A/N: Dedicated to roboguy45, a staunch and loyal supporter since the very beginning of Bonded. I hope he's pleased with this attempt of mine. He's certainly waited long enough for it.
Right, this is set in 1900. He specified NaruSasu, as this most certainly is. My first historical fiction.
*Gang, in this instance, means a group of longshoremen working together under a leader.
P.S. Unbeta-ed. Forgive any typos I've missed pls. My beta is busy.
Enraged, Sasuke nevertheless stood straight and stiff, conducting himself with the proper deportment at all times. He gripped his hands behind the small of his back, taking in the other individuals in the room with an air of cool detachment. One could have said he was bored, but nothing would have been farther from the truth.
"Do you understand?" Uchiha Fugaku asked with quiet authority.
Sasuke's voice was a cultured murmur. "Of course, Father." When the patriarch of the Uchiha family only raised a questioning brow, he added, "You have honored me."
Fugaku relaxed slightly and turned to gesture at the young woman sitting with her head demurely bowed. She was bracketed on either side by her equally awed parents. "Greet your fiancé then."
Sasuke moved forward and held his hand out to Haruno Sakura. She placed her gloved hand in his and peered at him shyly from behind her fluttering ornamental fan. "M'lady."
"My lord," she replied correctly. A blush stole up her cheeks.
Sasuke pecked the back of her slender hand with the requisite kiss. Her bosom, puffed in the pigeon-breasted style that was the latest fashion of 1900, heaved noticeably at the contact. Her broad-brimmed hat, sporting an entire stuffed bird, rested on her closed knees. Her long pink hair was swept up into a loose knot on her head. He uttered some inanity that he neither remembered nor cared about as he straightened and faced his parents. They stood by the mantel. His brother, Itachi, stood to one side with his own bride, Karin.
They watched him. All of them. He'd been known for his temper in his youth, a trait his father had caned out of him most severely. That they expected some kind of outburst from him now, years after he'd mastered his more explosive responses to things, told Sasuke clearly that they were aware of how much this arranged marriage would disagree with him.
All through the hideously boring tea ceremony that followed, Sasuke kept his composure. He followed the ancient custom with an inward sneer at the hypocrisy; the Uchiha in America were nisai, second generation, but one would never know it to see them. He and his brother could be termed third generation, he supposed, but their father had been firm about establishing themselves as members of society. They followed western customs and ways of living for the most part, though both parents had insisted on teaching their boys Japanese. They had a line of successful laundry and tailoring businesses here in New York and in Boston.
This tea ceremony was the first Japanese tradition Sasuke had seen in their home in years. It was likely only done because Sakura's parents were more attached to the old ways. He sipped in silence, proud that his tea cup did not shake with the enormity of his upset.
Newly affianced, Sasuke was expected to escort his intended and her parents home. This he did with as much grace as possible, handling the reigns of his horse-drawn coach with expert ease in one gloved hand. The Uchiha were, of course, in possession of two cars, but Fugaku kept these almost exclusively for his use or for when the family went out together. Sakura sat up top with him, while his soon-to-be in-laws sat inside. The horses' hooves clopped along the cobbled streets of the suburbs as fog rolled in from the ocean.
His lips thinned at hearing the honorific. The woman insisted on speaking Japanese. He replied in kind. "Yes."
"May I compliment you on your decision not to wear a beard? I find it pleasing to the eyes."
And what did his facial hair, or lack thereof, have to do with anything? "I'm happy to please you, m'lady." He saw that Sakura ducked her head over another blush.
Neither he nor his brother wore the small pointed beards that were currently fashionable, though their father did. Asian as he was, the growth was sparse, but his father's attempt was recognized by his peers and approved of. Uchiha Fugaku always did what was approved of, and expected nothing less from his sons.
A footman ran out of the Haruno residence to assist Sakura in disembarking from the coach. Another rushed to lower the stairs so the elder Harunos could descend. Sasuke stood by with his top hat in hand, waiting to be acknowledged. When Sakura did so, he bowed and bade her goodnight. He took his leave shortly afterward and drove home in contemplation of his life.
At Uchiha Manor, a groom took the horses and tended to them. A servant approached him in the foyer and bowed over the frock coat Sasuke handed him. He then walked calmly up the stairs, unknotting his cravat in the process.
