A/N: EDIT: Added a bit more content for you guys and gals to enjoy.

Remember, this is a work of fiction. Lets just sit back and enjoy the story, eh? Revi

SECOND EDIT: Begone, trolls! Don't make me bust out the flyswatter! Yar! Back! Back you go!

Took awhile to get this done by myself. Sorry about that. If I had it my way, I'd be updating Untraveled Road every week.

I know folks have been asking us to update this tale more often, due to its insane popularity. We would if we could. But we can't update this as much as we'd like because the chapters are LONG. Monstrously so. The last one cleared 20,000 words. My team and I pour our hearts and soul into every tale we write, and this is no exception.

We're working hard on that front, don't you worry.

Throw in the fact that I'm working on the larger stories like "Berserker" and well...we're quite busy. But don't worry, we've got plans to expedite an update on that front. Just wanted to keep everyone in the loop. I won't say too much this time, save that we've got some big developments in this chapter. Had a real blast writing this, so I hope you enjoy!but the chapters are sooo long. On another note, we'll be seeing a few timeskips soon. Nothing major...yet.

I also feel the need to repeat that, although the White Fang haven't yet turned violent in this timeline, it doesn't change the fact that they and the Faunus community as a whole were still being mistreated by the world at large long before Jacques took over the Schnee Dust Company. Jacques, as he does with all things, just made it worse.

Getting the SDC on their side would legitimize them, lend them a real voice in the world. That's part of the reason they were so keen to meet Naruto. He gave them that chance on a silver platter.

As ever, I own no references.

"In the end, it all comes down to faith. Hope, if you will. We cling to the belief that tomorrow will be better. We trust that our neighbor will repay our kindness with some of their own. We hope that, at the end of the day, people can put aside their differences and come to understand one another. Help each other. Believe in one another.

I have faith, Kali. Do you?"


Sowing the Seeds

Arthur Watts was not a humble man.

Strictly speaking, one couldn't call him arrogant, either. Arrogance implied the belief that one was superior to all others, that everyone was beneath you. While Watts was the sort to to appreciate brilliance and even boast of the occasional feat, he understood his limits. He was not a front line fighter. Noe was he particularly agile or mighty when it came to a brawl, either. If he ever found himself in a fair fight against a Huntsman, he would undoubtedly lose. But unlike the common masses, Watts was content with that knowledge. He knew where his talents lay, and they were not on the battlefield.

Nay, his true strength lay within his mind and the creations spawned by that keen intellect.

His mind whirled with dozens of ideas every day; some were dismissed out of hand, others hastily jotted down to serve for later.

But these days it felt...nice to have someone finally appreciate his research, even if the esteemed -ha!- Council of Atlas had yet to do so. Why would they? Those short-sighted fools were focused on that pointless Penny Project of Pietro's, to the exclusion of all else. Just thinking of it made his blood boil. As if that fat fool could possibly produce results. Anything he could do, Watts knew he could do better. It wasn't arrogance. Not really. For him, it was simple truth. Even if the rest of the world was BLIND-

His Scroll pinged suddenly, simultaneously alerting Arthur and drawing him from his musings.

Arthur looked up from his papers and plucked it out of his pocket, mildly bemused to find a message from Naruto waiting for him.

The words contained within that quick text were simple enough to decipher, if a tad misspelled by awkward fingers. The request that followed...proved slightly less so.

"Sorry to bother you this early, Arthur." it read. "I need you to make another weapon." Not can you make a weapon, Arthur. Not, will you, but I need you do. Naruto did not doubt his genius nor his ability. "Also," another message came through almost immediately thereafter, "Scrolls are still evil."

Watts chortled softly despite himself.

Just the other day Naruto blatantly refused to use a Scroll. That he'd deigned to use one now meant he

"Another?" he texted back rapidly. "Are you certain? How's the arm?"

"Its great." came the reply. "But this weapon, the one I want you to make, isn't for me."

"Who, then?" Watts quirked a brow back. "Miss Schnee, perhaps? She didn't seem interested in one...

"Nah, this is for my daughter." The response proved immediate. "She wanted a weapon. Something about curved swords and a bow. I'm sending you an image now."

There it was, another tidbit of information left for him to pick up. Naruto had a daughter? News to him, that. His mind leaped to the logical conclusion. Willow clearly wasn't pregnant and didn't look to be expecting. Yet he wanted the weapon soon. He must've adopted someone. Some street rat down in Mantle perhaps? Regardless, it wasn't his concern.

Watts paused, thumbing his chin as he considered the request and the hastily drawn sketch now staring back at him through the Scroll.

An easy project. He wouldn't even struggle with this. But did he want to waste his time on such a thing?

It was so rare to find someone who appreciated his talents these days. Not James Ironwood, Not Pietro Polendina and certainly not Atlas. They all scoffed at him, thought him eccentric, mad even. Bah! Plebeians, the lot of them. They wouldn't know brilliance if it slapped them in the face!

Nicholas Schnee was a fine patron and had funded a great many projects, but if he had to choose between them, he would say that he favored Naruto more. Dare he call him a friend? Hmm. Perhaps he was. The blond praised his brilliance and proved receptive to any input he offered. Moreover, he didn't mince words. He might still be a tad inept when it came to technology as a whole, but surely that could be remedied. And it would be remedied, if Arthur had anything to say about it. Great minds think alike after all, and Watts considered himself great indeed. He wasn't one to work for free, however.

"Curved swords, you say?" his mustache twitched as he returned the text. "Very well. I'll do this for you. But you'll owe me a favor."

"No problem!" There was no hesitation whatsoever. "Mind if I stop in tomorrow ans have you take look at my arm?"

Watts suspected he knew why. "Just how badly do you want that grappling hook?"

Naruto's response proved swift. "VERY BADLY."

...and you're trusting me with this?"

"Of course." He could almost picture the blond's quizzical look. "You're my friend. I trust you."

Watts tried not to preen at the praise and failed spectacularly for it. Friend, he'd said. Such a quaint feeling. He'd not had one of those since his schoolyard days. Very well. It would behoove him to do this, if only to prove himself further and get into the man's good graces. He might even come to learn of this strange "Chakra" substance the blond had been gushing about. So many applications...! No, no, he admonished himself with a shake of the head. Now was not the time to press that particular issue. Baby steps, Watts. Control yourself.

"Very well." he sent a quick confirmation in return. "I'll see it done."

"Thanks!" Naruto's text came back. "You're the best!"

The best, he said? Ohhh, that felt good.

Stifling a small smile the soon-to-be Doctor pocketed his Scroll, turned his attention back to his laboratory, and thumbed his chin. After a moment's consideration he paced to a nearby table and swept it clean with an arm, scattering the papers strewn across its surface. Naruto wanted a weapon, did he? Well! He would forge the best damn weapon he'd ever seen!

Still, as he worked, a stray thought thought nagged at him.

Artificial life. His fingers twitched restlessly at his side as he considered the matter further.

Perhaps he could yet dabble in that field once he completed this particular task, if only to best Pietro at his own game. Anything he created, Watts was certain he could make, but better. A small, vicious smile tugged at his lips as he continued to dwell on the subject. He'd not dabbled in this field before. He'd never felt the need. There were always other projects, pursued by the constant need for validation.

