NARUTO (isn't mine)
Title: Less Than Ideal
Pairings: Could be read as SasuNaru, but no more so than the show itself. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
Summary (this chapter): Umm, same as the chapter title.
Summary (whole story): It's Naruto's first solo mission. The stakes are high for any number of reasons, but mostly because the target is Uchiha Itachi. Sasuke will forgive him somehow. He thinks.
Chapter List: prologue 1 2 3
His first solo mission, and he was late. Not the best way to impress the villagers, Naruto thought, but… Screw 'em. It's all about results, anyway. Since I'm going to succeed where they failed, they can wait a few extra hours.
He blamed Sasuke. It had begun at Uncle Chen's restaurant the night before last; Sakura, Naruto, and that jerk had just barely arrived when Sasuke took his leave, giving some crap excuse Naruto didn't believe for a second. It could have been worse, a small voice said. He could've said he had to leave so he could make it to the Jounin office before it closed. He could've shown up with his new Jounin badge. Naruto ignored the voice.
Looking for Kakashi, my ass he thought. Looking for a mission to do while I'm gone… there's no reason that he couldn't have waited until morning for that. No one was that dedicated to Konoha, least of all Sasuke.
So, in order to prove that such things could wait until the next day, Naruto hadn't done any of his own packing that night. He hadn't even thought about packing, or about his goodbyes, or about the mission he'd be going on. And then, just to rub it in, he'd slept in extra late the next morning.
Packing was hard. He'd never had to do it alone before. Or, he had, but then someone else had always helped him to do it right the second time. This time he hadn't dared ask anyone for help, not even Sakura - he was supposed to be proving he could complete missions on his own, right? And so he'd bought everything himself, and lugged it all up to his empty apartment himself, and stuffed it into packs himself, and then had to return half of it so that he'd only have one pack. And half of the shopkeepers wouldn't give him refunds, and he'd realized he'd forgotten something, and then he'd run out of money to pay for it all. He'd been forced to see Shikamaru for a pre-imbursement, although of course he hadn't gotten all of his money back since he wasn't about to admit he'd bought anything he didn't need.
By the time he'd finished, he'd been too fed-up to even think about seeing anyone before he left. So, he'd decided get up a little earlier the next day, make a few quick stops before going to see Tsunade for the rest of the mission details. How long can it take to say goodbye? he'd thought, it's only two little words. And it's not as if I know that many people anyway, right?
First he'd gone to see Sakura. Not having wanted to discuss his partner or the Fox, he hadn't told her much at Chen's. Only that he'd be going alone. Every ninja in the village knew solo missions carried a triple threat of death; she'd wished him luck, and made him promise to stop by her new apartment. When he had, she'd given him plateful of lemon squares, obviously baked the night before. They were good.
Most of his other goodbyes had taken longer. He'd see Shikamaru when he saw the Hokage, of course… or maybe he wouldn't. Shikamaru liked to show up late for work. He'd stopped by the Nara household instead, just to be sure. Chouji had been there, and had surprised him by actually caring that he was leaving on a solo mission. They'd hugged. Afterward, he'd felt bad about having overlooked the large ninja, so he'd gone to see Ino at the flower shop. She'd told him she'd send a bouquet out to his apartment when he got back. She'd said that Shikamaru had actually been on time that morning.
Thinking about Shikamaru reminded him of Kiba, and about how they always used to get into trouble together at the Academy. And thinking of Kiba reminded him of his strange quiet teammate, Hinata. He couldn't leave without seeing them. And Hinata reminded him of Neiji, who reminded him of Lee, who he'd been planning on seeing anyway. And then, just so he didn't leave anyone out, he'd gone to see the rest of the ninja he'd gotten to know over the years. He'd gone to see Konohamaru.
Lastly, he'd said goodbye to Iruka-sensei. Over ramen, like they always did when they couldn't think of what to say.
And that was why Naruto was four hours late when he finally made it to the Hokage's office, panting slightly for effect. Tsunade rolled her eyes but otherwise didn't comment. That shocked Naruto, a little, but the sensation faded soon after she started talking. Naruto really hadn't thought about the mission at all.
