Sasuke's mother loved it when her youngest son visited her.
"I need him to keep me youthful," she had joked when people commented on how she spoilt him whenever he was home for the weekend. That Sasuke attended the boarding school in the next town over had been an issue of tension in the Uchiha household. Sasuke's father had held the view that it was the best education he could get, and Itachi had excelled there. Sasuke's mother had disliked having her son live away from home, but acquiesced in the end, as she always did.
However, she needn't have worried. Sasuke met with his parents every single weekend. Then and now.
"To keep you youthful," Sasuke said to the cold marble. "Not that there's any need for that anymore."
Sasuke had never left flowers. He said that was because his father hated the idea, why give someone a gift that would die in just a few days and have to be thrown away? The truth was he couldn't bring himself to go anywhere near a florist, because the scent of pollen, the fragrance of flowers, and the vibrant colours always reminded him of his mother. And of how grey the world was without her.
There was nowhere that he had to be. It was the half-term holiday, and the days stretched out before and behind him, with no distinction, letting them run together as the summer turned to autumn.
In these days, Sasuke had gained a fondness for taking long walks. It wasn't the nature, or the fresh air that he enjoyed, but the utter blankness that he could project onto his mind, letting everything just wash away.
As with most days, he let his feet lead the way. The village that the school was based in was small and located at the bottom of a hill, bordered on three sides by dense forest. Getting lost was not something Sasuke ever worried about.
He took a familiar path without really noticing, going across the canal by a moss covered stone bridge and following an old track through the trees. During term-time, the forest was most definitely off-limits, but in the holidays no one kept tabs on him, and he was able to wander as he liked. He rarely met anyone else amongst the trees, the meagre population of the village meant it was rare for anyone to venture out, and if they did- it was a big forest.
The forest was always quiet. Quieter than Sasuke would have expected, and walking through it was easy to imagine that he was the only person in the world. At this time of year it was a blur of golds and browns as the trees surrendered their leaves even while a little weak sunshine, left over from the summer, persisted.
Once, years ago, before Sasuke went to the school, Itachi used to take him for walks in the forest, letting him run about collecting pine cones to varnish and conkers to bore holes in and thread string through, and anything else that caught his attention.
"Do the woods have a name?" Sasuke had asked once, on a whim.
"Yes, 'Seldom Woods'," Itachi had told him. It had seemed normal enough to him as a child, and as he'd grown, the name had stuck. He had never heard anyone but Itachi call them that and half-imagined that his older brother had just made it up. But sometimes when he walked through, Sasuke let the blankness of his mind be breached to consider that it might be true, and why.
The name was what Sasuke was contemplating that day, and aided by the rarely broken quiet, he was so deeply entrenched in thought that he very nearly noticed nothing at all.
The first thing that occurred to Sasuke, was that perhaps the rumours he had heard in first year, that murderers dragged their victims out between the trees and then hid the evidence, was true. It was with morbid curiousity, and just the first trembling of fear in his stomach that he veered off his chosen path.
The leaves shredded under his footsteps as he stepped slowly closer, watching as the body came into view. Surrounded by a mosaic of leaves; green, red and gold, it was almost camouflaged. Sasuke came to a stop near its feet, about a metre away, and just looked.
The corpse was of a boy around his age, with blond hair mingling in with the leaves that were layered so thickly that none of the dark ground was visible. He was laid flat on his back, with no signs of blood, though Sasuke didn't think that meant anything. He had his hands folded on his stomach, which, Sasuke realised with a jolt, was moving.
It was just slight; the subtle up-and-down that accompanied deep, slow breathing. The corpse, was just asleep. Sasuke frowned, a little annoyed with himself for jumping to an unnecessary conclusion, and a little annoyed with the other boy for lying on the ground like that, and for looking so strangely at home. The level of comfort displayed almost made Sasuke consider lying down himself.
While Sasuke was wearing a long black wool coat, the boy was only in a red jacket and scuffed jeans. Wasn't he cold, Sasuke wondered? He was lying in a patch of weak October sunlight, but the air still held a chill.
Perhaps he was sick. People didn't just wander out into the woods and lie there. Sasuke had done a mandatory first aid course, and could remember how to put someone in the recovery position, but he felt a little reluctant.
All of a sudden- as he noticed that the other boy had lines like whiskers on his face, that didn't look like scars, but surely couldn't be tattoos- Sasuke felt like he was intruding. Ge felt as though the boy was doing something private and that the right thing to do, far from attempting the recovery position, would be to take the few steps back onto the path and carry on as though he hadn't seen this at all.
Decided, he was about to move, when there was the slightly shifting, accompanied by a rustling of leaves, and the boy opened his eyes.
The first thing Sasuke noticed was that the boy's eyes were blue, which was strange, because he was standing some distance away, and it would be odd to notice such a detail, but he was very, very sure that they were blue.
Sasuke swallowed, trying to think of something to say as the boy's gaze landed on him after a few sleepy blinks. The boy didn't seem at all surprised to find himself sleeping in the middle of a forest. Instead, he leaned up just a little and looked at Sasuke with half-lidded eyes, as though he expected Sasuke to be there, and was just reaffirming it. Then, he smiled. He smiled in a way that made Sasuke wonder if he wasn't still half asleep, and then leaned back down and closed his eyes.
There was no noise except the wind through the trees, and dried leaves skittering across the ground, and no real way to tell how much time had passed, but eventually, Sasuke realised that the boy really had just fallen asleep again.
