. Uzumaki please calm down. We just need to take a step back and think about things clearly and with an open mind.” The principal returned to his soft, gentle voice as if coaxing someone away from the edge of a cliff.

“It is alright. The moment you said Ms. Hyuga brought the lockbox to school this morning. I immediately locked the school down and began searching. We found the money hidden in Suigetsu’s locker. I didn’t want to bring this up but Suigetsu’s father lost his job and the family requested an extension on some of the fees that were due. It is motive enough for a student with struggling parents to steal $10,000.”

Suigetsu’s father lost his job? Sasuke’s heart ached. He still wouldn’t believe it.

“No. Suigetsu wasn’t even at homecoming. He wouldn’t have known the money was there and he doesn’t go to the student council office!” Sasuke defended. He had taken on the pseudo defense lawyer.

Karin nodded her head in agreement. “When did he have time to go into the student council office look around, find the money that was locked up, only to quickly hide it in his locker?”

“Enough!” The principal yelled.

“Suigetsu is my friend!” Karin argued. Sasuke still couldn’t see Suigetsu as the type of person to steal. He remembered attending cram school with Suigetsu and Karin, going to Jugo’s family’s vet clinic, and feeding the abandoned kittens with him. Suigetsu was number seven in class ranking. Karin had tears in her eyes. “He didn’t do this!”

“You said you found the money in Suigetsu’s locker. Was the lockbox in the locker too?” Sasuke questioned.

“Uh...no.” The principal admitted.

“It still proves my theory that there was nothing in the lockbox when Hinata brought it to school this morning!” Sasuke yelled. The last adult he yelled at was the teacher that bribed Naruto to befriend him.

“No!” The principal protested. “We’ll check the trash cans...we’ll find the lockbox. It just means Suigetsu took the money out and threw the lockbox away!”

“It doesn’t. If he wanted to take the money, why not just take the money and leave the lockbox in the student council room?” Karin questioned. She was very sharp. She didn’t overlook anything. “Besides there are no witnesses that place Suigetsu in the student council room to begin with!”

“He was in the student council room.” Hinata spoke. “This morning. Jugo and Suigetsu had come in looking for you.”

“What time?” Karin yelled back.

“Around 8:30 AM.” Hinata answered.

“Why were they looking for me?” Karin shot her another question.

“I...don’t know you’ll have to ask them. I was leaving for class.”

“You left a lockbox of money on your desk! Why didn’t you deliver the donation money this weekend?” Karin was turning the tables on Hinata and accusing her of the situation everyone was in. It was the same question she asked Hinata in the student council room, but now she was asking it as if they were in a court of law.

“I’m sorry I should have delivered the money!” Hinata started crying again.

“We can pin his location in the student council room.” One of the police officers murmured to the other.

“Motive, time, and the evidence of the money in his locker. This is an open and shut case.” The other police officer responded with a firm nod. “If only all our cases were this easy.”

Easy? This case was easy? It was somebody’s life...it was a teenager with a promising future life! How could they talk so candidly? It tore Sasuke apart. There were too many holes that both he and Karin exposed!

If it smelled like a drenched rat, it looked like a drenched rat, and it felt like a drenched rat chances were it was a drenched rat. Still. Sasuke felt defeated. He felt exhausted as if he ran a marathon and was asked to run another marathon right after finishing. He was staring at the drenched rat but he still couldn’t prove it was a drenched rat for all he knew it could have been a drenched guinea pig. He would have been a better defense attorney than a prosecutor.

“If you ran into Suigetsu and Jugo this morning in the student council office. Why didn’t you originally say that in your statement?” Karin asked Hinata coldly. She hadn’t given up. Karin’s beloved best friends included both Suigetsu and Jugo. “And why didn’t you tell me they were looking for me?”

“Because...I didn’t think they would steal!” Hinata bawled. She covered her face with her hands and wailed. At this Karin became quiet. She became so quiet she didn’t speak again. She had joined Sasuke in complete silence.

“I know this is hard to come to terms with. This is a betrayal on every level. But with the evidence stacked against him, the motive, being pinned at the place of the crime, the money hidden in his locker, Ms. Uzumaki, Mr. Uchiha...you have to understand that the people you may know have a darkness inside them and sometimes that darkness takes over and they do unspeakable things to the people who love and care about them.” The principal wove his words around Karin and Sasuke binding them together. Unconsciously Sasuke and Karin leaned closer to each other and further away from Hinata.

“Is there anything else you need from my beloved students?” The principal asked the police officers. Beloved students? Wasn’t Suigetsu a beloved student? Why wasn’t he afforded the same protections as Naruto and Gaara?

“We’ll book him right away.” One police officer stated happily.

“I’ll call his father.” The other police officer spoke. They nodded their heads and left the principal’s office.

*****

Sasuke and Karin were rubbed raw as if their insides were scraped with a cheese grater. They stumbled from the principal’s office an hour later. Hinata had been led to the nurse's office to rest. She had cried so hard her face swelled. Neither spoke as they walked through the corridor. Classes were changing and students filled the hallways. They were all gossiping about one topic. Sasuke heard snippets of conversation.

“This is why we shouldn’t let in those kinds of people.”

“My father has already called and lodged a complaint. How does he expect me to study when there are criminals sitting next to me?”

“How many academic scholarship students are there?”

“Did you know who he was?” “No, who?” “He was the best friend of the class president and vice president.” “Sasuke and Karin?” “Talk about a stab in the back.” “My father isn’t going to donate to the academic scholarship anymore.” “You try being nice to those people and they bite the hand that feeds them!”

It happened in slow motion as Sasuke and Karin continued walking through the valley of the shadow of death, something caught Sasuke’s attention. The feeling of someone’s eyes specifically looking at him and not through him like everyone else was doing in the hallway. Leaning against a locker, head tilted to one side in an amused expression was Gaara. The mischievous glint in his eyes caused Sasuke to stop walking. He locked eyes with Gaara and he watched as a wicked smile spread Gaara’s lips. It was the kind of smile he saw in the horror movie he watched with Naruto in theaters. In the end, when the killer escaped he smiled wickedly at the camera.

Then Gaara waved sarcastically slow.

It sent a chill down Sasuke’s spine. The confidence that exuded from Gaara was no match to Sasuke. He felt it. Just how powerful Gaara really was. Why Sakura, Ino, and Kiba didn’t do anything to him when he snagged Naruto’s attention away. They had felt it too. The beast that was within Gaara. He recalled Gaara’s words next to him as he made a bet with Temari. If Gaara had won they would play a game of simon says.

Naruto appeared next to Gaara. He watched as Naruto grabbed Gaara’s hand that was waving, and led him away. Whether Naruto saw Sasuke or not he didn’t know. He watched as Gaara gave him one last look that said ‘I could kill and get away with it if I wanted, and there is nothing you can do to stop me’ before smiling triumphantly that Naruto was leading him away.

He knew. He knew he was right. He knew Gaara and Naruto took the money out of the lockbox when Hinata was distracted. He knew that they must have convinced Jugo and Suigetsu to look for Karin in the student council room this morning before placing the money in Suigetsu’s locker and throwing away the lockbox. It was the perfect crime and coverup.

Right?
Right?
RIGHT?!

Chapter Text

If you don't believe this lie is true

 

“He didn’t do it!” Karin declared with indignation the moment they entered the student council room.

Sasuke had remained speechless. He was still reeling from the revelation that Naruto and Gaara were behind the setup and he was trying to form his accusation into words. He wanted to explain himself to Karin and he knew if he was able to phrase it correctly she would believe him. There was a turn-of-the-century battle raging inside his skull. He could hear the explosion of cannons, rifles that shot off five bullets before needing to be reloaded, the screams of generals barking out orders. It was nearly impossible to compose a coherent thought with all the deafening sounds his mind was creating.

He watched as Karin unleashed pent-up emotions out into the world. It was the first time he was witnessing her lose control. She kicked over Hinata’s chair. “Why didn’t you drop off the donation money this weekend?” She pushed all the notebooks, folders, and papers off Hinata’s desk. “Why didn’t you open the lockbox and check that the money was there?” She picked up a decorative pencil holder and threw it across the room as if she were the pitcher in fastpitch softball. “This is all your fault!”

Sasuke continued to watch Karin without stopping her. She was covered in sweat. Her face and neck glistened as sweat dripped out of her pores. She was panting through her mouth. The hair that had been loosely fashioned into a ponytail had slid from the hair tie and strands of her fiery hair flew all around her face. The ends of her hair brushed against the base of her neck a mere centimeter from touching her shoulder blades. She resembled a girl on fire, a force to be reckoned with. High on pure adrenaline she lifted up the metal desk and tipped it backwards. It crashed to the ground with a loud banging noise that sounded like a clap of thunder.

“Let’s go to the police station!” Karin wiped the sweat from her forehead with the back of her sleeve.

“I think Gaara and Naruto are behind this!” Sasuke blurted out.

“Do you have any evidence we can show the police?” Karin asked desperately.

“It’s just circumstantial.” Sasuke admitted.

His confidence dwindled like helium deflating from a balloon. How could he tell the police he knew just from one look of the culprit. It was probably why people were sucked into crime dramas and movies when the detective goes off the books to catch the culprit. It was always the morally right thing to do in a television show or movie, but it was completely different in real life.

“Is it because Hinata was taken home Friday night by Naruto and Gaara?” Karin asked. “Tell me everything!”

“Yes. I think they took the money out of the lockbox during the car ride back. Hinata said she never opened up the lockbox to verify the money was there and she brought it in this morning. It’s because there wasn’t any money in it, to begin with. If Suigetsu stole the money he would have just taken the money out of the lockbox. Why wouldn’t he leave the lockbox?”

“Finger prints...maybe?” Karin asked.

Sasuke didn’t think about it that way. He nodded his head in agreement. He thought about it more from a different angle. He decided to go off on a new theory. A theory on if the money was stolen but they left the lockbox behind. “If the lockbox was left behind. If we all believed the money was in the lockbox--would any of us open it?”

Karin brought her hand under her chin and rubbed it before rubbing her noise in contemplation. “Of course not. You and I both knew how much was in there because we counted it on Friday. I would have made a snide remark about Hinata slacking off at her job for not dropping off the donation money this weekend, and making extra work for us.”

“Yes. I would have offered to drop off the money after school and I would have taken the lockbox if Hinata protested. I wouldn’t have known the money was missing until I got there and opened it up. By then it would have been too late to do a search and seizure because school was already over.”

“I just remembered! Hinata said Suigetsu and Jugo were looking for me this morning!” Karin spoke spontaneously. “Let’s find Jugo!” Karin pulled the hair tie off her already loose ponytail and refastened her hair back up so that it was out of her face.

Sasuke and Karin left the student council room as if just remembering there was another piece to the puzzle. Jugo. And how stupid of them to overlook such an important cornerpiece. They left the school grounds and made their way to Jugo’s family veterinary clinic. The moment Karin pushed open the door Jugo’s voice rang out.

“He didn’t do it!”

“I know!” Karin comforted. “Hinata said that you and Suigetsu were looking for me in the student council room! Why? You guys never go there! So why did you go there today?” Although she was trying to keep her voice steady a burst of accusatory inflection seethed through at the end of her sentence.

“Gaara said you had a vintage copy of Tank Girl.” Jugo answered. “He said you brought it to~” Hearing Jugo confirm that it was Gaara who seduced them into going to the student council room was enough to affirm his belief. Even if it was circumstantial!

“That bastard! Why would you believe anything that rat bastard said!” Karin yelled.

“...” Jugo remained quiet because the excitement he and Suigetsu had over reading a vintage comic overpowered their frontal lobe cortex that said they were being baited and to proceed with caution. How could Jugo explain their frontal lobe cortex wasn’t even fully developed until around twenty-four years old and that their fifteen year old brains were drowning in teenage hormones that drove them to want to see a half-clad woman straddling a cannon?

“Why didn’t they question you? Why didn’t you give a statement to the police?” Karin asked impatiently.

“The police officer said he would charge me with conspiracy or aiding and abetting!” Jugo confessed. “I told them I was with Suigetsu in the student council room and I said we both left when we saw that Karin wasn’t there. We followed Hinata out!”

“Did Hinata lie?” Karin’s voice was hoarse as she jerked her head to look at Sasuke.

“No, I mean.” Jugo shook his head. “Hinata left stating she was going to class. Suigetsu and I did a quick sweep over your desk just in case you might have left it there.”

“You idiots! Brains full of mashed baby food! How the heck did you two get in on academic scholarships?” Karin smacked Jugo across the head. Jugo made a whimpering noise. “Is half-naked women really enough to make you go stupid?”

“It doesn’t for you?” Jugo mumbled. Karin slapped him again and proceeded to punch and kick him.

“This is serious!” Karin cried out. Her voice was sharp. Her eyes were red-rimmed and her nose pink.

Sasuke watched as Jugo’s face turned ashen, his eyes watered, and his mouth twisted down. He resembled one of those sad clown paintings. Out of the four of them, Jugo was the most sensitive. Jugo often joked with Sasuke that he had enough emotions for the both of them following a candid conversation he shared with Jugo about not being able to feel emotion like the rest of them so freely felt. How safe he felt in Jugo’s response. How accepting Jugo had been.

He had witnessed at least half a dozen times Jugo openly weeping and mourning over the death of an animal. How tenderhearted Jugo really was and how Sasuke wanted to protect him. Jugo was the second person to talk to him and it was Jugo who introduced him to Suigetsu and Karin. It was Jugo who had been honest and endearing since the beginning. Sasuke had wanted to thank him because without Jugo the disconnect and fallout he experienced with Naruto would have sunk him back into that dark pit he crawled out of, and once he had a taste of what a friendship could be albeit a skewed, twisted, version with Naruto, he didn’t want to go back to the pit of despair.

Catching Jugo’s wet amber eyes caused Sasuke to have an intrusive thought. If the roles were reversed and the money was planted in Jugo’s locker instead of Suigetsu then it would have been Sasuke who wrecked the student council office. No. He might have begun wrecking the principal’s office. Did he care more about Jugo than he cared about Suigetsu? He felt immediate guilt drowning him.

“Karin.” Sasuke interrupted. “Do you know what the ‘simon says’ game is? Gaara and Temari were talking about it during homecoming.”

Karin sniffled. He had never witnessed Karin crying before and today was the closest he’d seen her get to that line without actually crossing it. Her heart wouldn’t allow it. He watched as Karin remembered something and he saw her face wrinkle up as if she had just drunk expired milk. She had remembered and it wasn’t a pleasant memory.

“Yes.” Karin answered. “It was a game the Sabaku siblings often played.”

“What was the game?”

“It’s just as you think how you’d play it.”

Gaara was right when he said the Sabaku and Uzumaki families were interwoven since before any of them were born. He had alluded to an affair between his father and Karin’s mother, taking that information with a grain of salt it made sense that the Uzumaki’s who thrived in the art world with music, dance, and theater would be involved with an entertainment and PR relations corporation. It was only natural that the children of Kushina and Mito played with the children of Rasa Sabaku, the CEO of Atacama Corp, who financially backed the Uzumaki arts.

Rasa Sabaku had little involvement with the nurturing of his three children following the death of their mother. He had hired a fleet of nannies of different backgrounds, ages, and experiences to raise them. It painted another layer of the Sabaku children who never had a stable caretaker their whole life. He was described as a cold and domineering father who was never without a lover pushing the responsibility of his children’s wellbeing to complete strangers.

“Simon says was a game the Sabaku siblings started playing with their nannies. Except. If the nannies didn’t do what ‘Simon’ says they would be fired.” Karin emphasized.

Karin retold her first memory of experiencing this game. She and Naruto had gone on holiday to the Sabaku family’s lake house when they were around seven or eight years old. It was the first time she witnessed the siblings playing the simon says game with a young nanny who was barely twenty years old. It started out as trivial things such as fetching sweets and juice. Then became silly commands such as requesting cartwheels and handstands.

Then without warning the commands quickly escalated. Gaara had shattered an expensive glass mirror with a hammer and forced the nanny to pick up the pieces with her bare hands. The nanny had cut herself multiple times picking up the pieces.

“Just quit.” Temari told the nanny. “You’re embarrassing yourself.”

“No.” The nanny responded and continued placing the broken glass shards into the recycling bin.

“We don’t even like you.” Temari spoke coldly. The nanny pretended she didn’t hear her and continued picking up the shards of glass.

“This is boring.” Kankuro retorted and crossed his arms. “Temari, let's play house!”

Gaara continued the game of simon says while his siblings played together in Temari’s room. He forced the nanny to carry boxes of heavy books up the stairs then demanded she bring the boxes of heavy books back down the stairs. The game continued outside where Gaara told the nanny to swim out into the middle of the lake. When she tried putting on a lifejacket he refused.

“He told her if she wore a lifejacket she would be fired.” Karin murmured. “She was wearing the regulated dress uniform. We stood on the dock and watched her swim out to the middle of the lake. We watched her as she floundered and sank underwater.”

Karin recalled that she started screaming and panicking that the nanny had drowned. The uneasiness and nervousness that festered in her stomach from the beginning of the simon says game erupted like a volcano. Her conscience screamed like jiminy cricket in her ear that this was wrong and the nanny was going to die.

“I turned and looked at Naruto but he was expressionless. He just kept staring out at the lake. When I looked at Gaara he was smiling as if enjoying every second of it.”

Karin described how everything frightened her and she ran to try and get an adult who could help. She said her screams alerted Temari and Kankuro who rushed downstairs to see what the problem was. Their parents had gone golfing that day and hadn’t returned yet. She had been screaming that the nanny had drowned.

“Oh?” Temari exhaled in relief when Karin choked out why she was screaming and panicking. “I didn’t like her anyways.” She smiled as her eyes flickered out the french patio doors towards the shimmering lake as if she could see a floating corpse face down in the waters.

Karin slapped Temari across the face. She used every ounce of strength she had in her seven or eight year old body. Temari’s hand went up to cover the red hot handprint that had welted across her cheek and immediately started crying. Her eyes filled with a never-ending stream of fat tears.

Kankuro had shoved Karin and began yelling at her. “Don’t hit my sister!” Kankuro pushing Karin caused her to crash into a liquor cart, causing several glasses to fall out, and shatter against the floor. Karin had been wild in her youth and was already in many playground fights. She lunged on top of Kankuro like a caged tiger and began hitting, biting, and kicking him.

“I thought she drowned.” Karin concluded to Sasuke. “I was screaming and crying inside the lake house, fighting tooth and nail with Kankuro while Temari shed crocodile tears. It was complete mayhem when I saw the nanny walking through the french patio doors sopping wet. She must have taken off her dress when she was underwater and swam the rest of the way back to shore. The nanny had the audacity to ask us what was going on.”

“What happened to the nanny?” Sasuke asked.

“She was fired that night. It turns out the mirror that Gaara smashed with a hammer was their mother's. Even though I told Rasa it was Gaara who broke it. He fired her anyways for not supervising properly. She did all of that for nothing...and that is the ‘simon says’ game in a nutshell. Doing all of those commands for nothing.”

“It must have evolved because Gaara won a bet during homecoming to start playing the simon says game again.”

*****

Sasuke and Karin were practically thrown out of the police station. The only information they received was if Suigetsu’s case was going to be charged in juvenile court or if he was going to be tried as an adult. It was up to the prosecutor. They went to the courthouse to see who would be assigned the case and it was a very different atmosphere. Not only were they thrown out they gave the reaction as if they weren’t supposed to tell them anything. They used an antiquated law about protecting minors. It was nothing but red tape. He was able to glean some things about how the judicial system worked. When it came to experiencing it firsthand. It was overwhelming as if he were about to climb Mt Everest without any practice.

The next day during school Sasuke expected to be written up by the principal for the way the student council office was partly destroyed. Considering the only things wrecked were Hinata’s things it could be considered witness tampering and intimidation. The janitor must have picked up everything because when he entered the student council office everything was picked back up, and placed neatly on top of the desk with the chair pushed in. There was nothing out of the ordinary as if someone hit a secret reset button. The principal never called for him or Karin as if wanting to brush everything under the carpet.

Hinata was absent from school. It only caused Karin to stew in rage. Sasuke noticed the umbrella that Ino had returned. It was in the same spot as she placed it before fetching Hinata to eat lunch with them. He picked it up recalling the conversation he shared with Ino a month ago. He twirled the umbrella around. Ino was a wildcard. She was the dangerous kind because he never knew how she was going to respond and react.

“Karin. Do you know Ino’s schedule?” Sasuke asked. “Are you able to bring Ino to the student council room after school?”

“Do you think she’ll come?” Karin nodded her head.

Sasuke leaned against his desk and twirled the umbrella around. He gave it another thought and smiled. “Yeah. Tell her I have something to ask of her.”

*****

Sasuke heard the sound of rubber shoes against the floor right outside the open door of the student council room. He knew it was Ino who had paused, hiding behind the corner as if debating with herself if she was going to come in or not. He held his breath. He felt his body tensing up and his stomach did somersaults. After what felt like an hour, but was only a few minutes, Ino walked through the door with her adidas duffle bag around her shoulder.

“What do you want?” Ino asked aggressively. She was starting out on a high note.

“Will you close the door first?” Sasuke asked politely. He remained seated at his desk. Ino hesitated. She glanced over her shoulder as if she was thinking of making a run for it. She turned around and Sasuke was on the edge of his seat thinking she was going to escape like a gazelle fleeing a predator. She shut the door and leaned up against it with her arms folded.

“There. Now talk.” She was impatient.

“What do you know about the missing donation money?” Sasuke asked.

“Nothing.”

“Okay.” Sasuke pursed his lips together. “What about the simon says game?”

Sasuke watched as Ino had a visceral reaction. Her body shuddered as if she were plunged into the deep end of an icy pool. She went from leaning halfheartedly against the door to being erect as if a steel pool was melded to her spine. An alleycat who had been cornered by a dog.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Ino’s voice dropped low. Whatever the game was, Ino knew about it and was probably playing it. He wasn’t going to get any answers out of her and so he dropped the topic. Her body’s response was all the answer he needed.

“I need a favor.” Sasuke spoke quietly. “Tell me who is the assigned prosecutor for Suigetsu’s case.”

“Shouldn’t it be public knowledge?” Ino asked.

“They won’t tell me because Suigetsu is a minor. Something tells me they have about a hundred excuses not to tell me or any outsider.”

Ino shifted her weight from one leg to the other and readjusted her duffle bag. “What do you want me to do?”

“Find out from your father who the assigned prosecutor is.” Sasuke replied simply. Ino stared at him. Her face looked pensive as if in deep thought. She didn’t look like she was going to refuse, rather she looked like there were barriers in the way of this simple request and she was trying to figure a way around them.

“It’s nearly impossible to get any information out of my father, directly. I haven’t seen him in almost a week. He lives at the office. Are you busy tonight?” Ino asked. There was an upbeat in her voice as if she was excited.

Sasuke’s schedule was jam-packed every single day. Today he was supposed to go to cram school and then to see his private tutor. He decided not to think of the consequences of skipping. “No. I’m free.”

“Alright. Come with me to my dance practice and we’ll go to my place afterward.”

“What’s at your place?”

“My father’s computer that’s connected to the police station. I have the password.”

Sasuke smiled. Ino being a wild card worked in his favor. He needed his head and jabbed. “I haven’t seen you dance before, let's hope you’re not crap at it.”

He left with Ino.

*****

Part of him hoped that Ino was really bad and only got a spot on the team because of who her father was. Turns out not only was Ino an exceptional dancer she was leagues better than everyone else on the team. They were a competitive dance studio that competed both across the country and internationally. The thing that stood out from everyone else, and it wasn’t just Ino’s dancing, it was the expression she had when she danced. She looked like a completely different person. She was an enigma when she danced. She appeared like willowing smoke and if he reached out to touch her his hand would go right through her. Her expression and facial features were twisted into such pleasure it was borderline lascivious and parts of the routine Sasuke had to avert his eyes because it felt as if he shouldn’t be watching her.

Ino covered in sweat dressed in jogger pants with a cropped hooded top, chugged the entire water bottle that Sasuke handed to her. When she was finished she exhaled loudly. “What did you think? Was I crap?” She had a mischievous smile as if she knew she was leagues better than everyone else.

“No.” Sasuke accepted. “Not only were you exceptional, but parts of the routine were also so provocative I had to look away. I was a little jealous of how much fun you were having.”

Ino’s face turned strawberry red. She grabbed the towel around her neck and rubbed her face with it. “You don’t have to go that far, a simple yes or no would have sufficed let's go!”

*****

“You live here?” Sasuke asked as he looked at a large skyscraper. The building was central to everything. The Uzumaki theater, the Uzumaki gala, the boba tea lounge, their school, and downtown attractions. His cram school. He had walked by this building at least a dozen times every week.

“Mhm.” Ino nodded her head.

There was a doorman dressed in a uniform outside the building, upon seeing Ino he bowed his head. “Welcome back Ms.Yamanaka.” He held the door open for Ino and Sasuke as the two walked in.

Sasuke immediately knew why she lived here as he watched five security guards patrolling the lobby. They all appeared to know Ino and greeted her as she walked towards the elevator.

“It’s just me and my dad.” Ino confirmed Sasuke’s suspicions. “The security here is topnotch.”

Ino’s apartment had vaulted ceilings, stone tiles, a palette of greys and soft yellows, and an open floor concept. There was an electric fireplace that lit up when Ino pressed a button and he could hear the cracking of wood burning.

“Do you want anything to drink?” Ino asked as she threw her duffle bag on the white leather couch and walked into the kitchen that looked like it belonged on a cooking show. “Cola?” Ino asked as she pulled out a can of coke from the fridge.

“Sure.” He nodded his head and reached for it. He watched as Ino also opened up a can and brought it to her lips. Even though she downed a water bottle she downed the can of cola as if in a food eating competition and slammed it on the counter exhaling loudly.

“That hits the spot!” Ino stretched. “Come on, let's get the prosecutor’s name.”

Sasuke sat next to Ino inside her father’s office in front of dual-monitored computer screens. This wasn’t the first time Ino went on her father’s computer because she was deft and precise. Within a few clicks, she brought up Suigetsu’s police report and began skimming it.

“Anko Mitarashi is assigned.”

“Do you know anything about her?” Sasuke asked as he leaned over and read her name.

“No. If you want to know about the prosecution office why not ask~”

“I already have someone in mind.” Sasuke cut her off. “Before you ask, no, you don’t know them.”

“It seems you have everything you need. This will make us even?” Ino asked.

“Yeah. Thanks.” Sasuke stood up.

“Sasuke. I want to tell you to be careful around Gaara.” Ino’s voice caused him to stop moving. “He’s scarier than Kiba and Sakura.”

“I don’t want anything to do with you, or Sakura, or Kiba, or Gaara, or Naruto! The way I see it Gaara and Naruto make the perfect pair.” He hadn’t meant to raise his voice. Feelings of repressed anger spiraled out, and it felt like his skin was being licked with fire. “Speaking of...I’ve been meaning to ask and since it’s just you and me here you’ll give me an honest answer right?”

“Right.” Ino nodded her head. She had one leg resting on the swivel chair and the other dangled over. She looked unaffected by Sasuke’s change of voice and attitude almost as if she was expecting it.

“What’s the difference between me and Gaara?” Sasuke asked. He didn’t need to explain because Ino immediately knew what he was referring to. She was quick on the uptake. She was sharp and observant. He was asking why nothing had happened to Gaara when he snaked his way next to Naruto. Whereas Sasuke was ostracized.

“We were all friends with Gaara before we moved away to boarding school. He was obsessed with Naruto the entire time I’ve known him. He became jealous of anyone Naruto gave attention to and during that time Naruto was giving all his attention to Neji.”

Sasuke remembered Hinata saying that Gaara had insulted Neji and during the argument, Naruto had taken Neji’s side and stopped being friends with him. He listened and waited for Ino to continue but she didn’t say anything. Her eyes glossed over and turned vacant in the same manner Hinata’s eyes did on the bus.

“What did he do to Neji?” Sasuke asked.

“Locked him in the utility closet outback. He was locked in there for about eight hours before anyone found him. He had to be hospitalized because the temperatures were so hot and he was dehydrated.”

Ino was staring right through him and he realized it was because she wasn’t in her father’s office at home. She was locked in the boxcar. A pang of unknown guilt gripped his neck and tightened its hold as he thought about Neji having a precursor to the boxcar. Being locked in a utility closet while temperatures soared. How awful and confining. Thinking about Neji immediately caused him to think of Hinata. His chest ached and tightened as if his insides were being balled up.

“You probably heard more stories of what he’s capable of. He did something to each and every one of us.”

He heard Karin’s voice calling him a psychopath.

“You...we aren’t afraid of you.” Ino’s eyes refocused and she was back to the present. Her eyes were slitted and she had a sly smile on her face. “Did you know Hinata confessed to Naruto?”

Sasuke swallowed and refused to say anything.

“Want to know a secret?” Ino placed both of her feet on the ground. She leaned over and rested her elbows on her knees. Her eyes focused up at him. The air around Ino changed. “Yesterday when I fetched Hinata it had nothing to do with Naruto.”

“What did you do to Hinata?”

“I took her into the girl’s bathroom and warned her to stay away from Naruto or something bad would happen to her. I was just going to warn her about Sakura but seeing as Gaara is back in the picture I told her about him too.”

“She’s going to remember one of these days what you did to her. I forgot how much of a coldhearted person you really are.” Sasuke growled. “Is there something I am missing? Why is everyone so obsessed with Naruto?”

“Blue-eyed, blonde-hair, handsome, rich.” Ino shrugged and counted on her fingers the positive and appealing aspects. “When you’re with him he makes you feel like you’re the most important person in the world and treats you as such.” Ino exhaled and pushed back in the chair. “We’re all love-starved and touch-starved. Except for Naruto. He had the perfect family and maybe that’s another reason we admire him.”

“Love-starved?” Sasuke asked. Ino had done it again. Used a term that intrigued and fascinated him.

“Sakura’s father is a surgeon at the hospital, her mother is the chief medical examiner. Neither were around when she was growing up. They enrolled her into the playhouse theater when she was four years old and told her to become someone else. The only thing her parents made a commitment to was watching her perform on stage. They missed every other function. The difference between me and Sakura is that I am passionate about dancing, and Sakura sees it as a way to become close to her parents and does it out of desperation.”

“What about you?” Sasuke asked. “Why are you love-starved?”

“My mother ran away. My father was promoted to commissioner of police. I was put in dance. Don’t look at me like that. It doesn’t bother me.” Ino spoke in a matter-of-fact voice. Even though she tried to act like it didn’t bother her, it was written all over her face in black sharpie that it bothered her then, and it was bothering her now. Not only was it written all over her face it had penetrated every single aspect of her life.

“Kiba?”

“His parents work in the courthouse. It’s hard to raise a functional child when you’re too busy making sure pedophiles stay behind bars.”

He knew Hinata’s background and he knew Gaara’s.

“So?” Sasuke snarled and took a step back. “You guys treat Naruto like he’s some cult leader...or god. He’s a spoiled brat and the worst kind of person! Why don’t you stop? It’s gross.”

“What about you? Aren’t you secretly obsessed with Naruto? You’re always bringing him up.” Ino challenged. “You’ve brought him up so many times tonight I’ve lost count!”

“He helped Gaara frame Suigetsu, and I’m going to make sure they both pay!”

“Good luck.” Ino licked her lips. “But I warned you. Nothing will actually happen to us.”

*****

Sasuke held the house phone in his hands. He had been staring at a phone number written in perfect penmanship for the better half of an hour, trying to work up the courage to call. Itachi gave Sasuke his phone number before he left for university. Telling him to call him if he needed anything. He never thought he would actually call, would actually need anything. He inhaled and dialed the number, bringing it to his ear as he heard the ringing noise. Just when he was about to hang up from embarrassment the phone connected.

“Hello?” Itachi’s cool voice greeted him. His cool detached voice caught Sasuke off guard and for a few seconds he wasn’t able to say anything.

“Itachi?” Sasuke asked. There was a pause at the other end of the line. He heard his brother shifting as if sitting, or standing up.

“Sasuke? What’s wrong?” Itachi asked with worry and apprehension. His voice sounded human again. “What happened to you?”

“It isn’t about me.” Sasuke’s mind went blank. He regretted not writing down what he wanted to say. His relationship with Itachi improved over the summer but he still felt like he was in competition. He still worried that Itachi was going to laugh at him. Tell him there was nothing he could do and hang up. “It’s about...my friend. He’s in trouble.”

Sasuke’s heart was jammed in the back of his throat. He was sweating profusely and his leg wouldn’t stop bobbing up and down as he recounted to Itachi what had happened to Suigetsu. He described the frame and cover up then told him what he believed happened, and how it happened. When he spilled his guts he felt like he was going to faint from exhaustion. It took Itachi a moment before responding.

“The first problem is whether the case will be heard in juvenile or criminal court. The prosecutor is Anko Mitarashi. I’ll make sure the case will be heard in juvenile court. It will save you time to find evidence that can clear his name and if not at least his case will be sealed when he turns eighteen.”

“You...you can do that?” Sasuke asked.

“Orochimaru can.” Itachi spoke. He could hear his brother moving his head as if he were looking at Orochimaru. He could almost hear another person nodding their head in agreement. He didn’t have to imagine Orochimaru’s voice because he heard him speak in the background.

“This is the kind of thing I hate the most. I’ll make sure his case is held in juvenile court. Leave everything to me.” Orochimaru’s smooth, calm voice reminded Sasuke of a tranquil pond filled with lily pads and water lilies. Orochimaru was the adopted son of the mayor. He had connections at both city hall and the courthouse. He knew he could help.

“Thank you so much!” Sasuke yelled and physically bowed his head as if either could see him.

*****

“Hinata. Are you avoiding me?” Sasuke asked as he fastened his seatbelt.

The plane was just about ready to take off. This was the first time he was flying first class. It was something Mito Uzumaki insisted on covering the difference for their plane tickets. The competition was that important. He knew his parents had the money for first-class as they had always flown Itachi to and from university with first-class tickets. The problem was in his mother’s eyes Sasuke wasn’t worthy enough. The seats were bigger, more comfortable and he had legroom. The screens were bigger and he was given a goodie bag of chapstick, a sleeping mask, fancy earplugs, a pair of warm socks and slippers, a large blanket, and a pillow.

“No.” Hinata answered. Her voice was so meek and quiet it was as if she barely said anything at all.

“I don’t blame you for what happened.” Sasuke voiced. Hinata glanced over her shoulder to the back of the plane. Karin and her mother were sitting two rows behind them. Her expression said that even if Sasuke didn’t blame her Karin still did. She looked forward.

“Why are you bringing up Suigetsu?” Gaara asked. He and Kankuro were seated directly in front of them. He turned around in his seat and stared at Sasuke. It caused Sasuke to raise his eyebrows in alarm.

“I didn’t say his name so what makes you think I am referring to him?” Sasuke had no patience and zero tolerance when it came to Gaara. He felt braver being trapped on a plane with him knowing there was little that Gaara could do in retaliation. He did little to contain the hatred he had for Gaara and treated him as the deranged monster he was. “Do you want to admit something?”

Not only did he have to fly six hours away for a piano competition he wanted nothing to do with, but he was also now forced to travel with the Sabaku siblings. He didn’t realize that this particular competition was heavily funded by Rasa Sabaku’s company, nor did he think that Rasa himself and his three children would be attending. Mito said that Rasa will be handing out the trophies and prize money.

Gaara’s smile flattened for a moment. “My mistake.” The way he emphasized those two words was as good as admitting to orchestrating the whole thing. He turned around in his seat.

Sasuke couldn’t help himself. He reacted before he thought. He kicked the back of Gaara’s seat. Hard. He watched the seat shift forward and Gaara’s red hair bounced in all directions.

“Did you just kick my seat?” Gaara yelled as he spun around in his seat. It caused several people’s eyes to shift in their direction.

“I’m sorry. My foot slipped.” Sasuke spoke politely. He offered up a sweet smile.

“Sasuke.” Hinata said his name and rested her hand on his hand. “Don’t.” Her voice was cautious.

“What? It really was a mistake. It was...my mistake.” Sasuke spoke these words as he stared directly at Gaara who was seething. Sasuke could almost see steam shooting from his ears.

“Gaara, don’t make a scene.” Kankuro spoke. “Father won’t be happy if you make a scene.”

*****

It wasn’t the first thing he noticed from Hinata. He kept repeating what she was telling him. Her not being able to sleep, being sleepy, having nightmares. Her vacant eyes eerily looked like she was sleeping with her eyes open. Her skin had become so ashen and grey at times she resembled a corpse. How unfocused she had become, especially when she managed to be swindled out of $10,000 of donation money right from under her nose. The icing on the cake was when Hinata woke up screaming during the flight. She was dripping in sweat and panting.

It immediately woke Sasuke up and he ripped the sleeping mask off. She screamed as if she were being attacked, and Sasuke woke up as if the plane were crashing. Sasuke caught Gaara snickering a scornful laugh openly mocking Hinata. It wasn’t the time to talk to her. Hinata apologized profusely and hid underneath the blanket. Sasuke was helpless to do anything but watch her the rest of the plane ride.

After going to the hotel and checking in they came to a penthouse suite on the top floor. It didn’t resemble a typical hotel room at all. It essentially was a fully functioning apartment with stairs that lead to the lofted second floor. It was huge. They had gotten two penthouse suites and they were across from each other. Mito, Karin, Hinata, and Sasuke in one and across from theirs were the Sabaku family.

“We have to talk.” Sasuke spoke to Hinata. Karin had been giving Hinata the silent treatment. She picked a room and fell asleep. Mito excused herself to go to the hotel bar. Sasuke grabbed Hinata’s hand and dragged her in the furthest part of the penthouse from Karin. He didn’t let her hand go until they were on the second floor in one of the rooms. He closed the door behind him.

“Hinata. What’s going on? You’re a mess.” Sasuke let go of Hinata’s hand and stepped back.

As if on cue Hinata started crying and shaking her head. “Everything! Everything is wrong and I can’t take it anymore!”

Sasuke’s body moved on its own. He never knew a crying girl would become one of his weak parts. He wrapped his arms around Hinata and hugged her. She felt as if she lost weight. She felt frail as if he held her any tighter and he would have shattered her bones. Hinata cried harder and buried her face into his chest. Her entire body trembled with each sob.

