Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto.
Kurenai Yuhi had had the reputation as the "Ice Queen of the Hidden Leaf" for almost 20 years now. Regarded as cold, aloof and standoffish to most, she radiated a "mystery woman" aura to those who did not know her well, or who could not see through the mask she wore that gave her the "Ice Queen" moniker. In the last three and a half years, however, she had become much colder and more distant, and what was once a mask had started to become her true personality.
Before, even when she wore the mask, one could see the warmth that was her true nature in her eyes if they looked closely enough. Ever since the war, though, the warmth had vanished, leaving eyes that were cold. It hadn't happened right away; but the loss of her lover Asuma, and her miscarriage, combined with the pressures of fighting on the front lines in the Fourth Great Shinobi War, which had by far been the most brutal, devastating and horrific conflict in the Elemental Nations to date; all of these things together had seemingly broken her heart. Life itself seemed to be fogged over in a grayish haze for Kurenai these days; it was bland; the emotions that she did feel simply weren't that rich, in either a good or a bad way: sadness was simply a sigh, happiness didn't seem to come, and anger was nothing more than a rolling of the eyes and a focus of her attention onto something else. Her heart simply didn't feel that much…except on this day.
It was January 4th, the anniversary of Asuma Sarutobi's death. Kurenai always found this day to be very hard; even though it had been four years since he had been killed by Hidan of Akatsuki, she still couldn't completely let go or move on. Reminded not only of Asuma, but also of the child that she had miscarried during Pein's attack before Naruto had gotten there to fight him off, this was always the worst day of the year for her…and yet, she couldn't bring herself to do anything except immerse herself in thoughts and memories of her lost love, and grieve over her lost child. In a way, she was grateful for this ritual and day: even though the feelings were largely negative, she was thankful that she could actually feel something…anything at all, even if it was nothing but grief, hurt and sadness.
She was on her way to the cemetery to visit Asuma's gravesite, having just bought a fresh bouquet of flowers from the Yamanaka Flower Shop. While there, she and Ino didn't say much to each other; Ino understood what significance today held for Kurenai. Ino herself was always a bit melancholy on this day of the year as well. Even though she had been able to mourn properly and move forward, she still missed her old sensei. Kurenai was thankful that Ino had simply offered her a small smile, given her a hug and quickly made the floral arrangement for her to take to Asuma's grave. Ino always gave Kurenai a discount on this day, a small encouragement for which Kurenai was thankful.
This year's winter was colder than usual. Even though as a ninja, the cold didn't affect her quite as severely as it would a civilian, she still couldn't help but take notice. She thought that the cold in the air resembled the cold, empty feeling that had been in her heart since her Asuma had been taken from her. As she closed in on the Hidden Leaf Cemetery, she began to feel an even colder breeze. She could also smell it in the air: it was going to rain, yet another appropriate metaphor for the tears she knew she would soon be shedding as she entered the cemetery through the cast-iron front gate.
As she made her way towards Asuma's tombstone, she began to worry in the back of her mind about her current state of dress; she was wearing her typical bandage-style dress with a single red sleeve and black shinobi sandals, forehead protector, also in black, around her forehead. Even though she was on leave today, she knew that as a Jounin of the Hidden Leaf, she could be called in for a mission at any moment should the need arise, so it was always prudent to be prepared when out and about. Not knowing if she'd have the emotional strength to come back to this place if she left now to get some rain gear, she decided that she would simply endure what would undoubtedly be a very cold rain while going through this yearly ritual of remembrance.
When she had found Asuma's grave, she laid the bouquet in front of the stone, lowered herself to her knees and sat on her heels, and simply placed her hand on the name engraved in the marble grave marker. She began to shed her own first tears as the first raindrops began to fall. As the rainfall progressed into a steady drizzle, to a thunder shower, and then into a full downpour, Kurenai's own tear flow would match it: first a few tears here and there, into steady shedding of tears, eventually turning into silent, body-wracking sobs as she dropped her hands to the ground to support her upper body's weight, hanging her head and clenching her eyes closed.
This was always a very hard day for her…
Twenty-year old Naruto Uzumaki Namikaze had just left the Hokage's office after reporting back in from routine border patrol. One month out in the wild had really given him a craving for Ichiraku ramen, and he decided that it was time to indulge that craving. It had started to rain about an hour or so beforehand, the perfect weather in which to enjoy a piping hot bowl of broth and noodly goodness. He found himself thankful that he had put weather-resistant seals into his crimson-with-black-flames sage cloak. In addition, he had also placed seals into the cloak that would warm his body and dry him off if he activated them, each of the seals with their own chakra storage seals so that the cloak could perform this task without him having to concentrate on it.
