A/N: Wah! Here we are, chapter six of Artifice! I have over 180 (one-hundred and eighty!) reviews at the time I write this. That's just wow for me. Thank you all so much. It seems to be habit for me to keep making excuses for my late updates but real reason behind this one guys: School. School school and more school. I've been working my buns off to graduate early, and now that I've done that I've gotten a job and have been involved in some other stuff...
Blanket Disclaimer: Naruto and all characters contained there within belong to Kishimoto. I do, however, take sole responsibility of this plot.
Artifice: 1. n. Subtle but base deception.
2. n. A deceptive maneuver, especially to avoid capture.
The first and most resonant thing Naruto felt was anger. Beyond the quickly-fading shock burned a flame, dancing furiously behind the blue eyes.
This was the person who Tsunade sent him to? Jiraiya? She should have known better.
Of course, there was once a time when Naruto would have been more than glad to see the man before him. A time when he would have been overjoyed.
After all, every young child was happy to see their father.
Technically, by birth, Naruto knew Jiraiya had no blood-relation to him. In the same way that Tsunade had no real relation to him. But when he was just a kid, Tsunade and Jiraiya were all he had. In their own way, they were his surrogate parents. Who was he to know any better?
Naruto had always been rambunctious. He'd always wanted to do something with someone. Tsunade wasn't similar to him in that regard. She took things slowly and at her own pace. Jiraiya, however, was constantly there beside him to cause some sort of mischief –which his partner, Tsunade, would always have to be prepared to clean up.
That was how the blonde boy had grown up. His very earliest memories were of Jiraiya who, at that time, had been Naruto's primary caretaker. Naruto never truly knew what it was like to have real parents, but for the time he had them, he was more than content with both Tsunade and Jiraiya.
More than a father, Naruto idolized him. Whenever Naruto would slip and fall, Jiraiya was there to help him up, the same grin plastered on his face. After time, Naruto adopted that grin. After time, Naruto adopted everything about him.
And then one day, back when the whiskered boy was about seven years of age, Jiraiya disappeared.
No longer was he there to tote Naruto from place to place. No longer was he there to argue with Tsunade. No longer was he there for Naruto to admire.
He was just gone.
Upon recollection, Naruto could recall the day very clearly. He'd woken up on his own –he remembered this because he could barely sleep from excitement. That was the day Jiraiya had promised to show him how to throw his legendary splitter in baseball. Come ten o'clock, there was still no Jiraiya.
The next few hours were spent in more frustration than anything else, a bit peeved that Jiraiya had backed out but never, not once, doubting him.
When his door began to open Naruto had readied himself to berate the older man angrily, something he'd picked up from the pig-tailed woman's actions. To his surprise, it wasn't Jiraiya at all. Tsunade was at the door.
He may have favored Jiraiya in most things, but he still loved Tsunade in a way he could only assume was how a son would adore his mother. So when he saw the tears in her eyes his discontent grew.
She was wearing green that day, Naruto recalled. She never wore green anymore.
Her heels were soundless on his carpet as she sat on his bed. Her eyes were puffy and she worried her lip. Looking up, she'd beckoned Naruto over.
"Naruto," She'd said, her tone strong but her voice wavering. "You're becoming a grownup now, right?" At his nod she continued. "Grownups are strong, right?"
What a silly question! He thought this was serious. After a laugh he said, "Tsu's really strong."
The woman didn't smile. Just ran her slender fingers through his hair. "Then be strong like me."
"What about Ero-Sennin?" Tsunade's affectionate nickname for Jiraiya. Her face darkened and the arm petting him went slack, the other fisting in his sheets.
"Forget about him. He's gone, Naruto. And he's not coming back."
The ensuing week had been utter turmoil. Naruto didn't know what to think. His naive boyish mind couldn't figure out why Jiraiya would leave them, leave him. He started confused but within a short period of time that faded into sadness and guilt. Everyone said he was a monster. Jiraiya must have just realized the truth. Naruto blamed himself. Tsunade said to be strong but how was he supposed to do that when every which way he turned the eyes were staring at him with that total bitter coldness. With those sharp eyes that haunted him in his sleep. How was he supposed to be strong when he hardly knew what that was?
Shortly after that Naruto had seen Tsunade do something he'd never seen her do before. She cried. It wasn't full out hysterics, more of a silent gasp with just a handful of delicate tears falling. Even his pre-teen self would have preferred hysterical sobs to the heart-wrenchingly broken despair she demonstrated.
She had been waiting for him upon his return to his room, the new employee Iruka leaving them alone silently.