“I remember.” Hinata sobbed. Her fingers grabbed fistfuls of his shirt as she spoke. “I remember everything. Sakura pushed me down the stairs. They left me...Naruto, Kiba, Ino, and Sakura. They left me and ran!”

Hinata collapsed and Sasuke wasn’t fast enough to catch her. She crumpled to her knees and her hands helped brace her fall. She sobbed harder. Her whole body trembled. Snot rolling down her mouth and chin.

“At first...I tried to tell myself I was remembering wrong. I thought they were just nightmares. I started having the same memory during school. When I am in the shower. When I am watching TV. When I am doing my homework. When I am brushing my teeth. When I am playing the piano. The memory becomes clearer and clearer and I can feel it in my body. I feel it all over when I fell!”

Sasuke crouched down and rested his hands on Hinata’s shoulders.

“AHHHHHHHH.” Hinata screamed and then buried her head in the carpeted floor. “I had nothing to do with what happened to Suigetsu!”

“It’s not your fault, Hinata. None of this is your fault.” Sasuke spoke gently. He started rubbing her back. He could feel her spine through her clothes. She had rolled into child’s pose and her spine was perfectly rounded. “You need to tell your parents what happened. Hinata you almost died.”

“I just thought...I just thought I could forgive them and move on. But Sakura has been nothing but mean to me and Ino warned me if I didn’t stay away from Naruto that something worse was going to happen to me. I don’t want them to hate me anymore and nothing is going to make them like me again. If I wasn’t so caught up with this I wouldn’t have lost the donation money!”

“Naruto and Gaara set Suigetsu up!” Sasuke explained. “They used you as a pawn.”

Hinata and Sasuke lay sprawled on their backs with their legs in opposite directions and their heads next to each other. They both stared up at the ceiling. The only sound that was heard for approximately forty-five minutes was the sound of their breathing. Hinata had calmed down and turned into a puddle. Sasuke had experienced secondhand exhaustion just looking at Hinata and could barely lift himself up.

“Do you think I’m pathetic?” Hinata asked. “I still confessed to Naruto even though I knew what they all had done to me. Even now I still like him. I’m pathetic aren’t I?”

“No. We can’t choose who we fall in love with.” Sasuke answered.

An image of Orochimaru crossed his mind. He smiled. He had liked Orochimaru even more because after his phone call with Itachi, whatever Orochimaru did, worked, and Suigetsu’s case was being heard in juvenile court. There was a long backlog of cases needing to be seen before Suigetsu’s case. Last night Suigetsu was released back into the custody of his parents. He felt a warmness creeping into his heart. He was able to give Suigetsu time. Another lingering effect was Suigetsu currently being suspended from school pending the outcome of court.

“Naruto isn’t dating Sakura and when he turned me down he told me he already liked someone else. I think I know who he likes.”

Sasuke rolled his eyes. He was about to tell her to stop talking about Naruto when she blurted out a name from left field.

“I think he really liked Neji. They were almost inseparable at that time. Naruto was always spending the night at Neji’s, or Neji was always spending the night at Naruto’s.”

“Isn’t that what friends do?” Sasuke asked. He was genuinely confused.

“It was different with them. Thinking back...yeah...it was different.”

Sasuke bit his lower lip. He had this conversation with Karin only because she had confessed to him that she was attracted to girls. He never had this conversation with Hinata. He decided to test the waters.

“Hinata. What do you think about two girls dating each other, or two boys dating each other?”

“What do you mean? If they’re in love and they aren’t hurting anyone. What’s there to think? They’re in love. Didn’t you say it yourself, sometimes we can’t help who we fall in love with?” Hinata’s answer filled Sasuke’s heart up. He wondered how the world would be if everyone was as open-minded and accepting as Hinata. “Do you like anyone?”

“Yeah, but they go to a different school.” Sasuke confessed. He tried to be as vague as he could. He wasn’t ready to tell anyone what kind of thoughts he has been having. He barely wanted to acknowledge those thoughts himself. He couldn’t even bring himself to talk to Karin and she confessed she had the same feelings towards other girls.

“Have you confessed?” Hinata inquired.

“No. I don’t need to. I’m happy with the way things are now.”

The air between him and Hinata settled. There was no longer a disturbance in the universe. They were able to be side by side breathing the same air without any tension. He was a fool to believe that Hinata would have willingly participated in something as heinous as framing Suigetsu. She was honest from the beginning. Her testimony was true. She was a pawn. A victim. Again.

Sasuke thought about confronting Gaara. He figured he should do it while they were both six hours away. He’d do it after the competition. He’d find a way to get him alone then he would confront him about everything.

*****

It was the first time he wasn’t nervous. His mind had been preoccupied that he barely had time to think about the competition. He was just here and it was happening and it was out of his control. Time was distorted and the next thing he knew it was his turn. He was completely apathetic about the piano competition. He already knew that Hinata would win first place. She deserved it because she was a better piano player and would follow in Karin’s footsteps. They would both go to that cult-like music camp overseas. If they had ever had the chance to make up.

Sasuke played Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. All two-hundred and one measures. It wasn’t a complicated song and at first, he was a little insulted that Mito Uzumaki chose this song for him to play. He almost protested but caught himself. He didn’t want to appear too eager. As his fingers played across the bone-white and inky black piano keys the notes reminded him of a rainstorm. A thunderstorm and as he began to picture the thunderstorm Ino came to his mind. The memory of handing her an umbrella so she would remain dry as she went to dance practice. How envious he was that she was completely passionate about something that her face had turned lascivious while dancing.

If he had a passion for piano how much better would he be able to play? How did Ino dance so beautifully? Ino was chaotic neutral. She was tied to a secret and had been complacent in keeping and maintaining that secret. What good was it now? Hinata remembered, she had been remembered. Sasuke poured this revolution into the keys. He enjoyed the sound it made when he played like this.

“What makes you play?” Mito Uzumaki asked him during practice. “What thoughts and desires are going through your mind? What is your...drive?”

‘Nothing.’ Sasuke wanted to say. He had no thoughts, no desires, no drive. He was just playing because that was what he was told to do.

“Family.” Was his afterschool tv special answer.

He slammed the keys down when he thought about this. He completely forgot there was an audience. A full auditorium. Of participants and families and sponsors and agents. All of that ceased to matter. Like the raindrops that splashed against concrete and seeped into the cracks of asphalt, he continued playing. A clap of thunder. A vein of lightning spidering across the sky.

He started playing softer, like dew dripping off blades of grass, and then it was over.
It was the first time he had performed without making any mistakes. He heard the loud roar of applause.

*****

Sasuke was seated next to Hinata in the first row of the auditorium with all the other competitors. It was the end and Rasa Sabaku was on stage holding a microphone and talking. Rasa was a formidable man. There was a cold handsomeness to him. He reminded him of flowers that bloomed on cactuses. If he hadn’t heard the horror stories of Rasa behind closed doors it was hard to believe the man who was so charismatic, so witty, and entertaining as anything else. A man like him needed to be the CEO of an entertainment and PR corporation.

“Second place goes to Hinata Hyuga!” Rasa yelled into the microphone after opening up the red envelope.

“Second? There was somebody better than you?” Sasuke whispered to Hinata. “This competition really is rigged! You played better than everyone!” Sasuke continued to speak as he squeezed Hinata’s hand reassuringly. Her face became the color of a tomato as she walked across the stage and accepted both the trophy and check.

Sasuke clapped half-heartedly. He was glancing to his left and right wondering who was able to play better than Hinata. Immediately speculating one of the competitor's parents lined the pockets of the judges before the competition started.

“The winner of the competition and finalist for the international Claire de Lune piano competition is Sasuke Uchiha!”

No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No.

Sasuke remained frozen in his seat. His heart fell to the pit of his pelvis. His chest became hollow and a whistling sound of the wind could be heard. His vision blurred and he couldn’t hear anything except the sound of two high-speed trains on either side of him. He could feel the suction of the wind threatening to pull him under the tracks like the death of Anna Karenina. He’d rather have his skull crushed by the wheels of the train than go on stage and accept the prize. He thought if he remained perfectly still he would blend into the chair and he would vanish.

Mito Uzumaki appeared and grabbed his wrist and hoisted him up. She laughed and explained it was too much of a shock for him to absorb it. The audience laughed. He never would have gone up on stage by himself. Mito practically dragged him the whole way. She grabbed the check and trophy.

Rasa held the microphone out for Mito who spoke on behalf of Sasuke.

“Please excuse my student. He is not used to such things; he thought someone was playing a trick on him. I assure you, Sasuke, you are one of my proteges and I only see great things stored for you in your future!”

Mito hugged Sasuke and whispered into his ear. “Congratulations Sasuke, you played beautifully! I haven’t seen such emotional playing in a long time! I’m really proud of you!” She kissed him on the cheek.

Emotional playing? His brain stopped functioning when he heard the words: I’m really proud of you. He never thought only five words would fill him to the brim with happiness. How starved for praise he was in his life until Mito whispered these words into his ear. It was like breathing new life into him and he felt a warmness filling the small of his belly and his groin. He felt giddy as if being pumped full of laughing gas and helium. If Mito wasn’t holding onto him he would have floated away.

He smiled at her words and his smile grew and took over his face until he finally accepted that he had won. And how happy and great it was to have won, because someone told him how proud he made them, and he wondered if he won the next competition if Mito would whisper those five words into his ear.

*****

“I know I shouldn’t, and if anyone tells I’ll deny it. But I want you to enjoy it. I am very happy that my proteges wiped the floor with the competition!” Mito announced as she provided three bottles of sparkling cider. The familiar bottle reminded Sasuke of the bottle he shared with Karin in the broom closet at the Gala.

The counters were filled with catered food.

He looked at Mito and offered a weak smile. He had since calmed down and although he was happy when he accepted the first prize he went back to worrying about competing in an international competition. There was a dark shadow looming over him and he was bracing for the storm.

“If you will excuse me I have late-night dinner and drink plans with my colleagues. Don’t wait up for me.” Mito reapplied a layer of red lipstick as she looked at herself in the mirror and left.

“I seriously can’t believe she left us alcohol.” Karin spoke as she picked up a bottle and looked at it. Karin popped the cork and began pouring three glasses. There was a knock at the door. She frowned. “Let’s not answer. If we pretend we’re asleep~”

The sound of the lock being unlocked was heard and the door was pushed open. Temari appeared with a keycard. “Tada! Mito gave us the roomkey. She said we should hang out and keep ourselves occupied!”

Following her into the room were Gaara and Kankuro. All three of them were dressed in flashy outfits as if they were about to walk the red carpet, and all three of them were holding sparkling wine bottles. The closer Gaara walked the more noticeable a small bruise at the corner of his mouth became. Gaara appeared to be in a foul mood and seemed reluctant to even be here.

“We’re not here willingly.” Gaara barked slamming the bottle on the counter.

“I am!” Temari purred as she pushed her shoulder against Karin who remained frowning.

“We were told not to go back to the room.” Kankuro spoke as he sat down on one of the barstools. Kankuro looked at Karin. “If my father loves your mom so much, why did he have to get married to a child bride? Why not just marry yours?” Karin’s face turned red and she looked like she was going to respond when she saw the bruise on Gaara’s face.

“Because she’s the oil heiress and with her comes money.” Temari snapped at Kankuro. “Bring her up one more time and I’ll slap you.”

“Did you make your daddy angry again?” Karin mocked Gaara.

“I heard Suigetsu’s case is being heard in juvenile court. How did you manage to swing that?” Gaara barked.

“I did it.” Sasuke interrupted. He glared at Gaara who didn’t break eye contact. Karin grabbed one of the glasses of wine and splashed it in Gaara’s face.

“I know you set Suigetsu up you bastard! Get out!” Karin screamed. It became as quiet as a morgue.

Gaara’s reaction was scarier when he didn’t explode. He closed his eyes as the beads of sparkling wine rolled off his face. The front of his shirt absorbed some and whatever couldn’t be absorbed dripped to the floor. He opened his eyes and smiled. There were a few beads of wine on his eyelashes and Sasuke watched as the beads rolled off when he blinked.

Gaara grabbed the sparkling glass of wine that Sasuke was holding. His fingers wrapped around both the glass and Sasuke’s fingers. “I would be nicer to me if I were you.” He spoke to Karin. Sasuke remained rigid. He couldn’t move his hand back as if he were under some spell.

“You have no authority here!” Karin barked.

“Karin...just drop it, for now, there is nothing that can be done. We’re going home tomorrow.” Temari’s sweet voice filled the room. “Here. Let me pour you a drink. Over here. Let’s go over here and I’ll pour you a drink.”

Sasuke locked eyes with Gaara. “I’m not going to lie. The look suits you, Gaara. Maybe I should add some more wine to your face?”

“I was about to make a deal with you, but with that attitude maybe I shouldn’t.”

“Tell me the deal first before I think about changing my attitude.”

“No. I don’t think I will.” Gaara spat and pulled the glass from Sasuke’s hands. No, of course not. If Gaara was going to make a deal he wasn’t going to do it out in the open. He’d do it when he was alone with him. Sasuke decided to play along. He watched as Gaara downed the glass of sparkling wine before grabbing a hand towel to dry off.

*****

It didn’t matter how the night started or ended. What mattered was getting Gaara alone. He saw his opportunity when Gaara left to go to the bathroom. Sasuke waited outside the bathroom door and when Gaara came out he grabbed his arm and shoved him into the adjoining bedroom, closing the door behind them. He watched as Gaara looked unfazed as if expecting it.

“Are you ready to play nice?” Gaara asked as he stumbled and straightened himself up.

“What’s the deal you want to make?”

Gaara sat at the edge of the bed, his hands sprawled out on both sides of him. From this angle, he looked like a tyrant king about to sentence Sasuke to death.

“I thought you would have come to me sooner. Maybe if the money was placed in Jugo’s locker you would have come sooner.” Gaara spoke. “I was growing bored of waiting. I never expected you’d drag me into a bedroom. What would Naruto think?”

“...” Sasuke remained quiet. He took a few steps forward.

“I want to play a game of simon says with you and at the end, I’ll turn over evidence to the police that exonerates Suigetsu.” Gaara continued.

Sasuke remembered Karin telling him the memory of Gaara playing simon says with the nanny and even though the nanny did everything Gaara wanted she was still fired in the end. He needed to be smarter and sharper than Gaara.

“No.” Sasuke refused.

“Fine. How about this. Make Naruto hate you, and I’ll turn over evidence to the police.”

The request took Sasuke by surprise. Wasn’t that what he was trying to do this whole time? “I hate Naruto. I want nothing to do with him, or you. Why do you keep bringing him up?”

“I heard what they did to you. At the sleepover. It was kind of kinky once you think about it.” Gaara dropped his voice. It caused a shiver to run down Sasuke’s spine as he knew exactly what happened. “Sakura and Kiba told me.”

“So?” Sasuke snapped. “It’s not like there is any proof.”

“I like Naruto and he belongs to me!”

“I don’t want him! Take him!”

“But he likes you!” Gaara yelled. He sounded like a child.

“He just doesn’t know how to deal with someone hating him.” Sasuke defended. “It has nothing to do with me, specifically. Besides, it isn’t even me that he likes. The person he really likes is Neji and he’s dead. You’re not in competition with me, you're in competition with a dead boy.”

“Neji?” Gaara asked. His eyes widened. From his expression, there was truth to Hinata’s speculation. An ugly expression took hold of Gaara and his features darkened as if the beast that lived in him was coming to the surface and reeling its ugly head.

Sasuke thought about Suigetsu.

“I’ll do it. I’ll think of a way to make Naruto hate me.” Sasuke continued speaking. “I told you I don’t like him. You just make sure you keep your end of the bargain and make sure Suigetsu gets exonerated.”

“Really?” Gaara asked and perked up.

Sasuke nodded his head. If it meant Suigetsu would be proven innocent, his suspension would be lifted and he can return to school. If he got Naruto to hate him then it was killing two birds with one stone.

“Kiss me.” Gaara tilted his head.

“What did you say?” Sasuke balked. He overlapped the memory of Naruto saying the same thing to him. It echoed in his head. Gaara and Naruto’s images overlapped and for a moment Sasuke didn’t know who he was staring at.

“I want to tell Naruto that you willingly kissed me. Maybe he’ll hate you then.” Gaara suggested with a shrug of his shoulder.

Gaara and Naruto were different sides of the same coin. He remembered Naruto asking him the night of the sleepover to kiss him. How he was at his mercy and compiled because he was afraid Naruto was going to lie about him to his parents and ruin the merger. How heartless and shameless Naruto was and still is. How selfish and indulgent he was. A spoiled brat, and looking at Gaara there was no difference. Two pampered, spoiled, rich kids who were able to do whatever they wanted because they kept getting away with it. It wasn’t that they were being treated as gods, they were practically gods with the way they were untouchable.

“Tell the truth. Why do you really want to kiss me?” Sasuke asked. “Does it really have to do with Naruto?”

“Partly because you’re kinda hot and partly because I know it’s going to make Naruto go fucking crazy.”

Sasuke grabbed Gaara’s shoulders and shoved him back on the bed. He was surprised to see how light Gaara was. He blamed it on the alcohol for making him tipsy with confidence. He balanced on the bed, his knees on either side of Gaara’s pelvic bones. He held Gaara’s shoulders down, pinning him.

“Are you touch starved, Gaara? Is this why you’re a monster?” Sasuke asked. He kept his voice down. So that only Gaara could hear. He brought his right thumb to Gaara’s bottom lip and pushed down lightly. “Who was the last person you kissed? Did they kiss you willingly or did you blackmail them like you’re doing now?” Sasuke brought his hand and cupped Gaara’s cheek. The tips of his fingers brushed against the bruise. “Did your father hit you again? Do you want to talk about it?”

“Get off.” Gaara demanded and moved his hands up.

“I’m not allowed to touch you?” Sasuke asked. “I thought this was what you wanted. How about we hold hands?” Sasuke used his left hand to grab Gaara’s hand and pinned it to the bed. He spread Gaara’s fingers open with his own fingers and laced his fingers with his, squeezing. He’d like to break his hand if he could.

“I’m going to take you and Naruto down.” Sasuke whispered in Gaara’s ear. It caused Gaara to turn his head in the opposite direction. He witnessed Gaara’s face turning pink.

Sasuke grabbed Gaara’s chin and turned his head so he was able to look him in the eyes. He held him firmly. “If you wanted my attention why not just ask for it instead of framing my friend and getting him arrested?”

“It’s not about you it’s about~”

“Naruto.” Sasuke finished his sentence. “It isn’t. If you truly liked him, loved him, why are you in bed with me? Why are you so desperate to kiss someone else?”

Gaara’s eyes widened. “You. Get. Off. Me.” His words were weak. Although Gaara protested he made no move to expel Sasuke from on top of him. He kept holding Gaara’s hand. He had wanted to tease Gaara. It started out that way and now he didn’t know how to end it. How to stop it.

“Tell me how you did it.” Sasuke purred in Gaara’s ear. Maybe it was the alcohol. He knew that Gaara wouldn’t have responded to conventional methods. “Then I’ll get off you.”

“It wasn’t hard. I told Naruto it would be a fun game. All he had to do was distract Hinata in the car while I took the money out of the lockbox. He did everything I told him. I honestly didn’t think it would work. Monday morning I saw that Hinata placed the lockbox on her desk in the student council room. I told Jugo and Suigetsu that Karin had a vintage Tank Girl comic. It was something she read a few years ago who knew she was still reading and collecting it. I already had the combination. The people in the main office are a joke and are always gossiping in the breakroom. I opened up his locker and hid the money. After Suigetsu and Jugo left the student council room I entered and took the lockbox to make sure everyone knew it was gone.”

Sasuke tightened his hold on Gaara’s hand, and with the other hand, he slapped Gaara across the face. His handprint overlapped the bruise that was already there. He hit him again. His fingernail caught the side of Gaara’s mouth. The force caused Gaara’s lip to split open. His face began immediately swelling. He thought about striking him again but the blood that trickled down forced him to stop. Seeing the blood was enough to bring Sasuke back to his senses.

“Isn’t it funny how easy it is to ruin someone's life? Like this.” Gaara touched the tender flesh of his cheek. “My father will think he caused this whole bruise. What will he do when we board the plane tomorrow? I can’t wait to act like an injured dog around him.” Gaara paused and stared up at Sasuke as if waiting for him to strike again. “I wouldn’t have been able to even get the money if Naruto didn’t distract Hinata. When I asked Naruto if he regretted helping me. He said he didn’t. It’s just as you said we’re perfect together.”

“I just need to get Naruto to hate me?” Sasuke repeated. He let go of Gaara’s hand.

“Yea, that’s kind of the whole point.” Gaara’s eyes were crazy. They were filled with lunacy. Gaara was smiling so wide he could see both sets of white teeth.

“I’ll play along. You better make sure Suigetsu gets exonerated.”

“Mhm.”

Sasuke heard the bedroom door swinging open followed by a parade of laughter. The lights were flipped on and Karin appeared with one arm slung around Hinata’s shoulder. The two were laughing seemingly having made up. Behind Karin and Hinata appeared Kankuro and Temari. Upon seeing the provocative position Sasuke and Gaara were in, the laughter stopped, and Karin asked.

“What the hell are you two doing?”

*****

The deal he made with Gaara went on the backburner the moment they flew back home. The first place trophy sat on his lap. The whole way back all he could think about was Hinata knew that she was pushed down the stairs, and she was going to tell her parents, she was going to get retribution. They were going to be punished, and there was going to be justice brought back into the world.

Except.

It never happened. At least not in the way he expected with everyone being escorted out of the school in handcuffs. Everyone being barraged with media, journalists, and camera lights. A week went by and it was radio silent. Then the following week everyone was absent from school. Naruto, Ino, Sakura, Kiba, and Hinata. They were absent for two weeks straight and when he asked Karin what was going on she responded with.

“I don’t know. Whenever my mother calls, Aunt Kushina says everything is fine and they’re handling it. To not worry.”

Sasuke tried to pry information from the main office and asked why everyone was absent. The written excuse for each one was: family emergency. Sasuke, as class president, was instructed to gather their schoolwork into packets and drop them off to the principal. He was beginning to think an investigation had been opened but because it dealt with the upper echelon of society it was kept under wraps with gag orders.

*****

The fourth week on a Saturday his mother woke him up by ripping the blankets off of him and yelling at him. “What did you do?!” Her shrill voice grabbed him from the deepest depths of the dream world and pulled him back to consciousness kicking and screaming. He woke up with a start.

“You knew that Hinata was pushed down the stairs and didn’t say anything?” His mother screamed. “You know that makes you an accomplice right?”

Sasuke was filled with the urge to throw up. His mother’s face had turned a violent shade of purple as she screamed at him. He was petrified. Half asleep and half trying to follow what she was saying. What she was accusing him of, and why was this happening? It left him so scared he couldn’t speak.

“Get up. Get dressed, we're going to the Namikaze’s! Hurry!” His mother shouted before slamming his bedroom door shut behind her.

His stomach had been engorged on bile. His heartbeat could be heard between his ears. His vision was hypervigilant and focused. His chest was tightened and it took him several minutes to exit his fight or flight response and be able to move. Another five minutes before he could move his limbs willingly. Sirens were going off inside his head and he moved as if walking on eggshells. Trying not to make any noise because any noise was amplified and made his teeth hurt.

“Don’t say anything unless you’re directly spoken to. Explain it all when we get there.” His mother chastised. “Your father is already there waiting for us.”

Sasuke expected it to just be the Namikaze's; he hadn’t expected the formal dining room to be filled with everyone and their parents. Everyone was sitting down at the comically long dining table and everyone was wearing grim, and solemn faces as if they were waiting for a will to be read.

Ino and her father the commissioner of police wearing the regulated uniform complete with pins and ribbons. Sakura and her mother, the chief medical examiner, and father, a surgeon. Both were dressed in fresh scrubs. Kiba with his parents, both were prosecutors at the courthouse. Naruto with Kushina and Minato on either side of him. He looked at Hinata and was shocked to see that instead of her parents sitting next to her it was Hizashi.

His father’s expression mimicked the expression of every other face in the room, only Sasuke had seen embarrassment and shame mixed in. Sasuke sat down in the empty seat next to his father and his mother sat in the empty seat next to him. He was sandwiched in and despite this, it didn’t make him feel any safer.

“I believe all the parties involved are present.” Kiba’s mother, Tsume, proceeded. “I am sure we can all come to an agreement amongst ourselves without having to get the legal system involved. As long as everyone is open and honest and admits their faults we can determine a fit and proper punishment.”

Tsume was a prosecutor and she carried with her the arrogance and confidence of a prosecutor with a ninety-three percent conviction rate. It appeared that she was the one leading this mock kangaroo court.

“We can’t forget the trauma our children experienced in the boxcar!” Ino’s father, Inoichi barked. “My daughter has been traumatized. First by the boxcar and second witnessing her friend being pushed down the stairs and forced to flee!”

“Forced?” Sakura’s mother, Mebuki spat. Sakura had her mother’s eyes as if someone hit copy and paste. “Yes. It was Sakura who may have pushed Hinata down the stairs but it was Ino that grabbed Sakura’s hand and ran away! If it was forced, wouldn't Sakura have to be the one to grab Ino’s hand and run?”

“We’ll go one by one. Everyone has their version of the truth.” Tsume spoke smoothly. “Let’s start with Sakura since she has both admitted, and there have been witnesses that say she was the one who pushed Hinata. Sakura, tell us in your own words what happened.”

Sakura glanced at her mother. By her expression it appeared similar to Sasuke’s household, Sakura’s mother was the head of household. He remembered hearing Ino’s explanation of how touch-starved and loved-starved the lot of them were. Sakura’s parents neglected her and the only time they showed up was when they watched her perform on stage.

“Hinata told us we shouldn’t be friends with each other. She kept saying we were sick people. She said I was sick and I didn’t know what that meant, because I wasn’t physically sick. I think she meant to say I was disgusting. We were disgusting. She walked around with her nose in the air acting like she was better than us. I saw Hinata bringing Naruto out into the hall to talk to him during lunch and I got mad because she was going to tell him to stop being our friend again.”

“I went after them. She and Naruto were arguing. Hinata then blamed me for being the reason Neji died saying it was my idea to go on the train tracks. How was it my fault? If she wasn’t such a wicked person and fought with Neji all the time Neiji would have gone home with her that day and he would still be alive today!”

“Sakura, stick to the facts about what happened the day you pushed Hinata down the stairs. We’re not talking about the boxcar.”

“After Hinata blamed me for Neji’s death I was filled with such rage. I couldn’t see. I swear I blacked out. I remember pushing her but I hadn’t meant to push her down the stairs. The next thing I knew Hinata was at the bottom of the stairs and Ino was pulling me away.”

“Whose idea was it not to say anything?” Tsume questioned.

“Whose idea? It was all of our idea.” Sakura spoke quietly. “I don’t remember who first brought it up.”

“Ino. Since you pulled Sakura away you tell us what happened.” Tsume turned her attention to Ino.

“I don’t remember the argument. It was during lunch. Me, Sakura, and Naruto were all eating together. I was listening to music. I had my headphones on. Hinata had come over and pulled Naruto away. It’s as Sakura said. Hinata for weeks had been telling Naruto to stop being our friend. It was annoying.”

“Where was Kiba?” Tsume asked.

“I don’t remember he wasn’t there at this time.” Ino answered as she looked at Kiba. “I had my headphones on since lunch began. I saw Sakura’s face twist up into anger and she said something but I couldn’t hear it. I watched as she rushed out of the classroom after Naruto and Hinata. I waited a few seconds before pulling off my headphones and following her.”

“Why did you follow them?” Tsume asked.

“I didn’t want to be alone. I didn’t think anything was going to happen. By the time I caught up to them Sakura was already yelling at Hinata at the top of the stairs. Naruto and Kiba were at the bottom of the stairs. From what I heard they were arguing about Neji and whose fault it was. When Hinata blamed Sakura...Sakura pushed her.”

“Why did you grab Sakura and run away?”

“I wanted to protect Sakura. Sakura immediately regretted her actions. The first words Sakura said was ‘I didn’t mean to’. And in the moment I was angry at Hinata for saying it was Sakura’s fault that Neji died. I took Sakura and we hid in the bathroom. I told her if anyone questioned us we should say we’re on our period.”

“You made an excuse.” Tsume clarified. “If you two were caught you told Sakura to say you were in the bathroom because you were on your period. Correct?”

“Yes.”

“When everyone met up. Who was the one who wanted to cover up everything first?”

“Naruto.” Ino answered. All eyes shifted to Naruto. Sakura’s eyes widened. “He said nobody saw us and nobody questioned us so we should just pretend it didn’t happen. Then Kiba agreed and said it wasn’t Sakura’s fault. Hinata shouldn’t have screamed at her and blamed her. I agreed. I said we needed to protect Sakura. It was all our idea.”

“Kiba.” Tsume turned her attention to her son. “Where were you during lunch?”

“It was my turn to help clean up after gym class. I was disinfecting the basketballs and putting them away. I was running late because I decided to shoot a few more hoops before I joined everyone at lunch. I could hear Naruto’s voice echoing from the staircase and so I followed it and saw Naruto and Hinata arguing. Hinata was telling Naruto, again, to stop hanging out with us. She was acting like we were the problem. She kept saying we were the sick ones and making Naruto sicker. How?!” Kiba yelled and turned his attention towards Hinata.

“Why are we the ones who made Naruto sicker...it was Naruto’s idea to keep quiet! He said our bond was stronger because we survived the boxcar and we needed to protect each other. I was so angry that Hinata kept blaming us for everything. I want to know, Hinata, why is it that we were the ones making Naruto sicker when it was Naruto who was making us sick by being the first to say we shouldn’t tell anyone and to keep it a secret!”

“Kiba. Who pushed Hinata?”

“Sakura. She landed at mine and Naruto’s feet. Neither of us communicated with each other. I saw Ino taking Sakura’s hand and fleeing and I just started running away too.”

Hinata remained silent. She stared at Kiba but her face was devoid of any expression as if she were a doll and the dollmaker had yet to paint her face.

“Naruto. Tell us what happened.” Tsume shifted the conversation once more.

“What more can I add? Everything they said was true. Hinata kept telling me to stop being friends with Kiba, Sakura, and Ino. She said they were making me sicker. I didn’t want to stop being friends with them. I told Hinata to leave me alone and I told her I didn't want to be her friend anymore. At the time I wanted to find Kiba because I wanted his support to keep Hinata away from me. I knew he was in the gym so I went in that direction.”

“I never expected Sakura to come after us. I never expected Sakura to push Hinata down the stairs. I didn’t blame Sakura for pushing Hinata down the stairs. Hinata blamed Sakura for Neji’s death and it had nothing to do with Sakura. After Hinata fell I didn’t know what to do until I saw Ino grabbing Sakura and running away. Kiba and I ran in the opposite direction and used the backdoor to leave the school. It was during lunch so nobody questioned us on why we were outside.”

“Were you the first to say to keep the secret?” Tsume asked.

“Yes.”

“How is Sasuke involved?” Tsume asked. “Ino. Explain.”

Ino exhaled. “It...was scary being everyone’s friend. I mean not in the beginning, but after. After Hinata’s accident, we all decided to keep the secret. It became scary.”

“Scary how?” Tsume asked.

“Anytime someone wanted to befriend one of us...everyone ended up chasing them away. It made me think that Hinata was right...we were sick and we were only getting sicker. We all stopped befriending anyone new. Then. Our teacher reassigned our desks and Sasuke was partnered up with Naruto. Naruto became obsessed with Sasuke and it made everyone mad. Kiba started talking about pulling pranks on Sasuke to get him to leave him alone. Sakura agreed. I was afraid that what happened to Hinata would happen to Sasuke. While we were in Hawaii I told Sasuke what Sakura did.”

“See! My daughter has a conscience. She may have run with Sakura at the time, but she has shown remorse. She was not the one to force everyone into silence, and she told another student what happened!” Inoichi interrupted and slammed his fist on the table. Ino went quiet and peeked at Tsume.

“You warned Sasuke that Sakura pushed Hinata down the stairs.” Tsume recapped, ignoring Inoichi’s outburst. “Sasuke. When you heard this, why didn’t you tell anyone? This makes you an accomplice.”

“Nobody would have believed me.” Sasuke spoke. He was surprised that he was able to speak so easily. “During this time my father’s company was merging with Mr. Namikaze’s company. Naruto threatened me and said if I didn’t listen to him he was going to lie to his father about me.”

“Kiba, how did you find out that Sasuke knew the secret?” Tsume asked.

“In Hawaii we all found out. Naruto told Sakura and me that Ino told Sasuke.”

Tsume turned back to Sasuke before she could ask a question Sasuke was spilling his guts.

“Ino told me not to say anything. Naruto first told me not to say anything and then told me even if I told nobody would believe me.” Sasuke spoke. “I had no proof. It would have been my world against all of them and Hinata hadn’t remembered anything. I tried asking Hinata about the accident several times.”

“You knew Sasuke?” Hinata’s quiet voice flew through the air like a poisoned dart striking him in the chest. He could feel the poison being drained into his lungs. “You knew in Hawaii...was that why you brought me back that bracelet?”

“It was why I approached you...and why I asked you about the accident.” Sasuke was truthful.

“Why didn’t you tell me sooner? I would have believed you...I told you I believed you and not Naruto whenever Naruto said something about you!” Hinata cried. “I believed you! I would have believed you if you had told me!”

“I’m not going to sit here and let everyone villianfy my son.” Minato spoke up. “Naruto wasn’t the one who pushed Hinata and it sounded like everyone agreed to cover it up.”

“Why Minato, can’t come to terms with how you raised your son?” Inoichi asked. “Blackmailing Fugaku and Mikoto’s son to make sure the merger went through? Made the kid scared shitless he wasn’t able, to tell the truth. Yeah. Your son sounds like an angel to me.”

“Tha~” Minato attempted to defend his son when he was interrupted. Mikoto sensing that the conversation was going to be turned back on Sasuke decided now was the time to talk.

“I believe every word my son told me.” Mikoto spoke. “My son told me after the merger was finalized he didn’t want to be Naruto’s friend anymore. My son does not say things like that so I knew something serious must have happened. I asked him to continue to be nice and formal with Naruto regardless. He had taken an interest in Hinata and I believe he had wanted to protect her. I will admit it. If Sasuke came to me and told me that Sakura pushed Hinata down the stairs and that Naruto, Ino, Kiba, and Sakura were all keeping it a secret. I wouldn’t believe him. I would think he was crazy and I would have gotten him a psych eval.”

Mikoto placed a hand on Sasuke’s shoulder and squeezed. Sasuke followed along. He was unsure if his mother’s words were true or if she was performing. She chose her words carefully and was deliberate. She had taken the floor and continued talking.

“I agree with Tsume. We do not need to get the authorities involved. We all know each other. We aren’t strangers to each other.” Mikoto turned to Kushina who had remained stoic and rigid the whole time. “This happened a few years ago when everyone was twelve-thirteen. It’s important to keep in mind.”

“Kushina. Fugaku and I both love and adore you and Minato. This will not impair our working relationship or personal relationship. As you know you have introduced us to your sister who has taken Sasuke as her student. Sasuke has won first place and will be competing in the internationals competition. I have been speaking to Mito about possibly arranging a marriage between Karin and Sasuke. I am saying this to say I care deeply about our relationship with you and the Uzumaki’s.”

Sasuke’s blood drained. He found himself falling back into his chair. He thought he could be used to how his mother operated. He wasn’t. She kept the information to herself and Sasuke was always the last to find out. Every single time. Then she expected him to act as if the whole world wasn’t imploding when his whole world was exploding. He couldn’t breathe. The room was shrinking. It felt like he was going to die.

“I agree. My daughter has been enrolled in the Uzumaki theater since she was four years old. Seeing her on stage and seeing how happy she leads me to believe it was through the cultivation of you and your sister, Kushina. I will not villianfy any child, especially Naruto. My daughter adores Naruto and has for many years.” Mebuki explained as she held Sakura’s hand with hers.

“We obviously know where I stand on the topic. It’s been hard enough on my daughter with her mother abandoning her. Then getting trapped in a boxcar for days. Ino has been enrolled in dance since she could walk at the Uzumaki playhouse. She tells me every day she’s going to be a professional dancer. I’m a single father raising a girl so I often rely on other parents to help me out.” Inoichi exclaimed.

“I personally do not want to have any of the children prosecuted. Why get the law involved when we can handle things ourselves.” Tsume nodded her head.

How hypocritical. For a prosecutor to say such things when her whole career is putting criminals behind bars. Sasuke frowned.

“What should we do, Hizashi?” Tsume asked. “Hinata? How do we make this right?”

“Hinata needs time to think and process things. She will be joining her parents overseas for the winter break. Right now she is happy that everything is out in the open and everyone is aware of what happened to her.” Hizashi spoke with a bow of his head.

“It wasn’t premeditated. It was a heat of the moment action and Hinata survived and walked away. I heard she won second place at the national piano competition, she’s in the top ten of her class and is on the student council. I do not see any negative long-term effects.” Tsume concluded.

“I just have one request. I want to speak to Naruto, Ino, Sakura, Kiba, and Sasuke alone.” Hinata announced.

*****

Every step Sasuke took felt like pins and needles were jabbing him in the thighs and calves. His legs were numb and feeling had just returned. He followed Hinata out into the back patio. Sasuke saw her face clearly and she looked even worse than how she looked in the hotel room. There were dark bags under her eyes. Her face was pallid and sickly. Her hair wasn’t brushed all the way through and she looked like she grabbed anything within reach and wore it.

“I thought we were friends.” Hinata spoke after a long impregnable pause. She had turned to Naruto, Kiba, Ino, and Sakura who were all huddled together. “We were all friends before the boxcar. If I wasn’t such a diligent child I would have gone with you that day. I take responsibility for trying to stop you guys from being friends, and I take responsibility for blaming you Sakura for Neji’s death. It wasn’t your fault. I was upset at the time and wasn’t thinking clearly.”

“Sasuke. If you knew all this time why didn’t you tell me on your birthday, or when we were riding the bus home together? Or anytime we were together at piano practice? You had so many opportunities to tell me and I would have believed you. You kept it a secret. You helped them keep it a secret.” Hinata turned and addressed Sasuke.

Sasuke swallowed his tongue and coughed. Hearing Hinata’s words stung.

