The school playground was a popular place for the children of the Konoha Ninja Academy to pass the time during their hour-long lunch breaks. Spending their entire mornings listening to their teachers drone on and on about the history of their prestigious village, and other such boring nonsense, was tiring enough on its own without being forced to sit through it on a daily basis.
That was one of the reasons why their lunch breaks were such joyous occasions. Being forced to sit and pay attention to a teacher lecture you on something you can't understand the importance of yet can be just as draining as the hardest of physical workouts. The daily lunch breaks allowed for the children to stretch their legs, good off, and prepare for the practical lessons at the end of the day.
The Academy itself was occupied by children of varying ages, from as young as five, to as old as twelve. It was a large, five story building with many classrooms to accommodate for the vast number students, all of whom had the same desire – to become powerful warriors and serve their village to the best of their abilities. Next to the school building was a large, mostly empty yard that held two dozen training dummies lined along the wall that was used for their practical lessons.
It was beside the large training yard, in the playground set up for the younger attendants of the academy, which had the most activity this morning. A group of first year academy students were organizing a game of 'Hunt the Missing-nin' - a glorified 'ninja version' of hide and go seek that the academy children thought more appropriate for mature young adults such as themselves.
The game began with three children being elected as the team of 'hunter-nin', and their job was to locate, and 'eliminate' the evil missing-nin, who would use tricks and abilities they had learned from the academy to hide from the 'hunter-nin' team, the missing-nin obviously being played by everyone not elected to be a hunter-nin.
A glorified hide and go seek that the 'cool kids' always played . . .
Uzumaki Naruto, a rather small five year-old boy with sun-kissed blonde hair, cerulean blue eyes and three whisker-like scars on each cheek, approached the group of children with a beaming smile and his hands interlocked behind his head in an effort to hide how nervous he was feeling.
"Heya!" he greeted cheerfully, catching the attention of his classmates, all of whom were at least three to four years older than him. "Are you about to play hunt the missing-nin? Can I play? Huh? Please? I promise I'm really good!"
There was an awkward silence that accompanied his question, only for one of the larger boys in the group to step forward to give his answer. "Look Uzumaki . . ." the slightly round and bulky boy's face scrunched up in thought, seemingly thinking of an appropriate response. "It's . . . err . . . nothing against you or anything, but you're too young to play . . ."
"Yeah, you need to be at least this tall to play!" a rude, black-haired boy joked, placing his hand several inches above Naruto's head to show that he was, indeed, too short by their rules.
"Yeah," the first boy agreed with his rude friend uneasily. "What Shinji said . . . you'll get hurt if you aren't tall enough to play, you understand right?"
The smile on Naruto's face didn't diminish in the slightest, despite his feelings on the matter. Naruto would have been lying if he'd said he hadn't been expecting the obvious lie. There was no hurt in trying though, right?
"That's okay, can I watch then please?" he asked politely, just as he'd been taught. "I promise I won't ruin anything or nothing like that! I'll be really quiet! Honest!"
Apparently, it wasn't to be.
A girl with light-brown hair stepped forward, her green eyes locked on her shoes as she voiced her opinion. "My parents said that you're a troublemaker and that I should stay away from you," she said to the smiling blonde in such a quiet voice that the others struggled to hear her over the noise of the other children on their lunch break. "They said I'd be grounded if they saw me anywhere near you, so if he sticks around, I can't play, I'm sorry . . ."
Emboldened by her admission, some of the other children in the group who had abstained from voicing their opinions for one reason or another came forward.
"My mother said the same thing . . . if he plays, I'm leaving," a pudgy girl snobbishly declared, looking down at Naruto as if he were more disgusting than the boogers she often picked from her nose and flung at people during class.
A scrawny, spectacled boy stepped forward and followed the pudgy, snot-flinging girl's admission. " . . . Same here," the quiet boy exclaimed, with no further clarification.
"The same goes for me," another girl spoke up, flinging her red hair over her shoulder imperiously. "My birthday's coming up, I don't want to risk my presents by getting in trouble, just go away!"
"Beat it shrimp, before you get us all in trouble!" Shinji once again exclaimed rudely with a menacing sneer before turning his black on Naruto and proceeding to organise the teams once again, as if he hadn't been interrupted at all. The other children seemed to catch on, as they all turned their backs on Naruto and proceeded to ignore him as if he'd never approached them in the first place.
Feeling his normally unbreakable will starting to crumble, Naruto quickly spun around, his forearm covering his face, as he silently sprinted to the unoccupied swings on the other side of the playground. Nobody ever used the swings, they were deemed to be too 'immature' for ninja in training. Naruto flung himself into the seat of the middle swing and clung tightly to the chains, his entire body trembling uncontrollably. For some reason, Naruto always found comfort in these swings, similar to how a regular child found comfort in their protective mother's embrace. He hung his head low as his eyes began to sting and his vision began to blur.
