Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto
WARNING: This chapter has not yet been betaed, but I've looked it over for mistakes myself. Depending on the feedback I get back from my beta, the chapter's contents may change a little. Still, most of it will probably be the same and you guys deserve to finally get the update I promised seeing as some of you have been waiting for it for a month. With this warning in mind it is up to you as readers to decide if you want to read the chapter now, or if you want to wait for the final, betaed version.
Village of Stone; Shopping district; The Incredible and Amazing Inu's Seal-shop; Nearly seven months after infiltrating Iwa; 18:10 local time.
Naruto sat behind the cashier in his shop as he regarded all the activity on the street outside in the waning light of the setting sun.
For the last two weeks – ever since Naruto's clone was captured and destroyed – the village of Stone had been acting like a disturbed beehive or ant-colony. Admittedly, it had been worse the first few days, but shinobi were still running around in apparent disarray as they searched the village for intruders.
All the activity from the ninja had unsettled the civilians in the village. In the belief that they were about to be invaded, small uprisings and revolts had started up with civilians as instigators. Shops had been broken into as people went into panics and the gate had been flooded by scared families as they attempted to flee the village.
The Tsuchikage had taken swift and harsh actions and by the end of the first two days, the village had settled into an uneasy illusion of normalcy. The many ninja still patrolling the streets with relish was the only hint that led credence to the fact that all was not as it should be in the village of Iwa.
Curfew had been re-set to seven in the evening.
Naruto had been largely unaffected by the whole ordeal. He'd continued his act as an oblivious, but still dedicated drunken seal-grafter. Admittedly, he was expecting a visit by a shinobi in an official capacity any day now. Most of the other stores in the street had been raided and searched at some point…
Still, Naruto wasn't at all prepared for the person visiting him when the doorbell suddenly tinkled at a quarter passed six in the evening.
A cold shiver ran down his spine at the imposing figure stepping through his door and he wildly began to rethink all his escape plans even as his body and mouth ran on autopilot.
"Chi-…Su-…Tsuli-…" He slurred in a drunken lisp as he finally gave up and settled on a much simpler "Kage-sama" as a greeting.
The imposing figure of the Tsuchikage himself stepped into his store and blotted out the light from the shop's windows. The leader of Stone curled his lips in contempt as he surveyed Naruto and everything else within his line of sight. Nothing escaped his attention and Naruto could practically read the conclusions the kage was making just by watching the burly man's face.
The Tsuchikage was surprisingly expressive when he wanted to express negative feelings.
Finally, the kage quit his survey of Naruto's store and his gaze settled heavily on Naruto's swaying form.
Naruto let one of his hands curl protectively around the nearest liquor bottle. The cold glass in his grip was surprisingly familiar and comforting. With an effort, Naruto managed to keep his breath as natural as possible – for a drunkard anyway.
Two moving shadows – barely perceptible – let Naruto know that the kage wasn't alone on his visit.
ANBU, his mind supplied instantly, Bodyguards most likely.
He dearly hoped they were bodyguards at least. He didn't know what chance he'd have if the Tsuchikage was here for any other reason than some business pertaining to seals.
The silence in the shop stretched as the kage refused to return Naruto's greeting – or even acknowledge it – and Naruto let his nervousness show faintly as his free hand started to shake.
"How can I be of service Kage-sama?" Naruto finally broke the silence with the tentative, but still respectful inquiry.
"You are the seal-grafter who goes by the name of Inu?" The kage more stated than asked even as he sniffed in revulsion as if he'd caught the scent of something fouler than an open cesspool.
Naruto nodded eagerly as tensed muscles began to relax. This was familiar territory; he was well acquainted with the disgust he got from some of his more snobby and self-righteous customers.
"Yes, yes. That's me. How may I be of service? Perhaps I can tempt you with some explosive seals? Maybe even some of my better storing seals for carrying heavier equipment? I know!" he blundered on as he turned and his free hand began to rifle through the shelves of finished seals behind him. He didn't get to finish his babbling though because of the Tsuchikage's abrupt words.
"I hear you're grafting a personalized summoning contract for my daughter…" The sentence was spoken with an open ending and Naruto froze in his movements even as he turned around to regard the imposing kage again. The Tsuchikage was after something specific.
He's fishing for some information, his mind supplied for him. The question now was why the Tsuchikage would venture to his shop himself in search for the information in stead of letting his goons – or even his daughter take care of it.
"You've heard correct my Lord," Naruto said clearly as the hand holding the bottle of liquor twitched as if to bring it up to his mouth for a swallow. The kage's sharp gaze tracked the movement though and Naruto thought better of it. Sure he was insolent enough to drink his ass off in the presence of Hari, but it was really pushing it if he drank while the kage himself paid him a visit.
With visible effort, Naruto placed the bottle back on the shop's desk as a sign that he'd give the kage his full attention. Sharp eyes again tracked and filed the movement away behind devious eyes.
"Then you obviously show some proficiency in the art of sealing," the kage answered back. "Have you done seals of that magnitude and difficulty before?" he enquired further.
Naruto shook his head, "No, my Lord Kage. I mostly graft simpler seals. Your daughter's summoning contract is my first attempt at anything of that magnitude." Naruto answered cautiously all the while wondering where the Tsuchikage was going with his line of questioning.
The Tsuchikage's sharp eyes studied Naruto intensely even as the kage spoke. "But you believe you will be successful in your attempt?" he prodded.
"Certainly Kage-sama." Naruto answered decisively. "I've never failed at anything pertaining to sealing before." As long as we don't mention strange and unexplainable side-effects such as mysteriously landing in the past, he mentally added.
The Tsuchikage seemed to consider something for a while because the silence in the shop began to stretch again as neither of them spoke out to break it.
Finally he snapped his fingers as if he'd made his decision.
Naruto jumped at the sudden sound and the sudden movement of one of the Tsuchikage's shadows.
Just as suddenly, a – kunai? – was thrown across the room from the moving shadow and to the kage.
Naruto swayed a little on his feet and had to use the desk to steady himself as his body calmed down from the sudden influx of adrenaline.
The Tsuchikage wasn't done with scaring him though and in the next moment a three-pronged kunai landed between Naruto's two hands with a heavy 'thunk' of iron hitting wood.
Naruto jumped again and landed on his ass behind the counter. He blinked innocently up at the kage as he fiercely struggled to keep any other expression from touching his face at the sight – and recognition – of the weapon and its significance. "Kage-sama?" he inquired nervously as he stumbled back to his feet again.
The Tsuchikage sneered, "Given the fact that you are attempting to graft a personalized summoning contract you must contain some intuition on how seals function." The leader of Iwa said, though the tone of his voice clearly indicated that he really doubted his own words. "Quite possibly the only reason that you haven't blown yourself up – working under the influence as you do – is because the Kami has deemed you – for some inexplicable reason known only to them – worthy enough of being gifted with the Art." The Tsuchikage's sneer widened and a cruel glint entered the intimidating man's eyes, "I want you do decipher the seal on that kunai," he commanded, "Find out what makes it work and how it works as quickly as possible."
The wheels began to spin in Naruto's mind as he regarded the kunai from a small distance, not quite willing to step too close to it while the Tsuchikage was close by.
He got an idea.
