DISCLAIMER: I don't anything of Naruto, nor do I get any money for this. If I did I would be rich -- not poor. Bleh.

Author's Notes: This turned out to be the one-shot that wouldn't stop growing, so I decided to split it into three parts. The last two parts outlined but yet to be written. A thank you to all those who took the time to comment on End of All and Differences in Despair. You guys (especially those who wondered why I never do happy SasuNaru) inspired the start of this ficlet. The mushiness...is unsettling to be honest. I think I went a tad overboard in trying to turn everything all happy, but oh well. Nobody dying is a good thing, I suppose. Also, this can be thought of as either a prequel with a happy ending of End of All or just as a standalone. I wasn't sure about the Academy or ages, and when I tried to research, I came up with inconclusive or vague references, so I just made everything up. ;-)


Part One: When We Met


Naruto just didn't understand.

He couldn't, really. All he wanted was to play with the other children and their friends. Everyone had friends. Everyone but him, and he really, really wanted one. Except, no one wanted him. He tried to be good, to be nice and well behaved. But they just ignored him when he tried to talk to them, and once, when he wouldn't go away, they had looked at him with so much anger and disdain, Naruto couldn't help but shiver. It hadn't been a particularly cold day then so Naruto wasn't sure why he had felt so chilly after they had turned away. He only knew that he didn't like the feeling at all. He still didn't like the feeling but that didn't mean it stopped the tiny squeeze of his heart.

It hurt.

It hurt a lot.

Showing it never helped, because when he did, nobody cared so Naruto decided to let their harsh comments and expected rejection slide off like the ice cream of an ice cream cone on a hot, unlucky day. He didn't care. 'Course not. He was Uzumaki Naruto! He didn't need anybody, hear that?

That's right. He didn't need anybody. He was just as happy sitting by his lonesome here underneath the great, ancient oaks that made up much of the village that wouldn't acknowledge him. Yeah, you heard right. He didn't care. See? He's not caring. He's just sitting there watching the other children play with a ball because he was bored and didn't have anything else to do. It wasn't as if he wanted to join in. He didn't, and not because the other children wouldn't let him either. Nope. Not at all.

Naruto curled his arms tightly around his knees and huddled back, leaning on rough bark that should hurt, but barely grazed him, so caught up in his own confusion he was. What did he care if no one wanted him around? He sniffed lightly, but refused to cry. He wasn't some big baby who wailed for no reason at all. He was five and a half years old! And going to be Hokage! A future Hokage would never cry, and yet, he could feel the sting of warm tears ready to burst any moment. Uncurling frosty hands and hastily scrubbing his eyes (damn watery eyes), Naruto never noticed curious dark eyes watching his every movement. He furiously rubbed and rubbed and rubbed, until he couldn't feel any hint of wetness and then pulled his hands quickly away.

"Here."

Naruto hastily looked up past the hand that was reluctantly holding out a handkerchief, past the creamy pale arm and the dark short sleeves to the almost-bored expression on a face that reminded Naruto of the beauty held within the deep, dark night skies. Skies he would look upon and worship while making bright but hopeless wishes to the winking, friendly stars.

"Well?" He was becoming irritated now, Naruto could see, but Naruto wasn't quite sure how to respond. No one had paid so much attention before; Naruto couldn't help but think as he hesitantly, shyly reached for the thin, embroidered cloth with its intricate leaf and flower designs. Naruto took it, at long last and then held it tightly.

"Thanks," he told the stranger while his heart clamped together so tight that Naruto could almost hear his blood leak; like those fresh oranges Iruka-sensei had once tried to make into juice for the class.

Shrugging, and studying Naruto with an intensity Naruto had never seen, the stranger suddenly sat down. Beside him.

Naruto's eyes grew wide and wider as he stared at the still form that for some reason or another, wasn't moving away. And then, suspicion hit and Naruto bit his lower lip hard. It was so far from normal, so -- so weird that it had to be a cruel joke right? Ha, ha, ha, look at Naruto! That idiot actually thought someone liked him. His lower lip hurt now, hurt so much but so did his chest too, and Naruto wasn't sure which pain to soothe first. It had never hurt so badly.

