The Last Prayer @graefoxx
12A Special Person

Hey everyone,

I'm still glowing after that GOT episode-not that the ep showed a ton but it was enough for me-a good appetizer. I could watch Arya and Jon hug forever :) ...not in a shipping way.

I didn't think I was going to have a chance to get to this chap for a while but on top of having the day off, I had so much creative energy buzzing in my system, I spent a few solo hours writing and editing. Thus, I give you an impromptu update. Please don't expect this sort of update speed moving forward. It's just I'd already written part of it since it's connected to the last chap and I had the time to finish and edit.

I also want to reiterate the points of focus for this fic and it's not because of flames or mean comments. It's because we're already 100K in and what it was in the beginning is refined more after that many words. This fic will have some light moments but it will also have dark moments. The dark moments can be gut wrenching but that's because these characters are going through an arc and it's not always nice, pretty, or fast. There is a future where everyone loves and accepts Naruto-that's why I'm writing this-but it won't come easily or right away. I operate on a grounded reality, so naturally that's how I write. There is a journey and it'll be dark before we get to thoroughly enjoy the light.

Warning: Blood and Violence.

Please Enjoy.

NARUTO

Looking down at a cane-leaning Kakashi-sensei, the blond genin answers his surprised sensei, "I've been tree-walking for two months now. Why?"

"Well, I never taught you that, did I," Kakashi returns looking up a tall tree to the branch Naruto is hanging from the bottom of using solely his chakra to stick. Turning to Sakura, calmly tree-walking up a different, yet just as tall, tree, he adds, "I never taught either of you." Understanding the type of validation Sasuke needs to keep from losing mental and emotional balance, Kakashi tries to keep it light and inconsequential.

"Hmph! Sakura-chan is the smartest Kunoichi in our class and I'm not so dumb I can't pick up a scroll to figure out tree-walking," he proudly calls, though he would avoid scrolls if he can be told instead. "Maybe you'd notice your other students a bit more if you weren't giving Sasuke-teme private lessons!"

Surprised to hear the claim, Sakura asks her sensei, "what lessons," before realizing that it shouldn't matter to her if Sensei favors Sasuke-kun. 'Everyone should,' she thinks. 'He's the best!' Though, at the outraged face of Sasuke-kun, Sakura suddenly doesn't feel right about learning an ability he clearly hasn't yet and begins to walk back down to the forest floor. Something in her brain didn't feel right about that rationality and Sakura didn't like it. 'Sasuke-kun should be up here with us,' she mentally yells.

"Sakura is doing very well with her Iryō-ninjutsu and I've noticed your training as well, Naruto," Kakashi comments avoiding compliments to keep the third genin from seething. Truthfully, after he'd heard Sasuke's ambition to, 'kill a certain man,' Kakashi knew he had to keep a closer eye on the Uchiha than his others and felt the three genins worked out favorably for the avenger. If Naruto continued his growth beneath Sasuke and Sakura remains supportive, than chances were good Sasuke could turn out relatively balanced with time, and the Uchiha clan wouldn't die out.

"Whatever," Naruto calls back, sliding down the tree and meeting his team on the forest floor. "Since only one of us needs training, I guess I'll keep an eye on Tazuna-Jiji."

Noticing Sasuke fuming for feeling so left behind, Sakura can only think to say, "I'm sure Sasuke-kun will get it in no time," while Kakashi tells Naruto, "if you've mastered Tree-walking, we should at least try water-walking."

Naruto turns to Sakura, expressing, "it took me a week to learn tree-walking and even if it takes the teme less, I bet you he won't get it on his first try."

"Hardly anyone can get tree-walking on their first try," Kakashi states looking to relieve the tension, only for Sakura to flinch as Naruto adds even more tension by replying, "Sakura-chan got it on her first try, and I learned how to walk on water a week after I learned to walk on trees."

"Don't be so fucking full of yourself you idiot!" Sasuke yells. "You think I care you learned one thing all shinobi have to learn?! I don't! Because no matter how many lifetimes you train for, you'll never gain the power of the Sharingan!"

"Yeah well, when you do finally decide to get your pink eye you can copy this," Naruto yells as he gives Sasuke the middle finger. Naruto walks away as Kakashi holds an absolutely fuming Sasuke back.

Though Sakura would much rather stay with Sasuke-kun, to cheer and support him—to be his strength—Sakura doesn't want to risk Ino's retaliation should the platinum blond inadvertently learn from Naruto that she stayed with Sasuke when she didn't have to. With a muscle-tearing hurt in her chest, Sakura glumly tells Kakashi, "Sensei, I'll stay with Tsunami-san." She turns to an absolutely seething Sasuke-kun and tells him with pitiful cheer, "I know you can do it Sasuke-kun-"

"Just shut up and leave!"

Though hurt, Sakura is empathetic to Sasuke-kuns feelings of embarrassment and so truly knows he doesn't mean to snap at her. She leaves her sensei and her love.

HAKU

From behind Haku, Gatō and his two guards enter the moderately room unannounced, though the Kiri-nin heard them well before they reached the room. Zabuza is laying in bed while Haku tends to his wounds.

"You Kiri-nin must be worthless," Gatō spits. "I'm not paying you to lay about."

Zabuza says nothing so then neither does Haku.

Walking up to the bed like he's in no danger, Gatō is about to place his hand on Zabuza. Sensing the kunai in his master's hand, Haku takes it upon himself to act angered and irate for the Zabuza's injured state, grabbing and breaking Gatō's hand. Haku not only wanted to keep Zabuza from aggravating his injuries further, but he also wanted to keep his master from brashly jeopardizing their future plans for the Fourth Mizukage with the money they'll earn here.

"You have a week," Gatō yells, holding his trembling injured hand. They talk of their target's family as they leave, but Haku is more concerned with his special person. He can't care about a family he's never met more than the person resting before him. His special person is suffering. Grabbing a basket after a quick change, Haku heads into the forest.

"Oh, nee-chan, you woke me," Naruto mumbles. He rubs his eyes of sleep as he informs her, "ne, you shouldn't be out here by yourself. It could be dangerous."

"What about you?" Looking at his headband, Haku gently asks, "are you perhaps a ninja?"

Far more awake, Naruto smiles greatly as he adjusts his forehead protector. "Sure am! I'm going to be the greatest Hokage ever!"

"Oh," Haku smiles at the cheerful blond. "Is that why you're out here? Training?"

"Yup! There aren't any shortcuts so I need to become super super strong if I want to be the greatest Hokage."

"Mnnn, but why?" The question makes Naruto tilt his head and Haku adds, "you already seem very strong."

Naruto shakes his head at the pretty girl, vocalizing with passion, "no, no, no. I need to be super strong! I have precious people I need to protect."

"Do you believe you can only be truly strong when you have a precious person to protect?"

"Mmm," Naruto hums questioningly, thinking about Naru-nii. Certainly, he didn't know everyone he's protecting but his precious people are among everyone. "I don't completely know," Naruto admits before he clarifies. "I'd definitely do everything in my power to protect my precious people, so yes, but there are also friends I haven't met yet, right? Just because I haven't met them yet doesn't mean I wouldn't protect them too… right? I don't know. Like, I just met you today but we could totally be friends. We could be the best of friends!"

"Maybe we could," Haku smiles prettily, making Naruto blush a bit and miss Kurenai a lot.

"We definitely would," Naruto states, extending his hand. "I'm Uzumaki Naruto!"