"As you wish Tsuchikage-sama," Naruto nodded politely even as the world swayed around him, "Only…" he trailed off.
Sensing that the Tsuchikage didn't have the patience to suffer through Naruto's usual acts of evasiveness and drunken behaviour, Naruto shook his head in an attempt to fight the buzz he supposedly had.
"It's just… Some of the characters that have been used on this kunai…" Naruto gestured vaguely to the seal carved into the handle of the weapon. "I've never seen their like before." He admitted.
In truth he was lying his ass off. Nearly all the characters grafted to the kunai were signs pertaining to the matter of dimension and travel. He had plenty of experience with those seals.
…Plenty, but not enough.
The Tsuchikage scowled darkly and the atmosphere in the store seemed to darken alongside the warrior's mood.
Naruto was treading dangerous waters this time. He'd have to move cautiously to get what he wanted.
The silence grew and Naruto began to feel a bit nervous again. He fidgeted and tried his best to avoid the kage's eyes. It was easier said than done and eventually he felt as if he was pierced to the wall by the man's impressive gaze.
"It has been years since Iwa had shinobi capable in the art of sealing," the Tsuchikage suddenly started out of the blue. He gaze was still locked on Naruto as he continued talking, "Konoha has been the village most prosperous with seals ever since Jiraiya of the Sannin showed aptitude for the art." The words were spoken with scorn and no little amount of jealousy and hate. "Still," the kage continued, "we did have Seal-Masters once upon a time in Iwa too and we treasured them and their knowledge."
Naruto kept his silence as the kage of Iwa spoke. If nothing else, he was interested to hear some of Iwa's history when it came to sealing. It was obvious from the way the Tsuchikage spoke that he had the outmost pride in Iwa's lost mastery in sealing.
In the end they came up with a solution to Naruto's alleged problem. He'd be allowed access to the relevant information Iwa had on sealing as long as his studies of the forbidden scrolls were carefully monitored by the Tsuchikage's own ANBU.
Naruto couldn't believe his luck.
The Tsuchikage wasn't stupid though and he set down a time-limit that Naruto had to live up to. If Naruto couldn't show any noticeable results within six months, he'd be punished severely. What that punishment would entail was left unsaid, but Naruto very much doubted he'd appreciate it.
Nonetheless, with access – though severely restricted – to some of Iwa's sealing information, Naruto's life was looking up and the fiasco with the botched infiltration attempt didn't seem to be such a big loss after all.
Village of Stone; Shopping district; The Incredible and Amazing Inu's Seal-shop; Seven months and a week after infiltrating Iwa; 18:59 local time.
Naruto turned around from the wall filled with sealing-scrolls in surprise when he heard the unmistakeable sound of the doorbell tinkling in welcome. He'd just been preparing to close the store down for the evening as curfew was set to start any minute now.
"Hari-chan," he greeted the new arrival with surprise when he recognised her lithe figure and her unmistakeable hair-colour.
He hadn't seen the Tsuchikage's daughter in a while – apparently she'd been on another border-patrol – and he was pleasantly surprised to see her again now. Jiraiya hadn't showed up for the last scheduled meeting and he'd been missing some friendly company. Dealing with the Tsuchikage and his ANBU each day was proving detrimental to his sanity. He'd never been as tense and high-strung as he'd been in the last week.
Hari threw him a weak and somewhat forced smile as she entered and locked the door behind her.
Naruto's eyebrows rose in interest as he noticed the move and her obviously strained mood. "It's nearly curfew," he cautioned as he found a chair for her to sit in. She looked exhausted and he recognised this as a time when his normal drunken spiel wouldn't be much appreciated. It wouldn't make her suspicious if he acted normally for once, she'd been subtly encouraging him to quit drinking ever since her earlier talk about his supposed bad childhood. Seeing how affected she'd acted over what she thought to be the truth, Naruto hadn't had the heart to discourage her efforts and had – just as subtly – let her believe that her efforts were working… at least to a very small degree. He still lived for scaring the life out of his customers after all.
As she sat down in the chair, Naruto moved passed her to pull down the drapes on the store's windows, effectively hindering anyone from catching a glimpse of them.
"Shouldn't you be home?" He asked then as he returned to her side.
Even if she was a shinobi – and, indeed the Tsuchikage's only child – she was required to have a pass for venturing outside passed curfew just like everyone else. If Naruto guessed correctly she didn't have a pass now.
Naruto gave the young woman a concerned look as he settled on his haunches in front of her.
"I had a fight," was the first thing she said as an answer to his obvious concern and unasked question.
Naruto's eyebrows rose again as he mulled over her words, completely nonplussed. It wasn't unusual for shinobi to end up in fights and battles, and he knew for a fact that Hari had been through some pretty tough confrontations many times already in her young life. Besides, she didn't seem wounded. Obviously – for something to upset her this much – he was missing something.
"With my father, I mean," she elaborated when she saw how confused he was at her first attempt at explaining.
"Oh," Naruto sighed as he ran an agitated hand through his hair.
Tears were beginning to sparkle in Hari's eyes and her small form was starting to shake as she gazed at him soulfully.
Mentally, Naruto began to panic. He had no ideas of how to deal with an upset female. Most of his experience with females came from his interaction with Tsunade, Sakura, the other girls from the rookie nine and the various prostitutes Jiraiya had introduced him to when he was finally considered old enough.
Naruto very much doubted he should treat Hari as an upset prostitute and the closest person he could think of that somehow related to such a situation as this was Hinata in her younger days. The shy heiress had quickly grown out of her earlier behaviour as she aged though, and besides, the most Hinata had ever done was to faint on him. She's never actually cried when he was close by.
Eventually Naruto simply decided to treat this as he would with any other upset person – be they male or female. He might not be experienced with upset females, but he had plenty of experience with upset males – strangely enough – ranging from a lovesick Kiba to an upset Konohamaru or even Obito.
"Why don't you tell me what happened?" he enquired calmly as he rested his hands comfortingly on her shoulders.
Hari hiccup-ed as she tried to get some control over her emotions.
"He's been hearing rumours about us from the shinobi…" she said softly in a broken voice.
Naruto couldn't quite keep the incredulous tone out of his voice as he squeaked; "Us?"
Hari nodded – completely missing his tone – as she smiled humourlessly. "He thinks we're involved and he really disapproves. Apparently no daughter of his is allowed to whore herself out to a no-good drunkard."
Naruto's brows furrowed in anger as his fists clenched. He was really starting to hate the leader of this village and for once it had nothing to do with the man's plans of eradicating Konoha.
"He said that?" he asked sharply, "He really called you a whore?"
Hari nodded miserably. "I tried to tell him that you were completely professional with me and that the only thing we were doing was to spend time together so that you could get to know me enough to graft that summoning contract for me." She hiccup-ed again as a tear slipped from one of her eyes. "I've told him all this before and he didn't mind then… I wonder what changed his mind…"
Naruto could make a guess, but he wasn't about to speak it out loud. Apparently, the Tsuchikage hadn't been at all impressed with Iwa's new seal-grafter. He'd certainly made his disdain and displeasure known when he came to visit Naruto's shop a week ago, but Naruto hadn't though that the Tsuchikage would take his displeasure out on his daughter.
