This chapter is mostly filler. The final scene at the end was planned from the start, but I'm not sure how well I pulled it off. I have to admit that I wasn't as happy with this chapter as I thought I'd be (of course, that may just be me being overly critical of my own work, but still…). I'm glad and thankful that you've all stuck it out with me as long as you have up to now.
For those wondering, "The Gateway to the Soul" is getting an update soon! I know that many of you have been waiting for that, and I do want to tell you that it's in the works. I'm hoping to have it completed within the next two to three months (I'd like to do it sooner, but I'm trying hard, guys – please be patient with me).
Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto, nor do I own Sekirei, Fair Tail, or any references to said works thereof.
Chapter 17: So What Happens Until the Wedding?
It had only been the night before last that Naruto and Kurenai had hosted the Hyuugas and the Sarutobis. These last three and a half days had been a whirlwind of activity for Naruto and Kurenai, even though they weren't involved directly in the events surrounding them. It was currently four o'clock on the morning of October Fourth, and the two of them were sitting in the lobby of Konoha Hospital's maternity ward with a patient Hiashi, an excited Hinata and a rather distraught Neji.
Tenten had gone into labor over nine hours ago. Hiashi had to constantly reassure his nephew that no news was good news – Tenten would be alright. Neji, of course, couldn't help but worry over the condition of his wife and first child. It was made worse that Tenten didn't want Neji in the birthing room to watch.
Naruto leaned over to Kurenai and asked quietly, "You're not going to make me wait out here when you give birth, are you?"
Kurenai smiled at him reassuringly, "No, dear, I will not. I'll want you in there to love me through the pain, I'm sure."
"Good," Naruto responded before looking over at Neji with mild concern, "But I think it's really bothering him that she doesn't want him in there. I'm not sure what she's thinking, but the two of them are going to need to talk when they get a chance."
Kurenai looked over at Neji, and as she studied him, she could see what Naruto was saying, "I wish I could say that you're making too big of a deal about this, but…I think you're right. She might not think it's a big deal, but I can see that he does."
"Well, he's being denied the chance to watch his first child be born. I can't imagine how I would feel in his position."
Kurenai once again gave her fiancé a warm and reassuring smile, "I promise that you'll never have to worry about that."
Naruto smiled, "Thanks, baby."
Before long, a midwife came into the lobby and approached Neji. All of them stood up in eager anticipation of the news.
The midwife began, "I'm just here to give you an update. The baby is currently dropped, but it isn't moving at the moment. We have a brief reprieve. Tenten's just fine; she's asleep. We'll wake her in about an hour and continue working to get this baby born, okay?"
Neji looked relieved at this. He might not be able to be in there with her, but at least she was okay. Before the midwife could leave, Kurenai was quick to stop her.
"Excuse me, but when you do wake her up, could you bring me back there so that I might speak to her, please? It's important," she insisted.
"Well, it's not normal hospital procedure…" the midwife began before Kurenai began to emit her horrible purple miasma, producing her horrifying hannya mask.
With a sickeningly sweet closed-eye smile, she interrupted the midwife, "…but that won't be a problem…right?"
Tenten awoke after her sedation had worn off. She had recovered a little strength, and was now ready to push this baby out. Once she thought about the baby, she noticed the pain in her abdomen and her womb was returning to her. She looked around for her husband on impulse, but then remembered that she didn't want him in here. It was his fault that she was in this bed and looked like a beached whale, after all! She didn't want him to see her like this! Hell, she didn't want anyone to see her like this!
A few moments later, the midwife that had been helping her came back in, followed by Kurenai. She was about to yell at Kurenai to leave until she saw the dark, ominous murky purple aura spreading behind her. Moments later, the most horrifying hannya mask that Tenten had ever seen suddenly appeared out of nowhere, crying tears of blood, dripping spit and blood from its mouth and hissing at her.
"Hello, Tenten…" Kurenai said in a terrifyingly sweet tone as her eyes glowed a solid bright red.
Tenten screamed in horror.
Neji, upon hearing his wife's scream, bolted out of his seat and ran towards the room that Tenten was in. He stopped when he saw Kurenai walking past him with a satisfied smile.
"She'd like you in the room, now," she told him plainly as she walked past him, her face in a contented expression as though all was right with the world.
Neji just stared at her as she walked off, wondering just what exactly happened before shaking his head and running once more to Tenten's birthing room. When he got there, he saw a terrified Tenten, her mouth open in a silent scream as tears flooded their way down her cheeks. Moments later, Neji was at her bedside and she was clutching to him for dear life, incessantly apologizing to him and begging him to not leave her side.
'Thank you, Kurenai,' he thought to himself as he allowed himself a small smile.
"I don't want to know, do I?" Naruto asked his fiancée.
"You really don't," Kurenai answered him knowingly, "Just know that given how stubborn Tenten is, it was necessary."
"Oh, I don't doubt that."
Natsumo Hyuuga weighed eight pounds, four ounces when Tenten finally gave birth at nine twenty-seven that morning. He had a pair of Byakugan eyes that were almost as brilliant as Hinata's. Neji was overjoyed at being able to watch his son being born, and was the happiest and proudest that anyone had ever seen him. Tenten found herself profoundly grateful to Kurenai for giving her the tough love that she needed, as she could now see that if she had made Neji miss the birth of his son, she would have regretted it for the rest of her life, and it might have even changed their relationship in a very bad way.
