Disclaimer: I don't own a thing.

Notes: This is an AU, set in a universe where Sasuke didn't leave. However, I did incorporate some spoilers for chapter 367, so please don't read this if you're not up to date. If the length of this seems daunting to you…Trust me; it's threatening to me, too. I can't tell you how good or bad this is, or if I should have published this at all. It's the first time I've ever attempted something like this and I would – honestly – appreciate all kind of criticism on this. Feel free to comment on anything; be honest – if it's irredeemably horrible, feel free to tell me. Much thanks and love goes to Kaikouken for her critical support and assistance.

"Goddamned, fucking moron. Imbecile prick," Naruto slurred in his drunken stupor, assiduously counting every thud his footwork, which was nothing but a poorly mended pair of sandals, made against the hard surface of the table's leg. This resulted in a regular banging, slamming and whamming noise; similar to the racket a dribbling basketball makes when being repeatedly pounded onto the floor. In order to not let this devilishly creative concerto subside, he kept swinging his foot, all the while rolling his eyes at the ceiling. Of course, there wasn't anyone there to respond to his behaviour, let alone sneer at him.

He wasn't in Konoha, where Shikamaru could sigh discontentedly and call him troublesome nor was there any Sakura to box his ears. No, he was in a sleazy pub in some ghastly village he didn't know, where men with swords frolicked through the streets and everything else was fairly ordinary. Naruto loathed the commonness of this place and was bored to death; he would have done anything for a good, old-fashioned brawl. But there wasn't anyone here to brawl with.

So, Naruto didn't know why he kept doing this, why the repetitions of that thrumming ruckus seemed to provide him with that much satisfaction - he was grinning from ear to ear and licking his lips in an impish way. Nor was there anyone to giggle along with him, congratulating him on his awesomeness. Perhaps, it was the notion that it was grating on the other's nerves which made him do it and which caused the more mischievous aspect of his personality to rejoice – once a brat, always a brat.

He was, in spite of his being inebriated, keenly aware of his surroundings, noting that the other fuckwits in the bar were sending him disapproving and "what the hell are you on?" looks. Most of them were baggy-eyed scarecrows, nipping their pints of beer as if they were infinitely precious and overall, looking ready to drop into a newly- dug grave and lay their aching limbs to rest. Men, who were half-dead due to drinking and gambling too much, and didn't give a rat's ass about anything, but the whisky they wasted their savings on and the whore they would fuck that night. In short, the sort of men you'll find anywhere because they breed like rabbits and, like spiders, never seem to disappear, unless you actively do something against them.

Still, as pathetic as they were, they stared at him obstinately: eyes fixed on him, glaring and dissecting him from inside out as if he were some dead insect under a microscope. Naruto felt, momentarily, as if the only thing he was good for was to be regarded as a freak of nature: a thing so peculiar and offensive in its appearance and state of existence that it needed to be squashed out and eliminated without mercy. Still, though his observations were that sombre, Naruto really didn't allow himself to get too upset. He was used to those cold and hateful stares, had learnt to deal with them. Therefore, shrugging his shoulders and halting his habit of banging against the table, he faced the men with a cheeky grin, stuck his tongue out at them and held out his middle finger, proving them in this way that he wasn't going to be subjected to their disdain of him.

He didn't give a flying fuck about the old, haggard geezers. Just like he wasn't ever going to give into Sasuke's bitchy complains about his habits, personality or choice of food, though he did care about his opinion (he would just never admit to it willingly).

"He thinks that the entire world revolves around him, that everyone who isn't him doesn't understand a shit about loneliness and losing someone ... It's so damned annoying because - ah fuck it. Can't you give me another bottle to drink?" Naruto asked gruffly, not caring that everyone who bothered to listen had gotten a glimpse of his personal life. Well, it didn't really matter. Nobody would gain any profit from listening to this drivel. After all, here he was nobody and no one cared about nobodies.

"But that's not worst. Sasuke is just another of those things that I'll never be able to understand… the top of the cake is that it took them eighteen fucking years to tell me that - oh screw it."

Naruto stopped here, the memory of what had driven him here – the village in the outskirts of his home -- in the first place, too painful and horrifying to reflect upon. No, he didn't want to - couldn't at present -- think, but drown his sorrows in the bitter taste of liquor that burned fiercely in his throat and made him feel heavy and languid.

"Hey, don't ya think you've had enough, man?" the barkeeper, a middle-aged man, asked. He really didn't want any of his clients to die of a premature death, which wouldn't only be a bother, but counterproductive for his reputation. As it was, he was indebted enough and really didn't need more trouble. And this boy spelled trouble. He had come in a flash, practically dropping coins into his hands and demanding all the beer that was in the house.

"Gee, stop that. You're not my - fucking - mother. I've paid, haven't I? So, shut up and give me another glass before I beat you to a bloody pulp," the man-boy half-drunkenly roared out, not liking the turn his thoughts had taken, abhorring the way the barkeeper's questioning gaze resting on him and the way he just couldn't shut out the pain from inside him (forget, he needed to forget, damn it!).

For a short moment, the barkeeper hesitated, contemplating that, if he was wise, he should throw the ill-mannered guy out, but practical reasoning grabbed a-hold of him and deciding not to thwart his chances of losing a promising consumer, he consented. Besides, once the brat was asleep, he would get rid off him, anyway. This wasn't a hotel, after all and he wasn't known for his charity.

Naruto really didn't notice that he was covered in dirt, puke and some other greasy stuff until he woke up in the morning. Or, better said, he knocked his head against something hard, solid and decidedly painful: it was shitty, frustrating and annoying, to say the least. Apparently, he had been thrown out of the pub, as soon as his head had hit the table, which, of course, was an unquestionably civil treatment.

"Shit," he thought peevishly, absent-mindedly scratching an itch, where a mosquito had bit him a little too earnestly. But he didn't scratch too hard because there were scars and burns on his body, still not entirely healed - a few precious remains from a blasted mission that had involved ducking a lot of kunai that had been thrown at him.

His surroundings were - no pun intended - the very epitome of a run-down, polluted and greyish area. The buildings, situated on very low ground, coated in slimy green paint and rendered even shabbier by the dreary fog, were so vile and disgusting to look at that Naruto imagined their inhabitants to be dwarfish, toad-like creatures, who lived, blubbering all the while, in a sickly green soup of a lake (now whether, he imagined the insides of the buildings to be like that, wasn't relevant). Whatever he imagined, he knew that one thing was for certain: the interior of these houses had to be murky, filled with rats and that stale smell of death - an earth-like, muddy and awful smell.

The rain came in bursts, the water hitting the ground furiously, trickling onto the dog kennel beside him, forming puddles into the fractured stubbles on the road and nearly draining him to the marrow, but he didn't care. All of this, even the icily cold water droplets pattering onto him was better than the feeling of sweat on his body, which had covered him hitherto. In fact, he felt as if the filth was being washed away from him, which was a trickling and refreshing sensation.

He had never really been to the dogs, though he had had his fair share of miserable experiences; being a ninja wasn't really a lottery's win. It was hard work and most of time; he really didn't feel like a hero; most of the time, he felt like a rat or even worse.

Not that he was complaining: a short cut to becoming Hokage didn't exist. He had always known that, even as twelve-year-old shrimp. He had been aware, even then, that in order to obtain that title, he would have to fight against prejudices, ignorance, and belittlement, trying his best not to give in; he would have to remain strong and believe in himself, even if no one else did. Then again, he had always believed in fair play, which, he, now, had been forced to find out, didn't exist. Or, he had been too oblivious and stubborn to listen to the tell-tale signs and find out that something like justice just didn't exist for when it came to him.

"Naruto, you know about the Fourth. He sacrificed his life by sealing the fox demon inside of you. You know that, don't you?" the man calmly said, though the look in his eyes was unusually serious and slightly worried, as if fearing for an outburst of sorts. For once, his teacher didn't look like the perverted writer, but the old man he was.

All of a sudden, Naruto didn't like the oppressiveness in the air and most of all, he hated the seriousness; it was like a bomb was going to be detonated at any given moment. He hadn't expected that when Jiraiya had called for him.

Of course, he knew: everyone in Konoha knew that that man had been a hero. That was one of those things that even little kids were aware of and Naruto didn't understand what the hell his teacher was getting at. This didn't have anything to do with him!

"Ero-sennin I appreciate the history lesson, but what does this have to do with me?" he asked curiously, wondering whether his teacher considered him to have the same potential. Now, that was something to look forward to and Naruto grinned, preparing himself for encouraging words, but they never came.

"Naruto, he was your father. The Fourth – Namikaze Minato - was no one else, but your father. Only few select people know of this and now you're ready to know too."

For the first time in his life, Naruto, the energetic bundle of loudness and boisterous, was rendered shell-shocked. His body, which had previously been glowing with vitality, slackened and his features hardened, making him appear years older.

"You're nearly a carbon copy of his, minus the boasting personality. You're more like your mother. Her name was Uzumaki Kushina."

