Author's Note: Yo! Next chapter lined up for you all. Hope you enjoy it. :)


NARUTO

Drifting

Homecoming

Flashback…

Many, many, many centuries ago…

Eye twitching as he sat comfortably on top of a fallen tree log, the raven haired Muramasa could be seen glaring at what could only be described as a mountain range.

On the contrary, it wasn't a mountain range at all.

A mountain range or mountain belt was defined as a geographic area containing numerous geological related edifices. They were usually segmented by highlands, passes or valleys, and consisted of a mixture of different orogenic expressions and terrains. Considering what was known about these land formations and what little harm they presented, it seemed unreasonable to think why the man would be staring in contempt at the folds of rock.

There was just one thing that was bugging him about this particular collection of blocks and sheets.

Mountains didn't have scales…

Nor did they move.

Draped over the snow topped peaks, its tail stretching toward one vanishing point and its head blocking out the other and nestled comfortably in the gap between two of the mountains, an enormous lizard, very dinosaur-like in appearance, with rough, bumpy, charcoal colored scales, and leaf shaped scutes of the same color running up and down its back, could be seen using the collection of massive rocks as its bed. With its enormous jaws closed and golden eyes piercing the cloud cover rolling over it, the entity was nothing short of imposing. Seeing as how it was even bigger than the mountain ranges its body was currently wrapped around, there was no doubt that it was an incredibly impressive sight. Hell, even terrifying.

Muramasa however was neither impressed nor terrified. In fact, he was quite the opposite.

While drumming his fingers against his knee, the purple robed man was just getting into his staring contest with the beast when an amused chuckle and a shadow interrupted his state of brooding.

"You keep staring at him like that and he might just take a snap at you," the voice of Goro Masamune exclaimed when he stepped onto the same precipice his friend was sitting on. Stopping beside the log, the famed, blonde sword smith beamed down at the raven haired one who spared a momentary nod toward him before glaring back at the entity many kilometers away. "What are you doing all the way up here?"

"What does it look like?" Sengo asked while motioning his hand across the horizon, "I needed some inspiration for the sword I'll be making to compete against you so I decided to come out here and take in the sights."

A low murmur escaped the cheerful man's throat. "I see," Goro nodded, at the same time directing a smile at his friend.

"Only problem is; this lazy son of a bitch decided to sit his ass right down in front of my pristine landscape," Muramasa continued, narrowing his eyes on the titan of a dinosaur, whose breathing could be heard echoing all around like a giant bellow, amplified by a howling of the wind. It was like the very planet itself was speaking, when in fact it was the giant lizard breathing at an even pace. "He's ruining a perfectly good countryside."

After a moment of staring the gargantuan reptile down, a creature that was even bigger than any full-grown Shinju they'd ever seen, Muramasa eventually became fed up of waiting. Giving a loud snarl, the sword maker rose to his feet, stomped forward, and shouted at the top of his lungs.

"OI! GET OUT OF HERE, YOU!" the man roared, waving his hands at the lizard and seeing the creature tilt its head, "YOUR FAT HIDE IS BLOCKING THE SCENERY! GO ON! SHOO!"

His voice echoing across the valleys and easily reaching the mountains, Muramasa waited for a response from the dinosaur. For the next minute the two men remained silent, watching from their spot as birds circled the creature and their cries echoed back towards them. Then, once all the ambient noise had come and gone, and the swordsman's threat had been established, all the reptile did was yawn, stretch, and roll over, turning its back to the insignificant speck shouting at him. The mere movement of the creature caused a 6.0 magnitude earthquake to reverberate across the country.

Needless to say, Muramasa was pissed.

Hair bristling, the man began waving his arms about hysterically, despite seeing the dinosaur cause one of the mountains next to him to crumble to the ground like a sandcastle on the beach, "HEY! ARE YOU LISTENING TO ME, YOU STUPID LIZARD?! MOVE YOUR ASS!"

"Don't scream at it, Sengo," Masamune laughed, reaching out and gently patting the man on the shoulder to calm him down. "You'll only wear out your voice box."

Slumping forward and sighing in defeat, Muramasa backed away from the cliff and collapsed back on top of his log. He then dropped his face into his hands and shook his head, "Ugh… I give up. It's not happening. Look at him!" Holding a hand out to the region-sized lizard, the two men saw its back rise and fall over and over as it continued to snore away, "Lazy, good-for-nothing, kaiju."

"Hey. Now be nice," the blonde man said, slapping his friend in the shoulder and planting himself right next to him on the space available. Once he got his fellow sword maker's attention, Masamune then directed his gaze back toward the antagonist in question, "This is his world just as much as it is ours. In fact, you could even say he's the guardian of this world and the previous one."

At that, Sengo sulked. "Mmm… well, couldn't he serve his role as guardian someplace else?"

Finding amusement in his companion's misery, Masamune breathed out and sat up straighter, choosing to admire the countryside just as his friend had been prior to discovering the beast. Since they were still stuck on the topic of course, the part-time gardener decided to use the entity as the topic's starting point. "It's been a while since I last saw the Hakai no Kami (God of Destruction) in broad daylight. After more than a decade of silence, he's finally decided to show his face again."

"Yeah. But where has he been hiding this entire time?" Muramasa asked with a smile tugging at his lips, "Surely he hasn't been sleeping inside of canyons and mountain ranges for the past ten or so years. These ones don't even come close to concealing him." Considering his body was as big as the tallest peaks backed up the man's analysis.

In all honesty, it was a question he really wanted to have answered.

Goro chuckled while glancing across at his friend, "His kind once inhabited this world millions of years ago, way before the time the first humans ever set foot on this planet. Back then the air was unbreathable and the entire land was completely eradiated; a world where humans and modern day Gods would never be able to survive. I'm sure after centuries of roaming the plains and hunting on its home turf, he and his kind have had plenty of time to develop their sneaking skills." That thought alone was pretty hilarious, considering they were talking about the dinosaur. Even so, not a single chuckle came from either of the men. "But now, just like many other creatures like it, they all died out when the natural surface of the planet changed. For all we know, he's now the very last of that bygone era."

Especially in days like these.

Spirits could no longer be seen walking amongst the living, dimensions to other worlds were closing up, plants and animals that would've been considered sacred to the benevolent entities of the planet were disappearing, the Shinju were dying out, and even more creatures of the ancient world were now practically nonexistent.

"A remnant of the prehistoric world," Muramasa murmured, his eyes scanning the back of the reptile. "Now there's something to think about."

"Just like the Shinju, he is a force of nature; an alpha predator and one of the last of the true Gods… an honest to goodness, capricious entity. You could even say he keeps the balance of power on this plain, always ready to step in should the world suddenly fall into chaos and disarray," Masamune informed with a smile, "I'm willing to bet his kind once used to feed on Shinju by the branch-full when there were more of them around. Now he just lazes around all day absorbing the energy from the sun, sky and ground."

"Pft. Lazy bum. He can't even be bothered to open his own mouth to eat," Muramasa remarked while continuing to rest his chin on his hand, "A God of his time; one that no human deity could ever hope to compare to. Still… I wonder what this place was really like before the first humans ever set foot on it."

"It was probably much different than what this world is today, I'm sure," Masamune chuckled, reaching over and patting the swordsman on the shoulder. "Time's constantly shifting, always moving forward, and with every era that passes us by, a new world is created in its stead. The age of the Gods is quickly coming to an end… and very soon, it will be humanity's turn to take charge. They're both part of an ever-changing system that neither you nor I could ever hope to control. It is beyond anyone's understanding."

At this, Sengo looked across at his friend with a wry smile, "You know, when you talk all philosophical like that… you really do cause the mood to oscillate, somewhat."

"Oh? Really?" Laughing nervously while scratching his head, the blonde haired sword smith looked ahead of him again and grinned. "Heh. Guess I'm still a bit of a hopeless romantic, huh?"

