The Last Prayer @graefoxx
36Leaders

Hey friends.

It's been a while but I'm back. This chap picks up right where we left off.

No warnings.

12.4K. Please enjoy.


SAKURA

Jiraiya informed Sakura that Naruto passed out the minute he finished securing Sasuke's brother with his Fūin-covered bindings, and though she wanted to stop treating Mei-san to check on her teammate, Jiraiya explained, "it's just chakra exhaustion. He won't die from that. I'd say he'll be fine after a full night's rest. You can check on him when you're done here."

Sakura simply nodded. Though she had questions about everything that's happened since the start of their mission twelve hours ago, The growing list of Mei's injuries were causing Sakura so much anxiety she could barely worry about Naruto. In the bathroom, securing Mei in a tub of cool water with her baked legs elevated, Sakura needed every ounce of her focus to diagnose and mend the severely injured Mei.

From her training with the Iryō Butai-Medic Corps and Tsunade's medical journals, Sakura knows when a human body is above 41° Celsius/107° Fahrenheit, the body begins to shut down, chemical processes are affected, the cells in the body begin to deteriorate, and organ failure is extremely likely. Mei's oven-hot body temperature was over 47° Celsius and Sakura didn't know how the beautiful woman wasn't cooking alive.

Her skin, flesh, and fat were baked hard and dry of moisture. Even in a tub full of cool water with ice-packs between her legs and in her armpits, she was suffering from heatstroke and couldn't even sweat to relieve the heat because the blood flow to her dried skin stopped. If her body wasn't so durable, her heart, brain, liver, and stomach would've already cooked through. The moisture in her skull would've violently steamed and vented explosively out of her eye sockets, easily blinding her for life.

'She's lucky she's so damn durable,' Sakura barely thought around the relevant medical journals her brain is reciting. With her chakra-covered hands over Mei's heart and forehead, Sakura repeats to herself, 'as long as I keep her body temperature down, she'll be fine,' as she regulates her body's temp so organ perfusion can occur properly.

It took Sakura all night to keep Mei stable but somehow she managed, giving her a great sense of relief and accomplishment. In the early morning, Naruto walked into her room to check on them and Sakura is so relieved to see him up and about, she instantly leaves Mei's side to wrap him in a strong hug. When his strong arms slide closed around her lithe back, she relaxes into his unearthly warm body, becoming so comfortable, she was ready for much-needed sleep.

Ignoring her exhaustion, she asks against his chest, "how're you feeling," whilst checking his temperature with her chakra-covered palm to his forehead.

"Still tired," he admitted, which tells her a lot. "But better. How's Mei?"

Sakura pulls away some to turn to her patient resting peacefully in her futon to answer, "she'll be fine. After a day of rest, she should be able to move around. Her skin will take longer to heal but the gauze I wrapped her in has a gel full of antioxidants, enzymes, Vitamins A and C that'll help rehydrate her skin." Turning to Naruto, Sakura asks, "I have to know, how did you suddenly appear in my room?"

"That kunai I gave you," Naruto casually answers, eying the sleeping beauty before focusing on Sakura. "You should get some sleep. I can take over."

Sakura nods in agreement but to ease her running mind, she asks, "how does a kunai make you suddenly appear with Mei-san and Sasuke's brother? It's like you appeared out of thin air."

"The thing I was training to do was my dad's technique, the Hiraishin," Naruto admits.

"The Yondaime's Hiraishin… that's unbelievable," Sakura gasped and excitedly asked, "how? When?"

Naruto takes her hand and leads her to the closet where they take out another futon and lay it down for her to sleep in as her blond teammate explained, "mnn, well, I learned the gist of it the week before the preliminaries of the Chūnin exam-"

"That's what you were doing in your room the whole week," Sakura whispered loudly in realization. "You've known how to do the Flying Thunder God Technique for two months now-"

"No, no, no," Naruto softly voices, pumping open palms to remind her to stay quiet. "I understood the theory. It's way way harder in practice. To use it perfectly—I mean, without draining most of my chakra—I have to be able to shoot chakra out of all of my tenketsu, which is crazy hard. Most shinobi only release chakra from my hands and feet, don't they? It's the same for me, and even after all that clone training I did yesterday, I can barely release chakra out of my left elbow."

Eying him as a nugget of memory has her ask, "aren't the Hyūga experts at that sort of chakra control?"

"Yeah," Naruto answered, patting the futon to get Sakura moving. Sakura blushes a little, slipping into the bed as Naruto continues to say, "Neji gave me some tips, but if I don't drain half of my chakra with every jump, it's going to take a while to perfectly master. Luckily I know the theory behind it, so I can, at least, manage to travel from spot-to-spot a few times."

Even laying her head down, and feeling the exhaustion in her bones, Sakura wants to ask, "how much chakra does it take if it can actually exhaust you?"

"Right now, I can only do it like four or five times a day before I feel like collapsing," Naruto admitted, gently sliding his warm palm over her eyes as he softly reassured her, "but I'll get better with more practice."

With eyes closed, Sakura asked, "you promise you're better now?"

"Yeah," he hummed pleasantly. "Get some rest. We still have to find Tsunade-baachan."

Quickly opening her green eyes, she sits up and asks, "what about Mei-san and Itachi-san? We can't just leave them. Jiraiya mentioned that Uchiha Itachi is in our Bingo Book's most wanted. We're obligated to either kill or transport him-"

"Ji-chan comes first," Naruto firmly asserted, impressing her by how steadfast he can be. His hand on her shoulder encourages her to lay back down as he states, "as much as I want to deal with them, finding her is more important."

Sakura only nodded before finally getting some much-needed rest. By noon, Naruto managed to convince Jiraiya that finding Tsunade comes first by promising to leave behind a litany of disguised clones and a few surveillance toads. When security at the two-story inn earned Jiraiya's approval, the three were off for another day of sprinting.

Trampling dirt and grass in their haste through the country, Sakura couldn't stop her active mind from thinking about Mei's sudden appearance, Itachi as a missing-nin, how he will affect Sasuke, their mission to bring Tsunade-sama back, Kurenai as a sensei she admires and somehow Naruto's girlfriend, whether Ino knows, how much Asuma knows, and how everything seemed to revolve around Naruto. A few months ago she would've been annoyed by how much trouble he causes. Now she's always left worried and wanting to know more about what's going on around her.

'How can I know so little about my own teammate,' her mind asked as the lush green field they're sprinting through blurs past them. Luckily no one can see her blush when her mind adds, 'so little about the man I have regular sex with'

'had,' a more aggressive voice inside her corrected. If Sakura wasn't using circular breathing and perfect weight balance to speed through the feral land, she would sigh and slouch in sadness. To miss Naruto in ways she, as his teammate, shouldn't felt like cruel and unfair retribution. Looking at his broad back running ahead of her, Sakura realized unlike ever before just how callous she's been with him.

Every interest she has in him, whether she's asking him questions, training with him, or being physically intimate with him, has always been about how he can help her; about what he makes her feel. Not once has she ever done an unselfish thing for him. Not once. In the peace of the blurry landscape they're sprinting through, Sakura was sad. She feels like she lost something she didn't even know she had… and may never get back.

MEI

The first thing Mei is cognizant of is how heavy, boiling hot, and stiff she feels. She's laying down, her body is wrapped in gauze, and judging by the tingling on her skin, there's an ointment over her sandy skin. Mei opens her striking green eyes to the plain wood ceiling above her. Rotating her head to the left, the blond oddity sets down her tray of warm lunch as he greets her with a smile.

Her body feels too heavy to sit up, however, Mei presses her bandaged arm to her bandaged face. Mei can tell the gauze wrapped around most of her body pressed a hydrating gel into her dehydrated skin. Her internal organs still feel hot and melting, her muscles ache everywhere, it hurts to keep her dry eyes open, and her brain feels slightly dulled and intoxicated. She assumes it's the pain medication since she should be feeling tremendous pain.

