If Kakashi noticed that his team’s captain looked pale, he said nothing about it. Neither did he try to evaluate the way Naruto seemed to hover around the dark-haired boy as if trying to protect him from something. Either way, they had a tournament to participate in and after his luck of the draw, he held out the number in his hand.
“We’re lucky number fifteen,” he said quietly, “We just have to wait to see who we get to fight first.”
“If I may have your attention please!” the head umpire announced with that rather annoying bullhorn of his. “We will now begin the first round of preliminary matches. If your number is called, please move to the ring designated for your fights. Team captains or leaders must present the three fighters to represent the team once you get to your ring and your turn is up.” He wiped his sweaty brow again, which was baffling to most of the people in there as the room was relatively cool from the air conditioning system. “And now, we shall call out the numbers…eh…first up…team number ten and team number twenty-three!”
“It’s not in order?” Naruto asked in bemusement.
“No,” Kakashi replied. “Random drawings and pairings.”
“I just hope we don’t get Akatsuki first,” Karin mumbled. “I wonder what number they are…”
“Who gives a shit?” Suigetsu replied as he began to stretch out his legs. “Whoever we fight first had better be good.”
Naruto perked up at the sight of Omoi jogging towards him. “Hey, bro. What’s up?”
“We’re number nine,” Omoi said, grinning from ear to ear. “And up against team number 32. What’s yours?”
“Fifteen,” Naruto replied, glad that they weren’t going to be fighting yet. “You get out there and kick some butt, okay?”
“Heh, you don’t need to tell me that…”
“Omoi, you fucktard! Let’s go!” Karui bellowed, causing the boy to flip the finger in her direction.
“Geez. I wish Kirabi was here. Maybe then they’d treat me with a little more respect. They think I’m their bitch or something,” came the low grumble, before he perked up again to grin at his friend. “You don’t lose now until we meet in the finals, okay?”
“You bet!” They gave each other a fist bump in parting, and Naruto watched his friend with an odd feeling of homesickness…as if wishing they could go back to the time when all seemed so innocent and they were just the two little knuckleheads who gave their neighbors so much trouble.
“Number Fifteen and Number Thirty! Ring Five!” screamed the announcer.
“That’s us!” Naruto yelled in excitement. “Whoo hoo! Show time!”
“Iwata High,” Sai observed as they walked into the organized chaos that was Arena III. “Shouldn’t be too much of a problem.”
Kakashi eyed the fighters being chosen from Iwata and nodded to himself as he made some notes on a small notebook he kept in his pocket. “Okay, I want Sai for the first match. Karin second and Juugo third if needed. Suigetsu, Naruto and Sasuke you sit this one out.”
“Yes, sir,” came the simultaneous replies as they took their positions. The fighters for this round began stretching, while Naruto, Sasuke and Suigetsu tried to get into good spots next to the ring to watch the match.
“I don’t see any visitors here,” Naruto said as he eyed the large arena.
“Large screens are placed in the main auditorium for those who want to watch,” Sasuke explained. “When the matches move there tomorrow, that’s when the real fun starts.”
“Sweet.” Naruto glanced at Sasuke, noting that their captain didn’t look so sick anymore. Perhaps knowing he wasn’t fighting right now or having those watchful eyes of his family was helping him relax a little. Either way, it was good to know that Sasuke was doing much better.
All thanks to you.
He blushed faintly, remembering how Sasuke had seemed to melt against him in the safety of the restroom, hugging him just as tightly and simply saying nothing until his ‘shakes’ stopped. The whispered ‘thank you, Naruto’ meant more to him than he hated to admit.
“Are you ready?” came the voice of the portly man, who was apparently in charge of their ring. “Fighters for match one to the ring please. Names?”
“Sai for Team Taka,” Sai answered politely as he leapt up and onto the elevated stage reminiscent of an actual boxing ring…except there were no ropes and the surface felt like polished wood covered with a blue tarp cloth.
“Haku for Team Kumo,” his opponent replied.
“Geez, is that a girl or a guy?” Naruto asked in bemusement as the Iwata student with shoulder-length black hair and quite effeminate features, smiled at Sai before bowing in greeting. He pulled back his hair to tie it in a ponytail, giving them a better look of his pretty face.
“I think he defeats his opponents by looking goooorgeous,” Suigetsu snickered, earning a loud laugh from Naruto that was quickly silenced as his gaze fell on the scowling man, dressed in army fatigues, standing beside the ring. Naruto guessed he was in charge of the Iwata student, who wasn’t finding it particularly funny that his fighter was being laughed at.