Irritated, for no reason in particular, Sasuke snorted, turned and made his way back to the path.
After finishing the section of maths that his teacher had assigned him ahead of schedule, Sasuke spent fifteen minutes lying on his bed, staring at the stark white of his ceiling, before going for a walk.
He absolutely didn't try to get to the same place as he had been before. And he absolutely hadn't thought about the encounter he had had a few days ago. Infact, the boy that had been lying in the leaves hadn't crossed his mind once. And when he did manage to stumble across the same clearing, he didn't feel any level of sadness at discovering the ground clear of bodies, alive or otherwise.
He only paused because he was out of breath.
Regardless, he looked just a little too eagerly for a casual passer-by, and for that reason he was furious with himself as he carried on down the path. It was stupid, but he had expected the boy to still be there, just like he had expected the trees to still be there. Even though it was absurd and irrational, two things Sasuke always made a point of avoiding being.
The day was cold with the sun completely hidden by grey clouds, the same colour as the stone that his school was made out of. Sasuke stayed warm within his coat, but made a mental note to buy a new scarf this year, and in this way, distracted himself from the disappointment that he felt. For some reason, he felt like he would have been happier if the boy had been there. Maybe he would have spoken to him. It was probably, Sasuke rationalised, just the isolation getting to him. He had never craved company, but seeing no one his age for the past week was probably taking its toll. Naturally he would be interested in having conversation. Never mind that he usually went out of his way to avoid such a thing.
Past the clearing, Sasuke followed a rough path surrounded by giant holly bushes and bare tree trunks, the leaves blanketed across the ground. His eyes were fixed on the ground in front of him, following his own footsteps, and he hardly noticed when the trees started to part and he reached the stone bridge. The bridge covered a canal that ran past the village, with banks that were usually populated by a single fisherman that wore an eternal green anorak and never seemed to catch anything. Another rumour at school was that he was part-fish, part-human and people were often dared to go and talk to him, with varying levels of success. The rumour had no basis whatsoever, Sasuke thought.
As he started on the short bridge he glanced up and noticed someone was standing on the bridge already, leaning over the side. He took a double-take. Not just someone. A familiar someone. He was wearing the same red jacket with jeans and leaning with his stomach pressed against the side of the bridge, holding something in his cupped hands. His head was lowered to whatever he was holding and his lips moved although Sasuke couldn't hear what he was saying over the wind.
I should say hi, Sasuke thought, then banished the thought. What kind of idea was that? Hi, I saw you sleeping in the woods the other day and mistook you for a corpse. You opened your eyes, saw me, and then went back to sleep. I'm glad you didn't get eaten by wolves or molested by the green anorak fisherman. Yeah, right.
No, the best thing would just be to just walk straight past, ignoring him. There was no purpose in starting a conversation. He could go back through the graveyard, then reread the maths problems to check for errors he was ninety percent sure weren't there.
Resolute, Sasuke kept walking, eyes fixed on the other side of the bridge.
"Hey, do you know anything about frogs?"
Sasuke glanced first at the boy from whom the words had come, and then around the bridge to see if there was someone else that the question was aimed at. Seeing no one, he had to conclude that the boy was talking to him, as improbable as it seemed. Sasuke checked his expression to see if it was a joke, but the boy seemed serious, even if he was smiling slightly, as though he and Sasuke were friends.
"Pardon?" Sasuke resorted to assuming he had heard incorrectly.
"Do you know anything about frogs," the boy repeated. So his hearing was fine.
"No," Sasuke answered after a second. Frogs were a subject he couldn't say he had much expertise in.
"Oh," said the boy. "That's a pity." With an uncertain nod, Sasuke was about to start walking again. "Do you know anything about this canal, then?"
"It's a canal," Sasuke said helpfully. "It runs past this village."
Instead of mocking his utterly useless comments, the boy nodded. "Do you know if it runs into a lake or a pond or something?"
"It might," Sasuke said with a shrug. "I wouldn't know."
"It's just that I'm worried about Trevor," the boy continued, biting at his lip. His cheeks were flushed pink from the wind, and Sasuke wondered if his own complexion was in a similar state.
"Who?" Sasuke said, although it could have been 'What?' or maybe 'Huh?'
"Trevor," the boy repeated. "He's my frog." Now that he was closer, Sasuke could see that there was a large jar at the boy's feet, the frog presumably was what he was holding. "He needs to go into a pond, but I can't find one."
"You probably shouldn't put him in a canal," Sasuke said with a shrug. "There's a pond on the other side of the woods." The boy looked excited.
"Really? Is it far?"
Sasuke shook his head. "No. They aren't thick, it's straight through."
"Straight through?" The boy didn't look sure, eyeing the woods warily as though he hadn't been sleeping in them the previous day. "Could you show me?"
"I'm busy," Sasuke said. "And it's not far."
"But, I might get lost. And then I would die of hunger and sniffer dogs would find my body weeks later when I'd started to decay and worms had eaten my eyeballs!" The boy shook his head vigourously. "I don't want worms to eat my eyeballs."
That was a sentiment that Sasuke could relate to, he supposed. "Alright, fine. Don't walk slowly though, I have to get back soon."
"Thanks!" the boy crouched, slipping a green something, which upon closer inspection was a bewildered looking frog, into the jar and putting the lid on. He lifted the jar carefully to face level and grinned at it, his expression warped through the glass. "See Trevor, it's going to be fine!"
