We Three

I am a sinner.

Drag me to hell.

Namikaze Naruto, an insightful and playful type- who loves easily and trusts a bit too easily-, has many friends. He cherishes them equally, for each bond had been so quickly birthed. But as many things, these bonds need careful and sincere diligence. Naruto cherishes his friendships because he works on them, maintains them, adores them. And he is sure his feelings are returned.

There is an exception however- two exceptions- and they are called Uchiha Sasuke and Haruno Sakura. Unlike Naruto's other relationships, the one he has with his two best friends is effortless- seamless. They meshed from the moments they all first met. The elementary *1- perhaps a year before the promotion to the Genin grade level- Sasuke stumbled upon a crying Naruto during recess, scratched up from another round of bullying. It was no secret that Naruto was often the target of animosity, after all. Naruto expected ridicule, mockery from the perpetually grumpy-looking boy when he approached his little hidey-hole underneath the slides of the jungle gym.

"They'll never stop if you don't fight back, you know," Sasuke said instead, crouching down to the blonde's level. Naruto remembers flinching when Sasuke reached out to wipe away a smudge of dirt from his red nose- a bit embarrassing, now that he can reflect on it.

Naruto had tearfully nodded, "But I'm too small to beat all of them."

Sasuke just puffed his chest out arrogantly- a lot more expressive then than he would ever be once he got older- and plopped down in the rocks next to the sniffling Naruto.

"I'll scare them away. If you're always with me, they won't be able to hurt you. They know my daddy is really rich and mean," and then he smacked a kiss to the scratch on Naruto's arm because that was what Sasuke's mom always did for him when he got all cut up. They were inseparable ever since, a constant in each other's lives like no other. Vacations, sword fights, rivalries, petty arguments. They became a power duo of sorts in the beginning of their Genin grades, popular and exciting. It was the first time Sasuke ever had fun; it was the first time Naruto stopped being afraid.

They hadn't met Sakura, the loud and confident and pink haired heartthrob, until their third year as Genin. Naruto always thought what he and Sauske had was incapable of improvement, but Sakura brought a whole different dimension to their crass boyishness. She cooled their tempers with her calm rationale- they were both so short to anger- and leveled out their pig-headedness (Sakura's words). All three were assigned as partners for a science project, and ended up wasting time watching bad horror movies and turned in a paper riddled with text talk and bad language not relating to the assignment at all. Sasuke's first failing grade. But none of them minded, for they discovered that through their unhealthy love of atrocious script and acting, they fit quite well together. Better than quite well.

Perfect, Naruto would say with his silly grin. They fit like a puzzle of one, two, three pieces, and no one would have it any other way.

He would say: we are perfect and beautiful. We are a threesome, a unit- made smooth by years of the practiced synchronization we are so known for. Addressed as "Hey, you three-", "You three had better behave or I'll-", "We're so proud of you three-". They do not know their individual identities- as their personalities and lives are so intricately woven together (Where do I end, and you begin?). Where one is, the other two can be found nearby. They have a dynamic- intimacy, even- that leaves outsiders as mere intruders.

They were happy, they had each other, their whole lives ahead for planning and dreaming and dreading. It was precious, and they deluded themselves into thinking it would never change.

But it did. And in the blink of an eye, it not only evolved;

It severed.

Naruto has a perfect understanding of his relationship with Sasuke and Sakura. He is their friend- their brother. But the fact that Sakura is a girl changes everything- and he isn't being sexist; he's just telling the truth.

Sakura is a girl, and as such, prone to lots of complicated romantic feelings. It started their first year as Chounin, and Naruto could recognize the signs because he lived through that part already. He knows how to hide, to lie. And oh- is he a liar.

Sakura fell in love with Sasuke right as she hit puberty and it changed their dynamic completely. She pursued, Sasuke pretended he didn't notice (for his sake? For Naruto's?), and Naruto sat back, finally realizing how this was going to happen. Sakura would spend their last years of grade school as Chounin chasing after Sasuke until he would reluctantly agree to go on a date once. And Sasuke's dad would be so pleased, because Sakura comes from such a nice and respected family, that Sasuke's daddy-complex would act up and get him to be a more active boyfriend. They would be awkward, but Sasuke would stick with it because Sakura is comfortable to him; familiar territory. Because Sasuke is (due to his upbringing) before all of his stoicism, respectable and would take responsibility for the one girl in his life that he actually likes being in the same room as. They would date- smoothly, because Naruto would be there to be the bridge between their communication gaps. They would court, tip-toe around getting serious for a few months. They would make love. They would marry. Sasuke would be happy by making his family proud and siring an heir. Sakura would be happy in achieving her Happily Ever After.

Naruto would help them fulfill their destiny, quietly, calmly. They would go to college together, gaining a Jounin rank, but Sakura would drop out after they got married and move into a two-story house with a white picket fence and a golden retriever named Sparky.

