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AN: Sorry about not updating on time, but I've been somewhere with no internet access -let alone time to do so- so I couldn't post this sooner. Special thanks to Hygieia for stepping up to help beta this and Reckoning. Hopefully I'll have some Reckoning chapters ready to go soon, and I've also got another idea that I've been working on and off since I was in Afghanistan. Thanks to everyone who read and reviewed. I should have responded to everyone, but if I missed you, I apologize. All reviews/criticism is welcomed. So, without further ado, I give you chapter 24 of Naruto: Shadows of the Mind.


'THOUGHTS'

LINEBREAKS=CHANGE OF SCENE/POV


Chapter Twenty-Four

That night, after Naruto had snuck out of the house under his Konohagakure no Jutsu, he made his way into the city. Once there, he took to the rooftops, taking great care to avoid being spotted or detected in any way, just in case his Genjutsu failed for any reason. Naruto could not afford to be seen looking for or speaking with Gato by anyone, since that could lead to some unpleasant questions, which might involve nasty words like "betrayal" or "treason". Something he could ill afford at this stage in his plans.

Naruto ghosted through the city, noting very little difference between the place in the day and at night. About the only real difference he noted was that his estimate on how much of the crowd yesterday had been homeless had been far too optimistic. Many of them must have been moving around just for something to do, as it looked like half the city was sleeping in the streets below. Which made it all the more strange that no one was willing to actually fight back against Gato. Usually, with a crowd this size and this destitute, it would have been a common occurrence to see them rioting against whatever or whomever they saw responsible for their fate. Or rioting for any other reason for that matter.

And considering that Gato Corp was both the largest available target, as well as actually bearing some responsibility for their poverty, one would think they would have already rioted. The homeless alone certainly outnumbered Gato's mercenaries, and as there were no signs of any other form of police, there was little if any deterrent to a riot. It would be bloody to be sure, and Gato would likely succeed in putting such a mob down sooner or later, but there'd also be enough successes to embolden the people to rise up again and again. On top of that, there had to be some food on Gato's property so the man's employees could actually eat themselves. What better target for a hungry mob with nothing left to lose could there be? So it truly boggled the mind that these people, some of whom were obviously starving, had yet to do anything.

The only other obvious differences he noticed in the city were the bars. Whereas the rest of the city seemed mired in an endless depression, any street with a bar on it seemed to be in the midst of a party. Of course, while the bars were obviously owned and manned by natives of Nami no Kuni, most of their patrons were mercenaries employed by Gato. Still, it seemed that Gato's men were more than willing to pay for their drinks, even if they were a bit rowdy or grabby with the serving women. Still given the way the servers seemed to almost absentmindedly ignore or slap at the occasional groping hand, it seemed that this was more or less normal for a bar. Or at least, Naruto assumed it was normal for a civilian bar. From what Naruto had heard from Genma and the Bearded Monkey –and those very unfortunate times he listened to Anko telling one of her bar stories- given how many women in Konoha had received at least some measure of kunoichi training, it was either a very drunk or a very foolish man who tried to pinch the butt of a random waitress.

Satisfied that he could find what he was looking for in such places, Naruto settled in on the rooftop opposite one of the bars, ready to wait until the early hours of the morning if necessary. As he studied the crowd of drinkers looking for any mercenary who looked like he was leaving, Naruto began to notice something odd.

Many of the people here who weren't mercenaries appeared to local women, who drank and smiled, and laughed alongside Gato's men. From the looks of things, Gato's men seemed to be on relatively good terms with the locals, some even considering setting down roots by the looks of things. Though it didn't escape Naruto's notice that more than a few of those smiles seemed somewhat …forced… or that several women looked like they wanted to cry even as they laughed. Even more disturbing were the occasional glimpses of collars or even honest to God manacles on a few of the women.

Naruto felt a little queasy at the thought that he might end up being responsible for this, however inadvertently it might be. He'd have to make sure to find out if Gato knew about this or not, if only to attempt to assuage his own mind. Not all of the women he'd seen with the collars or manacles were from Nami no Kuni after all. In fact, while he wasn't any real kind of expert on telling people apart by their nationalities, it seemed like most of those women were from other countries. So it was possible this sort of thing was just part of one of the many mercenary groups working for Gato, and that that particular group had continued the practice here in Nami no Kuni after Gato imposed his blockade.

It didn't make him feel any better, but at least Naruto could have a semi-clean conscience if Gato knew nothing about it. Otherwise…well, Naruto wasn't willing to pass up the chance to get Gato on his side, no matter how…distasteful he might find it. Especially since by allying with Gato, Naruto would have at least some influence with the man, perhaps enough to eventually get the man to put a stop to such things in his domain.

He spent the next two hours watching, trying to pick out which mercenary was most likely to have the information he wanted. And as the night dragged on, he added on the criteria of "sober enough to answer my questions" to that. It did make him feel slightly better when he saw some of the women below leaving, sometimes alone, sometimes leading a mercenary away with her. Even better –relatively speaking- Naruto often saw money exchange hands between the mercenaries and the women beforehand. That at least meant the women weren't being forced. This served to sooth his troubled thoughts slightly, though the handful of couples he saw leaving with no money exchanged and genuine smiles on both the women and the mercenaries were far more comforting.

Finally, Naruto saw a trio of relatively sober mercenaries preparing to leave, and more importantly, leave without female companionship. It was going to be hard enough to avoid witnesses as it was with all of the homeless on the streets; Naruto didn't need things to be any more complicated. Which of course, it immediately became when Naruto noticed the men staring intently at one of the serving girls who looked like she was getting ready to leave as well. Sighing, Naruto almost turned away to look for a new target, when he caught something out of the corner of his eye that made him freeze. The serving girl, a dark haired woman of about twenty or so, had ducked into a back room behind the bar for a moment, before stepping back out with a child no older than ten rubbing her eyes sleepily. Judging by their similarities and ages, Naruto figured the two must be sisters. Much to his unease, the watching mercenaries didn't cease their staring.

The serving girl took the child by the hand, and deftly led her through the crowd and out into the streets. And Naruto's lip curled in disgust as the trio he'd been watching got up and followed after. Naruto hesitated only for a moment before following as well. If he was lucky, he could intercept the men before they got too far, so as to avoid getting the two sisters caught up in whatever the mercenaries had planned.

Unfortunately, the men didn't seem to have any problems with witnesses, as just a few blocks later, on a street that was just as packed with the homeless as any other, the three suddenly sped up and overtook the girls, quickly corralling them into a nearby alley despite the older girl's cries to leave them alone. Whatever sympathy Naruto might have felt for the general population of Nami no Kuni evaporated when not one of the dozens of people in the street looked up at the girl's cries. In fact, with the exception of a cringe or a shiver from a handful, most of the street looked blatantly like they were trying to ignore what was going on.

'Fuck these people!' Naruto snarled as he swiftly jumped down into the alley. 'They deserve whatever Gato does to them!' Pushing down the urge to run back into the street flinging explosive tags, Naruto stealthily crept up behind the group, taking care to remain in the shadows even with his Genjutsu active.

"Please, if its money you want, just take it and leave us alone! We've done nothing to you!" The girl shouted, no doubt still hoping one of those bastards out in the street would hear her and come running.

"We don't want your money, girl." One of the men chuckled as he stepped toward the young woman, who cringed back against the wall, yet did her best to stay between the whimpering child and the men. "We're just looking for some fun, and decided to let you join in."

"Yeah Hitomi!" one of the other mercenaries cackled. "Come party with us! I promise, you'll never forget it."

"Hitomi" blanched and quickly dug out a money pouch and offered it to the mercenaries. "If it's a woman you want, then go back to the bar and buy one of the girls there. You can use my money!"

The first man just grinned wider as he stepped closer. "Nah, you don't understand, Hitomi. It's no fun if they don't fight back."

Naruto grit his teeth angrily at this, deciding then and there that two of these fucks were going to die here. Whichever one seemed most likely to know Gato's whereabouts would die a little later.

Hitomi's face was unbelievably pale as she desperately offered. "Then just take me! Leave my sister alone!" the girl behind her just clung to her tighter at these words, her whimpering long since dissolved into terrified sobbing.

The first man actually blanched himself at that. "Shit woman, who the hell do you take us for? We're not interested in little brats!"