He clutched at the handkerchief -- so pretty -- and wanted to keep it forever. But it wasn't his to keep, and now, he didn't want it that much anyway if the kind stranger wasn't being really kind in the first place.

"I'm Sasuke," he said, boredom and interest mixed in dark-sky eyes that saw Naruto without even looking. "And you can have that." He jerked his head in some random direction and then turned to Naruto with a small wry smile. "I don't think I want it back."

Slightly chubby hands gripped the handkerchief even tighter, and then more shyly than Naruto thought he would ever be, thanked his new...friend. Maybe it wasn't some joke. Maybe -- maybe -- he -- Sasuke liked him, and wanted him around.

Hope was not something he had a name for, even though Naruto was kin to it from the first time someone had turned their head away in denial and accusation to the last time someone stared at him unnervingly in that silent way Naruto was familiar with. And yet, he couldn't help but have it because to be without hope meant Naruto had no dreams. And without dreams, Naruto couldn't bear to live. Not even to see the friendly stars in the entrancing dark.

He stared at Sasuke, waiting for some sign, some signal.

"Whatever," Sasuke muttered offhandedly and turned back to watch the other children run away in mock play. But he didn't leave.

Naruto grinned. Widely, hugely, brilliantly and feeling so much brighter than the sun. He loved this warm, tingly feeling. Wanted to memorise it forever and ever so that he could recall what it felt like whenever he shivered.

Grinning stupidly, he told Sasuke, "My name's Naruto," and then he tucked away the untouched handkerchief into his pocket.

For safe keeping.

----------

Sasuke was the same age as him, Naruto found to his pleasure, loving everything that was common between them and anything that wasn't. Being a friend took a lot of work out of Naruto. He was surprised it did and found that astonishingly enough, he didn't mind at all because being Sasuke's friend was worth it and more. He didn't need to be smart to have figured out Sasuke's popularity. Everyone and he did mean everyone, wanted to have Sasuke's company, play with him, and hang around him like Naruto near-always did now. And Sasuke while not outwardly kind was one of those rare people that preferred his own company, but didn't mind if anyone else joined in. If someone wanted to hang around Sasuke, he never stopped them. He just grunted something now and again until they left -- or didn't leave, in Naruto's case.

Naruto supposed he was just one in a hundred whom Sasuke let hang around. He supposed it was silly that he should see it as more than it was, but Naruto didn't know what else to think. Sasuke was somehow nicer to him, and yeah, Naruto didn't know how he came to that conclusion either but he couldn't shake the thought off. He just couldn't. And he didn't really want to either because it made him feel warm, like being covered by a fluffy blanket in the dead night of winter where everything was steeped in cold. Sasuke made Naruto feel good inside, and Naruto wanted to feel good inside, so he trailed after Sasuke day after day until the sun went to slumber. Then, and only then would he reluctantly go back to his empty house to eat dinner (ramen), before going to a peaceful sleep where he dreamt up hundreds and thousands of places he and Sasuke could go together.

The next morning Naruto would wake up energetically, anticipating his daily routine with Sasuke, though Sasuke didn't talk much and would much rather observe or train. Naruto didn't care, and couldn't find a reason why he should, so he ran as fast as he could to the Academy. Sasuke had been enrolled just last week, and it was, Naruto happily admitted, the only reason why he was adamant about going to class so early. Otherwise Naruto would sleep in and then enter class just in time to sheepishly catch Iruka-sensei's disapproving brown eyes.

Like Naruto had expected, Sasuke was there early, practicing his throws or doing some warm up exercises. Naruto usually sat down on the ground and watched as Sasuke did his graceful twists and turns, and then clapped when Sasuke finished it off with some punches and kicks. Sasuke ignored him all this time, most likely imagining he was alone, but then he would say, "Come on, let's get to class," to no one in particular and Naruto would grin and follow. Sasuke might ignore him, might even prefer his own company to that of Naruto's, but he knew Sasuke would never forget him.

Just as Naruto would never forget Sasuke.

"Hurry up, moron," Sasuke called back, irritated. "You're too slow."

