Sealkeeper: He Who Binds

Chapter 140-A "Mini-Karura"

Patron Release 2021.07.09

'I'm molding your Chakra, Karura. Do you feel it?' Naruto stood in the gardens behind the palace and well within view of off-duty Wolves at the barracks. They tried- and failed miserably- looking like they weren't watching him.

"Yes, beloved." Came her response. She tried to remain serious and focused but a slight breathiness to her voice reminded Naruto that she always had enjoyed it when he used her Chakra- perhaps a bit too much, really.

'Good. I want you to take control of it again but keep it in that form.' She didn't say anything but he could feel as his control began to slip away. Immediately the Chakra attempted to return into the seal, pulled there by both the Fuinutsu intended to hold it and attracted to the larger body of identical Chakra.

He could picture her face scrunched up in concentration as she attempted to keep it outside of the seal in the correct shape and had to try very hard to keep such thoughts from distracting her from her work. When it felt as though she might lose the Jutsu completely she gave a desperate push with her Chakra, performing the Jutsu even if the shape wasn't exactly correct.

Sometimes brute force could make up for control in the less sensitive Jutsu and in this case the results were...almost...a success. With a poof of smoke a three-foot tall Kakrua stood blinking in surprise. Naruto's first thought had been that she reminded him of Isobu - both were thin, waifish girls of about the same height now- but that was quickly replaced by the realization that despite her shorter stature Kakrua's body was still that of a grown woman. Her entire form had shrunk down but had maintained her proportions perfectly which felt decidedly odd, to say the least.

Something that reminded him of his little princess should not also bring those memories, nor should he vividly know what each and every inch of the smaller form before him would feel like. It was sort of like every time he saw Saskue and had to remind himself that he was looking at the woman- man?- who had taken his virginity.

There were just some things he preferred not to think about.

"Ah?!" She looked up at the much taller Naruto knowing for a fact she'd at least come up to his chin previously. "That's no fair," Karura pouted. "I already had to tiptoe and stretch to reach your lips before, this is impossible!"

Indeed, now her chin was about level with the top of his hip and the top of her head barely reached the bottom of his sternum. If he didn't bend down- severely- she was going to have to either utilize furniture or climb him in order to reach.

Well, that or attack- erm, 'show affection'- when he was sitting down.

He smiled down at her softly. "I don't know, Karura. For our first attempt this seems to have worked much better than I would have expected." One hand reached down and ruffled her sandy hair gently. "You did well."

She beamed up at him at the praise.

"Now…" His voiced trailed off as he instead focused on sending his thoughts to his occupant. 'Can you still hear me, Karura?'

"Of course, beloved." He would have considered that response a success if it hadn't been echoed by two voices in his head. The mini-Karura looked about as confused as he felt.

That hadn't been expected but, in hindsight, maybe it should have. Kage Bunshin may have been identical clones but they still existed as separate entities until merging back with the original. This should prove interesting.

"Hey, only I get to call him that!"

Naruto blinked, realizing he couldn't tell which of them had said that.

"He's my beloved and that's what I'll call him, you can find your own name for him if you want to be unique."

Maybe interesting wasn't necessarily a good thing.

Juugo dropped onto the couch with a sigh, his buttoned shirt straining at the relaxed position. Hyuran was a large man, Juugo had always thought, but borrowing the man's shirt Juugo was reminded that he was actually a bit bigger than his boss's supervisor. Broader in shoulders and chest if not in height. The silvery buttons on his black shirt did not appreciate that fact as much as Kari did.

It had taken a few days but Hyuran had managed to find an opening with one of Doto's lesser advisors and as far as Juugo had been able to tell the meeting had gone very well. Just the mention that the railway project could actually be profitable- and why that hadn't been the first thing Doto and his advisors had attempted to do Juugo would never understand- instead of a necessary expense to move resources for Doto's convenience and the man just about wet himself in glee.

He'd managed- barely- to remain in the room with them for almost another hour to get more details before excusing them from his office and hurriedly grabbing the notes he had taken. Juugo and Hyuran hadn't taken a dozen steps away from the man's door before he barreled down the hallway past them and, presumably, to either a high-ranking advisor or Doto himself.

Even if Juugo didn't know a damn thing about the political scene here in Doto's palace he knew that had to be a good sign. The fact that Hyuran had relaxed as soon as the advisor proved receptive was also a pretty big hint that things were going well. At least, in the sense that they had turned the worst possible outcome from "possible execution" to "why are you here and not working on my railways?" which really was a huge achievement in and of itself.

Now they just had to wait and see how far up the chain some of Juugo's ideas would get- and whether that would help them get what they needed to actually complete the work they'd been tasked with.

In the worst case all the plans were approved but they received no more supplies or just enough for the original project but not enough for the changes. Fortunately Juugo didn't actually live here- permanently and yet - and it was just a mission. He still had the option of grabbing Kari and retreating back to Otogakure.

He could probably swipe something from Doto's palace on the way out to serve as a gift for Tsukuyomi- that would serve well to keep Orochimaru off his back and maybe even Jirobo's back too.

But if that was the worst case, well, Juugo could actually claim to be pretty optimistic about this mission so far. Then again, he considered it a success when he got his first measly paycheck. Kari had already made this mission the best he'd ever gone on by a wide, wide margin not to be overtaken by any others soon.

Well, not unless he brought her on those too.

He wondered if Orochimaru would allow that for a second before dismissing it with an amused snort. Who was he kidding? Orochimaru didn't give a damn so long as their orders were carried out. As long as he helped Jirobo get acceptable presents for the prince he'd be just fine.

Huh, that was strange. Black eyes swept the room but could find no sign of Naruto and Mai pursed her lips in thought. He- the original, that is- hadn't been in his office- though his clone had been there working away- and he hadn't been in his personal chambers or private library.

On the off-chance he had been having a meal in the upper floor dining room- or perhaps was meeting with someone and hadn't wanted to intrude on his clone's work- she checked there too with no luck and even went on to give the sitting room a brief check. She'd never actually seen him in that room before and this time was no different- no Naruto.