No sooner had he spoken those words than the third man spoke up for the first time. "Hey Captain," the third man spoke with a thoughtful look. "Don't we still owe the Black Dragon Group's captain a favor?"

'Good enough…' Naruto thought viciously as he drew a kunai in each hand and moved forward silently.

"Yeah, so what?" the "Captain" asked impatiently.

"Well, isn't he supposed to have a taste for the young ones? Why don't we let him have the kid to repay that favor?"


Hitomi sobbed quietly as she desperately tried to keep Sayuri behind her. She could live with whatever these men intended to do to her, so long as they left Sayuri alone, and left herself in a condition that was capable of still working and taking care of her little sister. It wouldn't be easy, but Hitomi was willing to make that sacrifice for her. And maybe if she didn't resist, the men would lose interest and go elsewhere? But how was she going to convince these…these…animals to just take her?

The mercenaries that had rapidly occupied the city since Gato's blockade went up were very much a law unto themselves. Unfortunately, their "laws" varied from group to group. Some of the mercenary bands were the epitome of respectfulness, discipline, and professionalism –likely having been members of some army or another at one point, if not an actual Samurai clan- and went out of their way to avoid harming the people of Nami unnecessarily. Then they were others who were little more than bands of thugs with weapons, taking a sadistic pleasure in ruining lives on a whim. Yet more bands were anywhere in between those two.

Her thoughts were brutally interrupted when the throat of the man between her and the entrance to the street they'd been taken from suddenly exploded in a shower of blood. Hitomi's quiet sobs were replaced by terrified screaming as she fell back to huddle against the wall, wrapping Sayuri in her arms to prevent her from witnessing what Hitomi was sure would be their death.

Before the man's blood had had the chance to hit the ground, the eyes of the man to her left –the one who spoken of giving Sayuri to another man- became fountains of blood and other unsightly fluids, adding his agonized screams to her own terrified ones. Of course, his screams lasted only a moment before some unseen force ripped him open from crotch to neck. The first man's body was only just hitting the ground when the second's screams turned into gurgles.

"The fuck-!" the captain shouted in panic as he scrambled at his sword belt, only to freeze suddenly.

Hitomi bit back her own screams as her fear warred with shock. Between one second and the next, two men had been savagely killed by someone or…something. The following second, there was nothing in the alley except for Hitomi, Sayuri, the remaining mercenary, and two corpses.

Then Hitomi stared wide-eyed as someone was suddenly just there behind the mercenary captain, one hand holding a strange looking knife to his throat. Then, the shadows where the person's face should be shifted slightly as the figure leaned forward to speak quietly into the man's ear, revealing part of a cheek with strange line-like marks and a single, glowing eye, eerily reflecting the moonlight. Hitomi was no doubt biased, but in that moment, she'd swear that was the single most beautiful eye she'd ever seen.

Feeling her sister shifting against her, Hitomi quickly made sure to keep Sayuri's head pressed against her as she stared up at their savior in horrified awe. At least, she prayed he was their savior. Seeing as how no one had coming running when the screaming was going on, it was doubtful anyone would come running now. And whatever this thing was, if it could kill three veteran mercenaries so easily, Hitomi had no doubt it could effortlessly kill her and her sister.

"S-sure, I can tell you all about him!" the remaining mercenary suddenly started babbling. "Just don't kill me, and I'll tell you everything you want to know!"

Hitomi wanted to snarl at this monster who had considered giving her sister to a pedophile, wanted to beg for their savior to make him scream in agony. She was honestly shocked at how much she wanted another human being to suffer, but in the end it didn't matter. No sooner had she thought it, then the mercenary's belt fell to the ground, even as a second arm appeared to wrap around the man's left arm in some kind of arm lock before gripping his hair roughly.

"Yes, you will." A cold voice promised on the wind. Hitomi was just about to ask the mysterious form what it was going to do, when the alleyway exploded into a vortex of wind, seemingly centered on the mercenary and the shadowy form, forcing Hitomi to squeeze her eyes shut. When the wind died away a moment later, she cautiously opened her eyes to find that she and her sister were alone in the alleyway with the two corpses.

When she finally gathered the strength to stand and scoop Sayuri into her arms before sprinting from the alleyway, the frightened onlookers noticed two things about her. One was the shining tears of gratitude in her eyes, which caused no small amount of confusion as everyone knew what was about to happen to her when Gato's men cornered her. The other was the reverently spoken words she kept mumbling over and over again as she ran back towards her home.

"Thank you Fuujin-sama, thank you!"


Naruto crouched down at the banks of one of Nami no Kuni's many rivers, scrubbing at his hands as his mind thought back over the last hour in disgust. Upon arriving in the forest with his captive via Shunshin, Naruto was quick to get to work. The very first thing he'd done was to pin the still disoriented mercenary's hands to a tree with kunai. The man had immediately answered Naruto's question after that, more than willing to tell him where Gato could be found. Seeing as that was all he wanted to know, Naruto spent a minute or two fingering another kunai threateningly, before deciding the man was telling the truth.

Having gained all the information he really cared to know, Naruto started cutting off the man's fingers, much to the man's screamed protests. Naruto was still far, far too enraged at what had been going on back in that alley to listen though. Unable to deliver full justice to all three men, Naruto settled in to deliver the combined punishment to the captain. He might not have known a great deal about torture, but he'd spent enough time around Anko to pick up a few things here and there. Things he had eagerly tested on the mercenary.

Naruto had learned a great deal once the mercenary realized he wasn't going to ask any more questions. Things that ranged from how the mercenary bands were kept in line –which turned out to be basically run by the individual captains, unless Gato had specific orders to the contrary- to where the man –who Naruto learned was named Daichi- kept the money his group was paid, to how Daichi was willing to swear on his mother's life that they weren't really going to hurt Hitomi or her sister, they just wanted her good and riled up when they fucked her. Most of it, Naruto just tuned out, though Daichi probably regretted saying that last bit once Naruto started getting creative.

Naruto's stomach roiled when he thought about what else he'd learned. For instance, the smell of a man's innards was far worse than he'd thought possible. He'd actually recoiled and then vomited when he cut open Daichi's stomach. The stench still hung about in the air, despite Naruto's use of the D rank Shinju Zanshu –the Doton jutsu was one of the very few that Kakashi had been willing to teach them thus far- to drag the body underground. Feeling his disgust rising again, Naruto clenched his shaking hands angrily.

Daichi had certainly deserved everything he'd done to him, of that, Naruto had no doubt. But the fact remained; Naruto didn't need to do it to him. He should have just slit Daichi's throat the moment he'd gotten what he wanted from him. Naruto could have been to see Gato and back to the house by now if he had. And…if Naruto were to be completely honest with himself, it took every ounce of his self-control to get Daichi back here alive, rather than killing him back in that alley. Self-control that had completely evaporated in the face of his rage once Daichi told him what he wanted to know. Torturing Daichi like that, hadn't been the act of a man on a mission. Nor had it been the act of necessary evil conducted calmly and professionally. It had been an act of an enraged animal, of someone who wanted only to cause pain for the sake of inflicting it.

'Shit, I did everything but cackle while I was torturing him…' Naruto thought with a disgusted grimace as he remembered the sudden desire to tear the man's throat out with his teeth of all things. 'I can't afford to lose control like that, no matter what!' There was too much riding on Naruto's ability to keep control of his temper to allow things like…this.

Naruto resolved to never allow himself to lose control like this again. Even setting aside the risk to his plans, if this was how Naruto acted when he lost control…what would happen if he ever lost his temper back in the Village? What if Konohamaru made him just a little too angry with his pestering hero worship?

Forcefully pushing that thought to the back of his mind along with whatever doubts and self-recriminations he had, Naruto reapplied his Genjutsu and headed back into the city. He had a meeting to get to.


"Damn that bitch!" Gato growled as he stalked into his office in one of the main Gato Corp buildings in Nami. He couldn't help but feel the awkward weight of the cast as he walked, and given his…less than average… size, it made walking normally difficult. And forget what it did to his image! "And where the hell were you two!?" he snapped at his two bodyguards as they followed him in. "What the hell am I paying you for if you're just going to sit around while I'm being attacked?"

"She's a ninja boss." Waraji pointed out cautiously. "You get that close to a ninja while we're on the other side of the room, and there's no way we could get to her before she injured you. Besides, you called us off afterwards, remember?"

