Actions

Work Header

Irony

Chapter Text

The forest was unlike anything Naruto had seen before. It was wet, rain constantly drizzling no matter how far he traveled, so dark that he could not tell what time of day it was, and so unbearably hot that he’d unzipped his jacket and pushed his headband up to keep his sweaty bangs out of his eyes. Alert to his surroundings and nervous in a new terrain, Naruto carefully carved his own path through the thick foliage that separated him from Jiraiya. Or, at least, that’s what he thought he was headed. Two hours ago, what he thought was Jiraiya had turned out to be a monkey making a racket in the trees. As it turned out, tracking was not Naruto’s forte. Even so, he trekked on, weaving through moist trees and swatting away bugs that came too close to his ears. Fuck you, old man, he thought to himself, Fuck you, and your stupid notes too! This wasn’t training, this was just stupid! When he left Konoha three months ago, he wanted an adventure! Not to be left in the middle of the woods with only two weeks of training on how to track someone!

He was sweating more than the last time he’d traveled through Suna, and there was a mysterious mist hanging just off the ground, hiding everything a few feet out of sight. Everything’s scents had been blurred together because of the constant drizzle. Every few seconds he stepped in an invisible puddle, smearing mud up to his knees. It was almost impossible to catch any signs of Jiraiya’s trail, and the only hint he was in the right direction was the occasional scroll nailed to a tree telling him whether he was on the right track. He couldn’t even travel through the trees since most of them were strange and tall with no branches, just slippery bark reaching up into the sky with a sprout of leaves at the top.

He’d known for about an hour now that he’d only get more lost as he wandered around. He stopped walking and kicked at the ground, successfully shoving clumps of mud in between his toes and sandal. His chest burned with frustration and he opened his mouth to yell for Jiraiya to come out when a sound made him freeze. Something was moving to his left, deep in the bushes. He perked up. Could it be Jiraiya? He took a step forward. “Oi, Ero-Sennin! I’m tired! It’s not fair, you knew I couldn’t do it anyway,” he said. The rustling stopped. Naruto peered through the bushes, suddenly feeling nervous.

“Ero-Sennin?”

 There was no reply. Suddenly, he began to feel exposed. Usually, he had enough confidence to take any threat head-on. He was Uzumaki Naruto, he didn’t need to worry about anything! But tonight, he was in a place he’d never been, in the middle of the night, with zero understanding of the people- were there any people? - or terrain. And worse, anything could be behind those bushes. He was terrified, and he found it embarrassing. Here he was, by himself for the first time ever, and the first sign of a threat has his knees shaking. He ground his teeth and forced himself to move some of the thick branches out of the way to get a better look. He flinched when the leaves rustled again, a few feet in front of him this time. But there was something more than just rustling leaves. Something like…metal clinking against metal. It was the unnatural glint of something shiny catching the moonlight that made him duck, just in time to dodge a kunai that embedded into one of the weird-looking trees behind him. As fast as he could, he dashed to his left and two more kunai replaced his spot the ground.

    He froze, trying to listen through the rain, but just as the attack had begun, it ended. Naruto looked around for a moment, as still as the trees and rocks beside him, waiting to see any sign of life. Hoping the attacker was Jiraiya messing with him, he turned and promptly smashed his face right into something soft. He startled and jumped back. Looking straight down at him were two deep red eyes staring directly down at him, obstructed by an odd pin-wheel design. At first, it irked him that his attacker was staring down because it meant they were taller. Reminders that he was short did not come appreciated to Naruto. But after half a second of glaring, he came to his senses. The spinning shape in his eyes was unmistakable despite the changes.

    “Hello Naruto-kun,” a deep voice almost whispered to him.

The wind blew at the trees high above, allowing moonlight to slip through the leaves. Just as Naruto’s face became clearer to the person, the person’s face became clearer to Naruto. Long black hair pulled into a ponytail, skin pale as the clouds in the sky, and slight bags of fatigue under his one-of-a-kind-eyes.

Uchiha Itachi.

His eyes traveled downward to Itachi’s hands, which were tightly gripping his torso. Blood leaked through the fingers, making Naruto blanch. Itachi didn’t stab himself, after all. Whoever- or whatever- managed to wound the missing-nin was most likely still in the area. In his first encounter with Itachi, he’d been backed by a man with a large sword. Where was he?  What could have split them up? Itachi must have been worse off than it appeared because he slumped forward, reaching out to grab Naruto for stability, but his grip was weak, and he collapsed face-first onto the ground.

Naruto stared down at the body of one of his biggest enemies, eyes wide. He grabbed a long, stiff-looking leaf from the ground and used it to poke Itachi’s cheek. Silence; he was out cold. Naruto stared at his motionless body for a moment. He had two options. He could find Jiraiya and they would return to get Itachi if he was still there, or he could bring Itachi to Jiraiya himself. He imagined the look on Jiraiya’s face when he completed his task and caught a missing-nin at the same time. He would be so impressed! He’d probably teach him something even cooler than tracking, like a new kick-ass jutsu! Shaking with excitement and a little bit of fear, Naruto wrapped Itachi’s arm around his neck and looped his other arm under his knees, using all of his strength to lift him in the air...and promptly fell over. He shoved the missing nin’s unresponsive body off of his own, wiped the blood off his hands, cracked his knuckles, and tried again...and again...and again. After several more tries, Naruto was gasping for breath and Itachi was bound to have a sore back when he woke up. He growled in frustration. He had to get the body to Jiraiya, but he was too heavy and slippery! Then an idea came to mind.

He took out his standard medical pouch and lifted Itachi’s shirt, revealing the wound. He wrinkled his nose at the overbearing scent of blood. It was no wonder why he collapsed. He hadn’t wrapped the injury yet and had bled all over the place. After cleaning off the blood with the water from his water bottle, it became clear that something tried to punch a hole through Itachi’s kidney. Now very conscious about what was lurking beyond his line of sight, he tried to wrap the wound as fast as possible. He turned to grab the medical tape from his bag with his spare hand, only to freeze as he felt something sharp press against his neck.

“Turn slowly,” Itachi commanded.

His mind ran through several scenarios, things Kakashi, Iruka, and Jiraiya had taught him. This was a basic situation to find yourself in, and it had been used as an example in the academy hundreds of times. He knew the drill for this like the back of his hand and had practiced it with every teacher he’d had. But of course, Konoha’s Number One Unpredictable Ninja forgot his training when he needed it. Oh shit, oh shit, ohshitohshitohshit! For half a second, panic overtook him. But determination and quick thinking took over. He took the hand that was placed on the wound and pressed until Itachi screamed and writhed in pain. Naruto jumped back, but Itachi managed to grab his jacket and hold him in place. They stared at each other, Itachi’s kunai to Naruto’s neck, and Naruto’s hand pressed inside Itachi’s gaping wound; a stalemate. Itachi’s sharingan frantically rotated as he struggled to keep himself sitting up through what must have been sheer willpower, his grip on Naruto’s jacket never failing.

“I was going to clean your wounds,” Naruto finally admitted.

“So you could turn me in without worry of me dying.”

That was exactly what he’d been planning, but he didn’t have to admit to it, so he kept quiet.

“Give me those bandages and I won’t kill you,” Itachi said after a moment of silence.

“You’re too weak to kill me right now,” Naruto said hesitantly, knowing he was treading on thin ice.

Itachi’s eyes narrowed. “You don’t believe that.”

Itachi was right; he didn’t. So as fast as he could, Naruto slipped out of his jacket and jumped out of sight. From his place on the strange, branch-less tree, struggling to keep his grip on the slippery trunk, he watched as Itachi slowly lifted himself up, cringing with pain. He’s really hurt, Naruto realized. This is Sasuke’s brother, and he could die right here in the middle of a forest before he gets his revenge. Then what would Sasuke do? Would he finally come home? Or would he be too angry? The thought depressed Naruto. Against his better judgment, he took out his standard-issue medical pouch and a bottle of water. He stared down at the items, then tossed them to Itachi and ran as fast as he could.

Jiraiya had been amused when he burst out of the woods into the open clearing, but it took one glance at his blood-soaked undershirt and frantic expression to realize something was wrong. The second he finished his story, they set off through the woods again. It took two weeks to reach their destination, even with the very few stops they made. The terrain had changed from steep and thick with foliage to an enormous forest, flat and wet with deceiving grassy spots that really grew deep under the water. By the time they’d reached the town, they were deep in the heart of this strange land, where the thick canopy overhead blocked out the sun even during the day, and Naruto was exhausted. The constant hiking was difficult, and the perpetual darkness of the swamp made him fear what he couldn’t see. But he trusted that Jiraiya knew what he was doing. For the first time since he’d met him, the old pervert looked completely serious. While it unnerved him to see his teacher so unusually grim, it also comforted him. Itachi wouldn’t dare attack them like this, let alone whatever had left him in such a state. Especially in the middle of a crowded town.

Aokusa was one of the largest civilian-based towns he’d ever seen- though to be fair, he hadn’t seen many. It was a major trading point, with several main roads that led to other towns and villages connecting through it. All kinds of people were out on the streets gambling away their money or drinking themselves stupid after a long day of bargaining. The scent of cigar smoke and urine burned down his throat, forcing him to lift his undershirt and cover his nose.  Naruto found it difficult to follow closely behind Jiraiya without getting lost in the throngs of people rushing about in every direction possible. Sure enough, he bumped into a woman as he followed Jiraiya into a hidden alleyway, nearly tripping when the floor dropped into a steep staircase. He climbed down, step after step until he could barely see anything from lack of light and the sound of the main street drunks began to fade as they reached the ground level. But it wasn’t over yet. They walked for a long time, twisting and turning through narrow pathways, barely lit by glowing paper lanterns and strings of tiny yellow lights. Finally, they reached a dead end. A woman sitting behind a small wooden desk smiled at the sight of Jiraiya and opened a small sliding door for them to enter, but when Naruto tried to follow, Jiraiya shoved him back.

“Not this time, kid. This one wouldn’t want to be seen.” He turned to the woman and said something Naruto couldn’t hear. She nodded and ducked into a corner so dark he’d assumed it was a wall.

“Stop being so quiet, it’s creepy,” Jiraiya muttered, giving him a funny look. Naruto stared at the carvings in the desk, having nothing to say. “Listen, it’s not your fault. You’re not in trouble. I just need to know why he was back in the woods, and my contact wouldn’t want anybody seeing them. I’m not mad, just worried.”

    Naruto had quickly figured out that they were going to meet one of Jiraiya’s contacts. Though he’d never said it, Naruto knew it was the only reason they would stop in a town where other people could spot or recognize them. They were trying to hide, after all. The fact that they’d come to such a populated area for this person probably meant that they were important. He wanted to meet this person, and learn more about gaining contacts for himself, and really didn’t want to be alone right now, but instead of expressing these things, he put on an uncaring expression and waved a hand dismissively. “Yeah, yeah, I know. Just go talk to your girlfriend, I’ll be...whatever.”

    “They’re not my-” Jiraiya began to protest, but the woman returned with a glowing blue lantern and a key, which she handed to him with a smile. Jiraiya nodded and patted Naruto on the shoulder before entering the mysterious room and closing the door, leaving Naruto alone with the woman and the lantern.

    “Come with me,” she said, moving to walk down the dark hallway. It became obvious the light was more for him than her, as she handed it to him when she claimed her arm was tired and continued to lead him to their destination without it. Eventually, she opened a heavy iron door and shoved Naruto through before his eyes could adjust to the sudden brightness. He turned to snap at her, then paused when he noticed a window several feet to his left. But I’m underground, he thought to himself. He turned around and froze. He stood on a balcony suspended several feet into the air, looking down upon what he could only describe as a street. It was one single street, no alleyways or connecting roads- at least not that he could see. Buildings were crammed together as if attempting to save for room and were lit with a countless number of yellow and red lanterns, hundreds of people wandering about, each minding their own business. All of it was underground, hidden beneath the city above.