The door to Gaara's room had been left wide open and had also seemed empty as she passed it but maybe he had fallen asleep in there? She turned around and looked at the open doors of the southwest wing, all of them having been personally checked by her. If he wasn't in Gaara's room then he had...left the upper floor?

She could probably count the number of times he had done that over the last few weeks on one hand Naruto simply didn't leave his private floors these days. Not that he had really left his apartment back in Konoha if he could help it, now that she thought about it.

It was probably safe to say that Naruto didn't have a tendency to leave his home and while the entire palace was his it had become perfectly clear within the first week that he only really felt that way about the top floor.

Of course, that still left the question of where he had gotten off to.

Closing the door to Sai's room- that had been a long shot, admittedly- she made her way back down the hall closing the doors to the other rooms as she went. Gaara's room on the east wall was, as she had first assumed, completely empty.

Maybe it would have been faster to just track down a Wolf- surprisingly absent from the top floor considering their constant attempts to be as close to Naruto as possible, but maybe that should have been the first sign that he wasn't up here- and send them off to find him for her. It wasn't too late for that, actually, but she was also counting this as her break from her other paperwork so she didn't mind the chance to stretch her legs and step away from her desk.

She had expected to be spending more of said break in Naruto's company, however.

A glance out the window gave her an excellent view of the back gardens. It was mostly the wall and the trees at the end- if one ignored the barracks that took up about a third of the right side of the window- at her angle and she found herself moving closer to get a better view of the pond and underlying gardens.

Ah. The first thing that told her she'd found him hadn't actually been Naruto but the multitude of on and off-duty Wolves who were near the base of the barracks staring out into the rest of the back gardens. There was, generally, only one person who received that sort of attention from the Wolves and, sure enough, he was over by the pagoda on the other side of the pond.

A smile spread across her face as soon as her eyes laid sight upon him but it was quickly replaced by confusion. Why were there so many children around the palace gardens and, more importantly, why did they all look so similar?

Similar? Mai recognized that she had made an error in her observation; they weren't just similar- they were the same.

A dozen little girls filled the garden each with sandy blonde hair and teal eyes. Several seemed to be entertaining themselves by braiding the hair of various Wolves while one seemed to take amusement from ordering around Deidara and Kankuro with a pleased Temari watching from behind her.

Gaara resting with his head in one of their laps came across as slightly backwards but still cute and he seemed to greatly enjoy the way she ran her tiny fingers through his growing red hair.

Unfortunately these details did very little to help Mai understand what was going on.

Dodging Deidara who seemed to be off to fetch something from the palace - based on the small table Kankuro was carrying maybe some sort of picnic or tea ceremony? Or maybe just a game like Shogi or Go- she skirted around the edge of the pond and made her way up to the pagoda where Naruto seemed to be surrounded by two more of the girls.

With a burst of smoke that became three, though this one seemed a year or so older in Mai's opinion.

"Ha!" She cheered after a brief look at the other two. "I'm the tallest now!"

Oh, yeah, now that she was looking the other two were also of differing heights just not as noticeably as this one was.

"Whatever," Pouted one of them, crossing her arms and turning away. "We're still older than you."

"Only by a minute and a half!" Came the retort. It wasn't a very strong argument but it was all she had. "You're just jealous that I can kiss Naruto more easily than you can~" Her taunting was melodic but couldn't quite distract Mai from the words.

What the-

"Now, now, Karura." Naruto bent down slightly and admonished her with a shaking finger. "We've talked about this already- be nice to yourself. No one gets to make my Karura upset, even herself. Understood?"

A chorus of acceptance echoed not just from the three at the pavilion but from each and every little "Karura" in the garden. "Yes, beloved."

It took a second for Mai to put all the pieces together for a clear picture but once she had she felt the need to release a pained groan and only narrowly kept it from leaving her lungs. She could already feel the headache building.

"Naruto." Her tone immediately projected both irritated acceptance and resigned weariness. "For the love of the gods please tell me there aren't a dozen miniature Biju running around the palace gardens?"

He sent back a shaky smile. "Well, about that-"

A small army of similarly sized, green-haired little girls marched back into the garden wearing white sundresses, wide-brimmed hats, and carrying drawing pads so large in comparison to themselves it was almost commercial. It was easy to see the group of Wolves who escorted them back were amused even despite their masks. As the gaggle of children spread their drawing pads out between them and huddled together for a discussion Mai couldn't quite make out she turned back to Naruto and slowly raised one of her brows to demand his explanation.

"Well, now at least the dozens of miniature Biju are -" He took several seconds to count the number of green haired girls to confirm "All within the confines of the gardens?" He offered.

This man was going to be the death of her through stress alone, Mai just knew it.

With the Karura clones having dismissed themselves- with the exception of one who seemed to have taken a liking to Temari and was happily followed about by Gaara- and all of the Isobu clones under the watchful eyes of the Wolf barracks Naruto relaxed into a cushiony chair in his private library. As his clone- Naruto- was busy in his office most days this had become his- also Naruto, just the original- go-to place to spend time.

Well, when he wasn't being dragged off to his room, anyway.

Mai took her seat in the chair next to his and Tsunami- who had seen the two enter the palace from the back gardens- was quick to place a tea service on the sidetable between them.

How she managed to prepare it quickly enough to only be a few steps behind them Naruto had no idea- maybe the Wolves were secretly training her to be a Kunoichi? They'd certainly tried stranger things- but he gave her a nod and an appreciative smile. "Thank you, Tsunami-san."

"Of course, Naruto-Sama." She smiled back. "Will you be needing anything else?"

"No, Tsunami, you are free to return to your other duties." Which was more of a polite way to tell her he'd like some privacy than any sort of suggestion or allowance on his part.

