Throughout the wake, Sasuke stood at the back of the viewing room, watching the line of presumed mourners shake hands with the dead boy's estranged family. The rural town where he lived was small in both size and population. Inherently, he understood that at least half of the visitors in attendance had come either out of morbid curiosity or a desire to gossip. Surely everyone in town had read the newspaper reports and obituary about the homosexual 17-year-old bashed in the head by his own father. Glancing at the closed casket, he started to fiddle with a silver chain given to him as a birthday gift some time ago. It was cheap, he knew, and he'd not been especially keen on the idea of a necklace as a gift, but now it seemed one of the most meaningful possessions that he had in this world.
Sasuke closed his eyes, relying on all of his senses and memories to recall the touch, the smell, the taste of his boyfriend's skin. He tried not to think about the odd things Gaara said to him on the phone that last night, the way he hadn't seemed himself, or the uncharacteristic anxiousness. Gaara had never gotten along with his father, who, as far back as Sasuke could remember, had been abusive and an alcoholic. It only became worse after Gaara's father snooped through his room and found certain drawings in a notebook. The next day, his boyfriend had walked into class sporting more than a few bruises, and no matter how much Sasuke tried to convince him, he always refused to report his father to the police.
Only now did he allow himself to consider that Gaara's silence was his way of protecting him from getting involved.
For the two of them, finding ways to meet and be alone together was extremely difficult after that. It's not as if it was the kind of town that would've made it easier on either of them if they came out, and certainly doing it while they were in high school could've proved dangerous for the both of them. At first, Sasuke hadn't given it much thought. What he and Gaara did together - how their relationship evolved from friendship into something more - wasn't anyone else's business. He'd been stupid and naive to think that way, though. That society had moved past all of the narrow-mindedness, homophobia, and bigotry. From the moment he'd read about the gruesome details of Gaara's death, a numbness had settled over him. Gaara's father was put in jail, and, afterward, rumors spread quickly that it was because he'd discovered that his son was gay.
It's not as if Sasuke was immune to what people were saying about Gaara's "lifestyle choice", including his own parents, but a part of him was fearful of showing any kind of reaction. Because of the situation, he had no one to talk to about it, nowhere to go... leaving him incapable of grieving, of defending the very person whom he loved and had grown so close to over the past few years. There was no one who knew about the two of them. Not friends, not family. Gaara had been his only friend, which very well may be why he was alive today - standing uselessly at the back like a shadow, one of only few from his class that had attended the funeral. People he knew from his church passed by, shooting him odd looks that, in his paranoia, he registered as suspicion.
Without so much as a last glance at the casket, Sasuke decided to leave.
A week after Gaara's funeral, Sasuke sat in the pew of the church his family attended every Sunday. Each day since then had seemed to blur together. He didn't eat much and he hadn't really spoken to anyone, but no one even noticed. Of course, none of them had any reason to expect that he, of all people, would've been involved sexually with another boy. Coming from a respectable family - his father was a well-known police officer - no one would've thought that he was the murdered teenager's unknown lover.
For some reason, he started to laugh, but was nudged reproachfully in the side by his father's elbow.
The pastor - a man in his 70's who looked as though the slightest gust of wind could break all the bones in his body - began to talk about the recent loss of the young boy from their tightly-knit community who'd died at the hand of his own father. What should've been a moment of remembrance or sympathy turned into a sermon of intolerance as the pastor, speaking through quivering lips and fists that shook as they rained down on the pulpit, warned his flock that those who strayed from the path of the righteous were doomed to reap the consequence. That while the father had sinned, the son's sin was greater.
The pastor's voice boomed throughout the church, his stern condemnation bouncing off the walls as the large crucifix loomed behind him: "If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death. Their bloodguiltness is upon them."
He struggled desperately to retain a calm exterior so as not to draw attention. His hands began sweating where they lay in his lap. He could only think about Gaara, who had always been someone of exceptional understanding, intellect, and a certain calmness that had made Sasuke feel as if he did have a place he belonged when he'd never, up until then, felt as if he fit in anywhere.
Sasuke had known he was different from a very young age, and maybe what they had wouldn't have lasted forever, but certainly Gaara would always be someone he loved and remembered, someone who had been misunderstood as much as him, someone with great potential whose existence should not have been extinguished so easily or so violently. He began to feel very ashamed of himself, but not because of the pastor's words...
He felt like he should've died on that cold floor alongside his boyfriend.
The guilt and self-loathing bubbled rapidly to the surface, and, almost driven to a convulsion, Sasuke bent over and vomited. Embarrassed, he made an effort to get to his feet, and in his attempt to run to the bathroom, tripped on the prayer bench. Falling to his hands and knees in the center of the aisle, he started throwing up again until, at last, a woman with a wide-brimmed hat came to see if he needed help. Despite her kindness, Sasuke shook the older woman off, wiping his mouth with the sleeve of his sweater.