In addition to actually meeting Inu, the Tsuchikage had probably heard the many stories of the seal-grafter's lecherous behaviour. None of this would really have endeared Naruto to the no-nonsense leader of the Stone and naturally he'd wish to keep his precious daughter away from Naruto's bad influence and all the horrendous rumours following him around like flies after rotten meat.
Despite being angry at the Tsuchikage for saying what he had, Naruto could also sympathise and understand the reasons behind the leader's actions.
Sighing Naruto grabbed Hari's hand gently and when he rose he pulled her up with him. "He's probably just trying to protect you," he said in a bad attempt to comfort her. The words tasted sour on his tongue.
"I know that," she exclaimed with a sudden angry tone, "I know that! It's just… he said… He said that he didn't want me around you anymore than necessary."
Naruto glanced sideways at the distressed woman as he began to direct them to the door leading to the upstairs.
She continued on, oblivious of their destination. "He said that when you'd completed the summoning contract, I wouldn't be allowed to come here anymore."
Naruto sighed despondently as he opened the door to his bedroom.
The room was small and modest. It had a bed in one corner and a simple desk and a chair in front of the single small window in the room. Next to the window was a small bookshelf and placed against one of the walls was a small tattered sofa. All in all the room had a cramped, but still relaxing and lived-in feel to it.
Thinking of his own mission in Iwa and all he'd done and would eventually do, Naruto couldn't say that he was too dismayed with the Tsuchikage's orders. If she'd be banned from visiting him after he'd finished the contract then he wouldn't have to think too much about her reactions if she ever found out that he was a spy.
Still, the girl had given him a whole lot to think about.
Steering Hari over to his bed, he settled her carefully on the covers as he moved over to the desk to light a small oil-lamp. "You can crash here tonight," he said as he carried the lamp over to the small wooden ledge serving as a nightstand that stuck out of the wall next to the bed. Shadows were creeping into the room and Naruto could see small snowflakes start to fall outside the small window. Winter was upon them at last. "Curfew's up so you can't go home tonight. I still have some work to do downstairs, but I'll sleep on the couch tonight. You should probably try to get some sleep. Maybe things will look brighter in the light of the morning." Turning to leave the room, Naruto made a small detour to grab the half-full bottle of sake that had been placed and forgotten on the desk some days ago.
Hari watched him leave with hooded eyes.
When Naruto made it downstairs and into the workroom he immediately set about examining the three-pronged kunai he'd received from the Tsuchikage a week earlier. He needed something to take his mind off the mess with Hari and in addition to that he was genuinely interested in figuring out exactly how the Hiraishin functioned anyway. Not that he'd ever release any of the information he found out to the Tsuchikage. Ever.
For better or for worse, Naruto suspected his stay at the village of Stone was rapidly coming to an end.
Leaning over the kunai he was studying, Naruto again went over what he knew about the seal. It was a mix between dimensional seals and a blood contract of some sort. It enabled the user to somehow instantly teleport to wherever the seal was located as long as the seal had been charged with enough chakra. A charged seal could be used to teleport once and after that it had to be recharged before it could be used again.
What Naruto hadn't figured out was how the future Yondaime could activate the seal from a distance, or even how the user would know how to activate what seal. Minato operated with more than one special-kunai when he was in the field and Naruto had never quite figured out how the blonde jounin managed to determine and activate one specific seal.
With some experimentation, Naruto had quickly come to realise that Minato was probably the only being alive that would be able to activate and use the seals he'd created. He'd tried to recharge the seal on the kunai with his own chakra-enhanced blood, but besides a strange, nearly nonexistent tug in the back of his mind, nothing had happened. All in all, Naruto figured this was a good thing because it meant that the enemy couldn't use Minato's invention against Konoha if they ever – as Iwa obviously had done – got their hands on one of the used kunai.
Picking up a discarded pen, Naruto pulled the seal closer to the lamp he'd lighted on the desk and with meticulous patience he began to pick the seal apart, one character after another.
Time flew by and as it passed Naruto spent more and more time under the suspicious eyes of the Tsuchikage's ANBU in a secure room they'd found for him where he could safely read and study Iwa's scrolls on sealing.
His time spent with Hari had also increased and it seemed to him that the young woman was determined to spend as much time as possible with him before she was forced to never see him again. Naruto wondered privately to himself if she ever realized that she was just speeding up the inevitable seeing as he now got to know her at a much faster pace than before.
Outside winter raged in full and the war had been forced to be put on hold on account of terrible snowstorms raging along the borders. This had proved to be both a blessing and a curse.
According to Jiraiya and – surprisingly – Hari, some of the more inexperienced troops had been killed in the storms. These troops were mostly cannon-fodder of lowly ranked shinobi or mercenaries and samurai so they were no great loss. Still, with the way the war had been going no village or country could afford to loose too many people no matter how inexperienced or incompetent they were. As such nearly all the countries were a bit relieved about the sudden storms because they gave all of their warriors a much needed break.
Naruto took the information in stride. As time went by and the weather got worse he began to experience a feeling of isolation far surpassing anything he'd felt in the first two months he'd been in the village and eventually he'd taken Jiraiya's advice and he'd begun to remind himself every day and every night that he was in enemy territory and in no circumstances was he allowed to ever forget that.
His feelings of being isolated didn't get any better when Jiraiya eventually confided to him – in the ninth month he'd been in Iwa – that he wouldn't be visiting him regularly anymore. He was informed that if anything came up, he was to use the seal-pendant he'd received from the man months earlier. Hiding his rising desperation Naruto had agreed without an argument, but as a result he'd immersed himself even more in the world of seals and its possibilities.
When everything else became too much to handle he chose to block it out by working his ass off. Each night he went to bed exhausted and some nights he didn't even bother to go to sleep for fear of nightmares featuring possible terrible outcomes of the war. As a result he created a whole bunch of new seal-designs as he waited for the snow to thaw and for spring to set in.
Hari was probably the only one to notice his dour mood, but she mistakenly thought it was because of her news to him that she wouldn't be able to see him anymore once he'd finished the contract she'd conned out of him. This was probably also one of the reasons of why she decided to spend more time with him.
Naruto dearly wished she wouldn't – truly – as it made it harder and harder for him to remember that she was the enemy. Other times, he quite fearfully realized that he loved her for the dedication and loyalty she showed him.
It was hard to keep a light mood up when he had so many conflicting emotions and interests warring for his attention.
Still, he did what he was best at and forced himself to endure.
It was as the twelfth month of his stay in Iwa came around that the situation he found himself in reached a boiling point.
He had a month left to show his results of his research on the three-pronged kunai-seal to the Tsuchikage and he knew that his time in Iwa was expiring by the day.
The fact that he was finally ready to attempt to create Hari's personalised summoning contract was eventually the straw that broke the camel's back, so to speak…
Village of Stone; Shopping district; The Incredible and Amazing Inu's Seal-shop; Twelve months after infiltrating Iwa; 18:00 local time
Just as Naruto moved to close the doors of his shop for the night a now very familiar lithe figure opened the door to glide nearly soundlessly inside.
Naruto recognised Hari immediately and couldn't keep the pleased smile off his face as he greeted her jovially with a familiar bottle in one hand.
As had become a habit for her, Hari twisted the lock on the door before she went to the windows to pull down the blinds.
