Pairing: Itachi x Naruto
Warnings: Mentions of animal cruelty/deaths (including detailed poaching later on, nothing overly graphic though will include distressed animals).
Dedicated to AberrantAtHeart for cheering this idea on, even when I thought it was impossible. And for being an all-round amazing person too!
Falling Head First
He had only meant to go for a short walk, one to clear his head free of the rubble loosened by the war. It had been days since Naruto had slept more than a handful of hours and weeks since he had slept properly and everything was finally becoming too much to bear. He needed the space and the time to himself, away from people thanking him (Naruto hated that – everyone had won the war together), from people looking at him sadly, people asking his opinion and people needing more help.
He just wanted some peace.
The sun was beginning to break through the landscape and Naruto sighed, rubbing his eyes as he shifted on the mountainside he was on. He summoned a toad to return to Konoha with the intent to let Tsunade know he was safe and let it go in a puff of smoke, turning his eyes to the horizon then after.
There was a lot the war had taught him. For one, Naruto knew now he couldn't fix everything. No one could, though his mind was mainly centred on Sasuke and how, in the end, he was little help to his friend. Sasuke was somewhere out in the world, very much alive yet very much invisible for now. Maybe one day he'd resurface, but Naruto didn't know what would happen in the event that that would happen. He, just like Naruto, needed his own peace and there was no doubt he'd find it, Naruto had that much faith in his friend.
Naruto stood up, stretching his legs out and shifting his bag onto his back. He'd packed some food and basic shinobi supplies – just in case – and was glad for it now as he dug an apple from his bag and bit into it.
Not caring where he was going, Naruto kept walking. He could hear the sound of the ocean and wasn't disappointed when he saw the twinkling blue of salt water far away, the coast of the fire kingdom spreading before his eyes. Across those waters lay the ruins of Uzushiogakure, his ancestral home. Sometimes Naruto wondered what it was like, but there were times when it was better to leave some things alone. Uzushiogakure was beyond saving, a relic now.
The sand was soft under his feet as Naruto slipped his sandals off. He smiled to himself and walked along the beach, creeping towards the incoming waves and letting the water soak his toes. He'd missed simple pleasures like this and was glad for his reprieve from the village now.
The sun began to hide behind the horizon and Naruto sighed. If he didn't want to catch a chill then he'd need to find a place to pitch his tent. There was a small, scrubby area back towards the mainland and Naruto headed there, slinging his bag on the floor and yawning.
Mid-yawn, Naruto thought he heard a squeaking sound. He paused, jaw wide open, and looked around. He couldn't sense any danger, but he began building up chakra just in case he had to fend off an attack. Yes all the nations had been allied and still were, but there were still rogue ninja and others who would take Naruto's bounty and the glory that came with his death. Heroes didn't die for nothing, even when they'd finished saving people.
The squeak sounded again and Naruto relaxed; he could recognise the sound of an animal when he heard one. The squeaks continued and Naruto looked around, spotting a small hole in the ground, sand caving in upon it slightly.
Naruto approached it slowly, smile fading from his face as he set eyes on the emaciated forms. Two small creatures were curled up, squeaking pitifully as their chests rose and fell harshly, the last of their energy being used just to keep them alive. Naruto turned one of the creatures over and almost gasped in amazement as he recognised the animal.
"Onbaa," he whispered, looking around for any signs of a mother. Looking at their state and the 'den', Naruto didn't see why there would be a parent around – onbaa were devoted parents and there had to be a reason why these two were abandoned.
Carefully, Naruto picked up the forms. They were hardly bigger than his hand and he cradled them, taking them back to his pack. He had some emergency rations and while he wasn't quite sure what sort of diet an onbaa needed, some nourishment would do them more good than none.
Naruto watered down some of the vitamin rations he had, forming a slushy mixture. The onbaa smelt it and lifted their heads slightly, squeaking excitedly, eyes wide and mouth open. With care, Naruto fed them slowly with his fingers, letting their toothless mouths suckle before he returned to the bowl.
