Note: I wanted to write a story that studies the process of returning home- like an Odysseus cliché and a study on bromance in the face of a shitty life. Drabble Format.

Plot Device: Naruto and Sasuke get kidnapped by Zabuza and have to find their way back through the treacherous route to Konoha. (No pairings.)

Warnings: language, molestation, mild OOC, minor Sakura-bashing.

In Medias Res

To say that it's nothing to return home is not speaking the truth at all.

"Check out the road signs, teme." The blond pointed at the trees that bordered the path, each tree had an insignia of a spiral within the leaf. Laughing, the blond child crowed, "We finally found the roads. I told you I can break through genjutsu! I am totally awesome that wa-a-ay…" Groaning, the blond fell to the ground and slumped into the moss, his last traces of energy gone through his relief, excitement, and countless days of wandering. With his butt stuck up in the air and his face pushing into the dirt, Uzumaki Naruto whined, "My feet hurt sooooo much, Dattebayo!"

Uchiha Sasuke sighed as he plopped down by the road next to his brighter, louder counterpart. He methodically took off his worn sandals and began massaging them, rubbing out the slow burn from the chakra intensive exercise of jumping trees for hours on end. He idly dug a pinkly into his ear and sighed: if one had to stay at Naruto's side every minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month, learning to tune out his voice soon becomes an art form. With a small manipulation of chakra in his palm, he conjured up a small ball of water from the humid air to drink. Then he made another ball and offered it to Naruto, who took the ball with three fingers and began to noisily and greedily slurp it. "We're near the road, dobe," Sasuke quietly admonished, "Stay quiet."

Naruto looked up from his diminished ball of water and used the water as a magnifying glass, surveying the surrounding with a practiced eye. "Don't see anybody, didn't sense anybody. Besides, chances are that the people who stumble on this road are Konoha nins or merchants who don't see the genjutsu in this area. Just chill out," though his voice did noticeably drop a couple decibels. The blond sat on his much dirtied cloak and pulled off his own sandals and wrinkled his nose. "Urrghh, Kami, enhanced senses suck. At least we're not getting foot fungus anymore, eh, teme?" Sasuke silently agreed. Accustomed to the silence, Naruto pulled out from his pack two small packages of dried fish that they had traded in a village from a satellite island from Mizu. "Last of our pack. Bunshins saw no rivers nearby; we're going to have to start hunting game again, teme."

Uzumaki popped a piece in his mouth and started the tedious process of trying to soften the meat. The process tended to make the jaw sore from all the strenuous activity, but after days without food, dry meat was better than no meat. Sasuke watched his partner for a moment before doing the same. "Man! Getting fish is so much easier. With rabbits, you have to strategize and actually use old team tactics like the pincher formation, like what we did with Tora. Though rabbits do taste better…" Sasuke blinked, it had been a long time since those D-missions, which seemed more a far memory, perhaps a fancy dream that didn't ever seem to exist. Utopia didn't seem to exist in the real world.

Holding his hands together in a ram seal, the Uchiha formed a single bunshin and mentally ordered it start picking herbs and edible vegetation in the area. One good thing about being a genius is that he had total recall; the lectures that Iruka gave out on survival training were one of the most useful memories he had to date. As soon as they return home, Sasuke was going to give the chunin a whole new meaning of respect and gratitude.

Home… Seemed like a word for the ages. Making sure that Naruto wasn't looking; Uchiha Sasuke allowed a small hint of a smile tug at the corners of his mouth. How long has it been? More than half a year since that dreaded C-mission with Tazuna? Home… Konohakagure.

Naruto looked up, imitating the moves of a wary deer that had just sensed danger. After countless experiences, Sasuke knew not to question his paranoia. "Two people up north along the path, ninjas, probably… jounin?" The jinchuuriki mumbled the answer to the unasked question; he cocked his head five degrees to the right. "They already sensed us, no use delaying the inevitable," Naruto said it loudly enough for the arriving nins to hear. It was a secret message between them: let them catch us. It'll be easier to escape later if they underestimate us. Of course, each time they utilized that strategy, they were in risk of encountering the kill-first-ask-questions-later-mindset. So far, they had survived by the skins of their teeth.

Sasuke made sure to half cross his legs in a half-assed attempted to look like an untrained Academy Student, pulling his cloak around him to cover the shurinkens that were stitched to the underside of the thick fabric, and he waited. He calculated their prospects: 90 percent that the two nins were Konoha ANBU, who typically travelled in pairs when on patrol, 10 that they were walking in the middle of a Konoha invasion. It's only the high B or A ranked nins in the Bingo Book that work in pairs. That's what Zabuza always said. Sometimes, the unspoken rule outside the villages gave him and Naruto a bit of lee-way from the other hostile elements such as bandits and missing-nins who would sense their chakra from a distance and suspect that they were really A ranked nins pretending to be weak. It was, apparently, an effective practice to capture nuke-nins favored by hunter-nins.

Either way, they were sadly outclassed. As they waited, Sasuke thought up of scenarios of their next course of action should their luck land them in the latter 10 percent. If we do end up in the latter 10 percent, chances are that they are Oto-nins…

He noticed that Naruto didn't move and didn't make any bunshin to alert the newcomers. Dobe managed to gain some common sense over these months, he thought humorlessly.

Two shadows appeared a meter of two before them, just barely on the edge of striking distance; their upper arms had the insignia of the Leaf tattooed on their skin. Sasuke felt himself minutely relax; he saw all the tension from his companion drain out of him, like somebody had pulled the plug. "Identification." The demand was stoic and emotionless.

"Uzumaki Naruto, Konoha genin, number 53762," the jinchuuriki said calmly, challenging them by staring straight into their masked eyes. The Uchiha gave the ANBU credit, not one flinch. Instead, the duo turned their attentions to him.

"Uchiha Sasuke, Konoha genin, number 53758."

Readjustment seems too harsh for you.