After allowing the new parents a few hours alone together, the others joined them, Konohamaru and Hanabi having joined Naruto and the others just after seven. All of them cooed over the baby, smothering him. He didn't seem to mind, though. Tenten and Neji were just glad that he was finally here. Tenten had been looking forward to getting back to training, but now that Natsumo was here, training was the last thing on her mind. She just wanted to mother her son and fuss over him every second of every day.
Shortly afterwards, the others left. Naruto and Kurenai took some time to walk around the village, both of them exhausted, but still too happy about the day's events to even try sleeping. They made their way to one of Konoha's parks and strolled through it hand in hand.
"You know, Honey," Kurenai began with a tear in her eye, "Being a part of that today made me very excited about our future together. I mean, did you see how happy they were?"
"Yeah, I did," Naruto replied softly, "I can only imagine how great it'll be when our first child is born."
"Yeah…but I think it'll have a different meaning for us, and it might mean that much more."
"That's true, considering we both lost our first children."
Kurenai sighed with a sad smile, happy to think about the future, but still feeling the sting of losing her unborn son. Naruto, knowing exactly what she was feeling, let go of her hand and brought his arm around her shoulder, guiding her to a bench. Both of them sat down, and Kurenai began to cry softly and silently. Naruto pulled her into his chest and let her weep silently to herself, allowing a few tears of his own to leak out as he mourned once more for his own lost child as the two shared their moment of mutual grief.
The Tenth of October was here. It was a day that usually found Naruto alone in his house. His friends understood – they knew that his birthday was never a happy event growing up. There was, of course, one person who was always welcome in his life, no matter the day. That one person, the one great love of his life, was with him in his home at that moment, having arrived just after one o'clock.
Kurenai had brought him a gift – she had commissioned a wood-carved plaque, embedded in which was a very precise likeness of the two of them, gazing at each other lovingly. Below the carved image was a metal plate that was etched with the words:
The Uzumaki-Namikaze Family
Forged through Shared Pain,
Built on Shared Love
Naruto was touched beyond words at Kurenai's gift to him. After kissing her strongly and passionately, he wasted no time in getting a drill and some screws. He went to his front door and screwed the plaque on, perfectly centered and just above the middle of the door.
Kurenai also unsealed some groceries and told Naruto that she was going to cook for him. Naruto offered to help, and even tried to force his way into his kitchen, but Kurenai would not hear of it. It took her bringing out the hannya mask to get him to stop. Naruto was no longer affected by it the way he had been the first time he saw it, but it was enough to let him know that she would be highly upset if he persisted.
Wanting to be helpful and do something for her, Naruto decided that he would play for her. He made a few shadow clones and got some of his acoustical instruments from the studio downstairs: several guitars, a mandolin, two pan flutes, and his alto and tenor saxophones. He had also set up a couple of speakers that were no doubt connected to his studio. He began to play some lighter pieces for her while she was preparing dinner, bringing a smile to her face as she found her work to be that much more enjoyable.
By seven o'clock, Kurenai had prepared a very aromatic and savory-smelling venison roast that Shikamaru had been kind enough to give her from their clan's herd. Naruto could smell the herbs and seasonings that Kurenai had rubbed over the meat after she had ground the spices and made the paste by hand. On top of that, she had also prepared a delectable lamb stew, which she poured over rice, along with several potato and vegetable dishes.
Once dinner was prepared, Naruto set the table for them and poured them some drinks: water, fruit juice and some shochu that Kurenai had brought with her. Kurenai toasted to Naruto's twenty-first birthday, while Naruto simply toasted to a quiet, intimate night with the woman he loved. Naruto was highly-impressed with the flavor of the food – he knew for a fact that Kurenai was a good cook, but this time, she had outdone herself. Both of them savored every bite, and left the table having eaten a little bit too much. After dinner, they chose to spend the night playing some board games. Within an hour, they were interrupted by the alarm seal at the front gate.
Both of them stopped what they were doing and frowned in surprise, looking at each other before getting up and walking out of the house toward the front gate. Naruto had recently applied a transparency seal to the gate so that he could see who was calling on him without actually opening the gate, and this would be the first time he actually used it outside of testing it. Once he got to the gate, he applied chakra to the seal, and to both his and Kurenai's surprise, there was a crowd of people outside the gate with expectant faces!
Naruto immediately fought down the impulse to believe that these people were here to cause trouble, as had once been the case before he answered somewhat warily through a voice projection seal, "Good evening, what can I do for all of you?"
The man that was seemingly leading this crowd answered him, "Lord Naruto, we err…we're sorry for interrupting your evening, but we…" he paused for a moment as if to consider his words.
Naruto and Kurenai both frowned in confusion at the man's apprehensive tone. They looked around at the crowd outside the gates, seeing all of them looking hopeful yet apprehensive and somewhat nervous.
The man continued, "We know that today's your birthday, and that…it's never really been a happy day for you…" Naruto's eyebrows shot up in surprise at the man's admission, "…but we'd be honored if you could…come with us and allow us to…celebrate it with you?"
His earnest and sincere request caused both Naruto and Kurenai to flinch in surprise. After a few moments, Naruto answered him, "I…don't really know what to say. Could you give me a few minutes, please?"
"Sure. We'll wait right here, is that alright?"
"That's fine. I'll be back in a few minutes," Naruto responded, before deactivating both the transparency seal and the voice projection seal.
After a few seconds, he turned to Kurenai, "Wow…I'm not sure what to make of this."