He lifted his head, looking first at the pastor and then at the crucifix behind, which, to him, only gazed down at the scene and at Sasuke with cold, indifferent eyes.
Three years later
Having come home from college for the holidays, Sasuke was just leaving one of the local bookstores and, once on the sidewalk, found himself admiring the quaint Christmas decorations in the storefront windows. He hadn't been back to town in more than a year, but a tearful phone call from his mother guilted him into returning.
It was only for a week, but being here forced him to recall those bitter feelings from three years ago. Many times he considered cutting ties with his family. He didn't have any friends either. Although he treated both parents as respectfully as he could, he felt nothing but indifference toward them. They did not know him. They hadn't then, and they didn't now. There was no part of his personal life that they could ever truly understand, so he let them live on in ignorance.
It's not as if he'd meant to set out in the direction of the church, but, after hearing whispered conversations at one of the coffee shops, Sasuke learned that the old pastor had passed away about a month ago. He couldn't claim to be sorry for it, and, while he'd never hated going to church as a child, he hadn't stepped foot in one in more than two years. Maybe seeing it one more time would provide some kind of closure for him. College had given him a safe place to come to terms with his sexuality. Though never serious, he'd dated other men, but most of the relationships ultimately crumbled, and he was always reluctant or indifferent about piecing them together again.
When the wind began to pick up, Sasuke pulled up the collar of his jacket as he approached the wrought-iron fence surrounding the churchyard. He noticed a lit sign advertising Christmas services, but then his gaze was drawn to the moving truck parked in front of the church, where two men - both around his age - struggled with a pew they were carrying down the loading ramp. The men began to bicker until the one wearing an orange beanie glanced over his shoulder and saw Sasuke standing there.
"Hey, y'gonna watch us struggle, or do y'think you can give us a hand?"
He could only blink at first, a harsh reply on the tip of his tongue, but when the man's hold on the pew started to slip, he rushed up the ramp to grab the front of it.
"Who the hell moves during this kind of weather?" Sasuke muttered. "The sidewalk is slick in places, too, if you haven't noticed already."
"We appreciate your concern," grunted the young man who, as Sasuke was close enough to observe now, had several pieces of bright blond hair peeking out from beneath his hat.
The blond, who turned out to be spectacularly bossy, directed everyone from that point on as to the best way to get the pew in through the front of the church. Sasuke had his own opinions on the matter, and somehow they ended up compromising on the best way to get the damn thing through the entrance and into the main worship room. When they finally pushed it into place, the other man who'd been helping them disappeared after mumbling something about needing to relieve himself.
That left Sasuke with the blond, who was still fussing over the pew and whether he should move it three inches forward or back or to the left or right. He had no idea why he remained there watching this idiot who kept talking to himself like a crazy person. The moment Sasuke turned to leave, the blond suddenly stopped what he was doing and called to him.
"Hey, where are you goin'? I've got another pew to bring in."
"I'm not sure how that's my problem," he replied.
"Oh, that's a wonderful attitude to have. It's nearly Christmas."
"Not everyone celebrates Christmas in this world, or aren't you aware?"
The stranger raised an eyebrow at his tone, but didn't appear particularly offended or even angry. Instead, he simply stared.
"What?" Sasuke snapped.
"Uh. Nothin', I guess," the man replied, shaking his head. "Sorry... I... heh. Oh, crap." He ripped off his skull cap. "I probably shouldn't be wearin' a hat in a place like this, huh? Anyway. Thanks for your help. I kinda thought... y'know, you were headed this way, so maybe you were a parishioner... and, yeah. Not exactly a great first impression. Sorry again."
Sasuke sighed and, almost longingly, glanced at the exit as he rubbed the back of his head. "Isn't it a bit presumptuous to add pews when the attendance has been going down?"
"Who said it was goin' down?" The blond asked, taking a few steps closer.
Sasuke noticed the disastrous shade of blue that held his gaze. "I might've heard something about it from my mother the other day."
"Your family goes here then? I might know 'em."
"And who are you exactly?"
"Oh, right. I'm Naruto. My dad's the new pastor." He held out his hand.
Sasuke stared at the hand, hesitating briefly before he took it and shook it firmly. "You're the pastor's son?"
"Yep. Don't hold it against me." Naruto laughed at his own joke. "So, do you have a name? I certainly haven't seen you at any services in the past couple of weeks since Dad started."
"No, I... go to college in another state. I'm only home for the holidays."
Naruto nodded. "Cool. Well, are you gonna come to one of the Christmas services? You should totally attend the midnight one. Dad's gonna let me play along as a couple of the kids from Bible School sing some hymns and stuff."
"I don't think so."
"No?" Naruto smiled brightly at him, tilting his head just slightly to the side. "Why's that?"
