Chapter 30:

Needful Things


The deer on pine mountain, 
there are no falling leaves, 
Knows the coming of autumn 
Only by the sound of his own voice.

-Onakatomi no Yoshinobu




To become an assassin is to be devoid of any human emotion when it comes to a kill. Leave all regrets and doubts before you begin a mission. You have one task and only one opportunity to eliminate the target with zero room for error. A mind clear and free from any and all convoluted thoughts is crucial. Be as still and in control as the weapon within your hands. Remember – at all times – that you are an unseen presence to your target.  You are the shadows. You are nothing but the wind.


“Are you ready, Uzumaki?”


“I guess -”


“What was that?!” came the thunderous roar that had my ears ringing. His angry spittle sprayed on my face, but I knew better than to wipe it off now. He’d go mental on me.


“I’m ready, sir!” I replied in a tone that would appease him. Pale blue eyes narrowed with wariness as they scrutinized me, perhaps wondering if I was sassing him this early in the morning. When he seemed satisfied that I wasn’t about to break into a wisecrack, he nodded curtly and motioned for me to move into position.


“Today, we are going to the next level,” he snapped as I sat on the cold, dusty and dirt-infested floor, while reaching for the weapon that was now as familiar to me as my own hand.


For the past three days, I had been taught the nuances and characteristics of sniper rifles, and after spending most of yesterday testing out the different brands in Sergei’s arsenal, he (we) came to the conclusion that I was most comfortable with the bolt-action M40A3. I could set up the barrel, the stock with its cheek piece, load in the cartridges and adjust the all important telescopic sight within two minutes – which was still slow according to Sergei’s lofty standards. The guy could disassemble and reassemble an entire rifle in at least a minute, if not less, and though he had timed and given me hell for over two hours the other day for how slow I was, he figured we’d have to move on from that particular lesson. There would be no shortage of things to bitch to me about later anyway.


“So far, you have been practicing with immovable objects and birds and the such, eh?” he growled as he paced above and around me. “And I am impressed with your night vision, but today, we are going to try something a little different, which is why I brought you up here.”


Here being the top floor of an abandoned apartment building on the west side of town. This area, in general, was quite derelict and a sign of how poorly the government had managed its city so far. Some of the buildings here were unoccupied except for the homeless and junkies who needed places to crash for the night. Boarded or shattered windows, brick walls with flaking paints, steel frames rusting beneath earth’s elements, it all made for a scene right out of horror movie. The stench of accumulating garbage (and toilets that were far from good working conditions) coated the air like an unwanted shield. Trees and shrubbery outgrew man’s ability to curtail, and in the end, you were left in an area of the world that was all but abandoned to Nature’s greedy claws.


However, it was perfect for anyone trying to learn how to snipe, and this has been my training ground with Sergei for the most part. My daily regiment included being picked up by him at an ungodly hour in the morning, only for him to drop me off barely a block away from our apartment and force to me to run after the car in what could be considered an intense cardio workout until we arrived at our destination. By then, I was just about ready to drop dead in exhaustion – we are talking about five miles of running! At least I was lucky he wasn’t making me do it under the scorching sun, and yet despite it being cool so early in the day, I still ended up drenched in sweat. Every muscle in my body especially my legs, would be one aching mass; trembling so bad, that I’d immediately cramp up the second I stopped to take a break.


I tolerated his berating by calling me weak and hopeless, though he was kind enough to give me some water to quench my thirst. However, just when I think he’d give me an extra few minutes to breathe, he’d have me starting up a whole other set of exercises including that damn push-up routine. He was determined to get me to do the one-fingered push-ups, but that was one thing I had put my foot down on. I could barely hang on with the two-handed system. What the hell made him think I was going to start up on his crazy style of working out?


By mid-morning, I was ready to call it quits, but after a light breakfast – provided by him – it was then time to work on my shooting skills. Sergei always carried with him a hefty black bag (think body bag size), which he would unravel like a kid in a candy store to reveal all the weapons in his arsenal. I swear the man must have raided an artillery factory, because some of the shit he had were rare and pretty damn powerful. From small firearms to his beloved sniper rifles, he’d make me learn them all by heart, including how to clean and assemble each. Memorization was never my strongest suit and it was a pain to have to recall every single thing, but considering Sergei’s short fuse and low tolerance for bullshit, let’s just say I’ve been cuffed one too many times for my liking.


I hated this guy, and yet I knew he was an indispensable teacher. I would only have to keep gritting my teeth and bearing with the pain until it was over. It did help that all I had to do was remember why I was putting myself through this, and it would make the physical (and mental) punishments more tolerable.


So far, I’ve been able to aim and take out assigned targets as far as 2,000 meters, though they mostly involved inanimate objects or the occasional oblivious bird perched here and there. Once he made me shoot a sickly looking cat licking its paws; something that made my stomach churn with disgust and dismay as the poor thing went up in a splatter of fur, guts and blood. It hadn’t even had the time to give one last meow; at least the birds I shot got to squawk a little.


Now just imagine that as someone’s brain, Naroot, and you should be all set.


I shuddered and shook my head to rid myself of that image, while setting up and wondering if I was going to be shooting any more animals today. There were quite a few squirrels, stray dogs, and rabbits around after all.


Unfortunately, as I slid in the cartridges – while Sergei was busy scooping out my next target with his high-powered binoculars – I knew today was going to be extra difficult in the concentration department.


/It was a sin. You know it as well as I do...whatever we did...was nothing more than a sin. /


That asshole! It wasn’t a sin when you were calling out my name and biting my shoulder or nearly ripping my skin off when you fucking came, was it?


I nearly took off a finger as a cartridge got jammed in the barrel; barely acknowledging the wary look thrown my way by Sergei. At the moment, all I could hear was that cold statement from Sasuke as he pretty much said he was sick of me. I mean, that was all it boiled down to, wasn’t it? He had had his fun and now he wanted to move on. And yet the funny thing was, the last time we did it, he hadn’t given off any vibes that he wanted it to end. So just what the hell happened in these past few days I haven’t been around much? Was it because of Sergei? Was my absence causing him to doubt what he had instigated in the first place?


Or wait...


I stiffened as it hit me all at once on why Sasuke would have done something that.


Haku! Haku must have told him everything!


I mean, what other possible reason was there for stopping what had been such a damn enjoyable thing between us? It was something I had somehow - in some dumb way - come to see as our ‘alone’ time. I mean, I know we are alone when we do it, but I mean...urgh! Wish I was more eloquent when it comes to shit like this. It’s just that whenever we’re done getting each other off, the lull after that is kinda...nice, you know? Especially after the last time...




“Stop looking at me like that,” I muttered in embarrassment. Though I was still tingling and warm and flushed all over from coming so fucking hard (again!), just seeing those dark eyes staring right into me made me feel downright hot and bothered.


(flustered and confused)


“Like what?” he asked; his voice husky with content. He too looked ‘spent’ in a good way; flushed, hair all in disarray, lips swollen with our frenzied kisses, and a smile that I swear had my stupid heart skipping a little. Strange - as the only time I remember me feeling this mushy after a make out session was with Sakura.  But then again, the past two days had been nothing short of interesting, and I was learning something new each and every damn second. I mean, a girl could only do so much to bring a guy to his breaking point, but in reality, you realize that it has to take another guy to understand just what little thing needed to be touched to send you completely off the edge. Funny how that all works out, doesn’t it? Guess it all makes a little more sense now why gay dudes were happy in their relationships.


