Thanks go to Yasuhei, Nightelf, MageOhki, Vasey and Cornuthaum for some useful comments and help.
The young man stepped out of shadows softly but surely.
There was no poof of smoke, no fancy tree jumping - just walk. Calm, graceful, self-assured.
Uchiha Sasuke stopped for a moment, satisfied no one was in the vicinity. Sharingan was an excellent tool, truly. Not as good as Byakugan when it came to spotting enemies but then it didn't need to be. He was more than capable enough to pick up any tail he might have had.
But Madara trusted him. How could he not, considering they shared the same age-old hatred, the same goal, and the same Uchiha pride?
Sasuke let the slowly turning wheels of sharingan die, before frowning as he knelt, rubbing the bits of soil between his fingers.
Although he was sure he wasn't in this place before, something about the location was familiar...
His frown deepened as he inspected the surroundings closely, careful not to stain his wide sleeves before pausing, his eyes widening slightly.
'...damp soil? Here? On such a hot day?'
While it could be attributed to morning dew - and most would, in fact - Sasuke knew it was a tad too much, a bit too convenient.
The corners of his lips quirked up mockingly, as he spotted the familiar pattern he had grown used to in three years in the various Oto facilities. Like every worm, Orochimaru liked his quarters both deep in the ground and well hidden.
The choice of the place was just ironic enough to almost make him smile as he found the camouflaged entrance to the secret bunker.
In a way, this was oddly fitting. He went underground leaving Konoha, and going out of this bunker... things would change yet again.
The Uchiha - or an Uchiha, considering Madara still lived - walked through the facility without a hurry. It was long abandoned, judging by the stale air, dust and lack of furniture. Though it bore no signs of habitation period so it might have never been used, which was actually a possibility. Orochimaru had dozens, perhaps hundreds of small facilities all over the elemental countries and beyond. His 'science caches' as he called them.
The old snake was incredible when it came to gathering resources, and so paranoid that no one beside himself knew if or how much of anything he had in reserve. Sometimes when some resource was needed, it just conveniently appeared. Not even Kabuto knew how, to the spy master's unending frustration, just like no one knew how many lairs Orochimaru had. The sannin was a man of secrets and he disliked sharing.
After all, the secret stopped being one if you told anyone. If he learned anything from the demented snake then he learned the truth of that adage.
Sasuke traced the wall, bare and bereft of the usual snake imagery. It was to be expected - the 'snakes' were actually security devices, often containing summoning seals for the real vipers and some even more sophisticated defense measures, yet another in the long line of secrets. While he knew the reason for the lack of the carvings, he had to admit that they did lend a certain sense of style to the structure. Without them it didn't look anything like it should. Just a bare, dirty hole in the ground. A large, stone-reinforced hole, but still a hole either way.
"Choosing, out of so many places, this one..." He smirked, straightening. "Konoha's intelligence is not so bad even without Jiraya, it seems."
Sasuke paused, his eyes widening a fraction, before turning fluidly, hand on the hilt of the Kusanagi.
"You." Sasuke's eyes widened slightly.
"Ayup!" Naruto's face stretched in the familiar, cheerful grin, his legs dangling back and fro as he sat on the railing, a bottle in his hand "What, surprised? I am Jiraya's student, after all." The blond chuckled, taking a long, careful sip, before coughing. "...man that's hot!" He complained, eyes squinting.
"I see you got nothing but bad habits from that perverted old man." The Uchiha heir snorted.
"Huh?" Naruto blinked, before taking a short, far more careful sip. "Want some?"
Sasuke just glared, and Naruto shrugged, before slapping a cork into the bottle after one last sip.
"I can't believe they would give something so important to you." Sasuke said quirking an eyebrow, his hand relaxing away form Kusanagi's hilt. "Is Tsunade finally going senile?"
"Hey, hey, hey... I am not so bad, bastard!" The jinchuuriki pointed angrily at Sasuke. "Besides, stop being mean to granny! Not her damn fault she's old! Besides, even old she still kicks more ass than you ever will, so there!"
Despite himself, Sasuke couldn't help but crack a smirk. Naruto was Naruto was Naruto, it seemed.
'Still, to have him out of all people...'
"Aaah. And there you go, going all 'cool' and snorty again. Man... you still have that stick up your ass, huh?" The blond scowled.
Sasuke said nothing, his face returning to its usual impassive look.
"Yeah, that's exactly what I am talking about!" Naruto pointed at the Uchiha accusingly. "God, you're such a fucking primadonna! Goddamn princess..." He muttered.