    “What is this?” Naruto asked, looking at the woman in awe. Her face lightened with amusement.

    “This...is none of your business,” she said, and Naruto pouted. “You will be staying down here until Jiraiya-sama comes to get you. Do not speak unless spoken to. Do not leave your room for any reason.” He opened his mouth to comment, but she cut him off. “I do not care if you’re a ninja. You are still a child, and there are people here who would take advantage of that. You would be helpless against them, and nobody would ever save you. Not here.” She paused and sent him a critical look that made him feel as if everything from his hair to his sandals was wrong and needed to be fixed, and only she knew how. “And we can’t have that, can we kid?”

    She motioned for him to move him further down the balcony until they reached a door, which she pushed him through. It was a tiny one-room apartment with a small bed in one corner, a refrigerator, a TV, and a table with two chairs. There was another door that he suspected must lead to the bathroom. It was very similar to his own apartment back in Konoha, except it was much cleaner and a bit smaller. The woman waved to him as she closed the door behind her, leaving him by himself in the dark. He stared at the door for a moment, stuck between anger and confusion. He knew what she was talking about, and what could happen to him if he came in contact with the wrong people. It probably didn’t help that without his jacket and medical pack, he mostly appeared to be a normal kid. But he wasn’t! He’d watched people die and had already fought people twice his size! That’s what ninja were for; protecting people. He wasn’t stupid, and he was no simple child. He was a ninja, and on top of that, a Jinchuuriki! Nobody could hurt him! He ignored the part of himself that listed off people who had beat him in fights and turned on the lights.

Irritated that she’d underestimated him, he jumped onto the bed and turned on the TV, deciding to ignore his thoughts. He didn’t get that many chances to watch TV, especially since he was traveling with Jiraiya now. You can’t bring air conditioners and TVs to the middle of the woods, after all. There wasn’t much on. After surfing for a while, he settled on a show he vaguely remembered Sakura and Ino squealing over. Suddenly, just as the main character was about to confess her feelings for her love interest, a movement in his peripheral vision made him jump off the bed and duck across the room towards the fridge. A dark figure stood in the window, which was now open. With a swift motion, the person leaped inside the room and gracefully landed on their feet.

    “Itachi,” Naruto whispered in horror, more to himself, but Itachi nodded anyway and moved to sit on the bed. Naruto distanced himself as much as possible and noted how Itachi seemed to be still healing from his wound.

    “I do not want to fight you. I simply have a few questions,” he said in a strained voice.

    Naruto deepened his stance, ready to spring into a defensive position. He’s weak, he told himself. Maybe I can take him on-

    “I need to know how Sasuke is.”

    “What?” Naruto asked before he could stop himself. Why would Itachi ask about Sasuke? Didn’t he hate him? Wasn’t he trying to kill him?

    “How is Sasuke?”

    Naruto pursed his lips, trying to think of a reason not to reply. He’s a traitor to your village, he told himself firmly. But why does he care about Sasuke, a small voice whispered in the back of his mind. He thought it was odd, the evil older brother asking how his victim was. His curiosity piqued. I need to stall him for Jiraiya to come, he reasoned. I could get some information, then help catch him!

The woman’s warning echoed in his head. You are still a child, and there are people here who would take advantage of that. You would be helpless against them, and nobody would ever save you. Perhaps she’d been referring to more than just kidnappers. What his too much for him? What would he do if Itachi attacked? It didn’t matter in the end; he’d already made up his mind.

    “I don’t know. He left the village with that gross snake-Sennin.”

    “That is what I’d heard,” Itachi said with a nod. “This is not going how I planned,” he muttered to himself. Naruto heard it but didn’t ask. He often heard things people didn’t mean for him to hear. He’d decided it was a Kyuubi thing.

    “Can you tell me what happened?”

    Naruto frowned. He didn’t really want him to know anything about Sasuke, but there was something about his tone that made him seem sincere, and it caught him off guard. It felt loving like he truly cared and would never hurt Sasuke. Which was stupid, because he’d already hurt him in the worst way possible. And he could just be acting. But would it really hurt?

    “I’m not going to hurt you, I wouldn’t try to attack a Jinchuuriki without a partner to aid in fighting the power of its demon. Especially the nine tailed one.”

    “Their,” Naruto corrected, making Itachi raise an eyebrow.

“You said ‘its demon’. I’m not an ‘it’. I’m a human being.” He immediately felt stupid for saying it, and his face flushed with embarrassment. But before he could take it back, Itachi nodded.

    “I apologize. I didn’t mean to...offend.”

    Naruto watched him for a moment. Itachi was supposed to be a horrible person. He was supposed to be chasing after him with the intent to kill. A crazed psychopath who killed his family to get practice and was torturing his little brother with the promise of an inevitable fight to the death. So why was he sitting there on the bed, apologizing for offending him? And why didn’t he kill him back in the woods? And why did he want to know how Sasuke was, instead of where he was. Naruto didn’t know much about serial killers, but he did know that if Itachi lived up to his reputation, he would’ve been dead by now.

    He loosened his stance until he finally slumped onto the ground, legs crossed and leaning against the cool refrigerator door. In the end, none of it mattered. Itachi was a murderer and Sasuke would never forgive him for thinking of him as anything but. When Jiraiya came back, they could capture him, and Sasuke would come home to get his revenge. He just needed to stall him. Determined, Naruto began to speak.

    “I guess it all started at the Chunnin exams...”

    It took two hours for Naruto to finish his story and answer most of Itachi’s odd questions. All of them were about Sasuke and made Naruto feel like some sort of gossiping grandma, discussing how well Sasuke had done in school and whether he kept his room clean. Attempting to figure out how to give his answers without somehow giving away personal information that would help him hurt Sasuke took up all of Naruto’s concentration. So much of his focus was on this that he almost didn’t notice Itachi slowly opening the window once again. Just as Jiraiya burst through the door, Itachi disappeared in a cloud of crows that scratched and pecked at his hands as he tried to grab them.

Jiraiya was furious.

He’d ranted - mostly to himself- about safety and not leaving kids behind when they were wanted by an S-ranked missing-nin. He’d commended Naruto’s attempt to stall him, but Naruto had a feeling that he should have done something more, and Jiraiya was only giving him praise out of guilt that he’d been found again. They took a different route out of the underground city, assuming that Itachi had found him by following them. Jiraiya refused to say what his contact had told him, and Naruto left him to brood in silence.

    “I need,” he suddenly said when they reached the main street, “I need a drink.”

    He grabbed Naruto’s hand and pulled him across the busy street to a tiny sit-in bar and ordered a complicated-sounding drink that Naruto didn’t recognize. Jiraiya still gripped his hand tightly, but Naruto didn’t mind, even if it made him feel like a kid. Nobody had ever held his hand like that before; like a protective parent. Iruka once gently pulled him closer during one of Konoha’s busy festivals to keep him from treading on a woman’s beautiful summer yukata, but he was scolded for not paying attention afterward, so he’d never really thought it counted.

    “Man, I’m supposed to be protecting you from this guy, and he’s found you twice without me nearby to help you!”

Under his breath, he muttered, “I feel like a failure enough, not being able to be there when you were growing up, but now...”

    “What do you mean?” Naruto asked.

    Jiraiya paused and let go of his hand as if just realizing he was holding it. He looked down at Naruto with confusion. “You heard that? Never mind, I’m just rambling. But you need to tell me right away if you see him again, alright? In fact, send a toad. That’s even faster.”

    Naruto nodded slowly, more interested in what Jiraiya had been trying to say about being there for him growing up. Then a bright orange non-alcoholic drink was placed in front of him, and he completely forgot about it, his hand feeling oddly empty.

    After they left the town and the creepy swamp, Jiraiya became more insistent that they find a way to control the Kyuubi’s powers. His reasoning was that if he could control its chakra, the Akatsuki would give up on him and start going after the other Jinchuuriki. Or something. Naruto wasn’t really clear on the plan. He personally felt that Jiraiya wanted him to have control of the Kyuubi’s power if he ran into Itachi again and was rushing it out of hope that he’d figure it out as he did with the Rasengan. Unfortunately, it became very evident that creativity wouldn’t help him control the monster inside of him.

    The Kyuubi was a terrifying creature. It stood tall and imposing, large fangs ready to snap at him from behind the bars, deep red eyes that glowed through the darkness, and disturbing human-shaped arms with long black claws that would reach through the bars to grab him at random moments. It was always angry, always pacing behind its cell, muttering curses and all of the ways it would kill everyone he knew when it finally took over his body, something it swore to do every time Naruto visited. He found that the only way to use its chakra was to lose control due to extreme emotions or to literally stand face-to-face with it and ask for it. Neither were great choices. Losing control due to his emotions always led to too much chakra overpowering him and leaving him to fight for control once again. Talking to it was worse because he found the more he encouraged it, the more it was able to invade his thoughts and dreams.

    As their training continued, he began to suffer from graphic nightmares where the Kyuubi took control of his body and destroyed the village, viciously slaughtering every person he loved, all while they were unaware of his lack of control. His fears bled into his training, and his hesitation to meet with the Kyuubi frustrated Jiraiya- who he hadn’t told about the nightmares- and only amused the Kyuubi, making it worse. He knew it was only a matter of time until something bad happened, and when it did, it was much worse than he’d imagined.

    Jiraiya had been yelling from the sidelines about the need for him to gain better control as he fought the Kyuubi’s chakra down to a less unstable level- unaware that the Kyuubi was screaming and roaring the opposite inside his head. Naruto had desperately attempted to gain some form of calm when his vision was suddenly obscured by images of his nightmares, and then everything went black. When he woke up, Jiraiya was nursing a deadly wound on his chest, a look of horror painted on his face, and the Kyuubi was eerily silent for the first time since they’d started this training. He was surprised to find that he could barely move. The pain was unbearable- unlike anything he’d ever felt before. After collecting himself, Jiraiya tried to force him to lay down, but he managed to catch a glimpse of his arm and nearly fainted. His skin was gone- completely peeled back like an orange. Jiraiya carried his stinging body to a cave despite his own injuries and placed seals across the walls and floor. Just as he mentioned leaving to the closest village for a healer, everything went black again.

    He woke up, bleary-eyed and sore, to find Itachi sitting next to him. At this point, he wasn’t very surprised. He didn’t know how Itachi got through Jiraiya’s seals, or how long he’d been sleeping, but it was starting to seem that Itachi was going to be a regular occurrence in his life. Whether or not this was a good thing, he figured he would learn eventually.

“What are you doing here?”

“Kisame has followed your teacher’s trail, and I have followed yours.”

This news made Naruto’s heart drop. He tried to get up, but Itachi pushed him back down.

“His mission does not concern you today.”

“Well, that’s not any better. And how can I trust you? You want to kill me!”

Itachi shrugged. “I will only do as I’m ordered. And I haven’t been ordered to kill you, just to capture you.”

“Then why aren’t you capturing me?”

“I have not been told to yet,” he said as if it made any sense.

Naruto sat up again, this time to grab some water, and Itachi didn’t stop him. His stomach was growling, and his throat was dryer than dirt. Much to his dismay, he remembered he didn’t have a water bottle. He’d thrown it to Itachi when he was wounded. As if he knew what he was looking for, Itachi rolled his missing water bottle back to him. He grudgingly picked it up and inspected it with a few sniffs for poison before downing the entire thing. He was much thirstier than he’d realized. Soft chuckling echoed off the walls, and he turned to see Itachi staring at him, no hint of a smile on his face anymore.

