Standard disclaimer applies.

IN UNLIKELIEST PLACES
CHAPTER FOUR – LIFE IN THE BURROW

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6 July 1996
Saturday, 5:28AM

Naruto settled into the Burrow with little difficulty despite the initial excitement concerning his presence there. (Excitement was a bit imprecise. Even when he was ensconced in the Third Son's room, it had been easy to listen to Molly-san's indignant screeching for well over an hour about his presence in the Burrow, and just what had Albus been thinking—hiring an assassin to protect Harry and putting her family in danger?)

He found that most of the Weasleys fit the classic civilian profile when it came to dealing with shinobi. For the most part, they avoided him like the plague. When confrontation was inevitable, they spoke politely and after a few moments, always remembered that they had a prior engagement somewhere else. The only exceptions were Arthur and the Twins, but from what he could surmise, they were never the definition of normal.

And so, life in the Burrow settled into a somewhat comfortable, if quiet, routine.

Naruto spent it reading the old newspapers he had found in the Third Son's room, trying to get as much information as he could about the wizarding world. Which wasn't to say he read everything; most of the articles in the years of peace time were not of particular relevance to his current situation. Besides, he had never been much of a reader anyway. He eyed the pile of newspapers on the desk with distaste.

He found himself writing most of the recent history down in his report, for sheer lack of anything to write. More and more, these days, he wondered why Dumbledore had to hire a shinobi guard for Harry Potter. From what he could tell, the wizarding community had an elite police force called Aurors. Far more accessible and feasible than going all the way to Fire Country (where it was Naruto couldn't tell from the 'world' maps the Third Son also owned) and hiring a shinobi.

Dumbledore must have been really desperate for the protection of this kid. He could only imagine the outburst the old man would receive once the news came out that he had hired an assassin to protect... what was it again? Ah, yes, the Boy-Who-Lived. What a stupid name. Although the papers were calling him the Chosen One now.

He glanced at the half-finished paragraph he had just started writing on a fresh scroll, and let out an audible sigh. A week in the Outside and he found himself bored out of his mind. Then again, bodyguard missions were in the province of boredom; he really shouldn't be too surprised. He had taken to jogging around the perimeter of the Burrow early in the mornings. His excuse was training, but in reality, he was doing his best to take this sham of a bodyguard mission seriously.

Did Potter even need a guard? Granted, the boy's escapades were dangerous. Some of them were documented in the Daily Prophet, and apparently in his second year, he had battled a giant snake residing beneath the school. He hoped Dumbledore wasn't stupid enough to think that these happenings would stop just because he hired a bodyguard for Potter. Naruto was not going to be babysitting some cocky brat.

He eyed the newspapers littered on the Third Son's desk and promptly remembered yesterday's article about a prominent witch named Emmeline Vance being murdered in her own house. Huh. Perhaps Dumbledore did have the right idea, after all. This You-Know-Who character was getting bolder. An attack on Potter was not entirely out of the question.

It was rapidly becoming daylight, he noted, standing up and preparing for his daily jog. Most of the Weasleys were still asleep during this time, which Naruto found extremely agreeable.

He admitted that he had expected a change in their attitudes towards him, especially after that fiasco at the breakfast table. Still, he had been... disappointed at how brusquely Molly-san treated him nowadays; she was more abrasive to him than she was to Blondie, and that was saying something. It probably wouldn't have mattered if she did not treat him so well the first time around. He had to admit it had felt nice.

As if to make up for his mother's sudden coldness, the Youngest Son seemed to have gotten over his anger at him, although he wasn't in any way friendly. Perhaps it was because he had transferred into the Third Son's room some days ago.

The Twins were unusually quiet, if Molly's suspicious sideways looks at them were anything to go by. They always seemed to be whispering about him, and though it would take little effort on his part to eavesdrop on their conversations, he found he wasn't too interested in whatever it was they were planning.

Arthur, the only one who seemed unfazed by the sudden revelation of Naruto's job and the only person Naruto could stand to be around (and he meant that in the loosest sense—at least he could tune out the man when he went on his rants), was constantly out of the house on Ministry business, and, to a certain extent, on business for the secret group his employer controlled.

Blondie, or Fleur as he had recently determined, was always the first after him to take a bath in the mornings (he always showered after jogging), and this time was no different.

He opened the bathroom door, totally unsurprised to see her in a peach bathrobe (looking uncommonly pretty even though she had just gotten up), with a fluffy white towel hanging off her left arm. To Naruto's infinite amusement, it seemed that she had combed her hair even if she was still going to shower. Women.

"Took you long eenough," she told him in the same acidic tones she had always used on him. It would probably take more than the announcement that he killed for a living to shake her rock-solid notion of him as a barbarian. In a way it was refreshing, since anything he said probably wouldn't faze her at all.

He stopped toweling his hair, allowing it to stick up in odd angles, before replying, "It wouldn't hurt you to be a little more patient, Blondie."

Which probably wasn't the best course of action, since she made no motion of stepping aside and only ground her slippered feet harder on the floor, glaring at him. "Did you just call me Blondee? Are you making fun of me?" she hissed.

He shrugged as if to say, "So what?"

She managed to calm herself after a few deep breaths.

"I 'ave a 'ard time believing the twins when they say you are a 'ardened killer," she said finally. Her eyes traveled up his naked torso. When no reply was forthcoming, she continued, "No scars. I don't know 'ow you managed to fool the great Albus Dumbledore, but I don't think 'Arry Potter is going to get much protection out of you."

What a childish culture, Naruto thought. For all that she looked like a woman, she was still such a child. What was there to say? That not all scars were physical? Something as trite as that... if Lord Voldemort wasn't neutralized anytime soon, she would eventually learn that. Intimately.

"You should have more faith in Albus Dumbledore," he told her, gently shoving her aside and making his way to the Third Son's room.

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6 July 1996
Saturday, 4:36PM

Molly spied him unwittingly de-Gnoming the garden that afternoon. She was just about to go check on the chickens when she saw his tall profile slouched on a short stool, bending over a basin and hand washing his clothes—an exactly identical set of white shirt and jogging pants.