Humored by the very upfront attitude, a smiling Haku takes Naruto's hand as he introduces himself, "I'm Haku."

'No way!' Naruto mentally screams, expression of shock clear on his face. "Haku!"

"Uh, yes," Haku states slightly apprehensively and on alert. "Is there something wrong?"

"Eh? Oh, no," Naruto tries to recover. "I was just surprised is all. You're way cute!"

Haku actually blushes as he looks to the ground and recalls why he was out there. "I have to collect some medical herbs."

"Can I help?" Naruto asks, wondering how to help Haku. "I'm actually pretty good at picking plants. Just show me what it looks like." After Haku shows him the plant, they both begin searching and picking all the while Naruto tries to wrack his brain for a plan to help Haku.

"Thank you for your assistance Naruto-kun."

"Ne, can we meet tomorrow," Naruto asks. "Same time and place?"

Surprised, Haku simply nods before leaving.

SAKURA

Guarding and assisting Tsunami-san was going well until she courteously comments, "you must be very strong if you don't need to practice with your other teammate, Sakura-chan."

It irked Sakura that she immediately pictured Sasuke-kun rather than Naruto, but as Sasuke is the only one who can't tree-walk yet, the Rookie of the Year is the only one in training while Kakashi, Naruto, and Sakura are on guard duty.

Tsunami-san continues, "it's rather lovely to see someone so pretty who is also ninja."

"…ah, um, thank you," Sakura manages around her trepidation.

"I've heard from father your teammate has defeated all the attackers you met along the way here. Naruto-kun must also be very strong."

Internally, Sakura heaves as she makes a mental note to switch with Naruto tomorrow and weakly mentions, "we're all very strong."

KURENAI

Ino is running to meet the beautiful Jōnin-sensei at the entrance of the Hospital. Kurenai smirks as the girl isn't running because she's late, but because she wants to be right on time, and Kurenai is amused by that. Ino stops before her at eleven on the dot, before she bids her good morning and they walk to the recovery ward. After the nurse confirms with Iruka that he's up for visitors, the kunoichi walk into his room.

Kurenai and Ino had already heard the lower half of his body is paralyzed, though knowing it and seeing it are two completely different things. It was hard for them to see. For Kurenai, this is a fellow sensei and comrade who was injured protecting a student from a traitorous sensei. And for Ino, the nice Chūnin had been her teacher for years. To see a man who taught her the principles, the foundations, of what it means to be a Konoha ninja, so broken was heart-wrenching.

Though the bed is the standard hospital bed, soft shapes are placed around his form to keep him upright with his limbs properly bent. Iruka smiles at their entrance as he raises the back of the bed to make facing them easier. "To be visited by one of my best pupils and the Genjutsu Mistress of Konoha," Iruka sings. "How did I get so lucky to see such beautiful ladies today?"

"That's kind of you to say Umino-sensei," Kurenai starts while Ino smiles mournfully at the compliment.

"Please, Iruka is fine," he asserts with a wave. "Have a seat. What can I do for you?"

After moving seats close to his bed, Kurenai explains from the beginning. "Some weeks back, I enlisted the help of Uzumaki Naruto. It was a mundane task but I've since had many chances to speak with him and he's mentioned you a number of times." Iruka chuckles with a wide grin as Kurenai adds, "to hear him talk, you were the only sensei in the Academy."

"Yeah, well, he's was a troublesome one, but I was happy to learn he has a good heart," Iruka happily expresses.

"I have to admit, Umino-"

"Iruka," he repeats.

"Iruka-san," Kurenai corrects with a small smile. "He's mentioned some things that don't make sense."

"Such as," Iruka wonders, though he likely knows.

"His education is of special interest to me, or the lack thereof," Kurenai begins. "I've come to learn that not long after he graduated, he can tree-walk, water-walk, perform A-Rank jutsu, and he seems to have an absurd amount of chakra. His Kage Bunshin, in particular, can last far longer than what would normally be life-threatening to the majority of shinobi, and he seems to have an unfathomable potential to learn, which completely contradicts his class rank."

"You're kidding," Iruka gasps, taking each remark about his favored student with more and more brow-raising astonishment. "Are you sure we're talking about the same Naruto? Blond spiky hair, blue eyes, whisker birthmarks?"

The raven-haired beauty nods and adds, "somehow, he learned on his own the reason he couldn't do the Bunshin no Jutsu is because on top of having large chakra reserves, he has large Tenketsu and I don't have to tell you how exceedingly difficult it would be for him to attempt justsu that only requires a minimal amount of chakra."

"No, yes," Iruka hums in deep contemplation. "Like trying to accurately tip a full barrel of water into a teaspoon without spilling. He'd have an easier time learning S-Rank jutsu than D-Rank."

A monumentally bewildered Ino tries to make sense of this information, crunching her face confused as she asks, "excuse me, sensei, but are you trying to say that Naruto is actually strong? Like he's been strong this whole time even though he failed to graduate three times and is the Dead Last of our class?"

"Oh, how I hate that title," Iruka mumbles. Despite having used it many times herself, Kurenai is growing more and more tired of hearing it as well, especially to describe Naruto. Iruka then explains to the platinum-blond genin, "Ino-chan, rather than thinking of the Academy's final test as the ultimate authority on the intelligence or ability of every single student, wonder instead if standardized tests only work with standard shinobi."

"Um," Ino hums trying to understand, then asking, "you mean to say that Naruto isn't normal. Like Kurenai-sensei said, his tenketsus are apparently larger, meaning he would have a hard time utilizing low chakra techniques."

"Yes," he agrees with a proud smile, and adds, "but more than that, more than Naruto's specific example. If the final test was instead the Nara's Shadow Bind, how well do you think others would perform then? What if the final test was water-walking? How well do you think Naruto-kun would do? It's not unlike judging a fish by its ability to climb a tree. Why wouldn't everyone in the class, including the fish, not believe it has no talent after failing such a simple test?"

"All students can learn and succeed, Ino-chan, but not all at the same time and in the same ways," Kurenai reinforces, happy to know there are some instructors out there who are genuinely passionate about teaching.

"I guess, but he still did poorly in class," Ino cautiously points out. She's smart enough to see both these sensei have positive opinions of Naruto despite the mountain of evidence, or maybe a hill of evidence at this point, that says otherwise.

"Is there any credibility to the grading of his tests?" Kurenai asks, recalling Hinata's claims of unfairness when grading his tests. "I've been informed that despite answering questions correctly, he still receives zeros."

"Ah," Iruka says with clear embarrassment. "While I wouldn't say he answers everything correctly, I can, in fact, confirm that behavior among the staff."

"Can you tell me which instructor," Kurenai asks.

"All of them," Iruka sadly states. "Any sensei that can use tests to reinforce their bias of him, did so repeatedly. What's more is if his text manuals were ever lost or stolen, he would not be issued another one."

Still irate by her experience in his sandals at the market, to only hear about how he was apparently treated in school, Ino couldn't help but ask, "so then how-"

"He used to break into the Academy's library late at night," Iruka sadly mentions. "I caught him once," Iruka adds with a smile. "I'm sure that's how he started breaking into places."

"It's that systemic…" Kurenai wishes she can say she's surprised but at this point the picture of Naruto's life is clear. Any way or method Naruto could be screwed over, he was. Ino couldn't believe what she was hearing. She was so sure he was just an idiot, but now two intelligent adults are saying different, and after playing as Naruto for a day, she couldn't completely deny it.