“Would you like more water? If I’m correct, you’ve been out for almost three days. The demon can only heal you in your sleep if you’ve been fighting its chakra flow during the day.”

“How do you know that?” Naruto asked.

“We’ve had the opportunity to study another Jinchuuriki.”

Naruto didn’t like how that sounded but accepted Itachi’s water bottle anyway. He turned to his sleeping bag and grabbed an apple, then threw it at Itachi’s head. He caught it and took a bite. "Tsk, didn’t even have his eyes open," Naruto grumbled to himself.

“I’ll give you another if you...” he trailed off, not sure of what he wanted.

Itachi tilted his head to the side in a questioning manner. Naruto stared at him for several seconds, trying to think of something.

“I’ll give you another apple if you promise to leave Sasuke alone until he’s strong enough to beat you!”

Itachi furrowed his eyebrows and scoffed. “I already made that promise to Sasuke himself.”

“Well, I don’t trust you, so you’ve got to promise me, too!”

“And why’s that?”

“Because I’m his best friend,” he growled. Naruto was smaller and weaker than Itachi, but at that moment, he didn’t care. He looked Itachi straight into the eyes, daring him to say anything other than what he wanted to hear. Itachi stared back for several moments, then nodded. “I guess I have to promise then.”

Naruto nodded and took out the second apple, then paused to glare at him. “You have to keep that promise.”

Itachi sent him a look that made him feel stupid. “That’s the point, no?”

“W-well, I’ve got to make sure,” he sputtered, “You probably lie all the time, being with the Akatsuki,” he spat.

Itachi said nothing, sticking his hand out instead, and Naruto threw the apple at his head. He caught it. Of course. Just like Sasuke, Naruto thought, irritated with Uchiha perfection. But the reminder upset him. He missed his best friend, the first person to treat him fairly and worry for his wellbeing. Jiraiya didn’t think he could hear when he talked to his contacts about the training Orochimaru put his disciples through, but he could, and it sounded horrific. Even if Sasuke survived those conditions, he was not going to be ok afterward, and that scared Naruto more than anything. It made him reaffirm his need to complete his promise to Sakura, which had become more of a promise to himself at this point.

“Thank you for the water,” he whispered.

Itachi nodded and took a bit of his apple, sticking the remains of the other one in a hidden pocket inside his Akatsuki cloak. “You have to promise me something too,” he said, after swallowing the last bit of the apple and placing the core on the floor.

“What?”

“No matter what happens, never give up on Sasuke.”

And with that, he walked away.

~.~.~

 

    Trees, trees, trees, trees, trees. It was all Naruto ever saw. He was getting tired of traveling through forests. This time, he and Jiraiya were crossing through particular wooded wasteland so they could go up some mountain and study something about meditation with some old friends of Jiraiya’s, and he was mostly just looking forward to the change of scenery. But that was in the future. For now, he was looking for a specific friend of his own. As he stepped over a fallen tree trunk, the sight of a small campfire caught his eyes. He smiled, knowing exactly who it was. The bitter scent of tea made his stomach growl, and he shrugged off his bag to take out a cup of instant ramen and reusable chopsticks.

    Itachi looked up when Naruto walked into the light and immediately took out another cup of tea to sit next to his own, waiting on the water to boil. Itachi was the only ninja Naruto had ever known to travel with two teacups, a steeper, and real tea leaves. When he asked about it, he was simply handed a second cup of the bitter liquid- Itachi didn’t like sugar in his tea- and was told to drink up. It was an acquired taste, Itachi told him. Naruto didn’t understand why someone would wish to acquire it.

    “You should really take more caution. How did you know it was me, and not another member of the Akatsuki, or a band of thieves?”

    Naruto thought about it for a while. “Well, I could smell the tea, for one thing. And you said you’d be here, you know? I guess I just assumed. There can’t be that many people camping in these woods.”

    “You need to practice caution, Naruto,” he said while pouring the tea in Naruto’s cup. As soon as he finished pouring, Naruto brought the cup to his lips and took a big gulp, immediately regretting it as it burned his tongue. Itachi handed him a cold bottle, which Naruto greedily accepted.

    “Caution and patience.”

    Naruto rolled his eyes, rubbing his neck while the Kyuubi relieved the pain.

    “I didn’t know water could burn like that,” he whispered to himself.

    “There’s a lot of things you don’t know, foolish little boy.”

    “Oi!” Naruto yelled in outrage, “I am not foolish, or a little boy!”

    “Be quiet. When you make enough noise to attract trouble, I will leave you to fend for yourself, foolish little boy.”

    Naruto puffed out his cheeks and forced himself to be quieter. “I am Uzumaki Naruto! I will be the next Hokage! No matter what comes at me, I’ll kick its ass with my hands tied behind my back and my Konoha Hitai-ate covering my eyes, old man!” he whisper-yelled in a haughty voice. Itachi stared at him, eyes slightly wider than usual, looking as if he felt a bit offended.

    “I’m nineteen, that’s not old,” he finally muttered to himself, and Naruto giggled. After finishing his tea and saying his goodbyes, he ran off to meet back with Jiraiya.

It had been four months since Itachi had left him in the cave, and when looking back on it, he almost couldn’t believe how much things had changed. Itachi and he had formed a strange friendship as their meetings continued. He didn’t know why Itachi chose to reveal himself every once in a while, but he did know that he only ever wanted to talk, usually about something mundane like the weather or their favorite foods, or to teach him small skills, like how to throw more than one kunai in the same hand at the same time- and how could he say no to that?

 Though their second and third meeting had been spent talking about Sasuke, it had become clear that that was a subject best left alone. Naruto had never told Jiraiya that he’d met Itachi in the cave- mostly because he would have freaked out knowing he’d gotten past all of the seals surrounding their camp- and it left him feeling guilty. He’d never lied to an adult about something this serious before, but the more time he spent with Itachi, the more he came to realize that the man simply seemed to want someone to talk to.

    It took a long time to trust him, and he still didn’t, but he could feel himself forgetting who Itachi was and why he was feared everywhere he went. The only things left to remind him were the Akatsuki cloak he always carried and his special sharingan, which he never let die. They never met for too long- three hours being the longest encounter they’d had, but he knew Sasuke could barely hold his Sharingan for a few minutes before passing out. As impressive as it was, he never asked about it. He had a feeling it would be a bad topic too.

    It didn’t take long to catch up with Jiraiya, who hadn’t bothered to ask where he’d gone. Since he was under the impression that the past four months had been Itachi-free, he was more lenient on letting Naruto explore the surrounding area as they traveled. He apparently kept an eye on him by feeling for his chakra. Though he couldn’t hide his chakra very well, Itachi was apparently very good at it, so as long as Jiraiya had no reason to suspect there was a second person, he wouldn’t notice.

    These days, he and Jiraiya traveled with excitement. Jiraiya was happy to escape the forest too, and though he never outright mentioned it, he’d hinted that it would be nice to talk to someone his own age for once. Apparently, Naruto wasn’t mature enough to have a real conversation, whatever that was supposed to mean. In his opinion, the old pervert couldn’t possibly have that many important things to say. Either way, they marched on with endless energy for the mountains that awaited them, and when they finally reached their destination, it was more than worth it.

    The mountains amazed Naruto. How could something be so big? The trees were tall and sturdy with a sharp, fresh scent and odd deep green needle-like leaves. They spread from where they stood all the way up the mountains except for the very top, where there was snow, and a small grey patch towards the top where there was nothing but stone. Jiraiya explained that the stone scar was where the monastery was and that it had been there for hundreds of years. All of this made Naruto excited for what was to come, but his excitement quickly faded as he realized he would have to climb the thing.

    It took two days to climb the mountain- partly due to very steep areas where they were forced to use their chakra to walk up the side, and once they reached the monastery it didn’t get much better. Though it didn’t look like it from below, there was ice everywhere. It was freezing at the top, forcing Naruto into so many layers of clothing that he looked like an Akimchi. The bathrooms were less than safe with toilets that broke often and water so cold that his hair would actually begin to freeze if he stayed under too long (making the hot springs a necessity). The food was natural and refreshing, meaning it was tasteless and boring after a couple of weeks. And he had to keep quiet so he wouldn’t disturb the meditating monks. But it was worth it. The view from the top of the mountain was amazing, and the monks helped him train in meditation every day, lessening the Kyuubi’s hold on him when he attempted to use its chakra.

    “Very pretty up here, isn’t it?”

    Naruto turned to see Jiraiya lying on the ground, multiple notebooks lying haphazardly around him. As the wind picked up, he placed rocks on them to keep them still as he wrote feverishly.

    “What are you working on? You look like you’re about to forget something important.”

    Jiraiya looked up and sent Naruto a smile that made him shiver. “It’s the new Icha Icha book. I’ve found some new material.”

    “But we’re surrounded by men…” Naruto trailed off, not sure where Jiraiya could have gotten any form of inspiration.

    “That’s the idea,” he said, then caught himself. “That came out wrong.”

    Naruto nodded and moved to look at what Jiraiya was writing.

    “My books aren’t all sex, you know?” Jiraiya began, ignoring Naruto’s blush at the word ‘sex’. He was only a teenager, after all, and still a bit embarrassed by the subject. “I’m working the brotherly relationship between the main character and his younger brother. The two got in a fight and haven’t talked in years, but now they have to learn to get along after being brought together again.”

    Naruto stopped listening at that point, now thinking about a pair of brothers he knew in his life. Itachi and Sasuke, like Jiraiya’s characters, hadn’t talked in a long time. Ok, so maybe they have some good reasons for that. But they were still practically strangers now. He briefly wondered what it would be like to have a brother. A real brother, not a best friend who you consider one. Everyone he knew with a sibling complained about it. Kiba whined that his older sister was annoying, and Shino never had a shortage of sharp words for his older brother. Even Hinata expressed irritation with her little sister, and the girl was the kindest person he’d ever met! He would probably have been a great brother, he decided. They would fight a lot, but it would be in that nice brotherly way. Like Jiraiya’s characters, minus the haven’t-talked-in-years part.

He looked out at the mountain when a flash of red caught his eye. Ignoring Jiraiya’s questions, took several dangerous leaps down the mountain- with a clone headed in a different direction- until he was out of sight from anyone above.

    “Your visits are getting harder and harder to cover up,” he told Itachi.

    Itachi shrugged. He was wearing the practical jacket he’d worn last time they’d met- which was only a week or two ago. It was strange to see him with a fur-lined hood pulled over his head, but it didn’t distract Naruto from the main interest in his visit.

    “So, what are you doing here?” he asked, leaning against a large rock. Itachi sat down next to him and took out a small book and pen from his pack.

    “Ooooh, what’s that? And oh, yeah, where’s Kisame?”

    “Hush,” Itachi said, “I have a headache. I’m supposed to be watching you and thought I would visit. Kisame went up ahead. And I’m sure you recognize that this is a book.”

    Naruto pouted and crossed his arms, but found himself unable to stay mad, so he inched closer to Itachi’s side and glanced at the pages over his shoulder. His eyes widened comically, and he cried out straight into Itachi ear, resulting in him getting pushed over. He jumped up and peered at the book again.

    “What is this!? It’s all weird!”

    “It’s Nekoshita-go, a code language,” Itachi explained. “This is where I write my thoughts.”

    So, it was like a journal? Naruto had always thought journals were for girls like Sakura and Ino to write about love and stupid girly stuff. Was Itachi’s journal that that? He briefly imagined Itachi laying on his cot in the Akatsuki’s secret layer- a dark cave, wet and filled with bugs and bats, of course- kicking his feet up and twirling his hair as he wrote about his latest crush. The image was so ridiculous that Naruto nearly shared his thoughts but realized it would be unwise to ask. Instead, he stared at the book in wonder. “Wow,” he whispered. “You can write in code?”

