Chapter 26:



See how clear and bright
Is the moonlight finding ways
Through the riven clouds
That, with drifting autumn wind,
Gracefully float in the sky.

-Fujiwara no Akisuke




One hundred and hundred and hundred and hundred and four...


She wasn’t as I expected. hundred and hundred and six...


It’s not as if Shikamaru had given me much to go by whenever I prodded him to describe the love of his life. He’d only say she was the most beautiful human being he had ever met. I guess looking back now; I’m assuming he meant ‘inner beauty’. hundred and hundred and hundred and nine...


Don’t get me wrong. She’s not ugly. Far from it. She’s just not what I expected that’s all. My overactive imagination had pictured a brunette with a body that just wouldn’t quit. She’d be somewhat flirty though kinda serious since Shikamaru was like that most of the time. However, he could put on the lazy act every once in a while, especially when he didn’t want to do anything (like say cleaning our apartment when it was his turn), so I assumed his woman would be handy around the house too.


...hundred and twelve...hundred and thirteen....


I, at least, got the handy part right because so far, she’s proven to be quite efficient with the cleaning. Secondly, Temari wasn’t a brunette, but a (dirty) blonde who seemed to favor putting her hair in four weird ponytails, so if you looked at her from afar, you’d think she had put her hand in an electric socket and hadn’t quite recovered from the shock. She wasn’t that tall, but her figure was full in all the right places and like Haku, she seemed to favor wearing kimonos. Her features were plain, and I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way. I mean that nothing about it really stood out except for maybe her eyes. They were a really pale blue, which were pretty when she did smile – and boy! did she smile (and laugh) like a giddy school girl once she caught sight of her man.


...hundred and sixteen...hundred and seventeen...hundred and eighteen...


You should have seen them and their uncharacteristic gushy mushy reunion. Even now, I can’t help chuckling at the memory of that evening, though the dull pangs of jealousy and envy still cause my heart to ache...but anyway, to see Shikamaru in that state was quite interesting to say the least. I genuinely felt happy for the guy, because all things considered, he hadn’t really gotten a chance to be with her for over two years. Sure there were the Byaku-Shinkyou visits, but since her accident, the couple had barely seen each other. Watching them jump into each other’s arms and begin to talk at the same time – neither one letting the other get through a complete sentence – brought back bittersweet memories of my happier times with Sakura.


hundred and twenty…hundred and twenty-one…hundred and twenty-two…


Shit. Shouldn’t be thinking about her anymore, should I? Why go through the agony of reliving the heartbreak and betrayal afterwards? For despite my desperate attempts to latch on to the great times, those darker moments would still creep in. Ever mocking. Ever taunting. Anyway, Shika moved out of the apartment the night before she arrived, and like the lovesick bastard he is, he actually convinced Karin, Haku and I to help redecorate Itachi’s former apartment in a way to make his woman feel more comfortable. You should see the place now. Karin added some pretty window dressings. Haku helped with the flowers. The coffee table had a nice lace cloth with some fancy Japanese décor on it. The once bare walls now had some cheap but colorful-looking paintings. The kitchen and restroom was as spotless as possible, and I even helped air dry and beat the dust out of the futon before making it all nice and neat for them with new cotton sheets and pillows. By the time we were through, it looked like a newlywed couple’s home! Man, was I burning with envy then.


hundred and twenty-eight…hundred and twenty-nine…


Temari approved. In fact, she approved so much; we didn’t get to see the couple for almost two days after her arrival. Those lovebirds locked themselves away in the ‘Honeymoon Suite’, and it was clear that the rest of us losers were not to bother them unless there was a goddamn fire in the building. Heh, at least they were nice enough to stop for the little welcome party we had in Karin’s apartment earlier in the evening.  Good food, good wine (though I noticed Sasuke didn’t touch any of the alcoholic beverages…and didn’t talk much either now that I think of it, but I guess I should be used to that by now), good conversation, and I came to reluctantly like the girl that would be stealing my buddy away from me.


A part of me wanted to find fault and perhaps bring down Shika a peg or two from his romantic high, but Temari was proving me wrong in all aspects. She was smart, and from her brief backstory, it was clear she was just as tough as Karin when it came to defending herself. It was how she and Shika met in the first place. She had been a kenjutsu instructor at a local dojo, where Shikamaru visited often and eventually fell head over heels for the tough-talking chick. Shika confessed that she turned him down several times until he became so frustrated, he literally told her to her face, that she was nothing but a pain-in-the-ass. Hah! Guess that finally got her interested and she eventually became the pursuer. Maybe I should use that as my next tactic to get a new girlfriend…


hundred and thirty-two…hundred and thirty-three…hundred and thirty-four…


But then again, I don’t think I’m as suave as Shika. I might end up getting punched in the face if I ever said something like that.


hundred and thirty-five…


This of course brings me to the last time I got punched in the face and not by a girl either.


hundred and thirty-six…


Hard to believe it’s been almost two weeks since that incident happened; a cause for self-congratulation. The truce/cordial agreement seems to working out fine so far….except for those brief, inexplicable moments when I find myself feeling a little ‘weird/out-of-sorts’ whenever I’m close to that guy. Like the time I went back to get the butterfly for Haku (which was later released in a very melodramatic way. I really do need to lay Haku off the Korean T.V. dramas).


So, back to Sasuke –


I mean, for starters, I wasn’t expecting him to be playing with the damn thing (can you imagine that guy dealing with such an insect anyway? I was sure he would have begun plucking its wings or burning them for fun). Anyway, talk about getting that flustered feeling – like the time after I gave him the hickey – hitting me all over again. I can’t begin to tell you how much it really sucks to have to keep experiencing the same emotions I get whenever I see a girl I really like, when we get that close. I just don’t get it. I mean, I’m technically ‘fine’ when I’m not near him and others are in the vicinity, but get us all alone, and bam! my tongue suddenly feels heavy in my mouth and my stomach begins to tighten as if I’m about to get a cramp of epic proportions. It’s getting worse now…especially at nights because I don’t have Shika as a buffer anymore. Temari’s been here for five days already, and so far, I’ve managed to talk to Shika only once, and by ‘talk’, I mean a decent conversation and not just saying ‘hi’ as we’re prone to do these days.


Goddamn it.


hundred and forty…hundred and forty-one…hundred and forty-two…


With Shika gone, the apartment now seems much bigger and lonelier. Considering I’ve always been a loner anyway, it just felt odd not having him next me to with his light snores or seeing him still reading when I’m about to call it a night. I try not to imagine him making out with his girlfriend (which is gross anyway to be imagining such a thing), and so I attempt to keep ‘busy’ with my magazines. However my hand, a bottle of lotion and tissues can only do so much. I try to get into it, and after ten minutes of mindless stroking, the images of the girls blur on the pages before me, and I give up.


(well…not really)


hundred and forty-five…hundred and forty-six…


It’s really embarrassing to admit this, but last night…well...let’s just say that my mindless strokes took a life of their own. This wasn’t really a conscious thing, as in I didn’t set out to really think about him per se, but it happened that one particular photograph of the ‘model’ eerily reminded me of a certain someone. Maybe it was the haircut or how pale her skin was or that she was kinda flat-chested and almost tomboyish, or that she was actually posing on a black leather couch with nothing more than a fancy katana cradled between her spread thighs for ‘clothing’. So you can probably see how and why things got a little out of hand (no pun intended).


...hundred and fifty...hundred and fifty-one...hundred and fifty-two...


Damn if that picture didn’t have me doing a double take and actually squeezing my eyes shut for a minute to be sure I hadn’t just hallucinated things. However, opening my eyes didn’t make it any better. If Sasuke had a twin sister, she would fit the role damn well, and the more I thought about her as Sasuke’s sister, the harder and more turned on I became. Between the model’s face and Sasuke’s mug creeping in every now and then, I was a complete mess when I finally came. Biting hard into my pillow, tears springing to my eyes, my heart pounding so hard I felt it was going to fall right out of my chest, my head spinning, and the world wheezing by at a dizzying rate. I had to admit that it was the best orgasm I’ve ever experienced while taking care of business. However, it would take wild horses to get me to admit that he was the one responsible for it. It was the girl, that’s all, and I’m sticking to that story.