"I... don't go to church."
Naruto's smile didn't falter. "No worries." He shrugged. "It'd be cool if you did come, though. I'm new here, and we look to be about the same age, so - "
"I'm not interested in making any friends. Not in this town, and nothing you can say is going to get me to come to this church."
Naruto merely nodded, keeping a very open expression that only served to irritate and frustrate him further.
"I apologize if I made you uncomfortable," he said sincerely, though he looked as if he wanted to say more "...Thanks for your help with the pew."
Without a word of parting, Sasuke turned around and, as fast as he could manage, exited the church. He nearly slipped as his foot left the last step. What the hell was it about being in this church that always caused him to feel guilty? Why the hell would he ever go to church again after everything he'd been through?
He'd left town to get away from all of that. Why did he let himself come back here if he was just going to relive all of that pain?
As the snow began to fall harder, Sasuke dared not look up the sky. He dared not believe that if he asked why that his questions would be answered.
It's not as if he'd ever been given any before - about why he'd been born this way, about what happened to Gaara - so why the fuck would he expect any answers be given to him now?
That night, Sasuke lay in bed unable to sleep. His bedroom remained exactly as it had while he was in high school. He wondered if life for him would always be like this. Would he always struggle with the guilt - for being the one who remained alive? For not yet coming out to his parents? For having never spoken out to defend Gaara? He still wore the necklace sometimes. Even when dating other men, Sasuke continued to wear it, maybe to return that same loyalty Gaara had always showed him.
In the later hours, when he finally grew drowsy enough to maybe fall asleep, he thought of the new pastor's son and how different their lives must've been. Naruto had likely never known suffering or loss. He was probably the same as everyone else in that church: judgmental and narrow-minded.
Invite him to church? Yeah, right. He didn't know if he even believed in anything anymore. Everything he'd been taught in church growing up was nothing but lies. There was no compassion, no forgiveness, no understanding. Why had talking to that idiot stirred up all of these old feelings?
Those blue eyes had remained so calm, so still. He didn't come off smug and self-righteous like so many others. He'd seen that look before... the same one that used to reassure him, calm him when he agonized over the helplessness, the confusion, the shame of knowing that he was gay and there was nothing he could do about it, or that life might not ever be easy for him as it would be for others. That he would be treated differently for an aspect of his life that he never would have chosen for himself.
Turning on his side, Sasuke pulled the blankets up tighter to his body and grabbed the extra pillow to cover his face, tears streaking down his cheeks. He felt so alone... he didn't want to feel this way anymore... there was no one around to help him... who could possibly understand this pain?
No one, he thought. Absolutely no one.
During a particularly uncomfortable Christmas Eve dinner his mother burst into tears because he declared he'd rather not attend midnight services with them. Following a stern lecture from his father, Sasuke, reluctantly, went up to his room and got dressed for church.
He picked out a pair of black slacks and a sweater and simply sat on the edge of the bed, toying with his necklace. After being called downstairs, Sasuke put on his coat and met his parents, who were already waiting for him by the door.
A small crowd was forming in the church lobby, and Sasuke thought he would go mad if he didn't escape soon. He decided to head to the bathroom. Every conversation he overheard sounded so phony. While he was washing his hands, the door opened and in came that blond from the other day along with an equally blond toddler.
Surprised, Sasuke glanced at the young boy and then at the pastor's son.
"Oh, hey," he said to Sasuke. "You came."
The little boy tugged at his guardian's pant leg. "I gotta go, Naruto. I gotta go."
"Okay, okay." Naruto offered Sasuke an apologetic smile. "Hey, can you hold on a sec? His parents were too busy to take him to the bathroom, can you believe that? I mean, who wants to sit through a service with wet pants?"
Mostly out of shock, he remained standing there, trying to figure out why he'd thought it odd that Naruto might have children at such a young age. He hadn't noticed a wedding ring the other day and, being a pastor's son, it would've been quite the scandal in a town like this. A few minutes later, after overhearing an interesting conversation about 'aim' taking place in the stall, the two walked out together. Naruto helped the boy with washing his hands.
Sasuke sneered a bit as he stuffed his hands in his pockets. "So, not yours then?"
"This guy?" Naruto tugged at the child's tiny suspender strap and glanced at him in the mirror. "Nah. Kinda looks like me, though, doesn't he? We could be brothers." He picked up the boy and held him in his arms.
"Who's that?" The boy asked, pointing at Sasuke.
He narrowed his eyes at the chubby finger.
"I dunno his name," Naruto answered. "He wouldn't give it to me when I asked."
Naruto hummed at the child. "I'm sure he has his reasons. Sometimes we gotta respect people's privacy."
Sasuke frowned, annoyed he was being talked about as if he wasn't there.
"It's Sasuke," he muttered. "Sasuke Uchiha."