"- and then teme gave the signal so I made everything explode! Bunshin Daibakuha! Though I got burns all over, don't think I did the technique correctly since that shouldn't happen, I don't think, since jutsus shouldn't hurt if you do it correctly. They burned straight through the fox's seal but nothing bad really happened. My hands burned for a couple days; teme had to apply the medicine that he got from the plants. And so when Zabuza got distracted, I yelled to teme and… Tajuu Kage Bunshin! And we made a break for it, Dattebayo! I left behind my cloned Haku. Then…" Sarutobi Hiruzen sifted through the childish, unprofessional report coming from Naruto's mouth to find the pertinent information. Truly, the story was almost too fantastical to believe. A pair of green genin hitchhiking all the way back to Konohakagure from Kirigakure with the most detours ever to date? How did they even manage to find a merchant path that lead to this village?

From time to time, the Sandaime had to turn to the silent companion who was content letting the other speak for both to verify the story's contents. All the Uchiha gave was either a small sound at the back of his throat or a nod. The old leader felt the urge to pinch the skin between his brows; he thought that this would be a typical morning, no stranger than the previous ones.

The pictures of Uzumaki Naruto and Uchiha Sasuke that were sent to nearby towns, inquiring on their whereabouts still did not reply back with any useful information and it had been months since their kidnapping. The news of the two genins being kidnapped by the nuke-nin, Momochi Zabuza, had sent most of Konoha over a tizzy. Poor Kakashi had been coping with his guilt by spending even more time at his usual haunts. The news had even reached Jiraiya wherever he had been, who had sent back a message via Toad with demands of "What the fuck happened to my godson, old man?" Both ninjas were currently hiding in the shadows behind him, unseen. Sarutobi can only imagine what they must be feeling: relief, astonishment.

Besides the wear and tear of their equipment and clothes, mainly the cloaks that had the obvious touches of the tailors from Mizu and a couple superficial wounds though from the looks of it, Uchiha had possibly suffered from a past broken arm that wasn't set correctly at the time. The Hokage made a note to have medics check up on them both.

The journey had changed them both. Naruto was still exuberant and hyperactive, but there is a hardened look in his eyes, possibly from field experience. The way he carried himself was loose and expressive, but he didn't wave his arms without abandon but in contained movements that only held the outer appearance of being reckless. On the other hand, the Uchiha who stood by the window, staring outside at the village, had the look of aged old wisdom and trauma etched into his eyes. Hiruzen would bet his entire Icha Icha collection that the young one had already achieved three tomoes. The Uchiha didn't move an inch if possible, his power was more hidden than Naruto's but not masked under a fool-like exterior. Idly, the Hokage wondered how they would work together on future missions- most possibly like a well-oiled machine, balancing one another in their faults and strengths.

Well, he sighed as Naruto's ramblings began to die down as he reached the final conclusion, it did make sense that the Konoha ANBU couldn't have found the genin pair; the boys were purposely avoiding the small towns. Committing the entire story to memory, Sarutobi waved the genins away, telling them that their jounin sensei would meet with them at Training Ground seven tomorrow morning. The two of them had disappeared in a small swirl of leaves.

"Interesting," Kakashi mused behind him, "they know the Shunshin."

"Yes, I suspect that their recent adventures allowed them to learn a few jutsus along the way, especially in dire needs of survival." Hiruzen replied tiredly, pulling out a blank scroll and began jotting down the essentials of what he needed to discuss with his old teammates. "That will be your job, Kakashi, to gauge their skill levels and report back to me."

"Hai, Hokage-sama," the other said amused, whipping out his familiar orange book from his back pocket, "thinking about the upcoming Chunin exams that will be in Suna in two weeks?"

"Yes. If what Naruto said is true, which does match perfectly with the reports from Jiraiya's spy network, regarding Orochimaru's desire for the Sharingan and the Atatsuki's desire for the Kyuubi, we will need to be prepared to take them two with us to Sunagakure. I think they are probably already chunin level at this point. They had already missed the previous exams here in Konoha…" where only Nara Shikamaru was deemed chunin-worthy. "We can put Team Seven back into commission again. Haruno Sakura will be pulled from Team Ten since the other two members will be working in tandem with Nara to infiltrate a nearby Yakuza port and won't be able to make it to Suna in time." He paused for a moment and the room was filled with sounds of his pen scratching the scroll, "What do you think Jiraiya?"

"Luck was on their side," the Toad Sage remarked, "for them to have escaped Atatsuki multiple times, it's almost impossible to comprehend, especially when one takes the young Uchiha's desire for vengeance into account. His self-control of flight vs. fight is admirable. Yes, we'll take them both to Suna in a week's time. Let them first relax among their friends, I daresay they deserve the rest." Jiraiya paused in thought before he finally said, "I'm really glad that their alive."

Being shipwrecked sucks.

"Why, of all the ships we had offered, did you have to choose the ship that would get caught in a storm that it can't hold up to?" Sasuke snarled as he picked himself up gingerly from the beach. He flicked a piece of seaweed from his forehead and stared at the blond, not bothering to help him stand.

"Like you gave me any help, teme. You didn't say anything!" Naruto shouted back over the sounds of the waves, spatting out a mouthful of sand and pointing accusingly at the dark haired nin, "Suck it up, we're in Kaminari no Kuni with no hope of rebuilding the boat. Kumo has no trees. We have to walk back to Hi no Kuni and it's partly your fault too! You always think that you're above me! It's always, 'I must get stronger against aniki. I must kill aniki. I can't help you because I'm better than you and I must kill my goddamn aniki'!" Naruto pitched his voice mockingly high when he parroted his companion's words and waved his arms around near his head.

With a wordless shout, Uchiha launched himself at the blond. The two of them scuffled around the beach, uncaring of the rocks that dug into their backs, trying to hurt the other in any way possible. Their hate for each other had finally erupted into a massive red haze that blinded them of their perceptions. "Well maybe if you didn't mess everything up, you Dead-Last, none of this wouldn't have happened: not the ship, not Zabuza, not Wave!" He was aware that if they had any weapons at their disposal, they probably would've gutted each other by now. "We have nothing! We are nothing!"