    Itachi nodded, writing a small note in the strange curvy language.

    “How did you learn it?”

    “It was created and used by the Uchiha clan. Every Uchiha who is expected to become a Shinobi learns this code at a very young age. We used it to pass important scrolls or messages to each other, usually during missions.”

    Naruto’s eyebrows went up with shock.

“So Sasuke could read this?” he asked without thinking. The pause in their conversation was rightfully awkward.

    “No, he never finished his lessons, and I often didn’t have time to help our mother teach him. Without practice, he’s probably forgotten everything.”

    The conversation stopped there, and the air around them grew uncomfortable. Naruto still wasn’t exactly sure how to approach the subject of Sasuke. He was suspicious of Itachi’s intentions towards him, and of their conversations. He was fourteen now, and he’d grown used to the man’s company- even daring to call him a friend. But while they treated each other as comrades, the truth hung over their heads like a giant rain cloud about to burst; Itachi was a wanted traitor of Naruto’s village, and Naruto was someone the Akatsuki needed Itachi’s help to kill. By now, they had an unspoken set of rules. Naruto never gave information about Konoha, and Itachi never gave information about Akatsuki. Neither of them asked for information, either. While they occasionally talked about the people they worked with, they were careful to keep from mentioning anything that could be used against them. Usually, they tried to avoid the topic of Sasuke altogether, as it raised questions neither of them wanted to answer.

    “I have to go,” Itachi said, tucking the book and pen into his back pocket. Before Naruto could say anything, he disappeared with a flashy flock of crows. Just as the last bird disappeared around the mountain was clearing, Jiraiya’s head whipped around the rock to face him.

    “There you are! Your stupid clone wouldn’t stop running! Why did you run off?”

    Naruto faked a smile.

“I saw a cool bird.”

Jiraiya seemed to accept this, and they raced back up to the monastery. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before it was time to leave. The monks couldn’t keep them around forever, even if they did help around the compound to make up for it. Naruto was glad to be leaving. He had grown tired of the perpetual cold and how his fingers always split and bled when he was told to scrub the floors. He’d refused the offer of lotion out of pride and suffered in silence until Itachi would visit every few weeks with medicinal cream and admonishing words about stubborn children.

 

~.~.~

 

After the mountain, they stopped in a small town to replenish their supplies. They also sold their extra layers of clothing and heavy jackets for some spare money, some of which went towards finally getting Naruto a new jacket and pants. Once they’d escaped the cold, he’d tried to put on his old orange pants and was a bit proud to learn that he was too tall for them now. He’d asked if Itachi knew where his beloved orange jacket had gone and was horrified to learn that he tore it up to use as extra gauze for his wound when the bandages ran out that first time they’d met. His new outfit consisted of orange pants, similar to his previous ones, with a white sleeveless top and an orange and white jacket with red racing stripes down the sleeves- his usual Uzumaki swirl sewn in the back.

Funnily enough, he was glad to be in the woods again, after weeks of rocks, ice, and snow, especially since it meant that he could meet with Itachi more often. Though Itachi wasn’t one to talk much, he was a good listener, and he always found himself missing their conversations when he wasn’t around. Itachi had begun to loosen around Naruto over the last year; allowing him to learn Nekoshita-go (he’d pestered him on this one until he gave in), teaching simple skills, and openly training in front of him. However, he never allowed himself to fully relax and never went without his strange version of the sharingan.

    “So...which line comes first again?” he asked, swinging his legs in the air as he tried to remember.

    Itachi leaned over and slowly drew the symbol out for him.

    “Oh, ok!” Naruto said, sloppily copying the stroke order.

    “Again, but slower. It’s not about speed when you’re trying to make it legible.”

    Naruto grumbled under his breath, but complied anyway, exaggerating the movements. Naruto had already decided that it was important for him to learn this secret coded language. They could send notes to each other and talk even when they were far away! Itachi hadn’t replied to that reasoning.

    “Good. What does it say?” Itachi asked when he claimed to be done.

    Naruto slowly repeated each word he’d written while Itachi leaned forward to check them over. He hadn’t learned much vocabulary yet; only thirty words so far. But the code was very difficult. Each word was a different symbol that he had to memorize and was written in a strange, curvy way that was beautiful when someone with skill wrote it. Of course, his handwriting was barely legible already, so his butchered chicken scratch could probably be mistaken for another language altogether. He had a lot to learn.

    “Good, now switch hands.”

    “But…but I’m right-handed.”

    “You should really be ambidextrous. The point of writing in code is the ability to disguise what you’re saying. If you don’t want your handwriting to be identifiable, it’s best to write code in one hand and everything else in the other. Plus, it helps with memorization,” he added.

    Instead of complaining any further, Naruto went straight to work. There was something about Itachi that made him want to do everything perfectly. He continued his writing practice, then paused when a foot landed right in front of his practice book, sending dirt across the paper and smearing his ink. His eyes widened in shock. Itachi had taken off his Akatsuki cloak to practice forms. Naruto had never seen this form before, and he immediately wanted to learn it. It was very complicated, with fluidity he knew he couldn’t replicate if his life depended on it. Every movement was strong, yet smooth and crisp. His clothes made a sharp snapping sound with every kick, block, and punch, and he wasn’t even sweating from the effort. Eventually, Itachi finished with a flashy choke block, then turned to look down at his younger companion.

    “Why aren’t you practicing?”

    “That...was...so...cool!” he managed to spit out, barely able to contain his excitement. “I’ve never seen anything like it! That one part, where you flipped forward, then did the strike with your wrist! Where did you learn that!?”

    Itachi grimaced. “It’s an Anbu form.”

    “You still learn stuff when you’re an Anbu!?”

“You always continue learning, no matter how practiced you are, unless you’re a stubborn fool,” he warned through narrowed eyes. Naruto flushed with embarrassment. He knew he was acting childish and for some reason, he found himself worrying that Itachi wouldn’t like that.

“Can you do another form? One I wouldn’t know?” he asked in a more subdued manner. Itachi seemed to think about it for a moment, then took a breath and motioned for him to stand up.

“Do what I do,” he said.

This form was very long. Itachi fixed his stances and strikes as they pushed through each kick, punch, and block. Naruto had always considered himself a decent fighter. He knew he could hold his own and didn’t care much for forms and other traditional methods of practicing. But trying to keep up with Itachi made him wonder if that was holding him back. Itachi managed to look deadly even when he broke form to fix his posture.

“No, no, no, like this,” Itachi said, repeating the last combination. Naruto’s eyes trailed over his body as he flipped through the air and took down two imaginary opponents. Then he caught sight of the Sharingan and looked away. Naruto tried not to look at it too much, as it had begun to make him feel strange, as if he were too conscious of the fact that he was breathing when he stared at it, which confused him to no end. It was mesmerizing, spinning like one of those hypnotic circle designs, and he didn’t like how it could capture his attention. Not to mention how embarrassing it was to realize he’d been staring into Itachi’s eyes. So, keeping his eyes from Itachi’s face, he focused on the man’s movements, but still found himself too focused on his every breath.

    Itachi noticed Naruto’s discomfort and paused. “Are you alright? You don’t have to stay if you are uninterested.”

    Naruto looked up at him and frowned. “No, I’m fine,” he said, picking up his pencil and book to continue practicing. He could feel his eyes on him, could almost see the sharingan spinning languidly as he stared down with suspicion and a tinge of confusion. Perhaps a bit offended at the sudden dismissal. Naruto pretended nothing was different and after a moment, Itachi did the same and continued his form. 

    But these kinds of interactions didn’t end there. Almost every time they met with each other, Naruto found himself unable to concentrate on anything when Itachi stared at him too long. He was constantly paranoid that he was being too obvious and that Itachi would confront him about it, and it showed. Itachi never said anything, but the poor man seemed forever confused by Naruto’s dodgy behavior and newfound inability to look at him straight. Despite all of this though, their friendship continued. They even snuck into a town to get food a few times, which was an interesting opportunity to practice holding a henge. Apparently, Itachi couldn’t be defeated by his sexy jutsu, which was only slightly disappointing for some reason. However, while his time with Itachi was happy, his time with Jiraiya quickly turned dark and ugly. 

    Naruto knew exactly when it had all gone to shit. After weeks of harsh training with the Kyuubi- Jiraiya had decided to focus on Naruto suppressing the beast, rather than taming it- and several random attacks from thieves and missing-nin who recognized Jiraiya, they were exhausted and in very bad moods. When they’d reached a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, they decided to chance it, and spend a night under a roof for once, protected from most harm. There was clearly some kind of conflict going on between the townspeople and some vaguely uninformed individuals who strutted about as if they owned the place, but he and Jiraiya ignored it for a nice bed on the second floor of the local inn. They were sleeping when Naruto heard the screaming, and he yelled for Jiraiya to wake up while rushing outside. As he opened the door, a wave of heat hit him like a slap to the face. The trees screamed and whistled with pain as they shriveled under the extreme heat of the fire. Smoke and something odd; a faint oily scent, permeated across every surface, clouding his mind and burning his throat. He jumped straight into the fight, side-kicking one of the uniformed men away from a townsman on the ground. From the corner of his eyes, he saw Jiraiya rush across the street to a different building.

    “Naruto, run!” Jiraiya yelled, his voice barely reaching over the screams of people trapped in the buildings and the clang of weapons in action. Naruto pretended he didn’t hear, following him into the building he’d ducked into. A man jumped out with a large sword heaved above his head, ready to strike. Naruto ducked low and dug a kunai in his gut, not bothering to fully take him down.

    The inside of the building was much worse. The heat was unbearable, so intense that the windows had shattered, and the upstairs floor had begun to crumble. He ran up the wall of the stairway, the stairs completely torn apart. At the top floor, Jiraiya was trapped in a battle with four of the attackers. He threw himself into the fight, digging a kunai in the back of his first opponent’s neck, severing his spine and spraying his arm with blood. Naruto leaped over him and met the next man with a sharp strike to the ribs. He ducked under a third man’s barrage of kunai to grab the first man’s leg and throw him across the room, making the wooden flooring bow with a loud, foreboding crack. Jiraiya kneed the man in front of him and with a chakra-enhanced jump, grabbed Naruto by the collar of his jacket and jumped out the window just as the floor gave out.

    “What are you doing!? I told you to run!” he yelled, shoving him forward.

    Naruto didn’t answer. The town’s invaders swarmed like ants, killing everyone in sight and spreading oil across every surface to feed the fires. The wind changed direction, bringing along with it a smell that crawled up his nostrils and down his throat. It was a distinct, sharp scent, oily and burnt and so vile, so unlike anything else he’d ever smelled, that he nearly dropped his weapons and vomited right where he stood. There was nothing but noise from every direction; people’s frantic footsteps as they ran from their killers, faceless voices screaming for their loved ones, farm animals crying out in pain from their locked pens. Trees popped and snapped in the heat, houses crumbled apart as they burned to the ground and laughter from the assailants, screaming about revenge and what the fuck happened to his ears-

    “Naruto!” Jiraiya yelled.

    Naruto blinked and realized that Jiraiya was holding him by the shoulders, looking quite worried. He turned to look back at the town. Ashes rained down on them like dirty snowflakes, fire consuming nearly every building in sight. His ears rang from the constant noise around him and his eyes watered from the burning in his nose.

    “We have to help them,” Naruto yelled over the noise.

    Jiraiya jumped and made a “quiet down,” motion with his hand.

    “Those who could escape have already done so. There’s only two of us. With the Akatsuki on our trail, we cannot afford to stay here any longer and risk injuries.”

