Disclaimer: Naruto does not belong to me. His cute behind is Uchiha property.

Summary: Sasuke's past is revealed. Shikamaru bluffs, Sakura remains persistent, and Naruto is again conflicted.

Another really long eventful chapter for everyone in return for their patience for the really really long wait and for those who thought I died or something Apologies beforehand for the scene changes; all of them were necessary in progressing the story...Dx There's also some SasuSaku and NaruSaku in here. Hope you guys don't mind...

Long chapter is looooong.

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The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.

- Henri Nouwen

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Yeah. It really was nice.

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Chapter Five: Sandcastles Collapsing

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Long fingers stretched tiredly over the tall mound of haphazardly stacked manila folders shoved to the right of a cherry wood desk. Feeling for the thickest of them, padded fingertips glided up and down the pile until they felt the specific file. It was, after all, the only one held together by a combination of twine around its girth, duck tape at its spine, and a lesser miracle keeping it all together. The psychiatrist grumbled lowly when he figured it was on the bottom half of the stack; pulling it out would mean far too much work when everything tumbled down to the lush carpeted floor. Times like these he wonders if it would be worth the effort transferring the ancient paper medium into digital bytes of data on a computer.

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He dismissed the idea almost immediately. To him, the computer was strictly a place to save, read, and search for new literotica with maybe an accompanying illustration or two. Placing his patient files next to those would feel a bit too awkward for his liking. What happened if he accidentally clicked the wrong file and, instead of a racy story of lonely schoolgirls, he's reminded of a patient who fantasized about castrating random men? That would definitely kill the libido.

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Resigned to his fate, Kakashi Hatake reluctantly started to shift the files, splitting the stack until he reached the folder. He wasn't lazy but it was rather late and it had been a long day of screaming marriage counsels and whiny business executives. The prospect of staying an hour late just to fill out legal reports would make anyone weep in exasperation. He envied the other doctors in the clinic who clock in and out on easy schedules, especially that Dr. Yakushi who's list of patients were exclusive to the fabulously wealthy.

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Ah. Here it is. Out of habit, Kakashi smoothed out the crinkles around the corners and slapped it down his desk. Judging by sheer size alone, the file was his biggest and most exhausting case. With a pair of scissors, he snipped away at the twine and carefully opened the folder, offhandedly catching any escaping loose-leaf papers. For the millionth time, the doctor read over the bolded title of the document first given to him almost half a year ago.

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Case #00-092-3917: Sasuke Uchiha

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His eyes glazed over one of the many occupying photographs. A young sullen boy with hard eyes peered back wearing clothes much too dark for his age. It didn't suit him then, Kakashi thought, but it's all the kid ever wears now -as if his life consisted of one funeral after another. Considering the dreary wardrobe, it was a crying shame how handsomely Sasuke had grown into young adulthood, even though dark colors did suit him rather well. The rest of the photos weren't too shabby either; the Uchiha didn't have a bad angle on him! Girls must be throwing themselves at his feet and yet the pale teen never once mentioned a girlfriend, a crush, or anything that could have a functioning uterus. What a waste! Now if it was him in that same position-

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Ah, but he was straying from the subject again. Kakashi rested his face on the palm of his hand as his eyes went over the rest of the dry information before nonchalantly flipping to the next section. Names of faceless social workers and judges appeared with a thick contract neatly tucked underneath. Outlines and procedures filled with legal jargon took up much of the folder, held together by a mess of slightly bent paper clips and strained staples. Dr. Hatake switched to the police reports, again searching for hidden clues that could lead him to a much-needed breakthrough with the pale teen.

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In his profession, victims of severe crimes were disturbingly common cases; because of which, the renown psychiatrist had expected a rather straightforward case. The old detective in charge had been reluctant in giving the confidential files but immediately eased when he recognized the orange book underneath the doctor's arm; they had a quite enjoyable conversation about it before going back to business. The pleasantry ended when the old man handed him the necessary documentation. Imagine the surprise when he was finally informed of the more vivid details of the incident. Kakashi could still remember the cold shock as he read the papers and took in the photographs taken at the scene. It wasn't just a homicide; it was a bloody massacre the likes never seen before in Kohona.

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The walls were splattered in red; the carpet drenched in pools of dark blood. Kakashi could almost taste the damp smell of dried copper and iron. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he noted little signs linking to the killer's personality while flipping through each photograph. The murders were brutal but clean with the bodies meticulously laid in a way that made it clear the killer had held a calm mindset at the time. Apparently, a lone bullet to the head was the preferred method, but there were some evidence of deep slashes from an elongated blade -a sword probably from the family's own private collection. The most haunting thing to consider was the executioner seemed to have gone out of his way to face the victims before the kill; the fatal wounds were made from the front only. It was as if he had wanted the satisfaction of seeing the unimaginable fear in their eyes before their life was utterly extinguished.

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Unfortunately, there was still more tragedy to the story.

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Supposedly, the seven-year-old Sasuke had seen the carnage unfold by none other than Itachi Uchiha, his beloved older brother. It was assumed afterwards that there was a struggle between the two Uchihas when Itachi tried to kill the last member of his family. The struggle ended with Itachi's body on the ground, a bullet wound to the head, and the younger Uchiha still holding the gun when police finally arrived to investigate the disturbance in the alarm system. Even though it was pretty clear what had transpired, Sasuke never once confirmed it himself and no one wanted to risk traumatizing the child even further. Besides, enough bits and pieces were gathered by forensics to have a clear story; Itachi didn't try to hide anything.

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To this day, no one was entirely clear of the intentions leading to the murders. Some suggested that it was a culmination of stress and a sudden mental illness. Others offered that it could've involved some sort of shady business dealings; after all, those Uchihas did handle a lot of money and money always lead to suffering. For months afterwards, the media buzzed with wild theories consisting of mafia influence, extortion, and even hypnosis. Every housewife and every co-worker had created their own little insight of the incident. Kakashi found it both kind of funny and kind of sad how little Sasuke, the only survivor, was hardly mentioned in any of these theories.

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Unfortunately, many aspects after the incident had taken its toll. He couldn't really blame the all too crappy legal system; it was a pretty troublesome case to deal with and unfolded like a cheap television special. Though the Uchiha family had many business partners and workers, there was hardly anyone who knew them on a personal level. Available relatives were next to nil and social friends were unaccountable at best. In the end, it turned into a rat race of people who were clearly after their own self-interest instead of the best interest of the child- nothing but a flurry of red-faced lawyers, court room brawls, and underhanded legal maneuvers. The winner had been decided best solely on his ability to out manipulate and deceit the rest, hardly loving parent qualities.

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Kakashi felt a familiar ball of frustration curl up in the pit of his stomach as he flipped to the page concerning Sasuke's previous guardian. He had never met the man but from the profile, the doctor instinctively knew that he was far from the perfect father figure. The shrewd man had been a very close business wise to the Uchihas before the massacre and had been in regular contact with the family for almost a decade. He had no criminal record but Kakashi chalked it up to the guy being harder to net than a snake covered in oil. It was fairly obvious even to the most naive onlooker that the man only wanted control of the Uchiha's business assets; since the boy was still so young, whoever took responsibility for him automatically received the inherited role in all business affairs. Unfortunately, the snake ended up being the most reasonable choice out of the entire pathetic cluster.

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Fortunately, during the nine years of his guardianship, Sasuke didn't seem to have been too badly mistreated. In the attached medical stubs, there was no indication of either sexual or physical abuse, though psychological abuse and neglect can be argued. The worst example would probably be how the man had never taken Sasuke to a professional despite the fact it was heavily suggested by the courts. As a compromise, the man had submitted Sasuke to some outside appointments but the doctor's name had been kept confidential.

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Only recently did Lady Luck seem to have finally taken pity on Sasuke's life. His guardian had finally slipped up and was currently under investigation for an array of serious white-collar crimes: embezzlement, fraud, insider trading, etc. Though Kakashi was curious of what specifically these crimes were, he knew better than to inquire about an ongoing case. He did, however, hear spectacular rumors of hired killings but that could very likely be an exaggeration by the city tabloids. Out of caution, the judge had given Sasuke the option of being temporarily removed and become a ward of the state to avoid the negative atmosphere, considering his unique circumstances.

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But instead of being passed onto another set of greedy hands, Sasuke had chosen to become emancipated. From what he'd heard, Sasuke's former guardian had been enraged at losing his standing over the Uchiha stocks and businesses. He had been effectively removed from his position and forced to go into near isolation because of the police investigation. Though Sasuke had legal control over his company's stocks, he was still in high school and had assigned new board directors to look over the various businesses under Uchiha control. The psychiatrist had been impressed by how mature the young male had handled the situation- the boy's going to grow up to be quite something.

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At the age of sixteen, the young boy decided to become a legitimate adult, though there were a set of conditions he had to abide by in order to keep his freedom. Since Sasuke has had an excellent academic record and no outstanding criminal record, the judge didn't see a reason to deny the request. However, he also didn't want to take chances on the boy's mental health. The massacre, after all, must have been deeply traumatizing and he didn't want to be held responsible for another Uchiha massacre.

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And that's where he stepped in: Dr. Kakashi Hatake, renowned child psychiatrist specializing in severe emotional trauma. In order for the proceedings to be approved, the young Uchiha had to concede to weekly meetings with the doctor. Reports were to be written and, at the end of the trial period, which was just short of a full year, Kakashi was to testify if the boy was mentally stable enough to live peacefully as an independent member of the community. Personally, the doctor thought the judge just wanted a person to be accountable for any possible breakdown in the future; he would be the first to blame if Sasuke does go insane, especially if his report said otherwise. Kakashi immediately agreed despite the pressure.

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He had a debt to repay left long ago by Obito Uchiha. Saving the last of the Uchiha's was the perfect way of going at it.

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However, Sasuke was far from being cooperative- no, that didn't exactly fit well. Sasuke was cooperative but with a very thick air of impudence towards psychiatrist. After what the Uchiha had experienced, Kakashi had expected some trust issues but this was getting ridiculous. Professionals like himself always preferred the patient to speak whatever they wanted and whenever they wish; forcing someone to talk was reserved for police stations, not private offices. Because of which, sessions can become a complete autobiography or a complete silence; it was up to the patient. The pale teen overwhelmingly preferred the latter.

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Oh, there would be clipped answers or harsh glares when he would ask questions such as 'how was your day?' or 'how do you feel?' or the more recent 'how's your sex life?' but they usually go the full two-hour sessions unconditionally silent. Months have gone by and Dr. Hatake felt as if he barely scratched the surface. He already exhausted most of his methods into getting the patient to open up from bribery, failing miserably since Sasuke could afford anything he could offer, to indirect conversational questions, which were simply ignored. He even tried reading his literotica aloud just to fill in the hush and was promptly threatened with a sexual misbehavior lawsuit.

