Esprit of the Prodigious
Note: A random, vicious plot bunny attacked me and I just had to write this. There are some psychological terms in there and whatnot, but nothing too scientific. No pairings, people. Reviews would be love!
Esprit of the Prodigious
There is a place.
It's quiet and closed to the outside world and its bustling public. Red and white fans decorate every outstanding surface, faded and cracked beneath years of dust and neglect. No one walks its grounds but one.
There is a boy.
He's quiet, but nowhere near as quiet as his surroundings. A red and white fan decorates his back, clean and vibrant from frequent washing and careful ironing. He is the one who walks the grounds of that empty place.
There is a crack.
It's splitting the fan-painted stone outside the house. There is a rusty kunai embedded in the centre. Rain and wind corrode the metal of the weapon until its rust runs down the point and onto the faded, cracked fan, spreading downwards like blood as the years pass.
There is another crack.
This one is in the boy. It splits down the middle of his mind, between his consciousness and unconsciousness, allowing them to bleed into each other. The separate continents of his psyche, his ego, his id, his super-ego—they jostle and bump as rage, turmoil and grief simmer continually beneath that crack.
The id is comprised of instincts and harbors his rage. Irrational and brutal, the rage is abnormally potent and a result of a single, traumatic experience. To keep him from kicking the poor cats that occasionally wander onto his property, his ego kicks in. Mediating between the id, super-ego and the external world, it suppresses his urge to inflict harm and finds balance between primitive urges, morality, and reality. Lastly, the super-ego, acting as his conscience, maintains that sense of morality and warps that desire to harm into empathy.
With this empathy, he tosses scraps of food near the mailbox every night after dinner.
But that crack is still there, causing delays and forming blockades between the rage and its mediators.
He feels it and rubs at it, right at the top of his head beneath his hair, rubbing and rubbing every night till the hair falls out. He thinks it hurts but he's not sure, somewhat worried that it's brain cancer and hoping it's not because he has yet to grow up and kill his older brother.
The boy wants revenge. No amount of ego or super-ego can stifle that desire.
The boy is twelve. He lives alone. He feeds stray cats. He wants to kill his remaining family. He doesn't want friends. He has them anyway. He doesn't want admirers. He has them anyway. He fears the invisible crack. He hates it when he cries. He hates it when he laughs. He likes it when the cats eat from his hand. He abhors patriotism. He abhors the ignorant who don't know when to shut up. He doesn't respect soldiers. He doesn't respect himself. He doesn't care about war. He doesn't care about peace. He doesn't care about your opinion. He loves nothing and no one.
There is a place, there is a boy, there is a crack, and there is a crack in the boy.
There is Uchiha Sasuke.
Looking at his grades and acknowledging his genius, it's difficult to believe that Uchiha Sasuke has a poor memory. His memories of things that have nothing to do with ninjutsu, his team, or revenge either get stored too deep, where he can't find them, or not stored at all.
He can't remember things like where he keeps the detergent, whether he changed his sheets or not, whether he went to the grocery store the day before, whether his hair has always looked that way, or why he'd bought that can opener.
It was only when he rummaged through his kitchen cabinet and found a can of cat food did the can opener's presence make sense.
The sheets are changed only when the musk gets too strong, the floor is swept only when he starts slipping on sheets of dust, and the calendar pages are turned only when a lost loved one's birthday approaches.
But there is one household chore Sasuke never neglects.
Striding into the kitchen on a Saturday morning, he remembers to put out a can of cat food when he sees the cats peering expectantly at him through the window. After that, he automatically rolls up his sleeves and kneels before the cabinet beneath the kitchen sink. From there, he gets a bucket and a coarse dish sponge, reaching again for a bottle of dish soap.
When he finds the bottle empty, he stares and stares at it, racking his brain.
He bought extras and put them somewhere. He's sure of it.
"I know," he murmurs to himself suddenly, putting the empty bottle back. "Kaasan keeps them under the bathroom sink."
His memory aid—recalling older memories of the way his mother did things. He mirrors her in more than just looks, inheriting her quirks, habits, likes and dislikes. Sasuke tries not to recall too much, because he's only twelve and susceptible to doing what he hates most.
Rising, he fills the bucket with water and carries it along with his sponge to the bathroom, where he finds the stacked bottles of soap just as he left them.
