Notes: In the last chapter, I mentioned that Naruto and the others would be escorting a family to the Sand Village. I did not classify it as a Type A job due to the belief that the Sand and Leaf were on good terms. However, more research has shown that that is not the case (The attempted coup during the Chuunin exam) and although the situation has simmered down, there is still some distrust and uneasiness between the two countries. Therefore, their job has been bumped up two notches to Type A. /watches Naruto jump around in excitement in background/ Heh…so what does this mean? Yeah…some action will go on – and I don’t mean that kind either. ^^
The map looked straightforward enough - a wide border, which could have easily housed another village or two, only separated the Wind Country from the borders of the Fire. If they decided to go through this route, they would make it to the Sand village in less than a week. However, if they didn’t want to take chances of facing the unknown, they might have to go through the smaller country of Wind thereby limiting the risk of being attacked without warning. But in so doing, their journey was bound to take at least two weeks, and it was a two weeks that the Leaf’s jounin could not afford to give up.
Hatake Kakashi scratched his head with a low mumble escaping his lips as he stared at the map for the umpteenth time. He, on his own, could easily make the trip back and forth within a week, but they were to escort important people and coupled with the fact that his students were going to be with him, things might get even more complicated.
He gave a heavy sigh.
It wasn’t as if he didn’t trust the three teens by now, after all they had been together for almost five years now. He still wasn’t sure about their emotional stability as of yet. Yes, they had been through some dangerous missions and had almost lost their lives in the process, but this was different. He would have to trust that they could all keep their tumultuous teenage hormonal tendencies under control, or he was going to have a hard time on his hands for the next few days.
I’m just going to have to deal with it as best I can, he thought ruefully as he leaned against the trunk of a sturdy tree. He arched his neck and closed his eyes, allowing the early morning sunlight that had begun to streak through the lush foliage, to warm his skin. He had time to spare. The mission would officially begin in about three hours, which meant…
He whipped out the latest edition of ‘Come, Come Paradise’.
…more time to indulge in his guilty pleasure.
The streets were relatively quiet this time of the morning, but Iruka found that he loved being out here all the same. It was a peaceful feeling and the sounds of shop owners opening up for the day greeted his lazy stroll down the slightly dusty road. Sinking his hands into the pockets of his pants, he eyed the Ramen shop with a small smile curving his lips. He had promised to meet Naruto here this morning for a final meeting of sorts, before his big mission to the Sand.
Iruka felt something hard tug in his chest and he blushed faintly. Even after all this time, his concern for the blond was something that wasn’t so easy to let go. He sometimes found himself fighting the urge to scold Naruto unnecessarily these days. The boy was seventeen now and practically a full-fledged adult, there was really no need for Iruka to keep babying him.
But still…Naruto had always been under his care. Why should that change now?
The sharp smell of Ichiraku’s famous noodles and soba filled his nostrils and he sniffed the air in appreciation. Usually at this time, the vivacious blond would have come running down the street like a man possessed ready to pounce on the delicious meal. But to the jounin’s surprise, after five long minutes, there was no sign of Naruto anywhere. He pursed his lips and stared down the street, trying to ignore the growing sense of worry and uneasiness he was beginning to feel within him. This was unlike Naruto. It was rare…in fact, the blond had never missed an appointment with him. Was he sick? Was Naruto so nervous about the mission that he couldn’t show up? What was worse…had the blond overslept?!
No, the last thought was a bit too ridiculous. Everyone knew how excited Naruto was about being sent on missions. Naruto would not deliberately stay away from…
The teacher spun around so quickly that he almost fell down in his haste at the dull greeting that reached his ears. He blinked once, twice and then rubbed his eyes again just to be sure. Yes, it was the same Naruto he knew. The familiar shock of blond hair that had now grown a bit longer and the body that seemed to have sprouted in growth overnight which was now dressed in the familiar green cloth of the chuunin. Iruka did a double take at the adult and quite pensive look on the boy’s face. If it weren’t for the familiar cat-like markings on Naruto’s cheeks, the teacher was sure he was looking right at The Fourth. He felt his heart rate quicken and found himself blushing in embarrassment at where his thoughts were leading him.
