A/N: I know there's a story in this category similar in concept, but I want you all to know I started writing this before that story was posted. And I haven't read it anyway, so whatever. No beta yet, so the spot's open if someone wants it.
"Did you know that in the North Pole the skies are always lit up at night?"
A woman with long red hair lay in a bed. Her son sat beside her, listening to one of her fantastic stories about her time abroad.
"Every night. They say the spirits come into the world and dance the night away far above the physical world."
"Wow! Can we go see it, mommy?"
The woman raised her hand to her son's cheek. The movement was slow and shaky, but she eventually found her target.
"I don't think we will, Naruto. Not right now. But when I get better, I promise we'll go. And you know your mommy, I never go back on a promise!" At the end of her declaration the woman fell into a coughing fit that seemed to last forever.
Nine year-old Naruto awoke abruptly and with a gasp. He sat up and took in his surroundings. He had been spending the last few weeks in a junked Sato-mobile that someone had left in an alley some time before. When he had found it, it seemed to have been sent by Avatar Aang himself. It had a roof, the windows were intact, and, most importantly of all, the doors were unlocked.
Naruto sat up in the backseat of his ramshackle shelter and took stock of things. He looked around and found an orange beanie with a small red fox face stitched into the side laying on the floor of the vehicle. He picked it up and jammed onto his head, partially covering his messy mop of blonde hair. His hair still fell into his eyes, but he just brushed it aside and continued his morning ritual.
Naruto then found his ratty messenger bag sitting in the passenger's side of the front seat. He grabbed it and pulled from it a hunk of stale bread and a browning apple. He ate his meal in silence, thinking about the faraway places and adventures that his mother had told him about before she had died.
After finishing his meal, Naruto picked up a grey coat that had been draped over the front seat, put it on and did up the buttons quickly. He slung the messenger bag across his torso and, being adequately prepared, opened the door of the Satomobile and stepped out into the streets of Republic City.
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Naruto was running down the street, frantically trying to lose the people chasing him. He had pilfered a few rare books and any other trinkets he figured were worth a few yuans in an old antique store. The store owner and his son had been quick to give chase.
This was what life had become since the death of his mother: a daily struggle and a growing litany of illegal activities. His mother had always told him it was wrong to steal, but his mother had said a lot of things. And she was gone now.
Naruto looked over his shoulder and was greeted by the sight of the store owner's son gaining on him, the owner himself having long since given up the chase. He turned his gaze back to his front to see a large crowd gathered in front of a food stand of some sort. Knowing it was his only chance and that the alternative was a confrontation with a very hotheaded and brash teenager, Naruto plunged into the legs of the crowd. There were just some places big people couldn't follow, and whatever the stand was selling, Naruto would thank the Spirits later that it had drawn such a crowd.
He emerged from the crowed to an sparsely populated street in front of him and an alleyway on the right. Naruto chose the latter. He ran down the alleyway, hoping to put as much distance between him and the store owner's son before said son got through the crowd. In his haste, Naruto lost his footing and tumbled to the ground.
Naruto glanced at the entrance of the alleyway where he heard the sounds of dismay as the son likely pushed his way through the crowd at the food stand. It wouldn't be long until the son found his way to the alley. Naruto's eyes were drawn to a dumpster he had passed near the entrance and decided he would gamble. His speed against the speed of the shop owner's son.
Naruto clambered to his feet and set off at a dead sprint, trying to reach the dumpster. When he reached it he could hear some rustling coming from inside, but he decided that he would deal with that when he was in the clear. Naruto placed his hands on the lip of the dumpster and jumped in with a great heave.
As Naruto fell onto the garbage that made up the contents of the dumpster, he heard a yell come from the mouth of the alleyway.
"Where'd you go, kid?! I promise I'm not mad!"
The tone of the son's voice made Naruto beg to differ. He was ready to settle in for however long it would take for the teenager to move on when he noticed he was not alone in the dumpster. Opposite him sat two boys, clearly brothers, who had apparently been rummaging through the dumpster before he had made his entrance. The younger looking one opened his mouth to say something but Naruto put his finger to his lips, trying to convey his urgency with only his eyes.
Luckily the boy seemed to get the message.
The three of them sat in silence as the teenager walked a ways down the alley, smashed a bottle, and walked back to the entrance.
"Damn street urchin..."
Naruto listened to his retreating footsteps and waited until they were out of earshot before letting out a breath that he hadn't realized he had been holding.
The older of the siblings begun to speak before he was interrupted by the younger.
"What was that all about?! Who are you?! What did that guy want?!"
Naruto sat in silence, exhausted from the whole ordeal. He watched as the older sibling reprimanded the younger and as the younger argued back. They bickered back and forth for a few moments while Naruto caught his breath and when they were done they both leveled him with their gazes and the same question, spoken in tandem.
"Who are you?"
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"Are we going to the triads?" asked Bolin, the younger of the two siblings Naruto had met in the dumpster.
"Nope. The triads don't care about this kind of stuff," Naruto responded looking back over his shoulder to where Bolin was walking side by side with his brother Mako.
Mako had been reluctant to follow Naruto to his destination and had been silent since the moment his brother had pointed out the fact that their dumpster diving expedition had turned up nothing in the way of food, and Naruto's offer of a share of his spoils for not ratting him out had been too good to pass up considering the duo's current circumstances.
