Naruto knew from the moment he'd signed the Ninja Academy entrance forms that life as a shinobi would be continually exciting. He never, however, expected there would be a day where falling face first into Old Man Sarutobi's naked chest was the least embarrassing event of his day.
The shinobi cafe really wasn't anything Naruto had expected. Generally, however, shinobi had existed as long as they had because of the fact that they were quite surprising. Frankly, there were few things more surprising than a figure clad in black dropping down from the ceiling in the hallway as you plodded to get a glass of water in the middle of the night. The building seemed to hold true to that particular aspect of shinobi life, if nowhere else. The first floor of the building was exactly how it looked from the inside. Bright, yellow wood composed everything from the floor to the tables, and the smattering of customers across a few tables looked bored, while the waitresses - civilian, by their heavy footsteps and the way that their hands towards the knives on their plates and not knives hidden on their persons when Naruto's group moved in - generated disinterest and scorn in such quantities that Naruto wondered if Sasuke's family had ever influenced or possibly founded the restaurant business. The second floor of the building made Naruto feel like an idiot, which wasn't entirely unusual but had been lacking lately. It was comforting, in a way, to see that things hadn't changed all that much.
It only took Sakura and Sasuke a few seconds to notice the first of a bounty of hidden clues in the tapestry any more seasoned shinobi could've spotted in the window. Creative navigation lead the genin group (as their Jonin managed to hit on three waitresses in point three seconds, successfully separating himself from his genin) to a dirty looking door with a sloppily written, ink spotted parchment which read "Beware the Leopard" half-hiding the civilian symbol for the women's restroom.
As shinobi with full warning they were entering a shinobi restaurant, the fact that it even took Sasuke a full minute to locate the trap door at the top of what turned out to be a janitor's closet showed that they were sorely out of practice. Naruto had recently become aware of Sakura's tendency to block out the outside world. Sasuke reveled in it. Naruto had developed it carefully over the years as a skill and hobby, something akin to the way some ninja tended bonsai trees. Combined, it did not bode well. The fact that they were able to dodge the barrage of blunted shuriken half-heartedly shooting from rather obvious slots in the wall soothed Naruto's ego in much the same way that hand lotion didn't quite put out a fire.
Worst of all was Kakashi's easy posture as he leaned against the wall in front of the exit. With a camera.
Suddenly, the red spot Naruto's cheek which certainly didn't look like Sakura's hand print and the bruise on Sasuke's forehead which did come from Naruto's elbow glowed radioactive in the natural light of the hallway. Naruto imagined that the three of them, panting in a mixture of furious indignation, fervid embarrassment, and mild claustrophobia, made for a rather incriminating photograph.
"You also could've used the exit down the hall, which led to the second floor balcony entrance." Kakashi started, deftly hiding the camera. "Welcome to the first restaurant designed for shinobi, by a planned by a civilian."
Naruto barely had time to raise an eyebrow before a loud poof and a cloud of smoke appeared in the hallway in front of them. Instead of the generally scentless displacement of air most ninja left behind in their kawamiri, this cloud reeked of sulfur and gunpowder. Crouched on the floor, the shortest, baldest, and all around ugliest man Naruto had ever seen waited until most of the smoke around him dissipated until he rose, quickly shifting into the worst mockery of taijutsu Naruto had seen since his first year gym class.
"Clad in the veil of the night, surrounded by mystery and intrigue, this fearsome ninja is here to bring you into the terrible world of shinobi!". The waiter had on a mismatch of black shinobi gear from different eras patch worked into something which, to a squinted civilian eye, could've looked like a shinobi uniform. The shoulder guards were from a courier's uniform, while the kunai holster (currently occupied by several rolled up scrolls) was strapped the wrong way on the man's back. A small pair of hunter-nin boots weren't laced the right way, and it looked like the man was wearing a black gi instead of something functional for stealth. The waiter glanced up with eyes that seemed continually runny. "Oh, shinobi." The man sagged. "Never a civilian. Not once in all the months I've been here. What I wouldn't give to inspire terror and awe in one person. But, nooo."
Kakashi stared at the ceiling. He seemed to be counting the knots in the wood. Naruto caught Sakura's eyes and shared a sense of deep shame. As the two in the group most likely to have the greatest amount of civilian experience, it was embarrassing to be by the waiter. It was much the same as being a fisherman unfortunate enough to bring fellow tradesmen home to a family who couldn't tell the difference between a trout and a catfish, and thought tuna lived in cans, much like hermit crabs.
Naruto knew from the conversation with his family the night before that sometimes, civilians had really strange ideas about ninja. Honestly, that wasn't something unexpected. Kakashi had been right when he'd said that ninja villages survived because they put up an air of mystery, though Konoha hid it's long list of regulations in traditions and well-ingrained "common sense" which made ideas like having blackout curtains and a passing knowledge in morse code common to every household. Naruto had the feel that if a civilian could survive in a ninja village, they honestly deserved an honorary ninja badge of their own.
The waiter continued. "Do you think I like this?" He gestured towards the jumpsuit which appeared snug at the waistline, and loose at the knees. "I attended the academy, you know. Didn't actually pass, though. Figures that's what put me here. It wouldn't be so bad if they'd actually listen to me when I try to explain that, frankly, throwing stars would be horrible cup-holders, and explosive notes shouldn't be used as decoration. I ask you, do you think they listen?"
Sakura nodded at him with a nervous but polite smile. Naruto kept glancing at the short man, cocking his head to the side. He tried to imagine the stocky, rather plump waiter as an academy student, but the images building in his head rippled as soon as they were examined closely.
Sasuke glared, and Naruto nearly cheered at the sight of it. It wasn't the mild glare he used on Kakashi-sensei, or even the harsher glare he used on Fan-girls. His eyes narrowed, his arms crossed, and even his lips pulled tight, nearly showing the edges of perfectly white teeth. "Get on with it."
If Naruto had issued an order like that, he would've been hit from at least three separate directions, possibly with weapons. As it was, the waiter stepped back, glancing nervously towards the adult in the group quickly.
"W-well," he stuttered, "if you insist. My manager's not going to like it, you know. Not showing people the proper introduction. 'Atmosphere', he said." Kakashi slowly pulled one eye down from the ceiling. "Y-yes!"
Kakashi held up one hand, counting off four fingers. "Take-in. Window-section. No smoking section." There was a pause. He deliberately didn't look at Sakura, which worked just as well as the young kunoichi was glancing at him more than enough for both parts of the non verbal argument. "Please."
Sakura quirked an eyebrow. "Sensei, I thought you said this was a restaurant designed for shinobi. Isn't smoking generally a bad idea for our active lifestyle? Who would be stupid enough to..." The pink-haired kunoichi trailed off, her eyes following the ninja passing by them closely enough that Sasuke pressed against the wall.
Naruto gave a little wave to Shikamaru, but knew the fellow genin well enough he expected nothing in return. Chouji, ever polite, took his hand out from his bag of chips, waving towards Naruto and flinging crumbs everywhere. Ino and Sakura locked gazes, and Naruto would've have been surprised if both had sprouted claws and gone for the jugular.
Asuma passed by with an absent nod for Kakashi and a lingering scan on Naruto. Somehow, the blond got the impression that ever since he'd made genin, his presence had actually begun registering on the jonin's radar. Years of doing laundry, gardening, and the occasional all-out spring cleaning horror fest had passed the strategist by easily. Asuma coughed quietly, distantly flicking ashes in a potted plant as he and his team jumped down the janitor's closet.