Sasuke snorted and turned, heading back to the edge of the bridge and towards the trees, not waiting for the boy to follow. As he reached the end of the bridge, he heard rapid footsteps behind him, before the boy appeared, a bright blob in his vision. He was looking at Sasuke expectantly. It was irritating. "Isn't that frog going to suffocate?"
"Nah, I made holes in the lid so he can breathe, I'm Naruto." What initially appeared to be code, seemed to be his name. "What's your name?"
"Sasuke," he said shortly.
"Nice to meet you Sasuke," the boy- Naruto -said cheerfully. "I really appreciate you doing this. Are you from the village? I thought only old people live in the village."
"I'm from the school," Sasuke said, slowing down so he wouldn't be out of breath for talking.
"Really? I though the school was closed for half-term," Naruto said, more to himself. "How come you're here?"
"I stay at school during the holidays," Sasuke answered. "We're here."
The pond was small, fringed by reeds and straggly marsh grass. The bank they were standing on was muddy before giving way to murky water. A few months ago it would have been teeming with wildlife; ducks, kingfishers and dragonflies. Now, as the weather grew colder, nature was going to sleep.
"Brilliant!" Naruto said, holding the jar at arms length. "See Trevor, your new home!" He took a few steps closer to the edge, ignoring the way the soles of his trainers became covered with mud and wet grass, and crouched down.
Looking around the pond and seeing no one, Sasuke took a step forward, reluctant to crouch down as Naruto cooed at the jar, unscrewing the lid. "Why do you have a frog?"
"I grew him from frogspawn!" Naruto said happily, tipping the jar so that Trevor, along with some leaves and soil that had been in the jar toppled into his hand. "That's why he's called 'Trevor,' get it? Trevor the Tadpole! But he needs to go back into the wild now and this is my last chance to do it because it''ll get cold soon and he needs to hibernate, don't you?" The last comment was aimed at the frog he had in his hands. It was a healthy dark green with beady black eyes that were swivelling around. "Do you want to hold him?"
"No," Sasuke said. As interesting as the frog admittedly looked, he didn't want to touch it. At all. "Put him down so we can go." He could technically go on his own, but he had a feeling Naruto would protest if he tried to leave.
"Oh, right," Naruto said. "Right." He looked down at the frog, a little sadly. "I feel like I should say something."
"Something?" Sasuke echoed.
"Mm. Like a farewell."
"It's a frog," Sasuke said.
"I know that," Naruto said, not getting offended in the least. "It's just he's been with me for a while now, and I think I'm going to miss him."
"A frog," Sasuke repeated. Naruto scowled at him.
"Hey, he's not just 'a frog,' you know. He's..." he floundered for words, settling finally, "special. He's been with me all summer."
"Why don't you just keep him over the winter then?" Sasuke asked.
"I don't think so," Naruto said, his mouth pulled down. "He needs to meet other frogs and have some frog friends. Maybe even meet a nice lady-frog, take her out to dinner, get married and take out a froggie-mortgage..."
"I see," said Sasuke. "In that case you should have sent him to frog-school so he could get a good education and support his lady-frog and tadpole children."
Naruto blinked at him once, then laughed out loud, eyes closed and shoulders shaking. He laughed for so long that Sasuke started to feel a little awkward. The only person that liked his sense of humour had been his brother. When Naruto finally calmed down, he actually used the hand that wasn't holding Trevor to swipe underneath his eyes.
"You're right, I'm a terrible guardian," Naruto said, chortling and holding Trevor up to his face. "Will you ever forgive me?" For a few long seconds, they both stared at the frog, as though expecting a response. "Oh, no, I think he's mentally scarred."
"Or perhaps option two: he's a frog and therefore unable to speak."
"He could at least ribbet his forgiveness or croak or something," Naruto said, looking quite upset. "Maybe he's angry with me."
"Yes, he looks furious," Sasuke agreed. "His eyes hold suppressed ire."
"Ire? Why are you talking like that?" Naruto asked, then continued, apparently not caring about the answer. "I think he'll forgive me one day. Afterall, lady-frogs are more interested in their husbands bringing home the flies, than having a pension plan."
"That's great. Please dump him now."
With a sigh, Naruto lowered his hands to the ground, then paused. "Good luck, Trevor. I hope you eat lots of flies and I'm sorry about that time I gave you crisps and you were sick."
While Sasuke raised his eyebrows, Naruto opened his hands and Trevor jumped down with a little trepidation.
The frog seemed unsure of his sudden freedom and made a few little hops, examining the ground before finding it to his liking and leaping into the water. They watched as the bright body disappeared into the depths, leaving ripples that spread across the surface of the pond.
"I think he'll be okay," said Naruto, as though Sasuke had asked. "I raised him well."
"Let's go now," Sasuke said, starting to walk away and leaving Naruto with little choice to either follow, or be left behind. As before, after a few seconds Sasuke heard quick footsteps and saw Naruto walking beside him.
"Hey," said Naruto suddenly, squinting at Sasuke. "Don't I know you?"
"I doubt that," Sasuke said. 'Unless I repressed the memory, which I suppose is quite possible.'
"No, I'm sure I do!" Naruto frowned, looking at a tree covered by thick green moss in thought. "I know, I saw you the other day while I was napping!"
"Oh. I thought you were asleep," Sasuke said, realising.
