Hi! This is my first Naruto fanfic! I will try to be as realistic and true to character as possible, though I may have made Naruto a little smarter. Potential spoilers up to chapter 609.

Notes: (1.) This story takes place two years after the Fourth Shinobi War. (2.) I like Sakura. I really do! However Sasuke, sad to say, does not have a high opinion of her in this fic (or, I believe, in the manga). Therefore, please don't be upset by the teeny tiny amount of Sakura bashing below. She'll have her redemption later. (3.) I hope you enjoy it!

Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto, nor am I profiting by this fanfic in any way, except for my own enjoyment ^_^

The Other Seal

Wind whistled through the trees as a young shinobi darted from limb to limb, leaping such impossibly long distances that it felt as though he were flying. He whooped as the ground blurred beneath him. Nothing could compare to this speed. It was exhilarating! A patch of sunlight briefly illuminated the shockingly bright orange of his attire - a downright dangerous choice of clothing for a normal shinobi. But that was just it. He was not a normal shinobi. He wore orange to be seen, to be acknowledged by the world. Ribbed for years by his friends for his loudness and general clumsiness, he had finally proven his worth, and the world had seen him. The world had acknowledged him. They called him by name, and they called him a hero.

A hero.

That was him.

That was the new Uzumaki Naruto!

Naruto closed his eyes as he reveled in the wind whipping past his cheeks. The fragrant smell of the trees of his homeland assailed his senses, and the anticipation of arriving in Konoha within the hour was enough to have him grinning. Oh, and he knew just what to do the moment he passed through the gates...a visit to Ichiraku's for a steaming bowl of ram-


Naruto crashed solidly into a thick tree limb, and that is how the hero of the shinobi world plummeted to the earth, landing flat on his face in an undignified heap.

Moments later, silent footsteps moved toward him, and a dark-haired shinobi glared at his companion. "Che, baka. Same as ever."

Naruto opened his eyes to see a disdainful sneer spread across the face of his worst enemy - or his best friend - or his eternal rival - or - Oh, who cares what we are! "Sasuke," he grimaced in pain, "don't be such an asswipe."

"Better than being a baka dobe," replied Uchiha Sasuke, crossing his arms.

"Damn! That really hurt!" Naruto held his head in his hands, waiting for the stinging pain to pass. Kurama, you damn fuzzball! he yelled at the demon fox who resided inside him. Why didn't you warn me?!

It's your own fault for not paying attention, the Kyuubi said, flashing his teeth in a animalistic grin. Just because they were partners now didn't mean he had to bail his vessel out of everything, especially when the boy was so oblivious.

"You were thinking about ramen, weren't you," said his teammate with an exasperated sigh. "Figures. Once a dobe, always a dobe. And you're supposed to be team captain." Sasuke shook his head uncomprehendingly.

Of course, there was a very good reason that Naruto was the captain of their two-man squad. Naruto was the hero of the Fourth Shinobi War, and Sasuke was a traitor. Ex-traitor, if there was such a thing. After all, it was Sasuke who had turned the tide of the war, breaking Uchiha Madara's control over the Kyuubi and mortally wounding his ancestor. It was Sasuke that freed up Naruto to quell the Juubi. By all rights, he should be recognized as a hero alongside Naruto. Still...no one was able to forget that Sasuke had once betrayed and threatened to destroy Konoha, and he had killed Danzo. That was arguably the strongest case against his return to the village, though his alliance with the snake bastard was high on the list as well.

It was Naruto who convinced the council to rescind the order for Sasuke's execution. The truth behind the massacre of the Uchiha clan was revealed, to the shock of every council member but two.

I'm not asking you to believe that everything Sasuke did was justified. It sure as hell wasn't! And I'm going to beat the bastard up for leaving us! What I want you to consider is that it was Konoha who betrayed Sasuke first. If I were in his position, if any of us were - well, I really can't blame him.

Naruto had argued that Sasuke had proven his loyalty when he saved Naruto's life, thus saving the shinobi world. He had told Naruto that he wouldn't seek revenge, and his word was good enough for the blonde. The council reluctantly yielded under his fierce, blue-eyed persuasion, deciding that it was time to break the cycle of hatred that had so long been an undercurrent of their hidden village.

The hardest one to convince was Sasuke himself. While he no longer sought to destroy Konoha, that didn't mean he wanted to live there again, picking up the pieces of his life as though he'd never left. It took a lot of shouting on Naruto's part and scornful silence on Sasuke's for Naruto to make the former avenger admit that he didn't have plans or a place to go. With his revenge either completed or forsaken, Sasuke was empty of dreams or desires. Naruto could just see him wallowing in a whirlpool of angst and suppressed hatred, slowly being driven mad, and that was not acceptable to the blonde. No, what Sasuke needed was a purpose, a new goal to strive for, and Naruto had the perfect one in mind. With the same doggedness and determination that defined him, Naruto practically dragged his old friend back home.

Naruto was soon promoted to jounin, and after Sasuke had completed the terms of his probation - weekly "sessions" with Ibiki, a year of D-ranked missions, and minimal access to his chakra - they had formed a two-man team. Sasuke could now activate the first level of his Sharingan, but the chakra controls that looked like large, black bracelets on his wrists prevented him from activating the Mangekyo. Not that he ever needed it; he was deadly enough even without the Sharingan.

The stipulation for Sasuke's freedom that most irked him at first was his watchdog. Naruto. The blonde dobe stuck to him like a parasite, trying to break Sasuke's cold composure with constant ribbing and loud antics. When he finally snapped, Sasuke attacked Naruto with a ferocity that surprised even him. But Naruto met him blow for blow, not batting an eye when worried shinobis crowded the training field uncertain if they should intervene.

