A/n: I don't own any Naruto copyrights.
After the exciting day of dreary classes made fun by the teasing of Akio, I found myself wandering aimlessly rather close to the Hokage monument. There wasn't a reason, not really, I was just bored. Gai's team was on a mission and Akio had been spirited away for clan training.
And as Naruto was who knows where, I was left with absolutely nothing to do.
On that note, I somehow ended up turning at a completely different path then the one that led home. The road itself wasn't all that bad, if a little steep, and the view was better than I had seen yet. Eventually it ended though, and I was left looking out over the whole of my village from a high vantage point.
It took me a minute, but eventually I realized that the rock I was standing on was, in fact, the monumental head of our current Hokage.
Huh, no wonder the road was so well kept, I bet the tourists just loved this place.
Still, it was peaceful being up in the higher air. The drowsy, nice kind of peace that didn't come often when Naruto, Gai, and Akio happened to be your daily socialization. I hummed a bar of an old lullaby that my mother, my real mother, had once sang back in the days when I wouldn't have been able to climb out of my hospital bed, much less climb a mountain.
I didn't think of her much, not since it had sunken in that yes, I've been reborn. It wasn't that I didn't miss her, I just knew that who she was, that kind, warm-hearted soul who watched me die slowly day after day, was gone. I remembered her for how a mother should be, and that was enough.
"This sucks. Loser." Naruto's mumbled voice cut through my thoughts like butter and my head turned on instinct even as I silently thanked him for the interruption, my thoughts had begun to wander into places I'd rather not dwell on.
My blond friend was actually not immediately visible. I knew he was there because I'd heard him, but it still took a good minute or two before I saw the rope platform and recognized that Naruto was the one cleaning on it. Both he and Iruka were on the next head over, Iruka sitting cross-legged on the top while Naruto scrubbed below.
"You're not going home until you clean off every single drop of paint!" Iruka called, loud and firm. It was clear that he meant what he said and that he fully intended to make sure it happened.
Naruto might have stiffened at that but I couldn't tell for sure. I was a bit away, the only way I could hear them at all was due to the fact that both were rather loud. I stood up the moment Naruto looked up, the picture of a defiant brat, and shouted:
"So what! It's not like there's anyone waiting at home for me!"
Oh really, Naruto? Now I resent that.
Iruka went quiet, long enough for Naruto to nearly scrub off all of the garish yellow swirl. By the time he spoke again, I'd already made the trek over to their Hokage Head and positioned myself behind him. Neither of them saw me, but I wasn't about to interrupt. Even I recognized that Naruto needed to bond with people outside of Akio and myself.
"What do you want now, Sensei?" Naruto's voice was snarky and rude. I couldn't see his face now, but oh could I imagine. Naruto's face was an expressive one.
"Well. . . I was thinking." Iruka tapped his chin thoughtfully. "Maybe after you clean this all up, I could take you out for some Ramen. The good stuff. What do you think?"
At the proposition I suddenly found myself feeling insanely sorry for Naruto's sensei. He obviously didn't know Naruto very well if he thought he'd make it out of that offer with an empty wallet. Maybe I should help him out?
Hmmm. . . Nah. No, Naruto needs his 'bonding' time.
And if not wanting Naruto's food budget to erase this month's allowance was the reason I soon found myself getting the hell out of dodge? Well, then call me a bad person. It wasn't like I was leaving him in bad hands, Iruka was more than capable of handling what Naruto could dish out.
Not that that stopped me from smiling evilly when I heard Naruto's declaration of: "Now that's some serious motivation! I'll have this clean in no time!"
Akio was already at Naruto's swing by the time I'd heard the news. He waited patiently for me to catch my breath and then patted the ground next to him. Despite the swing being empty, neither of us used it, not for any real reason really, just for the fact that it's always been 'Naruto's Swing'.
"Have you seen him yet?" I asked, still somewhat breathless. I had been at the training fields when I'd heard some of the girls in our year gossiping about it.
"No, I think he's already gone." Akio shook his head sadly. "I really thought that this would be the year. Poor Naruto."
