Edited: 27/12/2015

SOY: it's been a while since I've last written, and then I had this idea so I thought writing it would help me get back into writing. I hope it works! Please do tell if you like this fic and drop a review!

This is not a death fic.

Please note that you can consider this Shounen–ai or not, depending on your personal liking.

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Rating: T

Summary: (Naruto, Itachi) In one of the many ramen stands of the country, a passing shinobi tells the owner about his past, until the one he's waiting for finally comes for him. Or not.

Warnings: none.

Disclaimer: I do not own. With the direction the manga has taken, I am glad I don't own it.

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At a Ramen Stand

One-Shot

It was early in the morning.

The sun had just started to rise, tinging the cold blues of the night with a fiery crimson, and it had yet to warm the air, a light frost coating still covering the grass and the trees.

Everything around was silent, with only a few birds chirping to welcome the start of a new day.

The village was still lingering between wake and sleep, in that particular moment where the last shadows of the night retreated in the face of the sun, but the world still looked bleak and sleepy, almost ethereal, and far too quiet.

At this time few villagers were already awake –those who had to raise early in order to start their daily work were already outside, shivering slightly in the breeze of a winter that was only just now starting to become spring, clothes still heavy and warm, collars lifted up to their ears to protect them from the cold.

One of those was the owner of a local ramen stand –a small business, really, but it paid well, especially in winter were many would stop by for a quick bowl. The man had always been an early riser, and although he was not young anymore –he'd seen already his fair share of years, watching them unroll in front of him one after the other– there was still a spring to his step as he shuffled around his ramen stand, heating up the stove and the water to prepare for a new day of work.

The street was still empty, and until things were ready there wouldn't be much to do other than check the temperature of the water and get some vegetables ready, so the man was standing outside, breathing in the cold air and watching his breath turn mist into the air. Every now and then he parted the noren curtains to glance inside before returning his eyes to the village surrounding him, feeling at peace.

So early in the morning, one could feel either part of the world or weirdly detached, it all depended on the person, really.

It was far too early for customers to appear, as they would only start showing up around eight maybe, especially if they wanted a cup of warm sake to start their day before ordering food, but the man disliked last-minute preparations… besides, old habits were the hardest to shake, as the saying went.

With one last look at the sleepy village around him, the man finally left the cold street to return inside the stand, where the heating stove was already making the temperatures raise to a pleasant warmth. With practiced ease he slid behind the counter, tightening the apron he was wearing around his waist, and then he cracked his shoulders, taking a deep breath.

He shuffled around with some of his tools, stacking bowls and then cutting some vegetables and cleaning them up –he prided himself to always offer fresh meat and fresh vegetables, nothing less than that– and as he did so, he started whistling softly, not daring to interrupt the silence with anything louder than that.

It was quiet around, the delicate silence that meant no one was around, but soon enough the streets would fill with people and the village would spring to life, and he would soon miss this silence.

It was, indeed, so quiet that when the man turned around to inspect the counter, half-a-mind to check the chopsticks to see if there were enough for the day, he was not expecting to see someone seated in front of him. The sight was so surprising that he let out a strangled gasp instead of the expected greeting, eliciting a small chuckle from his first customer of the day.

Said customer was wearing a huge hat which covered most of their features, making it impossible for him to check whether they were male or female, or even gauge their age; all he could see was the ronin hat and the clothes, which were unassuming and of bland, washed out colours, but there were weapons strapped to the customer's leg, and the owner easily recognised them as kunai –this person was a shinobi.

Finally recovering from the shock of finding someone who had been so quiet that he hadn't heard them come inside, the owner straightened his back and cleared his throat, offering a greeting. "Good morning, and welcome! Would you like to order?"

The stranger tilted their head to the side, and the owner caught a glimpse of teeth from behind the hat –the person was smirking. "Good morning," he greeted back, voice identifying the customer as a male, probably young. "Hmm…"

He studied the wall menu for a moment, then nodded to himself. "One beef ramen," he finally said after what felt like forever.