"You're just mad that, for once, nobody is there to assure you of your little superior ass, teme! Real life is different from Konoha, isn't it?" The other spat out a bit of blood from biting his tongue. "You don't feel like the king of the world, don't you?"

The words felt akin to a slap across the face, but he recovered admirably. "You idiot! This isn't about me! This is about you and your foolish, stupid, brazen actions. That's the whole root of the problem. You don't think, Dobe!" Sasuke grabbed Naruto's neck and pushed down, knocking his head onto a rock. "You think that this is fun and games, it's not, you retard! Keep at it and you will die and I will laugh at your dead body because you can't take anything seriously, you annoying little shit!"

"You know what?" Naruto uncharacteristically sneered as he pulled on Sasuke's hair and kneed him in the solar plexus, "You think that being Rookie of the Year gives you entitlement to thinking that you have the right to…" With a cry, the blond threw the other boy off of him and lunged and knocked him into the sand, "I'm sick of this bullshit. Fuck you. No, no, no, scratch that. Fuck you and your brother and your goddamn clan. I hate every single one of you little, arrogant ass-fucks since I first met you! You think you know everything, but guess what? You don't know me! You don't know anything about me! You don't know anything about me! I hate you!"

Sasuke realized that at some point, he had activated his Sharingan. He also realized that Naruto's eyes were a feral red and both of them were leaking killer intent. They shouted insults, some that cut deep and could probably never fully disappear with time. They scratched, kicked, punched, and strangled one another and rolled around in the sand as the sun sunken over the horizon.

Within a couple of hours, their energy wasted and spent, with the sun having been replaced by the moon, they laid on the beach, listening as the waves lapped at their feet. Lying on his back in a starfish position, Sasuke stared up at the moon in a half daze, tonguing a hole in his cheek that he had somehow bitten out when he fought with Naruto. He heard Naruto pull himself up and head towards the pile of remains from the ship and sift through the wreckage. If we had the chance, we probably would've been stabbing each other with the plywood and the splinters. Good thing that they were too far away at the time. "Fuck," he heard the other curse, "I have sand in my pants." The Uchiha shifted uncomfortably: so do I. With another few rounds of colorful curses, he could hear, feel, and smell a fire being started.

He felt exhausted, emotionally, mentally, physically exhausted and much too sore to crawl closer to the fire, but he enjoyed the small wave of heat that tickled the bottom of his feet. Before he was about to pass out, he managed to call out through cracked lips, "Dobe…"

The reply was prompt. "Go suck a dick, teme. We'll talk tomorrow."

At that moment, a truce was made between the once rivals.

We escaped the madness that comes in bouts.

Sometimes, Zabuza would see Haku's ghost drifting behind the blond one, smiling his sad smile that hinted at his calm, heartbreaking disappointment. Haku was disappointed in Momochi Zabuza. It was surreal experience- being haunted; it made him believe that Haku had some Yuki-Onna blood in his lineage.

In his grief, as Haku laid bleeding on the bridge with an open, gaping, chest, he had come to terms with one fact. The two Konoha brats had killed his tool, his companion, the most important person in his life and he wasn't going to let them off easy. They killed Haku; Momochi Zabuza demanded retribution.

So as soon as he was greeted with the chance, he had taken them both from right under Sharingan Kakashi's proverbial nose and took the pair as they were fighting tooth and nail, away from Nami, towards Kirigakure, thinking that they can finally help him achieve his dreams where Haku cannot. They owed him; they were to be Haku's replacements. Along the way, he had taught them basic chakra control, basic techniques, and a smattering of water based jutsus. He had been delighted by their potential- a jinchuuriki with unlimited amounts of chakra and the sole Uchiha survivor.

He didn't care what they thought of him; he didn't care that he was mentoring two possible killing machines that hated his guts. All he needed was for them to help achieve his purpose, to kill the Mizukage who had brought Kiri down into disrepair and shame. He knew that after the death of Yagura, only good can happen to his village. It didn't matter that the genin pair had made attempts to run away every night until it became routine and another lesson- to teach them on the fine art of escape, and it didn't matter that they had gave him glares so hateful that they were unconsciously laced with killing intent. They haven't made attempts on his life, but he knew it was only a matter of time. ("I'll kill you, dattebayo.") He taught them all they can learn and they learned. He taught them in his gruff voice laced with threats, he punished them whenever they were disobedient or not using their full potential. He taught them how to survive a nuke-nin lifestyle.

He told them his life dream and they stayed silent: he took that as a sign that they would help him and follow him in at least that.

Sometimes, looking up at the night sky, lying under a blanket that was so meager that he might as well have not been covered by anything, he wondered whether he had truly gone insane, like the Sandaime Mizukage or Hoshigaki Kisame or any other nin who had gone missing. He was quite sure that it was only grief, uncontrollable grief. Then he would dream of Haku's face and gentle demeanor.

He took his two new protégés into the heart of Chigiri, taking them through a pass in the straits that nobody hardly ever patrolled, and covered them in standard Kiri cloaks. He had them go out into the village and spread dissent in henged bunshin forms. A bit of complaint here, a protest there, a conversation in a bar amongst drunken chunins, a passing mention at a shop geared towards civilians. Small demonstrations and the Mizukage's quick eradication of any form visual dissatisfaction; it was the little things that built up. It was all made easier due to the fact of the Blood line massacres and the general fear and hate that permeated the village. The blond gaki had truly believed that he was doing justice while the dark one was silent.