Everyone and their mothers knows this. Naruto knows. His parents know. Sasuke probably even knows. Fate had their plans laid out since before they were born. It is inevitable, and the older he gets, the more apparent it seems to Naruto that he is getting jipped. Because Fate didn't expect Naruto to have feelings too. Somewhere in between the insults (pet names) and the sleepovers, feelings developed, transformed, and got complicated. Naruto's skeleton in the closet (Laugh it up, ass wipes. That gay joke was on purpose) grew to a bursting point- waiting, waiting, waiting. And it will wait forever- or at least until he can get over it. It is pointless to fight the current. (Because then there's me. Me- the brother, the best friend. On the inside- but on the outskirts of it. Because two is a unit, a partnership. Three is extra. Because not everyone can have that happily ever fucking after, right?)

So when Sakura announces loudly over the phone one Friday night after Homecoming dance that Sasuke finally, finally asked her out on that first date, Naruto doesn't bat an eyelash, his voice easily transmitting his pleased smile to Sakura's waiting ears. She squeals with delight; Naruto hears her familiar giggling, thinking: lucky (You're so damn lucky). He cries a thousand "Congratulations!" in an obnoxious voice that he knows is teasing her in all the right ways (Sakura is, bless her, an attention addict). She rattles on and on, and Naruto feels hideous in his desire to hang up on her, to beg her to spare him the details. He can give her advice, can smile encouragingly, but please please please just stop talking about how you held Sasuke's hand for the first time. Eventually, she has to go to bed- her parents still have a curfew on her, even if she turned eighteen a month ago- and insists they all get together tomorrow. "Oh, Naruto- we have to come over tomorrow! We can watch that crappy Swedish version of Chucky!" and Naruto just can't say no.

It was only a matter of time.

This does not hurt me.

Love, Naruto muses, is not so sweet; not all peaches and roses.

(My peaches have worms in them, and my roses are way past sun-dried).

So, just as Sakura promised, the next day arrives with Ssauke and Sakura on Naruto's front doorstep, and he avoids looking either of them in the eye- maybe not a subtle way to deal with his issues, but give him a break. The three of them (always, always We Three) find their usual spots on the floor in front of the television in the living room, a bag of sweet flavored popcorn in Sakura's lap. But not before Sakura reenacts the whole ten minutes that lead of Sasuke asking her out.

Naruto looks between the cup of Sprite in his hand (wishing it were something stronger, something that would blow his mind far, far away), the glowing Sakura, a quietly smiling Sasuke, and back to his cup. He can't help but feel a little miserable. (Who is he kidding?) There is a second of stillness in which Naruto knows it's his turn to speak- to react-, and the pressure in his gut seems to swell. Then, he is on his feet, the biggest, goofiest grin on his face (because the Namikazes aren't well-known for their amazing smiles for nothing). He swoops Sakura from her place on the floor and into a big hug, spinning her completely off of her feet and around. She shrieks- pretending to be angry- "Put me down this instant, you big idiot!" and after one more spin he does, smelling her shampoo (the same as his own, if that's not too strange for him to admit).

Still laughing- acting, acting, acting- Naruto puts the flushed girl back on her feet and turns to Sasuke. It is the hardest thing he will have to do. Their eyes meet, and for a single moment Naruto feels suspended, at a complete loss. He resists the urge to flinch away, like he had the first time Sasuke had touched him all those years ago in the wretched play ground.

"It's about time," he scolds the Uchiha with a smile, taking his cool hand in his own clammy palm for a firm shake, "We were all beginning to wonder where all that intelligence was going. I mean, Sakura's been obsessed with you for forever,"

"Hn," Sasuke replies with a smirk- happy, Naruto realizes. Really happy. He looks away and sits back down next to them, afraid of laying bare his ugly thoughts to his friends (his dearest, loved friends). Naruto feels a wave of resentment, and with it, a whole hurricane of guilt- guilt for wanting to take what he knew was set to be hers (Sakura's), guilt for not thinking sweet things about them at all- guilty, guilty, guilty. He forces himself to swallow the ache, feeling it scratch and burn its whole way down- to sit and spoil in his stomach, a years-old secret putrefying and turning stagnant. He shouldn't have eaten so much popcorn.

They are all smiling- for no reason other than being all together with this shitty movie-, and really, it is just so hilarious because after so long, the love of Naruto's life has finally hooked up with the girl he always knew he would hook up with. And Naruto is expected to smile with them (so he does), be happy for them (so he is) because what do they know? What do any of them know? His lips tremble. But the smile stays.

You're so damn lucky.

So Naruto spends the rest of the evening pretending (And he is so good at it by now!) not to see how closely Sakura is sitting next to Sasuke on the suddenly ridiculously-too-small floor (thighs practically overlapping), not to notice his arm around her slim shoulders. (They don't hold hands. They don't smile at each other. They don't flirt. They don't blush secretively). (Who's house were you at? Sasuke and Sakura? Together?) No way- it'll always just be-

We Three.