But had he not proven himself? The notion began to consume him.

Yes...the more he thought on the matter, the more this prospect enticed him. Whispers ran through the back of his mind as the seed of an idea was planted. Artificial life. Not a mere robot, but a being with true sentience akin to that of a human being. An entity that, given time, could think and act independently. But how to go about it...? It would need a name of course. Something simply perhaps-yes, easy to remember.

An idea dawned, prompting Watts to sketch out a hasty note.

A.L.M.A. He scrawled out another, hasty acronym beside it for now.

Artificial Living Machine Angel. Hmm. Bit of a working title, that one. It would do.

And if he just so happened to cackle a little as he wrote, well. No one was around to hear him.

He would show them. He'd show them all. Someday, someday soon, his work would change the world.


A new challenger approached and Cinder resolved herself to hate her.

She didn't need to know Kali Belladonna to pass judgement on the young woman. She didn't like her, didn't trust her, certainly didn't want anything to do with her. She'd seen the Faunus use her Semblance from one of the mansion windows. For all her grand talk of peace and equality and cooperation, this one still moved like a predator. A killer. Assassin. The girl's paranoid little mind hissed the last word. Here was someone who knew how to fight. How to kill. A master in the art of ending lives. It didn't matter who Kali was now, or who she claimed to be.

She was dangerous.

Even when she saw and smiled at her, Cinder refused to lower her guard. No! Never! She wouldn't fall for such tricks!

"Oh, and who is this?!" Kali all but cooed at the sight of her. "She's adorable!" she knelt down to muss her hair, ignoring Cinder's growl. "Is she yours?"

"Yes, she is." It was Willow who answered Kali's question as Cinder fled behind her skirt for protection. The Schnee gave ground tucked her against his side as they walked, allowing Cinder the opportunity to latch onto her hand for all she was worth. "She's our adopted daughter. Cinder Uzumaki Schnee." she paused and touched a finger to her lips, considering. "At least she will be once we iron out the adoption papers."

"Aren't you a little young to be parents?"

"That's a formality, obviously." Naruto quickly bulled in between the two of them before someone could throw an insult. "She may not share our blood, but she's our kid, through and through."

Cinder's heart did a little flip in her chest. Ours. Realization struck her in a pleasant rush of warmth. They'd given her both their name and Willow's both. No longer was she just Cinder. She had a family name. The thought made her face burn. She ducked her head, cheeks flushing red. Naruto saw it and reached down to muss her hair. This time, Cinder leaned her head into his palm. It felt good.

"You know, I always wanted a daughter." Kali stole a sidelong glance at her.

Cinder fixed her with the blackest of looks until the Faunus finally relented and looked away.

"You'll have to look elsewhere, I'm afraid. She's taken." Judging by her waspish tone, Willow clearly didn't trust Kali either. Good! She shouldn't!

"So is it true, then?" Rather than retreat, Kali chose another avenue of attack instead. Golden eyes flicked between the two of them in thinly veiled curiosity. "Are the two of you really...?"

The temperature in the hall plummeted.

"He is my intended, yes." Willow's smile looked so brittle that it might crack at any moment, revealing the snarl underneath. She wrapped her fee arm around Naruto's waist with frightful force. "Isn't that right, dear?"

"Yup." Naruto didn't so much as a bat an eyelash. "She's got her claws into me right and proper. Send help."

He looked down and winked at Cinder, but the gesture failed to ease her mind. She could see the irritation there, a quiet anger at Kali burning behind his blue eyes. It made Cinder worry all the more. For a time, there was sweet, blessed silence, broken only by the muted sound of their footsteps echoing down the hall. Cinder prayed it would last until they reached their destination. Prayed, with all her heart and soul.

"And how did that come about?" she should've known better. The Brother Gods were dicks.

"I don't believe that's any of your business." Willow sniffed.

"See, I think it is my business." Kali stopped short, forcing the three of them to do the same lest they leave her behind. "You're the reason I'm here. Its nearly unheard of for a Schnee to date a Faunus. And with those looks, he has to be one of us." Neither challenged her remark and she planted on hand on a hip as she barreled on. "You're both already the talk of Atlas, and not for the reasons you might think." Her brow furrowed. "If you're not going to be honest with me about something like this, then I don't much see the point in these talks. So I'll ask again. How did the two of you meet?"

"Fell outta the sky and landed in her garden." Naruto replied glibly.

Kali's mouth clicked open, all her anger draining away.

"Naruto!" Willow hissed. "Don't tell her that!"

"What?! Its the truth, isn't it?"

"Well, yes, but...

Cinder sensed an undercurrent of tension there. It twisted her little stomach into an angry knot. She'd never seen the two of them fight before. She had a bad feeling about this, but she also confessed a certain sense of curiosity herself. He'd...fallen out of the sky? Had he been in a bullhead or something?

Kali seemed to share in her surprise, until laughter bubbled from her lips.

"You're telling the truth, aren't you?" she chuckled, dabbing a mirthful tear away from her right eye. "Fair enough. If you're that embarrassed about it, I'll let it be. I can see the two of you clearly care for one another. Far be it from me to question that."

"Oh, I'll show you CARE-

"Ladies, please." Naruto groaned and pushed them both forward. "Can't we all just get along?"

Willow huffed.

Kali shrugged helplessly.

Both women pointedly looked away from the other as they did so and Little Cinder slapped a palm against her forehead. Petty children, the both of them. And she was the child here! By some miracle, they reached their destination before anyone could exchange further barbs or start a third war.

She wasn't sure which was more likely!

A servant opened a a door for the adults, and Cinder found herself ushered in with them. The room awaiting them within was a decidedly spartan space, albeit a large one. It possessed little in the way of decoration beyond a long table -no doubt meant for meetings of some import- with appropriate chairs to match. A lone water cooler awaited them in the southern corner, stocked with tiny paper cups. Sequestered here in the conference room away from prying eyes, they could conduct their business without fear of interruption.

Still the tension in the room persisted.

"Alright," Naruto turned to face each of them and raised his voice again, "Lets clear the air, eh?" blue eyes flicked between them both. "I don't know what the deal is between the two of you, but the buck stops here. Are we clear? We're here to talk. Whatever your differences are, put them aside for the sake of this meeting." Willow made to protest but he slashed a hand through the air. "You can fight later."

"As you say." Kali nodded gracefully. "I came here to talk, nothing more."

Willow wilted beneath Naruto's glower all the same. "You're right, that was...unprofessional of me."

Cinder didn't think so. As an outside party she could see where this dislike stemmed from...thought it pained her to admit it.

Willow came from a life of luxury. Kali looked like she'd been raised in a harsher environment. She'd probably had to fight for food, whereas Willow -Mother!- likely hadn't gone hungry a day in her life. A small, tiny part of Cinder empathized with that. The disparity between them was wide indeed.

Not only that, but Kali was making eyes at Naruto. The Schnee felt compelled to defend her territory. As well she should!

"Great." Still, Naruto seemed to accept the words for what they were and pulled out a seat for himself at the head of the table. "Now lets take a few minutes to relax before we can get started."

"Thank you." Kali said. "I've a call to make then, if you don't mind."

Naruto gestured. "By all means."