Naruto didn't know why he was so upset. It's not like this was anything new to him. For as long as he could remember, he had been ignored and given the cold shoulder by pretty much everyone in the village. In fact, the only people he could remember having any kind of conversation with at all were the nice people at the Ramen stand he often visited, and the always kind leader of their village – the Hokage.
In fact, now that he thought about it, they were the only people that even bothered to spare him a second glance. They were the only people who even bothered with acknowledging his existence. He had no real friends to speak of, especially since he only saw the Ichirakus when he could afford a nice meal, or the Hokage when he needed something.
What kind of loser had no friends, and nobody to love him?
Naruto fought off a fresh wave of sorrow when he realised how badly he had failed in his latest quest for friendship. How pathetic must he be to feel that it'd have been better to be beaten up, instead of ignored and left out? At least then, they'd be forced to acknowledge him, even if only to coordinate an attack on him.
It seemed that no matter how hard he tried, it didn't make a difference. The Hokage had told him over a bowl of Ramen that all he needed to do was give the other children time to see the real him, and then everything would fall into place. He had said that once they saw what a wonderful and charming boy he was, that there was no way they wouldn't want to play with him.
For the supposed strongest and wisest man in the village, the Hokage seemed to be pretty stupid.
He had heard some of the girls in the class complain about how much of an eyesore his bright orange clothes had been, so Naruto, not wanting to annoy the people he was trying to befriend, went without groceries for a whole fortnight so he could buy a new, less garish outfit. To buy the outfit itself was another task he had had to overcome on its own, as none of the shopkeepers seemed to 'have his size' when he entered their stores, despite the fact that he'd seen several boys his age and size come in and out of the stores he'd visited with new clothes.
It was a testament to his unwavering determination that he didn't give up right then and there, like many others would have in his position.
To combat the obstacle of the unhelpful shopkeepers, he had gone so far as to learn the Transformation Jutsu to aid him in his task. The Transformation Jutsu was an advanced technique for an Academy student that allowed a ninja, once mastered, to take the shape of anyone, or anything they so desired.
He'd managed to learn it after many hours of spying on his upper classmates practising the technique during their free time.
Naruto used the technique to take the appearance of the boy he'd spied on to practise the technique, and asked to purchase clothes for his younger brother who was, coincidently, the same size as Naruto.
It was probably the best day of his life, being treated normally for a change, like an everyday customer in need of some new clothes. Seeing as the civilians he fooled to purchase clothes had no way to recognize him, they treated him much more amicably – normally, even.
He had worn his new outfit the next day, hoping for some positive feedback, only for him to be ignored again – though, the girls did stop complaining about his horrid fashion sense.
Changing his clothes wasn't the only thing he had done in an attempt to win over his classmates though, not in the slightest. He had one day noticed that the boy who was at the head of their class seemed to be admired or respected by all of the other students as a whole. So, Naruto, noticing and desiring to be treated in the same way, had studied harder than ever before, bringing his marks up so high that he was tied second in the class!
That plan had backfired as well.
Instead of winning over friends with his hard efforts, like he had hoped, they only became meaner, and colder towards him. Sometimes going so far as to say hurtful things to him to put him down. Apparently, they didn't appreciate being knocked down in rank to make a place for someone like him.
Nothing he tried seemed to work.
Was he such a horrible person that he couldn't even earn one friend? Lots of people had friends, it wasn't normal to have no friends, Naruto knew that much. Maybe he should just stop trying? Maybe he just wasn't supposed to have any friends? It was probably for the best, he was always told that adults knew best, and they all thought he was a bad person . . .
Maybe they were right.
His absent-minded swinging and brooding came to an abrupt halt when he heard the sound of crunching gravel behind him. So excited was he that someone may actually be coming to talk with him, he actually forgot he was still on the swing. Naruto swivelled around in his seat quick as lightening, eager to see who had approached him, only to get tangled in the chains and slip off the seat with a painful thud. Rubbing his behind in pain, he slowly righted himself and locked eyes with the person who had approached him, immediately recognizing him as the number one student in their class.
The boy had a set of piercing onyx eyes and thin black hair and long bangs that framed the sides of his small face. His skin was incredibly pale and, upon closer inspection, he looked rather tired. He wore a wide collared turtleneck sweater that had a picture of a white and red fan on the front, beige shorts and black ninja sandals. He'd seen the fan symbol before, mostly on the people who came to pick the boy up from the Academy, but never knew its significance.
Naruto was most surprised by the fact that, unlike the other kids in his class, the boy wasn't looking at him with disinterest, malice or annoyance. Instead, he was looking at him with a mild curiosity that, honestly, annoyed and unnerved Naruto slightly.
