and what is this dim world
that I would leave, and cannot leave tonight
because a Queen is in it and a King
has gone away to some place where there's hunting—

-Lancelot, Edwin Arlington Robinson

Naruto's sixteenth birthday was shaping up to be as much fun as his fifteenth and fourteenth birthdays had been, and for much the same reason – he wasn't in Konoha for it.

He hadn't told Jiraiya about his birthday, and was thus honestly shocked when his fourteenth birthday had actually become an event. Jiraiya had brought him to a tavern at sunset, after a day of surprisingly gentle sparring and some interesting discussion about the way he used Kage Bunshin, and proceeded to get him well and thoroughly drunk. It turned out that the Kyuubi did burn the alcohol from his system, but if Naruto drank fast enough and the stuff was potent enough, he could keep a pretty good buzz going. (Jiraiya's rules about alcohol, women, and money were suspended on special occasions such as a boy's birthday or whenever ero-sennin felt the need, apparently)

For his fifteenth, Jiraiya had brought him to an okiya – after hammering in the behavior he expected from his apprentice, and that geisha were not prostitutes, or exotic dancers, or even drinking buddies. "You need some refining, stupid boy!" Jiraiya had barked at him, and then deposited him into the tender mercies of a slim, kimono-clad lady so beautiful that Naruto had been half-paralyzed with fear. She had spoken gently to him, in a way very few ever had, and he had instinctively – with the nervous caution of someone who had never been in quite this position – responded in similarly quiet tones. She had played the flute for him, and poured him tea, and spoken learnedly of literature and music as he fidgeted uncomfortably. He had emerged from the experience bemused and feeling like he had glimpsed something very alien from his world.

Naruto wondered, idly, what the ero-sennin would have done for his sixteenth birthday had they not placed themselves back under Tsunade-baba's grim eye.

But they had, and he was a shinobi of Konoha again.

He had first known October 10 as a day of pain and of colder eyes and of piercing loneliness, of watching things he would never have or be permitted to touch, way before the Sandaime had told him it was his birthday. There had never been a time he would not have been happier to skip over it entirely.

Unlike before, however, he now had a way to do so. The festival celebrating Kyuubi's death was one of the largest, if not the largest, event in Konoha's social calendar. Shinobi did not take missions, not even D-class errands within the Village, on the day. Only the barest skeleton-crew of patrollers and guards were posted, and they were paid triple-overtime for it. Naruto's genin team would never have gone on a mission on October 10, and they wouldn't have appreciated his asking.

But now he was acknowledged as near jounin-class in skill, even if technically still a genin. He had been able to take a solo B-class after the Council's decision to restrict him to the Village was overthrown by equal parts Tsunade's political maneuverings and his casual demonstration of the power he was able to control – to control, not just use. So he had taken a mission to infiltrate the manse of some country lord, and check if he was in fact mustering his own private armed force to use against Fire's daimyo. It would take him a reasonable amount of time. It would prove that he had learned some data-gathering skills from Jiraiya-sensei – er, ero-sennin.

It would keep him away from Konoha on October 10.

And at the moment, that's all he would ask for.


HAPPY BIRTHDAY NARUTO! (straps on an orange party-hat) Written for Naruto's birthday, October 10th, and also by incredible coincidence, the day of Kyuubi's sealing! gasp Anyway, it's a bit of a change of pace from NejiTen. I don't know if I'll continue this or let it stand as a oneshot. Oh, and if anyone's got a better idea for a title, please tell me.