She exhaled and addressed all of them. “I thought I wanted an apology from everyone but even if you were to apologize to me. I wouldn’t believe it. The longer I thought about it the more I realized. I don’t want anything from anyone. I don’t want to be your friend anymore...any of you. I want you to leave me alone.”

“Hinata!” Naruto protested.

“I almost died!” Hinata yelled. Her eyes filled with tears. “You all...almost killed me. Naruto it was you who wanted to keep it a secret. Do you think I can just forgive you? Any of you? You think I can just forget?” A tear rolled down her cheek. Her eyes turned bloodshot.

“Hinata please tell me what I need to do to make this right!” Sasuke pleaded. “I didn’t want to hurt you! I just wanted you to remember on your own!”

“No.” Hinata answered. “I just want to be left alone.” Hinata didn’t say anything more. She turned on her heels and went back inside. As soon as the door closed. Everyone began turning on each other as if they were a bunch of hungry lions that would resort to cannibalism to survive.

Chapter Text

Ask the blind man. He saw it too.

 

“It was scary being our friend?” Sakura asked Ino. Her voice was twisted and contorted like a crumpled-up tin can. “Did you say that because you meant it or because you thought you would appear more innocent?”

“It is scary being your guy's friend! In what world isn’t it scary? Look at what we’ve done to each other. What we’ve done to others over these last few years.” Ino defended. She spoke with her hands.

“Why did you tell me Ino?” Sasuke yelled. He took a step towards her and stopped himself from pushing her. She was so short and tiny it was too cruel to touch her. “This is your fault! You dragged me into this when I wanted nothing to do with it!”

“You’re blaming me? I was worried you were going to get hurt!” Ino spun around and stared at Sasuke.

“You just wanted someone else to blame! Why else am I here?” Sasuke argued with Ino. “Someone obviously said my name! Who was it?”

“I did.” Sakura spat. “You’re right. Ino never should have told you, but she did. You were an accomplice for keeping it quiet. You heard Hinata. You should have told her and you didn’t. You can’t blame anyone but yourself.”

Sasuke narrowed his eyes at her. He had never liked her not even for a second.

“What makes you think what happened to Hinata would have happened to Sasuke?” Kiba asked Ino. The atmosphere shifted to verbally assaulting Ino. Ino looked from Sasuke to Kiba, unsure who to respond to first. She didn’t have a chance to speak.

“Did you think I was going to push him down the stairs?” Sakura yelled and gestured towards Sasuke. There was hurt in her voice.

“YES!” Ino countered. “You guys were talking about pushing him off a cliff in Hawaii!”

“You shouldn’t have told Sasuke.” Naruto snapped at Ino. “You shouldn’t have told anyone! You should have just kept your mouth shut.”

“We weren’t serious.” Kiba sneered. His chocolate brown eyes shifted to Naruto speaking. “Naruto shouldn’t have made us keep the secret in the first place. If we had just told when it happened none of us would be in this position. It’s your fault!” Kiba yelled as he pointed at Naruto.

“Me?” Naruto asked and snorted. “You said I was making everyone sick? You were the one terrorizing anyone that wanted to be my friend! I was making everyone sick? Is that what you really think? I’m making you sick? It was a suggestion. I never forced anyone. At the time we all agreed. Tell me Kiba, am I still making you sick?” Naruto’s voice was hysterical.

“Yes! How dare you be allowed to have friends and forget us when you made us keep that secret? I wasn’t going to let you be happy when the rest of us are miserable! You had more power over us, Naruto.” Kiba took his rage on him. He stormed up to Naruto and grabbed a fistful of his shirt and shoved him back. “You convinced us we all needed to stick together because it was only us that understood each other, and nobody else would understand us, so we had to protect each other. You say that and then you go and spend all your time with him...an outsider while we’re left behind holding that secret?”

Naruto stumbled backwards and Kiba shoved him again causing Naruto to fall over. Sasuke glanced at Naruto and saw that he accepted the fact that he was on the ground and made no attempt to stand back up. Sasuke heard Kiba’s explanation and for his twisted worldview, it made sense. It wasn’t morally right and it wouldn’t stand up as an acceptable defense.

“If you wanted to punish Naruto for not hanging out with you, why go after me? Why not just punish him?” Sasuke yelled at Kiba.

“Hurting you made Naruto ten times more angry than if I did anything directly to him!” Kiba fired back.

“I’m glad everything is out! Everyone needs to know what you did!” Sasuke yelled at them. “Everyone should know how sick you all are!” Sasuke saw Naruto standing up from the corner of his eye.

“What are they going to do? We’re not in trouble.” Naruto asked as he turned to Sasuke. There was an air of superiority around Naruto.

“What?” Sasuke asked Naruto. His voice faltered. Naruto had a look of arrogance and he wanted to slap that smug look off his face.

“The only thing that came of this was Hinata now hates you, Sasuke.” Ino interrupted. “I told you nothing would actually happen to us. The only ones who are hurt are Hinata because she remembered, and you because she’s no longer your friend. What’s the consequence to us? That’s what Naruto is saying.”

“You can’t be serious.” Sasuke spoke as if he were speaking underwater. His mind was moving slowly. They weren’t remorseful. They were only upset because they were caught. It was only temporary, a setback, they were going to return to their lives as if nothing happened. Once they walked away without even a slap on the wrist that impenetrable confidence shielded them once more, and reinforced that they could do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, without consequence.

“Hinata should transfer schools.” Sakura spoke and folded her arms. “Maybe we should tell her to transfer schools. It would be too painful for her to continue attending our school. Or maybe you should transfer schools, Sasuke.” Sakura caught Naruto’s eyes and saw that he was immediately scowling at her. Sakura rolled her eyes.

Hinata was already fleeing overseas to escape and now they’re suggesting she change schools? She didn’t do anything wrong so why is it that she has to be the one to leave?

“Do any of you feel guilty?” Sasuke asked. His eyes raked over each and every one of them. “Ino?” Ino’s face was neutral. Her mouth a thin line. Her eyes were slitted. Her hands at her side. “Kiba?” Kiba was avoiding his eyes. There was a look of disgust on his face. His arms were crossed. “Sakura?” Sakura’s face was slick with annoyance, and she gave the air that she was already over it. “Naruto?” Naruto was the only one who stared at him and his expression was unreadable as if wiped clean.

Nobody answered. Sasuke could feel the embers of a fire growing inside. It only took one match to burn a whole forest down. He could feel the flames licking the back of his throat. The heat spread to his fingertips. He wished he had the power one match had to a forest.

“If I knew nothing would happen to us I wouldn’t have kept it a secret.” Naruto answered Sasuke. He didn’t understand what Naruto was saying and misinterpreted it as if nothing was going to happen then, like nothing was going to happen now, he wouldn’t have kept it a secret. How cruel.

“You’re a sociopath, Naruto. You have no remorse for what you did to Hinata, and no remorse for what you did to Suigetsu!” Sasuke growled at Naruto. He was slowly losing his composure.

“I’m a sociopath? Aren’t you the real sociopath?” Naruto fired back. “I had nothing to do with what happened to Suigetsu. Whatever it was, it was all Gaara. But you know that don’t you? You know Gaara framed Suigetsu. You know and it doesn’t matter to you...because you still made out with him in the hotel room! If someone did that to any of my friends I wouldn’t fucking pin them on a bed and shove my tongue down their throat!”

“Jeez, Naruto, can you at least pretend to hide your jealousy?” Sakura screamed. “Maybe Sasuke is right, you are a sociopath. Even after he tells you he hates you and to leave you alone you can’t even do that. You’re always asking about him and looking at him! It’s disgusting and pathetic! Only a stalker does that!”

“What?” Sasuke balked. The accusations were so outrageous Sasuke couldn’t comprehend. He couldn’t keep up between Naruto and Sakura. It sounded like the delusions of a madman. “No, I didn’t! What does that have to do with anything?”

“Everything! It has everything to do with it!” Naruto screamed. “I told you I would leave you alone. I told you I wanted to be your friend, and I agreed to leave you alone for a year. What do you do? You makeout with Gaara the first chance you get.”

Sakura exhaled loudly and threw her hands in the air. Ino watched the exchange with bated breath and Kiba huffed and puffed from the sidelines.

“You’re delusional! Nothing like that happened and if you believe it did it says more about you than me!” Sasuke continued to argue with Naruto as if they were in some lovers tiff.

“Why is it you expect me to believe you when you never believe me?” Naruto argued back.

“It’s simple. I actually don’t like you. It’s exactly as Sakura said.” Sasuke answered coldly. “I’d appreciate it if you stop obsessing over me. It makes me feel disgusted. How many times do I have to tell you I don’t like you for you to understand?”

Naruto’s face looked heartbroken. His eyes were redlined and glossy. His mouth was twisted up as if he were experiencing a stomachache. He went from a wounded and raw expression to wrath as rage quickened his blood.

“Fine. You want the truth so badly. I’ll tell you the truth. I don’t feel guilty. I don’t feel guilty with what happened to Hinata, and I don’t feel guilty with what happened to Suigetsu. Serves you right for thinking you could do anything. Want to know something else? I’m glad you’re hurt. I’m thrilled that Hinata hates you and that Suigetsu will be punished. And I hope you never stop hurting!” Naruto screamed.

Sasuke lunged at Naruto. He saw red. A bucket of red paint overlaid his vision. Everything around him vanished. The world became erased and whitewashed. The only thing existing was him and Naruto and he slammed Naruto against the stones of the patio. The only sound he heard was his beating heart. The sound increased until the whole world vibrated with each pulse. He could feel Naruto pinned beneath him and he only had thoughts of hurting him. The red paint began to fill the white space all around him.

If he were to look back he would have pinpointed this moment as when his breakdown started.

*****

“Honestly, Sasuke. I don’t know what to do with you. We managed to save face only to have you go and attack Naruto!” His mother lectured the moment they got home. His father had returned to work. His father hadn’t spoken to him, barely looked at him, and left in a hurry. It gutted him. “Haven’t I taught you to control your emotions? I never had this problem with Itachi! Why can’t you be like him?”

“I’M NOT ITACHI!” Sasuke screamed. His mother slapped him across the face. He couldn’t feel the sting of the slap or the hotness that erupted across his cheek.

“Speak to me like that again and I’ll kick you out of the house!” It was the first time his mother threatened this. She was shaking. Her hands were shaking uncontrollably. She tried calming herself down. “Thanks to you I have to smooth things over with Kushina! Was it worth it?”

“Yes.” Sasuke answered with gritted teeth. Seeing Naruto’s swollen and bloody face flashed across his face. What a complete mess Sasuke made him into. He smiled remembering the thought. “Are you going to hit me again?”

“Go to your room. I’m tired of looking at your face!”

The adrenaline wore off inside the four walls of his bedroom. The walls were white and empty. The shelves were bare of any personal thing that told anyone this was his room and not the room of an inmate. Reality didn’t just fall, it crashed like the polar lander crash landed into mars. The one-hundred and sixty-five million dollar project went up in flames within seconds. That’s how he felt. A complete and utter loss. If he died right now what of his would be left behind that proved to the world he existed? At least mars still had wreckage of the polar lander.

*****

Sasuke shutdown.

He knew something was wrong. A check engine light lit up and he didn’t know how to interpret it. He just forgot to call for help, because he never called out for help before. He couldn’t taste the food he was eating. He stopped having an appetite. The food he shoveled into his mouth became lumps of gray material that barely had any texture. He lost his ability to smell. His nose felt numb and the smells of the world ceased to exist. He couldn’t touch or feel anything in the world. The numbness spread across his body. He couldn’t feel the wind on his cheeks, the clothes on his body, nor the sun as if an invisible airtight barrier was around him at all times.

He lost track of time. He fell into the same robotic routine. He stopped talking to everyone. He erased everyone's faces and sunk deeper into that pit of despair.

“Did you really know?” Karin asked Sasuke.

“Mhm.”

“And you didn’t tell anyone?”

“No.”

“Oh.” Karin turned and left him without another word.

*****

He blinked and he was at the dining room table. He looked up and was shocked to see Naruto sitting across from him. His face was healed and there wasn’t even a scratch to indicate he had beaten him up. Naruto’s hair was styled. He wore a white button up shirt with the top two buttons unfastened revealing his clavicle.

Sasuke looked to see Karin was seated next to Naruto. Her hair was curled and pinned back with a diamond encrusted comb. She was wearing a satin dress and a string of pearls around her neck. He saw Kushina and Mito were all present. There were plates of food in front of everyone. Forgetting he needed to eat he picked up his fork and knife.

What was going on? Sasuke looked at his mother who was seated at the head of the table. They were in his formal dining room. Sasuke absorbed bits and pieces of the important parts of the dinner conversation.

“I want to discuss our children.” Mikoto spoke as she cut through her rare steak. “Mito, I agree to have Sasuke sign up for the circuit. It will keep him busy and disciplined.”

The circuit was a national organization where promising piano players traveled across the country. Live performances that allowed money to flow in. It meant that Sasuke would have no time to think, and playing piano would consume his whole life. He didn’t know what he wanted but he knew he didn’t want that.

“Sasuke is rumored to be a big contender for winning the international competition. I see no problem in him joining the music camp that Karin has been attending.” Mito spoke. “Once Sasuke wins this competition it would be good to pair Sasuke and Karin up to do a live performance together. I am sure with their talents they could bring in a lot of money and the world can take notice.”

“They are such a good match with one another, better than Hinata. I wouldn’t be opposed to an arranged marriage between Karin and Sasuke. We can view this as a sign of allegiance between the two families.” Mikoto spoke.

“I see no objections.” Mito smiled and stuffed a piece of steak into her mouth.

“Kushina.” Mikoto turned her attention to her. “I want to formally apologize for Sasuke’s actions. He was severely punished for attacking Naruto, rest assured. I wanted to ask if you had any suggestions on how to improve Naruto’s and Sasuke’s relationship?”

“I know Naruto still wants to be Sasuke’s friend. So he is willing to do anything.” Kushina wrapped her arm around Naruto’s shoulder. “He has been in a depression these last several weeks due to the falling out he had with Sasuke.”

Sasuke refused to look at Naruto. He took his attention to Karin and stole a peek at her. Karin refused to look at anyone and had been pleased to just become a wallflower as the conversation no longer involved her. She hadn’t spoken to him in the last few weeks and he hadn’t spoken to her. Still. Karin was the same as him. She did everything she was told. Hearing that Naruto still wanted to be his friend began to make him sick in the physical sense. He looked away from Karin telling himself not to look at Naruto. He started picking at the skin around his fingernails, not stopping even when blood began pouring out. He grabbed one of the cloth napkins and watched as he squeezed the blood from his fingers. He exhaled.

He felt the gush of pleasure filling his insides as he watched the red liquid flow down his slender fingers.

He started to think that this hand didn’t belong to him. This useless hand that played piano. This useless hand that struck Naruto and only complicated things. Because now he was at dinner, with Naruto across from him, as their mothers discussed how they could improve their relationship. This hand that held Gaara’s hand down against the hotel bed. How useless and powerless this hand was to do anything except become a hindrance to his life. He started to think it might be better if he chopped off his hand.

So he started thinking of ways to do it.

“Sasuke.” Mikoto’s voice caused him to sour and he looked at her with half-lidded eyes. “Do you have any suggestions on how you could improve your relationship with Naruto?”

Naruto? How could he grab hold of Naruto’s hand and bring him down to the mud with him? How could he kill two birds with one rock? He stared at his hand and a smile crept across his face. A warm, pleasurable smile as the thought occurred.

“We should spend more time together. We should spend more time alone.” Sasuke replied with a smile. His eyes shifted to Naruto and he smiled warmly at him. He locked eyes with Naruto’s endless ocean blue eyes. “Right, Naruto?”

“Y-yea.” Naruto voiced. He sounded lost, distant, like he was miles away.

‘Good’. Sasuke thought.

*****

“Sasuke...what’s wrong?” Naruto asked.

Sasuke blinked and he was sitting in Naruto’s room on the couch. He saw Naruto sitting on a cushion in front of the coffee table. He stared at Naruto without saying anything. He looked around his room. Nothing changed. Everything was in the same place as the last time he was here. His eyes stopped at the shelf where the drawing Hinata gave Naruto for graduation was still next to the chessboard.

“What are you thinking about?” Naruto asked.

“Tell the police you framed Suigetsu.” Sasuke spoke and shifted his eyes back to Naruto.

“I didn’t frame him.” Naruto protested.

“You helped Gaara. You distracted Hinata so he could steal the money. He told me everything. Take responsibility. Don’t you know? You’re untouchable. Nothing will happen to you. So hurry up and be a martyr.”

“You think I helped Gaara distract Hinata? I had no idea what he was doing. He told me to let him spend the night, or he was going to hurt you. It was his idea to give Hinata a ride home.”

“No. You helped him. Don’t play stupid.”

“I didn’t!” Naruto shouted. “You never ask me what happened. I have never lied to you. You just believe what everyone else says! Why can’t you ever just believe me?”

“You’re such a despicable person who doesn’t feel remorse. How could I trust someone like you with everything you did to me!”

“I do have remorse. I was just mad when I said I didn’t feel remorse. I do feel guilty. I felt guilty the whole time. Everyday since then I’ve spent feeling guilty and hating myself! I don’t want to hurt you Sasuke, why won’t you believe me?”

Sasuke rested his elbow on the arm of the couch and propped his head up. He closed his eyes. Talking was exhausting. Each day had been more tiring than the last. His bones ached. His mind throbbed. It wasn’t a headache or migraine. It was a psychological aching pain. It made him sensitive to lights and sound. Even when he closed his eyes he still couldn’t sleep.

“Did you really kiss, Gaara?” Naruto asked.

“No.” Sasuke answered without opening his eyes. He sighed. “All he wants from me is…” Sasuke stopped talking as he felt movement next to him. He opened his eyes and saw Naruto sitting on the couch next to him. “What are you doing?”

“Sitting next to you. What does he want from you?”

“You.” Sasuke spoke deadpan. He shifted his body as far away from Naruto as he could practically sitting on the armrest. “I told him I didn’t want you and he could keep you. You’re not that special.”

“Why is it that everyone around me is obsessed with me, but you?” Naruto asked as he moved his body so that he was facing Sasuke. It was becoming difficult to breathe. He could feel the warmth coming off Naruto’s body. He wasn’t wearing cologne today, instead Sasuke could smell soap on his skin and the detergent on his clothes. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. Why is it that whenever he was around Naruto his senses suddenly came back?

“You don’t like me, Naruto. You just can’t handle someone not liking you, or worshiping you like you’re some god’s gift to this world.”

“Maybe.” Naruto nodded his head. “Or maybe I just want to become you. I’m jealous of you. So why can’t I become you? Or. If you like Karin. I can become Karin. Just tell me who to be.”

Sasuke narrowed his eyes and stared at Naruto. It sounded weird. Gross. Like he was a serial killer telling him he wanted to peel people’s skin off and wear it. Why was he bringing up Karin of all people? Did it have to do with the arranged marriage? Sasuke remained quiet wanting Naruto to continue.

“The qualities you have, I want. I thought if I spent enough time around you maybe I can take on those same qualities.” Naruto continued to explain. He rested his elbow on the back of the couch and rested his head against his hand as he kept staring at Sasuke. “Honestly, I’m worried about you. You have this look...like you’re going to do something. You haven’t been yourself and it’s scaring me.”

“Have you been watching me this whole time?” Sasuke asked. He heard Sakura’s words echoing the same sentiments.

“Mhm.”

“Stop it.” Sasuke demanded, his face flushing.

“Are you planning on doing something?” Naruto asked and leaned over. His voice was low. There was concern in his eyes. Sasuke was immediately on the defense. “If you’re going to do something I won’t stop looking at you.” Naruto’s husky voice sent shivers through his body as if he stepped out into the winter night without a coat. His eyes widened as he stared at Naruto wondering if he had some secret power that could see right through him.

“What do you think I would do?”

“Run away?” Naruto speculated. Although staring at Naruto’s expression that wasn’t all he was thinking about what Sasuke would or wouldn’t do.

Run away and go where? To the circus? To pleasure island?

“What does it matter to you? You said you’re happy that I am hurt. Well. I’m glad you’re happy. Because part of me being hurt is caused by you. If something happens to me, take responsibility. Yeah?”

“Are you going to marry Karin?” Naruto asked. It caught Sasuke by surprise. So Naruto really was thinking about the arranged marriage. Why was he bringing it up? It wasn’t like he was going to marry Naruto. He didn’t even like Naruto so why was his heart beating so fast when he was near him and why did he feel so itchy? He wanted to tell him to stop bringing people like Karin and Gaara up.

“Whoever I date. Whoever I kiss. Whoever I marry has nothing to do with you.” Sasuke shoved Naruto back. “You’re too close. I can’t---” Naruto reached out lightning fast and grabbed Sasuke’s wrists, within seconds Naruto had slammed Sasuke so that his head and wrists hit the armrest. Naruto had crawled on top of him. Sasuke was looking up and seeing Naruto staring down. “---breathe.” He exhaled. His mind kept spinning as his brain adjusted to this new angle.

“I’m sorry for everything.” Naruto spoke quietly. “I’m going to leave you alone, I promise. We don’t have to keep...doing this just because our parents want us to get along. I’ll talk to Gaara about what happened to Suigetsu. I’ll talk to Hinata when she comes back from overseas. I’ll try to make things right. Please believe me. I’ll do things differently this time!”

Sasuke could barely hear what Naruto was saying, his heart was beating so loud.

“Before you leave. I want to tell you something.” Naruto’s voice was soft, sweet, gentle. He never heard him speak this way before. It petrified Sasuke and immobilized him. “The reason I’m not dating Sakura, and the reason I’m not dating Hinata, or dating anyone, is because the person I like is you. I never meant to hurt you. I just wanted you to know how I feel and I’m going to leave you alone.”

Naruto let go of Sasuke and pushed himself away, moving a seat cushion away. “See? I’m not going to do anything to you. I won’t make you do anything.”

Sasuke’s heart had already grown cold. There were splotches of rot that patched his heart. It started out microscopic but the rot began to slowly spread. Hinata stopped being his friend. Karin had stopped talking to him. Suigetsu was still being framed. The only person who still spoke to him was Jugo but he had been spending all his time at his family's vet clinic. Sasuke had taken all the wrongs, all the slights, all the victimization of every party involved and channeled it into blaming and crucifying Naruto. He understood Nietzche when he said ‘Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.’

He pushed himself up. Any sane person would have left the room and gone home. Sasuke wasn’t sane. He had been in a fugue state. He had been disconnected from the world and all he wanted to do was feel something. And his heart was rot. Being around Naruto made him feel something. It was why he bridged the gap and pressed his lips to Naruto’s. He was surprised to feel the softness of his lips against his as if he were kissing a flower petal. The subtle taste of salt on his lips made him smile.

Looking back he would have understood what he did was wrong, but he had already turned into a monster. He took advantage of Naruto just to make him hurt more.

He felt Naruto hesitate and pull away. “What...what are you...doing?” He asked, his eyes wide. Naruto’s fingers went to his mouth.

“I like you too.” Sasuke whispered against the fingers covering his mouth. Sasuke grabbed Naruto’s hand and pulled it away from his mouth. “Kiss me.” He didn’t wait for Naruto and kissed him again. His fingers brushed from Naruto’s cheek to the back of his head, and pulled Naruto towards him.

Naruto didn’t hesitate anymore and maybe he wanted to believe the lie. For a moment time was suspended. The second kiss was better than the first kiss. He felt Naruto’s wet tongue gliding against his tongue. He could feel Naruto’s fingers at the sides of his pelvis bones, his fingertips slipping under his shirt and gliding against his skin. He could feel his skin turning bumpy as Naruto’s fingers slid up his sides. As if his body were having an allergic reaction every time Naruto touched him.

Sasuke leaned further into the kiss and wrapped his arms around Naruto’s neck, his fingers feeling the soft blonde locks of his hair. He could feel gel and product in his hair rubbing off on his fingers. He could smell Naruto’s shampoo.

“Ah~” Sasuke exhaled. What a nice smell.

He could feel Naruto pushing him back so that his back hit the couch cushions and Naruto was on top of him. Naruto’s lips moved and kissed Sasuke’s jawline before kissing the side of his neck.

“Do you really like me, Sasuke?” Naruto asked.

“Mhm. I really do.”

“I’m so happy.”

‘I’m so happy.’ Sasuke’s smile betrayed all innocence.

Naruto’s hands had pulled his shirt all the way up and off. Sasuke’s eyes looked at the drawn portrait Hinata drew of everyone at the beach. His eyes locked on Neji before shifting to looking at the drawn Naruto. In the drawing he was laughing and it was that same mesmerized smile that captivated him when they first met. He felt the real Naruto resting his head on his bare chest. He felt Naruto’s hands hugging his ribcage. His body pressed against his.

“What are you doing?” Sasuke asked. He hadn’t expected this type of contact. He noticed that Naruto had removed his own shirt. They were pressed skin to skin. Feeling Naruto’s face against his exposed chest felt comforting.

“I want to cuddle you like this and listen to your heartbeat.” Naruto answered quietly. He settled himself into a comfortable position on top of Sasuke. “Just like this.”

Sasuke could feel, and hear, his heartbeat quicken in response to his words. How embarrassed he felt knowing Naruto could hear his emotions beating against his ear. His face, neck, and ears bloomed red. He felt endless waves of warmth washing over him. He envisioned him and Naruto floating on a raft together out to sea. He could hear Ino’s voice saying how the lot of them were all touch-starved and love-staved. Wasn’t that him, described to the tee?

“You’re a spoiled brat.” Sasuke murmured and wrapped his arms around Naruto, his fingers rubbing the smooth skin of his back. Moving his fingers up and down the baby fat mixed with muscles, cuddling him just as he wanted to be cuddled. He heard Naruto exhaling, but he didn’t say anything else, and neither did Sasuke. The two remained in that position for a very long time.

Naruto really was a spoiled brat who needed to be taught a lesson, and wasn’t this the best way? The best medicine? The bigger everything is the harder everything comes crashing down.

*****

Sasuke’s hand reached for the handle of a door that led to the roof. It was locked. He laughed silently. What was he going to do? Jump and break his legs? He was so exhausted. So tired. Every movement took exuberant amounts of energy. The height from the roof wouldn’t kill him. Was that what he wanted? Did he want to die? No. He just wanted to sleep. He didn’t want to be controlled anymore. He wanted to be free. He just...couldn’t do it anymore.

It was after school. His mother was on her way to pick him up. She was going to take him to the first circuit in the city to perform in front of an audience. He didn’t want to perform anymore. His mother mapped out his life. He was going to do the circuit. He was going to go to the international competition. Continue the circuit across the country. He would be signed up for more competitions. He would go to the cult-like music camp overseas for summer break. He would have his schedule filled to the brim and it would overflow.

He would grow older. Attend university. Be married off to Karin and they would both be miserable. Both sacked in a lavender marriage. Why not do something now while he still has control? Was that why Shisui wrapped the noose around his neck? Why he stepped onto a chair? What did he think about before kicking the chair away and hanging? Did he have any regrets...and if he did...by the time he had regrets was it already too late?

Sasuke moved to the music room. There was a grand piano in the corner. The room had all classes of instruments, chairs, sheets of music on music stands. He looked out the window and his heart dropped. The world was blanketed in white snow and the brightness stung his eyes. He saw his mother exiting her flashy car. He blinked. It wasn’t his mother. It wasn’t his mother’s car. It was someone else. He was hallucinating. He exhaled. He needed to do it fast. He walked to the door of the music room. He had to do it now.

“What are you doing...Sasuke?”

It was the question that temporarily snapped him out of his psychosis. It was the wrong question to ask. He could hear the throbbing of his heart in his ribcage. His stomach was empty and hollow. He couldn’t remember the last time he ate. His mouth was dry and his tongue felt like steel wool. Even if he wanted to, he wasn’t able to speak. He couldn’t give an answer that explained his own psychosis. It wouldn’t make sense to the mind of a layperson, an outsider.

He knew who the voice belonged to without having to confirm and that infuriated him.

‘Not you! Anyone but you!’

It was the last person he wanted to see him like this. It was partly his fault. It only made him more agitated. If he were to create a pie chart outlining all the reasons that drove him to this…Naruto would be a piece of the pie.

Time. What was the time? He was running out of time. His mother was going to be at school to pick him up at any moment. She was probably already walking through the school entrance to fetch her prized possession. His fear intensified. His eyes focused on the second hand that whirled around and around the face of the clock. Time was speeding up. It was working against him. If he didn’t do it now he wasn’t going to be able to do it at all.

“Sasuke?”

He could hear footsteps approaching him. It sounded like high heels click-clacking against the cement floor of the hallway. His eyes finally looked up to see cerulean eyes the color of a painter's rendition of the sky widening. Naruto was standing outside in the hallway walking towards the music room. It wasn’t his mother. He tried to tell himself, but the image of his mother was superimposed on Naruto and they became the same entity.

He found himself gasping for breath. Every breath he took sent sharp pains through his lungs and it spidered out until his whole chest felt inflamed. He gasped as every breath took more and more energy and he was afraid he wouldn’t have the strength to follow through. He felt sweat sting his eyes. He winced. The more he looked at Naruto’s eyes the more he took comfort in them. The water in his eyes looked warm and comforting like a crystal bay. Although those blue eyes kept shifting into penetrating brown eyes.

His four fingers were placed between the door’s two hinges. His first finger knuckles pressed against the frame of the door. His other hand was pressed against the door. It was simple really and in the moment it made perfect sense. No. It was the only choice really. He didn’t have any more options. It was this or jumping off the school building and the door to the rooftop was locked. He was going to slam his hand in the door and break his fingers. He stared back at his hand in the spine of the doorway. He’d break his hand, and live. When he thought about that and the relief that would follow his face flushed and he smiled. It had been so long since he found himself smiling. Really smiling. He could feel his lips spreading as his smile grew like weeds taking over and suffocating a garden. His cheeks felt warm and he felt the warmness spreading across the entirety of his face.

“NO!” Naruto cried out.

He couldn’t turn away from those comforting blue eyes. It was what gave him the last shred of strength. He made eye contact with Naruto the whole time. He slammed his entire body up against the door. The door slammed shut. When the door shut he was forced to break eye contact. What followed was a beautiful cacophony of sounds. It was the sound of cracking bones snapping. The sound of screaming. Even though Naruto’s screams were muffled because he was on the other side of the door.

He still heard Naruto screaming. Just fine nonetheless.

He couldn’t help it. He started laughing. It was so ridiculous having been found out. It made sense. Nothing could ever go as planned. He was the one with the broken fingers so why was Naruto carrying on as if it were his fingers that were shattered and useless. He turned the door handle and opened the door, and there Naruto was squatting in the hallway. Naruto had stopped screaming, his face was pallid, and his eyes as haunting as a snow moon.

He pulled his busted up hand out from the spine of the door. He was shaking uncontrollably. He lost function in his fingers. He couldn’t even make them twitch. He stared down at his handiwork. His smile grew and grew. He stared at his fingers. He watched them slowly engorge on blood. They were bent at the first knuckle and completely disconnected from the joint. This would work. He hoped he lost function in his hand altogether.

Now he wouldn’t have to perform. He stumbled and fell to one knee. He couldn’t stop smiling. This was his biggest accomplishment to date. His greatest performance.

He stared back at Naruto who was now rushing to his side. If only he knew then he would be celebrating with him instead of fretting.

‘So annoying.’

He heard his mother screaming. Her voice pulled him back to reality. She demanded what happened. He froze. It was all too perfect. He’d kill two birds one stone...and then he’d swallow the stone and destroy all evidence. He played his part well.

“He did it, mom! Naruto...slammed my hand in the door.”

Naruto’s arms were wrapped around him and his hand was holding Sasuke’s elbow up. He could see Naruto’s crying face and it didn’t have the same effect as if he saw a crying girl. He had no immediate response to want to comfort him. In fact. Naruto’s face was rather ugly when he cried.

“Why?” Naruto cried out but his voice was smothered. Sasuke didn’t understand what Naruto meant. Was he asking why he lied or was he asking why he slammed his hand in the door?

“Sasuke! Your hand!” His mother screamed as she ran towards him. The scene was too shocking. She tripped over her own high heels and slammed to her knees in front of him. “What happened to your hand?” She reached out and grabbed his arm.

“Naruto slammed my hand in the door.” Sasuke spoke breathlessly. Not even caring that Naruto’s arms were still wrapped around him and he was leaning against Naruto’s chest.

He started to feel the unbearable pain in his hand. It started out small and gradually went up on the pain scale. 4. 5. 6. 7. He forgot about his deal with Gaara. He forgot about Suigetsu momentarily. He forgot about making Naruto hate him. He actually forgot about Naruto’s existence. He never expected him to appear before him after school. He never expected to actually blame Naruto. No. He was lying. He was thinking about blaming him the whole time. He just didn’t have the courage to blame him until Naruto appeared before him. It really was Naruto’s fault.

“GET OFF HIM!” Mikoto screamed as she grabbed, shoved, and pried Naruto off of him. “What did you do to him?” She screamed at Naruto.

“I’ll call 911!” Naruto cried out. He had been in complete panic mode.

Sasuke glanced at him and saw that Naruto was still crying. It made Sasuke frown. ‘Who do you think you are putting on that kind of show in front of me?’ He wanted to call him out and he opened his mouth, but words didn’t tumble from his mouth. His mother’s voice overpowered him and for the first time in all his life he loved every single word she said.

“You stupid brat! That’ll take too long! Look what you’ve done to my son. Are you happy now that you’ve crippled him? I will never forgive you!” Mikoto grabbed Naruto’s arm with both of hers and screamed in his face. She violently shook him. “I knew from the beginning you were a monster! That you would only ruin my son! Stay away from my son! Do you hear me? If I catch you around my son again I’ll kill you!” She slapped him across the face. “Do you hear me! I’LL KILL YOU!” She slapped him again. She went to slap him again but a teacher appeared and grabbed Mikoto’s hand.

Chaos ensued.

Sasuke was sweating and with Naruto no longer supporting him, he fell to his back. His head hitting the hard floor. Everything felt woozy as if he had spent sixty minutes on a roller coaster and just got off. He watched his hand swell to three times it’s regular size. His fingers turned a purplish blue. He could feel his body temperature spiking as his body underwent trying to fix the trauma he caused. He started coughing and his mother finally let go of Naruto and rushed to his side. She wrapped her arms protectively around him and he felt like a baby again being coddled and cuddled by his mother. He leaned into her arms and closed his eyes before the pain became unbearable and he cried out in pain.

“It’ll be okay, we'll fix your hand!”

*****

It’s called crush trauma caused by a crush injury in which a force or pressure is put on a body part. In Sasuke’s situation. He had put his left hand, body part, into the spine of the door, a force or pressure, and caused the injury. Not only did he crush his fingers when the door shut it forced his hand through and he crushed the bones in his palm. The force of the door caused those crushed, shattered, and broken bones to move around his swollen fleshy hand, severely severing it useless. There was no blood, all the blood stayed inside his skin because no skin was broken. The blood pooled into his hand making it swollen and doughy as if his hand turned into play doh.

He was immediately rushed into surgery as doctors and surgeons feared compartment syndrome which can be a result of a crush injury which could lead to permanent muscle and nerve damage. Sasuke saw his mother running next to the gurney. He heard the click-click-clicking of her high heels. He could feel beads of sweat rolling into his eyes.

“Be strong!” His mother told him just as a nurse blocked her from going through the double doors. His gurney kept moving but his mother was nowhere in sight. “Be strong!” She yelled after him. His eyes were focused on the fluorescent lights above him.

A pretty woman placed a mask over his mouth. Sasuke breathed in the anaesthesia. He watched as the pretty woman began to brush the strands of hair away from his wet forehead. She brought a small towel to his forehead and sopped up the sweat. He liked her touch. It was gentle and kind and he felt safe.

“There. There. Everything will be okay.” She spoke softly. Sasuke found his eyes gradually dropping until they closed. Thinking. Finally. He was finally able to sleep.

*****

‘You’re a spoiled brat.’

Naruto viewed himself as an incomplete puzzle. Key pieces were taken from him. He could draw a timeline of the first fifteen years of his life and pinpoint each time a piece was taken from him. He knew he was unbearable and the more he was alone the more insufferable he became. It was why he needed to be surrounded by people at all times. Why he hated being alone. Why he needed the constant validation of someone else. At all times to prove that he was real, and worthy of being liked and loved.

The attraction he felt when Sasuke entered his life was indescribable. He barely had the words to describe it. In simplest terms when he was with Sasuke those missing pieces were filled. He knew he was being selfish. He knew the obsession he had with Sasuke was growing and becoming unmanageable. He just wanted to change and prove to Sasuke that he could change.

He liked everything about Sasuke. He was kind, thoughtful, emphatic, intelligent, funny, and attractive. How patient he was. He didn’t just like his smile he loved his smile and on the rare occasions he laughed so genuinely it filled him to the brim.

Everything would have gone perfect if the Sabaku siblings hadn’t returned. How livid he was he threw up in the school bathroom when he ran into Gaara in the lunchroom holding Sasuke’s hand. Those wretched memories he had of Gaara came rushing back. He had been open and accepting to everyone. He treated everyone equally and Gaara was no exception. He knew about Rasa’s temper. He knew Rasa verbally and physically abused all three of the siblings. He remembered seeing bruises on them. Rasa spent more and more time away from them and they were raised by strangers. He witnessed how infatuated Rasa was with Karin’s mother and cherished her; it was hard to figure out why they never married, or why he appeared to hate his own children.

Gaara had become infatuated with him from the moment they met, and everything was fine until Gaara tried to monopolize his time. Naruto was growing tired of it. It was exhausting being his friend and he didn’t want to do it anymore. He thought about giving him another chance, but Gaara went and insulted Neji, and Naruto couldn’t do it anymore. He told Gaara he didn’t want to be his friend anymore. He thought Gaara had taken it well except he had plotted and devised a plan where he trapped Neji in the utility shed outside behind the school.

Neji had to be hospitalized. This incident coupled with Rasa remarrying he sent all three of his children to boarding school overseas. How relieved Naruto was that Gaara was gone. How relieved he was to be able to enjoy his friends without fear of anything bad happening to them.

