Word from the Author: Better late than never...? Basically I moved to Japan in the time since my last update and was there for several years.

Dedicated to baka bakashi, I'm working on it, okay?

Disclaimer: Like I said in Part I, Chapter I.

The Trust 'Verse - Part III


Chapter V

"You… Are you Mamoru?" Shikamaru called after the departing figure that one of the villagers had helpfully pointed out to him.

"Yeah," the brown-haired youth replied easily, glancing back over his shoulder at the question. "Who's asking?"

Shikamaru had no idea what he was meant to say to that.

Me, Mamoru. I am your father.

Shikamaru winced. It sounded entirely too cheesy, and really… just kind of lame.

And then his son turned and faced him full on.

Shikamaru couldn't help but stare at the character tattooed above his son's eye, his son's name boldly proclaimed, in a style so reminiscent of Gaara, that Shikamaru felt a twinge of envy towards the Kazekage.

They looked enough alike to be thought of as father and son, which they both were and weren't. Such a similarity, however, Mamoru had no choice in. The tattoo, though… that he would've chosen. Shikamaru could see how much pride his son took in it.

The only other similarity arguably indicative of his connection to the Nara Clan was the way Mamoru wore his hair – exactly as Shikamaru did. But with apparently no knowledge of such a fact, Shikamaru was hard pushed to call it a choice.

What he ended up saying, however, was, "I am a shinobi of Konohagakure. I was just wondering where I could find your mother."

His son looked slightly startled at this. Quickly recovering, his eyes narrowing as he took in Shikamaru's appearance, he replied evenly, "I was just heading over to see her. Follow me. I'll take you to her."

Shikamaru looked away to hide his smile.

Liar, he thought fondly, as he walked with his son back the way the boy had just come.

But you always sucked at lying, too. How in Kami's name did you manage to keep this from me, Temari?

"Maru!" His mother blurted as he showed the stranger into the room.

Maru? Mamoru raised both eyebrows at her, well aware of his own nickname.

Looking more flustered than he'd ever seen her, Temari beckoned the Konoha-nin enter.

"What are you doing here?" She demanded, her eyes darting to the side, catching his own. Mamoru watched on curiously as the man placed his hands together and remained silent.

Minutes passed, in which he saw his mother display more patience than he'd have thought her capable of before today.

"It never occurred to you that I would have wanted to know?" This Maru-fellow, eventually replied. A question for a question.

"Did you not think, before coming here, that I had good reason for not telling you?" Temari snapped back, hackles raised.

The man's face remained smooth, unaffected by his mother's sudden outburst. Mamoru got the feeling that perhaps this man was used to his mother's moods. "Of course," his voice calmly intoned, "but the problem is, you see, I can think of no good reason for it. Which is why… you should have told me."

An odd tension lit the room, and broke, causing the slightest ripple in otherwise tranquil waters—an unexpected fissure in his mother's composure.

But all he had witnessed of this encounter told Mamoru that this man, whoever he was, was no stranger to her. There were few people in this world that his mother couldn't affect a perfect outer impression of disinterestedness towards.


Mamoru blinked and looked up to find his mother and the not-stranger staring at him.

"Uh, sorry?" Mamoru replied, knowing there had probably been a question or a command before his name.

His mother rolled her eyes, relaxing just a fraction, in the face of his usual behaviour. "I said: I forgot to tell you earlier that your uncle asked you to come meet him when you had a moment to spare. There was someone he wanted you to show around."

Mamoru's eyebrows rose, yet again, at that. Not questioning his mother's obvious desire to talk to this man, who was at least in part his namesake, in private, he inclined his head slightly in acquiescence of her request.

Interestingly it turned out not to be as much of an excuse as he had originally thought it to be.

He woke in pain. Blindly he reached out, his hand falling in disappointment, when all it met with was emptiness. Piteously, he called to the apartment, in spite of the throbbing in his skull cavity, "Iruka?"