"Inu-kun," she greeted happily back as she finally turned to pull him into a fierce, but brief hug.
Naruto let her, as he regarded her with fondness he knew he shouldn't have. She'd obviously run to reach his store before curfew set in and as a result her cheeks were flushed pleasantly with a rosy colour.
"Have a nice day?" he enquired amusedly as he led her up to the second floor and into the kitchen where he offered her something to drink. She accepted some juice happily as she threw herself down on one of the wobbly chairs by the kitchen table.
"Yes!" she answered excitedly as she gesticulated wildly with her hands. The juice in the glass she held sloshed dangerously close to being spilled over.
Naruto continued to smile indulgently at her as he took a seat across from her. Inside though, his feelings were warring as never before. He was ready to attempt to contact her summons in the astral-realm. After that it would be easy to finalise and graft the personalised contract she wanted. Doing this though would result in the end of the friendship they had and Naruto didn't really know what he'd do with himself after that.
In the time after Jiraiya had stopped visiting, Naruto had found himself more and more dependant on Hari and whatever relationship they had together. He knew that this was really detrimental to his loyalty to Konoha, but he couldn't help but need some form of friendship and company while he was isolated away from everything else he knew.
Oblivious to Naruto's thoughts, Hari smiled wider as she leaned across the table towards Naruto. "I've been elected to try for a jounin test," she finally confided as her eyes sparkled in excitement, "I've wanted to try for years, but father has always denied my attempts. If I pass I have to work in the field a couple of years, but after that I can try out for a genin-team." Smiling even wider, Hari took a sip from her glass. "I've always wanted to teach genin, or maybe I'll try for a specialized education as a personal instructor, or maybe I'll study up on the old stories and traditions and become an Elder. Maybe I'll get to boss father around then. There are so many opportunities as a jounin."
Naruto smiled for her as he collected her empty juice glass.
"You want a refill?" he asked.
She shook her head 'no' and Naruto put the empty glass in the sink to be cleaned later.
"I bet a Personalised Summons would be pretty impressive to show to the proctors when you try out on the test," Naruto said neutrally as he leaned on the sink to inconspicuously keep his back to her. He didn't really want to see how she'd react to that because he wasn't entirely sure she'd be sad at the information he'd implied to her. He selfishly wanted her to be sad.
The silence that greeted him at his words was impossible to interpret though and he was forced to wait for what seemed an eternity before Hari finally said anything.
"You're ready to attempt to make the contract?" she finally asked, her voice curiously empty of inflection.
Naruto finally tuned around to regard her and he immediately saw that at least she wasn't exactly jumping for joy at the thought. In fact, she seemed rather despondent herself.
Nodding Naruto pulled a bottle of sake and two small dishes from one of the cupboards, then he went over to take his seat across from her again. Pouring them both some of the alcoholic liquid, he passed one over to her as he drank his own fill down in one swallow.
Hari drew her brows together in a frown as she fiddled with the drink she'd received.
The silence in the room stretched before she finally broke it with a whispered sentence, "I don't want you to complete it."
Naruto did a double take as he regarded her closely. "You don't mean that," he finally said.
"Yes I do!" she was definitely angry now as he rose from her seat to tower over him. "I don't care about that stupid contract. I care about you!"
Crap. To Naruto this was the worst thing she could ever have said and even as he subconsciously cheered at her admission, he felt his mood plummet as he thought of all the implications of her statement.
Not even bothering with the sake-dish, Naruto grabbed the whole bottle to chug it as he desperately wished for the ability to get sloshed if only this once.
"You don't meant that," he finally said silently when he eventually placed the empty bottle back on the table. He knew that she had meant it, he knew her well enough after a year to know that she'd never lie about something like that to him, and still, it would all have been for the best if she'd lied.
Hari stopped her tirade to focus on him fully when she registered his words. Without saying anything in reply she sat back down in her chair to scrutinize him intently. Uncomfortable with her intense gaze, Naruto looked away from her.
"There's something you're not telling me." She said finally after an eternity of silence.
Naruto continued to avoid her gaze, throughoutly uncomfortable with where she was going with the conversation.
Sighing heavily, Hari finally seemed to make a decision.
Naruto held his breath.
Then, suddenly and totally unexpected she lunged over the table to land on him, pushing both him and the chair he sat on to the floor.
Naruto's instincts warred and he was a second from attacking her out of sheer instinct when the feeling of warm, soft lips on his own stopped him as effectively as if he'd run into a wall.
Hari broke the kiss with an audible sound as he rose herself up in order to be able to straddle him comfortably. "I don't care," she said eventually as she began to finger the shirt Naruto was wearing.
Heat began to course through Naruto as he watched Hari warily. Mentally his inner voice was screaming at him. He couldn't let this happen. He absolutely could not let this happen.
Hari kissed him again, this time with a lot more aggression and passion as she bit his lip to startle him into letting her tongue into his mouth. Heat coursed through him and mental protests died away as he began to reciprocate.
"I don't care," she kept repeating between her kissed as the heat in the room seemed to double. Her voice had the effect of pulling him out of his daze though and as the logical part of his mind fought for control, he restrained her hands carefully as they both panted in an attempt to catch their breaths.
"Don't," Naruto begged desperately as he fought for a reason of why this was such a bad idea. He was sure that there was one. Heck, he was sure that there were many, but with the heat of her body burning him from above and with the willing and desperate glint in her eyes, he wasn't sure that her reasoning was perhaps better than his own at the moment. "Please don't," he still begged again in a last attempt to change her mind.
I don't want to hurt you. He implored. I don't want you to think badly of me when you realise that all I am to you is a lie. I don't want to betray you, but I don't want to betray my village either. He tried to reason with her, tried to project his thoughts to her to let her know why they shouldn't do this. He tried to let her know that nothing good could ever come from it. I care for you, I really do, but I've known you for a year and I've known my home for twenty years. He tried to excuse himself and his actions towards her, but she couldn't understand the language he was speaking.
Or maybe she could.
"I don't care," she said yet again as her breath left her in a pant. "If nothing else, give me this," she begged in return, "I don't care about your secrets or my father's orders or anything but you…" Taking a deep breath as she went in for another heated kiss, she whispered desperately, "If you can give me nothing else, at least give me this…"
As her lips descended and she made contact again, Naruto wasn't really sure at all anymore of whom she was talking to or what she was talking about. As she began to fumble with his pants, Naruto decided that he didn't really care at all either and he finally let go of any and all of his doubts and misgivings.
Sensation took over and a fire of epic proportions began to roar through him as night fell and settled.
At some point during the night, they managed to relocate to the bedroom.
02:05 local time
Naruto cast a glance at the sleeping form lying in his bed before he silently slipped out of the bedroom. He scaled the stairs down to his shop without making a sound and then he entered his workroom.
His mind was curiously empty as he walked around and prepared for what he was about to do. Somehow this night seemed as if it had been inevitable and he'd just never realised it before now. He felt numb.
Lighting a couple of scented candles – to help him keep calm and centred – Naruto picked out a corner of the room padded by a couple of blankets and some pillows. He then settled himself in a comfortable position on the floor. He'd been meditating regularly ever since he arrived in the past – and even before that – so he was pretty used to finding relaxing positions to sit in.
