Author's foreword:

This is the story of what could've been,

If only a little boy could've been.

This is the story of what never was,

The story of a happy childhood.

This is the story of what won't ever be,

A story of happy memories.

This is the story of what would've been,

If only a little boy had kept his friends.


Friends to the End, I promise

"Iruka-sensei! Iruka-sensei!" Naruto Uzumaki, a blond-haired boy no older than eight ran up to his favorite teacher after class. Dressed in a white T-shirt with a leaf symbol on it, and simple brown cargo shorts, his footsteps echoed in the academy hallway. "Iruka-sensei!" He called out again.

Iruka, a man of average height with his brown hair tied in a spiky ponytail, turned to see his favorite, and extremely neglected, student running towards him. The teacher was carrying a rather large stack of paperwork which seemed to like clinging to his chunin vest.

"Naruto!" Iruka exclaimed happily. "How're you?"

Naruto ran up to his teacher and proudly said. "I made friends!"

"Really?" The chunin replied curiously. "Who?"

"There's Ino, Choji, Shikamaru, Sakura, Kiba and- uh, and Akamaru!" The child exclaimed, covering up the last name he'd been about to say with the name of Kiba's little nin-puppy.

"Hey, they're all in my class with you." Iruka said as teacher and student walked out of the academy doors. A gust of wind blew past and the piece of paper at the top of his pile fluttered up and over his head, and as Iruka tried to grab it on a reflex, he dropped the rest of the pile. "Ah! My papers!" He shouted out.

Little Naruto helped his teacher pick up the offending papers while chattering away. "Yup! We all met together a few days ago, uh, Saturday, I think! We played hide and seek! And snuck around the village! It was lotsa fun!"

Iruka thought about this as he grabbed a few wayward tests that needed to be graded. It's great that Naruto's finally found some friends. I just hope their parents are the understanding kind.

A strong gust of wind ruffled the blond's hair and he stood up. "Gotta go now, Iruka-sensei!" Naruto announced as he handed his teacher a few papers. "My friends are waiting!" He waved as he ran off in the general direction of the Hokage Monument.

"See ya later, Naruto." Iruka waved back with his right hand, another gust of wind making him drop his papers again as he did so. "Ah! My papers! Not again!"


While Naruto distracted their teacher, the friends he'd so recently made ducked into classrooms at the academy. Sakura and Ino nicked a few books from the library. They came out with items they hadn't been holding before as they sneakily made their way to the doors.

Darn it! Shikamaru thought as he and the others walked out carrying bags full of stolen school supplies. They were out in the open and without any nearby cover. The doors to the academy didn't open from the outside after class hours either. He froze where he stood. Iruka-sensei'll see us!

Then, Naruto noticed their presence while Iruka's back was to them and made a signal by putting his thumb and index fingers together in a circle next to his ear. Iruka didn't notice, but the children's other friend did.

A little boy named Yota was hiding in a clump of bushes at the edge of the school campus. He had messy brown hair flattened by a bandaged cap on his head, a rounded face, and curious green eyes. He wore a tattered, brown cloak with an oversized, faded blue shirt underneath. Where the whites of his eyes should've been, there was only black, though besides that he looked like a normal kid. He then saw Naruto's signal and whistled a short tune that sounded a bit like birdsong. Gusts of wind blew, echoing the tune, and one of them blew the top piece of paper on Iruka's pile up and over his head.

That provided enough of a distraction for Shikamaru and his squad of friends to escape, Kiba and Akamaru leading the way. They ran around the corner of the academy building while Naruto helped Iruka pick up his papers. As soon as they were out of sight, Yota whistled a long, flat note.

A gust of wind echoed that note as it blew through Naruto's hair. Naruto, catching the signal, stood up and gave the papers to Iruka. "Gotta go now, Iruka-sensei!" He announced, handing his teacher the papers he'd picked up. "My friends are waiting!" He ran off in the general direction of the Hokage Monument, disappearing around the corner of the road near the bushes where Yota was hidden.

Yota couldn't resist a prank as Iruka waved goodbye. He whistled the first three notes of what sounded like a lullaby and gusts of wind echoed the tune, blowing the teacher's papers out of his arms again. "Ah! My papers! Not again!" He hurriedly gathered them in a messy pile.

Yota giggled. He was having fun! Snowflakes suddenly formed mid-air and drifted to the ground, even though the weather was clear and sunny up above.

Iruka stood with his papers gripped tightly. Then he noticed the snow. "Huh? What?" Iruka dropped his papers in a pile at his feet. Snow? This late in the spring?

Yota covered his mouth in worry. He wasn't supposed to let it snow! He focused on his mission seriously, and the flutters of snowflakes stopped falling.

Iruka rubbed his eyes and blinked, and suddenly it wasn't snowing anymore. "I need to take a break. Now I'm seeing things." He picked up his papers. "And talking to myself." He muttered. Iruka left the academy campus and rounded the street corner in the opposite direction Naruto had gone.

For a few moments after Iruka left, all was quiet on the academy grounds. Then, gusts of wind blew in a tuneless melody, and the children came out to play.

"Mission accomplished." Eight-year-old Shikamaru said, lazily looking up at the sky.

"Yatta!"

"Hooray!"

"W-we got the books!"

"Yippee!"

Yota jumped up and down excitedly. "Teach me! Teach me! Promised you would!" Little Yota was so young, he couldn't have been more than five or six.