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...Such a frustrating self-righteous brat- now there's someone who needed some high-quality porn. Biggest sack of repressed hormones-

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Kakashi shook himself from his musings and went back to the almost forgotten file at hand, mindlessly flipping to his stack of weekly reports. His shoulders sagged as he read the scribbled passages and attached notes written thus far into the visits. On rare occasion, Dr. Hatake would scribble some offhanded comment slipped up by Sasuke but it was all too vague to draw solid conclusions. Even a renowned doctor like himself couldn't form a judgment without something to back up his decisions and the young Uchiha had yet to show any signs of improvement. Just one flicker of emotion, other than dislike...or extreme dislike, would be enough to keep his hopes up but the patient was a complete dry spell in that department.

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Which was why he had suggested that Sasuke should visit the grave of his family during the anniversary of the massacre. It wasn't something he did often, forcing a person to actively mourn the deceased, but Kakashi wanted him to directly confront his past. Was it drastic? Yes, indefinitely, but what choice was there left? Given, there was a chance that the act could completely break down the last stable line in the teen's head but it was better than the stalemate they were currently experiencing. Surprisingly, there was little opposition to the idea, just the usual hard glare quickly replaced by the usual apathetic look. Though discreetly, Kakashi had noted a large increase in the tension between them; the week following their trip had Sasuke more nervous in their sessions if his body language was any indication. Stiff limb movements, hard-set eyes, tight frown lines, etc.

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When the day finally arrived, he opened the office door to find Sasuke with bouquets of white lilies in his hands. Of course it was a common tradition to bring flowers to a grave but he hadn't expected the teen to do something this sentimental. Before Kakashi could inquire about it, the younger man answered his questioning look with a dull stare and a low voice, refusing to meet his eyes as he looked down at the soft petals.

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"Purity. Majesty. That's what she said they meant."

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The moment was so surreal that Kakashi didn't have the heart to elaborate the definition was meant for a female lover, not murdered parents. The absent of a third bouquet didn't go unnoticed either. But considering the sensitivity of the situation, he fought down the strong urge to properly record the information and gave an understanding nod of the head before leading them to his car. Ten minutes into the drive, he found himself somewhat parched over his excitement and had made a small stop at a local bookstore/cafe to get a little snack. Sasuke simply glared out the window, still extremely disagreeable but otherwise patient. Afterwards, when he insisted on going alone in the cemetery, he couldn't refuse because mourning was a very personal act and he himself preferred to do it alone. It'll be hypocritical to deny that basic human right.

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Besides, demanding to go along would only make the young Uchiha more tense and distrusting. Added to which he knew that Sasuke wouldn't consider anything too rash or drastic, though he showed signs of being somewhat unstable. So Kakashi had ended up staying in the car, book in one hand and a pastry in the other, a steaming brew in the cup holder. Admittedly, he should've paid more attention to the time; Sasuke could've been abducted by greedy criminals or hormonal girls or something even more malicious. When he finally did noticed, half an hour had elapsed without a peep. Worried, Dr. Hatake hastily bookmarked his book and went to check up on the dark-eyed teen.

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Unexpected couldn't begin to describe what lay before him. Not only was Sasuke alive and healthy but there was also another person standing in close proximity, enough to establish a familiarity between the two. He immediately recognized the other as the employee who worked behind the counter at the bookstore, a shorter male blond with blue eyes and distinct lines on his cheeks. Was this person a friend? Strange. His patient never mentioned having anyone he was on good terms with much less a friend. However, the blond was obviously chummy, if that wide grin and side glances back at the other were any indication. Added to which Sasuke was at least tolerate of the company, judging by his relaxed shoulders.

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Sasuke Uchiha? Not annoyed by another's presence? From their sessions, the pale teen seemed to be as social as a rabid dog. During the few times they had actually conversed, it was mostly of what Sasuke hated and anything dealing sociable was at the top of the list. Unless it was absolutely necessary like school projects, club activities, or legal proceedings, the younger teen preferred to avoid contact with the world altogether. Kakashi was under the impression that the pale teen was a true loner in every sense of the word.

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So what made this blond kid an exception?

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If he could spare the time, Kakashi would have been most content to observe the two boys standing quietly next to each other, scribbling observations on his notepad, but his time with the Uchiha was nearing its end; there was another appointment to get to. The doctor waited the longest possible moment before approaching the boys, who seemed surprised and, in Sasuke's case, extremely displeased at the interruption. When inquired, the brunette had hurriedly dismissed the other as a stranger but strangers didn't emit an atmosphere like those two had. There was definitely a history between them. Dr. Hatake made sure to take a good look at the blond's face, just for recognition sake. He also vaguely remembers expressing gratitude towards the cafe worker but was so excited at the recent turn of events it was hard to be sure.

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Furthermore, when was the last time he saw his patient as relaxed on the drive home? The pale teen did seem tired but content, as if a great weight had finally been lifted over his hunched shoulders. The way Sasuke had propped himself, an elbow on the armrest and a forehead on the window, allowed light from the setting sun to warm over the features of the pale face. It was a good sign, definitely, when he also saw a shadow of a smile play on the lips.

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In any case, he planned on visiting that bookstore more often. Hopefully, they have a nice selection of adult material.

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With this in mind, Kakashi Hatake finally reached for his ball-point pen, clicking lightly at the top end. After a moment of quiet contemplation, the fingers around the pen tightened and moved to form the longest weekly review he had ever written for the file. The psychiatrist suddenly stopped as the pen neared the final lines of the paper. The unfamiliar hesitation dissipated away as he moved to write the final two words.

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Showing improvement.

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Kakashi stared at the fresh ink, a discreet smile on his face, as he relaxed against the heavily cushioned chair.

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"Want some Naruto?" An opened bag of barbecue flavored chips was shoved underneath the tanned teen's nose; the aroma so strong and pungent that Naruto reflexively shoved the bag away. It was morning break and all four were huddled in their usual corner of the school's courtyard. Chouji shrugged off Naruto's refusal and went back to his chips, munching contently on an exceptionally seasoned piece. Kiba was the main initiator of conversation with excruciating details of a promising puppy from the latest litter; it was surprising how lengthy a description of fur color could take. As always, Shikamaru preferred to keep out from the conversation, choosing instead to be a casual observer. Naruto, he noted silently, was acting particularly quiet today.

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However, it was a comfortable silence- one held in junction with a smile.

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When Kiba was finally finished, Shikamaru gingerly pointed out Naruto's silence with a curious expression on his face. Chouji and Kiba, also taking notice, asked if anything happened but the blond had shrugged it off to a restless night; his smile growing into a full-blown grin at their worried expressions. Shika still looked incredulous but said nothing as the conversation turned back to Kiba. None of them were the type to delve into personal matters, any who. It'll simply look suspicious, and extremely out of character if Shikamaru prodded for any further information.

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"So, my mom said I can keep him since it seems to like me so much," Kiba started eagerly, "Any ideas for names?"

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"What about dumbass?" Naruto joked through his playful grin, "After its owner." Chouji paused in-between bites to chuckle at the joke while Shikamaru rolled his eyes. Kiba scowled but quickly recovered with a retort of his own.

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"Yeah well, I could name it Runt after you but it's already bigger than that." In reality, Naruto was just a few inches shorter than the average male student but was still the shortest in their group. Expectantly, the short-tempered blond took the bait and was now engaged in a heated argument with Kiba, exchanging crude comebacks, while Chouji and Shikamaru took the appropriate steps back to avoid the crossfire. With wandering eyes, Shikamaru caught a meaningful glance from across the court; they held each other's stare for a second before the other walked into the nearest building.

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Follow.

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Understanding, Shikamaru did a quick look over the surrounding area before deeming it safe to leave his post from Naruto's side. He gave a large yawn, momentarily attracting the attention of his friends. "I'm gonna go to the library," he said lazily, nodding off to the appropriate direction, "Gonna sleep until the bell." He paused, gesturing if anyone wanted to come along but everyone knew it was an empty act of consideration. None of them found the library the least bit interesting, wanting to stay as far from the place as possible.

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Shikamaru gave a wave goodbye, which Chouji was the only one not busy enough to return since the other two returned to their previous bickering, and walked casually towards the building. As he entered the empty hallway, brown eyes scanned the hallway. Almost immediately, he saw the indifferent figure, leaning against a door frame of an empty classroom. The older teen met his eyes for a mere millisecond before opening the door and entering the classroom with the room left opened for him to follow. Shikamaru, after one brief glance around the hallway, smoothly approached the door and slide inside. He gently closed the door and swiftly locked it.

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Neji Hyuuga stood before him, blank irises scanning over a wrinkled note he held with a steady hand. His body forming a silhouette in front of the downed blinds from behind. "I found this in my locker," he said quietly, eyes finally leaving the paper. He directed his gaze at Shikamaru, who stood with most of his weight, leaned on one foot and both hands in the pocket, a neutral posture. Though his face was blank of any emotion, his mind meticulously went over the number of possible outcomes in his head, making sure to have a carefully worded statement to each conceivable outcome. Preparation was key and he had to make certain not to say too much or too little. Naruto's safety- his sanity depended on this.

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"So, what do you want to do?" Shikamaru asked bluntly, leaving just enough vagueness for individual interpretation. Watching for any tweak of the other's features, he had learned long ago to trust a person's body language more so than actual words. 'The most important principle was for both corresponded to one another,' he remembered. Neji seemed to be in conflict with himself, eyes focusing and refocusing on the ink scrawled on the paper the senior was holding; he might be a genius in his own right but Shikamaru specialty was tactical strategy. If there was any indication that the hunch was a mistake, it wouldn't be too hard to switch the situation over to his advantage.

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After some moments passed, Neji looked up with a slight frown. "How did you know?" he asked lowly, looking at the other suspiciously. "I made sure to be as inconspicuous as possible regarding... him." The long-haired brunette stood calmly but the wrinkle of his brow and the unsettling look of his eyes showed a state of disbelief. Shikamaru gave an exasperated sigh; he hated giving long explanations but this seemed unavoidable. To give due credit, he wasn't one hundred percent certain about the senior class president but the possibility still had enough likelihood to risk, statistically speaking.

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"To tell you the truth, I guessed," he drawled, giving a light shrug, "But I suspected it for a long time now, especially after that fight a while back." Neji listened intently as he focused the white pupils at the other, forcing Shikamaru to send a slight shiver up and down his spine. The blank stare was so creepy; he really didn't grasp how some girls found it irresistible. "Of course, they were all very little things but the accumulation of which made it natural for me to reach that conclusion." For emphasis, he paused and stared accusingly at the senior with a sly smirk to exude the confidence not completely there. "Naruto might be a dense but I'm not." This had turned into a game of bluff, seeing who would fold first with the imaginary cards they were playing.