“Fighters ready?!” The umpire bellowed as he stepped to the middle of the ring. “Remember – five minutes to fight. No weapons. No magical skills. No killing of opponents even if it’s ‘accident’. Those equal automatic disqualifications. You lose if you fall out of the ring, surrender or are knocked unconscious. Understood?”
The fighters nodded and fell into their stances.
“GO SAI!” Naruto yelled which was echoed by Karin. “Kick his ass!”
The bell was rung and in a flash, Sai made a move towards Haku. Naruto thought Sai must have landed a good one on the other boy’s face, but was stunned as the Iwata fighter dodged with a speed that made it seem as if he was in two places at the same time.
“Damn…that was…fast,” he whispered in awe.
“No kidding,” Suigetsu whistled in appreciation.
“Too close,” Haku said, smiling warmly as he noticed Sai glaring at him. “You almost caught me there, Sai.”
“Whatever,” came the muttered reply as Sai lashed out with a leg, hoping to trip the other boy. Again, Haku proved to be fast, for he not only dodged the attack, but managed to swing an arm, catching Sai off guard and slamming him to the floor with a sickening thud. The fighters watching winced, but Sai wasn’t quite done yet. Suffering the agonizing pain that wracked through him, he thrust his knee upwards, finally making contact as he watched Haku’s head snap back with the force of his blow. He got to his feet and delivered a series of punches, making sure he kept pushing the other boy back towards the edge of the ring. He prepared to finish off with a round house kick, but growled as Haku gave a small smile and leaped over his head to land on his haunches behind him.
“Haku!” came the irritated growl from the scowling man. “Stop messing around and finish him. You have a minute left.”
Haku looked embarrassed at the reprimand and nodded quickly. Wiping his bleeding lips (Sai had done some damage apparently), he clasped his hands together and seemed about ready to meditate, only to gasp as Sai refused to let him finish whatever he was planning to do. He tried to dodge out of the way, but Sai moved swiftly. A hook kick intended for Haku’s head would have been the final blow required for the win, however, the flexible boy seemed to bend over backwards, a hand reaching out to grab Sai’s ankle.
Sai realized what was about to happen before it was too late. He was losing his balance rapidly. “Fuck!”
“Sorry,” Haku apologized sadly and with a carefully aimed chop at the back of Sai’s knee, the Konoha fighter was sent toppling out of the ring, a howl of agony escaping his lips as he felt the bone crack with the pressure.
“SAI!” Karin screamed, running towards the boy who was clutching his broken leg. The rest of his teammates gathered around him, concern etched on their faces, but Kakashi pushed through to lift the boy carefully within his arms.
“I’ll take him to the sick bay. Karin, you should be getting ready,” the teacher said curtly, hoping to get the girl’s mind back on track. “Stop worrying about Sai and focus on your match. Win this for Sai, understood?”
The girl nodded and wiped her tears quickly, taking a deep breath as she listened to the announcer with a low coil of anger in the pit of her stomach.
“Match One – Winner – Iwata High! Match Two begins! Names please?”
“Rie – Iwata High – Team Kumo.”
“Karin – Konoha High – Team Taka.”
“Go get her, Karin,” Suigetsu said with a low growl, reaching out to squeeze her hand firmly. He could feel her trembling, and he leaned closer to whisper into her ear. “You can do it, babe. Now go!”
“Go Karin!” Naruto yelled in encouragement. She smiled at his loud voice, leaping into the ring as she noticed her opponent – a tall, lanky girl with green hair and eyes.
The girls fell into their stances.
Rie was the first to attack, sending a flurry of quick kicks and punches that Karin blocked as best she could. However, one particular kick to her shoulder, sent her head snapping to the side and her glasses flying off her face and out the ring.
“Oh, man!” Naruto winced. “This isn’t good…”
“Idiot,” Sasuke said quietly, eyes trained on the girls in the ring. “She’s just fine. I thought you realized that by now. She can fight with or without those bottles over her eyes.”
“That’s my girl,” Suigetsu said smugly. “Now, Karin! Finish this, babe!”
The redhead needed no second prodding. With a speed that surprised her audience, she delivered a solid side kick to Rie’s stomach, bending low and clasping both hands to form a hammer fist, and delivering a crushing blow to the girl’s lower back. Rie fell flat on her stomach with a grunt of pain, immobile as the umpire began to count to five.
“It’s over!” Suigetsu yelled in triumph. “Just stop the counting already. We won!”
