At the soft rhythmic knocks, Harry padded across his dim lit apartment on silent feet and opened the spelled door. With a finger to his lips, Harry waved his two visitors to the kitchen as Naruto snored from the sofa.
Hands loaded with boxes and eyes crinkled in amusement, Izumo and Kotetsu moved through the dark apartment like silent ghosts.
"How is he still sleeping?" Kotetsu muttered in the kitchen. "He needs some more environmental awareness."
"Already making future lesson plans?" Harry asked as he opened the biggest box.
"He's not the one giving lessons and why are you checking that so obsessively?" Izumo said, handing Harry a thick brown envelope. "Did you think we'd mess up? What kind of incompetent genin do you think we are?"
Harry shoved the envelope into a nearby pile of the papers and shushed him over the lid. "I just want to make sure it's right before Naruto wakes up with the smell."
Kotetsu snorted. "Too late for that."
The sofa in the living room creaked and fabric rustled with shifting weight. "Nii-san?" Naruto called out, his voice hoarse with sleep and worry. When he stopped at the doorway, a pyjama-clad Naruto squinted at them with suspicious blue eyes. "What are you three doing so early in the morning?"
"Don't you know what today is?" At Naruto's confused frown, Harry tutted. "You don't? That's sad."
"You're pretty cranky for a birthday boy," Harry said, revelling at the mix of emotions -surprise, delight and disbelief- racing over Naruto's face, and moved aside. On the kitchen table behind him, Izumo and Kotetsu had unboxed a large orange cake and arranged some gaudy party cutlery on the tiny amount of space around the cake. "Happy Birthday!"
Izumo and Kotetsu chorused the cheer with enthusiasm.
Naruto gaped, all traces of sleep vanishing. "That's a huge cake."
"It is," Harry nodded. "I'm glad the baker could make it on such short notice."
Izumo's lips twitched up in amusement. "He was probably excited to get such a unique order."
"It's not that unique."
"It's orange, blindingly so," Kotetsu pointed out as he lit the candles on the cake. "Even in this dim light it looks like it's glowing orange. Trust me, that's unique."
"It's not glowing, it looks fine." Harry looked up but had to blink away persistent afterimages of the cake.
"Fine but unique!" Kotetsu motioned to the bright plates around the cake. "So, cake for breakfast?"
"Depends on birthday boy," Harry said, glancing at Naruto. "He chooses today's food plans."
Naruto, who had been staring at the lit candles, straightened with a grin. "I could eat cake for breakfast, lunch and dinner?"
"You could." Harry shrugged. "Then I don't have to treat you to ramen for lunch."
"You'd treat me to ramen?"
"It's your birthday," Harry said. "Makes sense to get treated, don't you think?"
Izumo sighed with a dramatic slump of his shoulders. "Too bad we're not invited."
"You said you had to work the afternoon shift," Harry retorted without sympathy. "Which is why you're here so early."
"Lunch would have been nicer than cake for breakfast, even if it is ramen," Kotetsu said, handing Naruto a knife.
"You don't have to eat it, that'll just leave more cake for us." Harry turned to Naruto and waved at the cake. "Make a wish before the wax covers the cake."
"Don't rush me," Naruto said but his eyes gleamed. He leaned forward with a grin and extinguished all the candles in one breath to loud cheers.
Between mouthfuls of cake that dyed their tongues orange, Kotetsu asked, "Have you made any progress with Kakashi's water jutsu?"
Already on his second piece of cake, Naruto paused at the sudden question and shrugged. "I can't use it in battle yet."
"So you've got the basics down?" Izumo propped his elbow on the table and rubbed his chin. "That will make things easy when we get to training ground 31."
Naruto frowned. "Training ground 31?"
"It's the best place to teach you the Syrup Trap." Izumo sipped his tea but kept his eyes trained on the blond.
Naruto stopped eating and looked between both ninja on the other side of the kitchen table. "Are you serious?"
Izumo nodded. "It's your birthday present from the both of us."
"That's so stingy," Naruto looked down at his plate, the smile in his voice easy to hear despite his words. "Not giving me actual presents."
"What's that?" Kotetsu leaned forward with a knitted brow over gleaming eyes. "You don't want to learn the jutsu that no one else knows. Guess we don't have to use up our free morning, Izumo."
"Seems like it," Izumo said, his lips curled up behind his teacup.
"No, I want to learn it," Naruto. "You can't take back your promise to teach me!"
"I didn't hear any promises being made," Harry said with amusement.
Naruto whined, "Nii-san, you're supposed to be on my side."
"I am sitting right beside you."
"Nii-san!" Naruto groaned as though in physical pain, but perked up when Harry slid another piece of cake on his plate.
"I don't know how to feel about out first student being such a brat," Izumo said with a lighthearted shake of his head.
"But it'll be nice to be called sensei," Kotetsu smirked as he took another piece of cake. "Even people like Raido haven't had students to pass their techniques down to yet. We've totally beat them."
"It's not a competition," Izumo said but smiled in obvious delight at Kotetsu's words.
"Wouldn't it be even better if you taught the future Hokage more than just the Syrup Trap?" Naruto asked with a casualness that didn't match his eager eyes.