"Yeah, so did I. . ." I was in shock, to be honest. This was the one series event that I'd been 100% positive would happen. Naruto would graduate this year, along with Sakura, Sasuke, and the rest of the rookies. The only damper to that plan was of course that. . . well, he didn't.
What went wrong? Had I somehow prevented Naruto from being a ninja?
"Should we go find him?" I asked. Akio shook his head.
"No. Naruto just needs time. He's strong."
That was familiar. Akio had said it before, last year on the day that I had first met Gai's team. I'd taken it for face value then because I'd been so certain he'd graduate now. Only now I was seriously being thrown for a loop.
"Hey, you know those goggles you got him for his birthday a couple years back?" Akio suddenly asked.
"Yeah?" And how did that relate to our conversation? "What about them?"
"Well, I think Naruto's going to replace them with his Headband whenever he gets it. We should get him another gift."
I frowned. He was going to replace the goggles? I'd spent good money buying him those. Selfish thoughts aside though, I could see where Akio was going. A gift would show him that effort could be awarded too, it wasn't always about passing when you tried your best.
"How 'bout a bra?" I chimed in, giggling at how fast the word 'bra' could redden Akio's face. "He'll need one if he gets any better at that jutsu."
"W-what? No! I didn't mean we should get him a . . . What I meant was. . ." He stopped and sent me a glare that would have been much more threatening had the 'tomato' affect not been present. "You do that on purpose, don't you?"
Do what? Purposefully say things that make you blush? What can I say? It's my biggest guilty pleasure.
I grinned a large, wicked, grin. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Oh, yes you do. You act all sweet and shy but secretly you're all evil."
"Alert the Hokage, I'm the next biggest threat."
"Oh shut up."
He tried to look angry, he really did, but Akio will forever look like an injured puppy and nothing more. It didn't help that when I cracked up and started laughing, Akio was right there with me. Pretty soon we were both in hysterics on the grass.
"So what do you say we go shopping?" I finally asked after both of us had calmed down. Somewhere amidst our little laughing fit, both of us had ended up splayed out on the ground. Akio had somehow ended up facing the other direction as well, so his foot was awfully close to my eye.
"Now?" My friend sat up and gave me a look. "I meant later, maybe tomorrow. I have no idea what he even wants!"
"So. . . you were going to ask him?" Now was my turn to sit up. "Akio! That's not the spirit of a gift! He should be surprised!"
"Well if you're so smart, what's your idea?"
Standing up, I basically dragged Akio up with me. "My idea." I said as I all but marched him out of the school yard. He groaned and I knew he recognized the district we were heading towards. "Is to go shopping!"
For all my level headedness, I was still a girl and Akio knew what the word 'shopping' would do to me just as much as we knew what 'ramen' would do to Naruto. Not that 'shopping' necessarily translated to girly things, mind you. I had once dragged both Naruto and Akio into a merchant market to look at some odd tribal masks that the vendor had sworn came from the Land of Rainforests.
Granted, it had been Naruto to mention it to me, but I'd been hooked ever since.
Perhaps it stemmed from me being a reincarnated interdimensial traveler, but I'd always been a sucker for the weird. It was probably the reason I'd adjusted to having Gai as a father so quickly.
It was also the reason that my room, once filled with a strange mash up of baby furniture, now had an odd collection of knickknacks on every shelf.
"Now," I said to Akio as we entered our fifth store that day. I ignored his beeline for the sitting stool. "What screams 'I can be the greatest ninja'?"
Akio sighed and looked around at the various boxes. This store was actually a classic game store, and one of my all-time favorites for introducing me to the Japanese puzzle-box. The area where Akio was had open games spread out along several tables as it was where the owners allowed customers to 'test' their games.
"Why are we in a game store?" He asked after a long minute. My guess is that he had already tried and failed to see how this store fit into the Ninja category. He poked the Shogi board in front of him. "Is he going to challenge the bad guys to a friendly match or just throw the board at their heads?"
I sat across from him and set up my side of the pieces, half because it was their and half because I could sense that Akio needed a break. "You're forgetting that he's not a ninja. I thought this might encourage him to strategize."
