A/N: Yeah, this basically follows the "What if Minato and Kushina never had to die" idea. Feel free to share your thoughts on this with me, I'd love to know your opinion. Other than that, happy reading!

Disclaimer: Everything "Naruto" related, including the artwork, is owned by Masashi Kishimoto. No copyright infringement intended.

"Look out, here we come!" Kushina called, leading her toddler into the house with a strong grip on his tiny hand. Naruto was trying his hardest not to stumble over his pudgy feet and squealed in delight when he saw Itachi round the corner, balancing his little brother on his hip. The young boy nodded his head respectfully.

"Good morning, Kushina-san." He said while struggling to handle Sasuke who was already squiggling in his arms, trying to reach Naruto. He set him on the ground and watched as his brother crawled stealthily towards his playmate. Kushina tilted her head and smiled at the eldest Uchiha brother.

"Good morning, Itachi. How are you tod- Oh!" Red hair spilled over her shoulder as she looked down and saw that Sasuke was trying to pull himself up on her leg, hands grabbing for Naruto.

"Sasuke!" Itachi rushed forward and pulled his little brother back. "I apologize for him."

Kushina just shook her head, letting her own son go. "Don't worry. It's alright." Both of them watched as the two boys met, Naruto shrieking with joy and Sasuke, calm as ever, studying him, an intelligent glint to his eyes that was unusual for a boy his age. There was a clatter in the kitchen and then Mikoto appeared, wiping her wet hands on her apron.

"I was wondering who was making all that noise in my house." She said, smiling good-naturedly at Kushina. The young Kunoichi grabbed her friend's hands.

"Thank you for taking Naruto in today." Kushina said earnestly. "I don't like to bother you, ya know, but Minato said he couldn't afford not to send me on the scouting mission today. I promise we'll take them both soon so you and Fugaku can have some time off.."

Mikoto held up a hand, interrupting the swall of words. "It's no bother, Kushina." She glanced at the toddlers who were currently tugging at a plush dinosaur that Itachi had brought them. "If all babies were as well-behaved as those two, Fugaku and I might even think about having another one.."

Kushina swallowed, smiling uneasily. For her and Minato, just their son was enough of a handful to deal with. How Mikoto managed to handle two boys and the household completely on her own was a mystery to her, but she admired her friend fiercely for it.

The life of a housewife only wasn't what Kushina wanted for herself.

She crouched on the floor and tickled Naruto's shoulder playfully, making him turn his attention to her long enough so that she could kiss his forehead.

"Be good today." Kushina cooed. "I'll see you later." After saying goodbye to Mikoto and her sons, she adjusted her headband and breathed in deeply, composing herself. The part of her that had been a mother for a year now only wanted to stay with Naruto, but Kushina was a ninja and so, she didn't have that luxury.

There was a mission to complete.

6 years later ..

Sasuke felt a bead of sweat run down the side of his face, keenly aware of his older brother and his best friend watching him. Eyes on the silvery surface of the water, he took a deep breath. Itachi had practiced the hand seals so often with him that Sasuke could weave them in his sleep. His voice shook just a little when he let the breath go and said: "Katon: Goukakyuu no jutsu!" Unlike when he tried the first few times, his tongue didn't trip over the words, and indeed, a small ball of fire blew over the water, fizzling out quickly. Sasuke's shoulders sank in disappointment.

"It's so tiny.." He muttered, dejected. Itachi had produced much more impressive fireballs at his age. But then, there was a strong hand on his shoulder and his brother smiled at him warmly.

"Well done, Sasuke. You have a good control of your chakra already."

Sasuke was about to retort that it was nothing special when Naruto sprinted forward, his eyes wide with amazement.

"That was awesome, ya know!" He cried out, grabbing Sasuke by the shoulders. "You did it! You made a real fireball!"

Despite himself, Sasuke couldn't help but smile: There was something so genuine about his friend's enthusiasm that helped soothe his wounded pride. He threw Naruto a challenging glance.