When it was over, the two young men had lain on the ground in mutual exhaustion, sweat pooling on their bodies. You finally did something about that stick shoved up your ass, Naruto had said, panting but pleased. He had grinned. If you're angry about the villagers or the council or life in general, don't keep it bottled up like that. Take it out on me when we spar.

Ninjutsu and genjutsu were denied to Sasuke with his chakra cut off, but taijutsu was fair game. Thus began their daily spars, and before long, Sasuke was looking forward to them just as much as Naruto. He had too many years of anger and hatred weighing him down, and the perpetually optimistic ray of sunshine was the perfect punching bag. Not that he'd stand there and take it, of course. No, Naruto made him work for his hits, and on some level, Sasuke was extremely satisfied to have a challenge.

A rival.

A friend.

Not that he would tell the dobe that.

The worst part was that he didn't have to. On some subconscious level, the dobe understood him like no other. It was infuriating at times, but when Sasuke pushed aside his pride long enough to think objectively, he admitted that Naruto had brought him out of the eternal darkness that was his life.

Again, he would never tell the dobe that.

Huge walls appeared in his field of vision as they neared Konoha. If Sasuke were an ordinary man, he would dread the return to the hidden village with its cold stares and snide comments, but there were very few people that Sasuke gave a damn about - a very select few. In fact, he could count them on one hand. Everyone else could go screw themselves.

The duo jumped to the ground and walked through the gates of the Hidden Leaf Village with a quick wave to Kotetsu and Izumo at the guard post. They moved through the now-familiar streets of the rebuilt Konoha, villagers calling out to Naruto and coldly ignoring Sasuke. The dark-haired shinobi actually preferred this treatment to the sickly sweet gestures from his childhood.

Oh, Sasuke-kun, back from your mission, are you?

Obviously, you dumb ass.

Sasuke-kun, what a credit you are to the shinobi forces!

And how lucky we are that you aren't a shinobi.

You're growing up to be such a handsome boy, Sasuke-kun!

Hearing that from you, a wrinkly obaa-san, is sickening.

Never let it be said that Uchiha Sasuke was affected by the words of ignorant villagers.

A loud bark pulled Sasuke from his reverie, and a familiar face with red fang tattoos and a messy mop of brown hair came into view.

"Hey, Naruto! Back from a mission?" called Kiba as he ambled down the street towards them, Akamaru by his side.

"Yeah, it was a piece of cake!" Naruto interlaced his fingers behind his head and grinned broadly.

"Yo - ah, Sasuke," said Kiba, almost nervously.

Sasuke nodded briefly in response.

Kiba turned back to Naruto in apparent relief. "Sakura and Ino were looking everywhere for you. Something about a birthday party?"

Naruto's grin broadened. "Yeah, my birthday's next week. Eighteen years old, dattebayo!"

Kiba smirked, "And not a day over five - maturity-wise, at least."

Sasuke silently agreed, and his mouth threatened to turn upwards as Naruto vehemently exclaimed and flapped around wildly in denial, thus proving Kiba's point.

"Like you're any better, Kiba!" he finally concluded.

"Hmph. Anyways, you better be careful 'cause I heard Ino say something about turning your party into a dating game. Like we'll be paired off or something. Not that there's any problem with a good kissing game or two, but if you could convince her to play strip poker instead, the guys would be more willing."

Instead of laughing, Naruto glanced at Sasuke. "Maybe that's not such a bad idea," he murmured.

Sasuke caught the look. "What are you up to, usuratonkachi?" he demanded.

"Ah, nothing! Absolutely nothing," Naruto said with a laugh before quailing under the Uchiha's glare. "Okay, fine. I was thinking that you could, you know, try to mingle with the -"

"I'll pass," he said shortly.

"Arg! Don't be such an antisocial prick, teme! The only girl you talk to is obaa-chan. Your balls have probably shriveled up and died!"

A long moment passed. "I talk to Sakura." Once in a while. Every now and then. When she asked him a direct question.

"Barely, and only when she asks you a direct question."

Damn. He spent way too much time around the dobe.

Kiba and the rest had become accustomed to Naruto's frequent jabs at the Uchiha, but they had never quite been able to join in. The Uchiha's stone cold facade dissuaded any attempts to mess with him. Hell, the quickest way to end a conversation was for the Uchiha to walk in the room, and the only way to start it back was to ignore him entirely.

"Well, just wanted to warn you," said Kiba as he bounded off with a wave.

Naruto and Sasuke walked in silence for some time until Naruto, unable keep quiet, spoke up, "Ne, ne, Sasuke, speaking of your balls -"

If Sasuke were a more expressive man, he would have face-palmed.

"- you just gotta come to the party, dattebayo! You can use the time to look over some of Konoha's finest and pick out a Mrs. Uchiha Sasuke."

"No thanks," he said flatly.

Naruto threw up his hands in exasperation. "Seriously, teme. You say you want to rebuild the clan, but how the hell are you planning to find a wife if you never bother to look? There will be lots of pretty girls at the party and -"

"No woman in Konoha suits me, and any of them who would date a man who would have killed them in cold blood just aren't in their right minds."

Naruto's thoughts strayed to Sakura and Ino who, despite everything, retained their feelings for the stoic man, and if the coy glances and giggles on the street were anything to go by, Sasuke's handsome features weighed more heavily than his past in the eyes of numerous females of the village. "I don't think it would be all that hard to find someone if you took the time to look." A bright idea occurred to him. He nudged his friend. "Ne, Sasuke, what sort of wife do you want?"

"None of your business, dobe."

"The hell it is! As the only person on the planet you actually speak to on a regular basis -"

Not by choice, thought Sasuke dryly.

"- I hereby declare that I, Uzumaki Naruto, am entitled to all rights and privileges as and of pertaining to the business of Uchiha Sasuke, including but not limited to some idea of what type of girl he wants for a wife."

Sasuke's only response was to raise his eyebrow.