"Your attempts to win them over are useless," the boy pointed out bluntly. "It is clear that they have no intention of ever befriending you. Why do you keep trying?"
Naruto stared dumbly at him for a few moments before his face split into a large grin, ecstatic that someone was actually speaking to him, and not the other way around, even if it was more of a casual observation than a conversation.
"I'm trying to make friends!" Naruto defended his actions with a jovial tone. "I've never had one before, but they look like fun," Naruto whispered wistfully before adding with a fiery determination, "I'm not giving up though, I'll get one eventually. Believe it!"
If the boy was surprised by his admission, he didn't show it. He just continued to gaze at Naruto with his calculating and unnerving stare. "You're not doing a very good job," the boy pointed out matter-of-factly.
"Ehehe, I'm working on it," Naruto chuckled forcefully, his cheeks flushed with embarrassment. "Say, what's your name?"
The boy continued to stare at him for several more moments before finally breaking the silence, "Uchiha Itachi," he answered slowly, and a little cautiously. It was as if the boy wasn't sure how to answer the question properly, "I don't have friends either." Itachi admitted. He stared at Naruto for a few more moments before continuing, "Father says they are useless to a powerful ninja – does that make me abnormal?"
Naruto chuckled nervously as he scratched the back of his head, something he often did when embarrassed. "I don't know what 'abnurmall' means, but I have an idea!" Naruto proclaimed as he sprung to his feet energetically. "If you don't have friends, and I don't have friends, we should be friends," Naruto concluded with a self-assured nod, proud with his brilliant deduction. He acted as if he had just solved the world's greatest riddle.
Itachi tilted his head curiously, observing Naruto as if he were some strange, and interesting puzzle. Naruto was getting uncomfortable again as Itachi continued to examine him as if he'd like nothing better than to dissect him. It wasn't until the bell sounded, signalling the end of their lunch break that Itachi finally decided to reply.
"I don't have much use for friends, and I doubt my father would approve," Itachi explained indifferently, as if commenting on the weather.
Naruto let out a sigh that relayed his disappointment and resignation. He was so close to finally making a friend too! Being the longest and most interesting conversation he'd ever had with someone his own age, things were really looking up.
"However . . ." Itachi continued thoughtfully, snapping Naruto out of his brooding. "You have shown a great amount of aptitude in the ninja arts by already learning the Transformation Jutsu . . . I'm sure father wouldn't object if you and I were to train together after school on occasion."
Naruto stared at him with a dumbfounded expression for many reasons. First and foremost was because he didn't understand half of the words that were coming out of Itachi's mouth. Secondly, Naruto had never heard the normally quiet and stoic boy string so many words together, the boy usually kept to himself during class and breaks, after all. Then, there was also the fact that the boy somehow knew that he had learned the Transformation Jutsu! He hadn't told anybody! Not even the old Hokage!
"How did you . . . wait a minute . . ." the question immediately died in his throat when he realised something. Itachi hadn't said he didn't want to be his friend, in fact, he had asked if he wanted to train with him! Friends trained together, right?
"You do not wish to train with me?" Itachi asked curiously, not sounding disappointed, or relieved at the prospect. Naruto found it weird.
"NO! I mean, yes, I do," Naruto said excitedly. "Does that make us friends though? I really want a friend . . . I promise I won't tell your father!"
Itachi's lips twitched slightly, a direct result of the weird boy before him. "I suppose," he agreed slowly. "That is, of course, if you can keep up with me during training."
Naruto rose to his feet, a determined glint in his eyes at the challenge Itachi had no so subtly sent his way. "You've got yourself a deal!" Naruto exclaimed happily, clasping Itachi's hand in his own like he'd seen so many other people do with their friends, and shaking it once.
Naruto couldn't have been happier. Maybe the old man was right after all?
He finally had a friend.
Five Years Later
"Heh, we're awesome," Naruto proclaimed with a huge grin. Walking beside him were his two team-mates, ten year-old Uchiha Itachi and fourteen year-old Uzuki Yugao. Yugao smirked down at the shorter blonde boy in a condescending manner and pat his head gently.
"You know what they say, huh?" Yugao asked in amusement. "Big things come in small packages . . . and you were probably the smallest package in all of the Chunin exams."
"Yeah . . . I was pretty awesome – HEY!" Naruto exclaimed indignantly as Itachi let out an annoyed sigh.
"Stop teasing Naruto, Yugao," Itachi requested in an unnaturally mature tone for someone his age. It was as if this was a common occurrence amongst the trio of newly promoted Chunin.
"Come on Itachi," Yugao pouted and crossed her arms stubbornly. "You always stick up for Naruto, why don't you ever take my side?"