On some nights, the three of them could easily engage each other in conversation regarding their beliefs, life perceptions, stories, and the like. Even the Uchiha would sometimes add his two cents in and mention his elder brother with utter hatred. Zabuza had traded that information with some of his knowledge of a mysterious group called the Atatsuki that had recently formed some years back that was gaining momentum in the wake of the fear they spread from the strengths of its ten members. Sometimes, when the sense of companionship grew to its heights, both genins were suddenly struck with the realization that they were fraternizing with their captor, the enemy, and would descend back into glaring silence. It was ok with him, fear and hatred had never hurt him before. Their relationship was half Stockholm Syndrome and half Authority Phenomenon.

The coupe had been a success.

After painstakingly planning the event for weeks, Zabuza Momochi had finally seen the results of his fruition and he was not disappointed in the slightest. Uzuamki had whooped with joy as his Bunshins had burst into flames and self-destructed. Uchiha had smiled when the mob finally stormed the Kage tower, pouring into the sacred tower on a blood hunt for the Sandaime's blood. They stormed through the administration buildings and drove Yagura to the edge of Mizu where they killed him in his three-tailed demonic form. It will only get better. Zabuza had repeatedly told himself as he savored the moment, uncaring as his protégés' eyes slowly regarded him with calculating looks. The moment was bittersweet. I have a limited time to enough this. Haku, I hope you're watching. This is for you.

And when his two protégés executed the perfect kill and escape tactics on him, burning down the residential building with him in it and making it look like an accident, that he didn't feel the need to even try to retaliate. Waking up, he saw a kage bunshin, henged into Haku, sitting at the foot of his bed, with Haku's familiar soft smile. "Hello gaki," he had greeted blandly as the clone stabbed both his hands into the bedpost and gave him a grin worthy of a fox.

As his house burned into ashes around him, as kunai and senbon had pinned him down, rendering him motionless, he closed his eyes and waited for Haku's clone to detonate.

Haku, I hope that you are happy for me.

The mention of a miracle can be traumatic.

"They're back? I thought that," they were dead. Sakura bit her lower lip and tugged at her pink locks, unsure whether to squeal or shriek in surprise. For months she had assumed that her teammates had been killed by the nuke-nin that they had encountered at Wave. To hear the news that they were here, in Konoha, somewhere, was simply too… overwhelming. She turned to Kakashi-sensei whom she hasn't seen in months. Since the dismemberment of Team Seven, Kakashi had seemed to vanish from the streets. "You're not joking? Sasuke-kun is here?"

Kakashi gave his standard, one-eyed, Kakashi-smile, "As is Naruto-kun. Both are here in one piece."

I have to tell the others about this. They're back! They're really back! Sasuke-kun is back! Will I be with him again? Ino-pig would be so jealous! Sakura poked at her bento with her chopsticks (she can't eat now, Sasuke-kun would think that she's fat!) and shot a look at the rest of Team Ten who were unaware of her conversation with her previous sensei, biting her lower lip nervously. "Does this mean that Team Seven will be back in commission? Will I be leaving Team Ten?"

"Yep!" The jounin replied happily, as if their months of haitus and non-correspondence were nothing but a blip in the radar. "And what do you know, just in time for the next chunin exams. Be at Training Ground Seven by ten tomorrow. Sayonara!"

All the excitement that Sakura felt suddenly froze into a pit at her stomach.

They pulled off an escape worthy of jounins.

"Orochimaru-sama wants the Uchiha alive, but he didn't say anything about what we can do with his body." The crackling of the fire was the only other sound besides the voice and excited breathing of the man from Sound. The Oto-nin walked over and tugged at the chakra enhanced ropes to test their stability that bounded the Uchiha and stroked the boy's cheek and licked his lips, "I bet he's a little virgin. I bet his hole is small and tight and when I fuck him, he'll cry like a little baby." Said boy could only glare back since there was a piece of cloth shoved in his mouth.

"Orochimaru-sama probably won't like it," his partner warned as she poked the fire listlessly, her face laminated by the glow from the flames. She paused thoughtfully. "Do you think we should kill the blond to avoid complications? He's an unknown factor." She jerked her head at the tent where said blond was also bounded with ropes, though not chakra enhanced because he wasn't as important as the Uchiha, and knocked out, out of sight and out of mind. The blond was, according to some unreliable spies, maybe the missing Konoha jinchuuriki who had been kidnapped along with the lone Uchiha. But judging from the way the genin pair 'fought' back then they had ambushed them, they were pitifully weak and not a risk.

"Can it wait till morning? Not until I have my fun with the little Uchiha virgin. No one would know…" With a greedy glint in his eyes, the Oto-nin murmured as he groped the boy's behind, earning a delightful small whimper. "I'll just take him for one night… or maybe more…" Scoffing, the kunoichi turned away in disgust. "You'll like it, little Uchiha, I'll pump in you all night long and you'll learn to love it." The Oto-nin was already noticeably hard as he carefully pulled down the Konoha genin's pants and squeezed his bare ass, dragging his hands down to the boy's…

Then, a displacement in the air and a small noise in the wind: a kunai pierced his jugular. The Oto-nin's eyes widened as his hands reflexively went up to his neck in an attempt to halt the blood flow, but then another kunai landed in his forehead between his eyes, and he fell backwards, twitched twice, and stopped moving.

"Kuroshini-san!" Whipping out a kunai, the kunoichi stood up and successfully blocked the first barrage of shurikens that were hurled her way. She fell at the second wave of shurikens that had rushed from her blind spot. She became nothing but a body filled with small holes.

Uchiha Sasuke dropped gracefully from the trees tops; his face paler than usual as he walked towards his doppelganger, undid the binds and pulled out the gag. The doppelganger disappeared in a puff of smoke, in his place; Uzumaki Naruto struggled to pull his pants back up, his entire visage white as ghost. "Dammit, couldn't have done it earlier can you?" He breathed out, struggling with the buttons.