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Slowly but surely, Neji noticeably stiffened. The hand grasping the note tightened, fingers paled even more than their original color.

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Bingo. That was the big sign Shikamaru had been waiting for; the final mark needed to give his hunches complete credibility. He had come in with a small amount of uncertainty but, so far, all signs were showing him correct. But of course, Neji was not the type to make it easy. After all, the best card player would plant self-doubt in his opponents even if he had the lesser advantage; the older brunette was still a formidable opponent.

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"Your assumptions of me could be wrong," the Hyuuga replied airily, "I might not dislike him as intensely as before, but that does not mean I would go out of my way to help." Shikamaru made sure his smirk didn't falter as Neji returned with a sneer of his own. "I could even warn the Uchiha about this and ruin your entire plan." However, as Shikamaru's sharp eyes noted, his tense posture gave away any plausibility in the bluff.

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"Yeah, I could have been wrong -there's always that possibility- but I'm not," he answered, undaunted by the threat and straightening his back with both hands still in his pockets. "You do want to help Naruto, right?" His approach was working; Neji seemed to be the type who would rather speak in riddles, preferring to catch his opponents off guard. But by speaking directly with no option for a turnaround, Shika had forced the senior into a narrow corner that made it harder for the other to skip around.

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Neji glared irritably out the windows, where small glimpses of sunlight had peeked through the blinds and the chattering of their schoolmates can be heard. Momentarily, Shikamaru doubted if Neji was truly the best candidate for this strategy. There was little question that he was the best choice but considering the limited options, it didn't mean the absolute best for the job. It was too late to dawdle on the thought now, however, and if the long-haired senior accepted the position, his plan would be sealed. Shikamaru just hoped his analysis of Neji's brief interaction with Naruto showed enough support to successfully pull this off.

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At one time, there was no doubt Neji had really disliked Naruto; after all, the blond was the only one he was ever angry enough to fight with. Because of Shikamaru's overprotective attitude of his friends, he had kept a close eye on Neji, fully expecting him to enact some sort of vengeance towards Naruto. After all, it would've have been pretty humiliating to lose to the school reject, even if most chalked it up as a fluke. However, after the fight, the Hyuuga's attitude towards the younger blond became drastically different from what he formerly predicted. The animosity between the two seemed to evaporate into thin air, replaced by some awkward sense of comradery. Sensing the secrecy, Shikamaru had decided to ignore it for the most part except for one nagging trait of their odd relationship.

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If it only happened a few times, he would've brushed it off to some sort of unspoken understanding between two former enemies- a friendly passive interest. But this seemed more of an ongoing ritual done with such precision and care, especially on Neji's part. While Naruto remained oblivious of it, content with not having another enemy to watch over his shoulder, Shikamaru had noticed the small signs on the senior's part: a lingering gaze, an unnecessarily warm smile, etc. It was much too out of character for one of the coldest students in the school. He had concluded, rather accurately it seemed, that Neji held Naruto with some amount of importance, whether as a friend or otherwise remained to be seen.

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Shikamaru shook himself away from his musings as he heard the other turn back to him- a look of defeat but with a flare of hard determination.

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"What do I have to do?"

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It came in a low voice, a dry whisper, but it was exactly what he wanted to hear. Shikamaru allowed himself a small smile of appreciation at his new partner, relief filling him at the victory. In reaction, Neji himself relaxed and waited expectedly for directions.

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"Keep the Uchiha busy," he stated carefully, "As head of the student council, you can take up his time with some kind of paperwork or project and have an excuse to keep an eye on him without looking suspicious." Neji nodded in understanding, resting the bottom of his chin in a thoughtful gesture while waiting for the other to continue. "The point is making sure he doesn't have a chance of going after Naruto; he won't do it with you around." The explanation was brief and short but he trusted in Neji's judgment to do what was necessary outside the lines.

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"What is he doing to Naruto?" the Hyuuga asked curiously. The frown already on his face only deepened when Shikamaru gave only a shrug.

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"I don't know all the details," he admitted, "but I do know that it's some type of deal...with Naruto getting the raw end of it. Actually, part of the reason why I'm doing this is to find out what the fuck is going on."

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"And the other part?"

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There was a tense pause as their gazes locked. "I don't want to just end what's happening now -he went too far this time. I want that bastard to stop messing with Naruto for good."

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When he was done, Neji gave a smirk of approval. "How long do I have to keep him distracted?"

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"Until I come up with something better. Just don't be too obvious or he'll catch on." Shikamaru diverted his gaze in thought, sighing as he mentally estimated the time he would need. This was strictly a temporary plan- a mere diversion of attention- since the Uchiha wasn't an idiot and it would just be a matter of time before suspicions are aroused. "Plan for the next month or so. At the very most, two. By then, I should have something. Remember to be inconspicuous about it." Of course, the last bit had been understood but it never hurt to reaffirm the most important aspect.

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"I'll do my best," Neji said and folded the note carefully into a tight square before slipping it into one of his pant's back pocket. Shikamaru silently wished him the best of luck; he knew handling the Uchiha would take that much. They both spared glances at the clock above the classroom's white board; it was almost time for the bell to ring; they had to leave before the hallways are filled with students. As Neji moved towards the door, a nagging questioned itched at Shika's throat.

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"The thing I don't get is...why were you holding back?" He was referring to how hesitant Neji had been in actively seeking Naruto as a friend, especially when it was clear how much Neji cared for Naruto. Shikamaru made sure his tone wasn't accusatory or anything else that would unnerve the other. "If you wanted to be friends with him, just do it. Naruto doesn't hold grudges, if that's what you're worried about." By this time, the senior had reached the door, a pale hand on the reflective metal knob. He didn't face the other, choosing instead to murmur at the door in front of him.

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"I have my reasons."

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Though an eyebrow was raised at the cryptic statement, the other didn't ask for clarification due to a respect for personal privacy. Neji could have any reason in the world, as long as it still proved beneficial to him. Shikamaru heard the door open and close, followed by the echo of the footsteps growing fainter. He sighed wearily, finally taking both hands out from his pockets. Ah, the art of conspiring made his palms clammy.

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-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-..

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Small rounded hands hovered a breathe away from the glass of a large display case filled with towering trophies and numerous award ribbons. They were displayed prominently along with the others that covered the entire expanse of the room, adjusted in a way so the natural light which filtered through the curtains would sparkle the sculpted metal and silk. It was a magnificent sight to behold, particularly at this moment when the sun would position itself just at the horizon. Sasuke, though admittedly envious of his brother's achievements, couldn't deny the magnificence.

-

The younger Uchiha blew across the glass, just enough to fog over the original inscription of a particularly mighty trophy. With the tip of his pinky finger, the boy carefully wrote in his name onto the glass then stood back to admire his work. Someday, he plans on winning trophies a hundred times bigger and not have to pretend on a fogged piece of glass. Though a child prodigy in his own right, Sasuke was still simply too young to enter many competitions. He was still going through multiple testing and extensive training in anticipation for his bright future.

-

An Uchiha was expected to be a genius, of course, so most of everything came naturally to him. In his parent's eyes, especially his father's, an Uchiha not only aimed for perfection, but also make it a life goal to achieve it. One had to be exceptional and a prodigy to hold any status in their family. Truthfully, Sasuke didn't mind the strict regime of tutors and instructors because he knew it was to improve himself. 'A person should not pass up an opportunity to better and should always push themselves to be the greatest', his father always noted solemnly.

-

But there were times when Sasuke wanted to quit or play; it was natural being a kid, but those times became fewer as time passed. If ever he acted upon them, a heavy wave of guilt washed over him because he hadn't spent the time doing something more productive. His parents always managed to find out about the ventures and the last thing Sasuke would have to avoid the look of disappointment in his father's eyes for the next few days. Oh, his sympathetic mother would smile and easily forgive the minor infracture, but he didn't want to accept her pity; it was a sign of weakness. As for Itachi, his brother was a mix- forgiving of his antics but stern on reminding his younger sibling to focus.

-

Sasuke suddenly heard the oak door creak open and hurriedly wiped away his name; it would be too awkward and embarrassing to explain. "What are you doing, Sasuke?" a deep voice inquired from behind. A lithe body kneeled in front of the trophy case next to where the younger boy stood. Sasuke didn't need to turn to recognize the familiar scent of his brother after a long day of training in their private gym. After all, being an accomplished martial artist required constant practice. It was a mix of sandalwood and sweat with the slight fresh snap of cucumber. Neither pungent or strong but immediately recognizable and slightly feminine, though Sasuke wouldn't dare say it in front of his brother.

-

Itachi scowled at the smudged handprints left on the glass before turning to face him. "You know how father and mother feel about this room," the older Uchiha said carefully with discriminating eyes. Something as little as smudging the glass seemed like an oversight, something Sasuke would've usually tried his best to avoid. Their parents hated having the trophy room in any amount of disarray since it was the first room people were brought into: visiting relatives, business associates, etc. Why verbally boast your children's achievements when you can have a whole room with which to dazzle? Because of the room's status, a large portion of maid work was dedicated in keeping it as clean as possible by the house staff and Sasuke had been warned multiple times not to fiddle with the displays.

-

His small shoulders slouched a fraction as he gave his brother a guilty look. "I was just looking," he mumbled lowly, "You have so many that I forget which ones you have." The excuse was weak but otherwise plausible; everyone knew how much the younger Uchiha admired his brother. Itachi's eyes softened at the remark and a soft chuckle escaped from his lips. Feeling somewhat patronized, the younger frowned; it was as if his brother didn't see him as a worthy adversary in competition for their parent's attention. True there was almost a decade separating them but the young boy had worked hard to be able to not only follow in Itachi's footsteps, but run after them at full speed. The very least the other could do was acknowledge the effort.

-

Sensing the other's sour attitude, Itachi lifted his hand, two fingers raised, and gave a solid poke to the forehead. It was a small tradition between the two siblings; one that started ever since Sasuke could remember. Most of the time the gesture was comforting but it can also serve to be an annoyance, such as now. Sasuke's scowl deepened as he rubbed the spot with his left palm. Though he tried to imitate the severe look of an adult, the smaller Uchiha was still too innocent and the effect was diminished into looking adorably riled. His older brother smiled apologetically before standing up, brushing away imaginary dust from his lap. "Its almost time for supper," Itachi soothed, holding out a hand textured in hardened blisters, "I can talk about my accomplishments then." There was a joking smile and a few seconds passed before a small hand reluctantly grasped onto his.

