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sne_mod ([personal profile] sne_mod) wrote in [community profile] sn_exchange2010-08-25 08:30 pm

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For: [profile] syrraki
Title: Advantage: Us
Rating: PG-13 for swearing and boys kissing.
Summary: When your parents are world-renowned tennis players, it is natural that you would want to follow in their footsteps, Naruto reasons when he asks to be sent to tennis summer camp. What happens after that is all that bastard Sasuke’s fault. A tennis AU where both boys’ parents are still alive.
Warnings: none, apart from kids swearing
A/N: Dear prompter, I do hope this is to your liking! When my darling beta suggested this topic as something that might make you happy to read about, I had no idea that it would turn into an epic like the one before you! The idea took root in my head, and it was well in the double digits before I even realised. I’ve had a fantastic time writing it; I can’t quite believe just how much I enjoyed the experience, even when it threatened to drain me completely. You asked for playing sports, medical based and AU, so this is what happened when I combined them in my head. A little disclaimer: I have never been to tennis camp, so I have no idea what goes on in there. The happenings here are a product of my imagination; the tennis players are real, though. The opinions expressed in this story in no way reflect the prompter’s, as I have no idea how they feel about the players I have used as plot devices. A lot of research went into writing this, and the facts are as accurate as I can make them. I did consult a doctor for the medical parts. Apart from that – thank goodness for Wikipedia!





The forehand is a shot made by swinging the racquet across one's body in the direction of where the player wants to place the shot.

The backhand is a tennis shot in which one swings the racquet around one's body in the direction where one wants the ball to go, usually performed from the baseline or as an approach shot.

A serve (or, more formally, a service) in tennis is a shot to start a point. A player begins a serve by tossing the ball into the air and hitting it (usually near the highest point of the toss) into the diagonally opposite service box without being stopped by the net.

A volley in tennis is a shot that is hit before the ball bounces on the ground. Generally a player hits a volley while standing near the net, although there are instances where it is executed farther back, in the middle of the tennis court or even near the baseline.

A smash in tennis is a shot that is hit above the head with a serve-like motion. A smash can usually be hit with great force relatively safely and is often a shot that ends the point.

A jump smash is a variation where a player jumps and then hits the smash in mid-air. The regular smashing shot, along with the downward force of a falling body, make this type of smash nearly undefeatable.

A drop shot in tennis is slicing, putting a backspin on the ball just over the net. A good drop shot travels in such a way that the opponent is unable to run fast enough to retrieve it.

A groundstroke in tennis is a forehand or backhand shot that is executed after the ball bounces once on the court. It is usually hit from the back of the tennis court, around the baseline.

In tennis, an ace is a legal serve that is not returned because the server's opponent never touches the ball with their racket, thereby losing the point.

Naruto’s leapfrog is what he calls the between-the-legs, inside-out forehand that Andre Agassi is especially good at. The player reaches the ball, jumps over it and brings the racquet up between their legs and hits the ball back over the net. It works best when the player doesn’t have a hope in hell of outrunning the ball for a proper shot, and if not used, it would most certainly mean a point for the opponent.

An umpire referees the sport from a high-up chair to the side of the net.

A men’s match consists of five sets. A player must take three sets out of five to win the match. A set is taken when a player wins six games. There must be a two-game difference between the players for a set to be won, for example: 6:4. If the result is 6:6, a seven point tiebreak is played to determine the winner, and the points are denominated by ordinary numbers, 1-7. In that case, the end result would be 7:6 to take the set. A game is taken when a player scores points as follows: 15 for the first point, 30 for the second point, 40 for the third point, if they are at 40:40, the next point is an Advantage, and if during an A:40 score the player with the advantage scores, he takes the game.

Taking a Grand Slam is when a player wins first place in the following four tournaments that together are referred to as the Grand Slam: Australian Open, French Open (or Rolland Garros), Wimbledon, and the US Open.

Hawk-Eye is a computer system used in cricket, tennis and other sports to visually track the path of the ball and display a record of its most statistically likely path as a moving image. In some sports, like tennis, it is now part of the adjudication process.











Advantage: Us

“But I want to go to tennis camp!” Naruto yells, his eight-year-old body shaking with fury. “If I have to be away from you and Mom and Jiraiya-jiji, at least let me start training already!”

Minato sighs in frustration. “Naruto, you’re still only eight! It’s too—“

“Don’t tell me it’s too early to start! I’ll be nine in three months, and you started training when you were six!”

“And it was very, very difficult for me. I wish I hadn’t started when I was so young. I missed out on a lot of things because of it, and so did your mother.”

“But Dad!” Naruto whines, looking like he’s on the verge of crying. “How am I ever going to be better than you, or Mom, or Jiraiya-jiji, if I don’t start training soon?”

Minato’s face crumples for an instant, and from her place perched on the couch Kushina makes a noise of distress.

“Naruto, darling,” she says gently when Minato seems to have lost his voice, “you know that nobody expects you to be better than us, or even to play tennis professionally when you grow up, right?”

Naruto sighs in frustration. “But I want to, Mom! I want to be as good as the three of you some day, maybe even better! I can do it! You just won’t let me even try!” he yells, face set in a mulish scowl, and runs out of the room.

Minato looks at Kushina helplessly; his bright blue eyes are so sad and disappointed – in himself, Kushina knows, for not understanding his son’s feelings sooner, for letting him think that he didn’t believe in him enough to let him make his own decisions.

“Playing around with us isn’t going to be enough for him forever, love,” she says, her voice soft. “He’s growing up, fast. You know as well as I do that he shows promise.”

Minato scrunches his nose in a way that Kushina finds terribly endearing. “I don’t want him to have the same childhood as us, constantly training, no time for anything but his backhand and serve technique. I want him to have fun, to be a carefree child for as long as he possibly can. There’s enough pressure on him with who we are, no need to heap any more expectations on him. Tennis camp is sure to do that.”

“Oh, love,” Kushina sighs and reaches for his hand, drawing him down to sit next to her on their huge red couch. “He already knows who we are. You are his hero, you know that. Having the holder of more Grand Slam titles than Pete Sampras for a father is something to be proud of, but it is also something that he will try and better, consciously or not. You should show him that you are proud of him, too, whatever his decision,” she tells him, twining their fingers together.

“Have I been holding him back?” he asks her, subdued.

“No, not at all. But you will be if you don’t let him at least try it. It’s just summer tennis camp, it’s not like you’re pushing him into Orochimaru’s hands or something. He has to start somewhere, and if he decides that it’s not for him, we’re going to support his choice, agreed?”

Minato stretches across the sofa to lie with his head in his wife’s lap. The fingers of her free hand immediately tangle in his hair, stroking it soothingly. He sighs in defeat. “I’m not going to win this one, am I?” he asks, a smile curving his lips.

“No, love,” Kushina chuckles above him, leaning over to kiss him soundly, and the heavy curtain of her red hair falls around their faces like a veil, separating them from the outside world. “Now go tell our son that he’d better pack his bags properly if he’s going to be away for a full month.”

---

“Okay, son, you have everything, yes? Remember, if anything should happen, or if you need anything at all, you can call us whenever!” Minato repeats for the twentieth time that day.

Yes, Dad,” Naruto tells him and rolls his eyes, but he hugs his father and mother tightly none-the-less.

“Listen to Iruka-sensei, sweetheart, and do as he says, okay?” Kushina admonishes him, tone resigned; Naruto will get in as much trouble as possible, anyway, she is sure.

“Sure, Mom!” he yells over his shoulder as he runs off towards where a group of children have gathered around several instructors brandishing clipboards.

“He’ll be okay,” Minato says, “And there’s no need to glare at the coaches like that, darling, they know their jobs. Iruka will take care of him,” he says, nodding over at the tall, brown-haired man, busy assigning kids to their dorms.

Kushina nods with a smile and they walk back to their car, hand in hand.

---

“Ow! You did that on purpose!” Naruto yells, rubbing at the back of his head where the other boy’s racquet had smacked him a moment before.

“Hn,” the other boy sniffs and turns his back on him. Naruto glares disdainfully at the dark hair sticking out of the other boy’s head, making it look like a duck’s backside. He grins cheekily and is on the verge of telling him so, when he notices Iruka-sensei watching him suspiciously from the other side of the court, and he stops himself with some effort.

I’ll get you back, he promises silently and turns back to practicing his grip.

---

“Pay attention, Naruto! You’re still not getting it! You need to place your weight further on your left foot, not just your right! Are you even listening to me?” Ebisu huffs, irritated.

Naruto scowls and tries again, and again, and again, but his backhand stroke isn’t getting any better. He hardly manages to hit the ball at all, let alone actually get it over the net. The more he tries and fails, the more frustrated he becomes. He’s making a spectacle of himself, he realises, when he notices that all the other kids have stopped and are watching him and Ebisu-sensei get tenser every minute, until at last Naruto swings so hard that he manages to wrench his shoulder in the process.

The racquet flies out of his hand and lands on the other side of the court half, bouncing off the turf. Naruto lands on his knees, gripping at his aching joint, angry tears streaming down his face. A giggle sounds from the sideline – Naruto freezes in place. Before anyone can react, he’s up and running in no particular direction apart from away. He catches a glimpse of the dark-haired boy from before watching him with unreadable eyes as he shoves past him; then he’s off the training grounds and into the trees that surround the camp.

He hears a shout of his name behind him, what sounds like Iruka’s voice, but he doesn’t stop, merely lowers his head and runs on. His injured shoulder is killing him, but he’s not going back. He can’t go back. They’d laughed at him. Clearly, he’s rubbish at tennis. He doesn’t know how he’s going to tell his Mom and Dad; they will be so disappointed.

He skids on some fallen leaves, landing at the foot of an enormous oak tree. The fall itself doesn’t hurt, but it batters his pride further. He slumps against the rough bark, leaning his head back on it and squinting at the sunlight that glints through the greenery way up above. The air is fresh, fragrant with the smell of leaves and grass and growing things, and there are birds chirping all around him. It’s soothing.

Eventually, he calms down enough to pay attention to the world again. His shoulder doesn’t hurt as much as he’d been afraid it would; maybe it’s just a minor sprain. He should go back, he knows; they’ll worry about him if he stays away from dinner.

He pushes himself to his feet, mindful of his injury, and trudges back down the path that leads to the camp. He’s not gone ten paces before he spots Iruka-sensei walking sedately towards him, a small case under his shoulder.

“There you are,” Iruka says gently. “Are you alright?”

Naruto nods, feeling foolish for running away like he was a child or something. He stops in front of the Head instructor, looking at his feet and missing Iruka’s warm smile.

“Come and sit down. Let me have a look at your shoulder. Ebisu mentioned that you’d overdone it earlier today.”

At the mention of Ebisu’s name Naruto scowls furiously. Iruka sighs.

“Oh, dear. I probably shouldn’t have placed you with him. He can be a little pedantic in his teaching.” At Naruto’s confused look, Iruka explains. “Pedantic means strict, too focused on small details. While it is a good quality to have in professional coaches, I think maybe Ebisu is taking it a little far with you younger kids.”

While he talks, he’s carefully moving Naruto’s shoulder, rotating it in all directions. Naruto bears it silently. In truth, the pain from earlier is almost gone; he only feels a little stiff.

“There we are, nothing to worry about. You must have overtaxed your muscles, which is why you felt the pain before. Was it a sharp, needle-like pain?”

“Yeah, how did you know, Iruka-sensei?” Naruto asks, eyes huge.

“I have some medical training. All of us instructors have to complete a physiotherapy course before we can teach here. Are you ready to go back now? There’s ramen for dinner.”

Naruto’s eyes light up immediately, but his smile dims a moment later.

“What is it, Naruto?” Iruka asks, concerned, as he puts a hand on his other shoulder.

“’S nothing,” Naruto mumbles, but he makes no move to leave.

“Is it the other kids?” Iruka questions shrewdly. Naruto nods, biting at his lip.

“Over half of them came to ask if you were okay after you ran off. You’ve made friends here, kiddo. Don’t let the odd unpleasant reaction convince you otherwise.

Naruto smiles tentatively up at him.

“That’s better!” Iruka says encouragingly. “Now, come along. Don’t know about you, but I’m starving. You kids are exhausting to run after!” he tells the giggling boy.

---

Iruka takes over his training after that, and his careful explanations and clear demonstrations have Naruto mastering the basics much quicker than he had so far. Iruka doesn’t stint on his praise, and the blond boy glows with happiness every time he does well.

The other kids warm to the newcomer quickly – for almost all of them this is their second year at the training camp, and for some, even their third. Every one of them has a connection to the world of tennis – for some of them, one or both of their parents play professionally, or are coaches, sports commentators, umpires, other kinds of officials – the list is endless. Naruto is not the only kid with famous parents, even if his are well-known to all of the staff members and the campers.

Iruka watches him carefully for a few days after the incident, monitoring his performance. He is usually busy with the older kids, but he makes time to assess this newest addition. Like his father, Naruto is fast, very fast indeed – he streaks down the court in a flash of yellow hair and orange T-shirt; his strikes are accurate enough, and he catches almost all the shots directed at him.

Like his mother, in the rare occasions when he does manage to line his position up perfectly, and remembers his instructions, the strength he hits the ball with is immense. Uzumaki Kushina is one of the most powerful players on the court, male or female. She has raw strength in spades, and it looks like her son has inherited it.

Naruto has difficulties with the more strategic aspects of his training. Frankly, his knowledge of theory is poor to non-existent, and his instructors can’t get him to sit still for long enough to make him remember it. He rushes in there with all the delicacy of a bull in a china shop, all power and no finesse.

But, oh, does that boy have potential. Iruka has only seen two other students with so much promise in his career, and he’d only had a few years with one of them before he had been whisked away to bigger and better things. The second one is in this year, and Iruka can already see that he won’t be here for long, either. He wants to hope that Sasuke Uchiha has better sense than his brother when it comes to choosing his path in life, but he knows the Uchiha family too well. Being utterly focused on the game to the exclusion of all others makes for brilliant champions, but not for people particularly happy with their lives.

---

Naruto spends the second part of the month practicing until he drops into bed exhausted at night. He’s getting better, he can tell; already he can hold his own against most of the other kids, and he even beat Kiba and Shino today! Well, okay, it was only the one game, but the fact alone that he had won had made him so happy he couldn’t stop his smile from splitting his face in two. Everyone at the camp is brilliant; all of the kids his age are awesome. Even the girls are okay, they work as hard as all of the boys. He had tried teasing them only once, before Sakura had proceeded to wipe the floor with him and he hadn’t dared to try it again after that.

He knows that all of the kids here have been at the camp the year before, as well, and they are definitely ahead of him with training, but he’s nothing if not determined, and he can already hold his own against some of them.

But not all, he scowls to himself when he gets ready for bed that night, about a week before he’s due to go home. There are bruises all over his body from today’s training, and he has lost count of how many times he fell over, trying to reach the volleys that bastard (he automatically winces, forgetting for a second that his mom isn’t here to bop him on the head for swearing) sent him over and over again. And when it wasn’t volleys, it was a backhand down the baseline; all his lunges had been useless against the other boy’s deadly accuracy.

Well done, Sasuke,” Naruto sneers, mocking Kabuto-sensei’s simpering viciously. “That was a great shot, Sasuke! Nice volley there, Sasuke! It’s all Sasuke, Sasuke, bloody Sasuke all the time! I hate him!”

His roommate rolls over to face him from his position of lounging on his back on top of the bed. “Did you say something?” Shikamaru mutters and yawns lazily.

Shikamaru is not the most receptive of audiences, but Naruto needs to vent, and he’ll do. “It’s that stupid bastard Sasuke! He’s so damn perfect! He has everyone swooning over him! If it’s not those silly girls, it’s the teachers! I hate him,” he says again, in case Shikamaru missed his declaration the first time round.

Shikamaru sighs audibly, knowing he’ll have to say something back. He flops over to stretch out on his bed again. “It’s just Sasuke,” he says. “He’s been coming to the camp since he was five. Of course he’s going to be ahead of you.”

Naruto stares at him for a moment, eyes wide; then he throws his hands in the air dramatically. “Oh, oh that’s just great. How the hell am I supposed to catch up to him when he’s this far ahead of me?” he moans despairingly. Then his brain catches up with his ears, and he pauses.

“Wait. Did you say he’s been coming here since he was five?” he gapes. “That’s—that’s just—what about his parents?”

“What about them? His Dad is his brother Itachi’s coach, and he takes him to all the tournaments. His mom is an umpire, so she’s rarely home, too. When he’s not here, he goes to a boarding school up North.”

Naruto is flabbergasted. He can’t imagine only seeing his parents once in a while, being left behind like some useless piece of luggage. Even if his parents travel a lot, he’s always either with them or with Jiraiya. He’s never been left completely on his own, to fend for himself.

“How can they just leave him like that?”

Shikamaru cracks an eye open to look at him and shrugs. “It’s the Uchiha family. His father was on par with your dad before he retired because of a bad knee. Now he trains his eldest son, and he’s all Fugaku’s interested in. The family is rich, they can afford a few caretakers for Sasuke when he’s home at all.

Naruto’s heart squeezes in his chest when he thinks of not seeing his dad for months at a time. He has the strongest urge to call him, just to hear his voice.

“Wow,” he says, his voice soft. “Poor guy.”

Shikamaru snorts loudly. “You believe that, and you’ve already made your biggest mistake. Sasuke doesn’t care about any of that. All that matters to him is getting stronger, and one day winning against his brother. The Uchihas are not the closest family around; their rivalry between each other is legendary in the tennis world. Make the mistake of thinking Sasuke is soft, or that he has it hard; lower your guard around him even the tiniest bit and you will lose the game faster than you can blink. He is utterly ruthless. Winning is everything to him.”

Naruto is thoughtful when Shikamaru finishes talking. He’s still upset with how easy Sasuke had taken him down earlier, but he can see where his drive comes from now. He smiles grimly. Obviously, that is the solution. He must train hard until he wins against Sasuke, since Sasuke Uchiha is the boy to beat. Then everyone will acknowledge that he is a brilliant player.

---

“I’m going to miss you, Kiba! And you, too, Akamaru!” Naruto yells at full volume, even though the aforementioned duo are sitting right next to him, one smiling widely and one with his tongue lolling and tail wagging, attempting to jump up his body to lick his face.

“We’ll email each other every day!” Kiba promises, at much the same volume.

A bunch of the kids are clustered together, Naruto at their centre as they say their goodbyes. Shikamaru looks on from his sprawl on the grass beside them, Choji sitting next to him and chomping on a carrot sulkily. Choji’s been put on a diet for the entire time they have been at the camp, and is dying to get back to his chips, or so he tells Shino who is sitting near him, fiddling with the collar on his anorak and nodding back half-heartedly.

The girls are sitting not too far away, whispering to each other and throwing glances at Sasuke who’s standing close to the camp entrance gates with Neji. Naruto throws a scowl in Sasuke’s direction. His plan has not been going well. He had trained harder than ever for the past week, but he was still nowhere near Sasuke’s level. And, the bastard had been ignoring him! When Naruto had tried talking to him, all he had gotten for his efforts had been a sneer!

“Stupid Sasuke,” he mutters under his breath, and cringes when the girls turn and glare at him menacingly.

Not long after that the parents arrive, and in the chaos he misses Sasuke slipping away. All he sees when he thinks to look is a large black Rolls Royce that speeds away in the distance.