Birds twitter in the trees just beyond the high walls surrounding the Uchiha property. Sunlight bathes his surroundings and his sandals scrape along the rough, dirt ground as he heads towards the northern wing of the mansion.
Sliding open the door, he walks in and stops in the middle of the room, blank eyes focusing on the dark stain in the hardwood floor.
The sight used to make him nauseous but he no longer feels anything while looking at it, except for a faint sense of disturbance. He stares at it, thinks it's not supposed to be there, and kneels near it with his bucket and soap.
The wood is cracking and rising in the middle of the floor, stained a darker brown than the rest. Its grains and swirls are bleached white from scrubbing, yet the blood remains, refusing to come out.
Sasuke continues to stare at it and thinks that he will get it out eventually. He's been scrubbing at it every Saturday since his parents were slain there and he doesn't plan on stopping. Before he commences, his fingers itch to rub that spot on his head.
Ignoring the urge, he douses the sponge in water, smears the floorboards with soap and begins scrubbing. He'll never stop. He fears that if he does, the crack in his head will widen and swallow him whole.
The disturbance he feels when seeing the blood stems from the fact that it's still there. His parents' remains have long been cremated and buried, the dust-like ashes inanimate and grey. But this blood. It's still organic. He's sure that if Tsunade took a sample and analyzed it, she'd find the wood harboring their dead cells.
His parents are nothing but dead, grey ashes, yet a blotch of their real, human blood still exists while they themselves don't.
That disturbs him.
"It's going to come out," he says reassuringly to himself, scrubbing furiously at the stain. "Decompose. Fade. Do something."
White foam coats his knuckles as he squeezes the sponge, contrasting vividly against the dark wood beneath it. There are many things Sasuke regrets. He regrets being weak. He regrets not being able to stop his brother from murdering the clan. He regrets wasting time on friends.
But as that bloodstain remains, vivid and dark beneath the soap, another regret comes to mind.
Sasuke, Mikoto says seriously. When you become a shinobi, you're bound to get cuts and scratches. Don't forget what I'm about to tell you! The secret to getting bloodstains out is…
He can't remember, and he hates himself for it.
The part that torments and aggravates him most is the fact that he can see her perfectly in his head, see her lips moving as she says those exact words, see her apron crease over her blue blouse as she kneels and raises a bottle before him.
He knows what it is. She's used it so many times before.
A fist pounds into the bloodstain, spattering foam across his face and shirt.
But it's not as important as revenge. It's not as important as power and because of that…
He can't remember.
Sasuke loves his mother.
When he hurt himself training, it was her he rushed to for treatment and empathy. When he felt neglected by his brother and father, it was her he trained with. When he looked at other mothers and their children, he felt sorry for them because he knew he had the most beautiful, strong, and kind mother in the world. The others couldn't compare.
Some hot, humid nights, he doesn't sleep and passes the dark hours sitting before the toilet, retching to the point of collapse.
He does this because his mind is his own enemy, whispering to him that if only his mother survived, the other deaths would have been bearable. Just as long as he had her.
If she had survived, he wouldn't have bothered with revenge. As long as she was alive, the rest of the Uchiha clan could go to hell.
"Forgive me, Tousan," he rasps, sweating and trembling horribly. "Forgive me, baachan. Forgive me…forgive me, please forgive me..."
Once he collapses to the cold tiles, his mind finds solace till the next time his thoughts turn traitorous.
When the people see him stride through the village, brows furrowed into a scowl and head held high, they forget that he's still just a child. They forget that he harbors memories that keep him up at night and by day make the crack split wider.
They think that he will become a fine shinobi and protect the village. In response, Sasuke wants to say that they can all go to hell and the only thing he cares about is avenging his family. But that would be rude. That would be unlike him.
Sasuke suppresses the urge to scream and sob and tear at his hair. He suppresses the urge to lay down and die, or let his hate for his brother falter and ebb into misery and grief and questions of why, why, why?
When Sasuke is with his team, he's allowed moments of bliss and forgetfulness. The id and its rage are bottled up when he's with them, although the thoughts that stem from it and run through his mind are like poison.
"I will be Hokage some day and the villagers will acknowledge me!" Naruto insists, almost daily.
Sakura rolls her eyes and Kakashi humours him. Sasuke says nothing but his mind is a plethora of cynicism and rapid, complacent thoughts.
