The first time he stepped into the cage, he was so blinded by the chaos of crowding, shouting voices swirling upwards in clouds of cigar and cigarette smoke to the combined beams of a dozen hack-rigged spotlights that he didn't even see his opponent until he was looking up from the dirty floor mats, lungs jarred empty and ears ringing from that first kick to the jaw. The other boy was dancing away, grinning and jeering, and it was the eyes that were open too wide, showing too much white, that finally caught Naruto's panicked, skittering gaze, and locked him onto his purpose.

Fight.

The odds for the match had been 14:1 in the other kid's favor. Those few, lucky bastards who set their bets on the fresh meat, the Fox's brat, went home rich that night.

Is it... like that? Naruto wondered, watching the spaces between the capital and Konoha blur by the rear passenger window. The glass was cold against his forehead, the morning light washed pale through thick clouds hanging low, and he was glad no one in the car was forcing conversation.

It's just a fight like any other, yeah? Focus. Just focus.

His eyes fell shut, and a half-sleep crept up on him. It had been a long time since he'd felt this tired. Like his soul was tired. There was something empty, empty and hungry, in the place where all the self-loathing and desperate defiance tangled into Namikaze's rejection used to be. All these things he understood about the world were yanked up and now there was a great gaping hole and all the ugly roots were showing.

Namikaze Minato is... my dad. The dad who was gonna find me. And he did. He found me.

(Too late.)

It should all be gone, that bitterness, shouldn't it? What was wrong with him? He knew the truth now, the truth was enough—must be enough—

But only a lie had let in hope, after the lights and the ice and the window-that-wasn't. A lie built on emotion without logic, because even Naruto couldn't fight logic. The lie went like this: if Namikaze Minato didn't want him, it was because Namikaze Minato wasn't really his dad. He wasn't that Naruto. The lost Naruto. He was the Fox's Naruto, just like all the Nine-tails always told him. His real dad was out there, somewhere, searching for him. Or his real dad was dead. Yeah, he was probably dead.

I am Namikaze Naruto.

It sounded silly, the kind of ridiculous boast a lonely kid on a playground might shout to make his classmates actually look at him.

"Naruto? You doing okay?"

Concerned grey eyes met his through the rear-view mirror, and Naruto tried to smile. Namikaze was driving this time; Kushina was crocheting some sort of horned penguin horror in the front passenger seat, feet braced against the dash board, toes in toe-socks tapping in time to whatever it was Minato had turned the volume down on. If he wasn't so tired, so empty and anxious, Naruto might have laughed in delight over how familiarly jittery she was, how her body never held still.

Just like me.

Isn't this, like, the happiest day of my life?

"I'm okay. Mom."

Kushina's feet dropped abruptly to the floor mats. Her shoulders tensed. Her voice came low and wondering. "It's so, so strange, hearing that."

Something cold and cowardly knotted inside, and Naruto felt his cheeks flush, embarrassed. Kushina was twisting around in her seat, wiggling out of her seatbelt to maneuver freely and see him clearly, and all he could do was drop his head, avoiding her scrutiny childishly. Strong fingers caught his chin, forced it upward.

"Aish, kiddo, you and your faces... I mean strange in the BEST WAY POSSIBLE, got it? In the 'all your prayers just came so true you can't believe it's really happening' way. THAT strange. NOT whatever 'oh no everyone's gonna reject me' horrible twisted 'strange' your poor brain is trying to interpret for you. Got it?"

There was a badly-restrained snort from the driver's seat.

"Somuch therapy in store for this family," grumbled Kushina, wriggling back into her seatbelt until she was sitting properly.

Naruto was still. He wondered if he would ever, could ever, get used to this.

.

piUiq

.

We're on the way up, Minato thought. He looked at Kushina, and the glimpse of their son captured by the rear-view mirror, and back to the highway stretching ahead. All of us. On the way up.

Finally.

