Naruto: Kazama Ascendant

Chapter 15: Of Gratitude and Danger

Having fulfilled his responsibilities for the day, Hokage Kazama Naruto decided that he had earned an afternoon off. While he had long ago defeated the bane of all Kages, also know as paperwork, the blonde shinobi had come to the realization all work and no play would make him as disagreeable as an Uchiha. The blonde Hokage felt a shiver of fear at the thought as scowling at everything that moved didn't fit his personality. Besides, Sarutobi-jiji had always said that it was important for the Hokage to get out of the office every once in a while.

And so, after enjoying a leisurely lunch that resulted in a large pile of bowls at Ichiraku's Ramen, the blonde shinobi decided to spend his afternoon sparing with one of his subordinates. It wasn't much of a spar, but then there were not many ninja that could stand against the most powerful Hokage ever. And so, after having soundly thrashed Sasuke-teme like a new Academy graduate for the better part of an hour, the young Hokage decided drop his former teammate by the hospital and return home.

Just as Naruto walked through the door of his house, he was practically assaulted by a beautiful blonde kunoichi. This young woman squealed "Naruto-kun!" in a very girlish manner as she leapt at the young Hokage.

Ino was wearing an outfit very similar to what she had worn while they were growing up. She had, however, long since discarded the wrappings that had been part and parcel of her attire during her years at the Academy. This was a vast improvement in the young Hokage's opinion as this relatively minor change in her wardrobe left her tan mid-drift exposed to his tactile inspection. The lack of bandages also complimented Ino's standard skirt, as the impossibly high slits on the skirt's sides now further accentuated her lightly tanned legs.

The Hokage merely smiled as Ino sighed contentedly and practically molded herself to his body. Pouting slightly, the blonde kunoichi murmured, "I've missed you. You could have been home hours ago."

The young Kazama beamed happily as he responded, "I know, I know. But you know how I like to stretch my legs every once in a while. Besides, I have to keep Sasuke-teme in his place! If I didn't, the bastard's ego would probably be overflowing the Uchiha District and infringing on the Hyuuga Compound before I could blink. I am just doing my part for inner-village diplomacy."

Ino's eyes glazed over and turned into stars as she exclaimed, "You're so amazing, Naruto-kun!" Disengaging himself from the blonde's embrace, Naruto merely chuckled as he scratched his head.

It was at this time that the young kunoichi noticed a small amount of blood on the cuff of his robes. Ino's adoring continence changed almost immediately to one of outrage. "Why didn't you say something about being injured?" The blonde's voice shifted to carry throughout the house. "NURSE!"

A whisper of sound signaled the arrival of Haku, who was now standing beside Naruto, studying him intently. Whether the level of scrutiny was related to her profession or less wholesome reasons was anyone's guess. Continuing to scratch the back of his head, Naruto chuckled, "Honestly Ino-chan, there is no need to be concerned. It was just a paper cut from this morning. It healed almost instantly. It is nothing to worry about."

The blonde kunoichi appeared to take some umbrage at the comment, shifting her hands to her hips as she responded, "Naruto-kun! You are not qualified to make such judgments. That is why you were instructed to consult with your personal physician whenever you are injured."

At this, Naruto once again cast his gaze upon his personal physician. Despite being an exceptionally qualified med-nin, Haku appeared to be wearing the same uniform worn by the nurses at the hospital… except this version of the outfit seemed to be several sizes too small, with the skirt having been shortened significantly.

Ino eventually gave up glaring at Naruto and turned towards the other girl. "Haku, it appears that Naruto-kun has not been following our instructions regarding his health. I think that a full examination is required to ensure that he is not hiding any other injuries from us."

Glancing nervously at the two girls as they turned towards him with hungry looks reflected in their eyes, Naruto stuttered, "T… That won't be necessary. I swear that I am perfectly fine." The two girls completely ignored his protests and attacked, bodily throwing him towards the couch in the living room and rapidly progressing in their mission to 'check him for injuries'.

Just as the two finished removing his robes and tearing apart his shirt, the door leading to the kitchen swung open. Hinata walked into the room a second later, carrying an enormous bowl of ramen. She appeared to be wearing her oversized white coat, as usual. What was unusual was that she did not appear to be wearing anything else. The half zipped coat was barely long enough to hide her modesty, leaving her toned legs and a healthy amount of cleavage exposed.

Struggling a bit with the large bowl of ramen, Hinata exclaimed, "You're finally home, Naruto-kun! I made you a light snack." Noticing the bowl the attractive, barely clothed kunoichi was carrying, Naruto exclaimed, "Mmmmm... RAMEN! Hinata-chan, you really know how to spoil me."

As Hinata moved forward to place the bowl before Naruto, she appeared to stumble a bit and managed to spill some of the warm miso ramen on Naruto's exposed chest. With a sudden intake of breath, Hinata began to apologize and said that she would clean it up immediately.

A barely audible clearing of a throat drew everyone's attention to Ino. The young Hokage found his fellow blonde wearing a grin that scared him more than he could express. Leering quite directly, Ino absently observed, "You know, it would be a real shame to let any of Hinata's delicious miso ramen go to waste." The other two girls appeared to catch Ino's hint immediately and acquired rather lecherous looks in their own eyes. Just as the three of them were beginning to descend upon him…, Naruto's alarm clock went off.

The blonde shinobi leapt from his bed and, hopelessly tangled in his sheets, fell unceremoniously to the floor with a heavy thud. Scurrying to his feet, Naruto yelled, "What the hell was that?" as he looked around his bedroom a tad franticly to verify that he was alone.

After he recovered from his rather abrupt return to reality and moved to begin his morning preparations, Naruto took the time to reflect on what he remembered of his dream. The Hokage part of the dream was rather unremarkable as it was not unusual for him to daydream of terrorizing the countryside in Hokage robes. When he was a little younger, these dreams had often involved tasting all the available ramen to ensure it was safe for his citizens to eat or convincing local merchants of the various benefits of producing more orange clothing. Many of his afternoons at the Academy had been whittled away with such distractions.

Pummeling Sasuke was also a relatively common occurrence, usually depending on how much of an ass the bastard had been at the Academy. What caught him by surprise was that he had never really experienced such an explicit dream about a girl, let alone girls…

'Not even at the height of my infatuation with Sakura.' Naruto paused in his evaluation and found himself reflecting on how the girls had been dressed in his dream. Each outfit seemed to have been based on their usually clothing, only infinitely more suggestive. Naruto found himself absently wiping a small trickle of blood away from his nose as his thoughts progressed.

The sight of the red liquid as he absently looked down at his hand shocked Naruto out of his daydream. 'What the hell was I just thinking about? Am I becoming a pervert like Hokage-jiji? Perhaps hanging around Kakashi-sensei and his perverted books is having more of an impact on me than I realized?'

Reflecting on what had changed in the past couple of days, Naruto thought, 'Maybe the incident with the Suna kunoichi served as some sort of trigger for these types of thoughts. If so, I need to be more attentive to my surroundings… I wouldn't want to start zoning out like Hokage-jiji.'

Following that line of thought, caused the blonde shinobi to shudder as he imagined what Ino or Haku would do to him if they some how found out about his dream. And poor Hinata would either pass out or run screaming in the other direction. Having concluded his analysis, Naruto decided that it was better for both his health and his sanity to forget that this episode had ever taken place.

XXXXX

Sarutobi, long accustomed to all sorts of mission debriefings, had been looking forward to this one since the previous day. An almost imperceptible smile appeared on his face as he took his time reviewing the completed mission scroll and Kakashi's accompanying report while smoking his pipe.

The members of Team Seven waited silently as the Hokage exhaled several puffs of aromatic tobacco smoke, reviewing the scroll and emitting a low murmur every so often. Near the end of the scroll, the Sandaime appeared to frown as he reread a section, causing the three genin members of Team Seven to shift a bit uneasily.

The elderly ninja smiled slightly as he turned his full attention to the ninja gathered in his office. "Welcome back Team Seven. It appears that your mission was a complete success. The Daimyo was particularly impressed with how efficiently the ambush situation was handled."

Glancing over the scroll in hand, the Hokage continued, "The mission fee has been paid in full. The Fire Daimyo's wife even paid a bit extra because Naruto 'prevented the tour from being a complete bore.'"

Placing aside the scroll he had theatrically referenced for the quote, the Sandaime folded his hands on his desk and innocently inquired, "Naruto… While I am delighted that our esteemed client was pleased with your performance, would you mind enlightening me as to what she meant by that statement?"

Blushing in embarrassment at having to explain having a food fight in the middle of a diplomatic meeting, Naruto responded, "It was just a minor disagreement with one of the Suna kunoichi… It wasn't that important."

Sarutobi rocked slightly in his chair as he contemplated his response. The small smile reappeared on the elderly man's face as he continued chidingly, "Now Naruto, it is quite unusual for you to blush. I hope nothing… untoward happened on this trip."

The statement hung in the air as the blonde genin fidgeted slightly under the old man's penetrating gaze. Naruto's blush had intensified noticeably as the Hokage's comment had caused the blonde shinobi to remember exactly what had followed the 'minor disagreement with one of the Suna kunoichi.'