They will acknowledge you, Naruto, because they'll have someone to depend on. They don't want to die, but they will. And you, with your status, you want respect? The Hokage will meet the same end as a beggar. You'll become the same as everyone else. Back to the earth. Back to the dirt. Back, back, back. And you'll be nothing. You are nothing. You were nothing to begin with. You were born to be food for the worms.
"We're a team! We'll do this together," he says, and Sasuke is frightened by the complacent voice in his head.
Go die. Just die. Please die. Die now. Die.
But he only smiles slightly in return, suppressing the screams because it seems to be the right thing to do. Sakura touches him on the shoulder and tries to hold his hand, unable to take a hint. He acts annoyed and brushes her off when what he really wants to do is grab her and brutally shake her till she never wants to come near him again. But he doesn't because it seems to be the wrong thing to do.
When he leaves them and heads home, the thoughts and memories creep back in, twisting and twining into the roots of his mind.
The suppressions build till the id starts to overflow, pouring over the crack and smothering the mediators. He's left brimming with rage and raw emotion, bottled only by a lack of things to set him off.
Sasuke is only twelve years old.
He is trained to be an emotionless killing machine, but that doesn't change the fact that he's naïve and susceptible to emotional pain. It doesn't change the fact that he's only twelve.
Blank, dark eyes trace calendar numbers as he tacks up the pages, coming to the month of June. It's the first day of the month. It's his mother's birthday.
He leaves the house and carries out a D-rank mission with his team, unsmiling and quiet enough to elicit a concerned look from Naruto. The provocations and insults don't work, fading before they meet his ears.
All he can hear, he realizes, bloodied fingers wrapping around thorny weeds, is the rushing of blood.
"Sasuke-kun?" Sakura says tentatively as he turns to leave. "Is everything all right?"
Sasuke thinks and answers without turning around.
"Oh…are you sure? You seem a bit distracted…"
He blinks glazed eyes, lips moving unconsciously, unaware of the tremor in his toneless voice.
"Oi, Sasuke, stop scaring Sakura-chan. What's your problem?" Naruto's voice rings out behind him, sounding like a muffled bell.
This time, Sasuke doesn't answer. He starts walking without looking back.
The id is overflowing. His breath is shortening and his hot skin seems to sweat ice. A heavy curtain falls between him and the rest of the world.
By the time he gets through the door to the house, it's pushing at his throat with enough force to make him wince. It's pushing at his eyes with enough force to make them water. It pushes at his lungs till he's gasping. It pushes at his scalp till he's grabbing fistfuls of his hair.
Calm down, calm down, calm down.
He is a shinobi. He is a genius. But he still stumbles over the rug on his way to the living room, where he collapses to his knees and looks up, fury and grief unsuppressed.
Wide, stinging eyes look up for a distraction, making the mistake of looking at the window seat. Memories stab at him like needles. His mother used to sit there and sew. She used to sew his favourite blue shirt time and time again, laughing in delight when he finally outgrew it.
But her bloodstain isn't.
Sasuke doubles over onto the carpet, giving in to the outpour of hurt and hate and sorrow.
He is an esteemed Uchiha. He's supposed to be an emotionless shinobi.
But he's only twelve years old.
Inwardly, he's amazed at how fast his cheeks become drenched with tears, how loud his sobs are in the empty house. And he at least takes comfort in the fact that there will never be anyone there to hear him doing what he abhors most.
"Kaasan," he sobs, gasping so hard that his chest aches. "Kaasan."
It hurts. He doesn't think he's felt a pain this bad since he was forced to relive his clan's termination.
Crying won't bring her back. He knows this. But oh God, he missesher so badly.
His eyes are squeezed shut so tightly he sees spots, tears still managing to stream down his face. His forehead pounds and he grips his scalp so hard his temples throb, his shaking fingers trying to keep the crack from splitting his head open. His chest heaves and his heart aches so profoundly that he sobs, the carpet doing little to stifle the devastating wails that are wrenched from his throat.
He hasn't cried like this for nearly a year. The outpour almost feels good, relieving him of burning, raging emotion. And every time he thinks he's about to stop and recover, another memory floats in and materializes before his mind's eye.
If only she'd survived. If only Itachi had spared her. If only he wasn't so weak.
Then he's starting all over again, soaking the carpet with tears and blood as he squeezes his cut fingers into fists.
Inwardly, his conscience is calm and impassive, telling him that he will probably pass out from exhaustion and spend the night there in the middle of the room, that he should be careful because the nausea is building, that he should find a tissue before he chokes on his own grief.