Seeing his friend react in this manner brought a snicker from the dark haired swordsman next to him, "The craziest one I know." Nudging him in the side and getting the blonde to calm down, the pair shared one last look before turning back to the mountains ahead.

As they sat, peace settled in.

"Oh. Have you heard? High Priestess Miroku and High Priest Moryu have volunteered to judge our sword competition coming up in the next month. They're also bringing little Princess Kaguya Otsutsuki along with them."

"Really?" Sengo chuckled. "They're still babysitting that little ankle-biter?"

"Well… she is fifteen… and an adventurous little tike at that. She dreams of becoming a great ruler some day."

"You can say that again." Muramasa then grinned. "I guess we should give her a good show then, eh?"

"Of course."

From their spots, the pair continued to admire the landscape, sitting in tranquil silence while the enormous lizard, the primordial God of the old world, continued to snore away, its form draped across the horizon.

What a wonderful world they lived in…

End Flashback…

OOO

Present…

The very next morning…

Rolling over when he felt the sun gnawing at his eyes, the shinobi nation's most obscure hero and adventurer gave a low, tired groan as he slowly awoke to the confines of his sleeping chambers.

Vision hazy, the boy lying underneath the covers pursed his lips before squinting his eyes thoughtfully, "Another vision, huh?"

He'd been getting quite a lot of those lately; visions of a past that predated shinobi by hundreds of years to the earliest known days of the samurai.

It must be a byproduct of Crow's Sword being unsealed in his battle with Moryu. Weird.

He could have sworn he heard that demon's name mentioned again in his dream.

Must be an old relative or something?

The chorus of birds outside his window rousing him from his reverie, Naruto allowed himself a moment to adjust to the light bathing his room and stretched. Arching his back ever so slightly, he then decided to get a few more minutes of downtime and turned over, only for his hand to suddenly land against something plush and smooth.

The sensation of his fingers resting on the strange surface gave the jinchuriki a moment of pause, which then prompted him to look across to see what it was and give a testing squeeze. A moan being elicited from the surface, Naruto was then jumpstarted from his confused state when he realized his hand had landed on Koyuki's chest. The raven haired movie star, draped by the covers of his bed and wearing red laced, transparent lingerie that left little to the imagination, could be seen sleeping peacefully by his side with the cutest, most serene expression on her face.

Quickly moving out of reach when he realized who it was he'd been groping, the blonde froze in place and fixed his gaze upon the snoozing princess, whom had once again somehow managed to sneak into his room in the middle of the night.

Entranced by her radiance, Naruto slowly brought his hand back down and used his finger to gently brush some stray hairs out of her face. His gesture causing her to 'mew' in delight, the young Jonin smiled and, after sitting up and looking over to see if he could adjust his position, spotted yet another familiar face lying next to him.

Her arms draped over him and her silky blonde hair fanned out across her pillow, the angelic form of Shion, the ruler of Oni no Kuni, could be seen lying in the exact same proximity of the jinchuriki as Koyuki was. Also completely covered by sheets and wearing a similar, risqué lingerie, but with pink lace as opposed to red, the girl was sound asleep and curled up against the warmth of the Jonin in an almost possessive manner.

Blinking as his mind slowly processed the situation, Naruto glanced between the two young women quietly, at the same time brushing the stray hairs out of the priestess's face. Smiling gently when he drank in the sight of the two beautiful young women curled up on either side of him, the blonde then came to the realization that a hasty retreat was in order and slowly started to crawl out from between the girls. But before he could even get a few feet away, his wrists were unexpectedly grabbed from both sides and he was pulled back down into his bed, which he hit with a light 'oof'.

"Oh, no you don't," the amused voice of Koyuki spoke up.

"You're not going anywhere, Naruto-kun," Shion also whispered, her voice carrying the same sensuous tone as her compatriot's.

Laughing a little when he felt the young women place their hands on top of his chest and anchor him to the spot, the jinchuriki shook his head, "Now girls… we talked about this. I said that this was going to be my last night here in Haru no Kuni working under Koyuki-chan and as per the terms of our agreement, I'll be returning to my village to continue working as a shinobi of Konohagakure."

Murmuring disappointedly as she huddled up to the boy and pressed her ample chest into his arm, Koyuki ran a delicate finger up his pectorals before dragging it down to rest on his abs. "Mm… what if I don't want you to leave?"

"Unfortunately, I can't help that," Naruto said while grinning across at his partner of three years. "Nor can I help the hundred other times you've snuck into my room to sleep with me."

Giggling as she stared at the dashing young man, the movie star then began massaging his muscles, "You know… you could stay. I can send a memo to your Hokage and ask him to extend your contract; make you a permanent resident of my kingdom. You'd still be able to operate under the banner of your village, so you won't have to run the risk of becoming a missing ninja, but you'll be able to remain here in the country." When she said this, Shion also shimmied closer to the Jonin and crawled on top of him.

Smiling sadly back at the actress-slash-daimyo, the jinchuriki shook his head, "I would love to, Koyuki-chan. But I've still got a lot of things I need to take care of back home." This answer drawing a shimmer from the princess's gorgeous eyes, Naruto turned to glance at Shion, who he saw also had the same look of forlorn reflected in her gaze. Upon acknowledging them, he looked back at his partner in cinema. "Plus… I made a promise…"

The ruler of the Land of Spring smiled, "I know."

Sharing an intimate moment with the movie star, Naruto then turned to Shion, whom he could see was beaming right back at him. When his eyes landed on her, the girl blushed slightly, and leaned in to rest her head against his chest.

Listening to his heartbeat, the priestess sighed, "You will come back… won't you?"

The jinchuriki nodded, "I promise."

"Cross your heart?" Shion whispered.

"And hope to die," Naruto finished, backing up his words with the signature gesture to coincide with his statement.

And to the girls, when the Jonin made a promise to them, he kept it. His words were more than enough for him to convince them, which prompted Koyuki to rest her head in the crook of his neck and Shion to press her cheek into his chest. From there, the trio remained motionless, enjoying the warmth of each other's bodies and at the same time inching in closer to one another. While Naruto couldn't do much but remain sandwiched between the two, the two princesses grabbed whatever they could of the young man and kept him in station, not wanting to let him go and at the same time not wanting him to leave so easily.

After yet another hour of just lying there and enjoying the peace and serenity of their room, the jinchuriki decided it was time to move. After getting feeling back into his legs, the girls made sure to shift so as to allow him the space he needed to clamber out of bed and onto the hardwood floor. Observing with interest as the young man stood, clad in a pair of tight black trunks that accentuated every delicious curve of his lower body, the princesses then watched while discreetly licking their lips as he strolled across his bedroom space.

As he was the princess's bodyguard and her most trusted advisor, his room was directly opposite to Koyuki's and bore similar furnishings and royalty features that the ruler had in her domain. His chamber, though wide and decorated with the luxuries belonging to a man of high standing, was practically a deluxe five-star suite, complete with a balcony and king-sized bed, the latter of which had allowed the girls easy access to their favorite hero.

Arriving at his bathroom door and cranking it open, Naruto was about to step in to take a much needed shower. But then, sensing something off in the air, the blonde then stopped and stared ahead of him for several seconds. After which, he then looked across at the girls sitting on his bed, whom he could see were staring hungrily back at him. "Was one of you grabbing my ass while I was sleeping?"

Having the common courtesy to look sheepish, Koyuki looked away, "May~be."

When Naruto looked at Shion, he saw a similar look of mischief cross her expression, one that was topped by a sudden shade of red in her cheeks.

Shaking his head at the pair, the jinchuriki eventually entered his bathroom and started the shower while at the same time leaving the door wide open behind him. Taking that as a sort of invite, Koyuki and Shion tiptoed over to try and sneak a peek at the hunk of a shinobi, but were disappointed when, after a minute of being hidden behind a cloud of steam, stepped out of the large cubicle with a towel wrapped tightly around his waist. Though they were given a fantastic view of his bare upper body, the pair had obviously seen plenty of that already and wanted more from him.

