Welcome back friends🙌😃

Apologies the the wait. I gave myself a two week break from writing just to recharge the batteries and enjoy Christmas/New Years. Just so we're all on the same page, LDK or 2LDK are terms used to describe apartments in Japan. It stands for Living Room, Dining Room, & Kitchen, or 2 Bedrooms, Living Room, Dining Room, Kitchen.

Thank you patrons for keeping me going and I won't make you wait any longer.

13K. Enjoy!


KURENAI

Observational Log: W:21 D:04. 103 days and counting.

Personal Notes:

The person I love the most is getting married to another woman. It's a political marriage. Because he's far more important than I ever could've dreamed of. Having little to no say in who you marry is bad enough, but due to astronomical circumstances, he's arranged to marry two women. TWO! And neither of whom are me… well, one could be me. But I can't walk down the aisle without at least giving someone I care about a chance. If she says no… well, I hope she won't hate me too much.

SF won't be getting married soon. It's just a contract at this point, so there's enough time. But a marriage will happen months down the line… and I have to figure out the best way to remain in his life. He's my boyfriend, which is surreal enough on its own, but my future husband as well? This really is the most outlandish sequence of events… but honestly, nothing is set in stone. If progressing our relationship for months continues to prove he's every bit the person I'm want to spend the rest of my life with, I don't see why I wouldn't marry him… even if that also comes with sister-wives.

It's as if we're creating a community around him; a distinct and private club where we're all our own person with our own interests, yet also bonded together because of the gravitational force of SF. Even the sex isn't an issue because, in all honesty, he's already more than I can handle. I'm fine with 1 or 2 sessions every other night, or 1 big all-nighter once a week. Going every night with his sex-drive was going to drive me insane. If another girl wants to pick up the slack, I'll gladly pencil her in and bed SF every other day. Oh boy…

Observational Log: W:21 D:06. 105 days out of who knows at this point.

Personal Notes:

Sex with other pretty girls. It's only natural to feel upset or jealous when your partner has sex with another person. But I feel like that stems mostly from fear or insecurity; fear you'll lose the person you love, and insecurity due to doubts of being good enough. However, neither of those apply to my relationship with SF because of his upbringing and this marriage. Having gone so long without love and affection, he isn't the type to let it go when he's found some. He holds on to his relations even if the other person isn't deserving of it. Additionally, I can't lose him to another younger, more beautiful girl because that girl will be in the same relationship.

It's not as if I haven't prevented him from having sex with other girls. He did it with a girl right behind me, and at the time, rather than be upset or jealous… it only excited me. I taught him everything he knows… how to love a woman… how to make a girl squirm, and she couldn't even handle it; the way she moaned, screamed, and begged before climaxing… it was such a rush to know my lessons- the way I educated him made her succumb to him. He was too much… and I taught him that.

While sex isn't everything in a relationship, I feel like it's the icing on a cake; incomplete without that sweet layer of cream on top. Summer Fox is a big cake with an abundance of cream and I've already come to terms with sharing… so long as the girl fits us. I know what I mean to him and I'm confident no one can take that away. The trick now is getting the other girl(s) to feel the same… … … …

A knock on the door ends Kurenai's journal entry. She looks up to see Hinata open the door just enough to slip her head through the opening and Kurenai quickly feels more at ease. She enjoys the way Hinata's long hair dark captures the light and falls so gracefully, and has the urge in her hands to brush it. From what Kurenai remembers, neither of her parents ever brushed her hair, and though she likes her slightly tousled ebony hair, she felt a little sad it wasn't straighter.

"I'm leaving first," Hinata cheerfully called.

"So soon?" Kurenai looked at the clock on her desk before noting, "our team isn't meeting for another hour."

"Now that I've been cleared, I want the extra time to catch up," Hinata explained, opening the door a little wider.

"Oh, okay," Kurenai replied and as her young student made to leave, the beautiful sensei stood from her seat. "Actually, before you go…" Kurenai thinks better of the timing and instead closes her journal, which automatically seals with Fūinjutsu characters that brighten and dim before disappearing. Kurenai walks around her desk as Hinata meets her in the middle of the office. "There's something we need to discuss later tonight, and I want you to be prepared for it, okay?"

Hinata's regal face frowns in worry before nodding in understanding, as if the girl already knows what the topic will be about. 'Why wouldn't she?' Kurenai thought. 'She's just barely learned to hug a boy and now her village is asking her to marry him… I doubt she can think of anything else.'

"I know I'm taking a long time thinking about this-"

"Hinata, I only have your best interest in mind," Kurenai interjects. "All that matters to me is you making the best decision for yourself, and for that to happen, you need to know the truth about… well, everything."

Hinata looked as if her mind was running her dizzy with everything being asked of her. "I know I wouldn't be his… o-only w-w-wife," she managed as her cheeks flushed with redness. "I understand the uniqueness of this marriage. I'm just thinking about Naruto-kun, Temari-chan, Ino-chan, my family. "

"I know. You're always considerate of others," Kurenai agreed with a small smile. "But the decision to proceed- to take that first step, can't be about anyone else but you… and I haven't told you everything… but I will. Tonight."

Hinata slowly agrees before leaving and Kurenai instantly feels anxious about finally revealing the truth to her. The considerate Hyūga has a special place in her heart and the last thing Kurenai wants to do is let her down.

KARIN

Bright and early, Karin was led by a pair of masked shinobi and Kakashi through the halls of Hokage Tower. Thankfully, she'd been notified the night before so she wasn't overly nervous and had ample time to make a choice for the future of Konoha. Though she was still nervous about Root's interest in her, Naruto said she can trust Kakashi-sensei and the Hokage's men. Even though she checked their chakra signatures, she feels comforted Haku is hidden nearby as an additional precautionary measure.

Karin is led to the Hokage's round office, however, rather than sitting behind his desk straight ahead, he's laying upright in a hospital bed to the right where the couches used to be. The old man heralded as the Professor looked as if he were on his death bed. In a bright white gown, he's hooked up to several machines by his right finger, forearm, and chest. His eyes were sunk in and discolored, he looked feeble, and worst yet, his left arm has been amputated to the elbow. Karin didn't think he'll survive another night.

On either side of Hiruzen stood Mitokado Homura and Utatane Koharu, the three stopped talking politics when Kakashi and Karin stopped at the foot of the Hokage's bed. Hiruzen slowly looked up and seemed surprised to see either Kakashi or Karin.

"Karin-chan?" He asked curiously before looking to both of his advisers for an explanation. He asks them, "why is she here?"

Never one to shy away from unsavory or morally questionable truths, Koharu remarks, "she has a unique ability that may save your life. It would be foolish not to use every asset available to-"

Standing beside the ever-calm Kakashi, Karin took some offense to being called an asset as Hiruzen interrupted with a deeply disappointed tone, "Koharu, Homura."

Though everyone can tell he was displeased, Homura continues arguing their point. "This is for your life and the supremacy of our village," he told his leader. "We must not allow our neighboring enemies and beyond to believe an invasion could successfully eradicate the very head of our command structure. It will only make them think we're weak."

"Your death will only embolden our enemies to attack us again," Koharu stated evenly.

"We need only be moral and just to create enemies and the death of an old man is sure to embolden no one," Hiruzen tells Koharu. To Homura, the elder explains, "it's very rare for any leader, let alone a Kage, to die of old age. Leaders live and protect until their dying breath. That is the way of things."

"Please do not be so stubborn, Hokage-sama," Homura stubbornly returned before abruptly turning to Karin and asking, "what have you decided?"

All the high-ranking eyes of the top hierarchy of the village turn to the young seventeen-year-old, expecting a reply. Karin's chest tightened as much as her throat, and she had to swallow before replying to the glasses-wearing elder, "…I p-promised my cousin- er, the Head of our clan I wouldn't use my ability like that anymore." Until she walked into the room, Karin wasn't sure she would use her cursed ability again. Turning to the Hokage's feeble and weakened state, she cautiously explains, "I don't… I'm not certain if I'm able to counteract the poison, but I know how much you mean to Naruto, Hokage-sama. For him, you, and my new home, I'll happily help in any way I can."

