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Chapter 49: Trouble Falls Into Your Lap


Naruto had never stood at the mouth of a volcano at the time of eruption. It had always been on his bucket list to see and then run away from on foot, for the sheer experience. He loved nature and liked knowing how awesome things worked, and in his borderline attention-deficit mind there were few things cooler than a volcano at the time of eruption. He felt that now though, he could scratch that off of the list.

Because Akainu might as well have been the closest thing he might as well have seen.

He could swear, the sheer force of the eruption could have splintered and torn apart the portion of the Red Line that they were fighting on. No longer did it look like some pristine garden project ordered by some idiot World Noble with no grasp of reality or restraint. It was a literal hell on earth. Lava spread itself across the ground after the initial explosion, and the slightest misstep would have caused a breaking of ground and the formation of a chasm.

Fortunately, Naruto was nowhere near the ground, instead sitting on Samehada as the odd sword kept itself aloft in the air via miniature Asura Path rockets coming from the bottom scales. Even so, the temperature had jumped up dangerous. Heat rose, so the air directly above what Akainu had done was absolutely sweltering.

That had been with one attack.

Well wasn't that splendid?

"Well if you're gonna start out with a big ruckus-," Naruto said, openly sweating and feeling his skin sear from the oppressive heat around him. He wasted no time in upping the arsenal himself, pulling at Kurama's chakra and feeling the protective golden glow of Tailed Beast Chakra Mode engulf him, "-I guess I should too!"

There was a selfish part of him that wished he could have had all of the biju inside of him so that he could fly swiftly on his own, but he wasn't about to go begging all of them for help when Kurama had already volunteered to bond himself to him to fight together once again.

Akainu's body and even parts of his clothes seemed to be comprised of pure dripping magma, "You're fighting a literal force of nature. One that's controlled and aimed right at you," He said to Naruto, "They say Whitebeard's Devil Fruit has the power to destroy the world. If you think his is the only one that can cause that sort of damage, you truly are a fool. Ryuusei Kazan (Meteor Volcano)!"

With a storm of punches, he shot off chunks of his fists into the air, similar to volcanic rock being shot from the mouth of a volcano during an eruption.

Naruto had to dodge the hundreds of flying magma fists twice, once as they shot through the air and again as they fell back to the ground. Fortunately, his mobility was heightened more than ever because of his flight. They fell like the debris from a meteor shower, blowing apart whenever they hit anything.

He flew lower to the burning ground to give himself a better place to dodge from, only having to avoid blasts from above instead of both above and below. He still had to outpace the explosions, but as fast as he was flying around the battlefield that wasn't much of a problem.

What did turn out to be a problem was Akainu blasting out of the ground in a red gush of lava, aiming a blow right for Naruto's head. He didn't want to see what would happen if someone made of pure lava hit him as hard as an Admiral had already proven that they could. Something about that battlefield-popping tactic seemed extremely familiar though.

Naruto pulled his legs up to come to a sudden stop. The motion pointed Samehada's Asura Path burning rocket jets right in Akainu's face, giving him a good improvised blast of pure fire, but he might as well have been giving a regular person a refreshing breeze on a brisk day. Still, it did the job of keeping him from charging into a lava punch.

Vision obscured by the flames, Akainu's punch hit Samehada's scaly hide, shaving his hand up as if he'd pushed part of it through a cheese grater. The force of the punch still meant something though, and sent Naruto spinning out of control through the air until he could right the sword/platform.

He had to physically remove the bits of lava on his frantically vibrating sword, wiping them off with his bare hands and actually burning and cutting up himself to do it. Had he not, it would have continued to burn Samehada. He'd learned his lesson fighting Kizaru when his attacks still exploded off of them, and against Aokiji when he'd attempted to freeze it solid and break it; even though Samehada could hit them and hurt them, their abilities weren't reliant on chakra, so it couldn't just casually eat/absorb them.

"I've run into more of you Devil Fruit guys than I can count," Naruto said, taking a moment to banter and think of another way to approach the battle. The entire time he was allowing Samehada to drain his chakra and use the surplus it was taking to heal its burn, "I'd love to see the kind of tree that grows fruits that let you turn into lava."

"Hm," Akainu said, disguising the injury to his hand by keeping his body halfway in its magma form.

A fight was afoot, but even as Naruto thought about how to handle the living volcano that was Admiral Akainu he couldn't help but keep thinking on the Devil Fruits. They forcefully altered the body of the eater,

That sounded… suspicious. Past episodes of post-traumatic stress would never let Naruto forget the sight of the biggest honking tree he'd ever seen in his entire life, even the better half of several decades after the fact. It was hard to forget the sight of a tree the size of an entire city-state, tall enough to push past the clouds, which also tried to suck your chakra dry.

Naruto was not a brilliant man. This was something he had come to terms with a long time ago. But the thing was, there were moments in his life when things just clicked without much need for exposition. Sometimes he just got things with only dregs and pieces of information necessary for him to stitch it all together and come to a coherent conclusion. Ironically, most of these revelations occurred in the midst of battle, possibly due to all of the blood rapidly pumping through his brain, but when they did they were usually realizations based on the fight at hand. This was the rare occurrence when it wasn't.

Granted, this was a huge leap in logic, but it was literally the only thing that came to mind, and it fit far too perfectly with everything that Naruto knew about both the Shinjuu Tree and the Devil Fruits.

"You've got to be fucking kidding me," Naruto deadpanned, not amused by the revelation whatsoever, "No."

Akainu's outright aggravation at dealing with a filthy (not a) pirate like Naruto vanished for a second at his apparent random bout of disbelief, "What do you mean 'no'?" He wasn't making a shred of sense.

"To everything you just said about those stupid fruits. No."

Outright rejecting reality as it stared you in the face wasn't going to make it any less legitimate.

The Devil Fruits were from the Shinjuu Tree. The original one. They had to be.

Defective by-products of the tree, having popped up on the other end of the veritable roots of it, but effective enough to forcefully bring powers (sometimes of a world-ending potential) out of people, and apparently there was only ever one of a certain kind during someone's lifespan.

The defective portion would explain how chakra wasn't a thing in the rest of the world the way it was in the Elemental Nations.

WHY THE HELL DID HE OVERLOOK THE WHOLE DEVIL FRUIT THING WHEN HE'D FIRST HEARD ABOUT IT?!

For God's sake, they were called Devil Fruits! Surely that required a little looking into. But then again, after the life he'd lived, he was extremely jaded in regards to special abilities.

Hindsight was a bitch and a half sometimes. There was no way that the tree that once held the secrets to end all of existence didn't have ungodly deep roots, and apparently they popped out all over the world and sprouted lesser fruits as by-products of the tree's main export. Lesser samples of the real-deal that had given birth to the nigh-limitless abilities that came with the fruit that had given chakra to the world… or to the Elemental Nations.

Oh, right. He was still fighting a battle against someone fully capable of killing him. That was probably the more pressing issue to focus on at the moment.

There was still the matter of Naruto's speed advantage that he could take to the bank. Akainu surprised him by hiding in an eruption from the ground, but since that particular trick had failed once he knew to look out for it. It wouldn't come as close as it already had to landing again. He could control things, which was perfect because he was only supposed to distract the strongest Admiral's attention instead of trying to find a way to punch out a man made out of lava.