"That's Hokage language for 'answer the question.'"

"I know what you meant."

"Then answer the damn question!"

"Not a chance."

"Dammnit, Sasuke! Quit acting like some frosty, old ojii-san and tell me what sort of girl you like!"

Unfortunately, Sasuke had all too much experience with Naruto in one of these moods. When he wanted to know something, Naruto would pester him until he had his answer, and Sasuke, sadly, couldn't use the Mangekyo to silence him. The streets had emptied of civilians as they neared the Hokage tower, and Sasuke had an idea to throw off Naruto. Ordinarily, he would never dream of doing this, but anything to shut Naruto up was worth price his pride had to pay.

With the nimble skill of an S-class shinobi, Sasuke grabbed Naruto by the arm and whipped him sideways into an alley. Taking advantage of Naruto's surprise, he backed the blonde into a wall and leaned over him. "Who says," he whispered seductively, "I like girls at all?"

Blue eyes met his dark ones for a long moment.

"Then you're gay?" came Naruto's nonplussed response.

What? No running away? No shouts of denial? No screams that Sasuke was threatening his manhood?

"Okay," said Naruto calmly as Sasuke stood stupefied, "then I accept your offer to pay for ramen after we report to Tsunade-obaa-chan. It's a date." He nodded and smiled.

Eh? thought Sasuke dumbly. It - it was supposed to be a joke. Naruto should have screamed and run away by now.

Seconds ticked by as Naruto watched Sasuke calmly and Sasuke stared in mute shock, slightly paler than usual.

Suddenly, Naruto burst out laughing. Moments later it looked like he was having a fit he was laughing so hard.

A cold feeling swept over Sasuke as a startling realization hit him. "You - you playing me just then, weren't you?" Naruto was still laughing, but he nodded his head in the affirmative. "H-how the hell could you tell I was joking?!" he demanded. It was a rare day that Uzumaki Naruto outsmarted Uchiha Sasuke.

"Heh, it was easy," said Naruto, wiping away tears. "You always get this light in your eyes and the right corner of your mouth quirks a little when you're about to make a joke."

"That - it is insane that you know that." Sasuke himself didn't know that.

"Meh," he gestured dismissively, "you joke so rarely, plus it's so different from your normal frigid look that I learned to recognize it." With a grin, Naruto resumed walking. "So, are you going to tell me?"

"Fine," Sasuke snapped as Naruto whooped. Anything to take his mind off the dobe Naruto successfully pranking him. "I suppose I would want her to be a shinobi. Civilians just don't understand what it is we do." Naruto glowed at Sasuke's use of we, which Sasuke studiously ignored. "She would have to be strong in body and spirit to put up with the stigmatism of being my wife. Loyal, kind, intelligent...and -" Sasuke remembered his mother's bright smile as she welcomed him home from school. "-warm and cheerful, even...even playful, maybe." He looked over to see Naruto gaping. "What?" he said in irritation and a little embarrassment.

"I'm just surprised you actually told me," he said with a wide grin. "And you were so honest."

"Don't ask a question if you don't want to hear an answer," snapped Sasuke.

"Hold it, teme! I never said that! I was just surprised. Now I'm over the surprise, and I'm gonna start hunting for a kunoichi for you." Sakura, who seemed to meet every qualification, stayed on top of the mental list of candidates.

"Do not try to play matchmaker, dobe. You'll just embarrass yourself."

"Hey! You don't know that! I've never tried -"

"And what about you?" Sasuke interjected. "You're some big shot now, and you don't even have a girlfriend. Didn't Hinata confess to you?"

"Ah." Naruto scratched his head nervously as his excitement quickly deflated. "Yeah, two years ago. But I just - well, I like her a lot, and I thought long and hard about it but - I don't know. I just never -"

"You don't have to explain it. If you didn't feel the same way, then that's it."

Naruto was grateful that Sasuke would leave it at that, unlike Sakura who had hounded him for days for a proper answer. "Actually, it was Hinata who showed me that I wasn't really in love with Sakura." He glanced over and saw that Sasuke was listening. "I mean, it's like her confession showed me what real love is, and I realized that there's this, I don't know, whole other dimension to love. And what I felt for Sakura didn't even compare."

A sudden idea occurred to Naruto - that maybe Sasuke did have feelings for a certain kunoichi but stayed silent out of loyalty to him. Following that train of thought, he continued, "So...if you want to consider Sakura as a candidate for -"

"I'm not interested in her." His tone was decisive and unyielding.

Naruto sputtered, "Why -"

That was when it happened.

A sharp jolt of pain wracked Naruto's body. He gasped and doubled over, clutching his middle.

"N-naruto!" Alarmed, Sasuke grabbed the blonde before he keeled over. "What's wrong?!" His normally blank shinobi eyes widened in worry as Naruto's legs crumpled beneath him.

Was it some sort of poison? A disease? Sasuke bent to grab Naruto and rush him to the hospital when a hand shot out and gripped him firmly.

"Give...it a...minute," Naruto gasped. He lay on the ground with his head between his knees and waited for the pain to slowly recede. A minute later, the throbbing dulled, and the world stopped spinning. Shakily, Naruto straightened to a sitting position on the ground and met the black eyes of the worried Uchiha.

"What was that?" yelled Sasuke.

"Uh, nothing," Naruto lied intelligently. "Stomach pain, I guess."

"Stomach pain?" asked Sasuke incredulously. "You were on the ground writhing!"

"Heh," he tried to laugh it off as he stood up slowly from the ground. "Glad you care, but it's nothing to -"

"Has this happened before?"

Naruto's smile faltered. He scratched at his cheek in a familiar nervous gesture.

"Has. This. Happened. Before?" Sasuke demanded with a dangerous glint in his eyes.

"Ah, maybe once or twice. This month," he added unwillingly.

