Naruto: Potential Realised
So it's been a year. I know what y'all must be thinking, "What the fuck, IMF, it's been a year? What's your excuse this time?" Well, the list is fairly long. Mainly: the ending sucked and everything that followed was just as bad or worse. It all just killed my interest in Naruto for a while – well, that's not really true.
I kept writing. A lot actually, probably more than I ever have. I wrote one shots, short stories, and even began work on entire new epic lengths fics, some of which I'll post, some of which I'll probably end up scrapping entirely.
So, yeah, I kept writing, and I wrote a lot, but I couldn't compel myself to write for NPR – not because I ran out of ideas, I keep getting more of those all the time, no I stopped writing for NPR because the ending was demoralizing and a lot of the endgame revelations in the manga forced me to change a lot of stuff because I prefer to maintain a strong connection to canon. I was able to write new stuff because that wasn't connected to all this pre-determined lore I had come up with for NPR, it was a freeing experience.
I feel like I'm getting off track. I didn't just not-write NPR in all this time. I had real world responsibilities too. Like law school. Which sucks but is finally over and was sorta-kinda worth it because I graduated with a good classification in a strong degree. Fuck me if I'm ever going to use the damn thing though.
I feel like sharing a lot more with you guys – not that any of you care or should care, it's just cathartic is all – but this is already the longest opening AN I've ever written (I'll probably delete it at some point, and come to think of it I should have probably left this for the end, but it's too late for that now! It' not like I can edit this or anything…), so here is a quick recap.
RECAP: Naruto spent a year training with Sarutobi clan at their ancestral home on Mount Kongōurin. Shortly after he left, Jiraiya infiltrated a summit of minor villages hosted by Akatsuki. He was caught, captured and imprisoned. Upon hearing this, Naruto rushed to Kusagakure in the hopes of freeing Jiraiya. He failed in this objective, and then again failed to assassinate Sōgen, the leader of Kusagakure and one of the driving forces behind the infant Akatsuki Alliance set on overthrowing the balance of the Great Five. Though his unilateral attack on Kusa was a failure, Naruto's actions has generated a great upset that has changed the course of history. Alarmed by his strength, Pain had decided to recall his inner circle of Akatsuki to begin the hunt. Meanwhile, one of Sasori's spies, Sasaki, has divulged the location of Jiraiya to Orochimaru, who has sent him and another trusted shinobi, Gen'yūmaru, as envoys to Konoha to strike a deal.
More to come.
(Hi no Kuni – Kusa no Kuni Border)
Naruto could hardly believe his eyes as the mask went off.
What he was seeing simply wasn't possible, it couldn't possibly be true… He was supposed to be…
"It's been a long time, Naruto-kun."
"You look like you've seen a ghost, Naruto-kun." Teuchi chuckled. The man had changed a great deal; he had lost considerable weight and possessed a muscular physique; he was bold now, his face was angular and gaunt and framed by a well-trimmed beard. He looked so different that if it hadn't been for the sound of his voice, Naruto might not have recognised him.
Naruto shook his head in disbelief. "Is this some kind of joke?"
"It's no joke," Teuchi assured, a slight smile on his face. The former sleeper agent seemed to have shed his menacing demeanour entirely. He appeared to be no different than the man Naruto had known growing up.
As the shock subsided, anger kicked in. "Tsunade told me you were dead." There was that voice again, the glacial tone that surfaced emotions had to be forcefully restrained.
"And as far as the world is concerned, I still am," Teuchi acknowledged with a nod. "I understand you-"
"The hell you do." Naruto knew exactly what Teuchi was about to say, and he had no interest in hearing it. His balled hands itched to strike the man. "Do you know how much you hurt Ayame?"
Teuchi flinched at the mention of her name and bowed his head. "Thank you for looking after her. I've been keeping an eye on her every now and then. She seems to have moved on with her life."
"Why don't you do more than keep an eye on her and actually go see her?" Naruto grabbed the man by the straps of his body armour. "All this time I was carrying this guilt of your death, all this time Ayame had to pick up the pieces of her life because you shattered her entire world… What the fuck were you doing?"
"I killed four people, Naruto-kun," Teuchi said quietly though he made no attempt to free himself. "Four people. I wasn't myself, but I can't take that back, no matter what I do. Their blood is on my hands. Their families-"
Naruto released the older shinobi with a push. He didn't want to hear it. "So now you're with ANBU." The demand for a good explanation harboured implications reserved for his enemies.
"Inoichi-san helped me recover under the orders of Hokage-sama," Teuchi began to explain, visibly apprehensive of his tone and demeanour. "They were able to separate my consciousness from the man I once was. After my treatment, I realised that it didn't matter whether I called myself Teuchi or Hamachi. The death of those men stuck to my conscience all the same."
"So you decided to put on a mask for the rest of your life and do what?"
"Every single member of my team is deceased as far as any official record is concerned," Rooster decided to cut in. "Service to our country and village is our sole purpose."
"You, I don't even get," Naruto rounded on the ANBU captain. "Yeah, I know who you are, and I know you know exactly who I am."
Rooster held his gaze for a moment, and then reached for his mask, unclasping it as he spoke. "They told you." Kohaku Shūichi lowered his mask and revealed his striking pale visage, likely as a result from wearing his mask. He had retained the same rooster-like hairstyle he had as a youngster albeit longer. His eyes were mysterious black, unnerving and unreadable as they ever wear.
"Yeah, though it would have been nice to hear it from you," Naruto subconsciously clenched his fist. "I would have never met you if it weren't for Gramps being in the hospital, would I? You were my father's friend."
"I was his best friend," Shūichi stated matter-of-factly. "Minato was a good man and as a brother to me. I mourned his passing… and that of your mother."
"Then why did you never come to see me?" It was neither the time nor the place, but old wounds rarely reopened at the most appropriate of times. Still, he remembered there were more important matters at hand, more important that his hurt feelings. "The both of you are cowards," he said and left it at that.
"We have orders to bring you back," Shūichi was quick to return to task and put his mask back on. "This girl," he gestured to Karin, "we'll have her to come with us."
"She stays with me." Naruto knew he raised the issue not because he cared a tremendous deal for Karin, but because he quite frankly couldn't stand any of the ANBU at the minute and it felt good to put his foot down. "You don't want to do that," he warned the approaching operatives with bindings in their hands as they looked to their captain.
"Very well," Rooster conceded easily. "We are returning immediately. Try to keep up."
"You'll eat those words," Naruto said as he abruptly lifted Karin off her feet and slung her across his back.
"H- Hey! Take it easy, I'm not a sack of potatoes. Try to be a little more gentle!"
Then they scattered.
(Konohagakure – Hokage Tower)
"What is it?" Tsunade half rose out of her chair as Shizune entered her office in a hurry.
