Born Weapons
Arc I
Face the Future
Chapter I
Koji Naruto

"Each morning you must turn your eyes anew to the rising sun, or risk ensnarement by the shadows of yesterday."
-Senju Hashirama
First Hokage

The First

He is the first Hokage, and he is like the sun.

As a child, Senju Hashirama is gentle. He is a child of war, like all children of his day, but despite the pain and death and misery that define his life he believes in something softer – a grace and kindness long lost to the world. He dreams of gardens, and of lazy Uposatha afternoons, and the strength of this dream radiates from him like a light in the darkness. He walks, and the trees and flowers bow before him. He speaks, and men and women and children clamber for the chance to die at his side. He is gentle and loving to his friends, quick with a smile and a laugh, but when provoked his rage is terrible to behold. His enemies fall before him, and their corpses feed the forests that sprout in his wake.

He is still only a boy when made Lord of the Senju clan, but those who watch the sages smear paint across his face can feel the importance of the moment. "This is the end of history," they whisper amongst themselves. For he is Senju Hashirama, the blood of the Sage, who gave life and light and shade, and those who follow him recognize some trace of God in man.

He leads his people against their most ancient enemies, cutting a bloody swathe across the lonely corner of the continent the Senju call home. A dozen clans unite against him, terror making the unthinkable a reality, but even ten thousand swords cannot cut him. Those who lay down their weapons find a home under his banner – those who fight, die. And for the first time in living memory, there is peace. War rages endlessly across the continent, but does not touch the Senju lands.

It is not to last. The Uchiha, butchers of the west, come. The Uchiha, they of the bloody eyes and bloody hands, come. The Uchiha, wielders of the ancient flame, come.

The Uchiha, descendants of the Sage, who gave life and light and flame, come.

Senju! Uchiha! The crimson eyes of Uchiha Madara settle on the peaceful land Hashirama has created, and the people cower, for they are afraid. But Senju Hashirama is not afraid. He wears the marks of the Sage on his face, cherry red paint on nut brown skin, and some even whisper that he is the Sage's second coming. And when he raises his hand, and the forest bends to his will, those who follow him recognize God in man.

Senju! Uchiha! Brothers once, according to the most ancient of legends, now separated by a distance and hatred that drives them to war. Armies clash for days without rest, men and women and children dying in the brutal summer heat, until the rivers are choked with blood. The land in the shade of the great mountain is burned, and burned again.

And then, the Nine Tailed Fox.

Senju! Uchiha! The roar of the beast rekindles the flame of brotherhood, thought long extinguished, and together they stand against the Fox. And when they defeat the beast, seal it away, their brotherhood is consecrated with ink and blood.

The seasons pass. A village stands in the shadow of the great mountain, where the land was once torched by war. He wears the hat to mark his station. His face adorns the mountain, and all who see it recognize God in man. Across the continent others scramble to imitate him, building their own villages. Wearing their own hats. But he is the first, and he is the greatest of them. They fear him.

The fear cannot last forever, but that does not stop him dreaming. He believes in something softer – a grace and kindness no longer lost to the world. When his hair greys and his bones creak, he relinquishes his power peacefully to sit in the gardens, to rest on Uposatha, to play with the children. He carries great hope for this new generation, the hope that they will shed the trappings and prejudices of the old and embrace something compassionate and new.

For he sees the end in his dreams. The unmaking, the clouds fat with blood. It will come soon, as it must. Their world is a brutal, terrifying cycle. His dearest friend is gone. Uchiha Madara, the only man who could truly regard Hashirama as an equal, saw his own visions of the future, and set out to the wild lands of the north. He travelled beyond the great mountains, seeking something that could save them all. He would never return.

Hashirama dies in the last months of the Peace of the Founding, the peace he created. He dies in his bed, surrounded by his children and grandchildren. He is not frightened, he tells them, not sad. He is happy for the chance to see his wife again, and his friends and family who have passed. He fears for their future, but does not tell them. The end he saw will be a long time in coming.

He was the first Hokage, and he was like the sun.

The Second

He is the second Hokage, and he is like the ocean.

Senju Tobirama is not his brother. He is a child of war, comfortable with the feel of steel biting flesh. Relishing it, even, although he hides this, for fear of his brother's disapproval. But though a child of war, he finds a place for himself in the Peace of the Founding. It is Hashirama that leads their clan into the new age, but it is Tobirama that makes the dream of peace into a reality. It is he who builds the bridges and paves the roads. It is he who carves his brother's face into the mountain. It is he who travels to the neighboring clans and offers them a place in the Land of Fire – in its great capital, Konohagakure. It is his brother they bow to, but it is Tobirama they obey. It is Tobirama who sets the standard that the other Shinobi villages emulate.

But Tobirama is not his brother, and he does not dream Hashirama's dreams. The old hatred is strong within him, and stronger when he thinks the name Uchiha. His brother pleads with him to leave the past behind, to look instead to the future the Uchiha could help them build. But whenever Tobirama looks out across the land he calls home, he sees fire, and the rivers choked with blood.

When he is given the hat, the Uchiha protest. The Senju prepare for battle, and for a moment it looks as though the grand experiment of Konohagakure will perish in war – that Hashirama's dream was a delusion, despite the strength of his conviction. Tobirama despairs, but he cannot stem the hatred within himself, no more than a man could stem the tide.

And then Madara steps forward, to calm his kin. And though Tobirama's hate is a thousand generations deep, he lives the rest of his life knowing that his brother's dream owes its life to Uchiha Madara.

Tobirama does not, cannot, forgive, but he is a fair ruler nonetheless. He is a man of principle, and there is nothing more principled than putting aside personal feelings for the good of the many. He maintains the peace his brother created, and encourages the whispers of divinity that occasionally reach his ear. There is nothing like the threat of God's wrath to dissuade one's enemies.

He takes many students, for he knows that what his brother says is true – that the children are the hope for the future. But he holds no lofty dreams of gardens, or lazy Uposatha afternoons. The village needs the children, if it is to survive another war – and there will be another. War is life's only inevitability.

Mere months after Senju Hashirama passes from the world, the war comes again. Tobirama gives himself to it freely. Enemies come and enemies fall against the inexorable tide, all consuming, all encompassing. But he is only one man, and he is old. He dies as he lived, relishing the feel of steel biting flesh.

He was the second Hokage, and he was like the ocean.

The Third

He is the third Hokage, and he is like the flame.