It would be hard. Naruto didn't trust them, and they couldn't trust Naruto. Everything was tangled and uncertain and every shadow seemed sentient. But at least there was light, now. Light, Naruto, warm and breathing and sulking in the back seat.

What did I expect? That was a hard question to answer. It wasn't that he'd envisioned some utopic happily-ever-after and couldn't deal with the disillusionment. It was that finding Naruto was the happily-ever-after. Twelve years, twelve years of hopeless searching, false leads, dead ends, broken dreams, lost chances. Twelve years of believing that there was an end, that Naruto would come home, because believing anything else made every kind of future unbearable. If all the success and influence and power he'd built before the nightmare began did nothing to bring the nightmare to an end, it was all meaningless anyway.

He didn't mourn the loss of career. He'd kept enough threads running to ensure that there would always be funds for Naruto—for the search for Naruto, and for the misty happily-ever-after-dream when Naruto would be home. Financial security was not a problem. While every part of his social life and disintegrated to a degree, he had needed help—there could never be too many eyes looking for what they'd lost—and he'd forced himself to maintain every connection that might find a clue another might miss. To this end, his place in society continued to be significant. While no longer the upstart prodigy a generation ahead of his time, he was still smart, still respected, still favored. In perfect position to give an heir everything—absolutely everything.

And none of that actually mattered. None of that had kept Naruto from disappearing. None of that had brought him back. None of that would mend the rifts in their family, heal the broken marriage, erase the cold reality that parents and child were complete strangers, or break the influence of whoever it was their son so feared.

But Naruto is home.

...They just had to figure out where, and what, home was, exactly.

.

uIOIu

.

When Hyuuga Neji arrived at Naruto's apartment, his cousin was packed and prepared to depart, precisely as arranged. The slightly swollen appearance of the tissue around her eyes, the subtle downturn of her shoulders, and the longing glances cast guiltily over the place she was leaving were all observations he'd dreaded, but anticipated. The disruptive presence of Naruto's teammates, on the other hand, was as unwelcome as it was unexpected.

"I get what you're doing, Hina, and why—no, I do—but you said you'd tell Naruto—at least wait until he gets back—" that was the obscenely-haired one, Haruno. Uchiha, true to his truly lamentable family character, said nothing. He also filled the front doorway with a slouch and expression so eloquent, it would take a person far, far less perceptive than a Hyuuga to mistake the message as anything other than 'thou shalt not pass'.

Neji was not impressed.

"If you are ready, Hinata-sama?" he invited, having announced his presence with a polite throat-clearing.

Wide, pale eyes jumped to his. "Neji-nii-san!"

Haruno, too, looked up in surprise. Uchiha's eyes cut his, but he offered no other greeting.

As expected of an Uchiha. No matter how fallen, they forever fail humility, courtesy, every form of gentility not granted through lineage alone...

"I'm ready, Nii-san," murmured Hinata, and gripped the handle of her compact suitcase. Haruno frowned, but let it turn into a sympathetic grimace as Hinata's shoulders hunched, and moved aside as the latter stepped to the door. Uchiha didn't move.

"If...if you c-could let me p...pass, Sasuke-san," whispered Hinata.

Uchiha didn't move. Neji stepped forward threateningly.

In an unusual display of courage, Hinata looked up at the scowling boy in the doorway. "Sasuke-san, I understand you... Thank you, for watching over N..n...na—" she couldn't do it, couldn't say his name. Neji cringed. Inwardly, of course. On the surface, he had positioned himself within easy reach of Uchiha, and would move the foolish teenager by force if it came to it.

"Wait for him."

"If you would kindly not obstruct the passageway, Uchiha—" Neji kept his voice bland, the warning read perfectly in the cold slant of his eyes.

"Wait for him," said Uchiha, again, and Hinata was staring up at the obstinate boy, bottom lip quivering traitorously.