"I- …okay," Ino speaks, clearing her troubled mind. "Not that I don't believe you, and truth be told, the way he acts out makes even more sense now, but this is hard to accept, mainly because I don't get why everyone hates him so much. How could so many people hate one boy for no other reason than being an orphan? It just doesn't add up."

"You're right Ino-chan," Iruka glumly states, weakly slamming his head against his pillow. "It saddens me to say when I first met him, not only did I not understand him, but I didn't want to. I had my own personal reasons for refuting him, you see." Kurenai didn't need to hear why but it's forbidden to talk about so Ino can't completely understand. "While it's surprising he's learning that much in such a short period of time, his enthusiasm isn't. In my personal experience, I was happy to learn the one thing about Naruto you can always count on."

"What's that?" Ino asks.

"That boy never gives up," Iruka asserts with a smile. "Orphaned from birth, a child of poverty, nearly all his sensei belittle his intelligence, hated by everyone, mistreated by most, attacked and beaten by some; you would think someone going through all that for years and years would simply give up or turn to hate and violence. But not Naruto. He fights that much harder, like something I've never seen before. He gives me hope… that this world can be a better place and it's why I'll defend him with my very life."

The strength of his eyes as both women felt his conviction was palpable. Laying paralyzed only aided the truth of his words, and more than Kurenai, Ino was in awe that someone would actually go so far for Naruto of all people. One of her favorite sensei's positive opinion of him made her uncomfortable as she thought of all her insulting thoughts, taunts or abuse of him. Kurenai simply felt impressively pleased to know more about the loud blond and finds herself hoping he'll come back soon.

The remainder of the visit was reformed to pleasantries while both kunoichi nest deep in thought about a blond genin they thought they knew.

NARUTO

It would've been a fun couple of days if not for a few things.

One, Naruto keeps creaming his pants after constant wet dreams. The reality of Naruto's morning generally finds him in the washroom cleaning his boxers of a heaping quantity of spunk before anyone else is awake, wishing over and over to get back to Kurenai soon. It doesn't help that Tsunami-nee is really pretty and bends over often. She may be a mother, but she still has an attractive figure. This has been a constant problem he attempts to remedy through excessive training.

Two, Sasuke refuses to acknowledge Sakura, which Naruto can see hurts her. The fact that it hurts her, means it hurts Naruto and he just wants to punch Sasuke for not realizing how amazing their pink-haired teammate is, repeatedly making him wonder, 'what does she even see in that asshole!'

Living together in close proximity like they all are, sharing the washroom, the dining table, and chores, Naruto can't help but see the introverted attitude the Teme seems to have with them is ever-present. For some odd reason, Naruto always imagined that once he returned to his home, he would relax and smile more or something to that effect. Witnessing how wrong he is, Naruto can't help but wonder why Sakura-chan would prefer someone so mean to her over someone who actually cares about her.

Lastly, neither Narutos have yet to figure out how to help Haku. Naruto and Haku talk every day for an hour in the forest and it's been one of the best times he's ever had with another boy near his age. At two years apart, the eighteen-year-old brunette is super nice and funny, and though it unnerves him how girly he looks, he's super thrilled to have met him. With every new piece of information the Narutos learn, they wonder if a plan might form that would actually work considering who Haku's special someone is.

A big part of the problem is, and isn't, Zabuza. If Zabuza dies at their hands, Haku may not want to be friends anymore, or even come to Konoha with them. If Zabuza lives, the Narutos don't think Haku would leave him to live a different life. Naruto himself wouldn't leave Ji-chan or Iruka-sensei, so how could they expect Haku to leave Zabuza? The Narutos are stuck on this point, however, they're currently content to hang around with the Hunter-nin.

"You don't have to guard me," Tsunami tells Naruto. He and seven clones are sitting at the dinner table trying to cut a leaf with chakra alone. It's been going well. After weeks of trying he's finally seeing some real progress. Naruto turns to the pretty mother as she explains, "I know how much father enjoyed having you with him. He said you and your clones helped construction move thirty-seven percent faster, which is incredible."

Naruto chuckles as he responds, "yeah, I have a lot of energy and I wanted to help."

"Ah, to be young again," she says whimsically with a smile. "I think it's a nice… to see that side of a ninja."

Confused, Naruto asks, "what do you mean?"

"Forgive me," Tsunami says. "I only mean to say it's nice that ninja can help build. We here primarily know about their strength to destroy rather than help. Father's told me how much you want to help us, and from the bottom of my heart I can't thank you enough."

"No sweat," Naruto proudly tells her with a big smile.

"Naruto-kun," Tsunami calls. "Is it true you changed into my father on your journey here?"

"Yup!"

"That's just so unbelievable," Tsunami states with a giggle. Naruto puts his fingers together and henges into her father, to her joyful surprise. "Oh my! You look exactly like him."

Naruto hunches his back like Tazuna does, pretends to look around the room in confusion and mimics his voice, saying, "Tsunami, be a dear and help me find my glasses." As they're already on Naruto-Tazuna's face, Tsunami laughs at the dead-on impersonation. "Why I can't find those blasted things anywhere!"

When Naruto changes back to himself, Tsunami claps for the performance and even the clones join in. The next morning, Kakashi-sensei rotates their assignments again as it seems Sasuke finally learned tree-walking. He certainly did it faster but Naruto didn't care about that.

KURAMA

Kurama was irate, displeased, frustrated, and anxious. After establishing a connection through the seal to communicate with his container, the puny blond no bigger than his nail runs up to the damn gate. The sight of his grin annoyed Kurama further, forcing the great chakra beast to pace to alleviate his aggravation.

In the dark dankness of his seal, Naruto noted, "it's pretty rare for you to call me down. What's up?"

Kurama used to live for the land gifted to him by his father; the peace and tranquility his father's land provided him. Even now it aches to think of that loss. Kurama did not want to be sealed, however, he did not want to be controlled even more. The loss of his father, then siblings, and then even his land to then be controlled and hated by so many, the only source of comfort, of peace in all this is the few moments his brat container has with his mate. And now he's been cut off. Pacing angrily within the large cavern beyond the gold prison bars, Kurama demands to know, "why has it been so long?"

Naruto tilts his head confused, angering the chakra beast further. To Naruto, they've only had a handful of conversations since they first exchanged names and the Kyūbi has been surly in every one. Their conversations don't even feature much more than Naruto's pathetic development in tapping into his chakra. Naru-nii confirmed there are several transformations that happen depending on the amount of Kyūbi chakra he takes in, but he hasn't been able to reach the first transformation yet. Though that has more to do with time constraints then ability—his team, Kurenai, and Naru-nii's training take up most of his waking hours.

With squinted eyes, Naruto asks the bristling Kyūbi, "why is 'what' taking so long?"

"YOu…" Kurama cuts himself off, angrily grumbling as he moves to the gate and settles comfortably on his front paws to closer inspect the blond. "I thought you were a human of your word."

"What?" Naruto snaps, growing more confused. "I am!"

"Than why haven't you mated," Kurama surly asks. Seeing the shocked confusion on his face, Kurama raises himself to look down on the puny brat. "You said you reached a deal with your mate that guaranteed carnal satisfaction. I'm so disgusted with myself for believing you, a human!"

"Wha- Ne, Kurama," Naruto sputters, completely thrown off by this weird topic of conversation. "You know I'm on mission, right?"

"And?" Kurama retorts. "I'm the strongest of the tailed beasts! I shouldn't have to wait to feel something other than this dark abyss!"

