Disclaimer: Naruto does not belong to me.
Chapter Twenty: Serenity
The man that was sprawled on the couch opened his eyes slowly, basking in the quietness of the house. His eyes, ebony depths, held a trace of confusion as he slowly sat up.
The house had been quiet before.
On bright days like these, Itachi would generously give the household help the day off. Then, Itachi would go to work while he wandered around the house, basking in the silent serenity.
Everything was the same, except Itachi wasn't here. Naruto wasn't here.
He was alone.
On days like these, he would have found Naruto in the library. His favorite chair was an overstuffed one that Father had always sat in, placed right next to the tall glass window. Naruto would look up at him when he entered; giving him a smile that instantly brightened the sober atmosphere of the room.
"Come here, Sasuke! Sit next to me!"
He would walk over. His footsteps echoing softly in the large room, filled with yellowed books, cobwebs that had missed the wrath of a duster, and quiet memories that was still left to be remembered.
"Naruto, what are you reading?"
Naruto would scoot over, giving him space to sit next to him in the large armchair. Sasuke would sit next to him and Naruto would instantly lean against him, his blue eyes bright with happiness.
"Look. It's a romance novel. I found it in the back of the library."
"…A romance novel?"
Naruto laughed at the look on his face before snuggling closer to him.
"It's about two people. The woman captures the heart of a compassionless man. But the woman is cursed, and she cannot love the man."
"She does not know how to love."
"That shouldn't matter."
"Sasuke! You're not romantic at all!"
He blinked, zoning back to the present and shook his head before getting up onto his feet. At a time like this, and he was remembering the past. It was a past that had left him with high hopes for the future.
He heard that same voice calling him again. His lips thinned out in a tight line as he ascended the stairs to the library.
He paused at the head of the stairs, fingers brushing against the banister as he walked slowly toward the double doors that were closed.
But they weren't. One of them was ajar, beckoning him with a sliver of sunshine that spread along the ground. With a deep breath, he pushed the door wide opened and his heart fluttered in his chest as the sunshine coming through the window momentarily blinded him.
"Naruto!" He called, his voice echoing in the dusty room.
He placed a foot into the room, than another. His eyes roamed the through the library before landing on the overstuffed armchair by the window. With a sigh, he walked towards it and sat down unceremoniously.
He closed his eyes and tilted his head back, letting it rest against the soft material of the upholstery.
"Wow, it's so dusty."
His eyes shot open, staring at the figure before him. His fingers tightened on the armrests as he scanned the room quickly before falling back onto the speaker.
He stood in front of him, the sunshine falling onto his golden hair and his blue eyes matching the color of the sky outside the tall window.
"Naruto," he croaked.
Naruto paused in his examination of the library and turned to face him. He tilted his head slightly, out of habit when someone called his name. A questioning glance was directed at him and Sasuke slowly reached forward.
Naruto, still puzzled, did the same. He extended his arm and held his hand in mid-air, watching as Sasuke's fingers closed over his.
"Warm." Sasuke whispered, his eyes wide as Naruto continued to watch him. "You're warm."
"Why wouldn't I be?" Naruto laughed.
Sasuke got onto his feet and pulled. Naruto tumbled into his arms, after being tugged off-balance. He tightened his arms around him, breathing in the scent of his hair. Naruto was in his arms. He was warm.
Warm like the sunshine.
"I love you," he murmured, placing a soft kiss on Naruto's forehead. "I love you so much."
"I love you too, Sasuke." Naruto responded, quietly. Naruto pulled back and placed his hands on his face, his thumbs smoothing over his cheekbones lovingly. "I have to tell you something, so don't be mad at me."
"I'll never be mad at you." Sasuke argued, staring into his eyes.
"Liar," he laughed as he leaned forward and kissed him softly on the lips. "You'll be mad."
Naruto paused and looked up, meeting his eyes with his sad gaze.
Suddenly the room became quieter and Naruto voice sounded far away.
"...Because when you wake up, I'll be gone."
His dark eyes snapped open, and he frowned as he was temporarily blinded by the sunlight streaming in through the tall window.
He exhaled softly when he realized that he had fallen asleep in the old armchair. The sun was warm. Its rays embraced him like a lover would do.
He yawned and got to his feet, stretching his arms high above him.
"Sasuke, I love you."
Then, he turned and walked back toward the doors.
He glanced once behind him, before stepping out into the hallway and closed the door behind him.