It seemed like even smiling was a struggle for the elder, but she can feel his gratefulness when he spoke, "I'm touched you'd offer to help me, Karin-chan." He needs to take a breath before continuing, "however, I know precisely why Naruto-kun asked you not to offer your gift so freely and I agree with him. While I appreciate your generosity to do this for my sake, I'd much rather protect you." He feels like a man of conviction even in the face of death and not even the elders argue with his decision, so neither does Karin. Taking a deep breath, Hiruzen tells them all, "there's no need to worry about me. I have faith Jiraiya and Naruto will bring Tsunade soon."

Feeling a need to do something for the considerate elder, Karin steps forward to ask, "is there anything I can do for you?"

Hiruzen hums for a spell before nodding and saying with a smile, "take care of Naruto," however, she didn't like the way he said it, as if he didn't think he'll live to see another day. "And be kind to Temari," he added. "She may not be from this village, however, she'll be your family soon. Since her birth, I've known her as well as I could—through gifts and letters—and I can say with some confidence she has a good heart. Try not to judge her or her village on this one mistake. They were led astray and we should not blame them."

"I will, Hokage-sama," Karin promised. Thinking of anything that might make feel at ease, the redhead notes, "the construction of Uzumaki Tower is nearly complete. With your permission, I can take Temari-san on a tour of Uzumaki's properties; so she can see where she'll be living."

"I think that's a wonderful idea," Hiruzen happily stated. "I'll have to appoint a protective detail but if you're open to it, allow Gaara and Kankurō to join as well. They'll be your family soon and should know more about you and Naruto."

"You want me to talk up Naruto don't you," Karin asked, to which Hiruzen only smiled. "I don't know what I can say about him. I'm kinda annoyed he left me to do practically everything. It's a good thing I'm amazing at infrastructure, business, and management or our clan would've been screwed!"

Karin was happy to see Hiruzen chuckle, even if weakly, and Kakashi-sensei smile, even if with his eyes.

SAKURA

Looking over Tsunade's shoulder as she delicately examined Naruto's left hand, wrist, and forearm, Sakura couldn't help but remark in astonishment, "I can't believe you're completely healed after one night."

Bright and early in Naruto's room, Tsunade is inspecting Naruto's injury, Sakura is observing, and Shizune is putting away all of their futons. As Jiraiya couldn't be trusted to allow Naruto to sleep in peace, the three girls had to sleep in the blond shinobi's room as well. It was more stressful for Sakura than she expected. After being physical with him, sleeping next to Naruto now always has the option for more, and all the way to morning, it frustrated her mind, heart, and body.

Obliviously smirking at his pink-haired teammate, Naruto humbly replies, "not completely." He wiggles his fingers, then opens and closes his hand as he informs them, "the wound might've closed up but it still hurts a lot when I move it."

"The fact that you can move it at all is a small miracle," Tsunade voiced all while testing the reaction of his tendons to locate any lingering nerve damage. "The sword cut through muscle, tendons, and nerves, yet all I had to do was clean the wound. Your body removed the dead tissue and contaminants all on its own."

"That's amazing Naruto-kun," Shizune voiced from the corner as she finished packing their traveling gear. Naruto just snickered happily.

Letting go of his arm, Tsunade gave him a clean bill of health before informing the room, "we'll get going after we eat breakfast."

"We'll need to find Jiraiya-sama first," Shizune reminded her mentor and companion.

Quirking his brow as he rolled down his sleeve, Naruto asks the three girls, "what do you mean? He's not in his room?"

Tsunade huffed in annoyance, crossing her arms, and refused to anger out of aggravation. Shizune weakly smiled as she shook her head and when Naruto turned to Sakura, the pink-haired girl slowly answers, "he… was very upset and needed to be alone."

Naruto didn't understand even when Tsunade hotly alleged, "knowing him, he's in a brothel neck-deep in booze and women."

Worried for the children, Shizune yelled, "Tsunade-sama!"

"Oh, don't be a prude Shizune," a snorting Tsunade replied, waving her hand as if slapping the modesty out of the room. "I'm sure these two have learned about what men and women like to do at night."

"That's not the point," Shizune adamantly argued as Sakura couldn't stop her cheeks from blushing pink.

Ignoring her devoted assistance, Tsunade turns to Naruto and wonders out loud, "that idiot's always been annoyingly outlandish but I don't get why he's so obsessed with taking you to a bar." 'I know,' Sakura thought as Tsunade describe, "He just would not stop last night; sneaking in here at all hours of the night. I mean relentless! If we hadn't decided to sleep here, he would've been at it all night. It makes no sense. It's a new level, even for him."

Naruto asks, "has he really not come back?"

Indifferent to her exasperating teammate, Tsunade haughtily declares, "and how much sense does it make to pay for a room when you're going to sleep in a ditch?"

"You'd only use the money to gamble anyway," a snarky Naruto mumbled loud enough for everyone to hear, making Tsunade glare at him as he falls silent, likely thinking about the legendary shinobi with growing concern. Sakura appreciates how concerned he is for his Godfather's well-being, making her heart beat faster and her stomach flutter for a moment before immediately clenching her whole body in terror. The pink-haired girl was quickly denying what she couldn't even put into words yet as Naruto grabs his travel pack and informs them, "I should go look for him."

"More than worrying about him, you need to eat Doctor's orders," Tsunade begrudgingly ordered, putting her hand on his shoulder and squeezing a little harder than she should; giving Sakura the impression that Tsunade can be immature when she wants to. "Jiraiya won't die so easily and I don't want you running to Konoha on an empty stomach."

Sakura expected him to argue to get his own way, however, he instead ponders the problem a moment before asking, "can you reverse-summon into Konoha?" Though Sakura understood why he asked, she wasn't expecting him to add, "as long as you get there to heal Ji-chan and be the next Hokage, it's mission complete."

Aghast, Sakura repeats, "the next Hokage?"

"I can't imagine Jiraiya sharing that with you," Tsunade noted, eying Naruto suspiciously, and turning to Shizune, Sakura could tell that she knew as well. The blond kunoichi asks the blond shinobi, "how'd you know?"

Shrugging, Naruto casually answers, "I think Ji-chan's done enough. And you're pretty awesome too so I just thought it'd make sense you becoming the next Hokage-" Cutting himself off, he quickly asserts with vigor, "ah! For a limited time, obviously. I'll be taking that hat off ya before you get too comfortable."

Smirking with approval, Tsunade remarks, "hmmmn, you've got more going on in that head than I thought,"

Shizune asks with a clear concern for her mentor, "will you really become the Fifth Hokage?"

Sakura turned to the legendary kunoichi, excited to hear a favorable answer. Like many women in the village, Tsunade-sama a paragon of beauty and strength, so Sakura was thrilled to hear Tsunade confirm, "I wouldn't have agreed to come back if I wasn't willing to do that much." She turned to a less-impressed Naruto and tapped his forehead as she asserts with childish esteem, "and keep in mind brat, that hat isn't coming off my head to anyone who can't take it from me. So don't get your hopes up."

Eying her with that familiar unbridled confidence, Naruto happily clarifies, "so all I have to do is beat you? Fine by me."

With restrained irritation, Tsunade fires back, "careful you don't want to take me too lightly. You might lose your life."

"Bring it on granny!"

"You cheeky brat-"

Shizune quickly steps between the two, asking in an effort to keep the peace, "why did you ask about reverse summoning?"

Sakura takes Naruto by the forearm and moves him away as he lamely replies, "I told Ero-sennin we'd talk as soon as possible but we never could since something was always getting in the way. I figure the faster you get to Konoha, the faster I can keep my promise to him."

Curious, Tsunade asks, "what's so important you need to talk right away?"

Though, Sakura mentally answered, 'the most absurd and amazing secret ever,' Naruto vocally grumbles, "it doesn't matter if you can't reverse summon. Can you?"

Almost offended by the question, Tsunade hotly answers, "I can but it'd be pointless. I'd need an extension of Katsuyu in Konoha to summon me there, which means we'd have to run there anyway."

"Hmm," he hummed a moment before proposing, "what if I just send a clone with your slug? Then we can relax here a little longer and I can talk with Jiraiya. How's that sound?"

"That's over a day's worth of sprinting," Shizune remarks. "If your clone is attacked or runs out of chakra at some point along the way, we'd be starting even later, wasting precious hours."

"My clone's made longer trips without any problems," Naruto assured her. "I'll think of it like training and get there in half the time!"

