It was the day of graduation.
Sasuke had never looked forward to something this much in his life. It was a chance to leave the too small classrooms and finally learn something useful. He would, of course, be following the path that the village laid out to make their perfect soldiers, but it would be useful, all the same.
The written test is easy, the physical simple, and the jutsu test is not a problem. Sasuke does perfectly, he knows it. Naruto on the other hand…
Naruto is street smart, not book smart. Even with Sasuke trying to help him study, he just can't grasp the material. To make matters worse, his chakra control is completely non-existent. He can't perform even the simplest jutsu, no matter how hard he tries.
He tries again.
He fails again and again and again.
Sasuke is at his wits end, because he refuses to imagine a future where Naruto isn't on his team. He doesn't think he could survive that. He knows that Naruto is the only thing keeping him from doing something regrettable.
So they sit down that night and talk. They go over the material, they meditate and practice control, they do everything they possibly can.
And Naruto fails the final test.
Naruto knows that Sasuke is angry. Sasuke is always angry, but this time is different because he's disappointed too. He can't blame him, because Naruto is just as angry at himself. Why can't he master this one thing? Why can't he understand what comes so easily to the others?
One of his teachers, Mizuki, takes him aside and smiles at him.
"It's ok" He says in an attempt at a soothing voice. "There are other options."
"Like being a cook?" Naruto asks, almost sarcastic and almost pleading.
"No, of course not. I meant that there are other ways to become a ninja." Mizuki smiles at him again, but this smile just makes Naruto feel cold and small.
"After all, something like you simply can't be allowed to stay a civilian."
They have one last class, in order to go over the last reminder of how the team system works. Iruka pauses, right before the end of class and says that, due to unforeseen complications, they have to wait until tomorrow to get their official teams.
Naruto doesn't show up.
Sasuke walks out of the school, new headband clenched in his hand, expecting to see his friend waiting at the gates. This is the point where Naruto will tell him something stupid in an attempt to be reassuring, and then maybe they can work out some other plan for the future, some way to stay together.
Except that Naruto isn't at the gate. He isn't in the park either, which is one one their regular meeting spots.
Something is wrong. Sasuke can feel it, ice gathering in the pit of his stomach.
Naruto isn't in the market. He isn't at the ramen shop he works at part-time, he isn't in the training grounds, he isn't even in his tiny apartment.
Sasuke scours around the edges of the Uchiha compound, desperately searching for any sign that Naruto was nearby.
He didn't come home with Sasuke last night, because one of the teachers had pulled him aside to talk to him privately. He should have waited for him, why didn't he wait?!
Naruto is gone.
It's his fault.
He doesn't do anything for the rest of the day, just sits in the rotting silence of his mansion. It hurts, almost as much as when… Almost as much as that night.
Why did the village keep taking things from him? What right did they have? Was this all just another service to the Will of Fire? Was this-
There are footsteps.
Nobody can enter the compound without Sasuke's permission, and there is only one person who he gave it too.
Sasuke is down the stairs before he knows what's happening, and there in the doorway is a familiar orange silhouette. Sasuke moves in front of him, questions burning in his mind, but stops when he sees his friend's expression.
It's blank. Empty. Large blue eyes staring at him uncomprehendingly.
"What did they do?" Sasuke whispers, almost afraid.
Something returns to Naruto's face at that. He blinks a few times, looks at Sasuke, then lifts up his hands.
There is a headband clenched in his fists.
Sasuke doesn't know what to say, so he watches Naruto's face, looking for any sign of what happened.
When Naruto finally speaks, it's in a whisper so low that Sasuke has to strain to hear him.
"Do you remember the story of the Nine-Tails?"