...hundred and fifty-six...hundred and fifty-seven...


Jerking off to Sasuke’s twin sister’s image and dealing with the non-existent Shikamaru aside, I’ve finally begun the first stages of my training. The main goal; getting my body back into shape. Though I’ve added much needed weight since we left Byaku-Shinkyou, I realized I had trouble climbing up the flight of stairs to our floor – on the day of our phone call with Itachi – without panting like a steam engine on its last legs. I had chosen the stairs to test myself, and the results were pretty much abysmal. Hence, my morning regiment included jogging up the stairs (12 floors in all) early in the morning, and then working on my shoulders with the exercise band and dumbbells later. At the moment, I’m doing stomach crunches on the rooftop; my goal to reach two hundred before I call it a day. My stomach muscles are already taut from the continuous exercise of the past three days and my body is slowly getting used to the rigorous work-out I’m putting it through.


...hundred and sixty-one...hundred and sixty-two...hundred and sixty-three...


Although it’s just mid-morning, I am already slick with sweat. I had long taken off my shirt to allow the cool breeze to bathe my heated flesh every once in a while. The mat below me is getting a little slippery, but I can’t stop for a break now. Would hate to lose my rhythm or counting place for that matter. Though Jae Weong had shown us the building’s gym, which in all honesty was nothing more than a shadow of its former self as the only equipments left were a few weights and an archaic-looking treadmill. It was a wonder that the thing still worked. The room wasn’t exactly large, and from the musty smell and dust accumulation, we had a feeling no one had visited it in a while. Its walls had been painted a sickly beige color and there were a few cracks here and there (don’t even get me started on the condition of the roof). One side of the wall was covered with mirrors, so you could see yourself while you worked out, I guess. There were two windows for light and air, and they didn’t look like they had been cleaned since the building was opened for business. A television set, that didn’t work, sat on a high jutting wooden shelf against the wall. However, there was an old school boombox which played some funky, upbeat Korean music to keep one company.  Jae said the room was ours to use at will, but I figured I’d stick to my running up and down the stairs, while Sasuke could use the treadmill and weights for himself. It worked out pretty good that way, because he could train with Karin and Haku helping him, while I did my own thing. I preferred to be outside anyway. It gave me more time to not only work out, but to think on all the things Itachi had said as well as the rather brief but encouraging conversation I finally had with Jiraiya.


...hundred and seventy...hundred and seventy-one...hundred and seventy-two...


It was about two days ago, when I was finally got the opportunity to make the call. I had never felt more alone, anxious, and yet excited to speak to the man who had known my father so well. There was something about sitting in that underground room, gripping the phone tightly in your hand and wondering if the numbers on the piece of paper before you were nothing more than a joke or if the entire thing was nothing more than a figment of one’s imagination. However, as a dull click proceeded the familiar tone of the phone ringing at the other end, I was unaware I was holding my breath until a voice finally came on.




It didn’t exactly sound manly, but then again, hadn’t Jiraiya said that this line was not really directly connected to him? He could be in any part of the world, but as long as I called this number, he’d be sure to get my message. Perhaps this was his servant or something of the sort.


“Uumm...” I cleared my throat and tried again. “I would like to speak to Jiraiya please.”


There was a series of several clicks, as if an unseen device was analyzing my voice (and it probably was for all I knew), before the voice returned. “Are you Uzumaki Naruto?”


“Yes...” I began, but the clicks interrupted me again.


“Please hold on,” the voice stated crisply.


A single beep, and by this time I was just about ready to gnaw on my finger nails in worry. What if Jiraiya didn’t actually exist? What if this was someone from Danzo’s crew who had planned this all from the beginning? What if –


“Naruto?” came the sudden gruff and deep voice that nearly had me falling off the chair. I had been so lost in my paranoid thoughts I had almost forgotten I was still being put on hold.


“Uzumaki Naruto?” the voice persisted as if impatient. I realized I’d have to speak quickly before he hung up on me. But man, for a guy who was supposedly ‘old’, his voice still sounded as if he could wring my neck with just a finger.


“Yes, this is Uzumaki Naruto, and you must be -”


“Jiraiya, yes.” There was a smile in his voice now. “It is good to finally hear from you, young man. However, we cannot speak too long on the phone.”


Huh? What is he talking about? How else are we to -?!


“I will be arriving in Busan next week,” he answered as if hearing my unspoken question. “And I should be in Buk-gu sometime Tuesday morning. I already know where you are staying, so be ready for me at about ten-thirty. Look out for a local yellow taxi which will pull up to your apartment complex at the time. I’d prefer you were waiting out there for me instead of having me wait for you. Understand, my boy?”


“Yes, sir,” I replied on autopilot with my heart drumming a wild staccato in my chest. Yes. I could definitely tell this guy had been a boss of the yakuza. He exuded that authority even over the damn phone.


“Good, good.” The smile was back in his voice. “I look forward to seeing you then, Naruto. Take care of yourself now.”


“Okay, but...” Unfortunately, he was already gone as the dial tone filled my ears, and I was left holding the phone like a moron for a few seconds longer.


...hundred and eighty-two...hundred and eighty-three...hundred and eighty-four...


I was excited to see him, no doubt about that. I had so many questions to ask, but I was sure I wouldn’t even know where to begin. I contemplated bringing Shika with me, but considering he’s still gung-ho over his girl and hasn’t really talked to me that much recently, I decided not to bother with it. Besides, I was still on the fence about him joining me (us) in this fight. I knew he still wanted to probably seek his revenge for Asuma’s death, but in the grand scheme of things, I would much rather he take Temari and seek refuge in a new country altogether until the battles were over and order was restored. It wasn’t fair to drag Temari into this after being apart for so long. Those two deserved a happy life as a married couple. If nothing else, I owed that much to him after all he’s done for me.


...hundred and ninety...hundred and ninety-one...hundred and ninety-two...


So I could probably go alone to meet up with Jiraiya, but then again...what if something happened to me? I mean, I didn’t really know this guy besides reading his documents (which might be a complete and total fabrication for all I know), and I’d at least want someone to know where I was or to keep me company in case of an emergency.


(so why don’t you ask him?)


...hundred and ninety-four...hundred and ninety-five...


Like hell he’ll want to come with me.


I pouted and strained to finish up the last few crunches. Knowing I was close to the end was beginning to trigger all the aches and pains I had managed to suppress for the past hour or so. I gritted my teeth and forced myself to continue.




Well, maybe Haku then. At least he’d let me borrow Haku as a bodyguard for a few hours, wouldn’t he? Although, for some reason, I could see the guy saying “Hell no!” and slamming the door in my face. Come to think of it, is it just me or does he seem to be hogging Haku even more these days? Haku, who used to stay for at least an hour every day, hardly stopped by anymore, and when I did see him; he was stuck to his master’s side like glue. Was it something I said or did?


...hundred and


Karin then?




Nah. Too weird to have her tagging after me for some trip she won’t really understand. Besides, I had the feeling even if I did ask her; she’d probably turn me down. This, of course, leaves –


...hundred and...ninety...nine...


(Mr. Wonderful)


What if he says “no” as well? What then?


(then you just take your sorry ass to that car and deal with whatever comes your way, Uzumaki Naruto. Since when were you so dependent on others anyway? You’re the Lone Ranger, remember?)


...two...motherfucking...hundred! Yes!


I collapsed onto the mat and sucked in huge gulps of air; sweat drenched and blinking them out of my eyes as the mid-day sun beat down on me mercilessly. My chest heaved with every harsh breath, and it took me almost five minutes to finally turn onto my side, and even that was a lesson in tolerance.


Shit. Guess I overdid it today. Still – it was a good workout and very much needed.


I stretched out my hand for the water bottle, glad to see there was still a little ice in it left. I sat up a little to guzzle some down thirstily and the rest I poured over my feverish head and face.


Whoo...feels good!