"What happened to you?" he asked as he fed them, shaking his head. It wasn't surprising to see onbaa on this beach – they had been common on Uzushiogakure and when the village was destroyed, they had followed the Uzumaki clan over to the mainland. Still, to see motherless onbaa was an exceedingly rare thing indeed.
And there was no doubt their mother was dead. It wasn't in the onbaa's nature to leave its young. They would even seem to cheat death in order to protect their offspring and yet there had been no sign of the mother onbaa whatsoever.
"I'll take you back with me," Naruto promised the little creatures. "I'll help you until you can stand on your own feet and then you can come back here."
There wasn't much that he could do in the aftermath of the war, but he could make time to raise these onbaa. He'd done it before and could use a break from the endless questions and tasks thrust upon him.
"We'll stay here for the night then set off," Naruto said as he tucked the little onbaa into his top. They wriggled underneath and he shifted until they all settled down, warm and content.
The onbaa were small enough that they could both cling to his back at the same time and Naruto managed to return to Konoha in good time. No one commented on the creatures attached to him as he passed through the village, staring at him for a different reason entirely. He ignored the slightly awestruck looks and headed straight to Tsunade's office, waiting patiently for once.
"Shhh," Naruto said quietly as the onbaa on his back grizzled. They were hungry, but he needed to do more research onto what baby onbaa needed. He knew the basics from raising Onbu, but he wasn't sure he'd be able to lose these babies.
"Naruto," Tsunade said as he entered, sounding surprised. She raised an eyebrow at the dainty hands clinging to him and Naruto turned around slowly, showing off his prize.
"Onbaa?" she said, voice slightly higher than usual. Undeterred by the bandages covering most of her body, Tsunade stood and walked over to them, stroking the soft fur of the onbaa. "Where did you find them?"
"They were abandoned on a beach. I don't know why, but they're close to dying." He sat down, rearranging the onbaa to attach to his chest. They were still too young to have the strongest grip and while they held on tightly, Naruto was still able to overpower them.
"I've had reports…" Tsunade said, taking her seat once more and shaking her head sadly. "The war didn't just affect the humans, but the animals too. Arguably worse than it affected us… all the nations have been reporting dead animals and parents abandoning young. I wouldn't be surprised if the onbaa were involved in this too."
It made sense, but Naruto had never even considered animals would be affected by the war. How could he have considered it? He'd hardly been thinking about something as seemingly insignificant as the wildlife and yet now… now all he felt was an overwhelming guilt as he looked down at the creatures in his arms. How many others had suffered and not been found before they'd died?
"I want to save them," Naruto said firmly. "Is there somewhere out of the village I can rent? Just until they're old enough to get by, you can just say I need a holiday for a bit if anyone asks."
Tsunade looked at the onbaa and sighed.
"Not that I would reject your wishes, I know your mind's made up already. They're just two onbaa though, Naruto. What good will saving these two do when there's most likely countless others that have been abandoned too?" She patted the desk gently. "I'll look into finding you a small house with large gardens outside of the village. If need be I'll ask Yamato to construct you a house, though I'd rather not ask anything of him again." The guilt of not rescuing him until it was almost too late still hung over them, not that Yamato cared. He'd never been the sort to hold grudges anyway.
"Thanks Baa-chan," Naruto said softly. "What should I feed them?"
"A nutrient rich milk substitute I should imagine," Tsunade began, standing up slowly and walking over to one of her drawers. "Perhaps you could talk to Inuzuka Kiba? His family are known to be the best veterinarians in the village after all. They might not be experienced with onbaa, but they know their animals well enough."
He did just as Tsunade said, the assistant at the Inuzuka's vet clinic pulling out a large handbook and getting Naruto exactly what he needed. Apparently after the invasion of onbaa, they had researched a little into onbaas and their diet. It came in handy now, and Naruto returned to his home to feed the babies immediately.
"Here we go," he said softly, a bottle in each hand as the onbaa suckled enthusiastically. Naruto watched them thoughtfully, letting them cling onto him once they'd finished. They closed their eyes sleepily and drifted off to sleep.