Once in his room, he let his manservant bring him a drink. He rolled the liquid on his tongue as he stared at a portrait of himself that his father had commissioned when he'd been fifteen. Six years ago.
He'd been a brash lad, struggling to live up to his father's expectations of him, while doing all in his power to escape the shadow of his perfect older brother. The two endeavors did not compliment each other, which had brought out his father's cane often. The thing had broken on his back shortly after that portrait had been painted, Sasuke recalled. His father had then threatened to use a horse whip on him if he put so much as a toe out of line. Sasuke had calmed down considerably, the fight gone out of him at the murderous glint in his father's black eyes. Uchiha Fugaku was a hard man. He would have whipped his younger son bloody as promised, and shipped him to the Japans to distant relatives.
Still. Looking at the hidden smirk he'd carried in that portrait reminded him of how much happier he'd been as a child. He'd never been loud or noisy, but he'd enjoyed his time. He'd been an apt student, handsome, wealthy…everything that society considered desirable.
The Uchiha were at the pinnacle of their social circles, Sasuke thought in disgust as he turned from his likeness. It would be the end of respect if he were to refuse this marriage his father had arranged. The dishonor would probably earn him an unmarked grave in the woods, courtesy of that same father.
Sasuke adjusted his thoughts. How his father had clawed his way to the position in society he currently enjoyed was never discussed or even thought about.
But just then he hated the man. He hated his control over everything in Sasuke's life, down to his clothing and what functions he attended. He suddenly wanted to be fifteen and brave again. Brave enough to defy his father, at any rate. He sat thinking this over long after his brandy was done.
Some two hours later Itachi knocked on the door. He heard movement that abruptly ceased, then the door cracked open an inch. One black eye peered out.
"Oh, it's you," Sasuke sighed in relief. His eye scanned the hall behind his brother before the door was pulled all the way open. "Come in, quick."
"I only came to make sure you're…what are you doing?" Itachi asked when he saw two trunks filled with his brother's belongings.
Sasuke spoke as he bustled about the room in a kind of controlled frenzy. He was clearly agitated, but managed to exhibit poise and clear thinking regardless. "Leaving."
Itachi shut and locked the door. Cold fear clawed his belly. "To where? For how long?"
"I don't know. Wherever the first ship leaving is heading."
Sasuke shut the lid on one trunk with a snap. He leaned his hands on it, closing his eyes. Itachi saw his jaw working as he clenched his teeth. "I can't do this anymore," Sasuke said quietly. "Every day he kills just a little more of my soul with his demands and control. I want my life back. I want to know who I am, not who my father wants me to be. I'm sick of him dictating what I can and can't do. I'm a man grown, not some infant in swaddling clothes, damn it."
Itachi came away from the door, pride in his eyes. "There's the brother I've missed."
Sasuke looked up curiously. "I beg your pardon?"
"I used to admire the way you always resisted father's control tactics without open rebellion. When he finally beat you into submission I felt like he'd defeated both of us. I was always your silent champion, Sasuke."
The younger Uchiha was taken aback. "But you always seemed to agree with him."
"Doesn't mean I don't wish things were different. I take it you're not marrying Sakura?"
"No." Sasuke watched the faint smile bloom on Itachi's lips. He knew how much his brother had detested having to marry Karin.
Sasuke was further shocked when his brother announced that he was helping him runaway. Itachi helped pack his brother's things, going so far as to help him carry the heavy trunks down the stairs and into the carriage house. The servants were asleep.
The absence of the cars would be noticed. And neither young man had the keys, at any rate. They took a coach. Itachi drove. The trip down to the docks on the Hudson River was somewhat long and made in silence until the last hour of the journey, when dawn was turning the sky pink over the distant ocean.
"You might be recognized," Itachi said. "We didn't think of it at the house, but this coach has the Uchiha family crest on it. It will be recalled to the men father sends looking for you."
Sasuke waved one freezing hand. "I'm more worried about you. He'll know you helped me. What will you do?"
Itachi grinned, his breath smoking out of him in the crisp fall air. "I think I will take Karin on a trip. It's time we saw the world. Father won't object to me furthering our business ventures abroad. I'll act just as surprised as anyone when your absence is discovered. Don't mind me. I might not have shown it," Itachi said mischievously, "but I can handle myself quite well."