"Now you try." Sasuke coaxed, taking a few steps back. "Can you make a shadow clone?"

Naruto grinned wide, assuming an o-legged stance and slapped his palms together.

"Here I go!" He announced, "Kage bunshin no jutsu!"

What followed was a big poof, completely with a cloud of smoke - but when it cleared away, there was only a wispy white scrap of a shadow standing in front of Naruto, vaguely resembling him. The boy's grin slowly disappeared.

"Aw, man.." He sighed. "I was sure I was going to get it right this time, ya know.."

Itachi and Sasuke exchanged a silent glance. Both of them spoke up at the same time.

"Good try." Itachi said encouragingly, while Sasuke cut in with "Awful." Naruto paused for a moment before bursting out laughing.

"I guess I'm no super genius like you or my dad." Sasuke was surprised by the unaffected way he said it: For him, failure was the worst thing. But Naruto stood and smiled with the certain knowledge that he was loved, no matter if he was a prodigy or not. Sometimes, Sasuke envied him for that. He was about to reply when suddenly Fugaku appeared, scoffing. The boys froze in place: They hadn't heard him approach.

"Pathetic." He dismissed Naruto's try at the shadow clone jutsu. His eyes bore into his son's and for a moment, Sasuke fought the urge to hide behind Itachi, who was moving to cover him anyway. There was a hard line to their father's mouth.

"Sometimes I wonder if you purposefully set out to disappoint me." Fugaku told his youngest son. "Itachi was much farther along at your age. It's like you don't even try to keep up."

Sasuke felt tears well up in his eyes. I do try, father. How badly he wanted to say it out loud, but shame closed up his throat. To Sasuke's horror, Naruto stepped in front of him, puffing out his little chest. He stared Fugaku down with all the authority he could muster.

"You listen here, mister!" Naruto declared, growing taller with each word. "Sasuke's training really hard, ya know, and he's already on top of our class! I'd like to see anyone else try to keep up with him! You should be proud of him!"

Before Fugaku could even process what the boy had just said, Sasuke grabbed Naruto by the hand and dragged him off the dock, away from his father and his brother. He could hear Itachi start to say: "Father, with all due respect.." and it only made him walk faster. Naruto was huffing behind him.

"Ow, ow!" He complained, trying to keep up with Sasuke. "Stop pulling so hard! It hurts, ya know!"

Sasuke whirled around, gritting his teeth. He was shaking with fury.

"What were you thinking, idiot?! You can't yell at my father like that!"

"I felt like he was treating you badly! I couldn't not say anything!" Naruto justified. "Just because he's your father doesn't mean he can talk to you like you don't matter!"

Sasuke deflated, loosening his grip on Naruto's hand. He lowered his gaze to the pebbly ground.

"Yes. That's exactly what he can do." Sasuke said quietly. Naruto stared at him helplessly. If only there was a way to make him see how talented he really was..

"My dad's making tomato salad for dinner tonight." He prompted tentatively. "It's going to be too much for just three people to eat. Want to come?"

At the mention of tomatoes, Sasuke's face immediately brightened up. He even managed to smile, making Naruto sigh with relief.

"Are you sure you'll have enough salad for four people?"

Naruto grinned at him, holding out his hand. "Definitely. I'm pretty sure dad expects you to show up, anyway."

In a strange way, visiting the Uzumaki/Namikaze family always felt like coming home for Sasuke. Everything from the way Kushina shouted: "Shoes off, boys, and don't forget to wash up!" to the way Minato casually acknowledged him with a gentle smile on his face was a source of comfort.

While digging at the salad, his mouth still full, Naruto garbled: "You know, dad-" He swallowed another chopstick full of tomatoes, "Sasuke managed to do the Goukakyuu no jutsu today at the first try! He didn't mess up once!"

The boy in question felt a blush creep up his cheeks and pulled up his shoulders, but Minato regarded him with a pleased look.

