Chapter 1: Always Read The Authors' Notes
Sasuke burst through the front door of his home, panting. Outside was a nightmare of blood and death and fire. He'd been sick once already, but he had to come here; he had to make sure his parents were alright, even if the whole of the world was now a gore-soaked horror. He found Itachi waiting for him, a tantō in one hand, blood running down the blade. "Are they . . ." Sasuke stopped when he saw the familiar form lying on the stairs up to the second level. It wasn't completely familiar, since his mother normally had her head attached to her neck. He fell to his knees and gagged up the little bile left in him and felt the dry heaves take over.
"Sasuke." Itachi's voice was harder than he'd ever heard it before. His big brother had looked far older than his thirteen years in the moment before he'd been facing the floor. "There isn't time for that. I need you to listen to me." The world swam into sharp clarity for Sasuke as he forced himself to raise his head. Itachi was shaking his head, the pinwheels in his eyes whirling. "I can't do this. Tsukuyomi."
The quiet of the village was shattered when a blood-stained eight-year-old dashed from the Uchiha compound. "ANBU!" A figure in black materialized out of the shadows, blank-faced porcelain. "I'm to tell you that 'the branches are pruned and you need to take me to the Hokage.'" The boy made a few hand gestures as well.
The ANBU was about to move when there was a roar and a gigantic figure made of red chakra reared up, towering over the village. Its three arms flexed as one drew a sword and another slammed a giant mirror down in front of an explosion. "You!" the ANBU gestured to a passing chūnin. "Take this boy to the Hokage at the tower."
It took all of a second for the man to decide that being as far as possible from the giant was a good plan and grabbed Sasuke, throwing him over a shoulder and dashing off for the tower at the center of the village.
Sarutobi was in the process of putting on his helmet when there was a knock at his window. Since this was the tenth floor, that would normally be an oddity, but this was a ninja village and most ninja felt that doors were something that happened to other people. However, he was not expecting a terrified chūnin to drop a tiny boy on his floor. He was not expecting for that boy to be Uchiha Sasuke. And he most definitely did not expect the words that came out of the boy's mouth.
"The branches are pruned. I'm to tell you that Shimura Danzō ordered my brother to take drastic measures to prevent revolt without your authority and the attack was aided by Uchiha Madara."
There was another explosion. "Right. Hold that thought." The Hokage pointed at the chūnin. "Congratulations on your first S-rank secret. Now take him downstairs and get him some warm milk and a bed. I can deal with that after I sort out whatever is blowing up my village. Inu! I want the subject suitable for long-term storage."
It was a day for the unexpected, it seemed. The Hokage stared at the corpse of Uchiha Itachi. The boy had clearly gone well beyond his prodigious limits. One hand was clutching a crushed, bloody thing that looked like it had a pinwheel in it. Somehow, despite the wounds that some poor medic was going to have to catalogue for the official report, his ANBU captain had managed to scrawl out a few short instructions on the ground beside him in blood. It was the least he could do, since the boy had given everything for the village.
Uchiha Sasuke had his face buried in the hospital pillow. He'd been taught from the cradle that crying was a sign of weakness, but everything was just coming home to him and he couldn't help it. He hadn't cried for the first day or so afterwards. Everything had just been numb. He'd delivered his message to the Hokage and collapsed on a bed. He wasn't sure how long he had sat in silence, just staring at a wall while the scene he'd found in his house replayed over and over. He'd listened to what the people who came in said, but it was all happening to someone else.
At least he'd had three more days with his brother. He didn't know how his brother had done it, but they'd spent time for him to lose it in shock and to panic and even to shout in anger and still sit and talk. There was so much to try and remember and he knew he couldn't forget any of it if he wanted to carry out his brother's wishes. He'd never get to be better than Itachi now, but he could at least fulfill his big brother's instructions.
Now, though, it was really registering that everything was over. While they'd been in that red and black world, he'd still had his brother, so everything might still have been okay. But now his brother was dead and being honored as a hero. He had no one at all left. And so despite what his father had told him, he cried.
He didn't know how long he'd been at it when there was a sound at the doorway. Sasuke looked up to see one of his classmates, the Hyūga, poking her head in. "What do you want?" he tried to sound angry, but the sniffles cut the bite from his words.
"W . . . well, I heard some-someone crying." She poked her fingers together, looking at them instead of him. "C-crying al-alone is ho-horrible and I wanted to-to see if y-you were alright."
"I'm not!" snapped Sasuke, getting a bit more feeling into the words. "My whole family is dead! Butchered by my bother!" He glared. "Why are you crying?"