Naruto grinned and shifted the boy to his other arm. "Sasuke," he said. "Yeah, I've talked to your parents a few times. They're pretty nice folks."
Sasuke didn't reply. He was staring at the toddler, who kept wiggling around in Naruto's arms.
"Do you like kids?" Naruto asked.
Naruto barked out a laugh. "Ah, well. They can be a handful, that's for sure, but they're mostly cute. So, um. I guess you'll get to hear me play tonight? I'm sorry you'll have to suffer through my attempt at playing Christmas songs and hymns and all that."
"Yeah. I play the piano. My mom had me learn it from a pretty young age, no matter how many times I tried to get out of practice."
"I see. Is she here tonight?" Sasuke asked.
Naruto bit his lip. "Nah. She died four years ago this February. It's just dad and me."
The boy in Naruto's arms started to struggle, meanwhile, and reached for Sasuke to take him. Because he was distracted thinking about Naruto having lost his mother around the same time that Gaara was killed, he automatically held out his arms and took the child.
Naruto tugged at a piece of the boy's hair fondly. "Do you have any kids?"
"Me?" Sasuke scoffed. "No, hardly."
Naruto shrugged. "I have friends who've had kids at a younger age than me."
"Friends from your youth group, I'm sure?" Sasuke asked sarcastically.
Naruto leaned in as if he was about to tell Sasuke a secret. "I see. You're one of those who expects I'm probably a good person and always on my best behavior 'cause I'm a pastor's kid?"
Sasuke raised a brow. "You're not a good person?"
"I'm as good as I can be," Naruto replied, poking the bouncing child in the back. The boy squealed in Sasuke's ear much to his annoyance. "I certainly try to be a good person, but it's not got a whole lot to do with my dad bein' a pastor. Anyway, I should probably get him back to his parents. It was good to see ya again, Sasuke. Glad you could make it." He took the toddler from him and headed for the door.
"Naruto," Sasuke called as he was about to walk out.
Naruto stopped and glanced over his shoulder. "Yeah?"
"You…," Sasuke started to say but suddenly felt awkward. "What are you doing after the service?"
"Uh, I dunno. Goin' back to my apartment to sleep? Why? Somethin' goin' on in town that I should know about? No one ever tells me about these things. Apparently, everyone thinks m'gonna get them in trouble if they invite me to stuff. I go through it every time I move."
"No... I." Sasuke shook his head. "Nevermind."
"Narutoooo," the child whined. "I'm thirsty."
"Mmkay, we'll get some punch in a second, but I'm talkin' to Sasuke." Naruto turned to him again. "I'll come and find you after the service, is that cool?"
Sasuke didn't really have time to give an answer before Naruto walked out of the bathroom and disappeared into the Christmas crowd. He glanced at the mirror, spying the hint of chain that appeared from underneath his sweater.
He wasn't sure why he'd asked Naruto about his plans for later. All Sasuke knew was that he didn't want to go back home and, if left alone, he was fearful of what he might try to do.
After the service, Sasuke lied to his parents, saying that he was going out to catch up with old high school friends.
The service had been an interesting one. It was almost unbelievable how much the new pastor looked like Naruto. In fact, he was rather handsome for an older man. Sasuke hadn't considered Naruto in that way, but now that he thought about it, he wasn't especially horrible to look at. There hadn't been any preaching of fire and brimstone, so, in that respect, the sermon was a lot more progressive than he was used to. Naruto playing the piano alongside a bunch of easily distracted children was probably the highlight of the evening, though. A lot of people smiled and laughed during their performance, and even Sasuke couldn't help but chuckle as the littlest ones tried their best with the choreography. Naruto was good about it, and always remained incredibly patient. Sasuke thought he might make an excellent teacher if he would even be interested in something like that. Not wanting to wait inside while some of the older ladies fawned all over Naruto's father, Sasuke strayed outside the back entrance to watch the falling snow for a few minutes. Another ten minutes went by, and he heard the door open behind him.
"Hey. I've been lookin' all over for you."
"I needed some fresh air," he said, still gazing at the sky.
Naruto walked over to stand at his side. He had his jacket on as well as the orange skull cap and scarf.
"Yeah, it gets pretty crowded in there," he said to Sasuke. "I thought it was a good service. I think dad was kinda nervous. How did you like the kids?"
Sasuke regarded him coolly, eyebrow drawn up a bit because Naruto seemed genuinely interested in his opinion. "They were... cute."
"I know, right?" Naruto chuckled and rubbed at the side of his nose. "So, what are you doin' now?"
"Nothing. Just didn't feel like going home right away."
Naruto's breath came out visible as he exhaled. "Wanna go to my place? I don't live too far away."
Sasuke blinked at the invite.
"If not, we can just go for a walk if you want? You seem like you wanna talk."