'Doesn't he have any other clothes?' she wondered. Not that she cared particularly.

It wasn't so much de-Gnoming as it was scaring the pants off the little, mischievous creatures. At first glance, Molly admitted she had found it amusing. After one Gnome had exhausted the man's apparently very limited patience, tugging at his pants and shirt, and throwing bits of grass into his face, he had pulled out a dark knife. And before she had registered any movement, it was right between the Gnome's shaking legs. This sudden action sent all surrounding Gnomes scurrying out of his immediate vicinity, their faces sporting uniform panicked expressions. Then he had gone back to washing his clothes as if nothing had happened.

Later on, though, it saddened her to think of what kind of culture he must have come from, for his first instinct to be violence, for him to have pulled that knife out in the blink of an eye, and to throw it with such deadly accuracy in the same breath. She knew Aurors trained themselves for that kind of accuracy, but spells were different from knives, and wands were not meant to be thrown. She didn't know what Dumbledore was thinking, hiring a person like that to guard Harry. The poor boy didn't need any more negative influences in his life.

These days, sometimes her thoughts drifted to Charlie, of sending him a letter to ask how he was doing in Romania. She entertained the notion of asking him to come back home and settle down, just like Bill was doing (with someone she didn't wholly approve of, but that was another issue entirely). It would be nice to have him in the Burrow, where she could see him every day, talk to him every day, just like old times when she watched him grow from a baby to a strong young man. But life didn't work that way. He wouldn't be pleased if she tied him down here; he was happiest when he was with his dragons, and Molly would rather that he lived the life he wanted.

Idly, she leaned against the doorframe, crossing her arms against her chest and waited for Uzumaki Naruto to finish his laundry. She could have done the same job within minutes with a spell but she didn't feel like approaching the stoic man any time soon.

She didn't hate him really. After all, he had seemed like such a nice, young man at first—and those blue eyes of his did remind her of Gilderoy Lock—'Really, Molly!' she berated herself—but she did wonder what kind of statement he was trying to make with those six thin lines running across his face.

But when Fred and George informed her that he killed for a living, she didn't know whether to cry or retch in the nearest toilet. Her children didn't understand it yet, and call her an overprotective mother, but she had rather that they never experience the horrors of war. His mere presence in her house was enough to trigger memories of the last War with Voldemort; she hated the feeling of insecurity pervading even her own home. It was bad enough when she went shopping in Diagon Alley nowadays, but in her own house…!

Finally, it seemed like he was done washing. She watched him tuck the basin under his arm, and stand up, back straight with a posture so rigid it reminded her of the strange unmoving, pictures of military men from her Muggle Studies class. The thought of armies made her start, and she began to detest Naruto's presence in her house even more.

It was bad enough that You-Know-Who had come back but now, it was as if Dumbledore was saying, "The War is here. We'd better get prepared." Hiring someone from an obviously militant society to guard Harry Potter merely reinforced the bleak future ahead.

She shook her head to rid herself of these depressing thoughts and wondered what she would serve for dinner tonight.

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8 July 1996
Monday, 1:54AM

He could feel the blood thundering beneath the man's skin—or was it his?—as he tightened his grip around the other man's frail, frail neck. He could break it. Like a stick, bone was so easily snapped. The unsteady rhythm of blood pounded resoundingly in his ears, drums of war reverberated in his chest—what the fuck was he doing? he thought, he shouldn't be doing this—

this wasn't fair—no no no not at all—they should be fighting like real shinobi—

But what was a real shinobi?

The man squirmed in his grasp, trying to escape—foolish little mortal, my prey never escape—as his vision telescoped in and out and his breathing hitched. The feel of the man's soft, coarse skin twisting helplessly under his grip made him bare his teeth in anticipation, strengthening his hold on his prey, jarring a strangled shout from its throat.

No.

He shouldn't be behind this man, getting ready to kill him with a kunai to the back. He should be—

doing his mission, the assassination of this man, who was secretly smuggling weaponry to Cloud among a myriad of other treacherous actions against Konoha.

Konoha.

For Konoha. He was doing this for Konoha.

He took a deep breath, and palmed his kunai, willing the bloodlust to recede. But his hands wouldn't stop shaking even as he positioned his kunai against the man's unprotected back—he was wearing a bathrobe for fuck's sake—straight at his heart and plunged—

—and his eyes snapped open. He jerked up, his chest heaving up and down with difficulty. He was inexpertly gripping a kunai in his right hand with an intensity that drew blood. Sweat ran down his forehead, cooling down the suffocating heat that surrounded him. Eventually, his breathing calmed and he released the kunai, feeling the small wound close up almost instantaneously.

It was pitch black. Outside the window, the moon was hidden by the cloudy night sky, and the only bits of moonlight that shone through were filtered by the leaves of the tree beside the building. Naruto estimated it to be around one o'clock in the morning. His right arm reached around for the light switch. It was only after his third fumble in the dark that he realized he wasn't in ANBU HQ anymore and was, instead, at the Burrow, where the only person who had any inkling of what electricity was was Arthur Weasley.

He leaned back on the headboard, sighing. It would be hours 'til light.

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8 July 1996
Monday, 6:45AM

"You're up early," Arthur commented over a steaming cup of coffee later in the morning when Naruto entered the kitchen.

He raised his eyebrows at the thoughtless remark—he was always early and Arthur knew this.

"So are you, Arthur-san," he replied politely. He found the object of the red-haired man's focus seconds later when he spotted the day's newspaper lying spread out on the table, the headline simply reading, "Amelia Bones Murdered."

Ah.

Arthur noticed his gaze and sighed, rubbing his forehead. "Two deaths in a week, and one of them a very prominent Ministry personality at that. Skeeter's having a field day," he remarked, pointing to the column featuring Rita Skeeter's scathing article. He noticed the large eye bags forming underneath the man's eyes; clearly Arthur hadn't gotten much sleep lately. Well, that made two of them.