"Oh, my," her voice croaks. Brushing her long hair with her shaky fingers, she jests, "it's a grave sin not looking one's best in front of company." Naruto lifted the bowl of soup but her stomach lurched with a resounding no, and Mei shook her head to the offer.

"What are you talking about," her blond companion retorts with a snort. "You still look crazy hot." Looking around the bare room in noon lighting, hearing the sounds of bustling business outside, Mei gathers it's just them and his teammates have left. "Sakura said you should be fine in a day," he informed her. "So, I'll watch over you until you're better."

Nodding in gratitude, Mei slowly replies, "since I didn't use my kekkei genkai for long, a day feels about right."

Setting the tray to the side, he asks, "what kind do you have? So far, Haku's, Hinata's, Gaara's, and Sasuke's are the only ones I've seen."

"That's a bit personal," she lightly responded, though she wasn't so slow she couldn't recognize the opportunity to gain some information. She proposes, "in the spirit of trust, how about we play a game; since we have some free time?"

Sitting upright and eager, he asks, "what kind of game?"

"It's simple," she said with a stoned smile. "We take turns asking each other questions. And we must be completely honest with one another, otherwise, the game is meaningless." He quickly nods before scooting closer so she doesn't have to completely turn her head to see him. "So you asked about my kekkei genkai. I have two, actually. The technique that leaves me in this state stems from my Boil Release. My ninjutsu, taijutsu, strength, speed, durability become exponentially stronger, however, it strains my muscles and organs. My skin dries, cracks, and reddens. The longer I use it, the longer I'm bedridden."

Though Mei would prefer not to disclose the strengths and weaknesses of her kekkei genkai, she can't be sure Naruto's medical teammate didn't already inform him about her internal damage, and being caught in a lie wouldn't endear him to her. Sacrificing some information is potentially risky, however, her fighting style doesn't typically include her Boil Release technique since it's always a last resort. Additionally, if this small sacrifice allows her to ask him valuable information in return, it's worth it.

"Cool," an impressed Naruto remarked. "I mean the downsides suck but that's still pretty awesome."

"Thank you," she replied with a smirk before asserting, "my turn. Hmmn… what should I ask? There's so much I'd like to know… let's start with an easy one. How did we end up in your teammate's room from the forest in the blink of an eye?"

"Ah, that," Naruto hums tilting his head in thought. "It's a technique my dad taught me-"

As it's the only hazy deduction that makes the most sense—given who his father is—Mei voices, "Flying Thunder God technique," hoping her suspicion is correct.

"You got it. Hiraishin no Jutsu," Naruto confirmed with a small melancholy smile. "How'd you guess?"

"When the Yondaime Hokage single-handedly dealt Iwa a decisive blow in the Third Shinobi War, every country that heard of Konoha's Yellow Flash attempted to reverse engineer that technique, my own included."

Mei recalls most of her village feeling a sense of relief when they heard of his passing, thankful that such a fearsome shinobi was no longer in the living plane. Easily detecting the hint of sorrow in his big sky blue eyes, however, Mei discerns how important the technique is to him and the likelihood he might reveal more. The spiky blond seated beside her bed possesses so much that would benefit her country, it's yet more evidence why diplomacy rather than tyrannical force is the best course of action. It hurts Mei to realize she can't make the best impression looking the way she does, but she can't help that.

Still, clearing her extremely dry and pained throat, she continues, "since I know roughly when your father passed, the fact that you claim he taught you only raises more questions… but we'll move on. Your turn."

"What's up with Kisame's sword," Naruto blurted. "One swipe from that thing and it sucks out a ton of chakra; it's ridiculous."

"Samehada," Mei hums with a nod. "That's one weapon I'd very much like to add to my forces. Sadly, I can't give you the details of that question. It's not something Kirigakure would want other countries knowing about. I will confirm what you already know, however. It quickly absorbs chakra when either the opponent has a visible aura around them or with direct physical contact." Mei gives herself minus points for shutting him down with that explanation, but as her hands were tied, it's the best she's capable of revealing.

"Now that I think about it," Mei voiced, recalling her fight with Kisame. "You did something that managed to hurt… mmn, thirty-five percent of Samehada's surface. It was shedding stone scales."

With a teasing smile, Naruto asks, "was there a question in there?"

Glad he seems to be feeling playful, she returns the smile as she replies, "what did you do to wound it?"

"Sorry," Naruto jovially winces. "As it's probably not something Konoha would want others knowing about, I can't answer the details of that question. I will confirm I'm pretty awesome though."

Without much energy to do so, Mei lightly laughs at his tongue and cheek, hurting her lungs and throat. She takes several moments to settle down before nodding in amused defeat. Feeling the urge to make him flustered, Mei innocently questions, "were those two kunoichi from Kumo the first girls you've been intimate with?" Naruto's eyes widened as Mei continues teasing, "I find it odd that they'd ultimately decide to seduce you for Kubikiribōchō rather than steal, ambush, bribe, or kill you." Enjoying his raised brows, saucer-sized blue eyes, and his blushing cheeks, Mei chastely remarked, "you three went at it quite often."

Pointing with authority, a stunned Naruto exclaims, "y-y-y-y-you watched!?"

Amused by his surprise, Mei responds, "I'll count that as your question, of which the answer is, I spied, not watched. There's a difference." The incredibly suspicious and accusatory expression on his tilted face that says, plain as day, 'are you a pervert,' has Mei clearing her throat before making a point to assert, "I wasn't peeping through the window-"

"I've heard other pervs say the same thing," he calmly orates as if he has the ultimate measure of her.

"I'm not a pervert-" Mei stops herself before this devolves into a back and forth and explains, "since I saw from afar—from way away—I only wondered if that was your first experience. I've seduced many men before and I've never had to go that far to complete the mission."

The way he still squints his eyes, as if he wasn't sure he could believe her, exasperated Mei as he asks, "how far did you go?"

"I…" she began to say before pausing and remarking, "you still haven't answered my question."

Exhaling, he nods before answering, "no, they weren't the first girls I've had sex with."

Lacking a lot of control over her facial expression, her eyebrows raise on their own in genuine surprise. She hadn't expected him to be experienced, not at sixteen; lucky, certainly, but not experienced. Setting aside the probability of some youthful blunder he may have experienced with a very curious girl, Mei clears her dry throat and asks, "so… why didn't you play into their charms?"

"You still haven't answered my question," he replied.

Scoffing in humor, Mei tucks some of her long hair behind her ear as she answers in her strained voice, "I haven't had to seduce anyone in years, but when I worked intelligence, I learned that seduction wasn't about sex. It's about arousal. Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, I could entice all of my targets to imagine very vivid possibilities of the most amazing pleasure they could experience as long as they just prove their love for me first, which usually involved them getting me what I needed. I honestly don't know why they fall for it."

"I can see why," Naruto easily alleges, brazenly taking a glance up and down her body.

"Naruto!" Mei voiced with a bit of humor in her tone. "Should I be worried you're going to take advantage of me in my vulnerable state?"

"What?" Naruto asked. "It's not like I'm blind. And don't be worried. I'm already spoken for."

"Mnn, how intriguing," Mei hums with curiosity. "So…"

"So?" Naruto asked, confused, but only for a second. "Oh, um, I'd already told Zabuza-jiji he can work to have his sword back, so it didn't matter what Ma-chan and Sa-chan did. I couldn't give it to them. Ah! Not that I knew that's why they were with me, or else I wouldn't have done that with them."