"Spare me your excuses!" Gato barked angrily as he settled into his chair still seething at what that bitch dared to do to him. That's the problem with shinobi, they always forget their place! Bad enough that they were a bunch of unnatural freaks –as if doing things like blowing fire out of their mouths wasn't bad enough, the one time he'd bothered to attend a Chuunin Exam in Kiri he'd seen a man pull one of his own bones out and use the thing like a sword, grinning all the while!- they charged outrageous prices for their services, balked at carrying out any orders given to them by non-shinobi, and actually had the gall to attack him? Him!? Unforgivable! "I thought you two were supposed to be among the greatest swordsmen of your former clans? Seems to me like-" He continued berating his subordinates, only to be interrupted by an unknown voice.

"Don't be so hard on them, Gato. After all, there's a reason the Hidden Villages are considered to be the premiere military forces of the Elemental Nations."

Gato started, even as Waraji and Zouri froze with their hands on the hilts of their swords. For standing in between them, seemingly resting his arms about their shoulders was a blond teenager. Someone who Gato was sure wasn't there half a second ago. "Who are you?" Gato demanded, only to stand up ready to run when he noticed the knives nonchalantly resting against the throats of his bodyguards. Knives that were only used by one kind of people. "What do you want, shinobi?" he continued, desperately trying to keep the fear he felt at an unknown shinobi had infiltrating his office with such ease hidden.

"Please, calm down." The shinobi requested through a wide smile and closed eyes that he probably thought was reassuring. Gato had seen more honest emotion on a week old corpse than in that smile. Which did nothing to ease the terror gripping him as he pondered his chances of making a run for it. "I didn't come here to harm you, Gato. I came here to make you an offer."

Swallowing, Gato tried to put on a confident air as he ordered, "If you want to discuss business with me, then release my men. I don't deal with people who hold me at knifepoint."

The blond shrugged, "Only if you agree to hear me out. And of course, only if they agree not to try to kill me."

Gato kept up a confident visage as he nodded, and once the ninja's arms retracted, quickly signaled his bodyguards to move over to him and, at least for the time being, not to attack the intruder. Though he didn't stop them from drawing their swords. After all, it was about time he showed this bastard who held power here. Feeling more in control of the situation now that his bodyguards were free –and they really were quite skilled killers in their own right- Gato sat back down in his chair, leaning back and crossing his legs while peering down his nose at the little shit that dared try to intimidate him.

Now that he wasn't somewhat blocked by the bodies of his men, Gato could see that the ninja was just a kid, no older than Zabuza's bitch. Oh, he had some scars and weird tattoos on his face, but that was just more ninja freakishness in Gato's opinion. The kid was dressed in a forest green shirt, black pants, black shinobi sandals, and a brown woolen jacket over the whole ensemble, though Gato could still spot some pouches here and there, as well as a hilt of some kind peeking out near the kid's shoulder. What he didn't see was a Hitae-ate of any kind, something that even missing-nin tended to wear near-religiously. "Now, who are you, and what could you possibly offer me that would keep me from having you killed?" Gato demanded regally as if his chair were a throne and the kid a peasant seeking his favor. "I don't forgive threats of any kind, so for your sake, you'd better make this worth my while."

The kid's smile didn't change in the slightest –his expression might as well have been an actual mask for all Gato's keen eye were able to tell about his emotions- as he answered somewhat cryptically. "My name isn't important for right now. What is important is that I'm one of the shinobi protecting Tazuna."

That certainly caught his attention. And Gato's shrewd mind didn't miss the way the little bastard was keeping his Village affiliation a secret. "I see." Gato mused distantly. "And I suppose you came to convince me to leave the old fool alone, is that it?"

"Actually, I came here to offer to kill him for you." The kid replied bluntly. "You do still want him dead, yes?"

Now this was interesting… "And how much money do you expect me to pay you for that?" Gato asked semi-rhetorically. "And why should I trust you if you're so willing to betray your client?"

"I don't want your money." The kid countered, drawing a surprised blink from him. What was this kid's game?

"What I want," the blond ninja continued. "is your influence. To be used in my favor in the future."

"What sort of favor?" Gato asked with honest curiosity. He'd never come across someone who didn't want his money. It just never happened. So the kid's words were quite intriguing to the business mogul if only for the sheer novelty of it.

"The leader of my Village and I are in…disagreement, with one another." The blond explained carefully. "Under any other circumstances, I'd either just leave, or perhaps try to kill the Old Man. But, he has some information that I won't leave without, and since I don't have the kind of support to force him to give it to me, I need the influence of others, preferably influential clients, but a powerful man like yourself can be just as beneficial to me."

"Me?" Gato asked with fake modesty. "Am I really that important? I hardly think so." He paused to withdraw a bottle of sake from a drawer, pouring himself a glass before continuing. "I'm just a businessman trying to make a living."

The brat actually snorted at that. "Yes, you're just a businessman…" he opened his slitted eyes to stare at him pointedly as he took a sip of his drink. "One who's smart enough, and capable enough to effectively seize control of a small nation almost without effort."

Gato just raised an eyebrow, though inside his thoughts were racing, wondering how he was going to arrange the deaths of an entire team of shinobi without leaving any evidence of his hand in it. After all, it wouldn't due to let word get out about his activities here in Nami no Kuni. Not only would his profits take a hit from the extremely negative publicity, but there was no way any of the neighboring nations would stand by and allow a "simple merchant" to take over a nation as he had. Setting aside the nobility's pride, they wouldn't want to give anyone in their own countries any ideas. On the outside, he simply chuckled ruefully. "I see Tazuna's been spreading his wild tales again. I assure you, I have nothing to do with the sad state of this nation, though I've tried to have my security personnel help keep order where they can. Admittedly, it was the almost collapse of Nami's economy that brought me here in the first place, but I'm only interested in gaining products cheaply that I can later sell for a profit."

"Hmm, I'd say you're wasting your time then, if you expect the people of this country to recover from their "economic depression". In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if a plague started up soon. With the conditions in this city alone, it wouldn't surprise me if one hit any day now and wiped out a good chunk of the Daimyo's court. Of course, perhaps with Gato Corp nearby, order could be restored relatively quickly."

Gato smirked openly now, dropping any pretenses. After all, the brat pretty much just called bullshit, and there's no point keeping up a façade for someone who would never leave these islands alive. "I'll want his head as proof that the deed is done."

The blond nodded his head in understanding. "But of course, although, I'm going to have to ask you to send half a dozen or so of your more…expendable, mercenaries to the bridge so I can make it look good. And in the confusion of the "ambush" someone will make off with Tazuna's head. I'll receive a reprimand no doubt, but with the dead mercenaries, I'll have an acceptable excuse for my failure."

Gato's smirk widened at the kid's plan. It wasn't anything special, but it would get the job done. And best of all, he wouldn't need to pay either this kid, or Zabuza. "That's acceptable to me, although Tazuna's family needs to go too. They'll serve as an example and a reminder of what happens to those who defy me."

Gato's eyes narrowed when he saw the slightest of frowns tugging at the kid's lips. "Actually, if it's all the same to you, I'd like you to leave Tazuna's daughter and grandson alone."

"Oh?" Gato asked dangerously, not liking it at all to be countermanded like that. "And why should I do that?"

The ninja shrugged, "Don't get me wrong, I personally don't really care what happens to the brat, but it would mean something to Tsunami."

'Heh, fucking teenagers, always thinking with their dicks.' Gato sneered internally, certain of what the boy's motivation was for sparing the daughter. "I see…" Gato leered as he leaned forward slightly. "You have a taste for older women, huh?" When all the brat did was shrug again, Gato's leer became a scowl. "I don't care if you want to fuck the bitch or not, either kill Tazuna and his family, or there's no deal."

This time he got a reaction out of the kid, even if it was only a tightening of the eyes and a thoughtful tip of the head. For a moment, Gato thought he'd have to give the order to have this insolent bastard killed, before the brat finally nodded. "Very well then, I'll see to it that the daughter and grandson are…disappeared."

Pleased, Gato leaned back in his chair once again, waving towards the door dismissively. "If there's nothing else, get out, and don't come back without Tazuna's head."

The kid half turned to walk towards the door before pausing and glancing back. "Out of curiosity, what are your plans for this country after Tazuna is dead? Strictly so I will know when anything that could benefit you pops up."