The blonde's obvious unease caused Sarutobi's amusement at the situation to increase exponentially. Continuing in the same chiding tone, the elderly Hokage scolded, "I think that is a bit hypocritical of you to act in an… untoward manner while on a mission representing Konoha. I mean that you are always going on and on about perverts and such…"

The shift in the conversation caused both Sasuke and Sakura to shake off their feigned indifference to the conversation and glance between their teammate and the Hokage with more than a bit of curiosity.

Deciding that he could draw out his amusement just a bit more, the Hokage concluded, "It would truly be a shame if any… untoward behavior on your part resulted in poor relations with the either the royal court or Suna. I hope you will learn to suppress such… untoward behavior in the future… It simply isn't proper for a fine, upstanding young man as yourself to act in such a manner."

XXXXX

The week preceding Naruto's mission had been as close to heaven as Hinata could imagine. It had been… both exhilarating and nerve wracking to have Naruto pay such close attention to her. The discussions on manners and customs, the practice meals and conversations, the evening out at the restaurant… While not exactly a reenactment of domestic bliss that many young girls would imagine, it was far closer to the situation than the young Hyuuga heiress had ever believed she would achieve.

'And it felt right… Besides the near blissful feeling of spending time with Naruto-kun outside of sparring, it felt good to have the opportunity to guide him… to repay him for all the times he has helped me… All the times he has inspired me to keep trying.' It was both a relief and a disappointment for the young genin to return to their normal training routines.

XXXXX

Having finished their now customary sparring session, Naruto and the two kunoichi found themselves catching up with each other as they enjoyed the meal Hinata had prepared in celebration of Naruto's return. It had been a light day of training as the two girls had been more interested in hearing about the young shinobi's escort mission than sparring this evening.

The meal itself was relatively simple, but he couldn't remember many times when he had been more content while eating. The easy friendship he shared with the girls was almost heavenly when compared to the animosity that seemed to infest Team Seven's interactions. Despite the relatively platonic feelings the young shinobi believed he had for his friends, Naruto couldn't help the embarrassed blush that appeared on his face when he noticed the Hyuuga heiress using a portable stove to prepare miso ramen as part of the meal.

Throughout Hinata's preparations and the meal that followed, Naruto talked at length about the mission. The attentive girls listened quietly as the blonde shinobi described his time in the capital, the ambush in forest, and the confrontation during the festival. While he began the evening fairly relaxed, the two kunoichi noticed that Naruto appeared to become increasingly nervous and uncomfortable after he finished his story and the meal progressed.

Concerned about this uncharacteristic behavior, Hinata inquired, "Are you feeling okay, Naruto-kun? I hope there wasn't there something wrong with the food…"

Shaken from his uncertain thoughts by the question, Naruto beamed at the shy girl and responded, "No, Hinata-chan. You have out done yourself as usual."

Hinata looked down as she felt herself blush, mentally chastising herself for letting such a simple compliment throw her so off kilter. Even after a couple months of friendship, the young heiress would occasionally find herself surprised that the blonde shinobi's simple praise could warm her very soul. She took a moment to mentally settle herself, taking a deep breath as she looked down at her fidgeting hands and calmly willed the spreading redness of her blush to recede.

Eying the now smiling boy suspiciously, Ino, as was her custom, cut right to the point. "So, what is your problem? You seem rather nervous about something."

The two kunoichi watched curiously as the normally talkative boy fell silent once again. Their curiosity increased as he began to fidget under their inspection, a light blush coloring his face. Eventually, he reached into one of his pockets and withdrew two small boxes: one wrapped in a pale yellow paper, the other in pale lavender. He silently handed each girl a small box.

Each girl looked at their respective boxes for a moment before returning their attention to the blonde shinobi. Naruto nervously cleared his throat and explained, "I wanted to say thank you for the etiquette training… So, I purchased these on the trip."

With an inquisitive tilt of her head, Ino examined the box as she began to unwrap it. Given its size, it should have been no surprise that the wrapping paper revealed a small jewelry box. However, Ino paused in her inspection as she glanced back at Naruto, who had resumed his nervous fidgeting. There was something about seeing the normally indomitable shinobi acting in such a nervous and unsure fashion that satisfied the blonde kunoichi on an almost visceral level. Smiling softly, the young Yamanaka thought, 'He looks as if he was awaiting his execution or something.'

Returning her attention to her gift, Ino slowly lifted the lid of the box and peered inside. Her breath caught as she poked a finger into the box, brushing against the cool, metallic surface of the object inside. Glancing up from the box, the young kunoichi arched a slim eyebrow at the blonde sitting opposite her.

Seeing him quickly look away from her gaze, Ino resisted the urge to smirk as she slowly removed a deceptively delicate silver necklace and matching pendant from the box in her hand. Closer examination of the pendant revealed an image of a single rose, skillfully engraved on an oval disc of glittering silver.

She turned to Naruto and smiled softly, touched by the token of affection from the boy. "This is… beautiful," Ino stated, her voice barely audible. She had never received such a present before from outside her immediate family, let alone from a boy. A light blush stole across her face as she whispered, "I love it."

Naruto's face turned a deeper shade of red at this declaration. "Um, it really wasn't…" His response was cut off rather suddenly as a girl encased in a large white coat tackled him to the ground.

Hinata quickly latched onto him, her arms wrapped around him in a hug and her face buried into his jacket. Utterly surprised and slightly panicked by the fact that the murmuring girl quickly began to sob slightly on his shoulder, Naruto's mind concluded that it was time to initiate damage control. His thoughts began racing to find someway of calming the obviously distraught girl down. After a long uncomfortable moment, the young shinobi finally mustered up the courage to move, tentatively placing his arms around his friend.

Ino couldn't help but observe the two ninja with a small grin. 'This is just so cute.' The thought had just crossed her mind before she saw the small box the other girl had dropped before launching herself at Naruto. Curiosity getting the best of her, Ino reached over to inspect the small box that Hinata had recently opened. Inside she found a pendant similar to hers, except that, instead of a rose, the surface was beautifully engraved with a small rendition of a sunrise.

Meanwhile, Naruto hurriedly addressed himself towards the girl in his arms in a slightly panicked tone, rubbing her back in what he hoped was a soothing manner. "Hinata-chan, if you don't like it, I can get you something else. How about a new recipe book? Or some more herbs for those medicines you like to make?" Not getting any type of response, Naruto continued hurriedly, "I'll do anything you want, just please stop crying."

Naruto actually returning her embrace and his statement about doing 'anything' to get her to stop crying caused the girl to blush brighter than before. Still the boy's reaction caused the young heiress to recover herself. Mortified by her outburst, Hinata quickly scrambled back to her original position. "Ano… t… that will not be n… necessary."

Recovering slightly from his earlier panic, Naruto bluntly continued, "Are you sure? Because I do not think thank you gifts are supposed to cause people to burst into tears." Watching the pale-eyed girl blush deeply at the remark, Ino decided to step in and help her out. "I'm sure Hinata likes her present as much as I like mine." The Hyuuga in question nodded her head rapidly in agreement.

Needing to distract him a bit more, Ino caught the young shinobi's attention and winked at the boy. Smiling mischievously, Ino offered, "But you had better be careful Naruto or we may just come to expect more such gifts from you in the future." The look of utter terror in his eyes was well worth the slight embarrassment she felt from having made such a statement.

XXXXX

Later that evening, Honshu watched as her daughter practically floated into the kitchen as she was putting the finishing touches on their dinner. Her daughter's distraction drew out the blonde woman's curiosity. While she was well aware that her daughter was a young woman who was entitled to her privacy, she could rarely help her interest in her only child's life.

Deciding to begin her inquiry, Honshu asked an innocent opening question to gauge her daughter's mood. "Have you already eaten or will you be joining your father and I for dinner?"

Ino's response was unusually preoccupied, which only fed her mother's interest. "I may have a bite, but Hinata ended up fixing a picnic since it was Naruto's first day back from his escort mission."

After having confirmed that Naruto was involved without any real effort, Honshu continued her subtle probing, "So… how was training today?"

Ino responded absently once again as she played with a silver pendant. "Same as usual… Naruto's presence always seems to make them a bit more tiring than when it is only Hinata and myself."

Honshu suppressed the urge to roll her eyes at the vague response. 'Same as usual? Such an uninformative answer when I can't help but notice you absently toying with a necklace I have never seen before.'

Deciding to be a bit more direct, the older Yamanaka inquired, "You seem a bit distracted… Did anything interesting happen?"

The seemingly innocent question caused Ino to shake herself from her thoughts and direct her full attention towards her mother. The comment was just a little too broad… a little too leading for Ino's taste. Long experience and what could best be defined as Ino's 'daughter-sense' told her that her mother was digging for something. "Why would you think anything interesting happened?"

'Ahhh… Answering a question with a question… A bit defensive. If I had to guess, this really is about Naruto.' The elder blonde managed to suppress her smirk into an indiscernible twitch of her lips. 'I wonder if either of them sees how much their friendship means to the other.'

