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Through Your Door

Chapter Text

 

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Chapter Text

Fuu cried for a week after Kushina died.

At first, her handlers had no idea how to handle her tears. For the first few days, they indulged her. They suspended her training and sent her to the hospital, believing she was ill and fearing her seal had weakened. But after a clean bill of health, she was sent back to training the next day.

When asked, Fuu could only explain that she was sad. When they asked for a reason why, however, she couldn’t answer and she was too young to invent a good lie. No one except the other jinchuuriki knew about the Room that connected them to each other. So when they asked for a reason, she could only respond with ‘I don't know,’ which only angered them more.

Besides, with her four-year-old vocabulary, what could she say? How her heart felt empty? How she would never again hear Kushina's voice? How Kushina was the first person outside of her mother to ever let her sit on her lap? How Kushina always smiled at her, even when all she did was complain about her training? How Fuu would never ever see her again?

For the past few months, Kushina had been showing up in the Room more and more often, each time with a bigger and bigger belly. She cooed at Fuu, lifting her up and making her laugh. A few times, she had peered through the window of the One-Tail Jinchuuriki and tried to communicate with it, a frown on her face. According to her, the vessel was too young to join the Room and its handlers were not taking good care of him.

Kushina had explained that she was going to have a son: Naruto. She had told Fuu that she wanted her son to be as beautiful and talented as Fuu was. It was the nicest thing anyone had ever said to her.

Fuu wondered what had happened to her son. Did the baby die with Kushina? Or was the baby alive and safe somewhere? She hoped that whatever happened to Naruto, he would grow up happy and loved.

Fuu had no idea how Kushina died. For the months leading up to her death, Kushina’s aura emanating from her Door had shined with happiness, mixed with a little fear. On the day of her death, Fuu had felt pain tinged with excitement in anticipation of giving birth. That was soon followed by panic and terror that ended only with her death.

Kushina's death was the worst thing that has ever happened in her short life. Even the pain of sealing the Nanabi last year paled in comparison to the deep aching sorrow in her young heart.

She had cried almost non-stop since then, unable to explain her feelings to anyone. And because Fuu could explain nothing, her handlers become more frustrated by the minute. They commanded her to stop sobbing and get back to work. But she couldn’t. It hurt too much.

Finally, after a week of crying and doing mediocre katas with eyes blurred by tears, her primary instructor, Suien, slapped her across the face.

"Weapons aren't supposed to have feelings!" he screamed as she fell to her knees.

Even with the bijuu in her body, the slap stung and she lifted a hand to rest on her cheek. It didn’t take long to heal and the pain faded after a few seconds one of the few benefits to being a jinchuuriki. She bit her lip.

For a second, he wanted to rebel. She knew Kushina would have stood up for herself because that's the kind of person she had been.

But Fuu couldn’t. She was a little girl, scared, and confused. With no way to fight back, she wiped the tears from her eyes and began practicing her katas again. Suien rolled his eyes but said nothing else as she began her routine.

While the sting of Suien's slap faded thanks to her bijuu, the pain in her heart didn’t leave. It waited.

That night, Fuu cried herself to sleep and appeared in front of her green Door in the Room for the first time since Kushina's death. She had expected the Room to be empty. Instead, the short red-haired man, whom she had never talked to, stood in the middle of the room. He practiced his own set of katas using a long wooden staff.

Kushina likes asking him for recipes.

Fuu looked around the Room more. Her eyes widened when she looked at Kushina's familiar Door.

Kushina’s Door, which had once glowed a bright red, was now a soft orange— a new vessel. Whoever they were, she could tell that the newest jinchuuriki's connection to the Room had not yet finalized. If it was anything like her own experience, it would take at least a few weeks for them to appear in the Room. Fuu could only hope that they would be as kind as Kushina had been.

The red-headed man nodded at her with acknowledgment but said nothing. Except for Kushina, all of the jinchuuriki preferred to spend their time alone. They rarely talked to each other beyond basic pleasantries or covert threats. The shadows of the Shinobi Wars were too large to ignore, even in times of peace. Fuu had been created after the Third War, but the others had been part of rival villages for decades

Even with her limited life experience, Fuu knew that she should never ask any other jinchuuriki personal questions. The only ones they could possibly trust were the ones from the same village. But Takigakure only had one jinchuuriki and she was alone there, too.

Instead of greeting the man, Fuu went and sat down in front of him. He had so much control and power behind his strikes that it was almost hypnotic. She could tell it was a kata that he had done thousands of times until he perfected the rhythm. The man raised an eyebrow for a second to look at her but didn’t protest as he continued his kata.

The unlikely pair stayed like that for a long time, silent except for the grunts of effort when he swung his staff. Other than the nod and the raised eyebrow, the man continued his routine as if he were alone in the Room.

As she pulled her knees up to her chest, Fuu wished that she hadn't come to the Room. She felt more alone than ever. The Room was the place where she met Kushina, the woman Fuu admired and who took care of her. The woman who wiped her tears and let her sit on her lap. Who taught her a children's song from Uzushio. The only one who cared about her as a person. Who made her feel like being a jinchuuriki was a good thing. Who told her that she needed to fill her life with love.

But Kushina would never spend time with her again, and Fuu would be alone for the rest of her life. If even her fellow villagers hated her, how could anyone love her? Before she knew it, Fuu was bawling again.

O-O-O

Roshi stopped in the middle of the kata and looked at the small child. He knew that the girl had been close to Kushina. He had heard them blathering to each other often, annoyingly keeping him awake at night.

His own relationship with Kushina had been distant yet respectful. After centuries of war, it wasn't easy to put away village rivalries, despite having had a shared background as a vessel. Kushina had asked about life before the Second Shinobi War. In turn, he had sometimes share recipes from Iwagakure. They had exchanged words once or twice a month at most.

But since the little girl had joined the room, tiny and terrified, Kushina had taken her under her wing. She had soothed her fears and comforted her at night. Her death would have been devastating. Nobody could have expected Kushina to die so suddenly either.

Roshi hesitated only a second before he squatted down next to the girl. He put his calloused hand on her tiny shoulder and tried to think of a way to cheer her up, even though he had no idea how. Kushina would have screamed at him for letting a little girl cry though. He needed to try.

“Hey girl,” he muttered. I'm going to frighten her. On her part, the girl only continued bawling. He didn’t know if she was actually crying harder or if he was imagining it.

“It's okay, it's okay,” he continued nervously, “it's okay to cry you know. The shinobi code says we aren't supposed to cry, but you're not a shinobi yet, so the rules don't apply to you. Besides, Kushina-san wouldn't have wanted to see you cry all the time.”

She's definitely crying harder than before.

What was he supposed to say? He had never comforted a little girl before. Or anyone, actually. Most of the time, looking at his face sent the most hardhearted jounin running away. He had made more people cry in one week than he had ever comforted in his life. But his new mission was to make a little girl stop crying. Perhaps some misdirection could work?

“So, kid,” he started, “what's your name, anyway?”

The girl took a second to wipe her nose with her forearm before answering.

“Fuu,” she whispered, her large orange eyes shiny and full of tears. She buried her face in her hands, sobbing, but at least she was willing to talk.

“My name's Roshi,” he answered the unasked question. “Nice to meet you.”

He extended his hand to for her to shake. She hesitated a second before putting her tiny palm inside his hand. He squeezed her hand and sat down next to her, still holding on to her.

“Nice to meet you, too,” she whispered.

She had stopped sobbing, although a few tears rolled down her cheeks and her voice was strained. They sat together for a few moments in companionable silence, with Fuu holding Roshi’s warm hand. Fuu's breathing slowed down to smaller hiccups until she finally quieted completely. To Roshi's dismay, however, her orange eyes remained dangerously damp.

“Have you looked through the window of the Nine-Tails Jinchuuriki yet?” he finally asked when she wiped away the last of the tears. She shook her head. She was too short to look through the window without help and she hadn’t been in the Room for over a week.

“Well, in that case, let's go see together,” he said. Still holding hands, they stood up. Effortlessly, Roshi picked her up and put her on his hip. He could tell that the girl was unused to being carried. All the jinchuuriki were. Even as a young boy, his handlers would never carry him. Instead, they had forced him to walk or run on his own, no matter how tired he felt or how young he was.

Being carried probably also reminded her of Kushina. They might not have talked often, but he had seen Kushina's devotion, especially after she got pregnant. She had even confided that she was looking forward to being a mother, despite her status as a jinchuuriki. How often did jinchuuriki became parents anyway?

With the girl on his hip, he walked to the door that represented the Kyuubi’s vessel. He peered through the window and moved her face closer.

“Look, Fuu,” he said as he pointed through the window. "You can see what the other host sees. They can block the sight from the others if they want. But since this is a new jinchuuriki, they still haven't figured out how to do it.”

Together, the man and the little girl peered through the window. To his surprise, he could only see the basic outlines of creatures that seemed to slowly move in front of its eyes. A baby mobile?

“Roshi-san, why is everything so blurry?” Fuu asked.

“This jinchuuriki is still very young,” he explained. “Their vision hasn't fully developed yet. I'm guessing the new host of the Kyuubi is a newborn baby.”

Just like with the One-Tail. Were the villages making their weapons younger and younger? It was a little worrying. Yugito and Fuu had at least been out of diapers when they were created.

“So it's a baby?”

“Yeah, a baby.”

Roshi touched the door of the host. It was usually the only way to have direct contact with another jinchuuriki when they weren’t in the Room.

'Hello, child, how are you?' The baby stirred and their vision moved around the room, looking for the source of the new mysterious voice.

“Here, Fuu-chan, touch the door. Send the baby a message.” Fuu didn’t hesitate and placed her tiny hand on the window next to Roshi's. Roshi guessed she had communicated with Kushina like that before.

'Hello, Baby! What's your name?' Fuu already sounded a lot more cheerful.

The baby, of course, couldn’t understand. Nevertheless, both of them received a vague expression of happiness. Hearing mysterious voices was probably the most exciting thing that had ever happened in its young life.