"What about us," Sakura asked, worried she might not have another opportunity to travel with Tsunade.

"Ero-sennin can escort us back," Naruto happily answered.

"…I suppose," she responded with lackluster enthusiasm as Tsunade's curiosity had her ask, "I still don't get what's so important that you two need to talk now."

"It's not that I need to," Naruto told the slug princess. "But Jiraiya's waited long enough and I did promise."

Hoping to be in the vicinity of that conversation, Sakura asks, "why not teleport us back?"

Snapping her fingers, Tsunade asks, "is that what you two need to talk about? I can understand the urgency if it's about the Hiraishin. As the next, and possibly greatest Hokage-" Naruto held his tongue though grumbled at Tsunade's gall. Sakura smirked at their competitiveness as Tsunade continues, "I wouldn't mind knowing how you managed to learn that technique. It'll easily double our military power."

"It's not that," Naruto cut Tsunade off. Turning to his pink-haired teammate, Naruto explains, "I've managed to take people sure, but I was pretty desperate at the time. I haven't completely mastered the Hiraishin, so I don't want to risk anyone's life unless absolutely necessary. If I'm not focused, it can easily squish you to the size of a grain of sand!"

Shocked, Sakura couldn't help but yell, "you've been using a dangerous technique you haven't mastered yet?"

"I… uh, well, yeah," Naruto confessed, stunning all three kunoichi. Naruto was so bugged by the silence, he defended his actions by reminding them, "what choice did I have? It was either use it or people die."

"But you could've died," Sakura yells.

"Maybe," he said with a casual shrug, upsetting Sakura in the process. "You know I always do what I can. I thought I could make it, so I did."

'He's right,' Sakura thought, but that upset her to admit, as if this is just the life Naruto is destined to live, always on the edge and against the highest risks. Sakura said nothing and just worried about him, then grew angry at how much she worried about him.

"Fine, make your clone," Tsunade voiced. "I'll give you a shade of Katsuyu and once it's in Konoha, I'll reverse summon there."

"Sweet," Naruto called before making his clone. Tsunade summoned a small slug that easily fit inside Naruto's pocket, however, it didn't leave right away. Naruto leaped out of the window while the clone sat cross-legged. In less than three minutes, the clone of Naruto entered sage mode then followed the original out of the window. Sakura can see the clone leaping over buildings when at the crest of a jump, it suddenly flares bright white before being enshrouded in a yellow cloak of chakra. From a distance, Sakura can tell Naruto looks a little different but she can't make out details before it's gone in the blink of an eye, making her wonder how fast he'll get to Konoha.

"Che!" Sakura hears behind her. Turning to her idol, Sakura observes an irked Tsunade lament, "that brat never even said what this mysterious conversation is about." Crossing her arms, she bellows, "now I'm going to be curious about it all day!"

Sakura's mind suddenly developed a plan in a fraction of a second. Looking at the older more experienced women, the pink-haired girl knows there's no way they would resist learning more about Naruto's love life. It's too salacious to ignore, and Sakura couldn't help blurting out the bait. "It's about his girlfriend!"

Bug-eyed, a stunned Tsunade touted, "girlfriend!? Him!? Really?" Looking at Shizune in amazement, she finishes, "uhwaahh, I never would've guessed."

With a little more pep in her shoulders and a sharper arch in her back, a very interested Shizune asks, "is he, by chance, popular in Konoha?"

Super eager to follow Naruto and hear the story herself, Sakura sweetened the mystery by replying, "he isn't, at all!" They're shocked and hungry for more. Sakura moves in closer and the women instantly do so as well until they're heads nearly bump together, and she adds, "the reason Jiraiya-sama is so obsessed about talking with Naruto is because… apparently—that is, if you believe the uncorroborated and circumstantial evidence—not only is Naruto's girlfriend among the most beautiful and respected women in the village… but she's also a Jōnin eight years older than him!"

"UUWWHHHHHAAAAA," both Tsunade and Shizune sound before clapping their hands to their mouths, thunderstruck by the revelation. The blond and raven-haired kunoichi look at each other in surprise before turning to Sakura and demanding, "tell us everything!"

NARUTO

Rather than search every alley, room, and business in the sizable gambling town for his Godfather, Naruto takes a few minutes to sit perfectly still before entering sage mode on the roof of the inn they're staying in. With his heightened senses, he locates his Godfather easily enough. Stride-leaping eighty steps in a single bound, Naruto rushes past buildings and streets toward the familiar chakra to a popular park.

Walking under several tall, bright red torii gates to enter Mikane Shrine, known for its connection to prosperity and wealth, Naruto feels Kurama continuing his silent treatment. As he walks through the site that attracts a lot of tourists from all over the country hoping to become rich, Naruto wonders what it's going to take to make up with him. Naruto walks past wishing wells and shrines surrounded by people eagerly and desperately lighting incense, offering food, clanging bells, and making their prayers.

Moving past the shrines and two dozen white lanterns meant to light the path, there is a wooden bridge that crosses a small lake, and on the middle of the empty bridge is the familiar chakra signature he was searching for. Naruto allows his sage mode to dissipate as he walks the creaking wood planks to his pacing Godfather. On the railing in front of the hunched over elder, Naruto notes several toads lined like an audience. Even though his Godfather's wooden sandals clack loudly against the hardwood of the bridge, Naruto can still hear the man mumbling to himself as the uninterested line of toads wait impassively.

When it feels as though Jiraiya is having a serious conversation with the bored toads, Naruto approaches cautiously, as if the old man were a beast he didn't want to spook. The old legend takes a swig of ale from the drinking gourd in his right hand before he explains in slurred speech, "legacy… it affects us all." With pink cheeks, nose, and ears, Jiraiya's heavily-lidded eyes turn to the seven colorful toads on the railing and professes, "did'ya know, in our culture, toads represent the lunar yin… aaaaand is associated with healing and good fortune? Did ya? Did ya? I bet you didn't."

A toad croaks dismally and Jiraiya seemed surprised by the amphibian's reply, gibbering, "you did, huh? Well…. that's your legacy! Of course you'd know that! I thought I understood my legacy… to beeee the senseiiii of the child of prophecyyyy… who'll bring about a great revolution to the world of ninjas! My actions will determine… if that uprising will be for the world's salvation… or its destruction… but that… but that… never made sense, did it Yoggi?"

The yellow and brown toad named Yoggi seems to have had enough and rolls over, belly up, as if dead before popping in a cloud of smoke, prompting a drunk Jiraiya to shake his head and garble, "and then there were six." Naruto wonders how long Jiraiya's been speaking and how many toads were there at the beginning of the speech.

"I used to think my legacy was teaching a single student," Jiraiya groaned on in winded and slurred speech. "But maybe… maybe… it's many students… through the power of words! If I, the destined one, can unlock the secrets of Naruto's impossible love life, Ichi Ichi Palace can be that Child of Prophecy! And help reshaped the world!"

Naruto rolls his blue eyes then snatches the gourd from the elder's hand. The six remaining toads take the miracle opportunity to return to their home and vanish with a puff of smoke as Jiraiya childishly reaches for his drink with both hands. "That's enough," Naruto voiced, leaping out of the taller man's reach. Test-sniffing the open gourd, the blond shirks away from the stench as he asks, "please tell me you weren't drinking all night?"

"Hmmph," Jiraiya sounded, crossing his large arms and turning his head away. "Why should I tell you that when you can't even be bothered to share your life with your own Godfather! I may not have been around for most of your life or sent you any gifts, but we're still family!"

"Alright, alright," Naruto returns, raising a palm in peace. "Listen, I'm sorry I kept pushing this back, but seriously, the mission came first."

"And what's changed, hmm? I ask you, with the heavens as my witness, what's changed," Jiraiya dramatically requests of the heavens. "We still have a twenty-six-hour sprint ahead of us. With minimal breaks, that's another day and a half of more waiting."

"Jeez," Naruto growled whilst rubbing the bridge of his nose. Stepping closer, the blond clearly explains, "I've got a clone in KCM Sage rushing back to Konoha with an extension of Katsuyu. When it gets to Konoha, Tsunade-baachan's going to reverse-"

Quicker than Naruto expected, Jiraiya is instantly beside him and grabs him around the waist, yelling, "done! I got it! Save your breath for words that matter!" Looking around, there's a secluded treeline past the pond. "Let's go!" he yells with gusto before rushing to the shaded area.