In his eighteen years of life, Naruto had never heard anyone mention his mother's name, lest anything of her existence. Until that very moment, she had been a nameless shadow; a thing that existed in his dreams and wasn't part of his life. In his dreams, she never had a real face, but she was warm and kind.

"She wasn't born here. She came from a small village in the Land of --,"

But he never got to finish his sentence.

"This is a joke … right? Don't tell that this is the truth. It can't be! It's too crazy, too –" Naruto yelled, holding his head tightly, too bewildered to look at anything, but at his teacher's face imploringly, pleadingly. It couldn't be true; this had been to some sort of prank that an idiot had come up with.

"It's the truth, Naruto. It has always been," Jiraiya answered, again calmly, though there was something else in his voice.

"But why didn't you tell about me this before, damnit? How could you lie to me all these years?"

He saw that the older man was searching for an appropriate answer, raking his brain for an explanation that would satisfy him. But he couldn't bear it anymore and ignoring the protests, ran out before anyone could stop him.

Liars, all of them, Naruto thought with disgust: he still couldn't recall the whole thing without feeling the bile rise in his throat. It made him want to kick something. Naruto felt that he should have set out for the journey home, lest he wanted to reach it by midnight, but for some reason, he really didn't feel like it.

Naruto rose from his sitting position and tearing a piece a cloth from his mud-caked mantle, tried his best to wipe out the dirt from his clothes. At least, he didn't have to look like a beggar; it was bed enough that his hair was tousled and that he probably looked all beaten and puffed up.

Of course once he set out for the journey homeward, which led through a desolate forest, some better instinct told him that it really didn't matter whether he looked like a beggar or the frigging emperor of China. The path wasn't a manufactured one, but a simple road that was surrounded by trees on both sides

If he hadn't taken a map with him, Naruto would have been one very unlucky traveller. Then again, it wasn't as if he didn't know the way home, for he had been here often enough.

Being a prankster had the following advantages: you easily learned to trick your opponents. That came in handy for combat and helped him to avoid uncomfortable situations; Naruto wasn't called the number one surprise ninja for nothing. He had always managed to avoid dying by doing the exact opposite of what his enemies supposed him to do.

But there was another thing: being a trickster also helped you to sneak into buildings at night.

Like this, through jumping from roof to roof, breaking in through open window and not making a noise, he hoped to avoid seeing his face, knowing fully well that it wouldn't have pleasing consequences.

Unfortunately, sometimes, not everyone could be deceived.

"Naruto, stop prowling around…I know you're here."

"How …I was tryin' my best to be sneaky…hehe" Naruto started somewhat abashedly, slightly embarrassed and irritated at having been caught. He hated Sasuke for always spoiling his plans somehow.

"I can sense your chakra, idiot. No one has the chakra similar to yours. Besides, you're loud. "

"Why aren't you asleep, bastard? It's past midnight."

"That isn't important, Naruto. Where the hell were you?"

Of course, Sasuke didn't miss a chance to scold him. If there was one thing that would certainly never change in their damned interaction, it was this, this bitter exchange of insults. That was saying a lot because in the past seven years, their relationship had undergone quite a torrent of changes.

"Why, that's touching. Don't tell me that you're going to lecture me, not when you ran off like a damned fool yourself,"

"You brought me back," Sasuke replied matter-of-factly.

"Sasuke, I didn't bring you back, I dragged your ass back violently. You wouldn't have come back out of your own volition. It nearly took both of us to bite the dust, for you to realise how batshit insane your resolutions were. Sometimes, I think that having become Orochimaru's little sex toy--"

He never really managed to finish his sentence because a fist connected with his face and he fell onto the ground. Naruto really didn't feel the need to attack back or to scowl because he deserved this.

"Just because you've had a shitty day, doesn't give you the right to judge me. It's not like you're any better now, is it? You've been gone for two days and didn't even bother to drop a message. Were the hell were you?"

That Naruto thought, snorting a little, was a perfectly valid question to which he didn't have any answer. He didn't now what the damned was the matter with him because until recently, he hadn't even known who he was. It was a little bizarre: all of his life he had been perfectly content with not knowing and now that he knew, he wished that he had never found at all.

"It's none of your business," Naruto said quietly, but with undisguised firmness. Had he been younger, he would have told Sasuke to mind his own business, in more or less polite terms (and being polite, according to Naruto, meant to slam his fist into the other's face, but being careful enough not to knock his teeth out), but this would have been futile. Sasuke wasn't the sort to be intimidated by callous words and hard punches; if attacked, he would just hit back with the same force.

Sasuke didn't say anything, but there was brief moment when something akin to hurt flashed across his eyes and he looked as if he had something on his mind that needed to be said.

"Fine," Sasuke said coolly, not bothering to hide the contempt or disdain in his voice.

Then his lips tightened, the look in his eyes became harder and a frown started to mar the perfection of his beautiful face. There was a slight clenching of his fists and a tightening in his body, the way a cat prepares itself for a fight by growling larger and more threatening in its appearance. It was rather intimidating: Sasuke was annoyed and more than a little frustrated.

He wouldn't have been able to tell, if years hadn't taught him to read his face and analyse the meaning of his Sasuke's facial expressions. Contrary, to popular beliefs, the boy wasn't stoic or unreadable; emotions did flitter through his face, could be read through gestures, although they were subtler and more repressed than anyone else's – but, no, he wasn't a robot.

"I can't tell you. Not now, not until I've figured t'all out," Naruto said honestly, telling him the only thing he could offer at the moment, which wasn't much.


There was slight - very slight - emotion in the voice, a hesitant and tentative sort, as if a spy were eavesdropping on them and every - slight, noticeable - rise in his talking would endanger them.

Naruto kissed him slowly, savouring the familiar taste of him; liking the slight shudder he felt coursing through the other's body and the suppressed whimpers and moans. To his surprise, Sasuke didn't push him off, but returned the kiss with more fervour and passion that he had expected, forcing his mouth apart by nipping against his lower lip. He continued this torture a couple of times, before he finally decided to attack the inside of his mouth - again, not fiercely, but deliberately slowly, lavishing in the sensation. Up to that point, Naruto hadn't closed his eyes yet, having enjoyed seeing the sight of Sasuke's long eyelashes and the black hair falling against his forehead, looking soft and tempting to touch.

It was all very gentle, so unlike anything they usually did, that sent shivers down his spine and made him feel giddy like a thirteen-year-old experiencing his first kiss. In that moment, his intentions were cast out the window, dumped into an imaginary dustbin and the only thing he wanted to do right now was lose himself in this one kiss; even if he died, Naruto decided, that he could die happily like this, lost in Sasuke's arms.

It didn't matter a bit that his thoughts had taken a moronic turn and made him as cheesy in reflections as a performing minstrel.

In the years, Sasuke had learned to kiss quite well and developed his own technique in making him feel weak in the knees; similar to his fighting skill, he just knew where to lash out, make the enemy's defences crumble. Though Naruto hated him for making him that scatter-brained, he had to admit that he was bit proud, for he had been the one to introduce all of this to him.

Sasuke broke the kiss for a second, a questioning expression on his face. Sighing, he took hold of his jacket and dragged him towards bedroom

"You've been drinking. And these clothes should be thrown away. They smell like shit. Really, what the hell have you been doing? If you don't want to tell me, you should at least do both of us a favour and take a bath."

"When did you become my bitchy wife, Sasuke?" Naruto asked, unable to restrain himself. It wasn't common for the other to fret that much over him and, while it lasted, he couldn't help, but feel amused and a bit confused about it; he always feared that it wasn't real.

"Shut up, Naruto."

But he didn't seem to be too angry, as he drew Naruto in for another chaste kiss.

"Is this your way of telling me you're horny?"

"You don't ever use your brains, do you?" Sasuke said in mock anger, but there was a smile on his face, dropping hints that he wasn't wholly averse to the idea.

Naruto nearly gave into the temptation, but relented, realising that he wasn't really in the mood.

"Why don't you just go to bed, already? I won't disappear, I promise."

When he was out of the bath, dried and wearing newly washed pyjamas softly caressing his body, Naruto walked into the bedroom that he had come to share with Sasuke. It wasn't the most elegant furnished thing out there, with both of them being more practical-minded and not necessarily fond of glamour. Neither he nor Sasuke were women -- thank you very much -- and wasting money on mirrors gilded in gold or fancy little table lamps was a goddamn waste of money.

Still, it had everything a proper bedroom needed: a bed that wasn't obscenely large, an unassuming cupboard and a bookshelf, which was one of the things that had Sasuke had decided to buy because, as strange as it seemed, the darker-haired liked to indulge himself in a good book once in a while. Naruto, on the contrary, didn't derive much pleasure from book-reading; if anything, it bored him too death and made him fall asleep faster than anything else.

The only literature he did enjoy was of the questionable sort and Sasuke, disliking it more than hell itself, had banished those worthy titles from the bedroom, threatening Naruto with no sex, if he decided to keep them. So, Naruto, decidedly more in favour of the latter, had thrown out his collection, but that didn't keep him from reading them - as it was, Kakashi was more than willing to share what he had. So, he hadn't really lost anything and as luck as Sasuke remained oblivious, everything was fine.

