Chapter 23:

Stepping Stones


After one brief night--
Short as a piece of the reeds
Growing in Naniwa bay--
Must I forever long for him
With my whole heart, till life ends?

-Attendant to Empress Koka




/It’s okay to be angry at her now.../


I touched my swelling cheek and jaw gingerly; hissing at the pain that sent a shockwave down my spine.


/You don’t have to keep lying to yourself about her anymore, Naruto.../


I scooted closer to the low concrete slab to rest my back against it; letting out a small whoosh of air through lips that felt as swollen as my cheek. I could still taste the blood in my mouth...which I spat out with a grimace. A quick run of my tongue over my teeth revealed that though a few were loose in their sockets, there would be no fear of losing any if I spat again.


(he packs a mean wallop that’s for sure)


I sighed and tried to arch my neck to the heavens to watch the clear my fucking think of just what the hell had happened to me...


(us) the last few minutes, but even that proved to be agonizing in itself. Visibility from my left eye was becoming dim; another unfortunate result of Sasuke’s blow. By tomorrow, it would probably be half shut, and I was going to have to come up with some believable explanation to Shika; who might not even believe me anyway. That guy was as sharp as a whip. With another weary sigh, I lowered my head (helped reduce the pounding in my skull as well), and raised my knees to my chest to rest my aching forehead against it. It would take me a second later to realize I was shivering, and it had absolutely nothing to do with the cold wind that had picked up earlier.


(he’s got my jacket...)


/She hurt you, didn’t she? /


You have no fucking idea, I thought bitterly as his voice filled my subconscious again.


I hated the way I could sense the tears springing to my eyes again. I hated how I had allowed his words to affect me so much. I hated how those dark eyes had seemed to flash with mingled emotions of anger, frustration and something else I couldn’t quite define. I hated how close we had been in that moment, of how – despite the wound he had clawed open with his acute observation – said wounded heart had begun to beat a little faster...a little hard I couldn’t fucking breathe. It was the dizzying, suffocating sensation of a really large object being placed on your chest, as if the very act of taking in air would render me helpless. It was nothing short of overwhelming, and it had all come down to one pitiful emotion.




Fear of what could have happened or worse...


(eager, curious, wanting, needing)


...the fear of wondering if he’d dare to go all the way. I was terrified of the side of me that seemed to want it to happen despite my wary abhorrence to such close physical contact especially after my experiences in the depths of the torture chambers. All it would have taken was one of us to make just one more move and perhaps...


(hell no!)


I shuddered and wrapped my arms around my knees, squeezing my eyes shut and ignoring the stab of pain the motion caused as I struggled not to focus too much on that moment. He had apologized, hadn’t he? Said something about “not knowing what came over him”, but perhaps I knew just why he had acted that way. It was the dark expression; a sadistic, almost cold and calculating gleam that had come over him the second he reached out to lick my blood. It had reminded me of Snake Dude (back in the dojo), and I had to wonder if Sasuke even realized he had adopted some of the creepy bastard’s mannerisms. It shouldn’t have been surprising since he had lived with the guy for so long, so his actions tonight were probably normal...




How the fuck does one define ‘normal’ at this point? What the hell constitutes for normalcy in my life anymore? Did normalcy include actually feeling my heart beat a little faster and harder, so much so it felt like my ears were going to go numb from it? Did normalcy include feeling my pulses racing at a mile a minute? Did it involve my senses becoming keener and sharper; as if I suddenly had extra 20/20 vision and even the miniscule motion of his lashes fluttering was inescapable from my gaze? That watching those lips part ever so slightly and his warm breath against mine was a lesson in subtle seduction he was unaware of performing?  Was normalcy feeling my stomach tighten with helpless anticipation, a tingle of awareness running down my spine and right down to the inexplicable ache in my groin? And all because of ....him? A fucking guy...and one I was sure I really despised?


(Oh God)


I groaned in misery and rocked a little; no longer wanting to think too much about what might or might not have happened. He provoked me. I attacked – maybe went a little overboard with my reaction – but a part of me felt he deserved it for belittling my sexual activities and relationships with the opposite sex.


With Karin, he was right in that things didn’t seem to be heading towards the bedroom anytime soon, and I was fine with that now. I knew when my amorous advances were no longer flying with the opposite sex, and I was more than content to flirt with her playfully; something I was sure she was aware of and tolerated as well. As for the whore I had managed to pay for tonight (sigh) let’s just say I had expected too much.


For starters, the city’s red light district was not as ‘open’ and widespread as some of the places back home (Japan). This ‘district’ was only a very narrow street with no more than ten buildings on both sides and a police station at the end. A police station of all things! Luckily, it was one of their smaller stations, since it only occupied a corner of the two storey building. All the same, my heart had literally been in my throat as I tried to act cool, noticing that unlike our watchdogs who wore their black kamishimo and hakama, the Korean officers wore traditional long-sleeved brown robes (which fell to their knees) - and I believe those are called jignyeongp’o - over narrow matching paji pants. Like our watchdogs, they had the choice of either their swords or guns, and the two officers we had seen patrolling the vicinity only had a wakizashi and a pistol attached to their waists. No katana allowed apparently. They didn’t pay much attention to Shika and I, which was a good thing, probably because we were in disguises and we didn’t really stand out from the other loitering customers. I was in a black wig and had the collar of my jacket turned up to hide my scars since I had foolishly forgotten to apply the skin foundation to mask them.  In fact, the officers seemed quite bored with their patrol, and the younger of the two was engaged in conversation with one of the call girls much to the disgruntlement of the older one.


Another difference between the districts was that instead of going into the houses to put in your request, madams of each house (or their pimps) would holler at you as you walked past to get your attention; each advertising that they had the best girls for you and some even daring to try to yank you right into their buildings. It was strange to say the least, but I finally settled on a madam who didn’t look as if she was trying much to get my business. Close to her fifties, with graying hair that was kept in a neat bun, she sat on a stool dressed in a colorful (and beautiful) blue print jeogori (blouse), and a flaming red high-waist print chima (skirt) while puffing on an elaborately designed golden pipe. She eyed Shika and I warily and blew out a cloud of smoke before sticking out a hand adorned with gaudy, gold rings in silent command. Thanks to a quick crash course on the district ‘etiquette’ by Jae Weong’s friend, Shika and I understood that she wanted to see just how much we were willing to spend tonight.


I put the bills in her hand, which she barely counted before it disappeared within her blouse. It took her a good minute to suck in another lungful of smoke before she rose from the stool with a grunt and ushered us into the narrow townhouse. Its bright neon sign had symbols I could not make out; though there was no mistaking the silhouette of a naked woman holding a rose.


Looked promising.


The smell was the first thing to hit me as I stepped into the quiet but well kept lobby. A vast contrast from the somewhat dingy street with its smoke and alcohol drenched air, in here, sweet-smelling oils and perfumes assailed my senses which made me weak-kneed and slightly light-headed. I wasn’t sure if they had done that on purpose - to hypnotize their customers or whatever - but I had to admit it worked. Why? Because in less than five minutes, I felt I was floating on air; like I could do no wrong, like I was king of the fucking world! I was aching so bad I was afraid I’d begin to dry hump one of the fake plants in the corner just to ease the growing stiffness in my pants. I barely heard Shika say he was going outside to wait for me, because my gaze was still glued to the door the madam had disappeared through; eager to see what feast awaited me.


Just when I felt I couldn’t last another minute, she finally returned with a parade of ten girls, and I swear each and every single one of them looked like goddesses from another planet. Dressed in skimpy outfits, they flirted and giggled shyly; each trying to get my attention (money). Though they were all beautiful – and some had gone overboard with their colorful, elaborate wigs and makeup – I settled for the shyest of them all; a brunette with large dark eyes and not too much pancake on her face.