'What have you been doing in your life? Is your mommy nearby? Do you have a mommy? I have a mommy but she's busy on a mission now that I'm a jinchuuriki. She says I have to be strong and listen to my teacher but the teachers are mean and I don't like when they hit me. If you have mean teachers, make sure you hit them back! Oh, are you a boy or a girl? Because I want a little sister, but if you are a boy, it's okay too. But you have to be nice to girls! If you're not nice to girls, I will hit you, even if you are a baby!'

Roshi looked at the girl on his hip. Fuu smiled as she mentally talked a mile a minute to their tiny new companion. Although the newborn was still too young to respond, Roshi could tell it enjoyed Fuu's company. If it was being raised like most jinchuuriki, he doubted it was receiving good care. He guessed the infant was receiving the bare minimum amount of attention to keep it alive.

He wondered who the new host was. Usually, they could tell in advance when a jinchuuriki was going to leave the Room forever, whether it was through age or war. But Kushina's death was sudden and unexpected. A newborn was unexpected too, especially considering Kushina's condition at the time of her death. If he were a betting man, he would say the newest jinchuuriki was Kushina's child. However, there was no way to prove that until the baby joined them in the Room.

Roshi and Fuu sat down in front of the Door for a while longer, talking about everything and anything that sprung to mind. Or at least Fuu did. Roshi sent vague messages of cheer that the baby seemed to enjoy anyway. They didn’t leave until the newborn fell asleep, a feeling of safety and comfort spreading from the jinchuuriki’s Door.

Fuu, who had at one point moved to sit on his lap smiled at the Door. She sent the baby a final message. 'Sleep well.'

The pair stood up and Roshi and Fuu finally separated as he set her down on the floor. When had she gotten on his lap anyway?

“Goodnight, girl, you have a long day tomorrow I'm sure,” he told her.

“I will! And you too, Roshi-san. Sleep well!” Her eyes were still full of grief, but the smile she gave him was honest and optimistic. She disappeared from the room as she waved goodbye.

He shook his head. How did he end up in babysitting duty? He had only wanted to practice a particular kata before bed.

Roshi gave one last look at the new vessel's Door before walking away to inspect the rest of the Room. Except for the youngest ones, the other jinchuuriki had formed mental barriers to protect their privacy. Because of that, he couldn’t see through any other Doors except for those of the youngest three.

So instead of trying to spy on his fellow hosts, Roshi glanced at the Door of the One-Tail Jinchuuriki. As one of the few to visit the Room with regularity, Kushina had mentioned in passing that the baby seemed to be in a lot of pain and suffering. Sometimes, she had tried to communicate with the mysterious jinchuuriki of the Three-Tails and the Six-Tails. If they ever answered or even acknowledged her, Roshi would probably never know.

Kushina was probably the only one of us that ever talked to the other baby.

The thought did strange things to his conscience. Before he could reconsider, he was standing in front of the One-Tail Jinchuuriki's Door. Peering through the window, he could see that this baby was older than the newest host. Instead of blurry black and white shapes, he could see colors and the shapes of things. Based on the point of view, the baby was seated on the floor and surrounded by toys and stuffed animals. Perhaps this baby was not being treated as badly as the other one?

Roshi touched the Door. Instinctively, he flinched and pulled his hand away. The child was exhausted and in extreme pain, unable to deal with that and confused about where the pain was coming from. It made him want to throw up. How could a tiny baby deal with this level of suffering?

He put his hand back on the Door, that time ready to feel and absorb some of the baby's emotions.

'I'm here, child. Let me take some of the pain away.'

Roshi concentrated and was able to absorb the negative feelings into himself. Compared to what he experienced during the Shinobi Wars, the pain was nothing. But for a child, let alone a baby, the pain was excruciating. The infant needed all the help it could get. Unfortunately, this solution was temporary at best, since Roshi could only mitigate the pain. There was no way for him to take away the source when the two were so far away from each other.

From the other side of the Door, the baby tilted its head, as if the reduction of its suffering had never happened before. It probably hadn't.

'Hello, baby. Are you feeling better now? A child your age shouldn't feel so much pain.'

His messages reached the target. However, as with the newborn, the jinchuuriki was too young to understand his words. It could understand the sentiment, though, because Roshi received an emotional expression of joy. Roshi couldn’t help but smile in pleasure.

He could tell that the baby was exhausted. He would say it was chakra exhaustion but he had never had to worry about that in his life. He also doubted any jinchuuriki could even run out of chakra. He was sure that whatever was hurting the child was also keeping him from sleeping for long.

He sent the host a few more messages. He tried to be positive while at the same time trying to absorb some of the negative energy away. Roshi kept talking by the Door for a while— an hour, according to his internal clock. He almost didn’t notice when someone else joined the room. He didn’t need to turn around to know that it was Han, the Five-Tails jinchuuriki.

While Roshi was short, Han towered over him at over seven feet tall. His broad shoulders and armor only made him look bigger and more intimidating. He was also the oldest of the jinchuuriki, having seen dozens of hosts come and go during the shinobi wars. Some jinchuuriki hadn't even lasted a week before dying and getting transferred to a new poor bastard.

But Han was a friend. Possibly, he was Roshi's only friend considering their shared disdain for the Tsuchikage. Han had taught Roshi how to be a shinobi. For that alone, Roshi was grateful.

Han walked over to stand next to Roshi in front of the One-Tail Jinchuuriki's door. Han could see that he was touching the door to communicate with the baby. He raised an eyebrow as he stared down at Roshi.

“I've been stuck with babysitting duty, it seems,” Roshi complained. “For some reason, being possessed by a monkey demon is not enough to get out of taking care of little tiny babies.”

“Are you talking about your bijuu or are you describing yourself?” Han teased.

Roshi glared at him but without any rancor.

Han gave a small chuckle as he went to put his hand on the door next to Roshi's.

'Hello, baby. Will you be joining us soon in the Room?' Even mentally, Han's voice was strong and calming.

Based on what they could see through the window, the appearance of a second voice delighted the child. It started to giggle. Roshi gave a satisfied smile. He didn’t think he had ever heard a baby laugh before.

Han appeared calmer than he had seen him since Kushina died. His eyes were relaxed and he seemed to be absorbing some of the child's pain as well. The two stood together in silence that was usual for the two men— of a friendship so strong it transcended words.

They stood like that for a few hours longer, giving a little comfort to the child in silence. Eventually, however, they left the Room and headed back to their lives as weapons of Iwagakure.

O-O-O

When Fuu woke up, she didn’t feel like crying anymore. Thinking about Kushina still hurt and she knew that part of her heart would always feel empty when thinking about her. But for now, she was ready to move on with her life. She wanted to meet the little baby soon.

She left her bed to get ready for the day. She had taijutsu katas to complete and she knew Suien would be even vindictive than normal. Nevertheless, she got dressed, brushed her teeth, combed her hair, and washed her face.

Kushina might be dead, but she was still there. The only thing she could do was keep going.

Chapter Text

There was something wrong with the Nine-Tailed Fox's container.

During the day, its behavior was normal. It cried and slept as often as normal infants. But at night, it was always quiet. On the few occasions that it did cry, it quieted quickly. A few times, they caught it looking up at the air as if someone was there. Other times, they saw it lying in silence as if listening to someone talking. As it grew, it began to smile and giggle at the air.

Its caretakers whispered among one another that they were taking care of a monster. Some wondered if the minds of the baby and the fox had blended together and created a new half-human, half-demon creature. Others worried that the evil fox had taken over the infant's mind. The most radical ones argued that the fox had used an illusion to disguise itself and was waiting to destroy Konoha.

If it weren’t for the constant presence of ANBU and the Hokage's orders, the caretakers might have tried to destroy it. But no one was daring enough to try when the orphanage was already under so much scrutiny.

Instead, the people whispered, spreading rumors throughout the village that the child was a monster. Only the Hokage's threat of capital punishment stopped the rumors from spreading. At that point, however, it was too late. All the adults of Konohagakure already knew about the new jinchuuriki.

The container itself, Naruto, didn’t care or understand the political situation yet. While he could not see his mysterious companions, their presence made him happy in a world that wanted nothing to do with him.

O-O-O

After his first meeting with Fuu, Roshi decided to visit the Room as often as he could. Almost every night, Fuu joined him before she fell into a deep sleep. The duo talked to the babies through the night, waiting for them to finalize their mental link. Based on past experience, Roshi told Fuu the process usually took between a few months to a year.

They always visited the Kyuubi's Jinchuuriki first. Roshi picked Fuu up so that she could look through the baby's window and into its life. Fuu talked a mile a minute while Roshi stayed silent, only communicating when Fuu was quiet. To his relief, she was never quiet.

As time passed, the baby's vision improved and they could see the everyday world of the child. Other than the baby mobile, the environment was sparse, even by ninja standards. The child had no toys in its crib and received little attention. It was always happy whenever he and Fuu talked to it, at least.

After talking to the youngest vessel, the two made time to talk to the other child, the container of the Ichibi. Roshi opened the link first. He had explained to Fuu that the baby was suffering and touching the Door without mental preparation would hurt. Roshi absorbed some of the pain before he would allow Fuu to place her tiny hand on the Door.

They learned a lot about the other baby as he learned how to walk and talk. Sometimes he asked them for food or milk, forgetting that they weren’t actually there. They learned the vessel's name after Fuu asked: Gaara. He was quiet and shy, preferring to listen instead of talk. He had a male caretaker named Yashamaru and lived in Sunagakure. His favorite toy was a brown teddy bear. Gaara seemed to be happy when they just talked about whatever came to mind.

Fuu chatted away at Gaara, who always listened with rapt attention. However, Roshi's mind wandered whenever she started telling a story. Fuu tended to get side-tracked by minor details and never reached a conclusion in her stories. But Gaara liked listening to her talk, so Roshi encouraged her while letting his own mind wander.

Fuu always left first since she was young and needed more sleep— real sleep— than Roshi did. But Roshi always stayed longer with Gaara after that, telling him about his past missions. It was forbidden to talk about classified missions, but Roshi didn’t care. The Tsuchikage could burn in hell for all he cared. Besides, Gaara wouldn’t remember or care about missions from other villages.

Roshi and Fuu maintained their routine for six more months before the youngest jinchuuriki finally decided to appear.

