Categories > Anime/Manga > Naruto > ANBU


by Maldoror 3 reviews


Category: Naruto - Rating: R - Genres: Action/Adventure, Drama - Characters: Kakashi, Naruto, Sasuke - Warnings: [!!] - Published: 2006-06-10 - Updated: 2006-06-10 - 5324 words

Disclaimer: Naruto is the brainchild of Kishimoto-sama, and I am not worthy. I merely borrow the manga's characters and situations, and make no money off of them

AN: Hah, paint me amused. I wrote the beginning of this chapter about two months ago, and then severely dried up. But it turns out, my thoughts about Sasuke's motivation for staying with Orochimaru turned out to be the ones Kishimoto-sama imagined J Go me. (Mind you, how many other reasons could there be...)
This fic is going to come out VERY slowly, as the chapters seem to come at their own time and pace.

Chapter 2: Masks

Orochimaru rubbed his hands slowly. It seemed to be a habit. The Sannin stroked his fingers together as if the feel of them gave him pleasure, the gesture producing a papery sound. His hands had been tanned and rough at first; two days after the body transfer they were still rough, dry, but much paler, as if something was leaching the light of past sunshine from his skin.

Orochimaru caught Sasuke's look at the gesture and smiled. He'd put on a henge again, to cover the alien face with another one that was considerably more chilling and familiar. The smile was the same as the one Sasuke remembered; cold as a snake's, uncaring, infinitely superior as if he'd seen the weakness in the universe and knew just how to exploit it.

"Enjoy your body, Sasuke."

Sasuke was silent, trying to figure out just how the hell he was supposed to take that remark.

"It can be taken away from you so easily. One limb at a time." Orochimaru rubbed his hands again, then crossed his arms and looked at his new subordinate.

"Isn't that what you'll be doing to me?" Sasuke suddenly asked. His voice felt rusty; he hadn't used it in two days. When he'd arrived in Sound, his throat had still been raw from shouting at Naruto. Kabuto had given him a medical check-up on arrival to verify the extent of the cursed seal's effects, and then Sasuke had been left alone until now and been glad of it.

"You will be my next container, yes."

Sasuke had told himself he was prepared for this moment. He was wrong. Admittedly, he had not expected Orochimaru to come out and confess outright that he was going to use Sasuke's body for his own purposes.

"Does this frighten you?" Orochimaru asked with reptile incuriosity.

Sasuke doubted anyone could look forward with anticipation to becoming an empty shell for another's use. Anyone sane, anyway.

"Why should I let you?" he asked, knowing the challenge could mean his death sentence. Sasuke had expected this 'conversation', but not this soon. In the back of his mind, something dark was screaming No, I can't die, I can't die yet, I need to kill him first!

"You'll let me."

Sasuke just snorted crudely.

"Don't be disrespectful, Sasuke-kun," Kabuto chided from where he was working in one corner of the lab. "Let Orochimaru-sama explain."

Orochimaru continued talking as if Sasuke had not reacted, as if his lieutenant hadn't said a word. He'd not looked away from Sasuke since he'd stopped rubbing his hands.

"Do you know where Itachi gets his power, Sasuke?" He answered his own question without a pause. "It comes from sacrificing others."

"I know," Sasuke forced out. "He told me."

"Of course he did," Orochimaru murmured, letting that cryptic remark hang in the air.

"I'll defeat him. My own way."

"Yes. You will. Because your power is greater."

Sasuke gave the Sannin a look of outright suspicion.

"Your power does not come from sacrificing others, but from sacrificing yourself. That means that while Itachi has two aims - power and self-preservation - you have only one. Revenge. Do you see?"

Sasuke kept an air of cynical disinterest as he wondered what Orochimaru was trying to get at.

"You do not see. But you will. You will learn what real power is, Sasuke-kun. And you will realize that, alone, you could never defeat a psychotic like your brother. You will willingly offer yourself on my altar, because that is your power, and because that will insure your revenge. You will become one with me. You will still be a part of me, conscious. You will defeat him this way. You will feel his beating heart flutter and stop in our fist when we close our fingers around it, and it will be your face he sees as he dies."

Kabuto, the lab with the rather disturbing corpse cut up on a slab, the bottles and chemicals, all had faded. He's trying to use a Genjutsu on me, Sasuke thought, as Orochimaru's eyes seemed to take up his whole field of vision, but a part of him, a part that had been born from his brother's madness, told him this was not the case. This was what real power felt like; but Sasuke did not understand it. Not yet. He blinked and tried to fish words out of the darkness in his mind.

