Chapter 23

“Hey, have you seen Sakura lately?” Naruto glanced around their old training grounds, looking for any sign of pink hair peeking out from the scattered tree stumps that stood in the centre of the forest clearing. “I haven’t seen her at all since… you know.”

With one month left to go before the start of the Chūnin exams, and still lacking a decisive answer from Sakura, Kakashi had decided that they might as well take the time to practice so as to leave their options open. Naruto had to admit that this made a certain amount of sense, and yet he could not help but feel that some kind of trick was being played – as if the act of preparation itself would make the coming event more likely. Like a slowly building avalanche, each rolling boulder dragged others along in its wake and added to the growing cascade without taking any conscious part in the decision. And if stones could think, Naruto wondered if perhaps they too would come up with excellent reasons for doing the seemingly senseless things they did.

“She’ll join us,” Sasuke said, his eyes closed in reflection as he rested against one of the many trees surrounding the forest glade. “She’ll be here soon.”

Naruto was just about to ask him how he could possibly know that, when Sakura emerged from the treeline and calmly walked up to them. She leaned back against the tree besides Naruto like it was the most natural thing in the world.

“Sakura-chan?” He eyed her anxiously, looking for any sign that she was still upset. “Are you okay?”

There was an odd gleam in her eyes that made him feel distinctly uncomfortable when it turned his way. “I’m fine, Naruto. I’ve decided that I will join you for the chūnin exams after all.”

“Oh, that’s good,” said Naruto, unsure what to make of this new development. “Me too.”

It did not take much longer for their teacher to show up after that. Kakashi body-flickered into existence upon the nearest tree stump, only a faint trail of displaced air betraying the route he had taken.

“Hey kids, good to see you’re all here early.” He nodded towards Sakura, not seeming surprised to see her in the slightest. “I’ve been preparing your training schedules these past few days, and after thinking about it long and hard I decided that the best way to prepare you all is to teach you the ancient and most noble art of genjutsu.”

“We already know how to do that,” Sakura said, not rising to the bait. “You trained us just before our mission in Waves.”

“Did I?” Kakashi scratched his masked chin, and looked blandly off into the distance. “Huh. I suppose what I really meant is that I would teach you, uh, elemental techniques? They’re as good as any, I guess.”

Sasuke glared at him, his annoyance contrasting sharply with Sakura’s composure. “Mastering the Grand fireball technique was an integral part of the Uchiha rite of passage, as you’re perfectly well aware.”

“Ah yes, I suppose it is.” Kakashi’s one eye turned more serious now, as he hopped off his log and walked up to the three of them. “Well, since you’re all such well-prepared and talented little genin, why don’t we try a little test to see how much you’ve learned? Let’s do one of those simulations you seem to like so much.” His head snapped to Naruto, causing him to jump. “Naruto! You’re advancing down a corridor when an enemy ninja appears from the shadows and hurls a volley of needles at you. What do you do?”

Naruto flinched, remembering Haku. “I grab my scroll and unseal my metal shell to-”

“Too late, you’re dead.” Kakashi’s head swivelled to face Sasuke. “The ninja forms a hand sign and sends a torrent of water rushing at you. What do you do?”

“I activate my Sharingan and leap away,” Sasuke said instantly. “Then I draw my sword and-”

“There is not enough room in the corridor to dodge; the water crashes into you and tosses you aside like a ragdoll.” He turned and advanced menacingly towards Sakura, the air thickening with unreleased power. “Sakura, the ninja turns towards you and forms the tiger seal. What do you do?”

“I run and hide behind Sasuke!” She flinched even as she spoke the words, and her eyes darted to Kakashi’s and Sasuke’s in mortified horror, clearly expecting them to start berating her. Sure enough, Kakashi’s one eye narrowed in an expression of purest disdain, and then… smiled.

“Your answer is quite correct. In an ambush scenario facing an enemy with unknown abilities, there is no time to contemplate the situation or come up with a grand strategy – the only option you have is to resort to the basic, pre-planned team arrangements that you trained until you can recite them in your sleep. In this case, for the support ninja to assume formation behind the front-line fighters is precisely the sort of thing that should be second nature by now, and in addition to this you perfectly analysed that the ninja’s fire technique would be countered by Sasuke’s own. Very nicely done.”