Nara Shokkou is the greatest of Tobirama's students, a cunning tactician and master manipulator. His tongue dances with the same speed and skill as his blade, and he wins as many wars at the table as he does on the battlefield. His shadow, freed from its pedestrian ties, strikes at foes halfway across the world. The First Great War is a grueling test for a still nascent Konohagakure, and it is Nara Shokkou who shepherds the village through it.

But he is not a gentle man, and in his brilliance flickers something harsh and hungry. Shokkou knows the price of peace, and he is more than willing to pay it. Konohagakure expands with steel and fire, tightening its control, making sure it will never again be compromised. His blade tastes the blood of any who would dare stand in his way, and battered and broken as his village may be it stands strong. But when he closes the door and shuts out the world, he does not stand strong. He can feel himself slipping further and further into his own mind, until he does not fight it anymore. He does not want to fight it anymore. He dreams of bloodshed and power and clouds fat with blood.

He expands the powers of the Hokage, aggressively. Perhaps too aggressively. Konohagakure is feared across the continent, but there are rumblings of discontent amongst the Shinobi clans. Even the Nara are afraid of the man Shokkou is becoming, ruthless and increasingly feral. And Konohagakure's enemies gather like hungry sharks, waiting for their greatest foe to tear itself apart. Shokkou senses weakness and cracks down, calling for a new westward crusade. His shadow murders the Tsuchikage in his own home, and then moves on to the man's family. They do not finish cleaning the children out of the carpets for weeks.

It is the last straw. Iwagakure, the sleeping bear, is roused, and its fury is terrible to behold. It is not a Great War, not yet, but Sunagakure is snapping eagerly at the heels of the marching Stone Shinobi, hungry for the scraps it can claim for itself. Kumogakure, reluctantly peaceful in the best of times, howls for battle. Kirigakure, isolated, waits for the dice to fall where they may - but their leaders speak of blood in the water.

Shokkou is killed in the night, by his own ANBU. No fearsome blade, no honeyed words, no murderous shadow can save him in the end. Stone Shinobi stalk the streets of Konohagakure, and the village is choked with blood. Shokkou dies with curses on his lips – he dies knowing that all is lost for his home.

He was the third Hokage, and he was like the flame.

The Fourth

She is the fourth Hokage, and she is like the thunder.

Hyuga Hinata's coronation is a cruel joke. She inherits a village burning, a measly handful of Shinobi already broken by the fall of their home. Her own children die in the line of duty not hours before she takes the hat, but Hinata does not mourn. Mourning is for the weak. She is a woman of action, and she is strong.

She does not hesitate for a moment. Two hours after her coronation she leads a raiding party into the heart of occupied Konohagakure, to cut the head off the Iwagakure snake. Her eyes see through all deceptions and defenses, and none are quick enough to stop her from exacting her vengeance on those that stole her home and children.

It is impossible to imagine Hinata as a Hokage of peacetime. She is natural in war, a furious storm on the battlefield, and her power scatters her foes. Fire's enemies feared Nara Shokkou, but they hold an almost reverent terror towards Hyuga Hinata. Many say she single-handedly saved Fire from annexation, and it is difficult to say they are wrong. Certainly it is she who leads the charge to save the Inuzuka horde at the Battle of Han's Plateau, the same horde that ultimately drive the Sand Shinobi back to the desert they call home. Certainly it is she who challenges the Fifth Raikage to single combat and wins, shattering the man's organs with the lightest of touches. Like thunder after lightning she appears where there is a threat to Fire, leaving only devastation in her wake. And yet when the Second Great War finally comes to a close, she does not make the mistake of generals before her and returns home, to pick up the pieces of the village that now belongs to her.

And though it is impossible to imagine Hinata as a Hokage of peacetime, somehow she manages. She rebuilds with the same relentless fury with which she fights, demanding nothing less than perfection from those beneath her. When the Uchiha and Senju nearly come to blows, she is there to diffuse the tension with harsh words and threatening glares. When the Akimichi plan to make a break for potentially greener pastures, she is there to remind them why it would be unwise to make an enemy of Konohagakure. She holds the village together with implied threats and sheer force of will, and though she is never truly loved by the people she leads, she is respected. It is a respect that is needed, after the Third. The balance of the village is delicate, and one wrong shift of weight could bring the whole thing crashing down. And yet, miraculously, it only grows stronger. Hinata visits the graves of her children every day, but never mourns. Mourning is for the weak. She is a woman of action, and she is strong.

Konohagakure is not what it once was, but it still stands. Hinata seeks wisdom from the Hokage that came before her. She immerses herself in the amateur poetry of Hashirama, the philosophy of Tobirama, even the scribbled diaries of Shokkou. She recognizes that those men all had something that she herself lacks – the ability to inspire, to convince people to lay down their lives with nothing but a short word or a smile. It is not a skill that can be learned, she concludes, but a gift that one inherits by the grace of the gods themselves. Hyuga Hinata is not a particularly religious woman, but she gives her offerings to family's ancient pantheon nonetheless. She wonders, before she sleeps, if Amaterasu smiles upon her, or if he is merely a figment of his worshippers collective imaginations. Perhaps the Senju are right, and Hashirama truly was the reincarnation of their Sage.

She does not share such thoughts with anyone, not even her husband. For all her strength, Hinata is unwilling to face the possible consequences of her doubt.

The years pass. Hinata's hair greys, her bones creak. Talks of her retirement are at hand. Hyuga Hinata does not wish to retire. Senju Hashirama is the only Kage to have done so, and she respects the honor as his alone. She oversees the appointment of a successor, a Senju girl who draws others to her as if it is the most natural thing in the world, and then takes her husband and two Jonin with her into the frozen North, to seek enlightenment. When there is no word after three months, she is declared dead.

She was the fourth Hokage, and she was like the thunder.

The Fifth

She is the fifth Hokage, and she is like the moon.

Senju Ariko is beautiful, the celestial rose of her clan. Senju Ariko is dangerous, the bloody thorn of Konohagakure. In appearance she takes after her ancestor, the second Hokage. Her features are sharp and defined, her hair snow white, her eyes piercing blue. But in ability she takes after the second's brother, the revered first. Not since the legendary Hashirama has a Senju commanded their bloodline so effortlessly that their mere presence causes flowers to sprout, unbidden, from the earth. And not since Hashirama has a Hokage drawn their subjects in so easily, with a smile and a laugh.