"The kunoichi was distracted and had purposely turned her attentions away from," he jerked his head at the shinobi, "When he was about to…" The pair of them descended into a silence. "This escape," Sasuke acceded, swirling a kunai around his finger, "Was too close for comfort. We have to be more vigilant next time, though thanks." He added, making sure to look at Naruto in the eye. For switching with me just before they were about to capture us knowing that I had a better chance to escape as you when they bounded us with different ropes, one chakra-enhanced and one not, for enduring what I could've put you through…

The other made an "hmph" sound, "Whatever, teme." Naruto walked up to the Oto shinobi and kicked him viciously in the balls a couple of times, "I" kick "need" kick "to" kick "take" kick "a" kick "very" kick "long" kick "bath." He rubbed his wrists and took several deep breaths; the fear in his eyes lessened to some degree as he viciously stomped on the man's stomach, "Wish that the fuckface was alive to feel this." He turned towards his dark-haired companion, "Did you…" He swallowed, his voice bordering on hysterics, "Did you hear what he said?" Do you know what could've happened if we weren't prepared? "The bastard. He touched me down there. He friggin' touched me!" Naruto's voice took a sharp turn to the hysterics before he fell silent. "You can't do that!" He stomped on the nin's head, driving the kunai even deeper into his brains.

Sasuke nodded silently and shoved his hands into his pockets. Not far from here, cicadas chirped and buzzed. The sound-muffling genjutsu that the Oto nins had set up had broken apart. The pair began to scavenge the dead's belongings, hoping to find more weapons and food. Nothing was spoken between them for the rest of the night. Sasuke wondered how many close calls they would encounter along a similar vein as this on their journey back to Konoha.

A union of friends can be awkward.

"You don't stay at Ichiraku's to avoid being seen yet you still eat ramen. You are by-far one of the most predictable, unpredictable ninjas I have ever met," with that sentence, Sasuke fulfilled his quota of speaking for the day. They ate ramen on the roof of a four story residential building, swinging their legs to and fro from the edge. Judging by the empty bowls at his side, Naruto was on his fifth serving of noodles while Sasuke was savoring his second, which was stacked to the top with tomatoes. The blond carelessly waved in chopsticks at his companion, making a 'tsk-tsk' motion as if admonishing him that assumptions are never a good thing. Sasuke expertly flicked a noodle into the other's eye, earning a yelp and a long string of curses. That was how the rest of the Rookie Seven found the two boys.

"Sasuke-kun!" Sakura cried in happiness, running over to his two teammates and hugging her long-time crush and relishing Ino-pig's screech in dismay. "How are you, I was so worried and scared!" She felt the body under her arms stiffen but she was so happy that she decided not to take note in his uncomfortableness. Cha! All that mattered was that Sasuke-kun was back!

She heard Naruto snort in the vicinity before he crooned in sadness, "What about me, Sakura-chan, don't I get a hug?" In response, she threw a scathing look at her idiotic teammate with a retort on her tongue before she froze. Naruto wasn't looking at her with admiration that he usually reserved for her since the Academy days but with a mocking grin, crooked and fake. Does this mean that he no longer has a crush on me? Cha! That's good thing!

right? His eyes were the normal carefree sky-blue, but a chilling cobalt. Sakura felt her jaw unintentionally click shut and herself backing away from Sasuke, who eagerly shook her off and pushed her away, casting a grateful glance at the blond. Naruto grinned back with squinted eyes. Nobody in the Rookie Nine missed the exchange.

"How troublesome," Shikamaru sighed, breaking the silence and palming his face. "So I guess you both can't tell us what had happened?" The Nara took a seat on the other side of the blond shinobi.

"Classified," Naruto chirped, setting aside his bowl of ramen and placing his hands delicately into his lap with his palms up in askance, "But you can tell us what had happened here when we were gone!"

"Nothing much," Ino sniffed, shining her nails on her shirt, "more dumb D-ranked missions. We had the chunin exams a while ago, it's a test for genins to become chunins; it was divided into three parts. First part was OK, second was a bitch, and third was just stupid…"

"That's because Sakura and Ino knocked each other out in a fangirl-ish, no-jutsus all out brawl in the preliminaries declaring their love for the deceased Sasuke-kun!" Kiba chortled before receiving identical bumps on his head and falling to the ground with spirals in his eyes. Akamaru whined. Shino sighed behind his high collar.

Ino ignored them, having already integrating into the legendary Yamanaka gossip-mode, "Only Shikamaru was advanced to chunin, even though he lost to this girl from Suna with a big fan. There were another two genins from Konoha with chunin potential from Team Nine; they were a year above us and insanely talented, though their sensei is a piece of work. One of them, Rock Lee, was knocked out by this crazy boy named Gaara who wanted to kill him. Another was Hyuuga Neji, Hinata's cousin, but he wasn't allowed to become chunin because his lack of control over his emotions or something…" Ino trailed off, tapping her lip. Hinata squirmed behind her and tapped her index fingers together. The blonde sighed mournfully, "It's too bad that Chouji and I can't enter the chunin exams at Suna this time. Baka sensei. We totally would've rocked. Maybe the Hokage will promote us based on field experience or something."

"That's so cool, dattebayo!" Naruto whooped, pumping a fist into the air, "Teme and I will be in the chunin exams in Suna! Sakura-chan! Aren't you excited? It'll be like old times except better!" He laughed, "Teme and me learned all these cool awesome moves when we weren't here. We improved a lot! You improved too, right, Sakura-chan? We'll be like Team Seven reloaded!"

"I… I learned a lot of things too!" Sakura blatantly lied, laughing loudly. "So you better be ready for me too!" Judging by the glances Ino-pig and Chouji shot accusingly at her, her lies didn't go unnoticed. Naruto and Sasuke glanced at each other and then stared at her with calculating eyes... Sasuke huffed disdainfully and looked away while Naruto grinned mockingly at her. The group trailed off into awkward silence as Sakura squirmed guiltily. After she had transferred to Team Asuma, she had developed her new teammates' habits of laziness, only deigning to play shougi from time to time with her new sensei and learning a couple of new, low-level, non-chakra intensive genjutsus that were sent to her from her old sensei. She had been unaware until recently that her teammates had additional, rigorous training that their clan families had forced them through. Her stamina had barely improved and her chakra levels had barely risen since her last poor showing at the chunin exams. She was only delaying the inevitable humiliation in front of the public.