She gave a nod, her smile not faltering. "I'll be back in the kitchens then if you need me later, just send a Wolf." While there were no Wolves in Naruto's private library none of them doubted there would be at least one Wolf close enough to hear Naruto should he so much as raise his voice. In fact, it was quite likely there was one close enough to make out the majority of whatever he discussed with Mai.

Speaking of which…

"Alright, Mai, what did you need to bring to my attention?" His eyes flickered over to the small folder she had balanced on her chair's arm as she poured them both a cup of Tsunami's tea and then back to her.

"It's just a matter that's popped up in Kaminari no Kuni. Do you remember the two bandit groups we were supporting there?"

It took him a second of thought to recall some of the first clients the Wolves had worked for back when they were just starting out but it did sound vaguely familiar. "I gave instructions to resolve that matter back before we offered our services to Gato, didn't I?"

"Yes, you did." She reached for the folder and took out a report from the top. "Your orders were to fully support the weakest of the two, eliminate their competition, and withdraw."

Naruto nodded, his memory refreshed. "Yes, yes. I remember now. I said we could come back to them later assuming they managed to stick around."

"They've managed to do more than just stick around." Mai explained, passing over the report that he glanced at briefly. Anything important Mai would bring up now, there was no real reason for him to read it unless he needed more solid numbers. He really didn't. "With competition reduced they've spread over a majority of northern Kaminari no Kuni and have begun spreading down the eastern coasts uncomfortably close to Kaminari's capital."

"Ah." Yes, that could prove to be a problem. Too close to the capital and the nobles would start to get nervous and would call upon Kumogakure to clear the bandits out- actually, it was surprising they had lasted this long. Maybe the people of Kaminari no Kuni were simply unaware it was all controlled by a single warlord and instead thought they were separate bandit factions? Plausible.- which could lead to Kumogakure learning that the Wolves were at one point involved with this particular group.

More than involved, really, they were practically single-handedly responsible for them getting this far at all.

Not only was that bad for their reputation but that could set Kaminari no Kuni and Kumogakure no Sato against the House of Wolves which really wasn't in their best interest. Naruto had no desire for a repeat of Mizu no Kuni and Kaminari no Kuni was only separated from Yu no Kuni by the small country of Shimo no Kuni. Far too close if they were going to become hostile which meant Naruto needed to keep them neutral or even curry favor from them.

Clearing out their bandit problem might help with that, actually.

"I suppose that would be a problem." He kept the rest of his thoughts to himself, simply nodding in understanding of the situation. "Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Mai-" He paused, making sure to catch her eyes. "So what are you doing about it?"

She startled at that, nearly choking on her drink, but managed to recover gracefully and set her tea back onto the table. "I'm sorry, what was that Naruto?"

One brow rose in equal parts amusement and question. "I asked you what you were doing about this issue, Mai. I can't imagine you would bring this to me without at least a plan for handling the situation, would you?"

To Mai's credit she recovered from her surprise very quickly and she had spent enough time around Naruto to know- roughly- the sorts of things he would want to focus on for this situation- mainly the continued prosperity of the Wolves. Everything else was secondary as far as he was concerned.

Hopefully the basics would be enough to satisfy him.

"While offering our services again could be profitable…" She started, carefully gauging him for a reaction that wasn't forthcoming. "I think it might hurt us in the long run considering how much attention they've already garnered. Instead, it would probably be safer to ensure they're eliminated before any past ties to the Wolves can be discovered by Kaminari no Kuni or ….others."


She frowned, expecting more of a response, but even as she waited for him to elaborate he seemed entirely satisfied by what he had said.

"...Na- Tsukuyomi-Sama?" Mai asked, wondering if she was missing something.


"I...well...what did you want us to do?"

"You already have a plan, Mai." He reminded her. "Take care of the situation. You are Amaterasu, aren't you? Relay your orders to the Wolves and see to it."

He was giving her control? She blinked first in surprise at the situation and then again at herself for not just taking care of it herself. Like he'd said, she was Amaterasu- his second in command. The only reason she shouldn't have sent them was if he had other plans that doing so would have disrupted. At most she should have conferred with him simply to ensure there wasn't anything going on she was unaware of before sending off a team she already had prepared to tackle this issue in Kaminari no Kuni.

She supposed she was just too used to bringing things to Naruto's attention so that he could make the call then and there. With the exception of her call for the matter in Mizu no Kuni, well, perhaps it was better not to talk about how that had turned out but it had been the last time she'd made an executive decision without bringing the matter to Naruto's attention-

She had actively kept it from him, in fact, and that wasn't a mistake she intended to repeat.

But so long as she forwarded him both the original report along with the orders she'd given to the Wolves to take care of it that should be perfectly fine, shouldn't it?

Mai couldn't really be considered Amaterasu if she was just reverting back to when she was nothing more than Naruto's assistant. The whole point was to be his equal, to stand beside him to support him and the Wolves they took care of.

"Of course, Naruto. I'll have mission orders drawn up and assigned this afternoon. Were there any Wolves you had in mind for other projects I should refrain from giving this task to?"

"No, do what you feel is best. I expect to hear of your success soon."

"Yes, yes, I'll keep you informed until the matter is settled." She hurriedly stood up, completely forgetting her drink, and paused only to grab her folder- minus the report on Naruto's armrest- before making for the door. "If you'll excuse me I need to get back to work."

"Don't let me keep you from it, Mai, I know this matter is in good hands."

She sketched the briefest of bows despite the fact that he was facing the other way and sped out of the room towards her office.

Back in his seat Naruto smiled gently and took another sip of his tea.

Step one had been started and he expected good results to come from it. In the meantime…

"Hanabi." At his voice the young Hyuuga stepped out from behind a bookshelf where she had been waiting patiently. He opened the drawer on the side table and pulled out a folder that he set down on the coffetable before him. "Thank you for ensuring that report made it to Mai. These are for you. I trust your administrative team can ensure they also make it to Mai's desk over the next few weeks?"

"Yes, Naruto-Sama. I'll have them divided up so that they're evenly spaced."