"That's very impressive, Sasuke." He said, nodding encouragingly. "Keep it up and you'll be on par with your brother in no time."

Usually, Sasuke loathed praise unless it came from his father or Itachi. But being complimented by the Hokage- that was something he really didn't mind. Sasuke shoved some tomatoes in his mouth to keep from grinning stupidly.

Years passed and slowly, the atmosphere in Konoha began to change. Where once members of the Uchiha clan might have been tolerated with a huff and some grumbled words, they were now met with open hostility and insults. Their clan was too powerful, too arrogant. And despite Minato's best tries to bring peace back to the village, Sasuke couldn't walk down the street without someone hissing "Uchiha brat" behind him. He struggled to understand it.

"Nii-san." He asked Itachi once, "why are they being so mean? I haven't done anything wrong."

"No, you haven't." Itachi reassured him. "They just don't understand our family, that's all. Don't worry about it."

Sasuke stuck out his bottom lip, clenching his fists. "It's not fair. I wish I could hurt them for what they say."

"Sasuke Uchiha! Don't you even think that, do you hear me?" Itachi had knelt in front of him, panic in his eyes. He was as white as a sheet. "Whatever they say, whatever happens, you can't ever hurt them first. Do you understand?" Itachi tried to be calm for his brother's sake, but how was Sasuke supposed to know that one conflict would be enough to escalate the tension between the village and their clan?

"But what if they hurt me first?" Sasuke asked, looking at him fearfully. Itachi took his hands between his own.

"Then you come straight to me. Not to father or anyone else, just me. Understood?"

"I.. I think so, nii-san." Sighing quietly, Itachi pulled him close into hug. He held on just a little tighter than usual, afraid of what would happen to his brother if he'd leave him alone. Still, Itachi forced himself to smile.

"Why don't you pick out a treat for us, Sasuke?"

Contrary to the rest of the village, Naruto was as loyal as ever. He never failed to show up at Sasuke's house first thing in the morning, taking him to the Academy, cheerfully ignoring the whispers claiming that the Hokage's son should look for a more worthy friend. There was so much to discover, especially since they'd joined Kakashi-sensei's team along with Sakura Haruno, a bright young girl with cherry pink hair and a punch that made grown jonin wary of her.

Kakashi on his own was mystery enough: At first, both Sakura and Naruto had been a little frightened of him, but that soon changed when Minato started talking about the time that Kakashi had been his pupil. Suddenly, they thought of Kakashi as pretty odd and also a little dear. Having him as their team leader made each day unpredictable.

"I want you to take these bells off of me today." Kakashi announced, showing off a pair of silver bells in his hand. "The only requirement is that you work as a team, I'll leave the rest up to you." Then he settled under the shade of a tree, whipping out his newest erotica novel. The genin gathered in a team conference and soon enough they were darting off into separate directions, only mildly interesting their team captain. "I'll know when they're up to something." He told himself, getting comfortable. A mere two hours later, Naruto was howling somewhere in the forest, prompting Sasuke and Sakura to yell at him.

Well, Kakashi sighed internally, here it goes. Reluctantly, he closed his book and went off in search of his students. He found them arguing on an open clearing.

"I told you to stay away from the traps! Now Kakashi-sensei knows where we are." Sakura said angrily, pushing at Naruto. Sasuke rubbed one palm across his face.

"Told you he's a useless moron." He muttered, stalking towards the other boy. "I think he should at least be punished for ruining the plan."

Naruto smiled nervously. "Let's not be hasty, ya know.. I'm sorry!"

"I wouldn't mind seeing him a little scorched." Sakura added as Sasuke started weaving the handsigns for the phoenix flower jutsu. Kakashi was beginning to feel uneasy and stepped forward.

"Listen, this isn't the right way to.." That was all he could say before the Hokage's son went up in flames. Minato is going to kill me, was Kakashi's last thought before he heard the characteristical poof of a shadow clone disappearing. Then, without a warning, a hand whisked by his belt, pulling away the silver bells. The real Naruto ran to join his team mates.