He hoped Gaara changed. It was wishful thinking. How devastated he was during the tennis competition when he caught a glimpse of Gaara in the audience watching him. How internalized panic led him to stumble as he hit the tennis ball over the net. He rolled his ankle and fell. How fearful he became when he saw Gaara talking to Sasuke. He could tell. Gaara could tell that he was treating Sasuke differently, and he knew Gaara was upset.

Gaara was back and had returned a thousand times more devious and unpredictable as he was before he left. He not only sought out Sasuke, he began to play around with him. Even when Naruto tried befriending Gaara to appease him, and leave Sasuke alone, Gaara didn’t believe him when he told him there wasn’t a relationship between him and Sasuke. Because. There wasn’t. Sasuke was very clear about it.

Sasuke was so clear about it it hurt as if he were getting a root canal without any pain meds or numbing agents. Still. His eyes always found their way to Sasuke. He asked around and got information on how Sasuke was doing. How jealous he was of Ino when she bragged that Sasuke gaver her his umbrella so she wouldn’t get wet during the rainstorm. It was the same day that Gaara drove Sasuke home. How angry he was that Ino forgot an umbrella which prompted Sasuke to give Ino his and allowed Gaara to sink his teeth in him.

He believed Sasuke when he said he liked him. He even asked him again to clarify and he said he liked him. He believed him. He wanted to believe him. The happiest time in his life was when he was able to cuddle with Sasuke and for a little while they weren’t arguing. He just wanted to hold him close. Keep him next to him a little while longer. He was so frightened. Sasuke’s eyes were vacant and yet he saw glimpses in his smoldering coal eyes that he was planning to do something. He couldn’t leave Sasuke alone.

His mind ran wild with thoughts about what Sasuke would or wouldn’t do. What was he capable of doing? He never in a million years would have expected him to slam and crush his fingers in the spine of the door. Then. Immediately blame him.

*****

“Did you do it?” His mother asked him at the police station. Naruto could see his father through the window talking to Inoichi. The blinds were open. His father was beyond stressed that his face turned grey and red. “Tell me you didn’t do it and I’ll believe you. Tell me it isn’t true, and I’ll hire every single lawyer to defend you!” His mother reached out and grabbed his hand.

It clicked. Sasuke didn’t like him. He lied to him. He did it on purpose. He lied and it hurt so much he started crying in the police station. It clicked because he realized for the same reasons he hated and despised Gaara were the same reasons Sasuke hated and despised him. He looked at the two-way mirror in the interrogation room and Gaara’s face overlapped with his. He did everything the same as Gaara.

He blackmailed Sasuke. When Sasuke still refused to be his friend he allowed Kiba and Sakura to bully him at his slumber party. He then used chess to try and keep him interested but it didn’t last long with Sasuke seeking out a mysterious other to mentor him. He thought he had his attention with the white king. They regifted the white king back and forth. Yet the white king had been in his possession this whole time he thought about giving it back.

“I did...I did do it.” Naruto cried. “I slammed Sasuke’s hand in the door because he refused to be my friend!”

His mother immediately pulled back her hand and covered her mouth. Her eyes widened and tears filled them. She shook her head no, in disbelief.

“That’s not all.” Naruto couldn’t stop crying. “I was the one who stole the donation money and hid it in Suigetsu’s locker!”

*****

“What are we going to do Minato?” His mother cried. She was deliberately trying to keep her voice down but she was so emotional she was struggling. Naruto pressed his back to the hallway wall listening through the small crack in his parent’s bedroom door.

“We have to wait and hear back from the Uchiha’s. Sasuke had his third surgery today.”

“It’s our fault. My baby has become a little monster!” His mother started sobbing. “He’s a monster Minato. He covered up Hinata being pushed down the stairs. He slammed Sasuke’s hand in the door. He framed his classmate for stealing $10,000. Even though he framed him for $10,000 Suigetsu’s family demanded $500,000 to settle out of court!”

“He...he isn’t a monster...he…” His father tried to defend Naruto but he couldn’t figure out how to end the sentence. There were four-hundred and seventy-thousand words in the dictionary and his father couldn’t use one word to describe who he was.

“That’s what the headlines are calling him! How did they even find out about this? Didn’t we pay off that reporter? These reporters are bloodthirsty!”

“For every reporter you pay off there are twelve waiting in the bushes. Is he going to be prosecuted? We can’t have him locked up in some kid jail. He’ll definitely become a monster once he’s released. What if we...what if we just sent him overseas to boarding school?”

“Boarding school?” His father asked. “It might do him good for a change of scenery. Why must we send him overseas? They have boarding schools here.”

“No. We have to send him away! Somewhere far away!”

“I think it will be best for Naruto and everyone if he went to boarding school. I’ll have my assistant look up some boarding schools.”

“Mikoto she’s fierce. She isn’t going to take this lying down. If we can convince her to keep this out of court. We need to give her anything she wants. She isn’t Hinata’s parents who couldn’t even be bothered to come back after hearing what happened. They sent her uncle in their place. Mikoto will want blood!” His mother sounded hysterical. She hadn’t been sleeping these last few weeks and Naruto could hear the hysteria in her voice.

“We’ll give them whatever they want, and we’ll tell them we’re sending Naruto overseas. We need to settle out of court for Naruto’s sake!”

*****

“The last surgery was promising. They won’t know if he’ll regain complete function of his hand until he heals.” Mikoto’s voice was cold and efficient. She and Fugaku sat next to each other across from them sat Kushina and Minato.

Naruto sat at the head of the table except it felt like he was sitting in an electric chair. He kept his eyes down. He may as well not even be present as nobody acknowledged him in any way.

“These are the terms and conditions we want for us to settle this matter out of court.” Mikoto spoke as she slid over a manila folder. Minato opened up the documents and began looking it over. After several minutes of silence with Minato and Kushina reading the documents Minato was the first to speak.

“You want us to transfer Naruto’s stocks in the company to Sasuke?”

“Yes.” Fugaku and Mikoto spoke in unison. “And when Itachi graduates he will have a position on the board.”

Minato looked at Kushina and they nodded their heads in agreement. “We agree.”

“In the event Sasuke does not regain control of his hand. You will pay a settlement of two million dollars to him.” Mikoto continued. “I will say after speaking to Kizashi Haruno he is very optimistic that he will regain full control of his hand within six months.”

“Okay!” Kushina agreed in lieu of Minato’s silence. She grabbed the pen and began signing her name on the dotted line.

“We will be sending Naruto to boarding school overseas. We have since pulled him from school. We intend on keeping him in boarding school until he graduates.” Minato explained. “He will not interfere with Sasuke anymore.”

“Good.” Mikoto answered icily. “I can’t tell you what to do with your son but if it were my son I would have sent him to military camp.”

Minato finished signing the documents and handed them back. Mikoto collected everything and placed them in her briefcase.

“Thank you for your time. Good day.” Mikoto spoke briskly before standing up and leaving with Fugaku.

“Are you really going to send me overseas?” Naruto asked after the Uchiha’s left.

“Yes.” Minato spoke before standing up. “We found one that accepts late admissions and students can stay there year round. You should start packing your bags. The sooner you’re gone the easier things will be for everyone.”

Minato grabbed Kushina and they left the dining room.

*****

Naruto sat inside Sasuke’s private hospital room. His mouth was covered with a black face mask and he was wearing a baseball cap. He watched Sasuke’s chest rising and falling. He was hooked up to so many machines and yet he had such a peaceful expression on his face as he slept. The sound of his heart monitor beeped softly in the background. He watched the IV drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. He noticed the morphine machine that dripped into his saline bag.

Sasuke’s left hand was flattened on a small table and a metal contraption was pinning his fingers down. It looked like something out of a sci-fi movie. Metal rods spread all five fingers and kept them straight. Like pinned butterflies beneath glass. It looked uncomfortable and his hand was going to remain in this same metal contraption until he healed. Even wrapped in medical gauze and in a metal contraption his hand was beautiful. He had such beautiful hands and long fingers.

Naruto pulled from his pocket the white king. There was a bedside table that had a large vase with fresh flowers in it. He placed the white king on the bedside table. He walked to the other side of the hospital bed and looked at Sasuke’s uninjured hand. He reached his hand out and wrapped his hand around Sasuke’s fingers. He could feel Sasuke stirring and Naruto held his breath afraid he was going to wake up. He felt as Sasuke squeezed his hand and then he sighed and released his hold. He was still asleep.

Naruto smiled.

“I’m sorry for everything Sasuke. I’m sorry that I couldn’t stay away. I just wanted to tell you I am leaving. I won’t be able to return until I graduate, and maybe you would have forgotten me by then. But maybe. But maybe you’ll have forgiven me. Goodbye.”

 

End of Part One

Chapter Text

 

Part Two

The queen of hearts

 

It wasn’t a metamorphosis.

Blurry-eyed and writhing in pain didn’t transform him from a pheasant into a phoenix. Time wasn’t linear. He kept bouncing back and forth in time. First, he was in the hospital in and out of surgery. Next, he was performing live in the international piano competition. He was suddenly back to sitting in the hospital bed holding the white king chess piece in his hand staring at a legal contract signed by the Namikaze’s. His eyes read carefully over the 12-point times new roman font as if he were studying it for an upcoming examination. He was graduating high school. He was hugging Suigetsu who was exonerated. Naruto had confessed but there were no legal repercussions instead his family shipped him overseas. He was indoctrinated into the overseas cult-music camp that Karin attended. The white king chess piece loomed at the corner of every fleeting memory like a curse.

Everywhere he went he carried the white king chess piece with him. He wanted to throw away the white king chess piece. He tried over a hundred times. Every time he managed to throw it into the trash he went back five minutes later to retrieve it. The chess piece had an otherworldly hold over him. He was compelled to keep it.

It was the first snowfall of winter. The ground was still warm and the dirt malleable. If it were a few days later they wouldn’t be able to break apart the ground with excavators. The family would have to wait until spring. He wasn’t planning on attending. He held the black umbrella. The fresh and disorderly snow fell powdering the ground in a blanket of crystalline white. The umbrella protected him from getting snowed on. He wasn’t planning on attending. His feet carried him here. There were rows and rows of headstones like teeth and gaping holes in front of them as if they would swallow anyone that got too close.

He was in front of one particular headstone and one particular hole in the ground was already filled and flattened down. He couldn’t see the upturned dirt, but he knew it was there. It was covered by a fake, green, rug that was made from plastic microfibers to try and mimic grass. The rug was already being covered up by a layer of snow. The smell of overturned dirt still lingered in the air. The headstone gleamed ominously as the lettering was covered by snow. His eyes were entrapped by the smooth black headstone.

The only thing not covered by the snow was her name. Tayuya.

He only had one interaction with her. It was two weeks ago during the university’s music competition. Everyone in the piano division was categorized into different groups by talent, technique, and mastery. Spades were the lowest, clubs were above spades, followed by hearts and the supreme elitist where people like Sasuke and Karin were categorized were diamonds. The competition was held by those students categorized in the hearts group and whoever won would be granted permission to move up to the diamond group.

He was walking down the corridor towards the stage ready to be the MC of the competition when he heard shouting and arguing coming from one of the rooms. It sounded as if two girls were arguing. The closer he got the louder the argument became. He glanced into the window on the door to see inside the breakroom. Hinata was standing with her back up against the counter and in front of her was Tayuya holding an electric tea kettle. Before he could open the door, Tayuya threw boiling water onto Hinata.

Hinata had raised her hands to protect her face and the boiling water scorched her hands and splattered on her face. He immediately rushed in, knocked the electric tea kettle out of her hands, and grabbed her by the arm dragging her out as he screamed for help.

His voice sent professors and students running in their direction. He held Tayuya’s arm up and condemned her in front of everyone.

“She threw boiling water at Hinata! She’s disqualified and should be expelled!”

“No!” Tayuya screamed. “She pla~”

He shoved her up against the wall. “CALL 911! GET THE POLICE!”

“You’ve got it wrong!” Tayuya screamed.

“Shut up!” He screamed at her. “You’ve done nothing but bully Hinata!”

“Of course the prince himself can’t help but save the damsel in distress! You’re saving the wrong person!” Tayuya screamed passionately.

He didn’t let her finish. He wasn’t going to be persuaded by her lies. He pulled her arm behind her back and slammed her up against the wall. His urge to protect Hinata clouded everything else and he was trying to refrain from wringing her neck out in front of everyone.

“You will pay for your crime!” He screamed at her. She struggled against him, swearing, and screaming at him. “But maybe people like you who scheme and connive to get what you want are better off dead.”

The university music competition was postponed and two days later Tayuya’s body was discovered in an alleyway in downtown Konoha. The people who discovered her body were the same people who witnessed Tayuya falling thirty floors to her death. Sasuke tightened his hold on the umbrella. His nose and the tips of his ears were beat red. He started sweating, panting as if the memory took his breath away and refused to give it back.

“Sasuke?” Ino’s voice came from behind him.

He exhaled and turned around to see her. She was taller having finally hit puberty her senior year of high school and shot up a foot. Her features had become sharper. Her eyebrows sharp, her nose sharp, her lips sharp. She was still a dancer and her body was petite and muscular. She was dressed in a black dress, black stockings, and black shoes. She wore a black peacoat with a red scarf around her neck. Her blonde hair was covered in a layer of white snow.

“You ended up coming.” She continued. “You’re late.” She offered a weak smile.

“Why is it always you?” Sasuke asked. His voice rough, husky, the hold on the umbrella tightened until his knuckles turned white. It was hard to describe his feelings towards Ino except for ambiguity. He neither liked nor hated her. There had been a thread that connected them ever since the art museum in Hawaii.

“Huh?” Her translucent eyebrows raised so high they became hidden beneath her blonde hair.

Sasuke’s blood boiled as he became enraged with Ino’s blind stupidity.

“You told me what you guys did to Hinata when we were kids, and you called me that the night Tayuya was murdered!” Sasuke yelled. His voice echoed around the cemetery.

Ino had called him several times that night. When he finally answered she asked him if he could come and get her. She had drunk too much and she could barely walk. She wanted to return to her dorm and sleep. Maybe he had a hero complex but he couldn’t refuse to escort a drunk college girl home. Reluctantly he came to Magnolia Towers in downtown Konoha. He didn’t have to go in because Ino was squatting outside, hunched over, and vomiting. She was so drunk she could barely hold herself up.

Sasuke had agreed to carry her to his parked car on the grounds she didn’t vomit on him, or in the car. He carried her on his back when he heard something from above. He looked up and saw a body being pushed off the balcony. He saw the faint outlines of someone’s arms recede back. The body, the person, Tayuya, screamed as she fell down. The body hit with a sickening thunking splattering sound in the alleyway six feet from them. Tayuya’s eyes were open, glassy, and pupils dilated. He watched as she blinked once and then she didn’t move again.

“Why...why is it my fault?” Ino asked. “I wasn’t the one who pushed her!”

“I never wanted to be involved!” Sasuke argued.

“Like I did?”

“She was at the party you attended! You knew what she did to Hinata!”

“A lot of people were at the party, Hinata was also there!”

Sasuke remained quiet. It was easier to blame Ino than to come to terms with his own guilt that he had told Tayuya she was better off dead. He never intended for her to actually end up dead and in such a horrific matter.

“Let’s go back. I’ll buy you a cup of coffee.” Ino’s voice was gentle. Sasuke didn’t look back at the headstone, or the fake green rug covering up the plot. He had been numb and hollow inside and maybe something warm would fill him up. He nodded his head and followed Ino. He continued holding the umbrella over himself and made sure he walked a foot away from Ino.

“You’re really not going to share your umbrella with me?” Ino asked. She stuffed her red fingers into the small coat pockets of her peacoat.

“No.” Sasuke answered abruptly.

“I think Sakura is working, let's go harass her.” Ino spoke with a smile.

The fallout happened when Naruto went overseas. Everything that had happened to Hinata was revealed and the whispers and rumors condemned all of them, Kiba, Sakura, Ino, and Sasuke with the school rallying behind Hinata when she returned. Ties between Kiba, Sakura, and Ino were broken and Ino began spending the majority of her time glued to Sasuke. He pushed her aside and ignored her but she would bring her lunch into the student council room every day and eat silently. Ino started crying one time and it was his weakness. He didn’t have the heart to keep telling her to get out. Then they were accepted into the St. Camille Sans Academy and Performing Arts University.

Sakura’s existence faded in and out. She was accepted into the same school in the drama division where she had played several Shakespearean roles on stage. After what happened with Hinata was revealed and things were settled outside of court her parents made Sakura keep a part-time job or they would cut her off financially. She became a barista at the coffee shop on Marshall street. Marshall street was a hub of bars, shops, cafes, and eateries; it served as a prime location for both Camille Academy and Elmwood University, a prestigious private institution that trained lawyers, engineers, future CEOs, and doctors.

Elmwood University was where Itachi refused to attend as it was too close to home. Itachi, Orochimaru, and Shisui fled as far away as they could. Sasuke wasn’t able to flee as far as he could run. He was still entrapped in the web of a black widow spider.

Sasuke closed his umbrella as Ino pushed open the door of the coffee shop. A sweet-sounding bell rang out announcing their arrival. Sakura looked flustered at the rush of students. Everyone was studying for finals. Sakura forced a customer service smile when she heard the bell ringing a pavlovian response upon seeing it was them she dropped the act and scowled.

Sasuke felt his phone vibrating. He pulled it out and looked at the caller ID. Orochimaru.

“Go first, I have to take this call. Just order me a latte.” Sasuke spoke. Ino nodded and walked up to the counter and started giving Sakura their order. He knew that Ino was giving her a long and complicated drink order.

“Hi.” Sasuke found himself smiling as he answered the call.

“Hi, Sasuke.” Orochimaru’s voice was as calming as the waters of a pond. It drowned out his anxieties and filled him with warmness. “Did you go to the funeral?”

“No.” Sasuke answered. He looked down and kicked at the ground.

“Did you visit the cemetery?” Orochimaru changed the question.

“Y-yea.”

“How have you been sleeping?”

“Not well.” Sasuke answered truthfully. He knew it was pointless to lie to Orochimaru as he saw right through him.

“I’ll give you contact information to a psychiatrist~”

“It’s okay. I told you we weren’t friends and it was a freak coincidence I was even there.” Sasuke glanced over his shoulder and saw Ino waiting at the counter for their drinks.

“How has your appetite been?”

“Nothing drastic has changed about it.”

“When finals are done, how about we go out to dinner? We’ll go to your favorite restaurant.”

“We?” Sasuke asked. He was hopeful it was just going to be him and Orochimaru.

“You, me, and Itachi.” Orochimaru answered. Sasuke’s stomach dropped.

“Oh.” He couldn’t hide the disappointment in his voice. He licked his lips. “Yeah. Let’s do that.”

“Sasuke. I wanted to tell you first before you found out.” Orochimaru’s voice became serious. “Itachi informed me today. Naruto has moved back and transferred to Elmwood University.”

“I have to go. My friend is waiting for me.” Sasuke spoke hurriedly and ended the call. His heart started to beat frantically. He pushed open the cafe door and the bell rang out. Sakura looked up, seeing it was him, she looked back down. His eyes moved to Ino. How was she doing? On the outside she looked like Ino always looked, calm, cool, collected, in charge, and in absolute control.

Maybe it was because Ino was drunk and delirious the night Tayuya died that she didn’t remember and acted as if everything was okay. Sasuke started having nightmares and hadn’t slept a full night since. Sasuke looked at the full cafe of students hunched over textbooks, notebooks, flashcards. Tayuya’s death hadn’t impacted any of them. It was the cutthroat atmosphere the school projected. They all saw Tayuya’s absence as a victory as it was one less person they were competing against.

He joined Ino at the counter as Sakura prepared their drinks. The cafe door was pushed open. Sakura slid Ino’s drink to her and was working on his latte.

“I’ll be right with you!” Sakura called over her shoulder at the patron that stepped up to the register. Something caught Sasuke and he turned his eyes slowly to who was standing at the register. Sakura turned around holding his latte and cried out as she saw who was in front of her. She yelped and the cup of latte slipped from her hands and hit the floor. Latte spilling all over the ground.

“Naruto!”

“Hi, Sakura.” Naruto smiled. His smile was warm and enchanting. His blue eyes were crisp and clean like a clear sky on top of untouched mountains. He was wearing a coat and a navy scarf that enhanced and brightened the blue of his eyes. Sasuke watched as Naruto turned towards him, his smile widened, and he watched as Naruto’s eyes dilated. He turned his whole body so that it was facing him.

“Hi, Sasuke.” Naruto spoke with confidence. “It’s been a long time, how have you been?”

Maybe it was because Orochimaru had warned him that Naruto had returned and it gave him a cushion to absorb the sudden impact of his appearance. He remembered at several dinner parties he heard Naruto’s parents say that Naruto was going to boarding school overseas and would return when he graduated. Those three years turned into Naruto enrolling into university overseas, and he hadn’t returned. He didn’t know what made him transfer and move back. But he was here. In the flesh, and three feet in front of him.

The company’s shares that were once in Naruto’s name were transferred to Sasuke’s name, and upon graduating Itachi became a board member. The Uchiha’s officially owned more stock in the company. He remembered his mother’s overjoyed face when the physical therapist told them that Sasuke’s hand would not suffer any long-lasting damage. How overjoyed that he would be able to compete in the international competition after all. He remembered overhearing his mother on the phone saying him smashing his own hand was a blessing and if she knew they would reap these benefits with the company she would have done it herself a long time ago.

Sasuke’s mind went blank. Why was he remembering that? He didn’t want to remember.

“Sasuke? Are you okay?” Naruto asked and stepped closer to him.

Naruto appeared dazzling and blinding. He had grown even more handsome than the last time he saw him. He had grown taller, taller than him. His hair a warm, summery blonde, and his sun-kissed skin as if he were on holiday in the Caribbean. When Naruto moved his arms to loosen the scarf around his neck Sasuke could see the taut material of his coat pulling against his muscles. Sasuke turned away trying to catch his breath.

“Sasuke is fine.” Ino answered for Sasuke. He had lost his voice again.

“When...when did you come back?” Sakura began asking questions. She immediately took an interest and the jilted lover who was left at the altar was filled with love and affection when the groom came back. “Are you going to Elmwood? Where are you living? What is your phone number?” Sakura pulled her phone out and thrust it impatiently at Naruto. “I’ve missed you so much! I’m so happy you’re back!”

“You’re back.” Ino spoke with a nod of her head. Her expression was unreadable. She took the straw of her overly long complicated drink and brought it to her mouth.

“I registered for winter and spring classes at Elmwood.” Naruto answered. He took Sakura’s phone hesitantly. He glanced at Sasuke. “Do you want my number, Sasuke?”

“No.” Sasuke answered sharply.

“Are you dating anyone?” Naruto asked Sasuke directly and it knocked the breath from Sasuke. He remembered being in Naruto’s room and asking him if he and Sakura were dating.

“No.” Sasuke answered in the same sharp voice that could cut through bone. His eyelids dropped. “But I do like someone.” Naruto’s eyes flashed at this, he swallowed, but he didn’t say anything.

“I’m not dating anyone!” Sakura answered.

“Where is my drink?” Sasuke asked Sakura. “You spilled it and instead of remaking it you’re flirting with a customer!” Hearing Sasuke’s loud, disapproving voice, prompted the supervisor to come out from the back. Sakura snatched her phone back as soon as Naruto put his number in it.

“I’ll remake it now!” Sakura said loudly for the supervisor to hear. “I’ll give you a free drink coupon for the trouble!”

“I moved into my dorm yesterday. The one near Marshall street.” Naruto continued speaking to Sasuke as if nothing was wrong. “I was just taking a walk to see what was around here. I never expected to run into you.”

“We’re in Camille Academy.” Ino answered mechanically. Her eyes flickered from Sasuke to Naruto. The energy that was being emitted from both of them were polar opposites.

“I saw you on a magazine cover.” Naruto spoke to Sasuke, ignoring Ino. “You looked good. I watched your last performance on TV. It was beautiful. I’m glad your hand is healed.” Naruto reached out and his fingers brushed against Sasuke’s left hand. It felt scorching hot as if he put his hand onto a scolding stove burner.

Sasuke felt panicked. A phantom pain in his left hand could be felt. The burn traveled up his arm. He started to feel overheated and stuffy. The cafe started to shrink. His chest ached. His intestines cramped. He wanted to escape. He had blamed Naruto. His accusation caused Naruto to be shipped off across seas, and he never got to ask him why, why he never protested and why he took the blame.

As quick as Naruto touched his left hand he pulled away and his hand felt immediately cooled.

“We should get together for dinner and drinks.” Naruto offered. “Ino, what’s your number?” Naruto passed Ino his phone, acknowledging her. She took it without protest and began inputting her number.

“We all have finals. I’m not sure we’ll have time. Plus. We’re probably not up for it.” Ino answered in a matter-of-fact tone.

“Why not?” Naruto asked.

“There’s a murder investigation happening. Haven’t you heard?” Ino asked. Her voice dipped low and Naruto leaned closer in. “This is the second student from Camille to be murdered. They’re currently investigating if there is any connection between the two. Considering they were both from the piano division two homicides aren’t coincidental.”

Camille and Elmwood were situated approximately twenty minutes by car outside the city of Konoha, forty-five minutes by bus. Tayuya was murdered two weeks ago. Two weeks previously a senior boy, Jirobo, was bludgeoned to death. Both occurred off-campus.

“Oh. That’s awful. I haven’t heard anything.” Naruto answered and furrowed his eyebrows. “If they are connected...be careful!”

“Here!” Sakura interrupted and handed Sasuke his latte along with a glossy food drink coupon. “What can I get you, Naruto?”

Sasuke took the latte, stuffed the drink coupon in his pocket, and left without another word. Ino at his heels. He was just about to talk when he heard Naruto’s voice coming from behind. Sasuke looked behind his shoulder and saw Naruto running after them.

“Sasuke, wait!” Naruto called out. He caught up to them on the sidewalk and Sasuke abruptly stopped. Sasuke turned and looked at him, catching his clear-crystalline eyes. “Just one favor and I won’t ask you anything else.”

“What?”

“A game of chess.” Naruto answered with a smile, and Sasuke snorted. He reached out and touched Sasuke’s left hand again. This time Sasuke was ready. It caused Sasuke to jump back and he hid his left hand behind his back. “When finals are over. Let’s play a game of chess.”

“Fine.” Sasuke answered hesitantly. He felt his face flushing.

“Here, give me your number. I won’t call you until after finals are over I promise.” Naruto spoke gently and handed his phone over. Sasuke took his phone with one hand and typed his contact information in. Ino looked at Naruto and Sasuke.

“Thank you. I’ll talk to you later.” Naruto spoke. He turned around and left. Sasuke watched as he pushed open the coffee shop and went back inside.

“I lied.” Sasuke spoke frantically.

“Lied about what?” Ino asked. Sasuke turned around and began walking back in the direction of their dormitory. He hadn’t bothered to open up his umbrella. It remained looped around his wrist. “About my hand. Naruto never slammed it in the door.”

“What?!” Ino gasped.

“I did it and blamed him!” Sasuke confessed. “I’m afraid he’s going to use this to blackmail me!”

“Shit, Sasuke!” Ino gasped as she walked twice as fast to keep up with Sasuke. “Well, well...what’s done is done...he never protested or denied anything back then, what makes you think he would do something now?”

“Because he’s crazy!” Sasuke protested. He could feel the anger and fear welling up inside.

“I didn’t feel any murderous intent from him.” Ino spoke and looked over her shoulders.

“No, no, no. He’s crazy, he's just concealing it!”

“He probably just wants to be friends.” Ino offered.

“Well I don’t want to be his~”

“Sasuke?” Hinata’s voice came from the side. She was standing on the steps that lead to the music studio and auditorium. The wind picked up and snow wiped around her long black hair. Sasuke stopped walking. His relationship with Hinata had been complicated since the kangaroo court at the Namikaze’s. He had been nothing but submitting to her like a slave to a master. He wanted to regain her trust and friendship.

“Hinata...how are your hands?” Sasuke asked and the bandages that once covered her hands and fingers were absent.

“They’re fine. I was wondering if you had time to help me practice for the piano competition.” Hinata asked.

“Yeah! Of course!” Sasuke spoke and turned in her direction just as he was about to go up the stairs Ino grabbed Sasuke’s arm.

“Wait.” Ino spoke, her arms fastening around Sasuke’s arm. Her eyes looked up at Hinata. “I’ll come~”

“NO!” Hinata yelled. “I told you I won’t associate with you, Ino! This has nothing to do with you.”

“Ino, it’s fine. I’m going with Hinata.” Sasuke shook and shook Ino’s hands off him.

“Whatever you say.” Ino spoke and stepped away. “I have to go practice anyway. Bye.” Ino turned and left as Sasuke walked up the stairs.

“I’m sorry I overreacted.” Hinata spoke as she calmed down. “I want to be able to transition to the diamond group. Do you think I’m talented enough like you and Karin?”

“I know you’re talented enough, I'll help you.”

“Thank you, Sasuke.”

Chapter Text

She made some tarts

 

The first time Itachi saw Orochimaru he was squatting behind the school. He had opened up a can of wet cat food and held it out between the two dumpsters. He seemed to be coaxing a stray cat to come out and eat. Next to his feet lay a cat carrier. Itachi was on cleaning duty and had the classroom trash in one hand. Itachi interrupted, he opened up the cover of one of the dumpsters and threw the bag of trash in, before letting the cover slam shut. The noise scared the cat back under one of the dumpsters.

“Hey!” Orochimaru protested and stood up to face Itachi. “Why’d you do that? You scared her!”

Itachi stared at Orochimaru. “I’m on cleaning duty.” He answered deadpan, unsure of how he was supposed to answer. He spun on his heels ready to leave and end the conversation when he felt a warm hand wrapping around his wrist. He felt goosebumps ripple across his arm.

“You have to help me get the stray cat. She’s pregnant.” Orochimaru spoke as he pulled Itachi’s arm, stopping him. Itachi spun around and became momentarily entrapped in Orochimaru’s dilated eyes. He shook this strange feeling off.

“I don’t care about a stray cat. It probably has fleas.” Itachi answered bluntly with a shrug. His face was expressionless, but his heart thumped erratically.

“Even more of a reason to help her. She’s pregnant. I almost had her. Take responsibility. I almost caught her if you hadn’t scared her.”

Itachi frowned. He was never blamed for anything. He glanced at the dumpster and saw a pair of whiskers sticking out from underneath. Itachi sighed. He was partly to blame. He nodded his head.

“Okay.” Itachi took the can of wet cat food from Orochimaru’s hand and squatted down in front of the dumpster. He held the can out making come hither cat noises. “Pssst….pssst….psst.” As if laced with a magic incantation the cat poked its head from beneath the dumpster. It was an all-black cat with startling blue eyes. The cat and Itachi caught each other’s eyes and both froze. There was a strange electrical current between Itachi and the cat. Itachi stared hard at the cat as if conveying telepathically that she needed to come out and let herself be captured by Orochimaru if she knew what was good for her, or she was going to have her babies underneath a dumpster.

The cat reluctantly sauntered out and began eating the wet cat food from Itachi’s hand.

“Wow! Are you a cat whisperer?” Orochimaru asked in awe. “I’ve been out here for thirty minutes trying to get her out.” Orochimaru rested his hand on Itachi’s shoulder. The touch felt hot.

“Why do you care so much about a stray cat?” Itachi asked. “It’s not like anyone is seeing you care for the stray cat.”

“I don’t care if people see me caring for the stray cat.” Orochimaru reached out and stroked the cat’s head.

“Then what’s the point?” Itachi asked bluntly. He turned to look at Orochimaru not understanding why he would go out of his way if not for the recognition.

“Haven’t you done anything just because you wanted to?”

“No.”

“Oh.” Orochimaru picked the cat up after she had licked the can clean. He stroked the cat a few times to calm her down before putting her into the cat carrier. “Maybe you should.” Orochimaru spoke gently and caught Itachi’s gaze. “Then you’ll understand how I feel. Thank you for helping me.” Orochimaru smiled warmly at him and it was the first time Itachi felt his heart respond. He felt his heart flutter and itch and he felt his face flush with embarrassment.

Finders keepers.

Itachi was an observer. A solemn child. A gifted child. He was born from the womb a true genius. Things came so naturally that he never had to strive for anything because as soon as he reached out he was able to seize it. Memorization. Problem solving. Golf. Academic competitions. Violin. The recognition he received filled him with elation. He didn’t do anything without recognition. It was almost cruel how easy things came to him. Except in the parts of his life where he wasn’t performing and where he didn’t receive the recognition. He was empty. He was encased in a cocoon of numbness. He was detached from emotions.

An introvert who kept to himself and would have been completely fine playing by himself if not for his cousin, Shisui, there dragging him by the hand to play.

It was why he was drawn to Orochimaru and the way he viewed the world. He found him first. He found him first and wanted to keep him. There was a rare beauty about Orochimaru that Itachi was instinctively drawn to. He looked like he was cut from marble with olive skin. An archaic, hellenstic, beauty. A walking demi-god amongst mortals with long, straight, black hair, deep-set eyes, and soft swollen lips. A warm smile turned Itachi into puddles and he spilled all over the place every time he smiled. Orochimaru was the first person Itachi wanted to befriend and love forever.

Meeting Orochimaru for the first time and it resonated with Itachi what it meant to fall in love at first sight. And maybe it was childish and nothing but puppy love. He thought he would be happy with puppy love. He hoped it would grow into romantic love, however, it ended in unrequited love.

He befriended Orochimaru first yet it was Shisui who stole him.

Orochimaru was smart, thoughtful, an artist. The three of them became inseparable. He had never compared himself to anyone before because there was nobody to compare with. He was the person that everyone compared their children to. The perfect son. He remained in first place in everything. Why would he compare himself to third place where Shisui remained firmly planted. Yet. When it came to Orochimaru...Shisui was exactly the person he compared himself to, and he lost every time.

Shisui was the sun and a social butterfly. He was loud and vibrant. Charismatic. He was a handsome devil. It was the words that the girls in their class used to describe him. He was mischievous and played pranks on his classmates and teachers. He was able to get away with everything because everybody liked him. He flirted with everyone, boys and girls, and was overly affectionate with everyone. It confused people. He would have been called a dog, a wolf, if not for the fact he was a handsome devil.

“Aren’t you cocky? PDA is against school rules.” Itachi asked Shisui one day during their senior year. Shisui had just flirted relentlessly with one of their classmates up against the lockers and kissed her cheek just as Itachi walked up. The girl, shell shocked and face completely red, ran away from Shisui in the opposite direction. “If you were ugly she would have slapped you across the face. If I was her I would have gotten a restraining order against you too.”

“Pretty privilege. The world is heartless for ugly people. Why shouldn’t I embrace the fact that I am attractive?” Shisui answered with a smirk. Itachi rolled his eyes at his level of cockiness that bordered on narcissism. “Do you think she will date me if I asked her out?”

“I’m not going to compliment you.” Itachi answered coldly. He knew the answer was yes. Any girl would immediately say yes to Shisui. Even though it was Shisui who asked the girls out it was always the girl in the end that broke up with him. “It would be heartless for you to date anyone. Isn’t that why they always break up with you? They eventually find out your insincerity.”

“Why?” Shisui asked seriously. It was moments like this that Itachi saw a glimpse of the real Shisui. The one beneath the dazzling smile and theatrics. The one whose home was just as broken and busted as his own. The darkness swirling in Shisui’s eyes. Itachi answered him truthfully.

“You’re not serious. It’ll be cruel to her. You can’t date anyone if you’re not seriously interested in them. Maybe you should stop being a playboy and just flirt with the one you like.”

“What’s going on?” Orochimaru asked. He walked up from behind Shisui. Itachi’s heart thumped.

“I caught Shisui kissing another girl.” Itachi answered before Shisui could say anything. His heart dropped when he saw the expression on Orochimaru’s face. He stopped breathing as Shisui turned to face Orochimaru. “He’s been single less than a day and is already kissing somebody else.”

“Is that so?” Orochimaru spoke coldly.

“You’re mad at me too?” Shisui asked. He swung an arm around Orochimaru’s shoulder and pulled him close. Itachi saw how Orochimaru’s body tensed up but he hadn’t immediately pushed Shisui away. He saw the corners of Orochimaru’s mouth twitching upwards as if willing himself not to smile. “You know you’re the only one for me, Orochimaru.” Shisui spoke teasingly. Itachi watched as Orochimaru’s face turned pink. “Just date me and I’ll stop chasing the girls.”

“Don’t get so close to me. Who’d want to date you?” Orochimaru shot back. He had regained his strength and pushed Shisui’s face away from his, and pulled his arm off him. “You’ll give me fleas.” Orochimaru broke free and stood next to Itachi. He shook his head. “Have you finished filling out the college application, Itachi?”

Shisui’s smile didn’t falter. His eyes lit up as if an idea occurred to him.

“Ah.” Itachi made a noise of assent. The two left, leaving Shisui behind.

“Hey! Wait! Aren’t you going to ask me about my application?” Shisui whined and caught up with them.

“No.” Itachi and Orochimaru spoke in unison.

“Orochimaru, will you help me with mine?” Shisui asked as he appeared on the other side of Orochimaru.

“Who says I want to go to the same university as you?” Orochimaru shot back.

“I want to go to the same university as you. Even if you go to a university across the world I’ll follow you.” Shisui voiced in a melody as if making a speech on stage. “To the ends of the earth. I’ll do anything for you!”

“...” Orochimaru looked away and didn’t respond.

“How about it. Will you come over tonight? You can stay the night.” Shisui offered. “Itachi are you coming too?” Shisui spoke as if Orochimaru had already agreed.

“I can’t.” Itachi answered flatly. “There’s another business banquet.” He looked away. It was hard watching Shisui fawn over Orochimaru.

Shisui flung both arms around Orochimaru from behind and pressed his body up against him. “Ah~it’ll just be me and Orochimaru.”

“Who says I’ll help you?” Orochimaru asked arrogantly. Itachi watched them from the corner of his eye. Orochimaru hadn’t pushed Shisui off and the two continued to move as if one entity. Shisui rested his chin on Orochimaru’s shoulder and dripped off him like a shawl.

“Please! Please! Please!” Shisui begged. Orochimaru rolled his eyes and grabbed Shisui’s hands ready to push him away. “I don’t want to be alone.” Shisui’s voice dropped out of his theatrical performance and a tinge of seriousness welted through. It caused Orochimaru to freeze. The two stopped moving. Orochimaru’s hands remained over Shisui’s as he forgot about shaking him off.

