AU- Naruto's life as a chunin starts with a new partner, new challenges, and explosions. First in the NMasks series.
Beloved Nag/Muse: Kelriia Frettlar
Pairing: None. Might someday grow up to be Naruto/Neji.
Disclaimer: Don't own. No money being made
Author's notes: This is very much AU. Though the general setting and terminology is the same, certain things (like how ninjas advance in ranks, how the teams are set up, the animal masks, where chakra is from) are different. Hopefully, things will be clear enough. If not, please let me know. Ages are fifteen/sixteen-ish
Also, this is essentialy a prologue to an entire series. So it's basicaly just how they first team up. Other stuff to come. . . eventualy.
January first, New Years. Naruto is running terribly late.
And what the hell had he been /thinking/? He'd only meant to train for the better part of the morning in the forest, and make his way back to the village before noon. Plenty of time for the big announcement. But instead he'd lost track of time and trained way too late (and, ok, getting caught in his own rope-trap while trying to improve it certainly hadn't helped) and now he is going to risk ruining the biggest day of his ninja career!
He bites his lip and pushes himself to run faster, fox tail skirt swishing around his knees and out behind him, his form a blur of black and orange. The sun hasn't set yet. He still has time before the fireworks start.
He speeds into the heart of the village, weaving through the streets as fast as his legs can carry him. He ducks through alleys, elbows through the evening's crowds, and eventually scrambles up a fire escape and onto the rooftops, where he leaps and runs, setting flocks of starlings into angry flight as he passes.
Panting and sweaty, he jumpes down to the sidewalk and skids to a halt outside the Hokage's office. Of course, it's pretty much deserted now. The ANBU guards really don't count. Everyone else had been on time, so. . .
He slips inside and hurries down the halls, slowing as he comes in sight of the great bulletin board that hangs outside the mission room. The slouching figure of a fellow genin (chunin? Were they all considered chunin now, or was that only after midnight tonight, and they'd all gotten their partners?) leaning against the wall by the board startles him, until recognition registers.
"Oy, Shikamaru!" he calls, a grin blossoming as he comes closer.
The other nin looks up at Naruto, face a study of boredom. "Naruto. You're late."
"Shut up. So're you."
"It was a nice day. I fell asleep," Shikamaru says. "What's your excuse?"
Naruto glances away guiltily. "I, ah- had to help Iruka-sensei with something."
Shikamaru snorts. "You're a terrible liar. Hope your partner can beat some better skills into you, cuz you won't go far with the ones you have now."
So, I'm not with Shikamaru, then? "Hah! I bet I'm the one who'll be doing all the teaching! In fact-"
"Whatever." Shikamaru pushes away from the wall. "I've got to go find Chouji."
Naruto watches him walk away, a soundless shadow in the gathering gloom. Shikamaru's porcelain monkey mask is hung around his neck and dangles down his back, a pale, mocking face with hollow eyes that seem to stare back at Naruto as Shikamaru leaves to go find his new partner.
Naruto toys with his own mask, kept up and out of the way at the side of his head right now. Not paired with Shikamaru. . . It sucks, because Shikamaru is one of the few people who doesn't much care about Naruto's totem. When they'd been genin in the rotating three man cells, he and Shikamaru had worked together fairly often, since the monkey-nin's family didn't have the pull necessary to keep them from winding up on the same team. So they'd become . . . ok, not friends. Naruto doesn't have any friends.
Because who wants to be friends with the ninja whose totem had slain its own get, painted itself with their blood and danced in the ashes of their homes? Fox had gone rabid fifteen years ago, killing all its nin for no apparent reason, and no one wanted to get close to the last of its children.
After all, what if that madness was contagious?
It makes Naruto burn inside. Ok, so maybe his totem is fucking nuts and a homicidal maniac. But he isn't, no matter what people think. He can be a competent ninja for the village, a useful, contributing member of society. He'll prove it to everyone! Somehow.