Unfortunately, Naruto was inclined to keep that bit a surprise. As honest as it was, it still irked the girls somewhat, even when they watched him leave the bathroom and begin dressing.

After throwing on his new, trademark orange uniform and headband, leaving his jacket unzipped and his chest exposed to the air, Naruto saw Shion looking across at him from his bed while Koyuki stood beside it with her arms folded. Noting the smirk on the nation ruler's face and the pout on the priestess's, he then saw the latter smile and lay herself out further over his disheveled covers.

"Even though I'm just visiting this country, I always enjoy the time I get to spend with you here, Naruto-kun," Shion chirped, her face expressing a sense of longing and fondness for the Jonin now slipping his sandals on.

"Same here," Koyuki also spoke, voicing her attachment to the jinchuriki with a similar look of affection in play.

"Yeah," Naruto nodded, at the same time gazing intently at the young women, who were now adorned in loosely fitted sleeping kimonos. "I'm really going to miss you two. I'll be sure to stop by whenever I can and send you letters to let you know how I'm doing."

"You'd better," Shion said firmly. "It'll get really boring around the castle without you sneaking about the hallways."

The jinchuriki chuckled, "You think I'd ever forget about you two? Not a chance in hell."

Smile practically glowing at this point, Shion sat up on the bed and gave the boy her brightest visage yet. "You'll… come visit me when you're ready, right, Naruto-kun? I don't believe that you're the kind of person who would make empty assurances to the people you care about?" The look in her eyes ensured that the Jonin understood everything she was asking of him, which elicited a grin from the spiky-haired male now decked out and ready for his return trip home.

"I promised you that I would… and I intend to live up to that promise," Naruto said, walking across the floor to his bed and gently cupping the ruler's face. "Count on it." Feeling her respond to it in kind, the Jonin exchanged a long, quiet stare with the priestess, before suddenly straightening up and walking over to the exit of his room.

When the two women saw him stand beside the door and stare at the handle for a moment or two, they then saw him open it, revealing an intently listening Jiraiya behind it.

Having arrived much earlier that morning, the Sannin had spent the better part of the past hour listening to the trio's conversation. Pushing his ear flat up against the door's surface, the man had continued to eavesdrop on them to the point the door was suddenly opened. When his support swung away, the white haired shinobi fell over, hitting the ground with a hilarious thud. This drew an amused grin from his student, who then shook his head at the legendary ninja.

"What are you doing, Ero-Sennin?" Naruto asked.

Face planted on the floor, the Sannin pursed his lips, "What does it look like I'm doing, gaki?"

"Spying… or peeping… one of the above," the jinchuriki responded while placing his hands on his hips. "I mean, seriously. Trying to scrounge new material for your book from a sixteen year old? That's pretty lame for somebody of your stature, don't you think?"

Letting out a hearty laugh, the big man sat up on the floor and smirked at his still young and lively prodigy, "I'm just looking out for my number one student, is all. Making sure that he's fit, healthy, and 'socially active' is one of the many responsibilities of a master and teacher. There's no harm in checking in on you every once in a while, is there?"

"Not unless you start intruding on his private life," the boy said with a deadpanned look.

This had Jiraiya wave at him dismissively, "Ah. Privacy is overrated."

"Says the man who treats the hot springs like an open bar."

Seeing his student roll his eyes had Jiraiya chuckle before his gaze was then shifted over to Koyuki and Shion. When his gaze fell upon the young women adorned in only kimonos and looking mighty fine in the early morning light, a mischievous grin then formed on the Sannin's face. The giggle he gave next had the two nation rulers cross their arms and legs, prompting the two of them to make sure that their robes covered everything before the man started to scan them from head to toe.

"Why… hello there," the white haired ninja spoke, only to then have the top of his head grabbed and forcefully turned back to his student.

Once the hermit's eyes panned up, Naruto gave his teacher his most menacing scowl yet and tightened his grip on the elder's cranium, "Don't even think about, Ero-Sennin."

Hearing the warning tone in the young Jonin's voice and feeling the increasing pressure on his skull caused the Sannin to pout childishly, "Aww… but I want to see a pretty girl."

"Not here," the jinchuriki hissed while nodding to the princesses, "These two are off limits."

Sulking under the blonde's glare, Jiraiya folded his arms and turned to look out the open door, "Party pooper."

Even though it was just friendly banter, seeing the blonde manhandle his master of three years counting brought warm smiles to the faces of the young women watching him from the sidelines. They were grateful he was there to lay down the law when it was needed most and after dealing with the antics of the perverted hermit, the Jonin then went about the task of packing for his long trip home. Without a moment to spare, the blonde started rummaging through his closets for his things and began stuffing them all inside of his travel bag. Since he'd taken the liberty of sorting through and storing all of his heavier and more noticeable items inside of scrolls months prior, it made the chore of loading up his backpack less troublesome. Not to mention it was convenient since he had a lot of treasures and souvenirs to take with him.

He also had many other things of importance stashed away, the locations of which would remain enclosed with him until further notice.

Upon packing all he needed, Naruto then joined Koyuki and Shion for breakfast, with Jiraiya escorting them down to the hall but making sure to keep his distance. Since he was aware that this would be the last time they'd be seeing each other for some time, he respectfully gave his student and the princesses all the space that they needed in order to enjoy one another's company. Needless to say, thanks to this considerate move, the meals for that morning were a great joy for all those involved. But like they say, all good things must come to an end, and they did. In the next couple of hours, Naruto soon found himself standing outside the palace gates bidding farewell to all those people he'd come to know in his stay at the palace.

Not only were the director and DOP, Akira and Hideo, there to see him off, but so were the girls.

Jiraiya stood by the side of the road and watched on with a proud smile as Naruto bade farewell to Shion, embracing her and giving her a searing kiss. When the pair eventually separated after several breathtaking moments, the priestess, now fully dressed in her signature, shrine-maiden robes, reached up with a hand and gently placed it against his cheek. The jinchuriki responded to this familiar gesture of affection willingly, and placed his hand over hers.

"I'll be seeing you soon," Shion whispered to him.

Answering in kind, Naruto nodded, "Yeah. Count on it."

Fond goodbye shared, the Jonin then moved over to Koyuki. Standing beside the priestess and looking on dotingly, the movie star and country ruler gave the young man whom she'd known for all these years a beaming smile. It was an expression that was enthusiastically shared by the jinchuriki. Eyes shimmering and cheeks warm, the princess reached up and gently ran her fingers over his whiskers. Her actions eliciting a chuckle from her boyfriend, Koyuki exhaled contentedly.

"My champion…" the actress whispered to him, at the same time expressing her most heartfelt fondness for the spiky haired shinobi.

Naruto smiled, "Princess."

Eyes sparkling, Koyuki leaned up and kissed him tenderly. To them it was short and sweet, but their kiss lasted just as long as the one the Jonin shared with the priestess before him and when they parted, the nation ruler's cheeks were glowing. Running her hand one last time down to the man's chin, she stepped away and nodded.

"Don't be a stranger now, Naruto-kun."

The jinchuriki chuckled, "I'll be back before you know it." Shifting his pack further up his shoulder and resting a hand over the handle of his katana, his most loyal partner, the shinobi stepped away, "Until then… hold the fort."

Koyuki snickered at his request, before then giving the young man a wave as he bade goodbye to her, Shion, and the crew standing behind them. When he backed up to where Jiraiya was waiting for him on the road leading out of the palace, the two turned in sync and began to march. The jinchuriki made sure to wave one last time before the two princesses and the castle shrank away into the distance. Once it did, he and his master focused their attention on the road ahead and continued on walking, leaving the village sometime later via its main highway.

