Flipping through the channels on T.V., the raven-haired boy sat on his bed, slouched over in his usual brooding position.
Rain tapped at the windows and the shadows of water droplets danced across his pale cheeks.
Alone, sitting there with silk sheets swept up over his legs in the darkness, Sasuke felt the familiarity of the shadows settle over him.
A strange and sad feeling of comfort took him over as he drew his knees close and balanced a plastic ramen cup over one propped up leg.
The warmth of it brought goose bumps to his skin and he mutely studied the swirl of steam that rose from the container.
His mind worked a thousand questions.
Always the same ones that never brought any answers.

Being the class rookie, he had topped everyone in everything that had involved the ninja academy.
He excelled tremendously at ninjutsu and taijutsu.
True, he did not specialize in any one particular ninja technique, but what he lacked in specificity, he made up for in diversity.
When Sasuke combined his attacks using all ways of the leaf shinobi, he could beat almost anyone.
Each written examination he took, returned with his expected letter grade, an A. All the teachers called on him when no one else could spar with their questions, because they all knew that he had the correct answers. He was fairly well-versed and articulate in the classroom, choosing the most suitable words coupled with the most brilliant ideas.
He never stuttered or hesitated, never wasted his breath on useless comments or beating around the bush.
He was direct, precise, professional and almost always right. In other words, his oral exams and recitation fared just as well as anything else.

Sparring practice and hands-on training was no different.
Aside from the famous Sharingan, which Sasuke did not yet discover during his days at the academy, the Uchiha Clan was also known for their accurate throwing skills.
He can spot five different target boards in five different locations within a 15 meter radius at one glance, throw five kunais and surely maim the five direct bulls-eyes.
The only other student who possessed this talent for accuracy was a girl named Ten-Ten, who was one year level higher than Sasuke.

He knew he was popular with the girls, because they never really bothered to hide the fact. They were constantly surrounding him. Offering him food, flowers, cards, books, weapons and various other things he'd found stuffed into his locker that he'd rather not think about.

Boys hated him for it. He, on the other hand couldn't care less.

If other people had time to waste on shallow riffs and ogling, he didn't, because really there was only one thing on his mind… only one thing that got him out of bed every single day for the past 6 years of his damned orphan life.
The one thing that could bring back the life he knew before his pain, and could take away the numbness that had settled into whatever was left of his heart.
And if he worked hard enough, if he did, if he excelled greater than any ninja that crossed his path, he could finally have it.

Yes, revenge.

For his own sake, and for the sake of his clan.

His jaws clenched and in frustration, he sighed and turned his head to look out at the balcony stretching across the second floor, outside he could see the very little of Konoha that was not enveloped in the thick fog and mist that came with nightfall in the leaf village. Over the distance, he could see the twin orb-like glows coming from the paper lanterns of Ichiraku, Naruto's favorite ramen place.

Occasionally, bouts of laughter floated up from the nearby bar, dogs barked somewhere in the distance, and the solid tenor voice of the wooden-mask vendor called out to buyers from the alley next to Sasuke's house.

Always, there were the crickets.

Sasuke nestled back against the goose-feather pillows behind him, before digging the chopsticks absent-mindedly into the ramen container.

He remembered one of the missions he'd taken with the rest of team 7 and its mentor, Kakashi, the other week.

After a whole day spent assisting a horse-cart driver with his duties delivering fruits and vegetables back and forth across two towns, he, Naruto, Sakura and Kakashi were walking back towards the direction of the forests bordering Konoha, when they came across a cool, grassy open field. The wind swept across the tall stalks, bringing with it the smell of sickly-sweet mountain flora and pine tree sap.

Without a second thought, the only girl on the team, the pink-haired ninja Sakura let out a long sigh and with all grace forgotten, plopped down over the grass, her clear, green eyes looking dull, her face, arms and the exposed parts of her legs, battered from all the pushing and pulling on the wooden cart.

"Yatta!" Beside her, a high, scratchy voice let out a whoop. "Rest. Finally!" Naruto, bubbly, energetic and very irritating Naruto - clad in bright orange jumped down next to her. With a heavy thump, his body was spread out flat over the ground and his gaze was looking ahead.
"Oh..?" his blue eyes widened as he scanned the sky above him.
"There are many stars out tonight."

Sasuke, as usual, didn't feel the need to say anything. He made his way towards a spot further away from the noisy blonde and the clingy girl before settling down into the grass.

"Mm. Yes." their gray-haired teacher murmured as he tilted his one visible eye at the skies. He'd already quietly made himself comfortable behind the three genins. His body reclined lazily against one hand while the other scratched at the back of his head.

