Between trying to keep up with classes (and subsequently surprising the hell out of all the teachers and some students in the process), practice at the dojo, and his lessons with Sasuke, Naruto had never felt his brain more…how else to put this…full with all the information he sought to cram into it in such a short period of time. He rarely hung out on the roof anymore (where was the time to do so anyway?) and at the end of the day, he was crashed out with exhaustion. Even doing any of his favorite pastimes – watching porn or playing video games – seemed to lose its appeal a little.
“Dude, you’ve got bags beneath your eyes,” Chouji said as he watched his friend wash his face beside the baseball field where they were watching Shikamaru practice. “You’re taking this studying thing way too seriously, bro.”
Naruto grunted in response and stuck his head beneath the tap to get his hair wet. He pulled away and shook his head like a dog, before managing a small smile at his friend. “I know. I can’t believe it myself, but … I’m getting used to it.”
‘Getting used to it’, was one way of stating the obvious. Sasuke was a godsend and the boy hadn’t been kidding when he said he would be brutal with Naruto when he put his mind to it. After that first day, Sasuke had arrived in school the next day with a well-planned time table of the topics they’d cover during their sessions. They had gone back to Naruto’s house to study, this time using the living room downstairs. Sasuke was patient enough, but strict when he noticed Naruto about to whine or complain about how much work he was made to do. He gave Naruto assignments of his own, which he was to turn in first thing in the morning. Needless to say, the students of Class 3-1 were beginning to wonder just what kind of a relationship those two had, as Naruto would always dash into the room with papers in hand, thrust it at Sasuke before dashing off again before the first bell rang.
“Tutoring,” was all Sasuke would say when asked by the curious ones.
To be honest, Sasuke was enjoying himself immensely with these study sessions – and not just because it was a chance to torture Naruto with algebra or quadratic equations. It was what happened afterwards that made the difference for him. Surprisingly, it didn’t involve any actual physical contact, as both boys had done their best to behave as much as possible. Naruto would always drive him home, but on the way, they sometimes stopped to either have a quick snack at Naruto’s favorite ramen shop, or at a bookstore to browse through the latest manga released. If they had change to spare, they’d even play for a few minutes at an arcade.
They were getting to know each other a bit more, talking of other likes and dislikes besides class work or the tournament. Sasuke had come to know that Naruto liked his takoyaki with a lot of spices and very deep fried. Naruto’s music tastes ranged from rap to hard rock. He liked to shop at a discount store downtown, where he got most of his designer gear. Sasuke knew that Naruto liked to walk over the narrow bridge next to the central park garden in the city, only to see if he could snag one of the rare koi fish that lived there. Sasuke had called him an idiot the day Naruto had taken him there, but had to admit he was curious himself to see if the blond could catch the damn thing. He had stood on the bridge, watching (with mild embarrassment as passersby looked on in confusion) Naruto roll up his pants legs and wade through the cold water. The boy would fall on his ass each time he missed and return grumbling and swearing to catch that ‘goddamn-stupid-ass-fish’ or his name wasn’t Uzumaki Naruto.
“What are you chuckling about?” Suigetsu asked as he peered into his team captain’s face. “You’ve been mighty pleased with yourself the last few days. Especially with Naruto hanging around you so much.”
Sasuke ignored the snide remark and focused on the work before him. He was grading the latest assignment Naruto had just submitted and after the past four marathon days of studying, it seemed like his teaching style was finally paying off.
“I don’t believe it,” he whispered, wanting to get off his seat and run to Naruto’s class to tell him the good news. “He got them all right.”
“Got what all right?” Suigetsu queried.
“Don’t you have anything better to do than hang around me?” Sasuke finally snapped with irritation.
“Geez, don’t bite my fucking head off,” came the grumble. “Just because you and your boyfriend…”
“He’s not…” The automatic denial he usually reserved for whenever anyone accused him and Sai of being a couple, faltered on his lips as he weighed the implications in his mind.
My boyfriend…technically…he is. Isn’t he?
/Are you in love with me? /
He blushed at the memory of the direct question, wondering why such a thing made him feel more flustered than he let on. He couldn’t be…in love…not that it was a concept he was loathe to experience eventually, but when he really thought about it…
You are, aren’t you? All this time you’ve acted like you were only after his body…fascinated with the guy…it all boiled down to you really being …
“Saaasuuke,” Karin whined, in an attempt to gain his attention.