-

"But I'm afraid I can't stay for long." There was a pause as Sasuke let the information sink in. "I have to go back to the office tonight." Though Itachi was still in his teens, their father had wanted to start the elder Uchiha onto the family business as soon as possible. The Uchiha Corporation did have a wide range of business activities, dabbling in almost every aspect of the city's economy, and the ability to oversee them would require years of preparation and personal experience. Unfortunately, it had placed a silent strain on their relationship as Itachi isolated himself within the impeccable white walls of his private office downtown.

-

"You don't ever stay for long," huffed Sasuke as the grip around his brother's hand tightened. It depressed him slightly how little time they spent together, compared to earlier. Back then, Itachi had allowed him to watch or observe whatever he was currently engaged him, sometimes sparing time to hand pointers to his younger sibling. Nowadays, Sasuke was fortunate to share the same table with him during mealtimes. Added to which that young children weren't allowed into the building since they'll only serve as a distraction for the employees.

-

"Yes," agreed Itachi as his fingers gripped the brass handle, "But next time I'll stay longer, okay?" In response, Sasuke tugged at the hand, pulling back for his elder brother's attention.

-

"You always say next time," he said with a hint of a whine. As a reply, Itachi gave a slight shrug, obviously not wanting to continue the conversation. If he had paid more attention, Sasuke would've noticed the cooling look in the eyes or the tightening of the mouth until it became a thin line. However, being a young child, his observation skills were still not polished. "Can't I just come with you? I won't-"

-

But his voice caught in his throat as he finally realized the harsh stare Itachi sent him; it was the look usually reserved when things were getting too frustrating. "No, Sasuke. Do not ask again." The voice was firm and left no room for negotiation. Sasuke swallowed dryly and looked down to his feet, hurt his request had been shot down so quickly. At the sight, Itachi's irritation steadily evaporated and, sighing in exasperation, he kneeled down to reach eye-level with his sibling. The younger boy refused to meet his eyes until two fingers softly poked him in the forehead.

-

"Foolish brother," Itachi sighed, when a pair of large dark eyes, on the verge of tears, faced him. As he continued to speak, a rough hand went to lovingly push away imaginary wayward bangs from the softly rounded face. An uneven breath slipped out between his lips; Sasuke could feel the moving air against his cheek. "Where I'm going, there is only a one-way door." There was a pause as Itachi's face grew blank, eyes once more glazed as if recalling a set of unfocused memories. "I can't allow you to follow me there." Itachi's dark eyes scanned meaningfully over his younger brother's face but Sasuke only frowned in confusion. For a moment, Itachi's hand lingered on the pale soft skin of his forehead, barely noticeable but warming nonetheless.

-

"Because you're..." Itachi's voice didn't hold the usual conviction of a self-assured genius; Sasuke could have sworn it had wavered near the end. Small ears strained to hear the last bit of the sentence as his brother finally lifted his hand -the warmth- away from his forehead. The strong grasp on his hand loosened and the long fingers gradually slipped away from his own.

-

Because you're...

-

Suddenly, the shadows of the room seemed to spread everywhere as bits and pieces of the room began to melt into the growing darkness. The sun had been setting but it shouldn't turn to night this quickly. Sasuke closed his eyes tightly, rubbing the lids with fisted hands, trying to adjust to the morphing room.

-

...my only...

-

When he finally opened them again, Itachi was standing yards away from him, dressed entirely different in an expensive unbuttoned suit covered in splatters of a deep ugly red. A smoking gun in one hand. A bloody sword in another. And eyes...those eyes seeped with the same blood color as the pupils fixed themselves on him.

-

bond

-

Something inside seemed to explode, bursting him awake into the still air of his bedroom. Steadily, Sasuke moved to sit upright on his bed of twisted silk and cotton. A pale hand reached limply to feel his rapid heartbeat over the slightly soaked skin as he tried to regain control of his body. After a couple of deep pants, the Uchiha felt relaxed enough to wipe the culminated sweat from his forehead and spare a glance at the clock on his bedside table. It was one hour before dawn; he had more sleep tonight than he expected. Usually during the week of the anniversary, he would be so plagued by night-

-

No. It was different this time. Eyebrows curled and forehead wrinkled as he tried to remember what exactly was inconsistent. When he did, a deep-set frown twisted Sasuke's features. Unwanted memories bombarded him one after the other, filling his heart with an ocean of shame and rage. Unconsciously, Sasuke's fisted hand began to pound the wooden headboard of his bed behind him, shaking the furniture with each impact. The skin of his hand became tender and bruised and the muscle underneath had begun to contract painfully.

-

When at last his mind began to settle, Sasuke stopped bounding the dented wood and examined his hand. It wasn't bleeding, but obviously bruised and extremely sensitive; he'll have to cover it with a long sleeved shirt for school today. If some nosey person asked, it really didn't matter since he could always explain it away as another wound from fighting with Naruto. At his mind's mention of the loud-mouthed blond, the events at the cemetery automatically replayed. Everything about the memory was vivid, especially the familiar raspy voice, unusually quiet and fragile.

-

"Being lonely, it's given and you're forced to take it."

-

In his head, Naruto's voice echoed long after the last traces of the dream had evaporated.

-

-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-

-

Once every few months, the bookshop/cafe will go through a complete redecoration in order to stay current and trendy. Sakura, as the manager, dictated the themes to him, the lowly employee, to which he would have to follow her every whim. Sometimes it wasn't so bad; in fact, it was oftentimes fun. The shop was limited in size, since it sat cozily between two other businesses to either side, so the projects didn't take that much effort to complete. He doodled on the posters, hung up banners, played around with the life-sized cut-outs, etc. It was better than hanging around the counter all day, having the stinging smell of strong caffeine fill his nostrils and giving him a headache.

-

The only con was that his boss tended to act very...bossy. Being a born and bred perfectionist had instilled a very strict sense of quality and, being her only employee, Naruto had to endure every single qualm. Though there were a couple of people who handled the weekday shift, while both were in school, Sakura had insisted on handling most of the details herself. The banner was either too high or too low by so-and-so inches. That shade was too bright or flaunty; it'll blind their customers. And for the last time, the cupid he drew last Valentine's Day was most definitely not a mutilated pink fly with a bad toupee.

-

Fortunately, the theme this time was Around the Worldbased off the classic by Jules Verne. Naruto never read it personally, though he vaguely remember it being on last year's reading list, but he took Sakura's word for what it was about. The blond was currently standing on the shaky aluminum ladder at the children's corner and struggling with a paper mache globe with way too much glitter sprinkled over the Pacific Ocean. Not trusting his judgment, the pink haired manager had provided him with the fishing line, carefully measured and marked so it'll hang perfectly on the ceiling.

-

However, when Naruto had carried it from the back room, the string had proved to be a nuisance so he had rolled it multiple times around the palm of his hand. Now it was acting difficult to take off, twisted and tangled until his flesh poked out in sharp sections. Only some tricky teeth work, he finally managed to unravel and pin it successfully to the soft ceiling. He leaned back on the latter to inspect his work, watching the globe catch and reflect the light with its glittered oceans as it spun on its axis. Satisfied, Naruto grinned and gave it a hard-knuckled tap.

-

It swung gently in the air and back to hit his face. Instinctively, Naruto slapped the globe away, trying to rub away the glitter that flew into his eyes. However, the world came back once more and sprinkled the teen with more sprinkles. Scowling, Naruto made a motion to swing at the piƱata reject but a sharp tug at the hem of his vest stopped the hand mid-air.

-

"Don't break the world, Naruto," an irritated voice scolded, "I worked two hours making that thing and the rest of the night to get the glue off of me." The tanned boy gave one last slap at Europe before descending the ladder, mumbling something akin to 'the world started it...' before shining his usual grin at Sakura who waited for him on the floor.

-

"So how about that date-" But a piece of paper was promptly shoved into his hands before he finished. Naruto looked it over and realized that it must be the new menu items to go with the current theme of the bookshop. Confused blue eyes scrutinized over the new menu; most of the items were a mystery to him. "Baklava? Moon cakes? Rice Pudding?" Usually Sakura would add only one special limited item on the menu with a couple of drinks.

-

"Baklava is from the middle east. I tried it once last summer at this specialty place and it was delicious with all these gooey nuts and honey! And moon cakes have such a nice history I had to put it on there too! And rice pudding is enjoyed all over the world by so many countries that I was obligated to put it as a new menu item!" Sakura had said this all in one breathe, a dreamy look over her face as she re-called every taste sensation. Naruto, still incredulous, only smiled faintly at the list in his hands. A list of pastry shops and their numbers were at the bottom. Since the cafe didn't have a kitchen and neither Sakura nor himself was a cook, they usually struck a deal with the local shops to have fresh batches delivered daily.

-

Naruto sighed inwardly but couldn't bring himself to voice his differing opinion on the whole thing. He would love to see some burgers or steaks or anything hearty on the menu but they simply didn't go well with coffee and books. The pink haired girl handed him the tape and pointed out where the new menu items would be displayed. Naruto nodded obediently and strided to the cafe, flicking off some glitter that collected on his shoulder. Sakura went to the back room, likely retrieving the last of the window posters.

-

The blonde had his back turned to the counter when he heard someone enter the shop and step straight to the counter. "Be right with you," Naruto said cheerily over his shoulder.

-

"Take your time...dead-last."

-

At hearing the voice, every ounce of his blood felt drained and replaced with antifreeze. He closed his eyes tightly, praying to every deity he knew and others he made before slowly turning around to face his next customer. Sasuke Uchiha stood in front of the counter, a large smirk playing his lips as dark eyes took in the horrified expression on Naruto's face. The tanned teen took a hard step towards the counter and jabbed an accusing finger at the other's direction.

-

"What the fuck are you doing here?!!" he whispered harshly, not wanting to attract Sakura's attention from the back room. Last time, he had spent a great deal of energy building up a plausible lie for the sake of Sasuke's privacy. Being the horrible liar he was, Sakura still didn't believe him and Naruto knew his chances of having his feelings reciprocated had been taken down a notch. He had hoped the other would be a bit grateful for his silence and keep away from his little corner of sanctuary. However, Sasuke seemed determined to make him regret any act of good will, deeming his sacrifices meaningless.

-

The Uchiha seemed immune to the glaring daggers Naruto sent. If anything, he took it as an encouragement to rile the other even more. "Never knew you wore makeup," Sasuke said smugly, dark eyes glinting in amusement.

-

Naruto's face flickered in confusion before looking indignant. "What? I do not-!" A pale finger cut him off as it swiftly swiped at his left cheek.

-

"The body glitter, dumbass," Sasuke said, showing the small amount of collected glitter on his padded fingertip.