"Me neither," Kurenai offered thoughtfully before turning once more to Naruto, "I'm not sure I can offer much insight, but I do think the fact that they came to you and asked to celebrate with you is worth something. We can certainly tell that they didn't come here with any bad intentions."
"True enough," Naruto remarked before smiling and responding, "Well, what could it hurt? Let's go!"
Naruto and Kurenai turned back to the front gate to leave the grounds. When the gate opened and the pair walked out hand in hand, the crowd that had assembled cheered and began to surround them, greeting them warmly and extending well wishes to the two of them, and especially to Naruto. Once they were led to the village square, more and more people saw them, and more cheers began to spring forth from those assembled.
The pair were both swept up into the celebrations, Naruto himself finding the welcoming atmosphere of this particular festival to be a novel experience. It wasn't long before Tsunade and Shizune caught wind of Naruto's presence there. Shizune immediately sought him out, intent on bringing him to Tsunade. It didn't take her long to find him and Kurenai, as many of the revelers in Hokage Tower courtyard and outside it had begun to crowd around them, greeting them and celebrating with them. Shizune had broken through the crowd and explained that Tsunade wanted a word with him. They understood, and began to disperse, leaving Shizune, Naruto and Kurenai an avenue by which they could get to the Hokage.
Tsunade didn't even bother asking Naruto anything. Shizune had just brought them to the raised platform where Tsunade would make a speech about the Will of Fire, the strength of the Leaf, and other things that were typical of this day every year. As Naruto was ushered up the stage, Tsunade began to address the crowd.
"Good evening, everyone!" she yelled into the lectern's microphone, as the crowd erupted into loud cheers. Naruto wasn't sure what to make of the situation he now found himself in. Kurenai, sensing his discomfort, took his hand in her own and squeezed reassuringly. Naruto smiled in gratitude at her.
As the cheering and applause died down, Tsunade continued, "For twenty one years now, we've celebrated the survival of the Leaf Village against the attack of the Nine-Tailed Fox – a victory that, as we all know, came at a very high price."
The crowd grew somber and quiet as they reflected on the event in question. Those who had been alive could be seen sighing sadly, a few of them even weeping to themselves as they remembered all they had lost on that day.
Tsunade pressed on, "For years, this day has been a day of celebration and remembrance for this village, though…" Tsunade paused to glance over at Naruto before she continued with her speech, her tone notably sadder, "…not everyone has had the good fortune of being able to celebrate it the way we have. It's rather ironic – the man I'm referring to hasn't been able to celebrate his own birthday because of the stigma that this day has brought with it ever since he was born."
Everyone in the audience was silent, some in reflection, some with their heads down in shame. There were some, however, even in the older generations, who were looking at Naruto with a sense of expectant hope, as though what he thought or maybe had to say was important to them. Naruto and Kurenai both glanced around the crowd from their place on the stage, gauging people's reactions and guessing what they might be thinking and feeling.
"But thankfully," Tsunade spoke up once again, "He never gave up. He never gave up on himself, and he never gave up on us. And he stands before us today – our greatest hero!"
"Happy Birthday, Naruto!" an old man from the crowd shouted. This was followed by many more people shouting out happy birthday wishes to him, accompanied by thunderous applause. Naruto couldn't help but look around in wonder and gratitude – he knew that he had finally won his village over, but despite that, he still found it surreal to be wished a happy birthday by them! Kurenai was shedding tears of admiration for her fiancé, and likewise Tsunade was shedding tears of pride for the man whom she regarded as her son.
"Speech!" someone else shouted from the audience, once more followed by more people wishing to hear him speak.
After a few moments, Tsunade spoke into the microphone, "Well, Naruto, would you like to…maybe say a few words?"
Naruto thought for a moment before nodding with a smile. He approached Tsunade, who offered him the lectern. Once he reached it, he looked out into the crowd, took a few moments to collect his thoughts, and began to speak.
"Wow! I have to admit, this is all a bit…surreal for me at the moment. I had started the day just expecting a nice quiet evening in with my fiancée…" a few chuckles came from the crowd, "…and I have to say that I certainly wasn't expecting a crowd to come to my house and invite us to come celebrate with all of you tonight."
There was a pause as Naruto noticed the crowd was hanging on his every word, most of them with genuine, warm smiles, many awaiting his next sentence with bated breath. He continued, "As many of you know, this day hasn't exactly had a history of…being a happy one for me. Honestly, I…I think this is truly the first 'happy' birthday I've ever had inside the village."
The crowd grew somber and quiet, many wanting to hang their heads in shame, knowing that they had played a part in his misery when he was younger. Naruto managed to spy a familiar shopkeeper who was looking downward in shame and sadness – he immediately remembered that this man had driven him away from his stand because Naruto had been looking for a mask to pull a prank on those Academy kids who were always picking on him in those days.
Shaking off the memory, he continued, "I know that this is supposed to be a celebration, but I find that sober remembrance is good for the soul. With that in mind, I'd like to share about what it is that I remember on this particular day."
There was some apprehension in the crowd as Naruto said this – some of it was the apprehension of hearing him say something meaningful, but he could also sense an undercurrent of fear, as some of them thought that he might talk about how bad things used to be for him as a child on this day.
Naruto smiled and began his story, "Other than right now, there are three birthdays that I can remember that were truly happy ones for me. They all took place when I was on the road with my master, Jiraiya. On all three of those occasions, he always bought me all the ramen I could eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner…" once again, several laughs could be heard in the audience, "…and on all three of those birthdays, he always made it a point to be at a village where he knew a festival would be going on so that I could just celebrate freely."