With an answering nod, the owner set himself to work, hands following familiar patterns as he put the noodles into the water and started gathering the ingredients for the ramen bowl.

Silence fell on them, and the owner found himself glancing ever so often towards the client; he was by nature a curious person, and getting a customer this early in the morning, when nobody else was around, dressed like a shinobi and sounding so young… yes, all of this made him the more interested in this person.

Still he could not see the shinobi's face from underneath that hat, and he found himself more than willing to strike up a conversation.

Not one to let himself dawdle for too long, the owner of the stand cleared his throat; a simple question would not be too improper, not in this situation.

"I don't think I've seen you around here," he said amiably. "Are you a traveller?" he glanced back, and caught his customer nodding. "Just passing by or are you staying for a while?"

The village wasn't big, but it was placed strategically close to one of the main cities of the country, far enough to give some semblance of tranquillity but close enough to still have the added perks, so it was actually a reasonable question to ask.

The silence stretched on, and the owner suddenly worried about whether he would get an answer or not; maybe the customer was not one for idle chit-chat, or maybe he was tired or sleepy, and did not want to strike up a conversation while waiting to eat, but then the customer brought one hand to the edge of his hat, and then removed it, placing it on the counter at his side.

"Just passing by," he replied quietly.

His voice was warm and pleasant, the kind that made one want to keep talking, and the owner was relieved to see he hadn't been bothered by his question.

Now that the customer had removed his hat, the man could finally get a good look at him, and he was not surprised to see that he was actually young –really, he was probably a teenager still, definitely not older than seventeen at most. He had short, cropped blond hair and his eyes were blue, and although he looked tan, his skin was also a rosy pink –not a common look around there, not really; the townspeople were mostly dark haired and dark skinned, with only a few deviating from the norm with red or light brown hair. The ramen stand owner had seen his fair share of travellers though, and most of them were queer looking, so he was used to it.

Still he looked too young to be travelling on his own, but the owner knew that things for ninja worked differently, so that meant the kid was probably strong enough to deal with things by himself.

Pausing in front of the customer to clean the table and place down a container with disposable chopsticks, the owner glanced up at the teen's face from this close, and noticed there were faded scars on his cheeks, three on both sides. Placed like that, they looked almost like whiskers.

He must have made some telling expression, because the teen noticed him staring and his lip twitched up in a small, wry smile.

"Birth marks," he offered, leaning forwards and tilting his head to the side, almost as if to offer the man a better look. "My name is Naruto, by the way, old man! I'm a missing-nin".

The way he said it sounded like it was the most normal thing in the world, and the owner found himself not sure what to address first. He was not a ninja, and had never been one, but missing-nin was something everybody knew about. They were traitors, they were dangerous shinobi who were hunted down for a price.

The intricacies of shinobi rules were lost to normal people, unless they were working directly for a shogun or a lord, but the owner had seen his fair share of travelling people who had claimed to be missing–nin, some with pride, some with a threat hidden in their tone… none had looked so matter-of-fact, though. And he'd never seen one this young before, either.

Still, it wasn't like he would deny a customer their fill, especially if they paid him for it. Business was business.

So, instead of addressing that, the man chose to glare at his customer, and said "I'm not an old man, kid! I'm barely thirty, so tone it down and offer some respect to someone who's giving you food… missing-nin or not".

His words seemed to surprise the customer… Naruto, because his eyes widened and a startled chuckled escaped his lips. "I'm no kid either," he replied, looking and sounding amused. The smile he was giving him was the sort that made the owner feel at ease. He really did not look dangerous, nor threatening. He just looked… normal. "Maybe it doesn't look like it, but I'm twenty".

Well, he hadn't expected that.

Still, just ten years separated them, and the owner of the stand reflected on how different their lives were as he returned to checking the noodles, allowing the customer some space.

For all he knew about missing-nin, they were supposed to be extremely dangerous. He could not see it, not with this young man. This Naruto looked friendly.

