A/N: I'm alive. The story is... of course always updated only rarely. Also, welcome back to school you suckers.


Chapter 37

"How can I get stronger?"

This was the unforgiving question that Naruto woke up to one morning.

"What?" He begged.

"Stronger." Sakura repeated. "I came all the way here from Konohagakure, and went through a few unmentionable adventures with your family, because I need to get stronger Naruto-kun."

"You woke me up for something like that?" Naruto asked, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

Sakura frowned. "It's important."

"So is waking me up." Naruto objected. "In fact, I think it's a bit more important actually."

"Come on, Naruto." Sakura scowled. "I'm serious."

"Serious? Yes. You're also in my room." Naruto pointed out. "My booby-trapped ninja-room and I didn't notice you. I didn't notice you. And also, I have a courtesian equipped with super hearing." Naruto nodded. "How?"

"You overslept." Sakura informed. "Shizuka's already up, and in fact she's sitting in front of your door like a samurai with a sword in their lap."

Naruto nodded slowly.

"So I started playing an old record to distract her." Sakura nodded.

"Her hearing's more super than that, Sakura." Naruto chided.

"It's a love song." Sakura smiled indulgently, tapping her left ear. "Selective hearing. Ahhh, with those lovely confessions yesterday, of course a maiden's heart would be sensitive. There isn't a girl around who can hear past the passionate thumping of her heart when love is on the mind." She sighed dreamily.

Naruto did indeed hear a very cheesy love song in the distance.

"…My traps?"

"I helped you with the subject in the academy? It was your one weak-point. There were many interesting variations – except the chickens sealed into plush dolls, those were just silly – but it's all a logical extrapolation of your basic style." Sakura pointed out. "Well… there was also History. I also helped you with History. As for the last thing… I guess I hid my chakra. I didn't mean to." She apologized. "I was rather sneaking in through your window, so I must have done it on instinct."

Naruto just stared at Sakura in awe.

After a while, Sakura broke the awkward silence by clearing her throat. "Sooo…. Stronger?"

"And then he said that I didn't need to be any stronger." Sakura complained. "Oh. Just a cup of Oolong Tea for me, please." She interrupted herself so that she could place an order with the waitress. It was a simple tea house. The type you could find even in Sunagakure, albeit with less of a menu and way more dehydration. "Oolong Tea for you, Sasuke-kun?" Sakura hazarded.

"Hn." Sasuke replied.

"We'll both have Oolong Tea." Sakura interpreted for the sake of the waitress. "So… Of course I argued with him." Sakura sighed, getting back to the topic of Naruto. "And he said that he'd prove it. He'd prove that I was already too strong. So I was challenged." Sakura began meekly. "I'm supposed to steal your fan."

Sasuke's normally expressionless face encountered an enormous change. His eyebrows rose, until it was practically absurd on his face.

"The fan on your back. It's a patch, right? I'm supposed to, uh, I'm supposed to steal it." Sakura said awkwardly.

"My Uchiwa?!" Sasuke asked in alarm, suddenly wishing he could put his back to the wall. Suddenly wishing, in fact, that the teahouse wasn't so old fashioned as to have picnic table like benches attatched to their tables, and instead had the more modern chairs with, you know, backs.

Sakura nodded slowly. "Um, so…" Sakura rocked slightly in her seat. "Do you think you could do me a favor…"

"No."

"Right. Right. Of course." Sakura agreed quickly. "Just asking."

Sasuke looked at his teammate wearily.

Their tea arrived with a bow from the waitress, and he still did not take his eyes off of his teammate.

"But, ah, Naruto's training is really great. Actually, that's not right." Sakura amended. "His training is founded on hard work, so it's not too special. His teachings… the ideas that go through his head… those are really great." Sakura admitted wholeheartedly. "I used to call him an idiot, but it's more like he's insane. I wonder if it's that insanity is next to genius principle?"

"Feh."

"…Actually, Sasuke-kun… I asked him what you could do to get stronger too." Sakura admitted.

