An Unappealing Portrait
At thirteen, Naruto has his first real conversation with a gay man.
Jiraiya has long since slunk out of the men's hot springs, telescope and notepad in hand. There's only a few other men sharing the spring, all of them older than him and therefore boring prospects for possible self-amusement. A pot-bellied man snores with all the power of his large diaphragm; a little further down, three calm-faced, middle-aged men make sporadic comments to one another in a quiet, tired conversation. Behind the curve of the fence, Naruto can just make out the nondescript form of another someone nameless.
Naruto's face sours with impatience. He wants to train, and he could go train, but he wants Jiraiya to be there, too. Isn't that the whole point of this? That the old man teach him some killer jutsu? Not spend all his free time chasing women...Naruto crosses his arms and thinks about how even Sasuke was more fun to come to a hot spring with-
Naruto sinks lower into the water.
He and Jiraiya stay in that town. By the third day, Naruto has figured out that Jiraiya has a well-established traveling routine, and that he interrupts it. Occasionally he'll catch Jiraiya watching him strangely, as if questioning why he's even there. As if seeing someone else. This happens most often after Naruto goes back to his room to sleep and Jiraiya stumbles in, hours later, the smell of perfume slick around him and lipstick marks on his cheeks. Then, Jiraiya pauses, and everything's quiet and dark while Naruto feigns sleep and he bets Jiraiya's hoping his student really is asleep, and not faking it. Inevitably, Jiraiya makes his way to the bathroom, and by the time the glow from behind the closed door fades and he re-enters the room, Naruto has fallen back to actual sleep.
He doesn't care what the man does, as long as he keeps training him. Which he does; all else aside, Jiraiya makes an instructive and unrelenting teacher when he decides to teach his rather clumsy, obnoxious student something, and when said clumsy, obnoxious student has whined enough that he'll relent to teach him.
Still, Jiraiya's habitual evening pursuit of women both naked and clothed leaves Naruto both annoyed and with several free hours. And so his own habit develops; each night, he goes to the hot spring.
More often than not, that nondescript man is there, too. He's younger than Naruto thought – maybe in his late teens or early twenties. He's not a shinobi – as far as Naruto can tell, no one else in this small town is - but he's not old and dumpy like everyone else at the spring. So Naruto decides it's okay to give the man a friendly smile when he catches the other watching him, one day. The other man seems surprised, but smiles back.
This starts a pattern of its own; whichever one of them is in the spring first nods or smiles back at the second to arrive. After that, it doesn't take long for Naruto's natural curiosity to take hold. He watches the man, and what he sees only makes him more curious.
"Don't cause trouble," Jiraiya says in farewell on one of the days, he, too, goes to the spring.
"Yeah, yeah," Naruto scowls, but he doesn't really mind. Jiraiya levers himself out of the water with his customary anticipatory giggle. But he doesn't immediately leave. Naruto misses the way his sensei's eyes settle on the other man who, like every other day, sits around the corner of the spring, back to them. Who had returned Naruto's wave of greeting under the eyes of Naruto's sensei.
"Say, Naruto, you wanna come?"
Naruto looks up in surprise, squinting in the late evening sun at the shadow of his sensei. He can't make out the expression on the older man's face, but he can tell he isn't looking at his student.
Naruto looks at the back of the nondescript man's head. He'd planned to ask him who he was tonight. But Jiraiya wants him to come along, and maybe he'll see what's so special about peeping on women...
He turns back to Jiraiya, and now, he sees, his teacher is watching him instead. Despite the feeling that something is off, here, he grins up at his sensei slyly and says, "Yeah!"
Clapping his back with a conspiratorial laugh and wink, Jiraiya leads Naruto away.
The next day, Naruto slips back into the water without Jiraiya. He smiles at the man across the pool, and he smiles back, but something about it is strange, too, just like Jiraiya was all last night. Naruto sinks under the water again to hide his frown. He wishes stupid adults would just say what they mean to say and not make him guess.
A little later, Naruto decides he's going to go talk to the guy and damn anyone who gets in his way when a group of four men, all about the other man's age, clamber noisily into the water with a lot of splashing and rough-housing. They stay right in the middle of the spring and don't seem like they're going to move. Naruto is about to shout and push his way through them when he catches sight of the man across the pool.
He's watching the four new men.
Naruto sinks back into the water. Curiously, he watches the man watching the other men. Until he meets Naruto's eyes. For a long second, he watches Naruto, the water-slicked, naked bodies of the laughing young men contorting and twisting in between their shared gaze. Neither breaks eye contact.
Then the man looks away, and a few minutes later, he gets out of the spring and leaves.
He isn't there the next day, but the four young men are. The old men grumble and chastise them as much as they can, but eventually, they give up and leave, and it's only Naruto and the other four, who probably don't even notice he's there.