The very instant he sat down, Cinder pried her hand free from Willow's grasp and darted to his side. Then she hopped into his lap. The blond blinked in surprise, but didn't make any move to dislodge her, instead wrapping an arm loosely around her waist to prevent her from falling. Kali stifled a giggle behind her hand as she settled in on his right side. Willow took his left. Cinder glared bloody golden daggers at her and refused any and all attempts or suggestions that from Willow that she should move. Outright bribes were made. She ignored them all.

The Whiskered Man -Naruto!- was clearly expanding his power base. Cinder could respect that. Envy it, even.

But the White Fang was clearly looking to do the same. She wasn't sure she liked that.

Yet now Naruto was looking at his Scroll, which meant he wasn't paying attention to her. Cinder wrinkled her nose at him and began to fidget, then outright squirm in his lap when he continued to ignore her. Just like that, the respect was replaced with impatience...and vague curiosity. Naruto HATED his Scroll. He only used it when he absolutely had to. That he was using it now at all meant he was up to something. Her interest now piqued, she tried to lean over and see. Naruto noticed of course. She wasn't all the subtle about it and earned a flick on the forehead for her efforts.

"Curious?" he held the Scroll out for her when she growled at him. "I just sent a few messages to Arthur about the weapons you wanted."

"Really?" Cinder perked up, unable to conceal her glee and anger all but forgotten. "You did?! When? Where? How?"

"Yup." he beamed down at her. "He should have them ready in a few days. Take a look."

She scowled fearsomely at the Scroll. It all looked like squiggles to her eyes.

"What's wrong?" Naruto asked of her.

Cinder grimaced. "I...can't read."

Of course she couldn't. No one had taught her. Down in Mantle, an urchin didn't need such a skill and what little money she scraped together had ever been meant for food and shelter, not lessons. She knew how to fight, how to run, and how to talk. That was all she'd needed. All she'd ever been concerned with. Until now. Now, quite suddenly she was expected to know how, and she didn't. It made her face burn with shame. An ember of anger sparked to life and she choked on it, painfully aware of the silence in the room; she could feel everyone looking at her.

"You can't read?" Willow was the one to break the silence, repeating her own words.

Cinder braced herself for laughter to follow that declaration, only to find a curious expression instead. Naruto's hand descended on her little head and ran through her hair, slowly soothing her stress away. He didn't look at her with scorn, but empathy. Not pity, but the look of someone who had suffered a similar fate and sympathized with her plight. She wasn't sure what to make of it. Her eyes grew damp again and she scrubbed furiously at them to hide her tears.

"I'm sorry." she hung her head. "I'm being a burden again, aren't I?"

"Don't worry about it." The Whiskered Man swatted her concerns away with a laugh. "I had to teach myself to read when I was your age."

Cinder nearly fell off his lap, such was her shock. "You what?!"

Willow sucked in a sharp breath. Kali joined her off the side, and for once, Cinder was too shocked to glower at them.

"Yup." Naruto, ignorant of the bombshell he'd just dropped, continued to idly stroke her hair. "I was born to nothing, came from nothing, and knew nothing. I had to fight for every scrap I had." he paused, considering her for a moment. "In a way, you're stronger than I was at your age. I couldn't even fight until I was thirteen. Even then, I sucked at it." When she didn't stop gawping, he scratched at a whiskered cheek. "Suppose I had bad teachers back in the academy...

Willow made a strangled noise.

Cinder couldn't even make a sound; her little misconceptions were too busy shattering. She'd assumed Naruto was be born into power and privilege like Willow. He clearly fought on a higher level than her, but once again she thought he'd simply trained under a master of some sort. Never that he'd had to teach himself such a thing. That implied a rough upbringing, one without parents. Could it be? Was he like her? She'd never considered it, not a once.. He'd hinted at it earlier, but she'd misunderstood, thought he meant something else. Now?

She hadn't thought it possible to love someone more than she did at this very moment.

Naruto, already a beacon of strength for her, stood as proof of her ideals. If he'd truly come from nothing and become this strong, then she could do the same. Opportunity knocked, and Cinder Schnee answered. "Can you teach me later?" she asked. "How to read, I mean. I want to learn."

"Sure thing, kiddo." her guardian granted her a grin. "I'd be happy to. I'll order takeout and we'll make a day of it."

"We'd be happy to." Willow interjected, laying a hand atop his. "And dear?"

Naruto's head snapped back to her with wary eyes. "Yes...?"

"I'd like to have word with you about your education."

She likely wanted to murder those responsible, Cinder thought with a wicked little smirk. It was the appropriate response, of course. Anyone who slighted Naruto deserved such. Willow's pointed look said ad much, causing Cinder to lean back against his chest with a pleased smile. Best. Parents. Ever.

Thus nestled in Naruto's lap -as if anyone could possibly keep her from it!- she listened intently as the adults began to banter. She consoled herself in the knowledge that Naruto didn't care about this Kali-woman. He knew enough of them already! Summer, Raven, that odd maid who kept glaring at him, and now Kali. They could all sod off, she thought to herself. Willow was all he needed. And her, of course.

"That aside, are we waiting on anyone?" Naruto asked.

"I'd like Father to be here, if its all the same to you." Willow replied. "He should arrive shortly."

"By all means, take your time." Kali lowered her Scroll. "Ghira's just given me the all clear. "He'll be back from Mistral by the end of the week. Until then, I've been authorized to negotiate in his absence."

"Hmm?" Naruto swept a hand through his hair. "Ghira? Who's that?"

"You didn't know?" Kali tilted her head at Naruto.

"Not really." Something dark flashed through his gaze. "I'm...not from Atlas."

"Is that so?" she all but purred the words. "Interesting."

Naruto wasn't from Atlas? Where, then? Vale? Mistral? Vacuo? Cinder watched the byplay with mild interest and filed away that remark for later. Kali might've meant those words. Then again, she might be lying. She was clearly trying to be nice to everyone -unlike a certain grouchy bird!- and ordinarily that alone would've earned her a few points. But she'd been making eyes at Naruto and that alone set her back a country mile in Cinder's eyes.

"That's my fault. I forgot to tell you." Willow leaned over to fix Naruto's messy mane herself, then at a second glance, swiftly did the same with Cinder. Both sighed as she fussed over them. "Ghira stands as the current leader of the White Fang. No doubt he appointed Kali here," she gestured to the bemused Faunus in question, "To act as his representative."

"Its nothing personal." Kali reassured them. "He'll be returning to Atlas in a few days. Still, I felt this couldn't wait."

"Speaking of waiting," Naruto muttered the words without warning, his tone causing Cinder to perk up, "Ozpin's probably going to stick his nose into things if he's still here. We should probably expect him."

"We should." Willow agreed wholeheartedly, patting Cinder's head. The girl tried not to preen as she spoke. "He strikes me as the sort to meddle...Summer moreso. She'll be here in a heartbeat if she finds out."

Kali's right ear twitched and she went terribly still. Cinder noticed immediately, attention latching onto the stranger with singular focus. She had reacted to Summer's name just now. She was certain of it. Coincidence? She desperately wanted to believe so. Summer was a common enough name. She might well be thinking of someone else...right? Ugh. This was irritating. All these words within words. Why couldn't they just say what they meant?

"Why, though?" She looked to Naruto and kicked her legs against his. "Can't we just tell them all to go away? This is our home."