"I've got them! I've got them!" He crowed triumphantly, grinning as wide as his mouth would allow. The three genin turned to their teacher.

"We did it, Kakashi-sensei!"

Kakashi for his part was glad that his mask was hiding most of his face and with it, his surprise. Maybe those three had more to them than he originally thought.

"Shadow clones.. Not a bad idea. You might be interesting to teach after all." Kakashi admitted, hiding the tugging smile under his mask. He watched as his students crowded closer together, Naruto yelling something, Sakura chattering excitedly and Sasuke smirking to himself in the middle of it all. Even though he would never admit it, the boy was feeling comfortable there, surrounded by people who could absorb his introversion and reflect their energy back at him.

Kakashi didn't know how, but he sensed that those three - his team - had a big journey ahead of them.

Years of taunts and slights had hardened Sasuke. The childish instinct to immediately hit back when someone lashed out at him had disappeared, but Sasuke's disdain for his fellow villagers manifested in other ways. They hated him - so he became better than them and at sixteen he was faster, stronger and more skilled than any other ninja his age and a good chunk of those who were older than him. Now when he walked past them there was a sort of begrudging respect in their eyes: no one could deny the talent he displayed. It gave Sasuke an air of superiority, knowing that he was essentially a lion among sheep. So he wasn't that bothered when he walked the streets with Sakura and Naruto, recounting their last mission, and a grubby looking shinobi spat out in front of him, hissing: "Filthy Uchiha scum."

If it hadn't been for Sasuke's quick reflexes, who was able to grab Naruto by the arm just in time before he went after the guy, things might have turned out ugly. He kept his friend in a tight grip - ignoring the little tug in his stomach when skin touched skin- and said so quietly that only Naruto could hear: "Don't. He's not worth it."

Naruto gritted his teeth and was about to pull free, but it was Sakura who went toe to toe with the other shinobi, staring him down. Her biceps flexed.

"I suggest you think long and hard about what you just said." She advised, her voice dangerously low. "And it'll be best if you never say it again."

Without another word, she took Naruto by his free hand and pulled him with her, effectively dragging Sasuke along. The good mood was ruined: Neither of them spoke much and Sakura only told Naruto to show her his arm so that she could inspect a healing cut. Not for the first time did Sasuke envy her: She could touch him whenever she wanted, could touch him without him suspecting anything strange. Lately, Sasuke didn't trust himself around Naruto anymore. He was afraid that one look would be enough to give away the strange thoughts that had been plaguing him for a while now. He couldn't help wondering what would happen if he did touch Naruto the way he wanted to, just once. Maybe he would like it, maybe he would tell him that he felt the same all along..? Stop. You're daydreaming again. Sasuke dug his nails into his palm. Lucky for him, Naruto was angry enough not to pay attention to his best friend's inner turmoil. As soon as they'd dropped Sakura off at her home, he started ranting.

"Can't believe those fucking morons still go on with that 'filthy Uchiha scum' crap.. You're better than all of them and they know it.. Morons!" Naruto was scowling which didn't go well with his usual cheery face. It was tempting to just put a hand on his arm, but Sasuke restrained himself.

"Why are you so upset about it, anyway? It's me they're insulting." He pointed out just as they reached the entrance of the forest where the Uchihas usually trained. They often took that route to avoid scenarios like the one that just played out. Naruto looked at him in disbelief. "Because you're my best friend! If anyone insults you, they insult me, too. I won't let them talk that way about you because you're not scum, Sasuke, you're brilliant."

Sasuke slowed to a stop. The way Naruto talked just now.. As if they weren't even two separate people but halves of one whole being. Naruto looked over his shoulder and frowned.

"Are you okay, Sasuke?"