"Excellent." He reached for the tea setting and poured a new cup for her as she took Mai's vacant seat. "I have them there in the order I'd like her to tackle them so please keep to it."

"By your command, Naruto-Sama."

From what she'd heard of their conversation she could infer that he intended for Mai to take care of anything in these reports too but to what end Hanabi couldn't really say.

Fortunately that wasn't her job, she just had to make sure it was done.

"I understand you have some rather...interesting...ideas for my railways." Doto peered down at the two large men from his throne, focusing more on the one with bright orange hair who had apparently been the one with the ideas.

He would never admit it but he was quite grateful to be up above them rather than closer to the two giants. Doto himself was usually considered tall and broad but these two men were mountains of muscle from years of hard work and that orange-haired one was supposed to be a teenager. What a horrifying thought.

It was the black haired one who answered. Hyur-something or other. He thought his advisor mentioned that he was one of the overseers of the rail project but he couldn't quite remember.

"Yes, Doto-Sama. Juugo here has recently become a crew lead and his time spent on the railway has given him the opportunity to gain some unique insight into other ways the project might benefit you and Yuki no Kuni."

"Is that so?" Doto shifted until he could rest his cheek against his fist. "Well then, let's see if those ideas are worth my time. I should hope, for your sake, that they are."

Hyuran shot a look over to Juugo who seemed unconcerned and really, really hoped Doto was as receptive to the idea as his advisors seemed to be.

Kakashi lazily turned another page of his Icha-Icha - the scene on this page reminding him of that one night he had found himself invited to that Nara bachelorette party. Wild time, that- and tried to console himself with the fact that the day was nearly over.

He never thought he would ever admit this- and he still wouldn't out loud- but he was actually missing Sasuke on his team. Not because he liked the kid but because it was much more entertaining when his team had someone who could be riled up by his comments about Naruto.

These two still got riled up, in a way, but it wasn't the same sweet frustration it used to be. No, team seven was now firmly a pro-Naruto team and it was more boring than Kakashi could have imagined. At least, without Naruto it was.

Kakashi lifted his gaze above the page for a brief moment to confirm neither of the Kunoichi under his "guidance" had managed to kill each other yet. Unfortunately not for as much of a pain in the ass it would end up being at least it would liven things up.

Not for whoever died but for Kakashi and that's what's important in the end.

Though he didn't suspect Naruto would be much pleased with such an outcome, if only because of the amount of trouble Kakashi would get into with Konoha. Then again, it was a good way to get back to Naruto's side before Mikoto could continue to convince him that she was his mother figure.

Kakashi frowned behind his book. Had Mikoto met up with them in Nami? Was she there right now? Damnit, he hoped not. Naruto was his son and while he was free to make his own decisions Kakashi was hoping he would push Mikoto to being more of an aunt or sister or something.

Or….Kakashi giggled. He seemed to have a taste for older women anyway, what was one more? It got her out of Kakashi's way, Naruto wasn't likely to mind the arrangement, and Mikoto was probably long overdue for a good lay anyway.

He just had no idea how the hell to go about arranging something like that, especially from all the way over here in Konoha. Maybe he could recruit Anko to the cause? He frowned. No, she wasn't likely to appreciate more competition for Naruto's time and affection.

...Tsunami was back in Nami though, wasn't she? And working for the Wolves to boot. Maybe she would be willing to help him. Probably worth a shot.

He returned his attention back to the Kunoichi below him, idly noting that Sakura seemed to have increased notably in both speed and stamina since last week. Her bloodlust seemed as high as ever, however, as she had abandoned all pretense of training blades and simply used her sharpest Kunai for every spar.

Kakashi might have been more concerned if Naruko wasn't able to block a majority of the blows without much trouble and if the few to get through weren't generally shallow and fast-healing. Typically he could rest reasonably assured that she would go home without a mark- on her skin, that is. Her clothing, unfortunately, served as testament to any hits she took and also had a nasty tendency to be stained by small bits of blood making it impossible to pretend only the clothing had been damaged.

Fortunately Kakashi didn't much care what his team did to each other so long as they didn't end up killing each other under his watch. What they did on their own time was their own business, he just didn't want to end up culpable for anything.

"Are you two about done?" Kakashi asked from his tree. "I'm getting kind of bored." Really he just had a letter to write to Tsunami but they really didn't need to know that. It would be nice to return home, too. It was much more comfortable there than sitting out in a tree. Shade had never quite been a match for proper air conditioning.

Sakura brought her attention up from her prey for only a second, blowing a loose strand of her pink hair away from her eyes, and glared at her 'Sensei'. "I don't care if you're bored. I'm not going to get stronger by not training."

Kakashi turned to the next page. "And you wanted to get stronger because…" He was already pretty sure he didn't want to know the answer but found himself asking anyway.

"Because I get better missions if I get to Chunin and being stronger makes it easier to spill blood."

Yep, there it was. "You know you can train on your own time, right?"

"Only because you won't train us yourself." He shrugged at that. She wasn't wrong, he just had no real desire to be training either of them.

"Yeah, you really don't do anything anyway. Why do you even bother to show up?" Naruko's question caused him to blink in surprise. Why did he still show up to team meetings?

"You're absolutely right, Naruko-Chan." He smiled down at her through his mask, one eye crinkling into a cheerful slit that took both Kunoichi by surprise. They soon understood. "Seeing as I'm not actually needed here I'll leave the two of you to it and you can just come to me when you're feeling like taking a mission." A sudden bout of inspiration struck him. "Actually, you don't even need me for that. Chunin Nara could use the experience leading a team, you can go to him for missions. Bye~!"

In a swirl of wind and leaves Kakashi disappeared.

"That...that bastard!" Naruko had already known he was an ass, this was just taking it further than she'd expected. She didn't have too long to focus on that, though, because as soon as Kakashi was no longer catching Sakura's attention she resumed her attacks.

