Author's Note: Written for seventenks.

When Tayuya had been assigned the duty of guiding the blond Leaf kid to his new quarters, she had very nearly thrown a fit. It had been three days since she had last slept and having to go another hour without seeing her bed seemed almost unbearable, but in the end, all she had done was bow (somewhat awkwardly; her broken leg made it difficult to balance properly), murmur an assent, grab the Leaf brat by the back of his stupid jacket and drag him out of the snake sannin's throne room.

If Tayuya was being honest with herself, she knew that Orochimaru-sama wasn't singling her out. Jiroubou was currently breathing only because of the wonderful properties of life support, Kidoumaru was out cold, Kimimaro's disease had come out of remission with full force, Sakon had at least three holes punched through him that were big enough to stick a finger through and Ukon refused to leave his side (the elder twin was still coughing up blood and wasn't strong enough to stand, which probably had something to do with it) and Kabuto was working his ass off to make sure everyone at least remained stable. It still pissed Tayuya off, being the only one healthy enough to show the annoying blond around, even if she did require a crutch to walk without considerable pain.

She still didn't understand why he was allowed to stay in the first place. He had been a member of that irritating little group of genin (and one chuunin) who come after them to retrieve Uchiha Sasuke, so when he had wandered in on the heels of said Uchiha and proclaimed that he wasn't leaving unless Sasuke came with him, it was something of a miracle that Orochimaru-sama hadn't just smote him where he stood. Instead, the snake sannin had smiled, looking amused, and ordered Tayuya to guide the brat to the smaller guest room right off the training grounds. It didn't make sense; Orochimaru-sama didn't humor people just for the hell of it. Meaning there had to be something special about this kid besides his appalling choice of ninja wear. What kind of imbecile wore orange, anyway?

"Hey. Hey!"

Tayuya looked down to scowl at the kid (which was the only benefit she could see in all of this; the little Leaf was the only shinobi she had met so far that was actually shorter than her). "What is it, brat?"

The brat in question wasn't intimidated, just scowled back, though he ended up looking sulky more than anything. "Is Sasuke going to be staying around here, too?"

Tayuya had never before gotten so tired of hearing someone's name in such a short period of time, not even when Kimimaro was on a 'worship Orochimaru-sama' binge. "I have no fucking idea." Personally, she doubted it. Orochimaru-sama might not have killed the Leaf brat right off, but he'd still probably want the blond out of the way as much as possible.

The kid still refused to let up. "But I want-"

It was then that Tayuya's patience (limited at the best of times) frayed, and snapped. She was tired, hurting, and worst of all, her teammates were collectively in the worst shape they'd ever been and it was all the fault of this dumbass's comrades. "I don't give a shit in hell what you want. Shut up already, for fuck's sake, or I'll put a kunai through your skull!" The threat might have worked better if she carried kunai, but minor inconsistencies in reasoning were the last thing Tayuya was concerned about, especially considering she was operating on willpower and not a whole lot else.

Even if carrying out her threat was technically impossible, the brat still puffed up. An argument that Tayuya didn't really have the energy for might have erupted, but fortunately they had just arrived at the door to the blond's new quarters. Tayuya turned the handle and roughly shoved open the door, though it was heavy enough that it only lazily swung open instead of crashing satisfyingly into the wall. "Here's your new room, brat. Stay here until someone comes to get you. And stop with the fucking scowling, already. It's for your own protection. We have a lot of weird shit here."

The kid placed his hands on his hips in what he probably thought was a heroic pose and proclaimed, "I'm Uzumaki Naruto! I can take on whatever you Sound bastards throw at me!"

Tayuya didn't bother to argue with him. Who cared if some short Leaf imbecile was found twitching in the scorpion pit in the morning, anyway. "Good for you." Then she shoved him in and pulled the door closed, where it locked automatically. It wouldn't keep any halfway competent shinobi imprisoned for more than five minutes or so, but somehow competent wasn't an adjective that came to mind when one thought of a shinobi that wore orange.