“Leave him alone,” Suigetsu grumbled. “Mr. Wonderful is in his grouchy mood again.”
I can’t be in love with him…I really like him, that’s all. Love…not yet…besides…he doesn’t feel the same way and I can’t fucking deal with anything that deep right now.
He sighed and opened the textbook required as their teacher walked into class, realizing he was only kidding himself. He knew the real reason for his denial. He was scared shitless of being rejected eventually. Naruto would never really harbor feelings that deep for him, so to protect himself, Sasuke knew he’d have to keep his affections as superficial as possible...
…with the hope that someday…maybe…somehow…Naruto would reserve that emotion specifically for him.
Saturday night was a muggy one, and Amaru looked pretty damn cute in her pink polka-dot halter top and white shorts. Naruto felt smug at the looks of envy that came their way, while stepping out of the crowded theater and walking towards the parking lot. The night-out was a welcome reprieve from his hectic week, although to be honest, he had almost forgotten about the date until Amaru’s enthusiastic reminder early in the morning.
“That was a fun one, wasn’t it, Naruto?” Amaru gushed as she pressed herself closer to him, arm entwined with his. “I needed the laugh.”
“Sorry I couldn’t get us into the action movie you wanted to see though. I had no idea they would sell out so quickly.”
“You know what this means, don’t you?” Amaru asked with a mischievous glint in her eye.
Naruto tried to look terrified. “Oh, no! What?”
Amaru giggled and tapped his arm gently. “Silly, Naruto. This means you owe me another movie night. And I won’t take no for an answer.”
Naruto gave a mock salute. “Yes ma’am! Consider me signed and delivered to your doorstep for our next movie night.”
Amaru’s light laughter was like music to his ears and he couldn’t help feeling pleased at the way things were going between them. He wanted to continue being friends with her, and realized that he was still unable to drum up the same intense feelings of infatuation he had once harbored for her. Oh, she was still drop dead gorgeous and he liked the way her body felt against his, but anything deeper than that was a lost cause.
“So, how’s the practice coming along for the tournament?” she asked, nudging him out of his thoughts. “Just two weeks left, right? Excited?”
“Nervous as hell,” Naruto confessed, coming to a stop before an ice cream stand, which had a pretty long line of waiting patrons. He maneuvered them into position, eager to taste the sweet treat. “I sometimes think I’m not ready for it.”
“Ooh, a big, tough guy like you is nervous? I’m shocked!” Amaru teased, standing on tiptoes to place a soft kiss on his cheek. “With my support, you don’t need to be afraid.”
The gesture had the blond blushing, and he laughed it off. “Now I feel more confident. I’m gonna kick their asses! Especially Akatsuki.”
Amaru’s eyes widened. “Akatsuki, eh? They sound scary. What school are they from?”
“Seihou Gakuen,” Naruto replied, frowning lightly as he remembered their faces and stats. “They really are a tough crew, but not to worry. Konoha fighters are the best. You heard it here first.”
Amaru clapped her hands in glee. “Of course Konoha is awesome. I wish I went to your school though…”
Naruto blinked in confusion. “Why? Kusanagi Girls is like for you rich, smart, beautiful girls, isn’t it? Everyone, guys included, would love to go to your school!”
“Yeah but…I’m not close enough to you,” came the shy reply. “I want to see you everyday, Naruto.” She pressed herself against him again, listening to the steady beat of his heart. “I want to be with you.”
Not you too, was the first thought to flicker across his mind and he kicked himself inwardly for not being more enthusiastic about her blatant confession. He settled instead for caressing her hair gently, before placing a tender kiss on it. “You’re actually really sweet, Amaru, and I like that about you.”
“So you don’t like my wild and naughty side?”
Naruto laughed at the memory. “Well now…I’m not complaining…hey! What the…?”