"We did, didn't we?" Shikamaru smiled as he remembered.


Flashback...

On the edge of the river, little Yota was half-drowned. Naruto, Kiba, Shikamaru, Ino, Choji, and Sakura rushed towards him, Akamaru barking worriedly on Kiba's head.

"Yota! Yota!" They called out, deeply concerned for their friend.

The soaking wet little boy coughed as he choked out water. His friend surrounded him and helped him sit up. "Don't get in trouble for me, guys..." he said, a childish lisp evident in his weak voice. "Just... forget..." He raised his hand, prepared to force a memory loss jutsu on his friends for their own good.

"No!" They yelled in unison.

"We don't want to forget!" Ino yelled, knowing what Yota wanted to do, likely because she was a Yamanaka.

Sakura shyly added. "W-we want to remember!"

Kiba exclaimed. "You're gonna be fine! We'll get you better!" Akamaru barked his agreement.

Shikamaru shed a few tears against his will. "You can come home with us!" He cried out.

Chouji gripped Yota's small hand. "Don't go, Yota." He added quietly.

"You're our friend!" Naruto summed up. "Friends to the end, promise us that!"

Yota smiled as he coughed up a little more water. Maybe I'll make it after all... But those guys with the masks... If they come... "Friends to the end... I promise." He whispered.

Shikamaru kept crying. He didn't want to lose a friend - especially not like this! Not while trying to save them from ANBU! He forced himself to calm down at least a little, and think. He could get them out of this! Save Yota and evade the ANBU! He was a Nara, plans were his specialty!

Naruto kept talking to Yota, trying to keep him awake. "Friends to the end! We'll play together!"

"And laugh together!" Ino exclaimed.

"And fight together!" Kiba shouted, Akamaru barking.

"And eat together!" Choji.

"And cry together." Shikamaru whispered, wiping away tears.

"And learn together." Sakura.

"We promise!" Everyone exclaimed together.

Yota smiled as he closed his eyes. He hoped he really would make it. He might not've been really alive, but for the first time in his life, he felt like he was. Friends, he had friends who cared about him. Not just a clan of traveling weather-merchants. Friends. "I promise..." He whispered again.

Shikamaru snapped back to reality, his head cleared and with a strategy in mind. "I've got a plan!" He was serious, and prepared to work to save Yota. "Naruto, you can do the Transformation Jutsu, right?"

"Uh, yeah!" Naruto replied.

"Pretend to be Yota and lead those ANBU off our tracks." He ordered. "Get back to your apartment after they catch you. Got it?" A nod. "Good. Now!"

"Right!" Naruto formed a hand seal and yelled out. "Transformation Jutsu!" A puff of smoke, and he was a passable replica of Yota. He ran back towards the Leaf Village they'd just rescued Yota from.

Shikamaru commanded the others. "Pick up Yota, we're sneaking him into Naruto's apartment."

They did so, Ino lifting up his shoulders, Choji at his chest, Kiba and Shikamaru lifting Yota's legs. Sakura kept an eye out for people as they snuck out of the forest and past the academy grounds. It was starting to get darker. They stuck to the shadows, moving through the city unseen, knowing that their parents were likely wondering where they were. At one point, they were moving by rooftop before landing outside Naruto's open window. The blond was waiting inside, though there weren't any ANBU interrogating him on Yota.

"Guys!" He whisper-yelled. "Get in! Hurry!"

They slid Yota in through the window frame and onto the bed. They piled blankets on him and worried themselves to sleep. When they woke up the next morning, it was a relief to see Yota awake and eagerly looking out at the village.

"Yota! You're alright!" Naruto exclaimed, the happiest of them all to see his first friend was okay.

"Uh-huh! Uh-huh!" Yota bounced on the bed twice before hopping to the ground. He tripped over a textbook on the ground and picked it up. "Hmm?" He opened it upside down and let his eyes rove over the strange ink blots inside. "What's it say?" He asked his friends innocently.

"Hmm?" Shikamaru was surprised. "You can't read? Or write?"

"Nuh-uh, nuh-uh!" Yota shook his head.

Shikamaru smiled a lazy, plotting smile. "Well then, we made a promise to learn together. Why don't we start with teaching you how to read?" He suggested.

"Uh-huh!" Yota nodded eagerly. "Learn how to read!"

"Great." The Nara said. "We'll have to get supplies from the academy. Missing books and papers will go unnoticed there. Now, here's the plan..."

Flashback end...


Shikamaru felt happy that their plan had succeeded. "Alright, let's get to the treehouse!" He said.

"Right!" Everyone else responded.

"Yatta! Race ya there!" Naruto ran ahead into the forest, sticking his tongue out at Kiba.

Kiba yelled back. "Hey, no fair! You got a head start!" The eight-year-old Inuzuka began running after the blond, Akamaru bouncing happily on his head.

Laughter rang out as the children raced to Yota's makeshift home in the forest. They ran past bushes, jumped over logs, ducked under branches, and wove their way through the trees.

"Ha ha!" Kiba yelled as he passed Naruto.

Shikamaru jogged behind everyone else at a lazy, leisurely pace as he observed his friends and reflected on the fairly recent events Yota's appearance caused. It might be troublesome, but friends are worth it. He grinned as he picked up his pace and shouted. "Hey! Wait up!" And so, the children played.


AN: First chapter, what d'ya think?