Roshi leaned alone against Gaara's Door, Fuu long ago gone to bed. Gaara liked listening to his stories about the Third Shinobi War. He changed "stabbing" for "hugging" in his stories though.

He was in the middle of recounting one of his exploits at Kannabi Bridge when Roshi heard cries from behind him. When he turned around, he saw a blond baby in the middle of the Room. Roshi almost panicked before he remembered that he was talking to Gaara. The boy suffered enough without adding panic to it.

'Hey Gaara-chan,' he said forcing his voice to stay calm. 'Something came up, I have to leave a little early. But I will finish the story later. Take care.'

Roshi waited a few seconds, in case Gaara cried. The boy seemed confused about the sudden departure but not upset. Roshi sighed in relief and pulled his hand away, severing communication.

Roshi turned around to look at the baby. It must have appeared, looked around the Room and panicked about being alone in an unfamiliar place. He sighed again before hurrying over to the child. He remembered his first time linking up to the Room at the age of six. He still remembered the experience as confusing and not fun.

He squatted down and picked up the infant. It seemed to weigh nothing— tiny and fragile. Fuu felt delicate too and he had to be careful not to push or pull her too hard when he picked her up or held her hand. But in comparison, carrying a baby felt like a more delicate operation than trying to walk across a room full of explosive tags.

"It's okay child, I'm here, it's okay." He began to say empty nothings to the child, murmuring in a soft voice. The baby quieted down almost immediately after being picked up. It seemed to recognize his voice as it looked up. Roshi smiled and the baby copied him, showing a mouth with only two tiny bottom teeth.

The resemblance to Kushina was uncanny. Although the coloring was different, they both had the same round face and the same jawline, eyes, and nose. He had guessed the child was Kushina's before, though. Uzumaki clan genes were highly compatible with bijuu and Kushina had been ready to burst at the time of her death. He guessed that after she died in childbirth, her son was the only option once the Kyuubi was released.

Roshi placed the child in the crook of his elbow and started to rock him like he had seen some civilians do. No one had been there for him the first time he entered the Room, alone and terrified. Comforting Kushina's child was the least he could do to honor her memory. Happy with the attention, the baby began to gurgle.

I have to get Fuu. If she learns I didn't tell her when the baby arrived, she might kick me. Or worse, cry.

With the baby in his arms, Roshi walked over to Fuu's glowing green Door.

It could be difficult to pull another jinchuuriki into the Room once they had entered deep sleep. But he suspected it wouldn’t be a problem for her. She had been looking forward to meeting the baby for too long to not get excited, even subconsciously. He put his hand on her Door.

'Hey butterfly, guess who decided to show up? If you want to see the baby, you need to come into the Room as fast as you can. I don't know how long it will want to stay here.'

Roshi felt her excitement as his message reached Fuu's subconscious and woke her up. He looked down at the baby in his arms once again before sitting down cross-legged in front of Fuu's Door. The baby tried to pull at his beard and he bent his head down to be closer. He couldn’t help but admit that the baby was pretty cute, especially with the whisker marks. A side effect of the Kyuubi?

Seconds after he sent the message to wake her, Fuu's mind sprung forth from her Door. She rushed to his side and began talking to the baby without pause. Roshi sighed. Unused to staying up so late, the girl was going to be exhausted in the morning.

"Wow! The baby is so cute!" Fuu exclaimed as she bent down to look closer. "Yes! I hope we can be friends!"

The baby seemed to recognize her voice as well because it smiled and made more noises. Fuu giggled as she crawled to sit on Roshi's lap. She continued to talk to the baby, repeating the same story from earlier. The baby didn’t care about repeated stories, though. It instead looked content to be getting undivided attention.

"Roshi-san," Fuu began. Roshi grunted to show he was listening. "What do you think the baby's name is? Do you think it's a boy or a girl?"

Roshi thought for a few seconds before answering. While he had seen the connection between Kushina's death and the jinchuuriki's birth, Fuu hadn’t. Did she not realize the baby was Kushina's?

"I don't know," he answered, "Didn't Kushina-san tell you what her baby was going to be?"

Fuu looked at him in confusion before her eyes widened in understanding and excitement. Sometimes what seemed obvious to him was a mystery to her.

"This is Kushina's baby boy?" she shouted with a grin on her face.

"Most likely, too many factors to be a coincidence." Roshi shrugged. "What did Kushina-san tell you about her baby?"

"Kushina told me she was going to have a son," Fuu answered, "and that his name was Naruto."

Like the fishcake in ramen? Roshi suppressed a sigh. Kushina had been too obsessed with that dish. 

"But I wanted a little sister." She pouted for a second before she grinned down at the baby. "I guess having a little brother is okay too because you're cute."

The boy, of course, had no idea what she had said, but he could feel the sentiment and he copied her smile and gurgled.

Little brother? Was Fuu getting overly invested in her relationships with the other jinchuuriki? The world may have been at peace, but war could break out at any second. Any of them could be forced to fight each other to the death. He worried that he was becoming too attached to the children himself. And while Roshi knew that friendships with foreign ninja could only lead to disaster, Fuu was too young to understand the dangers. But he didn't have the heart to tell her that.

She will learn and I hope she learns that lesson the easy way.

Fuu was too young for battle and talking to the other jinchuuriki was the only thing that brought her happiness. The kage might call them weapons and tools, but Roshi knew that he and his fellow vessels were also human. They all craved companionship and love, and Roshi was no different. For now, he would encourage the two children to spend time together and hope nothing happened to break that bond.

The two continued talking to the baby boy. He seemed more than happy to spend time with them. Trying to make him more comfortable, Roshi conjured a big mattress. He laid the baby down on his belly, watching as he lifted up his head and looked around the Room. Fuu started to tickle him as she continued blathering on about her day. Roshi sat down nearby, looking at the two young ones play together.

Based on his internal clock, the baby stayed in the Room for over two hours before finally falling asleep. Immediately afterward, his body disappeared and the girl and man were left sitting on the conjured mattress.

Fuu looked exhausted. She had already had a full day of training followed by the usual time spent talking to Gaara and Naruto. If her handlers were anything like his had been, he doubted they would be understanding.

Fuu let out a huge yawn of exhaustion.

"I'm sorry Roshi-san," she apologized. "But I'm very tired."

He looked at her and nodded. "I know, Butterfly, you should go to sleep. You have a long day tomorrow. Make sure to rest. A tired ninja is a bad ninja."

Fuu smiled at him and threw herself around his neck in a hug before running back to her Door and leaving the Room. Roshi had no time to react at the sudden contact, but he smiled to himself once he was alone.

Roshi considered going to Gaara's Door one last time when he felt Han's presence standing behind him.

"Don't you ever sleep at normal times?" Roshi asked, turning around to look up at Han.

"Why do you go to sleep so early? Are you becoming an old man that quickly?" Han retorted in his deep calm voice.

"Fuck you," Roshi replied without heat and flipped him off. One of the advantages of Fuu being asleep meant doing everything uncensored. "I go to sleep early because the girl sleeps early, too," he explained.

Roshi stood up to look up at his friend, resenting the difference in height. Despite being related by blood, if distantly, Han was over seven feet tall while Roshi didn’t even reach the five-foot mark.

"You missed the baby, the girl was very excited about meeting him. She was disappointed when the child turned out to be a boy, though," he said.

"Was the child really—?" Han started.

"Kushina's? Yes, obviously. You know... Uzumaki genes. They have the same face and everything. Although somehow the girl hadn't connected the dots until tonight. His name is probably Naruto, assuming they named him with Kushina's wishes in mind. He seems to be in good enough condition... considering the circumstances. I do wonder who the father is though. The boy is blond and has sky-blue eyes."

Han nodded at Roshi's explanation before his gaze moved to the Door of the Ichibi jinchuuriki. As far as Roshi knew, Gaara had never appeared in the Room. It was possible that he had entered while they were gone. However, he knew they would have felt the child panicking if Gaara had joined and seen nobody there.

"Why do you think this other boy hasn't joined us yet?" Roshi asked as Han stared at the door of the last jinchuuriki.

"I don't know," Han replied. He sounded calm, but after knowing him for decades, Roshi could tell that he was worried about the other child

"It's possible that he has a broken seal," Han guessed. "It's happened before. Inexperienced or arrogant shinobi use rushed or faulty methods to try to contain the bijuu. Considering how young the child is, it seems the most likely option. The younger the jinchuuriki, the more difficult it is to form the seal... babies are very delicate."

"I see," Roshi replied with a huff, "well, considering the pain the child is in, it seems even more likely."

Roshi pinched the bridge of his nose. Faulty seals were always a pain in the ass. Only a true master could ever hope to fix or remake it. With Uzushio gone, the hopes of finding such a master were minuscule at best. Usually, villages would extract the bijuu and try again on a new container. But that always led to the death of the original jinchuuriki. Roshi hoped Sunagakure wouldn’t do that. He had grown attached to Gaara, despite himself.

Roshi touched Gaara's Door once again.

'Gaara-chan, I'm going to leave. I'll finish the story tomorrow. Good night,' he said.

Gaara parroted his message back, still happy from their previous conversation. Roshi was tired and he had a mission the next day. Plus, he knew Han wanted the Room to practice his taijutsu.

"Good night, Han." He waved a lazy goodbye, leaving the Room before he could hear Han's reply.

O-O-O

Fuu was very happy when Naruto started to appear in the Room at night with regularity.

Whenever he appeared, Roshi carried them both to Gaara's door so the four of them could talk at once. Fuu always took the lead in the conversation. She liked to "translate" Naruto's unintelligible babbling to Gaara. Gaara always listened intently to everyone, even Naruto

Han, Roshi's friend, sometimes appeared later in the night. He liked to ruffle Fuu’s and Naruto's hair and would tell them the rules of being a shinobi.

A shinobi must prepare before it's too late. A shinobi must see the hidden meanings within the hidden meanings. Misdirection is the sharpest blade.

She got the feeling he wasn’t telling them the full list yet. Nevertheless, she appreciated his advice as her own training responsibilities grew.