While she had only met him a few times, Naruto seemed to be a sweet boy, generally polite and treating everyone around him with kindness and respect. Honshu could only marvel at this fact considering the type of treatment he had endured over the years. Given what she knew about his childhood, it was a miracle that he still retained his sanity, let alone his heart.

She would have expected him to grow up to be jaded and bitter, full of vengeful and unforgiving thoughts. While she suspected he could be as angry and irritable as the next person, true bitterness of spirit seemed absent from his character. His positive influence on her daughter, who hadn't exactly been kind to him while they were at the Academy, only supported this conclusion.

Deciding to begin the main thrust of her inquiry, Honshu responded innocently, "What? Can't a mother inquire about her only child's day? You just seemed to be lost in thought and I was curious. I'm not saying you have to tell me anything, but I am here for you if you want to talk about it."

Ino watched her mother for a moment before releasing an inaudible sigh of defeat. She had never been very good at keeping things from her mother. 'Especially when she smells blood in the water… And she just had to go for the subtle guilt trip with the 'I'm not saying you have to tell me anything, but' comment.'

Honshu knew she won when her daughter's shoulders slumped ever so slightly as she looked away. 'It gets her every time.'

Somewhat grudgingly, Ino began to describe the evening… Eventually, the young kunoichi ended up showing her mother the silver necklace and providing the relevant details about its presentation, namely Naruto's shy nervousness and Hinata's blindside tackle.

Honshu remained silent throughout her daughter's recounting, simply enjoying the fact that her daughter appeared to be so much happier than she had during the last two years at the Academy. While the shift away from monotonous lectures at the Academy towards more demanding assignments probably had a part in this change, Honshu couldn't shake the feeling that Naruto's and, later, Hinata's friendship played an integral role in her daughter's happiness.

Waiting a brief moment after Ino's recitation, Honshu commented, "My, my… Giving you ninja equipment to help you become stronger and now showering you with jewelry? Are you sure that you are really training in the forest and that you are not just using that as an excuse to spend time with him?"

"Mother!" Even without the exclamation, Ino's dumbfounded expression would have easily communicated the shock she felt at this accusation. 'What is she talking about?'

Honshu's eyes began to dance with mirth at her daughter's outraged cry. Turning away from dinner to respond, Honshu began to enumerate her observations with her left hand. "Well, let's review the facts… First, you spend an inordinate amount of time with a young man that is not your teammate. Second, this young man was concerned enough about you to brave the wraith of an over protective jounin father when you had exhausted yourself. Third, outside of 'practice', you have enjoyed several meals with this young man and managed to drag him shopping with you on at least two occasions. And finally, he has given you thoughtful and practical gifts without a special occasion. He sounds like a boyfriend to me."

"B... Boyfriend?" Ino spluttered, her face flushed at the implication. After taking a moment to recover, the younger Yamanaka shook her head in exasperation and responded haughtily, "Stop jumping into strange and unfounded conclusions. Naruto is not my boyfriend. He is just a sparing partner and an annoying one at that. Hinata is there most of the time anyways…"

Seeing her mother's smile broaden at the qualifier, Ino pressed on quickly, losing the self-righteous tone of her previous statement, "Not that anything would happen if she wasn't. Most of the time I am hard pressed to stop myself from strangling him."

Honshu simply responded in a singsong fashion as she returned her attention to the stove, "If it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck…" The silence hung in the air for a moment before the older Yamanaka concluded, "Your father's barbeque this weekend will be the perfect opportunity for me to draw my own conclusion… You did pass on the invitation, didn't you?"

Her mother's self-satisfied tone seemed to echo in the young kunoichi's mind for a moment before she lowered her head to the table with an audible thud. 'The woman is incorrigible.'

Ino's voice carried a clear note of exasperation as she responded, "Yes Mother… Both Hinata and Naruto said they would be coming and Naruto volunteered to ask Haku tomorrow."

XXXXX

The weekend found Haku and Naruto eating at Ichiraku's Ramen after a rather intense sparring session. He always enjoyed weekends as being freed from waiting for Kakashi-sensei and performing rather worthless D ranked missions allowed the blonde shinobi to follow a far more leisurely schedule without sacrificing his training.

As he sat back and thought about the past couple of months, he had to resist the urge to simply marvel at how much he had improved; a great deal of his progress having been achieved due to Haku's guidance. Besides Gai-sensei's instruction in taijutsu, most of the shinobi tuition he had received since the Academy had been in the form of scrolls and lectures. While he was inordinately grateful for Sarutobi-jiji's assistance, he had long ago come to realize that he learned better with active instruction.

That being said, the blonde shinobi had noted with some interest that Hokage-jiji's lessons had shifted into a more guiding tone over the past couple of weeks. The Hokage had urged Naruto to begin applying new strategies towards his existing skills, now that he possessed better chakra control and actually understood jutsu mechanics.

The lectures and discussions regarding the importance of the 'Academy Three' seemed particularly significant. In addition to the use of traditional Bunshin and Kawarimi jutsus to increase the effectiveness of his Kage Bunshin technique, Sarutobi had pointed out how easily Henge could be integrated with his primary technique to create havoc in battles against low-level opponents.

'The basic ninja skills are often ignored by many ninja, but they hold a power all their own. Even ninja of low to medium rank that have mastered the Kawarimi and Bunshin jutsus can evade a jounin under certain circumstances. With all the powerful techniques and bloodlines that suffuse the village, many ninja appear to forget that stealth, evasion, and misdirection are the most essential shinobi skills.'

Mirroring the shifting lectures, Haku's training regime for the blonde shinobi had also continued to evolve. Apparently, the raven haired kunoichi thought that he had advanced sufficiently enough with his chakra sensing exercises to take the next step: sparring while blind folded. While he had improved by leaps and bounds, Haku was still able to decisively wipe the floor with him. That she could do so without visible effort and without resorting to her bloodline was humbling for the blonde shinobi.

As Haku's exercises were having an impact, the blonde shinobi had a powerful incentive to pay attention to the dark haired kunoichi. Since he began wearing a blindfold during various training exercises, Naruto's coordination had increased by leaps and bounds. The blonde shinobi's chakra recognition abilities had also advanced to the point where he could detect her with ease even when she was suppressing her signature. Given that he had originally struggled to locate Haku while she was flaring her chakra less than three feet away from him, it was miraculous progress. Her comment that he may be a sensor type with how quickly he had advanced with this skill had only caused him to work all the harder.

In her own private contemplation of Naruto's progress, Haku couldn't help but be impressed. While she had been hypothesizing about Naruto's strength since her arrival in Konoha, the young kunoichi was beginning to think that she had underestimated him quite a bit. Watching him learn lessons in days that had taken her months to master was both humbling and slightly daunting.

XXXXX

After setting up his grill, complete with carefully his arranged stack of charcoal, Inoichi glanced around his corner of the patio with a please expression. It was a beautiful spring day; absolutely perfect weather for a barbeque. While his wife liked to tease him about his affinity for grilling, he really did enjoy the barbeque gatherings that had become something of a tradition over the past couple of years. While these gatherings usually involved simply spending time with his teammates and their families, the Yamanakas occasionally invited other friends to join them for an afternoon of games and hamburgers.

The practice had truly begun six years ago when he had completed his summer project to expand the back patio. Honshu had been a bit skeptical about the landscaping project, as it had cost her one of her flowerbeds, but he thought that the use they made of the space throughout the more comfortable months of the year more than made up for the sacrifice. Realizing that he didn't have his barbequing tools, Inoichi set out to retrieve them from the special case that he kept in the hall closet.

As Inoichi recovered his prized tools and headed back out towards the patio, he noticed Honshu, Nara Yoshino, and Ino's friend, Haku, were talking in low voices in the kitchen, thick as thieves. Despite almost twenty years of marriage, he still wondered how the presence of other women could shift his wife's personality to such a degree. A bout of laughter from the older women caused him to feel some sympathy for Haku and to wonder if that laughter boded well or ill for his sanity.

As he reached the patio doors, he paused once again. Instead of wondering about sounds of laughter, Inoichi found himself simply observing his only daughter and her friend as they talked. Naruto and Haku had come over a bit early to help set up and, while Haku had been drafted into helping out in the kitchen, Naruto had ended up helping Ino set up the tables outside for later. It was a remarkable thing to watch as Naruto laughed and dodged Ino's half-hearted strikes, apparently having made a teasing comment to his only child.

All in all, it was a very innocent and pleasant sight. There was nothing really special about the moment, but Inoichi knew almost intuitively that it would be a sight that he'd cherish for years to come. Despite some paternal misgivings, Naruto's friendship had been very good for Ino. On a personal note, it had been a long time since she had seemed so happy and carefree… ever since Ino and Sakura's falling out, if his memory served him.

Professionally, Naruto had succeeded where both the Academy and his occasional lectures had failed… Ino was finally taking her kunoichi career seriously. He would forgive the young man almost anything for that alone, as it could go a long way towards ensuring that his daughter lived to have children of her own one day.