The echoes of the brat's swearing followed her as she limped away, her crutch clicking in a way that grated on her ears every time it touched down on the stone floor. Tayuya scowled. Somehow she just knew this whole ordeal was just going to be one long pain in the ass.

----

Kimimaro died the morning after they returned, his heart finally giving out after months of being eaten away by a disease Kabuto had been unable to identify. Tayuya didn't mourn him. Neither did anyone else. After a week passed and the rest of her teammates began their recovery, it was easy enough to believe that the gods of death had decided that Kimimaro's life was enough to satiate them for the moment, that the Sound Four had escaped an untimely end by the skin of their teeth.

Kidoumaru regained consciousness by the second day. Ukon stopped choking on blood every time he tried to talk by the third. Sakon was complaining about enforced bed rest by the sixth, and Jiroubou was coherent enough to try and mumble a reprimand in Tayuya's direction about her language when she came to visit him before dinner on the ninth.

Even with her usually pessimistic view of the world, Tayuya would have been forced to admit (though only to herself) that considering how much their retrieval mission of the Uchiha had gone to shit, things had turned out remarkably well. However, the presence of one certain blond Leaf-nin ruined any chance of that ever happening.

Uzumaki Naruto wasn't, as Tayuya had initially assumed, just obsessive about Uchiha Sasuke, which was what had made him so persistently annoying. He was just persistently annoying, period. The Uchiha obsession was just something for the brat to focus his persistence on.

Tayuya hadn't managed to dredge up enough energy during their first meeting to hate him. Afterwards, she had no such problem. It didn't help that the first thing Orochimaru-sama did upon the recovery of Jiroubou (who was the last of the Four to heal from his injuries) was send them on a mission. With Uzumaki Naruto. Somehow the Uchiha had found a way to weasel out.

"If that Leaf brat doesn't stop bitching within ten seconds, I'm going to fucking kill him."

"Can't. Orochimaru-sama's orders," Kidoumaru replied automatically for the seventeenth time, his grin widening as he watched Tayuya's scowl deepen. He was, predictably, the only one who found this funny. The twins (and Jiroubou, after the Leaf-nin stole a good percentage of his candy bar stash) were all for smothering the blond Konoha shinobi in his sleep just to get him to stop talking for more than thirty seconds at a stretch.

Since Kimimaro was dead and Sasuke seemed completely uninterested in taking up his role as leader of the Sound Four, in the missions following the arrival of Uzumaki and the Uchiha, Sakon usually took the lead. It was for this reason that after Tayuya herself, he was the most for slitting Uzumaki's throat. Mainly because Uzumaki couldn't take orders. At all.

"What kind of shinobi wait around for their target to arrive?"

Sakon's eye twitched. "Good ones. Now get down before you're spotted and give us away."

The blond Leaf-nin stuck his lower lip out defiantly. "But I'm bored! It would be a lot faster if we-"

Unlike Sakon, Tayuya didn't have the patience to argue with the brat while trying to complete an assassination mission (they were supposed to take out some scummy Rice Country tax collector who was well known for his dishonesty, which was probably the only reason Uzumaki went along with it instead of protesting about the injustice of it all) where their target hired two jounin bodyguards, so she took the direct route and swept the blond Leaf-nin's legs out from under him. He landed hard on his back behind the cover of the bushes, the breath knocked out of him. Just in time. The tax collector came into view about five seconds later. He and his bodyguards were dead in less than forty. Uzumaki complained the entire way back to Sound Village about missing out on all the action. He was roundly ignored.

Not only could the blond Leaf-nin not take orders, most of the time, he just wasn't very good.

"Ah!"

The resulting splash made the Sound Four turn around just in time to see the unwanted addition to their team swept downstream, his body limp in a way that suggested he had probably hit his head and knocked himself unconscious while making his way across the shallows. Tayuya swore. "What kind of incompetent moron slips on wet rocks? Is he a shinobi or isn't he?"