And the next step on that path is his new partner. Chosen at random in the Konoha Raffle, he'd finally get to work with someone picked purely by chance, and not as a result of politicking among the great ninja clans. It is exciting. . . and terrifying.
The sun has set at last, leaving the hallway in shadowy twilight. In the semi-darkness, Naruto stares at the bulletin board with the list of teams and swallows back his nervousness. He is a ninja. He is last of the Fox. He can do this. And whatever nin has been assigned to him, well, he'll make then accept him as partner.
As the first of the fireworks celebrating another generation graduating from genin to chunin begin to light up the sky, Naruto steps forward. The sky flashes with blue, gold, red and then gold once more. In the flickering light, Naruto reads the name of his new partner.
Life is a great river whose currents you cannot fight. It is a truth Neji lives his life by. A member of the Branch House to the prestigious Hyuuga clan, Neji had long ago been made to face the fact that his wishes and desires mean nothing.
The cage his own uncle had carved into Neji's flesh and soul was proof enough of that.
And yet, despite knowing this truth, despite living this truth, sometimes he still feels the need to fight it. Times like now.
Fireworks burst overhead in the twilight of evening. The dark waters of the river flash the glittering shine back up at the sky, gilding the bottom of the bridge with faint streaks of colour. Neji leans against the railing, face an expressionless mask. Five minutes ago, Shikamaru had finally wandered over to collect his partner. Neji had watched them shuffle off together into the gloom, leaving him alone in the gathering shadows on the bridge.
Off in the darkness, the rest of the village is celebrating the new generation of chunin. He can hear the roar and chatter of them, the music, the laughter. He can even see them, if he bothers to put so much as an ounce of effort into it. He is Hyuuga, and Hyuuga are of Owl. There is nothing he can't see if he wants to.
But right now, he is content in the darkness on the bridge. Alone in this between time, where he drifts without any ties. There are no teammates, no teacher, no family. Just himself and the bridge, and the fire in the sky. In this here and now, he can pretend that he isn't waiting for his new cage, the partner Fate has selected for him. The grim sentence he will carry for the next three months.
Uzumaki Naruto, the last of the Fox nins, the worst of the current genin. Loud and brash and half feral. Living, or so the grapevine says, in an apartment on the fringes of town. The place apparently doesn't even have running water.
Neji has spent all his life striving to stretch his wings as far as he can, despite the cage the Main House had placed around him. Servant and meat shield to his cousins he might be destined to be, but that doesn't mean he has to be a bumbling fool of a pawn. His natural brilliance, talent, and an enormous dose of hard work have pushed him to a level others label genius. When he'd compared himself to his cousin, the current Main House heir, he'd far surpassed her.
Not that he expects anything to come of it. The Main House has locked him in his prison, and there he will stay. But he has to admit a certain venomous satisfaction at the thought that even bound as he is, he still soars higher than pitiful Hinata, or even his uncle Hiashi had back when he had been genin. Branch House Neji might be, but he is still better than the rest of them.
It seems the wheel of Karma has come full turn, however, and now he is being shown his place once more by being shackled to the lowest of the low.
One so low, in fact, that he is apparently unable to arrive on time, to an event that encompasses all the ninjas of their generation, at a location that has been predeclared for three weeks solid before today.
Perhaps he had an accident while training, and drowned? he thinks, vague blooms of hope forming in his mind as the river glitters with reflections of the fireworks above. The bright burn of someone's rapidly approaching chakra and the sound of muttered swears are Fate's instant reply. Neji will not escape this cage either.
The sound of footsteps slows, and the swearing tapers off as Naruto draws near. There is a pause. A moment of pregnant silence in which Neji knows Naruto is watching him, trying to figure out some way to start down the long road they had been sentenced to when their names were matched up by Destiny. It is awkward and uncomfortable, and Neji savors it as a death row inmate savors his last meal.