"Looking forward to seeing home, kid?" Jiraiya asked as he moved in step with his student, who'd grown enough to match the pace of any adult he knew. "After all this time hanging out in Haru no Kuni and everywhere else, you must be pretty stoked."

"You bet I am," the jinchuriki answered with his characteristic smile, "It's been three years since I last saw the village. I just hope not much has changed while I was gone."

"Oh, I'm sure you'll be surprised," the Sannin said, chuckling at the young man's tone and words.

It was funny. Even though the kid had grown a lot on the outside, there was still a lot of things that he hadn't grown out of on the inside; namely his enthusiasm. A thousand years could go by and Jiraiya was willing to bet that that aspect about the young man would never change.

"I'm sure your friends have missed you a lot," the legendary ninja added with a momentary glance, "Your roommates especially."

Naruto perked up at that and whistled inwardly, "Yeah. Damn. I wonder how much everyone has grown in the last three years." He'd seen how much Temari and Samui had grown since the last time they'd seen each other. The way they'd remodeled their appearances had come as a really pleasant surprise to him.

After three years of being away from the hidden leaf, he was certain everyone he knew, including his friends and teammates, had all gone through a whole lot of changes. And not just on the outside either.

"Tayuya-chan, Sakura-chan, Sasuke, Isaribi-chan, Kin-chan… I bet they've all been training their asses off and gone on tons of missions together," Naruto said while slipping his hands into his jacket pockets. "Man… I can't wait."

Looking down at his shorter counterpart, the white haired traveler sprouted a grin and shrugged, "Hey, you've been training quite a bit as well, you know. I didn't spend the last three years working on your skills to bring you back no different than when you left. From what I've been able to see, you're on the exact same level of strength and skill as your team leader, Kakashi… maybe even more."

"That remains to be seen," Naruto remarked while clenching his fists tightly. "I plan on collecting on that spar Kakashi-sensei promised me before I left for Yuki no Kuni. Hopefully when we end up throwing down on one of the training grounds the landscape will remain intact this time." He then gave his master a smirk, "Hey. Maybe I can ask the other guys for a spar as well. You know… just for fun."

"Well, we've got a two to three day journey ahead of us, so I'm sure you'll have plenty of time to mentally prepare yourself for your return to the limelight," Jiraiya answered with an amused look in play. "Just make sure you don't go overboard."

"Hey, no problem. I know what I have to do. I just need to be cool, calm, yet daring at the same time. Right sensei?" Naruto asked, seeing his teacher nod affirmatively at his inquiry. Coaching himself and rolling his shoulders, the blonde then sucked it in and slapped both sides of his face to wake his brain. Upon which he took the straps of his bag and began moving along at a more accelerated pace, "Okay. I'm all set. Let's do this!"

"Hey, brat, slow down!" Jiraiya laughed when he saw the young man take off, increasing the distance between them and prompting the larger man to pick up speed as well, "We've still got over a hundred miles to cover. You'll burn yourself out before we even get within two clicks of Konoha."

Though the Sannin highly doubted that his student would tire out so easily, he was more or less concerned about keeling over himself. All he was really doing was trying to save face.

After all, he had a reputation as a legendary ninja to maintain. The last thing he wanted to do was fall out in a stamina match against his student.

XXX

Three days later…

Konohagakure…

"They should be here soon," Tsunade said while gazing across at her former teacher earnestly. "The old goat said he would be popping back into town with the brat sometime today, so I expect we should be seeing them in the next couple of hours… depending on whether or not they've decided to make a pit stop along the road."

Hiruzen, staring out the window with pipe in hand and his hat placed comfortably atop his head, gave a cheerful chortle while at the same time breathing out a puff of smoke, "They'll be here. Unlike myself, I can always count on Jiraiya to make it to the rendezvous point on time."

The blonde haired woman chuckled in amusement, "Really? You have that much faith in him?"

"Give or take a few minutes," the village leader responded while waving his hand dismissively, "But that doesn't change the fact that he's reliable. I expect him and his apprentice to be back within these walls before the day is done."

"If you say so," Tsunade sighed, moving over to the man's desk and boldly planting her posterior on the edge. The Hokage didn't seem to pay her actions any mind as the woman wordlessly reached over and gathered up one of the files lying in the sorted pile. Flipping it open and skimming through it, the blonde cracked another grin and glanced over at him, "You certainly do go through a lot day in and day out, sensei. How's your wrist?"

"I wouldn't crack jokes about my position right now if I were you." Peeking from underneath the rim of his hat, Hiruzen then pointed in her direction with the tip of his pipe, "If you haven't forgotten, I'm not a young man anymore. Any day now the daimyo and his council will be calling on me to find a new successor. Since Jiraiya has repeatedly turned down the position and Kakashi is still a little iffy about the responsibility, the next candidate in line for the post is you, my dear Tsunade."

The medic nin smirked and straightened up where she was sitting, at the same time regarding her grandfather's desk by slapping the closed file on top of it, "And what if I said 'no' too?"

"Then I will convince you to take up the mantel," the Third answered with a smile, "By any means necessary."

"Well… leave a memo with my secretary and I'll get on it as soon as possible," Tsunade said in reference to her loyal apprentice Shizune, while at the same time folding her arms underneath her ample bust and glancing towards the row of Hokage portraits hanging on the wall behind her. Taking them in, her gaze eventually fell upon the First's. "Even if everybody else says you're getting too old for the big seat, I don't think it'll be that much of a problem if you stayed on for another term. I mean… Iwagakure still has Onoki hogging the funny hat and you're no older than he is, so what's the big deal?"

Laughing a little at the woman's mentioning of his gnome, rock-sitting counterpart, the leader of the hidden leaf popped the pipe back between his lips and turned in his seat. Setting his sights on the distant horizon, the man gave another contemplative sigh and laced his fingers on his lap comfortably, "You make a valid point, Tsunade. Still… it would be of great comfort to me to know that I not only have somebody waiting in the wings, but somebody who is worthy of taking on the title of Hokage."

Smiling wryly at the elder's wishful words prompted the blonde medic to look out the window as well. "Perhaps when that kid finally walks in through those front gates, you might actually have another candidate to refer to."

The idea had Hiruzen purse his lips, "We'll see."

OOO

Meanwhile…

Up in Konohagakure's hospital in one of its many offices, a familiar, pink haired kunoichi could be seen digging through some paperwork. Standing by her desk with a clipboard in hand, dressed in a white, short-sleeved kimono blouse with black trim and pink, cherry blossom patterns on it, with a red obi wrapped around her waist that formed a skirt out of the lower half, and clad in a pair of black, figure-hugging spandex shorts, black sandals, black arm guards, a large pouch on her back and bandages wrapped around her legs, the figure revealed herself to be none other than Sakura Haruno.

Her outfit complimenting the curves of a more womanly figure that she'd grown and developed in the past years, the kunoichi was currently hard at work, intent on finishing the work her master wished for her to have sorted before the end of the week. Skimming over the file she currently had opened in front of her with her pen, the girl absently tucked some bangs behind her ear, causing her fingers to brush against her headband. After making sure all of the information was in order, she closed up the documents and stored them away inside the filing cabinet at her feet. Upon which she then moved down to the other end of her desk and checked it off of her list of things to do.

"Work, work, work," Sakura sung to herself. A fond smile framed her face as she once again picked up another batch of sheets and skimmed through them. "Let's see if I can get ahead on the paperwork this time."

Unfortunately, before she could get any further into her material the kunoichi was interrupted by a knock on the door. Responding to the rap, the pink haired apprentice turned to see who it was and received a pleasant surprise in the form of a familiar, reddish-brown haired girl, with a fair face that had a mole under her left eye, wearing a similar, cream colored kimono style tunic, a cyan blue undershirt and dark arm bands.

It took only a moment for Sakura to recognize the tomboyish girl at her door, "Ah. Amaru. What are you doing here?"