Kidoumaru snickered, obviously finding the whole thing hilarious. Jiroubou, on the other hand, just sighed and made his way back towards the river. "I'll get him."

By the end of the day, the Leaf genin suffered not only from a concussion from knocking his head against a rock, but a very bad cold. No one was sympathetic.

Orders or no orders, Uzumaki probably would have woken up dead one morning if it hadn't been for the strange incident that occurred on the sixth mission he took with the Four.

"Five jounin! Five fucking jounin! I thought this creep wasn't supposed to have more than one or two shinobi around!"

Kidoumaru grimaced, partly in apology but partly because Tayuya was currently in the process of setting his broken arm, and it probably hurt like a bitch. "Sorry, Tayuya. Looks like our informant wasn't very good."

Jiroubou appeared in the doorway of their impromptu base of operations, which happened to be a somewhat ramshackle hut about a quarter mile from their target's mansion. "Sakon and Ukon are trying to find a way in without alerting the Stone jounin, but security is tight…"

The next few seconds seemed to Tayuya to happen in slow motion. The shinobi with the emblem of Stone Village coming out of the ground with the signature sneak attack that only experienced Stone-nin could pull off. His grin as he readied his katana. Even her scream seemed like it took an eternity. "Jiroubou!"

Jiroubou didn't even have time to turn his head before the Stone shinobi moved. Then stopped, his face contorted in surprise for a split second before he collapsed. Jiroubou's mass prevented Tayuya from seeing what had happened. Or rather, who. "Oy, big guy! Move out of the way! You're blocking my access to lunch!"

So Jiroubou moved. And inside stepped Uzumaki Naruto, one of his signature clones standing to his right, though it quickly poofed out of existence. He instantly homed in on his backpack, and predictably began pulling out cups of instant ramen. Tayuya stared at the Leaf-nin for a moment before standing up and making her way over to the Stone-nin's corpse. He had a hole through his chest. A very big hole. "Brat."

Considering how much offense the blond genin had taken the first time she called him that, it was almost funny the way he instantly looked up at the sound of the word. "What?"

"What the hell did you do?"

Uzumaki grinned. "I used my Rasengan on him! I thought I sensed something weird back around here, so I came back from scouting and I didn't have time to use any other jutsu that might work, so…"

The Rasengan was the signature attack of the Fourth Hokage. Even Tayuya, who didn't put nearly as much stock as Kidoumaru in studying their enemies' techniques, knew that. Her respect for the Leaf genin unwillingly went up a few notches. "So you went against orders. Again."

Uzumaki shrugged, looking completely unrepentant. "Well, I thought you guys might be in trouble." He grinned again. "And I was right! Good thing I was around."

As hard pressed as Tayuya was to admit it, the Konoha nin had a point. But something still bothered her. "You came back for that?"

Naruto shrugged as he struck yet another match in an attempt to get a fire going. "Of course. I always come back when my comrades need help."

Tayuya shared a quick look with Kidoumaru. The spider-nin had his eyebrows raised, and for once he was looking at the Leaf genin with something other than amusement. Now it was more… evaluating. Like he had discovered something in Naruto that he hadn't expected to find. Tayuya shared the feeling. "Comrades, huh?"

Naruto gave a satisfied nod, though whether this was in response to her inquiry or his tinder finally catching on fire, she was hard put to tell. "Yeah."

Tayuya considered this a moment. If the blond shinobi had said 'friends,' Tayuya would have just rolled her eyes and dismissed him as the idiot he had first appeared to be. But he hadn't. He had said 'comrades' and that was different. What made a friend was someone you sat around drinking tea with, and Tayuya didn't have any. What made a comrade was someone who looked out for you on missions. Someone who helped you when you needed it, and didn't expect anything in return.

Tayuya couldn't accept someone she had known less than a month as a comrade. But hell… might as well let him think they were. "Whatever."

