Warning: I'm not pulling any punches with these, as they're SCRAP FILES. This is my raw, personal edits and not screened for much other than my own inner grammar nazi. You can expect just about anything, and I know there are a few scenes of mature and violent content. Some of it harsh. So, be warned.

Premise: Holy BALLS are you in for a large chunk to chew on with this. Unbroken, unchaptered, possibly implosive under its own weight. This started as a rebuild fic, then turned into something Else somewhere along the line. Basically, my original idea was a merge fic, with a dash of Big Fucking Sword. It got a bit out of my control somewhere along the line, and then I lost my Wave Arc entirely in a crash.

Yukari

It rose like a scream behind her eyes until the sound parted and she could finally see-

The shrine rose up – no that was wrong. It was always there. She just let it come into focus. Simple. Foreboding. Familiar. Inescapable.

The sound was still there. It was the canvas this dream-that-wasn't-a-dream was painted on. She could feel it, with her ears in the way of dreams. Even if this wasn't. It was harsh canvas on her eardrums. Cicada song made manic. It rose when her attention wandered, until she had to focus on something, anything else. Anything but the noise.

Blue sky. Endless. Cloudless. World without end, or beginning. Perfect, eternal blue.

Golden fields. Waves, oceans of glimmering, shimmering sunlight. False seas, waiting for the prow of a ship, for her to part the waters. Shear the sea between this place-

Right here every time. Each memory started the same, but was it a memory when it was now? Always, now. Always, the same number of steps.

-and the shrine. It breathed. She knew that the closer she got, that the noise would go away. But the...

Heartbeat.

Belly of the beast. Inside, curled up next to the soft, dark, wet, vital things. She knew that when the doors closed behind her, it would start.

Drums underwater. Back in the womb, maybe, it sounded like this. Sounded like being curled up around the panicked heart of some massive thing.

Only, it was her heart, she knew. Panicked. Racing. But the beast... no. That was something wholly else.

"Welcome back, kit." Honeyed voice, gold as grain, swaying. Languid as the sea.

Her eyes never had to get used to the dark, here. Not this dark, at least. It was hers after all. Personal. Intimate. Velvet with teeth. "Hey," the words never got easier. Never managed to start in anything other than a choked rasp.

It got easier. Everything got easier, with time. Breaking down, tearing through the thin veneer that coated it. Seeing the underneath. Walking deception. "I think," easier. The words stronger as she went. Her voice was met with a smile, spreading across a face that was a mirror, y honey eyes bright like stars. Her face, of course. Dulcet harmony, two mouths speaking, "We need to talk," flowing words. Like blood.

For Naru, well, Naruto a long, long time ago... her current path began on her sixth birthday.

Harvest festivals in the Land of Fire were modest, but still earned their name. People of all walks of life filled the streets of each of the country's towns, either to peddle their crops, enjoy the same, or simply partake in the camaraderie of a season of toil finished. All in all, it was a grand time for all, and everyone seemed to be in high spirits.

Others were more concerned with surviving the upcoming few minutes. People like Naruto Uzumaki.

Naruto had been in a great mood that day, it being his birthday, and had come out of the small apartment he called home with a huge smile on his face, eyes all but shut with the size of it. Though he was in a grand state of mind, his mirth seemed to polarize those nearby, the smile he wore darkening moods all around him. The young boy didn't care – being six years old only came around once! – and his vulpine smile shone despite them. It was a beautiful day. The walls shone green still with the vines that were always present in the nearby forests, something that always made him inordinately pleased. It comforted him, their tenacity.

The festival offered him a unique situation, where he could go about and get lost in the crowds, something that he often couldn't do. Some would think that was dangerous for a child, especially in a city like Konohagure where being a killer was the primary vocation. Not so for Naruto, who's main worry rested in the civilians themselves.

Today's festival, being on his birthday as it was every year, gave him the cover he needed to actually go out and shop, enjoy the sights, and mingle with people without worry of the occasional rude, irritable, and sometimes violent person.

At least, it should have.

He didn't know why things turned against him almost at once – and had no time to wonder, as he darted around a corner then under a bag of trash. Heavy footsteps pounded by, and the young boy's breath hitched.

"Where is it?"

A snort then, "Why are you so upset? He left money-"

"That's not the point!" A sound, probably the food-cart vendor's hand hitting the brick overhead. "That's my family's toil – a family cut in half by that-"

"Shut up," the voice was quiet, and Naruto blinked – scared? "You know that's forbidden."

"Who's going to stop me," the first voice snapped, kicking the boy in the side by mistake as he hauled back and took his frustrations out on the trash nearby. Naruto bit his tongue to keep from crying out and giving away his position. "We're in an alley, there's no one to hear me-"

"You will desist and move on," a muffled voice, bored, barely audible replied, and Naruto quietly thanked whoever was listening that they finally arrived.

Deathly quiet ruled the alley for a moment, while the two men stared at what Naruto knew was an ANBU ninja. Then their reluctant steps sounded, as they shuffled away, the young boy figured. As always the enigmatic group managed to show up just as things got bad, and for that he was grateful. Sometimes he wished they'd show up sooner, but it was better than nothing.

Still, he hoped this time to see the elusive shadow, always liking their animal masks. Throwing aside the garbage bag he hid under, the boy grinned up at the white and red dog mask, suddenly turned his way. "Hey! Thanks, I was-"

"You!" Naruto turned in surprise, and blinked as his world seemed to tilt quickly, an odd sound ricocheting around in his ears. The chunk of brick that hit him shattered, one moment before the masked ANBU whirled on the livid food-cart vendor.

Silently the figure snapped out a hand, then pulled the prone form of Naruto across their shoulder before making a rapid hand seal. Then, there was only the rush of air and debris as they were gone.

"Weird, I never get used to ninja," the vendor's friend murmured, looking to his companion.

In reply, the man fell forward into the same trash Naruto had hid under, a kunai buried in a blind eye.

This was the first memory.

Lie – no, he'd been here before. Too afraid then to move, the noise alone making it impossible to think.

Blue sky yellow field black shrine.

This time felt... different.

Cicada's screaming-

He ran for the shrine.

Naruto stumbled on the low step, but caught himself on hands and knees. His heart hammered, deafening him but at least it wasn't that demon's wail outside that he knew would only rise and rise and drive all hope of thought out.

Only then he noticed how the pounding in his chest reverberated. Each time striking the world like a hand against a reflecting pool.

Dizzy, the young boy clutched at his head till the vertigo and rise of bile subsided, his senses just acclimatizing to that mad outlook. He made to rise again from the kneel he'd fallen into, but froze as a low laugh sounded from just within the shrine's darkened room. A woman's voice, low and with a certain smoky drawl weaved it's way out of that dimness, "Well, as much as I am flattered, you need not kneel."

Glaring around in the darkness, the young boy finally picked out the woman who spoke to him. The shrine's interior was small, nearly oppressive and bore no larger side windows, so light was sparse. It was there though, shed by two great lanterns, but they shone only upon the figure deep inside, throwing the rest of the shrine into gloom. She wore a loosely-belted traditional robe in crimson, her hair the same shade as the furs that spread out and around her, a muted liquid gold. She lay in repose within the honden, the sanctuary place where normally a great statue to enshine a kami stood, but to Naruto's young eyes this meant little. Standing with a huff and more than a little fear, the youth cast about with his gaze and sniffed. "Who're you?"

The woman shifted on her furs, honey-gold as the grass outside the shrine. "I am just myself, little one," Naruto bristled at this half answer, coupled with what he saw as an insult. Forgotten was the cicada-shriek madness, the liquid drum of a frenzied heartbeat, as he built a head of steam to loose at the woman. A woman who laughed quietly, shifting in her crimson robes to face him fully, causing his eyes to follow and immediately snap to the side as a blush raced along his cheeks. A husky laugh answered his discomfort. "Forgive me, I am as shameless as ever."

Naruto just nodded, his face cooling. She was pretty, easily prettier than than Ino who's parents ran the flower shop, or Sakura whom he liked to watch as he sat on roofs, safe from scowling gazes. But then, they were children, and this woman was blatantly not. As he looked back those bronze eyes regarded him in turn. "You have finally come. I worried I would be here alone, forever."

"What?" Looking around then, Naruto saw the tell-tale signs of seals around the shrine, a grand spiral of them. Tracing the winding arcs, he became dizzy but could easily see them leading to the foot of the honden, the seal centering on the low wall before where the woman rested. The idea seemed to flow into him from the air around, "You're trapped here."

"I am trapped here," she agreed solemnly, blinking once slowly as she met the youth's brilliant eyes.

Looking around more, Naruto saw no signs of what the shrine was to, or who, or that there were even people there to care for it. It was clean and simple, but something seemed at once very, very familiar and very alien about it. "Well," he murmured, curiosity peaked, "trapped or not, I still don't know your name."

"Indeed," the woman replied, shifting quietly to the side, lazing against a cushion there. As she did, the furs around her spread, slinking about in a way that confused him till he made out their shape, all nine moving in...

Nine...

Everyone knew the tales, even if it was like a dirty, uncomfortable secret. Konoha, in it's bravery defending itself from the roaring, rearing disaster made flesh that was the Demon Fox. Defended and failed and died till a single man unmade the thing.

"You..."

"Me," she nodded with a curve of lip, indolent and indulgent and crimson beyond blood. "It's good to finally meet you, Naruto-of-the-seal. I am known to you and your's as Kyuubi, or Nine-tails if you like." Laughing at his sudden paling, she snapped open a fan, bearing a vermilion spiral on its folded spread. Raising the fan just so, it hid most of her smile, though it was still plain to see in the narrowing of her eyes in mirth, "Though, I've held more flattering names, to be sure."

The shrine's quiet, dark interior nearly burst at the sudden, hammering concussion of a panicked heartbeat that seemed to batter at it's walls.

Naruto was in a panic, his mind racing and rapid and unfocused. "How can you be... the Fourth Hokage killed you-"

The fan snapped shut with a sound not unlike thunder, so loud in that small space. That pulled his attention, stalled his racing thoughts and forced his eyes wide. "Is that what they claim?" The woman – no, kitsune – sniffed, a dismissal. "No, that man didn't have the power, or wile to do such a thing."

He was still coming to grips with the duality of things, remembering all the horror stories he'd heard, had put together because it was so hard to find information about the Demon Fox. People never spoke about it, not openly. Only in whispers, only behind closed doors, only in secret. Still, the best kept secret was only as good as it's keeper, and Naruto had heard enough to paint some of the picture for himself.

Six years ago, still recent enough to see the scars and damage remaining on the town, the Demon had come, rampaging across the forests. Mountains were risen out of flat ground to upset armies, hills flattened to later fill with water. Great chasms and pits blasted out of the ground, plains roasted in moments as if under the desert sun. The Fox was destruction. Calamity. Chaos.

The woman before him... "No, it's not possible."

A delicate, pale brow rose. "Are you so sure? Are you so certain in those people to think something like your Kyuubi could be undone by a simple man?" She snapped open the fan again, hiding her sneer behind it. "Foolishness."

The nuance of her words was lost on him, though. He was too enraged by her slur against the Fourth, in the way children in their innocence defended their heroes, "It's not a lie! The Yondaime was a great man! I'll be Hokage too one day, even better than him!"

The youth paled before the intensity of her glare, seeming to dim even the lanterns that sat around her like patient ghosts. "Will you, now? Follow in his footsteps? Fall like him, mortal and frail and tiny... insignificant before something wholly beyond your limited scope?" Scrambling back, Naruto couldn't later recall her standing, but suddenly she was, looming before him with her tails churning the air like caged lightning and wearing an expression so angry he held up an arm to shield himself. "I am not a tool, a thing to be used and then set aside, boy. I am the ever-gold, the harvest's bounty and grandeur. I am the glimmer of light on water, the moon's shadow and light, eternal fire in an endless night," a hand snaked around her waist, gathering the unsettled crimson yukata together. "What are you, to stand before that?"

"I..." Naruto's mouth worked quietly, as he considered her words. The Fourth had faced and supposedly defeated the Demon Fox, but... he said he'd be greater. Could he one day stand against something like that? Could he even imagine it? He was a child, hated and ridiculed and driven by those angry looks all around him. He couldn't even face them... or this woman who claimed to be that catastrophe. Something in him broke then, something he wasn't aware of, but another was, and she hid her smile deep, waiting. Standing, eyes cast down, Naruto balled his fists to his sides. "I am me."

"And who are you," the woman prompted, quietly.

Glaring up from below hair the same color as her own, the young boy's eyes reflected the wide skies above the shrine. "I'm Naruto. One day I'll be greater than him. I swear it."

She smiled slowly, an honest curve to her lips rather than a dismissive sneer. "Very good. Very good, indeed. Come, kit, let us speak then, of greatness and how to reach it."

Hesitating just a moment, Naruto nodded, coming forward to stand by the honden. The kitsune gestured with her arm, sleeve held in her other hand in a graceful gesture, more suited for delicate brush strokes than simply bidding him entry into her sanctum. Regardless, he passed that border with only a momentary sense of unease.

"So you are the child they chose to bear my burden," the golden-haired woman murmured, running hands across his small shoulders, through his flax hair. "Hrm."

Blinking up at her humming, Naruto's frown deepened. "What?"

A brow rose at his brusqueness. "So ill-mannered. I was simply thinking how odd it is, that they chose a boy-child."

"Why not?"

A gesture unsuited to her sometimes-affected gentility with the closed fan brought his attention to the ill-concealed curves clearly stating the woman's gender, beneath the dark red yukata. "Oh, no reason at all."

Naruto folded his arms across his chest, peering at the woman, "I don't get it."

Bronze eyes regarded him for a long moment before the woman sighed, "I suppose you are young, and with that comes some allowance," she reasoned. Instead she tried another tact,

"Look around you, Naruto. Tell me what you see."

He did so, standing just within her sanctuary. The honden's low wall was more to offer a simple but visual reminder that the kami's place was separate, so the view of the shrine's interior was unobstructed, except for the small facing wall of the thing itself. His eyes again traced the walls, the seal's scribble as it twisted and churned on its inexorable path to that same low wall. "I see a seal," he murmured quietly, mind slightly fogged by the sheer, warm, languid comfort of her hands working through his hair slowly.

"A seal," the kitsune prompted, nodding slowly. "What do seals do?"

Blinking as if it were the most inane thing in the world to ask, Naruto turned his gaze back to hers, seeing only patience there, waiting. "They... well seal things. Lock them up, I guess."

A slow, indulgent smile spread across her lips. "Good, good. Now, so we know that the seal here locks something away. But," tapping his chest lightly with her fan, the kitsune continued. "Obviously not wholly, yes?"

Brow furrowed, Naruto just nodded. He wasn't the most educated of his peers – but it wasn't his fault! – thanks to how the teachers treated him. There were only two people there that seemed to give him even the slightest shadow of the same attention that was given to other students.

Still, it wasn't hard to pick up on things. After all, adults may be quietly scornful, even hateful but their children, seeing it, only managed to be cruel. Mocking his lack of knowledge, Naruto became a student of his faults – hearing those things he lacked, then throwing himself at them, to prove he was good enough.

"Seals contain," he began quietly. "They can hold focused chakra, or with the motions of hand seals, focus it," the youth continued.

"But," the red lips quirked slightly, sensing the hesitation in his explanation.

He warmed to the subject. "There is a limit to what they can contain," nodding, recalling the few snippets of basic sealing he'd managed to scrounge after being mocked for letting an explosive tag go off too soon. "The more complicated the thing to be sealed, the more complex the seal has to be." Again, Naruto looked around, seeing the dense, wholly encompassing sealwork that filled every part of the shrine's interior. "Whoa..."

Chuckling darkly, the kitsune nodded. Throughout their talk, her hands hadn't strayed from the boy's shoulders or hair, a constant intimate if innocent contact. "Now, returning to why I find it curious that they chose you," the woman heaved a sigh, looking up and out at the shrine. "They are incomplete, these bonds," she murmured, turning slowly with Naruto before her. "They may have meant to seal me wholly away but they failed. Perhaps it was vanity, or a simple mistake on the part of your hero," she smiled, making a soothing noise as the boy in her arms bristled. "The part of me that is male is sealed away. Locked apart from me, but this," tapping her chest lightly, as she had his. "This remains. I feel the power of it, turning me against myself, drawing against me like leeches. Feeding you the vital power that is what I am."

Naruto may not have been the brightest student in the Academy, but there were key points in the woman's words that stuck. "Wait. Part that's male? Feeding me?" Shaking his head hard, the boy drew away, staring at her, "I don't get it."

"I am a spirit, and beyond that, a trickster," the kitsune explained, dim lantern light turning her nearly luminescent eyes into flames of their own. "In the world I call home, such things as gender mean little. Tools made of words and ideas. That they cannot take from me." Looking away as a bitter cast swept over her, the kitsune lost some of her poise, slumping. "They cannot, but you do. Every day a little more of me is pulled away."

"You're dying?"

The naked worry in the boy's words earned him a smile. "No. I won't die from this. Think of it like... an hourglass. Sand starts in one side, flows to the other, but there is only one vessel. It is never empty – just waiting to be filled.

"And like an hourglass, the amount of power you can take is limited," she continued with a sigh, as she folded with a sinuous grace back onto the cushions. He watched her tails settling about her like a bed of furs, watched as she regarded him as intently. A shrug, a lift of pale shoulder that escaped her robe as a hand beckoned him.

Naruto came closer, and was pulled down to rest on the soft bed of that fur. Without warning, the weariness that his tense mistrust had masked stole back over him, but it was dim. "Why am I here again?" The question wasn't accusing, merely curious.

A smile curved lips the hue of spilled blood. "Because I want you to be."

"Just like that," Naruto murmured, shaking his head. "Then why not before? Why wait so long?"

"Hrn," ruby lips pursed. "I should have said, 'Because I wanted you to be, and could find you,' then. Before now, I knew of you, but that was all. The seal kept us separate."

Nodding against her shoulder, the woman's arms wrapped around him in a comfortable way he'd never felt before, the youth thought to what it was that could have changed. "The only thing that's different is... I'm not sure. Something feels wrong."

"What is the last thing you remember?"

-running can't stay here they hate why always running never relax someone help...

-ANBU mask, looking down, then to the side...

-brick spinning through air, small pieces breaking off with it's speed, closing – so fast! – can't dodge going to HIT ME-

Gasping and flailing a moment, Naruto cried out, hands reaching up to cover his head from a blow that never came. The kitsune held him steady, still, making small comforting noises till his breathing evened out, the panic subsiding. "That's why, Naruto. You felt real fear. Fear of death. You crossed a border inside yourself that must have triggered the seal."

"Why?" Eyes misty, the boy looked up, sky blue meeting honey gold. "Why would they do something like that?"

"To protect you. I can offer you so much..." a low purr ended her words, eyes half lidded. "Power, knowledge... even things you won't understand with the limits of your age," a slow lift of her lips preluded a laugh that seemed to start deep within the woman. "Perhaps they didn't expect you to... need me... for quite some time yet."

Naruto blinked at her owlishly. "What kind of power? I don't get it."

"Have you ever been hurt, and then the next day been fine? How long can you run? Have you ever been sick?" Each question caused the frown on the boy's face to deepen. "Now, think about your friends. Think about if they can claim the same things."

"I don't have..." biting his tongue, Naruto looked away sharply, missing the kitsune's slow smile.

Humming softly, she tightened her grip on the youth. "Then, why don't you tell me about yourself, Naruto? Tell me so I can be your friend."

Though he wasn't very trusting, having someone – even someone who claimed to be the Kyuubi – offer him such creature comforts as the amount of contact they shared was a heady drug. Naruto found the woman's gentle hands and clean smell comforting. She smelled like the field, like fresh grass and clean air. Then, to offer to be his friend... "...You mean it? You would be my friend? And you want to know about me?"

"Yes," the kitsune said simply, teasing her hands through his hair. "Tell me about Naruto. I would like to know about the one whom I am already so much a part of. Tell me about yourself, go back as far as you can, I promise not to get bored."

Despite the frantic need to have those things, Naruto stalled. Wariness was beaten into the young boy, almost literally, from a young age. "What do you get out of it?"

The kitsune regarded him levelly a moment, blinking slowly. "I get to know you. I cannot leave this place, and this place is you. Now that the part of the seal that separated us is broken, we cannot go back. I am here, until either the seal is broken fully, or..." shrugging slightly, she let the rest go unsaid, but the meaning was clear to him.

The threat of death to him, the fear of it weakened the bond so they were here. Dying would release her. "Then, I'll tell. But, I want a story in return."

"A deal, hrm?" The small hum she used in lieu of words caused him to grin. "Very well. A story, for a story."

"Promise?"

Despite her almost revulsion at making such a statement, her trickster's nature balking, the words came nearly on their own, "I promise."

It wasn't a nice story, or exciting, but it was his. A story of youth spent learning to survive, and despite his dreams to one day be Hokage, a deep-seated fear that there would never be someone that accepted him.

The kitsune who held him stilled her hands, unnoticed as the boy was wrapped up in his own telling, lost to time and place. She on the other hand stared down at the youth, the dream's vision stealing the truth of his appearance from her. In her arms lay a wiry youth, sharp of feature and with a smile easy to see, but in truth she could feel those scars, faint and fading but there regardless.

This was not the treasured son of a city, held up like the other vessels she'd heard tales of. This was not the sheathed weapon, waiting for the perfect draw to prove it's edge. A wry smile and laugh escaped her, as he told of pranks and his antics, pushing back at the people who pushed him. A trickster's soul.

Desperately crying out for someone to acknowledge him. Accept him.

There was a lull in the story, spreading into an ominous quiet she was unused to in the frank, open child. "Naruto?"

Blonde hair hid his eyes, his voice little more than a whisper, "They hate me." Despite it, she could feel the anger suddenly, the spike of it like physical pressure against the shrine. "They hate me because of you."

"No," she wasn't arguing with him – there was no point after all – he was correct. Only, not completely. "They don't hate you because of me. They hate you because they are weak."

The flare of anger, as dangerous and unfocused as fire in autumn leaves, winked out. "What?"

"Are you a demon? Huge and rampaging, uncontrolled, destruction given form and focus?"

"Of course not! I'm just... a kid..."

"Yes," she agreed quietly. "You are. And if you were any of those things, they could not treat you as they have. No, Naruto. You are not a demon. You are an escape."

Tilting his head back, the boy's brow furrowed, "Huh?"

Smoothing his hair down from it's wild spikes, only to have it stubbornly rise again, the kitsune explained, "If you could be, in their mind, any of those things, do you think they'd act this way?"

"Well, no-"

"It is unwise to harass even a simple, stupid, wild animal. Antagonize the boy who possesses the Kyuubi, blaming him for it's actions?" She snorted derisively. "No. They are weak. They couldn't do anything against me, against my power. So, they see you, hear rumor that you contain that demon. We'll, obviously you're not capable of ripping them apart, and they know this because they test you! – so they feel safe. Safe in their petty hatreds. Weak, angry, and with a child to unleash their cowardly hatred on.

"So, Naruto," the kitsune's voice had grown chilly, losing it's husky lilt. Now it was clipped and edged. Like teeth. "Do you still wish to be their Hokage? To protect them?"

He didn't bother to hide his tears. They rolled, fat and slow down his cheeks. "I don't know."

Sighing, she lifted his face, stealing the tears away with swift fingers. He stilled without much effort, as he was used to suffering his sadness alone. The kitsune's touch was warm, her hands soft as she gathered him closer. "Shh. Quiet little one." Humming a halting tune, she held, soothed him till his body lay still, his breathing even. "It's a decision that you have much time to think on," she reminded him, earning a nod. "Instead of worrying on it, I think it's my turn, to tell a tale."

Suddenly attentive, Naruto smiled, sniffling back the remaining sign of his inner turmoil. With a final sniffle, Naruto nodded.

The Kyuubi smiled, "Well then. Once upon a time..."

There was a spirit, a fox spirit to be precise.

Kitsune are spirits, like ghosts and devas. We live in the shadow world, Yomi, ruled by the moon. Under Tsukuyomi we organize our clans, each great one like the ninja clans, feudal houses and dynasties in your world. We keep to ourselves but sometimes there are wars.

For each clan there is a leader, a head, who is the oldest sometimes, wisest sometimes, most cunning sometimes. For the kitsune, it was the latter, but not till one came. The wisest often got bored with the things kitsune do, and came to your world to live their lives studying life and living. The oldest were preyed on by the younger, having grown too lazy or fat to fight back.

Then there was one, who was all three. She rose up quietly in shadows, hiding her tails. Kitsune you know gain a tail and with it a new wisdom each thousand years. Well, when we gain our ninth it was said that kitsune would know all that happened in the world, would gain true insight, and the favor of Tsukuyomi. Well, that would not do, would it?

Other clans thought so. Our own clan thought so, for if one knew so much, how could they take power one day? No, no kitsune should be allowed to gain that, yet we all hunger for that day, when we reach it. So even as they nodded, saying they would never seek such, and work to keep it from happening, they planned and plotted, for it was our nature.

You see, to a kitsune, tricks and lies and intrigue are like water and air. But, the other clans did not know this. They only saw our sometimes cunning, our often pranks, our ever-present smiles.

This one grew wise, but kept her tongue still. She grew powerful, but kept her hands still. She grew old, but being wise knew how to live, so age slipped off her fur like water. She grew cunning but kept that to herself, the most cunning plot of all.

One day, while the clan was away treating with the other great clans, she slipped into the great house, past the guards and past the priests. She snuck into the kitchens and placed poison in the arrowroot and into the tea, and then crept and hid the statue of Tsukuyomi where it was enshrined in their palace. In it's place she stood, her yukata the finest spun silk, her hair in jeweled pins and tails brushed till they gleamed. Even her ears shined! And when those old foxes arrived they took their guests and dined, they stared at her, and bowed and said to themselves, "Oh! The moon has come to grace us! She has taken the form of a kitsune to show how we are the greatest clan!"

Unwise this was, and their recent allies took offense. The lords fought and bled and died, all while the kitsune smiled down, her ball of fox-fire held in hand, pale and shining like the moon. Still, she was quiet, keeping her cunning to herself.

Then the lords that were left, a great snake and toad and slug, turned and regarded the statue. "Oh lord, Tsukuyomi, why is it you have betrayed us? Why choose the lowly fox as your favorite?" In his rage, the snake moved to strike at the kitsune, but collapsed in a faint from the poisoned cakes and teas. The slug seeing this went to heal her fellow lord, while in his wisdom the toad regarded the disguised kitsune, nodding.

"You have proven your point, lady fox. Step down, we shall acknowledge your place."

She did so, and the three marveled, that she was the fabled Nine-tails. "How did you gain the lord's favor," the snake asked, pained in his poison.

"I did not," she replied.

"How did you survive lying and claiming it?" The slug's question came then. They all knew that such a bold thing, such a lie would gain the lord's attention and wrath immediately.

"I did not," the kitsune replied, with a smile, speaking of course of claiming such blasphemy. She never did!

"How did you trick the other foxes into hiding you, and your tails," the toad questioned, thinking he knew all that went on with his spies and old knowledge.

"I did not," the fox-woman answered, before sitting and smiling.

And so, it was then known that the Kyuubi was the most feared, most powerful, most wise and cunning of all the clans. Claiming her place in front of the collected lords of the clans, and even daring to tempt the wrath of their lord, she walked proudly with a smile, and killed without guile.

And so that kitsune took her place ruling the clan. She taught the little foxes the true way – that cunning is more powerful that power, held more wisdom than the wise, and was able to fool even time.

And then one day, she made a mistake.

"Huh? I thought she was wise?"

The woman grinned ruefully, her face a softer mirror to his own in that vulpine gesture. "Oh, but even the wise err, or how would the Toad have come to submit?"

Naruto puzzled on this, wondering if the fox was really as wise as she seemed. "I guess. So she wasn't perfect then."

"Not at all," the woman admitted with a sigh, leaning back with the boy in her lap, tails trailing along and over them like a blanket. "There is no perfection, little kit. When you find it – destroy it. For it is a cunning lie."

Blinking blue eyes regarded her, wide and unbelieving. "I... why?"

"Hrn," bronze eyes closed, as a fall of golden hair masked her face. "Perhaps another tale would say it best."

One day, the Kyuubi grew tired of her court, for her foxes were cunning, were wise and many had even eight tails. Still, it would be unwise to grow complacent and lazy, so she went about in the world to gain insight.

While playing with her ball of fox-fire, she stumbled while looking up at the beautiful moon and it rolled away, down the hill and through a small forest. Wary of crying out for fear of troublesome things like bandits and thieves, she chased it, chased it and finally saw a man tying it to a pole, setting it upon his wagon.

Outraged, she none the less kept a distance, as the man used her precious ball as a lantern, using it to light his way and so be able to travel even at night through the harsh land. Well, this didn't sit well with her at all! A fox's kitsune-bi, their ball of fire is a precious thing, and into it they pour all their power over fire giving it life. Without that ball she would have none! How embarrassing!

The kitsune chased him in the form of a fox and watched. Oh, she could have risen up and crushed him with a paw, but no... something stilled her. Perhaps it was the moon that night, so pretty and calm that cooled her, or perhaps the lack of her fire stole away her rage. Either way, she watched, patient, and waited for a chance to steal back her precious ball.

In that patience she sees him help others, always kind, always with a smile. Over a week she watched him, alone on his cart, always with a smile, a kind word to others, giving of his few things to help those with less. Intrigued, on the sixth day she sneaked into the firelight of his camp. She watched as he started his fire with flint and sticks, curious as to why he didn't just use her ball.

"Well hello little fox," he greeted, waving. Keeping quiet, she shyly approached. "Aren't you a pretty fox," he complimented, and she preened slightly, happy he was so keen to see. "Aren't you a wise fox," he said, then, as she kept her distance on the other side of the fire despite the smell of his stew.

She kept his company then, and watched as he ate, then tended to his horses, then played a tune on a flute which made her sleepy. But she was a wise fox, and did not sleep. Only then would she eat the offered food, and it was good.

As he slept, she crept to the lantern, and moved to bite through it's ties. "What a clever fox," he said, one eye open. "If you would but let me keep that ball till my journey ends, I will build a shrine for you, and return it with my thanks."

Intrigued, she agreed and left him then, to watch and wait.

Still, the nights were cold, and she was long away from home, and the small creature comforts seemed myths of their own. So on the seventh night she crept into the fire light again, only this time she came as a beautiful woman. That night she slept warm and content, but that is a tale for another time, when you are older.

From that day on, she would escape in the morning to watch as a fox, but each night returned to his bed in the form of a honey-haired woman. Another week passed, but there was a tension in the air. Trouble was coming.

True to her worry, that day bandits and hired men came from the path behind, but the man payed them no concern. "Halt, in the name of our lord," the man called, and the kitsune was intrigued.

The man and his wagon stopped, and the armed men surrounded it. "Why have you stopped me?" the man, whom the leader of those bandits named Yasuna, asked.

"You desert your duty and must return to be punished," a man claimed, and the kitsune despaired. Was she so poor a judge now? Had this man she'd watched been so truly unworthy?

"My lord whom I swore to died," the man Yasuna replied. "My oath was to a brother in arms, and my bond was paid. He left no sons for me to renew my promise to; and so I am released."

The bandits argued with him then, on the nature of duty and how a lord never dies, that he should know that as such his oath merely passed from one vessel to another. Regardless the kitsune had heard enough.

The kitsune bound them in an illusion of the Yomi world, the horror of it and her lord's baleful red eye glaring down driving them to madness. While her nighttime companion looked on in horror as she killed them, again the kitsune lamented. Here, she would save the man, only to have him turn against her. Instead the man sees her eyes, the same eyes that he'd watched for many nights and bowed, thanking the kitsune for his life.

Sadly, the kitsune's fate was now in the man's hands, as she was known to humans which made it dangerous. Spirits didn't let themselves be known so intimately by those of the man's world without contracts – this kept one from taking advantage of the other. She was now in danger, and her sadness was obvious. "I will ask what you plan to do, upon your answer, so lies your fate," she said to the man Yasuna

The man was no fool. "I ventured out, leaving behind lands that saddened me. With my lord and friend dead, I wish to begin a clan, strong enough to stand on their own, and kind enough to help those around them."

Again intrigued, the kitsune spared him, and decided to help him with his desires. She granted him the lantern, saying it would always give his family the fire within to see their passions through.

Though she tried not to, she became fond of the man, and in time fondness became love. On their wedding day, the man asked for a boon, knowing the kitsune to be a powerful spirit. Trusting him to be wise and not abuse her, the kitsune inquired what he'd ask.

His answer was this, "I would ask your favor, so that none of my family be held in a false word. Grant us the power to see through lies."

The trickster in her balked at this, but the man was honorable. "I grant you this, but know my condition," she said. "If any who carry this boon should willingly betray their faith, they will suffer eternal night."

In honor of his wife, the man named their clan Uchiha, for the fan she was to the fire within him that she granted, and the promise to rouse their family to greatness.

Within the year, she bore him a son, and in his red-moon eyes were the three marks symbolizing her word. The tomoe of the Sharingan, which she shared in her form as the Kyuubi lord of her clan. She told him of how those eyes could see though lies, and that with that truth they also gain the cunning of the kitsune, to learn the world as they see it.

And so, the Uchiha became renowned for their great chakra, the fire in their veins, and the cunning eye, all gifts from their mother. She felt her life had become perfect, even if it was fleeting.

Late in her life, sharing with an illusion the age of her mate, the kitsune again felt the stirring of trouble. Seeking out her son, she saw his acts and felt a great sadness.

The eldest Uchiha had begun working for a great lord, earning his family and name great honor. In this time, the lord became envious of the youth's prowess, being paramount of his troops, and in some cases in the court itself. Fearing the boy's coming power, the lord asked to know his secrets.

Now, though none else knew, it was no secret to the boy or his father who she truly was. It was that truth they feared – as they loved her and would not see her come to harm or be driven off. So, thinking to trick the man into seeing his family as simply very good and claiming the blessings of kami for his gifts, the boy seeks to treat his lord to his family's hospitality, thinking in kindness he will forget his ambition.

Unknown to the boy, his lord has seen through his gifts. He tells him no lies, but has his elite follow, keeping to the trees, intending on taking whatever treasure it must be that granted this family such power.

They come to the Uchiha home, and the lord is impressed but this does not seem the home of a kami. There is only a humble shrine with an empty honden, and the lady of the house tending it. That lady is a beautiful woman even in age, and the lord lamented not seeking this place out, to steal her away in their youth. Even so, he graciously accepted their invitation, and the assassins outside waited for his signal.

Again she has been cunning – the family and the fire in them burned away the poison she slips into the food, but the lord is no fool. He calls for his trap as he lay dying, and as it springs, the kitsune again calls on the Yomi to trap the men in nightmare.

She knows such a thing cannot be forgotten easy, and makes up her mind.

"It is time," she says quietly, gathering her husband up, and kissing her eldest son one last time on the forehead. Understanding, he swore to uphold the clan's rules, but she knows deep in her heart that humans are weak. Regardless she has hope, that her legacy would not be lost and forgotten. This is why the fox clan never sign contracts, for their lady forbade it. Leaving her son and family to continue the Uchiha name, she took her husband into death, back to the world of spirits.

And so it is that the Uchiha continue to this day, stumbling on the secret that such an intimate betrayal gives. Being at once the bearers of truth and deception, they are blinded ultimately. Until the man Madara discovered the secret to undo her curse and turn it on her a thousand fold...

"Madara?"

The Kyuubi nodded once, and Naruto could feel the tension in the form beneath him, where they lay against the shrine's back wall. "A man. An Uchiha, the first to turn my family's gift against me."

"What do you mean?"

The kitsune looked down into open, blue eyes. "A... tale for another time."

Frustration shone clear on the young boy's face at that, "What? You can't leave it hanging like that!"

She regarded him icily for long moments, and in that time Naruto remembered what exactly it was that he was so close to. Even as he shivered in anxiety, she merely watched, measuring, assessing. The spirit wearing the shape of a woman blinked once, slowly. "Perhaps... we can come to terms..."

Relieved that she wasn't mad, Naruto's voice rose in a rapid babble, "Terms? What you do mean? Will you tell me about this Madara?"

"Hush," she chided, the crook of her lip curling up slightly. "What if I agreed to help you? Offered you something more than those others have, something beyond them. Would you be interested?"

Gaping slightly, Naruto could only nod rapidly. "You'd teach me? I bet I could be Hokage easy with you helping me!"

"Pehaps," she crooned easily, running long fingers through the boy's hair. "But I'd want something in return."

"What? What do you want me to do?"

His eagerness caused her smile to bloom, "Just a promise, and a gesture. That you will, when you are ready, help me in return. You see, Madara... did something unthinkable. Unforgivable, to me. And I want my due."

Naruto could tell the kitsune was angry, just by the feel of the air around him changing. Worse, her eyes... had gone all red. Bloody, glowing red like looking deep into a fire. Curling his fingers around her arm in reflex, he whimpered.

Snapping out of her musings, the Kyuubi flinched at the boy's fear. "I'm sorry. He was... unkind."

Naruto only nodded slightly, still shaken. "He was a bad person," the words were more statement than question, and it caused the kitsune to tilt her head, regarding him.

Oh how easy it would be to turn a child's heart. No. In this instance, a little truth would be more effective than a whole lie. "He was bad to me," she admitted, finally.

Nodding, Naruto looked back up into her again golden eyes. "I'll help you." Looking away, he smiled, sadly. "I mean, isn't that what friends are supposed to do? And you're one of my only friends." He laughed a little at that, eyes tearing up slightly, "It's, scary. I know they hate you but I can't. I should, but I can't. It scares me more that you'd hate me, that you'd stop being my friend than all those scary things they say."

Demons are not human. They do not feel human feelings, do not worry on human concerns or shed human tears. A human cannot understand a demon. Yet, she'd borne a child – children, in fact – and been a mother, sister, brother, a husband, a lover and a whore in her time, thousands of years. Arms curled up around the broken youth, the kitsune found herself remembering all those lives.

Boredom. It pushed her to lengths her kin would never understand. She often didn't know what it was that drove her, pushed and cajoled her to strange whimsy and errant notion. Yet, this she knew. Boredom was dangerous. I could convince men to becoming demons, and demons into becoming mothers.

"Will you let me help?"

Naruto looked up, an unhappy mess again. "What?"

She took his hand with a small smile. "Promises are easy to break. So we spirits have better ways to make our oaths. Remember the gesture, to go with your promise I asked for?" He nodded slowly, hesitantly as the kitsune's thumb moved over his palm in a slow circle. "When you make a contract with a thing such as us, it takes more than words," she lifted his hand up to lips that he suddenly remembered looked remarkably like blood. "Are you ready?"

Cringing slightly, the blonde boy nodded, and was rewarded with a sharp, sudden shock as it felt like his whole insides were being sucked out through his left hand-

And then it was over. Panting a little, eyes wide he looked up and met her smiling eyes. His hand was still in hers, only now he had a small set of scars, a half circle around the bottom of his hand. Like something had bitten him. Gathering his wits, Naruto's brow furrowed. "Ow."

Tinkling laughter met his statement. "Not so bad, though?" He shook his head. "So, now-"

"Wait. You promised too." The kitsune's mouth snapped shut, as she watched wide-eyed as the tiny child in her lap pulled up the hand lazing across his stomach. It was a testament to how little she had thought of his awareness of her that let such laziness catch her unguarded. Then it was done.

Naruto would have gasped a second time had he not been in the throes of what felt like being burned from the inside out. When the kitsune had bitten him, she had used the bottom side of his hand. His mouth wasn't as big, so instead he merely latched on to a finger, focusing on the bone there for his small teeth to press on. Then the sharp, stinging pain had filled him, but he'd thought it'd start in his mouth-

-It spread from his belly, blasting up and through him, searing his spine and then wrapping around him like a shirt, crawling under skin and between muscles. He was still water, and what she bled was a massive stone, dropped in it.

Then it was over. Staring, blue eyes huge, he looked up at the grave kitsune, who was shaking her head slowly. "You are a brave, stupid, ingenious little child. Well played."

Uncomprehending, he only cared about the small, rueful smile that followed her words. His own sprang up in answer. "So, what are ya going to teach me?"

He realized at that moment as she laughed and laughed, more than any other, that this woman, this spirit he'd been spending time with in some strange fashion wasn't like him. It was more than her electric blood, still running through him like liquid lightning. She was a monster. Not like... the stories he'd been told by other children, trying to scare each other. Not like the movies, where some thing tried to scare you but made you laugh instead. Not like the jokes he played sometimes.

She was like the chill and shiver that crawled up his back at night, alone and in the dark. The whisper and impression of a face in the shadows. A thing, an idea wearing a skin and human form.

He could see all this in her eyes, slitted like a cat and yellow as dawn, looming above him and curved in her laughing. It was such a pretty sound. He'd never wanted to run away so much in his life. Naruto's voice was small as he gripped her arm, the silliness of the gesture lost on him. Grasping to hold on to something stable in the wake of the Kyuubi, and it being the kitsune herself.

A lazy, indulgent smile crept across her lips, finally stilling from her amusement. "Let me teach you something... interesting. Let me teach you how to be someone else..."

It was an unusual day for many reasons.

Hiruzen Sarutobi checked his daily schedule again, frowning. He had made an appointment... how unusual. Putting those musings aside, he sighed instead at the small monument of paperwork arranged just for him. His mouth twitched at the irony of that, but didn't shirk his duty. Pen in hand, he attacked the workload with a focus rarely seen outside of Jounins on S-rank missions.

He understood the role he had, likely better than any other Kage currently in place.

He understood that at his command people died. Not just targets – the very ninja he was in command of. The nations and surrounding countries had, as most tactical scenarios develop, equalized the primary offensive basis of their militaries then worked to specialize trump weapons. Bloodlines, family techniques, secret programs. His people died, and each mission carried that possibility, as only in defense of Kohona could he guarantee in some way security. Their world did not work this way, sadly.