"Yeah, yeah. I'm coming. Jerk," Naruto muttered with good cheer and ran until he was in step with Sasuke. If anyone else had called him a moron, they would have met with angry, slitted blue eyes and shouting that could be heard all over Hidden Leaf. But this was Sasuke, and Sasuke never sounded like he meant any of his insults. In fact, Naruto found himself suspiciously expecting them with not a small amount of relief. Insulting names meant Sasuke actually cared. Sort of. It meant Sasuke was aware of Naruto's presence and was acknowledging it with his usual resignation and peevishness, and this Naruto didn't mind, not at all. Not too many people looked at him like Sasuke did. Like he was there.

"Hey Sasuke, you want some of my ramen?" Naruto offered earnestly and was met with an exasperated sigh.

"Come on. You're too slow." Sasuke grabbed his arm and pulled him along determinedly. He then said with a thoughtful air, "What does ramen taste like?"

"It's really, really, really, really good," Naruto said excitedly, letting Sasuke lead him in the right direction and hoping Sasuke wouldn't let go of his arm just yet. "You have to taste."

"Yeah," Sasuke said with an eye roll. "I'll just have to."

Naruto grinned proudly. Sasuke was going to be another convert to the deliciousness of ramen! And then, they would have one more thing in common.

----------

Naruto didn't feel very good. He wasn't sure why, but his stomach was churning and he felt so mad that he wanted to yell. A lot. He had no right though, and that was only reason why he was quietly sulking and seething instead of pounding the round blonde head of that annoying girl who was clinging onto Sasuke's arm into the dirty ground. He really wanted to though. Really, really wanted to. But it was Sasuke's arm, not Naruto's, and Sasuke didn't look like he was going to fling her away into a tree. A nice, big tree, Naruto pictured. With lots and lots of rough, pointy bark. Naruto eyes glazed over and a big, wide grin stretched over his face. Yes, lots and lots of bark. And insects. And ooh, spiders. Girls were spooked by spiders, right?

"Naruto! Idiot! Let's go," Sasuke said a touch louder than usual and pulled away from the strong grasp of annoying-blonde-girl. Naruto blinked and then grinned even more.

"Yeah! Wait up!" he cried, rushing forward quickly in case he lost sight of Sasuke who was walking in long steps and didn't look to be slowing down anytime soon.

He received a grunt in answer but Sasuke did slow down a little bit. Just enough so that Naruto caught up and then he walked more quickly again. Naruto didn't care though. Nope. Not at all. And that wasn't because annoying-blonde-girl was left in the dust glaring icy daggers of hate into Naruto's back either, (though it added a certain flavour to the smug triumph he felt now). Nope. It was because Sasuke chose him. Him! Not annoying-blonde-girl. Him!

Naruto felt like he could fly. Like he was eight feet tall and the strongest would-be-Shinobi ever. Naruto felt like he could eat half a dozen bowls of ramen -- no, make that a dozen just because he could. Puffing out his chest and pumping his fist in pure, happy glee, he shouted, "Yeah!" --

-- Only to be met with a raised eyebrow and amused night eyes.

Naruto scratched the back of his head sheepishly. "Uh, you see, I was, uh...trying to practise my cheering. See? Yeah!" He pumped his fist again just to make sure Sasuke got his point. "So, that's why I just did that. Yeah," he nodded vigorously.

"I...see...You're...just...weird." Sasuke said slowly, his mouth stretching upwards with every word.

Then Sasuke laughed.

Naruto blinked. And blinked again before a shy smile began to set permanently on his face. He shuffled his feet and grinned. He was making Sasuke laugh! Yeah! Take that, annoying-blonde-girl! Crowing inwardly, and hardly hiding it, Naruto continued on walking alongside Sasuke, now and again turning to glance at Sasuke's still smiling face.

Take that, annoying-blonde-girl. Bet you never made him laugh before.

----------

He bit his lower lip and curled both palms under his chin. What to get? Which one would Sasuke like the most? The pretty red rose on the left or one of the soft irises on the right? It was so hard to choose, Naruto thought sadly, especially when he wanted Sasuke to like them so badly.