The Godaime appeared dishevelled and tired; her desk was an absolute mess of stack of papers covering every inch. Every fifteen minutes or so more status reports came flooding her way due to the entire country kicking into wartime preparations. Whenever she looked outside her window, the village was teeming with shinobi on rooftops and on every corner receiving and sending messenger birds. "Are they back yet?
Much to her dismay Shizune shook her head. "Rooster sent a messenger ahead. They'll be here within the hour. There has been a new development."
"A new development?" Tsunade sat back down and leaned back into her chair. "Good or bad?"
"Good, I think."
"You think?" Tsunade knit her brows, nonplussed. "Well then, let's hear it."
"Naruto is bringing a someone with him," Shizune informed the Hokage. "A deserter from Kusagakure."
Tsunade sat up straight. "He is doing what?"
"According to Rooster, she has agreed to cooperate in exchange for protection," Shizune elaborated quickly, mindful of her master's temper.
"She?" the Godaime repeated, to which her assistant nodded. "Very well, inform Ibiki. I want him in a room with her the moment she gets here."
Shizune hesitated to relay the rest of the message. "According to Rooster she will only speak with you and Naruto."
"I don't care what she wants. This girl will make no demands of me." Tsunade had to admire the boldness behind that demand even if she had no intention of accommodating the deserter. "Have Ibiki report to my office when they get here."
"Yes, Tsunade-sama," Shizune withdrew with a bow, leaving the door opened as Izumo and Kotetsu walked in after her.
The Godaime narrowed her eyes at the pair of chūnin bearing more gifts. "If I need to sign any of those, I suggest you leave them at the door and walk away."
They didn't need be told twice and bowed out.
Sakura studied Rei intently to gauge her reaction, sat across from her in her living room. She had caught her on her way back home and delighted with the opportunity to be the first break the goods new to her. She had hoped for a more… lively response, but as always, the girl maintained her dignity.
"That's what I heard."
Rei directed most of her gaiety inward but smiled to convey appreciation. "Thank you for coming tell me."
"You missed him a lot, didn't you?" The stoic girl rarely showed her emotions, but Sakura could tell Naruto was one of few causes for exceptions. They were an odd couple, there was no way around it, but they were good for another. Naruto was the lively one, spontaneous and fun to be around (something Sakura lamented she hadn't realised that until he left Team 7), and Rei was the calm, level-headed countervail that kept him grounded and reigned him in when necessary. "I'm really glad Naruto found you."
Rei seemed puzzled by that. "What do you mean?"
"I wasn't a good friend to Naruto when we were on the same team," Sakura confessed what she presumed Rei already knew, though it felt good to get off her chest. "For the most part anyway. I didn't treat him the way I should have, none of us did really, but I think I'm the worst one. He was loud and obnoxious and persistent, but he always came through for me when I needed him."
"If it is any consolation, Naruto has never spoken a bad word about you, or anyone else on your team for that matter," Rei told her, though that only made Sakura feel worse. "In fact, he rather speaks highly of each of you. Though begrudgingly so when it comes to-"
"Sasuke-kun," Sakura finished laughing to which Rei nodded smiling. "That does sound like Naruto. The same goes for Sasuke. He interrogated me earlier, trying to get as much information on Naruto as he could. I think he's a little jealous."
"I know what that's like," Rei admitted to her astonishment. "I was worried when I heard he had gone to Kusa alone, but I wasn't scared. I just knew he'd make it out of there and keep his promise."
"His promise?" Sakura raised an eyebrow.
"It's nothing." Rei actually looked embarrassed for a second. "It's just a silly agreement between us." A distant look came over her as she raised her cup to her lips.
(Hi no Kuni)
"Slow down!" Karin yelped as Naruto stormed onwards, bending the wind beneath his legs as he practically flew through the forest.
He didn't seem to hear the redhead on his back, her voice drowned out by screeching wind, but even if he did he wasn't likely to comply.
The ANBU kept up with little effort though they trailed behind. Naruto knew he couldn't keep up his fūton-enhanced speed for much longer, even if nature manipulation was considerably less taxing than the Shunshin. He kept his pace however, eager to get back home as soon as possible. He would have to face the music, and it wasn't going to pretty if Tsunade was even half as pissed as he imagined her to be, but the sooner he took his lumps, the sooner he could get back to finding Jiraiya.
They were nearly back in Konoha already, a few hours out, half a day at the most. "Karin," he said as they crossed a significant distance.
"Oh, so you can hear me? What do you want?" she snapped irritably.
"I need to learn more about fūinjutsu." It had come abundantly clear to him in Kusagakure that proficiency in the art of sealing was going to be pertinent to his growth as a shinobi, and especially as a jinchūriki. It wouldn't do if his opponents could meddle with his seal.
"Can you teach me?" he asked as they landed and took off a second later into another long leap. "You grew up in the Uzumaki clan, right?"
"Not all of us are sealing masters, you know?" Karin replied a little louder than necessary. "We have a natural affinity towards sealing, but that's not enough. It takes time and dedication – dedication I didn't have," she added. "What little I know won't help much, and even if I were so inclined to help you, that's not part of our deal."
Naruto rolled his eyes. Of course there would be a cost. "What do you want?"
He nearly lost his balance and slipped. "We're related!"
"Not with you, dipshit!" She thwacked him on the head good for that one. "With Sasuke."
"Not this again!" Naruto swore under his breath. "I can introduce you but I can't make him go out with you. Ask something else!"
"I didn't think that would work," Karin sighed and hung her head in defeat. The swiftness behind her words made it clear she no expectation of her initial request. "OK, you gotta make sure I stay with you when we get to Konoha. You make sure I get to live with you and not in some shitty detention facility. Deal?"
"That might be a tough sell" Naruto sucked his teeth. "That's going to take a whole lot of convincing, but since I'm getting my ass kicked anyway, I'll try my best."
"I'm not interested in you trying your best," Karin replied flatly. "Get it done or forget it."
"What was that?"
"I said fine!"
(Several Hours Later)
They arrived at Konoha under the cover of night. Naruto felt his heart melt at the sight of the illuminated village. He was exhausted but refused to let that stop him. Rooster insisted they pass through a hidden path as standard procedure. He didn't argue, he didn't have the strength for it. Karin was fast asleep on his back; he envied her.
"This is where we part, Naruto-kun," Teuchi said by the entrance of the hidden path. "I hope we can meet again."
Naruto had yet to come to terms with the fact the man was still alive, let alone working as part of ANBU, they hadn't even spoken since they set off, but despite how displeased he was with the man, he didn't have much choice to accept it. "I won't tell Ayame about you."
"But I will eventually." It didn't sit right with him, no matter how well Teuchi rationalised it, and it angered him Teuchi put him in position that would make him a hypocrite. Most importantly, he knew how much it would hurt Ayame if she found out he kept this from her.
"She has a right to know, and I know I would have wanted to know if I were in her position." He knew that much for a fact.
Teuchi looked despondent but accepted his decision. "I'll keep watching over her when I can."