"Right." Sakura muttered.
"Sirs, and miss," the waiter lisped distinctly, "this way, please."
The walk seemed far longer than it realistically was, but that was the case with most horrifying scenes. Something about the waiter played against every stereotype of shinobi. The fact that, reflected in the waiter's face, some of them were actually true only made the awkward feeling between the waiter and the ninja worse. Sakura, despite whatever failings she had as an observer of the environment, was an excellent judge of people. Not, Naruto noted, of the people around her as much as the people who she only met with on a random schedule. Sakura was skilled in picking up details about people she'd never met before, storing them away, and then never being able to use those facts again. She had, because of this and because of the unusual personalities of her teammates, picked up the habit of carrying on any polite conversation which was needed to fill a silence before Naruto got the chance.
"You know," Sakura said sweetly, "I don't believe we've caught your name. What can we call you?"
The waiter stumbled. "No one's ever asked for my name before." Sakura, realizing that she had made a grave error, hung back a few steps. The waiter took no notice. "Sasuke." The short man lisped. "That's my name. Not that anyone cares, of course." He added.
There was a momentary silence as all ninja stopped. Naruto closed his eyes. He breathed in the scent-filled air, holding his breath for several seconds before exhaling deeply. Life, he decided, was good. Beside him, Sakura stood, trying and failing to find something to say. Her finger was raised limply, and she continued her efforts for several seconds before shaking her head and decidedly not glancing at her brunette teammate. Relishing in the moment, Naruto glanced at Kakashi. His sensei was in turn glancing at Uchiha Sasuke, whose hands were creeping towards his weapons pouches one second and slowly being pulled back from aforementioned kunai the next. When it came to Uchiha-civilian relations, Sasuke was proving himself to be the greatest diplomat in generations. If Naruto had half as much chakra control as Sasuke was showing willpower, the world would've known it's youngest Hokage five years ago.
The self-pronounced "Thathuke" continued on. "That's what this village needs more of - proper kunoichi, that is. Not seen but one in a fortnight what wasn't wearing a damn mess of fishnet. That's you, miss." He nodded towards the kunoichi who, even now, was twice as pink in face as she was in her hair. "Not that I don't respect those women all the same. Takes a damn amount of bravery to show skin like that. Even my own mother wouldn't be gutsy enough for that." He laughed to himself. "'Cept after a few drinks, of course."
No one else laughed. The situation had all the same inevitability of escalation as an exploding tag did of causing someone a great deal of trouble, if not pain.
Naruto was halfway done plotting the likely course of events (a combination of snide comments, angry protests, and violence which would end with collateral damage), when he was distracted by a mixture of smells. Well-spiced meat was seared in wide open grills by kindly looking, plump chefs. Some had to be civilians, and further stations were being managed by shinobi who definitely weren't part of the staff. The ceiling had perspective points and strategically placed mirrors, and the combination not only increased the areas where it was much easier to see who was coming, but also screwed with the perspective and thus landing judgment of anyone coming in from the skylight.
Though the rat-faced Sasuke was at the front of the group, Kakashi nudged his way to a booth designed for particularly paranoid ninja. It was a crescent in one corner of the room, surrounded on both sides by thick concrete that hurt the knuckles to even look at, with further jutting wall sections to provide extra cover. At least the mirrors across from the booth gave a lovely view of the grey, overcast horizon of Konoha's skyline.
"Well, let's see what we have to work with, shall we?" Kakashi asked, clapping his hands together. It only took a few seconds for the kyuubi-vessel to recognize his cue. Naruto shuffled through his courier's bag and bypassed lengths of wire, a few books, and a multitude of weapons created with the intent of really making someone irritated before coming to Makoto's packed lunch.
Five sandwiches, six pieces of fruit, a pack of mixed nuts, two bags of potato chips, a pack of crackers and a small section of cheese, a mighty container of mixed greens, two thermoses of soup (chicken corn soup and, oddly enough, miso), and a frozen container with a large serving of pasta were taken out before Kakashi's eyes began to twitch. Sasuke was already reaching towards a sandwich made of what could've been egg salad as Sakura's hands intercepted Naruto's in mid-air, deftly taking the first slice of chocolate cake to her part of the table. Naruto stuck the rest of his arm in the lunch bag, fishing around at the bottom until he drew out the other three slices of cake, a container of mixed fruit with three yogurts, and a smell helping of well-powdered pastries.
Sasuke glanced at his stunned counterpart-in-name with the same look of mild scorn he normally looked at Naruto with. To the waiter's credit, he didn't immediately begin to whimper. "We will require silverware, and a number of plates." Uchiha, Naruto thought briefly, had the inborn ability at making all requests sound like orders. He barked commands just as well as a seasoned veteran on the field of battle. "I believe that drinks will be the only thing necessary for you to attend to personally." Naruto caught Sasuke's gaze for a minute, and the dark-haired boy felt compelled to add "Three teas, and a small soda from the children's menu. Make sure to secure the lid tightly."
"Oh, you dick." Naruto growled. Sasuke countered with a dismissive snort and a a look which plainly read "This sandwich is far more interesting than you".
"Now, now," Kakashi chided half-heartedly. His hand easily fell into the well worn path down the jonin's chest, unbuttoning the snaps nearly instantly and drawing out not the familiar orange book with the small caution symbol, but instead a symbol piece of paper which had, in plain characters and bold text, "NO". Kakashi's fingers looked confused, drawing out the paper and holding it to the light. He bent one corner of it back, and Naruto half-expected the Jonin to check underneath it, to see where the rest of the book had gone. Instead, the Jonin sighed and replaced the paper into the same pocket. "I suppose there's no way out of it." The silver-haired man turned to Naruto. "Did you decide on the theme of today's lesson, Naruto?"
"Hng?" Naruto mouthed around half a sandwich.
"Ah, very nice. You chose the most difficult option of any of them, but I'm sure it will have rewards of its own." Naruto couldn't enough swallow before the Jonin dug into a different pocket, taking out quite suddenly a deck of cards and a handful of dice.
Naruto made a record of swallowing usually only accomplished within the walls of Ichiraku. "Sensei! I didn't say anything, dammit!" Sakura gesticulated violently towards the jonin with the arm not occupied by a forkful of chocolate cake. Sasuke shuffled preemptively away from Naruto, deftly shuffling the mound of food stacked in front of him.
Kakashi waved his hand, eyes closed with what looked to be a look of satisfaction. "No, no. I understand! Challenging yourself is the only way to grow stronger, right? A challenge this large and this early can only mean good things." He paused, striking up a pose of repose. "Or, it could stress you to the point where you burn out and become institutionalized." He paused. "I'm sure that won't happen."
Sakura snorted, daintily laying the fork spotlessly clean of cake beside a plate which looked to be bleached. "Sensei, you shouldn't joke around like that. Naruto believes everything so easily that it's almost unfair." The pink-haired kunoichi turned in her seat to watch Kakashi. "You ...you are joking about that, right?".
"The goal," Kakashi began, blissfully unaware (or uncaring) of the world around him, "is rather simple. Every time I pick a red card off of this deck", he motioned towards the neatly shuffled deck to the right of his pile of food (a pile which actually looked like it was slowly diminishing), "you have to roll an even number on the die. Every time I pick a black card, roll an odd." He closed his eye, his hand making a familiar dismissing motion. "Of course, if you fail to do so, there are ...consequences."