Thick silence met his call.

His head felt ready to explode. And then it hit him, the sudden, violent realisation that, of course, Iruka couldn't be there; he was dead.

Kakashi managed to roll over just enough to lose the contents of his stomach onto the hard wood floor of the apartment rather than in bed with him. He retched, and retched, until he felt empty. Wrung out.

Shakily, Kakashi wiped the back of his hand across his mouth, his eyes stinging, almost as much as his throat.

He slumped, exhausted, back into bed, confused as to why he had thought otherwise. Maybe it was the alcohol burning through his system, a cheap imitation of the way Iruka set his body alight, made him burn.

Time passed.

Kakashi lay still, staring up at the ceiling of their apartment.

Eventually, Kakashi found himself curled up on his side. His nose pressed to the pillow next to him, a scent tickling his senses.

Kakashi sniffed, trying to figure out why this foreign scent was here, and why it seemed so familiar.

Kakashi stiffened as a trickle of memory dripped tortuously into his mind.

Suddenly, he was stone cold sober, his blood chilled at the recollection of 'Shirou's sweet face crumpled in pain, silently weeping. His alcohol induced stupor had prevented his brain from parsing what he'd been seeing, so lost had he been in fantasy.

Rolling to sit up right, Kakashi buried his head in his hands, even as his stomach roiled in protest. Kami, he needed to find 'Shirou and apologise. He couldn't imagine what he must have done to make 'Shirou make such a face.

Opening his bedside table, he pulled a pair of masks from the top of the pile, trying to compose himself in the ritual of it. As he moved to close the drawer, his gaze came to rest on a note, written on the dolphin notepad Iruka had given him – one of many dolphin-related items bought in the spirit of in case you miss me!

Kakashi wished beyond all reason that he had no cause to, but alas.

Kakashi read the note, reeling as memory came flooding in. He crumpled the note in his grasp. This time it was with blinding clarity that the events of the previous evening struck.

'Shirou naked, in his bed, not Iruka, as his intoxicated mind had led him to believe.

He'd taken 'Shirou's first kiss, Kakashi noted, appalled at himself. Freely given it had been… but to no one who deserved it.

Now, he recalled all too distinctly hearing the hitch of 'Shirou's breath, the softness of his lips, the shuddering exhales, feeling, with shocking sharpness, for all that it was a memory of a sensation, hot tears against his skin.

Feeling sick to the stomach all over again, Kakashi pressed one hand to his mouth, his fingers meeting and clinging against his bare skin. With haste, Kakashi pressed the first mask, and then hurriedly the second, into place.

Marginally more composed, Kakashi reopened the note, his fingers delicately smoothing the creases out and tracing the lines of each character.

Kakashi didn't know how he could even begin to make things right between them.

Perhaps… perhaps, it was better this way, at least with 'Shirou gone—Kakashi swallowed hard, grimacing at the stab of pain he felt at the thought—at least with 'Shirou far, far away, Kakashi couldn't hurt him.

Any more than you already have, you mean? He mentally chastised himself.

At least this way, he'll get to see the world, explore, adventure… fall in love. With someone—better, younger—more deserving.

And he'll forget about me.

Kakashi felt his heart ache. The thought didn't provide Kakashi nearly as much comfort as he had imagined it would. Not that he deserved that either.

The hope that 'Shirou could be happy, though, that made the pain worthwhile.

Anything, for 'Shirou's sake.

Toshirou shifted his weight uneasily from one foot to another unsure as to why he'd been called to speak with the Kage of a Hidden Village all by himself.

It was quite a strange sensation; thanks to Naruto-san, Toshirou weirdly felt like he knew the Kage in question despite only having seen him in person once before – at his Nii-san's chuunin exams. Even then, it hadn't been as up close and personal as in the Kazekage's own office.

Fidgeting, Toshirou tried his best to calm his outwards appearance, before quickly giving up and agitatedly running one hand through his hair. Almost all of the adults Toshirou had known in his relatively short life were forever berating him for his nervous energy.