-

Naruto promptly grew very self conscious as he remembered the amount of glitter that rubbed off on him from the globe; he sparkled more than the tooth fairy. "Sh-Shut up bastard! And this is not body glitter! I was putting up that globe and some of it brushed off on me." Two tanned palms vigorously rubbed at his face, reddening his cheeks even further. After a few moments, the tanned teen decided that enough had fallen on the floor to focus with some male dignity. "Just tell me what you want," he muttered gruffly. Naruto hoped the commotion hadn't Sakura's attention; she could only extend Sasuke's visit, a bad thing, and his chances of wooing the girl would undoubtedly suffer, a very bad thing.

-

"You shouldn't rush a customer." Of course, the bastard would make it more difficult for him. Naruto grinded his teeth and continued to deliver the best glare he could manage.

-

"I shouldn't beat up a customer either," he said in an incredibly fake cheerful tone, "Please hurry up and order, sir."

-

"Why the rush? It's not like I'm holding up a line." Sasuke gave a slight head jerk to emphasis the lack of activity around the shop. Naruto swore he could taste the arrogance that hung thickly in the air around them.

-

"Because I probably have to disinfect the place," Naruto replied, feeling his eyebrow twitch," Ya'know, just in case whatever makes you an asshole is contagious." Taking this as a sign, Sasuke finally decided to ease off the game and seriously contemplated in the menu hanging overhead. Naruto, after some deep breathing, finally felt his anger ebb away and waited patiently for the order. He noticed Sasuke having difficultly in deciding which items to choose, seeing those perfect eyebrows crinkling and pale lips pinched down into a frown. It wasn't surprising, since the pale teen didn't like sweets and many of their choices were full of sugar.

-

"Pick the coffeehouse scones," Naruto said offhandedly, leaning casually on the counter as he followed Sasuke's line of vision. "They're not really sweet and you don't have to have them with the jam. The bakery we get them from really knows how to make 'em too so they're always fluffy and good." Sasuke's looked suspicious when Naruto faced him again. He rolled his baby blue eyes and gave an exasperated sigh. "Geez, its not like I'm gonna spit on them with you watchin' me." The dark-haired teen still seemed unconvinced, staring into blue eyes until the blond felt uneasy. "Well? Do you want the scones or not?!"

-

After some consideration, Sasuke finally accepted his suggestion. "...I'll get the scones."

-

"'Coming right up, sir." Naruto hurried over to the stack of napkins and went over to the case where he carefully reached over to the scones. With the provided tongs, he purposely picked the slightly overdone ones and placed it in the paper bag. All the while, he could feel Sasuke's eyes attentively studying his every movement. He was used to this though, since they had classes together and much of their rivalry consisted of observing each other. Naruto was ringing up the order when the other teen finally spoke.

-

"I've been preoccupied."

-

The comment was so unexpected that Naruto had stopped and looked strangely at Sasuke. "Uh...what?"

-

"At school...I've been busy with recent council projects," Sasuke explained carefully, giving a meaningful glance at Naruto. "Too busy." The slight emphasis on the first word was unmistakable. However, the underlying message was lost to Naruto, who was a very literal guy and never cared for word play.

-

"So? Why should I care?" He received a dry look in return. Impatient, Sasuke reached over and pulled Naruto over the counter, awkwardly smashing their lips together. It was over before the tanned teen had time to react properly. This time, the kiss was quick and impersonal, acting more of a reminder than anything else. When they did come apart, Sasuke calmly stood back, the usual satisfied smirk on his face as Naruto struggled to find his balance on weakened legs.

-

"Because I haven't done that lately, moron."

-

The blond teen reddened as he sputtered out half-syllables of surprise and embarrassment. Though admittedly, Naruto had been wondering why Sasuke hadn't pursued the deal since the cemetery incident. In fact, the previous few weeks had been fairly peaceful with the two hardly ever in contact, except for a few fleeting arguments during their shared classes. Okay, so he was a bit paranoid for the first few days and wondered constantly what Sasuke was up to (there was always a calm before the storm right?), but he had chalked up most of it to that moment they had shared in front of the gravestones.

-

It was disappointing to think the main reason the deal was momentarily off was due to schoolwork. Naruto had wanted Sasuke to be as affected by the scene as he had been but, realistically, what could he expect? The bastard wouldn't let him free because of one dramatic event; this wasn't one of Sakura's romance novels, after all. Even with this logic, he couldn't stop being incredibly frustrated at how business-like the Uchiha had acted. Still, there were more pressing matters needed to be dealt with than Sasuke being an asshat.

-

"Wh-what the hell?!!" Naruto said, still shocked from the unexpected kiss. He had managed to forgive the Uchiha for practically molesting him in the cemetery due to the special circumstances but doing it at his bookstore? With Sakura only meters away? Sasuke had no reason to force himself on the blond at his job- his sanctuary! Hell, his second home! And there was no viable reason for it or circumstance like last time, as far as Naruto was concerned. "You-you said the deal will only be in school, lying piece of-!"

-

"I said the deal was only done on schooldays, not in school," Sasuke said manipulatively at Naruto's widening azure eyes, "Its still a school day, isn't it?" As if to emphasize his control, a pale hand reached around his neck and pulled out the necklace, letting it glimmer in under the fluorescent lights. The shorter male remained silent but still visibly enraged. "Since I'm too busy in school...I'll just have to come here-" But before the paler boy could finish, Naruto had two tight fists gripping the other's dress shirt, bunching up the front towards the throat. This seemed the perfect time to release some of the pent up fighting instinct from the past two weeks.

-

It just wasn't fair, Naruto thought bitterly, tightening his grip on the fabric. They had a deal, dammit, and Sasuke would go so far as twist the terms around to effortlessly suit his needs! The blond didn't know which he should be more furious about: Sasuke being manipulative or him being manipulated. In the end, he figured it all meant the same thing about the Uchiha. "Selfish bastard," he growled lowly as dark detached eyes stared back, almost daring him to make the first move. The string of the necklace brushed against the side of his fist. Reflexively, Naruto made a grab for it; the only thoughts in his mind was proving that he wasn't completely powerless.

-

However, when his fingers tightly clasped themselves around the delicate strand of silver, he found himself waiting. Naruto had all the reasons in the world to pull this necklace away. After all, it rightfully belonged to him! Added to which Sasuke's cheating attitude would've made Buddha enraged. And it would be so easy- so simple- to just pull away right now. But something inside him sparked when he touched the cool metal, like a flint. Before the blue-eyed teen could identify it, he was roughly pushed away.

-

Dark eyes glared at him with rage and confusion; Naruto stared back with a mirrored expression. They both knew he had hesitated at possibly his only opportunity of taking back the necklace. Why didn't he? Sasuke didn't have to voice the question for Naruto to give a heated glare that clearly indicated for him not to ask. Before either of them could open their mouths, the door to the back room creaked open.

-

They both turned their heads to Sakura who was heading towards the blond with a load of rolled-up posters in her arms.

-

"Naruto can you help-" When Sakura's head shifted to the side of the rolls, she caught sight of Sasuke standing in front of the cafe's counter. Taken by surprise, she opened her arms and the rolls fell to the floor. Naruto immediately went to her aide as she kneeled down to gather them. "Why didn't you tell me he was here?" she whispered at him in nervous breaths. Green eyes glanced up where the stoic boy stood calmly, mentally debating to himself whether or not to help. When Sasuke finally did make a move, Naruto and Sakura was already standing up.

-

"Well, he was just about to leave," he said aloud with the rolls tucked under his arms. Sakura frowned at him as he struggled with the posters as he made his way to the counter. The bag of almost forgotten scones were pushed towards Sasuke, who looked indifferent as he handed Naruto the money. There was one last smirk, with a glower promptly returned, before Sasuke moved his way out to the door, sparing Sakura a polite nod of acknowledgment.

-

"Oh! Are you leaving already?" the manager blurted, blushing lightly at her outburst. Sasuke had the civility to face her after letting his eyes wander over the place nonchalantly.

-

"This is a nice place," he said offhandedly, much to Sakura's obvious pleasure and Naruto's look of sudden constipation. She smiled widely before eagerly giving a small wave with her free hand.

-

"Thank you for you patronage and please come back again!" she said excitedly. She missed the parting glance Sasuke gave to the blond, mistaking the expanding smirk as a pleasant smile. The Uchiha gave one last curt nod and left the store, closely clutching the bag of scones to his side. Once his shadow disappeared from the parking lot, Sakura went to the blond, still beaming from her encounter with her long-time crush.

-

"I can't believe it! Sasuke Uchiha was here!" she said excitedly, choosing to ignore the blond's obvious distaste of the topic. Naruto only gave a half hearted shrug but chose to remain silent as a passive listener; he had learned that it was best to let the girl's energy to phase out rather than take a chance at fueling the spark. After some time, her speech started to return to normal with less frequent squeals and swoons. Still smiling, she tapped her chin thoughtfully and said something that immediately caught her employee's attention.

-

"Hey, what about me and you take the day off early? We already did a lot today and it looks today would be slow anyway," she started, taking in the view of the mostly deserted parking lot before turning back to Naruto. "I owe you a date, after all." She winked and grinned good-naturedly at him. Naruto's previous sour attitude immediately dissipated to the happiest he had been all day.

-

"Wha-! Really? Now?!!" he managed to sputter out. Promptly afterwards, Naruto remembered the necessities of cash on dates and looked apologetically back at Sakura. "Um, but where should we go? I...uh...don't have that much money." Though he hated sounding cheap, it was the honest truth; the tip jar was empty and it was a week before next payday. Fortunately, Sakura didn't seem to mind in the slightest.

-

"Let's just go to the park together; it looks like a beautiful day today," she offered politely, still riding out the high of her good mood. Naruto nodded in agreement, his grin appearing as strong as ever with a nervous blush on his cheeks. This was his chance at winning Sakura's heart! By the end of the day, she'll be swooning over him and would completely forget about Sasuke-bastard! His pink haired manager coughed lightly, catching his attention. "But before that, we have to clean up first..." He followed her gaze around the floor and groaned at the glitter sprinkled throughout the area.

-

-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-

-

It was a beautiful day.

-

The sun was already past its zenith so the atmosphere held a crisp airy quality without the midday heat, complimenting the smell of fresh cut grass nicely. Since it was a weekday, there were relatively few people interrupting their date; it was a generally peaceful and pleasant time. Sakura, still in euphoria, had laughed along with many of his jokes, playfully punching him whenever he cracked a dirty one. They had talked about many things; it came easy between the two since they've known each other for so long. Naruto had been especially careful not to have the conversation turn towards Sasuke, trying to paint himself as the ideal boyfriend and not wanting Sakura to compare the two of them. He successfully managed to do so by diverting most of their conversations back towards the shop, something the girl took great pride. However, some aspects made Naruto embarrassed, especially when she recalled the answers he had given during his employment interview.

-

"I asked you what books you like and you said something about Fairy Tales, remember?" she had said through handed laughs.