"You must be a unicorn," Mei huffed. "I didn't think a man like you existed; one not easily swayed by the potent charms of beautiful women, it tells me you're either too good to be real or a man of your word… Someone I can count on it if you choose to help me with my liberation." The moment it left her lips, Mei instantly regretted it, cursing the mind-numbing painkillers in her system.

"Um, no offense, but I don't know that I can," Naruto replied, as she guessed. Mei attempted to get her mind focused more as Naruto continues, "I get Zabuza-jiji joining you if I ask, but Ji-chan- er, my Hokage won't just let me go to Kiri. And Haku's in the middle of becoming a citizen of Konoha so he can't leave right now or it might cause problems."

"Even if Haku would be a great aid to freeing our country from Karatachi Yagura's bloody reign, I wouldn't want to be the cause of any problems," Mei quickly assured him.

"Haku mentioned he's your Yondaime Mizukage and the jinchūriki of the Three-Tails," an intrigued Naruto remarked.

"Correct. He's a few years younger than me but much harsher when it comes to his beliefs and our country. If he wasn't so tyrannical and didn't look like a child, I'd honestly consider his potential as a husband."

"Can you tell me what he's doing that's so bad?"

"He wasn't always the way he is now," Mei admits. She recalls when he was stern in his beliefs but open-minded and willing to listen to others. It felt like a lifetime ago as she continues to voice, "maybe a year or two after the Three-tails was sealed in him, he suddenly changed. He was always strict, but the crueler he became, the more he took upon himself. He stopped trusting anyone and would brazenly stop anyone who opposed him. Eventually, he didn't seem to care if his crimes were discovered."

"What crimes?"

"That's a long and bloody list," Mei sadly muses. "Destroying relations with our neighboring countries, which lead to many skirmishes and deaths; Stealing funds from the village to pay for his campaigns, leading to riots from the working class and deaths; And killing anyone who spoke a word of dissent against his reign, reinforcing our village's nickname; Bloody Mist. As our nation's jinchūriki, he's the strongest shinobi in our village and it'll take all the strength we can gather to stop him."

Naruto is silent for several moments, respectfully taking it all in before asking, "why you?"

"Why not me?" she returned. "Those that have the privilege to know, have the duty to act. Even though I'd love nothing more than to get married and start a family, I have a moral obligation to leave this world in a better state than when I entered it."

"Wow, you're pretty awesome too, Mei-chan," he happily claimed. "Why do you want to get married so bad?"

"I think I've answered enough of your questions," Mei tells him. "It's my turn. Haku told me you want to unite the five nations. Why?"

"I want us to work together if our world and everyone in it is ever threatened," Naruto matter-of-factly asserted.

"That's an odd worry to have," Mei couldn't help uttering. She casually wonders what kind of threat could possibly endanger the world as she asks, "other than Suna, why would any other nation listen to you?"

"That's the tough part," the cute blond admitted with a sigh. "I figure if I was strong enough, they might listen, but I've never led anyone so I don't really know how to be that front guy. I want to talk to the five nations and convince them that we should work together but there's so much I don't know about doing that."

"Hmm, good leadership…" the bed-ridden redhead recites. "How many good leaders have you been around, your Jōnin-sensei perhaps?"

"Ji-chan is the best, by far. Everyone loves him," the blond happily praises. "He's disappointed in me right now but I know I can make it up to him."

His eyes screamed redemption, and Mei could tell there was a story there so she asks, "what do you think makes a good leader?"

He tilts his head in deep thought before answering with a question, "being really smart?"

"I wouldn't say so," she tells him. "It certainly helps but it's more of an entry point, as I see it. I've come across several extremely clever people who have failed as leaders."

"Mmm, maybe being taught by other really good leaders," Naruto suggested.

"Also, very helpful," Mei answered, thinking of her father. "I myself was taught by the Sandaime Mizukage. That's a privilege that many don't have the luxury of experiencing but that doesn't mean a great leader can't come from the lower class."

"Maybe they're given the title by someone else," Naruto humbly offers. "Like the team lead assigning a secondary lead; like Kakashi-sensei usually has Sasuke be second lead if anything happens to him."

"Growing up in my Kiri," Mei begins looking to the sunny scene outside the window. "I've seen a large number of leads and captains make the absolute worst leaders. Many of them have a tendency to rely on that title for respect and can't connect with the men they're leading." Turning to her blond companion, she explains, "that's the thing Naruto. That I've seen, vision is the common denominator to being an amazing leader. Many of the most significant events on this planet happens based on emotion. Someone was wronged, a loved one was murdered, or a group of people are marginalized-"

"And then they take revenge, steal, or start wars," Naruto interjects, recognizing the cycle from Naru-nii's stories.

"Precisely," she confirmed. "Oftentimes, being intelligent and strong is enough, but if you want people to truly connect with you, to follow you and enact lasting change, you have to have a vision they can all aspire to. After all, action without vision is passing time, vision without action is daydreaming, but vision and action can change the world."

Sensing how enthralled he was with her every word, Mei feels the energy in her to sit up. Naruto quickly helps her up and with her hand on his shoulder while he supports her back, Mei conveys her hope to him, praying he's open to her request. "It's why I'd like your help, Naruto. You already want to unite the five nations and I can see how strong, considerate, and honest you are. Once I've eased my countries burdens, I think we could work really well together."

"…I would like to go to Kiri," Naruto slowly admitted, making Mei wonder why exactly. "But I have to convince Ji-chan somehow, which won't be easy since he wants me to get married and stay in Fire Country. It'll be tough without a good reason."

Mei wanted to come up with a plan to convince his Ji-chan, but the word marry stunned her into repeating, "umm, married?" She shakes her head as she tries to figure out, "remaining within your borders, I can understand, but aren't you a bit young for marriage?"

"Yeah… it's a thing," he groans with a nonchalant shrug.

Feeling the bubbly excitement of some gossip, Mei quickly replies, "a thing I'd love to hear about."

"Hmm, how about I tell you why I'm getting married if you tell me why you want to get married?"

NARUTO

In Jiraiya's room, under the Fūinjutsu security Jiraiya had insisted on, Naruto's boredom finally died the moment he hears Itachi voiced, "judging by the way we traveled, I assume you've learned your father's technique, Uzumaki Naruto."

Naruto wasn't allowed to cross the red line dissecting the room in half, however, he moved close enough to talk to the bound Uchiha sitting in a chair. The dangerous captive's eyes were securely covered, his hands are bound and his feet are tied to the front legs of the chair he's sitting on. Jiraiya mentioned no amount of security would ever be enough for a talented shinobi like Uchiha Itachi, however, these restraints should offer them plenty of time to talk.

Grateful his Godfather is allowing this chance to talk with Itachi, Naruto says, "you should know I'm just a clone and we're pretty secure, so instead of fighting, how about we talk?" When the Fūin characters on the cloth wrapping Itachi's hands began to glow, Naruto yelled, "ah! Careful with those bindings. They're meant to tighten around your wrists and fingers if it senses the release of chakra. It'll leave deep tissue bruises if not completely cut off circulation."

The glow of the Fūin characters dies away and in a rather calm voice, Itachi asks, "where are we?"

"At an inn."

"I sense a constant flow of chakra around us in the shape of the room," Itachi noted.

Naruto looks around the darkroom covered in glowing Fūin characters, just like his secure room at Iruka's, and answers, "it's just my Fūinjutsu. For privacy."

Using his ears to sense the sounds past the walls to the halls and streets outside, Itachi claims, "no matter how secure you believe it is, it's not secure enough."

"Just because you can sense outside doesn't mean the outside can sense in here," Naruto assured him, confident in his glowing work. "If we couldn't sense what's going on outside, we wouldn't be able to see what's coming, would we?"

Seemingly paying more attention to Naruto, Itachi reasons, "if you're a clone, I gather the real Uzumaki Naruto is with Jiraiya and your teammate, Haruno Sakura." Naruto nods then realizes Itachi can't see him. "If you were going to turn me in," Itachi continues. "I'd expect a larger detail than a single clone."