Naruto runs that thought through his head again. They probably don't even notice he's there...
He sinks carefully into the water until only his eyes and the top of his head stick out. He ducks under, slowly, to wet his hair and make it darker – less noticeable. It hangs limply by his head as he surfaces.
For the rest of the time he's there, it's Naruto who watches the young men in the water.
The next day, Jiraiya comes with Naruto to the spring. He leaves early, though, before either the young man or the four other men get there. Which they do, later. This time, Naruto doesn't smile at the man as he makes his way to his spot.
He swims right through the others to him.
"Hi," he says, smiling at the other's surprise.
"Oh. Hi," the man answers, He smiles back friendlily after only a second, his eyes light and blue, his teeth slightly crooked and very white surrounded by the relative darkness of his olive-brown skin.
Naruto crosses his arms and peers through squinted eyes at the man. Then he looks at the four other men. Then back again. He opens his mouth to ask-
Suddenly the young man says, "I see you here at the spring a lot with that white-haired man. He your dad?"
Naruto splutters, "Ero-sennin! Hell no!" In his haste to assure the other that Jiraiya is definitely not a blood relation of any kind, his question is quickly forgotten and stays that way for the rest of their conversation.
The next few days, Jiraiya keeps Naruto so busy with training that it's past dark by the time he's done, and even then, he's only got the energy to collapse in a heap on his futon and sleep. Those are grueling days. After them, Jiraiya himself picks up Naruto by the scruff of the neck and drags him to the spring for some "r and r between men," as he calls it. Naruto is inordinately pleased at being called a man, and even more pleased by the recent glut of the man's undivided attention. He makes no protest to going back to the spring.
The man isn't there, and he saw the four young men leaving town the morning before, so he knows they won't be there either. The snoring man is back, though. Naruto gives him a halfhearted scowl.
"Ah, this is the life, eh, Naruto?" Jiraiya sinks back into the hot water with a large, contented sigh, eyes closed and arms spread on either side of the rim. Bobbing idly in the water in front of him, Naruto grins and kicks some water in his face.
"Ah! Little brat!"
Naruto smirks foxily, laughing, before his eyes widen and he backpedals, quickly, to avoid the huge wave Jiraiya sends back with a roar. It doesn't miss; and when he emerges from beneath it, sputtering, Jiraiya's already settled back smugly against the rim. Naruto brushes strands of wet hair out of his face, making a show of swimming to the other side of the spring in a huff, but grins to himself when Jiraiya chuckles quietly behind him.
Some time later, Naruto's still in a good mood when the man walks into the spring area, slipping into the water with a nod and quick smile at Naruto. Naruto grins and waves in return. He takes a breath, ducking to swim underwater to the guy-
Brows furrowed, Naruto stands back up in a slosh of water, twisting to face his sensei. "Whaddaya want?"
Jiraiya watches him. Suddenly his face splits into a crafty grin. "I need some new material. Want to help with my research again?"
Naruto's face lightens. "Yeah, sure-" but he looks once more at the man as he follows his sensei out of the water, only to find he isn't there anymore.
The days pass, and Naruto starts to wonder how long they're going to stay here, at this little no-where town. They've long since passed the point where local food vendors – especially the noodle-stand girl – greet them by name. Jiraiya seems to have finally sunk into the role of teacher; he doesn't spend nearly as much time skirt-chasing, and he doesn't drink as early into the morning anymore.
One night, he approaches Naruto as the teen trains in the small yard behind their hotel.
"Naruto," he says, face worried, "I need to leave town for a few days." He's fully dressed in his customary traveling gear, faceplate on and pack swung over his back.
"Okay." Naruto nods, bringing a hand up to finger his own hitai-ate. "Where're we going?"
"No," he shakes his head, "You're staying here."
Naruto scowls. "Why?"
Jiraiya sighs, frowning more deeply. "You can't come where I need to go. You'd be outta place. Don't fight me on this, Naruto." Naruto crosses his arms and pouts and grumbles, but doesn't put up the fight he was just about to. Jiraiya steps forward and ruffles his hair.
"You'll be fine here. Stay outta trouble. You know what to do if you don't hear from me."
Trying to appear as if he doesn't like the fatherly hand atop his head, Naruto rolls his eyes and nods. But not hard enough to dislodge the hand.
Jiraiya smiles when Naruto can't see him. "See ya, kid," he says gruffly, and leaves.
The resulting three days of freedom Naruto takes full advantage of. By the time he makes it to the hot spring on the night of the second day, he's contentedly full of more kinds of sweets than he can ever remember being.
And, that man is there again. Naruto watches the back of his head. Somehow, it seems like Jiraiya doesn't want him to talk to the guy. So, never one to miss an opportunity, Naruto grins cannily and noisily splashes his way over.