Sure, he could, but it would no doubt be the most unpleasant thing he'd attempted to do in quite some time.

*BOOM!*

Another eruption? Well, the answer to that was both yes and no. No as in it wasn't a real eruption, yes as in, Akainu had used his own living volcano powers to rocket himself at Naruto before throwing himself at the airborne shinobi in a gigantic wave of lava. Naruto's jaw dropped and he quickly formed a Rasengan in his hand and one three chakra arms that extended from his cloak, but Akainu hadn't just meant to blanket Naruto in lava.

It seeped past the Rasengans and attached to the arms, burning right through them. Naruto had to deactivate the arms, because it had started to actually cause him pain. From the dropped masses of lava, Akainu reformed a human body and lunged at Naruto, stepping on the air with Geppou before swinging a gigantic fist at him capable of burning through solid rock.

Naruto grabbed the oversized punch with his bare hands and could feel his skin sear, even underneath the natural protective cloak of Tailed Best Chakra Mode. It was then that Naruto realized, Akainu hadn't fully extended his arm for the punch, "Fuck."

"Dai Funka (Great Eruption)!"

Akainu shot the monstrous fist that Naruto blocked with the ninja at the end, sending him flying off of Samehada through the air. Gritting his teeth, Naruto reset his grip underneath the lava rocket and threw it down to the ground before it could explode on him, instead forcing it to blow apart and take with it a huge chunk of landmass.

Hands twitching painfully from the severity of his burns, Naruto formed several clones as insulation when Akainu attempted to smother him in a gigantic mass of lava again. It engulfed the small party of Narutos except for the original who used the small amount of time provided to him by his clones to escape and make his way above the falling lava.

All of it was Akainu, so no matter what he hit it was going to hurt him like hell. Still, it was time to see just how much damage he was going to be able to do to living lava, "Kawazu Tataki (Frog Strike)!" Bringing down an open-handed slap onto the lava itself, Naruto saw a golden ripple of his chakra go through the molten rock that comprised Akainu's transformed body composition.

It was a Frog Kata technique, only without the nature chakra behind it, substituted with Kurama's.

It was unnaturally satisfying to see him fly toward the ground and destroy another square mile of territory simply from the explosion resulting from his unstable form hitting so hard. Lava splashed even farther away than that, starting fires and burning even more of the formerly pristinely upkept Red Line territory.

Samehada was able to get back to Naruto and fly him out of there before he could be at risk of being caught up in the fallout of his own actions. Taking him up higher into the air, Naruto decided that if Akainu was going to try and stick to the ground, he was going to make sure he stayed down there for good, in as many or as few pieces as possible. It all depended on just how durable he was.

"Suck Bijudama!" Naruto shouted to the skies.

Building up his chakra, Naruto's chakra cloak turned into a glowing golden replica of Kurama's head, with red and blue bits of chakra forming into a deadly black, compressed ball inside of its mouth. It was time to introduce the Marines to an attack feared the continent over in the Elemental Nations. It was one that they had already been somewhat acquainted with already, only this time it would be much more intimate of an attack.

After all, he was using it all on just one person.

It was here however, that Naruto learned something new about fighting, something that was rare when one had been in as many high-stakes battles as he had found himself involved in.

The speed of an eruption-enhanced Soru/Geppou from an Admiral launching 150 feet into the sky was quicker than the speed of a Tailed Beast Ball's formation.

Lava reached out and held the Kurama avatar's mouth shut. There was nowhere for the chakra that had already been prepared to fire to go. Naruto's attempt to cancel the Kurama avatar was the only thing he could do to keep it from blowing up in his face… as badly as it otherwise should have.

XxX

(Meanwhile – Seas Surrounding Marineford)

Anyone looking up at the sky would have sworn that they had gone blind. The entire sky above the Red Line seemed to go white for a split-second before returning to normal. The sound that followed, to call it deafening would not have been enough to explain how loud it was.

To lower-level Marines stationed at Marineford as it was transitioned out of being the main Marine base on the seas, it looked and felt like the end of the world was coming and its epicenter was mere miles away, within plain and clear sight. The seas around Marineford horrendously, and the small vessel Luffy, Jinbei, Rayleigh, and Robin had taken to sneak him ashore found itself in turbulent waters.

It was too dangerous for people with Devil Fruit powers to be on-deck where they could be swept overboard at the moment, especially someone as injured as Luffy, so Robin was with him inside watching over his condition until they could get back to the Kuja Pirates. That left two of their temporary party to man things topside.

"Ah, that's more like it," Rayleigh said with the ever-present smile on his face, even as waves washed over the side of the ship and soaked him to the bone, "Something about him felt off at Sabaody Archipelago. This feels more appropriate for him."

"How could someone that strong have existed in the world and we're only just now hearing about him?" Jinbei didn't understand it. In a world where word got around in a matter of days about anything and everything, if someone like Naruto had surfaced, there would have been rumblings about him long before he reached the level that he seemed to be now, "Someone like this can't just come out of the blue in one year's time."

"He's from a very isolated place," Was all that Rayleigh could do to explain.

…Which really did nothing in that regard.

XxX

(With Naruto)

Breathing heavily, Naruto picked himself up off of the ground and looked around at the flaming hellscape that his battle had caused. There had been absolutely no warming up between the two of them, no pun intended. They had been trying to hit each other with attacks that would put them out of commission from the very beginning.

It was quite obvious that when he was free and able to, Akainu was not one for holding anything back.

A part of Naruto was amazed, that not only had he thought of a way to turn the Tailed Beast Ball against him, he'd had the, for lack of a better term, balls to see it through. It had honestly been one of the absolute bravest moves anyone that had ever fought him had tried. He'd charged straight into the barrel of a death cannon just to make the shot backfire.

"Hah, he tried to turn my own jutsu on me," Naruto said to himself with a humorless laugh of wonder. He was still stronger than Akainu when it came to raw power, but if the Admiral managed to get Naruto to take the brunt of one of his own attacks, could he have stood up to his own might?

Akainu wasn't dead. Naruto could sense it. He was badly hurt, but then again, Naruto wasn't exactly in pristine condition either. He'd turned off Tailed Beast Chakra Mode for just long enough to count the severe burns littering his body. His arms were covered from his elbows to his fingertips with ugly, discolored skin. As long as he kept the golden chakra cloak up, no one who looked at him would ever know it though.

Walking the wasteland of his own creation, Naruto came to a stop at the edge of a cliff that he didn't remember being in that particular direction before. Reaching the edge of it, he visibly winced at the sight that awaited him, "Oh man."

The Red Line was massive, but the extended fighting and repeated manipulation of the ground by Akainu's volcanic fighting methods and Naruto's created a deep crater, the inside of which was filled with jagged, deformed rock formations. A sea of lava and fire filled it, constantly being supplied by rock from the deeper portion of the massive continental landmass.

The Bijudama had caused a cinder cone volcano to form, with a vent running out into the ocean. Looking inside of it, Naruto was vaguely reminded of the way Sunagakure sat inside of the valley, surrounded by the high cliffs around it. This was a lot like that… except filled with everything that made up a volcano.