Reflecting on these things made Naruto to grin unwillingly, but he didn't laugh out, in fear of waking Sasuke up. He could discern from the deep breathing and the blanket-huddled form that the Uchiha had fallen unwittingly asleep; Naruto knew that not even a thunderstorm could wake him up right now because Sasuke happened to be a rather heavy sleeper. Of course, that meant he was a heavy sleeper, unless you kept to your side and didn't punch him in the face or tickle his feet.

Naruto, walking languidly to the right side of the bed, set down gingerly on the bed and observed the sleeping face of his team mate, feeling slightly strange in doing so. He didn't know why it still made him feel confused to watch Sasuke sleep. Maybe, because it was still too surreal and unnatural to see him in such a relaxed position - in his sleep, freed from the suspicious, watchful look in his eyes and the perpetual grim line of his face, he looked innocent and vulnerable.

The thick hair that was always in disarray fell in tangles on the cushion and his right hand held one of the black locks in a tight grip, which made the older boy look even more ridiculously endearing. At times like these, Naruto hated him, even if only in mock-hatred, for being that beautiful: it was unnatural that a gender of the male sex could put the rest to sweating, bear-haired hunks to shame, but still not appear feminine to the eyes.

No, there wasn't anything girlish about Sasuke because his body was all muscle, the hands were too calloused, large and rough and his face, as porcelain-like as it was, was still too hard to be that to be womanly.

Had he not felt that worn out and drained of all energy, he might have succumbed to his more primitive instincts and kissed Sasuke, just to assure himself that this wasn't an apparition, but real. That there was somebody out there, who did care…That he wasn't caught up in this nightmare.

Then, all of sudden, the click, think of a clock's hands resounded and he perceived that it was already two o' clock in the morning. Naruto shook his head at his own foolishness.

He had been so wrapped up in the sensations of watching Sasuke that he had ignored the time and knowing that the other wouldn't tolerate him spending too much time in bed, he kicked off his slippers and reaching for the blanket, slipped in and closed his eyes. Sleep didn't come to him at first, but some of the thoughts came haunting him anew, driving him to grind his teeth in anger and squeeze the blanket a little too firmly.

Damn. This was even worse than before. At least, when he had walked back home in anger, he had had the fortune of physical exertion. Now there was only this silence, this impenetrable taunting silence that hung over the bedroom and nearly gnawed on his bones. He didn't want nor need it: Naruto wasn't the sort to give into agony and he wasn't going to start now. That wouldn't only be foolish, but too like Sasuke. He wasn't like Sasuke. At least, not when it came to dealing with issues; he wasn't going to flip out like him. So, he needed to forget, as quickly as possible.

In his despair, Naruto did the only thing that came to his mind; he snuggled to the body close to him, needing to feel some sort of reassurance that he wasn't entirely alone. He didn't care whether he would be kicked in the arse on the morning; he could deal with Sasuke's bitchy mood and dead-threatening glares. To his surprise, Sasuke was warm and even comforting; his scent was familiar, reminding him of sparring, rough kisses, bloody missions and challenging looks.

"Mmph…," the other groaning in his sleep, shifting slightly and, in this way, coming even closer in contact with Naruto; the hand that had been holding his locks, now was limply spread over Naruto's stomach and he felt one Sasuke's legs draped over his own. Naruto smiled slightly, amused at the fact that Sasuke seemed to be, what one called, a closeted hugger. Normally, he wasn't one for spontaneous embrace and to feel him that close was rather new.

Like this, Naruto fell asleep, fully content and happier than he had been in the past twenty-four hours.

The first thing Naruto opened his eyes to in the morning was the empty space beside him, where the slightly crushed pillow and carelessly tossed away blanket indicated that someone had been there, after all. Slightly befuddled and very hazy from sleep, Naruto didn't know where he was at first until his senses and reasoning told him that this was his own apartment - and no one else's.

Groaning, he leapt out of bed and scratched his head awkwardly, wondering why the hell he had slept that long. And why Sasuke hadn't bothered to wake him. Usually, the bastard was adamant on making his life miserable, especially when it came to his sleeping habits.

"You're finally awake," Sasuke said nonchalantly, as a manner of greeting. He was fully dressed, seated at the kitchen table and skimming through what seemed to be this day's morning paper.

"What time is it?" he asked groggily, still feeling dizzy in the head.

"Two o'clock in the afternoon..."

"What? Why did you let me sleep that long? That means that half of the day is wasted already. Are you crazy?"

"I tried to wake you up, but it was impossible. So, I let you be. It's not my fault that you sleep like a stone, dobe."

"Man…And I meant to-"

"See Tsunade, right? She wasn't too pleased about your little stint. Sakura wasn't either. And I can't say that I disagree with them," Sasuke said in that rational voice of his, sending jolts of anger down Naruto's spine.

He hated it: he hated that everyone was looking down on him again, as if he had murdered someone and didn't show the slightest sign of remorse.

He's your father, Naruto. He's your FA--

"Not that again," Naruto uttered angrily, feeling another headache coming on. "I told you that it's none of your business and don't act like you suddenly cared, asshole."

Sasuke didn't answer that time, but the widening of his eyes and the way he pressed his lips together, nearly biting them, told him everything he needed to know. So, Sasuke was furious and concerned.

"Don't look at me like that. I don't need your pity. I don't need anyone's pity. I'm not helpless."

"You're irresponsible and reckless. And your foolishness gets the better of you at times. Because if you were smart, you wouldn't have stormed out of the office like that…Or, at least --"

Sasuke never finished the sentence; his voice broke before he could do so. However, he was no longer sitting, but had risen to face Naruto in the eyes.

"Is this the only thing you can do? Stand here and criticise me like you're so much better than me? I'm fed up with. I'm fed up of listening to your bitching. It makes me want to retch."

This wasn't entirely true; the only thing that made Naruto want to retch was the anger that was consuming him, the lies that he had been told and the cold looks that people had been sending him ever since he had been a toddler. But it was easier to lash this all out on Sasuke, to blame him for everything that had happened.

"If it makes you want to retch so much, then why the hell are you with me? I didn't ask for it. You were the one who started this. You were the one who lay in my arms tonight like some damsel in distress."

Sasuke, of course, was telling the truth, but he didn't want to hear it. He didn't need another reminder of how weak he still was, of how much all this had affected him. And at that moment, something inside of Naruto was menacing, gritting its teeth and tempting him to - to break free, tackle, rip and go for the kill.

"Maybe, I shouldn't have. Maybe it's another of these foolish decisions that I should have avoided."

No, Naruto wasn't thinking when he spoke: all of his thinking processes had gained a singular quality and the only thing circling in his head was that one sentence, banging in the insides of his skull like a hammer gone askew.

In the seconds that followed, not a single word was spoken; an uncomfortable and unsettling silence, piercing in its vehemence, had curled its nails in the place and, now, holding it in a tight grip, seemed intent on never letting go.

Naruto avoided looking at Sasuke, still trembling with rage, terror and barely controllable fury. It took him minutes to realise that what he had just uttered, had been one of the silliest and most screwed-up things he had had ever dared to say. In this way, by not looking up, he missed the shock that was plastered on the other boy's face, the plain hurt widening in his eyes and the way his body trembled. Then, concentration grasped him and the features forced themselves to slacken, to gain a stone-like appearance.

Therefore, when Naruto did look up, he merely saw the hardened features and the poker-face expression Sasuke always wore when everything was crumbling apart. Of course, he thought, it was like always like this: he was the only fool in this whole business.

"But what does it matter? It's not like you care, Sasuke."

Naruto didn't wait for a reply, but stood up, tossed the chair away from him and dashed into the bedroom, not caring that he was stomping like an elephant. It was in a daze-like state in which he hurriedly put his clothes on and fastened his shoes; he felt numb, as if caught in some weird nightmare, where everything seemed unexplainably heavy and dreary.

In what seemed like a matter of minutes, he reached the desired place, even though, deep down, some childish part inside of him wanted to run away and do something funny, just to calm his nerves.

"It's good to finally see here, Naruto," Sakura said, smiling sweetly at him. However, he knew that this was only a façade, so in order to escape the inevitable punch on his head, he moved away from her.

When Naruto entered the office, he wasn't surprised to see Tsunade looming over her paperwork. As her eyes met his, he noticed that she looked haggard and worn out; a pang of guilt seized his insides and made him feel nearly sick. He knew that her appearance was his fault.


"Look I…damn it's too hard."

"Naruto, I'm not angry with you, though your behaviour wasn't the kind I'd expect to see from future Hokage."

He was startled for a moment at the mention of that word "Hokage".

"I just don't understand why you couldn't have told me sooner. Why everyone just kept their fucking yaps shut. I mean, I deserved to know who my parents were!"