Izumo snorted. "Creating the syrup is tricky. It'll take you a long while to shape your chakra into the proper syrup consistency. After that, comes the harder part of learning to control it on the battlefield."
"Controlling it is hard, even I can't do it properly," Kotetsu added with a solemn shake of his head.
"But you created the jutsu!" Naruto said.
Kotetsu shook his head. "Izumo did. I just use the jutsu to put a lot more syrup on the battlefield for Izumo to use."
"And I've tweaked it since our last battle." A grim undertone darkened Izumo's eyes as he added, "Next time, it won't be something that can be shrugged off. Not even by monstrous ninja like..."
Kotetsu cleared his throat with a pointed look.
Izumo took a long sip of tea before he continued, "I'll be teaching you the new version of the jutsu. So you'll have to practice a lot, considering you're a wind nature type."
"I will," Naruto said without hesitation. "I'll make the syrup and control it like you do in no time."
Izumo leaned back into his chair as he smirked. "I hope you still have that optimistic attitude when you're drenched in sticky chakra syrup."
"I won't be drenched in syrup," Naruto straightened and jutted his chin out.
Izumo grinned as he shared an indecipherable look with an equally amused Kotetsu. "You need to be, to learn the proper consistency of the syrup."
The first stirrings of apprehension crawled across Naruto's face. "You're just going to cover me in syrup for no reason, aren't you?"
"Nonsense, it's an essential part of the learning process and since it's a jutsu that I created, I'm the only one who knows the best way to to teach it."
After a long moment, Naruto crossed his arms with a determined scowl. "I'll ace your training. Do whatever you want."
Kotetsu shook his head with faux pity. "You shouldn't have said that to old Izumo. He's had to chase you much more that I did when you were a little prank-pulling hellion."
"Really? Then how come you never caught me with your Syrup Trap?" Naruto said.
Izumo scoffed. "Why would I use a jutsu, that I spent years creating, on a bratty child?"
"That's not the real reason Izumo never caught you with the Syrup Trap," Kotetsu said with a wide grin. "You see, chasing after you meant that he wouldn't be stuck doing gate dut… oi!" He flinched back from the table and rubbed his leg.
With a saccharine smile that promised retribution, Izumo said, "Since we're reminiscing about the past, shall I tell him when you decided to improve your painting skills that one time?"
Kotetsu kicked at Izumo only to wince when he hit the chair instead. "Shut up. I did no such thing. I'm allergic to paint."
"Allergic to work is more like it," Izumo retorted with an arched brow.
Naruto looked back and forth between the two, leaning forward to hear more.
But Izumo said, "You done eating? The sooner we start training, the more progress we can make before our afternoon shift."
"Wait, I have something for you." Harry grabbed the bag he'd hidden earlier and pushed it towards Naruto, trying not to look as uncertain as he felt.
Swallowing the last bit of his cake, Naruto looked into the bag and pulled out a sturdy new beige hip pouch with surprised delight. "I needed a new one after the past few missions."
"I noticed," Harry said in a wry tone.
Naruto raised the pouch to eye level and ran his fingers along the outside, inspecting every stitch and seam with growing approval. He opened it to examine the inside and paused at the silver glinting on the inside flap. Naruto traced the silver threads with awe, "You stitched this?"
Relieved at the success of the gift, Harry shrugged. "Consider it a good luck charm to keep your gear safe."
Fingers still on the stitching, Naruto stared at Harry with considering eyes. "Was this what you needed that math for?"
Amused that his previous struggles with math, or more accurately a magic formula, were so memorable to Naruto, Harry grinned. "Maybe."
Naruto scrutinized the stitches as though trying to uncover what magic was involved and how.
The two older ninja leaned over to look at what had captured Naruto's attention.
"You needed math to sew?" Kotetsu asked in disbelief.
"It worked, didn't it?" Harry said with a defensive shrug, happy to let them come up with their own explanations.
"A deer?" Izumo said with a shake of his head. "You've been spending too much time with the Nara."
"It's not a Nara stag," Harry said. "It's an important personal symbol."
"A symbol of what?" Kotetsu asked with a tilt of his head.
Without an ounce of hesitation, Harry answered, "That's a family secret."
Naruto grinned and handed the pouch to a summoned clone. "Yeah, a family secret." As the clone arranged the contents of his old pouch into the new one, Naruto headed to the wash-room.
Kotetsu leaned back in his chair with a desolate sigh. "All the interesting things are always family secrets."
Even though his eyes were fixed on the pouch, clone-Naruto grinned and said, "When you get kids, you can make up family secrets for them."
Izumo snorted. "Let's hope Maiko sticks long enough for there to be kids in the future."
"Maiko?" Harry looked up from clone-Naruto's careful work and gaped at Kotetsu. "Are you dating an actual person? When did that happen?"
"Shouldn't you be asking, how it happened?" Izumo said, his eyes bright with mischief.
Harry frowned at Kotetsu. "How did you get someone to date you? Did you cheat?"
"What does that even mean? How could I possibly cheat to get a date?"
Harry turned to Izumo, "Did he cheat?"