“Like you want to go snooping around inside my soul or something,” I grumbled and looked away, though my cheeks flamed from the low chuckle my response elicited.


He cupped my cheek and forced me to face him, his lips sealing mine again – not in a torrid kiss like before – but in a toe-curling sweet way that made my insides want to melt like chocolate under the sun or something like that. I (or him) moaned as every part of my body began to thrum again with helpless anticipation. We knew we couldn’t risk having another go - since the others might return soon - so by the time we broke apart for air, we both knew we in trouble.


“That’s not fair,” I whimpered against his lips; wanting more...needing more of him. “You did that on purpose.”


“I didn’t hear you complaining when it was happening,” he whispered back with a look that screamed ‘hunger’. “We should clean up, don’t you think?”


“I don’t want to.”


“I don’t want to either, but it has to be done.”


“’s your turn anyway,” I replied with a light smirk. “I had to do it last time, remember?”


He blushed and tried to cuff me, but I ducked and sat up quickly, only to push him onto his back with a growl. Not content to have me towering over him, we mock-wrestled as if we were kids, giggling and laughing helplessly until I finally had the upper hand by pinning him to the floor and seizing his lips in a hard kiss that left no room for argument or compromise. To say he responded just as hard would be an understatement.




He didn’t even bother pushing me off when we broke apart again, and in this position – as I stared into the flushed visage below me with those dark eyes that seemed to glow with a light I had never seen before – I found myself ready to spill everything to him. This was it. I was going to confess about what had taken place in the bathroom and how Haku had come onto me and my powerlessness to resist, or at least be brutally honest and admit that I had wanted to let it happen. I knew he wouldn’t be too happy, but at least I would have gotten it out in the open and off my conscience. If he never wanted to hang around with me again after this, then I guess it was all right. It would suck (funny how one gets addicted to shit like this fast), but at least I would deserve it for not being honest with him in the first place.


“Sasuke, I...”


/Please, please, pleeeeease promise you won’t tell Sasuke-sama about this. I know you two are close now, and you’re likely to reveal this eventually, but please...for now, just keep it between us, will you, Naruto-kun?/




“What is it, Naruto?” came the quiet question beneath me.


“No...Nothing,” I finally squeaked out with a weak smile; feeling my stomach tighten with just how difficult a position I was in. So much for my earlier thrill at being pleasured by two men and hoarding their secrets. Now, it was really beginning to sink in how precarious my situation was.


“This is the second time you’ve started saying something and not finished it,” Sasuke pouted, reaching up to pinch my nose playfully. “You wouldn’t be hiding something from me, would you?”


You have no idea.


“Yeah, I am actually,” I muttered instead. “...and it’s about ready to say hello to your little friend in a bit. Here...touch it -”


“Stop it, Naruto. You are so disgusting,” came the half-hearted complaint, though he did oblige my request with a breathless sigh.


And that was that. My chickening out, compounded with Haku and Karin returning less than ten minutes later, sealed whatever opportunity I had to second guess my decision to keep quiet. I didn’t want to hurt Haku, and at the same time, I didn’t want to piss off Sasuke either. I knew those two had a great relationship, so if I opened my big mouth and told Sasuke the truth anyway...wouldn’t it ruin their friendship? I already told Haku that we were not going to be doing any more of the hanky-panky business, but I had a feeling I was talking to someone who had only listened in one ear while it flew out the other. My stupid and irrational decision to kiss him first had opened up this new side of the guy; a side that was determined to get what he wanted no matter what.


(all my fucking fault I guess)


I mean, I really liked Haku and all, but if my blunder was going to make him become was I going to let him down easy without hurting him even further?






And now, with Sasuke’s ‘odd’ behavior last night, the pieces of the puzzle were finally falling into place. Haku, for all his begging for me not to squeal, must have yapped about it in the end! Now Sasuke was pissed at me, and who knows how he and Haku were getting along now?


Fuck it all to hell and back. You know what?  Maybe it is a good thing we’re ‘broken-up’, because if being with guys was going to be just as complicated as being with girls, then I wanted out.


Why the hell couldn’t sex...or at least foreplay come without the extra baggage? I wasn’t looking for a new Sakura in my life, and I most definitely wasn’t looking for a guy to fill that void. Though it had taken Sasuke’s words to snap me out of my Sakura ‘funk’, I had come to realize that relationship had sucked me dry emotionally and mentally. It might have been two years since her passing, but I had spent all that time obsessing over her, over what might or might not have been, and living in a world of denial that was more than draining. I was simply not ready to throw myself back into some kind of committed relationship with anyone at this point in my life. I needed to breathe, and yet with what has transpired in the past few days, I was back to feeling claustrophobic and overwhelmed.


“What is the matter with you now, Naroot? You look angry about something.”


“I’m cool,” I muttered as I slipped the final cartridge in its slot. “Ready whenever you are.”


“Hmph,” he snorted, not looking too convinced, but all the same he barked a curt “Into your position!” which was promptly obeyed.


I settled in and pressed my cheek against the cheek piece while with an eye closed, the other peered through the telescopic sight. I adjusted the settings to where I was now able to view a possible target over a thousand meters away through the cross hairs. So far, I have come to learn that there was an ‘art’ in even the mundane action of keeping still. He was yet to tell me what to shoot, but my body was automatically falling into a state of tension yet weightlessness. It’s hard to explain unless you’re actually doing it, but imagine yourself with your eyes closed in a dark room and yet being able to see everything so damn clearly. I hadn’t gotten to the stage where all sound around me would fade into silence, and all I would hear would be the steady ba-dump, ba-dump, ba-dump of my heartbeat. And just in the second before you pull the trigger, I swear you find yourself getting a fucking erection and your heart literally stops beating.  


Pretty amazing (and somehow disturbing) when you think about it.


“Position, three o’clock,” Sergei commanded. “Target office building top floor. Your cup on desk.”


I swiveled the telescopic sight as per his directions; the cross hairs now focused on a building that was definitely not empty. In fact, it was one that belonged to some telecommunications company, and I could see the early birds dragging themselves into their cubicles; some stopping to talk to fellow workers and others already plugging away with their duties. Sergei’s target for me was a stout man with glasses currently reading a newspaper; his cubicle right next to the large windows that were luckily open. The coffee cup was a mere inch or so away from his hand and every now and then, it would be blocked by the newspaper he was reading when he turned a page. Bottom line, if I was to get the cup, I was to aim and shoot at the exact moment he flipped the page. There would be no room for error with this one, otherwise...


(not ready...not ready for this)


“’re joking right?” I asked and immediately felt a sharp pain sear up my side as he kicked at my left ribs. Goddamnit!


“Joking?!” he brayed. “Do you see me smiling, Naroot?!”


“The guy is drinking his fucking coffee!” I yelled back in disbelief. “What if I miss?!”


A cold, cruel smile came to that pale face. “If you miss...then he dies, no?”


“You son-of-a-bitch! I’m not...URGH!”


It all happened in a flash. One minute, I was on the ground, the next I was hurled off my feet by the scruff of my shirt and slammed hard against the brick wall; so hard a few loose wooden rafters, from the roof, clattered to the ground in a cloud of sawdust. I felt the world go dark for a second before a bone crushing blow to my right cheek sent me tumbling to the ground with a knee-crunching thud and blood filling my mouth.


Fuck! I’m going to die! This guy...he’s going to kill me!


“Stand up!” he bellowed, and would have kicked me again, but I managed to roll away from the incoming attack; my entire body burning with agony. I could barely breathe.


