Chapter 24:

Discerning Lines


Though the waterfall
Ceased its flowing long ago,
And its sound is stilled,
Yet, in name it ever flows,
And in fame may yet be heard.

-Fujiwara no Kinto


If Haku noticed the new ‘memento’ his master was sporting, he wisely kept his opinions to himself. He was smart enough to know when his master was not in the mood to disclose any information that was of no concern to him, and considering he had barely gotten away with his ‘boldness’ yesterday, Haku was determined to curb his curiosity as best he could.


Karin, however, was not so tactful.


“Is that a hickey?!” was the first thing she screeched as she waltzed into their apartment with her tools-of-the-trade, and blessedly dressed in a pastel print kimono that didn’t reveal too much of her cleavage or legs. You’d be amazed at how much of her wardrobe involved skimpy shorts or rather tight tees.


Though it was time for Sasuke’s daily check up, and the men ought to be used to her random entrances (as she hadn’t even bothered to knock...again), it was still jarring to the senses to have her in the same room. She could be quite imposing when she chose to be, and it was safe to say that after years of living in a female-free environment, they were still adjusting to her presence on a daily basis.


Sasuke – who had been trying to slip into a navy turtleneck sweater to hide the mark – cursed beneath his breath for not being fast enough as Karin fell to her knees and leaned closer to observe the now pinkish taint on his skin. Her brows were raised in undeniable curiosity.


“Oooh,” she crowed. “Definitely looks like one.”


“Stay away from me,” came the low growl as Sasuke slapped his hand over the bruise and pushed her away with the other. He scowled as darkly as he could so she could get the point that he had absolutely no plans to answer her nosey query. Besides, his face felt so hot he was sure he was going to go up in flames in a second. Why couldn’t she mind her damn business?


“What’s a hickey?” Haku asked innocently, while pushing aside some of the furniture to make room for Sasuke-sama to work on the blueprints he had spoken of the night before.


Karin grinned and sat back. “It’s a love bite,” she explained as she tapped the side of her neck. Though she was talking to Haku, her gaze had not left the flushed man before her who had now managed to tug the turtleneck upwards to cover the glaring evidence. “It’s when someone sucks really hard on your neck and -”


“Do you mind checking my leg now?” Sasuke interrupted curtly. It really was a miracle his voice was this composed especially at the description Karin had given and how his mind had gone racing right back to that moment when Naruto’s lips had  -


Goddamn it! Stop. Thinking. About. That!


Pity his night had been spent tossing and turning and reliving every damn second of it until he felt he’d go mad. He had to employ every ounce of self-control not to give in to the temptation of pleasuring himself and besides, it would have been hard to do such a thing without rousing his roommate. With Haku not questioning him (as he had feared), Sasuke had felt he could get away with coming up with a lie about it being a bite of some unknown insect. But now, with this loudmouth in the room -


“Oh, all right already, Mr. Grouchy Pants,” Karin replied with a pout as she set to work; though her dark brown eyes still glinted with hidden mischief. “I was just kidding anyways...”


“Why would someone suck hard on Sasuke-sama’s neck?” Haku was mumbling to himself, which had Karin’s lips twitching into a helpless smile for Sasuke had given a little flinch (and it couldn’t be from pain since she was still in the process of removing his bandages) in reaction. If anything, the man seemed to be redder than before.


Curiouser and curiouser.


Just where had he gotten the hickey from? Was there some girl he was seeing she was not aware of? She tried to squash down the sudden flare of jealousy within the pit of her stomach. So yeah, Sasuke had given her zilch in the form of positive sexual vibes, but it still didn’t mean that she couldn’t keep trying. It was going to be a slow process breaking him down, but she felt she was getting there. After all, she could take pleasure in knowing that he liked her cooking. He hadn’t vomited or complained of constipation yet.


Can’t be another girl, she thought with a slight shake of her head. Most of the occupants in the building were of retirement age and at least one or two families with children below the age of ten. No one was allowed on their floor and besides...hadn’t Shikamaru said Sasuke was looking after Naruto. She was sure he had not left the building at anytime after that. Where would he go without assistance anyway?


She glanced at Haku, who was now arranging the large white sheets of paper (they had purchased a few rolls while shopping the other day as per Itachi’s instructions), pencils, pens, rulers and erasers, in neat piles. She pursed her lips in thought. Maybe Haku had done it last night and hadn’t been aware of it. It wasn’t unusual. After all, she could still remember the one time back in school, when she had fallen asleep beside Ino, and had woken up to find her jaw and neck dotted with the ‘bites’. Poor Ino had apologized profusely, swearing she had only been dreaming of eating tons of strawberries and had no idea she was actually sucking on Karin’s skin. When their commanding officer had queried about it, Karin lied; saying it was nothing more than mosquito bites. She was sure her officer had not bought the story. In fact, Karin wasn’t sure if she bought Ino’s story either. It wasn’t as if Ino was into girls like that, but damn, did she really have to go about leaving hickeys all over her neck like she planned to eat her alive?


“Sometimes it happens on accident,” she said aloud as she removed the final layer of bandages. They were rolled into a ball and tossed aside, and like clockwork, expert hands began to open up vials, bottles and packets that contained medications for the wound, which was healing nicely by the way. Besides the paler flesh, the stitches (thanks to Dr. Woo) were still intact and there was no sign of a blood clot or poor circulation. As she began to clean around the stitches, she continued to speak.


“Like when you’re asleep and then you wake up to see someone licking your neck.” She chuckled. “A friend of mine did that and she was apologetic afterwards. She could not believe she had done something like that. It was so unlike her...”


Her words trailed off as the chuckle faded into a sad smile. She bit her lower lip to control herself as it suddenly hit her that she would never get to see that face or hear that low-pitched laughter again. She would never hear that sweet voice humming or singing to herself when she felt no one was listening. She would never spend long hours over the phone or just hanging out talking about everything and nothing with Ino again.


No one in the world would have thought they would end up being the best of friends. Ino was the tall, leggy blonde that had all the guys falling at her feet, and she was the dork with the glasses and fire-engine-red hair who couldn’t get rid of that blasted zit from her nose. Still, they had managed to bond somehow, and to this day, Karin would never know or understand what had made Ino decide to speak to her on that cold morning in the library.


Maybe it’s because we were always the ones with the highest grades in class and she figured she had something in common with me.


The illusion of being a dumb blonde was broken when it came to Ino. She had definitely been a rival when it came to getting good grades and the highest scores during clinicals and battle-medic simulations. If Karin was fast, then Ino was probably a step faster. How could anyone forget how swift she had taken care of a below-the-knee amputee during a battle simulation? Not only had she stopped the bleeding, the bandaging of the stump had been executed to perfection. Karin would have no time to be jealous, but rather filled with reluctant admiration. Hell, if it wasn’t for Ino’s assistance sometimes, Karin was sure she would not have passed a few of those tests or exams.


“...would have been a great doctor,” she muttered to herself, only to be horrified as something hot and wet splashed against her hand and fell upon Sasuke’s leg.