Sasuke was unhappy right now. Everyone in the village was talking about it in hushed whispers and with sad shakes of their heads. Naruto only knew about it because nobody really noticed him around, and for once, he was glad. They had been talking about the Uchiha clan; the tragedy of something Naruto couldn't quite make out but knew he wouldn't have made sense of it anyway, and then a name was hissed. Itachi. Naruto was infinitely more confused. Sasuke's brother?

Sasuke hadn't spoken about Itachi much except to say he was a prodigy, a genius, a figurehead Sasuke wanted to emulate badly and worshipped with much of his heart (well, Sasuke never actually said that but Naruto could tell) -- another thing they had in common, Naruto had thought at the time while he looked on Sasuke with unveiled adoration -- but that was all.

Then, one day Sasuke didn't turn up at the Academy.

And suddenly Naruto caught more flashes of Anbu than he had ever seen in his seven years.

He grew worried. Even Naruto's usually oblivious mind was sending warning signals and when that happened, Naruto knew it was serious. Deeply serious. So he had eavesdropped some more, and finally, after a couple of hours and several people, Naruto finally discovered one who had no qualms about saying anything at all. To his relief, Naruto found that Sasuke was safe in the village hospital, injured but still alive. The only surviving member of the Uchiha clan, other than Itachi.

Naruto bit his lip and scrunched up his eyebrows. It was bad. Really bad. And he didn't know how he was going to make Sasuke laugh this time. It hadn't been particularly easy before and Naruto thought it was impossible now. How could he give Sasuke back what was taken forcefully away from him? He couldn't bring back the dead, though he really, really wanted to now, and he wasn't the strongest fighter ever, so taking down Itachi and dragging him back by the ears was out of the question...but...he wanted to do something. Something nice. Something Sasuke would find worthy to smile for. He just had to find out what.

Of course! Flowers. Everybody said that bringing flowers to someone who's sick was a way to show they cared. This had puzzled Naruto because why flowers? Wouldn't a sickly, weak person want some nice, hot, steamy ramen to make them strong again? Naruto would. But then, Naruto was different, as many people young and old had pointed out.

So Naruto decided to bring flowers and ramen. And using his magnificent powers of deduction, had figured bringing Sasuke really beautiful flowers and really tasty ramen would show Sasuke he cared. It was the perfect plan, and Naruto had to give himself a hefty pat on the back. Now, all he needed to do was choose the freakin' flowers.

Which was beginning to be annoying because Naruto just couldn't decide.

He sighed, and felt an undeniable urge to smack his forehead. Come on, Uzumaki! It's just flowers, he scowled pettily and bit his lip even more. He was so deep into his own thoughts that he almost didn't feel the sting, a warning to Naruto about the hazards of his teeth. Naruto rubbed his mouth and pain and scowled even more.

All signs of pain disappeared though as Naruto's memory dredged up some throwaway line he had overheard from a group of giggling girls. The only reason he even listened to their squeals and high pitched chortling was because he had heard someone's name. Someone who held Naruto's attention: Uchiha Sasuke. So Naruto had promptly stomped over to eavesdrop while trying desperately to appear as if he actually was doing something other than spying. It worked, Naruto was proud to say. The giggly girls didn't even notice and Naruto had learnt a lot of things he would rather not learn, but at least he had found out red roses were Sasuke's favourite. Why else would the girls bother giving Sasuke something he didn't want on Valentine's Day?

So red roses it was. Naruto nodded firmly to himself and marched into the florist. He entered into a wealth of freshly and sweetly scented flowers of all types, and soon found himself lost. Some were a bright yellow, sitting proudly along the opened ended shelves. Others were a mixture of greens, blues and purples, with long, long stalks and few protruding leaves. A couple were of deep reds, its petals soft enough to caress. Naruto wondered if those were roses since he didn't really know much about flowers. They looked really pretty though and the colour wasn't some bright red or anything. It was deep and dark, and reminded Naruto of the Sharingan even though he had never seen it before. But Sasuke had once described it to him, telling Naruto that he was going to have it one day just like Itachi. He guessed that wasn't going to happen since Itachi had done something bad and no one wanted him around anymore.

