Disclaimer: See chapter 1.

A/N: Well I'm still wide awake at 2am on this new year monrning, so I thought to give all my readers an extra special present to kick off 2010.

Warning: Random cannon tidbits beyond manga chapter 354.


Chapter 12 ( The Other Side )

Naruto clambered from unconsciousness a little disorientated but feeling very comfortable in a mass of soft material. For a moment the chuunin swore he was supposed to be astride a firm back, being as useful as a large sack of rice. He pawed feebly at the cocoon surrounding him in an attempt to snuggle deeper into the fragrance of fresh river water, the lingering of natural cleaning oil, and Sasuke's unmistakable personal scent.

A particularly loud crackling-pop of a fire startled Naruto into true wakefulness, lids flaring open and twisting towards the noise. His wildly beating organ calmed when he spotted the dark shinobi sitting quite close and cross-legged on the other half of the pulled bedding. Sasuke modelled a pretty picture of tranquillity with the way the fingers of flame light chased shadows across the still features and bronzed the backdrop of pale skin. The transformed chuunin used his enhanced eyes to perceive the closed eyelids through the ruby tinted shadows and dark fringe concealing the upper half of the other's face.

Sasuke stretched out a hand from its' resting place on his bent knee and unerringly found the kitsune by his side, curled in the centre of the twisted blankets. In what was fast becoming Naruto's favourite habit, the Uchiha dragged slender fingers through his pelt, caressing the skin he touched underneath. The red fox arched into the petting, the cosy atmosphere rolling contentment through him in waves. It was a new occurrence for Naruto, one that was startlingly something he wanted more of, and to share with Sasuke, it was certain to be one of the most unique experiences in his life.

"You remind me of someone I knew in childhood. A nin-cat."

The voice was so low and distant coming from the darkness. For a moment the blond was unsure he had actually heard it to begin with. His doubts vanished when the other spoke again, and with noticeable affection.

"Whenever I visited, she was always watching me," a longer pause allowed each half to stand alone, "as if I would, suddenly disappear."

Naruto lay quietly and patiently for the older teen to continue his story. The chuunin's curiosity was piqued after hearing of other nin-familiars. After all, the Inuzaka clan were the only family he knew intimately of who trained animals as shinobi partners. It was satisfying to discover another facet of Sasuke's past, and possibly a hidden one of the Uchiha clan.

A few minutes trickled pass until it was obvious Sasuke had revealed all he wanted to say. The silence once again encased the pair in comfort and a sense of security.

It was contradictory to his nature to laze around without benefit to his shinobi training but recovery from the poisoned slash should be his top priority before anything else. The wound itched and occasionally twinged with pain, it was healing slowly even with the gradual return of Naruto's higher regeneration rate from the Kyuubi. The disguised blond kicked over onto his stomach, settling his triangular head over a ridge of the bunched bedding to watch Sasuke further.

An aura of thoughtfulness had settled over the pale Uchiha. It seemed whatever was on the teen's mind had been troubling him for some time, quite possibly the length Naruto had been asleep. With a tiny shake of the head, Sasuke picked up a scroll from the three located in front of him and ignored the presence of the staring fox. Naruto huffed, stomach rubbing irksomely against the clean bandage. He disliked being pointedly ignored and wished once again that he could be rid of this restrictive henge, despite the potential risk on detection.

A crease formed on Sasuke's brow, marring the concentration etched across his face, rather than defining it. The scowl deepened until it was obvious the brunet was no longer focused on the scroll. Naruto blinked twice. Here was a familiar mood he once knew on the brooding shinobi. This was an occurrence he could react to in confidence but apprehension blurred the edges with concern.

Careful not to get tangled in the sheet, the fox slowly crawled closer to the dark haired boy, afraid to watch him descend into a colder depression. He wanted to do something, anything to save Sasuke from experiencing a crueller solitude than he already was, even one self-imposed. If the chuunin had been in human form he had absolutely no idea what he could do to halt the downward spiralling and so his thoughts churned endlessly. The tiny, agitated gestures of the orange creature remained seemingly unnoticed by the brooding Uchiha.