"The love that lasts the longest is the love that is never returned," -William Somerset Maugham

Saturday nights are reserved for dinner at Ichirakus's Diner, (the only diner in the entire city of Konoha) so when the movie ends and Sakura's hair is fixed quickly in Naruto's bathroom, they hop into Sasuke's car- Naruto in the backseat for the first time since it's Sakura's new right to sit beside Sasuke- and Naruto does himself a favor and sits never to a window so he can't see their joined hands on the glove box.

Tammy's Diner is a puny little place, retro and vintage, where the waitresses wear poodle skirts, yellow, frilly aprons, and roller skates. Kiba is already there, animatedly telling Shikamaru and Chouji some story or another. Neji and Hinata arrive a little after Sakura orders for her two boys, as if nothing is different, and Naruto wants to snap at her and the waitress who listens, but he keeps silent because it's all about appearances.

"You guys should have come to see Sucker Punch with us," Kiba said excitedly, "Those chicks were so hot!"

"Weren't they in a mental institute?" Sakura asks with a quirked eyebrow (she and Naruto can both do it- one of the many adopted mannerisms Sasuke has) and a smile.

"Yeah. It's like…," Kiba fights for the right words, "like a sexy addition. Makes them kind of dangerous. I mean, you're crazy but Sasuke still-"

Naruto makes a show of accidentally sliding off Kiba's milkshake off the table and into the brunette's lap before he can finish his death sentence. Kiba shrieks (extremely unmanly) but Naruto just apologizes, laughing. Their friends just shake their heads, used to everything. It's the only bad thing about knowing everyone in town for forever. No more surprises. (No one is surprised that Sasuke and Sakura are together, no one is surprised that Kiba is an idiot). Sakura does a good job of not reacting (she and Kiba never get along for some reason), and Sasuke soothes her by running a thumb over her hand and pulling her under his arm. Naruto thinks he'll be all right, thinks he can eat the fries that the waitress has just delivered, until Sasuke leans over and says something quietly in her ear that makes her giggle. The physical contact isn't unusual- all three of them have always been like that with each other. But it is different now, isn't it?

The blonde watches Sakura whisper something back, sees the flash of a smirk fly across Sasuke's face, and can't force himself to sit still any longer. He excuses himself quickly, makes a dash for the men's restroom. The tiles are a putrid brown color (maybe a nice cream once upon a time) and Naruto doesn't even have to take a breath to know it smells like a sewer. It is clean for the most part, but it doesn't stop the sewage system from backing up. Naruto bypasses the stalls and urinals, places his hands on either side of the sink to star at himself in the broken and crusty mirror. His lips are a little pale, his eyes bloodshot (It's hard to say sweet dreams when you can't sleep).

Why am I making that face?

He's ashamed of it- the wasted look he has, like all of the life in his skin was crawling out of his pores. Sick of it- of pretending, of the cliché his life has become (a shitty rendition of every Lifetime movie ever), of the constant state of vertigo he's in from the twists happening in his life (in his gut). The water is cold on his face and he hopes it brings color back to his nose. He's always been tan- known for being naturally gold (Gold, a soft metal, easy to grind into dust)- but the almost grey look in his mouth haunts him even as he pinches his flesh to flush it with blood. Mirrors are added to his list of danger.

The blonde leaves the familiar bathroom behind, mind made up about his destination. It isn't a hard decision.

They are waiting for him, a coke placed in from of his empty place at the table, and he quickly grabs it and tosses a ten to Sakura to pay her back for ordering for him earlier.

"Sorry guys-" (Sorry, sorry, sorry)- Naruto pushes through Sakura's questioned noise she makes in the back of her throat when she disapproves of something, "But I gotta head back. Jiraiya called and said he was sending the carpet cleaners over tomorrow. He said if it wasn't clean, he'd cut my allowance,"

It's the perfect lie at the perfect time because the waitress comes by and says it'll be another five minutes for the food so they can't leave with him, because Naruto is a slob and it's believable that he'd need to clean, because it wards off their worry or curiosity. They don't even spare him a comment though Sakura's eyes follow him out of the door and around the corner, and Naruto love-hates her concern, her sincere friendship.

Everything in Konoha is within walking distance, so even though Naruto doesn't have a car, it isn't much of a problem. The weather hasn't gotten frosty yet, still too early in November for the cold front to settle in the cracks of the city, but it is cool, and Naruto has to pull the neck of his jacket closer when the wind blows in order to avoid the chill. The cold clears his head (a bad thing now, when he's alone and has no reason to be alert), and he grits his teeth, feels the ache. Don't think.

Just don't.