Naruto had to admit that the last several years had been good to him. His three-year training trip with Jiraiya he would call the best years of his life. His growth as a shinobi, and as a person had been absolutely staggering during this period. Jiraiya had not only helped Naruto with his education and training, but he had also taught him two other important lessons: espionage and intelligence gathering, and the importance of having sources of income other than ninja missions, which could always dry up during periods of peace and low activity. Not even Tsunade knew that Jiraiya had shown Naruto how to build his own spy network and develop his own methods of gathering intel. Jiraiya had also taught him how to invest in and build businesses while living the lifestyle of a shinobi.
Naruto was now intensely grateful for the investment lessons that he received, as he now owned several highly successful businesses that made him rather wealthy. His gratitude was increased by the fact that since the war ended, ninja were not in as high demand as they were when things were a little more tense between the nations. Missions weren't as plentiful anymore, and even high-level jounin had to take what they could get, which was mostly C-ranks with the occasional B-rank mission thrown in. A-ranks were few and far between, and S-ranks were almost unheard of anywhere these days.
Naruto, having plenty of money, told Tsunade of his business ventures, letting her know that he didn't need missions to make ends meet, and that the other shinobi should get his share of the missions. This, of course, did not excuse him from his annual shift of border patrol, or from clients asking for him specifically, although this rarely happened as Naruto's services went at a premium. He was one of two S-rank ninja in the village at the present time, the other, of course, being Tsunade…and of the two, Naruto was by far the stronger. It wouldn't be long now before Naruto would be named Hokage, and he was currently being trained by Tsunade for the position, which he would officially receive within a year's time.
Naruto found himself reflecting on his relation to the village that was his home over the years. He had started as the village pariah, the child whose existence nobody even wanted to acknowledge. Icy stares and whispers are what he received as a kid. Most times, he would be kicked out of stores, or overcharged for goods, many storeowners making it clear that he wasn't welcome in their store. Of course, the pranks that he used to pull didn't exactly help his case, either, but he only turned to mischief because people didn't acknowledge his existence in the first place; he simply created an environment in which he would be impossible to ignore.
Things got better once he became a shinobi. It took a while, but people started to look at him differently when they watched his performance in his first Chunin Exam. He had begun to earn the respect of his peers and their senseis when he defeated Kiba Inuzuka in the final exam preliminary round. He began to earn the respect of the rest of the village when he defeated Neji Hyuga in the finals. He was respected even more so once word began to spread about his defeat of Gaara in his full Shukaku transformation, and more still when the story was told that it was he who brought Tsunade back to the village to be the Fifth Hokage.
Respect had turned into hero worship when he had defeated Pain and saved the village. His loved it at first, but it began to get old fairly quickly, particularly when he began to notice certain things. Everyone now wanted to be his new best friend, which of course he didn't mind, being that he could befriend just about anyone anyway. It was when girls and even some women who hadn't even given him the time of day, or had even been cruel to him before all of this, all of a sudden became fangirls of his that he started to see how shallow hero worship was. He was made even more aware of the shallowness of the village as a whole when people who had ignored him, or even kicked him out of their stores or called him cruel names as a kid began to come up to him as though it had never happened, and they would tell him things like, "I always knew you were a great kid!"
The hero worship and fangirl problem became even worse when he was given a field promotion from genin straight to elite jounin during the war, and his heritage became public knowledge. When the village learned that Naruto, now considered one of their two greatest heroes, was in fact the son of Minato Namikaze, the other of their two greatest heroes, they responded with thunderous applause and wild cheering. This continued hero worship had, of course, increased even more after he had destroyed Madara and Sasuke Uchiha, ending the Fourth Great Shinobi War and bringing about final victory for the Shinobi Alliance. Even through all of this, the village itself had acted as though they had never done Naruto any wrong in his lifetime; he never received a single apology for any abuse or cruelty that he'd had to endure as a child, and even up to his mid-teenage years…while Naruto was very forgiving, it bothered him that the village seemed to be rather averse to taking ownership of and responsibility for its wrongdoings.
Even amongst the shinobi that he was close to and worked with in the leaf, there were very few that truly knew him. Among the civilian populace, the Ichirakus were the only people that did. They had been the only ones who had been able to see through not only Naruto's label as the 'demon boy', but through the mask he used to wear to keep himself shielded from the pain that he felt as a child from the isolation that was forced upon him. They had been the one constant throughout the years; he know that he could always count on the two of them if he needed a place to go, even just to take the mask off for a while. If he was grateful for anyone in his life, it was definitely Old Man Teuchi and his big sister figure Ayame. Among his comrades, Shikamaru was probably the only person in his age group that truly knew Naruto well, and that was only because he was able to make very astute observations that others missed. Of course, when he confronted Naruto about this, Naruto freely opened up and admitted to him that the only reason that he never shared real things about himself before was because, with the exception of Konohamaru and Iruka, and by extension Hanabi and Anko, nobody ever asked. The Ichirakus, of courss, didn't have to ask, as he never hid anything from them anyway.