“Way to go, Karin!” Naruto clapped in delight.
“Match Two – Winner – Konoha High! The decisive match begins with Juugo and Shindo! To the ring please!”
Panting and blushing with pleasure at her victory, Karin leapt out of the ring and into Suigetsu’s waiting arms. He planted a hard kiss on her lips, pulling back to grin widely while fixing her glasses back on the bridge of her nose. “I knew you could do it.”
“Hey, where’s my kiss?” Naruto pouted, only to fight back a yelp as Karin leaped into his arms to plant kisses all over his face. “Okay…okay…I only asked for one…”
Sasuke eyed Juugo, reaching out to pat the bigger boy’s arm gently. “You can do it, Juu. He should be no problems, right?”
“I don’t think so,” came the quiet reply. “I’ll do my best.”
“You go out there and kick some butt,” Karin said, grinning as she reached out to hug Juugo tightly. “We’ll be rooting for you.”
Juugo smiled and climbed into the ring. His opponent was just as big, but built like a sumo wrestler. The scowling leader of Iwata High was pacing back and forth in growing agitation and frustration. “Make this quick, Shindo,” he growled. “Or you know what awaits you if you lose.”
“Ouch. Not exactly winning Coach of the Year, is he?” Naruto remarked with a shake of his head. “GOOO JUUGOOOO!” he yelled, knowing it would piss off Mr. Personality. “YOOOOU CAAAAAAAAAN DOOOOO IIIIITT!”
Karen and Suigetsu burst out laughing and even Sasuke was having a hard time controlling his smile. Naruto was being a pain in the ass and it was bound to throw off their opponents. It was a nice tactic, but one that might eventually get them in trouble.
The boys fell into their stances.
Neither boy seemed to move as they gauged each other, wondering who had the better opening to attack from. Juugo, for someone of his size, could move pretty damn fast when he put his mind to it. However, many who might have underestimated Shindo for the way he looked, were stunned as he leapt into the air, his intention to slam his fists into Juugo from above. The Konoha fighter barely dodged the attack, sliding out of the way as Shindo landed with a heavy thud that shook the very foundations of the ring. Shindo lunged for Juugo again, but Juugo was ready this time. He held out his palms to stop the incoming figure, and with a grunt of exertion, he bent his knees to balance his weight, and in a swift move, had Shindo lifted above his head.
“Whoa!” came the collective gasps of amazement at the sudden development.
Juugo seemed to be counting beneath his breath. He spun around, once, twice and then with another grunt, tossed Shindo out of the ring as if he weighed nothing more than a toothpick, barely giving the spectators a chance to get out of the way in time.
“He has lost,” he announced unnecessarily at the deathly silence that followed the thunderous crash of the other boy against a wall.
The umpire blinked and rubbed his eyes. “Eh…yes…well…winner of the third and decisive match…Konoha High advances to the second round!”
“YAY!!!” Naruto, Karin and Suigetsu yelled in celebration as they bum rushed the blushing Juugo who was leaving the stage. “You did it!” Karin squealed, planting a big wet kiss on his cheek.
“We should let Kakashi sensei know,” Naruto enthused as they began to leave the arena.
“Wait!” the umpire cried out, “Don’t forget round two begins in an hour. So be sure to return here to see who you’re fighting next.”
“Yes, sir,” Sasuke nodded. He noticed the crowd gathering around the large poster board they hadn’t even seen earlier. “I guess all the winners moving to the next round have been posted.”
“Sweet! Let’s go check it out,” Naruto replied as he shoved his way through the throng of people to get in better position. He looked up at the towering board, eyes darting across electronic numbers and names as he tried to make sense of where they were and who they would be fighting next.
“Iwaki Koukou,” Karin read out. “Team number 29. Who the hell are they?”
“Dunno and don’t care,” Suigetsu said, stretching his arms above his head. “I’m definitely fighting in the next round and I can’t wait to kick some ass.”
Naruto, who had been looking for another number, whooped in delight as he noticed that Team Cloud had made it to the next round. He glanced around the room, searching for the familiar features of his friend and wasn’t disappointed as Omoi came flying towards him.
“Brother! We made it!”
“Like there was any doubt,” Naruto laughed. “I didn’t get to see you fight though.”
“I didn’t fight this round. It didn’t even get to me,” Omoi laughed. “Yugito and Samui took care of things. What about you?”
“I didn’t get to fight either. Probably in the next round.”
“Wanna grab lunch with us, brother?” Omoi invited. “We’ve still got lots to talk about, man.”