Sasuke stared at her with an unreadable expression and she flinched once more under his gaze, clearly wishing that their teacher had praised her a little less glowingly.

“But that’s not fair,” said Naruto, realizing how childish he sounded yet continuing anyway. “The simulations we ran did take those things into account – Naruko didn’t exactly go easy on us, you know!”

(He had tried to get back at her for the time when she left him to explain things to Kakashi, but this plan had met with the slight difficulty of having to recreate her first, at which point she always saw it coming. He consoled himself with the fact that he was at least being outsmarted by someone who was his match in terms of both brains and beauty.)

“There is a difference between being harsh and being realistic,” said Kakashi. “Acting like the world is dark and full of enemies waiting around every corner might make you seem wise and world-weary to a preteen academy student, but it will do nothing to prepare you for bright and blinding reality. Naruto, in your only dangerous mission so far you went up against a foe who did not actually intend to kill you. You can never expect that scenario to arise again, do you understand? Realistically, nine out of ten times missions will go off without a hitch, and the results of the last one will depend on how fast you can run.”

Naruto stared at the leaf-littered forest ground, unable to find a reply to that.

“Well,” said Kakashi, more mildly now, “I’ll admit that you’re better equipped to pull of clever strategies than almost anybody else, considering your mastery of shadow clones and your enormous chakra reserves that let you get away with otherwise fatal mistakes. Still, that kind of excess cleverness is going to get you killed one day if you don’t watch out.” He kneeled down and took a scroll from his pouch, spreading it out over the grass and pushing aside leaves with a gust of chakra as he did so.

Sakura crouched down next to it, arms clutched around her knees as she did whenever she was truly enraptured. “I’ve seen this before… this is from the Second Hokage’s treatise on combat tactics, isn’t it?”

Kakashi smiled at her, though it seemed a little morose. “That’s right. I figured that if you’re going to practice combat simulations, you should at least learn the theory behind it.” He pointed at the text running down the right side of the scroll, and Naruto kneeled down on the grass next to Sakura and Sasuke so he could better see what was written there. “Dodge, Block, Evade, Charm and Hide.” Kakashi’s finger moved to the left side of the scroll, which mirrored the text on the right. “Area, Pierce, Range, Flare and Seek. For every method of defence there exists a perfect counter: Some attacks can’t be dodged, some can’t be blocked, and some enemies can find you even if you’re hiding deep below ground.”

With a start Naruto realized what he was looking at: It was a diagram, a closed loop of techniques that each defeated the next and was countered by the one before that. Piercing attacks smash through blocks which in turn defend against large-scale attacks that cannot be dodged… It was all too elegant to be entirely accurate, and yet he could see how you could model a ninja’s abilities completely this way.

“I see,” said Sasuke. “So, the purpose of the fireball technique is not to kill your opponent, but to force them to block or evade the attack, which then opens them up to any technique marked as having range or piercing ability. In fact, you could say that the measure of a ninja’s power lies in the versatility of their skillset, multiplied by their ability to react instantly to the enemy and counter their techniques.”

“Exactly.” Kakashi’s finger drifted to the top of the scroll, and then to the bottom. “Your other abilities work exactly the same way: If you have more speed than the enemy you can dictate the terms of the battle, and if you have more stamina you can force them to come to you. Note that these measures are purely relative: If your opponent is even slightly faster than you, then you must not try to run away from them. Also, if they have more stamina than you they will catch you regardless – it’ll just take a little longer. And of course, it’s only the speed and stamina of your slowest comrade that really matters…”

Naruto stared hard at the scroll, the endless columns of kanji dancing and blurring before his eyes. He had been taught the basics of this back at the academy, he was sure of it, but for once the others were passing up the opportunity to scold him for failing to pay attention way back then. He supposed Sakura’s ninja rules would have had something to say about attempting to carry an old civilian around while fleeing – and yet, even if he could, he doubted he would have acted any differently this time around.

A single written word stood out amidst the field of black scribbles. “What does forbidden stand for?”