He has these rules; guidelines. There are three of them (like We Three; it isn't an accident), companions to him since his insight to where to their destinies are leading them. They help him keep his precious friends close and his sin far; skirt the peril. One: Never, ever (ever ever ever ever ever) ever let anyone know. Never let them guess or suspect. Never even let them think. Two: Sasuke and Sakura always, always come first. Their feelings, their concerns, their desires. We Three is priority. It doesn't matter that it hurts. (He's good at pretending it doesn't anyway). And Three: Avoid concern and questioning at all costs (because it'll only make you weak). Lie, laugh- or lose, which is absolutelynotanoption. These three rules are Naruto's Way of Life, his yellow-brick road that will lead him to the path of Righteousness (path of Torment).

Naruto smiles to himself, feels his dry lips tear a little, and takes a deep breath of the late evening air. His apartment is a single floor on the fifth story of a complex, with two bedrooms, a bathroom, and kitchen-conjoined-living room. After his parents' deaths, Jiraiya ended up taking him in and got them this little place, though the old man is out of town more often than not- working (if you can call a free-lance writer seeing the world's stock of women working) , so Naruto usually has it to himself. It is such a night, and he is left in the silence of his own mind, a bad place to be in the lightest of terms.

The TV is on, volume up so loud he's sure the neighbors can hear Hugh Laurie rattling off some diagnosis in his crass way (I'm afraid you have a terminal case of Social Phobia*2, Mr. Namikaze Naruto. It's spread to your blood. You have a month to live.) Naruto doesn't turn the noise down even after his neighbors bang on the wall that joins their apartments.

He ignores the text from Sakura asking him if he's okay and telling him goodnight, and falls asleep to Dr. House saving the day once again (Save my day, Doctor).

"I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love," -Mother Teresa

Monday, bright and beautiful, statistically significantly marked as the number one day for self-destruction greets Naruto like any other Monday before it (though self-destruction may possibly be a few notches higher on his list of priorities). He rides with Sasuke and Sakura- keeping those appearances up up up- and hangs with them in the parking lot until the bell rings. He shares first block with them- AP Lit ("Because we're seniors, Naruto; seniors take advanced placement classes!") taught by Sasuke's charming elder brother, Uchiha Itachi, which he has never addressed and will never address him as sensei. Something about knowing him all his life makes it impossible to think of the Uchiha as anything other than 'aniki'.

"Good morning," Itachi greets them, "Today we will discuss syntax and tone. Open your books to page 198, and begin on the…"

His smooth voice- somewhat of a trait in the Uchiha family- slides easily over Naruto, like a warm breeze, and he actually finds himself taking notes for once (anything to not see Sakura doodling hearts all over Sasuke's paper) and enjoys watching Itachi teach. There is something about him, a certain poise, that makes Naruto inwardly smile. He knows this stance and these mannerisms, having his entire 18 years of life that he spent watching it. Fugaku and Sasuke have the same posture, but on Itachi, it is graceful (whereas Sasuke and Fugaku are more aggressive). He is a wonderful teacher.

"…so it is obvious that Emerson wanted us to read with emphasis on his second line because of the order in which…"

Okay, maybe Naruto isn't exactly paying attention to what he's saying as much as he's watching Itachi say it. But still. The few seconds he can forget where he's sitting makes it just fine.

"Hey," Kiba whispers as Naruto continues to scribble a rough sketch of Itachi's profile over his half-assed notes, "I got Amnesia*3 for my laptop downloaded. It's fucking amazing, man,"

Naruto grins and leans over so he can whisper more quietly.

"You got the balls to play it? I gotta come over so I can psyche you out,"

Kiba scowls, displeased that his manhood has been wounded, and Naruto laughs under his breath. It's always been a sore spot with Kiba about scary things, because of that one time- "It was one time, Naruto!"- the brunette squealed like a very frightened girl during the European version of Let Me In. It's not like it's a big deal though, since Kiba knows Naruto screams like a banshee if he sees a mouse (those things are disgusting).

The two boys stew in their own embarrassing memories, and Itachi continues his lesson.

Second block is much the same as first, only filled with the weird people of the school, and not an advanced course that counts as any important credit for anything but for filling an empty space. It's probably the oddest class in the entire school- Mythology. The class is taught by Maito Gai Sensei, a freaky guy who wears an awful lot of forest greens and an awful lot of spandex, sometimes at the same time, who somehow manages to turn every Mythological story into a valiant quest of love (which for Mythology, isn't that far fetched).

Naruto's fellow classmates are also… a little unorthodox. Sasuke and Sakura aren't in the class, as well as anyone else Naruto considers himself close to, which is only a blessing now. The class is a little safe haven, where he can stop smiling for an hour and a half and not be heckled about it. There's Gaara, a redhead who hates pretty much everyone and sleeps most of the time. There's Shikamaru who sleeps all of the time, and still miraculously passes all of his average leveled classes with perfect scores with nothing but a shrug and a sigh. There's Ino, a freak of a chick, who used to be Sakura's like BFF until they had some sort of falling-out. Naruto doesn't know much about her outside of her creepy and somewhat psychotic comments in class. Then there's Naruto.

