Slowly and carefully, Sasori rose to his feet and inspected the battlefield.

No, that wasn't right. It wasn't a battlefield so much as a monument to his defeat - a plain of broken puppets mocking him with its existence. Oh, there was plenty of dead flesh among the puppets, but these people had never been more than puppets themselves. Their master was still out there, very much alive. Alive and, in all likelihood, laughing at Sasori.

The puppeteer maneuvered throughout the battlefield, inspecting the remains. Most of the puppets were damaged to the point where they weren't worth repairing and, since one of the downsides to using human puppets was that their parts were not interchangeable, he couldn't salvage pieces of them either. He would have to start over.

When he finally reached the remains of Hiruko and found it utterly destroyed his control over his emotions slipped for a moment and he frowned. Hiruko was his favorite puppet, second only to the third Kazekage… and now it was gone, along with the rest of his collection. Just like that. He absentmindedly fingered the storage scroll that held his last surviving human puppet – he didn't know whether it was fortunate or irritating that he didn't have the opportunity to bring out the Kazekage into the fray. Perhaps the battle would have turned out differently if he did, or maybe he would simply end up losing everything.

Orochimaru was going to pay for this.

Not that he could get back at the man in the foreseeable future - it would take years to replenish his collection even under ideal conditions. As much as he wanted to track down Orochimaru immediately, he had no choice but to admit he had no chance against the man right now. And besides, the battle nicely illustrated that Sasori's battle strategy has a major weakness when employed against Orochimaru - an over-reliance on poisons.

Sasori didn't consider it much of a weakness till now. No one had ever survived the poison he coats his weapons with – even Hidan could be effectively neutralized with it – so Sasori's strategy mostly came down to showering the area with as many attacks as possible, since every hit was lethal. It was a strategy that worked flawlessly.

Until now. Orochimaru was immune. As a being made of flesh and blood Orochimaru should have been affected, but Orochimaru clearly wasn't human anymore. To add insult to injury, the demonic-looking fodder that Orochimaru used to distract him was highly resistant to Sasori's poison as well. It took several minutes for the poison to start seriously affecting them, plenty of time to make an utter nuisance of themselves. Fighting Orochimaru one-on-one would have been challenging enough by itself, so this just cemented the snake-sannin's victory. If Orochimaru knew Sasori had turned himself into a puppet, he would have probably died in that battle.

Then again, Orochimaru didn't seem all that interested in making sure Sasori was dead for sure. No matter, the snake summoner would regret his sloppiness eventually, because Sasori would have his revenge, even if it was the last thing he ever did.

The question was, what should he do now, in the short term?

He had no intention of going back to Akatsuki. He had allowed his partner, one that Leader specifically instructed him to watch closely for treachery, to defect. Leader was never very understanding of failure so coming before him in this sort of vulnerable state was a big no-no. Before he even thinks of going back he needs to replenish his strength and find some way make up for this debacle. In the meantime, it would best if he 'stays dead' for a while.

He found a suitable looking corpse from among the fodder Orochimaru used, stripped him of anything that might tie him to Orochimaru, and dressed him in clothes from one of the puppets. Hopefully whomever Leader sends won't look too closely. Most of them were kill-and-smash type of people anyway, not investigators. He took the Akatsuki ring off his finger and put it on the corpse. The ring was technically supposed to be impossible to remove, except in death, but Sasori didn't have any flesh for the ring to bind to so he could remove it as he pleased. As far as he knew, no one knew this, so this setup should look pretty convincing.

After a moment's thought he took two other corpses and sealed them away into a storage scroll. If he was going to go after Orochimaru he needed to find out what was the deal with the demonic appearances of his subordinates, and the nature of their strange abilities. It looked almost like a bloodline limit of sorts.

Now all he needed was a place to lie low in. His appearance shouldn't be much of a problem - his blade-wings could be sealed away in the storage seals on his back, and moderately heavy clothing should hide other signs of his puppet nature. He felt vulnerable without his armor puppet, but walking around in one would be far too distinctive if he wanted to stay inconspicuous. His best bet was to leverage his spy network, but this was fraught with perils. While his contacts were trustworthy enough for information gathering purposes, he was loath to rely on them in a sensitive time like this. And, of course, Akatsuki would surely try to salvage whatever they could of his spy network for their own purposes, so he couldn't interact with his contacts as freely as he'd like.

In any case, if he was going to get back on track in a reasonable amount of time he needed access to funds and materials. Funds weren't that much of a deal, since he had plenty stashed away exactly for these kinds of occasions, but there weren't many places where he could get the needed amount of materials without raising some eyebrows.

Konoha sounded just about right. It was a ninja village, and fairly cosmopolitan one at that, so his mannerisms and activities wouldn't look too out of place; it was the most civilian-friendly ninja village, so he probably wouldn't be scrutinized too closely; it's governance was riddled with convoluted bureaucracies, always a boon when you're trying to hide shady activities; the village has an ample supply of cheap and quality wood, so he would have no problems getting sufficient supply of puppet materials; and finally, he had a number of contacts there that could help him settle in without problems and were reasonably loyal.

Yes. Konoha it is

- break -

"You are sure of this?" asked Pein.

"We have retrieved Sasori's ring off one of the corpses," intoned Itachi emotionlessly.

Pein stared on impassively. No one knew what Sasori looked like beneath that armor puppet he always wore, so it could be a trick of some sort. But he doubted it. The puppeteer would have never have willingly trashed his entire collection, no matter what his goal was.