That didn't bother Naruto much. He might have hung around Sasuke like some overgrown puppy for a couple of years but Itachi never seemed to be around, and Naruto didn't care. Naruto just wanted Sasuke's company, even if Sasuke had gotten an annoying habit of calling Naruto an idiot.

"Do you need any help?"

Naruto swung around, off balanced. He quickly righted himself and looked into amused green eyes and a kind smile. "I, uh, wanted to get these," he pointed at the red ones and shuffled his feet awkwardly, one hand rubbing the back of his head self-consciously. Naruto could deal with snide jokes and cold eyes, but kindness always managed to embarrass him.

"Ah, the roses. Beautiful flowers for that precious person?" the lady teased, dark brown hair swaying as she picked up several roses.

Naruto blushed and lowered his head. "No," he quickly said while he stared down at his dirty shoes. The lady laughed like the tinkling bells on her door, and then she walked back to her desk.

"Come here," she ordered not meanly and Naruto lifted his head up just in time to catch the strands of curling ribbon and shiny wrapping. He hesitantly walked forward.

"Those for me?"

"Yes. And they won't cost any extra too." She smiled while Naruto remained speechless. No one else other than Iruka-sensei and Sasuke had been so kind to him before.

"Thank you," he managed to tell her just before he left. "You're very nice."

She laughed again and said teasingly, "I hope your precious one enjoys the gift."

Naruto blushed again and hurriedly exited the florist, tightly holding onto the roses. He hoped Sasuke liked them too.

----------

The hospital wasn't far from home, Naruto noted as he entered the white building. It wasn't too colourful either, but then, nothing would be after that experience with the exotically rich florist and the weirdly nice lady.

Naruto edged in, blue eyes blinking rapidly at the busy, swirling men and women in white coats with their hard clipboards. They were so absorbed in the daily excursions of hospital life they didn't notice Naruto slip in, trying to scurry and look for Sasuke's room at the same time. It was harder than it looked, Naruto soon realised when he panted softly in front of yet another not-Sasuke's room. In his left hand, he held the slightly wilting roses protectively while in his right, a compact light blue container lay warmly against his palm. Naruto had used up most of what was left over from his savings to get the tastiest, nicest ramen ever for Sasuke. He hoped Sasuke liked them; especially the ramen since after that time when Naruto finally succeeded in persuading Sasuke to have a taste, and Sasuke reluctantly agreed. Sasuke hadn't said he didn't like it, so Naruto assumed he did. 'Cause he didn't say he didn't like it so that must mean he did, right? Right.

And that was that. Now he just had to find some way of getting to Sasuke. It was a lot more difficult than Naruto had originally planned. In his thoughts, he had a flow chart that specifically stated buying flowers and ramen, going to the hospital and thrusting them at Sasuke while bathing in Sasuke's beam of happiness. Okay, maybe not the beaming part because who was he kidding? At best he would get a smile, and if he was lucky, maybe a grin.

If only he could just find Sasuke!

Naruto sighed and wondered whether asking someone was a good idea. Maybe the lady sitting on the other side of a rounded white desk knew where Sasuke was. And maybe she was even willing to help. Naruto brightened immediately, feeling a little shy but a lot more confident after meeting that kind boutique lady. He would have never thought anyone other than Sasuke and Iruka-sensei could have treated him nicely.

He walked up to her and went on the tips of his toes, trying to make himself taller than he really was. Stupid desk. Naruto was already short and stocky enough without having some desk show him up.

"Excuse me," Naruto tried to say in the most adult-like way possible.

The lady blinked confused brown eyes before finally lowering them to Naruto. "Ah, hello there. Can I help you? Are you trying to look for your parents?"

Naruto knew he had definitely lucked out when she didn't pretend he wasn't there. "Well, not really. I don't have any parents. But I am looking for Sasuke," he added helpfully, letting hope colour his tone.

"Oh...I see," she looked taken aback. "Sasuke, you say. Hm. Uchiha Sasuke?"

"Yep!" Naruto said brightly. "That's him. I only know one Sasuke."