Sasuke's eyes narrowed. It had probably happened more than that. Naruto, always more concerned with his friends than with himself, was likely to hide anything that might worry them. Examining him with a critical eye, Sasuke determined that his life was not in immediate danger, though he was glad they were about to see the Hokage.

Sasuke shrugged. "Whatever. Let's finish this report." Let Naruto think he wasn't concerned, and he wouldn't have a chance to escape the tower before the Hokage caught him.

"Right-o!" yelled Naruto, happy that Sasuke would let it slide.

Half an hour later, Naruto had finished detailing their successful capture of a B-rank missing nin spotted in Fire Country whom they had returned to the village of Kumo.

"Good work," Tsunade nodded approvingly. "Anything else?"

"The Raikage gave us this missive for you." Naruto handed her a sealed scroll.

"You checked it for traps?" she asked with a raised brow. Not that they were expecting any trickery from their ally, but it was protocol.

Naruto grinned. "'Course!"

The boy is learning. He'll make a fine Hokage someday. Tsunade glanced morosely at the paperwork stacked high on her desk. And that day can't come soon enough. "Very good. Take a day of rest and -"

"Hokage-sama," interrupted Sasuke. "I'm concerned about Naruto."

Naruto turned on his teammate furiously. "Teme, you -!"

Tsunade narrowed her eyes suspiciously as Naruto tried to haul Uchiha from the room. "What seems to be the problem, Uchiha?"

"Only minutes ago, Naruto was overcome by some sort of pain that left him on the ground whimpering."

"I was not whimpering!"


"It was nothing, obaa-chan. Probably just gas or something. No need to worry your deceptively young, Hokage head -"

"Sakura!" Tsunade yelled loudly. Her pink-haired apprentice entered the room moments later, taking the scene of her beloved in a headlock in stride.

"Hai, Tsunade-shishou. What did Naruto do this time?"

"Naruto is experiencing some strange pains."

Sakura's eyes appraised him. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing, nothing," Naruto said dismissively. "Just a little, er, stomach cramp."

Sasuke freed himself from Naruto's grip with a sharp elbow to his side. "He was also holding his head, and when he stood up, his knees shook as though he might fall again."

"How widespread was the pain, Naruto?" Tsunade demanded.

The blonde sighed, knowing he was trapped. "It was pretty much all over my body down to my fingertips and toes."

Sasuke spoke up, "Has it been getting worse?"

"No! It's -" Naruto cut off abruptly when Tsunade's eyes widened. He shot Sasuke a look that could kill.

"This has happened more than once?!" the Hokage yelled.

"Just once or twice," Naruto muttered between his teeth.

Sakura waved her hand in front of her nose. "Don't worry, Sasuke, Tsunade-shishou. If it's Naruto, it's probably just gas - ah, very extensive gas," she said lightly, but her mind was already cataloguing Naruto's physical state. Constricted pupils, heightened breathing, slight sheen of sweat - all signs of nervousness, but nothing irregular. He looked to be in perfectly good health, but for Sasuke to break his stoic demeanor and speak up, he must be worried.

"Sakura," ordered Tsunade, "take Naruto to the hospital and do a full triage. Get a blood sample and cheek swab for analysis. He can go home afterwards."

"Hai, shishou."

"Naruto, I'm banning you from missions for the next week, pending the results of your tests. If you have another pain, call for Sakura, Shizune, or myself immediately." Tsunade stood and walked over to him. Once a scrawny little runt, Naruto was now taller than her by more than an inch. The Hokage lifted her hand, and Naruto winced, expecting to be punched. But she rested it gently against his cheek. "Keep in mind, brat, that to be Hokage you have to use your head first. If you had collapsed while fighting the missing nin, you might not have made it home alive." She lightly slapped his cheek and turned to the former avenger. "Good work, Sasuke. A knucklehead like this needs his friends to keep him from doing something stupid."

Sasuke dipped his head, his mask of indifference back in place. "Hai, Hokage-sama."

Maybe I can cut him some slack, thought Tsunade. He genuinely cares about Naruto, and it's hardly his fault that his life was fucked over by Danzo and Itachi. "I won't bother assigning an ANBU to watch you this week. Instead I expect you to check up on Naruto regularly, and for goodness sake, make him eat something other than ramen."

Sasuke kept his features expressionless and nodded in acquiescence.

... ... ...

After the trio disappeared from the Hokage's office, Tsunade turned her attention to the missive, secure in the knowledge that Naruto was in good hands.

She broke the seal and deciphered the Raikage's scrawl.

By the second line, Tsunade's eyes had narrowed.

By the third, her brow creased, forming an anxious line.

By the fourth, her teeth were clenched in anger.

By the last line, a trail of blood streamed down her chin from where she had bitten her lip.

In a fit of rage, the Godaime slammed her fist on the desk, shattering the dark wood irreparably.

... ... ...

In forest far from Konoha, Mitarashi Anko rubbed the familiar spot on her neck, just at the bend where it met her shoulder. The cursed seal had been sore more often as of late. No need to bother Hokage-sama with this, she thought uncertainly. It doesn't mean he's alive. She hoped she was right.

... ... ...

That afternoon Naruto ditched Sakura saying he was going to take a nap when he really headed up to the Konoha Archives burrowed in the mountain. He made his way to the back corner where three blonde figures in orange jumpsuits poured over scrolls and files.

"Hey, Boss," a clone said as Naruto approached them.

"Hey, guys, what have you found?" Instead of waiting for an answer, Naruto dispelled the Kage Bunshin technique. Days of information flooded his mind, and he winced as another headache formed. He hated doing that. It was different from using the clones to train. In training, they all did the same basic thing, so Naruto's mind only had to process hundreds of repetitions - things he was already familiar with. This time, however, his clones were studying and analyzing piles of information from numerous scrolls, and releasing the technique meant that Naruto learned in a moment the compilation of hours and hours of study by three shadow clones.