"Now, this isn't so bad is it?" Kakashi's eye crinkled charmingly, as he looked at his students.

Even though Sasuke and the others had never seen how the jounin mouth concealed underneath the mask looked, they could tell he was smiling.

Together, the Konoha ninjas looked up into the black dome above them. They could see the vast stretch of darkness, and the shower of tiny, bright stars amidst the roll of feathery clouds.
No one said anything.
It was a miracle even Naruto was quiet this time.

Maybe, Sasuke thought, the blockhead has finally fallen asleep.

With his eyes partially closed, Sasuke did what he rarely ever thought of doing with other people around.

He dropped his guard.

The tightness in his shoulders ceased and his legs stretched out against the soft, mossy ground. He even allowed his head to tilt a little bit to the left as he felt the breeze fanning at his cheek. How comforting this all was. If naivety was second nature to him, he would probably be smiling.

The boy listened for the soothing sound of silence. But around him the hills were all but quiet. It was the familiarity of one particular sound that drew Sasuke's attention.

And before he could think, emotions he'd long wanted to forget, thoughts buried shallow, had seized him. Like a sudden gush, the feeling consumed him and his head dropped to stare at the blades of grass in front of him. The soft, chirping of the crickets all around the hill reminded him a little bit of that life he knew back when he had his family.

When he closed his eyes, he once again saw the walls around the Uchiha compound, so clearly etched in his mind, could imagine his grandmother feeding twigs into the blazing fire underneath the clay pots at the far end of the garden, hear the laughter of his father after his regular round of sake and the clatter of the dishes as his mother leaned over the kitchen sink. Always there were crickets, sounding just as they did on this hill, the soft repetitive chirping carrying on throughout the night.

A mixture of melancholic joy and painful sadness washed over him, and almost as if he wanted to deflect the memories, Sasuke abruptly turned over to one side and blinked at the direction of the trees. Beyond it he could see nothing but darkness.

Some things never change, but important things almost always do. A cold, knowing voice quietly said.

His heart hardened once more with the familiarity of his conclusion and without another word, he forced his sore, shaking legs to stand.

The wind nipped at his spiky raven hair, as his eyes peered sullenly down at his three companions. "Kakashi, we should move before it gets late."

Almost by reflex, the girl beside Naruto stood up. "Yeah, sensei. Sasuke-kun is right. And my parents are gonna stay up waiting for me to return." Sakura always agreed with him. If he had spoken with conviction that the Fifth Hokage's pig, Ton-Ton, could fly… she wouldn't have hesitated to back him up.

He almost smirked at the thought.

"Keh!" it was Naruto's impish voice, "I'm much too comfortable to move now."
Turning to the direction of the raven-haired boy, he narrowed his blue eyes into tiny slits and muttered, "You sure know how to ruin anyone's mood, Sasuke. Ouch!"

The Uchiha didn't even need to look to know Sakura's fist had landed a painful blow to the tactless boy ninja's head. In Sasuke's mind, there was only the barest hint of recognition that a girl had once again defended him. It's not that Sasuke wasn't thankful. But the fact that he didn't particularly care about useless taunts aimed at him, killed most of his gratitude.

Frankly, he did not feel the need to thank her and was also too proud to. What would he have to put up with if the poor girl took it as a sign of encouragement that he appreciated her gesture? It would be troublesome and annoying. Above anything else, Sasuke despised people who delayed him or burdened him. He had no mercy or compassion for hindrances like her. Only after all these thoughts came, did a slight, barely noticeable pang of guilt gnaw at him.
Impatiently he brushed it off and stuffed his hands into the pockets of his shorts. Despite his aching limbs, he maneuvered smoothly around the jagged rocks around the top of the hill, towards the direction they had been taking before they rested.
Just before his head completely turned towards the dark pathway, his eyes met with Kakashi's. The wizened-looking jounin had been the one to train him in the desert just before the chuunin exams. He had been the one to teach Sasuke his most destructive biological weapon, the Chidori.
And though they both kept their distance because of painful memories from the past, Sasuke couldn't help giving him an extra glance every now and then, just to see if he approved of things or not.
Kakashi was not at all like his dead father, but for some reason, Sasuke could easily see him as one. He was a mentor, a loyal friend and as close a father-figure as anyone could get.
Of course, Sasuke would never admit even to himself, that he thought of his teacher that way.
In his heart, he wanted only to depend on himself, and on nobody else. He knew all too well about the depths of pain.