After walking for a while, the group came up to a dark and dilapidated storefront. The stenciling on the window identified it as simply "Jian's".
"Wait here," said Naruto as he pushed open the front door and walked into the store.
A small tin bell rung as the door opened and again as it closed behind Naruto. He took a cursory glance around and found that the store had not changed since the week before. The shelves and displays were covered with any number of curious knick-knacks and oddities ranging from books to knives to fireworks to clothing. No one thing was featured and the shop was a hodge-podge of some useful - and some not-so-useful - odds and ends.
Naruto walked up to the counter where an old man sat, still as a statue, eyes tracking his every move. Naruto took a deep breath and walked up to the old man.
"I've got some stuff here, like you said you wanted." Naruto reached into his ratty bag and pulled out three thin books. They were old and leatherbound and Naruto had lifted them from the antique shop from which he had been chased by the owner's son.
The old man hummed and snatched the books from Naruto's hands. He produced a pair of glasses from somewhere on his person and placed them on the bridge of his nose as he inspected the books. He threw two of them aside almost immediately but gave pause when he looked at the third one. The old man's eyes widened before he wiped the emotion off of his face. Naruto knew he was trying to pretend it was less valuable than was likely true, but he didn't complain. Old man Jian had always been fair with him, and if not quite fair, he at least paid better than anyone in their right mind would pay a nine year-old child.
Old man Jian opened the cash register to his right and plucked out fifteen red yuans and held them out to Naruto. As Naruto reached for the money, Jian pulled his hand back.
"You did well this time, boy. Pick out a scarf and gloves. It'll be getting cold soon." With his piece said he placed the money in Naruto's hand and dropped his gaze to his purchase. Considering that his dismissal, Naruto walked over to a bin of clothing, all of which was likely used, and dug out a blue scarf that was in good condition and a pair of black knit gloves.
When Naruto arrived outside he was greeted by the curious faces of Mako and Bolin, although Mako did his best not to show it. Bolin was the first to speak.
"Well? What'd you get?"
Naruto looked back down to where he was stuffing his relatively new scarf and gloves into his bag and back up to Bolin. He didn't exactly trust them with the knowledge of how much money he had, even if Bolin looked as harmless as a winged lemur.
"Let's go get some food," said Naruto as he turned and walked away.
The siblings were quick to follow, although Mako was less satisfied than Bolin by Naruto's avoidance of the question.
"Hey! You promised us something. Well?"
Naruto turned around and continued walking backwards.
"I said I'd give you guys something, yeah. So a warm meal should make us square. Right?"
Mako grunted and scowled, but he accepted that answer as enough. At any rate, a meal, warm or not, was better than the whole lot of nothing he and Bolin had eaten all day.
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The trio had shared a small meal of komodo sausages on bread at a local food stand and prepared to part ways. Naruto started to walk away, towards his junked Satomobile while Mako turned to the opposite direction and took a few steps away. Neither noticed Bolin standing in place with a look of contemplation on his face until he made himself known.
Naruto stopped and turned, his curiosity peaked. Mako turned as well, a look of annoyance in his eyes.
"We should... we should join up!" Bolin exclaimed, sincerity shining in his eyes. "Before you guys say no, just hear me out!"
One of Naruto's eyebrows rose in interest while Mako's eyes narrowed in annoyance.
"Bolin, let's go!"
"No, Mako! This is the best we've eaten since mom and dad died. We can't keep surviving out here on our own! And you know how to survive out here, don't you Naruto?"
Naruto shrugged. "I guess. I'm not looking for tagalongs-"
"We won't be tagalongs! We can help you, steal stuff, carry it! You can't carry as much if you're alone, right?"
"Bolin, he doesn't want us around, let's just go."
Naruto lowered his head in thought. That was a good point. He couldn't get as good of a haul by himself, and a few extra hands and feet would be good to help split up any pursuers. Besides, with the cold weather coming in, he would have to find a way to get blankets and suitable clothing to help him last through the snowy season. And he remembered something his mom had told him once.
"Don't be afraid to let people in, honey. Good people won't let you down. Not if you give them a chance."
Naruto looked back up at Bolin who was being dragged away by his older brother. They looked like decent enough guys, and they hadn't let him down in the dumpster. He let out a sigh called out to the pair.
"Come on, then. I guess you guys aren't so bad and it'll be pretty nice to have someone watching my back."
Bolin's eyes lit up and Mako even looked less dower than he had all day. Naruto turned and continued his walk home, certain the siblings were following behind. They made idle chatter as they walked, trading stories and generally getting to know each other.
By the time they reached the alleyway that housed the Satomobile, Naruto knew that Mako and Bolin had been on the streets for only a month. Their parents had been killed by a firebender and they had been left alone on the streets. In turn, they had learned that Naruto had been on the streets for a year following his mother's death after a long battle with sickness.
They arrived in front of the Satomobile and Naruto said, "This is it. Home sweet home. You guys can take the backseat. I'll take the front."
They all slept easily that night, hopeful that life had become just a little bit easier.
A/N: Naruto won't be a bender in this story, though he'll not be a pushover by any means. I'm going the more classic ninja route for him. You'll see if you stick with it. Or maybe not, I dunno.