Wha...what?! What am I doing?!


Sasuke – who had been lost in his own thoughts as well – noticed (or rather felt it) and raised a brow in bemusement.


“Sor...sorry,” she stuttered with a laugh that felt too forced. She wiped away the wet dots on his skin, and took off her glasses to scrub her face clean. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and when she felt she was in control again...


(first rule of being a medic; do not show your emotions on the battlefield. Be professional!)


...she lifted her lashes and slipped the goggles on again. “My apologies,” she said brightly. “I was just…”


“Hickeys make you cry?” Sasuke asked quietly, and as she looked up to chide him playfully for his seemingly stupid question, she noticed the dark and knowing look in his eyes. Her heart tightened with an emotion so strong, she could barely breathe. He knew, didn’t he? He knew she wasn’t just thinking about dumb hickeys. He knew that this was more than just a bite on the neck. After all, he had been with Ino, hadn’t he? Was it really a surprise that he could tell that she had been talking about her now dead friend?


She opened her mouth to say “no” and to deny everything, but to her chagrin, nothing but an unladylike harsh sob burst from her lips –


(how unprofessional, Karin! If your commanding officer could see you now, you’d be docked major points!)


...and still the damn tears wouldn’t stop. She realized that she had not really allowed herself to mourn Ino’s loss. Being a member of Akatsuki meant having to deal with death every other day as members were prone to give up their lives for the cause. After a while, the body and mind tend to become numb to such news, and perhaps the same thing had happened after Sasuke recounted the horrific way Ino had died at the hands of those bastards. Sure she had cried then, but it had felt more of an automated response – a sudden shock to the senses. It almost didn’t seem real.


So why now? Why would the very memory of seeing a hickey, or recalling Ino’s embarrassed features as she whispered to Karin not to tell anyone about it ever, ever, ever! Want to make her sob her damn heart out?


It’s because I lost my best and only friend. She was the only one who saw the real me and...and...




Her eyes widened in shock at what was happening, and it took almost a full minute for her confused mind to realize that she was suddenly inhaling the heady, male scent of Sasuke...could hear his steady heartbeat (badumpbadumpbadump) against the soft fabric of his sweater...could feel his strong arm around her shoulders...and...and...


(oh my God! He’s hugging me! He’s actually...hugging me!)


...with a louder sob, she gave up the fight and burrowed her face against his silent offer of compassion; finally letting it all out as she should have done so many nights before.


Haku, realizing this was a private moment between his master and the young lady, gave a light nod of understanding. He rose to his feet and left the room with barely a sound, only to expel a breath as he closed the door behind him carefully and was in the safety of the quiet hallway.


Poor Karin-chan. She was so nice (a bit scary at times with her over enthusiasm especially when she kept borrowing Haku for her makeover ‘experiments’), but it was obvious that she was still sad over losing her best friend. Haku sighed and stooped to his haunches. He wrapped his arms around his knees, and wondered how he would feel if he lost any of his new friends.


Would he be as devastated as he had been when he heard the news of Zabuza-san’s death? Back then, his only chance to grieve was in the darkest hours of the night and away from Sasuke-sama who would have frowned upon any outward showing of such weak emotions. In those lonesome minutes, he had relieved every moment spent with Zabuza; wondering how his life could have been if the brash officer had kept his promise and rescued him before Sasuke-sama did.


How would I feel if Sasuke-sama...di...di...died?


He shuddered at the thought and squeezed his eyes shut; already feeling his chest hitch in a breath at the notion of losing his master. Haku figured he’d rather die first than be the one burying Sasuke-sama, which was why this upcoming battle...their return to Byaku-Shinkyou had to be a success. He would never leave Sasuke-sama’s side that’s for sure -  


“Haku? That you?”


He looked up with a start, only to break into a warm smile as he noticed Naruto sauntering out of the bathroom. The evidence of his bath was in the cloud of steam flickering like ghostly fingers as the door swung shut behind him, the plaster of his wet blond locks upon his scalp, forehead and cheeks, and the rosy freshly-scrubbed hue on his flesh. Though the left side of Naruto-kun’s face was still recovering from ‘the fall’ (at least the swelling had gone down and he could see again), there was something about seeing the older boy smiling – actually giving a genuine smile – that sent a flutter of something warm within Haku’s heart. He could feel his cheeks burning at the brief but embarrassing image that flickered through his mind and kicked himself mentally for even thinking of something like that.


Besides, he’s made it more than obvious he would never be interested in pursuing ‘that side’ of things.


Either way, where was the harm in fantasizing about a non-possibility? Naruto-kun could be self-deprecating when it came to his looks as he had bemoaned and whined about girls not appreciating his ‘masculine’ beauty. Haku didn’t understand it either. He wouldn’t go as far as saying that Naruto was strikingly handsome, but he was far from ugly as well. His face was full of character and had a story to tell. Perhaps it was the mysterious scars on his cheeks or those piercing blue eyes that seemed to sear through your soul if you stared into them long enough. Whatever it was, Haku had found himself unable to look away from that face the moment he had laid eyes on it. Why else would he find himself stopping to talk to Naruto for no damn reason?


I was compelled...attracted to his aura. He has no idea how much charisma he has; how his very presence in a room can make the whole place light up even if he isn’t in the best of moods. And when he smiles...


It seemed as if the whole world smiled along with him. It was just that contagious.


“Good morning, Naruto-kun,” he greeted as he rose to his feet and all but ran towards the taller man. “You are looking much better today.”


Naruto grinned and reached out to tug Haku’s ponytail playfully. “I’m all right. Thanks again for sending over the soup.” He placed his fingers to his lips and kissed them. “Delicious as always, maestro.”


Haku giggled and blushed at the compliment. “You’re welcome. Anytime at all.” He peered over his shoulder. “Where’s Shikamaru-san?”


“Still marinating in the tub,” Naruto replied as he opened the door to their apartment. “What about you? What were you doing out there hunched over like that? Got a tummy ache?”


Haku shook his head and walked ahead of the blond. He sat on the floor and searched for the remote control to the television. “No, I had to leave because Sasuke-sama and Karin-chan needed to be alone.”


Something clattered loudly behind him, and he turned to notice Naruto cursing beneath his breath and picking up the hardcover book that had fallen on his foot. Naruto all but chucked the offending object back into the shelf and took a deep breath to gather himself. He wasn’t sure what he was more concerned or worried about. Karin hooking up with Sasuke (after failing to get her attention all this time) or Sasuke hooking up with Karin (after...whatever...meh, didn’t matter anyway).


“Are you okay, Naruto-kun?”


“I’m fine,” he muttered and half-limped to the closet to find something to wear. “Why do they need to be alone?” he asked as nonchalantly as he could manage. Haku had settled onto a show to watch; a horror movie it looked like and a cheesy one at that.