He understood that war supported the Element nations more than trade, manufacture, and agriculture. The constant strife to surpass and the pride associated with each nation's power set up a balanced board which constantly activated positive growth. He imagined it like a round table, balanced on a cone. Atop were a collection of marbles, all set to maintain balance, so the board didn't tip, didn't fail and fall. Each Kage had their own side, and the small Kageless villages, the Daimyo's and militias rolled back and forth, smaller marbles. Taken to an extreme he could imagine each ninja as a balance on that board, each civilian and samurai and bandit.

Such a thing was humbling. It was also terrifying, to think that one force could set off a chain reaction, drawing forces to itself to either align or destroy a player there.

He understood that balance, possibly better than any other Kage or Daimyo. It was the legacy of Konoha that had established such a thing, after all.

That balance was due in part if not wholly to one force. Mokuton. Something about that fabled technique... scared Hiruzen. Very little scared the Sandaime Hokage, but Mokuton did a very effective job of it. To the uneducated it would be seen as a silly phobia, but those who were keen on history and the play of politics in the Element nations would understand, and likely share that fear.

It wasn't the ability to control both earth and water chakra that made Mokuton so frightening, but the ability to control the great demons, the tailed beasts themselves. The Shodai Hokage, the first of his line of leaders, had used that power to establish the playing field Hiruzen imagined. Eight of the beasts were enslaved, sealed and used as bargaining chips to ensure a peace between the great villages and nations.

He didn't plan on the inability for his skill to be passed on, though. No, those eight monstrous powers had been found, sealed and then given away, but Konoha lacked that even greater trump card. Until recently, at least, with the passing of his successor Minato.

That Hashirama Senju had been the only one capable of such a technique comforted the old man, some new developments unnerved the Sandaime Hokage greatly. Tenzo, an ANBU had kept his affinity secret for some time, had been found out as in desperation he used it to protect himself and his teammates. Luckily it was contained, and Ibiki reported that the memory augments on those witnesses were holding, but that Mokuton had reared it's head again... Tenzo was not an ambitious man – not that the Third was wary of his position. If the man surpassed him, any ninja in fact, he would gladly step down. It was the potential for abuse that frightened him.

Now with so many nations allying and moving in subtle and overt action against Fire, it was disheartening to realize that the Fouth's action to seal the Demon Fox in his son had been a good tactical decision for the future. Hiruzen simply hated that such a bright, innocent child had to be subjected to the consequences of his and his father's actions.

Even more than a five years after it's defeat, the Kyuubi and it's influence still managed to upset Konoha. Still, Hiruzen realized he was a military leader, not a soothsayer, despite his crystal ball.

"Sir."

Looking up at the ANBU guard, he nodded, knowing well the masked ninja's message already. He could hear the 'appointment' barreling around the corridor minutes ago. The masked ninja backed deftly out of the way, as a blonde missile barreled forward, rebounded off a doorway, adjusting it's course for Hiruzen midflight, or more specifically, his hat.

Sarutobi lifted it up at the proper moment, defeating the youth's attempts. "Awe, c'mon! Just once!"

Chuckling, the Hokage motioned for the ANBU to leave them, taking the few minutes always required to settle the boy down enough to get an actual answer out of him. "Now, Naruto, what is it you wanted to speak with me about?"

Suddenly the boy quieted, and Sarutobi noted with a small pang the bandage still draped lazily across the boy's brow. He was thankful at least for the Kyuubi's healing, if nothing else.

"I..." searching for words, Naruto screwed up his face into a grimace. He looked up to the Hokage with such a look of focus and clarity the man actually drew back slightly. He was the image of a young Minato in that moment.

"I know. About the Kyuubi. The seal."

Hiruzen Sarutobi replayed the last fifteen seconds through his mind, using his own long-past training to verify he heard correctly. He had. Face going terrible and grim, the Hokage regarded the boy intently, "Naruto... how? Who told you this?"

Blue eyes met his without hesitation. Was there a hint of red there? "The Kyuubi did."

Bad to worst possible. Hiruzen took his seat before the floor became too attractive an option. He was getting too old for this. "The seal, it can't be breaking. Not yet," he murmured, demonstrating his scattered thoughts.

Naruto shifted uncomfortably, not liking that he made the Hokage so upset. "No, it's holding. I didn't mess with it when we talked."

"That is good. Very good," swallowing his momentary fear, he assessed the damage. He'd not shown Naruto the depth of his upset, though he was close. "I have to ask though, how? Why?" The boy reached up, rubbing at his temple while he thought of an answer, obviously trying to figure out what to say. The action spoke loudly enough, to an observant eye. "Ah, your injury."

The boy's eyes snapped up, as he nodded. "Yeah, I... dreamed. Kinda. She was there."

Hiruzen blinked. "She?" Something about that simple three-letter word and how the boy said it scared him to his core.

Nodding happily nodded. "She. She's really nice, we talked for a while and she told me a story."

Sarutobi was very glad he was sitting, at that moment. "Naruto... I don't know what the Kyuubi said to you, but it's a very tricky thing, and very, very dangerous."

"She not an it," the boy protested, indignation plain on his face. "And how do you know? Have you talked to her?"

The Hokage's mouth worked slowly for a moment, "Of course not. The Kyuubi attacked the village, there was no parley or banter. The tailed beasts are engines of destruction, beyond our power to really understand."

Naruto recalled the few things the kitsune had insisted he relay, that he use in talking with the old man. Luckily there was little need for tact or timing. These were the conversational equivalents to explosive tags, after all. "Why did she attack then? All of a sudden, coming after Konoha?"

That was actually something a lot of people wanted to know. Unlike the other tailed demons, which were strange in their manner and form, the Kyuubi was the lord of an established spirit clan. All the other monstrous chakra-beasts were aberrations, literal faults in the way the world worked, spiritual or otherwise. As far as Sarutobi understood it, the Kyuubi was something else, but there was nearly a taboo on it's very mention, much less information on it.

The other beasts had been literal ongoing natural disasters. Pulling their nature from and adding too their environment, they had been to a one subdued and enslaved in some manner to the other nations. Unlike them, the Kyuubi had literally just appeared, with the seeming single intent to level Konoha.

Sarutobi shook off his musing. "Be that as it may, the demon killed more people of this village in a single afternoon than Konoha had ever lost in a war. I cannot believe such a being to be benevolent, Naruto. Now, the seal-"

This seemed like a good time, Naruto thought, for another of the kitsune's 'suggestions'. "It's fine, I didn't mess with it, even if it's broken."

"What?" a few brushes and scrolls fell, as Sarutobi's hand snapped out with an impulsive twitch.

Naruto nodded, almost cheerfully, remembering that this was exactly how the kitsune had explained things would go. Otherwise he'd have shut up and tried to soothe the old man. The Hokage was his oldest friend after all, but this chance meant a lot to him, "You know how it's put together. It seals her in, cuts her off from her chakra."

The Hokage's breath was evening back out, as he quickly regained footing. This was no time to overreact. "Naruto. What did you mean that the seal was broken, specifically, and how would you know this?"

Nodding, the boy had the grace to look a bit abashed. They both knew he wasn't the best student, when it came to even the elementary Academy topics, given that was all he'd been exposed to. "Well. I could talk to her. Touch her. That seems pretty broken to me."

Worse and worse, the old man thought to himself, as the youth went on.

"Plus, she was pretty put off by being sealed in a boy, since they um..." he wracked his brain a moment, trying to recall the terms she'd used. "Oh. Right, used her Yang chakra as part of the seal, leaving her as well, a her."

That had Sarutobi frowning. True, Minato and himself had used the the Kyuubi's own chakra to build the seal, so that if it were broken, the feedback would by necessity lessen the released demon's power, at least initially. Even in such a state, it would be phenomenally powerful, and by all accounts still more than a match for any other tailed beasts, but that aside... they had used the Yin chakra, female chakra they'd thought, to seal the beast. Sarutobi halted, realizing what this meant. "We used what we'd assumed was the lesser of it's natures as the seal. So, Naruto, you're saying that the Kyuubi is naturally female?"

The blonde shook his head, recalling what the spirit had said, "No, not like that. She just had more experience with her past as one."

Past experience. Blinking, Sarutobi's mind raced. Something about this didn't fit, not at all. Separating himself and Konoha's tragedy from what he knew about the Kyuubi, it did make more sense. But in that case, that meant... "She was summoned. Someone had the power to summon the Kyuubi against Konoha, and we sealed it thinking it just another tailed beast."

The look Naruto gave him seemed answer enough. "We cannot unseal it, Naruto."

Paling a bit, the boy shook his head fervently, "No! No, no, neither of us want that."

That brought the old man up short. "What?"

"She... oh how did she explain it," Naruto's brows knit as he squinted, trying to recall the woman's words. "With the seal separating her chakra, it's been denatured. It's no longer hers." This made sense, but that the kitsune was so aware of the sealing was troublesome. With a large portion of the beast's own chakra used to maintain it's prison, it was a simple jump in logic to understand that such energy would have lost it's original affinity. That too was troubling.

"You have your own two base chakras," the Hokage thought out loud. "Spirit and body. Those are made up of the Yin and Yang as well, but the composition isn't important, yet. Now, we sealed the demon-"

"Kitsune," the boy corrected.

"...kitsune," shooting Naruto a glare, the man went on, "with it seems her own chakra, but the wrong kind. Perhaps it's an old man's folly to assume her female aspect to be less dominant.

"Now, her remaining chakra is all Yin. But your body's balance is Yang," Sarutobi considered this and winced. "And you say that the seal is broken?"

"She explained how we can talk now. Something about stress and," pausing, he reached up with a wince, scratching at the wound on his temple again. "Fear. Of death."

The Hokage sighed, leaning back in his chair and reaching for the comfort of his pipe. "I'm sorry, Naruto. We had hoped that the seal would allow you, in case of an emergency, to draw on enough chakra to escape it. But now, it seems we've added another burden onto your shoulders."

Naruto looked up at him, eyes bright but holding no malice. "I don't mind. She's nice to me."

Worrisome, Sarutobi thought quietly. He was easily seeing how this was going to become a very delicate situation, as far as talk of the Kyuubi was concerned. "Be that as it may, this imbalance in fundamental forces is going to put a heavy burden on your body. I fear it may make you sick, or even worse." The Hokage blinked when the boy nearly bounced in excitement, not the reaction he'd expected. "Naruto?"

This was it, the point the kitsune had told him about. "We came up with a plan!" Before Sarutobi could stop him, Naruto had performed a ram seal and closed his face in concentration. A sudden oppressive spike of alien chakra, red-gold in color but bearing none of the miasma of malice and hate that he'd come to associate with the Kyuubi swept over the boy, and left in it's wake...

A girl.

Sarutobi blinked owlishly, before performing a seal and throwing his hand out at the door. Bands of rock formed out of air, sealing the portal as he keyed in a specific sequence on his desk, forestalling any interruptions from ANBU. "Naruto. Explain."

Wobbling slightly, the girl sat back down and blinked a moment. "Oh. Right, explain. Should have done that first... er." She reached up with a familiar gesture to scratch the back of her neck, and the Hokage visibly relaxed. "Well, she worked out that the imbalance would cause me some serious issues around my teens," Sarutobi's mind tangented a moment while the girl before him paused.

A Kyuubi-powered male hitting puberty with their chakra in utter imbalance. Perhaps they should have done more research...

"...so she figured I should make the shell match the core. I think that's what she said."

"And you're alright with being... female?"

Naruto... rather the illusion Naruto was wearing grinned brightly, speaking with surprisingly, a slightly less reedy voice, "Yeah! It's great, people don't recognize me! No one's frowned or yelled or tried to hurt me."

That admittance stung the old man greatly, despite his ability to shrug off most of the guilt out of necessity. That the Kyuubi had mastered such a simple way to undo the boy's apparent suffering, turned their faulted seal into a non-threat, and ally herself with the jinchuriki binding her was... frankly frightening. All while still sealed, he reminded himself. Sarutobi shook himself. "There is a flaw though."

"Huh?"

Smiling sadly, the old man stood, "Illusions can't fix chakra problems like this, Naruto. To change your gender wholly like that would take-"

"A massive amount of power. Kyuubi didn't mind helping."

The Hokage's eye twitched. "This isn't an illusion? That's not..." Speeding his hands through a complex broad-spectrum Genjutsu counter, he locked into the last handseal, "Kai!"

Naruto blinked at him, still female.

Sarutobi sat back down, quickly. "Oh."

"Yeah, isn't it great? I tried out the Henge version while I was walking around yesterday. It's great, no one knows it's me!"

"Naruto, this isn't a joke or prank," the old man chided tiredly. He was too old for this by a few decades... "Even with your body changed, if you act the same, people will know. Though I see that the change in gender is fixing a number of the seal's issues, you can't just... change like this."

Nodding, the boy got a gleam in his eye. "That's something else we worked on..."

A trickster's nature – her nature now – was deception. The living lie that becomes more than truth to those it touches. Drive and desire and will were what Naruto bequeathed to his successor – the unshakable faith he could, and then she could – do anything, surpass, exceed and win. The kitsune's gifts were different of course, and more subtle. They were the thing of fantasies and stories. Not physical things, no.

Ideas.

The distilled dreams, as seen from the outside looking in on the world. She gave the reborn child the tenuous fabric of myth to weave a robe, and the dusting of legends to shade her eyes and lips. It wasn't an immediate thing, it wasn't even something the youth saw happening. It was there, regardless. Small words here, a tale there, a suggestion and example in the proper context as they spoke at odd hours, within that non-place that wasn't a shrine.

The problems began when the lie started touching her as well. Because, knowing falsehood, one saw truth for what it actually was.

Today would change everything.

"Thanks, come again!"

So the small slip of paper claimed. It was a cheap, amusing thing, printed on receipts. A token frivolity that the grocer found humorous.

She waved to the shopkeeper, tucking the bundle against her to hold open the door for an older woman who was entering. The matron smiled in thanks. Out in the street, people nodded and sometimes waved in recognition. Luckily it was a short trip from the grocers to her apartment. The slip lay in her pocket, forgotten.

There were a number of wards in Konoha, each with a sort of flavor to them. Each also had either one or more of the 'noble' houses connected, as the largest and therefore more suitable lands lay on the outside of the village. This allowed for those clans to have their own grounds for training, privacy, and building. In an amusing turn of slang, if one divided Konoha into a pie, the 'crust' would be the lands those clans held. Upper crust indeed.

She was the last person that would claim a habit of introspection. Yet, today seemed different. Crossing the bridge between the market ward and its markets to her the one her small apartment called home, the blonde girl who had taken the name Naru Kazami paused, watching the crystal-clear river below her flow.

Maybe it was the shop, and the people. It had been three years since she put to rest the boy Naruto Uzumaki. Let him die in a fire she started in the run down, ratty apartment that became his home. Three years since she'd shrugged off the filter of hate that seemed fixated on that name.

Naru Kazami was a construct, a project that included the Hokage's experience and the Kyuubi's cunning. Like most hidden villages, Konoha wasn't a political island. Surrounding it were enemy and ally states, and with the recent wars and skirmishes, there were more than enough excuses and opportunities for a 'war orphan' to arrive and take up residence. This helped explain her sudden appearance as well as her blonde, blue-eyed features.

Though there was some incredulity on the Hokage's part, Naruto had insisted on the original form. A female version of himself, with the only change the necessary hiding of his whisker markings. They were still there... but hidden. Most of the time, at least.

Naru then became part of Konoha's daily life, reveling and adjusting to a home town that suddenly didn't hate him. Her, rather.

There was a strange irony at work, and it took her a year to understand it. Luckily the buffer of her cover story allowed some time to adjust to people being nice to her. Kind. She shied away expecting tricks, was wary as a mouse at any smile. Though she'd always dreamed of such a thing, the sudden change was abrupt and startling. People wrote her reactions off as an orphan's due, and actually praised her for it. Good survival instincts. Good habits for a future ninja. Good habits for a young girl.

Yet, Naruto Uzumaki had been damned for the same things.

The boy-who-wasn't spent the next year learning from her landlord, an immigrant smith named Yasugi. Shut up in forges, hidden in dark rooms with hands full of unfamiliar tools, it let her take time to build something she'd come to realize was absolutely needed in the world she'd walked into. A mask. Not literal, but mental. Naruto had worn his heart openly, shown his hurt to the world and then dared it to break him. It had. Naru would learn from that mistake.

The kitsune had told her that this was more than just a 'change of clothes'. This was a living lie. Warned the suddenly-female youth that now, everything changed. She'd not listened, of course. It would be like a game, she'd thought, gleefully watching herself move in the mirror that first day. When they all missed him, when they realized Naruto was gone, then she'd show them!

It was fun, until she'd put Naruto Uzumaki to rest, and seen only three people show any sadness at all. Three people who then went on with their lives, without him. Naruto Uzumaki truly died that day.

The irony came when Naru realized in that third year, she began to hate those faceless masses as well. Not the misplaced hate and simmering guilt-laden impotence of those that hated Naruto for the Fox inside him. Not the sidelong disregard that was shown by those who simply didn't understand. She hated them for never recognizing there was something special about that boy, about his willingness to do anything for them. For failing to see his will and hope and drive. He had been innocent, a real innocent, and they had killed him as surely as if they'd set the fire, and not her.

She wasn't innocent now. She had no desire to demand their respect, recognition. In her third year, Naru realized that she was adrift. Much like the few leaves on the water that flowed below the bridge she stood on. Casting off her musing, the kunoichi in training hurried on, not wanting her groceries to spoil.

Her apartment was on the riverside, overlooking the market ward, from what was affectionately called the Ruins. It was anything but, yet the joke stuck. New apartment buildings and businesses sprang up all over like mushrooms, feeding on the remains of the Uchiha's clan grounds. Some older businesses moved from their original homes with the surplus of space available promising new money and new venues. It wasn't an empty promise.

Below her apartment one of the new shops opened it's doors, it's owner the migrant from another country who took her in. Shop was perhaps a bad word to use – he didn't really sell anything there. He was an older man, practically ancient really. Specializing in custom smithing, he had an easy relationship with Tenten's grandfather, supplying contract work so the normally harried smith could focus on outfitting the ninja of Konoha. The two shared work space, her landlord Yasugi paying a fee for the use of the other man's forges. Yasugi was a genius smith, and the relationship brought both of them profit.

He also made a rather stellar bowl of ramen. "Gramps! Hey, are you home? I brought groceries!" Naru, nine years old now, was the man's unofficial apprentice. This applied to cooking as well as steelcraft. "Hey, Gramps! Are ya home?"

"Yes, you noisy brat, I'm here," grumbling, the man stuck his head out of the back room, hands black with steel and iron residue from his work. No real smithing took place inside the old man's home, but he did prefer the comforts of his own space for doing engraving, polishing and any detail work that didn't require a forge. Still, it was messy work. "You get to-"

"Putting away the groceries, I know, I know," grinning the while, Naru bounced away on her errand, stuffing food and goods for the next few day's meals away in their various places. "You want me to cook tonight?"

A grumbling affirmative drifted out of the man's work area. Naru wasn't the craftsman old man Yasugi was, either as a cook or smith but she managed well enough for the two of them in the kitchen when it was needed. The old man never complained, and since it was ramen... "So how are Tenten and her old man doing?"

Another muffled grunt managed to work its way to her, "Better than me with my yapping brat of a boarder." Snickering, Naru managed to get dinner started while old man Yasugi cleaned up to join her.

He may be gruff, and nothing like the last old man to take her in, but he was here now, and that's what mattered to her. "So I take it there was another custom order?"

"Stupid ANBU can't seem to take care of their blades," he griped, finally parting the heavy curtain that kept metal dust and chemical fumes out of the rest of the house. Yasugi was a testament that age hardened people, looking like nothing less than a piece of petrified wood carved into the form of a grumpy old man. Only slightly taller than Naru, he still cut an imposing figure, being tightly muscled from his time at the anvils. So long at them in fact, that he now had to walk with a cane, his back weakening before the rest of his body.

"That and another lordling brat of the court needs a sword 'suiting his station'," with a snort, Yasugi looked out at Konoha, shaking his head. "Should send the little pissant a butter knife."

"Huh," thinking back, Naru paused long enough to nearly boil the water over. "I remember a... Yugao? Hung around with that coughing guy. She seemed to be alright."

Yasugi nodded, absently rubbing at the back of arm. "Hmph. Yeah, only seen those two once though. Few of those uppity shits," rifling about in the cabinets the old man took his annoyance out by loudly, and with too much force, setting the table. "Few of them I don't trust to not stab themselves to death eating."

"Not everyone can be a weapon's master, old man," Naru chided, though she giggled at his irritation. "At least business is good."

"Say that after I have you etching tsubas and setting habaki's for the next three nights. Not to mention the work on sayas and casting menuki to suit."

Naru's eyes grew to the size of saucers. Sword hilts and braces? Scabbards and grip decorations? "No way! I'm supposed to be training! How can I get through the Academy if every night I'm stuck in this stupid worksOW!" Hopping back, the girl rubbed at the knot on her head, where Yasugi's cane had hit. "What the hell!"

Keen if weary eyes pinned her in place. "You wanted to learn how to make a sword. You could have sold your time to Orikata, and spent your nights giggling and hawing it up with his girl Tenten. You could have had the easier time with him, making good weapons."

"But yours are the best-"

"Which takes work, girl!" Yasugi's voice roared out, making her cringe. When the echo from his bellowing died off, the old man set the last plate. "Tomorrow after your classes meet me at Orikata's. We have tamahagane to harvest."

Unlike other 'harvests' one could find in a village, there is one that was particular to the local smiths that served to determine how and what quality materials they were able to provide. Steelmaking wasn't a complex thing if one wanted disposable weapons, like kunai knives and senbon needles, and even functional blades like kodachi – the staple sword of the ANBU – which were made from what Yasugi referred to as 'junk steel'. These weapons were made en masse and had little true craftsmanship to them. That wasn't to say Orikata was a bad smith, quite the contrary.

He just happened to make a better profit making fast weapons that didn't need the attention to detail Yasugi spent on them. It helped that the other smith had three sons and Tenten to help around the forge, speeding things along. Not that he'd ever complain about Naru and her enthusiasm. The girl was worth two of those layabouts in his mind.

Tamahagane was the pinnacle of raw steel. It took nearly a week for the whole smelting to finish, from clay basin casting to the finished bloom that was broken for it's varying grades. Each smithy sent their various apprentices when Orikata set up his long forge for the month's supply, and each received their due in steel based on how much time and material they contributed to the smelting.

Yasugi would be lucky to get enough quality steel to make five swords a month, and if commissions exceeded that, then he was forced to buy the quality steel he needed from either Orikata or other smiths to fill his orders. Regardless, it was well worth the time spent, as the swords that the steel yielded were so fine that any one he crafted would pay for a week's worth of the other smith's work.

All in all, it was fairly balanced in truth. Yasugi was a true master and because of the time his craft took, he could only focus on a blade a week, perhaps less depending on the commission. Some would think Orikata would feel the old Snow smith was hedging him out, or stealing his business, but the bottom line was the man simply didn't have the time.

Rather than compete, the two complimented each other. Any spare blades Yasugi made, Orikata sold, and any excess steel that the master smith needed, Orikata sold at a discount.

It didn't hurt that their 'daughters' were good friends and any animosity that grew between the smiths was stamped out with extreme prejudice. "So, we have the month's orders already started. We should see about upping our material billet. Buying more black sand for the forging-"

"No," spooning ramen into his bowl, Yasugi eyed his apprentice narrowly. "No, we won't be buying more sand or charcoal. Nor will you be spending more than your usual five hours a day during the next harvest."

Naru huffed, sending steam spiraling around the room. She crossed her arms, pout firmly in place, "Why not? I could start making swords too."

"Not ready," the old man muttered around his noodles.

"Tenten's making swords."

Snorting, the smith gave her a withering glance, "Tenten is a nice girl. And she can also pour molds. I suppose that's something."

Naru's color rose at the slur toward her friend. Pouring molds to make weapons was a cheap, inexpensive way to mass produce highly disposable items that one didn't care about. Caltrops, sometimes shuriken, maybe even training kunai could be mold poured. Saying it was all a smith could do was high insult. "Now you wait just a minute-"

"Hush up. You know I wasn't serious, brat." Sighing, the man shook his head, pointing with the same chopsticks he had a morsel of meat pinned between. "She's good, for her age. Like you," Yasugi took the bite and mulled it about for a moment. "Now, if you spent the time on steel that you spend on noodles..."

"We all got our priorities, old man," she groused, slurping up broth after.

It grew quiet for a moment between them, as Yasugi stared at his young ward between bites. "Speaking of priorities. Iruka and Suzume had some interesting things to say about your studies." Naru's chopsticks rattled to the tabletop, the girl looking everywhere but at the old man across the table. "They tell me you've been calling out students again."

"...bluebloods need a real lesson now and then-"

"I'll pretend I didn't hear that," though the old man's words were soft, there was the spine of steel behind them that she'd come to recognize, sometimes through painful lessons. It meant he was as serious as the edges he forged. "Listen. Do you want to be a smith, spending your days nursing fire and shaping metal, till your back grows brittle and your hands shake? I agreed to teach you, to give you something to pay your boarding, but you made it clear it wasn't what you wanted to do. Not a career. No, you wanted to be a ninja, and use that steel. Did that change?"
She sat silently, staring at her hands, flashes of her earlier thoughts laughing in the dark corners of her mind. "What do you mean? Are you not happy with me?"

"Hells girl," sighing, Yasugi rubbed a hand across his craggy face. "You don't see it do you? Every time some blooded brat gets under your skin, you send them home black and blue or come home that way yourself. How long do you think the Council will tolerate that? How many more times till they have you thrown out?"

"They have it coming," falling back into her chair with a sigh, the nine year old pushed her bowl away, laying her head on the cold wood.

"You will listen, and listen well Naru," the old man replied icily. "I honestly don't care about those pampered brats. I don't care about your Academy and their politics. I care about you, but if you keep working them to the quick, one day they'll dig you out like a splinter. What is it you have to prove? Why do you push those children, the ones with bloodlines and clans behind them like you do?"

Naru leaned on her hand staring at nothing for long moments. "I... don't have a reason." The lie came hard, as she did respect the man, respected him enough to deal with his foul moods, his grumbling and bad humor. Still, what could she say? "I'm sorry Gramps, but they have it coming. I just can't sit around those bloodline brats with the Kyuubi growling in my ear all day! Seeing them get privileges from the Academy because of their parents, not how hard they work. Seeing an entire village treat them like a treasure while I had to suffer just to eat." Inherited grudges... in one of her classmate's words, too troublesome.

"Well then, I think the solution is as simple as the reason. Stop this foolishness, or I'll not only withdraw my support from your training," Naru gaped, but he continued, unphased. "I'll stop training you as a smith, and evict you."

Wide eyed, the girl felt the world fall out from beneath her. He'd go that far? "N-no way! You can't!"

"I will," sighing, the man shook his head slowly. "Listen. You want to be a ninja, then stop being a child. I'm not telling you to become a brooding bore like some of them, but take this in the way it deserves."

She was still shaken from Yasugi's threat. "What do you mean?"

"Being a ninja isn't a child's game," the old man growled, stabbing a finger at the young girl. "Ninja are the backbone of the Element countries. They're a human resource, granting power where they go, and using it to further their Kage's wishes, who may or may not work to better their home nations. Th bottom line, Naru, is this world is built on war, and death. This is no child's game you're trying to play. So tell me, are you serious about this? Serious enough to kill or die at the whim of an old man in a tower?"

Hating him for it just a little bit for breaking her dream little by little with each word, Naru wiped away the moisture in her eyes those words brought. "You make it sound like you don't want me to be a ninja."

"Sense! Finally!" Rising with a groan, the old man gathered up his things noisily. "A smith. Oh, no doubt you could be great – but look at yourself! Going to spend that pretty face on soot. Of course not, you choose death! Ninja, feh!" Throwing his dishes in the sink, the old man leaned on the counter, staring out at the town that bustled around them. "You just don't see it. So, ninja start early. Teams start when you're ready, average of around twelve years old, right?"

"If you don't get promoted sooner, yeah."

Yasugi snorted. "So, killers at twelve. How many in your class was it? Nearly thirty? Now, think about this hard, Naru," turning around, the man tapped the cane he carried on the ground, an ominous sound with the floor below hollow for his shop. "How many of those top ranks do you see? Jounin they're called I think. Thirty new ninja a year, and how many walking around Konoha over the age of thirty, hm?" Not waiting for her to reason out what he meant, Yasugi stalked off in a shuffle for his bed, apparently finished with their conversation, and the day.

She knew what he was trying to say. Somewhere deep down she knew it was truth.

Ninja died. Their business was death, after all. Often against other ninja, who thought the same.

Ninja were resources, spent on a village's well-being.

Ninja were born every year, making them less valuable as a single person.

Despite it all... she would not change her path. Hokage... the idea had lost appeal since that night, years ago. Finally confronting the Third, after deciding to accept the Kyuubi's gift. The man was surprisingly forthcoming once she – he then, as Naruto – had admitted to already knowing about the beast trapped in the seal.

The old man had been surprisingly pliable to her requests. After hearing the depth of hate she was beginning to harbor against the town thanks to the whispered secret being anything but that. His and the Fourth's plan had failed, and though she didn't specifically say it was the Kyuubi who had convinced her to this path...

It was no six year old's plot. To fake their own death in a small fire, easily staged to be set by some 'angry survivor' of the Kyuubi's attack. It was later a point of sick justification on her part to point out how many stepped forward, to claim responsibility. It was also the turning point between her and the Hokage. Maybe it was that guilt, maybe just the need to improve her cover, but they'd grown distant, almost cold. No more was it 'Gramps' or 'Old Man' when she visited the tower. The kitsune had insisted on that, making sure her cover was solid.

She was a master of such things, after all. Regardless, it still hurt.

Naru was lucky to have found Yasugi, but such was the way of things. Perhaps that also added to the distance between them. The Third saw himself replaced, and Naru wasted no time setting aside her old life for a new one.

"Hokage," she murmured, picking at her ramen fitfully. The idea didn't instill the same fire in her it once had.

Her hand reached into that pocket, pulling the slip out into the light. Today will change everything. The sound it made snapping and hissing when fed to a candle was more satisfying than ramen.

Contrary to belief, the first few days after the tamahagane harvest were anything but the flurry of activity that one would expect. Tending the smelting basins for three solid days, the exacting attention to detail, and then finally the massive haggle and quarrel over the final steel left everyone frayed and tired.

"Damnit, Naru, wake up!"

Landing on her back again after a nasty kick-grapple combination, the blonde could only grunt as the air slowly managed to work it's way back into her lungs. Apparently everyone but Tenten, the girl groused. "Ease up you harpy!"

Naru's view of the sky was interrupted as Tenten leaned over, hair up in buns and a concerned look across her features. "Ok. Now I know something's up. What's wrong?"

Rolling her eyes, the blonde settled her arm across her eyes, "Just kill me now, it'd be easier in the long run."

"Yes because dragging anything out of you is a job for ANBU Intel division, I know." Naru graced Tenten's quip with a single finger. Sighing at the girl's antics, Tenten folded her legs and sprawled beside her best friend. "Seriously though Naru, what's going on? You've been distracted all day, you're slow, you're obviously not focused. Lack of focus-"

"-is the ninja-killer, I know. I know!" Growling in a way the Inuzuka would find impressive, the blonde-haired girl flailed about, sending grass and debris up in a cloud. "Argh! I hate this!"

"Hate what?" Eyes round, Tenten could only stare as the usually calm and focused girl before her devolved into a railing tantrum. Oh, sure, Naru had a penchant for beating up kids who's seemingly only claim to ninja training at all consisted of who their parents were. Their kunoichi studies mentor, Suzume Namida, had an equally low opinion of some of them, if in truth, much quieter. No, Naru always had one thing going for her that their teacher found absolutely enamoring. Focus. For all Naru's infighting, backhanded insults, and sometimes open disdain, she was focused. She wasn't the best in her class, sometimes not even close, but there was never a time when Naru wasn't giving her all.

The young girl pitching the tantrum beside her, for all she resembled the Naru Tenten knew, could have been a total stranger. "Naru?"

Kicking her feet up so she ended up rolling into a sit, the girl in question regarded her querulously. "Look, I'm sorry. It's just... I kinda had my world shaken up some, ya know?"

"No, I don't know," Tenten sighed, scooting closer. "You haven't said anything. How can I know?"

Naru's blazing blue eyes dimmed a bit at that. "Yeah. Yeah, you're right. Sorry... Just so used to keeping everything bottled up I suppose."

"Hey, it makes sense," Tenten replied with a shrug. "I mean, you did manage to survive till you were six on your own somehow. It kind of goes without saying you're used to being private. But, hey, you can talk to me, you know?"

Yeah, Naru thought to herself, I could tell you how three years ago it was your old man Orikata that was with the guy who sent me to the hospital. Oh, sure, he was trying to talk the guy down, but it's still there. A reminder. Or, how nice it would be to tell someone, anyone that I'm not Naru Kazami the bright but quarrelsome orphan that wandered into Konoha three years ago, but Naruto Uzumaki, the same person just... hated by the entire village. Swallowing the bitterness her musing brought on, Naru smiled to her companion, "I know, Ten. I know."

They sat this way for s few minutes, till one of them fidgeted, tossing some of the grass Naru had ripped up at the other. This escalated to shoving, then to dodging kunai, and finally a full on spar, continuing where they'd left off.

Tenten was a real prodigy with ranged weapons. There was no secret the Academy planned to groom her for sniping, cultivating that amazing eye into something truly deadly. This was precisely why Naru liked sparring with the girl, as it was a test of her own abilities.

Where Tenten was strongest at mid-range, where she could build patterns of hail with senbon and kunai, Naru was a close-range juggernaut. It didn't really seem it, but to anyone who tried to grapple with the blonde, the realization usually came too late. She shrugged off weaker blows, just powering through them before exerting what some of the Academy instructors considered 'blatant overkill' tactics.

A good example of this would have been last week's sparring incident with an older Academy student. Naru was paired off with someone that would 'instruct' her on defensive tactics. Iruka was a critical man, kind when needed, but Naru's acting out had apparently pushed one of the man's buttons. The student, a taijutsu and close-range specialist named Mitsugi Seto, wasn't the sort that would likely pass the Genin exams. He was good, but there were obvious lacks in the boy's aptitudes. As this was his last year in the Academy, it was make or break, and the stress had made him an almost perfect bookend to Naru in a physical matchup.

Except he was almost half again as massive, and a head taller.

Everyone on the field could see what the scarred Chuunin instructor was planning, including Naru. She would later hear from Tenten there were bets as to whether she would go after him next, considering the look she gave the man, but then someone mentioned how Mitsugi was three years older and that Naru had no chance. Tenten had just smiled.

Everyone had gone quiet when Iruka authorized full contact, something nearly unheard of with the age difference between the two. The match started typically enough, with the older boy rushing her, hoping to catch her off guard and then end the spar quickly. Naru was blinking off her rage at what the man she'd called friend and worried on losing years before was doing, and didn't bother to block the taller boy's first hit.

A downward-angled palm strike to the collar, a 'crippling' move that was designed to lead into combinations that were punishing if not fatal. It didn't have the potential to knock the opponent away, but rather collapse their defense, which is why it wasn't often used in sparring. Swapping his stance, Mitsugi tried to follow up with an axe kick, sweeping his heel down into the girl's unprotected shoulder when all hell broke loose.

Everyone would have sworn that Naru had taken the hit, and fallen as expected. Most also thought she'd end up with her arm in a sling, her collarbone broken. Instead, she was back up and catching Seto's kick in a cross-hand guard, that quickly turned into reversal throw.

Mitsugi's charge was broken, and the muttering shifted from Naru's collar, to his knee that would end up sending someone to the hospital.

Naru was far from finished though. Seto rolled and recovered, favoring the knee but still on the offensive. His stance spoke as much, the half-second he held it before Naru slammed into him, having not even paused after the throw. Mistugi got off some punishing body blows that Naru seemed to not even notice, before again being sent across the sparring field after taking a lunging spear strike to the stomach.

Normally a move used to close distance fast and break or unsettle a defender's block, it was typically started well out of grapple range. Naru ignored that, and used the strike's full-body lunge coupled with the spear-point impact to send Seto crashing at Iruka's feet.

When the boy coughed blood on the Chuunin's shoes and passed out, he finally called the match.

The Council of course were interested as any other person her age would have been floored, if not totally knocked out by the taller student's first strike. She then had the audacity to simply shrug off any of his other strikes. Ignoring Iruka's part in the match, there were polite inquiries – some less polite – about her lineage, and what clan she'd been a part of, to give her that kind of resilience.

Records were pulled and though she told them as much, the Kazami name had no references to such a thing. Apparently stymied on their hopes of getting another bloodline into their records, the Council had grudgingly let the girl be.

Of course the Kazami line had no such records, as Naru made the name up. She knew her uncanny resilience came from the Kyuubi and her own practice at keeping her own and the Demon Fox's chakra well under the radar. What she later learned was that in doing so, she had begun at an early age practicing a basic Genin technique that hardened chakra around key points of the body, to reduce damage while fighting. Naru simply had a lot of chakra, and rather than just protect organs, it sheathed nearly all her tissues. Nothing came without a price though, and that resilience cost the young girl a lot of control when it came to ninjutsu skills.

With Tenten, who was her first and closest friend, Naru didn't play nearly as rough. Close range meant tagging, rather than the debilitating hits they both knew the girl capable of. On the other hand, the blonde encouraged the burgeoning weapons mistress to go all out, something Tenten adored about their sparring. Slamming kunai into stationary targets was one thing, having a thinking, moving, and aggressive target that could take the hits, grin, and keep on coming was another.

Half an hour of that and the pair broke for some water and a breather. Neither had enough room around their homes to practice, so often it was out to the Inuzuka-owned forests to do so, which often gained them either an audience of curious onlookers or occasional offers for other partners. After all, there was nothing ninja liked more than a challenge.

"Hey, Ten," Naru's tone stalled the brunette, who was using her storage scrolls to gather up and pack the armory of kunai she'd been hurling about. "Lets go get lunch, I'll... tell you about what's up. If you still want to know."

"Sure Naru," grinning, the other girl finished up her task, helping the blonde get the leaves from her hair. "But you know, it'd be easier to do this whole confide-in-your-best-friend thing if I didn't have to use you as a pincushion first every time."

"Quiet you."

"Ten, why do you want to be a ninja?"

The brunette blinked, stared, then shrugged at her friend. "I just do."

It was not at all the answer Naru had been expecting. "Wait, 'I just do,'? What kind of reason is that?"

Restaurant noises clattered about them, simple, human, satisfying like the food in it's own way. "Well, think about it, Naru," Tenten explained, setting aside her tea. "We live in Konoha – a ninja village. I'm an orphan, I have no family, I owe most of my life to Orikata for taking me in." Shrugging the girl loosed a sigh, "What else can I be?"

And there Naru realized, it was. What else could she be? No one had any illusions on what happened when ninja, even Academy aged ones, left their homes. Secrets kill, and were worth killing over. "I guess you're right."

"It's a kind of trap, in it's own way," Tenten mused, swirling her tea in it's cup. "We see and hear the stories about ANBU, about the Hokages. Then we sign up and sign our lives away to the Academy. You're in the books now – run away and they'll find you. Then you get in... and it's all different."

Three years ago, Naruto would have laughed. 'Being the Hokage means I can do what I want!' He may have crowed back to the girl. 'The Hokage can make any rule he wants!' Now, Naru saw clearer. It only took living her life though the lens of a lie to do so. "Yeah. I didn't see it before. I'm starting to."

Giving her friend her best smile, Tenten reached across and squeezed her hand. "Hey, don't worry. I think you'll be great. Best kunoichi ever – well, second best."

'Second best killer in town,' the blonde thought, painting on a sickly smile. 'Great.' Out loud, she replied, "Well, do you ever think about the other side of it? Assassinations, all the cloak and dagger stuff. Being made to kill?"

Tenten quieted, her smile fading. "Yeah. I think about it. You know, my parents didn't die to the Fox, like a lot of orphans our age. I'm a year older after all," she reminded the blonde. "They died in the war with Iwa. When I learned that, I decided."

"Vengeance?"

"Legacy," the brunette corrected. "They weren't killed in a raid, or a farm. They fought. All I have is that memory, now. So, I'll fight too. Because it's all I have left, really." Naru nodded quietly, but never looked up from the table. "Naru? What's... well why are you wondering about this now?"

"Me and the old man got into a fight a while ago. Some things he said really started me thinking." She waved down the brunette, who seemed to have gotten the urge to go find Yasugi and speak her mind with a kunai as translator, "No, it's ok. Really. I think I needed it."

"Yeah but, you've been off since, if it was just before the steel harvest. Not yourself at all."

"Huh?"
"Well, before you had this... drive. Like nothing could stop you, you know?" Shaking her head, Tenten leaned back and smiled sadly at her friend. "Now it just feels like that fire went out."

Naru laughed mirthlessly a moment, before taking a bite of a bean bun. "I started wondering, 'Why do I want to be a ninja' and came up with a big, stupid blank. I was living in a dream, looking a the top of the ladder and not noticing it had no rungs."

Tenten boggled at the blonde. "What? But you're... like the most promising kunoichi of your year!"

"That'd be Haruno, or her friend Yamanaka," Naru replied with a shrug. "With my control issues I'm more like that Lee guy in your year."

Tenten suppressed a shudder thinking about the energetic boy. "Well, he's a taijutsu specialist too, but you can use chakra – he can't. That puts you a bit above him at least."

Sighing, Naru shook her head, "Not really. My control is garbage."

"All this aside though, you had a goal, right? A dream?"

Blushing and looking away, Naru nodded slightly. "Yeah. I... keep this to yourself, alright?" Tenten nodded, giving the blonde a look that relayed how silly that request was. "I wanted to be Hokage."

"Hokage," blinking rapidly a moment as she digested that, Tenten regarded her friend a moment. "Why Hokage?"