Everyone seemed touched at Naruto's story. He changed gears and decided to share the adventure that was his second birthday on the road with the man, "We had our funny moments, too. On the day I turned fifteen, he dropped me off at a brothel and tried to buy me a high-class hooker…"
"HE DID WHAT?!" Tsunade yelled at the top of her lungs in righteous fury.
"Relax, mom," Naruto reassured her with his hands raised in a surrendering gesture, "All we did was talk for a while. She could sense I wasn't really ready for that kind of thing, so she just acted more like a hostess."
Upon grimacing slightly at Tsunade's muttered grumble of, "If he wasn't dead, I'd kill him", he turned back to the crowd and continued from where he was interrupted, "Anyway, as it turned out, he dropped me off to give me a good time so he could do some research. About half an hour later, he swung back by that establishment, grabbed me by the collar without a word, and high-tailed it out of the building, and then out of town, pulling me along like a flag blowing in the wind, with a stampede of furious, towel-clad women hot on our tail!"
This brought a loud round of laughs from almost everyone there. Naruto heard Tsunade mumble, "Served the pervert right," underneath the laughter. He waited for the amusement to die down before he continued his speech.
"But it was a year later, when I turned sixteen, just a few short weeks before we were supposed to return to the village, that he gave me the most meaningful birthday present I'd ever received…" he paused for a moment as he remembered the precious gift his master had imparted to him while the crowd waited with baited breath for him to finish his tale, "…he gave me an autographed copy of the very first book he ever wrote - 'The Legend of the Utterly Gutsy Shinobi'. It was the only book he ever wrote that wasn't pornographic, and it's the only one that didn't sell well."
He caught his breath and paused for a few seconds before picking back up, "It's really a shame, too, because it's the best book he ever wrote. I later learned that my father named me after the main character of that story – Naruto. It was about a ninja who never gave up and kept his hope alive, fighting for what he believed in, even when nobody was there to believe in him. If any of you haven't read it, I'd recommend picking up a copy, because it's an excellent read. But even more than that, it was about Jiraiya's continued dream to find out what real peace in the world was. It was a dream he entrusted to me – I hope I can make that dream come true one day."
Naruto smiled before finishing, "These are the things I remember on this day – the things that are precious and important to me. And they're the things that have made my birthday meaningful, because they're the things that have given my life itself meaning. Whatever this day brings to you, I hope that they do have real meaning. My father gave his life so that all of us could live. My mother gave hers so that I could live. And so many others gave their lives, both on that day and since then, so that we can continue living and enjoying every second that Kami gives us the good fortune to experience. If we remember anything, let's remember that, because that's something truly worth celebrating!"
He was met once more with thunderous applause. He looked out over the audience, and saw many of them had been moved to tears by his words. A tearful Tsunade came up to him, kissed him on the cheek and embraced him warmly. Shizune did the same, even more tearful than her master. Kurenai then came up and gave him a firm but chaste kiss right on his lips, pulling away with a loving smile while tears were rolling down her cheeks as well.
The rest of the night was taken up with people coming up to Naruto and Kurenai, just spending a few minutes here and there talking with him while wishing him a happy birthday and expressing their gratitude for his gracious words to them and for his presence. It had been as though a weight had been lifted from the village as a whole. Many of them expressed sentiments of somehow feeling forgiven – those who had once been guilty of mistreating Naruto seemed able to put their guilt behind them. Even though Naruto had forgiven them all long ago, it was a good feeling to see them respond to his forgiveness.
As the night came to a close, Naruto walked Kurenai home before leaving for his own home, smiling over the events of the evening and eagerly looking forward to the upcoming day of his nuptials!
The last two months had been a whirlwind of activity, as there had been much to do to get the details of the wedding finalized! Naruto made sure to inform Shin and Shijimi that he wanted the Yamanaka Flower Shop to be commissioned for the floral arrangements, and that he wanted Ichiraku Ramen and the Akimichi Barbecue Pit to cater the reception. The arrangements had all been successfully implemented, and despite the fact that they were both wildly excited about getting married, Naruto and Kurenai had both been more than a little frazzled by the whole ordeal.
There had been a single change to the wedding party in mid-November. Tenten needed someone to take care of young Natsumo while she attended Kurenai. This had brought about an interesting dilemma, until Hanabi presented what was probably the best solution: Hinata should take her place as a bridesmaid, while Hanabi could look after Natsumo from the comfort of her wheelchair and not have to worry about losing her equilibrium and falling over in the middle of the ceremony. She also reasoned that it should be Hinata attending her, as her older sister had much more history with Kurenai than she did. Kurenai smiled at this suggestion and thanked Hanabi for her humility in allowing her to give the honor of being a bridesmaid to the most fitting woman – her surrogate little sister/daughter.
It was the night of November Thirtieth, the eve of their wedding. They were in Naruto's home, now, having just returned from the rehearsal. It was late, and both of them were so exhausted and excited at the same time that they knew they wouldn't be able to sleep for a while. It was agreed that Kurenai would stay the night there before heading over to Hokage Tower in the morning to get ready for her wedding.
They had both waited this long; refraining from sexual intimacy for one more night wouldn't be that hard to do. Naruto had his promise to himself, which was more than enough of a deterrent for him. Kurenai knew that waiting until after the wedding when Naruto could give himself to her with a clean conscience would make it that much more satisfying for both of them, as well as keep unwelcome problems out of their bed.