Gato snorted in disbelief. "Nothing kid, I'm already getting everything I want out of this country. I'm making a killing in the lumber industry, and my drugs are raking in cash, both from clients, and from harvesting the organs from those idiots who don't have the money to pay for their next fix."

"I would have thought the organs of habitual drug users would be unsuitable for transplant?" the insolent punk interrupted.

"Of course they're unsuitable, but the fools buying them don't know that. They just want to live, and are willing to pay whatever I want for the chance. And if they die? Well, transplants are a risky business." Seeing the boy was effectively silenced, Gato couldn't resist continuing his bragging, just so he could show the bastard who he was dealing with. "And I'm making millions off the slave trade here as well, seeing as how many people are willing to sell themselves just to feed their families for a couple of days."

"Slaves?" the kid asked in open surprise, and perhaps a hint of disgust if Gato was reading him right.

"Of course kid. There's a market for slaves pretty much everywhere outside of your Hidden Villages. Of course, most of the ones I take are sold in Mizu no Kuni –with all the depopulations from their civil wars, they depend on slave labor for damn near everything from growing their food to rebuilding their cities. Hell, even Nami had a slave market –in this very city no less!-before I came. Of course, they called it "indentured servitude", but it was no coincidence that nearly all of those "indentured servants" were working to pay off the money spent nursing them back to life after they were "taken from the sea". Which really meant, after Nami pirates raided their ship and dumped them in the ocean. Hell, one of the first things I had to do when taking over here was to wipe out all the God damn pirates." 'Well, those that I didn't hire on myself anyway.' Gato mentally added. 'Too bad Kaiza wouldn't take my offer. He and his crew would have lived longer.' Enjoying the look on the kid's face, Gato sneered. "Tazuna isn't really a threat kid. The only reason I don't want that bridge built is because it's easier and cheaper to maintain my hold on Nami without it, not because I can't control this place if it gets finished! I've got the Daimyo and at least half of his court so addicted to my opium; they'd gladly do anything I say! Why else do you think no one in this backwater place has bothered to actually try to fight me? Their own leaders didn't lift a finger when I rounded up the inhabitants of the six least profitable islands and shipped them off to be sold!" There it was, there was that look of utter surprise and astonishment on the bastard's face. The look that Gato always savored time and again throughout his life when he proved his superiority to those who thought themselves his equal.

Wanting more Gato couldn't resist chuckling. "Shit kid, what did you think I was going to do?"

The ninja blinked out of his stupor and tried to replace his mask of stoic uncaring. "Honestly? I thought you'd officially take over as Daimyo somehow or other, then start using the carrot now that the stick had done its job. Once you'd rebuilt Nami no Kuni to either its former "glory" or beyond, I figured most of the people would willingly follow you out of honest loyalty to the man who put food back on the table. Well, that, or out of fear that you might take it away again. After that, I figured you'd target another island nation and repeat the process over and over until you were the sole ruler of the majority of the island nations between the mainland and Mizu no Kuni." Gato stared at the ninja gobsmacked, which he seemed to take as a sign to continue. "You see, I know you built Gato Corp from the ground up, going from a simple merchant to one of the richest men in the world in the process." He paused for a second before shrugging. "No offense, but I thought this was simply all part of some power play to make the jump to nobility status."

Gato couldn't help it, he burst into ridiculing laughter. "Why the hell would I want to do something like that? I already have power equal to that of most daimyos just by running my business! And besides, do you have any idea how much money it costs to run a country? Sure, you could get some of the money from taxes, but you'd still need to pay for a lot of it out of your own pocket! Shit, I don't even like paying my own employees, why would I want to pay for all those people who don't make me a profit?" Calming down, Gato smirked cruelly. "No kid, I'm just in this for the money. Although, I will move on from here eventually, all that that means is I'll retain my ports and control of the country through the local, legitimate Daimyo. I'll probably have to wait a few years after that before I pick a new island if I want to try for a repeat."

"…I see." The kid said after a moment. "Well, at least I learned that now, rather than later when I'd be acting on those assumptions. Things are actually much simpler this way." The kid paused again, seemingly deep in thought, before turning back to the door. "Well, in that case, new plan. Don't bother sending the mercenaries, this will all be over before sunrise."

It was Gato's turn to blink in confusion, before he jolted back as he saw the ninja moving his hands together. Waraji and Zouri knew what that meant as well, and dashed forward, swords raised in an attempt to kill the blond before he finished. And then the kid was gone. Eyes wide, Gato looked around the office, trying to find the little bastard. Yet all he saw was his desk, Waraji, Zouri, the blond kid standing to the side, and a few paintings. Nowhere that could serve as a hiding place for the kid. Unless of course, he was one of those really unnatural freaks.

Still, one never knew with shinobi –part of the reason why he hated them- so he gestured towards Zouri to check the door. "Make sure he's really gone." He hissed angrily, trying to cover up his fear in front of his underlings. Zouri cautiously crept past the blond kid and slowly opened the door and peered out. After a moment, he stepped back in and hesitantly sheathed his sword. "Looks like he's gone, boss." Zouri reported warily. "What do you want to do about him?"

Sinking back into his chair, Gato irritably barked out "What do you think I want done? Get some men together and be ready to kill him when he comes back! And he better not make it all the way to my office next time!"

Zouri nodded, and then looked over at Waraji, who'd yet to sheath his sword. "You can relax man, he's gone."

Waraji continued staring around the room suspiciously, his sole eye pausing near the blond kid with the kunai for a moment before moving on. "I can't help it." Waraji admitted. "The way that little bastard just appeared and disappeared has me nervous. It reminds me of the stories they used to tell back in Tsuchi."

Gato sneered angrily, still seething over the insolence of that shinobi and the way he'd dared talk to him as if they were equals. As if Gato wasn't so far above the brat as to be practically a god! The bastard had even dared to give him an order at the end! "I don't give a rat's ass about your stories-"

Gato's mind didn't even have a chance to register the kunai that suddenly appeared in midair before he died.


Naruto sighed in equal parts regret and relief as he tugged the third kunai out of Gato's skull before cleaning it off on the man's sleeve and returning it to his pouch with the other two. Regret that he'd lost the opportunity to recruit a man as powerful as Gato to his cause. Honestly, someone with enough business savvy to turn themselves into a multimillionaire and have the ability to seize control of a country like this would have been a welcome ally. Relief that Naruto had found out exactly what kind of man Gato was before he did something that couldn't be taken back. Like deliberately failing a mission by killing his own client.

Naruto was honestly more than a little shocked at just how badly he'd misread Gato. Even when the midget had demanded that Tsunami and Inari share in Tazuna's fate, Naruto had been sure he could work around it. After all, he'd only promised to "disappear" the two. Which meant he could have easily taken them with him when they left to return to Konoha. Although, he'd had no idea where he'd drop them off, nor how he'd get them enough money to support themselves. But if that was the extent of Gato's unpleasantness, Naruto was willing to deal with it. Learning that Gato was not simply a power hungry man grasping for more power had honestly surprised Naruto. From what he understood of civilians outside the Hidden Villages –the wealthy ones in particular- they almost all aspired to somehow force their way into the local nobility of whatever nation they made their home in. Something that was easier done in some nations more so than others, although it was often just a pipe dream regardless. With his wealth and his apparent ambitions for more -judging by the corporation he'd built- Naruto had been sure Gato wanted to skip the nobility and go straight for the title of Daimyo. And once he'd succeeded in that, to move on to gaining even more power.

Instead, Gato turned out to be a greedy man, who simply wanted more money, despite already being among the richest in the damn world. From Gato's gloating, nothing was too vile a method of making money in his opinion. I mean, stealing organs? Who does that? And then selling diseased organs to people who were desperate for a transplant? Fuck, the man was a psychopath! No, in the end, Naruto had no choice but to accept that Gato's support, no matter how useful –and it would have been very, very useful- would end up being a liability Naruto couldn't afford in the long run. Especially if anyone else Naruto tried to recruit learned of his involvement with Gato's activities. Listening to Gato ordering his death hadn't made Naruto any fonder of the sick fuck either. And seeing as he had no reason to let the man live, while having plenty of reasons to kill him, Naruto did just that. The mercenaries in the alley proved just how simple it was to kill a man when he couldn't recognize you as a threat. The ease with which he'd killed Gato and his bodyguards –three thrown kunai, one for each skull- only confirmed it.