Shisui never wanted to be alone. It was why he surrounded himself with their classmates and why he never could stay single for too long. He needed attention and affection at all times. Even then it was never enough for him and he still desired more, more, more. As if filling a never-ending hole inside him. He was the type of person even if he was at a buffet with hundreds of deliciously cooked foods he’d find the one food that wasn’t on the menu and demand that.

Itachi stopped moving. It happened fast. Just as he turned around Orochimaru shook Shisui off.

“Fine. Fine. Just don’t hang off me. I’ll trip.” Orochimaru exclaimed. “I’ll come over.”

“You spoil him, Orochimaru. That’s why he throws a fit whenever he doesn’t get his way.” Itachi spoke with a faint smile. Orochimaru offered a weak smile as if to say he had been captivated by Shisui just like everyone else in his life, unable to say no. Itachi wasn’t allowed to complain, he wasn’t able to tell his cousin no either.

Itachi was curious to know when Orochimaru and Shisui had their first kiss.

Was it when Orochimaru spent the night helping Shisui with his college application? Or had they kissed earlier? He had meant to ask Shisui but the timing was always off. The time he witnessed them kissing was after school nearing the end of their senior year. Itachi was waiting for Shisui and Orochimaru at their lockers and after fifteen minutes he went looking for them. His feet took him to the art room. The door was closed and he looked through the glass window.

He saw Orochimaru sitting in a chair with a sketchbook and pencil in hand. He had been sketching Shisui who straddled a chair facing him. They were only a foot apart. Shisui’s lips were moving and even though Itachi thought himself a good lip reader he couldn’t make out the words Shisui was saying to Orochimaru. Something told Itachi to interrupt. To open the door and complain that they forgot about meeting him. He tried to imagine if he had thrown a tantrum the way Shisui threw tantrums he could steal back Orochimaru’s attention. Instead. He remained stoic. A statue who neither made his appearance known or walked away.

He just watched as if he were witnessing a car accident.

Whatever Shisui said caused Orochimaru to stop sketching and raise his eyes to meet Shisui’s. They stared at each other, wordlessly, for a moment. It happened slowly. Shisui was the one to lean over. He pressed his mouth up against Orochimaru’s. Itachi’s eyes immediately went to Orochimaru’s reaction. He wanted Orochimaru to push Shisui away, shrug him off, and say a retort. He did none of this because there wasn’t an audience. He allowed Shisui to kiss him and Orochimaru leaned in and kissed back. The moment Itachi saw Orochimaru’s mouth open and Shisui’s tongue invade, he turned around and walked away.

He lost.

He told himself he was fine just being next to Orochimaru. He told himself he didn’t blame Orochimaru for falling for Shisui. Because Shisui was the sun and the butterfly, and Itachi was the moon and the moth.

When Orochimaru and Shisui confessed to Itachi that they were dating, Itachi swallowed back defeat, and smiled warmly at them. That summer Itachi had unconsciously withdrawn from both Orochimaru and Shisui. He withdrew even more away from Shisui when they entered the first year of university together. The oldest, most prestigious university in the country. A plane ride away from home. If his mother hadn’t demanded he attend this particular university he wouldn’t have gone.

And maybe that was when the guilt started to pile on. If he hadn’t been so distant with Shisui he could have seen the signs more clearly. He knew his cousin, his best friend, inside and out. His cousin who pulled him by the hand out of the shadows and into the sun. Who lavished attention on him and never left him alone again. If he hadn’t, and he saw the signs, then maybe...then maybe he could have prevented it, he could have talked to Shisui, gotten him help, and things wouldn’t have evolved to a funeral with Orochimaru on his knees crying in front of Shisui’s ashes in an urn.

*****

“Itachi?” Orochimaru’s hand covered Itachi’s and it shook Itachi from his memories. They were sitting in a ramen restaurant. Sasuke’s choice. Outside the world was blanketed in white snow. The temperatures below freezing. Itachi saw Sasuke sitting across the table. His brother was giving him a cold look as if telling him with every fiber of his being he didn’t want him there. “Are you ready to order?” Orochimaru’s voice called to him from the right.

“Order.” Sasuke snipped. “We’re waiting on you.”

Itachi looked up at the waiter who was holding a pen and notepad in hand. The restaurant was a step-up from a fast food restaurant but it almost felt an insult to call it a sit-down restaurant. It was a hole-in-the-wall family business that always seemed to be understaffed for the amount of traffic it received. It was late afternoon somewhere between ‘it was too late for lunch’ and ‘too early for dinner’ and the table had a layer of grease on it. Itachi was looking at the pictures on the menu. He pointed to a picture. The waiter leaned over and looked at the picture Itachi was pointing to.

“Alright. I’ll put your order in!” The waiter spoke happily and dashed away.

Itachi took some napkins from the napkin dispenser and began wiping the grease off the table. He could feel his brother glaring at him.

“What are you doing?” Sasuke asked in his usual cold demeanor.

“Cleaning, since they obviously haven’t cleaned this table since they opened.” Itachi retorted.

“It’s fine.” Sasuke spoke with clenched teeth.

“I’m getting grease stains on my suit.”

“So? It’s not like you can’t afford another armani suit.”

“It’s prada. Why would I be wasteful with money?” The suit wasn’t but Itachi needed to have a quip back at Sasuke.

“Then dry clean it.”

“I’d rather just clean the table so I wouldn’t have to make a trip to get my suit dry cleaned.”

The bickering went back and forth until Orochimaru interrupted. “How have things been going with Naruto? Has he been bothering you?”

Out of all the things to change topics, bringing up Naruto immediately darkened and soured Sasuke. He had an expression as if drinking vinegar. Itachi watched his brother. He had suspected for some time that Sasuke had a crush on Orochimaru. He watched as his brother’s expression softened as if Sasuke couldn’t be angry with Orochimaru for more than a few moments. There was a softness in Sasuke’s eyes when he looked at Orochimaru, and a gentleness in his voice when he spoke to him. It reminded Itachi of the way Shisui would sometimes look and speak to Orochimaru.

“He wants to play a game of chess. Idiot. I haven’t played in years. I’m afraid to lose.” Sasuke answered Orochimaru. Itachi covered his mouth with his hand and snorted. Sasuke scowled at him. “Aren’t you cleaning the table?” He barked at Itachi wanting to push him out of every conversation he had with Orochimaru. Itachi went back to washing the grease off the table.

“Maybe it is water under the bridge now.” Orochimaru speculated. “And he wants to be your friend. He’s extending an olive branch.”

“Friend? Naruto doesn’t know what a friend is. He’s a manipulative bastard who is going to blackmail me!” Sasuke spat without thinking. “It’s not an olive branch. It’s poison ivy!”

“Why would he blackmail you?” Orochimaru asked seriously. There was concern in his eyes.

Itachi watched Orochimaru carefully as he continued cleaning the grease off the table. The reason Orochimaru was at the library when he ran into Sasuke was because of Itachi’s request. Itachi was worried about Sasuke following Shisui’s death. He was worried about his brother being left alone at home while he was away at university. Their mother only gave him half-truths of Sasuke’s day-to-day life. Their mother had a way of viewing their twisted reality with rose-colored glasses all the while boasting to her friends she could write a book about raising successful children.

Itachi requested for Orochimaru to meet Sasuke in the library and approach him. It was an underhanded way of getting information but Itachi didn’t know what else to do. Itachi originally just wanted to know how Sasuke was really doing, and he knew he would find out more from Orochimaru approaching him than from reports from their mother.

Orochimaru said when he met Sasuke in the library he had the same eyes that Shisui had and it frightened him. It further worried Itachi. Orochimaru couldn’t leave him alone so he kept meeting him at the library and reporting back.

“I’m worried. You shouldn’t stay on campus during winter break. If students keep dying it’s dangerous.” Orochimaru spoke. The conversation shifted. “If you don’t want to go home you can stay with Itachi and me.”

“Really?” Sasuke’s eyes lit up and he looked at Orochimaru as if Orochimaru told him he won the lotto.

“Where can he stay? We converted the spare bedroom into an office.” Itachi interrupted. He didn’t want Sasuke to stay with them. No. That wasn’t right. He felt possessiveness seethe to the surface. He didn’t know why he was acting this way. He would rather Sasuke stay with him than return to their parent's house. Maybe it was because he knew Sasuke had a crush on Orochimaru that everything changed.

“He can take my bedroom. I’ll sleep on the pullout couch.” Orochimaru suggested. Itachi’s stomach dropped and he was no longer hungry.

“I’ll sleep on the pullout couch!” Sasuke said.

“Nonsense. I’ll revert the spare room back into a guest room.” Itachi spoke with a smile. He needed to control himself. He swallowed back that possessiveness demon that curled in his ribcage. “Besides, if anyone has to give up their room it should be me as Sasuke is my brother. Not yours.” His words were colder than he met, and his stare was harsher than he intended when he looked at Orochimaru.

“Then it’s settled. You’ll stay with us over the winter break. I won’t feel so worried.” Orochimaru pretended he hadn’t heard Itachi’s words.

*****

“Itachi.” Orochimaru called out his name when they got back to their apartment. Itachi had immediately walked towards his bedroom and stopped. “Did I cross a line when inviting Sasuke to stay with us during winter break? I should have spoken to you about it first.”

“No. He is my brother. I would rather him stay with us than go back home.” Itachi answered without turning around. He continued the placating mood.

“Then why are you mad?”

“I just think you’re cruel to him sometimes.” Itachi spoke and turned around so he could face Orochimaru. His throat felt like it was closing when he spoke. “It’s obvious he has a crush on you and you doing these things is probably confusing him. You should just reject him.”

“He doesn’t have a crush on me.” Orochimaru answered plainly. He gave Itachi a look as if to say Itachi was reading too much into things. A ripple of anger washed over Itachi disturbing the peaceful waters that were between them.

“The way you look at him...it’s as if you think he’s…” Itachi spoke vaguely.

“I think he’s who?”

“He’s not Shis~”

Orochimaru’s eyes widened and at the expression, Itachi swallowed back the words. “He’s not your brother. He’s mine. Don’t overstep your boundaries. Hurry up and reject him. Otherwise, I’ll think you’re a predator.” Itachi wanted to say whatever was necessary to get Orochimaru to reject Sasuke.

“You’ll think I’m a predator? I see Sasuke as your kid brother, nothing else.” Orochimaru snapped. He was offended. “Why would you think that about me?” Orochimaru’s face was vibrant with resentment. His hands had balled into fists and his nails were making crescent moons on his palm.

“He’s gone through enough as it is. Stop leading him on.” Itachi answered coldly.

“I’m not leading him on! Maybe he shouldn’t stay with us if it’s going to be like this? Camille students are dropping like flies and who knows what poison awaits him at home!”

“If you don’t want him to stay with us. Then you tell him. I’m tired of being the bad guy with my own brother.”

“You can’t have it both ways. You told me to approach him in the library. You should have just told him it was your idea why I was even there. Just...just tell me what you want me to do!”

He couldn’t remember the last time he quarreled with Orochimaru. It wasn’t Orochimaru’s fault. It was his. He had lost control over his feelings again. It was beginning to hurt. Being around Orochimaru was hurting too much and he was thinking they needed to spend some time apart or he was going to ruin their friendship.

“I’m sorry.” Itachi exhaled. “I’m sorry. I’ve been stressed at work and I took it out on you.” It wasn’t why he was stressed but he was compelled to give a reason that didn’t involve Orochimaru. Work and work-related stress were always the default. “I’m jealous of the relationship you have with my brother because it’s the relationship I want with him.” It was a half-truth. He couldn’t help but bicker with Sasuke whenever they were around. “Sasuke will stay here. I don’t want him in the dorms alone, or at home. I should have been the one to invite him.” He just wanted Orochimaru to reject Sasuke so he could breathe.

“Oh...it’s...okay.” Orochimaru spoke hesitantly. “I~”

“I have to go back to the office. I received a text message while we were eating.” Itachi interrupted. It was another lie. He needed to escape. He needed to get away from Orochimaru before he said something he would regret.

“Is everything~”

“I’m not sure. I’ll know more when I get there.” Itachi answered briskly. He grabbed his keys and left. “I’ll talk to you later.”

*****

Orochimaru stood at the closed apartment door for a long time before he was able to move. He felt the shift in Itachi. He walked up to the door and locked it. He was putting distance between them again. Layering bricks up to form a wall. He heard Itachi’s words about Sasuke having a crush on him. It hadn’t occurred to him before. He would have to make things clear to Sasuke and reject him properly. He knew what it felt like to have an unrequited love and he didn’t want Sasuke to suffer any longer. His mind turned to Shisui.

“I like you.” Shisui told Orochimaru during their eleventh year of high school. It was during study hall and Shisui wasn’t studying. He was using his arms as a makeshift pillow. His head turned to face Orochimaru.

“You like everyone.” Orochimaru answered briskly. He was studying. He was making flashcards for an upcoming physics exam.

“No. I actually really like you.” Shisui answered. His voice, low and husky. Orochimaru didn’t give him another look. “But you like Itachi.” At these words, Orochimaru froze and his pencil dropped from his hand. “More than a friend.”

“How...how do you know?” Orochimaru asked. His eyes darted around the room. Everyone seemed to be preoccupied and it didn’t appear that anyone was listening in to their conversation.

“I can talk to Itachi for you. I can ask him what he thinks of you.” Shisui offered.

“No-no-no-no! I’m fine.” Orochimaru picked up his pencil and looked at the flashcards. His vision blurred and it felt like his heart was beating in his throat. He felt hot and sweaty and the lights in the room were giving him a headache. “Just pretend you~”

“You’re just going to pine over someone forever because you’re too afraid to make the first move?” Shisui spoke in a mocking voice. He wasn’t used to this tone from him.

“Ey?” Orochimaru was panicking. He was nervous because that was what he was planning on doing.

“Let me talk to Itachi. You’ve liked him for a while. You deserve an answer one way or another, and I’m the closest person to Itachi. I want you to be happy.”

“I’m afraid it’ll ruin our friendship.” Orochimaru confessed. “If it’ll ruin our friendship I’d rather him not know anything.” Orochimaru wasn’t strong enough to face rejection.

“I thought you were Itachi’s friend. You know he isn’t the type who would stop being friends with someone over something so...trivial.”

Shisui’s words wrapped around him like thorny vines, cutting into him, and making him nervous and anxious. His heart raced. He could feel the acid in his stomach burn his esophagus. It was true. He had a one-sided crush on Itachi. It was something he shoved deep, deep, deep down so he didn’t have to think about it. The feeling hovered just outside his vision but he could feel its presence.

“Okay…” Orochimaru agreed. Shisui smiled.

A few weeks later Shisui cornered Orochimaru. He grabbed him by the hand and led him to an empty classroom. “I spoke to Itachi.”

Orochimaru’s heart fluttered.

“He said he just wants to be friends.” Shisui spoke quietly. “Even if he was allowed to date. He’s attracted to girls.”

“Oh.” Orochimaru elongated the vowel. He nodded his head up and down. “Of course.”

“He says this won’t affect your friendship. As long as you don’t bring it up again. Itachi will act as he always acts towards you.” Shisui explained in a sympathetic voice. “Orochimaru...are you okay?”

“Yes.”

“You’re crying.” Shisui pointed out. Tears were streaming down his face. Orochimaru lifted a hand and touched his cheeks to confirm for himself he was crying. He felt the warm tears against his fingertips. This was why he didn’t want to know the answer.

“I...didn’t want to know...I knew he would…” Orochimaru choked. The words were jumbled and lost. He felt Shisui hugging him. His arms felt strong and dependable. It caused Orochimaru to cry harder.

“Ignorance isn’t bliss. It’s better to know now so you don’t waste your life on unrequited love. It’s painful now, but you won’t be in pain forever.” Shisui spoke in Orochimaru’s ear. He held onto Orochimaru tightly. “There-there. I’m here. Now you know. And it means I have a chance, right?”

“What?” Orochimaru hiccuped. “I’m not going to date you!”

“Not now...but in the future. I bet you’ll fall in love with me.”

Orochimaru heard that as Shisui’s overflowing and unmatched confidence. He shook his head and laughed between fits of tears. He thought Shisui was trying to cheer him up. He was lost and vulnerable and heartbroken. He never expected Shisui’s words to come true. He never expected to fall in love with him. A year of Shisui whispering into his ear that he liked him and then openingly telling him he liked him in front of Itachi started to click within him.

Shisui was right. Itachi didn’t treat him differently afterwards and when they told Itachi they were dating he smiled warmly at them. It was why Orochimaru decided to swallow back on his first love and let Itachi go.

He had loved Itachi. He had loved Shisui.

Even when he was dating Shisui in the back of his mind he had still loved Itachi. And maybe it was because Itachi was his first love and there was a bitterness that lasted a lifetime of one’s first love. His love for Itachi grew smaller and smaller until it was nothing but embers.

Then Shisui hanged himself, and Orochimaru broke down.

Maybe this was Orochimaru’s karma for not being able to love Shisui with his entire being. He knew Shisui sensed it. He knew Shisui sensed that his heart wasn’t entirely his. Even now it was hard to ignore his own heart. He had still loved Itachi. Those embers became a whole forest fire. It was his punishment. Itachi was putting distance between them and building a wall. It was Orochimaru’s punishment for his wickedness and selfishness. This unrequited love.

He approached Sasuke because Itachi requested him to. He held onto Sasuke because he saw that Sasuke had the same eyes Shisui had the last week Shisui was alive. It frightened him. He held on because he wanted an excuse, a bridge, with Itachi. He never expected this bridge to turn into a sword that he fell on, with Itachi accusing him of being a predator after his younger brother when the person he was after was Itachi.

Now Itachi was pulling further away from him and he didn’t know what to do to fix things so they could go back to how things used to be.

Orochimaru exhaled. He moved to the room they converted into an office and began moving things around for Sasuke.

Chapter Text

All on a summer's day

 

Naruto pulled from his puffer jacket pocket a lollipop. He unwrapped it and dragged his tongue around the red sphere coating it in a layer of shiny saliva, before inserting the lollipop into the pouch of his cheek. His eyes were half-lidded oceanic blue. He propped his head up with one hand as the other hand fiddled around with the lollipop wrapper. They were seated in the corner of the coffee shop on Marshall street.

“So.” Naruto spoke low. “What’s been going on since I’ve been gone?” He settled his eyes on Ino. He was beginning his reunion tour and decided to start with the queen of gossip.

Ino had ordered a glass cup of macchiato and her short delicate fingers played around with the handle. She had a sardonic smile. “Well.” Ino stuck a finger in the glass cup and rimmed the cup with her index finger getting a layer of foam on her fingertip before bringing it to her mouth. “Do you want to know about the murders at school?” She licked her finger. “Or do you just want to know about Sasuke?”

“Sasuke.” Naruto answered.

“You’re still obsessed with him? Are you going to blackmail him again?”

“What do you know?” Naruto moved the lollipop to the opposite side of his mouth and swallowed sugary saliva. His tongue became dyed artificial red.

“Sasuke slammed his own hand in the door but blamed you.”

“You guys are best friends? Tell each other everything?” Naruto grimaced. He was upset Sasuke told. “How touching.” He mocked with a roll of his eyes.

“I wouldn’t recommend blackmailing him again if you want to get close with him. I mean. You can. It worked out so well last time.” Ino matched Naruto’s energy. What happened to Hinata was known and they were no longer forced to keep the secret, however, being boxcar children still bound them together with invisible thread.

“How do I get close to him if not for blackmail?” Naruto crunched down on the lollipop.

“Leave Sasuke alone. If you want a pet project why don’t you pick Hinata. She’s been a nutcase this whole time. She’s gotten better at manipulating people than Temari.”

“Hinata?” Naruto asked inquisitively. He shook his head not buying it.

“During the school piano performance examination Tayuya threw boiling water at Hinata. As a result they allowed Hinata to retake the piano examination. It’s funny. After that incident. Tayuya ends up pushed from the balcony of the Sabaku’s penthouse, and Sasuke begins providing private piano lessons to Hinata. Voila. She is picked to move to the diamond category where Sasuke and Karin are categorized.”

“So?” Naruto asked. He began chewing on the lollipop stick. “I wouldn’t put it past Gaara to push an ugly girl off his balcony.”

“He wouldn’t push his sister’s girlfriend off the balcony. You know the rules the Sabaku siblings have for each other. Significant others are off limits.”

“Temari was dating Tayuya?” Naruto was surprised with this information.

“In secret of course. Their father is trying to marry her off to the highest bidder. The last I heard Gaara and Kankuro were destroying the reputation of the bachelor, or interfering with every bachelor their father picked so he’d cancel the engagement. It’s gotten pretty gruesom at the Sabaku household, and now they’re tied up in this murder investigation.”

“What’s this got to do with Hinata?” Naruto asked.

“Hinata has been hanging around the Sabaku siblings a lot recently. It could be because the Hyuga’s and Sabaku’s are conducting business together. But. She never approached them before. Who knows. Maybe Hinata is playing the Simon Says game.”

“They’re still playing the Simon Says game?”

“If you’re so interested why don’t you talk to Gaara.”

Naruto nodded his head in agreement. He was lost in thought for a moment.

“Sasuke told you the truth about what happened.” Naruto stated and Ino nodded her head. “Sasuke says he likes somebody. Who is it?”

“If I tell you. It means you owe me a favor.” Ino pushed back in her chair. “Considering I told you a lot of information based on our past connection. We’re adults now, and information isn’t free.”

“Fine.” Naruto had relied too much on Ino to give him information. He should have known better.

Ino smirked. “He’s in love with Orochimaru. It’s his brother’s best friend and roommate. Isn’t it tragic? He’s been in love with him since he was young. He fell in love with him when Orochimaru was teaching him chess.” Ino laughed. “That’s right. He fell in love with him when he was learning better chess strategies so he could beat you!” Ino’s laughter filled the coffee shop.

Naruto’s eyes darkened. His mouth became rigid. He had an uncanny expression on his face and a wry smile. None of this was amusing or funny in the slightest. “Who is he?”

“An orphan the mayor adopted. It’s quite pitiful. He’s currently an investigative journalist. Sasuke is staying with Orochimaru and Itachi over winter break. That’s all I know.”

“Ah.” Naruto’s eyes lit up with recognition but his expression remained cold. “Is that so?”

“Are you jealous?” Ino asked impishly.

“Yes.” Naruto answered matter-of-factly. “Sasuke belongs to me.”

“If he belongs to you. Why haven’t you called or texted him? He’s been anxious this whole time because of it.”

“Good.” Naruto flashed a conceited smile. “It means he’s thinking about me. Maybe I’ll wait a little while before reaching back out to him.”

“Bastard.” Ino muttered and took a sip from the glass cup.

*****

Gaara answered the door wearing nothing but a black silk robe. It was loosely tied and hung off one shoulder. His dark auburn hair was disheveled. All colors on his body had been muted as if matured and left in childhood. The baby fat rescinded to defined muscles, a strong jawline, and sharp features. The skin on Gaara’s flesh was translucent. The kind of delicate skin that would burn if out in the sun for too long without sunblock. The one thing the Sabaku siblings were known for was their good skin and Gaara’s skin was so flawless Naruto wanted nothing more than to bruise it.

“Naruto?” Gaara blinked. He was still shorter than Naruto by a foot. His eyes still looked up to greet him. The confusion wore off and Gaara stepped back. “I was wondering when you were going to reach out to me. You’re too cruel. You don’t play hard to get. You play impossible to find.” He pouted.

Naruto sat down in an armchair, his arms resting on the armrests. His hands gripping the edges of the armrest. “Did you murder her?” Naruto asked. It was the first thing he asked. He knew he wouldn’t have touched any of his siblings' significant others. He wanted to be sure. Needed to hear it from Gaara so he knew what tactic to take.

Gaara snorted out into laughter. It caused the black robe to fall completely off one shoulder and reveal clavicle bones and his bicep. “Even if she wasn’t good enough for my sister I wouldn’t have pushed her. Temari wasn’t even serious about her to begin with; she was just charity. She’s still hung up over Karin. Why would I dirty myself over trash like her?”

“Karin?” Naruto asked. He didn’t hide the shock. He never knew Karin swung that way but when he looked back he could see the glaring flags. “Oh. Of course.” His thoughts turned to the bethroment of Sasuke and Karin. “Wouldn’t their wedding be a spectacle? It's probably killing Karin inside. Perfect princess pissing herself right now. I can’t wait to see her.” He was going to hold this over her head. It was about time he had something over his perfect cousin.

“Sasuke?” Gaara questioned. “I was wondering when you were going to bring him up.”

“No. He isn’t who I want to talk about. I’m here to talk about Hinata.”

“Oh?” Gaara’s expression changed. It went from guarded to foly. “How much did you hear to be bringing up her name in front of me?”

Naruto remained silent for a moment. He watched as a smile crept across Gaara’s face. Gaara was the one who stole the money from the lockbox that Hinata was responsible for. He framed Suigetsu. To punish Sasuke. He assumed this would have been enough for Hinata to keep away from the Sabaku siblings. Instead. She ran right towards them. Why? Ino was right. Maybe he should focus his attention on Hinata.

“Is Hinata playing the Simon Says game with you?” Naruto asked. It was a bold question and Naruto asked it purely to test the waters. In a world where money bought “yes” and money bought “no” to those who already had money, something else needed to be exchanged, something else needed to become the currency. And each person demanded something different.

“Oh. Naruto, baby. You must have received the bulk of your information from Ino. I’m not Ino. What are you going to do for me in return?”

The Sabaku family owned multiple properties. Condos. Townhouses. Brownstones. Penthouses. Vacation homes. The favorite property the Sabaku siblings fought over was the condo in downtown Konoha. The condo was in their mother’s name and immediately went into the names of the siblings. It was the closest thing they had to a family home. It only had one bedroom and so the siblings fought over who was going to use it. Although they fought over the condo it was also used as a means of punishment. Gaara was banished from entering any Sabaku property and reprimanded to the condo.

Naruto stood up. Gaara had been under house arrest for a while under orders from their father to keep a low profile while the police department worked on clearing Gaara’s name. Naruto was curious to know why it was only Gaara’s name that came up when Temari and Kankuro were also attending the party. He knew the answer without having to think too hard. Naruto rested a knee between Gaara’s legs on the couch cushion. He pressed his hands on either side of Gaara clutching the back of the couch.

He leaned down so that his lips brushed against Gaara’s cheeks and up against his ear. “You’re still the blacksheep of the family. Everything got pinned on you. I bet you’ve been pent up all alone. Your father wouldn’t even let you go to class. Let me help you. Give you some release.”

Naruto brought his lips to the side of Gaara’s neck and began kissing him. Gaara gasped as Naruto bit down on his delicate skin and began sucking.

“What are-” Gaara was cut off by Naruto inserting his index and middle finger into his mouth. He didn’t want to hear him talk.

“Lick it.” Naruto commanded and began rubbing his fingers against the hotness that was Gaara’s tongue.

A trail of saliva rolled down Gaara’s chin. The feeling of Gaara’s tongue on Naruto’s fingers caused his face to flush. Gaara’s tongue maneuvered as if licking a popsicle. Without warning Naruto rammed the fingers into the back of Gaara’s throat. It immediately sent him into a choking and gagging fit. His hands wrapped around Naruto’s arm and he tried to push him.

In one fluid moment Naruto undid the sash that held Gaara’s robe closed. He removed his fingers from Gaara’s mouth and grabbed his penis between his legs. He could feel it was already erect even before he touched it. Naruto leaned down and pressed his mouth to Gaara’s as he began giving Gaara a handjob. He could feel the saliva coating the length of Gaara as he went up and down. He squeezed the tip and began massaging the tip with the palm of his hand.

“Naru~” Gaara gasped into Naruto’s mouth. His face had turned the color of a peach. Naruto greeted Gaara’s hungry tongue and mouth with his own and fed him like a mother bird fed it’s chirping, ugly, naked babies. Gaara climaxed in Naruto’s hand. Immediately Naruto pulled his mouth from Gaara and watched as he panted and tried catching his breath.

Naruto grabbed Gaara’s silk robe and began wiping the white, gloopy, semen from his hands as a look of disgust curled his mouth. He completed it like a business transaction. There was no emotion. No feeling. Just business.

“I...I can’t tell you who's playing. Only those playing know each other. It’s part of the rules. But If you want to play. You’ll have to do something first.”

“Alright. We’re not kids anymore. What is it?”

*****

A masked man leaned up against the brickwall in the alleyway.

He wore a black face mask that he pulled down around his chin. He unwrapped a lollipop and popped it into his mouth, stuffing the wrapper in his pocket. He had been waiting for almost two hours and had consumed close to a dozen lollipops. He was craving for nicotine, his mouth itching for a cigarette. He had quit cold turkey the other day. He never thought he could be addicted to something as cancerous as nicotine that his whole body craved it. He switched from smoking to lollipops.

His eyes had been staring at the Eye of Providence newspaper office. It was an office that was open twenty-four seven almost like the city where it never rested, never slept, always witnessing. It was the eleventh hour and night had dropped the temperatures to below freezing. The man finished his last lollipop and threw the stick into the dumpster. He pulled his mask up.

Ten minutes later Orochimaru came out of the building. He was wearing a scarf and a long jacket that reached his calves.

The man remained out of sight, his body in the shadows of the alleyway. Orochimaru walked by looking at his phone and sending someone a text message. He wasn’t aware of his surroundings. He looked stressed and his shoulders sagged and trembled. His mouth twisted downwards as if in the middle of an argument over text message. The masked man picked up the bat that was resting by his feet.

The masked man moved out of the alleyway and swung the bat at the back of Orochimaru’s head. THUNK. The sound of metal alloy hitting the human skull. It echoed across the empty street. It was eleven o’clock on a Tuesday and nobody was out at this hour because everyone was still hungover from Monday work. Orochimaru had been staying later and later as he was avoiding returning to his apartment. It was all so...perfect.

The masked man swung not to crack his skull open, but to blind him, stun him momentarily. He was struck so fast he couldn’t scream. A concussion, yes. A head injury, yes. But not striking to kill. It caused Orochimaru to fly forwards. His phone flying out of his hands and sliding across the sidewalk. The masked man swung again. This time aiming towards his knees. This time the noise was muffled but the end result was what he wanted. Bone still connected with bat.

Orochimaru went to all fours before collapsing entirely. The man picked up the cell phone that was left abandoned on the sidewalk and stuffed it into his pocket.

The masked man swung one final time across his shoulder and head in one swing. Again the noise was muffled. The first two hits were to immobilize. The third strike was a warning. As suddenly as the masked man struck he vanished down the same alleyway from where he came from.

*****

Naruto had a lollipop in his mouth as he walked down the street. Gaara requested for Naruto to help chase off the newest bachelor their father was trying to marry Temari off to. If he successfully did that then Gaara would let Naruto play Simon Says. He had been lost in his thoughts when he noticed an unconscious man lying face down on the sidewalk. He was alone. Naruto looked around the street and saw the Eye of Providence newspaper building.

Orochimaru was an investigative journalist. He crouched down and shook the man’s shoulder and narrowed his eyes. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end.

“Are you drunk?” Naruto asked. The man had long black hair. He tried rolling the man over but he was nothing but dead weight. Naruto wrinkled up his nose. “Are you dead?” He stuck a finger under the man’s nose and felt cold breath against him.

Naruto used his strength to roll the man to his back. The man was unconscious. He went for the pockets of his dark coat. He didn’t smell alcohol. He didn’t see any wounds. The section of sidewalk they were on was between two street lamps, and one street lamp’s bulb died. They were half in shadows and half in cirrhosis liver yellow light. Naruto didn’t see the blood on the sidewalk. He pulled out a wallet and opened it up and looked at the ID card. Orochimaru Sarutobi.

Naruto started laughing. The sudden burst of laughter caused Orochimaru to stir and his eyes opened. He witnessed Naruto crouching down and laughing as he held his wallet in his hands. For a moment Orochimaru thought a madman had attacked him.

“Who...are you?” Orochimaru croaked. “Are you robbing me?”

“Ahhh~” Naruto exhaled and brought his cold stare to greet Orochimaru. He stopped laughing abruptly. “Were you attacked?” Naruto mocked.

“Who...are...you?” Orochimaru repeated, his voice sounded weak like he was fighting to remain conscious. Searing pain erupted from different parts of his body and he felt woozy and lightheaded.

“Just stop talking. You’re making this harder than it has to be.” Naruto rolled his eyes and stood up. He pulled out his cell phone and dialed emergency dispatchers. “Hello. I found a man who seems to have been attacked outside, Eye of Providence newspaper.”

Orochimaru groaned, his hand going to the back of his head where it was bleeding. His vision blurred in and out.

“Yes. He will need an ambulance.” Naruto turned his back on Orochimaru and spoke calmly to the dispatcher.

If it wasn’t the fact he felt somebody watching them from the shadows he would have walked away and left Orochimaru.

*****

Naruto hadn’t intended on calling Sasuke so soon. He wanted to wait a while longer. He wanted Sasuke to think of him a little more. He exhaled and hit the call button. He was sitting in the waiting room of the hospital. The fluorescent lighting beating down on him. The plastic seats were uncomfortable no matter what position he was in. He leaned back in his chair and listened to the phone trying to connect. He was expecting a voicemail. He was expecting Sasuke to have given him the wrong phone number. He wasn’t expecting...anything.

Then he remembered Ino saying how anxious Sasuke had been because he was under the impression Naruto was going to blackmail him. He smirked.

“Hello?” Sasuke’s raspy voice greeted him. He sounded as if he had woken up from sleep.

“Sasuke?” Naruto asked. He straightened up. There was a long pause from Sasuke’s end. Naruto held his breath.

“Are you calling to schedule a time for chess?” Sasuke asked sourly. Naruto smiled and perked up.

“If that’s what you want to talk about. When is a good time?”

“It’s winter break. I’d rather get it over with.” Sasuke was grouchy and irritable. This was the Sasuke he remembered from highschool. A prickly porcupine. He remembered how good Sasuke looked when he saw him through the windows of the coffee shop. How it warmed his heart and all he wanted to do was talk to him.

“How about Friday?” Naruto suggested.

“Tomorrow.” Sasuke snapped.

Naruto remembered the last day of school when Sasuke approached him and demanded they play chess that day or he wasn’t playing with him at all. He remembered how he woke up to see Sasuke sleeping on the coffee table waiting for him. His heart ached.

“Mhm. That might be difficult.” Naruto spoke calmly, ignoring the pains in his heart. His eyes looked at the medical staff bustling around. “I think Friday will be perfect.”

“Why?” Sasuke snarled.

“Because. I figured you’d want to take care of Orochimaru.” Naruto smiled. The pause was even longer than when Sasuke realized it was Naruto who had called.

“What are you talking about?” Sasuke’s voice had softened. It had been mixed with concern and confusion. Naruto felt jealousy welling up hearing this sudden change in Sasuke’s voice. “What about Orochimaru? How do you know him?”

“Well.” Naruto exhaled. He paused. He didn’t want to tell Sasuke. He regretted calling him. He could hear Sasuke anxiously listening. “He was attacked, and he’s at the hospital right now.”

“You better not be lying to me, Naruto Uzumaki!” Sasuke yelled. Naruto could hear Sasuke moving around as if he were pulling clothes on.

“You didn’t believe me about the money in the lockbox, and I was right. If you’re not going to believe me now, let Orochimaru remain in the hospital alone. I don’t care. I don’t want to discuss another man with you. I’m hanging up.”

“WAIT!” Sasuke yelled.

Naruto looked to see two police officers approaching him. “Sorry, Sasuke. I have to go. I’ll talk to you on Friday. I’m looking forward to it.”

Chapter Text

The knave of hearts

 

Sasuke was distraught. He twisted the fabric of his jacket’s hem with his fingers. He looked helplessly at Orochimaru who was sitting at the edge of the hospital bed. There were worry lines forming on Sasuke’s smooth face, aging him. He swallowed anxiously. The nurse in the room checked Orochimaru’s vitals and marked it down on the chart. She went to the IV drip and hit a button. Morphine dripped into the saline bag that was hanging up. She left. The silence was filled with the heart monitor machine.

Orochimaru’s head was bandaged. His shoulder was bandaged and he was wearing a knee brace.

“Did Naruto do this to you?” Sasuke asked hesitantly.

“No.” Orochimaru replied confidently.

“How can you be so sure? You were hit in the back of the head!”

Orochimaru laid back down in the hospital bed. Once he finished the saline bag of medicine he would be discharged. Orochimaru’s eyes softened.

“This has nothing to do with Naruto. It probably has to do with one of the many articles I’ve written.” Orochimaru speculated. “...or I am writing.” His voice was lower as if it were an afterthought. He remained tightlipped on his current investigative journalist pieces he was working on.

“Don’t you think it’s a coincidence that Naruto of all people found you?” Sasuke argued. He wanted Naruto to be the villain. He wasn’t going to stop until he found evidence.

“I was drifting in and out of consciousness. When Naruto found me he first took my wallet and looked at my ID. Once he found out who I was he laughed. He seemed rather reluctant to help me and told me to stop talking to him as he called emergency dispatchers. If he really wanted to. He could have left me. I wouldn’t have known who he was at that time.”

Sasuke’s fists tightened. The muscles in his biceps tightened. His jaw clenched.

“How...I mean...why do you think you being attacked is connected with your job?” Sasuke asked anxiously.

“My cell phone is missing. My wallet was untouched. Sasuke let me borrow your phone and I’ll show you what they were after.” Orochimaru reached his hand out. He had a soft smile on his lips. Sasuke froze. Even though he was currently recovering in the hospital he still smiled. He refused to demonize Naruto and was even defending him.

Sasuke sat on the edge of the hospital bed, he unlocked his phone, and handed it to Orochimaru curious to know what he was going to show him. Sitting this close to Orochimaru he could smell his cologne. It was faint but the scent still lingered. Cedarwood and geranium. He found himself blushing. He suddenly felt hot as if someone turned the temperature in the hospital room up.

“See? Everything in my cloud is deleted.” Orochimaru held out Sasuke’s phone. He looked at the screen. Orochimaru logged into his cloud and it was empty. “I put my work documents here. It was my fault for being careless. I should have been more cautious.”

“Oh.” Sasuke murmured and took his phone back. He checked the time and frowned.