"I'm sorry," he said quietly, petting their heads as he lay down on his bed. "I'm sorry our actions caused you pain, but it'll be alright now. I'll send some clones out to look for others like you too and I'll help you all." It as a broad promise, but one Naruto intended to keep. He felt responsible for these creatures and knowing that it was largely his fault (directly and indirectly) that they were now orphans, Naruto couldn't abandon them.
Without meaning to, Naruto drifted off to sleep, dozing softly until he heard someone enter his home. Knowing there was no way anyone other than a kage bunshin could get into his home, Naruto opened his eyes slowly, frowning as he saw ten or so clones shifting uncomfortable, each holding at least one onbaa. While they were in various stages of growth, none were larger than Naruto's torso, the largest one's toes reaching half-way down his buttocks.
"This many?" he asked quietly, the clones nodding as one. "Shit."
He'd need to return to the clinic to pick up some more milk, it seemed. And figure out what the onbaa liked the best; he needed to develop a reward system if they'd be living with him. They were wild, yes, but it didn't mean Naruto wanted to live in a house full of onbaa piss.
"I need to see Baa-chan," he said, shaking his head. For now, though, he'd have to do with sending a clone and hope that Tsunade could provide him with a house out of the village soon. He had around fifteen onbaa to care for now and there were still clones out there, scouring the beaches and scrubs of Konoha for orphans and injured babies.
It was going to be hard work, raising the onbaa, but Naruto was ready for anything.
Dark circles surrounded Naruto's eyes, but everything he'd been through in the past three days was worth it. He'd finally secured a home in the woods surrounding Konoha and fully moved in, including the specialised stands he'd created for the onbaa to cling to. They were adapted shinobi training tools, padded with sheep wool to create a comfortable resting place for the onbaa.
The number stood at seventeen now and Naruto cast a look around the downstairs room. It was open plan, nothing but wooden floors. A small kitchen sat upstairs opposite a toilet and bedroom, but they overlooked the downstairs. In short, it was a perfect onbaa nursery for night and the days they couldn't go outside. Well, it was far from perfect, but Naruto had limited options. The outside wasn't safe, and not just because most of the onbaa were too young to even feed themselves.
One of his clones had made a sickening discovery when it brought in the last onbaa. It had been bleeding and Naruto had taken it to the Inuzuka clinic immediately. Luckily they had just been superficial scratches, but it was the cause of them that had shocked Naruto.
He understood how desperate people could get, but these people hadn't been desperate. All they'd wanted was the money they could get from onbaa parts, used either in beauty treatments or outdated medical practices… or, even worse, for trophy prizes. It had sickened Naruto that he'd chased the hunters away from the mother they'd been butchering and let her die with the dignity she had left, promising to take care of her child.
He ran a hand through his hair, picking up one of the smaller onbaa. It looked to be a week or so old and was unable to walk, unlike the larger ones. Naruto learnt that the onbaa could walk before they grew to an adult state, but preferred not to. Mothers could walk miles in search of food and it was easier to carry the baby than wait for it.
Besides, they were pretty pathetic walkers while still in their infancy. And the little ones could only roll on their backs and squeal for help when they wanted it. They were useless, but Naruto couldn't help but love them all the same.
"Dinner time, little ones!" he called and squeaks began to sound across the room. Naruto smiled and looked down at the milk-holder he had fashioned. It only held the bottles so he could disperse them easily, but it made a huge impact.
He made the rounds easily, hooking bottles onto the backs of the 'onbaa-mothers', making the babies work a little. For the weaned babies, Naruto had a mixture of berries, fish and nutrient paste, in bottles like the milk yet without the teat.
When he was finished, Naruto took a moment to watch the onbaa, smiling s they gargled to each other as they ate. They were unique creatures and Naruto felt a sense of satisfaction that they were all doing well.
The weather was nice and Naruto decided that he'd take the larger onbaa outside when they were done eating. The smaller ones would sleep, but a few of the larger ones could return to the wild soon and Naruto wanted to get them used to living outside before he let them go properly. Still, he wanted to fence off an area before he let them out. They weren't ready to wander off on their own just yet.
He was inspecting the land when he heard the sound of a twig cracking underfoot. Instantly, Naruto ducked down, looking for threats, and he frowned when he saw the figure of a man walking slowly through the trees. It was a man he knew well, though he would have liked to get to know him better.