Naruto stared at him, mouth open in protest, but Jiraiya had already grabbed his upper arm and begun to drag him away from the town and up into the surrounding hills. It was four hours later when the last of the invaders had run and the awful sounds had ended that they’d finally returned to the town to check for any survivors, that Naruto finally recognized what the smell had been. In the middle of a town burnt to ashes, Naruto took in the scent of burning flesh, the roaring silence of death, and the feel of his first kill soaked deep into his jacket, staining the white a deep rusty red, almost black.

He threw up.

 

~.~.~

 

    “Waaa, Jiraiya-sama! No, no not there!” the woman giggled, making a show out of crossing her legs to show off her thigh through the long slit in the side of her dress. Jiraiya laughed and continued whatever conversation it was they were having, wrapping an arm around her shoulders.

    Naruto rolled his eyes. “Get a room already, ya old pervert!”

    Jiraiya turned to his student with a teasing smile. “Come on, have fun! You’re fifteen! Think of this as an extra birthday present!” he said, handing him a brightly colored drink.

    “Why couldn’t you give me my present on my birthday?”

    Jiraiya looked like he didn’t want to answer.

 “Because your birthday didn’t go so great this year, as I’m sure you can recall,” Jiraiya said grimly.

    Right. The village. Burning people. Screaming. Ash everywhere. That was how his birthday had gone. Not the best time to be giving or receiving presents. Naruto his eyes but took the drink and marched up the stairs to the outdoor balcony. The things he’d seen while traveling with Jiraiya never ceased to amaze him. They’d found their way into a beautiful foreign city further from Konoha than he’d ever imagined they would travel. The people here dressed slightly different to what he was used to, with more furs to stay warm in the winter snow. The balcony was decorated with blue and purple lights, looking out at the busy festival down below. It was cold, snow and ice covering everything and reflecting the lights. Music blasted from the parade down the street making its way toward him and he sat on the edge of the railing. He ignored the sound of the door opening and closing.

    “You’re going to fall.”

    A girl with long brown hair and a tighter version of the traditional clothing he saw other girls wearing had joined him. She held a bottle of something he didn’t recognize, and she was barefoot.

    “No, I won’t,” he said.

    “Do you want to die or something?” she asked with all the grace and subtlety of a drunk. Apparently, he took too long to answer because she placed a hand on his cheek and forced him to look into her eyes.

    “Please don’t do it.”

    He blinked with surprise. What did she care if he died?

    “You’re too cute to kill yourself.”

    Oh.

    “Um,” he stammered. Her hand traveled past his cheek and cupped his head, pulling him forward until their faces were centimeters apart. She looked to be about the same age as him, but her breath stank of alcohol. She backed up at the last second, pulling him with her so he had to get back behind the railing again.

    “Good,” she said. “Now what’s made you so sad, blondie?”

    Naruto stared at her for a moment, unsure of what to say, but found himself sitting down onto the snow-covered balcony floor and admitting how lonely he felt. How he resented his childhood and deeply missed the best friend that had betrayed him. He didn’t dare admit the darker things, like how he’d killed someone two weeks ago and how surreal it was to feel Sasuke’s hand inside his chest, little zaps of electricity from the chidori burning him inside out. How he’d just bought an entirely new outfit- black and orange this time- because his last one smelled like death. But the girl seemed to understand the pain, even if she didn’t get the full picture, and continued to sip from her bottle before handing it to him and stealing his drink, saying that he, “needed it more.”

    Naruto had never been drunk before and didn’t recognize the effects until it was too late for him to even care. As the world became a mess of swirling snowflakes and lights, music blasting in his ears and the girl’s arms pulling his head down into her lap while he laid open his deepest, darkest emotions, the smell of the fruity drink he’d abandoned dancing across her lips, he forgot what he was even doing there. Her understanding gaze became all he knew. When his story came to an end- with the help of a tear or two and a few words of sympathy- her beautiful face leaned forward and he knew what was coming before it happened. And not-so-suddenly, she was kissing him and he was kissing her back, feeling her lips and tongue move against his own and-

    Well.

    There was something off about it, and his drunken brain took a bit longer to recognize it. She moved her hand across his abdomen and snuck it below his shirt to creep up his chest and could feel heat pooling in his groin. He pulled her closer and she giggled, which made him slow a bit as insecurity rushed in. Why was she laughing? Was he even doing this right? He’d kissed people before, but this was the first time it had gone further than a lips-only situation. They broke apart after a bit, and she looked down at him with eyes he suddenly pictured being red, and he nearly threw her off of him. What the fuck.

“Maybe that will cheer you up a bit,” she said with a smile, and she disappeared back into the building. He looked up at the sky, vision swirling, complicated thoughts circling through his mind. He finished the bottle, and before he knew it, fell asleep with the image of those eyes in the back of his head.

    When he woke up, his memory was still intact and Jiraiya was in full teasing-mode. It took longer than it should’ve to convince him that no, he did not lose his virginity to the girl and yes, he was perfectly happy leaving her behind to be forgotten. In fact, he was more than happy to leave her behind. He knew what he’d seen when kissing her. He was thinking about those damn eyes. Itachi’s eyes. Did this mean he wanted to kiss Itachi? He thought about it for a moment but couldn’t get an honest answer from himself. Itachi was handsome- anyone with half a brain could tell that. But wouldn’t that mean he’s gay? Naruto knew he wasn’t gay- he was attracted to Sakura and enjoyed kissing the girl up until Itachi popped into his mind and made it weird. No, admitting a guy was handsome was not gay. And that’s all this was. He was acknowledging Itachi’s handsomeness. And with the girl, he was drunk. Drunk people think up weird shit all the time. Satisfied with his reasoning, Naruto followed Jiraiya out to their new trail. He’d figured it out and it wasn’t ever going to come up again. But it didn’t take long for it to prove himself wrong.

    While traveling toward Iwagakure, they’d been attacked by a group of missing-nin from Amegakure after stumbling across their hideout. Completely unprepared, the battle was quick and deadly. Jiraiya was holding well on his own, but with Naruto to watch over and with them outnumbered two to five, it wasn’t easy. Just as Naruto thought they were going to have to run for it, a hooded figure burst through the trees and slit the necks of two of the attackers, then quickly turned to fight a third. He wore a heavy black cloak that hid all of his features from sight, along with any weapons he carried. If it hadn’t been for the katana he fought with, Naruto wouldn’t have recognized the man at all. When the battle ended, Naruto followed the man out into the woods while Jiraiya sealed the missing-nin bodies into a scroll to send back to Amegakure.

    It was in a small clearing that he found Itachi carefully cleaning blood from his Katana, hood pulled back and revealing a very worn expression. His hair was falling out of its ponytail and his eyes were squinted, as if he were struggling to keep them open. Blood was smeared across the corner of his mouth, and his face was significantly paler than usual. Naruto hesitated before deciding to join him on the ground. He knew he didn’t have long before Jiraiya would wonder why he hadn’t returned yet, but he felt it was important since he’d never seen Itachi look so beat up since the first time they met.

They sat in silence, leaving Naruto to watch their surroundings, worried that Jiraiya would find them after finishing up with the missing-nin. After all, Itachi was a missing-nin too; a traitor to Konoha. Jiraiya would kill him if he saw him, but Itachi wouldn’t be easy, even as he was now. It would be a deadly battle, and Naruto would be forced to pick a side. The thought sent a chill down his spine. He loved Jiraiya- the man was like an uncle to him. But Itachi was his friend. He’d wondered about it before. How could he choose between Itachi and Jiraiya? He always told himself that he’d find another way like he promised he would with Sasuke, but deep down, he knew it was more complicated than that. Itachi seemed to notice Naruto’s anxiety.

    “Perhaps today isn’t the best day to meet with me, Naruto-kun.”

    Naruto studied Itachi, who was still squinting down at his katana, and realized that he hadn’t glanced up at him once this whole time. There was something off about him, other than the obvious exhaustion.

    “The Sennin will be searching for you soon. Tell him that I got away. It won’t be hard to believe since I had a head start.”

    He watched as Itachi’s hand ran along the flat edge of his sword, a red-stained cloth gripped within shaking fingers. He’d barely made any progress on the sword. He was just smearing blood around in the same spot over and over.

    “We could meet tomorrow if you’re not comfortable right now. I don’t imagine you’ve seen many dead bodies.”

    And why did he keep pushing him to leave? Naruto looked over his shoulder once again as an uneasy feeling began to settle in his stomach. Something wasn’t right. Was Itachi expecting someone? No, he would have been blunt about wanting him to leave if that were the case. It had to be something else.

    “Are you sick or something?” Naruto asked, and Itachi’s head snapped up so fast he heard the crack of the joints. Naruto raised an eyebrow. “What? You seem oddly out of it-.”

    Naruto stopped talking when Itachi walked over and kneeled in front of him so they sat face-to-face. Naruto resisted the urge to back away and hide. Itachi looked straight into his eyes, his special sharingan spinning fast as if he were confused with what he was seeing and wanted to capture everything at that moment. He could feel his cheeks warming from the attention as memories of the kiss resurfaced. Despite his embarrassment, he stared back at Itachi, taking note that he’d grown quite a bit since they first met. He seemed to reach Itachi’s nose when he sat straight, but it was hard to tell with how Itachi had lowered himself to get a better look at his face. He opened his mouth to ask what he was looking at, but a finger brushed against his chin, gently turning his head left to right, and Naruto nearly forgot how to breathe.

    “You’re getting tall aren’t you?” Itachi whispered to himself with a frown.

    Naruto didn’t know how to answer that. Eyes wide, he stared back at Itachi, heart racing and nervously biting his bottom lip. The tension between them was thick, and though Naruto understood why he was so stiff, he didn’t understand why Itachi seemed so confused. What did he mean, he was getting tall? It wasn’t like Itachi didn’t know how old he was. Naruto’s tongue darted out to wet his lips, which he’d suddenly become so conscious about, and Itachi’s eyes shifted down to his mouth, brows furrowed, leaving Naruto to admire the rest of his face. I’m not attracted to him! Naruto told himself, I’m simply noticing that he’s good looking. Sakura was pretty, Haku was pretty, and Itachi is pretty, too! Itachi took a breath as if here about to say something else, but Naruto cut him off. 

“I-I don’t know, I mean, maybe you’re just shrinking, old man!” Itachi paused, then leaned back and sighed. He thought he’d upset him for a second, but then the corner of Itachi’s lip twitched up and he ended the tension with a breathy laugh. He backed away and returned to his sword.

“Want to learn how to clean a katana?”

    “Can’t be much different from cleaning kunai,” Naruto countered, grateful that the moment was over.

    “I see you still have much to learn.”

    He did, as it turned out. There were all kinds of special things needed to properly clean a katana. Special oils, and rubbing towels, and wiping papers, and other junk he couldn’t imagine where Itachi had room for in the tiny pack tied to his thigh- not to mention all of the tea stuff and that journal. Naruto was beginning to suspect that Itachi’s pack was magic.

 Itachi allowed Naruto to do the work, coaching him through the process as they went. They both pretended it wasn’t because of Itachi’s hands- which were still shaking dangerously. After the sword was cleaned to Itachi’s satisfaction, they parted ways with a deal that Naruto would clean the sword from now on to get practice. He was so busy wondering why Itachi seemed too tired that he didn’t realize he’d basically agreed to do chores until he’d caught up to Jiraiya, and couldn’t complain out loud.

    And so, their journey continued. Training with the monks had helped Naruto with meditation and controlling his emotions. At first, he’d hated it. Sitting still for hours wasn’t exactly his cup of tea. He often fell asleep or got lost in his thoughts, which would lead to getting smacked in the back of the head. Now though, he was able to hold on his own. He wasn’t perfect, but it was a step in the right direction. Jiraiya claimed these would be a great foundation for learning to suppress the Kyuubi, and they continued to practice these things until it was time for the next step.

    “No, no, no!” Jiraiya yelled. “I can still feel you behind the tree!”