Naruto and Willow exchanged a bemused look as Kali squeed at Cinder's petulant pout in the background.

"We could send them packing," Naruto patted her head, "But that would be rude."

"Does it matter?" she argued. "You're strong, so they have to listen-

"We will do no such thing." Willow said.


Willow quirked an eyebrow. That was all it took to quell her complaints. Not a word, not a shout, just a look.

Something stirred in Cinder. Not anger or hunger or even fear, but a healthier emotion altogether. Respect. She wanted that kind of power. To cow someone with a look. To make the masses part before you. Willow wasn't even strictly in charge of the SDC yet, and already her words -her actions- could move nations. From what she'd seen of his skills, Naruto could probably take on an entire Kingdom if it came down to that...assuming anyone was foolish enough to make an enemy of him. These were her parents. These were the people who would be raising her. Teaching her.

Life was good.

"Maybe we got lucky and Ozpin took them back to Beacon already." Naruto offered, claiming her attention once. "Who knows? Stranger things have happened."

"Not a chance." Willow shot him down. "I know Summer; she'd never leave without saying goodbye."

"I'm sorry," Kali interjected suddenly. "Did you say Summer? As in Summer Rose?"

Willow's head whipped around with an audible crack. Cinder mimicked her.

"Don't tell me you know her?!"

"That's...a bit of a story...

As though waiting for that very phrase, Naruto's scroll vibrated. Willow's joined it a moment later. Cinder turned back to peek at the former.

"Sorry!" Naruto read the message out for her, "Ozpin and Nicholas got into a nasty argument and Raven had to cut us back a portal to Vale earlier than we expected. I wanted to say goodbye, but didn't have chance. Rae says she's gonna try and kill you in your sleep. See you in a week?"

"Oh, father. Bless you." Willow sagged in her seat like a puppet without strings. "I'll have to get him something nice for his birthday next year...

Another ping followed.

"Huh? This one's from Qrow." Naruto dutifully read the next message. "Ice Queen looked hot in her new outfit. You're a lucky guy."

The Schnee turned scarlet and snatched the Scroll from him. Her eyes blazed. "I WILL END HIM!"

Naruto and Kali cackled together, and just like that, the ice broke.

Cinder listened intently as they bantered back and forth anew, watching the tension slowly drain away. She was a good listener. She had to be; if you couldn't keep one ear to the ground, you didn't live long. You had to make alliances, too. She could only assume this was one such alliance. Even a street urchin like her knew who the White Fang were and what they represented. Recognition game them a voice. Gave them power. It made sense that Kali would jump at the chance for the SDC to acknowledge her group.

The door clicked open abruptly behind her, drawing the girl's attention away from that strangely unpleasant thought.

"Father." Willow hummed in mild concern. "You're awfully late. What kept you?"

"Just a bit of business." Nicholas hummed. "Nothing to worry about."

Cinder knew otherwise after seeing Summer's text. The old man was clearly running interference for them against Ozpin, and while she didn't necessarily understand why, she found herself grateful for it all the same. He'd already tried to recruit Naruto and Willow for Beacon. From what she'd seen of him he'd probably try and snap her up too, if he could. Not that she'd let him. Her place was here.

"Well, as I live and breathe." Kali all but jolted out of her seat. "If it isn't the big man himself."

"Miss Belladona." Nicholas inclined his head in a nod and reached out to grasp her hand when it was offered. "A pleasure to finally meet you in person. I believe I have someone of yours."

"I...beg you pardon?"

Without warning, the door smashed open and nearly smacked Nicholas in the back; it was only a quick sidestep on his part that saved the Schnee. A dark figure bulled their way in behind him, shouting and swearing as they stormed into the room. Naruto did a double take and exhaled angrily. This time Cinder was alarmed to find that her minder actually seemed to recognize this one. Oh, dear.

She craned her neck back. Golden eyes widened. They weren't hers.

"YOU!" the newcomer jabbed a finger at Naruto. "You've got some nerve pulling a stunt like this after you ditched me last night!"

"Me?" The blond tilted his head like a curious puppy. "And last night?" Blue eyes narrowed. "What're you talking about? Who are you? You seem familiar...

Young Cinder found herself staring at a Faunus with striking golden eyes and ebony hair, clad in black-orange leathers. Were it not for the dark shade of her skin or the stripes marking her arms one might've been forgiven for thinking her and Kali sisters at a distance. Whomever she was, the newcomer didn't look happy to see them. The feeling appeared mutual.

"You don't even remember me, do you?!" that accusing finger turned to a stabbing one, jutting against his forehead as Cinder glared on. "Let me jog your memory!" her golden eyes blazed into his placid blue when Naruto made no move to speak. "You kidnapped me, called me an idiot, dumped me in a backwater alley and ran off! Do you have any idea how embarrassing that was?!"

Cinder looked up and saw an epiphany dawn in the eyes of her guardian. He sighed, and something in his eyes had Sienna skittering back like a frightened kitten. She knew the look well. For a fleeting moment he stopped being Naruto and became The Whiskered Man once more. His expression snapped back the moment he caught her watching, however.

"Blasted shadow clones." he muttered aside. " I thought I recognized you...my boys helped you out with that mob."

"You still ditched me!"

"Well," Nicholas sighed as he stepped around the seething girl and into the room, "I suppose that's one way to introduce yourself."

"Father?" Willow blinked in surprise. "Who is this?"

"That," Kali groaned as she sank into her chair. "Would be...Sienna. I'd asked her to wait back at outside."

"To be fair, she was outside." The elder Schnee demurred he claimed a seat beside his daughter. "And making quite a ruckus at that. I felt it best to let her inside myself before she broke in."

"Is that so?"

Kali's glower was a sharp thing, but Sienna wasn't cowed about it. Cinder wasn't sure if that was arrogance or anger on her part. While Willow's glower might've put the fear of gods into someone, Kali's lacked that wintry edge. She seemed more disappointed in her compatriot than anything else. Like a parent taking a naughty child to task. Regardless, such sentiment. wasn't enough to make Sienna back down.

"Like hell I'd leave you alone with a bunch of humans!" the younger Faunus snapped back, hands clenched into fists at her sides. "What're you and Ghira thinking, staging a meeting like this?!"


All eyes turned to Naruto.

"They're thinking about peace." the blond continued amicably as he laid his hands on the table. This time there was an unmistakable edge to his voice; one that left Cinder shifting nervously in his lap. "We're here to talk, that's all." he gestured with a hand. "Feel free to sit down and join us. All are welcome here."

Sienna slapped it away. "We don't need peace with the likes of you. We're fine on our own."

Willow hissed. "Impudent little-

"No, by all means." Naruto raised a hand, silencing her. "I'd like to hear what she has to say about me."

"You're a pacifist." Sienna turned her head and spat. "A filthy race traitor who sold their soul for a nice pair of legs."

Willow didn't make a sound. Neither did Nicholas. Somehow, the Schnee's silence terrified Cinder more than anything they could've said.

"Sienna, that's enough." Kali cut in quickly. "Stop running your mouth, or you'll be made to stop."

"Hmm. A traitor." Naruto tilted his head like a curious fox and Cinder caught the ghost of a smile lurking on the edge of his visage. "A traitor, you say." he smacked his lips and repeated the word with a small chuckle, as if he somehow found those damning accusations amusing. "Is that really what you think? If you have another problem with me, then by all means, continue. Speak your mind."