"Well, I mean," Naruto tries, unsure how to respond. "There's not really much I can do until I get back. Trust me, after the week I've been having, I want to get back as much as you do!"

"As the container of the greatest tailed-beasts, I demand you mate with your teammate!"

"What?" a shocked Naruto hollers, though he blushes profusely, nearly making Kurama laugh. "I can't just sleep with Sakura-chan!"

"Have you asked her," Kurama returns smugly.

Pulling up short, Naruto mumbles, "well, no, but- BUT I don't need to ask her, you big dummy! She doesn't even love me!"

"That explains nothing," Kurama shrugs off. "Why should I deem you worthy of my chakra when you're unable to even mate regularly?"

"Hey now," Naruto tries to reason with the oddly bratty Nine-Tails. "Come on, cut me some slack, will ya? It's pretty amazing that I even have Nai-chan training me-"

"More!" Kurama interjects. Naruto looks confused and exhausted as Kurama adds, "you must gain more power to attract more mates. You will continue training with my chakra and when you are as great as I, you will acquire more mates."

"You remember we're supposed to be stopping that masked dude from taking all the Bijuu right? Your brothers and sisters?"

"An impossible task since you can't even handle the strength of a single one of my tails!" Kurama verbally jabs and Naruto's shoulders sag. "You must train harder. It's clear to me, the more power and attention you receive, the easier it will be to attain willing mates."

"…I guess," Naruto questions. "But I'm kinda hoping to marry just one, so how about I just have a lot of sex with one. I mean it's not like you can tell who I'm having sex with, so why would I need multiple women?"

"…I suppose that would also work," Kurama agrees. "That will be your price, brat. For my continued support against Madara's plans, you will acquire a life-long mate designated for frequent copulation… or multiple mates. As long as you don't lose to the other Jinchūriki, I don't care which."

Naruto throws his head back rolling his eyes before he says, "how about we just keep training on using more of your chakra without losing my mind and we'll worry about who I have sex with later?"

"More, brat," Kurama reminds him with hard eyes and growl. "Moooooorrreee."

With a deep exhale of air, Naruto nods, "I got it, I got it. I know it's not fun here and I really want us to be like Naru-nii and future-Kurama, so for the both of us, I'll definitely try. We're teammates after all."

Kurama says nothing as Naruto leaves, unsure of how to react to the brat's assertions. Truly, he's is different than his previous wardens… different than many humans, however, that shouldn't matter. 'It doesn't,' Kurama stubbornly thinks as he lays down for a nap.

NARUTO

After talking with Kurama, Naruto had been waiting for Haku to show up all morning. Unsure why his friend is late, Naruto leaves a clone just in case he shows up and returns to Tazuna's residence to find a crying Tsunami on a large brown-haired man's lap being fondled over her clothes. Try as she might to resist the man with a tattoo on his left shoulder and bicep groping her, she's clearly more concerned with her son who's on the floor being kicked by another man with bluish-white hair and black eyes. They're both laughing until Naruto enters.

The bigger of the two is reaching for his sword while the smaller had drawn it, but neither is faster than Naruto's rage-filled speed, slicing the neck of the one beating on Inari before throwing that same kunai at the larger one's head, killing them both. Helping both Tsunami and Inari while his clones drag out the corpses, Naruto asks, "what happened? Where's Sasuke and Kakashi?"

"They- They said my father's already dead," Tsunami wails. "And that Inari would be next if I- if I didn't-"

"It's okay," Naruto states, putting his hand on her shoulders. "They won't hurt you again."

"Please you have to save my father," Tsunami calls.

"I'll leave a few clones," Naruto tells them before rushing out of their home.

When he gets to the bridge, he finds Sasuke fighting Haku with his mask on while Kakashi and Zabuza fight it out some distance away. Sakura is fighting several of Gatō's mercenaries by herself, effectively keeping them from killing Tazuna. Sakura needs his help, he wants to make sure Haku is alright and he can't let Kakashi kill Zabuza. Naruto simply wants them all to stop. Then he spots Gatō at the end of the nearly complete bridge, laughing as he watches on from the safety of a group of large and imposing men.

For one man to cause so much chaos, to hurt so many lives and laugh all the while? Naruto was sure this is why he works so hard to be strong; to stop men like this; to stop men threatening the lives of innocent people, in the present and in the future.

"Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!" Thirty puffs of white smoke reveal thirty angry clones of Naruto. It's more than he uses for training but as he knows they won't exist for too long, he's positive they won't be too draining. Naruto sends fifteen to aid Sakura, confident she'll manage his clones to perfection since he always has the hardest time when she leads them in their sparring sessions. Ten attack Gatō's men from the front while the other five jump over the bridge to travel under it.

Wondering if the dome is the same one Naru-nii described, Naruto jumps inside the cage made of ice-mirrors and finds Sasuke's cut up and bleeding but noting no severe injuries as his raven-haired teammate yells, "you idiot! Why would you jump inside?! What kind of shinobi are you!?"

Irked at being yelled at for trying to help, Naruto throws back, "wha- one who can water-walk! Which is a hell of a lot more than I can say about you!"

"Tch," Sasuke coughs, before turning to the ice mirrors and yelling, "Katon: Gōkakyū no Jutsu!" Sasuke's fireball may be large but it doesn't damage the mirrors, to which Haku notes, "they won't melt with that level of firepower."

"He's right, that's pretty weak," Naruto points out.

"Shut up!" Sasuke yells back.

"You shouldn't have come here," the hunter-nin tells Naruto before all the mirrors light up and fire senbon after senbon at the pair of Konoha ninjas. They prick and cut all over but the attacks are shallow and non-lethal, and thanks to Naru-nii, Naruto knows why. Haku doesn't want to kill. Haku's not a killer. It hurts Haku to do this, and from what Naru-nii said, Zabuza knows this as well.

When the onslaught of long needles finally subsides, both Naruto and Sasuke are thrown roughly on their backs. Though he feels like he's got a thousand little cuts aching all over his body Naruto stands, calling out to the mirrors, "I had to come Hunter-nin! Zabuza owes me his stupid sword!"

Though Zabuza and Kakashi only focus on each other, Zabuza responds amused, "Oh, the comedian is back."

"Uzumaki Naruto, the ninja who beat you!" Naruto yells proudly, muzzling most of the action on the bridge. "Get it right!"

"Whine all you like, boy, but you beat nothing," Zabuza claims. "A pathetic brat like you could never take Kubikiribōchō from me. You'll die right where you are."

"We'll see about that," Naruto calls before turning to the masked Haku. "Ne, Hunter-nin, you'll learn soon enough, but I won't die until I become the greatest Hokage ever!" Snapping his fingers together, Naruto cries from the pit of his stomach, building not only his vocal outcry but his profuse reserve of chakra. Like the second stage of Rasengan—power—Naruto increases the volume and output of his spirit energy, forcing his abundant reserves to the precipice of his large tenketsus and holding the buildup there until the pain cascades throughout his entire muscle system. If he could see himself, he'd know, like the others watching him, how awash he is with blue luminescent power shrouding his crouched form.

Through the painful ripping, he howls, "Tajuu, Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!"

A mountain's worth of white smoke puffs before the entire mirror dome fills with Narutos. While some escape and break the mirrors from the outside, some attack from the inside, smashing one mirror after another until Haku flies out of his Ice jutsu. Though reeling from the burst of energy, Naruto rushes the much faster boy. The speed of Haku's fist snap against Naruto's face, stomach or any opening the Hunter-nin could easily land, but Naruto is relentless.