Rarely, both Iwagakure men were on missions and could not join the Room. On those nights, Fuu entertained Naruto and Gaara by herself. Naruto was easily distracted and he liked playing with frog toys and stuffed animals. He could crawl and sit alone and he was heavy enough that Fuu struggled to hold him for long. Gaara was easier to deal with. He was very quiet, especially for a toddler. He preferred to listen and only asked questions on rare occasions.

Soon after Naruto learned how to crawl, Fuu made it her mission to teach him how to talk. Every night she set him down onto a conjured blanket and knelt in front of him. For weeks, she tried to get him to say his first words without any success.

"Fuu," she said excitedly, "say Fuu!"

Naruto looked at her as if confused but kept his mouth shut. Fuu tried again with the same result. She groaned in exasperation when her latest attempt failed.

"How difficult is it to say Fuu, Roshi-san?!" she complained. "It's easy! Fuu! Fuu! Fuu!"

Naruto giggled at the expressions on her face but refused to repeat her name. Roshi leaned in closer and stared down at the infant. Naruto looked at him with wide blue eyes, smiled, and began to babble again. However, that time the babbling sounded like…

"Mama," Naruto babbled. "Mama! Mama!"

Roshi froze. Fuu looked at him with a mischievous grin on her face.

"Mama! You have a new name!" Fuu screamed in excitement. Roshi barely suppressed a groan. Fuu could tell, however, that he was secretly glad. Roshi always got a small blush whenever he was happy. She made a mental note to make sure Gaara started calling him "Mama" too.

O-O-O

There is a baby in the middle of the training arena.

Yugito prepared to leap across the Room, claws extended, when the blond baby appeared.

She was on a C-ranked mission with her genin team while B was forced to stay in Kumogakure. She had wanted to practice her taijutsu and B had promised to teach her something new. They had agreed to meet during the day when the other jinchuuriki were unlikely to be there. But no one had told the child that it was bad manners to interrupt a ninja's training session.

Yugito exchanged glances with B, who stood on the opposite side of the Room. Together, they stared at the infant lying in the middle. It looked around as if searching for someone or something. Not finding what it wanted, the baby looked at B first before staring at Yugito. Unmoving, both of the Kumo ninja stared back.

The baby looked around the room once more, now panicked. Yugito's fears came true as the baby began to cry.

B acted first. He leaped over to crouch down and look at the child from a close distance. Unlike Yugito, B had lived a normal life before becoming a jinchuuriki. He had a lot more experience dealing with young children than she did. Yugito walked to B's side.

It was bawling now, tiny fists balled up in frustration as angry tears fell down its cheeks. Yugito guessed it had expected someone else to be in the Room. She presumed one of the Iwagakure men or the little Takigakure girl. She could hear them talking at night before she went to sleep when her mental defenses were at their lowest.

B lifted the baby up gently and rested it on his hip as it continued to bawl. Yugito hoped B knew how to calm down the baby enough so that they could go back to training. Unfortunately, her hopes were dashed when B started rapping instead.

"Oh baby!" B sang. "When you start crying, I feel like dying. You're just a baby, stop crying maybe, yo!"

To her surprise, the baby stopped long enough to give B a confused look before continuing to sob. If she didn't know better, Yugito would say it had already judged the quality of B's rhymes and found them lacking. With a sigh, she retracted the claws on her fingers and slapped B on the shoulder.

"Stop scaring the baby with your terrible rapping," she scolded. "It's obviously looking for that old man from Iwa or the little girl from Taki. It doesn't understand that they're busy during the day."

"Makes sense! But Roshi-sama is not here, yo! We need to get him in the Room, you dumbass phony!"

The baby stopped sobbing to look at B as if he had never seen anything so strange before. To be fair, Yugito agreed that B was pretty strange. The infant started to cry again, though a lot less passionately.

"I think he likes my rapping, kitten," B said with a bright smile.

"No one likes your rapping, B," she replied. "You probably paralyzed it with its sheer awfulness."

B flinched back as if it were the first time she had criticized his abysmal skills.

"So cold, little kitten," he replied, "can't you see the baby is smitten?"

What would be the consequences of killing the Raikage's brother? She glared at him before stomping toward the Yonbi Jinchuuriki's Door. B was still trying to rap at it, but Yugito refused to listen on principle. The baby had stopped bawling and was letting out sad little sobs instead.

She put her hand on the old man's door to sent him a mental message.

'Hey, old man, can't you take care of the baby? We're trying to train here, not babysit!' Yugito yelled at her fellow jinchuuriki.

'Can't little one, I'm busy on a mission,’ the man replied. To demonstrate, he took down his mental barriers for a brief moment to show her what he saw. He was indeed busy fighting a group of bandits. There was no way for him to stop, meditate, and join the Room.

'Fine, but if B kills the baby with one of his terrible raps, don't blame me,' she huffed. She felt the man shudder mentally. Iwa and Kumo ninja might not talk much, but B's rapping was infamous. After all, he liked to use the Room sometimes to practice new rhymes.

Yugito looked back at the training area. B was still trying and failing to rap. The baby had stopped crying, although its eyes and cheeks remained damp with tears. It was staring at B with a confused look. She shook her head before trying her luck with the remaining doors.

She tried to connect with the container of the Five-Tailed Beast and with the Takigakure girl. However, the Gobi Jinchuuriki was busy in a meeting with the Tsuchikage. Meanwhile, the girl was training with her jounin instructor, a bitter-looking man. Lastly, the container of the One-Tailed Beast was only a little older than the one currently in the Room. It had yet to finish its connection to the Room.

She skipped over the doors that represented the Three-Tails and the Six-Tails Jinchuuriki. As far as she knew, they had never appeared inside the Room or even interacted with any of the other containers. Even Kushina, the only one who had used the Room with regularity, had been unable to talk with them, despite her best efforts. Neither she nor B knew anything about them either. They suspected they were from Kirigakure, but there was no way for them to know for sure.

All I wanted was one uninterrupted training session with B. Is that too much to ask?

Having exhausted her babysitting options, Yugito resigned herself to taking care of the baby. She walked back to B and the baby, giving out a long sigh. B was sitting on the floor with the child on his lap, staring down in adoration. The baby, by his part, seemed confused by B, although not frightened.

Yugito looked closely at the kid. It had wide sky-blue eyes, messy blond hair, and little whisker marks on its cheeks. It looked familiar to Yugito, although she couldn’t quite place why.

"Can't we put it in a box or something?" she complained in frustration. She didn’t mean it, but B still turned around and stared at her in shock.

"How can you say that, you dumbass phony?!" he said with a gasp. "The baby wants to have fun! The baby is cute, don't be a brute!"

Yugito suppressed a groan, wondering if B's rhymes or a baby's cries were worse.

She knelt down next to B and stared intensely at the baby's eyes. Despite herself, she had to admit that it was pretty cute. She hadn’t been near any babies in her life. They might be heroes in Kumogakure, but people kept their children as far away from B and Yugito as possible.

She showed the child her right hand. The infant wrapped its tiny palm around her index finger and pulled. Its grip was surprisingly strong, though she could very easily pull away if she wanted. A small smile tugged at her lips despite herself. The infant grinned at her, showing four tiny milk teeth. She took her left hand and began to move her fingers through its soft blond hair. The baby's smile widened. It was almost as adorable as her cat.

"Awww... the kitty is oh so pretty," B interrupted the tender moment with a terrible rhyme.

Yugito couldn’t help but blush. She was so caught up looking at the baby, she had forgotten B was also in the Room with her.

"Am not!" she replied, although she didn't pull away from the baby's grip. "I just like looking at it! Like a koi fish! In a pond!"

B gave her an unbelieving smile but was smart enough not to say anything. Yugito was only fourteen to B's twenty-one, but her claws could hurt. They turned their gaze back at the baby, who now looked happy to be getting attention from new people. Their eyes softened.

"What do babies need, anyway?" Yugito asked. "Maybe we can conjure something for it to do while we train"

"Good idea, yeah!," B replied, "Babies need many things! But a place to play is the most important, you dumbass phony!"

With that, B conjured a small floor mat along with some stuffed animals, blankets, and pillows. He crawled over and placed the child in the middle. The baby looked around, full of curiosity.

It examined all of the toys before reaching out for a stuffed frog. However, it was a little too far for him to reach. Before he could fall or cry in frustration, Yugito took the frog and placed it in his hands. The baby grabbed on and began to chew on it. Both Yugito and B smiled at the sight.

The child turned its eyes back on Yugito, the frog still in its mouth. It gurgled in joy and Yugito smiled back. Their training could wait.

"Are you happy now, little one?" she asked, "Is there anything you need? Do you want to play a game?"

Inspired, Yugito leaned over to hover in front of the baby's face. She took one of the blankets that B had conjured and covered its face and body. She had seen some civilians playing the game with their children.

"Where’s the baby?" She asked in a sing-song voice. The baby giggled under the blanket.

"Here it is!" she said, pulling the blanket away. The infant giggled again. It was easier to entertain infants than she had imagined. With the frog in its mouth and a smile on its face, it looked even cuter than before. Yugito couldn’t help but grin back.

B remained uncharacteristically quiet as Yugito continued to play Peek-a-boo. The infant seemed to enjoy the very simple game. For Yugito, it was nice to be carefree, even if it was only for a short amount of time.

It didn’t take long, perhaps half an hour more, before the baby let out a big yawn and disappeared from the Room. B and Yugito stood up as they allowed the conjured objects to disappear. At that point, it was too late to try learning a new technique. She couldn’t stay in the Room forever when her teammates needed her for the mission. B would have to teach her the technique later.

"Well, our plans got ruined," she whined. "You better teach me that new move later, B. I can't believe we got sidetracked by a baby."

"It's all right, Yugito," B said with a grin, "You were so cute, I went all mute!"

Yugito glared back at B, although she wasn't smiling anymore.

"If you tell anyone I spent half an hour playing Peek-a-boo with a baby, I will make you incapable of future reproduction," she threatened, a murderous glint in her eye.

B wisely said nothing. Yugito was still young and only a genin, but her claws hurt.

Chapter Text

From Gaara's birth, he had been hounded by the Ichibi's hate.