A little surprised, the man blinks, then smiles – again, something's a little weird about it. Like he's nervous about something. So Naruto makes an extra effort to be friendly, even though most people don't like him when they first meet him and they especially don't like it when he's extra friendly. But this guy doesn't punch him in the face or yell at him or even brush him off, which already makes him cooler to talk to than most people Naruto knows.
And it doesn't take long for Naruto to get around to one of his favorite topics.
"-and then Iruka-sensei passed me 'cause who wouldn't pass me after that ass-kicking I dished out," he nods confidently, arms crossed boldly over his chest, "And now, I'm a shinobi, and one day I'm gonna be Hokage." He beams, trying to be cool and unaffected by his own coolness, too, and not show how much he hopes the man is impressed.
"Hokage, huh?" the man smiles, leaning back against the rim of the pool. "You sure of that?" he teases kindly. "A little scrawny kid like you-"
"Hell yeah I'm sure!" Naruto interrupts, scowling like he's madder than he is about the 'scrawny' remark. "'Cause only the best shinobi become Hokage, and I'll be the best shinobi there is!"
The man laughs. "Good, kid, good. You keep that spunk. A shinobi doesn't give up, right?"
Naruto grins. "Never!"
"And a shinobi doesn't take shit from anybody, right?"
A little startled by the sudden intent look in the man's eyes, Naruto nods nonetheless. "'Course not!"
"Good. You remember that. Grown up, be a strong shinobi, and don't let anybody kick you around."
Naruto makes a face. "You're starting to sound like some old geezer. Like ero-sennin." But he does think of the villagers back home, and frowns a little.
"Like your sensei?" The man asks in response to his comment.
Naruto nods, shaking off his thoughts and paddling back and forth idly.
"No." The man shakes his head, looking to the distance. "I'm not like him, and he knows it." Naruto frowns again, pausing in his semi-backfloating circles and treading water, but the guy continues, "Maybe if I'd been a shinobi, things would have been different...but it doesn't matter now." He looks back down at the frowning teen, smiling. "I'm no shinobi, and I still get by, more or less. You just...make sure you become a real good shinobi. It'll make things easier for you."
Naruto, having no clue what the guy's talking about, just blathers something again about that not being a problem – of course he's gonna be a good shinobi, that's part of being 'the best.' Duh. And he bugs the guy for another few minutes before going to the far end of the spring to swim some laps in a bout of shinobi-like enthusiasm.
When he finishes, panting heavily and grinning with exertion, halfway on his way back to the man – who's dozed off, and therefore just begging to be pranked – the circle of semi-regulars is joined by an addition of two younger men, who swagger into the springs and whip off their towels in an unashamed, show-offy way, an inherent challenge of manliness that Naruto recognizes without having the words for.
Scowling, he looks down at himself. And looks back up, huffing with his chin jutted out. The effects of water shorten what's already...well...he's no adult yet, and he knows it. But he will be! And he wants to be! Maybe if he were an adult, Sasuke would come back, or he would be able to drag Sasuke back, or Sasuke would never have left...His mood spoiled, he slouches over to where his new acquaintance still sleeps, settling himself against the rim near the guy without even the slightest opportunist splash in his direction.
The two men are eventually engaged in conversation by the trio of older men, and soon, even the snoring man wakes up and joins in. They're talking loudly and it's irritating, so he glares at two young men who dared interrupt the normal way of things at the spring, with their stupid muscles and their stupid laughs and their stupid roughhousing and stupidness at thinking they're so cool when he and Sasuke are so much more cooler-
"You should be careful."
The voice is very, very soft beside him, and Naruto has to glance twice in the man's direction to make sure he's even awake. But a good ninja notices things, and he can see now that his sort-of-friend's breathing isn't as slow or deep, and his eyes are open, just a little bit, and looking at the group. Their laughing must have woken him.
Naruto bobs a little in the water. Something about the way the man said that makes him answer back just as cautiously. "What do you mean?"
"...do you like watching them?"
Confused, Naruto asks, "Who?"
Very slightly, the man jerks his chin the same direction as his eyes. Naruto glances between the group and his friend.
A deep furrow creases Naruto's brow. "What'? No. They're just being assholes."
Naruto bristles. "What, you don't believe me?"
"No," the man says quietly. "I do."
A few minutes pass in silence on their parts, while the occasional raucous laughter breaks loose from the six men on the other side of the spring. Naruto is still a little lost with this whole conversation, and grumpy that he's lost, and completely unwilling to admit he's lost, but he doesn't want to leave the spring quite yet. So when the man does speak again, softly, with the kind of near-hesitance that comes from speaking a delicate matter aloud, Naruto is relieved that he doesn't have to ask for more explanation. Cool and awesome and future Hokage shinobi don't need more explanation.