---

The next twelve months pass in a rush of travelling, school and training. Minato finally relents and lets Naruto start training properly at the nearby tennis academy, provided that he keeps his grades at school to above average. The teachers at the tennis academy are not particularly good, but Naruto spends every spare minute out on the courts, anyway, whenever he gets the chance – or thinks he can get away with the minimum amount of homework for the next school day. Even when he is away with his parents for a week or two he tries to practice his grip, his stance, and his shot technique.

Minato is a little worried about how seriously Naruto is taking tennis all of a sudden.

“Did something happen at camp?” he tries asking once, but Naruto just smiles and says, “No, Dad, camp was great. It’s just amazing, finally learning how to play properly!”

And if Naruto suddenly starts following the junior tour a little too closely, and watches every match he can get to that Itachi Uchiha plays in, Kushina and Minato are just happy that he finally has an outlet for his inexhaustible energy, and leave it at that.

---

It’s two weeks before tennis camp is set to start and Naruto is already insufferable. He is bouncing off the walls with energy, and has already insisted on repacking his bags twice. Kushina is at the end of her tether, and on the verge of starting to shout herself; the idea terrifies Minato, so he decides that getting Naruto out of the house is essential to good marital relations.

“Let’s go, kiddo,” he tells him and throws a pair of trainers at his feet. “We’re going for a run.”

Naruto whoops and hurries to put them on and fasten the laces. Minato does the same with his and goes outside to stretch and wait for the little whirlwind to get ready. Naruto bounces out of the house, face bright with anticipation.

“Have fun, boys!” a relieved-sounding Kushina calls out of the kitchen window, and Naruto waves at her energetically. “Bye, Mom!”

“All right, all right, let’s go,” Minato urges, and takes Naruto to the end of the garden path, where the two of them stretch some more before jogging the short distance to the local park.

They start off fairly slowly, just fast enough for their muscles to stretch and warm up. Ten minutes later Minato decrees some sprinting is in order and the two fly down the jogging path, circling around the more sedate runners and moms with strollers, relishing the burn in their lungs and their legs, the wind rushing through their hair and cooling their flaming faces.

Looking at the two of them together it’s impossible to mistake the family resemblance, down to the very determined expression on both faces. Naruto puts in a final burst of speed and shoots ahead of Minato at the last moment, collapsing on the grass by the tree that had been the finish line. He pants heavily, trying to catch his breath as his father comes to a stop next to him, bent in two with his hands braced on his knees.

They recover in comfortable silence, broken only by the usual sounds of the park – the yelling of playing kids, the chirping of birds, the barking of overexcited dogs. Minato shuffles to lie in the sunlight, closing his eyes and inhaling the soothing scents of a summer afternoon in the fresh air.

“Hey, Naruto,” he says, aiming for vague and only partially succeeding. “Who’s top of the rankings in the junior tour at the moment?” Minato tries not to cringe. His subtlety leaves a lot to be desired.

Fortunately, his son has inherited his sense of subtlety from him, which is to say, he wouldn’t know it if it dropped on his head. “I’ve no idea,” Naruto mumbles.

Minato’s eyebrows scrunch close together. “But you’ve been following it closely all year! How can you not know?”

Naruto turns his head to face him lazily. “Oh, I know who was, but Itachi went pro last month and I’ve no idea who’s taken his place.”

“I see,” Minato mutters, not seeing at all. “Is that Fugaku’s boy you mean?”

Naruto pushes himself up on his elbows, looking down at his sprawling father. “You know Fugaku Uchiha?” he says in astonishment.

“Well, of course I do,” Minato huffs. “We used to be doubles partners, didn’t we? Before he got that nasty knee contusion and had to retire.”

“You were?!” Naruto’s mouth is hanging open. “How come I don’t know anything about that?”

“Why would you? You were only two at the time, you wouldn’t have remembered even if you did know.” Minato frowns. “That was a spot of bad luck he had that last tournament,” he muses. “Slipped and took a right nasty fall, almost ripped through his thigh muscle, let alone the ligament. He’s been coaching Itachi, last I heard.”

“He has, too!” Naruto launches enthusiastically. “Itachi is awesome, Dad! I bet he’s going to kick even the pros’ ass! His backhands down the sideline are unbelievable, and he’s got a serve that almost tops two hundred miles per hour! “

“Is that right?” Minato says weakly. He’s none the wiser from before. “Dare I ask where that sudden interest in all things Uchiha came from?”

Naruto’s eyebrows scrunch together in an imitation of his father’s frown. “Sasuke Uchiha was in the camp last year,” he says quietly. “He’s a right bastard, but—Ow! Dad!”

“Watch your mouth,” Minato says mildly, not holding out much hope. Naruto is Kushina’s son, after all.

Naruto rubs at the side of his head where his dad cuffed him, even though it merely stings. “Anyway, Shikamaru was telling me about him. Um. Dad?”

Minato looks up, wary at Naruto’s tentative tone. Naruto looks at him from under lowered eyelashes. “I heard his mom and dad leave him alone for almost the entire year. He goes to some boarding school, and he barely sees them.” Naruto’s hands are twisting in his lap. Minato grimaces.

“Yeah, I heard that, too,” he tells the slumped-over boy. “That injury did more than just end Fugaku’s career. It made him obsessed with his elder son’s success. He bullied and badgered Itachi until that boy knew nothing but training and sleeping. Unfortunately, that also means that his younger son was left at the sideline, so to speak. Mikoto tries, but – well – I won’t lie to you. Sasuke’s had it a bit rough.”

Naruto looks at him with huge blue eyes. “I can’t imagine not seeing you or Mom every day. Even when you’re away, we still talk every night,” he says, voice subdued. He has pulled his knees up and is hugging them to his chest; Minato’s heart squeezes at the dejected picture he presents.

“I know, kiddo,” he says helplessly. “Maybe you could try being friends with this Sasuke?”

Naruto’s eyes narrow, his old defiance coming back in a flash. “He’s still a bastard, Dad,” he grumbles and jumps away from Minato’s long reach, giggling cheekily. Minato sighs in relief. This Naruto is much easier to deal with than the uncertain little boy from a moment ago. He jumps to his feet and chases his shrieking son all the way through the park, dunking his hair in the fountain for good measure.

---

They start training in doubles for the first week of camp. The boys and girls are lined up in long rows down the court, hands behind their backs, feet jiggling impatiently for their name to be called out. Naruto’s all the way down the end of the line, in between Kiba and Shino, and for some reason he has a bad feeling about this. He watches as the options dwindle the further down the line Iruka-sensei gets. Across from him Sasuke stares straight ahead, face impassive. Naruto is sure he’s already done all this, and he’s just waiting to get it over with.

Iruka’s eyes glint warmly when he gets to Naruto, who grins at him widely. “Go on, Iruka-sensei, tell us who’s going to be lucky enough to get paired up with me!” he yells.

Iruka makes a face. “Naruto, you are not in the middle of a field. There’s no need to shout like the village herald!”

Naruto pouts, but shuts his mouth. In the next line over, Sasuke smirks. Naruto scowls at him.

Iruka looks between the two of them a moment, unobserved. His mouth twitches; he makes a quick notation on his clipboard, and—

“Naruto, you’ll be training with Sasuke for the next two weeks.”

Naruto’s eyes threaten to pop out of his head. “I’m not training with him!! He’s a boring bastard with no sense of humour. I’m going to be too much for him to handle!”

It’s Sasuke’s turn to scowl at him. “Shut up, dead-last. You can’t even keep up with me, let alone actually hold up your own in a match!”

“Now, now, boys,” Iruka admonishes, holding on tight to Naruto’s collar as he tries to get at Sasuke. “You will have to learn that you must do your best no matter who you are paired up with. You will not always be able to choose your partners in real life.”

“What is this, psych week?” Sasuke sneers.

“Don’t speak to Iruka-sensei like that, asshole! I’m gonna beat you up! Let me go, Iruka-sensei!” Naruto yells, almost spitting in fury.

“You’ve hardly given me incentive to do so, if all you’re going to do is jump on Sasuke and pummel him into the ground! You need to cool off, Naruto. Five laps around the court! You too, Sasuke,” he says firmly when Sasuke snorts at Naruto’s gaping mouth.

The two frowning boys set off, their chins lifted at a defiant angle. It doesn’t take long before that, like everything else, turns into a competition between the two of them. One glare out of the side of Naruto’s eyes, one sneer on Sasuke’s face, and they’re off. They sprint around the court, pushing and shoving at each other to gain an advantage. Sasuke is tall and wiry, and Naruto may be skinny, but he has been training heavily all year and can more than keep pace with him.

A nasty shove at his side leaves Naruto bruised and trying to catch his breath, but he sets his shoulders and puts on a burst of speed to catch up and even leave Sasuke behind for a moment. The two reach the last corner together, and leg it down the width of the court in one last surge. Naruto’s feet pass the last line seconds before Sasuke’s do. Naruto flops on the ground, exhausted.

“Heh, asshole, I win!”

“In your dreams, usuratonkachi. My head was well ahead of you.”

“Yeah, it would be, since it’s as big as the court itself. I’m amazed you manage to keep it on your neck!” Naruto retorts, but he’s smiling none-the-less.

“Whatever,” Sasuke drawls. “You’d better be on the court at five p.m. sharp, or I’m dragging you on it by your hair.”

“Fine,” Naruto yells at his back. “I will be! And I’m gonna kick your ass again!”

Sasuke doesn’t deign to answer.

---

They are squaring up against each other on opposite sides of the court, Naruto yelling and Sasuke merely raising an eyebrow at him, winding him up even more, when a mild voice interrupts.

“Ah, you must be my students for the month.” It belongs to the weirdest-looking stranger Naruto has ever seen. White, gravity-defying hair, a mask made of lycra over the lower half of his face, the man is covered from top to bottom in a navy blue tracksuit and is holding a battered green book in one hand, the other tucked away in his pocket.

“Who the hell are you?” Naruto wants to know.

Sasuke merely sighs. “Kakashi. I wondered when you’d finally get here.”

“What?! You know this guy?” Naruto turns to him.

“Unfortunately. He’s meant to be one of the best instructors in the country, though I have no idea where he gets that reputation, he’s a lousy teacher.”

“Sasuke.” Kakashi’s voice must be wired directly into Naruto’s spine, because he literally snaps to attention as soon as Kakashi speaks in that tone. Sasuke looks unimpressed, but he does come closer.

“Now then, children,” Kakashi beams at them. “Shall we play a game?”

Naruto and Sasuke are both told to go in the same half of the court; Kakashi nabs a racquet from Sasuke’s stash on the sidelines and faces them from the opposite side of the court.

“Let’s see what you’ve got!” he calls out to them, tosses a ball in the air and serves.

The serve is so powerful, it almost blows Naruto away in its path. He has to duck sharpish to avoid a broken nose.

“Bloody hell,” Naruto breathes. This guy is something else!

Sasuke just looks resigned.

Kakashi work them hard; no matter how fast they lunge, or how well-placed their returns are, Kakashi is everywhere. He saves shots that have no right to be saved, his volleys are so deadly that even Sasuke misses them, and his drop-shots make Naruto want to scream in frustration – even throwing himself full-length on the court, he still can’t reach them in time.

Naruto is dead on his feet by the time Kakashi is done torturing them. Sasuke’s hair is plastered to the back of his head with sweat; gone is the duck’s backside – now it just looks like any other haircut, if a little longer in the back. Naruto wonders why he notices.

“Not too bad,” Kakashi muses from across the net. He looks completely unruffled, no sign of exertion anywhere on him. Naruto hates him. “You’ve got the basics covered, but you certainly need more practice for your accuracy; you in particular, Naruto. Sasuke – that was better.”

Sasuke nods at him and walks off to pick up his stuff. Naruto looks up at the tall man, feeling lost and defiant and despondent all at once. Kakashi looks down at him impassively. “You’re Minato and Kushina’s kid, aren’t you?”

At Naruto’s uncertain nod, Kakashi hums pensively. “You’ve got your father’s speed, and you’ve got your mother’s power, but you’ve a long way to go yet before you’re anywhere near as good as they were at your age. Well, Jiraiya did say you’ve got the potential. Let’s see you work it the next couple of weeks,” he tells him and meanders aimlessly away, nose back in his book.

Naruto sits on the court for a long time before making his way inside, through the falling dusk and in to dinner.

---

Playing as a team with Sasuke will never be easy, Naruto ponders, but it will be challenging. Sasuke berates him constantly.

“I’ll not be made to look like an idiot because you’re below par. You’ll get that backhand sorted if it’s the last thing I’ll do.”

Half of the time Naruto has no idea what the stuck-up boy is saying, but he gets the gist: Sasuke doesn’t think he’s trying hard enough. The thought makes him furious, and he stomps away with a mutinous set to his shoulders. In just under an hour he’s worked out what he’s doing wrong; the next time Sasuke sends him a forehand, Naruto’s backhand slams down the sideline, perfect to a fraction of an inch.

Sasuke watches him with wide eyes; Naruto is ecstatic, and disappears to show his newfound understanding to everyone else.

---

By the time the final week rolls about, Naruto’s performance at doubles has improved beyond recognition. He’s been spending almost all his time training with Kakashi, Sasuke, Sakura and Ino – another team Kakashi claims has been foisted onto him. The girls are really good, too, but if Naruto’s being honest with himself, he hardly notices anyone’s performance other than Sasuke’s.

Kakashi isn’t nearly as obsequious as Kabuto had been. He doesn’t shower Sasuke with empty praise – doesn’t praise him at all, most days. However, Naruto is learning, and he knows that the dip of Kakashi’s head means more than Kabuto’s most flowery compliments.

Sasuke improves at a steady rate that Naruto tries and fails to copy. When Naruto does understand something, it happens in a burst of inspiration that barely lasts a moment before he’s on to the next hurdle. Still, it works for him.

To Naruto’s consternation, his attempts at befriending Sasuke, lame as they have been, have all been met by an impenetrable wall of disdain. The entirety of their interaction consists of a grunt here and there, and the inevitable insult: ‘moron.’ ‘Idiot.’ ‘Usuratonkachi,’ and okay, he does know a little Japanese, but if he hadn’t heard Jiraiya using that one a few months back, Naruto would have had no idea that he was being called an idiot yet again, and in a different language as a bonus.

He doesn’t understand why Sasuke is so hostile towards him. Sure, they fight and compete against each other constantly, but he does the same thing with Kiba, and Kiba doesn’t hate him. He’ll be damned if he asks the bastard himself, though. To say the least, he’d never work up the nerve, in case the answer is, “because that’s what you are, moron.”

He’s okay with being called names – well, not ‘okay’, because that would imply that his heart doesn’t twist in his chest every time Sasuke does it, but he’ll tolerate it if it means that Sasuke would at least speak to him. However, knowing Sasuke really does think that’s all Naruto is – ‘loser’, ‘dead-last’, ‘stupid’ – he doesn’t know if he can handle that from the best player his age he has ever seen on the court.

---

He gets up early the next morning, too wired to stay in bed. The end of month’s games start this morning, and he wants to get in some warm-up time before the others get in. They’re going to be playing a doubles tournament, and since there’s not too many teams when they are divided, there’s going to be three games to start with.

Naruto doesn’t yet know who it is him and Sasuke will be playing against, but it could be any one of the other five doubles – Kiba and Shino, Chouji and Shikamaru, Ino and Sakura, Tenten and Hinata, or Lee and Neji. Whoever it is, it’s going to be a tough game, he’s sure.

He gets to the court, swinging his racquet and stretching his upper body muscles along the way. It comes as no surprise and only mild irritation to see that his teammate is already there, battering his serve down the line.

“Mornin’,” Naruto yells.

Sasuke hardly pauses in his swing, blue shirt scrunching up under his armpits to expose his skinny stomach and ribs. A grunt comes from his direction that by some stretch of imagination could be taken as a reply. Naruto rolls his eyes; he may be a bit grumpy in the mornings, but Sasuke is grumpy all the bloody time. It’s annoying as hell.

“Asshole,” Naruto grumbles under his breath, but goes to join him on court.

They practice in near silence for half an hour, before the first stragglers of their competition start arriving. A bleary-eyed Tenten shuffles onto the court, doing squats and stretches to wake herself up. Hinata looks much more alert, long black hair caught at the nape of her neck in a marked change from the usual curtain – it’s the first time that Naruto has seen her exhibit any determination. Most of the time, he wonders what she’s doing at tennis camp – since she doesn’t seem so keen on it – not this time, though. It’s a good look on her, and he grins at her broadly, receiving a tentative smile in return.

“Do your best, Hinata!” he encourages, and she flushes with pleasure.

“You too, Naruto,” she says softly and turns away to join Tenten at the other end of the court.

---

The first match doesn’t start until almost midday, when everyone has warmed up and is getting antsy. The sky is overcast, light grey clouds tangling with one another as the wind twists between them, reforming their whimsical shapes and teasing at the hair of the lined-up kids. It’s cool for early August – perfect playing conditions.

Iruka flips through his clipboard and clears his throat. “Neji and Lee, you’ll be playing Naruto and Sasuke. Chouji and Shikamaru, you’ll be playing Kiba and Shino. Girls, you’ll start off by playing each other.”

Neji smirks unpleasantly at Naruto and Sasuke, and Naruto has to stop himself from decking him one. Sasuke eyes the competition shrewdly, and Lee gets way too overexcited, as usual, launching into his favourite speech about youthful vigour and team spirit; everyone but Naruto tunes him out.

Lee has no connections to the world of tennis, apart from an insatiable drive to prove that even someone not born to tennis-mad parents can succeed and become a great player through perseverance and hard work. He is an energetic boy with a slightly obsessive personality, and is extremely loyal to his friends. Naruto likes him very much, and it really does his head in to see Neji belittling him all the time for his lack of connections.

Neji himself is not the most pleasant of individuals – a snob with a huge chip on his shoulder because of his uncle – who happens to be Hinata’s father. When his father and his uncle had been young, his father had given up his tennis training so that his brother, Hinata’s father, could carry on with his when money had been tight.

Now Neji believes that he is doomed to be forced to do the same for Hinata, despite his obvious talent. In self-defence, or so Naruto presumes, he treats her like crap. His past is no excuse for Naruto, but Neji is a year older than him and he intimidates Naruto with his palest of pale grey eyes and his curtain of long black hair that he shares with his cousin. When Neji looks at him Naruto feels exposed, stripped bare and hideously vulnerable. So he says nothing to him, and hates himself for his cowardice.

The four of them take their places on the court, staring each other down. Lee and Neji win first serve, and Neji starts the match as it is to go on – vicious, merciless, absurdly fast and brutal. The score quickly settles in Lee and Neji’s favour – they are playing two sets out of three, and in no time at all the opposition has taken the first set and made a decent headway into the second set. Only Sasuke and Naruto’s quick reactions hold it back from becoming a massacre. Slowly but surely, they claw their way back to take the second set and the two already exhausted teams plunge head-first into the third and deciding set.

And then disaster strikes. Naruto leaps to reach a backhand volley down his half of the court and lands badly; there is a sickening crunch and Naruto screams in pain as his ankle crumbles beneath him. He’s managed to hit the ball back over the net, but it’s nothing particularly challenging. Lee hesitates, obviously worried about his friend, but Neji has no such qualms and returns the ball full-strength – straight back at Naruto, who is still sprawled on the turf lying on his side and clutching at his ankle.