He had simply accepted the fact that people simply weren't interested in getting to know him. They thought they already had him figured out, whether he was the demon boy or the village hero, people had an idea of him…and in all the years his peers knew him, none of them had bothered to try to find out who he really was, and that's what irked him most of all. This truly was a shallow village he lived in, but it was his home, and he loved it all the same; he would protect it until his dying breath. This line of thinking helped him to turn his thoughts to those people that made the village his home more than anyone else.
Konohamaru, of course, knew Naruto as well as Shikamaru did, because he had actually taken an interest in his surrogate big brother's life. Konohamaru had been dating Hanabi Hyuuga for a little while now, and Hiashi, seeing a way to get Hanabi out of having to brand her with the Caged-Bird Seal, spoke with the two of them, letting them know his thoughts and, with the approval of both Konohamaru and Hanabi, setting up an official betrothal contract for the two. They were to be married by April of next year. This, of course, caused Naruto to get to know Hanabi a lot better, as they were with him at his house quite a bit, and Hanabi came to see Naruto as a big brother herself.
Iruka, of course, always took an interest in his surrogate little brother's life, and when Iruka had started seeing Anko Mitarashi, she began to get to know a completely different Naruto than she had previously thought him to be. She became a big sister figure to him as well; also spending a lot of time in each others' homes, as Naruto had them over quite a bit, and once they were married and they had bought their own house, they had Naruto over quite a bit as well. Naruto couldn't help but think back to Iruka's and Anko's wedding. Naruto was the Best Man, and Kurenai Yuhi was the Maid of Honor; Naruto was all smiles that day for one of his most cherished loved ones, but he remembered that Kurenai's smile seemed to be rather forced, as though she were genuinely happy for Anko, but was remembering something that was quite painful for her. They had both made some small talk during the wedding reception, and he could tell that the woman was grateful that he was doing what he could to take her mind off of whatever it was that was bothering her; he made an educated guess that she was thinking of what her life would be like had Asuma lived and they had married, but he wisely decided not to broach the topic with her.
As he walked by the cemetery on his way to his favorite eating establishment in town, he was broken out of his musings when he overheard a few men talking amongst themselves.
"Boy, I wouldn't mind getting me a piece of that…" said the first one with a leer.
"Yeah…she's a hottie, alright…I'd like to bang that, myself…" said a second one, with a smirk to the first one.
"Hmm..." said a third, drooling at the object of their perverted thoughts.
Naruto stopped for a moment and cast a glance in the direction that the men were looking, and saw the back of a woman. He recognized the bandage-dress and black-brown hair of the woman who had just taken center stage in his musings: one Kurenai Yuhi, kneeling in front of a gravestone with her head hung down and shoulders slumped, shivering, her body shaking up and down every now and again in what appeared to be sobs. Even from here, Naruto could tell that she was soaked to the bone, and would likely end up getting sick if she didn't cover up or take shelter soon. He hadn't really seen Kurenai in a while, or interacted with her much, but seeing her in the state that he presumed she was in, he felt compelled to try to offer some form of assistance to her.
Noting his own compulsion, Naruto found himself getting irritated that these men were simply leering at her, not even noticing her emotional distress or physical discomfort, and began to walk in the direction of the cemetery's front gate, which happened to be where these men were standing. As Naruto approached, the men noticed him, smiled and greeted him like he was their best friend, as had become commonplace in Naruto's experience. Naruto simply smiled and nodded curtly, not stopping to talk to them, and entered the cemetery, not noticing that the men had decided to move on when he left.
His expression changed to one of concern as he walked over to Kurenai, who was indeed shivering and sobbing, seemingly lost in her own world. Naruto removed his cloak and draped it over her shoulders as he walked around to the front of her.
Kurenai opened her eyes as she felt the cloak drape over her body. She slowly looked up, her eyes taking in a pair of brown low-top leather lace-up boots and bleached-blue loose-fit jeans, coming up to a crimson long-sleeve pull-over shirt under a black jounin vest, and finally resting upon a mop of spiky blond hair, and sparkling blue eyes on a tanned, chiseled face adorned with three whisker-like marks on each cheek. Recognizing Naruto Uzumaki Namikaze, she blinked a couple of times as those beautiful cerulean blues looked at her with great concern, seemingly wishing that they could ease her pain or even take it away completely. As he saw her swollen, puffy cheeks and ruby-red eyes made crimson from being bloodshot with tears, he offered a sad smile, which for some reason caused her to begin crying even harder than she had been, but this time, the sobs were loud…she couldn't hold them back anymore.