"I'll still be...a part of you?" he asked, voice reduced to a hoarse whisper.

Orochimaru still hadn't moved, hadn't twitched after he'd stopped that soft hand-rubbing motion. Sasuke had expected the man to gloat over the stupid Genin who'd come to him of his own volition; or leash Sasuke with threats to prevent escape; or promise the world and all the power he wanted, just to keep him here. But Orochimaru was looking at him as if Sasuke was merely a step in a long plan that stretched past ten of his lifetimes.

"Yes, you will retain a small part of your individual consciousness," the Sannin answered. "That is one reason it takes me three years between body transfers, besides the energy loss and jutsu preparation. I live with the soul of those who've given themselves to me. They are a lesser part of me. It takes time for my new host and I to find a balance within my psyche."

"You don't mind?" Sasuke found himself asking. He had a hard enough time living in his own head by himself.

Orochimaru permitted himself a wider smile. "It's better than dying."

"I want to learn how to fight him myself. I want...more power," Sasuke whispered, but his wants seemed small and childish all of a sudden.

"I'll give it to you."

"Why?" Sasuke asked sharply. "If I have the strength to kill him, what leverage will you have over me?"

"You'll never have the strength to kill him by yourself. You lack the fundamental flaw in your mind. But we can kill him. We will be the steel that cuts him down, tempered between two metals. You'll give me your body voluntarily, Sasuke-kun. It's not like you want it, after all," Orochimaru added, with the smiling cruelty that meant he knew Sasuke couldn't deny it.

Sasuke scowled, trying to think. Then he realized he didn't have to. The path was in front of him, he could see it clearly, and he could either take it and kill his brother or-...there was no 'or'.

"Yes. I think you are starting to understand," Orochimaru murmured. "Sasuke, you-...Sasuke?!"

Orochimaru stared down at the fist punched through his chest, the edge of the ugly wound crackling with wisps of a half-baked chakra discharge. Sasuke could feel flesh and blood pulsing around his fingers. The air stank of copper, ozone and burnt meat.

Blood poured from the Sannin's mouth, but his eyes were calm and distant as they lifted to Sasuke's. They were not Orochimaru's eyes.

"You failed. Little brother."

Sasuke woke with his fingers twisted in sheets instead of his mentor's internal organs. He unclenched them and swallowed the bile in his throat.

He'd slept four hours, he estimated; it was around five in the evening. He rested and ate when he could, when he needed to, regardless of day or night; a habit picked up in Sound and not relinquished this past year. Since the ANBU was hardly going to be a nine-to-five job, he might as well keep his routine, or lack thereof. Sasuke rubbed his hair, feeling it stick out worse than usual. He sat up, swung his feet to the lino and stared at the dingy apartment, not so different from his small sober room in Sound.

I haven't failed, he thought, sudden and savage. I will kill you. I will not fail again.

But it would take time. Sasuke gathered his patience around him like armour, and went to see what was in the fridge.

He wasn't hungry after seeing its contents, so he went to practice. His room was in an old building with an abandoned shop out front and six miserable apartments lurking behind it. Half of them were deserted, the other half inhabited by old civilians who wouldn't know him from the First Hokage. Sasuke didn't care about the paltry accommodations. He'd spent his first two months back in Konoha in a high security cell, which had been considerably gloomier. After that had been the frantic months helping the Konoha ANBU track down the remaining Sound ninja in their various hideouts...This apartment was the first place he'd stayed in for more than three consecutive weeks. What he particularly liked about it was the store's warehouse, a large shack of corrugated metal next to the building, where he could practice and practice and practice and avoid going insane.

He walked through the yard full of garbage cans, haunted at night by feral cats. His fingers worked out of old habit, picking the locks on the warehouse. He locked the door behind him again and went to shake the nightmare out of his system, feet slewing through debris and abandoned old boxes.

He remembered days of training in Sound, improving his strength and chakra control. Eating, sleeping, talking had become meaningless, annoying distractions he got out of the way as quickly as possible. Whether he was training to defeat his brother, or training his body so that he and Orochimaru could destroy his brother together, became a meaningless distinction. He practiced until his chakra paths were burned raw, until he was weak and dizzy, until he felt as if he was going to die, and then he practiced some more, or until Kabuto put his foot down and forced him to get some rest. Sasuke thought at some point that Orochimaru would tell him to slow down too; he might be causing long-term damage to their future body. But Orochimaru just looked at him with a gaze full of understanding and greed, and that only egged Sasuke on. That gaze seemed to be saying, go, do what you need to. Here, there are no well-meaning friends to hold you back, no mundane duties to distract you. There are no limits here.