Naruto sees the ball heading for him, but there’s no time to roll out of the way, even if he could make himself move without passing out from the pain. He curls in on himself, and spares a vague thought for how much this is about to hurt.

A sudden rush of air and Sasuke’s there, squaring his narrow shoulders right in front of him and shielding him with his body. He whacks the ball back over the net, a deadly forehand that flies well past Neji and slams a fraction of an inch within the confines of the court, scoring them the point to take the game for a 4:3 lead, Naruto realises hazily.

Sasuke turns, looks down into eyes dull with pain and drops his racquet carelessly to the side. He crouches down, gently feeling Naruto’s leg and ankle. It still hurts like a bitch, and Naruto lets him know this rather vocally. Sasuke looks back up at him, eyes unreadable, just as Iruka runs up and crouches by them, shooing Sasuke back.

A few minutes later the verdict comes back just as nasty as everyone already suspects – Naruto has broken one bone in his ankle and fractured another. It means at least two months of rest and physical therapy.

The pain of the fall had brought tears to Naruto’s eyes, but it’s only now that he lets them fall, bitter disappointment curling in his gut. He’s let their team down; worse, he’s let Sasuke down. He squeezes his eyes shut for a moment. When he opens them again, he can see a ring of concerned faces looking down at him with surprisingly similar expressions of worry. His eyes search for Sasuke along the throng; he finds him standing closer than the rest, just to the side of where Iruka is packing ice on his injury to contain the swelling.

Sasuke’s arms are crossed over his chest and his foot is tapping impatiently. He’s staring down at Iruka with a scowl; Naruto almost flinches when the dark eyes snap up to look at him.

“I—I’m sorry, Sasuke,” he mumbles, miserable. Sasuke’s pissed, of course he is; he’s just been dropped out from the competition through no fault of his own. Naruto hangs his head.

“Idiot,” Sasuke says. It takes a moment for Naruto, sunk in his dejection, to realise that while the insult is the same, the tone is nothing like what it usually is – irritated, angry, superior. No, Sasuke sounds – almost mild, like he’s saying it out of habit, not because he means it.

Naruto stares up at him; Sasuke shifts his weight from one foot to the other awkwardly. “’S not your fault,” he mutters almost inaudibly.

Naruto nods, because he certainly can’t speak, not with the huge lump stuck in his throat that constricts his air.

“We have to move you, Naruto,” Iruka says and beckons someone forward. The crowd parts for Kakashi-sensei and Gai-sensei, Lee and Neji’s instructor. Kakashi looks bored as always, but there’s sharpness to his gaze that betrays his worry. Gai-sensei has a grim look on his face, lips pressed tightly together and no sparkle in sight.

They prop Naruto up just as the first drops of rain spatter the ground. They carry him past the line of his anxious friends and in to the nurse’s office where Tsunade, the old lady who runs the camp, is waiting. She’s one of the top sports physicians in the country (or so Jiraiya has told him) and Naruto feels calm enough – he’s in good hands.

---

“Brat, what have you done now?” she snaps as she quickly assesses the damage.

Naruto feels that’s a little unfair, especially since he’s never been brought to her before – any minor sprains and bruising he incurs seem to heal quickly enough on their own. He opens his mouth to tell her so – and gasps in pain as she feels the break carefully. She lets him go and sighs, reaching for the X-ray Iruka had taken a few minutes earlier and sticking it under the light.

“I have to realign the broken bone just here, see?” she throws over her shoulder at Naruto, shrugging as she points out the break. “This is gonna hurt, kid,” she tells him in her no-nonsense way as she walks back over to him. “Now, this is incredibly fiddly work, so stay very, very still for me,” she cautions.

She takes hold of the foot and ankle securely; Naruto whimpers from the shock this sends through the injured leg. Tsunade starts rotating the foot very, very slowly – Naruto grits his teeth, tears running down his cheeks. Then she does some complicated move, half-rotation, half-pull and there’s a click under his skin.

Naruto’s scream of pain brings Sasuke running in from the outside.

“What are you doing in here?” Tsunade asks him, irritated at having her space invaded. She’s wiping her hands off on a towel and glaring at him.

Sasuke doesn’t answer, eyes glued to Naruto’s pasty, sweat-soaked face. Tsunade looks between them and snorts.

“The worst is over,” she tells the two tightly strung boys. “I’m just going to put it in a cast, and then you can finally have some painkillers and go back to your room. Sasuke will help you there, won’t you, Sasuke?” she says sharply, catching Sasuke as he’s trying to slip out of the door unnoticed.

Naruto turns his head to look at him, sweaty hair plastered to his forehead, and Sasuke makes a face but nods reluctantly.

Tsunade quickly applies the cast and sends Naruto on his way with a pair of crutches that he braces on heavily. Sasuke hovers at his side as he makes his way very slowly back to his and Shikamaru’s room. They can still hear the sounds of the next match going on, since the rain had stopped as quickly as it had started. The cool, fresh air feels good on Naruto’s clammy face, and he closes his eyes and leans into it just for a moment.

When he’s ready to carry on he looks at Sasuke again, standing there waiting patiently, and sends him an awkward smile. Sasuke shifts on his feet and just turns back in the direction of the flats, throwing a look over his shoulder to see if Naruto is following. He is.

Once they get to his room Naruto collapses on his bed with a groan. Sasuke hesitates at the door, uncertain whether he should come in or leave.

“I’m okay, you don’t have to—“ Naruto stops and huffs. “You can go if you want. You probably want to watch the other games.”

Sasuke still hesitates. “If you pass out on the way to the bathroom, Tsunade’s going to skin me. I should stay just in case you need to go somewhere, or I’ll never hear the last of it.”

Naruto stares at him just for a moment until Sasuke clears his throat uncomfortably. Then he blinks and shakes himself.

“Fine,” he says on a huff; but really, he’s grateful not to be left alone.

Sasuke settles into one of the two straight-backed wooden chairs in the room, in the corner by the open window. Naruto squirms to a more comfortable position on the top of the bed, drawing a blanket clumsily over himself. He lies there, looking at the ceiling and listening to the way the chair creaks when Sasuke shifts his weight, the soft thump when Sasuke stretches his legs out in front of him, the chirping of the birds outside.

Eventually, he sleeps.

---

He wakes up to an empty room and the sound of many footsteps drawing near, loud voices drifting through the open window. He rubs the sleep from his eyes with the heel of his hand and wonders how much of it was a dream, and how much of it was real. Sasuke couldn’t possibly have seen him home and sat with him while le slept, right?

His eyes fall to the side table by the bed where a tall glass of water with a napkin on top of it waits on top of another napkin. He doesn’t own any napkins and neither does Shikamaru; and in any case neither of them is quite that anal. He feels his mouth curve in a small, startled smile just as the door opens to admit the rest of his friends and his roommate.

---

His parents show up the next morning, Kushina in full ‘babble masking her concern’ mode and Minato with a tightness at the corners of his eyes.

“I’m fine,” Naruto says over and over again, squeezing his mom’s hand in his reassuringly, until the tightness on Minato’s face disappears to be replaced by the much more familiar exasperated fondness that his wife and son bring out in him. He leaves them for a while to go talk to the instructors while Kushina quickly and efficiently repacks the mess that is his luggage.

Naruto is unhappy that he has to leave four days early, but his ankle needs constant rest and complete immobilisation for the time being, and to top it all it is in quite a bit of pain this morning, so his protests lack the force necessary to derail Kushina from her goal.

“… likely will be retiring this year or next, depending on the circuit and that damn bastard Federer,” Minato’s voice comes from just outside the door; a moment later he steps in the room, Kakashi at his heels. “All set?” he asks them, and they both nod.

“I just want a word with Tsunade before we go; you can take the bags to the car and take Naruto to say goodbye to his friends,” Kushina directs as she passes him, smoothing down her lemon-coloured cotton dress.

“Yes, dear,” Minato sighs and Kakashi chuckles. Kushina ruffles his white mop of hair as she walks past and he ducks out of the way with a practiced motion, his eyes crinkled in a smile.

“Come on, kiddo, let’s make the most of our short time before your motor-mouth mother comes back to hassle us,” Minato quips.

Naruto hates goodbyes, so he just promises to email and chat online, and laughs around with them until his mother and Tsunade return.

“See you next year!” he yells and waves with one hand to the chorus of goodbyes as his dad braces him to sit in the car.

He turns around to look back as they drive away – the guys have gone back to their practice; all but Sasuke, who is looking after the car with a strange expression on his face. Kakashi steps up next to him and places a hand on his shoulder, nudging him gently. Sasuke looks up at him, smiles faintly and turns away.

---

Healing takes a long friggin’ time. Naruto spends the next two weeks before school starts almost locked up inside the house – all his friends from school are still away somewhere nice by the seaside, and they’re not likely to be back before the beginning of September.

He fills his time with Google. He starts off with searches on the other guys from camp, just for the fun of it. There’s not much about Lee, but Naruto bets that won’t last long. Shikamaru is only mentioned once or twice, because of this father, Shikaku Nara, being the coach to Britain’s Davis Cup team.

Most of the info he finds on his friends from camp is, unsurprisingly, on Hinata and Neji Hyuuga. Hinata’s father, Hiashi Hyuuga, is the World Tennis Association President, and a holder of many competitive titles himself. Neji’s father holds a place on the WTA Board of Directors, but in a purely administrative capacity. Naruto can see why that would piss Neji off, but he can’t see history repeating – the Hyuuga family is very well-off these days, so there is no reason to suppose that Neji might have to give up the sport in favour of his cousin. Naruto makes up his mind to speak up to Neji next year – there’s no need for this artificially created antagonism between the two cousins.

Once he has exhausted this line of enquiry, his curiosity gets the better of him. He doesn’t know Kakashi’s surname, but the name is unusual enough that, when combined with ‘tennis’ as a search term, it yields immediate results.

Naruto reads on, mouth agape, to Kakashi Hatake’s myriad achievements. Holder of first place on the rank list since he had been 13, gone pro at sixteen, takes the Grand Slam at age nineteen, well on his way to achieve the Super Grand Slam before a horrific fall from a second-floor window breaks both his legs in five places and shatters his right hip. Foul play is suspected, involving one Orochimaru Sannin, but never proved. Kakashi had been told that he might never walk again, let alone play; they hadn’t reckoned on Kakashi’s sheer pigheaded stubbornness or the unfailing support of his tennis buddy, Minato Namikaze.

Two years later, after seven surgeries, a year of rigorous and gruelling physical therapy, and two trips to the Oxford University psych ward, Kakashi had been back on his feet and had started training again. Unfortunately, the one thing the doctors had been right about was his performance on court – the shattered hip had just been too damaged to withstand the punishment of a four-hour, five-set match. Kakashi had retired and, at his buddy’s urging had gone, albeit grudgingly, into teaching.

Naruto is reluctantly impressed. It seemed that while Kakashi had taken on many students before, none of them had lasted more than a week under his obsessively demanding tutoring. He and Sasuke had lasted a whole three and a half weeks; and it seemed that Kakashi had coached Sasuke more than just this one time.

After this revelation, there is no helping it. A month after school has started, and two weeks before his cast comes off, Naruto watches his fingers type in ‘Sasuke Uchiha’ into Google as if they are no longer connected to his body. Seconds later the search spews out thousands of hits.

Naruto closes his eyes. He is dying to rummage through all the gossip, the theories, the screwed-up relationship Sasuke has with his family, his brother’s interviews about him, his father’s dismissal of his accomplishments, his mother’s veiled praise of the same. His stomach twists at the thought of how this might very well be seen as betrayal of trust, even though he barely knows the guy.

Despite the urge to pry, his mind is made up. He reaches for the mouse again, draws the cursor to the top right-hand corner of the window and clicks it closed with a determined twist of his lips. Plenty of time to irritate it out of him next year, he thinks with a grin.

---

Two months after this happens, Naruto is back on the court under Jiraiya’s watchful eye. He needs to return to his previous form, and it is essential that he regains muscle flexibility after being in a cast for so long. His muscles twinge painfully for weeks, and he can’t hit a decent serve to save his life – he just can’t push himself off the ground with sufficient force. The fifth time it happens, he wants to cry.

The atmosphere in the Namikaze-Uzumaki household is tense. Both his parents know what this means to Naruto – possibly as much as it would mean to either of them. Minato scours physical therapists obsessively; when all of them fail to meet his exacting standards, to his wife’s endless frustration, Kushina pesters Tsunade until she comes to their house and shows her how to do it herself.

The three notice an immediate improvement. “Stands to reason,” Tsunade says. “The muscles must be worked in all directions and they’re not doing that on the court. Also, they need a warm-up just like any other muscle, so that there’s no further injury.”

So it is that Kushina takes over Naruto’s physical therapy altogether. They spend an hour every morning doing exercises and massages, and only then is Naruto allowed back on the court. Six days later Naruto can serve again; two weeks and he can run laps around the court at his previous pace; a month and he’s back to hitting shots like he had done five months back.

Jiraiya works him mercilessly, but Naruto takes it all without complaints and pesters him for more. Jiraiya relents and starts teaching him more complicated shots, how to backspin and topspin the ball, how to drop it just so over the net, how to draw his opponent to engage closer to the net, how to then jump smash the ball so it flies right over his head and scores on the baseline.

He learns defensive techniques, too – his favourite ever is the leapfrog. His eyes almost pop out of his head when he manages to fool Jiraiya and jump smash the ball over him, only for Jiraiya to make a run for it, jump ahead of it and hit it with the racquet coming up between his legs in an inside-out forehand. Naruto’s seen his father do it on the court many-a-time, and he is insufferable until Jiraiya gives in and teaches it to him, with Minato shouting instructions from the side of the court.

Naruto struggles to juggle schoolwork and tennis quite a bit more this year, because of the intensive training he’s talked his way into. Help comes from a surprising place – one evening he’d spent an hour complaining to Shikamaru about his stupid physics homework on Skype until even the laid-back boy had had enough of his whining, and had proceeded to explain to him in ninety seconds what Naruto had been unable to grasp for three days. From then on, Shikamaru’s tutoring via Skype becomes a nightly ritual; Naruto’s grades settle and start to rise steadily.

And if Naruto wonders a bit too often about what Sasuke is studying in that far-off boarding school, he doesn’t mention it to anybody else.

---

It’s the second week of July, and Naruto wakes up on Friday with the knowledge that on Sunday he’ll be setting out for tennis camp once again burning in his mind. He bounces out of his bed, too excited to lie in, and runs into the kitchen where Kushina is poring through a textbook of some sort while she’s waiting for the pancake batter she’s just poured into the pan to settle and start bubbling. A slightly singed smell permeates the room, and Naruto can see the several slightly charred previous results waiting on a plate by the stove. Kushina is absent-mindedly spreading butter onto the topmost one as she turns the page with her other hand. The butter is starting to run, and Naruto notes that she’s not doing a particularly good job of getting it to go over the pancake, and not under it.

He rolls his eyes. This is a more and more frequent occurrence these past few months; he and his Dad know better than to say anything, though.

“Morning, Mom!” he says cheerfully, eyeing the fresh pancake in the pan that’s still salvageable.

“Oh! Morning, love!” Kushina starts, reaching out and ruffling Naruto’s hair with preternatural speed before he can jump out of the way.

“Moooom,” he whinges even as his nose twitches and he turns to look at the pan again, which has started to smoke slightly.

“Bloody hell,” Kushina yelps and scurries over to the stove, deftly flipping the pancake in the air so it lands on its other side. The top is only slightly browner than golden; Naruto considers this to be a success.

“Mom, can we go shopping today? I need some new socks, and a few more T-shirts would be useful.”

“Sure, sweetie,” Kushina says fondly as she flips the text closed. Naruto glances at the cover – Sports Injuries: Their Prevention and Treatment. Oh. There are bookmarks all over the book, sticking out in an untidy mess.

“Mom? You know I’m okay now, right? You don’t have to read this stuff anymore.”

“Oh,” Kushina says, flushing a little. “It’s not that, darling. I—Well, if you must know, I found it really interesting and challenging when I was working with you. I’m thinking of enrolling in a course at university next year.”

“Why, though, Mom? You have tennis! You’re one of the best players in the world!”

“That is true, darling, thank you, but I’m also well over thirty now, and so’s your father.”

Naruto scrunches his eyebrows down. Okay, so thirty-four is old and everything, but he can’t imagine ever wanting to do anything else besides tennis.

Kushina sighs when she sees her son’s confusion. Perhaps it’s time to tell him. “Naruto, listen,” she says, and Naruto looks up at her tone. “Your father and I are thinking of retiring soon. We both have other things that we’re interested in doing, and the two decades on the court are taking their toll on us.”

“What?!” Naruto is aghast. “Mom, no! Why would you ever want to do that?!”

Kushina smiles at him, looking more serene than he’s ever seen her. He realises that she isn’t seeing this decision as giving up something she loves, but rather as an opportunity to work on other things she’s interested in.

“I think we should tell him, Kushina, love. He’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer when it comes to things like this, but even he’s going to notice soon enough!” Minato teases from the door.

Naruto scowls at his father. “Hey!” he protests. Minato just chuckles.

Naruto huffs in affront before something registers. “Tell me what, anyway?”

Kushina beams. “You’re going to be a big brother in six months!”

Naruto gapes at her for a moment before launching himself in her arms. “That’s brilliant, Mom,” he whispers. He feels a big hand land on his shoulder and squeeze reassuringly. He sneaks an arm around his dad as well, hanging on tight.

---

Sunday arrives too soon for Naruto, who’s still letting the news sink in. The second he sees the camp gates, though, he feels the excitement take hold of him all over again. There are a lot more cars than usual, but Naruto pays them no mind for now, eager to meet up with his friends after a whole year of not seeing them.

He hugs his dad, then his mom, admonishing her to be careful and receiving another hair tousle for his trouble; then he’s off, blond hair flopping in the wind. Minato rolls his eyes good-naturedly and leaves Naruto’s bags in the growing pile to the side – they will all be taken to the kids’ respective rooms soon enough.

“Kiba! Chouji!” he hears his son yell and pokes Kushina in the side. “Come on, love. Stop staring at him like that, you’ll put him off his stride. Let’s go see who we came to see and be off. We have the house to ourselves, and I’ve been making plans,” he smirks slyly.

Kushina perks up immediately and sends him a sideways glance that makes his temperature soar; they look at each other for a long moment and scarper off to opposite sides of the camp grinning like teenagers.

---

The next morning, Naruto is just getting up for their first practice – far too early in his opinion, since Kakashi is always bloody late – when he hears footsteps running closer and closer outside. The door to the room he’s sharing with Shikamaru again bursts open and Kiba almost falls through the gap, dragging Shino behind him.

“God, hurry up and get dressed already, you two! You’ve got to see this!” he yelps, arms flailing wildly.

Shikamaru just rolls over to face the wall and flips his pillow over his head. “Go away,” Naruto hears being muffled into the mattress.

“Come on!” Kiba whines and grabs Shikamaru’s leg from under the covers, pulling at him until he’s tumbling half-way onto the ground.

Shikamaru levels him a murderous look through eyes still squinting in the daylight. “What the bloody fuck?” he growls menacingly.

“Newcomers! Well, not newcomers, but visitors from the other tennis camps! There’s going to be a tournament!”