As his timid, young steps sounded towards his bed she made no sign of acknowledgment. She made no sign of anything, nor did she try to stem her sorrow. He sat beside her, a tiny indent on his bed and gently placed a small hand on her shoulder.
Her watery eyes met his, uncharacteristically, somber ones. "Let's be strong, Tsu."
Strong they had been. Jiraiya had become a sort of taboo for the duo. Out of sight, out of mind. It had been difficult at first. Naruto had simmered with anger for weeks after the betrayal, as he thought of it. He'd been snappish and an overall monster to be around.
Thankfully for the staff, he'd outgrown it. And, as time passed, he'd outgrown Jiraiya. The years moved on and the deserter had become less than a mere memory.
A phantom that was now standing before him, a guarded look behind those eyes.
Without a word, Naruto turned and made to walk off, hand in pocket. There was no way he would stay with this man, the man who made Tsunade cry. The man who gave the reason for Tsunade to get that far-off look in her eyes when she thought no one was looking.
A heavy hand weighed on his thin shoulder and Naruto flinched. Not because he thought Jiraiya would hurt him or because of the possibility of confrontation. Simply because he wasn't used to touch. He was even less used to friendly touch.
Under normal circumstances, he wouldn't have. He would have kept going and not even glanced back. He would have done just what Jiraiya did.
But maybe it was the tone in the gravely voice calling to him. Maybe it was his deep-set urge for love, or some form of recognition, just like Jiraiya had once gave. Maybe it was that Tsunade had trusted Jiraiya enough for this.
That particular moment of that particular night, Naruto chalked it up to the unbelievably cold weather waiting with bared fangs for him just outside these walls.
Any which way, Naruto stopped, still tense from the unusual sensation of added weight on his body, and decided to hear him out.
He owed Tsunade that much, at least. He owed her enough to trust her fully. And if that meant he'd have to trust this man...
"Just...just listen to me. For a bit."
The whiskered boy scowled, sharp as the edge of a blade, and shirked under the foreign touch. The direction he was facing caused him to miss the flicker of remorse from Jiraiya.
"At least come inside...you look half dead."
Naruto glared at him over his shoulder accusingly. Jiraiya put his hands up in self-defense, a nervous smile set upon his lips.
"Now now, don't look at me like that. And without sounding too cliché," he looked around him in a very conspiratorial -and cliché- way, "the walls have ears. Now c'mon. Inside."
The boy crossed his arms over his chest in a very 'no nonsense' sort of way -which he had learned early on from Iruka- and passed through the threshold. Perhaps he should have been in the least bit wary, but he was much too interested to hear the blatherings this idiot.
It was much warmer in the apartment; bordering hot, even. Naruto's first notion was that the interior was tacky. It was a beautiful setup, sure, but the decorating choice was just...tacky.
The rug he was standing on, for example. Covering the light hardwood floors was a large area rug, bright red with black swirls dotting it. Following that vein, the couch was an inexplicable shade somewhere between lime and kiwi and had darker green blobs along its surface. It didn't look very appealing. The entirety of the room was similar to this; thick gold drapes, a black-and-white plaid chair next to a huge bookshelf. The books weren't arranged in any specific order from the looks of it; many of them were dangling off the edge and some, he noticed, were being used as coasters. Another chair was rendered completely useless from the sheer amount of texts piled atop it.
The television was large and loud and there was a powered-down computer in the far corner of the room, tucked away under a massive amount of paper-wads.
Though there was no kitchen in sight, a small table was off to the side. Only one chair was currently free of junk, and the top of said surface was absolutely littered with dirty plates and curious white boxes of varying sizes.
Even his taste in art was questionable, as any single piece the teen could find -whether it be paintings, vases, busts and, in one disturbing case, lamps- was in the shape of a woman of some sort.
The sole source of light -aside from the T.V.- was the strange lamp.
He may have decided to listen, but that didn't mean he'd make it easy for the older man. This was, after all, Jiraiya he was dealing with.
"Well, take a seat."
Naruto turned his face, purposefully wiped clean, towards him, raising a single eyebrow. The question, and even the slight sense of condescending, was evident.
Jiraiya flushed with rightful embarrassment. "Ehe...sorry, the cleaning lady hasn't been around lately."
The boy snorted in disdain. "Yeah, like ever."
Ignoring Naruto's comment, the man moved over to his table and cleared as much off the top as he could part with, taking armfuls of apparent garbage and disappearing around the corner for a moment. He then took the old newspapers from the chair nearest the clean one, dumping them unceremoniously on the floor.