The Rookie Seven was struck by how much they relied on the other's presence to function. How troublesome. Naruto speaks for both himself and Uchiha-san. As much as Naruto talks and moves, Uchiha stays silent and vigilant. It must be a pain trying to fight both of them at once; they're probably very familiar with each other's actions and responses in battle. I would hate to meet with them on the other side of the fight should something like the second part of the chunin exams repeat itself. Both of them contain high situational awareness. Inwardly, Shikamaru calculated his observations and made deductions. Outwardly, he massaged his temples. I wonder how much they learned and how much they improved. They are obviously enigmas at the moment: they could still be genins, they could've long bypassed the requirements to be a chunin. It's too bad that we don't know what happened to them during their disappearance.

The disappearance of the two genins had caused unexpected amounts of frenzy amongst the older population, leaving the Rookies to wonder what was so important about the Rookie of the Year and the Dead Last. Though most can explain the importance of being the Last Uchiha, many were puzzled as to why Uzumaki Naruto's kidnapping had also garnered so much attention. Since the news that the Uzumaki and the Uchiha had returned to Konohakagure; the village worked itself back into a frenzy of excitement. There were many rumors of what might have happened. Maybe Uzumaki had lured Uchiha out of the village walls and held him for hostage. Maybe Uzumaki had decided to eat Uchiha to gain the powers of the Sharingan. Maybe Uzumaki decided to abandon the village and had convinced the Uchiha to follow.

The rumors were obviously false. Shikamaru had asked Hatake-san what had happened but the only information he gotten with his chunin status was that it had to do with a mis-labeled mission: a C turned A rank. Sakura verified that information, also noting that Momochi Zabuza had kidnapped them after the death of one of his own subordinates. Shikamaru had read about Momochi-san in the Bingo Books and he can't possibly imagine why the Demon of the Mist had decided to keep Naruto and Sasuke alive. More answers brought even more questions. It like he doesn't know anything at all.

And Naruto kept smiling. And Sasuke kept silent.

"Hope you guys are prepared," Kiba warned, wagging a finger, as Akamaru whined and growled, "The chunin exams are tough, really tough."

Naruto tapped his chest and made a victory sign, "We're prepared for anything, dattebayo!"

Meeting one's brother is not therapeutic in the slightest.

"Hey teme. That guy looked exactly like you but older, he's the one you keep talking about, right?" Naruto hummed in thought as he peered around the chimney for any passersby or spies or hidden ambushes; he turned back and finished bandaging the flesh wounds that littered his companion's body, wrapping the gauze tightly around the other's left leg and yanking on them for good measure, "I always thought that you wanted to kill him in dignified cold fury, not reckless… abandon. Because you're like cold fish or a stick in the mud- well, just pick one." He yanked again and got a grunt for his efforts. Naruto propped Sasuke up with his back to the chimney and pulled up his shirt with limited protest to apply the ointment that Sasuke had made only hours prior. The Uchiha gasped and hissed at the contact. "Stay still," the blond tsked, "it's enough that your arm is broken, I can't fix that though I can try to make a cast, but whatever you saw through that genjutsu that Itachi had put you through had you biting halfway through your tongue. Now I have to be sure that you aren't insane."

"The illusion weren't as bad as the first time." The Uchiha managed to choke out through a mouthful of blood.

Naruto raised an eyebrow, "Really teme? That's all you have to say? Not, 'I'm sorry that I rushed at Itachi with no plan in mind as soon I spotted him on the streets'? You ran at him like a madman with a kunai in one hand and blowing a small stream of fire in the other. Did you even notice his partner? The one who was blue, with gills and a huge-ass sword who was laughing his head off at you?"

"Shut up." The Uchiha grumbled, suddenly interested in the patterns of the shingles on the roof.

The blond shinobi was relentless. "How does it feel to be outclasses and helpless? Because that's how I saw you. You couldn't do anything. It was like a mouse believing that he can beat a snake in the duel to the death. He was a stupid mouse." The blond replied with a malicious tint to his voice, "Not going to be so reckless anymore, right? You're going to be careful and not charge headlong into anything without thinking. How did you think we are alive now? By watching and waiting."

"I said shut up." Sasuke snarled.

Uzumaki Naruto poked mercilessly at a bruised rib, "It was only because of my swarm of Kage Bunshins and a surprise Kawarimi that I managed to take you away." He stopped applying ointment in mid-rub, reliving the memory in his head, "Oh yeah, and guess what? That was an entire day ago. You were unconscious for an entire day. You wasted a day of your life. The landlady kicked us out because you were bad business and didn't even give us back our money. I could've had warm sheets and a bath… but no, you got stupid. You owe me, big time."

"He is my brother, the one who killed my clan, the one whom I swore by my parents' grave that I would kill." Sasuke muttered through a drug induced haze. Naruto visibly twitched. "I thought that he would give me answers …"

"Of what?"

"…" Sasuke turned his face away from the setting sun, "during the coupe at Chigiri, I saw somebody behind the Sandaime. It was an Uchiha with the Mankeyo Sharingan. At first I thought it was aniki, but later in the rebellion I got a better look before he put on his orange mask. I recognized him from the paintings and portraits on my family tree." Naruto glanced over worriedly as Sasuke coughed again, spitting blood onto their stolen white sheets, "He was Uchiha Madara. He was talking to this other person who he called… Pein and they were discussing Itachi. Apparently, Madara and aniki had met up before my clan's massacre and… Not sure- Atatsuki? Madara's supposed to be dead; he wasn't supposed to kill kin. Madara said that aniki didn't want to… I didn't know and… They…" Sasuke coughed weakly and spat out a glob of blood, pulling his shirt down and covering his wounds from view.