Then there's me. The guy who secretly hates himself for secretly hating the ones he loves for secretly loving the one he shouldn't.

They talk about Persephone and Hades, how he tricked her with a flower and dragged her down to hell, killing spring and causing the goddess of Harvest, Demeter, to cast the earth into a famine in her grief. It makes Naruto wonder if anyone would grieve for him if he was dragged to hell. Would they starve with the death of spring?

No, Naruto thinks, Let them just forget. Forget there ever was a spring, for it is already dead.

Lunch is next, the first wave, because Seniors get privileges like that, and Naruto takes his normal spot, in between Sasuke and Kiba. Their table is filled with the same faces they knew five years ago, seven years ago, ten. Neji and Shikamaru, Sakura Hinata and TenTen, Lee and Chouji. It's normal, so normal, that Naruto wants to scream. No one cares that Sakura and Sasuke hold hands at the table or feed each other grapes or whatever. No one comments on how Naruto gets the back of Sasuke's shoulder the whole time because the Uchiha is busy licking food off of Sakura's cheek. Because that's exactly how it's supposed to happen, so talking about it would be redundant. It hasn't been a day, but it's already old news. It's so normal that Naruto can't, won't, shan't eat. He dreads that this normal will never be something he can get used to. But he's gotten so perfect at making it seem that way- being used to it, that is- that even he's normal too. (Rules 1, 2, 3, kid. 1, 2, 3).

He casually takes his plate up early, hands shaking because he's so close, always so close. And whether it's close to Sasuke, actually being at his side the whole time, or if it's so close to breaking, he is unsure.

No one will notice. No one notices.


The rest of the day is a blur of faces- PE scalded into his memory that makes going through the motions that much easier (warm-up laps with Lee, a game of basketball, and backtalk in the locker room with playful towel whips and ass spanking) and a lesson in Pre Cal he can't remember anything of except the bright yellow tie Sarutobi-Sensei was wearing.

"Naruto!" Sakura calls from Sasuke's side, Hinata and Neji trailing behind them. Naruto wonders if he can pretend he doesn't hear her and ducks his head into his locker. (Swallow me up in your metal jaws. You must be starving), "Hey!"

Naruto spins around, his smile full and charming, and distracts himself by pretending to adjust the straps on his book bag, "Hey,"

His voice is easy, relaxed, and he's proud of himself for it. Sakura wraps an arm around the blonde's back as they make their way through the halls with the rest of the student body to get to the parking lot.

"We're having dinner tonight at Sasuke's. Mr. Fugaku is back in town. I'll pick you up at six, okay?" the beautiful girl is saying, prattling out the time and place because- We've done this so many times before. How many dinners have we had all together? Too many to count. But it isn't the same even though it is. They aren't Three anymore. (It's Them and Me now). And Naruto doesn't think he can stand it- only so strong. It's too new, too soon for him to be willing to hurt himself this early on.

I can't go, his mouth opens to tell them because they're waiting waiting waiting on him to hurry up be normal like them. I can't. Naruto couldn't force himself to sit next to them- their happiness. His insides seem to freeze at the mere idea, at the idea of breaking his rules- Put them first, Naruto. Always always. Can he really do that?- say no?

"Sorry, Sakura-" (Always sorry, sorry, sorry; You're saying it so often these days-) Naruto gulps down the revulsion he feels at himself, "I've got to study for a Mythology test,"

It isn't completely untrue- he's got to know something about all of Aphrodite's lovers-, but even if it is partially true, he girl's cheerfulness droops a bit, and Naruto known he has to swoop in. Damage control. He winks at her, refuses to look at Sasuke who is hovering next to him, still still so close.

"You? Studying? Who are you and what have you done to my dumb blonde?" Sakura teases, though it's obvious she's suspicious of him, and Naruto waves it off. Casually, smoothly.

"Hey- don't be upset. Score yourself a kiss tonight,"

It was the prefect thing to say because they're both so embarrassed that Naruto can detach himself from them, and duck around the corner to exit the school from a different side so that he won't run into them again for the rest of the day. The air is cold despite it being late afternoon, but Naruto guesses that's what November is all about. He's got his jacket zipped all the way up, his hood pulled over his spiky, windswept hair in order to ward off the chilly breeze. His apartments aren't far- like everything else in town. It's barely a thirty minute walk from one end of Konoha to the other. It's relaxing. He can breathe in this open, unrestricted air where who's dating whom and broken hearts don't matter. The grass on the sides of the road is dead and it crunches under his washy blue cons like spikes of dyed sugarcane. It was nice, his seconds of freedom. And when he got home to see the note from Jiraiya telling him he'd run off on a two week completely work related trip, that freedom soured and amplified his solitude.

I am stranded.

