Chapter 1: 1
It started with a dream, a hazy image that refused to budge, and evaded illumination. Bits of it plagued his every day activities; a flash of yellow reminded him of wind ruffling hair, a snatch of blue glass twinkled like grinning eyes. It was baffling and infuriating. And Sasuke Uchiha was a stoically rational entity; he had neither the time nor tolerance for dream wisps intervening in his daily life.
His study of form and function was ultimately altered by a whirling little pattern. It insinuated itself in the corners of paintings, wove its way into the brush strokes defining wind tousled hair. It didn't ruin his work, not really, but the perfectionist behind narrowed eyes resented every intrusion, every traitorous flourish his hand engaged in.
He was not prone to profanity, but something very close to a string of gutter slang slipped from between gritted teeth as he stared at his latest endeavor. He hadn't intended to paint that sort of crooked grin, eyes shaped by a pattern of crow's-feet and friendly wrinkles. The shading suggested strong features; his brush had defined a slight slouch and a wild mass of hair that would have left the Medusa taken aback.
Portents and omens were best kept in the New Age section of the local bookstore. Sasuke believed in getting a paycheck and maintaining his reputation. The painting, no matter how uncannily it resembled the current bane of his sleeping existence, wouldn't tarnish his renown. It was a solid piece.
So he finished it. Shading a battered hoodie into existence, adding a tear to jeans past their prime and a bit of dirt here and there, shaving every last bit of respectability out of the insidious character in a bit of spite. He couldn't get rid of the damn phantom, but the little things made him feel that much better.
It was with a considerable bit of surprise that Naruto noticed himself staring out of a darkened window. Well, to be fair, he had never owned pants that ratty and he definitely did a better job of cleaning dirt from underneath his nails (he glanced down quickly, just to be sure), but the face…
He could have been looking into a mirror, and not the closed gallery settled between a restaurant and office building. He didn't remember fending off any artistic enthusiast, couldn't recall any time he had had his picture taken. The idea of a secret admirer gave him a dashing moment of ego inflation before the skin between his shoulder blades took to itching. No, he definitely didn't like the idea that someone was following and staring, memorizing all the little details. The bastard even caught that slouch he had been trying to get rid of for years.
He was either at the end of a wonderfully executed joke, and his friends would be laughing hysterically when he met them at the café, or there was something a bit more sinister afoot.
Naruto grinned, flashing his teeth his at his image. He loved a good challenge.
The skin along his back didn't give up twitching until he was settled in the corner booth, feet resting on the chair they always needed to pull up to fit everyone. He was the first one there, but that just meant he could order lunch and then convince Shikamaru he was buying. After all, he had a story to tell. The least his friends could do was spot him a sandwich.
The friend in question sauntered in as Naruto was downing his second soda, and answered Naruto's wave with a lazy salute. "Did you know you're famous?"
Naruto blinked, the strategically worded story he had been preparing as he waited forgotten as his mouth did its best beached fish impression.
"Be sure to ask Hinata where she put the painting she bought this morning." Shikamaru plopped down onto the spare chair and settled into a comfortable slouch.
"Huh?" It wasn't his most intelligent response, but his expression was eloquent enough. Morning? How could she have bought the painting that morning? It had been sitting in a closed gallery less than a hour ago.
Brushes had been discarded ages ago. His fingers traced through the paint, coaxing shading and subtle shifts of color into existence. Nails dragged out the details, scratching through the paint, separating strands of hair from each other, and revealing a worry line or two on the forehead.
It had passed from inconvenience to obsession, and no matter how he tried to dissuade himself, no matter how many times he shook himself free from the moment and lifted the canvas to set it aside, to paint over with the base coat that would facilitate another project…
Sasuke brushed bangs out of his face with fingers covered in a gory mix of reds and the stray dab of yellow. He ignored the paint he could feet wet on his cheeks. He would remember it later, when he dunked himself into a shower in an attempt to drench himself with something other than sweat. He ignored the paint on his face. He was too far involved in the paint taking shape on the canvas. It was a frenzy of attempted exorcism. Hopefully, if he got it perfect this time…
Chapter 2: 2
"There are times I wish you weren't made of money." Naruto fought the urge to wipe at his eyes, knowing the gesture would merely serve to amuse his friends further. There were a handful of paintings settled around Hinata's living room, resting here and there, giving Naruto the strange feeling he had somehow wandered into the mirror room of a funhouse. He grinned, smirked and sulked back at himself from every angle. "Did you…have to buy so many?"
Hinata shifted a blush into a frown that could almost have been cute in that split second before she pursed her lips and looked away. "The artist is very popular."
"Huh," was Naruto's eloquent response.
"Hey, check this one out." Shikamaru's voice had a twist of intonation that was somewhere between amused and appalled, and really never boded well.