"If you do...ever find yourself...watching, men. Boys." The man pauses, pressing his lips together. "More than your friends. Or if you want to spend all your time with one – if a friend, a boy friend of yours becomes very important to you, more than anything else-"
"But I already have that!" Naruto interrupts loudly – but hushes quickly after the man and, inexplicably, he, too, both glance nervously at one another, pointedly not looking at the group across the spring – as if he's drawn Naruto into the world of whatever this dark secret is that he's trying to warn him of.
"I already have that," Naruto repeats, more quietly.
For a second, the tense air breaks when the guy gives him a crooked grin and and unexplainable wink. "Oh yeah?" He laughs a little when Naruto makes it plain he thinks the guy's just being strange.
The man waits, but when Naruto doesn't offer anything else, he just shrugs, unfazed. "Mmm. You're young yet, kid, so don't rush it. Have fun. But you know, until you're both...strong enough, together, and certain of each other - don't tell people. Even if you think you really trust them...I know you'll want to, but even shinobi get hurt, kid. Hurt like dead. When it comes to people like us, friends don't always stay friends."
All these vague references to "people" aren't really helping him understand better. Naruto scrunches up his eyes in confusion – a gesture already more foxlike at thirteen than it was at twelve. "Like what?"
The man smiles – a little sympathetic, a little sad, mostly understanding. "Gay people."
"What?" Naruto screeches, spluttering and actually flailing a little in the water. His splashing alerts the attention of the men across the pool, but this time he doesn't care. Once he's a safe distance away from the man, he points an accusing finger and says, "But I'm not - I'm not-"
"Hey, gaki, shut up, yeah?" One of the young men calls loudly. "There's men over here, having a serious-" the men snicker, "grown up conversation. Maybe you should run along home, huh?"
"Fuck you!" Naruto hollers back, waving a fist threateningly. Surprised, the men laughs, giving him an amused grin and mock salute, and without another glance, turns around, dismissing his presence once again and starting back in conversation with the others.
"Come here," the gay guy whispers as soon as Naruto's turned back around. Naruto gives him a disbelieving look.
"You serious? I'm not stupid, I' know about fags and I'm not gonna be your little f-"
"No," the man grimaces, looking as if he's in pain. "Trust me, I don't want that from you, kid. That's – ugh. Anyone who asks you for that, kick their ass. Trust me. I'm just trying to – to keep you quiet, and to - warn you, because life can be difficult if you like who you're not supposed to like-"
"But I'm not like you! I told you I'm not-"
"Shh!" Swallowing, the man looks around. "Okay, so you're not. Well, I am, so please, kid, for my sake. Don't say it. Don't. You don't know what it's like – I swear, I'll leave after this. I'm not going to touch you. I never wanted to touch you, believe me. I just thought-"
"Yeah, well, you thought wrong!" Naruto huffs. A second passes in which Naruto glares at him, defensive and angry, and the man waits, expression pleading and resigned. But it's not even the facial expression that gets him – it's that phrase you don't know what it's like that gives Naruto pause. Because he may not be gay, but...he knows what it's like to be a lot of other things that nobody really wants to be.
So he keeps his mouth shut, shuffling his way step by step until they can talk without drawing attention.
"Is that why you come to the spring?" Naruto hisses a whisper. "To watch naked guys?"
"Isn't that what your sensei does – except with girls?" the man points out, but when Naruto scowls and blusters in defense of ero-sennin – who'd have thought he'd ever be defending the perv – the man just sighs, a little tiredly. "No, actually, I like the hot springs just like anybody else, and I've been coming here long before you and your sensei showed up in town. It's relaxing."
"But if you get to see a couple of naked guys while you're here, I bet you don't mind, right?" Naruto challenges.
The man shrugs, looking away. Unexpectedly, Naruto feels a distinct twang of guilt.
Giving a loud harrumph – there is pride at stake here, after all – Naruto goes back to his spot next to the guy, bravely not giving in to the urge to sit just a little farther away than he had been prior to this whole stupid gay thing. The man smiles a little.
"I guess," Naruto grouses, "can I just forget you said that?"
The man shrugs again, but it's an easier motion than before. "Do you think you could think about it instead?"
"What, that I'm g-"
"No. Just that-" he pauses for a moment, speaking slowly as if choosing his words carefully, "-gay people are people, too, you know? Some people..." another pause here, "might try to convince you that it's wrong, or that people who love the same gender are sick, or weak, or not worthy. That's not true. Or people might try to push you into acting more manly, or...well, forget that," he amends, seeing Naruto blink rapidly, getting lost in the specifics.
"Being gay, or liking both men and women, or not really liking anybody – it's alright. I didn't get to know that when I was a kid, and I would have liked to. So I just want you to know that it's okay to like who you like, no matter what other people might say."
Naruto makes a face and scratches his head. "Um, okay, I guess. It doesn't have anything to do with me, but - I dunno. Still seems pretty weird."