"Hey Sakura." The youngster, beaming happily in the direction of the kunoichi, stepped into her office gleefully, "Tsunade-sama sent me down here to relieve you. She said that you can take the rest of the day off."

"Really?" Sakura asked, appearing a bit surprised. When she saw the spirited nod from the girl, who'd obviously taken a shine to her, the older kunoichi sprouted a smile of her own before setting aside the paperwork she had in hand, "Man… that's a relief. And I thought I was going to be stuck doing another batch of these for another few hours." Her master tended to give her and Shizune a lot of stuff to do as their benevolent teacher.

This certainly was an interesting change of pace.

After watching her role model set her work down and start towards her, Amaru couldn't help but burst out with another question, "Is it true that you're being reassigned?"

"Yes," Sakura answered, stopping before her young counterpart and placing her hands on her hips. "My teammate is returning from his three year training excursion, so the Hokage will be bringing back squad seven to tackle the overflow of missions the village has been receiving over the last couple of months."

"Oh. Okay," Amaru chirped, before bringing her hands in front of her and swaying anxiously on the spot. "This is… only a temporary move, yeah?"

"Hm. I'm honestly not sure," Sakura answered with a slight shrug, "But… even if it's only a temporary move; it's common practice for members of the same Genin squad to go on missions together, even after they're promoted. Since they were their first team and all, it makes sense that shinobi are normally assigned to groups with one or both of their original squad members on it, as they've already had a lot of time to develop a strong chemistry with one another. It goes hand in hand with our village's ideals."

"Ah. I see," Amaru responded with an understanding nod and a beaming smile. "Do you… think I'll be able to meet your other teammate when he comes back?"

Sensing the eagerness in her fellow apprentice's voice and seeing the look in her eyes, the pink haired kunoichi gave a light chuckle and nodded back to her. "Yeah. Of course you can. He's always happy to meet new faces."

They still had to wait for him to get back though…

Kami knows how long that would be.

Nevertheless, Sakura had a feeling that it was going to be sometime soon. Ever since they learned he would be strolling in any day now, the entire village had been seemingly waiting for him with baited breath.

Man. Talk about suspense.

OOO

Amaguriama…

Finishing up the last of her dumplings, the seventeen year old girl with long, pinkish-red hair and fair face took the kebab sticks she'd used and promptly discarded them. Tossing them into the nearby trashcan, the young woman in question stood up from the bench she was sitting on outside of the shop and stretched. Pushing her chest out when she extended her arms overhead, she then gave a sigh and waved to the woman she'd been sitting and eating with.

"Well, I've gotta get going now, Anko-sensei," the redhead chirped, at the same time giving a smile to the kunoichi with the signature purple hair and trench coat sitting on the other side of the table with her legs kicked up. "We'll catch up again later."

Blinking in surprise with dabs of syrup smeared across her lips, the older woman swallowed and pointed back at her former apprentice with a smile, "Are you sure you're okay with this, Majo-chan (Enchantress)? Leaving the ANBU division after only three years of service?"

The kunoichi, wearing a very daring outfit consisting of an open, tan jacket with tight black spandex shorts exposing some of her hips, bandages wrapped around her generous chest, with two pouches and a holster on the back of her beltline, a holster on her right leg and black sandals, gave her coat wearing counterpart a smile in return and shook her head. "I think I've had my fill of the dark side of the shinobi world for the time being. Sure, all of that cloak and dagger stuff was really cool at the start, after a while it starts to become a bit of a chore. It's the same dull breakfast every morning from Monday to Friday; a sponge cake with no flavor."

"Heh. And after all we've been through together." Snickering at her student's pretty much summing up her entire ANBU experience, Mitarashi Anko gave a nod of understanding and saluted her, "Though I am disappointed that you're leaving us, I'm in no position to hold you back, nor is it my place to try and stop you. I'm going to miss you, brat."

"You make it sound like this is goodbye forever, sensei," Tayuya snorted, grinning at the look her old master was giving her.

Anko responded by placing her hand over her heart, "It is in here." Throwing the girl a fake puppy-dog look, which the redhead responded to with an unsatisfied expression of her own, the hardnosed, trench coat wearing kunoichi eventually gave up and waved her away, "Ah. Whatever. I'm just being petty. Get out of here you stubborn brat." When she saw Tayuya roll her eyes and turn away, the snake mistress held a dango stick up to her in a characteristic farewell. "If there's anything you need or if there's anything I can do for you, just let me know, okay? Tayuya-chan?"

"Sure thing," the musician replied with a grin.

With one last wave and a courteous nod, the two parted ways. The flute player left the Amaguriama behind and headed on a tour of the village. Having nothing scheduled for today and with no meetings to attend, Tayuya felt like going for a walkabout not just to see what's changed in neighborhoods she hadn't visited for a while, but everything else while she'd been playing the part of somebody else. After all, for the past couple of years she'd adorned the persona of an ANBU operative; somebody who was tasked with the dirty jobs and assignments that other Konoha shinobi were unable to do.

It'd been one hell of an experience and something that the redhead wouldn't have had any problems in continuing. But all that Black Ops work she did meant that she missed out on a lot of things she would've been able to do as Tayuya. There were group meetings she wasn't able to attend and in all her time as an ANBU member, the only people she'd ever had the pleasure of hanging out with were hard cases in masks. Hell, there weren't even that many girls in the corp., just a bunch of statuesque dudes. And even the girls she did end up hanging around with seemed like lost causes.

It came as an apocalyptic relief when she finally put in an application to the Hokage to be transferred back into the regular services and was able to hang out with the girls at her apartment like a normal person once again. While Hiruzen was pleased to have her back and wearing the regular Konoha vest, in a manner of speaking, and congratulated her for a stellar service, she was beside herself.

Needless to say, if she hadn't been missing Naruto before, then she sure as hell was now.

She wanted her boyfriend back! Desperately.

Having been informed that the blonde haired wonder was going to be showing up sometime this week, Tayuya was feeling all restless and clammy. While part of her was excited at finally seeing her man after all this time, another part of her was nervous.

What happened to him after all this time? How much had he changed in the past three years? Sure, she'd seen him acting as another character in the Princess Gale movies since his eyes and whiskers never changed, but he'd used an older, henged version of himself that gave him red hair as opposed to blonde along with all the other cinematic additions at the request of the directors. In every single one of Yukie Fujikaze's projects, Naruto had been buttered up and dressed for every one of his roles. They weren't authentic, nor were they accurate in their representation of him, as with all other media items.

Had he gotten stronger in the time he'd been working with the princess? If so, then how much stronger? Would she even be able to recognize him? Would he be able to recognize her and everybody else? These were the sort of questions that ran rampant through the young woman's mind the moment she heard about his impending return to the village and something that'd been keeping her up for Kami knows how many hours.

"You'd better get back here soon, shithead, or so help me, I'll fucking go up there to the Land of Spring, Snow or whatever the fuck that place is called now and drag you back here myself," Tayuya thought with an excited smile in play.

She'd had three years to mold herself into the woman she was now; stellar service record, kick-ass ninjutsu skills, tight shorts and all the rest. Seriously, the suspense was killing her.

The kunoichi couldn't wait for the blonde to see how she looked now and she couldn't wait to see how he looked either.

Feeling anxious, Tayuya went for a nice march down the main highway, checking out the stalls and shops left and right, while at the same time getting her fill of fresh air. But while she was busy drinking in the sights, a series of footsteps and a child's voice coasted her to an abrupt stop.

"Tayuya-neechan!"

Glancing over her shoulder, the redhead didn't even blink when she saw three familiar faces skid to a stop in front of her. The leader of the pack was a boy with brown spiky hair wearing a green jacket, a long green scarf, brown pants and sandals. The second was a girl with long orange hair tied up into two large pigtails, wearing a sleeveless purple vest over a violet t-shirt and a layered skirt with thigh boots. The third was a boy with brown hair in a bowl cut, wearing a dark jacket, light blue shorts, and spectacles.