Shikamaru’s eyes open all the way. “A tournament?”

“Yeah, with draws and everything! Since there haven’t been many new applicants for the camp this year, they’ve decided to go ahead and try this scheme. If it works, they’ll be doing it every year for the older kids.”

“How do you know all this?” Naruto asks, eyes sparkling with the possibilities already.

“Me mum’s on the committee, in’t she?” Kiba drawls, imitating his mother’s Northern drawl perfectly.

“Brilliant,” Naruto shouts and rushes to the bathroom to wash up and get dressed. Besides, he hasn’t seen Sasuke yet and he’s eager to get started on the ‘irritate the hell out of him’ campaign he’s got planned.

---

They head straight for breakfast on the presumption that that’s where they’re going to be told about the newcomers and the competition. The long tables are packed with people already; Naruto squeezes in beside Lee who shakes his hand delightedly. Naruto grins at him and is about to ask him how his year has been when Iruka stands up and clears his throat.

“Welcome back, everybody!” he tells them, smiling fondly. “We have quite the programme for you this year. As a lot of you may have heard already, since the rumour mill in this place is second-to-none, we are holding a tournament this year. It will take place in the last two weeks so that you all have a chance to get back into the swing of things first.

“For now, I would like to introduce you to our guests. We have a five-strong team from Scotland, headed by Orochimaru Sannin, one of the best coaches in the land. Then we have three guests from Wales, the Suna siblings. We also have four guests from Northern Ireland and six from the Republic of Ireland.”

As their teams are called, the participants stand up and wave, the notable exception being the team from Wales, the members of which just stare impassively at the competition. The front man is a short kid with striking red hair, large black circles under striking pale green eyes and a red birth mark on his forehead that looks like a kanji symbol. Over his shoulders there is a large, heavy-looking racquet bag – Naruto wonders why on earth he’s carrying it with him when he could have just used the practice racquets provided.

---

After they eat, the large group makes their way to the courts and get started on the task that always happens on the first Monday morning of camp – an assessment of how much all of them have improved (or haven’t) over the year. Naruto is excited to see his friends doing so well; his friends are nothing but shocked at how far Naruto has come, especially with the injury from the year before. Kakashi slouches along the sidelines, looking as bored as usual, but the quirk of his eyebrow reveals the fact that he too is impressed despite himself.

Iruka grins effusively at Naruto, clapping his shoulder. “Well done, Naruto!” he praises, and Naruto basks in the approval.

He hasn’t been able to find Sasuke this morning, but as he turns to exit the court he sees him standing apart from the rest, leaning against the fence in the corner, expression unreadable. His eyebrows are drawn down and he’s biting as him bottom lip viciously – Naruto is taken aback by this show of hostility, especially since he hasn’t even done anything yet. He walks over to Sasuke and realises with a shock that Sasuke is now over three inches taller than him. He fights his scowl – he doesn’t want to give Sasuke the wrong impression here – he is excited to see him again, after all.

“Hey,” he says amiably. “When did you get here?”

Sasuke stares at him for a moment before nodding curtly. “This morning,” he answers shortly.

“Oh,” Naruto perks up. “Did you hear about the tournament? Man, it’s going to be awesome! I’m going to get to kick your ass at last!”

Sasuke smirks, finally a more familiar and relaxed expression stealing over his face. Naruto relaxes a little at seeing it. “In your dreams, usuratonkachi,” Sasuke drawls as he starts forward and Naruto grins broadly, canines glinting in the sunlight. Sasuke passes him to take his place on the court, bumping his shoulder a little as he goes past. Naruto’s grin widens and warmth spreads through him. Perhaps there’s still a chance they might be friends.

---

The two weeks rush by at speed, a collage of training, laughing, running, serving, eating, talking, thinking up all sorts of plans and strategies. Naruto sticks to his friends and mostly avoids the newcomers, disliking the sneers and cold looks their group gets from them. The exception once again are the three siblings from Wales, who don’t even bother looking at any of the others, focusing on their training to the exclusion of all else.

The one blip in the flow happens when someone lets slip that it’s Sasuke’s birthday on the first Friday of the camp. Naruto wracks his brains what to do about it while the girls dither and giggle every time Sasuke’s name is mentioned, pissing Naruto off no end. In the end, he decides to do nothing – what could he possibly get the person who has everything he wants and nothing he needs?

And then he chances to see Sasuke’s scowl at the crowd of girls watching his practice – Sasuke must be more annoyed than usual if he betrays this much of what he feels. Sure enough, the constant giggles are putting him off his stride – he must be livid, Naruto thinks to himself. That is when his brilliant plan hatches in his mind, fully formed. Kidnap Sasuke! That’s exactly what he should do! Force him to take at least half of the day off, take him away from the crowds and make him take that stick out of his arse for once!

Naruto is at least smart enough to warn Iruka what he’s up to, so that the whole camp doesn’t panic when their star player disappears without a word. He thinks he notices Kakashi look at him shrewdly that afternoon, but he waves it off as his imagination.

It’s just before lunch break on Friday 23rd July, and the kids are getting antsy to get going. Naruto watches Sasuke carefully – he shows no indication of stopping. Excellent; so he’s sticking to his routine of training through lunch. Naruto checks his backpack to make sure the sandwiches and water he packed earlier are still there, and when Kiba shouts at him that it’s time for lunch, Naruto waves him off and tells him he’s got something to do first. Kiba looks at him oddly – Naruto has never, since Kiba’s known him, refused food; but he shrugs and lets it go, jogging to catch up to Chouji at the head of the lunch group.

Sasuke spares him a glance when Naruto walks over, but ignores him otherwise. Naruto is, all of a sudden, cripplingly nervous. He shuffles his feet a little when he reaches Sasuke, stopping awkwardly by his side. Sasuke raises an eyebrow at him, impassive.

When Naruto makes no move to talk, he sighs in irritation. “Did you need something, dead-last?”

“Don’t call me that!” Naruto fires back, but makes a visible effort to calm himself down. “Erm. I need you to come with me,” he manages, jerking his head over to the forest that starts at the edge of the courts-filled clearing.

“Why would I want to do that?” Sasuke asks coolly.

Naruto winces. Of course Sasuke’s going to be difficult about it. What the hell was he thinking?

“Uh. Please?” he says, trying and failing not to whine.

Sasuke closes his eyes in exasperation for a moment. “This better be good,” he mutters and drops his racquet back in his bag. “Well? Lead the way.”

Naruto jumps at that, scurrying forward quickly. “It’s this way,” he tells Sasuke and grabs his hand, tugging him behind. He feels Sasuke tense at the touch, but he just holds on tighter.

Once they are inside the forest and walking down the path, Sasuke retrieves his hand from Naruto’s warm grasp; Naruto sees it twitching, as if Sasuke is resisting the urge to wipe it on his trousers. They walk for maybe ten minutes, winding further and further inside the forest. Sasuke is starting to get agitated, Naruto can see, but the clearing he scouted yesterday evening is just a little bit further ahead. Just then Sasuke stops and opens his mouth, to tell him he’s going back no doubt, but Naruto looks at him pleadingly. “It’s just around the next corner, I promise!” he says, gripping his bag tightly.

Sasuke makes a face but closes his mouth and keeps walking. They reach their goal moments later, and Sasuke stops in his tracks at the edge. The grass is tall and untamed, a vibrant green even though there has been no rain for the past two weeks. The mystery is solved by the soft bubbling of a brook nearby, just on the other side of the small meadow.

Naruto stands in the middle, eyes uncertain, a cautious smile on his lips. “I thought I could bring you here to relax a little, since it’s your birthday and everything, and you don’t like a crowd. I’ve spoken to Iruka-sensei and you have the afternoon off from training.”

Sasuke stares at him in disbelief. Naruto wonders if this is the first time someone has done something for him for his birthday, the way he’s carrying himself. With a shock he realises it must be – he’s been at this camp for his past six birthdays, really. The thought makes him angry and embarrassed at the same time; he flushes from the contradictory mess of emotions.

He reaches into the bag and takes out a blanket, spreads it underneath the shade of a nearby oak tree. He takes the sandwiches out and puts them on a plate he’d weaselled out of the kitchen along with the food and bottled water. He puts it all on the blanket, then reaches inside the bag one last time and retrieves a large hard-cover book. Sasuke’s widening eyes confirm that he knows it had been swiped from his bedside table by a helpful Lee, who had been reluctant to give it away until Naruto had let slip he was planning a surprise for Sasuke’s birthday; after which Lee had handed it over without protest.

“Um. There’s food, there’s water, here’s your book, although I have no idea who in their right mind reads theoretical physics in their spare time,” he scoffs, giving Physics of the Impossible a disgusted look. Sasuke still hasn’t spoken, and Naruto’s getting a little worried. “I thought you could have a nice few hours off and away from everyone, maybe read or something,” he babbles, repeating himself. The sound of Sasuke’s voice stops him in his tracks.

“And you thought you’d join me, did you?” Sasuke says, voice flat.

Naruto flushes from head to toe. “N—No!” he stammers. “I—I just wanted to set up everything for you, I wasn’t going to bother you. You can—“ he trails off, not knowing what to say. “I’ll just be going now,” he finishes lamely, glances down at the empty bag in his hands and places it on the edge of the blanket, then shuffles forward in the direction of the path.

Sasuke is silent as Naruto passes him; Naruto throws him a last glance from the corner of his eyes.

“There’s enough food for two,” Sasuke’s voice comes softly from behind him.

Naruto stops, but doesn’t turn. “I didn’t know how hungry you might be,” he says back, but he can’t squish the hope in his chest that Sasuke might ask him to stay.

“Not hungry enough to eat all this by myself. It would be a shame for it to go to waste.”

Naruto turns then, and the sight of uptight, perfectly controlled Sasuke picking at the skin on his right thumb with his head bowed makes him want to hug him tight. He knows he’s not getting a better invitation from him, though, so he meets him half-way.

“You’re totally right. I should stay and help you finish it all.” He smiles tentatively, and when Sasuke looks up and smiles back, he retraces his steps and flops clumsily down on the blanket, reaching for the food. “Here’s a ham and cheese one, and we also have chicken salad, egg and watercress and bacon and tomato. What do you fancy to start with?” he says, holding them out for Sasuke to choose.

Sasuke walks over and sits down on the blanket, a hundred times more graceful than Naruto. “The egg and cress, please.”

Naruto grimaces but hands it over, tearing open the bacon and tomato one for himself. They eat in silence, opening two bottled waters to wash it all down with. When they’re done with the food, Naruto flips over on his back to lie sideways across the blanket, shoving the empty backpack under his head. He closes his eyes and sighs contentedly, happy to bask in the sunshine and Sasuke’s company. After a little while he hears the book being opened and a warm, bare foot coming to rest against his side as Sasuke stretches out his legs and leans back on the tree behind him.

Naruto is lying in the shade, but sunlight glints through the leaves and dapples his chest with warmth. The occasional flip of a page and the gurgle of the stream lull him into a light doze; he misses Sasuke’s affectionate look and the small smile that curves his lips when Naruto starts to snore softly.

---

Sasuke had nudged him awake sometime later; the sunlight had slanted already, creating long shadows across the grass-covered soil. They had repacked the bag and slipped back into the camp, no one being any the wiser about them slipping away. It had been one of the best days of Naruto’s life.

He remembers it fondly even now, perhaps especially now, as he looks at Sasuke sneering at him from across the net. It’s the last day before the tournament begins, and Kakashi had poked and prodded at them until he had got them out on the court playing against each other. Naruto’s ecstatic to be playing his rival, and is throwing himself into the game with enthusiasm. Sasuke, on the other hand, is a machine – cold, precise, collected, not a shot or a step out of place. It’s driving Naruto insane.

He’s losing points left and right because he can’t get his emotions in check. So he decides to wind Sasuke up as much as Sasuke’s winding him up. He starts off slow – a slice here, a sly drop ball there, and he can see Sasuke’s composure unravelling. When he returns a vicious backhand with a between-the-legs, inside-out forehand – his ‘leapfrog’-dubbed shot, scoring the point to even out the third set, Sasuke loses it.

“What the bloody fuck are you doing, moron?!” he hisses. “This isn’t playing, this is a damned circus! Can’t you take anything seriously?” There is violence in his tone that Naruto has never heard before; it makes him want to cringe.

Naruto smirks, trying not to show how much it hurts to have Sasuke back to the usual insults and condescension. “What, the great Sasuke Uchiha can’t handle a few tricky shots? Even though they were brilliant, if I do say so myself.”

Sasuke seethes. “I have no idea how you think you can win, when you play crap like that. You’re going to get blown off the court, and I’d rather you didn’t take me down with you,” he says coldly, turns and walks off the court.

Naruto looks after him, his heart sinking in his chest. Did he overdo it? He hadn’t meant to piss Sasuke off quite that much, just enough to get him out of ‘robot’ mode.

“You played very well, kiddo,” Kakashi says from behind him, and Naruto starts. He’d forgotten their instructor was there.

“Not well enough, apparently,” Naruto says bitterly.

Kakashi sighs. “No, you played an excellent game. You have heart, Naruto, and that is worth more to a tennis player than any amount of perfection. Look at Federer. He’s poised to take more titles than any other player in the world of tennis, but he’s like an automation – perfect, but empty. There’s no heart in him. Now look at your father, Sampras, Agassi, McEnroe, Becker, the other great players. They might not have as many titles, but they have so much more heart. That’s why they are the tennis greats. Don’t lose that, kid. Don’t let Sasuke make you doubt yourself. You’re only going to lose if you do.”

Kakashi walks away, leaving Naruto behind on the court alone with his thoughts.

---

It is the second day of the tournament, and already there are miserable, sulky faces everywhere. The first round consists of fifteen matches, since there are thirty players. There are ten courts in the camp, but only six where matches can be played since there are other, younger kids in the camp that can’t take part in the tournament yet and they have to train somewhere, too. From the ten matches played the day before (two out of three games for the boys and the girls), there are already ten sulking players.

To Naruto’s delight, only three are from his camp – Tenten, Chouji and Shino. The rest are from the competitors’ teams, and they are not happy. Shikamaru has won his match already, and so have Lee and Sasuke. Naruto is playing today, along with Sakura, Ino and Hinata. Neji throws him a disdainful glance, saying something about this being the only suitable place for Naruto, in between the girls, and Naruto flips.

“You pretentious arsehole! Just because you have talent doesn’t mean that the rest of us can’t beat your genius with hard work! Just you wait and see!”

“Please, don’t make me listen to your inane rambling. A loser like you could never beat a winner like me!”

The taunt reaches its target much easier than anyone would have supposed. Naruto glances at Sasuke immediately; Sasuke’s face is shuttered, cold. Naruto turns back to Neji, resigned.

“Just because your family has been wronged in the past doesn’t mean that it will happen again. You have options, Neji. You don’t have to push everyone away, and you would do well to open your eyes to who the people around you are, not where they come from or what their family’s background is.” Naruto’s voice is low, sincere – no one present doubts that he believes that with all his heart.

Neji scoffs, but it comes out more hesitant than before. Something bitter twists his face for a moment; “Believe what you like,” Neji snarls, looking between Naruto and the rest of the group. “For someone so privileged, you are essentially useless, just like my dear cousin,” an ugly sneer twists his face at that last. “And for someone with such low-class, distasteful background, Lee is a better player than the two of you put together. Do not lecture me on the fairness of life; to me this is exactly what all of you deserve.” He turns his back on them, long black fair flipping away in his wake as he walks away.

Naruto grinds his teeth in frustration. “Don’t you listen to that twerp, Hinata. We are so much better than his kind. Let’s do our best, eh?” he tells the upset girl, his face falling when he sees her shaking. “Fucking bastard,” he growls and turns to go after Neji, but Sakura catches his arm with almost inhuman strength.

“Naruto is right, Hinata,” she says gently. “We must do our best and show everyone how far we’ve come!”

Hinata stops shaking and a determined light comes on in her eyes.

“That’s the spirit,” Naruto praises, and hopes that no one realises just how fake his smile is. He looks away from the two girls and his eyes fall on Sasuke’s narrowed ones. Sasuke turns and leaves without a word. Naruto takes a deep breath. He’s not crushed. He’s not.

---

Naruto wins his match against Colin from Northern Ireland, almost without breaking a sweat. His friends celebrate; he does not. He has another goal in front of him.

Of the fifteen players left, seven are from their camp. Ino and Sakura have lost, to their shock, from Temari Suna and another girl from the Scottish camp. Almost all of the surviving players now come from Orochimaru Sannin’s group, and from the English camp Naruto and the others are part of. The biggest surprise of all had been Hinata Hyuuga’s win against her opponent, a girl from Northern Ireland. Naruto had never seen her this driven, this motivated, and had cheered her on until his throat had been hoarse.

Now the true challenge starts. The remaining fifteen are broken down into pairs; the odd one out has to wait their turn and play against someone who has been beaten in the previous match. Whoever wins would go on to the quarterfinal.

Naruto draws Kiba. Hinata draws Neji. Sasuke draws Gareth from Scotland.

Naruto can’t believe he has to beat Kiba into the ground if he’s to go on, but his goal is clear and he will not hesitate. Neither, it appears, would Kiba. Naruto only wins by scoring 7:5 the final tiebreak in the third set, with a slice so fine it almost doesn’t make it over the net, confusing Kiba and fooling him into dropping it. Naruto wants to apologise, but he supposes that if he wants to be the best there is, it would mean winning against his friends many times over. Kiba doesn’t mind; he’s disappointed, but he shakes Naruto’s hand just like always.

“If I have to lose, I’d rather it be to you, mate,” he tells Naruto sincerely, and Naruto hugs him, overwhelmed with relief for a moment.

Hinata and Neji’s game is utterly brutal. Hinata gets battered, but she doesn’t give up, even when Neji virtually obliterates her in the first set. She keeps on getting up after falling, never faltering in her determination.

“Fucking give up already!” Neji shouts, composure forgotten.

“Never,” she says, and keeps making him fight for every point.

She loses, of course – very few players are a match for Neji, and she is not one of them yet – but she does so with such dignity that she is applauded on her way out of the court by everyone present. The quiet satisfaction in her eyes is something to behold.

Sasuke and Gareth’s game is violent in the extreme. So many falls are recorded that the umpire has to caution them on it. Sasuke only wins because one of the falls makes Gareth stretch a ligament in his shoulder – he concedes the match since Sasuke leads him by a game at the time and he can’t continue playing. Sasuke is not happy to have won like that.

The rest of them don’t fare so well. Shikamaru wins, barely, against another player from Scotland, using his toughest strategies and several jump smash shots that lob the ball over the opponent’s head and land on the court backline, making them virtually unsaveable.

Lee plays Gaara Suna; this is the first time for the rest of them to see the newcomer in action, since they had all been playing their own games when he had been on court the last time. Naruto finds out the reason for Gaara carrying his own racquets around – they have blood-red frames with orange cords stretching across them. If they were anyone else’s, Naruto would beg and plead to be allowed to play with them.

Lee – loses, to put it mildly. He strains ligaments in both his arms, one of his ankles and a shoulder, and still he fights on until finally his other ankle goes and he can’t walk anymore, let alone play. He is devastated, but determined to do better next time.