"Lord Voldemort has been getting bolder," Naruto confirmed, picking a corned beef sandwich from the large plate at random. "It was Emmeline Vance three days ago, wasn't it?"

The redhead winced when he mentioned the name Lord Voldemort. Honestly, what did these wizards expect? Giving childish names to their society's worst menace just gave it the illusion of being unimportant, as if the problem would go away if you refused to call it Lord Voldemort and called it You-Know-Who instead.

"For someone who's only been here a week, you're very updated," Arthur said vaguely, finishing his coffee. "Yes, Emmeline Vance. I knew her. Fudge's going to get the sack soon with the way he's handling things. Everyone's in an uproar."

He had no real opinion on Fudge (or on any of the wizarding world's more famous personalities), but the actions he had taken did make him something of a coward, or perhaps just an idiot. He settled into a chair opposite Arthur's with the corned beef sandwich in his hand only partially eaten. At Arthur's distracted nod, he picked up the newspaper and started reading. He had reached the part where Fudge made a statement about allowing more applicants to pass the Auror training in order "to battle the rising tides of Darkness and eradicate evil once and for all," when the Twins and the Youngest Son stumbled sleepily into the kitchen.

"Mornin' Dad," they mumbled, slumping into the rickety chairs at the dining table. The sight of food seemed to break the Youngest Son out of his sleep-induced haze and he started wolfing down a sandwich.

He didn't need to glance at the Twins to figure out what they were doing.

'Any moment now…' his mind supplied dryly.

"Naruto! How's our favorite shinobi doing today?" they chorused, slapping an arm each over his shoulders. Naruto had to forcibly restrain himself from reacting badly. Whether the twins noticed the sudden stiffening of his muscles, he didn't know because they kept their arms firmly where they were.

"Fine," he bit off.

"Boys, what are you doing?" Molly asked angrily, hands on hips. "I go out for five minutes and you're causing a ruckus at the breakfast table already?"

Naruto noticed that she didn't say anything about them stopping. The Twins took the hint anyway and went back to their seats.

"Aw, Mum, we were just trying to cheer Naruto up!" one twin said.

Molly spared him a glance. "Well, he looks perfectly fine. Here, have a sandwich," she said, shoving another sandwich into Naruto's hands, ignoring the fact that his first sandwich was still uneaten, and hurrying to the kitchen sink.

Arthur sent him an apologetic look, nodding in Molly's direction, and vainly tried to suppress a smile.

"Arthur!" Molly called from over her shoulder. "I almost forgot—Perkins is on the Floo!"

"Right, coming!" the red-haired man said, scrambling out of his seat and patting his thinning crown of hair. "Do I look all right?"

"Looking peachy, Dad," the Twins said.

The Youngest Son shrugged and mumbled, through a mouthful of sandwich, "What they said."

One of the Twins strode over to the cabinet where they kept the food—pantry, his mind supplied—and pulled out a pie. He plunked it down in front of Naruto, who was wondering when the best time would be to make his escape.

"It occurs to me that you have never experienced the wonders of blueberry pie," he told the puzzled blond, elegantly flourishing a wand to slice him an eighth of the total.

Sighing internally, he decided that it would be better to go along with whatever the Twins were thinking. Besides poison, he couldn't really think of anything else that was harmful to put into food. And if it werepoison, well, his body had coping mechanisms, if it came to that.

Strange that the insides of this blueberry pie didn't look anything blue. Perhaps it was just a cultural quirk.

"Oi," Ron started, looking alarmed. "You're not seriously—That isn't—"

But Naruto had already bitten off a piece. It didn't taste like it had poison. It was good, but he was sure he could go on living without having tasted "the wonders of blueberry pie."

He opened his mouth to tell them so, but what came out was an indignant... squawk?

What the fuck—?

Then he noticed that the Twins were on their knees, laughing uproariously, banging their fists on the floor and pressing their arms against their stomachs. The Youngest Son was trying to suppress his laughter in vain, but he burst out in a fit of chuckles a few seconds later.

"Boys…" Molly started, but he could see the edges of her mouth twitching upwards before she hid them with a hand and turned around, back heaving up and down in amusement.

Naruto knew he would regret it when he looked down and examined what he had become. Feathers, bright yellow feathers adorned every inch of his body. They had turned him into a bird.He was going tokill them.

Growling whilst he was currently a bird was not advisable as it sent the Weasleys into another wave of laughter. Or he could continue and they would die of lack of oxygen. It was an appealing thought.

"It's bloody eight o'clock in the morning," the Daughter snarled, wiping the sleep out of her eyes. "Could you please keep it down?"

And then she saw the large, irritated canary in their kitchen. Approximately two seconds later, she burst out laughing as well.

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9 July 1996
Tuesday, 2:13PM

"Mate, don't you have any other clothes?" one of the Twins asked him a day later.

Naruto was in the middle of reading an article on Rufus Scrimgeour, the new Minister of Magic,—the public hadn't bought Fudge's weak attempts to placate them and filed for an impeachment—so he was reasonably distracted when he answered, "Huh?"

"You know," Fred, or George, or whoever it was (like it mattered with those two) said, slowly, as if speaking to a one-year-old. "Other clothes. I know it's a foreign concept but clothes that aren't white-shirt-and-jogging-pants, or blue-suit-and-bulky-jacket."

He opened his mouth to tell them, "Yes," since he still had some of his ANBU uniforms stashed somewhere in his scrolls, but thought better of it.

"No," he answered. 'Why did it matter anyway?'

"Don't you want other clothes?—"

"No."

The Twins plowed on relentlessly. "Cause George and I were thinking of going to Diagon Alley today to, you know, check on our joke shop, and if you want, you could come along and shop for clothes."

For the last time…"No."

"… Err, right. C'mon Fred."

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10 July 1996
Wednesday, 10:03AM

The sun is hot on his back. Up here, the breeze is strangely still and he is sticky with sweat, feeling robbed of breath as he wipes the paint off the Sandaime's face.