The madam was saying something to me, but I couldn’t quite catch it all. I was just too eager to get started. Our room (which wasn’t all that big) was just as sweet-smelling, with a rather tacky red heart-shaped bed with about a thousand pillows strewn all over it. As if that wasn’t tacky enough, there was actually a mirror on the ceiling too, and my brief moment of embarrassment at the idea of watching myself making out with a woman, was evaporated when the girl immediately hit the small mini-bar and began to make herself a drink.


So much for the ‘shy-girl’ act.


She helped herself to about two glasses of something strong before offering me any. I tried to tell her I didn’t drink (or rather didn’t feel like drinking), but I realized I had spoken in Japanese before I could control my mouth. Her frown was enough to tell me I was in trouble. You see, the Koreans had a pretty low tolerance for accepting foreigners as customers, and if this girl ratted me out, I knew I was toast.


She seemed to know she had me by the balls now, and her shy smile became nothing more than mischievous and filled with wicked intent. She rubbed her fingers together; a sign that I had to pay her or she was going to report me to her boss. With weary resignation, I pulled out an extra note, she hiked up her dress to reveal a sexy black garter on her upper thigh, and I slipped the folded bill in there.


Happy now? I thought angrily as she smirked and lowered her dress again, before blowing me a patronizing kiss. For that, you had better give me a night I will never forget.


Guess I should have wished harder.


She began to strip tease to some cheesy background music, but she wasn’t very good at it. Where was the grace? The seductiveness? The ‘tease’? She fumbled with the straps of her dress, giggled drunkenly (just what the hell were in those bottles?), and stumbled around a few times. I had to dive to stop her from falling flat on her face, and each time she’d swipe my hand away and yell drunkenly at me in Korean. I guess she was saying she could take care of herself and didn’t need my help.


Fine. The next time she fell on her ass, I was ditching the gentleman act and going to sleep until she was ready to get serious.


Eventually, she managed to get down to her cotton panties and the garter, and I briefly wondered if she was going to have sex with me with my money being so glaringly obvious. I don’t know about you, but seeing that made this all seem so...pointless and no longer fun. It was a harsh realization that all this...the room...the cheesy music...the terrible lighting...this drunk girl – who had stumbled back to the mini-bar to help herself to more alcohol ...was a sad attempt at finding someone to fill this cavernous hole within me. I needed companionship, yes, but was this what I really wanted? Some drunken chick who couldn’t even stand straight...who was now laughing and mocking my scars by pretending she had them on her cheeks too?


Mot saeng gin eol hur! Hehehe!”


She pretended to growl and before I could say anything, she pushed me back onto the bed and straddled me with thighs that were pretty damn strong for a girl so tiny.


Hyung teo ga eol hur! Hahah!”


She suddenly ‘attacked’ me with kisses; which were clumsy, wet, and smelled like cheap sake. She plastered them all over my face and neck, attempting to rip off my shirt until I had to push her off me to remove it myself. The last thing I wanted to do was leave this place with my shirt in rags; though it would have been bragging rights on my babe for the night being a total vixen. She giggled and clapped her hands like a child as I fiddled with my belt and pants, reluctantly admiring how perky and firm her small breasts were. Sakura’s had been that firm...maybe a little fuller, but still great to fondle and squeeze whenever we made love. Biting my lower lip hard, so I could forget about my ex, I forced myself to the present and fell onto the bed – now naked and hopeful she wouldn’t be too concerned about the scars and fading bruises or the dressing over my left shoulder.


I needn’t have bothered.


The girl barely paid any attention to them, and seemed content to let me lead the way. She had exhausted herself already, and simply lay on the bed like a cold fish; barely acknowledging my kisses or touches (well, there were little moans here and there), but otherwise I could have been having sex with a mannequin for all the enthusiasm she showed.


I had lost my touch. That was probably it. It had been so long since I had been with a woman, knowing what made them tick was now a chore instead of an exciting exploration. When I finally entered her, I felt like a failure; that I had managed to do nothing but show my inadequacy and inability to keep her entertained. Oh, she played the role of experiencing an orgasmic bliss well, and almost had me believing she had really enjoyed it when I finally came (after what seemed like a fucking eternity). When I pulled out of her; unsatisfied, disgusted, and angry at myself, her light snore sealed the deal for me.


I was going to become a monk.


I was going to find the nearest temple and sign up to become celibate for the rest of the life. It would suck to have to shave my head, but that was a small price to pay for a lifetime of humiliation in the bedroom.


Shika must have realized things didn’t go so well because – God bless him – he didn’t ask any questions. Thinking back on it now, I guess the reason I ‘snapped’ on Sasuke was because he had managed to hit on what must have happened without even being there. Just as he had managed to figure out that Sakura hadn’t been such an angel after all, but hell, he didn’t need to point that out to me. I had known that all along; had known months before that fateful night that our relationship was over. That the love I had wanted to latch onto so desperately had evaporated when she found someone else much more exciting and ‘dangerous’.


When had everything changed? Obviously after I had introduced her to Kojima, though it hadn’t been obvious at first. We had still gone out on dates and spent time together...but then...just like that...our phone conversations became lukewarm, and I can safely say it wasn’t from my end. I was still stupidly love struck and with my head in the clouds, though I now realize how earnest and eager I had been while she was busy slowly detaching herself the only way she knew how.


“...have to study tonight, Naruto. I’ve got exams coming up, remember?”


“But you promised we’d go to the concert,” I stammered in confusion. “I paid so much money for the tickets because you kept raving and gushing about the band.” And I didn’t even like the stupid sugary-sweet pop band. It had all been for her.


“Well, I’m sorry,” she snapped irritably. “What do you want me to do? Fail my exams just because of some concert? Is that what you want?”


“, you know I would never want that!” The tickets burned in my pocket as I gripped the receiver tightly. I forced myself to sound cheerful. “Well, study hard, okay? I love you.”


“I will. Good night, Naruto.”


No “I love you” back. No calling of my pet name either. She had just hung up as if in a hurry and I was wasting her time, but then again...I told myself it was okay. She was a brainiac and I knew how much stock she put into her studies. I would always catch her later on.


But the trend continued. She rarely called me, when in the past she would almost get me in trouble at work by calling me every ten minutes just to say something frivolous or sweet on the phone. Whenever I did call her, it was the same thing, she was either too busy or her parents would all but snap at me to get off the line. She would keep things away from me, such as the day she suddenly showed up at our date with her hair no longer as it used to be.


“What happened?” I asked with a raised brow.


“I had it cut,” she replied with a twirl and flirtatious pose. “What do you think?”


“’s...nice, know I liked your hair long...”


“Well, I thought it was time for a change.” She had shrugged and looked defensive. “So you’re going to hate me now because of it?”


“No, no, it’s...just different that’s all. I’ll get used to it and besides,” I had given her a kiss which wasn’t returned.  “You still look beautiful.”


She didn’t believe me and spent the rest of the date being cold and distant no matter how much I tried to tell her that I really didn’t care if she shaved off her hair. I would still love her. It would turn out to be one of the many agonizing hours spent in her presence, while at the back of my mind; Kojima’s warning would continuously mock me -


/“Just be wary of bitches, Naruto. They ain’t always as they seem.”/


Stubbornly, I refused to believe she was capable of being that superficial. Even when Kobayashi – my co-worker at the bookstore – had come into work on that rainy Friday afternoon with a puzzled frown on his face.


“ you are in today.”


I rolled my eyes and arranged the just delivered newspapers into their positions on the shelves. “Yeah, I’m taking over Kazu’s shift today. He’s sick with the flu. Why?”


“Nah...just thought it was you with Sakura down at the restaurant, that’s all.”


I stiffened and shook my head slowly. “Uum...why do you say that?”


I was surprised my voice sounded so casual and nonchalant while my heart and head was beginning to pound with concern, bemusement, and dull anger.