"B-bec-cause th-that's awful!" Hinata's eyes had gone straight passed tearing and into leaking down her cheeks. "I'm so s-sorry f-f-for you!"
Her tears set him off again and he bit his lip to keep from sobbing in front of her, eyes focused on his lap to hide his eyes as they overflowed. That was why he was shocked to feel a pair of arms around him. He stiffened. "D-don't hold it in," she managed, sniffling. "Jus-just l-l-let it out; l-like p-p-poison." Then she added quietly, "I know."
What else could he do? He let it out.
The girl who'd fallen into a half-doze with him when they'd tired themselves out snapped awake. "C-coming father!" She disentangled herself from him and went to the doorway, turning to give him a quick bow. "I-I'll see y-you in cl-class?"
He did see her in class, but not for the three weeks he spent in the company of several ANBU and his newly appointed therapist. It was thanks to the man's advice that Sasuke's first action when he walked into the classroom was to walk directly to the back, ignoring the squealing girls and plop himself down in the chair next to Hinata. Aside from a "meep" there was no response.
"Want to come over to my place after classes?" he asked.
"Huh?" Hinata's head snapped around to face him.
"Maybe spar or train or something? My therapist says I need to spend time with people my own age. You're literally the only person our age I know who I don't also hate." He gestured with his head to the girls who were glaring daggers at Hinata.
"Good. My therapist said I needed to make a friend."
She looked up to see that Sasuke had settled himself into the chair next to her again. "Y-yes?"
"My therapist says I can't just tell someone they're my friend. Apparently I need to ask."
"He seems to know everything about how people interact, so I'm taking his word for it. He has more friends than I do, anyway. Want to be my friend?"
"I-I've never h-ha-had a f-friend b-befo-fore."
"Is that a 'yes'? I'm pretty sure he's going to want a definite, positive response here."
"Y—" she cut herself off and took a deep breath. "Yes?" A few weeks with someone whose response to her presence wasn't contempt was helping, he had made it clear that she needed to get over the stuttering. It happened a lot, but she was working on it.
"So, my therapist says I need to ask you if there's anything you'd like to do after school instead of just going to train."
"That was me asking you."
"Oh." She considered the question. "S-sometimes I p-press flowers?"
"How do you do that?"
"So here we are." Sasuke's voice was dry, but clear of actual disapproval. "In a field of flowers. Now what?"
"Well, you have to pick one."
Sasuke pointed at a random flower. "That one."
"That one?" Hinata seemed a little more confident here, in her comfort zone. "That's the one that calls to you and tells you it's the best?"
"No. It's just the one I pointed to. What makes a 'best' flower? I mean, it's not like it has any use as a weapon."
Hinata blinked. "I guess there are some with thorns?"
"I'll find one."
A few minutes later, Sasuke was holding a flower that had a few small thorns on its stem. "This was the most weaponized one I could find. What next?"
Hinata produced a pair of books, offering one to him. "Place the flower in the book," she instructed as she did so with the bloom she had selected, waiting for him to do the same. "Now you close the book."
"Now you wait for it to dry out."
Sasuke stared at the two journals. "Why?"
"Well, they're easier to store that way and it preserves them so you can look at them again after they would normally have rotted."
"Oh." Sasuke continued to stare at the journals. "Well, that seems to have taken only a short period of time. Want to go train?"
Hinata shrugged. "Sure."
Sasuke sat next to Hinata. "Good morning, Hinata." His therapist had told him that proper greetings were important and Hinata seemed to enjoy them. He didn't understand it, but he knew Yamanaka-san had a far better grasp on human interaction than him, so he assumed the man knew what he was talking about. "I've been talking to my therapist."
"You do that every day, don't you?"
"Yeah. Yamanaka-san has been letting our sessions get shorter, but he wants to see me daily still. Anyway, I was wondering if we can go straight to training after school today or if you're going to go on stealth-training again."
Hinata meeped, a sound she had almost completely removed from her library of vocal noises over the last six months. "St-st-stealth t-training?" she squeaked. Her stutter had made great strides as well, but had now emerged again.
"Well, I figured that must be what it is. I thought it was a good idea, so I did it too one day, followed you the whole time. You need to work on spotting tails."
"It's got to be stealth training, right? Because Yamanaka-san says that what you were doing was stalking otherwise and that's bad."
Hinata's face was bright red. "And he says that only one friend is great, but that I need to expand my circle of acquaintances among our 'cohort'—his word—beyond one. So this'll kill two genin with one kunai. HEY NARUTO! C'MERE!"
The blond tromped over. "Whatever it is, I didn't do it!"
"I'm sure you did, Naruto, but I was more thinking that you should come with me and Hinata after school for training."