“Is Itachi coming?” Orochimaru asked.

“Uh…” Sasuke stood up and retreated back to the chair. “He said there was no reason for him to come, because it wasn’t serious.”

“Well~”

“Why did Naruto help you?” Sasuke interrupted. He didn’t want to talk about Itachi. Orochimaru had brought up Itachi’s name several times over the course of the night. Sasuke asked Itachi if he was coming, and once Itachi found out that Orochimaru would be discharged when he finished the saline bag he decided not to come. It just proved how selfish and heartless his brother was. It just became more glaring these last few weeks.

“He helped me once he found out who I was. Maybe he didn’t want to do something that would hurt you again.” Orochimaru suggested. Sasuke’s mood soured. His stomach filled with reservation. ‘Again.’

...again...

Again? Sasuke looked at his hand and his heart stopped beating. He heard the sound of a door slamming shut. A coldness crept across his fingers. His fingers twitched and he felt sweat forming on his neck and back. He shivered. Sasuke narrowed his eyes as he looked at his fingertips.

“No. He’s scheming something.”

*****

The day grew shorter and nighttime came quicker like an ominous misfortune. The night sky was moonless and filled with twinkling stars. The stars shone brightly outside of the city. The stars were made for falling. On this bitter night Sasuke wished he had never met Naruto.

Sasuke had a look of contempt when Naruto opened up his dorm door. The dormitories at Elmwood University were one of the best in the country. They were single occupantency that resembled miniature apartments. Naruto was dressed in an oversized turtleneck. He smiled charismatically, his face filled with laugh lines. He was bright. He had forgotten how bright, and dazzling, Naruto could be.

“Hi, Sasuke! Come in!” Naruto beamed happily.

“Why are we meeting here? Why not at your home?” Sasuke barked. He had to take the bus forty-five minutes back to campus from the city.

“I’m taking winter courses.” Naruto answered. Sasuke glanced at the table that was filled with college textbooks, a notebook, and pens. “I offered to go to you~”

“No!” Sasuke yelled. “I don’t want you anywhere near Orochimaru!”

Naruto blinked. The smile briefly left his lips. He glanced around his dorm avoiding eye contact. He pulled a lollipop from his pants pocket. “Since you’re here. I’m assuming Orochimaru is recovering.”

“Why’d you help him?” Sasuke asked angrily. He narrowed his eyes and watched Naruto’s every move.

Naruto began moving the textbooks off the small dining table and moving them to a built-in bookshelf on the wall. “I wasn’t planning on it. I didn’t want to get involved with some passed out drunk on the sidewalk.” Naruto gathered up his notebooks and pens. “It wasn’t until I checked his ID did I figure out who he was. Still. If I left him I knew you’d be upset.”

“Why...why were you thinking of me?” Sasuke hesitated. He was right. Naruto figured out his relationship with Orochimaru.

“You like Orochimaru.” Naruto answered stiffly. “You’d hate me even more if I left the person you loved bleeding out on the sidewalk.”

Sasuke paused. Naruto finally turned around and brought his gaze and locked it on him. Sasuke was trapped in those eyes. They were a beautiful blue color like an endless ocean that spilled into the universe. It was difficult to move for a moment. Sasuke was the first to break eye contact.

“Ino told you.” Sasuke exhaled.

“Mhm.” Naruto affirmed. Naruto moved the lollipop from one side of his mouth to the other. Sasuke glanced at the lollipop. It was pink. Was it watermelon flavored?

Naruto walked into the bedroom and came back holding a glass chessboard. Sasuke glanced at it and noticed it was different from the one they played on before. It would make sense. That chessboard was missing the king piece. Sasuke swallowed. The missing king piece was in his pocket. He brought a hand to his pocket. He wanted to return the piece.

“Where is the other chessboard?” Sasuke asked. He stuck his hand in his pocket and pulled out the missing white king piece. He remembered waking up in the hospital room and the white king piece was on the bedside table and Naruto was gone. He couldn’t throw it away. He held onto it.

“It’s missing a piece. What good is it? If we’re playing chess we need all the pieces.” Naruto answered as he set the board on the dining table. Naruto pulled out a chair and sat down.

Sasuke placed the white king piece on the dining table next to Naruto’s hand. It caused Naruto to lower his gaze and he stared silently at the piece as if in disbelief. The silence filled the small dormitory apartment. It was warm. Sasuke took his jacket off and rested it on the back of the chair opposite of Naruto. He pulled the chair back and sat down. Naruto reached for the white king and held it in his hand. His fingers moving over the carved cross.

“You. Had this...this whole time?” Naruto finally asked and looked up. Sasuke met his warm gaze with his cold gaze.

“Yes. Take it back. Don’t give me something like this again.” Sasuke answered sharply. He looked at the chessboard. His stomach tightening. “What do you want to bet on?”

“Bet? You’re willing to make a bet?” Naruto asked. Naruto sounded genuinely confused. Sasuke’s eyebrows furrowed in confusion. There was a calmness that surrounded him. It put Sasuke on edge.

“Isn’t that why we’re here?”

“I just wanted to play. I never expected you to agree…” Naruto trailed off. He pulled from his mouth the lollipop and held it in his hand. Sasuke noticed Naruto’s tongue was dyed artificial pink. “Why did you agree to come?”

“You’re blackmailing me!” Sasuke shouted as if it were obvious. The elephant in the room appeared. It was huge and ugly and filled the dormitory apartment.

“I’m...I’m not blackmailing you.” Naruto confessed and leaned back in his chair. There was disbelief on his face.

“You’re not? My hand...I lied.” Sasuke was feeling anxious and barely making sense. There was recognition in Naruto’s eyes. He looked at Sasuke’s hand. His gaze remained on his hand for a few moments before bringing it to look at Sasuke.

“We’re even.” Naruto answered with a shrug. “I’m not going to blackmail you. I have no intention. If that is the reason you’re here. I’m glad because I wanted to see you. In the future. Just so you know. I won’t blackmail you.”

“Then. I’m not coming back!” Sasuke yelled. His face reddened. He was on edge and Naruto’s calmness only made him more anxious.

“Aren’t we making bets?” Naruto smiled.

“That’s~” Sasuke was sputtering like a car running out of oil and stalling on the road.

“Relax. The bet I want to make has nothing to do with you and me.” Naruto smiled. He stuck the lollipop back in his mouth. Sasuke watched Naruto’s tongue wrap around the sphere, coating it in pink saliva. “If I win. I want you to leave Hinata alone.” Sasuke was too busy watching Naruto’s tongue and he hadn’t processed his words. “At least for the time being.” Naruto crunched down on the lollipop and the spell was broken.

“Hinata? What does Hinata have to do with anything?”

“Just stay away from her. That’s my bet.” Naruto answered coolly and swallowed the lollipop, placing the stick on the table.

Sasuke had been giving her piano lessons over the last few weeks and helping her for the piano examination. Hinata had been stressed and anxious from the bullying of Tayuya. Her hands healed from the burns and she was anxiously preparing. Hinata had been passionate about the piano. It tugged at Sasuke’s heart. Anything Hinata asked of him he fulfilled. He wanted to make amends with her and wanted to go back to being her friend.

There was no reason to doubt Hinata’s intentions. The way Naruto was acting was as if…

“Are you jealous?” Sasuke asked.

“Of Hinata? No.” Naruto laughed as if it were the most frivolous and ridiculous thing he has ever said. “If I’m jealous of anyone it’s Orochimaru.” He confessed so openly. Sasuke found himself blushing.

“Then...why?”

“It’s just what I want to bet. Let me guess. If you win, you want me to leave you alone?” Naruto leaned forward and rested his elbows on the table.

“Yea.” Sasuke spoke quietly.

Naruto bringing up Hinata reminded him of Ino’s warning about Hinata’s true intentions. He suddenly didn’t feel so confident. It was as if Ino and Naruto were keeping a secret again and this secret once again involved Hinata. He felt at any moment they were going to reveal this secret and force him to keep silent. He was finding it difficult to breathe. His throat closed up. His diaphragm contracted.

“White or black?” Naruto asked and looked at the glass chessboard.

“White.” Sasuke answered.

Every time he was given the choice he’d pick white every time. Sasuke’s eyes glanced at the white king piece that was still by Naruto’s hand. He had given the piece back and therefore he was no longer connected to Naruto. He only made a bet for him to stay away from Hinata and not a bet...regarding him staying close to Naruto. He shifted uncomfortably in the chair.

“You go first.” Naruto smiled pleasantly.

“So.” Sasuke was hesitant. He didn’t believe Naruto. “If you want me to stay away from Hinata, and you’re not blackmailing me. Will you really leave me alone?”

“Yes.” Naruto answered.

“You won’t call me, or harass me?”

“No.” Naruto’s voice sounded like he was pouting. “I’m not going to force you to do anything.”

Sasuke’s face darkened. He didn’t believe Naruto yet he didn’t want to continue the same circulatory argument. Sasuke moved a pawn. The game began.

“I’m glad your hand healed.” Naruto tried to make light conversation as they played a slow and methodical game. They weren’t in a real chess competition. They weren’t timed. Sasuke was slow and deliberate with every move he made. It made Naruto want to match his energy.

“Hn.”

“How have things been with your mother? Not good, I’m guessing. Is that why you’re staying with your brother?”

“Nhm.” Sasuke made a nonverbal that sounded like he wanted Naruto to stop talking.

“Have you confessed to Orochimaru yet?” Naruto switched up tactics. The question startled Sasuke. He looked up from the chessboard. His finger was on the knight and the sudden jerk caused the knight to fall over.

“Don’t ask me these questions!” Sasuke snapped. He picked up the chess piece.

“You haven’t. Do you want any advice?”

“NO!” Sasuke’s face flushed red with embarrassment. The tips of his ears reddened. He didn’t think he could ever confess to Orochimaru. When he looked at everything. Orochimaru treated him like a younger sibling. He was afraid of losing a relationship with him and so he’d rather just carry these one-sided feelings for the rest of his life.

“I won’t ask you again.” Naruto murmured and turned his attention back to the chessboard. Sasuke glanced at Naruto wondering what experience he had with dating that made him so confident.

After this. Silence filled the room again. The game continued. Naruto stopped talking and his eyes remained glued on the board. He wasn’t even looking at Sasuke. At first, Sasuke welcomed the silence, but then it began to annoy him. He glanced at Naruto and it looked like he was pouting. Sasuke looked back at the board. He swallowed and broke the silence.

“Why did you come back?” Sasuke asked and his heart trembled. He was afraid of Naruto’s answer. Afraid he was going to say something along the lines that he missed him. He held his breath and stared at him. There was something different about Naruto in front of him. There was a melancholiness like a sublime painting. A sense of vastness and solitude.

It reminded him of...Orochimaru.

“It was time for me to return.” Naruto murmured softly. Sasuke’s eyes went to Naruto’s hand that moved his rook. The sweater sleeve lifted up and Sasuke watched Naruto’s prominent wrist bone. “I’m graduating in the spring and I’ll begin working at the company.” Naruto’s eyes remained locked on the chessboard. Sasuke’s eyes moved towards Naruto’s mouth as he spoke about the future.

Oh. He wondered if Naruto truly ever liked him or just viewed him as a shiny new toy. Once that toy became broken he threw it away in favor of something novel.

“You’re graduating early.” Sasuke commented. He was graduating a whole year earlier. He stared at the coolness of maturity that radiated off Naruto, and for a moment he was a completely different person. And Sasuke stared at him as if he were a stranger. If he hadn’t met Naruto before, and this was the first time meeting him, he might have liked him as a person.

“I wanted to make sure you were doing okay. I heard about the piano students who were murdered and I was worried you would be targeted.”

“The only person who would hurt me is you.” Sasuke spoke coldly. “Or someone close to you.”

“But this.” Naruto looked at him for the first time since the game began. His piercing blue eyes startled Sasuke. “This has nothing to do with me. Two students are dead. They were murdered. Two students from the piano department are dead. Do you think this is a coincidence? Both who were connected with Hinata. You could say everyone within the piano department is at risk but that isn’t the case. Everyone close to Hinata is a risk.”

“You’re basing things off of a connection? There are dozens within the piano department that fit that description.” Sasuke argued. “It has nothing to do with Hinata!”

“I heard Karin stopped talking to Hinata. Do you know why?” Naruto asked.

“Karin barely talks to me. How should I know?” Sasuke admitted.

It was true. Following high school and the betrothal announcement. Karin pulled away from Sasuke. She started hanging out more with Temari and the Sabaku siblings before suddenly stopping. She refocused all her time and energy on the piano. His relationship with Karin was just as fragmented as his relationship with Hinata. The only difference was Hinata needed Sasuke and Karin became somebody that he used to know.

“Maybe you should ask Karin why she stopped talking to Hinata, and, while you’re at it. Make sure you stay away from Hinata. Checkmate.” Naruto spoke grimly.

Sasuke looked at the board. He had lost again. He knew this was going to be the outcome.

“Whatever.” Sasuke replied softly. His voice, barely audible.

The whole night Naruto made superficial conversation. He didn’t make demands like he had done in the past. He didn’t try to con Sasuke into spending the night. He wasn’t needy and desperate. At the end Naruto called him a taxi so he could return to the city sooner than waiting for the bus. He wondered if Naruto asked him to spend the night...if he would have said yes. He painfully swallowed and waited for the taxi. The silence filled the apartment. Naruto made no attempts at conversation and neither did Sasuke.

When the taxi arrived Naruto stated. “Bye, Sasuke. It was good to see you. Thank you for keeping the white king piece all these years.” Naruto smiled warmly at him.

Sasuke didn’t say anything. He left without a word. He was left with a sense of confusion and emptiness. As if he experienced whiplash on an empty stomach.

*****

Sasuke expected Naruto to go back on his word. He expected Naruto to call him, text him, and harass him to hang out. He did none of this. The only time Naruto called him was to tell him Orochimaru was hospitalized, and when Sasuke refused to have Naruto come over to Orochimaru and Itachi’s apartment to play chess Naruto sent Sasuke a text message giving directions on where his dorm was.

It should have made Sasuke feel relieved but it filled him with an unknown strangeness.

“Sasuke.” Orochimaru called his name. Sasuke looked up from the breakfast bar. It had been a few weeks since the attack. A police report was filed, but there weren’t any cameras on the street and no other evidence left behind. It was looking like it was going to be an unsolved case for the time being.

“I want to invite Naruto over for dinner to thank him for helping me.” Orochimaru explained. “Are you able to give me his number?”

“What?” Sasuke gaped. “No! You shouldn’t have to thank him for being a decent human!”

“Will it make you uncomfortable?” Orochimaru asked.

“Yes!” Sasuke snapped. “Everything about him makes me uncomfortable. He’s been leaving me alone and I want that to continue. This will only give him a reason to harass me.”

“Okay. I won’t have him over if it’ll make things too difficult for you.” Orochimaru agreed. “I’m going to work. I’ll see you tonight.”

“Be...be careful!” Sasuke spoke hastily. He stood up as Orochimaru put on his coat and scarf. “Do you want me to meet you after work?” Sasuke was hopeful they could spend more time together.

“I will. It’s fine. Itachi will be picking me up after work.”

“Good!” Sasuke agreed. He was disappointed. “I’m...glad. Be safe.”

Sasuke didn’t understand the hot and cold relationship his brother had with Orochimaru. It felt like a yo-yo relationship. Itachi had been avoiding Orochimaru, staying late at the office, for weeks, and then Orochimaru was attacked. Since then Itachi has been returning home at a regular time, but even then he barely speaks to Orochimaru and spends the majority of the time in his room. Now. Itachi was going to pick up Orochimaru after work. It was dizzying.

He didn’t understand why Orochimaru wasn’t upset, or why he didn’t argue and demanded Itachi treat him better. The only person who was mad with the way Itachi acted was Sasuke. It made Sasuke feel like he was the bad guy for making mountains out of molehills.

A memory danced across his mind. It was of Orochimaru saying every day he was on sabbatical from university, Itachi sent him a text message. He remembered the summer Itachi returned home from university and Orochimaru had come over to the house almost every single day and the two were holed up in Itachi’s room. There was a tenderness to Itachi during that time towards Orochimaru. The attentiveness had returned following Orochimaru’s attack.

Sasuke’s heart thumped between his ears. It grew louder and louder and louder. Was his brother’s relationship with Orochimaru more than just best friends? Once that thought was birthed it was too late to abort it.

*****

Winter break continued.

Sasuke returned to campus to use the university’s pianos. He hadn’t returned home in a while. He carried his music sheets of composition. He was in the process of composing a piano piece for an assignment. The students were given all year to work on their piece, and perform their composition at the end of the year. The theme for this year's composition was love. He took the bus forty-five minutes to campus and made his way to Camille’s music department. It was during winter break and the campus was barren and deserted.

He walked down the corridor, his footsteps echoing. His mind turned to overanalyzing every interaction between Itachi and Orochimaru. His heart became weaker and weaker the more his mind began looking at every interaction under the guise of a romantic relationship. His feet felt like blocks of cement. The closer he got to the practice rooms he began to hear someone playing the piano. This style of playing was familiar.

He peeked through the glass window on one of the practice rooms and saw Hinata at the piano playing. He stopped breathing. Standing at the side of the piano listening to Hinata playing was Naruto. The expression Hinata wore was an expression he hadn’t witnessed from her in a long time. He remembered when he would meet Hinata at the country club after his tennis lessons. He remembered when Hinata was in a neck brace and sketching. The expression of affection and love that graced her gentle, petite features, as she spoke about Naruto. That expression was back on her face.

Naruto had a gentle smile on his lips. He swayed his head to the musical notes that Hinata played.

Suddenly anger took hold of Sasuke. His eyes narrowed. What was Naruto up to? He wasn’t spending his time harassing Sasuke, he had moved on to harassing Hinata? He told Sasuke to stay away from Hinata and here he was with Hinata in a practice room? How long were they alone together? He watched as Naruto sat down alongside Hinata at the piano bench. His shoulder pressed against hers. His leg pressed against her leg. He spread his fingers over the bone-white keys and began playing alongside Hinata.

Sasuke interrupted. He opened the door and shoved it back. The door swung open and struck the wall with a bang. Hinata and Naruto’s eyes both fixed towards the door and looked at him. Hinata stopped playing. There was a look of shock on both their faces before it softened to recognition.

“Oh. Sasuke!” Her face erupted into a smile. “You should have told me you were going to be on campus today.”

Naruto’s expression was unreadable. He stopped playing the piano and rested his hands in his lap.

“It was last minute.” Sasuke lied.

“You haven’t been answering my text messages. I thought you were mad at me.” Hinata spoke. He noticed Naruto lift his eyes to glance in Sasuke’s direction.

“Sorry.” Sasuke glanced at Naruto. He saw Naruto turn his head away from him and avoided eye contact altogether. “I’ve been taking care of Orochimaru. He was in an accident. He went back to work so I decided to come to campus.” He held up the folder of music sheets. “To work on our composition assignment.”

“Ah. That’s okay. It’s fine. Naruto has been keeping me company.”

“When did...you two become close?” Sasuke asked. There was accusation and anger in his voice. It was directed at Naruto. His gaze fixed on Naruto. He looked at Naruto as if his mere existence was going to taint and corrupt Hinata.

“Aren’t you here to practice?” Naruto interrupted. He finally brought his eyes to look at Sasuke. “Hinata is just finishing up. If you want this room you’ll have to wait.” Naruto’s voice sounded distant. Sasuke’s spine straightened up. He clutched the folders of music sheets to his chest. He wanted to swallow but it was difficult. He couldn’t say anything in response.

“It’s alright. I’m done.” Hinata voiced and stood up. She straightened out the wrinkles in her ankle-length skirt. She wore a cream-colored sweater. There was prestige and sophistication with how Hinata presented herself. “You can use this practice room, Sasuke.” Hinata gathered up her music sheets and placed them into her bag. “Naruto and I were just leaving.”

Sasuke remained silent. He watched as Hinata and Naruto put jackets and scarves on, and began walking side by side towards the door. Hinata stopped a few feet in front of Sasuke.

“I want to thank you again for helping me with the piano performance. With you helping me I was able to have confidence in myself and move up to diamond.” Hinata bowed her head. Her long hair spilled over her shoulders and into her face.

“You’re welcome.” Sasuke spoke. His voice gentle and even. He was able to compose himself and get a hold over his emotions. He wasn’t angry with Hinata. He was angry at Naruto and suspicious over his intentions. Sasuke glanced at Naruto. He noticed Naruto refused to make eye contact. “You can always come to me for help.” He watched as Naruto shifted his weight to one foot as he heard these words and he glanced again at Sasuke.

“Bye, Sasuke!” Hinata beamed and left.

Without warning as soon as Naruto passed the threshold of the door Sasuke reached out and grabbed Naruto’s arm. “Wait, Naruto.” Naruto stopped moving. He turned to look at Sasuke. “Uh.” Sasuke’s mind momentarily went blank. “Orochimaru wanted to thank you. He wants to invite you over for dinner.” Hinata stopped walking and turned around. Her eyes went from Sasuke to Naruto.

“Why would Orochimaru want to thank Naruto?” Hinata asked.

“It’s nothing. It isn’t a big deal.” Naruto remarked with a shrug. He tried pulling his arm back, but Sasuke tightened his hold, refusing to let go. It caused Naruto to stop moving and look back at Sasuke. His eyes widened and pupils dilated in interest.

“It is a big deal for Orochimaru. Will you come over?” Sasuke asked Naruto directly. “He...won’t stop until you agree.”

“When?” Naruto asked with a smile.

“Tomorrow.” Sasuke answered quickly.

“Okay.” Naruto answered with a smile. “I’ll come over tomorrow for dinner. Send me the time and address.”

Sasuke nodded his head. He let go of Naruto’s arm. He watched as Hinata and Naruto left together. His eyes remained locked on Naruto’s back as they walked down the corridor. His eyes narrowed. What was Naruto scheming this time?

Chapter Text

He stole those tarts

 

“Sasuke.” Orochimaru’s smooth face stared immeasurably back as if trying to use context clues and reading between the lines to understand the true meaning of Sasuke’s words. His eyebrows, which were usually straight as an edge, were furrowed, wrinkling his forehead. His ink black eyes reflected the abysmal expression that Sasuke wore. “Is Naruto threatening you?”

“N-no!” Sasuke hesitated. He had just explained that Naruto was going to be coming over tonight for dinner. Orochimaru was silent for approximately five minutes before coming to this conclusion. “You said you wanted to invite him over to thank him!” Sasuke’s voice was pitched with panic.

“I thought we decided against this as it would make you uncomfortable.” Orochimaru lamented. He was trying to understand Sasuke’s hot and cold attitude towards Naruto. He couldn’t help but think of Itachi’s own hot and cold attitude towards the things he liked. The corners of his lips turned upwards.

“It has nothing to do with me!” Sasuke’s face bloomed red with embarrassment. The tips of his ears reddened so much it had nearly dripped blood. He found it difficult to lie to Orochimaru. “I just want to make sure you’re able to thank him properly. I invited him. He’s coming. I can’t just uninvite him!”

Sasuke avoided Orochimaru’s expression. Silence blanketed them like folded-over dough.

“He’s not blackmailing you?”

“No!” Sasuke spoke with conviction. The truth was Naruto wasn’t blackmailing him. The truth was he had been impulsive. His emotions overtook him when he saw how close Naruto and Hinata were. He had reacted without thinking. He was still emotionally stunted and socially inept.

“Okay.” Orochimaru smiled. “I’ll stop by the grocery store. What time did you tell Naruto dinner was?”

“Seven!”

“What’s happening at seven?” Itachi asked. He had come out of his bedroom dressed in a tailored suit. His eyes ignored Orochimaru and focused on his brother.

Sasuke caught his brother’s suspicious gaze and held it. He felt as if he leapt out of the frying pan and into the fire. A shiver went down his spine. He had garnished more confidence since Orochimaru was onboard but still buckled under his brother’s intense stare. He cleared his throat.

“Orochimaru invited Naruto Uzumaki over for dinner. To thank him for calling an ambulance. It’s tonight.”

Itachi’s eyes swept to Orochimaru as if noticing him standing there for the first time. As if on cue Orochimaru smiled warmly at him and he found it difficult to swallow. He opened his mouth as if to oppose but swallowed those words. He wasn’t planning on returning home for dinner so what his brother and Orochimaru were planning didn't concern him.

“Are you going into work today?” Itachi asked Orochimaru.

“No.” Orochimaru glanced at Sasuke. “I’ll work from home and make preparations for dinner.”

Itachi relaxed and nodded his head in satisfaction. He started putting on his winter jacket.

“Will you be home for dinner?” Orochimaru asked abruptly. Itachi reached for his keys that were in a dish at the console table by the front door and froze.

“No.” Itachi answered. “There’s a business dinner.” He explained without bothering to look back at Orochimaru.

“Are you...coming home tonight?” Orochimaru lowered his voice. The smile faded from his lips. Orochimaru had unconsciously stepped closer to Itachi.

Sasuke froze. This conversation sounded private. It sounded like a jilted wife pleading with her husband to love her again. It felt as if Sasuke shouldn’t be privy to such private affairs and yet leaving would cause a distraction. He merely became a wallflower.

“No.” Itachi answered. Orochimaru mentally stumbled. He hung his head low and didn’t say anything else. Sasuke witnessed Orochimaru’s head lower, and shoulders sag, and the saturnine expression. It stirred Sasuke to react.

“Why not?” Sasuke interrupted angrily. “Why do you keep avoiding Orochimaru?”

Orochimaru’s eyes widened and his pupils constricted. His head snapped up. His face ashen as blood drained from his face. He was not expecting Sasuke to be so bold in his questions. It was the question that Orochimaru wanted to ask but the words never formed.

“What a stupid question.” Itachi barked. He had always been a prideful, thin-skinned, person. Having his intentions so blatantly thrown back in his face immediately made him defensive. He glared at his brother for being so brave as to say things he shouldn’t be saying. “Orochimaru isn’t my boyfriend. He’s my roommate. We’re roommates. Why does it matter if I spend the night at the office?”

Orochimaru stopped breathing the moment Itachi said ‘Orochimaru isn’t my boyfriend.’ He remembered Shisui telling Orochimaru back in high school that Itachi didn’t like him like that and wanted to remain as friends. His fingers felt cold and they trembled. His throat hurt as if he were coming down with laryngitis. Why was...why was he hoping for anything more than friendship with Itachi? His heart ached and he felt dizzy,

“You are avoiding him!” Sasuke snapped. “You only stopped when Orochimaru got hurt! Now you’ve gone back to avoiding him again! How does this equate to how you should act towards your romantic partner? This is just how to be a decent human! Can’t you act like a human instead of a robot?”

“This is how I always am towards him!” Itachi rebuked. From the way Sasuke continued looking at Orochimaru and the way Sasuke was defending Orochimaru it was clear that Orochimaru hadn’t rejected Sasuke’s one-sided feelings towards him. It made Itachi all the more upset and angry with Orochimaru. He wanted to shake Orochimaru and demand why he was still acting this way.

“Is it me? Are you avoiding me?” Sasuke rebuked. “I know you hate me! If it was too much of a hassle letting me stay here during winter break I’ll just go back to the dorms!”

Itachi’s eyes widened. Sasuke wore a hurt expression and it tugged at his heart. He wanted to hug Sasuke but it wasn’t something they had ever done in the past and it wasn’t something he could just start doing out of the blue.

“Sasuke!” Itachi hissed. “You’re not the problem. Of course, I want you here!” His voice weakened and conceded. “You’re my brother! I don’t want you alone in the dorms and I don’t want you at home! You belong here!” His voice filled with anxious concern as if fighting an internal battle over hiding his true feelings and being honest. “I won’t tolerate you even entertaining the idea of returning to the dorms during winter break. You belong here where I know you’ll be safe!”

Sasuke was taken aback. He felt his heart itch and his breath caught in the back of his throat. He wasn’t used to hearing such honeyed words from his brother.

“Alright! Then you better come back for dinner! We’re eating at seven!” Sasuke yelled shamefaced. He crossed his arms over his chest and stuck his nose in the air. “Come back for dinner or I’m going back to the dorms!” Sasuke threatened.

“Fine! I’ll see you at seven!” Itachi yelled back and finally left the apartment slamming the door behind him. The door frame rattled a moment longer before settling. Sasuke’s mouth was agape as he watched the apartment door. He rolled his eyes so far they nearly rolled into the back of his skull.

Orochimaru was shocked by Itachi’s sudden agreement to return for dinner. He glanced at Sasuke. Itachi was even softer than he expected when it came to his younger brother.

“Is he always this difficult?” Sasuke barked as he turned to see Orochimaru’s ashen face. The blood had completely drained from his face and as a result, his red lips showed beautifully as if drops of blood in fresh snow. Orochimaru’s gaze was distant and forlorn as if he was ruminating. Sasuke noticed none of this and kept talking. “He wanted to come back for dinner. I don’t know why he was acting like he didn’t! Being around him must be so exhausting, huh?”

Orochimaru’s eyes refocused. “It’s fine. Itachi does things his own way.”

“You spoil him too much.” Sasuke lectured. “It’s your own fault he acts so coldly it’s because you let him. If you want something from him, demand it. He’s too pig-brained otherwise!”

Orochimaru made a sound of assent and changed the topic. “What should we have for dinner? I’ll start making a grocery list.”

*****

Sasuke had been on pins and needles since he heedlessly invited Naruto over for dinner. He was sitting anxiously on the couch, his leg bobbing up and down as the news played out across the screen. His eyes weren’t focused on the news broadcast that flashed a blizzard warning banner in red at the bottom of the screen. His eyes were focused on the digital clock on his cell phone. Lost in his own distorted thinking. He had shut off the world all around him. He hadn’t done this since he was in middle school. The sound coming from the television was drowned out as if everything was underwater.

Everything started to slowly erase from his perception.

It was a mistake. Inviting Naruto over for dinner was an awful mistake. The closer it got the more he began to regret it. He saw Naruto’s charismatic smiling face the first time he met him in middle school. The warmth he felt. How quickly it turned frigid like the first winter frost. How malicious that face contorted. He had successfully severed connection with him. So why...why did he invite the wolf over for dinner? Was he no different than little red riding hood crawling into bed with the big bad wolf?

“Sasuke?” Orochimaru’s voice rang out. Sasuke startled back to consciousness.

“Mhm?”

“Naruto is here. Can you get the door?” Orochimaru’s voice came from the kitchen.

“Uh...yeah. Sure-sure thing.”

Sasuke practically leapt from his skin as he walked to the apartment door, unlocked it, and opened it. His eyes were focused first on the snow boots. They were covered in an inch of snow. He slowly brought his eyes up Naruto’s dress pants that had their own thin layer of snow. The warmness of the building caused the snow to melt and the fabric of the pants stuck to Naruto’s thighs. It clung to parts of his body that outlined muscle. His eyes reached the hem of Naruto’s orange winter jacket with fox fur trim. His eyes brushed over the tassels on the front of his jacket, up his neck that was swaddled in a black scarf to his endless oceanic eyes.

“Have you looked at me enough?” Naruto spoke with a smile and held his gaze. “Are you going to invite me in, or do you want to keep looking at me?”

“You’re covered in snow! You’ll get snow everywhere!” Sasuke’s face flushed red and his ears burned. “Brush off first!”

Naruto laughed as if not wanting to tease Sasuke further he started brushing off the excess snow off in the hallway. “It’s a white out. It’s snowing so hard I could barely see my hand in front of my face.”

“Is it?” Sasuke asked. He was thinking to his brother and hoping that he was okay.

“Yes. Look at me. Do you think I just carry buckets of snow and dump it on me because I like it?”

“No. Stupid.” Sasuke muttered and invited Naruto inside.

“You’re soaked!” Orochimaru said his face scrunched up in concern. “They just announced a blizzard warning on the news. If I knew there was going to be a storm I would have rescheduled.”

Orochimaru was wearing an apron and his hair was pulled back into a ponytail. There was flour on his forehead. Sasuke could imagine Orochimaru brushing his hand against his forehead to move a strand of hair out of his face. Naruto took his jacket and scarf off and hung it up on the coat rack that was drilled to the wall. His eyes peeked at Sasuke to see that Sasuke's attention was fully absorbed with watching Orochimaru.

“Sasuke. Why don’t you loan Naruto a change of clothes? I don’t want a guest sitting in wet clothes. Dinner will be ready shortly.”

“Okay!” Sasuke nodded his head. He stepped up and touched Orochimaru’s forehead. Naruto watched them from the corner of his eye as he took his shoes off. “You have flour on your forehead.”

“Thanks.” Orochimaru spoke briskly and immediately stepped back. Naruto sensed an aloofness from Orochimaru towards Sasuke. He could see an invisible barrier that Orochimaru encased around him. His blue eyes flickered back to Sasuke and he knew Sasuke was oblivious to both the aloofness and the barrier.

This is interesting. Naruto thought.

*****

“I don’t have much.” Sasuke explained. They were in the third bedroom. The guest bedroom, turned office, turned guest bedroom. There was a full-sized bed against one wall with a desk and chair on the other. The room was small and cramped with both office and bedroom furniture. Some of Sasuke’s clothes were still in a suitcase and a few articles were hanging up in the small closet.

“Pick whatever you want.”

Naruto’s eyes remained locked on Sasuke. He remained quiet for a moment. Sasuke was leaning against the desk. His eyes focused on his open suitcase. Silence greeted them. Sasuke’s eyes flickered towards Naruto and he saw that he wasn’t moving. Naruto looked like he was on the verge of saying something.

“What?” Sasuke barked. “They’re clean!”

Naruto took his shirt off.

“You’re changing now?” Sasuke balked.

“I’m wet and cold. I thought you’d leave me alone so I can change.” Naruto commented. “You don’t have to watch me change. I mean. You can watch me if you want. I don’t mind.” He flashed Sasuke a mischievous smile.

“I’m not watching you!” Sasuke exclaimed and spun around so his back was towards Naruto. There was a tightness building in his chest. It was difficult to breathe. He focused his eyes on the wall in front of him. He could have left the room, but he didn’t. He heard the sound of pants unbuttoning and sliding off. He wondered what Naruto’s legs looked like. He wondered if he played soccer while he was overseas.

“Sasuke. My underwear is wet. Can I borrow a pair of yours?” Naruto’s tepid voice came from behind. It caused the hairs on the back of his neck to stand on end.

“Are you lying?” Sasuke asked suspiciously.

“No. Do you want to feel my underwear?”

“NO! Hurry up and get dressed! I don’t care what you wear of mine, just don’t tell me!”

Sasuke could hear the sound of Naruto pulling his underwear off. He knew Naruto was completely naked behind him. He held his breath. He turned his body slowly and he looked out the corner of his eyes to see Naruto’s frame. Naruto had his back towards him and he was sliding into a pair of Sasuke’s underwear. Just as he was about to take a closer look at Naruto’s naked form the story of Eurydice flashed into his memory. He froze and snapped his head back to look at the wall.

“What were you doing with Hinata?” The guilty words blurted out of his mouth before he could filter them.

“Ah.” Naruto exhaled. “Is that why you invited me over for dinner?”

“Orochimaru invited you!”

“You agreed to it.” Naruto teased. Sasuke could hear Naruto sliding into one of his pants. Sasuke’s tongue ran anxiously along his bottom lip. He suddenly felt thirsty. His lips were dry. Naruto stopped talking. He neither answered his question nor carried the conversation. It left that creeping anxious feeling to sweep across Sasuke. The awkward silence filled the room and made Sasuke grasp at straws wanting to fill the silence.

“Well?” Sasuke demanded and spun around. He watched as Naruto pulled a long sleeve shirt over his head. It was a blue turtleneck. Sasuke saw Naruto’s back muscles flexing. The taut, tanned skin as smooth and polished as glazed pottery. “Are you evading the question?” The polyester fabric covered up his body.

“No.” Naruto spoke with a smile. He turned around and faced him. The color of the turtleneck brought out the devastatingly gorgeous blue hue of his eyes. “I figured you’d be more comfortable if we talked with my clothes on.”

Sasuke swallowed. He remained silent. His heart was racing, and it suddenly felt hot and stuffy in the third bedroom.

“I told you. Hinata is dangerous to be around right now.” Naruto lowered his voice. “I approached her to get a feel for her intentions.”

Sasuke rolled his eyes. “You’re still on about that?”

“I think Hinata is playing Simon Says with the Sabaku siblings.” Naruto continued as if Sasuke hadn’t spoken.

“It’s just a stupid thrill game. Even if she’s playing...so what?” Sasuke spoke flippantly. He shifted his weight back and leaned against the desk.

Nartuo’s eyes widened and then narrowed. “Are you playing too?”

“I played. I’m not playing anymore.” Sasuke shifted his weight back even further so that he was sitting on the desk. His hands gripping the side. He leaned forward. There was a sparkle of mischief. “What’s with that expression, Naruto? Are you the only one who is able to play with Gaara? You’ve been gone for what...six years?”

Naruto’s body went rigid. His jaw clenched. His fists tightened.

“What did you have to do?” Naruto asked slowly. “To begin playing with them?” He stopped breathing.

“I didn’t have to do anything. They invited me. I’m not the only one who played with them. Ino and Sakura...they also played. That’s why I said...what’s the big deal if Hinata is playing with them? It’s just a game. A stupid game. But you know all about it don’t you Naruto? Isn’t that how Suigetsu ended up being framed and arrested?” His anger and hatred towards Naruto returned at full force.

Naruto relaxed his body and exhaled in relief. He inhaled. He dismissed most of Sasuke’s words as if swatting away a mosquito. “I’m only observing Hinata. I’m going to play a few rounds of Simon Says and see if she’s playing, and if so what she’s up to. I sense a coldness in her.”

“She has nothing to do with those kids’ deaths!” Sasuke raised his voice. A coldness? Hinata...cold? He still saw that meek, timid, girl. He balked at the thought of coldness equating to someone as soft and gentle as Hinata.

“I think she did. I don’t think she’s a participant of Simon Says...I think she is, Simon. It’s fine. Once I break off Temari’s engagement I’ll be allowed to play too.” Naruto shrugged.

“Whatever. If it’ll get you to believe Hinata has nothing to do with it. Fine.”

“Until then. Stay away from Hinata.” Naruto concluded and folded his arms.