But Ariko is not Hashirama, a fact of which she is painfully aware. She fears for the day she will have to lead Fire into war. She is a powerful Shinobi and a skilled fighter, but that is different from being a general, and Ariko cannot face the possibility of failure. She is not Senju Hashirama – she is a pale reflection of his light, and a reflection cannot possibly live up to the legend.

It is that very fear that makes Senju Ariko the most powerful force for peace of her time. Terrified of war, she throws all of her considerable diplomatic prowess into preventing it. Fire enjoys a golden age of prosperity, and for once there is no end in sight. The years pass, and Senju Ariko grows only more beautiful.

But war is life's only inevitability. There comes a time in every Kage's reign where they must take a stand – when they must say no more, and bare their blade to draw the blood of their enemies. Senju Ariko cannot do this, a fact of which Kumogakure, still craving vengeance for their murdered Fifth, is all too aware.

Fire's northern territories burn as Kumogakure sweeps down from the mountains. The people cry for protection. Ariko takes to the table, demanding peace, negotiations.

Kumogakure does not stop. It marches ever southward, taking all it wants, destroying what it does not. The people cry out for protection. Ariko's advisors urge her to call the Jonin, but still she hesitates. Peace can be found, she insists.

Kumogakure does not agree. The people cry out no more.

A meeting is called. The ROOT Commander, Inuzuka Mokuba, believes action must be taken. Ariko's advisors declare this sentiment treason. Both sides are on edge and committed fully to their cause – eventually, the arguments erupt into physical violence. It is the closest Konohagakure has ever come to civil war. The Reds, supporting the Hokage, gather at one end of the village. The Greens, supporting Mokuba, gather at the other. Ariko, face to face with the imminent collapse of the village she has worked so hard to maintain, stands in the middle.

History tells us that it was a Cloud Shinobi who cut Ariko down, left her broken and bleeding in the streets. If this is true, it is terribly convenient for Konohagakure. With Ariko dead, the village consolidates under the regency of Inuzuka Mokuba, and calls the Jonin. The Third Great War has begun.

She was the fifth Hokage, and she was like the moon.

The Interim

Still fractured from the day of Red and Green, the noble clans cannot decide a successor amongst themselves. It is twenty-two years before another wears the hat.

The Sixth

He is the sixth Hokage, and he is like the Earth.

Sarutobi Hiruzen is the favored student of Senju Ariko, and in many ways he never recovers from his master's death. In many ways, he never recovers from staring down his best and oldest friend, ready to fight and kill a man he considers his brother – simply because of the colors they aligned themselves with. But though he is never the man he was before the Day of Red and Green, Sarutobi Hiruzen is not broken. He is strong, resilient, and he throws himself into war to prove this to those who doubt his skills in battle.

He accrues many names as he leads the march on Kumogakure. The Oni of the East. The Bloody Ape. The Professor, for it seems there is not a single technique he has not learned and mastered. And as he stands among the ruins of what was once Kumogakure, who can say they are wrong?

He returns to Konohagakure three years before the end of the war, a changed man. When the Hokage's hat is placed on his head, few can argue that he is not meant for the position. He is a strong leader, a powerful warrior, and a loving father to his men. He has razed the cities of his enemies and trained the most powerful Shinobi team Konohagakure has ever seen, the now legendary Sanin. By the time the Third Great War is over, Konohagakure is once again feared.

Hiruzen spends his time as Hokage focusing on the poor and disenfranchised – though those who oppose him, for there are plenty, are quick to point out that his policies always seem to make the Hokage's office more powerful than it was before. Despite his distaste for politicking, he proves a quick study at navigating the halls of power. Within half a decade his enemies are crushed or scattered.

He hides this ruthless streak beneath the veneer of the kindly old grandfather, fond of jokes and women half his age – but those who have seen him in battle will never forget the steel beneath the surface. He keeps up his studies even as his hair greys and his bones creak, determined to be capable of defending his home until the end.

Remarkably, his reign does not end in blood. Not since Hashirama has the title of Hokage been handed down peacefully, and so onlookers watch Sarutobi Hiruzen place the red and white hat on the head of a young boy from a civilian clan, they can feel the importance of the moment. "This is the end of history," they whisper amongst themselves.

For he is Sarutobi Hiruzen, the man who would be Hokage twice.

The Seventh

He is the seventh Hokage, and he is like the lightning.

Namikaze Minato is one of the endless horde of civilian children who enroll in the Shinobi corps each year, desperate for a better life for themselves and their children. Precious few are lucky enough to make it past the lowly rank of Genin – it is nearly unheard of for one to take a prized Jonin slot. And yet that is precisely where Minato sets his sights.

And as the years pass, Minato excels. He breezes through the rank of Genin with unchallenged confidence, shattering village records without seeming to try. When Shinobi from a petty clan pay a visit to remind him of his place, he sends them back to their family with broken fingers and missing teeth. When Shinobi from a noble clan try the same, blood paints the streets of Konohagakure.

Under different circumstances, Minato's career might have ended there. But war, life's only inevitability, beckons from far to the East, and Konohagakure needs every Shinobi it can get. It is in the Land of Water, during long patrols and unbearably muggy days, that he earns himself the Jonin rank he so desires – and the place in the history books he never expected. The Flying Thunder God is the first true space-time ninjutsu, and it makes Minato a terror unlike anything that has come before. He is there, and not, and there, and not, until the entire battlefield is littered with the corpses of those who dared oppose him. He is the Yellow Flash, and all who see him recognize death in man.

Minato thinks the whole thing is a little overblown. It is not until the middle of the Fourth Great War, when hardened Stone Shinobi are fleeing at the sight of him, that he realizes how much his reputation precedes him. He dyes his hair for a while before his teacher convinces him that reputation is just as powerful a tool as any ninjutsu. When the war comes to a close, and the Tsuchikage throws his blade at Minato's feet, it seems impossible he will not wear the hat. Sarutobi Hiruzen's hair is grey, and his bones creak terribly. He wishes nothing more than to dote on his children and grandchildren.

And so Konohagakure is in celebration for two reasons – the end to the nine-year war and the crowning of a new Hokage. It is a new day for Konohagakure, the people decide – a day of peace and prosperity not seen since Hashirama. Enemy Shinobi fear to even cross the border into Fire, for it said that he can see any intrusion, and be there in a flash.