It was not like this would be the first time a customer chose to talk with him about trivial matters or their lives –there was something about a street stand that seemed to make people want to talk, to share about themselves and drop their burdens where someone would listen without judging. At thirty, the owner of the stand had seen his fair share of such people, and if the small sigh coming from behind him was an indication, this customer would not be any different… and as he was a curious person, the owner couldn't help it.

"It's been… four years since I've left my village," Naruto spoke again, sounding wistful, and accepted the cup of hot green tea the owner offered him with a smile. "You could say it wasn't that hard… not since they literally chased me out in the first place".

He took a sip of the scalding hot beverage and swallowed it down, the bitter taste filling his mouth, and for a moment he seemed lost in thought. The owner peeked at him for a moment, unsure of what to make of that face.

"I'm sure you've seen your fair share of people coming and going, right?" Naruto continued, holding the cup in his hands. "Probably you know what missing-nin means, but you don't seem scared. I'm not going to hurt you either. Many missing-nin aren't even violent… they just want to live their lives in peace".

The man found himself nodding along, though it wasn't his place to understand or even care about the intricacies of shinobi politics.

"Being a missing-nin in the end means just one thing –that you don't belong. Your village isn't your village anymore, even if you want it to," Naruto puffed his cheeks a bit, and it was almost comical to see such a silly expression on his face. Made the owner wonder what had happened to him to make him a missing-nin.

He'd said he had been chased away, and his words made it look like he didn't really agree with that, either.

"It seems stupid to miss a place that never felt like home, but… it was still home, you know? I loved that place, and even the people living there, even if they didn't love me back… and they didn't. I was… pretty much hated while I lived there, and things were hard for me growing up".

Pretending to check the noodles, the owner glanced at Naruto again. He did look mournful, if that meant anything.

"I was an orphan, but because of things I couldn't control, I was blamed for a lot of things I didn't do. It was easier to look at me and see the only cause of everything, rather than look at themselves and admit certain things were out of anyone's control. It made them feel better, having someone to blame for their shit… I understand that. I do. I don't like it –especially since I was the one they blamed for it… but I sort of understand".

The man found himself pausing, stirring the water with the noodles inside as he tried to think about what Naruto was saying.

He'd always thought that he wouldn't be one to needlessly blame others for whatever went down –if things were bad, they were bad, no need to seek a specific cause– but how bad could someone be, that they had to blame an orphan just because he was there? And how forgiving could someone be that he could rationalise hatred like this, with no bitterness in his tone?

"Yeah… I still love that village, even now," Naruto muttered to himself.

He did not look happy at that, not one bit, and the way his hands tightened around the cup made it obvious to someone as observant as the owner.

This time the silence stretched on long enough that the man could take the noodles out of the water and prepare a portion of beef ramen for his customer, placing the steaming hot bowl in front of him. Naruto flashed him a grin, looking a little happier now that he had some food ready, and snapped the chopsticks with a cheerful "Itadakimasu!"

Knowing it was impolite to stare at someone eating, the man busied himself with some work, wiping the pot clean and cleaning up a few things around, even going out of his way to take a broom to swipe away some leftover dust and dirty from his side of the stand.

He still managed to glance over at the customer a couple times, noticing the look of bliss on his face as he all but devoured the ramen in his bowl, looking incredibly pleased with it.

"Your ramen's pretty good," Naruto praised him after he swallowed another mouthful of noodles. "It's been a while since I've ate something this tasty. Reminds me of the ramen I used to eat at home, actually".

The praise made his heart swell instantly. It might have been just a humble job, but it was a satisfying one, and he loved preparing ramen, so the client's words made him feel happy.

There was again that wistful expression on Naruto's face, and between his words and the fact that he had paused while slurping the ramen, he still looked so young. The owner shook his head to dispel what felt like an image of the past –a past he did not know– and muttered a gruff 'thank you'.

"That was the only place where I was treated normally, that ramen place," Naruto continued before he seemed to shake himself and drank down the ramen broth. "It was too expensive for me to go there often, but I ate there whenever I could. It felt good, and the food was also good, just like this one. Can I have seconds, old man?"