"That's never going to be enough to make up for losing you." Naruto shifted Karin's weight in his arms as he carried her. "I'll be seeing you again soon. Count on it. Whatever this is, we're not done."
Rooster led the way through the underground labyrinth. It was an elaborate maze of tunnels and secret passages that connected to a number of key strategic points in the village and linked the various department buildings.
The last time he had been in here, he thought he was sending Teuchi to his death, and Tsunade had given him a lecture he was determined never to forget.
"I'm not asking you to be smarter than anyone else. You're not that type, you learn through pain rather than reason, you're just like Jiraiya in that sense."
"Then what are you asking?"
"I'm asking you to not be an idiot. You've got all the talent and determination you need to become a great shinobi one day, Naruto. Don't waste any of it on stupidity."
"It's a promise."
'I wonder if I broke that promise by going to Kusa.' In retrospect it wasn't the smartest thing he had ever done. If he had to be honest, he knew he was probably making a mistake when he went, and as much as he regretted not being able to save Jiraiya, he didn't regret going, and he didn't regret fighting Sōgen either. If it was a mistake, then it was one worth making, and one that would serve as a valuable lesson.
For now he could only hope Tsunade would understand the sense of obligation he had felt when he went to Kusa. She knew Jiraiya better than anyone. 'But she's also the Hokage,' he considered, 'and I'm supposed to be her successor some day. It's hypocritical of me, but I wouldn't have let her go… Damn it.'
A tapping sound echoed through the halls.
Rooster raised a staying hand.
"Karin, wake up," he said quietly as he put her down. There was a certain ill intent in the air.
"Danzō-sama," Rooster greeted.
The one-eyed shinobi came into view with half a dozen of Root shinobi at his shadow. "I thought I told you to bring him back in bindings."
"Hokage-sama told me to disregard that order," Rooster told the Darkness of Shinobi though it was unlikely he needed the reminder. "Is there something I can do for you, Danzō-sama?"
"Relinquish custody of these two to me." By no indication was Danzō asking, and yet he had no authority to overrule the Godaime… it was a rather bold move.
"Respectfully, sir, I cannot do that." Rooster kept his cool despite the obvious intent in the air. "I must ask that you let us pass."
"Save yourself trouble, Shūichi," Danzō cautioned icily. "I will not ask again."
"I will do what I must to respect the Hokage's wishes," Rooster replied as he reached for his sword. "Don't you move," he whispered to the young shinobi at his back.
Naruto drew the tantō given to him by the Sandaime. The engraved kanji glimmered under the torchlight. "I won't take a single step forward, but I'm not running from that one-eyed creep."
"Take them," Danzō ordered.
The Root operatives parted their cloaks and drew their weapons as they advanced wordlessly.
Then, before the fighting could begin, thick wooden beams suddenly protruded from the walls and interlocked to create a chest-high wall between them.
"STAND DOWN!" a powerful voice commanded.
Naruto recognised it immediately and he felt a wave of unease and dread settle in his stomach. 'She sounds pissed.'
Tsunade came into view with a single ANBU operative in tow. "Danzō," the Godaime spiked her chakra reflexively, "what do you think you are doing, are you so eager to give me the justification I need to tear you down?"
Naruto felt a second chill run down his spine. He knew Tsunade could be scary, but he hadn't witnessed her unbridled hostility before, and she wasn't even directing it at him. He silently prayed it would never come to that.
Tsunade glowered at the one-eyed shinobi. "Your Hokage asked you a question."
"Hokage-sama," the one-eyed warmonger humbly bowed, "I assure you I had every intention of delivering them to you myself."
Tsunade bore down Danzō for a moment longer. "I'm sure you did."
The Root operatives sheathed their swords and fell in line behind their leader. "Well then, as you are here already, I will take my leave."
"Not yet you won't," Tsunade called after them. "Your men disobeyed a direct order." Additional ANBU operatives appeared from every corner. "Cat."
"Hokage-sama," the ANBU commander appeared before the Godaime in a kneeling position.
"See to it they are comfortable in their cells for the next six months." Tsunade allowed herself a smug smile as an irritated Danzō wordlessly had his men surrender. "And make sure you keep them at separate holding facilities."
"As you wish, Hokage-sama," Cat nodded, gesturing orders to her subordinates.
The ANBU reinforcements surrounded the Root operatives and swiftly took them into custody.
Danzō hid his ire under a mask of calm. "Am I free to go or do you wish to bully this old man some more?"
"If I wanted to bully you I'd take your cane, but I'm not that petty." Tsunde called off her men with a simple hand gesture. "He's free to go."
Danzō promptly headed down the tunnels and disappeared from sight a moment later.
Tsunade turned to round on her jinchūriki only to find him hiding behind a terrified looking girl his age.
"H- Hey… Tsunade-sama… It's been a long time. Has it been a year already? Time sure flies, huh?" Naruto laughed nervously. "I sure did you miss you a lot! You know I have nothing but love and respect for you, right? I mean, I grew up without a mother but I imagine our relationship is much like that of a mother and her-"
"Save it, runt."
Naruto gulped. This wasn't going to go well. "Look, I uh, I know, I shouldn't have gone to Kusa. I guess I have issues with authority and bad impulse control. I guess it's because I grew up alone as a lonely orphan so I never really had any framework for -"
"I said save it!" Tsunade stomped over and lifted him off the ground by his shirt, hefting him a solid foot of the ground "Don't think being cute and playing the sympathy card is going to save you from the world of pain you're about to become familiar with."
Karin yelped, having tried to make herself scarce only to be blocked off by Cat.
"Who is she?" Tsunade tried not to notice the fact how much he had grown. "Your new friend from Kusa?"
"I guess she's my captive, but at the same time she's like a friend, but she's also a pain in the ass, so I'm not sure." Naruto squirmed under the Godaime's look. "She's actually family."
"Huh?" Tsunade threw the blond aside like a ragdoll and took a better look at Karin. "She does look like an Uzumaki and her chakra feels like it…"
Naruto banged his head against the wall and rolled on the ground holding his crown and hissed in pain.
"Oops." Tsunade towered over Karin with a gauging look in her eyes. "What's your name, girl?"
"K- Karin!" the redhead squeaked. "Naruto convinced me to come with him. He found me after I deserted Kusa. He promised me safety in exchange for information."
"Did he now?" Tsunade looked at the blond in question over her shoulder. "I don't recall giving you the authority to broker deals on Konoha's behalf, chūnin."
"She knows a lot about Kusa's operations, I had to promise her something in return." Naruto tried to sound as reasonable and non-demanding as possible. "Right?"
"I don't give a shit what she knows," Tsunade said sharply. "Last I checked you were supposed to be training with the Sarutobi clan on Mount Kongōurin, not starting the Fourth Shinobi World War!"