"And Orochimaru?" asked Pein.

"His currently location is unknown. He cut off his finger to foil the pursuit, so we cannot track him through the ring."

Pein continued to watch the rain fall over the city, keeping his back turned to Itachi. It was always a possibility, of course, but he had counted on member's reluctance to maim themselves. Orochimaru is the last person he's considered capable of it. After all, several hand-seals were now impossible to the snake-sannin, and thus a whole range of techniques as well. It was well known that mastering every jutsu in the world was Orochimaru's obsession. If he went this far, it meant…

…it meant that Orochimaru had found a way to render the injury irrelevant.

"Damage?" asked Pein more forcefully.

"Orochimaru took a large corpus of research notes with him when he left," said Itachi, "as well as several important researchers. Many projects will have to start over from scratch."

Fortunately, Pein had already taken precautions against this happening. He had his reservations against Orochimaru since day one, and had already established parallel teams for all crucial projects. No, there was a lot more serious issue a hand…

"What about Sasori's spy network?"

The slight hesitation before Itachi started speaking again told Pein immediately it was just as bad as he suspected.

"I'm afraid it will be difficult to assume control of Sasori's network without his guidance. Whatever means Sasori used to establish and maintain his network were lost along with him. Merely identifying the agents in question is proving to be a difficult and time-consuming process. Additionally, those agents we contacted are almost without fail loyal to Sasori, not Akatsuki as such. Significant efforts will have to be expended into making them accept us as their new employers. We will salvage what we can, but our information gathering effort will be severely restricted in the foreseeable future."

Pein could help but frown. This was a significant set-back. There was very few spymasters of Sasori's caliber that weren't aligned with one of the major villages, and their services were exorbitantly expensive. Somehow, Sasori was able to maintain a spy network as extensive as that of a major ninja village, for a quarter of the cost – a feat that not even Pein could replicate.

"That is all. Leave now."

Pein listened absentmindedly to Itachi's receding footsteps as he thought about his next actions. This changes everything. It wasn't enough to stop him, not by a long shot, but it was aggravating to face such an hurdle nevertheless. Orochimaru would have to be made an example of, of course. Once the new spy network was up and running he would find out everything he could about Orochimaru's bases and research facilities… and destroy them.


- break -

"It… it is a pleasure to have you here, Sasori-sama."

Yakushi Kabuto couldn't help but stare at the red-headed teenager sitting in front of him. There was no way, absolutely no way, that the terrifying and merciless Sasori of the Red Sands, before whom Kabuto had trembled in fear as a little boy, could be this… young! It went against some basic facts about Sasori that Kabuto knew about. The teenager in front of him was at most 16, and probably younger. Younger than Kabuto, in any case.

Oblivious to Kabuto's doubts, the boy that claimed to be Sasori didn't even bother to look up from the documents he was studying. That at least was Sasori-like. Looking at the boy's face, Kabuto could not see so much as a hint of emotion on it, despite being exceptionally skilled at reading people. There was no unconscious ticks, no frowns or lip-pursing, not even his eyes wandered around. The boy's face was as lifeless as… as…

Oh. Oh, wow.

"Is there something wrong?" asked Sasori.

"No, no, everything's fine Sasori-sama," said Kabuto cheerily. "I just realized something, that's all. Is the information I gathered satisfactory?"

"More or less," said Sasori, finally deigning to look Kabuto in the eyes. "Now… can I trust you Kabuto?"

It was in that exact moment that the last doubt that this is really Sasori melted away in Kabuto's mind. That serene expression filled with unflinching confidence… he could never lie to this man, he just didn't have the skill. Sasori's eyes peered into his soul, stripping away any deception he might endeavor to erect and leaving his true nature bare before the puppet master.

"Always, Sasori-sama," said Kabuto seriously.

"Up until recently," began Sasori, "I had been a member of a certain organization called Akatsuki. I worked in a two-man cell with a man called Orochimaru."

"Of the leaf?" asked Kabuto.

"Of the leaf," confirmed Sasori. "Originally, I had sent you here to get medic-nin training so that you could infiltrate Orochimaru's inner circle. He is always looking for medic-nins willing to participate in his experiments. However, I am no longer interested in spying on Orochimaru. I intend to destroy him."

Kabuto could read between the lines – he was a spy, after all – Orochimaru defeated Sasori rather soundly, and now the puppeteer wanted revenge. Not that Kabuto was complaining. While he wasn't the squeamish type, he didn't really know how he would put up with a monster like Orochimaru.

"As far as everyone is concerned, I'm dead," continued Sasori. "And I'd like it to stay that way. I have much in the way of preparations before I can make my move, perhaps years, so I will make Konoha my temporary base of operations till then. You, on the other hand, will have a task of your own to accomplish."

Sasori took out what was probably a storage scroll and placed it in front of Kabuto.

"The scroll contains two corpses of Orochimaru's underlings," said Sasori. "They seemed to have abilities reminiscent of a bloodline limit. I want you to use your medical knowledge and tell me everything you can about them. Do not fail me, Kabuto."

"I won't, Sasori-sama. I won't."

- break -

Uzumaki Naruto walked aimlessly through the streets of Konoha, his orange jumpsuit shining brightly as it reflected the rays of the midday sun. This in itself was nothing unusual - Naruto often walked aimlessly through Konoha. His apartment was really just a place to sleep over and stash what few belongings he had, and he was always outside if he could help it. No, the unusual part was that he was frowning.