“Ah,” said Kakashi. “Well. As you know, there are certain ninjas who possess unique powers for which there might not exist any counter at all. In a fight between two skilled jōnin who have mastered all of the basics, what truly sets them apart are their clan techniques and bloodline abilities. There frankly is no anticipating such unfortunate events as the sky falling apart or a pit of shades opening up beneath your feet to swallow you whole, and so the only counter to such forbidden abilities is knowledge.” As he indicated the two words in the centre of the scroll, his one eye flickered ever so briefly over to Sasuke.

Naruto rolled his eyes. “And not only do these magnificent glowing red eyes grant the ability to cast genjutsu and see the colour of chakra, but I bet you don’t even need to turn on a light to read a book or find your keys in the middle of the night! Truly, we are as naught before their magnificence.”

Sakura shot an exasperated look at him, but Kakashi smiled in a way that seemed at least a little more genuine than before. “Strictly speaking, Naruto, your Shadow Clone technique is also considered forbidden, and might just prove enough to counter the secret techniques of even jōnin-ranked ninjas.” He shrugged. “Well. You three don’t need to worry about that sort of thing just yet, however.”

After that reassuring statement, Kakashi handed them each a piece of chakra-infused paper, meant to reveal to them their own chakra nature. Sakura seemed quite pleased to see her paper grow soggy with water, and there was a brief moment of surprise when Sasuke’s crumpled from static electricity. Naruto’s however merely split clean down the middle, with so little fanfare that for a moment he thought he had just torn it by accident.

“Wind chakra is quite rare you know,” Sakura said, chiding him in advance of any complaints he might have about it. “You can use it to create invisible blades of wind that can cut through solid rock. That’s ranged, piercing and hidden aspects all tied together in a single attack.”

“I guess.” Naruto had to admit that that did sound quite powerful, and yet… “Isn’t there something else I can learn, that maybe gives me enhanced mobility or something?” Haku had the ability to teleport: Instant travel and communication, and he used it to kill people. He could have helped to save the world… “You said that earth is the most common element type, right? What if I learned that instead?”

Kakashi tapped his mask thoughtfully. “It’s far more difficult to learn a secondary element, but I’ll admit that I wouldn’t be able to teach you Wind regardless, as it’s my weakest element. I suppose I could take some time out of my busy schedule to teach you Hiding like a Mole and Earthen Wall… saves me from having to call in a favour from Asuma, at least.”

Naruto nodded, resolute. This was clearly one of those crucial, life-transforming decisions that would determine the entire future of his ninja career. Making the wrong choice now could spell victory or defeat later down the line, but how could he ever know for certain if the decision he was about to make was one he would come to regret for the rest of his life, however few or many years that would be?

Sasuke rolled his eyes. “Just use the shadow clone technique to learn both at the same time, you dolt.”

“Hey, that’s not a bad idea,” Naruto said, grinning to let him know he had already figured that out himself. “I guess you’re not as dumb as you look, wonder boy.”

After that Kakashi handed each of them a technique scroll to study, and Sakura and Sasuke quickly engrossed themselves in the contents. Still, no matter how hard he tried to focus, Naruto could not help but stare at the paper that had been split in twain, the two halves of it lying discarded on the grass.

I wonder…

-o-

By the time the sun reached the top of the sky, Kakashi had long vanished and left the three genin to continue training by themselves. After several long hours of staring at scrolls and attempting to create elemental chakra by clasping their hands together and focussing really hard, Sasuke had finally called it a day, declaring that they might as well practice on their own time if their teacher was not going to be of any use to them anyway. And so it was that Naruto and Sakura found themselves wondering through the busy streets of Konoha in search of a place to get lunch before they went back to training.

(It was not strictly speaking slacking off, Naruto supposed, seeing how several of his shadow clones were training with his new wind-technique teacher Sarutobi Asuma even as they spoke. The man actually turned out to be quite congenial, assuming one was wise enough not to ask ill-conceived questions such as “hey isn’t that also the Third’s surname?” and “How come I never see you guys together?”)

“I think I’ll focus on learning the Water Whip technique,” Sakura mused, clearly still running jutsu-formulas through her head as they walked. “It has a low chakra cost, which is perfect for me given my small reserves, and it’s nonlethal which should be ideally suited to the Chūnin Exams.”

“I don’t know if the exams really are going to be all that non-lethal, Sakura-chan,” he said carefully. He still had not mustered up the courage to ask her what caused her to change her mind about joining, after seeming so dead-set against it earlier. “Uh, then again, it’s probably not a good idea to learn techniques that you’re not actually willing to use, so I guess nonlethal is fine. Good thinking, Sakura-chan.”