The library stood silent once again as the sunshine shone through the window.
Sakura sat idly as she watched Ino flit about, distributing last minute orders to her division. The blonde had changed so much from the old Ino she once knew. Not only has she become a successful journalist, she was also very strong. In fact everyone in the Hime gang was strong.
I envy you.
"Sakura?" Ino turned around, her long ponytail whipping slightly in the sudden motion. In trance, she reached out and grasped a few tendrils of her hair from the ponytail that fell over a shoulder.
"Ino," she murmured as she studied those pale strands before looking up and meeting her best friend's eyes. "I won't lose to you."
Ino's eyes widened before she gave a short laugh under her breath and placed a hand on her shoulder. "I'm glad to hear it."
Sakura dropped her hand back into her lap and leaned back in the chair she currently sat in. "How are things with Shikamaru?"
Ino's eyes darkened and she scoffed. "He's lazy." Ino's eyes shifted as she looked away and stared hard at a spot on the ground. "We haven't really talked from our last fight. Sometimes he calls me, but I won't answer."
"Why?" Sakura gripped the fabric of her skirt. "Why won't you let someone love you?"
"Sakura…" Ino sighed.
"I wish…" Sakura whispered and faltered as her voice cracked. She licked her lips and tried again. "I wish I had someone to love me too."
"You're not thinking of Sasuke again, are you?" Ino asked with a frown. Sakura looked up with tears in her eyes.
"It's just that, he always took care of me," she choked. "And I tried to make him happy ever since Naruto left but…but…I just wish he would just smile at me. I want him to smile at me like he smiles at Naruto!"
"Their bond has always been the deepest." Ino replied, slowly. "Sasuke knows Naruto like Naruto knows Sasuke."
"I wish I was stronger, Ino." Sakura finally admitted. "So I can protect them and keep them next to me. I wish I was strong like you."
"Sakura," Ino knelt down and placed a hand over her clasped ones. "You are strong too. All you have to do is believe in yourself."
"Ino." Sakura looked up with a start.
"I am not strong, Sakura. I fear being rejected and for Shikamaru…" Ino trailed off for a moment. "I don't want to lose him. I'm afraid that one day, he might get killed or I'll get killed. I don't want either of us to suffer."
"You're so troublesome."
Ino jolted up onto her feet and gasped as strong arms wrapped around her waist, pulling her backwards. She looked up and stared into Shikamaru's face.
"Why didn't you say that in the first place?" he asked, as he turned her around. Ino closed her eyes and buried her nose into his chest, inhaling the familiar smell of his leather jacket. "Even if you keep running, I'll find a way to catch you."
"I hate you," she whispered as Shikamaru's arms tightened around her.
Sakura sighed and stood up, walking away from the couple. Preoccupied with her thoughts, she didn't notice that she had walked into someone's path and collided with them.
"Are you all right?" Hands reached out to steady her and she looked up to see…the thickest eyebrows ever. His outfit was made with a green lightweight material of an open shirt and long pants. Tied around his middle was a white sash, its ends falling just below his knees.
"I-I'm fine," she managed as she forced her voice to work.
"You should watch where you are going." Another voice cut in. Sakura glanced to the left and tensed when she met a familiar pair of green eyes.
"Gaara." The first man frowned. "That's not nice."
Gaara turned away in disinterest as he spotted his sister from afar. "Let's go."
"I'll see you later." The man told her. "Gaara isn't really like that; he's just worried about the war."
Sakura swallowed and allowed a hysterical giggle escape her mouth.
"I don't think he'll like that if he hears that," she said. The man grinned, flashing a set of perfect white teeth and winked.
"I'm Rock Lee from the Lotus division of the Shuuken." The man introduced.
"Shuuken?" Sakura repeated, slowly.
"Oh, that's why the Drylanders used to be called when it was the branch of the Kazekage clan." Lee explained.
"I think…that Shuuken sounds much better." Sakura smiled.
"I think so too." Lee laughed. "When this is all over, do you want to grab lunch or something?"
Sakura stared at him and lowered her eyes shyly. "I think I'd like that."
He didn't know if it was the darkness of the confined mansion that changed Naruto or it was the true characteristics that he had been masking all this time. From the first time he had seen Naruto and talked to him, there had been a gradual change in the blonde's attitude.
"Where are we going?"
"Because I want pancakes."