-

It wasn't long before they finally settled on a bench that coincidentally reminded Naruto of the one in the school's office. The pink haired girl sighed happily, leaning comfortably against the old wood with Naruto close, but not too close, beside her. The last three hours had passed quickly in Naruto's mind and he had grown more confident of winning Sakura over. Right now, settled so next together, he allowed the calm to absorb him into a heavily relaxed state. He turned his head towards the sky, shielding his blue eyes with an overturned arm, and grinned brightly. The enormous anger and frustration from earlier seemed so far away, instead of just mere hours ago. Sakura poked at one of his whiskered cheek, biding his attention back to her.

-

"Hey...Naruto," she began carefully, tapping her chin while resting her elbow on the other hand, "Can I ask you something?" He nodded, too carefree to actual voice his answer.

-

"Sasuke..." With one name, the tanned teen's spirit cracked into a downward spiral. Suppressing a growl at the mention, he immediately moved his body to sit up with hands tightly clutching the knees of his jeans. Damn it, why did the bastard have to ruin everything even when he isn't really there? Sakura, too preoccupied in her musings, ignored his discomfort and pressed on. "He goes to your school right? Are you sure you don't know him?" Her curious green eyes directed at him, a hopeful smile on her face. Not wanting to ruin the atmosphere, Naruto decided to answer as neutrally as possible. He didn't want to tell good things, if any, about Sasuke but he also didn't want to get on Sakura's bad side.

-

"Yeah, I see him around but we never really talk or anything," he said sheepishly, rubbing the back of his neck. The girl looked at him suspiciously, cocking her head to the side as she inspected him further.

-

"Well, you still go to the same school as him," she said, still persistent, "Are you sure you can't tell me anything about him? Anything at all?" Naruto's blue eyes flashed with hurt at how interested she seemed. While they had spent hours talking and joking like the best of friends, he had never saw that same look of adoration in her light green eyes. Still, it was better to stay neutral and truthful even if it was difficult swallowing his jealousy. The whiskered youth had already lied to her before and that was tough enough, especially since he had a very honest nature. Naruto sighed.

-

"He...he doesn't like sweet things or...being around big groups of people. Or people at all, " he started lamely, feeling evermore depressed at how Sakura's attention peaked even more. He hoped the conversation would end at that but the girl continued, determined to milk him for more information.

-

"Come on, Naruto! You must know something else." Naruto bit his bottom lip nervously before shifting his eyes back at his crush, inexplicably happy and beautiful from the excitement. A part of him played around with the idea of saying every single dastardly thing about his rival but he couldn't bring himself to do such an underhanded tactic. It was particularly difficult when he looked back at those trusting mint green eyes. The attention was flattering but, at the same time, it was also extremely disheartening knowing it was all due to Sasuke Uchiha. Not him.

-

"Sasuke's...a real bastard. He's really selfish, rude, and really really pushy. He's a real jerk, Sakura. The biggest jerk I know," he blurted impulsively. Sakura, taken aback, looked at him strangely before frowning. Naruto grinned weakly but didn't do anything to retract what he had said; after all, it was the truth.

-

"But there must be something good about him, Naruto," Sakura insisted defensively, "Everyone has to have some good points, right?"

-

Something about her words struck a chord in him. Sasuke Uchiha...what were his good points? Sakura had to be right; everyone had some. Besides being rich, handsome, athletic, intelligent, there didn't seem to be much leftover to consider. And, in Naruto's mind, all of these qualities seemed like a shallow way to describe someone as frustrating to understand as Sasuke. Naruto thought seriously, revisiting flashes of memories he had subconsciously filed on the pale boy.

-

Unfortunately, the kisses seemed to hold dominance in that department as he remembered the smell of clean soap on pale skin and dark hair. That itself was meaningless since it only meant the bastard was a hygiene freak. Speaking of which, the blond had suspected the vain bastard to moisturize his lips, since they can't possibly be so smooth and soft by nature alone. His, on the other hand, were always dry and crackly. The differing textures when they met-

-

Oh dear god. Stop brain. Stop

-

Naruto, disturbed by the train of thought, groaned and caressed his forehead with the palm of his hand. He had been unaware of the amount of detail his mind had preoccupied itself with. It sent a shudder throughout his body when thinking about the vivid details and the familiar sense of disgust clutched at his throat, making a bitter fuzzy taste in his mouth; his heart continued to thud steadily despite the obvious distaste. Unknowing of his mental anguish, Sakura sighed at his sudden bout of silence and poked at his upper arm. Knowing he wouldn't get any peace until he answered, Naruto spoke the first thing that came to his mind.

-

"When he smiles, it's really small but it's sort of nice...I guess," he muttered, not wanting to meet her eyes. It was the only thing that really stuck out for Naruto- one that he was comfortable enough to tell anyway. Sakura gave a pleased smile in turn, eyes glinted with 'I told you so'. The tanned boy sighed in defeat, slowly realizing how futile his efforts were of having the girl reciprocate his feelings against her one-track interest in Sasuke Uchiha.

-

"Why...why do you like him so much, Sakura?" he said curiously in a low voice, despite no other person being within hearing distance. The pink haired girl looked speechless for a moment, half-startled green eyes meeting bright baby blues. Naruto quickly looked apologetic at asking the extremely personal question but he nevertheless persisted. "I mean besides that he's good-looking and all that other stuff." For a moment, Sakura looked like she wasn't going to answer. The blond male was about to change the subject when she finally spoke.

-

"Well, when I was little, the city used to have special advanced classes that had selected kids from all the elementary schools. Once a week, we had to take the bus and it was basically just an hour-long recess where they made us play games. It was supposed to stimulate our intellectual growth or something." She hesitated for a moment before going on, glancing upwards at the dipping sun before continuing. Naruto recognized the glazed look of her eyes as she continued the story. "Of course, Sasuke was there too and immediately became popular with everyone, even the instructors." Her delicate hands played with the hem of her shirt while she summoned the courage to continue.

-

"That's when I first began liking him." It was here that she started to smile dreamily. "He just acted really mature for his age and he had this self-confidence around him that was so...so cool. I really admired him for those things but I was so shy back then that I never seriously acted on it." A sigh escaped her lips. "And even though I tried my best to get his attention, it never really got me anywhere. Then the classes ended and it was too late. I guess... I'm trying to make up for that now." She placed her small hands neatly over her lap and looked at him, a sad smile on her face and a flush on her cheeks as she finished.

-

"I really just...wanted him to acknowledge me."

-

...wanted him to acknowledge me. The words struck at Naruto until he felt it physically manifest itself as the tightening of his chest. He couldn't label the emotion coursing through his body and, in all honesty, didn't place priority in doing so. The feeling of being acknowledged...it was so familiar that he immediately sympathized with Sakura. Even before this confession, the blond had known- had recognized- that same exact desire. "Sakura..."

-

Noticing the tone of his voice, the young girl immediately stood up and waved her hands defensively. "I mean, it's not like I have low self-esteem or anything!" she said quickly, giving a nervous laugh. "But when you receive that type of recognition from someone who's important to you, it just means more." Though Naruto stayed silent, he found himself agreeing completely with her words.

-

Yeah, I know. It's just...if the person is...it's just...more

-

"Right, Naruto?" Sakura looked at him hesitantly as she tried to regain her composure from admitting her secret. Naruto grinned at her behavior; it wasn't often he saw this side of his boss. A few moments of awkward silences past, neither really knowing what to say to ease the atmosphere. Naruto was the first to break the tension with a rather blunt question.

-

"So, there really can't be anything between us, neh?" he said, pushing through another grin. He felt like they've reached a turning point in their relationship; however, he was disappointed to note it was one the blond didn't like. It had a sour taste of irony; their first (and last) date would reveal enough evidence of Sakura's devotion to admit utter defeat. He had underestimated her crush and paying the toll with a bit of teenage heartache. One of her hands placed itself on his shoulder sympathetically.

-

"I'm sorry, Naruto. You're a really sweet guy but...I just don't think of you that way." She stuck out her tongue playfully, trying to lighten the mood. "You're more of that annoying brother type I always have to keep out of trouble."

-

"Hey! I'm not that annoying!" he pouted.

-

Sakura laughed at the predictable reaction before glancing at the watch on her wrist. "Ah, it's getting kinda late. I have to go soon," she said as she faced the watch to Naruto so he could see. "Do you want a ride home? My car's still parked in front of the bookshop." She rose from the bench and waited patiently for him to do the same, knowing his bike was home with a flat tire.

-

Grinning, Naruto shook his head. "Nah, I'll just walk home." Though he appreciated the offer, being with Sakura at the moment would only make him uncomfortable. Besides, his home was a short walk away, providing the blond with some much needed alone time. He gave a large yawn and stretched out his limbs, hanging them over the edges of the bench with the grace of a spoiled housecat. Sakura gazed worriedly around the park before settling her concerned green eyes back on him.

-

"Be careful, Naruto," she warned, noting how fast the sky darkened, "The park's supposed to be really dangerous at night." Naruto brushed off her worry with a confident wave of his arm.

-

"You watch too much cops shows, Sakura. Besides, I can take care of myself; I can beat up a hundred bad guys with one arm tied behind my back!" For extra emphasis, he bent his arms, forcing a bulge of muscle to show through his skin. It wasn't impressive but his spirit seemed to calm down the girl's anxiety. She eventually walked away, smiling warmly and waving enthusiastically, until he couldn't see her pale pink hair.

-

After she was gone, Naruto settled himself comfortably against the back of the bench, resting his head along the top curve to face the sky. It's pretty, he thinks ruefully, catching the last dashing colors of the sunset as it mixed with the darker hues. Closing his eyes peacefully, Naruto allowed himself to contemplate the situation as objectively as he could; one of the few useful things Shikamaru had advised him to do when handling a troublesome predicament. So far, Sasuke had threatened him of return visits to the bookstore and Sakura was still strong in her admiration. Added to which that the chances of the deal being found out had been heightened, since the bookstore was a very risky place with customers walking in and out. He skipped over the fact that his chances of being with Sakura was now slim to none, with a greater lean to the absolute zero.

-

Hell, with his luck, Sakura would probably be the one to find out and he would be lucky to be on neutral terms with her. He groaned inwardly. How was he supposed to-?

-

"Well, look at what we have here boys," a snide voice interrupted, "If it isn't Naruto Uzumaki."

-

Naruto's eyes opened sharply and he turned to the source. Three guys, familiar looking and around his age, stood two meters away, the biggest one standing in front of the other two as he continued to sneer at the blond. After adjusting his vision a little, Naruto was able to clearly distinguish their faces, recognizing them as former students at his school. And if memory serves him right, they were the same jackasses who had caused his friends to become expelled.