Turning to the side, he saw Akainu standing, sizing him up again instead of attacking. At least he was aware that blindly attacking just because Naruto wasn't looking at him wasn't the way to get the upper hand. Naruto merely shook his head at him, bewildered at the Bijudama not ending the fight. It was mostly because Naruto had muffled the blast as best as he could to keep from killing himself after Akainu's counterattack, "That was…" He was pretty much speechless.

The proud, determined Admiral did everything but scoff at Naruto's reaction that he was still alive, "I may not have seen the attack before, but I've seen what it could do. You expected me to just sit back and let you fire it?"

"Kind of," Naruto admitted sheepishly, taking a bit of time to think of what he could do next, "For some reason, most people I've seen it used on do."

Akainu's ever-present scowl grew even deeper at his attitude, even though the battle had escalated to such a degree. The Red Line lands that were under the possession of the World Nobles had been ruined in that particular area. This was a grievous offense, one that he could not place the blame solely in the hands of Naruto. It was his fault just as equally, even though it had been done in order to stop the threat that the man posed to the sanctity of the Government's order.

"You seem impossibly at ease about this," The magma-spewing Admiral remarked off-handedly, "Maybe you're just one of those types that can laugh in the face of their own death? Maybe you're just a bigger idiot than I gave you credit for being at first."

The insult was not lost on Naruto, nor the feeling that Akainu was offended by his hot-and-cold attitude on the severity of the battle, "Look, for you, a Fleet Admiral candidate, fighting somebody like me, the whole point of why your Absolute Justice kind of world is right; it's a big deal. Maybe it's the most important day of your life. On the other hand, I've done stuff like this too many times. I'm kind of over it. I'm probably not even gonna remember I fought you in three weeks."

Akainu didn't rise to the return of the insult, instead choosing to simply drop backward and fall into the mouth of the volcano that he'd had a hand in making. Naruto gasped at the sight, before realizing that such an action wouldn't kill him.

Quite the opposite actually.

"And now you die Uzumaki!" Akainu's voice rang out, as if it were the very rumbling of a volcano poised to blow, "Inu Tojitsu (Day of the Dog)!"

There was something horrifically different with this attack. It was too complete to avoid. If Naruto ran, no matter where he went, it would reach him. If he used Shinra Tensei to try and block it, it wouldn't matter. The five seconds the invisible force lasted wouldn't be enough to keep the product of the eruption off of him. There was simply too much.

The entire sky found itself blocked out by lava, falling down on top of him, and there were no spots to dodge through. Countless tons of superheated magma, straight from the newly created volcano, charged and bolstered even further by Akainu himself.

Wait… he was made of magma, which was just super-hot rock wasn't it?

Pressing his palms together, Naruto moved them apart to reveal a black sphere of chakra between his hands. He had no idea if this would work, but Tailed Beast Chakra Mode enhanced all of his other jutsu. It was time to put that to the test and really try to flex his newly reestablished muscles. The earth began to shake almost immediately, without him even finishing the technique.

"Chibaku Tensei (Heavenly Body Bursting from the Earth)!" With a violent yell, Naruto threw the black orb into the air, and as it left his hands it ripped up tons of rock from the area around him as it rocketed up through the thick sheet of lava coming down on him.

It stopped it cold and pulled every last ounce of it up into the air, right toward the black core of the jutsu. As if it were the true formation of a smaller planet, Akainu and his lava became the mantle that was quickly covered by countless tons of rock that comprised the crust that imprisoned him within.

The sheer size of what he had created put a strain on Naruto to hold up in the air, forcing him to shift it over and try to aim it at the ocean before letting it drop. It moved slowly, levitating across the land by the guidance of Naruto's hands.

Blood began to jet from his nose, but he kept his concentration in moving the Chibaku Tensei construct over the water. The moment it made it inside and descended underneath the waves, the fight would be over.

Simple in theory, yes, but there was still one person who had something to say it.

"NOOOO!" Akainu bellowed with an inhuman tone, punching his way free of the rock shell comprising Naruto's satellite construct. He'd willfully fought back with his Haki bolstering his strength and had transformed his body back to normal from the lava form of the Magu Magu no Mi to keep himself from being magnetically attracted to the core of the Chibaku Tensei that had caught him in the first place.

Eyes rolled in the back of his head from rage, his body was torn to shreds from the stresses of the battle. He looked very much like a man that had clawed his way out of his own grave, and in essence he had.

A golden flash appeared right in front of him, revealing Naruto, arm drawn back and a grave look of seriousness on his face. Three Rasengans orbited around something behind him; another Rasengan bigger than the other three.

Naruto slammed it right into his chest, shooting out his chakra arm as far as he could extend it, driving Akainu into the heart of the satellite.

"Wakusei Rasengan (Planetary Spiraling Sphere)!"

The core of the 'planet' blew apart in a tempestuous wave of a vortex, sending massive chunks of rock flying as far as the eye could see in all directions. Naruto heard Akainu's scream of pain, disbelief, and defiance die in the wild winds and the volcanic rumblings of the battlefield.

He couldn't sense him any longer.

Tailed Beast Chakra Mode faded, revealing Naruto's savage third-degree burns to the open air. It made them feel ten times worse than they already were. His vest had managed to protect most of his body. His arms weren't nearly as lucky, and the length of most of his pants had been burnt to his legs.

That would certainly be fun to deal with later, peeling those off. Muret hadn't had to treat burns yet since joining the crew either, so it would be a new experience for her. Share the enjoyment and all of that good stuff.

Breathing heavily through his teeth, Naruto couldn't find a way to quell his discomfort. Burns were awful injuries like that.

If he were a lesser man, he would have been on his knees by then. If he weren't aware enough of his surroundings to know that dropping to his knees on the volcanic, hot ground would still burn the hell out of him, he probably would have done it anyway.

He spat onto the ground before taking a deep breath of relief. Other than the burns, he wasn't too injured, but those burns hurt like all levels of hell, "I'm too old for this shit."

XxX

(Mariejois – Commander-in-Chief's Office)

From the office of the man in-charge of running all of the World Government's agencies, Commander-in-Chief Kong, and (soon to be former) Fleet Admiral Sengoku had a pristine view of the apocalyptic sky far off in the distance as Admiral Akainu fought Uzumaki Naruto. Sengoku had been there to continue hashing out the details of his resignation from the Marines.

Of course, once the fight had started, it had their complete attention from start to finish.

…The explosive, explosive finish, and then – silence.

"Well," Kong said, breaking the five minutes of dead silence with no shortage of displeasure in his tone, "I guess we'll have to rewrite the maps we have on the Grand Line now. I'm sure the Gorosei will be ecstatic to have a brand new volcano sitting less than 100 miles away from Mariejois."

Every elite guard that had been on high alert standing guard in the direction of the battle still remained at the ready to intercept whatever attack may have come their way, but it was quite clear that there wouldn't be one. Even an army-killer like Uzumaki would have had to recuperate after a fight like the one he'd just had.

"I told you," Sengoku said, shaking his head at the sight, "You shouldn't hold Kuzan's defeat to that man against him. Sakazuki can't kill him either," He reasoned, using Aokiji and Akainu's real names instead of their aliases for emphasis, "The Fleet Admiral successor shouldn't be determined based off of who can kill the criminal with the highest bounty."