---

The quarterfinals are to be played the next day. The draws are revealed that evening, to mixed reactions. Naruto draws Neji. Shikamaru draws Temari Suna. Sasuke draws another player from Scotland, Akadou something.

Neji smirks, supremely confident. Naruto grits his teeth. The other two brood, coming up with strategy after strategy. All their friends are silent, and everyone goes to bed early so they can get as much sleep as possible. Not all of them succeed.

---

The quarterfinals are all to be played on the same day, on two separate courts. Naruto and Neji are on Court One first, followed by Sasuke and Akadou. Naruto shakes his roommate’s hand, wishing him luck; before he lets go, Shikamaru draws him closer.

“Remember, Neji’s pride will be his downfall. Use as many tricky shots as you can come up with – he is overconfident and will miss over half of them because he won’t go after them with as much speed as he should.”

“Thanks, Shika,” Naruto says softly, drawing him into a one-armed hug.

Shikamaru’s advice is, as usual, spot-on. Neji loses the match because he doesn’t believe that Naruto is a strong enough opponent to pose any danger to him. Neji is good in his own right, but he learns the hard way that a dead-last really can beat a genius if he puts all of his being towards that goal.

When Naruto scores the match ball, Neji drops his racquet numbly to the court. Shock is displayed all over his face; his knees fold and he sinks to the ground. Naruto runs over to him quickly to check that he’s alright. Neji looks at him with dull silver eyes.

“I—I—“ he stammers.

Naruto reaches down and offers him a hand. Neji stares at it for some time before he reaches for it and allows Naruto to pull him to his feet.

“You see, Neji, you really do have a choice. Do not become like your uncle, someone uncaring enough to let his own brother sacrifice his future for him. Be better. Be like your father.”

Neji looks at him for a long time. Around them, the court starts to clear to prepare for the next match, Sasuke versus Akadou.

“Thanks, Naruto,” is all Neji says in the end. He shakes Naruto’s hand and leaves, not looking back. His posture is still ramrod-stiff, but there’s a softness around his spine that hadn’t been there before. Naruto dares a small smile that he loses in the next instant. There’s Neji sorted, and then there’s…

“Sasuke,” he says, walking up to him. Sasuke does nothing but look at him, eyes flat. “Good luck,” Naruto sighs and leaves the court, the silence of no reply ringing in his ears.

Sasuke wins, naturally. It’s a tough match, but this is Sasuke. Naruto wonders if there’s anyone their age that can win against him any more. He tries not to watch the game, tries to head over to Court Two for Shikamaru’s match, but can’t quite seem to make his feet want to move. For the first time in his life, Naruto is experiencing someone hating him through no fault of his own. It’s awful.

He wonders how someone who once saved him from being hurt, who stayed with him when he needed to not be alone, who shared his birthday with him, can hate him so deeply. He doesn’t understand it; it’s not something he himself is capable of.

---

The semi-finals are to be held two days later, and Kiba has heard from his mum that their parents are invited to watch. The semi-finals will be played in the big court, the only one that has seating around the perimeter. It is used when people from outside the camp come to watch the students play – like parents or scouts, for example. Naruto can’t wait to see his mom and dad; it’s been over three weeks and he misses them fiercely.

Then everything flies out of his head when the draws are announced. Naruto’s draw is Gaara Suna, and his friends close their eyes in despair. There is no way Naruto can beat Gaara Suna. The only one with half a chance of winning against him is Sasuke, and he and Naruto are still not speaking. Even Iruka’s forehead furrows in concern. Kakashi though – Kakashi just smiles.

---

Naruto wins.

His clothes get torn in several places.

So do his shoes.

He gets the worst friction burn possible from throwing himself on the court too often, chasing after a nasty little twist of a ball.

He sprains his left shoulder, though not too badly.

He bruises his face from falling on it too hard.

He breaks two racquets.

Kushina almost has a heart attack watching him sustain so much damage, but she never asks him to stop.

Neither does Minato, although he’s chewed through the skin of his lower lip and there’s blood on his teeth. He doesn’t seem to notice.

Gaara Suna is a goddamned machine. Naruto used to think that Sasuke was a robot, but Sasuke has nothing on this guy. Naruto has no idea how he manages to return Gaara’s hits, no idea how he gets to the balls on time. The world has ceased to exist outside the game; he’s only dimly aware that he has two match points, so if he scores now, Gaara loses and he wins. His body is one giant hurt, but there is absolutely no way in hell he is giving up now.

The crowd roars; it takes him a moment to realise that the point he just scored has won him the game, set and match. He barely has the strength to get to the net and shake his opponent’s hand, but he manages it somehow. Gaara is standing there, face impassive, almost no indication on him that he has even played a game at all, let alone such a gruelling match.

“I salute you,” Gaara tells him and Naruto wants to frown, because who talks like that any more? But he doesn’t, and offers Gaara his hand.

“Until next time,” Naruto smiles wearily and for the first time since Naruto has met him, Gaara cracks a small smile in return.

Naruto turns to greet the shouting crowd, but as he spins on his heel he trips and he’s falling; he has no strength left in his body to keep himself up. He sprawls on the ground, eyes closed, a happy smile spreading over his face. He won, he won against the toughest opponent he has ever played against, tougher even than…

He raises his head with a monumental effort and scours the crowd for a stupid haircut that makes him want to laugh and cry at the same time. He finds it on the second row of the stands, staring straight at him with huge eyes. Naruto lifts his hand off the ground to wave at him, but just then his mom finally reaches him.

“Oh, darling, I’m the proudest mother in the whole world!” she babbles, turning him over on his back. “I love you so much! Now tell me where it hurts,” she adds in her usual ‘or else’ tone of voice.

“’M fine, Mom,” Naruto grins, but tries to turn to look at Sasuke again. By the time he’s back in vertical mode, though, Sasuke is long gone and the next game isn’t until four hours later.

If he knows Sasuke, and he likes to think he does, he will have holed up somewhere for some last-minute training. His first instinct is to find him, but he is well aware that he would not be welcome. So he allows his parents to support him to Tsunade’s office for some seeing-to instead.

---

He misses Sasuke and Shikamaru’s match because the damned witch drugs him so that he’ll get some rest while she cleans him up. He wakes up long after dark, flailing in a panic because he’s late for the game. His dad is sitting in an uncomfortable chair by the bed in the Infirmary where he’s been left to sleep off his exhaustion.

“Sasuke won,” his father tells him quickly and Naruto settles back on the bed in relief.

“Tell me?” he asks his dad, and Minato does.

When the story is done, the implications sink in for Naruto.

“I’m going to play him in the final, then.”

“That you are. They’re holding it in three days, to give you and Sasuke a chance to recover from your previous games. Both of you managed to bang yourselves up pretty badly.”

Naruto thinks of what his father’s told him. “Sasuke won’t be able to play with a sprained wrist. It’s gonna hurt like hell.”

“Yes, it will, but the sprain is mild and on the left for both of you, so Tsunade will wrap both spots up tight and freeze-spray the muscles so there’s no pain. You two will have the same handicap as each other,” he tries for a light tone, but his eyes are still worried.

“It’ll be fine, Dad. I’ll rest up for the next three days and we’ll put plenty of ice on it to fight the swelling. You know that Tsunade said it’s not a bad sprain; the ligaments and muscles are intact, just stretched.”

He notices his father gaping at him. ‘What?” he says defensively.

“I wasn’t aware we had enrolled you in Medical school recently,” his father says, bemused.

Naruto flushes. “Mom’s books are actually interesting, is all,” he mutters, embarrassed.

“Is that right?” Minato smiles. “What say you we enrol you in the Biology class this coming year?”

“That would be awesome!” Naruto enthuses.

They talk until Naruto gets drowsy from the painkillers and slips into sleep again.

---

“Fugaku and Itachi are here,” Naruto hears his father say, just as he walks through the door of the VIP room where his parents have been staying for the past few days since they came over for the tournament. It’s a day before the final and he’s feeling as well as possible. The only sour point on the horizon is the fact that he hasn’t seen Sasuke since that glimpse he’d got of him in the stands. Fact of the matter is, he’s worried about the bastard, and said bastard has been avoiding him.

And now Sasuke’s horrid father and brother are here, and Naruto has no idea how Sasuke will react. He’s frozen in the entryway to his parents’ room, not knowing whether to go in or run off to find Sasuke and—well, he doesn’t know what he’ll do when he finds Sasuke, except perhaps kick him, but he still wants to be there for him. However, Sasuke hates him, and he has no idea why.

“…Naruto?” Kushina says, worry creeping into her tone. Has she been calling him all this time?

“Sorry,” he says quickly. “Just thinking. Shut up, Dad,” he goes on automatically when he sees his dad open his mouth with that smirk on his face.

“What is it, love?” Kushina asks him while shooting Minato a glare. Minato looks affronted at their lack of good humour.

“Are Sasuke’s father and brother really here?”

“They are,” Minato says, serious for once. “I saw them arrive this morning.”

Naruto’s forehead furrows.

“Do you want to try and find him, darling?” Kushina tries again.

Naruto’s face seems to crumple for a second; then he’s fine again. “No,” he says, too carefully. “Sasuke and I are not really friends.”

He has reckoned without his mother; evasion has never worked well on her and it isn’t likely to start now.

“Naruto Uzumaki-Namikaze! You will tell me what’s wrong, this instant!”

Naruto stares at her. “Bloody hell, Mom, what’s gotten into you?”

The fact that she doesn’t correct his language tells him quite enough about her state of mind.

“I can see you’re upset, young man, so there’s no use trying to wheedle your way out of telling me what’s wrong!”

Naruto looks at his father for support; he’s shaking his head helplessly, as if to say ‘you’re on your own, kid.’

“Did you two have a fight?” Kushina is relentless.

Naruto sighs; he’s not getting away from this one. “He hates me,” he says dully.

Kushina blinks. “Why would he possibly hate you?”

“I’ve no idea,” Naruto says, perhaps a bit louder than is really necessary. “I’ve tried to be nice to him, I made him that picnic for his birthday, I said ‘thanks’ when he helped me after I broke my ankle, I’ve not insulted him for ages... I just don’t know!” he yells, hands tugging at his hair. He misses the look his parents share.

“Naruto, love,” his Mom starts carefully. “I think he might be a little jealous of you.”

Naruto gapes at her. “Jealous? Of me? What for? He’s a heaps better player than I am, he has all sorts of awesome stuff, everyone loves him—why would he possibly be jealous of me? I’m just a ‘moron’ to him!”

Kushina looks mutinous for a second, but shakes herself. “You have improved very much indeed this year, or so your instructors tell us. And you beat Gaara Suna, the best player your age! He’s already winning on the Junior circuit, and you won against him! I think Sasuke is jealous of the progress you’re making, even as it looks like he’s standing still next to you.

“And you have so many friends, darling, while he doesn’t seem to have any at all. Can you see why he might be jealous of your success?”

Naruto looks at his father once again. Minato shrugs. “Listen to your motor-mouth mother, son,” he smiles at him ruefully.

Kushina glares at him again; then she turns back to Naruto. “I’m pretty sure young Sasuke needs a friend right now. And since you have gotten much closer to him than anyone else, I think you should go find him,” she says. It’s not really a suggestion.

Naruto thinks for a moment and grins widely. “Yeah, you’re right, Mom! And I can pummel him for being jealous of me, coz he’s so much more awesome!” Naruto says while he gives her a hug and then runs out of the door.

“You realise you just sent our son to meet Fugaku and Itachi Uchiha, yes? And come to the aid of Sasuke Uchiha?” Minato says carefully.

Kushina looks startled. “So I did! I’m so awesome! Those two stuffy old crones will benefit quite a lot from meeting our son. Besides, it’s high time you and Fugaku got over that old skirmish. I’m tired listening to each of you rant about the other.”

“Each of—what do you mean, each of us?

“What, you think I stopped talking to Fugaku and Mikoto just because was an arse that one time, like you did?”

“Kushina!!”

“Minato!”

“I can’t believe you support the way he’s abandoned his own son like that!”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake. All of them go to visit him every weekend at school, whenever they can. Would you rather a young boy be left to wonder alone in that huge old house, with no friends or family? At least at school he has friends to talk to.”

“But—but—what about the rivalry? The bullying? You know how hard Fugaku pushes Itachi!”

“Oh, Minato. You’re still so naïve sometimes. Itachi asked his father to coach him. He was worried Fugaku would close himself off after he was forced to retire, so he went to him and told him he wanted Fugaku to coach him when he was barely thirteen. As for that rivalry you mentioned – have you met us?!”

Minato’s mouth curls in a smile. “Point,” he concedes. “So you’re saying that they challenge each other to do better?”

“Yes, because who else out there is on par with them? You excluded, of course, darling.”

“But then why did you tell Naruto that Sasuke would need a friend right now?”

Kushina just looks at him, both eyebrows raised. Minato starts laughing. “Darling, you’re so mean!” he manages after a moment. Kushina just smiles at him in a rather self-satisfied manner.

---

Meanwhile, Naruto is hightailing it over to Sasuke’s room as fast as his legs can carry him, thoughts of evil Fugaku and Itachi pestering poor Sasuke running through his head. There is also a tiny part of him that is rather interested in meeting Itachi, whom he has been following obsessively for over two years now; he pushes that aside with some effort.

He reaches the room and starts pounding on the door frantically. It is yanked open a moment later by a tall young man with shoulder-length black hair tucked away in a ponytail. Even without the deep valleys etched into his face Naruto would recognise him anywhere.

“You’re Itachi Uchiha,” Naruto gasps out, still short of breath.

“I know who I am. The question is, who are you?” Itachi says calmly, looking Naruto up and down rather obviously.

“Who is it, Itachi?” A deep voice comes from beyond the door and Naruto peeks inside curiously. An even taller, dark-haired man sits on one of the chairs by the bed, his back perfectly straight.

As soon as the man sees him, Naruto notices a flicker of recognition in his eyes. “Ah, Naruto. Come on in. I have been expecting you.”

Naruto is flabbergasted. “You have?” he says, voice high with disbelief.

“Indeed. The Namikazes and the Uchihas are quite unable to stay away from each other for some reason. You took my son for a picnic on his birthday,” he says, no hint of question in his voice. “That was nice of you. Thank you.”

“That’s okay,” Naruto squeaks. He feels like he has fallen through the looking glass. Itachi is still staring at him.

The door snicks open behind him and he turns to face it. Sasuke is standing in the doorframe, eyes narrowed. “Father. Itachi,” he greets without surprise, then turns to face Naruto. “You. What are you doing in my room?”

“Your brother invited me in,” Naruto says, but he sounds as uncertain as he feels. “I thought—I—“

Sasuke sighs in irritation. “May I have a moment?” he asks his father, who nods. Fugaku and Itachi leave the room, closing the door behind them.

“Now. I ask again. What are you doing in my room?”

“I—I heard that your father and brother were here, and I thought you might need…”

“A friend?” Sasuke’s voice is so heavy with sarcasm that Naruto flinches. Something flickers in the dark eyes’ depths, but Naruto has no idea what it might mean.

“Save it,” is all that Sasuke says. “You know nothing about me. I don’t need anyone’s help in dealing with my family. Leave.”

Naruto feels worse than he did when he fell and broke his ankle. He stomps to the door, angry with himself for even thinking he might be able to offer Sasuke anything. “Fine,” he growls, “I’ll leave you alone then. See you tomorrow on the court.” He walks through the door and turns to slam it closed; when he glances back at Sasuke’s face it looks strange for some reason, but Naruto is too pissed off to stop and try to work it out.

He passes by the two tall men waiting a little way away, and the manners his mother had drummed into him make him mumble, “Nice to have met you,” as he passes them by. He doesn’t see Fugaku share his head resignedly and Itachi frown before turning to walk back to the room.

Naruto goes for a run, because he is frustrated and he needs to work some of the nervous energy off. His father joins him five laps in.

“How did it—“ Minato manages to get out before Naruto snaps,

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“O-kay,” his father says, but doesn’t push it.

Eventually, fifteen laps of the court later, Naruto tires at last. He collapses on the ground and breathes in the cool evening air in great big gulps. He’s not going to cry, least of all in front of his father who is going to want to know what the matter is, and Naruto is not talking about it.

But “Ready for tomorrow?” is all his father asks, and Naruto nods gratefully.

“I think so.”

---

He’s not ready, he thinks as he faces Sasuke across the net with the crowd’s noise filling his ears. His hands feel clammy where they grip the racquet handle, and his heart is fluttering madly in his chest and trying to climb out of his throat.

Sasuke’s scowling at him as usual, but there’s something about his mouth that suggests the tiniest smirk. Strangely, it soothes Naruto’s frayed nerves. He nods and assumes his position at the baseline, awaiting Sasuke’s first serve, since he’d won the toss.

Sasuke throws the ball in the air, pushes himself off the ground, the racquet slams against the ball and they’re off.

---

…Goddamn, that serve is fast…

…where the hell did that forehand come from?...

…I bloody hate his volleys…

…oh no you don’t, you bastard, I got that drop ball…

…slice it, damn it, slice it

…fuck! That’s 1:0 for him. Get it together, Naruto!...

don’t jump smash, he’s taller than you, he’ll get it—oh, fuck it…

…that’s out, that’s bloody well out, seriously…

…YES! I love aces…

…careful with that backspin, careful, Naruto…

…now! Hit it now!...

…bloody fucking bastard hell! I cannot believe he saved that!...

…1:1, now focus

…oh god, he’s gaining too fast…

…take that, arsehole!...

…Sasuke?

---

Sasuke is lying on the ground, clutching at the back of his right thigh and gritting his teeth in pain. Naruto snaps out of his ‘game zone’ and rushes forward. Iruka’s there first, though, and carefully feels along the muscle. His mouth tightens and Naruto knows it’s serious.

“What is it, Iruka-sensei?” he asks, heart in his throat once again.

Iruka ignores him and keeps checking the extent of the injury.

“Sasuke, when you move your knee, how much pain do you feel?”

“A lot,” Sasuke hisses. “It hurts when I try to fold my leg.”

“Is there a sort of ping when you move it?” Iruka continues.

“Yeah, like a twinge of elastic or something.”

Iruka leans back as Itachi and Fugaku make it to his side.

“How severe is the injury?” Fugaku demands.

“It’s a grade two pulled hamstring,” Iruka says, turning to look at him. “He needs immediate treatment. Go get Tsunade,” he tells Naruto, who is off like a shot.

He finds Tsunade in her office and barely manages to gasp, “Sasuke” and “hamstring” before she’s off the chair and striding away at speed.

She confirms the diagnosis immediately. “He needs four to six weeks recovery time. Surgery is not necessary, but he must not move about anywhere for the next five days. He must keep the leg elevated and put an ice pack on it for twenty minutes every two hours, and it must be bandaged by a compression bandage. Once the injury has rested, he can start therapy.”

Fugaku is nodding along; Naruto considers that he has probably done this before himself. Tsunade has Fugaku pick Sasuke up and bring him to the Infirmary. It would be funny, the way Sasuke stiffens at the smallest touch, if Naruto wasn’t feeling slightly sick.

“I concede the match,” Sasuke grits out once his father has picked him up.

“Don’t be stupid, it’s a draw,” Naruto protests. “We’re at 4:4 in the third set. We can schedule a rematch sometime—“

“No,” Sasuke cuts him off. “I lost.” The pain and disappointment in his voice make Naruto feel even worse.