Itachi remained silent for several moments before responding, "The fact that Naruto is unusually short is irrelevant . . ."
"Hey bastard, you aren't exactly tall either!" Naruto cut in angrily, only for Itachi to ignore him and continue speaking.
" . . . Whatever," Itachi turned his face from Naruto to hide his amused smirk. "Sensei gave us the rest of the day off, my mother should have just finished making lunch, would you two care for some? She makes excellent cakes."
"Would you two care for some?" Naruto mimicked Itachi's voice with scary accuracy. "Stop talking like a weirdo," he accused crossly, only for his stomach to growl defiantly. "Lunch does sound pretty good though . . . but you two should just go without me," Naruto suggested with a large grin. "I've got a few things I need to do anyway."
Yugao and Itachi both shared a troubled look before Itachi spoke up, "My parents will not cause you trouble again," he assured his friend. "We have just been promoted to Chunin, ninja with leadership responsibilities, at our young ages, is it not expected of us to celebrate such an event?"
"You guys go ahead without me," Naruto insisted, ignoring Itachi completely and jogging away backwards for a few steps before turning and making his way to his apartment. "I'll see you both tomorrow for team assignments, have fun!"
Itachi and Yugao both stood in silence until Yugao let out an aggravated sigh, "Why does he have to be so difficult?"
"He has his reasons," Itachi defended his friend in a monotonous voice. "I need to make a stop by home first to let my parents know of my promotion. I'll meet with you later."
"Aww, Itachi, who would have known you could be so sweet?" Yugao cooed as she pinched his cheeks affectionately, much to the boy's annoyance, "I need to go and tell daddy about the promotion, he'll be so proud!" Yugao declared happily, before bidding Itachi farewell and speeding off towards her home.
Itachi looked off into the direction Yugao had sped off in with an annoyed frown before making his own way to the Uchiha district.
The Uchiha district, while one of the largest in Konoha, was not one of the richest. That wasn't to say that they were hurting for money, as having a virtual monopoly on the Police Force within a Hidden Village proved to be very prosperous for the clan.
Removing his sandals at the front door, Itachi entered his home and immediately saw his mother at the kitchen sink with his five year-old brother Sasuke sitting at kitchen table, a look of excitement on his little face when he spotted his older brother.
"Big brother!" Sasuke cheered, pausing from his pre-school homework as Itachi crouched down to his level and poked the giggling boy in the forehead.
"Hello Sasuke," Itachi greeted with a small smile as Sasuke frowned and tried to look at the spot his brother had tapped on his forehead without success. "Have you been behaving?"
Uchiha Mikoto spun around at the sound of her youngest giggling. She gasped in shock at the sight of her eldest son wearing the light green, armoured tactical vest that labelled him as a Chunin ranked ninja.
"Itachi! You were promoted from Genin! What excellent news!" she exclaimed happily with a large, beautiful smile. "Your father will be so pleased!"
Mikoto was surprised when Itachi turned his back on her without the slightest hint of having heard her before making his way towards his bedroom. Before completely leaving the kitchen however, Itachi paused in the doorway and spoke to his mother without facing her. "You'll have to tell him yourself," Itachi informed her coldly. "I have some place more important to be tonight."
Mikoto's eyebrows rose in surprise at her son's unusually cold attitude, it was so unlike him. Itachi was usually such a polite young boy, nothing but respect for his elders – especially his parents.
Wondering the reason for her son's grouchy attitude, she continued preparing lunch for her family when her eyes landed on the calendar.
October the tenth.
So that was the reason for his attitude. The Uzumaki boy was now affecting their home lives! She hated the change in her son's personality ever since befriending that home-wrecking brat. She wished she had her loving Itachi back, she wished that he had never met and befriended him.
Never once had she considered that Naruto wasn't the one to blame. Never once had she considered that, like everyone else in the village, she was just using the emotionally battered boy as a scapegoat for her problems.
It was easier to be a sheep, after all.
Naruto flattened out his Chunin vest for what must have been the hundredth time that night. As soon as he'd arrived at his crappy two-room apartment, Naruto had removed his newly obtained vest and laid it out flat on his small futon, a sense of pride surging through him every time he laid eyes on it.
Against all the odds, he had succeeded. An unremarkable boy with no friends, no family, and no help whatsoever had done the unthinkable! He had not only graduated years early from the Ninja Academy, but he had been promoted to a Chunin level ninja at such a young age! It took most ninja many more years to earn this promotion. He was so happy that all thoughts of his neglect and poor treatment from the other villagers had completely left his mind. That was until he remembered what date it was, of course.
"Oh . . . right," Naruto sighed warily, looking at the small slip of paper by his bed that had 'Oct 10' written on it in big, bold ink. "At least this year I got a birthday present!" Naruto exclaimed happily, flattening out his Chunin vest once more.
