08 – Sepia


Shitamachi, Edo

Three Months Later


He was home.


From the moment he stepped foot upon its shores, Naruto knew he had found a place just made for him.


Edo was a cesspool of sin, rebellion, and nonconformity; where an explosion of creativity and knowledge poured from every corner. People were not afraid to seek higher intellectual planes, and it wasn’t uncommon to see scholars and students alike filling open classrooms to soak in all they could. From mathematics to astronomy, cartography to engineering, medicine and the arts – there were no limits to how far you could go if you were willing to broaden the mind. Dojos harbored eager samurai devoted to the concept of bushido, while the townsfolk were content to revel in chōnindō – diligence, loyalty, honor, honesty and frugality - while embracing a variety of religions to emphasize those traits.


In the midst of this, the youth basked in the glorious freedom of expression. It was a culture unafraid to explore new fashions – where the brightest of clothing or the elaborate details of body art – could be seen on beautiful people daily. It was a culture that embraced unique and often risqué forms of entertainment and the idea of frivolous sexual exploits was nothing to be ashamed of. Why it wasn’t uncommon to walk into a shop where special ukiyo-e depicted the most graphic of sexual positions for all manners of partners, and to regale in an atmosphere where poets and artists alike celebrated the most intimate of such communions.


The rich and the poor intermingled on bustling streets, narrow bridges and heaving ports; though the elite samurai did have the tendency to look down on the common folk (same as everywhere else in the country). However, unlike other towns were the distinctions were too obvious, in Edo, it was difficult to tell the difference especially when darkness fell. The nightlife was an experience all of its own. You had your choice of theatres, festivals, and of course, whore houses to visit at your leisure. The red light district was a haven for the greedy and the deprived, for those who simply wished to look (though later chased away by police on patrol if they could not pay), and for those who could shell out the money for the most exclusive private entertainment.


In this city of the beautiful and the brave, Naruto could fit in easily, and why not? For beneath the layers of gaiety and seeming utopia, the seedy underbelly lurked in the shadows and found its own niche amongst those who embraced it. The freaks, the unwanted, the damned, the shunned; those who dared not show their faces in the brilliance of the day wallowed in the darkness of the night where their deeds could be carried out without the fear of persecution. In this underbelly of sin, even the legitimate ones sought permission to enter; brave samurai from established families, members of the bakufu (the shogun’s lap dogs), daimyos, and merchants – eager to engage in acts which would defile the gods they openly worship in public. Dirty money exchanged hands, plans for assassinations and hostile takeovers were hatched over cups of sake, illegal gambling ran rampant in hidden rooms, while beautiful women (and men) had their supple bodies exchanged for money and goods, for hedonistic acts, to the highest bidder.


He smiled to himself and lifted the cup of sake to his lips; the cool evening breeze bathing his flesh as he leaned upon the wooden railing to observe in silence.


Yes. This was his kind of city. Why go anywhere else?


“You sure you don’t want to join us?” came the loud voice behind him accompanied by a hard playful slap on his back. “I hear the girls tonight were just shipped in from Hong Kong. Hong Kong! You don’t get any better than that, my brother.”


Naruto glanced at the grinning man beside him. Omoi’s breath stunk of the sake he had been guzzling all evening, and even his eyes looked a little glazed over. Still, it didn’t deter the tanned man from looking absolutely jubilant, and he had every reason to be. Their latest ‘job’ had garnered them quite the payout. In fact, with all the money they had made, they didn’t need to do anything for a while, but knowing Omoi and his impatience, it was likely he’d be bothering Naruto soon for yet another offer to come their way.


“I’ll pass,” Naruto replied as he turned back to his view of the city before him. For the past hour, they were guests of one of their ‘customers’ – a merchant who by day ran a legitimate blacksmith business, but at night indulged in his need for illegal commodities from neighboring countries. It was rare for the low-class members of society like themselves to be invited into the lavish home of a merchant, so their little gang considered it an extra treat and honor.


“You have fun, eh?” he encouraged absently.


“Well, you’re no fun,” Omoi pouted as he threw an arm around Naruto’s shoulder. “You keep saying you want to come back here after each job, but you never try to enjoy yourself. I don’t know what the hell made you change your mind so quickly that night, but don’t think for one second that I don’t appreciate you being a part of the crew. The boys love you!”


He squeezed Naruto’s shoulders gently and placed a hard kiss on the whiskered cheek. “When you change your mind, you know where to find us, eh?”


And with a loud laugh, he excused himself, leaving Naruto to stare thoughtfully into the alcoholic beverage remaining in his cup.


/The boys love you! /


Yeah, right.


Some of them might, but Naruto wasn’t stupid. He knew that a few had begun to worry about how well he was doing and his position in the group. Along with Omoi, there were three others who had been with them in Hiromi’s gang – and ironically enough, it was those three that seemed to have a problem with him (at least when Omoi wasn’t around). Apparently, they had always considered Naruto as a nuisance, from being Hiromi’s pet to now being Omoi’s best buddy. For some reason, they got it in their heads that he was out to ‘get them’, and that soon enough Omoi would remove them from the group just to please Naruto. He would laugh at all stupid it all seemed, if a part of their fear wasn’t founded.