"I agree with Sasuke," said Haruno. Neji could feel a headache forming, just behind his eyes. This should be a simple procedure, and he had scheduled limited time—

"Naruto will be devastated if he comes back and finds his apartment empty," Haruno continued. "He's had some big shocks lately, and he hasn't been handling things all that well, you know? I know it's hard for you, but for Naruto's sake—"

There were tears condensing on Hinata's lower eyelashes now, and protective rage flared hot in Neji's chest. For Naruto's sake? Could they not see that she was leaving, now, for Naruto's sake? Were the deepest longing and fear not plainly evident in her unguarded gaze? Was the sacrificial determination not stated baldly in the unconscious clenching of her jaw? Must they see her, humiliated, weeping at the feet of the object of her most ardent affection—

"Oh, hey, Neji," said Naruto. "And Sasuke? Sakura-chan—Hina-chan—what is this, you guys throw parties in my place when I'm not here or something?"

"Naruto," acknowledged Neji, a bit stiffly, glancing apprehensively towards Hinata to monitor her reaction to this... uncertain development. Behind Naruto, two disconcertingly familiar adults were emerging from the poorly lit stairwell.

"The Uchiha kid, again," complained the tall, blond, very famous man, and Neji felt his spine snap straighter as he whirled to attention.

"Hey, who's making Hina-chan cry?!" demanded Naruto, muscling past both Neji and Uchiha to put himself between Hinata and everyone; it seemed they had all been judged potential threats. "Is your family trying to get involved now, Neji? 'Cause I've got a few things to say to them! Don't worry, Hina-chan, we'll deal with this! We've made it through everything else successfully, yeah? Sasuke-bastard, move—"

Namikaze Minato, WoF wunderkind, legendary politician, former Prime Minister, and diplomat extraordinaire, was standing in Naruto's grimy, underlit apartment hallway. His estranged wife, who had her own abundant claims to fame, hopped in place next to him. Neither Haruno nor Uchiha seemed in any way surprised by their presence. Or Hinata, for that matter, though it was difficult to judge with how effectively she was disappearing into her bulky winter coat.

For one of very few times in his lifetime, Hyuuga Neji found himself at a loss for words.

"Let's move the fun and games inside, shall we?" ordered Uzumaki-san, and Neji found himself crowded, quite literally, into the apartment he'd come to move Hinata out of. Team 7 was arrayed automatically into what he recognized as one of several signature defensive formations (quite the brazen brawlers, those three), with Hinata somehow in the middle and he and their famous guests on the offensive side. Namikaze Minato, the Namikaze Minato, closed the door softly behind them.

"Neji," said Naruto, with a hint of questioning tempered by that odd haltingly-respectful nod he so rarely offered, and stared at him with wary, calculating blue eyes.

Blue eyes. Blue eyes that were very, very like another pair of blue eyes in the room.

Hinata was crying. Silently, so silently, but the glint of morning sun slanting through Naruto's window glistened tiny reflections on her cheeks. Naruto's gaze darted between them, and he tightened the arm he'd slung around Hinata's shoulders, then settled back on Neji with that same, challenging stare.

"I came at Hinata-sama's request," Neji said, stiffly. There was too much he didn't understand here. Naruto's arm flexed again; Hinata quivered, but Neji attributed the movement to her suppressed sobs, and did not move to separate her from Naruto's hold.

"Hina... Hina-chan?" whispered Naruto, looking at the suitcase handle still clenched tightly in her right hand. Haruno watched him sympathetically, top teeth worrying bottom lip. Hinata took in a shuddering breath, let go of her suitcase, and used both hands to brush the tears from her face. She kept them there, hiding, breathing, for a moment, and when she looked up, her eyes held only determination.

"Let's... let's t-talk for a mo...moment, Narut-t-to-kun," she whispered, and under the pressure of five intense, worried stares, they stepped through their audience and into Naruto's tiny bedroom. The silence that followed the soft snap of the bedroom door closing was one of the most awkward Neji could recall experiencing.

They weren't gone long. Barely long enough for Haruno startle and gasp, send tellingly frantic looks from the two adults in the room to Neji and back again, and mumble a quickly suppressed, "Oh! He doesn't know—" before Uchiha's pointed glare and Namikaze-sama's shifting stance shut her up. She looked back at her teammate defiantly, but didn't seem inclined to continue with her account of what Neji didn't know.