Still, what was Uchiha Itachi doing out in the forest? He had been reluctant to return to Konoha, Naruto knew that much, but with little else to go on, Itachi had drifted back. He'd entered ANBU straight away, captaining a platoon when he'd passed all the relevant tests, and buried himself in work. He was hardly seen and it was easy to forget the pardoned shinobi.
Naruto hadn't forgotten. Well, not in the same way most of the village seemed to have. Just because Itachi wasn't parading around the village didn't mean he didn't exist and Naruto tracked his progress by sneaking files off of Tsunade's desk, frowning at the reports that concerned Itachi. He was detached and mechanical, they all said. An impeccable shinobi, but a deeply wounded man.
He watched silently, frowning as Itachi made a show of touching all the trees around him, muttering something to himself. Perhaps he'd finally cracked; there was enough reason for Itachi to lose himself to insanity after all.
Naruto jumped as Itachi turned to him. His eyes were dark and his face blank, but when he met Naruto's gaze, he smiled pleasantly, carrying on his way peacefully, running fingers over bark. It was strange, but Naruto shook his head and continued to set up the outside area. He had other things to worry about than what Uchiha Itachi was doing touching up trees.
Except Itachi kept doing it. Every day he was in the village (and Naruto kept a tight watch on Itachi's missions, something that earnt him raised eyebrows from Tsunade and badly-hidden, suggestive smiles from Shizune), Itachi made sure to walk past Naruto's onbaa sanctuary. Naruto still had no idea why and it was a week before he grabbed one of the little onbaa and strode forwards with a determined look on his face.
"Naruto-kun," Itachi greeted calmly as Naruto set the onbaa on his back. "What are you doing?"
Naruto didn't answer right away. Instead, he took a small step back, inspecting his handiwork. The onbaa gave a delighted cry, wiggling its lower half in excitement, like a dog would wag its tail.
"I think he likes you," Naruto said, finally looking at Itachi. "I thought you might like some company on your walk."
Itachi looked concerned for a moment, as if it was Naruto's sanity up for debate, not the man who walked through the forest stroking trees, but shrugged gently, careful not to dislodge the onbaa on his back.
"I'll be sure to return him before dinner," he said and then was walking onwards, leaving Naruto and the rest of the onbaa. Whether the one on his back would do any good, Naruto couldn't say, but he did know Itachi lived a lonely life. A little companionship, even in onbaa-form, would be good.
As promised, Itachi returned as dinner was cooking. The onbaa on his back was asleep and Naruto looked at it with a smile.
"Welcome back," he greeted and Itachi slipped his shoes off as he entered, touch gentle so he did not wake the baby on his back.
"What are your motives?" Itachi was nothing if not direct and Naruto paused in dishing out dinner. He looked down and shrugged.
"Let me feed the army and I'll talk to you properly. I've got some ramen if you want to share. Ichiraku ramen that is, not instant. Clones can be pretty useful." It wasn't so much an offer as Naruto telling Itachi that he was to stay for dinner, but Itachi seemed compliant.
Naruto handed out dinner – dry food for the older onbaa and milk again for the younger ones – and took the baby from Itachi. It had woken with a cry, nibbling the back of Itachi's black top as it waited impatiently for its food.
With a parent's eye, Naruto watched over the onbaa feeding. He pointed out different characteristics to Itachi and a few he expected to reach full adulthood within a week or so. Itachi listened, though Naruto couldn't tell if he was being polite or was genuinely interested in the onbaa
Eventually, they headed upstairs for their own dinner, the onbaa free for the night. They would settle down in the next few hours and sleep well through the night. In that respect Naruto knew he'd be suited to be an onbaa; once he was asleep there was nothing that could wake him short of a miracle.
"You walk around here often," Naruto began, looking at Itachi over the steam of their ramen bowls.
"I've walked around here longer than you've been saving onbaa," Itachi replied. "I hope you're not mistaking me for one of them."
The tone was relaxed and Naruto rolled his eyes.