It was an insistent whisper that grew stronger at night and almost unbearable during the full moon. Once the boy could actually understand Shukaku’s words, the whispers only worsened.

‘I’m the only mother you will ever have. If you release me, I will kill everyone in your way. Give me blood.’

As soon as he learned how to talk, he had asked Yashamaru about the voice. His uncle had frowned and asked him to ignore it. He had also told him to stay awake or bad things were going to happen.

Gaara didn’t know what bad things would happen if he went to sleep. But he always obeyed Yashamaru. Because of that, instead of sleeping, Gaara stayed awake all day and all night. He couldn’t do it alone however, so his handlers turned to soldier pills for help.

He had been taking the pills since his birth.

Gaara hated the pills. He hated the effects that they had on his body. The pills kept him up, but they couldn’t get rid of the deep mental exhaustion that came with not being able to sleep at all. The best he could do was close his eyes and lie down. As soon as he did, however, a masked man came into his room and forced him awake, giving him yet another soldier pill.

The medicine was meant to be taken in moderation and was created with an adult metabolism in mind. Yet, the medicine was the only way for Gaara to stay awake and avoid whatever bad thing Yashamaru said would happen.

And while Shukaku's voice was strongest at night, Gaara always looked forward to it. The kind voices almost always visited him then.

The first voice he had ever heard was that of a woman who always spoke in a gentle voice. She had talked to him often and during the worst nights, she would take some of the pain away. And although she had faded from his memories long ago, at times he felt an emptiness in his heart he could never explain.

The other voices came later and never left. The most insistent of those voices was Fuu. She was a little over three years older than him. She talked to him about her day and about her shinobi training. And while she never stopped talking, Gaara always listened. Sometimes she called Gaara her little brother and other times she called him Gaara-chan. Gaara called her Fuu nee-chan.

The other voice belonged to an older man. He tended to get easily irritated but was never cruel to Gaara. His real name was Roshi, but Fuu told Gaara that the man had a new name and he should start calling him “Mama.” Roshi grumbled the first time Gaara used the nickname. However, his irritation was very mild and part of him thought the man liked it.

On a few occasions, the voice of a calm older man communicated with him. His name was Han and although he spoke with Gaara less often than the other two, Gaara enjoyed listening to him. Han also liked to explain the complicated things that Yashamaru couldn’t. He didn’t understand half of the words, but now he knew why the sky was blue.

The final voice belonged to Naruto. He was young, even younger than Gaara. The first time he tried communicating through the Door, he couldn’t say any words. Instead, Naruto had babbled and sent his emotional impressions. But now Naruto was growing up and Gaara could understand more of what he was trying to say.

His companions said that they were jinchuuriki. It meant that they had a spirit sealed inside their body as well. Gaara guessed that their spirits must have been nicer than Shukaku because they didn't keep them awake all night.

Now that he was a little older, the dosage of the soldier pills had dropped and he only had to take one at lunchtime. Yashamaru always brought him one when it was time to eat.

“Gaara-sama,” Yashamaru said with a small smile, “it’s time for lunch.”

The small boy climbed onto his chair, piled high with cushions, and stared at his meal. Yashamaru was a decent cook and he could make even simple dishes delicious. For the day, he had prepared a goat curry with rice. A soldier pill was sitting next to the dish.

Gaara gulped as he stared as the medicine. In addition to scrambling his mind, the taste was terrible. Once, while he was still learning to walk, Gaara had licked the bottom of the table. He was still not sure which tasted worse.

Yashamaru sat down in front of his own serving.

“Gaara-sama, take your medicine,” Yashamaru ordered with another smile.

Gaara gulped but did as he was asked. He had to take a large gulp of water afterward, but the aftertaste was still strong. Thankfully, Yashamaru’s cooking always got rid of that.

“Let’s eat!” Yashamaru said cheerfully as he took a spoon and started eating.

“Let’s eat!” Gaara parroted before doing the same.

The two ate in silence for the rest of the meal. Yashamaru finished first and watched Gaara eat with a kind smile on his face. When Gaara finished, Yashamaru leaned over and ruffled his hair.

“Did you enjoy the meal?” he asked, “I tried to make it special for you. I know you don’t like the taste of the soldier pills.”

“Yes! Thank you for the meal,” Gaara responded. “It’s good.”

The conversation paused as Yashamaru stood up to take the dishes to the sink. After mealtimes, Gaara usually went to his room to play with his toys, but Yashamaru seemed to like his company while he was cleaning up.

“Yashamaru...” Gaara started and his uncle hummed to tell him he was listening. “Why can’t I sleep? Everyone else sleeps. You too.”

Yashamaru paused before turning back to Gaara.

“Well, Gaara,” Yashamaru explained, “if you went to sleep, something bad might happen. Shukaku is very strong, especially at night. And he’s not very nice, is he?”

Gaara shook his head. Shukaku wasn’t nice at all. Yashamaru smiled at him again.

“It’s best to keep Shukaku away. If you sleep, he could do something bad.”

Gaara nodded in understanding and jumped down from his chair. He went to his room to play. Yashamaru said it was a bad idea to sleep and Gaara would follow his orders. That didn’t mean he had to like it though. Sleep looked amazing.

O-O-O

Naruto is growing quickly, Fuu thought. He could walk and run and had finally figured out how to say “Fuu.” He still called Roshi, “Mama” though, no matter how many times the man told him to call him “Roshi.”

Han had laughed about Roshi’s exasperation until Naruto had turned around, pointed at Han and muttered “Papa.” The memory of Roshi’s laugh of mirth and Han’s shocked eyes would stay with her for a long time.

Following Naruto’s example, Fuu called Roshi “Mama” and Han “Papa.” While she got the impression that Han was exasperated with the nickname, she could tell that Roshi secretly loved his. He didn’t frown when she called him “Mama” and she was pretty sure he had blushed in happiness a few times. She had even gotten Gaara to call them “Mama” and “Papa” too. It was her proudest accomplishment so far.

Her new mission was to get the Kumogakure shinobi to start using the nicknames as well. For some reason, they had started appearing more regularly. Although they claimed they needed the Room to train, she had never actually seen them without getting distracted by Naruto.

Once, she had appeared at the same moment that the blond girl, Yugito Nii, was chasing around Naruto in a game of tag. The older girl had immediately stopped and pretended to get angry at the interruption— to Naruto’s confusion. She left the Room afterward, but not before ruffling Naruto’s hair and saying goodbye.

Another time, she had appeared to find the older man singing a nursery song to Naruto. Unlike Yugito, he didn’t seem embarrassed about his interest in Naruto. Instead, he introduced himself as Killer B and asked her to call him “Lord Jinchuuriki.” She decided on calling him B-sama as a compromise. He liked to rap. While Fuu was slightly entertained with his rhyming, Naruto always looked at him in confusion.

More than two years after Kushina’s death, Fuu had either met or talked to all of the other jinchuuriki. Yet, she had never met the vessels of the Three-Tails and the Six-Tails. She had asked Han about them many times, but even he had no idea who they were. If their Doors weren’t glowing with chakra, they would have assumed there were no jinchuuriki at all.

Fuu had tried to talk to them a few times, but she had only received complete silence. Were they ignoring her or if were they somehow unable to communicate through the Room?

Although Fuu had been talking with Gaara for a long time, he also had yet to appear. Han and Roshi didn’t seem particularly worried about it. Instead, they continued to communicate with Gaara as often as they could. Naruto had also started to talk with Gaara more, although his vocabulary was very lacking. He was learning new words every day, however, so it didn’t seem like that would be an issue for much longer.

On a cool October night, Fuu entered the Room to find neither Roshi nor Han inside. That was not a surprise. They had told her that they might be out on a mission for a few days, if not a few weeks. The Kumo ninja were not there either, so she was completely alone. She knew she would be joined by Naruto soon, however, so she readied the Room for his arrival.

She conjured up a variety of toys. He liked stuffed frogs the most, so she forced the Room to make a lot of them. She also made sure there were plenty of blankets and pillows for them to lie on. Fuu laid down but she didn’t have to wait for long before Naruto appeared.

“Fuu nee-chan!” he screamed before jumping on her with a big hug.

“Naruto-chan! You’re here!” she replied, returning the hug and ruffling his hair.

“Where Mama?” he asked, a pout on his face.

“Mama is on a mission, I don’t think he’s coming tonight,” Fuu explained. “We will have to play together without Mama, okay?”

Naruto pouted and scrunched up his face. Fuu could feel a tantrum coming. Naruto was getting older and more independent, but as a consequence, he was also increasingly obstinate. Now that he was a toddler, temper tantrums were the norm. Fuu winced. Roshi could deal with his moods better than she could.

“I want Mama!” he yelled, tears already beginning to roll down his cheeks. Fuu winced again. It was very difficult to calm him down whenever he got like that.

“Naruto-chan!” she tried, “Why don’t we talk to Gaara-chan? He’s lonely and he would be happier if we talked to him, don’t you think?”

“No! No talk! No talk! I want Mama!” Naruto yelled back.

Why can’t he be a cute little baby anymore? I miss when all I needed to calm him down was a hug. The only strategy she had was misdirection. She blurted out the first distraction she could think of.

“Hey!” she started, “Mama can’t come today, but what if Gaara comes to play with us instead? He hasn’t seen the Room yet, don’t you want to play with him for real instead of just talking to him?”

Her suggestion seemed to stick in Naruto’s mind. In an instant, he stopped sobbing and stared at her with as much contemplation as a toddler could muster. He looked less angry and he nodded at her. Fuu knew Naruto liked talking to Gaara, but it was frustrating to be unable to see him. They didn’t even know what he looked like yet.

Fuu herself was curious about the other boy. Gaara was the last jinchuuriki she had talked to but had yet to see. And he was so bored and lonely at home that spending time in the Room with Naruto could only be a good thing. I just hope that we can actually get him in here.

Mind made up, Fuu took Naruto by the hand and dragged him over to stand in front of Gaara’s Door. She gritted her teeth before she opened the communication link. She had gotten used to the pain that came with touching his Door, but the sensation still burned.

'Hello, Gaara-chan,' she said. 'How are you?'

'I’m okay, Fuu nee-chan,' Gaara answered immediately.