They were both sitting in the living room and relaxing with drinks. It was a comfortable silence, both of them having absolutely no doubts at all about tomorrow. They were content. After a while, Naruto found himself in a reflective frame of mind, bringing him to voice his thoughts to Kurenai.
"What a wild year it's been, huh?" Naruto asked with quiet contemplation.
"Yes, it has…" Kurenai responded, "…if someone had told me that you and I would be where we are now at this time last year, I would have either laughed at them or gotten very angry…" she added with a chuckle, "…maybe even a little bit of both."
"Yeah, I can see that," he replied with a laugh of his own, "If someone would have told me that, I…well, I really don't know what I would have thought, to be honest."
"How quickly change can come to us," Kurenai said nostalgically, "And what an incredible journey we've had together up to now. It's been both frightening and fulfilling at the same time, and I'm so…at peace right now. I feel a conviction that this is just…right. You know what I mean, honey?"
"Mm-hmm," he answered with a nod.
A comfortable content silence followed, the two of them just happy to be with each other. Several minutes later, both of them seemed to notice that a lingering melancholy had invaded their silent reflection.
"Baby?" Naruto asked, breaking the silence.
"What are you thinking right now?"
"I was just remembering something. My father once told me that he couldn't wait to see how beautiful I would look as a bride. I guess it just saddens me to know that he won't be able to see it."
"Yeah, I know what you mean," Naruto replied with a heavy sigh, "I'm glad that Mom's with us, but…I was thinking the exact same thing – I wish that Pervy Sage and my real mom and dad could be here with us right now."
"Who says we can't be, Son?" a strange, yet familiar male voice could be heard from behind them.
In surprise, Naruto and Kurenai jumped to their feet and turned their heads to see, to their further surprise and utter shock, Minato Namikaze, Kushina Uzumaki, Akahi Yuhi and Jiraiya all standing there with smiles on their faces! Minato was in his signature outfit, Kushina was in the yellow blouse and green overdress that he remembered meeting her in, Akahi (Naruto knew it had to be him by his red eyes that he shared with Kurenai) was wearing a standard Leaf Jounin outfit, and Jiraiya was in his signature grey gi with red overcoat and horned forehead protector, though he was only sporting one arm. The question had come from the blond former Hokage.
"What the-?" Naruto asked, before sputtering off, his shock at what he was seeing overwhelming him. He immediately began to use his genjutsu countering skills to try to determine if foreign chakra had invaded his body, but was interrupted by his fiancee's voice.
"You're not seeing things, honey. I see them, too," Kurenai told him, the shock quite evident in her own tone.
"What the-" Naruto began again, "What's…what's going on?"
"Hi, son," Kushina spoke up this time somewhat nervously, "Before anything else, I assure you this isn't a trick, and I can prove it. Do you remember when you were first born, and before I was pulled into your seal, I gave you all of that advice, or when I helped you to defeat the Nine-Tails and claim its chakra for your own? Or, err…Ku-Ku," Kushina immediately turned to Kurenai, "How about the time…"
"My Kami, it really is you!" Kurenai interrupted her, running at her tearfully and nearly tackling the redhead standing before them to the floor as she wrapped her arms around the woman, "Only Big Sis Kushi called me Ku-Ku!"
Naruto blinked several times and shook his head. Kurenai was still weeping as she fiercely hugged his mother, while the other three simply stood there with warm smiles on their faces waiting for Naruto to make the first move. After a few moments, Kurenai moved on from Kushina to hug her father just as forcefully as she had hugged Kushina.
"But…how?" Naruto finally asked.
"Well, kid, you'd best met me explain that one," Jiraiya began, "You see, when you defeated Madara and Sasuke, you saved the Shinigami a lot of grief. Essentially, he felt as though he was in your debt, and let me tell ya, he doesn't like that feeling one bit…" he paused with a laugh, both Minato and Akahi nodding in agreement and chuckling with the former Toad Sage before he finished, "So…to absolve the debt he felt he owed you, he called in a few favors and allowed some of us a few hours with the two of you tonight."
"Huh? Wha-?" Naruto began before tears of his own began to spill and he found himself involuntarily walking over to them, crying out tearfully, "Mom! Dad! Pervy Sage!"
Kushina was the first to intercept him, pulling him to her in a loving, motherly embrace, kissing him on his cheek as she held the back of his head to the crook of her neck, a task she found rather difficult as he towered over her by at least a good nine inches.
"My wonderful Naruto, it's so good to see you," she greeted him tearfully, to which he wrapped his arms around her even more firmly, "And especially at this particular time in your life!"
Minato and Jiraiya made their way to either side of the hugging mother and son, with Minato hugging them both, and Jiraiya putting his hand on Naruto's shoulder. Naruto and Kushina both included Minato in their hug as well. Kushina pulled out of her embrace and held Naruto at arms' length as if to get a better look at him. With a tearful smile, she added, "It's amazing to see how handsome you've become, son. And you're…" she glanced up to the top of his head, "…so tall, as well!"
"Yeah, kid!" Jiraiya added, causing Naruto to turn to him and realize that he was actually looking slightly downward at his master, who he remembered being a very big man, "You're taller than I am, now!"
Naruto just grinned sheepishly before giving Jiraiya a fierce bear/man hug, Jiraiya returning the gesture with his one arm before offering more quietly, "I can't tell you just how proud I am of you, kid. Getting appointed as Hokage in a month, and getting married tomorrow – and to Kurenai Yuhi, of all people! Nice, Naruto…" he finished with a wink, a knowing smirk and a soft supportive elbow jab to his midsection.