It couldn’t be my Sakura. Kobayashi was seeing things. I had called her earlier in the day and she told me she was feeling under the weather; that she had the flu and was going to be in bed all day. In the back room were a bunch of flowers and a bottle of her favorite perfume I had purchased as a surprise gift. My plan had been to stop by her house after I was done at work, hoping to cheer her up.


“It was her all right,” Kobayashi insisted. “Can’t forget that high-pitched laugh anywhere. I went in to get a drink and just happened to glance over at the booth. Saw her hair and the guy she was sitting with. He was wearing a hoodie, so couldn’t really tell, and I just figured it was you.” He shrugged and donned on his apron with a hum beneath his breath. “Say, do you know where....hey! Where are you going?!”


But I wasn’t listening. I had to find out for myself; had to make sure it was nothing more than Kobayashi’s wild imagination. Like a mad man, I ran down the bustling streets in the pouring rain; praying hard that it would be a lie, that it would be another pink-haired girl with the same high-pitched laughter with another guy or even better, a girl wearing the hoodie. I skidded to a stop across the busy intersection from the famous eatery; a place many young people frequented and even in this crappy weather, was still full and lively.


Frozen to my core and ignoring the chill settling into my bones, I stood in the rain and watched her through the large landscape window...laughing...giggling...leaning forward towards her companion, who was clearly a guy (from the figure). There was just no mistaking it. It was my Sakura; my Sakura who was definitely not sick and at home lying in bed with the flu. This was the Sakura who had given me disinterested lukewarm responses over the phone in the past week, and who no longer stopped by the bookstore to wait for me until my work was done.


She had lied to me...the first of many it would turn out, and what had I done? I turned and walked away; not daring to confront her about it.


/It’s okay to be angry at her now.../


You are two years too late, Sasuke.


I was angry. Hurt. Betrayed. Broken-hearted. And yet, like a fool – that happy-go-lucky-all-is-well-with-the-world side of me had wanted to remain oblivious. That side of me insisted that I could make her fall for me again, that I shouldn’t give up, that she had loved me for almost a whole year for a reason, and I only had to remind her of what good times we had together.


No one could understand why I would choose to remain with a girl who so obviously was cheating on me; even Sasuke couldn’t understand why I had continued to latch onto the good times. However, I have explained this before and will explain it again.


Being with Sakura was easily the best and happiest moments of my life until our fallout. Though I had lived and survived through the darkest of times with a cheerful disposition, deep within....waaaay deep inside, there had always been that simmering mass of hatred just waiting to be unleashed. It was a hatred bred from the widower and her physical, emotional and mental abuse as a child. It was the hatred bred from being ridiculed and mocked by others as I traveled because I had no money, no status and no ‘brains’. It was having to live through all that with a false sense of happiness and a determination to make something of myself despite the odds thrown against me.


However, Sakura made that hatred a non-entity when we were together. With her, I felt alive, and I truly do believe that she had loved me too even if for a little least until her ultimate betrayal.


/Killing Kojima was like killing her too, wasn’t it? /


Was it really? Was watching her brains being blown out my innermost wish come to fruition? Had a part of me actually gloated in victory to see her finally silenced? Honest questions with a hint of truth in them, if I really thought about it. Perhaps...yes, perhaps I had wanted to do more than just yell at her when I saw her running naked around that living room; laughing and looking flushed with the aftermath of sex and drugs. Perhaps a part of me wanted to slap her around when she clung to me saying she had done nothing wrong and that Kojima had forced her against her will. Perhaps a part of me had wanted to let her die, but I knew that it was that ‘hatred’ she had muted with her supposed love that was speaking. That hatred I thought hidden and buried forever was finally rearing its ugly head again; only I had decided to use it against Kojima instead by murdering him.


But then again...isn’t hatred a wasted emotion?


What good would it have done to go around with an angry disposition? Loathing and despising everyone I met? What was the point? And though I had my many nightmares of that fateful night, I made the conscious decision to block out those last few months leading up to it. I chose to re-live the happier times with the only woman I ever truly gave my heart and soul to; for those were the only good memories I could latch onto when all seemed bleak. I could not draw upon anything from my childhood like Sasuke with his family, so can one fault me for using Sakura as my fall back to sanity especially when I was thrown into the depths of Byaku-Shinkyou?


For years, I had made a conscious effort not to recall the wounds caused by her betrayal, but Sasuke had to reopen them again tonight with his words; like ripping the gash even wider and watching the blood flow freely. In the grand scheme of things, what he had done was unforgivable, but as I shivered again and rubbed my hands to get some warmth into them, I wondered why I wasn’t conjuring up any bitterness for him. Where was the rage? Why wasn’t I stomping after him and repaying the favor with a punch that would send him to the hospital?


(because I am so fucking tired of trying too damn hard, that’s what)


I lifted my head to rest my chin on my knees; staring blindly at the twinkling lights of some radio tower in the distance.


I was trying too hard to be liked by everyone else but him. I was trying too hard to be the ‘lover boy’ with the sleek moves, when all I wanted was for someone to treat me with respect and appreciate what was within. I was trying too hard to be tough, when there were times when I was afraid and could not bring myself to say that aloud. I was trying too hard to be cool and indifferent, when my emotions were all in turmoil especially when it came to him. I did not understand why I was allowing him to get under my skin so much, and I blamed it all on him fucking up my mind during that damned bus ride of fate. If only he hadn’t caught my attention...if only I hadn’t crushed so damn hard on his non-existent alter ego...if only...


/Open your fucking eyes! /


Trust me, Sasuke, they have always been open.


/Did she truly love you? /


Perhaps she did. I do hope for my sanity’s sake she did.


/Is that what people in love do to each other? /!


My moan of pain seemed to blend with the gentle whistle of the breeze that caressed my feverish flesh. I covered my face with hands that trembled, and this time when the tears came, they were of a different kind; silent, hard, fast and yet...cleansing in a way. It hurt (and I mean with my swelling eye and all), but it was a good cry; the kind that I knew I desperately needed to release.


Two very long years later, these would be the last tears I’d ever shed for Haruno Sakura, and I hated knowing that son-of-a-bitch was the real reason for finally finding the strength to let it all go.






Haku’s internal clock never failed, and today was no different.


Whether the alarm was set or not, once it was six in the morning, his lashes would fly open in readiness for a new day. He gave a yawn and muttered a prayer beneath his breath before rising out of his futon as silently as he could. Blowing off the long strands of hair that fell into his eyes, he rolled up his bed and tucked it into the closet space before going through his morning toilette. He would wait until Sasuke-sama was awake before heading to the bathroom, but in the meantime, he’d have to figure out what to make for breakfast.


While he prepared the steamed rice and rummaged through the fridge for the ingredients for miso soup, a low moan from his master had him poking his head out of the kitchen in concern. Sasuke-sama had been sleeping with the blanket covering him from head to foot, but with his restless turn, the blanket was lowered to reveal his master’s frowning countenance.


Probably another nightmare, Haku thought sadly, wishing there was something he could do to make them go away, but having lived with Sasuke for so long now; he knew it was something that was bound to occur as long as those horrors of his childhood lingered in his memory. It would have to be up to his master to find a way to get rid of those demons as best he could.


It would take Haku almost a full five minutes later – while chopping the green onions – to realize that there was something a little ‘different’ about his master.


Wha...wait a minute...


He poked his head back out again and stared long and hard at the sleeping young man. It wasn’t so much the light sheen of sweat on Sasuke’s forehead and upper lip, but what he was wearing that must have been causing the problem. His master was wearing a jacket...and not just any ordinary jacket, but the same black and orange jacket Naruto-kun had worn when they went to the Laundromat yesterday!