The man smiles. "Just think about it, okay? And grow up a strong, ass-kicking shinobi in the meantime."
Naruto brightens. "Now that I can do."
Jiraiya comes back the next day, rushed with worry, haggard, and infuriatingly closed-mouthed about why. They leave within the hour. Naruto never sees the man again.
A fourteen, Naruto makes a decision: if it turns out he's gay, he'll just stay by himself all his life.
He's sitting on a rooftop with a couple of village kids in the late summer heat, the evening breeze cooling and the sun close to fallen. It's another outskirt town, and the boys are keen on meeting their first real ninja, especially one of a duo who staggered into the village with injuries surely the work of a daring adventure – and Naruto is only happy to regale them with wild stories of his deeds made even wilder without the censoring presence of Jiraiya, who's laid up in the hospital. Where Naruto would be, too, if he didn't have the fox working overtime inside of him and turning the scars on his cheeks to lines dark like knife-slashes.
He's just finishing an embellished tale - that actually happened to Chouji and involved three, not thirteen, enemy shinobi – when a brown-haired kid with a runny nose clambers noisily up the ladder, thumping a bag onto the roof before his ascent.
"Got it," he says with satisfaction to the eager faces of his friends. The boys swarm forward, reaching into the bag with grabbing hands, but Naruto can't see what it is they're after.
"Hey, whaddaya got?" he asks, peering over the shoulder of the boy closest to him – and getting his answer immediately. Porn. Mildly fascinated, Naruto leans closer.
"Look at the tits on that one," the boy sighs in reply, pointing at one draped around a pole.
"No, man, check out these!" the holder of the other magazine, also with his own cluster of interested pre-pubescant teens, holds open a page, to openly appreciative eyes, and eyes that aren't sure what to make of it but follow the lead of the appreciative ones and pretend like they're really into it, too.
They continue on in this manner, and it's interesting to listen to, for a while, and certainly instructive – as the developer of the Sexy-no-Jutsu, Naruto considers it his duty to be up-to-date on what guys find hot about girls and adjust his anatomy, or hair color, or mannerisms accordingly whenever he uses the skill. After all, just because he doesn't use the jutsu for its original purpose very much anymore, doesn't mean he can't get mad tactical advantages from being a girl at certain key points in missions. And pranks. Especially pranks involving Ero-sennin.
At fourteen, Naruto is already better at seducing a man than most of the kunoichi learning the same skill set at sixteen and older.
When he's finished listening, Naruto scoots back from the other boy, and the dripping-nose-kid is quick to crowd in closer in his place. Naruto leans back on the roof, spinning a kunai and trying to engage in some cloud-gazing.
Unsurprisingly, unlike Shikamaru, he doesn't last very long.
"Aren't you done with that stuff yet?" he whines, sitting up and scowling. A few of the boys glance up from their rapt study and one responds with a distracted offer, "So come and look."
Naruto rolls his eyes, twirling the kunai. "I already looked. It's boring. My sensei writes that stuff all the time – I can get at it whenever I want. Harder stuff, too."
That draws some attention. "Really?" one asks, a youngish-looking freckled kid. "Can you bring some here? Does it have pictures?"
Naruto shakes his head. "Nah, it's just a book."
"Oh, well, screw that," the boy responds, shrugging. "Why read when you can see this?" He holds up a picture and gazes at it with appreciation. A couple other boys nod in agreement.
Naruto gives the picture an appraising eye. "I've seen better." Not to mention been better.
The freckled kid goggles, glances back and forth between Naruto and the page with visible disbelief, then, with one or two of boys lending suggestions over his shoulder, bends and flips through the pages frantically.
"Okay, how about this one? She's blond."
Naruto barely gives the girl a glance. "She's outta shape, and any shinobi on a bad day's more flexible. And her hair's gross." It's not the color of it that's the problem, but can't she keep it in better condition? When he's a chick, his own is practically shiny – that's like basic upkeep shit. Hell.
Scowling, the freckled boy scrunches up his face at Naruto. "What's your problem? She's hot. You think just 'cause you're a shinobi you're too good for this?" He smacks the magazine with his knuckles.
Naruto shrugs, tapping his foot. "Nah, I just seen more, is all-"
But he breaks off when a dark-haired boy, a little older than the rest and quiet until now, looks at Naruto with the kind of slow deliberate challenge that immediately commands the attention of his peers.
"You know, I heard things about shinobi," he says, then smiles in a strange mix of meanness and real curiosity. "I heard they train the girls to be sluts-"
"You take that back." Naruto's on his feet, hands curled into fists, glaring down at the boy, who looks surprised to have gotten such a vehement reaction, before he smiles cockily, recognizing the upper ground when he sees it. Most of the other boys watch them avidly now, eager for a fight. At the far edge, the runny-nose kid is too busy looking at the porn to notice or be noticed. "Take it back before I punch your ugly-ass face."