Naruto leaned back and sat on his knees, crossing his arms across his chest, regarding his companion with a critical eye. Below them, the streets of a small village in Yu no Kuni was bustling to and fro, filling the air with chatter about inane events. None of the civilians thought to look up at the two genins that were recovered in the shadow of a chimney. Uzumaki looked longingly at the hot springs a few blocks down that sent a constant wave of steam into the winter sky and sighed.

"Just when you thought that you knew everything in the world." Sasuke sneered, gripping the sheets so tightly that his knuckles turned white, "You realize that your ancestor had come back from the dead to screw you over." He forced himself to sit up straighter and to loosen the kinks in his neck.

There was a significant pause between them, one that wasn't uncomfortable but thoughtful. "Teme. Ever wondered whether we are both part of something bigger?" Naruto hesitantly asked; little puffs of steam came from his mouth and blended with the sky. "Like, we play a role is something so dynamic that we don't understand the greater picture."

"Hn. Like we are nothing but tools in someone else's hands?" The Uchiha snorted and ghosted his hands over his bandages, "Sometimes."

"I think about it all the time." The other plowed on, wiping the blood from Sasuke's chin with the bed sheet, "It's like each individual cloud not knowing that they contribute to the beauty of the sunset. But we're not becoming tools any longer." The blond smiled but it didn't reach his eyes; he laughed harshly, "Look on the bright side: we learn more every day. We learned that you're brother has ulterior motives in killing your clan. We learned that your ancient ancestor that's supposed to be dead had ulterior motives in killing your clan. We learned about the secret organization that wants to capture and kill me that your brother is a part of… what was it, again?" He scratched his chin thoughtfully as he squinted in the orange glow of the sunlight.

"Look at the designs on their cloaks," Sasuke said tiredly as he sunk into sleep, "Red Dawn. Atatsuki."

Training is painful in a mental sense.

Kakashi looked down on his two world-weary students over his Icha Icha. Uzumaki Naruto and Sasuke Uchiha: how much you two have grown. The report to the Hokage will be a pain. He inwardly groaned. "Let's take a break, you two did well." The two genin were sprawled on the ground, surrounded by their weapons, breathing heavily and groaning. Not sure whether I should be proud of them for their improvements or indignant knowing that I wasn't the one who was their sensei.

That is, if they could be called genins. Their skill levels far surpassed the rank of chunin. I bet that Momochi Zabuza taught them more than I ever could. Not only did he manage to hone their chakra control, he managed to imprint and coax out their water affinities, no matter how much of an affinity they have. To have somehow managed to pull it out of an Uchiha who as a clan generally hold fire affinities and a jinchuuriki whose demon is a fire affinity is impressive. Kakashi snapped his book shut and tucked it in his back pocket. From genin to low tokubetsu jounin: that's really impressive.

He mentally listed their talents. Handless seals in the Academy basic jutsus, able to shunshin, their taijutsus have a noticeable influence of the Mizu style and they use their kunais almost like an extended arm. I think, if given more time, Momochi might have begun teaching them the ways of the Seven Swordsmen. Their knowledge of Suiton jutsus had exponentially increased; I don't think they showed me all the techniques they learned. But their biggest improvement… Naruto groaned and whined about his poor feet. Sasuke rolled his eyes and smacked his teammate across the head. Their biggest improvements would be their ability to take into account the other's abilities. Their situational awareness and usage of field tactics are amazing. Their ability to strategize complex plans is what sets them apart from the average chunin. Kakashi gazed around at the battleground that is Training Ground Seven and the many holes and scorches that littered the grass and trees. Naruto's kage bunshin always shamelessly plays a big role in these plans. It's quite amazing.

It's quite amazing what their trials had forced them to learn. Their improvements are monumental.

On the other hand: Haruno Sakura. Said pinkette was knocked out due to a standard genjutsu and a latter blow to the head. It had been all over for her. Repeated attempts to awaken her made by her blond teammate were unsuccessful.

The jounin gave all three of his students a closed-eye smile, "I'll be signing you all up for the chunin exams which will take place in a week at Sunakagure. Ask Sakura about the details. I'm sure she has exciting tales to tell about her performance." He disappeared in a swirl of leaves.

Haruno Sakura. He lamented when he reappeared on a roof of a civilian complex. I'm quite disappointed in her. If it wasn't for the scrolls of various genjutsus that I managed to paw off of Kurenai, I would have thought that she had gotten worse. Her stamina and chakra reserves clearly retreated back to her beginning genin days. Clearly Asuma isn't forcing his teams through exercises and training regimens. The jounin sighed and shook his head. It looks like these chunin exams in Suna will be another case of "two shinobis bodily dragging the kunoichi through the tests" sort of deal. I don't know how to deal with her. Rin was never a burden…

They insist on being unseen.

"Shh!" Sasuke clasped a hand over Naruto's mouth before he could say something that might blow their cover like:

"Hey teme, think I saw your brother back there."

"Dobe," Sasuke hissed, "Not a word. They're looking for you." He grunted in disgust when the blond licked his palm. "They saw me but they didn't think that I saw them. They know that you're with me. Now shut up, your voice carries." He wiped his hand on the other's cloak.

"Ehh?" Naruto whispered back and snickered, "You're not going to charge at them with a war cry?" That comment was hit below the belt. The jinchuuriki quickly sobered up when he received a blank stare in return. "Yeah, yeah, I got you, I got you."

They stood in the shadows by overfilling garbage cans; the pungent smells were almost heavenly to his senses. Sasuke grimaced as he breathed through his mouth: I have hit a new low. I am willing to eat garbage. If we ever kill Hoshigaki, I'm going to turn his body into sushi and eat it. "How're your hands?" He prodded in an attempt to cull his thoughts.