How and why was Sasuke-sama wearing Naruto-kun’s jacket in bed? Haku knew he had gone to sleep before Sasuke-sama last night, but his master had been wearing only his sleeping shirt and sweatpants while reading a book. He was sure of it. So when had he worn the jacket? Had it gotten that cold at night that he went to Naruto-kun’s room to borrow it? Not that it made any sense. Sasuke-sama had a new wardrobe with at least three new jackets in it. Why would he need to walk all the way across the hallway just to borrow Naruto-kun’s? So did that mean that maybe Naruto-kun came to see Sasuke-sama last night and then gave him the jacket? That still didn’t make any sense. It wasn’t that cold in here and Haku knew just how much Naruto loved his jacket, so why would he give it to Sasuke-sama?


Poor Haku was so befuddled by this development that the sudden smell of burning rice had him squeaking in dismay and dashing back to the stove to turn it off quickly.


“Awww,” he whined as he took note of the charred bottom, while trying to salvage as much of the unburned sections as possible. Sasuke-sama wasn’t a fan of burned food or food that tasted as such, and as he contemplated tossing the whole thing out and starting anew, a light knock on the door had him nearly jumping in surprise.


“Wonder who it could be this early...”


He wiped his hands on a dishcloth and made his way carefully to the door, though he shouldn’t have bothered. His master was already stirring awake.


“Ah, good morning, Shikamaru-san,” Haku greeted with a welcoming smile. It was rare to see the other man visit them. In fact, Haku was sure this was the first time Shikamaru had ever come knocking at their door. The older man was already dressed for the day, but behind the smile he gave Haku, there was obvious concern in his dark eyes.


“Hey, Haku,” he returned with a nod of acknowledgement. “You wouldn’t happen to have seen Naruto this morning, have you?”


There was a clatter behind Haku, who looked behind him quickly to notice his master had stumbled into the low coffee desk with a muttered curse before hobbling into the restroom as quickly as he could manage. He was still wearing the jacket.


“Hmm...nooooo...” Haku replied slowly as he turned back to Shikamaru. The other man must have noticed too, because he had a brow raised in bemusement.


“Isn’t that Naruto’s jacket?” came the obvious question.


“I think it is,” Haku replied; trying to put two and two together and failing miserably. “You say you haven’t seen Naruto-kun this morning?”


“No...his futon is empty and cold. He hasn’t been in it for a while,” Shikamaru replied warily. “And your master’s got his jacket on. You think he knows something?”


“If he does, I doubt he’s going to tell me anything,” Haku said with a shrug. “Have you checked the bathroom? The roof? Karin’s room?”


“I doubt he’ll be in Karin’s room, and his toiletries are still in place, but you’re right...I’ll go check out the roof. In the meantime,” Shikamaru nodded towards where Sasuke had hidden himself. “Try to see if you can get him to talk, all right?”


“I’ll try,” Haku promised, though he knew it was going to be a little difficult to get his master to open up about something like that. If Sasuke-sama was in no mood to talk, Haku had a snowball’s chance in hell in getting the man to open his mouth no matter what tactic was deployed.


As he set out the tray of food, Sasuke finally stepped out of the restroom...but with the jacket slung over his arm before it was hung on the coat hook attached to the back of the door. He gave a mumbled greeting to Haku’s more cheerful one, and sat before the prepared breakfast, still not saying anything as he picked up his chopsticks and began to help himself to some of the rice and umeboshi. Haku, who usually waited to eat after his master was done, had been given permission to eat whenever the hell he wanted while they were living here, so he made himself comfortable across his master and began to poke his grilled fish gently...


...though every now and then his gaze would drift toward the jacket that literally hung like a silent judgmental lead weight between them.


Sasuke could barely swallow, and it was a damn miracle his hands weren’t literally shaking as he noticed Haku take a bite, glance at the jacket, glance at him...and then take another bite of food. This obvious tactic from his manservant was beginning to get extremely irritating. In fact...


(best to just get it out in the open)


“When you are finished eating, you can return the jacket to Naruto,” he finally snapped; trying to act as if there was absolutely nothing strange about the request.


Haku sucked on his chopsticks with his brows raised in surprise. “Huh?”


“You heard me,” Sasuke grumbled and stabbed at a pickle as if it was at fault for his heart racing. “When you’re done eating, you can return the jacket to Naruto.”


“But how did you get the jacket in the first place?” Haku finally blurted out; only to flush at the dark look his master gave him. Oops. Maybe he had overstepped his boundaries. The rules might be more lax, but that didn’t mean he had the right to query Sasuke-sama like so.


“Uum...actually,” Haku stuttered. “Shikamaru-san said he couldn’t find Naruto-kun. He said the futon was empty and cold this morning, which means that Naruto-kun had been gone for a while. He went to the roof to look for him.”


Sasuke – who had heard this when Shikamaru was at the door – gave a noncommittal shrug, though his heart was thudding at a mile a minute now. Had he punched Naruto that hard that he passed out? No...Naruto was definitely still conscious when he had run away like a damn coward. Did that mean Naruto had run off somewhere without telling anyone? And if he had, would his decision to leave be all his fault? Sasuke kicked himself mentally for his blunder. While he had brushed his teeth, he had done the same thing; telling himself now  -in the light of day – that what he had said to Naruto wasn’t fair (at least a little). There was no doubt he had loved the girl, and those tears he had tasted were filled with sadness and regret. He had debated whether or not to find Naruto and to apologize, but if he couldn’t be found...when the hell would he get the opportunity to do that? And who said Naruto would even want to listen to him now anyway?


I wasn’t all wrong, he thought defensively. So yes, he did love Sakura, but that was then and this is now. He’s got to get a move on and find someone else to replace her. Hell, maybe there’s some nice Korean girl he’ll meet eventually; someone who’s going to be a million times better than Sakura. He just has to go about finding a girl the right way instead of being such a brash moron.


Even though Sasuke knew he had little to no experience in the act of wooing a girl (since it seemed all he had to do was stand and the few females he had met in his lifetime tended to swoon for no damn good reason), even he realized that there was probably more to getting them to like you besides being so blunt with your intentions.


(and why the hell am I trying to set him up with someone new when just last night I was cursing out the whore he slept with?)


“I give up,” he had groaned at his reflection in the mirror. “I just don’t know what the fuck to do when it comes to that bastard anyway.”


Thinking too much about Naruto literally gave him a headache.


“He’s probably on the roof,” he said aloud as if to appease Haku’s worried countenance. “It’s his favorite place I think.” He shrugged and acted as if the conversation was no longer of interest to him.


Haku opened his mouth to say something else, for his observant eyes were finally taking in the faint red marks on his master’s neck. However, at the somewhat downcast expression on his master’s visage, he decided it wasn’t worth getting yelled at again. He was now slowly putting the pieces together and could only sadly imagine what must have taken place again.


They must have had another fight or argument last night, he thought as he chewed slowly and fought back a sigh. And this time, I think they are both hurt over whatever was said.


He watched his master push around the pickles in his bowl and taking a deep breath, came to a decision. Knowing he was about to tread on dangerous territory, he forced himself to do and say something he never thought he’d be able to do in a thousand years.


“I think you should return the jacket yourself, Sasuke-sama.”


He held his breath and waited for the explosion, but all he received was the stilling of Sasuke’s chopsticks and the raised brow beneath an expression that was dark and unreadable. Haku, ignoring the near deafening sound of his heart pounding, strode on with determination.


“He gave you the jacket, didn’t he? So...I think you should be the one to return it in person and thank him for it. matter what ha...happened between you two...”


There. He had said it. He bowed his head and waited for his admonishment; to be told that he could sleep in the hallway from now on, or worse on the balcony for his insolence. He bit his lower lip to stop it from trembling and when he heard the low clatter of the chopsticks on the plate, Haku all but squeaked and squeezed his eyes shut.




“I am full,” came the quiet words that had the trembling boy lifting his lashes quickly and darting a bemused yet worried glance at his master.


Sasuke wasn’t looking at him, but at the jacket with an expression that was hard to decipher.