“Karin-chan was crying about something,” Haku explained. “I’m not sure why, but she was saying something about Sasuke-sama having a hi...hickey?” His brows creased in confusion. He failed to see the rush of color that filled Naruto’s face at this revelation. “And she started talking about a ‘she’, so I guessed she was remembering her friend that she lost. So Sasuke-sama is comforting her.”




Figured. They both had the dead girl in common, so it shouldn’t have been that surprising to see them bonding over something like that. Still, it was a relief that a past memory had distracted Karin from digging more into the whole hickey incident...unlike the bizarre conversation he had with Shikamaru in the bathroom. He should have known something was up with the way his buddy had been acting weird all last night and early this morning. Well...maybe not weird per se, but more like giving him strange looks as if trying to make up his mind about something. Finally having enough of the odd behavior, Naruto had all but snapped impatiently as Shika began scrubbing his hair.


“All right, spit it out. What’s the matter with you?”


Innocently befuddled at the sudden query, Shikamaru had looked up with a raised brow. “Huh?”


“Don’t ‘huh’ me,” Naruto retorted with a pointed finger. “You’ve been looking at me kinda funny since yesterday. What gives? What did I do?”


Shikamaru made a sound that was between a sigh and a chortle. He rinsed off and decided it was no longer feasible to keep his curiosity in check. He spun around on his stool to completely face his indignant companion, and being careful with his words, he said slowly:


“I saw what happened yesterday.”


Naruto blinked. What was he talking about? He saw what? The fight on the roof? That was impossible. Shika had been dead to the world when he decided to take his midnight trip. Then what could he mean by...?


Oh. Wait a minute…he probably saw…




He straightened up, though he could feel his cheeks burning, and forced himself to stare back into the intense dark eyes before him.


Act cool. Act cool. Act cool.


“Yeah? So?”


“Wanna tell me what exactly was going on?”


“And if I told you it’s none of your damn business?”


Shikamaru quirked a brow. “Come on, Naruto. You’ve gotta admit that’s a little...I mean...just what the hell were you doing to him? I thought you were biting him to death or -”


Naruto flushed. “I was not biting him, goddamn it. He didn’t know what a hickey was, so I showed him. That’s all there is to it. What’s the big deal?”


The big deal was he still hadn’t been able to get that episode out of his mind; no matter how much he tried to distract himself for the rest of the day. He could still taste that damn bastard on his tongue even now...and he had brushed his teeth twice already!


“Showing him a hickey?” Shikamaru repeated incredulously. “Wow...and just a day ago, it looked like you two were about to kill each other. How the fuck did the conversation become about hickeys?”


“It was a demonstration,” Naruto grated slowly perhaps hoping it would somehow sink into Shikamaru’s skull. “It’s not as if we’re gonna be doing that again.”


“I should hope not. That was just fucking...weird, man.”


Naruto burned and felt the overwhelming urge to tell Shikamaru to go fuck himself. Except...Shikamaru’s reaction wasn’t all too far from how he would have reacted if he had caught his friend in the same situation.


It was weird. There was nothing ‘natural’ about giving another guy a hickey especially someone you weren’t supposed to like in the first place. In retrospect, he could see how it would creep Shika out. Still, they had decided to work together and maintain a civil relationship, so Shikamaru would just have to suck it up and deal with it... like Naruto was planning to.


“ he was enjoying it...” came the low mumble.


“What? What did you say?”


Shikamaru smirked. “Nothing...just that I said it looked like he was enjoying it. Hey,” he raised his hands as Naruto scowled. “I’m just saying what I noticed, that’s all.”


“Just how long did you watch, you pervert?”


Shikamaru laughed and reached for the bottle of body wash. “Long enough. Good thing I got there in time or Haku might have been the one opening the door. Could you imagine his reaction?”


Naruto definitely could. Haku would probably scream and assume they were in a fight again; only he might have the wrong assumption like Shikamaru and think he was biting Sasuke to death too.


Might have ended up with a fucking throwing knife in my back or stomach.


But then again, Haku had admitted he liked to be with men, so would he have found the situation that strange, or would he have accepted it if it was explained to him?


As he slid a tee-shirt over his head, he pursed his lips in thought and glanced at the boy engrossed with the shenanigans on the screen. Again, he was struck by how feminine and pretty (nah, downright beautiful) Haku was. Maybe it was the hair, which always looked so clean and neatly combed (and smelled nice too), or those deep set brown eyes that could look at you soulfully or deadly depending on his mood. Or maybe it was his shy smile and girlish giggle, or the way his cheeks would flare up with twin hues of pink when embarrassed or pleased about something. Or maybe it was how smooth and pale – not quite as porcelain as his master’s, but close enough – that skin was, or the fact that he liked to dress in kimonos. Whatever it was, Naruto could see why guys would be attracted to him, although he had to wonder if many of said guys had freaked out at the notion that they were crushing hard on a fellow male. All the same, he wondered how life had really been for Haku in Byaku-Shinkyou. The servant had never really talked much about his past, except for the vague statement of owing his freedom or life to Sasuke for some unknown reason.


If I ask him about his life, he’s naturally going to want to know about mine, he thought with a light frown as he began pulling out the rolls of paper and drawing materials Karin purchased the other day. Am I really ready to share everything with another person?


Besides Shikamaru...and well Itachi and Shisui who had been nosey in the first place...Naruto really wasn’t prone to talking about himself that easily. He hadn’t even been able to share anything much about his life with Sasuke the other night. He seemed more content to absorb other lives and indulge in fantasies of having lived through them as well. No one would really care about his boring back story.




He all but jumped out of his skin at how close Haku’s voice was; spinning around quickly with widened eyes to notice the bemused teen staring right back at him. “Wha...what is it?” he asked breathlessly. Geez. The guy moved so silently, it was damn eerie.


“You’ve been standing in the corner with those things for a few minutes now,” Haku replied with a tentative smile. “Do you need any help? Are you going to work on the blueprints now?”


“Yeah...I figured I could get started on it. Shika’s gonna help me since he knows a little more about the area. But...I think we should just wait for him to get out of the bath and then we head over to your apartment so we know exactly what the hell we’re doing. Don’t want us all working on the same locations, eh?”


Haku nodded and his smile seemed a bit more relived as he helped Naruto gather his supplies. Shikamaru showed up a few minutes later, and as they waited for him to get ready, Naruto gnawed absently on the tip of an unsharpened pencil in thought. He kept telling himself that the sudden burst of fluttering butterflies filling his stomach had absolutely nothing to do with the idea of being in the same room or seeing that guy again.  


For as Shikamaru had so succinctly put was all just so very...weird.







Ask me why I made the decision to hug her, and I will never be able to give you a proper answer. Comforting anyone has never been a part of my repertoire, but then again, so many damn things have never been in my repertoire since I stepped out of the gates of Byaku-Shinkyou. All the same, I wouldn’t lie and say it wasn’t nice to feel her warmth against mine for it brought back the poignant memories of being in Ino’s arms the morning after our passionate encounter. I think it only made me realize just how much I had missed (or craved) such intimate contact with another human especially when it was reciprocated.