Having already searched the office for anything of potential value –'might as well get something out of tonight' being all of the justification he needed- Naruto pondered what to do with the corpses. Unlike the mercenaries earlier, these three were guaranteed to be missed. So, did Naruto leave the bodies here to be found in the morning by whomever, and see if someone stepped up to take command? Or should he take them with him in the hopes that their absence would cause some chaos among Gato's forces? 'Hmm…from what Daichi was screaming at me, it sounds like each band of mercenaries runs itself, but Gato still needed to gather the captains together every few days to make sure they all played nice…' Naruto mused to himself. 'and seeing as how those worthless shits living in this country aren't liable to do anything anytime soon to drive them out…why not see if not being reminded to play nice gets some of those mercenaries to kill each other off? Maybe seeing mercenaries fighting each other would be enough to get the people of Nami no Kuni to get off their asses and do something.'

Nodding to himself, Naruto pulled out his empty sealing scroll and carefully unrolled it on the floor away from the puddles of blood and brain matter. Once that was done, he carefully moved the bodies of Gato and his bodyguards one by one, and then sealed up their corpses in it before leaving. At worst, he could always unseal the bodies and leave them somewhere public. If the sight of Gato's corpse hanging in the market wasn't enough to get the people to act, nothing would. Although, he couldn't help but wonder if any of Gato's people would come after Tazuna now since Gato wasn't around to tell them to? It was certainly something to think about.


Naruto awoke slowly the next morning, and immediately wanted to roll back over. Not only had he gotten back pretty late last night, but he'd had a hard time sleeping for several reasons. One of those reasons being the adrenaline that was still pumping through his veins, which while annoying, would have gone away after a bit.

Second was the self-disgust that was still teeming in the back of his mind over what he had done to Daichi. No amount of resolve or attempts to learn from the incident would make the disgust just disappear.

Finally, was an emotion that he'd rarely experienced; doubt. Naruto couldn't help but wonder, if he could misread the situation with Gato so badly, how could he ever expect to succeed in his future attempts to recruit the kind of people he'd need? He'd literally been a single question away from making a mistake that would have had terrible repercussions not only for him and his plans, but for an entire nation of people. And while Naruto might be willing to ignore some suffering –even on the scale of what was happening in Nami no Kuni- if it helped him succeed in his own goals, Gato had crossed so many lines, far more than Naruto had ever believed possible, that Naruto doubted he could have accepted the man's aid even if it was guaranteed to bring the Old Man down.

It didn't help that Naruto now knew that Tazuna had likely been telling the truth –or at least some of it- after all.

No, it had not been a restful night for Naruto at all. At the same time, he knew he couldn't afford to go back to sleep, lest his teammates suspect he'd been up to something last night. The last thing he wanted were any questions about his whereabouts and activities. So, as much as he wanted to go back to sleep, Naruto reluctantly pulled himself to his feet, dressed, and headed down to breakfast with the others.

Sitting down in what had become his seat and watching over Tsunami's cooking it didn't take long for him to notice the way he couldn't bring himself to meet her eye whenever she looked his way, which was weird considering he felt no guilt whatsoever whenever he met Tazuna's eyes. He found that extremely odd, considering that the old drunk was the one Naruto had been plotting to kill.

Forcing himself to avoid looking in Tsunami's direction –which was quite hard as she was still cooking his breakfast and Naruto instinctively wanted to stare suspiciously- he lazily took note of the others at the table, as well as the one absence. It wasn't until Tsunami began serving the meal that he finally asked, "Where's Sasuke at?"

"Sasuke-kun already left to work on his tree climbing." Sakura replied moodily, shooting small glares at Kakashi from time to time.

Naruto turned to her with a frown. "Then what are you still doing here? I would have thought you'd be out there with your precious 'Sasuke-kun'."

"I would be if Kakashi-sensei wasn't trying to sabotage our relationship!" Sakura hissed angrily, drawing an incredulous look from Naruto and a sigh from Kakashi.

"I told you Sakura, I want you to guard Tazuna today. Naruto did it yesterday, so I'm giving him today off. And between you and Sasuke, you're the farthest along with your tree climbing." Kakashi drawled, sounding as if he'd said all this before. Then he got a gleam in his eye as he glanced at Naruto. "Besides, given Naruto's personality, I'm afraid he might throw Tazuna off his bridge if he has to spend too much time with him. It's better this way."

Naruto glared at Kakashi indignantly at this slight to his character. Never mind the whole, 'was planning to kill Tazuna until last night thing'; Kakashi had some nerve making statements like that! Especially after he'd saved his life from Zabuza, and been proven right about Tazuna! Not that Kakashi knew about that last part, but it was the principle of the thing!

Ignoring the light chuckling from the others, Naruto concentrated on eating his food, barely paying any heed when Tazuna impatiently dragged Sakura out the door, or how Tsunami rushed off after a sulking Inari, though he couldn't quite keep his sigh of relief to himself.

Thinking about what to do with his free day, Naruto wondered if he could get away with going back to sleep. He really did like his sleep after all, and it's not like he had anything else to do…except he did promise to meet Haku today. And while he had no real obligation to Haku, Naruto didn't really want to hang around here where every look from Tsunami made him feel sick, or where he'd be forced to think about his near-misses the other day.

No, spending the day awing a pretty, if simple village girl with his stories sounded far more appealing. Maybe he'd let her watch him do some simple training exercises? It had been a while since he'd really focused on his chakra control –even if his makeshift seal did grant him near perfect control, his chakra stores still grew as he aged and trained, which meant he still needed to practice if he wanted to keep that level of control- and considering he still wanted to attain perfect control without his seal, he really did need to put some more work in. Especially since he still couldn't quite get the Kokuangyou no Jutsu to work. 'Although…' Naruto mused to himself. 'Maybe what I need are a few test subjects…ones that I don't have to worry about reporting me to the Old Man…or going insane.' His first thought had been to ask Haku for help seeing as how she seemed to desire to be helpful, but he really thought the girl was too nice for him to risk frying her brain if he made a mistake. All those mercenaries hanging out in the city however…


Haku grumbled tiredly to herself as she cautiously made her way back to the clearing where she was to meet Naruto. She had to be even more careful than usual, as not only did she need to avoid any of Gato's mercenaries, Haku had to avoid being seen avoiding them by Naruto. If he saw her displaying such skills, her ruse would be over, and he'd have the advantage of getting the first strike in.

What really put her in a bad mood however, was that while Naruto had agreed to meet with her again; neither of them had specified a time. This meant she had to be there first thing in the morning just to ensure that she didn't miss him if he actually kept his word and showed up, on top of barely getting any sleep once again.

Sighing at her lack of foresight, Haku tried to calm herself by going over Zabuza-sama's instructions one last time.


Flashback

"Uzumaki?" Zabuza-sama interrupted her report incredulously. "Impossible…are you sure that's what he said his name was?"

"I'm certain, Zabuza-sama." Haku confirmed dutifully even if she didn't understand the significance. "Do you know of that clan? I've never heard of them before."

He grunted with a thoughtful look on his face. "Not much outside the old stories. They're a dead clan…a long dead clan in fact. It was said that they were as feared as the Senju and Uchiha clans, though not as powerful overall. Supposedly gifted with incredible longevity and life force they were the founding clan and rulers of Uzushiogakure no Sato, in the island nation of Uzu no Kuni to the northeast." Zabuza-sama paused thoughtfully. "I suppose the stories might have exaggerated the hair color bit, but…"

Haku waited patiently as Zabuza-sama trailed off with a calculating look in his eyes. Admittedly, she was a little surprised that he seemed more interested in Naruto's last name then the fact that the Konoha shinobi didn't suspect he was still alive, or that the bridge builder was lightly guarded. It made her wonder just how powerful the clan must have been that its name still inspired caution in a man like Zabuza-sama, several decades after said clan had been destroyed.

"Haku!" Zabuza-sama's stern call shook her from her thoughts. "I want you to go back to that clearing and meet the boy again. Find out if he has any skill at Fuuinjutsu."

"Fuuinjutsu? Why?" Haku asked in surprise. While a powerful art, few had the time or the patience to master it. So how talented could a fourteen year old boy be?

"The Uzumaki clan were true masters of Fuuinjutsu, which is what made them so feared. Supposedly they were even able to seal a Bijuu away within moments of finding it." Zabuza-sama explained impatiently. "No one else could ever match such a feat, and their entire clan was incredibly skilled at the art. If this brat is an Uzumaki, then he might be far more dangerous than we thought."