Despite losing in taijutsu, sharp pain is no reason to stop or slow. He takes as much pain as Haku can dish, battling to absurd ends for this brunette boy and his future counterpart. Naruto's clones disperse one at a time, causing constant smoke as both boys trade blow for blow, converting a loss of footing into a strike at distance, parrying one punch into an effortless counter, and though it appears one-sided, Naruto doesn't relent, putting his all into more… into feeling more truth. Naruto is learning who he is fighting a newly found friend and he won't stop; not until Haku gives him a reason too.

Despite lacking in skill, the more Naruto fights on, the more his body adapts and the more he sees. Then, as sudden as the next sharp inhale, Naruto moves faster than he's ever felt, stopping and evading more than he had before—countering and deflecting more—until Naruto finally feels it. That hesitation. The physical conversation between them, tells Naruto that Haku doesn't want to do this. Naruto can somehow feel that Haku's fists ache to hit him, and they don't want to anymore. It's all Naruto needed to clearly see the oncoming strike, palm it in his strong grip, keeping a huffing Haku in place while Naruto rears back his own fist, drawing energy not just from the rotation of his entire body, but with the strength of his convictions… of what this means to win.

Like a tight spring snapping free, Naruto slams his unwavering fist directly into Haku's mask with an impossibly heavy 'thrack!' The Hunter-nin is launched a great distance away, hitting the ground with a hard thud before rolling farther. If Naruto didn't have legitimate reasons behind this fight, it would've hurt him even more to do that to someone he cares about, and that horrible anguish rises violently from his taut stomach.

"AAAAAHHHHHH," Naruto screams to the heavens, wrecked with raw emotions. "ZABUZA!" With less fog and fewer clones, Naruto vaguely sees Kakashi and Zabuza still facing off, though both are paying more attention to him and Haku. "I'm coming for your weapon!" Unbeknownst, to Naruto and Sasuke, a water clone of Zabuza materializes threateningly behind Sasuke before the Demon of Hidden Mist tells Kakashi, "don't even think of interfering, Kakashi. Or my clone kills your little pet."

Zabuza immediately breaks away from Kakashi at break-neck speed, shouting at the blond ninja, "you want it, brat? You got it!" Zabuza was truly a monster and he was on Naruto in seconds, bringing down his enormous sword with great stone cutting speed. A kunai in each hand and chakra constantly flowing from each foot, all Naruto could manage was evading or blocking, getting cut no matter what. Even if Naruto blocks a direct assault, the concussive force alone is enough to rattle his skull, deafen his ears, and send him flying—chakra suction or not—all the while Zabuza laughs.

"You need to do better than that if you want to beat the Demon of Hidden Mist," Zabuza yells as he toys with Naruto, confidently digging in little cuts every so often, not only feeding his blade, but his own blood-lust.

Naruto uses everything, every technique he knows, every clone available, every tool in his pouch and nothing could stop Zabuza from having his way—kicking Naruto harder than he's ever felt, punching him with the force of a sledgehammer, cutting into aching muscle with his sword—drawing more and more blood from the red-stained blond.

"Congratulations, brat!" Zabuza yells, as he parries Naruto's kunai strike with his leg before kicking him in the face. "I officially recognize you as a shinobi," Zabuza adds before finishing his combo with a kick to the stomach, sanding Naruto far enough for Zabuza to jump in the air and prepare a downward cut. "Now you can die like one!"

Gleefully, Zabuza brings down a lethal cut, strong enough to howl in the severed wind as the assassin attempts to cleave Naruto in two. Naruto barely manages to bring up both kunai, creating a V to catch the razor-edge of the legendary blade. But even still, with the force of his technique, Naruto instantly drops to one knee, slamming chakra-infused bone and cartilage into cracking concrete as inches of the blade digs into his trapezius muscle, sprouting blood up the side of his jumpsuit's collar and his face.

"Naruto!" the blond ninja hears Sakura call, but his blurry attention can only focus on the madness of Zabuza's cold face.

'Oi! You dumb Fox,' Naruto's mind calls as all strength in him fluctuates and sputters as much as his free-flowing blood. 'Get off your ass, I could use a little help here!'

A large red eye pulses within him and like a second heart, bigger than his head, pumps more disgusting power into Naruto's small body than he's ever felt in training. Everyone begrudgingly witnessing the fight is suddenly stunned to see red chakra surround his body and steam the air around. Not a second later, his wounds begin to heal faster than is medically possible and Naruto is left with more power than he knows what to do with…

… but Naruto knows exactly what to do with this absurd strength.

The animalistic blond heaves the great sword up with super strength from is already healing trapezius wound, and rolls forward towards the mercenary, sniping both the assassin's set feet with his kunai. Zabuza growls in the pain at the kunai embed through his feet and into the stone below as Naruto's left hand grips the assassin's right wrist. While a clone lands next to Naruto, Zabuza tries to pull away but the blond's insane chakra-covered grip is unyielding, until he resorts to striking Naruto in the face to let go—a hit that would've normally knocked him out is ignored and healed in seconds—all the while Naruto and his clone are shaping a glowing ball of chakra in his right hand.

"You think you know what it means to truly be strong," a bloody Naruto bellows passionately at the assassin, though all on the bridge clearly hear. "I'll show you how the greatest Hokage there'll ever be protects his friends!" Growling fiercely, Naruto focuses on condensing the great ball of rotating power until it's perfect. Leaning in, the blond, bloody and beaten ninja slams the destructive ball of chakra straight into Zabuza's gut, roaring for all to hear, "Rasengan!"

No matter the perspective of the explosive attack; from Kakashi's, Sakura's, Sasuke's, Haku's, none could accept a small bloodied blond genin smashing a condensed tornado of chakra into a former Kiri-Anbu's gut and rocket the seasoned shinobi thirty yards away, spinning the taller mass like a propeller all the while. The hard, bone-breaking landing looked like mercy as it seemed like Zabuza would go on forever.

In the infinite quiet of the bridge, a heaving Naruto sends two clones to get him as he slowly walks over to a stunned and held down Haku whose mask is in pieces on the floor. The clones keeping Haku from interfering dispel and upon realizing he kept Haku back while he beat the beautiful boy's special person, Naruto grows very nervous. He can't imagine Haku would be happy about that and immediately apologizes, "ah, Haku, I'm so sorry! I didn't mean to beat your special person! But I had to prove to him that friends aren't tools. You- He-… I mean, if there was another way-"

"…Did you know," Haku slowly asks.

Confused, Naruto asks, "know what?"

"That the person you met in the forest and the Hunter-nin by Zabuza's side were one and the same?"

"Oh," Naruto follows, responding, "yeah."

"You…" Haku is taken into silence until his clones bring Zabuza's weakened body. Kakashi and Sasuke close in as the Demon Ninja coughs and sputters blood through his sharpened teeth, prompting Naruto to happily bellow, "oh thank Kami you're alive!"

The extensively wounded former Kiri-Anbu managed to painfully communicate, "… I… under… estimated… you."

Anxious about Haku, Naruto ignores the statement to ask, "Ne, Zabuza-jiji, instead of your sword, can Haku come with me to Konoha?" Though everyone is surprised, Naruto ignores them to add, "I promise I'll protect him with everything I got," while heavily smashing his fist in his palm.

"No," Haku gasps, wincing in pain. "Do not ask this Naruto-kun! I won't leave Zabuza-sama!"