"If I ever thought you needed saving or rescuing then I'd be an idiot. I'm not on some sort of redemption project to save you. The onbaa is partially because of guilt, but I'm not misplacing it with you. I'm just curious why you come around here every day you can, feeling the trees." Naruto risked a grin. "We keep these hobbies up and rumours will spread that we've cracked."
"The onbaa-man and the tree-toucher. An interesting combination," Itachi said with a smile.
Naruto was so used to Sasuke's blank face that he paused a little longer than necessary. Itachi was so unlike his brother and yet it was still strange to associate an Uchiha with emotions.
"I wanted to know what you were doing so I let you borrow one of my onbaa." He smiled and Itachi swallowed the noodles he had in his mouth.
"The mangekyō Sharingan causes a deteriorating illness. It led to blindness before my death," Itachi said it so calmly that Naruto wanted to laugh a little. How many people could boast that they'd died and returned? "And while it isn't apparent anymore, who knows when it could come back."
"So you're mapping Konoha?" Naruto said, but Itachi shook his head.
"Ame never had many trees and Kisame was hardly fond of stopping to inspect the flora. I like trees. I like walking." Itachi shrugged and Naruto narrowed his eyes. He really wasn't used to seeing Itachi so open and, well, free. "I don't expect I'll go blind again – I hardly use my mangekyō anymore and hope there will be little reason to use it extensively in the future – but I want to make the most of the trees that I can."
It was, perhaps, a little eccentric, but Itachi was hardly the most normal person to ever have existed. Naruto sat back and sighed a little.
"It's still a little odd," he said and Itachi outright laughed at that. It was the sound of someone who laughed very little and Naruto found himself smiling along, the pure joy in Itachi's laugh infecting him.
"You're surrounded by onbaa infants you care for twenty four hours a day and yet my walks are odd?" Itachi smiled, eyes crinkling. "There's little to do for someone who was brought up in war and fights for peace."
Naruto looked away. He knew exactly what Itachi meant and that made him a little uncomfortable.
"It's not that I... we," Itachi corrected after a slight pause and Naruto inclined his head in acknowledgement. "Feel useless. We're not useless, we never will be and there will always be a place for us."
Naruto glanced up at him, unsurprised that Itachi's dark eyes were locked on him alone.
"But we've always been aware of this greater enemy, this big looming threat. And yes, it is wonderful that threat is gone, but it leaves an emptiness in us. An emptiness that is hard to fill and one that leaves us a little… displaced." Itachi took a sip of the tea Naruto had given him a while ago. It was probably cold by now, but it didn't seem to bother Itachi.
"You have your onbaa and I have my walks to distract from it. That's simply how it is, because we are shinobi and we adapt." Itachi placed his tea back on the table and closed his eyes, relaxed.
"What do normal people do?" Naruto asked quietly and Itachi looked at him.
"There's no such thing as normal, Naruto-kun. Just who is able to adapt and who is left behind. We chose this, others choose others things. Some will, undoubtedly, take up things that are vices and others will simply bury whatever they feel away, but everyone copes somehow." Itachi smiled sadly and Naruto knew he was thinking of Sasuke, wherever he was now.
"Why is it I always feel so young compared to you? You're not that much older than me," Naruto grumbled instead, crossing his arms over his chest. "I know you've had a hard life, but really, you sound like an old man."
An idea began to form in Naruto's mind and he scoured over the information he'd gathered on Itachi's mission rota in his mind.
"Say, how long is it before your next mission?" he asked, knowing full well how long it was.
"I have two weeks off before my platoon is in rotation again," Itachi replied. "Then I'll be busy for two weeks."
Naruto had already known Itachi's team was on a two week on-two week off pattern, but he nodded all the same.
"Then you can help me with the onbaa," he decided and Itachi raised an eyebrow. "They're growing quickly and it's a hassle to use kage bunshin. What if the onbaa get a little rowdy and the clone dispels when it's holding one of the babies? The baby would fall to the floor and I can't have that."
Naruto shook his head. It had been a major concern of his when he'd first thought of using his kage bunshins to help with the onbaa. In the end he hadn't and while it let him sleep well at night, the job of looking after just under twenty onbaa babies was exhausting.
"You want my help to look after them?" Itachi repeated, sounding a little unsure.