The mission took two days longer to complete than expected, but they did get it done. Afterwards they went out to breakfast at a nearby village, for no good reason other than no one wanted to cook. And this time Jiroubou didn't scowl when Naruto took some of his food when he wasn't looking. Some things just had to be tolerated when it came to someone who watched your back.

----

The time the Leaf genin didn't spend on missions with the Four, he spent arguing with Uchiha Sasuke. Only problem was, the Uchiha didn't want to argue, and it took only two weeks before he went to Orochimaru-sama and told him that either Naruto left or he did. But for reasons still unknown to Tayuya, Orochimaru-sama wanted both, so in the end he and the Uchiha reached a compromise where the blond Leaf-nin was forbidden to speak to his former teammate unless it was in Orochimaru-sama's throne room. It would have worked if Naruto was normal; for the most part he avoided the snake sannin whenever possible. But as a soon as he found out about the conditions of talking to the Uchiha, he started frequenting the throne room. Which in turn made the Uchiha avoid it.

In the end, Orochimaru-sama had gotten fed up with the whole thing and told Naruto that he could argue with his former teammate about turning traitor for an hour once a week so everyone could get what they wanted, and if that wasn't enough, then he could keep in mind that he was allowed to stay in Otogakure by the snake sannin's grace alone, and that grace wouldn't stick around if the blond genin started to piss the leader of Sound Village off.

In the end, Naruto grudgingly agreed. Even though the Leaf-nin was a little thick, he knew that getting to talk to his former teammate once a week was a much better deal than the snake sannin killing him and throwing out his body with the trash. Even so, that made things only marginally more peaceful. Tayuya began to dread that one hour Naruto spoke with the Uchiha, if only because the stone architecture of Otogakure tended to amplify sound. A lot.

It didn't help that the blond genin used the exact same arguments every time, making their discussions repetitive on top of grating on the ears.

"You bastard, do you have any idea what you're doing to the people back home? Sakura-chan was crying, and Kakashi-sensei-"

The Uchiha's replies were always much harder to hear, because unlike his former teammate, when he got angry, he became more quiet instead of louder. "I couldn't care less, Naruto."

"You're throwing away everything just to get back at your brother! He can't possibly be worth it!"

"But he is. You don't understand, Naruto. And you never will."

It was, as far as Tayuya could tell, a pointless exercise. But then, she had noted from the beginning the blond genin's annoying persistence, and it didn't flag no matter how much time went on.

But still, she wondered. And after a few months passed and Naruto's resolution stayed as strong as ever, she asked.

"Why do you bother?"

Naruto looked up from sharpening one of his kunai. They were currently in the training grounds, the only part of Sound Village that was above ground and where you could see the sky. It was a nice day, though a bit chilly. The Leaf-nin had been sparring with Jiroubou earlier, but when afterwards the large Sound-nin had returned to his quarters to take a shower, Naruto had remained, and for the first time since Tayuya had guided the blond genin to his new quarters all those months ago, they were alone.

Naruto had grown. He now stood dead even with Tayuya in the height department, which was just enough for him to have outgrown his orange jacket and pants that Tayuya had detested so much. He refused to wear what the Sound Four did, had loudly proclaimed that he refused to put on an 'ass bow' when Kidoumaru had proposed the idea to him, and since they didn't have anything in orange (thank God), the Leaf-nin had ended up in a variation of the traditional Sound genin garb, camo pants and scarf, and a long-sleeved gray shirt with some body armor underneath (that last had been suggested by Ukon, who had dryly observed that the blond shinobi had a bad habit of leaving his torso unprotected).

The Leaf forehead protector, however, remained. Naruto had almost gotten violent when Jiroubou had tried to get him to take that off.

Naruto hadn't gotten any quicker on the uptake, either. Changed appearances aside, he wasn't much different than he had been when he first came to Otogakure. "Why do I bother with what?"