"He cheated," Izumo said with a solemn nod. "He said he knew someone who could fix the ugly vase her grandmother left her."
"You used me as your pick up line?" Harry said in disbelief.
"What use is having a friend if you can't use them to help you get a date?" Kotetsu said as he stood, unashamed by his words.
"See what I've had to put up with," Izumo said with an exaggerated sigh.
"I'm sure you'd do the same if you had the chance. You're both similar in that aspect." Ignoring their indignant sputters, Harry said, "Aren't you going to go train now?"
"Good point," Izumo said as he shot the freshly-dressed Naruto a wry glance. "Otherwise someone is just going to keep eating cake."
"It's extra energy for training," Naruto said after finishing the newest slice of cake he'd cut for himself. Before he could take the filled pouch from his clone, Kotetsu swiped it and raced out of the apartment in a blur. Both Naruto and the pyjama-clad clone-Naruto chased after him with indignant yells.
Harry turned at Izumo. "Don't mess with him too much, it's his birthday."
Izumo chuckled as he rinsed his cup in the sink. "We'll keep him busy till lunch time."
"Remind him to head to Ichiraku's for lunch," Harry said. "But don't be too obvious about keeping him away from the apartment."
Izumo gave him a short salute and followed after the other two with a wide grin.
Five minutes later, Sakura and Sai knocked on the front door and entered with numerous boxes, scrolls and bags.
"He didn't try to leave a clone?" Sakura asked.
Harry took some of the boxes from her, wincing at their weight. "Kotetsu distracted him and his clone. They'll keep him occupied till their afternoon shift teaching him their syrup technique."
"Syrup Trap," Sai corrected in a hoarse voice. He cleared his throat and straightened his baggy shirt as he said, "My ink bird will return when they are almost done, so we will have ample warning."
Harry frowned at the pale boy. "You two want some tea before we start?"
"Yes!" Sakura answered and pulled an unsteady Sai to the kitchen table.
Moments later, under the weight of their expectant gazes, Sai took a reluctant sip of tea from the largest cup Harry owned. "I'm not ill," he said but took another sip when Sakura frowned at him.
"You don't have to push yourself if you're tired," Harry said, placing a plate of cake in front of the boy.
"I am mission capable." Sai eyed the cake with narrowed eyes.
"Idiot," Sakura huffed. "I don't know what you've been doing, but if you don't eat and rest a little, I'm authorized to put you on forced medical leave."
Sai shifted his narrowed eyes on her.
Sakura scoffed. "You're as intimidating as a toddler right now."
"I can make an omelet if you don't want cake," Harry offered.
With a defeated sigh and even greater reluctance, Sai nibbled on the cake.
Ignoring her team-mate's sullen silence, Sakura said, "I'm surprised those two are teaching Naruto their syrup jutsu. Ninja like to keep their creations secret."
"Naruto tried to get them to teach him earlier, but Izumo told him he needed to know basic water techniques first."
"I've never actually seen the Syrup Trap." Sakura shot Sai a pointed glance, prompting him to keep eating. "But I know that Izumo single-handedly worked out how to convert chakra into usable syrup. An amazing feat considering the hospital's fancy research labs haven't been able to..." she paused and let out an exasperated breath. "Why do all my conversations come back to the hospital?"
"It's the most important thing in your life," Sai said, having finished his cake.
"It's not," Sakura said in a defensive tone. "It's work."
Sai nodded. "Work is the most important thing in your life. Why else would you doctor me outside the hospital?"
Sakura's brows furrowed into an irritated line as she stood. "Getting you to eat is my duty as your friend. So that I don't have to doctor you in the hospital later."
While Sai processed that, Harry followed Sakura into the spare room that housed his plants. "You do research in the hospital labs?"
Sakura shook her head and sounded much calmer as she said,"I have the accreditation to work in the lab teams but I... my research is more of a non-medical personal project. And you can't really use the hospital labs for that. Not when you're just a Chūnin."
"You're the Hokage's student," Harry said.
"That doesn't help me against hospital bureaucracy," Sakura shrugged as she moved a box full of broken items out of the room. "You have a lot of work here."
"I've actually fixed a lot but you can't tell with these boxes."
"That's work," Sakura said with a commiserating shake of her head. "Never ending."
"How are you two bonding over such different lines of work?" Sai asked from the doorway, as he looked between them. "You make socializing seem easy."
Sakura and Harry glanced at each other and snorted.
"It's not." Harry handed Sakura some plants.
"Definitely not easy," Sakura agreed, taking the plants out of the room.
"And you're in sync now. Your friendship has grown fast. How?"
Unwilling to dispel Sai's awkward but genuine question with a joke, Harry contemplated an actual answer. When he couldn't think of one, he turned to Sakura, "How?"
Sakura rolled her eyes but said, "We talked a lot over our game of go."
"Was that enough to make us friends?"
"You helped me acquire rare snake venom," Sakura said as she carried a box out of the room.
"That's all Hedwig," Harry said, wincing at his unconscious switch into English for the name.
Sai rolled up his long sleeves and said, "Talking and rare gifts grew your friendship?"
"Don't gift people with snake venom," Sakura warned her pale team-mate.