And then he turns away from the railing, and faces the fox-nin.
"Uzumaki Naruto." The words fall from his lips like kunai, heavy and edged.
"Ah! Er, yeah." Naruto fidgets, hand coming up to comb roughly through wild blond hair, blue eyes squinting shut with his wide, twitchy grin. "Heh. And you're Hyuuga Neji. We never worked together in the genin teams."
'Your family wouldn't allow it' hangs unspoken in the air between them for a heartbeat.
Naruto rushes on. "But we're partners now, neh, and we'll totally kick ass! Cuz I know I totally kick ass, and Lee says you kick ass -that guy is obsessed with you by the way, we worked together all the time as genin and it was always 'I will beat Neji with the power of my Youth and Really Big Eyebrows, because Neji is a genius and I really want to be awesome like him!' or somethin' like that- so together we'll kick everyone's ass, right? And I guess I'm pretty late but I was busy training and trying out this new rope-trap that I can show you if you want, but later, ok? Cuz right now they're havin' the big festival for our graduating and there's all these really awesome booths and games and stuff, an' they give discounts to the new chunin, and I'm really hungry-"
It's a damned good thing his eyesight is so accurate, Neji thinks bitterly. Because he is fairly certain that he'll be stone deaf within a few weeks of working with this chattertrap deadbeat, and he'll be forced to rely on lipreading.
And as he stares at his new partner, he feels the bitterness grow. Is this it? Is this idiot to be his end? Because there is no way such a loudmouthed looser can possibly last through the three months 'trial period' every new partnership endures, during which the Konoha council assigns an endless stream of back to back missions in a brutal effort to beat them into teamwork. And though Neji is a brilliant ninja, even he can not completely compensate for a lack of partner. If Naruto falls, Neji will as well.
It seems death is inevitable.
Something in him twists at the thought, as Naruto chatters on about getting udon or dango or maybe even ramen/. Something in him howls. He is tired of cages. He is tired of being bound. And this, this creature, is the final straw. This /savage who lives in what can barely be called civilization on the edge of the village, who's only made it through the academy to genin because of a certain teacher's nepotism, who lets his nails turn to claws and his hair go to bird's-nest tangles and who is dead last in everything because he is just such a loudmouthed /idiot/. . .
"My partner?" Neji sneers past the bile gathering in his throat. "I think not."
Three heart beats of utter silence. Neji counts them.
Naruto's face, gone slack with shock at Neji's abrupt announcement, crumples in on itself before twisting into a savage snarl. "W- what the hell's that supposed to mean?! Our names're on the list outside the mission room. 'Course we're partners!"
"No." More fireworks flash, brilliant starbursts like spurting blood in the sky. Their multicoloured lights make Neji's face a mottle of shadows and shades, and glint off his porcelain eyes. "For us to be partners, you would have to be a ninja. I am no Inuzuka, to serve with a barely trained animal by my side. I am Hyuuga. And you are a savage. Do you," Neji continues as Naruto squirms, voice cool and measured, "even eat cooked food? Or are all your meals raw? I'm certain you don't have running water." He smirks. "It's a wonder you can even talk."
Naruto's own eyes have narrowed to slits of blue, almost luminous in the dark, and his lips peel back in a snarl that reveals sharp white teeth. "S-shut up! What the hell do you know? Shitty stuck up bastard. . . people like you piss me off!" His hands clench tight, knuckles white, nails digging into his palms. "I'm not an animal. I'm just as good a ninja as you. And one day you, and everyone like you will see it." He brandishes his fists. "I'll make you see it. Just like I'll make you be my partner."
Neji snorts, body shifting into the elegant stance of the Hyuuga Gentle Fist style. He rakes his pale gaze across Naruto's ragged form, sight unhindered by the dark and the flickering lighting. His smirk widens. He won't even need the Byakugan for this. "Hopeless. You can't even get through a simple disagreement without baring your fangs. And you think you can force me to be your partner? Give up."