"I told you I'm not old," he replied instantly, but he was still smiling as he took the offered bowl and set out to prepare another portion. Since most things were already up and running, it would take way less time.

"The village I come from was a nice place, but there was too much going on under the surface. More than even ninja could know, and there were plenty who knew where to look," Naruto continued, filling the silence with his voice. "I wasn't one of them, of course! Never been good at that sort of thing. I was loud and obnoxious and I tried too hard to get them to like me to actually pay much attention, at least… not at first. Things change. They always do, isn't that right?"

He offered a soft grunt of understanding, because yes –whether one was a shinobi or a civilian, things always did change.

"Back then I was not really what you'd consider a proper ninja. I was soft and young and childish. I wanted to be a shinobi because this way I would get some respect, but I didn't know much at all. And then someone… he was a respected man, one that knew how to move things from the shadows… he took interest in me. When he could not find a way to use me, he made it look like I'd done… a really bad thing. With how many people still blamed me for things in the past, it wasn't hard for everybody to trust his word. I was incapable to do subtle things, but nobody cared. It was easier to believe him than it was to admit things weren't really… what they looked like".

Naruto let out a long sigh, and the owner turned around to look at him.

There was the wistful look again, but his eyes had hardened and he was gritting his teeth, obviously angry as he thought about his past.

"Look at me, brooding over things while waiting for a bowl of ramen… doesn't seem much different than what I used to do back then, huh? But this is not Ko– this is not my village, and I'm not sixteen anymore," he chuckled, and to the owner it sounded like a honest laugh. "And you are not old man at Ichiraku's, either".

He slumped forwards, and twenty years old or not, all the owner could see was, indeed, a kid no older than seventeen still.

"I bet it's hard to believe me, right? 'Cause who believes missing-nin? Nobody, because even if we all have our reasons, we're still traitors. We still committed treason, one way or another. But I really… I hadn't. It was all a lie, but in the end nobody thought to go against Danzou's accuses. Those who tried to were silenced, and their words mattered nothing".

The owner swallowed down the question burning in the back of his throat. Naruto so far had only offered his own name, which wasn't much to go with, because it could even be an alias, or a fake one, but the casual way he'd said that person's name –Danzou or whatnot– well, he was pretty sure he was not supposed to know that.

Not that it mattered, not really. he was the owner of a small ramen stand in a village in the middle of nowhere, and he would not ask further, nor question around.

It was not his place, nor was it his intention.

Whether this shinobi's story was true or not, it did not matter. He was still a missing-nin, and even asking about him would get him nothing but narrowed eyes and mistrust.

Shinobi were a strange bunch. Distrustful, but deathly. They had different ideals and goals that a person like the owner could not really understand, nor did he want to. They could kill easily, and hurt others, and fight and move in the shadows with tricks and skills that to normal people looked like magic.

The person sitting in front of him… he might have dressed like a ninja, he might even be one, but he still looked like he would not hurt a fly.

What good would it do to come to his ramen stand to eat, and then lie?

There was no real purpose, no sense to it. So was there any other thing to do but believe in what he was saying? At the end of the day, he would be gone, and the owner would forget, just like before.

"I had to leave, or else I would be put under trial and I would probably end up dead, or… or worse. I ran. I had some friends help me, because they believed me… one even offered to come with me, but I couldn't let him. Sai had just started to learn how to live with people. He'd just started to smile for real, how could I take that away from him?" again, Naruto's hands clenched into fists, knuckles white.

The owner refrained from talking again, not sure whether his words would be appreciated or not. Probably they wouldn't, not when the pain seemed to be still so raw even after so long.

Besides, what could he say? He had lived a boring life so far. He was a mere ten years older than this young man, and they couldn't be any more different.