Greedy sons-of-bitches, Naruto thought bitterly as he drained the rest of his drink. Those three always wanted the largest of the shares since they considered themselves the oldest and more seasoned veterans. Naruto never complained though Omoi tried to appease all parties, but those bastards always made it a point to mention just how long they had been in this business. Everyone else would have to pick up the pieces of whatever was left behind, after they collected the lion’s share.


Maybe I should just quit while I’m still ahead, he mused, though he worried that Omoi would find him ungrateful. After all, when he had shown up at the port that night, drenched and out of breath and unable to articulate his muddled thoughts at the time, his friend had only taken one look at him, grinned like a cat with pleasure and welcomed him into the fold with no questions asked.


He had learned the rudiments of the job easily enough. Omoi would get assignments from their ‘unseen’ customer, and they’d begin plans to raid the appropriate ship when the time came. Weapons – as in good katana – were much stricter to carry around in Edo due to its laws (only recognized samurai were allowed to do so), but good connections had given them privy to the best of them. He learned for the first time how gunpowder and guns worked in general, and it still shocked him at how quick death came with the heavy weapon in his hand.


“At least it’s less messy,” Omoi had reasoned as they stood over the body of a ship’s captain with a bullet hole in his forehead.


Less messy, but still lethal. It was enough for Naruto to beg Omoi for him to simply work with the katana. He couldn’t (and maybe didn’t) want to deal with the pressure of the foreigner’s weapons.   


Stealing a ship and offloading its cargo had to be down to a science, for one slip up could ruin an entire raid easily. With about twenty members overall in Omoi’s gang, it was easy for at least ten of them to ambush the ship of the night, while the others waited with smaller boats and carriages on shore to accept the goods. However, this couldn’t go as planned without shelling out a few bribes to port and check-point officials. You had to have the right people who were willing to turn a blind eye to some of their activities, and it really wasn’t difficult to pay them off at the right price.


If Naruto were in the mindset to really see the difference between right and wrong, he might have sat back to re-consider his line of business. However, since that fateful night where he had witnessed the strange conversation between Madara and those two visitors, his dreams were fitful and nightmarish. He could never find a moment’s peace within his heart and mind, for the lingering fear that Madara would eventually find him kept him on his toes. He had vowed he’d get stronger to combat Madara should the time come, but so far, he had felt a restlessness and impatience at not being able to achieve that goal. Despite his ‘success’ as a smuggler, he was still considered lower class, and many of the dojos would not accept him as a student. He could boast of no acceptable trade to those who queried, and foolishly trying to bribe them had resulted in insults being hurled at him. His only other option would have to become legit and try to join the police force, but the irony of that almost made him laugh. If he joined the bakufu, Madara would learn of it quickly, and he had no doubt the shrewd warrior have him arrested for some mundane reason just to exact his revenge.


/ “If it means having to extract the biju from him myself, then I will. He’s matured enough to be able to handle it, but if not…then I guess that’s one less body to worry about.” /


He absently placed a hand upon his stomach and rubbed it gently; trying not to shiver at the memory of those coldly-stated words.




Key words he had picked up from their bizarre conversation, and add to Madara’s enigmatic words of ‘there being a world out there he would rather not want Naruto to know’, the blond was beginning to wonder just what kind of a world lay beyond this one. Just what were they? Was there some strange country that engaged in wars all the time? If so how come no one else was talking about it? It would have been all over the tongues of civilians if that was the case. There was no sense of urgency on the streets, no sense of uneasiness in the air that came with impending war, so just what kind of ‘battles’ had those strange men been referring to?


And why did Madara make it seem as if they were immortals? Aren’t immortals people who can never die? How is that even possible? Isn’t that something you read about in fairytales? Do such people actually exist? And if they do…just how many of them are out there?


(they wander amongst you every day…all you have to do is see beyond your human limits)


He started as if goosed; tiny bumps of awareness rising on his skin as he shivered. It felt as if someone was watching him, but as he squinted at the wandering people below, no one in particular seemed to be paying him any extra attention. He glanced at the storied building across from him and eyed the boisterous parties within the well-lit rooms. There was no one on the balcony watching him either. Everyone else was lost in their world of sin and depravity, and had no time for his solitary figure in the darkness.


He snorted lightly and closed his eyes.


Perhaps he was just imagining things.





However, the next morning, his uneasiness grew.


“You’re up early,” came the pleasant greeting from the food seller who specialized in the best ramen this side of Japan – in Naruto’s humble opinion. He grinned, revealing chipped teeth, to place a steaming bowl of miso ramen before the appreciative blond. “Your usual, eh?”


Naruto smiled and dug in with as much gusto as he could muster. There was still a heavy mist in the air, which gave the entire city a ghostly feel. It felt as if everyone was still suffering a hangover from last night, the silhouettes of the people –drab and gray - as they shuffled their way to work with weary smiles or drooped masks for faces. Even the usual noises from the port seemed muted and hollow; as if occurring in a distant land and barely a mile or so away from him.


(someone’s watching me)


He froze; his chopsticks in mid-air as he felt it again; that undeniable tingle of awareness. His heart began to pound within his chest. Was it Madara? Or was it one of his men spying on him? He couldn’t look around for fear he’d make his worry that obvious, and what good would that have done anyway? The mist was so thick, it was nearly impossible to see anyone more than several feet away.


“You okay?”


He looked up with haunted eyes, at the concerned weathered features before him. The older man was in the midst of frying some fish, but his gray eyes were trained on the young man who looked as pale as a ghost.