Above him, Iruka sits on the rocky edge of the Hokage Monument, scratching his cheek.

"If you clean this up, I'll buy you ramen tonight," Iruka tells him, and he feels no desire to stop the smile from stretching across his face as he babbles some form of thanks.

Blood rolls down on his right cheek. Iruka is again, above him, coughing up blood. Something wet drops onto his face, and he thinks it is blood, but when he looks up, Iruka is crying.

"… sorry—if I had done a better job, you wouldn't have to feel like this—"

He is leaning against a tree, clutching something close to his hunched body. His breaths are shallow and he tries to make them as silent as possible. In the clearing behind him, Iruka is speaking.

"But Naruto is different."

He feels his heart wrench, painfully full of something he cannot identify.

"He is one of my best students. He may not be the hardest worker… and he's clumsy so nobody accepts him, but… he isn't the demon fox—he is a member of Konoha. He's Uzumaki Naruto."

He suddenly blinked open his eyes, waking to the sound of chickens clucking outside. His room was bathed in sunlight, and a cursory glance told him it was probably around nine in the morning. Naruto ran a shaky hand through his hair, drawing a deep breath, ignoring the cool traces of tears on his cheeks, then buried his face in his hands, feeling strangely undone.

A knock on the door jarred him from his thoughts. The Youngest Son's face poked through the small opening, looking a bit annoyed about something.

"Doesn't he go hang out in the garden?" Naruto heard him mumbling to himself grumpily. Out loud, he said, "Dad's looking for you. New Ministry policy—he needs to straighten some things out with you."

"Okay," he answered absentmindedly and the Youngest Son went out, his clumsy footsteps echoing down the stairs until it was silent, and Naruto finally shook his head to clear his thoughts. Standing up, he noticed a brown package on the table. One corner of the table was charred—someone had probably tried to tamper with one of his sealed scrolls. The question was who—and why he hadn't woken up when he or she entered the room.

He picked the package up—it was hastily wrapped and rather soft. A note was scribbled on the white paper attached to it.

Had a good night's sleep? Even ninjas
need their beauty sleep too!
Don't bother looking for your clothes.
We'll send them back when we've made
the proper adjustments. You really
should have just accompanied us to
Diagon Alley, mate.

Gred and Forge Weasley

PS. Mighty paranoid blighter, aren't you?
Those scrolls pack a mean fireball!

He channeled a bit of chakra into the paper and was immensely pleased when it ripped into pieces. He was half-tempted to do the same to whatever was in the package, but the Twins had made good with their threat and there was only a lone jounin uniform left on the hangers.

He tore the brown packaging off and felt his eye give a mad twitch when he realized he was holding a bright orange thing in his hands.

"Orange is definitely your color!" the other note (attached to the cloth) read. "Totally brightens up your day, doesn't it?" Fortunately, he was relieved to find out that there were some other clothes tucked under the orange robe, and they were… acceptable—but the Twins still had a death wish.

Naruto made for the kitchen, determined to make the Twins suffer—perhaps Kakashi's Sennen Goroshi would deter them from any future mischief.

As he neared his destination, he noticed that the kitchen was unusually noisy.

"Ah, Naruto!" Arthur called, waving a hand to welcome Naruto inside. "We've been looking for you!"

"What happened?" he asked the man.

"What happened?" the redhead echoed blankly before understanding dawned. "Oh, nothing so serious. You know Rufus Scrimgeour, the new Minister of Magic?"

He nodded, silently looking for sign of the Twins in the busy kitchen. The Daughter was peeling potatoes by the sink, while Blondie sat on the knee of a tallish redhead (a Weasley progeny he hadn't seen before but who looked familiar—he must have been in the meeting last week) who was busy engaging the Youngest Son in a game of chess. Molly sat beside Arthur, practically glowing with happiness. Arthur himself was looking pretty pleased. The Twins were nowhere to be found.

"Well, the Minister has been encouraging people to take extra care in these dangerous times," Molly supplied. "And Arthur's just been promoted to the head of the Office for the Detection and Confiscation of Counterfeit Defensive Spells and Protective Objects so he needs to set up an example for the people reporting to him."

'Office for the Detection of what and what?' Naruto thought, staring at the pair blankly.

Arthur waved a hand. "It's not that big of a job, honestly. Though I do miss being in the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts…" he coughed. "Well, Molly's right. I do have to set an example—and it says here in the Ministry leaflet "Protecting Your Home and Family Against Dark Forces", item number four, that we have to agree on security questions with close friends and family so that we can identify Death Eaters masquerading as us."

"You're the only one we haven't asked yet, dear," Molly said, smiling slightly. His brief stint as a canary had definitely softened the woman's view of him.

"What's the security question?" Naruto asked. It was good to know that wizards actually thought. Security questions or catchphrases, and secret handsigns were a good way of identifying each other. Of course, seasoned infiltrators could easily impersonate someone else, but he would take what he could get from them.

"That depends on you," Arthur replied. "Dearest ambition?"

No one had asked him that question in a long, long time but he could feel his mouth forming the phrase, "To become Hokage!" as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Was it impulse? Was it etched into his brain by the sheer number of times he claimed it when he was younger? Or was it just a side-effect of that dream he just had? Stupid.

"My favorite food is ramen," he told them. What were the odds of anyone finding that one out? "By the way, where are—"

"Hey, you're Naruto right?" The tallish redhead had approached him, extending a hand. Naruto had absorbed enough Outside culture to know that he had to shake it, so he awkwardly stretched his right arm and weakly shook the other man's hand. "Bill Weasley, Curse Breaker for Gringotts."

"Uzumaki Naruto," he replied.

"Yeah, we've met before. Or rather, I saw you at the meeting last week. Unfortunately, I was busy with this bloody intricate ward on the Malfoy vault—they're a paranoid bunch, though with that much money you can't really blame them… You probably have no idea what I'm talking about, huh?" he told Naruto, grinning. Naruto noted his rugged look, with long red hair tied up into a ponytail and a sharp tooth hanging around his neck.