-

Abruptly the blond stood up, straightening his back and sized them up. He noticed the leader of the group limping a little, but held a stripped branch to the side of his large body. If they were to get into a fight, which Naruto knew was very very likely, the big one would be the one he would be most wary of; the other two were weak cronies. Still, it was a very unbalanced fight with three against one. He swallowed thickly. This didn't look too good. Though he had built his stamina with his regular fights with Sasuke, he had no illusions of grandeur and they had always stopped their fights at the very brink of serious injury. Running was certainly not an option- was never an option.

-

Because the good guy never gives up- never falters. He's strong and determined and heroic until the very very end.

-

Naruto separated his heels, making sure to maintain a good balance for the inevitable fight ahead. If his fights with Uchiha ever taught him anything, it was to conserve his energy; this was a marathon, not a sprint. He watched as the biggest one nodded ahead to the other two who stalked towards him like wolves eying their prey.

-

"Ya' know, you shouldn't be walking alone out here," one of them offered, showing a set crooked teeth. "It's not safe, especially for a girl like you." Naruto fumed at the insult, turning to the guy with tightly clenched fists. He despised being called a girl above all else.

-

"What did you call me-?!!"

-

Bam. The blond hunched over a hard fist landed a solid punch into his soft stomach. Damn it! He had been too distracted! Ignoring the spiking pain, he straightened himself quickly and aimed a kick to the one who had punched him. Though he could hear the satisfying thunk as it connected, the one with crooked teeth had moved to deliver a hard swing at the side of his head. Naruto reflexively moved to defend against the attack, expertly dodging most of the simultaneous kicks and swings. There was no doubt that he was the better fighter but his opponents were both persistent and sneaky, directing most of their attacks at his head and stomach along with other vulnerable parts of his body.

-

Eventually the other two had managed to tire out Naruto and forced him to go into the defensive. It was fortunate that he had Sasuke as a rival; he had learned a lot from watching those graceful dodges. However, the other two had twice as much energy as him to spend. Naruto quickly found himself dizzy from the lack of oxygen and his vision blurry from the lands on his head. Taking advantage of his condition, the one with the crooked teeth made a grab at his arms while the other took the other. They locked him between them and struggled to hold onto the twisting body.

-

"This is payback for getting us expelled, you freak," one muttered as Naruto thrashed against the restraints, already bloody and bruised. After a full minute, the blond had become weaker in his struggle but stubbornness kept him from giving up. He growled at them, shooting a particularly ugly glare at the leader who had only watched the fight a few feet away.

-

Throughout the entire thing, the brute had allowed his minions to do the dirty work but still managed to look menacing with the stripped branch held loosely over his shoulder. Just like a coward, Naruto scoffed mentally. He would never allow other's to fight his battles. Naruto collected the blood from around his bleeding lips and spit it in his direction. "Let me go you cheating fuckers!" he cursed. His reply was a stinging whip of the branch. Naruto bit down the intense pain, though he could feel his eyes water.

-

"That's for my knee, you freak." The sneer was met with silence and another futile struggle. Naruto had no idea what the guy was talking about but refrained from asking. It didn't seem like he would get a straight answer, anywho.

-

"Not so tough without your friends, huh?" one of his restrainers sneered. At the mention, the blonde widened his eyes in confusion. What are these assholes talking about? What did his friends-? But his thoughts were once more disrupted by another swift ship of the branch; this one was on his injured stomach. Naruto cursed through teeth clenched together so tightly he could almost feel them cracking.

-

"Fuck...you."

-

"Naruto?" The sound of a new voice caught everyone's attention almost immediately. The blond managed to twist around at the loosened grips and see a blurred figure standing further along the path. It took some adjusting for him to recognize the spiky ebony haircut and the emotionless pale face. Naruto, overcome with dread, had little confidence of Sasuke helping him. Would the Uchiha actually help out these assholes in beating him senseless? After all, though Naruto thought they made some positive progress in their relationship, they still held a violent rivalry with each other. Or maybe Sasuke would simply ignore this and walk away as if he was never there.

-

It was hard to say which possibility made the blond feel more distressed.

-

"Uchiha? Well, you're just in time!" the leader spoke through a fake smile. Sasuke didn't say anything in reply nor did his expression changed. He calmly stepped closer to them and stopped as he stood in front of Naruto, dark eyes roving over his form. Naruto looked back, blue eyes flashing with a strong fighting spirit despite the wear of his body. No words were exchange as the Uchiha turned back to the leader who was grinning so widely that it had to ache.

-

"Wanna do the honors-?" But the offer was cut by a sharp elbow jab to the neck, followed by a strike to the eye. The large teen took a few steps back, hands around his neck and eye.

-

"Wh-what the hell?!!" he choked, spitting on his words, "I thought you...of all people-!"

-

"Let him go." Everything became quiet; everyone was stunned but Naruto must have been the one caught most off-guard. His blue eyes widened up at the Uchiha, though Sasuke ignored all of their bewildered stares. Sasuke? Sasuke Uchiha was helping him? Naruto? Helping him? Naruto realized that the hold on his arms had slackened, probably from the recent turn of events, and gave one last sharp tug. He managed to free himself and limp a suitable distance away. Not knowing what else to do, the two males took their place next to their injured boss, expressing sentiments of concern. However, they were roughly pushed away as the brute continued to sneer at the pale teen.

-

"You want this shitter go?" he spat, feeling betrayed, "Are you nuts?!! I thought you'll be on our side!" Sasuke only gave a cold glare as he moved towards Naruto, allowing his actions to answer instead. This only infuriated the leader further; He tightened his hand around the branch until his knuckles turned white. "Fine! We'll just beat both of your asses!"

-

The two others seemed hesitant in fighting with both Naruto and Sasuke; they've all witnessed their frenzied brawls at school. They had trouble handling just Naruto and still had the fresh wounds to prove it. However, like the obedient sheep they were, they took the signal and headed towards Sasuke at full force. Ready for the attack, the ebony haired boy had managed to dodge the the majority of their onslaught. However, the leader had begun to make his way into the fight, raising his branch and aimed to hit Sasuke's shoulder.

-

"Sasuke!" Naruto yelled. Sasuke, not quick enough to move away, tried to block the stick by turning sharply and holding out his arms to block. There was a sickening thwack as the stick landed along the length of the arm and on top of the knuckles. The blond had enough time to see his rival wince at the contact before mindlessly throwing himself back into the fight. Using his entire body weight, Naruto lunged towards the leader and successfully took down the large boy, catching down the other two in the process with his legs. Fortunately, Sasuke had moved out of the way but quickly recovered to handle the leader as Naruto swung wildly at the two struggling on the ground.

-

The two weaker boys had already fought with the blond and hadn't had the stamina to keep up. This meant that Naruto had little 'convincing' before they gave up, half running and half limping away. The larger teen was more stubborn and prideful but Sasuke was too superior for him to ever have a decent chance at winning. The stick had been snapped long ago during the brawl and Naruto knew from experience that those sloppily aimed punches would never land. Eventually, the large boy conceded and the two allowed him to walk away with much more than a bruised ego.

-

Once the adrenaline subsided, the blond gave a vicious smile. "That's right! Naruto Uzumaki just kicked your asses! Believe it!" He laughed but stopped when he felt the ache of the bruises around his ribs and chest. Lifting up his shirt, he flinched at the sight of blotched purples and smeared red over his tanned skin. He'll have to get it cleaned soon but they'll disappear within a week or two; he had always been an incredibly fast healer.

-

Suddenly remembering his partner, Naruto looked around to see the Uchiha sitting wearily on the bench, hunched over and inspecting his hand. Curious, the blonde walked over, still holding the hearty grin. His face immediately fell at the extent of Sasuke's injury, specifically around the knuckles. The skin was so swollen that a couple of places actually looked like it had cracked, showing a bit of torn tissue underneath along with the darkened blood.

-

"Fuck. That looks bad," Naruto whispered nervously. It was a complete mess and, judging from Sasuke's wince as he tried to move away from Naruto's gaze, it was also painful. "Oh god, Sasuke. That looks really really bad."Naruto chewed on the bottom of his lips, concerned eyes never leaving Sasuke's bleeding knuckles. "Wait here! I can run back to my house real quick and get some stuff for that," he offered eagerly, "Just-just wait here and-!" He wanted to inspect the wound more closely but the pale teen moved out of reach.

-

"I can take care of this myself," Sasuke interrupted sharply. Naruto scowled but didn't say anything as he watched Sasuke take out some napkins with his bookshop's insignia; the Uchiha must've saved them from the scones. The blond continued to watch as the taller boy delicately wiped at the dried blood and smudged dirt. Though he knew the other was trying to put on a stoic face, Naruto could see how Sasuke was clenching his teeth to stop the hiss.

-

The blue-eyed boy turned his face down and away, swallowing hard. Sasuke wasn't a stranger to injury; Naruto had dealt many of them himself. The wound wasn't even that bad compared to past ones. He began gnawing nervously on his lips, drawing more blood into his mouth. Blue eyes watched with morbid fascination at Sasuke, who had just finished cleaning his and was reaching into his pocket for another to press against the wound.

-

Naruto shouldn't feel this way- this guilty- for Sasuke being hurt.

-

Sasuke noticed his unusual silence and gave a small kick to the his shin. "Hey, dumbass-"

-

"I didn't asked for this!" Naruto blurted, looking heatedly at the other, "I didn't want this!" Dark eyes narrowed and pale lips constricted into a thin line. "I could've fought them myself if you didn't act like such a shithead and-!"

-

"What? Save you?" Sasuke interrupted, his voice rising, "You were getting your ass kicked, moron. What the hell was I supposed to do?"

-

"You could've-you just could've ignored it!" Naruto managed, pointing accusingly at the other. "Why would you help me anyway, huh? It's not like we're friends or anything!"

-

To this, the Uchiha glared and pressed harder against the bandage around his knuckle. A few moments of silence passed before the blond's shoulder finally relaxed. Though Naruto knew he had, in some level, outsmarted the other, he couldn't find it to revel in the glory. If anything, it made him feel more guilty. "Don't be stupid," Sasuke said bitterly, distracting himself back to his hands, "If you got hurt and ended up in the hospital, I can't fulfill the deal with you, can I? You're such an fucking idiot."

-

The reason sounded half-hearted to the blond but he didn't feel like mulling over intentions. Because they were freshly injured and thoroughly exhausted, Naruto didn't want to gamble another fight so he decided to downplay the atmosphere instead. "Whatever," he muttered while daring a few steps closer to the other. Soft blue eyes looked back over the hunched figure. "So you're...you're okay? Right?"