“You okay?” he asked again. “You don’t look so good, young man. Maybe you should go home and lie down. Get some rest.”


Naruto lowered the chopsticks and expelled a breath of air. “Yeah…maybe I should. It was a long night.”


He excused himself with a weak smile, leaving a generous tip for the cook before making his way down the street; wishing he had his katana with him. Unfortunately, it was risky to carry it around during the day.


“Someone watching you?” Omoi asked with a loud yawn, when Naruto finally woke him up, and pestered him with his concern. Much to his chagrin, he had to shoo away the two naked women he had slept with last night to accommodate his friend, and even at that he still stared longingly after their pale flesh with hunger as they tittered out of the room.


“Since last night,” Naruto explained with a frown. He hardly blinked when Omoi paced around the room in the nude before finding his discarded yukata to slip into it. “You think it’s the bakufu?”


“Bah,” Omoi scoffed and tied the sash around his waist. “I wouldn’t worry too much about it. If they were going to arrest you, they would have done that months ago. We’ve got most of those bastards in our pockets anyway. What are you so worried about?”


He tapped Naruto’s shoulder in reassurance before sitting across him with a grin. “In fact, I know just the thing to get your mind off your problems.”


“What’s that?”


“We’ve got a new job,” he began, and held up a finger to stop Naruto from protesting. “I know, I know. we just finished a major one two weeks ago, but trust me, my brother. This one is going to be different.”


He rubbed his hands together and smirked in delight. “Don’t think I haven’t given this some thought, but I feel we should branch into other fields, know what I mean? I mean the ship raids are all well and good, but what if something goes wrong? We need a backup to make ends meet. So, I’m thinking we can continue where Hiromi heichou left off.”


Naruto raised a brow. “You’re kidding me.”




“You do realize that he’s dead, right? That he was caught eventually? Or did you forget that little bit?”


“That’s because he didn’t plan properly,” Omoi rebuffed with a frown. “That was one of his weaknesses. He was too trusting and look where that got him. You know how careful I am. This is going to be a cinch with my crew especially with you around.”


“Who put you up to this?”




“It was Kentaro and the others, wasn’t it?”


Omoi frowned and folded his arms across his chest. “So what if it was?” He raised a brow warily. “Why am I getting the vibes that you don’t care for them very much?”


“Because I don’t,” Naruto blurted tightly. “He, Soujiro, and Masataka have not exactly accepted me as a member of the crew just in case you haven’t noticed.”


“Really? Because they say a lot of good things about you.”


“To your face maybe, but behind your back…” Naruto paused and shook his head. “Nevermind. Doesn’t matter anyway.”


“I’ll talk to them if you want -”


“No. Let it go. The last thing I want is there to be some kind of ‘he said she said’ crap going on. What’s this job about anyway?”


Omoi grinned; his bad mood dissipating quickly at the idea that Naruto was now interested. “Well, I’m glad you asked because you see…”






…it was going to be a complete and utter disaster.


Naruto knew that the moment he heard the plan, but had gone along just to please his friend –


(and to get my mind off that troubling idea of being followed and watched)


It was relatively simple on paper; raid a nearby inn which would be hosting a wealthy feudal lord. Bonus points (aka payment) will be given if they were able to behead the bastard in the process. Omoi had reassured them that the man was only going to be traveling with a small entourage with at least five bodyguards they could take down easily. Unfortunately, someone must have forgotten to send the memo that the ‘five’ bodyguards would end up being over twenty foot soldiers stationed in an around the inn.


But that realization would come much later.


For now, Naruto rubbed his hands together to get some warmth into them. The nights were getting a colder and the local temple priest had predicted that it would be a bitter winter this year. He tightened the scarf around his neck and sniffled; his knees beginning to ache from the crouched position he had been in for the past hour. He was tucked between two large wine pots behind the inn; his job to give the signal to the rest of the crew once he was able to break into the daimyo’s room on the second floor. However, he had to time this perfectly for there were five guards patrolling this area – five guards that should have been taken down by now if Kentaro wasn’t such a fuckhead.


“I think Naruto should be able to handle them alone,” the conniving asshole had said during the final meeting. “We know how fast he is, and we’ll just be in the way. Masataka and I will take the East wing. Should be easier that way.”


Omoi had agreed without skipping a beat; completely ignoring the scowl on Naruto’s features as he met the smug smiles on Kentaro and Masataka’s faces.


(they are up to something…whatever it is…I’m not liking it at all)


Either way, he had a job to do, and as he noticed the moving shadows above him, he placed his fingers between his lips and blew sharply once. Not waiting to see if they were following him or not (for he was in charge of three others), he leapt to his feet – ignored the protest of unused muscles at the motion – and climbed nimbly up the wall with his wakizashi held tightly between his teeth. And just as he vaulted over the railing and onto the balcony, the first cry of surprise and anguish filled the night air.


(Good! At least my team’s doing its job)


He’d grab the guard – who was just turning around to notice him – by the crook of his neck and slice it neatly; the warm wetness of his blood soaking the sleeve of his yukata before he was lowered slowly to the ground. The second guard saw this and raised his katana with a loud roar, but Naruto dodged the attack and unsheathed his sword to bury it into the exposed torso with a low grunt. He pushed the body away, wincing as the cries and chaos below and around the inn began to rise.