"We both know I didn't do that!" Naruto raised his voice despite his best efforts. "Gramps told me a war was coming anyway. I figured-"
"You figured you could just forego the chain of command and ignore all our diplomatic efforts?" Tsunade cut him off angrily. "Is that what you thought, that you could just act on your own and attack a military stronghold with impunity?"
"You have no idea what your actions have led to, do you?" Tsunade wasn't about to let up. "Kusa will respond. I had the entire country begin wartime preparations. We've closed our borders and issued a recall for our diplomats and shinobi. Do you have any idea what kind of repercussions that will have? I was under pressure to disavow you and declare you a rogue shinobi!"
Naruto took it hard. He knew there would be consequences to his actions before he left, and he knew those consequences wouldn't just affect him, but hearing it, having it shouted at him by the Hokage… It wasn't something he could've truly prepared for, and he knew in that moment he had no leg to stand on. It didn't matter what he thought, it didn't matter what his intentions were or what obligations he felt he had to follow.
It dawned him as clear as glass: 'I was wrong.'
"As Konoha's jinchūriki you're expected to be more than just a jailour. You are a pillar of balance. You're expected to think of everyone before yourself. You attacking a village without any kind of consideration or authorisation wasn't just selfish, it endangered the lives of everyone you know! What would we have done if you were captured, huh? We don't just lose Uzumaki Naruto, we lose an important military asset that severely weakens us politically and militarily."
He lowered his head as Tsunade continued to chew him out.
"Everyone might have known conflict was coming, but you had to go and throw oil on the fire before it even got going, didn't you? Do you not realise the consequences of war? Countless lives are affected. Entire economies can crash, trade can come to an abrupt halt, panic spreads, and people scramble to get what they can before the going really gets tough! I have half a village that is terrified, and another half that are baying for blood. And it's not just us. Our allies have to make a stand one way or another when the time comes, and your little excursion has forced their hands. They might back us in this pinch, but they might not in the next one. And don't you think for a second killing Sōgen would have immediately put an end to all our problems either."
He reflexively looked up at that last remark.
"What, did you think killing one old man would end all of this? At best you'd buy us some time, and they'd be more careful next time, they'd wizen up and maybe even catch us by surprise. Of course, you didn't kill Sōgen to begin with, did you?"
"I am the Godaime Hokage of Konoha. It is my business to know." Tsunade lifted him off the ground by his collar. "Do you remember what I asked of you the last time we were down here, do you remember what you promised me?"
"Do you think your actions protected that promise?"
He shook his head.
"Do you?" Tsunade shook him again. She wanted to hear it from his mouth.
"No," he answered quietly. He felt smaller and more foolish than he had in years. It was like he was six years old again and being chastised by Hiruzen for doing something reckless but far, far more severe. "No. I'm sorry."
"You're damn right you're sorry," Tsunade growled.
And then she embraced him.
"You're a damn fool."
The sudden display of affection confounded him. It caught him of guard, shocking him into silence.
It felt like it something that missing all his life but thoroughly natural, warm, and comfortable.
He hadn't even though to return the gesture, nor did he have the chance to because it didn't last long, and was followed by a just as unexpected punch to the face that rocked him off his feet and sent him crashing into the wall.
His head rung painfully as he groaned out, "I deserved that…"
"And a whole lot more, but we don't have time for that," Tsunade said as she picked him up and dusted him off. "You made me worry," she said so quietly only he could hear. "Don't ever do that again."
Naruto's eyes widened slightly. "I promise."
"I'll be keeping you to that promise as well. If you're a man, you'll keep it no matter what, right?"
"I can't promise I won't scare you again," he said quietly, "but I won't ever break a promise again. I swear it on my life."
"Good." Tsunade stepped back, looking at him for a moment longer to take in his changed appearance, noting how he had grown, before turning to Cat. "Put her somewhere safe. If she wants to help us stick it to Sōgen, we can work something out, provided her information pans out."
"Don't argue," Naruto told Karin before she could protest. "This isn't Kusa. You'll be safe wherever they put you. I'll come for you as soon as I can."
"Don't forget our deal!" Karin reminded him as Cat escorted her away. "I mean it, Naruto!"
Tsunade raise an eyebrow. "Exactly what kind of deal did you come two come to?"
"It's a long story but it won't cost us anything," Naruto promised quickly. "Well, I might have to actually beg Sasuke to help me out."
"As long as she cooperates," Tsunade said as they walked down the hall.
Naruto remembered his earlier conversation with Karin. "She also wants to live with me, but I'll understand if you-"
"Sure, why not?" Tsunade agreed disappointingly easily. "After we've taken necessary precautions of course."
He wasn't so sure how to feel about that. "Y- yay…?"
"You don't sound particularly happy about that."
"She's kind of a pain in the ass."
"It's different with me. I'm way cuter than she is."
Tsunade burst out laughing for a second, and then punched him in the arm hard enough to make it instantly go numb.
"Ouch! What the hell was that for?"
"I'm still angry at you. You better not forget that chewing out any time soon, brat."
"I won't!" he said rubbing the offended limb and trying his best to fight off his oncoming migraine. "Trust me, I won't."
"It's dumbass kids like you why I never wanted kids," Tsunade sneered ruffling his hair roughly. "And don't think I'm done with you yet either. If you think those love taps hurt, just you wait."
"You know, for someone who doesn't want kids you're awfully sweet on me."
"Are you really pushing your luck with me right now?"
"If I don't find the levity in this what else am I good for? Aside from dashing good looks."
"You're about to find out."
(Several Hours Later)
The ceiling fan cycled steadily under the bright lights, slow and monotonous like a hypnotic device. Naruto could feel his eyelids growing heavier each passing second and groaned his frustrations aloud; he leant back in his chair and rubbed his eyes, willing himself awake. He sat in a square interrogation facility across from a trench-coat wearing intelligence officer.
It had been hours and they were going in circles.
"And after you escaped, did these alleged Uzumaki clan members pursue you?"
"Like I've already told you three times, yes but I didn't see them. And what do you mean alleged, are you call me liar?"
"How did you know they were pursuing you?"
"The girl I came back with, Karin, she's some kind of super sensor type. She sensed the prick coming. But I already told you that."
"And who is this 'prick'?"
"Like I said, the others called him Atsushi." Naruto felt what little remained of his patience slipping. He had retold the exact same story six times already, with hardly any changes, though of course they scrutinised every little detail he recounted. "Can I go?"
"Just a few more questions."
"I've already told you everything," Naruto ground out irritably. "Six times already. Are you seriously not clear on what happened or are you just fucking with me?"
"I understand this might be a trying experience but please try to understand we have to be sure you are debriefed properly," the intelligence officer said calmly. "Now, after you escaped Kusagakure, you made your way to the mountainside borders, yes?" Naruto nodded why. "Why was that?"
"No particular reason. My summon was injured so we landed and decided to talk."
"Ah, yes, the falcon. Senzaru, correct?"
"Ahuh. You want to ask him questions? I'm sure he won't mind answering."
"Er, no, thank you. Please, continue."