Naruto offered him a polite half-smile. "No."

"Ee is my fiancée," Blondie butted in, slinging a possessive arm across Long Hair's waist.

To retort or not to retort. What the hell, he thought, I'm relapsing into my Genin self.

He fought the urge to change his facial expression into something that could properly express his disgust. Instead, he faced Long Hair. "My condolences—or was it congratulations? I am sorry, my English is limited."

Before they could register his shit-eating grin, he had immediately turned around to find Molly to ask her where the Twins were, so he could only hear Blondie's outraged gasp, and Long Hair's amused chuckle. Irritating people was still as much fun as it had been, apparently.

Both Molly and Arthur were no longer in the kitchen but were instead at the front door, together with the Youngest Son. Maybe the Twins were back from wherever it was they were at?

"Who's there?" Arthur hollered over to the person behind the door.

"Wotcher Arthur! It's Tonks, bringing Hermione," a feminine voice answered.

"If you really areTonks…"

"Oh god, not you too," the voice groaned while Arthur laughed. "Brown. My real hair color is brown."

"All right. Hermione?"

"What did we save you from in our first year?" Ron asked.

"Honestly, Ron, if I were a Death Eater I would have researched that!" A new voice, more feminine and high-pitched, piped up.

"That's Hermione all right," the Youngest Son concluded, grinning. "You can let her in."

Molly opened the door to welcome two females. One was taller, a lanky, pale female with mousy brown hair and a heart-shaped face. The other looked to be around the Youngest Son's age but was at least a head shorter than him, with a brown bush for hair—Bushy, he christened her mentally.

"Tonks!" Molly exclaimed, grabbing the older female's shoulders. "You look a fright! Haven't you been eating properly? Look, you've gotten so thin! Have you eaten breakfast yet? Come in, we're having ham and egg."

And thus the Weasley matriarch dragged Tonks to the kitchen despite the latter's protestations. Naruto suppressed a sigh, glancing at the busy Burrow, and decided it would be too taxing to interact with anyone at the moment. Turning around, he retreated up the stairs.

Too many things happening, but nothingreallyhappening. I wonder when Potter is making an appearance? Dumbledore-sama said something about him arriving in two weeks—and the second week is almost over.

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10 July 1996
Wednesday, 10:48AM

As soon as she could, Hermione pulled Ron into a corner.

"Who was that?" she asked, nodding significantly in the direction of the stairs where she had last seen the tall blond man.

"Nice to see you too, Hermione. Thanks for asking about my summer." Ron deadpanned.

"I'm serious!" she whispered, shaking his left shoulder.

"When aren't you serious?" the redhead grumbled, scratching his nose. "Anyway, that was Uzumaki Naruto. Came all the way from Japan under Dumbledore's orders."

At Hermione's expectant look (and foot-tapping andhands-on-hips posture), he looked at her blankly. "What?"

The girl jabbed him in the ribs. "Well, what's he doing here? Order business?" she demanded.

"Something like that, yeah," Ron said, rubbing his chest while leveling an unkind look at Hermione. "He was hired to guard Harry."

"… Oh."

"Oh? That's all you have to say? So you think Harry needs a guard as well?"

"What are you getting so worked up about, Ronald? I mean, if Dumbledore thinks Harry needs a guard… And besides, what if it were true—about the Chosen One business? Then Voldemort would surely be out to get Harry."

He scratched his nose again, agitatedly. "You believe that then? Well, I dunno… but how do you think Harry would take it?"

Hermione opened her mouth, a half-formed sound exiting her throat, and closed it again seconds later.

"My point exactly," the redhead concluded.

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13 July 1996
Saturday, 12:37AM

Harry dazedly followed Dumbledore out of the outhouse, ignoring the spider that had found its way into his hair. He felt like he was suspended in a vat of jelly—his body put on hold while his mind tried to sort out which emotion he should feel first: anger? Gratitude? That tiny worm of relief? Resentment? At what? Should he feel weak or protected?

Dumbledore's words rang clearly in his ears even now.

"While you stay here, the Burrow has been given the highest security the Ministry can provide. These measures have caused a certain amount of inconvenience to Arthur and Molly—all their post, for instance, is being searched at the Ministry before being sent on. They do not mind in the slightest for their only concern is your safety. However, it would be poor repayment if you risked your neck while staying with them.

"Which brings me to my last point, Harry. I have taken the liberty of hiring a guard for you. Please understand that I, along with the rest of the wizarding community, do not wish to see you harmed, and that is the sole reason I have hired Uzumaki Naruto, a ninja from Japan. This is not weakness on your part. If it is anyone's, it is mine.

"I trust Naruto with my life, and I hope you do the same in matters concerning an adult's input."

Dumbledore's hand was heavy on his shoulder. Perhaps it was meant to be comforting but Harry didn't know what to think.

So caught up in his thoughts, he was suddenly surprised to be facing Molly Weasley's concerned face, the warm orange lights of the Burrow framing her face welcoming him.

"… gave me a fright, you said not to expect you before morning!"

"We were lucky," Dumbledore said, giving Harry a light push inwards. He stumbled inside, trying to make sense of the conversation between the two adults swimming above his head.

"Slughorn proved much more…"

Slughorn—he didn't even want to think what kind of DADA professor the rotund man would make. Hopefully better than Umbridge, but anyone was better than Umbridge really.

"Harry?"

He blinked to find a hand in front of his face. "Oh! … err, hi, Tonks."

"Mind wandering?" she asked, putting her Auror's robe on. Her grin looked forced, and Harry noticed that her general appearance kind of resembled his after Aunt Petunia had made him weed the garden the entire day without meals—exhausted and pale and definitely lacking the usual energy her bubblegum-pink hair lent her. It wasn't even a bright color now—only a drab shade of brown.

"Yeah, I guess," he said. "You all right?"