It's a weakness you can't afford to have.

Even his parents, despite their care and attention, could sometimes be overly stern about his buoyancy. His Otou-san never quite came out and called it a weakness like others did, but Toshirou could hear the word lurking beneath gentler ones. His Okaa-san, on the other hand, was occasionally stiflingly concerned about him being distracted, but beyond that had expressed nothing negative on the matter. In fact, she'd compared him to Naruto-san, which Toshirou had decided to take as a compliment. Naruto-san was, after all, their Hokage.

It's a good thing, weakness. Weakness allows for growth, for true strength. The weakness of a shinobi must become his weapon. It may prove to be his most effective lure, if he has presence of mind to truly know it, and exploit it, more surely than his enemies. Weakness need not be weeded out in the garden of one's self. It should be monitored, cultivated, maintained; it is the fragile bud of a rose, whose scent draws in those wishing to do damage. Such a rose need not fear, well aware of its own thorns, while those who are unable to recognise this are the ones who come away, torn and bloodied from the encounter.

Toshirou felt his lips quirk in a half-smile as he remembered Take-sensei's words. Take-sensei had never tried to quash this so-called weakness from him, but had shown him ways to channel his nervous energy, and turn that weakness into strength.

And as now seemed to be the case, a bitter sweet ache thrummed through him at the mere thought of his sensei, driving what little of a smile there had been from his face.

With that ache came a wave of calmness almost completely foreign to Toshirou. Expression for once blank, Toshirou laughed sadly to himself within the secret corners of his mind.

I'm evolving, he thought on the end of the laugh. I'm no longer a rose. I'm a cactus; all thorns. Perhaps the others were right. I can't afford to be a rose. Not when it hurts me more than it could hurt any of my 'enemies'.

Because in the end, it was Toshirou, who had been unable to recognise the fragility in his sensei—fullofloveforanother—notme—neverme—and it was he, who had come away, bleeding and broken and entirely blind-sided by it all.

But he was different now, and maybe more well suited to the desert than he would've been otherwise.

Gaara watched with interest as expressions flitted with alarming speed across the young shinobi's face. His interest drew keener still when all of a sudden the youth's expression tapered off into nothingness, a blankness of which Gaara would not have thought him capable.

Uchiha Sasuke's second son reminded him so acutely of Naruto; Gaara found himself shaking his head to dispel the image that had superimposed itself momentarily.

Slowly refocusing on the sight before him, Gaara was certain that Uchiha Toshirou, much like one Uzumaki Naruto, would not be capable of sustaining that blankness for long.

Seeing such a lack of expression on a face that had, up until now, been so evidently animated struck a chord within Gaara. He felt compelled to evoke some passion in it. For some reason unbeknownst to him, Gaara was left feeling… mischievous.

Somewhat recklessly, he let a sliver of sand slither across the floor, only to have it stealthily slide around the youth's ankle.

And then he tugged.

And felt deep satisfaction at the sound of a startled yelp.

Toshirou stumbled slightly before managing to right himself, caught completely off guard, but recovering quickly.

Ferociously chastising himself, he was forced to remember that he was no longer in his home country, even as he swiftly evaluated the situation.

Heck, even at home, he wouldn't have allowed his guard to fall as far as it had!

But the only potential threat in the room was the Kazekage.

Only? Toshirou snorted mentally. He could probably crush me with the power of his mind alone.

Toshirou met the Kazekage's gaze and was surprised to see a glint of humour there.

Wordlessly, Toshirou shifted his own gaze down to eye the offender, which turned out to be some of Sunagakure's famed sand, coiled, loosely now about his lower leg, more like a friendly snake than a constricting python.

Looking back up, Toshirou started again, before wondering whether he'd really done something wrong—but I haven't even been here long!—to warrant such an expression from the head of a Hidden Village.