That's part of the reason why it's a kinjutsu, he reminded himself as his headache faded.

After he had assimilated the new data, he learned a considerable amount that ordinarily would have made him beam with pride, but the pervading realization made him sigh.

He still didn't have an answer.

Come on, Kurama. What are we missing?

I don't know, gaki. I can't find anything wrong. There's nothing for me to heal, and there's no distortion to my chakra that would be causing this.

Naruto raked his hand through his hair in frustration. At this rate, he might have to tell obaa-chan that there was something wrong with the seal.

... ... ...

Two days later, Sasuke perched on a tree limb as Naruto lay beneath it, babbling incessantly.

"So Shikamaru might have been onto something with this cloud-watching thing, and since I've been ordered not to train," he said accusingly, "this is a good time to develop my cloud-watching abilities. That giant fluffy one looks like a trunkless elephant. That thin swirly one looks like a snake. Hey! Maybe it's the snake bastard come to take you back. I might even let you go without a fight this time. Probably would. And that one is like a face with two pigtail buns like TenTen. Ne, Sasuke," Naruto sat up with sudden interest, "what do you think of TenTen as your future wife? She's smart and nice and good with weapons. I don't know her all that well but -"

"She likes Neji," Sasuke grunted disinterestedly.

"Huh? How do you know?"

"It's obvious to anyone with a brain, dobe." Closing his eyes, Sasuke leaned back and rested his head against the tree trunk. "This is why you could never be a matchmaker. You miss all the cues."

"Cues? What sort of cues?"

Sasuke snorted. Always terrifyingly blunt, the blonde was completely clueless when it came to subtle hints and gestures.

Naruto frowned at Sasuke's silence then with two quick jumps landed on a limb near Sasuke. "What sort of cues?" he repeated.

Silence met his question.

Glancing around, Naruto spotted a long, thin branch covered in leaves conveniently located above Sasuke's head. With a grin and a quick twist of his wrist, Naruto smashed the leafy end into Sasuke's face.

"Oi!" Sasuke spluttered, jerked from his restful pose.

"What it like to really like someone, Sasuke?" Naruto asked seriously, letting go of the branch.

"Che, you should be asking a girl this," he scoffed.

"Well, I'm not. I'm asking you."

"It's not like I know much more than you." Seeing that Naruto was not to be dissuaded, he took a deep breath. Easier to just get it over with. "Fine. You act a little different around the person you like," Sasuke began. "You might be friendly with everyone, but with that one person, you...open up a little more." His tone grew thoughtful. "In their presence you laugh more, smile more. When you talk to them, you really want hear what they say. Your eyes can't help but glance their way, and when you know that they feel the same, there's this...quiet contentment resting beneath the surface."

"Sasuke," said Naruto in amazement, "you're quite the romantic, you know. It's hard to believe you've never had a crush."

"Hn. I'm not speaking from experience. That's just what I've heard." And what he had seen with his own parents. His father, Fugaku, was a hard man by all accounts with little warmth for even his family, but when Sasuke's mother would slip her hand in her husband's larger one, his stern features would soften into something akin to a smile.

"But I still don't see what's wrong with Sakura or Ino," complained Naruto.

"It's not that there's a problem with them. It's just that - ah, hell. Truth is, they annoyed me to death when we were kids. They were always giggling and shrieking and staring at me, and it lasted for years. They stalked me. Literally. In the academy, they sat behind me and pulled my hair. 'Rabid fangirls' is a very apropos description of them."


Sasuke rolled his eyes. "It's a fitting description. The thing is," he continued, "they never knew a thing about me. Didn't then. Don't now. To them, I was just the good-looking, mysterious survivor of the Uchiha massacre. Take away that, and they wouldn't have given me the time of day. Even now, they don't know anything about me."

"But in their defense, you don't exactly go out of your way to express what you're feeling."


"Sakura's an amazing shinobi," Naruto continued. "Sure, she's scary as hell when she's mad, but you should see her in the hospital. She's so in control and intelligent and efficient, totally in her element, dattebayo. And she's matured and all from her rabid fangirl days."

"I have great respect for Sakura as a medic and former team member."

"But -" Naruto prompted.

Sasuke's expression darkened considerably. "After we defeated Madara and the Juubi, Sakura was the first one to reach us. You were lying there blood-soaked and unconscious, and...she came to me. To heal me." He clenched his fists almost subconsciously, his nails digging into his palms. "You were with her all along, encouraging and protecting her. Not only had I threatened to kill her, I actually tried to! Twice! And still she treated me before you. Even half-dead with chakra exhaustion, I remember being disgusted with her. You could have been dying for all she knew."

Naruto closed his eyes as he digested the information. He hadn't known that.

"Sorry," muttered Sasuke guiltily.

"Nah, I always knew she would go to you. That's what I would have wanted her to do."


"That's okay with me," he grinned as Sasuke shook his head. "So that's why you're so distant with her?" Naruto mused. Sasuke had a complicated system of honor, after all. Sure, he had tried to kill Naruto himself, but he had done so openly, upfront and clear about his intentions. He had broken their bond, or tried to, and only attacked after each knew where the other stood. Sakura, on the other hand, had passed over her teammate for a man who had tried to kill her. She had, in a sense, betrayed her friend for an enemy, and Naruto could have died by her neglect.

Sasuke shrugged. "I guess I don't want her to know me. As for all the other girls -"

"No, that I get," Naruto interrupted. "I really do. After I defeated Nagato, everyone was so eager to talk to me and this one guy wanted my autograph, like the last sixteen years of my life never happened. When we got back from the war, lots of girls were hanging around me asking me questions and smiling a lot. It was so weird, wrong even... It makes you wonder just who your real friends are."

Sasuke smirked. "Don't think too much, usuratonkachi. It's not like you."