"Peachy," she said, not really looking peachy. "I better get going. Thanks for the tea and sympathy, Molly."

"Please don't leave on my account," Dumbledore interjected. "I have to be going; Rufus Scrimgeour and I have urgent matters to discuss."

Harry found himself staring at the Ministry insignia attached to Tonks' robes. Why couldn't Dumbledore have hired an Auror to guard him?

'Not that Iwant a guard!' he thought moodily. 'Am I that weak that Dumbledore thinks I can't take care of myself?'

"Well, I shall see you at Hogwarts, Harry," Dumbledore said. "Do take care of yourself."

Harry could practically feel the weight of the words Dumbledore had left unsaid. Don't get into trouble, don't do anything stupid, your life is in more danger than ever… if you need any help, I have hired a guard for you.

To hell with this. He wasn't weak. He faced Voldemort, and lived.

At the expense of what? a traitorous voice whispered to him. Cedric Diggory's life? Sirius Black's life? Pathetic, Potter.

Mrs. Weasley softly closed the door behind her and faced Harry, scrutinizing his appearance.

"Both you and Ron look as if you've had Stretching Jinxes put on you," she concluded after looking him up and down. "Ron needs new school robes; he's grown at least four inches. It seems like you need new ones too, dear. But enough of that—you don't look well, Harry. Have you eaten dinner already?"

"Uh, yeah," Harry replied. He knew he hadeaten, but he couldn't remember what it had been. Something not very filling, as usual.

"Well, clearly those Muggles aren't feeding you enough!" Mrs. Weasley huffed, steering him to the dining table. "A growing boy like you… Sit down, dear, I'll fix something up in a jiffy."

"Thanks, Mrs. Weasley," he said, smiling softly. Suddenly, a furry, ginger cat jumped into his lap and settled there, nestling its squashed face in the folds of his loose shirt.

"Is Hermione here already?" he asked, scratching Crookshanks' ears.

"She arrived the day before yesterday," she replied amidst the noisy clanging and bubbling sounds he had long since learned to associate with Mrs. Weasley's busy kitchen. He could feel his smile getting wider. His friends were here!

A minute later, he had a bowl of steaming onion soup in front of him and Mrs. Weasley was gathering two fat slices of bread from the self-slicing loaf. He accepted them gratefully, watching both the loaf and the knife fly back to the pantry in fascination.

"So, you persuaded Horace Slughorn to take the job?" she asked, sitting down opposite him.

The steaming onion soup in front of him and the bread, alongside Mrs. Weasley's warm banter was about as effective as a lullaby (not that he'd ever had one, but it couldn't be too hard to imagine). In a few minutes, Harry was ready to fall asleep.

"'s great, Mrs. Weasley…" he slurred out when she mentioned Mr. Weasley getting a promotion.

"You are sweet!" she said, smiling. "Oh dear, you must be exhausted. And look at the time! No wonder you're falling asleep on your feet. Come on, Harry. You'll be bunking in Fred and George's room—I've gotten it all ready for you. You'll have it all to yourself."

Harry stood up sleepily, leaning against the table to support his weight. "Why, where are they?"

"They just left a few days ago. They've got a flat in Diagon Alley now, next to their little joke shop… I didn't approve at first, but I must say business is booming for them. Oh look, Arthur's coming!"

He blinked at Mrs. Weasley's strange clock, the one that showed the various names of the Weasley family. Arthur Weasley's hand was now at Traveling.

A knock. Mrs. Weasley had jumped up and hurried to the door, pressing her face against the door, whispering, "Arthur, is that you?"

It was probably a good thing Harry was feeling so sleepy. In all likelihood, he would forget Mrs. Weasley's mortified whisper of "Mollywobbles," in reply to Mr. Weasley's question when he woke up the next morning. Probably. He did not want to remember it in any case.

He just wanted to forget everything that happened this evening… like his guard.

It was as if someone had poured a bucket of ice cold water on him. Where was his guard? Did the Weasleys know anything about this Uzamaki Naroto person? Naruto, whatever.

"My guard—" he blurted out suddenly. "I mean, is my guard here?"

"He is," Mr. Weasley said. "But he's—well, he's probably asleep at this hour…"

"Oh, Harry, don't worry about him right now. Come, you should get some sleep."

He let Mrs. Weasley drag him up the stairs and into the twins' room where she tucked him into bed. Harry comfortably fell asleep listening to her endless stream of whispers.

.

.

13 July 1996
Saturday, 9:11AM

Harry's fist was curled against the door of Percy's room—Uzumaki Naruto's room for the time being.

"You sure you don't want us to come with you, mate?" Ron had asked when he had expressed the desire to talk to his guard.

"I'll go by myself," he said. "He can't be that bad, can he?"

Hermione shrugged. "I only ever see him around during meal times, and he and Mr. Weasley are always talking about politics. If he talks at all, that is."

"Dunno," Ron said helpfully. "Never talked to him. He's one serious bloke, Harry. Fred and George claims he's a trained assassin, but…"

"Oh, I don't know about that trained assassin business," a new voice offered. Harry looked up to see Ginny Weasley at the doorway, eyes shining with amusement. "But he makes a pretty good canary if you ask me."

Both Weasleys burst out into laughter. Harry looked at Hermione in confusion, but his best friend shrugged as if to say, "I don't know what's happening either."

Come to think of it, he didn't know what to say.

"Go away and leave me alone," was good but it probably wouldn't be tactful to say that into his face. How did he know he could even trust the guy anyway?

He started to lower his hand. Maybe he'd see him later, during lunch, and he'd pull him aside to… talk. Maybe he could convince the guard to abandon the mission and leave him alone. He could already picture Malfoy's lazy smirk once the Slytherin had learned he had a guard following his every move.

"Couldn't trust you to make it through the year alive eh, Potter?"

It morphed into Snape's voice. "And here I thought your status as a celebrity could go no higher, but it seems your arrogance knows no bounds. Just like your father."