"Yeah, we were just talking about that, actually," Naruto admitted with a raised eyebrow and a wry smile.
"Son, we're all real proud of you," Minato interjected, bringing Naruto's attention to his father. Naruto noted that he had to look down a good four inches or so to look him in the eye.
Minato continued, "You've done so well for yourself. You've become a far better and far more powerful shinobi than I could have ever been – even the First Hokage's power paled by comparison to yours. And on top of that, you've even trained Kurenai here so well that I think the best I could hope for against her in a fight would be a draw! You've become the hero that this world needed, and still needs."
Naruto, at the mention of Kurenai's name, looked in her and her father's direction. The two of them had broken their embrace and were now approaching the group. Kurenai walked a couple steps forward from her father as if to be evaluated by Naruto's loved ones.
Kushina spoke first, "Ku-ku, when you were a girl, you were quite pretty. But to see what a raving beauty you've blossomed into? When Naruto was first born, I told him that I wanted him to marry a girl like his mother," she finished with a laugh, "But I'm truly glad he's marrying you instead!"
Kurenai couldn't help but laugh with the woman before she continued, "I never imagined that Naruto would marry someone who was a teenager when he was born. I know a few things about this generation of kunoichi from my chakra that was placed in Naruto's seal when the Nine-Tails was sealed into him…"
Naruto interrupted his mother with a patient smile, "Actually, his name's Kurama, Mom. I haven't heard from him in quite a while, but he and I are actually friends, so I would appreciate it if you would use his name."
"Oh, err…sorry. Well, anyway…" Kushina returned her attention to Kurenai, "…but when I helped Naruto fight Kurama for control of his chakra, I learned just how many of this generation's kunoichi were raving fangirls to that god-awful Sasuke character. But I'm glad that my boy didn't get a fangirl; he got himself a real kunoichi who has every right to stand proud and tall on her own merits! So you be sure to give me lots of grandkids, okay?"
"I will, Kushi. And Naruto and I will raise them all to be great people," Kurenai answered, hugging the woman.
Minato stepped forward after Kushina stepped back and began with a warm smile, "Welcome to our family, Kurenai. I'm also very happy that it's you that Naruto's marrying tomorrow. I don't really know what else to say beyond that except, err…listen to Naruto's motor-mouth mother?"
"HEY!" Kushina cried out indignantly before slamming her fist into Minato's head. The resounding thunk on the top of Minato's skull made Naruto, Jiraiya and Akahi cringe, while Kurenai couldn't help the satisfied smirk that emerged on her face, which promptly disappeared the moment Minato's gaze returned to her.
Minato rubbed his head with an embarrassed chuckle and continued, "Guess I deserved that, huh?"
"Yes, sir, you did," Kurenai told him without shame. Naruto let out a chuckle of his own at his father's predicament while silently thanking Kami that Kurenai wasn't like his mother, at least in that regard.
Another voice made itself known in the room, "And I guess it's now my turn."
Everyone turned to the direction of the new voice to see none other than…Asuma Sarutobi!
"Asuma?!" Kurenai gasped out in shock.
"Asuma-sensei?!" Naruto gasped out at the same time as Kurenai.
"We were wondering what was taking you so long, Asuma," Akahi was the one to speak up this time.
"Well, I had to collect someone that gave me a little trouble. I didn't want to come here without him because I knew Kurenai would want to meet him," Asuma responded before turning behind his legs, "It's okay…why don't you come out and say 'hi' to everyone?"
At that moment, a small boy who was the spitting image of Asuma crawled out from behind him. This boy had one distinguishing feature that made him different – brilliant ruby-colored eyes with a single ring in the iris.
The boy looked up at Kurenai and said, "Hi there…Mom. I'm As-"
"Asumaru?!" Kurenai interrupted, knowing that this little boy could be none other than her lost son! Forgetting everything, and everyone else, in the room, she ran to the little boy and scooped him into her arms, sobbing loudly with overwhelm as she held him to herself.
Everyone else simply smiled at the scene as Kurenai hugged her deceased son for the very first time. Asuma and Akahi both looked at everyone else with inquisitive expressions.
Naruto responded to their unasked question, "We'll all step out back for a while. Just come get us when you're done."
With that Naruto led his parents and master through the sliding back door and out onto his patio, leaving Kurenai and the others to their own special moment.
Two hours had passed before Kurenai retrieved Naruto and the others. Naruto, Jiraiya and his parents all just talked about everything and anything that came to mind, deciding that the best approach to a special moment like this would be to just go with the flow and be a family. Kurenai spent time playing with Asumaru, as did Asuma and Akahi.
When she came to retrieve Naruto and crew, she was holding Asumaru, seated on her hip. Her face was one of contented ecstasy with an undertone of sadness, knowing that this would be the only time she'd ever be able to see her lost son in this lifetime. Her eyes were still red from crying, but she still looked beautiful to everyone there, especially holding her child the way she was. Naruto smiled at the picture, knowing that Kurenai would make a wonderful mother to their children, as well.
Naruto and the others returned inside, where Akahi and Asuma were both waiting.
"Mommy, can you put me down for a minute, please? Me, Daddy and Gramps gotta talk to Papa Naruto for a minute," Asumaru requested with a look of utter seriousness that made him look too cute in Kurenai's eyes.
"Yes, Sweetie, Mommy can do that, but…" she leaned in and said just above a whisper, "…promise you'll go easy on him, huh? For me? He's very important to Mommy."