“I wanna go see one of my teammates,” Naruto said with a sigh of regret. “His leg got busted in the first match by some guy who looks like a freakin’ girl.” Naruto’s hands clenched into fists as he remembered how Haku had dealt the final blow. There was no doubt the boy had channeled his ki into his hand to cause that much damage to someone as strong as Sai. Even though Iwata High wasn’t advancing, just knowing that someone like Haku existed was enough to remind him of how much he had to learn in the art of real fighting.
“Ah, man that blows. Hope he gets better soon. Anyway, we’ll be in the cafeteria when you’re all done with the visiting, okay? Hurry up though!” Omoi waved and dashed after his teammates.
Naruto jogged after his crew as they made their way to the clinic where moans and groans filled the air from injured fighters. Sasuke scanned the busy room and finally noticed Kakashi and Sai in one of the last cots at the opposite end.
As they approached, Kakashi looked up from the book he had been reading. “I take it you advanced to the next round?”
Sasuke nodded. “Karin and Juugo did great, sensei.” His gaze drifted to the sleeping Sai, who looked even paler than normal. His leg was already in a cast and elevated by a harness.
“Please tell me he’ll be able to fight again,” Karin whispered, hands clasped beneath her chin as she tried not to burst into tears.
“It’s iffy,” Kakashi admitted. “He definitely won’t be participating in the tournament anymore, that’s for sure. We can only hope that he takes things easy and heals back to a hundred percent. That blow did more damage than we thought.”
Sasuke’s peripheral vision caught sight of the person responsible for Sai’s injury and he frowned as he noticed Haku approaching them. The others were quick to notice the boy as well, and all seemed to stand around the bed protectively.
“Geez, look who’s here,” Suigetsu hissed coldly.
Haku’s cheeks flamed with color at the unwelcome vibes directed at him. He glanced at the sleeping figure and then lowered his head in a deep bow. “I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I really didn’t mean to hurt him that badly,” the boy said in a fevered rush as if he was likely to be punished if he didn’t get this off his chest immediately. He looked up and the Konoha team was surprised to see the tears welling up in the Iwata student’s eyes. “I…I have this for him…”
He reached into his gi to pull out a small vial.
“What’s that? Poison?” Suigetsu snarled, taking a threatening step forward. Haku didn’t budge even as he shook his head quickly.
“My parents are herbalists and this is likely to help your friend heal faster,” the boy explained, bowing again. “Please accept this as a token of my sincerity. He only has to mix this in whatever drink he takes at least once a day until finished.” He held it out before him like a sacrifice, no one making a move for it, until Naruto broke the silence by accepting it with a smile.
“Thanks, Haku,” the blond said. “You’re pretty cool to want to do this for Sai. I’m sure he’ll appreciate it when he wakes up.”
The boy blushed at the warm response and gave another polite bow. “I wish your team the best of luck. I’ll be rooting for you…quietly,” he added softly, glancing over his shoulder. He seemed to flinch as he noticed someone or something. “I have to go. Thank you again for understanding. Good bye.”
They watched him make his way through the bustling room before Suigetsu eyed Naruto and scoffed. “You’re sure Sai will appreciate it when he wakes up? Seriously? Haku will be lucky if Sai even gives him the time of day or even lets him live. He got a lucky break out there and he knows it. He didn’t have to break Sai’s leg. All he had to do was toss Sai out like Juugo did to that fat bastard.”
“Suigetsu’s right,” Karin nodded. “That was unnecessary.”
“Well shoot, don’t you guys see the pressure he’s under?” Naruto replied with a wave of his hand. “You saw their fucked up coach that kept telling him to make things quick, what else could the kid do? He did what his teacher said, and the fact that he even came back to apologize shows he’s really sorry about what happened. Give the guy a break, will ya?”
“Yay, Saint Naruto,” came the low mutter from Suigetsu. “Come on, Karin, let’s go get lunch. You coming, Juu? Sasuke? Saint Naruto?”
Naruto growled. “Fuck you…”
“I’ll get lunch with you,” Juugo interrupted as he began to pull Suigetsu away.
Kakashi sighed and closed his book as the trio finally left the room. He eyed Sasuke. “How did the others do?”
Knowing what Kakashi meant, Sasuke replied quietly. “They advanced. No surprise there.”
“Who?” Naruto asked, placing the vial on the nightstand beside Sai’s bed.
“Akatsuki, Sand and of course Cloud.”