A firebrand, some call him, a revolutionary who somehow found himself on the throne, Minato continues to solidify the power of the Hokage, sponsoring the creation of new Shinobi clans to check the power of the nobles. And though the more conservative amongst the village often disagree with their new Hokage, none can bring themselves to truly dislike him.

And then, the Nine Tailed Fox.

It is the fire and pain and hatred of a thousand thousand years of war. Leaf Shinobi throw themselves against the beast, but there is no Madara, no Hashirama to shelter them from its wrath. Each of its tails is a hurricane, each of its steps an earthquake, it is fury and malice and unbound rage given form and it sweeps over the village like a vengeful storm. It is contemptuous of their attempts to bind it, corral it, and those who attempt are crushed beneath the physical force of its presence. When Minato takes the field, Konohagakure has been devastated. The Fox turns its attention to him but he is like the lightning, there and not, there and not. By the time the sun comes up, the Fox is gone. The seventh lies still on the ground, cold, having done by himself what both Senju Hashirama and Uchiha Madara had struggled to do. It is a sign, the people agree, but what it means they cannot say. Does the Fox herald the end times for Konohagakure, completing the circle that began with the village's founding? Or has the cycle simply begun anew, with one God traded for the next?

He was the seventh Hokage, and he was like the lightning.

The Eighth

He is the eighth Hokage, and in his dreams he is the last.

-OOO-

Naruto dashed across the rooftops of Konohagakure, lungs aching, heart pounding, limbs shaking. He wanted to hit something. He wanted to scream at himself.

Who the hell is late to their own Chunin evaluation?

The village spread out beneath him, roofs of brightly painted tile occasionally disrupted by swathes of green forest – like leafy lily pads floating idly in a multicolored pond. It was a sight that was no less beloved for its familiarity, but Naruto had neither the time nor the energy to properly appreciate the beauty of his home.

He looked up to find the military tower in the distance and swore, redoubling his efforts. He had woken ten minutes ago and was still really only half dressed – but he couldn't spare even a moment to button his green flak jacket. His evaluation had already begun. He shouldn't have stayed out so late last night. He should've camped out at the damn tower.

He continued to curse himself as he dashed across Konoahagakure's rooftops, impossibly long leaps carrying him from one building to the next. Green tiles, then, red, then blue, then yellow, flashed under his feet as he ran, his shoes slamming against hardened clay in an irregular rhythm. The village had sprung up piecemeal in the two hundred years since the founding, and the architecture held neither rhyme nor reason. Where outward expansion had proved impractical, upward expansion had been adopted instead, new buildings stacked haphazardly atop the old. One such vertical expansion greeted him now and Naruto screamed as he leapt, funneling chakra to his hands and feet. The chakra held them fast to wall in front of him, and in half a moment he had scrambled up the sheer surface like a lizard.

From there, he was able to hop over to a bundle of telegraph wires that crisscrossed the streets below. The wires provided welcome relief from the constant up and down, up and down of rooftop running, but it meant Naruto had to spend precious concentration watching where he placed his feet.

He spared a glance up at the tower. At the speed he was moving, how was it taking so long to get bigger?

He howled in frustration, startling a group of children playing marbles in the street below, then forced himself to move faster. Buildings blurred by. He heard shouts from a few other Shinobi, asking about the hurry, but he had no time to stop and explain. Slowly, agonizingly slowly, the tower began to creep closer.

There was a shock of pain, red hot in his ankle, as it twisted and rolled. Naruto stumbled, cried out, and fell hard, momentum carrying him ever forward. He skipped across the rooftop like a rock across water until solid ground vanished out from under him, and then tumbled through open air, arms flailing.

He hit the wall of the next building with the crunch of bone and couldn't even find the strength to scream. For a moment he hung there, as if he had been moving so fast that his body had become embedded in the stone, but then gravity reasserted itself and he fell to the ground below, tangling himself up in a clothesline as he went. His head cracked against the cobblestone street, and suddenly everything in his field of vision had a blurry identical twin to keep it company.

"Gods!" Shouted a woman in a roughspun green dress. She darted around the corner as Naruto tried desperately to untangle himself from a damp mass of women's clothing.

"It's fine," Naruto muttered, struggling to his feet. His ankle shrieked in protest, but the foot moved when he told it to, and that would have to do. "Official Shinobi business." The words were more for himself than anyone listening, and the reminder of where he had to be put enough fire in his gut to get him back to the rooftops and on his way.

He wasn't so fast with a twisted ankle, but he was closer to the tower now, and it wasn't long before he reached it. It jutted imperiously into the sky, all white stone and painted wood. He clambered up the wall to the sixth floor, then tapped anxiously on the window.

"Koji Naruto," said the evaluator who let him in. Naruto winced at the Koji - less a name than a warning, given by the village to the orphans who could claim no name of their own. Those who bore it had nothing, were nothing, and the knowledge of that fact was a fresh pain each time he heard the word. But it was his name, and he was in no position to be making requests of the evaluators he had already kept waiting.

He watched them as he dropped down from the windowsill. The one who had let him in was of average height, with tanned skin and a long scar running beneath his eyes. The headband on his forehead marked him a Leaf Shinobi - the two stylized flames on the shoulders of his flak jacket as a Chunin, a middling rank Shinobi. The other was taller, with lanky silver hair and a similar Chunin insignia.

"Take a seat, Koji-kun," the first examiner said, taking his own seat in the middle of the table. "My name is Umino Iruka. This is Nohara Mizuki," he continued, gesturing to himself and the other examiner, respectively. "We will have to move through this process quickly, as your lateness has delayed us. Am I being heard, Shinobi?"

"You are being heard, sir." Naruto took a seat across from the examiners, folding his hands in his lap nervously. "I'm so sorry about that, I was…um…" he trailed off, trying to think of a convincing lie. Another thing he should've prepared in advance for.

"It doesn't matter," Iruka said, shuffling a few papers around. "Lateness is not becoming of a Chunin. Who are you?"

"I am the empty vessel," was Naruto's instantaneous reply. "I am the clay soldier in which the will of fire burns." Iruka and Mizuki nodded, though it did nothing to ease to ease the knot in Naruto's stomach.

"You're sixteen?" Mizuki asked.

"Yes sir," Naruto said. It was close enough. His true birthday had been lost in the chaos following the Fox's attack, and he had been assigned a new one, for convenience. Like his name, it was something he didn't celebrate.

"You were born here?"