The docks were a noisy, abominably filthy place. The brothers held linen kerchief's scented with snuff to their delicate noses as they picked their way to a likely individual who was in the process of casting off the ropes tying his ship to the wharf. He hawked and spat at the shiny shoes of the two gentlemen. "Wha' do ye want? Can't ye see I'm busy?"
Itachi wrinkled his nose in disgust. The smell of rotting fish was overwhelming. "Where are you bound, good sir?"
"The lower isles, then Spain. Wha's it to ye? I've me papers in order."
"We'd like to purchase passage for my brother here. Are you leaving immediately?" Itachi inquired. He struggled not to faint at the sight of the blackened teeth the swarthy sea captain sported. How did these people live?
"Goin' out wit the tide, aye." His beady eyes roamed the expensive attire, skipped behind the two dark-haired men to the coach and the family crest emblazoned on the side. "Mayhap I have room for one…for the right price, mind ye."
"Of course," Sasuke said, stepping forward. He handed over a sum that widened the eyes of the captain and his watching crew behind him. "That should pay for a private room and three meals a day of the best your ship has to offer. I'll expect one of your crew to attend to me personally at all times, which should also be covered in what I just gave you."
The captain stared from the wad of cash in his hand to where Sasuke was already signaling the crew to retrieve his trunks from the carriage. He behaved as if he now owned the ship, its crew and the captain. Gentry, the captain thought with a sneer.
He pasted a wide smile on his face when the luggage was stored and his new passenger was giving his brother a long and emotional hug. "I'll miss you," the younger one was saying. "I'll send word to you of my whereabouts via Sai. I can trust him."
"And I'll let you know where I end up," the older one replied. "Be safe, brother."
Sasuke stood on the heaving bow of the deck, watching Itachi's figure dwindle as the sun rose majestically and the ship left the Hudson, heading out to sea. By the time he went below to see about his room, land was a faint line on the horizon.
He was brought up short at finding the deck hands rifling through his belongings. He stared in outrage, unable to speak at such nerve, while the captain drawled from somewhere to his left.
"Methinks a few things need to be made clear to ye, m'lord." He held and examined a pair of Sasuke's studded cuff links as he spoke, squinting against the smoke of his pipe. "One, this here ain't no passenger conveyance, if ye catch my drift."
Sasuke saw red, storming over to his trunk to administer violence. "Unhand my things at once! How dare you presume to –" He was cuffed soundly in the head and held by both arms. Dizzy, shocked, confused, he heard the captain strolling over to him.
"Two, I never said I'd take ye on. I said I might. Ye invited yerself. I take the money you handed me as a donation, see. And the way I look at it, you and all your fancy things here now belong to me and my men. Once we land, I'll send a letter of ransom to yer pa for your carcass. And a carcass it will be for I can't have ye selling us out to the law, now can I?"
The captain chuckled. Sasuke saw, through the blood trickling into one eye, that he signaled to the men holding him.
He reacted instinctively, falling on the training his father had drilled into him. His captors were down within minutes and he was escaping out the door when the rest of the crew descended on him.
Sometime later black smoke billowed into the cloudless sky. Sasuke bobbed in the freezing water, watching the blazing ship slowly sink. He spluttered, already going numb, as he pointed himself toward land and struck up a steady pace.
"Uzumaki, get yourself and your gang to that ship and stevedore her before I replace you with Inuzuka's people," the portly wharfinger shouted.
Naruto stopped watching the men who were searching the waterfront for some lost man and signaled to his partners. He jogged up the recently laid gangplank to begin unloading the newest arrival in the port. He was shouldering a large heavy crate back to shore as Chouji, Shino and Kankurou, the men in his gang, ran past to begin assisting him.
They moved in an unbreaking line, working seamlessly together. Chouji made a crack about how Naruto could only carry two crates, while he carried three. Naruto cursed good-naturedly, but Chouji was the stoutest one in the gang.