It was a hard bump from the person that walked by, and it wasn’t just that the person had done so without apologizing, but it was the fact that there was plenty of room for the bastard to maneuver himself around and yet he had deemed it necessary to hit Naruto. The blond turned, a hand reaching out to tap the culprit’s shoulder, more than ready to give him a piece of his mind. For a moment, the long blond hair had Naruto wondering if he was touching the wrong person (and he mentally prepared to apologize to the girl/woman if that was the case), however, all that was dashed aside as the person turned around to pin amused green eyes on him. It was soon followed by a sneer and everything clicked into place for Naruto as the mocking features were now fully trained on him.
“Well, well, what can I do for you, Uzumaki Naruto?”
Naruto took a step back, about to ask the question of how Deidara knew his name, but figured it would be pointless. If they knew about Seihou Gakuen’s fighters, what stopped the other school from knowing all about Konoha’s team?
“Nothing much,” Naruto replied with a matching sneer, trying to control the rapid beating of his heart as the low, familiar surge of adrenaline at the notion of an impending fight, threatened to overwhelm him. He remembered the rules – not to get into any fight with any other tournament participant or the entire team would be disqualified. “Didn’t think I’d get to see any Seihou cockroach before the tournament began. Shit. This ruins my whole grand entrance plans.”
Deidara’s brow twitched as his smile tightened. “Hmph. A drowned rat like you shouldn’t be talking so big. Admit you’re terrified of what we’re capable of doing, Uzumaki Naruto.” He took a threatening step forward, lips peeled back as his grin widened. “Your school has been lucky the past few years, but this is our time. Akatsuki will crush you like the maggots you are.”
“Phew. Someone needs to brush,” came the response that was punctuated by an exaggerated yawn. “You done? I can buy you some dental hygiene products if you …whoa there!”
He skipped out of range from the sudden blow that had been intended for his face, smirking and ducking in a swift move that had Deidara gasping in surprise as he missed again.
“Really now, should you be doing this?” Naruto teased, now on his haunches as he watched the furious blond standing before him. “If you punch me…just one, you’ll be disqualified. And I’d rather kick your ass in the ring than have it all end here.”
“You son-of-a-bitch!” Deidara roared and would have made another blind dash for Naruto, when the sudden appearance of the huge guy stopped him in his tracks. “Get out of my way, Kisame!” came the growl as he tried to move around the immobile figure. “I’m gonna fucking kill him!”
“That temper of yours is going to get us all in trouble, Deidara,” said the firm voice belonging to the female Naruto hadn’t even noticed until now. “Cool the fuck down.”
Konan, eh? Naruto thought as he rose to his feet. She looked much taller in person, or maybe it was because of the mini-skirt she was wearing that revealed her long legs. Either way, she was a babe in her own right, but there was a coldness about her that sent shivers down Naruto’s spine.
She turned to Naruto, their gazes locked for a moment, before she appraised the entire package with a heated look that had the blond flushing. “So you are Naruto,” she finally said. “It should be an interesting tournament.”
Deidara was all but foaming at the mouth as he watched the exchange. “Interesting, my ass. Let me at him.”
“Better cool your bitch here," Naruto muttered, reaching into his pocket for his pack of cigarettes. “Before I put my foot up his ass.”
Deidara sputtered, his features now so red, one was sure he was bound to explode or pop a blood vessel – whichever came first. “Did he just call me a bitch? Did he?! I’ll kill him! Let me go, Kisame!”
The huge guy seemed to finally have enough of his annoying teammate as he shut Deidara up with a solid slap on the face. The blond, so stunned at the treatment, could only hold on to his stinging cheek unable to speak as he watched Kisame walk up to Naruto.
Naruto, who was about to light up, lifted his gaze to watch the approaching figure warily. He really didn’t need the extra drama and with Amaru pressing against his side with worry etched on her features, he realized he’d have to diffuse the situation and take her home before things got out of hand.
“Hey, listen,” he began with a small smile of truce. “Why don’t we all just…urgh! What the hell?”
He scowled at the unnecessary action, wondering why the big guy felt it was necessary to touch him.
Kisame gave a smile and a horrible looking one at that. “I just wanted to apologize on Deidara’s behalf,” he said in a gruff voice, revealing canines that bore an uncanny resemblance to sharpened fangs. “I promise we will keep him in line until the tournament begins. I hope to see you there, Uzumaki Naruto. Do not disappoint me.”