All the same, I was still in a dilemma. To go alone or not to go alone. That was the question. I could at least tell the others where I’d be, so they don’t worry about me too much, but I still felt like I needed to be with someone. With our current situation, wouldn’t Itachi suggest the same thing? In case there was a skirmish, I’d need someone to back me up. Besides, even if I asked Sasuke to accompany me, his leg wasn’t still all that great and he wouldn’t be able to wield his katana effectively anyway. What good was he to me?


And so it was that I found myself standing at the door to their apartment later that evening, trying to form the right words to convey to him about borrowing Haku for the day. However, after several knocks and being ignored, I was just about ready to kick down the door and curse them out for being such jerks (and you couldn’t tell me they had gone to bed already since it was just eight o’clock), when I finally noticed the little note someone had left beneath the door.


I opened the piece of paper to read the hastily scribbled words:


In gym


So much for leaving long explanations. All the same I headed down there, still rehearsing the way I was going to phrase things, while hoping (and crossing my fingers) that he’d be agreeable to my decision. I opted out of using the stairs this time, and though the elevator was no faster (and damn if it didn’t stink of stale vegetables), I was finally on the first floor.


The gym was situated in the very last room at the end of the hallway; past locked storage rooms and two apartments with geriatric occupants who favored the volumes of their televisions at the highest levels. It was almost hidden, or rather more of an afterthought, or perhaps just another extra room that Jae Weong converted into a gym at the request of the original building’s inhabitants. Either way, it was secluded and away from prying eyes, and as I peeked through the narrow glass vision panel to see who was inside, I was fully expecting to see the usual sight of Haku kneeling before Sasuke as they worked on his leg exercises. However, there seemed to be no sign of the long-haired teen, and as I pushed open the door, I was heralded by the now annoying (and aggravating) whine of the treadmill and the most astonishing sight of Sasuke walking on the machine.


It’s a miracle!


...well not so much actually.


He was holding onto the handles on both sides, sweat pouring off his strained features in buckets. You could clearly see the guy was struggling, but he was being a stubborn mule and sticking it out as he forced himself to walk with each grinding motion of the machine. He hadn’t noticed me yet – the machine was that loud – and I was free to study him in silence. The white tee was stuck to his back with dark patches of his exertions; evident beneath his armpits as well. The pair of black shorts was just long enough to hide the top of the bandages wrapped around his thigh, and I was glad to see there were no blood spots forming on the white cloth; a clear sign that the stitches were either holding up well, or they had finally begun to heal. Still, a hard pang struck me as I realized that I was the cause of his agony. I was the reason why he would probably walk the rest of his life with a limp, if he didn’t end up aggravating the injury that is. I was the reason he was biting his lower lip hard as he tried not to scream out his frustration and pain. I was the reason why every agonizing step he took felt like a lead weight on my chest. Maybe if I had struck somewhere else during our fight...


(oh yeah? Like where? Remember he was trying to kill you too, and you had no other choice!)


Fair enough. We both inflicted damage on each other as I absently rubbed my shoulder and lowered my lashes at the memory of that damned katana sinking into my flesh and nearly taking off my entire arm -


“Fuck!” came the low curse that jerked me out of my reverie. I looked up just in time to see him nearly sliding off the machine, but his quick reflexes had him gripping the handles again and steadying himself. I must have made a movement because he finally whipped his head around with an expression that was a mixture of surprise and annoyance.


Whoops. Guess I was the last person he expected to see.


I couldn’t be sure, but though he was already flushed from his workout, I had the feeling he was turning even redder for some reason. He finally turned away from me with another muttered curse beneath his breath and switched the treadmill off. Listening to that monstrosity die off with a loud sigh, as if weary of even doing its job, was even more aggravating.


“What are you doing here?” came the curt, but slightly breathless question, which was soon muffled as he grabbed the towel hanging off the machine to wipe his face.


“Where’s Haku?” I blurted out, before mentally kicking myself for starting off so bluntly. I had to ease into the request, right?


Sasuke ignored me for a long minute – still wiping his face – and when he eventually lowered it, it was to give me a look I couldn’t quite decipher. Was he pissed off or just looking at me with that familiar condescending air?


“He’s not here,” he finally replied, and I was right. He was talking to me with that condescending tone. Asshole.


“I can see that,” I replied tightly. “I just wanted to know -”


“He and Karin went to grab a few things,” he interrupted me rudely. “If you’re that desperate to see him, he should be back in about half-an-hour.”




Well damn...this was going to be pretty awkward now. How was I going to bring up the topic of -?




Having to lean against the handle of the machine for balance, watching Sasuke take off his shirt was bringing back (horrible) flashbacks - of the ‘twin sister’ I had jerked off to - with a damn vengeance. I could feel the heat rushing from the tips of my toes to the roots of my hair; powerless to look away from the pale chest (slightly marred with scars from his fights) and hard dusky rose nipples that glistened with the sweat from his exercise. The sudden dryness of my tongue forced me to dart it out to lick my lips; more to gather moisture than anything, and though my mind screamed for me to look the fuck away, I just couldn’t. All I could see were the two bodies meshing into one, the way my wild fantasies had imagined my hands exploring every damn inch of that pale flesh...kissing..sucking...maybe biting a little...




It was the growing ache in my pants that finally had me gritting my teeth and turning away with an effort.


Hoping he hadn’t observed my moment of weakness, I pretended to inspect the weights and noticed that he was now lifting about thirty pounds to build up his arm strength. Not bad.


“What did you want to see Haku for?” came the blunt question that jarred me from my frazzled thoughts.


“Uh...” Jesus! Why the hell does my voice sound that thick? I coughed a little and forced myself to continue without looking at him. I could hear him shuffling off the machine, and though I knew I should help by giving him his crutch, I was frozen. If I walked, he’d definitely see my boner and I had to will this fucker down lest it embarrass the hell out of me. How was I supposed to explain that seeing him bare-chested was a damn turn on now? Great. As if I needed anything else weird to happen between us. Did I also mention that the hickey was finally fading away? Another much-needed blessing. The more I looked at that thing, the more it reminded me of a moment when I was sure insanity had crept into my consciousness. Or maybe it was just the fever acting up at the time.


“...well actually,” I continued with what I hoped was flippant nonchalance. Is it getting too hot in here? “I wanted to ask you a favor. Do you...uh...mind if I borrowed Haku for a day?”




The hell?!


I spun around with my jaw probably somewhere on the ground. Sasuke was sitting on one of the workout benches now; the towel now draped around his neck and with an expression icy enough to freeze steam. What the hell is he so pissed off about anyway?


“You don’t even know what I want him for!” I snapped in disbelief.


He rolled his eyes and rubbed the back of his head with the towel. “Please. In your desperate and pathetic need to figure out your true feelings about him, you wish to take him out on a date, right?”


I swear my mind went blank for a second at this unexpected and very confusing deduction from him, but I finally shook my head to clear the fog and huffed in irritation. “Now listen here -”


“You’re not going to make a fool of my servant’s loyalty, Naruto,” Sasuke the Chivalrous quipped. “Haku’s emotions are fragile enough as they are, and the last thing I need is for you to impose yourself on him and make him think that you actually do care about him when you are simply using him for your own selfish purposes.”


This guy is a piece of work, ain’t he? Such a pompous, son-of-a -


“You done?” I asked coldly.


He met my gaze and allowed his lips to quirk into what could be considered a smirk. “For now.”


“Good, you fucktard,” I snarled. “I was only going to ask him to escort me to meet up with Jiraiya when he comes to see me next week. I was hoping to have some sort of backup in case something happened, but hey! Since you’re so protective of your dear Haku, why don’t you take his place instead?”


With how angry he was making me, I really had no intention of inviting him, but a part of me figured if we did get ambushed, I wouldn’t miss him getting killed just for being such a goddamn pain-in-the-ass. Watching his features turn crimson and look embarrassed (unsure) was a minor victory. I couldn’t figure out why he’d be so upset at the idea of someone like me showing interest in his servant. Geez. Did he really think I was that much of a piranha? Even if I was interested in Haku like that, I would never treat him like a tool.