"Want, need, begging, all the same really," Naruto muttered, bringing a light smile to Itachi's lips. "It would be a full-time gig though. You'd probably have to live here too, just to make things easier…"
"I have no attachment to my house anyway. It's just a room within the ANBU quarters." Naruto felt a pang of sadness for a moment as he imagined the room Itachi lived in. It would be barren, no photos of loved ones or friends, no little trinkets or memories. As blank as the mask Itachi wore on missions, far from the person the man was.
"I expect you here in the morning then. The onbaa wake around 7am, don't be late!" Naruto stood and clasped Itachi's arm when it was offered, sealing the deal.
Whether he liked it or not, Itachi would be joining the onbaa project. Naruto was satisfied with the outcome and watched Itachi leave, smiling widely at how everything had run tonight. While getting Itachi to work with him and the onbaa hadn't exactly been the plan, Naruto would have time to observe Itachi, discover what made him tick and maybe figure out the odd feeling in his own chest.
Emptiness felt like the right word for it, but Naruto wasn't happy with that. He'd lived a long time with emptiness clouding his soul and he wasn't about to tread that path again without a fight.
Itachi was prompt. Naruto hadn't even begun to prepare the morning feed when Itachi let himself in, announcing himself as onbaa babies squealed in excitement at the new face. There was a loud thump and Naruto looked down in worry, relaxing as he saw Itachi heading to the baby that had thrown itself off of its perch.
"Come on now," Itachi said gently. "No need to react like that. It's only me."
The onbaa gargled in response.
"Don't tell me you've forgotten already?" Itachi said, mock-hurt in his voice. Naruto watched him with amusement; he'd never thought Uchiha Itachi would be one to talk and interact with animals the way he was.
"We spent all day together yesterday," Itachi continued, seemingly oblivious to Naruto watching him. "Or perhaps you were running to greet me?"
Itachi stroked the onbaa behind the ear and it squealed happily, paws stretching out to try and grab Itachi.
"Let's get you breakfast first and then we'll see about a ride, okay?" The onbaa mewled sadly, but allowed Itachi to place it back on its perch, joining the others that had woken in calling for food.
"Alright, alright!" Naruto called, collecting bottles and moving down to hand them out. "Itachi's going to be helping me with you lot from now on. Be nice to him, he's a scary ninja."
Naruto handed Itachi some milk bottles, pointing out where they were to be delivered. He then set out on his own side, greeting the onbaa as he fed them. They were less like animals and more like children once you got to know them, each with their different personalities and likes.
"The weather's nice so I was going to take them all outside today. The little ones need to get used to it just as much as the ones that will be leaving us soon," Naruto said as he came to Itachi's side. The large doors to the house were open, easily revealing the entire area Naruto had set up for the onbaa to play in.
"How will you know when to release them?" Itachi asked and Naruto frowned before he remembered Itachi wouldn't have been in the village for the last onbaa incident.
"Trust me," he said with a grin. "You'll know."
When the onbaa had fed, they set about taking them outside. The larger ones were made to walk, Naruto not one to encourage laziness in those who would be fending for themselves soon, and the little ones were carried out on their perches. Well, almost all of them.
"Naruto," Itachi said quietly and Naruto looked up, tempted to laugh when he saw the onbaa clinging onto Itachi for dear life.
"I think that one likes you," he said, coming over and trying to pry the little troublemaker off of Itachi. It was old enough to cling tightly though and Naruto sighed.
"She doesn't want to come off," Naruto said. "Looks like you'll just have to put up with her."
Itachi didn't once complain, even when the onbaa pissed down his back. He simply asked Naruto to remind him to bring a change of clothes the next day and stroked the onbaa's head. Naruto watched in fascination at Itachi's gentle touch and the way he watched over their onbaa like a cautious parent.
Of course, Itachi would never father children. It wasn't due to the fact he was infertile or not attracted to women – Naruto had no idea about either of those things. It was easy to see though, when you knew Itachi and could look him in the eye, unafraid. Killing his family still weighed heavily on Itachi's shoulders and it was hard enough for him to see Sasuke, and he loved Sasuke to the ends of the earth.