Sai frowned at her even as he carried some boxes out. "You're friends with Harii because of it."
"We became friends before the snake venom. And anyway, I'm a medic," Sakura said. "Don't use me as a baseline for normal gift giving."
Harry snorted as he moved plants off of shelves and tables. "It would be funny to gift people with snake venom though."
"Ninja will think you're sending them a message," Sakura warned him.
"Exactly." Harry couldn't keep the amusement out of his voice as he said, "I should send Nara-san some so that he never asks me to play another game."
"Has he asked you for a game?" Sakura asked.
"He's already booked in promises for at least three Go games because I haven't had a chance to sit around since returning from the temple," Harry said with a shake of his head. "Too much planning to do for today."
"Have you finalized the plans for tonight? The message that Heduwig," Sakura stumbled as she attempted to copy Harry's earlier pronunciation, "brought last night said you weren't sure about tonight's plans."
"I wasn't sure until this morning. Izumo brought, hold on, I'll get it so you can see." Harry returned with the brown envelope he'd gotten that morning.
Sakura let out a soft sound of surprise as she skimmed the papers. "This is not a last minute plan. You must have been thinking about this for a while."
Harry shrugged. "You think it's too..." he waved his hand in the air, unsure on how to finish his question.
"It's fine. More than fine." Sakura smiled. "It's too bad Kakashi-sensei and Yamato aren't in Konoha. They would have enjoyed all this for Naruto's birthday."
"I have to make up for a lot of missed birthdays," Harry said, trying and failing not to sound too defensive.
Sakura smiled as she returned the brown envelope. "You don't have to. But it's nice that you are."
"I should have put more effort into today," Harry said. "Naruto deserves better. He probably knows so many people, but I've just..."
"Naruto will appreciate everything you've done, trust me."
Sai frowned at them as he took the last box out, "Isn't all this already too much? In the book I read, it's only the milestone birthdays that are celebrated."
"Everyone has different ideas on celebrating birthdays," Sakura said, hefting a table out of the room. "My parents celebrate my birthday every year with a family dinner. But this year because they were away, I had dinner with Tsunade-sama and Shizune."
"That's sad?" Sai asked in confusion from the other room.
"It was wonderful!" Sakura corrected. "They treated me to dinner at the Kohaku." Glancing at Harry with bright eyes, she explained, "It's an expensive restaurant in Ishikawa town, a few hours away from Konoha. You need to be dressed up to even enter the place."
"Was the food good?"
"I don't remember." Sakura grinned. "What I do remember is how special I felt that Tsunade-sama and Shizune made time for me. It's not easy for the Hokage to leave Konoha, even for a few hours."
"Should I have invited the Hokage for tonight? I can't remember if Naruto mentioned them being close," Harry said with dismay.
"The Hokage has other duties today, things that can't be avoided."
Sai entered with an armful of cleaning supplies. "How do others our age celebrate their birthdays?"
"Ino and Shikamaru didn't celebrate their birthdays last month because of Asuma-sensei." Sakura grabbed a duster before Harry could. "But last year Ino had a shopping day. We almost emptied many Konoha plant nurseries that day."
"Don't the Yamanaka have their own nurseries?" Sai asked, sweeping the floor with ease.
"She was excited to fill the small greenhouse she'd gotten, to start making her own hybrid flowers. I should ask her about her progress when her team returns."
"It was Shikamaru's birthday last month?" Harry asked as he wiped the windows.
"On the 22nd," Sakura unrolled a scroll. "Ino's is the 23rd."
"One of my best friend's birthday was on the 19th," Harry paused, unsure of why he'd shared that.
Unsealing a box taller than her from the scroll, Sakura said, "It must be strange that you couldn't be there to celebrate this year."
Harry had been racing through the desert to Konoha on Hermione's birthday but she had accepted his belated wishes with a genuine smile. "She understands why I'm here. Speaking of, when are your birthdays?"
Hours later while they tidied up and finalized that night's plans, a small white bird tapped at the window. When let in, the bird splattered into unreadable ink characters on Sai's pale arm. "Izumo and Kotetsu are headed to gate duty and Naruto is walking with them. At their current pace, he'll be at the ramen stand in ten minutes."
They made it to Ichiraku's just in time to see Naruto arrive with damp hair that stuck up in every direction despite Naruto's desperate efforts to tame it.
Harry took a deep breath to suppress his amused chuckles. "How did training go?"
Naruto grumbled to himself. "Stupid syrup."
"At least you can console yourself with some ramen before you go back to training," Harry said.
"I shouldn't need to console myself today," Naruto groused as he sat beside Harry. "I couldn't get the syrup consistency at all."
From Naruto's other side, Sakura said, "It takes time. When I learned my first water jutsu..."
"You know water jutsu?" Naruto turned to her in surprise. "You've never used any!"
Sakura shrugged. "As a medic, I need to conserve as much chakra as possible in case I need to heal someone. Ninjutsu eats up a lot more chakra than my enhanced strength."
"But you don't even use ninjutsu during practice!" Naruto said, scandalized.
"I can't become too dependent on them. When I first learnt a water jutsu, I wanted to use it every time," Sakura said, almost rueful.