"So. What is Tsunade's answer?" sked Sasuke, ignoring the insult.
"Granny's? Or do you mean Homura's?" Naruto quirked a smile at Sasuke's widening eyes. "Oi, oi, oi... didn't I tell you before? Jiraya's student..."The jinchuuriki leaned back rapidly, felling from the railing before performing a smooth somersault and landing a few steps away form the Uchiha scion. "that's not for show, eh?"
Sasuke looked at the still shorter former teammate impassively.
"So you say."
"Ah, damn but do I get an urge to kick your ass now." Naruto's eyebrow twitched. "You spoiling for a fight, bastard?"
"I don't have time for childish contests." Sasuke said calmly. "So? What is the answer?"
"Ah. Now that..." Naruto smiled cheerfully, wagging his finger. "is a secret!"
Sasuke blinked incredously.
"...what?" He said dumbly.
"Ah, sorry, sorry!" Naruto's grin widened. "Man... I always wanted to say that!"
"You are playing with fire, moron." The sharingan awoke in Sasuke's eyes, the tomoe spinning wildly.
"Hey now... this was just a joke." Naruto's previously squinty eyes opened a fraction, showing a distinctive slitted shape and the familiar crimson shade of Kyuubi's chakra. "You know, 'ha ha let's laugh'?"
The tomoe only spun faster in response, and Naruto slumped slightly.
"Man... trained your jutsu but didn't manage to train some humor, huh?" the blond shook his head sadly. "Predictable. But seriously, about the elder pricks? I am afraid I can't really answer that."
Sasuke's eyes narrowed slightly.
"I told them to send me the answer in-"
"And they would. They did. Problem is..." Naruto's lips stretched in the familiar, foxy-shaped grin. "I don't have it. The messenger being on the way, and all."
Sasuke blinked, his face losing the impassive expression.
"Because, see... I think I lied a little." The grin grew a bit more. "I don't think the geriatric club sent me. Or that they even know I am here." The blond rubbed his chin in mock-thought. "Hmm... yeah. Seeing it is afternoon, I think Shikamaru is slaughtering me at shogi. Man... another humiliation, huh?"
The Uchiha stared at his ex-friend in growing annoyance and confusion.
"...what the hell are you talking about?" He snapped, before pausing to smirk. "So... that old woman pulled a fast one on those fools, huh? Seems like she isn't so hopeless after all. Managing to fool all those buzzards and Danzo... that is the Sannin's power, hmm?"
"Why thank you, bastard." Naruto said cheerfully. "I know I am that awesome but it doesn't hurt to be complimented, ya know?"
The Uchiha stiffened slightly, his whole body rigid and ready to lash out.
"...you." He said slowly.
"Ah, yeah. Or rather not me, not me and me." Naruto nodded. "Because I wasn't the one sent by the buzzards. I wasn't the one sent by the Hokage. But... I am still here. So... seems like I lied more than a little, huh?" The jinchuuriki laughed softly at the angry expression cracking through the icy facade. "Ooh! That's nostalgic, that princess-like scowl and all... but don't be angry, Sasuke-chan. You weren't the first, you aren't the last. Getting lied to, I mean. It is kind of an old shirt for me, ya know? And, really - two Hokages, the Sannin and a whole village of ninja... you're in the good company! So smile, smile!"
Sasuke's hand tightened its grip on the Kusanagi. It was so tempting to just draw it and end the failure of a ninja right there and then but...
The Uchiha's eyes narrowed.
"Ooh, that just has to sting." Naruto's grin widened, and for the first time the idiotic, absurdly cheerful and almost artificial grin made Sasuke realize that while it didn't show Naruto's eyes at all, it did show quite a bit of sharp teeth. "Though I guess it might be something else, eh?"
"I thought you learned something, but it seems dead-last is dead-last after all." Sasuke snorted. "Fool. You didn't have much chance before, and now with the power of Mangekyo on my side you are completely outclassed."
"Sasuke, Sasuke, Sasuke... You of all people should know..." The blond chuckled, the faint red of his eyes deepening as the slashes on his cheeks grew even more animalistic. "That it is always the underneath of underneath, eh?"
"Your underneath won't save you." The Uchiha heir scoffed. "The Kyuubi? You really don't learn at all, do you idiot? It will really end the same, I won't even need to raise a finger." Sasuke smirked, the tomoe morphing into mangekyo. "Dead-last is dead l-"
The Uchiha froze, before screaming as the sharingan's mad spin halted abruptly. A second later, Sasuke screamed as pain exploded in his eyes.