"In Konohagakure proper," Naruto said, unable to keep the pride from his voice. There was nothing he hated more than when someone introduced themselves as from Konohagakure even though they were really from some farming hamlet a day's travel away. Naruto knew very little of his early life, but he knew that he had been born within these walls. He knew the twists and turns of ancient streets, he knew the way the roof tiles shimmered in the light of the rising sun, he knew the relief brought by the shade of the great mountain on a hot summer's day, as if the old Hokage themselves were taking pity on their people.

"You've served as a Genin for three years now," Mizuki said. "In the sixth division."

"That's right."

"But you've never been assigned outside the village."

Finally, a question he was prepared for. "I've been out of the village. We fought a bandit group."

"Ah, I see that now." Mizuki took a moment to read over the report, eyes flicking back and forth. "A minor assignment. They weren't even Shinobi trained."

"Well, no, but-"

"Your marks aren't much better," Iruka cut in, before Naruto could defend himself. "Physically, you're just above the minimum for Genin rank. Academically…you're well below that."

"That's not true!" Naruto protested. Physically he was nothing impressive – scrawny and slow with no grasp of taijutsu technique, even if he could take a punch. And nobody was going to mistake him for an academic prodigy. But-

"Ah, right," Iruka said, tapping a pen against the table. "They lowered the academic threshold."

"And I'm above that threshold," Naruto said, crossing his arms. By three points. But he wouldn't mention that.

A wry smile stretched across Mizuki's face. "By three points," he said.

Shit.

"No aptitude for ninjutsu either," Iruka mused. "You have a wind affinity, I see, but no listed techniques?"

"Well, the multi part wind cannon should probably be on there…" Naruto said, scratching the back of his head. "It works…most of the time."

"So I guess my only question," Iruka said, "is with these marks and this service record, why are you here, wasting our time?"

The floor dropped out from under Naruto, and he slumped back in his seat. He had known that rejection was a possibility – likely even, though he had never spoken such a thought out loud. But even in his most hellish nightmares, it had never been so…blunt. "I'm – I'm sixteen."

"Yes, we established that," Iruka said.

Naruto swallowed. "So I only have one more year." The Shinobi corps had neither patience nor money for stragglers. If you couldn't impress the evaluators by the time you were well and truly an adult, you were written off – and while there was no rule against applying for promotion after seventeen, a late application being accepted wasn't so much unusual as unheard of. A Shinobi who truly possessed the will of fire, it was said, would shine brightly even in youth. Most civilian kids who never made the cut could be content with in the knowledge that they had been Shinobi – that they could serve their land and village again, if necessity required. They could return to their farms and homes and make a life there.

Naruto could not.

"So you evaluate your position and try again next year," Mizuki said.

"I won't make it!" Naruto said, looking between the two of them. He could see in their eyes, their faces, that their words were having no effect – but he couldn't stop. Not here, not now. "I'm not learning anything here! I know I could do it, I just need a teacher!"

Iruka's features softened, his once-hard gaze now tinged with pity. "You have a teacher," he said. "The sixth division-"

"I have a drill instructor," Naruto cut in. "An overworked Chunin who hasn't seen combat in years, and thirty other Genin on his plate. It isn't the same!"

"You received instruction to the rank of Genin," Iruka said, calmly, with the rhythm of something he had said a thousand times before. "But the handouts ended there. Make Chunin, and you prove yourself worthy of further instruction. Of a teacher. But that's something you must do yourself."

"The clan kids don't do it themselves!" Naruto said, the frustration and fear and rage all boiling up inside him. "They have siblings, and cousins, and parents, and-" his voice cracked, despite his best efforts "-family."

"Be that as it may," Mizuki said, "we can't give you a teacher until you make Chunin."

Naruto put his head in his hands. "Then I won't."

"Koji-kun," Iruka said. "There is no shame in life as a Genin."

Naruto couldn't stop a bitter laugh from bubbling up and out of him. That was easy for Iruka – Umino Iruka – to say. There probably wasn't a single lifer in the whole Umino clan. It was decades of cleaning and kitchen work, of the most boring and irrelevant guard postings, of clerical work and lugging supplies back and forth. They wouldn't even let lifers teach basic, the seven years of training that turned children into Genin. The greatest honor a lifer could hope to achieve was to die as canon fodder, distracting an enemy from the real attack happening elsewhere. It wasn't life as a Shinobi. It was life as a laughingstock.

And it was, it seemed, his destiny.

-OOO-

The late afternoon found Naruto sitting on a railing that overlooked one of Konohagakure's many plazas. The red and orange light of sunset soaked the village, casting everything in a warm luminescence. Twenty feet below men and women went about their day, waving to each other, making small talk as they moved from work to home.

Naruto held a bottle of sake in one hand, already half empty. He wasn't a particularly frequent drinker, but it wasn't every day your dreams were crushed, utterly and brutally, and the pleasant buzzing in his head helped distract from the pit in his stomach.

What life was there for him, without the promise of being Shinobi? Naruto tried to imagine it, and despair filed him. The dead end of the lifer. The endless, monotonous grind of the factory. Every day until he died. Living knowing that he had failed – that he was not Shinobi, that he could never be Shinobi. Watching others live his dream, his life, because they had been lucky enough to be born Senju, Sarutobi, Umino.

He took another swig of sake, but the taste of rice wine on his tongue provided only momentary relief.

"Koji Naruto?" Asked a voice from behind him.

Naruto turned to see a girl. She was short, even shorter than him, green eyes shining from behind bright pink bangs. The rest of her hair was wound into an elaborate braid that fell over one shoulder, which she tugged at while he looked at her. A Shinobi headband hung around her neck like a necklace, and her flak jacket bore a single flame on the shoulders – a Genin, like him.

"Who's asking?" He said after a minute. The sake made him slow, and he couldn't put a name to the face. He felt as though he would've remembered this girl, had he met her before. She wasn't beautiful, but there was something about her…her eyes. Wide and innocent but also sharp, missing nothing. A man could fall into those eyes, he decided, and then he actually did fall, leaning too far off the railing and losing his balance, tumbling to the ground for what felt like the thousandth time that day.

Luckily, he managed to turn the fall into a roll, and popped unsteadily to his feet. He hadn't even spilled any sake.

Well, not much sake.

The girl ran fingers through her bangs, declining to comment on the roll. Likely for the best. "Haruno Sakura," she said instead. "Is me. And also, who's asking. Um, I'm asking." She cleared her throat. "You are Koji Naruto?"