Naruto turned, expecting horror and being hit instead with fascination. He was poised in the painting, looking over his shoulder at the person reflected in the slightly crooked mirror he was standing in front of, sock dangling from one hand, forgotten for the moment. It was the figure in the mirror that snagged Naruto's attention, urged him to step forward and run a finger across matte paint, catching a healing paper cut on a raised bit of acrylic hair. Dark eyes glared up and out at him, a rendered reflection in a painted mirror seeming to take note of and be irritated by his presence. He hunched his shoulders slightly, straightening with a snort as soon as he realized he was mimicking a bit of his doppelganger's posture.
"Anyone you know?"
Naruto opened his mouth to say no, but the words caught somewhere, resulting in a sort of strangled exhalation as a response to Shikamaru's question. "I don't think so." Naruto managed to mutter, stepping back from the insistently irritable demeanor of the phantom in the mirror. "Where did you get these?"
There was a note of aggression in Naruto's voice, and Hinata suffered a moments wilting before straightening her spine. "The artist has a show in a gallery downtown this weekend. I saw the paintings while I was shopping, and…"
Naruto didn't notice how she flushed as she trailed off. He had fixated on a possible explanation for this bizarre bit of exhibition. The painting over by the sofa was the worst. He had never in his life owned a pair of pants that rode that low…
He almost shook the gallery name out of a flustered Hinata, pretty much forgot to toss a parting wave at Shikamaru before dashing out.
Shikamaru settled onto the couch, slouching pleasantly and propping his feet up on an immaculate coffee table. "Hey, Hinata, I didn't know you liked this type of painting…"
Hinata fumbled through a tattered explanation involving phrases like "artistic intention" and "fair representation" before giving up and just stuffing the painting in question into the hall closet.
Personally, Shikamaru felt the artist was engaging in some wishful thinking. Naruto was a well-built guy, but there were proportions regarding realistic anatomy that any artist really should keep in mind.
Sasuke hated attending his own shows. It seemed to give patrons the wrong impression, encourage them to chat with him and toss around lingo with all the frantic finesse of melee weapons. Arrogant bastards, all trying to get the best of or win the admiration of the young artist. All at the same time.
Sasuke glared at a painting, blaming the blue eyes crinkled in a smile, the only expression in the room that didn't seem to be asking something of him. The only face that wasn't shifting through expressions like flashcards, trying to sort out what would win the most ground.
He hated the smile that struggled to surface in response. He had painted in a bit of attempted exorcism, and it had backfired. He was haunted by a stray bit of his imagination, his own brain turned traitor.
Sasuke turned to glare out the window, perhaps to discourage any stray passerby from entering the gallery, and froze.
Blue eyes peered in through the window, forehead furrowed in lines of concentration his fingers remembered coaxing out of paint, an expression he had caressed. Sasuke fumbled toward coherency, struggling to decide whether to flee or hit that face until it stopped bothering him.
The decision was taken from him. Blue eyes looked up, and locked with his.
And the world seemed to slip sideways out of reality and into something not at all in Sasuke's control.
Chapter 3: 3
It would be cliché to say it was like a kick in the gut, but as Naruto's innards roiled with the same acidic confusion as his thoughts, he had a sort of understanding as to where that particular cliché had come from.
Dark eyes met Naruto's own blue, mirroring the shock that must has been splayed across his face.
It wasn't quite a moment of epiphany, but there was something close to it in the way the stranger stared, in the way he seemed to be examining everything at once. Naruto had the odd sense he was being measured against a scale he had not been made aware of, a standard he hasn't known existed. And it rankled. Shock smoothed to a scowl, posture straightened to aggression, and it triggered a shadow across the stranger's expression. Scrutinizing shifted to disdain, and the stranger's attention flicked away as if Naruto no longer existed.
Naruto shoved his hands into his pockets, fiddling with a bit of change in a hidden bit of nerves, and stalked into the gallery. It was interesting, the way patrons shifted away from the kid in the street clothes, and then huddled in as they actually looked and caught a familiar set of features, a particular posture…
Naruto didn't particularly like crowds and definitely didn't like how this one was centering around him, chattering and smiling like a flock of trained parrots. The same words came out of a dozen mouths, all asking how he knew the artist, what he thought of color schemes or compositions…
Sasuke watched them descend upon his unexpected visitor and took the time to regain control of the situation.
His ghost was real.
He knew every quirk of those lips, the furrows in that forehead. He could almost smell the mint that should be on that breath. Knew the shape the tattoo he could see peeking out between jeans and shirt, had traced it into wet acrylics, salt spilled on the table, in the dirt with the toe of a shoe…
His ghost was real, and too damn close.
"What are you doing here?"
