New York always seemed to have this magic spell hovering above its city lights. It was supposed to be the place where dreams came true, destinies were discovered, and beauty sold itself on the streets like mannequins; its alleys could have been the corner where a band of misfit boys became princes of thieves because in your head, it just sounded that good.
Instead, the state of New York had led Naruto to Jonathan Soto like some bad cosmic joke.
It was so bad Naruto had forgotten to laugh.
Whatever shit you got with that guy? It can't be that bad. He could still see Shikamaru tugging him forward, bored and annoying as all hell because for the first time in a while, Naruto began to notice how much Shikamaru used the people around him to forget where he was.
It really pissed him off.
And Jonathan had just watched him from the curb, and Naruto had thought he doesn't look any different. It had struck him, for some reason, to see the exact same boy who'd been branded into his memories. Five foot ten, dark eyes, same hair that was cropped so short Naruto could almost see his scalp. Hell, even the same damn Patriots jacket. Only the car was different. A pit hollowed out his stomach. He didn't know why he'd thought Jon would look any different. Like, somehow, the past should have mottled him, made Jon uglier, worse to look at.
But he wasn't. He was just Jon. Jon from New Hampshire. Jon with the dimples and the football obsession and the Magic collection under his bed he probably hadn't bothered to show anyone but Naruto (who'd gotten the hang of it quick and beaten Jon their first match. "HA!" he'd shouted. "I totally owned you.")
Naruto's throat went dry, and he didn't know why he was remembering. Or why he even cared to. Shikamaru was still talking, but Naruto had stopped listening.
This much was true: looking at Jon was like getting punched in the gut, and his stomach was still aching. He shoved Shikamaru away.
And he ran. Faster, when Jon called his name. Naruto! Wait!
The air in Naruto's lungs was beginning to burn, singe his throat and make the corners of his eyes prick uncomfortably. Downtown rushed at him in lights and voices and taxi cabs and gasoline. He almost kept running, but he remembered to slow down, to not keep looking over his shoulder like a serial killer was going to round the next corner. After the nun walking from church paused to ask him if he was in any sort of trouble, if he was lost, or if he needed help, he'd shaken his head so quickly he'd mentally asked the Big Guy to let this one slide just this once (for some reason lying to a nun just seemed worse), and lamely said he just needed to find a bathroom. She'd raised a brow and pointed to the nearest restaurant.
Naruto had finally looked back then, but he only saw a sea of strangers. No Jon. His heart stopped doing that bat-out-of-hell thing that made him feel like calling an ambulance.
He could have turned around. He could have turned around and given Jon a piece of mind...or fist..straight to his jaw or throat.
But Naruto didn't really feel like causing an even worse scene, and he'd thought of Kiba instantly, so running seemed like the better option.
The burn in his throat was beginning to make him feel sick, and he wandered morosely over to a bench and plopped down on with a sigh. He realized, belatedly, as he watched cars blur past and shoe soles smack against the pavement, that he hadn't even tried calling Mito, nor was he even on the same street as Macy's, to tell her he hadn't gone with his friend at all. He'd just booked it. Hadn't even tried to focus on where he was going. Maybe she'd already gone.
He tore off his beanie, running aggravated fingers through his hair.
The way Naruto saw it, he had three options:
1: He could fish his iphone out of his pocket and call Sasuke.
He thought of lights and quiet laughs and stolen kisses. Gray eyes reflecting off the glass, catching his own in the window. And he'd relished it, kept looking over as if Sasuke might disappear.
It was an afternoon worth Sasuke skipping soccer practice for, Naruto guessed. In the Mercedes-Benz they'd lounged in the back, while Itachi drove (could he even see with that squint? Naruto had actually buckled up), pestering each other, throwing fritos at Itachi's head for some joke Naruto couldn't remember, but at the light, Itachi had turned around and aimed to punch at Sasuke, settling for rapping him across the knee when he couldn't' reach him, with a "shit, son."
And they'd laughed. Naruto had laughed to see Sasuke laugh, in that free way Naruto only noticed when they were out of school. In his bedroom. In the car. The sky darkened and Sasuke's fingers were brushing against his. They stole glances at stoplights. Swapped smirks.
They'd gone to an arcade, spent most of the time on the racing and shooting games (It tickled Naruto to see Sasuke so competitive, because he himself wasn't someone who went down easily). And while Sasuke had stalked off to find the bathroom after losing twice to Naruto (in a row, and Naruto happily gloated about it). Itachi had played him in a race. He'd crashed, burned, and said "Well that's that."
"You still got another life!"Naruto had pointed.
Itachi had squinted, said "Maybe," and they raced again.
"You know," said Naruto conversationally as they streaked through a virtual Tokyo, "This is actually on my bucket list." And he'd laughed, because his chances of racing in Tokyo were pretty damn slim, but it was fun to write down.
Itachi had said, suddenly, "What would you do, if today was your last day alive?"