He wasn't really unhappy, just bored. It was a beautiful sunny day and he didn't have to go to the academy today, which usually meant a fun day for blonde. But not today. He already performed every prank he could think of and, well, that's as far as his ideas to pass the time went. Oh, he could whip out some lame prank in an eye-blink, but that was below him. No, a master of pranks like him does not go for quantity – if he was going to prank someone it was going to be unique, unexpected, and absolutely hilarious. But he currently had nothing that fit that description. He briefly toyed with the idea of searching out for Sakura-chan, but she was particularly vicious yesterday, so he decided to give her some space for a while. At least until tomorrow. Is her considerate or what? Certainly more than Sasuke. So anyway, now he was thinking about what to do with himself. 'The frown' he was wearing was what people who knew him a little better, few as they were, referred to as his 'thinking expression'. Evidently he found the activity painful.

And so, with his face firmly pointed towards her ground, his eyes squinting and his hands in his pockets, Naruto rounded a corner and collided with a red-headed teenager who was carrying a stack of wooden boards and other supplies that obstructed his vision. Both of them collapsed on their backs, and Naruto yelped as one of the boards fell on his leg.

Naruto scrambled up in the blink of an eye, surveying the situation. The red-head was already up and dusting himself off, so no damage done. That was good, because Naruto just knew it would be his fault if the older boy was injured in the accident. His satisfaction deflated a little when he noticed a spilled bucket of brown paint nearby. The other boy also surveyed the situation, not sparing a single glance on Naruto.

"Well crap," the boy mumbled under his breath, no doubt thinking Naruto couldn't hear him. Over the years Naruto had noticed he had a lot better hearing than most people, but that was something he kept to himself. It's amazing what one can find out when people think you can't hear them whispering from the other side of the room. Hell, listening in on conversations was the main way he found out anything!

"Um…" Naruto began. "Sorry about that. I was thinking and wasn't paying attention."

The red-head shook his head dismissively, still not looking at Naruto, and began picking up boards. Naruto's blood began to boil – he hated being ignored. He started picking up boards to help the other boy and trying to establish eye-contact along the way. When that didn't work he started talking.

"Hey Red, what are you doing with these things anyway?" asked Naruto as he handed the last of the boards to the other boy.

"I'm opening a new shop in Konoha," the other boy said evenly. "The building was in pretty bad shape so I was going to change some floorboards and repaint the place."

"Oh," said Naruto. "You know, you look a bit young to be a shop owner. What kind of shop is it anyway?"

"Ninja supplies."

"Really! You know, I'm studying to become a ninja!"

"You don't say," the older boy said serenely. "I thought ninja are supposed to be aware of their surroundings at all times."

"What do you…" Naruto stopped when he remembered colliding with the other boy just a few moments ago. "Ah, that. That was a one-time thing. I'm pretty awesome actually. Just you watch, I'm going to be Hokage in a few years, the best Hokage in the history of Konoha in fact, or my name isn't Uzumaki Naruto! Believe it!"

The red-head finally deigned to look Naruto in the eyes. The older boy had the most serene expression Naruto had seen in a long time, and Naruto had to fight the urge to look away from the soul-penetrating eyes boring into him.

In his life, Naruto only met 3 sorts of people: those who clearly disliked him and were constantly putting him down; people who were uncomfortable around him, like he was going to swallow them whole if they take their eyes off of him; and people who were friendly and supportive his dream. The red-head before him was none of those things – his face portrayed a sort of calm confidence that told Naruto he doesn't mean a damn thing to the older boy, one way or another.

It was a novel and unsettling feeling.

"That's a pretty grandiose proclamation," the red-head said. "What exactly do you base this opinion on?"

"It's not an opinion!" protested Naruto, regaining his senses. "I am going to be the next Hokage and that's that!"

"Oh," said the red-head calmly. "So it's just unsubstantiated bullshit."

The sentence was delivered in such a matter-of-factly tone that Naruto was left actually speechless for a second.

Then he got angry.

"Shut up!" he yelled. "You don't know anything!"

"I know that you're making assertions with no proof to back them up, insisting that your feelings on the matter should trump any amount of facts or common sense to the contrary. If you can't present your point of view any better than that, than why should I believe you?"

"When I become Hokage, you'll be sorry for mocking my dream!" tried Naruto again. "You'll be sorry! Everyone will have to admit they were wrong about me and acknowledge me as… what the hell is so funny!"

Naruto was fuming. He didn't know what it was about the red-headed teenager that made his teeth grind, seeing how he had his dream dismissed by plenty of people before, but something about his tone and manner of speaking just made him want to punch the guy in the face! And now he was laughing at him too!

The red-head finally schooled his expression again. "You really are delusional, aren't you? It takes more than a high position in the official hierarchy to earn people's respect. A Hokage is instated into the position because they are respected, not the other way around. You're just a loud brat who talks big. You could proclaim yourself the king of all elemental countries and nobody would give a damn."

"Oh yeah! Well you're just a stupid civilian who don't know greatness when he sees it!" screamed Naruto. "I'm going to become Hokage and nothing is going to stop me! So there! What do you say now, huh!"

People around them didn't even stop to stare, going about their lives as if this was a regular occurrence. And it was. Naruto had to admit it wasn't the first time he yelled something like that in the middle of the street. The red-headed teen, however, didn't scoff or sneer at Naruto, or react in a way that the blonde would expect. He didn't commend him on his 'will of fire' like the Old Man would, or wave him off out of annoyance like most civilians. Instead his face suddenly got completely and utterly serious.