"I was a little bit," Naruto admitted. "But I remember seeing you. It was kind of weird, now I think about it." He seemed thoughtful, rather than worried.
"It's not particularly common to take a nap in the middle of a forest anyway," Sasuke commented.
"So it was you!" Naruto crowed happily, doing a little jump of victory. "I knew I couldn't forget that glare!" Sasuke stopped glaring. "And I was tired, and it was sunny and peaceful, so I took a nap! What's wrong with that?"
Sasuke couldn't see anything specifically wrong with that, but he was sure there was something wrong with it. "Do you live in the village?" he asked, mainly to change the subject. He knew very well that Naruto didn't live in the village; Sasuke would have noticed him long before now.
"No, my uncle just enrolled me in the school," Naruto said. "I'm starting next week." Sasuke couldn't help feeling surprised. The school he attended was quite selective, requiring students to pass a test, not to mention it wasn't cheap.
"I thought they only accepted new students at the start of term," Sasuke said.
Naruto nodded. "Yeah, but my uncle has some contacts and I did well on the tests, even though I left halfway through."
"You left?" Sasuke asked incredulously.
"It was sunny outside," Naruto said by way of explanation. "I snuck out again today, I was supposed to be getting to know the grounds, but I had to let Trevor out."
"You go to the school too, don't you? I'm really happy I met you," Naruto said, an honest smile spreading across his face. "I was sort of nervous about not knowing anyone, and now I know you so we can be friends." He paused, looking worried, "but you probably already have a lot of friends, don't you?"
Sasuke shrugged. He had a grand total of one friend, and that was the librarian who liked him because he sat quietly and never mistreated the books. He got a smile from her everytime he entered the library, but they weren't really at the passing notes in class and sharing packs of crisps stage. Crisps weren't allowed in the library anyway. "Not a lot."
"Really?" Naruto seemed shocked by this. Sasuke wasn't too sure why, it was surely painfully clear that he was no social butterfly. Naruto seemed torn between feeling happy that Sasuke would have room for him in his vast circle of friends and pity that Sasuke didn't have that many friends. If Naruto had voiced his thoughts, Sasuke would have told him to forget the pity; he had no need for dozens of friends to bother him all day long.
"Okay then!" Naruto said chirpily, a slight spring in his step. "I hope we have lots of classes together!" They crossed the bridge, listening to the gentle slosh of water against the sides, and Naruto waved at a passing barge. "Is the school nice?"
"It's alright," Sasuke said. "It's school."
"I've never been to a boarding school before. I used to be home-schooled," Naruto said, looking a little worried again. "Plus when I was younger I used to get in fights a lot."
Sasuke snorted a little at that. he couldn't see who would want to fight with Naruto, unless he just annoyed them too much. "What?"
"Nothing," Sasuke said. "I wouldn't worry about fighting. Nothing serious ever happens here."
"Okay good. My uncle says I have to control my temper better," Naruto confessed, scratching his ear. "I have a bit of a temper." Sasuke couldn't imagine that either, with the near-constant smile on Naruto's face. "Really I do."
"Okay, " Sasuke said. Naruto harrumphed and crossed his arms over his chest in a faux-sulk, stomping ahead of Sasuke who ignored him.
They passed along the outskirts of the village, subconciously heading for the school, and before long the grey stone building loomed ahead of them, set on a slight hill as if it was overlooking the village.
Naruto gave a little sigh, having stopped sulking long ago. "It looks sort of... scary. Is it haunted, do you think?"
"I doubt it," Sasuke said. "In my experience, the dead tend to stay that way."
Naruto looked at him oddly. "I've seen you before."
"I know, in the forest," Sasuke said, confused. Naruto shook his head.
"No, before that. I saw you in the graveyard, but you didn't see me." Sasuke nodded. That made sense, he didn't notice much when he was talking to his parents. He looked at Naruto expectantly, waiting for the usual questions, but was surprised to see Naruto looking at something up ahead. "Uh-oh."
"What?" Sasuke asked, following his gaze. He was surprised to see the school headteacher standing next to a man with lots of white shaggy hair, outside the visitors entrance to the school.
"I'd better go," Naruto said apologetically. "It was nice meeting you, maybe I'll see you?" He gave Sasuke a bright smile before jogging towards the two waiting for him as Sasuke headed towards the entrance to the dormitories.
Back in his room, he considered looking over those maths problems but decided there was no real point. Instead he went to the library, in the hopes of doing some research on frogs.
Term restarted and Sasuke's life fell back into a routine. The strict timetable suited him perfectly and made him feel purposeful. He was in upper sixth, and as such was extremely busy. Classes ran from nine until four, with an hour long lunch break. There was another hour long break at five followed by dinner, and then prep until nine. Lights out was at eleven for lower school, but for sixthformers who had individual rooms instead of shared dorms, there was no set time.
It was in the first week back that Sasuke saw Naruto again. He had just locked his door and was about to head to the canteen for breakfast, considering stopping by the library to reserve a textbook, when he walked into a mobile stack of cardboard boxes, causing it to fall to the ground. The three boxes landed on the floor, luckily none of them opened, and revealed that instead of cardboard boxes moving of their own accord, they were Naruto carrying three boxes, and now sitting on the floor, looking at the boxes in surprise.
"Watch where you're going, idiot," Sasuke said, bending down to pick up one of the boxes anyway.
"The boxes were in the way," Naruto said. "Hey, it's you! Sasuke!"
