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Appreciation,

A Naruto Fanfiction,

By Aleh

Chapter Four: Of Kitsune and Kaijuu, Part Four

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Disclaimer:

I do not own any of the series used or referenced in this story. Said series are the properties of their creators and/or publishers.

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Getting to the park didn't take long. It probably would have taken less time if I hadn't used shunshin for the opening segment of the trip, but I had needed the training and it was somewhat customary, anyway. It was one of those times when I wished that I had a decent speed-movement jutsu. Shunshin was great for dramatic entrances and exits, not to mention throwing off pursuit, but its limited range and the amount of time and concentration it took to use meant that it was usually quicker to just run, jump, or tree-hop the distance, and just enhancing movement speed by pushing chakra into my muscles was more energy-efficient.

Occasionally, someone would wonder why we bothered with shunshin if that was the case. The answer was rather simple, really: the movement it provided was a royal pain to trace. For someone in a profession that required stealth, that alone made it a godsend. Additionally, while it was useful for dramatic purposes as well, most experienced users of the technique could eliminate the flare on one end, thereby either appearing or disappearing in a manner that was both stealthy and apparently instantaneous.

Unfortunately I wasn't at that level yet, which was one reason why I used the jutsu more than was probably strictly necessary. As I now had a team to train I wasn't going to get to train on my own nearly as much as I'd normally like, so I couldn't afford to miss the opportunity to get some practice in, and shunshin used very little chakra.

I arrived to find Naruto sitting in a familiar swing, gazing at the children playing in the park. I paused a moment to wipe a tear out of my eye at the sight; I'd seen Naruto sitting in that swing countless times before... and it never stopped hurting.

"Hiya," I greeted, walking up behind him. "I hope I didn't keep you waiting for too long."

"Hey, Recca-sensei," he replied. "Don't worry. I was only here for a few minutes."

I gave my best friend's son a bittersweet smile. "I'm glad," I told him. "This place has far too many bad memories for both of us."

Naruto started at that. "Both of us?" he asked.

"Yes," I confirmed. "In a way, this place symbolizes your loneliness growing up. You'd come here every day, hoping that someone would let you join them in whatever game they were playing... and they never did." I sighed. "I'd come by and watch every now and then. I don't know if I thought I could make a difference or if I just wanted to be as close to you as I could, but I held the same hopes myself..."

On more than one occasion I'd left and taken my frustrations out on one of the many bandit camps that used to be scattered throughout Fire Country. The Bandit Slayer had become something of an urban legend throughout the ninja world, a legend which had only grown after my team and I had given "her" a name and face during one of our missions. In fact, the "Blame Lina Inverse" strategy had been quite effective in getting us out of trouble for some of the destruction we... err... accidentally caused.

Naruto looked up. "You're wrong," he said after a moment.

"Oh?" I inquired. "How so?"

"Once... when I was seven..."

My eyes widened at that revelation. "You were invited to join in?" I asked in shock.

"Yeah," he confirmed. "The son of a visiting merchant..."

I sighed again. "I wish I'd seen it," I wistfully remarked. "Do you know his name?"

"Shingo," he told me. "Yamaguchi Shingo."

I closed my eyes, committing the name to memory. I'd have to find out what happened to him. I knew that the family name sounded familiar, so it shouldn't be too much of a stretch...

Oh. Crap.

I suddenly remembered where I'd seen it -- on a list of the casualties taken by a caravan when it was raided by bandits. The name wouldn't usually have stuck in my head, but the bandits in question had been particularly brutal, the caravan had been woefully underguarded, and Shingo had been around Naruto's age...

Right. There went my half-formed plans to track him down and find some way to thank him. On the other hand, I now had a new name for a potential proxy... the Yamaguchi Shingo Memorial Trust sounded decent enough... and if I ever ran into any of his relatives I now had a story to tell them... plus if I ever found evidence that Danzou had been responsible... well, I'd have another item for the Second List.

And why hadn't I heard about that earlier? It hadn't been in any of the reports... oh, and I'd have to mention this to Sakura. I wouldn't tell her the whole story, but I'd have to correct for the factual error in what I'd told her...

"I see," I said after a moment. "That changes things."

"He was killed by bandits a few weeks later," Naruto continued without a trace of sadness in his voice. "Old Man Hokage told me that the Bandit Slayer took care of them, but..."

If I'd known that little detail about their victims I wouldn't have used a disguise, and I certainly wouldn't have been as merciful as I had been when I slaughtered them all. Burning to death as they choked on their own vomit was entirely too good for them.

"You came here to remember?"

Naruto just shook his head. "I'll never forget," he confessed. "No... I came here because it's where I met him." With that, he actually smiled. "I guess I just thought of it as a lucky spot."

"'Tis better to have loved and lost...," I quoted, "ne?"

Naruto just looked confused.

"It was a quote from an ancient poem," I explained. "It means that, if given the choice, it's better to have cared for someone and lost them than to have never met them. While losing people precious to you hurts... in the end, loneliness is worse... and, no matter what happens to the people you care for, a small part of them still lives on in your heart."

"Yeah," he replied, suddenly a bit more subdued.

"Anyway," I said, deliberately changing the subject, "my apartment isn't that far from here. Shall we get going? We can talk on the way..."

"Okay," he cheerfully agreed, getting up from the swing.

I just inwardly shook my head. If that incident hadn't been in the reports... what else was missing? More importantly, why wasn't it there? Had Naruto's ANBU guard been slacking off that day? Had he or she deliberately omitted it? Had the reports been edited somehow?

I had too many questions and not enough answers. For now, all I could do was shelve the issue and continue with what I was doing.

--

As I led Naruto to my apartment I knew that it wouldn't take long to arrive, but I had something that I needed to get off of my chest. "Naruto-kun," I started, "do you remember how Sakura-kun was behaving during dinner?"

Naruto nodded. "Yeah," he confirmed. "It was really strange."

I sighed. "As near as I can tell, something you said... upset her," I told him. "She wasn't angry with you or anything," I hastily added, "but she was pretty distressed."

"But I just asked her what she made," he protested.

I tilted my head slightly as we continued walking. "Was that before or after you ate some?" I asked.

"After," he replied. "It was good, but I didn't know what it was called."

I chuckled. "It's called 'yosenabe'," I explained. "It's a pretty common dish -- basically the sort of thing that parents make their children in order to use up any ingredients they've accumulated... or the sort of thing that they make when they're on a budget and can't afford to make anything fancy."

"Yeah," he confirmed. "Sakura-chan told me that much."

"Well," I continued, "I think that she just realized what you've been through, growing up on your own... although that certainly explains what happened after dinner..."

Naruto looked up sharply.

"Did you say anything else?" I asked.

"Just that it was a lot like something that Old Man Hokage got me to celebrate my entrance into the Academy," he answered.

I raised an eyebrow. "We need to turn right here," I said, making the turn in question before going back to the earlier conversation. "I suppose that you made a comparison between them, as well?"

"Well, yeah," he agreed as he followed me. "Sakura-chan's cooking was a lot better!"

I just chuckled. "Did you asked her anything else?"

"Umm... just what some funny-looking ingredient was. Sakura-chan called it 'octopus'."

I shrugged. "Octopus is pretty common," I answered, "but it's not used that much in the sort of food you're used to eating. Sakura-kun, however, lives with an aunt who's a merchant. She specializes in tea, but does some business in seafood and tools, as well. Chances are that Sakura-kun grew up eating it on a regular basis."

Naruto's eyes widened as he stared at me.

"I know her aunt," I explained, not wanting to get into that particular... complication in my life. "I was rather surprised to find out that Sakura-kun was her niece, but... well, that's the way life is sometimes."

"Oh," he replied. "I see."

"Anyway, I wanted to tell you a bit about what's been going on with her."

"Oh?"

I chuckled. "Yes," I confirmed. "I talked to her about a few things yesterday, and she was... rather upset. She wanted to offer you an apology for how she treated you in the Academy, and you apparently had mentioned that you didn't really know much about your parents."

Naruto's eyes were again wide as he hung on my every word.

"Anyway, when you were taking that message to the Third she asked me about your family. I told her that you didn't know who they were, either, and explained the situation with Danzou." I sighed at that. "The... agreement... that I made with him doesn't prevent me from telling others, but does require me to have them make the same agreement before I tell them... and requires me to kill them if they break it."

Naruto's eyes were now the size of dinner plates.

"I told her that she essentially had two choices -- she could try to help you figure it out from my hints, or I could tell her and she could help me in telling you about your family and hoping that you could figure it out on your own."

Naruto stopped walking.

I took a few steps and turned to face him, hoping that he would understand. "What she wanted to talk to me about... your conversation about dinner apparently helped her come to a decision. She wanted to understand why you grew up the way you did and thought that knowing would help. I warned her and told her that it would only leave her with more questions, but she insisted." I sighed again. "I meant to talk to you about my thoughts on the matter before Sakura-kun came to a decision, but there wasn't time..."

"You told her, didn't you?" Naruto whispered.

"Yes," I confirmed, searching Naruto's face for any signs of perceived betrayal.

"Why?" he asked, his voice still soft as he closed his eyes.