That peaked Sasuke's interest. To be honest, he'd been alarmed at Sakura's sudden non-uselessness, and had followed her in her quest to follow their teammate for this reason.

"You might not like it though. It might be quite a thing to undertake." Sakura admitted.

"I would do anything to get stronger."

"Anything?"

"Anything. I would live miserably, horribly, wretchedly. For power, I could do anything." Sasuke said.

These uncharacteristic words were said with a certainty that was plain and ordinary. It was a certainty attained from repeating a fact aloud every day.

"Really anything, for real?" Sakura insisted.

"Hn."

"You won't get mad?"

"Spit it out!"

"Go out with me."

"…Excuse me?" Sasuke asked, face going wintry in a second. Well, more wintry.

"Go out with me… for untold strength and technique." Sakura repeated. "That's what Naruto said you should do."

"You think I'll fall for that kind of story? Is this a power of love thing?"

"Yes." Sakura admitted quietly. "Because, and Naruto really did say this: 'people buy into that kind of crap'."

Sasuke raised an eyebrow.

"They think that it's normal." Sakura explained. "Joining a team, getting into a life-threatening situation. Then, due to the suspension bridge effect, falling in love – or at least into a relationship. 'Sounds so painfully normal I could puke'. That's Naruto's idea. "

"Why would being normal –"

"Because normally speaking, Naruto naturally expected you to be stronger." Sakura pressed. "What Sensei said to me was: 'Sakura, you're so strong it's scary. For Sasuke, he's so weak it's scary. What a guy. Last of a beloved clan, talented young dude, and still so weak it's a pity. He has a teacher that can be equalled by only three other entities in the world: Konoha itself. It's just there… waiting… for him to be ready for it. Normally you'd expect him to have teachers lined up to throw their secret techniques at him. But that's just it. He's not normal. He doesn't fit the role. He's too fucking emo to trust with a jutsu."

Sasuke stared at Sakura open-mouthed, his face discernably shocked even to those not versed in stalker-knowledge of his person.

"If you… go out with me…" Sakura said, fighting to keep her glee down, "…you'll seem normal. I guarantee it. Oh Sasuke-kun, I'll work so hard to be a good girlfriend!"

"This is because I made fun of his stalker girl issues." Sasuke said strongly. "That's what this whole thing is about."

"What?"

"He's trying to take me down with him." Sasuke deduced. "That petty bastard. I won't buy it!"

"His ideas really are effective." Sakura frowned. "I never thought I could be anywhere near your level, Sasuke-kun. But I seem… I mean, I think I'm getting close."

Or better, she left unsaid.

But in his heart, Sasuke heard it.

"Prove it." Sasuke demanded, raising his fists. "Prove it or I'm walking out of here, finding him, and beating him within an inch of his life!"

In response to this challenge, Sakura only looked unfazed and slolwly raised one arm. "Cheque please." She told the waitress.

"Um. Your bill has been taken care of," the waitress said with a difficult expression, "courtesy of… well…" she gestured to the table behind Sasuke, "…yourself?"

Sasuke rounded on the side behind him. His eyes snapped wide. "You!"

"Hi…" Sakura waved back awkwardly.

"What?!" Sasuke exclaimed. And incredulous, he snapped his vision between the sakura across from his table, and the one who had been seated behind him. "What."

"Did you notice… I didn't drink any of the tea?" The original Sakura he'd been talking to asked, waving her arm through the teacup before her. "I can't."

"Promise you won't get mad?" Sakura – the real Sakura – tentatively asked, producing a remarkable piece of cloth from her sachet.

"My… Uchiwa…" Sasuke muttered, arms falling, fight leaving him.

"Of course Sasuke-kun is really attentive to what's in front of him!" Clone Sakura exclaimed suddenly, trying to cheer her crush up. "Um, you're really precise! It was super hard to make sure my bunshin acted just like the real me! That's an Uchiha for you! You have the best eyes!"