“You want to become an assassin like your father, you say,” Sergei was growling as he approached me with steady strides; his combat boots sounding like thunder with every step he took. I staggered to my knees and tried to steady myself. “You want to become a killer, and yet you think it is only killing birds and shooting immovable targets that makes you one?! You frustrate me, Naroot! You really do!”


He dove for me again, but I ducked and backed away, hitting the wall with a low wince of pain while nursing my aching side and checking for any loose tooth. I spat out the blood and glared at him. He still had that cold smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes; eyes that were now filled with the intent to murder. Frantic, I darted my panicked gaze around for some kind of weapon to protect myself with. The rifle was too far from reach, and the closest thing was a piece of the fallen plywood, which looked way too cumbersome to lift anyway.


“You would not last a day in our Russian training camp,” he sneered and taunted. “You do not have what it takes to become a true assassin. This!” He pounded his chest. “Your heart...must be made of steel! It cannot waver and if you feel you cannot control it, you cut it out and stomp all over it! A trained killer should have no heart!”


He swung for me again, but this time I was ready for him.


No heart? No heart?! If my father had no heart, would Itachi be alive today? Huh?! If he had no heart, would he have fallen in love with my mother and chosen to live the rest of his life as a fugitive?!


I dove for his legs and wrapped my arms around them, sending him toppling back to the ground with a loud cry of surprise. I suffered the blow delivered to my head – which ended up creating a pretty deep cut to my forehead and nearly blinding me with the blood that spurted out immediately – but I wouldn’t let him go. He writhed and tried to throw me off; while hurling insults in his native tongue. I felt (or sensed) him about to reach for his gun, and with a growl of frustration and fury, I tugged the knife that was usually attached to his waist, unsheathed it quickly and plunged it deep into his right side. His howl of pain would have been enough for me, but the brute was still alert enough to shove me away with another blow – this time to my stomach - that just about had me vomiting and almost passing out.




I was flat on my back, my breathing harsh and nearly stifled as even my damn throat and lungs felt it was clogged with congealing blood and phlegm. I could barely see now, couldn’t even lift my arm because my side and stomach hurt so damn much. I could hear him scrambling to his feet, still cursing out loud, and I closed my eyes in weary resignation. He was going to trample all over me until he had proven his point. This fight had been brewing for days between us, and we had finally come to a head. He was right after all. I was weak, and I could never have the guts or heartlessness required to become a hired gun. Danzo would eat me alive even before I stepped onto the shores of Japan, and all of this...everything my father (and mother) struggled for, would have been for naught.


God, I’m so pathetic.


As if my shame wasn’t bad enough, the tears came before I could hold them in. Horrible, loud, embarrassing sobs wretched from my throat as the salt of my tears mingled with my blood. Hard and fast, I felt as if they would never stop. I had no idea why it hurt this much, or why I really didn’t give a shit if Sergei used this against me from now until my dying day. It wasn’t so much that I was crying from getting beat up, or that I was likely to never make it back to Japan and convince Danzo that I was legit, or that Jiraiya would be disappointed in me, or that my parents’ deaths would have been in vain – for some dumb ass reason, I could only see their faces; faces I had slowly but surely come to care about. My new family. From Asuma – who had done so much for me only to have his life cut short, Itachi and Shisui – who were still fighting despite the odds against them, Shikamaru and Temari – who had gone through hell as a couple and were determined to fight the best way they knew how, Karin, who ‘fought’ by healing, Haku, whose devotion and love to everyone (including me for reasons I still don’t understand) made him stronger in mind and spirit, to that annoying, self-righteous, irritating, heartless know-it-all, who had – in the space of two months – made me question every damn thing about him and myself.


My failure here would disappoint them all. If I gave up and went home sobbing with my tail between my legs, I would have put a halt to our dreams of creating a world where evil bastards like Snake Dude, Ikegami, and Danzo no longer existed. It was a lofty goal, but it was our goal goddamnit. It was why we lived and struggled each and every single fucking day, and I knew that my success would determine Sasuke’s in the long run.


He needed me, and not just with what I could give him with physical gratification (or vice versa), but with what Danzo’s death would mean to Snake Dude. For his sake...for all their sakes (including those we loved and lost), I couldn’t quit. I just couldn’t!


“Sometimes it is good to cry,” came the low and unexpected statement that almost had me wondering if I had entered an alternate universe. This was Sergei being...normal. No barking. No shouting. No bellowing. No braying. His tone was quiet and contemplative, and I stopped bawling long enough to hear the low sounds of him probably working on his injury. I did mention that that giant bag of his was like an all purpose kit, didn’t I? For not only did it keep all the weapons but also our meals and whatever else he could fit in there. Apparently a First Aid kit was a part of it. Had he anticipated such injuries occurring to us in the long run?


“God knows I was like you when I first started this...all crying and feeling sorry for myself.” He snorted and flung something my way. I flinched and wondered if he was going to hurt me again, but I noticed it was only the kit itself, which was in a medium-sized black leather bag. It was clear he had no plans to help me clean up, so I’d have to fix up myself as best I could.


With an effort, I managed to sit up, but just long enough to lean back against the wall to catch my breath. I wiped the tears, blood and snot from my face, unable to look at him as I opened the bag and began to remove what I felt I’d need.


“Nobody said it was going to be easy to become a killer, Naroot,” Sergei continued. He was rummaging through his bag again, and the familiar sound of the cellophane - usually wrapped around his cold-cut sandwiches - was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. He flung that to me as well as a small bottle of water. Breakfast. Dawn was finally breaking over the horizon and though I would have loved to admire Nature’s brush strokes of wondrous colors, I was too busy trying to stop the bleeding so I could eat. I hadn’t realized how hungry I was all this time, and here I am like a goddamn leaking faucet.


“But everything I said, I meant.” Sergei tore open his package to begin eating, which was amazing in itself to watch. He could finish a sandwich in just two bites. Military training I guess. I dared to steal a glance at him then, noticing he had taken off his sweat and blood-stained tank top to apply a wad of bandages to his stab wound. He’d probably still have to go to a hospital to have it checked out since there were was a growing blossom of red on the white cloth. At least it was a good thing he didn’t look like he was dying anytime soon. I might have hated the guy and wanted to protect myself, but killing him hadn’t been my intention.  


“I look at you and I see so much potential,” he continued in that gruff accented voice of his. “I see the desperation in your eyes and the monster lurking behind it.  You are, what we call in this business, a samorodok – a natural – and there are many men who would give an arm or two arms to be able to do what you did in just three days.”


(the monster lurking...)


“I had my first kill when I was only six years old,” he grunted. His gaze was trained on the sunrise; the light bathing his profile to give him the appearance of a chiseled Greco-Roman statue. There was no spare ounce of flesh on this guy. Every muscle well defined like something actually carved from rock. “Sliced the neck of the man who was going to rape me. Hah!”


I blinked. Did he just say ‘rape’?


“Six?” I asked incredulously. I wished I had a mirror so I could see if I was doing a good job applying the band aid to my forehead wound. By this time, there was a pile of blood-soaked tissues next to me. Not a particularly pleasant sight.


“Oh yes.” That familiar bitter smile came to his visage. “I grew up in a camp reserved for those believed to be traitors to the government. Like a concentration camp you might say. My father was a spy, and my mother was gunned down by military forces because of her allegiance to the opposition. So as you can see, my family was a target from the beginning. I was not liked very much, and everyone was out for me and my sem´â at any opportunity they got. I had to use these...” He held up his large hands; hands with faded tattoos and knuckles that looked like they had seen their fair share of fights over the years. Those hands had stories to tell, and I was hearing one now. “To defend oneself, one must learn to fight to survive, and you know this well already. You survived that place called Byaku-Shinkyou, did you not?”