Kurenai leaned forward, sobbing loudly into Naruto's shirt, her arms grasping at his jounin vest. She eased into him even more as Naruto's arms simply wrapped around her, his right hand gently holding the back of her head through her hair, his left hand gently rubbing up and down her back as she cried into him, releasing everything she was feeling. After a few moments, she eased into him even further, wrapping her arms around his body, clinging to him, continuing to sob into his chest, Naruto continuing to rub her back and keeping his hand in her hair. While doing this, he made shushing noises to calm her, and spoke softly, reassuring her that he would remain with her for as long as it took to let all of her grief out. After a few minutes of this, by the time Kurenai had cried herself out, she pulled back from him, regaining her composure before looking up at him and giving him a grateful smile.
"Thank you…Naruto," she said quietly, her voice somewhat hoarse from sobbing.
"You're quite welcome," he responded with a warm smile of his own. She smiled at his thoughtfulness, causing him to respond, "Kurenai, do you want me to give you some space for a while?"
At this, Kurenai took a moment to collect her thoughts enough to respond to him as she said, "Ermm…thank you," again with a grateful smile.
Naruto released his hold on her, Kurenai doing the same. He said to her, "The cloak is weather-resisitant, and it has seals in it that will warm you up and dry you off," before putting his right hand into a half-ram sign, touching the cloak with his left hand and whispering, "Dry heat seal, release".
Kurenai noticed that she immediately became warmer, and was also beginning to dry off, even the parts of her that were not covered in the cloak. She looked at Naruto, again with gratitude, and a bit of wonder mixed in.
Naruto began to walk away while saying, "Take as much time as you want, OK? I'll wait for you by the front entrance."
As he left her to finish her visitation, she found that she felt strangely lighter than she had felt in quite a while. She had never grieved or wailed that loudly, even when she had learned of Asuma's death or upon learning that she had miscarried, and she found that it had felt great to get it all out of her system. Years of pent-up grief and anguish had been released into Naruto's warm, comforting embrace, and she couldn't help but wonder how it was that this hadn't happened until now. She spent a few more minutes at Asuma's gravesite, privately thanking Asuma for sending Naruto her way (she had somehow imagined that it was Asuma who sent Naruto to try to comfort her), and then got up, heading towards the front entrance.
She saw Naruto standing there, simply waiting patiently, allowing himself to get soaked in the downpour as she was now warm and dry in his sage cloak. He smiled as he saw her walking towards him, and she couldn't help but feel a sense of wonder at this young, handsome, and now rather tall, man before her. She began to think back to the last time she had seen him, which was at Anko's and Iruka's wedding; she could tell that he had noticed how she was feeling at that time, and at the wedding reception, he had seemingly made it his personal mission to make sure that it would be a fun and happy affair for her as well as for the bride and groom; it meant a lot to her that he was so considerate at that time. He was at least a good six to seven inches taller; he had to be at least 6'3" to her 5'9". His hair was in the same style as his father's, spiky blond up top, extending down to the bottom of his neck. As his face had matured, he resembled his father more and more, in fact, many had thought that he was the spitting image of his father, taking away the whisker marks.
It was also easy to see that he had matured mentally and emotionally in the past 4 or so years since coming back from his training trip with Jiraiya. His voice sounded close to his father's as she remembered it, but Naruto's timbre was slightly lower. She also noticed a spark of wisdom and intelligence in his piercing gaze, along with sadness and pain, indicating that he had matured beyond his years, and that his maturation had not been easy. As she pondered this, she realized that in all the time she had known him, that she really didn't "know" him; all she knew were what the public already knew, as well as what the rumor mill spread.
Naruto brought her out of her reverie as he asked, "All set?"
Kurenai smiled and nodded, responding, "Yes…thank you for loaning me your cloak, Naruto," as she began to remove it to return to him.
Naruto walked up to her and placed his hands over her own, gently pulling the cloak closed once again on her slim, lithe form.
She looked up at him in confusion, to which he responded with a smile, "Kurenai, I will not allow a lady to be soaked in the rain, or made to be uncomfortable if it's within my power to prevent it."
At this, her confused frown became a surprised smile as she simply responded with a light blush, "Well…err…thank you, Naruto!"
"Not at all," responded Naruto with a warm chuckle. He continued, "So where can I escort you to?" as they walked out of the cemetery and began to follow the road, Naruto walking alongside Kurenai, letting her dictate their direction.
"Well, I was just going to head back home," Kurenai admitted.
"Please, lead the way," said Naruto graciously. As they were walking, Kurenai's face began to pull itself into a happy smile.
She began to talk to Naruto, "So where are you coming from, Naruto?"
"I just left from reporting in to Grandma Tsunade after returning from border patrol…"
Kurenai frowned in distaste at this, "Ugghh…you must be glad to be back…"
"Yeah, I really am," replied Naruto, agreement with her own distaste for the drab assignment evident in his own tone, "but I don't have to go again for a whole year…so that's kinda nice. What about you? Any interesting missions, yourself, lately?"