"I hadn't planned on turning you in because I know why you're like this but Ero-sennin insisted I send a clone back to Konoha," Naruto admitted. "I can stop my clone any time but I was hoping we could talk first- No… actually, I want your help."

"As a Konoha shinobi, you're not meant to ask a missing-nin for assistance," Itachi asserted. "With every Most Wanted entry in the Bingo Book, your task is to eliminate on sight."

"Yeah, but I know more than the Bingo Book," Naruto frankly replied before lifting a finger per point spoken. "Like, how much you love your brother and Konoha, you killing your clan to stop a coup, and making a deal to spare Sasuke isn't written in there."

Itachi was only silent for two seconds, but it was enough to tell Naruto his captive wasn't expecting that. "…I can't imagine anyone sharing that information with you. If it were true, it would be above top secret. How did you come to know this?"

"I have a friend in high places," Naruto quipped, sending his Naru-nii a mental wink before adding, "he's pretty reliable."

Calm as ever, Itachi asks, "if you know so much, why speak with me? What could I help you with?"

"Sasuke," Naruto plainly answered.

"What of him?"

"He's hurting," Naruto quickly summarized. "He's been hurting since the massacre, which how could he not, right? It's easy for me to put myself in his shoes—even if I wasn't born with a family or clan—and it's like I can tell why he does stupid things, since I did the same thing. Though I was only pranking people, not stabbing them through the freakin' chest… Anyway, I always end up thinking, if he just got the thing he needs a little sooner, he might be alright… and we might even be real friends."

"What he needs is more hate," Itachi asserted with real gravitas.

Naruto rolls his eyes as he bids, "please take this seriously. That kind of stupid talk really makes me doubt you can help Sasuke at all."

Again, Itachi doesn't respond for two seconds before noting, "you seem to believe otherwise."

"Obviously."

"Why?"

"Like I said, I can empathize," Naruto insisted, easily visualizing the visceral pain Sasuke must be in. "I mean, his family and his entire clan were taken from him in one night. His own village either helped or did nothing to stop it. Then they let him live on with that agony without telling him the truth, letting him believe the brother he loved so much betrayed him for no reason." Shaking his head to relieve some of the anger, Naruto vehemently asserts, "don't tell me he needs more hate because there's no way that's true."

"Why would you want to help him," Itachi asked. "Ours is a clan cursed with a never-ending cycle of hatred; the source of our greatest forms of power. If Sasuke hasn't already attempted to kill you, I wouldn't be surprised if he did. Why waste your time and effort on a lost cause like him?"

"Everyone's so quick to accept him at face value but won't even lift a finger to give him a chance- a real chance," Naruto hotly contested. "I get how rational it might be to cut him off and treat him like he's some kind of villain in the making—he's bringing it on himself, right?—but how can I accept that without even trying to help him first? Even if he does try to hurt me again, he wouldn't be the first one. I have a lot of people who love me now that didn't before, because in the end, I know the trust and relationship we built from scratch is worth it. Sasuke's my teammate, and even if that doesn't mean much to him, it means a hell of a lot to me. So, yeah, I'll help him… which is why I need you."

Itachi allowed the silence to build for six seconds before eventually asking, "to do what exactly?"

Though he's still irritated, Naruto bluntly stated, "I have no idea," and Itachi recoiled his blinded face in surprise to hear. Naruto sheepishly admits, "talking to you is as far as my plan went. I thought I could figure something out once I did. Oh! Maybe you can tell him the truth so he'll stop being such an ass."

"Planning without action leads to futility," Itachi evenly recites. "Action without planning leads to fatality."

"Oh, like you're doing any better helping him than I am," Naruto rebuked. "Why don't you just tell him the truth?"

"If you think you know so much, why haven't you?"

"As if he'd listen to me," Naruto blurted with an impatient whirl of his head. "Not only did I kick his ass, I kicked his brother's ass too. No way he's going to like that, at all," he said with a depressed sigh.

Itachi attempts to correct, "you didn't actually-"

"No," Naruto bemoans over Itachi shaking his head at the image of Sasuke's reaction. "He'll probably want to fight again. No, no, the only person that can get through to him is the one person who's been driving him this entire time… you."

After shaking his head as if to move on, Itachi remarks, "he wants to kill me… with reason. He won't listen to me."

"You chose to be a villain," Naruto emphasizes. "I know you didn't want to be, which is something I've been meaning to ask you about for a while now." Naru-nii had explained all that happened, but even he couldn't explain why it did happen and that always made them curious. "I know your clan was going to commit a coup and I know why you stopped them. I even know that Danzō wanted the massacre to happen. But I don't see why all of them had to die; like, all of them? The women, children, the elderly? Why couldn't it be stopped?"

Itachi takes in a deep breath before asking in a low voice, "how far are you willing to go to save Sasuke?"

"Farther than you," Naruto easily put.

"Why?"

"I already have a best friend and he's awesome," Naruto proclaimed, wondering what Haku is doing at the moment. "But… I still feel it. In my heart, I know Sasuke could be like a brother. All that bad stuff drives him but it doesn't define him and I get that. So no matter how much of an ass he can be, I'm not the type of ninja that can just stand back and watch a brother drown."

"Foolish," Itachi asserted, only to hear Naruto snort acceptingly, as if complimented. Seemingly comfortable, Itachi begins to explain, "my clan was destroyed because of conflicts between two factions, the Uchiha and the village. I chose to protect the village over my clan to stop a civil war from tearing Konoha, and possibly the country, apart."

With deep consideration, Naruto asks, "why was it your clan versus the village? Didn't anyone step in to bridge the gap?"

"Are you a man of your word, Naruto?"

"Hell yeah," the blond assured him. "I don't go back on my word. It's my nindō."

After an imperceptible nod and an exhale, Itachi declares, "I'll explain the series of events that led to Sasuke's quest for revenge. In return, you reveal how it is you've come to know this information."

"Deal," Naruto agreed with a nod.

"All leaders are shinobi, but not all shinobi are leaders, and the fate of the Uchiha clan was in the hands of Uchiha Fugaku, Shimura Danzō, and Sarutobi Hiruzen, not in soldiers like myself," Itachi demurely expressed. "Soldiers are given orders, and of the choices presented to me—to Shisui—I chose the lesser of two evils and murdered my family to preserve some measure of peace."

"Massacring an entire clan to preserve peace is something that only makes sense to a lunatic," Naruto flatly noted with squinted eyes.

Itachi actually smiles before continuing. "The factor you must accept is the mistrust between the Uchiha and the village. Mistrust that stems from the warring states period and only grew when the Nidaime assigned my clan with the role of policing the village. Imagine a group of people you don't trust, that you fear the most, suddenly having the authority to investigate and arrest you under the guise of the law. Many in the village quickly grew to hate my clan, labeling us as corrupt, prejudicial, or zealously brutal."

"I know how that is," Naruto empathized whimsically, recalling the many instances the village expressed their hatred of him, accusing him of every heinous crime and calling him every name in the book.

"As the leader of my clan, my father installed me into the shinobi ranks as a spy to inform him on anything the Konoha leaders were planning," Itachi continued. "However, since I didn't share my clan's beliefs—my father's beliefs—I became a spy for Konoha instead, initially informing Shimura Danzō of my clan's activities, but eventually, Utatane Koharu, Mitokado Homura, and the Sandaime. The fear and mistrust was high after the Uchiha were made Military Police, but the Nine-tails attack on the day of your birth was the beginning of the end."

"Why?"