"Hey, hang on a second, damnit! We have to figure out some actual training or we're not going to get anywhere. Sakura? Sakura?! Are you even listening?"

Sakura was, in fact, not listening.

Or maybe she just didn't care.

It was sometimes hard to tell with her these days.

Sealkeeper: He Who Binds

Chapter 140-B "Birds and Baths"

Patron Release: 2021.07.16

Ah, yes, this was the letter he had been waiting for. He already knew what it contained- it had been Kiri's idea in the first place but with how much they owed Konoha they couldn't back out now- but he still made sure to open it for the details. Skimming over it quickly Asuma leaned back in his chair with a satisfied nod.


Iroh's ambition had given the man control over a vast amount of land in a very short time and a majority of the weight for maintaining his hold had fallen down to Asuma and his Konoha Shinobi. They had been managing- that's what Shinobi did, after all- but just getting by wasn't good enough for the Godaime Hokage and certainly not by how closely they were managing.

Konoha was supposed to be the most prosperous of the five villages, not scraping by day to day just so their Daimyo could rapidly expand his influence.

Asuma couldn't really blame the man for that, though, the opportunity that had presented itself to him in the form of Kaze no Kuni - and to a lesser degree Mizu no Kuni- was unprecedented.

No, Asuma just resented the drain it had proven to be on Konoha's coffers and the inability for them to refill them at the normal rates. ANBU and Jounin had been run absolutely ragged and that hadn't been cheap either. Shinobi were, before all else, mercenaries and even the most loyal of Shinobi didn't work for free.

Not forever, at least. Periods of backpay were to be expected in positions such as ANBU for the good of Konoha but even they started to get twitchy after a few weeks and having them work constant overtime was not helping their nerves or Konoha's future coffers.

It was going to take even longer to properly recover from this but Asuma was just going to be happy to have the full might of Konoha available again rather than spread throughout the sands of Kaze no Kuni. Based on the letter from Mei that time was coming up very, very soon.

He glanced back down, double checking the dates listed, and ran some mental math to account for courrier travel and Shinobi movement. Factoring in the time to ready Kiri Shinobi and then determining how quickly his letter could make it to Sunagakure….

Asuma blinked and found himself double-checking his work. No, he had been correct. Cursing under his breath he reached for a blank piece of paper and hurriedly began writing down orders for his command team in Sunagakure. This was going to have go out this afternoon if he wanted it to reach his Shinobi before the Kiri Shinobi did and would be infinitely helpful for making that second arrival go smoothly.

He was sure the quick delivery was probably going to cost him extra, too.

It was a good thing he had kept some of his savings safe from Chouji's massive appetite.

Being able to live in the Sarutobi clan compound rent-free had also really helped with that.

It was one thing for him to set the example and be the first person in Konoha on backpay but it was quite another for him to also have to resort to paying for official expenses out of his own pocket. If he didn't know better he would be tempted to say his father had known these things were coming and got out of the line of fire as quickly as he could.

He was tempted to believe it anyway.

Haku grimaced as she reached the center of her latest catch, the fish not quite frozen but still quite raw. Damnit, she had frozen it a bit too well again. Say what you will about Zabuza the man had a talent- or maybe just the universe's pity- when it came to catching fish. Good thing too or they would have starved before they had gotten out of Mizu no Kuni.

Really she just needed to start thawing them out before she started cooking but she kept rushing it because she was hungry and keeping them stored within blocks of ice not only kept them fresh but was a lot easier to store than a pile of raw fish.

The birds could snatch fish hanging from a line or stored in a basket- which she didn't have, actually, and there was no way the fish were going straight into her pack or into her storage scrolls- but they had much more difficulty getting into a block of ice.

They had tried, of course, and she was certain they still gave her dirty looks whenever they were nearby. That could just be her imagination but the crows that hung around the capital for easy food had already demonstrated frightening intelligence before and she wouldn't put contempt beyond their capabilities.

Speaking of the birds, Haku grabbed the remains of her lunch and tossed it towards a group of them perched on a nearby boulder. Rather than scatter at the approaching projectile they calmly waited for it to hit the ground before them and hopped down to feast on her misfortune.

Haku was really starting to dislike those birds.

Shaking those thoughts from her head she packed up her camp- which was, at this point, only a sleeping roll and a campfire thank the gods it hadn't rained recently- and headed back into the city of Namihime. While sticking to the outskirts of the city already had some of the guards suspicious- claiming she had arrived too early and was awaiting family or business partners tended to mollify some of the guard's curiosity, at least- it also really wasn't doing her any favors in being the eyes and ears of Mei here in the capital.

She was going to have to identify an opportunity to secure herself some funds soon or she was going to end up reverting to stealing from travelers on the roads. Incoming was probably a bad idea as it would bring word of her back to the guard here but if she targeted those leaving Namihime she might be able to get away with it long enough that Mei was able to start sending her support.

Walking past the guards- four who didn't seem to blink twice at the fact that she was roughing it outside the city, she certainly wasn't the only one though she didn't much care to be grouped with that lot- she made her way to one of the post offices first. Not only did it let her check for anything from Kiri but it played a rather large part in her excuse that she was waiting for someone- or at least support from someone.

"Ah, Yua-Chan, we've got one for you today." She'd only made it inside the door when the young man behind the counter shouted out to her. Like most days the inside of the shop wasn't very busy though she had seen a few outside depositing letters in a dropbox. As it turned out most people who received mail had actual places for that mail to be sent and, unfortunately, that meant the teenager behind the counter was starved for conversation most days.

That could have been very bad for her cover but she was just lucky enough that he was usually satisfied talking her ear off instead of asking questions of his own.

"All the way from Nami no Kuni, too, from the looks of it. Wasn't that last letter you sent off to Kagayaku Machi?"

"Ah, they were back in Nami no Kuni then? I thought they might be but it was easier to send it to a friend in Kagayaku Machi to make sure it reached them." While she tried to play it off as nothing she was finding it exceedingly hard not to show her surprise. A letter from Nami? Had Tsukuyomi actually responded to her?