Naruto's eyebrows began slowly ascending his forehead. "…Yeah."

"Good," she said. "Good. I've been looking for you…well, I thought we should talk…you see, I-" She stopped herself, took a breath. "Can I buy you dinner?"

And with that, Naruto was in love.

They went to Ramen Ichiraku, a street bar tucked away in one of the village's seedier districts. It was never a particularly busy restaurant, but they found themselves there during an especially noticeable lull, and as such the long wooden bar waited empty for them.

Ayame was there to greet them, a picture perfect smile on her face. Her father, Teuchi, wrapped Naruto in a headlock and asked him how his work had been going. It was the easiest thing in the world to smile and lie, to spin a grand yarn about carrying a squadmate with a broken leg fifty miles. "Believe it," he finished, leaning back in his seat, smile stretching wide. He could tell they didn't, not really. They knew him too well. But it was better than the truth. He had had enough pity for one day.

Sakura spent the length of the story examining the menu with a quiet intensity. She had her order ready by the time he finished – Ayame didn't even bother taking his, since Teuchi had already started on his usual.

"You seem at home here," Sakura said when Ayame ducked into the kitchen.

"Best food in the village," Naruto said. "In the whole damn world, probably."

"A ramen fan then." Sakura arched an eyebrow. "Bit of a coincidence, considering your name."

"What, you don't believe in fate?" Naruto asked, laughing. Again, it was easier to avoid the truth – that eating ramen made him feel close to a mother he had never met, a woman who had loved the food so much that she had named her son after a topping.

"I suppose I do," Sakura said, her tone almost melancholy. "But sometimes I hope I'm wrong about that."

Naruto shifted slightly in his seat, remembering earlier thoughts of a lifer, a factory worker. "You and me both." There was a pause then, stretching on long enough to be awkward. "So, not that I want to look a gift ramen in the broth, but…what are we doing here?"

Sakura drummed her fingers against the table for a moment before speaking. "Did you ever read Orochimaru's Principles of Shinobi Breeding?"

Naruto had never read a book in his life, but that wasn't the part of the question that drew his attention. "Orochimaru?" He asked. Almost subconsciously he stuck his pinky, ring, and middle fingers out and shook his hand twice – the Shinobi hand signal for enemy. "I haven't read anything like that…I don't want to get into any trouble." He fixed Sakura with a suspicious look. "Are you ROOT?"

Beware, beware, what dwells in dark, beneath the shady branches.
Beware, beware, the deepest roots, with greedy eyes and hand-ses.

Sakura spit out the water she had been in the middle of drinking. "What?"

"Well, you come up to me randomly in the street," Naruto said, gesturing towards her shoulder. "And ask me to dinner, which pretty girls don't usually do, by the way - and now you're asking me about Orochimaru – and I don't know anything about Orochimaru, okay? What would he even want with me? I'm nobody." He made the enemy gesture again, more vigorously this time.

"Koji-san, relax," Sakura said, holding out a hand, as if afraid he was about to bolt. "I'm not ROOT. Okay? I'm just a Genin. Just like you."

"That's exactly what ROOT would say," Naruto said, although he had to admit that he didn't think it likely. This girl, with her bright green eyes and stammering awkward speech, didn't strike him as a member of Konohagakure's infamous secret police.

"Look, okay, I understand that I'm not – great at this," Sakura said. "But if you just…if you could just give me a second, I'll explain. I promise."

For a second, Naruto honestly considered leaving anyway. The day had been remarkably shitty, he was more than a little drunk, and he wouldn't have minded collapsing in his bunk and sleeping for a week. But then Ayame emerged from the kitchen with their food, and the familiar smell of his usual set his eyes watering with tears that were part joy and part exhaustion, and he just mumbled an okay before diving headlong into his free ramen.

Sakura took a deep breath, collecting herself. Ayame, sensing that they might benefit from some space, vanished back into the kitchen.

"I'm a Genin," Sakura said finally, "in the tenth division."

Naruto grunted through his food. The tenth division was known for a large contingent of scientists and medics – the eggheads, which meant he had stayed far away.

"I'm sixteen, like you," Sakura continued, "and for the past two years I've been working on a paper – genetic markers that indicate receptiveness to chakra based healing techniques, so…well, I won't bore you with the details, but basically I was kind of banking on it to make my case for Chunin." She grimaced. "And last month, someone published a paper that blew all my theories completely out of the water."

That, at least, was something Naruto could understand. "I'm sorry," he said, looking up from his ramen. "Could you write another one?"

"In a year?" Sakura asked, taking a hesitant bite of her ramen. "I don't – holy shit, this is really good."

"Right?" Naruto asked, a grin stretching across his face for the first time in what felt like years. He watched Sakura scarf down a few more bites before wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.

"Anyway," she said, "I think I probably could write another paper. The bigger problem is that my superiors were following my work. They know I was wrong about the last one. I need…" she paused, looking for the right words. "I need practical application. I need results."

"I'm still not really getting why you're talking to me though," Naruto said.

"This is what I was talking about earlier. Orochimaru – and we're allowed to read his books, and talk about him by the way – Orochimaru is a psycho and a traitor, okay. But he's also a brilliant scientist. And he had this theory where…well, you know, the Shinobi clans have been running breeding programs for a long time. Thousands of years, if you trust the histories, which you probably shouldn't. But still, a long time. And that's why, now, the average clan kid is way stronger and tougher and better at ninjutsu than the average civilian, even before training. They've been bred for it."

"Sure, I get it." As if he needed another explanation why clan kids were better than him.

"But all that means is that they're committed to one path!" Sakura said. She was growing more animated now, her speech getting more confident as she got closer to her comfort zone. "And why do we think that that path is the best? Like the ideal Hyuga doesn't match the ideal Uchiha in a lot of ways, so why do we assume that the ways they do match are necessary for the ideal Shinobi? I just…" she took a long, deep breath. "Look, did you know that you have the densest chakra of any Shinobi in the corps?"

Naruto frowned. He had been having enough trouble following her before she started throwing in non sequiturs. "What?"

"Actually, you have the densest chakra of any Shinobi since the village started recording stuff like that," Sakura said, as if she were only half paying attention. "They made a note of it on your file. I really had to pity the kids they made look through all the docs to confirm it, but-"

"Wait, wait, wait," Naruto said, cutting in before Sakura could really get going. "You read my file? Isn't that…classified?"

Sakura flushed pink and avoided his eyes. "That's, well…you know, beside the point."