"You just… never paid much attention to things you couldn't see…" The real Sakura muttered. "No big deal… I'll watch your back! We're a team!" She pumped her fist.

"I… I…" Sasuke muttered.

No matter what he said, it would hardly matter now. And if he fought her now, and won, it also wouldn't matter.

In one moment, his record of victories when sparring with Sakura were rendered moot.

His Uchiwa, stolen. Unthinkable. Unbearable.

She took the fan right off of his back!

That was called absolute defeat. If he was ground into dust, it couldn't be more absolute. There really was no argument to make.

Slowly, Sasuke sank back into his seat, put his face in his hands, and in the middle of an overwhelming aura of depression, he called for the waitress's attention. With the greatest sadness he'd ever expressed since the death of his clan he spoke: "Bring the cheque."

"Um…" the waitress said uneasily. "It's already been paid…"

"Unpay it." Sasuke demanded, face still in his hands miserably. "So that I can repay it. I won't get treated to dinner by… my date."

Both Sakura clasped their hands together happily. "Oh Sasuke-kun! You're such a gentgleman!"

In response to this, Sasuke only sobbed quietly into his hands.

From the roof of a building nearby, feet dangling over the edge, Naruto lowered the binoculars from his eyes. "Hmmm." He muttered. "I used to think that I was an unfortunate example. But I'm starting to get a foreboding feeling about relationships just in general."

"It's so romantic." Shizune sighed from beside him, lowering her own looking glass.

"That's what I'm worried about." Naruto said. What if his nee-chan and kaa-chan didn't have a strange sense of romance after all? What if, all this time, that was just how it was?

Naruto shuddered. Just when he thought the world couldn't get more messed up.

"You trained your disciple well." Jiraiya said from Naruto's right.

"I didn't do much. Rather than disciple, she's just a girl that I tutor on the side. The thing was, she already had it up here." Naruto tapped the side of his head. "And here too." He tapped over his heart. "Just… selectively. Like, only when it comes to love and justice. It's really incomprehensible, but it does suit her."

Jiraiya laughed uproariously. "Well! Like I always say, teaching is about understanding your pupils, and leading them to self-discovery! Like how I trained you for instance."

"Ero-Uncle," Naruto deadpanned, "you barely did a damn thing."

"Case in point." Jiraiya nodded sagely.

"You spent most of your time peeping." Naruto reminisced.

"I also had a lot of self-discovery to do." Jiraiya shrugged.

To this, Tsunade punted Jiraiya off of the building and took his place beside her son. "Hey kid. Well, at least it looks like your team will be ready for the chuunin exams without much effort."

"I'm more worried about myself." Naruto answered honestly, also not taking special notice to his uncle ker-splatting onto the floor. "Being aged like this, I could fight if I had to, but I couldn't guarantee the lives of the people I'd face. At this rate, I'm thinking of skipping it."

"Don't do that." A dusty Jiraiya said, bursting onto the roof from the stairwell. "I taught you better than that. You're being targeted. Think. Where do you hide?"

"I know you're trying to get me to say 'in the open'," Naruto acknowledged, "but I hardly think –"

"On top of the world!" Jiraiya threw up his arms. "Upon the highest podium! Upon the most clamorous stage! Because you know what scares S-rank assassins the most?"

"…Discovery?"

"Death." Jiraiya answered. "They spend all their time killing things. Not only that, they spend all their time thinking about it. Planning it. Wondering about better methods for it. Of course, no one feels the weight of morality as much as they do. The more skilled people like that become, the more they naturally become terrified of being on the receiving end of their own trade. Of course, all shinobi kill. Really it might just be a small change in perspective. But by the time you reach S-rank, you have definitely piled up that little difference of fear into an insurmountable mountain. Did you know they walk around in the buddy system? Like little kids on a school trip scared of getting lost. It's true."

"You want me to win the chuunin exams." Naruto surmised. "Not because it would make me harder to kill. But because with a lot of people watching me, it would simply be too scary for a chicken to kill me."