... ... ...

Wracked with frustration, Naruto threw whatever papers he was holding into the air. They glided to the floor in disorganized clumps, and Naruto knew he would regret doing that when he had to pick them up.

"I know I've seen this symbol or something like it." He yanked his hair as though that would help him pull out a discarded memory. Etched into a corner of his seal, the symbol in question was a thick line boxed in by four whirlpools forming a diamond shape. Days before, Naruto had identified the symbol as an addition to the Eight Trigrams Seal.

The Eight Trigrams that the Yondaime created broke at the waterfall of truth, Naruto, Kurama had said. If this symbol were a part of it, it would have disappeared too.

Yeah. Naruto had scratched his head in confusion. That means that this weird seal probably has nothing to do with you. My dad used your seal to disguise this one. But what's it for?

The following day, Naruto had discovered something else. He had poked Kurama awake in his excitement.

It's doing something with my chakra! he had exclaimed. It's such a minuscule amount that I never noticed, but the seal is feeding on a constant stream of my chakra!

For what purpose?

Naruto had deflated. Dunno yet.

Two days after his last discovery, Naruto pounded his head on the table in misery. He couldn't find the symbol anywhere, in any scroll in the whole damn archive!

Maybe it was an original seal by your mom or dad, and they never archived it, suggested Kurama.

Yeah, except this line - Naruto jabbed his stomach where the symbol was outlined - looks so damn familiar!

It's just a line like any other, the Kyuubi said in annoyance. The bijuus, especially a certain demon fox, were not known for their patience.

It's a thick line, Naruto contradicted, and the edges are sort of...rounded. It's not the sort of line you see in normal script, and I just know -

He was cut short as a seizing pain gripped his body. The now-familiar attacks took their toll. It was awful, as though every muscle and bone in his body were screaming madly. Being ripped to pieces. Agonizing minutes past as Naruto stuffed his fist in his mouth to stifle the moans that threatened to escape his lips. As always, the pain dwindled to a dull ache, and the attack stopped as quickly as it started.

The attacks are coming more often,noted Kurama quietly. And lasting longer.

I know.

You don't have to do everything alone, Naruto. Tell your friends. They might know something.

I'm not doing this alone. I've got you, right?

Kurama snorted, a little pleased despite himself. Sure, an immortal demon who never had more than a passing knowledge about seals. Kushina was careful to block me out when she did seal work. She was afraid I might find a way to break myself out.

Could you really have done that? I thought it was impossible.

If she was worried about it, then it must have at least been plausible in theory.

Naruto thought long and hard. Well, I don't know much about my mom's seal specifically, but if you were able to find its keystone - that's the point that essentially holds the entire seal together - you could possibly disrupt it by forming a secondary seal over it. With the momentary weakening of the primary seal, if you concentrated as much chakra as possible on that point, you might have been able to break free.

Kurama looked at him appraisingly. You know, gaki, I never thought I'd say this, but you have real talent with seals. You're a natural.

Blushing with pride, Naruto scratched his chin. Ah, well, the Uzumaki clan was renowned for this stuff. Everyone talks about the Yondaime as though he were incredible with seals - and he was - but really it was my mom that was the sealmaster. And everyone says I'm just like her, he grinned.

Heh, you shouldn't be telling me this, though. I might have to test it out with your seal. It was a credit to Kurama and Naruto's relationship that the former was jesting and the latter knew it.

Instead of laughing, however, Naruto stared at the fox. Actually, I want you to know this, just in case.

Just in case what?

Well, he said awkwardly, if this weird seal messes me up or I'm ever wounded beyond repair in a fight or something - He leveled Kurama with a serious look - I want you to break free.

Naruto -

There's no need for you to die along with me, if it comes to that.

The Kyuubi looked for a long moment at his vessel, his eyes softening imperceptibly. You really are a crazy shinobi, Naruto.

After a long moment, Naruto grinned, dispelling the tension in the air. Speaking of which, Kurama, I think I might have found a way to give you some freedom without killing me. If you want it, that is.

Red eyes with slitted pupils widened in surprised. Worry about that later, he finally said. Figure out this seal for now.

... ... ...

Naruto met Sasuke in training field E for their daily spar. They still mostly fought with taijutsu, but with Sasuke's increased chakra allowance, they added a bit of ninjutsu as well.

"You should go into Sage Mode so you actually stand a chance, dobe," said Sasuke as he stretched.

"As if, teme! Without your Mangekyo, Sage Mode would -"

Naruto stopped.

Could it be?

Surely not.

But -

"Sage Mode," he whispered. "It can't be, but - it - it's Sage Mode. It's Sage Mode! It's gotta be! Sasuke, I love you!" In jubilation, Naruto ignored the bewildered Uchiha and bit his thumb.

"Kuchiyose no jutsu!" he yelled.

One poof later, a large, white cloud dispelled, revealing an enormous, orange toad with blue markings and wearing a vest.

"Yo, Naruto! What's up?" asked the toad when he determined that there were no enemies in sight.

"Gamakichi, can you do a reverse summons? I need to speak to gramps!"

Gamakichi eyed the hyperactive shinobi in confusion. "Er, yeah. Er, I'll be going then."

Moments later, Naruto disappeared into thin air, leaving a stupefied Uchiha in his wake.

... ... ...

Naruto lay on the ground, shirtless, as a small green toad with white hair around the ears poked and prodded his stomach. With the Sage Mode hint, Naruto had realized that the thick line, rounded at the edges, looked exactly like the pupils of his eyes when he entered Sage Mode.

"You're right, Naruto-boy," said Fukasaku in his froggy voice. "This seal is taking in natural energy and mixing it with your chakra."

Naruto sighed in relief. He was finally getting somewhere. "Did my dad ever mention a seal like this, Geezer-Sage?"