Sasuke has no one but himself to halt the deluge of tears, and comforts himself with the idea that perhaps he might die there on the floor near the window. It works and he's sickened when he imagines his team finding him, finding him lying over his own bloodstain.
The sobs grow quieter till he's just shaking, breathing hitched breaths and staring blankly through glazed, streaming eyes at the window seat.
Vaguely, Sasuke wonders when he'll lose consciousness and whether Naruto, Sakura, or Kakashi will notice anything different about him tomorrow.
They shouldn't. Because Sasuke is a genius and a master of facades.
He takes comfort in that and pretends there isn't an angry, itchy red blotch that's forming on his cheek.
Eyes closing, he continues to hear the tears drip onto the carpet, wondering where they're all coming from, when he hears something that makes his blood still.
Someone is knocking at the door.
He lies there, staring at the window and wondering if he's truly gone insane. No one comes by. No one wants to wander the barren, Uchiha property and see that stained, cracked wall outside the house.
Maybe it's Itachi finally making time to help him with shuriken practice.
Come in, he mouths. The door's unlocked.
Now that he's cried, he feels the need to laugh but of course he doesn't, even though it's bubbling up his throat and he's disgusted, gasping and swallowing it down along with the bile.
"Sasuke? Open up! I know you're in there."
"How did you find my house?" he mutters into the carpet. "Stupid idiot."
The knocking grows louder and Sasuke vaguely wonders what he should do. The tears are still there and he makes no move to wipe them away. No one has seen him cry since he was eight. If he answers the door and Naruto sees him like this, what will he think? Will it matter?
No, he answers himself. What Naruto thinks means nothing. I don't care. That won't change anything. That won't change me.
"Open the door, Sasuke! I'm not leaving till you do."
He thinks and realizes he has to. If not, then Naruto will let himself in and find him lying there, will insist he needs to see Tsunade, will touch him, help him, worry—
In his head, the complacent voice speaks calmly and quietly.
Go die, Naruto. Just die.
Blankly, Sasuke puts his hands to his sides and pushes himself up, rising unsteadily to his feet. He feels wiped clean of emotion. Even the id is quiet. He wipes the tears with the back of his hand only because they're itchy, then heads towards the door.
The knocking continues until he's standing before the door.
Without hesitation, he reaches forward and pulls it open, feeling a gust of fresh air cool his wet, reddened skin. Instead of looking at Naruto, he looks into the distance, feeling incredibly sleepy as his eyes ache with soreness.
"About time. I was about to open the door and…" Naruto stops suddenly, voice faltering.
Sasuke lowers his tired eyes and sees that Naruto is holding a bag. He catches a whiff of what's inside. Barbequed chicken wings.
Slowly, he raises his eyes when he realizes that Naruto's just staring at him in dumb silence. He finally meets his gaze, finding his voice hoarse when he speaks.
"What do you want?"
Naruto won't stop staring at him, blue eyes wide and mouth slightly agape. Adorable, really. Sasuke wonders why Sakura doesn't like him.
"Sasuke," Naruto says his name slowly, as if stunned.. "What…why's your face…?"
Sasuke doesn't bother giving him an answer, as he's busy recalling the manners his mother taught him. He opens the door wider and steps back and off to the side, inviting Naruto in.
Wordlessly, hesitantly, Naruto crosses the threshold and steps into utter silence. There is an immediate uprising of tension. Sasuke couldn't care less.
"What do you want, Naruto?" he repeats himself blankly, even though his voice cracks and Naruto winces.
"I…brought you some food; thought you might want to…" he trails off, unable to complete the sentence when his wide eyes hone in on the carpet and its patch of blood and tears.
For a moment, the house is quiet.
"Were you crying?" Naruto's voice is hushed, as if he's uttering something taboo. He looks at him with the innocence and naiveté of a doe, and Sasuke once again swallows the laughter bubbling up his throat.
Naruto stares at the Uchiha's puffy, bloodshot eyes, the mussed hair and red blotches, the dried tear streaks and pallid complexion, and can't bring himself to speak.
He's never seen Sasuke cry. He doesn't know what to say.
Sasuke knows it and he can't help but be coldly amused, though his face remains expressionless.
"Take it to Sakura," Sasuke says suddenly, and Naruto blinks at the abrupt, calm statement. "Share it with her. I'm not hungry."