Cinder frowned despite herself. What was he playing at?

Sienna swallowed the bait whole.

"You're a coward, too!" the finger came back again, seeking his brain matter. "You could've massacred those shits last night. I saw the way you moved. You're a fighter. Instead you turned tail and rain like a coward. Now you want to "make peace" because its good for your image. You don't care about the little people! About us!"

"So you'd rather I kill anyone who looks at me funny? Violence isn't always the answer." Naruto rebuked her with a shake of the head. "Sometimes its better to take the high ground."

"You'd know, wouldn't you?!" Sienna clicked her tongue and regarded him with a triumphant look. "Your precious "high ground" runs right through a Schnee's legs!"

Naruto gave Cinder the tiniest nudge in his lap as he made to stand and with a jolt, Cinder understood what was about to happen.

He was angry. He would lash out. That would jeopardize the meeting. That couldn't be allowed to happen. This meeting was vital. He'd told her as much. If he stood up and struck Sienna now in front of everyone, he might be forgiven for it. But might not. It would ruin his plans. His plants were important. And this bitch was going to ruin them. She hated her. Something ugly bubbled up in her chest.

"Shut up."

Sienna balked at her. "Huh?"

Cinder's world burned red. "I SAID SHUT UP!"

Sienna reared back as the smaller girl flew at her, realizing the gravity of what she'd just said. Cinder didn't care. She slammed a clenched fist into her gut before she could even think to speak again. The sudden burst of shock that burned through the older girl's gaze brought her more pleasure than any meal might. She'd been raised on the streets. On the streets you had to be fast. No, faster than fast. Naruto had only taught her a little, but she was still trained. She knew how to fight. How to win.

Sienna, for all her fire...did not.

Even as the Faunus girl lashed out and tried to push her back, Cinder ducked into her guard to seize the stunned Faunus by the wrist. Then she wrenched said limb upward at a vicious angle, eliciting a shocked cry from her prey as she snapped her arm backward and burned her wrist in the same movement.

Sienna hissed like a struck cat. "What the hell?!"

Cinder didn't give her the chance to recover her wits. In a single fluid motion she flowed around her, sidestepped the clumsy strike that brushed her hair, and captured the girl's other wrist in her free hand. From there it was a simple matter of trapping both arms behind her back and binding them together with a vicious application of heated glass, wrenching the joints painfully as she did. There. Even the slightest movement on Sienna's part would dislocate her own shoulders now.

"Ow!" Sienna snarled as her face was summarily shoved into the carpet. "Who the hell're you?! Lemme go!"

Cinder most assuredly did not. Instead she leveraged her position to plant a foot on the Faunus girl's spine and force her to to the floor. Sienna's collarbone creaked ominously and her eyes widened with fear. Cinder drank it in. Reveled in it. It would be so simple to break her neck at this angle. She'd seen it done before. She could even burn her arms, ruin them forever. She deserved it. Deserved to suffer for her pointless grudge, for being a petty, spiteful little-


A hand settled on her shoulder and the world snapped back like a rubber band.

"That was brilliant." Willow's smile greeted her, fingers curling gently around her shoulder. "Thank you for standing up for me."

Cinder released a breath she hadn't even realized she'd been holding, suddenly and keenly aware of all eyes on her. Though she was chuffed to realize her mother had come to her aid. A slow, angry heat still crept up the back of her neck. What? Did they think she would sit idly by while someone badmouthed her parents? No! Never! Still, the silence threatened to strangle her.

Nicholas Schnee broke through her fretful thoughts with a low whistle. "My, my. Can't say I was expecting that. Good show, dear."

"Very nice." Naruto seconded her efforts with a slow clap. "Not a bad takedown. Ten out of ten from me."

They...they were pleased with her? She'd feared a rebuke or worse, but everyone in the room -bar Sienna- seemed pleased with her actions. She'd not expected that. It felt good. Really good. A fresh thrill of pride burned through Cinder's chest at their acknowledgement. Ha! Victory!

Kali hummed softly. "Vicious little bitch, isn't she?"

Willow scowled. "Don't call her that."

"Oh, you thought I meant...oh dear." The faunus in question blanched as all eyes fell upon her. "No, no, no!" her hands waved frantically in a rare lapse of decorum. "I was talking about Sienna. Not your daughter. She's always had a bit of a temper." As everyone looked on she inclined her head and touched one hand to her chest. "You have my sincerest apologies for her outburst."

"Hmm." Judging by his expression, Father didn't buy the woman's words right away, and Cinder loved him all the more for it. Still, he had appearances to maintain. "You can let go of her now, kiddo." he finally spoke into the subsequent silence. "I think she's learned her lesson."

"Say you're sorry, Sienna." Kali echoed the sentiment.

Sienna muttered some choice words into the carpet. "Sorry" may or many not have been among them.

Cinder was just about to release her prey when a thought occurred to her. The Whiskered Man was making allies for himself. Why couldn't she do the same? She'd find no better chance to wet her teeth than this...and she was still irritated by this mouthy girl. Sienna was all bark and no bite, like an angry dog. She didn't even have the strength to back it up. A wicked little thought hit her and she grinned.

...are you going to kill me?" Sienna snarled.

"I don't think so." Cinder smiled. "You work for me now."

Naruto made a noise somewhere between a snort and a squawk.

"She's putting together her own power base." Nicholas sniffed happily. "Oh, I'm so proud...

"HA?!" her victim bucked in her grasp, to no avail. Cinder's grip was iron. "Me? Work for you?! No! Never!"

"I disagree," Kali gave a nod of her own, "I think a few weeks of probation would set her to rights. What say you, Willow?"

The Schnee's smile was nothing short of beatific. "I think that sounds grand."

"Its sounds shitty!" Sienna snarled.

"Oh?" Kali cocked her head to one side. "It sounds like a few months, you say? Lovely."

Sienna turned pale. "I didn't say that, you bitch!"

In a swirl of seamless black smoke, Kali vanished from her chair and reappeared before them. Cinder immediately released Sienna, knowing full well what her superior intended for the brash girl. After all, she wasn't Kali's target. Still, she took some pleasure in watching what came next.

Kali reached down for Sienna, placed one hand under her chin, and forced her subordinate to feet. For a moment, those golden eyes burned impossibly bright as though lit from within.

"A year it is, then." she declared with an air of finality. "Perhaps that'll give you time to cool that hot head of yours. Unless you'd like to extend it further?"

Sienna grit her teeth, but didn't make a sound.

"That's right. Not a word from you, Sienna. Not a peep. Not a sound." the older Faunus gave the girl's chin a good hard wrench, squeezing her cheeks in her palm much to her chagrin. "If you so much as whisper another insult to our hosts, I'll have your in a cell so fast your head will spin. Do you understand? Nod if you do."

Sienna nodded fearfully. Kali released her with a pleased hum and stepped back.

"Good girl. Go sit in the corner and think of what you've done."

Remarkably, she obeyed.

"Now, then!" Kali clapped her hands as she turned to face the rest of them. "Lets forget all about that nasty little mishap and get down to business, shall we?" from there she was quick to abuse her Semblance again and teleport back into her chair. She proved equally quick to offer an olive branch as she laid her elbow on the table. "What are you terms?"