Uzumaki-san held no such reservations. "We're Naruto's parents," she said, baldly, and leveled Neji with a look even his uncle would be hard pressed not to recoil from.

And, as Neji's world was cracking apart and chaotically rebuilding and his body stood in mute shock, his sweet cousin and her... boyfriend? ally? impregnator? protector? emerged from the other room.

Hinata looked... set. Poised. Determined. It had been a while since he'd seen her shoulders unbowed.

Naruto looked devastated.

They were holding hands.

"I'm ready, Nii-san," was all she said, and let her fingers untangle from the hand she loved most.

"See ya, then, Hina-chan," mumbled Naruto. His lips parted again, formed words. No sound crested them.

Neji made his gaze slowly sweep the room, trying to learn everything, everything in that strange array of faces. Beside him, Hinata opened the door.

"Then...we will be leaving first," Neji managed, and with a slight bow, followed his confusing cousin from the room. He took the suitcase from her, carried it carefully down four flights of stairs, one hand free and ready to reach out, to hold her up when she collapsed.

She didn't. As they settled into his car, fastened their seat belts, and pulled away from the place that must have been home to her for the past three months, Hinata was still. Still, dry-eyed, and silent.

No-Longer-Hyuuga Hinata, Neji witnessed, was done crying.

.

piXiq

.

Sakura didn't like what she saw in Naruto's face. From the way Sasuke was shifting, fingers flexing, clenching and stretching open again, he didn't like it any more than she did. For the first time since she started believing in this happily-ever-after, she found herself wishing the two adults in the room could not be there. That they could all go back to the way the world was spinning a week ago, when the blankness hollowing Naruto's eyes was a shadow breezily brushed away by in simple moments of warmth and companionship with the family he'd built himself, and made her a part of. When it was all about Team Seven and Iruka-sensei and Hina-chan and the other ice arena kids standing between one lonely lost boy with promise as big as the sky and all the dark he climbed from.

It was unexpectedly painful, peering in from the outside of that boy's inner circle. That center place belonged to new hearts—to a mother and father. But judging from the tense, uncertain eye-conversation said parents were attempting, they had no idea what to do, or even what to start trying first... so she stepped in and wove an arm through one of Naruto's, tangling her fingers with his, and Sasuke said, "usuratonkachi," in his most expressively frustrated I'm-here-to-help-you-cut-the-crap-and-let-me-do-it growl and shook Naruto by his other shoulder just so he could maintain contact for a moment.

"We still have practice today?" asked Naruto, and his voice sounded rough, and small.

"Hasn't been canceled," said Sakura. "Don't think Kaka-sensei would be surprised not to see us though."

Naruto looked up, scars stark against bloodless cheeks, eyes huge and a little bit bloodshot, and asked, "Can I go?"

He asked for permission. Their Naruto never asked for permission. Ever. From anyone.

Hovering over Naruto's other side, Sasuke let out breath that ended in a hiss, apparently as shocked as she was. Naruto's father watched the three of them, the skin around his eyes tensing into frown lines and crows' feet, worry written in the shifts of leg muscles and slope of his shoulders.

"It's harder to keep you where we can reach you in the arena," said Naruto's mother, and she didn't look any less on guard than his father did.

"I just... I just wanna play hockey," mumbled Naruto, and Sakura felt somewhat reassured by the familiar flavor of defiance creeping back into his expression.

And then it melted into something like submission, or desperation. "Can I... can I not do that? Play hockey?"

"You're still a run risk," Naruto's mother said quietly. Pressing closer to his side, Sakura felt the flinch, the tension captured and coiled. Does he really want to run, she wondered, or does he just... not want themto watch him cry?

All the angles in the room felt sharper, all the corners growing dangerously pointed, and they stood at stalemate in the empty space Hina-chan left behind. There was so many freaking feelings in the room that there must not be enough left over for oxygen, because Sakura was beginning to feel a little dizzy.