"What's wrong with that?" Naruto asked.
"I don't have tons of chakra like you," Sakura said with an exasperated fondness. "I can't spam ninjutsu just because I want to."
Naruto frowned as though saddened on her behalf.
Sakura shot him a saccharine smile. "Are you saying I need ninjutsu to fight?"
Naruto leaned away from her with a cautious look. "Definitely not with that monstrous strength of yours."
"Exactly!" Sakura said with pride.
From the other side of the counter, Ichiraku grinned. "Are you ready for today's special ramen, Naruto?"
Harry blinked in confusion. He hadn't contacted the ramen chef with any birthday plans.
Naruto leaned forward with impatient eyes. "What's the special, old man?"
"Every year you ask the same question." Ichiraku chuckled, preparing three different ramen bowls. "Ayame, bring out the birthday bowl."
The moment the birthday bowl- a bowl twice as large as the usual bowls and decorated with vibrant orange designs- landed in front of Naruto, he inhaled the fragrant steam with a dreamy sigh. But he only ate when Ichiraku placed bowls in front of the others.
When he was midway though his bowl, Naruto resumed the conversation about water techniques. "Was that thing you used on Kankuro a water jutsu?"
Sakura frowned in confusion for a moment before she shook her head. "The Poison Extraction Jutsu isn't actually a water justu. A water affinity does help when working with medicinal fluid. But that technique depends on precise chakra control more than anything else."
"There aren't any medical water jutsu," Sai piped up from his seat on Sakura's other side.
"There weren't any," Sakura corrected. "During my Chūnin Exam in Suna, I met a medic-nin who had combined medical chakra and water release into a single jutsu. It wasn't as potent as it could have been but it proves they can be combined into something usable."
Sai stared at her. "Are you creating your own medical water jutsu? Is that the research Harii mentioned?"
Sakura shrugged. "Medics should always refine existing healing techniques into something better."
"Wait!" Naruto interrupted. "You know water jutsu too, Sai?"
Sai blinked at him. "Ink is a liquid."
"That's right! Then, I'm the only one who can't do water jutsu," Naruto whined.
Sakura huffed. "You know, the two of us could help you with training."
"But you have work to do," Naruto said.
"Not today," Sakura said as she pushed her empty bowl away.
Naruto gaped. "Even you, Sai?"
"I was told I needed to make time for your birthday," Sai said, without the least bit of tact.
While Naruto was stunned by the declaration, Harry said, "It'll be hilarious if you mastered Izumo's technique in one day and rubbed it in his face."
Naruto grinned, his blue eyes brightening with devious delight. "You want to come watch?"
Harry shook his head. "I think being on the other side of the village is the only way I can stay safe from all this syrup craziness."
Sakura huffed. "It's too late to escape Izumo and Kotetsu's syrup craziness."
"I thought you were impressed by their syrup technique," Sai said.
"I'm impressed by how it was made. But I don't like the amount of syrup they drink down like water."
Sai's nose scrunched up in distaste. "They eat their jutsu-created syrup?"
As the two teens devolved into a conversation about syrup, Naruto slurped up the last of his ramen and stood. "Let's go, there's no time to waste."
"You don't want any more ramen?" Harry prodded.
Naruto hesitated, as though just realizing he was giving up free ramen.
"Good thing I made some takeaway for your training." Ichiraku held up a sturdy wooden delivery box.
Naruto whooped in delight and took the box with gentle hands. "You're the best, old man."
Ichiraku chuckled, pleased at the complement and shooed Naruto away. "Go have fun with your friends."
When Naruto turned to him with hopeful eyes, Harry said, "Try not to get drenched too much before dinner."
Naruto waved off the warning with a grin. "I won't."
"I'll see you at the apartment in the evening."
"In the evening," Naruto agreed. Behind him, Sakura and Sai nodded at Harry.
The moment they disappeared from sight, Harry turned to Ichiraku. "How much..."
Ichiraku held up his hand. "It's on the house. It always is." When Harry didn't look convinced, he huffed and said, "Every year around this time, I get visitors who come here specifically to put money on Naruto's tab."
"What?" Harry asked, stunned.
Ichiraku nodded. "They've kept me in business, allowing me to give Naruto as much ramen as he wanted without worrying about payment."
"Who?" Harry couldn't help but ask.
"They don't want to be known," Ichiraku said. "Otherwise they'd have given Naruto the money directly."
Harry nodded. "Every year?"
"They've never missed a year since he became a regular here. They even paid when he was away these past two years. It's why I didn't want to take your money before."
"You can put that on Naruto's tab," Harry said as he ducked out of the stall.
"I already did," Ichiraku said.
After a long detour to the Nara property through unusually subdued Konoha streets, Harry reached the top most floor of his apartment building and paused.
Silhouetted against the evening sky, a tall white haired man leaned against the railings and watched the street below. "Lost for words at the mere sight of me, huh?"
"Jiraiya? What are you doing here?" Harry asked in incredulous surprise.
The tall ninja frowned at him. "What happened to calling me Jiraiya-san? Did Naruto infect you with his lack of manners?"
Harry shrugged. "Considering I hold my liquor better than you, I don't think you deserve any formality."