...Cinder took back every bad thing she'd ever said about Kali. Willow inspired with words, and Naruto deeds, but this woman wielded fear like a battleaxe. She hadn't even threatened to kill Sienna so much as imprison her; now that once brash and bawdy girl was left staring studiously at the carpet floor. She'd learned a valuable lesson this day. When sheer charisma couldn't do the job, terror worked well enough. Interesting.

Maybe she could learn something from this one after all. And she'd gotten a subordinate out of it. For a year at least. It was a start.

"Terms?" Naruto pushed on, whiskered face twisting in concern. A ruse, surely. He was bluffing. He had to be. Even now he was likely leveraging his influence with the SDC to full effect. In her mind, Naruto was infallible. He always had a plan. He must. Such was the implicit trust of a child. She didn't even bat an eyelash when Nicholas swooped in to "save" him from floundering. "What is it you want, exactly?"

Kali blinked. "Just like that?"

Cinder climbed back into his lap, determined to listen; that brief reprieve gave Kali a chance to muster her thoughts.

"Gods, you're actually serious, aren't you? W-Well then!" she sputtered, struggling to make up for lost ground, "If we're talking about those working for the SDC, higher wages would be near the top of the list. Many of those who work in the mines are making a pittance at best" When no one challenged her, a glimmer of hope burned in her eyes. "What say you? Can you do something about that, at least?"

"Done." Nicholas granted. "The board will grumble a bit, but I should be able to swing them on such a minor issue."

Cinder swore and Naruto's hand swung up to slap his forehead.

Kali's eyes narrowed. "Its not minor to my people."

"Father." Willow hissed.

"You're right," guilt flitted across the Schnee's bearded face. "I misspoke. Forgive me."

"I'll take you at your word." Kali leaned back in her chair, and Cinder thought she looked just a little more guarded than she'd been before. "There's also the matter of safety and proper insurance," she counted off on one finger then the other, "Not to mention protection from the elements and the Grimm. Mantle's a separate issue altogether."

Naruto was quick to agree. Almost too quick. "I'm sure Willow and I could help on that front-

"Its not that simple, my boy." Nicholas cut in, drawing a black look from the blond.

"Why not?" Naruto asked before Cinder could.

"Were it within my power, I would be more than happy to grant miss Belladona everything she's just discussed and more." A defeated look flashed across Nichola's worn face. "However, I'm just one man and the SDC is a beast of its own, one I cannot completely control." his shoulders rose and fell in a weary sigh. "If you ask for too much, too soon, there's going to be significant push-back on these issues." Kali opened her mouth to refute him but he beat her to the punch. "And though it may seem otherwise, our coffers aren't overflowing with lien these days."

"You're the founder, aren't you?" this time it was Kali who challenged him. "Your word should be law."

That got her a grimace. "Even then my word only carries so much sway-

"Then maybe its time things change." Naruto interjected forcefully. "Who cares what they think? You can't live life without stepping on a few toes."

Willow frowned at that. "I'm afraid I have disagree on that-

"Bull." Naruto snapped at her, causing the heiress to flinch. "Life is what you make it! If people are suffering then its our responsibility to do something about it!"

Cinder flinched as well, though for entirely different reasons. It was the first time she'd seen Naruto openly snap at Willow for anything. For a moment she feared he'd gone and broken her. Willow balked at him, eyes wide and shocked into silence. Cinder instantly recalled the tension from before, saw brief flash of guilt as both averted their eyes. Oh, dear. This was going to be a problem, wasn't it? She just knew it.

"Agreed." If Kali had a tail, it would've been swaying right about now. "I like the cut of this one's jib, Nicholas. He's not half bad. Bit of a soft touch, though."

Cinder watched a strange expression flit over the businessman's face.

As such, she was just as surprised when he threw his arms up.

"Oh, to hell with it!" he laughed. "I'm not getting any younger. This will cause a stir," Nicholas raising a gloved finger. "Not to mention time to implement. Change cannot simply occur overnight. Nor can we simply be seen to give into your demands out of the blue without something in exchange."

"And what would you ask of us in return?" Kali quirked an eyebrow.

"For starters? I'd ask you ease your protests and refrain from harassing members of my staff." a poignant pause followed. "It might best if you were seen working closely with SDC for the time being."

"How close?"

"Very close." the former huntsman clarified. "I'd ask you not to leave Atlas for the next month or so."

Naruto blinked. "Eh?"

"Done!" Kali all but shouted the word as she slapped her open palms against the table. "Would you be willing to taking things a step further?" Naruto and Nicholas exchanged a look and she pounced on it like the predator she was. "To be frank, I'd really like the SDC to help us negotiate with Atlas as a whole."

Willow finally found her voice again. "That...sounds like a tall order. I'm not sure-

"I think we can do it." Naruto interrupted.

Willow rounded on him with a naked hiss. "Naruto!"

"Why're ya glaring at me?" he glowered at her. "What did I do this time?!"

"Allow me to make a few overtures." Nicholas raised his voice to be heard as the two began to squabble. "The SDC may have a foothold in every kingdom, but our word isn't law."

"Your influence would go a long way to passing some of those laws." Kali pointed out.

"Indeed." Nicholas hummed. "Even in these times our word carries some weight...

"You could mine more areas to cover the loss in revenue, wouldn't you?"

"Quite so!" The Schnee beamed. "I like the way you think...

With that, they fell into a whirl of discussion, leaving Cinder's little head spinning. What followed was a whirl technical terms far out of her depth; such that she didn't even try to keep pace. This was good, right? They'd reached an agreement somehow. Against all odds, the SDC and the White Fang appeared to have hashed out a tentative agreement. That could only be a good thing.

Why, then, did she have a bad feeling about this?


Why wasn't he listening to her?

For reasons Willow didn't couldn't comprehend she'd been shunted aside in this conversation; forced into silence as Naruto and Nicholas took the helm. They'd cut her out, perhaps not intentionally, but they'd removed her all the same. Father, she didn't much mind. No matter how silly or inane he might appear to some, the end of the day he was still a businessman. He knew what he was doing, surely. Father was a skilled negotiator and he had decades of experience under his belt.

Naruto was another matter.

For reasons she couldn't understand, he'd rebuffed her. Twice now. And it stung. Oh, did it sting.

Why was he being like this? He was making promises he couldn't keep. Surely he realized that. You couldn't help everyone. Couldn't save everyone.

Naruto flicked her an odd look when she tried to catch his attention and summarily ignored her. Cinder was preoccupied with her new...lackey? Minion? Subordinate? Willow couldn't quite find the right word for it. But she could find a word for her "intended" in this moment.


It wasn't anything he'd said or done, but rather, what he'd failed to do. For the first time since they'd established this little ruse of theirs, he wasn't listening to her. She wasn't sure why that hurt so much, only that it did, that it pricked her in the worst of places. Frankly, it was was miracle they'd never fought before and bound to happen sooner or later.

Naruto spoke his mind far too freely, caring naught for what others thought of him. Willow almost envied him that-if it weren't so infuriating!