She took out a folder and deftly flicked through the pages inside. A frown filled her face for one moment and Naruto became slightly worried. He gazed at her anxiously.

"He's not supposed to have visitors right now," she said gently, tucking in a strand of loose blue-black hair. She closed the light brown folder and set it back on the side of the desk. Then she waited sympathetically for Naruto's response.

"Can't he have just one? A little one?" Biting his lip and turning disappointed blue eyes upwards, Naruto shuffled again. He silently, angrily told his toes to stop whining because this was all for Sasuke, and didn't they want to see Sasuke?

"Well..."

The lady trailed off, trying to muster up the courage to tell him no, not even a little one as Naruto stared at her hopefully.

In the end she had to admit defeat.

"I guess maybe a short -- and it has to be a very short -- visit won't hurt him," she tried to say sternly, and not quite managing it. "He's in Room 235." Softer now but Naruto didn't notice.

"Yes!" Naruto said loudly, literally bouncing up and down. "Thank you desk lady!"

She just shook her head and watched with a smile as Naruto raced to Sasuke's room in the wrong direction. He was really beginning to look like the Fourth, she mused.

----------

Feeling entirely too nervous, Naruto stood unmoving outside of Sasuke's room. He could have been there sooner if he hadn't wasted precious minutes turning around to head off to the right hallway. Stupid hallways. They should have painted them in different colours or something; just so people could tell which was which. Sometimes, people weren't so practical.

Naruto took deep, calming breaths -- or tried to anyhow -- and knocked on the door with his knuckles quickly. He was met with silence.

Naruto frowned and looked up to check the number plate again. Yep. 235. In big, bolded black print. Scratching his head, Naruto squinted at the door before he shrugged and decided to just open the thing and see whether Sasuke was inside. And if he wasn't...well...It wasn't like whoever was in there could catch him.

He quickly pushed open the door and shoved his head in, peering curiously at the neat, bare room before stopping at the sight of Sasuke lying face up on the thin, white mattress. Naruto twitched nervously before he hesitantly entered.

"Sasuke?" he asked softly; both of his hands behind his back, clutching his gifts tightly.

No answer.

"Sasuke?" he tried again, even more hesitant as he took gentle steps towards the unmoving lump that didn't -- or wouldn't -- hear him.

He was only a step away from the bed now, and still Sasuke faced the ceiling. His expression was blank, utterly devoid of any warmth or welcome and his dark eyes remained shuttered. Naruto bit his lip and wondered if he should leave. Even before when Sasuke had been in one of his moods, he had never been like this. He had never ignored Naruto. Never.

And now he was.

Naruto felt like he had lost something important. Something that wouldn't come back.

"Sasuke," he began softly, head bowing down and feet shuffling against the squeaky tiled floor. "Here. I brought you these. Thought it might make you feel better, and well, stronger. And people always give other people flowers when they're in the hospital so, uh, here." He hastily thrust his hands outward while still staring down at his shoes.

When Sasuke didn't respond, Naruto couldn't help but feel his whole body droop with disappointment and a sense of failure. He had just wanted to make Sasuke feel better, but it hadn't worked, and now, he didn't know what to do. He sneaked a peek and found what his vision somehow hadn't noted before: flowers of all sizes and colours and wrapped in all kinds of ribbons and paper. No wonder Sasuke wasn't impressed, Naruto thought sadly.

He sighed and was about to give up when a hand encircled his wrist. He met dull, bruised dark eyes and felt the barest tremble from Sasuke's cold hand.

"Idiot," Sasuke whispered shakily and then pulled Naruto in until Naruto was sitting on the edge of the bed.

"Idiot," Sasuke repeated as he pulled Naruto even closer and pressed his wet tears against Naruto's neck.

"Sasuke?" he asked confusedly as he patted Sasuke's back awkwardly, uncertain of what to do. Nobody had ever hugged him before. Well, nobody except Sasuke now, Naruto thought with an odd trace of warmth, and then he wrapped his arms around Sasuke in a tight hold, leaving the ramen and the flowers lying on the bed like an offering to a shrine. He closed his eyes and leaned into the hug with all his strength, and whispered into Sasuke's shoulder, "Don't call me an idiot."