She – and I mean Karin – might not be as curvaceous as Ino was, but there was no mistaking the swell of her bosoms against my chest or how her thighs  rubbed gently against mine – no thanks to the awkward angle of half-sitting/lying on me. I bit back a groan as she stirred (on purpose?) and rotated her hips a little. I am only human and my body’s natural reaction to this position had me trying to adjust myself as discreetly as possible.


I really wish she’d get off me.


At least she had stopped crying – which was good - but she was still making no attempt to pull away from me. The situation only got worse when she began talking quietly about the girl she had once known.


Patiently I listened, and the more I heard, the more… human Ino became to me. All this time, and even in her death, a part of me had regarded her as something ethereal and not really of this world. Perhaps it was a mesh of the heights of passion she had taken me coupled with how she had looked against the glow of the lanterns in that room. Either way, hearing Karin’s stories – of Ino’s flaws, trials and tribulations - solidified her existence in my mind. She was no longer just ‘the-woman-I-lost-my-virginity-to’, but she was a woman who had a world beyond the doors of that bedroom. Ino had been smart, funny, but could be quite talkative when she chose to be. My one major regret was never getting to know more about that side of her.


Or perhaps I would have if that ‘date’ had ever taken place.


I sighed; unaware I was absently caressing Karin’s hair as my mind drifted back to that dreadful day and that damning letter.


All just one big fucking set up and I fell for it; hook, line and sinker. What a fool I was.


The bitterness and loathing for Orochimaru, that had somewhat diminished since our arrival here, was slowly rising to the surface again. I could almost taste the bile in my throat and wanted nothing more than to -




“Hmm?” I shook myself a little to get back to the present.


“Did you…when you were with Ino…did you fall in love with her?” came the unexpected and quiet question that had me blinking in surprise.


Fall in love with her? I had just known her for barely two days…and even at that, did people fall in love after having such sexual encounters? Was that a requirement of some sort?


“I think she fell in love with you first,” Karin continued without giving me a chance to formulate a coherent reply. She gave a smile that was wistful yet slightly bitter. “When we were reviewing the notes and plans for Orochimaru’s assassination, we were given a dossier of information and it included your most recent photograph sent by Asuma-san. That night, Ino told me she was going to volunteer to be a spy at the inn you’d be staying at though I had wanted the job in the first place. Lucky me, huh?”


She bit her lower lip as if ashamed of admitting her bout of jealousy at her friend’s good fortune or bad…depending on how you looked at it. “Though she had sounded like she was joking, she said she was definitely going to make you fall for her. It was like she was a mind reader – in addition to all the other cool things she could do – and just taking one look at your picture; she said she was sure you had a good heart.”


I resisted the urge to snort in derision, but held it in; though inexplicable warmth did fill my chest at Ino’s judgment of my character. Considering we had not yet met, and she was simply going by my photograph, I wondered if she had heard of my terrible reputation of being unforgiving and cruel to condemned sinners. Maybe she wouldn’t have thought so highly of me then.


“…and I believe her…”


“What?” I asked in confusion. I had almost forgotten Karin was still talking.


She lifted her head to look at me; her bright brown eyes – they looked almost red if the light struck it at a particular angle – filled with an emotion that made me slightly uncomfortable. I could feel her body pressing closer to mine, and it triggered off a wave of heat I could not control even if I wanted to. She was getting too damn close and it was easy to see that our proximity was affecting her as well. It was in the slight flare of her nostrils, the teasing dart of her tongue to lick her moist lips, the dilation of her pupils, and worse…the sensation of her fingernails tracing my forearms before squeezing them gently. Her flowery perfume was a tantalizing tease to my senses, and I really did feel as if inhaling it any longer was bound to have me hypnotized or drunk on its scent.


“You do have a good heart, Uchiha Sasuke,” she explained in a breathy whisper. “I know you had a difficult job being an officer and having to condemn criminals, but you were only doing your job, weren’t you? Deep down inside, I know you’re a man with a heart of gold.”


“You’re mistaken,” I growled beneath my breath. I am far from what you think I really am.


“No, I’m not.” She smiled and dared to place a feather-light kiss at the corner of my lips. I was too frozen by her audacity to push her off. “I saw the kind and gentle side of you when we went to the temple the other day. You have deep rooted beliefs in something higher than yourself, and your humility before that higher being was beautiful to see. You can be humble, Sasuke, and that is just one of the many things that makes you so…(kiss)…very…(kiss)…sexy…(kiss)…”




The sudden hard yet soft sensation of her lips against mine just as we fell back to the floor in a tangle of limbs, unfortunately coincided with the door opening and a happy greeting from Haku faltering short as he took in the scene before him.


Damn it!


I struggled to sit up, though Karin was already doing the same (thank God!) and trying to adjust her kimono which had ridden up a little higher over her thighs and the sleeves which had fallen just a little lower to reveal the top of her bosoms. As I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand; ignoring Haku’s profuse apologies for barging in since he did knock and no one answered – my gaze drifted to the two silent figures standing behind my flustered manservant.


Fuck! Why the hell did they have to be here?!


My stomach felt like a block of ice as I met those familiar blue eyes, but just as quickly, a tremendous rush of heat (akin to being doused in fire) flared right through me at the inscrutable expression on his visage. I bit my lower lip and turned away.


God help me. Just what is he thinking?


And why should I care what he thinks by the way? It’s not as if I owe him an explanation for whatever I choose to do (or not do) with Karin.


“Sorry for barging in,” Shikamaru was saying. “We did knock...”


“No, no, no, it’s my fault,” Karin stuttered with a weak laugh as she finally finished up with my dressing and shoved the painkillers into my hands. She looked flustered and in disarray; no doubt feeding the wrong impression to our guests. “I was done here anyway. I won’t stay too long…I mean remain in your way. I know you boys have a lot of work to do. So…”


She rose to her feet unsteadily, and with a final bow of apology to all of us, she all but ran out of the room with a loud slam of the door behind her.


Great. Now what?


A tense, awkward silence fell for almost a full minute, before Naruto cleared his throat and pointed toward the area Haku had set up for us.


“We working there?” he asked, and I found myself annoyed at how casual and nonchalant he sounded. What was I expecting? Did I want him to be more confrontational about what he had just witnessed? Or at least to sound a little jealous?


Dream on, Uchiha Sasuke. If you think what happened yesterday was the prelude to anything else…you are mistaken. To him it was nothing more than a demonstration after all. I had asked, he delivered...that’s all there is to it. He must have probably been laughing behind my back while he was in the bathroom.




“Yes,” I found myself responding, and though I could hear the slight tremble in my voice, I was glad to see that I didn’t sound as breathless (disappointed) as I felt inside.


Pretending to sharpen the pencils, I watched as Naruto and Shikamaru made their way to the opposite side of the room and set up their materials. It was good to see that the swelling was down at least, and he could see from both eyes now. The cheek was still slightly puffy, but the band aid Karin had applied yesterday was still in place. It would take me another embarrassing second to realize I was actually staring right into those damn eyes for they too were studying me in silence. It was difficult to read what was behind them, and I yearned to strain my ‘inner vision’ to peer into his thoughts. However, he was distracted by a question from Shikamaru, and I was allowed to breathe again as he turned away to answer.