“Yeah, whatever,” came the mumble as Naruto tugged on Amaru’s arm gently. “Come on, let’s go. I’ve had enough of these weirdos.”
“So that’s Akatsuki,” Amaru deduced as she allowed herself to be pulled away from the watching trio. She shivered and looked at her striding partner, her fear growing tenfold at the enormity of what lay ahead for him. If those three were just a sample of the caliber of fighters they were bound to face, would Naruto or his teammates be able to fend them off? There was clearly intent to kill. Amaru couldn’t put her finger on it, but she was terrified. This tournament seemed to be losing its innocent appeal of ‘friendly-competition-between-schools’ and was now entering the realm of ‘fight-to-the-death’.
“Naruto…” she began, wondering how she could convey her worries to him. He had looked so sure and confident…not afraid of those guys and yet…
“Don’t worry, Amaru,” came the soft words as Naruto glanced over his shoulder to smile widely at her in reassurance. “Those bastards didn’t scare me. I’m much tougher than I look and…urgh!”
He, suddenly, fell to one knee, a hand going to his chest…particularly where his heart was…as the sudden electrical surge wracked through him. He gasped and tried to breathe, vaguely aware that this was the same technique Sasuke had used on him…although it hadn’t hurt to this extent. What Kisame had done was simply to touch his chest. It hadn’t even been a punch per say, and yet…
“Fuck!” He gave a deep gut-wrenching cough – a painful motion that had his throat burning in protest. He felt the well of something thick like phlegm, and was alarmed to find his palm coated with blood…his blood…as he had covered his mouth to control it.
“Naruto!” Amaru shrieked as she noticed the dark red stain. “Oh, my God!”
That bastard, Kisame! What the hell did he do to me?!
His vision swam and Amaru’s shrieks weren’t helping much with his pounding headache. “I’m fine…” he tried to say, but his voice sounded a million miles away and it hurt to speak.
“A doctor,” the frantic girl was saying as she pulled out her cell phone, tears racing down her cheeks. “I have to call…” A firm hand on her trembling ones had her looking at Naruto in panic.
“Don’t…” Naruto gasped as he staggered to his feet. “I’ll be fine, honest. Don’t tell anyone about this, Amaru.”
“But…Naruto, you might be really….!”
Her choked sob was buried against his chest as he hugged her tightly to him. He whispered thickly into her hair with an urgency that scared her. “Don’t let them know. If they do…it will get them worried and I don’t need that for them just a few weeks before the tournament begins. Do you understand?”
She didn’t understand! Coughing up blood was not something to take lightly. She pulled away with a struggle and tried to glare sternly at him, still unable to stop the tears from falling. “I can’t let it go, Naruto! You are badly hurt! You can’t fight like this!”
“I’ve been in worse,” the boy admitted with an attempt at a smile. He needed to lie down. “I’ll heal just fine, you’ll see. You can come check me out on Monday if you want and you’ll see that I’ll be back to a hundred percent.”
She hitched in her sobs. “Naruto…”
He tapped her nose gently. “I’m tougher than I look, Amaru. You have to trust me.”
Half an hour later, and despite two other attempts to get him to go to the hospital, Amaru could only watch helplessly as she waved after his disappearing figure. He had managed to get her home safely, but not before she helped wash away the blood stains from his mouth, hands and shirt. He hadn’t coughed again, but she would have been a moron not to have noticed his ashen pallor and hoarse voice. Even the ride home had been less exhilarating as Naruto had driven considerably slower than his normal pace. She had felt him tremble within her embrace and as the tears fell again, she knew without a doubt that something just wasn’t right.
Sasuke…I have to call Sasuke!
She dug into her bag for her cell phone, but remembering Naruto’s fevered plea halted her actions. He didn’t want to worry his teammates – it was to boost their morale and if they knew that he was injured….
Oh God! What do I do?
She slapped her hands over her face and broke down in defeat. She couldn’t betray his trust. She had made a promise and she’d have to stick to it, no matter how much it hurt. Knowing she’d have to wait, watch and hope that he got better by the time the tournament began, was really all she could do now.
The next day, he shuffled into the kitchen in his pjs, barely registering the familiar breakfast smells that usually made him hungry. Ms. Fuyutsuki was bustling around the kitchen, as usual, humming a song he vaguely recognized. Maybe it was his imagination, but she always seemed a little happier when his uncle was around. Curious.