Sasuke winced slightly, feeling the volume was inappropriate for eight in the morning and replying with a lame: "Hey."
Naruto grabbed the other two boxes and heaped them on top of each other so that his head poked over the top, giving him an odd, robotic look. While Sasuke was dressed in his uniform, navy and white, Naruto was wearing red corduroy trousers and an orange t-shirt that clashed. He looked at Sasuke expectantly. "What?"
"Nothing!" Naruto chirped with a broad smile. "I'm moving in today! Is this your floor?"
Sasuke nodded, watching as Naruto's smile defied expectations to become bigger. "Cool! I'm in room four."
"I'm in twelve," Sasuke said, watching as Naruto took a few more steps to his room and then dumped the boxes, checking his pockets until he found the key he was looking for. It was attached to a froggy keyring, Sasuke noticed.
"Cool," Naruto said again. "So we ca-" He was cut off by the noise of heavy footfall on the stairwell, and then the door was flung open to reveal four or five students looking wide-eyed.
"See! I told you it was true!" one of them said, jumping forward and pointing straight at Naruto, who looked alarmed. "He's a new student!"
"No way," someone said, pushing their way to the front, "are you sure?"
"Well you haven't seen him before, have you?"
"He's not wearing the uniform, maybe he's visiting."
"On a school day at eight AM?"
"Look at the boxes! He's moving in!"
"I told you!"
Sasuke put down the box he was carrying and watched as the first student predictably moved forward, extending a hand to Naruto. Having a new student in the school was usually an exciting event, so it was no surprise that Naruto was attracting attention. And that was Sasuke's cue to leave. He was sure that Naruto would get on well with the excited students; he was friendly if a little odd. He'd fit in fine with these loud-mouths.
Without saying goodbye, Sasuke left, moving past the small crowd to get to the door. He heard Naruto introduce himself brightly, and fall into conversation as he slipped out into the stairwell. Naruto would be fine, and Sasuke would go and reserve that textbook.
Itachi always called on a Sunday evening.
"Where are you?" Sasuke asked, when the silence became too unbearably awkward. He could hang up, as he often used to, but recently the calls seemed like an endurance contest. Who could outlast the other.
"Frankfurt," Itachi said.
"Staying long?" Sasuke worked hard to try and inject curiosity into his voice, to make it seem like he was utterly unaffected by the conversation. He wasn't completely satisfied with his result.
"Just two more nights."
"Have fun." He managed not to overkill the sarcasm, but trying to sound sincere was too much.
There was a silence, in which Sasuke absently tapped his pen against his exercise book and resisted the urge to slam the phone down. It was late and he was studying in his dorm room, his work illuminated by his desk lamp."Do you need any more money?"
"Good." Money to spend on what? There were only about ten shops in the village. Perhaps Itachi was aware that the only shop in the village that garnered much interest from the students was the off-license, and Sasuke didn't enjoy the taste of cheap cider. Or maybe he was just trying to outlast Sasuke.
"I have homework, I've got to go. Bye."
Two weeks after the start of term, while the other boys used their hard-earned weekend to play video games in the common room, get drunk in their dorms or smoke weed behind the bike sheds, Sasuke visited the graveyard.
His parents weren't talkative, and it was only the cold sense of duty and a feeling that he was somehow disgracing Itachi by doing what he didn't, that made Sasuke return week after week. He missed his parents, definitely, but he had the feeling that staring at a gravestone for an hour every weekend wasn't helping anyone.
Still, the idea of his parents never having any visitors made his chest squeeze, and so once again he found himself tracing his eyes over the etched-in letters.
Sasuke knew people that spoke to tombstones. Some solemnly, some as though they were just chatting to a friend. Sasuke kept silent most of the time.
It was cold and Sasuke suspected his nose and ears were flushing slightly as he walked back to school. He chose to go through the village. In the summer, tourists boosted the population slightly, but for now the streets were empty save for a few residents walking their dogs and a couple of year sevens hanging around the shops holding paper bags full of pic 'n' mix.
Although there were clouds, the ground was dry so Sasuke cut across the playing fields that were at the far end of the school and closer to the dorms. There were a group of boys playing football, their presence accompanied by shouts and calls that were quickly swept away by the wind. Sasuke ignored them, his thoughts still in the graveyard. Should he take a cloth next time and clean off the moss that was starting to grow on the stone?
"Hey, hey, Sasuke!"
He glanced behind him, and then forward, wondering if he had just imagined someone calling his name, before his eyes settled on a figure jogging towards him. With a little surprise, Sasuke recognised the figure as Naruto. "Hi."
Naruto reached him and leaned over, grasping his knees as he panted, getting his breath back. He was wearing a striped green and black rugby shirt, along with black shorts and football boots. His cheeks were flushed, although from cold or running, Sasuke couldn't tell. After a few moments, Naruto straightened up. "Sasuke!"
"Yes," said Sasuke. "What?" Now that he'd stopped he was starting to feel a little cold. Someone shouted something and Naruto turned a little to shout back.
"What's up?" asked Naruto, when he turned back. Sasuke frowned slightly, digging his hands into his pockets.
"Nothing. I'm going back to my room."
"Cool, I'll come with you," Naruto said, leaving Sasuke little choice but to start walking.
"Aren't you playing?"
"Nah, I'm done. It's freezing out here." Sasuke made a noise that might have been agreement, or maybe amusement. "I haven't seen you at all since we started back! Where've you been?"