It was evening. The sun turned the water's waves bloody as the last of the crates were stacked where the wharfinger, the dock overseer, indicated. Naruto watched as one of the well-dressed men who were searching for someone approached first the wharfinger, then him. He noted the look of disdain as the man picked his way through the filth on the ground, grimacing at the way his polished shoes sank into the foul mud.
"Have you seen this man?" the gentleman asked Naruto. He held up a sketched likeness of a proud-looking individual.
Naruto glanced at the picture. He stood straight, towering over the man. "No, sir."
The man moved on to the next person, asking the same question.
Kankurou came up to him. "Who are they looking for?"
Shino had come up on Naruto's other side. "One of the Uchiha heirs. I saw the coach pulling off as we came for our shift this morning, but I'm not getting mixed up in any trouble of that family. People disappear."
They watched until the annoyed wharfinger shouted at Naruto to clear some dunnage from the far side of the shore. He ran to obey, eager to be done so that he could go home and eat.
He stacked the driftwood by the high pile of similar scrap wood located at the end of the docks. Naruto was turning from the stack, sucking a splinter from his thumb, when a hiss stopped him. He looked over his shoulder, scanning the shadowy area behind the stack of wood that was taller than he was.
Sasuke temporarily forgot what he'd been about to say. The eyes, a bright and direct shade of blue, were hard as they regarded him. They looked at him unblinkingly, without a trace of awe or servitude. There wasn't even any shock, though he knew he must look a sight drenched and coatless as he was. The last rays of the sun picked out the color in the eyes until they were really the only feature visible on the man. That and his shock of blonde hair.
Time was wasting. Gathering his thoughts, he spoke with the air of command he was used to using with these lower classes. "I require your assistance," Sasuke said through his chattering teeth. "If you could help smuggle me from the waterfront to a place to stay I would make it worth your while."
Impossibly, the man began to turn away without another backward glance. Sasuke was forced to adopt a tone of near begging.
"Please," he bit out. "My word is good. I will pay you to aid me."
The man stopped and looked at him over one broad shoulder. The sun had completely set now, so his face wasn't visible. His voice came to Sasuke in the gathering dark. "Pay me with what? You don't look to have anything of value on you."
Sasuke noted the deep timber of the man's voice absently. "My family has money. Once I contact my brother, he will pay you handsomely."
The man remained still for a moment. "You're the Uchiha those men down there are searching for." It was a statement, one Sasuke didn't reply to. After a few minutes, the man said, "You better pay the price I ask for."
Sasuke nodded and watched the man turn away, his heavy boots thumping as he walked quickly back the way he'd come.
Naruto saw that his gang was waiting for him. It was the end of the week so they'd likely been paid their meager wages by the wharfinger. Sure enough, Kankurou handed him his portion. Naruto was counting the bills in the faint glow from a distant lamp when Kankurou hesitated before clapping a hand on his shoulder.
"Naruto…I know we've already discussed it, but I'm begging you. Please let my brother join. I know he's small, but he's a steady kid, a hard worker. He wouldn't be any trouble, I swear to you."
The blonde spoke without looking up, folding the bills into a pocket of his overalls. "No. This gang has a reputation for quick, orderly work. He'll only slow us down."
"Please, man," Kankurou begged. "My family really needs the extra money."
The plea and mention of money reminded Naruto that he had a wanted man waiting for him up the shore. He briefly considered telling his companions, but thought better of it. They would all want a piece of the pie and if this panned out he wasn't about to share the booty. They all needed money. He looked beyond Kankurou to where his little brother was waiting for him. The small redhead watched the group of men around his brother with serious green eyes. He looked slight and sickly. Naruto moved from beneath Kankurou's hand. "I'm sorry, but my answer stands."
Kankurou stepped back. "Inuzuka said he'd take us both on."
Shino and Chouji made faint sounds of disapproval, recognizing the threat. If Kankurou left their little gang, it would be a real blow. They needed him. Naruto met Kankurou's meaningful look with a piercing stare of his own. "That's because Kiba's an animal. He'll work your little brother to death and pay him shit besides. You'll forever be in Kiba's debt for doing this favor for you. He won't pay you what you make with me and your brother will be dead inside a month. If you want to leave, leave. I'm not stopping you."
Kankurou searched the cold blue eyes a moment before dropping his own and turning away. Naruto and the others watched as he went to his brother. He could be seen shaking his head and murmuring to the boy…before heading in the direction of Inuzuka Kiba's gang, who were known to work late into the night.