"Why not?" Naruto counters, looking from Zabuza to Haku. "Zabuza-jiji isn't the only one who cares about you."

"I'm his tool," Haku calls back. "I'm meant for nothing more than to kill anything he desires!"

"That's not true," Naruto calls back. "I heard you! During our fight, I could tell every punch you landed, every kick you tagged me with, you didn't want to kill me. You didn't even want to hurt me!" Haku is stunned to hear the admission but Naruto turns to the sprawled Zabuza and states with a pointed finger. "I bet you even he knows friends aren't tools. Shinobi aren't murdering machines. We build! And we protect! That's my Nindō!"

Haku tries to argue, "well you're wrong!" But, like his fists striking his blond friend, the beautiful boy doesn't feel complete conviction.

"…Haku…" Zabuza moans weakly.

"No, Zabuza-sama," Haku pleads, tears streaming down his swollen face. "Please let me remain by your side!"

"…No…" Zabuza wheezes. "…Go…"

"Sakura-chan," Naruto calls, turning to his teammate. "Can't you help him?"

Sakura's face has been set in perpetual surprise for the past five minutes and is stunned into awareness by Naruto's direct question. Thinking past her reservations, she turns to Kakashi for his directive when Sasuke proclaims, "he's our enemy! You can't heal our enemy!"

"No, he's not!" Naruto defends Zabuza against his teammate. "He was only doing it for the money and that was taken care of like five minutes ago." He points over to where Gatō should be, and when they all look they see a group of mercenary looting Gatō's dead body for anything of worth. "No payment means no job, which means he's not our enemy!"

With a stiff nod from a moderately wounded Kakashi, Sakura tries her best to heal their once-enemy. Naruto turns to Haku, pleading, "I wish I could've met you first, really, I do, but I'm meeting you now and that has to count for something, right? Please, Haku, won't you be my friend?" Haku looks pained in a way that has nothing to do with his wounds as tears flow freely.

"…Go…" Zabuza adds. "If I… mean… anything…"

Tear-filled, Haku nods once, croaking, "…a-as you wish, Zabuza-sama."

Even with Naruto's help, it takes Tazuna another week to finish the bridge. To Naruto's immense despair, Haku doesn't talk to him but for, "excuse me," or, "I'd like to be alone, please." Naruto tries to give him space but every day, every hour, he's hoping Haku would search him out so they can talk like they did in the forest. Even Naru-nii's enthusiasm and jovial gratitude for helping Haku didn't truly break his melancholy. 'Naru-nii was right,' Naruto thought. 'Haku is a person to be remembered… and now he hates me.'

Naruto was expecting worse the morning they found out Zabuza had left in the middle of the night, leaving Kubikiribōchō behind. Though the people of the city threw a huge celebration for Team Seven's departure, even naming the bridge after him, Naruto couldn't truly feel joy. Even though he genuinely felt happy, he nearly felt obligated to smile and laugh along with the others. His mind was always empathetic to his long-haired friend and how it's his fault Haku was separated from his special person.

It was a rather sullen journey back to Konoha, but at least it was faster as they ran most of the way back. As per the conditions of Konoha's security, Team Seven walk the last five miles toward the village, absentmindedly understanding they're being observed and reported on just as everyone else is when journeying to the hidden village. Just before the group reaches the large gate, Team Seven can see Anbu guards waiting for them.

"Naruto-kun," Haku calls in his lovely voice. Surprised to hear from him, Naruto doubts he even heard properly. The others move to meet security as the pair remain and Haku continues, "I'm sorry I've been so distant. I know you didn't deserve that but I had to sort out my thoughts and feelings." Taking Kubikiribōchō from his back, Haku extends the large heavy sword and presents it to Naruto. "Zabuza-sama would like you to hold on to Kubikiribōchō… as would I."

Surprised by it all, Naruto slowly nods and takes the very heavy blade, instantly accepting that he wouldn't ever be proficient with a sword bigger than he was. Looking at a mournfully smiling Haku, Naruto simply states, "thanks Haku."

"He wanted me to tell you he'll take it back at your rematch," Haku adds with a friendly face, though Naruto's face pales as white as a ghost when they hear Kakashi call, "come on you two."

As they walk, Naruto asks for clarity sake, "does this mean we're friends again?"

Haku's smile is more genuine when the beautiful brunette asserts, "I left the person who means the world to me to be here… with you. You couldn't get rid of me if you tried."

"Really," Naruto asks happily, feeling his energy spark once again. "Really, really!"

"Before he left, Zabuza-san told me, if the world had more men like you, they wouldn't need men like him. He ordered me to keep your dream alive. And I'm happy to do so."

Naruto has to hop to reach enough height to bury the tip of the massive cleaver into the dirt so his hands would be free to give Haku a big bear hug.

In front of a stern Sandaime, with Anbu surrounding five shinobi, four are at attention while Naruto is struggling to lean the large sword in the corner of the Hokage's office. He tried using the metal wire like Haku said to keep it at his back but it was so annoying. Naruto felt carrying it or leaning it against him was easier.

After finishing a quick overview of Team Seven's mission, the Sandaime sternly asks, "your preliminary report states this Kiri-nin, Haku, along with known associate, the Demon of Hidden Mist, Momochi Zabuza, were an enemy combatant during your mission. And it's only because their contract was terminated that Haku decided to emigrate to Konoha."

"Ne, Ji-chan," Naruto starts, giving Kakashi stressfully harder heart-palpitations as Naruto's informal response to the strongest ninja in their village flabbergasts everyone but Sakura. "Since we're friends, can Haku live with me?"

"Naruto!" Sakura whispers her yell.

"Naruto-kun," the Sandaime begins to reply. "You must remember when to show my office the respect it deserves if you're ever going to take my hat."

"Hai!" Naruto straightens. "Hokage-sama, can Haku please stay with me?"

"We will submit her application of asylum," Sandaime states. Having yet to be informed about Haku's gender, the older man continues, "it will be reviewed by both the civilian and shinobi council, however, this will be a military decision. Should everything run smoothly, I don't foresee any issues. However, while her application is pending, I would prefer if you both stayed in different quarters. Call me old fashioned but with the exception of marriage, I believe girls and boys should not share one room."

"Ji-chan," Naruto starts, completely forgetting his earlier formality toward the office he covets. "Haku's a boy."

"No way!" Sandaime calls flummoxed, looking at Haku's beautifully feminine, smiling face.

"I know, right," Naruto sternly adds, groaning philosophically. "This world is full of mystery."

"Yes, even at my age, wonders never cease," Sandaime agrees in a wise tone, nodding with his eyes closed. After the room is forced to accept this monumental break of decorum without explanation, the Sandaime rolls the scroll up, calling out, "job well done, Team Seven. For representing your village with exemplary bravery, your mission will be upgraded to A-Rank. All but Kakashi and Naruto are dismissed."

"I'll wait in the hall," Haku tells Naruto.

When it's just the three of them in one of the most secure buildings, in the most secure rooms in all of Konoha, the Hokage announces with authority, "S-Class Security protocol. Sarutobi, Hiruzen, 000261, Kage."

Immediately the once bright office hums to life as the windows are darkened and thousands of previously unseen Fūinjutsu characters glow blue along the walls and floors. Naruto hears at least ten locks but he doesn't know from where. The now dark room is lit by lamps as neither Kakashi or the Sandaime react to the overly hostile changes. After a second of utter silence, the Hokage states, "for the moment, this will remain an S-class secret. The report concerning this technique will be redacted to further reflect how vital this information is."