Tayuya held back from gritting her teeth. People acting dense irritated her, but Naruto wasn't acting dense. He just was. "With trying to bring the Uchiha back to Konoha. It's obvious to everyone that he doesn't want to go. So why try so hard?"

The Leaf genin slowed in his kunai sharpening as he considered Tayuya's question. "I made a promise to someone very important to me that I wouldn't return to Konoha unless Sasuke came with me. And my nindo is that I always keep my promises. If I don't follow my nindo, then I won't achieve my dream."

Tayuya raised an eyebrow. "And that would be?"

"To become the next Hokage."

Tayuya almost laughed. Almost. She almost pointed out that as far as Konoha denizens were concerned, Naruto was just as much a traitor as the Uchiha, and traitors didn't become revered leaders. Almost. But Naruto was serious. More serious, in fact, than Tayuya had ever seen him. So she didn't laugh. And she said nothing.

Naruto was still sharpening his kunai, his face narrowed in concentration, when Tayuya got up and left five minutes later. He didn't acknowledge her departure, but Tayuya could still hear the slight lull in the scrape of steel against stone as she closed the door behind her.

----

Naruto had been living in Otogakure for over a year before Tayuya found out why Orochimaru-sama wanted to keep him around.

It was a routine enough mission. Bodyguard duty for the daimyo of Rice Field country with whom Orochimaru-sama had made an agreement several years before so Sound Village could be established on Rice Field land. Most of the time the daimyo stayed out of the way, but when the request had come in for some bodyguards while the daimyo visited one of his vassals who had shown signs recently of wanting to instigate a revolt, the snake sannin had thought it prudent to send the Four to keep the daimyo happy. Naruto, of course, had come along. Sasuke hadn't.

As it turned out, however, the vassal just didn't want to instigate a revolt, but had already, and the Four had found themselves in the unenviable position of being surrounded and still having to guard an untrained civilian. Only Naruto, who didn't know any shielding techniques anyway, was left unencumbered by someone he had to protect. It would have worked fine as a strategy, considering how effectively the Leaf-nin used his shadow clone technique, but unfortunately the daimyo's vassal had hired shinobi, and one of them was a genjutsu specialist. And Naruto had no idea how to counter genjutsu.

It took Tayuya only a few seconds to break the illusion (she wouldn't be much of a genjutsu specialist herself unless she knew had to dispel other's conjured apparitions), and swore at the sight of Naruto staring around blindly, clearly no longer able to see. Then one of the genjutsu specialist's teammates shoved a kunai in Naruto's stomach. The blond shinobi blinked, the fog clearing from his eyes as pain broke through his hallucinations. Then he coughed once, blood dribbling from the corner of his mouth, and collapsed.

"Fuck it!" Tayuya left the established protection formation the Four had formed around the daimyo- if her teammates couldn't protect one civilian then they weren't worth sticking with- and instinctively activated the first level of her Curse Seal, as she always did when she was so pissed that she couldn't see straight.

Her taijutsu was by far the worst of the Four, but that didn't stop her from jumping up on the back of the jackass who had stabbed Naruto in the stomach and slitting his throat before pushing off his corpse and slamming a kick into the side of the genjutsu specialist's head, hard enough that Tayuya could hear his vertebrae crack. For a moment, the man staggered, the sight made almost comical by the unnatural angle of his head, before his body crumbled and he joined his teammate on the ground.

It was only then that she turned to Naruto. A Naruto who, oddly enough, was now glowing blood red. And was standing up despite his gut wound. A gut wound which was no longer bleeding, which didn't make any sense.

Tayuya just had time to notice that the blond shinobi's eyes were now the same color as his aura before said blond shinobi turned around and ripped out the throat of another of the vassal's hired shinobi. With his bare hands. Then he eviscerated another. With his bare hands. Apparently he had grown claws on top of changing his eye color.