While he would have preferred that Naruto had been a girl, instead of a hormone driven teenaged boy, Inoichi had come to realize that his paternal sensibilities were going to take a severe beating over the next couple of years. This conclusion was primarily due to having a confident and aggressive daughter and a loving and supportive wife. That being said, he truthfully preferred having a happy and vivacious daughter to one who unhappily slipped through life, unaware of the dangers and responsibilities that accompanied her profession.

XXXXX

The Yamanaka barbeque was turning out to be rather eye opening experience for Naruto. In addition to the three Yamanakas, several members of the Nara and Akimichi families were in attendance. While he had come to accept that he would never know his parents, the sight of the three families carelessly mingling and socializing unfortunately brought up odd questions.

'If they had lived, would my parents have had friends over for no other reason than it was a nice day? Would their closest friends have teased and coddled me as if I was their own child?' While the thoughts were not really painful, the situation did make him feel awkward and a bit out of sorts… Almost as if he was alone despite being surrounded by his friends and their families.

While he had been slightly nervous about meeting both Chouji's and Shikamaru's parents for the first time, this nervousness had been pushed aside by a startling discovery, that both Chouji and Shikamaru had younger siblings, younger sisters to be specific. The blonde shinobi really couldn't say why it surprised him, as having more than one child was hardly uncommon, but the thought of female versions of Shikamaru and Chouji hanging out in an Academy classroom together simply made him shake his head in wonder.

The really scary thing about the two younger girls was that they each seemed to have modeled themselves after Ino, to a degree. The similarities had been readily apparent, as the two young girls had seamlessly attached themselves to Ino upon arrival.

In the case of Shikamaru's sister, Shina had adopted Ino's hairstyle and possessed a spiky ponytail of jet-black hair. In addition to this physical similarity, her rather direct personality appeared similar to Ino's own. Further analysis of the picnic's attendees indicated that this trait might have been acquired from her mother, based on what little he had observed of the elder Nara. Observing the stark gender differences between the Nara men and women was both an enlightening and amusing experience for the blonde shinobi.

Countering the stark behavioral differences between Shikamaru and his sister, Chouji's sister, Chiasa, seemed to possess the same affable, easy-going nature of her brother. She had, however, escaped at least one of the Akimichi family's traits as she was fairly svelte, especially when compared to her father and her older brother. This allowed her to pull off a green outfit very similar to Ino's ninja clothing with little difficulty. It was a bit odd, but the big sister/mentor relationship that Ino shared with the younger girls seemed to reveal another aspect of blonde kunoichi's rather complex personality.

As the picnic continued and the males congregated around the grill, Naruto couldn't help but wistfully observe as the three elder shinobi exchanged amusing stories and gently ribbed both Chouji and Shikamaru about various aspects of growing up. Seeing that the young blonde was being unusually quiet, Inoichi attempted to draw him into the conversation. "Come on, Naruto… You must have a story of some sort."

While Inoichi had simply been trying to include him in the conversation, the entreatment seemed to leave the young blonde a bit uneasy. 'Outside of his pranking exploits, he probably didn't have too many amusing stories.'

Naruto truly did want to participate, but, as the last couple of the stories seemed to involve the trials and tribulations that the older men had gone through when they were dating, he was at a bit of a loss.

"Well…" Glancing over at Hinata, who was sitting with Ino and Haku at one of the tables, gave the blonde shinobi an idea. "I once gave a girl a present… It wasn't much, just a thank you present for some tutoring, but she ended up bursting into tears. I tried to find out what was wrong, but she wouldn't say anything. When I asked what she would want instead of the present, she scrambled back as if I was going to take it from her and claimed to like it very much." The blonde shinobi sighed heavily, much to the amusement of the older members of his audience, as he continued, "Sometimes, I just don't understand girls."

Inoichi took a drink from his bottle and confided, "You are not supposed to. If there is one lesson I have learned over the years, it is that women do not want to be understood all the time. They prefer to have their little secrets. They think that it gives them a bit of mystery." Inoichi was smiling broadly as he concluded, "If a guy gets too close to figuring them out, they may just kill him."

The lack of agreement from his teammates was the only warning the blonde jounin received before he heard, "I'm sorry, Inoichi-kun, but would you mind repeating that?"

Glancing at his teammates with a slight feeling of betrayal as they subtly shifted their attention to the grill or to the flowerbeds that populated his backyard, Inoichi affixed what he hoped was a disarming expression on his face as he slowly turned towards his wife. With an innocent tone he asked, "Mind repeating what, dear?"

Honshu's smile was simply a bit too fixed to give him much hope of escaping this conversation completely unscathed. "What you just said… It seemed that the rest of your little group was captivated by your wit and I don't want to feel left out."

Scratching the back of his head, Inoichi offered, "I'm sorry, but I don't seem to remember what I was talking about. But then again, you have commented several times that I am getting a bit senile in my old age." He finished his response with a rather self-satisfied air.

His wife simply looked at him for a moment and Inoichi could feel his grin begin to slip away. She eventually continued, "Really, Inoichi-kun? Perhaps you would like to come into the kitchen and rest for a bit."

Honshu looped her arm around her husband's and continued, "Then we will have a chance to discuss exactly what else you have learned over the years?"

XXXXX

A little over two weeks passed and Naruto found himself enjoying another picnic with Hinata and Ino. While Team Seven had just returned from a rather eventful mission to Hidden Waterfall Village, Teams Eight and Ten had each been assigned merchant escort missions that went off without a hitch. Despite some good-natured grumbling from Ino about Team Seven stealing all the exciting missions, Naruto and the two kunoichi found themselves enjoying the simple routines they shared.

While all three ninja engaged in extensive training regimens, both individual and team oriented, these group sessions had come to mean quite a bit to the participants. The evening sessions provided a far more relaxed environment; the subtle camaraderie allowing each to develop without pressure or expectations.

To Naruto, the social aspects of the group were just as, if not more, important than the training aspect. Given his childhood, he had never really had much opportunity for social interactions outside of the Academy environment. Simply being able to sit back and watch his friends interact with each other was a unique and invaluable experience.

Ino turned out to be far friendlier than he had imagined from his limited exposure to her from the Academy. 'While she would still probably rant and rave about Sasuke-teme if the opportunity presented itself, she has proven to be much more than a simple fan girl.'

Hinata had also undergone a similar transition in Naruto's mind. At the Academy, the Hyuuga heiress had simply faded into the background, never stepping forward in any of Naruto's memories. Those few memories that did involve the dark haired kunoichi featured her shying away from him, usually with a bright blush on her face. That she had overcome this odd tendency and was far more outgoing since she joined Ino and himself in training was an encouraging shift.

Together, they just seemed to mesh. Ino caused Hinata to be more outgoing and Hinata caused Ino to calm down slightly. 'Well, Hinata also appears to have had the same affect on me. Who would have thought a couple of months ago that I would be content to simply sit back and watch two girls converse without being the center of attention?'

Just as Hinata was about to respond to a question from Ino, Hinata gasped in pain as her hand reached towards her neck. The sound and the accompanying gesture drew the Naruto's attention. Time seemed to stop for the young shinobi as he noticed the dull gleam of a senbon that stood out against the pale skin of the Hyuuga heiress.

Unable to think as he watched a look of utter panic seize the girl even as she began to topple forward, Naruto felt a senbon sink into his own flesh. Mentally cursing his inaction, the blonde shinobi lunged awkwardly towards Ino, hoping to save her from whatever fate had befallen both Hinata and himself. The young shinobi realized he had succeeded as he felt another senbon bite into his shoulder.

Naruto, ignoring Ino's confused and angry protests, struggled to his feet, stumbling slightly while fighting against a drowsy feeling that threatened unconsciousness. 'What…? How…? They were just senbons… This doesn't make any sense unless they were poisoned…' Naruto tore the weapons from his neck and shoulder as he scanned the trees that surrounded the clearing. He tensed as two individuals emerged.

The first man was tall and very muscular, wearing black hakuma style pants and a dark blue sash around his waist. His upper body was bare except for an impressive collection of scars and two samurai style bracers constructed of thick black leather and dull silvery studs. His sash bore an interesting accessory, an Iwa forehead protector with a slash through the insignia.

Where the first man looked immovable, the second one looked as if a strong breeze would knock him over. The man's lanky, almost painfully thin, build was clad in mottled green pants and a sleeveless vest. The man's slightly slouched form did not appear to have an ounce of fat on it, looking almost as if skin had been stretched across animated skeleton. His pale visage, complete with deeply sunken eyes and long, stringy black hair, was gaunt and betrayed the same unhealthy appearance of the rest of the man's body. A slashed Kusa forehead protector completed Naruto's wavering observation.

The larger of the two ninja watched Naruto with a level expression as he gruffly observed, "I thought that poison of yours was supposed to knock them out for a couple of hours."

His companion irritably snapped, "Shut the hell up! With two doses, he should be twitching on the ground and foaming at the mouth."