With an outraged tone too high to be genuine, Jiraiya said, "Excuse me?"
"What are you doing here?" Harry asked. "Naruto is out training."
"I was in the area so I dropped by for a visit," Jiraiya said.
"And why are you carrying a case of sake?" Harry asked, unlocking his front door.
"It's polite to bring a gift when visiting," Jiraiya said with an airy tone as though imparting a valuable lesson. "And it was a good choice because you need to be shown the error of your ways. No one holds their liquor better than me!"
Harry smirked. "I suppose you can come in."
"You're all generosity!" Jiraiya lumbered in from the humid evening air and slumped down onto the sofa.
"Considering how worn out you look, I doubt you'll be able to handle more than a sip of sake," Harry said, feeling a spark of mischief.
Jiraiya's lips twitched up before straightening into a pursed line. "Is that any way to speak to your guest?"
"I'm just showing concern for your health."
"At least try to sound sincere when you're saying something like that," Jiraiya said and slouched further into the sofa. "To think I came all the way here for a proper drink. Instead I'm treated with such unwarranted disrespect."
"Why would you come here for a drink?"
"It's Naruto's birthday, I'm sure you've planned something."
"I didn't plan anything with alcohol." Harry retorted, startled at Jiraiya's accurate assumptions. Was he that predictable? "Wait, you timed your visit here to mooch on us. Unbelievable," Harry said.
"Really?" Jiraiya asked in amusement.
Harry considered the situation. "You're right, I should have expected this from you after everything you put Naruto through. Throwing him off a cliff..."
"Are you still on about that?" Jiraiya rolled his eyes.
"I'm never going to let it go. You almost killed him," Harry said, a thread of seriousness entering his voice.
"Naruto," Jiraiya hesitated, as though searching for the right words, before he continued, "is a hardy kid. It'll take a lot to injure him, let alone scratch him."
That sounded like an allusion to Naruto being a Jinchūriki. "He still gets hurt!" Grasping at the serenity he'd found at the Temple, Harry leashed the anger that the topic brought up and said, "I have to keep Naruto away from the apartment for a few hours."
The apartment door bounced open before Jiraiya could say anything and Naruto bounded in, "Nii-san, where are we…Ero-sennin? What are you doing here?" Naruto pointed at the white haired man with narrowed eyes.
Harry snorted. "Yeah, Jiraiya what are you doing here?"
"Brats," Jiraiya muttered as he heaved himself up. "I'm taking you two out for drinks."
"Drinks?" Naruto said, completely unimpressed.
"Are you just trying to prove that you have better alcohol tolerance than me?"
"Those three hours were a fluke," Jiraiya said.
"So when my alcohol tolerance outlasts yours tonight, you'll pay for dinner later?" Without waiting for an answer, Harry turned to Naruto, "Since he's paying, what should we get?"
Naruto grinned. "I've always wanted to try really fancy seafood."
With a hand on both their shoulders, Jiraiya pushed them out of the apartment. "Don't make plans just yet, brats. You haven't defeated me."
"It's only a matter of time," Harry said.
Naruto nodded. "You're going down, Ero-sennin."
"You've never touched a drop of alcohol in your life." Jiraiya frowned at Naruto.
Naruto shrugged. "Nii-san's the one competing with you."
"And you think this skinny waif is going to defeat me?" Jiraiya said, outrage dripping off each word. "Me, the sage of Mount Myo..."
"Are you afraid?" Harry asked, goading the older man.
Jiraiya played along, his face animated with good humour. "Just you wait. Today, you'll learn just how mistaken you were."
"I think seafood would be good for dinner," Harry said with a devious grin. "I'll feel especially hungry after drinking."
With a long-suffering eye-roll, Jiraiya directed them past somber groups of people and through a maze of narrow roads before stopping in front of a small open doorway. A pungent haze of cigarette smoke and alcohol greeted them as they stepped through the unmarked entrance.
"I've never seen this place before," Naruto said.
Conversation from the crowded tables filled the space, but Jiraiya's voice carried through the din with ease. "You wouldn't have been able to find this place on your own."
"And now we will?" Harry asked in curiosity.
"You planning on taking up a drinking habit to raise your alcohol tolerance to my level?" Jiraiya asked with a raised brow, as they passed numerous ninja to an empty table near a wall.
Harry rolled his eyes as he sat down, his side pressed to the wall.
Taking a seat opposite Harry, Jiraiya motioned to the bartender and within moments, a tray filled with bottles of sake and chicken karaage landed on their table.
"Chicken karaage?" Naruto whined from beside Harry.
"A newbie like you can't drink on an empty stomach," Jiraiya said as he grabbed a bottle and poured out the sake.
"Why are there so many different bottles?" Harry asked.
"Last time we settled on normal cheap sake. But today is a celebration," Jiraiya said. "We need to make this a tasting adventure. We're going through a multitude of flavours and by the time we hit flavour number five, you're going to be drunk out of your mind."
Harry snorted as he took his cup.
"Okay, first cup birthday brat." Jiraiya pushed a half-filled cup to Naruto and raised his brimming cup in the middle, "To your birthday."