'Gaara-chan,' she continued with her usual cheer. 'Naruto-chan wants to meet you! Can you come and visit us in the Room?'

'Okay,' Gaara answered immediately. 'How do I go?'

'It’s easy! All you have to do is go to sleep! When you are sleeping, you can come visit me and Naruto-chan in the Room,' she explained.

Gaara hesitated before he answered her.

'Yashamaru says I can’t sleep.' Gaara sounded worried. He always listened to Yashamaru, whoever he was.

'Everyone needs sleep. You don’t have to sleep for a long time. You can visit us quickly and then go back home. Naruto really wants to see you!'

Why was Gaara not allowed to sleep anyway? Fuu slept at least nine hours every day, if not more, and she knew that Naruto slept even longer. She had no idea how Gaara could live a life without sleeping.

The mention of Naruto seemed to make up Gaara’s mind because Fuu felt determination emanating from his Door. She couldn’t see exactly what he was doing, because his window was too high up for her. Hopefully she'd grow as tall as Han soon.

Naruto began to fidgeting with impatience.

“When is Gaa-chan here?” he asked with a frown.

“Be patient, Naruto-chan,” she said, “Gaara-chan will be here soon. He needs to go to sleep first before he can come here.”

Immediately afterward, she sensed a presence emanating from behind her. She turned around and saw him in person for the first time.

He seemed intimidated to see Fuu and Naruto because he kept his face down. He had messy red hair, aquamarine eyes, and very pale skin. He had black rings around his eyes, probably a side-effect of his bijuu, much like her orange eyes.

“So cute!” she shrieked as she ran over to Gaara, bent down, and hugged him, picking him briefly up from the ground.

Naruto held onto her but he had moved to stand behind her legs. His mind was presumably trying to connect the Gaara he knew through the Door with the stranger in front of them.

Gaara flinched at the unexpected touch but relaxed when he recognized her voice. It was his first time to see her in person too. He started to return her hug, although he still felt tense under her arms.

“Fuu,” Naruto interrupted and pulled at her hand, “This is Gaa-chan?”

“Yup!” Fuu answered with a cheerful grin. “Gaara-chan is here! Isn’t that nice?”

The two boys looked at each other nervously. Gaara was older and taller and Fuu could tell that Naruto was slightly intimidated. Naruto was not a coward, however. He inspected the older boy once again before coming out from behind her legs.

“Want play?” he asked and extended his hand.

Gaara looked a little surprised at Naruto’s extended hand. He nodded and took his hand tightly. Together, the two boys ran over to the conjured toys and pillows. They were both smiling now, although still wary.

Fuu sighed in gratitude. Naruto seemed to have forgotten about Mama for the moment. Crisis averted.

O-O-O

The Fourth Kazekage, Rasa of Sunagakure, thanked all the gods in Suna that the day was coming to an end. He had tucked in his two oldest children into bed and read through the last of the never-ending paperwork. The Daimyo still refused to increase funds for Sunagakure and had instead decided to invest his money in Konoha. He wondered if he could ethically and legally possible kill the Daimyo. But that was a question for later. All Rasa wanted was a cold beer.

As Rasa opened the fridge to grab his drink, an ANBU operative flickered into his kitchen in panic. Rasa sighed. An ANBU in his kitchen could only mean bad news. He turned his face with a sigh.

“Lord Kazekage!” the ANBU operative yelled before Rasa could ask. “The vessel has been compromised! The container has fallen asleep and the Shukaku has been released!”

“What? How could this happen?” Rasa shouted back. “We have constant monitoring for the vessel. It is never supposed to be without supervision!”

“We don’t know, Lord Kazekage,” the ANBU answered. “Perhaps its handlers have gotten careless now that the vessel is older.”

Rasa swore. Drink forgotten, he slammed the fridge door. All of their careful planning to prevent Gaara from falling asleep had been for nothing. He vowed to himself that he would execute Gaara’s handlers as soon as he got the chance.

With the ANBU at his side, Rasa flickered away from his home. His Gold Dust was the only technique that could stop Gaara. The gold was heavier than the Ichibi’s sand. If he could layer his golden sand on top of the beast, he could subdue the beast and wake Gaara up.

The two shinobi ran to the site of Gaara’s home. For the safety of Temari and Kankuro, the vessel lived with only Yashamaru as a caretaker— the only person allowed to spend long stretches of time with the jinchuuriki.

Even before they arrived, the Kazekage and his ANBU reserves could see the huge body of Shukaku. It was laughing wildly at nothing as it destroyed buildings, most of them residential. Knowing it would be subdued sooner or later, it seemed to be enjoying the time that it was in control by destroying as much of the village as possible.

Rasa grit his teeth and concentrated. Flushed with anger, he summoned chakra. Dark rings appeared around his eyes as the Gold Dust answered his call. Rasa clenched his fists and willed the sand to move at his command.

The sand responded instantly. The air shimmered as his chakra manipulated its movement. With more willpower and thought, a wall of golden sand rose to surround the beast.

Finally distracted, the tanuki spirit looked around wildly in surprise. Before the spirit could react, however, Rasa buried the beast in tons of golden sand. It screamed out in rage as its rampage ended, as abruptly as it had begun.

Rasa felt sweat dripping down his face as he struggled to keep his jutsu concentrated on top of the beast. The bijuu was strong and Rasa was not sure how long he could hold it down. He needed to increase the pressure in order to wake up Gaara and cede control back to the vessel.

He sent a quick prayer to any god that might be listening before he channeled as much chakra from his reserves as he could. He didn’t want to kill his jinchuuriki, but in order to wake him up, he needed to hurt him. He exhaled as the golden sand collapsed upon the Ichibi. Defeated, he heard curses and screams of pain from the Shukaku as the golden sand buried the beast.

Gaara’s screams came soon afterward.

O-O-O

I’m going to get Gaara-chan to come here as often as possible, Fuu decided.

Fuu looked at the boys as they played. While they had been wary of each other at first, Naruto’s persistent cheerfulness had gotten the older boy out of his shell. Now, the two boys were trying to build a fort out of the pillows she had conjured. While Gaara was very careful and neat, Naruto’s fort looked more like a squashed mountain than a defensive wall.

“Gaa-chan! How you make the wall?” Naruto pouted as he looked at his side, frustrated.

“You have to be careful, Naruto-chan,” Gaara answered. “You gotta plan what you need to do first and then move the pillows one by one. Here, let me help you. Pass me a pillow.”

Naruto gave control over the building to Gaara and dutifully handed over a pillow. Gaara tore down Naruto’s hard work and began anew.

Fuu didn’t know if Naruto had ever listened to anyone so intently before. She wished Han and Roshi were there to see the scene. Why had Gaara never been able to enter the Room before anyway? He had said that his caretaker, Yashamaru, prohibited him from sleeping. She didn't understand why. There didn’t seem to be any side effects at all.

As she looked at the boys working on their new and improved pillow fort, Gaara dropped to the floor and clutched his chest as if in pain.

Terrified, she started to run toward him when she felt a sudden pressure going throughout her entire body. She shut her eyes in pain as she collapsed on the floor. Her ribs felt like they were being squeezed from all sides. Her body weighed so much she couldn’t move a finger if she tried. She was unable to control herself at all.

From the ground, she heard Gaara and Naruto both screaming in pain. She was not surprised that a scream escaped her lips too. It felt like her body was being pushed from all directions.

It was the first time she’d felt hurt while inside the Room. Eyes clenched shut, she heard a noise that sounded like a sandstorm spreading throughout the Room. She felt gusts of wind and earth scatter around her body as it moved in the direction of the two boys.

She forced herself to open her eyes. She was greeted with the sight of golden-colored sand converging upon Gaara’s tiny body. She caught a glimpse of Gaara’s red hair before it was buried alive by the moving sand.

She reached her hand out uselessly, trying to get closer to the boy and provide any assistance she could. But she was too late. Before she could truly process the scene in front of her, Fuu was forcefully expelled out of the Room.

She woke up screaming back in her bed in Takigakure. She was trembling so hard that her bed frame rattled. She wanted to check on Gaara and Naruto, but her mind was too frazzled to even attempt to sleep.

Fuu forced herself to take deep breaths in and out. By the time she finally calmed down enough to try her hand at meditating, it was already dawn. Fuu forced herself to enter the Room anyway.

Inside the Room, no one else was there. There were also no more signs of the mysterious sand that had caused all that pain.

She ran to Naruto’s Door, the closest one to hers, and put a hand on it. She could feel Naruto weeping harder than she could remember. Through the Door’s connection, she heard the exasperated words of his caretakers. Although he was still reacting from the attack inside the Room, he was safe for the moment. She sighed in relief.

She ran over to Gaara’s Door next. The sand had been converging upon him. She promised herself to reassure the boy as much as she could. However, when she tried to communicate, she only received silence in return.

O-O-O

Through the Room’s connection, all the jinchuuriki felt the Gold Dust trying to crush them.

Naruto woke up screaming and crying. His screams of pain and fear were so loud that he woke up many of the other children. His caretakers entered his Room, fearing the release of the Kyuubi. They were relieved when a crying toddler soaked in sweat and tears greeted them instead. The caretakers couldn’t deal with a broken seal but they could deal with an orphan’s nightmares.

Roshi and Han were almost impaled by enemy shuriken in the split second they paused to process the pain. Only the quick reflexes that came from decades of training saved them from the attack. They countered viciously and efficiently. Once there were no more enemies, the two shared a look. Instinct told them something had happened to the children. But how? Why?

Yugito screamed at the sudden pain. She squeezed the shuriken in her hands and blood spread across her palms and forearms. While her bijuu healed her injuries, the blood remained on her clothes. Nearby, Killer B fell into the river that he had been meditating on. Only his bijuu’s quick reflexes kept him from sinking to the bottom. Once he emerged, the two Kumo ninja exchanged glances full of surprise and fear. Something had happened in the Room. But what?

Elsewhere, a boy who had vowed not to visit the Room ever again woke up with a scream. As he worked to get his breathing back under control, he wondered if he could ignore the other jinchuuriki for the rest of his life after all.

O-O-O

Fourth Mizukage Yagura Karatachi felt like his body was being squeezed by a giant. He startled awake.