Naruto had always attributed the other's reticent attitude to Sasuke thinking too much and too long on the wrong subjects. He was silent, outwardly unemotional and kept everything to himself. The corner of a blue eye twitched as the orange fox had a thought similar to an epiphany, since Naruto's unique brain was slower to connect such blatant facts. If that boy only dwelled on getting power to defeat Itachi then Naruto would get him to stop thinking all together. Well, at least change the subject of his attention for a period.

Every ounce of mischievousness in his current diminutive body rushed to the forefront of his mind. The impulse to shock the other boy accompanied the shot of eager anticipation that raced through his nervous system. He surged from his sprawled spot to drag a coarse tongue up the inside of Sasuke's arm, wrist to elbow. The pale skin wasn't as smooth as it looked. He could feel the subtle patterning of thin lines and raised dots Naruto knew were the lasting souvenirs of the Uchiha's first battle with the nuke-nin Haku. The shinobi's taste was just as unique as his personal aroma. A mild charred bitterness lingered behind the metallic tang of the dried sweat coating the muscled flesh. Despite a familiarity with a broad range of flavours, Naruto couldn't name a combination that would suit the young heir better.

When the blonde's mind finally caught up with his eccentric behaviour, his sleek head reeled back and stared into the other's face. Sasuke had instantly jerked towards the unruly fox. Only those obsidian eyes had changed in the stony expression, the faint surprise he could see bleeding into hesitant confusion. Deciding to examine his own feelings later, Naruto let out the animal equivalent of a sigh and let his thoughts drift.

The bedroll was still quite soft outside the piled blankets. He let out a wide yawn as he stretched full body before curling the supine body close enough to the dark-haired boy's legs so he could settle his head in the crux of his lap. His closed eyes missed the delayed reaction and although he could feel the change in tension in his ex-teammate's frame, he was too comfortable and lazy to move any muscles to investigate something possibly amusing. A little corner of Naruto's mind demanded to know what the hell he thought he was doing; Sasuke was a traitor and an all round cold bastard, he should be at minimum detested and shoved away. Yet the blonde would not - could not - detest his oldest rival, no matter how much his brain told him he should.

Warm, comfortable and uncaring in contentment Naruto let slumber pull him under once again.

*

Sasuke gently petted the red fox by his side, the tactile gesture the only thing grounding his thoughts to reality. He didn't often brood while on his solo training excursions, not permitting himself any time to do so while he threw his whole mind and body into developing and refining all aspects of his abilities. It was when the silence refused to be ignored in between the marked training where his body begged Sasuke for much needed rest to avoid both physical and chakra exhaustion.

He remembered all the side-looks and hard glances that Naruto threw in his direction whenever the disguised blonde thought Sasuke wouldn't notice. To one whose genetics had adapted observational instincts to maximise their kakkei genkai, the quirk was simple to interpret. The frequent visual reassurance in the context of now, would suggest paranoia of another Uchiha disappearance.

The fear, founded as it was, echoed the memory of someone buried deep within Sasu-kun's emotional jurisdiction. It was little known that his childhood had not been confined to the limits of Konoha, unlike some of the village's other clans. The Uchiha had secreted a weapons cache to the care of the Elder cat and her clan in a small town to the north within the borders of Fire Country. In the days before the massacre, the town had been a bustling hive of trade activity and a hub of information if a shinobi knew how to ask.

During his first visit to meet the head of the feline-inclined clan, a couple of the youngest neko-nin had taken a liking to Fugaku's second son. Although, an older female trailed and watched Sasuke from a distance every time he entered the underground base. At the time his child's brain dismissed the behaviour as normal for the stoic, older generation cats. In retrospect it would have compared to a vigilant mother over a wayward kit. He'd not been to the cache since before the massacre, and would not return until he intended to commence the next stage of his calculated plans, the foundations of which were laid when he came to study under the wretched sannin.

Words spilled from his lips without prior consent, light whispers dying bare moments after their utterance. Fondness of the memories of the shinobi cat clan - especially the mother - tinged his inflection but he didn't suppress the show of emotion. Only Naruto would ever know of this moment, however short it lasted. He finished suddenly, forgoing any elaboration into his conflicted past in the usual private Sasuke way. The abrupt silence seemed awkward to him but the kitsune remained unmoved and what tension the older teen could feel dissipated.