Harry clicked his own brimming cup against Jiraiya's, waited for Naruto to mimic the action and downed a gulp.
Naruto took a tentative sip with a cautious look that morphed into delighted surprise. "This is sweet."
Refilling their cups again, Jiraiya said, "It's just the right amount of sweetness for your first taste of alcohol." He held his cup out, giving Harry an impatient look.
"We can do without toasts," Harry muttered but raised his cup. "To many more birthdays." After swallowing a sip, Harry vanished the remaining content of his cup. With each careful vanishing of sake from his cup, Harry grew more confident of his own magic.
Naruto, having tasted all the sake flavours, lost interest in drinking but watched them with rapt attention. "Nii-san, I've decided. We should get lobster."
"I hope you're ready to pay for a lot of lobster, Jiraiya," Harry said as he put his empty cup down.
"The competition is not over yet." Jiraiya motioned to the bartender once again.
Naruto frowned. "How much more drinking is going to happen?"
"As much as it takes to see a clear winner," Jiraiya said with a determined nod as he took a bottle from the new tray. "You're pretty good for a brat."
"Like you didn't already know that," Harry said. "I did beat you the last time."
"You did no such thing," Jiraiya said, filling their cups. "Gods, how are you cheating?"
"I don't have to tell you. But since my cheating is so pro, doesn't that mean I win?"
"We're not competing with cheating techniques," Jiraiya said. "And even if we were, I'd win that too."
"You're just being a sore loser," Harry frowned at the older man. "I outclass you in every possible way for this competition."
"No, my drinking honour remains untouched."
"I think," a dry voice interrupted, "you both sound plenty drunk."
"Don't be ridiculous Shikaku," Jiraiya said with a jovial grin.
"Drinking honour?" Shikaku stopped beside their table.
"It's why we're here," Jiraiya said.
Harry set down his empty cup. "Actually we're here to celebrate Naruto's birthday."
Naruto nodded as he ate some more chicken. "And to make Ero-sennin pay for proper food."
"He will," Harry said. "Because I've bested his drinking honour."
"You cheated," Jiraiya said.
"So did you," Harry retorted. "But I cheated better, so I win."
"We're not deciding on the best cheater today," Jiraiya said. "We're deciding who can hold their liquor best and stay sober longer."
"Neither of you win," Shikaku declared, looking between them with narrowed eyes.
"Harii, if I'd known you drank, we'd have brought you here ages ago," Izumo said, scratching his cloth covered chin with deliberate slowness as he stopped beside Naruto. Kotetsu was nowhere is sight.
Harry straightened. "I'm just here to fight for my drinking honour."
"I win," Jiraiya laughed. "You sound shitfaced."
"I'm repeating what you said before," Harry said. "That means you got drunk before I did."
"And like I keep saying, you're both drunk," Shikaku said once again.
Harry sighed as he stood. "It is getting late."
"Are you admitting defeat?" Jiraiya laughed. "It looks like I've kept my drinking honour intact."
"I'm not admitting defeat. I just have things to do." Harry prodded Naruto to stand. "We'll call it a tie today but I'll destroy your ridiculous drinking honour another day."
"You both sound ridiculous," Shikaku stated as he took a seat opposite Jiraiya.
"Him more than me," Harry defended himself.
"Why are you letting him off the hook for dinner?" Naruto asked with a frown, once they were out of the bar and in the night air.
Harry shrugged. "We'd drink for hours and it'll be too late for any kind of dinner, let alone a fancy lobster feast." Casting a spell he'd learned from Seamus, the pleasant but hazy lull of alcohol lifted and his senses sharpened with sobriety. "And we don't have time for that tonight."
Naruto shot him a side long look. "You're sober!" He lowered his voice and said, "You should have cheated with that much earlier."
Harry grinned even as Hedwig landed on his shoulder with a soft hoot. "Perfect timing," Harry told her, "I'm not sure how to get out of here. So, can you lead us to the place we visited earlier?"
Hedwig hooted, bobbed her head in a nod and rose up into the air.
With her guidance, they navigated the lamp-lit twists and turns until they entered an all too familiar area of Konoha.
"Why are we going to the Nara compound?" Naruto asked.
"We're not." They passed the large Nara compound, to an old gate. Using the temporary key he'd gotten, Harry grabbed a lantern by the entrance and led Naruto past the tall trees and untamed grass. When they stopped at a relatively clear spot, Harry said, "What do you think?"
With Hedwig on his shoulder, Naruto looked around. "The trees look nice?"
Harry snorted. "That's nice, but I meant the property. I was thinking of buying it. To set up a clan compound like the Nara."
Naruto's blue eyes widened in the lamp light. "Clan compound?"
"The papers have to be in your name since you're a citizen, but I can put the money down for this," Harry said as he looked around. "Izumo helped me get the papers to start the pro..."
"Yes," Naruto blurted, embarrassed for a scant second before he said, "I want this clan property. But," he hesitated, "shouldn't you be saving your money for your shop?"
Harry grinned. "This is more important."
Naruto touched the bark of one of the large trees. "How did you find this place?" A few clones popped up and disappeared into the darkness beyond the trees. "It's huge."