There was too much familiarity in that phrase. It jangled along Naruto's nerves before settling and souring his temper. "You're the obsessed stalker. Shouldn't I be the one bitching at you?"
Mint on the breath, a bit of gum chewed to smother the last bits of a spicy lunch. Sasuke leaned forward, not to breath in cheap cologne and cheaper gum. He leaned forward; eyes narrowed, voice a placid façade, to finally make his demand. "Leave me alone."
The whirling spiral twisted through the fury in bright blue eyes, twisted through errant bits of hair and got tangled in a nasty scowl. "Stop painting me, you sick bastard."
The spiral twisted through the anxiety tying Sasuke's stomach in impossible knots. Stop painting? He had tried. But that…bastard…those eyes, that damn whirling bit of insanity, refused to let him alone.
It was only as his antagonist stepped back, face slack with something distressingly close to shock, that Sasuke realized he had spoken aloud.
Chapter 4: 4
It wasn't destiny; it had to be some sort of malicious fate, holding him in its talons, staring down at him from a beady eye. The romantics in the corner would be crooning about meant-to-be's, leaving Sasuke to deal with the sordid reality of his situation. His spine refused to unbend, to allow him to indulge in his curiosity and interrogate this intruder until all secrets were explained. Somewhere in there would be the answer.
There had to be another answer apart from impending insanity. Everyone knew artists were a bit touched, their attention caught somewhere between here and there. Insanity was the demon that haunted and hovered. Sasuke was determined to prove that it didn't run in families, that what had touched and twisted his brother beyond recognition would never gets its teeth into him.
Which was why he couldn't indulge, not even for an instant. He couldn't verify the texture of blond hair, or trace the angle of cheekbones.
Sasuke curled his face into a sneer. Disdain danced along his tongue, a smokescreen against any other emotion that might try and sneak free as he spoke. "You caught my eye once, so I painted." Caught his eye somewhere between sleeping and waking. Caught his eye and impelled his attention. "If it is money you want…"
Naruto grimaced slightly. Money, while technically being something Naruto really could use a little more of, the thought of taking it from this…bastard really grated on Naruto's pride. "I don't want any money. Just…quit it. And leave me alone."
Naruto leaned close in his ire, hands aggressively placed on his hips, eyes narrowed and forehead furrowed. Sasuke felt his fingers twitch for a brush. This was a piece he hadn't painted before, and aspect of the whole that had eluded him. Anger was thin layers of paint, the details scratched through with fingernails- harsh and sketchy. It was heavy with reds, hot with orange and yellow…
And Naruto was backing away, distancing himself from the intensity of those dark eyes. He felt dissected, devoured…connected to and claimed by this stranger. "You are one screwed up bastard." It was a definite retreat, an attempt to get himself as far away from that weirdo and all his fucked up paintings as possible. But Naruto did swipe one of the cards off of the little table set up near the door.
The palette was a smudged mess of fingerprints and blended corners. Old paint had dried, partially hidden by new accumulations. A cup of coffee gathered a thin film across its forgotten surface where it sat on the counter, beside the creamer that had long since gone warm and bad.
Sasuke gathered paint on the pads of his fingers, blending and spreading, dragging the nail of his pinky along behind for emphasis, for detail. He needed to get the lines at the corners of the eyes just right, needed to blend the blues of the eye exactly so, darkening just a bit, pulling the lids down low into a subtly threatening expression. A dab of red smudged into each iris. Red traced a whirling wound across abdominal muscles where the tattoo usually settled. That damn spiral, traced in red.
Fractals splintered the background, and a quiet fury focused the fore…
Sasuke frowned, a headache snatching his attention and destroying his focus. He was back in the present, drying paint itching on his arm, his stomach aching with hunger.
Any second how he expected the painting in front of him to bare its teeth in the feral cousin of a proper smile.
He took the initiative and smiled first.
Chapter 5: 5
The card rested amidst the old bills and tacky birthday cards, drawing his attention every time Naruto passed the table. He could have thrown it out. Used it as a coaster for a sloppily poured cup of coffee. Held it into the last working burner of the stove and watched the little flames eat it alive.
Instead his hands clenched every time that small, prim piece of card paper fussed its way out of obscurity. Naruto wasn't naïve enough to believe the number at the bottom was a direct line to his tormentor, or that the address listed was anything more than an office inevitable staffed by some overdressed, unimpressed clerk. He scratched his stomach and scowled, testing out his fiercest early morning expression.
It segued into a yawn, pulling all the spite and vinegar from his posture. So some hotshot artist was obsessed. So what.
Quietly calling himself every derogatory name he had ever had to smile away, Naruto wandered out to find a payphone.
It was nothing more than a note left on his desk, a tiny slip of paper with a name and an address.