Toshirou echoed the smile on the Kazekage's face nervously.

This time Toshirou felt the chakra in the sand as it easily released its light hold on him and returned to its owner.

Toshirou waited, considering his options.

Before he could even begin to say anything, he was gestured into one of the seats in front of the large, but orderly, desk.

Obediently, Toshirou sat, and this time, waited for the Kazekage to speak.

"May I call you Toshirou?" Gaara politely enquired, relaxing into his own unfortunately ostentatious chair. There were many traditions that Gaara could do without, but this was one that would have served nothing more than his own comfort, and in negotiations with the Elders, he'd quickly conceded it remain, in exchange for others more meaningful, ones that served to benefit his people.

In all actuality, he felt more at ease in this chair as a result – now, it was a symbol of personal sacrifice, of his willingness to put those he represented before himself. It possibly also helped, that as Kazekage, sitting in it meant he didn't have to look at it.

"Of course, Kazekage-sama," Toshirou murmured respectfully, in a manner Gaara knew Naruto surely couldn't have managed at that age – and paused to wonder at the need for such comparisons. Naruto was Naruto; there was truly no other like him. And Toshirou was no doubt equally unique. As Gaara was hoping to discover.

"Please," Gaara replied, with the same amount of respect, "there is no need to be so formal. As I understand it, we have some close friends in common."

Gaara relished the look of surprise that appeared on Toshirou's face at this announcement. It was certainly more amenable than the earlier blankness Gaara had witnessed.

No, that look reminded him entirely too much of himself.

Before I knew love.

Blinking, Gaara tilted his head to better examine the youth. He couldn't imagine Toshirou's childhood being anything like his own. It wasn't until he'd met Naruto that he'd begun to fathom the concept—in both its platonic and familial dimensions.

And yet romance escapes you still, an irritatingly Naruto-like voice teased in his head.

Ignoring the comment, as was usually the best way to deal with most of Naruto's antics, which Gaara could easily distinguish from Naruto's true actions and words, he came to this conclusion: it is something along these lines that bothers him. Matters specific to the heart, Gaara decided, watching as Toshirou watched him through lowered lashes, noting the forlorn expression that seemed to creep across the young man's face when he wasn't actively controlling his expression.

"And despite anything you may have heard about me, especially anything coming from certain loud mouth blonds," his words drew a startled grin, "I should wish you to draw your own conclusions."

Gaara smiled gently as Toshirou nodded slowly in response. "And perhaps then we too could call each other friend."

"Me?" Toshirou blurted.

Gaara raised a brow delicately, infinitely pleased at the blush that raced across sun-drenched cheeks.

"I think I'm quite past the stage of speaking solely to myself. If others are in the room," Gaara graciously amended the thought. Gaara then drew out the moment, allowing the tension to heighten slightly, before causing it to deepen, as he gravely added, looking away as he did so, "Unless you would rather not be."

"No!" Toshirou hastened to reassure him, almost jumping out of his seat to do so. "That's not it at all!" He endearingly defended. "It's just—"

"Just?" Gaara prompted, softening his expression further, focusing his attention entirely on Toshirou.

Toshirou couldn't believe this! He wasn't sure whether this was much better or much worse than being in trouble, barely an hour after arriving in a foreign Village. But having thought that thought, Toshirou desperately wanted to take it back, realising how uncharitable it sounded to… Gaara-sama.

Toshirou met Gaara-sama's eyes, then squirmed at the kindness he saw there—not at all what he was expecting from the fearsome leader of Sand. But Toshirou had also met his own 'leader', who was probably one of the kindest, most giving people alive – then again, most people didn't really rely on Naruto-san as a good example for extrapolation when it came to people in power. Toshirou had always thought Naruto-san to be quite an exception to the rule. Especially if he thought about his own Nii-san's reaction to the man.

Thinking of his Nii-san's obsession deepened Toshirou's flush. Thinking of his own obsession, it practically turned violent.