When they reach the cool grass under the tree with a wide crown, providing optimum shade, Jiraiya sits Indian-style on the soft grass with open palms on his bent knees. It appears as if he's about to meditate and Naruto can't help but ask, "what are you doing?"

Without opening his eyes, a serious Ero-sennin responds, "just give me five-no three minutes to burn the alcohol in my system. Then we can talk!"

Snorting, Naruto simply sits back-to-back with his eccentric and funny Godfather and leans comfortably into his long white hair. Leaning against the warm back of his Godfather, Naruto shakes his head while he flexes his healing hand. Eying his hand with thoughts of his fight against Orochimaru the day before, Naruto thoughtfully contends, "you know, I thought I was getting stronger… but after that fight—hell, even during that fight—there was still so much I couldn't do against him. I mean, I don't know any other offensive techniques besides Rasengan and Wind release is the only nature manipulation I can do. Speed and power are great… but he had technique and strategy. I would've lost if he knew everything I can do."

Stopping his concentration with a sigh, Jiraiya grumbles, "lost? What hot garbage are you on about? Do you know how many years it would've taken you to learn Rasengan like other shinobi? Or Wind release like other shinobi? Or sage training? Or the Flying Thunder God technique? Kami, those four things alone would've taken over a decade of constant training, easily, and you're still in your rookie year!"

"…Maybe," Naruto was willing to concede that much. "But I'm not worried about the average or even above-average enemy shinobi. We both know it's only going to get a lot harder from here on out and I need to be ready. I think it's time I spare some clones to learn other techniques."

"We all need to be ready," Jiraiya corrected the boy leaning against his back. "So if you want me to be in my right mind to put up a halfway decent fight, you'll stop talking and let me sober up!" At Jiraiya's giggling excitement for the story ahead, Naruto snickers and shifts comfortably into the white hair and enjoys the serenity of being still and at peace.

INO

"Welcome to my humble abode," Anko told Ino. Ino was happy to escape the smell and ickiness of the unpleasant hallway. Anko's apartment building is a few blocks away from Naruto's newly constructed building and it reminds Ino of how downtrodden this sector of Konoha is. Walking into Anko's small studio apartment, Ino was relieved to see the buxom Jōnin was cleaner than her appearance would've suggested. The was a sweet mintiness in the air and very little room to move around in.

Opening her wardrobe, Anko pointed inside with a few tilts of her head before saying, "now hide in the closet."

Looking from the small space filled with coats, dresses, and what looks to be leather bondage gear, to a content Anko, Ino hesitates to argue, "I don't feel comfortable eavesdropping on Kurenai-sensei."

"Aww, that's nice," Anko remarked with little interest. "In you go."

Smelling the disinfectant and leather coming from the small space, Ino needed to ask, "why?"

"Cuz I'm rooting for ya, kid," Anko happily replied, adding jovially, "you got guts."

Ino didn't know what she meant, but solemnly admitted, "that's not the word I'd use."

Tilting her head, Anko asks, "what would you call it?"

Even if Anko wouldn't know the details, Ino confesses, "…Remorse."

However, Anko only slaps the notion away, proclaiming, "nah, I like guts better." Watching the voluptuous Jōnin making room in the closet as she states, "whatever you did or however wrong it was, you wouldn't be the first. What matters is you're not running away from it, are ya? That alone takes guts."

'Running would only make this feel worse,' Ino thought before asking to know, "you haven't told me why you want me to hide in the closet while you talk with Kurenai-sensei."

"You'll see," is all Anko answered before nodding her head toward the cleared space. With a small sigh, Ino sits inside and brings her knees to her chest. Anko moves some clothes to hide her a bit better as she advises, "remember your training; feel the surrounding and mimic the oscillation. And don't come out until she's gone."

With a sigh, Ino gets comfortable as she grumbles, "alright, alright-"

"Actually," Anko interrupts. "Now that I think about it, I might be underestimating the shock value." Grabbing the red ball gag, she takes a confused Ino's right hand and is about to hand it to her when the blond pulls away in fear. "Wait," Anko touted. "Anko-san-" Ino tries as the sexy Jōnin orders, "put this on!"

"Why," Ino called back.

Anko pauses, sighing before realizing, "what am I thinking… how would you even know how to put this on-" she sucks her teeth and tries to put the ball gag on for her as she utters, "here, let me."

"Do- Do I ha-have to," Ino argues, fighting off the much stronger woman.

Anko pauses a moment to assure the blond, "trust me, kid, when you hear this, there's no way you won't squeal. So, what's it going to be?"

Ino quickly reasoned, if it involved Kurenai-sensei, she wanted to know what this all was about, but to preserve some measure of control, Ino snatches the ball gag from Anko, and confidently lies, "I know how to put one on, thank you."

Anko smirks proudly as the blond fumbles to put on the red gag before asserting, "I knew I liked you."

With the closet doors closed, Ino hears moving around and rustling as she acclimates herself to the ambiance inside the closet. She slows her heartbeat and sits as still as possible, attuning herself to the particles habituating around her. Within minutes, Ino's presence was masked relatively well, and not long after, there's a knock on the door. Even in the dark space of the closet, without her sight, Ino can tell Anko is pretending to be horribly sick in bed when Kurenai walks in.

"Anko," Kurenai cries in worry. The beautiful sensei sets a bag of content on the floor and sits beside her coughing friend. "I can't believe you're so sick; I've never seen you sick before."

"Ugghh, I know," Anko whined with a clogged nose. "I think my dry spell weakened my immunity."

"Kami, Anko," Kurenai snorts. "I'm sure that's not it. I brought Congee. Since you've never had to take it before, it's great for colds. How are you feeling? Do you think you can eat?"

"Mnn…" Anko pines, playing her sickness and amusing Ino. "I… I don't know… maybe."

"Here, let me," Ino hears Kurenai say, then rustling as if Anko was sitting up to eat.

With a pop of a lid removed, Kurenai is feeding her sick friend who asks with a husky voice, "how's it going… with the girls? Have you told them… about you and Naruto yet?"

Ino blinked into wide eyes. Her jaw bit down into the ball gag at the implication. 'No,' her thought gasped and she lost synchronicity with the frequency of the inside of the closet. Even though the rubber of the ball creaked a bit and Ino's lungs inhaled sharply, it didn't appear as if Kurenai noticed her. Ino became like stone and could only listen with bated breath.

"I'm telling Hinata tonight," Kurenai replied before feeding Anko another spoon.

"And Ino-chan," Anko asked. "She seems pretty all-in to me."

"…That girl," Kurenai sighed, as if she were the wild card no one knew what to do with. "If Hinata decides not to do this, then I'll tell Ino."

"Be honest," Anko's croaky voice piqued, sounding to Ino like the beginning of girl-talk. "You're hoping they both say no, aren't ya? After everything you and Naruto have been through, you want him all to yourself, don't ya?"

With a bit of a snicker, Kurenai answers, "first, I'll never have him all to myself if this political marriage to Temari happens."

'Why,' Ino's mind raced to think as she bites down on the gag. 'How can she answer as if that question with that boy wasn't preposterous?'

Ino's heart was hammering in her chest as Kurenai continues, "and second, don't make me sound so possessive. I love him and I know in every part of my being that he loves me." To hear the sensei she admires so much admit and confirm in her own voice her love for the very boy she loves, Ino's organs seized so hard she thought something ruptured.

Something felt broken inside her especially when Anko alluded to, "especially your physical part, huh?"

"Aren't you too ill to be shameless?"

"The flesh is weak… but the depravity is strong," Anko proclaims in a dying voice. "If one or even both of them decide to go through with it, what are you guys going to do?"

"In that incredibly unlikely scenario, we'll just have to talk it out, won't we?"

"All five of you?"

"Five? Oh, Temari," Kurenai recalls, reminding Ino of the Suna princess as well. "She seemed pretty determined to marry Naruto, but, there's a possibility she may change her mind if three Konoha women decide to marry him. I can't imagine she wouldn't feel intimidated being outnumbered like that for the rest of her life-" Anko snorted at the absurdity and Kurenai nodded, adding, "I know, this is all so bizarre. Whether it's me and Naruto; me, Naruto, and Temari; me, Naruto, Temari, and Hinata; or all five of us, we have to be on the same page. If we can't agree on anything, then every day is going to be like a battle and I don't want that for Naruto."