"It was tricky, because I wasn't supposed to run, not when I could be recognised because of these," he pointed to his cheeks, where his birthmarks were. The owner nodded, because when one lives in one place for all their lives, something so visible would easily be recognisable. "And also because they were not supposed to let me go either, not when I had this," this time he pointed to his stomach. It was probably something that only those in the know could understand, so the owner simply hummed. "I had others who wanted a piece of me too. I'm pretty famous, you know?" Naruto looked up and grinned –a wide, blinding smile. "Not the best way to start my career as a missing-nin, with other, more dangerous shinobi chasing me, but I guess that's just my luck… anyway I had to hide, and train harder, and find ways to grow strong enough that I would not be used again, not anymore".

The owner poured the second bowl of ramen, and with a small smile he added a few slices of Naruto in there too, which seemed to amuse his customer too, since his wide smile softened into an amused grin.

Silence fell on the two of them again, but the owner tried to fill it with cleaning and shuffling around, unable to say out loud that he wanted to know more.

It didn't even matter if it was a fake story or the truth, he was just curious to know more.

"I had travelled before with my mentor, but now I had to do it all on my own, so it was harder. He believed I was innocent, but he had people following him in hopes he'd lead them to me, so he couldn't even contact me, not through normal means, had to lay low… like a toad," Naruto snickered to himself as he said this. "I was ok with training and travelling by myself, but… it was lonely, not having anyone with me".

The second bowl of ramen was quickly disposed of, as if the more he spoke the hungrier he got, and when he pushed the empty bowl towards him, the owner nodded without words and set up to prepare a third. Young people, really –always hungry.

"Spent a few years travelling around. I met a lot of nice people, and a lot of not-so-nice ones, too… and I visited a lot of beautiful places, too".

There was happiness now in his voice, and it made the owner smile even as he was turned around and cooking. Young people could also bounce back, even from things that hurt them. It was a good side of youth, really… the ability to cope.

He guessed that this was also why he was telling him this –the need to find more people who would just listen, even if it was a stranger who owned a ramen stand in the middle of nowhere.

"I've never left this place, myself," he found himself speaking up, careful to keep himself to non-threatening subjects. "Wanted to, but then I started working this stand, and that was it".

It seemed like the right thing to say, because for a while, Naruto entertained him with tales of the places he'd visited. He spoke of big villages in the far east, out of the Fire Country, where sculptors and engineers lived that could make beautiful, intricate designs that covered entire mountain sides. He spoke of big cities in the north where people exclusively used cars to move around, and built up buildings that were ten times as tall as trees. Of smaller villages on the coast, where the sea was, with fishermen caught fish bigger than they were to feed their families, and things seemed to slow down.

Naruto spoke of animals the owner had never seen, some big, some small, and of trees with weirdly coloured leaves, of frozen lakes and silent forests, and deserts that kept going on and on in the distance, and of tall mountains where snow never left, all year round.

Then he spoke of the people he'd met –of shinobi from all countries, of samurai and martial artists who taught him things, and he exclusively spoke of people who had treated him well, of how many friends he'd made all across the elemental nations.

"Still I kept going on by myself. It was sad to leave them all behind, but I couldn't stay too long, not when I was pursued all the time… I wanted to stay, but I couldn't. And then…. And then I met… him".

"He's actually why I'm here, in this village," Naruto said, his tone light –lighter than it had been until then.

He paused to slurp down the last of his third ramen bowl, almost considering getting a fourth before he decided not to.

"It wasn't the first time I'd met him, either. He was… he was one of the enemies at first. I had never stopped to consider him a real person, like… someone who had thoughts and feelings. Especially feelings, hehe," Naruto scratched his chin. "He was stronger than I was. He was smarter too. He's probably the smartest person I've ever met. And he was superior to me in… everything, really. How could I even think about understanding him, when he was so above me?" he hummed to himself, placing down the chopsticks and gratefully receiving another cup of hot green tea from the owner, who was giving him his undivided attention. "But during my travels I had… heard things. That made no sense, not to me".

Naruto paused then, and while he sipped his tea, he thought back.

He had been chased again, this time closely. He had been tracked down by Akatsuki, and they had set the only person who could get him back to chase him –and coincidentally, the only person who could answer all the questions Naruto had to ask.