"Because she's my back-up plan," I answered, kneeling in front of him so that our eyes were level. "Naruto-kun," I admitted, "I'm a ninja. We don't tend to live long lives, and I could easily die on a mission... or even when I'm not on one. There's so much I want to tell you... so many things... and there are questions that you don't even know to ask that I desperately want to answer... but I can't unless you discover your father's identity. If anything happens to me... I can't count on anyone else telling you... so my only hope is to let someone else know -- someone who would also want you to know, someone close to you... like a teammate. I know it's not fair, but..."

I stopped, noting the tears leaking from his eyes.

"I understand," he replied softly, his voice just above a whisper.

"Good," I responded, wrapping my arms around him and holding him close as I began to cry on his shoulder.

There were so many things that I'd never get to do if things went according to my plan... so many lost opportunities. I just hoped that Naruto would be able to pick up the pieces... and that I'd be able to teach my students enough before the time came for me to die.

--

The remainder of the walk to my apartment was relatively silent. I just hoped that Naruto hadn't noticed my tears; I didn't need him doing anything... rash. Fortunately I wasn't inclined to sobbing and the tears really hadn't started to escape until after I had embraced him. With any luck, Naruto hadn't noticed.

When we arrived, however, Naruto decided to speak up. "My father... he was important to you, wasn't he?" he asked.

"He was my closest friend," I answered as I disarmed one of the traps on the front door of the building. "He meant everything to me."

After that we settled into a sort of silence as I got to work disarming the traps. It took a few minutes; I didn't use the front door much, after all, and I hadn't originally planned to take Naruto here so soon.

"Well," I commented after I was done, "come in. Just be careful; there are more traps in the hallway."

Naruto blinked at that. "Don't you think this is a bit... much?"

I shrugged. "I own the building," I explained, "and there aren't any other tenants. Besides, I usually come in through one of the windows. I just didn't take you in that way because I'm the only one who can get in through it without dying."

"WHAT?!" he shouted.

I grinned. "I'm immune to the poisons I used, after all," I told him. "There's another entrance that I use for friends and such, but I wanted you to know not to use the front door."

To date only one other person knew how to get in that way. Naruto would be the second. It wasn't like I was incommunicado while I was in my apartment, either, and there were plenty of ways to let me know that someone wanted to talk to me.

"Isn't that a bit... much?" he hesitantly asked.

"Well," I replied after a moment, "I started setting things up like this after an assassination attempt. I've changed the traps since; Jin-sensei is an expert at them and his advice and lessons helped me improve them considerably, but the basic idea has remained the same. Besides, there's some pretty valuable stuff in here and I don't want it stolen."

Naruto seemed nonplussed at that.

I began leading him through the building, disarming the traps as we went and pointing out various rooms. They were mostly trapped decoys and I explained that they were such, but I did have a few genuine workshops in there, and gave Naruto a brief explanation of their purposes as I lead him to the area in which I actually lived. The need to re-arm the traps after Naruto and I had passed slowed us down somewhat, but that's why I didn't use the front door much.

When I mentioned the lab dedicated to advanced uses of the kage bunshin, however, he expressed a rather strong interest.

"Don't expect anything too spectacular," I warned him before opening the door. "Most of that sort of thing isn't suited for a lab."

I noticed a slight widening of Naruto's eyes as he took in the room. It really wasn't anything spectacular -- several seal arrays and devices to measure chakra, a few tables, some books, some scrolls, some notes on the technique, Hinata's project... and a letter. That was new, actually...

"Hmm," I commented. "Looks like Hinata-sama left me a note. Mind if I take a look?"

"Go ahead," he answered, his eyes jumping across the room as I walked over to the desk and picked up the letter. He eventually settled on staring at the jar that held Hinata's latest project as I skimmed what she had written to me. It was mostly a status update on her work; I could afford to go back and read that later, but Hinata tended to mix in other details and I needed to know if I had to go and torture or break anyone before I went to sleep.

"Hey, Sensei," Naruto interjected after a moment. "What's this?"

I looked up from the letter to see Naruto staring at the jar and the surrounding seal arrays that made up Hinata's work. Oh, I had assisted quite a bit, but the idea and the majority of the work were hers.

The project itself wasn't that impressive to uninformed eyes; just a large array of seals spread on a scroll, with a jar containing what appeared to be a malformed eyeball suspended in fluid at the center of the array. Of course, its purpose was truly ingenious... if we could ever get it to work.

"Well," I explained, "that's a project of Hinata-sama's. It's possible to make a kage bunshin of part of the body, instead of the whole. The jar and seals are designed to hold the construct stable and feed it chakra while we iron out the details so that she doesn't have to form it all at once or maintain it on her own."

Naruto blinked, leaning closer to the jar. "Why would you want to do that?"

I smiled, remembering when Hinata had visited me in tears, worrying about whether or not she'd ever be a valuable part of her clan after she'd lost a sparring match against her younger sister. I'd comforted her and told her that while Jyuuken was a powerful style, skill with it was hardly the only way to achieve that goal... and while I couldn't help her with her family's skills, I could help her with other things.

"The Hyuuga family has a powerful kekkei genkai called the byakugan," I began, "and its abilities center around the eyes. They also practice a fighting style designed to exploit the powers of their eyes. As such, every Hyuuga fears losing theirs. In theory it would be possible to transplant an eye from another, but a transplant from a non-Hyuuga would mean that they'd lose many of their special abilities, and the Hyuugas have gone to great lengths to prevent others from gaining the secrets of their bloodline, notably including the practice of using a seal that destroys the byakugan after death. Because of that, it's pretty much impossible to replace their eyes if anything happens to them."

"So you're going to teach them to replace their eyes with kage bunshin?" he asked.

"Nah," I replied. "That would cripple their ability to use their chakra. Actually making the eyeball bunshin is only the first half of the project. I'm skilled enough to do it already, but there's no point in me doing it; I don't have the byakugan, after all. The real genius was in her work in designing a device to gradually feed the bunshin real nutrients in such a way that, over time, they'll fill in the chakra structure of the eyeball, replacing the cells formed of pure chakra with real, living cells. We eventually hope that the Hyuugas will never have to fear being blinded again."

Naruto blinked. "That's so cool," he shouted, jumping slightly... which he quickly realized was a mistake when his hand hit the scroll, causing it to slip. That wouldn't have been much of a problem except for the fact that the jar not only didn't move with the scroll, but actually started to turn over.

I was there in an instant, Hinata's letter lying haphazardly on the desk as I rushed to save the jar. It had, after all, taken almost twenty hours to make, and the materials had cost a small fortune. Fortunately, I managed to catch it. Unfortunately, the sudden motion (and sudden stop) was enough to disrupt the chakra-construct centered in it. While the jar itself was fine the growth medium would need to be flushed and replaced thanks to the resultant sudden surge of chakra, and that stuff... was neither cheap nor easy to make.

In total, I estimated the monetary damage at slightly more than Naruto's monthly rent, a fact which would likely mortify him.

"Well," I said, schooling my expression, "It's a good thing I managed to catch it in time."

Naruto just stood there, looking sheepish. "Sorry," he apologized.

I shrugged. "Don't worry about it," I told him. "The seals are fine, and the loss of an imperfect eyeball won't set Hinata-sama's work back by much -- a few minutes at most at this stage. Replacing the jar would be a problem, but it's okay, so it's not that big of a deal. Just... be careful. Some of the stuff I have is pretty valuable; that's one of the reasons for the traps."

Naruto broke into a relieved grin as he scratched the back of his head. "This Hinata you keep mentioning..."

I smiled. "She was one of your classmates, actually," I replied. "She's also the closest thing I have to a daughter. One of the running jokes between her father and me is that I'd be more than willing to adopt her if her family didn't want her."

"You're friends with her family?"

I shook my head. "We're political allies," I explained. "I don't like her father that much on a personal level, but he's powerful, influential, and owes me a rather large favor for saving his brother's life, not to mention the various other favors I've done for his family over the years."

Naruto blinked.

"If you become Hokage," I continued, "you'll have to deal with a lot of people who you don't really like, but that you can't afford to offend."

"Like Sasuke?" he questioningly interjected.

I laughed at that. "Yes," I replied. "Like Sasuke-kun, although I think you'll like him a bit more if I can manage to get that stick out of his posterior."

Naruto blinked again. "You mean that all this time..." He paused for a moment. "No wonder he's such a jerk. That must be really painful."

I nearly dropped the jar as my laughter overtook me.

--

A few minutes later Naruto was somewhat confused by my explanation. In all honesty I didn't blame him; Freudian psychology had been discredited millennia before, after all, and few in this era had even heard of it. If it wasn't for a few persistent metaphors, it would be totally forgotten by everyone except for me... and I was a special case. Accordingly, going into the historical origin of the expression probably wasn't the best way to explain what I meant.

Regardless, Naruto did understand that it was just an expression, and we left the lab to continue on our way to my living quarters. I'd have to go back and clean up later and replacing the growth medium would be a priority, not to mention that I needed to properly read Hinata's letter.

We continued on to my quarters, eventually making a second stop when Naruto expressed interest in a storeroom.

"Weird magical artifacts?" he asked after I explained what I kept there.

I shrugged. "I'm Konoha's foremost authority on magic," I stated. "I've been looking for anything to do with the subject ever since I was summoned here. At first it was in the hope that I could find a way home, but... well, my reasons have changed somewhat. Anyway, some of the things I have come across are a bit... strange, and this is where I keep some of them." I paused for a moment. "Would you like to take a look?"

Naruto eagerly nodded for a few seconds before he suddenly stopped and turned towards me. "You said that you're Konoha's foremost authority on magic?"