"I thought it'd make people respect me. That it'd show them I was something other than just an orphan or what they see," Naru skirted the issue carefully, not sure if Tenten recalled her previous life's rants on this topic. Kami knew he was loud enough about it then. Recently though, a new reason had reared it's head, "That I was worth as much as those bloodline types."

"That's... tough," the weapons mistress admitted, idly spinning a chopstick between her fingers like a senbon. "The Council is more in charge of that kind of thing. And well. Konoha loves their bloodlines."

"Tell me about it," the blonde groused, recalling teachers handing out copies of technique scrolls like candy to the 'noble' clan children, while the rest just kept on drilling the same basics over and over. She recalled the intense interest in her suddenly, when there was a hint her talents were blood-borne and growled quietly. "I wonder some days how some of them can claim to be ninja at all."

Tenten sucked in a breath, eyes wide. "What?"

"Listen, I have nothing against the Akamichi family, ok? But really, I've seen Choji's dad do that gumball tank-"

"Meatball tank," Tenten corrected, earning her a sharp laugh in reply.

"Yeah, like that's any better. Anyway. How does that fit in with a ninja's skills? Stealth, accuracy, discretion, speed. And this guy's bulldozing walls and bouncing around like some kind of insane ball." Shaking her head, Naru gestured around widely, "All the jutsu too. Fire dragons and these massive fireworks effects and earth techniques that may as well be small earthquakes. What's subtle about any of that?"

"I see what you mean," Tenten replied, her voice low and hands going out to calm down the irritable Naru. "But you see why, don't you?" The blonde shook her head slowly. "Well, think of it like this.

"You have two people, with an unlimited arsenal to work with. But the goal is to defeat the other with only the minimal power needed. Person A brings a knife. So, seeing that he'll need a bigger weapon to overcome the knife, Person B brings a kodachi. Now, Person C sees that, and brings a full-sized tachi. D will bring out a yari or naginata, E will get a zanbato maybe."

Naru nodded in understanding, recalling a few of the tactics lectures she'd payed attention to, "Power escalation."

Smiling, the brunette agreed, "Yeah, it's simplified but there you go. People will always try to have superiority over their fellows. When one country learns skills, the others scramble to catch up and pass them. To stay secure in their position, advances are always being made. Tying in with something you said earlier, Konoha's bloodlines mean the village has a constant buffer. Well meant, as the Uchiha were the big equalizers there. Send three out to a battle where new jutsu are being used and Bam! We're caught up."

"Seems cheap though," Naru countered, stiffening at the flash of ire that swept through her at the idle acclaim Tenten had handed to the Uchiha. Taking a stilling breath, she pushed the kitsune's anger aside.

"Well we are ninja," Tenten quipped, missing the small conflict that had just raged nearby. "Fair and honorable are for the samurai. We're just there to get it done, no matter how."

It was a hard thing to think about, for a nine year old Naru. To consider that they were training to be something like that. "True I suppose," Stretching with an affected yawn, the blonde set out some coin for her meal. "I think I'll head back. Been a long day." Waving, she made her escape, not wanting Tenten to follow tonight. She had enough to think on, and selfish as it was, she wanted to do so alone.

She missed Tenten eyeing her speculatively, not believing the blonde's lie for a moment.

The shrine's door banged shut behind her. She was vaguely disgusted with herself. Three years now, and the field, the unending expanse of blue and gold still made her blood go cold and the noise...

Shaking off a creeping shudder, Naru peered up into the Kyuubi's waiting, golden eyes. "You have returned," words like steel sheathed in silk.

"Yeah," no matter how many times, now much she tried – when had that started? – Naru could never match the kitsune's tone, her quiet sensual ease at letting words drip like honey laced with cyanide. Deciding that directness was best, the kunoichi straightened, meeting the Kyuubi's eyes with her own blue, "I've been feeling you more."

Ruby cupid bow lips curved, "Is that so...? How have you been feeling me?"

A blush crept across Naru's cheeks, and she looked aside quickly. Leave it to the fox to notice that as well... "A-at the diner. I felt you pressing against my head. Talking about the bloodlines."

The kitsune made a dismissive gesture. "Fit of pique," the woman-shaped-spirit replied easily, casting aside the young girl's concern as if it was meaningless.

"The hell you say!" Marching up to the honden, Naru leaned forward, glaring angrily. "What is that? You think you can control my emotions by pushing like that?"

To her surprise, the kitsune matched her pose, face inches away. Naru saw the narrowing slit and the wide, gold pattern swirling in the woman's eyes, "You expect me to remain, passive and corralled in this place? I, who claim the rule of the most cunning clan?" The kitsune's words boomed around the room, the very air warping around them, despite being spoken in a low hiss, "I who laid low cities, countries in boredom!"

"And who was defeated by one man," the young girl sniped.

The Kyuubi's eyes bled red all the way to their slits, as the kitsune's hands came up in wicked claws to rend at the invisible wall before her. "You dare!"

"Because I have to!" Naru's scream pushed the kitsune back physically. This was not their first, nor likely last contest of wills in this place. "Look. I agree with you, I do. We have to work together, more every day as the seal weakens and what you are bleeds over into me, but I can't, I won't be a... tool to you."

"You would do well to remember I feel much the same," the kitsune replied, tone quiet but bearing a promise of pain. She looked up, face feral and furious. It was noted in a small corner of Naru's mind, that the transition from stunning beauty to shocking brutality seemed far too small.

Sighing, Naru slumped, resting her back against the honden. "I'm sorry. You know it's just... how out of control my life was before. Then I finally get my hands on the reins! And now, it's like-"

"It didn't change anything," the kitsune said, completing the girl's thought. "Yes, I know of futility. Each success brings only new views, new problems." Naru could tell the woman was mirroring her again, by the sound of her voice. She felt the vibrations through the barrier as the kitsune spoke. With a sigh the spirit tapped at the wall, a little game they played sometimes.

"It's still out of control. This seal, you, the Academy..." Naru picked up the tempo, easing into the odd, impromptu music of their tapping. Soon she was smiling, if faintly. "Do you want to hear about it?"

The kitsune shifted, moving to the center of her space. Much like before, the woman's form – Naru easily saw now that she was beautiful – splayed out in a way that screamed sensual appeal and slow, languid promise. It was the same boneless, sinuous motion she'd made the first, and every other time that Naru had been here.

Regardless, it still made the girl blush. She stepped over the honden without pause, knowing that no matter what argument they had, how heated their screaming, there was nothing to fear from the kitsune. Rather, that she had nothing to fear.

The smaller blonde curled up against the kitsune's side, an arm draped across the taller form's waist. "So, kitling. Tell me about what tells on you so."

Eyes unfocused as she spoke, Naru loosed her fears and worries about her future. How now, more than ever, her dream of being Hokage seemed tarnished. "Before... I'd always wanted it, so people would accept me. Respect me."

"And now they do," the kitsune noted, a questioning note in her voice.

Naru nodded, letting her head lay against the warm form beside her. "Somewhat. I mean I have friends now. Tenten and Orikata and his sons. Yasugi and the people at the Academy. It's so strange, but now," she paused, breathing a heavy sigh. "I don't know what I want now. I thought being a ninja would be..." she stalled, blinking.

"You did not know at all, did you? What to expect from such a thing."

"No I didn't, and now," Naru shivered slightly in her position, laying against the Kyuubi, the kitsune's tails curling up over the smaller form. "Now I don't know if I want it."

The spirit sometimes known as the Demon Fox glanced down at her host, a hand idly straying through the young girl's hair. She had worried that giving the child such an obvious gift would come with a heavy toll, and this wasn't outside her expectations. "You study with the smith now?" Naru nodded silently. "Then think on this.

"A shinobi is like one of your swords," the kitsune began, gesturing outward slowly. "A hand is needed to wield it. In this case, the hand is the Hokage." Pausing, gold eyes glanced down, "But, there are always legends of powerful swords, that have lives and tales beyond those of the ninja who bore them."

"A tool with it's own path as well?" Naru blinked, considering that. "I'm not sure how that would work, for me. I mean, I don't think we're given enough leeway to 'make our own rules'."

The kitsune grinned slowly. "It may not be the answer, but perhaps it will lead to one."

Naru nodded, lazing in the kitsune's embrace. Even if she couldn't find an solutions to her problems, it was worth it just for this.

She may have been surprised to know that behind slitted bronze eyes, similar thoughts stirred.

"Better."

"Damnit," swearing wearily, Naru let the tongs fall to the side, though easily so as to not harm them. It wasn't the tool's failure, it was hers. "I just..."

Yasugi straightened with a grunt, after inspecting her work. "You think to match me in five years?" The old man chuckled warmly, dulling the edge on his words. "You're improving. That's what matters."

Naru looked at the dull, pitted, blade-shaped form with blank, emotionless eyes. She was allowed one sword's worth of steel a month to work on, to practice and demonstrate that the old man's lessons weren't wasted. She'd started in her fourth year as Naru, and though she listened to his lessons, paid as much attention as her mind would allow, the results this last year had all been the same. The waste of material before her was the last in many of those attempts. "I don't know what went wrong."

"Let me help you then," the words still took Naru by surprise, no matter how many times Yasugi or Tenten or an Academy instructor used them. The only person who could say such a thing and not shock her, even just a little, was the Kyuubi.

Yasugi sat after throwing open the forge's windows, letting fresh air whirl in and sweep the metallic stink of her work away. "You understand the theory well enough, but I see some of it isn't quite connecting."

Looking at the ugly ruin of her latest attempt, Naru could only nod. "But I'm doing everything right."

"You think you are, which is even more dangerous," the man corrected. "Listen. To a craftsman, their works is their life. Literally. If you can't do the work, you don't eat, have no home. In a way, it's like your ninja path. We have our way as well, and each craft I suppose has it's analogies on life. For now though... lets just worry about your forging." Naru blinked at the sudden snipped of insight, but almost as quickly the old smith's tone changed, "If you feel your actions are correct, and are unable to see past them to the reasons why they lead to failure, then you cannot overcome those mistakes."

Naru blinked at the man owlishly. "I see," she murmured quietly, automatically. She didn't fully, but the more that idea circulated in her head, the more it took root. "Then, you're saying that if I want to improve, I have to look at everything as a potential failure, and see what I can change?"

"Not everything," the man replied, leaning on the bellows. The massive device let out a slight wheeze at his weight. "Think of it like this. We'll break down the forging into three steps. Heating, folding, shaping.

"Heating the blade allows it to be shaped. Heat allows you to shape the steel without destroying it. Each draw against the anvil and hammer needs to be measured. You cannot heat the whole blade – only what must be. To try and change more than is needed will cause your efforts to be wasted." Yasugi took up the now-cooled mass of mangled steel. "You heated the whole blade at once, then worked fast to make use of it. You cannot do so at every point in the heating, of the different hardnesses that make up a proper weapon are lost. You must do so with precision. One part at a time."

Yasugi took up a large hasp, and worked the steel a moment, scraping off a section of the outer skin quickly and with long practice. Normally Naru knew this was done with polishing stones, but with the points he'd said to make, she knew Yasugi was doing it to expose the metal's grain. "Now, here we see your folding. The strength of a blade is achieved through many long hours of taking a form, bending it on itself, using heat to make it pliable, then forcing back into the proper shape. We fold metal why?"

"It evens out the carbon content, reducing it to proper levels. It balances the weaker and stronger alloys together to give the blade the proper strength, without making it brittle."

"Excellent," the man agreed, smiling. He then pointed to the exposed segment of blade. "The repetition gives it strength. Here, you folded too broadly, and too few times. The grain is too wide, and because of that, the blade will shatter along those lines. What would normally bring strength, instead becomes weakness." To demonstrate, the man slammed the malformed blade into the side an anvil, causing it to shatter into three parts. Naru winced, her heart breaking just a little.

"I'm sorry," Yasugi said softly. "That was cruel, but necessary. Now we can see the shaping.

"Our blades are not a single piece of steel. We fold the highest carbon steels together, because they are different. This allows us to use the weld, where we fold them again and again, to drive out impurity, to give the edge a razor keenness, and impart differing toughness to each part of the blade."

Naru nodded at this, taking up a small fragment of her work. "The core and body are weak, edgeless, lower carbon steel. This lets the blade bend."

Yasugi smiled. "Good. And the outer later?"

"Folded high-carbon steel that can hold a fine edge and withstand impacts."

"And why the difference?"

Taking a breath, Naru looked at the cross-section of her work. The core was too small, the outer layer sheathing it in a 'V' too thick. "The edge takes the single impact, sending it to the core, which lets the blade bend to distribute the shock. So it holds, and doesn't shatter."

"No blade is a single stroke," the man agreed with a solemn air. "Each part is strong in it's own way. Each part has a precise function, but they are all the same," Yasugi peered at her intently, over the wrecked blade. "Remember this. We smiths, like most craftsmen, have found wisdom in our work that crosses many borders."

Naru blinked rapidly, trying to discern his meaning but failing. Still, she sat long after he had risen with a grunt, patting her on the shoulder, considering his words. It would not be the first time he had given her some kernel of wisdom, wrapped up the the jargon of his craft. She sat and thought about the forge, the blade, and herself. It wasn't till nearly midnight that she left the small, cold, silent forge.

The zanbato struck the ground with a dull 'thunk', sinking a slightly into the ground at an angle and staying there. "You have got to be joking."

Yasugi grinned in a way that reminded Naru uncomfortably of her unwilling passenger. "Not at all. You think I don't see how you push your chakra around?" The old smith leaned against the blade, budging it not a bit. That wasn't surprising, as the thing probably massed as much as she did, and not counting the grip, was as tall. "You haul around raw steel like it weighs a quarter of it's mass, you shrug off the few accidents around the forge that would have put me in the hospital, and yet you can't wield a forging hammer with any kind of precision."

"No, I mean it, tell me how you really feel," the blonde sniped, stung but the man's comment on her technique, brief as it was.

Sighing, the old man closed his eyes, reaching up to rub at the bridge of his nose. "What I mean is this. You have too much chakra to deal with, this is obvious. You pump it back into your body constantly to control it, and that's good. I'm no ninja – never was, never wanted to be – but it's part of the world we live in. Have to know.

"What I'm trying to tell you is this," Yasugi kicked back at the massive blade, causing it to chime dully. "Your control over it will improve as time goes on, the more you use it. The downside is that the way your doing so, you'll lose all precision with delicate actions."

Naru leaned back on the forge's wall, still eyeing that massive... thing that sat lodged in the ground. "So as long as I'm using my little trick to subdue my chakra, I'll never manage to be a smith," she muttered, bitter and angry. It wasn't that she'd built up the craft as a career, but it was nice to be good at something. With all the doubts that had been plaguing her in the last two years about her choice at being a ninja, this was just the final straw.

"I may have an ideal how to work with that," he held up a hand to stall her almost immediate question. "I'll know for sure in time. Right now I can't even give you a hint in good faith." Changing topics, the man continued, "Why do you try so hard to mask it," the smith queried her, gaze sharpening as she looked away quickly. "You don't have to tell me."

"Hrn," Naru sighed, banging her head against the brick behind her. "It's... an old thing. From before I met you. Lets just say if people knew what and how I did it, they'd be much less friendly toward me."

Yasugi's expression frosted over. "You mean like the purges, in Water and Kiri."

Naru blinked at the man in open confusion. "What?"

Seeing he'd backed himself into a corner – one did not leave a story untold around Naru unless they wanted to deal with the girl's ire – the old man settled down on a nearby log to begin. "Unlike Konoha, the Water country saw those of bloodline lineage as a liability. In a way, they are more like what ninja were, before the Shinobi Wars. They didn't use those massive, flashy, destructive techniques that could level battlefields. Water country values skill, subtlety, and hard work more than what shortcuts blood allowed.

"In time, the few bloodlines that Water tolerated began to feel the pressure, and thinking themselves able to push through, they started planning a coup." Yasugi shook his head, sparing a glance at the zanbato. "Mist responded with a program that exemplified their view on ninja. Where the bloodlines used inherited techniques that were often overpowering and out of scale for single, subtle targets, Mist responded with the Swordsmen.

"The program set out to train one candidate specifically to counter each prominent bloodline within Water's borders. The coup was put down, brutally, and Mist to this day has a very low tolerance toward anyone exhibiting such gifts." Yasugi eyed the girl closely, causing the youth to fidget, "Now, Konoha is about as opposite of Kiri as one can get. What you're talking about isn't a bloodline, obviously, or they'd be all over you. The only thing I can think of-"

"Stop." Naru's voice was quiet, but the man stilled, a slight smile on his face. "If we go on, we do it inside."

Yasugi nodded, leading the way from the forge Orikata ran to their home. The trip was spent in silence, the odd change from their usual behavior that a few noticed. Once they were safely closed into the man's smaller workspace, Yasugi took a look around and grunted, pulling a small slip of paper out of a dusty box, slapping it on the door.

Naru stiffened as the sensation of a chakra seal expending washed over her. "What-"

"Privacy seal. Small, pointless if you want to stay hidden, but civilians are allowed them in their homes with reasonable accommodation." Settling himself into the spartan chair he preferred, the old man regarded his ward critically. "Now. What is it that makes you so paranoid you can't speak of it in the open?"

Shaking slightly in her anxiety, Naru sat in the other chair, a squashy, fat thing that Yasugi kept for clients. She hated it, but it was the only one left, so she sank into it with a grumble. "Well, you seem pretty up to date on the history of the Element countries."

"Good to know where the business trends come from," the man replied, his measuring gaze not shifting since they'd begun talking earlier. "Speaking of history, I was about to mention something that struck a nerve. Why would talking about the Demon Fox do that?"

Naru visibly winced. If he were anyone else... Still, it shook her. Before the kitsune's gift, she didn't know why people hated her. Now she did, and the paranoia that this man would follow them. She didn't realize she'd been shaking till a firm hand on her shoulder snapped her out of her musing. "Calm down, brat. Whatever you're running from, I know enough in my old age to see things clearly. You don't need to worry about me. Now, spill before I start throwing the noodles in the trash."

The blonde snorted. "Alright, alright. You were mostly on the right track. The village has a grudge against the Demon Fox. It's about the only thing they hate in such a blanket way, outside of missing ninja."

"And since you're not worried about hunters..."

"Yeah."

Yasugi ran a finger along his chin, thinking. "Now, last time I heard anything about that, was a small while after I got here. There was some talk about the 'Demon brat' finally getting dealt with." Naru's eyes emptied of any emotion, as she leaned back and stared at the man. Despite his years of dealing with killers and professional warriors, that gaze always unsettled him. Coming from an eleven year old girl – his apprentice no less – it was more telling. "What does this kid have anything to do with you?"

"His name was Naruto Uzumaki," the girl before him said hollowly. Reaching up, she traced the edge of her finger across her cheeks, feeling the strange shift in her skin that meant the kitsune's gift was working. "My name, was Naruto Uzumaki."

Blinking slowly, the old smith regarded the slight girl before him as faint lines appeared on her cheeks, like stylized whiskers. "You're trying to tell me that you were a boy. A boy who had a demon sealed inside him?"

"The Nine-tails could level mountains at a whim." She made a gesture that, looking back, reminded her of one the kitsune had done that fateful day. "This wasn't a big deal."

Yasugi sat back, blowing out a tense breath. "Well. That's... well."

Naru rolled her eyes. "Right. I'll go get started packing."

"The hell are you talking about, brat?" The blonde stiffened, shooting the man an expressionless glare. "Oh calm down. You think spending five years around someone, you'd know them a bit better," trailing off the old man shook his head wearily. "So this is why you have chakra issues?"

Nodding curtly, the girl stood warily by the door. "It's not that I don't have the chakra like most people think. It's that my control is trash because I can't just used the tiny amounts they expect me to, for these Academy skills."

"Hence your fabled overkill tactics," the man replied quietly. After a moment he sighed, straightening. "What happens when one of the Hyuuga use their Byakugan and see what you're doing?"

"...I hadn't thought of that." Groaning, Naru collapsed back into her chair. "You're taking this remarkably well, you know."

"I don't have Konoha's stake in it. All I know is my apprentice is suffering, thanks to some chakra issue she can't go to her supposed Academy over, because of their narrow-mindedness," huffing, the man considered a moment before growling quietly. "And being a smith doesn't get you the kind of contacts for this sort of thing."

Naru nodded woodenly, still somewhat shocked that Yasugi was being so... calm about things. Though it made a kind of sense, as he wasn't from Konoha, and really most of the reactions she'd come to dread were from those alive during the Kyuubi's attack. "It's just something I have to deal with."

Yasugi grunted, standing and pulling down the seal. "I'm going out. I should be back for dinner – no ramen damnit, we had it for lunch! – so until then, use that overkill of yours to start practicing with the zanbato."

Staring dumbly, she managed to scramble after the man after he mind kicked back into gear, "You're serious about that? There's no way I can use that thing!"

"Listen Naru, there's something that's important you need to hear," the old man had paused, getting his cane by the door. Turning to face her, he put a hand to her shoulder. "You will do it because it's possible. Despite what you think. You'll do it because, even though I'm not an expert, I know that it'll help you with control.

"Most of all, I know you'll do it, because otherwise I'll tell Tenten that you're a boy and have been having rather... inappropriate dreams about her at night." The man's grin turned fierce as Naru's color rose sharply. "Now, get to work!"

"...I really hate you old man."

One problem Naru found while attempting to train with the zanbato was something she'd not really expected. She knew that the ANBU used swords, the more versatile kodachi at least, and that there were about three real swordsmen in the village that the old man didn't dismiss out of hand. Considering the population of Konoha, that was a vast minority.

A lack of any kind of trainer should have completely dissuaded her. Instead she pushed harder, realizing she had only herself to blame if she failed.

The second problem was the weapon itself. It was huge. Not just big by traditional weapon standards, but frankly stupidly large. It would have been a joke to put it on display in the shop, and to actually try and sell it... even Naru wouldn't try that. The zanbato Yasugi had tasked her with learning was nearly as wide as she was, the blade easily able to shield her if held sideways, while she turned to the side slightly. It's edge was only sharpened on the one side, the thing being straight for most of it's length until it tapered to a upswept point. All in all, it resembled nothing less than a giant's kitchen cleaver, with more graceful curves. It was as long as she was tall, with the blade ending at about eye-level if held tip to the ground. The grip extended above her head, being rather long, nearly a third again the blade's length.

And it was heavy. Not just 'large piece of metal' heavy, but frankly just massive. She more often than not just let it sink into the ground point-first when at rest, despite the damage such an act could cause the weapon. Ironically, if she saw anyone treating one of Yasugi's blades as she treated the zanbato, she'd likely give them a piece of her mind. Her treatment of the blade aside, it took considerable focus to keep chakra flowing into her body, to compensate for the strain of using it. Too bad that didn't help her with the academy-taught techniques, she quietly groused.

Not a problem in itself, that brought to mind another aspect of the blade that simply confused her. Despite him giving the weapon to her, it wasn't one of Yasugi's weapons. In a strange way she felt almost blasphemous using it, knowing the swordsmith had no hand in it's making.

She'd been three days into her rather clumsy practice, which typically consisted of guards, thrusts, and overhead cleaves. Most who managed to see the waifish girl swinging the thing, much less just picking it up, tended to stand and gape, which lead Naru to taking the thing out to a training area outside the market ward where the forges were. After a half an hour swinging the massive blade that nearly dwarfed her, Naru gained some unwelcome attention.

A violet haired ANBU dropped down from the nearby treeline, cat mask in place as she again worked through a slow set of strength-focusing routines. "Student."

Naru yelped and spun around her axis, the greatsword chambered behind her, ready to follow the spin. Seeing that the speaker was ANBU, she relaxed her arms, the blade turning to bear slowly. Blinking up at the masked figure, Naru grew tired of waiting for the ANBU to speak again and sighed, "Yes? Can I help you?"

"There are no masters of that kind of ungraceful weapon in Konoha," the figure replied in an even monotone. "You would do well to put it aside."

Though few got to see it anymore, one of the legacies Naruto left to the girl who succeeded him was his utter disrespect for authority that didn't earn their due. That's not to say she was blatantly disrespectful to them en masse out of principal – Yasugi had her respect, so did the Hokage and Orikata. On the other hand, right now, Miss ANBU was sitting on the top of the blonde's 'shit' list. Painting on a false smile, the girl grated out her words slowly, "Oh, that's fine. I think I'll keep on just the same."

The ANBU took a step closer, and Naru narrowed her eyes. "You do not understand," the cat mask replied, tone frostier if one could measure monotone. "Ninja do not use such blatant tools. It is disgraceful."

"Forgive me, ANBU-san," the blonde chirped, putting the necessary sarcasm into the address, "But as ninja, isn't it rote that anything is a tool, as long as it assists in the mission? Isn't that why jutsu more suited to castle sieges and urban warfare are standard procedure?" Scoffing, Naru upended the zanbato, thrusting it down into the earth solidly. She then leaned on the blade indolently, "don't talk to me about subtlety. It's a 'forbidden art' as far as I'm concerned."

Though she couldn't see the ninja's face, Naru could practically feel the threat rolling off the masked woman, and imagined her glare with a private smirk. "Yet you are an Academy student. At least what I know of your grades matches your disregard for our ways."

Naru went very, very still at those words. A silent minute passed between them. Barely managing her temper, Naru reached back and wrenched the zanbato from the earth, leaving a hole large enough to make practicing in that area hazardous. Turning away, Naru resumed her ready stance. "'Less you have something more compelling to say, ANBU-san, I have practice to continue."

Though Naru didn't hear specifically when the masked figure left, she checked after some time, using the cover of a sweeping backhand that made her shoulders ache to do so. Convinced she had the grounds to herself again, Naru stepped up her movements, pouring more of her chakra into already sore muscles.

Unseen, a violet-haired kunoichi grinned from the cover of the trees.

"I can't believe I got paired up with Lee."

Naru snickered, barely keeping from choking on her dango. They were taking a break in their routine, one of the few days Tenten had free from her new team. Naru may have preferred ramen, but dango was more portable. "I thought you said he wasn't so bad?" She tried to recall the taijutsu-specialist, who like Tenten, was a year ahead of the blonde in the Academy.

Said brunette groaned, falling backwards to start blankly at the sky. "He wasn't, not in the Academy. Then he met Gai-sensei... and it all got strange."

The blonde leaned back against her increasingly present zanbato which was as often happened, thrust point-down into the ground. Naru sat, eyeing her long-time friend skeptically. "Gai... oh. He's that energetic fellow in the green jumper, right?"

"Energetic? Energetic!?" Tenten shot up, glaring at the blonde who tried not to laugh but failed. "Alright. Come to training ground twenty-eight tomorrow at five-thirty. I'll show you 'energetic'."

Naru hummed, chewing her lunch slowly. "Isn't a little late to start training?"

"Morning, Naru. Morning."

"...er. No. I think I'll pass."

The blonde's head was suddenly forced back to bang against her sword, as her vision was full of brown, pleading eyes. "Please Naru! If I mean anything at all to you, you'll come save me from them!"

Tenten relaxed slightly as the blonde's hands rested on her shoulders. "I've enjoyed our friendship, Ten, but I feel it's time to move on-"

"Why you little!"

Naru scrambled out of the way laughing, as Tenten whipped a flurry of thrown steel at her. "Hey! Watch the kunai!"

"Maybe I'll get excused from training if I kill you!" Not giving up so easily, the older girl was up and pursuing her friend with a single-minded goal. Naru would come to her training, oh, yes she would. Tenten had to have something to anchor her to the real world. The urge to just put on a green jumpsuit so the pain would lessen was getting stronger each day.

Just last night she'd woken in a cold sweat, after dreaming of a day training nothing but Dynamic Entry. The worst part, was she actually did it arriving to breakfast.

Orikata had only just restrained himself from putting her in therapy. "Come back here!" No, if Tenten was going to be dragged down into the pits of gibbering, green-suited, pearly-toothed horror, she was taking her best friend with her.

"Here, have some tea Naru," Tenten offered to her nearly-comatose friend. "It'll help you wake up a little."

The blonde in question mumbled, swaying on her feet slightly. This would normally not be a big issue, but Naru had brought her zanbato with her. Frankly, it still amazed the brunette that the slip of a blonde she had grown up beside of in the forges could even lift that thing, much less swing it.

Ducking as a stumbling Naru spun around, sword on shoulder, Tenten wondered if perhaps she should try to convince the girl to use something less... huge.

Regardless of her early morning stupor, Naru woke up enough before Lee and Gai arrived not to try and club them senseless with the back of her sword. Watching in dazed horror, she was audience to something Gai and the now-integrated Lee called 'Dynamic Entry', which for all intents and purposes made her wonder precisely how sane the older Jounin was.

"Oho, Tenten, I see our amazing display of youth and spirit has brought your friend!"

"Sensei! The bloom of our youth is in full power!" Naru turned her head slightly and regretted it immediately, as Lee mirrored the man's... pose. Down to the gleaming teeth.

Naru turned her head slowly to her friend, "What the blazing hell is wrong with them?"

"I don't think we have the time to go into it all," a quiet, snide voice replied. Naru glanced over to see a dark-haired boy approaching. It was just a moment later she noted the tell-tale Hyuuga eyes. "So you're the odd one Tenten speaks about. I recall you from the Academy," the boy's tone was dismissive, as if he'd already met, judged and found her lacking.

Considering the usual demeanor of the Hyuuga family, Naru felt that very likely. Always so polite, never outright saying anything that would label them rude, but never the opposite either.

She matched the Hyuuga's glare for a fraction of a moment before turning back to Tenten, not bothering to grace the long-haired boy with so much as a reaction. "Well, you didn't mention you had one of them on your team," feigning sadness, the blonde laid a hand on her friend's shoulder. "Not that I blame you."

"Naru!" Tenten brushed her hand off, blushing in embarrassment. "This is my team! Don't make a scene."

It took a moment for Naru's mind to process those words. During it, she scanned left and right, taking in the people Tenten was defending... against her. Somewhat put off, the blonde turned away from sneering at the Hyuuga, her expression blanking by the time she was facing the girl. There was a small war going on inside the younger girl's mind, not that she was showing it. "Indeed. You seem to get along well with your team."

The older girl had the grace to blush. "I... well it is, what it is. They're my team. I have to."

Naru's blue eyes could have been made of ice. "I see," Her words, and Tenten's knowledge of her own mind betrayed her though. Regardless, she ignored the girl's wince, continuing as her voice matched the chill of her eyes, "Why precisely did you bring me out here, Orikata?"

Tenten's eyes widened slightly at the use of her adopted family's name. It had been years since Naru had called her anything but the pet name Ten, and the sudden coldness in that formality coming from the blonde stung. "I..."

"Perhaps Tenten wanted to work with those of similar talents, rather than dragging her feet with someone so... limited," the pale-eyed boy replied while the brunette stumbled to answer. A smirk spread across his lips as the blonde's color drained. Though no one was surprised that a Hyuuga would quietly scornful to a ninja that lacked a bloodline, there weren't many that carried that banner of bias openly.

"Neji!" Spinning to put her back to the abrasive Hyuuga, Tenten tried to get Naru to look at her, but the blonde's head hung slightly, hair slightly obscuring her eyes. Behind her, Tenten could hear Gai lecture Neji on his 'misdirected spirit' and 'unyouthful behavior', whatever the hell that meant. "Hey... Naru?"

Though she'd never be the one to admit it, Naru was remarkably fragile. She'd kept everyone at arm's length, or been held in such a way for so long, that it was hard to think anyone really considered her friend. It had been years since she put that insecure, scared, scarred boy to rest, but some things carried over.

Fear. Fear that if she let someone get close, it'd all go back to the way it was. That something would happen to undo all the wary stumbling progress she longed for so much. Fear that once she could call someone friend, they'd turn around, turn their back on her. Or stab her when she turned hers.

Fear wasn't logical, and though Naru tried harder to see things with more depth than the scared and desperate boy long ago, there were some weaknesses in her armor that were still wide. She'd never tell Tenten, but she was standing almost constantly with her hand on it.

The argument behind the weapons specialist went still as a wave of pressure snapped out from the girl Tenten was tentatively trying to get the attention of. To her credit, the brunette only winced, at least until the girl looked up.

Blazing red eyes, vertically slit and drawn tight so that almost no black at all could be seen glowered from under blonde bangs. Below those eyes, six arcing marks scratched across pale skin, bleeding slightly as they marched across her cheeks. Tenten drew back, the glare coming from her friend hitting like an almost physical blow.

It was enough. With a low growl that rattled across the clearing that Team Guy called their own, Naru launched herself into the tree-line. The silence that stretched out after was broken by the young Hyuuga, "Well, with the animal gone we ca-"

He was silenced by Tenten's fist spinning his smirking face into the dirt. "Shut up, you pompous twit!" She looked back at the trees, cursing her own hesitation earlier. Naru had a temper, this wasn't a secret to anyone, but this... she'd never seen her like this before. What was that?

Still watching the trees while Gai went about collecting her teammate from where she'd left him, she sighed. "I just wanted you to be here, Naru," the muttered to the empty dawn.

"Could I have been more of a... child?"

Whistle... thack.

She knew she overreacted.

Sound of wood splintering, the low creak of the leather handle twisting in her sweaty hand, then another heavy impact.

Naru poured herself into the routine, spinning between a number of trees that were a good size to practice on. Most would equal or slightly exceed a human torso's width. They'd suffered badly for her use, and likely would be claimed for lumber the next season, but Naru didn't mind.

She was doing a pretty fair job of making the work of cutting them down unnecessary.

She grunted, wrenching the blade free as she lunged toward the furthest tree, snapping out a feint to another before slamming the back of the zanbato's grip into the bark. It left a fist-wide crater that her hand would fit into.

It wasn't that she had any real reason to be mad at Tenten. Hell, if she were honest, it was that Hyuuga kid – Neji if memory served – that started it all.

Sliding into a hard thrust that buried the zanbato in a nearby trunk, she jumped up, using the embedded blade as a springboard.

Her issues with people of bloodline decent were well known. After all, she did tell that Uchiha kid that if he kept brooding near her, she'd go ahead and finish his brother's work that one day during class. That had resulted in a very long, very loud talk with Iruka...

At the apex of her jump, easily within the cover of the dying canopy, she launched a hail of kunai and senbon, bitterly recalling that it was a blatant knock-off of Tenten's technique. A third of the sharpened edges struck true, while the rest would either have boxed in or struck a fleeing foe.

Tenten. She wasn't a bad person – she never even glared at Naruto – but it still hurt. Not anything she did, since Naru knew she didn't do anything. The idea that one day she might. It paralyzed her, scared her stiff and senseless.

Falling, she waited for the last moment before whipping out her hands to the grip and tucked hard around it. Velocity made her feet whistle as she snapped out a pair of kicks, bleeding off momentum.

Naru knew what part of her issue was. At least she thought she knew. It would make sense, really. She wasn't mature, wasn't wise, wasn't secure. Naru was well acquainted with her shortcomings.

One hand spun the blade free of it's anchor, holding it vertical like a shield, the other hand flat on the opposite side, as if warding a heavy blow.

She was jealous.

With a strangled scream she shoved chakra into that hand, the blade jerking away and splitting the air around it's cross-wise path. Wind kicked up from the violent motion sent kunai from the ground again spinning off before her.

She was petty.

A growl rumbled out of her slight form, as she exploded into motion. She followed those secondary missiles, beating some to their target. She held the blade like a wing before her, a hand behind the zanbato's blade, far down it's length.

She missed her friend.

The impact drove the blade halfway through the tree, the girl behind it flipping up, just escaping the brief sounds of impact from the air-driven kunai below her.

Now that she was spending her time away, training with her team.

Suspended a moment, she twisted and kicked back, striking the tree and rocketing back to earth, knee leading. The impact threw dust and debris up around her.

She was alone.

Reaching up and behind her, Naru savagely wrenched down, the sound of the tree's trunk snapping as she fed the motion a staggering burst of chakra. She chambered the blade and glared across the small copse of trees, setting her eyes on the next target, as the tree behind her fell noisily to the underbrush.

Again.

A steady but aged hand pulled a blind draw, the light wood slats slipping down over the window. After they struck the bottom of the sill, a seal paper was applied to them. This process repeated, window to window.

Nodding under his wide hat, the Hokage stood by the door to his office, opening it to the waiting ANBU ninja standing there. "Uzuki. Come inside," the words jolted the masked ninja into action, causing them to move into an at-attention stance before the Hokage's desk. The Sandaime sighed, walking around to sit at his desk after affixing another seal to the door.

"Relax, Uzuki. You're not here to be disciplined."

Though there was a lessening in the tension from the violet-haired ninja, they nonetheless kept a rigid stance. "Sir?"

The Hokage let slip a very slight grin. "I hear you've been in contact with a particular young girl."

A slight tilt shifted the cat mask. "Yes, Hokage-sama."

"Do explain."

"I informed her that there were no masters of her weapon preference in Konoha," the ninja replied in a monotone, though there was a thread of amusement weaved through it.

"And?"

"I informed her in the unorthodox nature of her chosen weapon."

Nodding once, the old man settled back against his chair. "Very good, Uzuki. It take it the girl was not... grateful, for your wisdom?"

There was a long pause, as the ANBU meticulously organized a response. "I think the youth was very considerate, given her temperament and disposition, Hokage-sama."

Chuckling, the Sandaime Hokage swept off his hat, shaking his head. "I'll have to remember that one. So, do you think it a passing fascination, Uzuki?"

Again the cat mask tilted slightly. "I would address that question to a small, former branch of forested woods, Hokage-sama." Raising a brow, the old man motioned for her to continue. "If I may?" A hand motioned for the ever-present pale, empty crystal ball the Hokage kept.

Nodding, the man let the ANBU use the usual coordinate feeding mechanism to activate the orb.

The Hokage leaned forward, inspecting the scene in detail, using finer controls than the ANBU had to look around the small area.

Trees of a reasonable size were laying at odd angles, their canopies dead this season apparently from damage to the trunks. All along the lower reaches, up to around a Genin's height, were massive gashes, wedges of missing material, and impacts that indicated a rather striking display of violence. Most seemed to have been made in previous seasons, though there was more than enough evidence to indicate recent damage. More than one stump had the obvious sign of a trunk that had fallen due to weight and leverage, the uneven, spiked remnants jutting up dangerously.

Laying exhausted in the middle of the small explosion of violence lay a young girl, blonde hair splayed out in a cloud around her head. To her side and at easy grasp was the massive sword she'd become known for, the thing nearly as large as she was. "My my... what has you so disturbed, my child..."

"Sir?"

Looking up, the old man smiled and dismissed the image. "Young Kazami is a very emotional girl. After she appeared in Konoha, it took nearly two years for her to settle properly and start making friends."

A slight nod shifted the cat mask, "War orphans are often the hardest to adapt to new situations."

"Yes, indeed. That aside, since that time, she's been the model of a helpful, cheerful if somewhat wary girl. She has few friends, but they are precious to her." Eyes distant, the old man stared up at his ceiling for a handful of minutes. "Uzuki, I have a task for you."

The ANBU didn't answer, only nodded in anticipation of the man's words.

Closing one eye, the Hokage replaced his wide hat. "Find the Orikata girl. Observe her, if Kazami and she meet, be prepared to... arbitrate. I do not require a report on this.

"Additionally, I would like you to challenge the young girl. A demonstration. Non-lethal of course."

It was obvious in her stance that the ANBU ninja was confused, but she none the less nodded, bowing her acceptance of the mission. "I will begin immediately, Hokage-sama."

Turning on her heel, the ANBU reached for the door only for the man behind her to call out, "Uzuki. Does she show promise?"

There was a pause, before the violet-haired woman nodded once, sharply. "Exceptional, Hokage-sama."

A slow smile spread across the man's face. "Go."

The ninja was gone before the word finished echoing across the doorway.

Naru admitted that she was not the best at some things.

It had been a week since the utter mess that was the Team Guy incident. She'd not been to the diner Tenten frequented, not been to the forge unless Yasugi was with her, and by some stroke of chance had managed to avoid the brunette for the entire time.

She was finding that there was a cold kind of certainty, nesting in her stomach that said the longer she waited, the harder this would be.

All this lead up to her bounding across rooftops, stalking her best – she still hoped – friend as she made the slow journey back home after her training. Naru was careful not to stray too close to their training grounds, as another incident would probably permanently damage their friendship. She knew there would be one, if she was within shouting distance of Neji.

So Naru stalked her.

Up ahead the bridge was looming, and despite it, she felt herself hesitating. Shoving her fear aside, the blonde flipped forward off the roof, landing to the right some distance from Tenten. To her credit, the older girl didn't start at her sudden appearance. "Oh. Hey Na... Kazami." Sighing, the brunette stopped by the end of the bridge.

Naru shuffled her feet as she moved to the opposite side, the two of them looking like disgruntled gatekeepers. Swallowing, Naru bit back the anxiety that was threatening to make her bolt, "Ten, I just wanted to say-"

"You know, I've been waiting," said girl interrupted, the impassive cast falling off her face in a blink. "A week, Naru! You know I'd not try to do anything to hurt you on purpose, so why?"

The blonde flinched, looking anywhere but at the other girl. "I..." And she realize there wasn't anything she could say, other than the base truth that would fix this. A truth that had barbs. "I was scared," she murmured, a helpless chill creeping over her at the admittance.

Tenten's anger evaporated almost as fast as it had appeared. "Scared? Naru?" The distance between them closed as the brunette invaded Naru's personal space, the blonde flinching back habitually when she reached out. Regardless the Tenten caught the skittish girl and held her still. "Hey, what do you mean?"

"It won't make sense," her voice was small, weak, and as broken as she felt at that moment. All she wanted was to see Ten, say she was sorry and everything go back to normal. Isn't that how it worked? But no, Tenten was mad at her, and that was worse. She knew that she might be, it made sense – but to be faced with it. "It just... won't. I'm sorry, Ten. I really am. I'm just-" her jaw snapped shut as the other girl pulled her close, wrapping her arms around the slighter girl's form.

No one, outside of the kitsune, had been allowed to do this. Had offered to do this, and there was a count of five while Naru's body stiffened in reflex, while she fought the urge to flee, to push away and run so this couldn't break her armor. No, she admitted to herself, I'm weak.