"It would help." Jiraiya acknowledged. "Make the finals, and for a month you'll be under so attention and gossip that no approach could be certain. Win it, and people will be pestering you for half a year."

"Shouldn't these guys get more daring as they get more skilled?" Naruto asked dubiously.

"No. They get more chicken. If they got more daring, they'd have died some time ago." Jiraiya answered factually.

"Sounds stupid." Naruto judged.

"It does." Tsunade said. "But people are stupid. Stupid works. You should know that best. And I… " Tsunade's eyes narrowed. "…Trust Jiraiya." She said slowly. "Just do your best, kid, and leave this assassin stuff to us. You're so young. This is just background noise for your life."

Jiraiya adopted a hurt look. "Is it really that difficult to say that you trust me, Tsunade?"

"It's easy to say." Tsunade admitted. "But impossible to actually mean. Let us qualify:" Tsunade reasoned in a flat tone. "Insomuch as one can be trusted, with substantial exceptions to be made for matters pertaining to, or pertained from, breasts of any form or size–"

"To be fair," Jiraiya interrupted while hodling up a hand, "If you pay attention closely, you will notice that I don't particularly have any uncouth behaviour around itty bitty titties. So really, it's just big breasts you can't trust me with."

"How itty bitty do you mean?" Shizuka asked in interest.

"Shizuka, don't encourage him." Naruto chided.

"That girl Sakura for example." Jiraiya answered after some thought.

Shizuka pursed her lips. "Her titties are pretty itty bitty. If that's your range, then it's too itty for relevance within a broader titty discussion." Shizuka judged.

"Goddamn it Shizuka." Naruto sighed as a heated debate began over breasts.

Ah. Peace.

Was this nonsensical shit what he was fighting for, in the end?

Naruto clicked his thonge thoughtfully as he contemplated the night sky. Everyone else had long since gone inside. But Naruto… Naruto just stood and stared. "You know what I think, Shizuka?"

Shizuka, always behind him, judged a response easily. "You think about ramen, medicine, and strength Master. But mostly ramen. And sometimes my sexy body."

"Please strike the last one from the record." Naruto refuted sourly. "And no, I've been thinking about what they said."

"About winning the chuunin exams?"

"About leaving it to them." Naruto frowned. "You know, I wanted to support Water Country more directly but I ended up relying on the Shonen clan. I wanted to help my family, but they only need me to stay safe and out of the way. What 'strong enough'? What 'save everyone'? If I had been stronger, I could have taken Zabuza in to jail, but I killed him instead. At this rate, aren't I just a wuss?"

Shizuka shook her head and embraced Naruto from behind gently. "Master is the bravest man I know."

"Shizuka," Naruto smiled wryly, "you lived your life hopping from cage to cage. I'm one of the only men you actually know."

"If it bothers you, Master, then I shall freeze it there." Shizuka replied as she rubbed cheeks with her master affectionately. "I won't know any other men. They're all but ghosts to me. You are always the bravest prince in the most dazzling armour."

Naruto stood silent for a while, craning his neck to affix Shizuka, not inches away, with a look.

"Are you serious?" he asked.

And with a befuddled expression, Shizuka could only remain silent.

"I'm weak. Do you believe me?" Naruto asked.

Shizuka shook her head, no.

Naruto sighed. "I stood a sword-length away from true power. I felt a real demon, more scary than even the thing inside my gut, bear down on me with a head-cleaving chunk of metal. I barely won against a sick man, and I couldn't even afford to save him." Naruto frowned. "I'm weak. Do you believe me?" he asked again.

"Never." Shizuka answered. "What's wrong Master? It isn't like you."

"Nothing." Naruto answered quietly. "I just wanted to know what kind of woman I'm falling for."

*peck*

Shiuka wore a look of amazement, reaching up to touch her lips, before she very unexpectedly began to blush.