She stopped. “Listen, Naruto. I need to apologize to you: I’ve been acting out on you, venting my frustrations at you just because it was convenient and you were too kind-hearted to ever complain about it.” She grimaced, clearly finding it hard to continue. “You’ve been such a good friend to me all these years, and I never – I never even got the chance to, before… I completely took you for granted.”

Naruto blinked. “Ah… don’t worry about it?”

Sakura looked about to say something else, but in that moment she spotted a girl on the opposite side of the street, and she cursed under her breath. Naruto recognized the newcomer as the blond heir of the Yamanake clan, and the daughter of the mysterious man who had been there after the events with Mizuki-sensei in the forest. “Oh crap,” she breathed. “It’s Ino! We need to hide.”

“Wait, from one of our former classmates? Why?”

“It’s Ino,” she said, as though that explained everything. She darted to the nearest shopping stall and ducked her head low. “Quick, pretend you’re browsing for wares. Do you think she noticed me?”

Naruto gave this question all the consideration it deserved. “Sakura-chan, your hair is pink.”

Sure enough, a round smiling face with a blond ponytail soon popped up next to Sakura, even as an overly familiar arm draped itself around her shoulders. “Why, if it isn’t my favourite forehead-girl! Where’ve you been? Doing boring D-ranks, I bet. Do you know what I have been doing?” The girl flashed an even broader grin. “That’s right, a mission! C-rank. Escort. And guess just who I’ve been escorting?”

Sakura disentangled herself and reclaimed her personal space in a smooth cat-like motion that must have taken years of special training to pull off. “Let me guess, Ino-pig: A creepy old man with a large wart on his nose and an inappropriate interest in overly young blond girls?

Ino wrinkled her nose, but the smile in her eyes remained. “Bah, no, you’re not even trying.” She sighed theatrically, but then her smile reappeared again – her expressions were shifting so rapidly it was making Naruto cross-eyed. “No, it was a prince, from the land of Tea! That’s right! I got to escort an actual prince! They chose my team specifically because of my clan’s special diplomatic training. We got to have royal tea-ceremonies and everything. I bet you’re real jealous now, huh?”

Sakura crossed her arms defiantly. “Was it an old prince?”

“No! Well, maybe a little bit. But he was so charming! Not quite as handsome as our Sasuke-kun of course, but he really knew how to treat a girl, unlike some boys in Konoha I could mention, like Kiba.”

Sakura smiled. “So I was two-third’s right, then.”

“We were on a mission too,” Naruto said. “There weren’t any charming princes in it though. Well, I mean there was this one girl who I thought was pretty, only I think she turned out to be a guy? And then, he kinda stabbed me and everyone died except for the people we were actually supposed to kill.”

Ino stared at him in surprise, as though realizing for the first time he was there. “Oh wow, that sounds almost interesting. Was he a good kisser, at least?”

It took Naruto a second to find an appropriate reply to this, which was clearly too long a time to wait for Ino as her hand flew towards her forehead: “Oh wow, I totally forgot what I wanted to tell you! Did you hear the news?” She was looking at Sakura again. “There was a revolution in the Land of Water! That’s right, they have a new Kage now. And you’ll never guess who they say was leading the final assault!”

Ino was looking at Sakura expectantly, but her grin slowly faded as she realized Sakura was looking straight past her. Naruto and Ino both turned to follow her gaze, and found Sasuke standing right behind them, slouching and with both hands in his pockets as was his habit. “Hey Ino, it’s been a while,” he said, favouring the noble girl with a measured gaze. “So, who was it?”

“Ah,” said Ino, faltering. “That is… I mean, I wasn’t…”

Sasuke’s expression slowly shifted: First, his eyebrows creased in confusion, as though he were trying to figure out a particularly vexing puzzle. Then his eyes and mouth tightened as the air seemed to grow thicker and heavier around him. “Well, what are you waiting for? Tell me.” He took a step towards Ino, who staggered back against the wall with a small gasp. He slammed one arm against the wall next to her head, as though to prevent her from escaping, and brought his face close to hers until they almost touched. “Say his name!”