Why the hell do I feel like I’ve done something wrong?


“All right,” I said aloud when I was sure I was in command of all my faculties. I kept my focus on the sheet of notepaper before me and began to write. “Since Haku and I are more familiar with the administrative buildings and officers’ quarters as well as most of the underground labyrinths, we’ll work on that. I say ‘most’ because even as we are here, Orochimaru might still be building more hideouts.”


“Fucking psycho,” came the low mutter from Naruto that had my lips twitching in a reluctant smile. Psycho, huh? That was putting it mildly.


“Actually, Byaku-Shinkyou already had a few underground lairs,” I admitted as I absently doodled a rectangular block and began to divide them into sections from memory. “They were designed as either meeting rooms or bunkers to protect the clan during times of war. Unfortunately, Orochimaru discovered some of them and decided to renovate the whole thing.”


I scratched out some sections as I felt the familiar wave of helpless anger overwhelm me. I only had to close my eyes and I would be taken back to the day when we had stood – miles beneath the earth – in a cavern that had once held many historical artifacts of my ancestors. Orochimaru had taken one look at them, shook his head and muttered something about it becoming his new library. I must have been eight or nine, and had absolutely no say in what he did at the time. I could only watch in horrified silence as he tore down pieces of my family’s history to be replaced with dungeons and purification sites that made no sense to me.


“We never had dungeons for sinners…or torture chambers…all of that was added by Orochimaru after he took over. I haven’t actually been to the East Block a lot,” I confessed; finally lifting my gaze to the men across me. They were watching me with unreadable expressions, and I felt a chill go down my spine as I realized just how precarious a position I was in. Reminding them about their stay at Byaku-Shinkyou could be triggering dark memories of the pain and suffering they went through –


(especially Naruto)


…and nothing could stop them from getting up and killing me right here and now as retribution. Though I knew I could hold my own in battle, wouldn’t it still be poetic justice for them to take their revenge out on me now?


“You’ve been around the East Block, eh, Shika?” Naruto finally asked as he tore his gaze from me to nudge his partner gently. His voice was still even – as if they were simply discussing the weather and not a place where he had been tortured to the brink of death.


“Yeah,” Shikamaru agreed quietly. He too was doodling on a piece of paper. “To deliver messages and the such. I think there are ten levels in all.” He drew out a rough cone/cylindrical shape and what appeared to be steps winding around it. “Each level has about ten dungeons; the first has the main office and officers slash guards rooms and the lowest is where the main torture chambers are.” He paused and glanced at Naruto as if unsure of how to continue, but he must have seen something in the blond’s eyes for he gave a barely noticeable nod before speaking again. “I’ve only been there once, so I can’t be too sure if things have changed since then. I do know there’s the room where Naruto was taken to here…” He drew a large X on a section of the cone. “And at the other side were two more rooms that I’m not sure of what they contain.” He shrugged and gave me a wan smile. “Now, the West Block, I’m more familiar with.”


I nodded in agreement. It was the busiest since it was where all sinners were ‘docked’ from the buses before separated to their various cells. It was also the gateway to ‘The Pit’ and the arena where Gudan took place.


“I’ll leave the West Block to you and Naruto to map out,” I offered. “Especially you, Shikamaru since you were quite a trusted messenger of the officers if I’m not mistaken.”


He gave me a mock salute and that same smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Yeah. That’s me.”


Why do I get the feeling that this guy will never like me for as long as I live? His body language positively screamed “I am only tolerating you” though he was still cordial with me. Not that I give a shit. If I could live most of my life with officers who simply ‘tolerated’ me, why would dealing with Shikamaru’s attitude bother me?


“Naruto…” I began.


“Aye aye, captain.” Like Shikamaru, he gave me a mock salute and smiled. I wasn’t sure if it was another one of his forced smiles, since there was really nothing funny about making him recall his stay at my ‘home’ for nearly six months.


“Where are you most familiar with…aside from the dungeons,” I added quickly in case he made a wise ass comment about that.


“The prisoners’ quarters, kitchens, dining area, laundry…all the way to the dojo area.” The big grin was gone, and in its place a cold smile that had me clutching the pencil a little tighter in my grip. It was a smile that spoke volumes, for the day I had collided with him hadn’t been an ‘innocent mistake’ after all. The smart bastard had been doing his homework…scouting the territory all under the ruse of being lost. I had to give it to him.


“I see,” I mumbled. “Then I’ll allow you to handle that side of things.” I took a deep breath and turned to Haku, who looked at me with a smile that eased the tension I was feeling inside. “Haku and I – as I mentioned earlier- will work on areas including the entrance, temples, offices, and private quarters. Any questions?”


There was none forthcoming, and with a final instruction on comparing ‘notes’ when we were done for at least today, we set to work. In about half-an-hour though, I had to move to the desk to continue as my leg began to throb from my awkward position on the floor. It was a good thing too, as it prevented me from having to keep looking up to see Naruto and Shikamaru working too damn close to each other. Every now and then, their heads would meet as they muttered beneath their breaths and compared their outlines – sometimes bursting into soft laughter or chuckles as they shared a joke between them.


I feel like an outsider.


And why shouldn’t it be that way? From the start, I was never a part of them anyway. I had been a high-ranking official in a (technically) government position. I was a part of the law (Orochimaru’s law) that had frowned upon and punished them for crimes they had committed. I had lived in a bubble where I failed to see them as humans and simply treated them as nothing more than statistics and the embodiment of their sins. I was the perfect product of Orochimaru’s teachings, where the very notion of knowing the sinners on a personal level had been frowned upon. I based my judgments on a belief system that was nothing more than the delusions and grandiosity of a deranged power-hungry psychopath. I had executed men and condemned others to their death so many times over, the ritual numbed the little humanity I could have spared for their wretched lives.


And oh, how the tables have turned.


I could walk down the streets now, and no one would recognize who I was, or fall in fear of my very presence. I was no longer living in relative luxury, but stuck in a cramped apartment high above the streets in a foreign land. And the most ironic of all? I was now living with the remnants of my prejudice in a lifestyle that would have put my parents and ancestors to shame.


I stared blindly at the outline of what was supposed to be the entrance to my home. On paper, it was nothing more than lines and blocks and my hastily scribbled notes; but in my mind, I could still see those enormous grand gates, which required a special mechanism to open. I could see the lengthy stone paved walkway leading to the intimidating yet breathtaking twin pillars which ushered you to the majestic temple of worship.


Something hard filled my throat and I struggled to swallow it down and fight back the mist that was blurring my vision. How pathetic to show such emotion over mere lines and blocks, but there was no denying it.


I was homesick.