The last comment made Ino feel less strangled and more confused. 'Because of course, this isn't about just me,' Ino thought, making her recall her selfishness, her mistakes, and the will to redeem herself. Ino truly felt torn.

"That conversation will have to wait until Naruto returns," Anko said, bringing Ino back to the present. The sexy Jōnin summarized, "for now, the girls have to decide for themselves. If they do agree, they have to be okay with you and Naruto, which is still pretty bonkers."

'Bonkers doesn't even cover it!' Ino screamed powerfully from the top of a mountain in the imagination of her mind.

"A lot can happen in a hundred days," Kurenai simply expressed with a sweetness to her voice that made Ino curious about how it all started. Her encounter with Naruto also started over a hundred days ago. The blond kunoichi had so many confliction and emotion-provoking questions, she absolutely needed clarity for. She couldn't wait and needed to talk with Kurenai in private.

"This is a porno waiting to happen," Anko mused hopefully.

"Ugh, please don't speak that into existence," Kurenai begged.

GODFATHER AND SON

"Wait! Wait! Wait! Start Again!" Jiraiya begged of Naruto.

"But I just started!" Naruto yelled back, already regretting this despite his comfortable nap against his Godfather's back. Seated on the soft grass under the large green crown of the tree, shade, breeze, and privacy made for the perfect setting to talk.

Dropping his journal on the grass, a blushing Jiraiya grips his chest with both hands as he bemoans, "my poor heart's not prepared."

"Kami help me," Naruto groaned. "Stop making this weird! And what are you writing? I'm not telling if you're going to write it down!"

"Alright, alright," Jiraiya spouted moving his writing supplies to the side, but doesn't put them away. Massaging Naruto's shoulders, he sweetly urges, "don't make any hasty decisions. Go on, go on."

Above them, Tsunade, Shizune, and Sakura are perfectly hidden from the distracted boys and listening to the story with all the hard-earned ninja skills they possess. Considering his perverted audience, Naruto leaves out the more erotic aspects of the story and enjoys reminiscing about his time together with Kurenai.

KURENAI

Walking down the neighborhood street her two-story house resides on, Kurenai's mind grows anxious with every step, distracted with thoughts of the various ways Hinata may react to their talk later. So distracted was the beautiful sensei that she didn't notice Ino waiting by her door until she reached the white picket fence. Gripping her groceries tighter in hand, Kurenai knew instantly that something was off with the blond by the stern and nearly angry expression on her pretty face.

"Ino," Kurenai curiously voiced in surprise as she walks to the entrance of her home. Looking around, she asked, "what are you doing here?"

Ino stared with restrained anger before eventually replying, "I heard," with hard finality.

The raven-haired sensei was about to ask what she heard, however, the intensity behind Ino's pupil-less blue eyes spoke volumes of how serious she was and whatever the subject of her ire was seemed better spoken of inside. "Come in," she said before the pair enter her house. Ino looks around and senses no one. Lifting her groceries a bit, Kurenai regretfully admits, "I'd invite you to dinner but I have to talk with Hinata-"

Sharp-eyed, Ino hotly contested, "and tell her about you and Naruto?" Kurenai nearly dropped her bags of ingredients, stunned by the statement but remains poise. An angered and betrayed Ino didn't let up as she yells, "I can't even- How could you! What are you doing?! What are you doing?!"

Kurenai observes the emotions overwhelming Ino; her anger, her embarrassment, her confusion, and possibly her disgust, all expressed vividly on her beautifully pained face. It's all driving Ino's outburst and she can tell the young blond is desperate for answers, however, rather than being embarrassed and answer any of her questions, Kurenai turns away and walks directly to her kitchen.

Momentarily confused, Ino has no choice but to follow, yelling, "aren't you going to answer me!" Kurenai sets down the groceries on the counter when Ino slams her palms on the kitchen island and asks, "or are you too ashamed to say anything!?"

"I'm waiting for you to calm down," a composed Kurenai replied as the beautiful sensei begins separating the ingredients to prepare them for dinner. "You should know I have no problem answering your questions, but Hinata won't be long, so if you can't control yourself until she arrives, I will ask you to leave without the answers you came here for."

Shoulders and traps hunched, Ino nearly glared at the audacity of the adult but Kurenai didn't flinch. Ino knew the woman to be of her word and if it wasn't for the answers she's desperate for, Ino didn't think she had the willpower to calm down. Turning away from the attractive sensei, Ino takes a few moments to settle the raging storm of her emotions.

Returning her glaring eyes on the woman she trusted, Ino practically growls, "Kurenai… sensei… how could you, an adult, involve yourself with a sixteen-year-old boy?!"

It's the statement Kurenai had feared the most when her relationship with Naruto first began. At the time, she was certain it would belittle her standing as a person among her peers and neighbors as well as undermine her authority as a ranking member of the military. Kurenai was sure her relationship with a sixteen-year-old would be the only thing people see when they look at her.

She knows differently now. There's nothing commonplace about Naruto and anyone with common sense would see that, making Ino's fury understandable. Kurenai can't help but ask, "are you asking because he's sixteen or because he's Naruto?"

"Both," Ino called out, then clenched her teeth to calm down again.

Understanding the girl's frustration, Kurenai sighs before washing the potatoes under the running faucet, and calmly explaining, "at first, I was concerned about our age difference and the public perception, but eventually, I learned that didn't matter. Naruto is more than what you can see at first and our love is a lot like that. He's the man who captured my heart and I'm not planning on letting him go."

The silence that lingered told Kurenai that hit the blond hard. Pushing away from the kitchen island, Ino paces as she quickly asks, "don't you have any shame? Any dignity? What about Asuma-sensei? Or any man your own age?"

"Ino-chan," Kurenai voiced with a thick layer of authority. Though her eyes were defiant, Ino got the warning and listens as Kurenai says, "our relationship may be odd and uncommon, it's not illegal, so I have nothing to be ashamed about. My dignity is in my honesty and I'd never trade that for popularity, and Asuma-sensei, or any man my age, isn't your business. What I feel for Naruto is real, and hard-fought. Just like you, I didn't feel this in the beginning-"

"How!?" Kurenai stopped washing the cabbage and raises her eyebrow at the blond, urging Ino to take a few deep breaths before she asks in a calmer voice, "how did it begin?"

"Not unlike you, actually," Kurenai admitted, easily contorting the pretty girl's face in confusion. "You needed something from him, and like gravity, you got too close and were swept up. I'm sure it's upsetting to learn the man you love is also loved by others-"

"Are you kidding," Ino retorted. "I'm used to girls chasing after the man I love. But adults stayed well away from Sasuke, so why couldn't you stay away from Naruto?!" Kurenai looked at the girl and flatly pointed out, "age is an issue of mind over matter. If I don't mind, then it doesn't matter."

Ino's fervor was still there but her reasoning was faltering. With more vulnerability, Ino weakly asks, "but… why him?" Unexpected competition felt like the crux of all this as the blond continues, "you- you're gorgeous, smart, mature, respected, you could have any guy you want! How could it possibly be Naruto, of all people?"

Kurenai thought Ino was all those things as well, and asks in return, "why not him?"

Kurenai can practically hear the thunderstruck Ino think one word; 'bitch.' Still, Kurenai can sympathize and calmly, yet pointedly, recounts for the blond, "when you rejected him after your time together, I happen to need his help with a training regiment for Hinata." Judging by her woeful expression, Ino didn't seem to enjoy recalling that version of herself. It made her more docile as Kurenai continues, "in exchange for helping me, I agreed to teach him about girls and dating-"

Stunned, Ino interjected, "so you had sex with him?!"

"Don't jump to conclusions," Kurenai replied as she diced the onions.