The one person who would never be honest either, even if Naruto asked.

He had been chased for a long time, followed and pursued, until Naruto had made a mistake, afraid and panicked, and he had been cornered, ending up face-to-face with a pair of swirling crimson eyes and a cloak with red clouds on it flapping in the wind.

They had been alone, then –one in front of the other– and Naruto had known that he would not be able to run anymore.

His time had run out, and Akatsuki had found him. Itachi had found him.

He had blurted it out as Itachi advanced towards him, frozen in fear and knowing it would make things worse, probably, but anything in order to buy some more time, and… to his shock, Itachi had backed down, clearly shaken, as Naruto had said out loud what he had been thinking for the past months. Of the rumours he'd heard, of every piece of information he had gathered and how he had pieced everything together.

It was not really a plan –it was just his desire to know if he was right, if this was an explanation for everything Itachi had done in the past.

He had thought Itachi would ignore him, or even hurt him for daring to imply something like that.

He had not expected Itachi to retreat and leave him alone. To let him go.

It was then that Naruto had known the truth –that the rumours had been correct.

That all the things he had pieced together by himself, without anyone knowing, were all correct.

With such a sudden change of perspective, Naruto had been rattled, but somehow it hadn't shaken him to the core. He had been living on his own for two years, and he had matured far more than he'd ever had the chance to while in Konoha.

This time, it had been him who had tracked down Itachi, facing the man not as a Jinchuuriki facing an opponent but as two missing-nin from the same village.

That was how everything had changed forever.

This was how it had started.

"We ended up… talking, somehow. I found out his situation had been… somewhat similar to mine, though not really. But now I knew something no one else did, and that was enough to forge a bond between us, and… that made it possible for me to trust him".

"He had been framed for something horrible, and had left his village… our village, in an attempt to protect someone he cared for. He had lied, he had willingly framed himself in order to do this, and had spent years crafting a mask for himself," he found himself explaining to the owner, who knew nothing of what he'd been thinking about.

As always happened whenever he thought about Itachi's past, Naruto felt a wave of anger fill him, and even the owner of the ramen stand, though he did not know the specifics, could see it.

Naruto had a lot of regrets. About his choices, about his life… but there was no pain greater than knowing that someone he now thought as precious had been forced to give up on his whole life for the sake of someone who did not care.

And what was worse, because of Naruto's own actions now…

"He became my most precious person," he added softly, more to himself than to the other man. "After spending years on my own, I had someone else to talk to. He remained with me, I made him make some decisions he wouldn't have otherwise, and this way… I think I damned him. he learned to trust me, and I… I lo…" he swallowed down the words he had been about to say and gulped down the last of his tea to keep them down.

The owner of the ramen stand, though, seemed to understand what he had been about to say anyway. The man turned around, offering him a second to collect himself.

'Then, what happened?' he wanted to ask the shinobi, but didn't.

Silence stretched on for a few seconds, thick and heavy. Then…

"He was the one who told me to not go. That I would regret going back to my village… but… I wanted to see it! I wanted to know what had changed since I'd left it, wanted to see if anything remained of the place I had loved and protected…" Naruto gritted his teeth until his words sounded strained and tense, and he clenched his hands into fists so hard they trembled.

It was painful to remember how it had been his fault, in the end. This situation, when they could have been…

"I went back. I knew it was not a good decision, but I went nonetheless," Naruto covered his hand with his hands. He was shaking, and the owner fought down the urge to reach out to pat him, because he was not sure what reaction that would get. "I missed… I missed Konoha. So much that I did not pay any attention to his cautious words".

This was the first time Naruto's village had been mentioned, and the owner bit down on his tongue to keep his surprise at minimum, because… he knew that name. He knew that place.

Suddenly, things felt… real.

Not just a person's words, but… a real story.

Naruto took a deep breath.

Things were too recent, too raw for him, but when he had entered this small ramen stand, he hadn't expected he would tell someone about… about it at all.