Her arms came up, as her breath hitched. "I'm weak," she muttered into the other girl's shoulder, as Tenten bunched her hands up in the other girl's jacket.

"No, you're not," the brunette murmured, between making small, comforting noises. "Not my Naru."

A sniffling laugh answered her, "Your Naru? Since when?"

"Since you're wiping your nose on my shirt," the older girl replied sagely.

The strained atmosphere lasted about a day, before they managed to devolve into their usual bonding and fun which typically consisted of a metric ton of edged metal.

"Gai said he'd teach me a sealing art so that I can keep my gear in a scroll," Tenten mentioned, while trying to breach Naru's guard.

Naru snapped the zanbato's flat toward Tenten, blunting another thrown kunai. "That would make you a real terror, y'know?" The blonde had started bringing her sword to their spars some time ago, which added a whole new level to the madness that some considered the two kunoichi to suffer from. Tenten's insistence on using thrown and ranged weapons was unusual in Konoha, but it was a skill that at least was taught. Naru on the other hand was a ready-made spectacle as she routinely used her zanbato in way that seemed frankly impossible for a youth her size. That at least blunted the usual muttering about bloodlines in regard to her sometimes freakish strength and stamina.

If it wasn't for the fact neither of them could be bothered to trudge back out to the training grounds, they'd not have to worry on it. As it was, the two training ninja had turned the large forge yard into a war zone. Far enough away to avoid being collateral damage, spectators of the passerby sort watched, as the two kunoichi in training exercised their skills.

Tenten was in rare form, having gotten more detailed training from Gai in various ways. Her aim was better, her close combat was actually stinging Naru when she connected, and she was faster than the last time they'd sparred. On the other hand, the girl defaulted to mid range, using her kunai and thrown weapons as a crutch.

Naru was thriving on the new challenge. She'd been stagnating, in her view, fighting trees and doing little more than strength training with her sword. Even just dodging Ten's hail of weapons was better than that.

The brunette used a spray of sand kicked up in Naru's direction to gain some distance, again launching a punishing rain of steel at the shorter blonde. Skidding to a halt, she blinked as Naru didn't bother to dodge, a tinge of worry that she'd overdone it creeping up on her.

Naru turned the broad blade sideways, then speed-stepped behind it, holding it at an angle as she ran. Kunai slammed into and skidded off the broad blade, as Naru used it like a boat's prow in water. Then the younger ninja had nearly taken Tenten's head off. Naru had used the sun's reflection on her zanbato to send glare at Ten's eyes, disorienting her for the few seconds it took to drop and bend the weapon's mass into a whistling arc.

Dropping low, the older girl waited for the blade to pass, then flipped backwards-

Only to get clipped as Naru halted the blade with a grunt and audible creak of bone and muscle, sending it up, flat first, into Tenten's unguarded leg.

The transfer of momentum shocked through the taller ninja's bones as she tumbled upward higher than her jump would have carried her. She heard a muffled curse below her just before she made a soft impact against... Naru?

"Oh, kami you're going on a diet," the blonde groused, groaning as Tenten shifted to roll off the girl. Her head still rattled from the zanbato's impact, all she could do was blink. "I didn't plan on clipping you, it was kind of a lark."

Tenten looked around at their personal battlefield, only then seeing the massive blade, planted point-first into the ground. "What happened?"

Naru rubbed at a shoulder, a pensive look on her face. "When I clipped you, it disrupted your jump. I was worried you'd land wrong."

"So you decided to play catch?"

Naru wrinkled her nose, chuckling. "Something like that."

It was then that Tenten noticed the spreading stain on the girl's side in muted horror. "N-Naru..." her hand raised just enough to get the other girl's attention, drawing it to her side.

The blonde's eyes unfocused for a moment, and Tenten could have sworn they shifted, going very, very briefly red. It was hard to say, because her vision had seemed to waver, as the reality that she'd hurt Naru slammed into her. As she wavered, Naru winced and reached under her jacket. There was a wet sound, and the girl paled dramatically. "...oh ow."

Falling back, she breathed heavily for a few moments while Tenten tried to swallow her panic. She'd injured Naru countless times before, but it was always superficial. The kunai she used were dulled, and if anything they bruised more than cut. This was...

Naru let her hand relax, and Tenten blinked at what she saw. Half a kunai was there, split unevenly along it's length. Almost the entire shaft of black metal was slick with blood. "Not... your fault. Ten." The blonde murmured, breathing deeply with a wince. "Must have... cut it with the zan'." Her eyes closed as she lay, seemingly resting.

Tenten looked around frantically, only then seeing the other half of the weapon, yards back. There was a trace of blood in the skid mark that ended where Naru lay, and through her rising panic, she pieced together what could have happened.

Naru's defense and swing must have clipped and cut down a kunai, she figured. Half was deflected back, half forward. When she dove to catch her... the shard stabbed into her side.

It added up, but still didn't help the situation. Standing shakily, Tenten called out for her adopted brothers. They got a sling set up just as Naru snorted and woke with a muted yelp. "Wha-"

"Naru! Lay still, you're hurt!"

Blue eyes blinked back at her. "I am?"

Tenten boggled, then shook her head hard. "Your side! You..." She trailed off as Naru pulled open her jacket, exposing a spread of ruined shirt, caked with blood and dust. Lifting that, she prodded, then wiped clean a stretch of pink, angry but healed skin. "What...?"

Naru wiped the blood off her hand, staining her shirt more as she hesitantly watched her friend. "I'm ok, Ten. It was just a messy flesh wound. Little healing jutsu, and um... yeah," the lie, white as it was, still bothered her. "I could still use some time to recoup though."

The Orikata's focused on that, and helped the young girl into the house beside the forge. Tenten brought her some water, sitting beside the blonde as she wrapped a bandage around her side, more to make her hosts relax than out of need. The kitsune had slammed the wound with chakra as soon as she removed the fragment of kunai, and unlike her normal healing, it had been vastly, rather than just somewhat, accelerated.

The downside of course was that all her usual chakra funneling, to her muscles, bones and tissues, had greatly lessened leaving her feeling weak as a kitten. "Can someone get the zanbato out of the yard? I don't think I'll be able to lift it for a while."

Tenten blinked at her then turned away with a scowl. "Er. We can try."

"Huh?"

"You realize that thing is heavy? Like, really, really heavy?"

Naru regarded her friend blankly a moment. "Ok. I know it's a bit hefty, I have issues with it now and then with new moves I try out but..."

The brunette shook her head slowly, a wry smile on her lips. "I'll send some of the boys out to get it inside."

Smiling her thanks, the blonde settled into the cushions she was on, the drain on her chakra, relief from the stress of worrying about her friendship with Tenten, and the fatigue of their sparring catching up with her. A lot of that was the loosing of a massive knot of anxiety about her friendship. Tenten, Naru realized, was a crucial part of what made her happy.

She was the first real friend that she had made after...

If she considered that, and the old smith, then...

Naru smiled, as she felt Tenten's hand curl around her own, as her eyes closed. She slipped into sleep with that same, content smile.

She had what she was looking for.

Tenten. Friends.

Old man Yasugi. Family.

Who needed a dream, when you were content with reality?

Some who practiced sedition did so by the old code of cloak and dagger. It was almost cliché to do such a thing in a ninja village of course – precisely what one would look for after all. Plots that couldn't rise and succeed because of deepest shadow sometimes had to be laid out in brightest light.

"It's a lovely day, isn't it Danzo-sama?"

Cursed seals were such a misnomer. True, they were called such because they imposed limits on the bearer, but that only offset the benefits. Such as openly spoken code. 'I have news you would enjoy,' his ears injected over the man's speech. The day promised to be looking up already.

The bandaged man turned very slightly, inclining his head a few degrees to his guest at the table he sat at. The restaurant chimed and murmured around them, the veranda the two sat on in the bright midday light. "Indeed it is. One would do well to watch the comings and goings of clouds on such a day," he said with some gravity. 'We are secure. Deliver your message in code.'

"Such heavenly patterns are rarely repeated." His guest took up his own tea, silently respecting the gesture of the servant whom was little more than a shadow in the room. 'The chakra pattern has arisen again.'

"Yet it occurs a handful of times," the older man demurred. 'The same from earlier this week?' Danzo received a nod in reply. "Only the sages know what such things mean," he said with a wry twist to his mouth. 'Have the scanners indicated why this pattern intrigues them?'

There was a pause, while both men enjoyed their tea, "Sages speak of brief truths, of heaven and hell. Demons recent and past." 'They say it belongs to a dead child. Naruto Uzumaki.'

Danzo's cup rattled in his hand against the tabletop. "Be wary of such words. They can be damning." 'Are they certain? Speak what you know.'

"Sages would speak dogma. It is what it is, marching with the passage of time. Now, what I'd like to know, is what the sun is doing in that sky." 'The scanners have been checking over and over. The pattern is the same, only stronger, older. What is of great interest, is the movements of the Hokage recently.'

"The sun eh? It and the clouds are of one path. Don't neglect those demons, enlightenment can be found in the strangest places." 'The Hokage. I can only guess he's involved in this. Find me Uzumaki, my plans for the brat haven't fallen to dust yet.'

The man rose, bowing low, "I will, at your suggestion, think on enlightenment." 'By your leave, may the plan succeed.'

"Think on the sun. Come tomorrow, and share your insight." Danzo waved slightly, smiling in a benign way. 'Watch the Hokage. Report tomorrow anything you find.'

Danzo took a long draw of his tea. Ah yes, a properly set cursed seal are quite useful. "Waitress, my bill, if you please."

"Yes, Danzo-sama."

He turned his remaining eye to the blue sky above. "Quite a lovely day indeed."

"Student."

Naru started, spinning around and wincing as her shoulders ached at the sudden strain. She'd been halfway through a resistance routine and the ANBU's sudden appearance had thrown her concentration. Letting the zanbato fall to the ground, she regarded the masked figure impatiently, "What is it this time?"

The ANBU regarded her quietly a moment before rising from her crouched position. "You have improved."

"Practice does that. Speaking of..." Naru trailed off, motioning to her weapon with an overly-affected smile, "Should get back to it." She waited a moment for some kind of sign the masked figure had heard her, but when the ANBU ninja just... stood there, watching, she shrugged and took her zanbato back up. "Eh, whatever."

Though she often had someone observing her when practicing, either by Tenten or one of the Inuzuka's near their preferred practice grounds, never had she felt so... exposed. As if someone were analyzing her every move, twitch and pause. After her third unbalanced strike due to her lack of concentration, Naru set her blade into the ground, growled and turned to tell off the ANBU, only to find the figure gone.

Blinking in confusion, Naru had only the whistle of air over a blade as warning to her danger. With a strangled yelp she dodged low, wincing as an impact struck the grip of her sword far too close to where her hand remained.

Wide-eyed and panting, she stared up to where the ANBU remained poised, kodachi still and biting into the leather wrapping the zanbato's grip. "Why do you avoid an attack to leave yourself open for another?" Without another word the figure kicked out viciously, sending the smaller girl sprawling and rolling away from her weapon.

"What the hell!?" Sputtering and spitting out grass and dirt her face had dug up from her impact, the blonde glared to where the ANBU was-

-and screamed, rolling desperately to the side to avoid being gutted like a fish. Looking back where she'd been, there was an eerie pattern of grass with their lengths cut low in a sweeping arc she almost felt bite through her stomach. Another whistle cause her to flail and dive to the ground again, stifling a frightened whimper.

A single, sharp, prick against the back of her neck nearly set her to weeping. "You dodge too predictably. If you always move the same way, an opponent will learn it, and exploit it."

Naru didn't bother to hide the waver in her voice, "Why are you doing this!?"

There was a heavy pause, before a pair of strong hands pulled her up to standing. They patted her down, brushed the dirt and grass off of her and then to her surprise, handed her a canteen. "Drink. Then we will talk."

Surprisingly, the water cleared her fear-fogged mind, the coldness shocking her slightly. The ANBU stood to the side, watching her recollect her wits. Naru glared, but it was halfhearted. "You didn't answer me," she reminded the silent figure.

The cat mask rose slightly from where it had been apparently inspecting the grass. "I was curious. I am now disappointed."

For all that the figure was a stranger, that simple comment stung deeply. "You snuck up on me!"

The figure took a step forward, and Naru automatically flinched back, "You are training to be a ninja, are you not?"

For the moment, all of Naru's doubt's and lack of conviction about her dream to be Hokage could have been a fairytale. "I'm not even a Genin! You're ANBU! What do you expect me to do?"

"If your will is so weak, lay down your sword now. Save your future team and Konoha the risk of your inevitable failure."

Naru's vision reddened at the edges, a host of memories breaking through her carefully crafted mask, "I'm not a failure!"

The ANBU's cat mask tilted slightly. "And yet, you are not a success."

Growling, the girl leapt at the lithe figure, slipping back into her taijutsu style. The two traded blows without another comment, the violet-haired ninja silent despite the few glancing blows Naru landed. She knew from experience that her hits were anything but light, but this ninja didn't even seem to react, driving her to wonder what the hell was going on.

On the other hand, nearly every strike, light or not, that the ANBU aimed at the blonde seemed to hit. Even with her stamina and chakra-hardened resilience, Naru was feeling the fatigue and pain of the increasingly punishing series of surgical of strikes. Despite her best efforts, the exchange was short. With a vicious kick that sent her tumbling again, the ANBU forced the two combatants apart. Gesturing behind the smaller girl, the masked figure spoke, "Take up your weapon."

In truth, Naru wanted to do nothing more. Snatching the zanbato out of the ground, she chambered the blade in a backhand stance then charged the waiting ninja.

With a strained yell, she halted her momentum, pivoting on a foot to bring all her motion and mass to bear along the blade's swing. So caught up in her intent to show that implacable mask she was worth something, Naru overlooked that she was using what could be a fatal attack against the other ninja.

The ANBU simply pulled up her light kodachi, deflecting the massive zanbato without so much as a sidewards glance. Naru's arms vibrated with the impact, as her blade fell down with a dull clang to the side, the seasoned ninja snapping forward to again prick her skin with the blade she held. "Never devote all your attention and energy to one, desperate attack. When it fails, you die."

Naru slid back, realigning the massive sword toward her foe. As soon as the blade came to bear, the other figure blurred into motion. The blonde had only a moment to try and track the figure as a stinging line was drawn along her forearm. She didn't have a chance to even shift the zanbato to bear.

Another line joined it, across her hip. Her head had turned at the flicker of motion, no more.

She shifted the blade on reaction to the last attack, opening herself for another, down her cheek.

Across her back, from shoulder to hip. Naru was focused in the other direction.

Panic was setting in, and she missed the ANBU entirely when they appeared right in front of her. Two nicks along the left side of each wrist told her so.

A vicious, aching jab just below her ribs. Just to emphasize the point.

A jarring impact against her temple with the back of the ANBU's blade.

Winded, smarting and bleeding from a dozen points on her body, Naru dropped her sword and fell to her knees, tears freely rolling down her cheeks. "Stop, please..."

The blur that was the ANBU ninja did so, crouched before the young girl. Cat mask regarded weeping youth for a long moment, before it was raised up, revealing a sharp, feminine face. "I don't want to hurt you. But you need to understand what it is you're getting into," a totally different voice reached her, warm and not at all what she'd expected. Despite it, Naru sniffled harder, even as her bleeding lessened.

"Wh-what do you m-mean," the youth punctuated her words with a whimper, reaching up to wipe at her eyes but moaning as her sleeve was already soaked in blood. A deft hand slipped up and did it for her, before she could flinch away.

Though serious, the ANBU woman's eyes were not cold, as she met those of the sniffling girl. "When you take up a sword, there's a kind of expectation people have of you. It says 'I am a master of this weapon' but it's a rather insidious trap," she explained quietly. Despite her closeness, she didn't try to close to touch the younger girl. "Most think of mastery as bending something to their will. For instance, you use your zanbato? Yes?"

Naru nodded, noting the unusual emphasis on the word 'use'. Feeling silly and uncomfortable, she replied, "Yeah, I mean... how else would I, well... use it?"

"Words can be very inferior in this case, Kazami," the woman replied in her somewhat quiet tone. "That mastery I speak of is dangerous. It separates you from your weapon. A sword," holding up her kodachi, the ANBU adjusted her grip slightly, causing the entire posture to look... wrong somehow. "A sword is not a simple tool. No weapon is, though it is the simplest method to teach one how to use such. A weapon, if one intends to be truly effective in it's use, must be an extension of you."

Naru had regained some of her composure, but the woman's very painful lesson still rang in her veins, and she would twitch faintly in memory of those bleeding reminders. Thinking on the woman's words though, she tried to put those pains aside. She had heard this kind of thing from Yasugi as well, when it came to forging. He apparently had some similar things to say about her use of hammers. "But... I don't understand. How can I make a weapon an extension of me?" She waved a hand at her ruined sleeves, shirt, and face, the girl snorted. "Something I'm doing is all wrong."

"No, because you are learning," the woman disagreed strongly, causing Naru's eyes to snap up to her. "You are doing marvelously, for what you were given. You just need to understand your weapon. Let it tell you how it's supposed to work, then blend that into your movements. I must admit though," the woman paused, eyeing Naru's chosen weapon with a critical eye. "That one will be... difficult. Particularly as a ninja weapon."

Nodding, Naru spared the woman a slight grin, "It's like me. Blatant, obvious, hard to overlook, and made of overkill."

The ANBU chuckled at that. "Perhaps it is so. Still, you need a proper teacher..."

Shadows played about the young girl's face. "I do. I know I can only go so far on my own, and without someone to teach me, I have no idea if I'm doing this right or not." Scoffing, she shook her head. "Correction, I have no idea how to fix what I'm doing wrong," she again looked to her ruined sleeves with a somber expression.

A content smile ghosted it's way across Yugao Uzuki's features. "I think something can be arranged."

"It's confirmed, the weapon is still in Konoha."

"Have you verified it directly?"

"No. The patterns are there, we simply need to align them and expose it."

"Still hiding... Keep it under surveillance. We're lucky the old man is so naïve, or we'd be showing our hand."

"Indeed. His faith is a keen tool. Too keen for his own safety."

"It is a tragedy, that a man who has forgotten how to be a ninja, yet leads them. Keep our agents informed. And, one last thing.

"Snakes are moving in the rice fields. Make sure they are content with the local fare."

"By your will."

"Yes it will be. Yes, it will be."

"Your Genin exam will consist of three tests, randomized..."

Naru tuned the instructor Iruka Morino out as she cast her mind forward to the night ahead. Old man Yasugi had been gone some time, but the letter she got let her know he'd be home that night. She'd spent the time he was away doing her tasks, practicing her craftsmanship where she could, practicing with the ANBU Uzuki, and generally being impatient.

"...end of this year. Now, today's lesson..."

Contrary to her typical demeanor, Naru inherited all of her previous life's quirks. It was a survival test that she repressed or diverted so much of them. She lived in a city of ninja – masters of masking, deception and seeing through illusions. Her enthusiasm and belief that just changing her look would be enough was brutally stamped out by the kitsune, who broke down all the reasons why it was stupid to think so.

"...explain one of the fundamental skills needed by a successful ninja..."

Which lead to a fairly vibrating Naru, emotional mask firmly in place, sitting through her Academy classes while tuning out just about every third word. She couldn't help being impatient here, and in consulting with the Kyuubi, decided that it was 'justifiable' reason.

The thing that was bothering Naru was that her mask, the persona she'd built up as a defense and refuge from the village, itched at the idea. There wasn't a very good way to think about it, frankly, but to do something so... out of character for her act felt just wrong. Forced even.

"...tight focus. Bunshin, the clone image skill, is a stepping stone..."

It helped to dull her aching lack of patience, thinking on the paradox that things that were natural to Naruto felt so uncomfortable to Naru. That discussion left the kitsune almost rolling on the floor in mirth, and a very disgruntled blonde deciding to let the odd spirit stew for a day or two.

Grasping for anything to distract her from the anxiety she was currently subject to, Naru let herself dwell on the kitsune a moment. That reminded her of two changes in herself, centered on the trapped spirit that she'd come to recognize.

One was a change that happened gradually, but now seemed so curious to her. Before that one day where she encounter with the Kyuubi, she'd had no one to confide in. No close person at all. Naruto had no real friends, no mentors, and the teachers at the Academy were at best indifferent, if not hostile. The one meeting with the Kyuubi changed that drastically, and in confiding in her, she showed a measure of trust in returning the favor.

"...also. Henge, transformation illusions, see their origins in the basic Bunshin..."

Over time, Naru had come to think of the kitsune as her most cherished person. Such a sentiment would likely be not only scoffed at, but likely get her killed if voiced, so she kept such notions locked down tight within. That didn't change the truth. The kitsune understood her, because in a way, she was her. When looked at from her point of view, it wasn't a huge leap of logic. They both shared a body, shared perceptions, shared thoughts.

Since their contact, she more and more often... felt the Kyuubi. It was like a warm presence in the back of her mind, just under her thoughts. Like sunshine behind her, warming her hair. Not always of course... there were points when the kitsune's rage boiled up and that heat felt nauseating, toxic. Naru understood then what fueled the fear in Konoha, being faced with something that in just feeling an emotion could crush your will.

"...as you can see, the bulk of Genjutsu skills can trace their basic roots to mastering the Bunshin."

Then, there was Naru herself. That she used the kitsune as a model for her persona as Naru only made that connection between the two tighter. After a year, even the form she took within her mind had changed. Looking in the mirror some days, she imagined having golden eyes, and could easily believe herself the child of the kitsune, if only in form. Increasingly often she found herself comparing her own reactions and mannerisms to the nine-tailed spirit.

She would never think of the Kyuubi as a mother-figure though. There was simply something far too alien about her presence. It wasn't something that drove the young girl away, so much as reminded her that for all the kitsune's smiles and comforting words, she simply wasn't human. Naru knew there was something huge and simply deadly underneath the pale skin and clean smell. That she wore that form so easily just made it all the more intimidating, but also impressive. No, Naru didn't look at the kitsune as a mother, but she did see her as a perfect example of what she in essence was.

Someone playing at being something they were not.

"...come forward, and demonstrate the basic Bunshin please."

In part, that was also the second thing about the kitsune that was different. Before, in the three years she was working to build and refine her persona, those visits to the shrine seemed strained, akward. It was like forcing herself to study when it was a pretty day begging for her to do anything else. Then it became like a second homecoming. She'd drowse, and when her mind 'awoke' she wasted no time speeding to the shrine and the woman there.

Now she could feel it, dark and sheltering and welcoming in the back of her thoughts. It still contained the kitsune, but it also contained her. It was her refuge, because it was safe. The shrine belonged, was subject to, and was only for her and the kitsune.

She still had no idea about the field, but then again, it wasn't like she could stand the place.

Naru.

Who was Naru, really? Her thoughts wandered on this, idled about it like fireflies and a lantern. She was the face that a dead boy wore, so he could continue to see the world. Who was Naruto then? More and more she could only dig up dissociated fragments, abstract ideas. Hurt. Hated. Alone. They were distant now because she wasn't a part of them.

Naru.

The idea burst her thoughts apart like a soap bubble. No, she was more than just a mask. She, that fundamental ideal of self, was becoming Naru. The fact that the person who had once been Naruto no longer thought of itself as male, or identified with that old life didn't surprise her. He... she had been six. Perhaps it was because she was so young, that the difference didn't seem to unsettle her. The kitsune had warned her, but then, Naruto had been brash and willful.

Naru-

-still was, but she tempered it. Slowed it down so she could watch, warily through this face the kitsune had crafted. It had to be that way, or the whole thing would fall down around her. That drive, initially to prank Konoha, had turned into an ongoing joke. Then a bitter kernel of humor, in knowing a secret the people who had hated her had no clue about. Now though... it was what it was. She had become the lie. Naruto had become an envelope, containing reasons and reactions and motivations, but had no now. He didn't exist. He had existed.

Naru-

-was the now. Naru needed reasons, too. She needed something more than a hope for recognition, something she had now, and found less than fulfilling. Oh, it was good – that wasn't the issue – but it wasn't enough.

"Naru Kazami!"

Blue eyes snapped alert, darting up into the furious face of Chuunin instructor Iruka Morino. "Are you sleeping in my class again?" She noted with some mild worry he was mad enough to cause the scar across his face to almost glow a livid red. "We are going over the upcoming exam material. Do you even want to be a Genin?"

Though ninja villages were often extremely insular, Konoha had adapted to Naru the way an oyster adapts to a grain of sand. She was known to be loud, opinionated, strong and driven. Those things became less descriptions of her, as the whole of who she was in time, in the village's view.

Part of this was her fault, as the war orphan didn't make friends, and the few she had were close-mouthed or didn't know more about her.

Her Academy class was no exception. They had grown accustomed to Naru's temper, loud nature and sometimes random mood shifts, but there were always a few things that were dependable about the girl. One, she wasn't the most attentive student, though she made up for it in determination and energy. Two, challenging her set her off, and it was usually not a pretty display. Oh, entertaining some would say, like watching someone set off an exploding note in their hand, but not pretty.

The girl was driven, absolutely and totally, to excelling as a ninja despite her faults and shortcomings with chakra control. Anyone who questioned her goal usually did so at their own peril, or peace of mind in some instructor's cases. No one was out of bounds or safe. One man had ended up glued to the toilet for two solid days, a privacy note slapped on the stall to keep people from hearing him. He never questioned her again.

That was why the entire class was paying rapt attention to the scene unfolding before them, enough so even the most distant caught the girl's quiet answer.

"I..." Blinking in the face of her instructor's anger and question, all of Naru's doubts in herself and her touted dream of being Hokage came to the fore, "I don't know."

Iruka's eyes widened as the class reacted. Some, having been leaning in close or standing at the edge of their seats to hear and see the scolding the girl would get, lost their balance in surprise at her words. Clatters and muted swearing sounded around the classroom as people reacted, but the two in the center were beyond caring.

"What do you mean you don't know?" Though he was concerned with the sudden change in his student, the Academy had a strict code when it came to the loyalty and proper focus of their trained ninja. A weapon that was turned on it's wielder was a bad investment in time and effort, after all. "Naru, being a ninja is a serious decision-"

"I know, alright!" Eyes blazing, Naru slammed her palms on the desk in front of her, a totally alien expression on her face.

Something there tickled at a memory again, and Iruka, seeing it's direction shoved it away. "Hey, what brought this on? Last week you seemed to still want to be here." Seeing she wasn't willing to answer, the man put a hand on her shoulder in a gesture he hoped would calm the girl down. "Do you want to talk about it? After class we can go to that ramen stand, and-"

"No!" Jumping back, Naru fell, tangled in chairs and scrolls and her own clothes. That was a memory she couldn't deal with, not now! Not with him! Why couldn't they just let Naruto go!? Uncaring of the mess, tearing at her jacket to get loose, the girl jumped out of the second story window.

Iruka stood agape, utterly lost. Looking around at the equally stunned classroom, he heaved a sigh. "I thought she liked ramen."

"Go forward with the plan. See if the weapon breaks under the stress."

"You left Instructor Morino in quite the state," the Sandaime's voice was quiet, but carried that ever-present hint of authority. That hint was suggesting she look up at him and acknowledge the Hokage.

Naru refused, throwing another small rock off the mountain, bouncing it off the Nidaime monument's forehead.

With a muffled sigh and groan, the old man settled beside the youth. "Naruto-"

"No, just... Naru, now. Just Naru."

If he was disturbed by the youth's rudeness, the old man didn't show it. "Is that so? Have you decided to put aside all that he was?"

Naru laughed hollowly, "What is there worth holding on to? I mean, really. Naruto was hated by everyone but you, Teuchi and Ayame. People tried to kill me!" She growled at the slip, slamming her hand down on the rock monument with a dull thud. "I was a kid. All I wanted was someone to just... accept me.

"That's why I wanted to be Hokage, you know? I had this grand idea that if I was in your shoes, they'd have to love me," shaking her head, the blonde glared down at the cityscape below. "You know what? They aren't worth it."

To say the Sandaime was disheartened by her early words would be an understatement. To say he was frightened nearly out of his mind by the end would not be either. Uncharacteristically, all the aged shinobi could manage was a muted, "What?"

"Whoever it was that locked the Kyuubi in me already made me a sacrifice to these people. I have no intent to do it again, on my own this time. I'm not going to be Hokage for them."

"What... who has changed your mind?"

Naru looked up at him sharply, "Who? Oh, you're worried about the Kyuubi. Yeah, you'd think she'd want this too, huh? No. She's trying to talk me out of this. Funny, everyone has an agenda for me, but no one wants to let me in on it." The blonde's eyes narrowed, "Care to share yours?"

Hiruzen Sarutobi may have felt guilt for the wrongs the village did to Naruto, and the child that took his place, but he wasn't about to put up with outright insubordination from the youth. "That is quite enough." The girl, unphased, continued to stare at him. "I admit, there were many who wanted to use your status and unique condition for their own benefit. There were those that wanted you dead, and again there were those that thought you were an innocent in all this. I had no designs other than for you to have a proper childhood."

"In a village of ninja. Of course," sarcasm dripped from the girl's words.

The Hokage was fast reaching the end of his patience. "What choice did I have? I couldn't protect a civilian without exposing your nature. Where could I have sent you?"

She didn't miss the tightening of the man's face, the warning in his voice. "It's just... hard alright?" The girl looked at her hands, as if they held the answers she wanted. "I was doing everything for the wrong reasons. Now I have a family, and friends, and for once I belong." Looking up at the aged man, she sighed, "So why should I hold on to that person?"

Sarutobi didn't know if he was more disappointed in himself or the people of Konoha for turning the Yondaime's sacrifice against everything he'd hoped for. Not only that, but there was the lingering worry that at the root of it all, the Kyuubi was working some insidious plan as well. That recalled something offhand the girl had said, "You said that the Demon Fox was against this? What part, in particular if I may ask."

"Letting go of being a ninja."

The Hokage considered this quietly. "I can't imagine having thought this day would come, but I find myself agreeing with the Kyuubi."

Naru laughed again, mirthlessly. "I bet. So, tell me why you want me to go on with it."

"I had... hoped one day you would realize your ambition. Though gaining Konoha's love by leading them may be somewhat backwards, I had hoped in time you would find something worth protecting, worth your efforts here.

"I love this village, despite it's shortcomings. All the pain it bears, all the memories of loss and failures... despite it all I love it," the old man went on, eyes distant. "Each of the Hokage's has shared that, more than any other feature. It isn't blood, or power, or desire that leads to the Kage of Konoha, but love."

A small shoe kicked a spray of pebbles off the monument. "It's hard to love people that never earn it."

"You never gave them a chance to," the old man replied quietly. "You don't see it, but to you Konoha has always been this way, but it wasn't always so.

"Its spirit is broken, you see. Before the Demon Fox, Konoha was a different place entirely," the man continued sadly, eyes looking out distantly through years rather than space. "The village lost nearly a third of it's fighting force in one afternoon to the Kyuubi. So many lives and families were touched by that single event. After, to have something tangible, something that they could associate with that pain, it was easy to fall into a pattern of foolish anger.

"Konoha is a prideful place. It's been content in it's power among the Element nations for so long, that such a crushing defeat was almost inconceivable. The Fourth... his skill single-handedly delivered Konoha from the Earth Country's ambitions. Our bloodlines almost guarantee us the edge in any conflict. We had enjoyed years of peace and the knowledge that we were capable, powerful and prepared. Then, the Kyuubi came and laughed at us. Sneered at our skills, ignored our pride. Not only that, but the Kyuubi itself had such a powerful aura of terror... half the ninja of the village couldn't even lift a hand to defend themselves. There is no worse thing for a shinobi than to feel utterly powerless before a foe."

Having never heard this much about the Kyuubi's attack, Naru was rapt with attention. It unsettled her that she was so close to such a force, and despite herself, she started to feel something akin to guilt. She was after all, the thing keeping the Kyuubi's memory alive and well in the very place it had nearly destroyed. Was. Naruto was dead, after all. "I understand, but still..."

Sarutobi, took off his hat, staring at the symbol emblazoned on it quietly. "Will you do an old man one favor? Not as Hokage, but as... as you used to call me?" A slight, sad smile came over the man. "Gramps. Do this one thing, and I will ask nothing of you in this way again, Naru." Though his voice was quiet, there was a depth of sadness there that she had never really heard in the man before. It made her own bitterness seem petty and small.

Swallowing with the gravity of the Hokage's tone, Naru nodded faintly.

"I am not alone in thinking you have a great future as someone precious to Konoha. Iruka came to me, hoping that I could turn you back to Academy." Sarutobi eyed the girl, smiling very slightly. "This man who doesn't know who you truly are, thinks that Naru Kazami is worth it. He is a stern teacher, but has a good sense of his student's capabilities." Chuckling, the old man shook his head, "He threatened to ransack the archives and forge you a bloodline to convince the Council to accept any terms to have you back."

Naru blinked at that, blushing. "He'd do that..."

"He would try," the Hokage replied archly. "Succeed? Let us call it an exercise of his belief in you.

"Yugao Uzuki of the ANBU has requested to be your intermediate instructor in using your zanbato," he added to which the girl gave a guilty nod, confirming his suspicions that she hadn't given the arrangement thought in her decision. "She sees great potential in you. Though she doesn't claim to be a master in her own right, she is very proficient, and has a keen eye." Reaching out, he ruffled the girl's hair. "She would be remiss in losing you so soon.

"And, of course, lets not forget your friend Tenten Orikata," Sarutobi reminded the girl, causing her rosy blush to pale almost immediately. "You understand that a ninja cannot disclose or train civilians? Your practices together would have to stop. Not only that, but there are limits on what the village will allow non-combatants to posses."

"My zanbato."

"...would be confiscated, I'm sorry to say. I had no idea it was so precious to you."

Naru shook her head slowly. "It's... not. Really. It just... you know how something feels right? Comfortable, despite how strange or unusual? It's like that. I look at that thing, and I see me, not some huge hunk of metal with an edge like everyone else does."

Thinking on his summon and sometimes weapon Enma, the Hokage nodded. "I do understand. I would rather burn my hat than make you part with something important to you," Patting the young girl on the shoulder, the man was privy to one of her brilliant smiles. It gave him some hope for the future.

"Give them a chance. See it out at least to your Chuunin exam, to get an opportunity to see what being an active Ninja of the Leaf means. Give Konoha a chance to let you love her. Will you do this for me?"

Kicking her feet back and forth, Naru grinned up at him in all her foxlike charm, "Nah, not for you," she quipped, causing the old man to falter for a moment in confusion. "I'll do it for Konoha, though. You can save the favor for when I'm Hokage. Then I'll take you out for ramen for once!"

Sarutobi laughed, his relief and humor drifting on the winds down to the city. Naru had forgotten how much she enjoyed that sound, and promised herself she'd do more to make sure it continued.

After all, she'd gotten a second chance thanks to the kitsune. It would only be fair to give Kohona one as well.

"Oh."

The ANBU ninja nodded once curtly, turning to simply disappear.

Naru stared at the letter in mute incomprehension. Yasugi was delayed, but the ANBU would be delivering his affect shortly, the letter stated in the slanting hand of the Hokage.

Something wasn't right, and it settled in the young girl's stomach like a lead weight.

Looking out at the fading light, she let her eyes trace the distant horizon. A faint shiver stole up her arms, and Naru closed the door, leaning on it once the bolts were driven home. "Be safe, old man. Come home soon."

"Come sit with me a moment," Yugao's voice broke through Naru's concentration, as she worked with her zanbato not too far away.

Honestly glad to take a breather, the girl trotted over and slumped down, letting the heavy greatsword fall with a thump. She pointed ignored Yugao's slight frown at the action. Naru had sat and suffered through a number of the older woman's attempts to educate her on being one with her weapon.

Naru just didn't think that Yugao understood that she actually was much closer to that idea than the ninja realized. Having caught her breath, she noted the violet-haired woman watching her intently. "What's up?"

"I think it's time you began training with a more precise weapon," the woman answered in her usual blunt manner. The ANBU held up a hand to forestall Naru's bristling response. "Hear me out.

"It's no secret to those close to you, that your strength is also a weakness," the woman continued. Naru winced, refusing to let that broad, potentially deadly statement become anything more than it was. "The zanbato complements your strength, but your precision suffers because of it."

Blonde hair bobbed slightly as Naru hesitantly agreed. This was a variation on the same conversation she'd had with Yasugi before. Thoughts of the smith hammered and battered at the control Naru had on her emotions, worry and anxiety rising up as she considered the man's long absence. With a mental shift of attention that stung her quite a bit, she focused on the woman before her. "I'm not sure how to work on precision."

Yugao favored her with a small grin. "Luckily I do. We may need to recruit some help, though."

When the ANBU stood and motioned for her to follow, she should have listened to the small nagging voice that said 'stop and don't move!' but instead she obediently shadowed. When they passed the bridge where she and Tenten had made amends, it railed again, but she silenced it. It was no surprise then, when they reached training ground twenty-three. She should have known, really. Still, there were some things Naru was not ready for. "I can't go in there," she murmured, stopping well outside of the training zone that Team Gai used as their own.

Pulling up short, Yugao's brow furrowed. "Why not?"

"Neji Hyuuga," the girl answered, with what she considered an appropriate amount of spite tinging her words.

The confusion on Yugao's face was short lived. "Ah, I see you are already making... friends... in high places." Rather than exacerbate the issue, Naru remained silent. "Very well then, this time only I will indulge in your childishness."

It was reprimand enough she felt, glancing behind her and seeing a forlorn but determined Naru. Putting aside her small happiness in education, she focused on the task at hand.

Surviving a meeting with Gai and leaving with her sanity intact.

To her credit, Naru took the time standing near the training ground to work on the small, seemingly useless control exercises that the Academy taught. Most dealt with visualizing and then projecting chakra in small amounts, noticeable by a slight numbing or tingling in the fingers. Usually the exercise was practiced with the hands, as handseals were a critical portion of training as well.

She swore colorfully as her arm, from shoulder down, went numb again. "Damnit, what is with that..."

Naru had tried to get the Kyuubi's input on the problem, but the kitsune had little advice to give. Their limited sharing of perceptions and thoughts didn't allow her to perceive, much less do anything active with the jinchuriki's body. The seals were a prison after all, not a forced marriage.

Even her rather inefficient, if useful, buffer to mask her chakra was something she came up with herself. It seemed a better option that being a fully identical student, performance and statistically, to Naruto. Such things she knew would be dangerous to maintaining her lie.

She let her musing end as the ANBU seemed to simply appear before her in a burst of displaced air. "She will join us after evening meal. Meet with us then, at training ground twelve." Without another word, the woman disappeared again.

Naru didn't worry on the woman's behavior, considering her own limited experience with Team Gai. For all she knew, Neji could have insulted her too. Then there was the twin terrors of Gai himself and his clo- prodigy.

Not sure what else to do with herself, Naru spent the balance of her afternoon, chatting idly with the Kyuubi about her chakra problem, feeling out possible solutions and just talking. Sometimes she found answers by simply explaining things. Today wasn't one of those days.

Afternoon rolled by, and she found herself first to the training ground, wondering if she was too early. Settling by a large tree, she leaned the zanbato against it as well, closing her eyes and relaxing slightly, drifting.

"Hey, Naru," Blinking back to full awareness, the blonde looked up at Tenten as she leaned by her shoulder. "So you're the one working with that ANBU?"

Naru nodded slightly, stretching her arms and working the stiffness from her back. "Precision practice," the girl mumbled simply, the words coaxing a smile from her longtime friend. Naru's more caustic, cynical side was having a lot of fun mocking her for overlooking the obvious in Tenten, which she felt wasn't undeserved. It just never occurred to the blonde girl to have Tenten of all people teach her, it was just how they were. They worked with one another, training, working, living.

The more she thought about it, the more foolish she felt. Of anyone close to her, the quirky weapon's mistress was the most controlled and focused person she knew. At least when it came to things with points or edges.

"I think Yasugi's going to be bringing back a new manual on a pattern weld from Snow," Naru offered, as the two settled into old habits of chatting while waiting. It happened often enough, with both their guardians being smiths and teachers of their trade.

Tenten perked up, eyes glittering, "What kind of grain do you think? Will it be a long-blade type or short?"
Humming in thought, Naru considered the season and timing. "I think short. It's only a few months till summer, when graduation for the next term is due and teams are assigned," she explained. "A short-grain would be good to trade to Orikata for kunai and smaller weapons, so my old man can forgo the next harvest billet."

"Oh that's a good plan," Tenten concurred, nose wrinkling cutely at the thought of another tamahagane harvest. "You think it'll be worth it to skip sending you to the smelting?"
Naru snorted. "Hell no. I'd be there anyway, I love it." Tenten blinked at her in frank disbelief. "What? I don't mind the heat, and it's something I can do well. Control I may not have, but I can rake, layer, and pour the sand and charcoal better than your brothers combined."

"How do you get the stink out of your hair though?"

Pulling one of her bound ponytails forward, Naru sniffed it in thought. "Oh. Citrus oil. It cuts damn near anything, and it keeps the bronzing up in my hair."

The older girl pulled the ponytail out of the blonde's hands and sniffed it lightly. "Oh. Oh wow. I don't want blonde highlights though..."

Naru hummed in thought. "I'll think of something, but maybe – oh! I know, we'll mix it up with that henna sand I got for a trade last month. That'll end up being auburn rather than blonde on you."

Tenten practically purred at the thought. "That'll be great," pausing, she blinked up at the blonde. "Why do you have henna sand? I mean it's a nice color, though I doubt anyone will notice," she concluded with a tinge of bitterness.

Blinking owlishly, Naru leaned her forehead against the older girl's, feeling to see if the weapon's mistress had a fever. "Feels normal, have you been lacking sleep or had any sharp head trauma-"

"Oh quiet you!" Shoving Naru over, the brunette huffed, blushing slightly. "Just because I want to look nice doesn't mean I want to look nice for someone."