"Yeah, yeah, that makes sense. They must travel quite a bit, huh? Was it your family? No, a business partner, right?" He tilted his head to the side in thought but fortunately continued talking without actually waiting for Haku to respond. "It must be amazing to see everything the world has to offer. All the people you get to meet, the foods you would be able to try, it all sounds so amazing. I once considered signing up for a ship, you know, back when I was a kid, but pops needed help in the shop and then when he passed mother and I really didn't have much of a choice but to hang onto what we do have you know?"

"...Absolutely. There are plenty of benefits to traveling but sometimes it's nice to have the warm familiarity of home with those you love." She deftly plucked the letter from his hands and quickly signed for it as Yakito Yua before he could try to drag her into actually conversing with him for the rest of the day. "It was good to see you again but I should really see to this." She waved the letter slightly and promptly retreated from the small postal shop.

Haku made sure to head down the street enough to be out of direct view- he had come out of the shop to strike up a conversation with her once before when she had been foolish enough to pause outside for a few minutes too long- before she turned her attention back to the letter in her hand.

It looked like he had responded but did she let herself hope the response was positive?

She didn't think she could help it. She wanted a dry room, warm food, and a place to sleep that wasn't starting to grow mold. Without a tent her bedroll had not taken the moist atmosphere of Mizu no Kuni well; she considered herself lucky when she crawled into it and it had been completely dried out by her campfire.

….Holy shit…! Haku nearly dropped the envelope in her surprise; he'd actually done it, he'd granted her request for funding on this mission. She had to go back for a second and third read to confirm she wasn't seeing things but no, he really had agreed to give her some money despite not really knowing her and the fact that she worked for a village he'd burned to the ground.

….It wasn't a small amount, either. She was going to have to be careful not to spend too much considering she didn't know how long she would be here but she could easily support herself for the next few months off this and still have enough left to treat herself a bit.

And all she had to do was let Mei know who was funding her mission? Haku honestly couldn't think of a reason Mei could possibly say no to such an offer. She recognized, naturally, that this was probably Tsukuyomi's way of rubbing salt in Mei's- or perhaps just Kiri's- wounded pride but as far as Haku was concerned pride wasn't about to cover her living expenses while she was on this mission.

That it wasn't her pride being sacrificed only made it easier for Haku to come to a decision. She'd be sending a letter off to Mei as soon as she secured her access to the funds Tsukuyomi had allocated for her use and, just maybe, it would be safest to withdraw the full amount and put them into a personal account just in case he changed his mind.

Either way, Haku was off to the bank- she could already feel the warmth of a soft bed and the flavors that came with a proper meal.

She couldn't wait.

Akishi had to fight against her new body to keep the pleased grin that threatened to split her face reduced to only a fond smile. While the start of her efforts had been stymied by the fact that she had very little to work with and was forced to build up from nothing with the very dregs of society- and human society at that, so even more beneath her- things had recently taken a rather substantial upturn.

Red eyes looked down to the young woman resting her head on the bronze coil of her tail. Twenty six was a bit old for a rebellious phase but Akishi had always found nobles to be deliciously sheltered- especially the daughters. It was a fact she was more than happy to be taking advantage of and was helped infinitely by the fact that the girl had been immediately taken by awe at the sight of her marvelous form.

Akishi might not fully agree the form was that great and she was no vain Aba'ri but she did know she was as beautiful in the form of an Ak'Gyun as she was a full serpent and there was no denying that the daughters of Au were beautiful.

To be perfectly honest Akishi didn't actually know what trouble there was between the girl and her family but that really didn't matter either; so long as she still had ties to a noble family she was of use to the second daughter of Au.

There was probably use for her anyway but if Akishi could get her hands on a noble family things would go much, much easier for her.

One of Akishi's clawed hands gently stroked through the girl's- she wanted to say Ichika was the name but she was only moderately confident in that- golden blonde hair, careful not to draw any blood. She was...pretty...Akishi supposed. A little plain, maybe, but nothing Akishi couldn't work with. Already her presence in their temporary temple had greatly increased the morale of the other 'faithful'.

If she was completely honest she didn't know how faithful these humans could be considered when she had approached them in her own divine form. They were, however, easily manipulated and that would have to do until she could start a true faith here in Yu no Kuni.

Well, until Naruto could establish a true group of faithful.

A small frown pulled at her lips as she thought of the man who was to become Au's High-Priest. What would he think of her progress so far? Would he be as pleased with her recent acquisition as she was?

Even in her current form humans were likely to be as terrified- and some had even been disgusted, the primitives- by her appearance rather than rightfully in awe of a living demonstration of Au's glory so she had considered any progress towards Naruto's goals to be tremendous but if she were to put his Wolves in her place she hadn't really accomplished all that much, had she?

Just overcoming a handicap- in a way- didn't make her a better choice than those already at his disposal who didn't have to worry about the same. Not when it had taken her this long to be set up, anyway.

So no, Naruto probably wouldn't be impressed until she had tangible progress to present him with and she was still a long ways off from that.

Akishi needed to tap into Ichika's family and fast if she wanted any hope of convincing Naruto of her competence.

"So, somehow, you've created a correlation between the rail project you're employed to focus on and the idea that I should have some sort of resort built into the side of a mountain and down the the coasts of a frozen lake. Is that accurate?" Doto peered down, his expression bland. He didn't seem impressed and Hyuran was beginning to subtly look around the throne room for viable escape options.

He wasn't finding any.

"That is correct, Doto-Sama." Nodded Juugo. He, too, had noticed the Daimyo's lack of response to his proposed ideas but Juugo was also confident in his ability to fight his way out should it come to that. He also knew he could probably get back to Kari before a train of Doto's Samurai could and if he stole the train first there was little chance of them ever catching up. As far as he was aware Doto didn't have any Shinobi under his employ, either.