"Hai, Hokage-sama," Kakashi states as Naruto warily adds, "Hai."

Turning to Naruto, the strongest shinobi in Konoha demands to know, "Naruto-kun, how is it that you learned the technique known as Rasengan?"

Growing less nervous, Naruto answers, "um, well, I don't know how best to explain it, but, um, when I fought Mizuki-sensei, I went into the seal… at least I think that's what it was. It was dark and weird. I was in this giant room when I heard a voice. It told me not to pull the seal and then told me I should get stronger. It gave me three tasks that turned out to be the three steps to learning Rasengan."

Hiruzen eyes Kakashi for a split second before his analytical observation focuses on Naruto again to ask, "this voice, did you see the face it belonged too?"

"No," Naruto answers honestly. "Just the voice in the room."

"Was there anything else in the room," the Hokage asks.

"Hell yeah," Naruto admits. "A bigass gate with a huge red fox behind it… who's a bit of a dick."

"So you've spoken to the Kyūbi," Kakashi asks.

"Yeah," Naruto answers. "But like I said, total dick. 'Wretched humans this,' 'Greatest of the bijū that.' I just tune him out."

"And it was responsible for the red chakra witnessed," Hiruzen asks.

"Do I look like a charity, Ji-chan? His chakra's the rent he owes me for staying in my body," Naruto proclaims.

Hiruzen turns to the head Jōnin and commands, "Kakashi, make sure your students are aware to never reveal anything about his red chakra shroud. This mission and its details are never to be spoken of again."

"Hai, Hokage-sama," Kakashi confirms.

Turning to Naruto, Hiruzen asks with more softness in his voice, "is there anything else the voice told you?"

"Mmnnn," Naruto hums, scratching his smooth chin. On the way back from their mission, the future and present Narutos had discussed the likely outcome of using Rasengan in public. Naru-nii agreed it was the right call to use the technique so they set their minds to trying to answer what they thought the likely questions would be. They agreed to use the same idea they used with Kurenai on others, but Naru-nii thought there could be an opportunity for more.

'More what,' Naruto asked his older self as Team Seven plus Haku travel through the trees from branch to branch.

'Well, you're getting closer to the second part of mastering your nature manipulation and I learned it using the help of another shinobi named Yamato, but I can't think of a way you could meet him and ask for his help without causing a ruckus.'

'Why did he teach you?' Naruto asked.

'Kakashi-sensei thought he could help train me and asked for an assist.'

'Do you think we can make him do that again?'

'Who knows,' Naru-nii freely admitted. 'I suppose if they know that you're ready for that, they might ask him. Since I had to learn it in days with thousands of clones, Kakashi felt he needed Yamato-taichou because he can do Wood-Release jutsu and that helps negate Kurama's influence over us. You have more time to take it slower so maybe they won't need him.'

'Kurama mentioned once how much he hates wood-release,' Naruto mentally chuckled, thinking how pleased The Demon Fox was with 'his human' when Naruto told him they were headed back to Konoha.

'Yeah,' Naru-nii agreed. 'Let's just go for it and see what happens. Even if we don't get to meet Yamato-taichou, we'll figure out another way.'

In the now fully secure office of the Hokage, facing the esteemed God of Shinobi, Naruto snaps his fingers and goes for it. "Oh, the voice mentioned something about perfecting it."

Taken aback, the Hokage repeats, "perfecting it? You mean to say the Rasengan is an incomplete jutsu?"

"Uh, I guess," Naruto shrugs. "I'm still working on it so I can't say for sure."

"How," the Hokage asks, keenly interested. "How are you trying to perfect it?"

"Duh, with more training," Naruto states. "I learned I have an affinity for Fūton chakra, so I thought I'd combine them."

"Kakashi," Hiruzen sternly commands.

"Hai, Hokage-sama," Kakashi states, understanding his Hokage's unspoken directive.

But Naruto doesn't, promptly asking, "what?"

"Kakashi will be assisting your training," Hiruzen answers the boy.

"Oh, now you want to train me," Naruto bellows incredulously. "Are you sure your precious Uchiha can spare you?"

"Naruto," Hiruzen calls sternly and Naruto buckles, hardly ever hearing Ji-chan talk to him like that. "This is important! It's simply amazing one so young would learn the Rasengan, a technique that took the fourth Hokage years to master. Adding to that, it's also an incomplete jutsu that somehow you intend to add Fūton chakra to is simply astounding! For the good of this village, this is a top priority."

Crossing his arms, Naruto grumbles under the old man's stern admonishing.

"You don't seem surprised," Kakashi points out, looking closely at Naruto. "This is a technique developed by the fourth Hokage and that doesn't excite you as I would have expected."

The Hokage stands at his full height, looking down at Naruto and sternly asking, "did you know?"

The Narutos hadn't planned on this. Panicking for more seconds then he felt allowed, Naruto goes with the only explanation he can think of, "yeah, well… K-Kurenai-sensei told me."

Both men are surprised by the admission. While the Third Hokage commands no one visible, "bring Yūhi Kurenai here at once," as Kakashi asks, "you showed her?" Though the Hokage seems more interested in another point, asking the elite Jōnin, "why does Kurenai-kun know more of your student's techniques than you do, Kakashi?"

"Hey, let's get one thing straight here," Naruto calls out over both adults. He turns and points to Kakashi, stating, "you were too busy with the teme to help me, so, while I was helping Kurenai-chan, I asked if she could teach me some stuff. She said she wasn't supposed to because of some stupid rules I don't remember, but she was still nice enough to give me some cool scrolls and even a field pack since my gear was so old. So, yeah, I showed her. That's when she told me it was the Fourth's technique."

Both men are silenced until the Kage—knowing the blond rather well—warily inquires, "and did you tell her how you learned it?"

Nervously, a wilting Naruto answers with a pitiful chuckle, "… Well, she asked…"

"Kakashi," the Hokage interrupts.

"Hai, Hokage-sama," Kakashi responds, understanding his commander's unasked instruction.

Not understanding as well as the veteran Jōnin, Naruto raises his voice in defense of Kurenai. "She better not be in trouble, Ji-chan! She didn't do anything wrong!"

"She's not in trouble, Naruto," Hiruzen says with a smile. "However she needs to be made aware of her Hokage's position on this information. And as her commander, I need to be absolutely certain she understands what's expected of her."

"She does!" Naruto continues to defend. "She totally told me not to tell anyone. I only used it on Zabuza because he was crazy strong and I couldn't beat him without it!"

KURENAI

Kurenai wished to Kami she was anywhere but here, at a dango shop with Anko, Ino, Genma, and Asuma.

In their pursuit of intelligence gathering, Ino and Kurenai had inadvertently banned Naruto from two of the last few critical shops that would sell to him. Add to that, Kurenai's scare tactic to get his landlord to fix the hot water apparently scared the lard of a man to simply run off with all the tenants' rent. Having skipped out on loan payments, property taxes, utilities, among other expenses, the village immediately shut off the electricity and water and if the delinquent account isn't settled in the next forty-six days, everyone who hasn't left yet will be evicted and the complex foreclosed.