She knew their "relationship" was fake. It was a lie built on another lie, one built to ward away potential suitors. But now that lie had been thrust into the limelight. Yes, their engagement was most assuredly false. But she was beginning to fear that the feelings behind it weren't. They'd spent time together. Begun to bond. She was admittedly fond of him. A very small, vocal part of her wouldn't mind if this ruse evolved into something more, something grand, something true.

That made this conflict hurt all the worse.

With each passing moment she felt her anger build, a steady storm that burned higher and higher. Willow tried to stamp it down, to no avail. Her anger persisted. She clamped a lid down on it, locked it in a box and threw away the key, yet still it continued to simmer and seethe. Finally, she could take it no more.

Willow stood.

"Pardon me for a moment." she declared briskly. "I'm afraid I'm not feeling well."

To his credit, Naruto flicked a glance at her. "Want me to come with?"

Oh, now he was concerned about her!

"No." she forced the words out through gritted teeth. "That won't be necessary." before he could protest, she turned her gaze to Kali. "Will you be alright without me, miss Belladona?"

"By all means, go." Kali waved a hand at her. Golden orbs flicked back to Naruto. "I'm sure we can find something to chat about until your return." She didn't even mean any harm by it, but those words pricked Willow's pride all the same. She didn't want to be around Naruto right now. Not if it meant watching Kali make eyes at him. And he didn't even see it, the dolt!

She stormed out and slammed the door behind her before anyone else could challenge her.

"Wait up, will you?!" To her dismay, Naruto darted after her not a moment later.

Mercifully, he'd left Cinder behind with Nicholas. Thank the gods for small mercies. She didn't want the girl to see her like this. But didn't want Naruto near her right now, either! In a fit of pique she hastened her pace; for all the good it did her. She heard him lengthen his stride to match hers and bit back a growl. So they were doing this, then? Here? In front of everyone?

"I didn't ask you to follow me, Naruto." she huffed, all but flinging herself around a corner. "Go away. Shoo. Leave me be."

"You're angry." it wasn't a question. Her temper flared anew, angry and cold. Ice cold. Cold enough to burn.

"Figured that out yourself, did you?" she called in a saccharine voice. "How wise you must be."

"Alright, very angry." he sighed at her back. "Was it something I said?"

She refused to grace him with an answer.

"Can't we just talk?"

Willow growled and yanked open the first door she found. She marched inside and sure enough, Naruto followed. As she'd known he would. She heard him ease the door shut behind him with great care and knew why; he was afraid he might break this one, as he'd done with many before. Ordinarily, that would've made Willow smile. Instead her joy turned to ash in her mouth as she took in her surroundings.

The room itself was a simple guest room, yet unadorned save for a lone window and a worn cot. It would do.

"You want to talk?" She rounded on him, folding both arms beneath her breasts. "Go ahead. Talk."

For the first time since she'd met him, Naruto dithered, reluctant to speak.

...is there something you want me to say?" he offered the words.

A pregnant silence stretched between the two of them.

Must she spell it out for him?

"You dismissed me back there, in front of everyone." Willow spoke slowly, clenching her fists at her side. "Do you have any idea how embarrassing that was for me? To just be pushed aside like that? I'd expect it of Father, he never means any harm by it, but I didn't expect it from you. That hurt me."

"Oh." Comprehension dawned in the blond's gaze. "I'm sorry for that. I didn't mean to...

Just like that tension drained from Willow's shoulders. She made a tiny noise of contentment and stepped in to take his hands in hers, threading pale fingers within his tan digits. Her anger began to abate, slowly bleeding away in the silence as she held onto him. Perhaps she'd overreacted as well. Naruto might be thick as a brick at times, but he wasn't a bad person. He was loyal. Kind. Quick to come to her aid when asked, and for once, he'd actually apologized for that. Her heart fluttered and her anger flickered like a windswept candle.

...but I'm not sorry for wanting to help Kali."

The tension returned with a vengeance and bought real estate in her heart.

"Helping her's all well and good, Naruto." she frowned, "But you can't take on that world for her. That's absurd. Even for you."

"Is it? I've been meaning to bring this up, but I've thinking about leaving Atlas once we've settled things with Kali." He looked over his shoulder as he said the words, and as such didn't see the way she stiffened. "Just for a bit!" he hastened to add when she didn't respond. "I wanna see the world. Help people like her, you know? It doesn't feel right to keep Cinder cooped up in the mansion, either...

He was leaving? Just like that? Willow's heart wrenched as she wrenched her hands free. No. He couldn't. He wouldn't, surely...

"Y-You can't leave." she said quickly. "You're needed here!"

"Well, I can't stay forever, you know." He laughed.

'Say it!' her thoughts raged. 'Tell him!'

Her voice failed her.

"Hmm?" Naruto frowned, then turned to face her entirely when he she hung her head. "Did you say something? I didn't catch that. If you're worried about the White Fang, don't be. They seem to good people, for the most part." his smile hurt her more than he could ever know, a knife of guilt stabbing through her ribs. "I've got this. There's nothing to worry about. Believe in me."

"Believe?" Ice blue eyes flashed. "You keep saying that...you keep doing everything yourself...you keep getting further and further away...

He blinked at her, and she failed to see the comprehension she so desperately sought there. Was he that blind?

"Sorry?" Instead he apologized. Like he always did. Without understanding. "Did I make you mad?"

Something about those words set her off and the dam broke. Mad? No. She was beyond that emotion now. This was worse. Her lips twitched. Her eyes began to burn. Cold logic told her she was overreacting, that she was making a mountain out of a molehill. Emotion said otherwise. Why was he doing this to her? Didn't he understand that he was betraying her? A tiny noise tumbled from Willow's lips. It might've been laughter. It sounded like a sob. She no longer knew.

...erstand you." she mumbled the words.

"Eh?" blue eyes blinked.

"I said I don't understand a single thing you do!" Willow burst out, all but slapping him with her braid as she spun to face him in such a confined space. "I don't understand you, Naruto! I don't understand why you think the way you do! I don't understand! I can't understand!" he tried to speak and she shouted him down with a shriek. "Why do you act like this? Do you like helping people that much? Are you a workaholic?!" Words tumbled from her lips and she could restrain them no longer. "That's stupid! You'll work yourself to death!"

His jaw clicked open and she didn't care. Everything came bubbling out.

"What's so important about seeing the world?!" Willow took a step forward, and he retreated in shock. "I don't understand!" another step, another retreat on his part." The world's a scary place! Its filled with awful people! You have friends here! Family! Why do you want to leave?! I don't understand!"

"I was going to ask you to come with me!" Blue eyes flared into red.

"Don't give me these half-baked excuses!" she snapped. "Talk to me in your own words! I'm begging you, speak so I can understand you!"

"Whaddya want me to say?!" he bit back, slamming a fist into the wall. "You're the one overreacting here!"

"Because you pushed me to this!" she raged.

"Me?! How is this my fault?!"

Sometimes, she wished she'd never met him. He'd wormed his way into her heart and it hurt. She couldn't get him out. She couldn't comprehend him. Worse, he didn't even seem to realize what he'd done. And with that, the the last shred of restraint she'd clung onto slipped through her grasp.

"There it is again! I don't understand, I don't understand, I don't understand, I don't understand!" Willow shook her head with every word, braid thrashing like a live wire behind her, bitter tears rising to bite at damp eyes and drown her in fear all over again. "I DON'T UNDERSTAND YOU AT ALL! You're impossible! Why must you be this way?! Why can't you make sense?!"