"It's known that a capable Sharingan user is capable of controlling Bijū," Itachi addressed. "Since our clan was ordered to protect civilians by the brass, no one witnessed us help defend the village against the Kyūbi. Rumors then circulated that the Uchiha was behind the attack and the grieving villagers were all too happy to have a group to blame their loss on. We were relocated even farther away from the center of the village and placed under constant surveillance."

Naruto's muscles tense in anxiousness with every word as he asks, "who decided that?"

"Hiruzen, his advisers, and Danzō," Itachi answered.

"Danzō, I can understand," Naruto affirmed, thinking of the bastard who tried to kidnap Karin. "Granny Koharu and old man Homura were always cold toward me, but I can't believe Ji-chan would do that or want to do that."

"Whatever Sarutobi Hiruzen is to you, I assure you he fails at being a leader when it matters the most." Though Naruto wanted to refute that, Itachi continues voicing, "a friend I admired, Uchiha Shisui, was also a double agent in favor of peace and the village. Shisui had been feeding Danzō information on the clan, however, Danzō didn't relay anything to the Sandaime. For years, the Third Hokage didn't pick up on the growing tension and political conflicts building within the clan because he never cared to."

"Ji-chan's not like that. After Iruka-sensei, he's the most caring person I know," an irritated Naruto had to declare. "And what you're saying makes no sense. Your dad was the leader of the Uchiha and the Military Police. I know for a fact heads of clans and department heads have regular meetings with the Hokage. So why wouldn't your dad meet with Ji-chan? Why didn't they just talk it out?"

"Hiruzen may be blind when it comes to dealing with the Uchiha," Itachi proposed. "Even after Danzō attempted to assassinate him, the third Hokage continued to trust him and his Root to mediate the building friction between the Uchiha and the village. Shisui was betrayed by Danzō, his eye was stolen, and his murder was blamed on me, all without Hiruzen knowing. Shisui died by Danzō's hand, Hiruzen did nothing."

"I… can't believe that," Naruto slowly admits in dismay.

"He had no idea how bad state of affairs had gotten because Danzō kept that from him," Itachi solemnly orated. "However, even when the Sandaime was clued into the possibility of a civil war, he still did nothing. I, personally, fed Hiruzen information on my clan for an entire year and he never once spoke to my father about the possibility of peace. To this day, I wonder why he couldn't think of a single solution with a year's worth of time available to do so. I wonder why he thought ignorance was the best strategy."

Itachi holds his tongue as his breathing becomes heavier. He doesn't appear noticeably upset, and if Naruto wasn't able to hear his heavy breath and the tightening of the bindings, he wouldn't think Itachi was upset at all. 'How could he not be,' Naruto randomly thought, making him wonder if he really believes Itachi's claim. Simply put, this isn't the kind and caring Sarutobi Hiruzen he knows, who loves every villager within Konoha and citizen within Fire Country like his own. Itachi was describing someone who, at the very least was bad at their job, and at worst, cosigned the deaths of innocent people he was meant to protect.

"Twelve days before that night," Itachi continued, startling Naruto to attention. "And those old leaders were scrambling like lost children for a solution to a problem they had ample time to resolve. Eleven days before that night and they had the nerve to ask me to buy them more time. Ten days before that night, and only then does Hiruzen mention wanting to talk with my father to resolve this matter peacefully… but by then, he was far too late. Shisui had given his life to preserve peace and I became a martyr for the same reason, all because Sarutobi Hiruzen was an unsuitable and incompetent leader."

Naruto remained as still as death and just as silent. He couldn't believe what Itachi was saying about his smiling, happy, pipe-smoking Ji-chan. He couldn't picture a time when his oldest friend didn't know what to do or what to say to resolve any problem. His Ji-chan just knew it all. But if what Itachi is claiming is true, this was what Naru-nii didn't know… what he couldn't tell him.

"Discontent as I was toward Danzō and the Third Hokage," Itachi eventually continued. "The worst-case scenario became a reality. The only options presented to me, a dutiful soldier, was allow a civil war to break the village and country apart, which our enemies would no doubt capitalize on, or, massacre my family, friends, and clansmen to maintain peace within the village and dominion of our territory."

"But you didn't kill Sasuke," was the only thing Naruto could think to respond.

"No," Itachi admitted, shaking his head. "To best protect Sasuke and the future of our clan, I made certain Danzō knew if he ever created plans for my little brother, I'd return and kill him without hesitation. I then intentionally became the focus of Sasuke's righteous hatred to make him strong."

"…I don't know what to say," Naruto said, as if in defeat. He simply hadn't expected to hear such an account of one of his favorite people.

"Now," Itachi said, his voice doing very little to penetrate the mental haze of Naruto's mind. "Tell me how you came to learn about the coup and me."

"Mnn?" Naruto glumly hums. Slowly realizing what was asked, he answers, "oh, um, yeah, someone from the future told me."

A MONSTROUS CAVE

Exploring the jaw-dropping depth of this enormous cave would take hours. Deep, dark, dank, and home to the greatest weapon unknown to man. At the center of the enormous cave sits a demonic mummified statue the size of a small mountain, earth-colored and humanoid, however, with nine eyes, several large spikes protruding down it's back, and its wrists are shackled. On each husky digit of the demonic statue's shackled hands, ten shadowy figures stood on ten stone fingers discussing an unexpected setback to their plans.

"I'm having a hard time believing that Itachi was captured by a genin," says the wispy shadow with slick back hair and a three-bladed sickle.

Hovering on the stone finger next to him, a man with a high ponytail asked, "oh, yeah, because this group is all about snatching up average genins, right?"

"Careful, Deidara, before you become my next sacrifice to Jashin," the shadow with the sickle coldly retorted.

"You haven't explained anything, Kisame," replied a man with spike hair and unique eyes made of purple concentric circles.

"He must be upset," a shadow with a face-mask interjected. "Having fought and killed so many shinobi but couldn't capture a single genin."

"A shark without teeth is pretty useless," the ponytail shadow snidely rebuked.

"Enough," the spiky-haired shadow commanded to the rest. "Tell us again, Kisame."

"I told you," an irritated Kisame angrily voiced. "That brat's nothing special. Even with his Bijū's power, he couldn't do anything against me. Whatever hit me in the end was something new. I saw a yellow blur and then nothing. It may not have even been him!"

"Uzumaki Naruto may require special intervention," a plant-like shadow voiced.

"I can handle it," Kisame demandingly asserted. "He's my prey… and I still need to find Itachi."

"If he hasn't responded to our summons, he's either dead, detained, or a traitor," the plant-like shadow rationalized. "In any case, you won't find him without me."

"Zetsu," the spiky-haired leader called. "Investigate and report back."

"Yeah, let us know if a genin is too much for Kisame," the shadow with the sickle jests.

Kisame's shoulder hunch in withheld rage as he growled, "son of'ah-"

"If Uzumaki Naruto requires additional consideration, I'll take care of him myself," the spiky-haired leader ordained. "I'll sacrifice him to a world of pain and birth a new era of peace from his suffering."

KURENAI

The hardships Konoha is facing weighs heavily on Kurenai's mind. Leaving the hospital on a cloudy sunny day, her mind is crowded with thoughts of Anko, Itachi & Kisame, Kakashi's coma, the Hokage's deteriorating health, the Raikage's health, the peace accords between their villages, Asuma's disdain for her, Naruto, his mission, his marriage contract, Hinata & Ino, how the Omiai is supposed to work, and her part in all of it. It was a lot, however, Kurenai only just manages to remain disciplined. Walking the streets of East Pavilion toward her meeting, her fellow villages give her strength to resolves these problems so they can all like happy and healthy lives.

Having left her best friend's sickbed, she's grateful, at least, to learn Anko has regained feeling in her feet. Though she was stabbed in the spine by Itachi's kunai, her crazy friend had summoned snakes under her overcoat to take the majority of the blade for her. Her injury will take some rehab, however, the healers expect her to make a full recovery, easing the hate and need for revenge filling her heart.