Naruto sighed pinching the bridge of his nose and sighed. "We made our way through the mountains because it was convenient at the time. That's when we ran into more enemies. Some clan that lived in those mountains and occasionally did business with Sōgen."
"Ah, yes," the officer flipped through his notes, "I believe you said you killed only those that attacked and left survivors where they were. Why?"
"They weren't a threat, and I wasn't in the mood to kill them."
"But they could have jeopardised your exfiltration."
"No," he looked the intelligence officer in the eye, "they couldn't. If they didn't die from their injuries, they wouldn't be in any state to talk anyway."
"And you're positive of this?"
"Hey, let me ask you something," he squinted his eyes looking for some form of ID, "what's your name?"
"Hiromi, I've told you what happened. I've told you exactly what happened three times now. I haven't slept in what feels, and probably is, days. I'm hungry, I'm cranky, and the last thing I need right now is to sit in this tiny room, on this uncomfortable chair, under that fucking ceiling fan that nobody has bothered to fucking clean in years, telling the same story of how much I failed and fucked up over and over again. Now, if there is something you think you might have missed, I'll be more than happy oblige," Naruto rose out of his seat, "but that will be at another time."
"Uzumaki-san, please, we still have more-"
Naruto upped and left the room before Hiromi could finish. He might have been pushing his luck, but he knew damn well the briefing could have waited, and the only reason it didn't was because Tsunade wasn't done screwing with him yet.
He made it about twenty paces when he realised he had no idea where the exit was. "Ah, damn it," he muttered miserably, "now I'm going to have to ask the guy directions…"
"Naruto?" a familiar voice called out.
Naruto turned to find Ino looking at him agape. He couldn't blame her given the fact he looked like hell and was still bloody from his fight in Kusa. "Hey."
"I almost didn't recognise you," the Yamanaka said as she caught up. "You look terrible."
"You look better." Naruto always thought Ino was pretty in a shallow way but she had become a lot more ladylike since he had last seen her, though all it did was make him long to see Rei all the more. "I guess I should have figured you'd end up working here."
"It helps to be the department head's daughter," Ino quipped with a toothy grin. "Though I obviously made it here on my own merits."
"Obviously," he agreed overtly patronisingly. It wasn't that he doubted her, more so that he couldn't bring himself to care a great deal at the time. "Care to show me the way out before that Hiromi guy comes looking for me?"
"Hiromi? What's the doing debriefing you, he just started here last week."
Naruto froze for a moment, screaming internally. "He had me in there for three hours!"
"Should have walked out sooner then." Ino laughed at his expense. "The exit is this way."
Ino swiftly led the way, making only a few quick stops to talk to her colleagues, who all stared at him like he was some kind of ghost. "I don't always work here by the way," she said as they walked. "I still work at the flower shop every now and then, and sometimes I go on missions with Asuma-sensei."
"Ahuh." A noncommittal grunt was about the best Naruto could offer in his disgruntled state. "Hey, Ino…"
"How much trouble would someone be in if they, say, I don't know, beat up a rookie intelligence officer sometime in the near future? Asking for friend, obviously."
"Obviously." Ino giggled unaware he wasn't entirely joking.
"And you are confident the situation will be resolved peacefully?"
"Daimyō-sama, I'm confident Kusa doesn't want to pick a fight right away," Tsunade said as she stood before a number of monitors in her office. "Sōgen will be licking his wounds for a while. His allies won't move a muscle until he's back on his feet, and even then they might not follow him. Frankly, he has been embarrassed so much they all look weak by association."
"What are your plans for the rogue jinchūriki?" the Minister of the Left demanded. "Surely he must be punished."
"He committed treason," the stern-faced Minister of the Right agreed with his counterpart. "He must pay the price."
"Hokage-dono?" the Daimyō looked at Tsunade expectantly. "What do you have to say about this?"
Tsunade tightened her fists behind her back. "Daimyō-sama, given the fact we have publicly claimed responsibility and are backing the actions of the shinobi in question, we cannot appear to send conflicting messages by meting out severe punishment."
"That makes sense…" the Lord of Fire said from behind his ornate fan. "I suppose we can't very well execute him."
'You'd have worse problems than Sōgen if you tried,' the Godaime mused behind her smile.
"No…" the Daimyō mused, "we'll have to do the opposite of that."
"You mean to reward him?" the Minister of the Right said ludicrously. "My lord, that would be-"
"Consistent with our message," Tsunade cut in, nodding in agreement. "A most wise idea." It would be best if the feudal lord were made to believe it was his.
"Of course you would say that!" the plump Minister of the Left said accusingly. "We are well aware of your questionable relationship with 'the shinobi in question,' Godaime."
"Perhaps you would like to speak in plain language, Saijin-dono," Tsunade invited coolly, curious to know what they had heard.
"You have made it abundantly clear you have no intention of harming the jinchūriki. Rumours have it you treat him as your own son," the Saijin scoffed. "Understandable given your age and marital status-"
"Tread carefully, Saijin-dono."
"Excuse me? You dare-!"
"Might I remind you that I serve at the pleasure of our esteemed Daimyō?" Tsunade cut him off icily. "My job description does not include taking insults from the likes of you, and yours does not make you immune to the consequences."
"Are you threatening me?"
"No, of course not," Tsunade laughed and smiled pleasantly, "I am merely reminding you of facts you seem to have forgotten."
The Daimyō made a poor attempt at hiding his amusement sniggering behind his fan. "Oh, how I do enjoy your fierce spirit, Hokage-dono. Allow me to apologise on behalf of my minister. He meant no offence."
"My lord! You do not have to-"
"Enough." The minister fell silent and lowered his head to beg his pardon. "My dear, we are currently in dire straits, but you have done well to manoeuvre through this difficult political climate. Capitalising on Uzumaki Naruto's reckless actions was risky, but it required the kind of courage we need the most in these difficult times. You have my compliments and my trust."
"Thank you, Daimyō-sama," Tsunade bowered her head in respect. At least the Fire Lord knew his jinchūriki by name.
"I trust you will privately mete out punishment accordingly with appropriate use of your considerable discretion," the Daimyō continued. "However, in the public eye, we must appear as though we are rewarding one of our brave shinobi for his fearless patriotism and valour."
"What do you suggest, my lord?" Tsunade inquired genuinely curious.
"A promotion should do," the Fire Lord decided. "Uzumaki Naruto is a chūnin now, yes? That simply will not do for one our nation's bravest sons. Let it be known that I thank Uzumaki Naruto for his services and declare him a hero of Hi no Kuni."
The Godaime felt ambivalent towards the notion of a promotion but was not about to let the Daimyō know that. "I will see your will done with haste, my lord."
"Good… And Hokage-dono," the royal's tone changed noticeably more solemn, "I understand that you might feel obligated towards the boy because of his parents and his pupillage to our mutual friends, but I expect you to treat him no differently than the thousands of other shinobi under your command."