“Where’s he?” Naruto asked, causing her to jump in fright at the sudden interruption.
“Goodness, Naruto,” she gasped, holding a hand to her chest. “You frightened me. Next time make some noise, okay?”
He gave a weak smile, holding on to the doorjamb for fear his actual state would be revealed. “Sorry, auntie. Where is he though?”
“In the garage,” came the reply. “Won’t you eat something first? You look…pale.” She eyed him carefully and before Naruto could step away, she moved closer to place a hand against his forehead. “Well, you don’t seem to have a fever, but you are definitely pale…what’s this?” Her eagle eyes caught the barely visible stain at the hem of his top. “Blood…? Naruto!”
“I’m fine, auntie,” he began in protest, but she was already pounding up the stairs with an agility that surprised him. It didn’t take long for her cry of shock to resonate through the house, and she ran back down clutching the soaked towels to her chest. “Auntie…”
“You are going to the hospital right this minute, young man!” she huffed just as Jiraiya stepped into the house, dressed in a grease-stained coverall.
“Who’s going to the hospital?” he asked as he wiped his sweaty brow with a handkerchief already black with soot. He had been working on one of his classic convertibles, hoping he’d get to ride it around the city this fine Sunday afternoon. However, one glance at the blood-soaked towels, Ms. Fuyutsuki’s panicked visage and finally, his nephew’s pale countenance was enough to have him frowning.
“Naruto,” he said quietly, as he eyed the boy. “What happened this time?”
“I didn’t get into any fight, if that’s what you’re trying to say,” came the sullen reply. The last thing Naruto needed was another lecture about his street fights. Shit. He hadn’t been in one in quite a while, and to make things worse, he hadn’t really started the argument last night. Damn that stupid, big-for-nothing blue-faced freak!
“…was all over the floor, I think,” Ms. Fuyutsuki was saying. “I think he has tuberculosis. All that smoking!”
“Jesus! It’s not tuberculosis!” Naruto yelled in frustration and ended up regretting it as his vision wavered. His head felt way too light and all too soon, he found himself almost kissing the floor, but not before his uncle’s strong arms encircled him to prevent the fall.
“Damn it,” Jiraiya cursed as he walked into the living room and placed the boy gently on the couch. He tugged Naruto’s shirt open, eyes scanning over the heaving chest with growing concern. He placed his ear against it, noticing with mild panic that the boy’s heart was beating at a rather irregular pace. This wasn’t good.
“Kaname-hime,” he said quietly, causing Ms. Fuyutsuki’s eyes to widen at the name. It’s been ages since Jiraiya had called her by her real name, and hearing it again after so long had her cheeks flushing with heat.
“Yes…” she whispered.
“Please…help him….” Came the earnest plea as the man, who could always look intimidating and larger-than-life, seemed to finally show his age. He clasped his hands to prevent them from trembling too hard.
“But it’s been years,” Kaname began weakly, a sliver of fear racing down her spine at what he was asking her to do. “I don’t know if I have the ability anymore.”
Jiraiya gave her a warm smile. “It never goes away, Kaname. I know his previous wounds have always healed fast and your services weren’t needed, but this time…I think we ought to deal with this now before it’s too late.”
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, before opening them to nod slowly. “All right then. Prepare the room…and I’ll do my best.”
What Naruto didn’t know about his ‘uncle’ and ‘auntie’s’ relationship was this – Ms. Fuyutsuki, who looked like any ordinary woman in her late forties, had actually been raised as a priestess in the remote mountains up North. Jiraiya’s travels had led him to her, due to his interest in ancient medicine and mythology. Kaname’s extensive knowledge about all things regarding the Healing Arts, as well as her uncanny ability to cure most cases brought to her, had fascinated the young Jiraiya. It was during his stay there (he had lived in the temple for almost a whole year), when the news of Naruto’s parents death was conveyed to him. Jiraiya was not really related to Minato or Kushina. The couple had been students during his days as a professor at a local college. It was his match-making skills that had brought them together, and needless to say, his thrill at being named their first son’s godfather, was one of the best gifts he could ever receive. His grief at the news of their death was so great, Jiraiya made the decision to leave his sanctuary – almost without saying goodbye. However, at the bottom of the steps which led to the temple, was Kaname, waiting and already prepared for the journey ahead.