At the mention of Akatsuki, Naruto felt his blood boil. He was about to open his mouth to say something when the sudden loud commotion from the doorway had them glancing in that direction.
“They should be disqualified!” came the frustrated comments from the man who was trying to be appeased by some officials. “They nearly killed my fighters! It’s illegal, goddamnit!”
Naruto tapped a passing nurse’s shoulder. “What’s going on?”
The woman, who looked no older than eighteen, sighed heavily. “His students were really injured in the fight they had. It was so bad, we could barely stop the bleeding and they had to be taken to the main hospital in the city.”
Sasuke felt something cold fill his chest as he asked through lips that felt numb. “Who were their opponents?”
His question was answered by the raving man, who was now openly bawling like a baby. “Goddamn Akatsuki! They should be banned!”
The two boys shared a quick look of panic over the nurse’s head, before turning to their teacher, who had been listening with a light frown on his features.
“Sensei…” Naruto began, but Kakashi held up a hand to stall him.
“We might not get to face them…or if we will, I’m sure this incident will have them more careful with the way they fight. For the meantime, I need you both to be prepared for your matches in…” He glanced at his watch. “Less than an hour. Grab something to eat – nothing too heavy though and I’ll meet you in the arena when it’s time. Got it?”
“Yes, sir,” the boys replied.
They walked out of sick bay slowly, each lost in their thoughts as the reality of what awaited them with Akatsuki as potential opponents, weighed heavily on their minds. They had gotten away with their dirty tricks in this round, but how would they fare in future rounds, where time limits would be eradicated and they were free to do whatever the hell they wanted?
“Wanna grab lunch with me and Omoi?” Naruto suddenly asked, breaking through Sasuke’s troubled thoughts.
“Uumm…no,” Sasuke replied, shaking his head. “I need to see someone…”
“But Kakashi sensei said we had to eat…”
“I’ll be fine, Naruto. Go meet up with your friend. I’ll see you in the arena, okay?”
Naruto stalled a moment longer, searching the other boy’s face carefully. “Sasuke…”
“I am fine, Naruto. Honest. Now go before I do something like kiss you in public again.”
The blond had the grace to blush at the memory of what had happened the last time Sasuke had done that. He glanced around the busy lobby, where everyone seemed too preoccupied with the grandeur of their surroundings or with each other. Feeling his face literally burning now, Naruto took a hesitant step forward and taking a deep breath, he placed a hard but quick kiss on Sasuke’s lips before spinning on his heels and walking away without looking back.
Sasuke’s jaw would have dropped to the floor if it wasn’t for the light chuckle behind him, which had him looking over his shoulder with a ready frown on his visage. His heart did sink and yet soar at the same time as he noticed who it was. The nervous flutter of butterflies filled his stomach and that sickening urge to throw up overwhelmed him.
“Hello, little brother,” came the greeting accentuated with a small smile.
So it really hadn’t been his imagination, Sasuke thought wildly. All this time he had assumed his mind had been playing cruel tricks on him…that Itachi couldn’t have been in the auditorium with his parents…that his vomiting session in the restroom was a result of being nervous about the tournament and not at the notion that his brother was actually here to watch him.
Damn it! Damn it! Damn it! Why?!
And to make it worse, Itachi had seen him and Naruto…
“Didn’t know you had a new boyfriend, Sasuke,” Itachi mused aloud, causing his younger brother to blush in response. “But don’t mind me. Who am I to interfere with your personal affairs…”
“Damn right it’s none of your business,” Sasuke snapped irritably. “What the fuck are you doing here? I thought you were in Hong Kong or, hopefully, the North Pole?”
“The North Pole was too cold,” Itachi replied with a light smirk. “And I missed you so much, little brother, I had to come home.”
“It’s Sasuke, goddamn it, not ‘little brother’!”
“But aren’t you my little brother…?”
“Oh, God…I am not having this conversation with you.” Sasuke rubbed his forehead and prepared to turn away, feeling a headache coming on. He should have accepted that lunch with Naruto. His only reason for refusing was to see if Itachi was really here by finding his mother, but apparently that little trip would no longer be necessary.
“Is it so wrong for me to want to cheer my lit…you on?”
Sasuke gave a bitter laugh. “Cheer me?! Since when have you ever given a fuck about me? You and Dad, both of you never gave a damn! Only laughing when you saw I could never live up to the ridiculous achievements you kept piling on like it was going out of style! I’m sick of trying to live up to you and Dad’s expectations! I don’t want to be you, goddamn it!”
Sasuke snapped his mouth shut, cheeks flushed as he realized his little tirade had garnered an attentive audience. Shit! I have to get out of here!