Taking a deep breath he quickly centred himself.
The world fell away around him.
Before his inner eye long stretching corridors appeared and he suddenly found himself standing in the familiar, damp halls of his mindscape.
In order to reach the astral-realm he'd have to open up a path in his mind and keep it partially opened so that he was connected to his own mind while he ventured into the borderland of all dimensions and realities.
This was both very difficult and extremely risky as the opening to his own mind could be exploited by other spirits and minds wandering the astral-realm. If another Will entered and managed to take control of his mind and body while his own will was travelling in the astral-realm, he'd be what was popularly referred to as being possessed.
The possessing will could close the opening to the astral-realm effectively cutting off his link to his own mind and body and he'd be lost in the borders of all possibilities…Probably forever too.
This was the reason that very few people ever actually attempted to access the astral-realm. The risk was normally too great unless you had – as Jiraiya had advised – a supernatural guardian to guard the gate to your mind.
If you were really creative though, you wouldn't need a supernatural guardian.
Naruto planned on being creative.
Walking along the corridors of his mind, Naruto set out for the room where Kyubi's prison had once been.
As he travelled the halls of his mind he walked passed a whole lot of doors. Some of which were open and some of which were closed. They came in different colours and designs. Most were made of plain wood, but some were iron and some even glass.
Each door contained a specific memory that was vital to Naruto's personality and how he perceived himself.
He'd never had the courage to explore all of them, though he'd been forced by Jiraiya ages ago to at least check out a few. Apparently it was vital for a person to know himself if he wanted to be well-balanced.
Naruto didn't hesitate at all to enter the door leading to Kyubi's Room as he'd taken to calling it.
Once he entered it didn't take him long to realise that almost nothing had changed with the mess that symbolized his chakra-coils. They were still twining around each other in disarray and chaos, though admittedly some progress seemed to have been made.
The ball of glowing chakra-coils had lessened marginally in the year and the months he'd been in the past, and in some placed the coils had thinned out for him to barely perceive something at the centre of the coils.
Shrugging it off for the moment, Naruto closed the door behind him so that he was locked into the room with the massive ball of choked-up chakra-coils. The seals on the floor glowed fiercely as they worked to filter, contain and distribute the chakra in the room.
Naruto stepped carefully around the room to inspect it – the trip took a lot less of time than it should, but then again time was irrelevant in the mind – before he ended up where he started. Deeming himself to be ready and the room to be as perfect as it could get, Naruto began to channel, not chakra, but memories.
In order to steer possible hijacking Wills away from his mind, Naruto had to make his mind as inhospitable and repulsive as possible for any wandering spirits that may come across the door he'd open to the astral-realm.
Wandering – or lost – spirits would be eager to escape from the astral-realm so they'd be willing to inhabit nearly anything they came across. The only thing that would possibly discourage them from entering his mind would be what any spirit feared the most.
Insanity would effectively take a hold of any spirit attempting to possess him and as a result they'd cease to exist. It was a conundrum to any of the people researching astral-planes and supernatural spirits, but it was a well-established fact that spirits inhabiting a body that was originally not their own would cease to exist if the host was insane.
No-one had managed to find a reason for it. It simply was.
Seeing as Naruto wasn't actually insane – though most if not all of his friends would argue that he was – he'd have to artificially construct this room of his mind to make it seem as if he was. It was important that the door to the room stayed closed during the entire process or the memories he'd mix together could very well seep through to the rest of his mind and actually make him insane.
It was all very risky.
The memories Naruto was calling to the room arrived a lot easier than he'd ever expected them to. Though he'd chosen this specific room because it would be used to the feel he was going for.
Kyubi hadn't exactly been a bundle of happiness and fun, and Naruto used the memories he had of the fox's presence to bind other selected memories together in one chaotic mixture.
The room he was in acquired a faint red light and Naruto was surprised to realise that the light was coming from the centre of the ball of chakra-coils and the now red-glowing seal-characters covering the floor of the room.
Figuring that the reason behind it was because of all the conflicting memories he was assembling into one room, Naruto ignored it as he began to tie anger together with happiness, confusion with stability and elation, love with hate and agony with ecstasy.
Conflicting memories were tied together in a long stream of chaotic flashes of things he'd experienced in his life, and through it all, he laid the foundation with the endless rage and unbound hate that he remembered from his meetings with the fox-demon that had once occupied the very room he was standing in.
Once done Naruto forcefully – and painfully – jarred his mind's perceptions of reality as a door appeared out of nowhere in front of him.
The door seemed like it was made out of grey fog and it wavered and flickered in and out of his view as he regarded it critically.
Jiraiya had never actually done anything but walk him through the steps of how to theoretically enter the astral-realm and as a result Naruto barely had anything to rely on, on how to accomplish what he had set out to do.
Throwing all caution to the wind Naruto stepped forwards to open the door.
The first thing he noticed was that there was nothing substantial in the border-realm. Everything was grey though the distance flickered with pale blue lights. There was no ground to stand on, no sky to see and no sense of forwards, backwards, up or down.
Taking a deep breath Naruto stepped through the door, but he was careful to not close it behind him.
As soon as he'd taken the step he was somewhere else entirely, though how he could tell that, he hadn't the faintest idea. Everything still looked the same, but for the fact that there no longer appeared to be an open door behind him.
Squashing any feelings of doubt or panic that threatened to appear, Naruto focused on the goal of this little venture.
Find a Summons for Hari.
Focusing on the thought of Summons and everything they entailed, Naruto took another step in a random direction. In the astral-realm directions and distances didn't matter at all. All that mattered was the will of the traveller.
He moved again and this time the world moved with him. Some of the many infinite lights in the distance seemed to rush towards him as he focused his will on what he knew of Summons. Suddenly he was surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands of pale doors stretching out in the distance. It was far more than a little bit disconcerting as the doors even seemed to surround him from above and below.
None of the doors that had appeared were open.
As he stood silently and still, he carefully studied them and as his eyes focused on each of the doors, the strange fog they were made of seemed to move and very soon, forms resembling different faces appeared to stare at him from the surfaces of the doors.
There were forms and faces of all kinds ranging from different birds to exotic species' he'd never seen before in his life. What really caught his eyes though were two specific doors where the fog forming the faces on the doors' surface seemed to be coloured. It gave the doors an overall more alive feeling and as Naruto took a step closer to examine them, all of the other doors disappeared again in the far off distance.
The doors with the forms of a toad and a fox were left behind.
Stepping closer still, Naruto reached his hand out towards the door he felt the most familiar with. Before he could touch the surface though, the toad-face on the door went from a foggy consistency to a more substantial form within the blink of an eye.
Startled, Naruto drew back again.
The toad-face blinked a couple of times before it finally focused in on the astral-form of the human in front of it. "Who's knocking?" it asked and Naruto wasn't quite sure that the insane memories he'd left behind in Kyubi's Room hadn't begun to leak out to the rest of his mind.
"Uh.." he stuttered and trailed off before he could even begin to think of anything to say.
It didn't seem to matter though as the face began to speak again, totally disregarding anything he could've thought of to say.
"Hey… don't I know you? You look awfully familiar…"
Naruto blinked again, "Eh…" he tried again, "I'm-"
Before he could say anything else though he was interrupted quickly, "No, no!" the toad-face admonished, "No names! Wait there, I'll come on through."