“I will follow you,” was all she had said with determination in her beautiful blue eyes and voice. Jiraiya didn’t have the heart to turn her away and the rest, as they say, is history.
The ‘room’ was a barely lit space in the basement, which was not very large, and looked absolutely empty at first sight. However, written all over the floor were strange markings, done in a large perfect circle that closely resembled the yin-yang symbol. In the center of this circle was where Naruto lay, stripped down to only his underwear and the necklace around his neck. His breathing was harsh and uneven in the quiet room as the adults sat at either end of him – Jiraiya at his feet and Kaname at his head. Their hands were clasped tightly together, eyes closed as they concentrated on the task before them.
After what seemed like an eternity, a low hum began to resonate from the depths of the floor. Neither adult moved even as the strange markings seemed to tremble, nor when it began to squiggle like snakes on the ground. A dull blue glow began to fill the circle and envelope them in a warm cocoon. Naruto’s breathing became more erratic and the concentration on the adults’ faces magnified tenfold. Sweat – like tiny drops of pearls – danced upon their flesh, none more so than Kaname, whose powers had lain dormant for so long. With one final push, the dancing markings began to worm their way around the circle and as if on cue, formed a line that raced directly into Naruto’s chest. The boy’s body jerked off the ground as if pulled by a violent invisible force and the howl that escaped his lips was unearthly and deafening in the relative silence.
“Almost there,” Kaname whispered through gritted teeth. She could feel herself getting weak, but she knew she had to hang on if this was to work. “Hang in there, Naruto…I know it hurts, but we’re almost there.”
In less than a minute, it was all over as soon as it began. The last of the markings vanished into the boy’s chest, leaving nothing but a tiny black mark in the form of a circle above his left nipple. He was quiet again…but most importantly, it seemed like his breathing was back to normal.
“We…we did it,” Jiraiya panted as he smiled in relief. “We actually did …Kaname!” He cried out in panic as he noticed the woman about to fall into a dead faint, dashing towards her with a speed that would have surprised his nephew, if he was awake. “Kaname,” he called out desperately, tapping her pallid cheeks gently. “…Kaname, answer me!”
With a low groan, she lifted her lashes and gave the concerned man a small but warm smile. “I’ll…I’ll be fine, Jiraiya. I just need to get some rest. I haven’t expended this much energy in so long. I should punish you for this.”
Jiraiya chuckled and cradled her within his arms and together they watched the sleeping boy in silence for a while.
“When do you think it will be a good time to let him know about this room,” Kaname finally asked.
“Hopefully never,” Jiraiya muttered. “I promised Minato I’d take care of his kid and I’m doing the best I can. The last thing he needs is any knowledge about our way of healing. I just hope we never have to do anything this extreme again. Whoever did that to him had the intention to kill, Kaname.”
“That is true. However…”
“I don’t think we have to worry too much about him anymore,” the woman said with a soft giggle. “I think he has surrounded himself with good friends – friends who will protect him no matter what.”
“Not those three troublemakers,” Jiraiya groaned.
“Those three and more,” Kaname replied as she rose to her feet slowly. “That boy…Sasuke Uchiha…”
“Oh, Naruto’s boyfriend, eh?” came the cheeky reply which earned him a light cuff on the head. “Come now, even you’ve seen the way those two act. What did I say wrong?”
Kaname ignored the whining and moved closer to Naruto. Falling to her knees, she caressed his features gently, feeling her heart swell with the love she had for the tenacious and yet wonderful young man she considered her son.
“I should make lunch,” she said quickly, standing up turning away to hide the tears that threatened to fall. She took a deep breath and turned to smile a bit too brightly at the man watching her. “Don’t worry; I’ll make a lot for him because he’ll definitely be hungry when he wakes up. Mmm…I think I’ll go with a hot pot…”
She continued to mutter to herself as she left the room, leaving Jiraiya alone with his thoughts…
…thoughts of the beautiful woman who had made the ultimate sacrifice for him and how blind and foolish he had been all this time.