"Not a chance," Naruto snarls. "I'm gonna be the best ninja Konoha has ever seen. I'm going straight to the top! And you're coming with me as my partner even if I have to drag you /every damned step of the way!/"
And he lunges, as great spires of golden light streamed up into the sky like fountains, his body gilded and his blond hair glowing.
It is laughably predictable. Neji slappes aside his punch with barely an effort, ducking down and aiming a chakra laced, open handed blow at the fox-nin's unprotected chest as great blossoms of red and blue flash and bleed above them. Naruto grunts with the impact, sliding back and coughing violently with the hit. He manages to recover, kicking out at Neji's legs, but the attack is slow and poorly timed, and Neji sidesteps with ease, hands jabbing down into the pressure points on Naruto's leg.
Naruto yelps at the pain, stumbling forward and futilely trying to snatch at Neji's clothing. The owl-nin moves like water, slipping out of reach and around to plant a firm kick to Naruto's backside. Green dragons of light swirl above the pair mockingly as Naruto hits the bridge's railing hard, scrabbling for purchase as his leg buckles under him, coughing wetly once more from Neji's earlier hit. He pauses a moment, stamps his foot once as if to work through the numbing pain, and then turned and lunges again. Two kunais fly out before him like messenger birds, glittering in the uncertain light. Neji swats them away as mere annoyances, and easily vaults over Naruto's head.
As the last of the fireworks burst and die above him, Neji slowly resumes his original guard position, confident smirk unwavering. "Your attacks have no strategy, no discipline. You are merely a wounded animal seeking to lash out any way you can. I'll repeat myself: give up. I can see into your heart. You are nothing more than a beast. You can't escape the chains of your nature. "
Naruto staggers and turns. Neji can hear his harsh pants of breaths over the mutterings of the distant celebrating crowd. The fox-nin is hunched over and coughing again, and favoring his leg besides, but his eyes still burned with defiant anger.
"Arrogant sonuvabitch." Naruto spits blood. "No one is gonna tie me down to a fate I don't want!" And his hands flash up in a familiar seal.
Neji has the briefest moment to realize his error before the explosive tag Naruto has planted on the bridge railing ligts, and the sky is once more blazing with fire -though this time it is from Konoha's Good Luck Bridge, and not some expensive firework.
The explosion hits him full force from the side, flinging him up and over, knocking the wind out of him and dropping him unceremoniously into the frigid river. He gasps in shock and then chockes as he swallows water. Still too stunned to react, he goes under.
The world becomes a swirl of darkness and cold. Overconfident, he thinks as numbness spread. Should have known better than to fight. Then everything goes black.
Ok, so maybe blowing up your new partner isn't the best way to start things off.
Bastard had it coming though.
Naruto glares down at Neji, sopping wet and stripped to the skin, splayed out on Naruto's bed. He's still out of it. Naruto is starting to think that maybe he should have taken the owl-nin to the hospital instead of his apartment. But, well, what the hell was he supposed to tell them? 'Yeah, sorry, I seem to have blown up my new partner. Can you fix him?'
Besides, Neji's colour is still good, and his breathing is steady. He's just. . . unconscious. It isn't that bad. And they had really needed to get the hell away from the bridge.
Naruto winces guiltily. Though the Good Luck Bridge hadn't been completely destroyed, a good chunk of it had been blown apart, and the resulting explosion had attracted a lot of attention. He's pretty sure he'd managed to convince at least some of the frantic ninja that had shown up that it was nothing more than a firework he'd set off but accidentally blown up and gee, they'd needed to repair the bridge anyways, right? And his partner? Uh, Neji had just been accidentally caught in the blast!
In the end though, it doesn't really matter if they believed him or not. They know he'd blown up the bridge. That he'd caught Neji in the blast was unimportant. The pair of them have entered the three month trial period now, and are each other's responsibility. What they chose to do with one another is their business. Whether they kill each other or manage to struggle into a team is up to them. No one else will interfere.