"I asked Nara-san about possible properties when we went to his brother's funeral. Out of all the available properties, I just chose the quietest one. But nothing is finalized, so you can still choose one of the others."
Naruto shook his head. "I'm sure you picked the best one."
"I just picked the quietest," Harry said.
"No wonder you were so tense since the temple," Naruto said. "Getting this must have been stressful enough to make you worry."
"I was not tense or worried," Harry retorted. Not about this, Harry admitted to himself.
"So I sign some papers and it's ours?" Naruto asked. "Where are the papers?"
"They're at the apartment. But the papers only start the process. There's a lot more to do before you can own any property," Harry warned him.
Naruto turned with a distracted nod and headed towards the gate. "The apartment."
Harry hurried after him, struggling to keep up with Naruto's hurried pace.
When Naruto opened the apartment door, a loud chorus of birthday wishes greeted Naruto. He gaped in dazed surprise at the people waiting inside. "What are you all doing here?"
Harry pushed Naruto inside. "They've hopefully brought dinner for the party."
"Before that, what's the verdict about the property?" Kotetsu asked.
Touching the colourful decorations with a dazed expression, Naruto said, "I'm going to sign the papers."
"This calls for celebratory drinks," Jiraiya said from his place on the sofa. "Which I luckily already brought."
Iruka, seated beside Jiraiya, frowned at the man. "Jiraiya-sama!"
"Naruto's not signing anything now. He has to see more of the property in daylight, which we were supposed to do this evening before someone showed up unannounced," Harry narrowed his eyes at a grinning Jiraiya. "Then he has to read the papers and..."
"Yeah," Izumo said, emerging from the kitchen with a large candle lit cake. "The only thing that's happening tonight is cake and dinner."
"Another cake?" Naruto asked, looking rather overwhelmed.
Harry grinned. "You have something against strawberry cake?"
Naruto blinked bright eyes and chuckled. "Never. Do I make a new wish or use the same one from this morning?"
"Whatever you feel like doing. You're the birthday boy," Harry said.
Naruto blew out the candles to cheers and multiple pats on his back, his bright grin never wavering.
"Can we give our gifts now?" Sai asked.
Sakura sighed beside him. "Yes Sai, it's time."
Sai handed Naruto a large flat item. "You can put it up here, but it will look much better in a bigger space."
"Okay?" Naruto ripped the brown paper off a large painting.
Seated together with wide smiles were a whole host of familiar faces. Faces of people Harry had never met. His parents, grandparents and Naruto's mother all sat together as though taking a family photo.
"It's incomplete so that I can paint in more people in those spaces," Sai frowned at the painting. "With more time, I can even fix my mistakes..."
Naruto passed the painting to Harry and pulled Sai into a tight hug, while Sakura looked on with a soft smile.
As the others moved to gift Naruto, slowly pulling him into the kitchen, Harry leaned the painting against the wall where it would be safe and out of the way. "It's pretty good, isn't it?"
"Not bad at all," Jiraiya agreed, eyes fixed on Kushina's face with fondness. "That pasty fellow would get a lot of work if he ever gives up his ninja career."
"Is that lobster?" Naruto asked, his surprise audible from the kitchen.
"You were whining about it wanting it before!" Jiraiya yelled back and hurried to the kitchen. "If you don't want it, I'll eat it."
As the two of them devolved into their customary bickering, Sakura stopped beside Harry, "I told you he'd be happy."
"I still feel like I should have invited more people. Six, or technically five people isn't exactly a party number. Jiraiya just showed up on his own."
"Naruto doesn't care about the amount of people here," Sakura reassured him. "And I think too many people would have been overwhelming."
"Is Sai overwhelmed right now?" Harry said.
The pale boy stood silent beside an inquisitive Iruka.
Sakura considered the duo for a moment and shook her head. "Iruka-sensei will work his magic on Sai soon enough. Stop worrying and enjoy the fruits of your hard work." Sakura motioned to a laughing Naruto. "Next year, you can throw a much bigger party if you want."
As he watched Naruto laugh, Harry vowed to make that possibility true. "You're right. Naruto will have many more birthdays. I'll make sure of that!"
Dinner was a mix of food and laughter filled conversation, where Jiraiya tried to ply everyone with alcohol. By the time midnight rolled around, everyone except for Jiraiya and Naruto left citing work the next morning.
Harry pulled Naruto off the sofa. "You're not sleeping there anymore."
"What?" Naruto asked, sounding drowsy and tired. "I always sleep on the sofa. It's mine. You can't let the old man sleep on it. He'll ruin it."
Harry pushed Naruto to the second room of the apartment. The one that had housed his plants until that very morning.
"You're making me sleep with the plants?"
"No, I'm making you sleep in your new bedroom."
"My what?" Naruto said, shaking himself out of his drowsiness.
Harry switched on the light, illuminating a newly redecorated bedroom. "Sakura and Sai helped set it up this morning."
Leaving Naruto to gape, Harry went to bed revelling at his rather successful day.
A/N: Don't worry, it's still 2017. I hate breaking my annual update streak, but life is full of disappointments like this.
Seriously though, hope you're all doing good. And if you're not- I'm sending you good vibes in the hope that things get better for you soon.