Naruto didn't really think it was, but perhaps that was a conversation for another time. "Fine then," he said instead. "You're saying my chakra is dense? Is that a good thing?"

Sakura's eyes shone. "But that's the point!" She said, slamming her palm down on the bar. "Ask anyone, they'll say no! They'll say dense chakra is harder to mold. That it makes someone more likely to put too much power into a technique. That it just makes ninjutsu harder, all around. And so for generations, Shinobi clans have been breeding dense chakra out of their gene pools."

"Oh," Naruto said, sinking deeper into his chair. He could practically hear the hope leaving him, like air from a balloon with a hole.

"Fine," Sakura continued, still barely listening to him. "Dense chakra makes ninjutsu harder, fine. I'm not saying it doesn't. What I'm saying is…what if it also makes other things easier?"

Naruto thought about that for a second – really thought it about it, in a way he hadn't thought about anything in a long time. "I would be really good at that thing," he said. "Better than any of the clan kids."

Sakura's smile was as fierce as it was wide, a gash of white across her face. "We just have to find that thing," she said. "All we have to do is find it."

They started the next day.

-OOO-

As Genin, Naruto was an adult in the eyes of the village, and thus was no longer entitled to a bed or food from the orphanage which had been his home for his first thirteen years. His meager military pay wasn't enough for an apartment of his own, and so he had taken to living in the Genin barracks, a flimsy wooden structure packed with cots that served three square meals of somewhat edible paste per day. It was hardly a palace, but at least it had four walls and kept the rain out. It also helped that the barracks were usually full with civilian Genin who came from outside the village – Naruto had grown used to the noise and heat of dozens of bodies at the orphanage, and he wasn't sure he could fall asleep without them.

His days began in the dark, long before the sun had even thought to rise. The Genin were roused from their brief hours of sleep by the screams of whichever Chunin had drawn the short straw that day, and made to present. They rattled off trivia and endured heated verbal abuse until the Chunin grew bored, at which point they hustled to the barracks kitchen to grab their first meal of paste. Then, they began running.

If they were lucky, they stopped running around noon and took a break to eat more paste. If they weren't (and they seemed to be unlucky far more than they were lucky) they ran straight to a cramped classroom where a Chunin drilled tactics, logistics, and military history into their heads until they were deemed rested enough to begin sparring. From there, it was several hours of giving and receiving mild bruises, until they finished for the day by assembling, and then immediately disassembling, a camp until the Chunin observing them was satisfied.

After they were dismissed for the day, the intelligent Genin usually went to sleep, whereas the sociable Genin went out drinking. Naruto, being neither particularly intelligent nor particularly sociable, joined Sakura on the training fields. Vast, flat expanses of green grass rippled in the wind, occasionally broken up by sturdy stone posts that served as targets and punching bags. Not far off, the woods that gave Konohagakure its name stood, silent and imposing.

Thus did the training that would fundamentally change the course of Koji Naruto's life begin. In his opinion, there was really an excessive amount of talking involved.

Sakura was, of course, recovering from her own of day of studies, exercise, and hazing. The two shared a bottle of rice wine as Sakura ran down a list of questions she had prepared, prying into every aspect of Naruto's life – from his marks, to his military career, to his personal history. He would've been flattered, if she hadn't been so damn clinical about it. But after a few hours of relentless back and forth, she ran both hands through her hair and sighed heavily.

"I don't see it," she said finally.

The sun had well and truly set now, but the moon cast enough ethereal silver light to see comfortably by. Naruto lay stretched out of the ground, enjoying the feeling of grass against his skin, and of sake in his belly. "See what?"

"See where we're supposed to start," she said. "You have the densest chakra in recorded history. If that's useful in any way, it must be manifesting itself somehow. But I don't see it."

"Yeah, well, I'm bad at everything," Naruto said. The stars twinkled in the infinite blackness of the night sky. He could see the Sage's staff, and the dancing dragons, and even the monkey's paw if he squinted. "I'm the universally hopeless Shinobi."

"Don't say that," Sakura said. "I'll find it. I'm just tired…and drunk." She groaned. "We can't do the sake again."

"No!" Naruto shouted. "I need the sake. It's the only thing that's keeping me going."

Sakura rolled her eyes.

"It's true though," Naruto said after a moment. The sake was making him wistful, as sake tended to do. "I'm a mess. Maybe I deserve to be a lifer." He sighed. "It's funny. My career started out so well."

"Really," Sakura said, though Naruto got the feeling she wasn't paying too much attention.

"Really," he said, barreling on ahead anyway. "It was the first couple weeks of basic and we were learning our first ninjutsu."

"Ah, the clone technique," Sakura murmured. "I remember that. Good for fundamentals. The first technique is always tricky though."

"Oh yeah, it took me forever," Naruto said. "I had a really hard time forming everything, you know?"

Sakura laughed. "Oh Sage, tell me about it," she said. "I could never get the fingers right."

"I kept forgetting to make mine blink," Naruto said. "They'd just stand there, staring. After our sensei pointed it out, I figured it would be easier for me to just stop blinking…that was a really rough two weeks."

Sakura snorted, a noise that caught Naruto by such surprise that he couldn't stop from laughing. A moment later they were rolling around in the grass, tears in their eyes, the training grounds filled with helpless laughter.

The laughter faded, and the steady chirping of cicadas returned. Naruto sighed and wiped the tears from his eyes, still smiling. "Seriously though," he said after giving Sakura a moment to collect herself. "Once I got all the details down, my clones weren't bad. I never had issue with transparency." He shrugged. "I figured, maybe this Shinobi thing won't be so hard. Can you believe that?"

Sakura was silent for such a long time that Naruto began to worry she had fallen asleep. Just as he was about to roll over to check, she spoke. "The clone technique, huh?" She asked. "How about that?"

As it turned out, there was a whole lot more to the clone technique than Naruto had ever expected.

Chakra theory recognized seven basic types of chakra. The fundamentals – the center of the whole business – were yin and yang. Form and substance, respectively. Surrounding them were the five elements. Fire, wind, lightning, earth, and water.

The basic clone was yin – all form, no substance. A ghost, essentially, that looked exactly like you. It couldn't punch things, or crush the grass it stood on, or even cast a shadow, but it didn't need to. In a fight, the ability to create illusory copies was a potent weapon. But it was a simple technique, and served mostly as a template for the more advanced forms.