Naruto thought for a full two seconds. "Cross off as much on my list as I could during the day and spend my last night with everyone important to me. What about you?"
Itachi had hummed thoughtfully and said, "I'd take a drive."
Itachi had laughed and changed the subject. "I'm going to be leaving soon," he'd said, though he'd never explained where, and had gone to say, "When I'm gone, you keep an eye out for Sasuke. Been a while since I've seen him like this. Needs someone like you to look out for him every now and then."
That was when Sasuke had come back, and Naruto had paused to look at Itachi out of the corner of his eye. But then Sasuke's hands were on his shoulders and he was challenging him to another round.
"You're SO on! I'm gonna kick your ass, sunshine," Naruto had hollered, leaping over the back of the seat and following Sasuke, leaving Itachi to stare at Midnight Club's screen: RACE LOST. PLAY AGAIN?
Sasuke had looked at him while they aimed their plastic guns, right before the game started.
See? Sasuke had mouthed. It'd been a good idea, hadn't it? And maybe it had been, until they'd ran into Mito at the mall.
Naruto supposed it was bound to happen eventually. The woman was a compulsive shopper. Her brain was hard-wired for it. It was the only way Naruto knew if his grandmother was sick or depressed: when Mito couldn't even get up to go to the mall, Wal-Mart, or Macy's.
"Oh, fuck." Sasuke (Sasuke!) had balked, turned on his heel, and smoothly hurried into the nearest Gamestop, yanking Naruto after him by the collar, leaving a curious Itachi in their wake.
But too late.
Naruto had sworn even the babies in their strollers had stopped sucking on their pacifiers to watch and gossip, as this little old woman, five foot exactly, Burberry purse swinging violently on her arm, marched right up to pull Naruto away by the ear (owowowow!), and gave Sasuke Uchiha a "stern talking to".
And urged him to find Jesus.
Naruto had hid a snort behind a coughing fit (Mito had started whacking him on the back like an oversized baby), while Sasuke raised a brow, face carefully set and blank. If Naruto hadn't known any better, he'd say the poor bastard looked stricken.
Later, Naruto would give him hell for it.
The guy behind the Gamestop counter had started laughing, until Mito shot him a withering glare potent enough to kill the dead twice over. It hadn't gotten any better when Itachi swept in to (try) and save the day with a warm smile and a friendly introduction ("I assure you, Mrs. Uzumaki, the boys are well supervised," and Itachi had shot a particularly amused look at Sasuke that might have bordered on sibling villainy), but Mito only seemed to find the young man's politeness irritating, and his squinting unusual.
In the end, Naruto was led away by the hand like a five year old, and Sasuke had determined Mito was the Anti Christ of romance.
"Don't you come running to me," Mito had trilled later as she tugged a sighing Naruto to her car, "When you find yourself heartbroken, or worse, in some kind of trouble-"
"You can't just date boys like that willy-nilly. Boys like that are like that for a reason. You couldn't be interested in his brother? At least he was dressed nicely. He was presentable. But no, you choose the boy with the tongue ring and the pierced eyebrow, the bad attitude, and that mess on his head! Probably doesn't even comb his hair!"
Naruto had laughed. "Grandma-"
"I mean it, Naruto!" And she'd swiveled around in her seat to give him a look that snapped his spine straight.
She'd said, "Have you not learned to be careful?" And that had been all it took for Naruto to remember Jon, silently fume in the passenger's seat, stung, and watch the sky go by, pretending he wasn't listening to Mito's tirade. All. The. Way. To. Macy's.
Talk to me, Sasuke had texted later, probably bored at home. And Naruto had joked about how Mito had probably permanently made his right ear longer than his left, thanks to Sasuke (LOL). Naruto could imagine him, sprawled on his bed, staring at the ceiling and listening to some screamo shit or Eminem or Macklemore. Naruto swallowed, looking at his phone, watching the cars pass by. There were some things he just wasn't ready to say or talk about. It was hard to want to do when Naruto had never told Sasuke about Jon, or about what had happened last year.
Sometimes he felt he was holding back, because he'd listen to Sasuke whenever quiet moments gave way to secrets, wishes, hopes, issues. Bastard didn't look it, but Sasuke was sensitive. In a broody kind of way. Naruto grinned a little. He'd listen until Sasuke began to ramble. And he could see it clearly: there he was, sitting on the floor by Sasuke's bed, head bobbing to some music, doing homework, while Sasuke lounged on the bed, an arm hanging loose to brush against his shoulders, Sasuke's thumb gliding over the fabric of his shirt every now and then. Resting by his collarbone, tapping the bone.
You think, Sasuke had said once, people can really forgive and forget? His parents had been fighting downstairs, and he was growing restless. Naruto could tell. Maybe Sasuke was toying with the idea of beginning to speak to his dad, (or even Sakura, who Naruto still couldn't figure out how to go up to, without asking in a way that didn't sound insensitive, if the note about been about the abortion rumor going around. Sasuke wouldn't admit it, but Naruto knew it had gotten to him).