"Naruto, I understand—"

"No, you don't understand. You can't understand. You'll never understand what it's like to be alone," Naruto said coolly, "You don't know what it's like have cold eyes following you around. So, don't pretend."

"It's not like that anymore, Naruto. And you did have people around who care very much about you."

"I don't see it. If you cared so much, then why did it take you eighteen years to tell me where I came from? I mean that's my family you're talking about - not a demon sealed within me!"

"There are reasons for that. I admit that it wasn't the best thing to, but at that time it seemed like the best decision. There was always the danger of you losing control --"

"Ha, did you think I couldn't deal, that I'd go ballistic like Gaara? Haven't I proved time and time again that I'm not a monster?" he asked scornfully, still feeling the anger prickling his veins. He knew that there must have been valid reasons for the decision, but a part of his mind still couldn't stomach the deceit. And if he was being childish for venting now, so be it.

Tsunade then fell silent, clearly troubled. She didn't look up at him at first; her face seemingly absorbed in the stacks of ear-dogged sheets cluttered around her. When she finally did look up, there was worry etched on her face and genuine concern: the look in her eyes wasn't hard or contemptuous. It wasn't even reproachful, only worried.

Then it struck Naruto. He was a fool, sillier than anyone had the right to be and that wasn't the worst: he was ungrateful and like ungraceful scum he had attacked a person, who didn't deserve it at all. In his realisation, Naruto felt like tearing the necklace away from him and giving it back to her; he didn't deserve it.

"I'm sorry. I forget that you've been through that much pain. I just can't think clearly anymore; every time I do, this anger grabs hold of me and I just can't control myself anymore."

It wasn't Kyuubi that was making him act like this, though Naruto still had difficulty to shake off all the power the demon sealed inside of his body held over him. But the danger was there, lurking inside of him, and in the growing realisation of actions, Naruto made up his mind.

"Naruto, what are you planning to do? There's something on your mind. Please don't do anything stupid. Maybe, you'll see things differently in a few days."

Naruto didn't reply to her.

"I don't want to lose you, Naruto," she whispered unusually quietly, entreating him to say something – anything – to assure her that he wasn't losing it.

That frankness, the obvious affection in her voice made Naruto nearly doubt his own hearing abilities. Indeed, though he had never doubted that the woman liked him, he had never dared to assume that, somehow, Tsunade had something of a motherly regard towards him, that she didn't only see him as future candidate to her "throne", but something else. For the first time in his life, Naruto had the urge to hug the woman, but he didn't, lest she slapped him for being too assuming and touchy-feeling.

"Tsunade, I'd like to go on a mission - doesn't matter what sort -- some place far away from here. I don't think I can stand being here, not as long as I haven't thought this over. I just don't want to hurt the people that care about me. So, far the time being, it would be better if I left."

Tsuande nodded her head, indicating that she wasn't opposed to this.

"And I promise that I'll be back. You know that I don't back down on my promises. Ever," Naruto added, smiling at her, in spite of the anger that was still grappling him.

"I know that."

When Naruto walked to his apartment, his head was empty, as cleansed from all the hideous thoughts it had been harbouring; his legs seemed to be made of lead and only carry him reluctantly from one place to another. It didn't unnerve him to find the door to his apartment open, even though his neighbourhood wasn't the necessarily of the best sort. Right next there, lived a moody queer sort of man, in his mid-thirties, who constantly wearing goggles and chewing a blade of grass, spat on the grass whenever Naruto and he crossed paths. Not only that, but he gave a hissing sound and wiggled his body strangely, as if he had an alarm clock installed in his insides. Naruto didn't get him: he had simply learned to ignore the odious and perversely abnormal antics of that bloke.

What did catch his attention though was a suspicious silhouette crawling in the shadows, which immediately alerted his senses and forced his body to action. Not wasting a minute, Naruto pounced on the offensive thing and, in a series of confusing events, toppled him over, but not before he had hit his head against something hard, smashed something to bits and pieces and landed on top of the culprit. His prey didn't seem to be all too pleased about it and took to thrashing violently under him, managing in this way - to roll them both over.

"What do you think you're doing, Naruto?" a familiarly angry voice asked him through gritted teeth. It didn't take Naruto, who was usually slow-minded, to realise that this was no one other than Sasuke.

"I didn't know you were still going to be here, asshole!"

"Well, where did you expect me to go, dead-last? I happen to live here," Sasuke answered snappishly, face impassive as ever and hands folded over his chest, as if nothing astounding had happened.

Naruto decided that he really had to be in possession of a half-brain: he hadn't thought about Sasuke and the fact that aforementioned happened to share an apartment with him. Of course, Sasuke didn't live anywhere else, though the compounds of his old home were still there, dingy, shabby and breeding house of ghost stories. No one lived - wanted - to live there anymore, not since Itachi had been finally defeated there.

"Don't worry. I'm leaving. Then you'll have this abode all to yourself and no one will dirty the bathroom anymore."

"I don't care. Do whatever the hell you want."

"I was an idiot, Sasuke. I didn't mean to hurt you. And I –-"

"Idiot, I'm not a girl. So, don't treat me like one. I'm not fragile, so you can stop talking such rubbish."

"Sasuke, can't you stop being an ass for once?"

Sasuke didn't really bother to offer him a sarcastic retort, but instead beckoned towards him in quick steps that made him feel intimidated momentarily. Sasuke was fast and there was no way he would be able to escape him now.

Suddenly, there were warm hands around his shoulders and he could feel the brush of Sasuke's hair against his cheek, the smell that was characteristic of him - a mixture of shampoo, sweat and grass - assailed his senses and he nearly groaned. Damn that bastard; he always had to make a complicated mess out of things.

"I'm not going to let you leave, even if I knock you unconscious," he whispered into Naruto's ear, which made him shudder. He really didn't like how Sasuke knew how to attack his weakest spots: that was another proof of the fact that he was a manipulative and scheming prick.

"You're not my boss, Sasuke. You can't order me around," he said defiantly, not scared of the boy's next move. Whatever the arrogant fool was going to pull off, he wasn't going to give in.

Before he could even finish his sentence, Naruto found himself pushed up against the wall; his body was pressed tightly against Sasuke's, who had pinned both of his hands.

"Sasuke, what's the meaning of this? Let me go, damnit. This isn't funny!"

Sasuke, it seemed, wasn't really in the mood to talk tonight, but kissed him with such a vehemence and unrestrained passion that it nearly knocked the air out of his lungs. No, it wasn't a timid or gentle kiss this time, but a furious attack on the lips, intended to make the other quiver and melt like butter.

Naruto closed his eyes and allowed the other to attack his mouth savagely, even though he could have easily pushed him off. But his brain had stopped functioning properly and the only thing he wanted to do at the moment was the slam his mouth against the other's, grind his body against Sasuke's own and show him that he wasn't intimidated at all. No, he was turned on all right, but he wasn't going to give in - if Sasuke thought that he could get away with that, he was horrendously mistaken.

To prove this, he roughly grabbed hold of Sasuke's hair and pushed his own tongue in his mouth, taking on the challenge. For a while, they just continued to explore each other's mouth; it was like sparring, only that they didn't use their fists. They weren't out of breath because years of making out had taught both - Naruto and Sasuke - of them to breathe through the nose.

It didn't stop there. Soon, Sasuke was licking, biting and chewing his way down his neck, making him go weak in the knees and nearly sink onto the ground. He, in turn, scraped his nails against the other's still clothed back, nearly tearing the material. Then, feeling mischievous, he licked the underside of Sasuke's earlobe, emitting a groan from the usually emotionally-repressed ninja.

Naruto grew tired of the constant rubbing their bodies: he needed more. Using some of his legendary strength, he jumped the others and, straddling his waist, started to grind. That was nearly too much for Sasuke himself, who hastily pushed him away and, taking his hand, pulled him into the direction of the bedroom.

"Come on."

"Sasuke, what I said about –"

"Shut up."

Naruto hadn't planned to stay that night: he hadn't counted on seeing Sasuke again or on the possibility of getting some, but now that it was happening, he was too weak-willed and most of all too horny, to fight against it. Though, what did annoy him a bit was that Sasuke seemed intent on being on top and, as someone who didn't back down from a challenge, Naruto decided that he wasn't going to satisfy him by giving in too easily.

Sasuke, Naruto thought, looked decided looked too tempting and delicious when he was asleep. This time, he didn't look merely vulnerable, but oddly satisfied - a ghost of smile covered his features and his body was relaxed.

Sasuke rarely smiled and if he did, it was always painfully painstaking and cautious. Still, to see him smile was nearly haunting, unworldly because that fragile, careful and timid smile was beautiful and unique. So, they were in the same position as they had been the night before, which was rather ironic, considering how rocky their relationship had been lately. This time, Naruto felt that he was the one at fault.

"You're an idiot,"

However, he couldn't because all of this - the magic of this moment and the deceiving security - was just short-lasting bliss and as soon as reality hit him again, Naruto knew that he would lash out on and hurt others again.

Perhaps, it was wrong to deal with this on his own, but Naruto, eager to please and wrap his own emotions, didn't want others to carry his burden.