Every year on his birthday, and during the festival hosted by the village to commemorate those who had fallen on that fateful night ten years ago, Naruto would order himself a horribly overpriced and poorly made pizza. A treat, as he so rarely ate anything other than the cheap and delicious instant ramen offered to him by the Ichirakus.
Padding over to the table by his sink, he took a seat on the floor and opened a fresh carton of milk before lifting the lid off the box of pizza. Naruto bent down low over the box and inhaled deeply as a cloud of steam rose up from the pepperoni and cheese covered delicacy, enjoying the smell of his dinner immensely. It may have been slightly burnt, and the cheese on the pizza's base a little scarce, but that didn't affect the smell any – it smelt delicious!
Naruto chugged some milk straight from the carton before taking a large piece of pizza and folding it along the middle. He was just guiding it to his mouth when there was a loud knock at the door.
"Bastard manager," Naruto grumbled, glaring at his front door angrily. "He's probably here to give me my birthday present, more fees to add to my already ridiculously high rent," he said sourly. Ever since becoming a ninja of Konoha, Naruto had had to put up with these yearly 'rent increases' thanks to his greedy asshole of a landlord.
Funny, no one else living in this shitty apartment complex had to put up with this crap, and he bet they at least had working hot water and round-the-clock electricity.
Ever since he started receiving the frequent pay-cheques that came with his profession, the greedy manager had seen it his civic duty to charge him out the ass for pretty much anything he could think of – maintenance fees, quality living fees, laundry usage fees (on top of the pay per use washing machines), pest-control fees . . .
When he had flat out refused to pay the man any more than he already was, the landlord had not so gently informed him that if he didn't like it, he could always leave and find another place to live.
Right, like that could ever happen. He lived in the shittiest apartment complex in the entire village. Dogs didn't even want to piss on the walls of this place, it was that bad. Even the rats had moved out many years ago for better accommodations.
What kind of asshole would do that to a ten-year old orphan anyway?
He'd tried to arrange to meet with the Hokage regarding the issue, mainly for some legal help and advice. However, his requests for meetings had 'mysteriously' gone unanswered.
Naruto knew this was not the old man's fault. It was probably that bitch of a secretary that dealt with his ridiculously busy schedule. She probably tossed the request straight into the trash can the instant she saw his name on the form.
There was another knock at the door as Naruto angrily picked up his pizza box and stormed towards the front door yelling obscenities along the way.
"You've already taken all of my god-damn money! You want my pizza too you fat piece of shi -?!" Naruto stopped dead in his tracks, his arm pulled back ready to throw his birthday dinner in the landlord's grubby and oily face, his own face frozen in a look of shock.
As soon as he'd opened the door, any thoughts of throwing his pizza and continuing his rant completely left his mind at the sight of the purple haired Yugao in a pretty dress holding a birthday cake with ten lit candles atop it, smiling brilliantly at him. Beside her stood a stoic faced Itachi wearing a shiny orange party hat with a rather glittery party blower resting between his lips. He had a large, thin package held by his side.
Giving the device in his mouth a quick blow, the curled up paper attached to the end of the whistle shot out and hit the stupefied Naruto in the middle of his forehead, before curling back, much to Itachi's amusement.
"Happy Birthday Naruto!" Yugao greeted happily, choosing to ignore Naruto's stupefied expression in favour of giving him a peck on the cheek. The boy was so shocked he didn't even blast Yugao for potentially infecting him with cooties.
Naruto looked down to see Itachi standing on the body of his groaning manager, who was face down on the tiled floor outside his front door and looking pitiful, as always. So that's why Itachi looked taller than usual.
"Well, are you going to let us in? Or are you waiting for the candles to burn out?" Yugao asked impatiently, as Itachi gave his party blower another swift blow, hitting Naruto on the nose this time.
Snapping out of his shock, Naruto stepped aside so that Itachi and Yugao could enter, the latter deciding to set the chocolate mud-cake down on the table beside the carton of milk while Itachi handed Naruto his gift, while making sure to stomp extra hard on the landlord's head before making his way into Naruto's apartment, leaving the groaning manager to rest off his new injuries outside.
"What's this?" Naruto asked in a strangled voice, not sure what to make of his two team-mates arriving at his apartment so suddenly to supposedly celebrate his birthday with him.
"Open it silly, it's your present!" Yugao smiled at him, pausing in her wary inspection of his shady apartment. She knew Naruto was an orphan, but this was a bit much. "It was Itachi's idea, but we both paid for it, I hope you like it!"
"Hn," Itachi exclaimed around his party blower, not bothering to remove it from his mouth to give a proper greeting. As he was about to blow it again and hit Naruto in the face once more, Naruto grinned and flicked the quickly oncoming tongue of paper so it swung back and hit Itachi on the nose. The boy narrowed his eyes at the silent challenge, but chose to let it slide, given the occasion and all.