Maybe Sasuke was wondering if Fugaku and Mikoto could love each other again.
If, you know, Hell ever froze over.
Naruto had frozen himself, the tip of his mechanical pencil biting into his notebook so hard it broke.
You can forgive, he'd answered slowly, and he thought of boys he'd faced,, but you don't ever forget.
Hn, said Sasuke, and he'd ran his fingers absently down the back of Naruto's neck.
Naruto shook his head, and rolled his phone in his hands, tapping it rhythmically against his knee. He exhaled, shoulders slumping. There were still two options left.
2. He could call Kiba. He sighed. Again, his thumb paused over the call button, and he cursed. There was an undeniable something about Kiba lately, and it made Naruto pause. It made him feel like a fool. It was there when Kiba noticed Sasuke. It was there when Kiba looked at Naruto. And Naruto wondered if this thing making his best friend such a crab was the love interest he refused to tell Naruto about.
"C'mon who is it? Who? I bet I know her!" It slowly became a point of conversation (and slight ridicule: "Aw, Kiba! C'mon! What are you? Five?") that Kiba couldn't bury fast enough.
"There isn't any girl," Kiba would deny sullenly.
"Liar!" Naruto would shout, jabbing a finger at his friend.
He's in love with someone else, Hinata had whispered to him last month, and sometimes Naruto would see her in the halls at school. He'd tease her about it until she blushed crimson, but it would be lost on him that it was him who made her bush and not his teasing.
"Still haven't found this mystery girl yet," he'd say.
"Oh?" She'd stare at the floor and push her fingers together and turn scarlet. "M-maybe your mystery girl is closer than you think." It was a flirty suggestion that Naruto was, comically, oblivious too. So he'd only nodded and waved bye to her, telling her he'd see her tomorrow, likely to pester her with more "news".
Hinata never did bother to tell him she wasn't interested in who it was anymore, that she only kept trying to appear interested so Naruto would keep coming by, but again, he would discover this far too late.
Naruto kept wondering who. Whoever it was, she had to be a total babe, a ten, a freakin' keeper, because Naruto had never seen Kiba so dejected in his entire life. He never admitted it, but he was annoyed, a little hurt even, that Kiba felt he couldn't tell Naruto of all people! He huffed.
Then there was Naruto's third option:
3. He could call Mito. Or his parents. He cringed.
4. Which he hadn't even realized, until the stop light had turned red for the fifth time, was that he could just keep walking. The street sign was pointing down a familiar sidewalk, and Naruto knew where it led. Without a second thought he picked himself back up, hands in his pockets, and started to walk.
It led him past restaurants and a McDonalds and a Maurices. Past a Walgreens, a quick turn to the left, and past some old ice cream parlor. Slowly, the buildings began to dwindle. Began to shift and change from bright lights and OPEN signs to yellow porch lights and parallel parked cars that jammed the curbs of the residential street, non-stop, like a string of ornaments. The apartment buildings seemed to watch him pass, the glows of TVs and lit kitchens following him as he walked by.
He thought of Sasuke, He thought of Kiba. He thought of Jon, and his mood took a dive. He looked over his shoulder compulsively, feeling like an idiot for it.
Wait, Jon had said.
Naruto grimaced. He passed a couple kids running from graffiting an old apartment complex across the street. Giggling and hooting and streaking past him on longboards. For a block he kicked a beer can, when he came to a stop.
The mailbox read 4403. Sarutobi in block letters above it. Naruto frowned at the name for a little while, wondering if he should turn back. He battled with himself, turning back, then turning towards the house, three times, before groaning and taking his chances. He sighed, resigned, and pushed open the little black gate that boxed in Asuma's tiny, tangled lawn.
The kitchen light was on, spraying the path with a buttery light. Naruto hesitated. Slapped a hand to his forehead in embarrassment. Then he knocked. Twice. For a minute nothing happened. He could hear the TV before he could hear the footsteps.
Naruto stared at his feet. Kicked at the block of cement he was standing on. The door opened, and he opened his mouth, ready to explain, but his words stopped short as soon as he lifted his head.
It wasn't Asuma in front of him. Not at all. A woman glared at him, licking cookie dough off a spoon, frizzy black hair piled high on the top of her head, red eyes narrowed. She smacked her lips. She was wearing Asuma's oversized Harvard sweater.
Naruto blinked. Girlfriend? he guessed, surprised. He scratched the back of his head and wondered about turning back. He glanced curiously past her, and saw nothing but Asuma's empty couch and the staircase leading to the second floor. Suddenly, he was embarrassed. He shot her a weak grin.
"Um…I was actually looking for Asuma, but I guess I'll just-"
"He's not here," said the woman, pausing to look over him again. He nodded quickly, turning around. The woman watched him before adding, more gently, "He's still at the office. You want me to tell him you came by?"
Naruto considered. But maybe he took too long to decide.