“Sasuke!” Sakura pulled him back with one arm, though it clearly cost her all her strength to do so. “Give her some space, for goodness sake – she can barely breathe like this!”

Sasuke looked like he wanted to say something cutting in reply, but stopped when Ino finally spoke up. “Uchiha,” she said haltingly, as she steadied herself against the wall. “It was Uchiha, Itachi…”

All colour vanished from Sasuke’s face on the instant, but the pressure in the air redoubled. Sakura tried to put a hand on his shoulder, but he brushed her off and strode away without a single word. “Sasuke-kun!” She cried out, as she ran after him. “Wait, we were still going to train together, remember? Wait, Sasuke-kun, hold-up!”

Naruto stared after them, uncertain as to what he was supposed to think or feel or do. He turned to the girl besides him, who was still leaning back against the wall and trying to catch her breath.

“I really don’t get what you girls see in that guy,” Naruto said after a while. “I mean, he’s a total jerk.”

“To be honest, I kind of forgot,” she said, her face flushed scarlet. “But now, I think I remember.”

-o-

Sakura had followed Sasuke all the way back to his family’s compound. Upon arrival he declared that since she was there anyway, they might as well practice their taijutsu by sparring together. The obvious reason for this was left unsaid, and Sakura accepted his offer without complaint, grateful for the chance to finally spend some time with him alone. And if his kicks and punches landed a little harder during that session than they usually did, well, she would worry about the bruises in the morning.

After losing yet another round to him, she finally tapped out, her body thoroughly spent yet feeling far from discouraged. She smiled sweetly at him: “Would you say that I’m improving, Sasuke-kun?”

“I suppose you’re not getting any worse,” he agreed reluctantly.

As they packed up their training equipment she moved with deliberate slowness, so that by the time they were done, it was already late in the evening. “Is it that late? The sun is about to set,” she noted with feigned surprise.

He shrugged. “I’m sure it will rise again tomorrow.”

“I seem to have forgotten my towel,” she said, pursing her lips as she peered into her bag. “Maybe I could borrow one from your home,” she suggested innocently. “It wouldn’t take too long.”

He gave her a look that said he knew exactly what she was playing at, and for a moment she was sure he would refuse her, but then he turned and shrugged. “If you like.”

His family home was a traditional house, built during the founding of the Leaf, though mansion might have been the better word for it. The two of them passed under the stone arch leading into the garden, and travelled the cobblestone path to the front gate in silence. Sakura knew from experience that trying to fill the quiet did not work with Sasuke. Sometimes it was better to say nothing, she reminded herself, though it was getting harder and harder to keep thinking that.

“Maybe not so much where you or Naruto are concerned,” Kakashi had admitted, his words resounding hollowly in her ears. “But in general terms, yes: I promise you that that is precisely how he thinks.”

As they entered the living room, she took a moment to absorb its contents. The house was overflowing with memorabilia, every bookcase and flat surface filled with ancient scrolls and clocks and family pictures, each given their own personal place of honour and kept in perfect condition. Some of the portraits and paintings had a single person removed from them, their face cut out of the centre with uncharacteristic sloppiness. The clocks were the kind with large swinging pendulums, ticking away the seconds as though they were personally responsible for the passing of time, with a swishing sound that cut through the silence like a shinigami’s scythe. The overall impression was that of someone trying to fit the entirety of their clan’s history into a single room, unable or unwilling to part with any of it, which she thought could not possibly be healthy. But she could not say that to him either.

They went up the stairs to the second floor, and Sasuke immediately tossed her a towel which she only barely managed to catch. She dried herself off as best she could without taking off any of her sweaty clothes; choosing to clean only her hair and exposed skin, for all that he was looking the other way.

Seeking an innocuous subject to talk about, her eye fell on an antique wooden instrument lying on the dresser, placed perfectly parallel to the window still. “I didn’t know you played the flute.”

“I don’t.” Sasuke stared down at the instrument, his expression unreadable. “Father used to make us practice the flute every day. He said that as heirs to Konoha’s most noble clan, we should learn to play an instrument. He said it was a matter of clan pride, but it seems like such a waste of time now. Spending all that effort on trying to look good in front of others, when I could have trained to become stronger…”

She decided not to contradict him on that point. “Could you play a song for me?”