Naruto tenderly unwrapped the package; making sure to not tear the cheap wrapping paper. He wasn't sure how he was supposed to treat presents - he'd never had one before – but he wanted to savour the moment. When it was finally unwrapped, Naruto struggled to withhold a gasp when he saw it was a blown up portrait. The picture was of the three of them earlier that day, right after having been informed that they were the only Konoha ninja to be promoted to Chunin. In the middle, the taller Yugao had a large, radiant smile as she hugged both boys close to her. Both Naruto and Itachi had small, self-satisfied smirks on their faces – the former holding his thumb up for the camera – while all three wore their newly obtained Chunin vests.
The portrait was lined with a beautifully decorated bronze frame with an engraving going along the bottom of it that said 'The best team in the history of the world, Believe it!'
Naruto's eyes stung as he stubbornly rubbed at them to still his tears. No words were needed to be exchanged between them, it was clear to Naruto that this was, without a doubt, the happiest day of his life. Without warning, he gently placed the portrait on the ground and launched himself at his surprised friends, his body trembling silently as he held onto them with all his might.
As Itachi awkwardly patted Naruto on the back and Yugao whispered kind words in his ear, Naruto was certain of one thing:
The old Hokage may have actually been onto something when he'd said that friends were the most precious thing in the world.
Three Years Later
Naruto sighed warily as he strolled down the empty streets of Konoha, admiring how beautiful his home village looked when bathed in the ethereal light of the full moon. He had just returned from a particularly trying mission with his ANBU squad that had his team locating and infiltrating a hidden enemy base, obtaining as much information on their enemy's movements as possible, rescue any prisoners and then destroying the establishment.
It wasn't that the mission was particularly hard; it had only taken just under two weeks to complete, after all. The base itself only had one skilled ninja manning it, and she had quickly fallen against the might of Naruto's powerful four-man team. No, the reason for his wary sigh was because the completion of this mission marked his seventh successful high-ranked mission in a row.
It was getting tiring.
Sure, the pay was great - in fact, he'd never even dreamed of having so much money when he was younger - but the mental stress of constantly performing his village's dirty work combined with the physical stress that two hour power naps, constant travelling, and fighting in battles his own home refused to acknowledge ever took place was starting to take its toll.
Naruto was just glad that he had been given the entire week off, finally, for a small break. It was busy and dangerous times. Sure, they weren't currently at war with anyone, which many would see as a positive, but he knew better.
Not being in a war was better for the village as a whole, but it made his job much harder, and dangerous. If you get caught doing the missions he was assigned to do, there would be no cavalry coming over the hill to save the day. The village would cut all ties with you and erase all traces of your existence from their records.
After all, you never existed in the first place; you can't have existed, because that would mean that your village had committed an act of war by sending you into enemy territory with less than honourable intentions.
You can't commit an act of war if you send nobody into enemy territory, and that was what ANBU were paid for. To be the 'nobody' that got shit done. The shit that nobody talked about or admitted to, but everyone knew was needed.
To be honest, with all the stress his job put him under, Naruto was surprised that his body hadn't just given out on him yet, he was still only thirteen, after all. Most ninja his age are barely leaving the academy as Genin – the lowest rank in the ninja hierarchy.
To be honest, it probably would have given out already if he hadn't willed himself to not look weak in front of Itachi – he'd never hear the end of it, if he did. He and Itachi had a little contest going on between themselves that they told nobody about. The 'contest' was kind of in bad taste, as it was technically betting on people's lives, but with little to no sources of entertainment other than their spars, they really couldn't be blamed. The contest was to see who would be first to fail a mission, no excuses. You fail a mission, your fault or not, you lose. The fact that neither of the boys would never put the success of a mission before their team-mates lives made the contest all the more harder, and exciting.
Both were still going strong, and neither looked like they'd be failing any time soon.
Speaking of his quirky best friend, Naruto quickly changed his direction and made his way over to the Uchiha district. He hadn't seen Itachi for weeks, and it was time he paid his smart-ass best friend a little visit . . . and maybe perv on his ridiculously attractive, yet somewhat rude, mother in the process.
Shame it was rather late, she would probably be asleep. He knew better about Itachi though, the prodigious heir to the Uchiha clan hardly ever slept. Naruto could sympathise. It wasn't easy to sleep after having been forced to witness what they had in their rather short lives.
War was a terrible thing.
Banishing those thoughts, Naruto wondered if maybe now they could discuss how he'd finally pluck up the courage to ask Yugao to go on a date with him. Sure, she was four year older than him, but come on! The three of them have been working together ever since graduating from the academy! From little green Genin, all the way to battle hardened ANBU, they'd pretty much always been working together one way or another. That had to count for something, right?