"I'm taking four A-levels, so I don't have much free time," Sasuke said, adjusting his scarf slightly.
"Wow, four? Which ones?"
"Chemistry, Physics, Maths and Further Maths," Sasuke reeled off as they passed the last field and onto the path going up to the dorms. Naruto's football boots clicked as the spurs made contact with the concrete.
"Really? But I do Maths, how come I never see you?" Naruto asked. "I thought there was only one class."
"There is," Sasuke said shortly. "Since I do Further, I don't attend any of the Maths classes."
"Ha! That's so cool! My guardian wanted me to do Further too, I did it last year, but I wasn't sure. Is it hard?"
"It's alright," Sasuke said.
"Maybe I'll switch, Maths is way too easy. I get bored, and then I get yelled at for messing around." They stood to the side as the door to the dormitories opened and a few students spilled out, before going forward. "Hey, wait a second."
Sasuke stepped inside and watched as Naruto sat down on the step inside, unlacing his football boots which were caked with dry mud, and shaking them slightly. While Naruto was focussed on his task, Sasuke felt out of place, so settled for a simple question. "What subjects do you do?"
The smile Naruto gave him made Sasuke wonder if instigating conversation had been the right thing to do. "I do Maths, History, and Music," Naruto said proudly, laughing at the surprised look on Sasuke's face. "Yeah, I get that a lot. Haven't really decided on what I want to do."
"Don't you need to do your university application?" Sasuke waited while Naruto stood up, boots swinging from his hand, footsteps muffled by his thick black socks.
Naruto shook his head. "Nah, I'm gonna take a gap year. And if I still don't know, then I might go to the US and do one of those major undecided degrees. I think it's annoying that they make us decide so soon. What are you applying for?"
"Mechanical engineering," Sasuke said, letting Naruto follow him up the stairs.
"Wow, sounds... complicated," Naruto said.
Sasuke shrugged. "I haven't done it yet. I'll send off my application soon."
"Fast," Naruto remarked, swinging his boots more, ignorant to the little flecks of mud that remained, and flaked off on the pockmarked linoleum. "Where are you applying?"
"A couple of places," Sasuke said, not wanting to continue this line of questioning. All his teachers, as well as any relatives that contacted him, wanted to know what he was studying, what he intended to do at university, and where he was applying. He didn't need it from Naruto as well. "Why are you taking a gap year?"
"I want to travel, I've got lots of world to see," Naruto said, half serious, but with a smile teasing his mouth. "I can't get over how huge the world is, and how much is packed in. Then I get jealous of the people that'll live in a billion years and go on trips to space and zoom by Pluto on the weekend."
"In a billion years, the sun will probably have burnt out, and all life will be extinguished," Sasuke said.
Naruto blinked at him.
"Well. Yeah. I guess. I didn't mean literally."
"Annnnyway," Naruto continued, giving Sasuke an odd look as they reached the third floor and swung the door open, "I was wondering, remember that time I saw you-"
"In the woods," Sasuke finished.
"In the graveyard," Naruto corrected as they stopped outside his room and he fished his key from his pocket. Sasuke tensed, wondering if there was time to quickly exit and opening his mouth to start an excuse. Instead, as he looked at Naruto he was suddenly struck by the fact that Naruto was his age. He had seemed a lot younger, before, but now, with lowered brows and a thoughtful expression he seemed maybe even older than Sasuke.
"What?" said Sasuke, instead of his clever 'I have to go quickly and before you finish your sentence' excuse.
"Well why would you be in the village graveyard?" Naruto asked, "I mean, why would anyone you know be buried here?" Seeing Sasuke's expression, he hastily added: "It's okay if you don't want to say, I was just curious."
"No it's fine," Sasuke said. I just didn't expect that. "My family originally came from this village. They eventually moved to the next town over, but the family burial plot is here."
"Ohhhh," Naruto said, tilting his head slightly and scrunching up his face in thought. Now, Sasuke thought, he looked like he was about eight. "I get it. Well..." Sasuke waited for the inevitable questions. "I better go now!"
Naruto pushed his door open and laughed a little, scratching the back of his neck. "Ehehe, well, I've been playing out for a couple of hours now. I kinda could do with a shower. And then it's dinner, and I hear a rumour that there's going to be cake."
"Of course they'll be cake, they serve cake every Saturday," Sasuke said, nonplussed as Naruto's eyes lit up.
"Sweet! I'd better hurry, I don't want it to all be gone!"
"Why would it be gone? They have enough for one serving each." Sasuke words were falling on deaf ears, as with a blinding grin so big that Naruto's eyes nearly closed, he waved goodbye to Sasuke and shut the door.
Sasuke waited for a whole minute before he left.
The following Monday after his Further Maths class, Sasuke's teacher approached him. The other students carried on packing their things away and chattering.
"You did well on the practice paper, Uchiha," his teacher said grudgingly as Sasuke slipped some paper into his folder.
"Thank you, sir." Sasuke opened his bag on the desk and put his books inside, zipping it closed.
His teacher watched him with a calculating gaze. "You don't play any sports, do you, Uchiha?"
"No, sir." He used to play tennis with Itachi, but his older brother always, always beat him. (And if Sasuke had once cherished the idea of playing doubles as a team, it had evaporated long ago.)
"So your personal statement could probably do with a bit of beefing up?" His teacher seemed to be more talking to himself, than to Sasuke.