"Why?"

They all turned abruptly to Sasuke.

"Why? Why do you get to come in and take control of someone's life? Naruto's lived well all this time, without you. So you found him. Congratulations. You're still nothing but strangers. Random strangers. What sort of entitlement is this, anyway?"

"Sasuke," said Naruto, and Sakura couldn't tell if it was a warning, or if he was just really uncomfortable.

"No, really, why, Naruto? Why are you asking them if you can go to practice? They're not WoF mentors. They're not part of your contract. They're not teachers or directors or CPA officers. Even if they were any of those people, people who actually have power over your possibilities, you wouldn't listen if they told you not to play freaking hockey. So why now? Parents? They've been here for a few days, and they get to be freaking parents? You guys are less the perfect happy ending family you're pretending to be and more like the punchline of a really cruelly stupid joke—"

"Sasuke—" started Sakura, with no idea where to go next, but Naruto's mom was stepping forward with blazing eyes and flying hair and Sakura was afraid she was going to hit him—

Naruto beat her to it. Sasuke reeled back, white imprints of Naruto's knuckles rapidly filling in red. The corner of his bottom lip split, and a drop of blood welled. There really wasn't enough air in this room, Sakura thought without distractedly, chest heaving as her too-fast breathing filled a second's silence.

"No," growled Naruto. "Don't you judge me, teme. Don't you dare judge me, you, you of all people, you bastard."

The wideness of Sasuke's eyes made Sakura almost-cry. Namikaze-san was holding Uzumaki-san, maybe preventing her from furthering Naruto's assault, but Naruto moved away from all of them, across the room and wrenching at the door before any of them had done more than inhale and move to chase after him.

The door was open. "You can get me some clothes, right?" it didn't sound like Naruto, that voice, and with nothing but her teammate's shaking shoulders to look at, Sakura couldn't fathom which emotion was writhing below it. "I don't want to come back here. Forget hockey. Let's—let's—let's go. Yeah. Let's go."

"Naruto," said Namikaze-san, quietly.

"I won't run," whispered Naruto, and this time Sakura could hear the panic, and the tears.

.

IuVuI

.

"Iruka-sensei, are you texting during class?"

Umino Iruka glanced up from his smartphone just long enough to deliver his best Beware: Rabid Teacher glare. "Yes, Yuuki-kun, I am, and you know that if I am, it's because it is very, very important."

Iruka believed in rules. He believed in consequences. But he only knew how to live heart-first, and that required the occasional damning of rules—and damn the consequences.

-Are you okay? Are you with your parents right now? He typed back to Naruto's out-of-the-blue: yo yo Irka-sensei ^^ ~!

-ya.

-ya = yes to both counts? Did you sleep last night? Have you been eating?

-dude I know u havent rly met my mom but do u srsly think she wood let me go without eating. They give me snacks like every 20 min

Iruka smiled. It was good to know that someone was mothering Naruto. He was frequently accused of doing it himself, but the reality was that he simply didn't have the time and resources to give Naruto all the good he deserved.

-Good to hear.

-Irka-sensei

-yes, Naruto

-its a good thing right

-it?

-my parents

-I think it's a miracle that your parents found you, and that having them in your life will be a very good thing. But they're still people you don't know, and you can't force a relationship out of nowhere. So yes, a good thing, but also a hard thing

-do u think their good ppl

-I think they're good people, yes. But I don't know them so I can only guess based on what the general public knows about them. I think you can judge for yourself, Naruto.

There was a long pause, and Iruka re-read his messages to make sure he hadn't typed in words he wasn't sure Naruto could read.

-i think i can trust them

The ragged mix of fondness, elation, and worry was stirring about in Iruka's soul was becoming a physical ache, tugging away right in the middle of his chest. He tried to choose his words carefully, but they spilled onto the screen in a rush of sincerity instead.