"Yes, Zabuza-sama." Haku consented with a bow. Finding out what Zabuza-sama wanted wouldn't be easy though. After all, it's not like she could just walk up to him and ask if he knew Fuuinjutsu without completely abandoning her act. She'd have to find a way to get him to bring it up himself.

"Don't be discovered." Zabuza-sama ordered gravely, unintentionally mirroring her thoughts. "I don't want Kakashi to have any inkling I'm alive until I'm hacking him into pieces. But if you are discovered, do not let the blond live. I can't deal with a true Uzumaki and fight Kakashi at the same time. Especially one as sneaky as that brat."


Flashback Ends

A tricky problem to be sure, but Haku thought she had an idea that would work, if she could somehow maneuver Naruto into giving her the right opening. It was the how that was still eluding her.

Of course, she'd also have to come up with a more thorough background history for when Naruto inevitably inquired about her. It would certainly be strange if he didn't, since that would be incredibly rude of him. Molding herself into her civilian personality, Haku traveled the last half mile or so to the clearing as a civilian in all noticeable ways. This was actually one of the more dangerous parts of all this, as during the time she approached and left the clearing as a civilian she would be unable to defend herself properly should anything untoward happen. Be it being discovered by some of Gato's men, or by some random missing-nin, or worse, the Oinin of Kiri, there would be no way Haku could defend herself without exposing her true self. And Naruto would undoubtedly notice such an event.

Luckily avoiding anyone, Haku smiled with genuine gratitude as she entered the clearing to find Naruto already present. At least she wouldn't have to wait for who knows how many hours for him to show up. Moving closer and half-raising her hand in greeting, Haku halted in surprise at what she found. Naruto was once again asleep, leaning up against a tree as he did so.

Shaking her head, Haku went ahead and placed her basket on the ground before approaching him. Just like yesterday, there was no reaction from the sleeping ninja at her approach. And considering that she wasn't using any shinobi skills to do anything to avoid detection, that was rather sad. 'How on earth does he stay alive when he's such a deep sleeper?' Haku wondered as she knelt down beside him. 'You'd think his parents or his sensei would have broken him of that by his age…' Shaking her head ruefully, Haku tried to put a "pout" in her voice as she shook him. "Naruto-sama, I've told you, you'll catch a cold sleeping outside like this."

After a few seconds of shaking, Naruto blinked blearily, and then gave a sigh of his own. "And I've told you it's dangerous to approach a sleeping man in the middle of nowhere. Especially when you know he's a ninja."

Haku just sat back with a huff. "I don't believe you'd ever harm me, Naruto-sama. Besides, this time you didn't grab me and-" Haku trailed off abruptly with a very real blush as she looked away. Thinking of the previous morning had reminded her of just what happened the last time she woke him up. Specifically, what she'd been able to feel pressed against her.

Judging by the awkward way Naruto cleared his throat, he remembered too. "A-anyway, did you have any trouble getting home yesterday?"

Genuinely grateful for the change of subject, Haku just shook her head. "No, it was still early enough that no one was really awake yet. Although I did have to rush breakfast a little and burned one of the fish, so Master scolded me." Haku added with a slightly airy tone.

"What a dick." Naruto muttered with a frown. "After getting up and risking a run in with Gato's men just so you could get some herbs to help him recover, he has the balls to complain that you burned his breakfast a little?"

"He is not!" Haku glared at him angrily for that comment, even if he was upset for her sake. Made up story or not, she wasn't about to let anyone bad mouth Zabuza-sama. Then she realized this was a perfect chance to find out what Zabuza wanted to know. "Master has always been good to me, even when everyone else wanted nothing to do with me! He took me in, and lets me study about herbs, and…and…and he's even teaching me how to write, even if he hasn't been able to since he was hurt! So don't you go badmouthing him!" The bait set, Haku waited anxiously to see if Naruto would fall for it. Regardless of whether or not his statements were based on genuine concern for her, or just an attempt to get on her good side, if he followed through with it, Haku would have him right where she wanted him.

"You don't know how to write?" Naruto blurted tactlessly, though at least he seemed to realize it, even if it was too late.

Affecting a look that mixed hurt, embarrassment, shame, and anger all in one, Haku shrank back from him slightly, internally smiling when he winced.

"Sorry, that was pretty rude of me, huh?" Naruto apologized almost immediately.

"Yes, it was." Haku sniffed, before smiling gently. "Still, I suppose it could have just been a slip of the tongue…"

"It was!" Naruto was quick to agree. "I was just a little distracted from last nig-."

Haku blinked at the way Naruto's face hardened into the stoic mask as he cut himself off, before he glanced her way and the mask began to crack, glimpses of guilt and regret leaking out as he hesitantly asked, "Haku, do you…do you ever go into the city? Since Gato showed up I mean?"

Haku blinked curiously, while on the inside her mind was racing, trying to figure out why Naruto would ask that. Had he heard someone in the city talking about her –or a description of her at least? Did he suspect she wasn't who she said she was? What should she say? Mindful that he was awaiting an answer, Haku simply nodded with a slightly confused expression. "Of course, Naruto-sama. Sometimes, I need to go shopping for food or on an errand for my master. Although things have become more rundown lately."

The cracks widened before Haku's eyes, and then Naruto completely blindsided her. "Have you ever…been attacked while in the city? By anyone, whether they were Gato's people or Nami citizens?"

Haku couldn't help but gape at him for a moment as the meaning of his words sunk in. "Of course not! I mean, it's been a while since I've been into the city, but surely things haven't gotten that bad?!" 'Right?'

"I was in the city last night…" Naruto began slowly, an obvious battle raging in his mind. "I saw some…things that really disturbed me, and then I had to step in to prevent a rape."

"That's terrible!" Haku exclaimed in genuine horror. "Thank goodness you were around to save the poor girl, Naruto-sama! Who knows what might have happened if she'd been alone."

"That's just it!" Naruto growled as he clenched his fists. "Those bastards took her right off a street with scores of people on it and not one of them did anything to help!"

Haku felt sick to her stomach at those words, bringing back unwanted memories of a little girl with a chain and collar around her neck.

Pushing those memories –along with any guilt she felt over her role in Nami no Kuni's situation- to the back of her mind, Haku shuffled forward slightly to take Naruto's hands in her own and gazed into his eyes with genuine admiration. "Thank you, Naruto-sama." Seeing his confusion –though whether over her words on the way she was holding his hands, Haku couldn't tell- she continued. "Thank you for saving that girl…and for caring enough about me to ask about it."

Naruto actually blushed slightly and turned away, looking more embarrassed than anything else. After a moment of silence, Naruto suddenly asked, "So, you haven't been able to practice writing for a while, right?"

Internally sighing that he finally seemed to be taking the bait, Haku nodded with a slightly dejected air. "Even if Master wasn't hurt, it would still be too expensive to buy the paper and ink for me to practice with."

"Well, I kind of wanted to do some training today, so if you want, I have a blank scroll you can write on, and I've got a brush and some ink you can use as well." Naruto offered not unkindly. "I can write out the alphabet for you, and you can practice writing the individual letters while I'm practicing."

'Perfect.' Haku thought to herself as she beamed happily. "That's very kind of you, Naruto-sama! But are you sure I won't distract you from your training? I wouldn't want to get in your way."

Naturally, Naruto assured her it was no problem, and soon Haku found herself making messy, exaggerated copies of individual letters on a blank scroll, chatting pleasantly with Naruto as he walked up and down the tree she was sitting against. She already knew that his chakra control had to be good since he had been able to stand on the lake with Zabuza-sama, but it never hurt to confirm that he could also perform this lesser exercise. And if Naruto could do it so well that he could spend an hour casually walking up and down trees just to stay in practice, it seemed likely that his teammates could do the same.

Still, while useful to know, it didn't bring Haku any closer to finding out about the boy's ability in Fuuinjutsu. Although, the speed with which he'd written out the alphabet on the scroll, along with how neatly his writing was, suggested that Zabuza-sama may have been right. Still, it wasn't quite enough for Haku to decide whether or not Naruto was truly the threat Zabuza feared he might be, and regardless of how much she was enjoying acting like a normal girl –at times having to remind herself that the only reason she was there was to gather information- Haku knew she needed to force the issue somehow.