"Woah, man. Calm down. Alright. I take it back." But he leans back in a lazy way that says he's clearly not done with Naruto. So the blond stays on his feet, seething.
"They don't just train girls to be sluts – I bet they train boys to suck cock too-"
The other boys laugh at the crack, and if it were any other joke Naruto might not have gotten so pissed – it's not like he hasn't heard stuff like it before. But this is an attack on his friends, and there's no way he's going to let some kid say that about his precious people. He jumps the distance to the boy, stopping in front of him with an angry glare and gripping his kunai tightly in his hand.
"You want to repeat that?" he snarls. A couple of the boys whisper to one another, eyes on him serious as the weight of the argument suddenly looms much heavier.
"Hey, chill." The boy looks at Naruto's kunai warily, and ingeniously adds, "Don't get all PMS-y."
And Naruto launches himself, loudly and nearly spitting with anger, halfway to punching a fist in the guy's face when he slips on the plastic bag the magazines were in. He doesn't lose his balance completely, but his own clumsiness ticks him off and the nervous titters of laughter from those watching, half hoping for a fight despite the danger, only piss him off more. But during that moment where he regains his footing, the furious looks he shoots all around are enough for him to see one thing – or rather, the lack of one thing, and remember:
These foreheads are all bare. If he attacks them, he can and will do them real harm.
So instead of punching the guy's face into next week like he deserves, Naruto jumps to the roof of the next building with an uncreative parting shot of, "Fuck you, assholes!" And he leaps away from rooftop to rooftop before he can rip them a new one, before he can hear more than the boy's last shout, made faint from distance:
"That's right, run away, cocksucker!"
Literally speechless with fury, Naruto storms from rooftop to rooftop in an impressive display of bad shinobi manners, seeing red at the corners of his vision and not caring. He's pissed out of his mind, and he doesn't know how the situation went downhill so quickly so fast, and he's distantly guilty at spectacularly losing his temper again just like Jiraiya always tells him not to, and guilty at feeling glad his teacher wasn't there to see-
A woman yells at him from her window as he streaks by, her breasts jerking with each irritated gesture of her rolling pin.
He doesn't not like women - Sakura's one of his favorite people, after all – but he's not a woman, as much as he knows how to act like one while he's in a female body. Inexplicably, he thinks of the gay man at the hot springs a year ago. Tied inextricably to his idea of women is the sense of a woman with a man – but the gay guy wasn't with a woman. He was probably with a man, sometime. So did that make one of the guys in those relationships like a woman? And if Naruto knew how to act like a woman, did that mean he should be with...a man?
But that doesn't feel right, either, and he's still plenty mad over the attacks on his friends. Confused and angry, he finds some stupid trees to take his frustration out on, throwing himself into a workout as an outlet for the half-recognized connections his thoughts are making and the quick-encroaching conclusions he doesn't allow himself to realize.
And somewhere between the continuous stream of one kick to the next, this is when he thinks, without any real sense of alarm or sadness at the prospect, that he doesn't really need anybody, if he doesn't like girls. He'll be fine on his own, just like always – and because he barely even thinks of sex anyway, it won't even be a problem. And this feels alright with him, because everything really would be better that way.
If he's gay – he really will be fine, on his own, and then nobody would have to know.
At fifteen, Naruto kills his first Konoha shinobi.
He looks down at the blood-spattered face, slack in death. Somewhere outside, Sakura fights Kabuto and Yamato searches inside for Orochimaru, so there is no one here to witness this kill, to tell him it's alright, he did what he had to do.
He's not so sure himself. This kill hurt.
He reaches down to the body, wipes his hand off on a black sleeve and smears it with red, shuts dark eyes under pale lids. He picks up a kunai embedded in the shinobi's hamstring, wipes it off too, and moves to put the weapon away – has a thought, and instead strikes a long scratch right through the leaf symbol on the dead shinobi's hitai-ate. He'll be given posthumous missing-nin status anyway, and it makes him feel a little less horrible if he can see that slash right here, now.
Naruto searches the body on autopilot. As he tucks a few damning scrolls, and a small, square, unfinished sketchbook in his pack, he knows he probably missed something. He doesn't have the temperament for this, and doubts he ever will. He pauses, hand hovering over the deep, ragged gouge in the shinobi's chest, and remembers what it felt like to slide his palm into flesh like nothing more than thick mud.
Nearly killing Jiraiya has taught him to face what he can do.
When Naruto rejoins the remainder of Team Kakashi, he sees Sasuke for the first time in years and loses him within minutes.
When Naruto's sixteen, Team Gai finds the body of Orochimaru, conspicuously laid out at the entrance to one of his many underground laboratories, flat on his back with his eyes closed and a precise hole through his chest. A few shredded scales, too large to have come from any common snake, drift about his body like thin violet petals.