For a moment he said nothing, but then he relented with a shrug. He sat down on one of the chairs in front of his open balcony, and she seated herself as close to him as she dared. He took a moment to practice his finger motions and clean the flute’s mouth, and then he started playing. It was a simple medley, with a gentle tempo that gave off a profound sense of sadness and loss. It brought her in mind of the time when she first befriended Ino: Being the only girl in their year without a clan, Sakura had been shy and without friends until Ino made it her personal mission to fix all of that. They had grown apart as they grew older, and had never really spoken again after being sorted into separate teams, though now she could not quite remember why. It all seemed so pointless and wasteful to her now.

By the time he finished playing there were tears forming in her eyes. “It’s beautiful,” she whispered.

“It’s awful,” he said. “I haven’t been practicing, and I’m missing notes. That man never missed a note, not even when he was too busy being the youngest Anbu captain ever to practice.”

“Well,” she said, “I thought it sounded nice.”

“But it doesn’t matter what you think, now does it? A false note is still a false note.” He flung his flute over the railing, sending it off into the foliage below where it disappeared from sight.

Sakura recoiled, as much by the harshness in his voice as by the rough treatment of such a beautiful instrument. “What’s the matter with you? I was only trying to be nice!”

“What’s the matter with me?” He turned to regard her coolly, a strange expression in his gleaming black eyes. “Good question. Sakura, you want to go out with me, right? That’s why you’ve been asking me to help you train, as a flimsy pretext?”

She nodded, blushing furiously. This was the moment he was going to shoot her down, she knew, but there was no avoiding it now.

“Then, maybe you can tell me: Why are girls interested in me? I have never shown any interest in them, I barely even bother to disguise my contempt for them half the time, but if anything it only seems to encourage them. I’m cold and distant and I have no redeeming qualities, so what do you all want from me?”

That had not been what Sakura was expecting. “That’s not true, you have many qualities,” she said carefully. “I mean, you’re smart, you’re talented, and you have, well I mean, you have good looks…”

“I meant qualities that aren’t reducible to being an Uchiha,” he said bitterly. “What do I have that would set me apart from anyone else in my clan? Or are you saying that I’m the only Uchiha who still remains, and that’s all there is to it?”

“No, not at all,” she said hastily. “There’s, ah, that’s to say, you’re, well…” Darn it Sakura, think of something that doesn’t sound stupid and shallow! “…you can be nice, well not always, but you can be a good friend when you feel like it…”

“Nice,” Sasuke said flatly. “Naruto is nice, but I don’t see you being interested in him.”

She hesitated. “Well, Naruto isn’t… I mean, he doesn’t have… I guess he’s just not my type, you know? Oh, I don’t know Sasuke, can you ever really explain something like who we’re attracted to? Humans are complicated creatures, there isn’t ever going to be a simple answer to a question like that.”

He nodded absentmindedly. “I’ve read all the scrolls and books I could find, to help me try and understand why people do the things they do. I can explain some things after the fact, but I still don’t feel like I could have predicted any of it. If all the girls in our class had fallen for Naruto instead, would I be more or less confused than I am now? I don’t know. Even after all this time, I still don’t feel like I understand anything.”

Sakura tried to picture that, all the girls in their class crushing on Naruto and forming his own personal harem, but her imagination failed her: It was simply too ridiculous a notion. “I don’t think… I think Naruto is maybe a little too childish for that to ever happen. Girls generally like someone who is strong, independent, who they can rely on…” But still a little vulnerable inside, so he can be nurtured when he’s weak. She put a finger to her lips as she considered the matter. “And, it’s not really fair, but there’s something about mystery that’s very appealing. Someone like Naruto is so easy to read that he’s just less interesting than someone with hidden depths like you. Kind of like the way a package you get to unwrap is more enticing than the same gift when it’s given plainly for everyone to see.”

He scoffed loudly. “That’s right, what you’re really interested in is unwrapping my package.”

She struck him before she even knew what she was doing, and the sound of her slap resounded through the still night. She instantly withdrew her hand, horrified upon seeing the red handprint she left behind on his smooth pale skin. “I’m – I’m so sorry,” she said falteringly. “I didn’t, I didn’t mean to…” She stopped when she saw his empty expression.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said flatly. “I said something to hurt you, and so you wanted to hurt me back. You just used your hand because you couldn’t think of words to do the same. Really, for a ninja you’re not very good at hurting people, Sakura.”