Waiting until Naruto had neared the base of the tree once again, Haku began to make her writing even sloppier and making frustrated sounds. When Naruto came close enough to crouch down on the side of the tree and peer over her shoulder, Haku slumped slightly, before noticeably brightening and looking back over her shoulder so that Naruto's face was inches from her. "Naruto-sama, can you help me with this one? I can't seem to get it right, no matter how many times I try." She smiled even wider when she saw how it took a few seconds for Naruto to register her words, and Haku felt a slight thrill at how he tore his eyes away from her with a noticeable blush. It was nice to be acknowledged as pretty by a boy, especially one that was as nice and kind –if slightly tactless- as Naruto seemed to be.

"Er, sure." Naruto stuttered slightly as he dropped from the tree and crouched next to her and took her brush hand in his own. Of course, as he leaned over ever so slightly to lead her hand carefully through the necessary movements, Haku couldn't fail to notice how solid his body felt as her back pressed into him.

Taking advantage of the opportunity, Haku leaned back into him even more, taking in the lean muscle that seemed to make up his chest and abdomen in the process. No, this wasn't the body of a rookie Genin fresh from the Academy as the pink haired kunoichi seemed to be. This was the body of a shinobi who trained his body hard and regularly. She also felt some kind of knife near his shoulder, possibly the very blade that had impossibly blocked Zabuza's counterattack the other day. It took Haku only a fraction of a second to determine all of this, yet that was apparently too long as Naruto was looking at her strangely.

Panicking slightly, Haku impulsively turned her head and planted a slightly lingering kiss on Naruto's scarred cheek, drawing a startled reaction from him and a blush from herself. "Thank you for your help, Naruto-sama." 'Stupid, stupid, stupid!' Haku berated herself as she turned back to stared down at the scroll, moving her hand slightly in an attempt to get Naruto to resume "helping" her. Her heart raced as she feared she'd just destroyed her chances of continuing her charade –and in the process sparing Naruto's life- by acting far too forward with him. They'd only "met" just yesterday!

Haku couldn't help but remember the few occasions in the past when men had taken her light flirting as an open invitation to do much more, and she'd been hard-pressed to stop them without revealing her true self or killing them. And that was just words! What would Naruto think he could do now that she'd actually kissed him? Only on the cheek sure, but a kiss nonetheless! 'Would he act as those men did?' Haku wondered as she fearfully glanced back at him out of the corner of her eye only to blink in surprise. Naruto's face was not only a fiery red, but he looked absolutely confused and embarrassed as well! When Naruto awkwardly avoided her gaze and began going through the motions of writing once again, Haku released an internal sigh. 'Thank God, I haven't ruined everything!'

She allowed a few moments of silence to pass before commenting, "Naruto-sama has such precise and neat writing… did you have to practice this a lot when you were growing up?"

Seemingly thankful for the distraction, Naruto shook his head. "Not really, but being precise is really important when dealing with Fuuinjutsu."

Holding back a triumphant grin, Haku asked, "Phooey jutsu? What's that?"

"No, no, Fuuinjutsu." Naruto corrected with an indulging smile. "It means "the Sealing Arts" and it's usually used to seal something into another object using chakra and specific seals, but it's actually an incredibly versatile art has a lot of other uses like…"

Haku made sure to act the part of an uneducated girl hearing of something extremely complicated for the first time, while inside she was listening intently, both to find the right questions she could ask to gain the information Zabuza wanted, and because she was actually genuinely interested in what little Naruto was willing to say on the subject to someone outside his Village. From the sounds of things, Fuuinjutsu was amazing, and Haku resolved to do what she could to learn it in the future.


That night, Naruto couldn't stop rubbing his cheek as he sat down to supper with Tsunami, her family, and the rest of Team Seven. To be blunt, Naruto wasn't sure how to react to Haku's "thank you" kiss. Partly because Haku was a pretty girl about his age, and partly because he'd only ever been kissed by three females in his life. Kurenai kissed him on the forehead or the top of his head from time to time, but he'd long since grown used to that, while Hanabi was just a little girl being affectionate with her "Niichan", and that woman was long dead.

Haku on the other hand, was neither a little girl, nor was she Kurenai by any means. So Naruto was stumped, both on how he was supposed to react to said kiss, as well as what Haku meant by it. He hadn't known her all that long, so Naruto had no idea if she was naturally that affectionate, or if she had a crush on him, or if it was something else.

He was so lost in thought, that he completely missed Inari's soft-spoken "Why?" Unaware, Naruto continued to eat, silently amazed at how good a meal Tsunami could cook with so little. Perhaps he should see if she'd be willing to teach him her secrets before they left? He might not burn meals anymore, but he was still far from a great cook.

"Why are you all trying so hard?!" Inari suddenly shouted, jolting Naruto from his thoughts. "No matter how hard you train, there's no way you guys can beat Gato! No one can!"

It took every fiber of Naruto's control not to laugh at that. Even in spite of that, he couldn't help but let out a quiet snort. Despite how much he wanted to point out to Inari that not only was Gato dead, but that it took Naruto all of two days after arriving in Nami no Kuni to do it, Naruto didn't dare do so. One would think that killing a merciless tyrant like Gato would grant Naruto quite a bit of admiration and gratitude from the people sharing supper with him. In reality, while Tsunami would no doubt be grateful to know Naruto had avenged her husband's death, the others would undoubtedly ask certain questions that Naruto couldn't afford to answer. Things like, "how did you find Gato" or "how did you even know what Gato looked like" or, "what are you thinking performing unsanctioned assassinations". Nope, Naruto didn't need that kind of trouble at all. Still, the look on the brat's face when he threw his words right back at him would have been perfect in Naruto's humble opinion.

Instead, Naruto glanced at Inari's barely touched plate and calmly said, "Eat your food." The heated conversation around him about how Gato was no match for trained ninja and how Inari needed to be more respectful to the people protecting their family –from Sasuke and Tsunami respectively- died instantly.

"I'm not hungry!" Inari proclaimed with the sort of arrogant finality that only children seemed to possess.

No longer amused, Naruto met Inari's glare with one of his own. Inari started and nearly fell on his ass when he noticed –apparently for the first time- Naruto's slit pupils. Taking a calming breath –and reminding himself what happened the last time he'd lost his temper- Naruto drawled his words slowly, as if he was speaking to the dumbest child on the planet –which to Naruto, Inari was pretty damn close to. "There are children younger than you starving in the streets. I imagine damn near any one of them would gladly cut off their own arm to eat that food on your plate. Food which you're own mother has been starving herself to feed you. Sit down, and eat your God damn supper."

The reactions to that statement varied greatly, from the surprise on Tsunami's face, to the sort of surprised guilt on Tazuna's, or the confused look on Sakura's. But all Naruto really cared about at the moment was Inari's reaction. He was confused for a second, before he seemed to pull his head out of his ass long enough to realize that Naruto had been telling the truth. Then he just scowled once again and shouted, "None of you understand what it's like to suffer!" Naruto clenched his fists angrily at the little shit's attitude as he ran from the room, leaving the dinner table deadly silent.

Tsunami looked like she was about to apologize, but trailed off somewhat fearfully as Naruto got up. Naruto wasn't sure what she was expecting, but it probably wasn't for him to reach across the table to pick up Inari's plate, and then scoop the food onto her own. "You really shouldn't starve yourself, Tsunami." Naruto admonished sternly, but not unkindly. "I know you're just trying to look out for that brat, but the last thing he needs is to lose his mother as well."

"What on earth are you talking about?" Sakura asked, still trying to figure out what was going on.

Meeting Tsunami's eyes, Naruto answered the questioning look he saw there. "You're a lot like Kurenai. She would have done the same thing if she were in your position." In fact, Naruto knew she had done exactly that early on when she took him in, as money had been tight for a time, thanks to Naruto destroying both their apartments and Kurenai trying to avoid taking missions in order to spend as much time with him as she could. Returning to his meal Naruto ignored the other Genin regarding him curiously, though the way Tazuna was glancing at his own plate in shamed realization didn't escape his notice. 'Fucking prick.' He mentally sneered, his previous disgust for the old drunk only growing.