Naru's smile was positively vulpine. "Suuure. And I have it in case I want to be a redhead. So tell me, Ten, how's the team dynamic? Gotten your youthful fire stoked yet?"

"Naru!" The brunette faltered. "Redhead?"

"What?"

"Nevermind," Tenten reminded herself that occasionally, Naru's 'logic' was something best left to the temples to make cute, infuriating poems about. "But seriously, the team's doing ok. I think we're finally settling down into a good working unit."

Naru snickered, finally falling over and laughing outright, commenting about Tenten and 'working units'. This did not go unpunished, but the brunette knew just how to pull her punches – or stabbings – with the blonde.

Yugao joined them shortly, and the smalltalk about team dynamic, a new pattern-welding methods, and bath soap ended, with both youths turning to greet a somewhat befuddled ANBU ninja. "...you two disturb me. Greatly."

A pair of blank looks were their only response.

"Moving on..." Yugao motioned them over the usual training dummies, little more than logs with targets skinned out from bare trunk. "Naru, your control over the zanbato is good, but you need to be better. It isn't a ninja's tool, rather a combat-specialist weapon," the woman explained, while pulling out a kunai. "Let me explain the difference between a tool and a weapon.

"A kunai is small enough to conceal, and does not give away your proficiencies," she stated flatly, idly spinning the blade in her hand. "It is small and precise enough for stealth assassinations in crowded areas. It can be used by a trained hand in field medicine. Thrown, it can be deadly. Reinforced with chakra, as you've seen Naru, it can block even your zanbato."

"A tool has more uses," Naru replied in answer. Tenten kept silent, knowing that the point of the ANBU's lesson was to reach her friend, not fish for who had the knowledge already.

Yugao nodded, resheathing the kunai. "Now, anything can be a tool. Rocks, sticks, teacups, seeds. A zanbato can be as well, but with it's design, there are few delicate applications. We'll worry on that later. Today, we'll be focusing on close range combat using kunai, and thrown accuracy. I'll be working with you both during melee, and Tenten will be helping with your thrown practice.

"Tenten, if you'll start unsealing kunai and running some wire, we'll do this in a more efficient manner. Naru, come with me."

The two youth's separated, the younger blonde following the ANBU to the side some distance. She paused when the woman handed her a small, curved, sheathed blade. "A wakazashi? Why not a kodachi?"

"Reasonable question," the woman replied, securing her own wakazashi as well. "Power is good, when you can connect attacks. You remember our first lesson?" With a shiver, the blonde nodded faintly. "Power means nothing without control guiding it."

Naru's mouth twisted into a bitter scowl. "I... right." She shook her head, dismissing Yugao's unasked question. "Nothing. Go on."

The ANBU regarded the youth levelly. "I cannot train you for chakra control," the blonde jerked, but didn't look up from her fixed gaze on the ground. "I learned the basic Academy exercises, then the more intensive ANBU stealth ones. I'm afraid your initial problems would only compound if you jumped so far ahead."

"The ANBU ones," Naru asked quietly, seeing the frown that her expected request earned her. "Is it a control worry or capacity worry?"

Yugao considered the girl's question a moment, wondering what she was getting at. "Capacity. Regardless, chakra isn't why I'm teaching you."

Slightly panicky that such an opportunity would pass by, Naru snapped her head up, eyes wide. "Wait! Wait let me explain. The reason why I'm so strong is that I'm..." she bit her lip, seeing now the trap she'd stepped into. Naru had to explain why she channeled so much chakra into her muscles, which would obviously end up leading back to conversations about it's source. Shaking her head slightly, the girl pressed on, "I force all my chakra into my body, reinforcing it."

The ANBU tilted her head, considering that a moment. "It makes sense. But... surely you don't mean..." Yugao's mind scanned back, realizing that Naru never seemed fatigued from using her weapon. Or carrying it constantly. Yugao would be hard pressed to manage it for a small battle, unable to keep her chakra levels up to that which the girl was claiming. "Alright. I'll believe you, on a condition," she took a sparring pose, braced with a hand before her. She aligned the bones of her arm with her palm, angling it to absorb the impact she was expecting. "Strike my hand."

Shrugging nervously, Naru quickly fell into a taijutsu stance common in Konoha and did so, the usual effect easily occurring.

Yugao had sparred with Naru in the past, and knew of her unreal strength. In truth she thought that the girl's hatred of bloodlines and that were a clear sign of a Mist or abductee history. After all, the Hyuuga nearly had their heiress stolen by the Cloud nation. Such a passive bloodline as Naru may have would be an amazing asset. She also had assumed the girl's bad chakra control was part and parcel to it, but with this new information... She focused her senses on her hand, and as Naru struck, she easily felt the difference.

It seemed so silly, looking back. The girl had a wiry, light frame that almost seemed waifish. Rather than weak or average, she was unrealistically strong, had amazing stamina, and could shrug off focused taijutsu strikes someone her age, build, and ability had no chance of weathering. Yugao nodded, after noting the heavily chakra-laden residue of the impact. It was as the girl said.

"Drop the exercise, strike again."

This time the blow was on the opposite scale, resembling how she would see Naru taking strikes from others. However what startled Yugao more was the feeling of density around the young girl. It was a nearly palatable sense of restrained energy and force, as if she were holding back on releasing a high-level jutsu. It made the hairs on Yugao's neck stand, as if there was a charge in the air before a storm.

She was pulled from her musing as Naru made a small, uncomfortable noise. "Naru? Is your hand alright?"

The girl looked to her, a flush over her skin as she pinched her face in what was obviously pain. "Yeah... uhn. Can I start the exercise again? It's uncomfortable," Yugao didn't miss the idle motion, the blonde's hand lightly scratching at her stomach as she spoke. Nor did she miss the small, nearly hair-line marks scratching their way across the girl's cheeks, leaving tiny beads of crimson after.

Yugao's face went blank, but she nodded. Her impassive gaze saw those marks, and even the traces of blood fade as quickly as the pressure that seemed to emanate from the girl. She stifled her responses, turning instead with razor-focus on the task she'd set out for. "Alright. I'll consider this and come to a decision later," what this was and what the decision pertained to, she did not say. "For now, to keep our weapons from shattering, I want you to focus on lessening the chakra in your arms."

Naru's brow furrowed, and shortly she yelped and ran her hands over her shoulders, cursing. "Numb," she mumbled, irritated.

"Picture it as if you are casting a shadow. Invert it, see it as wholly white," the woman explained. "This is how you are, with your exercise active. Full of chakra." The blonde nodded her understanding, so Yugao went on, "Dim, but do not push your arms to black. Focus on gray. Make it gradual. Let it fade back to white at your center." Nodding again, Naru concentrated, wincing slightly once or twice till she seemed to settle, flexing her fingers.

The pressure around her was slight, showing that rather than focus her chakra more inwards, she was simply not pushing it fully through her body. Yugao figured it was good enough, and that they had wasted enough time on accessory methods. "This is not the control technique, but simply a more elegant version of what you are already doing. Now, we will work on our original task," she concluded frostily, seeing Naru pale in understanding.

Yugao hid a grin. The girl's focus was already improving.

The ANBU trained with the youth for some time, removing the broader flaws from her stance and motion. She understood why Naru would like the weapon, and her method of using it – after all, not many could idly flail about with a sword its size. Despite that, it was terribly wasteful in motion and potential, and to drive the point home, she started showing the girl how much easier it was to score hits and work with a smaller weapon. More than once she used the small size and easy concealment of body and arm to sneak the wakazashi into Naru's guard to prove it's versatility.

All this seemed superfluous to Yugao, but there were two words that the Sandaime had told her, that were key to teaching the young woman. "Impress her". It seemed silly before, but once the fire lit in Naru's eyes, she saw the reason.

She could have done without the constant mutterings of 'cool!' or 'show me that again!' every three seconds... but progress was progress.

Naru complained when she ended their practical lesson, taking them back to meet with a somewhat bored Tenten. "Tomorrow you will work with each other, and I'll mediate and instruct," she informed them, and was happy to see the brunette's irritation fading. "For now, I want you to show Naru how to properly throw a kunai."

"But I know how-"
The ANBU silenced her with a glare. "Properly."

Blue eyes blinked once before wincing. "Sorry, Uzuki-sensei."

Yugao didn't say anything else, but did nod to Tenten, to begin.

Standing back and observing, it was clear that the girl had very bad foundation work on her basic methods, which matched the time frames around her past. What bothered Yugao was that there seemed to be a discontinuity in her training. Like she'd had very bad teachers but then very good ones, but didn't know the difference.

It didn't make sense. She should be building off her previous teachings, then add on the new instructor's methods. The ANBU started piecing the puzzle together, removing parts to expose the pattern, adding new ones to see if traits could be assigned to explain things, and extrapolating data to suit the results. She wasn't the analyst Ibiki was, but he was a specialist, while she was a full Jounin with more broad-field experience.

The only real explanation that Yugao could think of for Naru's behavior was if she had received bad instruction from the same teachers, then those same teachers suddenly improved on their methods. That would explain her maintaining old habits, while trying to jigsaw in the new. The trust issue behind it and the constant contact with those instructors would almost insure she didn't question them. A student taking on new teachers was forced to adjust to new methods and make changes. A long term teacher's methods built on each other.

Yugao's problem with this hypothesis was that Naru wasn't a part of Konoha, when the basic teachings she seemed to have flawed versions of were taught.

That in mind, Yugao sat and dropped herself into a meditative trance. Standard ANBU field training, these allowed agents lacking command structure to analyze data and come to a proper chain of action, to fulfill a goal. Considering ANBU's missions were critical, it was a well-founded practice.

Goal – determine the cause of Naru Kazami's faulted education...

Information spread around her mindscape like a seal, connecting threads and leading to others, all spiraling down to a tile with the name "Naru" on it, with a stylized zanbato beneath. A fragment of Yugao's mind found that amusing, as apparently even the idea of the weapon had become iconic with her name.

Her subconscious on the other hand, was busy at work.

Lack of proper instruction, but instruction given.

Learning fault – incompatible. More difficult topics learned, shows no sign of a learning disability.

Teacher fault – possible. Incongruous systems of teaching result in gaps or lacks in sequential concepts.

Material ladder present. The progression of material learned from foundation to present indicates a single academic path.

Incongruous time issue. Naru was not present in Konoha to receive fundamental training.

Incongruous familiarity. Naru was aware of the Academy's expectations, and adjusted her learning to best compensate. (Yugao paused but conceded this point. The evidence from what she was shown by the Hokage, something she had passed over, indicated the girl took to the Konoha Academy as if she was aware of it.)

Possible sleeper agent? (Again she paused. Her mind seemed ready to start tossing out possible answers, and that this lead them at least relieved her a bit. Easiest to dismiss first, hardest last.) No, pressed into a high-stress situation, her personality didn't drastically shift. She is a child, yet has secrets. (Huh? Pausing, she forced her mind to address this.)

There is no record of an internal or external Kazami family line – one may exist but there is no data currently. (Useless, she decided. Not enough information was available.)

The only other recorded instance of Naru's level of strength is the Sannin Tsunade. The chakra levels needed to constantly upkeep it are easily on the level of a veteran Jounin. (Could... Tsunade have had a child?!)

There is no known medical reason for a child to have that kind of chakra reserve outside of extraordinary means. (Yugao paused again, focusing on that. Something she had heard obviously indicated there was such a means.)

Inconclusive material states some seals can allow for enhanced chakra pools. Those seals by necessity must contain either a link to or a very large chakra source. (She pushed for an example.)

The curse seal on the special Jounin Anko Mitarashi. The seal containing the Kyuubi on the deceased Naruto Uzumaki. (Jinchuriki? She of course knew of the Demon Vessel. Yugao wracked her brain but knew nothing more on that topic. She knew of the Uzumaki child, but nothing about Jinchuriki in particular. It simply wasn't something that was common knowledge, or something she as an ANBU had stumbled over.)

Yugao relaxed, realizing she was pushing her mind into disorder, rather than let it come to it's conclusions.

Possible amnesiac. Records and observations would indicate Naru had prior knowledge of Konoha before arriving. (Yugao started, realizing she had been on the detail to observe the girl during her 'naturalization'. Flashes of that memory caused her mental calculation to halt and restart.)

The identity of Naru Kazami is false, allowing a previous student to achieve better marks.

That... it explained the problems with Naru's skill set, but why would someone go to all that trouble, just for Academy marks? Yugao didn't need the trance to answer that, and pulled herself awake with a start. Not far away, the two girls blinked and watched her in confusion as she stiffly stood and looked at them strangely. Naru looked back down the range and completed her throw, embedding the kunai solidly into the upper target, symbolizing a head. The violet-haired ninja couldn't help herself, her hand twitched and clenched.

Eyes narrowing, the ANBU forced her emotions and reactions down, pushing them deep. "Ok. Today's lessons are complete. I expect you to return tomorrow, at the appointed time. Tenten, you may charge any materials used in these lessons to the ANBU training fund," without further words, the woman formed a seal and was gone with a rush of air.

Naru blinked to her friend, who shrugged, pulling subtly at the wires connected to the kunai she'd prepared, causing them all to return in a pile before her. "She seemed upset."

Nodding at Tenten's words, the blonde nibbled on her lip nervously. "Do you think I was doing badly?"

"No! You've improved," Tenten worked to organize the wire and steel mess, smiling up at the younger girl. "Maybe she forgot something."

Making a dismissive sound, Naru shook her head. "Uzuki-sensei isn't like that. Well, she more or less agreed to meet us here again tomorrow. Can't be that bad, I guess."

"Want to get some ramen after we clean up?"
"You need to ask?"

"Uziki What do I owe-"

"Hokage-sama, who is Naru Kazami?"

Hiruzen Sarutobi blinked once, face inscrutable as he regarded the woman he'd sent to help guide the mentioned young girl. With a set of hasty and familiar handseals, the man enclosed the room in privacy. After another moment of gathering himself, he turned to the woman and she blanched under the force of his stare. "ANBU Uzuki. I assume I do not have to remind you of your place."

The violet-haired woman stiffened, before falling into a deep bow. "Forgive me, Hokage-sama, I just thought-"

"No, you didn't," the man interrupted, unmoving from his position. "You assume to have more information on a topic that you just recently stumbled on than those who have dealt with it for years. Have you shared your fears with anyone else?"

The man's words sent a chill up her spine. Of course he knew, he was the Sandaime. "No, Hokage-sama."

"Have you confronted the girl about this?"

"No, Hokage-sama," Yugao flinched, the older man's gaze falling on her like a great stone weight.

"Do you plan to approach her in regard to this?"

She paused for a heavy moment. "I do not know yet, Hokage-sama."

"What do you plan to do, in regard to your current arrangement with Naru Kazami, with your questions in mind?"

The ANBU sighed, "I am unsure, Hokage-sama."

Sarutobi relented, lessening the pressure he was exerting through will. "Have a seat, Uzuki. This won't take long."

Though the meaning of his words could have been reassuring, the tone was still arctic and caused the woman to shiver unconsciously. Regardless she found a seat, turning to face forward impassively. She was a Leaf Jounin, her loyalty was imperturbable. She asked her questions for the defense of Konoha, not to question the Hokage.

"What you know about Naru Kazami is truth. A truth that she herself has made real, by force of will, cunning and allowance." Yugao started at that, and made to protest but fell silent at the Hokage's hand, held up to forestall her words. "She came as an abandoned orphan. She was. She came as the last in her clan. She was. She came to become a ninja, and continues on that path, though there have been... bumps along the way."

Looking down at her hands, the woman's mask of impassive apathy cracked slightly, "But... why? Why make such an elaborate lie? She couldn't have done so just to attend the Academy. What reason could push a child to recreate themselves?"

"What indeed," the man commiserated. "I think you know the answer, if not the full question." Waiting a moment for the woman to meet his mental position, he nodded when her eyes widened slightly. "Yes. This was better than the life the girl had before. So, that in mind, and knowing her goals and her abilities, do you still endeavor to undo all she's worked for? To return her to the pain she undoubtedly left behind?"

Shaking her head slowly, the ANBU regarded the Hokage in mild confusion. "No. I never meant to do that, Hokage-sama. I was... worried. About Konoha. She has a lot of potential, and it scares me sometimes."

The old man behind the desk nodded sadly. "That potential is precisely why I allowed this to happen. Will you be content to know this was the right thing for her to do, and leave it alone, Uzuki? Or will you persist in pressing the issue?"
Long minutes stretched out, as the woman sat statuesque in thought. "As... her teacher I need to know a number of things. What drives her, in truth. What her capabilities are, and what she hides and masks. What her goals are. Some of these things will not be truths if I ask her. I need to know because otherwise-"

"You cannot truly teach, when the pupil is an illusion," sighing heavily, the old man nodded, remembering his own failure in this respect. "I do understand this. I find myself in a curious position." Regarding the woman critically, if kindly, the aged shinobi inclined his hat slightly. "The truth you're looking for is much like her zanbato, Uzuki. It's heavy. Very, very heavy, and it comes at a steep price."

Though the man's tone seemed warning, Yugao clearly saw the invitation and the test there. If she intended on remaining the girl's teacher at this point, she would have to accept the secret and it's consequences.

"I am a ninja of the Leaf," was her only answer.

Sarutobi smiled widely. "Perhaps one of the few true ones," he intoned sadly, despite his smile. "Very well. The cost of this is something I should be doing myself tonight, though it is a grim thing," Handing the woman a large sealing scroll, the Hokage then added a smaller one above it, waiting for the woman to take it. "Perhaps it is best you did approach me. She will need someone after this news."

She had been in ANBU and a ninja long enough to recognize that tone. No further words were needed. "I understand, Hokage-sama. May I be relieved of my duties for the near future?"

The old man raised an eyebrow, knowing what she meant but wanting the confirmation from her own lips, "Which duties?"

"ANBU, Hokage-sama."

Nodding slightly, the man's hands worked on a scroll lightly. "I will pass this along. Take a week, she is strong, but this will not be easy.

"Now. To your original question. Do you recall a young boy, named Naruto Uzumaki?"

He wasn't gone-

She didn't love him-

He wasn't her father, or grandfather or anything-

She wasn't alone again-

Again...

Yugao flinched as a wave of sadness, hate and despair so deep it made her want to curl up and just die washed over her, originating from what to all appearances was a slightly smiling if stunned young girl.

"You're lying."

The ANBU flinched, but pushed past the girl in the doorway, forcing the conversation to turn with her and out of the street. "I'm sorry Naru," she tried, she really did but that... impossible wave of emotions, her earlier conclusions, the talk with the Sandaime... she paused and the name came out mulled.

Naru thankfully was numb to the world, at least in part. She felt someone pulling at her shoulders, trying to guide her to a chair and flailed lightly. Lightly for Naru nearly sent Yugao careening into a wall, until the woman regained her senses and used more forceful means to get the young girl seated.

The blonde didn't seem to take in her state, and Yugao realized she was going into shock. Finding a blanket on a couch, she came back and draped it over the girl's shoulders, noting her blank blue eyes were still fixed on the far wall, unmoving. "Naru. You need to pull yourself together.

"I talked to the Hokage," she hazarded, hoping to jolt the girl back into reality. Yugao watched as the girl's eyes stayed fixed, not even a flicker of awareness. Cursing the old man in a brief fit of rebellion, she shook the girl lightly, "Yasugi would have wanted you to go on. Are you going to let this undo all he's been for you?"

Naru under normal circumstances would have been shocked at the impassioned tones the ANBU was using, saying nothing for the outrage she would have felt for her words alone. Never before had she heard the woman use more than a flat monotone. Even Yugao was upset by her own emotional outburst, but she'd gotten fond of the girl, from seeing her spirit and drive. She was a bright light, and at that singular moment, she hated the Sandaime for making her the one to dim it.

Yugao was worried. With all the old man had told her, such a shock to the youth's mind could have very dire consequences. Dire for her student, whom now she was solely responsible for, dire for the village where any mistakes with the Kyuubi could spell disaster, and dire for herself, if she failed her Kage. His maneuvering and manipulations aside, it was probably better for him to do this, than her. They were close – she was just a recent teacher!

What undid Yugao's composure more than anything else was also the very thing that kept her working to snap Naru out of her shock. ANBU training didn't allow for failure. The Hokage had inadvertently invoked the woman's almost subconscious drive in a mission mindset. Yugao acted on that mission drive to snap the young girl out of her shock, unable to consider the concept of failure.

Between a vow of secrecy, her student's well-being, and the Hokage's directives, she was pulled in too many directions, and something had to give. "Duty be damned. Naru. I know who you are. What you've gone through. Claw your way back up, you can't fall to this. I know you're stronger. People die – it's our way of life. You wanted to be a kunoichi, well here is tonight's lesson. Emotions are secondary, the mission comes first. Do you understand?"

The girl shied from her, but Yugao pulled her back, brown eyes fixing on vacant blue. "Do you understand, Student?"

Faintly, distantly, quietly, "...yes, sensei."

"You will come out of this intact," Yugao pulled the girl closer, fumbling to reassure her. She had no idea that the gesture went unnoticed, as the youth's mind bent and creaked under the strain. "You're too strong not to. You've worked too hard rebuilding yourself to let this slow you down."

"...yes, sensei."

Nodding but feeling unbearably worn, Yugao took the girl up and carried her to what she assumed was her bedroom. Settling her in the small bed, she then managed to arrange a place for herself, on the floor beside.

As the night went on, Yugao talked, letting stories of her ANBU missions fill in the silence. She spoke to keep Naru attentive, from drowning on that slippery slope of grief. She talked because the silence that night bothered her, and felt a little like death on it's own. She talked because having never been a mother, or been around children, she didn't realize that a kind word was vastly inferior to warm arms in soothing a hurting heart.

While Yugao talked, Naru healed. She healed the only way she knew how to. She lied.

Tenten knocked at the door to the Yasugi shop tentatively, lip firmly trapped between her teeth. She'd received Uzuki-sensei's message, brief as it was, after her daily tasks with Team Gai. To say she was upset as well would be a mild case of understatement, if what the brief message read was true.

She swore quietly, fingers idly toying with the handles of kunai as she still wore her training gear, having rushed directly from the training ground. Things had been too rapid recently – she and Naru had their little spat, and then there was that lingering doubt she knew the blonde still harbored. Now her guardian was dead... The blonde girl couldn't be dealing with this well. "Hell," Tenten mused to herself, "I'd be a mess if this happened to me."

"Tenten?" The brunette jumped slightly, blinking at the open door and Yugao Uzuki's silhouette standing there. "I'm glad you could come by," the woman mumbled, stepping back so the Genin could step by.

To her credit, Tenten didn't start at the woman's suddenly thawed manner. "How is she?"

Yugao shook her head slowly, saying nothing. "You should speak with her. I'll get some tea ready, there's some rice if you haven't eaten."

Tenten's already considerable frown deepened. Hurrying though the empty-feeling home, she easily found Naru's room and wasted little time barging in and scanning for her friend. She winced at what she saw. The blonde sat, back to the wall with her eyes half lidded, staring serenely at the space before her. There was no indication that she had even noted Tenten's arrival.

Cautiously the brunette sat beside her long-time friend, letting her weight settle on the small futon as she watched the girl beside her for any reaction. There was none. Looking away, Tenten gathered her thoughts, "Naru. I'm sorry this happened. I'm sorry that... well it happened so soon after everything else. Tell me what you're thinking, please?"

"It's alright, Ten," Naru's light voice, lacking it's usual throaty purr that spoke of her focus, or the chirping lilt of her amusement, startled the girl beside her. "I'm fine."

"No you're not. You should be crying, or upset. Not like this, Naru."

Flat blue eyes regarded her, "You think I should be weak?"

Tenten's brow creased, a thread of anger making it's way to her voice despite her, "No, not weak. Human. People hurt, things hurt, life hurts. Shutting it off, shutting yourself off from all this isn't the answer."

"Yet, I want to be a ninja. A kunoichi," Naru replied in her serene drawl. "A kunoichi must be ready to turn themselves inside, put away emotion, put away life for the sake of the mission. Use what means she has, any means..." she let the words trail off for a moment, the depth of those flat eyes threatening to drown Tenten. "This is what a kunoichi is. What I must be."

"Damnit, Naru! This isn't a mission, this is your heart! You can't treat your heart like a target, assassinate it."

The blonde girl turned, the motion taking an excruciating moment. "Oh I don't intend to, Ten," a pale, cold hand worked it's way into Tenten's own. "I... need time. I need to hear."

Tilting her head, the small buns she wore casting odd shadows against her friend's face, Tenten watched those empty eyes. "Hear what?"

"Myself. Tell me about Naru Kazami, Ten," a beatific smile met the other girl's questioning look. "Tell me so I don't lose myself to this."

The girl nodded slightly, jerkily, before she moved. In a number of moments, Tenten had pulled the second futon to the side of Naru's, settling them so they were side by side. She helped the apathetic girl to lay down, long blonde hair laid out to her side as she too settled, next to the younger kunoichi.

Tenten wrapped an arm around the blonde's waist, her chin against Naru's shoulder. "Naru Kazami. I remember the day I met her, it was springtime. She was walking beside an old man, a friend of my father's. She was smiling, this odd, squinty smile so you couldn't see her eyes. Pretty blue eyes. Then she asked me why I was staring, and why I had mouse ears."

She felt the light tremor, a hitch in Naru's breathing. She didn't look to see if it was tears, or laughter, or a sigh. Nestling closer, she let her voice drop as she recalled all the details she knew, all the things that were Naru in her mind. Mouth close to the blonde's ear, she continued her tale, murmuring as long as her strength and wakefulness would last, "I think the thing I remember most is her smile. She's always smiling..."

Yugao looked in on them later, having expected Tenten to come back out for tea, or rice, or to let her know how Naru was. She instead found the two huddled together on one futon, laying close and if her senses were to be trusted, the older girl was murmuring to her charge. Naru was laying, eyes closed but attentive, her breathing saying she was not sleeping anymore than her close-kept companion.

The ANBU turned and sighed, leaning against the far wall. She didn't know whether to feel relief or anger or hurt, that her efforts had been insufficient. It wasn't a lack of training or experience that she could have foreseen. Mothering a child was not something ANBU prepared one for, and Yugao had been groomed to walk the path of a kunoichi since she was old enough to draw a blade.

A soft curse heralded her mask, the weight of her training coming back to the fore. She would not abandon discipline, it would preserve her through this. It wasn't a kunoichi's place to let such thoughts overwhelm them. She had to be ready when Tenten left, to take over.

Mind set, she sat and prepared scrolls, routines, and training regimen's for her charge and friend. Soon Naru would be ready to continue.

She had to be. Yugao would not fail the Leaf, Sarutobi, or Naru.

The scrolls unpacked well, she noted. It was a small comfort, small grace that whoever it was that left her guardian's throat slit to bleed out on the road from Wave country to Fire had left them. Naru smiled, hands running over the silk backing of the larger spools. "These are all his things. Trade goods and wares. I never knew he had such a talent for seals."

"I don't think he did," Tenten replied to her friend's somber statement. Her own fingers skipped along a brace of the wound silk, picking one out to inspect finally. "I've been learning some of it. It's easy, but takes years of cultivating chakra control to make efficient, large storage seals. Trader's scrolls like these are a Chuunin's or craftsman's work."

"I bet he could. Yasugi was great," Naru's smile was sad, but remained insistent. "Why do you think they left his things? It's not like bandits to leave goods behind. It's not their way."

Tenten nodded, but stayed silent, the meaning clear. Bandits didn't. She instead worked to sort the cartload of scrolls and non-sealed goods that had been delivered to the home Naru now owned. "These are the goods from Mist and Wave. There's a list there."

"Should be just a bit further in. We'll find the books soon."

"It's not that important, Naru." The older girl sighed, looking up into the carefully situated mask of her friend. Her smile had barely left since she'd arrived days before. It changed, but never left. "If you want I can look through-"

A hand settled on her own, squeezing softly. "I'm alright. I need to do this. This is what he left me, part of it. If I don't come to terms with something like this, how can I manage the bigger things? Oh, here's one." Naru pulled out a scroll bearing the sigil of Snow Country, brandishing it grandly. "Lets see what we have."

Other scrolls had been categorized, set aside and took up quite a lot of the workshop's space. It was an impressive mess, but it was her mess now. Larger ones contained the raw materials for the shop's work, bronze and more precious metals for fine detailing. Delicate woods and bone that must be shaped out of large bases to get at their needed cores. Spools of hardened silks and leathers for grips. Woods to be lacquered by the cord for saya and sword racks.

Smaller scrolls contained workable blades and repair tasks, finished or otherwise. There were also some household goods, and a number of others that Naru had yet to open. Many were unlabeled.

The smallest stack she and Tenten pored over, searching, unsealing, resealing and categorizing. These were the scrolls on Yasugi's person, in his personal cache. "I think this is the method book he was looking for," Naru muttered, picking up the now-freed tome, leafing through it with a nod. "Yep. I think Orikata will enjoy this one."

"I'll make sure he gets it," Tenten quietly replied, somewhat unsettled by Naru's blasé attitude. "These are household things. More tea and spices, some more exotic foodstuffs. He was quite the cosmopolitan."

"Tradesman at heart. The old man loved the fine things, even if he practiced an almost monklike moderation. He knew what it meant to take pride in his work, enjoyed seeing it in others as well," Naru replied, labeling the scroll she was handed and putting it in a small set. She turned, watching as Tenten blinked, eyes darting her way then back to what she held. "Is something wrong?"

Shaking her her head, the other girl handed the scroll she held over quickly, "No. This one is just labeled for you."

Looking down, Naru started, glancing back up with a guarded expression. The scroll's only address was a spiraling seal, a stylization of the one she bore around her navel. "Why do you say that?"

Tenten blushed and looked down, "I've seen that seal before. When you were resting in our shop. It was outlined on your skin."

Shrugging, Naru let the girl's comment lay, "It's alright. Not like I mind you seeing it. Just... don't ask around about it. You won't like the answers." She looked at the scroll in her hand, smile having faded somewhat. "Why would he have made this so... obvious," she murmured quietly.

Seeing that Naru was taken with her own scroll, Tenten continued working through the bundles, placing them in the proper locations to be dealt with. Years of working with Yasugi and Naru in their shop let her know the way the pair organized. It was a simple matter to place things. The few scrolls she needed help with, Naru could handle easy enough.

"I see you two are still going through all of them," Yugao peered around the corner, getting a wave from the two girls. "I placed the few labeled for Orikata in a pack for you, Tenten," turning her attention to the blonde, she tilted her head. "Will you be ready to resume your instruction tomorrow, Naru?"

"Uzuki-sensei-"

Naru cut off her friend's complaint, "I'll be ready. I'll meet you both at the training ground tomorrow afternoon. After all I've had a bit longer of a break that I intended." She met Tenten's shocked looks with a rueful one of her own. "I don't plan to fall behind."

Yugao nodded, pensive but satisfied. "Tomorrow then. I will meet you both then."

When she had gone, Tenten could stand it no longer, "Naru! What are you doing?"

Blinking up at her friend, the girl shrugged. "Preparing."

"I don't understand."

The younger girl heaved a breath. "I wasn't there for him, Tenten." She held up a hand, halting the other girl's words, guessing that she meant to reassure her. Belying her smile, Naru's words were clipped, brittle, "He was family. I wasn't there. It won't happen again. I won't be weak again, when I'm needed. If all this work, all I've done to be a kunoichi, a ninja of the Leaf doesn't let me protect those close to me, then what's the point?"

Blue eyes pinned Tenten, held her still. "One day, this will happen again. You. Yugao. The Old Man. Maybe someone else, even. I won't be cloistered at home, waiting, biding my time for another letter.

"I have to be strong enough. Strong enough to protect you," laying her head down on the table, Tenten watched as the blonde's smiling face was limned with tears. She knew then, that no matter what face she saw Naru wear, it wasn't the one she knew, the Naru before Yasugi's death.

Reaching out, she moved to the blonde's side, curling her arm around the smaller girl's shoulders. "It's alright. You're not the only one, ok?"

"Mmm?"

"You think you can protect everyone?" Tenten let herself laugh quietly. "You have to sleep too, y'know."

"Sleep with my eyes open," she mumbled, digging fingers into Tenten's side to make her yelp.

The brunette was glad of her friend's humor. She worried, true, but this at least she knew. This was familiar, even if Naru's new, brittle, hollow smile frightened her. "Well, then you can keep watch when we get missions together," Tenten jibed, smirking. "I'll catch up on my sleep."

"Speaking of sleep, you should head back. I'll finish what I can of this before tomorrow."

Looking at the nearby clock, Tenten nodded tiredly, forgetting how long they'd been at their task. It had taken nearly a day and a half to get where they were, and that was with Yugao's help. Then again, the first day was mostly Tenten trying to help the ANBU sort the load, while Naru slept on, her mind finally at ease.

Tenten let herself out, as Naru returned to considering the scroll marked with the Kyuubi's seal. Pricking her finger, she smeared the stain across the seal, watching impassive as it shrank down in on itself, finally curling into ash. The fine silk unrolled in her hands, yards of fine script apparent on the length.

As she'd thought, Yasugi didn't know about her seal, not in truth. He'd likely picked up the pattern from her own work, idle sketches or the few attempts at casting. What lay in her hands was a piecemeal but extensive set of diagrams, outlining chakra control techniques. Further, she found another storage seal, this one with instructions and contents.

Enough metal for a blade, and parts to set it. Apparently it was for her, and something Yugao had asked for the old man to find while he was off plying his trade. His hand described it as unfinished, which in Yasugi's language meant she would be forging the blade herself if she meant to use it.

Naru sighed, remembering her most recent failure in the forge. She wasn't a smith, but if it was the man's will she do it, one last time then she would. She eyed the scroll incredulously, something wary and horrified creeping up in her thoughts.

More silk was unrolled, it's backing fading from green to a deep red as she went. Scrolls had been copied here, old and new apparently. What she had taken to be a billet list was in fact a list of poisons, fine and specific. She read on, pinning the source somewhere in Grass country, the capital of that particular art. Mixing instructions, precautions, effects, antidotes... and further a section bracketed off, obviously a containment seal. "Old Man... this is too convenient. What's this all about?"

As if reaching beyond the grave to answer, beyond this point she saw clearly Yasugi's own script. The blonde read, rapt as it explained in detail the man's life.

Kensuke Yasugi was born Aramaki Momochi, in the country of Wave some time around the rule of the Second Hokage. His family moved to Water country, eventually settling in the village of ninja, Kirigakure, the village hidden in Mist. In great depth the narrative went over his life, as a simple trader and craftsman, choosing his father's work rather than that which his brother did. A brother who went on to join the Mizukage's ranks as a swordsman.

Aramaki did what he could for his sibling, often putting aside his work to come and repair or make gear for his tasks. Eventually the Bloodline Purges came, and he was forced to flee, the elder Momochi having been named outlaw by his own Kage, for performing his destined task.

The smith Aramaki died in a raid, but in the nearby country of Fire the man Kensuke Yasugi came to be known as an excellent swordsmith. He eventually gained enough fame to be allowed entry to Konoha, and thereby secured his safety. And the safety of his brother, whom he protected by disappearing, refusing to be a weakness for the proud shinobi.

Yasugi was content with his life, till one day he was asked by the Hokage to take in a young girl, whom he said was an orphan. Later he would spend his time passing what he knew on, exchanging help in his craft and the knowledge of his methods to her, in exchange for room and board, and the small joys of companionship.

The smith from Mist had never desired a family, but that young girl who reminded him so much of his own brother gave him all he'd ever wanted. It didn't matter that she had secrets, didn't everyone, after all?

One day, he received word that his brother needed him. It seemed odd, the old man's script scrawled out, but he went, because suspicious or not, if his brother needed him, he would go.

There was no meeting with the brother he'd left to protect, instead there was a man known only as Gatou. Yasugi knew that he was being used, either against his brother or his new adopted daughter, but he didn't give them time to find him.

The last words on the scroll from Yasugi were kind, warm and set the smiling girl's eyes to tears again. He knew, after his trek to fulfill his tasks that he wouldn't be returning home to her. He apologized, but hoped she understood. He'd spent his life protecting his younger brother – it was his duty to do this.

But also his duty to protect her.

The deeds to the shop and his affects were included, all passed to her. There was one last containment seal, but she left it be, the note below it warning that it was a one-use container. Only to be opened when she was ready.

Eyes watering so she could no longer read, Naru was not. Being sure to dry her few tear stains from the precious scroll, she wound it tight and tied it shut again, this time forcing the Kyuubi's chakra into a seal around the thing. The kitsune agreed it was good enough cause, and though she was worried in her own right, felt that the girl's emotions breaking free was better than her container simply destroying them.

The spirit's pride in her added to the warmth of Yasugi's words, and she pulled the huge scroll, almost a quarter of her size, with her to bed. Curled up around it much like she had Tenten the night before, and the night before that, Naru thought about her goals. Thought about what she told her best friend as they sorted a dead man's things.

Tomorrow she'd finish cleaning. She would honor the man who'd left her a life of her own by at least respecting his space.

Yugao looked up from her instruction with Tenten and paused, going very still for a count of three. "That is a new look for you."

Naru's grin widened slightly, her eyes closing to amused slits briefly. "I've changed looks once or twice," she replied to Yugao's observation. Her mind flashed to the gaudy orange jumpsuit she abandoned, the first day out as a girl. Better clothes weren't hard to find, once the merchants no longer considered making their client a target.

She had searched through the house, packing overnight rather than sleeping. The day and a half of sleep before had left her more than enough energy, energy she turned toward putting some order into her world. Chaos was still predominant, still ruled it but she was bending it now, guiding its haphazard flow.

Through that search she had found one of the old man's haori, a long jacket that on her fell to mid-thigh with sleeves that came down to her wrists. It was white with red trim and pattern, a dusting of crimson butterflies. Arguably worse than the orange she'd worn so long ago, it reversed to black with the same pattern, which seemed more fitting. She'd reverse it when needed, maybe get one in the proper colors some day. Right now it was comfortable for what it represented. Something of Yasugi, she could carry with her.

The collar was high, which was fine, as she'd taken some of the stock leather from the parcels and made a sling for the scroll that the old man had left. The high collar kept the wide strip of leather that secured it from riding into her neck. The scroll itself rested at the small of her back, parallel to the ground. To keep her hair from getting fouled in either the collar or sling, she wound and bound it with three senbon. It seemed a very kunoichi thing to do she thought.

Admittedly the other reason she found the long haori to her liking was the mask that rested askew on her head. Bright white and blood red, it was a festival piece representing a kitsune, tied just under the bun her hair rested in. Their matching colors seemed too interesting a pair to pass up. This too was packed in one of Yasugi's scrolls, albeit meant for sale elsewhere. Konoha didn't think very highly of fox-themed items, after all.

Tenten looked at her friend with a tilted head. "What brought this on?"

Naru shrugged, "One, it's cold and I liked the jacket. Lots of pockets and enough material to make it hard to see your hands. Not that I'll wear it practicing – I like it too much to let Uzuki-sensei carve it off me." She grinned at her teacher, earning a slight nod in reply. "As for the scroll... well I just want to keep it near. Sentimental value, I guess."

Yugao looked pointedly at the mask, sitting at an angle atop Naru's head. "And what of that?"

"This?" Naru pulled down the mask till it covered her face, it's caricature grin and squinting eyes causing Tenten to shudder slightly. "This I just like."

"If you are through playing dress-up, the lesson is waiting."

Naru sighed, nodding an apology while she settled her jacket, scroll, and mask nearby. It wasn't till she was standing in her usual casual if functional clothes that Tenten noticed that with all that was new, something was lacking as well. "Your zanbato-"

"At home. If I'm going to learn what Uzuki-sensei is trying to teach, I need to do it honestly, rather than just when I'm out training." Those words spoken, the smaller girl spun on the observing ANBU, "Teach me something new today, Sensei!"

"...right." Shaking her head and wondering what precisely she'd gotten herself into – for at least the fifth time – Yugao had the two pair off. "I've gotten Tenten up to your level in melee range. She doesn't have your strength, so cut it down."

"Right."

"Use the techniques and ideas I taught you. I'll correct as needed." Making a few small immediate changes to each girl's stance and hold on their weapon, she nodded. Bouncing back three paces she murmured a quiet "Begin," the last syllable drowned out by the clash and clang of steel.

As the two circled and struck she continued teaching, knowing that the youth's heightened reactions and battle-awake minds would absorb her information quickly. "Don't rely on stance, being predictable is the same as standing still."

"Capitalize on every opening, if only to test it."

"Assume every opening is a trap, and counter accordingly."

"Ninja use knives as tools. Tools are limited, not a part of you. When your weapon becomes a part of you, then you exceed the limitations of that label."

"Never neglect to use your weapon as a tool when needed."

"Learn to do more than slice and stab. Learn precision. Learn delicacy."

"Ninja are subtle because we are killers. To continue as ninja, we must act, then cease to be. We are the blades of a wakazashi – deadly when exposed, invisible when sheathed."

She knew some of her words would be misunderstood – time was on her side though. Despite knowing it would take some drilling to get the concepts ingrained, she was pleased to see the two grasping the nature of what she was attempting to pass on. Naru began setting traps with her stance, luring Tenten to attack false weaknesses, while her older counterpart was starting to use the back of her blade to increase pressure for her strikes, reverse direction or hook the smaller girl's limbs.

During Yugao's sometimes impassioned and contradictory snippets, Tenten and and Naru grunted and winced as their blades snapped out, lashed or defended. More often than not they missed entirely, but on three occasions the ANBU had to be called in to heal a nasty cut or gash. Unsurprising to either of them, Naru refused any healing.

After both girls were bloodied and winded, Yugao stepped up their instruction. "After each strike, change the position of your blades. If you strike underhanded with the blade out, flip it, invert the hold to an outward one, whatever. Practice adjusting quickly to new grips and how they affect you. Begin."

The effect was obvious. Each girl struck, fumbled, and had to dodge as her opponent took advantage of the opening. But they improved. They also learned that reacting was better than thinking, and that thinking was best done without alerting your opponent.