No. No, I'm not, not at all. He was hurting and it wasn't a pain that Sakura could heal. It wasn't even a pain that Sasuke understood for himself. Naruto's face shifted to concern and he turned around fully, walking back to him. He had to look up to Sasuke just a little bit.

"Talk to me, baka. What's wrong?"

".. Is that what I am to you? Your best friend."

Naruto raised his eyebrows. "Did you hit your head or something? Of course you're my best friend. You've always been."

Sasuke felt like he couldn't breathe properly. "That's all?"

"Well, what else is there?" Naruto looked genuinely puzzled. "I don't understand, Sasuke, what are you.."

Later, Sasuke wondered how his brain stopped working long enough for him to cup Naruto's face in his hands and pull him close enough to kiss him. His lips were surprisingly soft: Even though neither of them knew what they were doing, it felt.. Good. Warm. They breathed as one, tasted as one, felt as one. It was Naruto who pulled back first.

"Sasuke, I.." That was all he could say. I don't know how to feel about this? I didn't know that you felt this way? Nothing seemed right in that moment. And his best friend wasn't even looking at him. He just turned and walked ahead, not bothering to wait for Naruto to catch up, which he eventually did. Every time he tried to speak up, Sasuke remained quiet, making him trail off. They reached his house in silence. Just as Sasuke was about to go in, Naruto tried one last time.

"S-See you tomorrow?"

For the span of a heartbeat, everything was quiet. Then Sasuke looked up, his face unreadable, and said: "Yes."

Relief coursed through Naruto. He nodded, smiling tentatively at his friend. With a last wave of the hand, he spun around on his heel and ran home.

His mind wouldn't stop replaying the oddest details from today: The flash of disgust in Sasuke's eyes when he was called scum; how he'd gone suddenly quiet when Naruto told him he was brilliant; the pained expression on his face when he asked "That's all?"

And the kiss. Always the kiss.

Naruto had nothing to compare it with, but if all kisses were like that, he understood why everyone made such a big deal about it. He didn't even factor in that it was Sasuke who'd kissed him. That made the whole thing complicated again.

Dinner was a quiet affair that night and Naruto spent more time pushing the food around his bowl than actually eating. Kushina and Minato exchanged a worried glance.

"Are you sick?" Kushina asked, feeling his temperature with the back of her hand. "You feel kind of feverish."

Gently, Naruto pulled away. "Don't worry. I just had a long day." He stood up and brought the dishes to the sink. While he was busy washing up, Minato joined his son. He didn't say anything, just waited patiently until Naruto spoke.

"Dad.. How did you know that you love mom?" Naruto asked suddenly, staring at the tiny soap bubbles on his hands. Minato paused for a moment and put a dry bowl away. He smiled to himself.

"How did I know? I guess it was because I started to notice that I was a better person around her."

"What do you mean, a better person?" Naruto didn't even pay attention to the fact that he was splashing dishwater on himself. His father's face softened.

"Kushina made me pay more attention to the way I acted around others. She radiated so much positive energy that it affected me, too. I started working harder, smiling more and being a little more outgoing - not because I wanted to impress her but because she showed me that I could do all of these things." He snuck a loving glance of his wife. "And I was happiest when I was with her. The love came naturally, I think. I barely noticed."

Naruto stared down at his trembling hands, thinking of Sasuke. Without him, he probably would have been too lazy to ever master the art of making shadow clones. Only the fact that it came to Sasuke so easily and that he consistently needled him until Naruto could do it, too, kept him going. And didn't he always feel a weight fall off his shoulders whenever he was with him? Sasuke knew him better than anyone else and allowed him to be himself. Naruto couldn't think of one moment where he'd been unhappy in the presence of Sasuke. He couldn't even imagine that.

"Naruto?" It was Minato's gentle voice. "Is everything alright?"

He felt like crying and laughing at the same time. All of a sudden, everything seemed to make sense. Naruto reached out and clapped his father on the shoulder.

"Thanks, dad." He said, blinking away the tears in his eyes. "You helped me a lot."