In something less than five minutes, all of the vassal's hired shinobi were dead and the vassal- who had been gloating prematurely behind his wall of bodyguards- was begging the daimyo to spare his life. Tayuya ignored the political proceedings in favor of watching Naruto revert to normal, his nails receding and his eyes returning to their usual blue.

"What the hell was that?"

The blond actually looked sheepish. "Uh… have you ever heard the legend of the Kyuubi?"

Oh. Well, that explained a lot. "No wonder Orochimaru-sama wants you to stick around."

Naruto seemed a little startled at her lack of a reaction, before shrugging noncommittally. "I guess."

Tayuya distantly registered the sound of Sakon slitting the vassal's throat. Apparently the daimyo hadn't been in a forgiving mood. "Well, I'm glad that pain in the ass is over. About time we returned to Sound Village."

Naruto nodded, his usual effusive grin spreading across his face now that the carnage was at its end. "Yeah, I'll be glad to be going home."

Later, as the Four sat around a campfire eating dinner after having returned the daimyo to his palace, Tayuya wondered if Naruto recognized the irony of what he had said. Probably not. Like the clothes, the presence of the demon changed nothing. Even if he was possessed by the Nine-Tailed Fox, Naruto was still Naruto. Meaning he probably didn't even know what irony was, much less know it when he saw it.

----

No one knew how Uzumaki Naruto ended up the new leader of the Sound Four. It just happened.

Not quickly. The blond shinobi had been trying to take over missions for almost two years before they finally decided to let him. Mostly because Sakon was sick of fighting with the Leaf-nin about what to do every step of the way and had finally thrown up his hands and given up. Partly because Naruto had already proven himself stronger than any of the Four, Curse Seal or no. And just maybe, though no one would admit to it, because Naruto put his comrades above the success of the mission, and would never leave anyone behind.

Of course, it helped that though the blond was terrible at following orders, he did listen to advice. "Leading them out sounds like a good idea. Fukuno always hires dumb shinobi, anyway. They'll fall for anything."

Kidoumaru grinned. " 'Course it's a good idea. I came up with it, didn't I?"

They led Fukuno's ninja out with the oldest trick in the shinobi strategy manual, the lost caravan decoy. It worked like a charm. No one but Tayuya- who had cast the illusion to begin with- even had to do anything, as the idiots had walked right into Kidoumaru's explosion tag trap. After that it was child's play to walk into Fukuno's house and scare the money he owed their client out of him.

It also helped that Naruto was absolutely nothing like Kimimaro. It was hard to bring up the inherent resentment against someone who would dare try and lead them when he bought them all lunch after his first success at leading a mission.

No one even pretended that Uchiha Sasuke was the leader of the Four anymore. He was Orochimaru-sama's apprentice, and Tayuya put some effort into treating him with respect, but he wasn't anything more. Which was fine with Tayuya. She didn't like the Uchiha much anyway, and didn't understand how anyone could. Even if Naruto like clockwork every week tried to convince his former teammate to return to Konoha, still not understanding the futility of his efforts.

Tayuya hadn't cared one way or another what Naruto did with his time when he had first arrived in Otogakure, but every week, the blond shinobi's persistence concerning the Uchiha made her just a little bit more angry than she had been the week before.

----

As it came closer to the three year anniversary of Naruto and the Uchiha's arrival in Otogakure, Naruto's entreaties to his former teammates became more and more desperate. It got bad enough that after one session with the Uchiha, Tayuya had walked into Naruto's room to tell him it was his turn to make dinner to find him crying, broken sobs that grated on Tayuya's last nerve.

She had never been good at restraining herself. "What the fuck is wrong with you?" Naruto had surpassed her in height years ago, now towered over her by a good seven inches, so Tayuya had to reach up to grab him by his now customary scarf and drag him down to her level. "The Uchiha isn't worth this. He doesn't care about you, Konoha, or anything except killing his brother. The way you persist in mooning over him is pathetic."