Naru learned the latter lesson slower, telegraphing her strikes almost comically. For all both the blonde's company knew she kept an emotional mask in place, here at least she was painfully open. She balanced it by using pattens and attacks that had little form, but excelled at their goal.

Tenten on the other hand was slow to drop static routines and improvise, relying on muscle memory and logic to defend and attack as opposed to cunning and opportunity. Naru brutalized her in those moments, often halting the girl's attacks with savage and unpredictable counters before the brunette could formulate a response.

They were both shedding their weaknesses slowly as time went on. Yugao could see the roots of what she was teaching taking hold and spreading, altering their actions. Feeling that the two could use a break before they themselves broke, she called a halt, two hours after their practice had begun.

"Good. You are leaning how to learn, which is better than any stance or method I could teach you."

Tenten panted, but the older woman could clearly see the question in the girl's eyes, and motioned for her to speak, "Sorry, was still getting my breath." Standing fully, she winced, hand going to her side. Naru sped to her, inspecting the split cloth with a frown. She waved Yugao over, who was already forming the handseals for a healing jutsu.

"Must have missed that one," the brunette grunted, eyes shut tight. "What I wanted to aaaAAOUWTCH! Sorry," sucking air through her teeth, the girl sagged as the technique ended. "Why no stances? Gai, hell even Neji are solid fighters with their stances."

Naru nodded at the girl's point, and Yugao spared them both a wry grin. "They do, and for them, they work well. Gai is an elite Jounin – one of the very, very few. His technique is as close to flawless as they come, and it's been his life's work to perfect it. Neji, though, will soon hit his glass ceiling I believe. The thing both share though, is a reliance on order.

"Tactics in battle is a must, and this sometimes blinds those that hope to use it to see," the woman went on, sitting cross-legged before the younger girls. "Predicting a battle seven steps ahead implies an implicit knowledge of your opponent." Tilting her head, the woman smiled viciously. "Lets test your grasp of tactics. Naru, what do you know of the Hyuuga?"

The blonde considered that a moment before sighing, "Not much. They have a bloodline that lets them see chakra. I don't know much more."

"They have a style that allows them to see and then shut down chakra points, like pressure points on the body," Tenten added, gaining Naru's attention. "The Byakugan also allows them to see very far away, and through some objects."

"Very good," Yugao noted, glad to see her students pooling what they knew openly. She did make a point to herself to discuss secrecy with both of them soon, however. "Now, with that in mind, Tenten, tell me how you'd defeat him?"

The brunette gaped a moment, blinking. "I... I don't think I could."

"Why?"

"I've not seen a weakness in his stance or defense."

Though she expected the answer, considering the girl's time around the branch Hyuuga, his grandstanding, and her own limitations, she was still disappointed. "Alright, fair enough. Naru?"

Immediately those blue eyes shut down, dimming as Naru turned her mind inside. It was a somewhat disconcerting thing to see, and Yugao looked forward to the day the girl could utilize that on a true battlefield. "Can I ask a question?"

"I will consider answering."

Naru nodded, as if that answer was expected. "If they can see chakra, is it like light? For instance, if I were focusing on Tenten, and if she set off a flare for instance..."

"Very good," Yugao beamed, which to her was a slight grin. "Yes it is. Turn a strength into a weakness. The Byakugan is a clarity skill, a precision talent that allows a Hyuuga to predict a target's actions and react. They predict by watching you. This is what can be considered 'common knowledge', gained by numerous battles and boastful members.

"Now, formulate an offense, Naru."

"Right," again the younger girl's gaze went icy. "I'd begin by telegraphing my movements, allowing Neji to gain confidence in his attacks.

"Once his offense is assured, he will neglect his defense. A stance has only so many options from one position to the next," Yugao was secretly very pleased, hearing the blonde go into such detail. She worried that the plan was too complex, but in truth there was only one step. She'd let the girl go on, and adjust or negate her ideas when she saw error. "At this point I'd like to point out I would not be using a blade."

"Why not?"

Naru smiled at Tenten's question. "I'd keep it sheathed on my forearm, with a fast-release."

"Devious, but the Hyuuga can see such things."

Naru considered that, but smiled. "He'll be more concerned with his stance and the progress of his routine. I'll see it and begin predicting it by taking negligible damage. When I'm assured I know his pattern, I'll begin by diverting his attention-" to demonstrate, she extended a hand, then clenched it. Both her companions flinched as the slight discomfort of raw chakra release brushed over them. "A flare. His attention will either go to it, or flinch away. Then I pull my blade within his guard." She fell silent, watching Yugao patiently.

The ANBU tilted her head, but only returned the blonde's stare for a handful of moments. "Yes, Naru?"

"You only asked what we'd do, not how to finish it. Am I sparring, or in a pitched battle?"

A slight chill went up Tenten's spine at her friend's words. Before she could ask why the difference, Yugao held up a hand. "Pitched battle."

Naru nodded, "Then, I'd blind him, or kill him depending on the availability of the strike. If I can do neither, then I'd spend the opening to cripple and disable his stance."

"Naru! That's-"

"What you should be thinking," the ANBU cut the younger woman off. Tenten shot her a horrified glance but relented, realizing her own hesitation was due to the Hyuuga being a teammate. Still, even she didn't think that such a final end would be the actual goal of their talk... was this what she would be faced with some time? Killing a teammate? The idea shook her.

Beside her, Naru was having a similar response to her own words, if for a different reason. "When did I get so cold?" She wondered, but cast the idea aside almost as quick as it came. "If I'm in a position where I must fight, then I must. I can't think on why or how, or who if it happens. Either I win or lose. I just have to make sure that if I fight, I'm doing it for the right reasons," recalling Tenten's expression, she knew that if some day she lost those ideals, it wouldn't be death that took her precious people away.

It would be her own inhumanity.

Yugao could guess where her two students had let their minds wander. Though she was proud that they were progressing, she wondered if they were ready for the things she was teaching. Tenten at least had passed her Genin exams, and was taking missions with Team Gai. Naru on the other hand was still dealing with her guardian's death.

"They are kunoichi," she reminded herself with a mental shift. "If they don't learn now, they'll learn later, and that's a much less pleasant lesson." Resolve firmed, she took both of her charges by the shoulder, startling them back to the now. "You did well today. Continue and I will be able to retire soon."

The slight humor broke their mood, and the three turned to the ranged area. Tenten's wired kunai were waiting for them. "Finally something that doesn't end with me bleeding," the brunette murmured with a slight smile.

Yugao pulled out a few of her own sharpened throwing knives. "Oh? What makes you think that?"

If not for Naru thinking fast, Tenten would have likely found her shoes, if not feet, stapled to the ground by a hail of kunai. "What are you waiting on? Hit the targets."

"With you trying to kill us?!" Naru's shrill question was cut off by a change in targets by their teacher.

"Not all of your targets will stand and willingly accept being aerated. Some will have allies."

Naru spun around, snapping her blade out to deflect a kunai that was aimed at her knee, "What are you, a treehugger then?"

"For today, I am an ally of the targets. Your job is to neutralize them, before I neutralize you." She punctuated her point by trying to puncture her students.

They were learning. Neither was bleeding yet. Much.

Another two hours – Yugao had planned their practice out to induce exhaustion, and was happy with the result. Tenten was left in a barely conscious heap, while Naru was actually winded and fighting to stand at the end. Yugao was happy of that, knowing the girl's chakra-induced stamina could be capitalized on or neutralized too easily, and that honest body hardening would be best. That was the point, in all truth – running them to exhaustion would harden them, and help them grow.

Yugao was about to dismiss them when Naru stumbled forward, a hopeful expression on her face. "Sensei, is there a waterfall around here?"

Nodding, the ANBU ninja pointed to the southwest. Naru thanked her, before shouldering her scroll and dashing off as if gaining a third wind.

Her two companions looked to one another, then shrugged. Yugao would have followed, but wanted to make sure Tenten made it home alright. She knew where Naru would go, and if she was still there once the other girl was settled, then she'd ask.

She'd also remind the blonde that teamwork didn't end after practice. Not that Tenten was heavy, but the girl's aim was amazing, and her own reserves were running low with the amount of chakra she'd used in healing that afternoon.

It didn't take Naru long to find the location Yugao had indicated, but the waterfall itself wasn't very large, or suited for her task. Looking up and down the river that flowed, she turned to the north and hoped that there were broader, harsher waters there.

The search paid off, and Naru gleefully pulled out her scroll, unrolling the first few yards to inspect it critically. Shrugging off her jacket, most of her clothes and the mask, she shivering and shaking made it to the fall where the water impacted the river below.

Situating herself in the fall, but not wholly under it, Naru settled into the meditative pose they taught the basics of at the Academy. Though her teachers never went into detail, they did outline basic meditation as a way to clear the mind for missions and tasks, which was enough for this Naru hoped. Focusing on her chakra and not the water, she began the exercises outlined in the scroll.

"Breathe in, expand the chakra out..." she murmured, visualizing as she did the image she was supposed to focus on. The exercise called for her to express a layer of chakra just thick, resilient, and strong enough to insulate her body, but not wholly disrupt the waterfall itself. Making an 'umbrella' was too much, and letting the water just run off her like a duck was too little.

Not that she could likely do either of those... but that was in the instructions, so! Breathing in, she focused on the feel, pushing out her chakra as the air expanded in her lungs slowly.

The water continued to pelt her.

Eyebrow twitching, she tried the other exercise. "Breathe out, let my chakra become a cloak around me..." this one she felt good about. Gathering chakra into her lungs, she was to breathe it out like a mist, controlling it and shaping it around her to reinforce the other method.

Ideally, the two would build a cycle she could continue while meditating, using the waterfall as an indicator of her progress. If she stopped getting soaked, she was doing it right.

Shivering, Naru focused on her task. The cold was good motivation. Despite the cold and water though, it took her nearly an hour to begin seeing progress, slight as it was. She had been falling into the half-trance of meditation when the sound of water against her ears and shoulders lessened. Focusing on the feeling of chakra around her, Naru let her mind turn to the flow of energy, letting the sound and sensation become secondary to it.

She lost it twice, her focus slipping with her excitement before she could begin to capture and hold the feeling in place. The light was failing, though, and despite Naru having chakra to burn, this was like working an unused muscle.

Sure, she had power to spare, but the muscles for making it something other than just brute strength were weak and useless. Yugao compared it to vision. If she only focused on near things, the muscles in her eye would be too weak to let her see far away.

Naru refused to be weak. Shivering and with chattering teeth, she gathered up her things, the real meaning behind the jacket apparent now as it warmed her quickly. Despite it, she hurried with chilled bones and sluggish muscles toward home and a warm bed.

Tomorrow was another day, and she had a number of tasks to accomplish.

"Suzume-sensei!"

Naru's voice carried down the halls, stalling the woman who's name she called. Though it was often the case at the Academy, not many students sought out Suzume Namida for after-hours training. Turning, the kunoichi regarded the young blonde from behind small, oval-shaped glasses. "Yes, Naru-chan?"
The young girl grinned, or rather her grin widened. Suzume was the primary kunoichi studies instructor. Some time ago that label confused the recently-female Naru, but with one badly-timed question she'd learned why there were separations in studies. It wasn't that female ninja were weaker, despite their frames taking to the exercise and strain that ninja training put them through differently. They weren't less intelligent, in fact most strategists and planners in the recent memory of the Element nations had been women. In a strictly by-the-numbers basis, the two genders were equal.

The bottom line was, however, they were not. Men overlooked women in civilian situations, didn't suspect them when it came to foods and drink, let down their guard to them when their passions and lusts overcame reason, and they killed just as efficiently from each angle presented.

Kunoichi earned their title by using even their gender as a weapon. Suzume Namida taught them how to do so, and the dangers that those weapons brought on themselves.

"Suzume-sensei, is it a bad time?"

"No, Naru. Ah, you're here about the note you left," the woman's smile never strayed from polite. "Come along. It's rare for one to take such an interest in their studies. Though I do wonder... is this really something you see yourself suited for?" It wasn't meant to be an insult, but there was the thread of disbelief there. Neither missed it's implication.

The blonde smiled, a sly, private smile. "I think I have a pretty good chance of impressing my ability on you," she said in response.

It would have surprised anyone who knew Naru a month previous, to see the tomboyish, loud, sometimes mischievous girl asking the village's primary resource for infiltration and covert actions for advanced lessons. Luckily, Naru had an ace up her sleeve.

Suzume looked the girl over critically, frowning slightly at the oversized men's jacket and tasteless mask. "You think so? Do explain."

They entered the woman's office, and Naru closed the door behind them with a slight chuckle. "Close the blinds? I'll need to seal them with some ofuda."

"Privacy seals? What are you planning, Naru?"

"Just a demonstration. I figure proving I've been essentially pulling one over on the whole village for almost six years would be good enough to qualify me for some advanced training," she said, all the while trying not to snicker. She was wary of revealing her secret to someone else, but this seemed to be the only way to impress the woman. Her own reputation was working against her here, and though her facade of being a careless, flighty, but sometimes brilliant ninja-in-training worked for the most part, in some cases it only hurt her chances. Besides, what fun was a prank you never got credit for?

Suzume resumed her impassive stare, curious despite her outwardly chilly front. "Alright, Naru. I'll bite. So, lets start with the basics," snapping through a series of handseals too fast to track, the woman halted, her fingers pointed at the blonde. "KAI!"

Nothing happened. Suzume's glasses glinted, "Alright. So you're saying you've been doing deep-cover work for numerous years. You're not under an illusion, and I know from what physical training I oversaw you're not wearing any fake body-prosthetics. What are you getting at?"

"I'm a boy."

The older kunoichi blinked once, before her glasses tilted to reflect the setting sun with an ominous glint. "Strip."

Swallowing slightly, Naru did so though she paled. "Ok," she thought to herself while peeling off her undershirt, "She can be a little scary."

Once the young girl was down to her brief underwear, the woman stopped her. "Ok, as interesting as this is, I'm not seeing the proof of your statement."

"I need to er. Well just watch – but not too close!" Blushing madly, Naru focused and winced slightly as the Kyuubi's chakra swept over her. It had been years since she wore this form, and though it proved useful to drive the point home... she didn't want to be in it more than absolutely necessary.

Naruto, slightly taller, broader and with shorter hair, blinked back at the Chuunin instructor as she half fell, half stumbled into a chair. "Is... oh. Oh my god. Naruto?"

"Er," nodding once, the now-boy coughed, stumbling on his own voice. "Wow, been a while since I used this... so. Do I get to take the class?"

Suzume snapped to attention at the reminder to the purpose of this madness. "Right, that's why... I need to test." A snapped and rapid set of handseals, and another cry of "Kai!" echoed through the room, but again, the boy was left in just the same shape as the girl he had been was previously. "This just isn't possible..."

Laughing nervously, Naruto scratched at the back of his head. "So... about that training..."

"One last test," the woman snapped out, rising and stalking closer.

"Er, um. What do you mean? It's obviously not a Henge or Genju-"

A wicked glint overcame the woman's normally impassive glare, "Of course, but unlike your... female guise, I've not tested this form for any artifice in it's shape."

"Tested? What do you meeEEAAAN!" The boy's voice rose an octave, as the woman's hands 'verified' his gender.

"Naruto?"

"S-Suzume-sensei?"

"Turn your head and cough."

The blonde kunoichi in training sat, face red as the setting sun, studying a scroll while her teacher looked on with a pensive expression on her face.

"And it never seemed to occur to you-"

"Nope. Too young maybe. The concepts of boy and girl were little more than words," she had given that peculiarity some thought, over the years. Her color settled as she thought over that rather than what had occurred to prove her claim or what was on the scroll. One didn't just... stop being one and become the other. Naru looked up, seeing the Chuunin's measuring stare. Better to handle this now, she figured wearily. "You know who Naruto was. What he had in him."

"Who you are, what you have-"

"I'm not Naruto."

Suzume scoffed, regarding the youth before her, "Just because you changed your face doesn't mean-"

"What does it mean? I destroyed everything he was, not that it was much. There was no one to mourn him. So what's left, after that? What's left to hold on to?"

Naru's glare did little more than stoke the woman's anger, "What you're talking about is mental illness! Your identity, who you are isn't Naru. You don't see this as wrong?"

The blonde stared, as if measuring the woman. Suzume shifted under that look, becoming more and more uncomfortable. Finally she broke her silence, "Are you so attached to your hate?"

"I don't know what you're-"

A small fist slammed into the desk, startling the woman. "I showed you, told you what I did in confidence. I wanted your help, but there's a cost for everything, Suzume-sensei."

The woman's eyes narrowed behind those small glasses. "Cost?"

"Cost," the blonde replied, icily. "No one was allowed to speak to Naruto about the Kyuubi – no one is allowed to know about my nature. The Hokage is already in the know. This is where it ends, no more people can hear about it."

The woman drew herself up, openly challenging that, "You don't get to make those rules. If the Hokage won't see reason-"

"Be quiet," the girl snapped, voice a dulcet dual-tone that rattled the room. Suzume's mouth snapped shut as Naru's eyes bled out to a baleful red. "Look at me. I'm... Naruto is dead. In here," she tapped her head slightly, demon's eyes drilling into the woman. She was smaller, weaker, less experienced, but no one in Konoha would stand against the Kyuubi, so the Chuunin looked away, brow stormy. "You're an expert on covert action. Infiltration. Deceit under cover. The more I use the kitsune's chakra, the more likely it is someone's going to find me out. This change is her, not me – but what was left is. I made this into my life.

"He died so I can live. I won't go back to being a pariah because people are too weak to think for themselves, or see the obvious."

The older woman rocked back at the accusation and raw hate those words held. "The Kyuubi was evil. If you're working with it-"

"You want to know evil," Naru's tone was poisonous honey. "Go out and find an orphan. Mock them for who they are. Call them demon, because someone decided it was better for them to suffer than deal with the problem. Let people torment, try to kill it, maybe even succeed. Did Naruto kill anyone?"

"N-no."

"Have I razed this place, burnt it to the bedrock?"

The woman shook her head, trembling slightly.

"I am not the Kyuubi. I am not the demon – yet. But push me far enough, and I'll hand her this weak, sniveling city and laugh while it burns."

Suzume sat, hard, swallowing a knot of fear that had her wanting to run and hide, run and just be away from here. "Why then. Why come to me?"

"I want to be the best kunoichi I can." Suzume's eyes were disbelieving behind her lenses. "I'm not the Kyuubi. I'm Naru. I'm human, as human as I've been allowed to be at least. I have only so many options, and I want to grasp them," sitting back, the girl seemed to lessen, grow small and waifish again. "I'm just Naru, but Naru needs to be stronger. Smarter. Better. Or I can't protect those people I care about."

That brought the Chuunin instructor up short. "Protect? Why?"

Naru threw her hands up in exasperation, "Because I care about them!"

Suzume nearly spat out that demons were incapable of love but the sharpened glare from Naru pushed those words back down her throat. Her mind flickered, as the world seemed to ghost and shiver, and she saw herself say those words. She saw a blur and sad, disgusted red eyes that considered her less than an insect, as the hands that suddenly matched them came into view, holding something wet and glistening and crushed it-

Shaking and weak, the woman looked back into placid blue eyes, her vision clearing suddenly. "What..."

"Don't ever presume to tell me what I am capable or incapable of," the blonde hissed, her voice barely a whisper but again having that odd harmonic duality. "You know nothing of me. Only what I've showed you. This is why I came to you, the supposed expert. I want to sharpen those skills that let me sneak and hide even from you."

Her pride stung at that, but the boy... girl, she reminded herself... had a point. "Alright. Alright, I'll teach you. I just have one question though," the added hastily, wringing her hands slightly, her calm, calculating exterior fracturing.

Naru tilted her head, waiting.

"Why... it's obvious you speak to, work with the Kyuubi somehow. Why? Why trust the demon that nearly destroyed this village?"

The little blonde girl considered the woman before her steadily. "I can see you lost something to her. Someone close. I'm sorry for that, I am. I could say it wasn't personal, that the kitsune never wanted to attack Konoha, or that there was some deeper actions at work that resulted in that catastrophe, but I won't," blue eyes that were far too old for their eleven year old bearer closed a moment. "Because it won't matter.

"To answer your question – because when I was Naruto, I had no one else." Naru's eyes glistened, but she refused to let them tear up. She forced those emotions deeper, back behind the mask. "It was just me, out there fighting, trying and failing at the hands of every angry, pathetic, unreasoning person. He wasn't the demon." She shook her head hard, glaring at the woman. "You hated him, didn't you?"

Suzume nodded, not looking away or down.

"If you could, you would have hurt him, wouldn't you?"

"The demon took my husband."

"I don't care," the blonde replied, ice sheathing each word. Suzume stiffened but the youth went on, "So this child, this container for the demon struggled and tried to gain the love of someone, anyone. How hard would it have been for him to learn to hate you all?"

The woman's eyes widened slightly in realization. "N-no..."

"Oh yes," Naru assured, glaring at the realization she was finally finding. "Teach him to hate by showing him nothing but that. Teach him violence by cracking his bones and breaking his spirit. And what do you reap? The Kyuubi was terrible, maybe. But it didn't hate.

"He would have. I may still," she finished with a whisper, eyes distant for just a moment, which passed. "I'm sorry. We wandered far off the reason I came here, and I'm beginning to think this was a mistake."

Suzume kept her eyes down, dark hair ringing her face as she drifted in her own silence for long minutes. Finally she took a breath, shaking her head, "He was a good man. He went to defend the village in the first wave, the one that was crushed when the Kyuubi tore an acre of the nearby forest up and slammed it back down on them. The proud of Konoha, and they never got a chance to even make a handseal. There was no way to find them, to even say goodbye.

"Then the Yondaime came so late in the battle. He sealed the demon then died, and we had already lost so much," the woman's words were thick now, laden with memory. Naru watched, fascinated to see it there, all but visible on it's own. "Then the Third tells us to call the child containing it a hero. How could we? We were made fools. Our strength meant nothing, but here was the demon – weak and powerless. Do you know how tempting that is? How easy pain is to just nudge from one target to the next?" Suzume breathed out deeply, her posture going weak and undone. "Yes it was weak. Yes it was petty and just... wrong. But what do you expect? Look at human culture. When has it been marked by compassion and understanding? We're a world broken into pieces based on military might."

Naru could only nod, though she felt nothing for the woman's platitudes. To think only a week ago she would be trying to comfort her, assure her former teacher it was all alright.

It scared her, the difference a life made. It also gave her insight into why Suzume, under her cool persona of a kunoichi was so damaged, bitter, and hurt. "I'll forgive you for being human," the girl murmured, rubbing at her aching temples slowly. "Can we get back to the lesson now?"

"I don't think I have the energy to teach," Suzume muttered quietly, both present realizing it had been a very trying afternoon. "Come by after classes tomorrow. We'll pick up then. Take the scroll home, study it. Bring me an essay on casual contact poisons and how to deliver them."

"Yes, Suzume-sensei."

The woman nodded, standing shakily. After a moment's thought she reached out tenatively, "Naru? For what it's worth... I'm sorry."

Blue eyes looked up, "We are too. Just remember, as long as Konoha is home, I'll protect it. That's why it's important that I'm able to keep those people safe," grinning, the air around the girl chilled suddenly. "After all, without them all I have to fall back on is the Kyuubi, right?"

Suzume closed the door after her new pupil, slumping to the floor against it as she realized just how close she came to catastrophe that afternoon. And she couldn't tell anyone about it.

"I don't think it'll work," Naru spoke quietly, shaking her head.

There was a pause, as the sound of insects pouring out of hell seemed to press in against the silence of her mind. The kitsune's voice slipped around her thoughts like warm silk, dispelling the pressure, "I think it will be fine. Humans use seals to do jutsu, we simply use will."

"Dangerous," the girl muttered, face lit by the forge's glare. It had been six months since the news of her guardian's death, and try as she would, her forging was nothing compared to his. She did finally manage to produce blades – they sat against the wall of the workshop, unfinished still – but nothing that would would equate to the late legend's work. "And... you're sure I have to use it?"

"Nothing is without cost," the Kyuubi intoned, as Naru gazed sadly at the sword Yasugi had left her. Her zanbato, never forgotten, but often neglected while she learned how to use a blade from Yasugi. On the forge, various metals, alloys and components rested, waiting for the coal's heat and the hammer's kiss. She sighed, sitting against the bellows as the sun fell lower outside. She wondered if this would be another night where she turned away and lost her nerve.

Three times she'd come out here with the intent to make the sword Yasugi meant for her. Three times she lost her will to follow through, and simply left the materials to gather dust. Each time she swore to make it work, but fear overwhelmed her. She was no master, and for all her will and determination, it couldn't force a sword to forge itself into perfection. Not that she was having amazing luck with her will and determination making other things work either.

Genin exams were approaching, she knew. The exact time was a secret, something the Academy used to make sure its students didn't try to wait till the last minute to perfect their work. She was doing just that of course, and she was a nervous wreck for it. "Strange, how that worked out," she thought. She was getting trained by an ANBU on how to handle a blade, was using chakra control techniques apparently banned by more than one nation for killing their user, taking advanced kunoichi studies from Suzume but the simple Genin exam tests scared her.

She and Tenten had reached a level of competency with the blades they used to require Yugao to challenge them now, and though the woman won their spars almost always, it was good to push against such an opponent. To their pride, the ANBU estimated that only two others in the village, not counting herself, would give them a challenge in a straight blade fight.

Naru's chakra control under the waterfall had progressed nicely, but still had far to go. There was a cave nearby that she took a number of her belongings to, and often on nights where she knew there was nothing to do on the next day, she'd remain there, working on improving herself. It was almost a second home. Tenten visited, sometimes Yugao, but both respected her privacy there.

She could now perform all but one of the Academy low-level jutsu's without flaw – and that last one was giving her a headache. The Bunshin mocked her, and there was little she could find to make it simply work properly. No matter what direction she took toward it, the same issue was fundamentally wrong with her method.

It was being overpowered, she knew, and that bothered her to no end. It meant she was still not close enough with her personal exercises to make a difference, and she was running out of time. There were stronger control methods in the scroll... but she was scared to use them. She didn't really like the idea of buffering her body against a bonfire or in a blistering sandstorm – not that she could really do that in Fire country anyway.

Suzume's training was even more taxing, if the truth was laid out. Her idea of teaching Naru covert tactics was to make the girl take on part time jobs, then quiz the owners of the shops on how well she did. More often than not, Naru ended up pulling the workload of three people, just to learn all she needed to before being pulled off to another location. In between jobs she was assigned to infiltrate businesses and drop 'markers', invisible chakra tokens that Suzume would watch for. If Naru was successful, then it indicated a completed mission. Failure meant she was sent to provide day-care assistance and do work in the geriatric ward of the hospital. She was quizzed on those as well.

Tonight in fact was her one day off this week, with tomorrow a full day from dawn till midnight with the Academy, greenhouse work with the Yamanaka's, short order chef during the evening rush with the Akamichi's, training with Yugao, then some afternoon chakra exercises to help her sleep. The good news was she was anything but short of money, at least.

"It just feels like cheating," the murmured unhappily, staring over at her beloved zanbato for a long moment. "And I really don't want to lose one of the things he left me."

Buzzing pressed against her skull- "It's the cost of moving forward. It will cost us both – the chakra needed will drain me heavily, as I am the only one capable of calling it forth. If you put the will and desire into the steel, then I can make it answer."

Naru ran a hand along the cool flat of her zanbato, "There's no way to avoid destroying it?"

"I'm afraid not."

The blonde shook her head, turning away from the weapon. "I just don't know if it's worth it. I can use the zanbato fine – why make the effort to call up a blade that I may not even be able to use?"

She could feel the kitsune smirking, "You have me, it will serve."

Naru sighed heavily, her left hand running along the night-dark ingots of rare steel, imported from distant Snow country. "And you're sure that we can do this?"

"The only way to be more sure, is if I were free and called it myself."

Steeling herself, Naru nodded. "Alright. Lets get started."

She understood the kitsune's offer well enough – a sacrifice more or less. She would forge the materials that meant so much to her, a legacy from Yasugi along with his gift of the zanbato, and use that as a material link to what she would call. In a way, the youth could see the parallel. She had a summoning scroll after all, unused as it was. She didn't have the control to attempt it yet.

The cost was high, but the kitsune promised it would be worth it. Naru heated the forge by hand, pushing the coals to the melting point, heat blistering her face. "Naru?"

Not bothering to turn, the blonde laughed quietly, "Hey, Ten. What brings you by?"

"Saw the forge-fires burning. What are you doing?"

The blonde paused, before shrugging slightly, "Taking a gamble."

Her friend considered the blonde's posture, the things assembled on the anvils and benches and nodded. "I'll tell Gai the day after tomorrow I was busy. Where do you want me?"

Blue eyes blinked, before curving in a real smile. "Help me get the forge up to temp. I'll start laying out the steel." Without a further word, Tenten took over the massive bellows, as Naru hauled steel ingots to the blistering furnace's mouth. She arranged the different metal hardnesses with a keen eye and attention to their stamped labels, nodding when she was sure the amounts were correct. "I could make a full tachi, or a kodachi," the murmured, Tenten's eyes darting to her thoughtful expression.

"Will you trust me?" The kitsune's question was hesitant.

"I already do."

A warmth pulsed from Naru's core, suffusing her. "Thank you... make a small blade. Like the ones you use with your teacher."

Naru bit her lip, but nodded. "Why so small? That will waste a lot of material." She missed the curious glance her one-side conversation was getting from her friend.

She could feel the kitsune's playful grin, "Why do we wear masks, little fox?"

A laugh bubbled up out of her at that, and she set aside a third of the ingots. "I get the feeling you're going to really enjoy this," she murmured, getting only a husky chuckle in reply.

It was while Naru was taking Tenten's position to give the girl a break from the bellows, that Yugao arrived to check on her ward. Naru just laughed and pointed to a chair, "Gang's all here, huh. Well, sit down and enjoy the show."

The violet-haired woman peered at her work, openly curious, "You're building the sword you guardian left you?"

"Forging... and sort of. There's a trick at the end."

This got Tenten's attention, but before she could ask, Naru had pulled her zanbato up and laid it across a pair of spaced anvils, getting her and their teacher's attention. "Naru? What are you doing? There's nothing wrong with it, is there?"

Smiling ruefully, Naru shook her head. "This is probably the only blade I'll ever forge," the said quietly, taking a breath. "It deserves a bit of myself. The zan' is... me. It's a symbol. Driving though, powering through obstacles. Deceptively cunning, in the right hands."

Her company nodded slowly, while Naru slipped a hand down the cold steel. "Forgive me, Yasugi." Before either of the women could stop her, Naru pushed her chakra though her arm, wincing at the pain of overloaded muscles, but didn't hesitate. The hammer in her hand crashed down, powered by all her will and strength.

Under the blow, it's weight stretched across two anvils at the tip and base, the zanbato shattered.

Yugao was stunned that the girl would willingly destroy the weapon her guardian gave her, while Tenten was overcome by a sick wonder that Naru could actually break the weapon with a single blow.

Naru hid her wince well, her arm numbing badly as the kitsune chided her. "You're lucky neither of them are Hyuuga. If they could see your chakra now, you'd be in the hospital."

"That bad?"

"If the exams are soon, you may be in trouble."

Sighing, Naru picked up the shards, glittering like glass in the forge's hellish light. They reflected a young woman on the edge of the rest of her life, and oblivion. "Well, if you're here Yugao, may as well make it a full house. Care to get Suzume and the Hokage? Just tell them Naru's fluffy friend has a project. They'll come running," the blonde's brilliant smile conflicted with the paling woman, and Tenten had to wonder what the hell that meant, but was kept from asking by Naru going back into her work mode.

"One day Naru, you're going to tell me what all this is about," the girl hissed, arms straining with the bellows again, while Naru placed pieces of the broken zanbato on the soon to be molten ingots.

The younger girl only smiled at her, "Tonight, if you're lucky."

Time passed, and the heat inside the forge grew. Naru and Tenten were shortly running around in their usual work attire – leather smocks and brief shirts and shorts with heavy shoes, when the rest of Naru's guests arrived. "Hey all, pull up a chair. This'll be either awesome, or really disappointing. I'm not sure which."

If anyone had a question on why the Hokage came at the girl's beckoning, no one voiced it, though they did ask at times what was going on. Naru's only answer to that was a cheery grin and a wink, sometimes followed with a chirped "It's a secret!"

The work went quickly, as within half an hour, even the Hokage decided that helping with the bellows was better than sitting idly by. Fire jutsu's heated the forge quickly, and with a little testing Naru and the Hokage had a good rotation going, where he would heat the coals and she would work. The bellows were being worked by the other three in short shifts, keeping the oxygen pouring into the coals to help purge carbon during the heating.

When the time came, Naru impressed them all with her skill on the anvils, the hammer in her hand large and bulky, but flying and drawing the steel quick and sure. Yugao understood the girl's first chakra exercise then, if she looked up to a smith and wanted to earn his respect by learning his craft. It wasn't a skill that many youths her age could even pretend to understand, and fewer had the strength to work at.

Naru on the other hand worked a hammer too large for her with ease, the sweat on her brow from the heat, not the work. Despite the serene smile that graced her face, more than once her companions stole a look to her eyes, as in the forge's light they seemed too crimson, even for the light reflecting from the hellish coals to cause.

Steel was folded, stretched, shaped, folded again. The weapon's form was clear soon, and Yugao smiled to see it would be a wakazashi. Tenten was curious why Naru would destroy her zanbato for such a weapon – after all, they could easily buy one, or many! – but kept silent. Her friend had secrets, and though she respected them, her curiosity got the better of her some days.

The smaller blade didn't take long, and soon they were witness to the setting of the blade's hamon, the forge temper line, where clay was applied to slow the cooling while the quench sped it in other parts. This was critical, as critical as the proper set of the different steels. A fast-cooled blade was brittle, and would shatter, where a slow-cooled one would be soft and prey for other blades. The hamon told that the edge was keen, hard, and strong enough to bear it's task.

"Now, Naru. Blood the steel and use the seal."

Naru hissed air between her teeth, knowing this was a time-critical point in the blade's making. No point in putting it off – Taking up the still red-hot but dull blade in a set of tongs, she grinned weakly at the assembled. "Don't interrupt, please," as the final syllable passed her lips, she ran the dull but fiery blade across the underside of her left forearm.

Screaming out as the steel burned then snared her skin, then ripped the soft, abused tissue, Naru bowed over her work. Steel hissed and popped, cooling as her blood wept across it, strong hands trying to pull her away from her task. Clarity came through the pain, in the way of amber eyes, smiling, "Quickly Naru, the seal."

"Right," she mumbled drunkenly, shaking the hands off her shoulders. Nothing in her life had hurt this much, and though she knew the Kyuubi would heal it, right now it was all she could do not to curl up around her abused arm and weep. Still, all this would be for nothing if she stopped now.

Steeling herself, Naru lifted up her right hand, "Kuchiyose! Summoning art – Kogitsune Maru!" Slamming her palm into the flat of the unfinished wakazashi, she felt and saw the orange-gold of the kitsune's chakra boil up across her vision.

Unseen, her companions were pushed back by the force of the combined chakras, watching in expressions from awe to muted horror. "Hokage-sama! What is she doing?!" Suzume's words were drowned out by the roar of what could have been the forge's belly, spilled onto the floor for all appearances. Red and gold flowed over and around the girl as she screamed at the blade, hands smoking but locked around the hot steel.

"If I knew," the old man said quietly, forming a few seals to hopefully mask the blast of powerful chakra. "I would stop her." He knew well enough it would be a veritable beacon, and that this would only complicate things in the future for the girl. He hoped she knew what she was doing. Sarutobi worked to fill the holes hope neglected, regardless.

"She summoning the Kyuubi, oh Kami we have to run-"

Suzume's babbling was cut off as Yugao clamped a hand over the woman's mouth. "Be quiet. She can no more summon the fox than you or I."

Tenten looked between the two, then back to her friend, still wreathed in gold and orange flame. Why did Suzume seem so scared, not that she was any better. She was practically panicking over her friend's state, and only Yugao's hand on her shoulder kept her from pushing the girl off the still cherry-red blade. "She did call it 'little fox'," she murmured almost absently, recalling the name of the summoning Naru had screamed out.

As if Tenten's words were the closing passage of Naru's ritual, the alien chakra died off. With a clatter, the young girl fell to the side, unsupported by the power that had washed through her so recently.

Tenten was the first to her side, pulling her up and into a sitting position, her back against the older girl. "Naru?" Looking down where the Hokage turned the girl's hands over, they saw the angry red of new scars, but no cuts or burns. The skin was fresh and new, and looked tight with rapid healing, but there was little to indicate the wounds they had expected.

Regardless of appearances, Naru shook and twitched, eyes unfocused as pain wracked her form. "W-water," she managed to croak out, shivering in what was obviously chakra-exhaustion.

The Hokage darted to the wall and the cooler there with surprising agility, returning with a cup to ease the young woman as Tenten murmured into her shoulder, berating her for scaring them. "Naru, what were you doing?" Her question got the blonde's attention, and she tilted her head back and smiled.

"Was doin' what Yasugi wanted. Jus' had a li'l help, s'all," eyes fluttering, the girl slipped into unconsciousness, leaning back against her closest friend. Though they looked, none of them could find the blade Naru had pored over, which seemed a bitter end to such a night. None of them knew what she had intended, but nothing seemed a fair guess at worst result.

That did not mean the forge was by any means clean. Pieces of the shattered zanbato littered the floor, along with steel shavings, forge-sparks and soot. Yugao took in the state of all concerned and sighed, "Figures she'd leave us to clean up this mess." The Hokage laughed quietly, shaking his head.

Gathering himself up, the man turned to the three women still awake in the room, "Tonight's... demonstration, as I'm not sure precisely what the results will be, are an S-class secret, from here out at least until we can discern Naru's intent. Not a word to any other."

"Hokage-sama-" Suzume's words were cut short, as the man leveled a glare at her.

"Namida, think about this. She invited you here, knowing your issues. Knowing your bias. She's trying to extend her trust to you. She's already given you quite a bit," the man reminded, causing the usually collected and calm teacher to flinch as if struck. "Take it as it was, not as your fear dictates."

Suzume nodded, looking chagrined, "Yes, Hokage-sama."

At her side, Yugao took her arm and lead her into the Konoha night, cooling their skin rapidly from the forge's heat. "He's right. And for all what she carries seems terrible and frightening, the girl herself is strong. She may not score the best of her generation, but of the lot, only Tenten would I have at my side in a fight."

"I know, I know!" the woman's hands shook, as she crossed them along her body. "I can't help it. It scares me to death, alright? I know I should be better," heaving a sigh, she stilled, working to dredge up her composure. "It's just... that girl. I don't see how she does it."

"I don't think I ever want to know," Yugao quipped, getting her a short bark of a laugh in reply. "Let her worry on the trials of her life. Let us worry on making sure she has something to do with her hands and mind. It's the least we can do."

Suzume nodded, her calm settling like startled leaves in still air. "I know. I'm getting better, really. You should have seen me when she told me-"

"Oh, I was there."

The Chuunin blinked, then stared. "You were there?"

Yugao only nodded, patting the woman on the shoulder. "Be glad you're getting better."

"...yeah."

Inside the house, Tenten settled the girl into the cot reserved for her or Yasugi, when they worked at the forge and were too weary to return home. It seemed so surreal, knowing whatever it was Naru did was almost literally in her own back yard. "You silly, silly thing. What were you trying to do out there?"

Small, quick hands pulled Naru's braids out, laying the mass of blonde hair beside the girl along the cot. The leather smock was already disposed of, and the sweaty, hot underclothes that Naru wore were shortly removed as well. Though she knew no one should bother her, Tenten checked the door, nodding to see it locked.

The small room wasn't much, but she had gotten a large bowl and a towel on her way about the house, and now she went about damping and removing the soot and sweat from her closest friend as she lay shivering and unconscious in her home. "Idiot... hasn't enough gone wrong for you? Why do you keep seeking out trouble?"

Damping the towel again, she swept it across Naru's brow, seeing the girl's troubled expression clearing slightly with it's chill. "No more big surprises. Or at least give me some time to deal with you whipping out weird summonings that we don't recognize. What were you trying to pull anyway?"

A soft knock at the door pulled her attention. She unlocked the door, the Hokage coming in without pause, "Is she awake?"

"Not yet," the girl replied, going back to her post at Naru's side. "Do you know what happened?"

Humming slightly, the old man turned the girl's left arm over, inspecting the new scar there. As expected, it was darkening quickly. "If I had to guess? A summoning that was... turned, in an odd direction." Nodding to himself, the man rose and patted the blonde on the head lightly. "Get well, Naru. You have a big day coming up."

"Exams are soon? What was she thinking," groaning, Tenten resisted the urge to smack her sleeping friend upside the head. "Ugh. Alright. I'll keep an eye on her tonight and if she can make it, I'll send her in tomorrow."

"Sadly I think 'accident while attempting a strange jutsu' does not qualify her for an extension. If at all possible, make sure she at least tries."

"I'll do what I can," Tenten murmured, looking to Naru's sleeping face sadly. "You idiot. Rest while you can, then." Rising, she clicked off the light, turning to leave the room with the Hokage.

Before Sarutobi could leave her home, Tenten tugged at his sleeve, getting the old man's attention. "Yes, Tenten?"

"Could you tell me why Suzume thought Naru could summon the Kyuubi?"

A wry smile quirked the old man's lips. "No, but tell Naru I said to explain. Make sure she knows it's an order. That will be... punishment enough, I think, for tonight's curious happenings."

"Tenten."

The brunette jerked awake, hair loose and trailing down to pool across her shoulders. "Mwah?"

Naru grinned, if tiredly. "Hey you. You have practice this morning?"

Shaking off sleep, Tenten kneeled by her friend and started checking her, despite the blonde's protests. "No, taking the day off. Remember? I told you before you blew up the forge."