“I’m carrying my end of the bargain. I can only do it for so long. We’re in the same major and we’re now in the same piano ranking. I can’t avoid her forever.”

“Were you jealous?” Naruto asked suddenly. It caused Sasuke to choke on his own spit and start coughing. He coughed for a moment before finally being able to speak.

“Why would I be jealous? You’d be mad too if I told you to stay away from someone and then you saw me with that same person! You were so shady it was as if you were telling me to stay away from Hinata so you could have her all to yourself!”

“See...you were jealous.” Naruto spoke with a cocky smile and flopped back onto the bed. Sasuke looked down at the wet clothes that Naruto left sprawled out on the floor. He didn’t bother to pick them up and take care of them. Sasuke frowned.

“I wasn’t! I just didn’t know what you were scheming. You ignored me so how was I supposed to know what you were thinking?” Sasuke pushed off the desk and reached for Naruto’s clothes. He began gathering them up with an exasperated breath.

“Ignored you? I was just leaving you alone like you wanted.” Naruto spoke as he watched Sasuke gather his clothes.

“Good.” Sasuke snapped. He felt unstable. Being in the same room with Naruto was clouding his judgment. It made him uncomfortable. It felt like he was on the verge of crying and laughing. Even though the clothes were wet he could smell the detergent and cologne that Naruto used. The same smell from Naruto’s dormitory.

“I’ll have to spend the night.” Naruto pushed himself back on the bed. Sasuke threw the wet clothes into the empty clothes basket. He was going to bring them to the laundry room when he paused. Naruto made himself comfortable. “Can we share the bed tonight? For old times sake?”

“Huh? Why are you spending the night?” Sasuke asked abruptly and dropped the clothes basket.

“It’s a blizzard out. I traveled here in a snowstorm to see you. Are you really going to throw me out into a storm? The buses probably aren’t even running back to campus.”

“I would throw you out in a heartbeat.” Sasuke muttered. “Orochimaru wouldn’t.”

“Do you want to play a game of chess?” Naruto asked. “Make another bet?”

“No...no. I haven’t played since the last time you and I played in high school. I’m really not good anymore. There’s no way I can beat you.” Sasuke stumbled back against the desk and sighed. He brought his fingers to his forehead and rubbed. Naruto was going to spend the night. He was already trying to figure out sleep arrangements.

“That’s a shame. I thought you’d keep it up. I never stopped playing. Actually. I won a few international chess competitions when I was abroad. Don’t worry. I became bored of it again. I only want to play chess with you.”

“You…” Sasuke hissed. “You were winning international chess competitions and dared challenge me to a game! You knew you were going to win from the start!” Sasuke propelled himself off the desk and jumped onto Naruto. He hit Naruto in the shoulder. “You awful person! You asshole!” He kept hitting Naruto. Chest. Leg. Shoulder. He kept hitting him.

“It was fair! I never told you to stop playing chess!” Naruto defended. He held his arms up in defense but did nothing to push Sasuke off him.

Sasuke grabbed a fistful of Naruto’s shirt with both hands. He hated to admit that Naruto looked a hundred times better in the navy blue turtleneck than he ever did. Naruto went from leaning against the wall to being pinned to the bed with Sasuke above him. Both of Sasuke’s fists were pressing against his chest. Pushing him down into the mattress. The springs groaned with their weight. Sasuke was so close to Naruto’s face that Naruto could feel Sasuke’s breath on him. Sasuke could feel the hardened muscles rippling across Naruto’s chest. One knee was pressed between Naruto’s legs, and the other straddled his left leg.

The sudden position caught Naruto off guard and it was the first time that Naruto was wearing a panicked expression.

“What do you want from me, Naruto Uzumaki? I won’t let you jerk me around like we’re kids!” His breathing was erratic and he kept getting sharp pains in his chest. His hands shook uncontrollably, tingling from hitting Naruto whose body had become a hardened rock over the last six years.

“I’m doing exactly what you want! I was leaving you alone. Why are you mad at me for leaving you alone? If I wanted to manipulate you for my benefit. Why would I tell you to stay away from Hinata?” Naruto spoke hesitantly, breathlessly. He spoke as if each word was a great difficulty to speak. He spoke as if he had lost all energy and was helpless underneath Sasuke.

Sasuke could feel Naruto’s breath on his face. He could smell the toothpaste from his mouth. Cool and refreshing. He couldn’t smell Naruto anymore because Naruto smelled like him. Geranium blossom and vanilla. Although Sasuke was used to this smell because it was the detergent they used in the apartment, the smell was comforting when it came off Naruto. It left him momentarily speechless.

Sasuke exhaled through his mouth. That was the thing. He never knew what Naruto was thinking. He never knew what Naruto wanted. He never knew what he was willing to do...to get the thing on his mind. It was why he was so enraged. The door of the third bedroom swung open.

“Dinner-” Itachi’s voice cut off. His eyes swept across the room before landing on the bed. He saw Sasuke and Naruto in a compromising position with Sasuke on top of Naruto, pinning him down. Sasuke’s legs straddling one of Naruto’s legs. Sasuke and Naruto’s eyes glazed over. Neither spoke. Neither breathed. It was as if they were both encased in Itachi’s icy glare.

“Are you guys fighting...or fooling around?” Itachi asked calmly. “Tell me so I know how I am supposed to react in this situation.”

Chapter Text

And took them right away

 

Sasuke could feel Naruto’s athletic muscles through the thick material of the blue turtleneck shirt.

Something hijacked his brain. Although his brother was standing in the doorway his eyes piercing down on them in an accusatory glare, Sasuke hadn’t separated himself yet. He didn’t want to get off of Naruto. He didn’t want to stop touching him. The palm of his hands smoothed themselves over the pectoral muscles of his chest. His hand glided towards the collarbone. The blue turtleneck was a size too small and so every outline of his muscles were visible. His hand moved until his fingers were clenching the folded over fabric around Naruto’s neck into a ball.

“Sasuke.” Naruto had remained perfectly still on his back on the mattress. The dark color of the turtleneck seemed to amplify the meridian blues of Naruto’s eyes. Even in the winter, his eyes glistened mischievously as if hiding lustrous desires beneath layers of ice. Sasuke’s breath caught in the back of his throat. “You can get off me now.” Naruto teased.

“This is...this isn’t what it looks like!” Sasuke had come back to his senses. Like an agile cat he had gracefully pulled himself up and into a standing position. He suddenly felt hot and wanted to open up a window. A warmness washed over his face and simultaneously a coolness filled his scalp.

“Then what is it?” Itachi asked and folded his arms.

“We were just fooling around!” Sasuke defended his face turning into a myriad of pinks and reds. “You said dinner is ready?” Sasuke opened the door the rest of the way and walked past Itachi avoiding his gaze. “Let’s go eat then!”

Itachi stared at Naruto as he pushed himself into a seated position. Naruto smoothed the shirt across his chest and fixed his tousled hair so that he was presentable. Itachi’s eyes hardened as if he had invited a criminal into their lives and were about to share a meal with said criminal. Itachi swallowed back the threatening words he wanted to scare Naruto with and forced a smile. It came out twisted and contorted like a scary dollmaker’s smile and Naruto’s eyes widened in confusion.

“What’s wrong with your face?” Naruto asked Itachi. He was neither afraid or worried. “Are you scowling at me? You look like it was me who straddled your brother. When it was your brother who straddled me. Teach him some manners. I’m an honored guest after all.” Naruto flashed his charismatic, devilish, smile and stood up. He was taller than Itachi and so when he stood up he looked down at the older man.

His confidence was so far out of reach Itachi was dumbfounded as Naruto strode past him with his chin held high.

Naruto sat at the small four chair table across from Sasuke. It was the smell that overpowered Naruto as his eyes were drawn to the lumpy gray substance in a porcelain gravy boat. It was hard to describe what he was smelling because he had never smelled such wretched smells coming off food before. He glanced through his lowered eyelashes to see Sasuke was sitting dumbfounded staring at the haphazard display of food. There was a mixture of burnt and undercooked smells wafting together. The colors were off and as if to hide the taste a spicy stench filtered across everything.

“What’s that?” Naruto asked as he pointed towards the gravy boat that was in the shape of a swan.

“Gravy.” Orochimaru answered. “I made homemade fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn, coleslaw, and biscuits.”

Orochimaru pointed to each dish and explained what it was. The homemade fried chicken skin was burnt in some places and other places had slid off completely. The chicken looked dried and exposed. The mashed potatoes were mostly intact potatoes that looked more like pieces of baked potato chopped up. The coleslaw looked runny and none of the dressing stayed on the cabbage, satisfied to simply settle at the bottom of the bowl. The corn which was once a bright yellow was now covered in a mysterious red spice. Naruto only noticed it was “corn” because Orochimaru pointed to it and said “corn”. The biscuits looked misshapen as if a surgeon cut out a tumor and served it up on a baking dish.

“Is gravy supposed to be...so lumpy?” Naruto asked as he looked at the lumps of flour in the gray substance. “I don’t think it’s supposed to be...gray.”

Orochimaru had a secret. He really couldn’t cook. His goto was to secretly order takeout from a restaurant and rearrange it on plates and throw away the takeout containers. He had tried to cook on several occasions and each one was a disaster. He told himself because he was watching a lot of Food Network shows that he had gotten better and could pull off a home cooked meal. He was delusional of course and believed that his skill could come through during the eleventh hour.

Itachi sat down at one end of the table and frowned as he looked at the meal. “Did you make this Sasuke?” He glanced at his brother. He wondered if he needed to pretend for sake of his brother’s feelings.

“Me?” Sasuke was insulted. “Of course not!” His voice high-pitch. He glanced at Orochimaru and corrected himself before saying anything that would hurt Orochimaru’s feelings. “I mean.” Sasuke flashed a smile. “This delicious meal was prepared by Orochimaru!”

Naruto’s eyebrows raised and he pushed back in his seat. He glanced at Itachi waiting for his response. He didn’t realize he was getting dinner and a show.

Since Sasuke moved in temporarily over winter break he had taken over the cooking. It was his way to thank Orochimaru. It was also a way he could pamper Orochimaru with his cooking. He enjoyed seeing the happy expression Orochimaru wore whenever he ate his cooking. Today however Orochimaru insisted on making the meal himself.

“You cooked this?” Itachi asked Orochimaru.

“I may have overcooked the chicken a little.” Orochimaru spoke with a nervous smile. “It can’t be that bad right?” He laughed nervously. Itachi looked back at the poorly made dishes and wondered if the injuries from Orochimaru’s attack caused him to forget how to cook.

Naruto peered back at Sasuke.

Sasuke had been trying very hard to please Orochimaru. Naruto sighed internally and grabbed one of the biscuits with a pair of thongs. The biscuit hit his plate with a thunk. It was loud and a sound a biscuit should never make as if he had plopped a stone on the glass plate. All eyes shifted to Naruto’s plate. All thinking the same thing: why was Naruto dropping stones on his plate? Naruto picked up the biscuit. Although the top was cooked the bottom was a sheen of black and hardened char.

“This is fine...I only like to eat the top anyways.” Naruto smiled and dropped the biscuit back down to his plate, again, making a thunking-stone-hitting-plate sound.

“Orochimaru.” Itachi spoke his name. It was the first time he had said his name in a while and Orochimaru could feel chills rolling down his spine. He felt a flutter in his stomach and he was unconsciously scooted to the edge of his seat. “Are you not...are you not able to cook?” Itachi had put the pieces together and concluded his horrendous cooking wasn’t a result from injuries sustained in the attack. He simply couldn’t cook at all.

“I can...I…” Orochimaru opened his mouth but was unable to lie when he was asked a direct question. “No, I cannot.” He admitted defeat. He could not lie to Itachi. His eyes lowered in shame.

Naruto helped himself to a scoop of the brightly red-coated corn covered in a mysterious red spice.

“If you can’t cook...then before…” Itachi continued. He was talking about all the other times he had come home and dinner was already prepared.

“Takeout.” Orochimaru answered truthfully. His eyes had remained laser-focused on his plate as if he were a child being admonished for lying.

Naruto attempted to scoop himself some mashed potatoes but the potatoes seemed to harden and stick to each other so it was difficult for him to scoop out a portion. His muscles flexed as he was finally able to free a portion. The chunks of chopped-up potatoes hit his place. He ignored the gray gravy and watery coleslaw. He looked at the fried chicken and decided from here on out he was a vegetarian.

“Ah.” Itachi nodded his head and remained quiet. He saw that his brother had not moved an inch and had been watching Naruto load up his plate. “So these last few weeks it was…”

“Sasuke who had been cooking.” Orochimaru answered briskly.

Naruto decided the least deadly option from his plate was the red corn. He brought a large spoonful into his mouth and began to chew. Immediately he stopped chewing. The red spice was cayenne pepper and it tasted as if Orochimaru had dumped the entire bottle into the corn. The truth was Orochimaru cooked the canned corn on the stove with a little butter and dumped nothing but cayenne pepper over it.

Naruto’s eyes watered and the inside of his nose burned as it inhaled the red spice. His mouth began to salivate and his throat began to close up. He nodded his head up and down trying to convince himself he could eat this and not die of internal injuries. Mind over matter.

Orochimaru, seeing Naruto’s expression, poured him a glass of water. “How is it? I heard from Sasuke that you like spicy foods.”

Naruto snorted and tried not to spit out his food as he heard Orochimaru’s explanation. How would Sasuke know if he liked spicy foods or not? Because he didn’t. Unless this was Sasuke’s way of revenge. He reluctantly swallowed and exhaled. Panting as it felt as if his whole mouth was ablaze.

“That is….that is spicy.” Naruto nodded his head up and down trying his best not to insult the cook. “Yup. That is cayenne pepper. Did you use the whole bottle?” His scorched tongue caused him to lose his composure and he snapped out at Orochimaru.

“I actually used two bottles.” Orochimaru spoke proudly. He misread Naruto’s sarcasm as a compliment. “I figured if you liked spicy foods two bottles of cayenne pepper would be good.”

“You put...two whole bottles of cayenne pepper into the corn?” Itachi asked. His eyes looked at the red spice that had drenched each kernel of corn. So much spice was used he couldn’t see any color of yellow or white.

“Do you think it’s enough?” Orochimaru asked. Itachi was speechless.

Naruto brought the glass of water to his mouth and drank the contents dry. He caught Sasuke staring at him and Sasuke had a satisfied smile spreading his lips. His eyebrow twitched. He placed the cup calmly down and brought his charismatic smile to Orochimaru.

“I know, Sasuke secretly likes spicy foods. I believe this cayenne corn is something that could become Sasuke’s new favorite dish.” Naruto hefted a large portion of cayenne pepper corn onto Sasuke’s once empty plate. “Here, Sasuke. Let me help you.” He smiled sweetly at Sasuke, but Sasuke saw that there was a viper behind that smile. He felt chilled to the bone as he gazed at the red corn that had taken up nearly half his plate. “Go on, Sasuke. Eat up and tell Orochimaru how much you love this spicy cayenne pepper corn.”

“Here...I can’t eat unless your plate is full. Let me help you.” Naruto continued his smile growing as if fertilizer was being sprinkled over. He began to fill Sasuke’s plate with the mashed potatoes and poured over the lumpy, gray, gravy. He dropped a charred-bottom biscuit that made a thunking sound as it hit the glass plate.

The smile on Sasuke's face completely vanished and the blood in his face drained. Just smelling the two bottles of cayenne pepper corn on his plate caused him to sweat.

Itachi stared at his brother. He knew that Sasuke had fallen in love with Orochimaru and knew that Orochimaru had not rejected him yet. Orochimaru told Itachi he was going to wait until Sasuke returned back to university for the spring semester before letting him down. Watching Sasuke force himself to eat the biohazard meal brought joy to Itachi and he had unconsciously taken Naruto’s side.

“Go on, Sasuke. Eat up.” Itachi smiled politely at Sasuke.

“After you.” Naruto commented and tilted his head to the side gesturing towards Sasuke.

Sasuke laughed nervously. He looked at Orochimaru and smiled. “This doesn’t look bad.”

Famous last words. Sasuke ate a mixture of mashed potatoes, gravy, a piece of chicken, and corn in one large bite thinking the mixture of food would dilute the spice of the corn. He began chewing and realized that not only did Orochimaru dump two bottles of cayenne pepper into the corn, but he had also used the same spice in the breading of the chicken, in the mashed potatoes, and even the gravy.

Sasuke needed to be sure and so he covered his mouth that was engorged. He resembled a hamster with packed cheeks. “Did you use...cayenne pepper in everything?”

“Yes!” Orochimaru nodded his head. “You can taste it?” He asked eagerly. He was thinking that maybe the secret this whole time was adding spice.

Sasuke was only able to chew two times before it became unbearable. It was a kind of punishment he couldn’t bear any longer. His stomach churned and it felt like he was going to spew everywhere. His taste buds were on fire and it felt that one by one they were being burned off. He stood up, covered his mouth with both hands, and ran into the bathroom.

“Are you okay?” Orochimaru called after Sasuke.

“This isn’t edible.” Naruto answered bluntly as he heard the bathroom door slamming shut. He dropped the facade. “I’m afraid if I eat any more I will be forced to send you my hospital bill.” His voice was cool and cut through Orochimaru like tiny, sharpened, chef blades. “If I didn’t know any better I would think you were trying to poison me.”

Orochimaru’s eyes widened. Naruto hadn’t minced any words and spoke bluntly.

“Never cook again, please.” Itachi answered as he pushed his empty plate back. “Throw this out. I’ll cook us some ramen noodles.” Itachi stood up and disappeared into the kitchen.

“It’s really...that bad?” Orochimaru asked Naruto as it was just them seated at the table.

“I would rather eat a stick of butter for every meal than eat another bite of that cayenne pepper corn.” Naruto answered with a perfunctory smile.

*****

The biohazard that resembled something out of Chernobyl was thrown away. The dishes moved into the dishwasher and everyone sat at the table with bowls of quickly whipped up ramen. It was rather exceptional. The taste of the broth was mouthwatering and the noodles were just the right consistency of chewy and delicious. Even though Sasuke’s tastebuds continued to pulsate he could taste the delicate balance of scallions and broth and noodles.

“This is delicious!” Naruto praised as he ate another large bite. Anything would have been delicious after that horrendous excuse for a meal.

“Mhm.” Itachi nodded his head. He caught his brother, again, staring at Naruto. He looked at Naruto who remained staring at the bowl not noticing. He watched Orochimaru eating quietly with sagged shoulders. He had an expression as if he were a scolded puppy. Itachi’s heart tugged. He wanted to say something to Orochimaru that could cheer him up but he was never good with words and so the words were lost at the tip of his tongue.

Finishing his bowl Itachi placed it on the table and turned his attention to Naruto. “Orochimaru invited you over tonight to thank you.” His voice was succinct and deadpan.

“It must have been a coincidence that you came upon Orochimaru outside the newspaper agency.” Itachi paused. He watched Naruto closely as he lay his bowl on the table. Naruto brought his meridian blue eyes up to stare back. Naruto’s expression was unreadable. It made Itachi uncomfortable and he was right not to trust Naruto. There was something unhinged inside the blonde.

A predator who hid behind a beautiful smile. The most dangerous kind.

“Tell me. Just why were you outside the newspaper agency at midnight?” Itachi asked.

“I had met somebody.” Naruto answered.

“Why so late?” Itachi questioned. “And on a Tuesday.”

“I was on my way back from a strip club.” Naruto licked his lips and leaned back in his chair. There was an air of dangerousness around Naruto. “Lookers.” Naruto named the strip club that was indeed at the end of the street. The response had caught everyone at the table off guard. Orochimaru started coughing and covered his mouth. “Heard of it?” He questioned Itachi.

Itachi’s eyes widened slightly as he held Naruto’s gaze. He did not want to show any weakness but he had to admit it was the last answer he expected Naruto to give. He could feel the sexuality emitting off Naruto and it made him uncomfortable.

“Why were you meeting someone at a strip club?” Sasuke interrupted. His tone was harsh and full of disgust.

“I heard a rumor that someone from the piano department at Camille Academy was working there on Tuesdays.” Naruto turned his attention to Sasuke directly in front of him. He spoke as relaxed and professional as if meeting a client out for coffee. “Turns out. The rumor was correct.”

“Who?” Sasuke demanded. His mind raced down the list of enrolled students in the piano department.

“I can’t tell you that.” Naruto smiled mischievously. “Especially when they told me not to.”

Flashback of that Tuesday night.

Naruto was seated inside one of the private rooms at the gentleman’s club, tongue-in-cheek, Lookers. Seated across from him was Temari. Her dirty-blonde hair pulled into two messy buns. The sound from the club was muffled inside the room but it still pumped electric sex through the bass that vibrated every nerve in Naruto’s body.

“Hinata?” Temari asked as if forgetting Naruto was seated in front of her. “I have no doubt she killed that poor orphan, Tayuya.”

Naruto originally planned to meet Temari to discuss plans to break up her engagement. The conversation shifted to Hinata and the murders at Camille Academy. Temari was on her fifth double mixed drink and Naruto remained cool-headed and sober.

“Is Hinata playing Simon Says?” Naruto asked Temari.

“Why do we have to keep talking about her? You know the rules. If you want to see who's playing then you have to join fair and square...besides I brought you here to meet someone interesting. Someone from the piano department that strips here during the week.”

On cue the door opened and someone sauntered seductively inside. It took Naruto looking the person up and down to understand it wasn’t a woman. It was a very beautiful, slender, young man dressed in revealing clothing. His appearance was youthful with skin that looked supple and white like fresh snow. His pores were nonexistent and he had a petite nose. His cat-like green eyes were outlined in red eyeliner that made him look like a pharaoh ruling over Egypt yet gave off the air of an expensive, high-end, courtesan of ancient times. His silvery-blonde hair shimmered under the soft boxed lighting of the private room. His lips were full and bloodred.

He really was alluring and Naruto struggled to turn his gaze away from him.

“Kimimaro!” Temari called out his name. “It was me who paid for you.” She was smiling sarcastically. “But it’s him you’ll be entertaining.” She pointed towards Naruto.

Seeing as it wasn’t an actual guest of the club and someone Kimimaro knew the air chilled and his alluring, whimsical expression, hardened into something chiseled out of pure ice. His cat-like green eyes became two cold marbles that yielded no warmth. He looked poised to attack with teeth and claws.

“Who are you?” Kimimaro asked. His voice was harsh and manly breaking the illusion he was anything but soft and supple. He was prickly and sharp as if invisible porcupine quills were sticking out all over his body.

Naruto licked the inside of his cheek as he stared at the satisfied expression on Temari’s face. He had forgotten how to deal with Temari. She was the oldest sibling but she acted as if she were the youngest. Both her brothers cared for her as if she were as fragile as someone with brittle bone disease. She had no interest in men but was a closeted voyeur who was more satisfied watching something sexual happen to someone else than actually participating.

“Naruto Namikaze.” Naruto answered and turned his attention back to Kimimaro. “You attend Camille Academy, right? Wouldn’t you be humiliated if word got out that you’re stripping?”

Kimimaro stiffened. Naruto took his silence as a yes.

“Do you know Hinata Hyuga?” Naruto asked.

Temari wasn’t going to give him any information. It didn’t mean that she wasn’t thankful for Naruto helping her break off her engagement while simultaneously keeping her company when she was low and feeling manic. She purposefully brought him to a strip club, paid for a stripper, so that Naruto could ask the questions that Temari refused to answer.

“That coldhearted bitch.” Kimimaro snarled. Hearing her name acted as a trigger and Kimimaro had been wound up. “She killed Tayuya and Jirobo!”

“What happened between Tayuya and Hinata?” Naruto asked, leaning back on the leather couch.

Kimimaro didn’t answer. He eyed Naruto up and down. Naruto sensed that Kimimaro wasn’t going to answer easily and continued speaking.

“If you know too much, chances are you’re next.” It seemed to be the right way to loosen Kimimaro’s tongue.

“The end of last year. Hinata stole Tayuya’s composition and passed it off as her own. Hinata claimed Tayuya was bullying her. It was decided that because two students were disputing ownership of the composition neither of them were given credit and neither of them were allowed to play it at the end of the examination. Even though Hinata stole Tayuya’s composition, Tayuya still out performed Hinata last year. This year...once again Hinata stole Tayuya’s composition. Tayuya was upset and ended up splashing boiling water onto Hinata.”

Kimimaro stopped talking. His eyes flickered to Temari.

“And?” Naruto questioned.

“Tayuya had proof that Hinata stole her composition. She told Hinata she was going to reveal it to the academy and get Hinata expelled...and then...Tayuya was murdered.”

“You knew about this?” Naruto asked Temari and she shrugged.

“I have nothing to do with this. I only know Kimimaro through Karui.”

“Why haven’t you gone to the police about this?” Naruto asked.

“Ha! Because I value my life!” Kimimaro stiffened and clung to his pride. “I survived this long because I minded my own business. I got into the school on a scholarship. How are bottom feeders like us supposed to go up against a powerful family like the Hyuga’s?”

“You said that Tayuya had proof that Hinata stole her composition. What proof did she have?” Naruto asked.

“I...don’t know. Tayuya never told me.” He looked away ashamed that he didn’t have the “proof” that would avenge Tayuya and bring justice to her murderer.

“So it’s safe to say there is proof somewhere out there.”

“As I said. I mind my own business. I only answered your questions because you paid for me.”

“What if I want to pay for you again? Can you give me your number?” Naruto asked. He pulled out his cellphone and handed it over. “I’ll pay triple if you make house calls.” Kimimaro eyed Naruto up and down. He smiled and took Naruto’s cell phone and put in his contact information.

Naruto cleared his throat. He turned his attention to Orochimaru.

“Orochimaru. I have to confess something. I only agreed to this dinner because I wanted to ask you a question.”

Oromchimaru shifted in his seat and blinked several times. Sasuke was also astonished to hear Naruto being so truthful in his intentions. Hearing that Naruto originally agreed to the dinner so that he could speak to Orochimaru caused Sasuke to become uncomfortable and he felt a tightness forming in his chest. His palms itched and he found himself scowling at Naruto.

“Yes?” Orochimaru asked.

“You were working on a piece involving Hinata Hyuga and her connection with the Camille Academy murders weren’t you?” Naruto asked.

“How did…” Orochimaru trailed off. He eyed Naruto up and down.

“Why else were you attacked?” Naruto asked flippantly.

“What does he mean you’re working on a piece about Hinata Hyuga?” Itachi interrupted. Everyone was aware of the young mistress from the Hyuga family. Her family owned half the city and had been classified as old money.

On a personal level Hinata and Sasuke were duos in several piano competitions when they were younger and Itachi was aware that Sasuke viewed Hinata as a friend. Hearing something as prosperous as Hinata being connected to the murders at Camille Academy sounded like it came out of an Esquire magazine next to an article on aliens infiltrating human populations instead of from a reputable newspaper such as the Eye of Providence.

“Why are you still on about Hinata?” Sasuke yelled. “She has nothing to do with this!”

Orochimaru’s eyes remained locked on Naruto. He ignored both Itachi’s and Sasuke’s protests. He had been working on a piece but everything off the USB had been stolen and his cloud erased. He received an anonymous email detailing the connection between Hinata and the two murder victims inside the piano department prompting him to start investigating. But after the attack, he had been reluctant to continue right away. He never intended on dropping the investigation but he also valued his life and knew he needed to proceed with caution. Whoever attacked him the first time had been keeping a close eye on him and would surely attack again if he provoked them.

“I spoke to someone who claimed that Tayuya had evidence and proof she was going to turn over to the university. Before she was able to do that...she was murdered.” Naruto continued speaking to Orochimaru as if they were the only two in the room. He didn’t need to explain further because he knew Orochimaru was aware of what he was referring to.

In conversation with Kimimaro it was evident to Naruto that Kimimaro valued loyalty above anything else. He valued his friendship with Tayuya. It was Kimimaro who had reached out with an anonymous email to Orochimaru at the Eye of Providence newspaper. It was Kimimaro who secretly begged Orochimaru to look into this matter and expose the truth and solve Tayuya’s murder. Kimimaro claimed he minded his own business but he also secretly wanted justice for Tayuya. It was why he sent an anonymous email to Orochimaru and why he was so willing to divulge information to Naruto at the strip club.

“There is proof somewhere?” Orochimaru’s eyes lit up as if he had opened up a present of something he had been really wanting.

Naruto nodded his head. “We just need to look for it.”

‘We?’ Sasuke repeated this word inside his head as he looked frantically from Naruto to Orochimaru. His throat tightening.

“Enough!” Itachi interrupted. “Orochimaru drop this ridiculous investigation. There is no article as this is completely absurd!”

“It’s true.” Orochimaru turned to Itachi and defended. “I was attacked and my USB was stolen and everything in the cloud I had been working on this piece was erased. If this was nothing as you said...then I wouldn’t have been attacked in the first place!”

Itachi remained silent letting these words sink in.

“Fine. Continue the investigation. You won’t find proof no matter how long and hard you look because there is no proof!” Sasuke argued. He had taken his attention and words towards Naruto, and Naruto alone. He stopped and noticed that Naruto wasn’t even paying attention to him.

“Give me your number.” Naruto continued ignoring everyone else except Orochimaru. “I’ll contact you after I meet with that person...maybe they’ll be willing to meet with you too.” Orochimaru nodded his head vigorously up and down like a bobblehead.

“The person you met at the strip club?” Sasuke spoke scornfully wanting to humiliate Naruto but it backfired. Orochimaru took Naruto’s cell phone and put in his contact information.

“Mhm. I’m a hotblooded man. Nothing wrong with going to a strip club.” Naruto spoke with a teasing smile. He finally turned his attention back to Sasuke as if ready to play with him again. “Are you a hotblooded man, Sasuke?” The color in Sasuke’s face drained once more.

“What does going to a strip club have to do with anything?” Sasuke balked.

Naruto paused and stared at Sasuke and Itachi. “You two are men, right? You’re very reserved and formal. I almost forget you two are men. Itachi you haven’t dated anyone have you?”

“What does my dating life have to do with you?” Itachi was immediately put on the defense. He was very thin-skinned and yet would become completely flustered when topics of sex and love came up. He had only ever liked one person and that one person was seated across from him at the table.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Naruto asked Itachi. “Sasuke. Aren’t you engaged to Karin? Isn’t it odd that the second son is engaged whereas the first son isn’t even dating?”

“...” Itachi remained silent. Ignoring Naruto’s words.

Naruto turned his attention to Sasuke letting Itachi momentarily off the hook. “Are you saving yourself for her Sasuke? Isn’t that cute? Do you think she saved herself for you?” His voice was dripping in sarcasm as he eyed Sasuke as someone he wanted to eat whole.

“Naruto...maybe you shouldn’t…” Orochimaru had attempted to come to Naruto’s aid. It was too late.

“Of course I am saving myself for her! I’m not a sex manic, fiend, who frequents strip clubs, and sleeps with anyone with a pulse, like you!” Sasuke erupted.

He had lied. He had no intention of ever sleeping with Karin and even if they were forced to get married it would be nothing but a lavender marriage. A shame. His face had gone as red as the two bottles of cayenne pepper in the corn dish. Seeing how calm and in control Naruto remained only further aggravated Sasuke and it took everything in his power not to flip the table. He forgot how easily Naruto was able to get under his skin.

Before Naruto could respond the lights flickered and went completely dark. The soft hum of the heater stopped. The dishwasher that was cleaning the dirty dishes from Orochimaru’s attempt at a home cooked meal stopped. A silence filled the pitch black apartment. It took a while for their eyes to adjust to the sudden power outage. Outside the blizzard had completely ravished a pure whiteout. The heavy snow had caused the aging power lines to crumble under the immense weight of hardening snow, causing power lines to snap, and electricity to spark out of the powerbox.

The lights to half the city went out and because the roads were covered in feet of hardened snow it was nearly impossible to send a crew out to fix the down power lines.

“You’re saving yourself for her? Not all of yourself, right?” Naruto repeated in the dark. It was dark and Sasuke couldn’t see Naruto’s face clearly. His voice remained calm. Just the outline of his body could be seen as his back faced the window. “Tell me Sasuke. Who was your first kiss?”

Chapter Text

The king of hearts

 

The last thing Sasuke saw was Naruto’s derisive smile. He was entrapped by the color of his eyes that resembled lake Baikal. Deep and endless and cold.

Darkness shrouded him like the closing curtain on the international Claire de Lune piano competition. Everything had become the silky blackness of a piano key. The darkness was suffocating. His chest ached as if he had forgotten how to breathe. Chasing the darkness was silence. As if the darkness erased Naruto’s taunting question.

No. Shut up. Don’t say anything. Sasuke was silently screaming at Naruto. Drop it. Let it go. His fingers found themselves at the edge of the table. He gripped it as if he were ready to lift the table up and throw it on top of Naruto. He was waiting for Naruto to speak so he could shut him up.

“Did the lights going out spook you, Sasuke?” Naruto’s voice penetrated through the darkness. Sasuke’s grip tightened on the table. His muscles ached and itched for him to stand up and send the table flying. “Are you embarrassed to say who your first kiss was?” Naruto’s laughter erupted from across the table. “Isn’t it obvious? Weren’t you caught by my mother during the Christmas gala?”

Sasuke paused. He remained seated. His grip loosened. Naruto wasn’t going to say anything?

“What are you talking about?” Itachi spoke impatiently. “What happened at the Christmas gala?”

“I thought Sasuke was going to defend his honor. I guess I’ll do it for him.” Naruto leaned back in his chair and spoke casually. “My mother caught my cousin Karin and Sasuke kissing in a broom closet during one of the Christmas gala’s.” Naruto continued laughing. “Sasuke really is saving everything for my cousin.”

“Oh?” Itachi let the surprise escape his lips. He blinked and turned his head in the direction of where Sasuke was. He hadn’t heard of this story before.

“They polished off a bottle of sparkling wine.” Naruto responded to Itachi’s surprise. “Of course my mother kept it a secret from Mrs. Uchiha and Aunt Mito. Itachi, have you met my cousin?”

“No.” Itachi answered. He had wanted to know more about his brother. The bulk of his time when Sasuke became acquainted with Karen he had spent at university. He was still recovering from Shisui. He refused to return home, making up excuses during breaks. He only returned home when Orochimaru stated he would return to school. He turned his attention to Naruto. It was still dark but he wanted to hear more.

“On paper...it’s perfect.” Naruto continued talking. “Karin was in the top ten of our graduating class. She has won so many piano competitions nationally and internationally I’ve lost count. She’s very reserved. She’s very similar to Sasuke. She’s a...very good girl who does everything she is told.”

The last sentence sent a chill through Sasuke. His hands fell to his side.

“I’m surprised you haven’t met her, Itachi. Shouldn’t you know the person your brother is marrying?” Naruto feigned surprise. “Or...do you just not care?”

“I care!” Itachi defended. “Sasuke, you should invite Karin over for dinner!”

“Karin and Sasuke were very close, best friends even in school.” Naruto continued. “Right, Sasuke?”

“Why do you keep talking about Karin?” Sasuke’s voice was hostile and borderline dangerous. He knew Naruto was purposefully teasing him. Worst. Itachi was feeding into Naruto.

“I’m just telling your brother about the girl you’re betrothed to.” Naruto answered plainly. “In essence, rest assured, Itachi. Karin is the exact opposite of me in every way. It’s perfect for Sasuke.”

“Stop talking, Naruto!” Sasuke yelled.

Sasuke slammed his hand on the table. The noise echoed in the silent darkness. His face was hot and he could feel the tips of his ears and his neck reddening. Karin had barely spoken a dozen words to him this last year. She had closed herself off from him. There was the feeling of guilt pumping bile into his stomach. He knew she felt equally sick to her stomach over this marriage as he has.

“Let me get some candles!” Orochimaru, who had remained quiet, finally spoke. He stood up and fumbled around the dark apartment gathering candles and matches. “What a nasty storm!” Orochimaru changed the topic as he began lighting candles. “When was the last time we had such a snowstorm?”

The question fell on deaf ears.

Orochimaru placed the candles strategically around the apartment. The power remained off. The heat had turned off. The apartment was already cooling. The blizzard raged on. He returned to sitting at the table.

“What about you Itachi...have you kissed anyone?” Naruto asked.

“I’m not engaging in this conversation!” Itachi, who was thin-skinned, turned his head so the light of the candles didn’t highlight his own reddening face, and give him away.

Naruto exhaled. “You Uchiha brothers are so similar. It’s just a question. Orochimaru...what about you?”

“Me?” Orochimaru asked, surprised he was being dragged into this conversation.

“Yea. Who was your first kiss?”

“Shisui.” Itachi interrupted and answered on behalf of Orochimaru. His voice was cold. Harsh. The way Itachi spoke as if he knew everything. It caused Orochimaru to tremble in anger.

“No. He wasn’t my first kiss. You don’t know everything!” Orochimaru answered haughtily, setting the record straight.

The memory ripped through him. It wasn’t a first kiss as it was a stolen kiss. It was during the summer break between their sophomore and junior year of high school. It was an election year and his adoptive father was running for re-election. He had known that his adoption was a PR stunt. He was the brightest in the orphanage. Every time re-election was up Orochimaru was pranced around to banquets, rallies, parties, and photo opportunities. He was exhausted and was so relieved when Itachi invited him to spend the night.

“Is Shisui coming?” Orochimaru asked automatically as he flopped down at Itachi’s desk.

“No. He’s vacationing with his girlfriend’s family.” Itachi answered hesitantly. He sat at the edge of his bed. His eyes avoided Orochimaru’s battling with a myriad of complicated emotions. “I thought you might have wanted...a break from the re-election circuit. It’s just us.”

“Oh.” Orochimaru nodded his head. He broke out into a smile. “Thank you.” Being around Itachi had filled him with warmth and he loved how caring Itachi was. The genuineness that touched him. It sometimes left him in puddles.

It was why during the middle of the night when Itachi was in a deep sleep Orochimaru had crawled onto his bed. Itachi’s room faced the east. His bedroom was the first room to be filled with morning light. At night time the moon’s glow filtered through. He knew what he was doing was wrong and he did it anyway. His hand brushed against Itachi’s cheek.

“If you don’t wake up by the time I count to three. I’m going to kiss you.” Orochimaru whispered. His voice was barely audible as if the night itself was swallowing his words. “One.” Orochimaru brought his fingertips to Itachi’s lips. “Two.” He traced the curvature of his lips. Itachi’s face was smooth and peaceful. He was surprised to see that when Itachi slept he remained motionless. He didn’t move around. He remained in the same position. On his back and vulnerable. “Three.”