Averting his eyes, Toshirou explained, "I just… can't see why you would want to be friends with me."

"You remind me of Naruto."

Toshirou relaxed at that response, because that made sense. As Kage of their respective Villages, they probably wouldn't get to see each other much, and even when they did, it probably had more to do with business than anything else.

"But… that's not really enough to base a friendship on."

Toshirou peered up at Gaara-sama wondering what then this could be about.

Without further prompting, Gaara-sama continued, "What I mean to say is simply this: all of the qualities that I respect in Naruto I see in you, and that alone makes you desirable… as a friend."

And just as Toshirou had thought his face couldn't get any hotter, it did, as those words, that he had no longer thought applicable to himself, blazed through him.

Makes you desirable…

Still, smiling a shy smile to himself, Toshirou responded the only way he could to such unexpected warmth, "I'd like that… Gaara-sama. I'd like for us to be friends."

The pleased expression that Gaara-sama showed him only served to warm him further.

It was mostly coincidence that Rokudaime just so happened to have a mission that required the precise skill set belonging to the ANBU team captained by Uchiha Iwa. Really.

Feeling oddly nervous, Naruto sent a missive requesting Iwa's presence. It took less than 10 minutes for Iwa to arrive in Naruto's office. And yet, Naruto couldn't quite explain why it had felt infinitely longer.

Catching a black shadow out of the corner of his eyes, as it darted in through a window, Naruto stood and shuffled around in front of his desk, somehow feeling no less nervous, despite the mantle of authority now resting on his shoulders.

"Iwa?" Naruto questioned, even though he was sure it was him. Kyuubi shifted in both recognition and anticipation deep within his mind.

The masked figure dropped to its knee, its voice blank, muted, as it replied, "Is that the current designation you would assign me?"

Naruto stared at the mouse-like features of the kamen, feeling strangely hurt by the lack of acknowledgement. Straightening himself, he commanded, "Remove your mask," and nearly jumped at the hint of kyuubi he'd heard in his own voice.

Naruto saw the slightest twitch of hesitance in the gloved fingers of the ANBU as they were raised.

And just as Naruto had known, from behind the Nezumi, Iwa appeared, expression closed, eyes lowered.

"You called for my presence, Hokage-sama."


"Hai, Hokage-sama."

"Please," Naruto started, reaching out, fingers itching to smooth through the midnight blue hair just like he used to. His fingers tingled, as if tactilely recalling the sensation, as if he'd done exactly that, just moments, instead of years, ago. Aborting the action, not quite knowing how it would be received, Naruto felt more tired than he had in years, "There's no need for you to be so formal with me."

"I beg to differ, Hokage-sama, you are the most important person in this Village, and I am but your humble servant."

Naruto gaped, gobsmacked.

What… the fuck?!

The flash of anger that burned through him was entirely unexpected, almost as unexpected as Iwa's words, and it leaked out into his tone, as he failed to rein it in.

"That's not true!" Naruto felt himself snarl.

How long had it been since he'd felt anything, even anger, as strongly as this?

"Everyone is equally as important!" Naruto heard himself proclaim. "And no one serves me! Have you forgotten everything I taught you?"

"As surely as you'd forgotten I exist," came the quiet reply. There was a short beat, before Iwa humbly added, "Hokage-sama."

Naruto sucked in a shocked breath, feeling as though he'd been slapped. Staring incredulously at the young man kneeling before him, he had nothing to say other than, "What?"

"Please do not concern yourself, Hokage-sama," Iwa deflected, in a subservient manner that grated entirely on Naruto's nerves.

It was the first time Naruto could remember hating his title. He'd worked so hard for this, for his dreams to finally be realised, only to suddenly find himself wishing to just be Naruto-san once more.

"It's not important," Iwa continued, his head still bowed, gaze fixed steadily upon Naruto's feet.

Some things just aren't as important as we like to think they are, a 10-year-old Iwa's voice returned to Naruto in a rush.