“Thank you for the meal,” the older man said and with a light grunt rose to his feet to stretch his arms above his head. “I’ll head to the bathroom. Meet me there when you are done.”




Dutifully, he cleared away the half-finished meal without another word and made his way into the kitchen, but not before noticing that his master had picked up the jacket again with a tenderness that was rarely seen.


It would take all of his acting skills not to burst into a giddy smile at the sight for there was definitely something in that distant yet serene expression that told Haku all he ever needed to know.


His dear and beloved master, whose petals had long remained in an unyielding whorl,  was maybe...just maybe finally blossoming.





Shikamaru found Naruto dead.


Well not really...more like curled up against the concrete slab with an accumulation of drool upon the dossier beneath his right cheek. As for the left, it appeared as if it had been on a collision course with a moving truck.


Ouch. Just what the fuck happened? Or did he not need to guess? If Sasuke was wearing his jacket...and Naruto was sporting a shiner, then it was obvious that those two had gotten into another argument. Sasuke had probably won this round.


I swear the two of you will be the death of me...of all of us at this rate.


“Hey...” he called out softly as he stooped to his haunches to shake the blond gently. Naruto’s pajamas was damp from the morning’s dew as well, and with his involuntary shiver, Shika was sure the guy was going to be coming down with the flu pretty soon. They might be in the southern peninsula, but they were still in the early weeks of February and the nights could be brutal without adequate protection.


“You really are a pain in the ass, you know that?” he whispered with a smile and slow shake of his head. “Come on...sleepy head. Let’s get going.”


Tucking the dossier beneath his arm, it took some major maneuvering to get Naruto to his feet and even at that, the blond all but sagged against Shikamaru as if unable to stand on his own. Shikamaru had to half-drag, half-lift his roommate as best he could, and by the time he arrived at the apartment, he was already lightly coated with sweat.


“Oh my,” Karin gasped as she stepped out of her room, still dressed in her pjs. “What happened to him?!”


“Fell asleep on the roof,” Shikamaru explained; grateful for the assistance as she opened the door for them and helped to straighten out Naruto’s futon. “Looks like he’s running a fever too.”


Karin checked as Shikamaru placed him upon the futon, and with a light frown, she nodded in agreement. “Looks like it. We need to get him out of these clothes first and try to boil up some water for me. I’ll be back with something to help....and that bruise...good grief. I don’t know what’s with you boys and fighting unnecessarily.”


Shikamaru chuckled weakly and did as he was told, stripping down Naruto to his black boxers and tucking the blanket around him as snugly as possible. He realized with a rueful smile that he was playing the role of ‘mother’ again as memories of the time Naruto had been released from the torture chamber came flooding back to him. Talk about three weeks of hell dealing with the delirious guy, and yet Shikamaru had failed to mention, to anyone, just how terrified he had been at the prospect of Naruto dying on him. It was bad enough that he was still trying to come to terms with Asuma’s passing. He just wasn’t sure he could deal with Naruto quitting on him anytime soon. Besides...


“You’ve still got a lot of shit to take care of,” he whispered as he placed the warm wash cloth upon Naruto’s forehead. “Sweat this damn thing out and let’s begin training, got it?”


Karin returned with some medicine and new dressings for Naruto’s shoulder. She worked her magic efficiently yet tenderly; applying fresh bandages (though she marveled at how fast the shoulder seemed to be healing anyway), applying a sulfuric-smelling salve to the cut on his lip and cheek before tacking on some band-aids and then force-feeding some pills down his throat to help with the pain.


“Hopefully the swelling will decrease by tonight, and he should be awake by then. Let him eat as much as he can, all right? I’ll be back to check up on him.”


Thanking her for her help, Shikamaru prepared to keep sentry over his friend. He had planned to go downstairs to make a phone call to the ‘hideout’ Temari was staying at, but he figured it could wait for at least a few hours. He had to make sure Naruto was still breathing before it was safe to leave his side.


For the next two or so hours, he kept himself entertained by either watching T.V. or reading the papers. So far the Korean press didn’t seem to want to butt into much of Japan’s affairs as there didn’t seem to be anything worth reporting from that area. He couldn’t tell if any actions had taken place with the vigilante groups or if Danzo was even out of the hospital. Itachi and Shisui were yet to call to tell them any news as well. Geez. Talk about being kept in the dark.


Weariness eventually setting in, he was this close to nodding off, when there was a tentative knock on the door. He jerked awake and assuming it was Karin, announced that whoever it was could come in.


“He’s still asleep...” he began to explain, only for the words to die out when he noticed who was actually standing behind it.


Shikamaru didn’t really mean to act this way, but it was a conditioned reaction and something he was really trying hard to control these days. After all, for the two years he had been incarcerated in Byaku-Shinkyou, Sasuke had been nothing more than another authoritative figure to be feared and respected from afar. They had barely spoken to each other since their escape from that place, and even getting himself to speak to the dark-haired man was difficult in itself. He really did not know what to say to the other man besides necessary small talk. It was safe to say that his feelings were more than mutual, for Sasuke looked just as uncomfortable as his dark eyes quickly surveyed the situation.


“I...came to return his jacket,” Sasuke finally stated awkwardly. He leaned heavily on his crutch and bit his lower lip as he took in the silent figure beneath the blanket. If he noticed the after effects of his punch, he kept it to himself. “I’ll just keep it behind the door...”


“Actually, you came at a good time,” Shikamaru suddenly blurted out.


Sasuke raised a brow in confusion. “What?”


“I had to make a phone call and I needed someone to watch over him while I’m gone. Think you can do that for a while? I promise to return long before you can kill him completely.”


He hid a smile at the effect his statement had on the ex-officer. If looks could kill, Shikamaru was sure he’d be dead, but he really didn’t give a shit. They were no longer in Byaku-Shinkyou and Sasuke couldn’t wield that power he so clung to, here in the real world. He was just going to have to suck it up and realize they were on an equal playing field now.


“There’s a bowl of warm water under the table there,” he instructed. “You just keep placing a fresh washcloth on his forehead when the other one gets too cool, and if he does wake up and wants to eat something, there’s some food in the plastic container in the fridge, you can just warm up for him.”


He rose to his feet and gave a curt nod to the stupefied new babysitter, before leaving them alone with a firm close of the door behind him and a sincere prayer that Naruto wouldn’t wake up really wanting to kill Sasuke at first sight.


The least those two could do was talk and get whatever issues they had out of their system. Goodness knew the rest of them needed their leadership to get this show started as quickly as possible.







Goddamn it. Why me?


I have never taken care of an invalid in my life and now all of a sudden, I’m supposed to take over the role of nurse


(well, technically it’s your fault he’s like this...)


But damn it! No one told him to fall asleep on the fucking roof!


The insane urge to kick him awake was thwarted as Naruto gave a pitiful moan and the washcloth slid off with the slight turn of his head. With a muttered curse, I flung his jacket over a chair and leaning my crutch against the wall, hobbled over to his futon to do as I had (not) promised. I don’t recall agreeing to Shikamaru’s request, but the man had hardly given me an opportunity to refuse. It was as if he was deliberately punishing me for something...not that I could blame him. I was sure if every other damn sinner had the opportunity to teach me a lesson, they’d take a lot of pleasure inflicting as much humiliation and pain as I had delivered to them during my duration as officer of the law.


(guess it will be time to make some serious changes to how things are run when you’re in charge again, eh?)


Kneeling down gingerly, I reached for the bowl and swapped washcloths; removing the now cool one and applying a much warmer one upon his forehead. I winced at how hot his skin was to the touch, daring to reach out again to place a palm against his un-swollen cheek.


Good grief.


He was definitely running a fever, and he looked so fucking pale.


(is this all my fault?)


Maybe if I had just stayed in my room and not been such a determined bonehead...maybe none of this would have happened.