“Barely,” I muttered and spat out again. More blood, which told me that I probably had a cut inside my mouth. Good grief. I opened my bottle of water and gurgled my aching mouth with some of it. Knowing Sergei, this bottle was probably all I was going to get for the rest of the day, so I might as well manage it effectively.


“But you survived and that is what is important. You did not want to die. You did not want to end your life there, and that is the instinct in all of us. When we find ourselves faced with the most dangerous of obstacles, we find a way to rise above it. That,” He pointed to the sitting sniper rifle. “Is an obstacle that you must overcome, Naroot. It is all well and good to shoot at paper people and animals that do not threaten, but when you are faced with a life and death situation...”


“ pull the trigger,” I finished quietly.


“And that is all there is to it,” Sergei agreed with a loud grunt. “This is why it is a heartless job, Naroot. If you become too attached to every assignment, you will never survive in this business. They tell me that you want to work for Shimura Danzo, eh? I have dealt with the man before – not on a face-to-face basis – but I can assure you, he will pick at whatever holes you reveal. He can spot one’s weakness and exploit it to his benefit. So you must give him absolutely nothing to work with. You must become like an impenetrable fortress in his presence. Do you understand?”


I looked into the steely blue eyes before me and felt the all-consuming weight of what he was saying finally sinking in. Danzo was no doubt going to give assignments to test my loyalty to him. It would be more than simply shooting at a coffee mug and being afraid to miss. It would require actually taking the life of another human being even if I didn’t know a damn thing about them. I would have to become a vessel for his dirty work. It was what my father had to do for years until his ‘heart’ finally thawed at the sight of Uchiha Fugaku and his family. Would I ever be able to freeze this fickle heart of mine? Would I ever manage to convince them that I could be as cold and ruthless as my father must have been?


I glanced at the rifle and bit my lower lip.


(to become heartless)


In that instant, I saw his face; those ‘pretty’ features that could look flushed with the aftermath of intimacy or grow cold and distant as he shut me away.


(just like Sakura...eventually they all get tired of me...)


I tightened my fingers around the bottle of water and forced myself to breathe evenly.


It might take me a while to develop that damn heart of ice, but at least...for now if nothing else, I would keep up with this training and keep to my end of the bargain. I was not about to let him down, no matter how much of an asshole he could be.


“All right, Sergei,” I finally said quietly as I began to unwrap my sandwich. “As soon as I’m done with about we try this one more time?”








It was worse than he thought.


The past two days have been the longest of his life, filled with changes he had not anticipated after his honest and bold declaration to Sasuke. He had anticipated that things would indeed change between them, but not to this extent.


The first sign of such change came the very next morning when Haku awakened at his usual time to find the futon beside him empty. In fact, there was no futon there at all. Sasuke had not only woken up before him, he had rolled up the bedding and put it in its place without waiting for Haku to do his usual task. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Sasuke hadn’t waited for him to take a bath, or requested Haku join him, and for breakfast, his master – who had never really enjoyed the western meal – had chosen to eat nothing but toast and a cup of hot chocolate. To make things more aggravating, Sasuke did all this without acting insolent or stand-offish. He had greeted Haku as he usually did, and kept up with the small talk albeit strained in some parts, but it was a clear message being sent out to Haku.


The master and servant relationship was no longer in effect.


He was officially free to do as he pleased and was no longer under any obligation to administer to Sasuke hand and foot as he used to.


It was a rather strange and difficult position to be in, for Haku had known nothing else but serving others for so long. His servitude had so been ingrained in his psyche that the old habits of kneeling at the door the moment Sasuke walked into the apartment, or taking off his slippers, or setting up his reading area, or even making his afternoon tea...none of that mattered anymore. Sasuke would gently refuse and insist that the younger man no longer kneel or bow to him as he used to.


“You are your own person now, Haku,” he would say. “So I want you to stop trying so hard to please me, all right? I’ll manage on my own. You shouldn’t worry.”


But Haku did worry, and he hated himself for worrying.


What good am I now to anyone?


He would have liked to talk to Karin, but it seemed like Sasuke now favored her company; something even Karin herself was confused (but obviously pleased) about. Seeing Sasuke blatantly ask her to join him at the gym or not cringe when she came to their apartment, was yet another sign that he was indeed giving Haku the freedom he needed to pursue his feelings for Naruto.


Unfortunately, the Naruto he would have loved to speak to was still as elusive. In fact, Haku was sure the blond had not returned from his training last night. He would have loved nothing more to go there with a basket of food to watch and cheer him on, but his gentle prodding of Jae Weong had revealed nothing. Naruto and Sergei’s training ground was some big secret that could never be revealed no matter what. It was all down right frustrating.


He sighed and crossed the street; his destination the park where he could be alone and think of how to move on as best he could from here on out. He idly wondered if his new friend would show up today, for they had met twice since their initial encounter. Their conversations hadn’t been long, mostly thanks to Karin’s impatience, but at least Haku had come to know that the stranger’s name was ‘Sai’ and that he had no connection to Shin-chan though it was amusing that Haku would mistake him for a childhood friend. So how had he known Haku’s name then? Sai had confessed that he had overheard Karin calling him that on a previous visit to the store, which would mean that Sai had known about Haku for quite a while.


“I just never had the nerve to speak to you,” Sai confessed with a such a cute expression on his visage, Haku hadn’t the heart to disbelieve his story. “You don’t mind me calling you that, do you? I prefer it to Chung-hee.”


“Just as long as you don’t say it aloud,” Haku had insisted; lying that ‘Haku’ was his middle name thanks to his Japanese mother, while his Korean father had insisted he be called Chung-hee.


Sai didn’t question that story, neither did he really seem to care about whatever history Haku conjured up for himself. Haku had the feeling he could claim he was the prince of an obscure country and Sai would believe him wholeheartedly. He almost felt bad lying to the sweet young man, but this was something that had to be done to protect himself.


Today, however, he felt ready to burst at the seams. He needed to talk to someone...anyone who was willing to listen to him. He held no expectations that Sai would be here today, and was more than pleasantly surprised to find the dark-haired man in his usual position, but with something new on hand. A sketchpad and pencil. Haku froze.


“ draw too...”


Sai looked up with widened eyes; his pale visage suffusing with color at the sight of the beautiful man before him. He gave a weak laugh and tried to hide what he was doing. “I’m still learning,” he confessed. “It’s been a while since I’ve actually drawn anything so...”


Haku continued to watch him in thoughtful silence. Sai had claimed he wasn’t Shin, and yet he looked like him and apparently had the same talent. His story was that he was actually a half-breed; Japanese mother and Korean father, and he had traveled from country to country with his family over the years, so he really couldn’t call any one place home.


“I take it you don’t believe me,” Sai said quietly; his gaze downcast and miserable. He held up the sketchpad. “Here, you can see for yourself if I’m as good as Shin was. It’s just that the other day you spoke about him, you made me want to pick it up for myself and try it. You’ll see that compared to your childhood friend, I am nothing more than a novice.”


Haku accepted the offered book and thumbed through it slowly. Sai was right. His stuff was amateur to say the least. Compared to Shin’s finer strokes and more attention to detail, Sai’s attempts seemed weak and half-hearted. It was almost as if he was trying too hard and making a mockery of whatever subject he was focused on.