Naruto didn't hesitate any further as he rushed forward to engage the obviously hostile intruders. The former Kusa shinobi stepped forward to intercept him with a disdainful smirk and didn't even flinch as he blocked a sloppy but powerful roundhouse kick. The skeletal man responded immediately, the snapping of bone clearly audible as his fist connected solidly with the blonde's face. Naruto barely registered the blow before a vicious kick to the ribs sent him flying across the clearing.

XXXXX

'Naruto!' Seeing her fellow blonde being knocked senseless by the enemy ninja was finally enough to stir Ino from her bewildered state.

Unfortunately, before the young kunoichi could even begin to register the man's movements, the other ninja attacked. The instant she had risen to her feet, a massive hand crushed her right arm and a neglect kick seemed to shatter her knee. A second later, Ino's consciousness exploded into a world of pain as she was carelessly tossed away and impacted with one of the trees surrounding the training field with a good amount of force. The blonde kunoichi nearly slipped into sweet unconsciousness, but the sound of Naruto's struggles helped her hold on.

Pain flared up all over her body as the young kunoichi attempted to clear her head. 'I've never felt pain like this before.' Agony seemed to almost overwhelm her senses as she shifted her position on the ground. In a detached part of her mind, Ino mentally cursed herself for being so slow in reacting to the attack and for allowing herself to be disabled with such ease. That she would freeze in such a situation was both embarrassing and infuriating.

After suppressing the sense of nausea that gripped her, the young kunoichi winced as she moved her leg, testing the injury the large jounin had inflicted. Luckily, her knee appeared to have been twisted instead of broken as she had originally feared. Pain induced tears pooled in her eyes as Ino took stock of their situation and slowly attempted to stand. The young kunoichi managed to rise, cradling her crippled hand against her chest, as she struggled to think of a way to help her friends.

'Kunai and shuriken would be useless except as a distraction… Without my hand, my jutsu arsenal is limited. Even with my hand, I don't think I have any jutsu that could take out a jounin, let alone two. My only viable plan, Ninpou: Shintenshin no Jutsu, is useless without the ability to aim it properly.' She didn't have much time as the former Kusa shinobi appeared to be simply toying with Naruto as the other nin restrained Hinata.

XXXXX

A bloody and broken form landed awkwardly at the base of a tree after it had been bodily thrown from the clearing. Blood matted blonde hair shifted slightly as the severely injured form began to move.

Consciousness remained only due to the fact that Naruto had managed protect his head by twisting just enough so that his shoulder had taken the brunt of the arboreal impact that had ended his flight. Some form of poison and a serious concussion blurred the blonde's vision as he attempted to observe his surroundings. A throbbing pain that lanced throughout his body greeted his attempts to rise from his resting place.

The blonde shinobi dimly noted that his breathing was labored and that his face was radiating more pain than he had ever felt in his life. He could also feel a kunai embedded in his back, grinding against various bones with each breath, as a river of warm blood flowed from the wound. He continued his struggles to get up, but his attempts were sloppy, uncoordinated, and growing weaker.

'Goddamn it! How am I supposed to become Hokage if I can't even protect my friends? They need my help and I was batted aside as if I wasn't even there! Was all of my training and hard work for nothing? It can't end like this! I cannot fail…'

XXXXX

The sensation of being wet was the first thing Naruto noticed as he awoke from his slumber. As he slowly returned to awareness, the young shinobi tried to remember why he would be laying prone in a pool of water. Naruto's confusion turned to terror as he remembered the attack in the forest and his having lost consciousness.

As he rose from the water, a quick assessment of his health found no sign of his injuries. 'No pain… No blood… Even my clothes are in perfect condition.' Glancing around, he was totally dumbfounded by his situation.

Stagnate water covered the floor and roughly hewn walls glistened with moisture. Musky, moist air filled his lungs as he looked around. A concealed light source provided the passage with an eerie glow that danced on the rippling water. Glancing around revealed that he was in a passageway… a passageway that seemed to stretch endlessly into both directions with each side being indistinguishable from the other.

'Where am I? How did I get here? How long have I been unconscious?' Moments before he had been heavily drugged and bleeding profusely in the forests of Konoha… Now he seemed to be healed and to have found his way into a dimly lit sewer.

Just as Naruto completed his assessment of his situation, he heard a low rumble off in the distance. The muted noise caused the standing water surrounding him to ripple in the dim light.

Curious and having no better idea of what to do, Naruto began to move towards the sound. As he advanced, the only noise that invaded the passageway was the sloshing sound of the stagnate water. The rather monotonous journey caused the blonde shinobi's annoyance to grow as his patience quickly dissipated. This frustration meant that it was some time before the young shinobi used some common sense and began to utilize his water walking abilities to sprint down the seemingly endless tunnel. Time seemed to stretch out without any reference for how far he had come or how far he had yet to go.

As his journey continued, Naruto's irritation began to give way to unease. The only logical conclusion he could come up with was genjutsu… But those had always proven to be a difficult subject for him. At the Academy, it had quickly been established that his ability to cast genjutsu was essentially nil.

His response to those cast on him was a different story… Weak genjutsu had simply failed to affect him in any way, shape, or form. Stronger, more complicated techniques had caused him to have an odd sort of double vision that would fade between the illusion and reality. Eventually, even the stronger jutsu demonstrated in the Academy seemed to fail. That the sewer he found himself in wasn't fading or even flickering either meant that it was real or the most powerful technique he had ever encountered.

Distracted by his thoughts, the blonde shinobi nearly missed the first shift in his surroundings since the beginning of his rather surreal journey. The shift was rather commonplace, merely a series of rusty pipes following his path. Despite how you would expect such things in a sewer, the pipes drew his attention like a moth to a flame. At first, the pipes were small and few in number, emerging from the stone walls at odd intervals only to disappear again without rhyme or reason. But it quickly became obvious that they were steadily growing in both number and diameter.

Visually following the pipes into the distance, Naruto abruptly noticed that the passageway ended in a mass of shadows. The blonde shinobi paused as he tried to discern what lied beyond. Observation quickly gave way to frustration, as he was unable to make out anything useful. Cautious progress down the corridor revealed a massive chamber of rough stone. While the chamber's ceiling was obscured in a dim twilight, the chamber's floor consisted of red rock that was occasionally masked by standing pools of water.

After taking in the shift in scenery, the blonde shinobi noted that the opposite end of the chamber was framed by an enormous set of gates. 'What the hell is that?' Naruto didn't even have a reasonable comparison for the constructs standing before him as even the main gates of Konoha paled in comparison.

The blonde shinobi's gaping awe was cut short as a sound began to emanate throughout the chamber. At this distance, the dull noise he had heard earlier had an almost physical presence; a deep rumbling that reverberated through his body.

Cautiously moving forward, the blonde shinobi observed that a worn piece of paper, easily the size of a large poster to be visible at this distance, was affixed to the huge gates.

A long moment passed as blonde shinobi made his way towards the gates. Their size seemed grow as he approached them from across the massive chamber, but he was still unable to discern anything on the other side of the iron bars.

An odd rasping of movement occurred before the inky blackness behind the massive gates was broken by the appearance of two massive crimson eyes. These shimmering eyes were quickly joined by a brilliant collection of razor sharp teeth. The dim illumination in the cave seemed to shift somehow, slowly revealing the massive form of a beast's body. This visual revelation was accompanied with silent movement of multiple tails in the distance.

The sight had barely registered in the blonde shinobi's mind before a foul and vicious chakra began hammering away at his psyche. The blonde shinobi barely managed to refrain from simply collapsing to the ground due to the overwhelming presence.

"Kyuubi…" The name slipped unbidden from the young ninja's mouth as the demon's massive form seemed to solidify.

His own whispered utterance seemed to shatter the blonde shinobi's fear and awe, recalling him to the present. Panting slightly as he became accustomed to the Kyuubi's killing intent, the blonde shinobi found himself analyzing the being before him. The realization that he was somehow standing before the creature responsible for so much of his suffering caused him to impulsively demand, "What am I doing here? Why did you bring me here?"

The demon's presence intensified as it roared, "Silence you pathetic worm! I would gladly feast on your soul for such insolence!" After slamming against the massive gates in a futile effort to attack its jailor, the nightmare given form growled, "Your very existence is an insult… To think that I would summon you… You came to me…" The Kyuubi's guttural rumble was almost felt as much as it was heard at this distance.

Belatedly realizing that he was somehow trapped in his own mind and not in a physical location, Naruto began to look around the massive room, searching for an exit. Unsurprisingly, the blonde shinobi did not find anything other than the way he had entered the chamber. Remembering the seemingly endless walk he had undertaken to arrive at his location, the blonde shinobi muttered, "I need to get out of here. I need to protect Hinata-chan and Ino-chan…"

This statement drew a barking laugh from the massive demon. "Your previous attempt was weak and pathetic… You were brushed aside like the insect you are."

The caustic observation caused the blonde shinobi to remember the severe beating he had endured mere moments before he lost consciousness. Even if he managed to escape, Naruto grudgingly admitted to himself that there probably wasn't much he could do about the situation. His body was filled with some sort of drug that dimmed his senses and shot his coordination to hell. Even if he had been clear of mind, the young genin wasn't confident that he could take on one missing nin, let alone two. While they may or may not be up to Zabuza's level, they were probably far above his own if they managed to infiltrate Konoha without issue.