"Fuck, you dragged me out of bed for that?"
Naruto was not polite anymore, or coldly polite in his case. He had become crude and snappish whenever someone talked to him.
"You needed some sun."
Naruto cursed colorfully and stared out the window as the car drove past a few more streets until it pulled up in front of a small diner. They stepped out of the car and Kimimaro's gaze lingered on the seal seen through the opened collar that Naruto had left unbuttoned.
"You've changed Naruto," he commented as they slid into a booth, once inside. He noticed that the waitress that had served him when he with Haku wasn't here today.
"Why did you bring me here?" Naruto asked, leaning back upon the vinyl upholstery. He stared at his menu and raised an eyebrow. "Itachi was the only one who liked pancakes in the family." He turned to stare out the window, the menu drooping lifelessly in his hands.
Kimimaro cleared his throat and Naruto turned back to him and closed his menu.
"It's my treat." Kimimaro offered in an attempt to appease the blonde.
"It better be." He snorted. "There's no way in hell I'll pay since you dragged me out of bed."
The waitress came over with her notepad, her auburn curls tucked into a neat bun on the top of her head. Kimimaro ordered two breakfast specials and coffee.
"Orochimaru is finalizing his plans, are you ready?" Kimimaro asked, quietly. Naruto glanced at him out of the corner of his eye before sliding his gaze back to the window. "Are you willing to be his scapegoat?"
"The world is beautiful, don't you think?" Naruto asked as his expression softened. "Sitting inside this diner, you're in a different world with a different perspective. The windows make it so that you are observing and no matter how much you long to be out there, you can't."
"Naruto…" Kimimaro frowned.
"Death would be wonderful," he continued with a faraway look in his eyes. "I'll welcome its peaceful darkness. It will be like a sleep that I don't have to wake from."
"What about now?" Kimimaro asked.
"A nightmare," he responded, turning his head so that his eyes could focus on his. A cold chill went down Kimimaro's spine as he gazed into those eyes. They were filled with the haunting cold of despair, pain, and anger.
The waitress came back with their breakfast specials, setting the small plates of pancakes on the side before setting down another plate that contained eggs, sausage, and hash browns. Kimimaro thanked her while she poured them each a cup of coffee and walked away.
"Let's eat." Kimimaro said, picking up his fork. Naruto did the same and drenched his pancakes in syrup. "Are you willing to kill your brother?"
Naruto paused, his fork speared with two fluffy pancake triangles in the air. The syrup glistened on the surface, threatening to slide down the end of the fork and onto Naruto's fingers.
Kimimaro took a sip of coffee from his mug and placed it back on the table. He sat back in the diner's cheap vinyl booth and studied the blonde's expression carefully.
"Do you love him?" he asked softly, trying to use a different tactic.
Naruto raised his eyes from his fork, not minding as the syrup coated the tips of his fingers from being held motionless for so long. When he met his gaze, Kimimaro was startled.
"I don't know how to love." Naruto smiled.
It was a deliciously fake smile, coated with a confection of lies that made up the mask that he had seen Naruto wear before.
It was the mask that made up the Naruto that everyone knew.
Not the Naruto that sat in front of him.
This Naruto was crying inside.
The atmosphere was tense in the meeting room as Tsunade strolled in. She breathed out slowly as she approached the only empty seat at the table, her honey-brown eyes tracing the solemn faces around her.
"Orochimaru is currently overseas until the end of the week." Tsunade said. "Gaara has given us a map of the inside of the house and its surroundings."
"Did anyone see you?" It was Ino's father who had spoken up, Yamanaka Inoshi.
"Yes." Gaara replied in a passive tone. "But they were quickly eliminated."
"What about the bodies?" Inoshi demanded.
"I took care of it." Gaara said. His voice was once again, emotionless.
"What is the plan?" Sasuke's voice cut in smoothly through air, silencing all the murmurs that had rose at Gaara's statement.
"We will move in tomorrow night." Tsunade said, wearily. "And take down Shinja's headquarters."
"And Naruto?" Sasuke asked, softly. Tsunade turned her head and met Sasuke's eyes.
"If he becomes a threat, then he will be eliminated."
Sasuke's turned his gaze toward the center of the table, studying the spiral craved into the wood. His fingers twitched, grazing the surface of the table as if he could feel the power that radiated outwards from it.
The next words that left his lips sent a chill in the air.
"Leave him to me."