"How can I not? Nothing about this is rational," Ino hotly insists. "I'm just trying to make sense of-"

"Then listen," Kurenai called with some frustration. The beautiful sensei stopped cutting as she repeated in a more pointed tone, "just… listen." Ino nodded and a more collected Kurenai continued. "I had no intention of being anything more than a source of academic information for him; as you said, I could get any guy. I learned later the only reason he asked me to teach him was so he can impress you." Ino bit her lip dejectedly as Kurenai explains, "the more he helped me with Hinata… the more I learned about him; you remember our fieldwork into his life. Little by little, something grew where there was once nothing. He went from a name on a page to a prankster, to a fresh genin, a student, an assistant… then a source of comfort, someone I can trust with my life, someone I can confide in… someone I can love unconditionally." The silence between them stretched for several moments until Kurenai asks, "is that what you wanted to hear?"

NARUTO

"I need more," Jiraiya called out fervently, making an X out of his large arms. Unbeknownst to Naruto, the three kunoichi above readily agreed as well. They need more too.

"Uuughhh!" Naruto growled before asking, "what now?"

"All you explained was helping Kurenai-chan with training, being in her house a lot, talking a bit, and then 'it' just happened! As if that tells me anything!" Naruto is rubbing the bridge of his nose for patience as Jiraiya added, "how do you expect me to sell anything with that!?"

Returning just as much fervor, Naruto yells back, "I don't expect you to sell any of this! You said you wouldn't write it down!"

"Wouldn't write it down now," Jiraiya quickly said under his breath before clearing his throat and loudly demanded to know, "just think about the romantic parts and go from there, hmm? When did she first start liking you? How did she start liking you? Was it physical, emotional? When did you start liking her? As a boy, I'm going to assume it was a very physical thing for you. Who made the first move? What was the first move? What was your first hurdle? Have you argued? How…h-how far have you two g-gone? Have you- have you… k-kissed? If you have, when, where, and how'd it feel? Don't skimp on any of the details!"

A tired Naruto fell back into the soft grass surrounding the tree they're under. He tilts his head and focuses his eyes when he thought he saw a hint of pink. Dismissing it as a play of the light, he whines, "Kami, help me."

INO

Kurenai covers the salmon and lets it simmer before turning around and exhaustively asking the blond genin, "do you really need to know if we've had sex?"

Ino yells, "yes!"

The blond kunoichi couldn't get Anko's, 'especially your physical part,' out of her mind. She needed to know how far they went. Surely an adult would wait until he was older before sharing that level of intimacy. Somehow, Ino was holding out hope that if she's gone farther and done more than the beautiful sensei, then she still had a chance to compete… she wouldn't feel like she's lost as a woman, a kunoichi, and a person.

Ino watches Kurenai's cheeks and ears blush before she reluctantly admits, "…we've been intimate."

Ino inhaled so quick, she nearly coughed, but instead, she held it in before asking with a winded voice, "how far?"

"Kami, Ino," Kurenai bemoaned.

Holding in the pain and humiliation of losing, Ino could barely control herself to ask, "just… why? Even if I believe you lov- even if I believe what you're saying, why even bother asking me or Hinata to marry him if you- …if you're both… if you say love him? That doesn't make any sense."

"That's a matter of perspective," Kurenai answered. "For lasting peace between us and Suna to flow more smoothly, Naruto, the son of the Yondaime Hokage, has to marry Temari, the daughter of the Yondaime Kazekage. That is the course charted by the brass, and whether we like it or not, I find it fortuitous he's not limited to a single wife. Any other boy, any other political marriage, and that's it; you and I would be out of luck. And trust me, that situation can be incredibly heart-wrenching."

Ino's impressive memory effortlessly tracks down that meaning and asks, "you mean Asuma-sensei and Tomoko-hime?"

Kurenai slowly nodded with a hint of past pain, then continues, "I recommended you and Hinata because after years upon years of Naruto living without love and affection, I felt the kunoichi being considered to be his first wife should at least love him deeply. That's not a long list."

"That doesn't answer my question," Ino slowly underscored. Though it speaks to the worst pain of the issue, Ino bravely asks, "why even bother with us when you… when you're supposedly with him?"

The silence lingers a moment and Ino can tell Kurenai understands. Taking plates from the cupboard, the raven-haired beauty sets them on the table as she answers, "I have my reasons for proposing this to Hinata. As for you… to be perfectly honest, I'll have to share him regardless. Any girl who wants to be with him will have to accept that, Ino. If it's you or Hinata, I can accept that."

"You can accept that," Ino repeats, offended by her genuine approach. "As if you're the final say or something?"

"That's what this is Ino," Kurenai remarks as she reads the analog clock on the wall. "That's how a relationship like this works. We all have a say and any accommodations that can be made, is made. Any that can't, that's it. The relationship has run its course. Naruto hasn't had a chance to speak his piece but I know my place in his heart and he knows his place in mine. If you still want this, you're going to have to make your peace with that." Ino stands in silence, processing everything she's just learned with everything that's happened in the last nine months and everything she wants to happen in the next nine months. Kurenai then voices, "where is that girl?"

With nothing else to ask at the moment, Ino abruptly turns and leaves the kitchen without saying farewell. It's at the front door she sees Hinata, her Byakugan obviously activated yet freely shedding a stream of tears down her cheeks and chin to droplets on the floor. Without the wailing to match, the pretty girl's face was in shock as her eyes wept. Feeling sympathy for the girl, Ino takes her hand and drags her out of the house, forcing her bag to drop on the floor.

Ino drags her out of Kurenai's property and down the street until they were far enough away that she could turn around on the dark indigo-haired girl and bluntly ask, "well, did you hear her?" Regarding the capability of the veins around Hinata's eyes, she corrects, "or did you read our lips?" The sweet girl is in shock, Ino realizes, and voices in sympathy, "I guess you didn't know either." Turning her sights in the direction of Kurenai's house, Ino realizes she has a lot to reflect on and tells Hinata, "look, there's no point in hiding it now. I've been with Naruto too… physically, and apparently so has Kurenai-sensei. You haven't, and if I'm being honest, I don't think you should. You're too… gentle for all this. And I don't mean that in a bad way. If any of this is too much for you, you may as well bow out now."

Ino feels anxious leaving Hinata alone, but she can't think of comforting anyone when she's so distraught herself.

SAKURA

"I can't believe it," Sakura gasps as the three stunned ladies walk side-by-side through the market. Within their own heads, they can barely focus on where they're going, though that's enough for a ninja. Sakura couldn't believe so much was going on around her, recalling how close she's been with Naruto for months, and still didn't see it.

Tsunade whirls the lost girl beside her and emphasizes, "you really didn't know?"

Eying her idol as if she were guilty of a felony, a shamed Sakura blurts out, "how could I? He's Naruto!" Flicking her pupils between the skeptical women, she continues to plead, "everyone back home either tolerated, disliked, or outright hated him! No one could've possibly seen someone like him ending up with someone as popular as Kurenai-sensei! You'd be labeled crazy to suggest it, for sure!"

Tsunade and Shizune eye each other for a spell after hearing her case. They seem to have a silent conversation with their eyes before Shizune nods and they continue walking. Sakura follows them into the nearest tea shop where they sit in the furthest booth for some privacy.

Happy for the soothing properties of her mint chamomile tea, Sakura is warming her hand with the hot cup as Tsunade notes, "seems to me like no one really saw him." Shizune nods as Tsunade sips her tea before continuing. "They couldn't see how strong he was, how attractive he can be. They were following the crowd."

Sakura instantly felt the stab in her heart. 'Was that directed at me,' Sakura desperately asked herself. Sakura hid her distraught face behind the small teacup as her mind whines, 'bad enough she's right, but for it to also come from Tsunade-sama… ugh, this is the worst!'

Shizune piles on as she notes with clinical precision, "he fought off Orochimaru, which is no small feat, and has a beautiful girlfriend. He suddenly seems cuter, doesn't he? Very manly."

Sakura suddenly realizes the most crucial reality of this entire affair, and it truly sinks in then, making her cough on a sip of tea… 'Naruto has a beautiful girlfriend.' What that means delivers a fresh pang of heartache.

"If only I were younger and he didn't remind me of Nawaki or Jiraiya," Tsunade joked, making Shizune nearly spit out her drink. Turning to the pinkette, Tsunade notes how ghastly Sakura appears and teases, "I have little doubt they've been intimate as well."

"Tsunade-sama," Shizune giggles, as Sakura's eyes widen to saucers.

"What," the elder retorted in her defense all the while observing Sakura like a hawk. "You could tell by the way he was cutting the story. No one makes a deal like that with a sixteen-year-old boy, spend all that time together, meet up at night, and enter in a committed relationship without a bit of organ grinding."