Looking down at the sleeping figure, covered in a blanket that only half-heartedly hid the sleekness of his body, Naruto felt that same thrill of wonderment crashing over him; he still found it hard to believe that Sasuke was here with him.

He loved Sasuke; loved the bitchiness, the angry glares and the noncommittal responses of his. Those things about him he would never have changed because Sasuke was Sasuke. And Naruto Uzumaki was madly in love with him.

"I'm sorry," he whispered to ears that had fallen deaf. "I'd really love to take you along, but this isn't your war to fight. I'm not going to be selfish and drag you along with me."

Naruto finally rose from the bed, picking up the pieces of carelessly tossed away garment and made way to get decently dressed. He resolved to get this matter quickly done and quietly, still barefoot, left the room, closing the door behind him. He had to be fast now and make sure that he didn't waste more time by being overly sentimental. Otherwise, this wouldn't work out.

It happened to be in his luck that all of the things he needed were stored in the living room, which was also sparsely furnished like the rest of the complex; the weapons were to be found in a chest and the clean spare of clothes he needed, Naruto took from the bathroom, where a pile of freshly washed laundry was almost always present.

However, at last, the desire to be sentimental did consume him and Naruto, unable to leave just like that, sneaked back into the bedroom to throw a last glance at the moronic, prissy bastard. He was still asleep, only that he had shifted in his position and had grabbed the whole blanket to cover his body with; even in sleep, he was selfish.

There are several things you shouldn't do or avoid doing before setting off for a longer journey and one of them is to have sex with your lover. This was the conclusion that Naruto derived after suffering from the effects of a typical "morning after". Most notably, amongst these symptoms, was the pain in his backside. Or in more laymen's terms, his ass was sore and he couldn't walk properly; he was slightly humping like a man over sixty. Thankfully, due to Kyuubi's awesome healing skills, he knew that the pain would subside soon.

"Fucking Sasuke…" Naruto mumbled aloud, feeling the urge to slap everyone - including himself -- repeatedly for having been that foolish; sometimes he really detested his own hormones. It wasn't as if he regretted the night, it was just bothersome to be haunted by the memories of it. Alright, "bothersome" wasn't the right word: it wasn't bothersome, but made him feel sick and pathetic.

He looked back and saw that the outline of the familiar mountain was growing smaller and that the light was growing thinner again as he entered the forest. It was then, when he felt that the stinging in his backside was gone, that he decided to make his travel a little faster.

"You're just too chicken to admit that you're running away."

Naruto - not so very eloquently - told his own conscience to shut it and focused himself on the mission he was going to undertake. He really didn't know the particulars, but from what the old hag had told him, it wasn't anything difficult - he shouldn't expect any lethal threats or much action. For once, Naruto really didn't mind that he wasn't going to have rely on his fighting skills that much. Of course, the best thing about this whole business was that it didn't require anyone to accompany him; it was a one-man deal.

"You're going to have to learn to be diplomatic, Naruto. That's one of the things you'll need to be excellent at once, if you want to Hokage."

"Yes, yes. I get it. You've told me that at least a hundred times. Just get to the point. So, what's the mission about?"

"Well, that's for you to find out," the woman told him vaguely, looking at him intently.

"That's not very clear, man! I don't—"

"Naruto, you can either take the mission or stay here. Besides, I thought you liked challenges and as a future Hokage…"

"I get it!" he finally snapped, agreeing to anything the old hag had mentioned.

The journey wasn't exceedingly tedious. After it had rained heavily for the past few days, the weather was pleasantly fresh and the smell of life invaded his nose, clearing some of the heaviness that was still making his head ache.

Tsunade had given him the directions and, having been sober at that time, Naruto trusted that he wasn't going the wrong way. It wasn't far away, as the woman had mentioned a little village in the former Land of Whirlpool; a place he didn't know much of and which Tsunade told him wasn't of much importance. It was an indebted area and, insomuch, Naruto didn't expect to see much there, expect poverty.

There are places in the world that can only be described as being post-apocalyptic. And if Naruto had been familiar with the word, he would have agreed that this - if it was anything at all - village was the epitome of that word.

The twenty or so huts that were standing, or more or less held piteously together by twitched leaves and planking wood, were all of a shabby constitution.

There was something oppressive in the air, not because there were any factories in that place, polluting the air with suffocating gases, but there was something saddening, ominous about it; looking at it, the spectator felt as if old wounds on his body were being reopened and a noose was being laid on his neck, ready to strangle him to death once his feet pushed off the ground. Naruto, bewildered and disgusted at the sight, didn't really understand what business he had here; this place was a damned mess. Had he been familiar with Western movies, he might have found it sarcastically fitting to dismiss this - whatever the hell it was - as a ghost town.

There weren't only those fragile, hanging by a thin thread huts here, but a large building - or more or less rectangular, shabby box - that seemed to serve the purpose of a bar; doors creaked open and he saw a couple of corpselike men with straws in their mouths, various patches on their travelling cloaks and shoes that squeaked and plumped against the ground, leave and enter the honourable meeting spot.

Well, Naruto figured that if there was any kind of information to be leaked through, it was going to be here and no where else. Grudgingly and with a sense of dread, Naruto made way to the shaky looking establishment, where the half-broken door still shrieked and crunched against the badly scratched surface of the ground. There was a sign above the door with an indefinable shape and illegible lettering. But then again, judging by the edges and weird shape of it, it could have been anything, if one only was in the possession of a lively imagination (to some it might have been a whale with its toothless mouth wide ajar).

Of course, to his dismay, all eyes, ears and other senses were drawn to him immediately, once he had made himself known. Naruto wondered if, by some weird design, he had been born with a magnet or a peculiar scent that stare at him. Similarly to the last drinking house he had visited, the men were hopeless causes, only that this time they were really drained of all life. Most of them sat huddled, in groups of threes or fours, over a pack of cards: there were whispers everywhere, rolling from the lips of the men and at times, a single roar or the sound of someone falling steadfast against a table would interrupt the murmuring, listless cloud of whispers that hung over the inn like a cloud.

"Ah, so how can I help you?" a voice, clear and deep, uttered.

Naruto turned into the direction of it and wasn't little surprised to discover that the owner of the voice was, in comparison to the other people in the room, a fairly young man, not much older than thirty. There, with his pierced ears and black curly hair falling carelessly to his shoulders, the man stood at the counter, which was nothing but a long table, and grinned lazily at him. His clothes, which consisted of a simple shirt, trousers and cap, were, though evidently worn and scratchy, neat and clean.

But the thing even stranger thing was the man's unorthodox handsomeness. Though he should have been anything, but ugly, scrawny or short, the man was uncommonly tall, of an athletic build and broad-shouldered. There was something of the pirate in him, especially in his eyes, which were always on the lookout for something.

"Just give me a glass of water."

The self-satisfied, drowsy grin on the guy's face widened and he shook his head, as if he couldn't believe what he had just heard. Then, he slammed his left hand against the table and broke out into a high-pitched laugh. It wasn't a hollow laugh, but jovial, hard and most of all, real.

"Do you hear that, fellers? This guy here only wants water. Too soft to handle the good stuff, aren't ye?" the owner asked, sending contemptuous glares in his direction. Then, he started to roar with laughter again that bounced off the walls and seemed to infect the others in the room; seemed to awaken their limbs to life and pour new energy into their tired souls.

"What's your fucking problem? I could just as well leave and not order anything," Naruto said through gritted teeth and seething with rage; humiliation had made his face red and that caused the fellow to snigger even more.

"Can't ye handle a joke? It's just downright funny to have a client that doesn't aim to get drunk around here," the man retorted, throwing a quick glance around the room.

"I'm on business here," Naruto said self-assured, though he had no fucking clue what he was supposed to do. Again, he promised himself that he would find a nice way to make the old hag pay for this.

"What's that you're goin' on about? There's no "business" to be found here…. Most of the people here are simple farmers. Have ye knocked your head against somethin' too hard, man? "

"I tell you: there's nothing to be found here. Haven't you seen what it looks like here? We barely have enough to fend for our lives and it's been like this for nearly twenty years."

"You're strange guy. Well, here's your water. Suit yourself".

"The glass is damn near broken. Are you kidding me?" Naruto uttered angrily, surveying the misshapen object in his hand.

"Well, I'm sorry - I haven't got anything better. "

Last time had taught him that getting drunk wasn't the best option and if there wasn't something he didn't need, it was to wake up, smelling like shit and puke.

"Say, what's your so called business here? Not that you have to tell me, but I'm rather curious."

The man had set down on across of Naruto and was idly drumming his fingers on the makeshift counter, creating a sort of rhythm that seemed to become one with the multitude of tones in the pub.

"I'm - a merchant."