He speaks so serenely that Naruto almost nods and walks out the door, but stops himself when he realizes that Uchiha Sasuke is clearly crying and not acting completely sane.
Instead, Naruto carefully sets the bag on the table and shuts the door. He turns and looks at his teammate, opening his mouth to speak and closing it again.
Sasuke knows it's Naruto and that he's an uncouth, annoying idiot, but he can't help but feel as though he's being impolite to a guest. The thought makes the top of his head burn. He reaches up and rubs his scalp.
"Would you like something to drink?" Sasuke asks politely.
Naruto looks horrified, suddenly, and Sasuke wonders what he's done wrong.
"What happened?" Naruto demands. "Why are you acting like that? Why's your face…?"
"Nothing," Sasuke answers, carefully neutral. "Nothing happened."
"Don't lie, Sasuke. I can tell. You were…crying." Naruto lowers his eyes, as if he's embarrassed to look his rival in the face. It's as if he's realized they're both just twelve and can't possibly comfort each other.
Sasuke tilts his head to the side and shrugs his shoulders slightly.
Naruto looks somewhat disturbed by his nonchalance and hesitates before he speaks.
Sasuke is brutally honest and doesn't feel like elaborating.
"Because I felt like it."
Naruto swallows and seems to realize there is something very wrong with his friend. The immaturity and normalcy is gone from their relationship in an instant. This can't be remedied with an affectionate swat or insult, nor a contest or competition. He struggles for a moment with his juvenile, naïve mind, thinking of what he can possibly say in response. The Kyuubi-holder is not as intelligent as his teammates, but he's perceptive enough to know that the cause of Sasuke's behaviour is an old, very traumatic experience that he has no right to pry into.
"Why…didn't you just stay with Sakura-chan and me?"
"Why would I?" Sasuke counters, voice blank.
Naruto's brows furrow. "So you wouldn't be alone."
There is silence again and Sasuke somehow manages to contain the furious screaming that's about to tear out of his throat.
What can you possibly do for me? You think being in your company will make it easier? What the hell are you? My comfort? You're nothing. You were always nothing. You can't help me. Stop trying. Get the fuck out. Go die, Naruto. Just die.
"You…" Sasuke starts and stops, biting his lip hard when he feels something pushing at his throat and eyes again. He's suppressed the laughter too long. He's going to cry again, in front of Naruto. He doesn't find it strange that he feels no shame.
"You don't…" his voice cracks again and his face is feeling warm and wet and itchy once more. Naruto stares at him as if the world is ending and he doesn't know what to do. He looks horrified and shocked and entranced all at once.
It's odd. Sasuke doesn't feel sad. He feels something akin to a calm hysteria.
"You don't know…anything," he finally manages to say, feeling bitter and sick. He feels very sick. Sick and weak and powerless.
Naruto looks so pained and so confused it hurts to look at him. It takes everything Sasuke has to suppress the urge to kill him.
I'm not an adult, Naruto thinks, unsure of what to say or do. Iruka-sensei is. Kakashi-sensei is. But he won't go to them. He has no one but us. But…
He struggles, pauses, as if carefully unearthing a bit of sad wisdom.
But what are we compared to what he's lost? Something small…almost nothing.
Sasuke has never seen Naruto so quiet and he's bitterly satisfied.
You can't say anything because you don't know anything. Don't tell me I have you guys. Don't tell me it'll be all right. Don't tell me you know how I feel.
It's as if Naruto can hear his thoughts. His eyes flit uncomfortably between his friend's face and the floorboards, fingers twitching uncertainly by his sides. Sasuke sees his jaw working, sees his reluctance, and he's glad.
Naruto is terrified at that moment. Normally, there's always something available for him to say. But there's only so far his eternal optimism and simple comfort can go. Looking at him, Naruto realizes the truth and wants to deny it, but the utter despondence taking over his mind doesn't let him.
He can't help Sasuke.
But he can't give up there—such is Naruto's nature. There has to be something he can do, he thinks desperately. What can he offer his friend and teammate? What can he do without seeming pretentious?
"Sasuke," he says quietly, eyes trained on the floor. "You don't have to say, but…what happened…today?"
From the way he asks the question, Sasuke immediately knows he's referring to the past. Again, he feels nothing but contempt. He has the right to keep that information to himself and to tell Naruto to mind his own business, but he chooses to answer him because there's no point in hiding anything.
His voice is hollow when he speaks.