-that makes me so happy, Naruto! You're an excellent judge of character. Trust them. Build up from there.

-ok
thx sensei

-Any time. Really.

For a moment, Iruka just stared the screen, wondering if everything was really going to be okay. It buzzed against his fingers as one last message appeared.

-miss u Irka-sensei

-Learn how to type my name, you brat. I miss you too. All the time. So keep in touch.

I'll take you out for ramen.

When you have time.

He kept his phone in his hand, waiting for any further messages, but as he made the rounds of his classroom, checking each student's work and offering encouragement and correction, trying to stay focused so he could admonish his kids to do the same without descending into hypocrisy, no more messages came.

They all had problems, these kids; that's how they ended up in his classroom. Behavioral problems, emotional problems, academic problems... and there was always so much more going on behind the scenes, things that happened at home or in bathrooms or anywhere a nosey adult like Iruka couldn't see, and every day was its own special tragedy, because all he could do was be there and make his classroom as much of a sanctuary as it could be within the limits of educational law and school hours. He fought for them because someone had to fight for them, and wrote their specialized education plans with all the reckless hope and strict realism seven years of teaching experience had taught him, and sometimes he even made a difference he could measure and then it seemed like it might all be worth it in the end. Most of the time he just poured everything in and tried to believe that one good teacher, one dedicated adult who acknowledged and valued each troubled existence, one human being looking up and seeing another human being could be the invisible shield fending off one more tragedy.

Some days it was really hard to believe. But Naruto happened.

Naruto. The kid who came in stunted and scarred, taught muscles under scratchy new clothes, saying he was twelve years old when no one would look at him and guess more than eight or nine.

He would have been about ten, actually, if Iruka was remembering the age of the thought-to-be-dead Namikaze child correctly. He was small even for ten. His guardian had enrolled him at the local middle school, who had referred him to Iruka's elementary school, because the middle school had no idea what to do with a kid who couldn't read. Iruka's school didn't know either. They just dumped him on Iruka and all his shiny ambitions and alternative educational philosophies he'd been annoying the veteran staff members with.

Iruka taught Naruto to read. Iruka discovered Naruto's uncanny ability for mental math. Iruka made Naruto promise not to hit someone in school, not anyone, for any reason, ever again, and Iruka administered the ice-packs and plasters when Naruto was too obedient, heartbreakingly obedient, and kept that promise through every playground scuffle and ganged-up bullying he so naturally became the brunt of.

Most of the wounds Iruka discovered, on the times he managed to catch Naruto in time and drag him into the classroom for validation and disinfectant, could not have been caused by pre-teen children, no matter how cruel those children could be.

So Iruka went to court. And got a job in the middle school. And saw that Naruto graduated from primary school, and was admitted to that middle school, and taken away from his guardian, and then taken away from a series of terribly unseeing foster families, until Naruto won his right to live as an emancipated minor.

And then Iruka got Naruto into WoF.

thx sensei

Such a simple text. It didn't take much, really, to be asbolutely sure that it really was, all of it, worth it.

.

vIvIv

.

"You haven't visited before."

I didn't think you'd consent to see me, thought Sasuke, and kept his lips resolutely pressed as all his courage went to lifting his eyes from the heavy countertop to the face behind the glass.

Uchiha Fugaku looked thin and old and not at all the father Sasuke came here to see. The folds parenthesizing the downturned mouth were as stern and dissatisfied as they'd been in every childhood memory, but the shoulders were slanting, as if he'd stood so long against frigid wind that he couldn't stand any other way. The eyes cut sharp and cold, precise, without passion.

"You've grown tall."

Sasuke nodded once, dumbly, like a tongue-tied child.

"Well?"

Don't you dare judge me.

"You mother seemed well when I saw her last. Has something happened in the interim?"

Cursing the words for mixing in his head instead of marching firmly from his mouth, Sasuke shook his head again, this time in the negative. Two months. Two months and eight days. In two months and eight days, his father's term would end, and they would be a family again. So he told himself for years, looked forward to, prepared himself for. Had thought he was prepared for.