Takashi threw him a curious look, really looking at him for the first time. Then, after he had looked Naruto over from the top of his head to the sole of his foot, he furrowed his eyebrows and with a lopsided grin said:

"It's strange that as merchant you're only travelling around with a bag slung around your shoulder. And you're rather young for one, too. Always supposed you guys were shrewd and that sort of rubbish. But I'm in no position to judge. Look, I'd advise you, once you've drank the water up, to get up and drag your ass back wherever the hell you've come from. "

He shrugged and again, his eyes were drawn to the other tables in the places and Naruto, unwillingly, found his attention drawn there too:

"The hell I will. Look, I don't care what you think. I've come here on a purpose and will not leave until I've done. I don't back down on my promises. Uzumaki Naruto never backs down --"

"Wait, you're name is Naruto… Uzumaki Naruto?"

All of a sudden, the man had leapt dangerously close to his face. For a while, he just glared and then something like realisation seemed to flash against his eyes.

"You know, pal. I think I know why you're here. It's crazy…but I think I know why you're here."

"What the hell are you talking about now? First Tsunade sends me off here without giving me any kind of information and now you're talking in circles."

"This isn't the best, but I reckon it'll be fine for you. It's better than the majority of the village has. And I've even managed to get the pesky spider out of here."

Naruto mentally agreed that this little room really wasn't the best, but, yes, he could deal, though a sleeping cot wasn't number one on the list of luxuries. The man, whoever he was, had brought here after he had nearly caused a ruckus in the pub. The little house wasn't far from the pub and there wasn't anything spectacular in it, aside from the dust, the cobwebs and the nearly ashen taste of ruin. No one had been here in years, it seemed.

"Naruto, you're a ninja, right? If I'm not mistaken, you're somewhere from up north. Some place called Kon-whatever. I don't give care a damn for the name."

"How did you find out?" Naruto asked, his mind telling him that something wasn't exactly right here and that this person wasn't what he seemed to be.

"That's a long story. And I think you should take a rest before I tell you…. Look, I know that you could force it out of me, but you look mightily tired."

Naruto in his anger lunged at the retreating man, figuring that he would be able to attack him easily from behind; there was no need for him to use any Ninjutsu or so he thought.

Before he could even register what the hell had happened, he found himself on the floor, clutching a bleeding lip. He hadn't expected that: the man, in spite of his harmless demeanour, had managed to fight off the attack and knock him quite a good one.

"Before you ask, I'm not a fucking shinobi. Hell, I sure as hell never want to be one. But I've picked up a thing or two about fighting. So, don't try any tricks, unless you want to sleep here. And if you anger me sufficiently, I'll kick your arse so hard you'll be crying for mercy and leave you to sleep outside like a dog. So either, you'll calm yourself or you'll realise that I'm not really as nice as you think."

There was slightly threatening glint in the man's eyes, but then he smiled again and shrugged his shoulders. He smiled offhandedly, kneeled down to Naruto and slapping him on the shoulders briefly,

"I didn't really mean to hit you, kid. But you had it comin'. Tell me; are all of the ninja that hot-headed? Because if they are, I really don't think that you should call yourself ninja."

"Shut up, I didn't come here to be lectured. I've had enough of that. So, are you going to tell me or will I have to show you what I'm capable of?"

Takashi sighed and was already rising, moving into the direction of the door and regarded Naruto with a slightly amused expression; the sort an experienced teacher will throw at a student, who is trying to convince him and others that he is the best. In that aspect, Naruto was forcibly reminded of his former teacher. So, he let his resolve die and decided to wait for what tomorrow would bring.

"Wait, what's your name?" Naruto asked, thinking that it wasn't fair that this man seemed to know that much about him, but he knew nothing at all.

"Oh, so you're finally asking? I'm real honoured: they call me Takashi," the man answered with a hearty laugh and quitting the room, with light and swift steps, left Naruto alone to his reflections.

Naruto, contrary to his expectations, didn't sleep badly that night. In fact, he slept rather soundly, even though, in the back of his mind, he missed his home and most of all, regretted that he had left the way he had. He hated that; he shouldn't have felt that down, but he did and Naruto's ill-humor didn't change when he saw Takashi enter the room with a tray of what he assumed to be, edibles.

"So, I assume you've slept well?" the man drawled, plopping next down to Naruto and pulling his knees up to his chin, he looked at him expectantly.

"So, I guess you're waiting for me to spit it out?"

Naruto didn't answer, but nodded his head, weary of talking.

"The point of this whole thing is that house here was your grandfather's and unless, this is an error on my part, you're definitely Kushina Uzumaki's son. You've got her eyes, the brash attitude and the appetite. "

"You knew my mother? How the hell --?"

"Well, kind of. By the time, I came here; she was already seventeen and only dropped by here twice a month or so. I swear she was horrendously bad-tempered and violent, always beating me up and getting annoyed at me calling for her an ugly hag…" Takashi continued, his eyes lighting up wickedly at memory that seemed to entertain him endlessly. Whatever it was, it distracted him enough that he didn't speak for a while.

"Wait, I've never met her. Tell me more about her and don't waste my time," Naruto said impatiently, not wanting to time listening to the man's tiring narrative than required.

"Well, she was quite tomboyish. Always insistent on being the first, always eager to make people notice her. She didn't have it easy, you see?"

Naruto shrugged, not knowing what the man was getting at. He didn't like the way he was looking at him nor the patronising tone in his voice – he couldn't help thinking that Takashi considered him to be scum or something equally laughable.

"People gave her a hard time because your grandfather, Seji, wasn't, from what he told, a ninja; he was just a doctor... who left his home village in order to help the people here. You see, even back then, this place was hellhole. "

At that, Naruto didn't feel interested and something in his features must have betrayed it because Takashi's voice became fiercer and lost that drawling, bored ease in it. It would have been frightening, if Naruto had been the sort to be easily intimidated.

"Even if this surprises you, Seji wasn't a coward. He just didn't like violence. More so, he detested it; couldn't even stand hurting an animal. He was a quiet, serious-minded guy: hardworking, helpful and eager to maintain peace. I tell you: it used to look better here, especially while he still lived. He inspired strength in the people, though he never needed any weapons to do it," he finished silently, a look marring his features that Naruto hadn't seen before – it looked like sorrow and pride. Then he realized that Takashi must have thought of his grandfather as a hero.

Naruto didn't know what to think of this; it didn't fit into his perception that strength didn't necessarily go hand in hand with combat. In his opinion, people who didn't fight weren't better than dirt. That someone could be strong without using his fists and ninja techniques was a new concept to him and, in order to change the subject, Naruto asked:

"Then how did she manage to become a kunoichi?"

"I don't know the details, but Seji-san always told me that the few things he'd mentioned to her about his former home delighted her so much that she was dying to become one. And loving her as much as he did, he probably relented and let her go. You see, after your grandmother's death, Kus--your mother - was everything he had. He doted on her and would have given her anything her heart desired. When she died, he was crushed and it didn't take him long to follow her."

Naruto was startled at that, a sickening knowledge seeping into him; something inside told him that his mother had died in childbirth.

"But why should I tell you, if I've got something much better?"

On this point, Takashi rose and by curt nod of the head, motioned Naruto to follow him. The room, which they entered, wasn't in a better condition than the one Naruto slept in. However, there was one, standing on a somewhat shaky foundation, cupboard on which there were piles and piles of medicine stocked up and a simple mattress. Naruto realized that this must have been his grandfather's resting place and he felt slightly bewildered at sitting here. The notion of being here and sitting on that old mattress, where that man must have once sat, was an alien and slightly unsettling concept for him. He was thankful for the noise that Takashi caused because, otherwise, he might have just left; he didn't like thinking of ghosts of the past.

Naruto heard him rummage shelves in another part of the shabby house. When the noise subsided, he heard footfalls coming closer to his own sitting place: the man was holding what seemed to a loosely bound stack of sheets.

"I've never touched any of those letters. Because they were Seji-san's private delight and I'm not the sort of man to meddle in a person's private affairs."


I can't believe how dreary you painted Konohagakure and the academy! But then, you've never been there….! I really like it: I learn something a kickass new habit each day. The only thing that angers me is the teacher's prattle on the more boring stuff. I'm not interested in definitions and theories. I just want to fight and have missions.

There were other letters of that kind; all of them short and containing that barely readable, childish scribbling. More or less, they were detailed accounts of the lessons and Naruto suffered a fit of laughter once or twice when he read that his mother's opinions didn't waver too much from his own.

Sometimes I wish I'd been a boy. I hate that I can't roll around in the dirt and compete with the boys - it angers me when they put me down just 'cause I'm a girl. But that's not all: they put me down because of you're leaving Konohagakure. I'm not angry at you. You're the greatest man I know and I'd just wish that the others here would see it, too. At those times, I miss home and most importantly, I miss having you around. Seeing you once in a while just isn't enough…but it's not like I have another choice! I knew that it was going to be hard, but I'll make it. I'll make you proud of me.