"You're such a petulant child," the red-head said calmly, and then simply turned and went on his way, leaving Naruto behind.

Naruto had heard a lot of insults in his life. He had been called a failure, an idiot, a no-good brat that will never amount to anything, a dope, dead-last, public disturbance, and worse. And yet, few of those affected him the way this simple sentence did. There was no trace of hostility in the other boy's voice as he said them, no underlying sense of superiority: it was as if the other boy truly believed Naruto deserved to be told this.

Naruto stared at the can of spilled paint the red-head left behind for a full minute before continuing his aimless wandering, this time with a real frown on his face.

- break -

Naruto sat on a swing in one of the many small parks that dotted Konoha, half-heartedly pushing himself from time to time. There was nobody there except him, and the only sound that could be heard was quiet creaking of the swing. It would have probably been a rather eerie scene if he weren't used to it by now. In fact, he chose this specific swing precisely because it creaked.

Ever since he was a child he found the silence terrifying. His sensitive ears picked up all sorts of creepy sounds when things were quiet. People often spoke mean things to him under their breath when he passed by them in an empty street, thinking he couldn't hear them, and then denied they did any such thing when he called them on it. Sometimes, when things were particularly quiet, he could even hear the soft footsteps of invisible stalkers behind and around him, hiding in the trees and rooftops. It was only years later that he understood that he wasn't insane and that he simply had better ears than other people.

The stalkers turned out to be ANBU that followed him around for some reason when he was a child. He would occasionally catch glimpses of their stark white masks, with their animal faces and huge black eyes, and it terrified him. These 'evil spirits' haunted his childhood nightmares every time he closed his eyes, and it was years before he found out they were just ninja sent to protect him. Even today, he still resented the Old Man somewhat for not telling him about that, and for laughing at him when a particular encounter with ANBU scared him to tears.


In any case, he was no longer terrified of silence, but he didn't like it. In silence, there was little to do but think, and Naruto didn't really want to think. Thinking inevitably led to an awful lot of questions that nobody saw fit to answer him. There wasn't much point to it, really – the way to succeed was to ignore all who wanted to bring him down and press on regardless how convincing their arguments were. 'The Will of Fire', as the Old Man would put it. Thinking just made you depressed and cranky. So whenever there was something bothering him, he would come to the swing. The rhythmic creaking sound soothed him, allowing him to focus on the creaking instead of pointlessly dwelling on his problems.

He glanced at the nearby playground. When he first came here, there was a gaggle of children playing there, but they wanted nothing to do with him, and soon left. Naruto wasn't really bothered – they were stupid anyway. 'Playing ninja', yeah right… he was going to be a real ninja, so there. It's just that he couldn't help but overhear one boy telling the others that his mother told him to stay away from Naruto, 'because he was dangerous'. It reminded him of his time at the orphanage, when he would overhear other children spreading all sorts of rubbish about him behind his back. It made him so…

He clenched the chains tighter in his hands and pushed himself more firmly off the ground. As the creaking got louder and the wind started hitting his face, Naruto could feel his anger abating and his thought shifting elsewhere. It doesn't matter. None of it maters. He was going to become Hokage and marry Sakura-chan, and no one will speak such lies about him again.

'You're such a petulant child.'

He pressed his feet firmly into the ground and the swing came to a swift halt.

"This sucks," stated Naruto to no one in particular.

This was all the red-head's fault. If he didn't ridicule his dream like that, he wouldn't be depressed in the first place, and he wouldn't give a damn what a bunch of brats think about him. Suddenly his face split into a devious smile and he began chuckling to himself. Didn't the guy said he was opening a new shop? And he needed it painted too?

Well… surely Naruto could help out a bit in that regard.

- break -

It was evening when Sasori came to retrieve something from his shop, only to find the blonde boy from earlier that day painting his shop in pink and yellow flowers. Sasori never really liked flowers – such transitory things, wilting away after just a few days – but the real issue was that flowery background was not something that any self-respecting ninja supply shop would use. Which was the whole point behind the kid's activities, he supposed.

As stealthily as he could, Sasori approached the blonde until he was right behind him. It was surprisingly difficult, actually. The boy had good ears.

"What do you think you're doing to my shop?"

The boy jumped in surprise, dropping his brush, but didn't make a single sound. Instead he spun around with speed that surprised Sasori, staring bug-eyed at the puppet master. Sasori's face was carefully twisted into an expression of mild irritation at the childish act of vandalism the blonde was inflicting upon him.

"Err… I'm… helping you out! Yeah! You did said you need to paint the shop so I thought…"

Sasori stared at the blonde in silence. Did he look that stupid to the kid? No one would believe such a transparent lie. He waited for a while for the blonde to state something else, but boy just started chuckling and rubbing the back of his head nervously, before quickly scooping up his brush and putting it behind his back, as if doing so would hide his involvement at the shop's sudden flowery motif. He looked ready to bolt at the first sign of danger, but Sasori had no intention of wasting his time by chasing a little kid around like an idiot.

"That's such a pathetic lie," Sasori said finally. "After having been caught red-handed, you can't even admit as much and apologize like a responsible individual. Earlier today you told me you wanted people's respect, and then you do something like this?"