Shino cursed. "I didn't think he'd really do it."
Chouji said something about a lack of loyalty then turned to Naruto. "Shall we get a drink? I know a whorehouse that caters to your tastes as well, if you-" Chouji stopped speaking, flinching at the hard look that lanced his way from Naruto.
"My 'tastes' are my business. Get out of my sight."
"Right boss." Chouji hurried away, taking Shino with him.
Naruto stared after their retreating forms, feeling anger at the nerve of Chouji to mention what should never be mentioned. It fueled his anger at Kankurou and the way he'd left. He turned and scanned the docks, but none of the men who'd been looking for the Uchiha were present. He did, however, see several posters up with the man's image sketched on them. He moved closer to one and read the print. A reward of ten thousand dollars was being offered for the man's capture, dead or alive. The poster was issued by the sheriff's department, which was known to be influenced by several wealthy individuals, the Uchiha among them.
He studied the poster a moment. The sketch didn't really look like the bedraggled man who'd begged him for asylum. He supposed he could still walk away from this and simply leave the man to be found come morning.
Sasuke heard the footsteps over an hour later. He remained where he was in case it wasn't the blonde man. He needn't have worried. The man came around his hiding place and motioned for Sasuke to follow him.
His shoes had been lost in his hellish swim back to land. His feet were cut and bleeding from sneaking ashore. Nevertheless, he followed as closely as he was able to, considering the blonde's long legs ate up ground at an alarming rate.
Sasuke was led through the rat warren of slums that existed close to every waterfront. His would-be savior navigated dim alleys and passageways, staying away from traffic on the streets and any curious eyes. He kept to the shadows, moving surely. Sasuke was forced to trust him for he had no idea where he was.
They stopped at a building that no Uchiha would ever have set foot in. It was three stories, dilapidated, yet surprisingly with electricity. His blonde companion shouldered his way through the door without bothering to hold it open for Sasuke. He caught the rough wood as it was shutting in his face and was in time to see the man he followed marching unconcernedly up a flight of rickety stairs that leaned precariously to one side. Sasuke jumped, biting back a scream of fright as a fat brown rat scuttled over his foot. Cockroaches crawled the walls. Swallowing, he moved up the stairs in haste.
Sounds of coarse language could be heard behind closed doors as Sasuke followed the blonde to the top floor and a door at the very end of the hall. A key was fished out of a pocket and twisted in the lock. The blonde man entered and Sasuke was right behind him.
The room was revolting. Exposed laths were visible through the abundantly chipped plaster. A single naked bulb dangled from the ceiling amidst a snarl of tangled wires. A filthy sagging mattress sat in one corner. Newsprint covered one window and a clothes line stretched diagonally across the ceiling from one corner of the room to the other. Faded, shabby clothing, much like what the blond had on, hung from this line. There was a dresser with a drawer missing. That was all Sasuke cared to notice as he turned to find the blonde eating something from a rusted can he'd picked up from the floor. He shoveled the contents into his mouth without looking at Sasuke.
"What is this," the Uchiha seethed. "I asked you to bring me to a place to stay, not this…this…" He could find no word descriptive enough for the horror of this room and building. He stood perfectly still, lest he accidentally touch some filth that would contaminate him further. It was unthinkable that he was even breathing whatever foul air permeated this squalid place. He was ready to die just from having to stand barefoot where vermin actually lived.
The man withdrew a rolled up sheet of paper from his pocket and tossed it to Sasuke. Sasuke flinched, sucking in an affronted breath. "How dare you throw anything at your betters, you ba-"
"Take a look at that. Let's see if you can put two and two together," the man drawled at him. "Your name's Uchiha Sasuke, isn't it? Same as on that wanted poster?"
Sasuke stopped speaking, his eyes sharp. He had to stoop to pick up the rolled paper. Unfurling it, he saw his picture and the amount for his reward. He wasn't stupid. "Even if these posters are up and the hotels are being watched, my father's men will be focused on the ships and boats leaving by way of the river. He won't expect me to be in the city. He knows…he knows I'm aware of what he'd to do me if he found me."