The warehouse was empty; it smelled of dust, cat piss and the burnt tin smell of chakra discharges. Nothing stirred apart from a big fly hitting the translucent sheet plastic over one window with monotonous regularity. Sasuke's violence dispensed itself into the still air. Kabuto wasn't in the corner, offering unwanted advice that was sometime quite appropriate, not that Sasuke had ever acknowledged it. Orochimaru wasn't watching from the mezzanine, arms cross and face unreadable, offering absolutely nothing until Sasuke came to him and asked.

He'd have continued training for the rest of the night, but he had to go see Kakashi for his parole check-in. Or he could go talk to Ibiki or Shizune...No, if he did that, Kakashi would realize Sasuke had avoided him, and he'd think- well, Sasuke didn't care what Kakashi thought of him, but once he realized that a part of him didn't want to see the Jounin alone, he was damned if he was going to wait another minute before doing just that. Sasuke despised taking the easy way out; it lead to weakness.

He needed to renew his acquaintance with Kakashi anyway; the man could teach him much. Orochimaru had kept a close eye on Akatsuki, the only group he considered a real threat to him, and Sasuke had read the reports from his mentor's spies. So he knew that Kakashi had beaten one of them and reached some new level in using the Sharingan; a level beyond Sasuke's mastery, though presumably not beyond Itachi...No, there was no way Kakashi could reach those heights, but what he had, Sasuke wanted. It would probably take awhile to persuade Kakashi to teach Sasuke whatever secrets he had. Maybe he would refuse altogether, in which case Sasuke was going to get some practice spying and using the Sharingan for jutsu analysis during the numerous fights they were bound to have as fellow ANBU. The steel at Sasuke's core could not stop counting the advantages of being under Kakashi's orders once more.

Too bad he came packaged with Naruto.

Why the hell did Kakashi and Naruto have to be in the same group? As former team-mates, Sasuke could understand why they'd want to be, but presumably that sort of sentimental reason didn't hold sway when it came to forming ANBU squads. So why-...

That was when the idea came to him. It went from notion to full-blown plan in an instant. It might rid Sasuke of a potential source of problems. At the least, he might be able to winkle out the reason behind this Kakashi-Naruto hook-up. And since meeting Naruto face-to-face was something Sasuke wanted to do even less than he wanted to talk to Kakashi, he was, naturally, going to do it first.

He turned around, walked back a few streets and headed towards a neighbourhood he'd not set foot in for years. It was only when he stopped in front of the courtyard door that it occurred to him that Naruto might have moved out ages ago. But inside the entrance, the wooden tag hanging from its peg proclaimed to the world that Uzumaki Naruto was still living here and in residence at the moment. Or maybe it just proclaimed that Naruto had forgotten to take down his 'at home' sign, again.

A thousand memories flooded back as Sasuke stood there, in the entrance smelling of stir-fry and mildew, staring at a little wooden tag hanging slightly askew from its peg. He welcomed them and then he crushed them, like a man purging a poison. He'd been right to do this. Time to bury this once and for all. And if he could strong-arm Uzumaki out of his ANBU team as well, all the better.

Sasuke made his way up the stairs to the door he'd banged on a few times in a previous life. It had acquired a new lick of paint and a wooden plaque with Naruto's name on it. Sasuke knocked without the slightest hesitation.

From another room within the apartment, he heard a familiar loud voice barely muffled by distance and a couple of doors: "Come in, man!"

Finally Sasuke did pause. His mind had been coldly calculating how this meeting was going to go, from worst to best case scenario, but he'd never imagined Naruto would be so casual about- no, the idiot must think he was somebody else. Sasuke had been suppressing his chakra automatically, something he'd gotten well used to in Sound as it allowed a proper Shinobi to overhear a lot of interesting conversations.

He opened the unlocked door and stepped in silently. The room had changed, acquiring new furniture of better quality and a weapon's rack. Sasuke gravitated that way automatically, but there was nothing stellar. A sword, the usual assortment of throwing weapons, a short staff and an umbrella.