I wanted to go back to my childhood home. I wanted to walk along those gardens in the blissful mist of dawn or the purple hues of dusk. I wanted to sit in my living room, reading my favorite books, listening to Haku play his shamisen while the mountains and lakes remained silent and sturdy in the horizon. I wanted to wade and sink my aching body within the warm, healing waters of my private onsen. I wanted to return to the dojo, where my dear students would be awaiting with smiles and an eagerness to learn a new skill. I wanted to see Asuma, to hear that loud laughter, to suffer through his cheesy jokes, and to know that he’d always be there (no matter how terrible I treated him) whenever I needed him.


No more...never again...


I bit my lower lip hard enough to draw blood and discreetly wiped the corner of my eye. Taking a deep breath, I forced myself to focus on the rest of the drawing. Realizing that this was only fate or karma after all. For all my sins in the past, I was slowly but surely paying for them now.


The happiness and suffering of all beings

Are due to karma, the Sage taught;

Karma arises from diverse acts,

Which in turn create the diverse classes of beings...


As I mulled over what this text – which suddenly came to mind – ought to mean in the grand scheme of things, a loud yawn and sudden announcement of “break time!” had me looking up with a start. I glanced at the alarm clock and was surprised to see that we had been at it for nearly three hours so far.


“May we go for a break, captain? I am staaaaarving,” Naruto whined, while pretending to faint over his sketches. This earned a giggle from Haku and a snort from Shikamaru. I gritted my teeth; aware he was deliberately goading me with that title, but instead of indulging his deliberate jibe, I nodded and waved for them to be excused.


“That’s fine with me,” I replied, while turning back to my drawing. “Do whatever you want.”


They couldn’t leave fast enough it seemed, though I was sure I heard Naruto mutter something like ‘self-righteous prick’ beneath his breath. Or maybe I was just so used to him insulting me, I assumed I must have heard it. I waited until the door was closed before expelling a breath and turning around to look at the chaos behind me. And what organized chaos too.


Haku, who was now in the kitchen preparing something edible, had been working on a section of the officers’ quarters and he was doing a rather good job with his basic sketches. Shikamaru’s blueprints (he had finished with two already it seemed) had him currently working on the West Block, and I was quite surprised to see just how many more hidden sections I had been unaware of! Goddamn that sly bastard Orochimaru! However, the most startling of all was Naruto’s efforts.




I had assumed his work would be haphazard and incomprehensible, but as I lifted the papers to examine them thoroughly, it was clear that this man had missed his calling in life. For all his appearance and behavior as a first-class dolt, Naruto’s sketches clearly showed that he was quite observant even to the minutest of details. His lines were neat and dimensions precise. He had left no nook and cranny unturned; not even a single window or doorway out of place. Hell, even the blind would be able to find their way easily, if this was given to them as a map. It was just that impressive. He was focusing on the kitchens and its surroundings which included the officers’ dining area and the laundry, and though I had lived in Byaku-Shinkyou all of my life...seeing Naruto’s drawing made it seem like a completely new world to me. It was almost unrecognizable and a jarring reminder that, for all my supposed knowledge and power, I hardly knew my own home anymore.


No wonder Itachi wanted this done. Even he would be alarmed at just how much has changed over the years.


After lunch I contemplated complimenting Naruto on his skills, but for some reason, the words remained lodged in my throat. If he noticed that anything was out of place (though I had made sure I kept the papers back as I had seen them), he said nothing, but simply went back to work with a concentration that was fascinating to watch...


...and I would have probably gone on watching if it wasn’t for Haku nudging me to ask a question that reminded me of having some work to do myself. was hard to get rid of that image of his tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth as he erased a mistake with vigor. As if on cue, the ‘bite’ on my neck seemed to burn, and I absently reached up to caress it.


God help me, but...


I wanted that tongue on my skin again. No use denying that now. Unfortunately, I knew it was going to take another major ‘accident’ of some sort to ever get that sort of a scenario to happen again. So I might as well pray for pigs to start flying.


We stopped working sometime around nine in the evening, where we called it a night and agreed to return the next day to continue. It wasn’t until much later, while laying on my futon and staring blindly at the ceiling, would it dawn on me that besides his seeking permission for lunch and the instructions I gave when we started, Naruto and I had barely spoken to each other.


It was as if everything that had transpired yesterday had taken place in another dimension, as if his offer of civility was nothing more than a mask to hide his still obvious wariness and caution about me. What kind of a game was he playing? What kind of a game were we playing? Did he want me to make the first move? But hadn’t I...indirectly with my monologue? Hadn’t I shared my childhood with him? What else did he want from me? Why did I have to do all the work when he has barely shared anything about himself with me?


I sighed in frustration and forced myself to get some sleep, but not before making a promise to do as much as I could to keep up with this so-called ‘civility’ between us.  


...even if my heart seemed to seek (scream) for something so much more.







We had completely forgotten about Dr. Woo’s appointment that morning, until Karin just about hyperventilated in an attempt to get  us to hurry up, get dressed and head down to the waiting van.


Any excuse to leave that apartment building was a good one, and even more so recently, no thanks to having to work on those damn blueprints for the past three days.


I really had no idea how much it would affect me, because it was turning out to be more mentally draining than I had imagined. It was like being thrust back into that place and being made to relive every damn moment where I felt death would take me away in the next hour or minute. I was glad I wasn’t working on the dungeons, but it didn’t matter anyway. Just drawing the abandoned shed where I spent my lunch breaks, spurred several visceral reactions from me. At times, I could literally feel my toes getting numb at the memory of the biting cold as I trudged through two to three inches of snow in socks with holes in them. I would shiver as my snow-dampened yukata would cling to my skin; a skin where bruises still struggled to heal and every nip of winter’s bitter kiss would make my bones stiffen like that of an old man’s. I was still suffering from the effects of it, especially on nights when I slept in an awkward position.


As I would draw another line to signify the demarcation between the cellar and the storage room, I recalled my early days in the kitchens when I would shamelessly lick the remnant soups or stews left in the officers’ plates, or hungrily wolf down leftovers and scraps meant for the garbage just to sustain myself for the next few grueling hours of work. Memories of stumbling – dead on my feet – to my little ‘closet’ with its thin insect-ridden mattress and thinner blanket for barely three hours of restless sleep before rudely awakened by the sounds of the early morning bell signaling another new day of the same redundant routine – plagued my dreams and left me waking up with a stifled scream and drenched in sweat. There were bags beneath my eyes now, and if Shikamaru...or any of the others noticed it, they said nothing. In fact, it was safe to say that this whole process was taking a toll on us in different ways.


On that first day, I could have sworn I had noticed Sasuke crying...or at least looking as if he wanted to cry (or maybe there was just something stuck in his eye), and I couldn’t really blame him. That place had been his home after all, but it was ironic that while it probably brought him happy memories of his childhood, it brought nothing but pain and suffering to me. While I hated the place, he loved it with his whole heart despite the darkness that plagued it.


“Whoo, you look like death wormed over,” Woo remarked when it was finally my turn to step into his office. “What’s wrong? The shoulder bothering you again? Though from your x-rays, it looks like it’s practically healed.”