The man shrugged, straddling a ladder back chair. He draped his beefy forearms over the top, gesturing with one hand. "Suit yourself. There's the door." When Sasuke didn't move, he gave a knowing nod. "Least you have sense. Let's discuss the terms of this situation, shall we? For starters, how long do you expect me to house you?"
Sasuke carefully rolled the poster up again, his jaw tight with his shame at having to ask this brute for help. "At least until my brother is contacted and can come for me."
"And how do you expect this brother to be contacted?"
A pause, as Sasuke ran through options. The blonde couldn't stroll up to Uchiha Manor himself, that was clear. "There is a man in the city. His name is Sai. Mention my name to him and bring him here. I will instruct him on what to do."
"Swell. When do you expect me to find this person?" the man asked with interest. His large, golden head was cocked to the side quizzically.
"What do you mean when," Sasuke retorted in annoyance. "Now, when else?"
There was silence as the two stared at each other.
Sasuke saw that the man followed true longshoreman tradition in being well over six feet, with enough muscle for three grown men. His hands and the knuckles on them were large, attesting to the likely sideline of illegal boxing as a means to flesh out poor wages earned stevedoring. The man appeared young, but it was hard to tell. His face was weathered and tanned. The eyes were striking.
Naruto, for his part, mused that he'd never been allowed to look upon a man so handsome at such proximity, for such an extended length of time. The gentry he'd seen had always been at a distance. This Sasuke was lean, though clearly fit. His short hair was beginning to dry, a few locks falling over his white brow. His lips, blue when he'd met him, were now turning a pale pink. His shirt, probably starched and stiff that morning, lay loose and open at the collar. His pants had a small tear near one knee and his feet were bare.
"Here's the thing," the man said suddenly, startling Sasuke. "That reward is more money than I'd make in a year. It's more money than I'd see in five years, to be frank. I'm thinking that turning you in would be a quick way to easy street, instead of me hunting up some man who will likely turn his nose up at the sight of me. You catch my meaning, Sasuke?"
"I have not given you leave to use my name," Sasuke bit out. He managed to stand straighter in an effort to remind this lowlife of who he was speaking to. "You shouldn't even be sitting in my presence. It is respectful to stand when in the presence of those higher than you."
"What I mean," the man went on as if Sasuke hadn't spoken, "is that you and I need to discuss how much you'll be paying me for my assistance. Naturally whatever sum we agree on will have to be at least double what's on that wanted poster. Otherwise, what's the point?" He blinked his blue eyes at Sasuke as if what he'd just said wasn't the very height of unmitigated gall.
But the alternative was his life, Sasuke thought. His father would probably kill him for this shame he'd brought on the family. The Haruno family and the insult he'd done them by running away from marriage to their daughter would be taken into consideration. An insult that was directly reflected on the Uchiha family.
He had money in the bank. He could pay the outrageous sum of twenty thousand dollars, but it would require Itachi getting to it. And for that he needed Sai.
"Fine. Twenty thousand dollars for you to do as I ask. You will get the money when I'm certain my brother can spirit me away."
"Great. Wanna shake on it?" The man held out his hand. Sasuke would have rather touched a live adder, a fact that was plain in the repugnance on his face.
The man shrugged, dropped his hand, and undressed to his dingy underwear. He deposited himself on the mattress and rolled over, prepared to sleep.
Sasuke felt his jaws ache at how tightly he clenched them. "If you are in agreement, why aren't you heading out to find Sai now? I will give you his address."
The voice was muffled. "Because I just finished working a 16-hour shift. I need my sleep."
"Very well, in the morning-"
"No good. If I don't report for work, it'll cause no end of problems. Give me his location and I will try to find him tomorrow night."
Sasuke was ready to take a sharp object and ram it between the broad shoulder blades. He was powerless, though. He reeled off the location of Sai's small home in the suburbs. Whether or not the blonde man heard, he didn't know. He received no answer.
He looked around for some place to sleep, but shuddered at the thought of laying his person on any surface within that room. He finally minced his way to the ladder back chair and inspected it. After a minute, he sat gingerly on the thing and folded his hands in his lap. It was better than standing.