I just nodded with an amused smile on my face.

"Can you do anything neat, like turning someone into a pig, or..."

I sighed. "By and large magic is a lost art," I told him, inwardly yet again damning the Divine Emperor's idiocy. "I'm known throughout the world as an expert on the subject because I can actually use it... and I know a grand total of four spells."

In other words I had the capacity but not the training. What little I knew was pieced together from old books, journals, and research notes, and none of them included anything like a basic primer or an explanation of what most of the terms they used meant. While I knew more about magic than just about anyone, that really wasn't saying much.

Naruto blinked at that. "Really? What are they?"

I smiled and began the incantation for the only one of my spells that was really suited for a demonstration under these circumstances. The incantation, however, was nearly thirty seconds long and the spell just generated a small ball of light which required a bit of concentration to maintain. I could do far better with chakra.

"In the old days," I said, as the ball hovered over my shoulder, "they used to use this spell to test for the ability to use magic. I found a copy of the directions for it in an old journal."

The directions had been laced with sarcastic comments; the Immortal Sage had been extremely frustrated with people's tendency to mess up the incantation when he'd written that entry. Still, his journals were my best window into the past, and my best source of information on the topic, which was why I was constantly on the lookout for the remaining volumes. Most people believed that the Bandit Slayer and I were rivals in that search, which helped to explain why we were frequently sighted in the same areas, but the truth was... well, a bit more simple.

Naruto looked disappointed at the results of the spell so I dismissed the light. "I also know a spell to turn a parrot into an aardvark, and two... others... which are not really suited for demonstration purposes. For the most part I stick with ninjutsu." I smiled. "Many people believe that I know more than I actually do," I explained. "The reputation can be useful, and I'd be glad to teach you, but I wanted you to know my actual limits." Naruto was... well, Naruto, after all. "For the most part, I just stick with identifying and collecting magical items." I chuckled at that. "In all honesty I'm surprised that I've managed to accumulate as many as I have; they're pretty rare." I just wished that more of them were actually useful. "Anyway, would you like to take a look in the room?"

"Sure," Naruto eagerly confirmed.

I grinned and opened the door, only to be latched onto by a winged plant. "There, there," I comforted, stroking its leaves. "That stupid pork chop hasn't been bothering you again, has he?"

I frowned. You'd think that a pork chop enchanted to stay eternally fresh would be useful, especially since it would heal itself if I cut off a piece, but I wished that it had been enchanted to be eternally clean as well; it really had a potty mouth, and it kept insulting the other magical items in the storeroom... not to mention me whenever I was nearby. I'd have to gag it if it wouldn't shut up, especially since the plants were repeatedly traumatized by its cursing.

Naruto's eyes widened as he stared at the plant. "What's that?" he asked, pointing to the plant that I was busy soothing.

"It's an herb that's not used in cooking much anymore, but I kept it because I might find it useful in a potion someday," I answered. "Besides, she actually likes being trimmed."

She also didn't need sunlight, required a minimum of water and attention, and actually had a degree of intelligence... which meant that I could leave the other plants in her care. I just wished that I had more information on the art of potion-making; the only potion that I had the full recipe for and could make was a cure for acne.

"Well, yeah," he replied, "but why was it doing that?"

"What?" I asked. "You mean flying around? Well, thyme flies, after all..."

Naruto just blinked.

"Honestly, I think that most of these were failed magical experiments, but like I said, they could be useful. Besides, magical items often take after old jokes, sayings, and the occasional spelling or pronunciation error, something that the Immortal Sage liked to comment on; he called it the 'Power of the Pun'. Basically, if you don't cast a spell correctly, or aren't careful enough in designing the magic, the results tend to take on more than one meaning of the intended result or work out so that they fulfill both the stated and the intended results. I think that a number of the items I've accumulated are the results of that sort of thing, but that doesn't mean that they couldn't be useful someday."

Still stroking the plant, I opened the door. "Take Thyme-chan for instance," I said, still petting my pet sub-shrub. "I might not have any potion recipes that require her leaves, but Thyme-chan is a marvel when it comes to taking care of her fellow plants."

I grinned. "Of course, not all of them are like that," I continued, pointing to a cardboard box with a pair of eyeholes cut into it. "Like that box -- if someone opens it and hides under it, it generates something called a 'someone else's problem' field as long as it's not moving. Basically, as long as no one actually sees it moving, they'll dismiss it as unimportant."

Naruto blinked. "That would have been so useful in my pranks," he amazedly commented.

"Yeah," I replied, "but the enchantment only works if there's someone in it. Otherwise, it's just a cardboard box. Can you imagine trying to carry something like that around all the time?"

Naruto shrugged. "Couldn't you just seal it into a scroll or something?"

I smiled. "That would be a good idea, but doing that with a magical item is... tricky. To be honest, it's an ability that I don't have. There's also something called 'subspace' that many magic users used to be able to use for storage, but I haven't been able to find instructions for that."

Naruto nodded in understanding. "So you can't use it," he stated. "Why don't you give the box to someone who can?"

I shook my head. "I know a few people who probably could, but I wouldn't really trust any of them with something like that." I shuddered to think at what Jiraiya, just to name one person, would do with it. "So it's just sitting here."

"Ah," Naruto told me. "I see."

"Anyway, feel free to take a look around."

Naruto looked into the room, pausing a moment to look at where the toy soldiers were attempting to apply some kind of soft metal to the transforming kendama... and was that a blowtorch? I'd need to rein them in again... and speaking of the transforming kendama, I really hoped that Jiraiya never came across it or found out what it did; that could give him... ideas. Fortunately not as many as the lemonaid would, but still... Naruto continued on, his eyes sweeping past where a pie was reading Icha Icha Paradise and loudly criticizing the author's ability to write, before he shivered a bit.

"No," he said after a moment, "I think I've seen enough..."

I shrugged, petted Thyme-chan one last time, put her pot back on the shelf, and closed the door.

"Magic is weird," Naruto commented after that.

I just nodded in agreement; there really wasn't anything I could say after that show.

--

After that incident Naruto was somewhat more reluctant to express interest in the remaining rooms on the way. I supposed that it was what I deserved for using the main corridors; I didn't normally do that for a reason, but I couldn't think of a better way to impress on Naruto that the hallways could be dangerous.

However, he again perked up when I mentioned the primary non-nuclear, non-chemical, non-biological weapons storeroom... or, as I liked to call it, the place where I kept everything but the nukes, poisons, and summoning contracts... and I did technically have a few of those in there.

Well, a few summoning contracts, anyway. I wouldn't keep nukes in my apartment. Oh, and some of the weapons were poisoned, of course... Regardless, it was safe enough for Naruto.

As such I opened the door, knowing that Naruto would get a kick out of this room. I was right in my estimation; Naruto was excited. He was also curious, which I thought was a good thing; it would make teaching him to use my little collection a lot easier.

"Ne, ne, sensei? What are these?" he asked, pointing to a rack of shotguns.

I just smiled and explained the concept. When I was done, however, Naruto seemed confused about something.

"But what kind of name is 'shatogan', anyway?" he inquired after a moment.

I shrugged. "First," I corrected, "it's 'shotgun'. If you need to use a katakana adaptation, it's 'shottogan'. Second, that's originally an English name, and doesn't really sound strange in that language."

Naruto blinked. "English?" he asked.

"Yeah," I replied. "English was one of the most common languages spoken in the late Interregnum. It's also the language that I grew up speaking."

Naruto blinked again. "The Interregnum?"

I shrugged. "You've heard of what most people call the 'Age of Magic', right?"

Naruto looked confused for a moment before his eyes opened widely and he nodded.

"Well," I explained, "it's technically the Second Age of Magic -- it's just that most people have forgotten about the first one. The period between the two is called the Interregnum."

Naruto still looked confused. "But wasn't the Age of Magic a long time ago?"

I shrugged. "It ended about seven thousand years ago," I confirmed.

"And why hasn't anyone mentioned this 'English' thing to me before?"

That I didn't know, but I had an idea. "English isn't spoken much anymore; the only people in Konoha who know it are the people who I've taught, and they mostly use it as a code for secure communications."

I also wasn't stupid enough to teach them the written language. That would have been... bad, considering just which ancient documents were written in that language. I had thought about doing that, to be honest, before the Kyuubi attack, and even made a promise to Minato on the subject, but... that wouldn't be an issue, as much as I had wished otherwise.

No, trusting Konoha with that knowledge was right out.

Naruto, however, blinked. "But... if that's... just where are you from, anyway?"

I sighed. "That's a... pretty complex question," I confessed. "The short answer is that I'm from a country called 'America'."

"And just where is this 'America'?"

"Well, America was one of the largest and most powerful countries in the world before the Great Cataclysm. When that happened the Silver Queen only managed to shield a single city; everyone else in the world died. The inhabitants of that city slept for a while, but eventually started to rebuild under the Silver Queen's leadership." I sighed. "As things happened, however, the city that was saved was part of a country called 'Japan'. America was totally destroyed."

Naruto's eyes widened at that. "But didn't the Silver Queen live a really, really long time ago?" he interjected.

I smirked and waited for Naruto to connect the dots. "Of course. She vanished around eight thousand years ago."

Naruto paused. "But how's that possible? You're over ten thousand years old?"

I shook my head. "I was summoned here, remember?"

"So you're from the past or something?"