The three genin slowly met gazes. Sakura's eyes were getting wider as unseen possibilities passed before her eyes, Sasuke had an eyebrow cocked in what could've been interest and could've been the natural position of his face just as easily. Naruto tried to express the fact that he had nothing to do with their sensei's choices as best he could with only his eyes, a complicated series of blinks, and the frantic shaking of his head so emphatic it nearly shook off his hitai-ite.
Naruto was almost positive that none of his teammates wanted to be the first to ask the question which was burning through each of their tongues. The only thing that kept him from being one hundred percent sure about it was the fact that, on occasions, Sasuke just didn't care. However, after one minute of a three-way staring contest passed, they heard their sensei clear his throat. A unanimous decision on part of all participants kept the contest going for another minute, and then a few more. Naruto wasn't sure about the other two, but he was hoping Kakashi would lose slowly fade away into the background if no one acknowledged him.
When Kakashi's gloved hand snaked it's way towards the remaining piece of cake on the table, however, all pretenses were instantly dropped. Sakura's hand struck so quickly Naruto had trouble following it, the tines on her fork striking just scant millimeters from Kakashi's fingers. The jonin's quick release of the plate set it spinning, an action which was anticipated and halted by the shift of Sakura's weight on her side of the bench as she contorted in her seat, dodging Kakashi's body while at the same time snaking her arm protectively around the edge of the plate.
It settled quickly in front of her, the last rattles of porcelain against wood uncomfortably loud. Her own eyes were wide as the fact that not just the attention of her team mates was centered on her, but also the attention of three tables and four members of staff nearby. Naruto saw her cheeks redden to the point of clashing horribly with her hair, her head bowing down by inches to hide her eyes.
Her fork, however, hovered over the cake, glistening just as dangerously as a freshly sharpened kunai.
This time, when Kakashi cleared his throat, all three genin glanced up. "As I was saying," he began, one eyebrow raised with something which was either curiosity or awe, "it really doesn't qualify as training if there's not an incentive." He glanced at the few neighbors they had at the two tables now spaced even further from them then before. "Truth or Dare. The shinobi with the worse roll will have to answer a question posed by the shinobi with the highest."
Sasuke scoffed. "Sensei, what do you think we are? Children? We are shinobi. We have no time for games."
Naruto pivoted, nearly knocking Sasuke's most current sandwich out of his hands. "Games? Kakashi-sensei said it himself! This is training." He hesitated momentarily. "Of course, I'm not really sure what the hell he's trying to teach us here, but well, that's never stopped us before. You just don't want to go along with this because you're chicken."
Sasuke glared. The effect was ruined by the chipmunk-like puff of his cheeks. He swallowed heavily, increasing the damage percentile by a margin, but the damage had already been done. "You'll pay for that, Uzumaki."
Oddly enough, Sasuke was completely right.
The first card picked turned out to be black, and to no one's particular surprise, all three genin failed spectacularly. In all honesty, Naruto had to admit he was almost thankful that he had the chance to find out more about Sakura. As it turned out, yes, her hair was naturally pink, and no, she wasn't lying, and yes, very sure she wasn't lying about it. She had no siblings, both civilian parents still alive, and a reasonable number of civilian aunts still sneaking through Konoha's back alleyways in the pursuit of finding someone, somewhere doing something naughty in the act. Her mother's natural hair color was pink, though it began going grey on the day Sakura announced her intentions to become a kunoichi, and it was presently entirely grey and white. The next five failed rolls (oddly enough, in a row), all came to the fact that, no she wasn't lying, yes, she was rather sure about it, and she would throttle Naruto if he asked again.
As it turned out, neither Sasuke's favorite food or drink involved the bittersweet flavoring of his own tears. He was partial to seafood, but didn't enjoy sweet food very much, and Naruto's hand itched for a pen to jot down lobster-shaped cake blueprints and outlines for amazing plans involving muffins. Kakashi's constant vigilance kept all the genin on edge, and it appeared that with the jonin's perverted stories being taken away, he was reduced to paying attention to his own genin for entertainment. His evil eye caught every fledgling attempt to lie (which, even Naruto could admit to himself, wasn't hard when it was limited to Sasuke's glares and grunts, Sakura's attempts at making a poker face worse than each one prior to it, and his own fragile attempts at keeping Sakura from finding out about the Noodle Incident. It didn't work.)
All in all, Naruto was sure he got the wrong end of the deal. Kakashi picked a streak of red cards and Naruto rolled exactly one for every one of those cards. Sasuke discovered that yes, Naruto was the one who put electrical tape over the leather binding on the Uchiha's kunai on the first day of weapon training. The blonde was also responsible for Sasuke's initial exploration into the world of snakes-in-a-polish-can, "grease on binoculars" during one of their first D-missions, and a small series of coincidental "accidents" when both boys were nine which left Sasuke, in the end, the target of wrath from an entire group of 14 year old male genin, a pair of irritated chuunin girls, and a very angry cat.
In retrospect, Naruto wondered if he was the one who began the Uchiha's seemingly endless dislike for animals. The hamster fiasco in their third year of academy probably had something to do with it, the disastrous introduction to messenger hawks a few weeks later hadn't helped, and though he really didn't have anything to do with the locust-like spread of kittens in Konoha last April, he had the feeling that he was at least partially responsible for most of the early D-missions they'd gone through involving the Fire Lord's cat, having been the one to introduce it to the seedy feline underworld in Konoha in the first place. Then, of course, there was the horse. If it hadn't have been for that horse, the entire last year of Naruto's education might've gone entirely differently.
The fact that Naruto gradually began improving his rolls was only a mild conciliatory gesture compared to the fact that he still ended up spilling more than he'd like to about that particular train of thought to his teammates. There was something, however, to be said about the fact that despite the punishment was truth and dare, no one dared ask anything but truth.
Their waiter set their drinks before them, interrupting Naruto from a long chain of humiliating losses which, when combined with the humiliating stories they inevitably brought with them, slowly was prodding today as one of the most awkward in his life. Sakura's face still burned intermediately with the shame of revealing her father's pet-name for her - Cherry Blossom Baby - and the shame of having to hear Naruto's explanation of the scarring events which occurred in the boy's section of their swimming class. Kakashi took the initiative and passed the waiter a small gratuity, an action which made a small part of Naruto's mind ache for a moment at the sheer unlikeliness of the action. He closed his eyes for a moment, leaning over the remains of his food and the horrible die which continually spited him. "Kakashi-sensei, what's the deal here? I mean, we're supposed to be training, right? What the hell will rolling die and picking cards teach us about stealth, information gathering, and that sort of crap? Hell, just running laps around Konoha again would be awesome compared to this."
Sakura straightened in her seat so quickly that the kyuubi-vessel wondered if Kakashi had slipped ice down her back (thus eliminating it from his list of possible things to do to Sasuke, as it was unsportsmanlike to do the same prank twice). Her eyes jotted from the cards, to the die, and then to the jonin sitting next to her, intently stiring his drink. The kunoichi sat back in her seat, her hands flat on the surface of the table for a second.
She smiled. It wasn't a particularly nice smile, more along the lines of her expressions after a particularly hasty comment and even hastier retreat. It was a smile which, for Naruto, normally ended badly.
The next card picked was, oddly enough, only good for Sakura. The second card was only good for Sakura. The third roll was the start of a trend which continued until Naruto knocked his glass of water over onto Sasuke's lap. As Naruto waved for a waiter and dabbed at the newly formed lake with his sweatshirt, the Uchiha's eyes glinted dangerously red for a split second before they reverted back to black, though they were as wide as if Naruto had accidentally spilled acid on the Uchiha's shorts instead.