The woman sighed, as if she was on the other end of a game of tug-of-war. "He'll probably be home in a few minutes. You can come in and wait if you want." She pushed the door open wider and turned curtly on her heel, disappearing down the hall, not waiting to see if he'd actually come in.
Naruto looked around the neighborhood again before following. He closed the door behind him, greeted by the familiar scent of cinnamon. He'd been here a few times. Usually with his dad. Still looked the same, but he could have sworn the little place seemed so much bigger before. But, he'd been little then, too.
There was the same old ugly throw rug draped over the back of the living room couch with Rex the cat's likeness on it (a gift from Asuma's crazy cat-lady grandmother. Although Naruto was curious when he couldn't see Rex anywhere). Same potted plants and bare, burgundy walls. The most lived in room of the house was the kitchen, painted an eye-watering shade of yellow that Asuma never painted over. It had all these porcelain roosters all over the place, and Naruto used to get in trouble for playing with them (and once, breaking one. Oops). Just like always, there they were, along with sweaters and coats hung on the backs of the kitchen table chairs, random books strewn over the counters and on top of the fridge, some bookmarked with spoons. Everything from Harry Potter to some Psychology stuff. He tried reading the titles, not going far from the door.
Maybe this had been a bad idea. He fidgeted.
"So what's your name, kid? Wanna cookie?"
"Uh, Naruto, and yeah, sure."
The woman padded over to give him one, sipping at some coffee. Her brow furrowed a little.
"Naruto, huh," she said quietly, before pointing at herself and saying, "Kurenai." She paused before seeming to get over whatever thought was making her pin him to the wall with her eyes (geesh!) "So what do you want with Asuma?" She opened Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, pulling out the spoon marking her page, sitting cross-legged on the chair.
"You can come in, if you want, So...you a patient?" she asked without looking up. Munching on his cookie, Naruto wandered into the kitchen to peer and poke at a rooster,
"I've known him for a little while. Friend of my family's. I just...wanted to talk to him real quick. That's all. But...I could always come back some other time..." he trailed off, throwing a look at the door and planning his escape.
"You're Minato's kid, right?" Kurenai said slowly, not looking up from her book, and Naruto nodded, smiling at the bobble head rooster he'd set in motion.
"Uh huh," said Kurenai distractedly. She'd stuck the spoon in her bun, and Naruto laughed a little.
"Yeah, I've heard about you," he heard her say. He blinked, wondering if he was supposed to know who she was. But before he could ask, the house phone rang, and she popped right up to get it. Naruto waited, trying to blend into the background and still wondering if this had been a bad, bad idea. Kurenai hung up. Looked at him. They stared at each for a long minute,
"He's going to be a bit," she said finally.
"Oh." Naruto tried to hide his disappointment, and he began to worry over where he'd go next. It built up inside him, made his chest tight, and he tripped over the trash can on his way to the door, cursing.
His mind whispered No Jon No Jon No Jon as his heart went thump thump thump. He could remember seeing Jon's face, all that time ago, in the crowd of leering faces and jeers. He could remember standing there feeling like his chest had hollowed out.
And he was so angry. So angry.
No, he'd said, and when the hands from his nightmares had begun to grab at him, tear at his clothes, wonder what was between his legs with vicious grins, he'd screamed Jon, bellowed it in rage before he fought those hands that pinched and pulled him under.
He shook the thought, wiping sweat from his upper lip. Dammit.
"I-I'll just-go now-"
"You know you don't look so good," called Kurenai, and Naruto paused, trying to steady his breathing. He clenched his fists.
"You, uh, you want me to call someone? Your dad?" she added "Your mom?"
Naruto was quiet, a shiver running down his spine. "I can handle it." He turned away from her.
"Someone bothering you?" Kurenai asked suddenly, before he could reach the door. Naruto turned his head. He noticed how she said someone and not something. He said nothing and looked at the waiting doorknob.
This had been a bad idea.
"You looked freaked." Kurenai pointed at him with her spoon.
"Ex," he babbled, not knowing why he even bothered. But maybe that was the point. He didn't know her. She didn't know him. She didn't know him well enough to look at him like Kiba would, like his parents and everyone who cared about him would. And when he still couldn't look at it himself, how could he bear to see it in the eyes of the people most important to him? He didn't want to dredge up the past.
Asuma would look at him the same way, but at least Asuma would know what to say.
Naruto cleared his throat. "Just...just my ex...I...didn't know where else to go."
Kurenai hummed. "Just an ex? Cheated you type of ex? The shit-talker type of ex? Or bad ex? Restraining order type ex?" she peered out the window, frowning at the boys longboarding down the street, her face severe.
"Not really." He kicked himself after he said it. Not really?! Crap. He should really really leave. He started to edge away, as if she wouldn't notice.
Kurenai's eyes snapped up to him. By now she was watching him strangely. Like she was angry with him!
"Not really?" Kurenai repeated, dubious. She set down her coffee cup. "Do I need to call the freakin' cops or-?"