And yet, he was –because of what had happened, because of the things he'd seen before, and because he wanted someone… anyone, even someone like the owner of this ramen stand to know… he found himself talking.

Just in case, if anything… someone had to know, even if it wouldn't matter.

"I went there undercover, thinking it would be safe. It was my village, and… and then I realised I had changed too much. I loved it. I still love it, but… but when I was there… it didn't feel like home anymore. It was… different. Wrong. Suddenly, I knew I shouldn't have gone back. My longing should have remained like that. I should have never tried to go back even if it was… for a moment".

He cleared his throat, as it had turned a bit wobbly at the end, shaken with emotion.

The owner kept his back turned to him, not wanting to make Naruto feel worse with his stare, which he knew, would be full of pity.

He could not understand what he was going through. He never would… but that didn't mean he couldn't feel bad for him, and probably Naruto would not like a stranger to show him pity.

"And then I was found out," were the next words out of Naruto's mouth, so quiet he wasn't even sure he'd heard them.

The owner froze.

"I was found out… and I was almost captured. The villagers recognised me, and they tried to hurt me. They'd gotten used to a life without their monster, so they tried to chase me out, calling for the shinobi to come. While I was away, Danzou had… he had worked harder, spinning a web of lies to strengthen his hold on them all. Spies had seen me with… with my precious person, and nobody, not even my friends, could explain why I had gone to him, so… nobody was on my side anymore. I was alone. I was alone in my hometown and… it was horrible".

Once again, he fell silent, trying to compose himself. It was hard.

It took Naruto a few more seconds to be able to speak up again.

"And then, he came. To rescue me. Protect me. He had known something like this would happen. I should have listened to him, but I didn't. He'd gone through something like this already, and he was right… but I ignored him and I… it was my fault".

Naruto swallowed, his mouth dry. He looked pale, he'd stopped trembling and he looked… almost dead.

The ramen stand owner steeled himself, then he slowly extended one hand, waiting for Naruto to see if he would react badly, and pressed it on his shoulder. The touch seemed to startle him, but he flashed him a small, weak grin for that small comfort he was trying to offer him.

"He told me to run away," he continued, his voice taking on a flat tone. "He was surrounded, but he still held everyone else at bay so that I could run away, and he said…"

'If I survive, we'll see each other again, Naruto,' Itachi had said. He had spared a moment to hold an illusion for Naruto only, looking into his eyes to send a private message that nobody would hear but him. 'There is a small town in the outskirts of the Fire Country, I've been there once. It's isolated, with a natural waterfall that attracts a lot of people all over the year. Go there. If I can get away, I will find you there'.

"… to meet him here," Naruto finished, gritting his teeth.

The owner licked his lips, and moved back, giving Naruto some space.

So he was waiting for him –for that precious person of his to come.

"It took me a few weeks to come here, hiding until I was sure nobody was following me. It was a narrow escape, and… and maybe he won't even get here. Maybe the hunter-nin will come instead, but… I'm waiting, nonetheless".

The owner spoke before he could think better of it. "But what if…" he was startled by his vehemence, but Naruto simply looked at him, waiting for him to finish. "What if he's not the one to come?"

Naruto blinked, then his lips stretched into a small, heart-breaking smile. "If it's not him… if they come instead, well… they will capture me. Bring me back to Konoha. They will have a trial and no matter what, the outcome will be either my death, or… worse. I might have my chakra pathways burned and my limbs severed so I will be unable to be a shinobi, so that I won't run anymore. Effectively trapping me there… until I die".

He spoke calmly, as if talking about the weather and not about his possible future, and the owner shuddered at the finality of his words, at the cruelty of such a punishment.

It was a life he was suddenly glad to be not a part of.

What he did not say, but that went unspoken, was that he did not look like he would run.

"I will allow them to get me".

Was there anything to say at all?

He was older, but this young man had seen more than the owner of the ramen stand ever could, no matter how long he lived.

"Why?" he had to ask, the words coming out choked.

Naruto looked at him.