"But…" the blonde protested weakly, clearly not expecting this kind of interaction. Sasori supposed that curses and threats of physical violence were common responses to something like this, but Sasori would never stoop to the level of swearing and he didn't do threats – he killed. The kid wasn't quite at the point where Sasori wanted to skewer him without warning and dump his corpse into a nearby river, but he was steadily getting there.

"But what?" Sasori said. "You just vandalized my place. You're not getting any respect that way."

"Vandalism!" protested Naruto indignantly. "This is art, man!"

Sasori struggled to keep his temper in check and failed, lowering his face in a threatening manner. The gesture caused the boy to take a step back and take in all available escape routes. Sasori was actually impressed at the clearly practiced reaction, and idly wondered what kind of life the kid lived if he already had an instinct like that.

"Art?" Sasori asked in a deceptively friendly tone, his eyes boring into boy's, daring him to repeat what he just said.

"Y-yeah," the boy answered. He swallowed heavily, clearly trying to summon his courage. "It takes a lot of skill and effort to do something like this! I had to evade the patrols and find a window of opportunity long enough to finish painting the place; bring enough paint and correct brushes and not be slowed down by everything I carried; fit all the materials within my budget; paint everything in less than an hour; lot's of things. And look how pretty the flowers are! That takes some skill!"

It… made some twisted sort of sense. No doubt organizing something like this took a non-trivial amount of effort, and the boy clearly cared about his workmanship enough to argue with the man whose property he just vandalized. Still, at the heart of things this was just a childish prank, superbly executed or not, and Sasori wasn't going to encourage it.

"Yes, I bet your parents would be real proud of you," Sasori said.

"My parents are dead," the boy said angrily.

"So are mine," Sasori shot back. "The point remains."

The blonde grunted and backed off. Which was good, because Sasori never had much patience with the 'lack of parents' excuse. And it wasn't because Sasori lost his parents too, either – it's just that Sasori had lived long enough to see plenty of people whose lives were, to borrow a phrase he overheard a few days ago, 'utter suck-age'. There were far, far worse fates in the world than loosing ones parents was.

"It was a prank, okay?" said Naruto quietly. "It's what I do. I prank people. I thought everyone knew that."

Sasori cocked his head to the side in a curious expression, like a bird studying a shiny object. The child was baffling, and Sasori didn't like things he didn't understand. He liked to examine them until they make sense, vivisect them if he had to.

Fortunately for the boy, verbal answers should be sufficient in this case.

"Why do you prank people?"

"I…" begun the boy. "It's fun. I make people laugh. Sometimes."

"Really?" Sasori responded. "For a moment I thought it was revenge for disagreeing with you when you ran into me earlier."

The blonde looked down into the ground. "You were making fun of me," he protested weakly.

"Actually I was just being dismissive," Sasori said. "I assure you I derived no 'fun' from berating you. I was just annoyed that some random kid ran into me, spouted a whole lot of nonsense without so much as a word of prompting from me, and then behaved like a spoiled child when I objected to his claims."

"I am not a spoiled child! Or a petulant one, either!"

"You love to brag, you're easily offended, and you take things personally when there's no need to. That's not what a mature person behaves like."

"But you dismissed my dream without thinking! Why is it impossible for me to become Hokage, huh!"

"I never said it was impossible," said Sasori, "but you'll need to earn people's respect first before you're even considered for the position. That is no easy feat, and you are years, probably decades away from being a viable candidate. Pronouncing your intention to become Hokage to an absolute stranger, without prompting, makes you seem conceited. It would paint just about anyone in bad light, but especially someone like you – a little kid who isn't even a out of academy yet."

The boy shuffled in place uncomfortably, clearly at loss for a response.

"I will not give up!"

"Good for you," Sasori said flatly. "Now get lost before I report you for this… art… of yours."

Sasori watched the kid as he ran into the night. The child had piqued his interest. From their exchange, and people's reactions, he got the notion that the blonde was famous somehow, yet he had no knowledge of him. He always hated being in the dark of things, so perhaps a small information gathering endeavor is in order. He needed some time to clear his head, anyway, and how hard should it be to shadow someone like that kid? Uzumaki Naruto, was it?

He glanced at his shop. No way he's scrubbing off all that paint. That's the sort of thing rookie genin were for – he'll just post a request for a D-rank.

Yes, Sasori had a petulant side too.

- break -

Ichiraku's Ramen Stand was Naruto's sanctuary. If there was any place he considered home, it would be that little stand, with it's delicious aroma of ramen wafting through the air, the pleasant attitude of old man Teuchi, and the friendly conversations with Ayame. When possible, he would time his visits so that he would be the only costumer and pretended in his mind that they were a family of sorts.

"So what's on your mind?" Ayame asked, leaning across the counter.

"Nothing," said Naruto. "Why?"

"You seem upset."

Naruto concentrated on his ramen bowl for a moment to buy time. It's been three days and he couldn't stop thinking about the red-headed shop owner. What was the deal with that guy, anyway? The guy just didn't make sense.

He shook his head, banishing the thought. He came here to get his mind off the guy!

Originally he wanted to talk to the Old Man, since the Hokage always seemed to have an answer to all Naruto's doubts, but he was too busy this week to meet with Naruto. It was probably for the best – why should he bother Old Man because of what some random shop keeper told him? It was nothing. He was dealing with people like that all his life! Well, not quite like that… There was something strange and unnerving about the red-head, something that made his remarks strike deeper than they usually do, but Naruto couldn't pin-point it. In fact, he… Damn it, he was thinking about him again!