Tenten kneels by the body. "Sword-wound," she assesses.
"No others, live or dead, within a mile radius," Neji adds, eyes scanning the horizons.
Lee comes out of the lair, reporting smartly, "Nothing's been moved inside for at least a week, and there are no signs of a fight, Gai-sensei."
As always, Maito Gai feels a warm burst of pride at the strong, capable shinobi his youthful pupils have become. If there is one thing he is most thankful for in his life, it is being a teacher to students like these.
So, because he knows he's been lucky to have such great and cute pupils, he grins and says, "Yosh! Good work!" before he sobers, looking down at the body below him. He knows of many shinobi skilled in the sword arts, and many sound-nin, and many powerful shinobi, and many shinobi willing to kill Orochimaru; and even then, rationally, he knows that just because there is a sword wound doesn't mean the Sannin was killed with a sword, and the location of the body doesn't mean the killer was a rogue sound-nin, and the lack of damage to the landscape doesn't mean there was only a single shinobi...
But looking down at the body, only one name instinctively jumps to the forefront of his mind for who could and would have done this.
Neji comes to stand beside him.
His pupil is as insightful as ever; his tone of voice says he knows, just as well as Gai, what they are looking at.
His rival's cute pupil may not be so far gone.
On the night before Naruto turns seventeen, the demon fox's sealing and Konoha's celebration are the farthest things from mind. He's in the far northwest of Lightning country, stuck with chakra to the branches of a snow-brushed pine, covered in layers and layers of cloaks, only his eyes visible beneath his ski-mask and hood; even then, he wears goggles specially made in Kumo for the harsh mountain winds. Six months after Team Gai brought back Orochimaru's body, one of Jiraiya's spies tipped the Sannin off to Itachi's whereabouts. Six months after Team Gai brought back Orochimaru's body, and Naruto couldn't take the waiting anymore, because where there was Itachi, there was Sasuke.
He hadn't wanted to be so sneaky about leaving. But Tsunade-baba just couldn't understand when it came to his friend. That for all their similarities, he wasn't Orochimaru. That he could be helped; and, more importantly, that he might let himself be helped, if Naruto approached in just the right way.
So he sent the Kazekage a message.
Please request me for a mission.
The next day, one of the Kazekage's swiftest desert hawks arrived bearing an official scroll for the Hokage; an hour later, Naruto walked right out the village front gates, whistling carelessly, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
Of course, as soon as he was a couple days out of Konoha he sent Gaara another letter, sheepishly explaining his true intentions, and thanking his friend profusely in advance. Gaara hadn't known Sasuke well at all; but he knew Naruto, and Naruto hoped he'd understand, one Jinchuuriki to another, how he couldn't bear to lose even one of the precious people he'd found.
He knew ero-sennin and Sakura-chan and Tsunade-baba and Kakashi-sensei and...most of his precious people, actually, were too smart not to connect the dots, if they hadn't already; so he left a note in his apartment for when they'd inevitably break in, saying he would face the consequences but please don't come after him, he could never become Hokage if he couldn't even save his best friend. Naruto hoped they'd understand, too.
It hasn't been easy, tracking two people so very similar in appearance. Naruto can tell the brothers apart in a heartbeat; but a random villager? It doesn't help that he...well, kind of sucks at tracking. And Itachi and Sasuke are very good at sneaking. Not that he'll admit it aloud. But when he says very good, he means very very very good. So it's two months of determination, multiple turnarounds, and several bouts of pure luck later, and here he is, at the top of a tree. And he thinks, just down that ravine, is Sasuke.
Naruto meets Sasuke at dawn.
Sunlight sharpens the contours of his body but softens its hues to deep lilacs and eggshell white. As if Naruto is a neighbor come to borrow a cup of sugar, he walks up to Sasuke's campsite; smiles (he can't help but smile) at the teen, and slowly enough that Sasuke can kick in his spine if he wants him gone, spreads the blanket draped over his arm onto the frost-covered earth, and sits at Sasuke's campfire.
Sasuke doesn't acknowledge him in any way. So Naruto pushes a little further, and sets his pack in front of him, taking out a small hearth and teapot. He scoops a handful of clean snow into the teapot and sets it to heating, then leans back and pulls his goggles up to rest on his forehead, squinting a foxy grin into the sun.
And, endeavoring to do the hardest thing he's ever done in his life – containing Kyuubi, sparring with Sannin, fighting Akatsuki, fighting Sasuke included – Naruto sits quietly.
Sasuke waits, too.
When the water boils, Naruto takes out a box, a packet, chopsticks, a teacup, and a bowl. Into the cup he places several of Kumo's only native tea leaves, kept carefully wrapped in layers of fine tissue and stored in the pinewood box. Into the bowl he empties an instant ramen packet – not Ichiraku's, but pleasantly spicy and rich. Over both, he pours, carefully, an even measure of water.