"After I left Konoha… I was alone. Even before, I had friends but… I had been alone for so long. And then I met him for real, and… I learned I had been missing so much. He gave me a reason to keep going, one I wouldn't have thought of wanting, before. I'm… I'm done running, if he's not with me. It's time I stop running and face my past, even if I end up losing my life or… my freedom to do it".

Silence fell on them again, and this time, the owner was unable to break it, and he looked away.

After what felt like forever, a few rays of sun started to peek through the noren curtains, alerting him that soon people would start waking and leaving their houses. He was not aware of a charka flare coming from outside the shop, since he was not a ninja and had never been trained for it, but he did see Naruto stiffen in his seat, and he heard him exhale loudly.

A shadow of a person appeared outside of the ramen stand, the curtains hiding its identity to those inside. Naruto's hands trembled as he placed the chopsticks he'd been fiddling with on the edge of the empty bowl before he clapped them together. "Gochisousama deshita," he said, voice soft but steady.

The owner's eyes widened as he understood what was going on, but Naruto's face was empty of all expression, and he did not know who was outside. The person in front of the curtains stepped back, and did not part them to come inside. Naruto stood up.

"Naruto-san," the owner called out, his voice wavering a little. "Who…"

Naruto spared a glance to him then he fished out some money from his pockets and dropped it on the counter. The owner watched it roll around, one of the coins falling off the counter and onto the ground at Naruto's feet.

"It's time for me to go, old man," he said. "Thanks for listening to my story… I guess I bored you for a bit, but it helped pass the time. You can choose whether to believe me or not, it doesn't matter, but… I'm glad I was able to tell you".

Then he smiled.

It was a big warm smile, and once again the owner could only see a young teen in that smile, burning bright like the sun.

Then he turned around, parted the noren curtains, and left the stand, not looking back.

The owner was left alone inside, staring down at the loose change and at the empty ramen bowl in front of him, frozen in shock.

No, he had to… he needed to know, he had to know if Naruto was going to be happy, because nobody should go like this, only ever remembered by a nobody in a small village in the middle of nowhere, he had to know if this customer of his was going to be happy, if… if–

The man ran around the counter, his side slamming painfully against a seat in his haste, but he did not care, shoving the curtains out of the way and stumbling out of the ramen stand, eyes wide, looking around–

The street outside of the stand was empty.

Cold air hit him in the air, a stark contrast with how warm the inside of his stand had been, ad he let out a small gasp, hands clenching in reflex.

There was no one around.

Birds chirped on the trees somewhere at his side. In front of him, a few doors and a few windows started to open, and the eerie silence of the morning was disrupted by the voices of the other villagers finally coming out of their houses.

His elusive customer was nowhere to be seen.

The first few customers of the day started pouring in the shop an hour later, finding the owner standing behind the counter with a warm smile and ready to take their orders, just as usual.

They did not notice –they didn't care to look for it– the wrinkles of worry on his forehead, or how his eyes were now darker, like he had seen something they would never even glimpse at.

Life went on, and the owner of the ramen stand allowed himself to fall back to his routine.

And if sometimes he looked out in the street, almost as if hoping for someone to come, if sometimes his eyes took on a haunted look well… that was just the way things were.

Outside of his ramen store, winter slowly melted into spring, and life went on, just like that.

…–…–…

Owari

…–…–…–…–…–…

SOY: and this is it! It was a bit short, but I hope you've enjoyed it nonetheless. If you liked it, it'd be nice to know so drop me a review if you want to!

The ending was left open for a reason, of course. You can pick whichever you want –the ANBU letting Naruto know they were there, flaring up their chakra so he would come out without harming the ramen stand owner, or Itachi, finally arrived and alerting Naruto of his presence.

Your pick. Is Naruto happy, or…?

Glossary:

Noren curtains – the curtains used in Japanese street food stands.

Itadakimasu – phrase used when starting a meal. Can be translated with "I humbly receive".

Gochisousama deshita – used when a meal is finished. Can be translated with "Thanks for the meal".