If there was one thing he would never forget, it was the fact that no one could ever safely place their trust on those dearest to them, because in the end, they were the same ones capable of doing the most unspeakable things.

Everyone else stood. Naruto, who was Sakura's exact opposite when it came to dealing with him, was stubbornly the last to get up and leave the field.
Sasuke observed the non-existent path through the forest in front of him.
For a moment he stood, considering the options. Walk through the gnarled bushes or dive through the thickly-branched trees?

Before he could decide, a white blur that shot up from the right told him Kakashi thought the best way was up. He instinctively gathered some chakra under the soles of his feet and followed his mentors lead.

They jumped and dodged the branches, propelling themselves towards the direction of Konoha with Kakashi constantly shooting glances up at the stars, utilizing astrological position to navigate the team westward.

They had arrived forty minutes later, bruised and battered, each one short of breath, but satisfied.

Sasuke had been glad he could just walk the rest of the way home. His muscles had stiffened and if he didn't have so much discipline, he would probably drop to the ground somewhere along the way.

He turned towards the street that led to his two-story apartment when a small voice behind him called out.


He suppressed the urge to roll his eyes, stopping a few meters away but not bothering to glance back at Sakura.

Her light footsteps became louder as she caught up with him.

"What is it, Sakura?" he said, finally giving her a glance.

The girl had a healthy blush that tinged the tops of her cheeks, and she appeared almost cute as she looked at him with her big, green eyes.

"I was wondering if you wanted to go on a mission with me and Lee tomorrow. It's just at the edge of the forest. Two Konoha Chuunins discovered a few complex animal traps hidden in there and the fifth asked us to clear it up. She allowed us to bring an extra genin."

He barely gave it a thought even as he listened tolerantly. In fact, after her first sentence, he'd already decided.

"No, Sakura."

The crest-fallen look on her face almost moved him to change his mind, but instead he turned around. Stuffing his hands in his pockets, he began to walk away.
But before he had taken two steps, he felt a hand on his right shoulder.

Truly, this was annoying.
Just when he turned his head to tell her exactly what he was thinking, Sakura wrapped her fingers around the crook of his arm, and anything he might have said to her was suddenly forgotten.

Contact was a delicious thing.

Sasuke had seldom been touched, even when his mother was still alive.
Everyday of his life, he secretly longed for a pat, a ruffle of his hair, a hug. Any kind of contact at all would have sufficed. But his dead parents never gave him that kind of love and affection. Only one member of his family ever did. Except now, that person, his brother, was also as good as dead to him.

And now, there was this.

His defensive self, wanted to tear his arm away from her.
Because he knew that the moment her hand pulled away from him, he would be left with pain.
And he was so very tired of pain. He was tired of feeling lonely, of people loving him and then leaving him.
But even as his whole body stiffened, waiting for the inevitable, Sakura did not let go.

"Sasuke-kun…" her voice was so soft, so demure… so much so he felt like feathers were drifting down at his sides for no apparent reason.

His eyes studied her, and vaguely he grew aware of the awkwardness of the moment.

She was speaking.

"...I really wish I knew what you were thinking sometimes. No one can ever figure you out."

She wanted to know about him.

His life.
His past, his feelings, his vulnerability.

Before he knew it, he had snatched his arm back with an expression that was almost contemptuous. His sleek eyebrows snapped together as he tilted his chin at her.

The look on her face, he would never forget. The light from the moon and stars made her pale skin luminous and her eyes deeper than they really were. Sasuke looked at her. Really looked, and saw something bright, perhaps a star reflecting in her eye. The stark light quivered for a moment, and suddenly with a blink, he realized that two tears had snaked down her cheeks. He pulled away from her.

"It hurts me, more than it does you." She murmured and her eyes spoke to him of all the sadness he recognized in himself.

But even then he couldn't speak back,
because he never did.

Just as always, he gathered anything that he had let escape and stuffed it all inside him again.
No mess, no confusion.
Just the usual raging storm in his gut.

He closed his eyes, looked away and snorted.
Why he emitted that particular sound, he did not know. But it felt natural.
And her being able to see through you isn't, something told him.

"Go home, Sakura." He muttered, barely noticing how sharp his tone seemed to sound to her.
Her departing footfalls were swift, and he knew she was running away.
Running from him.
He grit his teeth and cursed under his breath, and suddenly longed for a steaming, hot bath and his soft king-sized bed.

He dipped his head against the shove of the wind and dragged his weary body towards the only place he allowed himself to face his shortcomings and his pent-up weakness.