When he opened his eyes, he was sitting behind the Mizukage desk but he didn’t remember how he had gotten there. He stared at a collection of papers on the desk and didn’t know what they said. He didn’t even remember the date.

What the hell happened? The last thing I remember was meeting up with a possible informant.

He stared around his office some more. It looked slightly different than he remembered. There were towers of paperwork on the desks, shelves, and even on the floor. There was also a large map behind him of the Land of Water. There were various pins and markers on the map to indicate battles, victories, losses, and enemy movements.

He frowned. Since when did he need that? Kirigakure wasn't involved in a war.

Yagura reached his mind out to contact his bijuu. Although Isobu preferred to sleep while Yagura worked, he was always ready to talk. If he had been under some kind of genjutsu, then Isobu was too.

'Isobu? Are you there?'

'I’m here, Karatachi,' Isobu answered. He sounded worried. Yagura understood why. A jutsu that was strong enough to affect a bijuu was definitely something to worry about.

'Do you remember how we got here?' Yagura clenched his fist to keep himself from panicking. 'The last thing I remember is going to meet up with that masked man.'

'No. And that’s worrisome.' Isobu hummed in deep thought. 'Don’t panic. We must have been acting under a genjutsu. The one who put it on us might still be nearby. Try to act natural.'

Yagura was not sure how he could act natural considering the circumstances. Nevertheless, he followed Isobu’s advice and forced his heart rate to slow down. He stared down at the papers in front of him, hoping for any kind of answer. He read the top of the letter and checked for the date.

'Isobu?'

'What happened, Karatachi?’

'What was the date when we met up with the supposed informant?'

'October 18, right?'

'Isobu, it’s October 25.'

'Ah, that’s not so bad, Karatachi, only a week.'

'No, Isobu, it’s October 25 three years in the future.'

Isobu almost never cursed and Yagura felt rather than heard his coarse language. What the fuck indeed.

O-O-O

Rasa glared at the two jounin on the execution block. They were the two ANBU whose sole mission was to prevent the Ichibi Jinchuuriki from sleeping. They were kneeling on the hard wooden deck and had their hands tied behind their backs.

Rasa had made a promise to himself and he was going to keep it. How difficult is it to keep a toddler awake?

The Kazekage turned back to look at the beginning of the entire mess— the vessel of the Ichibi. My son.

The boy was not even three years old and he had already killed more people than many of his ninja. Gaara was crying softly as he stared at the ground, afraid and in pain. Getting hit by his technique must have felt like being buried alive. He felt a stab of pity for his son but forced himself to extinguish it.

Gaara’s power was too unstable. If it weren’t for his wife’s dying wishes, Rasa would have already killed Gaara with his Golden Dust. It was the only technique strong enough to subdue the sand of the Shukaku. He hoped Gaara would learn how to control his power. Yet, he also feared that he would have to assassinate the boy for the good of the village.

For now, Rasa would give Gaara more time to learn control before making a final decision. The jinchuuriki were too useful as weapons to waste them. Part of him, probably his paternal side, wanted to love Gaara. But the power and safety of Sunagakure were more important than even his own family.

Rasa screwed his hands into fists before turning over to hear the last words of the failed ANBU. He didn’t pay attention, however. He doubted that they were saying anything important and he had advisors to listen for him. Their words became muttering in the back of his mind, as important as the wind blowing in the background.

The Kazekage gave the order. The ANBU commander pulled back their heads. A second later, an executioner ran a sharp kunai through their exposed necks.

Rasa turned back to his crying son. Gaara was not only his son. He was an asset to Sunagakure. He would either learn how to control his power or he would not. Despite his pity, Rasa couldn’t afford to comfort his son.

“I expect no more deaths, Gaara,” he demanded.

Gaara flinched and drew further into himself. He looked like he wanted to cry more, but he stopped himself. Rasa almost wanted to congratulate him on his emotional control but he couldn’t. He couldn’t get attached to a weapon when it could be lost at any time. Instead, he simply walked past the boy and went back home, not sparing his son a second glance.

Shinobi Rule #5: A shinobi must always put his village before himself.

Chapter Text

Gaara blocked all communication after Shukaku was released.

In Sunagakure, he stayed inside his bedroom, not leaving it except to use the bathroom and to eat. He didn't talk to anyone, even Yashamaru. A few times, his uncle tried to engage Gaara in conversation, but he refused to answer.

He spent his days and nights staring out of his bedroom window at what remained of Suna. Many buildings, which had been constant parts of the landscape, were now gone, crushed under the Shukaku's power and the Kazekage's Gold Dust.

Gaara could still feel the pain of being crushed under tons of sand. His lungs had burned from the lack of air and his body had been paralyzed as the golden sand buried him alive. Naruto and Fuu must have shared his pain because he remembered them screaming too

Even after everything Gaara had done, he still heard their voices trying to talk to him. The most constant one was Fuu, who kept asking him what happened and trying to comfort him. Roshi and Naruto came often as well, although they let Fuu lead the conversations. Gaara wanted to talk to them more than anything but he forced himself to block them out. They didn't need to talk to a monster.

Surprisingly, he heard two new voices. The first belonged to a man named Killer B. He had tried to cheer him up with a song, but his singing was atrocious. Gaara had been happy when the man left

The other voice belonged to an older girl. She had been very direct and asked him what happened with the sand but Gaara refused to answer. She had closed the link with a flash of irritation.

Gaara vowed to block them all. Because of his bijuu, he hurt them terribly. He destroyed a large part of Sunagakure and watched two men die and it was all his fault. He didn't want to hurt anyone ever again.

Han was the one that got Gaara to ultimately break his vow of silence. Like Roshi, Han had tried to open the communication link to ask for explanations without any success. However, a week after the attack, Han asked him something that broke through his conviction.

'How did the Shukaku get out, child?'

'What? How do you know?' Gaara asked before thinking. He winced. He had been unable to keep up his vow for longer than a week.

'We are shinobi, Gaara-chan. I received intel that Shukaku destroyed parts of Suna. You are the jinchuuriki of the Ichibi. Logically, you lost control of your bijuu and destroyed part of the village.'

Han's voice remained calm. He was not accusing him. Instead, he was talking as if he were answering one of Gaara's questions about the world. He could tell that Han was worried about him. Despite everything, Gaara trusted him. He could talk to him about what happened.

'I fall asleep and Shukaku comes out. My father hurt me to wake me up.'

'Who is your father, Gaara-chan?'

'The Kazekage,' Gaara answered immediately.

He hadn't spent a lot of time with him and the man only rarely visited Gaara and Yashamaru's home. His father talked often to his uncle but he spoke very few words to Gaara himself. The execution of the ANBU was the closest he had seen his father in a very long time.

'Your father is the Kazekage?' Han sounded surprised about the fact. Gaara was not sure why, however, so he ignored his reaction.

'Yeah.'

'Gaara-chan,' Han asked again, voice more gentle than he had heard before. 'What happened that night? How did Shukaku get out?'

Haltingly, Gaara tried to tell Han what happened. It took him a long time to tell the full story of destroying the village, getting buried in sand, and watching the execution of his guard. When he finished, Han was quiet, but Gaara thought that the man felt worried. Finally, Han answered back.

'Child, you need to be careful. Your father is afraid that your bijuu will get out and destroy the village. If he thinks you can't control the beast, he will take drastic measures.'

'Drastic measures?' Gaara repeated the unfamiliar words.

'He might get rid of you, Gaara,' Han explained. 'You need to make your father think that you have full control of your bijuu, even if you don't.'

'How?' Gaara asked, desperate.

'It will be difficult. Make him think that you will be a strong shinobi one day. You have to gain control over your bijuu.'

'How? Shukaku is bad! He says bad things to me! Always!' Gaara almost started to cry. The situation appeared hopeless. He had no control over Shukaku at all.

'Ignore him. The beast only wants to see you fail. We don't. Keep the communication open, Gaara. Roshi and I will help you figure out how to control your beast. I promise. And the other shinobi are here, too. I know that B and Yugito tried to talk to you. B is a little strange and Yugito a little harsh, but they are good people. You can trust them too.'

Han paused for a second before talking again, even more gently that time. 'We miss you a lot. Fuu and Naruto especially. They have been crying and want to know when you will talk to them again.'

Gaara felt a pang of guilt. He missed Fuu and Naruto a lot, too. It had been a terrible night, but the limited time he got playing with Naruto was the best moment in his life so far. He had forgotten about it in the aftermath, but he remembered now.

'Promise?' Gaara asked.

'I promise,' Han said. 'Talk to us. We can help. Now, do you want to hear the story of how I managed to defeat a group of Konoha ninja using only my wits and half a sword?'

'Yes, please!' Gaara missed the stories from the other jinchuuriki the most. He felt even more guilty for ignoring them for so long. In the physical world, he sat down and relaxed to listen to Han's story. When it ended, Han said goodbye and made Gaara promise to talk to the others.

By the time Han left, it was past midnight, which was when Shukaku was most active. However, his excitement drowned out Shukaku's voice until it was barely a whisper in the back of his mind.

Invigorated, Gaara looked around. Instead of seeing a prison for a monster, he saw a regular bedroom. He wished the others were there with him, but unlike Gaara, they actually needed to sleep every night. Alone, he went to play with his stuffed animals.

When dawn broke, Gaara left his bedroom for the first time since the Shukaku incident. He sat alone in the living room as he waited for Yashamaru to wake up. His uncle made them a simple breakfast and Gaara ate enthusiastically. That time, when Yashamaru asked him a question, he answered.

O-O-O

As he looked at all of the chaos inside his office, Yagura almost wished he had stayed under the genjutsu. Almost.

The huge pile of documents on his desk detailed the war effort. While brainwashed, the disdain for holders of kekkei genkai had gotten worse than ever before. After all, they made easy scapegoats for the death and destruction that took place in every war.

In addition to the pile of reports, the large map of the Land of Water on the wall behind him was covered in pins and markers to track the war effort. Red thumbtacks that indicated battles were spread throughout the country. Green pins indicated victories while white pins indicated losses. A large blue pin indicated the rumored position of the rebel group.