"Yeah, I don't believe me either." Naruto grinned, breaking free of a stunned courtesan and hopping onto the lip of the roof. He turned to his audience and spread his arms wide. "I am Senju Naruto!" He declared. "On heaven and earth, I am undefeatable! I may be beaten down, or knocked out, but even if I have lost, I will never admit that I lost! If I am dumber, then I will be stronger! If I am weaker, then I will be more awesome! And to be less awesome would be incomprehensible! What do you think! Do you believe me?" Naruto challenged.

Shizuka, still blushing, clasped her hands together happily. "Of course."

"I thought I'd try to mope and worry about things. It seems like the mature thing to do." Naruto admitted.

"Oh no." Shizuka said with a note of concern. "If Master becomes any more manly, what shall I do with myself? There's no way I could keep my desires in check."

Naruto laughed weakly.

Shizuka didn't laugh with him.

Naruto sweatdropped.

"Right." Naruto deadpanned. "Well. Henge."

"Eh?" Shizuka exclaimed. "B-Big Master became Little Master!" she cried.

"Yeah. Kaa-chan has modified my Genesis seal. This is a new subroutine. The fact that my control was so bad I couldn't even do my own henge, shall be to my eternal shame. It's a secret I'll have you take to the grave."

"Ah. B-But! But we just kissed! I got a kiss! There was kissing!" Shizuka protested. "Next is french kissing! And then the sex!"

"I'm underage." Naruto replied. "Do you want to be a pedophile?"

"That was an option?" Shizuka asked in alarm. "All this time I never knew!"

"You must be joking."

"Ah. But! You can't-! Master, no!" She cried.

"Don't even try Shizuka." Narutuo grinned. "Your Master is the definition of undefeatable. I've been worrying about the details, but it doesn't suit me. I'm the type that thinks on his feet when the arrow is half-way to my head already. No sense worrying. I won't be bothered just because I don't understand the enemy's motives. I will amass a power to crush it all. The only concern left in my life," Naruto allowed, "is that my teammates do the same."

Team 7 held a meeting in the living room of the temporary Senju apartment.

"I'll have you recompense me for this bullshit." Sasuke demanded, gesturing at the pinkette clinging to his arm.

"You didn't even mention me being back to the correct age." Naruto complained.

"Hi." Sasuke deadpanned. "Small again, aren't you? You were thiiiis tall when I last saw you. My, how quickly they shrink these days. What do I care! Fix this shit!"

"It's out of my hands." Naruto shrugged. "You think I want to interfere with a magical girl's quest for love? I understand that I do strike quite a gallant figure, but just how brave do you expect me to be? You tried that yourself," Naruto reminded Sasuke, "and where's your Uchiwa at?"

"Fucking son of a bitch!" Sasuke lunged.

And when the expected chase and chortling finally died down, the two boys were left staring at each-other in either self-satisfaction or exhausted resentment.

"Then at the minimum you owe me jutsu." Sasuke objected.

"For what?" Naruto asked scandalously.

"The emotional trauma associated with dating someone with a photo-album dedicated to the back of my head." Sasuke pointed out.

"…Fair enough." Naruto nodded.

"Hey." Sakura interjected flatly. "Don't agree with that!"

"As it happens," Naruto continued on, "I have prepared a peace offering. We are teammates after all."

"Hm…" Sasuke said doubtfully. "If it involves pie, tickets to anywhere, or anything you could have laced with itching powder or laxative, then no thank you."

"No, I mean an actual peace offering."

"You aren't that nice."

"Again, fair enough." Naruto nodded. "Then I will permit you to pay me."

"Exactly. Wait, no." Sasuke paused. "What?"

"At any rate, here." Naruto snapped his fingers.

"Yes Master." Shizuka answered, entering the room with her luggage in tow.

"Who's that?" Sakura asked. "She… doesn't look so good."

"Well she is tied up." Naruto reasoned.

"No, I mean, isn't she a bit pale? And thin?" Sakura pressed.

"She hasn't been eating." Naruto sighed.

"And missing an arm?" Sakura finished.

"It's a long story." Naruto explained.