"Here ya go." He said, flopping down and leaning his head heavily on a fist. Using his other hand, he grabbed the nearest white box and offered it to his company. "Want some? Moo Goo Gai Pan."
Naruto made a point of sniffing derisively and Jiraiya shrugged. "Suit yourself." Using the chopsticks he'd pilfered from a nearby box, he dug in.
When he'd been invited in, Naruto thought he'd be getting some sort of explanation. Something along those lines. Something sane. And yes, he would admit that he was hungry. But this food looked both stale and disgusting, and he'd be damned if he was going to appear weak in front of the figure who forced him to become strong at such an early age.
So he settled for a mix between glaring at the tattooed main and longing looks at the food.
"How'd you get here?" the elder inquired between chews.
Already in a bad mood, Naruto showed his annoyance. "I hitched a ride with a circus. How do you think? I walked."
Jiraiya brushed right past the sarcasm. "Ah, I see. And how was it that you managed to be in the position to walk?"
"Not that you should care, but Tsunade." Naruto ground out.
For the briefest of seconds Naruto fancied he saw something pass over Jiraiya's face. Before he could even begin to dissect it though, Jiraiya continued and all current emotions were replaced with blind fury.
"How did she get my address?"
'Not from you,' Naruto wanted to say. 'There was no way for her to follow you after you totally crushed her, crushed us.' Instead, he opted for a glare and, "How the Hell would I know?"
Another fleeting look, this time the blonde distinctively made out pain. Good, he deserved it.
"I guess I deserved that..."
'Damn right you did!' Naruto thought angrily.
"I can't say much now but...I want you to trust me. I know it's hard but everything I've done I did for you and Tsunade. Everything."
"Oh?" the teen seethed. "Just abandoning us? Wow, thanks. Totally beneficial. Really."
Not wanting to take anymore of this insulting talk, Naruto abruptly stood and walked to the door.
"Wait!" Jiraiya called after him, knocking his chair over in his haste to catch up. "Just trust me!"
Naruto stopped, giving Jiraiya the coldest look he could muster. "And why should I do that?
Jiraiya waited a moment before answering. "Because apparently, Tsunade does."
He let the air leave him in a gust, but looked away in defeat. Playing the Tsunade card. "I can't figure out why." He mumbled.
"Neither can I." Jiraiya agreed quietly. "Neither can I."
All said and done, Naruto was in bed quite late that night.
As it turned out, Jiraiya's home was very nice indeed. Two bedrooms, two bathrooms -which was good, because Naruto did not want to see what Jiraiya's master-bath looked like- a roomy kitchen and the living/dining room he'd first seen. Not too shabby.
And luckily, it was just the living room decorated in that, for lack of a better word, unique way. And maybe Jiraiya's, but again -Naruto had no desire whatsoever to enter that particular area.
His own temporary room, for Naruto had assured Jiraiya that these sleeping arrangements were just for a night or two, was the guest room and had sparse furniture, colored a tasteful tope.
It wasn't orange, but at least it wasn't white.
The first night had been uneventful after Naruto's begrudging acceptance; Jiraiya had given him the grand tour and Naruto had willingly collapsed into his bed, too tired to even begin reflecting on the day or planning for tomorrow.
One thing was sure though.
Even being with Jiraiya was better than being with Akatsuki.
And all Naruto had to look forward to now was Tsunade who, he remembered, promised to get in touch within ten days.
Ah well. He could wait. Besides, there was sure to be a plether of absolutely astounding things for Naruto to do out here in this world.
Yet despite all that, the only thing the blonde boy could think of as he fell asleep was a set of hauntingly green eyes.
Post Note: Though it's not technically a filler, for it contains quite a bit of plot relevant information, it certainly felt that way to write. And so, I hope there was some bang in that thur chapter for the readers. I'd once more like to fervently apologize for the gap in updates. In addition to all the things mentioned in the AN, my mother got very sick recently and I'd been spending all of my waking moments at the hospital with her. And for those wondering, she is much better now.
So, I suppose there was some interesting stuff this chapter, if you look for it. I, personally, am looking quite forward to the next chapter, which should help me push it out more quickly, so keep an eye out!
Lastly, I thank every one of you for your kind words. All your favs, alerts, C2S, and especially reviews. Thank you all so much. It is entirely you guys who keep this story up-and-running. So I kindly beg of you; review! Please! X3. Who knows! If I get enough encouragement I may push up a certain encounter to the next chapter! Hehe.