Sakura claps her cheeks in deadly realization. 'Is that why he's so good?!' The images fall in line and it all begins making sense. 'Of course! How else could he possibly be that damn good!? He's had training… he wasn't a virgin!' In her own world, a baffled Sakura shakes her head in denial with her hands still fixed to her blushing cheeks, oblivious to how unsettled she appears to the amused women before her.

Smiling, Tsunade asks with clear concern, "are you okay?"

Look into the honey-eyes of her idol, Sakura fumbles to reply, "mmm? I…" Pressing her hand to her aching chest, she finishes, "…I don't know."

Tsunade and Shizune share another look before the elder of the two orates, "you know, I've been in love once." Rather proudly, she assures them, "I had a lot of suitors clamoring for my hand, too. Sure, part of it was due to my family, but the overwhelming reason why was my beauty. Even the Daimyō wanted to marry me. Plenty of em were funny, respectful, successful, or some combination, but Dan was the only one who stood out." Shizune sat up straighter as Tsunade adds with a fond smile, "he was the only one I fell for."

"…Why?" Sakura asked.

"Obviously he was handsome," Tsunade answered. "But we also shared a belief, something I was completely passionate about, and because we advocated for the same things, we slowly grew to love each other."

Shizune seems happy to hear that, however, Sakura feels confused and asks, "why are you telling me this?"

"I don't know Kurenai-sensei," Tsunade began, "However, I wouldn't want you to believe that a person with a lot of attractive qualities matters more than a person with the right quality."

The pink-haired kunoichi suddenly realizes the women in front of her know more about the turmoil she's feeling than she knows herself. Sakura was big enough to admit she drooled over the amazing sex with him… but does that extend to drooling over him as a person. With the sudden urge to be better in the presence of someone she admires so much, Sakura's mind dares to ask the worst question. 'Do I have genuine feelings for Naruto?'

"You're teammates, Sakura," Tsunade said. "That's a special bond that even Kurenai can't ignore."

The one thing Sakura knows about Naruto, is he wants to be strong and acknowledged by everyone. She's already acknowledged him, now she needs to get stronger. As strong as Tsunade-sama herself. Maybe even stronger.

Setting the cup down hard enough to whip a splash of tea out, a stern and determined Sakura honestly pleads, "Tsunade-sama… please accept me as your apprentice."

Even as her idol and God of medicine stares at her intensely, as if searching her mind, heart, and soul for that special quality necessary for success, the pinkette doesn't blink. As a kunoichi and a woman, Sakura needed this.

HAKU

Haku is standing beside a nervous Karin underneath the red-orange torii gate of Uzumaki property. They wait patiently in front of the wood plaque that says Uzumaki Tower beside the symbol of a swirling circle. In the slums of the neighborhood, Naruto's six-story business and home appeared strikingly luxurious with its new pillars, elegant street lamps, soft glowing spotlights, healthy green grass, clean walls, painted black & white with vibrant orange accents. Like its owner, the aesthetics of the building was loud and made an impression upon sight.

Messing with the stiff hem of his Uzumaki member overcoat, signifying him as a member of their clan and family, Haku has never felt happier. The Haori Karin ordered for the clan are black with orange trim and the Uzumaki crest on the back and the Konoha leaf on the shoulder. It not only felt lovely to wear but it gave Haku an overwhelming sense of pride, ownership, and unity; like finally finding a home after years of traveling. It nearly brings him to tears when he thinks about it too much, and every day he praises Zabuza's name for this precious gift.

Haku smiled as he thought about how much Zabuza loves him, for he'd be on his way to Kiri with Zabuza and Mei rather than standing beside Karin if not for him. Haku would've gone to war alongside Mei if Zabuza ordered it, but he didn't. Zabuza claimed he had a debt to pay, asserted his skills were more than enough, and left with Mei, leaving Haku to continue guarding Karin and Naruto's home.

'Our home,' Haku corrected himself.

Just then, Karin takes a deep breath and stood straighter. Haku didn't sense anything for several moments, thoroughly impressing him by her sensory skill. Minutes later, Temari, Gaara, and Kankurō followed by their Jōnin-sensei, Baki, and the security detail surrounded them meet at the red-orange gate. First, Guy-sensei introduced his team—Neji, Tenten, and Lee—as well as a council-assigned pale boy around his age that smiled awkwardly, as if artificial. He said his name was Sai before Temari-san introduced her brothers and sensei. Karin introduces herself and Haku before providing them with an overview of the six-story building as they walk.

"The first floor is dedicated to businesses," Karin nervously spoke. Haku's fairly certain she finds talking to future family-members a difficult circumstance to get accustomed to. "There'll be a strict vetting process, but so far, we'll run our Uzumaki Fūinjutsu office from here and Naruto insisted on a ramen shop he likes."

"He's very fond of ramen," Haku relayed with a smile to help Karin relax some.

Karin takes a deep breath and nods before extending her hand to the middle of the building and explaining, "floors two through five will be listed for rent; that's thirty units of studios, LDKs, and 2LDKs. The entire top floor and the roof is where we'll be living- you included, of course."

"May we take a look," Temari asks.

"Of course," Karin eagerly answered. "Each floor of the entire building was designed for either four 2LDK or eight LDK apartments, so the top floor will have a lot of room. It'll have a large kitchen, twelve bedrooms, six bathrooms, a study, a large living room, four empty rooms we haven't decided what to do with, and the training room and garden will be on the roof. For now, it's just a lot of empty space with no real furnishings, but, there's a lot of potential."

"Why's he walk around looking homeless if he obviously comes from money," Kankurō remarked, hearing what he heard as he gazes at the tall shiny building in disbelief.

"The saying, 'you should never judge a book by its cover,' was invented for Naruto," Karin replied. "This building used to be just as rundown as the rest of the dilapidated buildings around here. This renovation, the restoration of our clan, all happened within the last two months. Before that, he's never had money or recognition and had to struggle like a lot of the people in this neighborhood."

Temari wonders out loud, "are you planning to redevelop the area?"

"Eventually," Karin confirmed with a smirk.

Neji turns around and draws everyone's attention when he voices, "Hinata-sama?"

Haku, along with the others turn and note the somber girl's presence as she softly replied, "…Neji-niisan."

Neji walks to his cousin and Haku follows a few paces away. "We're currently on a mission. Is there anything you need?

"…No," Hinata answered her cousin. Haku noticed how long her dejected eyes lingered on Temari before pulling away and mumbling, "excuse me…"

"Our mission won't take long if you can wait," Neji informed her. "I can walk you home after."

"Why don't you all go on ahead," Haku tells Karin and the group. "I'll wait with her."

Though Haku may be staying, he knows Karin isn't in more danger. Not only would it be disastrous if anyone from Suna did anything to Karin, Naruto already told Haku and Karin why he trusts in Gaara, Temari, and Kankurō. Haku isn't expecting anything treacherous from Suna or Guy-sensei and his team. The only person he doesn't know is the boy called Sai. One look to Tenten, and the girl knows this is a test and she needs to keep everyone safe. Neji nods before the group walk into the lobby of the apartment access.

Hinata deactivates her Byakugan when Haku asks, "is everything alright?" Hinata lowers her head, deep in thought, and doesn't respond. "You seem sad," Haku slowly adds. Again, no response, and after a long pause, Haku alters his approach. "You don't have to say anything, Hinata. Would you mind if I spoke instead?" Hinata nods once and Haku leads her to the nearby bench. Once seated, they stare up into the evening sky for several quiet moments before Haku voices, "I was thinking about something earlier… something unexpected. I feel stronger than ever before."

"Why?" Hinata weakly asked.

"Because we're always stronger when we have someone to protect," Haku answered her with a small smile. "I was too late to protect my mother from my father, even though I remember loving her very much." Hinata pays more attention to the unexpected revelation; with reason. Haku rarely talks about his past, however, he feels a special friendship, connection, with Hinata.

"I lost everything when I was very young," Haku continued. "I killed everyone who tried to kill me, starting with my father, but eventually my friend's parent and our neighbors. I became an orphan wandering frozen streets trying my best not to starve or freeze to death, and every day I thought, 'how could life be this? How could I be so unnecessary?' I could die and not a soul would know or care."