Damn it. But for one brief moment, he had actually found himself…attracted to the teen.
“Naru…Naruto?” came the rather breathless squeak as the older man tried to compose himself quickly. “You’re…I mean…are you alright? You don’t look so good.”
The kyuubi gave a small nod and a smile to match before pointing towards the shop. “I’m starved, sensei. Think we can grab a bite to eat before…leaving?”
Iruka did the ordering as it seemed like Naruto had no plans to say anything. The chuunin was surprisingly well behaved and extraordinarily quiet. It was more than unnerving to the teacher. Had Kakashi said anything to Naruto to make him this nervous? And what about him? What could a teacher like himself, who had not really gone on any real dangerous mission, teach a young man like Naruto about this? He decided to remain silent as well. If Naruto wished to speak about it, then it was his choice. Iruka would not force it out of him.
The food came and they began to eat quietly. Iruka barely tasted a thing, as his worried glances towards the boy beside him became longer and more poignant. Even the owner of the shop was bewildered at Naruto’s sullen attitude. Never in all his years here had he thought he would actually miss the noisy, boisterous behavior of the young boy.
Naruto finished the meal, slurping rather noisily and adding a loud burp at the end. He placed the bowl down and closed his eyes. He could feel Iruka’s concerned gaze on him and he felt his heart sink even lower into the pits of his stomach as he struggled to find a way to tell the older man the confusing thoughts that whirled around in his head.
He had kissed Sasuke again last night.
Kuso! He squeezed his eyes tighter, trying to numb the sharp flare of pain that seared through his heart. Just thinking about the feel of his rival’s lips against his, the passion and heat that had emanated between their bodies sent him clamping his thighs together and flushing with embarrassment and humiliation.
Iruka noticed the movement and arched a brow. Dropping his chopsticks into his unfinished bowl of noodles, he dared to ask quietly. “Do you want to talk about it, Naruto? You don’t have to tell me anything if you don’t want to, but I think…I think it’s best you let it out.”
Talk about it? Talk about it?! I’m dying here, Iruka-sensei! I don’t know what’s wrong with me! I shouldn’t be having such feelings over a boy I should hate! I shouldn’t have let him touch or kiss me last night even after…after…
“Iru…Iruka sensei?” he finally managed to croak out weakly. “Can…can I ask you a question?”
Feeling a sense of relief flood through his being, the teacher nodded eagerly. “Of course you can, Naruto. That’s what I’m here for.”
The blond opened his eyes to reveal pained blue depths that had the older man gasping softly.
“Iruka-sensei…do I…have you…I mean…is there anyone that is very important to you in your life? Besides me…”
Already having prepared to say ‘Of course, you are’, the teacher blinked in surprise before flushing with color as he lowered his gaze to the wooden table before him. Naruto was no longer a child, so there really was no need for him to hide such a thing from the blond anymore, was there? Toying with his chopsticks, he cleared his throat and nodded softly.
“Yes, Naruto. There is…there is someone else that means a lot to me…”
“And how do you feel about the person?” the blond interrupted quickly.
Iruka was surprised at the vehemence of the question, but he had a feeling that this was very important to Naruto and he had to tell the honest truth.
“I love him very much,” he replied simply, eyes darkening with an emotion that had the kyuubi staring numbly. “Hai…I love him very much, Naruto and he feels the same way too.”
Naruto stared a moment longer before giving a soft nod as if such an answer was to be expected. Even the ‘him’ part hadn’t fazed the blond in anyway. Iruka wondered if Naruto had always known of he and Kakashi’s relationship from the beginning. It wasn’t as if they had gone about flaunting it for the entire village to see. But wait a second…did this mean…?
“Naruto…is there someone you might…you know…”
“No! No! No! No! Why…why would you think that?!”