They started with wind, as that was Naruto's affinity. Each person's chakra tended more towards one element or the other, and thus, that person was able to work more easily with that element than others. Naruto didn't understand the details – every time Sakura tried to explain, his eyes glazed over – but he understood that much.

And yet despite his natural affinity, the wind clone took him nearly three months to learn.

Part of it was that Naruto and Sakura were busy. Their jobs as Genin left them precious little time for independent training, and by the time they reached the training grounds each evening they were typically exhausted. Part of it was that wind was a finicky element, and despite Naruto's affinity for it, he had a difficult time bending it to his will. It would gust and dash and slip between his fingers, never content to sit still or be molded. Part of it was that Naruto simply lacked talent. It was an awful truth, but it was a truth, and as the days turned to weeks and the weeks to months, he began to despair. He could Sakura was waning too, from the way she took longer and longer to show up each night. She had staked everything on him, and the weight of two careers was heavy on his shoulders.

Then, one day, he had it. He pressed his hands together, fingers forming complex patterns that molded the chakra within his body. A wavering form took shape in front of him – that of a boy, small even for his age, with a scrawniness he carried belligerently on his shoulders. Blonde, unwashed hair was cut rough and uneven, and his blue eyes darted back and forth, never quite coming to rest.

"You did it," Sakura said, as if she didn't quite believe what she was seeing.

Naruto did it again, and again, just to prove he could. Wind clones barely had more substance than the basic ones did, but they could carry very light objects, and were fast, and poofed into swirling winds on impact. You could do something with that, if you were clever.

"Believe it," Naruto said, and his smile was a blade. "What's next?"

-OOO-

To Naruto's surprise, the lightning clone took only two months. Lightning was more complicated, and far more painful to work with, than wind – but after countless hours trying to get the elemental chakra to listen to him, Naruto had picked up a few tricks. Like how he could craft the form of the clone out of his subconscious self-image rather than having to actively construct it in his mind's eye. Or how he could let the lightning flow along the same pathways that his chakra used in his real body, starting in its stomach and then spiraling outwards through its torso and limbs.

Lightning clones weren't much more durable than their wind cousins, and while they could bear more weight, they had trouble actually picking things up with their hands. They were noticeably slower as well – but when they popped, they didn't merely poof. They burst into a potent electrical shock that could incapacitate an enemy who happened to be close and unprepared.

In the next five months, Naruto learned to form water, earth, and fire clones as well. Truth be told, he didn't get them quite down pat – he was distinctly and uncomfortably aware of the looming deadline on the horizon – but he could perform them consistently, if he had a moment to breathe. Earth clones were slow but solid, and could even take two or three hits before dispersing. Water clones were a good mixture between durability and speed, though their faces always looked a little melty once they got moving. Fire clones were by far the most entertaining, as they exploded on impact, or when Naruto got particularly annoyed.

And yet, as the tenth month of training came to a close, Naruto and Sakura found themselves no closer to the breakthrough that they had set out to discover.

"Honestly, at this point you can probably pull it off," Sakura said. They were sitting in the grass of the training field, which was still wet with the day's earlier rain. Their backs were against one of the heavy stone posts, and they passed a bottle of sake back and forth, as had become their custom – but only when there was something to celebrate, or mourn. "The clone techniques by themselves aren't that impressive, but all of them together? The evaluators are partial to gimmicks. You polish up your rougher points, really lean hard into the one man army concept…"

"But where does that leave you?" Naruto asked. "We only started this because you thought there was something special in me. Have we found that yet? Do we have any idea if it's even there?"

Sakura sighed. "I don't know, Naruto." She sounded so utterly tired. "I thought it was clones because…well, there was nothing else. And you learned the techniques faster than anyone would've expected. But honestly I don't think that's because you have some genetic quirk. I think it's more because you're a better Shinobi than anyone gives you credit for."

That only made it worse. "Sakura…"

"It's okay," Sakura said, leaning her head back against the stone. Naruto couldn't see her from this angle, but he had gotten used to reading her moods these last ten months, and he could tell that she was…resigned. "Really, it is. You can do this, Naruto." She looked over at him, and she smiled despite her eyes brimming with tears. "You're going to be an amazing Shinobi," she said.

"Oh, fuck off," Naruto said.

Sakura blinked at him, as if she couldn't believe what she was hearing.

"I'm not leaving you behind," Naruto said. He jumped to his feet, then hopped into the air, turned a flip, and landed back on the grass. He spun to face her, the grass wet and cold through his clothes. "Where the hell would I be right now without you? We do this together, or neither of us does it."

"You're not thinking straight," Sakura said. She had wiped the tears away with a sleeve, and now she just looked annoyed with him. "I don't have anything. My theory was a bust, again."

"It wasn't!" Naruto said, not realizing until too late that he was shouting. "You went with your gut! And you're the smartest person I know, so your gut is the smartest gut I know! You weren't wrong!" He slammed a hand into the ground, hard enough to elicit a flash of pain along his wrist. "We just haven't pushed this far enough."

Sakura said nothing, simply stared at him with those bright green eyes.

"It's gotta be right in front of our faces," Naruto insisted. "I've been doing nothing but clones for the last ten months. I've got all the different types down. Six fucking different clone types, Sakura, it can't all have been for…" he trailed off suddenly, realizing that was missing something. It was the strangest sensation – like he'd been staring straight at a giant sign all along, and yet he never saw it until just now.

"Naruto?" Sakura asked, frowning.

"I only know six types of clones," he said.

"There only are six types of clones," Sakura replied. "I mean, you can make a clone with just about anything, so I guess there are the second level of elemental natures, but you can't use those without a bloodline limit, so…" she shrugged. "You know all the clones there are for you to know."

"Fire, water, air, earth, lightning, yin," Naruto said, counting them off on his fingers.

"Yeah."

"What about yang?"

"There is no yang clone, Naruto."

Naruto nodded, suddenly eager. "Yeah, but why?"

Sakura sighed and ran her fingers through her hair. "Because it's useless," she said after a moment of thought. "Yang chakra alone doesn't give the clone enough substance to matter. That's what the wind, or water, or whatever is for."

"Yeah," Naruto said, "but why?"

"Because…" Sakura stared at him. "Because that's just the way it is. Not even a Jonin could pull off a Yang clone."

Naruto scooted a little closer to her, not breaking eye contact.

"Don't say it," she said.

"Yeah," he whispered, just barely loud enough for her to hear. "But why?"

They started the next day.