Naruto shoved her away. For a moment, his eyes seemed to glow red in the gloom. "What do you know? You didn't have to chase your teammates around! Your teammates are here!"

"So are yours!" Then Tayuya had left. She knew that if she stayed around longer, it might very well come to violence, and in the mood Naruto was in, she doubted he could restrain the Kyuubi's wrath.

Tayuya was the only one to hear the last argument of Uzumaki Naruto and Uchiha Sasuke. She had passed by the room they were talking in entirely by accident, trying a shortcut to the training grounds, and for once Naruto hadn't been shouting. If she hadn't passed right by the doorway to the room they were in, she wouldn't have heard them speaking at all.

Tayuya had never been taught it was impolite to eavesdrop, so she had no qualms against pressing her ear against the door and straining to hear what they were saying. What she heard was nothing like their usual bickering.

"Please, Sasuke. You can't do this. You've already given up Konoha. You can't give up your life, too. Itachi isn't worth this. No one is."

There was a pause. When Uchiha Sasuke finally responded, he spoke with a gravity Tayuya had never heard in him. Like he knew that this was the last chance he had to get someone to understand. "Naruto… ever since my parents died, it's been my dream to avenge them. To kill Itachi. Orochimaru has promised me that after he takes over my body, he will kill Itachi. And he doesn't break his promises. He hates Itachi almost as much as I do. I'll never be strong enough to kill Itachi on my own, so this is the only way my parents' memory can finally be laid to rest. I've never criticized your dreams, Naruto. Let me try and carry out mine."

Naruto didn't reply, so Tayuya left before either of them sensed her presence.

The next day, Orochimaru-sama took on Uchiha Sasuke as his new vessel. Naruto didn't attend the ceremony.

----

"Thought I'd find you here."

Naruto glanced down from his perch on the tallest tree in the forest surrounding Otogakure. "You want something?"

Tayuya settled herself on the branch immediately below the one Naruto was occupying. "Just wondering what you're moping about now."

Naruto had oriented himself to face south, towards Konoha. Tayuya wondered if it was a conscious decision. From this distance, not even a speck showing Leaf Village's location could be seen, but still Naruto looked. "Sasuke… he said it was his dream to kill Itachi. Said I shouldn't interfere. And you know what? He's right."

The blond shinobi's hands curled into fists. "I made a promise to Sakura-chan, my teammate back in Konoha, that I would bring Sasuke back. But I could only do that at the expense of Sasuke's dream. And even though I thought his dream was the stupidest thing in the world, I had no right to get in his way. Everyone back home thought my dream was stupid too, and I hated them for it. I didn't want Sasuke to die hating me."

It had been over two years since they had had that discussion, but Tayuya still remembered. "Becoming Hokage."

Naruto nodded. "Yeah. But now I can't. I can't go back to Konoha now. I broke my promise. I can't face Sakura-chan without Sasuke, knowing I could have brought him back, and didn't. She wouldn't understand." A crooked smile crossed the blond shinobi's lips. "I don't blame her. It took me three years."

He pulled off his Leaf forehead protector, now a gray, ratty thing with numerous stitches from Naruto's attempts to patch it, and held it in his hands. "I don't even remember what Konoha looks like anymore."

Tayuya snorted. "Of course you don't, dumbass. It doesn't matter to you. Sound Village is your home now. You said so yourself."

Naruto blinked. "I did?" Then he grinned again, though his second smile held no more of his usual spiritedness than his first had. "Yeah, I guess I did. You guys are here, after all."

Naruto took once last look at the hitai-ate headband in his grasp. Then he let it slip from between his fingers, the metal plate glinting once in the fading sunlight before falling into the undergrowth below, and out of sight. This time, his smile was real. Like the clothes, and the demon, his acceptance of his former teammate's dream changed nothing. Naruto would always be Naruto. Which was why he was a comrade. And a friend. "You guys are here… and that's why this is home."

END