Thoughts of Zabuza triggered further memories, particularly those of the malevolent power he had channeled on the bridge in Wave and the blinding rage that had accompanied it. Glancing up at the massive demon that was watching him with an expression of distaste, Naruto demanded, "Let me out of here and give me your power like you did on the bridge."

The demon simply chuckled in response. The sound was low and foreboding, totally devoid of any mirth. The blonde shinobi couldn't help but think that such an expression of humor seemed wholly unnatural coming from such a creature. "And why would I do something like that? I am in no danger and I find your suffering amusing."

The Kyuubi's massive visage seemed to almost split in two as it grinned. This feral expression once again drew the blonde shinobi's attention towards its enormous teeth. "If your 'friends' are too weak to defend themselves, then they deserve to die."

Thoughts of his friends swimming in his head, Naruto ground his teeth as he stared back at the fox, its massive red eyes boring into him with mocking indifference.

The obvious amusement in the fox's visage sent Naruto's temper soaring. The demon's reaction to his demand was unwelcome but not unexpected. That the girls' pain and death would be a source of amusement for the fox was infuriating and unacceptable.

'But this is not an entity that can be reasoned with… A demon would know nothing of friends or companionship… It would not feel pity or remorse…' That the bane of his existence would steal his friends from him while mocking him from within its prison was not something that Naruto could stomach. The blonde shinobi's mind spun through chaotic thoughts and scenarios as he searched for a solution.

One appeared… A desperate threat that roiled the very core of his being. It went against so many of the values that had been ingrained upon him by his childhood that he almost dismissed it out of hand. It would be the ultimate form of surrender, but… 'Anything for my friends…'

The blonde's voice was low but easily audible even in the massive chamber. "If my friends are hurt due to your inaction… if they die…" Naruto's jaw muscles clinched in anger as he briefly considered such a scenario… Of being thrust once again into the overwhelming isolation of his childhood.

After looking up to glare, without a trace of fear, at the enormous features of the Kyuubi for a long moment, Naruto continued, "Then we will find out exactly how tightly we are bound together."

The demon's massive eyes narrowed, but the Kyuubi remained silent. The comment itself was obtuse and didn't mention any specific action, but the implications were clear. 'Death…' After an indeterminate amount of time, the demon rumbled, "You have some guts attempting to blackmail me."

The blonde whelp seemed unmoved by the rebuke. In fact, the statement seemed to almost imperceptively harden the boy's resolve. The Kyuubi continued to glare at the boy, judging its options. 'There is little to be gained in testing the boy's resolve in this matter… And it will give me another opportunity to observe the accursed seal under stress. If it was tested by a mere trickle of chakra…'

The demon's low, gravelly tone easily communicated its distaste for its jailor as it began, "I will grant you this boon on one condition…"

XXXXX

The forest clearing erupted around Naruto as the blonde shinobi regained consciousness. Sounds immediately went from indistinct and faint to crisp and clear. The darkening forest suddenly appeared to be lit by the midday sun. The air hitting his nose abruptly became awash in different scents. The flood of new information bombarded him until he focused on one sound in particular. A pained whimper…

Everything else seemed to grind to a halt, the sound ringing in his ears. Naruto felt a furious rage erupt from deep within him. It spread like an inferno within him, consuming any fear or misgivings that he may have possessed. It was the same feeling that had possessed him on the bridge in Wave Country. The intense hatred that surged through his mind should have frightened him, but he simply embraced the anger and consciously matched it with a purpose. Shakily rising to his feet, he moved towards the clearing.

'They want to hurt my friends. They want to kill my friends.' The terrible notion shattered any thoughts of restraint that Naruto may have retained. With a horrible pulse, the chakra coursing through his body strained the last threads of sanity he had. They wanted his friends… They wanted to destroy his precious people. These… animals wanted to thrust him back into the pain and loneliness he had struggled against for years.

The chakra began to shroud him in a cocoon of unpleasant warmth and gut-wrenching power. It throbbed throughout his body, awaiting his orders… A veritable storm of chakra in need of an outlet, lest it destroy him from the inside out.

'Those bastards hurt Ino-chan and Hinata-chan… They must pay.'

XXXXX

Sarutobi was sitting in his office, completing some last minute paperwork and reflecting on the meetings he had planned for next day. The man's usually fluid pen strokes skittered across the page as a vague feeling of unease twitched at the edge of his consciousness. The faint but noticeable sense of disquiet settled upon the elderly man's subconscious, taunting him with sketchy reminisces.

A couple seconds later, the feeling increased in intensity. 'Naruto! If he is drawing on the Kyuubi...' The Hokage cut off his contemplation in favor of action. "ANBU!"

The near instantaneous arrival of two masked shinobi allowed the Hokage to continue without pause, "Kuma, signal the gates and lock down the village! Tora, gather all available teams and return immediately!" A whisper of movement announced their departure as the elderly Hokage quickly moved to activate his viewing sphere.

XXXXX

After the bothersome shinobi had been disposed of, Jakyo turned his attention towards the blonde kunoichi at the edge of the clearing. The former Kusa shinobi observed the young girl for a long moment, his lecherous eyes taking in her lithe form and budding curves. After a long moment, he rasped, "Perhaps we should take the other kunoichi as well. It's a long way to Kumo and it wouldn't hurt to have a little… entertainment along for the trip."

The blonde kunoichi barely suppressed a whimper as her panicked mind began to comprehend what the two ninja were discussing. Ino's thoughts quickly flashed back to the day at the Academy when some of the female instructors had taken the potential kunoichi aside to discuss the realities of being a woman in the world of ninja. The topics ranged from the possibility of 'courtesan' missions to the very real peril of being captured by enemy forces.

The class had been one of the most sobering experiences of her young life. Over one third of the kunoichi that had been in her class had withdrawn from the Academy over the week that followed. For Ino, she had finally begun to understand why her father had always pushed her to train so aggressively, despite being ranked as the top kunoichi in her class.

The massive shinobi glared at his partner, not even bothering to hide his disgust at the suggestion. 'Only the weak of mind fail to control their base urges… Perhaps he will have to be dealt with on the way to Kumo least he try and 'entertain' himself with the Hyuuga…'

Choosing to be diplomatic for the time being, Edo responded, "Do what you want, but we need to move. Catch up quickly or you will be left behind." And with that statement the towering nin slung an unconscious Hinata over his shoulder and left the clearing.

Ignoring his 'partner's' distaste, the former Kusa nin smirked as he approached Ino with a careless saunter. The smirk shifted to a smile as the lithe kunoichi lunged towards him with a kunai, clearly telegraphing her intensions to the far more experienced ninja. The smile held as an almost negligent backhand smashed into her face; the blow connecting with a surprising amount of force as it sent her flying.

The young kunoichi's world once again exploded in agonizing pain as she slammed into a tree. The painful throbbing that radiated throughout her entire body was quickly accompanied by the stupor piercing experience of a skeletal hand ruthlessly clamping onto her neck and dragging her to her feet. Despite her mounting injuries, all of the young woman's thoughts now seemed to center on the man's tight grip and the breath it was denying her.

The man's bone chilling, malicious smile came into sharp focus, despite the mental haze of her probable concussion. His slightly rancid breathe washed over her as he spoke, "You're a feisty little thing aren't you? I think I'll have some fun breaking you. Who knows, you may even come to enjoy it before we are done?"

The threat, which should have brought forth an overwhelming sense of panic, managed to sharpen Ino's mind enough to recall one avenue that was still open to her. She only hoped that Kusa nin would hold still and that she remained lucid enough to pull it off. The young Yamanaka appeared to be in luck as the Kusa nin was so focused on observing Ino's cowering reaction to his plans that he failed to notice that her good hand quickly executed fifteen one-handed seals. 'Raiton: Raikou Hibana no Jutsu.' (Lightning Release: Lightning Spark)

The bastardized C ranked jutsu was horrendously wasteful technique, immediately taking half the user's chakra reserves and converting it into electricity. The jutsu's effective range was also limited to about two feet from the user, making a fairly useless jutsu except as a last ditch effort. While her father had taught her the jutsu originally, it had been Haku that had helped her adapt it, and a few other jutsu, to one handed sealing.

Miraculously, given the situation and her less than perfect focus, the jutsu was effective. The miniature lightening storm that blossomed from the blonde kunoichi caused the missing nin to release his strangle hold on her as he screamed in agony. Ino, wheezing as she sucked in the sweet air that the missing nin had denied her, collapsed to the ground in a boneless heap. The near panic she felt as she breathed in ragged breaths didn't prevent the young kunoichi from scrambling for a weapon to finish off the former Kusa nin.

Kunai in hand, the blonde kunoichi began to rise just in time to receive a vicious kick to her ribs that slammed her into the tree once again. Sprawling across a large root, Ino looked up to see that the enraged missing nin towering above her. In the day's fading light, Ino could barely make out that the man's right eye had become opaque, either from having been burned or from blood suffusing its surface.