I chuckled. "Or something," I replied. "Technically, I'm from another world."

Naruto's eyes might as well have been the size of dinner plates. "Another world?" he asked.

"Yes," I said, smiling gently as I looked at my best friend's son. "Tell me, have you ever wondered how things would have happened had something been different? For instance, how you would have grown up had the Kyuubi never attacked, or had one of your parents survived?"

Naruto looked confused. "Why?"

I shrugged. "Imagine a mirror standing next to the world. There's a reflection, but everything in it is slightly different. Perhaps someone else was chosen to keep the fox locked up, perhaps Danzou suffered a fatal heart attack when you were a baby... something like that. Now imagine that reflection as another world, alongside this one. There are an infinite number of such worlds, and somewhere, there's a world where almost anything you can imagine happening actually did happen. Now imagine someone bringing something from one of those worlds to this one. That's the short version of what happened to me."

Naruto blinked. "So in your world, America is still around?"

I shook my head. "In my world the Great Cataclysm never happened. It still might, of course, or something like it, but there won't be a Silver Queen to save us if it does. The worlds I told you to think about were mirrors of Konoha... my world was a mirror of the late Interregnum. For most intents and purposes I grew up during that period."

"Most?"

"There were some differences," I confessed, "and I was... changed... when I was summoned. That wouldn't have happened if I'd simply been summoned from the past. I didn't always have green hair and red eyes, after all."

Again, Naruto's eyes widened.

I chuckled. "You have no idea how frightening that was... looking into a mirror and seeing a face that I couldn't recognize. My facial features had changed, my physique was completely different... I panicked, to be honest... I nearly broke down. Your father managed to get through to me and to get me to calm down."

Put plainly he'd slapped me and told me in no uncertain terms that it didn't matter what I looked like -- that it didn't change who I was. After that, Minato had been sympathetic and understanding, but the shock had been enough to break through my panic. It had been one of only three times that he had struck me... and I only regretted the last of them.

"That was the start of your friendship?" Naruto asked.

"It was part of it," I admitted. "He was one of the shinobi who came to investigate the disturbance that my arrival caused. He was the one who carried me to the hospital while I was unconscious. I was bedridden for a while and he was a frequent visitor. I didn't get to see my face in the mirror for several days."

"Oh," Naruto whispered.

"You remind me of him," I told my student. "You are a lot like him..." I chuckled. "The physical resemblance alone is uncanny. If you ignore the whisker marks, you look almost exactly like he did at your age."

"You knew him for..."

I shook my head. "Photos," I replied. "I didn't meet him until he was an adult, but that doesn't mean that I never saw pictures."

"Oh."

There were a few moments of awkward silence following that. Eventually, I decided to break the ice. "Anyway, is there anything else you want to know about?"

Naruto's eyes lit up as he pointed to another item on the shelves. "Ne, ne, what's that?" he asked.

I followed his finger with my eyes, and smirked as I recognized the object in question. "Have you ever really wanted something, only to get it and find out that it wasn't really all you expected?" I inquired.

Naruto tilted his head to one side as his face exaggeratedly scrunched up in thought. "Not really," he responded after a few seconds.

"Well," I continued, "it's a fairly normal experience for most people... anyway, that's the proof that it's happened to me. I really wanted one of those for a long time, and went through a lot of trouble to get one, but it's not as useful as I thought it would be. Anyway, it's called a 'BFG 9000'."

Honestly, it couldn't do anything that a nuke or a liter bottle of sarin couldn't do better, and it lacked the tactical flexibility of my C4 bunshin. Its splash damage made it impractical for an urban environment, and its rate of fire was ridiculously slow. Even its intimidation factor was shot since it didn't have the sort of reputation in this world that it did back home. Still, though...

"Hmm," I said, lost in thought. "Actually, it might be rather useful for you... the main reason I don't use it myself is that it can't do anything that I don't have better means to accomplish, and it's actually rather cool... not to mention what you could do if you combined it with kage bunshin..."

Naruto gave me a strange look. "What do you mean by that?" he inquired.

I smiled. "Create a kage bunshin, would you?"

Naruto proceeded to do so, still looking at me strangely.

"Now take out a kunai."

The real Naruto proceeded to follow my instruction, while the clone just stood there. I sighed; this use of kage bunshin had been described on the scroll.

"Both of you," I corrected.

Still looking confused the clone also took out a weapon.

"Kage bunshin no jutsu creates duplicates of your weapons," I explained, "as long as they're not sealed into anything. One BFG 9000 might be somewhat underpowered, but a few hundred of them? That's another story." My grin deepened. "Besides, it also looks really cool."

Naruto nodded in understanding as he dismissed his clone. "You can't make that many kage bunshin, so you can't take advantage of that trick," he elaborated.

I grinned. "Exactly," I confirmed. "I'll get you a pair of gloves like mine sometime; they're really useful. It'd probably be for the best if you don't take this out of the armory until then, though -- we don't want anyone to steal it, and it's big enough that hiding it normally could be a problem."

Naruto blinked. "Gloves?"

"Yeah," I replied. "They make it really easy to store weapons." To demonstrate I quickly unsealed the shotgun I kept in my glove and resealed it again. "All you have to do to store something is to hold it and focus a bit of chakra into the glove in a certain way. To get it out again, all you have to do is to put your hand into the same position and focus a bit more chakra in the same way."

"Coool," he exclaimed.

"Of course," I continued, "they're not without limitations. You can only store one weapon per glove, and they can't store any weapon that stores or uses chakra or magic. They also take a bit of getting used to."

Naruto just smiled and nodded.

"They have a few other features," I finished. "I use a lot of summoning jutsu and they usually require a blood tribute, so I included a medical jutsu that accelerates the healing of shallow cuts to the palm of the hand or to the fingers, and there's a layer of chakra-based armor in them, too."

Admittedly, that was about the limit of my skills at medical ninjutsu, but it was still pretty useful when I summoned things. I didn't have Naruto's regeneration abilities, after all.

"Anyway," I admitted, "I won't be able to make another pair for a few days. It takes a lot of chakra to do that, and I recently used a kinjutsu that will impair my chakra recovery for a while. When I'm back to normal I'll get to work on them."

Naruto stopped looking at my gloves as his gaze snapped up to meet mine. "You make these?" he asked.

I smiled warmly towards the boy who I thought of as the closest thing I had to a son. "Yeah. They're my own design. If you'd like I'll teach you how they're made sometime."

The actual design of those gloves was one of my more closely-guarded secrets, but Naruto was, well... Naruto. Besides, he might be able to gain an advantage from the knowledge after I was gone. Given the level of interest that had been expressed in the things over the years, demand completely overwhelmed supply... especially considering that there were currently only two pairs of the things in existence. Hiashi had been utterly gobsmacked when I gave Hinata the other pair as a present to commemorate her graduation from the Academy, but, well, that's what I had made them for. The only reason I hadn't already made a pair for Naruto was that I didn't know what size to make them. Well, that and the fact that my fashion sense wasn't all that good. I'd have to ask Sakura to help me figure out what color to make them so that they didn't clash... too much... with Naruto's usual outfit. I'd take him shopping for clothes, but his orange jumpsuits actually served a purpose within my plans. I'd have to spend a good amount of time retraining my agent in Akatsuki if Naruto changed his... err... fashion sense.

I was brought out of my thoughts by the sight of tears forming in Naruto's eyes. I was momentarily confused as to what I'd said to provoke that sort of reaction until I noticed that he was smiling. Inwardly sighing in relief I decided to change the subject. "I was serious when I said that I tried to adopt you, you know," I commented. "What I didn't tell you was that the legal side of things was, as far as I was concerned, largely a formality." Smiling and putting a hand on his shoulder, I continued, "You were really cute as a baby, you know."

Naruto blinked as several tears fell down his cheeks. "Sensei," he whispered, latching on to me.

I had never been the most physical of people, but this wasn't a situation where I could tolerate any ambiguity. I did the only thing I really could and returned his embrace.

After a few moments he let go with a sniffle and asked me another question. "Recca-sensei... did you know my mother?"

I sighed. "Yeah," I admitted, letting some of my sadness at the memory leak into my voice. "I wasn't nearly as close to her as I was to your father, but I did know her."

"Could... could you tell me about her?"

My face flashed briefly towards yet another sad smile. "I suppose," I replied. "I'm not the best person to tell you... I wasn't nearly as close to her as others... but if they haven't told you about her yet..."

Naruto just shook his head.

"I see," I whispered. The Third had told me as much, but I found it hard to believe that he wouldn't. "Not even an offhand comment? Not even an idle comparison?"

Naruto shook his head again.

Call it what you will but even though that was what I had expected, the answer horrified me. I supposed that after finding out that my information had been incorrect in regards to his encounter with Yamaguchi Shingo, I had hoped that it would have at least been incomplete in regards to his knowledge of his parents. I closed my eyes and fought down a lump in my throat.

After a moment I visibly shook myself out of my thoughts. "Just give me a bit to get my thoughts together," I told him. "I'll tell you what I can when we get up to my room, okay?"

Naruto's face opened into another smile as he nodded in confirmation. "Of course, Recca-sensei," he replied.

"For now, feel free to look around and ask me what anything is. Very little of the stuff in here is what most people would call 'normal'."

"Not even the kunai?" he asked, pointing to one of my focal kunai.

I chuckled. "No," I answered, "especially not the kunai. I know that those kunai look normal, but they're actually a byproduct of my research into hiraishin."