Kurenai only wanted to meet Ino before Anko arrived to tell her to sell the Fire Slipper Orchid. She may not know what Naruto wants to do with it, but she's certain he'll need funds soon. To her surprise, Ino showed up with Asuma. As her sensei, it's not unusual for Asuma to be with Ino, but Kurenai sent a note to talk about the intelligence they've gathered, and that's a topic Kurenai doesn't want to discuss around Asuma. It just felt too odd for her. Even as the pair approach her, seated cross-legged at a table for three, her stomach tightens and her skin itches.

"Ino-chan, Asuma-sensei," Kurenai addresses.

"Kurenai," Asuma states taking a seat. "First Naruto-kun, and now Ino-chan. As her sensei, I didn't want to pressure her too much to learn what you needed from her, so I thought I'd tag along and ask you in person."

'He needed a reason to come see me,' Kurenai's mind wonders as she takes a regal sip of her tea. "I'm sorry I wasted your time," Kurenai asserts. "I was gifted a unique flower recently and I simply wanted to tell Ino-chan to sell it on my behalf." Turning to Ino, she requests, "please let me know what fee the Yamanaka Clan require to facilitate the sale." Ino simply nods, and Kurenai can tell the clever girl detects the underlying history between the Jōnin-senseis. Kurenai can't be sure her own red eyes were as apathetic to the love of her life as she would like them to be, but Asuma hadn't looked anywhere else besides her which was a dead giveaway.

"That's news," Asuma casually states. "What sort of flower?"

"That's private Asuma," Kurenai asserts with a tone that left no arguments.

Taking out and lighting up a cigarette, Asuma replies, "must be some flower."

Ino can tell this is thee kunoichi she'd been looking for; the one that Asuma is in love with. It was simply too obvious to her trained pupil-less eyes, and so she asks Kurenai, "just out of curiosity, would your favorite flower be red roses?"

Slightly taken by the question, Kurenai answers honestly, "yes they are," to which the girl squeals and turns hopeful eyes on Asuma. Kurenai wants to roll her eyes but her mask of indifference is set.

Clearing his throat, Asuma asks, "should I assume you're the reason why Ino-chan's been on our asses lately about training more?"

"I believe Ino-chan to be a very capable and intelligent kunoichi," Kurenai tells Asuma, making Ino blush at the unabashed compliment. "Does she need a reason for her desire to be stronger?" Though Kurenai is certain Ino's sudden motivation to improve has everything to do with hearing about Naruto's impressive progress.

"Oh thank Kami he's here too," Anko's overly relieved voice calls out. "Now I don't feel so bad for picking up a stray."

"I'm not some lost puppy, Anko," Genma responds as they both walk up to the table for three.

"Anko," Asuma starts before addressing Genma with a bit of an edge, "Genma."

Genma simply nods with his usual indifference. "Kurenai… and little Ino-chan. What are you doing here?"

"She was invited," Kurenai bluntly states, growing more anxious. Turning to Anko, Kurenai silently asks with her eyes, 'why?' Anko lightly shrugs, responding with a roll of her eyes, 'no helping it,' as she drags a chair next to her best friend.

"Since you're here Yamanaka-chan, hows your inventory lookin' on red roses," Genma asks, stunning Ino as she's brought in the middle of all this. "Hope there's still some left for the rest of us."

Kurenai knows how much Anko enjoys drama. As soon as the dango arrive, the buxom midnight-haired kunoichi will be in heaven. Though taken at first, Ino has always had a force of personality that easily helps her navigate any social situation, including the two bulls eying their red target and so answers, "of course Genma-san. It's our most popular purchase. Please come in whenever you like. I can even show you a few cards your mother may enjoy."

Anko snorts along with Asuma. Though a genin, her pupil-less blue eyes dare Genma to say anything. It's clear the girl wholly supports her sensei, but Kurenai couldn't enjoy this any more than Genma did. Even looking at Asuma now, laughing his big-bear-laugh shoots a melancholy ache through her chest. Her heart is still mending and this isn't helping. She simply wants to leave.

"At least now I can scratch you off the list," Asuma asserts.

"What list," Anko asks suspiciously.

"She hasn't told you," Asuma casually inquired. Kurenai deflates a bit when Anko shakes her head. 'What could I say? Anko, look at this flower a genin gave me. She would wonder why the hell I would even bring it up,' which Kurenai needs even less. Before Asuma can dig up any more clues, Kurenai ends his round-about expedition by asserting, "Anko, would I be a horrible friend if I didn't tell you about a flower I received that I'm now asking Yamanaka-chan to sell for me?"

"I'd like you a hell of a lot less if you wasted my time on hot garbage like that," Anko affirms.

All while looking at Asuma, Kurenai responds, "good to know." Though Anko had said that, Kurenai is fairly certain Anko is actually interested who gave it to her, but in front of the men, she wouldn't sell out 'her babe.'

Before any more can be said, two Anbu immediately appear in a flurry of leaves. "Jōnin-sensei, Yūhi Kurenai," the masked shinobi starts. "Hokage-sama requests your immediate presence in his office." Looking toward the others, she can tell they judged the urgency of the tone as well, but all Kurenai can think is, 'thank kami.'

I actually had a one-off lemon between Naruto and Tsunami but I decided to cut it out for the betterment of my writing sanity. I like the part about Ninja building though and thought it could be added to my Naruto's nindo.

Props to my boy Iruka-sensei. Love him.

Sorry folks. Haku is a boy. I know some wanted girl Haku and I was really debating it, but I decided to stick to canon on that point.

I know a few have pointed out that my Naruto isn't very bright, and this is why. I went to a public school in the kind of area where the teachers just pass you regardless if you earned it or not. Just too many students and not enough money. Imagine my surprise when I entered the work force :) I'm not blaming anyone but if that doesn't make sense to you, consider you've probably lived a better life than others.

I want to make something clear as far as the conflict Naruto faces. In my fic, characters are flesh and blood, which means they should have limitations. Sometimes I think Kishimoto ignores the reality he started with for artistry of huge epics, and though that's completely understandable, ultimately it's not how I write. So, I will NOT be exploring some overly convoluted power boosts(that is to say the power boosts themselves will be within reason), crazy ocular powers like Izanami and possibly even Susanoo(undecided at this point), Zetsu and Kaguya(unless I'm inspired to some how), Reaper Release Mask(cause that's confusing to think about), and definitely no reincarnation of Indra and Ashura. No deus ex machina as well as stuff that contradicts other previously stated stuff, for example, Mangekyu Sharingan not blinding people when it's supposed to. Lastly this world peace that Naruto is supposed to have achieved by the end of the series meant there should be no Boruto. Uniting the 5 nations is more believable because world peace just isn't possible if there are enough humans who want things more than someone else.

Lastly, the character traits about Sasuke I'm drawing from the most are his relation with Itachi and restoring his clan. I'm not saying canon-Sasuke didn't have his nice moments as a teammate, like training/fighting as a team and Sasuke saving Naruto in the Wave mission, but when the chips are down, in my opinion, Sasuke is all about Itachi and his own ideals. With that in mind, just because Sasuke has some nice moments doesn't mean that's enough to earn this outrageous devotion from Naruto and Sakura. Empathy is not friendship. A human can feel empathy for another, sure, but that doesn't mean they're best friends. Naruto shouldn't have to defend a straight up murdering villain to his actual friends just because he understands Sasuke's pain. Empathy could be a foundation for friendship but you're supposed to build up from there and as Sasuke left Konoha, I never saw any build up of friendship that warrants going so easy on him. But I put this more on Kishimoto's time constraints rather than the characters/story.

As always I'd love to hear your thoughts. Have a great Game of Thrones Season.

-Grae

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