Anger and rage painted his face as his fist connected with the blonde kunoichi's jaw, once again sending her to the brink of unconsciousness. Apparently unsatisfied with the hit, he kicked her again as he exploded, "You little bitch! I should just kill you for that and be done with it!"

The emaciated ninja's enraged grimace slowly transformed into a malice-filled snarl. Eventually the man all but growled, "But I think my original plan is much more fitting. I may even take the time to find a nice, rundown pleasure house to buy your violated body once I have broken you. Your last days on this plane will become a symphony of pain and agony."

The man moved with a speed the belied his injuries and lifted the blonde kunoichi into the air once again, slamming her into the tree before muttering, "Before the end, you will beg for death."

As the missing nin prepared to secure the dazed, petrified girl, a dark presence burst to life. Ino registered through the agonizing pain that the darkening forest had begun to glow an eerie blood red.

The Kusa nin quickly tossed Ino away and leapt a short distance away from the blonde kunoichi to gain some space. A long moment passed before a panting Ino observed a hunched figure lope into the clearing. The figure was accompanied by a heavy chakra tidal wave that surged and swept over blonde kunoichi, sending goose bumps prickling over her skin. The surrounding forest was deathly silent, all sound seemingly absorbed by the events taking place.

The young kunoichi's breath caught in her throat as she observed the clearing's new arrival more closely. Naruto's bloody visage stood, slightly stooped, bathed in vivid crimson by the mass of chakra that now inundated the clearing. There was something unsettling about the aura surrounding him. It was powerful… primordial… lethal.

She watched as Naruto's now glowing red eyes focused on her sprawled form for a long moment. His face was contorted into a vicious snarl, betraying that this was not the same Naruto that had been thrown from the clearing moments ago. After what seemed like an eternity, Naruto's focus shifted to the missing nin, who seemed to be held motionless by the piercing stare.

The moment Naruto's gaze fixed on the Kusa nin, the red chakra appeared to flare and began to burgeon around the clearing, pulsing and surging at odd intervals. The chakra danced around Naruto as if he was on fire, but it did not seem to harm him. Slowly the chakra storm began to coalesce around the blonde shinobi, slowly transforming from a burgeoning amorphous shape into… some type of animal. Whatever it was, Naruto soon had two translucent ears rising above his head and a long semi-transparent tail swishing silently behind him.

While the chakra shroud distorted his features slightly, Ino noticed that Naruto's face appeared to have taken on a far more feral appearance. His eyes appeared different, almost appearing to glow red in the forest's dim light. The rather endearing whisker marks the usually adorned his face had thickened noticeably, darkening his visage quite a bit. His lips were drawn back in a vicious snarl, revealing fangs that she was sure he did not have a couple minutes ago.

The enshrouded blonde ninja took in a deep breath… and suddenly moved. Impossibly fast, the feral shinobi closed the distance between himself and the missing nin, crashing into him with the force of a avalanche. The lanky man was sent hurtling back towards the tree line on the opposite side of the clearing, catching one of trees off center with his shoulder. A horrible crunching sound and a grunt of pain announced the amount of damage to blow had rendered. Despite this new injury, the former Kusa nin was on his feet a moment later, standing in a defensive posture with a angry grimace on his face.

He had risen just in time to meet a wall of chakra that Naruto had sent towards him with a sweeping gesture of both of his arms. The glowing red wall was almost opaque and Ino could literally feel the sickening heat from the jutsu. The chakra, which obliterated small shrubs and stripped the bark from the surrounding trees, hit the missing nin with breathtaking force and sent him deeper into the forest. Naruto was right behind the chakra wall, seemingly intent on racing it to his target.

While the two ninja disappeared from view, the battle that raged between them was easily communicated by sound and the eerie red shadows that danced throughout the clearing. It wasn't long, less than a minute, before the blonde kunoichi was startled as particularly blood-curdling scream seemed to resonate throughout the clearing. Ino jerked in surprise as the foreign ninja came flying into the clearing once again.

There was little need to worry as he landed bonelessly on the grass, missing one of his arms. It was unclear if the ninja was conscious or even alive when Naruto followed the man into the clearing a moment later to land a final devastating blow on the missing nin. The man was most assuredly dead a moment later as his head simply exploded in a shower of blood and gore.

But this particularly ferocious attack didn't seem to sate whatever blood lust had possessed Naruto. The transformed boy continued to pound away at the sodden mess that used to be the missing nin. Ino felt bile rising in her throat as the sickening sounds carried across the clearing. Overcoming the fear and revulsion she felt at the scene, Ino screamed, "Naruto!"

The transformed ninja's head snapped around at her exclamation. In the darkening night, the boy's eyes glowed like two brilliant rubies lit from within. The red, feral state of his eyes made Ino shrink back from him slightly. The shear amount of anger and rage that she found in their depths frightened her more than she could comprehend. A long moment passed before there was a slight change in his posture and a noticeable decrease in the killing intent radiating from the boy. Ino struggled to regain her senses as she tried to remember why she had called out to him.

"Naruto, you need to rescue Hinata! The other ninja took her!" The blonde kunoichi's breathe caught in her throat as Naruto seemed to consider this statement. It was only a moment before the chakra aura surrounding him intensified once again. Ino watched in detached fascination as Naruto lifted his face, inhaled deeply through his nose, and bolted from the clearing in the same direction the Iwa nin had gone. His departure left Ino alone in the darkening forest with the missing nin's bloody corpse.

After a moment's hesitation, Ino struggled to her feet, fighting to stand against the dizziness and nausea that nearly overwhelmed her. She ignored the momentary shiver of fear and revulsion that passed through her as she glanced in the direction of the missing nin's body.

With a quick glance back in the direction her friends had taken, Ino's eyes hardened and the young kunoichi turned to make her way towards the village. Focusing on the fact that she had to find someone to help her friends, Ino began to run through the darkened forest with abandon. Her progress seemed painfully slow as her injured chest burned and her hobbled leg prevented her from making full strides. She barely made it two hundred feet from the clearing before the Hokage and several ANBU intercepted her.

XXXXX

Yamata Edo cursed as he attempted to pick up his pace. Teaming up with Jakyo had obviously been a mistake. The former Kusa nin had simply not been disciplined enough for this type of operation. 'If he had simply killed the other two brats quickly when his poisons failed, the mission would have been complete.' But now it seemed that Jakyo's complete and utter incompetence had totally screwed up what should have been a relatively straightforward mission.

This conclusion was obvious as the hulking Iwa nin was now being followed. Whoever was following him was not being shy about it either. The shear amount of chakra being thrown off by his pursuers was enough to even give him pause. The level of chakra indicated the pursuing ninja were a group of high-level jounin or Konoha ANBU… One of the things that troubled him was that their chakra signature just kept on growing. The other concern was that, while speed had never been his strong suit, their rate of closure was simply ridiculous.

This mission was turning out to be far more complicated than he had originally anticipated. But with great risks came great rewards. The success of this mission would set him up for the rest of his life, allowing him to completely abandon the hand to mouth lifestyle of a missing nin. He would receive enough money to live comfortably for at least ten lifetimes for the delivery of a live member of the Hyuuga main house to Kumo. The Raikage and his council may even be grateful enough to offer him asylum in their village.

Shaking off the thoughts of his eventual success, Edo began to focus on the now inevitable confrontation with his pursuers. Upon coming across a rather desolate clearing that stretched out for some distance, Edo stopped and inspected his surroundings. Glancing around the terrain, Edo concluded, 'I guess it is time to show these tree loving fools exactly why I was granted the title of Iwa's Bloody Boulder.'

Creating an Iwa Bunshin to hold the Hyuuga, Edo turned back towards Konoha. Glancing once towards the bunshin as is backed away from him, the missing nin jeeringly thought, 'It would not do to inadvertently damage the merchandise after all.'

Barely winded from his headlong effort to escape, Edo calmed himself for the coming confrontation. A moment of concentration seemed to trigger a remarkable transformation in the former Iwa ninja. The man's tanned skin darkened further as sharp planes and angles began to supplant previously smooth contours of muscle and sinew. The transformation continued until only the dark, intelligent eyes betrayed the fact that the massive figure standing in the clearing was human rather than a rock golem.

Transformation complete, Edo settled into a ready stance as he awaited his prey. The moment seemed to stretch out as the pursuing chakra presence continued to approach his location. A barrage of at least ten great fireballs launched from tree line announced the Konoha team's arrival. A quick analysis found that the swiftly moving jutsus were too well placed to be avoided easily. And, despite his bloodline, taking several fire jutsu head-on a sure way to end up dead. There were only three options: up, down, or a defensive jutsu.

Deciding to take the cautious approach, Edo flashed through some hand signs and vanished into the earth. 'Doton: Dochu Eigyo no Jutsu.' (Earth Release: Underground Projection Fish)

Closing the distance with the strongest chakra source, Edo launched himself from hiding and managed to land a glancing blow on the ninja, knocking aside the blur of chakra. The figure recovered quickly, shooting towards him with a surprising amount of speed.