Orochimaru leaned over. He paused and stared at Itachi’s sleeping face. He waited another few seconds expecting Itachi to stir. He could feel the warmness of Itachi’s breath. He pressed his lips to Itachi’s and kissed him. Startled by how warm and soft his lips were, a hotness erupted over his skin. He balled his hands into fists. He continued kissing Itachi. Just when the guilt and shame he felt overpowered him and forced him back to his senses he pushed himself back. Panting as if he had been holding his breath underwater.

“You...kissed someone else?” Itachi balked. His eyes shifted to Orochimaru. He could see his olive complexion reddening as he blushed. Orochimaru wasn’t lying. “Who?” Itachi went through his memory. He hadn’t recalled Orochimaru being close with anyone that would set off alarms. “Do I know them?”

Orochimaru snorted and covered his mouth with his hand. It was best to stay silent.

Sasuke’s mood soured. He didn’t want to hear about Orochimaru’s past lovers. “Why are we talking about this? You don’t have to answer, Orochimaru.” He came quickly to Orochimaru’s defense.

“Wait.” Naruto spoke. He brought his attention from Itachi to Orochimaru. His eyes moved back and forth between them. “Are you two...dating?”

“Huh?” Itachi snapped back as if receiving a blow. Orochimaru’s eyes widened and his heart fluttered.

“Is that why you’re not engaged...or dating?” Naruto asked Itachi.

“We’re just friends.” Itachi spoke defensively. “Roommates!” He understood what Sasuke meant by Naruto’s needling. The ability to get under one’s skin. He could remain stoic and serious in ninety-nine percent of his life but whenever Orochimaru was involved he lost all control and lost all decorum.

“You don’t have to act with such disgust.” Orochimaru answered. His anger was boiling again. He misinterpreted Itachi, again. Memories of how Shisui told him what Itachi said. How he just wanted to be friends. Now even someone bringing up them dating how disgusted he reacted. It was an insult. His heart hurt.

“I’m...not acting with disgust!” Itachi tried to explain but he was tongue-tied.

“I apologize. I just thought Itachi was jealous when he found out you kissed someone else.” Naruto answered as he turned his attention to Orochimaru. He had hung around Ino so much in school her observation skills had rubbed off on him.

“Jealous? I’m not...I’m…” Itachi couldn’t bring himself to lie. The truth was. He was jealous. He was jealous of anyone who was able to get close to Orochimaru. He knew about Shisui...but now there was someone else? It overwhelmed him and if he stayed near Orochimaru any longer he was going to say something he regretted.

“Enough! I’m going to bed.” Itachi stood up, grabbed a candle, and stormed out of the room. The sound of his bedroom door opening and slamming shut followed.

“That’s the definition of jealousy.” Naruto spoke with a smug smile.

“He...was jealous?” Orochimaru asked sincerely. His attention focused intensely on Naruto. His eyes dilated with this possibility.

“Of course. Did you see how red his face got when I asked him who his first kiss was...and how anxious he was when I asked you. I will bet a thousand dollars Itachi has never kissed anyone. Why do you think he answered quickly for you? It’s because he didn’t want you to say their name. Imagine how you would feel if the person you liked said the name of someone else when asked about their first kiss.”

Sasuke’s heart skipped a beat and he turned to stare at Naruto.

Naruto explained as if he had become an expert on human emotions. He understood what it meant when the whole room could tell when two people liked each other, and those two people were clueless about it.

“He couldn’t even bring himself to deny that he was jealous.” Naruto continued his explanation. His attention focused solely on Orochimaru.

Sasuke was staring at Naruto. How easily Naruto spoke. How easily he continued to command the attention of everyone. How he dominated the conversation easily. Itachi hung on his every word, and now, Orochimaru was hanging on his every word. The radiance and charisma that was emitted from Naruto filled the apartment. His features were highlighted by the red of the candle and it made him look attractive. As if he was a phoenix being birthed in the heart of the flame.

“He’s so worked up sexually by the whole situation he locked himself in his room.” Naruto concluded.

Orochimaru’s eyes widened. There was a small tug of a smile at the corners of his mouth. “Well. I think it’s best if we retire for the night. It’s better if we sleep and reserve heat and energy. Hopefully, the power will be turned on by tomorrow. Good night.” Orochimaru was quick with his words. His expression was masked as if fighting back a smile. He grabbed one of the candles and left.

Sasuke never moved his eyes from Naruto. He narrowed his eyes as he watched Naruto finally turn his attention towards him.

“Satisfied?” Sasuke spoke icily. They were alone.

“Very.” Naruto smiled. “Now we can be alone. Are you going to let me borrow pajamas?”

Sasuke exhaled, rolled his eyes, and grabbed a candle.

It was too late. He already knew Naruto’s intentions of agreeing to come over for dinner had nothing to do with him. It had to do with Orochimaru’s investigative journalist piece on the Hyuga’s. The anger and resentment he felt was a low boil in his chest. He couldn’t place why he was so angry and why he was so resentful. Everything Naruto did and said was a beautiful contradiction and he wanted nothing more than to strip Naruto of everything. Of his clothes. Of his dignity. To leave him naked and vulnerable on his knees in front of him. And only then would he peel back the layers to find his true self.

Naruto followed him back to his room. Sasuke peeked over his shoulder. The doors to Itachi’s, and Orochimaru’s rooms remained closed. He didn’t hear any noise. He didn’t want anyone to hear them. He closed his door behind them and placed the candle on the desk. The room was cramped again. Naruto flopped down on the bed and watched Sasuke drag out pajamas.

“What was that all about, Naruto. Why did you bring Karin up?” Sasuke asked finally. He stole a glance at Naruto.

“I wasn’t lying.” Naruto spoke quickly. He paused. “Well. Maybe I lied once. To be clear. I was your first kiss...right?”

“That doesn’t count. You forced me.” Sasuke answered.

“Mhm.” Naruto agreed. There was a look of disappointment on Naruto’s face. “Aren’t you being cruel to Karin?” Naruto’s voice went low.

“How so?” Sasuke asked defensively. It was Karin who had been avoiding him.

“She doesn’t even like men.” Naruto answered unabashedly. “She’s had a secret on-again, off-again relationship with Temari during all these years. Now she’s being forced to marry someone whom she isn’t even attracted to.”

So? Sasuke found himself trembling. Wasn’t he the same as Karin? It wasn’t like he liked women. It was going to be a lavender marriage.

“The wedding is set for next year after graduation. Right?” Naruto knew the wedding date. It was going to be a cliched June wedding. Sasuke turned around and threw the pair of pajamas at Naruto.

“Shut up. Hurry up and get changed.” Sasuke snapped. “You don’t know anything.”

“I’m wondering.” Naruto continued speaking, ignoring Sasuke's protests. “What are you going to do to get out of it?” He stood up and began stripping. Sasuke’s eyes went to the muscular chest and chiseled abdominal muscles. The V that disappeared beneath the waist of his pants. He found himself staring too long.

“Hey! Stop stripping in front of me!” Sasuke protested and turned around. It felt stifling in his room. He couldn’t breathe properly. “What are you blathering about...why would I get out of it? You said so yourself. Karin and I are both obedient and do as we’re told!”

Naruto remained quiet. He finished stripping and pulled on the pair of pajamas Sasuke gave him. The clothes were tight against him and short. He inhaled the shirt and the smell of Sasuke filled him up.

“I mean. Can you blame me?” Naruto asked. He grabbed Sasuke’s hand from behind.

“Wha~” Sasuke was so shocked by Naruto holding his hand his mind went blank. He spun around.

“You slammed your hand in the door and broke your fingers in protest to your mother’s dictation over your life.”

Sasuke’s back slammed against the wall. His eyes locked on Naruto’s. His heart was beating in his throat. The sound of a freight train was passing between his ears. The warmness of Naruto’s fingers enclosed around his fingers sent goosebumps on his flesh. The touch was electrifying. It left his scalp cold.

“Are you going to do something drastic again, Sasuke?” Naruto asked seriously in his low voice. He brought a hand up to Sasuke’s jawline. His thumb stroked the jawline from his ear to his chin. His touch left Sasuke numb. “No. Not yet. You don’t have that look in your eyes like you did...then.” Naruto’s eyes were so intense it felt as if Sasuke was standing naked in front of him.

“Stop messing around!” Sasuke was trembling. He shoved Naruto’s hands away. Pushing Naruto away was like trying to move a mountain.

“Can I kiss you, Sasuke?” Naruto asked. His eyes were focused on Sasuke’s mouth.

“You’re going to ask me that...now?” Sasuke balked. Sweating. Naruto smiled teasingly. His pulse racing. Yes. “No!”

“Alright. Give me a blanket. I’ll sleep on the couch.” Naruto answered with a nonchalant shrug and backed up. He stifled a yawn with his hand and stretched. Seeing how nonchalant Naruto was acting as if he didn't care either way if he kissed him made him livid. How easy Naruto was able to tease him and remain so cool and collected.

“You’re going to sleep on the couch?” Sasuke asked for clarification. He hated Naruto with every fiber of his being. His eyes swept over his bed. It was too small for one person let alone two people. It wasn’t as if he was expecting to share a bed with Naruto. Was he?

“Mhm. Unless I can share your bed? Cuddle up next to you. It would keep me warm and I wouldn’t even need a blanket.”

“No! Stop saying nonsense. Follow me.” Sasuke spoke with frustration.

He led Naruto to the linen closet. Gave him blankets and pillows. He watched as Naruto obediently moved to the living room and to the couch. Without another word, and without saying goodnight. Sasuke returned to his room and shut the door behind him. He was still trembling. Sweat clung to his shirt. He forgot what it felt like to be around Naruto for long periods of time. It left him exhausted. Weak.

He felt an ache through his hand. A pain that shot up through his arm. He winced and cried out silently. He looked at the hand he had slammed in the door and subsequently blamed Naruto.

He remembered Naruto asking him before the incident. They were inside Naruto’s room. He asked him if he was planning on doing something. He wanted to know what Naruto saw. He wondered why Naruto was the only one who knew something was wrong with him.

He remembered kissing Naruto for the last time in his room. He had purposefully taken advantage of Naruto to make him hurt. To use him because he wanted to kiss and touch someone. He had kissed Naruto in his room. He told Naruto to kiss him back. They had stripped. He didn’t know what they would have done if Naruto hadn’t stopped everything and just cuddled him. It was nice. The feeling of Naruto’s naked skin against him. How touch starved he was his whole life and how he wanted Naruto in that moment. How he wanted to hurt him and tear him apart.

What would it feel like to cuddle with Naruto now? No. No. No. No. No.

He still couldn’t trust Naruto. He flopped back to his bed. It felt like there were knots in his chest. He wasn’t going to let Naruto toy with him again. He wasn’t going to let Naruto turn his life upside down and inside out again. He would hurt Naruto first. He would. He would strike where it hurt most. Just like he did inside Naruto’s bedroom. He would do it again. He would pretend to like Naruto. He would kiss him. He would touch him. He would make Naruto fall in love with him, and then, then he would break up with him and hurt him. Witness that look of complete anguish on his face.

That memory of Naruto’s traumatized face as he slammed his hand in the door overcame him. The silent scream. The twisted expression. The tears. The constricted eyes. The look of utter horror and shock. How hurt Naruto looked and how powerless Naruto was to do anything except witness.

Having Naruto around was dangerous to his mind, body, and heart. He was going to make sure Naruto was going to be the one to be hurt.

*****

Spring semester. The world was still blanketed in a bleak, endless, grey winter.

Sasuke walked through the hallways of the piano school at St. Camille Academy. The furnace inside the old, turn of the century building, had finally broke and was being repaired. Classes were canceled until the furnace was replaced and the building had heat again. The academy didn’t forbid students from practicing but they discouraged it as it was frighteningly cold inside the building as it was outside.

He opened the door of one of the practice rooms and stopped. It was deja vu. Only instead of seeing Naruto in the practice room with Hinata. He was with one of the younger piano students. It took a moment to place his name. The cat-like green eyes outlined in red. Kimimaro. The two were engaged in a hushed conversation that Sasuke couldn’t hear. The moment the door opened both sets of eyes turned towards him.

“What are you doing here, Naruto?” Sasuke asked. “Are you…” Sasuke walked towards them. His brain was spinning a mile a minute. “Is this…” He pointed at Kimimaro. He wanted to ask if this was the St. Camille student who worked at a strip club. He couldn’t form the words. Judging by Naruto’s expression. It was.

“You...why are you here Naruto Namikaze?” Sasuke yelled. He made the connection. He recognized those cat-like green eyes outlined in red. Kimimaro hung around Tayuya. “You…” His eyes looked accusingly at Kimimaro and then back at Naruto. He wasn’t making any sense and the way Kimimaro looked at him he knew he was acting like a complete lunatic.

Sasuke was livid. He grabbed Naruto’s hand and pulled him out of the piano practice room. He was surprised that Naruto followed him so willingly.

“Is this about Hinata?” Sasuke hissed as they walked down the hallway.

“Mhm.” Naruto answered. His eyes lingered down at Sasuke’s hand wrapped around his wrist.

“Are you blackmailing Kimimaro?”

“No. On the contrary. I’m paying for his services…”

Before Naruto could finish Sasuke had spun around and slapped him across the face. The slap stung Sasuke’s hand and he could feel the flesh of his palm vibrating in pain. The slap surprised Naruto and his head subsequently moved with the force. A red splotch appeared on the side of Naruto’s cheek. Naruto automatically lifted a hand to his cheek.

“Are you sleeping with him?” Sasuke accused.

“No!” Naruto answered. “When I mean services I mean helping us get proof!” He was still in a stupor, shocked that Sasuke hit him.

“Us?”

“Orochimaru and…”

“Ugh! Naruto...what are you two doing now?”

“Tayuya had proof of something. She threatened Hinata with it...and then Tayuya was pushed off the balcony during the party Gaara was hosting.”

“Proof...proof of what?” Sasuke had let go of Naruto’s wrist. He had calmed down the stinging of his hand, keeping him focused.

“When we find it. I’ll show you.”

“We...who is we?”

“Orochimaru, Kimimaro, and I are going to search through Tayuya’s belongings this weekend.”

“I want to come!”

“I don’t think…” Naruto was about to dismiss Sasuke when footsteps came from behind them. Kimimaro appeared alongside Naruto.

There was a hard expression on Kimimaro’s face. There was an elegant beauty that felt both dangerous and intoxicating. Maybe it was the red eyeliner that made it difficult for Sasuke to turn away.

“Sasuke can come.” Kimimaro spoke with a ruthless smile. “Sasuke bullied Tayuya before her death. When we find the proof. I want to see what expression he’ll make.”

“I wasn’t...I wasn’t bullying her!” Sasuke defended. “Tayuya was bullying Hinata!”

“Just because we’re scholarship students you think we would plagiarize?” Kimimaro fired back. Kimimaro was shorter than Sasuke but he carried with him an armor of confidence that made him feel seven feet tall. Somebody that had lived in the underbelly of society and was crawling their way through broken glass to escape.

“I’m going to trust Hinata.” Sasuke maintained his position.

“Right. You keep doing that it'll be even more satisfying when you find out the truth.” Kimimaro’s smile vanished. It left an eerie expression, a void. It sent a shiver down Sasuke’s spine. “I’ll see you Friday, Naruto.” Kimimaro swept his gaze over Naruto before leaving.

“I’ll see you later-” Naruto spoke hastily and went to leave. His eyes remained focused on Kimimaro's back. Sasuke watched him. He looked like he still wanted to talk to Kimimaro and was rushing to catch up to him. A panic feeling filled Sasuke. It was the same feeling he felt when he saw Naruto walking with Hinata.

“Wait!” Sasuke shot an arm out stopping him. “Do you have plans right now?”

“Plans...not particularly.” Naruto answered. His eyes continued to be focused on Kimimaro as if humoring Sasuke. “Why?”

“Do you want to come over to my dorm? I want to talk to you about some things.”

Naruto smiled. His smile was brilliant. It hurt. He finally turned his attention to Sasuke. “Alright...let’s go.”

Chapter Text

Called for the tarts

 

Naruto sat at a secluded table in the corner of the coffee shop on Marshall street. He faced the wall with his back towards the shop. He held in his hands a cool mug of black coffee. His eyes stared unblinking at the smooth as glass surface of the liquid. It was a rich, hand-ground, Arabica coffee bean color. It was closing time.

Sakura glanced at Naruto as she bid the last customer goodbye. She ran to the door and immediately locked it flipping the sign to ‘closed’. It was her favorite time. The thrill she got when a customer tried opening the door and she could finally say ‘sorry we’re closed’. She frowned when she turned back towards Naruto.

“What’s on your mind?” Sakura asked as she slid into the empty chair in front of him. Naruto blinked as if being pulled from a deep thought and without looking at her asked.

“Do you ever think Neji was the lucky one?”

Sakura was left speechless. She couldn’t remember the last time Neji was brought up in conversation. A chill went down her spine and her stomach began hurting. She shifted uncomfortably in her chair, suddenly becoming aware of her posture she straightened up.

“What’s going on, Naruto?” Sakura asked seriously. Her voice quivered as she swallowed the lump that formed in the back of her throat.

Naruto rested an elbow on the table and rested his cheek on his hand. He turned his crystal blue eyes towards her as if noticing her for the first time. He offered her a weak smile. She saw through this and didn’t smile back. She licked her lips anxiously as she waited for Naruto to say...anything. The longer she waited the longer the silence grew between them.

“You never have these thoughts?” Naruto questioned. “That it might have been better if you were the one who died in that damn boxcar?”

The darkness inside that boxcar slowly crept back into Sakura’s life. She felt it coming through the front door of the coffee shop. Like an oil spill coating everything in its sticky substance. She tried to swallow the second lump that formed and couldn’t. She hesitantly met Naruto’s eyes again.

“No.” She answered honestly. “It’s survivor’s guilt...that feeling...it’s called survivor’s guilt.”

“If I could go back. I would take Neji’s place.” Naruto answered truthfully. He rubbed his face with his hands. Sakura stared at him.

“Naruto.” Sakura asked seriously. “Why did you come back?”

Naruto combed his hands through his thick blonde hair and offered a derisive smile. “I missed everyone.”

“Bullshit. What’s the real reason?”

Naruto shrugged. “You’ll find out in time.”

“Are you running away from something?” Sakura asked suspiciously.

Naruto shook his head no. “I wish.”

“What are your thoughts on arranged marriages?” Naruto asked as he stood up and began stretching. He flexed his limbs and his muscles pulled taut across his shirt. Her eyes traced the band of his underwear that peeked from under his blue jeans.

Sakura couldn’t help but have those schoolgirl crush feelings resurface. Her cheeks flushed as she watched Naruto’s shirt pull further up and reveal a sliver of toned abdominal muscles. His skin had a refreshing bronze tint. When he was abroad it never snowed and he spent the majority of his time in the sun.

“What about them? Is this about Temari...or…” She paused. “Sasuke?”

Naruto thought about it for a moment before answering. “Both.”

“Rasa Sabaku is a bastard.” Naruto sneered. “This is what...the third attempt of marrying off Temari to a perverted old man?”

Sakura furrowed her eyebrows. She wasn’t following Naruto. She remained quiet.

“Temari and my cousin have had an on-again off-again relationship since they were practically kids. Isn’t it tragic that my cousin is set to marry Sasuke and Temari is set to marry some pervert?”

“I guess. I mean...if you don’t follow the rules you’ll end up like me.” Sakura answered bluntly. “When I told my parents I wasn’t going to go into medicine they cut me off.” She smiled but the smile offered no warmth. It was filled with mockery.

Naruto’s eyes widened. It was the first he was hearing of things. “How are you affording tuition?”

“Loans...and I work here for spending money.” Sakura answered matter-of-factly. “Acting is to me as dancing is to Ino. If my parents decided to cut me off financially then so be it.”

Naruto stared at Sakura as if seeing her in a new light. He smiled warmly and his eyes lit up. “You’re really cool Sakura.”

“You’re only just realizing this?” Sakura laughed and tossed her hair back. “I bet you’re regretting never dating me back in high school.”

A darkness shadowed Naruto as he nodded his head in agreement. Sakura had said it as a joke but hearing it out loud made her stomach hurt. There was a conflicted emotion in Naruto's eyes and just when she was about to understand that emotion it changed into one of cheeriness. She laughed jokingly and stood up.

“You don’t have to give me that sympathetic expression. I was a rightful bitch back in high school. Hell. I wouldn’t have wanted to date me.”

She grabbed the room temperature mug of coffee and started to do her closing shift tasks.

“What’s your sudden interest in the affairs of Hinata?” Sakura asked, changing the topic.

Naruto’s eyes darkened even more. His expression appeared forced. “I guess...there’s still residual guilt.”

Sakura watched Naruto from the corner of her eyes. She didn’t believe him but wasn’t going to press the matter. If Naruto wasn’t going to tell her the real reason he came back she wasn’t going to force the matter. The murders of the students in the piano department reached every department at the performing arts university.

“What do you know about Tayuya?” Naruto asked casually. He found getting answers from Sakura was easier than speaking to Ino. He understood the difference.

Sakura had unwittingly broken free from her family. She was financially cut off and had to rely on her own. She no longer belonged to their world in the sense of having ample money in the bank account and credit cards co-signed by their parents. She no longer belonged to their world where she had to follow the rules and conditions of their parents. Free from servitude she could roam free.

“She was from the working class, a scholarship student, and...Temari had taken an interest in her.” Sakura answered. “I never even had a conversation with her. I’m from the acting department and we rarely interact with other departments.”

“Were you at Gaara’s party that night?” Naruto asked.

“Mhm.” Sakura nodded her head. “I went with Ino.” She paused. “Do you want me to tell you my statement to the police?”

“Is it truthful?” Naruto asked with a smirk. Sakura caught his smirk. She shrugged and gave off an expression that said 'what do I have to hide?' The smirk left Naruto's lips. He watched her seriously.

“The police stopped investigating. Tayuya had no family and there isn’t enough public interest to hound the police.” Sakura spoke blatantly as she worked on cleaning the coffee machines. “I saw Tayuya at the party. She was severely intoxicated to the point of throwing up and passing out in the bathroom by the time Ino and I arrived. I...found her in the bathroom. As soon as I opened the door Temari came in and carried her out of the bathroom.”

Naruto walked closer towards her. He stood on the other side of the counter and watched Sakura’s back as she continued cleaning.

“The next time I saw Tayuya was maybe two hours later. She was awake and dancing. I received a text message from my coworker. Her mother went to the hospital and she asked if I could take her shift the next day. I told Ino I was leaving. She was still partying. I left.”

Sakura put the coffee machine back together again. “Oh.” She stopped as if remembering something. She turned around. “On my way out I saw Karin there. She and Temari were arguing about something.”

“Karin was there?” Naruto asked and raised his eyebrows.

“Yes.” She nodded her head. “That part wasn’t in my police statement.” She shrugged. “Like I said. It isn’t like the police are really doing anything.”

“Hinata was there as well...wasn’t she?” Naruto questioned.

“Mhm. She was. I avoided her. It isn’t like we’re close.”

“Didn’t you find it odd she was there?”

“No. When it comes to the Sabaku siblings nothing surprises me.”

“There was another murder.” Naruto reminded Sakura. “Jirobo.”

“I know nothing about him aside from he was in the music department.”

“He was bludgeoned to death off campus as well.”

“Mhm. The police are treating it as a separate incident. Do you think they’re connected?”

“Maybe.” Naruto answered truthfully. “I have a source that told me they saw Hinata speaking to Jirobo a few times.”

“Hinata.” Sakura repeated her name. “Ino was telling me you were asking a lot about her. Do you think she’s involved?”

“There seems to be two sides of a story. Hinata is reporting that Tayuya bullied her and plagiarized her compositions, whereas, Kimimaro is reporting it was the opposite. Hinata was the one who bullied Tayuya and plagiarized her compositions.”

“You know...the arts is a cutthroat industry. It really takes raw talent to be successful. There are little differences. For example. For acting...there are dozens of roles in a play performing for an audience, whereas, in the piano department it’s usually one maybe two performing. They also have that ridiculous caste system. It isn’t just cutthroat it’s downright murderous in the music department, more specifically the piano department.”

Sakura carried on her explanation. She had been at St Camille from the beginning. She may have been secluded in the acting department but the information was carried throughout each department. Those who were the shining stars in each department were talked about, but just as those shining stars were talked about, those students who were lacking were equally talked about.

“There was a rumor going around that the only reason Hinata still had a spot within the piano department was because her family donated a large sum of money to the music department. Even if she plagiarized...she can never be better than Karin.”

Naruto tightened his hold on the edge of the counter. He pressed his body forwards. Locking his arms in place. He flexed his arm muscles and kept squeezing the counter. Holding his breath. Was there anyone who could beat his cousin? The rivalry he felt towards Karin only grew larger and insurmountable. It would eventually consume them both. He exhaled and let go of the counter stepping back and feeling the blood flow back into his arms and muscles.

Sakura finished her closing tasks and locked the coffee shop up. Naruto began walking Sakura in the direction of her dorm. They continued talking.

“If Hinata did have a part in Tayuya’s death...what are you going to do?” Sakura asked when they reached the front door of her dormitory building.

“Destroy the evidence.” Naruto answered.

His expression was unreadable. His expression, his body language, his tonality, his words. Everything caught Sakura off guard. She felt like laughing but she became choked up. Naruto had been acting strangely the entire night and he was being evasive. Naruto’s eyes appeared black the longer she stared up at him the more difficult it was to breathe.

Again she waited for Naruto to say anything else. A follow-up. To laugh. Anything. He didn’t. The silence grew like a cancer.

“You look tired.” Sakura broke eye contact and changed topics once again. “Thank you for walking me home.”

“Of course. Tell me the next time you’re closing I’ll walk you back to your dorm.”

Sakura smiled weakly. “Why?”

“It’s dangerous.” Naruto spoke with a smile. She didn’t know if he was joking. She thought about it and looking at the situation from an outsider's point of view. He was right. Two students were murdered. Hearing those words and having Naruto care about her caused her to have conflicted emotions.

“Alright...thanks. Goodnight. Make sure you get some sleep! Okay?” Sakura waved goodbye and she ran a little too quickly away from Naruto back into her dorm.

Naruto waited until the door closed and Sakura was safely inside before stuffing his hands in his coat pocket and making his way back to Elwood campus. As he walked his head and eyes shifted in the direction of an alleyway between two buildings into the pitch darkness. He stared, hard, until he walked past.

The person who was hiding in the shadows holding a baseball bat stumbled backwards. His jaw opened and the lollipop he was sucking on fell to the ground. He jumped out of his skin thinking that Naruto was able to see him. He spun around and ran in the opposite direction.

*****

“What are your real intentions?” Kimimaro asked seriously. He wore a hard expression. Naruto couldn’t help but think he had the same colored eyes as Sakura. They were both standing underneath the glass vestibule of the bus stop. It started snowing and they both ducked under. The storage unit was a few blocks away.

“The same as you.” Naruto answered. “I want the truth to come out.” He was carrying an extra-large black umbrella. He opened it up and held it over him and Kimimaro.

Kimimaro was bundled up. He wore a matching knit hat and scarf. He glanced hesitantly up at the umbrella and back at Naruto as if he couldn’t make way with his intentions of this gesture. He huffed yet continued walking side by side next to Naruto.

“Why did you take the bus with me?” Kimimaro asked as they made their way in the direction of the storage unit.

“I don’t have a car.” Naruto answered off-handedly.

“Mommy and daddy didn’t buy you a lexus?” Kimimaro sneered.

"Cadillac escalade.” Naruto answered with a playful smile on his lips.

“Huh?” Kimimaro whipped his head to look up at him.

“When I graduate my parents are going to buy me a Cadillac escalade.”

“Bastard. I really didn’t want an answer.”

Snow crunched beneath their feet. It was a brutal winter and their breaths came out in puffs of white smoke. There weren’t many people out on the streets. Kimimaro led the way.

“I still don’t trust you.” Kimimaro spoke after being unable to bear the silence any longer.

“Mhm.” Naruto nodded his head. “What are your thoughts on the relationship Tayuya had with Temari?”

“Temari Sabaku?” Kimimaro spoke, not hiding his disgust. “All of the Sabaku siblings only know how to flaunt their money. Tayuya was seduced by the money Temari flaunted in front of her.”

“Were Tayuya and Temari in a romantic relationship?”

“Yes.” Kimimaro answered plainly. “I warned her not to get involved with her...but what would you do if you had no family and were starving to see so much money dangled in front of you?”

“Do you think Temari had real feelings of Tayuya?”

“Of course not. She was nothing but a toy to Temari.”

“Did you know...Temari has been in an on-again, off-again relationship with Karin Uzumaki?”

“Karin?” Kimimaro was shocked. His eyes widened and eyebrows pushed back. “The ace in the piano department?” He scoffed. “Isn’t she betrothed or whatever to Sasuke?”

Naruto’s jaw clenched remembering. “Yes. That Karin.”

“Looking back...you know...it makes sense that Karin swung that way.”

Naruto laughed at Kimimaro’s observation. His cousin hid her sexuality well. She was passable.

“Why are you bringing this up?”

“What if...Hinata had nothing to do with Tayuya’s death?” Naruto speculated. “What if Tayuya was killed in a jealous spat, from coming between Temari and Karin?” He offered this like a true defense attorney planting doubt in the jury’s ear. Truth be told. It was an equally plausible theory. “Karin was at the party that night.”

“Maybe.” Kimimari conceded. “Hinata was also at the party.”

“Do the police have any leads?” Naruto asked curiously.

“They’re not actively investigating.” Kimimaro spoke bitterly.

“That’s why it’s important we have a journalist to help us.” Naruto spoke positively. His words were positive but that darkness returned to his eyes. A darkness that Kimimaro didn’t see as he kept his eyes focused forward. Naruto gripped the umbrella tighter.

“Yes. Thank you for getting him involved. Even if I don’t trust your motives...having you bring in a journalist makes me feel at ease.”

Naruto’s smile dropped from his mouth. He pulled the scarf to cover his mouth. His eyes narrowed as he stared forward.

“Of course.” Naruto spoke. “I told you that you could trust me.” He bumped Kimimaro’s shoulder with his playfully. “It’s why I ought to show you that you can trust me instead of telling you...right?”

By the time Kimimaro looked up he saw a dazzling charismatic smile greeting him. It was so bright it made his eyes wince. Kimimaro’s cheeks flushed and he felt a warmness filling his chest. His heart reacted and he became scared. He rolled his eyes.

“Flirting with me won’t~”

“What took you so long? We've been waiting here for thirty minutes!” Sasuke spoke impatiently, interrupting Kimimaro. His eyes looked back and forth between Naruto and Kimimaro. He was filled with conflicted emotion as he saw how close they were huddled under an umbrella that Naruto was holding.

Naruto tipped the umbrella back to see Sasuke and Orochimaru leaning against a Cadillac Escalade that was parallel parked on the street. Seeing this Naruto’s eyes lit up and a teasing expression overcame him.

“See?” Naruto pointed towards the vehicle. “I’ll get one just like that.”

“Oh...shut up!” Kimimaro’s whose face was not beating red, spoke and moved out from under the umbrella. Needing space to catch his breath. He glared at Sasuke seeing him as an enemy he wanted to prove was wrong, to softening his expression at Orochimaru who was the journalist for the Eye of Providence newspaper.

“Did you wait long?” Kimimaro asked Orochimaru. “My name is Kimimaro, it’s nice to meet you.” He introduced himself to Orochimaru and spoke pleasantly.

“Not too long. I’m Orochimaru. I’m a journalist. I was working on a piece regarding Hinata.”

“Naruto told me...you were attacked and your thumb drive stollen!”

“Yeah. It was in an area that didn’t have cameras and the police had no leads. I’m hoping we might be able to find something in the storage unit.”

Kimimaro led the way and chatted alongside Orochimaru. Sasuke glanced at Naruto who closed the umbrella and walked after them.

“Why were you walking with him?” Sasuke asked.

“How else would I have gotten here? Flying?” Naruto teased as he looked at Sasuke.

“Did you take the bus?” Sasuke asked seriously, ignoring Naruto’s comment.

“Mhm.”

“Why didn’t you tell me...I would have...I mean we could have all carpooled. It would have been quicker.” Sasuke explained.

Naruto remained quiet. He didn’t answer right away. The truth was he purposefully wanted to be alone with Kimimaro. He purposefully wanted to arrive at the storage unit alone with him. He needed to get Kimimaro on his side. Naruto turned towards Sasuke and asked genuinely.

“How did you sleep last night, Sasuke?”

Sasuke blinked. “Good.” He furrowed his eyebrows. “Why?”

“Nothing. Just wondering if you slept well, and you did, so I’m glad.” Naruto smiled.

Naruto’s chest ached and tightened. He remembered when Sasuke invited him back to his dorm under the pretense of wanting to talk to him about something. When they got back Sasuke became flustered and spoke about random things. Naruto realized it then when he sat in the chair and listened to Sasuke speak about irrelevant things that Sasuke might have been jealous of him talking to Kimimaro. He remembered the happiness that filled him when he thought about this.

Naruto smiled to himself. Kimimaro pulled out the key from his pocket and unlocked the padlock on the garage door of the storage unit.

“What are you going to do if we don’t find any proof that Hinata plagiarized?” Sasuke asked Kimimaro.

“Nothing, because I know we’ll find the proof!” Kimimaro answered haughtily. He was the shortest one and his slender frame made him the weakest yet he still was the one to open up the heavy metal garage door. It revealed a storage unit filled with over a hundred boxes.

The four of them entered the storage unit and started organizing things and opening up boxes looking for anything that could be proof. They worked in silence. Forty-five minutes into opening up boxes and carefully inspecting each item Sasuke was the first to break the silence. His eyes found themselves landing on Naruto.

“Just what exactly are we looking for?”

Naruto shrugged. “A flash drive, a blank DVD...I’m assuming if Tayuya said she had proof...it might be video proof of Hinata plagiarizing.” He caught Sasuke staring at him and held his gaze.

“Exactly.” Orochimaru spoke excitedly. He was in his element as an investigative journalist. “Diaries, notebooks, pictures, video proof...anything that detailed this can be used.”

Sasuke rolled his eyes.

“Can you be a little more respectful, Sasuke?” Kimimaro’s sharp voice penetrated the air. “This is Tayuya’s life. This is everything she had.”

Naruto turned to stare solemnly at Kimimaro. “You’re right.” He nodded his head and became sympathetic. “Tayuya was an orphan, she was a ward of the state, and she attended St. Camille on a scholarship. She was part of a work-study and waitressed on the side for living expenses.”

Kimimaro’s heart skipped a beat. His cheeks felt warm. He nodded his head to Naruto’s words. “Yes...so please show respect.”

“I’m sorry.” Sasuke choked on the guilt. “I didn’t...mean anything…by it.”

Kimimaro ignored Sasuke and continued working. Sasuke frowned. He watched as both Orochimaru and Naruto remained silent and continued searching through the boxes. They worked methodically. They continued organizing the storage unit. Shifting all searched boxes to one side. The side they still needed to search grew smaller and smaller.

Naruto stared at Sasuke who appeared to be wallowing in guilt. He looked over his shoulder and saw that Kimimaro and Orochimaru were occupied moving boxes and chattering about investigative journalism. He turned back and continued to watch Sasuke. He smiled and called out his name.

“Sasuke.”

“Mhm?” Sasuke asked and looked at him.

“Nothing. I just wanted to call your name.” Naruto answered with a playful smile.

Sasuke’s face flushed. He mumbled something under his breath that Naruto couldn’t hear and went back to searching in the boxes.

“What’s this?” Kimimaro spoke loudly. He opened up a box that was filled with handwritten music composition books. “I might have found something.” He spoke loudly. Amongst the composition books, he found several flash drives.

“Is that a cellphone?” Naruto asked. He reached in and pulled out a cellphone with a cracked screen. It was dead. He turned it over and inspected it. “Something could be on it if we power it back on.”

“If it’s password-protected...it might be impossible to open.” Sasuke spoke.

“It’s fine. I know a guy who can get into any cell phone.” Orochimaru spoke proudly.

Sasuke’s eyes widened. “You know a guy?”

“Mhm.” Orochimaru nodded.

“Maybe we should just take this whole box.” Naruto suggested. He glanced at the last two boxes. “We should still go through those.”

Orochimaru quickly went through the last two boxes and turned up empty-handed. Naruto was the one to carry out the box. He glanced at the box and looked at Kimimaro. “Kimimaro...do you want us to go back to your dorm?”

“I...I actually live off-campus.” Kimimaro spoke hesitantly. “It’s cheaper.” He added and Naruto nodded his head.

“I have a car. Let’s go back to your apartment.” Orochimaru suggested as they stood in front of the Cadillac escalade.

“Ah...sure.” Kimimaro appeared embarrassed. Sasuke raised his eyebrows at his sudden shyness.

Once inside the vehicle, he hastily said the address to his apartment. Orochimaru asked him to repeat himself and he hastily repeated his address. This time Orochimaru heard and drove three blocks away from the storage unit and parked on the street. It dawned on Naruto why Kimimaro was so flustered and embarrassed. It was a Saturday and there weren’t classes on campus. Kimimaro sent a group text message giving the address of the storage unit. In a separate text message, he told Naruto they could go together to the storage unit if he wanted.

However. It meant that Kimimaro hopped on a bus to go to campus in the opposite direction, to meet Naruto, only to hop back on a bus and go to a place that was only three blocks away from his apartment.

Naruto smiled internally. It appeared Kimimaro didn’t actually hate him at all. It might be easier than he anticipated.

Kimimaro’s apartment was frighteningly small. It was a lofted studio apartment. It was clean and exceptionally organized with every space functional. There was a loveseat, a chair, and finally his bed for places to sit. The first thing they did was plug in the cell phone to charge. The battery was completely dead; it only showed a dead battery sign on the screen.

“At least it still works?” Naruto spoke happily.

Kimimaro pulled out his laptop and inserted the first of two thumb drives. The trio gathered close behind Kimimaro and stared at his screen. Naruto’s shoulder pressed up against Sasuke’s. It caused Sasuke to squirm but he d