It was bad enough when he was Harry Potter, the Boy-Who-Lived. But now he was Harry Potter, the Chosen One with the guard to ensure he would live in order to defeat Voldemort. Pathetic. He gritted his teeth. Why did Dumbledore do this to him? Why was he so weak that he needed a guard?

He glared at the door. Without warning, he raised his hand and knocked loudly.

Seconds passed. He knocked again.

"Hello? Anyone there?"

Still no answer.

Slowly, he opened the door, wincing when it creaked. The room was empty.

He released the breath he'd been holding. So he'd go with the other plan and corner the man at lunch or something. He closed the door and made for the kitchen. On second thought, maybe Hermione and Ron were still waiting for him in Fred and George's room. He changed his course at the last minute.

What he found in the room, however, was not his two best friends but a large, blond man casually sitting on his school trunk. His stomach gave a little jerk, and then froze.

Uzumaki Naruto hid the star-shaped object he had been fiddling with, and locked gazes with Harry.

"Harry Potter," he said by way of greeting.

Harry just nodded, knowing that if he opened his mouth right now, only a garbled sound would emerge. This was crazy, he thought. The man was just sitting there, looking for all the world like a Muggle (if only because of the conspicuous lack of robes). He didn't have a wand in sight, nor a place where a wand could be hidden and not be broken in half. And yet his senses screamed danger!

It took him a moment to realize that he had drawn his wand, and was holding it in half-raised arm at his side. Maybe that was why Uzumaki looked so amused. So he was a Muggle.

"Has Dumbledore-sama informed you about me?"

Dumbledore-sama? Oh right, the man was Japanese. How did Dumbledore expect this guy to protect him again?

"Yeah. Yeah, he did last night."

"Good, that saves me the effort. I just wanted to clear some things up with you," he said. "Look, most clients don't realize that their chances of survival rest mostly on keeping away from danger. So if you still want to be alive by the end of this year, I hope you have better sense than some of the clients I've had."

"Right. Sure."

"Okay, so… my name is Uzumaki Naruto, or Naruto Uzumaki for you wizards, but feel free to call me whatever you want. I'll generally be shadowing you, or stay in close proximity depending on the situation."

"Look, thanks for the advice but I really don't need a guard," Harry said slowly, taking a deep breath. "I can take care of myself; I've survived for years without a guard and I'm not about to start needing one now. So can't we just… terminate the contract or something?"

"Sorry kid, but you'd better get used to me. My contract is with Albus Dumbledore, not you. In any case, a contract can only be terminated when the mission is completed, or if you take the issue up with my village's leader."

How could the man sit there so casually? Didn't he understand he couldn't possibly survive in the magical world? He didn't have a wand—he didn't even know how to use one.

"Well, we have to figure something out because you can't possibly protect me from something you can't even use. You're going to end up dead"—like Cedric and Sirius—"if only because you stay so close to me."

Naruto rolled his eyes. "Stuff it, kid. You think something like that will stop me? I'll live."

"You don't understand!" Harry shouted. "He'll kill you—you're defenseless against magic!"

The man stood up, brushing imaginary dust off his bulky grayish-green vest. He slowly walked towards Harry and plucked Harry's wand out of his outstretched hand.

"And you," he said, blue eyes calm and mocking, "are defenseless against me."

He was suddenly aware of a cool, flat surface that was pressed against his neck. His heart pounded in his ears. When had he pulled out that knife? He tried to move but he could hardly even breathe—this man wanted to kill him.

And he could. The realization hit Harry like a Bludger to his gut. Dangerdangerdanger sang his senses.

Then, just as quickly as it had come, the pressure was gone. The air in the room was suddenly breathable, free of that suffocating, poisonous presence.

Uzumaki Naruto grinned at him, showing full rows of teeth. "You don't know half of what I can do, so until then, stop underestimating me."

He tossed Harry's holly wand in his direction as he walked out the door. It clattered noisily against the wooden floor. It took some time before Harry picked it up with a shaking hand. It almost fell out of his grasp but he gripped it painfully, comforted by its presence.

He eventually made it into the kitchen where he found Ron and Hermione waiting for him, each holding a letter.

"Oooh, look, Harry, OWL results have arrived!" Hermione exclaimed, waving her letter in front of him.

"Hermione's been hyperventilating for the past five minutes—says she definitely messed everything up," Ron told him in a stage-whisper. "Where's that leave us, huh? Here's your letter, mate."

He accepted the letter, casting a suspicious eye around the kitchen to check for Naruto, but it was empty save for the three of them. He released a breath, and slit open the envelope, unfolding the parchment that was inside.

Care of Magical Creatures, E… Charms, E… Defense Against the Dark Arts, O…

"Harry, you all right? You're shaking as badly as Hermione is."

"Oh, Harry, what happened?" Hermione asked, putting down her parchment.

"Did you get a bad grade?" Ron said, which earned him a smack on the head from Hermione.

"Did you get to talk to him?"

Harry nodded mutely, trying to put away the feel of that knife pressed against his neck, cold blue eyes. Ron was right; he was shaking, and his hands were crumpling the thick, Ministry-issued parchment.

"Stay away from him," he said finally. "He's dangerous."

"Aw, come off it. Fred and George are always hanging around him, and he's never done anything."

"What did he do?" Hermione asked.

"Nevermind that," Harry said. "Just… stay away from him, all right?"

"All right, Harry," she said, the doubt in her tone clear. "So did you find out why Dumbledore hired a guard for you?"

"No, but—" he shrugged. Should he tell them?

"But you know something," Ron blurted out, latching onto Harry's sudden pause. "Is what the Daily Prophet's been spewing out true then? Are you the Chosen One?"

"Ronald!" Hermione hissed. "You're such a tactless—"

"Hey, I just wanted to know—"

"Guys, it's all right. I've been meaning to tell you anyway. Hermione, do you know a Silencing Charm?"

"Harry, you know we can't do underage magic..."

"Please, Hermione. This is important. I don't want this to be overheard."