His gaze drifted to the floor and then to the machines. He couldn’t seem to look me in the eye anymore.


Yeah. Embarrassed now, ah? I thought so.


“Well?” I queried impatiently. “I’ll take your apology first and then you can let me know whether it’s going to be you or Haku following me.”


“Why don’t you ask your friend?” he seemed to sneer.


“My friend is with his woman, in case you’ve been living under a fucking rock the past week,” I sneered back. “I’m not gonna bother him for this -”


“But you want Haku instead?”


“I need someone for protection...” I shook my head to explain properly. “Just in case something happens.”


“You don’t trust this Jiraiya?”


“I don’t trust you either. Hell, I don’t even trust myself. I could walk out of here tomorrow morning and kiss this whole shebang goodbye. What then?”


He watched me intently for a good long minute; so long I felt the flush coming back again and not in a good way. I really wished he’d put his goddamn shirt back on, but all he did was cover his head with the towel and lower his gaze to the floor as if in deep thought. The music changed to something slow, but still pop-ish, and the ceiling fan continued to crank out as much air as it possibly could in this oven of a room.


“Well?” I finally snapped when nothing was forthcoming.


“I’ll think about it,” came the drawled reply. He tried to stand up, but I guess he had overused his leg muscles because he sat back down with a grimace. A muttered curse beneath his breath had me moving toward the crutch at the corner of the room.


“Need this?” I asked as I held out the equipment to him. He looked up with a nod and reached out for it, but I swung it away from him; a smirk coming to my lips.


“First off, I never did hear an apology for your wrong assumptions earlier, and secondly, I need an answer now. You coming with me or not?”


He scowled. “Are you giving me an ultimatum?”


“Where’s my apology?”


“You seem to get off hearing me say “I’m sorry”, don’t you?” came the low statement; that dark inscrutable expression coming back to his visage. “If this is your way of punishing me for what happened back then...”


“No,” I corrected him with a wag of my finger, while pretending to be leaning on the crutch myself. Yikes. Had no idea how uncomfortable this thing was beneath the armpit. Must suck having to walk for a long time with it jabbing under you like this, but I digress. “You are saying “I’m sorry” for being such a pompous jackass and assuming I was going to do something horrible to Haku. You just run your mouth like you know everything, don’t you?”


“What was I supposed to think when you bluntly ask for him especially after...


His voice trailed off, and he looked away as if unable to finish his thought without revealing too much of himself. However, I think it was slowly beginning to sink in as to why he was acting this protective. Ever since that day I said I would hit on Haku if he was a girl, he (Sasuke) had been acting so damn possessive. Could it be...?


“Hah!” I grinned as something – almost light...can’t really explain it – filled my chest. “Ah ha!”


“Ah ha, what?” he asked with a raised brow. “And stop smiling like that.”


But I couldn’t. I knew what it was now, and it was pretty damn hilarious. “You’re jealous, aren’t you?”


His dark blush and the brief widening of his eyes was more than enough for me to know I had hit the mark. He tried to stand up again, but his legs wouldn’t cooperate.


“Give me my crutch,” he grated tightly.


“You’re jealous at the idea of both of us being together, aren’t you?” I pestered on with no intention of letting him off the hook. This was just too good.


“Naruto...I’m warning you...”


“What? What are you gonna do? Hobble over here and pummel me to death? Admit it, Sasuke. It kills you that I’m showing interest in him -”


He snorted. “Please. You know as well as I do that your so-called ‘interest’ is nothing but a joke. To you, Haku is nothing more than a walking contradiction you cannot wrap your feelings around. On the one hand, you like him for being a good friend, on the other hand, your physical attraction to his looks and mannerisms makes you question your sexuality, doesn’t it?”


I frowned at this cut-and-dry analysis; briefly tempted to clobber him on the head with the damn crutch. He must have realized he got me in a sore spot because it was his time to gloat. “Oh? What’s wrong, Naruto? Was I right after all?”


“Fuck you.”


“Sure. Resort to your monosyllabic insults when I speak the truth.”


He took a deep breath and tried – for the third time – to rise up on his own. He at least managed to get there half-way before nearly falling flat on his face. I probably would have left him to fall, but my damn instinct to help people when in distress kicked in before I could control it. I dove for him, dropping the crutch at the same time, and ended up sending us both colliding painfully into the weight machine.


Son-of-a-bitch! That hurts!


“Are you all right?”


Like you give a shit.


I lifted my lashes to give a reply (having squeezed my eyes shut at the collision), when it all seemed to finally sink in that I was lying on my back and the weight above me wasn’t one of the weights after all, but actually –


Ah fuck...not good...


If you could hear the alarm bells going off in my head at this very moment, they’d sound like a crazed man ringing them with no self-control whatsoever. The floor felt hard and unforgiving against my back, but juxtaposed with the warmth and heaviness of his body...of feeling that bare chest I had fantasized about pressed against mine...of hearing our heartbeats pounding loud within my ears...of feeling my mouth dry up again as my gaze drifted to lips I no longer bothered denying I wanted to taste for even the briefest of seconds. A drop of his sweat landed on my nose...and another on my cheek...and yet another at the corner of my mouth, which I foolishly proceeded to lick off slowly as if savoring something rich and delicious for the first time. I vaguely heard his soft intake of breath at what I had just done, and all but bit back a groan as I felt him move against me; move in such a way that I knew now that he wasn’t as immune to my proximity as I had imagined.


(so not good at all)


Our eyes finally met, and in those dark orbs, I swear I could see...




My name was like a breathless, choked sob from his lips that was simply no more than a breath away from mine, and with my heart now thudding like a drummer on acid, my head beginning to swim with the impossible scenario of finally giving in to a temptation that could be the death of me –




...I called upon every single self-restraint fiber in my being to say quietly and with as much detachment as I could manage. “I’ll be fine if you get off me.”


I watched – with a hard ache in my chest – as pain and disappointment filled those dark eyes before they were quickly replaced with a blankness I was all too familiar with.




He couldn’t seem to get off me fast enough, which was a clumsy affair all around. Finally, he managed to drag his crutch toward him and without saying another word, or even looking at me, he walked out of the room with a thunderous slam of the door behind him.


(well done, Uzumaki Naruto)


I couldn’t get myself to move from my position for a good ten minutes or so, my mind still reliving just how close we had been to finally giving in to carnal desires that might be detrimental in the long run. I hadn’t signed up for this. I didn’t want him to think that the hickey incident was going to be something that would give him cause to believe I’d easily give myself up to another man. He had lived so long with Snake Dude, and in an environment with no females, it was no surprise he would be attracted to another guy. If I wasn’t here, he’d have done the same thing to whichever poor sap was in my position. Sasuke was the one who was probably the more confused of the both of us. And just as he had accused me of wanting to do something terrible to Haku, I didn’t want him to get hurt when he realized I could never return those kinds of feelings he was looking for. I mean, there’s no denying the physical attraction is there but...was I really ready to act upon it? Maybe it really was better for him to be with Haku in the long run. They had more in common and I was sure he’d make Sasuke much happier than anyone else possibly could.


So why the hell does it still feel like I had just let something really special slip from my fingers? And why the hell did it hurt so much?





The weekend came and went with little fanfare.


Temari and Shika – taking a break from being all lovey-dovey – suggested we go for a little sightseeing around the city. It would be a nice reprieve from the monotony of being in the apartment, and we were all excited to go...except for Sasuke who remained behind. I could barely look at him now, and the feeling was mutual. The tension between us had become even tauter, so much so everyone else had noticed that our conversation was stilted and not as ‘cordial’ as it used to be. When Shika queried about us getting into another argument, I was unable to give him a satisfactory answer, and he was smart enough to leave it at that.


It was a fun outing, all things considered, but I was about as excited as a man on death row. Having to plod after the happy couple, while Karin and Haku (who had finally come after Sasuke all but kicked him out to enjoy himself) were like brother and sister on a tourist vacation. I was the odd one out, and wanted nothing more than to return back to the apartment and drown myself in melodramas and cheesy game shows.