The small toad shook his head. "Neither did Jiraiya-boy."

"Any idea what it's for?"

"It's hard to say, Naruto-boy. The seal is taking the natural energy and pulling it into your body, so I can't follow the thread. I would have guessed that it was used as reinforcement for the Eight Trigrams seal, but since that's gone and it's still funneling chakra - " he trailed off and looked at Naruto critically. "As you know, natural energy has a wide range of uses, including advanced sensory techniques, physical enhancement, and transformation among others."

Naruto scratched his head. "Sure, but I've never been different from other shinobi, except for having the Kyuubi sealed in me. I don't have any unusual, er, things about me. I just don't get why I'm only finding this out now! If it's been sucking my chakra for my entire life -"

"It's possible to become so accustomed to stimuli that your brain doesn't bring them to your attention anymore. In your case, you've had this seal since you were an infant, and only when you focused intently on it did your conscious mind recognize the chakra stream. I'm not sure what it's actually doing, but at least we can conclude that it is indeed Minato-boy's work."

"How can you tell for sure?" Naruto had harbored doubts that it was his father's doing at all. The snake bastard had once messed with his seal, and for all he new, Orochimaru could have added a parting gift.

"These whirlpools," stated the Geezer-Sage. "They were Minato-boy's signature - well, they were Kushina-girl's first, but your father picked it up. Comforting to know the seal hasn't been harming you all these years, eh?"

"Sure, until it started causing debilitating attacks," Naruto muttered darkly.

"Debilitating is a long word, Naruto," said Gamakichi. "Where'd you learn it?"

Fukasaku continued as though his descendant had not spoken, "Yes, that's the strange thing. Makes me think that the seal is...expiring."

"It's weakening?"

"I believe so, and that could be the cause of your attacks. For almost eighteen years the seal has been doing something to your body. The pains may be withdrawal symptoms."

"Then can I just remove it? Fuzzball wouldn't let me."

The demon fox forcibly switched out with Naruto and spoke to the toad, "I thought it foolish to remove the seal without knowing its purpose."

"The Kyuubi makes a good point," said Fukasaku as Naruto's red eyes turned back to blue. "Even now, it's better to let the seal take its natural course rather than risk the unknown effects of its removal."

Naruto shot the toad a sour look. Geezer-Sage wasn't the one who had to endure the frequent attacks and hide from his friends at the same time. He was about to retort when a huge toad leaped into his field of vision.

"Yo, Naruto," said Gamabunta in his gruff voice, pipe sticking out of his mouth. The ground shook when he landed. "Your birthday is two days from now. It's almost time for you to fulfill our contract and drink with me!"

"Right, Boss! Can you summon me that night?"

"Don't you have a party to be at?"

"That's not 'til this weekend when everyone's back from their missions."

"Good. Expect it around dusk then."

Naruto nodded and surveyed the three toads. Three friends who'd stuck with him through thick and thin. "Thanks, Geezer-Sage! I'm off!"

... ... ...

So the seal had a time limit. Naruto just had to put up with the attacks until then, and he had a feeling he knew when that was. It was a logical conclusion anyways.

You should tell someone. Now that we're pretty sure you won't come to harm, there's no reason to hide what you've discovered.

Yeah, there is, Naruto argued. We still aren't sure what's going to happen, and it might be something I don't want anyone to know. And what if...

What if what?

A dreamy look crossed Naruto's face. What if my parents put of bit of their chakra into this seal like with the Eight Trigrams? I don't know where my chakra and the natural energy come into play, but...what if I get to see my parents on my eighteenth birthday?

Kurama spoke hesitantly, Then why wouldn't your parents have mentioned it when they saw you before?

To surprise me, Naruto snapped. A moment later he sighed remorsefully, Sorry, fuzzball.

Hmph. Next time you apologize, don't add an insult.

Then lose the fur.

... ... ...

Sheer dumb luck and a very durable shadow clone kept the truth behind the attacks hidden from Naruto's vigilant friends that week. Sakura had taken to dropping by whenever she had a spare minute, checking his blood pressure, temperature, and even his reflexes every time she visited. Naruto's knee might have been permanently bruised from excessive reflex tests if Kurama hadn't been healing him. Kiba, Neji, and particularly Lee had been popping up out of the blue whenever the fancy took them, the latter yelling about the youthfulness of watching over his friends, and Hinata, more assertive once she'd given up on Naruto, had cornered him in Ichiraku's. Naruto was glad that Shikamaru, Ino, and Choji were on a mission; the genius might have read the truth in Naruto's guilty features.

Sasuke was the hardest to avoid, but the only close call occurred when Naruto was in the bathroom. The pain hit him just as Sasuke jumped through his bedroom window, and Naruto was able to turn on the shower in time to keep Sasuke from becoming suspicious and demanding that he open the door.

Their spars were the trickiest matter, but Naruto had the perfect chance to test out his newest technique - Permanent Shadow Clones.

They weren't really permanent, of course, but Naruto had discovered that if he ramped up the chakra in the clone and transferred a bit of his own blood to it, then the shadow clone wouldn't poof out of existence from a single blow. The more blood Naruto gave it, the more durable the shadow clone became. The drawback was that he could only make two at a time without threatening his own blood supply. The best part was that, for whatever reason, the clones didn't suffer from the attacks! So in his last two spars with Sasuke, Naruto had sent a blood clone who fought a defensive match, never giving Sasuke a proper hit and never putting itself in a vulnerable position.

Thus passed the days before his birthday.

Now it was 11:43 p.m. on October 9th, and Naruto sat with tense expectation in front of his digital clock, watching each minute tick by. His new apartment was much nicer than the one from his childhood, which was destroyed along with the rest of Konoha in Pain's attack, and Naruto kept it cleaner than he had his old one. With nicer furniture and walls that weren't rotting, he was more inclined to take out the trash and straighten his things. Several of his friends lived the complex as well, including the Uchiha bast-

As though summoned by a thought, Sasuke appeared at his window. "Dobe, I saw your light on."