Not only did all three look to be around the same age, but they were all wearing Konohagakure headbands as well. But this didn't hold the girl's attention for long as she focused on their beaming faces with a smile.

"Hey, runt," Tayuya chuckled while placing her hands on her hips, "What's up?"

Konohamaru grinned up at the Jonin, "Where are you heading to?"

"Oh. Nowhere in particular. Just decided to go for a walk. Figured I'd shoot the breeze a little," the young kunoichi replied with a smile.

"D-Do you mind if we tag along with you?" Moegi asked with an admiring gaze fixated upon the beautiful girl standing before her.

Chuckling at the enthusiasm the trio was showing, the redhead nodded, "Sure. I could use some company."

Allowing them to form up alongside her, the musician continued on marching, at the same time engaging them in conversation. She asked the troublesome group how their day had been so far, in which Konohamaru, Moegi and Udon began regaling her in their epic chase of the local menace Tora, and how she'd managed to escape from her master once again. It turned out to be one hell of a story on their part, one that took them further into the village as opposed to further out into the woods.

Tayuya mused at how she'd had to go on a mission like that as well and that all of the Rookie Nine at one stage of their careers as Genin had had the pleasure of trying to catch that little rat. She thoroughly enjoyed the small telling as she and the team under Ebisu continued on down the street.

"By the way, have you heard anything from Naruto-niichan yet?" Konohamaru asked the girl.

"Is it true that he'll be coming home soon?" Udon also asked, genuinely curious as to the current whereabouts of the legendary blonde.

Tayuya shook her head, "Aside from his last message, nothing. It's a long damn way from here to Yuki no Kuni, so he's probably still traveling across the country." A smile then crossed her lips as she gazed fondly at the ground. "It shouldn't be too long before he comes strolling through those front gates."

Excited, the redhead then decided to head towards the main entrance to see if she could maybe catch the blonde's return. If she was lucky, perhaps she could surprise him.

Focusing on a straight and narrow path, she, Konohamaru, Moegi and Udon began strolling for the exit. They were in fact so invested in their march and so engaged in conversation that, when they reached a crossroad where they could see clearly down the other roads, they completely missed the sight of a familiar, spiky haired blonde dressed in orange and his imposing, white haired master, walking down the road in the opposite direction a block down to their left.

Several minutes later, the kunoichi and her escort for the day arrived at the main gate. Tayuya stopped dead center of the road and, hands on her hips, faced the world beyond the walls down like an obstacle needing to be overcome. A determined look shining in her eyes, she glanced to her right to see the three Genin accompanying her do the same and stand at arm's length from each other in a single row. Obviously they were just as stoked for their boss's return just as much as the flute player.

"Alright, shithead. Where are you?" Tayuya asked out loud with a smirk on her face.

If there was any time she was ready to see her favorite blonde, it was now.

"Oh, Tayuya. Good morning."

Attention being pulled to their right, the kunoichi and Team Ebisu looked to see the smiling faces of Kotetsu and Izumo beaming across at them. Seeing the familiar Chunin gate guards wave them over from the check-in station, the four walked over to see what was up. While the kids parted, Tayuya approached the service desk and grinned at the two males lounging about behind the counter.

"Hey, fellas. What's shakin'?" the kunoichi asked with an earnest grin.

"Not much," Izumo promptly replied.

"Same old, same old," Kotetsu also answered with a wave of his hand.

The redhead chuckled, "Any weirdoes happen to drop by while you were on duty?"

Looking at each other, the pair of Chunin grinned before looking back at the girl and her team of tagalongs. When they saw the confused stare she sent their way in response to their shared expressions of secrecy, they eventually revealed to her the reason for their current attitudes by answering her in riddle form.

After all, she'd been waiting for three years to hear this news.

"They're back," the man with the bandana said.

Seeing the kunoichi blink encouraged Kotetsu to point down the highway and towards the village. "Go take a look around town for something tall, blonde and orange."

"You're in for one hell of a surprise," Izumo warned with a smile.

"A surprise?" Moegi murmured, scratching her head.

While the three kids looked around at one another inquisitively, Tayuya's eyes widened when she eventually caught onto what Kotetsu and Izumo were saying to her and spun around. Her eyes fixing upon the buildings making up the entirety of Konohagakure, her irises shimmered for the briefest of moments before a grin formed on her face. Her response elicited chuckles from the men in the booth.

"Son of a bitch…"

OOO

Further inside the hidden leaf, after passing over the bridge crossing the main river and following the road for several more blocks, the blonde haired Jonin decided to take a breather. Too excited to sit still yet too fed up to keep walking for any longer, Naruto figured he'd check out how much his 'playground' had changed. Dropping his backpack to the ground, the blonde vanished in an orange flash, his lightning fast movement being followed by his master to the top of the telephone pole.

Needless to say, his student's sudden flight brought a smile to the Sannin's face, "Rambunctious as always."

Reappearing at the top of the pole with his hands in his pockets, the jinchuriki took in a deep breath as the wind whipped through his hair. Jacket ruffling on the breeze in a liberated manner, the young male enthusiastically opened his arms to the sunlight and drank it all in. From corner to corner, he saw the whole of Konohagakure in its daytime splendor, with the Hokage Tower sitting directly in his line of sight and the Monument directly behind that. Hell, after years of living in this village and after three years of being away from it, on the surface it seemed like nothing had changed. But there was still an air about it that told him that there had in fact been many changes, all of which had taken place in his absence.

It was a feeling that brought much joy to his heart.

"Man this takes me back," the blonde exclaimed, throwing his arms out in a stretch, "Oh Konoha… how I've missed you." Beaming across the rooftops from one end of town to the next, Naruto spent the next few minutes taking it all in. The sun beating down from above and lighting up all of the great landmarks and buildings reminded the blonde of all the times he'd spent traversing this amazing landscape.

When he was a kid, this was his field. His jungle. It served as the primary backdrop for the days he lived as a scrappy young shinobi in training, pulling pranks on unsuspecting targets and playing tag with Swift across the skies of the hidden leaf. While these memories had certainly endured with him to this day, molding him into the man he was now, he had long outgrown all of those fun games that often brought trouble to the rest of the world. Today, his eyes were set on other, more important things.

Nevertheless, there was still a small part of him somewhere in the depths of his psyche that desired to cause mischief. Though it was no longer a dominating factor of his personality, it was still a loud enough voice to be heard. He still had the need to explore and he still felt the need to forage.

This was his wild side speaking to him.

"That reminds me… I have to go visit the outer areas and see how the animals are doing," Naruto thought to himself cheerfully. "Oh, I bet the forest has missed me."

Upon making a mental note to drop by the other companions from his earlier years and admiring the horizon for a little while longer, the blonde then felt a tap on his shoulder and looked across to see the familiar, tiny form of Swift perch herself upon his collar. Ruffling her feathers and chirping happily when she found herself in familiar space, a smile gently tugged on the jinchuriki's face. After which, the blonde reached up and gently petted his friend with the knuckle of his finger.

"We're back, girl," the Jonin whispered, earning a whistle from the pocket-sized avian.

When they both turned to admire the scenery once again, with Naruto acknowledging how there hadn't been any additions made to the Monument, he then became aware of a familiar feeling falling over him. This wasn't a bad feeling by any stretch of the imagination. Quite the opposite actually. But the moment his senses perked to the sensation brushing past him like a feather caught on the wind, he then heard a familiar voice call out his name.

It wasn't like he could miss it.

After all, there was only one person who called him this name.

"Shithead!"

Both his and Swift's eyes panning down towards the ground, Naruto received his biggest surprise for that morning in the form of a familiar, pinkish-reddish haired girl looking up at him, hands on her hips and a wicked grin on her face. Even from this height, his eagle-like eyes could see the emotion burning in her brown irises as she stared right back at him.