"Just people putting me down again," Naruto said. "I'll be alright in a couple of days."

"Don't worry Naruto, you'll show them all one day," Ayame said.

Naruto grinned. He knew she was saying just to make him feel better, but he still appreciated the thought behind it. "Damn right they will. It's just gets me down every now and then, but I can handle it. Uzumaki Naruto can't be defeated that easily!"

He talked with Ayame for a while, with the old man Teuchi occasionally dropping into the conversation to deliver some of his own advice. They were supportive, like always, and Naruto soon found himself in a good mood again. He wished he could afford to come here every day… or better yet, that he had someone like this waiting for him when he came back to his apartment. Instead, the only think that waited for him was silence.

But he couldn't afford to think like that. At least the apartment was 10 times better than the orphanage had been. At least the apartment was warm and dry, unlike the alleys and sewers he slept in for two weeks after he ran away from the orphanage.

At least the nightmares that haunted him in the apartment were all in his head.

He finished his last bowl, paid for his meal, and waved the Ichiraku's goodbye. He knew it was about time to close down the stand, even if neither Teuchi nor Ayame come out and tell Naruto to get lost so they can go home. They were too nice for that, but Naruto didn't want to inconvenience them.

He didn't really want to inconvenience anyone. So why did so many people go out of their way to inconvenience him?

One more question that had no answer and was pointless to think about.

He maneuvered the streets without really paying attention, every nook and cranny of the village already memorized. After a 10 minute walk he reached his destination: a small mixed goods store that was about to close soon. Good, his timing was perfect.

He pushed the door and walked in without sparing a second glance to the cashier. Sometimes the store owners gave him trouble, but never when he came in a few minutes before closing. Nobody wanted to argue for 30 minutes when they could just grit their teeth, play along, and go home for the day already. He scanned the shelves quickly, taking things that looked safe.

Buying food in stores was always a gamble - every once in a while he would get terrible stomach pains and fevers after eating food he bought from them. It wasn't consistent, and it was never lethal, so he couldn't really accuse them of trying to poison him intentionally… but the fact remained that buying anything that could be easily tampered with had cost him dearly plenty of times. On top of this, he had to keep in mind that electricity went out randomly in his apartment for hours at the time, so any food he left in the freezer tended to get spoiled if it was at all spoilable. The fire country wasn't named such for nothing, and all that heat did very bad things to any meat or dairy products every time he would get an outage.

As a consequence he only bought factory-packed, hermetically sealed products that could withstand the heat well. Instant soups and ramen were the core of his diet, supplemented be milk and an occasional basket of fruit the Old Man had people bring him.

And besides… he didn't really know how to prepare anything more complex than various instant meals, and the instructions were always really tiny and used all sorts of funny words that Naruto didn't understand.

As he exited the store and started walking home he heard a sound to his left and stiffened momentarily. All day now he has been hearing things, like someone was stalking him, but the sounds were too sporadic for that. It was his childhood all over again.

He shrugged and continued on. Probably just a cat or something.

- break -

It's been a week since Sasori started shadowing Uzumaki Naruto, and he had to admit that the blonde was definitely more than he expected. Being a Kyuubi jinchuuriki would have been interesting enough in itself, but the boy lived a life as interesting as befits his status as the container of the nine-tailed fox.

Just avoiding being seen was a chore, since the boy had more than just good hearing – it was positively supernatural in scope. Stealth wasn't really Sasori's specialty, so it took constant effort to be as silent as he needed to be, but fortunately the boy wasn't too paranoid. In the end Sasori enlisted Kabuto's help (under the pretense of it being a punishment for snickering at the store's new motif) in order to procure the academy records and observe the boy during lessons.

Superficially, the boy was an utter failure – an atrociously bad student with a penchant for immature pranks and an unhealthy obsession with his female classmate, utterly devoid of social intelligence and possessing of incredibly grating manner of speech. Most people would say - and had said, in front of the boy sometimes - that the boy was hopeless.

Sasori wasn't most people. What he saw potential.

The spars organized by the academy, as well as an occasional vivid report by one of the instructors, showed that the boy had excellent spur of the moment planning and often came up with unconventional, but effective tactics. Clearly the blonde had a good grasp of strategy stuffed somewhere in his brain, squeezed between his obsessions with becoming Hokage, ramen, and that Haruno girl. His ability to live alone without becoming a total slob displayed depths of logistics and willpower that many men three times his age couldn't muster. Finally, considering the complete disinterest the vast majority of academy instructors had for him, the boy was doing surprisingly well.

Sasori couldn't deny he was interested in Naruto. There was some part of him that he didn't even know he still had that sympathized with the boy's plight. And in the worst case, maybe he can find out something that might be of use if he ever decides to go back to Akatsuki. Really, he didn't have to do much. He would just talk to the kid and see where it leads. Maybe Sasori's influence will rub off on the kid and if not… well, it's not like he lost much did he?

Naruto didn't have anyone to help him, either in his calling as a ninja, or in life. The three people he interacted with on positive terms were little more than acquaintances by standards of other people. He had no one he could really go to if he had a problem, no role model, no one he could reliably count on. The boy was desperate to find someone, anyone, who would not hate him or ignore him.

And Sasori was going to be that someone.

- break -

"Happy birthday Naruto."