"My mother's birthday."
Naruto blinks, and that's all.
He's so flooded with understanding and sympathy that for a moment he can't bring himself to speak. Something aches in his chest when he recalls Sasuke's behaviour during the mission and his utter detachedness.
"You're strong," Naruto says suddenly, startled by the sound of his own voice. "To keep it bottled up like that."
The comment is so odd and unexpected that Sasuke and the complacent voice in his head keep silent, settling for contemplation of his words.
"But," Naruto pauses, suddenly reluctant because he has no right to preach.
"But what?" Sasuke says blankly.
"You're going to get sick," Naruto says uncertainly, concern etched in his gaze. "If you keep doing that."
Sasuke says nothing because he knows Naruto's right. He may be a genius, but the constant bouts of sleeplessness, throwing up in the morning, his lack of appetite…they were going to drag him down, if not kill him. He isn't like Itachi. He can't be like Itachi—brushing off yesterday's traumas like they're nothing and moving on to greater things.
He's prone to remembering things, prone to falling apart and being pathetic.
But there is a tiny hope, buried beneath all that determination and vengefulness. He hopes that someday it'll all kill him, so when he faces his parents he can say, guilt-free, I tried—and leave Itachi disappointed. Disappointed and alone.
A small victory, but a victory, nonetheless.
Sasuke is distracted from his thoughts when Naruto takes a small step closer, locking eyes.
They're both quiet for nearly a minute, looking at each other in the silence of the Uchiha mansion. The tears have stopped on their own. There are only wet, red patches on his pale skin that Naruto carefully avoids looking at.
Sasuke squints slightly, staring through glassy, bloodshot eyes at his teammate and best friend, wondering when he'll leave so he can collapse.
Another minute passes and outside, the dark clouds mask the sun, casting jagged shadows throughout the house.
"Go home, Naruto," he finally murmurs.
Naruto seems to hesitate, then takes another step closer. Sasuke watches him, not bothering to ask of his intentions, merely waiting for him to say goodbye.
It surprises him when the boy reaches out, awkwardly, putting his hands on the taller boy's shoulders.
There is a moment where they just watch each other, Sasuke impassive and Naruto unsure. Then Sasuke feels his hands drop, only to be replaced by short, strong arms. Naruto's fingers clasp at his back and Sasuke stares straight ahead at the wall, feeling a little sorry for the Kyuubi-holder and his attempt at a hug.
It's tight and warm and silent and it pins Sasuke's arms to his sides. It's uncomfortable and awkward, a far cry from his mother's hugs, but strangely, Sasuke appreciates it all the same.
Naruto's hair brushes against the wet skin of his cheek when he pulls back, dropping his arms and gaze.
The complacent voice in Sasuke's head is silent and he's somewhat glad of it. Despite its imperfection, he can find no flaw in what the other boy has just done.
He feels empty, almost content. He almost feels like thanking him.
Wordlessly, Naruto reaches for his bag and Sasuke catches another whiff of the chicken inside. Unexpectedly, he reaches out and puts a hand on Naruto's shoulder.
Naruto gives him a furtive, questioning look and Sasuke drops his hand.
"What kind is it?" he asks indifferently, and he's inwardly pleased when Naruto shows him one of his trademark grins, albeit a small one.
Not bothering to wait for an answer, Naruto sets the bag back on the table and pulls out some flowery Tupperware. Sasuke stares at it for a second and then looks at Naruto.
Sheepish, his grin grows wider.
"The old lady living in the apartment next door gave it to me. Can you believe it? All this food just because she said she messed it up."
Naruto is trying desperately hard to pretend Sasuke doesn't look like a wreck or that he's been incredibly sobered by what has just happened. Sasuke is grateful that he's trying and inwardly, he's praying that Naruto will stay that way forever.
Don't change, Naruto. Don't get in my way, Naruto. Please don't interfere with my revenge, Naruto. I don't want to have to kill you, Naruto.
When Sasuke pulls out a seat and sits at the table, he tries to follow Naruto's example.
"Messed up?" he asks indifferently, quickly wiping the residue of wetness off his face when Naruto looks down at the food. Shrugging, Naruto lets his grin grow wider.
"She said she added too much vinegar or something. But it still smells good. Good thing she didn't throw it out and gave it to me instead," Naruto says cheerfully, looking up.
He blinks when he sees the look on Sasuke's face.