Naruto blinked. "My father's technique?" he asked.

"Yeah," I confirmed. "I don't know anyone who knows how it worked, so I tried to recreate it, hoping that it would give me a way to teach you."

Naruto's eyes momentarily widened.

I just chuckled. "None of my efforts panned out, of course -- I never could get anything I tried to work. Still, I did develop a few useful things based on my efforts."

"Like those kunai?"

I grinned. "Yep. Like those kunai. They're from when I thought that your father might be using a variant of kuchiyose no jutsu to summon himself to the markers he left. I didn't manage to create anything that could be used as a 'target' to summon myself to, but I did manage to make something that I could use as a focus of sorts for other types of summoning."

Naruto blinked and scratched his head. "Umm," he said, "I don't really get it..."

I shrugged. "Well, when you use kuchiyose no jutsu, the last step is normally to slam your hand down on the ground. Whatever you summoned will appear beneath your hand. So, for instance, if I was to summon a giant frog that way I'd wind up on top of it. Do you understand me so far?"

"Yes."

"Well, those kunai act as a substitute of sorts. If I use one I can summon something to where the kunai is, instead of where I am."

Naruto's eyes lit up in comprehension. "Oh. I see," he replied.

"Admittedly, it costs a bit more chakra to summon that way, but it can be useful." I grinned and pointed to another rack of kunai next to them. "See those?" I asked.

"Yeah," he answered. "What do they do?"

"They're basically the same sort of thing," I explained, "only the 'focus' they produce is offset slightly."

Seeing that he didn't understand, I again decided to clarify. "If I use one of them, whatever I summon won't appear at the kunai -- it'll appear about ten meters above the kunai."

Naruto blinked. "So you summon something and drop it on your enemies?" he asked.

I shrugged. "That's the idea," I admitted. "It uses a bit more chakra, though -- I can't summon Gojira-sama with them, but Gamera is usually enough."

"Gojira-sama? Gamera?"

"Many ninja have their own personal summons," I answered. "Those are two of mine."

"Ne, ne, do you think I'll get some of my own?"

I smiled at him. "I'd offer to let you sign my contract, but I think it's best if you were to sign your father's."

Naruto gave me a rather strange look. "Contract? My father's?"

"When you first learn to summon living things, the first step is signing or making a summoning contract. I made mine but most people just sign one that someone else made. The problem is that you can only sign one and there can only be one contract for a specific class of beings."

"Ah," Naruto replied, obviously feigning comprehension. "I see."

I sighed. "Naruto-kun," I chided, "if you don't understand something, feel free to tell me. I won't think you're stupid or anything. To give you an example, an old pervert I know has a summoning contract for frogs. Because of that, I can't make another contract for frogs. If I were to try to make one I'd fail. Similarly, a famous medic named Tsunade has a contract for slugs and an equally famous pedophile named Orochimaru has a contract for snakes. Because those contracts exist I can't make a contract for slugs or snakes either."

"Frogs? Slugs? Snakes? Why even bother?"

"Well," I replied, "what about a talking slug the size of the Hokage's tower that spits acid, heals practically any injury it takes almost instantly, can break itself into smaller pieces and reform, and probably has a bunch of other powers that I don't know about?"

Naruto went bug-eyed at that.

"I just described Katsuyu, the most powerful summon on the slug contract. The most powerful summon for the frog contract is named Gamabunta. He's even larger than Katsuyu, can spit oil, and is extremely deadly with a so-called dagger that's longer than this building is tall... and that's without mentioning the fact that he can use suiton ninjutsu. Do I need to continue?"

Naruto shook his head mutely.

"Good." I smiled. "I'm telling you all of this because the choice of which contract to sign is extremely important. It's not impossible to 'un-sign' a contract -- that's technically called 'repudiating' the contract, by the way -- but it's extremely difficult. Most people never bother... and not just because of the difficulty. Your summons often become trusted companions and allies. Many people come to regard them as friends... even as family of a sort."

Naruto's face rapidly shifted through a series of expressions, ending on what I interpreted as dawning realization. "That's why you want me to sign the same contract my father did, isn't it?" he asked. "My father was close to his summons?"

"That's part of it," I confirmed. "Your father regarded them as family and as his most trusted, most loyal allies. After his death they were among the few allies of his who didn't betray him."

"Betray him?"

I sighed again. "Yes," I confirmed. "It's a... complicated matter. It ties in with something that I really should tell Sakura and Sasuke as well, so how about we talk about it tomorrow?"

At Naruto's mute nod I decided to continue with the previous track of the discussion. "Also, your father's summons were both powerful and flexible. My summons are pretty strong, but they're not really suited to anything other than a heavy assault mission. If I were to be attacked in Konoha, for instance, I couldn't summon normally; I'd have to use a minor contract."

"A minor contract?"

"If you have the original contract for a summons," I explained, "you can make a sort of temporary, one-use contract that anyone can summon from. That's called a 'minor contract'. A lot of the normal restrictions on summoning don't apply to minor contracts, but they require more chakra to use and they're strictly one-shot things. After they're used once, they're ruined."

"Ah," Naruto replied.

"See those kunai?" I asked, pointing to another rack. "They're the result of combining a minor contract with my shifted-focus kunai and a few other things. If you focus a bit of chakra and throw them, they'll summon a cow about ten meters above where they hit. They come in two varieties: exploding and non-exploding."

"The kunai?"

"No, the cows."

Seeing the sweatdrop rolling down the back of Naruto's head I burst into laughter.

--

After Naruto recovered the next few minutes went by in a blur, with Naruto jumping around like a ferret on speed as he ran from shelf to shelf, asking what each item was. It was fun -- the sort of thing I'd missed while he was growing up. Eventually he exhausted his curiosity and we continued on to my living quarters proper. It didn't really take long; the weapons storeroom was pretty close, for obvious reasons. Of course, the trap density was pretty high since I normally used a back passage to get between the two areas but that passage was pretty heavily poisoned, and I'd never needed to permanently clear a passage to that particular room for Hinata.

Eventually, we reached my living quarters proper. They weren't really anything spectacular, just a central study, two bedrooms, a small kitchen, and either one or two bathrooms depending on what you meant by the word (or two tearai and one furoba to use the proper terms -- the local habit of keeping toilets and bathing facilities in separate rooms hadn't taken me all that long to get used to, even if it did cause some linguistic confusion in my native language).

I'd lived in this building throughout most of my... stay... in Konoha, although I had originally had a much smaller room. After a while I'd purchased the building from its original owner so that I could have more lab space for my work (and so that I'd have to listen to fewer complaints when something went... err... odd... with it). I'd kept on living in that room and taking tenants until shortly after the Kyuubi's attack, when the lack of a second bedroom had become an issue. At the time I hadn't even thought twice about inviting Iruka to stay with me, even if I'd come to regret it later.

Upon entering, Naruto seemed... quite impressed, although I thought that I detected something... off... with his expression. Hesitance? No... Regret? Still not it...

"Naruto-kun?"

"Yes, Recca-sensei?"

"Is something wrong?"

"No," he hesitantly replied. "Just... somehow, this place seems... familiar..."

My eyes widened in shock at that. I hadn't expected this... but... "Kami-sama," I whispered, before switching to a somewhat more normal voice. "You remember?"

Naruto looked at me. "What do you mean?" he asked.

I closed my eyes for a moment. "You lived here for a while," I replied, reopening my eyes and giving my student a sad gaze. "After... what happened, it quickly became apparent that many of the villagers and some of the ninja believed that you were the Kyuubi, not its jailer. The Third Hokage had several people looking out for you and I trusted his judgment, but I insisted in playing a role, so I'd check on you periodically. Every now and then, some idiot would try to kill you." My face turned hard at that. "They'd be... dealt with."

Naruto seemed to have mixed emotions at that revelation.

"Some of your original caretakers were eventually... suborned. I found evidence that at least one of them was deliberately neglecting you. I spoke to the Third about it and he replaced the person responsible. I thought that was the end of it, but..."

"It wasn't, was it?"

I shook my head sadly. "No. There were several more incidents, culminating with an outright assassination attempt shortly after the first anniversary of the attack. I was... angry, to put it mildly."

Put simply, I'd actually gotten into a shouting match with the Hokage and flat-out stated that Naruto would be living with me. Sarutobi hadn't objected.

"After that you stayed here until shortly before your second birthday, when... well, I told you what happened."

Naruto just stared at me for a moment, his eyes betraying his shock as a variety of expressions played across his face faster than I could read or catalogue them. "O... ojisan?" he asked after a moment, his voice choked with emotion.

I froze. He remembered? But... how? After more than ten years I hardly expected him to remember, especially considering how young he'd been. Even a passing sense of familiarity with his old home was shocking, to put it mildly, but this? This was well beyond my expectations. It shouldn't be possible... by everything I knew of human memory processes, it wasn't possible. It was all I could do to nod in confirmation as a response to his question as my thoughts overwhelmed me.

Before I knew it Naruto had latched himself onto me and was saying... something. The impact brought me out of my shock enough for me to return his embrace, but he was speaking too quickly for me to do more than make out a few words here and there. Still, I managed to piece together most of what I needed to know.