Sarutobi suppressed a chuckle of amusement as Naruto grunted something vaguely like 'thank you' before continuing his assault on the ramen bowl. The boy was so easy to please. It made him feel bad for not devoting more time to the child, but he was swamped with obligations. The Kyuubi attack and the Uchiha massacre were both massive blows to Konoha's power, leaving scars that would take decades to heal. Other villages were constantly probing for weaknesses - the Hyuuga incident came to mind - and internal power-plays threatened to blow out of control, various interest groups bickering amongst each other in an attempt to fill the power vacuum created by the village's misfortunes. Konoha was a giant mess right now, and Sarutobi was in charge of dealing with it.

Try as he might, he was just too busy to devote more time to his adoptive grandson. It's not easy to garner respect when everyone knows you're just a placeholder until a suitable successor is found, even if you are the famous 'professor'. It's not easy to assign missions to proper teams when a large section of your forces has been only recently promoted to their positions. It's not easy handling diplomacy in an increasingly hostile world. It's not easy spending time with your family while not shirking from your duties to the village.

And on top of all that he had to find time to visit Naruto? Well he did! Once every month or two. Surely no one could ask more of him?

"So, 10 years old, huh?" said Ayame, more as a statement than an actual question.

"Yup!" answered Naruto, temporarily breaking off his speed-eating. "One year closer to becoming Hokage!"

"I'm not so sure…" said the Old Man mischievously, "if what Iruka is telling me is correct, you'll be glad to even graduate from the Academy."

"That's mean, Old Man," protested Naruto, but quickly twisted his face into his signature foxy grin. "You're just afraid for your job so you're trying to demoralize me. Uzumaki Naruto doesn't quit that easily!"

"I'm glad to hear that," said the aging Hokage. "Determination is a crucial skill for a ninja. Still, I'm somewhat concerned that a potential Hokage is unwilling to do the work necessary to qualify for the position. Will you shirk from your responsibilities as a Hokage too?"

"No!" shouted Naruto, rising from his stool. "I'm going to be the best Hokage ever! I wouldn't betray the village like that!"

Sarutobi locked eyes with Naruto, who looked directly into Sarutobi's eyes, as if daring him to contradict him. Even when Sarutobi leaked a minute amount of killing intent, Naruto refused to back down. Hell, the boy didn't even flinch. Sarutobi couldn't resist chuckling in amusement at that kind of bravado. 'The will of fire burns strongly in him, indeed.'

Naruto didn't seem very pleased that his heartfelt proclamation was being laughed at, though, and returned to his meal, mumbling about how nobody takes him seriously.

"I heard you tried to reach me last week," said Sarutobi. "I'm sorry that I couldn't meet you but I was busy and your birthday was close so… It wasn't anything urgent, I hope?"

"Nope," said Naruto casually. "I just had a chat with someone and it made me think. I just wanted to talk to you a bit."

"Well I'm all ears," Sarutobi said.

"It was nothing important," said Naruto, shaking his head. "I've dealt with it. How is being Hokage working for you?"

"I manage," Sarutobi said.

"Good, don't you dare retire before I'm ready to take your place Old Man," Naruto warned.

"Well you better hurry and improve, because I don't plan to stay Hokage for more than a decade. As you are, you're not looking like a very promising successor. I know, I know, I believe you, but you have to look at things my way. You're lagging behind all your peers. Accuracy, ninjutsu, taijutsu, academic knowledge… you're not very good at any of them. Yet instead of trying to catch up to your classmates, you're spending your time playing pranks on people. That doesn't look very responsible."

Naruto's face twisted itself into a sour expression. Sarutobi suspected he wouldn't get an explanation for the boy's bad performance. He found it hard to believe Naruto's problem was laziness, but how else could he explain his abysmal scores? He wasn't abused, Sarutobi was sure of that – while there were certain… incidents… when he was younger, Sarutobi's vicious executions of anyone bold enough to attack the boy physically dissuaded potential assassins and thugs. Now, as if in protest against not being able to hurt the boy, people just ignored Naruto as best as they could. Which wasn't all that easy when you're dealing with a loud, orange-clad kid practically bouncing off the walls with barely contained energy.

"Yeah, I know," said Naruto finally, rubbing the back of his head and chuckling nervously. Sarutobi was honestly surprised – Naruto had never before admitted that his performance is unsatisfactory in any manner. "I'll get better, I promise."

Sarutobi wanted to say something, but he knew he did enough damage. His appetite lost, Naruto proclaimed he had enough ramen and disappeared as fast as he could without appearing like he's running away. Sarutobi wished he brought that subject up on some other meeting, not on the boy's birthday. And after the boy had finished eating. He had expected Naruto to deny the accusations with all his breath and press on, not this. It seems the stream of constant failures was finally getting to the kid.

Watching at the corner behind which Naruto disappeared, Sarutobi cursed Minato for the mess he left him with, and his two best students for running off like emotional teenagers. It wasn't supposed to be like this.

With a sigh, Sarutobi paid for the meal and started walking back to his tower. Hopefully, Naruto would overcome whatever problems held him back and make something of himself.

Hope. That's all he could do for the boy right now.

- break -

Naruto walked into his apartment with a sigh of relief. Even though he only treated his apartment as a place to sleep and a storeroom for his bulkier belongings, he was glad he had the place. It was rather calming to be here, secondly only to sitting on one of the Ichiraku's stools. His apartment might be a dump, with cracks running through the walls, a broken window repaired with duct-tape, hit-and-miss utilities, and a million other imperfections, but it was his. There was something comforting in that fact. In the orphanage he had to make a scene whenever he wanted something to be done, but now that he had an apartment all to himself he can shower when he feels dirty, eat when he's hungry, and get clothes for himself without them mysteriously disappearing.