No matter how much he'd love his child, it would destroy Itachi. Animals, on the other hand, were a different matter entirely. Whether he'd acknowledge it or not, Itachi had a lot of love to give and even more that he deserved to accept. Humans couldn't give him that. Onbaa on the other hand…
"So now you've had your first onbaa day," Naruto said over dinner, "how's it been?"
Itachi sipped his tea and smiled slightly.
"It's been an experience," he said. "Tiring, but rewarding."
Naruto inclined his head. They'd spent twenty minutes prying the onbaa that had grown attached to Itachi from his back. Itachi hadn't once complained, shaking his head as the onbaa turned her head away and hissed whenever they came close once she was back on her perch.
"Will you stay here from tomorrow?" Itachi looked up at the question and inclined his head slowly.
"If it works for you," he said and Naruto nodded in satisfaction. Itachi had been a major help, especially when the onbaa decided they'd prefer to climb over the fence and practice their running skills. The little buggers were fast when they wanted to be.
"I've really appreciated your help today," he said as Itachi made to leave. Itachi nodded once and then left, leaving Naruto alone with seventeen lightly-snoring bodies below him.
There were worse places to be.
Looking after the onbaa wasn't the easiest job. Some days they were all uncooperative and Naruto wanted to shout at them until they listened. He never did though, it wasn't fair on them, and instead he would sigh and sit down, talk to them all rationally and then take his anger out on Itachi when they sparred.
The sparring was a new development, one that had started on Itachi's third day. Itachi had announced he needed to spar and, well, that had been that. Even better, the onbaa seemed to enjoy watching and it was one of the very few things that captured all of their attention.
The older ones were beginning to get a bit grizzly with the others and Naruto and Itachi had taken to watching them at all hours. Naruto had warned Itachi they might be changing soon and that they would both need to deal with the onbaa when that happened - just in case. They didn't want to hurt any of the babies, after all.
The first change happened a week after Itachi started living with them. Naruto had been on watch and he'd recognised the signs immediately. He woke Itachi and scooped the red-eyed onbaa up, taking it out into the darkness of the night where it could be free.
"We'll stay back. Hopefully he'll just take off to the forest," Naruto said quietly, crouching by the doors. He'd placed himself and Itachi between the changing onbaa and the ones inside, knowing they'd be able to stop him before he hurt any of the others.
The change happened suddenly, the onbaa literally shifting magically. Naruto wasn't sure how they managed it but it was amazing to watch. His eyes cleared as it stood on his hind legs and he looked over to Naruto and Itachi, nodding his head once before setting off for the forest, sniffing the air and growling to himself.
"He went quietly," Naruto said, a little in awe. It was one thing to raise them, but an entirely different matter to see one grow and return to its natural habitat. He hoped for the onbaa's safety and vowed that he'd try to find them all when he was done setting them free again.
"They're wonderful creatures," Itachi said, voice thick with emotion.
Naruto turned to him and his heart skipped a beat. In the moonlight, Itachi looked serene. The tiredness he still carried and the loneliness than hung over him was gone, hidden by the soft smile on his lips. He turned to Naruto, eyes widening in surprise as they locked gazes.
"I couldn't have done it without you," Naruto said softly, eyes never leaving Itachi's. He felt a hand brush his gently and then catch his fingers.
"Thank you," Itachi said quietly, squeezing Naruto's hand before he vanished inside.
Naruto was left, unsure of what he'd just felt and why his hand felt suddenly so warm and full of life when, in reality, it was still just a hand, regardless of who had touched it.
Five more onbaa left in the period before Itachi left for his two week stint on mission duty, leaving Naruto to manage eleven onbaa. It was still a hard task, they were much more mobile now, but he managed well. Still, the lack of Itachi was felt strongly, especially when Naruto would turn over at night, expecting Itachi to be sleeping on his own futon. Instead, the space was empty, futon packed away in the cupboard.
They hadn't exactly grown close. Close was the wrong word for it. They didn't talk much, more to the onbaa than each other, but they worked well together and Naruto felt something between them.
Okay, so there had always been something between them, but this something was more than just the relationship between enemies or the partnership of shinobi. This was something deeper, a connection Naruto hadn't felt before.