Haku could sense Hinata pay attention and it added to his gratitude for the life he has now. "Then I met Zabuza-sama," Haku continued. "And he asked me to become his weapon. Suddenly, I was blessed with purpose, but despite giving him my everything, I avoided killing whenever possible. I expected him to discard me like any other useless tool. Instead, he kept me by his side and that's when I first thought, 'I'll protect this man with my very life.' I became truly strong that day."

Touching his Uzumaki Haori fondly, Haku happily recounted, "then I met Naruto-sama and he asked me to be his friend, treats me like a brother, gave me a home and a clan… I have so much more now, I've never been more determined to protect him and Karin-chan, you and this village."

Tilting her head in some confusion, she asks, "me?"

Haku nods with a gentle smile before adding, "of all the people I've met coming here, I feel like I've found a true friendship with you."

"Why?"

"Because of our love for Naruto-sama," he easily answered, however, due to her lack of reaction, Haku asks, "or has that changed?"

Hinata looks pained for several moments before answering, "no…"

He didn't sense any deception, but wonders about her emotional state, and asks, "does that make you sad now?"

Hinata tends to have perfect posture in any situation, however, she leans back on the bench and rests her head on the edge of the backrest. She tells Haku as she stares up at the night sky, "you said, 'how could life be this? How could I be so unnecessary?' That's how I feel right now; like I've lost and I had no right to expect… anything more."

Haku slowly asks, "would you like to tell me what happened?" However, Hinata remains silent. "Hmm, well, I don't think you're unnecessary, and I doubt that feeling will last; too many people love you for that to be the case. And you always have me, Hinata-chan, if you ever want someone happy to share your troubles with."

Sitting up, Hinata wipes the moisture building in her eyes, then turns to the androgynous boy to express, "I came here because I also feel like I can be open with you. I need to ask you… did you know… a-about Naruto… and Ku-Kurenai-sensei?"

Instantly Haku understands her sorrow and nevertheless answers, "I did."

Hinata closes her eyes, like she's waiting for a pang of heartache to subside. With a deep inhale and a wipe of her reddening eyes, she then asks, "and Ino?"

Slowly, almost grievously, Haku nods before conveying, "I'm sorry that you're hurting right now and for playing a part in that pain. You're not wrong to feel the way you do so don't deny your feelings, whatever they may be, because those who truly love you will also accept them."

Hinata stands and begins walking away and Haku voices as she does, "ask yourself what have you lost- no, what have you lost that you can't get back? When you discover a true answer, you will know what to do." Hinata walks under the red-orange torii gate and out of sight, making Haku worry for her.

MABUI

There's a knock on the door and immediately, Samui is out of bed, low to the ground, with a dagger in hand. Considering they're in her one-bedroom quarters, Mabui didn't have the same urgency and struggled out of bed and as she lived in the mountain with Raikage Tower, she had little reason to suspect some form of assault; especially one that knocked first. Still, a sleepy Mabui wonders who would be visiting her at such a late hour.

Dressed in her navy satin shorts and crop top, Mabui tells Samui she'll see who it is and be back. Though they should be sleeping in their assigned quarters, it didn't feel right given the number of times they slept comfortably together. For nearly two months they shared a bed and body heat, and for three straight weeks, they slept naked either holding each other or with Naruto between them. They shared something comforting that made their nights more perturbed without the other.

'I suppose I can't deny Samui presence also makes Naruto feel more present,' Mabui's analytical mind reasoned.

Wearing a sexy off-white spaghetti strap nightgown, Samui nods and stands beside the door's frame with her kunai in hand. Opening the door, Mabui is and isn't confused by Darui's presence at her door, however, she is surprised when he casually attempts to enter without an invitation. Given their relationship before, she should've expected this. Mabui blocks his entrance by placing her hand on the door frame, wondering how she could be so stupid as to miss the obvious; he only cared for one thing.

Looking up and down the empty hallway, Mabui drowsily notes, "Darui… it's late."

"I was busy," he casually replied. When he notes she's yet to remove her hand to allow him in, he looks confused before elaborating, "I would've come earlier but we were deliberating."

It's not hard to imagine that their interest in Naruto was all they could talk about after Team Samui was dismissed and Mabui asks, "on how to best capitalize on this opportunity?"

His bored gaze lingers on her body before nodding as he answers, "you're going to be promoted, by the way. After reading your detailed report… you took a lot of initiative to set this option up for us. Tomorrow you'll be reassigned to managing secretary for the Raikage. You'll know nearly everything he knows. Congratulations."

"Thank you," she replied with a flat grin. Stepping back, she makes to close the door as she states, "good night."

"Wait," Darui blurted, placing his large hand on the face of the metal door. His normally bored expression now has one of wonderment before he finally asks, "what's changed?"

Looking from his hand to his face, Mabui bluntly explains, "I don't want to do this anymore. You should've known that was a possibility considering the mission I just did."

With his vast experience as a shinobi, she can understand why he'd ask, "are you saying you've been compromised?" What the mission lacked in a physical challenge, it makes up in a psychological one. In order for Kumo to retain as many active shinobi as possible, they consider the mental health of its soldiers.

"That's not the word I'd use," Mabui corrected.

"If that's so, then let me in," he claims. "Post mission protocol dictates you return to your everyday routine."

"It does," Mabui agrees, recalling the book verbatim. "However, you misunderstand me." Clapping the door frame to emphasize her decision, she elaborates, "this has nothing to do with the mission or protocols. I'm not inviting you in because I don't want to continue that relationship anymore. It was a mistake before I left and it's not one I'll continue now that I'm back."

Leaning back at the news, his eyes look to the room behind her and Mabui resists the urge to close it like she's hiding something. Darui eventually returns his focus on her and asserts, "…I'm ordering a psych eval. If the results are unfavorable, expect to remain a Chūnin."

"It'll be a short session," Mabui cheerfully assured him. "I can picture it now, sitting on that couch and explaining to a sympathetic ear, 'before the mission, I was sleeping with Darui-san in the vain hope we might become something meaningful. After the mission, I realized he only cared about one thing; himself.' I'll get a pat in the back, and a 'good day.'" Mabui knew he couldn't deny her expertise in that area and assures him, "what we were doing wasn't a relationship, Darui."

"The lives we lead," he stated. "It's best if we don't get attached-"

"No, you're just lazy when it comes to caring about others," she quickly interjected. "It takes more effort than you're willing to put in and I'm actually surprised you're arguing this long about something that's obviously over. Good night, Darui-senpai."

She tries to close the door and again, Darui places his palm on the flat of the door. "I'm a shinobi first, Mabui," he sincerely told her. "I won't apologize for that. I just don't see the point of getting so invested only for one of us to die. It's a waste of time."

Mabui snickers at how he truly feels but is content he's finally being honest. She looks to his hand and he removes it, however, noting, "I hope for your sake this has nothing to do with that boy."

That stops Mabui from closing the door. Her heart begins to beat fast and she can feel herself heat up, however, she forces herself to remain calm, if only on the outside, to casually ask, "what do you mean?"

"Plans have already been drawn up," he assures her. "And he won't survive."

Mabui was afraid he could hear her heart hammering in her chest as she carefully asks, "what plans?"

Darui simply turns around and leaves.


Thank you for reading friends😁. I decided to cut the chapter here because if I wrote out the rest of the plan, it would've left you in a worse cliffhanger. This chapter ties in closely with the next chapter, so look forward to that.

For those that don't recall, Tomoko-hime is the daughter of the Daimyō and she nearly married Asuma. It was the catalyst to Kurenai being hurt and sad, and eventually getting with Naruto.

I sort of imagine Kumogakure more militaristic so I thought officers might be assigned living quarters inside the mountain Raikage Tower is built on. I originally wanted to give Mabui a house but that didn't seem to fit. It also gave me an idea for later.

That's all for now, I guess. The next chapter is going to address a lot, maybe even close some story threads. I'm not sure yet. I'm still outlining. Thank you again to my patrons for your support and encouragement(pa tree / graefoxx). I really appreciate you guys. And thank you to those who bought my original novel on Amazon, Old Hand Steel by Santana Bazil. I consider it my tip jar, since it only costs $3, and you get a little something as well.

Be at peace friends and stay safe,

-Grae