The entire period of brooding he'd absently advanced into carding slender fingers through the coarse pelt. He was silently amused, Naruto whimpered when his hand stopped the rhythmic ministrations but he was certain his ex-teammate could entertain himself for the rest of the night. Sasuke wiped his expression clean and pretended to be oblivious of the disguised blonde.

With a flick of his head to dismiss his previous thoughts and melancholy, Sasuke turned towards trying to study the skill preparation he had planned for tonight. The three scrolls stacked before him contained the meticulous research about chakra shape manipulation by an Uchiha ancestor several generations removed. The nuke-nin plucked the scroll he had been reading previously from the pile, the only indication was the loosely tied ribbon which kept it from unravelling. Since the dark-haired shinobi had already mastered elemental manipulation of both fire and lightning, Sasuke sought to refine his ninjutsu and expand his repertoire by creating personal jutsu. These documents were liberated from a secret library in one of the clan buildings the Uchiha abandoned when they made the uneasy alliance with the Senjuu and established Kohonagakure.

Although his near-photographic memory managed to absorb the ancient words and discoveries spilling off the paper, Sasuke could not concentrate exclusively on his study. The abnormal disquiet of his thoughts was filling the temporary absence of the two polar entities. Sasuke's mind was his own at the moment and on some tacit level it was a relief.

Uchiha-sama had retreated from the forefront of their consciousness to the solitude of his chamber once the nuke-nin finished with his training for the day. He had sneered at the laxness of Naruto's sleeping form draped over their back. Just pandering to the fox was the testing the threshold of Uchiha-sama's almost non-existent tolerance in all things compassionate.

The irritated aura pouring off the entity's frame caused Sasu-kun to pull a face to ridicule the attitude. The child then sniggered quietly when the obsidian dragon fusuma slammed shut in the wake of Uchiha-sama, the scarlet of the flames had shimmered to the personality's animosity. The lull from Uchiha-sama's domineering attitude also influenced the innocent to leave the shinobi to himself. The instilled nature of the third entity disliked the forced solidarity so Sasu-kun pronounced he would be back within the hour to pester the teen with his playful aura.

The Uchiha heir was wrenched from his brooding when a wet appendage rasped across the skin on his right arm. He snapped around to stare at the orange creature lounging beside him, those deep sapphire eyes scrutinising every expression with intensity. The incredulousness of the event filtered beyond the fusuma with enough force that the playful cubs' screen inched open enough for a pair of curious eyes to glimpse what the dominant was seeing.

How the furball got so close without him noticing his movements was beyond comprehension through the shock. Although, the pressing question was what the hell made Naruto decide licking him was smart or even remotely appreciated by the impersonal front Sasuke had been sporting since he decided to become an avenger.

Sasuke was distracted by a prickling sensation blooming across his sensitive flesh, becoming more irritated by the second as it begged to be scratched. The Uchiha glanced down to see a rosy stain marring the creamy area where the filmy salvia dried in the flame-induced heat. His eyes flicked back when the red fox exhaled noisily before it quickly determined that Sasuke's lap was an incredibly comfy pillow.

Small creases appeared at the corners of the brunette's mouth and eyes as he frowned at the motionless animal. Sasu-kun was quietly thrilled hiding behind the fusuma, grinning at the unexpected turn of events. The cuddling gesture was endearing in its animal way, however Sasuke could only envision Naruto's blonde head resting on his thigh instead. The image brought warmth to the pale cheeks, not so anyone looking on would notice but it was enough that the stoic teenager was still embarrassed. It was of no consequence as Naruto had resumed sleeping if the even inflation of the fox's chest was any indication.

Sasuke inhaled deeply, transforming the breath into a quiet sigh. If nothing else, Uzumaki Naruto would be the death of him.

. . . T B C . . .

A/N: Heads up for the lovers of HB, there is only a few chapters left. Remember to return the love, and fave/comment/rec etc.