“It’s just that...” I began, and then blushed in embarrassment as I realized I was talking to myself. Still...maybe it was okay like this. If he was so sick and out of it, I could finally vent in some way. I changed washcloths and absently traced the slight scar on his temple, probably from one of the many wounds I must have inflicted on him during Gudan.


“I find myself wanting to explain every damn thing to you,” I muttered. “Like I feel I need you to really understand where the hell I’m coming from before you rush into judgment. Same as you I really haven’t told me too much about yourself. I know nothing about you besides what led you to me in the first place. Your sin.”


My gaze fell on the dossier, sitting on the writing desk, which held secrets to Naruto’s birth and the reason why he was so adamant on dealing with Danzo and the Bakufu by himself. He hadn’t really told me anymore than that, and I realized I was curious to know share in his anger at what must have happened.


(to fight with him)


I sighed and tried to stretch out my legs. “If Haku could see me now, he’d probably wonder if he had stepped into another dimension, but then again...I’m sure he’s probably thinking he’s already in another dimension.”


I still hadn’t gotten over his ‘admonishment’, or rather it was his words that had spurred me into action in the first place. Though he had begun apologizing profusely while we were in the bathroom, and despite me telling him that he was forgiven (not that he needed it), I was aware of just how right he was. Naruto had given me the jacket for protection, and it was only right that I took the time to give it back and thank him properly for it, whether he was willing to accept my gratitude or not. I had come here hoping to say it quickly and dash back to my apartment ( I had to begin working on the damn blueprint) but definitely having to deal with the sick blond had not been a part of the plan.


“When it comes to you...nothing fits into any fucking plan,” I grumbled as he stirred a little. “You really drive me nuts, you know that? Ever since I made the mistake of talking to you.”


Probably even before that first time we were face-to-face during the sentencing. It must have started all the way in the bus...when he had kept looking at me with that expression that now sent a stab of warmth into my heart. Hadn’t I once wished he’d look at me that way again? I must have been delirious then...probably still am. I touched my forehead in case I was getting the flu as well, but no...still normal body temperature.


I allowed my gaze to travel around the room; realizing that this was actually the first time I had seen what the apartment looked like. Unlike ours, which was kept neat and beautiful thanks to Haku, you could consider this the typical bachelor pad, I guess. They definitely had no flowers on their balcony, and it looked like they were more content spending their allowance on cheap girly magazines and a few books (guessing they belong to Shikamaru) that were strewn around the room. Curious, I picked up one of the magazines to see what it contained, and I figured I shouldn’t have bothered since its cover of the half-naked woman should have told me everything.


Dear God in heaven...were women this shameless? Brr.....though this one looked quite pretty...wait...what?!


I flung it aside and forced myself to focus on my patient.


“I actually came here to apologize,” I found myself saying after another switch of washcloths. “If I said anything that was really out of line last night I mean...but still...I’m not all sorry for what I said because...because...” How to put this without sounding so cold-hearted…


Ah fuck it.


“She’s dead and gone, all right?” Besides he can’t hear me.


“You’ve got to find someone new and give yourself a chance in love with someone who will treat you much, much better than she did.” I nodded firmly as if trying to convince myself of that, while trying to ignore the dull pang of some weird emotion I couldn’t quite explain as the mental image of Naruto being in the arms of another woman filled my mind.


“There are many nice girls out there just waiting to get to know the real you; not the one who keeps acting like a stupid jackass with the crude jokes and the cheesy pick up lines. Do girls really like that? I wouldn’t. I honest and straight with me for God’s sakes. Why would anyone feel it necessary to start up with something as dumb as “Whew...are you tired? Because you’ve been running through my mind all night, baby.” I was mimicking his voice and shuddering at the memory of him telling this to a very uninterested Karin. She had knocked him upside the head for that one. I would have done the same.


I turned my attention to the T.V. – where there was a talk-show being shown and several famous celebrities were watching stupid tricks by ordinary people while commenting on them – and still kept on talking. It was as if I couldn’t shut if I was making up for all the years of having no one to really share this with. So yes, I did have Asuma, wasn’t the same somehow.


“If I were a girl, and yes, you’ve called me that several times already...,” I grumbled; though I wondered why the notion wasn’t so annoying anymore. “If I were a girl...theoretically speaking, and you were to woo me over, I would definitely kick your ass if you dared say something that stupid to me. You would have to treat me like a lady; make me feel like I had worth, you know? I think that should be the key. Like my father did to my mother...”


I paused and frowned in thought; trying to conjure up the few times I had seen my parents affectionate with one another. If they were, they rarely did it in public, but I had caught the moments when both would exchange a loving look when they thought I wasn’t watching or he’d steal a kiss from her before going to work or when he came back. Gentle moments like that...those meant the most, didn’t they? That’s how people ‘in love’ behaved, wasn’t it?


“Ah forget it,” I sighed and lowered my head in defeat. “You wouldn’t understand how to be gentle even if someone whapped you over the head with it.”


“I would too...”


“No, you wouldn’t, you annoying son-of-a-bitch.” I lifted my head and shook it gently. “Great. Now I’m even hearing him in my damn mind. I think I’m losing it.”


I turned to change the washcloths and nearly cried out in surprise at meeting those startling blue eyes...well one of them at least (the other was barely open) staring right back at me. I could feel the rush of blood creeping up from the tips of my toes to the roots of my hair, and never had I wished more for the ground to open up to swallow me whole.


Please do not tell me he has been awake for a long time. Please, dear God, if you are up there, please do not let it be that he’s heard every fucking thing I’ve said so far. Because if so...


“You talk too damn much,” he croaked.


...I’m leaving.


“Hey,” he called out when I began to scramble to my feet; with my damn face still burning up with mortification. “Where are you going?” He tried to sit up but ended up collapsing back to the futon with a loud moan of pain.


I can’t be here, I thought frantically. This really wasn’t part of the plan and why the fuck wasn’t Shikamaru back?! He said he was only going to make a phone call, and it was going on two hours?! How long did it take to make a damn call?!


“...ungry...” came the pitiful word behind me as I reached for my crutch. “Could you at least get me something to eat before abandoning me, you heartless jerk?”


I closed my eyes and gritted my teeth...counted inwardly to ten...before nodding curtly and hobbling into the kitchen to prepare the food Shikamaru had left for him. I was evident of me being unable to even do something as simple as opening a plastic covering. Eventually, I somehow managed to have the bowl of udon ready, and being careful not to trip over my own feet, I made my way back into the room (crutch-less) and placed the bowl upon the low coffee table.


He was trying to sit up, and the blanket fell to reveal he was nude...well no...he had his underwear on...


(thank God)


...and not caring about seeing me in his near-naked state, he crawled toward the table and waiting food like a man deprived. When I was sure he wasn’t going to crash head first into it, I spun on my heels to find my crutch. I was still determined to get the hell out of here, when his barely audible wince had me looking over my shoulder again.


He was eating...or at least trying to, but his mouth was sore and I realized that when it all got down to it...he was in this state because of me. Why would I want to abandon him now as he had accused me of doing? He tried to spoon some more of the soup into his mouth, but the spoon clattered from trembling fingers, causing a curse of frustration to escape his lips as he tried to pick it up.


Damn it.


“I’ll get it,” I muttered and leaned down to pick it up. I pretended not to notice him staring at me as I gingerly knelt beside him and pulled the bowl closer to me. “Open your mouth,” I ordered.


“You’re kidding me, right?” he asked incredulously.


Taking all of my acting skills to maintain a poker face (though I was still burning up inside), I replied tightly. “That or I’m out of here, and I don’t care if you starve to death either.”


“Says the refined lady.”


I died a little more inside at the small smirk he gave, and in retaliation, I all but shoved a spoonful of the soup into his mouth; pain or not. His cry and subsequent dramatic wail as he fell back to the futon had me threatening to walk out again if he didn’t behave himself.