As Naruto continued losing for nearly an hour, it was all he could do to try to figure out why, as every agonizing secret passed, Sasuke's eyes continued to flash red, glancing at the card deck. Sakura kept pointing out the entering ninja, who weren't ever as interesting as her tone made them out to be. Apparently, he missed several ninja battles just outside the window by mere seconds, a few ANBU passing by, and a migrating flock of weasels rushing through the street.
Naruto rubbed one hand over his eyes. "I should've known something was up when you offered to train us, sensei. Is this some sort of punishment for showing you up at SAP? If it is, you can seriously go back there and show me up any time at all."
Sakura and Sasuke glanced at each other. Kakashi seemed to grin behind his mask. Naruto, as a consequence, felt a chill run down his back. He gripped at the die, feel the edges of it with the pads of his sweatshirt as Kakashi's fingers lingered over his next card.
Kakashi, Naruto realized swiftly, was stacking the deck. He was shuffling the deck with the intensity and accuracy of a card shark, and all the ease of a grandmother at bridge night. Inside of Naruto's sleeve, his die seemed to glow red hot with Naruto's own indignation. It was completely unfair, thought Naruto, that Kakashi was cheating when he should've been teaching them about stealth and guile and decept...ion... He trailed off within his own thoughts.
He wondered, briefly, if this put him above or below Sakura in terms of environmental awareness.
He watched Kakashi pick the next card. Sakura smirked behind the poor shield of her hands while Sasuke's Sharingan memorized the small nicks and dents on the back of the card's surface. A black jack was laid, the smirk on the face card cruel and malevolent.
Maybe, a spark of inspiration began, digging it's way into the crevices of Naruto's brain, he could use the die.
Before he knew it, his fingertips brushed the edge of the die, tracing passageways across it's surface for reasons even he didn't understand. In battle, he didn't particularly think about dodging out of a shuriken's path. His body reacted, and as he had all his limbs and few scars to tell for it, he thought it generally worked out well enough to keep doing it. Chakra brushed out his digits, and he realized where the tracks of his own thoughts had already passed.
Attaching chakra to inanimate objects started simply and grew exponentially more difficult as the object increased in size. There were other considerations which floated half heartedly in Naruto's mind. Intention came into play, time could make things harder or easier, and practice, of course, was a main component. The only real practice Naruto had with putting chakra into objects was with his clones and with his weapons. Pooling chakra and then pulling it back, however, was something Naruto felt on easier ground with.
Mindful of the intent eye of Kakashi, Naruto hurried chakra to the tips of his fingertips. He remembered SAP with a hurricane of scenes and words. His clones were called such because they were copies of his mental state, physical state, and experience at the time of creation. As such, each and every clone had Naruto's same attention problems. While the named clones dealt with it in their own unique ways (Foreman's attention was naturally split between all his subordinates, Cheery's attention was never actually focused on anything in the first place, and Glasses chose to completely ignore the outside world and focus on books), the rest of the bunshin did a task as best as they could before they got completely bored with it and either finished it and moved on, or complained and got poofed. Through the torrent of images, Naruto remembered the map.
The image of the map itself made the silver ring on Naruto's finger twinge, but what he decided to focus on after a brief moment of inner struggle was how he actually retrieved the map in the first place. There had, of course, been an element of luck involved, but if he pushed his chakra out like this and then flexed his fingers like so...
His arm ached. It felt very much like having fishing wire extending out of his arm from hidden caverns in his limb, where muscles Naruto hadn't even used before began unravelling. He glanced up to Kakashi's curious gaze. "Hey, wanna bet something?"
Kakashi raised an eyebrow. "Why, gambling with one of my impressionable students? I wouldn't be setting a good role model if I allowed something like that." He glanced at Sakura beside him, and then Sasuke. He leaned his head to one side. "Motivational tactics, however, are good practice. Shoot." He said.
Naruto covered his aching hand with his free one, forcing himself not to tremble. "I bet you I can roll a perfect one, right now." He glanced to Sasuke. "If I win, you have to run ten laps around Konoha."
Kakashi glanced at Naruto's hand, then at Naruto's face, and then at the grey landscape through the window. He paused a moment. "Interesting as it might be that you're actually the one to propose the first dare," he began thoughtfully, "it's not worth it." He patted his pocket with what Naruto recognized as a deliberate action, rather than the usual instinct which guided Kakashi's hand. "There's no real risk involved." He added.
Naruto paused. "If I win five times in a row," he stated firmly, "you'll have to run around Konoha fifty times. If I lose even once," he promised, pausing a moment to search for something to actually promise to do, "I'll do whatever dare Sasuke can think up. The cruelest, meanest, most malevolent thing that can come out of his demented mind."
Kakashi grinned behind his mask. "Tempting, but no."
Naruto felt Sakura's gaze locked on him, and he turned to find the kunoichi's gaze riveted on him. She in turn looked briefly to Sasuke, whose red eyes were slightly widened. The dark haired boy glanced at Sakura, and nodded.
"Sensei," she began, "we think Naruto can do this. If he can't," she said, liking the taste of every word less and less as it passed her lips, "we'll all take a punishment."
"Sold!" Kakashi stated firmly. "But you use Sakura's die."
Naruto froze. The chakra on the die drew back in an instant, filling his arm with pins and needles. He glanced at Sakura, mouth open and tongue against his teeth ready to start a protest. Sakura's expression promised pain without compromise and misery without end if he didn't hold up his part of the bargain.
Kakashi easily reached over and picked up Sakura's die. It fell into Naruto's outstretched hands, weighing no less than five pounds. "Why Naruto," Kakashi began, "there's no reason to look at it like that, you know. It's not as if your teammates won't conspire to do something evil to you if you fail." He paused. "Nothing stopping Sakura from assisting Sasuke in creating a "training exercise" or "combat course" for you in the name of solidarity, now that I think about it."
The lines unfurled down his arm faster, attaching to the die with lightning speed. As the die skidded across the table, Naruto vaguely realized he didn't know how to control the die past the initial yank.
The die clattered on the table, colliding with Naruto's drink cup.
It rested on one.
Sakura sighed heavily. "Thank god." Her eyes caught Naruto's. He knew he didn't imagine the unspoken questions lurking in her eyes. Most likely among them were "How did you do that?", "Why in hell did you bet with him?", and "Do you know what I'll do to you if this goes wrong?".
"One down, four to go." Kakashi stated simply. He placed a card on the table. The Queen of hearts watched Naruto impassively. "Even."
Naruto withdrew his chakra from Sakura's die, making it tremble slightly while in the same moment casting Sasuke's out in the opposite direction. It clattered on the table, balancing perilously close to falling on a three before Naruto pulled his chakra back. The small gust of displaced air brushed it back, spinning it until it landed on a six.
Kakashi pulled another die from his vest. "Again." The King of Spades glared at him.
Naruto rolled with his other hand this time, his right hand darting behind his side of his table, where it flexed desperately to get feeling back in the tips of his fingers. He wasn't as experienced using chakra with this hand, but the concept of failure was not just unappealing, but legitimately dangerous for his health and safety.
The cube clattered to the center of the table, rattling against the edge of Sakura's plate. The single dot in the center of the die stared at the shinobi.