"No, not really…just typical run-of-the-mill assignments, like escort duty, bandit elimination, things like that. Most of my duties lately have actually consisted of training and researching new genjutsu."
Naruto's interest seemed to pique at this, "Really? Have you come up with anything yet?"
Kurenai shrugged, "Nothing really, yet, but I think I may be on track to using a modified version of the Second Hokage's Infinite Darkness Jutsu," she finished with a little excitement…ever since the miscarriage, she had thrown herself into her work, which was now her primary source of stimulation and fulfillment…if it could be called that.
Naruto raised an eyebrow, "Really? Why modified?"
"Well…I've found that my chakra reserves and control are at about their peaks in balance right now. The problem is that I can't seem to increase my control any more than I have, and when I try to increase my reserves, my control starts to suffer, and I currently don't have enough chakra to effectively perform the original jutsu, hence the need to modify…"
Naruto looked down at the road in front of him as he hummed in thought, then turned to Kurenai, not slowing his leisurely gait, "That's a rather…interesting problem to have. I don't think I've ever heard of anyone running into that particular issue…in theory, there should be no plateau like that. What chakra exercises have you been using to increase your control and reserves?"
Kurenai responded, "the standard ones: leaf-balancing, tree and water walking, kunai and senbon balancing, any combination thereof…those are really the only ones that I know, and they're also the only ones I've needed for fine-tuned control…"
Naruto continued to ponder the issue that he had heard; he seemed to know something about her problem, but he couldn't put his finger on it. He knew it would come to him in time, so he decided to tell Kurenai that he would look into her issue.
"Kurenai…" Naruto began as Kurenai turned her gaze to him once more, "…something about the issue you're facing doesn't seem…well…normal to be honest. Let me do a little research on what might cause this kind of problem, and I'll see if I can't help you find a better solution than having to modify jutsu to suit that limitation, OK?"
Kurenai's eyes brightened as she nodded, intrigued and excited at the possibility of making a breakthrough in her overall level of ability and skill. Silence reigned for a few moments, becoming somewhat uncomfortable, at least for Kurenai.
She decided to break the silence, "You know, Naruto, I can't help but think about Anko and Iruka's Wedding, and how…well, you were…quite observant of my mental and emotional state that day; I never did tell you just how thankful I was that you helped me…just to enjoy myself that day."
Upon hearing this, Naruto smiled and responded in a tone belying genuine curiosity, "You're welcome…but what brings that to mind?"
"Actually, the fact that you've done it yet again just now," responded Kurenai, as she lowered her head, feeling both thankful towards Naruto, but at the same time, hurt and angry that nobody else had done anything beforehand, "I…had been at Asuma's gravesite for over an hour when you showed up, and nobody cared enough to try to help me; I overheard the comments of those men when they were ogling me, but you…came over and seemed to know exactly what it was I needed. I guess…seeing this and experiencing this from you…it makes me realize that I really don't know you as well as I might have thought I did…"
"Hmm...you're right. I don't really know you that well, either. What do you say we remedy that?"
Almost immediately, Kurenai's stomach began to growl, causing her to blush.
Naruto, not missing a beat, raised an eyebrow and added with a chuckle, "Over lunch, maybe?"
Kurenai gave a small smile in mild embarrassment, nodding in agreement with Naruto's suggestion.
Naruto asked, "So…got a tasting for anything?"
Kurenai thought a little before responding, "Not really…but I wouldn't mind some hot soup…this is good weather for it…"
Naruto responded in turn, "I like the way you think…how does ramen sound?"
Kurenai gave another small smile and nodded. Naruto responded, "To Ichiraku's, then!"
After a few moments of walking, they arrived at their destination, and entered through the front flaps, immediately attacked by the heavenly smell that the little stand always emitted.
Ayame Ichiraku turned around and saw the stand's number one customer, greeting him warmly, "Welcome back, Naruto! It's been too quiet without you, here!"
"Hey there, Ayame," said Naruto, giving her his famous foxy grin, "How are ya?"
"Same old, same old! One sec…" she responded, as she turned around and yelled towards the back of the stand, "DAD, NARUTO'S BACK!"
Teuchi Ichiraku came back out of the stock room, grinning upon seeing his favorite customer, "Hey, Naruto! It's great to see you again, son! And with company, no less," he added with an amused, playful smile.
"You too, Teuchi, and yes, I believe you know Kurenai Yuhi."
"Why, yes, I do. What can I get for the two of you?"
Naruto looked at Kurenai with raised eyebrows, allowing her to order first. Kurenai looked at Naruto, seeing his expression, and turned back to Teuchi to place her order, "I'll have a large seafood ramen, extra shrimp and fishcakes, please."
Naruto then placed his own order, "I'll have a Naruto Special to start, old man…"
Teuchi smiled knowingly, "Coming up!"
Kurenai looked at Naruto with a single raised questioning eyebrow, "A 'Naruto Special'?"