"What makes you say that?" Sasuke asked.
"Ah, well. You start to recognize that look after a while. Not everyone, especially people our age, wanna go to my dad to talk about the things that are botherin' them. So, sometimes they come to me. I don't mind, and I'm a good listener."
Sasuke stared at him. "You said your place isn't very far?"
Naruto smiled. "Only a few blocks away."
"That was easy. You must be desperate if you're willin' to spend your first hours of Christmas with me, huh?"
Clearly, Naruto had meant it as a joke, but Sasuke felt on the verge of something... something that brought him back to that one day in church.
He started to feel dizzy, but Naruto grabbed his arm before he lost his balance.
"You okay?" Naruto asked, looking worried.
"Yeah. Let's just... go. I need to get out of here."
Naruto's place wasn't very far at all. It was only four blocks from the church. There was a picket fence that went around the front yard, and as Naruto opened the gate, it squeaked, leaving him to mutter about needing to add that to his list of projects.
"I'm rentin' the house for now, but the guy I'm rentin' from is gonna let me fix it up and maybe sell it to me at the end of the lease."
He didn't respond because he wasn't exactly sure why Naruto would want to put the time and effort into it when he'd be better off buying something new. This was just a small, one-story bungalow. Sasuke felt awkward as he followed behind Naruto, who kept trying to make conversation with him despite how the only answers he gave came in the form of grunts. A dusting of snow covered the walkway leading to the porch. Naruto unlocked the door for them and invited him inside. There were a few boxes in the living room and not a whole lot of furniture. Just a couch and a side table. There also appeared to be a working fireplace.
"That's the original wood," Naruto pointed at the floor. "I think before I unpack I'm gonna sand it down and maybe stain it."
"You sound like you're good with your hands," Sasuke remarked, glancing around the room.
Naruto took off his coat and threw it on the couch. "I dunno about good, but I've always liked to build stuff since I was little. I always watch those shows where they restore old houses. I think that would be the best job, but I'm pretty sure my dad is expectin' me to follow in his footsteps."
"Yeah." Naruto shrugged, looking uncomfortable. "I'm not sure how I feel about it, but do you ever just... do stuff to keep people happy?"
Sasuke didn't reply and chose to preoccupy himself by exploring. He went over to the fireplace and ran his fingers across the top of the mantle, picking up dust on his fingers.
"Sorry the place is such a mess," said Naruto. "I haven't had a lotta time to do any cleaning."
"You don't have to apologize to me all of the time, Naruto. I invited myself, after all."
"Ah, well. To be honest, I'm happy to have company. Can I get you anything to drink? I have normal stuff like water or soda or juice, or, if you want...I have some beer... vodka, too, I think."
Naruto slid his hands into the pocket of his slacks. "Nope. Are you?"
"Hn. Not yet. But... yeah. I'll have something to drink. If that's alright."
"Sure, no problem. Wanna join me in the kitchen? You can see what I have."
Before following, Sasuke unbuttoned his coat and set it on the arm of the couch, next to Naruto's. They entered the kitchen, which also had several boxes stacked in one corner. However, when Naruto opened the refrigerator door, it appeared well stocked.
"Does your father know about this?" Sasuke asked, smirking.
Naruto clucked his tongue. "I told you. I'm just like anyone else and that includes drinkin' underage on occasion."
Sasuke hummed as he eyed a carton of orange juice. "You said you have vodka?"
Naruto chuckled. "I do. You want a Screwdriver?"
"Sure." He leaned against the counter and watched as Naruto grabbed a couple of glasses out of one of the cabinets. Naruto went back to the freezer to pull out a tray of ice cubes and put three in each glass before pouring in the orange juice and then a generous amount of vodka.
He handed one of the glasses to Sasuke. "Cheers."
Sasuke took a sip, lips puckering as he tasted the alcohol. "That's strong."
"Thought it might help you relax." Naruto let out a sigh as he raked a hand through his hair.
"Tired?" Sasuke asked.
Naruto smiled at the question. "A little. It's been a busy few months."
"Should I not have come?" He sipped his drink, selfishly hoping that even if he was, that he wouldn't kick him out just yet.
Naruto chewed at his lip. "I'm happy to have company. To be honest, it's been kinda lonely around here. You said you're goin' to college? You're clearly not 21, so that makes you either the same age as me or younger."
"I'm 20," he said.
"Me, too. But go on. Tell me about yourself, Sasuke. Your likes and dislikes. Your hopes and dreams."
Sasuke rolled his eyes, ignoring when Naruto laughed. "I go to college several hours away from here, but I was born and raised in this town."
"What are you studyin'?" Naruto hopped onto the counter, and as he set down his drink, unbuttoned the top two buttons of his dress shirt.
So that it didn't seem as though he was leering, Sasuke lowered his gaze and took another sip from the glass. "Graphic design with a minor in studio art."