For a moment she was too flabbergasted to say anything, but then the words poured forth like molten iron from a forge. “Right, because you don’t care what anyone else thinks about you, do you, Sasuke? No, for a moment there I forgot that you’re completely indifferent to the world around you. Tell me, are you planning to be alone forever? Do you prefer it that way, or are you actually stupid enough to believe that if you allow yourself a moment of happiness you won’t be strong enough to kill Itachi? Because you’re even more oblivious than Naruto, if that’s the case!”

For the first time that day, for the first time she could remember since they were alone in the house of dying villagers amongst the ice and the fire, something awakened in those eyes: A smouldering fury that would have frightened her into silence, if she did not have her own fury to counter it. “How dare–”

“Because that’s what this is really about, isn’t it? Don’t think for a moment you were going to slip that one past me – I’m not half as stupid as you seem to think. You want to understand why Itachi did what he did? You want to know whether you’re like him or not? Then tell me about it, and ask me directly, instead of dancing around the issue and talking about my feelings as though you actually cared!”

For once Sasuke seemed to be lost for words, his well run dry of biting comments and clever comebacks. “That’s, that is none of your business! You know nothing about my clan, and you have no idea what even happened back then. You have no right to talk about any of that!”

“No, of course I don’t know what happened,” she shot back, “because you never talk about it! You close yourself off completely, even to your own team. People you depend on, and whose lives depend on you. You’re right: I don’t know what you’re thinking, I have no idea what’s really going on when you’re hurt or what I should do about it, but it’s sure as heck not going to get any better by itself! So, let me guess – Your brother killed your family, and your response is to dedicate your life to him? What kind of revenge is that supposed to be? Are you planning to give him a memorial and bury yourself next to him as well?”

Sasuke rose up in a flash, his body moving faster than her eyes could follow, and suddenly his hand was wrapped around her neck. He pushed her back against the balustrade with merciless strength, a sudden wind whipping her hair across her face as she struggled for balance, and for a brief mad moment she thought he would throw her off the balcony – mad indeed, for you did not let go off a ninja’s neck if you wanted to kill them, and in any case a fall from that height would not seriously injure her.

Sasuke had activated his Sharingan, and his crimson eyes were boring directly into hers. She stared back defiantly, ignoring the pain from where his fingers dug into her skin. There was a long moment of silence, and then at last he unclenched his hand, relaxing his fingers one by one as if it cost him all the willpower in the world to do so. Finally his Sharingan receded, and he lowered his gaze. “I’m… I’m sorry.”

“…doesn’t matter.” She massaged her neck, managing a wan smile despite the pain. “After all, I said something to hurt you first, and really – for a ninja you’re not very good at hurting people, Sasuke.”

He stared at her with a strange, unreadable expression on his face. Even as she wondered what he must be thinking, a distant part of her tried to recall if she had ever heard him apologize for anything before.

“I am not going to give up on my vengeance,” he said at last. “I will kill that man. It’s the only thing left to me that truly matters anymore. If you’re planning to talk me out of that, you can forget it.”

“That’s fine,” she said, though it wasn’t, not really. “If we can talk about it at all, that’s good enough for me.”

He did not say anything else, however, but merely stared out of the veranda and cast his gaze across the forest roof of Konoha. By now the sun had well and truly set, and the moon was starting its long journey across the sky, casting a pale light over the vast treeline. When a brisk wind struck up and rushed through the leaves it set the shadows dancing and twisting amongst the foliage like a congregation of nocturnal spirits. After a while she could no longer tell the nightlife and the shadows apart, their movements intersecting as if they were mingling and playing with one another.

“I suppose I’d better go and look for my flute,” he said at last.

“Ah, right.” She sent a furtive glance back towards the apartment. “I’ll go see if I can find a lamp. It’s getting pretty dark, after all…”

“No need,” Sasuke said. When she turned around, she saw that he had his Sharingan activated once more, his face highlighted by a distinctive crimson glow. He was smirking, the characteristic half-smile looking somehow more genuine on him than when he tried to smile in full. “Naruto was right, you know: These eyes really are great for finding things in the dark.”

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