Tsunade swallowed her pride and hero objection with it. This meeting had gone far better than she could have hoped. "Of course."
"Well then. I will call upon you once more in due time. My son Ryūjin and his betrothed have finally set a date. We will have discuss security concerns regarding their ceremony."
"I look forward to it, and thank you, Daimyō-sama," Tsunade bowed her head until the daimyo's screen went blank.
The Minister of the Right disconnected without another word.
The Minister of the Left lingered for a moment longer, glowering. "This isn't over, you old hag."
"Isn't that what you said the last time?" Tsunade replied coldly. "You keep pushing me, fat man. Keep pushing until you wind up with a slit throat and an unmarked grave."
"Tche! More threats."
"I don't make threats," Tsunade said coldly. "Remember that, Minister."
The screen went blank a second later.
The Godaime heaved a heavy sigh. Politics could be so tiring and after the past week she had she could use a stiff drink and a nice long nap. 'Make that two drinks.'
Naruto lowered his hand as his eyes adjusted to the light outside. "Thanks," he looked to Ino as they walked side by side for a little longer. "What's everyone up to lately?"
"A lot has changed since you left. Why don't we all catch up tonight?" Ino suggested.
"I can't tonight," he shook his head as they turned left when his body ached to turn right. "I'm tired as hell and I want to sleep for like a week."
"Off to go see Rei-san first?" He gave her a question look. "I don't have to read your mind for that."
"You better not try to either."
"I didn't think you were the romantic type, Naruto, going to see your girl as soon as you can."
"What? I've always been the romantic type, you just couldn't see it."
"It's not like you were hounding me for dates like Sakura."
"It's not like you would've gone out with me if I asked." There was something about the way she looked at him that prompted him to check. "Right?"
"Back then? No way," Ino shook her head. "Now? I don't know. You've changed, for the better."
"Well aren't you shallow?"
"I am not shallow."
"Ahuh, I'm sure you aren't, but unfortunately for you, I'm spoken for."
"Grovelling won't do you any good, madam." He ducked as she playfully swatted at him. "If you can make this get-together of yours happen tomorrow, I'll be there. It'll be great to see everyone again."
"Tomorrow night might not work but we could probably meet for lunch," Ino compromised after a moment's thought. "You might not want to do that," she said when he looked to the rooftops. "The whole village is on edge. If the Military Police catches you, they won't go easy on you."
"Huh?" was his intelligent reply. "Military Police? I thought they were disbanded a long time ago?" He had still been a kid when they were around, and if memory served him correctly, the Uchiha weren't very popular because of it.
"Hokage-sama reinstated the department not long after you left actually," Ino informed as they came to a stop by intersection. "The Hyūga clan is pretty much running it now but they're not alone. They've got some Akimichi, Inuzuka, and bunch of other clans working with them. Even a handful of us, which I thought was surprising since we are pretty much always needed in Intelligence or Interrogation, but Dad said it was important to make a gesture."
"I'll be careful then," Naruto as they headed to opposing turns. "I'll see ya tomorrow."
"Sure!" she shouted. "And welcome home!"
Naruto waved and went about his way. He had intended to swing by Rei first but had only just realised it was still early in the morning. 'I guess I should go home first and get cleaned up.'
Naruto bound up the last steps, reaching for his keys as he reached his door, ears perking as he turned and pushed inside.
The first thing he noticed was the fact that not only was his apartment spotless, it certainly smelled nicer that he remembered. He took off his sandals and sat him on the new shoe rack before slowly sidestepping the carpet for want of not dirtying it. As he crossed into the living room he spotted a few new decorations; flower filled vase, cheap paintings and trinkets Ayame probably thought were cute when she bought them.
'She's probably still sleeping.' He took care not be too loud as he peered into his old room.
Ayame snored softly in her pillow.
Naruto smiled; she was a sight for sore eyes, and he would have woken her if not for the fact she seemed exhausted even while sleeping judging by the bags under her eyes. 'She's probably been working hard.'
Closing the door he went to his own room. Ayame had kept it as clean as the rest of the apartment. She had organised his scrolls and books, arranged his weapons and equipment in a neat corner on his desk. Ayame had even gone through the effort of getting a mannequin for his flak jacket.
Naruto unhooked his utility belt and placed it on his desk, yawning as he finished undressing and grabbed what he needed to take a shower. He couldn't remember the last time he had one. Karin had been relentless in her complaining about it.
The pressure was still off and the water sometimes abruptly turned cold, and yet it was the best damn shower he had in a while.
Every bone in his body begged for the merciful embrace of sleep when he finished, and he gladly complied. He fell asleep within seconds of resting his head on his pillow.
Pain waited patiently as the last of his inner circle joined, their apparitions lighting up in a circle.
"Welcome," the Akatsuki leader said once they were all accounted for. "It has been some time since our last meeting. I hope you are all in good health and fit to work."
"Un! You can count on Sasori no Dana and I," Deidara sounded excited. "I've been looking forward to this meeting. Are we finally moving on with the plan?"
"Indeed," Pain affirmed with observant eyes as he gauged their reactions. "The Akatsuki Alliance is still within its infancy, however, Kakuzu has assured me Kusa will recover shortly and will continue to rally allies to our cause."
"In the meantime we will begin hunting down the bijū," Kakuzu continued smoothly. "For our ambitions to come to fruition, a Fourth Shinobi World War must commence, however the minor villages will be difficult to sway with eight of the nine bijū still in the Great Five's possession."
"About time, I was getting bored hunting down bounties!" Hidan said boisterously. "I must have racked up at least three hundred million ryō."
"Ha! Sasori no Dana and I have earned nearly twice that, un!"
"Well, you've got a partner that actually gives a shit! Mine is busy pretending to be our leader to outsiders."
"Sounds like you're making excuses," Sasori remarked. "How unbecoming of you, Hidan."
"What was that, you prick? Do you want me to come over there to peel you out of your doll?"
"Nobody insults Sasori no Dana!" Deidara aid heatedly. "You watch yourself, Hidan!"
"You watch your speech impediment, you queen!"
"They sure are lively today, aren't they, Itachi-san?" Kisame chuckled.
Itachi merely nodded.
"Enough," Pain commanded, and at once they fell silent. "I understand it has been some time since our last meeting but I will not tolerate unprofessional squabbling… Kakuzu, continue."
"All two-man teams will be re-assigned to their original targets," the immortal picked up where he had left off. "Sasori and Deidara, you will first capture the Ichibi jinchūriki. I don't have to remind you how dangerous the young Kazekage has become. His power of Magnetism makes him a dangerous opponent. Since you have the most experience facing that particular ability, Sasori, you suited best to deal with him." (1)
"Understood," Sasori acknowledged. "May I still have his corpse once we are done extracting the Ichibi?"
"Of course," Pain permitted.