"Art? Really?" Naruto looked impressed. "So do you paint? Draw?"
"I draw," he replied. "My father didn't think much could be done with a simple Art degree, so I appeased him by going into graphic design."
"Hm. How long have you been drawing?"
"Since I was little. I," He shifted on his feet. "I had a friend when I was younger who also used to draw. I never thought I was good at it, but he was quite encouraging."
"That's cool that you had a friend like that."
Sasuke simply nodded and continued to drink.
"Do you guys still hang out? Or did you go to the same college together?"
Sasuke slid his tongue across his teeth. "...No. We don't hang out." He raised his eyes to meet Naruto's. "He died when I was 17."
Naruto's eyes went wide momentarily before he just looked sad on Sasuke's behalf. "I'm very sorry to hear that."
"I'm surprised you haven't heard about it yet. It was one of the town's biggest scandals. I guess that's bound to happen when a young boy is killed by his own father."
"Jesus, are you fuckin' kidding me? I can't even imagine that!"
Sasuke snorted. "Not many people can."
"Is that the reason why you don't want to go to church anymore?"
He nearly dropped the glass at the question.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to ask that so bluntly," Naruto said, "But... I remember what you said that first night we met, and, at the time, I didn't know your reasons for feelin' that way, but it reminded me of how I felt when my mom died. Losin' someone you care about definitely shakes your faith. I mean, it's perfectly normal to question - "
"I'm sure our experiences aren't as similar as you think," Sasuke cut him off.
"No. I wasn't sayin' that at all. I just wanted you to know that I get it. I mean, I'm not gonna preach to you. It's just that... there had to be a reason you were walkin' past the church that night. And when I saw that you'd come for the service, I was really happy."
Sasuke stared at him a long while before his gaze shifted to a few pictures being held up by magnets on the refrigerator. He started playing with the chain at his neck.
"It was hard living here," Sasuke murmured. "Growing up here... was very difficult."
"Because of what happened to your friend?" Naruto asked.
Sasuke shook his head. "I think I'm going to need another drink or two before I'm ready to talk about that."
Naruto hopped off the counter and took his glass. He refilled it with a little more juice and a lot more vodka before handing it back.
"Do you think you could give me a tour of the rest of the house?"
"If you want." Naruto picked up his own drink and led the way out of the kitchen. "It's not especially big. There's just the one bedroom, but there's another room I could fit a twin bed. I was thinkin' of just makin' it an office. Or, music room, I guess. Right now, my piano's bein' stored at my dad's house." He kicked some boxes aside as they entered a long, narrow hallway.
On the left was a full-bath, on the right was the office, and then at the end of the hall was the bedroom. Naruto moved yet another box and pushed open the door.
"Pardon the mess." He flipped on the light. "I figure after I take care of the flooring, I can prime and paint the walls. Not that this color is horrible."
The room, despite the boxes, was surprisingly neat. The bed was made, but it had no head or foot board, just a full-size mattress and box spring. The walls were painted a darker green.
"I like this color," he said softly.
"Yeah? Green your favorite color?" Naruto took a seat on the foot of the bed.
"It was, yeah," he replied, still looking at it.
"Hm, well. That's pretty much it for the tour. There's a basement, but it's packed with all kinds of shit for now. We still have a lot of my mom's stuff, like, things she collected or furniture that belonged to her family. Dad didn't want it at his place, and I guess I didn't wanna get rid of it or give it away."
Again, Sasuke started to play with the chain around his neck. "I think I can understand."
"You can sit here if you want," Naruto gave the bed a pat. "It's not dirty or anything. I just changed the sheets this morning. Comforter's clean, too."
Sasuke eyed him warily, but taking another sip of his drink, he decided to sit on the edge of the bed, keeping some distance between them.
"You said when your mother died that you questioned your faith," Sasuke rubbed his thumb underneath the rim of the glass, "What made you decide that you still wanted to keep attending church?"
"I guess... even though I questioned God and I was angry, it didn't stop me from believin' in him. It just made me really pissed off at him. I mean, my mom was one of the nicest people on the planet, Sasuke." Naruto leaned back on the bed and sighed. "She was... just crazy. But in a good way. I guess I couldn't wrap my head around the concept of bad things happenin' to good people. I didn't really understand at all, and, afterward, people kinda started treatin' me differently. Friends at school suddenly didn't wanna be my friends 'cause they didn't really know what to say. Was it like that for you... when you lost your friend? What was his name?"
"Gaara," he answered and had to clear his throat. "His name was Gaara. And, no, it wasn't like that because he was my only friend, so when he died, I had no one."
"That must've been rough. To lose a best friend, and then you said... he was killed by his own father? What happened? I mean, that's pretty fucked up."
Sasuke looked back at him. "You want the gruesome details?"