Iruka had to reach out quickly for the empty bowl that had almost toppled to the floor at the boy’s fevered reply and slam of his fists on the table. He placed it away from the flushed boy’s proximity and stared blankly at the way Naruto looked. The kyuubi was clearly in denial as the telltale blush hadn’t faded from his cheeks nor the fevered look that had come into those piercing blue eyes.
Iruka held up his hands in surrender with a light laugh. “Okay, okay, you don’t have to get so loud about the whole thing. You can sit down now.”
The boy did so with a low groan. He folded his arms on the table and buried his face within them. “I’m sorry, Iruka-sensei,” he apologized softly. “I just…I’m just confused right now. So…could you give me some time?”
The kind-hearted jounin gave a willing nod and a warm smile of reassurance. “Don’t worry too much about it, Naruto. But can I at least offer you some advice?”
A dull ‘Sure’ was heard and not wanting to be deterred, Iruka placed a gentle hand on the slumped shoulders.
“It’s alright to be confused at this stage, Naruto. I know I was too.” He kneaded the tense muscles gently, knowing he had the blond’s attention. “But I’m sure everything will work out for the best in the end. Just don’t…lock yourself away from the truth, okay? Try to face whatever comes your way head on and who knows? You just might end up…knowing that he…” At the feel of Naruto’s stiffened shoulder, Iruka corrected himself quickly. “I mean…you might end up knowing that she really is the one for you.”
The chuunin said nothing as he allowed his teacher’s words to sink in. Was that it? Would this trip finally be the thing that would tell him if his feelings with Sasuke were a fluke or not? Of course it had to be a fluke. He was sure that the old lady had put in some potion or something in that bracelet because on any ordinary day, he would not have harbored these type of conflicting thoughts in his head for Sasuke of all people.
She was the cause of all of this.
And so with a determined nod, Naruto sat upright with a genuine smile of appreciation on his lips. All he had to do was return the bracelet back to the old lady and everything would be back to normal.
you, Iruka-sensei,” he enthused brightly before wrapping strong arms around the
surprised man’s waist tightly. “Thank you…for everything,” he continued in a
whisper against the older man’s cheek. Pulling back, he grinned widely before
hopping off the stool and making his way out.
“Wish me luck, sensei!” he called out with a fervent wave.
The teacher fought the stubborn lump that had risen to his throat and waving back with a tremulous smile, he replied softly. “Good luck, Naruto…in everything you do or choose to do.”
Sakura gave a final check of her backpack before giving a soft nod of satisfaction. She looked resplendent in the short red and white dress that bared her long legs to anyone’s gaze. Her pink hair, which she had grown back over the years, was done in a neat ponytail that fell over her left shoulder. Humming softly to herself, she shouldered the heavy luggage, fighting back a wince of pain before stepping out of her apartment and into the street.
She was still disappointed over Sasuke’s behavior towards her yesterday, but had been surprised to find out that Ino-pig’s observations had been ringing around in her mind all day and night as well. What if the blonde shinobi was right? What if Sasuke really was into…guys? Sakura gave an unwilling shudder at the thought. She really didn’t have anything against gay men. There were a few around the Leaf and she had often wondered just how they could manage such a thing. Unfortunately, Ino had been around on that day and had been more than glad to tell the pink-haired girl all about anal sex.
Shuddering again at the memory of the perverted lecture, Sakura trained her thoughts back on her handsome dark-haired teammate. It was true that Sasuke did not show much of an emotion towards the female sex besides having to protect them from dangers and the like. And it was also true that he had rarely been seen with any other girl in a…compromising position – not that such a thing would ever happen as long as she was around. But then again, Sasuke had never really shown that much of an interest with boys…like that. Or had he? She tried to remember any odd behavior that she might have missed.
He’s always passionate about fighting, that’s for sure, she thought with a light frown on her features. She barely registered that she was now almost at their meeting spot. And he always did have this need to best Naruto at everything. Which wasn’t really a surprise as both boys had made it clear from the get-go that they were rivals and nothing else.