-

Sasuke gave a sigh of exasperation. "Yes. I'm fine. Stop asking." Naruto waited for the usual jeer or snide remark but it never came, though he could sense that the Uchiha was biting back his words. A few moments of evening crickets and wind permeated the air as both boys decided to look over their injuries . Naruto had settled himself on the bench, making sure he there was a great space between them. As he took inventory of the new bruises on his left leg, the blond offered a casual discussion to fill in the silence.

-

"Why were you here anyway?" the tanned teen offered casually while checking for bruises on his left arm.

-

"This is a public park, remember?" Sasuke scoffed, "That means anybody can come here if they wanted."

-

Naruto rolled his eyes; it was such an expected answer. Not only did it completely divert the question but sneaked in another taunt at the blond's expense. "Yeah, but why were you here?"

-

The pale boy quickly opened and closed his mouth, seriously taking the question into serious consideration. "Not that it's any of your business," he began, "but I come here to think sometimes." Naruto, finished with his own self-inspection, regarded the answer with a curious look. It wasn't as if it was unusual, lots of people come to the park to do the same exact thing, but he never thought Sasuke was capable of doing something so...normal.

-

"You should try it." Sasuke added, smirking at the glare he recieved. "Maybe then you wouldn't have to resort to violence so often."

-

'You're one to talk,' Naruto thought sourly but allowing the comment to slide. Wanting to continue the conversation, he asked, "So...what were you thinking about?" The pale teen didn't answer right away, seemingly lost in thought as he looked something beyond the darkening trees in the distance.

-

"You were lying," he said bluntly, eyes darkening as he met with Naruto's surprised gaze.

-

"Huh? Lying? Where did that-?"

-

There was a scowl before Sasuke looked away again, impatient with the blond's weak memory. Through the shadows, Naruto could see just how vexed the other was; the Uchiha's jaw was moving as if he was nibbling the insides of his mouth. When he finally spoke again, Naruto had to lean closer, eyebrows furrowed in confusion, as he tried to make out the rest of what the Uchiha was saying. "Being lonely, its given and you're forced to take it?" the brunette quoted, scoffing at the end, "That isn't always the case. Some people make the choice to be alone even when other options exist."

-

Blue eyes widened in memory. Sasuke had been thinking about their meeting at the cemetery? Naruto couldn't help but feel a sort of pride for effecting the stoic boy in that way, even if it had been incredibly awkward. However, he promptly remembered the rest of the Uchiha's statement and started to frown. "Wh-what? That's bullshit!" Sasuke glared at his loud tone so the whiskered teen continued in a softer voice. "What kind of person would prefer living like that? It's stupid!" The Uchiha's back straightened up noticeably, eyes narrowed down at the blond.

-

"Didn't you just say that you had wanted to fight those guys alone? Even though it didn't happen, you chose to be alone," Sasuke said accusingly, ice in his words. "You wanted to do it alone. If you don't see that, you're a bigger moron than I thought."

-

"Th-that's different!" Naruto fumbled, "It was my fight-!"

-

"Different people have different reasons, Uzumaki," Sasuke interrupted impatiently, voice rising. "Just because your reasons are more noble, doesn't make it less applicable!" Sasuke's hand had begun to bunch around the fabric around his knee, twisting the material tightly with his freshly bandaged knuckles. Naruto swallowed thickly, unable to provide a rebuttal. At his silence, Sasuke softened his voice and continued through a rough whisper. "The world is full of people who willingly isolate themselves. Just because you're too naive to face that fact doesn't make it less true."

-

To the blond, the statement just didn't click. It wasn't because the idea was particularly complicated or revolutionary, but some part of him simply refused to see it. Because of this, a strong frustration welled up from inside Naruto and produced an unexplainable amount of anger alongside it. He found himself closing in until they were right next to each other, physical contact bare centimeters apart. "What the hell are you saying, bastard?!! Why would anyone be stupid enough to do that to themselves?!!" Sasuke shoved the blond teen back, but it didn't stop Naruto from talking once he composed himself. The initial feelings of anger had subsided but there was enough frustration left to still set his azure eyes burning.

-

"Even though...even though I understand wanting to be by yourself for a little while, always living with that -that pain day in and day out?" Naruto said stubbornly between deep sighs. He broke their gaze, turning his bright eyes towards the night sky speckled with drifting clouds and tiny stars. "It doesn't...it just doesn't make any sense." Even before he had finished, the whiskered teen could sense the harsh glower he received.

-

"What exactly isn't making sense? We live through the pain- become stronger because of it!" Sasuke spatted, trying vainly to make the other grasp the concept, "Everyday, countless people are making that choice and going through with it until the very end." There was a pause as Naruto's attention drifted back towards him and this time it was Sasuke who turned away, facing his eyes towards his bandaged knuckles. "They don't regret it, Naruto. They're fine with that decision and only idiots like you make it seem like such a bad thing!"

-

Naruto clenched and unclenched his fingers, seriously contemplating what the pale teen had said. After all, not everyone was like him. Not everyone would hate being left alone, forgotten, and ignored. No matter how much he hated to admit, the bastard had a point. Even so, a part of him refused to give into the belief. It was the memory of long days and quiet nights when he was much younger, where the television constantly on just to fill the silence of his home. The day he had been invited to join Shikamaru, Kiba, and Chouji at lunch was the day he had slept without the television, too comfortable in his bed to turn it on.

-

So how could Naruto agree with such a pessimistic view, if he already lived through it? Maybe people did willingly chose to be alone but that they had never regretted the decision...? With newfound determination, he moved closer to Sasuke, pacing carefully until he was right in front of the other. "I don't believe that. There's gotta be more to living than the crappy parts, Sasuke. Its complete bullshit that the people who are alone in the world every fucking day in their lives don't care." Naruto paused, trying to find the right words. "People can't want that because we're...because we're... "

-

"We're what? Needy? Pathetic?"

-

"...because we're human," Naruto finished, ignoring Sasuke's interruption. "Because everything's so ugly and messy and violent. But if...if someone was with us, everything feels a little bit better. That's why-"

-

That's why...I don't understand how anyone would want to be alone.

-

That's why...I don't understand how anyone would want such a bitter existence.

-

Without a conscious thought, Naruto moved to hold Sasuke's bandaged hand in his own. It wasn't meant to be a comforting gesture, even though the touch was soft, it felt more analytical. There was a sense of importance in the words he wanted to push out of his throat, but there was also a strong hesitance upon its release. No, it was more comparable to an active fighting spirit stopping him from saying it too loud.

-

That's why...

-

Unexpectedly disheartened, he squeezed the hand, forgetting that the injury was still fresh and likely sensitive. If it was painful, Sasuke didn't make any movement to pull away or break Naruto out of his stupor. With a small bout of reluctance, Naruto finally managed to push the words from his parched throat.

-

"I don't understand you."

-

With those words came a large undeniable sense of helplessness. Previously, a small piece of him had placed Sasuke on the same level as him, no matter how different their outward styles seemed to be. He had wanted to believe that he knew more about Sasuke than anyone else and took pride in the knowledge. Naruto had held a comfort in that thought each time they had fought each other, but their differences was too glaringly obvious now; he couldn't even pretend to grasp the Uchiha's way of thinking. Who was he kidding all these years? Their similarities were so minimal, they might as well be a different species altogether; two conflicting species that couldn't coexist with each other. At best, they were heated rivals and at worst they were...they were...

-

Strangers.

-

They were strangers. It didn't seem likely, not even possible, but its the closest word Naruto's limited vocabulary could come up with to describe the distance between them. It troubled the tanned youth; years literally wasted for something not even clearly identifiable. His body suddenly grew entirely numb while his face tightened. Sasuke, on the other hand, had no change. A snippet of memory floated to Naruto as he realized that the pale teen must already be fully aware of this; it was just him who had been ignorant.

-

All this time, the Uchiha had chosen to remain silent. However, they couldn't stay all night. Dark stormy eyes, shaded by the night, nodded down to meet the whiskered face. "Moron," Sasuke muttered stiffly, finally moving his hand away and stuffing it into his pant's pocket. Naruto, still hazy in his musings, didn't hear the comment nor did he react the his now empty grip. However, he did hear the shifting footsteps and looked up to see the Sasuke's retreating back. For a fleeting moment, he wanted to make a grab for the other to stay but stopped at the last second. There just wasn't anything else left to say so there was no point.

-

Depressed, the blond looked down at his hand and noticed remnants of blood along the lines of his palms. He had apparently squeezed so hard that the bandage had bled through; Naruto felt guilty of the pain the Uchiha had to endure because of his absentmindedness. He inspected the stains closer, bringing it up in front of his face and out of the shadows of the night air.

-

Oftentimes, Naruto had to wash away bloodstains from his skin and clothes after their fights. It didn't matter if most of the blood was his or the other because it was already dried and caked beyond recognition; his only worry had been if the stain would come off. But out of boredom, he'd sometimes analyze the smudges, imagining and exaggerating the differences between their blood. Sasuke's would be the darker and thicker, easily chipping away from the cotton with a scratch or two from his blunt nails. If Naruto felt particularly imaginative, he'll pretend that Sasuke was also cold-blooded like a venomous snake and oozed green blood like the aliens from movies he can't remember the titles of.

-

But as Naruto felt the fresh blood on his own skin, a surprising realization gently nudged itself into his psyche.

-

Sasuke's blood was warm...

-

Though most of the original heat had vanished, Naruto could feel traces; just a moment ago, this smear had been an active part of keeping the brunette alive. He didn't know exactly what about the concept stunned him as much as it did. The blue eyed boy knew all people were mammals and therefore warmblooded, but he guessed the fact never really sunk in until now, especially in regards to Sasuke Uchiha. Entranced, Naruto moved the blood in tight circles underneath the pads of his fingers. It wasn't only warm, but also held the familiar deep red color and felt slightly sticky to the touch, even the faint scent of copper lifted to his nose. It was the same blood as every other person, just like his.

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The exact same as his.

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It took a moment to fully register in his mind. When it did, Naruto smiled faintly at his blood-stained fingers. "Well..its a start," he whispered, moving the blood against his fingertips.

-

-to be continued-

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Just wanted to say that I really really appreciate all the reviews I received so far. You guys are wonderful and I'm very grateful for all the support the story is being drowned in. Thank you! Thank you so much! Big squishy hugs all around! Seriously, I don't know why this story gets so much attention especially after I've been such a neglectful author. Dx Many many apologies for that. Gee wilikers...so many excuses that I rather not get into.

As for this chapter, I feel very iffy about it. I really didn't mean for it to be this long with this many scene changes but things came up that made it necessary. A lot of vital information is included here so I didn't want to skimp on anything that would be important later on.

Btw, since people have been asking, I've planned this story to be around ten to twelve chapters long including an epilogue/afterword. So, its not a really long story but the chapters are gonna be rather packed! -thumbs up-

Again, thank you everyone! -bows gratefully-