"So who's this?" Sasuke asked.

"I know that Sakura-chan came all this way to get tutoring from me," Naruto allowed, "but to be honest I will too busy doing mega giga game-breaking ultimate life-threatening hell training." Naruto shrugged. "So I don't have the time."

"Uwaaa." Sakura breathed. "That sounds super pretentious."

"Oh? Want to try it once?" Naruto asked.

"Ah. No, no, I wouldn't dream of it." Sakura denied quickly. "Only one so awesome as Sensei should be permitted."

Her desire to find out what could lay so far beyond Explosives 201 that it required three more adjectives was exactly 0%

"Therefore I thought: 'Hey you know what? Haku isn't doing anything!' She can train you!"

"What?" Sakura asked, aghast.

"What." Sasuke deadpanned.

"What?" the bound Haku inquired.

"You want me to pay you," Sasuke deadpanned, "so that I can get training from a half-starved invalid."

"Rasengan." Naruto announced, in lieu of answering.

Everyone in the rom flinched. Sakura, familiar with the technique, flung herself bodily on the floor.

Sasuke's red Sharingan eyes spun violently.

Naruto stared Sasuke in the eye. But Sasuke's eyes were elsewhere. "You don't really think you need me to teach you jutsu. You think you just need to copy it. You need to pay people to show it to you. But this one… this one needs teaching, doesn't it?"

Sasuke couldn't look away. It was simple. It was volatile. It was the purposed chaos of the entire world in the palm of a man's hand. It was beautiful.

"…Yes." He said thickly.

"It was my father's." Naruto explained, releasing the sphere back into the ether. "My biological father's."

"…You'd… teach me that?" Sasuke asked in surprise.

"Of course not." Naruto replied. "But I'll bet it on a challenge you can't win."

"Try me." Sasuke challenged.

"Defeat Haku." Naruto replied.

Sasuke Hmmm'ed. "Then your tutor fee shall be my ante."

"I'd ask for more, but even I feel bad taking too much money from idiots." Naruto admitted.

"I won't do it." Haku said quietly.

Yes. This was the problem, Naruto knew. She wouldn't do it.

"Haku." Naruto said gently. "You need to get out. You need to eat. I'll even let you try to kill me, ok? Don't you want revenge?"

Haku scoffed, albeit quietly, on reflex. "Nonsense. Zabuza-sama… wouldn't care at all. I'm not depressed. I'm not mourning. This is my normal life now. Purposeless. "

Naruto frowned. "Zabuza was an indiscernible mess of a man, not fit to be called a shinobi. A miserable scoundrel with all the skill in the world, and couldn't think of anything better to do with it than kill for loose change." He incited.

Haku bowed deeply at the waist. Naruto got the distinct impression that had she not been tied up, she would have curtsied.

"I thank you for your kind words." Haku expressed from her heart.

"Indeed." Naruto sighed, realizing his error. "That asshole would have loved such a eulogy. How do I make you angry, Haku? How do I make you feel… anything at all?"

"Your mistake is that you think me depressed. Not so. My world is simply empty. What is there to do?" Haku asked theoretically.

Naruto's mind raced. Finally…

"I won't report it." He threatened.

"…What?" Asked Haku.

"I won't report it." Naruto repeated, gaining momentum. "Zabuza's death. His last words. What an asshole he was. Let's just ignore it. If someone asks me what kind of man he was, I'll just say 'Who is that again?' and soon the world will follow."

"Th-The bounty –"

"I can live without it." Naruto nodded. "And the fame? I don't really care. And then Haku think: no one will know how he died in a torrent of ocean and blood. No one will know he's died at all. People will just sit there, waiting for his next move, or the end of his tale. And you know what? They'll keep waiting. For a while. And then they'll get bored of it, because nothing is happening, and they'll just leave. They'll just assume he's gone soft somewhere and possibly settled down to raise a random number of kids with a random woman, in a town with no name. They'll neither praise him nor curse him. They'll just forget he ever existed."

