A Single Step Ch 4 – Preview

For Naruto, the days and weeks melted together.

Every morning he would watch Sasuke disappear down the long, damp hall with Kabuto, then trudge off in the opposite direction for solitary training.

Sometimes he would encounter the white-haired medic, busily delivering trays of medicine to and fro down the corridors. With that fawning smile, Kabuto would politely remind him that the door was always open….

“Naruto-kun, a training regimen like Sasuke-kun’s would greatly accelerate your skill—“

Naruto never let him finish. Instead he’d shove past him without a word, leaving Kabuto still smiling under the lamplight.

He wanted no part of Kabuto’s ‘training regimen.’ Pumping drugs into your veins was no training.

Sometimes Orochimaru was with the medic. He was courteous as well, but he never pushed the way Kabuto did. He was more reserved…but always watching.

Naruto couldn’t decide which man he hated more.

If it weren’t for Sasuke, he knew he would never have come here. But lately he had even begun to question that.

It felt like Sasuke didn’t need his help after all. And he didn’t like the way that felt.

Stretching back on his pallet one night, staring up at the chinked stones and moss that made up his world now, Naruto knew something had to give.

He and Sasuke no longer spoke at night. He had nothing to share, and Sasuke was concealing more and more about his days. Naruto didn’t know if it was because Sasuke knew he didn’t approve of the meds…or because he was moving so far ahead in his training. And Naruto just wasn’t.

Naruto grit his teeth. He really didn’t know what the hell he was doing here.

Sasuke scraped the door open, clearly exhausted, and threw himself on his bed with a great sigh. Naruto blew out a low breath and turned on his side to face the wall.

After several minutes of oppressive silence, Sasuke shifted on his bedding and rallied himself to speak instead of passing immediately out.

“H-Hey Naruto?” There was a note of uncertainty in his tired voice. “Are you doing okay? I mean, I know it’s not exactly how we thought it would be, but….”

Naruto shoulder jerked with a half-hearted shrug.

“So I’ve been thinking…these guys I’ve been up against. They’re bigger, stronger than any of the Konoha nins I ever knew—“ Naruto seemed to sink even deeper into the bedding. Sasuke quickly rephrased. “I mean, they’re different from any nins I’ve met. So I don’t have to hold back. I can go as far as I want.”

Sasuke watched Naruto’s unmoving back for a moment before continuing. “And…I was thinking you should be doing that too. Going up against anybody you can. I know you don’t want to take the meds…and you don’t have to,” he added in a rush, “but that doesn’t mean your training should come to a halt.”

Naruto shrugged carelessly again, but something tight in his chest was unwinding at Sasuke’s words. He realized he’d been afraid Sasuke had forgotten about him.

A ragged sigh escaped. “Yeah, I guess,” he said quietly.

“I’ll talk to them in the morning,” Sasuke said firmly. “That taijutsu’s got to be driving you crazy.”

Naruto snorted. Sasuke laughed, clearly relieved to be finally getting some kind of reaction.

“If I’m learning new stuff, you need to be learning new stuff too. We’re still in this together, right?” Sasuke’s coaxing smile colored his voice. “Together, right?”

“Yeah…. Together.” Naruto flopped back on the pallet and dared a glance at Sasuke. In that moment, any distance  in their friendship, real or imagined, faded away. Sasuke smiled — a rare thing, they both knew — and Naruto remembered why he’d left with Sasuke in the first place. They were partners now.

A corner of Naruto’s mouth tugged up. He stretched back on his pallet quickly before his face broke into a high-wattage beam. Sasuke laughed, reading his mind, and bedded down, but Naruto clasped his hands behind his head and grinned up into the darkness.

And wasn’t this proof that they were partners? Knowing what was troubling him and finding a way to fix it? That must be a sign of a true bond between them. Naruto closed his eyes, feeling better than he had in weeks.

The next morning, Sasuke was true to his words. Instead of sitting obediently in the lab chair while Kabuto pulled out the tray of prepared injections, Sasuke remained standing instead.

Orochimaru looked up a chart and tipped his head thoughtfully at Sasuke.

“Something on your mind, Sasuke-kun?”

“Naruto,” he said firmly. “He is unhappy. And his training is insufficient,” he declared.

“Ah,” Orochimaru said with a tight smile and laid the clipboard on the table. “That doesn’t surprise me. I believe he was under Jiraiya’s tutelage for a little while?” Sasuke nodded. Orochimaru’s smile turned to a grimace. “Yes the boy is just like him,” he said with distaste. “Impatient and hard-headed. Only learns through physical means. You two are so very different….” His voice turned silken. “I’m surprised you’re so fond of him, Sasuke-kun….”

Orochimaru let a finger glide down the edge of the table and fixed him with a penetrating gaze.

Sasuke glared thunderously back. “I don’t know what the hell you are talking about, but he’s my teammate, and if you’re not going to help him too, then—”

“Oh don’t worry on that account, Sasuke-kun.” Orochimaru’s coy smile returned. “I told you I understand about Konoha teammates. Jiraiya was very much the same as Naruto. Just as loyal…and just as stubborn.”

Orochimaru crossed the room to a large rack of scrolls. His fingers floated over the alphabetically organized shelves, stopping at the “J,” then pulled out a scroll that was thicker than the rest.

“Kabuto had hoped he would come around,” Orochimaru spoke while perusing the scroll, “accept the enhancements and then be able to spar with you. But I had my doubts.” He smiled once. “Naruto-kun is like Jiraiya after all. And no shortcuts will do….”

He read more, opening the scroll farther. “But I think he will do nicely….” Orochimaru nodded to himself. “Yes, vast reserves of power. Some untapped talents, shall we say….”

Sasuke looked skeptical. “Naruto is very strong, he shouldn’t be put up against just anyone—“

“Oh don’t worry. I think our Naruto-kun will find this one an even match. He’s pleasant enough,” Orochimaru’s eyes glittered, “but he hides a dark secret.”

Sasuke frowned, but kept any reservations to himself. Naruto would just have to withstand whatever Orochimaru had in store for him.

“And now that he’s sufficiently entertained, let’s get back to you Sasuke-kun,” he drawled, holding his arm out for Sasuke to take a seat.

Sasuke slowly did as he was told. Orochimaru passed the scroll back to Kabuto. Kabuto’s eyebrows hitched up., but he nodded approvingly at the choice.

“Oh, and be sure to separate him from Kimmimaro a few hours before they spar.”

“Hai,” Kabuto said, tucking the scroll in his pocket.

Orochimaru smiled down at Sasuke and patted him on the shoulder. “Now then, where were we….”

Kabuto stepped around to Sasuke’s exposed arm and primed the injection. Silver fluids dribbled out the end of the needle.

He smoothed back Sasuke’s pale skin, thumbing down the flesh until he found a fat blue vein, and re-gripped the end of the shot. His silver glasses flashed.

“You’ll feel a slight pinch,” he said with the ghost of a smile. Then he pushed the needle in.

Sasuke grit his teeth, hating Kabuto for his stupid joke. He closed his eyes as the liquid fire burned through his veins.

Orochimaru watched him with hungry interest.

Finished, Kabuto pulled out the needle, turned back to the clipboard and jotted down a few notes. Then he rolled the paper into a scroll and returned it to the empty spot on the shelf marked “S.”