They'll probably bill Naruto for the bridge repairs, though. Shit. Hopefully, his missions will pay well.
And then Neji moves. Twitches, really, just twice, but it's enough for Naruto to realize his new partner (and the ass is his partner) was waking up and, damn, what the hell is Naruto supposed to /say/? Or do, for that matter, if Neji attacks him. He'd rather not blow his own apartment up.
He fidgets restlessly in his chair as Neji's dark eyelashes flutter, and those moon-white Hyuuga eyes open slowly. Silence hangs between the pair as Neji slowly shifts to a sitting position.
The owl-nin scans Naruto's one-room apartment, colourless gaze taking in the posters, the tiny eating area, the few dishes stacked by the sink. It skims over the tiny TV and VCR set Iruka-sensei had given Naruto for his last birthday, over the mess of tan and brown and water on the floor that is Neji's clothing, over the old bookcase stuffed with scrolls and books and the odd kunai, over the potted plants. It is an assessive, emotionless gaze.
It's also fucking creepy. Naruto felt like Neji's eyes are peeling back what's actually in his apartment and seeing what isn't there. The lack of money. Of family. Of culture. The place isn't dirty (Iruka-sensei'd kick his ass if he let himself live in filth) but everything in it is second hand and patched up more than once. Even his posters are torn and faded. To someone like Neji, who'd grown up in Konoha's richest, oldest ninja clan. . .
"Why don't you have running water?" Neji asks. His voice is cool and even.
Naruto shifts. Uneasy in his own home. . . "The building's pump is broken. And I don't have the money to get it fixed."
"You're lookin' at him. I'm the only one who lives in this building."
Neji accepts that without comment. His gaze drifts off to one of Naruto's windows. "It's small, but not unmanageably so," he says at last. "The pump will need to be fixed. I'm not living some place without running water."
Naruto jerks upright so quickly he nearly topples his chair. "Wh-what?"
"It's not uncommon for partners to move in with one another," Neji says coolly. His eyes stay locked on the window.
/Partners. . ./"You- you mean. . ? Alright! You'll be my partner? Yes! Yes, yes, yes!" The chair clatters to the floor as Naruto leaps and whoops, pumping his fist in the air. "Partner! Partner! I've got a partner! Heh heh heh!" He beams at Neji, blue eyes squinted shut and whisker marks curving over rounded cheeks. He pauses suddenly, though, expression growing thoughtful. "But. . . how come you changed your mind?"
The barest hint of an expression twitches accross Neji's mask-like face. His eyes stay on the window, but his gaze grows unfocused and distant. "You said you didn't want to be tied down. I know that feeling. Heh." He smirks and ducks his head. "And you did manage to beat me, when no-one else of our generation has. Somehow, you went beyond your previous limits in that fight. It's true I was overconfident, and hadn't even bothered to invoke my abilities but. . ." He pauses. "It doesn't matter. You achieved your goal, despite your past track record of constant failures. I wonder. . . can you go all the way to the top, like you said you would?" He shrugs then, finally turning his gaze to Naruto. "It doesn't matter. It seems it's my fate to be your partner. I won't fight that."
Naruto frowns, then let it melt back into a grin. "I dunno about all that fate crap, but whatever. We're partners, and we're gonna kick ass."
Neji lips twist up into a smirk. "You think?" His pale eyes are still curiously blank, but there is something there. . . something almost like recognition. Like Neji is seeing /Naruto/: what he is, and not simply what he lacks.
Heavy pounding on Naruto's door shatters the moment. "Naruto? Naruto!" Iruka-sensei's voice carries through the thick wood. "/Naruto!/ They told me you blew up the Good Luck Bridge! You idiot, what the hell did you think you were doing?!"
"Shit," Naruto swears softy.