Naruto had to stop there. He was interrupted.

He had to reach out and snag Haku's wrist. Her fingers were outstretched, needles held firmly, the ropes that had bound her nowhere to be seen, and Naruto stared at the pointed metal directly before his eyeball.

"Haku. You have the same thing to lose that Zabuza always feared to lose." Naruto explained. "His story. His relevance."

"Report it." Haku grit her teeth. "He was your worthy opponent. What of honour?"

"You must be joking." Naruto deadpanned. "He was not my honourable opponent. He was my filthy opponent. And in respect of his memory, I do not revere his grave – I spit on it. I trample on it. I maintain in my heart, my utter loathing for the enemy beneath. If I had it in my bladder, I'd urinate on it, too. And in the end, I ignore it completely, just because I know that it would piss him off the most."

The hand in his grasp shook, and Naruto knew Haku was straining to end him.

Even though Zabuza himself would have considered his words nothing but the highest form of praise.

But the fact that it didn't make sense was what proved Haku was angry.

So Naruto pitched an idea. "Here's the plan Haku. I'm going to write a record of events. I'm going to sign it. I'm going to keep it with me 24/7. If you kill me, I sincerely promise that you'll find it on my corpse. But you don`t stand a chance, and we both know that. Not in any kind of fight." Naruto explained. "Yet you're not a fighter. You're a killer. And in that you have a chance. Every time Sasuke has to pay me, I'll have Shizuka impart on you one piece of information about me. If you get enough, maybe your assassin arts will reach me."

"Master! I'm sorry. I thought I tied those ropes properly." Shizuka apologized frantically.

"I'm sure you did." Naruto replied.

"It will be there." Haku affirmed. "You swear."

"On my family name, I swear it." Naruto promised.

"W…" Haku licked her dry lips. "Wash… your neck." She said, as if tasting the words for the first time.

"And wait?" Naruto asked.

"No." Haku replied more smoothly. "As my Master would say… You'll be dead long before you start to wait."

"Okay." Naruto smiled. "It's settled."

And Naruto turned to leave, but paused, and turned back to his old friend.

"Pst. Sakura-chan."

"Eh? Naruto?"

"I just thought of this, but you should probably join them, shouldn't you?"

"Eh? But you said..."

"No, no. You don't have to learn anything new from me. Indeed, you are strong enough right now. But… In fact, you might want to train with Sasuke and Haku. That way you can keep an eye on them. I mean," Naruto seemed to hesitate, "you've got to do something, right?"

"Eh? Huh? What do you mean, Naruto-kun?" Sakura asked, confused.

"Well… don't you think Haku's kind of pretty? I'm super sorry that I didn't think of this before!"

"Eh? Eh?" Sakura asked both more dazed and more panicked.

"The most worrisome thing is, she's strong! Isn't that guy Sasuke mega into chicks that are strong?"

"This is the first I'm hearing of this!" Sakura exclaimed.

"Well…" Naruto trailed off. "I thought it was obvious… no, never mind. If Sakura-chan doesn't think so then it must be my mistake."

"What?!" Sakura asked. "Did he say something to you?"

"No, I couldn't break a promise between men. Er, not that there was any such promise. But if there were such a promise, I surely couldn't break it. So please inquire no more on the subject. Anyways! I'm sure Sakura-chan has nothing to worry about. Well, never mind then! Bye!"

"Ah! Wait!"

But Naruto was gone, and Sakura dared not leave Sasuke and Haku in the room alone together.

She bit her lower lip and stared at the raven-haired girl heatedly.

Naruto whistled jauntily to himself.

"There. Sakura-chan didn't need strength, but still required a love rival to fuel her magical girl jutsu. I got a teacher for Sasuke, so that I could opt out of that myself. And I got a purpose for Haku. I have saved another life from itself." Naruto dusted his hands together. "And to top it off, I forced Sasuke into an illusory love triangle-like situation from hell. Damn, I'm good. Is it okay that I make it look this easy? Aren't my teammates, sans Sasuke, incredibly fortunate to have such a compassionate and helpful guy as an ally?"