"I suppose." Sasuke dropped the 'sir.' It was getting tiresome.
"Then I have the perfect suggestion!" His teacher looked far too pleased with himself, as though Sasuke had come begging a favour and he was able to grant it. "I have a student that needs tutoring, and I think you're the right person to help him out."
"No no, there's no need to thank me. I'm just trying to help any way I can." Sasuke stared as his teacher gave him a jaunty wave and then left the room.
And that's how Sasuke ended up tutoring Naruto for Further Maths.
Seven thirty seven on Tuesday afternoon and Naruto was late.
"Aren't you supposed to be in prep, Sasuke dear?" asked the librarian, peering kindly over her glasses at him. Sasuke had no idea why she wore such old fashioned glasses, when she couldn't be older than twenty five.
"My teacher said I could come here," Sasuke said, showing her a slip of paper signed by his tutor. "I'm supposed to be tutoring someone."
"That's so kind of you." She gave him a warm smile, tilting her head slighty to the side so that the hair escaping her messy bun fell forward. Miss Haruno was by far the youngest, and prettiest, member of staff at Sasuke's school. Her heart-shaped face, contemplative eyes, and tendency to wear pencil skirts with heels had made her the object of more than one pubescent fantasy. Fortunately, Sasuke's crush on her had hit early, and he was now almost immune. Except when she tilted her head like that...
"Pardon?" Sasuke blamed his distracted nature on hormones. He was eighteen years old and the librarian was the most feminine thing in the entire school. The next most feminine things being the pictures in the various porn magazines hidden under mattresses.
Whatever Miss Haruno had said was lost to the air currents as Naruto arrived, slamming through the doors and running straight up to where Sasuke was sitting, waiting for him. "Sasuke! There you are-
"Naruto, please keep your voice down in the library!" the librarian scolded, eyebrows pulled together. "People need to concentrate."
"Yes Miss Haruno," Naruto said sheepishly. "Sorry Miss Haruno." He grinned at her, and then at Sasuke.
"You should apologise to your classmate." She pushed her glasses up her nose, a smile playing on her lips despite her stern tone.
"Will do!" Naruto saluted her before turning to Sasuke. "I'm sorry for being late!" He turned back to the librarian. "How was that? Sincere? I tried to put a lot of emotion behind it."
The smile broke free and Miss Haruno shook her head at his antics. "Yes okay, well study hard!" With a little wave, and a smile at Sasuke, she left.
Naruto let out a sigh and collapsed on the desk. "Phew, she's gorgeous." His shirt was untucked and he shrugged out of his blazer, rolling up his sleeves a little. "That smile and those legs and hell, she's completely got that sexy librarian thing going on." He lent back in his chair, tipping his head up and smiling slightly, then glanced at Sasuke. "What do you think?"
"I think that I'm not skipping prep so that you can drool over Miss Haruno in pencil skirts," Sasuke said, frowning. He opened their textbook on the first page, with a view to getting started.
"Oh oh, you mean the ones that go out at the hips and then in?" Naruto made a noise of appreciation. "I swear, Miss Haruno in those things is better than porn. Right?"
Sasuke blinked. "Can we start studying now? I'm supposed to get you ready to join our class by the end of the week, and you've missed over two weeks of class."
"Huh?" Naruto looked around him, eyes widening suddenly. "Oh right! Shit, sorry. I just- those skirts are really distracting." He grinned at Sasuke, looking a little nervous. "Seriously, sorry. I'm really, really, reaaaaaaaaaally, grateful that you're helping me out. I tried to catch up on my own, but your textbook is all weird." He paused. "You're not angry, are you?"
"Let's just start, okay?" Sasuke suggested.
"You are angry!" Naruto said, earning the pair of them a glare from the librarian. He carried on in an extremely loud whisper. "I said I'm sorry! I'll make it up to you, what do you want? I could give you my dessert tomorrow, and I heard there's going to be cake- you know it's really not my fault, I was going to be here on time, if Mr Hatake hadn't called me to-"
"-and he's got to be making that up because there's no way it's true, I don't think those things are even legal and he's a teacher so that makes it a million times worse and I could go to the head about it but I don't want-"
"-and it's only been two weeks so I'm not that confident yet and there's a lot going on to take in so I don't want to be doing anything hasty-"
"Naruto!" Sasuke practically shouted, finally managing to get the boy to shut up.
"Sasuke, you need to keep your voice down, this is a library," Naruto said seriously.
Sasuke's forehead hit the desk with a 'thunk'. "Idiot." The word was muffled.
"Sasuke? Sasuke are you okay?" Naruto leaned close to whisper into Sasuke's ear. "Should I call Miss Haruno?"
"Please just do the questions in the first section," Sasuke said, not raising his head.
"O-kay..." There was some shuffling and then the flicking of pages. Naruto paused. "Are you sure you're okay? I can't do these questions unless I know you're okay."
Feeling as though the tutoring was going to be a lot more trouble than it was worth, Sasuke raised his head. "I'm fine. Start the questions."
Naruto looked at him carefully, then scowled, flipping the book open. "Wouldn't kill you to say 'please'."
Sasuke's head made enthusiastic re-acquaintance with the desk.
Fifteen minutes later, Sasuke had finished working on his own homework, when Naruto's behaviour caught his attention.