The younger girl had the grace to flush and stammer an apology, "I'm sorry, I didn't know it'd do damage to the place, I-"

"You didn't, relax. It just... felt that way." Naru's injuries, while seeming dire the day before when she took them, looked to be healed over already. The only proof they'd been there at all were the scars. Her hands now bore a tight spiral on each palm, similar to one she'd seen in Naru's occasional doodles and detail work for her own gear. Thinking back, Tenten realized it was also on the scroll Yasugi left her.

Those scars were normal, compared to the one on the underside of Naru's left forearm. Over the night it had darkened to a tattoo black, but it was the shape that bothered her. At first, she thought it looked like a clan seal, some kind of forked bar or strange glyph, but then the form, silhouetted as it was, resolved itself... it was a sword. Strangely designed and with very odd taste, but a sword none the less. "Hey, Naru?"
"Yeah?" Following the brunette's eyes, she hissed in a breath of air on seeing the imprint against her arm. "Uh. Out of curiosity, was there a sword in the workshop when I was done?"

Tenten shook her head slowly, "No, I'm sorry. It's like it disappeared."

"...yeah. Yeah." The blonde reached up, scrubbing a hand through her hair, "Nrrgggg... not what I was planning on."

Weakly, the kitsune made her point apparent as she mumbled around Naru's thoughts. Shaking her head hard, the blonde tried to get up, only to be pushed back into bed by a frowning Tenten. "Hey. Not so fast you. There's some things we need to talk about."

Laying back, Naru realized she was in no state to really argue. "Alright, I guess it's due..."

Tilting her head, Tenten frowned, "Hey, I've not even told you the bad news yet, no sulking."

"Bad news?" Raising a brow, Naru toyed with her hair nervously, playing with the braid as she bound it back up.

Nodding, Tenten sat on Naru's other side, helping her sort her longer hair. "The Hokage told me last night, after you blew yourself up," Naru snorted, but Tenten quieted her with a poke in the side. "Serious here. Your exams are today."

"Oh fuck me," Tenten's hand snapped out, slapping Naru in the back of the head sharply. "Ow! Hey, what the hell?"

"Language," the girl informed her with a smirk. "At least in my parent's home. Don't want to get them out of sorts."

Naru grumbled but nodded. It wasn't polite after all, regardless of how screwed she felt at the moment. "When I pick a day to mess up, I really do a solid job of it, huh." Tenten only nodded, absorbed in braiding the blonde's hair. "Well, maybe with this mild chakra exhaustion I can actually manage some of the Academy techniques without making myself look stupid."

"I'm sure you'll do fine, Naru," the older kunoichi assured, biting her lip slightly. "There is one other thing..."

"More? Wow. I should check my lotto numbers tonight, karma's going to owe me some serious credit."

Hiding her laugh behind a hand, Tenten regarded her friend and smiled. "Leave it to you, to joke on a day like this," Brown eyes met blue and the two laughed a few more moments, before Tenten regained her composure. "The Hokage also told me to tell you... well he phrased it like an order, but I'm not going to push it that far. He said that you should tell me about what's up."

Naru blinked rapidly, having not expected that. Not today, at any rate. "What's up?"

Tenten nodded, "Suzume was freaking out, talking about the Kyuubi. There's been a lot of things that just don't add up, Naru. I'm not the best investigator, but I can tell when there's some huge secret going on in front of me. What's this all about?"

Visibly deflating, Naru fell back against the headboard with a hollow sound. "He made it an order, huh? Well, that wasn't needed, but still." Looking up, she regarded Tenten with tired, old eyes. "Well, I'd ask for a promise that you won't freak out or get strange but I can't really ask for that, and besides... that's just not how you are."

Tenten nodded, a small weight settling in her stomach. Fear, she realized. "Yeah," she replied, lacking anything more to really reply to that with.

"I'm glad you understand," her friend said gravely, before taking the brunette's wrist and flipping her onto the bed, sliding behind and quickly tying the girl loosely in the sheet. "Which is why you'll understand that I'll have to tell you later!" Gathering enough clothing to be decent, the girl waved at her still-struggling friend, "I'll tell you tonight, it's a promise!"

"Damn you Naru! Get back here!"

Dashing past the stunned – likely for her state of barely being dressed – members of the Orikata family, Naru skidded to a halt, before launching herself into the air, dodging some badly aimed kunai. "Ten! Tonight!"

Growling and spitting like a cat, the brunette glared from under her disheveled hair, "Get back down here you, you... Argh!" Tenten threw more kunai, cursing and missing, then getting a belt to the back of her head by the elder Orikata for the same reason as Naru earlier. Naru bounded across rooftops, knowing the girl would have to wait and get dressed first, which would buy her enough time she hoped to get to the Academy. She may be able to outrun the older girl... but it was a solid maybe on good days.

Today the blonde felt like she'd been beaten by Yugao, and not in training. "Hey, Kyuubi?"

A weary grumble was her answer, but there was a sense of sharpening awareness. Finally the captive spirit voiced her thoughts, "Shut the fuck up already."

"My aren't we the morning person," Naru laughed, sending a nearby villager scurrying for cover. "And I think that's the first time I've heard you swear."

"I've had time to practice," the grumpy kitsune murmured, her tone regaining some of it's humanity, rather than the course growl it had been. "That ritual was not the easiest thing in the world to do."

Naru winced, agreeing wholeheartedly. "So, what happened?"

The kitsune groaned, "Must you ask things that require thought after such a night?"

"Yes."

"I had to be sealed into a blonde," her captive spat, the last word voiced with the vindictiveness of a curse. "Fine, fine. I used your chakra to form the ritual focus, then funneled my youki – demon chakra if you want – through you to affect the actual summoning. Once you started it, I essentially finished it."

Naru hummed slightly. "I have no idea what that means." Her inner landscape was filled suddenly with the calming balm of the Kyuubi's newfound talent in invective, "You ok in there?"

"Blondes," the kitsune snapped testily. "Short version. I made you summon it, because I really don't think you want to contemplate the results of summoning a physical object into a metaphysical space like mine. It just required me to key the ritual, and more power than you could possibly channel to activate – which I supplied."

"Are all summons so hard?" Naru's mind turned toward the scroll she had yet to activate, her wariness of it increasing.

The Kyuubi snorted daintily, "No. But you weren't summoning a spiritual being into a physical realm. That's easy – you supply chakra to build it's form, while the creature's mind supplies the blueprint. The scroll is the conduit between you. For this...

"Well, reality got rather fluid there for a few moments, lets leave it at that," the demon murmured, and Naru grinned. She was glad the Kyuubi was alright, last night's work worried her with the normally calm and calculating spirit screaming along with her during the summoning's final moments.

That reminded her... "What happened to the sword? I have a suspicion, as I have this neat new tattoo..."

"Don't activate it," the kitsune warned, all pretense of weariness gone. "The seal was a safeguard, in case we lacked the chakra to finish this. You summoned my blade, but it's dormant, until you can collect the fine control to finish the ritual."

"Isn't that more work than just leaving it there?"

Naru got the impression that the fox-spirit shrugged, "In a manner of thinking, but we've already established this was hard. It was easier to reduce the blade to an idea, and set that into a seal than fully transport a physical object permanently between realms." She supposed, in a sideways, trust-your-source kind of way it made sense. "When your chakra recovers, you can unseal it."

"Will it go back into the tattoo when I don't want it?" It was an interesting idea, one she had to look into. Tattooed storage seals had a lot of potential for a ninja.

There was a slight laugh, as the kitsune's presence in her mind dimmed, "No. One time thing. This was just to get it to you, so small tip? Don't get blood on the tattoo till you're chakra is fully replenished."

"Or?"

"You want to have a demon-forged sword ripped out of your arm the hard way?"

"...you have a point." Sighing, Naru balanced on the edge of a nearby building, overlooking the Academy. "We picked a bad day for this."

She sensed a shrug, "How long could you put it off?"

Naru considered that and nodded briefly. "I see your point. But... why are you so tired sounding?" This had been bothering her, as for all her time being in contact with the Kyuubi, it seemed nothing disturbed the serene fox-woman's composure. She only shed that blanketing idea in the face of strong emotions, but this was something wholly different.

"The seal," Kyuubi answered briefly. "When I expend chakra you don't ask for, it rebounds an equal pressure on me, to stop. So, considering what happened last night..."

"But I asked," the girl mentally cried out, suddenly horrified.

"It... doesn't work that way. Since I had to direct it, the intent was mine. Therefor, the seal's defenses activated," growing quiet, the kitsune's voice tapered off into silence.

Naru let the kitsune be. She had no gauge on her tenant's health... but regardless the young kunoichi felt the spirit had earned some peace and quiet. Bringing her mind back to the moment, she considered the swing outside the Academy, and the few children her age going inside.

Time to see if all her effort had been worth it.

"Alright, the first part of our exams will be taijutsu. I'll call you out in pair, and your instructors will observe you, and grade your performance. Losing does not mean you fail," Iruka called out, his tone mildly bored.

"First group, Choji Akamichi and Kiba Inuzuka."

Naru leaned back, letting her attention falter as the two traded insults before actually fighting one another. Honestly, was she that bad as a boy? Blue eyes strayed to their fighting, as Kiba yelled, having gotten hit fairly solidly in the stomach by the larger boy.

"Match. Back to the line," Mizuki called, dismissing the pair. Naru eyed the man for a moment, recalling her few classes with him. There wasn't much to really remember, as her kunoichi studies course, the Academy one, happened during morning taijutsu. She ended up doing those with Iruka.

What got her attention was that the man seemed... different. He was so laid back and just lazy it seemed, when she was around him. Today he was focused like a lens on them. Naru shook off her suspicions, he was grading them after all. Better he pay attention.

"Ino Yamanaka and Shino Aburame."

She blinked then rolled her eyes. Of course there would be some co-ed pairs. There weren't enough girls, and an odd number to boot.

Naru barely caught the tail end of the set, as it lasted perhaps a minute, and she was too wrapped up in her own thoughts to focus. Apparently Ino wasn't fond of insects, as Shino managed to get a few onto her face, which sent the girl into creeping shudders, which allowed him to close and put her in a submission hold. Simple psychological advantage. She made a note to ask Suzume about that kind of tactic later.

"Sasuke Uchiha and Naru Kazami."

Sighing expansively, she stood and moved into the small plot of land. It wasn't surprising, really. Of all the students their year, only she and the Uchiha were 'raw' taijutsu fighters. It seemed nearly everyone else had some family skill or talent, or weren't really on the level they were. Naru shuddered to think what kind of fight the boy would have against someone like Sakura Harano.

Ever the brooding youth, Sasuke stood across from her, impassive and the faintest of glares on his face. Naru considered trying to rile him with a verbal barb, then realized she was frankly too tired to care. Instead, she slitted an eye and yawned expansively, leaving her left side open.

Sasuke's eyes narrowed, and the boy took the opening readily, either impatient or insulted. Naru hid her grin behind a hand, honestly not caring which. Yugao's training had been comprehensive, and though the blonde lacked any kind of advanced jutsu or bloodline, she was good at reading people. The dark-haired boy's charge told her what she needed.

A leading right snapped past where her head was, and the moment's confusion let her drive an elbow, it's trailing hand braced against the other, into the boy's kidney. Straightening from her crouch, she ducked into a forward roll while the boy recouped himself, only slightly favoring his left side.

Naru settled her smile in place, grinning widely. Perhaps she did know the boy's triggers, it seemed that dismissing him infuriated the Uchiha scion. Again he charged, slower this time and favoring his left side. The blonde knew she wouldn't get another free shot like the last one, having showed her hand so well, and let the other boy's rush go unanswered, ducking away and getting a clipped shoulder for the trouble.

She had to hand it to the Uchiha, he was precise and efficient. Naru bounced back on the balls of her feet, resettling her weight and advancing before he could fully turn. She ducked a wide reverse roundhoouse, but didn't the followup, preferring to take the hit to make an opening.

Chakra burned into her muscles and bones, and Naru realized that she hadn't been using the control exercise at all. This passed in a moment, as the impact pulled her attention back to the now, her arm holding from the less-damaging kick. She made to drop and place a heavy strike to his knee, but Sasuke dropped to his hands, bringing his other leg to bear again.

Cursing her lack of attention, she took another hit, the boy's speed more than she was expecting. Chakra cushioned it, but she felt herself flagging. With a frown, she realized last night's work had yet to be recovered from, and wondered if she should throw the fight on purpose to conserve her reserves.

One look at the boy's dismissive smirk erased that. "I'll fail the jutsu portion before I let someone like that beat me," she vowed silently.

Again she recovered, flipping back once into a crouch. The Uchiha flowed into his stance again, all fluid motion and precise angles. Naru smiled, canines to put any Inuzuka to shame gleaming.

Mentally, she saw her image, a silhouette in gray, turn to a blazing white. Pain arced through her but it was nothing compared to last night, so she didn't even twitch. Along the sidelines she noted the Hyuuga girl flinch, and filed the reaction away for later. Right now there was an Uchiha to beat.

Naru rushed him this time, fully expecting her rush to be met with a brutal counter. She counted on it, in fact. Not one to disappoint, the Uchiha chambered a kick that should have sent her spinning into unconsciousness, but with her chakra-laden body, it only served to bruise him, as she came to an abrupt halt just inside his kick and defenses.

Her foot ground down, as her elbow snapped out, catching him in the stomach. The blow bent him double, the same arm snapping up, the backs of her knuckles bloodying his nose, while the boy tried to drop his weight back into a defensible stance. While he fumbled to draw away, Naru lunged forward, tucking a leg behind his, a normally far too vulnerable lead-in.

This was proved as Sasuke attempted to drive her back, dropping a heavy elbow into her thigh. He didn't know about her, and her accelerated healing though, or how she'd begun working it into her taijutsu. By opening herself to wounds and strikes others would find debilitating, she built openings in their defenses, knowing her body could heal the damage before it accumulated. Sasuke was fast though, and where she expected one strike, he had worked three. She needed to end this.

Naru ignored the searing pain in her leg, as she forced the protesting muscles to execute the end of her strike. Suddenly, she was intimately close to Sasuke, her position snapping forward into the extended leg's reach. He was already throwing his weight to the side in a dodge, as she twisted her torso around, her arm for a moment almost gently caressing his head.

Then she snapped herself taut, and sent the boy slamming face-first into the ground with a dull thud and explosion of dust.

"Match," Mizuki called, the sound oddly dull to the girl, bouncing on one foot as her leg healed from what should have been a fractured femur. Naru cursed the boy's almost idle talent at precision. Limping heavily, she ignored the pointed glares sent her way by a bruised Ino and livid Sakura.

Sitting wearily by a bored looking Shikamaru, Naru pulled a length of bandage out of her pocket to wrap around her leg, not wanting to give everything away. People saw her get hit – she would respond appropriately. "Sasuke's real bad for dismissing people who don't have the last name Uchiha."

Naru glanced over to the lazy boy beside her, seeing him looking up idly. The next match was called, but she didn't bother to watch. "Well, he won't underestimate a girl again at least," she quipped, more to fill the space than add to the other student's argument.

"It's not about you being a girl," Shikamaru said in his slow drawl. "It's about him thinking everyone else is below him. See, now you have a problem."

"Really," eyeing the boy impatiently, she leaned down and shredded through the bandage with her teeth, tying the loose ends together perhaps a bit too roughly. Naru knew her patience was thin today, but why was he getting to her? Best figure this out so she could go back to thinking about how to manage the ninjutsu portion of the test. "What's that?"

The lazy boy spared her a grin, as his name was called. "Troublesome. Well, you see, the problem is... now you're at least on his level.

"He's going to be gunning for you."

Naru blinked as Shikamaru walked away, then began swearing colorfully enough to make the Hyuuga girl blush crimson. Kicking up off the stands she was on, the blonde felt her spirits drop as immediately a pair of black eyes fixed on her. Cursing again, she stalked off, deciding to wait for the ninjitsu exam in the classroom.

Away from Uchiha eyes.

Half an hour passed while she sat, biting back her worry about the ninjutsu exam. It bothered her to no end that this year there would only be two main examinations, not that the number was uncommon. What bothered her had more to do with her own ideals, and those she was being taught.

Ninja, in Naru's mind, had become fantastic powerhouses of jutsu and flashy moves, and less the precise and unerring tools of a military body. Stealth was taught in a secondhand way, by instructing them on jutsu's to do the job – but not how to do so on their own. Perhaps it was a personal gripe, having so little chakra control made it so she focused on those things instead, but it all still felt... wrong.

A taijutsu and multipart ninjutsu exam, determining their Academy status seemed far too indicative of what she was beginning to despise about ninja. A spike of numbness flared through her arm, and Naru let her wandering thoughts recede, as people began filing into the room. She noted a number of those in the first exam were absent, indicating the culling process was already in action. Stifling a laugh, she realized that her quick exit made it seem she assumed her passing that portion. Honestly, she couldn't think of a reason against it, yet there was always the chance.

Suddenly nervous, she tried to pull her mask back into place, only partially succeeding. She eyed Iruka as he took up position before them, noting how he didn't bother to look her way. Pointedly didn't. Damnit... She should have waited, creepy Uchiha or no.

"Next up will be the Substitution Technique test. Here we have our assistant," Iruka gained a few nervous chuckles as she rested an arm across a log, "and you will each be called up to perform the jutsu before the class."

Taking a deep breath, Naru refused to fidget. Instead, she worked to regulate her chakra, pushing and flexing at her control as time wore on.

"Aum... excuse me?"

Whipping around, Naru blinked as there was a flash of white and indigo and a muffled thump where the voice had been. Looking over and behind the row of seats, she noted a spooked looking Hyuuga girl laying there, blinking up at her. "Um. Hi."

"Sorry, you startled me," the girl said by way of apology, sitting and scooting up beside the blonde. After a moment, she fidgeted, before speaking again, "That exercise you do... it's really wasteful."

Mouth drawing into a tight line, Naru had to force herself to look at the girl and smile, albeit slightly. "Oh, is that so?"

Nodding, thinking that Naru's words were an invitation to go on, the Hyuuga continued, "Oh, yes. I can see, you know. Chakra."

"Indeed."

The lavender-eyed girl missed the ice riming Naru's words, "I was going to say... that is, if you want, it's easier to do it a different way."

The chill in Naru's glare lessened, as she blinked slowly. "I... didn't know. That could be-" a flash of worry arced through her, remembering something the Kyuubi had warned her of. Or rather, a family she had warned her of. "Wait. You said you can see... what else do you see?"

Her tone wasn't missed this time. Eyes wide, the girl shook her head nervously, "I-I won't tell anyone, I promise! I don't... don't even know what I'd tell if I did." The flinch from the girl let Naru know her glare was doing it's job.

"Be that as it may..."

"Naru Kazami!"
Pivoting her head to the front of the class, the blonde's stomach did a flip. "This conversation isn't done," she hissed at the Hyuuga, who's eyes widened in response.

As Naru made her way forward, she considered the implications of what was happening. First Yasugi finds out from her, Yugao finds out from the Hokage, then she told Suzume to get training, Tenten's going to have to be told soon, and now there's a shy little Hyuuga girl that may or may not know. So much for secrets, she grumbled quietly.

All those concerns were put aside, as she stared at the log in front of her. "Alright, Naru," Iruka's voice was kind, patient, but expectant. The man really cared about his students, which made this all the harder. Naru really didn't want to fail. "Begin."

On their own, her hands sped through the short series of seals – ram, boar, ox, dog, snake – she felt the tug of chakra to be molded, called out, "Kawarimi no jutsu" quietly and pushed-

She was viewing the room from a different angle suddenly. "Very good Naru. Step down, please. Next up..."

Still somewhat stunned that she had managed to pull off the technique, Naru woodenly walked up toward her seat. It wasn't till the third poke that she realized the Hyuuga girl was tapping her on the shoulder, "Er, yes?"

"You did very well. Your chakra is expanding again though."

Naru blinked at her owlishly. "What?"

Hinata sighed slightly, cursing her urge to speak to the girl. It was odd to watch her fight so much with her own body, which lead to this whole misguided conversation. "Your chakra is replenishing quickly. I watched you do the exam jutsu, and... well."

"Yes? And?"

"It worked because you were still low from the fight earlier."

Naru mulled over those words quietly, realizing what it meant. She sighed, realizing that her control wasn't improving enough to allow her the tiny trickles of chakra needed to perform those elementary jutsu – at least not while at her normal chakra level. "Thank you," she murmured quietly, contemplating ways to exhaust her chakra before each task, and if it would work. Forgotten once her mind turned to it's task, Hinata shuffled away quietly, though she kept a surreptitious eye on the blonde.

She appreciated the advice, but Naru quickly found the mental exercise of figuring out how to deplete her chakra not only distracting from her focus, but damaging to her tenuous control. Writing it off as something for another day, she waited impatiently for the next exam.

There was a lull while Iruka did some tallying, and in an almost negligent daze, Naru performed the Henge test. Transformations of any sort came as second nature to her, thanks to the Kyuubi's influence, so she used that time to worry on the last and final test.

"Bunshin," she muttered darkly, finding it a suitable word for the bane of her existence.

Her anxiety peaked as her name was called, and with a heavy step the blonde girl walked up to the testing podium. "Alright, three illusion clones. Begin when ready, Naru."

"Right," she said with slight hesitation. Calming her mind, the girl focused on her chakra, and found it low but steady. Refusing to worry on anything else, she performed the handseals, focused her intent, "Bunshin no jutsu!"

And stood horrified for a fraction of a second as three, sickly, male Naruto's faded into existence, dispersing almost as quickly as she noted them.

"Er. Naru? What was-"

"I'm feeling rather unwell, Iruka-sensei," she choked out, getting a somewhat curious glance from Mizuki.

Iruka only sighed, raising a brow at her. "If you leave, then you won't pass the exam, Naru. You'll be held back till the next."

She bowed low, loose hair falling forward over her face. Naru's expression was a mask but under it dwelled the maelstrom, and she knew it. "I'm sorry," she murmured, dashing from the room. The exam didn't matter – she could take it again. Her control, the exercises, her performance – none of it mattered, when she was put face to face with the possibility of her secret shattering in such a public way.

There was a persistent hum and buzz in her mind, but she shoved it away as hard as she could, like her thoughts, like her fears. Everything swept and dove around inside her skull and it was driving her mad. Every paranoid moment worrying when the next hateful glare would become something more dangerous, every fearful moment of second guessing her very personality, just to make sure she was Naru, and not just Naruto playing at a prank.

"Hadn't it all started as a prank though," and annoyingly bright and cheerful voice shot back. She ripped into it with all her substantial hatred, refusing it.

"He's dead, he's dead, I'm me, I am ME," she railed, unseeing, swaying back and forth on her feet as she ran, hands clasped over her ears and eyes shut. People dove out of her way as she careened down the halls of the Academy, Naru unseeing, uncaring as her flight and need to flee left cracks in the concrete floor.

Sunlight stunned her out of her dead run, blue eyes blinking up and aware. She stood outside, her escape taking her to the side of the Academy that faced the fields beside the Hokage monument. Fall wasn't on them yet, but the small fruit trees, short grasses and gentle winds transfixed her. An impossibly blue sky stretched overhead, waiting to crush her below it's inevitable march.

Cicadas nesting in her ears, screaming the calls of the damned-

Strangling out a scream Naru turned and crashed into a wall, hands clawing at the brick and mortar as her head slammed into it, trying to drive out the noise-

"I am me! I am me!" Her words were a tattoo to the sound of flesh and bone slamming into earthwork, until finally the noise receded and all she could hear was her own labored breathing, strangled, sobbing. Falling back, she stumbled and wondered where the ground went.

She looked up, blue on blue as the sky rotated slowly above her, falling inexorably, patiently. It promised time and reason, in it's way, reliable as a clock in it's intent. Unblinking she waited for it to finally reach her, grind her into dust.

She never woke up gracefully, and doing so in an unfamiliar room only compounded that. Scrambling, hands bunching up the sheet under her, Naru scanned around the white and pale room for what woke her-

Pain erupted along the back of her head and spine, and she halted suddenly with a choked noise, falling back. Quick hands settled her back into the bed, pressing her down as she twitched, pain-reactions causing her muscles to spasm.

"Relax, Naru. You're alright. Calm down, it's just the Academy infirmary."

She didn't nod, didn't try to voice her recognition of the words, but went still suddenly. Breath rasping quiet and rapid, she focused on the voice.

Gray hair, slight smirk, headband, chuunin vest- "M-Mizuki-sensei?"

Nodding, the instructor helped her to some water. "One and only. How are you feeling?"

The cold water eased her back into awareness, and with a sick weight in her stomach she realized how bad things could go, could be. "I'm fine." Looking around the room, she noted the closed doors, pulled blinds... Something wasn't right about this, she thought to herself. That feeling only compounded when the Chuunin turned and locked the room's door. "Mizuki-"

"You're in a dangerous position, Naru," the man offhandedly commented, turning so she could see the hollow smile that didn't reach the man's eyes. "People are beginning to assemble your puzzle."

She tried to keep the fear and defiance out of her eyes, "I have a puzzle," she quipped. "I don't remember-"

"Stop being coy, U-zu-ma-ki," Mizuki spoke the last word, the name, with a lazy drawl that could have been anything from venom to pride. Pride in what she feared to know. "You think a child – even one as gifted as you at deception could keep something like this from an entire village of ninja?"

Ice wrapped around her heart. "No," she murmured, babbled into her own skull, "It can't end like this. I wasn't careless, only the important people knew, I was careful, I worked hard and was watching, it shouldn't-"

"I see I have your attention now," the man all but purred, sitting on the side of the bed closest to her. Naru scooted away out of impulse, making Mizuki laugh. "Oh, please don't worry. I wouldn't touch you except to make sure we had some privacy for our little talk.

"As I said, you're in a very, very dangerous place." Casually the man pulled a kunai free from his vest, his attention on it a moment. "Not everyone remembers Naruto, of course," as he spoke, the oversized knife's tip idly cleaned under short nails. "Not everyone remembers that the boy was all but favored by the Hokage. Now, considering who you are, and what you are – I'm sure you know by now at least – what do you think will happen when sweet, diligent little Naru Kazami is revealed to be nothing more than a clumsy lie?

"Ninja hate being made fools of, little... girl," Naru shivered, inching away from the man on impulse. "I'm sure you're getting the picture, aren't you?"

She was. If Mizuki exposed the Hokage as an accomplice to what she did, with how much the village hated what she was... Everything she worried on, feared, avoided and ran from would be turned against the old man.

Mizuki wasn't done fueling her worries though, "You see, there's this group – we'll call them Root – that thinks the old man is past his time. Making bad decisions. Messing up Konoha," giving her a significant look, the man smirked. "Letting threats go ignored. Now, a group like that, with you in their hands would do some real good things for Konoha."

A wicked grin lit the man's face. "Like put down that old dog Sarutobi."

Naru made a weak noise, a denial. "Oh. So you don't want him killed like a dog in the street by his beloved, ignorant, mindless village?" She shook her head hard, despite the pain. "Such a loyal little bitch-in-training. Maybe that's why he let you be a girl," the man's laugh was dark, oily, and made her want to bathe more than anything else in the world. She felt dirty just by hearing it.

When the man was done laughing, he turned that hollow smile back to her. "Well then. This is what you must do."

Night lay on Konoha like a thick cloak, to Naru's eyes. A city of ninja, night should have been when they were most comfortable, most active. Perhaps she was an idealist. Perhaps she was just hoping beyond hope someone would stop her before she betrayed the one trust she cherished above her own life.

Hope was futile, and that cloak remained. Sighing, Naru made her way to the Hokage tower, watching for the signs that her way would be clear. The rot around the core of Konoha was deep, she learned that day. It festered around the Hokage himself, leaving openings she would use to do her unpleasant work.

Mizuki had explained it all in detail, how the guards would be remarkably lax, the Hokage called off and away from his offices. Konoha was rejecting it's own diseased core, he had said. Look for the signs, and they'd be there.

They were. ANBU were absent, the usual Chuunin workforce that handled the administrative load were gone. Hokage tower was exposed, and it was all for her sake. Choking down bile at that thought, she made her way quickly, wasting no time.

Idly she was glad of her habits, now, the huge scroll slung over a shoulder by it's attached harness a familiar weight to her. As she was told to expect, no one was there to stop her, no one to see that the Hokage's sanctum was breached.

Weary and sad, Naru sped away from that awful, empty place, pausing on her way to meet the traitor – the other traitor, she quipped mirthlessly – thinking about what it all meant.

"What is going on?"

The kitsune's words startled her, almost making her loose her footing atop the Hokage monument. "Where have you been?"

She felt the impression of a sigh, "Resting. I'm little more than focused youki and the soul that maintains it. When I use enough..."

"You need sleep," Naru finished for the Kyuubi, feeling her nod in reply. "Have to say though, you've missed a hell of a day..."

Used to Naru's moods, the kitsune's attention was razor-edged. "Naru. Tell me, tell me everything." Rather than trying to converse in their silent rapport, Naru simply opened her mind, pouring the day and it's memories like water across her consciousness. The Kyuubi took the deluge of information, impression, and memory in stride, pausing for long moments as Naru too looked back, trying to find some sense in the madness.

"He is a canny one," quiet though her words were, the kitsune was cold, edged ice. "Naru... you can't trust this."

"What else can I do? If he's telling the truth-"

"Then those people will move regardless of you. They were waiting for some event, some trigger. You happened to be convenient, but they cannot have built such a thing around you," implacable, the kitsune drove her point home with a surge of confidence, slamming into Naru's already wavering will.

The blonde flinched a the spirit's conviction. "I suppose. But what about now? I don't want to be a part of him getting killed!"

"Naru, he's gotten under your skin! Think, girl! What is the Hokage?"

Blonde brows furrowed, "The... well the best ninja in the village."

The kitsune paused, letting the girl's words sink into her own skull. "And you think he wouldn't be aware of something like what that snake was telling you?"

Sliding to her knees against a nearby tree, Naru moaned piteously, "Oh what have I done..."

"You made a mistake," gentle words curled around her, warming the young girl's frantic mind, easing it. "You're young. Barely more than a child."

"I'm not a child!"

"Then you need to stop thinking like one," the Kyuubi's words weren't angry or malicious, but they still stung. "You aren't a ninja, not one that can stand alone yet. You aren't a child, or an adult, or even truly human anymore. You're standing on the point of a knife, not the edge.

"There are more mistakes for you to make, more ways for you to fail than anyone you know. But that doesn't mean you will," Naru nodded faintly, knowing what the Kyuubi meant. She may have argued the human point, but with the kitsune in her belly, why try. She wasn't a ranked ninja but pitted against any normal opponent and she would appear a whirlwind of death. Despite that, she was only twelve years old, and though she considered herself worldly and without childish needs, she still took comfort in them. Replace teddy bears with swords, coloring books with jutsu scrolls and tag with pitched battles, and there you found her. She was what she was, but that only reinforced her need to be more than what she was given. "We can make this work, but we need to know more about the why behind it."

Nodding, Naru felt her resolve growing solid. "Right, I can undo this.

"We can undo this," the kitsune assured her.

The first step was understanding what the scroll held, since whatever Mizuki had planned centered on it. "Alright... this is a... oh it figures there'd be a clone technique in here," the girl spat, looking over the directions balefully. "Kage bunshin. Shadow clones, huh? Doesn't look like much but kami at the warnings..."

"Dangerous, thereby forbidden," the kitsune added. Naru nodded.

"Well, it looks..." she wrinked her nose, "Like a clone technique. Can we move on?" A silent affirmative was her reply. Furling and unrolling more of the heavy scroll, she saw techniques that utilized the earlier clone skill, detailed notes on something called Mokuton that caused the kitsune to growl and hiss in inarticulate hate, and then medical jutsus. She shied away from diagrams on how to remove and replace an eye, feeling her stomach churn.

The kitsune by this point was silent passenger to her search, but Naru could feel her presence, heavy and insistent behind her eyes. "So, the only link to the things on the scroll, is that they are dangerous, to the user or subject."

Naru nodded faintly. "Chakra exhaustion for the clone thing, and some drawbacks to the modified clones regarding feedback. Mokuton seems to be unreasonably hard to control without years of practice and something that looks to be talking about a bloodline, and has the drawback of affecting the mind – though I'm not sure why being urged to be one with nature is such a bad thing. Lets... just skip the eye thing-"

"Bloodline eyes," the Kyuubi muttered, putting that portion of scroll into context. "It's locked away and forbidden because of the clans. They don't want people knowing how to steal such a thing."

"Hrm, point," Naru agreed, and saw why. Such a thing would cripple Konoha's tactical advantage. "Moving on then," more scroll was revealed, and she saw seals, or rather diagrams for seals. "I... well I'm not great at these. I'll see what I can pick up from the notes."

They pored over it in silence for some time, Naru unfurling more and more and seeing less and less point to the diagrams. Finally they came to the near-end when the kitsune hissed in her ear, "Stop. I see it now.

"The context they were explaining was too vague to understand, but that one is here." The last words were almost a shout, and Naru clapped her hands over her ears out of impulse. "These are explained as chakra filtering and containment diagrams, but they're for sealing beings behind them."

Shaking off the echoes in her ears, Naru paled at the meaning behind those words. "Wait... here as in, with you?"

"Yes. The last one. Doesn't the second container-residual seal look familiar?"

Blue eyes scanned the list and then widened. There in ink and silk lay the mirror to the seal on her skin. "Oh... oh wow."

"It seems your Fourth Hokage missed the fine print," the kitsune noted, Naru's eyes lingering there. Apparently these were increasingly complex to get correct – so much so that by the time the seal reached the complexity to bind the Kyuubi, it was almost prohibitive to perform.

A few words, though, caught Naru's eye. "Wait. This... so the seal wasn't so much made wrong, as... oh urk-" turning quickly, she emptied her stomach in convulsions, wishing for all the world to unsee what she just read. Naru panted, her mind rejecting that idea so much that her body could only follow behind. "He... that's why..."

"The seal isn't wrong. The reason it bound the male aspect is because there's a male aspect built into it. That stupid, stupid human... what did they expect you to be, after all this? And firstborn? You were his child?"

Naru shook her head hard, eyes clamped shut. "Part of his soul is built into the seal. Sick, I can't believe someone would go through all that," the portion of the description that the kitsune focused on hit her then, taking her legs out from beneath her. "First... born?"

"You were his child."

"He... my dad did this to me willingly?!" Crawling over, red eyed and panting, Naru scanned the scroll again, hoping the words would twist and turn into something else. To her horror, they remained solid, clear. Mocking her. "That son of a bitch.

"All this time I thought he was something to look up to," Naru ignored the kitsune's murmured words, her anger building in and on itself. "He fucking had to be a hero, and I get to pay the price? Oh this is great – all those goddamn people think he's such an awesome guy, and look! He had to sacrifice his own kid to do this! That's not a hero, thats a fucking coward!"

"Naru!" The scream sent the youth scrambling at her ears again, the visible flare of youki and chakra fading. "Calm down, unless you want every ninja in the village out here before we're ready."

Eyes wild and panting, Naru nodded slowly, looking at the scroll blankly. Suddenly her attention returned, razor-sharp. "Kyuubi."

"Yes, little one?"

"Help me study for a little while."

She could feel the Demon Fox's smile, "Of course. Education is important."

"I think we should stop. It's nearly time to meet the traitor."

Naru nodded, rubbing at her eyes. She looked up from the seal portion of the scroll, having spent the last half hour going over it, then deciding to focus on her own seal instead of the others. She had a vague understanding of the lot, but of her own she was beginning to see some potential for work.

Once she was assured it wouldn't kill her or the kitsune outright.

"It may take years of study to make any of it work. I've... adjusted some youki to contain what you didn't concentrate on," the kitsune murmured tiredly. "Backlash is a vindictive bitch, I must say."

She winced, realizing that the Kyuubi was working harder than she was. "I can't make any sense of the medical parts. I don't know enough anatomy. Mokuton is a bloodline, by the look, so was a waste of time... the clone technique I memorized but the advanced portions I only skimmed-"

"I have those. For all that these ninja pride themselves on ninjutsu, I thought an edge of some sort would be helpful."

"Thank you," the youth replied sincerely. "I guess having looked over the scroll I can see why someone would risk so much. With Mokuton and the sealing diagrams, they could hunt and bind demons into people on a whim. That's somewhat frightening really."

"Don't forget the medical portion. It looks like most of it dealt with how to transfer or originate bloodlines. True, they were worded in such a way as to suggest an emergency process to save a clan that was dying out, but..."

"Yeah, I know," Naru replied. "Villages balance each other by their power, and stealing by whatever means the bloodlines of another weakens it. It makes me sort of respect Water country more in a way.

"Yasugi told me how they purged their country of bloodlines, trying to remove that crutch from their ninja." Laughing quietly, Naru finished respooling the scroll. "To think they manage without people like the Hyuuga or Uchiha, and still balance the power of other nations."

The scroll sealed back in it's sling and around her shoulder, Naru considered the deeper night of the forest, recalling the place Mizuki wanted to meet her. "Now all I want to know... is what do we do about him?"

There was a flare of anger from the core of youki inside her, "My advice? Kill him and lay him out before his masters. Trying to use you has made me... unkind."

Eyes narrowing, Naru considered her state, and the chances she had of defeating a Chuunin. "I'm not sure I can do that."

"Probably not alone," the kitsune purred, "but you're not, now, are you?"

"Oh. The clone... but I can't get a normal one to work-"

"A normal one needs a pathetically small amount of chakra. This one... you can brute-force."

A wicked grin spread across Naru's face, as she sped across the rooftops of Konoha. "Well, it's too bad I don't have my zanbato to go along with it. Speaking of-"

The kitsune chuckled, "No, little one. You can't unseal it yet. Tomorrow perhaps, but you'll know for certain once this is over. Patience."

"But... clones with swords!"

"Quiet. Watch out for that alley."

"Crap!"

Naru arrived at the heavily wooded training ground with little difficulty. The clearing Mizuki mentioned was empty, but she knew better than to expect it to remain so.

Dropping to the forest floor, she stood at the edge of the moonlight, unsurprised by the Chuunin's form melting out of the surrounding woods. "You are late."

The blonde shrugged, hands tucked into the pockets of her haori, "You're impatient. And ugly, but lets not stand around and hurl insults all night."

Mizuki's eyes narrowed angrily. "Quite a mouth for one in such a dangerous-"

"Yeah, ok. You used that line so much in the infirmary, that I have to wonder if you have any new material. Really," Naru pulled up her hands, making wiggly-fingers and crouching a bit. "You are in grave danger, little girl, Ooouuuuhh..." Snorting, she resumed her indolent posture. "Please. Try again."

"You little brat, I had considered letting you live to be shamed by these stupid villagers, but now I think I'll just kill you out of principal."

The blonde laughed quietly, then stiffened. Smiling slowly, she pulled her kitsune mask down, hiding her expression. "So. Kill me huh? All because I'm getting on your nerves. Just out of curiosity... why did you want the scroll so bad?"

Mizuki scoffed, pulling a massive, unfolding shuriken from the holster on his back. Snapping the blades into place with a flick of the weapon, the man regarded her like something unpleasant he stepped in, "That is for my lord to know, and you to die wondering."

Shaking her head, Naru seemed to be conversing with the woods, "Is he serious? I think I heard that line in 'Return of the Returned Ninja: II'," Swinging her gaze back to the man, she laughed. "Are you seriously taking your lines out of movies now?"

Faintly shaking with rage, the man sped across the clearing, launching the shuriken at the halfway point, "lets hear you laugh with your throat cut, bitch!"

"But we've barely started the witty banter exchange part!" Dodging to the side, the blonde, flipped out of the way of a spinning kick, sprinting away as Mizuki snatched his returning shuriken from the air. "C'mon, just a hint! Unless you think I'll actually get away and tell on you," Naru sing-songed the last half of her taunt, leaving a fairly shaking, enraged Chuunin to curse and run after her fleeing form.

"My lord wants what's inside, and he will have it," the man declared, spitting his words angrily. Rather than chase the girl, the man launched a pair of kunai into her path, causing her to rapidly change directions.

The windmill shuriken caught her in midair. "I don't hear... you..." Mizuki trailed off, as the girl's image dispersed with an exhalation of condensed chakra, rather than exploding into a rain of blood like he expected.

"Laughing?" The word was purred practically at his back. Mizuki spun around-

Only to impale his own kidney on a poised kunai, the smaller form ducking easily under his strike, then using his braced leg as a springboard, flipping back. Clutching at his side, the traitor Chuunin stared, unbelieving at the blood on his hand. "You little bitch. I'll kill you."

"Few years late to make that an original, Mizuki-sensei," the girl taunted, drawing the title out in obvious mockery. Her mask reflected the moon briefly, the flash causing him to wince. "Now, this lord. Must be a real idiot to send someone like you out in the field."

"Shut up!" Kunai drove the girl back, her years working with Tenten making the man's clumsy throws almost comically easy to dodge. "I've been a plant in the Academy for years, picking students for him to recruit! If you weren't such damaged goods, maybe he'd have use for you even.

"Moving targets are always amusing, after all," having gathered his strength again, the man sped across toward Naru, the massive shuriken in his hand spinning but not thrown. "Now die and be quiet!"

Naru miscalculated the man's speed, only dodging the strike by totally dropping her defense and diving to the ground and left of him. Rolling frantically, she just avoided three savage kicks that would have collapsed her throat or worse, finally stopping to kick up and catch the man's falling foot before it was extended.

With a muffled curse, Mizuki stumbled, snarling. "Just die!" His spinning shuriken was thrown at close range, too hard and fast to avoid. Naru smirked, a handseal locked into place as the weapon struck – and passed through, leaving behind another rapid dispersion of chakra. "What the fuck!?"

Three kunai sped out of the foliage, catching the now defenseless man in the back. Staggering, he spun around, glaring murderously at the shadowed trees. "Show yourself you cowardly whore!"

From every portion of the woods surrounding him, kitsune masks turned, their wearers regarding the bleeding man impassively. "But I am a kunoichi," they chorused, a whisper made into a maddening volume by sheer numbers. "To gaze upon me is death."