(not good…)


He could smell a fire, but he wasn’t sure. It was hard to concentrate now with all the yelling especially from the innocent women in the building who were now caught in the middle of the skirmish. Secretly hoping Omoi was doing all right, Naruto kicked in the shoji screen door and brandished his katana; his sharp gaze taking in the situation with a cold detachment. Thanks to the commotion downstairs, the daimyo, his two male guests and several women for ‘entertainment’ were all shrieking and scrambling to escape.


They almost made it to the door, when it slid open to reveal even more guards – some covered in blood but not badly hurt. It made Naruto wonder just how many of their crew had been lost, but this was no time to stand around worrying about it. He swung freely; his graceless motions still brutal enough to slice off two arms and nearly a head in the process. His entire body was now splattered with blood; the smell thick and pungent as he nearly slipped over the puddles forming on the floor. He wondered where the others were and why he wasn’t getting the help he needed, and as he pushed the body of yet another guard off his katana – his breathing heavy and ragged – he saw his answer in the hallway.


(oh God…no…)


Bodies were littered everywhere it seemed; many of them belonging to the men he had considered brothers in the past few months. Frantic, he searched for Omoi’s, hoping that his friend had at least made it alive. And just as he was about to turn around the next corner, he heard the loud blast of a weapon he had hoped would never come into play. It would take him a second later to realize that the stinging pain in his left shoulder was actually a –


(…impossible…I’ve been…shot?)


He stared stupidly at the bullet wound and rapidly blossoming wet stain against the cloth. Yes…he was indeed shot after all. Hah…how stupid.


There was the blast again, and this time it sent him to his knees with a low grunt of pain. This time the bullet had found his abdomen, and as he pressed his hands against the wound to stop the bleeding, he would look up – through bleary eyes – at the person responsible for this.


“Huh…” he rasped through bloody teeth; a cynical smile on his visage. “Why am I not surprised? You planned this from the beginning, didn’t you?”


Kentaro smirked coldly, the smoking gun still pointed at Naruto as more guards began to fill the inn. Great. Even if he didn’t die here, he’d still be caught and publicly executed. What a pain in the ass.


“You always were a nuisance, Uzumaki Naruto,” Kentaro was saying in a voice that seemed to be coming from miles away. “Nothing but bad luck. From the moment you joined our crew back then with Hiromi-san, I warned him about you. Those weird marks on your face…those were the signs of the devil, and we warned him, but he wouldn’t listen. You bring nothing but bad luck. Your kind should not exist.” He cocked the weapon and prepared to pull the trigger. “Let me help you get to the next world, bake-mono.”


And perhaps he would have, if someone (or something) didn’t seem to fly out from nowhere to tackle Kentaro to the ground. Naruto would have just enough time to notice the flash of white hair (?) before his world faded slowly into black.


(it’s better this way…the world is better off without me)








He drifted slowly to consciousness.


“…blood loss…”

“…too much…can’t stop it…”

“…take him to a doctor…”

“…risky…what do we do?”


(who are you?)


He drifted into the abyss and awakened some time later to the smell of something sweet and nostalgic. It reminded him of his childhood – a distant time when his innocence was still intact. He was sure he could see his parents, though they appeared to be walking away from him. The little boy in him cried for their attention. They couldn’t leave him again! He had to be with them!


And yet there were those voices.


“…not much longer now…”

“…without his permission…”

“…must do it…why not?”


(who are you?!)


He passed into oblivion again.


When he opened his eyes, it was to darkness – or at least it seemed that way. He blinked slowly and forced his vision to focus on his surroundings, but it was hard to tell where he was.


(heaven or hell? Where am I?)


His body felt incredibly stiff, as if he was lying beneath a ton of bricks. He couldn’t even move his head even if he wanted to. Was he enclosed in something? Why was mobility so difficult? Why is it so fucking quiet anyway? The last he remembered was the chaos from the failed ambush including Kentaro’s smug face and…


(I was shot. So I’m probably dead. That’s why I can’t move. I’ve been buried. That’s why I can’t move)


He squeezed his eyes shut at the sudden realization; a pain and ache so powerful searing through him at the idea of this being his untimely demise. What a way to go down. What a shameful terrible way to end his life, all because he had wanted to make his friend happy. He sniffled as the tears burned his eyes and finally broke free to trail down his cheeks. This wasn’t the way he had hoped his life would end. This isn’t the way he had imagined his future. So yes, he wasn’t accepted by most of society, but so what? Where was the crime in wanting to live until old age? All he had ever truly wanted was to be happy, to live a life where he was loved and appreciated by someone for him and not simply for whatever thing was living inside of him. When he thought of Madara and his betrayal – of how much he had loved that man and would have willingly done anything for him until he realized that everything had been nothing but one big lie - the tears fell harder until the act of breathing became difficult. He felt suffocated and wanted to scream out; to pound his fists against something, or to yell at God to give him a second chance to make things right. He couldn’t end this way! He just couldn’t! This wasn’t fair at all!






His lashes flew open at the gentle yet gruff voice to break through the oppressive silence.


(God? Is that you?)


“Can you hear me, Naruto?”




“Ye…yes,” he struggled to make his seemingly frozen lips to form the words. His voice sounded raw and unused. Just how long had he been trapped in this grave? “Yes,” he croaked a little louder. “I can hear you.”


“Good.” The voice sounded pleased. “I’m glad you’re still alive…though just barely.”


“Wha…what do you mean? I’m not dead?”