“What’s this supposed to be?” Haku asked as he sat on the bench beside Sai and held up the sketch book to what looked like a picture of a deformed chicken.


Sai turned crimson and snatched the book from Haku. “It’s supposed to be a flower,” he mumbled beneath his breath. Haku sputtered...then gave up and giggled helplessly with a hand covering his mouth.


“Don’t laugh,” Sai whined in misery, while clutching the book tightly to his chest. “I knew you’d find it funny.”


“You are definitely not Shin,” Haku chuckled with a shake of his head. “He would never have drawn something that ridiculous. But, you’re trying and that’s what’s important, isn’t it?”


Sai didn’t look too convinced, and it wasn’t until Haku begged for forgiveness in the most adorable way, did he finally cave in reluctantly. “Next time, I’m going to be even better,” he vowed.


Haku clapped his hands in delight and grinned. “And I’ll be cheering you on all the way!”


Sai smiled softly. “At least I’m glad I made you laugh again. You were looking quite despondent on your way here. Is everything all right?”


Haku sighed and sat back on the bench. Great. He just had to be reminded of his woes, didn’t he? He tucked his hands within the sleeves of the kimono (it was getting a little chilly), and absently stared at the children playing by the pond with their plastic boats, while their mother read a book several feet away from them.


“You can tell me it’s none of my business,” Sai said quietly. “I’ll understand.”


“It is none of your business,” Haku agreed; failing to notice the pained expression that came to his companion’s face. “But...I guess I brought it upon myself, and now I have to face the consequences.”


Sai fell silent, though his sharp gaze was trained on the serene profile beside him. How he longed to capture Haku’s essence on paper again, but it was too risky at this time.


“My love for one person has ruined my relationship with another,” Haku admitted in a barely audible whisper. He could feel his throat tighten as memories of Sasuke’s detachment came rushing back in a flood. Who knew he would miss having to serve that man?


“How so?” came the gentle prod.


Haku bit his lower lip and shook his head lightly. “I don’t want to bore you with this...”


“Trust me, you are not boring me at all,” Sai insisted with a firm nod. “I love listening to you talk, and if I can offer any assistance, I’ll be glad to.”


“Can you make everything the way it once was?” came the quiet question as sad brown eyes met concerned obsidian in silent query. “Can you take me back to a time when I felt I was needed by someone? Now...I feel so damn useless. I want to become my own person, to do things the way I want without having to seek permission all the time, and yet...yet...all I can think about is going back to him.”


He scrubbed at his eyes in humiliated anger; knowing how shameful it was to be in tears before someone he barely knew. It would take him almost a minute to realize that Sai was holding onto his hand tenderly, a tremulous smile on that pale visage as if trying to hold back his tears as well.


“It must be hard for you,” Sai sympathized.


“Don’t act like you understand,” Haku sulked and sniffled miserably. “You wouldn’t understand what I’m going through.”


Sai’s smile, this time, seemed bittersweet. “You’d be surprised at how many people can relate to your pain, Haku. You’re not the only one who has felt unwanted before.”


Haku looked into those inky black depths...


(oh how they reminded him of Sasuke’s)


...and slid his hand away from Sai’s grip slowly. He took a deep breath to control his emotions. “I should stop feeling sorry for myself, shouldn’t I?” He threw a weak smile to Sai. “I’m sorry. It’s just been a very strenuous time for me.”


“There’s no need to apologize.” There was a brief pause in which unspoken questions hung between them like a cloud before Sai cleared his throat. “ is this lucky person that’s a recipient of your feelings?”


Haku gave a snort and rolled his eyes. “He could be on another planet now for all the attention he gives me.”


“He doesn’t know?”


“Oh, I think he has an idea...but I don’t think he can love me the way I love him.” It would eventually dawn on Haku that his declaration of falling for a ‘he’ hadn’t caused Sai to blink or shrink away in disgust.


“I see,” Sai muttered. “This is indeed a quandary.”




“Have you told him? Actually told him how you feel? Maybe he’ll respond to you then. You never know.”


Haku groaned and closed his eyes. “If it was that easy, I’d do it, but you have to remember...all this stems from me wanting something someone else wants but doesn’t know he wants yet.”




Haku lifted his lashes and gave a wry smile. “My master loves this same person as well, but he doesn’t realize it yet. I, on the other hand, do realize my feelings, but the person we both want is oblivious to all of this and couldn’t really care less about reciprocating those feelings anyway. Now, do you understand why this is all very complicated?”


Sai whistled beneath his breath. “Wow.”


“Yes. Even the best Korean drama couldn’t produce this script.”


“So what are you going to do?”


“...I really don’t know, Sai. I’d love to speak to the one I love, but he’s not been home in a while because of his training.”




Haku nodded. “He’s going through some intense training...nothing important you should know about, but I haven’t seen him in a while and getting to talk to him is next to impossible. My master no longer seems to need me and has now gravitated toward the other female living with us, and I know for a fact that he doesn’t really like her in that way, so why bother leading her on like that?” He gave a low sound of exasperation. “He can be such a stubborn bonehead.”


Sai chuckled. “But shouldn’t you be happy that he’s no longer vying for your true love’s affections? This is your opportunity to strike, isn’t it?”


“And yet I derive no joy from it even if I conquer him. I’ll always know – at the back of my mind – that I somehow betrayed my master. Ex-master that is.” Haku seemed to sink lower on the bench, his expression one of acute pain. “But why should I give up what I desire just to make him happy...again? I gave up my relationship with Za...someone I loved once before just because my master disapproved and now I have to repeat that cycle all over again? Why? Am I a bad person for wanting to be happy?”


“There is no crime in being happy, Haku,” Sai encouraged softly. “Maybe what should happen is all three of you sit down this whole thing out. Don’t you think that would be a good idea?”


“And just what are we going to talk about?”


“How you all feel about each other, of course.”


Haku snickered. “You don’t know my ex-master, do you? He’s not the kind of person that will come out and state how he feels for any other person so openly. For years, all he has done is suppress his emotions and now that he’s free to express them, it’s leaving him sometimes baffled and helpless.”


“You seem to know your master quite well.”


“I’ve lived with him most of my life, so I should.” Haku sighed heavily. “In a way, that is why this is even more difficult. You see, once upon a time, I would have been thrilled to death that my master and my love would even speak to each other. I did my best to bring them together, not knowing just how much it would bother me if things did progress to the stage beyond mere friendship. My master has been sheltered for so long that I felt the one I love would be the catalyst to him becoming more open and willing to accept changes. Well...I got my wish and now my selfish side wants to take it all back.”


“You can’t have your cake and eat it too, Haku.”


“Don’t you think I know that already?” came the sullen complaint. “You don’t have to remind me of my selfishness.”


“All’s the deal.” Sai sat up to place his hands firmly on Haku’s shoulders, forcing the long-haired man to face him squarely. “Since you can’t get the three of you to have a talk, how about confessing to your love, seeing what he says and going from there? If he says “no”, then you know you’ve tried and given it your all and then you do your best to move on. However, if he says “yes”, then you and your ex-master are just going to have to come to an agreement that your happiness should be paramount. He will have to be the one to learn to move on and who knows? Maybe this girl he’s with will turn out to be the one for him in the end. Stranger things have happened, right?”


“...I guess...”