"...Naruto... you...!" Sasuke heaved, his throat clenching form pain, unable to move his body that suddenly seemed to simply stop following his commands and instead went rigid with pain.
"I told you, didn't I?" Naruto leaned on the wall next to Sasuke. "Underneath underneath, bastard."
"...when?" Sasuke choked out, his hands shakily reaching for a kunai but unable to grasp anything anymore. "The lair was clean... I checked...!"
"You still don't know?" Naruto shook his head. "I mean, really. Aren't you a genius, bastard?"
The Uchiha's eyes widened as the slow, deliberate steps resounded through the facility.
"...you..." He whispered with disbelief as the light glinted off the familiar par of lenses.
"You really shouldn't have eaten that tomato soup, Sasuke-sama." Karin pushed up her glasses in a well-practiced move, smiling softly. "Time and time again I told you the strong taste of tomatoes can mask over a thousand poisons. But then you never listen, do you?"
The nukenin stared dumbly at the person he thought his most faithful, though useless, follower. That woman was completely infatuated with him, he knew that for a fact. She kept his bloodied and torn shirts for god's sake!
"Hello, Karin-chan!" Naruto said cheerfully, waving.
"Naruto-sama." The medic smiled, before her eyes took in Sasuke's sorry state with the familiar sort of detached curiosity the Uchiha witnessed numerous times in Oto in regards to various lab samples. "It seems all is going according to plan."
"Yep. Man, you even got the timing right to a second! That's just impressive."
"Of course." Karin pushed up her glasses yet again with a haughty gesture. "But it was your plan, Naruto-sama. I must say that the mangekyo-stress toxin test is a full success. Pity we can only use it one more time."
"One, but a good one!" Naruto grabbed the medic, spinning her around with a laugh, ignoring Karin's indignant protests - protests that would be far more convincing if the medic wasn't blushing and even when put down, didn't seem to regard leaving Naruto's embrace as any sort of priority.
"You... bitch...!" Sasuke hissed through gritted teeth. "Why?!"
"Because, Sasuke-sama..." Karin's glasses glinted as she lazily leaned forward, just close enough for her lips to all but touch Sasuke's ear. "while one man's trash is another's treasure, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned."
"You know, I always suspected, but now I am sure." The blond said softly, obviously enjoying Karin's warm body next to his as she leaned back, letting her head rest on Naruto's shoulder. "All those women before and now... they give you everything, just for a sliver of affection, a tiny bit if acknowledgment. Not even love, just some acknowledgment. And yet you treat them like dirt. All of them, all of their hearts, their feelings. For a genius you are a total moron, you know?"
Sasuke's eyes widened.
"Why?" He said after a moment, struggling with his unnaturally constricting throat. "That... that goddamn... overly elaborate poison... why?" The nukenin snarled. "You could have... killed me long before!"
"You? Sasuke-sama, you are mistaken. It isn't about you." Karin pushed her glasses up. "You were just a bonus. A test run, so to speak."
"...what?" Sasuke's eyes widened.
"Do you know what is the easiest way to become a hero?" Naruto said with a grin. "You need to defeat a big monster that no one else can stop. Preferably after said monster had an opportunity to show how big, bad and evil it was and defeated most of the old heroes."
"Isn't Naruto-sama so lucky to have such a monster on hand?" Karin smirked. "The greatest threat to Konoha, one of its legendary founding fathers, an individual responsible for Kyuubi's rampage and the last of cursed bloodline who lived beyond his time. Indeed, he must be nothing but a monster."
"Isn't he just." Naruto agreed cheerfully. "Of course he will fall in a very heroic battle of legendary proportions where hero's burden will turn out to be a blessing."
"Of course." Karin agreed, leaning into her lover's embrace, looking down at Sasuke mockingly. "And for such a gallant hero, with good-will of his own village, the great and tragic hero... one who lost his best, if misguided friend to a poison above all tragedies, but avenged him with honor... why, so epic. So moving. So... inspiring." She smirked.
"All that... for some... title?" Sasuke snarled, feeling the last vestiges of strength leaving his body thanks to the potent toxin coursing in his veins " For some... stupid... village! You... are still... a fool!"
"A title?" Naruto shook his head. "Man, Sasuke... you really got no imagination at all. Konoha, Suna, Snow, and when Pein is gone Rain will follow, because they always do. After all, I am the hero, eh?" The blond laughed. "Hell, they even named a bridge after me when I was twelve. Doesn't that just figure?"