"Why the love which is so soft of aspect, put in to the test, has to be so tyrannical and so rough?" -William Shakespeare

"I can't believe they're actually together," a girl- what's her name? Naruto can't remember, he never learned anyway- whispers heatedly to her partner, referring to Sasuke and Sakura's constantly joined hands.

Neither can I.

Naruto laughs to himself, pretends it was because of one of Kiba's jokes he's recalling so that no one will question him, and tries to wash out the noise- the giggles, the gossip- that he's heard all day this fine Tuesday. It's barely second block, and his stomach is already in a tight knot of jealousy and self-pity that had the water he had for breakfast begging to be puked up.

Naruto's mind drifts from Gai-Sensei's deep rumbling as he reads the text in chapter thirty-nine, to yesterday's lunch- laughter the sound of an angel, Sakura's; it is so familiar, so precious to him. And to Sasuke's small smile- a full blown grin on anyone else- and how the color in his face has been so much brighter these days; because he's got everything he'll ever need- his lover, his best friends. Why can't Naruto just be happy for them? Why does he think things, feel things that would put a stop to that laughter and smile if they knew?

The blonde teen sighs, leans his forehead on his desk. No lunch today.

He can't stomach it.

(The grease. The guilt. It's all the same.)

The bell rings, and for the first time ever, Naruto veers off of his well-worn path to the cafeteria. He doesn't make a conscious decision of where his destination will be, but somehow in his zombie-march through the crowd of students rushing in the opposite direction, their shoulders sharp in his chest as they squeeze by, he makes it to Itachi's classroom. It is empty of all but the man himself, this period being his prep. Naruto stands by the door, unnoticed, and watches the elder Uchiha. He is at his desk, scribbling on some poor kid's essay in an unforgivable red ink, his dark eyes- coal and flecks of crimson- narrowed in concentration (and vexation, judging by the amount of red marks on the paper). Naruto smiles a little when Itachi blows upwards at his forehead to cast fly-away strands of his long hair out of his face in that unconscious way he only allows when he thinks no one is watching. His fingers are long and pale, his nose a clean slope to the very tip-from his mother, Mikoto.

Naruto's smile broadens and he finally walks in, catching Itachi's attention. He is surprised to see the blonde; Naruto usually doesn't miss a chance to eat.

"Not in a hurry to feed yourself?" he asks in his smooth tones, a tiny twitch pulling at the corner of his mouth. Naruto doesn't reply- grins sheepishly- and leans one hip against Itachi's desk. It's covered in stacks of papers and folders, like any other teacher's, but perfectly organized- unlike any other teacher's. It isn't surprising in the least- Uchihas have a habit of doing things in an inhumanly organized manner. Even their house is creepily clean and well-kept (totally different from Naruto's apartment, which hasn't been dusted since the last owner had done so over tens years ago).

"Nah- I'm not in the mood,"; Itachi looks incredulous, but not suspicious. It is the reason, Naruto guesses, that he chose to come here. Itachi is safe. He'll make his own assumptions, observations, etcetera, but he'll rarely pry. He suspects it's because the Uchiha considers it too rude. Naruto glances back at the victim- paper- in Itachi's grasp and feels his smile come back.

"That a product of your first years?" he asks, leaning over the desk and into the other's personal space. It isn't unusual since most of the normal personal boundaries that exist between two people don't for Itachi and Naruto, and never have. There is an ease to their relationship despite the age and maturity difference that often left Sasuke feeling neglected when they were younger. It gives Naruto a sense of liberation; breathing room.

"It is," Unfortunately, is left hanging, because again, Itachi is too polite to actually complain about anything, "They have slaughtered Literature as we know it," Maybe not too polite after all.

"You'll get them better. Hell," Itachi frowns at Naruto's curse, but the blonde it used to it and doesn't pause, "You got me there and everyone else thought I was a lost cause,"

It did help that Itachi is an incredible teacher with an extremely sexy voice though- you'd be motivated to write the best damn essay you've ever written too if you knew someone hot was going to be reading it. Let Itachi think that it's his lecturing skills that keeps Naruto paying attention day after day. "You have improved greatly since your first year,"

Naruto laughs at the strain on Itachi's face- hiding the pride, the satisfaction- and sits on the edge of the desk, playing with a stack of papers. It is true; Naruto's improvement. He's been slightly above dreadfully average for the last few years- since Itachi had somehow managed to get it to sink in that school actually does matter. Before that, Naruto had been a bit of a problem child, not failing, but not exactly doing any good. His increased studying gives him a better sense of direction- something to do, something that has to be done- but in all honesty, he has no idea what he's doing after the Chounin level. He doesn't really want to go to college, but that's where Sasuke and Sakura are going and (Please don't leave me behind).

They are so sure of themselves, so sure of their career choices. Sakura has had her whole life planned out since seventh grade ("I'm going to Konoha Medical Institute, study under Tsunade Sannin, and become the top brain surgeon in the country,") and Sasuke is set to split half of the family company with his father once he proves himself (The Bank of Uchiha- most successful, trusted banking system in over half the world).