The table in the middle of the room was bigger and had several chairs around it now. The kitchenette in one corner had a new fridge. There was a dirty wok on the two-burner stove top, and dirty dishes in the sink. There were books and a few clothes here and there, in stacks that suggested this was their natural order rather than a mess that had simply happened.

The ridiculous motivational posters on the walls had been replaced by maps and jutsu scrolls and a chart of deployment tactics. Sasuke had analyzed the jutsus in a glance as he came in - nothing special - but now he took in the entire wall, the better-quality furniture, the weapons rack. It was as if someone had tapped him on the shoulder and reminded him that it had been four years and Naruto had changed and grown and matured. A bit. Though not that much; next to a tidy stack of orange cloth, black tops and fishnet, the ANBU chest, a clone of the one stashed in Sasuke's closet, was standing askew and wide open for all to see. Kakashi hadn't given them any regulations regarding this, but only an idiot would fail to realize there'd be one against letting their ANBU equipment lying around.

"You're early!" came Naruto's voice from the bathroom. "Be with you in a minute."

So Naruto was waiting for somebody. And the somebody who might have shown up and walked right in could have been Itachi, for all that idiot had taken precautions. Sasuke took down a few more notches from his estimate of Naruto's maturation. This was careless. With a silent sneer of disdain, Sasuke nudged the open ANBU chest with his foot. The sword that had been dropped into it slid sideways, taking a corner of black cloth with it, and something white and slashed with orange stared up at Sasuke from the bottom of the box.

There was a mumbling and a clunk from the bathroom. It sounded miles away.

Finally, Sasuke moved, almost against his own volition. He bent down and picked up the mask with the very tips of his fingers.

As he straightened, the silence behind him grew fangs.

Naruto had his ANBU uniform hanging from one arm. Sasuke noted this in the far back of his mind, in a small, muddled area the steel hadn't reached yet. It had deduced that this was why Naruto had left the ANBU chest open. It was also curious to know where Naruto had gone with the uniform, if he'd had a meeting or had simply been getting used to the equipment, and who was Naruto waiting for anyway?

The blue eyes were like flint, the face hard and hurt at the same time. Naruto had changed in the last year, and yet he'd not changed at all since he was twelve. He was bare to the waist, dressed in threadbare cotton pants. Sasuke's eyes dwelled on the place he'd punched a hole through Naruto's chest nearly four years ago, but there wasn't the slightest trace of a scar, there or anywhere that Sasuke could see. How was that possible? Sasuke's skin had picked up a number of 'lessons', which was what Kabuto called them when he stitched his cantankerous patient up in the infirmary. That will teach you to dodge, Sasuke-kun. That will teach you to be careful of this type of jutsu, Sasuke-kun. And what have we learned about summonings and their control, Sasuke-kun?

The face - familiar, yet that of a man Sasuke didn't know, the chest with a lot more muscles than Sasuke remembered, the look in his eyes and the fact he'd gotten on Sasuke's six so easily - Sasuke was stupidly off-balance. He'd come here so sure of himself, so in control of all the possible ways this could go, and now he'd lost all his composure before Naruto had even opened his mouth. The clever verbal attack he'd prepared to talk Naruto out of the ANBU had evaporated, and he was left standing there with his face guarded, his mind a whirl of distraction and the mask weighing down in his fingers as if it was made of pure lead.

I knew it was a mistake to team up with this guy, Sasuke thought, digging up a pale wisp of bitter vindication from the wreckage.

Several years, two bitter battles and a fair amount of blood leaked into the long minute that followed.

Naruto dropped the black clothes in a heap on the floor and put his hands on his hips. He opened his mouth, gave one of those over-the-top scowls of his and closed it again. Sasuke knew that Naruto had even less control over this unexpected confrontation than he did, yet that thought brought him no consolation; it meant that this moment could go in any direction and end up anywhere.

Then Naruto made a noise that almost sounded like a growl; he'd spotted what Sasuke was holding.

In a savage movement that shook off the past, Naruto marched over to the intruder, snagged the mask from Sasuke's hand and slapped the face of the Fox over his own.

"Suits me! Right?!"

Sasuke dusted off his fingers as if they were contaminated. Naruto was too close. He still had no notion of what a Shinobi's personal space was.

Sasuke didn't answer the challenge. He didn't say anything. His list of persuasive and dissuasive reasons was coming back to him, but he knew now that nothing he could say would ever talk Naruto out of the ANBU. A guy who'd received that mask and decided to stay on anyway would not leave because of anything Sasuke could say.