Curse the entire Uchiha clan!

"You were acting strange at our spar earlier, and I've concluded that you're actually worried about these attacks. Have you had anymore?" he demanded.

Naruto peeked at the clock out of the corner of his eye.


He had fourteen minutes to get the bloody teme out the bloody door! Naruto chuckled weakly, "'Course not, teme. I'm just fit as a fiddle, hunky dory, just fine in other words."

Sasuke raised a brow. "You're acting even stranger now."

"Just, er, excited about my birthday!"

Sasuke watched him speculatively.


"So yeah!" exclaimed Naruto. "There's no reason for you to loose sleep worrying about me. So why don't you just head back to your -"

"I'm not tired."

Curses on all the future Sasuke babies!


"Sasuke!" Said Uchiha jerked at the sudden shout. "I lent you my - uh - my manga! You irresponsible teme! You weren't going to return it, were you? How dare you -!"

"I didn't borrow your manga, baka. I don't read manga."

"Well, aren't you just some, uh, perfect, little, stuck-up, goody two-shoes shinobi."

"Naruto, what is wrong with you?"

"Nothing, nothing. I'm just peeved that my room's been invaded by some bloody teme that can't take a hint."

"The only way I can get you out of mine is by threatening to destroy your ramen stores."


Gah! Why had the teme chosen this night to be all concerned and curious?!

"Why do you keep glancing at the clock, dobe? And why are you sweating?"

With a shout, Naruto pounced on Sasuke, intending to tie him up and throw him out the door. But whether it was his nerves or some other factor, Naruto executed the attack sloppily, and Sasuke, eyes widening in surprise, countered.

Sasuke slammed Naruto's face into the floor, twisting his arms behind his back, effectively pinning him. "What the hell?!"

When all else fails, hit 'em with the truth.

"All right, already! There's this other seal -" Naruto babbled furiously. He wasn't even certain of what he was saying, but Sasuke released him long enough to listen. Naruto poked at his stomach a few times and pointed at the clock desperately, yammering something about 'midnight' and 'birthday.'


"Let me get this straight. The Yondaime put another seal on you. It uses natural energy and your chakra. You don't know what it's for, but it's weakening as we speak. You also don't know what will happen once it breaks -"

It was really quite amazing that the Uchiha had managed to translate so well.


"- AND YOU DIDN'T TELL ANYONE?! ARE YOU INSANE?!" Sasuke was furious.

Naruto clenched his eyes shut to tune out the irritating Uchiha, almost feeling the last minute slip past as though it were tangible.

A long moment passed as Sasuke watched on anxiously, unsure of what he should do.

A very long moment passed, and Naruto frowned. He waited some more.

Finally, Naruto lost his patience and squinted his eyes to look at the clock.


Maybe it would take a minute for the seal's removal to be effective.


Okay, maybe it would take three minutes to be effective.


Naruto slumped miserably. Kami, what a letdown. I was so sure -

"I think your clock's fast, dobe," said Sasuke.

Naruto spun to him in surprise.

No sooner had bright blue eyes met black ones than a flash of terrible pain tore through Naruto's body.

His back arched violently as he cried out. His entire body throbbed in agony. This was no ordinary attack; it was like the sum of every other one. His blood pulsed, and nerves spiked with intolerable pain.

"Naruto! Hang on! I've got to get you to the hospital!" yelled Sasuke.

Naruto's body abruptly relaxed. He fell unconscious from the pain.

In fear and desperation, Sasuke's hands shot towards the blonde to whisk him away to the hospital, but suddenly, his hands stopped. His fear-filled eyes widened even further. Something was happening to Naruto. Something that stopped Sasuke in his tracks.

Naruto's hair was lengthening. The golden locks that once formed his spiky hairstyle now extended down past his shoulders - past his waist - down his lower back. Naruto's hands were covering his face, still clenched as though frozen, and his fingers...changed. They were slender, softer, more...feminine. Sasuke's eyes darted down Naruto's body, his shinobi mind cataloguing each and every alteration. Naruto's feet disappeared from view as though they were sucked into his bright-orange pants. Sasuke paused for a long moment at a curious bulge on Naruto's chest.

Stymied, even panicked, Sasuke jerked away from the unconscious person in all-consuming alarm. His breath came in short gasps as his struggled to simultaneously accept and reject what his eyes told him was happening.

As suddenly as the metamorphosis began, it stopped, and Sasuke was left staring at the transformed body of his best friend. In growing trepidation, he hesitantly reached out and pulled Naruto's hand away from his face.

Naruto's once oval face was now...heart-shaped. His nose was smaller, his cheekbones higher, his brows thinner. Sasuke's gaze rested for a long moment on a pair of full lips. More plump than Naruto's thin ones and decidedly...girly. The only feature that remained the same were the thin scars on both cheeks, giving the appearance of whiskers. If not for that and for the fact that Sasuke had witnessed the transformation himself, he never would have known it was the same blonde dobe.

This had to be a prank. One of Naruto's insane jokes, and he had taken it too far this time. Sasuke activated his Sharingan. Damn, it wasn't genjutsu. It wasn't a henge. It was - it was freaking impossible!

There lay Uzumaki Naruto. He was the jinchuriki of the Kyuubi. Hero of the shinobi world. Honored Sage. And somehow, impossibly, he was a girl.

This was a long chapter since I wanted to resolve the issues of Sasuke's return and his dynamic with the village and, more importantly, Naruto. Sorry if there are any elements that deviate from canon. In my defense, there are over 600 chapters in the manga, and I can't possibly keep everything straight. I am grateful for any corrections, particularly if they are worded nicely :)

What do you think? Should I continue the story? Please review!