As Kakashi is in a coma and the information on Akatsuki is above her clearance, she doesn't know much more than what her Jōnin captain said during their skirmish on the river. 'They're after Naruto,' her mind voiced, which nearly makes her hyperventilate with worry. The fact that Guy barely returned with Kakashi said a lot about what two members of this group are capable of. 'And they're after Naruto,' Kurenai's frantic mind thinks as she rounds the avenue that leads directly to the Hyūga compound.

The two clans involved in the Omiai are supposed to get back to her with either more questions or reached a decision. Walking to the Hyūga main branch mansion, Kurenai hopes Hinata isn't crushed should her boorish father rejects her singular love… 'even if it is incredibly awkward,' she mentally groans, thinking how weird this all is. Halting her walk at the thought of orchestrating the union of the man she loves with the pseudo-daughter she loves all the while holding on to her own love for him.

'This is fucking crazy,' Kurenai mentally cursed, continuing on as many Hyūga stands sell their goods around her.

Settling on a cushion in front of Hinata and her father, Kurenai studies the father and daughter like a suspect, attempting to understand why Hinata seemed distraught and Hiashi is so pleased. Her precious student seemed hollow, looking at the ground rather than her as the tea is set before the three. Once the servants leave, Hiashi speaks in his domineering voice, "the Hyūga clan has a long history of appeasing demands made of us for the good of the village. You may relay to Hokage-sama, in this, the Hyūga cannot. I nor my clan or daughter will heedlessly sacrifice one of our own for what amounts to little more than a thank you. Our clan is much too noble for-"

"The likes of the Yondaime's son," Kurenai interrupted as her intuition is blaring that he's grandstanding in an attempt to gain something and she will not have it. "Please excuse my impertinence, Hiashi-dono, but you shouldn't misinterpret an offer for an obligation. The Hokage is not demanding anything of the Hyūga clan and wishes, more than anything, to convey no ill-will or resentment regardless of your decision. You are well within your rights to decline this opportunity, however, I need to hear it from Hinata, not you."

"Your disrespect will not be tolerated, Kurenai-sensei. Not in my home," Hiashi griped with a grating tone. "Interrupt me again and this will not end well for you."

Without back down, a cool Kurenai confidently returns, "it's because Hokage-sama has great respect for the noble clans of Hyūga and Yamanaka, that you and Inoichi were invited to the meeting, but make no mistake, the leader of our military force was giving his kunoichi the option to accept this mission. That means this decision is theirs and any answer I hear needs to come from them."

Hiashi practically yells, "I don't care for any suffering or pressures you're currently dealing with, Kurenai-sensei. While you're in my home you will show me the respect I deserve!"

Kurenai's red irises simply stare at the larger more imposing man. In this bubble of limited time with Hinata watching in awe, Kurenai didn't care about Hiashi or his clan's power. She wasn't going to let him throw his weight where it has no place being and her daring silence was yet another act of defiance.

Scoffing, the clan leader seethed internally as he growled, "I don't deny my daughter may be willing—" Hinata's blushing cheeks is the only sign of life Kurenai has seen from the stoic girl. "However, after much deliberation, the only way we can consider the Sandaime's gracious offer is if you grant us three requests; You rescinded the Yamanaka clan's invitation, the Uzumaki clan share any and all clan secrets with the Hyūga main branch, and a sworn statement from Uzumaki Naruto stating he will never attempt to abolish the Hyūga clan's juinjutsu."

Kurenai stared at the man coldly, masking her disgust as she sarcastically simplifies, "you… don't want Naruto eliminating your clan's cursed seal, yet you want him to divulge any Uzumaki clan secrets to you." Hiashi's audacity always shocks her, leaving her struggling at times to find the patience to reply respectfully. Inhaling deeply for composure, she explained, "like many in the village, you witnessed how Naruto pushed the invasion back and saved many injured lives. How many shinobi did Konoha lose, Hiashi-dono? Of the twelve hundred plus Konoha villagers & shinobi, how many deaths were reported due to the invasion? 1.2%. Eighteen citizens lost their lives because we were either too late to help them, the poison spread too far, or the hospital had more patients than they could feasibly manage. Whether you acknowledge it or not, every villager knows without Naruto's efforts, that casualty count would've been exponentially higher."

Kurenai let that sink in, subtly letting him know he's not the only shinobi who's acknowledging Naruto's future potential. "I think you need to understand something," she continued. "I recommended Hinata to our Hokage because he's her greatest source of support; earning her place in the third task, fighting the genius Neji to a standstill. Even if many may not see it, Hinata is strong," causing Hinata to sharply suck in air, taken by her sensei's unwavering faith in her. "I know it, her team knows it, and Naruto knows it. You may want to bargain her off like a broodmare, but the decision is not up to you or your politics. It's up to the proud genin of the Leaf, Hyūga Hinata. So, reconsider your position wisely, Hiashi-dono, because not only will Naruto's name be recognized in the annuls of time, he'll make everyone around him great as well."

"Speaking to you is as irrelevant as I expected," Hiashi waves indignantly. "I'll discuss this further when Uzumaki-kun returns from his mission. Leave the premises."

"You're welcome to speak with Uzumaki-dono all you like," Kurenai corrected. "Before I go," she started, focusing on Hinata. "Report to my home by five. That's an order from your commanding officer." Even if she didn't need to voice her authority to Hinata, Hiashi's tightened jaw told her he understood that as long as his daughter was an active kunoichi, she's ultimately in charge of Hinata.

"Hai, sensei," Hinata quickly voiced, to her father's displeasure.

"She's still in recovery," Hiashi tried to point out.

"Don't worry, Hiashi-dono," Kurenai assured. "I won't be sending her on any missions."

Leaving the Hyūga compound, Kurenai wonders what Hinata must be going through with such a domineering father. It's only been a day since the Hyūga princess was asked to participate in the Omiai and it seemed like he opened up all her old psychological wounds. Kurenai sighed at the setback but was happy to hear her in the end, despite her father not giving her permission to speak. Hinata remained in her thoughts all the way to the Yamanaka household, which would only add to her worry.

INO

Ino was beyond relieved when Kurenai came to her house and requested she join her for dinner. The upfront blond needed a break from her parent's constant nagging or she was going to say something she couldn't take back. Ever since the meeting about the Omiai, her parents have not stopped arguing against marrying Naruto. Even her mother, who Ino thought would be on her side, agreed with her father. Ino has been arguing nonstop about how amazing and caring Naruto is, how she couldn't think of a better man to be with. She's talked up all his good points as well as his sad past, and still, her parents won't agree.

'Kami, bless them,' she thought. 'But damn can they get on my nerves!'

Jogging up to Kurenai's house to relieve some stress, Ino buoyantly knocked on the front entrance before her favorite Jōnin kunoichi opened the door. The beautiful woman stood in a red and black apron over a white shirt and a red skirt. Her hair was tied back in a low ponytail and Ino wondered how she always looked so beautiful when she's cooking.

Walking in, the aroma coming from the kitchen told her they were having salmon but Ino was surprised to see her competition in the kitchen as well, also wearing a cute white and blue apron over her white and light blue yakata. Ino returned the quiet girl's bow, all the while measuring Hinata up. Ino suddenly realized her competition has a much bigger chest than she does, even under the yakata; the kind of chest most men worship. Ino's body proportions is the perfect golden ratio—a model figure—but if Ino has learned anything from years of listening to gossip, it's that men love big breasts. Even if Ino felt her personality matched well with Naruto, she instantly felt at a disadvantage.

Setting her mind to 'Victory No Matter What,' Ino consciously avoided paying any attention to Hinata's alluring body and asks Kurenai, "Temari-chan isn't on her way as well, is she?"