So he turned and headed towards the door.


Naruto had removed the mask and was staring at him with eyes like saucers.

"What- where you going?"

"I have somewhere I need to be. In the next ten minutes," Sasuke said, making a show of glancing at the evening falling fast outside.

"But-...what are you doing here?"

"I was in the neighbourhood."

Naruto's face was a picture of confusion and hesitation and something too much like hope for Sasuke's liking. "You just decided to drop by? Well-"

"I came to see you."

Naruto blinked and looked startled by the contrast between the words and the tone of steely indifference.

Sasuke turned to face him and buried the rest.

"It's been so long, I've missed you, you've grown so much, I'm so sorry for everything, we have so much to talk about, I hope we can be friends again."

Naruto's mouth was hanging open in shock, hurt and gathering anger. The marks on his cheeks were getting more pronounced, not a good sign. Sasuke put his hand on the doorknob.

"You- You-...Son of a bitch. You just haven't changed a fucking inch, have you."

I've changed more than you can ever comprehend, Uzumaki. Before, I was a weak boy. Now I am a weapon.

"So what the hell are you doing here?!" From the sound behind him, Sasuke deduced that Naruto was waving wildly at his apartment, at the neighbourhood, at Konoha. "Apart from being a- being a- a-"

"We have a history," Sasuke said, addressing the door in a voice that was back to stern professionalism. "It's unfortunate they put us on the same team, but we're going to have to work together. This does not imply anything more. Get that through your head or get out of the squad."

"Is that what you came here to say? Stay out of my way?"

"No," Sasuke answered with a final glance back. "We won't have the luxury of staying out of each other's way. Just don't let the past cloud your judgement. You'll get us both killed."

Naruto's lips twitched upward into an almost animalistic snarl. "Fine by me, if you stop jerking around. Wasn't as if teaming up with you was my idea anyway."

Sasuke's hand hesitated minutely on the doorknob. That comment surprised him. Naruto hadn't joined Sasuke's squad deliberately? The blue eyes wouldn't meet his gaze. Naruto made a show of turning around with an angry snort. Sasuke didn't know if his team-mate had lied about that, exaggerated, meant something else, or truly meant it and simply regretted saying it out loud. At one time, Sasuke would have been able to tell.

The door closed behind Sasuke with a click. One second later came the sound of a foot hitting a chest and sending it crashing through a pile of books.


The door opened and Kakashi poked his head out.

"I'm not AWOL," Sasuke bit out.

"Good to know," Kakashi said genially. Then he closed the door.

Sasuke's fist connected with it hard enough to shake it in its frame, yet it didn't budge open an inch with Kakashi's hand keeping it in place.

Kakashi swung his door open again with the same mild look one would expect had Sasuke merely knocked. "Yes? Something to add?"

"Did you choose our masks?"

Sasuke knew he should stop this conversation, which would afford him nothing. But the question had been asked.

"Yes," Kakashi answered, as if Sasuke had enquired politely instead of throwing that question in his teeth.

Yes...? A small part of Sasuke had not expected Kakashi to have had a part in that.

"Still angry about the Puppy?" Kakashi asked him as if he couldn't imagine why.

Sasuke stared at him. No, Kakashi wouldn't do that to his one-time pupil - and if he thought the Puppy bullshit was his recruits' biggest problem-...

"What mask did you give Naruto?" he asked, and it was just a question now, and not anywhere as assured as before.

Kakashi examined him. Then he opened his door wider and disappeared from Sasuke's line of sight. Sasuke hesitated, but he'd gone too far now. He accepted the unspoken invitation and followed Kakashi in.

Kakashi's place was exactly the same as before, down to the plant growing in a pot near the window and which seemed to have barely picked up one extra leaf in the four years since Sasuke had last seen it. It was disconcerting.

There was tea brewing on the table, along with a couple of sandwiches. He'd apparently interrupted Kakashi's dinner. There was a book open near the single place setting. It was thick, bound in leather, and not the garbage Kakashi usually read, but Sasuke couldn't see what it was from where he was standing near the door.

Sasuke looked around. He'd been here before, when he was twelve; he'd examined the place, labelled it 'sensei's apartment' and thought no more about it. The past four years had given him new vision. The plant, the bold markings on the futon's cover, the cheerful tea-set decorated with blue and green fish, the orange books lined up tidily in a bookshelf, the odds and ends and knickknacks brought back from a dozen of different countries...Sasuke realized something he hadn't seen four years ago. These were all a part of Kakashi and yet they were all a form of front as well, just like the mask.