Kakashi fished in his vest for a moment. He unwrapped a small roll of velvet. From the inside, he drew a few coins glistening in copper, silver, and gold, a thimble, a small length of wire, and a pair of die. "Chakra resistant," he said casually, laying them in front of Naruto. "Casinos and gambling dens eventually felt the pressing need to level the playing field for their shinobi customers."
For an exercise involving deception and stealth, what basically amounted to cheating with nicer terminology, Kakashi was suddenly being very serious about an even playing field. It went without mention that it was far too serious for Naruto's liking.
Kakashi drew another card. This time, "How to play poker" brought raised eyebrows (and a disdainful turn of head and mild scoffing noise) to the table. The next pull was one Joker, the one after that was a well-dented "How to play Bridge" lesson, and two final two consisted of two more Jokers from what had to be completely different sets. Kakashi coughed.
"Roll both die for this," he commanded, smoothly placing the Ace of Diamonds down.
The die heated like coals at the merest whisper of chakra, and the kyuubi-vessel had to bite his tongue to keep from yelling. He looked at them from all angles, twisting them in the light and using Sasuke's water glass to magnify the faint details of faded seals against their surface in grey ink.
He suddenly realized that it was a very bad idea to challenge Kakashi-sensei in anything, especially when you thought you had the advantage. He really should've gotten the hint when Kakashi agreed to the terms of the bet. Never, in all their months of experience with the jonin, did the genin actually see the man running. He had the amazing ability of being able to appear directly in back of them whenever they took a brief rest to keep from collapsing in a heap, but none of the genin had actually caught him running either way.
He sighed. Sakura was going to beat him senseless, kill him, and then humiliate him so badly he wouldn't be able to go in the daylight for the next decade. If he was lucky, it would be in that order.
The dice spun in place on the table. One landed quickly, landing firmly on six. The last one seemed to spend several minutes idly spinning on edge. It took Naruto an instant to realize that was exactly what was going on.
Naruto caught his teacher's eye. "What the hell is going on?"
Kakashi scratched the side of his mask. "Just hit the table. It happens from time to time."
With a deep breath, Naruto slammed an open palm onto the surface of the table, attracting stares from all other tables in the restaurant, and sending the remaining die careening into the ceiling. It bounced off one steel supporting beam, ricocheting easily into the kitchen. It landed somewhere with a brief splash. Even from the opposite end of the restaurant, Naruto could hear a series of thumps, crashes, mild explosions, and mildly muffled swear word chains which could curdle milk.
Kakashi glanced at Naruto. Naruto glanced at Kakashi.
"So," Sakura began awkwardly, "what does that count as, sensei?"
Kakashi seemed to turn one ear closer to the commotion in the kitchen. The other tables of shinobi turned back to their meals, typical to the ninja principle of checking a scuffle out in case it could be dangerous to you, and the Konoha principle of keeping your nose out of problems which weren't yours.
"Hm." Kakashi wondered. He turned one eye to Sakura. "How did you "manipulate probability" and "adjust unfavorable circumstances to your favor"?"
Sakura seemed to be trying to burrow through her shoulders with her chin. "After I realized what the exercise was about, sensei, I realized that you were using a specific pattern. It was just a matter of figuring out which card was coming up and then using this," she paused, holding up a disk the size of an after-dinner mint, "to control the cores inside of them." She tucked the magnet back into one of her pouches. "You wouldn't give an exercise about deception and stealth without giving us ways to figure out ways to manipulate it, sensei. Magnetic dice were a nice touch." She glanced at the chakra-resistant cube sitting in front of Naruto with one eye.
"Ah." Kakashi stated simply. Sakura melted back into her seat, slowly colliding with the sticky vinyl of the bench as she tried to avoid his glance. It wasn't the absent observation Kakashi usually took of their comments, but the intent notice of a shinobi, trained to observe and remember. He turned to Sasuke, who glared under the scrutiny. "Sharingan?" He ventured.
Sasuke inclined his head. "Hn."
"And you, Naruto-kun?" Kakashi asked sweetly, honorific sliding past his lips like molten honey (to general horror and nausea).
There was a moment's pause. "Are you going to do something like this again? If you are, I don't want to tell you. I mean, I could use this again."
Kakashi closed one eye in a pleased curve. "Very good! You never know when you'll need an advantage or two."
Naruto felt a rise of satisfaction course through him at his sensei's praise. If he would've gotten praise like that from his teachers at the academy, Naruto knew he'd already be Hokage and would've graduated at five out of the need to please. "So, I won, right?"
Kakashi extended one finger. It did not bode well. "Actually, Naruto-kun," he began, his tone serious, "you failed."
There was a short pause.
A fourth of the restaurant had already seen the wisdom in ignoring the strange table near the window, but the remainder of the shinobi shot Team 7 a range of nasty looks stretching from the "Annoyance" end of the scale all the way to "Intent to Maim". Sakura sheepishly removed her outstretched hands from where they'd collided with the table, sliding into her seat meekly.
There were hand-print-shaped dents on the table, spider-web cracks marring that entire side. Kakashi watched them spread with interest. "I am not an unkind man," Kakashi lied. "Naruto lost because technically, he was supposed to win with the dice I gave him. Now, I did tell him to stop the die rolling, which led to the disqualification of that roll..." He trailed off. "Hm."
Naruto resisted the urge to kick his teacher in the shin. He wasn't stupid, after all. Instead, he gave his jonin-sensei his best glare, lifted his chin as far as his neck would allow, and exposed his teeth until his lips hurt. "You just don't want to run! I knew it! How the hell are we supposed to have a bet if you didn't intend to go through your part of the bargain in the first place?" He demanded
The temperature around Kakashi was icy. Sakura looked vainly for an escape route, glancing at the window to judge just how many inches of safety glass lied between her and actual safety. "I don't go back on my word." He said with narrowed eyes. There was a moment of pause, and Naruto took that time to close his jaw, count to fifty, and concentrate on breathing slowly and evenly.
"I'll run." Kakashi said with a smirk which nearly showed over the edge of his mask. "After all, you did do so very well." This was not the sort of praise which actually meant things went well. Quite the opposite, usually.
Sasuke turned to Naruto. "You actually got him to go through with it?". He sounded vaguely impressed.
"Of course, I never said I'd be running alone." Kakashi added.
Sasuke's glare was, for once, lost in the great sea of Sakura's fury like a half-lit buoy on a stormy night.
"Na-ru-to..." Sakura growled, anger and killing intent boiling around her in great lines of smoke. Naruto had never heard inhalation sound quite so ominous.
"Well, best get to it!" Kakashi said cheerfully, pushing away from the table and then appearing next to it in a smooth motion. "Have fun."
Sasuke was the first to find his tongue. "You...You aren't coming." It wasn't a question, more of a sudden realization of an unspoken fact.
"Oh, I'll watch, just in case you get into trouble." He waved one hand widely. "I never said I'd run with you, you know." He added conversationally. "You really should iron out the details before you propose bets. It's just stupid to leave escape routes like that."
Something awful was about to happen. Of course, something awful had already happened, but it seemed as if something worse was still waiting in the wings for the most inopportune moment to introduce itself. It never ceased to surprise Naruto how Konoha could stretch and contort itself depending on what needed to be done around it. If you needed to find a specific street, it twisted on itself so that the street seemed two feet wide and you jumped over it like a gutter. If you needed to run around it, on the other hand, it expanded three times the size it actually was in a sort of primal revenge against shinobi for decades of collateral damage. By the end of all ten laps, Naruto was steamed in his own sweat, covered in mud up to his ankles which even his sweatshirt couldn't repel, and aching in all four limbs and most of his organs.