“God, you -”


“ - piss me off,” he finished and swallowed as I thrust another spoonful of the broth between his lips to shut him up again. I stubbornly kept my gaze on the floating slices of cucumber and noodles; wondering if I could just toss the whole thing on his head and get it over and done with. I was never going to live down talking to ‘myself’ for as long as I lived. I blamed it on loneliness...pure and simple. Naruto was the only ‘peer’ I had been this close to, and thanks to the other night – where he had prodded me to talk – like a dam I was ready to spill everything and anything at the drop of a hat. This was unnerving and unlike me.


Ten more spoons...ten more spoons and I’ll be out of here...


“About last night,” he began.


“Here,” I insisted and shoved another spoonful in his mouth. I didn’t want to talk about it.


He swallowed and tried again. “Look -”


“Almost done,” I interrupted and was about to put another in his mouth, but like a child, he turned his head away and reached out to grab my wrist at the same time to still my movements. I ignored the jolt that shot up my arm at his touch and with a jerk; released myself from his grip.


“We need to talk,” he rasped with a frown, and I knew there was no way I could get out of this any longer.


“Fine,” I replied with as much boredom as I could muster. “Talk away.”


“First off, I accept your apology.” He smiled and I was sure I was doing a very good job of imitating a tomato at this point. “Secondly, this was a pretty crappy way of making me realize I had to finally get over Sakura.” He pointed to his cheek.


“Uumm...hello?” I lowered the turtleneck I was wearing to reveal the faint, but still obvious marks his hands had left on my neck. “What’s this?”


“Ah...well...compared to my tattoo,” he sneered, “yours is like a hickey.”


“...hickey?” I raised a brow. “What the hell is that?”


“It’s ...”


Was it my imagination or was it his turn to look a little flustered?


“ really don’t know anything, do you?” he muttered and shook his head. He shivered and I imagined it was his fever returning. Before I could stop myself, I reached out to touch his forehead, but it was warm compared to how hot it had been earlier. It would take me a second later to realize he had flinched a little at my action, and I removed my hand quickly; feeling something ache within me at the idea that now fully awake, it was natural for my touch to be repulsive to him. Besides, after my antics last night, I had given him no reason to even welcome them at all.   


“I just wanted to make sure you didn’t have a fever,” I defended myself with as nonchalant a shrug as I could manage. “Anyway, if we are done talking -”


“I was just getting started,” he interrupted with a shake of his head. He dragged the bowl toward him and using the chopsticks, tried to pluck out a cucumber slice. “We’ve never really had a decent conversation without wanting to clobber each other to death, so I’m kinda glad I got to hear your side of things while I was ‘asleep’. I guess we do better when the other is not conscious.”


“You heard everything though,” I argued. “You were pretending to be asleep.”


“Hey...I didn’t interrupt you,” he argued back, but with a light smirk. “So now, you shut up and listen to me.”


I opened my mouth to protest, but he placed his chopsticks against my lips to silence me.


“For the next few weeks...or until your brother and Shisui return, we are on our own, right? And we had specific instructions to do whatever we could to work together and prepare for our return back home, right? So...why don’t we put aside our differences – as many as they are – and try to get along as best we can? We can start off by working on the blueprints together.”


He gave me a smile that really lit up his one good eye, and I hated to admit the immediate effect this had on me. It really did feel like being hit with a sudden burst of sunshine (as stupid as that sounded), but imagine waking up, opening your windows and suddenly being bathed by the warmth of the sun’s rays. That was what a genuine smile from this blond fool felt like. How embarrassing to admit or tell him in person.


“You are good at the underground stuff, yeah?” he continued, completely oblivious to my turmoil. “And I know most of the areas you officers rarely visit.”


“I also know most of the administrative and senior officers living quarters...”


“Well there you go,” he said with a nod of his head and a wave of his chopsticks. “If we get started this afternoon...well...when my eye gets better...we can probably get a lot done by next week.”


“...I guess...”


“You don’t have to look so fucking depressed having to work with me.”

“I am not depressed. I was just...thinking...”


“Of what? I do know how to read and write.”

What? “What the hell are you talking about?”


“You were probably thinking that I couldn’t read or write or that I wouldn’t know what I was doing, right?”


I slapped his forehead gently. “Good God, man. You really do have an inferiority complex, you know that? I wasn’t thinking of anything of the sort. I’ve seen you write your name before.”




“...and I’m sure you know a few other words too.” I was trying not to smile; I really was, but I could tell he was getting upset – or rather he didn’t know whether I was really teasing him or not (which was strange in itself that I would be teasing him at all), but he finally settled for grabbing a book that was in Japanese and he opened the first page to read the first few lines to me.


“There. Happy now, sensei?”


I smirked and reached for the Korean newspaper, where I proceeded to read an entire paragraph of some boring article about a new construction starting up in the southern region. When I was done, I lowered the paper and prepared to look at him with smug satisfaction, but was stumped into embarrassed silence at the genuine look of admiration on his features.


“I wish I could do that,” he finally admitted with what I was sure was great reluctance. “I know only a couple of words...would really help if I could blend in with the crowd here....”


“I could teach you...” I blurted out and burned at the look of surprise I received. “ and Haku and Shikamaru,” I amended quickly. I didn’t want to give him the impression that he was receiving any special treatment. “So while we’re working on the blueprints, we could have lessons.”






“What’s in it for you?” he asked with a wary frown. “You being so nice all of a sudden.”


“Because you just said it, didn’t you? We have to put aside our differences and achieve our goals...together, right?”


“Fair enough.” He chewed on the cucumber slice, though I could see it was with an effort. I decided I’d let him get some rest and leave as politely as I could. However, there was still something bothering me and my curiosity sought to have my query appeased lest it continue bugging me for the rest of the day.




“What?” he asked while swirling around the noodles as if seeking lost treasure.


“You mentioned something about a hickey earlier...and I still want to know what it is,” I reminded him.


He eyed me for an uncomfortable long minute – as if deciding whether or not to indulge my request - before giving a slight quirk of his lips.


“A hickey is something to be shown, not just talked about,” came the low drawl that was faintly tinged with, what I was sure was, amusement.


Still, I was confused. “Sho...shown?” I looked around the room perhaps assuming he meant something tangible. “Where is it?”


With a dramatic sigh, he set down the chopsticks and motioned for me to come closer with a wave of his hand. I stiffened and for some reason...


(his eye...eyes...why...why do they appear...heated...)


...felt my heart begin to thud a little faster.


“You want to see it, don’t you?” he urged with a grin that was nothing short of mischievous. The heat hadn’t dissipated, or maybe I was the one beginning to sweat a little. “Then come here.”

“Is it where you’re sitting?” I asked carefully, while trying to crane my neck to see if there was anything next to him.  


His eyes sparkled with mirth and something else I couldn’t quite make out. “Pretty much...”


“Ah...” I swallowed tightly. “Okay...”


Breathe, Sasuke. what if you’re just going to sit closer to him? Good grief, it’s not as if it’s the first time it’s happening. Take a deep breath and fucking relax!


I scooted as close as I could, but he didn’t seem satisfied. Closer still? What the hell?!


“Isn’t this close enough?” I asked in near desperation. We were almost as close as we had been last night, and just the memory of how I had seen and felt every damn thing almost made me light-headed.


“Naruto...” I was embarrassed to hear my voice come out in a near whine of desperation. “Isn’t this...?”


“Close enough,” he whispered and before I could think of just what he was planning to do -


Oh... my... God!


...his quick reflexes had kicked in again, for he had moved in so fast, yanked down my turtleneck with a strong hand and was now sucking hard on the very area he had tried to choke me to death last night.


Oh shit! Not there...!


Right at the sensitive region between the hollow of my neck and my shoulder, Naruto’s lips and teeth were wracking a whole new kind of havoc on my senses. I squeezed my eyes shut and waited for the nauseating wave of revulsion to hit me; waited anxiously (my stomach in tight knots) for the subconscious reaction I had to Orochimaru’s touches to have me pushing Naruto away and yet...