There were two framed photographs on the window sill. Sasuke's gaze passed over his own younger face. Those two slices of the past might be the only thing that was completely authentic about this room.

Kakashi had been pottering around the attached kitchen. He had a second cup in his hand when he turned around, and a plate.

"I gave Naruto a bear mask," he said. "Cookie?"

"They gave him a fox." Thanks to Orochimaru, Sasuke knew what that meant. Learning that the strength he'd struggled against hadn't been that loser Naruto but the strength of the Nine-Tailed Fox Demon should have made Sasuke feel better about his progress, yet it hadn't.

Kakashi registered no surprise at the news. In fact, the slight shrug he gave at that point might have decreased the total amount of available surprise on the planet by some significant amount. "I didn't think Konoha had any."

"It looked old," Sasuke said, suddenly remembering the ivory tint of the white metal, different than his own mask. "The orange stripes on it had been painted on recently, though. Not very well." They'd matched the slashes on Naruto's cheeks. Nice touch, Sasuke thought acidly.

"Must have been one from before Kyuubi. They were all retired from circulation after the attack. That will narrow it down a little," Kakashi said, still giving the impression he didn't really care all that much (but some quartermaster was surely about to find out otherwise). "How did Naruto take it?"

Like Naruto always takes it, Sasuke thought; with the stupidest solution possible to avoid wearing the mask, and determination to prove that he can do the job and defend the village, whatever some bastard in charge of Supplies thinks of him. Sasuke didn't say it, though; he just shrugged.

There was a short moment of silence. Kakashi sat down and leaned back in his chair with his hands in his pockets and his eye on the ceiling as if it held something marginally interesting. Maybe he was going through potential suspects in his head. He seemed to be ignoring Sasuke, but there was a plate of cookies and an extra cup of tea on the table. They still had some history between them as well, but unlike Naruto, Kakashi could compartmentalize and not let that impact on his effectiveness, his ability to fight with Sasuke, or this moment of truce where it almost felt as if they were sharing a common goal, both protecting the same person.

Sasuke stirred. "I have to go," he muttered.

Kakashi waved vaguely in his direction without glancing at him. Sasuke left. He needed Kakashi, but he could not afford to get too close to him; not yet. Because he wasn't sure he would be able to get close to him without falling into the trap of getting involved too deeply once more. The steel in his soul wasn't strong enough yet.

He trudged down the street, feeling annoyed for no reason he could discern, until a flicker of aura caught his attention. He glanced up just in time to see a blur disappear off to his right. That had felt like Hyuuga Neji.

Sasuke tried not to, but he couldn't help noticing that if Neji kept straight on his present heading, he'd end up near Naruto's apartment.

Come in, man! You're early!

Sasuke shook his head and headed on back to his current residence.


Masked, armed and ready, Sasuke showed up at the meeting place ten minutes early, as he had two days ago. Just like last time, Hyuuga Neji was already there. He didn't glance up or say anything when Sasuke landed nearby.

Their other two ANBU team-mates were late once more, though not quite as much. Kakashi arrived barely ten minutes after the meeting should have started. He lifted his hand in a salute, but a crash of branches interrupted him and announced the arrival of the last member of the cell, landing square in the middle of the clearing the next moment.

"Hey hey! I have a new mask!" Naruto said even as he straightened up.

He did. Kakashi must have been by Supplies. It wasn't a bear mask, as originally planned; it had the square-ish muzzle shape and highly stylized lines of a lion. Naruto's blonde hair spilled around it like a mane, appropriately enough. Sasuke glanced briefly at Kakashi with an odd stirring of gratitude for the man before the steel in his soul suppressed it savagely. This was still one big, huge mistake...

"Now you have to call me Lion!" Naruto announced.

"Move along, Joker," Kakashi said, turning towards the woods and striding off, hands in his pockets.

"Come on, Joker." Neji walked past Naruto as the latter drew in a breath of protest.


Sasuke finally looked back at his team-mate, the young man who - it appeared inevitable - would be watching his back and fighting at his side.

"You coming...Joker?"

Behind the mask, the blue eyes blinked. Sasuke turned away. A minute later, footsteps trudged after him.

"You guys suck," Naruto muttered. But he didn't sound all that put out.

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