Asumaru seemed to think about it for a minute before nodding, "Okay Mommy…but only for you."
Kurenai smiled and kissed Asumaru's cheek before putting him down. Asumaru walked up to Naruto and pulled on his pants leg, prompting Naruto to look down.
"Follow us," Asumaru ordered with a childish stern grimace.
"Yes sir," Naruto responded just as "seriously" as he allowed Asuma, Akahi and Asumaru to lead him outside.
Once they got outside, Asumaru glared at Naruto as sternly as a boy his size could and told him, "You better treat her good, Papa Naruto! I'm trusting you to make Mommy happy, and I'll be really mad if you don't! Got it?!"
"I got it, sir!" Naruto responded in a militaristic fashion, to which Asumaru simply nodded.
Naruto continued, "Permission to speak, sir?"
Asumaru nodded once more, to which Naruto softened and told him, "Don't you worry – I'm going to do all I can and then some to make sure that your mommy is the happiest mommy who ever lived. And we're going to make sure that we give you lots of little brothers and sisters. So you hold the fort until all of us get there so you can watch out for them, okay?"
Asumaru smiled with a nod, "You bet, Papa Naruto! And thanks for making Mommy so happy – it was hard seeing her so sad when she went to daddy's gravesite."
"You're welcome, my man," Naruto replied, offering the boy his fist to bump. Asumaru bumped it with enthusiasm before running back inside to his mother. Naruto walked over to Akahi and Asuma, waiting for what they had to say to him.
Akahi began, "Well, son, I was thinking about giving you the dreaded 'overprotective father' talk, but I know that you would never do anything to hurt my baby girl."
He offered Naruto that proud smile that men were oft known to share with each other, "I know you'll make her happy. I know you'll take good care of her, and I know that you'll love her for the rest of her life. Even though I never got the chance to get to know you, I want you to know that I'm proud of you, son. And you have my blessing to take my daughter as your wife tomorrow," as he finished, he offered his hand to Naruto to shake.
Naruto took the hand offered to him and responded, "Thank you, sir. That really means a lot to me. I will not take that blessing lightly, and I will make sure that you never once regret giving it to me."
Akahi nodded and let go of Naruto's hand, returning inside himself. Naruto was left outside with Asuma, now, and he noted that he stood at an even height with the tall man.
Asuma simply had that same proud manly smile that Akahi gave him, not saying a word. Naruto, not wanting to let this opportunity pass him by, spoke up, "I'm not really sure what to say right now, Asuma-sensei. Of all the jounin senseis from my generation, I felt as though you always treated me with the most respect and gave me the benefit of the doubt more than any of the others did…" he chuckled before continuing, "…even Kurenai, ironically."
Asuma chuckled with him, "Funny how right you are about that, Naruto. Kurenai did look down her nose at you at first, and I think your first Chunin Exam Finals were a real wake-up call for her."
Asuma's smile dropped as he adopted a serious expression, "You know, kid, I've always liked you. I've always seen something special in you. I saw it during the Chunin Exam preliminaries when you fought Kiba, and I saw it again when you fought Neji. I always knew that somehow you'd pull off what other people thought was impossible for you."
He chuckled once more as he continued, "I remember when I was teaching you and that Sora kid how to properly channel wind chakra, and how the two of you just made it a competition to see who could master it faster," his chuckling stopped as he continued, "I remember very well how you handled him…and his hatred. It was because of you that he was able to let it go."
(BGM: Fairy Tail: The Power of Justice)
He let out a sigh before adopting a serious persona once more, "I remember when I fought Hidan, and how I ultimately lost my life to him. We knew what they were after, and kid, I want you to know that I have no regrets about giving my life to protect yours. It's because of you that the world is as safe a place as it is. I'm also very grateful…and humbled even…that I was able to teach you something that you were able to use to win the war and keep everyone else alive."
He placed a hand on Naruto's shoulder, "Naruto, I'm just as proud of you as everyone else in there is. I'm grateful that Kurenai was finally able to let me go and move on because you came into her life the way you did. And…" he smiled before finishing, "…I'm glad she's found someone who loves her just as much as I did, if not more. I'm happy for her, and I'm just as happy for you, kid."
Naruto smiled, allowing a few stray tears to fall, "Thank you…Asuma. You were one of my teachers, even if only briefly, but I learned some very important things from you. But the most important thing I learned from you is that to truly stand by your word, you've got to be willing to put it all on the line, even if it means certain death. Asumaru's siblings are going to know who you are, Asuma Sarutobi, and I'm going to make certain that they regard you as a hero."
Both of them moved at the same time to give each other a brotherly man-hug. No other words needed to be shared. Each of them had the other's respect as a man, and as men, they both knew that nothing was more important between men than that.
They broke their man-hug when they heard a sniffle. Turning in the direction of the sniffle, they saw both Kushina and Kurenai crying, apparently rather moved by the sentiment shared between the two. Asumaru looked at them with an approving smile, while the other three all had proud manly smiles, while nodding slightly with approval. Both of them slowly stepped back and laughed at having been caught in such a moment.
"Well," Kushina exclaimed with a clap of her hands, "Seeing as we still have a little time, I am going to make all of us my special salt ramen!"
"Oh-ho-ho! Naruto, you're in for a real treat, Son! Kushina's ramen is the best around!" Minato declared with excitement.
"I'm sure it's great, but Teuchi Ichiraku sets a really high bar," Naruto retorted teasingly.