Itachi is looking approvingly at Sasuke, though, and Naruto doesn’t get it, but Sasuke obviously does because he gives his brother a small nod that is returned.

---

A few hours later Naruto makes his way over to the Infirmary yet again, holding Sasuke’s obnoxious physics book against his side. He reaches the door and is just about to knock when he hears raised voices from the inside.

“I’m not coming back here!” he hears Sasuke say loudly. “You can’t train Itachi and me at the same time, so obviously I have to find myself a different coach. I’m going to speak to Orochimaru Sannin tomorrow and transfer to his academy in Scotland.”

“You will do no such thing,” Fugaku’s deep voice cuts through Sasuke’s words with a heavy finality. “If you want to start playing on the Junior circuit so badly, you will train under Kakashi or you will let me find you a different instructor.”

“What’s wrong with Orochimaru? He’s one of the best out there.”

“I disagree with his training methods,” his father drawls.

“Why, if they get results? Isn’t that all you care about?”

“Sasuke,” Fugaku drawls in warning, and a short silence follows. Naruto considers going in now, while they’re not saying anything else important, but the decision is taken from him when Fugaku speaks again.

“Come back here next year, for the last time. I promise I will have found a good coach for you by then.” Naruto thinks that Fugaku sounds almost pleading, if such a thing is possible.

“These camps are useless,” Sasuke snaps. “They can’t teach for shit if even a loser like that dead-last Uzumaki can beat someone as good as Gaara Suna is supposed to be. I’m done with them.”

Oh, is all Naruto can think for a moment. So that’s still how it is, is it? He’s won against the best player out there, but he’ll never be more than a dead-last loser to Sasuke.

The hard-cover book drops from his suddenly nerveless fingers and lands with an audible thump on the floor by the door. He dimly hears footsteps coming closer and the door opening, but he’s already walking away and doesn’t stop when someone calls his name, so he doesn’t see Itachi’s concerned face and Sasuke’s stricken look when he realises Naruto has heard every last angry, vindictive taunt.

He walks the rest of the distance to the VIP rooms, knocking on the door and entering when his mom’s voice tells him to.

“I want to leave,” is all he says, and something must have shown in his face because for once his parents don’t question him.

They pack his bags, say goodbye to Shikamaru, Iruka, Kakashi, and Tsunade, and leave that evening.

---

The next year Sasuke doesn’t show at camp. Naruto, who’s been worrying himself sick for the past month about how he should act towards him when he sees him, spends the next four weeks training himself into the ground.

---

When camp is over, Iruka takes Minato and Kushina aside.

“There’s nothing else we can teach him here,” he tells them. “It’s time for Naruto to get a professional coach and start playing the Junior circuit, if he still wants to.”

They nod in agreement; they’d come to that conclusion themselves.

“Frankly, I’m a little worried about him,” Iruka confides. “He’s not the same boy I saw last year.”

Minato and Kushina nod again. They’d seen this, too.

“He needs direction.”

“Yes.”

---

Naruto goes home and starts training with Jiraiya permanently.

---

From: Blond Ambition (superstar@foxmail.com)
To: Orochimaru’s buttmonkey (suchiha@snakemail.com)
Date: July 23, 2008
Subject: Happy 14th birthday, arsehole.





---

Excerpt from Wikipedia article (last modified 19th April 2009)

Naruto Uzumaki-Namikaze

Son of Minato Namikaze, World № 1 for 3 consecutive years, the last British male to win Wimbledon, and Kushina Uzumaki, World №1 for 4 consecutive years, holder of 5 Grand Slam titles. At 14 years of age, a promising young player who has just won himself a place on the British Junior Davis Cup team…

---

Excerpt from The Times, Monday, 5th October 2009

Britain wins Junior Davis Cup, Uzumaki-Namikaze takes the last set from under Australia’s nose

The British Junior Davis Cup Team’s newest and youngest member, Naruto Uzumaki-Namikaze, 15, played a brilliant game this Sunday to win the Cup from Australia in a five-set match that came down to the very last tiebreak. That Uzumaki-Naruto’s backhand is the deadliest on the Junior circuit was proved once again in this heated match that saw the British Junior Davis Cup Team’s triumphant claim of the № 1 spot for the first time in the whole of Junior Davis Cup history…

---

From: Blond Ambition (superstar@foxmail.com)
To: Orochimaru’s buttmonkey (suchiha@snakemail.com)
Date: July 23, 2010
Subject: 16, huh? At least now you’re legal.





---

Further excerpt from Wikipedia article (last modified 21st August 2010)

Naruto Uzumaki-Namikaze

… Uzumaki-Namikaze finished ranked at number 1 in the Junior Circuit for 2009 after he lead Britain’s Junior Davis Cup Team to victory and won 1st place in the Junior Australian Open Championship and the Junior French Open Championship. He came in 2nd place in the U.S. Junior National Championship behind Lee Rock.

In an interview on 20th August 2010 Uzumaki-Namikaze said that he plans to debut on the professional tour as soon as he celebrates his 17th birthday, which will be on 10th October 2010…

---

From Wimbledon’s Official Web Site (17th June, 2011)

List of Qualifiers for the Gentlemen’s Singles, Wimbledon 2011



07. Neji Hyuuga, 18 (GB) (43)



11. Shikamaru Nara, 17 (GB) (0)

13. Lee Rock, 18 (GB) (58)

15. Sasuke Uchiha, 17 (GB) (0)
16. Naruto Uzumaki-Namikaze, 17 (GB) (0)


List of Qualifiers for the Ladies’ Singles, Wimbledon 2011




04. Sakura Haruno, 17 (GB) (0)
05. Hinata Hyuuga, 17 (GB) (0)


08. Tenten Kunai, 18 (GB) (39)



12. Ino Yamanaka, 17 (GB) (0)

---

“My baby, about to play his first match at Wimbledon! Oh, love, you make me so happy!” Kushina gushes, gazing at her son adoringly as his six-year-old sister attempts to climb up his 6’1’’ frame. Naruto grins at her and swings her up quickly into his arms, making her giggle.

“How d’you like the look from up here, Koyuki?

“’S tall!”

“It’s ‘high up’, Koyuki, love,” Kushina patiently corrects her.

Naruto smiles at both of them and hands his sister over to their mom. “I have to go get ready now, Mom,” he tells her lightly and sidesteps her before she can try to muss his hair again.

Kushina sighs playfully. “You’re getting too fast for your old woman,” she laments and Naruto scoffs.

Old woman?! What does that make me?” Minato whines from behind her. She turns to smile at him and Minato hands Naruto his bag. “Quick, while she’s distracted!”

Naruto walks away grinning, the sound of happy laughter echoing in his ears.

---

Shikamaru is already in the changing rooms, pulling his white shirt over his head.

“You’re cutting it a bit fine, mate,” Shikamaru observes and Naruto runs inside and tosses his bag on the bench, rummaging through it for his gear.

“I know, I know, it’s those children I have for parents,” he moans and tugs his top off, throwing it inside the bag. He unfolds his own white shirt with orange stitching along the side and flips it over in preparation for putting it on.

His hair is everywhere, there’s sweat trickling down his sides and he’s struggling to toe off his scruffy trainers as fast as he can, trying to get rid of all his clothes at once. He is, in other words, a mess, which is of course the exact moment that Sasuke Uchiha just has to walk through the damned door for the first time in six years.

Naruto freezes, one foot half-way out of a shoe and a hole in the toe of the other’s sock, shorts falling down his legs at the worst possible moment. At least he has clean underwear on, he thinks foggily and promptly blushes as the thought registers.

“Um,” he says eloquently, blue eyes widening as he takes in the one person he’s never quite managed to throw out of his head. A person he’s not seen for over half a decade, but about whom he somehow knows almost everything there is to know.

Or so he’d thought, but the man standing in front of him right now might as well be a stranger. He’s in a flimsy white shirt that conceals nothing whatsoever of his long torso, a pair of loose black trousers, and the weirdest purple belt Naruto has ever had the misfortune to encounter.

“What in the name of sanity are you wearing?” he blurts out and immediately wants to sink through the floor with embarrassment. ‘Great job, Naruto. He hasn’t spoken to you in six years; go ahead and remind him exactly why not.’

Sasuke lifts a perfectly-shaped black eyebrow and Naruto’s short-circuiting brain wonders whether or not Sasuke tweezes them.

“Quite a bit more than you at the moment,” Sasuke drawls, and his voice is the same, yet not. It’s—deeper, more resonant somehow. It does funny things to Naruto’s currently very much overexposed body.

Naruto is dimly aware of Shikamaru leaning against his locker, showing every sign of enjoying his mortification.

“Not to break up this heart-warming reunion, but we’re due out on court in five minutes,” Shikamaru finally comes to Naruto’s rescue.

“Fuck!” Naruto yelps and goes back to frantically stripping his old clothes off and pulling on his match outfit. “Fuck, fuck, fuck! Don’t just stand there, Shika, grab the bags and let’s go!”

He ignores Sasuke’s smirk mainly because he can’t afford to look at him again just now, or he’s going to get thoroughly distracted all over again. He sneaks a glance at him from the corner of his eye. He’s stripping, his brain supplies, and Naruto’s whole face flames bright red.

“Come along,” Shikamaru’s exasperated voice comes from the door; Naruto snaps out of his daze at last. ‘Game zone’, he reminds himself. Yeah.

He’s rushing along the corridor, not really looking at where he’s going, when he slams full-length against another person. There’s something familiar about his frame, Naruto thinks as he looks up into Itachi Uchiha’s face.

“Ah, Naruto! Delightful to see you again. Best of luck for the game! Perhaps you and I might go for a drink later on?”

Naruto’s mouth opens and closes a few times without his permission. It doesn’t bear thinking about what he looks like to Itachi.

“Yeah, okay, maybe,” he stammers and shies around Itachi to make his way to the courts. He has no idea what he’s just agreed to, but he can’t think about that now. He has a match to win.

---

He does win, but it’s all a blur. Later on, when he thinks back to it, he can’t recall any detail of it other than that the man he plays has the same colour hair as Sasuke and Itachi. He resolutely refuses to think about what that might mean. Fugaku’s words from so long ago echo in his ears: The Namikazes and the Uchihas are quite unable to stay away from each other for some reason. He tries and fails to suppress a shudder down his spine at the memory.

To top it all, he has to go back to the changing rooms to get his stuff. He considers just leaving it, in there, but that’s his favourite orange T-shirt and he’s not making that sacrifice for Sasuke.

He’s supposed to hate the bastard, he thinks. The old hurt of Sasuke’s dismissal has healed over – Naruto has proven himself over and over again to be a brilliant player, with heart as well as technique – but sometimes a journalist would look at him in the piercing way that such professionals have, and the pain and insecurity would flare back to life with a vengeance.

Naruto has accomplished many things in the past six years, but all of his victories have had a hollow feel to them that no amount of celebrations could erase – because the one person whose approval he craves the most hasn’t even spoken to him for six years, never replied to any of his (barbed) emails, never looked him up at all.

Naruto’s head is a mess, he knows that; he also knows that he should avoid seeking out Sasuke when he’s in this state, but he doesn’t seem to be able to help himself. Going without seeing him or speaking to him for over half a decade is painful, but fine; knowing he might be in the next room over and not going to him is unsupportable.

…Does Sasuke still hate him?

Naruto sneaks into the changing rooms like he’s doing something wrong rather than just picking up his things. He’s not convinced that he isn’t doing anything wrong; though more likely what he’s doing is just stupid. He just wants to get this over with – he’s absolutely starving, always is after a game, and he could murder a sandwich.

The changing rooms are empty. Naruto doesn’t know if he’s disappointed or happy about that. Fuck, it’s only been four hours and already Sasuke’s presence has him back to being an eleven-year-old confused kid.

He goes in to find his bag that he’d forgotten to lock up in his rush, and get changed from the sweaty, grimy white T-shirt and shorts that he’s still wearing, too much of a coward to face Sasuke post-game. He unzips the large holdall, dirty shirt already in one hand, when he stops in his tracks. He stares at the small rectangle wrapped in a napkin and placed next to his bottle of water. He knows for sure he didn’t put it there, and his parents are waiting outside for him, so it can’t be them. Shikamaru would never go to this much trouble; neither of them uses napkins, anyway.

A half-forgotten memory teases at his mind, of a tall glass of water on a bedside table, covered by a napkin so no dust or insects get in it. He unwraps the package and stares some more at the sandwich laid neatly in the centre of the unfolded napkin. Another look reveals it to be a bacon and tomato one.

He looks around once again, but the room’s still as empty as it had been when he came in, so he’s not too worried about anyone teasing him for the way his jaw drops at the discovery.

There is only one person that would know that he’d make the connection.

---

Their group is sitting in the Wimbledon Hotel lobby bar, nursing water and fruit juice because most of them are still underage, and those who aren’t prefer not to get pissed while the others are there, sober enough to pull devious pranks on them.

Naruto doesn’t know what the chances are of almost the entire group from England’s junior tennis camp to qualify for Wimbledon – most of them in their first year of turning pro, too – but he wishes he’d known that they were trying out so that he’d have placed a bet on them making it and made a fortune.

Shikamaru kicks his leg under the table none-too-gently. Naruto jerks his head up from where he’d been staring into his pineapple juice and scowls at him. He doesn’t realise that everyone’s looking at him until Shikamaru nudges his head pointedly at them.

“What?” Naruto blurts out, off-balance.

“What is up with you? You haven’t been listening to a word we’ve been saying, and you haven’t bragged about your win once!” Sakura points out, poking at his arm.

“’S nothing. I’m just tired, is all,” he mutters, hoping against hope that they’ll take his word for it.

No such luck.

“Naruto ‘Whirlwind’ Uzumaki-Namikaze is too tired to rehash the match?! Pull the other one, it’s got bells on,” Ino scoffs.

“Is something the matter, Naruto?” Hinata’s softly-voiced enquiry comes from across the table, and Naruto appreciates her newfound confidence enough not to want to avoid the question. He still hesitates, though.

Neji sighs in exasperation “It’s Sasuke, isn’t it,” he says bluntly, and Naruto glares at him. He thought they’d agreed not to talk about Sasuke amongst their group.

“Of course it is,” Sakura sighs in resignation. “What else could it possibly be?”

“Hey! What’s that supposed to mean?” Naruto growls at her.

She just raises her eyebrows at him. “I rest my case,” she says. “No one else can make you this grouchy.”

“I haven’t even seen him in six years!”

“Your point?” Sakura asks sweetly.

Naruto wants to yell at her, but that won’t make the slightest bit of difference. He deflates, plopping his arms onto the table and burying his head in them.

“He made me a sandwich,” he mutters.

Ino’s disbelieving voice shatters the resulting silence. “Come again?” she squeaks. “I must be delusional, because I think I just heard you say that Sasuke Uchiha made you a sandwich.”

“He did,” Naruto nods his head, still hiding his face in his arms. “It was delicious, too.”

“You ate something Sasuke Uchiha made for you,” Gaara’s voice could dry out the Atlantic Ocean. “How did you know it was him, anyway? Did he give it you?”

Naruto gives up and sits straight again. “No, I found it in my holdall. I know it was him because… you know what, never mind. You’d never get it,” he sighs dejectedly.

“Is that right,” Neji’s voice is dangerously silky. Naruto cringes. If anyone can unravel the whole thing in one go, it’s bloody Neji.

“Look, just take my word for it, okay?” he avers.

“Fine,” Sakura rolls her eyes. “So! Naruto, Sasuke Uchiha made you a sandwich!” she squeals, delighted. All the girls perk up immediately.

Naruto’s face flushes bright red, and he scowls at them darkly. “I think I liked you better before, when you were suspicious,” he mutters under his breath.

“What is with that attitude, Naruto? You should embrace this wonderful opportunity to heal the rift between you and your dearest friend! You must not hold such grudges in the springtime of your youth, but rather spread your joy and good humour to those sorely in need of them!”

Naruto groans and thumps his head back on the table. “Someone, anyone, please, for the love of god have mercy and shut him up!” He raises his head and throws a suspicious look at everyone around the table. “Alright, you scoundrels, own up. Who gave Lee sugar?”

The mood lifts, as he had known it would; he does enjoy listening to his friends laugh.

“Aren’t you even a little curious why he did that?” Sakura, however, is relentless. She reminds Naruto of his mother – which is probably the reason why he’s never tried to date her.

He considers playing dumb, but there’s a militant light in her eyes that warns him not to even try it.

“Yes,” he sighs, defeated. “Yes, of course I’m curious, but you should know by now the futility of trying to second-guess Sasuke Uchiha,” he tells her. “Remember what all of us used to think about the Uchiha family? Remember how well that went?”

Everyone cringes. Shikamaru, unusually, had told everyone else about Naruto’s misguided attempt at moral support for Sasuke, as well as the outcome of it. Naruto hadn’t spoken to him for a month because of that.

His friends drop it; Naruto is grateful for small mercies.

---

That is, until he comes back from winning his 2nd Round match to find Itachi sitting by his locker, flipping curiously through a large book with hard covers. Itachi looks up when Naruto stops in front of him and smiles slightly.

“I didn’t know you were interested in Medicine,” he comments lightly.

Naruto bristles. “Why would you? I don’t recall having had contact with any of the Uchihas for quite some time.”

Itachi’s smile doesn’t quite slip, but the corners of his mouth tighten ever so slightly. “Point taken,” he murmurs. “This is yours, I believe,” he says and stands to go, handing him the book.

“Uh, no, it isn’t,” Naruto says impatiently, fed up with Itachi’s game, whatever it is.

Itachi looks at him for a moment, then flips the front cover open and turns the book to face him.

Naruto Uzumaki-Namikaze, he reads written in black ink at the top left-hand corner of the inside cover, clear as day – a spiky handwriting that he’s never seen before, but feels quite certain he could match easily given something to compare it to.

He takes the book from Itachi’s hands and stares at it some more. He flips to the title page – Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation: A Sports Specific Approach, he reads, getting more and more confused with every minute. Why is Sasuke doing this? If it is Sasuke – but it must be, right?

As he turns a few pages a note falls out, written in the same spiky handwriting. 16.30, Court 1 it says; Naruto stares some more.

Itachi is gone by the time he looks up; he wonders vaguely why he’d been here in the first place. He debates not going – it’s 15.30 now and Court 1 is miles away on the other side of the complex – but he’s not particularly fond of mind games, and he just wants to know what’s going on – is that too much to ask?

He flips his phone open. He needs some moral support, damn it, and this time he’s actually going to ask for it. So he calls Sakura.

---

Calling Sakura, he should have realised, also means calling Ino, and Hinata, and Tenten, and Shikamaru, and… Anyway. The entire group is here, even Kiba, Shino and Chouji – who hadn’t managed to qualify to play this year – and Gaara – who is already seeded at (23) and as such does not need to go through the qualifiers to play.

Naruto knows this had not been Sasuke’s intention when he sees the narrowed look Sasuke shoots at the twelve-strong group from his chair at the sideline, waiting for play to start. Naruto smirks vindictively at him – his message is clear. He’s not going to roll over and beg just because Sasuke deigned to contact him at last.

He sees Sasuke’s lips press together into a thin line and a shiver of apprehension slithers down his spine unpleasantly. What if Sasuke decided Naruto’s not really worth the trouble?