“Tch, that Naruto,” she mumbled to herself. “Always getting into Sasuke’s face. If I wasn’t so sure about the moron, I would have figured he’s the one that’s gay.”
And just as suddenly as she had thought that, she froze in her tracks, eyes widening with realization. Maybe that’s it! Maybe Naruto was the one that was gay!
“Oh my! Why didn’t I think of that?!”
“Why didn’t you think of what?” came the familiar deep voice that never ceased to send shivers down her spine.
Feeling her cheeks heat up with color, she spun around quickly, a shy smile coming to her visage as she glanced timidly into the handsome face of the very boy that had been in her thoughts.
The genius chuunin gave only a light nod of acknowledgement before continuing his steady steps towards the bridge. Sakura moved quickly to catch up to him, eyes drinking in the imposing figure he created. He had grown so much taller over the past years – actually both he and Naruto had. His dark hair was much longer than before and fell in thick straight strands over his shoulder. The green uniform fit the lean body perfectly, showing off the strength in the developing muscles with each confident stride. That face that had been handsome or even considered pretty as a pre-teen, had now hardened with adulthood, giving it a more dangerous edge to it. Those piercing dark eyes, that straight nose, those full red lips, that were currently saying something she couldn’t hear or understand…
Sasuke spared her a wary glance. “I asked if you had seen Naruto this morning,” he repeated slowly. They had reached the bridge now and sure enough their teammate was nowhere in sight. Surely, Naruto would have been the first person to show up here for such an important mission.
Sakura gave a dramatic sigh. “Trust him to show up late. He’s almost as bad as Kakashi-sensei.”
But this was a good thing too. It meant that she would have more time to spend with Sasuke. Suddenly she loved the blond shinobi for not showing up so soon.
Sasuke gave a light grunt in response, before turning away to lean over the wooden rails of the bridge. The hand in his pocket tightened around the cool metal object within it, as he stared at the sparkling blue of the water below him. He had figured that Naruto disappearing so quickly from his home this morning would have meant that the blond had gotten here on time, but it seemed as if that was not the case.
He can’t avoid me forever. We have this mission to do together and he will show up sooner or later.
And then what? His mind taunted. So what if he shows up? What are you going to do? Confront him and demand a repeat performance of last night? He will only reject you again and this time, you just might lose him completely.
“Did you say something, Sasuke-kun?” came the timid question from the female ninja. Why she still felt incredibly shy around him, she would never know. But he had a power over her and she knew deep down inside that she would forever be weak to resist it.
Sasuke shook his head and was just about to reply when a loud cry froze his words.
The genius felt his heart leap into his throat and he swallowed tightly. He was already feeling this nervous about meeting Naruto? The Naruto? This was ridiculous! But to his mixed feelings of relief and disappointment it turned out to be none other than Rock Lee, the hardest working ninja in all of Konoha making his way towards them.
“Sakura-chan! I am so glad I caught you before you left,” the dark haired boy enthused with a wide grin as he stopped before the flabbergasted girl. “Here! I got this for you for good luck.”
He held the small blue wrapped box in his hands towards her, with a light blush dusting his cheeks. Sakura stared at it for several long seconds, not sure if she should accept anything in front of Sasuke or not. But Lee-san had been so nice to her over the years and she had admit that the bushy-browed boy could be quite engaging when in a good mood. And so with a warm smile (at least as much as she could muster) she accepted the box.
“Thank you, Lee-san,” she muttered softly. “This was really…thoughtful of you. I will treasure it.”
“Aren’t you going to open it?” came the bemused question.
“Oh…oh of course, I am.” And blushing in embarrassment, Sakura peeled away the layers carefully to reveal a small wooden handcrafted necklace. It was made up of interlaced white and brown beads and had the Leaf’s emblem at its center. It really was a beautiful piece and Sakura felt something stir in her chest at the simplicity of the gift.