On top of that, the bitter taste of events to come still hung in the wind. It took until Naruto reached his front door that he could identify where it stemmed, and he blamed that on the fact that the last time he'd felt quite this exhausted was on their C-mission-turned-disaster.
Alarms blazed within Naruto. His shinobi danger sense didn't even twitch, and while years of pranking Iruka had left Naruto with a sort of radar for the chuunin, the kyuubi-vessel didn't feel a trace of his old teacher. No shinobi symbols on the front of Naruto's door said "Safety goggles required past this point" or "Will explode under pressure". The booby traps Naruto had set up once when he was eight and never replaced were still in a state of ill repair. Any shinobi worth his salt would've replaced the toothpick out of muscle memory, long engrained over the years. In short, there was no reason he could put a finger on that explained the dread that leaped from the doorknob to his fingertips like static.
Even through the haze of confusion and mild tension which made the hairs on his arms stand up, Makoto was still a welcome sight. While she did look stressed to a point, no one seemed to be attacking her, and she did smile when he came in. There was something strange about the way she sat at the far end of the table, two cups of tea and a brewing pot arranged in front of her, framing a plate of delectable looking cookies.
Years later, he'd still blame the cookies, though some of the blame had to go with his Snare and Traps teacher, who obviously didn't teach him nearly enough about bait.
His hands found a sugar cake the size of a softball at about the same time he slid into the chair nearest to Makoto. He absently glanced at the windows, finding no hidden traps he could detect. The few kunai marks and explosive residue rings from the night prior had disappeared, either from a healthy scrub or a new window entirely.
His eyes inevitably drew themselves back to Makoto. A minute went by, and he had just moistened his mouth to say something when Makoto blushed and pulled from the chair on the other side of her a stack of what looked like brochures, titles hidden by her long fingers.
"You told me before about the gaps in your education, Naruto-kun. I saw for myself how they neglected your cleaning and cooking, and goodness knows what would've happened if that laundry was left to mold for another few days." She shook her head, a flash of anger replaced by the same blend of embarrassment and awkwardness which dominated her face instants before. "I never thought a village which boasts so many wonderful advances would keep one of their own so behind, though." She breathed in deeply. "The only excuse a boy your age has for not know about pregnancy is the deliberate ill-will of those around him. As your grandmother, as someone who knows their duty to the younger generations, it has fallen to me to teach you about...about..."
Naruto stood very, very still. A section of him hoped vainly that she would forget about him if he didn't even breathe. Another section of him scanned desperately through dozens of the stealth and cameflogue classes he actually attended for that one special jutsu which would let him take on the exact coloring of the chair and walls.
Makoto mutely shuffled the stack of pamphets to Naruto. The first one had a small portrait of a smiling boy and a blushing girl in pigtails. The second one had a picture of a cartoon rabbit with the title of "Hare Down There". The third was yellow and cracked in the manner of all old parchment. By the looks of it, it had never been opened. The title alone - "Slots and Tabs - A Friendly Guide to Boys and Girls" - was more of a deterant than a thousand poisoned shuriken with a tracking jutsu.
His mouth dropped in silent horror.
Makoto concentrated her gaze on her hands, which were busy wringing the life out of a napkin. Were it not made of cloth - and Naruto tried to picture where he'd ever seen a handkerchief with embroidered lilacs in his house before - it would've turned into a thousand tiny motes of dust. As it was, Makoto was doing her damnedest despite the odds.
She inhaled. Naruto was halfway through the seals for Kawamiri no Jutsu in the vain hopes that maybe this time it would work when he realized he still had half a cookie crumbling in his fingers.
It was a credit to Makoto's determination that she did not falter or budge. "Naruto, when boys and girls reach a certain age, their bodies start to do amazing things."
A silence had never been so welcomed as that which fell between each of Makoto's carefully worded sentences. Naruto's eyes didn't dare look to his grandmother's. He didn't dare look past the tips of his fingers, beyond which lay information he'd never known or, after learning it, ever wanted to.
Thankfully, however, Makoto seemed to concentrate on analogies and euphemisms. It took Naruto a few minutes at first to realize that cabbages and tabs didn't factor into it as much as Makoto's repetitions emphasized, instead describing a physical act Naruto desperately, achingly did not want to learn. A part of Naruto was incredibly glad that he hadn't inherited Makoto's ability of knitting one sentence to the other to make an oddly shaped conversation which at times resembled a lecture, at times an anecdote, and at times a mobius strip.
There was a soft shuffle of feet through the hallway. It pricked his senses, and even Makoto readied another long silence as his head whipped towards the sound of cloth against fingernails beyond the door. Keys jingled, metal collided and his savior arrived, clad in black and yellow and bringing with her the lost taste of hope.
Haruka, one foot in the door, glanced first at her mother, frozen in the midst of forming very complicated hand puppets, and then to Naruto, hands trembling around the stack of faded and worn pamphlets. Her eyes widened. "Oh mother, no."
Makoto sighed. "Haruka, I know what this looks like." The elder woman glanced at her own hands, quickly laying them down on her own lap. "It's precisely what you think, actually. But, you should know that I've thought about this very hard, and though it's proven to be," she hesitated, drawing in another deep breath, "difficult, it's something that needs to be done. It's for Naruto's own good, you know." Despite the fact that he was sure Makoto really did have his best interests in mind, he really had to help her define her definitions of what "good" was.
"By me." Haruka stated, crossing her arms. Both thankful and desperate for something to glance at aside from the smiling rabbit mascot on the cover of one of the pamphets, Naruto glanced at his aunt. Haruka was wearing a black apron over a eye-gougingly yellow shirt, with yellow and black striped socks. There was a small bumblebee on the corner of the apron, a multitude of pockets nearly hidden stuffed with straws, nearly-hidden bundles of silverware, and what by scent had to be an entire spice rack.
"As the elder family member," Makoto began doggedly, "it should be my responsibility to... to..." she glanced at Naruto, echoing his horrified, petrified gaze before shifting back to her daughter. There was a pause. "Would you?"
Naruto had never come to his feet as quickly. Massive amounts of pain caused by kunai was far less of a motivation than massive amounts of humiliation caused by family.
As the younger woman led him through the halls of his own apartment building with only a few wrong turns, his aunt wrapped one arm around his shoulders. "Think of it this way, Naruto. You're the latest in one of the most time-honored traditions of the family."
"Murgle." Naruto replied.
The blond woman nodded absently. "Long ago, my father rescued Arashi from the well-meaning but ultimately scarring attempts of my mother. Years later, your father granted me the same reprieve. In a way, it's an honor." She glanced at Naruto. "On the other hand, this is just as embarrassing for me as it is for you."
"Hrng." Visions of rabbits and hair mixed together in Naruto's head, blending slowly with snippets from past years, the magazines in the Hokage's desk and, most horrifyingly, his own successes with the Sexy no Jutsu.
The Sexy no Jutsu which almost precisely remembed his grandmother in her younger days.
The idea that he'd flashed his grandmother's naked body to the majority of male role models in his life and the newfound information about why that was a horrible thing suddenly suddenly made him feel he was about to throw up the last three years worth of ramen.
Haruka gently pulled the pamphlets from the shinobi's fist, finally steering him towards the first few steps of the stoop. "You're taking it better than I did, really." She held the documents at arm's length, no more than three fingers on the paper at any time. "How did she get these out of the fire?"