    Naruto shot up from his hiding spot and glared.

    “How the hell can you feel me!? I swear I’m suppressing it the best that I can! There’s no more suppressing it than this! Maybe I just have too much chakra!”

    Jiraiya rolled his eyes.

    “Your mother was able to disguise her chakra completely, so it’s not because of your Uzumaki chakra reserves. The Kyuubi’s chakra is another story, but I think you might be able to achieve it if you work hard.”

    Naruto sighed but moved to a different spot and began working again, choosing to ignore the little slip about his mother. He’d learned long ago that he wouldn’t get much about his parents from the Sennin.

Suppressing your chakra was already a difficult enough thing to do, but Naruto had so much chakra that it would require a level of control that he didn’t possess. With the Kyuubi’s chakra in the way, it was even more difficult. The Kyuubi was a separate being that could control its own power, and despite being tied to that power, it still wasn’t Naruto’s to control. Not completely. Every time he tried to suppress it, the Kyuubi would flare its chakra out and try to take over his body, screaming inside his head and burning him from the inside out.

    He took a deep breath and pulled his chakra in, imagining it collecting deep within himself, hiding under his skin. He began suppressing the Kyuubi’s chakra, sparking the yelling, which was very distracting when you needed peace and quiet to learn to do this. He jumped when the Kyuubi sent a sharp spike of burning chakra up his spine, breaking his concentration and forcing him to cease his efforts. He slumped over and waited for the pain to fade. He wanted more than anything to just talk to the Kyuubi about this, but Jiraiya had banned it ever since he got hurt when they last attempted to control its chakra. He never told him what exactly the Kyuubi had done while he was under its control, but whatever happened had clearly disturbed Jiraiya enough to put off their Bijuu training for now.

    “I can still feel your chakra!” Jiraiya yelled, but Naruto wasn’t listening.

    Instead, he was paying attention to something that landed on his head, making him smile. He raised a hand to his hair and Hanaba, one of Itachi’s smaller crow summons, gently jumped onto his wrist, dropping a small scroll in his hand. Inside the scroll was a simple message from Itachi written in Nekoshita-go. He had already learned about 900 words, so on top of their practicing how to write those words, he’d begun to learn how to string sentences together and the history behind it. Nekoshita-go was a Polygraphic Cypher, a special code where each word was rewritten as a unique symbol. It was nearly impossible to memorize on its own or to create a simple dictionary, meaning that it would take a very long time and large amounts of dedication to learn, but would also take years for an outsider to crack. Isao Uchiha created the cypher many generations ago when watching the way his pet cat communicated with an official village ninneko, hence the name, “Cat-tongue-language.”

    Itachi’s note was a simple hint on where to meet him next. It was difficult to understand with his limited vocabulary, but Naruto managed to gather that Itachi would be showing up sometime within the next two weeks. Naruto wrote a confirmation and handed the scroll back to Hanaba, who tucked it into the holster on her chest. She gave Naruto an affectionate peck on the forehead before taking off.

    “Was that a crow?” Jiraiya’s voice rang out from behind him. Naruto turned, eyes wide and a large smile plastered on his face.

    “It might have been a raven. It landed pretty close though!”

    Jiraiya was uncharacteristically quiet for a moment, eyes narrowed in the direction where the crow had flown off. Then he turned to Naruto with a bit of an irritated expression. The silence became tense as Jiraiya stared him down, clearly upset about something that Naruto wasn’t picking up on.

    “You should be more careful around crows,” he finally said, “I find that they flock around dangerous characters.”

 

~.~.~

 

Practice Message Scroll 1

Karasu: Shark has left to fulfill another mission. I am to keep watch on you for the next two weeks. Be prepared for another lesson. 

Kaeru: Understood.

Karasu: Hanaba tells me that the Toad Sage spotted her. Please be careful not to open secret messages in public. This defeats the purpose of the “secret” part.

Kaeru: I’m sorry! I be careful!

___

Karasu: The Toad Sage appears to have grown nervous. Why have you two begun to stray from your usual path in the woods?

Kaeru: Toad Sage want me to have friend. Toad Sage say crow warning. Crow is bad. Toad Sage want me safe.

Karasu: The Toad Sage must be aware of my crow summons. He has likely realized the connection. As I said, be careful. 

Kaeru: Understood!

 

~.~.~

 

    After Jiraiya became suspicious of Hanaba, Naruto was careful not to let her be spotted again. Unfortunately, this didn’t do much for him, as Jiraiya was relentless. He refused to let Naruto out of his sight and began to insist that he should make more friends as they traveled. He claimed it would do well for his own network of connections, but Naruto secretly suspected that he just didn’t want to bring up Sasuke.

The first time he’d begun to insist that Naruto make friends, Naruto was quick to point out that he regularly contacted friends in Konoha and Gaara back in Suna though the younger toad summons that didn’t mind acting as a mailman for the sake of having something to do. When Jiraiya said that he wasn’t close with those friends, Sasuke was brought up and the conversation morphed into an argument about whether he was ready to fight his way through Orochimaru’s hideout and drag Sasuke back home. Sasuke was always a sensitive topic, but Naruto and Jiraiya were like rhinos in a china shop when it came to such things, so they just stubbornly ignored it or pretended it didn’t exist.

    In the end, they’d ended their three-day standoff after Jiraiya received an urgent letter from an old friend of his in a nearby civilian village. It was a large village, filled with everyone from average people to retired ninja who wanted an escape. But Jiraiya’s pushiness didn’t waver. He continued to ramp up the ideal best friend in Naruto’s mind, emphasizing how normal and safe this hypothetical savior would be. When he learned that his friend had a civilian son, eighteen and outgoing, he’d claimed it was fate, and abandoned Naruto with the boy until further notice. Though Naruto originally resented being stuck with him, and not allowed to help out with whatever it was Jiraiya and his friend were doing, he and Kazuo got along right away. 

They walked through parks, watched TV, went to the movie theatre, played sports with Kazuo’s friends, visited restaurants, and even cooked a large dinner with Kazuo’s mother when his aunt and cousins came to visit. It wasn’t long before the two became inseparable, much to Jiraiya’s dismay. After four days, the Sennin had begun to whine that he never saw Naruto anymore, but Naruto couldn’t bring himself to care. He liked Kazuo, and Kazuo gave him a break from his life as a ninja. He still had to train, but it was easier when he had a friend who found the easiest thing to be amazing and kept him from pushing himself too hard. He kept his mind off the Akatsuki, and Sasuke, and Itachi, and everyone back at home moving along in their lives without him.

Kazuo was different. He was energetic and forever on the move- excitedly dragging Naruto everywhere they went, hand-in-hand so he wouldn’t get lost in the crowd. He was constantly joking with Naruto, wrapping his arm around his shoulders, giving him hugs for nonsensical reasons, and taking him all over the city. He was bright and flirty, fond of using nicknames like “Blondie,” and “Shorty,” usually followed by some sort of innuendo that left Naruto red as the Uzumaki spiral on his back. He was a blunt person, not willing to waste time by beating around the bush, so when Kazuo asked him to go to the Ryusei-Gun Festival, he wasn’t surprised.

Kazuo pulled him through the festivities while tugging on his hand- which was usual when they went somewhere very crowded, but after a while, Kazuo gave him a strange look and let go. They ran into some of Kazuo’s friends, who seemed to have some new inside joke, as they were giggling quite a bit at the sight of them, but they didn’t stay with them long, moving on to eat candied apples and other festival foods as they slowly made their way up the mountain. As the path deviated from the street into the woods, it became less busy. The sound of the music faded, the scent of the festival food drifted with the wind, and the path became a thin trail up the mountain lit with small paper lanterns.

“Hey, let’s stop for a second,” Kazuo said, and Naruto halted where he stood. Kazuo was a few feet behind him, nibbling his bottom lip as he leaned against the tree. He didn’t look Naruto in the eye. A single meteor passed overhead as Naruto waited, barely visible through the trees.

 “You know,” he said, in an oddly vulnerable voice, “Thanks for coming tonight.” He was looking down at the ground and playing with the hem of his sleeve. A couple hiked by them, giggling on their way up, and Kazuo waited for them to be out of hearing range before looking at him expectantly. 

“…It’s no problem. I mean, I wanted to come.”

Kazuo didn’t look up, but he fidgeted for so long that Naruto could almost feel his hesitation. He had caught his breath by now and looked ready to join the rest of the crowd up at the top of the mountain, but something was holding him back. Naruto waited for him to speak, but when he was met with silence, gave in.

“So, I think the festival is almost over if you want to go catch the last bit of it,” Naruto said, turning to continue up the trail. A hand caught his own and he turned back to Kazuo.

“I was being dishonest when I invited you,” he said.

“What do you mean?” Naruto asked.

Kazuo hesitated. “I kind of meant for this to be a date,” he whispered. “I like you, Naruto. Not in a really serious way or anything, but I thought you were cute, and my friends thought it would be a good idea for just us to go. I feel like I tricked you though? I don’t know- I just…I’m sorry. You can go if you’re mad.”

 Naruto was quiet. He’d known deep down that they weren’t exactly behaving like friends around each other. It was something he’d never really addressed; going along with the flirting and the touching, but not really playing back, instead choosing to ignore it. It was an odd situation he found himself in. On one hand, he clearly liked Kazuo’s advances…but on the other hand, he liked girls! He’d always been with them and had never really thought much of otherwise. Sakura was his first crush, and everyone he’d ever kissed (which wasn’t that many people to be honest, but still) were all girls. But this last week had been spent running around town hand-in-hand with a guy who called him “blondie,” and liking it. He’d never shown an interest a guy before! In the back of his mind, he thought about Itachi but quickly waved the thought away. Itachi was different, and nothing would change his mind about it!

Regardless, here he was, with Kazuo apologizing to him because he’d been too focused on his own problems to realize he was sending mixed signals. He wanted to punch himself. Instead, he turned to face his new friend. It was time for some honesty- to himself and to Kazuo. He knew he liked Kazuo’s nonsense because he liked Kazuo. He was…attracted to him, and it didn’t matter why. Kazuo took the first step in everything they’d done, even in admitting his feelings. Now it was Naruto’s turn.

“I’m sorry too. I feel the same, but I ignored it because I’m stupid.”

 Kazuo looked hopeful.

“This can still be a date if you want it to be,” Naruto whispered. His hands were shaking with nerves. Admitting this out loud was difficult, but Kazuo needed to hear it, and he needed to say it. The smile on Kazuo’s face was worth it. He took Naruto’s hand in his own and together they walked up the mountain, just in time to catch the firework show. It didn’t matter though, they’d spend the fifteen minutes making out instead, much to Kazuo’s friends’ amusement.

A little over a month later, Jiraiya announced that it was time to leave, and they set off in what seemed to be a direction chosen at random. However, he was sad to go, and Jiraiya seemed to notice. He’d made several comments as they set up camp their first night about how close he’d seemed to Kazuo and how he would manage to sleep without his dearest Kazuo to tuck him in. Naruto suspected someone told him about just how far their relationship had gone but was too embarrassed to ask. It was a week later when they stopped in a brothel to meet another contact, that Naruto had finally learned how much Jiraiya knew.

The contact had been a bit annoyed that Jiraiya’s apprentice was in their presence. He was a paranoid man and didn’t trust Naruto despite the fact that he’d met almost every other contact before him. He threw a small pile of money on the gritty table, right in front of Naruto, and said, “Why don’t you go get one of those girls to help you become a real man while we adults finish our conversation.”

Before Naruto could say anything, Jiraiya pushed the money back to him. “He already managed that in the last town we visited,” he said with a wink and a grin.