"Hidan and I will hunt down the Nibi jinchūriki," the Akatsuki frontman looked to his partner. "The Nibi's power is that of Shakuton so be careful, Hidan. Not even you can survive being scorched to ashes." (2)
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, I got it! You said the exact same thing last time."
"Itachi and Kisame will hunt down the Yonbi. Be careful with that one especially," Kakuzu added after a moment's consideration. "I crossed paths with its jinchūriki a long time ago, before my time with Akatsuki. The Yonbi's jinchūriki might be the most dangerous of them all due to his experience."
"He uses Yōton ninjutsu, right?" Kisame parted his shark-like teeth in an excited grin. "I look forward to meeting him."
"Don't underestimate old man Rōshi," Deidara cautioned the shark-man. "He's no joke, un! His lava jutsu are no joke, un!"
"We will be careful," Itachi acknowledged with a mindful glance to his partner. "Won't we?"
Kisame grinned, shark-like teeth half parting. "Sure."
"Then that does it for your targets for now," Kakuzu concluded.
"No target for us?" bothZetsu spoke in unison. "You hurt our feelings."
"Zetsu, you are not suited for combat," the immortal treasurer said. "We need to get back the kū ring Orochimaru took with him before we recruit a partner for you."
"Speaking of Orochimaru," Pain turned to the puppeteer in his organisation. "Do you have an update for us, Sasori?"
"I was waiting for Kakuzu to finish handing out assignment," Sasori said. "My contacts in his camp report Orochimaru has been playing it safe as of late. He never stays at the same place for longer than a week, two at the most, and only meets with his top shinobi in private, no one else. I have been told there have been some minor clashes between Oto-nin and Kusa but nothing worth noting yet. It's likely Orochimaru and Sōgen are merely butting heads for now."
"What are you doing to draw that illusive serpent out in the open?"
"As per Kakuzu's instructions, I have ordered one of my spies closely situated to Orochimaru to lead him to Jiraiya's location. If all goes well Orochimaru will reach out to the Godaime Hokage for a meeting. Given their history and mutual interest to oppose us…" Sasori trailed off for a moment and shortly resumed. "Once the time comes, my contact will give us the pertinent information we need and assist in retrieving the ring and disposing of the Orochimaru."
"Good," Pain said slowly. "It won't matter if the Godaime frees Jiraiya so long as she commits to an open show of force that will pressure Kusa into committing to our alliance."
"Indeed," Kakuzu affirmed in his baritone voice. "The other villages will fall in line once one of the Great Five attacks a minor village. They will come to rely upon us for protection."
"In the meantime I want the Great Five spread as thin as possible," Pain commanded the treasurer. "Resume all activities at full capacity. I want blockades wherever we can draw them. I want our mercenary forces to take every mission that puts them at odds with the Great Five. We'll work for next to nothing if we have to so long as we bleed them enough to weaken them. Just make it happen."
"How many men do we have now?" Sasori inquired.
"We have close to five thousand men fighting under our banner, both knowingly and otherwise," Kakuzu chuckled forebodingly. "We are involved on some level in and profit from nearly every operation of note from Kaminari no Kuni to Numa no Kuni. Rest assured, we will make the Great Five spread so thin they will hardly be able to hold their borders if they're lucky. When the time comes, with our economic assets as great as they are, we will wield enough influence to crash entire markets if we play our cards right. We'll make Gatō Industries going under feel like a breeze by comparison to the typhoon of chaos we will conjure up."
"Make it so," Pain commanded in a booming voice. "From here on out, Akatsuki will be undeniable."
Naruto startled awake, a split second before he felt something hit him. "What the hell… That hurt!" The next thing he knew he felt the air being squeezed out of his lungs as he Ayame embraced him in his bed.
"You're home!" she squealed in his ears. "Why didn't you say anything when you got in?"
He needed a moment to rub the sleep out of his eyes. "Hey, Sis."
"What time did you come in?" Ayame asked as he got off him. She hadn't even bothered to change into something more appropriate and simply wore an oversized shirt.
"In the morning," Naruto yawned a response. "I arrived around midnight, but they kept me for a few couple hours for debriefing. By the time I got home," he yawned again, stretching arms over his head, "you were still sleeping, so I went to bed. I figured I'd be the one to surprise you in the morning."
"Well you still did," Ayame got off his bed. "Come on, you must be hungry. I'll make you breakfast."
"You might want to get dressed first," he replied dryly as he threw off the covers and reached for a shirt.
"Look who put on some muscles," Ayame pinched his arm playfully. "Careful now, Naruto, I might snatch you away from Rei."
"Haha, very funny," he pulled the shirt over his head. "Speaking of Rei, do you speak often?"
"She drops by every now and then when I'm at work," Ayame informed. "I think she was just hoping I heard something, but of course I didn't…"
"I did tell you I was going to be really busy," Naruto reminded her as he got out of bed. "If I wasn't training, I was sleeping. It was pretty much just like that all year." He chose to leave out the fact that he probably had time to write when he was bedridden for a month but decided not to. "You didn't have to worry about me."
"I wasn't worried about you being away, I was worried about you going to Kusa on your own." Ayama paused for a moment. "Things have been tense in the village, Naruto."
"So I've heard." He could still hear Tsunade chew him out in his inner ear. "Tsunade-bachan told me they can't even punish me because of political reasons, but she isn't going to let me off easy. I'm pretty much her bitch until further notice."
Ayame laughed at his misfortune. "Serves you right for scaring us."
"Will you go put some pants on already?" he rolled his eyes at her.
"Oh, please, I had to put up with you walking half naked into my room every morning."
"Yeah, well, shut up," he threw his pillow at her prompting Ayame to scamper off to find some clothes.
Naruto reconsidered telling her about Teuchi then and there for a moment but decided against it almost immediately. 'Another time,' he decided as he got up and walked to the kitchen. She was in a good mood and he didn't want to spoil it.
That turned out to be a wise decision as Ayame cooked an elaborate breakfast, going all out to include his favourite foods. He ate his fill and then some as they talked; he didn't have much to eat in his time in Kusa. In fact, the last meal he was a few spoonsful of cold red bean paste.
He wondered if Isao the intelligence officer and his little boy were okay. Sōgen must have gotten to them by now, surely, and if so would he spare them? He didn't think the man to be merciful, but perhaps towards his own people…?
Thankfully Ayame put his mind off those grim questions with queries of her own. She asked him all about his training on Mount Kongōurin, what it was like living with the apes, the things he had learned and done while he was there, and what it was like being the Sandaime's apprentice. Naruto answered all of her questions, and, predictably, every answer beckoned another question as she was understandably curious to find out more. He was happy to indulge her curiosity however; he had missed her immensely and it beat torturing himself with guilt.
"So you've been running Ichiraku's on your own?"
"I hired some help. Business has been surprisingly good actually. Your friends come by all the time and tip generously. Even Neji-san, even though he hardly ever finishes a bowl."
"That's good," he said pleasantly surprised.