“You really shouldn’t over think this, Haku,” Sai said with a smile. “I mean if your master really hated you, he’d have kicked you out of the apartment by now, right? But he’s simply giving you the room and chance to find out how to live without being his shadow all the time. Of course it’s going to be difficult, especially after years of being in his service, and no one expects you to be jumping for joy so soon. He probably did this because he loves and respects you too much to belittle how much you need to grow and become who you wish to be. Talk to him as you usually did, only the next time you find yourself about to put away his slippers, you slap your wrist gently and remind yourself of who you are trying to become, eh?”


“How come you make it sound so easy?”


“Because it is that least from an outsider’s perspective,” Sai admitted with a chuckle. “And besides, I’ll be here for you if you ever need to get anything off your chest. Maybe we shouldn’t meet all the time in the park though. There are some other great places we can hang out.”


“...are you asking me out?” Haku asked with a raised brow, causing Sai’s cheeks to turn a pretty shade of pink.


“Of course not,” he stuttered with a shake of his head. “It’s just...I thought you’d like to see a different setting. Like a restaurant or maybe we could go to the zoo. And besides, I’ll be no competition for the one you love, so I’m not even going to try wooing you any longer. I’m more than content being just friends with you...if you’ll let me.”


Why this plain and honest declaration made Haku’s throat tighten with emotion, he could not tell you. He simply lowered his head and nodded slowly, absently accepting the quick and almost awkward hug Sai gave him.


When they broke apart, they gave each other shy smiles before Haku reached out for the sketch book to thumb through the pages again.


“You’re not going to laugh at me again, are you?” Sai began to protest.


Haku smiled softly and shook his head. “No...not laugh at you, but with you.” He looked into the dark eyes that now held an expression he could not define. “And you’re right...the next time we meet...let’s go to a place where we really have fun, okay?”


Sai didn’t trust himself to speak for a moment, before he finally found the willpower to nod shyly in agreement.


“Okay, Haku. I would like that so very much.”







He shuffled out of the apartment with the garbage bags; his intention to take them downstairs to the incinerator behind the building. However, just as he shut the door behind him – and purely done out of habit – he glanced towards Naruto’s apartment not really expecting to see anything different. For the past two days, it had remained silent and empty for Shikamaru was sure the blond had not returned even to take a bath. However, at the sight of the blade of light beneath the door and the undeniable sound of a now familiar commercial being played in the background, his heart leapt in relief. Naruto was finally home!


For how long though? Shikamaru thought warily, though he was glad to know his friend was alive and well. He wouldn’t lie and say he hadn’t been worried with the intense schedule Sergei had put his friend through so far. The one time he had managed to see Naruto earlier in the week, the blond had looked like a shadow of his former self. Inner decision made, he dropped the garbage bags beside the janitor’s closet and made his way to Naruto’s apartment; knocking only once before letting himself in.


“Hey, stranger,” he began in salutation, only to find the words lodged in his throat at the sight of the comatose body splayed out on the floor. Panic and fear rose within Shikamaru’s mind at the notion that Sergei had literally worked his friend to death, for Naruto hadn’t even bothered changing out of his clothes which were dirty, torn, and blood-streaked in several places.


What the hell happened to you!?


“Naruto? Naruto,” he called out tentatively as he fell to his knees and gingerly turned the body over. “Fuck!”


It was worse than he thought. Naruto was clearly passed out, but it was the cuts and bruises all over him that told of a training that must have been nothing short of brutal. He was still bleeding in some places and had stained the tatami mats with his blood and sweat. Having seen enough, Shikamaru set to work. He would have loved to go out to call Karin or even Haku for help, but he knew they had all stepped out to run different errands. He could call on Sasuke, but according to Temari, he had actually gone out with Karin. So no luck there. Besides, he was still trying to get over what had happened the other day with Sasuke apologizing to them in such a manner. Talk about being surprised. The Sasuke they had once known would have never done something like that.


Guess we all have to grow up every once in a while.


He barely heard the knock on the door behind him, but did hear the tentative sound of his fiancée’s voice. “Naruto? Are you back...?” Her gasp was enough to tell him that she had seen the damage. “Oh my God,” she whispered in shock as she fell to her knees beside him. “What’s wrong with him?”


“Sergei’s wrong, that’s what,” Shikamaru grunted as he began tugging Naruto’s pants down his legs. “Can you get me a basin of warm water and a wash cloth?”


Temari nodded immediately, also adding she’d get some medicine from their apartment to assist. In about half an hour, they had both managed to clean him up and attend to his wounds as best as they could. They did not have Karin’s magic touch, but this would have to do for now until she returned. While Shikamaru tucked Naruto within his futon, Temari was in the kitchen trying to whip up something edible. Naruto’s fridge was just about empty with nothing more than several bottles of water, two cans of beer, a bag of oranges that was almost rotten (she tossed that in the trash), and a loaf of bread close to its expiration date. His cupboards only yielded about ten packets of instant ramen and a box of rice crackers; hardly what one could consider healthy eating. No wonder he sometimes mooched off them for dinner.


“Ah, I think he’s waking up,” Shikamaru observed as Naruto’s features began to contort...well more like his nose sniffing the air. “I think he smells your cooking.”


Temari snickered. “Guess that would wake anyone up from the depths of a coma.”


Lashes flew open to reveal bright blue eyes that seemed glazed at first before a few blinks had them focused again.


“Naruto?” Shikamaru asked as he leaned over the prone figure. “You alive, buddy? How many fingers am I holding up?”


“...get your fucking fingers off my face, man,” came the hoarse reply that brought a smile to Shikamaru’s face.


“Yep. He’s back and as annoying as ever.” He sat back as Naruto struggled to sit up, only to notice the blond wincing and holding onto his left side. There was a fading bruise there, a clear sign Naruto had probably suffered several broken bones, but since Karin wasn’t around to apply her brand of first aid, their little band-aids and ointments would have to suffice for now.


“How are you feeling, Naruto?” Temari asked as she walked back into the room with a tray of food consisting of a steaming bowl of tempura udon, pieces of grilled fish, and two rice balls.


“Starving,” Naruto confessed with his stomach giving a loud growl as if to agree with his statement. He blushed as the couple chuckled, reaching for the meal and bowing his head in sincere thanks to them for their help.




They watched him all but shovel the meal – you’d think he hadn’t eaten in days – into his mouth with gusto; neither bothering him with the million and one questions swirling in their minds. He asked for seconds and Temari was happy to oblige. By the time he was through – with a loud belch for added measure – Naruto felt more like himself.


“Man, I needed that,” he sighed in satisfaction. Temari was in the kitchen washing up now, and both men lounged lazily in the living room, absently watching the drama show on the television. “Talk about revitalization.”


“All right...I’m curious and dying to know,” Shikamaru asked curtly. “Just what the hell are you two doing? I thought he was only supposed to teach you how to shoot a damn gun! What’s with all the cuts and bruises...and your feet! Did he make you walk on glass or something?”


Naruto wriggled his toes and chuckled weakly. “That’s what running for five miles a day will do to you, I guess.”


“You run that far? Why?” Temari asked this as she settled beside Shikamaru to peer at the blond with curiosity.


“Because he’s a sadistic prick,” Naruto replied with a shrug. “He makes me run all the way to our training place while he drives and says I have to keep up. Then he makes me do no less than a hundred push ups and that’s before we begin the painful task of memorizing each and every damn gun the bastard’s got in his collection.”


Shikamaru whistled in appreciation, while Temari looked flummoxed and a little confused.