But his mood wasn't particularly upbeat. Even the Old Man thought he was a failure; that had really struck a nerve. Being told you're doing badly by a jerk like Iruka is one thing, and altogether another to have that pointed out to you by someone whose opinion you hold in very high regard. He knew that in the end he would make the Old Man proud by becoming the best ninja ever, but that didn't make the meantime any more pleasant.

He went to the bathroom to get a nice calming shower, but the water still wasn't back. He'll have to nag the land-lord again. He went by the window, inspecting the potted plants he 'rescued' from the dumpsters around the city. He was slowly nursing them back to health, but they were still sickly-looking. Without a second thought, he took his last bottle of water and distributed it to the thirsty greenery. They need it more than he does.

What exactly was he supposed to do? Nobody wanted to spar with him, everyone always called him stupid when he asked questions, and he was sick trying to get the clone jutsu to work. The instructors never helped him unless he was being a total ass, and even then they just told him what he was doing wrong, never how to fix it. He was reduced to overhearing advice given to other students and doing his best to apply it to himself.

Maybe he could work on accuracy? It's not like you need to know some deep secrets about how to throw a kunai. Yes, that could definitely work!

He quickly found his kunai bag and left for his super-secret training ground. He would practice his throwing till the sun sets down, and by tomorrow he'd be the best in class! He'll be better than Sasuke-teme, and then Sakura-chan will like him. He chuckled to himself as he added details to his fantasy. Yes, that's exactly how it's going to be.

He was rudely wrenched out of his fantasies when he came to his training ground and found it taken. Well, not exactly taken. The training ground was big enough for dozens of people, and the two of them could comfortably use this one without bothering each other. And the other person wasn't exactly rude. He or she was just sitting in the shade of the tree, reading a book. And the training ground wasn't really his. Legally speaking, it was just abandoned. But

Naruto cautiously approached, and the identity of the intruder became more defined. It was Red, as Naruto came to think of him, the red-headed teenager who's shop he van- uh, decorated a week ago. Not really someone Naruto wanted to meet again. Naruto approached with mild apprehension, but Red appeared totally oblivious to Naruto's presence, serene expression plastered on his face. No greeting, no remarks, no nothing.

Naruto debated internally whether to say something and initiate conversation, but decided against it. It wasn't the first time he'd gotten silent treatment and besides… he kind of deserved it this case.

So Naruto did the same thing the red-headed teen did – he ignored the other's presence. He took a kunai out of his bag and started abusing the targets in the distance.

He did it for hours. He threw kunai after kunai, again and again, switched to shuriken and back to kunai again, until his shoulder was sore and he accidentally slashed his pinky. He wasn't getting any better. The blasted things missed, weered off their intended flight path, and bounced off targets. By the time the noon sun shone directly on the training ground, Naruto was sick of it all, his enthusiasm completely sapped. He kicked the remaining kunai and called them stupid, but found that inanimate objects were unmoved by his insults. Dragging his feet and pouting to himself, he flopped down under the nearby tree.

He just couldn't understand what the problem was. He couldn't really be that bad, could he?

Suddenly, Red got up from his tree, picking up Naruto's scattered shuriken and kunai, turning them in his hand and inspecting them. Naruto observed him with intense interest but didn't say anything. When the older boy suddenly began walking towards him, Naruto stood up to face him on equal ground.

"Your weapons are of very poor quality," began the red-head. "They're too soft, improperly sharpened and poorly balanced. Whoever sold you these cheated you. You'll never get better as long as you use them. They're not even good for training."

For several seconds, Naruto's mind was blank. He tried processing this knew knowledge but it just didn't mesh with his accepted worldview. The merchant who sold him those was so nice! Nice people don't do stuff like that, do they? He couldn't have possibly meant to sell him faulty merchandise…

'Whoever sold you these cheated you.'

There was no ambiguity in that sentence, no straw that Naruto's mind could grasp for in order to interpret it in a positive way. Naruto hanged his head. And he paid premium price for those too…

"I can't get any better ones," Naruto stated.

"Why not?" asked the Red in a curious tone.

Naruto's mind exploded in anger. Why not indeed? He could confront the clerk about this, couldn't he? He could hand them him to the Old Man, couldn't he? But he already knew the answer. He didn't like it, but deep down he was aware of it.

"The shop owners don't like me," said Naruto, locking eyes with the stranger. That was it, really. It's not just that they didn't respect him or refused to acknowledge his existence. They actively disliked him. They were going out of his way to inconvenience him, and him alone. They would continue to do so no matter what he did.

"After our clash that night," said Red, wrenching Naruto from his thoughts, "I took it upon myself to find out what I can about you. You are a very… notorious person, Uzumaki Naruto."

Naruto's face fell. Here we go; one more person who heard the stories about him and decided they don't want to be anywhere near him. He should just pick up his stuff and walk away, but… Oh what the hell.

"You bet! Everyone knows about me! I am Uzumaki Naruto - Konoha's number one prankster and the future Hokage!"

"I see," the other boy didn't change his expression, not for a moment. "Well Naruto, if the shop owners won't let you buy proper equipment, how about you let me buy it for you?"

Naruto's face shifted into his patented foxy grin. This guy wasn't so bad after all.