Warning: Pre-yaoi. Underage drinking – technically, at least.

Summary: Another weary day, another restless night. It is New Year's Eve, and his only companion is the sound of his own thoughts.

Note: This is set in my Heaven universe, starting with A Slice of Heaven. It is not necessary to read that first to understand this story, but it is highly recommended.

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Midnight Ruminations

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It was cold. Then again, it was always cold in that dreary, gloomy apartment of his; whether in winter or summer, sun or rain, the little dwelling he lived in was forever cold.

Twelve year old Uzumaki Naruto sighed as he dropped an ANBU mask onto a table and stripped out of his bloodstained uniform. Shivering as a cold breeze hit him, Naruto dropped the clothes into the small sink, and stepped into the cramped shower. After rinsing off the grime and blood from a long mission with the freezing water, Naruto quickly dressed in more casual clothing. Grabbing a cup of ramen, he heated some water with a controlled fire jutsu, too tired to mess around with the gas stove that was forever faulty.

Swallowing the stale noodles as soon as the three minute waiting period was done, Naruto was soon sitting on his bed. Reaching towards one of the few pieces of furniture that adorned his room, Naruto pulled a pad of paper and a pen out of one of the drawers.

This was one of the few joys of his day: writing letters to Gaara. He had kept up correspondence secretly with the other teen, ever since their very first meeting seven years ago, when Gaara came to Konoha with his father, the Kazekage. In the end, the Hokage had decided that the loss of a demon container to another village could not be allowed – Naruto was kept in Konoha, forcibly separated from the furious redhead.

And now he trained for a chance to see Gaara again. The council – curse them – had said that they would give him freedom when the village no longer needed him; the terms of the contract were too vague to bring Naruto any hope now, but he had been young and desperate when he signed it. Now, things were different. He knew that the contract would never come through, but maybe one day he would strong enough to leave this village behind. Or rather, perhaps it was more correct to say that Naruto wanted to stay with the only person that ever cared about him, as a person.

A slight smile lit up the blond's face as he wrote his letter. He knew that any sort of letters to him were likely stopped before they ever reached him, but his own method of sending the letters to Gaara meant that no one could interfere with his end of the correspondence. The letters were free to come and go through the fox kit, and were completely confidential. But Naruto never included substantial details about his living situation, or his new 'job'.

Naruto did not want to endanger his friend

"And done," Naruto whispered, signing his name at the bottom of the piece of paper with a flourish. With a flurry of seals, a little nin fox appeared – the fact he had gotten his hands on a fox summoning contract was highly ironic, but he found that the little creatures were devious and loyal, and dare he say even sweet, despite the Konoha villagers' irrational fear of them. He gave the letter to the fox, and it disappeared after nuzzling Naruto's hand.

Naruto was left alone again.

He stared bleakly upwards at the mottled ceiling, left with nothing else to do. Naruto's life now consisted of missions, training, and spending time alone in his apartment. There were the letters, of course, but…

It was times like this, when the deafening silence echoed throughout the room, that Naruto hated the most. The silence, not comforting or relaxing in the least, was stifling to Naruto. It loomed over him like a presence that was always haunting him, watching him. There were times where he felt like the silence and darkness would morbidly suffocate him.

As Naruto sighed and sat up, a bottle caught his eye. It was a bottle filled with champagne that his mission teammate had tossed at him right after their report with the Hokage.

She had said something along the lines of, "I know you'll be alone. Get drunk, it'll help."

Naruto had stared at her, before answering, "You know I'm twelve, right?"

Even behind her mask, Naruto could feel her smirk. "Old enough to kill, old enough to drink." Naruto had shrugged, taking the bottle, finding that wisdom hard to argue with. It was true that even genin were technically classified as adults under that principle, but it was not one that Naruto took advantage of.

Now, lonely, forlorn, and feeling ridiculously old, Naruto wondered how getting drunk felt like. Would it really make the empty feeling that dwelled inside him go away, if only for a few minutes? Was it possible to drink himself into oblivion, so that it deadened his emotions to the world?

Was that what Naruto really wanted?

Sometimes, Naruto could see why those prodigy types like Uchiha Itachi and Hatake Kakashi were so … eccentric, or went insane and committed massacres. He himself wasn't a genius – he had merely started his training more intensely than any of the other Academy students. It was sweat, blood, and labor, not prodigal intelligence that brought him to this rank.

Still, the threat of a hangover was nothing to ignore. He would have a mission tomorrow – Naruto knew he would; the missions came consecutively, day after day with little break. And the same female ANBU teammate that tossed him the bottle taught Naruto about the evils of a hangover on a mission – she often drank a little too much the night before one of her missions and ended up grumpy and inebriated, complaining of killer headaches.

Sighing, the blond pulled himself up into a sitting position, and reached for the bottle. A glass or two probably wouldn't hurt – he had never tried alcohol before, but since anesthetics' and antibiotics' effects wore of quickly because of the Kyuubi, Naruto assumed that those of champagne would be the same.

Pouring himself a glass, he stared into the liquid. It was sad, that all he had for company on these long nights were typically old letters from Gaara and an empty room full of nothingness.

Shrugging, Naruto tossed back the glass. He choked at the burn that ran its way down his throat and settled into his stomach. Outside, there was the sound of bells chiming loudly, and people cheering.

Uzumaki Naruto took a deep draught of the champagne after pouring another glass, before sighing and setting it down. He leaned backwards until his back hit the wall, staring out the window into the dark night sky, and wondered bleakly what this year would bring.

"Happy New Year, Gaara. Another year gone, who knows how many more to go."

The before I see you again was left unsaid, but it echoed louder than any silence possibly could.

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I do not condone drinking at twelve – then again, being a ninja and committing murder at twelve is not something I encourage either. Either way, don't do this at home, kids.

Well, it's different from the other parts of the verse, like I warned. Drastically so, really. Why? If you haven't picked it up through the hints, Sarutobi Hiruzen's decision shaped this little universe. One of my reviewers for the original, A Slice of Heaven, mentioned that it was unlikely that Sarutobi would relinquish Konoha's demon container – and I agreed, for that ending was shaped as that because I wanted a fluffy sweet one-shot guaranteed to bring about cavities.

As such, this evolved – this is a prequel to the spinoff that is currently – slowly… – being written. It will be an AU of an AU, and darker and angsty-er than ASoH was.

Anyways, thanks to everyone for reading both Progression and ASoH, and I hope you'll continue to stick with me! Thank you all for the reviews, I really love reading them.