"Master. Is it okay… about Haku?" Shizuka asked.

"It's fine. It's fine. When she's looking more lively, I'll just report Zabuza's death myself." Naruto waved off. "Something bold was necessary. A shock to the heart. A defibrillator for the soul. That kind of thing."

"But until then…"

"Telling her my secrets? I don't care. It's up to you to give her secret trivia about my daily life. I'm counting on you." Naruto joked.

"Oh, like that?" Shizuka brightened up, relieved. "If it's trivia like that, then you can leave it to me Master! I know aaaaaaall about your everyday life!"

"No. That's a little worrying." Naruto admitted.

"What next, Master?" Shizuka inquired energetically. "You're on quite a roll!"

"I have seen to my friends and responsibilities. Now I go home." Naruto said wistfully. "I shall get down on my knees. I shall implore earnestly for my kind elder sister to cook my favourite ramen. I shall insult my unreliable perverted uncle. I'll probably get into a brawl at the dinner table with my boisterous mother over something meaningless. And I shall enter my life-threatening training with absolutely no regrets." Naruto smiled wryly. "That is the way of the Toad Clan."

"When it's time I will have three tasks for you, Shizuka. First, I will entrust you with my door. I can't be disturbed. No one is to enter. My room will be as separate as the underworld itself, and nothing living must cross. Second, when my training is over you will authenticate me. If anything walks out of that room, and it isn't me, then you are to slay it with the maximum speed. Then lastly, no matter what happens, you will remember me. Tell me Shizuka. Summarise my life. With the fewest words possible, give an explanation for my hopes and dreams, and all that I am."

Shizuka looked at her Master's wistful and expectant face, and though she did not grasp the scope of what he was preparing for she knew that only one answer would suffice. She licked her lips and said so. "…Undefeatable."

"Good girl!" Naruto cheered. In fact as a reward he pat her head and praised her lavishly.

-0-0-0-=-=-=-=-=-=

"That's what he said." Shizuka explained neutrally to Sasuke and Sakura from where she sat crouched in front of Naruto's door. "He praised me, was affectionate to me, pat my head, and told me what to do for him. That's all I ever wanted, and I knew it. Only later it occurred to me that I knew that Master knew that too. And now I`m somewhat thinking…" Shizuka said slowly, "…that he was making peace with me. That was twelve hours ago, and I have never been more afraid for his life."

"I don't care." Said a flustered Sasuke. "I can't take this hell like situation he's put me into. One girl beats me up, and another one keeps fawning over me getting beaten up." Sasuke gestured to Sakura, sheepishly rubbing the back of her head from where she stood beside him. "And tricking me into going on dates with her! I've had enough! He's got to do something about this!"

"You will be quiet. No distractions." Shizuka explained. "None at all."

"Like hell I will."

*Ka-chink*

The sound of an unsheathed ninja-to silenced any further complaints.

With deliberate slowness, Shizuka leaned forwards and raked a line into the hardwood floor.

"What's this?" Sasuke asked.

"This is the Sanzu River." Shizuka explained factually. "No need for a ferry. No toll required at all. Just one step and you can cross it. Then you'll be a tourist on vacation in the underworld."

Sakura shuddered. "Sasuke-kun… come on." She tugged at her boyfriend's sleeve. "Let's leave it. You can talk to him later."

Sasuke grit his teeth. "If I'm going to get bossed around by any more women, then I might as well take my chances!"

"Sasuke-kun, no!" Sakura exclaimed, grasping him by the waist. "Then, trade my bossing you for hers. I won't try to force you into any more dates. You win and I'll always lose. But you can't go there. That's the Sanzu River." Sakura whispered, considering the door that looked so plain but now felt so otherworldly. "And only the dead go there."


A/N: To be honest, I'm pulling some things out of left field. Basically, it's my limation as an author and I admit it. Well, this story is old. I was much less skilled in my youth.