"You'll never be a ranked ninja," Mizuki spat, eyes wide as he spun around, looking for some way out. He barely realized the fault in his own thinking, when the desire to kill the girl changed into a desire to escape. "The council will never allow it, not a demon-vessel like you!"

Half the figures turned, disappearing into the foliage, and Mizuki scanned frantically, looking for his exit. "Who's going to tell them? You?" Masked faces laughed at him, mocking. "You think I'll let you leave this place?"

Seeing his chance, the man dashed past a pair of impassively standing girls, identical down to the massive scroll they carried, and their strangely tensed fingers.

"Not even a Genin," the man panted, his eyes wide. "Can't stop m-"

The sky suddenly became his world, a searing pain spreading along his neck, from throat to just above his shoulders. It spun slowly above him, as he blinked, mouth working silently. His view shifted as it seemed that the world sped up below him, a muffled impact causing his view to become chaotic and mad, till it finally settled. He wondered why everything was sideways, distantly.

Mizuki had just began to note the lack of pain from his injuries, when he saw the reason why.

Some distance away, his neck spat blood in a panicked spray, the heart not even aware that it beat uselessly yet. He watched, mouth twitching in mute horror as his body convulsed.

Naru crouched into his field of dimming vision, a length of wire between her fingers, glittering wetly. "Not even a Genin," she agreed, a pale Iruka behind her, a cat-masked ANBU flanking them. "But more than you'll ever be."

Sarutobi stood behind his desk, a strange collection of people present in his office, for such a late hour. His back was turned, as he regarded a number of small, unremarkable picture frames, each one depicting venues around the village he was a part of. Each one seemed to be missing something critical, a focus, a person, some foreground element that a trick of light forgot to paint.

The focus was off, in most. It was as if the picture was taken while running. Still, the backgrounds were of some of the more scenic points in Konoha. One even showed a place near the waterfall Naru recognized as her 'second home' these days.

She looked to those who were also present, the kitsune mask raised up so that it shadowed her eyes. As she had taken to, her expression was locked in it's own mask, a slight curve of lip indicating a smile that left her eyes cold. Iruka was to her left, looking pale and unhappy. She noted the shift in his eyes now and then, telling her his attention moved from the Hokage to her. Regardless, she kept her attention on the Hokage, watching for some sign of his mood or intent.

Unlike Iruka, he would not be read. Or rather... "you're a few decades too young to try," the kitsune offered, helpfully.

"Quiet, you," the blonde shot back.

The cat-masked ANBU, Yugao Uzuki, stood to Iruka's left. Naru knew it was her thanks to long association, familiar with her hair, mannerisms and mask. Normally the woman was the picture of a hardened, career ANBU – no physical tells, no fidgeting – today though she occasionally flexed her right hand, thumb pressing hard against the bones of her finger. The leather of her gloves creaked slightly with the friction and strain, letting her tension be broadcast.

To Naru's right stood Tenten, bedraggled and bemused a she tried to get her hair up in it's customary buns, the atmosphere too tense for her to be still. She divided her attention between Naru and the Hokage, pale and unsure what was going on. More often when she gazed at Naru, her eyes would stray to the hem of her haori and the blood along her sleeves, a rusty counterpoint to the vermilion butterflies that were embroidered there.

Naru didn't know why she was brought with them before the Hokage for certain, but her guess left butterflies in her stomach as well.

Furthest from Naru stood Suzume, cool and self-contained as usual, the only tell to her anxiety the slight shifting of her foot against the hardwood floor. Though she wasn't on Naru's short list of trusted people, the youth knew that Suzume would keep her secrets, and so the common thread among them was built.

These were Naru's precious people, be they close or distant. It somewhat disheartened her to realize they all could stand in this room.

"Tonight's events will not be common knowledge," the old man began, turning to regard the assembled, his wide hat shading his eyes from view. "What the ANBU on scene reports matches the autopsy, and the deep-recovery efforts of the Hunter-nin assigned to determine any further damage."

Pausing, the man turned to Naru, extending a hand. Jolting upright, she panicked a moment till her elbow brushed the scroll, still slung across her back. Hastily shrugging it off, she returned the wound silk to the man, jumping back as if his touch would shock her. "The scroll is forbidden for a reason. Kinjutsu, forbidden techniques, are labeled so for a reason. Naru, I have two reports of you using a skill from this scroll."

"The Kage bunshin," she murmured in answer, eyes cast down.

"Have you read the scroll?"

A hasty conversation, silent to those present commenced. "Yes, Hokage-sama."

The old man raised his head, fixing her with an unreadable eye. "And what reason did you have for that?"

Taking a breath to calm her nerves, Naru explained, "I wanted to know why he was so interested. What it was he could try to pivot such a plot on. I needed to know what to do from that point, whether to simply alert you and ANBU or try to lure him to his superiors or tap him for information."

"Why did you assume to have this responsibility?"

Naru winced, cringing back. "I was the one fooled into beginning this. It was my responsibility because it is my responsibility."

The Hokage considered that a moment, before tipping his hat, his face cast in shadow again. "Iruka. You noted some peculiar things today. Explain, please."

Clearing his throat, the man shot Naru a glance, noting only her stony expression, locked in a slight, wry smile that never reached her eyes. "Right, er. Today during the exams, Naru was doing well, she had performed all three exams up to that point without difficulty, even besting the Uchiha in taijutsu."

The ANBU to his side coughed, voicing her opinion of the young Uchiha eloquently enough. Iruka shot her a glare. "As I was saying," he ground out, turning back to his superior. "Naru did well, then the Bunshin test came. When she attempted it, something went... well wrong."

"Explain, Iruka."

Sighing, the man shot Naru another glance, as if waiting for her to do something. "The clones were... wrong. They looked male, and only partially formed," the man paused, but only to start, then stop his next words a few times. Finally an impatient motion from the Hokage pulled him from his hesitation, "It looked like a former student. Naruto Uzumaki."

"Deceased, not former," Naru corrected him quietly.

There was short, angry motion from the Hokage and Naru winced. "Be still," the man ordered, knowing he needed to say nothing more. Returning his attention to Iruka, the Hokage heaved a sigh. "Was there anything else of note?"

Shifting uncomfortably, the man nodded. "After Naru left the classroom, I paused the test. Mizuki went to check on her, but it took too long.

"I saw him carrying someone into the infirmary, then not coming out. When I got to the door, it was locked."

"And you didn't think this unusual?"

Iruka had the grace to flush in embarrassment, "I had a class full of ninja in training, unsupervised. I was under the impression at that point that Mizuki was as much an instructor as I was."

Sarutobi made a calming motion with a hand, "I'm not calling into question your reaction. Only verifying that his actions at this point were either in line with his persona, or not."

"My apologies, Hokage-sama."

The old man nodded, reaching up to worry at his beard a moment. "Suzume. Your impression of Mizuki?"

"His infiltration was nearly flawless," the woman reported, standing straighter under the Hokage's scrutiny. "There were minor inconsistencies though. He was often found checking records for students not in his classes, watching other teacher's examinations, or other actions that now correlate with Naru's claim that he was 'recruiting' for a third party."

"Waddya mean 'claim'? I had witnesses!"

"Naru. Be silent!"

The blonde's jaw closed with a snap, as she leveled a glare at the old man behind the desk.

"Suzume, collect and copy the records that he had pulled, if they can be recalled. Send them to intelligence. See if there is a pattern."

"Yes, Hokage-sama."

"ANBU, report."

Uzuki fell into the monotone voice of ANBU mission debriefing, her memory working on automatic through her words, "At twenty-three hundred, ANBU command reported a logistics loss at the Hokage tower. Additional personnel were activated in the event of a breach."

"The cause?"

"Water contamination, two-part poison with a gas-activation. Civilians were hit harder, but there have yet to be fatalities."

The Hokage made a noise, and she continued, "Approximately two hours after the notification from command, I was intercepted by a shadow clone of Naru, requesting aid in stopping Mizuki.

"Recognizing the skill, I informed her to wait, set up a perimeter if possible, and engage the target but to do so verbally. I ordered her to protect the scroll, destroying it if needed to keep it from being taken. I then destroyed the clone."

Sarutobi winced, having wished that Naru not find out about that aspect of the talent for some time. "Very well. And your reason for ordering her to engage Mizuki?"

Yugao straightened. "Confidence in her ability, Hokage-sama."

He leveled a glare that even the shadows across his face couldn't hide at the woman. "An untested Academy student, against a Chuunin?"

"My statement and assessment stand, Hokage-sama," Yugao didn't waver, didn't flinch from the man's gaze. Naru felt her eyes pricking, warmth biting at her them over her teacher's belief in her.

"Very well," the man relented, turning to Naru finally. "Now you may speak, Naru."

Growling slightly the girl stalked forward and wrenched at the old man's hat, shocking or stunning those present. "What are you trying to make this out like a trial for?! I brought the scroll back and handled the traitor!"

To the horror of those present, the tug of war for the Hokage's hat commenced, progressing from grumbled arguments, to full-out wrestling on the floor complete with the occasional yell of 'no biting!' from the old man, or 'not fair! No jutsu!' from Naru. Once the two had settled down, Naru perched on the Hokage's desk wearing the hat while he sat in his chair, panting slightly in exertion with the kitsune mask atop his head, the girl proceeded with her report of the night's events.

"Pretty much like Iruka said, I ran out after the weird Bunshin thing," she began, only to be immediately halted by the mentioned man.

"Why did they look like Naruto?"

Naru reached up, settling the wide hat in a move so perfectly mimicking the Hokage that even Yugao twitched, restraining a snicker. "I'll get into that in due time, instructor Iruka."

"Sorry, Hoka – hey!"

Smirking, the girl continued, "After that... I kinda had a breakdown. I think I tried to redecorate the wall with my forehead, not sure." Ignoring the concerned looks she was getting, Naru tapped her chin, mimicking the Hokage again. "I woke up in the infirmary, and got to hear Mizuki talking about this thing called 'Root' that thinks the old man isn't doing his job or something-"

"'Root'? Are you certain?"

Naru blinked at the old man's tone, not used to him being so focused, at least not with worry, "Yeah. That was the name. Anyway, he told me unless I wanted him and Root to expose my secret and by doing so, discredit you publicly, I was to do this. He told me that the lack of security showed that Root was even in the ANBU, which... had me doubting after I got inside. I was beginning to believe him.

"I got the scroll, then..." voice trailing off, she glanced at Tenten furtively, sighing. "I um. Talked, with my... friend. She convinced me to rethink things."

"Naru, please just speak plainly. Everyone will save their questions till after," the Hokage's last words were less a reassurance to her, as an order to the room.

Naru understood his meaning, but still sighed, deciding this was not how she meant to tell her best friend. "The Kyuubi and I came to the conclusion that since you were the Hokage, a thing like Root wouldn't be a secret. You know, being the best ninja in town and all..."

"I don't see it that way, but I'm flattered by your opinion. And yes, I know of Root. Continue."

Nodding to the Hokage, Naru did so, "We decided to check the scroll, to see if we could figure out what he wanted it for. Um, seeing what was in it, and knowing first-hand about some of it, we decided it would be bad to even let him have it, even just to bait him, or make the whole thing more obviously show his hand in it."

Iruka jerked to attention at that. "You considered giving a Kinjutsu scroll to him, just to cement his apparent guilt?"

Naru stared at the man levelly for a long moment from below the wide hat. "Yes." Turning back to the Hokage, she went on, "As I said, seeing what was in it, it was obvious there was no way it should leave the village. So, I made a single clone, more of a test really, and sent it to a familiar ANBU to report what was going on.

"After that, it was a little game of wait and see, while I used another clone to bait and antagonize him. This is when I got the reply from ANBU popping the clone."

Looking around for a moment, Naru grinned and took a drink of water from a cup on the Hokage's desk. "Ahh. Ok, so. Right, then I thought, 'Perimeter huh?' and remembering what the scroll said about chakra use and limitations on the Kage bunshin, I made about twenty to stand around and make sure Mizuki didn't slip through."

"Twenty? Aren't you exaggerating?"

Naru blinked at Suzume owlishly, before snapping out the handseals, "Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!"

The Hokage's office was filled, floor to ceiling in grumbling, off-balance and sometimes upside down Naru clones, all wearing wide hats and trying to figure out how to fit in the room at once. Somewhere in explosion of young girls, the Hokage's voice was heard, "Dismiss them! You've made your point!"

With a massive eruption of chakra, the room cleared leaving the audience in a state of shock, those still standing losing their balance after having recently been fighting with a mob of Naru's for space, and one rather content blonde smirking at the lot. "Ok, so I set up a perimeter...

"Mizuki wasn't too forthcoming with information. He was more for the cheesy snide remarks, rather than the villainous monologuing."

Tenten boggled at her. "You mean, this guy who tried to kill you... you goaded him, trying to get him into a... villainous monologue? Like, spilling his secrets so you could undo them all? That bad movie device?"

Reaching up and scratching at her neck nervously, Naru nodded.

"Your problem was, that only works with nemesis types. Mizuki was more of a bit-villain," Tenten explained.

Naru slammed a fist into her open hand. "Right! I totally forgot that. No wonder he was getting so frustrated!"

"You actually... wait. That doesn't work in real life!" Iruka's face was turning a shade of red to match Naru's haori, while the Hokage shook his head, muttering something about being too old for this kind of thing.

"Not with bit-villains, no," Naru agreed, ignoring the bulk of Iruka's argument. "Well, after swapping out with some clones to dodge his stupidly-large shuriken thing, I got another message via popped clone that ANBU was there with backup, and that if I could handle him, to do so.

"I broke the perimeter to give him an opening, and had two clones hide behind trees, ready with wire I had dropped to them. Mizuki was mid jump, probably aiming for the tree canopy when they snapped it taut. The force popped them, but they popped Mizuki," She finished, concluding her story with a yawn.

Those assembled took a moment to process Naru's words. Reactions were varied, as she looked from face to face. She couldn't see Yugao's face, but the mask nodded to her once, in approval. Iruka was still struggling through Mizuki's betrayal, as well as the Naruto issue and reconciling the man's death to her. Tenten was quietly pensive, but Naru knew she'd be up for some time fixing all the things that were broken between them. If they could be. Suzume was as unreadable as ever, somehow turning so the room's lights reflected off her glasses, giving nothing away.

The Hokage was grim but not negatively so. He seemed more resigned she had to take the actions she did, rather than what she did. "Very well. I will explain things to Iruka, as I imagine you'll be occupied with your friend doing the same."

"Yes," Tenten ground out, looking to Naru and daring her to disagree, "she will."

Reaching down into his desk, he pulled out a small case. "I believe, in light of you learning a clone technique as required by the Academy on the day of the exams, this should go to you, Naru."

Taking up the small box, Naru grinned brightly when inside a Leaf hiate-te was revealed. "Yes!" Pumping her arm in the air, the youth giggled and curled around her new badge of acceptance. She was a ranked ninja! Finally, she was on her way!

The others congratulated her, Tenten beaming happily at her friend's good fortune. Shortly the meeting wound down, all the loose ends that could be tied up with Mizuki's actions being set aside, leaving six weary individuals. Naru yawned cavernously, earning a chuckle from Sarutobi.

Nodding, the Hokage stood, as did Naru. "I'll inform the Academy. The time it will take to scour records and look for any traces should take a day. Convenient, as I find it would likely be very taxing to begin working with the Genin teams after so little rest, don't you agree, Iruka?"

The man shook his head, smiling slightly, "Yes, Hokage-sama."

"Very well. I think that's all then."

Everyone began shuffling out, finally noting the time. It didn't seem like it had been so long to Naru, but it appeared like dawn was beginning to color the sky. Perhaps a day off would be good...

"Naru?"

Turning, she and Tenten halted, the others just outside the Hokage's chamber. "Hmm?"

The man gave her a droll look. "Aren't you forgetting something?"

A slow smile crept along Naru's features. "Nope."

"My hat..."

Naru reached up, hanging on to the wide brim with both hands, dashing down the corridor, the Sandaime Hokage on her heels. "You've got mine, it's a fair trade!"

"Come back here!"

A small explosion rocked that side of the tower, followed by a shrill scream, "No jutsu's, Old man!"

Muffled growling followed, punctuated by a low howl of pain. "Stop biting you little brat!"

Tenten looked to Yugao, blinking, "I'm going home. Then I'm going to sleep. And when I wake up, the world will be normal again."

The ANBU laid a hand on her shoulder, as the two walked down to the ground floor. "No, Tenten, I'm afraid it won't. Not as long as Naru is around."

"Alright, first off let me sa-OW! Damnit, Ten," Naru ducked another kunai, thrown so that its ring would slam into her forehead. She figured one was sufficient, "What the hell?"

Tenten actually glared at her, not the mock narrowing of eyes with a glint of smile, "What? You have to ask? You come to my family's forge, blow yourself up, run off before I know you're ok..." Making a frustrated noise, she ripped the ties out of her hair, letting her buns unfurl. Naru blanched, knowing this sign well.

Her friend was genuinely pissed off.

"Then, then! You go missing all afternoon after I hear about this weird test thing, though trust me – we will get back to that – and then I'm called before the Hokage, and you're clothes are all bloody!

"And then! I have to sit through some weird lecture about the Kyuubi – what the blazing hell that has to do with you I'm worried about by the way, so don't even try to avoid it – and you having to break into the Hokage tower and then kill a Chuunin?!" Panting, Tenten snatched up random things off her table and started throwing them at Naru, haphazardly, "Damnit! I'm your friend! Why don't you talk to me!?"

Naru winced, shamefaced, stalling the older girl's anger. Sitting heavily, she ignored the rising bruises on her arms and the few scrapes she had from Tenten's tantrum. "I'm scared.

"I've worked so hard to build up this..." tugging at her hair, Naru ripped the coiled bun loose, letting her hair fall like Tenten had, though the meaning was different. "I didn't mean for today to go so wrong. I really didn't. I thought I'd just... pass the exam, come back home and then maybe have some ramen and celebrate."

Tenten sat the the head of her bed, watching her friend carefully. She'd not seen the blonde's mask crack so badly for some time. "What was all that about? You know me. Just tell me, I can take it."

"I'm just not sure I can," Naru murmured unhappily. "Do you remember, when you were little, how it didn't seem to matter if your friends were boys or girls?"

"Well, yeah," shuffling uncomfortably, Tenten squashed all her insecurities over her tomboyism. Such things were below kunoichi.

Naru spared her a little grin, knowing what she was thinking. "Well, I've had to think about that a lot. About how when you're really young, being a boy or girl doesn't seem to matter much. It just is."

Snippets of the conversation earlier that day replayed in Tenten's mind, causing her to frown. "This has something to do with that Naruto kid doesn't it?"

"Everything, nothing... yeah. Do you remember him?"

Tenten shrugged, nodding slightly, "Yeah. We both were in the orphanage a little while together. The Matron... I guess looking back on it now, things were bad." Wincing a bit, she paled, a few of the memories returning with their grim weight. "Really bad."

Naru smiled tightly. "You've had a pretty good life. What would you do, put in his place to change things?"

Her friend turned suddenly wary eyes to her. "Naru... what do you mean?"

The blonde shrugged slightly, turning so Tenten could fully see her face. Ever so slowly, the six marks she could never really hide except with the kitsune's help scratched their way across her cheeks. "When he was six, Naruto got the chance to undo it all. Remake himself into something else, to have a chance to live. He took it."

"You... you're Naruto?"

Nodding slowly, the jinchuriki kicked her feet nervously, "What they never told people our age, but all the older people knew, was that the Yondaime never killed the Kyuubi. Just sealed it away. Sealed it in Naruto.

"That's why people hated him. Hated me. The Kyuubi was a girl, and well... the Fourth wasn't as smart as everyone thinks he was. I was going to have... problems. If things stood as they were."

Unsure what or even for that matter how to think, Tenten shook her head hard, staring down at her hands, unseeing. "So this is like some illusion?"

"Illusions don't bleed. I've been this way since I was six, Tenten. Naru is who I am now. It just happened that I woke up a six year old."

"But you're a boy!"

Naru turned angry blue eyes on her longest held friend. "Really? When did you decide when those lines became permanent? When it wasn't just 'my friends' it was 'those boys' and 'those girls'? It wasn't more than just words back then."

Eyes shut hard, Tenten shook her head again, "But-"

"But nothing! You can't hold Naruto against me, Tenten! I killed him, buried him, watched this town fucking celebrate it! He's dead! I'm not him!"

Stunned by the anger practically seeting off Naru, Tenten scooted back, only stopping when the wall crashed against her back. "Who are you?"

"I'm Naru. I've been Naru. I'll be Naru till I die! This isn't like a... game or an act. For fuck's sake I have training bra's Tenten!"

Laughing, if somewhat hysterically, the brunette nodded, "Yeah, we got them together. Oh, this is just... hard to deal with." Paling, the girl seemed to suddenly recall the other half of Naru's tale, "Wait. Kyuubi?"

Nodding, Naru settled back, looking far too tired for her twelve years. "Yeah. Not that it's what people thought, but yes. The Kyuubi. Tenten, I really need you as my friend."

"Naru, it's just... so many lies..."

"I'm not a lie, Tenten. I am an orphan. My parents, as far as even I know, were killed in the attack," she didn't bother to elaborate on this, there was no need to drop more on her friend. Besides... even if the Yondaime was her father, she was becoming less and less enamored to the idea. "I didn't tell you about the Kyuubi because... well remember what I had to run from last time. Can you imagine having your entire village hate you? Try to kill you on your birthday? Celebrate each injury, and then have a festival on your apparent death? Now, you tell me why I'd go back to that. That's why you didn't know. That's why I don't go back, or flaunt this."

"I never knew... Naru. I'm sorry."

"I don't want your sympathy, Ten, I just want my friend," scooting a bit closer, Naru hazarded a small smile. "I hate thinking about all this. It's over, done with to me. But... well some things have come up. Stupid old man decided I had to tell you everything, but I was going to tell you about the Kyuubi anyway. The thing about Naruto... well." Shrugging a bit, she seemed to dismiss the idea. "He's the past. I'm the now. Kohona's the future. I can't keep looking back."

Tenten nodded, thoughtful. "So all those people knew?"

"Sort of," Naru agreed, brow furrowed. "Iruka didn't. But the stupid Bunshin exam probably tipped him off. Mizuki said... well he hinted that I'm not so good at this, so maybe others do too. I'm not sure why they'd care. As far as I'm concerned, they had their vengeance."

That made Tenten feel a little better. She hated being the last to know, but considering only adults and the Hokage himself was there, she could guess this went above simple secrets. "I guess. Why Suzume-sensei?"

"To get better. I'm just a kid, it's all luck and the Kyuubi I wasn't caught already."

"Kyuubi... I just can't imagine you and it..." Trailing off, she blinked as Naru laughed quietly.

Grinning her honest grin, Naru leaned back, bracing her weight on her arms. "Her. The Kyuubi's a her. And that's part of why this happened. Our chakra was going all wrong, but not so bad at the time. If I hit puberty with her pumping chakra through my coils of a wrong alignment though..."

"Oh wow," Tenten blinked, recalling their academy lessons on diseases caused by Jutsu attacks that affected such balances. They were rare, forbidden, and dangerous, mostly because they could only be tested on living things, and invariably the subject died. "Yeah, I see why a girl then. Was it hard?"

"Like I said, it was before I had any real gender identity. Honestly it affected how I dressed more than anything else," she quipped, only to have the other girl start laughing raucously. "What?"

"Well, not that orange was a good color on anyone."

"I'm still sore about that you know! I had to give it up," Growling, the girl flopped backwards, smiling despite her tone. The smile grew when Tenten padded beside her, laying as they were prone to do so some days.

The brunette swept her hair back behind her, as Naru turned, offering her arm. Tenten settled her temple against it, curled up despite their height difference against the blonde's collarbone. "You're ok though? All this, and tonight?"

Naru nodded, her breaths full of the scent of Tenten's hair. "Yeah. I'm ok. Just... scared, here and there. About you, mostly."

"And Mizuki... You seemed so cold about killing him."

Naru couldn't stop the small shudder that ran through her. "It was him or me, in the end. If things went how he planned... I think I would have ended up either dead or... well worse. The scroll wasn't very nice.

"I... don't think I am dealing with it. I mean I know, in my head that he's dead. That it's my fault, and that maybe there was a way to handle that to avoid killing him." Taking a shaky breath, the shorter girl pulled her companion closer, sheltering herself from the memory. "There's... this cold place. It's like I lost something with him."

"Innocence?"

Naru laughed, quietly, mirthlessly. "Didn't think there was much of that left in me." Another shudder sped through the shorter girl, and Tenten's arms wrapped around her small frame. "I don't know. It's like I wasn't really there, and was all at once. I can't tell if it's muddled because of the Kage bunshin or because I'm just... numb still."

Nodding, Tenten kicked her nightstand, upsetting the lamp and causing it to fall with a clatter of shade and breaking glass. The shattered bulb left the room dark, quiet, peaceful. "When you want to talk about it, just let me know. I'll be here."

"I know. You have no idea how much that means to me."

Face tucked into her arms, Naru managed to avoid most of the questions aimed her way, offering only tired mumbles in answer to the few persistent enough to deal with her lack of response. Out of her class, she seemed the least excited to be there, but it was only the appearance of apathy on her part. "Your own fault for rushing things," the kitsune reminded her, smugness practically dripping from her words.

Not quite grasping the finer basics of their mental rapport yet, Naru growled at the smirking spirit, burrowing further into her arms. "Yes, yes. I had to draw out the Kogitsune-maru, and yes this is all my fault, thank you for restating the obvious."

"The blade itself wouldn't have exhausted you. I believe it may have had something to do with those exercises and sealing etchings you spent the last day working on..."

Naru winced at the memory. Yesterday had been a good day – she and Tenten had spent their morning till the older kunoichi was due to team training just chatting, something they'd had little chance for recently. After their relaxed morning, it was time for her to finish something she'd been waiting for though.

The Kogitsune-maru, it's trace tattooed onto her left forearm had itched at her mind since the morning Naru had woken with it's mark. She'd finally activated the seal and though it had taxed her heavily, retrieved the blade Kyuubi had helped her summon. To say it had been an exhausting experience to draw a weapon comparable to her broken zanbato from a cloud of dispersed ink from her arm would be an understatement, but at least it wasn't as bad as the forging used to summon it.

That said... "I still don't get why you'd put me through all the trouble to summon a sword with no edge," the blonde griped. For a zanbato, it was a fine piece of work, except for that one flaw. It was similar to her previous zanbato in a number of ways, size and weight being two. The grip was the length of her forearm, and it's length standing from grip to tip was taller than she was, though Naru felt that would change in a few years. The similarities ended there however. Unlike her last sword, the Kogitsune was symmetric, not the single-edged design favored in the Element nations. That would have been a problem, as she was prone to carrying her weapon on her shoulder, except for the lack of an edge.

Another difference, one she found pleasing in fact, was the blade's color. Though it was not usually something she'd consider, the size of a zanbato made them little more than massive targets, unless there was some effort made to mask their finish to reduce reflection. The Kogitsune was a matte black, perfect for her chosen vocation. The only marring to that was an intricate etching in gold along it's length, the patterns either a twisting vine or stylized flame – she wasn't sure. Its blade joined the grip at a seat of the same metal underlying the wrappings, a dark and lusterless sort she wasn't sure of. From that, the blade which was the width of her hand's span from thumb to little finger, sat flush. There was no tsuba or crosspiece, only that metal seat. Other than those defining features, the weapon was simple – two edges, if dull, the grip with its tightly spun silk grip over that same dark metal, and the blade itself which tapered very slightly till it ended in an arch she could easily see resting her hands on.

"It has an edge," the kitsune replied, breaking Naru from her musing. "You are it's edge. When you begin to understand your chakra's nature, the blade can focus it, giving you a more familiar blade."

With a mental sigh, Naru let the issue drop. Naru knew all the aggravation she felt was due to frustration, after all the build up for finally having used her late guardian's materials in a blade he would be proud of, she couldn't use it. In her hands, even an unsharpened blade would be deadly, but the problem lay with the thing's balance and form. It was different from her previous zanbato in enough ways to make her need to relearn the weapon almost entirely.

Which was why she was so tired, at least partially. "You did decide to seal it," she was reminded by the Kyuubi. The demon's words were true, and she'd harassed Tenten endlessly the previous night to see her storage scroll instructions. Finally they had found a workable solution, a kind of substitution seal usually used on courier missions in hostile territory. It was a simple thing, often overlooked really. It's purpose was to swap one item for another, of similar form or function. It was inefficient, chakra intensive and crude, but it worked nicely.

Etched into the zanbato's grip under the silk, the seal exchanged the weapon for the wakazashi she forged, which she spent the rest of last night finishing. The chakra and odd circumstances surrounding it's making left it looking like the mate to the zanbato – albeit a very, very small one in comparison. Still, it comforted Naru having a functional blade she was trained for in her hands. Yugao was quietly pleased that she chose the weapon the ANBU had been training her in as it's sealed form. She was even more pleased to see Naru up late, practicing and familiarizing herself with both weapons.

Naru wasn't one to let the training go to waste, or waste the advantage of an unaware opponent. When a fight that she could use the zanbato to it's best advantage came, she would summon it. Until then, it's mated short-blade would be what she wore publicly, though it had garnered her some curious glances around the room as she arrived.

She was so far into her tired musing that she missed the first two times someone called her name. Or, rather, a name, "Hey, dobe!" Her growl earlier must have drawn attention to herself despite her self-enforced solitude. Quietly cursing that family and their ears, Naru looked up. Of course, it would be the loud-mouthed Inuzuka that broke into her blissful quiet, "Oh, the bitch lives."

"Unfortunate for you," she snarled back, mouth twisting into an unpleasant grin. "Got something to say, you sad excuse for a coughed up hairball?"

Kiba bristled angrily, "Yeah, how did a pathetic loser like you manage to pass when you failed even making Bunshin?" With a sudden leer the Inuzuka elbowed his constant companion, another boy that looked either to be a distant cousin or other relation. "Maybe she earned it on her knees."

She may not have been as precise as the Uchiha, or have the control of others her gender seemed to just be born with, but Naru had speed and power in excess. Snapping out a hand, she grabbed the mouthy boy by his collar and pulled him sharply down to her level, cracking his chin on the edge of her desk. "Listen runt. I'm not in the mood today. So unless you want me leaving you just alive enough for your more talented sister to stitch back together, piss off."

That seemed to hit about five of Kiba's buttons, usually something Naru avoided as she really didn't enjoy riling up the confrontational boy. He was easy enough to wind up, but she and Tenten did still use the woods near their clan grounds for their practices, so good relations were a must. Today, she simply didn't have the energy to give a damn, though, and it seemed that Kiba was picking up on it, "Why you-"

The boy's words tailed off, as Naru pushed up her mask, eyes flaring like coals. A terse warning from the kitsune cooled her temper before she did something rash, though her mouth was less inclined to obey, "-put up with this?" Leaning close, she bared fangs superior to his own, "Because you're not worth the effort to exterminate."

Unseen, the two quarreling Genin had an observer. "Y-you two shouldn't fight." Two pairs of angry eyes snapped to the speaker, causing the normally subdued Hinata to meep and bounce back on her heels, "You may end up on a t-team together. It w-would be bad to be so antagonistic before you know."

Naru's eyes narrowed, and she pushed her kitsune mask back further, easing the angle she needed to peer up at the standing Hyuuga. "That's alright. Don't mind us, we're just getting Kiba's pack order sorted before then, just in case."

Glaring daggers, the boy made to stand back up and probably strike at the blonde but Naru kicked out, catching his ankle as he stood. The resulting loss of balance sent him tumbling down the small rise of stairs, yapping puppy right beside. It was a dirty move, but she didn't care, not today.

With a sigh at the spectacle, the pale girl sat one space away and busied herself observing their classmates. Naru studiously ignored her, until Hinata broke the uneasy silence, "Why d-do you pick on them?"

Blinking at the quiet question, Naru had to run it though her mind twice more before she could trust her ears to have heard correctly, "Excuse me?"

The Hyuuga met her eyes, cooled back to blue, "You always seem ready to fight. It's no secret you hate the large clans, either. Why?"

She solidly refused to answer the last question, opting rather for the first. "I'm ready to fight because I am a kunoichi. Perhaps you've heard of them?"

Hinata flinched visibly from the girl's acidic tone, but didn't relent, "What happened?"

Naru waited a beat, "What do you mean?"

With a muted sigh, the Hyuuga girl moved again, closer so she could cast her voice to a whisper as sat in the seat beside the volatile blonde. "For the last week of classes you've been tense. Then, at the exam you were hot and cold calm or anxious. You f-failed your Bunshin test, but you're here, proving you passed somehow," she swallowed nervously but continued, refusing to back away from the glaring girl beside her. "Why aren't you happy?"

Staring at the pale-eyed girl as if she had suddenly sprouted wings and began singing, Naru simply sat, letting her gaze disturb the other young woman. Finally, after nearly a minute of such scrutiny, she relaxed her posture, "Look. I don't really want to know how or why you can read me like that. I should, but frankly, I don't have enough damn to give today." Rubbing at her temple idly, Naru leaned back in her seat, weariness falling over her like a cloak. "I'm just exhausted. In every way you can be. It makes me testy and short, and that's about all you need to know."

Hinata's lips pursed, but she didn't relent in her pursuit, "You didn't answer my question though."

"Funny, I thought I did."

"Why do you hate us?"

Naru's eyes snapped to the quiet girl, causing her to flinch, "Have a care, I don't think you'd understand, and there's not enough patience in me to make you."

Seeing that Naru had no intention of answering, Hinata sketched a slight bow, rising to walk away without another word.

"Testy and short indeed."

"I'm really not in the mood for this today..." Naru groaned, letting her mind go still and hopefully with it her passenger.

It was not to last. "You know, the pale-eyed one has a point. It's my grudge to bear – why do you take such pains to torment them?"

Naru gazed out at the classroom, easily picking out those that she considered her most common prey, for when those impulses rose. Kiba, because his clan said it was good that someone could push him off his pedestal. Choji she picked because of his family's talents, which she thought seemed contrary to a ninja's way. Sasuke, because for as long as she could remember, the Uchiha were the favored clan of Kohona, running the Military Police since she was younger. After their massacre, it seemed that the village as a whole adopted the boy, something she tried but failed not to feel jealousy over. Others were less important or didn't deserve her ire... Hinata could have easily made that list, if the girl had been more than a shadow. It was well known that the Hyuuga were practically shinobi royalty. It made her wonder how relations with the Daimyo's court went, if one were sent. Images of stuffy royals and pale-eyed ninja bowing endlessly to one another caused her to snort in amusement, getting her a few nervous looks from those nearby.

The fact that she had time to think of this was beginning to sink in, and as if summoned, their instructor made an appearance, quieting everyone there as he scanned the seats with a baleful eye. "...good morning, please have a seat, and we'll begin." Despite the day of downtime that the Hokage gave them all, Naru felt that Iruka seemed to be a kindred spirit. He seemed to feel as bad as she did, if his tone was any indication. "Today you will be sorted into your teams.

"As Genin, your responsibility is to Konoha and Fire country. Missions will be given based on team performance and ability, and as untested ninja, these will not be glamorous. In fact, most will be what many of you would consider petty and insignificant." With a grim look, the man swept their numbers, meeting eyes as he went. "That's fine, as in the greater scheme of things, that's precisely what you are.

"Your time as Genin can be considered the field portion of your Academy lessons," the scarred man continued, sitting and flipping though some forms as he spoke. "Your Jounin teachers will instruct you in practical stealth, tactics, and how to work in the command structure. Failure to learn those lessons will restrict your future growth. This will be your last warning."

Standing again, the man leaned back against his desk and considered them, forms in hand. "Does anyone have any questions?"

"How are teams set up?"

Iruka's head swiveled to fix on the speaker, nodding slowly. "Good question. Typically Konoha teams were picked to give an even spread of abilities, though we've had success with more focused skill sets as well.

"There will be a variation in skills and abilities in each team, based on your Academy scores. Another trend as far as teams go, is to have two strong and one weak performer grouped. There is also the common practice to spread the kunoichi candidates as evenly as possible."

Naru narrowed her eyes at that, but considered it logically before blurting out a question. "Why I wonder?"

The Kyuubi turned her attention to Naru's thoughts, considering it with her, "Perhaps it's to encourage the mating instinct?"

Blushing slightly, Naru pushed that idea away fiercely, "What the hell?"

"Team mates risking life and limb for one another, growing, living, killing together. Consider it, little one. Perhaps they wish to capitalize on your youth, before you die and leave it to the worms," though amused, the kitsune's voice held a thread of suspicion in its tone.

Thinking on it while Iruka went on about their grading curve, Naru thought that perhaps the Kyuubi did have a point. Shinobi death rates weren't low, and if all the clans put forth their strongest to be active ninja... "I just hope whoever we get won't assume the same thing," she murmured to her passenger, getting a slight chuckle in response.

"Alright. Teams currently are as follows," the man called out, silencing the murmurs spreading across the room. "Please move to the first name called, and wait for your Jounin to collect you."

"Team Four, Hiroshi Akagi..." Naru tuned the man out, her ear only half on his words as the teams continued to be called out. She guessed that numbers weren't important, as they obviously didn't start with "one".

"Team Eight, Shino Aburame, Hinata Hyuuga, Kiba Inuzuka," raising a brow, Naru considered that team and sighed.

"What a random group of skills..." she thought to herself.

Iruka waited for them to settle in a small group near the stoic Shino, "Your Jounin will be Yuuhi Kurenai."

"Team Ten, Ino Yamanaka, Shikamaru Nara, Choji Akamichi." Naru heard the murmurings of that being no surprise, something about family following in their parent's footsteps as the three collected around the blonde girl called first. "Asuma Sarutobi will be with Team Six," Iruka finished as the three found seats.

Iruka looked around and sighed, seeing that half the class remained unsorted. Best to get this done sooner as opposed to later... "Team Seven, Naru Kazami, Sakura Harano, Sasuke Uchiha." As expected, the mentioned blonde bolted upright.

"Wait, you said 'kunoichi would be spread evenly'. Why two on a team?"

Cracking a slight grin, Iruka leaned on his desk, "What? Have a problem with sharing Sasuke with Sakura?"

Growling and cracking her knuckles, the girl responded, "No, I have a problem sharing air with him."

"Regardless, the team is set. Your Jounin is Kakashi Hatake."

Scowl firmly in place, Naru slumped back into her chair and waited out the rest of the assignment period. As usual, Sakura seemed content to alternately fawn over Sasuke, who couldn't be bothered to stop brooding about something or another, and shooting glares at her as if her opinion mattered.

This continued for nearly two hours, as various Jounin showed up to collect their teams. Naru noted the room, and it's two other occupants and swore colorfully. "Where is this Kakashi person? Late to his first day..."

Sakura whirled on the griping blonde, obviously short of patience as well, "He'll be here when he's here."

There was a moment as Naru slipped her mask down, hiding the ember-red glint in her eyes. "Of course. How silly of me to expect a Jounin to take his job seriously. You know better, that much is obvious, Haruno-san."

The pink-haired kunoichi stared incredulously at the snarky blonde, having not dealt with her or her mercurial moods before. She rose and seemed intent to confront the fox-masked and ill-tempered girl when she noted the almost idle grip that Naru had on her short sword. Blinking and wondering how she missed that detail, Sakura turned and instead focused on Sasuke and trying to impress the stoic boy.

To her frustration, Sasuke rose and approached the short-temepered blonde, speaking her name quietly to get her attention, "Kazami."

A painted fox face turned to regard him. "Yes?"

"Where did you learn to fight?"

Naru tilted her head, considering the question and what she would answer. Within the safety of her thoughts, Naru cursed Shikamaru for all she was worth for being predictably right. Feeling the impatience begin rolling off the last Uchiha like a physical thing, she sighed and leaned back, "A friend who is ANBU and a Genin teamed last year spar and practice with me. It's a style I developed to work with my personal strengths."

Nodding once after a moment's contemplation, Sasuke took a seat again, seemingly satisfied.

Not one to let such an impasse as her chosen crush ignoring her go unchallenged, Sakura turned on Naru, "Personal style? You mean there's no real form to it? Doesn't that mean you're just flailing around as you like?"

"No, I don't."

Leveling a disbelieving look at her, Sakura just rolled her eyes. Apparently she had forgotten the few times they had been paired together to spar... "Right."

There weren't a lot of things Naru truly took offense to. Insults directed at her friends and her training however, were on the list. "So, Forehead," recalling Ino's personal insult for Haruno, the blonde tried it out to great effect. Pink hair bristled as green eyes snapped her way. "Learn much taijutsu from those books?"

Sasuke looked at the two, realizing that for once, the females in closest contact with him weren't fighting over him. It was rather liberating. Hoping to capitalize on this new found sense of freedom, he leaned back, breathing in deeply.

Naru glanced from a serene looking Sasuke to a livid Sakura and decided that whoever it was that came up with this team idea had a sadistic streak.

That thought in mind, the sound of the classroom door opening pulled the attention of two angry young women and one strangely content Uchiha.

A tall man, thin, with a mask over most of his face with his forehead protector pulled down over one eye peered at them impassively. "My first impression of you is..."

Naru's eyes narrowed, Sasuke leaned back and yawned, while Sakura twitched in place, hand clenching.

"That I don't like you. Meet on the roof in five minutes." Without another word, the man disappeared in a rustle and burst of leaves and wind.

Cursing the fate that had her set up with not only an Uchiha, but a Jounin that arrived two hours late to pick up their own team, Naru stomped out of the room ahead of the others. "Yeah. Feeling's mutual."

AN: Yes, Damn It, Yukari! That Yukari. From Touhou. I told you it got out of hand.

Ultimately the plot was going to have Naruto-become-Yukari return to Yomi to find Ran, before everything, and befriend the Ninetails, basically making this all a looped self fulfilling situation. Naruto-as-Yukari would become better at 'gaps' and eventually truly become that idea of a 'savior demons prayed for'. If you follow Touhou Dojin, you can probably figure out where this was inspired from. Tohonifun, if you don't Go read some awesome.