“Yet,” the voice explained gently. “You’re on the threshold of it. You’ve lost quite a lot of blood and to be honest, you should have died the moment you were shot a second time.”


Naruto couldn’t comprehend this bit of information. His mind was a whirlpool of conflicting thoughts. If he was supposed to be dead, then why wasn’t he dead already? Why was he still suffering and hanging on by a thread?


“It’s your willpower,” the voice continued as if reading his thoughts. “There’s a part of you that wishes to live, doesn’t it? A part of you that does not want to let go just yet, am I correct?”


Naruto, if he could have done so, would have nodded vigorously. He settled for a whispered ‘yes’ in agreement.


“What if I said I could help you?”




“I could let you live…but not as you did before.”


(I don’t understand…)


“You will be reborn, as a human, yet not. You will become immortal, Naruto. Death will no longer have its say over you unless you wish for it. I can make that happen if you want.”




His eyes widened. He immediately saw those two fine gentlemen in Madara’s presence; two men who were immortal as well. He could become just like them and finally learn the truth of what Madara planned.


(and kill him with my bare hands)


“All you have to do is say yes,” the voice continued softly as if seducing him. “Just say “yes”, and you can join us. Your world will look a little different, but it’s a small price to pay to finish up all you have planned. You will be ten…no…a hundred times stronger, and I will teach you all you need to know. So what say you, Uzumaki Naruto? Make your decision quickly for your time is running out.”


“Yes,” he replied without a moment’s hesitation. If immortality meant him having the opportunity to exact his revenge, then so be it. And if this voice was able to teach him how to become stronger, then all the better to exact his revenge on Madara and everything related to that son-of-a-bitch.


(I can do anything…be anything…and I’ll make him pay!)


“Then so be it,” the voice continued with a smile in it now. It seemed to come closer, for Naruto felt the warm breath against his skin, and a large, strong hand now resting upon his chest.


(what…what are you doing?)


He felt the cold stirrings of panic as the hand pressed a little harder against his flesh.


“This is going to hurt a little,” came the tender warning. “But it will be over quickly. Just take a deep breath and -”








Sasuke’s lashes flew open; the scream torn from the depths of him as he held his hands to his chest and sat up with haunted eyes as wide as saucers. Breathing heavily – as if he had just run for miles - he was drenched in sweat; his dark hair pressed against his forehead and cheeks and unaware he was crying until the taste of his tears was felt on his lips.


(what…what was that? What the hell happened?!)


He looked up and around his surroundings with growing panic; his heart still thudding painfully in his chest forcing him to look down quickly to be sure it was still there. Just what had that man (the voice) tried to do? If he wasn’t mistaken, it almost felt as if he was digging his fingers into Naruto’s chest to rip his heart out and –


“You are back, eh?” came the loud amused query to jerk him out of his frenzied thoughts.


Gamakichi was peering at him, though he sat with his legs and arms crossed with his katana at his side. His younger brother was snoozing off beside him with a light snore. Dark shadows were created by their massive frames, and beyond them Sasuke could see that the sun was just about to set in the horizon. Just how long had he been gone?  


“It’s still the same day, if yer wondering,” Gamakichi explained. “Time goes pretty slowly over here when you’re in there.” He pointed toward the pool of oil where the great sage still sat in serene silence.


Wiping the tears from his face quickly (he was aghast to find his hands were still trembling), Sasuke tried to gather himself as best he could.


But how can I? he thought miserably as he stared at his wet hands. I’ve just experienced a few months in Naruto’s life, and I feel as if I’ve already aged a lifetime. How can anyone wish to live after experiencing all of that? He has no idea how strong he really is to be able to deal with all that and still wish to live.


His throat tightened and he felt the ridiculous urge to burst into tears. It was almost the same way he had felt when he learned of Itachi’s passing from Kakashi; of how numb and yet hurt he had been at the knowledge he’d never see his beloved brother again. He had been too young to fully comprehend the death of his parents, so all the pain he had ever known and felt had come with Itachi leaving him so abruptly.


And now…


“Oh God. What am I going to do?” he moaned and raised his knees to his chest to bury his face against them. Hadn’t the great sage warned him about this? What had he assumed would happen with his thoughtless request? That his need to know more about Naruto would expose such raw emotions in a way he never thought possible? How could he look into those blue eyes now without revealing all he had learned or want to profusely apologize for what his ancestor had done to him?


Speaking of which…just what happened to Madara anyway? What had become of the man who had stolen Naruto’s heart and trampled all over it?


No wonder he can’t stand me…or anyone by the name of Uchiha probably, Sasuke thought with a bitter smile, though he couldn’t ignore the tiny ache within him as he remembered those intimate moments shared between the lovers. He told himself he was foolish to feel that way, for whatever feelings Naruto might have harbored for Madara were long gone. There was really no need to feel envious, and besides it wasn’t as if the current Naruto was eager to get into any kind of a relationship of that nature.


(and I’m not seeking it either. I just wish to be a friend and that’s it)


Still there were so many more questions to be answered. What happened to Hashirama and Tobirama? If they were immortals, they ought to still be alive today, but since no one had mentioned them so far, did they die in a battle? And if so…how? Who was watching Naruto that day in Edo? Was it Kakashi? Or Jiraiya? Or someone different altogether? If it was Kakashi or Jiraiya, had they known Naruto would be in that city? Was it their plan to make him immortal anyway? Were they a part of the Senju who wished to use Naruto for their selfish purposes?