"I don't want to be the punching-bag again."
"That's what training is for."
"The last time someone asked me to taijutsu training, I got hit a lot."
Sasuke looked at Hinata. "That sounds like taijutsu training to me."
"And I wasn't allowed to hit them."
Another look. "Yep. Sounds like taijutsu training." The Uchiha had believed in tough . . . something. Yamanaka-san said he hated to speak ill of the dead, but that his kin had not been providing a loving or nurturing home environment.
"I mean they said I wasn't allowed to hit them."
"Oh." A third look. "No, that's not taijutsu training."
"Is that what's going to happen today?"
"Have you miraculously become competent at taijutsu since yesterday?"
"Seriously, never mind the execution, your form is atrocious."
"I use the same style as the two of you!"
"I doubt it. Hinata uses her family's style to take advantage of their ability to see chakra networks and I use what I learned of the Uchiha Interceptor style, which will work a lot better for me once I unlock my Sharingan. But you don't even have the Academy style right."
"Yes I do!"
"Why're you sitting over there?"
Naruto gave Sasuke a look that seemed to say 'where else would I sit?'
"You sit with us!"
Naruto trotted over. "Oh. Okay."
"How are you not tired?" demanded Sasuke. He and Hinata sported bruises and signs of fatigue. "We went way too late last night."
Naruto shrugged. "I don't get tired." He also lacked any of the bruising they were showing.
"Good afternoon, Yamanaka-san."
Inoichi sat back in his chair and looked over his charge. The boy had made great strides over the last six months or so. There weren't just rough edges left, but some seriously jagged bits, but it was a vast improvement. He'd been considering letting the number of sessions drop a bit, but Sasuke seemed to be responding well to having someone to check in with on how human interactions worked. Thankfully, the boy didn't show signs of sociopathy, just a complete lack of any foundational knowledge. "How are you doing, Sasuke-kun?"
"Pretty good. I think I cleared a couple of objectives yesterday."
There was also the fact that he tended to think of any goal as an objective, but that wasn't too odd for a ninja. "Oh?"
"Yeah. I fixed Hinata's stalking, made a new friend, and did a good deed all at once."
"Good, good . . ."
"Yeah. I made Naruto come train with us."
And Inoichi realized he had spoken too soon.
"Yeah?" the blond hadn't needed to be told to come over and sit with Sasuke and Hinata. It was probably only that Sasuke was acting as a barrier that kept Hinata down to minor blushing.
"So, I was talking with my therapist and he says that I forgot how the whole friendship thing works. I'm supposed to ask you if you want to be friends." He paused and realized that apparently the question embedded in his words had been missed. "Do you want to be friends with me and . . ." he paused and felt very proud of himself. "Hinata, do you want Naruto to be your friend also?" At the frantic nod, he smiled. " . . . and Hinata?"
Naruto's eyes teared up. "I've never had a friend before."
"Is that a 'yes'?"
"You seem to be collecting us, Sasuke-kun," murmured Hinata as Naruto tackled the boy in a brutal hug while chanting 'yes!' over and over.
"Naruto, I've been meaning to ask: where's your after-training meal?"
"You burn a lot of calories training. You more than either of us. I don't see you eating during school, so you really need to eat after training."
"Ch." Naruto scoffed and shook his head. "Like I can afford two meals a day."
Sasuke glanced at Hinata's determined face and shook his head slightly.
They'd scaled back the meetings and Inoichi felt pretty good about it, despite the occasional setbacks. Sasuke had come a long way from when they had started. The presence of a second friend—a second person who looked to him for guidance—had done wonders for drawing him at least a bit further out of his shell.
"I was wondering . . . would it be right of me to give Naruto some money for food?"
Inoichi's eyes narrowed. His instinctive reaction was that someone was trying to take advantage of his patient, but while Sasuke might still struggle with how to appropriately interact with others, his struggles were almost invariably in opening up, not being too open. "Why do you ask? Did he ask you for money?"
"No. But when I asked him about having food after training, he said he couldn't afford two meals a day. I'm pretty sure that's not healthy, Yamanaka-san."
This was unexpected. "A good question, Sasuke. Let me think about it. Stop by my office tomorrow and I'll let you know."
So here's one of the things we've been working on. Life's gotten busy for us recently and Spoon's been ill, so we've had less writing time. I should have more time to write in a couple weeks. We'll see if that translates to faster updates.
(A/N 2 John)
Sasuke knows Itachi killed everyone, but officially, it was the Masked Man. Just want to be clear here. Be in the habit of reading these. It's not just a diary. This is where you'll find information on what's likely getting published next and any major changes to plot that we've made outside of the apparent.