Heck, they would have been with him on his latest mission if Yugao hadn't requested for her week off sooner, and Itachi's father requested his son remain behind for some important clan business.
Naruto stopped dead in his tracks at the entrance to the Uchiha district as an ominous feeling swept over him.
Something was off, way off.
It wasn't until he smelt the scent of blood in the air, and lots of it, that he burst into action.
He ignored the several corpses littered on the ground around him, donned his porcelain ANBU mask and rushed towards Itachi's house, worried for his friend's safety.
Uchiha Mikoto backed away from her eldest son fearfully as he slowly advanced on her with his blood stained, ANBU-issued katana.
"W-what are you doing Itachi?" Mikoto asked hysterically, tears flowing form her eyes in torrents. "Why are you doing this?!"
Itachi chose not to answer; instead, he continued to advance on her slowly and deliberately. All signs of emotion wiped clean from his face.
Mikoto couldn't believe what was happening. Just ten minutes ago, she and her husband had been making love in their bedroom when the power to their house was suddenly cut out. It was supposed to be a magical evening; they had decided to try for another child, and had prepared for it by sending a reluctant Sasuke over to spend the night at a friend's house for some privacy.
They had barely begun when the power to the house was cut out, and before either of them could react, Itachi's katana was sticking out of her incredulous husband's heart – stabbed in the back by his own son.
Mikoto had tightened her silk robe to preserve her modesty while backing away from her son in fear. She had the skills of a Chunin, at best, having married her husband young at the request of her clan and halting her ninja career.
She was no match for her prodigious son.
Mikoto watched as Itachi raised his blade, his eyes locking with hers briefly as the crimson and black of the Sharingan spun wildly. He hesitated for only a split second before bringing his blade down in one swift motion, his intent clear as day.
Mikoto, frozen in fear, could only close her eyes and wait for the incoming blow to land and end her life. In the milliseconds before the blade connected, she found a myriad of questions popping up in her mind, one after the other.
Why was this happening?
Where had she gone wrong?
Was she such a horrible mother?
How could Itachi do this?
Why would Itachi do this?
What did she do to earn the obvious hate he had for her, to so easily strike her down?
What will happen to Sasuke?
Who will take care of Sasuke?
It was as these questions ran through her mind that she realised something was off, where was the strike? Why wasn't she dead yet? Seconds had past already; surely her son hadn't changed his mind at the last minute?
Opening her eyes almost reluctantly, fearful of what she may see, one after the other, she looked up from her position on the floor and gasped at the sight. A ninja stood between her and Itachi, one she could easily recognise despite his concealing attire. The ninja's clothing consisted of a mixture of grey, lightweight kevlar armour and tight black clothes that screamed efficiency. His arms were crossed in front of his masked face, holding Itachi's blade at bay with his extremely durable forearm guards.
Mikoto let out a quiet sigh of relief when she realised what rank this ninja held. It was glaringly obvious if you just looked at his uniform, and the red tattoo on his shoulder.
He was a member of the ANBU, Konoha's elite ninja force. It was their job to protect the village from the shadows and do its dirty work. Anonymity was a major part of their lives.
Unfortunately for this particular ANBU, it was not so easy to remain anonymous in front of someone like Mikoto. The sun-kissed blonde hair sticking out at all angles from beneath his mask giving away Naruto's identity in an instant. That shade of blonde was rather uncommon around these parts, after all. Also, not many would jump in the way of one of Uchiha Itachi's strikes, such was his reputation even before joining the ANBU's forces.
"What are you doing Itachi?" Naruto's voice, muffled by the mask, asked accusingly. Naruto's arms were still crossed and holding Itachi's katana firmly in between forearm guards. He only briefly made contact with his friend's eyes before focusing his attention solely on Itachi's chest. "I see you've got those eyes," he noted. "I thought nothing was worth the cost?"
Itachi didn't answer him; instead, he kicked out with his right leg, hitting Naruto in the gut, before spinning around to decapitate his mother with a lightning quick horizontal slash.
Naruto flashed through a few hand seals at blinding speeds before slamming his hands into the ground as he fell. Once again, Naruto stopped Itachi's blade as dozens of extremely durable streams of what looked to be wood burst through the floorboards and surrounded Mikoto until they formed a protective cocoon.
Itachi knew better than anyone that nothing was going to break through the wooden prison, especially not his cheap blade. Flashing through his own set of hand seals, finishing with a tiger seal, he brought his right hand up to his mouth and launched a large fireball at the wooden prison, intending to burn it to a crisp, and his mother inside of it.
Naruto, always the quicker one at making hand seals, already had a wall of earth rising from the ground to take the brunt of the fireball before it could incinerate the wooden cocoon, and the woman within.