Seconds later the door opened and a toad reaching to Naruto's waist came jumping through. As the toad stopped and the door closed behind it, it craned its neck to look up at Naruto and Naruto politely sat down to accommodate the toad's height.
"You've never been in the astral-realm before, have you?" the toad asked, but Naruto sensed that it was only a rhetorical question. He still shook his head 'no' though.
The toad nodded, "Just as I thought. The first thing you should know is to never speak your name aloud while you're in this realm. If you do, you'll make it ridiculously easy for any possible enemies that overhear you to find your mind later on.
"You're a Grand-Toad-Summoner," the toad continued, effortlessly changing topics as he began to study Naruto critically.
Naruto nodded dumbly as he tried to assimilate the new information the toad had imparted on him. Jiraiya had never mentioned anything about the risks of uttering his name while in the astral-realm.
"I can see the contract in your aura and now that I think about it the Boss and his youngest have been talking a lot about you," the toad continued to talk, quite oblivious to Naruto's distracted thoughts. "You have other contracts too," the toad continued as it scrutinized Naruto's form closely.
At that Naruto quickly snapped his attention back to the toad's words. "Say what?" he asked apprehensively.
"Oh, you didn't know?" the toad continued, completely nonplussed. Seeing the question Naruto obviously wanted to ask practically painted on the human's face, the creature went on, "And sorry, I can tell you anything more about it if you don't know. All creatures existing outside the mortals' concepts of time and dimension have special rules governing their existence."
Weighing Naruto with a heavy gaze, the toad smirked at him. "This way, I can tell you that you've travelled back in you own time since you obviously know that yourself, but I can't tell you any of the consequences that your little trip might have."
Naruto regarded the toad somewhat disbelievingly as he asked with a neutral voice; "But you know the consequences?"
"Oh, yes," the toad snickered, "All possible choices made by every mortal soul is known to us summons. It doesn't change the fact that we are physically unable to impart the knowledge to you two-legged."
Sighing Naruto drew a hand through his metaphysical hair. "What can you tell me then?" he asked in exasperation.
The toad seemed to cock its head as it regarded Naruto seriously. "I'll be your spirit-guide while you travel the astral-realm," it finally decided. "From what I've seen and heard of you, you need all the help you can get."
And if that didn't send ominous chills down Naruto's metaphysical back, then he didn't know of anything that would.
"Now," the toad began, "what are you looking for in the border-realm? I don't think you intended to knock on the door to the realm of the Toad Summons."
"No, I'm looking for a Summons that will accept a specialized contract." Naruto answered.
"Hmm…" the toad thought it over before it began to speak again. "As you should know, the power of your will is all that matters in this realm. Considering how stubborn you are you should have no problem navigating the astral-realm once you know enough about how it functions.
"In order to find a Specialized Summons it's not enough for you to simply focus on what you know about summoned creatures." The toad explained, "You'll also have to focus on all that you know about the personality of the one who will receive the contract."
Nodding Naruto thought that the toad was talking a lot of sense, "I'll try that then," he said.
Bringing to mind all he knew about Hari, Naruto began to focus on all the things that personalized her. She was aggressive, bold, passionate and at times cunning. She valued to be in control and she was good at keeping a level head. She had en earth affinity and she was persistent when she had a goal. In addition she loved to learn and teach about the old stories and legends of the past.
With all that in mind, he began to focus on what he knew about summons too. Before he took a step, he gave the toad a glance. "Will you be able to follow me?" he asked somewhat nervously.
The toad nodded, "Don't worry, I know your aura now, so I'll follow that" it said.
Naruto took a step.
A single light in the far off distance sped towards him and a door was standing in front of him not a second later.
"Looks like the door to the Badger-realm," the toad's voice said from the space next to Naruto.
Slightly startled – Naruto hadn't noticed the toad's arrival – he still managed to keep his cool and focus on deciphering the form on the smoky door's surface. It did indeed resemble that of a badger.
"Huh!" Naruto said, completely nonplussed.
"Well, go on!" the toad waved him on with a webbed foot, "Knock on the door."
Reaching out with his hand to touch the door's surface – as he'd done earlier to the toad's door – Naruto wasn't too surprised when the form on the door came to life even before he'd managed to touch it.
"What is it now?" the badger face on the door snarled in obvious irritation.
Startled and somewhat put out by the summons' tone, Naruto quickly drew his hand away from the door again. He wasn't quite sure if the badger-face could bite him, but considering the temper he could sense from the creature – and the incredible sharp teeth the thing sported – he wasn't about to take any chances.
"Well, what is it?" the badger asked with a no-nonsense tone, "Get on with it!"
Pulling his scattered thoughts together Naruto told the badger about the personalized contract he was grafting. Quite contrary to how Naruto guessed the creature would react, the badger actually seemed proud that a lowly human had finally recognized the greatness of the Badger Summons.
A short moment later, the door had opened and a badger reaching just a bit taller than the toad entered into the border-realm.
The toad explained to Naruto that the badger would follow Naruto back to his mind in order for it to view every memory and feeling Naruto had concerning Hari. If it approved, it would impart Naruto with the Focus Character of the Badgers that would be needed in order for Naruto to graft the personalized contract.
Focus Characters were essentially keys in order to make and open the bond between the Summoner and the Summons. Once Naruto got to know this character he was bound – by some sort of spiritual mumbo-jumbo that he didn't understand – from ever teaching or using the character again without the approval of the Summons he'd received it from.
Once Naruto was done dealing with the Summons he'd brought into his mind, the creature would leave, and no, he didn't have to worry about the Summons ever again entering his mind without express permission. That too was governed by some sort of spiritual bond enforced by… something, most likely the Kami themselves.
After explaining all that, the toad took his leave.
Naruto was left alone again in the astral-realm except for the vicious badger that was grinning infuriatingly at him. "So," the badger drawled, "which way?"
As Naruto focused his will on his own name and mind, the half-open door appeared in front of them both in a spark of light resembling the arrival of a shooting star. The badger by Naruto's side turned to regard him with an inscrutable look.
"You probably don't know this since I doubt that spineless toad would've told you, but normally it would be close to suicidal for a mortal spirit to travel the astral-realm without always – and I do mean always – having a spirit-guide by your side. The possibility of having your mind and body hijacked by a wandering spirit isn't the only danger with this realm. It's not even the greatest," the badger said in a serious tone.
"Oh?" Naruto blinked.
Shaking its head in exasperation at the foolishness of this particular mortal, the badger flashed its fangs.
"A regular mortal spirit actually stands a greater risk of being eaten and devoured by one of the hostile spirits wandering between the dimensions. They'd use the temporary energy they'd receive from absorbing your spirit to temporarily access one of dimensions that are normally closed to them. That or they'd simply use the energy to achieve a higher spiritual mass, thus giving them more permanent power if they're ever summoned to your mortal realm." The badger smirked wolfishly as it fixed sharp eyes on Naruto. "The tailed beasts used to spend a lot of time travelling the astral-realm looking for hapless prey. That was back when astral-travelling was used regularly by you mortals."
Catching on to something the badger had implied, Naruto raised an interested eyebrow. "A regular mortal?" he enquired.