Naruto frowned at the question. "I don't want gruesome details, but I wanna know what happened, yeah. If you want to talk about it."
"I haven't talked about it to anyone. Not really anyway. There are a few... people... that I tried to talk to about it, but, like you said, they didn't really know how to handle that kind of baggage. Needless to say, it's made it very difficult to keep a stable relationship."
"No kiddin'. How do you bring that one up?" Naruto asked bitterly, shaking his head.
Sasuke shifted around so that he could sit sideways on the bed, catching Naruto just as he was about to swallow the rest of his drink. For the briefest of seconds, he ran his eyes down the line of Naruto's neck and to the open collar of his shirt.
Had Naruto caught him staring?
"What?" He asked.
"If you have somethin' you wanna say, go ahead and say it." Naruto leaned back on the bed, putting most of his weight on his right arm. "I'm not a pastor or whatever, but bein' a pastor's son, and havin' always had people come to me with their problems, I want you to know you can speak to me in confidence. I won't tell anyone what you say. If you're worried about that."
"I'm sure anyone can just say that they'll keep their mouths shut," Sasuke replied. "I don't know you well enough to trust you, no offense."
"None taken, but you've come this far. You clearly wanna talk but are holdin' back, and I'm happy to just sit here and keep you company, but I also wanna help. If I can."
The alcohol made the notion of opening up to Naruto seem very appealing, and, yet, having lived with the fear so long, of... talking about Gaara's death, about him being gay, it was just... too difficult.
"I'm not sure you can help me," he said, staring at the diamond pattern on Naruto's comforter.
"I'm pretty sure I'm the type of guy who'd do anything he can to try at least," Naruto replied.
Sasuke sighed and, finishing his drink, handed the glass to Naruto, who took it with a raised eyebrow. Not being much of a drinker, Sasuke was already tipsy. He flopped back onto the bed and, with another sigh, covered his eyes with his hands.
"Fuck," he muttered, hating how pathetic he felt, how pathetic he was and had always been.
He heard Naruto set something on the floor - probably their glasses - but he didn't feel like opening his eyes. They were hurting anyway, and the light would only make it worse.
"You okay?" Naruto asked, his voice soft and full of concern.
"My eyes hurt."
"Should I turn the lights off?"
The bed creaked, and he heard Naruto's feet padding across the floor to turn off the lights. He returned to the bed, which dipped as he crawled back onto it and sat unexpectedly close to him.
"Better?" Naruto asked.
"Yeah, thanks." He was able to crack open his eyes. "I shouldn't have come back, I think. I hadn't been here for a year. I always found excuses for why I couldn't come home. I hate being here, Naruto. I hate it."
"Because it reminds you of Gaara?"
"That's part of it," he answered, fingers reaching for the necklace.
"Can I ask you somethin' I hope doesn't offend you?"
Naruto's tone alone caused Sasuke's heart to race. "...You can."
"I feel like there's more to the story of what happened to you and to your friend. It's... I get the feelin' it is very different from me losin' my mom."
"Everyone handles grief differently, Naruto."
"I know. But, like I said, I've talked to a lot of people over the years. People who felt comfortable comin' to me because of who my dad is, so I'm familiar with a lot of different situations, and I've heard one or two similar to yours. Not exactly the same, but..."
"Can I ask you, the necklace you keep playing with... is that somethin' that Gaara gave to you before he died?"
Sasuke bit his lip. He hesitated, debating whether to answer truthfully. "...It is."
"You two...?" The bed shifted as Naruto rolled onto his side and faced him.
Sasuke could make out the intensity of Naruto's expression even in the dark. "Go on."
"You were more than friends, weren't you? You and Gaara."
"That..." He took in a deep breath and then let it out, shutting his eyes, feeling the smallest bit of relief. "Might not be inaccurate."
"Okay. I kind of thought that for some reason, but I've been wrong before."
Sasuke snorted. "Do I give off a vibe? It's not as if anyone else ever picked up on it, including my parents."
"Your parents don't know?" Naruto looked surprised.
"Of course not," he scoffed. "This town, as I learned back then, doesn't take kindly to homosexuals, Naruto. It's the perfect cliché. All of those people who were there tonight? Most of them were also there the day of Gaara's funeral service, pretending to be sad about the loss of a local teenager when, behind closed doors, they were secretly judging him because they knew. It was all over the papers, that Gaara's father found out he was gay and bashed his head in with a bat."
"Jesus," Naruto let out. "That is some fucked up shit that went down. No wonder... and you kept all of this to yourself? No one knows about the two of you? You..."
"I loved him. He was my best friend back then, and he was always so careful not to let anyone find out, for my sake, I think. My dad, as you know, works at the police station, and... I wanted... I should've..."