“You have peered into the life of another,” came the sudden quiet yet sonorous voice to break his reverie.


Sasuke looked up with a start. He had almost forgotten he was still in the presence of the great sage. He rose to his knees and remained in the respectful position; trembling hands forming tight fists on his lap as he bit hard on his lower lip. This was his time of reckoning.


“And you have come to a decision, yes?” the sage asked as he opened his eyes slowly to stare at the boy below him.


Sasuke stared at the ground for a long moment.


His decision. What decision? The sage must have known. Even Gamakichi and Gamatatsu must have known, for both frogs were now alert and studying him in silence as well. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, and in his mind’s eye he could see that pained cerulean gaze staring back at him beyond a cracked mirror…waiting…hoping…


(my decision…)


He lifted his lashes and looked up at the sage with a determined expression on his visage, and in a voice that was as clear and as strong as it’s ever been, Uchiha Sasuke made his vow.





One Week Later


Yet again, he awakened at an ungodly hour.


He tried to convince himself that he had nothing to worry about, that tonight would be the night he’d be able to sleep for more than a few hours and get the rest he deserved; that he need not worry about the kid he had dumped at the foot of the temple to fend for himself. Yet he would fling the blanket off him with a muffled curse, dress quickly, and allow his feet to lead him to the edge of the forest. From there, he would shyly peek through the trees (as if afraid to get caught) for a sign of the kid either taking a break or dead from exhaustion. However, he never seemed to get the timing right, for either he came too early or too late, so he never got a chance to see Sasuke in person.


The only sign that the boy was doing as told was the telltale pile of rocks Sasuke would leave every time he completed his back and forth journey. At Naruto’s last count, there were ten rocks lined neatly in a row. He couldn’t believe it. If he did the math, it would mean that Sasuke had actually made the trip twice in one day at least two times. Just what the hell did the frogs up there do for him? Were they treating him much better than they had when he had done the challenge?


Well, he does have those pills Sakura made, so that’s probably giving him the extra energy, he deduced with reluctant envy. Ah, if only she had been around back then, maybe it wouldn’t have seemed like torture to him.


Speaking of Sakura, she had visited during the week to find out how things were going and to keep him abreast of the situation at SWAT.


“The Hyūgas finally got custody of Neji and Hinata,” she informed him while sucking on a lollipop as they sat side-by-side on the narrow bridge overlooking a breathtaking lake. “It wasn’t a pretty sight at the trial, but they at least signed the agreement that they would no longer participate in capturing Sasuke. Good, eh?”


Naruto scoffed and rolled his eyes. “Big deal. How’s Neji?” Not that he ought to be concerned about the asshole that tried to kill him.


“He’s at about 80%,” Sakura replied. “He’ll be walking with crutches for a while, and Hinata didn’t take too much damage. She just has a few bruises, but she’s fine too.” She eyed him with a smile. “Weren’t you two dating at one time?”


“Nope,” Naruto denied quickly. “We were fuck buddies, but that’s about it.”






“Fuck buddies. Why do you have to make it sound so crude?”


“We were only having sex to fulfil a basic human need,” Naruto explained with a mock look of agony. “It was a mutual agreement, and we broke up when she realized she couldn’t continue without wanting a ring on her finger.”


“In other words, you dumped her.”


“I had to. She was becoming too clingy.”


“You can be such an asshole, Naruto.”


“I dumped her nicely…and gave her flowers.”


Sakura shook her head and jabbed his elbow playfully. “Anyway, back to the serious side of things…the shape shifter.”


Naruto frowned. “The Temari look-a-like?”


Sakura nodded; her expression pensive. “By the time the cleaners got it to SWAT, it had morphed into a blob of white mass – almost a doughy substance at the touch. It was taken to the lab to be studied, and it provided no real answers. Whatever that is, it seems to be a product of millions of dead plant cells.”


“Dead plant cells? That doesn’t make any sense.”


“I know, right? We couldn’t figure it out either, and Tsunade-sama’s been out of her mind with worry. She’s putting the spirit warriors on high alert. If this one was able to fool us easily, there could be many more out there. No one is really sure who could be responsible for it, but she and Jiraiya-sama aren’t taking any chances. They are trying to narrow it down to a possible spirit warrior capable of creating such a thing or summoning Malevolents.”


She looked at Naruto thoughtfully. “She mentioned something about you being able to sense them easily; that you should be able to know who the real people are and who aren’t. Your affinity with the biju should help, shouldn’t it?”


Naruto was already shaking his head. “It’s been a long time since I accessed that skill. In fact, I think I only used it once and that was decades and decades ago.”


“Maybe it’s like riding a bike. Once you try it again, it will probably come back to you. Perhaps you just need the extra concentration, and I can’t think of a better place to practice it than here…” She waved her arm around their surroundings. “I’m sure the frog sages will be willing to help.”


“Perhaps,” Naruto replied quietly; his gaze distant and distracted. “Though I doubt it will do any good. Besides, if they felt it was important I honed that skill, they would have nagged me to death about it the moment I stepped foot here. Even Jiraiya would have said something. I’m thinking they don’t believe I’ll be of much help anyway.”


She looked disappointed at those words, but decided not to pursue the issue any further, which was a good thing for Naruto was beginning to feel the pressure of having to do something he wasn’t sure he was ready to perform just yet. It wasn’t unlikely that they’d come bugging him again with this new threat, but until then…he had a student to deal with.