By Tuesday morning, I was all but ready to be as far away from the apartment as possible, and by nine o’clock, I was all dressed and ready to see my father’s mentor. Anticipation made me restless, and I tried to kill time by walking around the block and playing with some of the children I noticed in the front yard. It was while figuring out how to ‘walk the dog’ with one of the kid’s yoyo, did I finally notice we had company.


I looked up – I was on my haunches with the little munchkins – still smiling, only for the smile to falter a little as the newcomer came to a stop beside us. He was dressed as casually as I was – in a pair of jeans, an unbuttoned dress shirt with a tee beneath. Although I’m sure the only difference was that he wasn’t sporting a concealed weapon like I was. I had tucked in the Glock within the back of my jeans as well as a throwing knife within my boots. I knew I was being overly cautious, but then again, I had woken up this morning thinking I was going to be going on this trip solo. Since he hadn’t given me an answer that day at the gym, and none since then, I had assumed I’d be the only one going to see Jiraiya today. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that seeing him now made me ridiculously happy. That despite what happened at the gym, he was still willing to help me -


“Don’t think I’m doing this because I want to,” came the cold words that pretty much shot down my brief moment of joy. “And I’m not going to be your bodyguard either.”


“Then go back,” I growled. “I don’t need you here.”


“Liar. Without me, you’d probably make a botch of things.”


“Hey -”


“And besides, I think he’s here. Stand up already.”


“Don’t boss me around, you asshole.”


But as expected, he wasn’t listening to me. He was already hobbling toward the waiting taxi which had pulled up to the side of the building. After saying goodbye to the kids (with a promise that I’d be back to play with them tomorrow), I jogged up to catch him, and together we stood and watched the back window lower slowly.


At first I could make out nothing but shadows, and my heart was beating so fast (maybe from the jogging or from anticipation), but eventually, the figure moved closer to reveal a face that looked very non-threatening. It was a broad and friendly visage, accentuated with twin red streaks that ran down his cheeks as if crying tears of blood, narrow black eyes that were filled with wisdom and intelligence and topped with a massive mane of white hair that gave the impression of an electrocuted lion.


“Well, well,” he drawled in that familiar deep voice I heard over the phone. “As I live and breathe. It really is Minato’s son after all...and you...” He peered at Sasuke with his gaze narrowing even further. “I see traces the Uchiha blood in you. Sasuke, I presume.”




“Good! At least it’s good to know you didn’t inherit any of Fugaku’s horrendous features.”


My jaw dropped at the blatant insult, but Jiraiya’s loud guffaw and Sasuke’s flushed features eased the awkwardness a bit. Guess the guy was just kidding, and I made a mental note to not take his insults so seriously.


“Come in, come in,” he invited with a wave of his hand, while scooting back. “We have a lot of catching up to do.”


It was a tight fit in the back seat, but I found myself squeezed between Jiraiya’s massive frame (boy! was the guy huge), and Sasuke with his stick of doom. I think he was punishing me for what happened the other day by jabbing me with it at every opportunity. Even my glares at him didn’t work. He just seemed to pretend I wasn’t in the car with them.


“You knew my father?” he asked as the taxi finally pulled away and began its journey through the streets of Buk-gu. I had no idea where we were going, but I felt little assurance that I had my weapons and Sasuke with me.


“Knew him?” Jiraiya said with a snort. He was watching us with acute interest. Me especially. “I hated your father...most of us did.”




“It’s because he was in the yakuza,” I explained quickly when Sasuke looked as if he was about ready to give the big guy a piece of his mind.


Jiraiya nodded in agreement. “Naturally. Your father tried to bring most of us down. Was successful for the most part, but otherwise, we made his life a living hell.”


“I can imagine,” Sasuke muttered.


“And who would have thought that all these years later, the son of the commissioner of police would be friends with the son of the potential leader of the Syndicate?”


“We are not friends,” we said simultaneously...looked at each other briefly, and turned away as if embarrassed at our quick denials.


Jiraiya couldn’t quite seem to comprehend this, but settled for simply nodded and giving an unintelligible mutter beneath his breath. There was a heartbeat of an awkward silence before he spoke again. “Have you boys had an opportunity to taste the foods of the imperial court yet?”


“What’s that?” I asked.


He grinned and rubbed his hands together. “I’m glad you asked. It’s a traditional meal set aside for royalty, and since it’s been a while since my last visit to this beautiful country, what better way to celebrate my return but to have a feast fit for a king? Would you young men care to join me?”


“...I thought we were going to talk father?” I added in a whisper as if afraid of the driver hearing.


“And we will discuss him and so much more...but over food because I can’t really think if I haven’t eaten properly. Not to worry. We will be in a location that is free from prying eyes and twitching ears. So...what say you? We can consider this brunch, eh?”


“Works for me,” I replied with a grin. “I skipped breakfast.”


As if on cue, my stomach growled loudly, which earned loud laughter from Jiraiya and a roll of Sasuke’s eyes. Still, it felt good to be in this man’s presence and I could see how and why my father would consider him as a...well father-figure as well. He was dressed in traditional Japanese garb, but you could tell that his clothing was made of the finest material. He smelled like the wild; and by that, I mean a freshness that comes from wandering through the woods first thing in the morning. It was a reminder that like me, this man was also a wanderer and had traveled to so many different places since his abdication from the Syndicate. I discovered that I not only wanted to know more about my father, but about this man who was so full of life and an energy that was contagious.


He was even beginning to rub off Sasuke, because by the time we finally arrived at the grand estate, Jiraiya had managed to wring out a smile or two from the guy. Speaking of grand estates, where the fuck were we? The taxi had long pulled off the main highways, and we seemed to be smack dab in the middle of a forest of towering trees.


“Is this a temple?” I asked in awe as we walked upon a ground that was coated with the whitest and polished of gravel stones.


“You could say that,” Jiraiya replied with a smile while leading the way with his hands clasped behind his back. “This is actually a home of a good friend of mine, and he is ready for our arrival. Watch your step now, boys.”


A flight of steps led us to the entrance of a Japanese-style pagoda, where two ornate looking marble statues of intimidating lions awaited us. Odd. This design kinda reminded me of...


“Looks a lot like the exterior design of Byaku-Shinkyou, doesn’t it?” Jiraiya stated with a knowing look in Sasuke’s direction. As for Sasuke, he looked even paler than ever, and I was sure his eyes looked a little too shiny as he bit his lower lip and simply nodded in response. Guess I could relate a little to what he was feeling. That place was his home after all, and it was only right to feel homesick.


The interior courtyard was even more eerie, and I know because I had been in that damn courtyard before especially in my nightmares. Just rearrange a few buildings, and it was like being thrown back into that cold day when Sasuke had looked me in the eye and sentenced me to death. Neither of us said anything as we followed Jiraiya in silence, and I was never gladder when we were finally confronted – not by turban-wearing guards - but by two beautiful women in colorful traditional Korean attire. They greeted Jiraiya with a familiarity that did not escape me, and I got a chance to see the big guy turn on the charm with some flirtatious remarks. Man, he really had no shame, did he?


After quick introductions – turns out the girls were daughters of the owner of the place – we were ushered into the cool but tastefully furnished interior of one of the pagodas where a feast, literally fit for a king (or several) awaited us.


“Wow...” I whispered as my stomach began to do the tango again. The women giggled at the sound as I blushed in embarrassment and bowed in apology. All the same, it was a buffet of local delicacies set around a low circular wooden table with large, lush pillows reminiscent of something from the royal palaces –for us to sit on. In the middle was the highlight of the meal, which according to the girls, was called a sinseollo. It was basically a large silver vessel with a hole in the middle where hot coals were put to keep the food warm. As for the food itself, it was a colorful combination of meatballs, small and round jeonyueo (salted meats and fish), mushrooms, and vegetables. There were bowls of sura (boiled rice and grains), of two varieties – red and white. There were at least five different kinds of dumplings, with so many ingredients and names I was beginning to lose count. My favorite, the myeon sinseollo which was pretty much noodles in some kind of meaty broth that was to die for.  I mean, I could go on and on with all the plates these ladies kept revealing, and it got to a point where I didn’t even know what to eat anymore!