The frown was deepening, displeasure etching all the new lines on his father's face as deep as the old ones. Fugaku cleared his throat, and Sasuke forced himself to hold his gaze, to do something, anything, to earn more than disregard in his father's eyes.

"Mother is well," he nearly choked on the stiffness of the words, but they came. "We...we are all waiting for you." Where will Itachi go? The thought came suddenly, unbidden, glaring blinding light through the dusty mental windows of internal avoidance and denial. He had hated Itachi, at first, or tried to, but then... but then Itachi was Itachi, and as long as Sasuke was Sasuke he would love and resent Itachi in equal measure. Helplessly.

Itachi won't live with us anymore. He can't, not if Father comes home. And Naruto's face, fine muscles stretched in fight-or-flight grimace, blue eyes burning and: DON'T YOU DARE JUDGE ME, YOU, YOU OF ALL PEOPLE, you bastard.

"There's... there's a championship game," said Sasuke. The season schedule he'd printed as an excuse for this visit shivered slightly in his fingers, so he kept it hidden below the window until he could make his hands stop shaking, not give this lack of control away. "Against Suna. Or possibly Kumo. But most likely Suna. I wanted to come... to come to invite you. To the game. It will be the first game after... it will be in seventy-five days." You are free in sixty-nine days.

"Hockey?"

Sasuke couldn't tell if his father's growl conveyed opinion or not. "Yes, father," he answered, and hoped that hockey was still acceptable. It had been—before.

"You are inviting me to the championship game, seventy-five days in advance, before the championship has begun?"

This time it was easier to meet his gaze, let the experience of his own abilities shine through—even if only a little. "Yes, father."

The sound that came next was so startling, so far from anything Sasuke had steeled himself for, that it took a beat before he could accept what it was.

Fugaku chuckled. It was a brief, aborted sound, but it held mirth, and it was a chuckle.

"Ah," said the man, leaning back from the window, shoulders drawing back to nearly fill his remembered frame. "I accept."

Sasuke looked up, brimming hope and sparking anxiety.

"Play in the championship. I will be there."

.

plYlq

.

"You can still play hockey, Naruto, we just need to get... get a plan working, something we can all work with. We're... pretty much starting a new life here. With a lot of complications. But we'll get things worked out. I promise."

"We know your championship's just months away, kid. I'm not going to miss seeing you play in that. Kakashi-brat said they need you to win."

"Yep. What your mom said. But since you don't seem to be up for a lot of talking right now... could you take a look at this?"

For the first time, Naruto spoke. "What is it?"

"It's a real estate catalogue. Would you like to choose a house?"

"...a house?"

"Or a flat. For us. All of us. To live in. Together. Along with a lot of security guards..."

"Fat lot of good your security guards have done so far, baka-no-Minato."

"It's not my fault our son is a ninja, Kushina darling."

"Heh. You're right. All your skills, kid, you got them STRAIGHT from me. Your Mama, the Amazing, Beautiful, Outstanding, Dauntless, Undefeated, One-and-only—"

"Tomato," whispered Minato. And ran.

For the first time, Naruto smiled.

.

opTqo

.

A/N:

Dear Readers,

Thank you for being readers. This story is a bit of a conundrum for me, as it is my favorite to write, the one I think about and care about the most, and, I think, the best piece of writing I have up on this site. It's also by far the least popular. Maybe it's because it's an AU, maybe it's because the summary's not great... (tried fixing it, prolly made it worse) ...maybe it's something else (any ideas)? Either way, every time someone follows/favorites/reviews this piece, I am incredibly happy. Much more so than with my other fanfics, because this one is much more important to me. And reviews are pure gold. Or pure pineapple, which is much better than gold. Although the few flames I have received in the duration of my fanfic writing stint have all been for this story. Huh. But please, spare me some pineapple. I'll answer this time! If you want an answer, and left a signed review, of course ^^ PINEAPPLE! (please :))