"Oh, it's on, now, Naruto!" Kushina took her son's teasing as a challenge and went into Naruto's kitchen, her eyes burning with determination.
It was an hour later that Kushina came in with a full-size soup pot filled with made-from-scratch ramen, from the noodles to the broth – all of the vegetables and the meats were fresh. Everyone at the table grabbed a bowl and, one at a time, they all ladled some of the delectable-smelling soup into their own bowl. It was quite a meal, to say the least.
Naruto had to admit that his mother's ramen rivaled Teuchi's. Nothing could surpass it in his mind, but he never thought he'd find ramen that was just as good. Kushina used some of the remaining time they had there to copy down some of her ramen recipes so that Naruto would have them and could make them whenever he wanted. Kurenai was just as grateful for those recipes as Naruto was.
They were all just talking once more when the Shinigami suddenly appeared, though not quite as specter-like as Minato remembered. He boomed in a deep voice, "It's time, everyone."
Sadness and melancholy filled the air. Their time was at an end, but the sadness and melancholy were coupled with gratitude and satisfaction. Many things had been achieved, but one thing above all others that was most important to Naruto and Kurenai, and that was closure. Kurenai was able to find closure with Asuma and Asumaru, while Naruto was able to actually say goodbye to Jiraiya.
Akahi once more wished Naruto well and hugged Kurenai before disappearing. Kurenai and Asuma shared a goodbye kiss at the corners of each other's mouths, while Asumaru got a goodbye kiss to his cheek and his forehead, before they both disappeared. Jiraiya just smiled at Naruto before vanishing, knowing that nothing more needed to be said between them.
Minato and Kushina both lingered a moment longer. Minato looked at them with a sad smile and said, "Never go to bed angry with each other, you two. Whatever differences you have, always work them out before going to sleep, or if you can't do that, at least get to a point where you both know that everything's going to be okay."
"Thank you, Lord Fourth. We'll be sure to do that," Kurenai assured him, tears falling from her eyes.
Minato regarded Naruto once more, "I'm proud of you, Son. I always have been, and I've never had anything less than complete faith in you. I can see now that my faith was very well-placed. Live a long, happy life with your bride, Son! And remember that we'll always be watching over you."
Naruto nodded as tears came from his own eyes. He moved forward and embraced his father, who simply hugged him back before they both pulled away and Minato vanished.
Kushina, the last one remaining, looked at Kurenai and said, "You take great care of my baby boy, okay, Ku-Ku? I know he can be as hardheaded and as stubborn as me, but bear with him…" she added mischievously, "…and you be sure to put him in his place and keep him in line when he needs it."
Kurenai laughed as she shed tears of joy. With a smile, she replied, "Don't worry. I know he'll be the best husband ever. But I'll be sure to remember your advice should I ever need it."
The two of them embraced fondly, holding it for a few moments to relish the feeling as they were saying goodbye until the next life. Kushina pulled back and then turned to Naruto before fresh tears and sobs began to make their way up from her throat. Naruto began to shed tears of his own in response.
Kushina just threw herself into his arms and held him tightly, kissing the side of his face before she whispered, "Please don't ever forget how much I love you, Son. You were my greatest joy when you were born, and even knowing that I was going to die, the only thing I could feel was joy, because I was celebrating your birthday. My only regret in life was that I couldn't be there to raise you, to see your first steps, to hear your first word, to be able to teach you how to be a ninja. But I'm so glad to see just how amazing you've become despite having so many disadvantages."
She pulled back and brought a hand to his tear-soaked face, laying it on his cheek, "Your strength of will and character are an inspiration to us all. I'm so incredibly proud of you, and I'm so very grateful for you."
"I love you, Mom," Naruto said with a broken voice, pulling his mother back into a fierce hug as she reciprocated.
"I love you, too, Honey," she replied before letting go of him a few moments later.
As she began to fade, she smiled lovingly at him, waved and said, "Goodbye!"
And then she was gone. Naruto turned to the Shinigami and smiled in gratitude, "Thank you, Lord Shinigami."
"It is I who should be thanking you, Naruto Uzumaki-Namikaze," the Shinigami responded with a nod, "It is because of you that the impure and pure worlds have returned to a state of balance. And I must express my own pride in you, lad. Despite the challenges and trials you have faced, you've become a better, stronger and more tempered man as a result. And I bear much of the responsibility in making your childhood as difficult as it was. Giving you such a gift as this night was honestly the least that I could do for you after all that you have done for me."
"I'm…" Naruto began, stunned at such a response, "…I'm honored, my Lord. Again, thank you."
The Shinigami simply nodded and waved at him before vanishing himself.
Naruto simply stood there, staring at the space that his parents and deceased loved ones had been occupying moments before. He didn't know what to think or what to say in light of what he just experienced. He was brought out of his dumbfounded shock by the feel of Kurenai's hand on his shoulder.
He turned to her to see her sobbing and smiling. Naruto smiled at her while bringing her into a loving embrace, allowing her to weep into his chest, all the while kissing the top of her head. He knew she was feeling so many things all at once: joy, happiness, sadness, grief, loss, gratitude, closure, relief – overwhelm. Naruto just let her cry, standing there and holding her, whispering sweet words of comfort and love to her.
Tonight, they would sleep well, and tomorrow would be the beginning of their grandest adventure yet: the start of their new life together.
No, this is not the end of the story. There are still a few other things that need to happen, first, but we're getting close! As always, I would love your feedback and opinions, so please review.