The failures to eliminate a threat that large were… irritating, to say the least, but they shouldn't have been the deciding factor in finding who would be the next man to head up the Marines. If that were the case, none of the three Admirals currently sitting at the top of the heap would have been in the running to do so. Out of the three of them, Aokiji and Akainu had both been defeated. Only Kizaru hadn't been outright bested, but every single time he was also unable to get the job done whenever the task came to fighting the blond menace.

Kong was just as aware of this as Sengoku was. After all, he'd never managed to get to Gol D. Roger or Whitebeard, and had wound up becoming Fleet Admiral while the men's' legend were being built. There were many regrets he'd had throughout his life, but under his watch, despite allowing things like that to happen, setting the table for this 'Worst Generation' 20 years later, the Marines had become stronger than ever.

He was worse than someone that already had the name of famous/infamous people behind his origin the way so many others did. He'd appeared from thin air, seemingly, with power they had yet to comprehend to a relevant degree.

He had literally come out of nowhere, and they were no closer to understanding what had molded him or what drove him than they had been since he'd begun tearing things apart.

Wherever he and his allies went, trouble seemed to follow, and that trouble had yet to be halted by the world's military, much to Kong's chagrin, "Letting someone like that roam the world to do as he pleases is hurting the name of the Marines," He still had a lot of pride for the Marines, and what he'd had a hand in building it to as the mighty force it was today.

"He won't become a Shichibukai," Sengoku said, despite his marked distaste for the position. Making Uzumaki and his allies Shichibukai didn't seem like the best idea to begin with, "He's already turned it down."

What on earth made a monster like that tick? And what kind of attitude did he impose on people to force them to side with him?

XxX

(Miles Away – Onboard the Natural Disaster – Medic Bay)

Having a talented on-call doctor, 24/7, was just wonderful. It didn't matter how badly you messed yourself up, they could usually fix you. They normally weren't happy with it however, especially when the injuries you tended to bring them on the rare occasions that you actually needed them were always to be of a catastrophic nature.

"Oh my God! What did fuck did you let him do to you!?"

This was the first reaction that Muret had to seeing Naruto in the medic bay, and it was at least appropriate. She had to give credit where it was due, Naruto didn't do anything half-heartedly, including getting his butt kicked… or in this case burned.

Well at least she cared. Nothing was worse than a doctor that you felt was just going through the motions when it came to patching you up. The fact that she was horrified by the injuries he'd brought to her meant that she was invested.

She had to kick several others out so that she could get the breathing room to work properly. First and foremost she cut his pants off around the patches of fabric that were burned to his skin so that she could even begin treating that part of his body. That was dedication.

"This is disgusting," Muret emphasized, as the one who would have to carefully clean the wounds before she could really do anything to treat him, "How were you even walking around like this?" She was surprised he hadn't just tried to peel the pants off of his skin, which would have easily been the dumbest thing he could have done in that situation.

"Practice," Naruto said, wincing at his ongoing treatment, "I was fighting a guy made out of lava. It didn't take much to get burned," He was grateful that she'd managed to put her foot down and kick everyone else out of her place of practice after he'd gotten back. Having the majority of the crew hover over him when he revealed just how much of his body suffered burns would have been a pain, "Ow! Fuck! Okay, hold on a second!"

"I already started," Muret insisted, pushing him back down onto the bed he was lying on for his treatment. It might have hurt, but he was hurting himself more by being an idiot, "Naruto-sama, hold still or I'll have Funkfreed make you. I can't work if you keep moving, and you're the one that said you didn't want the pain meds, so I'll just start in on the shots."

"Shots?" Blegh, shots. To hell with that. Of course, if he left and didn't destroy the medic bay in the process of evading Funkfreed, he'd have to deal with the bare minimum of at least one angry woman outside, who wouldn't be very pleased at his evading treatment.

"Yes, shots," The resident physician said, bringing over a tray of five needles that Naruto didn't take his eyes off of the entire time, "The things you get to make sure you don't pick up any gross infections from running around and rolling in the dirt with open wounds all over your body like you just did."

"Why are doctors so mean?"

"Believe me, I'm not trying to be," She'd have loved to be easygoing and nice about things, but unfortunately these people weren't the types to let things be that easy. They were the worst types to treat in the world. All of them. Being the doctor onboard the Natural Disaster was a new, fresh hell that no amount of training would have ever prepared her for, "…It's because of asshole patients like you."

XxX

(Elsewhere inside the Natural Disaster – Kitchen)

"So, why is this woman still shackled?" Byron asked, regarding Jewelry Bonney. They had been watching over her for quite some time now, and had actually taken to fixing her a meal… which had been a mistake, because she was currently eating a hole in their pantry. Fortunately, Miss Valentine kept things well-stocked, and was a talented cook, "Naruto-sama deigned to rescue her, didn't he?"

"It's because she was such a bitch when Naruto grabbed her," Miss Valentine replied chirpily, not minding the glare she received from Bonney in the slightest, "If we took the cuffs off, I'm not really sure that she wouldn't try to turn all of our ages back, and as fun as it might be to live my teen years again, I worked too hard for this body once before to have to do it all over again."

Bonney scoffed as she continued to absolutely destroy the meal that Miss Valentine had presented her with, "I'm going to find a way to kill Uzumaki. When I get my crew back, and we meet again in the New World, you're one of the ones on my hit list. This didn't change anything. I'll never forgive your lunatic boytoy of a captain."

Byron opened his mouth to verbally lambast the vulgar female captain, but quickly felt something about the mood shift. He edged his way away from where Miss Valentine was seated, as even though she was still smiling he knew full well by now that Miss Valentine had a rather sadistic side to her, especially when provoked.

Instead of any kind of retaliation or catty rebuttal, she simply sat her elbows on the table, her cheeks in her hands as if she'd already won, "Wow, for a big-name pirate captain you were really easy to drug," She said out of the blue, her dazzling smile still in place.

Bonney immediately stopped chewing and took a good, hard look at the plates of food that she had finished off and the one that she had been barreling through before Miss Valentine had said anything.

"You poisoned me?" She said, dropping her food back onto the plate as if ending her eating spree now would change anything.

"That's such an ugly term for it," And yet, Miss Valentine didn't seem ashamed at all, actually laughing rather unkindly, "But yes. Yes I did. It's a truth serum. What, did you think we were all pushovers?"

They weren't. Contrary to what most of the world probably believed, either due to bounty totals or whatever, Naruto wasn't the scariest person on the crew, he was just the strongest. Soren wasn't either. He was just amoral for the most part, and relentless in a fight. Living the way he'd lived, on the Grand Line by himself for as long as he'd lived, he was ferocious and antisocial.

It was Miss Valentine who was the absolute cruelest member of the crew. This was a fact.

She was an absolute delight to the people she knew and liked. On the other side of that coin, she had a habit of being extremely, deceptively harsh to people she perceived as her enemies, and thought nothing of it. She had been in Baroque Works at as high a ranking as she'd reached for a reason.

She had killed and tormented a lot of people to get that far. Crocodile hadn't gotten as far as he had in Alabasta without useful subordinates that did whatever the hell had to be done to put him in the position to nearly take over the country.

Nothing about her had changed, she just didn't have to let it show very often for the Foxhound Pirates. She didn't like showing it either. She was in love, and if Naruto saw how twisted she could be at her worst, the thought of repulsing him terrified her.