I shook my head and gave him a weak smile. “Just tired I guess. We’ve been working  hard on an assignment from Itachi.”


“Ah...the blueprints,” Woo said with a solemn nod of understanding. “Sasuke informed me about that. He is just as exhausted, so I recommend you boys all take a break and try to relax for a few days. Get your muscles moving again, eh?”


“Is it all right?” I asked as I flexed my arm.


“I don’t see why not especially if you take it easy with the exercises I’m going to recommend to you. You need to build up your strength, so consider this phase one of your physical therapy, all right?”




I was given an exercise band and two small dumbbells. With the dressings no longer needed, I was to perform a set of exercises five days a week, twice a day. Fifteen repetitions of each exercise for the first three days and then progressing to two sets of fifteen repetitions. After ten days of this, I was to ‘upgrade’ to three sets of fifteen repetitions. Brutal schedule, but doable. I had to get them strong anyway. If I was to start practicing with my Glock, the last thing I needed was for the recoil to disable my shoulders again.


I would later learn that Sasuke’s exercises were a little ‘easier’ and I say easier because it pretty much involved him mostly sitting on a chair and trying to stretch out both legs and lift them often...or lying on his stomach or back and have someone help lift his legs and stretch them. However, I’ve seen the guy sweat just walking up and down a flight of stairs, and I was sure it was going to be just as brutal for him to get through his routine without wanting to kill someone when it was done. At least he’d have Haku or Karin as punching bags; though I doubt it will happen especially with his budding relationship with the girl.




Just what I didn’t need to think about. I still can’t get that irritating image of those two, sucking face, out of my mind. Should I have been surprised though that they’d eventually hook up? I mean...right from the beginning it was clear she had eyes for him anyway.




I rubbed my eyes and struggled to focus on the drawing before me. We were back in Sasuke’s apartment, and though I was tired and wanted nothing more than to hit the sack, I was determined to finish up this particular section so I could get to work on the prisoners’ quarters. Haku and Karin had gone to get some shopping done, so it was only Shika and Sasuke keeping me company. Sasuke was in his usual position at his desk, which gave one a good view of his back as he leaned over his work. You’ve got to admire the guy’s work ethic if nothing else. He can remain in one position for three to four hours straight – not even stopping to get a drink, or scratch or yawn – just focused on what he’s doing. Let’s not mention that he’s not that bad at drawing either. I thought my stuff was okay, but he was pretty detailed with his blueprints and it was impressive to see the world beneath Byaku-Shinkyou (well besides the dungeons). Who knew there was literally a whole other city beneath the place? The Uchihas, as well as Snake Dude, were mad geniuses that’s for sure.


A sudden knock at the door broke through the thick lull that had fallen over us. For a second, neither of us moved because we were sure it wasn’t Karin or Haku. They had left for barely half-an-hour, and knowing how long Karin usually took to do her shopping, they couldn’t have returned already.


...unless something happened to them.


I cursed beneath my breath because I did not have my weapon with me, but a barely subtle movement from my left brought a reluctant twinge of admiration as Sasuke had opened the top drawer of the desk to carefully slip one of Haku’s throwing knives beneath his shirt.


The knock came again.


“Hello? Any body home?” came the familiar voice that had us all collectively releasing our breaths in relief. It was only Jae Weong.


Shikamaru rose to his feet to get the door, where the older man shook his hand with much enthusiasm before stepping into the room. I swear the guy never changed his outfit. You could always find him in a retro black, white or red track suit with worn slippers that scraped the floor as he walked. His thinning gray hair had been combed over to the left today, and that stench of his favorite noodles followed him around like a cloak. He smiled and nodded at Sasuke and me as he noticed what we were up to.


“Sorry to bother you boys while you work  so hard,” he said in his halting Japanese. “But there is phone call -”


“Is it Itachi?” Sasuke asked with an eagerness that was kinda heart twisting to see. Though he was trying to act cool about it, there was no doubt the guy was just as concerned as we were at not hearing anything from those two in almost a week. They should have reached Japan by now, so why hadn’t they called or sent a message via their so-called ‘intermediary’? Had they been attacked, ambushed or worse, killed?


Jae Weong seemed to understand Sasuke’s worry, because he gave a sad smile and shook his head. “No, it’s for Shikamaru-san. Your woman, eh?”


Shika couldn’t hide his smile at the news, and he was quick to excuse himself. She would be arriving in about two days, so I bet the lovebirds were already making plans to shut themselves away in Itachi’s apartment once she showed up. Lucky, lucky, lucky bastard.


“So,” Jae said with a grin, revealing crooked yellowing teeth. “You boys ready to begin your training?”


“Fuck training,” Sasuke growled as he tapped his pencil restlessly on the paper. “Are you sure you’ve heard nothing from my brother or Shisui?”


Jae looked hurt at the sharp reprimand. “Hey, I only tell you what I know,” he said with a shrug. “I keep eye and ear out for news, but nothing happening so far, which is good, no?”


“Not knowing could be bad,” Sasuke said as he ran his fingers through his hair, which only did more to make the back end look spikier than ever. “It took us only two days to make it here, so they should be in Japan by now. Nothing in the papers here talk about any developments back home and the news on T.V. don’t tell us much either.”


Jae shrugged again and looked apologetic. He said something in Korean that I didn’t quite catch, but I think he was apologizing again. Sasuke responded back in the native tongue; his grasp of the language almost effortless. Whatever he said brought a smile of relief to the older man’s face.


“I will keep ear and eye open,” he repeated, reverting back to Japanese again for my sake. “And keep you all posted, yes?”


Simultaneously, and not as if we planned it or anything, both Sasuke and I bowed our heads a little and thanked him in Korean. Jae reciprocated the gesture before excusing himself and leaving the two of us alone to our devices.


Man, I am beat...and still worried...


“What did you tell him?” I asked absently as I reached for a pencil that was sharper than the one I had worn out. I dragged Shika’s outline for the East Block and tried to take notes on how to proceed with my next challenge.


“Nothing much,” Sasuke muttered. I could hear him adjusting himself on his chair, the sound of the drawer being opened and the subsequent clatter of the knife being put back in its place. Is it just me or does he sound irritated?


“Didn’t sound like nothing,” I grumbled.


“I just said that he didn’t have to feel too bad about it and he had nothing to apologize for. Happy now?”


Yep. Dude was definitely irritated and it was beginning to rub me the wrong way too. I’m just as stressed out as he is, goddamn it! Does he think he’s the only one wanting to hear news about home? Speaking of which, I was still to make that phone call to Jiraiya, but with my current mindset, the notion of speaking to that guy didn’t really seem all that interesting. Maybe when I was through with this damn thing, I could finally find the time to really talk to him.


Until then...

“I hate this fucking place,” I muttered before I could control myself. I glared at the drawing of the infamous East Block and felt the familiar chill sear down my spine as I noticed Shikamaru had gotten as far as the lowest levels. I could smell that fat bastard; could smell that hot oil that coated his skin, hear his heavy panting...feel his hot, fetid breath all over me...