By leaning back in his chair so it was resting on its two back legs, and tilting his head up, Naruto had managed to balance his ruler between his nose and chin. One hand was braced against the table, while the other hung restlessly near the ruler, ready to catch it.
"What are you doing?"
With a yelp, Naruto's concentration was broken, the ruler fell into his waiting hand and he jerked forward. "Damnit!" He glanced at Sasuke. "What?"
Sasuke thought for a moment, before deciding upon the direct approach. "Why are you doing that?"
"Doing what?" Naruto asked, seeming genuinely curious.
"Leaning back, balancing the ruler."
"Oh. I was bored."
Sasuke took a deep breath. "If you were bored, shouldn't you have been doing the questions I asked you to?"
Blinking, as though Sasuke was speaking in a different language, to him, Naruto shook his head. "I already did them!"
Sasuke looked at him blankly. "Then why didn't you tell me you were finished?"
"I thought you were busy," Naruto explained. Sasuke wasn't sure if he was acting dumb or perhaps had some sort of stupidity disease that selectively became apparent.
"I'm supposed to be tutoring you," Sasuke explained slowly, partly because he wanted Naruto to understand, and partly because he was trying to calm his urge to throttle. "I'm just occupying myself while you work. You have to tell me when you're done.
"Oh." A pause. "Well, I'm done!"
"...Right. Pass your work over then." Naruto complied with a smile, sliding the sheets of paper he had been writing on.
Sasuke stared at the sheets. Naruto's handwriting was hardly tidy, but he could read it. He had done four questions, and a quick check in the back of the book showed that they were correct. But... "Where is your working out?"
Naruto looked at him blankly. "What working out?"
"The working out you had to do to get this answer," Sasuke said, looking at him with narrowed eyes. "Please tell me you didn't do something stupid like copy the answers from the back of the book?"
At this, Naruto looked affronted. "No way! Of course I didn't! You're being awesome and tutoring me, what would be the point if I just copied the answer?"
That made sense. "Then where is your working?"
"What does it matter where my working is?" Naruto frowned. "I got the right answer, didn't I?"
"Well yes, but-"
Sighing, Sasuke glanced at the answers again. "You're telling me that you don't need to write out the working? You just get the answer like that?"
"Of course!" Naruto seemed surprised. "Doesn't everyone?"
Instead of answering, Sasuke selected another problem and pushed the sheets of paper back. "Do this one, I'll watch."
Shrugging, Naruto grabbed his pen and pulled the book close. He gnawed the end of the pen, making Sasuke scrunch his nose in distaste. After about a minute of idly contemplating the question he jotted down a number and then beamed at Sasuke. "Done!"
"That's...almost correct," Sasuke said, with more than a little surprise. "Did you work it all out in your head?"
"Well...yeah," Naruto seemed surprised at Sasuke's confusion. "Wouldn't you? Wait, why's it wrong?"
"You're out by a decimal point." Sasuke considered for a moment. "I suppose the reason you're having problems is that you try to do it all in your head, and make mistakes. You need to learn to write it out. In exams, if you get the method right, but the answer wrong, you'll still get marks."
"But I hate writing it all out, it's so boring. 'Sides, I've passed exams before," Naruto whined, puffing out his cheeks.
"A Level problems have far more steps, so you're more likely to get things wrong if you try to keep it all in your head," Sasuke said. Naruto sighed and nodded. "Good. Try this one again."
They worked for another hour, in which Naruto managed to get three problems wrong and two right, but Sasuke was confident that by the end of the session, they were making progress.
They packed their things away, waved to Miss Haruno who glanced up from the book she was reading to smile at them, and then trudged out of the brightly lit library.
Prep time had finished, with most students returning to their dorms, or to the common room to make the most of their free time, so the corridors were quiet. Naruto was humming, but he stopped when they reached the dormitory building.
"Don't you ever get lost?" Naruto asked abruptly. "It's such a big school."
Sasuke shrugged, a little off balance at the question. "I've been here a while. You get used to it."
Naruto shook his head, a little smile twisted around his mouth. "I don't think I will. There's so many people."
Sasuke looked at him strangely. "You seem to be fitting in fine. You've got lots of friends, from what I can see. You're always laughing."
At that, Naruto looked a little surprised, then looked down again, adjusting his bag as they walked up the stairs. "Nah. I mean, yeah, the guys are cool, but I feel like I don't quite fit in. I just try and go along with it."
Sasuke frowned, pushing the door open to their floor and letting Naruto pass him. "You really feel like that?"
"I dunno. Maybe. Sometimes. There's just so much..." Naruto snorted and grinned, his depressed aura suddenly gone. "It'll pass, I'm sure. Just takes a while to get used to."
"Yeah," Sasuke agreed, not looking at him.
"I'll see you tomorrow then, Further Maths is first thing, right?"
The next day in Further Maths, Naruto took the empty seat next to Sasuke.
Disclaimer: This story is forty percent my beta, twenty percent me, and forty percent anything I have ever read. I take no credit.
AN: This fic is my pet project. Chapters will vary in size and content, depending on what happens that month. Please enjoy, and remember, concrit is the highest form of appreciation.
AN2: Just want to make it clear, this story will have a romantic relationship between Naruto and Sasuke. It may not seem that way, at points, but I assure you eventually it will.
AN3: If you give a criticism on the story, or ask a question, it's great if you can sign in! I really wont be angry or anything, but I like to address any issues with the story or my writing, and I can't do that if you don't sign in.