His body was sore and tired from the swim back to the river, then to the docks where Itachi had left him. He'd entertained a small hope that his brother would still be present, but the return to land had taken so many hours. He'd needed to stop and rest often, ducking beneath the surface of the water whenever a ship passed within sight of him.
He was starving, but ignored his hunger pains. He didn't dare eat anything from this place for fear that he would inadvertently poison himself. He would be reunited with his brother shortly and would request a veal dinner the very first thing. For now, he concentrated on keeping track of the large roaches scurrying about, mindful of his bare feet. Did roaches bite?
He woke to the sound of the other tenants in the building stirring and shouting to each other. Morning light filtered through the grimy newsprint on the one window. The blonde man was gone.
He spent the day in that room, suffering sharp hunger pains and pacing the length of the small space. Toward midday the call of nature drove him to search for a bathroom. He found one down the hall, a communal affair. The sight of the toilet was enough to blind him. The floor and its yellow stains did not bare consideration. He conducted his business standing up, holding his breath the entire time. He ran out of there when he was finished, opting not to touch the filth-encrusted sink to wash his hands. The blonde man's room seemed a haven of cleanliness in comparison to that bathroom. He sank weakly into the chair and waited miserably, recovering from his ordeal.
Night came. The blonde didn't.
Sasuke resigned himself to using the mattress; his back was killing him from remaining upright for so long. The relief of stretching out horizontally outweighed whatever creatures might be inhabiting the smelly mattress.
He was woken the following morning by a rough shake of his shoulder. He sat up quickly, blinking at the stern face of the blonde man. Sai wasn't with him.
"Where is Sai?" he asked after he'd cleared his throat. His voice was raw. He'd had nothing in two days and felt dizzy.
Sasuke paused in the act of rubbing fatigue from his eyes. He squinted up at the blonde man, who was now standing with his arms folded, staring down at him with an inscrutable expression. "Dead?" A cold sensation settled in his chest. "No, impossible. How?"
"Authorities found him hanging in his closet by the belt around his neck."
Sasuke got shakily to his feet. "No. That means my father knew I'd go to him. Quick, you must contact my brother for me and warn him…"
Maybe it was the way the blue eyes didn't blink, or maybe it was a subtle expression in those eyes, but suspicion dispelled the fog of dawning panic from Sasuke's mind. "Not my brother?" he said in a small voice. "Not Itachi? I beg you, tell me not him?"
"He and his wife were in an automobile accident late last night. Uchiha Manor is in mourning," the man said gently, but seriously.
Sasuke turned from him. Itachi's grinning face on the night he'd helped him escape blazed in his mind, surrounded by a halo of light. A rush of hot tears sprang to his eyes as a scream tore from his throat. He let it out, screaming once, twice. Then he was quiet. He sucked it all in and breathed, shoving his grief down fiercely. It would drive him mad if he indulged it. Oh, Itachi.
He stared at a hole in the wall for a long time. When he turned around, he had himself under control once more. The blonde was watching him. "It was no accident. Nor did Sai hang himself. They were murdered, probably by my father."
The man didn't stir at this announcement. He only continued to watch Sasuke. Finally he spoke. "And what of our agreement? The danger around you has driven up the cost. Fifty grand or I turn you in to your murdering father."
Sasuke marveled that this swine had no respect for his grief. "You would do that?"
"You're a means to an end. I can retire with that money, buy my own ship like I want and stop working for others. So yes. I would do that."
"He'll kill me. That means nothing to you, does it."
"It'll mean forty thousand dollars less."
Sasuke turned away from him once more.
"Can you get the money?" the man asked from behind him.
Sasuke was thinking furiously. There was no help for it. He might fail, but it was the only way. "I can. But I'd need your help," he said without turning around.
"More help beyond already risking my neck for you?" The man came around Sasuke to face him. "I don't know-"
"For fifty thousand dollars you will do whatever I say," Sasuke spat savagely. He stared up at the tanned face challengingly. "You will get me out of the country and only then will you receive your money. Is that understood?"
"Half up front," was all the man said. Sasuke nodded. "What do you need me to do?"
"You're going to help me break into Uchiha Manor." When the man didn't blink, but only continued to frown thoughtfully, he asked, "What is your name?"
"Naruto. We will leave tonight. Now, if you please, go and bring me food."