But sometimes, with some people… one of them who just so happened to be sitting in front of her, she couldn't really help herself.

"You bitch! I'll turn you all into babies and see which one of you sinks the fastest when I throw you overboard!" Bonney snapped at her, despite knowing that attacking as she was would be suicide, "I'm thinking it'll be you 'albatross'! I wonder how Uzumaki would like that?"

The vitriolic insult slid off of Miss Valentine harmlessly, "I don't like you, for a few reasons, and you just keep adding on to them," Her smile became significantly more ominous as she continued, "You don't threaten my lover. He might be stronger than me, so strong that he doesn't need anyone protecting him, but let's just say I'm a little petty when it comes to that sort of thing. So here's what's going to happen. I'm going to ask you some things, and you're going to answer me, savvy?"

"I'm going to kill you, you bitch. I'll never forgive you for this," She should have seen something coming when Miss Valentine hadn't given her anything that she'd have needed a metal utensil to eat. Probably to avoid her trying to stab it through her eye when her treachery was revealed.

"I don't care. Okay, first question. What's your problem with us?" Once more, Miss Valentine paused as she realized the absurdity of that query, "…My drugging you aside."

From the look on Bonney's face, she did her best to fight it, to give a belligerent, worthless reply, but whatever she'd been given literally forced it out of her, "Your damn captain, wherever he goes, everything gets worse! That island we met on, then Sabaody! And when that actually would've been useful, where was he? That retard, Straw Hat stuck his nose in, aren't your crews joined at the hip?"

Miss Valentine's smile dropped when it hit her what the pink-haired pirate was talking about, "You're talking about the war for Fire Fist Ace?"

The resulting glare "You all didn't show your faces during the war. And he's showing up now after it's over?"

They weren't anywhere near Marineford during the war, "For Luffy, and for Boa Hancock. Because they asked him to. Because they needed him to."

"Petty girl, lashing out at anything to rationalize her own anger and sorrow," The polished, refined crew member of the Natural Disaster, Byron said, drawing his seat nearer to Bonney, "Whitebeard was a hero to many pirates. That kind of freedom, to do whatever you want, and that kind of strength, to assure the same thing for those you care for…"

"You don't know anything."

"You're as cruel as a child. I wonder, is it something to do with your upbringing, or is it something the government did to you?" As if something came together in his mind, he decided to sate his curiosity with one question, "…How old are you really?"

"Byron-," Miss Valentine started to say, until she saw how hard Bonney was trying to fight answering that question, even with the serum she'd been slipped, "She doesn't need to answer that. I don't care about that."

Turning his gaze to Miss Valentine, he nodded before standing up and walking away without another word to the shaken Bonney. Miss Valentine observed her for another moment, and her reaction to what their musician had asked her.

Leaving the kitchen to find Byron sitting at his piano in the common area of the ship, she stood behind him as he idly played a tune. He didn't seem to be focusing on anything, even what he was doing, which seemed to make his playing at the level he was doing it all the more impressive.

"Why'd you ask her that?"

"Consider it a morbid observation," He said, never taking his eyes off of the keys in front of him, "We're releasing her anyway, are we not? Pay it no mind."

"Well, yes we are. But I can't ignore it now. You've ruined the mood I'd set for the interrogation. I want to know why."

Her tone was light, as usual, but the undertone wasn't. She had questions, and now that she apparently wasn't going to get them from Bonney, she wanted them from Byron as to why not.

The man had been a pirate captain before he'd been taken as a slave. He had seen many things, and had been adept enough to garner a crew to sail on the Grand Line. He picked up on particular things, especially regarding people, "She responds to things like a jaded child, instead of how a full-grown adult and hardened sailor would," Running away, blaming others, seeking vengeance for slight offenses, "And what exactly is her power?"

The power to manipulate age. Anyone's age.

"Oh God. You don't think-."

Byron hurriedly cut the question off at the pass, "I don't know."

The two lapsed into an uncomfortable silence, one that made Miss Valentine thankful for the music being played at the moment.

XxX

(Outside on the Deck)

Was it possible to become jaded at the sight of amazing things? When new-to-the-ship members like Perona looked at everyone with a fish-like expression, just looking for one other person to share in the amazement with her and found nothing, she wasn't sure what surprised her more; what Naruto had just done, or the same-stuff-as-always attitude that most of them had toward it.

It was probably easy for Miss Valentine, seeing as how she never seemed to take anything too seriously for very long. She was also a lover of Naruto's and more than once had shown that she could direct certain actions of his with food. No matter how powerful he happened to be, one of his bigger weaknesses happened to be through his stomach.

For Soren, it was more than likely because he was easily the second-strongest on the ship and was utterly convinced that given a short amount of time, he could manage feats of a similar nature on his own to some degree. It was a rather respectable outlook. That kind of confidence had to come from somewhere other than the bottom of a bottle.

Paulie had probably thrown out any inhibition to the insanity that he probably had before after Enies Lobby, while Vivi was trained by Naruto and saw him as something of a protector, so she wouldn't possibly be afraid of him. To Johnny and Yosaku, Naruto was their hero, so they saw him as more of an aspiration to try and live up to, rather than a figure to fear.

Nojiko still found reasons to be surprised every, single day, but she also kind of had Naruto whipped. Enough said about that.

"How are you supposed to fight that?" Perona asked, gesturing with her hand in the direction that they had long since sailed away from. They didn't need to be anywhere near the sight of the battle to see what it had caused, and since Naruto had teleported back to the ship after it was over, there was no need to stick around, "I don't get how, or why anyone or anything would ever need to be that strong. What's the point?"

"You just saw the point," Paulie said, idly leaning against the mast, smoking away on his cigar, "Because other people, people that want to kill us, can do that," It was comforting to know that she was basically sleeping with someone who could be that destructive, other than just knowing that others who were out to get them could.

In essence, Naruto had made a volcano (with some help), and then had almost literally beaten it up while it had been erupting. This all occurred in under an hour.

Out of sheer curiosity, Perona had gone astral since she hadn't been asked to do anything and probably wouldn't have anyway. This had been done so that she could safely watch one of the identified scariest new 'villains' in the world take on the most merciless, feared Marine Admiral in existence.

She had been incapable of having harm befall her while in that form, but she had still been terrified. And then the same person that had instilled that fear had gone right back to the ship. By the time Perona had returned to her body onboard, Naruto had been in the middle of being coerced into getting medical attention by their resident doctor, who other than rudimentary swordsmanship and her sword itself that transformed into an elephant was basically powerless.

The quiet brushing of Kurama's four paws walking on the grassy deck pulled her attention to him.

"Every so often, for one reason or another, times call upon that kind of power to be required," Kurama said to the ghost girl, "When it is, there's always at least one person who answers. It's just that circumstances surrounding Naruto kept him around longer than when his kind of strength was needed," A vulpine grin crossed his face before he walked away, "You could call him a relic if you'd like, a reminder, because that's what he is. There aren't any like him where we come from anymore."

"…"

Upon hearing her silence and feeling her eyes remain on him, he stopped walking, his tails visibly drooping as he came to a realization, "…You weren't listening to a word I just said, were you?"

All she did was continue to stare longingly at him, having almost entirely ignored his old man-like bit of exposition. He knew full well what she wanted, and also that the only thing keeping her at bay was the standing threat of him pulling out her soul with his tails if she grabbed him.