Put simply he'd latched onto his memory of me after we were separated and just plain refused to forget. He had refused to believe some of what people had told him when he asked about me (and if I ever found out who had told him that I didn't want him anymore... well, I'd see if I could manage to summon Teletubbies that were anatomically correct) but he still had to wonder what had happened to me. Eventually he'd wondered if the memory was real, but he'd never forgotten.

My eyes were anything but dry when I realized that.

The reason that he hadn't believed them was rather obvious in retrospect: I'd told him not to. He even said as much -- that his clearest memory of me had been of me telling him that he would always have a place in my heart and not to believe anyone who told him otherwise.

It shouldn't have been possible. It was anyway.

Whether it was some strange fluke of psychology, a quirk of Naruto's status as the Kyuubi's jinchuuriki, some power of mine that I wasn't aware of and couldn't control... it didn't matter. I could figure that out later.

In a very real sense, Naruto was home.

Naruto's speech eventually slowed and I extracted myself from his grip. As much as I had been enjoying the moment, we had things to do and a limited amount of time to do them in.

Smiling brightly at the child who was the closest thing I'd had to a son, I spoke up. "Feel free to take a look around," I said. "You should be fine as long as you stay in these rooms; the only traps are in the kitchen. If you have any questions about anything, please ask."

Naruto stared at me.

"I don't know if you remember, but I once told you that you'd always be welcome here. I wasn't lying."

Naruto teared up somewhat and started looking around. I just watched in amusement. I doubted that I'd ever be able to keep up with his sheer energy, but the simple (and fortunate) truth was that I didn't have to. After a few minutes of him looking around and me answering his questions, he decided to start looking at the bookshelves.

"Ne, ne, what are these?" he asked, pointing to one of my journals on technique design.

I smiled. "That specific book is some of my notes from when I was designing the kunai I showed you earlier," I answered. "Most of the books on that shelf are things like that -- my notes on various jutsu, seals, and the like."

Naruto just looked at the book strangely. "Cool," he stated, dragging out the word before he squinted oddly. "What are those symbols on the side?"

"They're the written form of my native language," I replied.

"That 'English' thing?"

"Exactly," I confirmed. "As far as I know I'm the only person in Konoha who knows how to read or write English, so that's what I keep most of my notes in."

Thyme-chan didn't count as a 'person', after all, but she was quite competent at note-taking. She had no creativity whatsoever, but she could transcribe and translate with the best of them... even if anything she wrote tended to come out rather smelly.

"Oh, like a code or something?"

"Or something," I agreed. "If there's anything you're interested in, just ask. I can always translate it into Japanese for you. If you want, I already have an index written out in Japanese," I said, taking one of the books and handing it to Naruto, "so you can feel free to look through that sometime and see if there's anything you'd like to read."

Naruto frowned at that. "Wouldn't that take a really long time?"

I laughed. "I'm a jounin," I answered. "Don't you think that I'd have a way around that? If nothing else, I could have a kage bunshin do it. Those things are really useful for paperwork."

Naruto blinked. "You can do that?"

"Of course," I replied. "Just don't use the jutsu to create ink, or you'll wind up with writing that'll disappear when your bunshin dispels."

Of course the dispelling process when you did that left traces of chakra that were detectable with certain jutsu and even readable by people with certain kekkei genkai. I'd worry about teaching Naruto that trick later -- he wouldn't need it for now, and there were other, better methods available if it became an issue.

Naruto nodded in understanding.

"That's probably not how I'll do it, mind -- Thyme-chan gets bored sometimes, and she loves it when I leave her with something to do other than looking after the other plants."

Naruto seemed somewhat disconcerted at that.

"What?" I inquired. "You thought that Thyme-chan was some sort of bird-brain?"

"More like plant-brain," he retorted.

I burst into laughter again. "As near as I can tell," I replied after I calmed down, "Thyme-chan is the result of some mage trying to create a plant that produced human chakra. I suspect that he even used the chakra of an actual human as one of the components; it's the only explanation I can think of for some of her... quirks."

Naruto stared dumbly.

"She's distinctly female, for one thing," I explained. "For another, she knows a lot of things that a potted plant really shouldn't -- things like what ice cream tastes like. She also has pretty human... err... body language."

"Body language?"

"Well, tendril-language in her case..."

"Riight."

I shrugged. "You get used to it. She was my only real friend for several years, so I got to know her pretty well."

Naruto seemed rather nonplussed as he gave me a thoroughly bewildered look.

"The books that you should really find useful, though," I said, grabbing a few off of various shelves, "are these."

"Ne, ne, what are those?"

I gave my student an evil smirk. "This," I stated, holding up the top book, "is pretty much the definitive text on the theoretical aspects of chakra manipulation. In theory, if you fully understood the contents of this book, you should be able to design a jutsu that will do pretty much anything imaginable."

Naruto's eyes practically bugged out as he stared at the book... and was that drool? After a moment of that, though, he stopped and cocked his head sideways. "Wait," he said. "In theory? Should?"

I grinned. "Yes," I replied. "There are three major limitations that apply. The first is that it only really covers chakra and the manipulation of it. If you want to effect something in a specific way, especially something that's complex, like the human body, you need to understand what you're effecting as well as the tools that you're using to effect it."

Naruto frowned. "Huh?"

"Well," I explained, "say that you wanted to design jutsu to heal injuries. To do that, you'd need to really understand how the body works, and this book doesn't really cover that. Hiroshima no jutsu, to give you another example, was designed based on my understanding of chakra-manipulation, chemistry, and something called 'nuclear fusion'. This book would teach you about chakra, but not about chemistry or fusion."

Naruto nodded.

"The simplest way to explain it is that this book teaches you how things can be done with chakra, but not what you should do. Of course, understanding what can be done is a step in understanding what to do, but it's only one step. It's a powerful tool, but hardly all-powerful."

"Ah," he replied, nodding his head in an exaggerated fashion.

"The second limitation is that knowing how to do something doesn't mean that you can actually do it. I could design a jutsu to let me lift up the Hokage monument and throw it at someone, but I doubt I'd have enough chakra or precise enough control to let me actually perform the technique. This book is hardly a substitute for training."

Naruto continued nodding.

"The third limitation actually ties into the first. Even if you know a way to do something, it doesn't mean that you know the best way. Designing a jutsu is an art form that many experienced ninja never truly master... even ninja who have designed thousands of techniques. This book only gives you the knowledge you need to understand the process and get started on it."

"So why bother?" he asked.

"Because that knowledge is the first step to mastering the art, of course," I replied. "It's also useful when fighting -- it can help you understand how an enemy's techniques work, and that means that you can find weaknesses. One of my most powerful abilities is the fact that I can often analyze my enemies' techniques and understand what they're doing as I'm fighting them. If I can do that, I often know their strategy and how to disrupt it... which is a huge advantage."

Naruto stared at the book with new respect.

"The other neat thing about this book is that it's written for beginners and doesn't presume much by way of prior understanding. I know that you're missing a lot of what the Academy should have taught you, so this should get you more than caught up on the subject. Besides, if you don't understand anything in it you can always ask me -- I could use some help knowing what needs clarification for when I start working on the next edition."

Naruto blinked. "Start working on the next edition?"

I shrugged. "Look on the cover," I instructed, handing him the book.

"Principles of Ninjutsu: Chakra Use and Manipulation, by Umino Ashika, Namikaze Minato, and Hakaishin Recca," he read aloud, before stopping and staring at me.

"Yep," I confirmed. "I helped write it."

Working on that book had been an... interesting effort. Minato had been too busy to write much, but several of the captions and side-bars were his doing, not to mention his work in helping me to clarify and expand several sections. Ashika and I had done the bulk of the actual writing. She had been much better than I was at writing explanations so that the average person could understand them, even if I had been much more knowledgeable on the subject. Considering that the book had been intended for Academy students, her help had been invaluable.

Of course our plans for the book had been pretty thoroughly disrupted when the Third Hokage had restricted it to shinobi and made it illegal for anyone below chuunin rank to buy a copy. At times I wondered what would have happened if we had published it before the Kyuubi's attack. I'd had the nearly-finished manuscript on my desk for months at that point, and after... what had happened... it had only taken me a few days to ready it for publication. Still, speculation as to what could have been were pretty damned useless when it came to looking after Naruto.

"Ojisan?" Naruto's voice brought me out of my reminiscence.

I shook my head, forcing my mind to the present. "Sorry," I told him. "I got caught up in my thoughts. What was that?"

"Oh," he replied. "I just wanted to know what happened to the others."

I smiled. "I believe that you know Ashika-san's son, Iruka, and as for Namikaze Minato, well..."

Naruto's eyes widened as he made the connection. "The Fourth Hokage," he whispered, looking at the book even more reverently.

My smile widened. "I hope you enjoy it," I told him.

Naruto just continued to stare at the book.

"It won't do you any good if you just stare and don't read it, you know," I teased.

Naruto jumped, visibly started.

"Anyway, we can revisit the other books I grabbed later. For now I think you'd be best served just reading that one, and I'm teaching you some of what's in one of the others," I stated, thinking of the book on the philosophical implications of some of the various beliefs commonly held by shinobi. "You're welcome to take a look at the others whenever you want... but for now, should I tell you about your mother?"

My best friend's son seemed surprised for a moment before nodding eagerly.

"I told you before that I didn't know your mother all that well, and that's true. In all honesty the people closest to her were your father and the Third Hokage."

Naruto's eyes widened. "Old Man Hokage?!"