"No," Kurenai answered. Ino takes a seat at the kitchen island as the beautiful sensei adds, "I think we can save that meeting for a future date."

Looking around the kitchen and stretching her senses to the second floor, Ino cautiously asks, "…is Naruto on the way, by chance?"

Turning to Ino as Hinata takes the bowl of salad to the dinner table, Kurenai asks, "you don't know? He's on a mission right night. No clear ETA but I'm not expecting a long assignment." Ino just hums before they continue preparing dinner. It doesn't take long to finish the salmon and side dishes before the three are seated at the table.

"Alright, enjoy," Kurenai proclaims, though Ino doesn't have an appetite for food.

She's hungry for information and begins by asking, "how's the peace talks going?"

"Well enough," Kurenai relays to the girls as she serves each girl a cut of fish. "It's fortunate we all understand what led to their betrayal, and while Suna is committed to making amends, we're also recognizing our part in it."

"Speaking of commitment," Ino naturally hops in to segue. "Do you mind if I ask why we were chosen as candidates to be Naruto's first wife? I mean, I understand why it needs to be a Konoha kunoichi, but you picked me and Hinata-chan out of all the girls in our class. You could've picked an older girl too, so, I just wondered why."

Fortunately, Hinata also seemed eager for answers and Kurenai set her utensils down to answer, "I took into consideration the number of people who looked past his reputation to see him as a person. As you're both well aware, that's not a long list. Before people learned he's the Yondaime's son-"

"Which still throws me for a loop," Ino interjected, shaking her head in amazed disbelief.

Hinata shyly adds, "it's impossible to unsee the resemblance now."

Nodding Kurenai continues, "Before that bombshell, or how impactful he was during the invasion; before restarting his clan, or even his display of strength during the second task, you both cared about him the most, admittedly to varying degrees."

"Reeeaaallllly," Ino hummed whimsically before turning curiously toward the blushing Hyūga princess. Ino asked, "Hinata?" The way Hinata blushes is too cute, and Ino wonders if the shy girl is also more feminine than she is or if Naruto likes that more.

"Hinata was the one who first opened my eyes to the real Naruto," Kurenai readily answered in Hinata's blushing silence. "It's my belief if he's going to spend the rest of his life in a political marriage, I'd, at least, want him to be with someone who cared about him when no one else did."

"Before all the fame," Ino reasoned with an understanding nod. "Makes sense." Turning to Hinata, she asks, "what did your tou-chan say? Mine wouldn't stop badgering me about our ages. 'Marriage is a huge responsibility! You're not ready! You're too young!' he'd say over and over as if I'm thirteen or something."

"Sixteen is still a little young, Ino," Kurenai remarked.

"Well it's not like Naruto has any older options," Ino returned, to which Kurenai lazily nodded as she scratched her button nose as if it suddenly irritated her.

Clearing her throat, Kurenai says to them, "I invited you both here because I wanted to offer you a better picture of what life can be like in a marriage like this." The sight of Hinata blushing at the thought of marriage only highlights how different their personalities are, and makes Ino curious about what Naruto would prefer; a shy and cute girl, or a confident girl with model-like beauty. "Simply asking you to marry at sixteen is already a demanding enough situation, but to have sister-wives on top of that, it's a whole other level."

Ino quickly pointed out, "wives? As in, more than Temari?"

Hinata also seemed surprised when Kurenai confirmed, "that's a strong possibility you should be prepared for."

Hinata asked, "do you think somebody else may want to marry Naruto, sensei?"

The heavy silence Kurenai extended concerned Ino, as if there was more information being withheld from her. "If this were any other shinobi, or any other situation, it'd be unthinkable to expect a marriage, even a political one, to be with more than one wife, but Naruto's Omiai allows for up to nine and neither of you can discount the possibility that this polygamous relationship may have room for a third, fourth, or even fifth wife."

"It may be possible but I don't see how I could want to share Naruto with-" Ino suddenly realizes she's already in a situation like that with herself and Sakura.

Kurenai misinterprets Ino's balking by saying, "that's right. You're already sharing him with Temari, and while I don't think Naruto is the type to neglect one in favor of the other, you will have to come to grips with this. Essentially, you won't just be in a relationship with Naruto, but with Temari as well, and who can say it'll end there. Don't expect a third or fourth girl, just prepare yourselves for the possibility. Ask yourself if you'd be comfortable sharing him with Temari or each other, if it came to it… or even me, if I were ordered. That's the fickle reality of this affair, and if neither of you can accept that, then this may not be for you."

Ino isn't sure why Kurenai is emphasizing interacting with Temari or other potential wives, but fortunately, Ino already has experience sharing Naruto. Her original goal was to be in an open relationship with both Naruto and Sakura, and though she doesn't feel anything for Temari, Ino knows, at the very least, she can see herself sharing him. Sakura may not be open to marrying Naruto, but if there's a possibility, Ino owes it to herself and her best friend to try.

Resolute in herself, Ino confidently voices, "I don't know Temari. I'll likely learn more about her after several meetings, but regardless of what I learn about her, I know who I am… and more importantly, who Naruto is. That gives me faith that no matter what lies ahead of this relationship, as long as Naruto is the Head of our clan, we can weather any storm. That's just the kind of guy he is, so why would a relationship with him be any different?"

Ino allows the pleasant rush of seeing Kurenai's smile and nod wash over her. The blond beauty felt like she could relax a little as the gorgeous sensei then turns to her rival and asks, "Hinata?" The Hyūga heiress is silently having an internal battle of wills. Hinata seemed so conflicted to her, giving Ino more confidence that she'll be Naruto's first wife.

"Just be honest. Under this roof, you'll never go wrong expressing yourself," Kurenai encourages, mildly upsetting Ino to hear the kunoichi she admires supporting someone else, however, she understands why.

'Hinata is her student, after all,' Ino thought. 'Why wouldn't they have a strong bond when Kurenai is so amazing and mature?'

Hinata takes a deep breath before delicately voicing, "the last thing I want to be is a burden on anyone-"

"You're not a burden, Hinata," Kurenai assured her. "Not to me and certainly not to Naruto."

"I just feel like it wouldn't be right to accept the Omiai without considering Naruto's feelings first," Hinata softly argued. "What if… what if he d-doesn't w-want me- or the Omiai? I don't want to add to his troubles."

"I see," Kurenai hums, also making Ino begrudgingly award a point to her tender-hearted rival. "I just naturally assumed he would say yes, but you're right, we should get his input. How about the four of us talk when he gets back? For now, I want you both to think about what we discussed, and try to imagine what marriage with multiple wives will be like. What's important here is honesty. If you still believe this is a path you'd like to take, come see me and we'll talk more. If not, know that your decision is completely fine and you're not letting anyone down. Understood?"

Ino and Hinata both nod as their minds slowly begin to travel down a rabbit hole of polygamous imagination.

MEI

"I'm literally amazed," Mei hums in humored disbelief. Sitting up to hear his story with her arms wrapped around her knees and her head resting on her forearms, Mei muses, "I can understand Suna's campaign to overthrow Konoha, the need to neutralize you, and using an Omiai to get close to you in a believable manner—it's pretty crafty—but for it to backfire like that…" Mei chuckles lightly before asserting, "goes to show you what could happen if you don't think things through. For Suna to lose and then Konoha insist on the Omiai… there's a perfect storm if I've ever seen one. Are you okay marrying a girl who actively deceived you to destroy your village?"

"Things might've gone down that way but I always understood why," Naruto pointed out. Seated with arms behind him propping him up, he assures her, "I know for a fact that Temari is actually a good person. And even if we're getting married, it's not like I said yes for shits and giggles. I care about her, she cares about me, and the marriage isn't going to for a while anyway. We have time to get to know each other, and if it doesn't work out, we can still be friends. Easy."