The way the badger had said it, it seemed as if it didn't really consider Naruto to apply to the scenario it had previously talked about when it came to being possible prey for nefarious spirits.
The badger flashed its fangs again in mirthless humour. "Not as foolish as you look then," it said. Gesturing to the door before Naruto could say anything in reply the badger stalled him, "Not here!" It admonished sharply, "Let us enter your mind first where everyone and their aunts might not be listening in on us…"
Not at all comfortable with what the badger had implied by its last words, Naruto quickly stepped through the open door. With the summons following him in Naruto was quick to close the door behind them both. As soon as he did, the door winked out of existence.
Turning back to address the badger, Naruto found the creature as it was studying the insane mixture of memories Naruto had left to guard the room.
Realizing that the supernatural being might be more than a little bit uncomfortable with the aura of Kyubi's Room, Naruto was quick to mentally grab a hold of the memories he'd woven into the mix that featured the Kyubi. With a quick mental pull, the Kyubi-memories gave way and all the other memories were loosened from the mix to return back to their original rooms…At least as soon as Naruto got around to opening the door to let them out.
The heavy, insane feeling of the room evaporated within seconds and the ball of chakra-coils and the seals covering the floor instantly returned to their neutrally coloured glow as the red glow they'd previously had vanished.
The badger took a cautious look around before it turned to give Naruto an inscrutable look. "Impressive," was all it said.
Naruto opened his mouth to enquire further about what they'd been talking about before they'd entered his mind, but the badger began to talk again, beating him to it.
"That is the reason of why you probably won't have to worry about having your spirit eaten while you travel around unescorted in the border-realm," the badger said as it indicated the enormous glowing ball of chaotic chakra-coils.
Naruto blinked, completely nonplussed. "What? My chakra-potential?" he asked incredulously, "I can't even use all that power properly yet," he said in open exasperation.
"Not the chakra-coils, you two-legged buffoon," the badger rebuffed him, "I'm talking about the core hidden under that awful mess!" it exclaimed in irritation.
Naruto blinked. What core?
Easily reading Naruto's obviously oblivious expression, the badger sneered spitefully. "Do you mean to tell me that you haven't even realized what you did to the Nine-Tailed-Demon-Lord when the seal you made was overtaxed?" the badger hissed angrily.
Naruto blinked again. The Kyubi? I thought he'd been destroyed. Isn't this chakra-ball all that's left of him and his power? He voiced his thoughts aloud to the badger.
"You need a lesson in Demonology," the badger complained, "Ignorant two-legged half-wit!"
Deciding to ignore the ill-tempered badger's words and attitude – Naruto didn't want to anger the creature enough that it'd refuse to accept a contract with Hari – Naruto instead focused on the matter at hand.
"Give me a lesson, then," he implored the badger.
Sneering again the badger growled out a foul curse before it again gestured at the glowing ball of chakra-coils in the centre of the room. "All that chakra you have there and all those chakra coils are indeed all that is left of the Demon-Lord's chakra. It's not even his anymore seeing as the seal you created has converted the chakra to be your own already. The only reason that the chakra is trapped in that mighty mess is because the seal you grafted is doing its job. It's releasing the chakra into your system at a safe rate so that the humongous amount of chakra doesn't burn your silly little soul out of existence within the blink of an eye."
Naruto grimaced at the vivid vision his imagination conjured up at the explanation he was hearing from the summons.
"Still," the badger continued, "even though the Demon-Lord might've lost its chakra, it isn't completely gone, and I'm not saying that because the Nine-Tails of this time-period still exists."
Does everyone know about my time-travel-fiasco? Naruto wondered exasperatedly when the badger's words finally registered completely. As a result Naruto's eyes widened in horror and disbelief. "What?"
He had thought that the Kyubi would cease to exist if it lost all its chakra. That had been the theory of the Yondaime, the Sandaime and later even the Godaime. Heck! That had been the whole point with the seal the Yondaime had created to once and for all capture, contain and destroy the horrible beast.
Giving Naruto a look foul enough to stop a lion in its tracks, the badger wordlessly ordered Naruto to keep silent and listen.
"A demon isn't made up of only chakra, you silly little human. No spirit is, weather it be a human, a demon, a summons or a ghost," it explained. "Did you perhaps have any chakra while you were wandering around in the astral-realm?" the badger asked. It obviously didn't expect Naruto to answer as it continued on instantly. "No, of course you didn't. In the border-realm you were the substance of your will and consciousness cloaked in the form of a human because that is what you perceive yourself to be.
"What remains of the great Demon-Lord once all its chakra has been removed can be found at the centre of that huge ball of chakra and coils." The badger smirked mirthlessly as it threw Naruto a piercing look. "You, my silly little bi-legged mortal, have the dubious honour of housing the insanely hateful and angry will of the now no-longer Nine-Tailed-Demon-Lord within your puny little mortal body." A fanged grin escaped the vicious maw of the badger. "Now, don't you feel lucky?"
The walls of the room they were in actually trembled as the terror Naruto suddenly felt began to wreak havoc on his mind.
What if the Kyubi possessed him? What if it got free now that the Yondaime's seal no longer existed to contain it? What if…?!
"Calm yourself, mortal!" the badger reprimanded him as the room began to take on a sickly red glow. Naruto was horrified to realise that the glow once again emanated from the centre of the huge ball of chakra-coils. Nearly instantly, the seals surrounding and binding the coils took on the same blood-red glow.
Having a very vague idea of what was happening; Naruto took a deep breath as he exerted an inhumane effort at containing and reducing his own fear and terror.
The red glow reseeded and the room slowly stopped shaking.
Apparently understanding the source of Naruto's fear, the badger deigned to actually attempt to comfort him. "What you need to understand above all is that this is your mind. Your will is naturally stronger here than the Demon-Lord's could ever really be and you are the one with the power and the chakra. What just happened now, the red glow; that was the Demon-Lord exerting its will on your chakra and mind while you were too distracted to have proper control yourself. Had the Demon-Lord been in full possession of its former chakra, you'd have a lot more to worry about. I suspect your will wouldn't have matter squat to it then."
"Could… could Kyubi ever manage to fully possess me? Now, I mean?" Naruto asked in a weak voice.
Throwing Naruto an incredulous look the badger gave the answer as if it was obvious.
Naruto felt like panicking again.
"…But only if you actually gave it permission," the Badger continued. "That is to say if you directly and actively give him the permission by reducing your will over it, or if you indirectly give him the permission by being too preoccupied to exert the stronger amount of will over the Demon-Lord's.
"Kind of like what you just did a moment ago," the badger added cheerfully.
"Oh, Kami!" Naruto moaned in both exasperation and as a prayer.
"What about when I'm travelling in the astral-realm?" Naruto asked, "Will the Kyubi be able to possess me while my own will and consciousness is out of my mind?"
"No" the badger summons answered immediately, "and no, I cannot tell you why it is so."
Naruto regarded the badger sceptically. "Cannot because you don't know, or because-"
"I cannot." The badger repeated.
"Look on the bright side," the badger added with vicious cheerfulness. "What I was trying to say from the beginning of this conversation was that no spirit would be insane or suicidal enough to actually devour the spirit and will that imprisons all the anger and hate of the Great-Demon-Lord. I suspect not even the Kami would be willing to release the Lord's will into freedom again any time soon."