We don't always get what we want.

You didn't mean to not come?

Beyond the mask beneath his mask, Naruto could still read Iwa loud and clear. How exactly he'd forgotten this, Naruto didn't know. He could see it all, everything that Iwa thought he was hiding, which he had hidden …only because Naruto had stopped looking.

How could you forget me? The little boy asked, staring at him now with sad, lonely eyes. Just like Naruto's own, just like Sai's.

How had it come to this?

Why didn't you come? The little boy pleaded, his voice whispery soft, except where it had been cut jagged, laced with betrayal.

Oh, Kami-sama.


"The mission, Hokage-sama," Iwa prompted, his voice still blank, no lilting cadence of admiration, respect, affection – all of it buried away, behind shuttered eyes and an expressionless visage.

Naruto felt his own eyes begin to burn.

He remembered this voice, all too well. It was the one with which Sai had spoken to him when they'd first met, before, well, everything. It was the voice, Sai explained, he'd been taught to use – no emotions, no past, no future, nothing but the mission.

"The mission," Iwa echoed, unwittingly. "I was told that I was to receive new instructions, Hokage-sama."

There is nothing but the mission.

Naruto wanted to choke on the words, to tell Iwa to forget the mission, for fuck's sake, forget it.

Throat tight, Naruto silently held out the scroll instead.

Iwa took it, his fingers wrapping delicately around the edge, as far from Naruto's as they could be without dropping the damn thing.

Naruto wasn't sure how he was able to let go.

But he did. And in a flash of smoke, Iwa was gone.

Iwa felt confused by Naruto-san's reactions. He'd only done what he thought Naruto-san had wanted – to ensure that he would no longer be a burden to him. There'd been no reason for Naruto-san to sound so shocked, or mournful. Iwa had already accepted his place in the world, even if it was so far different from what he'd always dreamed.

Then again, all of his dreams, since he'd learnt what it meant to have them, had been so inextricably tied to Naruto-san, he'd had no choice but to let go his hold of them, or else he'd never have been able to leave.

Even so, apparently he hadn't done that good a job.

All Iwa had wanted to do was be still and drink in the sight of the man. It felt like an age since Iwa had had the honour of seeing Naruto-san up close and personal; he was certainly a sight to behold, his golden hair, grown out these past few years, now a cascade to match his waterfall-like eyes. In them, Iwa had seen yet again all the beauty, and the strength, and the kindness that had captured him in the first place, before he had forcefully dropped his eyes, trying in vain to evade capture once more.

It was amazing how the mere sight of Naruto-san had been enough to set his heart rate spiking, his senses jumping and his thoughts distractedly scurrying in all sorts of inappropriate directions.

He's not yours to want, Iwa told himself, with as much conviction as he could muster, he's not yours to keep. You need to disappear again, fade away into the background, be inconsequential and nondescript.

It was already a thousand times harder to do so now than it had been this morning.

Naruto-san had unmasked him. Naruto-san had looked right at him... and for the first time in what seemed like practically forever had actually seen him.

Leaning against the railings that lined the cliff of the Hokage Monument, Iwa inhaled a shuddering breath, fingers clenching tight as he braced himself, head hung forward, lax against his chest.

What was he expecting? Really?

The air was still damp from the early morning rain; puddles had gathered sporadically on the uneven mountainside.

Catching a glimpse of his reflection, Iwa was shocked by his own expression. It was revealing far too much, more than he could bear, and it hurt, honest-to-Kami hurt, to see every last bit of emotion he could feel writhing within himself exposed, displayed so unnaturally upon his face.

With an unaccustomedly unsteady hand, Iwa hastily fumbled his mask back into place, breathing a deep sigh of relief as the familiar weight of porcelain settled across his features, cold comfort against his skin. Only then did all the tension he hadn't quite been aware he was holding himself with drain out of him, only then did his breath finally slow from its rapid rhythm to something vaguely resembling the norm.