"Yeah, I've saved a decent amount," Ayame nodded smiling brightly. "I've actually been saving up to go on a trip."
Naruto stayed his hand or a moment in between taking bites from his buttered toast. "A trip?"
"Yeah, I've always wanted to travel," Ayame said nodding. "I'd like to see the world before I'm old and grey. I want to go to see the world, visit interesting places, meet new people, try new foods – an adventure, you know?"
Naruto considered his words carefully; it really wasn't his place to tell her what to do, and he already felt guilty for keeping information about her father from her, but he knew he had to say something. "That sounds great, Ayame, it really does… but I don't think now is a good time to do that. Not for a while anyway."
"Hmm?" she replied lowering her cup of tea. "What do you mean?"
"I don't want you to panic, so please don't," he emphasised his words when she sat up right. "The current situation, climate – whatever they want to call it – isn't ideal for travel. I don't understand much of the politics, but I can tell you things aren't looking pretty. If war breaks, and I'm not saying it will soon, but if it does I want you here, where I know you'll be safe."
"Okay," Ayame nodded understandingly. "But, you don't know if a war will happen, right, I mean, you can't be sure?" She looked scared.
He took her hands in his in an attempt to comfort her. "I went to Kusa to save Jiraiya and end the war before it could begin… and I failed." He heaved a heavy sigh; his disappointment made the food taste like ash in his mouth. "I wasn't able to kill Sōgen, I only managed to piss him off. We can hope his allies are too intimidated to stand by him, but if he isn't I doubt they will be for long so I might have just ended up making things a lot worse."
"Hokage-sama must have been furious…" Ayame squeezed his hands. "But you did your best, right?"
"Yeah, but it was enough. Something will have to give and war is coming, sooner or later." He tried not to sound as bitter as he felt saying it. "I support your dreams, Sis, so if you really want to go, I'll deal with it, but I hope you'll stay at least a little while longer until we're sure of what's coming and when." He let her go and stood up.
"I'm not in a rush to leave," Ayame assured a moment later. "I'll wait until things quiet down," she promised as she too got up grabbed their plates. "Don't worry about the dishes, you should go see your friends."
"Thanks, Sis." Naruto gave her a peck on the cheek and went into his room to change into simple black pants and a blue shirt.
"And go get your hair cut!" Ayame shouted after him as he closed the door.
Naruto was painfully aware of the turning heads and looks as he walked through the village, so much so it made him a little paranoid and self-conscious. The stares were different from they used to be though, and he couldn't blame the villagers from looking at him as though they had seen a ghost. Some even smiled encouragingly when he looked at him and others averted their eyes as though they feared him. A few simply acknowledged his presence with a simple nod or look, and some, predictably, regarded him with the same distaste they always had, perhaps a little more.
A pair of Military Police officers walked past him. It was going to take getting used to seeing Hyūga clan members patrol the village. 'I bet Karin is losing her mind right now.' He found some satisfaction in the thought she was probably still going through the processes of questioning. 'Serves her right.'
"Hey, kid!" one of the villagers called for his attention in passing.
Naruto halted and looked to his right apprehensively. "Yeah?"
"I heard you kicked ass in Kusagakure." The older man nodded his approval. "Well done!"
The villager went about his business before he could think of a response. It honestly left Naruto a little dumbfounded. "Well that's new."
"Look, it's that Naruto guy!"
"That's not him."
"It is, look!"
Naruto raised an eyebrow as he watched a bunch of kids looking and pointing in his direction. They were playing ninja from the looks of it.
"My dad says we should stay away from him…"
He couldn't help but frown at that, though he was used to by now.
"My mother said he's a hero."
"Yeah, my parents said he's a good guy. He might even be Hokage some day."
Naruto couldn't help but grin stupidly as he walked past them. 'I guess this is a part of growing up.' He was accustomed to the adoration Konohamaru, Udon and Moegi lavished on him, but it this was new. He didn't even know these kids and they seemed to think highly of him, for the most part anyway. He couldn't help feel he had made at least some progress.
The rest of the way to Rei's was much the same. The village seemed to have become more divisive as far he was concerned; some thought better of him, others had only begun to acknowledged him, and there were still those that regarded him with contempt.
It wasn't all good, but it wasn't all bad either, it was just different, and he had actually missed the village so much that he didn't even mind the disapproving looks.
Naruto arrived at his destination a few minutes later and walked up to her door. A grown up would have knocked on the door, taken a polite step back and waited to be greeted. True to his reputation though, the prankster in him found that too mundane, and he wanted to surprise Rei, who he suspected would have heard about his return by now.
'Best to keep it simple,' he decided as he knocked
He walked around the house and looked to the balcony; if he recalled correctly, Rei's room was on the right. With a mischievous grin on his face he scaled the wall and vaulted over the railing, standing by her door.
just in time to see a familiar figure and shoulder length purple hair leave. "Rei?"
Rei turned at the sound of his voice, a look of surprise in her eyes, one that Naruto shared upon noticing the infant in her arms. "Naruto?"
He barely registered the thought when he saw the elation in her eyes and a moment later felt her lips on his.
"Uh…" Naruto looked at her curiously as when she backed away. "Rei-chan, you got some explaining to do."
Rei laughed and kissed him again.
I had hoped to be back with a bang, but where I last left off just followed a pretty significant one in the story and the notes I had written didn't really leave much room for another, so instead I may have presented you all with more of whimper than anything.
I'd apologise but honestly I'm a bit cranky and feel like being a dick about it, so… no regrets.
I can tell you, however, that what comes next will be a bit more interesting. A lot more interesting actually. Much has gone down in the shinobi world (mostly because of Naruto), mistakes were made (mostly by Naruto), and lessons have been learned (sorta by Naruto…?) – all of which lends itself to the next stage I am crafting as we near the Fourth Shinobi World War, which won't happen for some time to come but is steadily emerging in the background.
I'd like to say a lot more, but I can't think of anything at the moment and I'm kind of tired, so maybe I'll update this part of the AN as well, or maybe I'll get to it another time.
For now, I hope you guys you enjoyed it and leave me review. I know it's been a while and my writing is tonally inconsistent here and there but whatever, let me have it.
(1) So it's finally been not-really-but-kind-of confirmed, or we're as close to confirmation as we're going to get, that Gaara does in fact have Magnetism Release, which I think is utterly badass. I had planned to include that when Jiton first appeared. The same goes for Kimimaro, by the way, though not necessarily for this story but TUD, who I just knew was somehow related to the Uzumaki, Hyūga, Senju and Uchiha. Don't believe me? It's all in the damn notes! Bonus points to whoever got that obscure reference.
(2) This is just an assumption on my part but whatever! It makes don't it? I know coral isn't a crystal but that doesn't necessarily mean it couldn't be a part of Crystal Release. In the manga, quicklime and rubber are considered part of Lava Release.
(3) Steam-based ninjutsu has gotta be Boil Release, right? C'mon son.