The jinchuuriki shrugged and winced as Sasuke took his bandaged hands and looked them over. Some parts were red and peeling, other parts were charred, "it'll take at least another two days to heal. The burns were pretty bad this time around but nothing I can't handle. Hebi-teme's people caught us by surprise and my control over the Bunshin Daibakuha weren't so good this time. I'll get better, dattebayo." He shoved his hands back into his pockets before they could endure any further abuse, "Hebi-teme must really want you, Sasuke. This is the fourth time they tried to track us down and this time; they used Yakushi and the bone guy too."

That's it, this is the last time we're ever staying for a prolonged period in a populated area, and it's just way too risky with so many people after us. Dammit. Sasuke gritted his teeth and toughed his resolve. Dobe won't be happy to hear this but he should understand when I explain my reasons to him when we get out of aniki's sight. No more temporary beds, no more onsens, no more integration with the regular people. We'll have to stay in the wild. "We have to leave." The Uchiha declared softly, interrupting his companion in mid-sentence. "Won't be long before they start asking the villagers and though blonds aren't uncommon in Kaminari no Kuni, pale skin and black hair isn't. We're leaving now; you have your stuff with you?"

The other genin smiled, wide and no teeth, "You know me, teme. I always have my stuff with me."

The chunin exams will be a piece of cake.

"Never been to Suna," Naruto mused as he strapped on his weapons belt. He dug through his treasure trove of broken and rusted kunais that he had picked up on the road, thinking about selling them to the local blacksmith. "Might get a few ryo out of these…" He craned his head back and observed as his friend bandaged his arms and knuckles in preparation for the long trip. "Think it'll be the same as Kiri or Kumo or Oto or Hi? Drier I bet, much drier."

"Hn." Sasuke replied, pulling at his bandages and tying them down.

"Yosh!" Naruto pumped a fist into the air, "We'll blow them apart! They won't even know what hit them."

The most important part of it was the bonding experiences.

"I can't take it anymore!" Naruto screamed in frustration, kicking at the trunk of the nearest tree, cracking it in half. Then he summoned nearly a hundred Kage Bunshins and had them each start screaming and hurling themselves at any sturdy object in the vicinity, no jutsus. That was the constant rule: no jutsus. Sasuke blinked as his companion started splintering trees, pulling up rocks and throwing them into the air. He watched as the blond vented his frustrations on their surroundings, taking care to make sure that no one else stumbled upon them in their vulnerable state. He didn't need to worry much; hardly anybody ventured on the border of Yu no Kuni and Ta no Kuni.

This is the first time I saw him loose so much control over himself since we were shipwrecked on the shores of Kumo. It took his more than half a year to crack and that was only through the harshest conditions.

"I hate this!" Uzumaki Naruto seethed as he continually pulverized a boulder with his kicks, "Why does everybody we ever meet want us dead? You can't relax! It never ends! Everybody! Everybody wants something out of us. Kyuubi! Sharingan! Tools!" Uzumaki kept ranting, destroying everything he could get his hands on, some tears were threating to appear at the edges of his eyes, "we are tools! Tools! Tools! Tools! Everyone will use us and take things from us! Bandits try to steal from us, missing nins try to steal from us and then kill us, it never ends! I fucking will…!" With a scream, he unintentionally channeled chakra into his punch and splintered a tree.

I had already vented through this method a couple of times already. Sasuke thought, drawing a small picture in the ground with a senbon he had procured from a missing nin they had bumped into some days ago. To see him loose it is quite worrisome. Naruto is more of a constant: he rarely gets angry and when he does, they're so uncharacteristic of him, one wonders if Naruto is still the same person.

"I hate my life." He heard the blond panted and moaned, "I hate Zabuza…"

"Do you?" Sasuke mused, looking up from his work.

Naruto glanced over and smiled self-depreciatingly as he laughed bitterly, "Do I? He was the one who started all of," he gestured grandly at nothing in particular, "this. All of this. Can I say that I hate him? I don't know." His bunshins were still kicking at rocks, shaking giant trees, throwing up dirt. "Circumstances forces change, were we fated to get repeatedly screwed over in life?"

Sasuke made an "Hn" sound and dug into his pack for some dried fish and cold rice balls and offered them to his companion, who didn't take any.

Naruto made a frustrated, growling noise at the back of his throat, snapping his head in the direction of an unknown clearing before relaxing, "Because of him, we're here, away from everything we're familiar with. He took us. He kidnapped us. He changed us. I just… want to go home. Used to hate Konoha, but now I idealized it too much to care." Naruto slumped in the clearing as his clones continued to wreak havoc on the vegetation, some bunshins popping every now and then. "He shaped us into who we are: two people desperate to survive. You and me against the world. You know?"

Sasuke silently agreed. The nuke-nin had taken them in and molded them into something that Konoha would never have been able to achieve. They had the will of fire and the will to life; they were hardened and tested, again and again. He mentored them with more care than Kakashi-sensei or any other Konoha jounin could possibly pull off. How can you hate a man like Zabuza? It's all mere circumstances. Who can you blame? Just like: who can you hold onto, but each other?

Naruto dug into his pack and pulled out a sake bottle and two small bowls, "nicked it from out last landlord," he offered in explanation. "You and me, we're going to celebrate. Today is an important day…" He poured equal amount of alcohol into each bowl, "Because I said so. We're old enough to kill, therefore we are old enough to drink."

They cupped their bowls like they were precious artifacts. "Ever wondered what would've happened if we weren't kidnapped? Would we have stayed the same? Would things still have changed?" Tilting his head thoughtfully, Naruto was the one to make the first toast as he raised his bowl towards the sky, he intoned, "To Zabuza."

"To survive." Sasuke quietly returned. They drank a gulp; it burned all the way down. Naruto coughed.

"To home." He said more hoarsely.

"To the half way mark." They drank again.

"To life."

"To life's goals."

Naruto stared at him above the bowl line, his blue eyes assessing him. "Life's goals." His face split apart in a foxy grin. "Kanpai."