"…Fine," He eventually said with a defeated sigh, "You can have one. Just one."

Kurama had hardly finished the sentence before he found himself picked up and cuddled closely by Perona, amid the snickers from other crew members present. As the hug lingered well past the full minute mark, he quickly found himself regretting his temporary show of consideration, especially when he realized that it was killing more of his rep as a terrifying figure in front of Naruto's new idiot friends.

"Ooh Kurama, you're so cute! As long as you're around I could never be scared!" Perona exclaimed, having finally got a hold of him after so long, "We have to do something about that voice though, but other than that, you're just precious!"

A century ago, people would have been sent running just from hearing his roar dozens of miles away. All those years of just hanging around peacefully had apparently made him soft. He needed to devour some poor mortal fools to start getting some of his mojo back.

Fortunately, he was saved from further emasculation, or from having to rip Perona's spirit from her body Human Path-style, by Nojiko coming to the door to speak to him, "Kurama," She said, taking a moment to get a look at the proud fox being crushed against Perona's chest, "…Anyway, Naruto-kun wants to talk with you really quick."

Kurama liked to think that the way he got out of Perona's grasp was more dignified than 'scurrying', but he couldn't bring himself to care very much as he made his escape and ran off inside.

As he did, Miss Valentine walked over to Nojiko with an honest-to-goodness smile on her face as she regarded the sniper princess, "You're looking a lot better dear," And she did. It was the first time that anyone had seen her out of bed without holding her head and having to lean against something in over a week.

Nojiko was entire upright now, seemingly more comfortable on her feet than she'd been in a while, "Well, I was scared of my Haki, but Naruto-kun kind of had a point," Nojiko said with a small smile, "How are you going to let your own powers control you? So I'll just take it as it comes, and I'll learn how to control it and hold it back."

Kurama heard the women converse as he walked inside to go find Naruto in the medic bay as requested, 'There are some people worth watching for amongst this lot,' He knew he liked most of them for a reason, 'Maybe it wouldn't have been a bad idea to have looked into this whole traveling thing decades earlier?'

The door was wide open to the medic bay, prompting Kurama to stop at the entrance and look in at Naruto, newly bandaged from the neck down. The two partners simply stared at each other, one sitting on his haunches, the other stuck propped up in bed and irritable at being told to remain there for at least a few hours.

Both mummified man and disheveled fox stared at each other before speaking at the exact same time, "You look pathetic/You look pathetic," Naruto and Kurama did double-takes in response, as neither could believe what the other had said, "What? How do I look pathetic?/What? How do I look pathetic?"

"Your eyes are bloodshot and your fur looks like you licked an exposed outlet."

"You look like you got into a wrestling match with a furnace."

They stared each other down before Kurama shrugged and walked in, hopping up onto Naruto's temporary bed and curling up next to him. Naruto idly reached his closest recovering hand out and stroked his old friend's back as they relaxed, as if one of them hadn't been fighting for dear life not too long ago.

"So," Kurama said, closing his eyes lazily, "I'm pretty sure you didn't call me in here for this. I mean, I'm up for a nap just as much as the next fox, but this doesn't seem worth sending your gun-slinging girlfriend to get me."

It was just a matter of relaxing Kurama before Naruto dropped what he had to let loose on him, and he was none too subtle or tactful about it. Blunt was the best description as to how the conversation started.

"Devil Fruits are from the roots of the Shinjuu," Naruto remarked off-handedly. He immediately felt the chill that rolled down Kurama's spine and heard his teeth click together in an involuntary chatter. It almost made him feel sorry for telling him about it, "I know, right? But it makes sense doesn't it?"

Kurama took a second to calm down and think about it before letting out a weathered sigh. It would have been irresponsible to ignore it, no matter how much he wanted to, "…Too much sense. And I'm assuming that you think this is a problem?"

"Well, not a problem straight-up, at least I don't think. But just in case it is one, this isn't really something we can just walk away from, ya know? We know what the freaking real thing can do, we should definitely check it out," Naruto asked, "So what I'm saying is we just go find out where one is. It could be nothing, but I just want to play it safe."

The damn things had apparently been around forever, and he hadn't heard of them acting up, even when the tree had been restored back during the Fourth Great Shinobi war, so they probably didn't hurt people. Maybe it was just because he hadn't known to ask about them? Everyone else accepted the Devil Fruit trees, so he did as well. Either way, now it was basically his responsibility to follow through on his hunch and see if there was something to it.

If they were roots to the Shinjuu, but were harmless other than the ridiculous superpower-generating fruits they grew, it was still worth confirming one way or the other. It was his responsibility. Besides, it was a cool-ass adventure that had the potential for a much-needed learning experience. How often could Naruto say that he was excited to learn something that wasn't related to fighting? Once every ten years maybe, if that?

"Soren!" Naruto suddenly called out as he saw the bald, tattooed youth walk past the medic bay, "Come here. Where's the tree your Devil Fruit came from?"

What a random question. They were wasting his time with that? He had day-drinking and training to do, "I don't know," Soren said, "I didn't find mine on a fucking tree."

"Well, what do you know about 'em?" The utter seriousness on Naruto's face gave him pause. He'd just fought an admiral, and he was more concerned with this than with recovering. It caught the acid-spitting man off-guard for a moment.

"Uh… curly stems, weird swirly markings on 'em, tastes like death. After you've seen one, you can't miss 'em," Soren said, trying to list off the things he knew about them. He'd been around for a while, heard plenty about them, but there was one thing he'd never seen in regards to the fruits, "Oh, and you're probably never gonna find any of the trees, if there even is a tree. I don't think anybody knows where they are."

This was all sounding worse and worse. The fruits didn't even grow on anything. That made even more sense than before, because that goddamn tree had been wiped from the map twice in recorded human history. If even the roots still existed, they would be certain that those places would be easily marked on the map. "Then where do the fruits come from?"

Soren walked into the room and pulled up a chair before sitting in it reverse, leaning his elbows on the back of it, "I don't think anybody really understands these things. I heard, if you kill somebody who ate one, the power of the person who died'll just take the place of some other fruit somewhere else. They just… reincarnate or something," He didn't really know how else to explain it, "They don't grow."

"And you're certain of this?" Kurama chimed in, his own countenance grave as he took in the information and processed it readily, "It's more important than you probably realize, and it may just lead to nothing. You should hope that it doesn't."

He wasn't sure, because he'd never seen it happen and he didn't know how anyone else even could have, "I wouldn't say I was dead-sure, but you could ask any of us. Me, Valentine, Byron, Perona, doesn't matter. I guarantee you, nobody got theirs from a tree," Then he unknowingly hit them with the stinger, "They probably did come from a tree somewhere at some point, but they definitely don't any more. Would have to be a hell of a tree though. I'm sure you'd love that nature boy."

A grim smile stuck itself to Naruto's face, recognizing the joke, but not having the constitution about him to actually try and laugh at it, "Yeah, it'd seem like it, wouldn't it?"

XxX

(Three Days Later – Isle of Women – Amazon Lily)

Word had spread of the Marineford infiltration, with the world newspaper publishing a double issue to cover everything that had happened, from Luffy's actions ringing the Ox Bell twelve times, to a reporter's account of battle nearby between Naruto and Akainu. A very censored account.