I can’t...fucking...breathe...


I didn’t dare breathe, for this was beyond anything I could have possibly imagined...ever. This was no Orochimaru. This was nothing like that perverted son-of-a-bitch.


Instead of disgust, I was swimming in a world of pain and a pleasure so potent, every nerve ending in my body tingled with acute awareness of this man before me. My skin burned with not just the expertise his lips displayed, but the co-mingling sensation of his unshaved whiskers and the gentle flutter of that spiky golden hair beneath my chin and against my cheek.


I have no idea who moaned (though I’m guessing it’s me), and I could only reach up to grip his upper arm so tightly to steady myself as I trembled; knowing damn well I was going to leave a ‘hickey’ of another kind on his flesh. In delirious resignation, I arched my neck to give him better access...for him to take as much more as he never stop making me feel this surge of adrenaline that sent shots of heat down to a growing ache in my nether region.


“Oh fuck...” I panted breathlessly. I was falling...falling...falling...




“Ouch,” I grunted as the back of my head made hard (and painful) contact with the floor. Finally (no! don’t stop!), my tormentor released me with a loud smack and lingering lick of the new and undeniable bruise he had left behind on the sensitive flesh.


“There,” he breathed huskily as he pulled back to admire his handiwork. “Now a hickey.” He smiled as I burned in response. “Told you it’s something to be shown besides...” He leaned forward again and this time, left nothing more than a feather of a kiss that had me shivering in near giddy pleasure. I more touch and I was sure I was going to explode in the most embarrassing way possible.


“I’ve left my mark on you,” he stated with a smirk of satisfaction.


He rose to his feet; albeit unsteadily, to head to the restroom, but he wasn’t quick enough to hide just how much what had transpired between us had affected him as well. And as I sat up slowly and caressed the still tingling flesh where Naruto’s lips had taken control in the most intimate way yet, I bit my lower lip and struggled not to break into a smirk as well.


/I’ve left my mark on you./


Ah, Uzumaki really have no fucking idea how true that is.





“Well?” Haku whispered harshly as he watched Shikamaru shut the door behind him as silently as he had opened it.


There was a confusing mingle of emotions on the other man’s face, and Haku, who had been hopping from one foot to another in impatience - after Karin had told him of Naruto’s fever - was just about ready to shake Shikamaru into giving an answer.


“Can I see him now?” he asked again.


“I think we should give them a few more minutes,” Shikamaru finally replied with a small smile. “They are...uh...a little busy right now.”


“Busy? Busy doing what?”


You do not want to know, kid.


“Let’s go play shogi,” he said instead, as he wrapped an arm across Haku’s shoulder and led him back towards Karin’s apartment. “You know how to play it, don’t you?”


“Yes, but...”


Haku glanced over his shoulder with concern at the shut door leading to Apartment 632. He had no idea what Shikamaru-san had seen, but whatever it was he could only hope that his master and Naruto were finally coming to some sort of understanding.









... ... ...


I am so fucking dead!


I sank to my knees before the sink and squeezed my eyes shut; the shakes coming hard with a vengeance as I realized just what the hell I had done.


What the hell is wrong with me?!


Did I actually just give Uchiha Sasuke a ... a...hickey? Had I actually opened my big, fat mouth to brag about it having to be something to be ‘shown’? Had I actually dared do it?!


“I need some serious therapy,” I whispered feverishly as I held my aching head between my hands and shook it from side to side in dismay.


It was all well and good to act as if I was so cool and in control, but I tried to blame it on the fever which was still making me slightly dizzy to be honest.


(yeah know exactly why you’re still shaking like a fucking leaf and have a goddamn boner in your boxers)


“Oh God...” I moaned in misery.


“Naruto?” came the tentative call that had me looking up with sheer panic and a frenzied thudding of my heart. For a brief second, I really did forget how to speak – my lips felt frozen, my tongue heavy but I must have somehow managed to say something because he continued.


“I’m going back to my apartment. Make sure you get some rest, all right?”


“Yes, Mother,” I replied on autopilot and promptly kicked myself for sounding so snarky. I waited for the retort from him, but I got nothing in return. It wasn’t until I heard the outer door closing, did I finally dare to breathe again.


Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck! This is so not good.


I tried to look at myself in the mirror and couldn’t even do it. All I would see was a stranger in place of the Uzumaki Naruto I once knew. Where was the Naruto who had shuddered and cringed at the notion of touching another male in such an intimate way, let alone the very man who had sent you to the chambers where you had almost lost your damn mind? Where was the Naruto who had – just last night – contemplated giving Sasuke the cold shoulder for the duration of their stay here?


I knew exactly where he had gone. He had slunk into the shadows the moment he lifted his eyes wearily to hear the quiet monologue being uttered by his companion. At first I was confused as to why Sasuke was in our apartment (or how I even got there in the first place since the last thing I remember was conking out on the roof), but I figured he had stayed to make up for what he did last night. That was confirmed with his apology...even though he assumed I was still asleep. I did consider waking up and surprising him, but a part of me felt it would be better to remain silent; to simply let him talk...and what a revelation it had been...especially the part about being a refined lady and wanting to be treated just right.


(and damn if the mental image of Sasuke in full geisha regalia didn’t have me struggling not to burst into a grin)


Still, I realized how nice it was to hear him talk ‘normally’; to not hear him sound condescending or superior. It was a reminder of how open he had been on the roof the night he spoke about his family, of how he had managed to sound self-deprecating with some of his anecdotes and unknowing sprinkles of dry humor within his stories. That was the Sasuke I wanted to hang out and be friends with...except for one little problem now.



I kissed him.


Not on the lips...but damn well close enough...


Oh hell...


I closed my eyes and held my head again as if hoping this tactic would help release the tumultuous bubble welling within me.


My tongue and lips were still tingling with his taste.




That was that porcelain skin I had fallen for first, hadn’t it? That in a bus full of grimy, stinky men, I had fallen for the ‘girl’ with the creamy skin that didn’t look as if a stain could mar it in a million years. Perhaps my subconscious had all but pounced on the opportunity to finally savor it. Sasuke had opened the door with his innocent query (and man, how clueless had he looked when he asked about the “hickey”), and what had I done? Run right through with no questions asked; simply eager to satisfy that deep-seeded curiosity that had lingered with me after all this time.


What was the verdict?


Sweeter than anything I could have possibly imagined.


I swear his skin really did taste that way...and maybe slightly salty with sweat, but damn! If he hadn’t fallen, I might have literally sucked until I could taste his blood. I sure as hell didn’t want to stop, and he hadn’t helped matters by rubbing against me like that either. Didn’t the guy have any idea how...well...guess sensitive would be the word to use in this situation? Had he no clue how his moan and breathless sighs of pleasure was worth ten whores faking it in any red light district? At least the good thing in all of this was that my decision to become a monk would have to wait a little while. I think I still have the touch...wait...what?!


Okay...calm down, Naruto...what happened was a mistake. Uchiha Sasuke is NOT a girl, goddamn it; no matter how many times you keep imagining him in a geisha outfit.


I slapped my cheeks - ignoring the pain that shot through me at this - and took a deep breath. What happened had happened. No taking that back. What mattered now was our relationship from here on out. We had both agreed to work with each other with as minimal arguments/disagreements as possible, and I was determined to keep my end of the bargain. There would be no more hickeys or attempts to even initiate a damn hickey next time, and if Sasuke dared try to repay the favor then...




(oh sweet God in heaven)


“...we’ll just have to see what happens,” I whispered with my heart stuck somewhere in my throat. “We’re just going to have to wait and see.”





Mot saeng gin eol hur – Ugly face

Hyung teo ga eol hur– Scar face


Chapter 24

Naruto Home














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