“Naruto, you idiot,” Sakura scolds, and it’s a moment before Naruto realises he must have said that last one out loud. “How many times do I have to tell you to stop thinking like that? You’re smart, you’re gorgeous, you’re a brilliant player. Anyone who doesn’t see that is either blind or stupid, and you know Sasuke’s neither.”

Naruto smiles a little at her vigorous defence of his finer qualities when it hits him. “Wait. What does me being gorgeous have to do with him wanting to be friends with me?” he says, baffled.

Sakura gives him that particular look she saves for when he’s being insufferably dense about something.

“What?” he asks, even more confused. “Sakura, what, damn it?!”

Sakura shares a long-suffering look with Ino, who’s sitting on his other side and listening to every word; then, both of them turn to look at him.

“He made you a sandwich, because he obviously remembers you get hungry after playing,” Sakura starts.

“He gave you a book on sports medicine, because he remembers you’re interested in it,” Ino points out.

“He asked you to come and watch him play,” Sakura adds, eyebrows raised pointedly.

Naruto keeps looking between the two of them. “Yeah? And?”

“We’re going to have to have to spell it out to him, Sakura. He’s a bit slow when it comes to things like this.”

Sakura shakes her head and tries one last time. “Naruto, think about the situation, but now imagine if you were a girl.”

“What?!” Naruto is aghast. “Sasuke thinks I’m a girl?!”

Sakura puts her face in her hands, shaking her head despairingly.

“Sasuke thinks what?” Kiba asks, bemused.

From Kiba’s other side, Neji looks at him pityingly. “For god’s sake, Ino, just tell him. He’s going to break himself trying to get it.”

“Sasuke fancies you,” Ino says slowly.

Naruto blinks at her. “He does? What on earth for?”

Even Lee groans out loud this time.

“Shika, you tell him,” Sakura pleads, exhausted. “You always seem to be able to explain stuff so he gets it.”

“Hey, leave me out of this,” Shikamaru says, a slight panic in his voice.

“Shikamaru, look at him. He’s gonna hyperventilate any minute now. Have mercy on him,” Shino drawls from the row above them.

Shikamaru lets out a much put-upon sigh.

“Naruto,” he says quietly, and Naruto gives him all his attention. “You made him a picnic for his birthday when he was eleven years old and no one thought there was more to him than his name. You stood up for him when his father and brother came to the camp, no matter how misguided. You went to see him at the Infirmary after your match, even after he told you to stay away—yes, everyone knows that’s why you left, don’t gape like that.

“The point is that all this obviously meant something to him, even back then. All his gifts – they’re meant to tell you that he remembers what you did for him, and that he appreciates it. And maybe he wants to apologise, too. You’ll have to ask him about what he’s trying to do here. But you can safely assume that he does like you, maybe more than likes you.”

It’s a lot to take in, and Naruto is still in denial about Sasuke meaning any of that, but the rest of the group are nodding sagely to Shikamaru’s words, so he thinks there’s probably some truth to them.

They only realise the match is starting when the umpire calls for silence. Naruto looks down at the court, at Sasuke staring straight at him. The sight of him standing tall on the green court, dressed head to toe in pristine white – a poster boy for the Wimbledon class and finesse – makes Naruto’s chest tight for some reason. How is he ever going to be able to talk to Sasuke, when all he wants to do is hide and make all this confusion go away? He tries to send Sasuke a ‘good luck’ smile, but he’s afraid it comes out as more of a grimace. Sasuke’s face is a long way away, but Naruto thinks he sees it soften slightly before he turns his attention to the match.

---

Six years ago, Sasuke had played with a single-minded determination to win. Naruto had thought him a machine, perfect in every shot, every jump, slice, spin.

Naruto realises now that at eleven, he’d had no idea what perfection even meant. This is perfection. Sasuke moves like a predator that has the prey well within his sights, that’s playing with his food just because he can. Naruto watches as he effortlessly confuses his opponent, forcing him to make simple mistakes that no one at this level of playing the sport should be making any more.

His shots are placed with such precision that the Hawk-Eye is called on again and again, only to show the ball catching the smallest possible fraction of the line. In any other player it would be luck; in Sasuke, Naruto knows, it’s the way he’d intended the ball to land even as he was preparing to hit it back.

It is a massacre – 6:1, 6:0, 6:0, three sets to nil with only one game lost due to Sasuke’s frequent glances at the stands at the start of the game, before he’d hit his stride. Sasuke strides off the pitch with nary a glance around, as if he’d proven his point.

Naruto is more confused than ever.

---

3rd Round, and Naruto is playing Germany’s Philipp Petzschner, seeded at (33) in the rank list. In 2010 Petzschner had got to the 3rd round, but was defeated by Rafael Nadal in a five-set match that had tested both players’ abilities.

“He’s a tough opponent,” Jiraiya tells him gravely, and then he and Minato proceed to point out all of Petzschner’s weaknesses so that Naruto can take advantage of them.

One of Naruto’s greatest strengths is his stamina. He can play for up to four and a half hours with only the standard breaks in place, so he can outlast many seasoned pros if it comes to the duration of the match. There is a reason for his nickname, ‘whirlwind’ – he has seemingly unlimited energy stored in his toned body.

So when the match against Petzschner goes into its third hour, Naruto is still going strong while Petzschner is starting to flag. His shots lack the force they abounded with at the start; once Naruto takes the third game in a row, the match is pretty much over. Naruto wins, three sets to two, and proceeds to the 4th round.

---

By now their group is generating quite the buzz. Eight young British players, five of them unseeded, are cutting a swath through the championship. Justine Henin, seeded at (14), has already been knocked out by Sakura Haruno, and so has Lleyton Hewitt, seeded at (30), by Neji Hyuuga. The sports writers are starting to pay attention, and journalists are frantically trying to work out where these young people came from.

Naruto’s record is dug up and splattered over the front pages – ‘Britain’s youngest hope’, he’s dubbed, on the heels of Andy Murray’s loss to Rafael Nadal in four sets. The papers have also dug out Sasuke’s name, brother to Itachi Uchiha, the (5) seed at Wimbledon, a strong contender to take the title away from Nadal and become the newest British champion now that Minato Namikaze has retired.

The group is not quite hounded, but it’s a close call. Including them, Britain has fourteen participants in the 4th round of Wimbledon that starts on Monday. That they are ‘a sensation’ is an understatement.

---

Sunday is the official day of rest, and everyone and their families congregate for a light lunch in the restaurant of the Wimbledon Hotel where all of them are staying. Naruto tries to relax as much as possible, knowing that he has to play Spain’s David Ferrer (9) tomorrow and knowing that last year Ferrer had knocked out the (6) seed on his arse. Like him, all the other players are nervous and trying not to show it.

He watches his mom cutting up Koyuki’s meal for her and his father chatting amiably with Jiraiya while trying to pretend he isn’t throwing nervous glances at his son every few minutes, and resolves to go for a good long run once lunch is over – he needs to get rid of the abominable tension stiffening his shoulders somehow. Alone, he reiterates to himself when he catches his dad at it again.

It’s not until forty-five minutes later that he manages to ditch the rest of them, and with a relieved sigh he changes into a pair of off-white shorts and his favourite battered orange-on-black Rollerball T-shirt and his oldest, scruffiest, most comfortable pair of running shoes. He sticks a twenty in his pocket – just in case he gets lost and has to take a cab back – as well as his mobile, jots down a quick note to his parents and leaves the hotel by the back entrance.

He sticks his earphones on, plays the Kick-Ass soundtrack on his phone, picks a direction and he starts running. The repetitive, calming feeling of the ground pushing against his feet is incredibly soothing to his frayed nerves. If nothing else, at least he knows how to get lost inside his own head while the rhythm of running takes over his body without a need for any higher brain functions.

He runs. The soundtrack finishes; he plays (500) Days of Summer. When that finishes, he plays The Beach. By this time he’s well out of the city centre, passing enormous villa-like houses with gorgeous, perfectly maintained gardens he catches glimpses of through wrought iron fences. He loves houses like these – white, Grecian-style columns franking the entrances, or simple façades with lovingly carved, heavy wooden doors.

He loves the smell of earth after rain – it figures that on the one day they have a break it would pour down all morning – but the aftermath is a fresh, fragrant scent that flushes his cheeks and makes his eyes sparkle with pleasure.

To his shock, he catches sight of Rafael Nadal walking through the front door of one of the houses – so these must be the ones rented out to players, then. One day, he promises himself, he’ll be good enough and famous enough to afford to rent one of these lovely houses to come home to for the two weeks while he plays on the Wimbledon courts.

He has no idea where he is anymore, but he’s still in the same friendly neighbourhood and he figures he’s done five miles by now. He stops at the end of the street to catch his breath and stretch a little, preparing for the run home. He changes the music to Everything But the Girl’s Walking Wounded trip-hop-inspired album and starts back the way he came. The miles fly away under his feet and he feels happier and more relaxed than he has since the week started.

The door to one of the houses on his right opens and a familiar figure appears, a rubbish bag in his hand. He’s dressed all in black for a change, loose trousers and an even looser T-shirt, black hair damp as if from a shower. Naruto is transfixed. Sasuke looks like something straight from his imagination, perhaps a bit more dressed than he usually imagines, but no less alluring for it.

Naruto reaches the edge of the property and pulls the headphones away from his ears. “Hi,” he says; he’s still gulping down air, so it comes out a lot breathier than it normally would.

Sasuke starts, then turns around slowly, as if he’s not sure Naruto’s really there. Naruto feels awkward and underdressed, standing in front of him in his scruffiest clothes, sweat pouring down his face and neck; and Sasuke keeps staring at him.

“I was just going for a run,” Naruto adds lamely, anxious to break the silence but not knowing how to be cool or sophisticated about it.

“I can see that,” Sasuke drawls back – it’s neither snarky nor unfriendly, and it makes Naruto feel a little better.

“So, how are you doing?” Naruto asks, going for ‘light’ and reaching as high as ‘nervous’.

“Okay,” Sasuke says, and he sounds it.

“I’m glad,” Naruto smiles at him – not as widely as he would have once, but friendly enough.

“Yeah,” Sasuke murmurs; his eyes fall to Naruto’s T-shirt. “And you say I have bad taste in fashion,” he drawls again, and this time Naruto can hear the laughter being suppressed.

“It was a present, okay?” he grumbles. “Besides, I like Rollerball. I’m surprised you even know that’s where it’s from!”

“Credit me with some pop culture knowledge,” Sasuke says mildly.

The exchange is probably the friendliest they’ve ever had. Naruto shuffles his feet a little, then takes the plunge.

“Thanks for—you know.”

“I do?” Sasuke’s expression is flat, but Naruto recognises his baffled look.

He glares at Sasuke for making him say it. “The sandwich. And the book.”

Sasuke’s widening eyes indicate that he hadn’t thought Naruto would ever say anything about it.

“You’re welcome,” Sasuke says quietly.

“Um. Why—why did you give them to me?” Naruto asks tentatively.

It’s Sasuke’s turn to shuffle his feet, something Naruto doesn’t think he’s ever seen him do before. He opens his mouth, closes it.

Naruto wonders if this is one of those times Sasuke can’t say what’s on his mind, that it’s too big a step for him. So Naruto decides to meet him half-way.

“Shikamaru said that it must have been because you—appreciated what I did, before, even though I don’t know what the big deal was about what I did, anyone would have done it for you—“

“Not anyone,” Sasuke interrupts almost inaudibly. He’s looking everywhere but at Naruto when he says, “It was a lot. I—It was hard, back then. But. Uh. Thanks.”

Naruto scratches the back of his head, uncomfortable with how much weight Sasuke is placing on a few simple things that hadn’t been all that important. He’d just wanted to make Sasuke happy. Hadn’t everyone?

“It’s okay,” Naruto says at last. “You don’t have to do all that stuff for me, though. I mean, it’s great, but— just, you don’t have to.”

Sasuke’s lips curl in a small smile, and for the first time he looks Naruto in the eye. “I know,” he murmurs, and Naruto is completely bowled over by how much the expression changes Sasuke’s face, softens it, makes it—him—look – warm. Friendly. Approachable. Happy.

“Uh. Okay then,” Naruto mumbles, still staring at Sasuke’s face like it’s the first time he’s seen it. Sasuke must have seen something in his eyes that makes him come another step forward, shorten the distance between them.

“I also wanted to say ‘sorry,’” Sasuke’s voice is lower than before. He’s standing quite close to Naruto now. Why is he standing so close? Why can’t Naruto breathe properly?

“For what?” it comes out as a squeak and his face flames in embarrassment. He clears his throat awkwardly.

“I know you heard what I said to my father that time in the Infirmary,” Sasuke tells him, and Naruto’s expression shutters closed. But wait – he’s apologising for it?

“I was angry. I didn’t mean it. You’re not a loser. You’re one of the best players out there.” His voice is still low, but all the more sincere for it.

Naruto can’t move, not to nod, not to step away, or closer, though he’s not too sure where that last thought comes from. He just looks at Sasuke and lets the lingering hurt from years ago dissipate under the quiet praise.

“Why did you never reply to my emails?” Naruto asks, voice a little hoarse with emotion.

“Orochimaru’s policy. We were supposed to cut the rest of the world off, not think of anything other than training. Going to him – it—might have been a mistake,” Sasuke admits and Naruto is well aware how much saying that costs him.

“I’m glad you’re back,” Naruto tells him; this time the wide, bright, no-holds-barred smile takes over his face completely and he’s powerless to stop it.

Sasuke smiles back, a real smile this time, and his eyes fall from Naruto’s to fasten lower. Naruto has the strangest feeling that Sasuke might actually kiss him; it scares him that he has not the slightest desire to move away.

“Sasuke?” a feminine voice comes from the still partially open front door and Naruto jumps away, startled. He looks around Sasuke to see a tall, graceful, dark-haired woman standing at the threshold. “Is everything—Oh! Hello! You must be Naruto!”

She strides forward to stand next to a flushed Sasuke. Naruto almost can’t take his eyes away from him; the sight makes something in his chest tighten and relax all at the same time.

“Mother, this is Naruto. Naruto, my mother.”

“Mikoto, Naruto. It’s a pleasure to meet you at last,” she says amiably, and Naruto can see where the Uchiha brothers get their smooth charm from.

“You too, ma’am,” Naruto replies, taking the hand she’s holding out to him and shaking it gently. She has a strong, firm grip that surprises and reassures him.

“I think I see what all the fuss is about,” she murmurs to herself before giving him a charming smile. “Won’t you join us for tea?” she invites, and Naruto wants to accept, so much, but his clothes are filthy and he smells of sweat and exertion. He doesn’t want to offend Sasuke’s mother, though… He looks down at himself despairingly.

“Don’t give it another thought,” she says lightly with a graceful wave of her hand. “You can shower, if you like, and borrow some of Sasuke’s clothes. I’ll call your mother meanwhile, so she knows you’re here, and they can come and pick you up – or we can drive you back to the hotel.”

Somehow, it doesn’t surprise Naruto to know that Sasuke’s mother and his are friends. In fact, he thinks, it would be more surprising if they weren’t.

---

Sasuke’s room is just as perfectly organised as everything about him. His host opens a drawer in one of the large cherry-wood armoires and offers him a pair of sweatpants and a fitted T-shirt.

“There’s fresh towels in the bathroom,” he tells Naruto and shows him the way. At the bathroom door he lingers for a moment, just looking at him, then seems to shake himself and turns to go downstairs.

Naruto watches him walk away for a moment, then screws up his courage, reaches for his arm and tugs him back. He’s overdone it a little, however; Sasuke loses his balance, slips on the carpet and starts to fall. Naruto reaches to catch him, tangles his legs with his and they both land on the floor with a hard whoosh of air from their lungs.

“Crap,” Naruto says, conversationally. “Not quite what I meant to do.”

“What did you mean to do?” Sasuke enquires from beside him, amusement clear in his voice. “Only you can be so nimble on court and trip over your own feet in private,” he snorts.

Naruto wants to scowl, but he’s smiling too widely for it to work. “That’s me,” he quips lightly.

He turns to face him just as Sasuke rolls his head towards him. They are so close that their noses are almost touching, and Naruto feels breathless all over again. Tentatively he shifts on his side and touches his nose to Sasuke’s cheekbone, the pale skin so smooth and warm. Sasuke waits, unmoving. Naruto pulls away to look at him properly, a question in his eyes. Sasuke nods, sneaks an arm around Naruto’s shoulders and pulls him down.

The first touch of their lips is unsure, strange, exhilarating. Naruto makes a small noise in his throat and presses closer, putting more pressure on Sasuke’s mouth, tilting his head hesitantly to kiss him deeper. Sasuke moves his lips under him and, oh god, Naruto is not prepared for the burst of satisfaction that tiny move sends through him.

He is suddenly reminded that this is Sasuke. Sasuke who drives him insane most of the time, Sasuke whom he can’t quite work out at the best of times, Sasuke who can’t say what he means but shows it instead with thoughtful gifts from times long past, Sasuke who stands in front of him and protects him from the ball that’s going to bruise him and then leaves him water so he doesn’t have to get up and stumble around on a broken ankle to get some; Sasuke who hurts him without meaning to and can’t let things rest before making amends.

Sasuke who is pulling him closer and slipping a tongue out to lick at his bottom lip, asking him for entrance he gladly grants, Sasuke who breaks the kiss to look at him with dark eyes Naruto has never seen so warm.

“My mother is going to come up to check on you any moment now. Go take that shower, you smell,” Naruto is told fondly; when he makes to get up, he is tugged back down, kissed soundly once more and shoved upright by a smirking Sasuke who is looking like the cat who got the cream and the canary.

Naruto can’t stop his smile from splitting his face, even though his cheeks are flushed and his shorts feel too tight. He laughs outright when Minato’s voice calls for Sasuke from downstairs and Sasuke shoots to his feet, cheeks just as flushed as Naruto’s. Naruto doesn’t think he’s ever going to get tired of the way Sasuke looks at times like this. He’s eagerly looking forward to finding out just how low that blush reaches, but he keeps his thoughts to himself for now. And if he admires Sasuke’s backside a little too closely as he walks to the stairs – well, he isn’t telling.

---

Several times during the evening Naruto wants to turn to Sasuke and say, ‘Dude, your parents are nice,’ just to share the shock of his discovery with someone. Kushina and Minato arrive not too long after he goes downstairs, fresh from his shower, and tea turns into one of those ‘family dinner’ affairs Naruto has only seen on TV. Koyuki is a little wary of the strangers at first, but she soon latches on to Itachi like a limpet, demanding stories. Naruto looks at Sasuke biting his lip and knows that Sasuke would be laughing himself silly at Itachi’s face if he ever allowed himself to lose that much control.

To his surprise, he loves it. He loves getting to know Sasuke’s parents, talking to Itachi, poking at Sasuke under the table when he sees the beginning of a scowl on his face at some of his mother’s stories of him as a child, seeing his dad and Sasuke’s talking quietly to each other, the exchanged handshake, a clap on the other’s shoulder, the smile on his dad’s face, his mom’s relieved sigh and the exchanged long look between her and Mikoto.

When it’s time to go, he almost doesn’t want to. Sasuke’s looking at him like that again, affection clear in his eyes, and he never wants to leave. But both of them have gruelling matches tomorrow – Sasuke’s is against the (5) seed, Andy Roddick. It will be a miracle if Sasuke can pull this one off.