His heart skipped a beat.

Having stopped at the base of the pole a few feet from Jiraiya and Team Ebisu scattered behind her, when she saw the blonde's gaze fall upon her, Tayuya's expression lit up. "Thought you could sneak past me, huh? When the hell did you get in?"

Smiling when he fully recognized the person staring up at him, Naruto turned to face the kunoichi properly. "Oh. Just now."

Noting the look in her friend's expression, Swift quickly took flight. The moment she did, the jinchuriki vanished in a shunshin and reappeared directly in front of Tayuya. His sudden teleportation meant everyone lost sight of him for a moment, but when they all eventually spotted him a few seconds later, not only did Konohamaru and his friends jump in shock, but the redhead blinked in surprise. This look though was quickly replaced by a smile.

"Whoa," the musician gasped.

"Damn," Naruto exclaimed, his eyes looking the girl from head to toe. After three years of absence and being away from who he regarded as the most precious person in his life, needless to say… he was stunned. "It's so good to see you."

Clearly impressed, the redhead then began pacing around the blonde as he stood in the middle of the road. While Konohamaru, Moegi and Udon admired him from a distance, Tayuya made her appraisal up close, and after walking a few laps around him, nodded her head in approval. "My, my… look who decided to get taller."

While Tayuya was quite tall for her age, about a centimeter higher than Ino, her roommate now stood half a head higher than her. From what she could see, he looked to be the exact same height as Sasuke. That was certainly an accomplishment. But not only was it apparent that he'd grown over the last three years, his style of dress had changed to an orange leather jacket with a darker tone, he had a powerful air about him that only shinobi of serious experience had, and he'd put on some muscle.

Quite a bit of muscle actually, a sight that Tayuya licked her lips at when she stopped in front of the boy and glanced at his exposed chest and stomach. He'd shaped up quite well.

Shaking her head, the kunoichi stepped towards the jinchuriki and threw her arms around his neck, catching him in a hug which he returned gleefully, "Kami. It's so good to see you again." Feeling him chuckle against her, Tayuya slowly relinquished the man and grinned at the good-looking Jonin. "I saw your films. You changed your hair for them."

"Ah. Yeah," the jinchuriki laughed while looking up and absently picking at his yellow bangs, "Among a few other things. At least I didn't have to worry about makeup. You can thank the Henge no Jutsu (Transformation Technique) for that."

Tayuya gave a nod of understanding, "Well… you look nothing like you did in those Princess Gale films." A smirk formed on her face, "This version of you is way better."

Another chuckle came from the blonde, "I thought you'd say that."

Waving her hair out of her face, Tayuya gave the jinchuriki another look over before getting an idea. Stepping back, she struck a rather alluring pose for him and grinned mischievously in his direction, "And… what about me, shithead? Do you think I look different now?"

Seeing the girl stick her chest out a little and accentuate her finer points immediately drew a balk and a blush from the Jonin. While at first Naruto had been able to keep it together in front of his roommate for most of their reunion thus far, it was when she finally pointed her new look out to him that the jinchuriki fully registered to the fact that his girlfriend had, in a few words, grown up.

It wasn't just the aura she was emitting that had changed, but her physical appearance had also matured. With her new hair style, stunning face, flawless skin, long legs, her chest- "Damn. When the hell did she get those?" -she looked absolutely breathtaking.

Jiraiya actually chuckled when he saw his normally confident student stammer in front of the red head. Clearly, after three years of not seeing her and all the changes she had to go through, it had come as a massive shock to him to see her now. His mind just wasn't ready for it.

While his mind was screaming at him all sorts of ways in which to respond, Naruto, trying to keep as cool and as calm as possible, cleared his throat, scratched his cheek bashfully and looked up at the smirking girl once again, "You… look great." Taking a deep breath, he faced her completely, "You look really great. Damn. I can't believe how much you've grown up."

Beaming at his appraisal, the redhead straightened up and sauntered up to him, making sure to emphasize the sway of her hips for the blonde's benefit, "Perhaps I'll be willing to show you how much, if you're interested." When she stopped just an inch from his chest, reached up and tip-toed her fingers up his stomach and sternum to the base of his neck, Naruto stiffened. "And I'm not just talking about jutsu here."

Responding to the seductive look Tayuya was now giving him, the blonde shook himself back into character and gave her his signature, confident smirk, "Well… that all depends on how persuasive you can be." Oh, he wasn't going to be that guy in this situation. Uh-uh. There was no way he was going to show his girlfriend, the one person he knew the most in his life, he'd grown soft.

It was all a matter of principle.

When the two faced each other down determinedly, eyes fixed upon the other and smirks worn on both their faces, a moment of silence fell over the area.

Then, just when it seemed like the confrontation would boil down to a fist fight between them, the kunoichi eventually got bored with the theatrics and, with a huff of frustration, leapt up to her man and smashed her lips against his in a searing kiss. Naruto responded at the exact same time, wrapping his arms around her waist while her leg wrapped around his, quickly turning their playful reunion into one hell of a public display.

While Jiraiya was at first surprised at the sudden attack by the pair, an amused grin formed on his face shortly afterwards as he then proceeded to watch them make out. Giving a sign of approval at his student's reciprocation to his girlfriend's personal greeting, he then pulled out his notebook and began jotting down lines, whereas Konohamaru and his friends blushed to the roots of their hair and gawked. At the same time, the duo's affections became more adult… in a manner of speaking.

Soon enough, almost the entire street was now watching the young couple make up for lost time, both of whom simply brushed off the multiple sets of eyes glued onto them and just enjoyed one another's company.

When they eventually separated, breaths of heated air left their lips as they held one another close.

Once his brain eventually came about and processed all of the feelings that had flooded through him in that moment, Naruto chuckled, "Man. It's been a while, huh?"

"No shit," Tayuya giggled.

"Hey! Naruto-neechan!"

Both turning around when they heard the unmistakable voice of Konohamaru cut in, the pair were suddenly blinded by a cloud of white smoke exploding in front of their faces. When it cleared seconds later, it revealed a completely nude, hot young woman with a curvaceous body and long brown hair fanning out around her, stuck in a perfect centerfold shot. It was a sight that not only bewildered his friend Udon and elicited a sour glare from Moegi; it also had Jiraiya breathe a very bull-like huff and shout a manly exclamation, and had Tayuya raise an eyebrow in surprise.

When the transformed Konohamaru saw the pair look at him in confusion, he accentuated his pose and winked devilishly in their direction. "Well? Watcha think, boss?" the boy asked in a girl's tone, before another puff of smoke filled the air and the Genin hopped out of it looking all excited. "Pretty sexy, huh?"

At first perplexed by the sudden display, Naruto then smiled and shook his head at the young man, while at the same time keeping an arm wrapped around Tayuya's waist, "I see you've grown quite a bit as well, Konohamaru. Good on you." His response earning a blink from the young man, the Jonin then gave him a nod, "You're not a child anymore. That stuff was fun three years ago, but things are different now. I'll meet up with you a little bit later and show you something really cool. Alright?"

This answer causing the youngster to slump forward slightly, the prospect of being shown something awesome still brought a grin to the Genin's face. Konohamaru brightened up and nodded enthusiastically, before being clapped over the head by a punch from Moegi.

"You idiot! Don't ever do that in front of me again!" the orange haired girl snarled.

Whimpering while crouching low to the floor and nursing a throbbing bruise, the leader of the trio looked up at his kunoichi counterpart, "Aww… but Moegi…"

"No buts! Honestly. Don't you have any common sense?" the girl asked him with a twitching eye.

Laughing when he watched the orange haired girl grill her teammate, Naruto once again had his attention pulled away by yet another presence. A gasp filling the air, both he and Tayuya turned to see Sakura Haruno standing off to the side and looking across at them like she'd just seen a ghost.