"Easy…" Mei scoffs, feeling irritated for some reason. He's young and getting married… younger than her and getting married… it's almost like he's saying she'll never get married. Mei turns to him with an evil glare, making him shiver in danger as she declares, "don't make me kill you."

"I," a confused Naruto tries. "What did I…"

Mei takes a calming breath before hotly educating him. "Easy? As if it's such a simple thing; finding someone who's strikingly handsome, kind as the heavens yet fierce as hell, gentle as a breeze yet strong as a hurricane, and all-around amazing. To then fall madly in love and navigate the land mines of melding our personalities to perfection before finally getting married. Don't look down the magnitude of such an enigma. No, there's nothing easy about it."

With wide and confused eyes, Naruto slowly vocalizes, "mnnn, well, easy is probably a bad word… how about, comfortable? That's a better word. I love my friends and family, and I know I'll love my wives too… which is something I never thought I'd say," he admits, making Mei scoff in irritation. Clearing his throat, he confesses, "you know, one of my sensei says, as long as you have love, real love, it'll always work out, even if that means you're better off as friends. I'm sure you'll find that guy for you."

Suddenly feeling happy, Mei cheerfully exclaims, "I think so too!" Picturing the fairytale life, she whimsically adds, "what's he going to be like, how he'll treat me, how we'll live together… mmnn, I picture it all the time."

"Why do you want to get married so bad," Naruto asked.

Looking at him like he's insane, she asks, "why wouldn't you? Living with an amazing person who loves and cherishes you every day for as long as you both shall live… Someone you can rely on who you can share your whole heart with… it's been a fantasy of mine since I was sixteen."

"Huh, I thought about that same thing when I was a kid," Naruto admitted, drawing on Mei's curiosity. "Only I was thinking about having parents."

His words brought about memories of her father and the day he died and the change of heart that time summoned in her. Whimsically, Mei couldn't help admitting to the blond boy beside her, "you know, before then, I never thought about getting married. It's what my father always wanted. I thought he just wanted to be rid of me." Mei snorted at the recollection of her younger self, adding, "plus, I was a fat girl with chubby cheeks, short for my age, and flat-chested, so I thought he was just being cruel. I didn't think anyone could love a girl like me, so I just beat up all the boys and spoke my mind."

Mei snickers a bit at herself for opening up far than she had planned to. She thought it might've been a combination of things; his strength, the fight they went through, wanting to be on his good side so he'd help her, the painkillers still circulating in her system, the pleasant breeze of the beautifully sunny day, and Naruto's comforting presence. He's already different since he's not an enemy or a subordinate, allowing Mei to make the conscious effort to roll the dice on what category Naruto might fall into.

"Sounds like we would've been great friends or rivals," Naruto happily remarked.

"Either one would've been good with me," a smirking Mei assured him.

"Hell yeah," Naruto agreed. "You can't have too many friends or rivals." Mei strongly nodded in favor of, appreciating the common train of thought. "What changed your mind about marriage?"

Mei's thoughts returned to sentimental memories as she slowly answers, "my father passed away." Since it seemed like their agreement to be honest with each other extended beyond the game of trading questions, Mei shared, "…I'm the illegitimate daughter of the Sandaime Mizukage, so I grew up angrier than most. I acted like I didn't care but deep down I was desperate to prove my worth to him and the main family."

"So your tou-chan was a Kage too," Naruto noted with a small smile.

"He was," she returned. "I think you would've liked him. He always talked about peace and finding diplomatic solutions to our problems with Iwa, but peace is harder for Kiri to accept than war, so my father and his family didn't last very long. It wasn't until he was gone that I saw how much better he was for our country, rich and poor alike. I realized too late that he was right about a lot of things that I just couldn't see before."

The silence between them extended for several minutes and Mei was grateful for the time. Her mind was putting away those needless memories when Naruto eventually asks, "so… you want to get married to honor your father?"

Blinking her emerald eyes, she mulls over the question a moment before answering, "in a way, I suppose you could say that."

Slowly, as if trying to solve a tough math question in his mind, he asks, "can I ask, are you looking to marry a guy you genuinely like, or someone you think would make your father proud?"

Swallowing with her very dry throat is hard, but she rather that pain than trying to answer that question. Even if she didn't talk about him often, Mei couldn't deny her father rarely strayed from her thoughts. She simply did too much he would approve of to not think about him.

"You're really pretty," Naruto effortlessly stated, without embarrassment. "And that alone could get you married in no time at all. I just think your tou-chan would want you to be happy, even if the guy you marry isn't some ultra amazing guy you think he'd approve of."

Huffing in a bit of laughter, Mei leans in a bit and remarks, "my, my… you're wiser than you look."

"I know, right- Hey!"

Mei laughs and instantly regrets it when the pain in her torso flares up. "Maybe you have a point," she admitted after calming down. "It's not like I have many friends I can talk to about this."

"You don't have friends back in Kiri?"

"I have allies, acquaintances, subordinates, trusted advisers, bodyguards, but no true friends," Mei whimsically claims. "When too many people rely on you for their way of life, the road of a leader is often a lonely one."

"Poppycock," Naruto called out with a stern shake of his head and arms crossed overhead in an X. "Everyone deserves to have friends. I don't care if you're the Hokage or a Jinchūriki, you need a friend, or else, who do you have fun with?"

"Life isn't all about fun, Naruto," Mei replied. "There's just too much to do… too many lives to think about."

"Hey, I get that," the blond assured her. "Remember, I not only want to save Konoha lives, I want to save everyone, regardless of country. But you're still allowed to have some fun. I like eating Ramen, watering my plants, working on my Fūinjutsu, and hanging out with my friends and family. It's true I'm not leading an uprising like you are, but even if I were Hokage, I don't think I would stop having friends just because I have a job to do." Mei can't quite deny that logic, however, Konoha and Kiri are very different cultures, so it's surprising when Naruto offers, "And even if you can't have a friend in Kiri, I'll be your friend. You can tell me anything and I'll listen to ya."

Though touched by his offer, Mei sadly reminds him, "friends from opposite countries don't typically work out well."

"Me and Haku are best friends," he effortlessly countered. "Gaara, Temari, and Kankurō are new friends. And I even made friends with Ma-chan and Sa-chan from Kumo."

"Well aren't you just a popular guy?" Naruto snickers as Mei then asks, "how are you supposed to maintain a friendship with those girls from Kumo? Unlike Suna—where you could visit free of hostility—it's not like Konoha and Kumo are allies."

Naruto quickly becomes wide-eyed and beaming as he happily claims, "actually, I thought of something that could help me and them keep in touch! I could even be invited to go to Kumo without causing a war!"

"Oh," Mei hummed curiously, leaning a little closer. "This I have to hear."

Smirking with confidence, Naruto leaned in as he began, "okay, so, you know my Omiai?"


So, I've had the shittiest two months of the year(nothing to do with politics), which delayed my writing. I can't imagine how things can get worse which means they can only get better.

This chapter was one that I wanted to get to because after reading the light novels, I was really disappointed with Hiruzen as a leader. He really did a terrible job handling that entire situation. I wanted to highlight that as a way to shake Naruto up, of which you'll see how later.

I'm moving the girls a little closer this chapter. There's more about Mei that I wanted to share but I didn't want to front load her one on one with Naruto. They're have more chances to talk again.

Thank you to my patrons. If you'd like to support me/ leave a tip, you're welcome to support on my com/graefoxx or but my novel on Amazon. It's called Old Hand Steel by Santana Bazil (official name :) Since I lost my job I'll have more time to write so chapters should come out faster.

Be safe and let me know your thoughts or if there are mistakes. I'd appreciate it. Thank you for supporting me and this story.

-Grae

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