Naruto didn't care about that though. Yes, he was something of an attention whore, but everyone that needed to know that it was a bad idea to fight him was already aware of it. There wasn't much else he could do short of meaningless destruction to drive that point home any further, and that wasn't a level he wanted to ever stoop to.

Either way, the call eventually came that everyone was back at Amazon Lily, safe and sound, thus he figured it was time for a fallout report.

In the throne room of the Gorgon Sisters, he made a random appearance via his Hiraishin kunai, placed on a pedestal in a prominent, grand location. It did his lofty sense of pride good to see when he flashed into the great hall. His moment of ballooning ego didn't last very long. Fortunately there were still people around willing to let the air out of his head every now and again.

"Hm, I believe I ordered you well-done instead of rare," Silvers Rayleigh jibed at the sight of the recently arrived Naruto's newly recovered skin. It was still easy to tell where he'd had to get up-close and personal to Akainu's lava, because certain places weren't yet properly colored to his usual tanner tone, "I think I should send you back."

"Oh ha-ha. Kiss my glorious, golden-crisped ass Rayleigh," Naruto said, flipping him the middle finger in return despite the grin on his face, "If it wasn't so hard to leave scars on me I'd probably have more than you do right now," Speaking of scars, "How's Luffy?"

Rayleigh smiled at the show of concern, "He's almost back to fighting form," The Heart Pirates had even left, as Trafalgar Law was no longer needed to oversee his health. And while they were on that point, "I actually wanted you here to say goodbye for now. Even if you weren't going to be moving around doing who knows what, I'm afraid I'll have my hands full for some time. I've got two years to turn that boy into the Pirate King."

'Pirate King' huh? Luffy? Well if he was anything like the last one-.

"Tell him he'd better step it up, because I still owe him a beating for that temper-tantrum he threw on one of my swordsmen," Naruto declared with a punch to the inside of his own palm. With that message being sent, he threw his arms back up behind his head, lacing his fingers behind his neck as he closed his eyes, "Besides, I've got stuff to do too."

"Oh?" Color Rayleigh interested. If there was something that actually had Naruto's attention it had to be something worth looking into, "Like what?"

Naruto opened up one of his eyes from his squinted gaze just so that he could lock his stare onto Rayleigh, "Does the word Shinjuu mean anything to you?" He asked, as if the answer would have opened an entire new door as far as their loose affiliation with each other had gone so far.

Rayleigh was slightly taken aback at the sudden shift in tone. Was it really that severe of a topic? "I can't say it does. Why?"

And just like that, the mood went back to friendly and positive again, "Eh. Don't worry about it. It's probably better for you because you don't. I'll just say I guess my people were really kinda self-centered if we thought that our world-ending stuff wouldn't trickle down every-… anywhere else," As if all of that hadn't been ominous, "Anyway, I'll catch you later."

The two parted ways, with Rayleigh planning on putting the finishing touches on Luffy's intended training while he was using that last day to recover. Rayleigh felt a measure of comfort at seeing Naruto, at a time where Whitebeard, one of the last remaining vestiges of the days when it was his generation's time, was newly deceased.

They weren't close friends and confidants, but there was some sort of unspoken understanding there. A sort of given respect that came from two old soldiers from different lands coming together peacefully, decades after their days on the battlefield were over with and done.

Only one of their fighting days weren't anywhere near the end.

As Rayleigh left to try and locate a proper place for the kind of training he was going to put his ward through, he shook his head in good humor, "Oh, I'm sure we'll see each other soon enough. Another twenty years later perhaps?"

"Even if it is, I'm sure you'll still be hanging around in some corner of the world," Naruto said with a laugh, heading down the halls in the opposite direction as the two old acquaintances parted ways.

XxX

(Meanwhile – Natural Disaster – Medic Bay)

Ever since learning the basic principle of Busoshoku Haki from the Kujas, Yosaku had thrown himself into getting it down, day and night, and the best way he could think of doing that was in two ways, trying to lift the un-liftable, and fight with someone significantly above his level, convinced that he could defeat them.

Between trying to lift things that were back-breakingly heavy, even by his standards courtesy of Miss Valentine's Kilo-Kilo abilities, and constant spars with Soren that pushed the limits of how violent a friendly melee encounter could become, he'd been burning the candle more than ever before.

Being that the well-being of the crewmembers was the primary concern of the ship's physician, Muret called him for a physical to make sure he wasn't tearing muscles, damaging ligaments, or hurting himself in some other way.

Yosaku's lazy grin caught Muret's eye as she flitted around the room, moving through test after test that she felt the need to run on him, "So, not that I don't love spending time with you," Yosaku said, never dropping his demeanor as he sat there in his skivvies, "But why'd you want to run all these tests?"

"You're training yourself stupidly hard," She pointed out, "I think a complete physical right now, before you get too far into it, is the best thing. That way, when you tear yourself to shreds I'll be able to know how bad it is from comparison to how you are now when you're healthy. Someone has to know how to put you sickos back together, and I took the job."

Entirely expecting a remark of some sort about how it was probably a labor of love for her, and that asking him to get a full physical was a sign of her love for him, she was surprised when he didn't say anything of the sort. He wasn't making eyes at her as if he were trying to mentally will her to adore him.

When she looked at him it was clear he was still into her, but… his response was strange. As a matter of fact, the entire way he'd been acting around her lately had been off.

Sure, he was still an unrepentant goof (especially around his main partner in crime, Johnny), and still looked to spend an annoying amount of time around her, but he hadn't shouted his undying love for her from every mountainside and rooftop in quite some time. He hadn't hounded her for a date or any outings once they reached a good town for such a thing. Nothing of the sort.

She was grateful for the change, certainly, but it still left her curious as to why. All she knew was that the difference had started after he'd returned from a short trip to the Isle of Women with the others. The one that had ended with Johnny catching a thrashing from Luffy.

In the end, she decided that it wasn't any of her business. If whatever that had happened left him in one piece and made him a more tolerable person to be around, it couldn't have been a bad thing.

After placing the stethoscope against his chest for several seconds and feeling nothing, she moved her index and middle fingers to his neck to take his pulse… which she found. So why couldn't she hear his heart beat with a device specifically made for checking that exact bodily process, "Huh. that's weird. You have a pulse, but no heartbeat. Like it's not there."

"Really now?" Yosaku said, trying and failing to hide how alarmed his own voice sounded that she'd picked up on this, 'Stupid! She's a doctor! You should have run when she pulled that thing out!' But then Funkfreed would have grabbed him and bodyslammed him with his trunk. Muret had him trained not only as a bodyguard, but as an effective orderly.

She could almost smell the lie on him, and he hadn't even tried to tell one yet.

Almost robotically she stood up straight and stared him down, before pointing to a machine in the corner that sat behind a curtain, "X-ray. Now," She would not lose her composure, even if the thought running through her head was absolutely terrifying, "…Please."

Muret didn't ask so much as she actually pleaded at the end.

No one was even supposed to know that it had happened. He thought he'd been doing a good job of keeping it under wraps. Johnny and Paulie hadn't said a word to anyone, true to their words to him on the matter. Instead the one person he didn't want to find out about it had managed to figure it out in less than two weeks.