“I have to learn which bullets or cartridges go into which, know how to disassemble, then clean, then reassemble each and everyone.” He lifted his hands; hands that now looked raw, calloused and hardened with all he had done over the past week. He flexed his fingers and seemed to regard them intently. “I can aim and shoot at a target over 3,000 meters now. Can you believe it?”


“That’s impressive,” Shikamaru agreed. “Still doesn’t explain how you got all the other bruises and wounds though.”


Naruto gave a light smirk. “Let’s just say we didn’t exactly see eye-to-eye on some things.”


“ guys had a fight?”


“Something like that.” He noticed the expression on his friends’ faces and shook his head. “It’s nothing to be worried about. We both left an impression on each other, all for the better actually. We needed to get that fight out of the way to better understand each other.”




“But hey, besides that he made me shoot at the most ridiculous targets. Heh, I’m surprised I haven’t made the news yet.”


“Why’s that?”


Naruto gave a wan smile. “He made me shoot through office buildings; targeting different items within them. It took me a while to get my first ‘kill’, which was a coffee cup, but when that baby shattered, you should have seen the panic in that place.” He gave a dry chuckle and shook his head. “They were probably wondering if they were suddenly being attacked by terrorists or something.”


“Did you shatter the windows too?”


“Not at first,” Naruto admitted. “They were already open when I began aiming, but after five attempts, I think they got the message and closed up everything. So Sergei just chose another office building for me to damage.”


“And you didn’t hurt anyone?”


Naruto grimaced. “On accident...”


“You killed someone?” Temari asked incredulously.


The blond ran his fingers through his hair in frustration; his features looked like he was in pain. “I don’t know for sure. I just saw the guy go down and everyone started gathering around him. I wasn’t even aiming at him. Sergei reassured me the guy was all right, but I didn’t believe him. I was frozen in shock.”


“But the reality is that you are eventually going to have to really take out another human being for real, right?” Temari queried in a quiet voice.


“Don’t remind me,” came the groaned reply as Naruto raised his knees to his chest and buried his face against them. “Every fucking minute I shoot at something, I am more than aware of what waits for me when I get back to Japan.”


Shikamaru cleared his throat. He shared a quick look with his mate and love-of-his-life, smiled weakly at the gentle squeeze of his hand she gave him, before taking a deep breath.


“Naruto,” he began quietly but firmly. “Temari and I have given this a lot of thought, and I know you’ve suggested many times over that we should both run off and try to find happiness away from all of this, but...we can’t.”


Naruto lifted his head to give them a look that was a combination of confusion and wariness. “Huh?”


Shikamaru smiled wryly. “If we were to run off today, we’d be running away from everything we have sacrificed so far. Running away would mean giving up on what Asuma fought for.”


Naruto shook his head. “What’s the point? I mean...why bother? I don’t get it. If I were you, I’d go as far away from here as possible. Why would I want to be involved with shit like this?”


“Because we are involved, Naruto,” Temari replied. “It’s because of the Bakufu Syndicate that Shikamaru got arrested in the first place over a crime he didn’t even commit. Why don’t you tell him why you really got arrested, babe?”


Shikamaru rubbed his chin gently in thought. “Remember what I told you about how I got caught?”

“You were drinking with some buddies and on a dare you were to sneak into the house of a Bakufu Syndicate, right?” Naruto answered, which received a nod from his friend.


“But that’s just a part of it. The reason why they really wanted me put away was because I was an understudy for a certain Councilman at the time. In fact, this guy was supposed to be appointed to the DIET, but his stance was quite unpopular with a certain group of individuals.”


“The yakuza,” Naruto deduced quickly.


Shikamaru nodded. “Right. The Councilman would give speeches and deliver flyers about his message, going as far as national T.V. to speak against the evils of the Syndicate. For weeks, we were threatened by those guys. We couldn’t get into our local offices because they’d be there, parked and waiting with their guns and knives, ready to attack if we dared showed our faces there. We had to resort to underground hideouts to continue with our message knowing how dire our situation was. But despite our best efforts, they won out in the end.”


His hands formed tight fists on his lap as the memory came rushing back. He bit his lower lip so hard, he barely felt the trickle of blood that dribbled down his chin. “I was lucky that day; lucky that I had decided to leave town with Temari for a much needed break. On my return, I learned that the Councilman had been assassinated while visiting a temple with his wife and young daughter. Gunned down in cold blood like fucking animals, Naruto. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the bastards had discovered our base and destroyed it including anyone who was in it at the time. I was in a rage that night, so furious and upset over what happened I resorted to getting myself stinking drunk while swearing to take down any yakuza I came across. I should have been among the dead, so why the fuck was I still alive? No one dared me, that was a lie I came up with at the police station later, but I did try to gain access to one of the Syndicate member’s home...stupidly I might add. Trying to climb a secure fence while as drunk as a skunk is never a good idea. I was captured before I could even get a step over the vine, tortured and then dumped in the station the next day with an asterix to my name.”


“An asterix...?”


Shikamaru’s lips curled into a bitter smile. “As in no matter what happened, I would never leave Byaku-Shinkyou until my sentencing was up. Temari did everything in her power to get me out of there. Calling on the Councilmen we knew and those we felt would be able to help us, but no matter what she did, she was turned down or ignored. The final straw came with her supposed “accident”. It was just too damn convenient to have her car struck in the middle of an empty highway by a truck going at over 90 fucking miles an hour. They knew she was making a lot of ‘noise’ and thought of the best way to shut her up. Asuma was the one to choose the hospital she stayed at for fear she’d still be hunted down if they realized she was alive. He risked his neck for both of us...for today to finally happen. So when you tell us to just run away and try to live happily ever after, we can’t do it without living the rest of our lives with guilt.”


“We consider it payback for what the Bakufu took away from us: the Councilman and his family, my colleagues, and two years of my life I’ll never be able to get back. So...if you don’t mind, I’d like to follow you to Japan when it’s time. I promise not to get in the way of you and Danzo unless you request it. I’m more than content remaining in the shadows and being your sounding board, but yeah...if you are willing to take on an extra traveling companion, I’m up for it.”


Naruto’s eyes widened in shock at this. He opened his mouth to protest, though he was embarrassed to find he was getting choked up for some inexplicable reason. He had always been of the assumption that this was a journey he’d have to do alone and now...


“Don’t try to stop me,” Shikamaru insisted with a raised hand as if to still Naruto’s words. “It’s a decision we’ve thought long and hard about, and I think it’s only fair. After all...” He gave a smile that was tinged with sadness. “Asuma did give me the task of being your bodyguard, Son of Senju. Though it sucks that I’ll have to keep watching your fucking back, I can’t back away from that promise either.” He blushed faintly at the look in the blond’s eyes before snorting and looking away. “And what are you crying for anyway? You shouldn’t be...hey!”


“I love you, man!” Naruto wailed for he had flung his arms around Shikamaru in a bear hug that nearly sent them toppling to the floor. Ignoring the aches and pains, he planted kisses (that earned many ‘eews!’ and ‘gross, man!’) on Shikamaru’s face while his woman laughed and teased them for being so emotional.


“Get off me already,” Shikamaru grunted and finally managed to hold Naruto at bay; though his features were flushed and his hair and come untangled from its ponytail. He grumbled and searched for the rubber band that had held it up, while Naruto rubbed his face clean with the back of his hand and grinned happily at Temari.


“And you’re really okay with letting him go?”