Once, in an attempt to gain some guidance, Naruto asked Jiraiya what his parents had done for a living. But they had changed jobs so frequently it ended up being no help to him. In the last ten years of their lives, Minato had been a fireman, a policeman, a dental assistant, a novelist, an accountant, a tattoo artist, and store clerk. His last job was photography, the last picture he ever took a stunning summer afternoon of Naruto's mother, her long hair blowing in the wind and highlighted by the bright orange sun. Kushina had been a realtor, a daycare manager, a secretary at an AIDS center, a housewife, and a social worker. She was a Karate instructor last.

"You have to go where your heart takes you," he just knows they would say to him, "Even if it seems totally absurd,"

What if my heart is trying to take me in between Sakura and Sasuke? What if my heart wants me to destroy what they have so I can be selfish?

"You'd make me write lines if I hadn't. Something snotty sounding. Wordy. Like 'I shall stop'eth writing essays while under'eth Uchihs-Sensei's instruction that are such pieces of shite',"

Itachi does not look amused, but the blonde isn't worried. He can handle a prickly personality over-

Getting cut out of the picture. Out of Sasuke's picture. (Off with his head!)

Itachi finally lets a soft smile loose, and Naruto feels his heart thud painfully.


"Just where have you been?"

Nowhere. Anywhere. Wherever you and Sasuke's aren't.

"Working on a project. For Mythology," Naruto blurts out carefully when Sakura asks where he disappeared to in PreCal. She believes him, because why shouldn't she? And Naruto quickly sets a pattern of skipping lunch in the cafeteria to sit in Itachi's empty classroom and pester him as he tries to grade papers. He packs a light bag of lunch in the mornings. He walks to school mostly- tells Sasuke Jiraiya is back in town and likes to take him (an easy lie to be caught in, but you're only trying to save your sanity, Naruto).

Forgive me.

"Should I be worried for my health, Naruto?" Itachi asks one day, and Naruto looks up curiously from his place in one of the rolling chairs (he's actually taken to doing school assignments while eating, so that he isn't completely distracting Itachi the whole time), and Itachi lets out a low chuckle that makes chill bumps blossom at the base of Naruto's neck, "I mean, Sasuke and Sakura aren't going to attack me for stealing you away every day? You have lunch with them, do you not?"

Naruto forces a laugh- used to laughing falsely and good at it. "Nah. I've been needing some quiet time recently, you know?"

It is easily dismissible, and Itachi never bothers to ask again. Maybe he can tell Naruto is avoiding them. Maybe he just doesn't care.

In the following days, Naruto feels invincible for twenty-five minutes out of the day. He has no worries when he's in Itachi's room, the outside world a far away place.

"I was wondering if you've bothered to apply for KU yet," Itachi tosses out casually, while erasing the chalk from his board. Naruto shakes his head, watching the white powder fly onto Itachi's hands and shirt that he knows will bother the man later, "Sasuke says their open house is this weekend. Will you be going with them?"

Sakura had sent him texts about it, Sasuke had dropped a sticky note on his locker mentioning it, since Naruto has spent the past few days being perfectly unable to reach. His replies were noncommittal at best, dismissing at worst. He doesn't want to go to a college where he knows his two best friends will go, live together with them, because that had always been their plan: go to college, live in a small house dividing the rent, and live happily ever after. They just haven't thought as far as Naruto has: when Sasuke and Sakura get married and honey-moon, and Naruto is forced out or left alone in an empty house way too big for one. (Because it has always been meant for We Three).

"I think Jiraiya might be coming home then, so…" Naruto hopes it's enough, but never has to sweat too much when evading Itachi's mildly probing questions. (Thank you thankyouthankyou for not prying).

It is impossible, Naruto decides after spending seven lunches with Itachi, to mix Sasuke and Itachi up. Physically, Sasuke has more stern, sharp features (despite everyone saying he looks like his mother- but I know him way better-er than you or anyoneelsesothere), his eyes a soft black-gray that speak of intelligence and patience and propriety, while Itachi's face is softer, perhaps a bit elfish, and his eyes a deep black-maroon that give children and grown men chills (though for two completely different reasons). And Sasuke will always be more childish and easier to frustrate, always trying to be perfect, and Itachi will always be more comfortable with his emotions thus able to handle them better. Why can't Naruto have fallen in love with Itachi instead?

Their eyes meet from across the desk- Naruto hunched over his PreCal homework and Itachi trying to pick off the flecks of white from the chalk board- and Naruto thinks that yes, there is love between them. Just not the same kind- a comfortable, familiar love that could make them lovers but wouldn't fill their days with that spice.

"What are you thinking about?" Itachi ventures, and Naruto feels himself flush. He laughs awkwardly, and Itachi looks like he's about to say something more but Naruto shoves a homemade brownie in the Uchiha's mouth.