A moment of observation allowed Edo to recognize the blonde genin from earlier in day. 'Why would the recovery team bring a genin with them?' The observation had barely registered when Edo felt a brutal kick slam into his side. Seemingly unfazed by the blow, the Iwa jounin attempted to swat aside the chakra enshrouded figure that was already attempting to circle behind him.

The taijutsu exchange that followed the revelation of his opponent seemed particularly wild and ferocious, relying more on speed than on technique. The battle-hardened jounin quickly tired of the assault and began to retaliate almost instantly. The genin's translucent claws raked his arms and ended up tearing through his bracers and scouring his stone skin. Surprise flashed across Edo's conscious a moment before he slammed a vicious punch straight into the genin's sternum.

The stunning blow sent his opponent bouncing across the landscape and sprawling to the ground. 'Doton: Dango Dotonidoryo no Jutsu.' (Earth Release: Mud Cannonball) The jutsu managed to harry the recovering figure and catch at least three of the figures that were circling around the battle. Seeing them vanish in puffs of smoke caused the jounin to mentally curse, 'Kami damned Kage Bunshins.'

A hastily caught sight of the vanishing figures revealed that they all had blonde hair. A slight shift confirmed that the other figures also possessed the boy's hair and stature. 'He is the only one here…' The observation was pushed aside in favor of scrutinizing the chakra-enshrouded figure rising from the ground. The lack of other ninja, the outrageous amount of chakra, and the wild ferocity all came together into one word. 'Jinchuuriki…'

The realization sent a shiver of fear through the battle-hardened shinobi before he recovered. 'I can't allow my focus to waiver… If I falter at this juncture, my dreams of a peaceful retirement will be beyond redemption.'

Edo watched the blonde shinobi recover carefully, strangely calm at the prospect of fighting one of the most powerful and feared weapons in the shinobi world. The experienced jounin quickly reasoned out that the boy was either untrained or somehow restrained from fully accessing his prisoner, as an experienced jinchuuriki would not have allowed Jakyo to handle him as he had earlier. 'Of course, Jakyo is probably dead and I will be too if I take this boy lightly.'

A noise captured the jounin's attention and Edo quickly assessed his surroundings for its source. This survey of the battlefield revealed that his Iwa Bunshin had somehow been overpowered by a large group of the jinchuuriki's Kage Bunshins. One of the survivors had recovered the Hyuuga and was making its way towards Konoha. The rest of the surviving Bunshins began to pepper him with fire jutsus before he could blink.

'Doton: Doruki Gaeshi no Jutsu.' (Earth Release: Earth Wall Land Flip) Doton: Dango Dotonidoryo no Jutsu.' (Earth Release: Mud Cannonball) The defensive wall and the spread of earthen projectiles managed to disrupt the onslaught and take out several of the Kage Bunshins, but this response was not without its costs as his jinchuuriki opponent did not allow his distraction to go unpunished.

Edo returned his attention to the blonde shinobi just in time to narrowly miss losing his eyes to the jinchuuriki's translucent claws. As it was, the swipe ended up scouring his face and arms as he blocked the strike.

The battle began in earnest once again as Edo's prize slipped further and further from his grasp. Despite his best efforts, the boy seemed to avoid or shrug off the vast majority of his blows and responded with a high-speed, wild form of taijutsu that managed to lace painful blows through his defenses.

Edo found himself unable to land a decisive blow as boy's erratic movements and speed conspired to hold him just out of reach. His attempts to quickly end the fight were also confounded by the fact that any significant contact with or even close proximity to the chakra enshrouding the genin caused intense pain to blossom throughout the affected limb.

With a barely suppressed snarl, Edo blurred towards his prey, reappearing beside the boy's form an instant before he delivered a bone shattering kick to his side. 'Doton: Doryuudan no Jutsu.' (Earth Release: Earth Dragon) The earthen construct swept towards the airborne shinobi, prepared the smash the blonde's battered body into the rocky ground.

The boy somehow managed to recover in time, catching only part of the blow as he was sent flying across the rough terrain. The boy regained control of his trajectory almost instantly, slowing his momentum through the use of his translucent chakra claws, which were digging visible furrows into the ground as his speed bled off. As soon as he stopped, the boy lurched forward on all four limbs, seemingly intent on rejoining the fight as soon as possible.

The boy's headlong rush towards his location provided Edo with the perfect opportunity to use one of the most devastating jutsu combinations in shinobi warfare. Snapping through a rapid set of hand seals, the experienced shinobi gathered his chakra in preparation for his assault. 'Doton: Doryuu Taiga no Jutsu.' (Earth Release: Earth Flow)

The swath of the ground before him liquefied, becoming a chakra-resistant slurry of mud and rock. Unprepared for the shift, the enraged jinchuuriki sunk into the deceptively solid looking mixture moments before it hardened into an immobilizing prison. No sooner had the boy began to struggle than Edo began the second part of the combination. 'Doton: Doroku Gaeshi no Jutsu.' (Earth Release: Earth Shore Return)

The genin's efforts to escape were quickly curtailed as the massive slab of earth and stone he was trapped in was overturned, crushing the blonde shinobi beneath a stunning mass of rock and clay. The jounin maintained the final seal of the jutsu, allowing him to manipulate the earthen mass and causing the slab of earth to ruthlessly grind itself against the ground.

Despite having faith in the jutsu combination's ability to grind the ninja into a fine paste, Edo decided that caution was the better part of valor and followed up the move with another jutsu. 'After all, I don't want some half crazed jinchuuriki chasing after me when I recover my prize. Doton: Iwa Yaris.' (Earth Release: Stone Spears)

Numerous wickedly sharp spear-like pieces of stone blossomed throughout the rubble that now obscured the blonde jinchuuriki from view. The chakra that had previously blanketed the area began to dissipate, assuring Edo that he had successfully ended the pest's life.

An angry grimace settled on the jounin's rocky continence as he turned back towards Konoha. 'Hopefully the pest's bunshins didn't make it too far before they were dispersed by his death.'

Just as Edo was about to begin his pursuit, a massive chakra arm tore through the earthen rumble and slammed him into the ground hard enough to create a small crater. While his bloodline essentially nullified any injuries from the impact, the corrosive effects of the boy's chakra burned like molten iron. The brief flash of pain became agonizing torture as the massive hand closed around his stunned form, pinning his arms to his sides as he was lifted into the air.

The jinchuuriki's bloody and broken form came into view briefly before Edo found himself whipped across their battlefield and slammed into the ground once again. The jounin was unable to recover any sense of position as this action was repeated a number of times in quick succession. While this stratagem would have reduced most ninja into a mass of ruptured organs and splintered bone, Edo's bloodline and conditioning insured that this treatment simply resulted in an intense disorientation and a painful, almost debilitating, throbbing throughout his body.

The jinchuuriki appeared to realize that this tactic was ineffective as Edo found himself upended and dragged head first across the rocky and uneven ground. As an attempt at decapitating an opponent, it proved to be as ineffective as the previous strategy. It wasn't long before the former Iwa shinobi found himself being lifted into the air once again.

Edo was barely able to realize that the punishment had stopped before streams of blistering heat engulfed his form. The Kage Bunshins surrounding the jounin had begun to pour in waves of katon jutsus from all directions, finally following the bloodline strategy that the Sandaime had outlined several months ago.

A sense of panic sank in as the jounin made one last effort to break the massive chakra construct's hold on his body. As his attempted struggles against the corrosive chakra proved futile, the jounin closed his eyes and held his breathe in an attempt to ride out the attack.

'If he knows any Suiton jutsus…' The dreaded thought had barely had time to sink in before the assault stopped. Opening his eyes, the smoldering shinobi realized his fate as he caught sight of several Mizu Bunshins forming behind a pair already sprinting towards his location. The impact and disintegration of the Mizu Bunshins was met with hiss of steam and a full-throated scream from the Iwa Jounin as the stone skin covering his body began to fragment.

XXXXX

The Kage Bunshins prepared to resume their attacks as Naruto dropped the screaming ninja to the ground. The smoldering shinobi had barely hit the ground in a boneless heap before Naruto descended on the ninja like a bird of prey. The chakra-enhanced blow delivered by Naruto's clawed hand tore through the missing nin's chest with a symphony of horrible wet snaps. The screaming stopped, only to be replaced by a sickening gurgle as blood sputtered from the missing nin's lips.

Seconds passed and the blonde shinobi's heavy panting was the only sound in the vast clearing. Closing his eyes, Naruto thought, 'Dead… They are dead and can't hurt anyone anymore…' A wave of exhaustion passed over the blonde shinobi as the Kyuubi's chakra began to dissipate. Naruto barely managed to stumble a few feet away from the still body before he fell to his hands and knees. Sensing approaching chakra signatures, the blonde shinobi wearily looked up to see the familiar form of the Hokage break the tree line seconds before darkness enveloped him.

A/N: Once again, this chapter did not turn out quite like I had hoped and that fact led to several delays and periods of procrastination. This rather frustrating ordeal has gone a long way towards convincing me that I couldn't write a decent fight scene to save my life. Hopefully I will have better luck next time.

Next Chapter: Confessions of a Shinobi

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