Stricken, Naruto shook his head violently. "NO. No-" He looked back to the door and wondered if he should just run for it, but now Kurenai was on a roll.
"Look, I may be a lot of things," and now Kurenai was getting wound up for some reason or another that Naruto wouldn't understand until later, but there she was, in the kitchen, face stormy, fist clenched like some kind of vigilante, "But I don't put people back on the street when there's someone dangerous lurking around. Especially not kids."
Naruto stared at her. Then he pulled a face. "I'm not-"
She cut him off, ignoring him. "I've been there, done that, kid," Kurenai snapped her fingers, "and I know a freakin' bad ex when I see it on someone's face." She looked out the window again. The boys had gone.
Naruto wondered what he must look like, and tried peering over his shoulder at the mirror mounted on the opposite wall. There was a short silence. Naruto took a breath, convinced he didn't look like a nutcase, and Kurenai looked vicious, scouting by the window. Naruto was surprised by her. Surprised that she'd suddenly barged right in, as if she knew. As if she could relate.
"Been there, done that, huh?" muttered Naruto. Kurenai sniffed.
"Yeah, well, didn't always have the best taste in men." She lowered the collar on her sweater, showing off a thin scar tracing her collar bone. She covered it up quickly, leaving Naruto to wonder.
"Until Asuma?" he joked finally, just to clear some of the tension and unease.
She grinned."Until Asuma."
"What happened?" he asked before he could think twice about it, and it felt good to to let his mind wander and try and draw connections. A relief from the stress.
She shrugged. "I was sixteen, stupid, and living with a thirty freakin' year old crackhead. What do you think happened?" She ate a cookie. Naruto's eyebrows shot to his hairline.
Well. Damn. He stared at her, trying to imagine this volatile woman with quiet, mellow Asuma.
He raised a brow.
Yeah, he was having a hard time picturing it.
"You wanna go back out there, fine. But let me tell you something," she said quietly, staring at her coffee cup. Naruto shrugged, deciding it couldn't get any worse to get relationship advice from his therapist's girlfriend. A stranger. Though he began to have this niggling feeling that he should know her from somewhere.
"When you got a bad one, there's no forgetting." Kurenai jabbed a finger at him, determined. "You don't try to forget them. That doesn't work. You move on. There's a difference. I should know."
Naruto couldn't decide if he appreciated her sudden interest, or if he was annoyed by it.
"And if that's why you came looking for Asuma," she said, flipping through Harry Potter, "Then I'd say it was a waste of your time. He can't tell you how to forget."
It was like a swift punch to the gut. Who was this woman? "But-"
"Waste of time."
Naruto huffed. "Alright. How'd you do it then?" he asked, annoyed. He wanted to say why do you care? but kept his mouth shut. She had, after all, given him cookies. Kurenai hummed.
"First time it happened?" she stretched languidly. " Once I turned eighteen I went back and kicked his sorry ass. Knocked out two of his teeth and broke his kitchen window." She smiled at his wide-eyed look.
"But that only gave me stitches and a court hearing. Wasn't that great. And he cried like a fucking baby. You think when you see 'em again, they're gonna the big bad villains you always thought of, the type of guys who're worth taking out. But sometimes you go back and they aren't even worth getting blood on the bottom of your shoe." She sneered, and Naruto felt himself sitting back down.
He thought of faces, faces he had wanted to see again, because he knew if he hadn't gone to say something, he couldn't deal with remembering only one expression branded into his memories. And he was angry. Angry. Angry. He'd wanted to say something he could brand into their minds. He'd thought of everything from I hope you rot in hell to I feel fucking sorry for you. And in a way he had been, once he'd seen them.
"Second time," she sighed, "never moved on."
"Awesome," he drawled, slapping a hand to his forehead and once again planning his escape. Kurenai laughed.
"Until," she continued, "I faced him. Not like the first time. I accepted it, and then I went to speak to him." She waggled a finger at him."Unless this ex is a stalker or some kind of creepy fucker."
Naruto snorted, then tried to imagine speaking to Jon. It left a bad taste in his mouth.
"Did it work?" he asked.
"He hasn't called me since," she said indifferently. "Sometimes you gotta take that dive."
Naruto thought of that when he left a few minutes later, a ziploc of chocolate chip cookies in tow. He turned around to thank her, when he said, "Do I know you from somewhere?"
She smirked. "We never met."
He frowned, but before she closed the door she said, "I'm that one ex you've probably heard about," leaving him stunned and bewildered. Then he realized he'd just had milk and cookies (and accepted the advice) of the woman his father had been seeing, who his mother vehemently hated, and who Naruto, without a face to put on her, had decided he'd disliked as well. He stared at the door, but couldn't conjure up the anger to feel like he'd just had cookies with a villain. Naruto stuffed the cookies in his jacket and laughed, shaking his head.
"Small world," he said, and fished out his phone. By the time he reached the stop sign at the end of the road, he'd discovered that Sasuke's phone was off, and Kiba wasn't answering. The jerk had pranked his voice mail so the conversation went a little something like this:
"Kiba, hey man, you think you could-"
"What? Can't hear you."