"Mind if I join you?" Kakashi asked as he approached the sulking child sitting at the water's edge. He didn't really wait for an answer either, but considering he was still suffering from the effects of chakra exhaustion, he preferred to sit if not lay down whenever he had the chance. Besides, he really felt he needed to have this conversation with the boy. Both as sort of an appeasement for what had been said earlier, and to hopefully help the boy overcome his depression. On the whole, Kakashi disliked depression quite intensely. A side effect of watching his own father's downward spiral into suicide. At the same time, he really felt that he needed to have this conversation with Inari, as the boy was seemingly unaware of how close Naruto had come to attacking him. Luckily, Kakashi hadn't needed to intervene as his student's respect for Tsunami seemed to be enough to keep Naruto from lashing out at her son.

Sitting down next to Inari, Kakashi stared out over the waves for a moment before finally saying, "Maa, Naruto didn't really mean any harm with what he said. He just doesn't always interact well with others." Kakashi semi-apologized for his student, who he knew well enough to know meant exactly what he said.

Glancing over at the child, Kakashi was slightly irritated that his morose expression hadn't changed in the slightest. In fact, it didn't look like Inari was even listening to him. "Tazuna told us about your dad." That caught Inari's attention. "Naruto's a lot like you in that respect. Actually, he's never known anything about either of his parents. And his childhood…well, the truth of the matter is, he's had a far worse life than you." Kakashi explained, feeling the old heart-wrenching guilt that always struck him whenever he thought of Naruto's life, and the many ways Kakashi felt he and the Village as a whole had failed him.

Inari glared at him with a childish indignity, obviously upset that someone else could claim to have had it worse than himself. Suppressing the urge to go into great detail about the atrocity that was Naruto's childhood, Kakashi continued with his normal lackadaisical tone. "Yet despite all of that, I've never seen Naruto cry. Ever. Not that it's wrong to cry per se, but we should always strive to avoid needlessly harming those close to us, no matter how upset we are. I imagine your mother and grandfather feel the sting of your words most, and you should be more considerate to them. You don't have to forget your pain, but you should at least consider the rest of your family, and strive to help them in whatever way you can."

Seeing the boy seemed to be honestly considering Kakashi's words, the silver-haired Jounin considered speaking further, but he knew Naruto wouldn't appreciate how much Kakashi had already divulged about him. Any further, and Kakashi would have far more trouble from his sensei's son then he was willing to deal with…well, more than he was willing to deal with over a random child that he'd likely never see again anyway. With that thought in mind, Kakashi stood up, wished the boy a goodnight and headed back inside, leaving the boy to his thoughts.


Translations:

Fuujin=Wind God

Did I miss any?


AN:

And that is chapter twenty-four. Ironically, this time it's the scene with Inari and Kakashi that bugs me. Let's see, what else do I want to talk about…

The situation with the mercenaries in the city was about showing how some of Gato's mercs were little more than sadistic killers, while others were simply there to do a job and didn't go out of their way to antagonize the locals more than necessary, while yet others didn't care one way or another. Basically, that despite working for Gato, the mercenaries aren't universally evil. The mercenaries are basically soldiers to a certain degree, and soldiers like to drink and party, and generally have a good time when they're off duty. In my platoon, the saying is "Work hard, Play hard". Hence the situations with the bars. The mercs protect the bars and the people who work there because that's where they go to drink and have fun. Some of the local women that hang out in those bars are prostitutes, some willingly, some because they're desperate. Yet others are there because they choose to be, because they have friends or lovers among the mercenaries. Believe it or not, not every occupying army goes out raping and pillaging the locals. There's a reason why only about 25% of the populations of nations occupied by the Nazi's and their allies actively resisted or collaborated with the armies occupying their homelands before the Allies began liberating them.

The scene with Hitomi and the mercenaries, while a little cliche, was mostly about going over how easy it is to for Naruto to kill people who can't see him, give Naruto something to go apeshit over and lose his control -which haunts him in many ways- as well as finding out how to find Gato/how Gato runs things. The last thing it was about will be seen in later chapters.

In this chapter we now see some details of how Gato was able to take over, though this is only based on my own theories and logic, not Canon. A combination of getting the Daimyo and much of his court dependent on Gato for their next fix –something that could have been accomplished as easily as Gato inviting a minor daimyo to a party or vice versa, and Gato introducing said official to the "newest craze" which could then lead to Gato subtly getting said official to introduce it to the rest of the court before they realized how addicting it could be- which kept the Samurai from fighting back since the man they're loyal to is telling them not to touch Gato.

While this was going on, he'd still be establishing his monopoly on the shipping industry, while simultaneously hiring the many pirates/privateers hanging around the islands.

In this universe, Nami's greatest military asset during the previous wars –the last world war taking place only a decade ago yet Nami wasn't absorbed by any of the larger and more powerful nations implies they had some means of defending themselves- was their small but elite Navy, and a far larger number of privateers. By being able to repel any attempted naval landing by the warring nations, as well as launching effective raids elsewhere to keep the focus away from them, Nami was able to maintain its independence. The problem of course, being that once the wars were over, those privateers were suddenly unemployed. And as has happened throughout history, unemployed privateers turned to piracy, right up until Gato offered them a regular paycheck to work for him. And since the Daimyo's navy wasn't going to fight them, let alone hire them on, the pirates/privateers were more than willing to work for Gato since the man had the Daimyo's blessing.

So once Gato had hired as many as he could/needed, he wiped out all of the pirates/privateers who wouldn't work for him, and with Nami's official Navy being ordered to stand down by their ruler, Gato was able to effortlessly impose his blockade.

And yes, I did imply that Kaiza himself was actually a pirate/privateer. Mainly because a "traveling fisherman seeking opportunity" didn't seem very…I don't, realistic? That's not quite the word I'm looking for, but when you look at the guy, with a very distinct X scar on his face, fisherman isn't the first thing that comes to mind. It's likely that X scar is actually two scars, which implies the guy had been in some fights in his time, and seeing that he was apparently Nami's greatest hope before Gato killed him, it just seems to me like there should be more to his story. So, he was a pirate/privateer, one who probably fought in at least the last Great Shinobi War to protect Nami, and given how everyone idolized him, he was probably a decent if not great leader of men. So I made him a pirate. Note, being a pirate doesn't automatically make him an evil man any more than being a mercenary working for Gato does.

On Naruto deciding to kill Gato, that was always my intention, but the reasons for it changed as I went along. Originally, what Naruto thought was Gato's plan really was Gato's plan, and he and Naruto would have come to an agreement. Naruto was going to start setting things up to smuggle Tsunami and Inari out of the country, while setting Tazuna up to die. Then there was going to be some confliction for Naruto as he and Tsunami slowly grew somewhat closer due to his respect for her and her gratitude to Naruto and his team protecting her family. In the end, Naruto was going to have a change of heart when Tsunami was attacked while in the city and Naruto was going to go on a Genjutsu assisted warpath to avenge her. As seen in this chapter, when you can't even recognize the threat as a threat, it become very easy to get yourself killed. And that's without adding in the rest of Naruto's shinobi training.

This all changed as I was writing the summary in my notes for Naruto's meeting with Gato, as when looking through the manga to get a feel for Gato's character, it occurred to me that for a rich guy, Gato is pretty cheap. He doesn't like to spend money if he doesn't have to, and building a nation out of the various islands would not have been cheap. Not unless he intended to do to them all what he did to Nami in Canon and drain all of the money away from them, and such a nation would collapse fairly quickly as the populations either left or starved to death. So in order to create such a nation, Gato would have had to spend a shitload of money, which goes against the greed that he displays. So, instead I altered my plans to be more in tune with the kind of guy Gato is, where he'd become so obsessed with gaining more money that he destroyed the nation of Nami in all but name before just leaving. The situation in Nami was unique enough that he was able to pull it off, but he likely would have had to actually wage war on the other island nations in order to take control of them. And wars cost money. Something that Gato would have had to largely pay for himself.

In the end, I think I like this version a little more than the original, as Naruto deciding that being linked with someone like Gato would not do him any favors once word eventually leaked out about what had happened in Nami. And since he couldn't afford to work with Gato, and deciding to continue a mission that works against Gato, Naruto took the logical step of cutting off the head of the snake when he had the chance.

Anyway, let me know what you think, particularly if you have any ideas for improvement, or any questions on my version of what happened in Nami. Remember, all reviews, criticisms, etc. are welcome, especially if it can help improve this story.

Peace, Vaan.