Naruto was completely mortified. Though the meeting continued another two hours, he sat in silence for the rest of the day, and Jiraiya didn’t speak to him either. Was he angry that he didn’t say anything? Was he disgusted with him? What if they went home early? What if he decided to stop teaching him?  He stayed up all night wondering how many details Jiraiya knew and worrying about his reaction. But when they woke up the next day, Jiraiya treated him as if nothing had happened, so it wasn’t difficult to do the same. Naruto knew Jiraiya knew, and he also knew that Jiraiya knew that he knew. But for some reason, the topic seemed like it shouldn’t be discussed, shoved into the same category as Sasuke and mysterious crows. So, time went on, and their trip continued as usual. And after a quick mission where Jiraiya nearly lost half of his hair, Naruto was forced to swallow his nerves and meet with Itachi.

    “This word is wrong,” Itachi said, pointing over Naruto’s shoulder at something he wrote in the notebook. Naruto stiffened. He was confused. Confused about his feelings for Itachi, his feelings about men in general, and he had nobody to talk to. He could ask Jiraiya, but he’d be more interested in why he was thinking about sex with an S-ranked terrorist rather than what it actually meant.

Itachi must have noticed something was bothering him- he was acting too stiff for someone that perceptive to not have. As much as Itachi would respect his silence, he would probably also appreciate it; he wasn’t exactly one to talk about feelings. So instead of doing anything productive, they sat in an awkward, tense silence, Itachi completely unaware of what the problem was and Naruto too embarrassed to even speak in full sentences.

Naruto turned to watch him for a moment; he’d taken to tossing a kunai as high as humanly possible, the methodical flick of his wrist as he threw the kunai straight up, and the lazy spin of a familiar sharingan as he stared off into the trees. It reminded Naruto painfully of Sasuke, who had the same sharingan when they’d parted in the Valley of the End. Itachi’s unique sharingan had begun to appear less and less in Naruto’s presence, not that he minded. He found it pretty no matter what version it came in. Naruto looked away from Itachi, uncomfortable with the lingering image of Itachi replacing Kazuo. Frustrated, Naruto continued his practice. He didn’t have long to be here today.

    “I will need to leave soon,” Itachi said as if he’d read his mind. 

    Naruto looked up from his notebook and quickly looked down again. Itachi stood only a few feet away, looking down at him with the sharingan and his Akatsuki cloak and long-sleeved shirt bundled in his arms, leaving him in a mesh undershirt.

“I do too,” he said as he closed the notebook and handed it to Itachi before gathering his things. He watched Itachi leaf through the last few pages from the corners of his eyes. The silence continued until Naruto felt a hand on his shoulder.

“Is there something wrong?” he asked in a soft voice, and Naruto’s breath caught in his throat. It was almost like he cared. Naruto all but curled in on himself to hide his rosy cheeks. He couldn’t bear to look at Itachi while he still had that night on his mind. How was he supposed to look him in the eye after that?

“No, I’m alright,” he said, looking at the ground and scratching the back of his head, “I’ve been a bit off lately, but I’ll be ok.”

“You have been ‘off’ for quite a while, now.”

“Really, I’ll be fine! It's nothing!” Naruto said, looking up with what he hoped was a reassuring expression.

“Then I will send you a message when I am able,” Itachi said.

Naruto watched as he smoothly slipped his shirt and cloak back on as he walked off into the trees, leaving the practice notebook on the ground. It wasn’t long before he jumped into the trees and disappeared in the canopies, leaving Naruto to find his way back to his and Jiraiya’s camp.

It surprised him to find Jiraiya was already there when he returned. He had run off to meet with another contact, as usual when Naruto ran off to meet Itachi and wasn’t supposed to return until late at night. Naruto tried not to look surprised as he dropped his things next to the tent. He cast a look at the seal he’d placed around the perimeters to warn him when someone got back, but he couldn’t see it from his position and Jiraiya was busy messing with something in one of his notebooks near it. So instead of checking the seal, Naruto continued the game of silence yet another night. They worked in silence, then they cooked and ate dinner in silence, and soon enough, the sun had set and they’d crawled into the tent to shake any bugs out of their sleeping bags in silence. As Naruto began to put out the fire, Jiraiya marched across the campsite and slapped something down on the ground in front of him.

“You left out the establishing character in the upper-left corner,” he said with a mischievous smile.

Naruto froze; it was the seal.

“You’re getting better though.”

What was that supposed to mean?

“Come on, you didn’t think I wouldn’t notice you were leaving these seals around our campsites?” he asked.

Naruto watched Jiraiya carefully, guilt burning deep in his heart. Every once in a while, he saw his actions from the perspective of his village and wanted to throw up. Itachi was a traitor- not just to the village, but to Sasuke too. Befriending him, let alone allowing himself to feel something for the man, was an act of treason. And yet he continued to betray everyone’s trust. The worst of it was how Jiraiya had decided to take him on as his apprentice. Everything he did reflected back upon Jiraiya, the man who had become something like a father in the past few years. Lying to him was hard, and was the one thing that made him constantly question his choice to continue this- whatever it is he has going on with Itachi. Jiraiya eyed him carefully, then clapped him on the back and stood up with a big grin.

“I’m proud of you. Keep practicing, kid,” he said, “Maybe you’ll surprise me next time.”

And suddenly, the tension was gone, but Naruto’s guilt prevailed.

 

~.~.~

 

Sometimes Naruto didn’t know why he chased after Sasuke. He used to know why. As a child, it was all he could talk about. At the beginning of his journey with Jiraiya, it was all he could talk about. But now? Now that he was older, a bit weathered, tired, and had experienced much more? He didn’t know.

And it scared him.

After a childhood of loneliness, Sasuke was someone who looked at him. Someone who talked to him, and touched him, and dared to breathe the same air as him. Sure, he was usually hissing scathing insults and beating the shit out of him, but even that was better than nothing. And over time, it had changed. They still fought, but it died down a bit. The insults became sarcastic, and the fights became spars. They’d become friends, and it opened Naruto’s world to a million possibilities. But now, years after Sasuke had succumbed to his need for revenge, Naruto was still willing to do anything to save him. But how far was he really willing to go? If he couldn’t even say why he wanted something, was it worth it? As he watched Itachi, Sasuke’s greatest enemy, not-so-subtly torture a stranger into feeding the truth behind a rumor that Jiraiya had specifically told him to ignore, he realized he didn’t know.

They’d corresponded with Hanaba after the rumor gained traction. It was odd, working alongside Itachi in what was almost a personal mission. They’d made a decent team so far, tracking down the source of the rumor with Naruto’s clones and slowly growing spy network, and Itachi’s planning and general prodigy-ness. Naruto wasn’t sure how to feel about it yet. 

“…and why should I help you anyway? Why not kill you right now?” the man asked, leaning back in his chair and sending Itachi an unimpressed look, sweat dripping down his face. Their conversation wasn’t going very well. Apparently, he almost died because of Itachi and didn’t appreciate it much. The decade of imaginary hell within a few seconds probably didn’t help at all. He was itching for another fight but was the only person with the information they needed. 

Itachi’s sharingan flared as he leaned across the table, blood dripping down his cheek in a menacing way. “Because I’d kill you first.”

The man laughed. “We both know that’s not going to happen. Not in your condition-”

“What’s that mean?” Naruto asked, and for the first time since the two had sat down to talk, they turned to look at him. The man was in his mid-twenties, dressed much nicer than any ninja Naruto had ever met, with fitted civilian clothing and a watch that would probably buy a group to go find Sasuke for him. He was very attractive, and Naruto, unfortunately, realized it when he turned to look at him, catching him off guard. While he told himself it wasn’t gay to appreciate another man’s forearms, he straightened his back and turned to Itachi.

“What’s wrong with your condition? And why is he dressed so nice if he’s undercover? Wouldn’t that just make him a target for thieves?”

“Not if you’re undercover as a wealthy foreigner. And you might be?”

“Uzumaki Naruto,” he replied with a dazzling smile.

“My name is Akiba Aru, but you already knew that.” Naruto didn’t already know that, but whatever. “Why are you wasting your time with this psychopath Uchiha?”

“I’m looking for my best friend, and the perfectly sane Uchiha agreed to help.”

Aru’s eyebrows raised up with surprise and he casually leaned in. “You’re hoping to find the Little Uchiha, who you call our best friend, with the help of the Big Uchiha, the man that ruined his life?”

“Well when you put it like that,” Naruto trailed off with a hesitant laugh.

“You’re treading traitorous waters, Blondie.”

“Why does everyone call me that,” Naruto muttered.

 “Can we focus on the reason we’re here?” Itachi asked. Naruto almost disagreed, but then he noticed that he didn’t look too happy and remembered why they were even talking to Aru in the first place. But Aru didn’t look very cooperative. 

“I’ll tell you if you give me back my money-”

“I won that bounty, Aru. I killed him, I turned in the body, and I got the money.”

“I was tracking him, and you knew it, that’s why you took me out first!”

“It’s not my fault you’re easily surprised.”

“Listen you son of a bitch, I’m not telling you anything until I get my-”

“Hey!” Naruto interrupted. He turned to Aru, who was pretending that looks could kill. “I need to know if Sasuke is alright or not.”

“I’m not helping him,” he asked, jerking his chin in Itachi’s direction.

“Then help me,” Naruto said, leaning closer to him. “Please. Sasuke is my best friend. He’s practically my brother. I have to know.”

Aru leaned back in his chair again and sent him an odd look like he was confused. “And what would you be willing to do for this knowledge?”

“Anything,” Naruto immediately replied, looking him straight into the eyes. Itachi made an odd, stifled noise, but Naruto ignored him and slid his chair forward, so he could lean in even more. “I would do absolutely anything to be sure that Sasuke is ok.” Aru’s eyes went wide, and he exploded with laughter.

“He would not- Naruto don’t say it like that,” Itachi said, pulling him backward. “This is why I didn’t let you go by yourself,” he muttered, but before Naruto could reply, Aru had collected himself and stuck out a hand.

“I’ll tell you on one condition,” he said, “You have to promise me we’ll meet again one day,” he said.

“It’s a promise,” Naruto said, reaching forward to shake his hand, but the second their hands touched, Aru pulled him forward and planted a kiss on his cheek. Itachi immediately pulled him back by the collar of his jacket. 

“Sasuke’s alright, he’s just learned a new trick called ‘Kirin.’ He hurt himself training with it, but Orochimaru fixed him up the normal way with no trouble.” And with that, he took off.

“Better keep your promise, Blondie!” he called as he left the bar.

Naruto turned to Itachi, who was still holding his arm. “Why don’t you guys get along? He seemed really nice!”

Wordlessly, Itachi glared at him and stomped out the back door. By the time Naruto had caught up, Itachi was gone.

Naruto was forced to find his own way back to Jiraiya, who had been absolutely panicking and nearly cried when he saw Naruto once again, then nearly beat him up. He’d yelled at Naruto for about half an hour as they worked to slowly pack Jiraiya’s makeshift camp when Naruto saw a large crow in the trees across from them. Unfortunately, Jiraiya saw the crow as well, and for the next two weeks, Naruto wasn’t allowed out of his sight, even when using the restroom. So, it wasn’t until another two weeks that he received a message to meet with Itachi once again, much further from his and Jiraiya’s camp than ever before.

He was led to a river, where Itachi stood on the water by himself, his cloak hanging on a nearby tree.

“Spar me,” he said, and without further discussion, Naruto leaped forward, and their fists flew.

    Life had not been kind to Itachi. It had left scars across his torso, and bruises on his limbs. His eyes showed every night of sleep he’d missed over the years and his hands were rough with calluses from practicing until they bled. Naruto had come to recognize these small things in Itachi as the years had gone by, so the addition of something else, something new that was visible but not obvious was clear. Naruto could tell there was something off, but he kept his silence. He was well aware that Itachi never trusted anyone, not even Naruto himself after they’d known each other for so long. Even as they battled on the river, he kept his sharingan activated and never let his guard down, watching the trees on every side of them in patient silence.