He slipped out of his hiding spot to wait at the foot of the steps, but after an hour of waiting, he became restless and began to pace in growing agitation. This was the supposed to be the last day, or had Sasuke forgotten and chosen to remain up there for the rest of his life?


If he’s not down here by the end of the day, then I’m going up there, Naruto decided with a firm nod. It would be easy to get up to the temple with his speed now, so that was no problem.


By midday, his stomach was growling. He peered up at the never ending steps and sighed. He might as well grab something to eat and return in a bit, besides, it would give him more time to think of what to say to Sasuke when he returned.


“Well done,” he muttered out loud, and shook his head as he thought it sounded too lame. “Or how about…great job! You did much better than I expected.” Was that belittling the kid? He frowned and tried to remember what Jiraiya had said to him when he was through.


(ice cream)




His brows knitted in confusion at the seemingly random image, but it all clicked into place soon enough. Jiraiya had been waiting for him with the most refreshing sight in the world; an ice cream and the biggest, cheesiest grin in history. Naruto had tried to remain pissed off while covered with sweat and stinking to high heaven, but how could he stay mad at the guy with the tantalizing treat? It was safe to say that ice cream had never tasted that good before or after that day.


“Except I don’t know where the hell to get an ice cream from,” Naruto muttered as he sunk his teeth into the fresh apple he plucked from one of the many fruit trees within the forest. There weren’t exactly vending machines around here, so unless it meant having to go all the way back to the human realm just to buy some ice cream and return, it was pointless. He chewed thoughtfully for a moment, and then eyed the fruit. Of course! Why not? The kid must have been living on only those pills (and if he was lucky some water from the frogs), but he wouldn’t hate fresh fruit, would he?


Feeling good about his decision, Naruto got a few more apples; found a couple of oranges, and bananas, which he washed carefully in the river to make a miniature fruit basket. Only the basket was the top shirt he had taken off to wrap them in. He made his way back to the temple and sat down to wait again. His plan of action once Sasuke returned was going to be simple; praise the kid for a job well done, offer him the fruit, escort him back to the village where he could get some rest and then they could begin the next phase of their training.


However, the lull of weariness began to attack an hour into his vigil. He hadn’t slept much last night, and with all the fruit he had gorged on, his lashes began to get heavier until he could keep it up no longer.


He hardly even felt himself finally drifting off to sleep, where his dreams were a blissful shade of gray and nothing else mattered.





They say the last few steps at the end of any challenge are always the hardest, and that saying couldn’t be any more appropriate at this time.


Sasuke didn’t bother running. He was exhausted beyond his imagination, and yet even he could tell that a change had already occurred within and without him. Gamakichi and Gamatatsu had noticed as well, and offered a rare praise when he showed up earlier at the temple for his final lap.


“He looks much different now,” Gamatatsu observed with a chuckle. “Don’t he, big brother?”


Gamakichi nodded in reluctant admiration. “Lost some of that baby weight already – more muscle tone and stronger looking. You should check out yourself in there, boy.”


‘In there’ had been a hallway full of mirrors as high as the ceiling. Looking into them made you feel incredibly small, yet what he seen had left him speechless for almost a full minute. He looked leaner – not particularly skinny despite not having proper nutrition – and toned in the right places. Though he had gone shirtless at times, his flesh still didn’t seem to enjoy the sun’s rays and instead of developing a tan, he had a few burns to show for his efforts. He was sure those frogs had done their best to heal him especially on the days he’d simply collapse when he got to the temple and he’d awaken feeling much more refreshed and less achy all over.


They hardly encouraged him verbally, but would quietly go about their business or make him sit still for several hours to meditate after he rested. Still, it was a good exercise for it gave him the opportunity to commune with his surroundings, to allow mind and body to become one, and to erase all troubling thoughts, especially those he tended to have at night. His dreams were still filled with Naruto’s story; the most recent involving him actually walking down the streets of Edo side-by-side with the blond. It could almost be considered pleasant until a sudden cloud of darkness would fill the sky and Madara would appear to take Naruto away from him in the most brutal fashion. Last time, the long-haired man had actually beheaded Naruto in his presence; a dream that had caused him to wake up with a low cry of anguish.


Physique aside, his facial features had also changed a little. It wasn’t as if he smiled a lot anyway, but there was an expression etched there now, which spoke of incredible pain and hardships. Sasuke knew it was probably all due to his experiences with Naruto, and the shared emotional connection between them. It was in his eyes and now carved deeply within his heart, mind and soul. There was no way Naruto wouldn’t realize something had happened, no matter how excellent his non-existing acting skills were.


I’ll just have to tell him the truth then, he thought as he came to the final steps…and froze in mid-stride at the sight before him.


“Na…Naruto?” he gasped breathlessly; unaware of the trembling hand raised to his chest as he felt his heart beat a little faster and harder, which nearly made his knees weaken.


It was one thing to live the life of the man, but seeing him again in the flesh after all he experienced made it seem even more real (or surreal). He took a tentative step forward, a torrent of thoughts and words eager to slip past his lips as he studied the sleeping figure with a longing he wasn’t even going to bother trying to explain.


There’s so much I want to say…but where can I begin?