Sasuke glared at it, and wondered what had possessed the family secretary to pass on what was probably nothing more than a desperate attempt from an irritating fan.
It was nothing.
Movie night at Hinata's place was a bit creepy, seeing as there were paintings stashed in thee damnedest of places. Nothing like walking into the downstairs bathroom to take a piss and seeing a portrait of yourself settled between toilette and the wall.
Honestly, he wanted to find where she had stashed the one Shikamaru kept mentioning. The way he smirked when he asked after it, the way Hinata blushed furiously, inevitably spilling a bit of whatever she was holding, made him more than a little curious and a bit suspicious.
But every bit of yellow paint, every dab of blue, made him jingle the change in his pocket.
Maybe tomorrow he would call again.
They were all on the fridge; held up by bland magnets, greeting him every time he went in search of a drink, a container of leftovers. The same name, the inevitable address. Never anything more, no message, no request. He had given up interrogating the secretary. She had nothing more to offer.
Sasuke fingered one of the slips of paper, running his finger across the address, tracing the name with a fingernail.
Leave me alone had been the order, eyes narrowed, teeth bared.
"Why wont you leave me alone?"
It was cologne he smelled first, something expensive and musky, desperately clawing at the odor of old ramen and clothes slightly mildewed hung on the line across his living room. It was as alien as the man standing on the slanted landing, face impassive, carefully not touching anything.
Against his better judgment, Naruto offered a crooked smile. "Hi."
Sasuke felt traitorous lips twitch upwards in answer. That expression was much more infectious in person- more supple and invasive when not set and dried on canvas. Sasuke felt his fingers twitch, and shoved his hands into pockets.
Naruto raised an eyebrow at the fairly defensive posturing, the lack of a greeting. "So. Well, we had a pretty shitty start back there. I wasn't going to apologize, and wasn't going to ask for one from you!" Naruto rushed the words out as he watched Sasuke's shoulders hitch up and back aggressively, tried to be as inoffensive as possible. "Shit, man, do you want to come in? It's not much but its better than posturing out in the hall like a bunch of dogs."
"Sure." The words had slipped free before Sasuke could think to decline. He wanted nothing to do with this expressive man or his cluttered home. He didn't belong in this sagging building with its invasive creaks and equally oppressive silences.
But the way Naruto smiled as he passed through the threshold…
That was an emotion he was not comfortable examining
Chapter 6: 6
The couch had a slant that suggested it had seen better days, but was covered with a blanket that was trying to be cheerful enough for the entire hemisphere. Colors clashed and tangled through its tight weave, and the result was as mesmerizing as it was painful. Sasuke stood in the center of the living room, leaning to the side to avoid a white shirt with what could have been a bloodstain across the left side that was slowly drying and developing colonies of tenacious mildew. There wasn't near enough airflow for laundry, or to get rid of all the little smells a person created simply by living.
Oil pants would be appropriate. He could coax all the colors, the way they seemed to blend together at the edges, into a background suitable for highlighting Naruto's smile and horrific posture. That smile was new, almost shy, the lips full and eyes bright. Sasuke tried to memorize every line, every shadow…
Naruto liked cheap beer, and placed two cans on a scratched coffee table, while smiling up at Sasuke. "The place is a wreck, I know. Hinata is always harassing me to clean but I just never get around to it…"
Sasuke blinked, trying to concentrate on Naruto's voice rather than the images shifting and sliding through his head. A bit of red there, a warm brown…
It was a waking dream shifting and sliding through each heartbeat, trying to unmoor him from hard-won reality.
This was dangerous, the edge to Naruto's smile that suggested he sensed something was not quite right, the way Sasuke was inclined to lean in close and inhale deeply of a musk he could not possibly remember. It was a bit too much, sensation slipping into sensory overload. So mundane a scene, two young men sitting down with beer, to elicit such panic.
It was the panic that decided it. Sasuke was nothing if not proud. He had to be. It was the rope holding him close, the pattern and expectation that kept him in the world around and from sliding within.
The beer can was slick, perspiring as much as Sasuke. Sasuke's lip curled into a reflexive sneer as he settled back, the couch groaning in protest.
They regarded each other in a strange sort of silence, artist and muse, each trying to find that one piece that would make this social puzzle make sense.
Naruto, apparently, was not one for caution or any of the other niceties that kept society plodding politely forward. "So why the hell do you paint me? I mean, I know you said you saw me once, but honestly, I don't buy that. I am damn generic. Seriously. So what gives?"
"I dreamed you."
The words were out before Sasuke processed the inclination to speak. They cluttered the air, a miasma of honestly that was unfamiliar and awkward. Sasuke waited in terror for the laughter, for the startled fear that would shift to wary glances and a sense of being humored.
Instead Naruto's face split into a toothy grin. "Cool."