"Fire?" Naruto contributed, slowly getting used to the feeling of a tongue in the front of his mouth, instead of halfway towards the back of it.
Haruka nodded, mostly to herself. "We didn't spend the decade and odd entirely on the road, you know. Even I don't have that much wanderlust in my bones. No, there were towns, small communities where we'd find ourselves stuck for a few years. We tried not to get too attached, mind you." She hesitated. "Probably a good thing, in retrospect. Anyway, many of our precious albums and paintings and mementos were lost. The fires, the floods, the hurricanes." She sighed. "And yet these survived."
Haruka set the pile down on the step next to her, nudging the pile with her elbow until it was almost hidden in the corner against the wall. She rubbed her eyes, ran her hand over her mouth, and then turned to the Kyuubi-vessel. "So, how traumatized are you?"
"Completely." Naruto groaned. "It's just ...with the hair, and th-the slots, and ... why did she have to involve rabbits? I see a Rabbit . I'm never going to be able to think about her or any other living thing the same way again." The shinobi curled his legs so far up that, combined with the droop of his neck, not a blond hair could be seen. "Haruka, tell me why I needed to know this?"
Haruka snorted. "Naruto, my mother told me what you told her this afternoon." A second's worth of thought brought back to mind the kyuubi-vessel's conversation with his grandmother. About hookers, and pregnancy.
"Oh sweet spirits in holy heaven."
"I know you probably won't feel comfort in the fact that you brought this upon yourself. It does, on the other hand, make me feel better." Haruka held her hands in front of her as Naruto whipped his head up to viciously glare at his aunt. She laughed. "Alright, alright. Joking, geez." A sort of tension had dispelled suddenly, and in the short silence, Naruto pulled his head from his thighs, briefly marveling at his own flexibility. For a moment, it was peaceful. "So." his relative began, rubbing her hands together in a warm up gesture Naruto really should've anticipated, "Sex."
Naruto immediately buried his head so far into his legs that he thought he hit bone. He continued on doggedly, using his folded arms as shields against his ears. Even the fox didn't want to hear another word.
He felt something poke his leg once, twice, and on a continuing pattern which might've been the tune to "Tiptoe through the tulips" before he finally, wearily glanced up.
Haruka raised one eyebrow. "Sex," she started, somehow managing to overlook Naruto's massive cringe, "...isn't something I want to talk to you about."
Naruto felt the faint stirrings of hope deep in the cockles of his heart.
"I mean, it's been what, three days since we met each other? Blood though we might be and as fond of you as I am already, Naruto, I don't want to talk to you about this. It's far too embarrassing for this sort of thing already." Blue eyes glanced through Naruto and into the wall, scanning him with all the ease of his academy teachers. "Ask me when you're ready, Naruto."
Flocks of white birds swooped down from heaven, bringing strings of stars across the sky and automatically pushing the moon through three phases, where it was suddenly so bright it perfectly illuminated the angelic choir down the street, next to the Deli. Naruto breathed in deeply. "Thank you." He whispered.
Haruka laughed, and he was astounded once more that it didn't sound like bells ringing or the churn of a waterfall. His aunt had a deep laugh, and he realized that she tended to snort when she found something particularly funny, rather like Chouji in the academy and Sakura when she was having a particularly rough day. "Let me tell you one thing Naruto. I'll try to make this as painless for both of us as possible." She inhaled deeply, reading something on the inside of her eyelids. Naruto fidgeted but stayed put, counting down the seconds until he could bolt without remorse. "Ninja are just like mercenaries in the fact that some attacks are more difficult than others, right?" She waited for Naruto's nod before continuing. "I'm trying to translate what my father told Arashi, and what he told me so that it would be easier for both of us."
Naruto recovered enough to raise an eyebrow. "Which lecture is this, exactly?".
"Nothing scary." Haruka stated. She put her hands in front of her placatingly. "It's not going to be embarrassing, I swear!". Naruto didn't bolt because somehow, her admittance didn't fill him with nearly the amount of dread Makoto's had. With a rolling gesture of his hand and a weary smile, Naruto bade his aunt to begin.
"Alright. When you're facing an opponent, you first study him to find out his weaknesses, right? You discover facts about him like his family, his hobbies, his favorite techniques, or his favorite hot springs slowly, after intensive research and reconniscence. When you finally meet him face to face, would you attack first, Naruto?"
Naruto scratched one of his whisker marks in thought. "Well, usually I just charge into battle head first. I mean, surprise attacks really are an advantage for ninja." Haruka winced, which Naruto took as a subtle hint he was going the entirely wrong way with the analogy, and it was due to explode any second. "But, yeah. I mean, if I did all that research on him, it really could only mean that he's a strong opponent. I'd probably prepare the meeting site with tons of booby traps and wires first, but I'd let him go ahead ." Haruka looked triumphant.
"Now," she said with a smile working on her lips, "imagine that that really strong enemy is a girl you like." She paused. "You can probably do without a large deal of explosives for that first meeting." Naruto raised an eyebrow. "Or," she continued, "that could be a particularly strange shinobi courtship ritual I thankfully am not aware of." She gesticulated towards the street, and the kyuubi-vessel could tell she wasn't just pointing out the row of houses across the way, or even the merchant shops on the reverse of those. "Dating," she said to Naruto's quickly falling excitement and rapidly increasing horror, "is just like doing battle with a really, really dangerous foe. You have to be careful about where you step, what you say and how you say it, and most importantly, how you attack."
"Haruka, I don't understand why you're telling me this. I mean, sure, Sakura-chan would be a really painful opponent. It would suck to be against her, but why would I do so much boring research before asking her out on a date? All I need to do is beat the crap out of Sasuke and she'll know how awesome I am." He felt very cold, very suddenly. Haruka raised one eyebrow at him. "Right?"
There was a mild rank "E" silence which slowly skyrocketed through the ranks, bypassing "D" and "C" entirely to land somewhere within "B" and "A", the same sort of silence which normally came after blackmail pictures were brought out in a school assembly or an oven-engulfing blaze was spotted by the house's owner, halfway through putting it out.
"Oh." Naruto said. Haruka leaned back on her hands. "You're sure about that? I mean, really, really, really, re-" The woman nodded, the angle of her head not quite managing to hide her smile. Naruto inhaled as two cogs within his mind slowly clinked against each other. Parts of his mind which he hadn't used in years groaned their way into activity. "How the hell does Sasuke do it, then?"
"Hm?" His aunt turned her body towards him, one leg crossing over the other at the ankle. Somehow, she made it look awkward. She was rounded where she should've been pointed, and pointed where she really should've had something there. "Your teammate from last night? What exactly does he do?"
"He attracts fangirls like a rotting carcass attracts flies!" He paused. "You know, I was going to pick another analogy, but right now, I really like that one. See, he can just stand there and girls will start mauling each other. He doesn't care about their hobbies, or their families, or anything of those sorts of things. He just wants to be a jerk." He paused, conceding a nod. "And something about getting stronger, but I'm pretty sure that's his second favorite hobby after sulking."
Haruka sighed. "Girls are strange, Naruto."
"Tell me about it. I probably have just as much a chance of learning to fly as I do of figuring out how girls think." For a moment, the long, twisted train of Naruto's thoughts teetered on the edge of a tall precipice. Below him led awesome but ultimately distracting thoughts of how incredibly cool it would be to fly during missions. He was halfway through naming jutsus as his train was halfway over the cliff when his aunt stretched, more bones popping in her arms and shoulders than he even thought she had.