---

He does. It’s unbelievable. Sasuke is developing into a mean all-court player – he uses the best bits from each style of play and mixes it together to create a truly formidable tennis style to play against. Roddick, who is much more of a serve-and-volley-style player, doesn’t stand a chance against Sasuke’s precision and speed. Sasuke covers the whole court almost effortlessly; Naruto doesn’t know whether to be jealous of his skills or proud that he’s doing so very well.

The match does go to five sets, but not to a tiebreak – Sasuke gets three match balls and decides the match with the second. Naruto yells himself hoarse cheering him on.

---

His own match is an absolute bitch. Ferrer’s stamina rivals Naruto’s, so this is not one of those easy matches where he can exhaust his opponent into the ground. He has to fight for every point, every game, tooth and claw. It goes all the way up to a tiebreak, and luck is on Naruto’s side today because Ferrer makes two unforced errors that send two vital points Naruto’s way. One ace and one jump smash later, Naruto’s through to the quarterfinal.

No one can quite believe that these two untried players are doing so well – the others from their group are not quite as successful. Tenten loses to Serena Williams – like anyone can stop her when she’s in top shape – and Sakura loses to her sister, Venus. Lee plays Itachi – Naruto isn’t quite sure who he should cheer for in that match. Lee loses gracefully, three sets to one. Five from the group go through to quarterfinals: Sasuke, Naruto, Neji, Ino and Hinata.

Naruto knows he’s going to have to play his friends soon; he’s not particularly looking forward to it. He’s still reconciling himself to the fact that him winning means other people losing. He doesn’t even want to think about having to play against Sasuke, especially with this new dynamic that’s evolving between them.

---

On the boys’ day off between 4th round and the men’s quarterfinals, all of them go to cheer the girls in their quarterfinals. Naruto takes Sasuke with him for the first time –Sakura almost passes out from excitement.

“I’m so happy the two of you have made up!” she squeals. “Naruto’s been insufferable ever since you had that fight!”

Naruto scowls at her and Sasuke raises both eyebrows at him.

“Haven’t been that bad,” Naruto grumbles, shooting daggers at the laughing girls.

Sasuke hums doubtfully but, out of sight of the others, draws a comforting finger down his arm in a silent apology. He catches Naruto off-guard and gets a pleased smile back. Naruto thinks he can live with the squeals of delight, the cooing, and the teasing, as long as he gets to keeps Sasuke by his side.

Ino and Hinata lose, but what a way to go – Ino almost sends Elena Dementieva (8) crashing out, but a last-minute dropped ball lets the Russian through instead; and Hinata only loses from Jelena Jankovic (3) when Hawk-Eye is deployed for the match point. They are disappointed, but ecstatic to have reached so far in the championship.

Once the matches are done for the day, Naruto walks Sasuke home. It takes them a while, because their walking pace is laughably slow, but Naruto enjoys every moment, every shy look, every uncertain smile, every tentative touch. He’s still not sure how they went from Sasuke hating him and ignoring him, to this – he doesn’t know what this is, only that he never wants it to stop, and that he’s willing to do whatever it takes to keep it.

---

Naruto worries about telling his parents; as it happens, he doesn’t have to.

“Ask Sasuke and his family over for dinner tomorrow, love,” Kushina tells him that night, and “you’d better wear that blue shirt I got you last month, it brings out your gorgeous eyes.” And then she winks at him. Winks! His own mother! Isn’t she supposed to defend his virtue or something?

“Oh, do stop looking so gobsmacked, darling, what would Sasuke think?” she smirks at him.

“Probably that my parents are insane,” he mumbles under his breath, but Kushina still hears him.

“Is it so wrong for a mother to want her son to be happy, hm?” she says in her best ‘guilt-trip’ voice.

“No, Mom,” he replies dutifully.

Kushina’s face softens. “And he does make you happy, I can see that,” she says softly.

“He does,” Naruto tells her, grinning that big smile she loves so much.

---

Quarterfinals. Naruto is playing against another young player, France’s Sai Fude, seeded at (11). Sasuke has to play Gaara – Naruto is actually more worried about Sasuke’s match than his own. Neji is playing Federer and Itachi – Rafa Nadal. The outcome of Neji’s match is almost pre-decided – no young player can win against such a seasoned professional, though Neji is determined to do his best, anyway. Reaching quarterfinals on his second Wimbledon championship is still quite an achievement.

Itachi and Nadal’s match result is less certain. Nadal is the number (1) seed, but he has been known to be inconsistent in his performance at Wimbledon, grass being his least successful medium of court covering. Itachi definitely stands a chance of winning.

Naruto’s match is the first and Sasuke’s is the third of the day, so Sasuke sticks around to wish him luck. They are in the dressing rooms and Sasuke is fixing Naruto’s collar and hair when his opponent arrives. A tall, pale man, Sai has a wiry build that hints at speed and strength both. Curious black eyes take in the two teenagers standing a little too close to each other for them to be just friends.

Sasuke’s hand is still tangled in Naruto’s hair; when Sai tilts his head a little to the side in question, he demonstratively draws it slowly through as if he meant to do that from the start.

“Good luck,” Sasuke tells Naruto quietly, eyes full of confidence. Naruto smiles at him – if Sasuke thinks he can win, then he really can.

“Is that your boyfriend?” Sai asks him the moment Sasuke is out of the door. He has a pleasant voice, a light tenor that goes well with the overall impression he presents.

“Yeah,” Naruto grins. He is.

“I would have thought you could do better. A bit short for you, isn’t he? If you like dark hair and pale skin, I imagine you and I would make a better picture.”

Naruto blinks a few times, not sure if he’s heard that right.

“You’re saying that I should go out with you?” he repeats disbelievingly.

“I’m saying you and I would look better together, though now that you mention it,” Sai’s eyes drift lower, taking in Naruto’s body in his T-shirt and shorts, “you do seem to have a disappointingly small penis.”

---

Naruto storms out on court moments later, still fuming. That little bastard! Better than Sasuke, is he? Naruto’s going to wipe the floor with him, just to show him what’s what. He knows Sasuke is watching him, but he can’t quite school his features into his normal composure. Sure enough, when Naruto looks at him, Sasuke is staring murderously at Sai, who is calmly taking his racquet out of his holdall and sitting in one of the white chairs to wait for play to start.

Naruto wins that match, too, but it’s not until the very end that disaster strikes. When they go to the net to shake hands over it, Sai leans over it and pecks a kiss onto Naruto’s cheek. Naruto’s too stunned to react, but Sai looks pleased with himself.

“Think about it,” he says, then goes to shake the umpire’s hand. Naruto follows in a daze of disbelief. The sheer nerve of that arsehole!

“What was all that about?” Sasuke growls from behind him; when Naruto turns to him, he looks livid.

“I’ve absolutely no idea,” Naruto mutters, still shell-shocked. Surely people didn’t go around kissing each other like that where Sai was from?

It takes a moment to register Sasuke’s narrowed eyes. “What?” he snaps at him defensively. “It’s not like he asked me before he did it!”

Sasuke still looks livid, but Naruto can tell he now has a plan by the way his eyes glint behind his lashes.

“Come with me,” Sasuke purrs. He grabs Naruto’s hand and leads him outside to where his parents and the rest of the group are waiting for him. Sasuke pulls Naruto to stand next to him. “We’re going out,” he declares, daring anyone to comment.

“Where?” asks a bemused Minato. Sasuke doesn’t quite glare at him, but it’s a close call.

“With each other. We’re going out together.”

Naruto cringes. Way to come out to everybody. “Was that really necessary?” he hisses at Sasuke.

“Yes. Yes, it was,” Sasuke says softly, shooting a deadly glare at Sai standing a little way behind their little group, which isn’t looking particularly surprised at the news.

Naruto sighs. Sasuke, it seems, has a possessive streak.

---

“Interesting,” Gaara comments later on, just before his match with Sasuke.

“Hmm?” Naruto spares him a distracted glance from where he’s anxiously watching Sasuke change.

“I knew there was something between the two of you almost as soon as I saw you back then. I just didn’t think it was this.”

“Gaara! We were ten!” Naruto exclaims, horrified.

“I didn’t mean that you fancied each other. There was just some connection bringing you two together. Friends, rivals, doesn’t matter. It was there,” he avers, no doubt in his voice.

“You’re right,” Sasuke says. “I felt it, too. Tried to fight it. Didn’t work,” he finishes with a rueful smile and a glance up at Naruto.

Naruto loves how unguarded Sasuke seems in that moment, almost stripped bare, and all his, he thinks with satisfaction.

“Good luck, both of you,” he tells them. He’s torn about whom he should cheer for, they both mean so much to him. Sasuke squeezes his hand reassuringly.

“May the best man win,” he says and he and Gaara nod to each other.

---

Apparently, the best man is Sasuke. Naruto is so exhausted from the emotional rollercoaster of the match that all he wants to do is give both of them a hug. He hates that Gaara had to lose for Sasuke to go forward, but he knows that the two of them are much more practical about winning and losing than he is. It doesn’t stop him giving Sasuke a good, long kiss, after which Sasuke drags him back to central court to watch his brother hand Nadal his arse back.

It’s been some time since Naruto has watched Itachi’s every match whenever he could, and he’d never been able to watch him live. The difference is quite something. Naruto privately thinks that if he and Sasuke manage to improve this much in five years, then the world’s number one and two spots will be occupied by the two of them for the foreseeable future.

Nadal is a brilliant server, and his strength lies in behind-the-baseline game founded on heavy topspin groundstrokes, speed and excellent court coverage, making him a very capable defender. However, grass is his least favourable court covering, and he struggles to achieve his best form on it. Federed still leads in their rivalry on that surface.

Itachi, on the other hand, has formed his play on grass, being a British player who has spent most of his life practicing on it. Also, much like his brother, Itachi is an all-court player, excellent at defence and offence both. The grass surface is often slippery, which Itachi uses like a weapon, utilising his speed to perform some truly spectacular sideways slides that help him reach the ball faster than Nadal, whose best surface is clay –which has almost no slip to it.

As a result, Itachi clearly has the advantage over him, and while the match is by no means easy, Itachi does take an easy win, three sets to one. It helps that Nadal seems a little out of shape because of an injury he had sustained in the Australian Open in January obviously still giving him trouble.

Which, of course, means that Sasuke will play Itachi in the semi-final, and Naruto will play Roger Federer. Naruto isn’t sure which option terrifies him more.

---

The Uchiha brothers are two brilliant young players that have far too much in common to have an advantage over one another. Both are all-court players, both excel on grass, both have excellent techniques, and both possess ironclad determination to win against the other. The infamous Uchiha rivalry, which has frequently been compared to that of the Williams sisters in the past, is about to get its first outing in a major tournament.

Most of the spectators are content in the knowledge that this draw means at least one British player in the finals, with the (admittedly long-shot) possibility of an all-British final, something that hasn’t happened during the open era.

---

On the day of the semi-finals, one day after the quarterfinals, Naruto is pacing nervously outside the changing rooms where the two brothers are getting ready. He can hear nothing from the inside, and anyway that isn’t their style. They are far more likely to fight with barbed, loaded comments than with fists.

The door opens and the two perfectly outfitted men come out one after the other. They both look fine, he thinks as he studies their faces anxiously. There is no sign of the nerves they must both be feeling – they look like statues, gorgeous but blank. The moment their eyes fall on Naruto, though, he can see the warmth flowing back into their expressions, and just like that they are back to looking alive.

Naruto looks helplessly between them. Hs should be on Sasuke’s side, since they’re together, and – it’s Sasuke, he’s always on his side, except for when he’s being an idiot, but – it’s Itachi, too, and he wants both of them to win, but he wants Sasuke to win, too, because it would mean so much to him to be acknowledged that in that instant he is better than his brother, and…

“You’re thinking too much again,” Sasuke observes and bumps his shoulder with his own in passing; but he also tangles their fingers together briefly before he’s gone past, and gives them a little squeeze.

Naruto bites his lower lip. “Good luck, both of you,” he mumbles, because he hates choosing between people who are important to him. He wonders for a moment how Sasuke stands it.

But he gets smiles back from both of them, so he supposes that somehow he’s managed to say the right thing.

---

He almost can’t watch the match itself. Sakura and Ino are sitting on either side of him and keep pulling his hands away from his mouth when he forgets himself again and starts chewing on his fingernails. Several times he has to put his hands over his eyes, because he just can’t stand the tension.

He doesn’t know how Sasuke wins. Both brothers look absolutely wrecked, sweat pouring down their faces and under their T-shirts, soaking them and plastering them to their skins. Naruto knows he has it bad when the sight makes him more worried than horny. It’s always like this with him – when he falls, he falls hook, line and sinker.

Three racquets get broken, and each of them has to get changed once, when their wet shirts start sticking to their bodies so much that their swing is affected. In the end, it comes down to pure luck. Neither of the two players relies on it much, but Naruto can’t see any other way that it could happen. A slip here, a miss there, a serve gone awry, a spectacular catch – it all adds up, and what it adds up to is a disbelieving Sasuke falling to his knees in shock when Itachi’s return is called ‘out’ and he scores the match point after more than four and a half hours of play.

Sasuke walks to the net in a daze, afraid to smile in case it’s all a mistake. Itachi shakes his hand and pulls him into a one-armed hug, an unprecedented show of affection. Sasuke’s face is squashed into his neck, and Naruto thinks he sees him shake a little. Moments later Itachi lets him go, walks to the umpire and shakes his hand with every sign of pleasure.

Sasuke follows, the crowd’s roaring smothering any sound that might have reached all the way up the tiers where their group is piled together. Sasuke turns to the crowd and throws one of the spare tennis balls he has left into it; hands reach for it with alacrity. Everyone is on their feet, yelling and clapping for him. He stands there for a moment, just soaking it in, and a smile of triumph finally dawns on his face as he locks eyes with his parents, standing up in the family box and applauding. Naruto thinks his heart will burst with joy at how happy Sasuke looks in that moment.

“Well done,” he breathes later, when he finds Sasuke in the changing rooms, getting his stuff together.

For a moment they simply stand there looking at each other; the next moment Sasuke is striding forward and kissing him fiercely, almost violently. Naruto clutches at him, thinking that even though he still has his own match to play, in that moment he feels like he has already won everything that matters.

---

“I’m going to lose,” he tells his dad an hour later when he’s getting ready to walk out on court.

Minato is in the changing rooms with him, sitting on a bench and lounging against one of the pillars, but at that declaration he sits up straight.

“Why do you think that?” he asks carefully, and Naruto loves him even more for not just denying the possibility.

“It’s Federer, Dad. You know what he plays like on grass. He’s only lost twice in the final at Wimbledon in seven years. He’s an all-round, all-court player whose shots are virtually unsaveable. I’m just—I’m not good enough yet.” It hurts to say it, but it’s the truth and Naruto has to face that.

“O-kay,” Minato says in his usual calm manner, and Naruto frowns. His dad only says that when Naruto is being stupid and he’s humouring him. Naruto raises his eyebrows in an unspoken demand to know what his dad means.

“First of all, one of Federer’s losses was last year, and he was knocked out at the quarterfinal. He’s been struggling to find his form ever since the French Open, where the same thing happened, and he didn’t even play in the US Open.

“If you think you can’t win against him, you’ve lost already, kiddo. You have probably the best chance you’re ever going to get to beat him, but you can’t go into the match with that attitude.”

Naruto nods thoughtfully. His dad does have a point. “And the second?”

Minato stands up and walks over to him, looks at him with pride. “You are now a better, more skilful player than either me or your mother were at your age. You have excellent technique, you have the stamina of a marathon runner, and you have youth on your side. I truly believe that you can win this match,” he says, no question or doubt in his voice or face.

Naruto really does cry this time. The day, Sasuke’s win, the pressure, they all take his toll on him and he is completely undone by his dad’s words. Minato hugs him then; Naruto realises with a bit of a shock that he is now almost as tall as his dad is. He holds his father close, burying his face in his neck just for a moment.

When he walks out of the changing rooms, he is composed, collected, and a hell of a lot more confident than he had been when he had walked inside half an hour ago. His dad trails him as he makes his way to Centre Court, where the crowd is going insane with the anticipation. Federer is stretching a little, and looks about to start his warm-up.

Naruto takes a moment to look around before sinking into his ‘game zone’. The stands are packed, a literal wall of people waving all sorts of banners – “Go, Naruto!” “We love you, Naruto!” “Naruto for № 1” and others like them. Some of them are even orange. Well, he has the crowd’s support, at least. He looks up into the family box and sees his parents, his sister and Jiraiya beaming down at him and waving. He smiles and waves back, but his eyes are searching for another person out there.

A flash of black and fuchsia catches his eye and there they are – the entire Uchiha family, Mikoto wearing a truly stunning black shirt with an elaborate fuchsia bow at her throat. They don’t wave at him like his family does, but they do all smile warmly – apart from Fugaku who nods at him in approval instead. He grins at them, and at his friends seated two rows back from them. Then he turns to the court and he forgets about the rest of the world for the next four hours.

---

…I can’t believe how fast that serve was…

…there’s no way that was in!...

…you cannot be serious!!...

how the fuck did he catch that?!...

…faster, I have to be faster to keep up with him…

…did he really just miss that? That means the first set is mine...

…damn, that’s gonna catch the net, I have to get closer…

…I hate his drop-shots, that’s one set each…

…ooh, ooh, I can get that! Leapfrog!!...

…was—was that a double fault?? Did he just give me the third set with a double fault?!...

…FUCKING YES, SCORE!...

…three match balls—for me. What? When did that happen?…

…just focus. Don’t think about what it means. It’s just another ball…

…goddamn fucking motherfucker!!!...

…okay, two match balls. Still plenty of time to take him…

…this can’t be happening. How the fucking hell is that in?!...

…last match ball. You fuck this up, Uzumaki-Namikaze, and I’ll fuck you up…

…it’s out. I’ve—I’ve won. I’ve won!

---

Naruto doesn’t remember much from the next few minutes. He shakes Federer’s hand, who tells him he played a great game, and good luck in the finals, and then he’s shaking the umpire’s hand, and the crowd is going wild, and he can hear his mom yelling from where he’s still standing on the court, and Sasuke is running down the stairs of the stands, and Naruto worries there’s something wrong before realising Sasuke is coming to him, because he’s won, he’s in the final of Wimbledon with him, and he’s going to have to play Sasuke in a day’s time, and it’s just too much, so his brain shuts down for a little while, and the next thing he knows is he’s being pulled up to the barrier and kissed to within an inch of his life.

Flashlights are going off everywhere. Wimbledon hasn’t had an all-British final since 1909 – over a century ago; the last British player to play (and lose) in the finals did so in 1938; the last time a British player actually won Wimbledon had been in 1936. History is being made at that moment, not to mention the ‘blossoming romance’ angle; the two young men in the centre of it couldn’t care less. Sasuke jumps over the barrier at last and lands in a crouch in front of Naruto, who pulls him up by his hand. They stand there staring at each other, a ridiculously big grin splitting Naruto’s face while Sasuke links their fingers together and smirks at him victoriously.

They both know they will have to play each other in two days. Both know that one of them will have to lose. They know that in a minute they’re going to have to let go of each other and pay attention to the hundreds of reporters swarming them, and their families’ insistent demands for celebration. This moment, though, is all their own.

---

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