He'd thought about the mechanics of it, of course, about what he'd need and how long he'd be gone. But as far as the actual mission objective went, as far as Itachi went…. It wouldn't have done any good to obsess over it. After all, look where that got Sasuke, he thought, but it wasn't with any real humor.
"Got it, or do I need to say it again?" Tsunade asked. Naruto nodded agreement. Akatsuki was branching out, had taken over the Sound Village in Orochimaru's absence. He'd been hearing the rumors for months, but this was the first time they'd been confirmed. He was to act as a new recruit, scope out the situation, and then, when the time was right…
Strike. Sasuke would forgive him eventually.
"Got it." Somehow that didn't seem like enough, so Naruto added, "After I come back victorious, everyone had better congratulate me. I want a parade, a national holiday - the works."
"I'll see what I can do," Tsunade said, but she was smiling. "And Naruto? Good luck."
He gave her a cheerful grin. "Don't need it." Then he left the office to go say goodbye to Shikamaru.
He stopped to camp about a half a day from the village. Some ninja complained about camping out, preferred to stay in village inns. While Naruto didn't mind the inns - the people there are always so friendly, nothing like back home - he didn't mind the woods, either. It used to be lonely, camping out, but now it was almost comfortable. And it wasn't like he didn't eat instant ramen everyday, anyway.
First order of business: dinner. This close to the village, he could have a real fire without worrying about giving away his position. He'd camped in the area before, and there was a small stream not too far away. It only took a few minutes to start the fire, but waiting for the water to boil was unbearable. He decided to think about his disguise.
I'll need a convincing reason to join up, he thought. I want to look strong, but not too strong. He personally thought that line about "not standing out" was bullshit. Normal people stood out, if you were a ninja. Eccentrics got dismissed.
I guess I'll just keep it simple Naruto decided. I'm from a village decimated by bandits, I trained in the woods with the wolves, and I'm looking to be the biggest, baddest bandit king this side of the mountains. He'd be a wild-eyed red head, scrawny but determined, completely uncivilized. He was looking forward to it.
The water was boiling. He emptied one of his ramen packets into the small steel cooking pot, removing it from the fire. He'd eventually have to stop at one of the towns along the road, for supplies. He really didn't want to: most missions didn't come with a budget as big as this one, and he wanted to keep the money if he could. Maybe he could hunt or fish instead.
He was waiting for the Ramen to finish when a small sound came from the woods on his left. He looked up to see Sasuke leaning against a tree. He could have just gotten there, or he could have been there for half an hour.
"You're off-guard." Sasuke said. "What if I'd been an enemy?"
"Doesn't matter, since you're not," Naruto replied. "There aren't too many enemies this close to Konoha." The ramen was done. "Come join me, stalker."
Sasuke walked over to sit by him, across the fire, but shook his head when Naruto offered to share. "I don't like miso," he said.
"You don't like anything," Naruto said, "but that's OK. Means there's more for me." He started on the ramen, making a face at the temperature. Maybe he should've waited a little longer. "What're you doing here?" he asked Sasuke around a mouthful of noodles.
"I came to give you this," Sasuke said, holding out a scroll. "You forgot to bring it with you this morning."
Naruto looked at it. It was scroll describing common poisons and their antidotes - useful, but not essential. "Thanks," he said, "but if you wanted to say goodbye, you could've just said so."
"Some things shouldn't be said," Sasuke said. Naruto, who had no idea what he meant, was torn. Do I ignore him, or do I pester him to explain? He settled for slurping his noodles, loudly.
The time passed in peaceful silence for a while. Naruto was happy to eat, and Sasuke looked preoccupied. A few times, he opened his mouth as if to say something, reconsidered, and then looked to the side. Naruto let it go. If his partner wanted to be mysterious, let him. Naruto had secrets, too, and he'd bet they put Sasuke's to shame.
Eventually, he finished. Sasuke still hadn't said anything. He wasn't wearing a jounin badge, either, Naruto noted with surprise. He asked, "Why aren't you wearing your badge?"
Sasuke said, but didn't answer, "Tomorrow I start with the anbu squads. I'm with the fifth division, guard duty."