A wry twist curled his lips, the expression blessedly contained within the confines of his kamen, as Nezumi calmly stared back at him.

He had a mission.

With that thought, Nezumi set off to meet with his team.

"Sabaku-san..." someone called uncertainly.

Startled, Mamoru glanced over his shoulder. There was only one person who'd ever called him that.

Smirking, Mamoru ruffled the kid's hair, dodging easily the hand that tried to swat at him. "O-hisashiburi, shorty."

'Shorty' stared at him slightly wide-eyed, before he ducked his head to ask, "You remember me?"

Uchiha Iwa would have gone undefeated in the chuunin tournament if not for Mamoru. He can't remember a time he'd been more determined to win.

"Ah-huh," Mamoru told him, cheerfully, because what a sweet victory that had been. He wasn't particularly fond of making people cry (mostly due to being unaccustomed to people crying), but in this case, it had totally been worth it to see the chibi-version of the young man now standing before him bawling his eyes out and yelling accusations and proclamations of revenge.

Speaking of, "Come to take your revenge, have you?"

Uchiha Toshirou blushed in response.

Mamoru was intrigued to find that this response was perhaps even more satisfying than when he'd made him cry.

That's quite an impressive shade of red, Mamoru mentally noted.

"I'm part of the entourage from Konoha," Toshirou finally piped up, explaining his reason for being here.


"I just met with Gaara-sama and thought that I should come give my greetings, and ask that you take care of me," he added with a bow.

"Uh," said Mamoru, not entirely sure what he wanted to say to that.

Also, 'Gaara-sama'…?

"I look forward to your guidance!" Toshirou chirped in reply to what he apparently took as affirmation on Mamoru's part.

Okay, sure, whatever.

Gaara watched on from a scant few paces away – just enough space to provide some semblance of privacy.

Toshirou finished making small talk with his nephew, before politely looking over to Gaara and excusing himself from their company.

Once Toshirou had disappeared down the corridor, Gaara walked over to Mamoru. "It looks like there's been some drama in Konoha."

Mamoru quirked an eyebrow in laconic response.

"I don't usually expect an entourage, otherwise."

Mamoru snorted, "Right. Is it serious?"

Frowning, Gaara slowly replied, "Of that, I am not yet certain."

"Hm. Anything I can do to help?"

Smiling slightly at his nephew's gracious offer, Gaara answered with little levity, "I fear Toshirou is in need of a friend."

"Uh, okay…" Mamoru hesitantly agreed.

Gaara looked pointedly at the younger man.

"And you think I would be a good candidate for such a position?" Mamoru questioned, sounding highly dubious.

"I have already extended my hand," Gaara stated plainly, "but as I understand it, one can never have too many friends."

At Mamoru's still doubtful appraisal, Gaara added, "He seems to like you well enough."

"If you say so," Mamoru muttered, followed by a properly audible and far more obedient, "I will do as you say, Oji-san."

"He will be joining us for the morning meal tomorrow—I would suggest you start from there," Gaara instructed.

Mamoru firmly nodded his acquiescence, before he too headed off down the corridor.

In some ways, Gaara thought that Mamoru was just as much in need of a friend. In other ways, perhaps even more so. Their family carried with it just the right amount of authority and menace to keep most people away.

Mamoru's childhood had in no way been as lonely as his own, but Gaara really did believe what he had told his nephew.

One could never have too many friends.

And in his case, one true friend seemed a good place to start.

Naruto rubbed at his eyes tiredly. He was just beginning to feel the start of a tension headache coming on.

Honestly though, Naruto hadn't even had all that much work to do today. No, the problem was more that his mind kept veering back to the scene this morning.

To Iwa.

Naruto couldn't help but wonder how much damage he had done in his neglect.