Naruto grinned somewhat sheepishly as he responded, "Yeah…extra, extra large bowl of miso ramen with 2 boiled eggs, double barbecued pork, fishcakes, beef, chicken, sprouts and a lobster claw. I order it so much that we just made a name for it…"
He added with a chuckle, "I personally think Teuchi should just add it as a menu item, but he has yet to take that leap."
Kurenai giggled in response to this, giving a slightly larger half-smile, "Fair enough…maybe we can create a 'Kurenai Special', today, hmm?" she finished with a warm laugh.
Naruto brought his hand to his chin in an exaggeratedly thoughtful gesture, with an equally exaggeratedly thoughtful frown, "Hmm…and what would be in the 'Kurenai Special'?"
Naruto turns to Kurenai, hands in front of him, palms facing outward and down, gesturing to imaginary ingredients on the counter as he begins his lecture on how to construct a special ramen dish, "OK, OK…we have to start with a base," at which Kurenai began to engage in some interplay, responding, "OK, so you mean we start with a broth or stock…"
Naruto smiled as he began some interplay of his own, "Correct! The 'Naruto Special', for example, has a base of miso and beef broth. So…what would the 'Kurenai Special's' base be?"
"Hmm…" responded Kurenai, as she looked off in an exaggeratedly thoughtful expression of her own, and responding after a few moments, "I believe that a shrimp, lobster or even a vegetable base would best suit the 'Kurenai Special'…"
At this, Naruto took on a genuinely thoughtful expression, as though trying to envision how a mix of these might taste, "Hmm…I wonder…what about a mix of shrimp and vegetable stock?"
Kurenai wore a bemused smirk as she responded, "That actually sounds pretty good!"
Naruto, still in thought, added, "I must admit I also find myself wondering what shrimp broth and miso might taste like together…"
Both of their musings were interrupted by the soft clink of a small platter being placed on the counter by none other than Teuchi. On the platter were six small sample-sized cups of broth, separated into pairs, which caused Naruto and Kurenai to both raise an eyebrow in confusion at the ramen chef.
Teuchi answered the unspoken question with a smirk, "Well, since you're both wondering how certain combinations might taste mixed together, I thought I'd let you actually taste them…"
He pointed to each pair of sample cups as he identified them, "Shrimp and Miso…Shrimp and Vegetable…and for laughs, Shrimp, Vegetable and Miso…"
He looked back up at them, "So…taste each and let me know what you think."
Naruto and Kurenai both picked up their respective cups of shrimp and miso first. Naruto knocked it back, swishing it around in his mouth to get a good feel for the flavor before swallowing. Kurenai sipped hers a little more slowly, smacking her tongue against her palette in order to help her concentrate on the flavor.
Both Kurenai and Naruto nodded in approval at the combination, and they tasted the other two samples in the same method. When they were done, Kurenai spoke her mind, "I believe that the Shrimp and Vegetable base would best suit the 'Kurenai Special', as the miso, while very good, overpowers the other two. I envision the 'Kurenai Special' with a lighter flavor."
At this, Naruto and Teuchi nodded in approval of her judgment. Naruto continued with the 'lesson', "Excellent! OK, we have the base, and of course, the noodles go without saying…but…how about the toppings?"
Kurenai answered without missing a beat, "Shrimp…lots and lots of shrimp. And then fishcakes…scallops…crab legs…a lobster claw…some bean sprouts…and a bay leaf as a garnish!"
Naruto raised a curious eyebrow. Kurenai continued after catching her breath, looking at Naruto dead in the eye while wagging a finger in emphasis, "And presentation of the dish is very important in the Kurenai Special. The dish must be a work of art, perfectly symmetrical. The lobster claw should stand against the left side of the bowl, and the crab legs should line the remaining edge. The bottoms of the crab legs should be surrounded by the shrimp in a wraparound fashion. The fishcakes and bean sprouts should be in the middle of the bowl, and the scallops…hmm…" Kurenai raised her finger to her chin and glanced upward in thought, finishing with, "The scallops should be underneath the noodles as a sort of pleasant surprise, so to speak…and the bay leaf should be dead center of the bowl!"
Kurenai smiled and nodded in satisfaction as she finished, not having noticed that Teuchi had gone back into the kitchen to start on the orders. Naruto nodded back, turned his head towards the kitchen and shouted, "HEY TEUCHI! DID YOU GET ALL THAT? LET'S HAVE A 'KURENAI SPECIAL' IN PLACE OF KURENAI'S PREVIOUS ORDER!"
"I GOT IT ALL, SON! TWO 'KURENAI SPECIALS' COMING RIGHT UP!"
Kurenai's eyes went wide with surprise as Naruto gave her a wink and a thumbs-up. She wasn't actually going to order the dish; she was only having a little spontaneous fun with her present companion, but the more she thought about it, the more appetizing her creation seemed to become. She smiled in pleasant surprise at this realization, but then she realized what Teuchi had said.