I nodded in confirmation. "Yeah. I wasn't around at the time, but he apparently saved her life when she was a little girl, and she sort of... latched on to him. She viewed him as an honorary grandfather of sorts."

The affection hadn't exactly been one-way, either -- even discounting the 'little things' like how he'd taken her father's place during her wedding to Minato or some of Minato's stories about them, you'd never know that they weren't related by blood if you watched them interact. To all appearances they'd been like a loving grandfather and granddaughter.

Naruto blinked. "So he's like my great-grandfather or something?" he asked. "Maybe I should start calling him that..."

I chuckled. "It might be amusing," I replied, "but he's not really related to you."

Naruto nodded in comprehension.

"Anyway, her family was once rather prestigious and was easily one of the oldest families in Fire Country, although they'd since fallen on hard times and were neither terribly wealthy nor prestigious when she was born. If it wasn't for the fact that she had several famous ancestors, she would have been a normal girl for all practical intents and purposes."

Naruto seemed interested at that. "Famous ancestors? Like who?"

I grinned. "One of the Nine Guardians, for one. When I said that her family was old, I meant that their lineage dated back to the Interregnum."

"Oh," Naruto answered, stunned at that revelation. I let him stop to process that for a moment before I moved on.

"She reminded me rather strongly of one of her ancestors, actually," I continued, "which was rather ironic, given that she was indirectly named after the ancestor in question."

Naruto frowned. "Indirectly? Ancestor in question?"

I cocked my head sideways. "She was named after a relative who was named after a relative who was named after... well, you get the idea. It was traditional in her family to give her name to their first-born daughter, so there were a lot of people with her name in her family tree, if you understand what I mean. As for what I meant about the 'ancestor in question', I simply meant that the tradition of doing so started with the ancestor who your mother reminded me of -- that her family would name their first born daughters after her. Over time they forgot about their ancestor, but the tradition remained."

"Ah, I see."

"Glad you do. Anyway, the resemblance was... really uncanny. There's a funny story there, actually -- the short version is that I was sipping some tea when your father first introduced me to his girlfriend. When he introduced her as such I spat it all over the room and blurted out her name. It... took a while for them to figure out what had happened and to clear up the misconception on my part."

It had been a shock when I had first met Tomoe Hotaru and, even after I'd gotten to know her somewhat, the resemblance was really creepy at times.

"Anyway, professionally speaking, she was a nurse. She was also a rather popular choice to act as a midwife, and she once told me that was her favorite part of her work -- in her words, while helping the sick recover and helping people get better from injuries was rewarding, it was nothing compared to helping bring a new life into the world." I smiled, thinking about something rather closely related. "In fact, the happiest I'd ever seen her was when she found out that she was pregnant. Your father and I were discussing some of the finer points of fuuinjutsu when we heard a rather loud squeal from upstairs. We started to get up to investigate, only to be interrupted by your mother running through the door and latching onto your father with enough force to send him crashing back into his chair. It actually took us several minutes to find out what was going on because she was so involved in deciding what to name you."

It hadn't taken them long to decide, either. Of course, if Naruto had been a girl he would have been named 'Keika', but... well, that wasn't an issue anymore.

Naruto gave me a strange look. "You liked her, didn't you?"

I chuckled. "Not very many people didn't," I answered. "I'll admit to regarding her with more than a little affection, but not romantically or anything. She was my best friend's wife. She was more of a little sister to me than anything else."

Hotaru had been slightly over seventeen years old when I'd first met her, and I'd been twenty-five when I was summoned. That would have been enough to put her into that category in my mind by itself, but when coupled with the fact that she and Minato were so obviously in love...

Naruto nodded. "I see."

"Anyway, she was practically glowing for weeks. Even after that she'd talk to you while rubbing her belly... and your father told me that he practically had to drag her away from looking at baby things at least once every day. Even when her health started to fail, her first thought was always for you."

Naruto had tears in his eyes at that point. "How... how did she die?"

I looked down, practically staring at my feet. "Your birth was not... easy. There were complications. She could have survived... she should have survived... but with the hospital being flooded with the injured from the fox's attack, the staff was... overworked. Several people who could have survived with more medical attention died simply because there weren't enough medics to treat them."

"My mother..."

"Was one of them, yes," I confirmed, nodding. "A few days later the medic who was responsible for your mother's case killed himself. According to the note that he left it was an apology for letting your mother die..."

I wasn't about to tell him that I had later found out that the medic in question had been a member of Root when it was still an official organization, after all. I had my suspicions, but they were only that. Yamakawa's suicide had rather conveniently cut off all avenues of investigation.

I stared off into space. "Sometimes, I blame myself. If I hadn't been so foolish as to think that I could somehow make a difference in the fight... if I had stayed in the hospital and looked after your mother instead of rushing off in my desperation to try something... anything... to save your father..."

My mini-rant was interrupted by Naruto suddenly grabbing my arm. "Don't think that," he firmly insisted. "I'm sure that you did everything you could." Naruto's voice suddenly slowed. "If anyone should be blamed, it's me."

I looked up harshly. "No," I harshly responded, my voice coarse with emotion. "Your mother wouldn't want you to think that way... and it's not true. Never think that it's your fault."

"Then don't think that way either, ojisan," he retorted.

My eyes widened as I realized just what Naruto had done. "Very clever," I stated. "You're right, of course... and I suppose that I've always known that... but survivor's guilt isn't exactly easy to fight. Thank you."

Naruto smiled and looked up at me. "Just one more question."

"Of course."

Naruto proceeded slowly, fumbling for words. "Do you... did she... would she..."

I smiled. "Do I think that she loved you? Would she be proud of you?"

Naruto just mutely nodded.

"There isn't a doubt in my mind," I answered, before laughing. "Do I think that she loved you? Naruto-kun, there was an incident a couple of months before you were born -- your mother suffered some internal bleeding and it was only luck and quick medical intervention that saved her life. Your father later told me that her first concern was for you, even before her own life, that she had been practically begging the medic who treated her to tell her if her baby would be alright... and that she only allowed him to tell her about her own condition after he reassured her that there would be no adverse effects on you."

Naruto's eyes seemed torn between widening and narrowing as tears began to form. I just hugged him again. Sometimes, there really wasn't anything to say.

--

About ten minutes later I had released Naruto and related a few anecdotes about his parents. I hadn't been particularly close to his mother, but even just repeating stories that his father had told me was enough to help satisfy Naruto's curiosity. I hoped that I had managed to paint a reasonably decent portrait of the woman who I had known far too briefly, but who had played such a large role in my life. Unfortunately, everything must come to an end, and we had to move on if I was going to manage to give Naruto a credible version of "the talk" and still get to sleep at a reasonable hour.

With that in mind I brought Naruto over to my desk and pulled my illustrated copy of the Kama Sutra off of the shelf that I unofficially labeled "materials to bribe Jiraiya with". I hoped that Naruto would find it useful and, in one of what I considered one of my more brilliant matchmaking moves, I'd spent a bit of time searching for a copy that featured models who bore a close resemblance to Naruto and Hinata. I'd succeeded quite well, I liked to think, within the boundaries provided by Naruto and Hinata's ages and their... more distinctive physical features (in other words, the byakugan and the marks on Naruto's cheeks).

"Oh, cool," Naruto said from behind me, suddenly redirecting my attention to where he was reaching out to my paperweight. "What's this?"

In all honesty I wasn't exactly sure how to answer his question. It was a crystal or gem of some sort, that was certain, but... well, that wasn't all there was to it. I'd heard in my readings about ancient history that the Divine Emperor had, upon visiting a site near where the Fire/Wave border now was, declared that he sensed something powerful buried beneath the surface and ordered his followers to dig for it. Even after his death the digging had continued, although the rumors had shifted to it being a deeply buried treasure. I had visited the place, hoping to find something; the Divine Emperor and I were originally from the same world, after all, and even if I'd been brought over by a flawed summoning ritual, there was a chance that I would be able to sense whatever had attracted his attention.

I hadn't, of course, but I had found something. On my way to the site I'd tripped over a crystal. I had started to get up, but I'd sensed... something... from it, so I'd decided to keep it until I could figure out what about it had attracted my attention. Over time tests had confirmed that it wasn't an ordinary gemstone, but that was about it. I'd even asked jewelers to help me identify it; while they confirmed that it was a clear gemstone, it was neither quartz nor diamond... and had left them stumped as to just what it was. As none of the angles of investigation I'd tried had produced much, I'd kept it on my desk as an interesting puzzle that I'd revisit from time to time and put it to use as a paperweight.

As I started to form my response, I sensed... whatever it had been... from the stone start to... react somehow. It was very much akin to what I felt from most of the magical items I'd accumulated when they were about to activate, but... different, somehow. Regardless, I didn't want to risk it harming Naruto.

Before I could warn him, however, Naruto's hand made contact with the stone and the feeling... pulsed... as a glowing purple symbol appeared on Naruto's forehead for a moment, looking like almost like a stylized "h".

Right. If I could actually tolerate alcohol in anything approaching reasonable amounts, I'd say that I needed a drink.

I promptly sat down, not even really noticing that there wasn't a chair in the right position; the floor made an acceptable substitute. So, Naruto was not only a descendant of the most powerful of the Nine Guardians, he was also her heir. Well, that and I'd apparently been using the Ginzuishou as a paperweight. Considering that I couldn't actually use it for much, that was perfectly fine. Still... that heritage was supposed to be primarily matrilineal, while family names were almost always passed down patrilineally. In fact, it had been that way for at least three generations on Hotaru's side of the family, and I'd confirmed that neither Minato nor Hotaru had been the heir to any of the Guardians. Well, it had been as part of a demonstration to Hotaru as to what I was going to do in Minato's case, but I'd still conducted the test.