“You don’t have to say anything,” the boy interrupted quickly, as his face flushed an even darker shade of red. “I just want you to have a safe trip and to come back safely to me…eh…the village.”
Sasuke couldn’t help smiling a little at the exchange as he turned away again to stare at the water below him. His heartbeat was back to normal now, although it still felt as if he had run a marathon in the space of a few minutes. Where the hell was Naruto? He wanted to see the blond, but yet not see him.
Kami, this is all so confusing.
And as the sounds of the people they were supposed to escort to the Sand grew louder, Sasuke eyed the lonesome winding road that led back to the village.
Where are you, Naruto? You can’t hide away from me forever, you know. Come here and face me like a man. I am…waiting for you…
Panic was the understatement of the year for what a certain Uzumaki Naruto felt at this time. He had emptied his pockets, had run back to his apartment, upturned every single furniture, and ransacked his carefully packed luggage all to no avail.
The damn bracelet was missing!
All his well thought out plans of returning the offending object and getting his life back on track was going to be foiled because of his carelessness. He sat frozen on his porch watching with growing alarm as the day grew brighter and brighter. He was already running late. Too late. And if he didn’t show up soon, Kakashi was sure to be upset with him and might even be forced to leave him behind.
What could he have done with the piece of jewelry?
He didn’t remember taking it out of his pocket, but then again, last night had been…
He had changed into the dark-haired boy’s clothes last night. He had taken off his own clothes. The bracelet must have fallen out of his pocket then.
He felt his mouth go dry. His heartbeat quickened with growing worry, nervousness and dull fear. Sasuke must have found the bracelet. Sasuke would have seen his name on the jewelry. Sasuke must now think that he, Naruto, really did have feelings for him. Sasuke was going to mock him and use the bracelet against him!
And like a man possessed, Naruto got to his feet – making sure his backpack was well secured – and began to run towards the bridge like the devil was on his tail.
He had to get that bracelet back somehow before it was too late.
The Miura group comprised of two elders (men in their late fifties), two women of the same age and a young married couple, who looked as if they couldn’t get enough of the other. Sakura watched their loving display with a wistful smile, imagining herself and Lee…
She absently fingered the necklace that now lay around her neck gently, wondering why in the world the bushy browed boy had come to mind first. She was imagining herself with Sasuke as married couples and nothing else. But still, it had been awfully nice of the dark-haired ninja to give her such a thoughtful gift. She sighed heavily. If only Sasuke would buy her something like this…
“Naruto is taking too long in getting here,” Kakashi mumbled, although there was a faint tinge of impatience in his voice.
Sasuke pushed himself away from the tree he had been leaning against to announce softly. “I will go look for him.”
And hardly waiting for his teacher’s response, he ‘disappeared’ from sight, only to land lithely above the highest tree in the vicinity. Sharp dark eyes surveyed the expanse of land below him, his mind churning with a million and one thoughts on what had kept his rival away for so long. The only answer he could come up with was that that kyuubi was just as scared and nervous as he was inside. And it wasn’t about the mission either.
He was just about to leap out of the tree when a flash of yellow caught his eye.
Without thinking twice about it, Sasuke leapt down from the branch to a lower one, keeping his gaze firmly fixed on the speeding figure. Gauging the boy’s brief resting point, Sasuke took a deep breath and ‘appeared’ before the blond, successfully halting the ninja’s movements to a surprised screech.
For several heart stopping seconds, both boys could only stare at each other, breaths harsh and ragged from their blistering run. Naruto’s flushed visage, due to his pace, darkened even more as his gaze fell to the moist parted lips before him. For one gut-wrenching second, the wild urge to pull the other boy into his arms and to seize the plump offerings in a hard kiss was too much for his young mind to bear. He staggered back weakly and would have fallen to the ground if it wasn’t for the strong hand that reached out to pull him back upright.
Unfortunately, Sasuke pulled him a bit too closely and now only mere inches separated their heated skins.