“’s going to be difficult,” she confessed with a smile. “But I’ll be joining you all soon and fighting in my own way. Itachi says I can join Akatsuki and work within the DIET. I do have experience working for government officials when I’m not too busy at the dojo teaching.”


“That is fucking awesome! You have the best woman in the world, Shika. I’m jealous, man.”


Shikamaru laughed. “I know you are which is why I flaunt her often.” And as if to make Naruto even more aggravated, he leaned close to plant a firm kiss on his blushing woman’s lips. “Oh. Did I forget to mention that we’re going to get married soon?”




“Yes, we are,” Temari said with a shy smile. “We found a local temple here with Japanese Shinto priests who can do a quick ceremony. We’ve held it back for so long, we want to get it done now before the...war begins I guess.”


“And I choose you as my best man,” Shikamaru insisted with a smirk. It looked like Naruto was about to burst into tears again. Geez. “Save the waterworks, man.”


“I’m not crying,” Naruto sniffled and rubbed his eyes again. “I’m just so damn happy for you guys, that’s all. So when’s the wedding?”


“You’ll still be here by next Wednesday, right?”




“When’s Jiraiya coming?”


“Monday,” Naruto muttered as he counted the days mentally. “But just because he’s going to be here doesn’t mean I get to leave with him on the same day. He’s just coming to make sure I’m ready, that’s all.”


“Ah...but still...” Temari looked at Shikamaru with a worried frown. “Should we push it up just in case?”


“Not for me, you don’t,” Naruto insisted with a shake of his head. “I’m gonna be here on Wednesday for the celebration. No missing it. That perv’s just gonna have to wait.”


“All right then, it’s settled. Shake on it?”


Both men shook hands and grinned like fools until Temari had to break them up.


“So what else’s been happening while I was in Hell?” Naruto asked. “Where’s Karin? I thought for sure she’d be in here by now.”


“She went out with Sasuke,” Temari replied absently, failing to notice the effect this answer had on the blond. She was too busy brushing off imaginary lint from Shikamaru’s kimono.


Naruto captured his lower lip between his teeth. “Oh...I see...”


“They’ve been going out a lot more recently,” Shikamaru stated, though unlike his fiancée, his watchful gaze had noticed the dark expression to flitter across Naruto’s visage. “Seems like they’re quite close too.”


“Not that close,” Temari said with a laugh. “But yes...he definitely has been seeking her company more often now and I can tell you even Karin is surprised by this, but as you can imagine, quite happy at the attention.”


“Speaking of surprises, he came to see us yesterday.”




“Sasuke,” Shikamaru explained.


Naruto raised a brow. “Why would he want to see you without a prior appointment set up or something?”


Shikamaru snickered. “We were just as surprised, but you know how he is. He came barging in accusing Temari of being a spy.”


Naruto groaned and shook his head. “Oy...”


“Yeah, exactly. He said Itachi had told him that there was a plant sent by Orochimaru to scope us out and we had to be careful, so he falsely assumed it was Temari. Well, we set him straight and thought he’d stomp out all in a hissy fit about being put in his place, but...”


“He apologized to us,” Temari finished with a flourish.


Now Naruto’s jaw really did drop. Sasuke...apologize?


“And not just simply saying it,” Temari continued. “He bowed and everything.”


Naruto rubbed a hand across his aching forehead, nearly taking off the band-aid his friends had applied earlier. Was this an alternate universe of some sort? Was he back at the abandoned building sleeping beside Sergei in the shivering cold? Yes...that was probably it. This was all a dream. It had to be. Uchiha Sasuke – the proud former first captain of the famous and elite watchdogs – could not possibly have bowed before people he had once considered ‘sinners’ and beneath him.


“...changed, hasn’t he?” Temari was saying. “I mean from all the horror stories Shikamaru told me about him, all I see is a nice guy or at least someone who’s trying to be nice and different from the bastard you all keep calling him.”


“Hate to admit it, but you have a point there,” Shikamaru concurred with a sheepish expression. “I couldn’t believe it. The Sasuke we knew back at Byaku-Shinkyou seems to be vanishing, Naruto. This one seems much more ready to take responsibilities for his actions and make changes – at least to the way things are run over there. What do you think?”


What do I think? What do I think?! What the fuck am I supposed to think?! Naruto thought wildly. In his mind, the image of Sasuke in the throes of passion; of how vulnerable and content he looked after their make-out sessions was crudely juxtaposed with the image of the distant man in the house robe, who had shut him out two nights ago. It was like being forced to confront two different men at the same time; one he was coming to like a whole lot more than he cared to admit, and the other that reminded him of a time he’d much rather forget.


He was spared the agony of answering when the door was suddenly flung open and Karin all but ran in with a cry of his name on her lips. He would only have the time to notice that she looked especially more feminine than usual in a white summer dress that really brought out her red hair and darkish brown eyes to the forefront. She smelled pretty sweet too.


“You’re back!” she wailed as she fell to her knees, threw her arms around his neck and just about squeezed the life out of him. “See, Sasuke?” she yelled and turned a little to the silent figure just outside the door. “I told you I heard the noise in here. Oh my gosh! What happened to you, Naruto? You’re bruised all over!”


And as she began fretting and fussing over his injuries, questioning bright blue eyes met and held inscrutable dark ones for a heart stopping minute where nothing and no one else seemed to matter. Naruto could hear his heart drumming loud, loud, louder still within his chest. He suddenly had so many things to ask and say, but just as he parted his lips, Sasuke seemed to suck in a harsh breath before tearing his gaze away and turning his back on the scene despite Karin’s accusing query.


“Where are you going? Aren’t you going to say hi to Naruto?”


All she (they) received was a nonchalant shrug from the other man as he continued to walk away, but not without a tossed, “I’ll see you later, Karin,” over his shoulder.


“Jerk,” Karin muttered with no venom in her tone. She was back ton her feet and announcing she was going to get some more bandages to wrap around his torso and feet. Temari excused herself as well to help, finally leaving Shikamaru alone with Naruto.


The older man towered over the sitting figure and studied the bowed head for a long minute before asking quietly. “You want to tell me what’s going on between you two now?”


Naruto, with his head still bowed, shook it gently. “No...I’m cool.”


“ sure?” He would have liked to guess that it was another petty argument between them, but somehow, Shikamaru had the feeling it wasn’t that simple this time around. There was something else...something intangible that was beyond a mere fist-a-cuff.


Naruto gave an exasperated sigh. “I’ll be all right, man. Don’t fret over me.”


“All right. All right.” Shikamaru held up his hands as if in surrender. “I’m going. know...if you want to talk...I’m here for you.”


The blond did look up now, but only to give a half smile. “Thanks, Shika. I owe you one.”


On impulse, he reached out to ruffle the spiky blond locks, smiling as Naruto attempted to bite his hand playfully for doing so. He left the apartment with a gentle click of the door behind him, but not before seeing Naruto’s head bowed again and those shoulders sag a little as if suddenly burdened with some unseen load. He felt his heart stir with concern and worry for his friend, but realized that he could do nothing unless Naruto sought out his help. For now...


(he reached for the garbage bags he had discarded earlier)


...he would only watch, observe and finally begin the real task his most precious mentor and friend had assigned to him all those months ago while sitting on that roof on a nippy winter night. If he closed his eyes, he could still smell that sweet nicotine of his cigarette and hear that low sonorous voice with its haunting words of wisdom:


"The tides are beginning to change, Shikamaru. The rumblings are becoming a little louder, and it will only be a matter of time before we all have to deal with our fates."



Chapter 31

Naruto Home

















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