08:53 local time
Naruto stepped out of the workroom. The light of the morning had long since begun to stream through the windows of the shop.
He was tired beyond belief and incredibly weary. He very much doubted that he'd be able to do much this day. Even sleep seemed beyond him.
The discoveries he'd made during the night's venture into the astral-plane churned through him and his mind was both exhausted and chaotic.
Distantly he wondered how stable his sanity actually was at this moment in time.
As he ascended the stairs and entered his bedroom his eyes caught the lithe figure that embodied yet another reason of why his sanity was hanging from a very thin thread.
Sleepy silver-grey eyes blinked up at him as he closed the door behind him.
Somehow, the silence in the room unsettled him. The figure of Hari's sleep-ruffled form was too serene and Naruto couldn't help but feel that he'd just entered the period of calm before the storm.
"Hari-chan," he greeted her silently, at a loss of anything to say to her.
Memories of the night they'd spent together suddenly awoke in his mind and even if he could now remember all the very good reasons of why they shouldn't have done what they did, he still couldn't quite bring himself to care, or even regret their actions.
"Inu-kun," she greeted him, just as silently and Naruto mentally cursed the fact that she was calling him by the name of a lie.
Hari, completely oblivious to his rattled mind, let her eyes glide over him slowly. They came to rest on the rolled-up scroll Naruto clutched in his right hand. His knuckles were white with the pressure he exerted on his grip.
"Oh…" was all she managed to say.
Naruto grunted to clear his suddenly clogged-up throat. "I… I need your blood in order to finalise the contract," he said. "You'll also have to learn the hand-seal sequence to activate it…" he trailed off.
The moments that passed were infinite and dreamlike. Nothing seemed to matter much anymore.
Once Naruto had let the badger see all his memories and impressions of Hari, the creature hadn't hesitated a second before it had accepted her as a worthy summoner. It had taken Naruto the rest of the night and hours into the morning to design and finally graft the contract to perfection. Now Hari only had to sign her name on the contract with her chakra-enhanced blood and after that, it would be ready for use.
Despite the peculiar temperament of the badger that Naruto had met and spoken to, Naruto thought the Badger Summons to somehow fit her personality perfectly.
The process of getting Hari to sign the contract was finalised in a couple of minutes and after teaching her the hand-seals and the full process of activating the contract-scroll, they both sat together in silence for a while.
Finally Hari broke the silence as she was wont to do when she'd thought through a specific situation or problem for a while.
"I won't ever see you again after this, will I?" she asked silently, her head bowed and her eyes fixed on the stained kitchen table.
They'd relocated to the kitchen in order to have better light while she signed the contract.
Naruto sighed heavily as he gazed out the kitchen window. "Maybe… but most likely not," he answered noncommittally. After all, who knew what the future would bring? Except infuriating Summons unable to speak of it that is…
The street below was bustling with activity. Spring had started a little over two months ago and life seemed to have gotten back to its busy tracks.
"This is more final than us never meeting each other again because of father's orders, isn't it?" she tried again.
Naruto glanced briefly at her but otherwise didn't answer.
Hari pursed her lips. "I see," she said, and she probably did see. After a year she was nearly as good at reading Naruto as he was at reading her and that was while he'd spend the entire year here acting as a person with a slightly different personality than his own.
"I know I said I didn't care…" she started again "…last night I mean, but… could you answer me a question truthfully just once?"
Naruto finally turned away from the window to focus all of his attention on her. "That depends on the question," he said.
Hari's hands fisted angrily where she had them clenched on the table, but otherwise she didn't do anything else. "Do you really care for me?" she asked then and just a little bit of desperation seeped into her voice, "and maybe… do you maybe even love me, or was that a lie too?"
Feeling himself tearing up Naruto fought the sting in his eyes frantically as he shook his head. "Oh, Hari… of course I care for you and I damn myself for it every day…"
She was the one to look away then and she swallowed heavily as she absorbed his answer. "Good," she finally said, her voice hard and decisive, "good, you should damn yourself."
Silence fell again as none of them had the heart to say much of anything after speaking and hearing such hurtful words.
They sat together then, in silence the entire day until the night finally began to set. It seemed a bizarre form of goodbye, but somehow they could still both draw comfort and strength from each-others company.
When the sun had just reached the top of the lower buildings, Hari once again broke the silence and her voice was horse from both emotion and disuse. "Tell me your name, your true name and I'll answer you one single question that you want to know about my father's plans," she said.
Blinking at her, Naruto regarded her silently for a few minutes before he let his eyes transform into the clearest of sapphire-blues for just a second before his eyes were the usual sky-blue she'd grown to know and treasure.
"My name's Naruto," he said and the words felt thick and unnatural on his tongue.
"What is your father's next assassination target in the country of Fire?" he asked in return, stating his price for the answer she'd received.
She closed her eyes slowly, painfully, as all that she'd probably suspected since last night was confirmed to her with a clarity that couldn't be denied by doubts or hopes or foolish feelings.
Yes, he'd told her, I'm a traitor to you. I'm a spy. I'm the spy your father's looking for and now I've chosen my country over you.
"The Daimyo," she answered finally, her voice a breathy whisper.
Naruto nodded as he turned back to look out the window again. The shadows were stretching and darkening as night began to fall.
"I'll give you a week to get out of the village," she said decisively before she rose, pushing the chair away from her with a grating noise as it slid over the wooden floor.
Naruto followed her downstairs without saying a word and as soon as her lithe form left the threshold of his shop's door – leaving the doorbell to tinkle gently – Naruto began to rush around to get everything ready for his departure.
He had no time to loose.
Naruto wasn't too surprised when an armed and battle-ready ANBU appeared in his shop thirty minutes after Hari's departure.
It was to be expected.
Despite what she'd said, he was still a threat to her village and her home and he knew for a fact that she loved Iwa just as much as he loved Konoha.
He'd betrayed her first and now she'd betrayed him.
The ANBU didn't say anything, the special-operator simply attacked.
Naruto smiled sadly. He thought of broken promises, shattered hopes and unfulfilled dreams as he activated the wards he'd incorporated into the building. More than a hundred hidden explosion seals detonated simultaneously.
The explosion was big enough to light up the entire village for a brief moment and for hours after that the shinobi in the village had to do their best to contain and put out the fires that had spread to the neighbouring buildings.
More than fifty civilians – families with husbands, wives and children – were burned alive or killed in their sleep as a result of suffocation from the toxic-gasses released in the fire. Under a dozen survived with serious burns.
Five shinobi were killed, the ANBU that had arrived to apprehend Naruto included. The others were ones that had been too close to the shop while they waited outside for the ANBU to bring out the spy.
In addition to the ANBU they found another burned and charred corpse within the store's walls. The height and build of the body was estimated to be accurate to what the spy had been reported to be. The remains were too badly burned to attempt a DNA test.
Through it all, the attempted capture of the spy, the resulting explosion, fire and panic, the daughter of the Tsuchikage stood as still as a statue at the border of it all, watching with eyes as still and as blank as a pond frozen in winter.
A/N: This is the longest chapter I've ever written and I'm not sure if I'll ever write one as huge as this again later on. As it is my hands ache something awful and I'm suffering from lack of sleep.