Sure, there was Yukigakure but Juugo had yet to see any of their Shinobi during his entire stay in Yuki no Kuni and Daimyo didn't often keep mercenary assassins close by for obvious reasons. Assuming he had just been oblivious, however, Juugo was still confident he was more than a match for any Shinobi of Yukigakure if forced to fight.

He was also, ironically, more suited to surviving out in the wilderness of Yuki no Kuni than they were and was sure he could use that to his advantage if he needed to lose them.

Yes, Juugo was quite confident in his position at the moment. It was just a pity Hyuran might end up punished extra severely for it should it come to that. Yuugo might like the guy but he wouldn't let that get in the way of his mission and especially not get between himself and Kari. Sorry Hyuran.

"To further that you have suggested a completely new route for the tracks to take in that valley, completely disregarding what professional engineers put together at my command and even suggest a second track as a backup in case something should damage or block the first. That's two tracks on a new pathway that already requires a greater number of I'm understanding this correctly still?"

"You appear to be, yes."

Doto nodded. "Yes, yes, and you honestly believe turning my country into some sort of exclusive, luxury tourist destination is something I might go for? That I would want foreigners to be in and out of my country at all times? I would have to increase security to account for the increase in people. Long-term missions for Yukigakure Shinobi. That's not cheap. And to have it all ready in time for the rest of the elemental nations to see it as a viable option during their vacation season? Production would have to double."

"Sufficient lighting and barriers to help keep the snow away would allow workers to have a day and night shift and would keep Yuki no Kuni's constant snowfall from undoing work and causing delays. Productivity would increase so long as we can gather enough workers for a second shift." Juugo paused for a second before returning to something else Doto had brought up.

"Also, the point of making it exclusive is specifically to reduce the sort of people who would be able to visit. Less people means less security is necessary but for optimal results I would highly recommend a lower tier at reduced prices so others can possibly access them. With the right balance you could cover most if not all of your expenses with the lower tier and then the higher paying customers are nothing but profit."

Doto remained silent for a few long seconds, just staring down and meeting Juugo's unflinching eyes. "Say I did entertain this idea, how long until I would break even on such an endeavor? Months? Years? Decades?"

"We would have to go over the cost of completing it first, Doto-Sama, then we can base the prices on how quickly you want to break even."

For the first time since their meeting a smile grew across Doto's face- it wasn't anything nice.

"I think I like you." He grinned. "I'll have my advisors and treasurer go over costs for material and labor. You, Hyuran, I want projections for how much the railway side will require for this. Follow this young man's suggestions and then bring the cost and modifications to the plans in the next few days. I'll be waiting."

"Yes, Doto-Sama, it will be done." Out of the pan and into the fire, Hyran made a valiant attempt to appear confident in his ability to completely rework everything in just a few days. "I'll send a message to the front for them to cease work so we can make sure the new plans are accurate and request a summary of our current material."

Doto didn't speak out against his plan so he took that as permission to proceed.

"I'll deliver it to Yaiji and stick around to help out." Juugo assured Hyuran. "Between the two of us we should be able to get you those numbers pretty quickly."

Hyuran gave him a quick, thankful nod before focusing back on the Daimyo. "Did you have any further questions or requests, Doto-Sama, or may we be excused to carry out our work?"

A lazy shooing of Doto's left hand was his first response. "Go, I've given my orders."

"Of course, Doto-Sama." Sketching a bow- and making sure Juugo copied him- the project manager made sure not to waste this opportunity to escape, hurrying out of the throne room in a way he hoped conveyed urgency to complete his duties rather than fleeing.

He continued halfway down the entry hall and ducked behind one of the decorative pillars to slump against the wall. "Gods above, Juugo, next time I let you go into an audience by yourself. Did you correct something that Doto said?" He wiped a small amount of sweat from his brow. "I was certain he was a hair's breadth from just executing us both."

"He would have tried."

Hyuran blinked in surprise before understanding dawned. "Ah, yes, sometimes I forget. I suppose you wouldn't be nearly as nervous considering your...skills. I'd probably be more confident if I could do half of what your sort are supposed to be able to accomplish."

Juugo resumed his silence.

"Well, I suppose you'd best be off to inform Yaiji and I need to go digging through our records to confirm how much material has already been used. Did you leave anything at the house?"

"Nothing critical, I'll head for the station."

"Yes, that's probably for the-" He paused. "...Yaiji took the engine back with him, how are you going to get it back?"

"I'll run."

"You'…" The project manager frowned slightly as he repeated Juugo's answer, a critical eye running over the young man before him. His type were said to be able to do some incredible things but the project was very nearly 200 miles away as the crow flies and some three hundred if you followed the track through the valleys. It was early afternoon now but it would be well after sundown before he even got close which meant the already cold temperature was only going to continue to fall.

Juugo wasn't wearing so much as a coat right now. Actually, Juugo was still in his shirt. He kind of wanted that back but it also wasn't going to be providing any sort of protection from the biting cold.

"Let's head back to my house and pick up your coveralls at least." He proposed. "Better than you running through the snow dressed up like that."

It was Juugo's turn to blink in surprise as he looked down and was reminded of his current apparel. Ah, yes, that's right. Strange, he had sort of become used to the tightness of the silk shirt around his torso over the past few hours and had completely forgotten he was wearing it at all.

"Yeah, that's probably for the best." He picked at one of the buttons near his neck wondering if it was too soon to start removing it. The look Hyuran immediately shot him told him it probably was. He could wait until they exited the palace at least, he supposed.

Really, it was just so much easier to go shirtless. Juugo didn't know why more people didn't do so. He certainly prefered it-

Especially when it came to Kari.

Until now, Mito had never really given any thought to how Karura was able to drag- though admittedly not really unwillingly- Gaara into the seal when she wanted to communicate with him face to face.

She supposed the fact that Gaara wanted to visit her as often as possible and that the two were able to communicate even when his consciousness wasn't being dragged into the seal probably helped tremendously on that front.