As Sasuke broke down, Naruto reached for him. The contact, which normally would've earned a rebuff, only caused the pain and loneliness he was feeling to intensify. He wanted to curl up in Naruto's arms and cry, like he'd never been able to do back then. He almost didn't care if Naruto told the whole world, mocked him the next day behind his back, or even decided to kick him out of his home for admitting he was gay.
He just didn't care anymore.
"They never knew that it was me," he admitted. "That Gaara and I were together, and..."
He wanted to say more about how he'd failed to defend Gaara, to admit he'd been a coward... that he'd deserved all of the pain and loneliness and guilt he'd felt ever since then... but... he just couldn't get it out. He was so used to repressing it that he didn't know how to handle all of the emotions he was feeling right now.
"It's not your fault," Naruto told him and, suddenly, put an arm around him. "What happened to Gaara is not your fault. You can't help who you love, Sasuke. There's nothin' wrong with havin' cared about him, or havin' loved him. There's nothin' wrong with bein' gay. I know that's... atypical from what a lot of religious institutions say sometimes... but... I've always believed that... they've got it all wrong. That God doesn't make mistakes, that he loves everyone equally and hates the fact that we all put each other through so much unnecessary pain and bullshit."
"You're right... you probably shouldn't follow in your father's footsteps. Christians... they don't want to hear that, Naruto. Most churches... they just can't accept people like me. They won't see me as a person any longer. My parents... if my father found out - "
Naruto hushed him and slipped his other arm around his waist in a protective gesture. Sasuke could smell his cologne and thought he recognized it. Even if he didn't know Naruto that well, the physical closeness was considerably calming.
"I don't know how to explain it," said Naruto. "But... I guess I've never understood why people do that, especially people of faith y'know. We're supposed to be understanding and accepting and love each other and all that garbage - "
Sasuke gave a strangled laugh and placed a hand on top of Naruto's arm.
"But... not everyone is like that," Naruto continued. "I mean, we know that. Our generation is way more accepting of it than our parents'. What happened to Gaara and everything you went through... it's not right. It's not okay to turn your back on people who need your help. It's okay to love who you want, we can't help it. Believe me, I've been there - "
"Oh?" He asked facetiously despite the fact Naruto was only trying to comfort him. "You've been in love with a boy who got murdered by his own father?"
"You know that's not what I meant."
"You're not trying to come out to me, are you?"
"Shut up, asshole, and let me comfort you."
Sasuke, unable to hold everything in any longer, rolled over underneath Naruto's arm and slid up against his front. He didn't care how inappropriate it was or that they'd only just met and he'd spilled his guts in such an embarrassing fashion. Despite having a lot of pride, he just - at least for this one night - needed to feel safe.
Naruto, speaking gently to him, started stroking his hair. "Whether you wanna hear it, or even if you wanna believe it, God does love you, Sasuke. Just as you are. You weren't a mistake 'cause God doesn't make mistakes. Life throws a lot of shit at us, and maybe we're meant to learn somethin' from it. That's my hope anyway. That no one up there is doin' it to be cruel or because we did somethin' wrong and deserve to be punished... I don't wanna say that there's a plan or anything 'cause when people told me that after mom died, it only pissed me off... but... that you obviously still have faith even after everything that's happened to you... I don't want you to give up on that."
"I never gave up on it," he replied quietly. "I've wanted to. But, it fucking sucks, Naruto. Feeling this way. Feeling this alone."
Naruto's cheek pressed against his as he continued running fingers through Sasuke's hair. "You're not alone now. You can talk to me about anything you want, or if you want to cry some more, that's okay, too."
"Shut up, idiot. I'm not crying."
"No, of course not." Naruto chuckled and pat him on the back of his head before hugging him closer.
"You smell good," Sasuke mumbled.
"Do I?" Naruto gave himself a sniff.
"You sound like you're about to fall asleep."
"It's late, though. Won't your parents be worried about you?"
"Told them I was going to see friends. They believed me." He snickered. "They don't know me at all."
"We can be friends," Naruto said. "You can stay here as long as you need to."
"The pastor's son is going to let me sleep in his bed with him?"
"Are you going to take advantage of me while I'm sleeping? That's what priests do to little boys, right?"
When Naruto let out a laugh, Sasuke grabbed hold of the front of his shirt.
"No, Sasuke. I'd much rather do that when you're awake and willing."
Sasuke assumed he was joking, but it still gave him a reason to smirk.
"You are a good person," Sasuke teased. "Gay or straight, anyone else would've taken advantage of this situation."
He hummed next to Sasuke's ear. "I said you're safe here, so no one's gettin' taken advantage of. Just go to sleep."
"Fine," he replied sleepily, nose accidentally brushing against Naruto's neck. "Naruto?"
Naruto moved his arm so that it went around Sasuke's shoulders, pressing him closer. "Merry Christmas, Sasuke."