She turned to Naruto with yet another raised eyebrow, "Two?"
Naruto explained, "Well, if it's a new dish, I have to try it, too. Kind of an unspoken rule at Ichiraku's: Naruto must try all new dishes."
Kurenai laughed at this and responded, "Then, of course, we must follow the house rules!"
Naruto laughed with her as he continued, "And then, of course, we'll have to think of a 'Naruto and Kurenai Special'!" at which both of them cracked up.
Teuchi interrupted them as he brought their orders: one Kurenai Special for Kurenai, and a Kurenai Special and a Naruto Special for Naruto. He gave both of his current patrons an amused smirk, "Well, you two, before you go off the deep end in creating additional menu selections for me, why don't you go ahead and enjoy what you ordered…"
Both Naruto and Kurenai grinned rather sheepishly at this. Naruto found Kurenai's face to be quite adorable with a sheepish expression on it. Kurenai noticed his thoughtfully amused smirk and asked, "What is it?"
Naruto responded, "I don't think I've ever seen you wear a 'sheepish' expression before…"
Kurenai seemed to think about this, and responded, "Hmm…I guess we're both a little surprised today…because I've never engaged in such witty banter with you, before..."
Naruto nodded at this, "Very true…but for now..." as he turned to his bowl of ramen and broke his chopsticks, saying, "Down the hatch!" as he began to eat his ramen, Kurenai doing the same.
Kurenai, of course, knew of Naruto's ramen fetish, but had heard from several of her friends and her former students that he would usually inhale his ramen…and that it was quite a sight to see. To see him eating his food with perfect table manners was another surprise. She raised an eyebrow at this, and Naruto seemed to know what she was thinking, as his response would indicate, "If you're wondering why I'm not wolfing it down, it's because it would be unfitting and impolite to do so in the presence of a lady…" he finished with a smile.
Kurenai smiled at Naruto's indirect compliment. As the pair ate their meal, they began to make conversation.
Naruto started, "So Kurenai…tell me a little bit about yourself…"
Kurenai responded, "OK…what would you like to know?"
"Hmm…I guess we can start with the basics: likes, dislikes, hobbies, interests, dreams, stuff like that."
"Genin-Team-Style introductions, huh? OK then…well, as you know, I'm a genjutsu mistress. I like learning about and training in new types of genjutsu. I also like roses, shochu (1), vodka and octopus with wasabi, spending time with friends, being pampered and treated like a lady…" she nodded at Naruto while she said this, letting him know that she acknowledged his gentlemanly treatment of her on this day, "…ermm…curling up with a good book in front of a warm fire, relaxing in spas and hot springs, fine dining, and flowery and spicy scents. I dislike cake, perverts, barbaric men and people who make hasty judgments or conclusions without first gathering all the facts…" Naruto smiled at this as Kurenai continued, "My hobbies are having evening drinks with friends, reading good romance and mystery novels, and cooking…" Naruto's expression molded itself into an intrigued smirk with a single raised eyebrow as he heard this, but he didn't interrupt her as she continued, "My interests include genjutsu training and research, learning new and interesting ways to cook, and learning about shochus and vodkas of various kinds and flavors. My dream is to be the world's most renowned genjutsu mistress, and I would say that my immediate goal for the time being, which you have just given to me, is to try to overcome the plateau that I've found myself on concerning the balance between my chakra control and reserves."
She took a breath as she finished, then asked, "So what about you, Naruto?"
"Well, I like music…" at this, Kurenai found herself rather shocked, raising both eyebrows and looking intently at him while he continued, "…various types of food, including but not limited to…ramen, sushi, any kind of meat that's grilled, roasted or stewed, and even dango. My favorite ninja art is fuinjutsu…" Kurenai found herself surprised yet again… "…I also like taijutsu, kenjutsu and ninjutsu. I love to learn anything new, especially any new skills that I can get my hands on. My favorite jutsu to use is my Shadow Clone Jutsu because of the way in which I learn anything my clones learn, which allows me to learn and master any new skills I wish to learn very quickly. I like shogi, go and any other game of strategy. I love physical training! I also like relaxing in a good hot spring.
"My dislikes are perverts, fangirls…" at which he involuntarily shuddered before continuing, "…people who make hasty judgments about others, being hit by people simply because they're annoyed, cowards and traitors…" Kurenai noticed Naruto's eyes darken just a bit as he said the last two, but allowed him to continue, "My hobbies are learning any new skills that I might find useful and putting them to use, training my mind and body, calligraphy…it helps with my sealing…singing and playing various musical instruments…"
At this, Kurenai couldn't help but interrupt, "Really?" she said, surprise evident in both her tone and expression.