That meant that Naruto had become the heir because someone higher up in the pecking order, so to speak, had died after I had tested his parents. Moreover, had Naruto inherited through the Tomoe line, Shinji was a closer matrilineal descendant than Hotaru was...

Bah. It wasn't important... and it wasn't like I knew all of the rules of the succession, anyway. For all I knew it was just that Naruto was the first descendant to come into contact with the Silver Queen's favorite rock-ex-machina.

I was brought out of my thoughts by Naruto's eyes staring into mine from barely a foot away as a look of concern graced his face. I promptly shook myself out of my shock and forced myself to focus on the present.

"Sorry," I apologized. "I was just surprised."

Naruto blinked. "Huh? What do you mean? You just collapsed all of a sudden."

I shook my head. "You didn't notice, but your ancestor's crest appeared on your forehead."

Naruto gave me a look of confusion.

"The crystal that you picked up was something of a mystery to me. I just found out what it was in a rather... surprising fashion."

That got him excited again. "Ne, ne, what is it?"

I shrugged. "Oh, not that much -- just the legendary Ginzuishou, the source of the Silver Queen's powers and, according to a comment in the Immortal Sage's diaries, the artifact which created the Bijuu."

Naruto's eyes widened in shock as he took a step back. "You mean... what just happened? Does it have anything to do with..."

As he was rubbing his stomach at the end of his last, incomplete, question, his meaning was rather apparent. "No," I replied. "It has nothing to do with that. I had thought that you were just a descendant of one of the Nine Guardians, but the crystal recognized you as her heir."

"Her heir?! What do you mean?"

I shrugged again. "I mean that you are now the successor to the power and abilities of the most powerful of the Nine Guardians," I explained. "It was something of a shock."

"Oh," he answered, promptly falling to the floor much as I just had.

I frowned as I thought of something. "Unfortunately, we don't have any way for you to access that power. If we could find one of those vibrator-shaped transformation devices we'd have a way, even if it was really embarrassing, but..."

Naruto blinked. "Vibrator-shaped transformation devices? Really embarrassing?"

I gave Naruto another shrug before using a seal less genjutsu to project one of the devices. It was easily recognizable as fake, of course, but it conveyed the image nicely. "That's what I'm talking about," I answered before changing the illusion, "and this is what you'd look like in the uniform the device would put you in whenever you used it to access your heritage."

"Gyah," Naruto replied, pushing himself away from my illusion. I really didn't blame him; as mental images go, that was just wrong.

"I suppose the only thing we can do is try to find something else. For now it doesn't really matter."

Naruto furiously nodded in agreement. The male figure really wasn't meant for an abbreviated seifuku.

Forcing myself to focus on what we had come to my apartment for, I smiled. "Anyway, like I said, we can worry about this later. We came here so that I could explain a few things, after all."

Naruto gave me a dubious nod of the head. "About this 'sexual intercourse' stuff?"

"Yes," I confirmed. "I don't really know how it's handled in Konoha since I didn't grow up here, but where I come from it's customary for a person's same-sex parent..."

I trailed off, seeing that Naruto didn't understand. "Your father if you're a boy, or your mother if you're a girl," I clarified.

"I see."

"Anyway, it's customary for a person's same-sex parent to take them aside and explain certain things to them when they get old enough to understand them. If they're unavailable for any reason, the duty usually falls to an uncle, a grandparent, a caretaker... basically, someone else will stand in for them and take the role of the parent for the purpose of the explanation."

Naruto smiled at me. "That's why you brought me here?"

I acknowledged his question with a nod of my head. "Yes. Sexual intercourse is a large part of the discussion, which we call 'the Talk'. It's something of a coming-of-age ritual, really..."

"Coming-of-age ritual?"

I grinned. "Yes. Like your academy graduation, almost, or your first mission as a ninja -- something that indicates a change in your life. In this case, having received the Talk indicates that your family recognizes you as being old enough to understand certain things."

"I see," Naruto replied before pausing. After a moment, he suddenly frowned. "But..."

I shook my head firmly. "Naruto-kun, there are many types of family and many ways of thinking about it. When I was younger I was told that a person had at least two families over the course of their lives -- the family they were born in, and the family that they make themselves. I regard you as family. In many ways your genin team becomes or should become family." I paused for a moment before coming to a decision. "But... even if you just mean family that's related by blood... you still have a living relative."

Naruto's eyes widened as he took a step back. "Wh... what?"

I sighed. "One of your mother's cousins is still alive," I confirmed.

"But... why?"

"Why didn't he take you in? Because he couldn't. Why haven't you heard about this? Because almost everyone in Konoha thinks that he's dead. I met him when he came to Konoha after he heard about your mother's death. Several people tried to tell him that you... or, to phrase it the way they did, your mother's son, was dead. I spoke to him and told him the truth... but, shortly after that, someone tried to have him killed. We eventually had to fake his death and send him into hiding. As far as I know, I... and you, now that I've told you... so we are the only people to know that story here in Konoha. Not even the Hokage knows it."

Naruto's eyes widened in shock. "But..."

"Why didn't I tell the Hokage? Because there's an old saying -- the only way that two people can keep a secret is if one of them is dead. Events made it apparent that someone very high up in the ranks of Konoha's ninja was trying to have your last living relative killed. I refused to let it happen, even if it meant keeping a secret from the Hokage. I'm going to ask you not to tell anyone about that -- if anyone were to find out that he survived there's a chance that he'd be endangered, and since he's running an orphanage nowadays, chances are that a number of innocent children would be brought into the matter. The only reason I'm telling you this is because I feel you have a right to know, but if you talk about it there's a chance that someone will overhear... and, while I suspect Danzou, I don't know for certain just who was trying to have your cousin murdered." I gave a somewhat morbid chuckle. "It was close enough as things stood; the only reason that I was able to credibly fake his death was that the assassin was trying to make things look like an accident."

Naruto was notably pale at this point. I supposed that I was rubbing it on a bit thickly, but even if there weren't assassins to consider, Shinji really couldn't afford to have attention drawn to him at this point. Running an orphanage, in and of itself, wasn't that big of a deal... but when you considered that almost all of the kids that he was raising had a kekkei genkai of some sort, keeping attention away from his continued existence suddenly became considerably more urgent.

"I'll see about introducing you to him sometime, but... well, it will be tricky, especially since I can't even tell you his name thanks to that thrice-damned promise to Danzou."

Naruto closed his eyes for a moment before smiling. "Well," he said, "at least I'm not really alone..."

I shook my head. "No, you're not. You have the Third Hokage, Iruka-kun, me..."

Naruto's smile just widened. "So this mystery cousin doesn't really matter," he finished. "I'd like to meet him, of course, but my family is here."

Sometimes Naruto really reminded me of Minato. Not knowing what to say, I just smiled proudly at the child who I would have been honored to adopt as my own.

After a moment of that, and a few more minutes spent ensuring that I had successfully conveyed the importance of no one knowing about Shinji's survival, I decided to move on to the Talk proper.

"Now," I began, readying the Kama Sutra, "when a man and a woman love each other very much... or, for that matter, when they're feeling rather horny and want to relieve some tension..."

--

Four hours later I finally sat down to try to get the bloodstains out of my floor after I had taken Naruto back to his apartment in something of a daze. Interestingly enough Naruto had already known what sex was, although he was unfamiliar with the term 'sexual intercourse'. Fortunately, I'd rectified that... and he now had a rather large addition of related terms to add to his vocabulary. Really though, it wasn't like I'd gotten too into things... I'd barely spent twenty minutes on fellatio and cunnilingus -- combined! I'd admittedly spent much more time discussing the latter than the former, but that was largely because Naruto hardly needed to learn to perform fellatio -- he just needed to know enough to be able to tell his partner what to do. I'd even glossed over homosexual sexual practices, only briefly describing a few common lesbian practices (and splashing some water into Naruto's face when he passed out with a nosebleed).

My copy of the Kama Sutra was a write-off, although that wasn't entirely Naruto's fault -- I'd noticed several spots where existent wear made it look like someone had thumbed through it and had to clean it off by hand (and not entirely succeeded). My book on how to properly and efficiently solicit a prostitute -- ruined. My human sexual behavior textbook was iffy; I'd need to get a new copy if I couldn't clean the blood off of a few pages. At least the book on various kissing techniques that I'd used as a visual aid was reasonably intact... that section of the Kama Sutra was ridiculously incomplete, after all... but even my book on kinbaku techniques hadn't escaped unscathed!

Oh, well. At least Naruto now had some knowledge that I was fairly certain would be useful to him in the future, and I figured that Hinata would enjoy the results of my efforts as well.

Unfortunately I was brought out of my thoughts by Thyme-chan bringing me a note saying that the emo-duck had managed to get himself hospitalized. Judging by the symptoms it was a Prozac overdose, too... which wouldn't have been possible if he'd actually followed the directions I'd given him.

Oh, well. According to the report there were no signs of kidney damage and Sasuke was expected to make a full recovery, although the reports of his eyes flashing red while he was being treated were somewhat disturbing. I'd have to check it out in the morning.

--