It was last night all over again. Naruto was going to lose his mind and take the plunge. Rational thinking was going to fly out of the window and before long…before long they would be kissing each other again like there was no tomorrow. And sweet Kami, wasn’t Sasuke’s eyes darkening to that familiar shade of red?
The heat was becoming too unbearable.
“You what?” Sasuke whispered thickly as his grip on Naruto’s arm tightened just a little bit more. Just watching the boy talk now was enough to drive him crazy. Had Naruto always been this…hot?
Sasuke was heat and Naruto knew without a doubt that with or without the bracelet he was a lost cause. This wasn’t a fluke. This didn’t have anything to do with the need to best his rival in the battlefield. This was about dealing with strange, wild, confusing and yet exciting emotions that had awakened within him.
He’s driving me crazy. Without even trying…he’s…he’s driving me crazy.
Again, Naruto tried to will his muddled thoughts together. “I…you…” What the hell was he about to say again?!
A small teasing smirk came to the genius chuunin’s face and to Naruto, he had never seen anyone look so sinfully sexy at that point. Good grief, just what was he thinking about right now?!
“You want me?” Sasuke teased as he leaned even closer to whisper them into the blond’s ear.
Naruto flushed and felt something hard stir within his pants. He shivered and closed his eyes, whispering a bit incoherently. “Ye…yes…I mean…no…no…”
The dark-haired boy gave a low groan of need. If last night had been a prelude to what could possibly happen between them, then Sasuke was sure that they would never make it to the bridge on time. He wanted Naruto. Had always wanted Naruto. The burning itch within him was growing stronger and stronger with each passing minute and if he didn’t scratch it soon…
“Sasuke-kun!! Naruto!! Where are you?!”
Both gasped softly as if they had already been caught and jumped apart with flushed and guilty looks on their features. Naruto tried to steady shaky legs, but was unsuccessful as he found himself falling down to the ground rather ungracefully. Sakura gave a small yelp of fright before rolling her eyes as she noticed who it was.
“Naruto!” she began angrily. “We’ve been waiting for you! What took you so long? Have you seen Sasuke-kun anywhere?!”
The kyuubi gave a sheepish laugh and rose to his feet. “Ah…sorry, sorry, Sakura-chan. I just forgot something back at my house. Let’s…let’s go now…”
“But where’s Sasuke-kun?”
Naruto stole a quick glance at the boy that was till hidden among the trees above them. He could feel his face heat up again with color at the darkened look that Sasuke gave to him, before the genius chuunin vanished from sight. He gave a low moan and placed a hand against his thudding chest as he slowly followed Sakura towards the meeting point.
This was bad. No, this was very bad.
Not only had he failed to retrieve the bracelet from Sasuke, but if Sakura hadn’t shown up, Naruto was sure that he would have willingly given himself to the other boy with little to no hesitation whatsoever. He would have to gather some sort of self-control around Sasuke or this trip was going to be the longest one of his entire life.
They stepped into the clearing and he vaguely registered that his nemesis was already there standing beside Kakashi, who had now begun to ask him questions.
Naruto answered as best he could, keeping his gaze firmly fixed on an area between Kakashi’s eyes. Apparently satisfied with the blond’s replies, the jounin gave everyone their final instructions before setting out for the Sand. He and Sakura would lead the group in front while Sasuke and Naruto were to guard from the rear.
Damn it, thought Sakura as she reluctantly walked in front of the group with Kakashi.
Daaaaaamn it! thought Naruto as he stared morosely at the ground below him.
As for Sasuke, he only gave a curt nod in response, although his heart leapt with gratitude and hope.
This arrangement suited him just fine as it would give him the perfect opportunity to show Naruto just how much he meant in his life.
Several miles ahead, the young man held out his hand to welcome back the ‘third eye’ within his palm. A small smile curved his lips as he stuck his hands into his pockets and began to walk back towards the village completely ignoring the waves of sand that seemed to wash over him.
So, they are coming, eh? He thought as his smile grew wider.
Things were about to become very interesting around here…