"Oh, sorry," and Naruto had taken his phone from his ear to peer at the bars at the corner, "Can you-"
"Can you talk a little louder?"
"Hehe, don't scream after the beep. I'll get back to ya later."
And he'd stared at the phone for a couple of seconds before cursing and grinning. Determining that he'd have to pull something on Kiba later. Then it seemed Mito had left her cell with Naruto (after giving it to him to keep in his coat pocket when she'd gone to a dressing room with a mountain of things), and he blinked when his pocket started to buzz.
He tried Sasuke again. It went straight to voicemail. "Yo," Sasuke's voice drawled. "Talk after the beep."
Naruto smirked, turned it off, and scrolled through his contacts, leaning against a street sign. He thought of Kurenai saying sometimes you gotta take that dive, and Itachi saying if today was your last day alive, what would you do?
He remembered Shikamaru, and wondered if he should feel a little guilty, so he sent the guy a quick text. He thought about Jon then, and his stomach clenched. Naruto stopped scrolling. He dialed.
It rang twice.
"Ye-llow?" said the voice on the other end.
Naruto smiled. "Hey, Grandpa. Got a minute?"
Sometimes Sasuke just went through the motions.
Not all the time. He didn't live on auto-pilot, but there were days he just cruised. Like soccer. Grass, wind, dirt, dribble, kick, and ball. And no retards on the field. All he had to know. Or that student council meeting before school that particular Monday morning, where he'd just sat there, lounging in his seat like he didn't have a care in the world, as the council animatedly discussed this year's Homecoming theme. He'd ended up nodding distractedly when they'd voted (and taken that as a 'sure'). And as everyone knew, any idea was a great idea if Sasuke Uchiha said so.
So he'd found himself resigning to deal with this year's theme: Under The Sea, which Sasuke found utterly ridiculous.
"What do you think, Sasuke?" gushed Yuki Watanabe. He'd glared at her.
She'd beamed at him, like he'd praised her. "Excellent!"
He imagined her drowning in the Homecoming decorations and smirked. He'd made Yuki's day when she thought that smirk was directed at her and not her imagined misfortune, and that had made Sasuke's hour, because there had been nothing else redeemable about it.
No, his day would be redeemed until later, with Itachi at his side and Naruto laughing near him, close enough to touch when he thought no one was looking.
He went through the motions whenever Grandma Ayame called and said she missed him and would like to see him, even though Sasuke knew this wasn't true. Ayame didn't like to see anyone, because Ayame didn't even like to see herself in the mirror.
"I'll see you soon, Grandma," Itachi would always lie, but Itachi wasn't there to say it, so Sasuke had to pick up his slack.
"Sure, Grandma," he'd said.
"But only on my good days," she'd babbled.
That night, after Mito had ruined the mall, and Naruto had smiled apologetically, eyes linger a little too long before finally looking away, Sasuke found himself alone with his brother again. And he'd thought, before the day was over and he would later brand it as one of the worst nights of his life, that it was still one of the best damn days of the year so far, and that it would continue to be a good thing.
"He's a decent kid," said Itachi, and Sasuke could see his brother's gaze trailing after blond hair.
He'd smirked, leaning against a wall. "Yeah."
"Don't see you with many friends outside your little breakfast club Hyuuga rules over."
Sasuke snorted. "Pfft. Whatever." And he'd wondered why Itachi disliked Neji so much. Maybe it had been that time Neji had had ecstasy at his house the second time Sasuke had ever slept over. Or that time Neji had helped him sneak out last summer and they'd driven, alone, to Connecticut. Itachi had been livid when Sasuke called him, laughing, the next morning. Or maybe it was that time Neji had just been Neji.
Which was all the time.
Sasuke stretched. "You never like any of my friends."
"Naruto's a nice guy," Itachi countered, in a way that made Sasuke blink twice. Itachi chuckled, and Sasuke began to wonder if Itachi knew, had known.
Sasuke muttered, "Think he's nice, huh?" and willed his stomach to unclench as Itachi considered.
It was like a secret ritual between the brothers, some rite of passage. The approval. If Sasuke never looked twice at Itachi's new girlfriend, Itachi would pause to reevaluate. If Itachi took one look and chuckled, Sasuke would pause to wonder what the hell was so damn funny.
But this time, Sasuke had never said a word. Had never mentioned Naruto was anything more than just a friend. But still he found himself waiting, wondering what his brother would say.
Itachi smiled. "Yes, but I'm afraid Konan is prettier."
There was no need for Itachi to explain that he'd seen through Sasuke. Not between brothers. Sasu`ke grinned. He laughed, at ease and relieved, and said, "Yeah fuckin' right."
Itachi smiled. "As long as you're happy, I'm good. Guy, girl, straight, gay..." he rambled, pausing before tacking on, "Bi." He squinted his eyes harder, if that was possible.