Jiraiya didn’t seem to mind as he wolfed down the food with gusto, while teaching Sasuke and I about the etiquette and how we were to eat and behave in front of the ladies and his friend. Speaking of his friend, the guy turned out to be some hundred-year-old geezer (I kid. I doubt he was that old), but he was bent over though and had to walk with the aid of an ornate walking stick. He had long white hair and a matching beard that was kept in a ponytail. His features were so wrinkled with age that even his eyes were hard to make out beneath the bushy eyebrows. Turns out he was once an important government official in Korea, and had known Jiraiya when he was just a kid. The ojiisan made small talk and didn’t eat much, but he did nod in all the right places as Jiraiya regaled us with stories about their youth.


Finally, Sasuke couldn’t take it anymore and just had to ask about the architecture.


“Ah, yes,” Ojiisan replied while rubbing his long beard as if in thought. He fell silent for so long, I was beginning to wonder if he had fallen asleep. I guess he must have because Jiraiya coughed loudly and the poor guy started as if goosed. “Yes, the architecture was indeed inspired by the famous Byaku-Shinkyou in the North,” the man continued as if he hadn’t dozed off in mid-sentence.


Sasuke lowered his bowl with an awe-struck expression on his face. “Really?”


“True, true,” Ojiisan muttered with a nod. “My great-grandfather was a good friend of the Uchiha clan and visited often. He returned to Buk-gu with a need to pay homage to them. Some of the Uchiha actually visited several times in the past.”


Call me an idiot, but seeing Sasuke’s expression – the unadulterated sense of relief – made my damn heart skip a beat. I had a feeling that the guy must have grown up believing that everyone on the planet hated his clan, but seeing this old geezer admit that the Uchiha did have allies in the past must mean a lot to him. So much so, he pestered Ojiisan with questions until we were munching on some delicious rice cakes for dessert.


Sorry, I’d recount all they talked about, but I got bored with the conversation half-way through, partly because I was stuffed and now feeling sleepy.


Jiraiya must have noticed because he announced that we were going for a walk to see the rest of the grounds and get some fresh air. We thanked Ojiisan and his lovely daughters for the delicious meal, and after receiving some blessings from the old man, we headed out to the impeccably-kept gardens.


“Incredible to see such rare flowers and plants here,” Sasuke murmured while inspecting every damn leaf and petal with interest. I could tell this was his thing. He was in his element amongst the foliage and just like he did with Ojiisan, he prodded Jiraiya for answers in a way that made me feel a little jealous at how much the guy knew. He made me feel dumb because I couldn’t join in the conversation. I knew nothing about flowers and plants except that some were pretty to look at, some smelled good, and girls seemed to like them. Why would I care about appropriate weather conditions and soil type? And why the hell was Jiraiya even paying so much attention to this anyway? I didn’t see him as the kind of guy to indulge in botany.


“What say we sit over there beneath the trees for a little rest?” Jiraiya eventually invited, which filled me with relief. We made our way to four stone benches around a matching round table beneath the welcome shade of some of the largest trees in the vicinity. It was beside a neat koi pond, with the largest koi I had ever seen actually, and their colors – electric blue and orange – were damn cool to see. I wish I had a camera to capture it. In addition, we had a great view of the mountains in the distance and a bird eye’s view of the city below. To me, Buk-gu looked like a conglomeration of paper houses threatening to crumble with a strong gust of wind. It was an eerie feeling.


“So, Naruto,” Jiraiya began as he dug into his kimono to whip out a pipe. As if on cue, a servant dressed in red robes, appeared from nowhere with a tray of refreshments which were placed on the table. In antique white bowls/cups, was a cold but sweet dark liquid called sujeonggwa. Made of dried persimmons, cinnamon, ginger, and peppercorn (and garnished with pine nuts), the tangy taste was actually quite enjoyable. There was also a small bowl filled with some kind of sweet smelling tobacco Jiraiya was now stuffing into his pipe.


“I’m sure you’re burning with a lot of questions,” he began once the servant was gone. “However…” His gaze drifted to Sasuke. “I was under the impression that you wanted this to be a private affair?”


“He’s all right,” I said with a light shrug; the Glock now seeming to burn a hole into my flesh. I felt incredibly stupid for bringing it.


“I thought you weren’t friends.”


“We aren’t,” I replied tightly, though my cheeks were flushing with embarrassment at the knowing expression on the older man’s face. “He’s just here to -”


“Make sure he doesn’t get in trouble,” Sasuke chimed in. I pinned him an incredulous look and was rewarded with a small smirk. That sneaky -! “Rest assured, whatever you say here will be kept a secret. I’m not one to blab like some people.”


“You know what? I’ve changed my -”


“Sounds good to me,” Jiraiya interrupted with a grin and a puff of smoke from his pipe. The aroma immediately tickled my nose and almost had me sneezing. “I applaud your precautions, Naruto. It shows that you are aware of how dangerous your position is. You truly are the product of your father’s loins.”




He puffed again and leaned against the tree; a thoughtful expression on his visage. “I will not go over what you’ve read in the documents Shisui gave to you, but I brought you here for a reason. It was a lucky break that you brought Sasuke along as you no doubt see the connection beginning to form now. Call it fate or destiny, but it seems like your lives were meant to come at a crossroads. I take it you’ve told Sasuke about Minato’s failed mission.”


I could feel Sasuke’s sharp gaze burning into me, but I stubbornly kept my eyes on Jiraiya. “No,” I mumbled. “He doesn’t know anything about the documents actually.”


“Ah, I see...” There was yet another awkward pause before Jiraiya asked quietly. “Do you want me to tell him? Or would you rather do it?”


I shrugged lightly. “It doesn’t matter to me if he knows. Itachi knows the whole story anyway, so guess it’s Sasuke’s turn.”


Jiraiya cleared his throat and began to recount what I read in the dossier. Pretending to sip my drink, I watched Sasuke’s expression carefully. He gave nothing away except for the tightening of his fingers around his cup when the part about my father giving up on taking down Fugaku was thwarted at the sight of father and son (the young Itachi) together. Jiraiya went on to tell of the fate of my father after his costly decision as well as my ‘dramatic’ birth. I didn’t recall giving him the permission to get that far with the story, but to be honest, it was good everything was coming out now. Sasuke did have a right to know why I wanted to get rid of both Ikegami and Danzo, and Jiraiya was doing a good job setting it up. When he was finally done, a heavy silence descended upon us, broken only by the twitter of unseen birds in the trees and the soothing lull of the pond.


“Do you understand Naruto’s anger now, Sasuke?” came the quiet question that had me looking up again to watch Sasuke’s reaction. His elbows were upon the table now, the drink long forgotten. There was a pensive expression on his visage, and I would have paid big bucks to know exactly what he was thinking.


“I understand,” he finally replied carefully as if weighing his words. I wasn’t fast enough to look away when he finally caught me staring at him, and it was hard to tell what was behind those dark eyes that studied me intensely. “I understand all too well.”


There goes the damn heart skipping a beat again.


“However,” Sasuke continued, finally releasing me from his scrutiny by looking at Jiraiya. “This is not going to be an easy battle. Naruto is like a needle in a haystack. He’ll be swallowed up by the Syndicate and Danzo if he goes at it alone.”


“I was going to ask the Triad for...”


Jiraiya held up a hand to stall me. “Out of the question, Naruto.”


“Why?” I asked incredulously. “They could help -”


“Oh yes, they’d definitely love to help but at a price you cannot even begin to imagine,” came the quiet but firm response that had me sitting back with a deflated spirit. “You do know that there is no love lost between the yakuza and the triad, and any opportunity to gain control of territory in Japan is like inviting a nest of bees to honey. They are a ruthless bunch, Naruto. I should know as I’ve had my share of turf wars with them in the past.” He leaned forward to stare hard at me. “Itachi told me of this plan and I’ve talked him out of it, which brings us to the second one. Working with and for Danzo.”


I took a deep breath and looked away.


“I trust you’ve been thinking hard about it?”