Naruto disappeared with a burst of speed and placed himself between Itachi and the wooden cocoon, his arms and body ready in a defensive stance.
"Itachi," Naruto's voice, muffled by the mask, spoke up again. "You know I can keep this up all day, how long do you think until the Hokage realises what's going on?"
Itachi still refused to answer him, but as he realised the truth of Naruto's words, he glanced once more at the cocoon before looking at Naruto.
"Killing her would have been merciful," he said in a voice completely devoid of all emotion before turning and disappearing with a burst of speed using the Body Flicker technique.
Naruto waited a few moments to make sure Itachi had indeed disappeared before letting out a sigh of relief. Naruto released his technique, allowing Uchiha Mikoto to fall free from the wooden cocoon that protected her from her son. Once freed, Naruto saw that she was sobbing quietly with her head in her arms. He wasn't even sure if she was aware of her surroundings anymore.
Realising that she had been freed, she locked eyes with her saviour before burying her face back in her arms, "Why did you save me?" she asked quietly. "I've never done anything to deserve your kindness, let alone anything to earn you risking your life for my own . . ."
"My life was never at risk, only yours," Naruto said confidently. "What happened?"
Naruto thought that Mikoto was ignoring him until she spoke up after a few moments of silence, "The power went out, and then Itachi killed Fugaku . . . then he tried to kill me. He got Fugaku before we knew what was going on. He killed his own father in cold blood!"
Naruto turned his head to spy the leader of the Uchiha clan lying several feet away from them on the hard wood floor, dead with a stab wound to the heart. As he continued to watch blood spill out of the small stab wound, he found it hard to summon up even an ounce of pity for the bastard that had done everything in his power to make his ninja career as difficult as possible.
"Why did you save me?" Mikoto asked in a quiet voice, breaking Naruto out of his reverie. "I don't understand, I've only ever been rude to you."
Naruto tilted his head to look at her curiously through the eyeholes of his mask. "So I should let you die because you were rude to me?" he asked mildly, bemused despite the situation. "You're a citizen of Konoha, I don't need a reason to save your life."
Despite the horrifying situation she found herself in, Mikoto couldn't help but feel shame well up within her. A boy, who, before today, could have died on a mission without any concern to herself, had valiantly fought to protect her despite having to fight his best friend.
The thought only brought on a fresh wave of sorrow. "How could he do this?" Mikoto asked nobody in particular, her voice muffled by her arms. "Itachi is - was - such a sweet boy, how could he kill his own father in cold blood?"
"You don't know the half of it," Naruto murmured under his breath, which, luckily, went unheard by the distraught woman. She didn't need the knowledge of her son having not only killed his father, but everyone else in the Uchiha district that night adding to her grief right now. Lifting her chin up so he could lock eyes with her, he removed his mask and said, "Look, something terrible happened tonight, and while we may never know why it happened . . ." he paused, letting out a wary sigh before continuing. "I can say with completely certainty that Itachi is the greatest human being I've ever met. Do what you want with that information . . ." their little discussion was cut short when a shrill scream of a child pierced the silence of the night like a speeding arrow.
"Fuck!" Naruto cursed urgently.
"Sasuke!" the young boy's mother cried in despair.
"Stay here." Naruto ordered the distraught woman in a no nonsense tone. He may as well have ordered a ravaging bear to calm down, for all the good it would have done him. Knocking Mikoto out with a well-placed chop to the neck, he placed her over his shoulder and headed outside to the source of the scream, not willing to leave a woman who had recently had an attempt on her life alone in this situation.
Using the Body Flicker technique, Naruto appeared outside with a burst of speed to see Itachi standing over the quivering form of his younger brother with an emotionless expression on his face as his eyes glittered brightly in the dark. Itachi didn't even acknowledge his presence when he arrived and turned to walk away, but before he disappeared into the night, he turned back and locked eyes with Naruto, his Sharingan no longer activated.
Naruto remained silent despite the fact that silent tears were streaming down Itachi's face. "Look after them," he said, his voice cracking slightly. "This will be the last time, I assume, that we'll ever see each other again." He bowed his head briefly before raising it again, a smile that didn't reach his eyes gracing his fair features. "I guess this means you win our bet, though I doubt I'll ever be able to make good on the agreement . . . goodbye."
"Itachi, wait!" Naruto exclaimed urgently, but it was too late. Itachi quickly disappeared once again using the Body Flicker technique, and Naruto could only assume it was to flee the village.
What the hell had happened here tonight?
Why had it happened?
How could he, Itachi's best friend, not have seen this coming?
Itachi wasn't a homicidal maniac, he never did anything without reason, especially kill his freaking family!
He would find out what the hell happened tonight even if it was the last thing he did.