Sasuke fidgeted, suddenly irritated.
Itachi watched people trickle by. "You're scared of Dad," he accused. Sasuke looked away, scowling, done with this conversation. There was a pull and ache in his chest. He thought of Naruto.
"I'm not fucking afraid of him."
"Heh, yeah you are. Who gives a fuck what he says?"
Sasuke shrugged, biting the inside of his cheek. He kept his secrets. Secrets he'd kept carefully hidden and composed and disguised, but it all came undone whenever Fugaku looked over him, made him feel like a mistake.
Only faggots wear jewelry like that.
Were you always gay? he'd asked Kakashi once.
He could remember a summer when he was thirteen. A week before Suigetsu, his then-best friend, had moved to Arizona. It was a hot, lazy afternoon, with the type of sticky heat you couldn't escape until you stepped into a freezer or a pool. He'd been in the attic, and Sasuke had done more than try to forget that July morning.
He'd buried it.
Because it was the morning he and Suigetsu had been digging around, kicking boxes, joking, bored, hot, and lost. He'd had this fluttering in his chest. A telltale, sick feeling in his stomach that only climbed higher and higher as they stomped around.
They'd found Ojiisan's clothes. Japanese yukatas of varying sizes, some his grandfather had probably had since he was a boy. Suits Sasuke could probably wear for Halloween because they'd obviously been from the sixties or seventies. He could remember the laughter, hanging still and almost as stagnant as the heat. Bare chests, because Suigetsu was trying on a small yukata and it revealed a sliver of light skin that Sasuke kept noticing. Sasuke remembered violet eyes and a voice that whispered dare you to.
And that sick feeling had climbed, climbed, and climbed, until it exploded into something new and exciting, and Sasuke had had the third kiss of his life.
And when Fugaku had seen after coming up to ask the boys if they wanted to go to the pool, Sasuke had never been more afraid of Fugaku than he'd been then. Not when his father had caught him sneaking Sakura into the house. Not when Fugaku had found a bad grade. Not when Fugaku had caught him drinking with Neji. But he'd been frightened that afternoon, so scared his blood ran cold and his stomach twisted into a knot, made him feel another kind of sick. He'd ran after his father, yelling, got shoved aside, when Fugaku led Suigetsu out of the house by his shirt collar after hollering at them to get dressed again.
"Dad, wait, wait, it was just a joke-!"
And Fugaku had roughly led Suigetsu out the door with a curt I think it's time to go home now, son and don't make me call your parents.
Sasuke been able to look at Suigetsu once. His friend had turned around, eyes wide, and said wait, before Fugaku had shut the door with a harsh snap.
Fugaku had turned around and Sasuke couldn't look him in the eye. "I don't want you speaking to that boy."
Something hurt. Sasuke shook his head and shouted, "He's my best friend-!"
"We have rules in this house, Sasuke. And when I give you one to follow, I expect you to respect it. I don't want that boy in my house. I don't want you over at his. I don't want you speaking to him on the phone. Do you understand?"
"Sasuke," said Fugaku with a sigh, and he'd wandered over to sit with his son on the steps, "I know this is confusing. But that is why I sent Suigetsu home. He's confused. I don't need him confusing you because his parents don't understand how to properly censor the television or the internet at home. There are things that I, as your father, need to protect you from. I'm not the enemy here."
But Sasuke had glared at him. Sasuke had hated him. And he'd turned away, marching up the stairs. Fugaku had never told Mikoto, and Sasuke had never told anyone. Not even Itachi. Not even Ino.
He never did see Suigetsu again. He was grounded for the rest of the summer when Fugaku found him in the backyard one midnight with a flashlight, whispering to Suigetsu. He remembered fingers inching towards fingers, foreheads bent too close, words like wanna try it again? and I really wish you weren't moving. I don't want you to.
The boys had jumped, and Suigetsu had looked over Sasuke's shoulder, clasped him by the back of the neck as if to say sorry but gotta go, taken one look at Fugaku, looming overhead like a specter, and sprinted to the road. Fugaku called his parents in the morning, and that had been it. Sasuke had never seen him again. Never heard from him. It had been one of those rare summers Sasuke had spent missing someone.
Though he told anyone who bothered to ask that his first experience with heartbreak had been Clara, to the point where he even kind of believed it himself. The sixteen year-old from down the street at the beginning of the summer in May, who'd given him his first kiss, who wouldn't kiss him again until he was in her bedroom, away from everyone else.
And that had hurt him, when he'd caught her talking to her friends at the park and he'd struck up the nerve to go over and say hello, and she'd treated him like a little kid. Laughed at him when he'd tried to hold her hand by the swings. Then she'd walked off, hand in hand with a high school boy who winked at him and said maybe next time, so that Sasuke almost ran after him, just to punch the kid.
But it hadn't broken his heart.
"Keep thinking like that and it'll just get in the way," mused Itachi finally, breaking Sasuke from his thoughts. He buried them again.