Eyes reflecting her amazement, the kunoichi gulped and pointed at the jinchuriki, "N-Naruto? Is that you?"

Also expressing a sense of surprise, the jinchuriki smiled when he saw the girl in the kimono tunic and nodded toward her, "Hey, Sakura-chan."

Blinking away her amazement, the female member of Team 7 and apprentice under Tsunade, approached the young man and his girlfriend for a closer look. Stopping a few feet away with a bewildered look on her face, the teen spent the next minute looking the Jonin over in silence and seeing just how much he'd changed, even going so far as to poke him. Taking note of his height, the growth in his body and the mature air she felt coming off of him, the pink haired girl could only say one thing.

"Wow." Her eyes panning back to his face, Sakura took a deep breath, walked up to him and wrapped her arms around him in a hug. Though her action did surprise the jinchuriki, Naruto returned it likewise and when the pair separated, the teen could be seen smiling, "Welcome home."

"Thanks," Naruto replied, grin on his face as he took a moment to look his teammate over. "What's going on with everyone, Sakura-chan? I can barely recognize any of you guys. Even you."

Brushing her hair back, the pink haired girl blushed slightly and smiled at the taller boy, "You think so?"

"Uh-huh," the Jonin said with an enthusiastic head dip, "I can tell you've gotten a lot stronger too… and not just physically. I'd really like to take you on and see what kind of tricks you've learned while I was away." His comment earning a beaming look from the kunoichi, he then rested his arm across his sword and looked between the two girls and Team Ebisu. After acknowledging everyone that was standing around him, he glanced back at the kunoichi in front of him and gestured to them, "Well… it's been three years and I've seen a lot of what the world has to offer. I think it's high time I get filled in on what's been happening around here."

He had a lot to catch up on… and what better way to get informed then by speaking with the two people he considered his girlfriend and best friend respectively.

OOO

Hokage's office…

"It's been a long time, you two," Hiruzen spoke, smiling as he stared across at two of the most famous men in this village, both of whom had taken a long leave of absence from their village. With one standing taller than the rest, with his apprentice, his girlfriend and his teammate lined up alongside him, you could almost paint a picture of how much they'd changed. "I trust your training has produced some good results…"

"Some?" Jiraiya snorted before grinning across at his student, whom could be seen standing right next to him grinning from ear to ear with his hands in his pockets.

"You think I would have traveled all that way and worked my butt off just to come back the same as I was before I left?" Naruto asked, rolling a shoulder and causing a few audible clicks to ring out. "Have a little more faith in your subordinates, Hokage-jiji."

The elder chuckled, "Well, if that's the case, then I'm certain you've got plenty of new and interesting new material to show us." The Third then glanced off to the side, where he saw Tsunade standing near the wall with her arms folded and listening in to the friendly banter, "What do you think?"

After giving her own silent appraisal of the young man as he stood beside his teacher and friends, the famed medical nin smirked and stepped forward. Stopping by the desk, she leaned against it while at the same time regarding the troublesome jinchuriki with a more considerate stare, "I think the runt has made some progress. But, just to be sure, I think we should give the gaki and his companions a little test run?"

"My thoughts exactly," Hiruzen nodded, turning his gaze toward the three youngsters in their midst, where he saw the trio give each other curious glances. "Even though all of you have been promoted, I'm positive that everyone here is eager to find out how far you guys have come. So why don't we have a little contest?"

Quickly catching onto what the village leader was suggesting, Tayuya chuckled and puffed her chest out, "Sounds good to me."

Naruto grinned, "And here I wasn't expecting a welcome home party." His eyes flashed with excitement, "This is going to be fun."

Hearing this from her teammate earned a giggle from Sakura, who then looked across at the young man in amusement, "One thing's for certain, aside from a few extra additions to your character, your personality hasn't changed one bit."

"You think so?" the jinchuriki asked, a nervous laugh escaping his lips as he scratched the top of his head.

"Bright, exuberant, loud and brash," Sakura counted on her fingers. "Exactly how I remember you… though considering your track record, I wouldn't count that as a bad thing."

The blonde shrugged with a wry grin, "Well… I suppose some things can't be remodeled, no matter how much time passes."

The redhead standing alongside him wasted no time in elbowing her boyfriend in the side, "That all depends on what parts you're talking about." She then looked up at the top of his head and prodded his skull, "Like your haircut for example."

"Oh yeah!" Naruto laughed, looking up and pulling on a bang, "This style is fixed to my scalp, no matter what I do to it. My hair is in a constant state of gravity defying spikiness, just like Ero-Sennin's." This comment actually earned a round of laughs from Tsunade, Sakura and Hiruzen, all of whom watched the white haired man in question pout childishly. "Though I think we're both mild cases compared to a few others we may know."

"Considering the amount of people I've met, yeah," Sakura said, able to come up with a few names from their village whose styles never altered.

A familiar masked man and his bushy browed rival were two of the first people to come to mind.

Seeing the trio giggle drew a smile from the Hokage. Having lived this long and seen a lot in his time, Hiruzen had learned to appreciate all the little things in life, most notably the camaraderie shared between friends and allies. It always brought a warm glow to his heart seeing his villagers reveling in the bonds of friendship and spending the time that they had together happily.

"In any case, I have the perfect opponent lined up for you, Naruto-kun. You too Sakura," the Hokage spoke up once again, drawing the group's gaze back over. "He's someone I'm sure you're both quite familiar with. I've had him on standby for several days in preparation for your arrival, so you don't have to worry about him coming off of a mission spent or exhausted. In fact, he was the one who requested that I set him aside for this very occasion."

"That's cool," the jinchuriki replied with a serious look and smile coming into play, "I may have just gotten back after a three day march, but I'm game for a spar."

"Me too," Tayuya cut in, at the same time grinning up at her boyfriend, "I've been itching for a good fight for a while now. Since you're back in town, I think it's time I collect on that quality-time debt you owe me, shithead."

Exchanging smirks with her and then across at Sakura, who showed him her game face, the jinchuriki looked back at his superior. "So who's this would-be opponent of mine going to be?" Kami, he hoped it was someone good.

Sasuke, Neji, Tenten, Lee, Asuma, Kurenai, Kiba, Shino, Hinata…

Damn. He really wanted to go find those guys. Immediately after walking through those massive wooden gates at the front, there was suddenly so much to see and do around this village. Clearly this was a side effect of having been traveling the world for upward of three years.

And here he thought getting back after a couple of weeks from a mission was bad for the biological-navigation.

Hearing his eagerness to tackle his next challenge brought positive looks to Tsunade, Jiraiya and Hiruzen's faces, as the young Jonin's excitement seemed to filter out over the other two standing alongside him. While one of the three had been his trainer for most of the time they'd been out of town, the other two had heard rumors of the blonde's exploits. From the collaborative mission reports that came in from Yukigakure to the recent war with Moryu and his Ghost Army, honestly, there had seemed to be no end to the amount of chatter that'd been coming in about their resident jinchuriki.

Though neither of them had been able to see the full extent of his power just yet, they were certain it was of a substantially high level. After all, by this point in time, the boy had practically made himself into a legend.

A savior of nations and the world.

It took a special kind of shinobi to achieve that kind of status.

"This new generation of youth never ceases to amaze me," the Third Hokage thought while sharing a smile with his two former students in the room. "It won't be long now before Naruto and his friends take our place in this world and when they do, they're going to accomplish wonders."

From the looks on Naruto, Sakura and Tayuya's faces, the village leader was guaranteed for one hell of a show.

Determined to see firsthand exactly how much stronger his resident troublemaker had become, the old man brought his hand up, adjusted his hat, and looked the jinchuriki square in the eyes. "We'll all have plenty of time to become reacquainted. But for now, I think it's time we introduce you to the man who will be testing you," Hiruzen said.

The moment the elder uttered these words, the door to the office opened…

TO BE CONTINUED…