"Well, that sucks," Naruto said. Sasuke raised an eyebrow. "I mean, that's so boring! Just staring into the woods looking for boogymen."
"Most anbu jobs are boring," Sasuke said, "except when they aren't. I did want something more active."
"Probably they put all the new recruits there," Naruto said. He put away his cooking equipment, and yawned. It was late, and he'd been up early that morning. "Are you staying?" he asked. "Because if you're not, then I'm going to ax the fire and get some sleep."
"I'm not staying," Sasuke said. "I just came to give you the scroll." He stood up to leave. Naruto watched him through the flames. Scroll - that was a code, wasn't it? Yeah, it was because he didn't want to say he'd come to see me.
"I'll be alright, Sasuke," he said. "Just don't get too comfortable with your squad, because they're going to have to shuffle assignments around when I come back victorious." Perfect. That should cheer him up.
Strangly enough, it did. Sasuke smiled, a lopsided smile that only used half his face. And then he was gone, and the flames didn't even flicker with the abruptness of his departure. Naruto covered them with soil.
As he was dropping off to sleep, Naruto realized he'd been going about his disguise all wrong. He didn't want to look like he was out for personal power; that would only make Akatsuki watch him closer. He needed a strong motivation that made him predictable. The orphan thing was fine, but rather than wanting to be a bandit himself…
Revenge. And, just to throw them off even more, he'd be female.
He started planning. Not too tall, quiet, pale, and dark haired with black eyes. She'd be an overly-serious teenage girl, who hid her insecurity through arrogance and tried not to let anyone else know what she was thinking. She didn't laugh, but it was scary when she did. When she spoke of her past, it would be in vague pronouns, as if it hurt to discuss it in detail; at the same time, she wouldn't be able to keep herself from mentioning it in bits and pieces and at odd times. As if it was the only thing she thought about.
And maybe it is, because he's... she's seriously screwed up, Naruto thought. Akatsuki will definately never see it coming! And for clothes, I'm thinking lots of purple mesh with black and crimson trim, gold embroidery, no headband at all, maybe a sash…
Naruto plotted, gleefully.
Sasuke, on the other hand, made his way back to the village without thinking of very much at all. He wasn't looking forward to his new job. It didn't fit into his goal. Beyond that, he refused to contemplate. Had he allowed himself a moment of reflection, however, his thoughts might have run something like this:
Naruto was wrong about him. Sasuke did think of other things, although these days he tried not to think at all. Not thinking was both penance and a special kind of training, for him; a task made difficult by his natural tendency to obsess. Naruto sort of understood, but his understanding was out of date.
Sasuke wasn't going to inform him. Some things shouldn't be said, he'd told him, and he'd meant it. That was why he hadn't mentioned that when he did think, it was generally on just two topics. The first one was Itachi; Naruto knew about that one already.
The other one was the Kyuubi. Sasuke knew. It was obvious to anyone who looked, closely, at the way Naruto did ninjutsu. Sasuke would have had to have been a terrible ninja not to have noticed; it had taken less than a year of being partnered together, and only one life-or-death battle, for him to figure it out.
He wanted a better job with the anbu so that he could hone his skills. He wanted Naruto to join him, because without him he'd be wasting his time. Naruto had in many ways been the perfect partner - he made up for Sasuke's silence with his chatter, made up for his bad reputation by having an even worse one. But mostly, he had been perfect because he attracted trouble the way bath-houses attract perverts. He was dependable when it counted, but spacey enough the rest of the time that Uchiha Sasuke had done most of the work. Sasuke had cleaned up the messes Naruto made just by existing, and had considered them excellent practice for the only real goal he had.
Naruto, of course, knew none of this. But even if he had known, he wouldn't have allowed it to change anything. He would still have accepted Tsunade's offer, for the simple reason that Naruto refused to be left behind.
There is a fourth chapter for this, but it's been in revisions for months. I'll post it when/if I ever get around to finishing this, ja? It's planned out to eight chapters plus epilogue, or at least that's what I remember from the notebook that's mysteriously gone missing.