Sasuke frowned. "What're you sayin'?"
Itachi hummed. "Nothing," he lied, closing his eyes. "Nothing at all."
They'd left the mall, listened to music, and Sasuke had taken Itachi poking at him about Naruto. He'd laughed and texted talk to me, when blue eyes were never too far from his thoughts.
They'd pulled into the driveway, and Sasuke had expected Itachi to just go home, go see Konan, when he'd decided it was better go in and say hello anyway.
They had barely reached the front door when Konan stepped out, and Itachi stood there, still and silent, and Sasuke looked between them curiously. She tore her eyes away from them, arms crossed, and Sasuke didn't have to know her well to know the anger that seemed to emanate from his sister-in-law. An odd look rippled across Itachi's face. Exhaustion, worry. He looked over at Sasuke apologetically before sighing and pinching his nose.
Sasuke raised a brow, and Konan slipped past them.
"I hope you're happy," she hissed at his brother. "I hope you're happy with how you handled this." She paused before adding, "You're a selfish man."
Itachi reached out for her hand, but she swatted him away, her fingers snapping against his brother's skin. She looked at Sasuke, and shook her head before walking away, trying to disappear down the street.
"What the hell did you do to piss her off?" Sasuke wondered, slightly amused, but the smirk fell from his face when he turned to look at his brother, who seemed to freeze in place, clumsy with his steps until he finally broke away and ran after his wife.
Sasuke watched him run. Curious, he wandered back inside, frowning at his phone when it decided to shudder and die in his back pocket.
"Mom?" he called, once he stepped inside.
The first thing Sasuke noticed was the silence. Something unusual and unsettling that made think twice before wandering to the living room to ignore it and wait for Itachi to return.
He found his parents in the kitchen, pale under the light of the chandelier. A bottle of wine glinting under the light between them. Their glasses were empty. The table was bare.
There were two things Sasuke would remember later, images that would stand out stark against the back of his eyelids when he tried to sleep.
The first had been his mother. She'd looked at Sasuke when Fugaku wouldn't. And it had frightened Sasuke, in tightly guarded place he kept hidden under his smirks and his attitude, because she had turned her head, slowly, and said, "Sasuke."
And he hadn't realized he'd taken a step back. Because she was speaking to him softly, gently, without a hitch in her voice, but she wouldn't stop crying. The tears had streaked tracks through her make-up. They kept falling silently, oozing past her clumped eyelashes. And Sasuke only knew of one time she had ever spoken to him like that.
It had been when Grandpa, her father, had died when Sasuke was ten. And she'd spoken to him slowly, gently, like if she said it softly, it wouldn't hurt as much. But it had. It had cut. Sasuke had still cried, he'd still turned and disappeared into his room, trying to imagine what it would feel like to not see his Grandpa ever again. And he'd thought, uneasily, who is it?
He watched his mother's lips move. He heard Itachi and cancer, and I know it's hard to accept, and he'd thought for a moment that he was slowly going numb. And so Sasuke went through the motions. He nodded when he was supposed to, said he understood when it was asked of him.
Do you understand, Sasuke?
He hugged his mother when he guessed she needed it.
"It's okay if you're upset, Sasuke."
Sasuke turned. Itachi was watching him, leaning against the stove. Fugaku put a hand over his face, slumped in his chair. Mikoto strode over to cup his cheek. And Sasuke stared.
"I'm sorry, little brother."
Sasuke waved his hand dismissively. He turned away. "Fuck you," he said, waving backhandedly, and he let his feet carry him away. He dug his phone out of his pocket, only to remember it was dead and he couldn't call Naruto. He chucked it at the bed and swore. Didn't bother to look around for his charger. He mechanically brushed his teeth. Took a shower. And Itachi never once wandered over. Never once knocked.
Because Itachi was Sasuke's brother, and he knew his little brother too well. The dark in Sasuke's room swallowed the walls whole, sucked in the light from his laptop screen after he read an e-mail from his soccer coach, warning him that if he couldn't take his position as Captain seriously, he'd be stripped of it. He pushed it away, fell back on the bed, and tried to find the ceiling.
Sasuke went through the motions.
A/N: I hope this is satisfactory. I wrote the last of this today, so I didn't keep it away from you just to edit for a day or two like I usually do xD If there's a glaring/confusing error, don't hesitate to say so in a review. I'm notorious for mistakes (all fics unbeta'd), so I'll probably be fixing this up and editing it tonight anyway. Most of my writing time's been spent on Fortune's Fool, which is finishing with it's next update (and is why you haven't seen BTW updates the last couple weeks).
We've learned: Sasuke is bi, Naruto met his dad's ex and has called his grandfather, Kurenai had it rough and seems to have ended things with Fugaku if you read it carefully, and that Itachi's family now knows of his cancer. Title is inspired by Diver from the one of the anime openings. A lot of this is inspired by music.
Like Say Something, by A Great Big World and Christina Aguilera, but that's a later chapter down the road, so I'll hush up.