Have I? When not dealing with ‘the other stuff’, it was all I could think about. The temptation was more than strong to say “yes” to Danzo if he found me, or rather if I allowed myself to be found. However, it would have to be done in such a way as not to get the others involved.


I shifted restlessly on the bench and nodded softly. “Yes, but...I’m still not sure what to do.” I looked at him for help. “What do you think I should do?”


“What does your heart tell you?”


“I can’t even trust my damn heart sometimes,” I muttered; not sure why saying this had me glancing at Sasuke for some reason. If he was looking at me, he was doing a good job hiding it behind his cup. I spoke a little louder. “A part of me thinks I should go back to Japan and let myself be picked up by him. Getting to know Danzo will get me closer to Ikegami.”


“Fair enough,” Jiraiya agreed. “But then what?”




“When you do end up killing Ikegami...then what, Naruto? I believe I mentioned in the documents that there are members of the yakuza who are loyal to their bosses no matter what. Taking out someone as big and important as the kumichō could create a chaos unlike anything we’ve ever known. Danzo will, of course, want to assume the head role by nominating a ‘robot’ who will carry out of his doctrines at will. However, when you do take out Danzo as well, there will be a war over control and territory. You are going to need someone who can control the angry mob that will arise due to your actions. Are you prepared to deal with the consequences?”




I hadn’t really thought that far ahead. Why did things have to be so damn complicated?


I nearly jumped out of my skin when I felt the hand upon mine. It felt warm, strong fatherly-like that it brought a reluctant sting of unshed tears to my eyes. I wanted to pull away from this strange sensation, but I realized that I really did crave it; that in a way being touched this way was like receiving some kind of spiritual blessing from my father. If he was here...would he say the same thing Jiraiya was saying? Would he even want me to be a part of something like this?


“You are not going to be alone, Naruto,” came the soft words of encouragement as he gave me a smile. “Itachi is willing to support you with members of his organization who want to see the evil ones get their just desserts. And our wonderful host today, should be able to pull his weight around to get some members of the DIET on our side especially when it comes to Danzo. Being a former prime minister of a country does have its perks.”


“What could he or Itachi and his organization possibly do?”


Jiraiya smiled and sat back again, though he didn’t release my hand. “Information is power, Naruto, especially the right kind of information. Shimura Danzo has been involved with so many illegal activities, it would put a weaker man six feet under by now. However, he’s always managed to cover it up and leave no trace behind thanks to his ability to weasel his way into the hearts of many...or killing them off when they get in the way. Unfortunately, secrets can only remain hidden for so long, and in due time...poof! Those walls of security built around oneself come crashing down in the most spectacular fashion. As for the Syndicate, I still have those who are loyal to me, as I mentioned, and the best way to get many members to your side is to either buy them off, or convince them as much as possible that they are being bamboozled under Ikegami’s reign. In other words -”


“Begin a mutiny within the ranks,” Sasuke muttered. I had almost forgotten the guy was here no thanks to Jiraiya’s way with words. I was beginning to like where this was going.    


Jiraiya nodded with a small smile. “Nothing aggravates a Syndicate more than a war within itself. In case we lose sight of this, there are other smaller Syndicates in Japan that would love to have the opportunity to take the bragging rights of bringing down the Bakufu. The second largest Syndicate after them is the Mibu. You must have heard of them?”


“Vaguely,” I confessed with a slight shake of my head.


“Not surprising considering the Bakufu eats every other organization out there for breakfast, but yes, if you give the Mibu a chance to wage a war against the Bakufu, they’ll be more than willing to pounce on the opportunity.”


“But...” I shook my head more firmly now. “Listen...I don’t want all that. I really don’t want the yakuza to start some shitty war amongst themselves.”


“It’s going to be inevitable, Naruto,” Sasuke stated quietly. “Battles are never without consequences that we would rather not have to deal with. Innocent ones will be involved, no matter how much we try to pretend we are only targeting a specific group of individuals.”


“A sad reality but true, Naruto,” Jiraiya agreed. “If you choose to begin this war, you must be prepared for what lies ahead. It is clear you have no plans to take over as kumichō when both Ikegami and Danzo are gone, but you must pick someone to be in charge; someone to keep things in order lest things get too out of control. Someone who -”


“I pick you then,” I said flatly, and you could hear a pin drop with my sudden announcement. I held those dark eyes with mine; daring him to refuse my request, while hoping he’d accept at the same time. I realize he said he was retired, but looking at him now, I couldn’t see anyone else in that position. He was still sprite enough to walk up several flights of steps without losing his breath. He still looked vigorous and alert, and I was sure he would be great at the least until he found a new replacement.


He took a deep breath, sighed and then took another lungful of smoke before releasing it with a soft exhale. “I figured you’d suggest something like that.”


“So is that a “yes”?”


“I am retired, Naruto -”


“Just until you find a better replacement, right? Come on, Jiraiya-sama.” Might as well butter him up with the compliments. “You know more about the Syndicate than even Ikegami himself, and I’m sure those who are loyal to you will see to it that you are in charge with as little fuss as possible.”


“You are putting me in a difficult position, brat.” And yet I could see the small smile on his face. “Between you and Minato, I don’t know who is worse at getting me to do things I don’t want to.”


I grinned and threw myself at him with a hug (or what was supposed to be a hug), but I ended up knocking his pipe to the floor and got a smack on the head for that as he bitched and moaned about me almost breaking his precious pipe. It didn’t deter the burden that had somewhat been lifted off my shoulders now. I at least had one game plan in place, but I was yet to really come to a decision on the next step.


“Let me sleep on it,” I said when Jiraiya prodded me again. “When I come to a decision, I’ll definitely let you know, all right?”


“As you wish, young man. Shake on it?”


We shook hands – Sasuke’s included – and prepared to head back to the main house to say our goodbyes to Ojiisan. Unfortunately, the guy was out for the day (taking a mid-afternoon nap) and we were escorted to our taxi by the pretty ladies, who made Sasuke and I promise to visit often. I was most definitely going to keep my promise, as for Sasuke...who the hell knows?


“Oh, look there,” Jiraiya suddenly blurted out as he pointed at the window when we were back on the highway. Sasuke and I strained to see what had gotten his attention. “Looks like there’s a festival taking place across the river. Would you like to see what it’s about?”


“I really don’t think we shou...” Sasuke began just as I said “Sure!” at the same time. We eyed each other warily, and I repeated myself in case no one else heard me. “I want to see what it’s about. You can take Sasuke home if you like.”


“Nonsense!” Jiraiya boomed and shook his head as if I had just suggested the most terrible thing in the world. “We have to enjoy the sights and sounds of our adopted country while we have the time. Now come along, you two. Lots to see. Lots to do.”


The old pervert wasn’t kidding, and I say pervert because he pretty much left us to do whatever we wanted, while he went ‘visiting’ some ‘old friends’ in what looked like a host club. Our instructions were to have fun and not bother him for any reason. If we needed to go back home, we could go ahead as long as we left a note at the front office.


So there I was; stuck in the middle of a bustling Korean festival with a one-legged sour grape. He had not smiled once since we left the taxi; a clear sign he didn’t want to be here. We stood in front of the club; not looking at each and not exactly knowing how the hell to kick this off. A part of me felt like leaving him to his own devices, but my rational side knew it was going to weigh on me all night. I was going to have to be his babysitter or he’d keep falling on his ass if I wasn’t around to help him.


“Let’s go see the acrobats,” I began, turning to look at him, but to my chagrin, the guy was gone! The hell?!


I craned my neck over the throng of people to search for him, and finally noticed his limping form heading toward a stall. Cursing him beneath my breath, I shoved my way through the people to get to him. And here I thought I was going to be the bigger guy by sticking to his side. Well, he could go fuck himself for all I care. In fact, why was I even bothering going to him? It was clear he didn’t want to be with me, so fine. I’m off to enjoy myself too.


If he wants me, he can do the searching.