After that short note, the formerly messy handwriting evened out a little and there were more little notes, which didn't attract his interest too much, until he came to one in particular line:

You'll never believe what I've experienced, Dad. Here we were, gettin' ready for our mission when I see a guy of around my age walk around in a jounin west. It's stupid. So, of course, I asked who that brat was and they told me it was the Minato -- what a girl's name! -- Namikaze who is supposed the top genius of all geniuses … Hah, genius. I went up to talk to him and just to anger him a little, asked him whether the vest wasn't a little too big for such a shrimp. He's such an arrogant prick. He didn't even acknowledge me! Just saw right through me like through thin air.

It was the first time she had mentioned his father and that gave Naruto shivers because, apart from the villagers, Kakashi and Jiraiya, no one had mentioned him; he had always been a nameless hero to Naruto and, thus, he found chills run down his spine when he read other accounts of him, portraying him as a silent, nearly wistful boy, who didn't give anyone the time of the day. At turns, he was amused mostly by his -- it still chilled him to think of it – his mother's badmouthing him. The disapproving tone in her letters only changed slightly when she started recounting her having missions with him, being pushed together with him on a daily basis.

Before you start telling me the wrong things, father. I tell that I haven't hit my head against a rock. But…I don't think that Minato's really that bad anymore. Sure, his skills are outrageous and I hate the way he's always going on about becoming Hokage…But he isn't that bad: he's quiet and not boastful at all. It doesn't change the fact that I still don't like him, though.

Naruto laughed at the last sentence; that segment sounded too much like him when he had first started not to hate Sasuke. And for a while, the notes, where always the same: on one hand, praising his father's skills and on the other, condemning his silence and seeming inapproachability.

The strangest thing has happened: the more time I spend with Minato, the less I'm starting to hate him. In fact, in some way, I've come to admire him.

If you'd told me at twelve that I'd end up loving Minato, I would have laughed my ass off, Dad. Or I would have pulled my hair out, strand by strand. But … he wormed his way into my heart and before I knew what was happening, I was in love. It's odd to write like this because it makes me feel giddy and stupid. But at the same time, I'm so happy I could burst. We're married! We're part of each other's lives now. He's at my side now, reading this letter and whispering into my ear that "he'll make sure that people accept us and that no one shall hurt me anymore…" He's such a corny fool and I'm not going to be Kushina Namikaze because it just sounds wrong.

Naruto agreed with her on this; thinking that it would have been laughable to have such a last time.

Being married to Minato is a strange thing. No one is really aware about it, so it's nearly like a dirty little secret. I've told Minato to keep his mouth shut because it's more fun this way: I like the challenge. And I don't think I'd ever be able to adapt myself into the role of being a proper Hokage's wife. But, to be more serious - which is something I don't want him to know - I don't want people to talk badly about him. I don't care what others think of me…but I do care about him. And I'm not going to be selfish. So, I'll keep quiet. Maybe, one day, they'll be able to understand, but for the time being, I'm having fun.

There wasn't anything else, after this, which struck Naruto as odd, considering things. The one that followed in succession was another short little note.

By now, you probably know the good news, father. Your surprised and overjoyed face is something I'll never forget. I'm so glad that Minato is everything you could have ever wished for in son-in-law. And I'm pleased that he things so highly of you, too. Somewhere I've read that women are always doubtful of becoming a mother. But I'm really not! In fact, I'm looking forward to being a mum. Because I'll be the best mother ever! If I'll have a boy, we've agreed to name him "Naruto". We can't really let people know I'm pregnant. Strangely, they don't even now we're married because we don't see each other that often, really. Not in public, at least.

Naruto didn't have the mind to read all of the letters about his parents yet. There were many little notes and scribbles, some shorter and some longer in their length. From what he grasped, from a sentence or two, was that they mostly dealt with trivial matters and what he still couldn't deal with, the obvious affection his mother had harboured for his father – and him.

As I'm becoming fatter and more like a puffed up hen each day, I wonder what this baby will look like. I hope he'll look more like his father. And though Minato says that my red hair is gorgeous, I just don't want another member of this family to be nicknamed "ginger". Awful! People don't know that I'm pregnant and there've been looks and gossip, but it's not like I care! Minato, however, does: I can see that it pains him to have the others look at me disdainfully, but I'm not going to thwart his future. Not when he's worked so hard to be where's now. Though it's cliché and probably girlish, I hope he'll look like Minato. Only, I hope he'll cheekier and less silent: I don't need a second Minato in the family. It's I just prefer people to be straightforward because I don't really get things, unless one yells them out at me. And I'd prefer to understand my boy.

The last letter, which he had held in his hand, was slightly crumbled and dog-eared. There were tracks of blotted ink on it and it was obvious that had been read very often; it was also the last one.

Lately, I've been worried, father. Because I feel that something bad might happen; I don't know where this anxiety comes from. But, I feel as if I'll never get to see my baby - my son - grow up. It's dreadful…because I'd like to see him grow so much. I'd like to cheer him on and spoil him silly with ramen, hugs and foolish talk. I know that he'll be awesome. Not only because he's our son, but because I can sense it. If anything ever happens to me, I'd like you to take care of him. Please. Don't ever let him be lonely. Or let him know anything, but love and appreciation. I want him to be protected.

There were tears in Naruto's eyes when he had finished reading that last letter, inked in gentler handwriting than its predecessors had been. All of a sudden, he had been given a - it didn't matter how brief - glimpse of his mother's life and it was shocking that the impact was even more painful. Knowing that she had been like this, knowing that she had cared, felt like losing her all over again; he had been given a momentary gift and now that it was gone, he still felt the bitter aftertaste of its loss.

"I'd have loved her more than anything else," he said silently, aware that this wasn't merely an affected murmur, but the absolute truth.

"I guess so…she was a hell of a woman. At least, what I knew of her… And before you start throwing yourself at me again, I just came in to give you these; took me a while to find it. The box is a little dusty; it hasn't been opened in quite a while," he heard a voice say, which in its briskness and offhanded quality, he recognised as being Takashi's; the man kept his promise, walked hurriedly over to Naruto and dropped a box on his feet. Afterwards, he was gone.

There were pictures inside the box, mostly small and covered in a film of fine dust. Naruto, however, didn't care and with trembling hands, inspected each of them carefully. The one that caught his immediate attention was the photograph of a young girl with a large, impish grin plastered on her heart-shaped face. That wasn't the most interesting thing about the picture. The most eye-catching feature were the coloured rings on her face and dot on her thumb, similar to own of his artistic creations.

Then, Naruto pushing himself onto the floor, thought back of home and Tsunade, who had obviously sent him here on purpose. This had been a clever scheme of hers, to send him to the very place, where she knew he would find out everything. No, there were things that still hadn't been answered, as a millions of questions invaded his mind, but, now, for time being it was sufficient.

Several days had passed since Naruto had learnt the whole story. He missed his home, but felt that he couldn't really go back yet. He didn't know why; there wasn't anything left for him do there and it wasn't if he enjoyed Takashi's company that much. That constantly smiling and always cracking weird jokes guy was busy, flittering about the place as if he were an over-ecstatic humming bird in search of nectar. Besides, he was eerie and something about him unsettled Naruto, even though he couldn't pinpoint it. He just wasn't the sort of man he would want to be friends with: they were too different.

In the back of his mind, Naruto wondered if there wasn't anything he could do make the desolateness of this place disappear. If, by some miracle, he couldn't make the men work more and dispose of their attitude, if he could make the poverty go away just like that. When he told Takashi about it, the man glanced at him with surprise before he burst out laughing – it was a bitter and sardonic laugh, mocking in its quality.

"That's a noble scheme. But there isn't anything you can do, not if the peeps themselves aren't willing to change a thing."

Naruto didn't know how to answer to that, again wondering why fighting couldn't help here.

"As long as something doesn't change in society… nothing will happen. And you're just - no offence, man - a boy and there's nothing you can do. A hero isn't needed here, but something else. A change in society, a revolution perhaps…but those aren't matters you're supposed to trouble yourself with. "

Takashi then turned away, but before he did, he saw the determined, nearly deadly look in his eyes. In that instant, he was reminded of Tazuna, the bridge builder. Whatever the man had in mind was going to be fulfilled one day.

Naruto grudgingly accepted this truth; however, he internally swore that one day, he might manage to accomplish something here, even if it was only to repair the huts. It wasn't in his nature to sit idly and not try to make things better; he was going to prove that everything was possible. He wasn't going to become Hokage for nothing.

So, in this manner, he walked down the dusty and unkempt streets, observing the badly patched roofs of the huts and the dismal, heavy atmosphere of the place. The weather stood as a direct contrast to the area as it was warm and pleasantly sunny; a fresh breeze brought refreshment now and then, helping the dust to hover on in the air and to find a new resting place. Naruto would have liked it, if he had ignored the desolateness of the village.

Suddenly, without any change to defend himself, Naruto was attacked from behind: a strong hand grasped him around the neck and he found it hard to breathe. But Naruto wasn't one to rest idle for long and using this to his opportunity, he flung the attacker onto the ground and straddling him was about to point a kunai at him when he recognised the familiar features.

"Sasuke…what the hell are you doing here?" he sputtered out dumbly, shocked to find Sasuke glaring up at him of all people. Of course, it couldn't be his evil twin because Sasuke and only Sasuke could glare like this and make him feel nearly embarrassed.