He finally noticed the fruit wrapped in Naruto’s shirt, and much to his embarrassment, Sasuke felt his heart swell with emotion at the simple yet poignant gesture. He shook his head rapidly and composed himself, before quietly sitting beside his weary mentor to help himself to an apple despite how long it had probably been sitting out here. The juices upon his tongue almost made him moan with pleasure, for nothing had ever tasted so good before and probably never will.


(thank you…)


He took the time to watch Naruto again as if hoping to memorize this moment for posterity. He has seen Naruto sleeping before, so this was nothing new. However, something about it now seemed different, and Sasuke knew why. Before he could control himself, he reached out to brush away the tendrils of yellow hair that flirted dangerously with the parted lips. Curious fingertips did not stop there, however, for they began to tuck the strands behind his ear…before tracing the outlines of those whiskers which had brought him so much pain.


If I could kiss them I would, he began to think, but promptly slapped himself mentally for his errant thoughts and pulled away quickly. Just in time too, for Naruto was beginning to stir and Sasuke moved even further away so as not to give the older man the wrong idea. He kept his features as neutral as possible when those familiar blue eyes were slowly revealed.


“Enjoy your nap?” Sasuke asked with a small smile as he held up the last apple before sinking his teeth into it.


Naruto blinked the sleep away and sat up quickly. Though it was twilight, it wasn’t hard to miss the flush of color to come to his cheeks at being caught in such a situation. Not exactly the welcome he had planned, but at least the kid had finished most of the fruit and seemed to be enjoying himself.


(and looks different too)


He met the dark eyes that seemed to be studying him, before they were lowered quickly. Could be his imagination, but there was something more ‘adult’ about the kid – as if his human age of sixteen was nothing more than a shell for a more seasoned grown-up inside. Brushing aside his concern, he rose to his feet and stretched his arms above his head with a loud yawn.


“So? How do you feel now that you’ve completed phase one of your training?”


Sasuke swallowed and nodded firmly. “I can tell the difference. I already feel much faster. Guess we’ll have to see just how fast tomorrow.”


“I’ll give you a couple of days to rest,” Naruto replied with a small smile. “You’ve far exceeded my expectations anyway, so there’s hope for you yet.”


The boy warmed at the praise, but said nothing. He still couldn’t get himself to fully look into Naruto’s eyes, and Naruto was now more puzzled than ever. Just what the hell happened up there?


“Did you hear your prophecy?” he asked. “Not that I want you to tell me what it is, but…”


Sasuke’s lips tightened and he shook his head. “It wasn’t anything important.” He shrugged lightly. “It was just your usual.”


Why am I lying? His mind screamed. Didn’t I say I would tell him the truth?


“They didn’t give you a hard time up there, did they?” Naruto queried with a raised brow. There was something not right about the kid. He was definitely sure now.


“It’s fine,” Sasuke suddenly snapped impatiently, surprising them both at his tone. “I’m just tired and want to rest like you suggested.”


He rose to his feet unsteadily and tried to lead the way back to the village, when a strong hand on his wrist froze him in place. He looked over his shoulder and into the visage of a man who was not about to take “no” for an answer, and for the second time since he met the man, Sasuke felt a cold fear at just how dangerous Naruto could truly be when upset.


“What happened up there?” came the quiet words.


“It doesn’t matter. Let me go.”


“Not until you start talking. You’re hiding something from me.”


“It’s my prophecy, isn’t it?” Sasuke sneered. “Why are you butting into my affairs now?”


Naruto’s eyes narrowed and his grip tightened, but Sasuke refused to cry out in pain. He now met the blue eyes directly, his jaw squared with stubborn determination.


Let him see. Let him see everything. I don’t give a fuck anymore.


(someone’s been interfering with your past) Kurama taunted from within (someone’s been poking his head into things that are not of his concern)


“What…did…you…do?” Naruto asked through clenched teeth.


Sasuke said nothing, and this snapped Naruto’s last restraint of self-control. His eyes flashed a dangerous hint of red as he roared angrily. “What the fuck did you do?!”


“I chose to do it!” Sasuke finally yelled back in frustration. “I wanted to see it -!”


(I will bear your wrath)


“You had no right!”


“…it’s the only way I could know…!”


(even if it hurts to know you’ll hate me)


“You had no fucking right, Sasuke!”


“…I had to know -!”


“God, you Uchiha are all the same,” came the cold bitter words that was more effective than any dagger stabbed into his heart. “You never change. No matter who I encounter in any generation, you all have to do one thing or another to fuck me over.”


Sasuke couldn’t speak; the loathing and disgust on that face, and in that voice, was more than he could bear. When Naruto finally released him, it was as if he had touched something filthy.


(I’ll bear your wrath even if it hurts…and God does it hurt)


“You have twenty-four hours to rest up,” Naruto snapped as he turned his back on the boy. “The next time we meet, it’s going to be at the pavilion – ask Shima-sama the directions. I’ll be waiting for you there where we’ll begin your next phase of training. Come at me as you would a stranger, as if we had never met. From now on we’re only student and teacher – do as I say, don’t even fucking argue with me, and I won’t have the urge to kill you for your stupidity. Is that clear?”


For a moment nothing was heard except the rustle of the wind through the trees, until a barely audible “yes” was heard behind him. That was enough for Naruto anyway.


“Good. Try and find your way back to the village,” he ordered dismissively. “I’m going to take a long walk.”


And with that, he leapt away from sight, leaving nothing behind but the desolate sounds of a breaking heart.



Chapter 09

Naruto Home

















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