The Uchiha stared, his bleeding sharingan blurring at the edges, but still managing to capture the blond haired, orange-clad silhouette with almost supernatural sharpness. If anything, the blurred surroundings only seemed to add focus to Naruto's frame.
"It ain't about just any title, Sasuke." The blond smirked. "Its about the world. The entire world."
The Uchiha stared with incredulous disbelief, trying to reconcile the words with the image of the orange clad friend of his childhood.
"...you... are insane..." He barked a laugh after a moment. "Completely... totally...! That's just-!"
"Impossible?" Naruto chuckled. "Well, so was kicking Neji's ass, or Gaara's or, to avoid looking far, yours. And I am still here. But I guess that's not your problem anymore. Goodbye, Sasuke. I have to thank you, you know? You made for a good guinea pig and the fact they'll find you dead..."
"Well, some tragedy always spices the story up, eh? I'll miss ya, but you wouldn't have come with me anyway. In the end you're a much better friend dead than you'd ever be alive." The Jinchuuriki chuckled. "Hey, you are actually useful this way! So for the last time - thanks, Sasuke. It was a good run and I have no regrets." Naruto smiled, patting the Uchiha's shoulder. "I'd have let you die in peace, with some dignity but..." He sighed. "Like me, you have a talent when it comes to beating the odds. So for my dream... I'll just have to make sure."
Karin's eyes glinted as a hair-thin needle appeared in her hand.
"Don't worry, Sasuke-sama. It will hurt only for a short while." The medic pushed up her glasses with obvious glee. "After all, I can't have Naruto-sama's precious friend suffering too long."
"Sayonara, bastard." The blond waved over his shoulder turning away to the exit. "I have a world to conquer."
"...Naruto..." Sasuke crowed, trying to will his hands to move, to form a seal or even draw a kunai, to no avail. "Naruto...!" He howled at the blond's retreating silhouette. "You bastard...! You can't...! I am Uchiha! I am the ELITE! I am not some STEPPING STONE! YOU HEAR ME YOU BASTARD?! DO YOU HEAR ME?! I AM-"
The blond jinchuuriki took a long sip out of his flask. The warmth was gone, but he didn't mind - the lemon tea was better cold anyway.
He sighed with longing, craving to down the rest of the flask - the day was almost unbearably hot for April and it felt more like the middle of summer rather than spring. Still, he couldn't complain - the forest was awakening to life like crazy after the long winter and he liked it this way.
The summer was nice, but the sheer vitality of spring was something he could appreciate. Change and chance - spring was full of both and Naruto loved that.
His nose caught the familiar scent, somehow not marred by the metallic undercurrent of blood at all. How she did, he had no idea - Sakura smelled of disinfectant and blood to his overly sensitive nose even after a shower. Somehow, Karin avoided that entirely, leaving an undefined mix of honey and spice mixed with his own scent. Come to think of it, Tsunade never smelled of blood and assorted hospital smells even after her shift in Konoha general...
'Probably some kind of med nin secret.' he thought with a smirk.
Not that he was complaining.
"Indeed. Now all they need is to find the body. Though as for harvesting sharingan out of it..." The medic smirked. "The world doesn't need more Uchiha running around."
"No truer words." The blond straightened, cracking his neck. "Seems like we're all done here."
The redhead nodded.
"The Akatsuki will start moving as soon as they realize Sasuke is gone."
"Of course they will." Naruto chuckled. "I was joking but... he really is more useful dead than alive, huh?" The jinchuuriki shook his head in bemusement. "Come on, Karin." he extended his hand. "Time to go."
Karin smiled, grasping her lover's hand.
"We have monsters to defeat, heroic deeds to accomplish and the world to conquer, after all."
Naruto laughed, scooping her up bridal style, uncaring of the indignant squeak from the young woman.
"Let's go, then!" He grinned. "It's rude to keep the world waiting!"
They vanished a second later, leaving no sign of their passage but a handful of spring leaves floating in the air lazily. Shortly after the leaves, carried away by the breeze, were gone as well.
So yeah, the shinobi brand romance. How did they meet, why, and when Naruto started to go from 'hero' to 'future ninja shogun/king/whatever'? That's a secret. Think whatever you like. The story is complete and a lot of stuff is left vaque on purpose. Though in the future Elemental Countries are going to have an International Ramen Appreciation Day as official holiday, that's for sure.