They share lunch after that. Naruto stops doing work- it's homework after all- and Itachi decides he can relax for the twenty-five minutes of Naruto's lunch; so they settle themselves behind Itachi's desk in cushioned rolling chairs and talk about Naruto's cooking and home life and whatever else they deem worthy of conversation.

"…Sometimes it gets so quiet there, it sounds like someone's screaming," Naruto admits softly around a bite of his Easy Mac.

Only it's me. Screamingscreamingscreaming.

"I understand," Itachi says, after mulling over Naruto's words for a few seconds, "When I moved out into my apartment after I got a teaching job here, the silence used to really bother me. But I'm usually so busy with work, I hardly notice,"

"Why did you move out? I mean, this town is so puny so it isn't a matter of travel. Mikoto would have loved for you to stay,"

Itachi laughs. "Yes, well, when you're a grown man and like to go to places for adults, come home late at night with possibly a lover or two, and drunk, it helps not having to worry about waking up your parents," Naruto laughs with him now, nodding his head, empathizing, though he's never experienced anything like that. "I grew tired of sneaking around. You see, when I was your age I joined a mostly harmless… gang of sorts. Akatsuki,"

Naruto snorts on his Root Beer, totally disbelieving, because there's just no way Itachi the Perfect could have ever been involved in a street gang!

"Oh, yes. We had matching jackets and rings. Initiation,"

Naruto feels a shiver, not exactly sure if it is from fear or excitement, at the tone in his voice and burning in his eyes at that last part. Itachi smirks.

Having Itachi as a crutch makes going over for weekend dinners and movie nights at the Uchiha household easier for Naruto, because even though Itachi's moved out years ago, he still spends a good amount of time at the house- his mother's orders of course. So Naruto can eat at the table, sit in the living room, because Itachi is there to distract him. There to protect him. And if he's in another room- what used to be his bedroom- naruto can just say he's going to the bathroom and hide the rest of the visit away next to the elder Uchiha, talking about bad poetry, shitty students, and other reputation-ruining things Itachi did as a kid. And Itachi seems to understand. More than Naruto wants to know (Dangerous. Dangerous, but safe, because we're attracted to each other, love each other, but not on the constant brink of death like with Sasuke. Risk free.)

It's almost like I'm free-


The blonde jerks out of his thoughts, stares at his apartment's door, and wonders if it was just his imagination- Sakura's voice.

"Open this door this instant!"

Naruto clambers to his feet from his cozy place against the couch in front of the TV and unlocks his door.

"How did you get up here without being buzzed? Did the guy-"

But she isn't listening, just presses herself into his living space like she's welcome (I promise I didn't mean that; you're always welcome), and turns to him with these eyes so sad, so desperate.

"Naruto," she says, voice weak and vulnerable, "Why have you been avoiding us? You don't ride with us in the mornings, you're never in the parking lot, never at lunch, hardly talk to me in PreCal, and prefer walking home after school. Walking!" she pauses, chin trembling, and Naruto can't stop himself from running forward to hug her to his chest- thinner now, because he doesn't eat all that much anymore- and runs his hands through her long strawberry locks, "Are… are you mad at us?"

His heart feels crushed. This is reality. There are no days where his two best friends- his family- stop existing just because he stops looking at them. (I'm sorrysorrysorry.)

"No- I could never be mad-" and it's true, because when have any of their arguments lasted? (But this is different, isn't it kid? Don't tell her that though)- "I'm just… you know, trying to give you guys space. Really," Naruto squeezes Sakura and her soft arms quickly wind around him because there are no boundaries between them (not supposed to be anyway, you liar), and Naruto is proud that he keeps himself from crying, "I never meant for you to worry. This is just all new for you, and I didn't want to be in the way of, you know, your developing relationship," his words all run together because he's basically spewing a bunch of bullshit, which is fine as long as she buys it. (Because I may be a liar, but I'm a good one.)

Sakura looks up at him, green eyes wide and pleading, no tears because between the three of them, Naruto is the crier; "You don't need to do that, Naru-" and she never calls him Naru, only for special occasions- "You're a part of me. A part of us. This is a big change for all of us…" she bites a cherry pink lip, the same shade as her hair, "You'll come back to us right? We miss you,"

And how can he possibly say no to her? To those lips, those eyes, those gentle hands that know how to be as violent as any grown guy, when he loveslovesloves all of her so much? (Even the parts that took Sasuke away).

"I promise," Naruto croaks out, voice raw, rocks dragging across broken glass, "I promise,"

This is reality.

*1) School, in this story, is set up by ranking. Elementary is kindergarten to third grade, Genin is fourth to eighth, Chounin is ninth to twelfth, Jounin is college, and Sanin are college graduates with a Masters Degree/ PhD.

*2) Social Phobia used in this context, the fear of hurting or displeasing others.

*3) Amnesia: The Dark Decent is the scariest PC game I've ever played. Seriously. Nothing compares.