    With a burst of chakra in his feet, Naruto shot forward to shove a kunai straight through Itachi’s neck but was quickly blocked at the wrist and sent violently across the water like a skipping stone. Itachi was upon him immediately, stolen kunai nailing straight into his arm. With a loud pop and a cloud of smoke, the clone disappeared, and a hand shot out of the water and around Itachi’s ankle. Itachi stumbled for a moment, his chakra against Naruto’s body weight until the water swallowed him under. Shocked, Naruto released him and resurfaced.

    “What was that?” he asked when Itachi came up.

    Itachi wiped the water off his face but didn’t answer.

    “Hey,” Naruto said, “What was that? Why did you just give up?” He waded through the water to get a better look, but Itachi turned. His shoulders began to shake and turned away again as Naruto moved closer. He turned to spit something in the river and Naruto’s heart nearly stopped. It was blood.

    “Itachi? Are you alright?” He placed a hand on Itachi’s shoulder, but the man tore his arm away and began wading back to the shore.

    “What’s going on!?” he yelled, following closely behind.

    Itachi stumbled back onto the shore- something sent fear through Naruto as quick and sharp as lightning- and grabbed his abandoned Akatsuki cloak. In the pockets was a small black bottle, the contents hidden, but Naruto could smell the faint tinge of something bitter and medicinal. He winced as Itachi downed the entire thing.

    “What is that shit?” he asked, grabbing his arm again. Itachi spun around, his special sharingan flashing a bright red hue, blood seeping from the corners of his eyes like tears that stained his bottom lip.

    “Why do you care so much?” Itachi hissed, and Naruto jumped. He looked unhinged and emotionally worn. He jerkily wiped blood from his face but it only smeared across his cheeks. Naruto reached up to wipe the smudges with his thumb. Itachi’s sharingan melted into the normal sharingan, spinning lazily as his anger faded. Gently, he took Naruto’s hand into his own and pulled it away, not daring to look at him. Naruto watched him carefully as he staggered back to the river to wash off.

    It was two months until they spoke again.

 

~.~.~

 

Kaeru: Toad Sage is bringing me to the mountain! Will be gone for a year!

Karasu: I don’t understand. What mountain? Why will you be there for a year?

Kaeru: Toad Sage will take me to the Toad Sage mountain. I will learn. 

Karasu: I don’t understand. Send me your location and I will meet you there.

___

Karasu: I am unable to trace you. Please respond.

___

Karasu: Hanaba is unable to find you. Please respond.

___

Karasu: Kaeru. Please respond.

___

Kareu: Sorry! Toad Sage is mad! I’m Toad Sage! Shadow is quick! I practice dance now!

Karasu: Hanaba will take me to your location. Do not move.

Kaeru: Understood!

 

~.~.~

 

The room was small and cramped, but his tired muscles wouldn’t care. He dropped onto the bed face first and took a deep breath. His limbs ached after a day of training with Jiraiya followed by extensive training with the Mother of the House. He didn’t even bother to change out of the beautiful blue and white robes he’d been told to practice in. He reached back to untie the orange obi when a voice from the corner startled him.

 “You disappear for a month and reappear in this place?”

“Itachi!” Naruto jumped and turned to face the man in the corner. His upper lip was curled with a slightly disgusted look across the messy room. Naruto didn’t have much time to clean lately, and his laundry was scattered across the floor.

“Where did you disappear to?” he asked, leaning against the wall. Naruto’s face lit up like the sun.

“Oh! You won’t believe it- watch this! Just watch, ok?”

Itachi sent him an amused smile as he shoved the blankets off the bed and fixed himself into the lotus position, hands resting on his knees, back straight, and eyes closed. “Who convinced you to meditate?” Naruto shushed him and defiantly raised his chin. They sat in silence until Itachi saw the nature chakra gathering and made a surprised noise. When Naruto finally opened his eyes, they were gold with orange markings around his eyelids.

“This is what you meant- you’ve mastered the sage mode.”

“Isn’t it awesome!? Jiraiya suddenly decided to take me to Mount Myoboku and told me he thought I was ready! And since I mastered it much faster than he thought, we were going to stay here until our trip came to an end, but the House Mother decided to teach me too! So now we’re going to-”

    “What does that mean?” Itachi interrupted.

    Naruto paused. “What does what mean?”

    “The House Mother. What is she teaching you?”

    Naruto leaned forward with a sly smile, letting the loosened robe slide off his shoulder in a suggestive manner. “She’s not teaching me anything. Her students are teaching me everything they know,” he said, secretly proud that he managed to not sound like an idiot. He ignored the reddening of his cheeks. Jiraiya brought him to the Ryuchi House of Seduction because the House Mother was one of his contacts and had room for them to stay before they began their journey home. He was enthralled by the women in their elaborate silk robes, their faces painted white and red, and their hair decorated with expensive ornaments. The girls found his gentlemanly interest flattering and after a few days of learning how to tie an obi and how to wash a kimono, began to teach him how to be like them. How to catch someone’s eye with the way you walk, how to make them hang on your every word, how to make a man (or woman) spill every secret without spilling any of your own. Jiraiya had laughed when he realized what was going on, but the House Mother found it interesting. She claimed that teaching is the best way to learn and left her girls to teach him what they knew. And judging from Itachi’s expression, they were pretty good teachers.

“I don’t understand,” Itachi said after a moment of silence.

Naruto deflated and leaned back on his hands. “They’re just teaching me how to get people to talk. You know, seduction,” he said with a shrug. Itachi mouthed the word quietly himself and frowned as if it left a foul taste on his tongue.

“I don’t understand,” he repeated.

Naruto blinked. “What do you not understand?”

“The Sennin is allowing this? Aren’t you a bit young for that?”

“What? I’m seventeen.”

“A child,” Itachi said. Naruto pinched his lips together to keep from laughing. Of course, he was right- he was a child. In civilian terms, that is. But he wasn’t a civilian; he was a ninja. In a ninja village, people didn’t value age, they valued maturity and skill. Though Naruto lacked in the first requirement, he had plenty of the second and was four years older than the average age for this kind of training anyway. Naruto didn’t like thinking about Itachi’s past, but he couldn’t help but think back to what he’d heard about the man’s days in Anbu when he was thirteen. Naruto was learning to give people bedroom eyes. In Anbu, you tended to learn much more than that.

“Not really,” he countered hesitantly. He didn’t want to start a fight, especially when they hadn’t spoken in ages. Apparently, Itachi didn’t care.

“Yes really,” Itachi said, “Does the Hokage know about this?”

“Why would we tell her? We’re returning soon. She’ll learn about it when we turn in our reports.”

If Naruto didn’t know Itachi, he wouldn’t have recognized the slight distress at this news.

“You’re leaving soon?”

“Yeah, I’m a Sage now and our trip has come to an end.”

“Why?”

Naruto briefly wondered if Itachi was on something. Why was he being so…odd?

“How long until you leave?” Itachi asked before he could answer.

Naruto shrugged. “Soon.”

“That’s not an answer- I need a time limit,” he said in an unusually testy tone.

Naruto narrowed his eyes. “Why?”

“I need to know.”

Naruto sat up and scooted forward until he sat on the edge of his bed, just feet away from Itachi. The man stared down at him, arms crossed, his face fixed in a permanent frown. There was something off about him though. He looked thinner than he did a month ago, and his skin had taken on a waxy appearance like he was sweating from a fever. His eyes had even darker circles underneath and he was slightly hunched over as if he was exhausted. He looks like shit, Naruto realized.

“What happened to you?” he asked.

Itachi didn’t answer. He turned to stare at the wall instead.

“Does this have to do with that medicine you took last time we met?”

“No,” Itachi said, and Naruto honestly couldn’t tell if he was lying, or if he wanted him to think he was lying.

“What was that for anyway? ‘Cause it doesn’t look like it worked,” Naruto muttered.

“I was sick. Have you figured out when you’re leaving?”

“You still didn’t tell me why you need to know about that.”

“And you didn’t tell me why your trip has ended so suddenly.”

Naruto sent him a glare. “You know why we’re going back to Konoha!” Itachi raised an eyebrow. “The Akatsuki have begun to attack the other Jinchuuriki. I have to go home where it’s safe.” 

Itachi shook his head glaring at the floor, sharingan spinning violently. Naruto could only stew in frustration. It wasn’t his fault he was behind hunted like an animal. He pressed his fingers to his temples on either side of his head and sighed.

“You can’t train with the girls and you can’t leave yet.”

It took everything Naruto had not to lunge at the man. He didn’t even understand the anger he felt, it just boiled over uncontrollably.

“And why the hell is that? What are you, my mother? You think that because you said not to do something, I’m gonna listen at the snap of your fingers? What is with you today?”

“I’m not telling you, I’m advising,” he said.

“Based off what!? What’s wrong with training with the girls or going back to Konoha? I don’t know about you, but I’m getting a little tired of spending all my nights on shitty beds and the forest floor. I’m looking forward to seeing my other friends, and I’m excited about learning a pretty useful skill! I know I’m the last person you’d expect to know how to seduce someone but that’s the whole point! It’s-”

“You’re the same age as Sasuke!”

Naruto’s mouth was left open, his entire rant thrown off track by the magic word. Sasuke. The number of times that name had been uttered in each other’s presence could be counted on a single hand. Why would Itachi bring up Sasuke with all of this? Yes, they were the same age, but what did that have to do with anything? Sasuke was hardly a child either, running around killing hordes of people for the sake of training. Did he seriously still see Sasuke as a kid? It wouldn’t be that far of a stretch- he probably hadn’t even seen him since the encounter in Konoha when they were thirteen, and most of his memories of Sasuke would be from when he was seven- before the clan had been slaughtered, and back when Sasuke still actually smiled. But even so, what did this have to do with Naruto? Naruto and Sasuke had almost nothing in common; it was why their friendship was so rocky at first. In fact, to most people, it would seem like the only thing they had in common was-

And then it hit him. They were the same age. Naruto wasn’t the sharpest kunai in the pack. He usually took a while to catch onto things. But for it to take this long? For it to take almost four years for him to notice? That was embarrassing. His cheeks flushed with shame for his idiocy. Shame for his unusual attraction that was so unrequited it wasn’t even funny. He looked up at Itachi with firm, watery eyes.

“Are you fucking serious.”

Itachi’s brows furrowed, but he said nothing.

“Is that what this whole thing has been about? All these years of mentoring me, and meeting with me. All because of Sasuke?”

“…What?”

“That’s what this is!” Naruto yelled, gesturing between them. “I’m his replacement! You ruined his life and he wants nothing to do with you, so you take the kid who's got nobody to knock some sense into him and treat him like he’s your little brother!”

Even if Itachi had tried to defend himself, Naruto wouldn’t have let him. Overcome with rage and embarrassment, he began to pace around the room.

“Drinking tea with me, teaching me your stupid special Katta forms, teaching me fucking Nekoshita-go! What was it you said? Sasuke was too young to learn it before you slaughtered your clan? What, were you trying to make up for it through me? Sasuke told me how you always promised to teach him stuff and then bailed. Is that what this was?”

Memories of the past four years flashed before his eyes in a new light like some sort of sick horror movie plot twist. Itachi teaching him how to clean and sharpen a katana. Learning how to break out of a genjutsu. Learning the basics behind a bo staff. The countless jutsus they’d swapped. Cooking meals with each other. Surprising him with Jiraiya’s hunting tricks. Even the rare occasion when they helped each other with a mission. Naruto felt sick to his stomach. He knelt to the floor, his back facing Itachi.

“Get out,” he whispered.

With a sharp click, the window closed, and Naruto was alone.