"I could ask the same of you, dead-last."

"Go back home. I haven't defected. I'll be back," he said quickly, rising from spot and holding out a hand to help Sasuke, who accepted.

Sasuke didn't reply, but instead knocked him on the head. That Naruto assumed was his way of telling him that he had been worried; the bastard wasn't very vocal.

"Geez…do you always have to be that violent?"

Secretly, Naruto told himself that he deserved this, for putting his lover through so much shit; he hadn't been the nicest.

"That's what you get for leaving me out of this, Naruto."

"I said that it's none of your business!"

"Whatever you do is part of my business. Anyway, it's not like you've concerned yourself about not intruding in my affairs," Sasuke muttered sarcastically.

"That's - not the same."

Of course, Naruto knew that this was rubbish; like always, Sasuke had managed to rub some salt in his wounds and state the truth. If it had been a matter of his, Naruto wouldn't have bothered leaving him alone, either.

You shouldn't have pushed me away."

"Sasuke, how did you actually find me here? This was supposed to be a secret … whatever the hell it's supposed to be."

"Sakura told me. She managed to trick Tsunade by getting her drunk. And, apparently, when she's drunk, she's quite a talker."

You do have people who care about you, Naruto.

"Oh. And you actually came here all the way? That's incredibly silly of you - but kinda cute, too. I didn't know you'd miss me that much. Man, I must be a hell of a lover when you're so frustrated --"

"Say another word and I'll give you a reason to be frustrated."

"But wait…if Tsunade told - does it mean that you know?"

"Know what?"

"That the Fourth is my father… Oh come on," he mocked, motioning for Sasuke to stop teasing him.

However, to his amazement, Sasuke's eyes widened slightly and he looked at Naruto with what seemed to be genuine surprise. Then, he shrugged his shoulders.

"I didn't know."

"And aren't you impressed?" Naruto asked, "It just proves that I'm a genius."

"Not really. He's rather similar to you in appearance. And you're not a genius just because your father was. Genetics doesn't work like that, idiot. "

"You're such a boring guy, Sasuke. Really…I was shocked."

"That explains your behaviour, dobe. "

"I'm sorry. I lost control over myself and couldn't think clearly. It still hurts…hurts so goddamned much…. I just can't believe that I've been kept from knowing. And now that I know who my parents were and how they were, it just hurts so much more. I just - didn't want to burden you…" Naruto said, allowing his emotions to run wild again, to lose themselves in the frenzy of a disappointed, repressed anger that had been building up inside of him ever since he had heard the news.

And before Naruto could even register what the hell was going on, Sasuke was kissing him in that slow, gentle way that made him his brain fuzzy, his hands sweat and his body shudder, as if icicles were sliding down his skin. To employ that overused phrase, Sasuke did take his breath away and Naruto found himself forgetting his worries in an instant, being pushed into the deepest corners of his mind.

He's become uncommonly good at shutting me up.

"Naruto, we're team mates. You're supposed to burden me with your problems. Besides, being with you is a burden, anyway,"

"We really shouldn't be doing this here," Naruto said, suddenly aware of the crowd that was forming around them. There were all sorts of people staring, guffawing at them and children pointing at them with outstretched fingers. It wasn't as if he felt specifically embarrassed, but it wasn't necessary to attract unwanted attention. Besides, they did need privacy.

"Let's go," he said, dragging Sasuke by the hand as if he were a lifeless puppet.

Sasuke's hands fidgeted slightly, but Naruto signalled him with a brief glance backward to trust him, which, in the end, Sasuke did. Though, of course being himself, he slapped Naruto's hands off and opted to walk beside him.

They reached the little house, where Naruto had spent the past few days, rediscovering his heritage. He prayed for the annoying landlord to not be present because he didn't feel like explaining who Sasuke was to him. From what he had seen and learnt about the man, Takashi wasn't the most pleasant person out there: he was rude, downright vulgar and most of all, he seemed to know everything about everyone. No, he didn't need nor want the man and Sasuke, who wouldn't take very well to him, to meet at all.

Sasuke had remained silent all the way through, which Naruto was grateful for. He needed to sort his thoughts because the arrival of his team-mate had brought fresh recollections of pain along and, though he missed his home, he wasn't entirely sure how to face things yet.

"Is this where you sleep?"

"Hmm…yeah. Not very pretty, is it?" Naruto asked, seeing the disgust that on the other's face. He couldn't hide the grin forming on his face: Sasuke was one of the neatest people he knew out there. Even Sakura couldn't compete with him in that matter and Naruto, if he felt like pushing his luck or shortening his life expectancy rate, liked to jokingly refer to him as "his little housewife". A pun to which Sasuke didn't only react violently, but resulted in several sleepless on the coach for Naruto – if there was something the Uchiha did not possess, it was a sense of humour.

"It's …tolerable," Sasuke finally muttered, eyeing the cobwebs hanging from the wall with a peculiar and nearly scorching intensity, as if he could incinerate them with the sheer power of his lock.

"I didn't bring you here, so you could criticise the housekeeping. It's where my mother grew up," Naruto told him abruptly, not wanting to hear another lecture on the appropriateness of being neat.

Again, Sasuke didn't say a word, but merely rolled his eyes and continued eyeing the room suspiciously, seemingly expecting rats to sneak out of the dusty corners and various holes in the room. If he wasn't anal-retentive, then no one was.

"My grandfather wasn't a ninja. Or that's what the crazy man told me. Anyhow, my mother …argh…do you have hear whole damned thing now? "

"You better should. "

He still didn't feel like explaining, least of all to someone who looked ready to throw daggers at him. However, it felt good to be talking and the more he revealed of his grandfather and his mother, the more the burden sitting on his shoulder seemed to loosen; he felt like he hadn't talked in a hundred years. He even brought out the letters, which he had, after reading them, carefully stored in his backpack to proof the veracity of his words. Nevertheless, Sasuke went through them with his usual indifference, furrowing his eyebrows at the barely legible quality of the handwriting.

"Hn," Sasuke muttered, regarding him with the same disinterested look as before.

Sasuke, Naruto decided, was one of the hardest people to deal with; or, in other terms, he was a fucking prig with a stick up his ass. His expression had neither altered nor had his body trembled, instead he just stood there, unimpressed as ever; it was infuriating and, not to mention, made Naruto want to bash his head against a wall.

"Naruto, you're coming back with me, right?"

"I don't know, Sasuke. I don't feel like it," he answered curtly, not understanding what the hell this had to anything with his problems right now. No, what he wanted a reaction from Sasuke, some sort of confirmation that he had been made a fool by the other villagers and not this accusatory tone.

"You'd be an idiot, if you wouldn't," Sasuke said, not betraying any other emotion than his characteristic annoyance.

"I'm not an idiot. Shut your damn mouth, if that's all you can say!" Naruto replied and, for good measure, he beckoned closer to Sasuke and grabbed him by the lapels of green jacket.

Sasuke pushed the hand away and gloated at him. "I'm not going to shut up. You're a fucking coward, if you're going to remain here and pity yourself. You're a ninja and your job is to fight, not to cower in some fucking corner."

"That coming from the number one ninja of sulking," Naruto retorted, ready to start another fight, but then reason got the better of him. Sasuke had come here all the way to see him and that had to mean something. No, he shouldn't have expected any grand professions of love or heartfelt compassion; Sasuke wasn't like that and he wasn't ever going to be. He had learnt that back then, after bringing him home and after the death of Itachi; Sasuke didn't like to be pitied and he wasn't going to offer any either. This was all he was going to get and Naruto knew that if he didn't comply, Sasuke would have no qualms about kicking his ass.

And if thought about it, there was some hint of truth in the other's words; he wasn't doing much here, other than walking around the streets and moping. He wasn't going to admit to that, however – it went against his manly pride.

"You really are a total moron, Naruto. You aren't doing anyone good by being here. Besides, if you come back home, you can confront everyone about your real parents."

Naruto smiled at that, imagining the look of several villagers when he would do just that; the dumbfounded expressions would definitely be worth it. He had always been treated as a joke and now it was his turn to make fun of them. But then, when the anger was just starting to rise in him again, he recalled what Tsunade had told him before their parting and he could see the faces of the people, who had, in the last few years, supported him in one way or the other.

No, he hadn't always been lied to – these people, including the one who stood before him now, didn't give a damn where he came from, but cared about him as a person. To them, he was Naruto Uzumaki and would support him no matter what.

"Nah, I think I'll keep things secret," Naruto confessed, sending a grin into Sasuke's direction. "I'd rather become Hokage by hard work, rather than anything else."

Sasuke only didn't say anything in return, but a nod on his part indicated that he understood.

There wasn't much else left to be said after this; he was convinced, even though Sasuke hadn't done much than lecture him again. However, that had been enough and, once he was done packing his things, Naruto allowed Sasuke to bring him home. For once, he was the one who was being dragged back and that was perfectly alright.