I pivoted to my left and headed to where the acrobats where performing. I forced myself to enjoy the show – which was actually pretty fun and mind-blowing – and ended up talking to a pretty girl who was a college student and quite fluent in Japanese. She confessed that she was actually from Taiwan, but had moved to South Korea a few years ago with her family. She could only speak Japanese because she was taking it as a course in her school. I commended her on being able to speak so fluently, and she seemed genuinely pleased at my compliment. She was a petite little thing, with laughter that sounded like falling rain. I could easily fall for someone like her, but I realized that allowing myself to do so wasn’t going to be conducive. For starters, I couldn’t tell her who I really was, neither could I invite her back to the apartment or give her a telephone number. To her, I’d be nothing more than just another face in the crowd, and I figured it would be best for us to say our goodbyes now.


“Thanks for winning the teddy bear and plastic mask for me, Junghyun,” she said with a sad smile, before standing on tiptoe to place a kiss on my cheek. “I had so much fun tonight.”


“Me too...”


“Whenever you come back to the city, look for me, okay? Ah Yoona. You won’t forget me, will you?”


“I won’t,” I promised emptily. And with a lingering squeeze of her dainty hand, I watched her blend into the crowd before turning away and running smack dab into -


“Fuck!” I cursed as I rubbed my forehead, and lifted my gaze to meet the bastard responsible. “Why don’t you look where you’re’s you.”


“You don’t have to sound that excited to see me again,” came the cold reply. “If you’re done with your date, do you think we could go back now? It’s getting late -”


“It’s just eight o’clock,” I interrupted with a wave of my hand. “You can go back if you like. I’ll probably walk back home or get another taxi.”


His lips tightened and he looked like he was about to say something else, when the sudden loud bang and simultaneous cheers, ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ filled the air. We looked up at the breathtaking show of fireworks lighting up the night sky, and damn if my heart didn’t tighten as a wave of homesickness overwhelmed me. We were still under the same big sky, and yet Japan never seemed more far away than right now. It wasn’t as if the fireworks were any different from the ones I had seen during festivals in Nagasaki or Kyoto, it was just the ambience I guess. You knew you weren’t home because there weren’t the familiar smells of takoyaki or yakitori filling your senses and making your mouth water. You didn’t hear people screaming out the names of the firework creators as they went off, neither did you hear the familiar twang and dialect of a language you never realized you’d come to miss.


I bit my lower lip and rubbed my arms as a chill came through me. Suddenly, going back to the apartment didn’t seem like such a bad idea.


“I can’t remember the last time I saw fireworks like this,” came the quiet statement beside me that had me looking sharply at my companion. His gaze was still trained to the heavens, and with every burst of another firework, it illuminated his features to reveal an expression that was almost akin to how he had reacted at Ojiisan’s revelation about his clan. That damn twist in my heart happened again and I kicked myself mentally for allowing him to get to me like this.


“...must have been five or so,” he was muttering. “There was a festival being held on the grounds and Itachi and I sat on the front porch of our house eating hot potatoes and counting each firework as they showed up.”


Did he expect me to say something? What could I say anyway without sounding like an idiot? The firework shows I had gone to were either solo or with some other buddies of mine or with Sakura. Any real emotional attachment to the festivities was with the girl who broke my heart.


“Yeah...” I finally croaked. “Fireworks”


Yikes. That sounded moronic.


“Hey,” I said with more enthusiasm than I felt inside. “Let’s go see the fireworks from the bridge. It’s much clearer there and not many people are hanging out on it.”


“Maybe because it looks like it’s about to collapse at any second?”


I rolled my eyes and began to lead the way. “Geez. Must you find fault with everything? No one’s fallen in yet, have they?”


He said something I didn’t quite catch, which was a good thing because I was sure he must have called me a name that would have likely gotten him a good kick in the nuts. Either way, we were soon on the bridge and having to jostle for position among mostly couples trying to be all lovey-dovey. Bleh. I found a good spot and leaned over the railing; feeling Sasuke press against my side as someone shoved him.


“This is really comfortable, Naruto,” he said through gritted teeth. “I feel like I’m in a can of sardines.”


“Look into the water and you might actually find one,” I snickered and pointed to the river flowing beneath and before us. The lights from the fireworks and buildings in the vicinity illuminated the still waters; creating a beautiful illusion of fireflies dancing upon it.  


“Hardy har har. Really funny.”


But he did lean over to look all the same just as another series of fireworks went off. Too cool!


“It’s not the same as back home, but it’s still great, isn’t it, Sasuke?”


He nodded in agreement as I stole a glance at him. For the first time all evening, there was a semblance of a smile on his face, and I was actually glad to see that. Secondly, he was not leaning on his crutch, but I could see him favoring the leg a little, which was a reminder that he had walked a lot today, and I had technically abandoned him to hang out with Yoona.


(well, it was all his fault anyway...)


“Who was the girl?” came the question I was least expecting. He wasn’t looking at me as he asked this by the way.


“Oh...some college chick,” I replied. We were having to shout a little over the sound of the fireworks, firecrackers and noisy people. “She’s studying Japanese.”


“Hope you didn’t tell her your real name or anything of significance.”


“Of course not!” Geez. What did he take me for?


There was a pause – a long pause – before he asked quietly; so quietly I had to lean closer to him to hear the question. “Are you going to see her again?”




“I asked if you were going to see her again!”


He was looking at me now, and maybe it was because of how close we were, but I swear the lights from the fireworks were reflected in those dark eyes that could see so much. Like tiny fireflies in flight, they had me mesmerized and helpless to the flare of heat that rushed through me. And just like that, we were back in the gym; where everyone and everything suddenly didn’t seem to matter.


“What if I wanted to see her again?” I found myself asking in a voice I barely recognized as mine. It was soft and teasing as if seeking to know more from him. “Would it bother you that much?”


Something flickered within his eyes and he bit his lower lip as if caught. I smiled and leaned closer still until our foreheads slightly touched. He wasn’t making any effort to pull away, and I guess God was giving me a second chance to not fuck things up this time around. I hadn’t stopped thinking about what could have been; of what would have happened if I had let him do what he wanted. I keep trying to convince myself that he’s the one with the issues and I’m just fodder for him to test out his desires, but right now...right in this very minute...I just didn’t give a fuck if he took the first step.


“Well, Sasuke?” I teased. “Would it bother you?”


“...yes...” came the barely audible reply that sent a jolt right through me at the blunt honesty in that one word. The stomach cramp returned and my heart began to throb as hard and as fast as the ache forming in my nether regions. I almost couldn’t breathe.


Sas...Sasuke, I -”


But whatever I would have said or thought in that moment was promptly wiped clean as he finally ...


(oh God)


...sealed the distance between our lips with a kiss that paled in comparison to the fireworks that still blazed and sparkled above us. It couldn’t have lasted more than a minute, but it was more than enough to let me know that when it came to this particular guy, I was always going to have a problem understanding why he made me feel this way. It wasn’t the sort of the kiss you saw in the movies – where it seemed all soft and flowery and overdrawn. This kiss was nothing short of a statement; a firm control of a situation where he simply claimed what he felt he rightfully deserved. I had thought tasting his skin was toxic enough, but his lips - those damned lips that had uttered words of death a lifetime ago - had left me feeling weak-kneed and out-of-sorts with its intensity. If I hadn’t been balancing on the railing when it happened, I probably would have fallen to the ground.


He pulled away quickly and stared stubbornly at the river as if it was responsible for his actions. Still, it wasn’t enough to hide that he was flushed (as I probably still was), breathing a little shallowly (as I probably still was) or that he was licking his lips slowly as if still trying to get over the taste of me. I smiled at the sight and suddenly feeling cheeky, and a need to put him in his place – after all this was nothing short of an ambush - I leaned closer to him, but only to whisper into his ear.


“You call that a kiss, Uchiha Sasuke?” His visible tremble and soft intake of breath was just the beginning, for with a tender bite of his ear lobe, I gave him something to really think about for the rest of the evening.


“When we get back home tonight, I plan on showing you how it’s really done.”


With a smirk of satisfaction, I stepped away to admire my handiwork, and trust me when I say that the effect my words had was nothing short of beautiful.



Chapter 27

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