Now that she needed to speak with her own container, however, Mito realized that maybe this had been an oversight on her end. Naruto used to let her in on his every thought which made communication a breeze but his sister Naruko hadn't started out quite so trusting. In fact, every time she had spoken with the girl it was because Naruko had visited her.

Not once in the years she'd been sealed in her had Mito ever actually summoned her host into the sealscape. Even her warden Naruto hadn't really been pulled or summoned. The first time they had met had simply been due to the absurd amount of her yokai burning through his system that had pulled him towards the seal in his unconscious state.

That wasn't quite the same situation either, to be perfectly honest, because his position as the gate to her cage had already allowed various stray thoughts and feelings to flow into her seal before she had met him. Naruko, the actual cage- or, perhaps, more accurately a solid cell- didn't have nearly the same openings for those to leak over to her and certainly no real way for her to reach out to the girl.

That she knew of, anyway.

So how was she supposed to get in contact with her? The seal specifically allowed Mito's Chakra to be pulled out but didn't really allow her to force any out- a safety feature, she assumed, so she didn't try to kill her host by burning them up alive with her Chakra or send them into a rampaging, quasi-Biju state in the middle of a village- so she couldn't get her attention that way.

Maybe if she just screamed really loudly Naruko would hear her?

Just as she was deliberating doing so- was it worth the embarrassment if Karura or her children heard her? What would it actually sound like to Naruko?- A voice broke into her thoughts.

"Lost in your thoughts, hmm?" Mito looked up from her deliberations to see Karura leaning against one of the bars to her cage. Speak of the devil. "I suppose there's not much else for you to do here, is there?"

It was hard for even Mito to tell if she was making a genuine observation or was mocking her situation. For the sake of her pride- and remaining cordial- she chose to believe the former.

"No, not much else at all." Mito agreed, to the slight surprise of Karura. Though she had tried to keep her tone light Karura had come to expect more biting responses when interacting with her "sister". "How do you normally reach out to Gaara?"

Mito didn't waste any time bringing up her current issue while Karura was present. There was no telling what the racoon wanted but if Mito could get her answers she was willing to humor the younger woman-

For a bit.

"I just call for him." Karura blinked as she tried to understand why this was a question she was being asked. "I've always spoken to him, so if I need to talk to him I either just do it or I tell him to visit me in the seal." She cocked her head to the side, short blonde hair bobbing. "Were you trying to get a hold of Gaara?"

"What? No." Mito's head shook. "I'm trying to figure out how to contact Naruko. I've never actually done it."

"Really?" That was a surprise. Karura was of the understanding that the two had spoken on several occasions. "I thought she had been through here though."

"That's just it. She usually comes to me. I've never had to call for her, never needed to call for her."

"Oh." Karura's pink lips pursed into a frown as she considered the issue. "How does she normally get in?"

"Since Naruto changed it to this room-" Mito gestured to her little apartment in the bowels of the seal. "She usually appears from a doorway behind the center bookcase." The Kyuubi's voice dropped to a whisper. "Startled the hell out of me when she first did it."

Karura, politely, pretended not to hear though she couldn't quite contain the faintest of giggles at the image of a startled fox. "Well in that case why don't we try to go to the other end of the seal to see if we can reach her that way?"

That...wasn't a horrible idea. Mito hadn't dared leave this portion of the seal both so she would be close at hand to Naruto should she be needed and so she didn't risk becoming lost and separated from the comforts she had here. She did not want to spend any more time in the broken world she had spent years in after leaving him originally.

With Karura present, well, even if they did get lost there was a pretty good chance Naruto would come looking even if it wasn't necessarily for Mito. She did her best to squash the jealousy that bubbled up her throat with that thought.

By the time Mito had considered the idea Karura was already by the bookshelf, frowning at it as if that would cause it to spill its secrets. "How do you open this thing, anyway?"

"I have no idea. Naruko opens it from the other side these days but she never leaves through it."

Karura gave a tug with no success and her frown only deepened. "Well, maybe because this isn't my seal." She suggested. "You give it a try, Mito. I doubt Naruto ever expected me to be in here when he put this in."

Karura had a point, Mito would grudgingly admit to herself, and so Mito grabbed a middle shelf and gave a testing tug. No luck.

"Hmm, it's a swing door, right? Not one that slides?" Asked the Ichibi.

"Yes, it swings open."

"And it has a handle on the other side?"

"No, I don't think it has a handle…" The memory of Naruko's first visit played through her head again and she distinctly remembered a knocking sound and the surprise on Naruko's face when the bookshelf spun her into the room. "Ah, that's right. It rotates more than it does swing."

"Oh? Really?"

"And I remember a knocking sound before she appeared." With that in mind Mito knocked on the side of the shelf three times and waited. With nothing happening she tried again and after one, two knocks she felt herself spun through the wall and into the broken world she'd left behind.

"Ah! You found it!" Karura's voice was slightly muffled by the wall but Mito's excellent hearing was able to make out the words easily enough. Five knocks later and Karura had also been spun out of Mito's studio apartment- directly into Mito herself.

"Ah, you should have moved Mito."

"You should have waited before copying me." Was the retort.

Karura shrugged, not quite agreeing but not saying anything to defend herself either. "Well, we're here now. I guess the only thing left is to make it to the other side of the seal and call for Naruko, huh?"

Mito raised a brow. "That's our plan?" She wasn't impressed. Karura shrugged again.

"Do you have a better one?" She started to navigate through the broken bits of concrete and black marble as Mito had to once again grudgingly admit she was right.

Naruko had already dropped off her Shinobi gear and was on her way to the Uzumaki baths when an unexpected voice rang out through her head.

"Naruko-Chan?! Can you hear me, Naruko-Chan?"

Caught completely off guard Naruko stumbled in the hallway, dropping her small basket of toiletries and nearly losing the towel she had wrapped around herself.

Her words echoed through the empty halfway of the Uzumaki compound. "Karura?!"

Just what the hell was the Ichibi doing in her head?

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