"I am making sense!" He flung up his arms! "You're not! Where's all this coming from? What's gotten into you?!"

"YOU HAVE!" her hands clamped onto his jacket, and she slammed him against the wall, cracking the plaster. "You're loud, insufferable, and I care about you! Yet you're willing to throw yourself on a pyre to please the masses without a second thought!" his face twisted in a moment of weakness and she leaped on it, grabbing him by the jacket. "Why can't you be selfish for once?! Why do you have to constantly throw yourself in harms way and risk yourself like this?! The outside world's a dangerous place! Its safer here! Why risk yourself to help people you barely even know?!"

'Stay here.' she wanted to say, but the words wouldn't come. 'Stay with me. Don't leave me.'

And so Naruto jutted his chin out at her in defiance. "Because its the right thing to do! Why're so mad at me?!"

"Ugh!" even after all this time, he still didn't understand! She shoved him backwards with a snarl. "You know nothing! You're going to die if you keep doing this!"

"What?" He recoiled as if she'd slapped him. "I won't die! Where'd you get that idea?!"

"From watching you!" She hollered at him! "And yes, you will! Maybe not now, maybe not even this year or the next, but sooner or later, you're going to bite off more than you can chew. You're always throwing yourself in front of everyone. Sooner or later its going to cost you your life" her chest heaved with breath, with raw fear and terror. "Nevermind your recklessness, did you even consider how Cinder and I might feel if you get yourself killed?! Did you even think about that?!"

Naruto's expression said he hadn't. Naive, dense, reckless fool!

For the first time since they'd met, Willow struck out at him in genuine anger.

"Hey!" Naruto caught her wrist and yanked her close. It only made her angrier, but he held tight.

"Let me go!" she snarled up at him, to no avail. "Release me this instant, Naruto! Do you hear me?! Let! Go!"

"No!" he barked back, forcing a fresh flinch from her. "Not until I know what I did to upset you! Just calm down and tell me!"

"Calm?!" Willow wriggled a hand free and jabbed a manicured nail against his cheek, halting him in his tracks. "How can I possibly be calm?! You upset me! You enrage me! Every little thing you do! And you don't even realize it! You keep throwing yourself against these suicidal odds! It doesn't matter how tough you think you are, one of these days, you're going to get yourself killed!" she swept a hand, shattering a nearby window with a glyph. Sharpened shards of glass flew across the carpet and bit into her aura, but she didn't care. "Why don't you see that?!" she cried the words. "Why don't you see me?! I was right next to you, and Kali still played you like a fiddle! Why, why, why?!"

Emotion overpowered reason and Willow surged forward in his grasp to slam an open palm over Naruto's mouth.


Before he could protest further, she crushed her lips against the back of her own hand. Behind those fingers Naruto made a noise that might've been surprise...or consent. Willow was too furious to learn which. Damn this. Damn her. Damn him! He'd ruined everything. Ignorance was bliss. She'd been so happy this morning, and even now a part of her wanted nothing more than to forgive him. But she couldn't.

Naruto was going to die if he carried on like this. And that was unacceptable.

"This is all your fault!" She ripped her hand free from his face and skittered backwards to the door when he made to follow her. "All of it! Every bit of it!"

"My fault?" he reared back, hands balling into fists. "You're the one who-

"No!" she all but wailed the word. "Don't say it! Don't look at me! Don't touch me!" she hissed at him until he withdrew. "Don't even think about me until you start making sense again. I can't understand you!" Angry tears streaked her pale cheeks but she refused to hold them in any longer. "I don't understand a single thing about you, Naruto!"

"I don't understand you either!" Once upon a time, his stubbornness might've pleased her. Now? It only hurt. "You're not making any sense!"

"Neither are you!" Willow flourished Sable at him, forcing him to back off. "Follow me and I swear I'll freeze you solid!"

She spun and slammed the door in his face with a resounding bang and a sob. An empty hall awaited her. She was grateful for that. There was no one there to see her tears. No one to watch as she flung herself down the hall. None to protest when she tore open the door to her room, locked herself within, and buried her head in a pillow.

Perhaps had she lingered a moment more, she might've realized what she'd just done to him.

Willow never noticed Naruto's stricken expression, nor the guilt burning in his eyes.

She never heard him call out for her. Never saw his head strike the wall.

"Damnit." he muttered. I screwed that up...

A/N: Well, Naruto and Willow finally had their first fight. It was bound to happen sooner or later, and conflict is a part of life.

These are people, after all. They all have their flaws and falts. Naruto needs to learn to not be so stubborn and Willow...well. Its been stated -and seen!- that Willow was always emotionally fragile in canon. She's deathly afraid of being betrayed, of losing those she loves. In her eyes, she sees Kali as a threat, even if that isn't that case here; sees her as someone trying to steal someone precious to her.

And on an unrelated front, Penny just might end up having a sibling if Watts has his way~!

Someone mentioned Watts singing "Anything you can do, I can do better, I can do anything better than you." Yup, suits him to a T.

That aside, we'll be having a timeskip or two pretty soon; nothing major, just something to move the plot along some. Don't worry, you'll be plenty entertained. And there we have it.

So In The Immortal Words of Atlas...

...Review, Would You Kindly? It keeps us all alive.

Without reviews, we wither and die. Sorry, but that's the truth.

Now then, we do hope you enjoy the previews. Read at your own risk, of course:

Why? Because next chapter, things start to get heavy. Once more! Read at your own risk! Big scenes ahead!




(POTENTIAL Previews)

Cinder planted both hands on her little hips. "You need to apologize to Willow."

"Not you too!"

"A ball?" Naruto made a choked sound. "You can't be serious. No. Uh-uh. Absolutely not."

Nicholas pitied him all the more for his reluctance. "I'm afraid I am, my boy."

"Willow's still not talking to me. This'll make it worse."

"You're welcome to bring little Cinder with you-

"Yeah, no." the blond grimaced. "She'll probably stab me."

Cinder's head peeked around the corner. "No, I won't."

"Gah! Sneaky little thing!"

"You're coming with us!"

A knife came up under her chin, forcing her to be still.

"No." Fria hummed as her eyes blue began to glow. "I don't think I am."

Ironwood offered him his hand. "Its a pleasure to meet you again."

Naruto blinked and shook it automatically. His brain whirled. Again? Oh bugger.

"That said," the soon-to-be-General granted him a curious look, "I have a few questions if you don't mind...?"

"Someone who can steal Semblances?" Naruto considered the dossier held before him with a bleak look. "And he's here? In Atlas? Isn't that a bit dangerous?"

"Which is why I'd like you to look into this when you have the chance. He won't be able to steal anything from you."

"Its not the stealing I'm worried about. I've dealt with assassins before. They're a pain."

He considered the document anew. Marcus Black, it read. An assassin.

"I've got a bad feeling about this...

A maid leaned low to whisper into her ear. "Jacques Gele is here to see you, miss Schnee."

"Is he now?" Willow absolutely bristled. She hadn't expected him to come crawling back. What the hell was he playing at? "Send him away. I'm not interested in whatever he has to say."

"We've tried, my lady." the maid informed her with a grimace. "He won't leave."