He might never have intended as such, but he was horrified to discover that in actions alone he had become to Iwa the embodiment of everything that he himself had loathed in his youth. The distant figures of villagers with whom he felt he should have held some kind of bond, to whom he had sworn his loyalty, but who had looked at him with contempt in their eyes or, worse yet, who hadn't looked at him at all. That too had been the cause of varying degrees of malcontent for him as there were those who simply feared him, those who were ashamed of his existence, and those who acted as if he were completely beneath their regard.

It was that disregard he found vicious in its silence—that spoke of his worthlessness.

How many years had passed now during which he had presented nothing but that same disregard to someone who was worth more than Naruto could even begin to quantify?

Whatever good intentions he might have possessed, however much he and others might have considered it his right to withdraw after Sai's passing… he had ignored promises solemnly made that should have never been forgotten.

It was like waking up, only to discover you'd been stabbed in the gut.

At unexpected times during the day, Naruto had discovered he'd unwittingly pressed his hand against his plexus, subconsciously trying to soothe the phantom pain.

If it is the ties that bind you that keep you grounded, then how was it that he was able to stand? How many of those ties had he broken, as he shied away from the world?

Too many, he thought, far too many.

The only question now was… where to begin?

"I hear we've been assigned a mission by the Hokage-sama directly," Youji crowed insinuatingly.

Iwa's hand lifted swiftly, no ink falling onto either of the documents, real or forgery. "It seems you heard correctly, then."

"Heeee~h?" Eiji smiled, leaning in to peer closely at Iwa's face.

Iwa felt a slight blush rising to his pale cheeks. "There was nothing extraordinary about the incident, I assure you."

"Yes, as ordinarily, the Hokage invites all and sundry to his private office to be given directives," Youji remarked, dryly. "Nothing at all different to our usual requests, secretively delivered by a nondescript administrator to whom the contents remain a mystery."

"Our expertises were required," Iwa exhaled, a tad defensively.

"No, I think, rather, your expertises were desired," Fuuji happily informed Iwa.

Iwa grunted, not wanting in the least to get sucked into his team's ridiculous musings. Iwa felt his eyebrow twitch as he sensed the knowing looks his team were currently exchanging.

Mildly disgruntled, Iwa duplicated the mission objectives and flicked a copy to each of his comrades. Deftly, they caught their scrolls, pulling them open to scan the briefing.

"Interesting," Fuuji murmured, contemplatively.

"Interesting, indeed," Youji echoed, insinuatingly.

Eiji bounced in agreement.

"The mission is routine," Iwa returned.

"Oh? Is it now? I thought it required our expertise," Fuuji sassed.

Iwa gritted his teeth, and spoke, "Routine for us."

"Nice to see you think our lives always so interesting, in that case," Youji laughed.

"That's enough, you lot," Iwa commanded, serious now. "This mission has a limited time-frame for execution. Let's get to work."

And just like that, the teasing was put aside, for the moment at least.

Iwa watched with pride and satisfaction as his team transformed before his eyes—taking their places at the table, strategy clear in their eyes, determination written into every line of their bodies.

Just you wait, Naruto-san, we'll show you what we're capable of.

To Be Continued.

Another Word from the Author:

Welp. It's been awhile, everyone. Not to mention it took awhile to re-wrap my head around where I was up to with this monstrosity and remind myself where we were going with it. But now that I have... full steam ahead! Also, have an omake, to boot.


"Ino," Shikamaru began, uncertain. How do you tell your wife you have a bastard son floating about? "There's something you need to know about Temari and I…"

Shikamaru cleared his throat, as Ino looked at him expectantly. "We have a son."

Ino continued to look at him, before slowly saying, "Yes, Shika. I know."

Shikamaru blanched, "You WHAT?"

Taking in her husband's incredulous expression, Ino exclaimed, disbelieving, "…You didn't?"

Shikamaru growled, "No."

Blinking, Ino swore, "Sometimes I have no idea how anyone can call you a genius and mean it."

Until next time (which hopefully won't be the better half of a decade... sorry 'bout that y'all),