“Why would you want to be me, Sasuke?” Itachi finally asked softly. “What’s so wrong in being …well…you?”
Sasuke’s lips tightened. “Dad always liked you better. Everything was ‘Itachi did this at this age, so why can’t you? Itachi won this many awards, so why can’t you? Itachi was captain of all the motherfucking clubs on the planet, why can’t you? It was all about you, you, you…don’t touch me!” He took a step back as he noticed Itachi reaching out for him and was aghast to still feel his brother’s warm touch against his…wet? cheeks.
When the hell…?!
“I’m sorry, Sasuke,” came the quiet response. Itachi raised his tear-stained finger to his lips to lick it gently. “These tears are a reminder of how I could have been a better brother to you. I know it’s too late to say this, but all these years…I really did want you to find your own path…to do things your way and not because Dad said so. Unlike you, I had no choice, Sasuke. It was either Dad’s way or bust. I had the pressure of carrying the family name and Dad was determined to make sure I didn’t forget it. You, on the other hand, have the freedom to be whoever and whatever you want to be…and, whether you choose to believe me or not, I really am proud of what you’ve achieved so far.”
Sasuke lowered his gaze, biting his lower lip hard. He didn’t…couldn’t budge when he felt the hand on his head, or the soft ruffle of his hair. Suddenly, like a treasure chest being unlocked after years of being buried, memories he had locked away filled his mind all over again. He was taken back to a time when he had thought his older brother was the sun, earth and moon all rolled into one – a time when the much younger Itachi had laughed and played with him – a time when they had slept in the same bed, curled up against the warmth of his older brother who he had loved more than anyone else in the world.
“Liar,” he finally whispered and stepped away from Itachi, wiping his eyes and cheeks with angry swipes, still unable to look into the other’s eyes. “Stop lying to me. You’re just saying this to make me feel better.”
“You say it like it’s a bad thing,” Itachi replied, and would have said something else when…
“WOULD ALL FIGHTERS FOR ROUND TWO BEGIN TO MAKE THEIR WAY TO THE ARENA, PLEASE? ALL FIGHTERS FOR ROUND TWO PLEASE MAKE YOUR WAY TO THE ARENA. THANK YOU!”
“I guess that’s your cue,” Itachi said as the announcement which had boomed over unseen speakers ended with a low whine of the microphone. “So…I’ll tell Mom and Dad that you’re doing okay, hmm?”
Sasuke looked up with a ‘are-you-shitting-me?’ look on his features, and seeing Itachi’s smile was almost his undoing. What was there to smile about?
“Good luck, Sasuke…not that you need it, right?”
“I don’t,” came the confident reply. “I’ll be fine.”
Itachi gave a curt nod before turning away…only to stop and turn back with a smirk now on his features. “By the way…your boyfriend…he’s quite the looker.”
Sasuke’s eyes widened, a blush creeping up his cheeks at the underlying tone beneath his brother’s seemingly innocuous statement. “Don’t you dare…!”
Itachi’s amused laughter remained with him long after he got lost in the throng of people making their way to the main auditorium. Sasuke growled and took a deep breath, trying to gather himself before making his way to the arena. It was definitely not the way he had hoped to spend his few minutes before the fight began, however…
He placed a hand against his stomach.
…the nervous butterflies were gone. That urge to vomit was no longer there and he felt as if a huge burden had been lifted off his shoulders.
/Why would you want to be me?/
Why indeed? Itachi had always been the image of perfection to him, and yet his brother had just confessed that he was far from it. In one fell swoop, Itachi had managed to erase years of doubt and personal turmoil over his self-worth. He had nothing to prove to anyone but to himself. He didn’t have to please his father or seek his approval, and the knowledge that Itachi was proud of him despite it all, was the missing piece he had needed all this time.
Damn you, Itachi, he thought as a reluctant smile came to his lips. Damn you to hell.
“Oy, Sasuke! It’s show time!”
He looked towards the direction of the loud call, his heart leaping with a whole other emotion as his ‘looker of a boyfriend’ approached with what looked like a cookie stuck in his mouth.
“Hungry?” Naruto asked, dangling the treat before Sasuke’s eyes.
“Only for you,” came the husky reply that sent the blond’s cheek flaming with color.
“You goddamn pervert!”
Sasuke laughed and tugged on Naruto’s hand, leading him into the arena where their opponents awaited them.
Neither boy noticed the very group they had been worrying about, watching their every move with acute interest.