He sighed and looked to the door, smiling at the people there. Sakura crouched by the side of one of the larger onbaa while Sai held his sketchpad, fingers already itching to paint the little creatures.
"Thanks for this," Naruto said as he greeted them, gesturing for the onbaa to follow him outside. He'd asked Sai to paint them, to form proper accounts in Konoha's history, just in case someone else needed to help them once Naruto was gone. Paper, unlike people, could live forever, after all.
"They're very sweet," Sai said, completely honest and Naruto smiled.
"They're characters," he replied and led them outside, letting the onbaa free roam and sitting down on the steps at the front of their house. Sai sat apart from them slightly, setting up what he needed to draw.
"So," Sakura began, tapping her fingers against her knee. "I heard you enlisted some help with these little fellows?"
Naruto nodded, not sure what Sakura was expecting. While she knew of his innocence, she wasn't exactly best friends with Itachi and probably more inclined to hate him than like him. Naruto couldn't be sure though; he'd kept away from the village as much as he could.
"But… Uchiha Itachi? Really?" She didn't sound angry, but she didn't sound particularly happy. Naruto risked a glance at her.
"What's wrong with Uchiha Itachi?" he said and Sakura sighed, as if the world was asking her to embark on a great quest.
"Nothing, not really. He's a remarkable man, a nice man too, and while I wouldn't say I trust him just yet, he deserves a lot more than what he's been offered in life." Naruto frowned, confused as to what Sakura's problem with Itachi was.
"It's just…" she sighed again. "He doesn't deserve to be a replacement."
Naruto started at that and looked at Sakura with wide eyes. She couldn't really think that he'd asked Itachi just because of Sasuke.
"I didn't ask for his help because of Sasuke," he said, voice incredulous. "I respect Itachi a lot and want to get to know him for him."
"I'm only checking," Sakura said gently. "I know you're not the sort to do that, but I just want Itachi to be happy." She gave an odd chuckle. "It's ridiculous, but I feel responsible for how he is now. I mean… we never did anything when it came to Sasuke and Sasuke… well Sasuke killed him."
"You feel responsible for Itachi's happiness because our teammate killed him?" Naruto repeated, just making sure he could grasp the situation. This conversation was reminding him how confusing Sakura could be at times. He'd never understand women and had given up trying a long, long time ago.
"It sounds ridiculous when you say it like that," she said, pouting. "But… yes. And for what he's sacrificed for our village. If anyone deserves happiness then it's Itachi. I just want to make sure you know what you're doing and it's for him, not for Sasuke."
Naruto narrowed his eyes, not exactly sure what Sakura was hinting at, but she had the look in her eyes she got when she was hinting to something deeper. Something women tended to do a lot around Naruto, given that he wasn't the smartest person in the village.
"Sasuke's gone to sort his head out. He'll always be my best friend, but he's definitely not Itachi. They're not even that alike when you get to know them; Itachi will hold an in depth conversation and talks to the onbaa!" Naruto laughed and then tugged on Sakura's sleeve, pointing to the lone onbaa who had refused to come outside.
"She's attached herself to Itachi. She refuses to step outside unless he's there too. Luckily she's still eating and sleeping normally, but she loves him to death." Naruto waved his fingers at the onbaa and she huffed, turning away from him dramatically. "He's a good man, regardless of his relationship with Sasuke."
Sakura was silent for a moment before she leant over to Naruto and kissed his check softly. None of the old crush feelings came back, instead a warm heat settled in Naruto's stomach and he smiled, treasuring Sakura's gift. This was how it felt to be loved.
"He'll take care of you too," she said and Naruto shrugged. "Now introduce me to some of your little clan, they all seem very excitable."
While originally intended to be a one-shot, I've decided to split this into two parts because the latter will contain a sex scene and I wanted this to be readable. This is an idea I've had for a long, long while now, mainly because I love the onbaa and because I think people can open up a lot more when they're with animals.
Thank you for reading and I hope you enjoyed! Reviews are appreciated, but not needed for an update. Hope you're having a lovely day and I'll see you in the next chapter!