I suddenly felt like taking the mother of all showers.


“Naruto?” came the tentative call of my name that seemed to come from a thousand miles away.


I squeezed my eyes shut and took a deep breath. “I’m okay,” I think I replied and forced my lashes open. “Just...thought of something disgusting that’s all.”


I sighed inwardly and swallowed; forcing myself to finish this tonight, even if it killed me.




“Huh?” I asked with slight impatience at the hesitant mumble from my companion. I threw him a wary glance, noticing that his head was slightly bowed and he seemed to be struggling with something. His hands had formed tight fists and it was only a matter of time before the barely audible snap of the pencil in his grip signified that he was really tensed up. What was his problem now?


“” He took a deep breath, closed his eyes and then lifted his lashes to give me a look that I swear had my stomach dropping with an anxiousness that I usually associated with feeling nervous or excited about something.


“I just wanted to say that...that..thank you,” he finally ground out with an effort.


Thank you? Thank you for what?


“I know this must be difficult for you,” Sasuke continued in that same strained voice. “And you didn’t have to help this, so...I really appreciate it. That’s all I wanted to say.”


He was red in the face now, and was just about to turn around to face his work again, when I stopped him with my next words.


“I wanted to burn the place to the ground.”


His reaction was priceless, and it brought a bittersweet smile to my face. Still, I kept his shocked gaze prisoner and continued my confession.


“That’s why I know these locations so damn well.” I tapped the pages of paper. “For hours, days, weeks, I studied every single place and kept it to memory. I drew up my own blueprint and swore I’d start up a fire to destroy every fucking inch of your precious home. Your brother and his organization had the same idea and didn’t exactly execute it as planned...or maybe it was meant to be that way, but I didn’t care. Byaku-Shinkyou deserved to be razed to the ground. To me, it’s nothing more than an inky abyss of suffering, death, hatred and lies.” I smiled again. “Still want to thank me for helping out?”


He opened his mouth, but nothing came out. I had hurt the guy, I could tell, but that was the truth, wasn’t it? Even he must know what his home had become under Snake Dude. Why else would he be going back to take out the guy?


“I’m not sitting here blaming you for everything,” I continued with a heavy sigh. I rubbed the back of my neck and leaned against the wall in weariness. “But you were there for most of it...and took part in most of what happened, so you must be living with that guilt every fucking day. I know I would. I couldn’t live with myself if I knew I was the one responsible for so many unnecessary deaths and sentencing anyone who didn’t look ‘right’ to me to Gudan.” From beneath hooded lashes, I watched him carefully. He looked pale and conflicted; as if not sure if to feel upset or beat me senseless. I had a feeling he was close to leaning to the latter option.


“Did you enjoy it?” I asked bluntly.


“What?” came the hoarse whisper of disbelief. He couldn’t believe I was asking him something like this probably.


“I asked if you enjoyed having so much power in your grasp. I’m sure you did. You liked the feeling of being in charge and holding the lives of others in your hands, didn’t you?”


He shook his head and spun around. “I’m not dealing with this right now. We’ve got work to do -”


“Guess I got my answer there.”


“Do not go about assuming anything!” he roared and spun back to face me. He slammed his hand on the desk, sending some of his writing materials flying. “You have no idea the pressure I was under on a constant basis! You have no fucking clue of what it’s like working under a man like Orochimaru; how powerless you feel even when you think you’ve got everything under control! I might have been in control, but I hated every fucking second of it! I despised what I was and what I had become!”


Whoa. I definitely wasn’t expecting that outburst.


He lowered his head and took a deep breath to compose himself, but as if the craziness wasn’t enough for one evening, he began to chuckle...and it soon became full-blown hysterical laughter which really had me worried about his sanity.


“Incredible,” he gasped between cackles. “This is the first time I’ve admitted this anyone. For years, I kept this self-loathing within and’s finally out there. Hurray for epiphanies! I really am despicable, aren’t I?”


I gave a wary smile. “You’re the worst, that’s for sure.”


He smirked and reduced the maniacal laughter to a snort. “Thank you.”


“Well, take heart,” I said with forced cheerfulness. I pushed myself away from the wall and dragged my drawings closer to me again. “At least Karin wouldn’t mind living with a psycho like  you.”


I could literally ‘feel’ his confusion from here.


“What are you talking about?”


I gave him a playful wink though I felt sick to my stomach for some reason. “You and Karin are getting pretty hot and heavy after all. Lucky you. Damn...I just realized that when you hook up with Karin, and Shika ends up with Temari, I’ll be the only single dude here. Sheesh. Just my luck. If only Haku was a girl,” I muttered absently beneath my breath. “There might be some hope there...”




I shrugged. “You’ve gotta admit that  your servant could fool the straightest of guys with the way he looks and acts sometimes.” I smiled wistfully. “He’s like...really awesome, if you know what I mean.”


“I...I see...”


I looked up sharply at the change of tone in his voice, but he wasn’t looking at me. He had turned back to his blueprints. Still, there was no mistaking the tension in his shoulders. Did the guy ever relax?


“So if he was a girl, you’d be with him?” came the low question.


“No doubt. I like the guy,” I replied absently. Now, if I recall correctly, there was a door here leading to the communal bathroom for all the sinners...


“You’re attracted to him?”


“...well if he was a girl...” I muttered and began drawing.


“What’s the difference?” came the snapped question.


The hell? What is this? An interrogation?


“The difference is that he’s not a she!” I snapped back in growing annoyance.


“But you’re still attracted to him.”




“Just like you were attracted to me on the bus? Just like you ‘crushed’ on me in the bus?!”


I could feel my entire being burning with embarrassment at what he was implying. “Look, that was...”


Was what? Different? How? They were both guys and I had found myself wanting to be with, that’s wrong. I thought Sasuke was a girl and Haku did look like a girl so...shit. I’m so confusing myself here, goddamn it! I am supposed to be drawing up rooms and not having to worry about whether or not I wanted to hook up with a guy! Why wouldn’t he just shut the fuck up and leave me alone?


I was just about to tell him that, when he glanced over his shoulder with a smirk that seemed to say so much. “You really don’t know what you want, do you, Naruto?”


What the hell is that supposed to mean?


“Fuck you,” I growled back, just as a light knock on the door signaled the appearance of my lifesaver.


God bless you, Shikamaru. Come in quick before I really kill this guy.


 However, it was the pensive expression on his visage that had both Sasuke and I sitting up with concern. It was rare for the guy to look this way, and it promptly sent my heart jackhammering within my chest.


Something was definitely up. Was it his girlfriend? Had something happened to her? Couldn’t she make it after all?


“Shika?” I asked warily. “What’s the matter, man? What’s wrong?”


He looked at me with haunted eyes, and in a voice that was barely audible, he said five words that sent a chill down my spine.


“The Akatsuki base was bombed.”




Chapter 25

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