Naruto smiled, "It's true. I was actually born with perfect pitch, and I had taken up singing to start with as a kid; I didn't start to learn how to play instruments until a couple of years ago, though…"
Kurenai smiled, both intrigued and excited about this new discovery she had just been given as she responded, "You'll have to sing for me, sometime, then…"
Naruto gave an embarrassed chuckle, "We'll see…" he responded before continuing, "Now, where was I? Ah, yes! Some of the skills I've picked up are gardening, architecture, carpentry and construction…" Kurenai's eyes grew wider and wider as he continued listing off several of his hobbies, "…cooking, interior design, basic tailoring, and blacksmithing. My interests are researching and developing new seals for my fuinjutsu, learning various fighting styles to add to my own, whether kenjutsu or taijutsu, finding new and more effective ways to break or counter genjutsu, which is actually something of a little project that I'm working on…one that I wouldn't mind your help with, now that I think about it…" Kurenai nodded in understanding as he continued, "…and learning the various political, economic and social aspects and goings-on within the village and the Land of Fire.
"My dreams…" Naruto paused to close his eyes and sigh, and then continued in a more subdued tone of voice, "…my dreams are to be the world's greatest Sealmaster, to be Hokage, so that I can help build a better world than we currently live in…and to hopefully find that special someone and start a family with her," he finished with a smile.
Kurenai couldn't help but smile wistfully as she listened. They had each finished their respective meals during the course of the conversation, continuing to make small talk. Kurenai eventually posed the question, "So what instruments do you play?"
Naruto answered, "I can play any type of guitar, any piano or keyboard, drums and most percussion instruments, the flute, the pan-flute, tenor and alto saxophone, harmonica, the violin, the trumpet, horn, and trombone…those are the ones I've mastered so far…"
Kurenai was once again astounded, "Those are the instruments you've mastered?"
Naruto simply smiled and nodded, "What I like to do is use Shadow Clones as my own band while I sing songs that I like."
"And what kinds of songs do you like?"
"I like to play most types of rock and jazz. I also like some folk and classical-type easy listening."
Kurenai smiled once more, "OK…you have got to perform for me at some point."
"Fair enough," replied Naruto, still unsure as to whether or not he wanted to do this for her or not; he had never actually sang or played for anyone in the village before.
The rain had since stopped, and the sun was shining brightly in the early afternoon. Teuchi brought a check each for Kurenai and Naruto. Before Kurenai could take hers, Naruto spoke up, "Teuchi, I'll take both of those."
Kurenai tried to object, "Naruto, you really don't have to…"
Naruto, however, would have none of it, "Nonsense. Being a gentleman, I am more than happy to pay for the lady in my company," he ended with a sincere smile.
Kurenai simply smiled in resignation, "Very well…thank you, kind sir."
"You're quite welcome, dear lady," responded Naruto, in a playful tone.
Naruto paid both bills, and escorted Kurenai out of the stand. Noting that the rain had stopped, and the sun was out, warming the chill in the air somewhat, Kurenai removed Naruto's cloak from her shoulders and handed it back to him, thanking him again for covering her up.
"So when should we meet and talk about this little project of yours?" asked Kurenai.
Naruto thought at this for a few moments before answering, "Are you free later today?"
Kurenai nodded, mildly surprised that he was prepared to do it so soon, "Err…yes I am, actually…"
Naruto continued, "Do you still live at the same place?"
"I haven't moved in over ten years, if that's what you mean…"
"OK. I know where you live, then. I'll come by your place at around…is Four OK?"
"You don't have to do that, Naruto. I can just meet you at a training ground or the library or something."
"That's not the problem…the issue is that all of my research is in my library at home, and it's not exactly portable…and…if nothing else, I can make us dinner after we're done!"
"Naruto, you don't have to go to all that trouble," said Kurenai in mock annoyance.
Naruto smiled knowingly and simply nodded, replying, "It's no trouble, Kurenai…remember, I like to cook just like you do."
Kurenai began to open her mouth to respond, and then curtly closed it, nodding with a smile, "OK, then. I'll see you at Four."
"You bet. Until then, dear lady…have a wonderful afternoon!"
"Thank you, kind sir! I will be sure to!" she said with an exaggerated yet genuine smile as she walked away, waving goodbye. Naruto noticed that her step had quite a bit more spring to it before he left to prepare his notes so that he could show Kurenai exactly what he had come up with so far. As he was walking home, he continued to ponder her chakra control/reserve balance problem…and the answer suddenly hit him! Smiling to himself, he would be sure to ask Kurenai a few questions about it later to confirm his theory after he brought her to his home.
AN: (1) shochu - strong distilled Japanese liquor – stronger than sake, about 50 proof
To those of you who suspect that the plot of this story is old-hash, please bear in mind that this is only the first chapter. I would encourage you to keep reading. I think you'll find this story to be a refreshing change.
Please read and review. Any constructive criticism is always welcome.