He moves the teacup to the side, comfortably within Sasuke's reach, and picks up his chopsticks.
As must be done with all ramen, Naruto savors each and every noodle. He exercises all his willpower not to glance over and see if Sasuke is drinking the tea. Throughout the whole meal, not once does he look towards Sasuke. But he is highly aware.
When he's done, Naruto lets out a satisfied sigh and leans back, legs folded in front of him. When he talks, it's all at once and unrehearsed by design – simply what he's come to offer, filling up the space between them, soft and fragile as snowflakes.
"I know Itachi's near," he begins. "And I'm not here to try and stop you facing him. And I'm not here to get in the way, either. This is your goal – you didn't need Orochimaru's power, or he'd still be alive now, and you sure as hell don't need mine. Mostly I just wanted to say...I hope you kill him, and I'd like it if you stayed alive. When he's dead, I'd really like to see you again. And it'll hurt, but...I'll do my best to understand if you don't want to see me." He smiled wistfully. "Not that I can promise I will understand, but I'll try. I really have been trying to understand you, Sasuke...I'm going to go back to Kumo tonight. I mean, I won't get there tonight, but you know, in a couple days...I'm going to wait there until the next caravan leaves for the south. I'd stay until the spring thaw, but..." He shrugs, looking at his empty bowl. "There's no one else here besides me, and no traps. I just...came to see you. And if you ever tell anyone I said that out loud, I'll kick your ass!" He brandishes his chopsticks in mock threat, but stops himself from pointing them at Sasuke – and therefore looking at Sasuke – at the last second.
"If you want to stop by," he finishes quietly, "...well, I'll be there, at the inn. This time next year. You can keep the teacup for now. If you want to give it back when you see me, that's fine. But I did get it for you, so it's yours, and you can keep it as long as you want."
That said, he packs up his things, keeping a determined chant (you can do this, you can leave, trust him trust him trust him) running nonstop through his mind to keep him from breaking down and trying to make Sasuke come with him, like he's already tried so many times.
It has to be Sasuke's choice to come home, just as it was to leave. Naruto understands this now.
Without a backward glance, Naruto says, "See you, Sasuke," and picks his way back up the snowy hill the way he came, and he knows and he's sure Sasuke knows, it's the hardest thing he'll ever do.
The evening before his eighteenth birthday, Naruto brushes the snow from his cloak, then stamps it from his boots. The innkeeper greets him warmly, and he smiles in return, asking if a certain room is vacant. When it isn't, he opens up poor Gama-chan and uses some of his savings to change the inkeep's mind.
After settling into the room, Naruto scoops up a robe and pads to the hot springs. Outside, it's as cold as it was this time last year, and a good number of other patrons escape the chill in the hot water. Naruto chooses a place in the spring, leans his head back against the rim with a warmed towel over his eyes, and tries to keep himself calm.
It's hard; his mind keeps thinking about what he hopes might happen tonight.
When he's wrinkled and his towel has long since cooled, Naruto lifts himself out of the water, dries hastily, and jumps over the hot spring wall to the snow-capped forest it rests against. The cold hits him hard, and the glare from the setting sun over pink and golden snow is harsh against his eyes. He ducks into the cover of the forest, quiet and frosted over, accidentally scatters a family of arctic foxes, and takes to the trees as agilely as any of his vulpine relatives. He runs until the sun is down.
He walks back through the starlit forest, smelling the crisp night air, hearing the soft quiet rush as a few snowflakes begin to fall. By the time he reaches the inn, he's cold again, and very eager to get back to his room. He figures he's killed enough time by now; waiting any longer won't help any, and would only turn his nerves to mush. As it is, fragile hope is overshadowed by looming dread and past memories. There are no guarantees; he can't expect anything, he can't, but...
In front of his door, a very familiar teacup and a bowl, and Naruto's heart fills.
Abandoning all restraint, he sprints to his door and throws it open. The room inside is unlit but Naruto's eyes, part Kyuubi now, adjust with a rapidity any shinobi would envy-
Standing next to the window, looking dark and cautious and expectant and perhaps just as nervous as Naruto feels, is Sasuke.
Naruto can't move.
"Sasuke." His whisper carries easily through the room. Sasuke only watches him, and for a moment Naruto wonders if maybe he's reading the signs wrong, if maybe Sasuke's come to give back the teacup as a final goodbye, if Sasuke's going to cast him out of his life forever-
Sasuke takes a step forward.
Naruto does, too. He still can't breathe, he can't, not past the yearning pulling through his chest, more powerful than any rasengan or chidori could ever be-
Looking unsure and completely out of practice, Sasuke smiles.