"You know that metaphor I was trying to use a few minutes ago? What I was trying to get to was the fact that certain techniques are overkill for certain battles. My father wouldn't use his largest sword if he was killing cougars around the village, and I have a feeling ninjas don't generally use their powers to blow themselves up at the earliest possible convenience, either. In that same manner, beating up Sasuke might be your Suicide maneuver, Naruto. Certainly, it would be effective if you'd worn the beau of your choice - Sakura, is it? - down by finding out her interests and hobbies (let's call them "weaknesses" for the sake of continuing the chain). Instead, it just does you more damage than it does her."
She paused. "Then again, the sum of my experience in ninja villages totals about a week, at best. I'm likely off about some of the descriptions, but they should've been enough. Besides, you really shouldn't need to worry about this for a few more years. Only five, or ten, or even..." she trailed off as Naruto waved one hand in defeat.
"I already asked you if you were sure about this, right? Okay, okay. Stupid question." Naruto glanced at the stars for guidance. As it turned out, the angelic choir had turned the corner nearly half an hour ago, the birds had dissipated into clouds of feathers already spread by the breeze, and the flowers seemed nothing more than a particularly descriptive figment of his imagination. "Why does everything in my life revolve around research lately?"
Haruka arched an eyebrow. "There was more than - oh, what was it? BIRCH? - the other day?"
"You don't know the half of it." Naruto hopped to his feet easily and lent his hand to Haruka as her long limbs made her fumble getting up. Absently, he noted the yellow headband hidden in the ultimate camouflage of Kazama/Uzumaki hair. A bumblebee bobbed on a spring cheerfully. "Hey, it was your first day of work today, wasn't it? Wanna talk about it?"
Haruka smiled. "That would be lovely."
Naruto pursed his lips for an instant. If he had been watching himself, he would've remarked on the remarkable similarity to Glasses, likely using terminology banned within five hundred yards of a schoolyard. "What's the name of it, anyway? I mean, it has to be a restaurant. Nobody would work in a bookstore and carry around straws like that."
With a good natured, suffering turn of lips, Haruka glanced towards the sky. "Honeybee's Sugar Garden and Desserterie." She paused, and not unkindly, answered Naruto's unspoken question. "A "desserterie" is a place which sells deserts and sweet things. We have a coffee bar, and cases and cases of things which are covered in various icings."
"Wait, we have one of those?" Naruto asked, speaking for the majority of Konoha.
Haruka shrugged, her shoulders rolling awkwardly. "I believe it's new. We didn't get many customers today, which was all the better. It's not that I'm ashamed of where I work," she explained, "it's just that I'd like some time to get used to wearing clothes this revealing around people. Preferably over a number of years."
Despite the small voice inside of him which occasionally saved him embarrassment and humiliation, he glanced at his aunt. Her skirt hadn't risen above her knee over the course of the past few minutes, her apron hadn't contorted in the thick humidity of the stoop, and her sensible stockings hadn't suddenly traded in comfort for scandalous design. Naruto remembered seeing Sarutobi's wife in more revealing clothes. He scratched his hair, speechless.
Haruka sighed. "Yes, yes. Toppu would agree with you, Naruto. I was probably the only teenage girl in the last fifty years to wear too much clothing for her parent's comfort. They thought," she said with a shake of her hair, "that I would become an old maid."
Naruto snorted. "That's not going to happen." He said confidently. "I can't think of any old maids in Konoha. There's someone to love for everyone here." Tiny bells fought for attention in Naruto's skull. "Not," he continued hastily, "that you'd have trouble with that. I mean, if you were led into a cave with a sack over your head, someone would-"
Haruka waved one limp hand in his direction. "No more of that. Mother said the same thing with every city we went to. She always claimed that Mr. Right was waiting for me to run into him." She snorted. "Fat chance."
Naruto raised an eyebrow. "You don't believe in chance?" He ventured, noticing the way she nodded absently in reply.
"I'm not saying that there isn't the possibility that it exists." She said neutrally, "I'm willing to try anything once, even belief. The fact of the matter is that if you start relying on chance and luck, it makes you think about how amazing it was that events happened as they did. Maybe lightning didn't strike your house, or maybe it was the only house in the village which did. It makes you think about it being "meant" to happen." She sighed. "As if life was all mapped out by someone, with every movement planned and plotted ahead of time."
Naruto frowned. "But, it's nice to think like that. Even if it's not completely true, it makes people feel good to think that there's something ahead of them, right?"
Haruka shook her head. Naruto noticed a small bumblebee design on the headband, by her right ear. "I'm not saying that other people don't have the right to believe what they will. What I'm saying is that, in my opinion at least, people should just do what they do. They shouldn't worry about what's "supposed" to happen. They should "make" it happen." Haruka smiled at Naruto. "I really respect your goal of becoming Hokage. You have an unlikely dream, Naruto, but that makes it far from being impossible. Simply stating your intentions, merely turning your face towards that direction is a thousand steps more towards your goal than most people ever take."
The Kyuubi-vessel paused, stopping his thoughts for a moment. It was nice to think about there being such a thing as "Fate", except that, if you thought about it, "Fate" and "Probability" were the same thing. Hundreds and thousands of tiny circumstances and unlikely events had a small chance of happening, ranging from winning the lottery to falling into an open sewer on the way to lunch. The "odds" of either of those happening were rather slim, but Naruto knew that both had already happened to a particularly harried shinobi who'd checked into the mental health ward of the hospital a few years ago.
He closed his mouth. His brain hurt, complicated paradoxes clanging for his attention just as loudly as the fact that he'd just used "paradoxes" in his own mind. Glasses, he decided firmly, was going to spend a long time poofed, preferably with the dictionary as the tool of his demise.
Raindrops fell heavier than before, grabbing his attention and exploding several inches from the ground out of sheer fear of an impact. Haruka turned towards Naruto, and the kyuubi-vessel saw something profoundly old - something that looked even older than Makoto - stretched between Haruka's eyes and in the weary pull of her lips.
"Let's go back in, Naruto. If we're lucky, Mother will be too embarrassed to bring this up again for several days."
Naruto couldn't help himself. "I thought you didn't believe in luck." He pointed out.
Haruka glanced at him from the side of her eye. "Turn of phrase." She murmured quickly. "It didn't mean anything." Naruto got to his feet quicker than Haruka could, but his aunt shook off his extended hand, using the wall of the archway to pull herself upright instead. "So!" She said brightly, "Tell me about why you want to date Sakura in twenty or thirty years."
"Haruka!" Naruto protested, trying to ignore the sound of feminine coming not just from his aunt, but from his grandmother, who had lurked in the recesses of the doorway, listening to their conversation the entire time.
Well, I decided to finish an 8K word draft I had of this chapter a few days ago. Sadly, I didn't get it done in time for the one-year anniversary of this fic, but I put in a good effort.
In the space of time between my last update and this attempt, I lost a job, bought a house, got a job, and lost the small jumpdrive which contained a nearly finished 15K chapter I'd written last November. It was the loss of Shortie which hurt the most. I'll miss him.
As it is, I'm going to try to get into the swing of writing again. So far, it's been awkward and clumsy and particularly tiring, and I've nearly been late for work twice because of this chapter.
Despite it all, I'm rather pleased with this attempt. The unofficial title of this chapter was "Chapter Amazing", as in "Amazing that I'm actually writing again"
Criticism is welcome. It's been a while since I tried getting inside of someone's mind, and I can only hope I've got it right.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you've enjoyed this!