When in doubt, play dumb, "Why do you want me to get one of those?"

-Except for when the person you were playing dumb to knew better and had no patience for games at the moment.

"Because you don't have a fucking HEARTBEAT!" Muret said, actually snapping at the end of that sentence, "There's nothing funny about that! What happened to you?"

Yosaku didn't flinch for an instant in the face of her anger, because it wasn't out of any sort of annoyance. It was out of pure concern. Honest concern for his well-being.

Standing up, he walked the several steps he needed to reach her, even as she stepped away from him, until he could gently rest his hands on her shoulders, "Don't worry about it. Nothing's gonna happen to it, I don't think," After all, he wasn't enough of a threat to Trafalgar Law to actually require him to do anything to his heart to keep him in line. Not yet at least, "If it helps, just think of it as it being somewhere safe… you know, where other people can't stab it."

Just one person… who could stab it whenever they wanted if they so chose.

Muret was an intelligent young woman, even though she sometimes questioned that because of that decision because of her decision to join up with the crew she was on. She didn't need any sort of exposition to ascertain what had happened.

The time of his personality adjustment, where he'd gone, who else she already knew had been there, and the awareness of what that particular man's Devil Fruit powers were, as well as how strong he was.

Muret stumbled back a few steps until she bumped into Funkfreed, trying to collect her thoughts and only finding one logical solution off the top of her head, "We… we have to tell Naru-."

"No. Don't," Yosaku said, more serious than she'd ever seen, "Don't you look at me like that. Not you. Anyone but you," He told her, "I don't want Naruto-aniki's help, and I don't want your goddamn pity."

"It's not pity, it's common sense," She attempted to reason with him.

Common sense. It was almost enough to make him laugh. As if that ever had any place in his life. It didn't. Not since he'd taken that first step onto Naruto's ship way back in the East Blue. People, Muret especially, had told him quite candidly that he and the other swordsman onboard lacked it in spades.

"Liar," Yosaku said with a stark sort of bluntness, "That way you're looking at me right now, I hate it! I'm not the smartest guy, and I'll probably never be the strongest guy in the world either, but I… don't want you to think of me as someone who needs to be saved from his own bad situation."

Yes, Naruto could probably handle it. If Muret told him, instead of going off on the adventure they were about to embark on, in search of some last remnant of the threat from his lands that possibly still stood, over one millennia old, he would postpone it and search high and low for the Heart Pirates and take Yosaku's damn heart back, no matter how long it took. No matter how far away from their current aim it threw them.

That would have been so easy, instead of trying to get strong enough to take it back himself, wouldn't it? But it would have killed Yosaku inside, and to the power-swordsman, it wasn't worth it in the least.

"If I can't stand up for myself, and deal with my own problem, what fucking good am I?" "So if you have even the slightest bit of self-respect for me, don't tell him. He doesn't need to make everyone else's problem his too. Please."

"And if I do?"

"…Well it's good that this isn't some stupid thing that's supposed to impress you, isn't it?" He began almost cryptically, "It's for me. Because if you did, I'm through with you. If that even means anything to you."

Whether that was an effective ultimatum or not didn't matter. It wasn't meant to be. It was just the truth. If she told Naruto, he wouldn't do anything but try to reason with him. Still, he preferred not having him know at all.

The two didn't move or take their eyes away from each other for the longest time. Yosaku didn't know if it was because Muret was trying to will him into backing down, if she was trying to process everything she'd been told, or if she thought that if she waited long enough he'd lose his nerve, but he didn't budge.

He didn't know how long it took. All he knew was that when they'd began speaking, the sun had been up, and by the end of it the horizon burned orange with the arrival of dusk.

"Goddamn it, I hate you for this," Muret exhaled, clearly troubled by this entire situation to a visible degree, "…I won't tell. Doctor-patient confidentiality and all that. But-," Hand on Funkfreed, she transformed him into his half-elephant hybrid form, pointing him right at Yosaku before lowering the living weapon with a sigh, "If this winds up getting you killed, I'llnever forgive you."

Yosaku nodded and walked over to his clothes, quickly putting them back on before leaving the room, his face stony, "For what it's worth, I didn't ever want you to know at all," He said, reaching the door, hand on the knob before turning with a reserved smile, "I'm glad you care though."

Muret had gotten herself to her desk, back turned to the door, hugging Funkfreed's hilt tightly enough that her arms shook, "Go train… you stupid swordsman."

XxX

(With Naruto – Isle of Women – Amazon Lily)

"You look like you're thinking about something."

"Maybe," Naruto said, looking out at the sky as he took some time to think, "Hey, if I asked you to do something for me, could you? It wouldn't be much."

Anything he wanted. Anytime. All he had to do was ask. Oh, if only he knew.

"If it's within my power, I'll consider it."

Naruto turned his head halfway and smiled at her, "Hey, don't take it like it's some whole big thing. Just… if you come across a Devil Fruit or something, could you call me? I need to check something about them, and apparently finding 'em is some whole 'one-in-a-million' kind of deal. I don't want to eat it or anything. Just study it."

"Study you say?" Hancock said, the only outward sign of her humor at what he was saying being a slight upward tilt of her lips, "That doesn't sound like it would be your forte."

"You say that, but I'm pretty good at figuring some things out when I really need to, ya know?" And he definitely needed to figure this out. Sure, the world had been turning for almost 100 years after the last time he knew of the world being threatened, but from experience, that sort of thing could linger for countless years if you weren't sure it was nipped in the bud, "So, you know, keep an eye out for me if you could."

"And what would I get in return?"

Naruto was originally of a mercenary society, so recompense for services rendered was the furthest thing from being foreign to him, but after his fight with Akainu, the thought of it kind of made him twitch, 'Meh, that one was really helping Luffy instead of helping Hancock. The Kuja Pirates didn't get anything out of that at all,' He reasoned to himself with a click of his tongue, "Well, it's probably gonna take a while, so anything I guess."

"'Anything' you say?" Once again: oh, if he only knew.

Wait, no. No. What about Luffy? She still-... but Naruto was-... ugh. It was enough turmoil to cause a migraine.

"Anything you want," Naruto repeated for confirmation purposes, literally feeling the emotions in the woman next to him spike thanks to his returned sensor abilities. Goodness, she seemed so conflicted. He couldn't get a proper read on what she was feeling, "As long as you don't want me to kick a puppy or something screwed up like that. You know how to get to me."

"I'll keep that in mind," She most certainly would. Naruto was nothing if not accessible, and the future looked like it would be quite interesting for the entire world as a whole, "Do not do anything else foolish anytime soon, if you could."

"Come on now," Naruto told her, more or less driving this point home for her, "…You know I'm not gonna make a promise I can't keep."

…Interesting for the entire world if it lasted long enough as a whole to realize as much. It was all a matter of time now.


Alright, so for clarity's sake, I'm going to go ahead and say now that the next chapter will be a timeskip. Several members of the crew have goals that will take a while to achieve, including Naruto's search to find out if there's more to the Shinjuu than just what he had to deal with in the Elemental Nations.

I'm going to have some fun working with that little aspect. As much as I hate it, I would have been remiss had I not even considered doing something about it in this. I mean, come on, it partially writes its damn self!

Anyway, I'm done for now. I hope you enjoyed.

Kenchi out.