"It's not a big deal," Ron interjected, frowning. "Fred and George used to do magic all the time; they turned my teddy bear into a spider, remember? Dad mostly told them off, and they've gotten a letter or two, but nothing really major. Dunno what's with the Ministry throwing a fit when Harry does magic."

She frowned at him but whipped out her wand and whispered a spell, her arm moving in an arc around them.

"Okay," she said. "It's secure now."

"So tell us already!" Ron urged.

He did. He told them about Dumbledore's private lessons, the fact that the Prophecy they found in the Department of Mysteries was not the only copy, how Dumbledore had let him see Trelawney speak the Prophecy in that deep voice, which confirmed that she was not faking it. He told them everything.

And by the end of it, Hermione and Ron were sitting a bit gobsmacked in front of him, and he felt a little bit lighter about the entire thing. The events of earlier were far from his mind.

"You know that we'll always be with you no matter what you do, right Harry?" Hermione asked. Harry smiled at both of them, picking up his crumpled OWL results and reading the rest of his grades. He felt his heart plummet when he saw his Potions grade: E. Snape only accepted students who had gotten an O. Looks like he wouldn't be an Auror after all.

"Here, swap," said Ron, offering him his parchment. Ron had gotten no Outstandings, and had failed Divination and History of Magic, but he had the feeling Ron didn't really care. Over the years, he had found that Ron was passionate only about one thing and that was…

"Hey, Harry, care for a game of Quidditch?"

… Quidditch. He grinned at his best friend.

"Honestly, Ron, all you ever think about is Quidditch!"

"Come on, Hermione," Harry said. "It's not so bad."

"Yeah, you're probably just sore because you still don't know how to fly even after all these years!"

Their bushy-haired best friend frowned at them, before raising both arms in the air. "I give up. It must be attached to the Y-chromosome."

"Y-chroma-what?"

"Y-chromosome, Ron. The thing that makes us male and Quidditch-crazy, according to Ms. Granger here. So, who's going to play with us?"

Ron scratched his head. "We-ell, I figured you could help me with my Keeping… going to try out for the team this year."

"All right, let me get my broom first."

All in all, Harry thought when he strode out of the Burrow, holding his Firebolt, the weather could have been better. There was little sun, and it was pretty windy high up. To make it worse, at the corner of his eye, Harry could see the guard (hisguard) sitting under the apple tree, stoically watching his every move.

He mounted his broom and took off, hurriedly, wanting to leave the ground. Up in the sky, he imagined Naruto's blond head to be a large yellow flower growing in the Weasley's back yard.

"What's the hurry?" Ron asked, perplexed, handing him two Quaffles while he struggled to balance himself on his Cleansweep.

"Nothing, nothing," he replied, peering down to see where Naruto had gone. He spotted him on the rooftop, staring at him unblinkingly. Harry grit his teeth, willing his attention back to the game.

"Oi, mate, if you won't throw the Quaffle properly, we might as well not play," Ron told him, after he had dived down to catch the half-heartedly thrown ball.

"Harry!" Hermione called from below, cupping her hands together so she could be heard over the howling wind. A pause, and then, "You throw like a girl!"

what?

"I wouldn't be too sure about that, 'Mione!" Ron hollered back. "Angelina throws a pretty mean ball. But if you were the girl in question, probably yeah."

He had to duck as a well-aimed Jelly-Legs jinx whizzed past his hair. "Oi! Watch where you're pointing that thing!"

"I am!" came the answering shout.

Harry chucked another Quaffle into his best friend's face, laughing for the first time in weeks.

.

.

OMAKE

"He-Herm..." He gave it up as a lost cause, and let loose an expletive under his breath.

"Try Herm-own-ninny," Ron suggested helpfully.

"Herm-own-ninny?" Naruto echoed blankly (and without much difficulty). Was that supposed to be an endearing nickname? It certainly didn't sound like one.

"It's Her-my-o-knee, thanks," Hermione said waspishly.

Ron sniggered.

.

.

NOTES:

[1] Finally. I bet that's what's going through your minds as well. :P I won't bother you with the gory details—suffice to say that academics takes priority over writing fanfiction. This turned out to be a pretty fragmented chapter, but I don't know how I could have remedied it. I finished half of the chapter before I realized how annoyingly fragmented it was, and by then I couldn't be assed to rewrite everything. So, apologies. The time stamps were something I placed to make me feel better about the entire thing.

[2] Why the Kyuubi didn't react to the Canary Cream: One, it would have ruined my attempt at humor. Two, he doesn't have extra-sensory feelers on Naruto's body; he feels what Naruto feels and acts on it. In this case, Naruto wasn't expecting any danger.

[3] Why Fleur doesn't affect Naruto that much: First, I somewhat subscribe to the notion that Veela can turn their—I suppose you can call it power on and off. Secondly, Naruto doesn't like Fleur so he has a resistance against her. Thirdly, Fleur doesn't like Naruto so the attraction falls off as dislike squared. (Ugh, I sound like my textbook.)

[4] No, Naruto wasn't supposed to get new clothes but please believe me when I say that Fred and George just take over my hands whenever I write a scene with them. They're crazy.

[5] Golden Trio dynamics have probably shifted because I have read too many fics, and remember too little canon to portray them realistically.

[6] charredfeathers made me fanart! rowergal also made me fanart, except hers is a fancomic. :D Please go check them out, and give them your love. The links are up in my profile.

[7] Lastly, a big thank you to everyone who has left a review and/or put this story in their Story Alerts/Favorites List! It's kinda scary looking at the numbers now; roughly 400 (I hesitate to say 500 because some people repeat) people are keeping an eye out for this story. o_O Hope I didn't disappoint.

EDIT (5/30/09): I added a small part to the last scene. A.C.Y.P.alerted me to the fact that they're not supposed to do magic outside of Hogwarts, something which I totally forgot, but can't be helped. The whole underage magic is fuzzy and I think that the Ministry wouldn't be able to detect all sorts of underage magic especially when it's done inside a wizarding home. So there you have it.