"Naruto's as likely to strategize as he is to become a fisherman in Wave Country."
Besides my chuckle at Akio's remark, all was silent for a good ten or so more minutes as we silently engaged in a game of Shogi. Akio wasn't the best player, to be honest, and it was somewhat obvious how rarely he actually played. While I wasn't particularly good myself, it was almost painfully easy to beat him.
"Hmm, you play by the book. Good, but too nervous to drop the textbook plays to take risks."
I'll admit it, I jumped, as did Akio and we both turned together to stare at the random, bearded, smoking stranger behind me. The man, so obviously a ninja, had literally appeared out of thin air. He motioned to Akio's side of the board.
Akio blinked before nodding slowly. Switching seats, the stranger sat in front of me and began setting up his side of the board. After a moment of stunned silence, I slowly followed suit. The situation was strange, even for me, and I honestly had no idea what was going on.
Did I know this man? He looked familiar, like who he was was just on the forefront of my memory. Was he one of Gai's friends?
"Uh. . . what are you. . ."
He cut me off by capturing one of my pieces, then another, and then one more. I stared. Whoever he was, he was leagues better at Shogi. After a moment, he pointed at one of my pieces.
"By using that knight, you can capture this," He pointed to one of his Lances, "and this." He pointed to a paw. "But by doing so you'd open the piece to being captured by me. The question is: 'is a play that gains you two pieces, worth the death of one'?"
I blinked. Was he even still talking about Shogi? Why the sudden interest in my playing style anyway? "Do I know you?"
"Eh, no, not really. I'm a friend of your dad's. When I saw you and your friend playing I couldn't help myself and decided to give some friendly pointers. Shogi's a bit of a hobby of mine."
He held out a hand and smiled around his cigarette. "Name's Sarutobi Asuma."
I swear my eyes nearly bugged straight out of my skull. The Asuma? As in Team Ten's Asuma?
After a good few minutes of flabbergasted silence, Asuma sighed. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, he seemed to take my stunned staring as something else entirely.
"Ok, you can say it. What has your dad said about me?"
My dad? Did he think that Gai gossiped about him? I almost chuckled. Gai didn't gossip. Follow Kakashi around to challenge him daily, yes. Hug the living daylights out of me, yeah he did that. But gossip, no, that was what Gai would call 'unyouthful'.
Reaching out I shook Asuma's hand in a delayed shake. "No, it's nothing like that. I just recognized your surname and was surprised. It's nice to meet you, my name is Maito Kaori."
Asuma sighed. "The surname huh? Why am I not surprised?" He sounded resigned.
A bell began to ring, not in the shop, but outside it, on the street. We all looked up and I know that we all recognized it as one of the messenger bells that Konoha used to communicate with the shinobi. Unfortunately that's where the group sync ended, as while Akio and I hadn't learnt the bell meanings yet, Asuma probably had them memorized.
He stood up quickly, much quicker than what I had once thought was humanly possible. "Well I'm afraid that's my cue. Sorry to cut this short."
We both replied with something along the line of 'it's alright' but he didn't wait around to hear it. Five seconds later and the strange smoking, extremely important series character ninja was gone, just like that.
I caught one of the leaves that he had left behind and wondered what was so important that the village needed to use the bells. They were, after all, mainly used for the mass calling of shinobi. If the village had only wanted one, they'd have used the messenger hawks.
"We should probably head home." Akio said after a long while. He shot a nervous look out the window and I noticed for the first time that it had grown rather dark. "It could be serious."
"Yeah, you're right. We can get Naruto something tomorrow."
We stood up, left the shop and headed down the street. After another long silence Akio said: "Hey, you don't think this has anything to do with Naruto, do you?"
I paused and, though I wanted to say no, there was something there in the back of my mind, something that said exactly what Akio had just asked. Had Naruto done something to warrant a full Jounin call of Konoha? Had he in the series?
I couldn't remember, not for the life of me. Those memories were just so long ago.
"Well if he is," I said. "Let's hope it's nothing too big."