The Uchiha's eyes are wide and he stares at Naruto in disbelief. Suddenly self-conscious, the fox boy looks himself over, then shoots him a questioning glance.
"Vinegar?" Sasuke echoes.
Naruto suddenly looks concerned and slowly nods.
Sasuke slumps back in his seat, staring at the tabletop in wonderment. He recalls a well-tread, incomplete memory.
Sasuke, Mikoto says seriously. When you become a shinobi, you're bound to get cuts and scratches. Don't forget what I'm about to tell you! The secret to getting bloodstains out is…
"Vinegar," Sasuke repeats to himself. "It was vinegar."
Naruto is concerned and just as he's about to ask, he falters and stops himself when he sees the Uchiha's expression.
For the first time in a long time, Sasuke smiles. His eyes are puffy and bloodshot, his face is pale and blotchy, but he smiles all the same and looks beautiful. It's not wide and cheery like Naruto's. It's small and relieved and barely there. But it's a smile, nonetheless.
He remembers, now. He remembers perfectly.
This time, he actually voices his thoughts, keeping his gaze on the tabletop.
Naruto is confused, but the small smile on his friend's face dispels his worries for the most part.
"Yeah, no problem," he says uncertainly, before pushing a paper plate of wings towards him. "You're gonna help me finish this, Sasuke. I'm not leaving till they're all gone."
Sasuke eats little but enough so Naruto is satisfied. When they finish, the sun is setting and the house is dark save for some golden strips of light splaying against the walls and table. When Naruto gets up to leave, he's tempted to say:
Will you be okay?
But he doesn't because it's a ridiculous question.
Instead, he just flashes a wide grin and claps Sasuke on the shoulder before he departs through the door, waving. Sasuke stands in the doorway till Naruto disappears into the distance, and as soon as he's gone, the door closes and Sasuke practically runs to the kitchen.
It's late and he's never broken his routine, but he just has to do it.
Carrying his bucket, dish sponge, soap, and bottle of vinegar, he quickly walks across the darkening path to the northern wing of the house.
When he gets there, he stands over the bloodstain and pours the entire bottle of vinegar over it, waits a few minutes, then drops to his knees, reaching for his worn dish sponge.
Scrubbing, he watches the floorboards, feeling indescribable and something akin to euphoria when the wood begins relinquishing the blood. It's coming out and he can't believe it. It's coming out and he doesn't know whether to be subdued or ecstatic.
He settles for both, his breath short and fast, eyes wide and focused as he smears on the soap and continues scrubbing.
The foam in no longer white. For four years it was, but now it's brown, coating his hands up to his wrists. He doesn't care and continues till his arms ache and the foam is the colour of the floorboards.
Rising, he stares down at the brownish blotch of soap on the floor. He grips the bucket, listens to the water slosh inside.
The water pours from the bucket and hits the floorboards, splashing across his feet and shins as it impacts. Sasuke is quiet as he watches the dark foam rinse away, dispersing from the wood and from around his feet.
He continues to pour the water till the bucket is empty and a thin pool remains on the floor. Sasuke gazes at the wood, at the bleached grains and swirls, at the lack of blood-brown, feeling his shoulders sag and fingers slacken in relief.
The bucket falls and clatters against the wet floorboards.
He will leave the door open. By tomorrow, the water will have evaporated.
When he walks out this time, it's with a feeling of closure.
It feels as though they've known it all along, as if all the normalcy was a façade.
Sasuke is not okay and he never will be. He knows it and somehow gets the feeling that Naruto knows it, too. But for the sake of his gratitude, he keeps the complacent voice to himself and does his best to mend the crack.
He likes to think it's closed a bit since Naruto's visit.
When they meet again for another mission on Monday, there doesn't seem to be a single vestige of change in the way they treat each other.
The taunts and competitiveness, the affectionate swatting and the insults—it's all there. It's as if the experience became one of Sasuke's lost memories, when in fact he goes over it nearly every day. It's something he won't be forgetting any time soon.
When the anniversary of the Uchiha clan massacre approaches, Sasuke doesn't go home. He spends the night with his team in the mountains, distracted by their words and antics. He treats them like a temporary cure, like a short, pleasant dream.
He silences that snide voice in his head and tentatively treats them like distant family—distant, because he doesn't want it to hurt too much when he lets them go.
It's childish of him to see them in that light, he knows it. But it's expected.
After all, he's only twelve years old.