The fact that his former student Mei Terumi was the leader of the resistance force was one of the biggest shocks. Yagura had mentored Mei when she was only a genin and he had watched her grow into a strong and capable jounin. He was proud of the kunoichi she had become. Although he wasn’t sure how he should feel about her leading a group working to remove him from power and execute him.

He didn't know how anyone could believe he would want to exterminate kekkei genkai. Then again, hypocritical and backstabbing politicians were nothing new in the world, let alone in Kirigakure.

The only silver lining he had been able to find after breaking the illusion was the fate of his family. On his second day back, Yagura had found a hidden scroll that could only be opened with a pulse of Isobu's chakra.

The scroll detailed how his wife and children left Kirigakure for safety. It also contained the first clue if he wanted to follow their trail.

He was happy to discover that his wife Anzu had taken Asahi and Kasumi away from Kirigakure. Based on the scroll, they were probably living in one of the minor countries on the border with the Land of Fire. As an accomplished shinobi herself, Yagura knew that Anzu could blend into the crowds until the Civil War ended and they could return.

He was just happy that, even in his mind-controlled state, he had enough foresight to protect his family. His son Asahi had been five while his daughter Kasumi had been only two when he was put under.

Yagura felt a pang in his chest whenever he thought of them. They must have grown so much in the last three years. I will never get that time back with them.

Even with his mind free and the company of Isobu, he felt like a puppet. Yagura signed what he was told to sign and declared what he was told to declare. He suspected the one behind the illusion was watching. He couldn't afford to show he was free before he found the culprit. For the moment, he would continue to act as he had been doing.

When Yagura was finally done with his fake duties and headed home, he was ready to make plans. He knew that he needed to do something to change everything without raising suspicions.

Unfortunately, thinking was difficult when the voices in his head were talking.

When Yagura became a jinchuuriki, it was during the middle of the Third Shinobi War. Mistrust was high between the villages. Even though he knew about the Room, he never wanted to use it in case it gave enemy shinobi any ideas.

Now, however...

'B-sama! I got monkey! You lose!'

'Hey, fool! The student has surpassed the master! Time flies a lot faster!'

'Butterfly! Did you see how he moves his fingers? I think he'll be ready to start casting jutsu soon!'

'Great job, Naruto-chan! You're doing great! Oh! Yugito-senpai! What's the best way to hold the kunai? My fingers are here but maybe I need to hold it like this?'

'Keep your arm low and relax while your body completes the movement. Use your entire body and make your core tight to avoid injuries.'

Before, no one was dumb enough to visit the Room except by accident. But now Yagura couldn't go to bed without hearing inane chattering. They were there occasionally during the day too, but he was too distracted with the crisis to care for them then. However, at night, he had been trying to block out their conversations with no avail.

The fact that everything was so inane only made it all worse. All he needed to do was come up with a plan to solve the situation in Kiri, but their talking made it impossible. The only thing he wanted was to yell at everyone to just shut the fuck up.

Paranoid and annoyed thoughts crowded his brain as he angrily went to sleep.

O-O-O

For the first time ever, all but Gaara and the two other mysterious jinchuuriki were in the Room. Han was leaning against Gaara's Door. Although the boy couldn't join them, he could listen and chime in whenever he wanted through Han.

The Kumo ninja, Killer B, had admitted that he watched over Naruto during the day whenever the Iwa and Taki jinchuuriki were busy. The Kumo girl, Yugito, often joined them. However, she seemed to be embarrassed to admit that she liked spending time with the toddler.

Fuu had somehow convinced the Kumo genin to teach her a kunai technique. Yugito had refused at first. However, as soon as she got a look at Fuu's glistening orange eyes, she had relented. She had then reluctantly agreed to teach Fuu how to throw three kunai at the same time.

While Fuu and Yugito practiced with the kunai, Roshi was doing some stretching exercises in a corner of the Room. His flexibility rivaled that of many professional gymnasts. Meanwhile, Killer B was playing a shinobi version of Rock-Paper-Scissors with little Naruto. The signs were more complicated than the normal version— a common game to prepare children to learn hand signs later.

All of his fellow jinchuuriki were talking loudly to one another as they played their games or showed off their skills. Fuu had managed to throw the kunai, although her accuracy was dreadful. Nearby, Naruto had won more rounds than B, although he knew the older ninja was going easy on the boy.

Han smiled to himself in contentment. Before the young children joined, he would have never imagined what was yet to come. Every day, he was amazed at how jinchuuriki from five different villages had come to nearly trust each other.

Han hadn't felt so at peace anywhere before.

He allowed himself to relax as he let the conversations flow through him to Gaara. He didn't really pay attention to what the others were saying and instead closed his eyes to meditate. Everyone was happy for now. He would enjoy the peacetime for as long as he could. How often were jinchuuriki happy, anyway?

Unfortunately, peace was only a vague concept to shinobi. While he leaned against Gaara's door, a new and powerful chakra signature appeared in the Room.

Instincts honed by decades as a shinobi make him react as soon as he felt the new presence. Before he consciously knew it, he had jumped to stand in front of the three youngest vessels. He assumed a defensive taijutsu stance, Killer B and Roshi at his sides.

"Yugito-san! The children!" Roshi yelled at the older girl.

In an instant, the girl moved to stand behind Fuu and Naruto, claws out protectively.

All six jinchuuriki turned at once to look at their new visitor.

Han thought that it was a young boy at first. The stranger was very short, even shorter than Roshi, which was saying something. He had short messy grey hair and pink pupiless eyes. A scar ran from under his left eye all the way down his cheek. He looked almost unthreatening. Yet, the Mizukage robes that he was wearing were anything but. A large curved staff was slung across his back and his face was scrunched up in rage.

Taken all together, Han knew that the man was not someone they could deal with easily.

"Will everyone please shut the fuck up!" the Mizukage yelled as he stepped into the Room.

Silence followed as everyone took in his words.

"Ya fool! Ya fool! We have children here, watch your language!" Killer B yelled from his left. On his right, Roshi also looked offended by the choice of words.

"Mama, Papa," Fuu asked from behind Yugito, "what does 'fuck' mean?"

"It's a word only adults can say, Butterfly," Roshi lied irritably. Despite his explanation, he refused to take his eyes off the potential enemy.

"He doesn't look like a grown-up, though," Fuu whined with a pout. "He looks like a kid! Why can he use that word but I can't?"

"I'm not a kid!" the stranger responded, brow scrunched up in rage. "I'm an adult! I can say whatever the fuck I want!"

"Fuck!" Naruto copied with a grin.

Han sighed. The caretakers at the orphanage would have to figure out where he learned that word themselves.

"What do you want?" Han asked, trying to come up with a peaceful solution by projecting a calm voice. "We don't mean any harm. If you leave, we won't have to fight."

"I want you to shut up!" the man yelled while pointing a finger at the jinchuuriki. "Do you know how hard it is to go to sleep with all of you babbling so much? I have a lot to deal with right now in Kiri and your inane conversations are driving me insane!"

"Sorry, but this Room is public use," Yugito replied with a sneer. "Any of us can use it however we want and as long as we want. If you don't want to listen to us talk, improve your mental barriers, you horrible little goblin man!"

Han sighed. He had wanted to end the confrontation peacefully, but he doubted an already angry man would back down after that challenge. He shifted his gaze back to the new man.

The man gritted his teeth in anger and moved his staff into an offensive position. The Mizukage clothes disappeared, leaving him in a black combat-ready outfit. The man took an offensive position while the other shinobi shifted into defense. They stared at each other in silence, waiting for someone to break the tension first.

The man leaped into the air and headed towards Roshi first.

Roshi made a snake sign. He began to spew out balls of lava in the stranger's direction— the scorching rocks jutsu.

But the man was unfazed. A circular pool of water appeared in front of Roshi and his lava, creating a clone in the mirror. The man used the hooked end of his staff to rotate the pool. The clone countered with the same balls of lava and Roshi was forced back with his own attack. The clone vanished, leaving behind only a puddle of water.

While Roshi recovered, Han took the opportunity to rush in from the enemy's blind spot. He heated up steam with his chakra and sent the gathered power to his fists. He leaped to attack and his augmented punch hit the stranger directly in the nose. He felt a second of victory before his enemy turned into water. His eyes widened in surprise. A water clone?

Han was hit on the back by the large staff. He went flying to the opposite side of Roshi, away from Yugito and the children. He landed on his feet, unbalanced, and looked back at the fight.

Killer B had conjured his swords and was trying to slash at their enemy.

But it was still not enough. As with Roshi, a pool of water reflected B’s attack back. The Kumo ninja stumbled back as he faced his own swords. While he was still unbalanced, the Kiri ninja ran up to him and hit B in the chest, muttering something under his breath as he did so.

Immediately, coral began to grow on B's chest. B lost his balance and he fell to the floor, unable to move.

"Oh!" B said, "This fool doesn't monkey around, he has some renown, yeah!"

"B!" Yugito yelled from the other side, "Are you okay?"

"This fool made me eat dirt, but I'm mostly unhurt," B responded. "Keep protecting the children, I wanna hear you cheer on, you dumbass phonies!"

"Don't forget about me, shorty!" Han almost laughed at the irony of Roshi of all people calling someone short. Roshi clapped his hands together and his entire body was covered in a shield of hot chakra. Surrounded by lava, he leaped toward their enemy.

The man’s expression remained calm. Hands moving faster than he thought possible, the stranger spewed out a large wave of water. Under normal circumstances, even a water release jutsu was not strong enough to do any damage to Roshi's attack. However, their opponent was both a jinchuuriki and a Kage. His power was not to be trifled with.

With a scream, Roshi fell to the ground and the water pushed him down onto the tiled floor of the Room.

Han took his chance. While the man was still attacking Roshi, he sent chakra to the soles of his feet and bounded toward the fight. He extended his fist to punch the man before he could notice he was there.

That time, his fist connected with the real body. However, the man was small and he moved to the side at the last moment. He was only able to hit part of his cheek after all.

"Shit," Han cursed under his breath. It had been a while since he had been outranked by an opponent. The relatively small area only made it more difficult. Roshi's attacks were meant for open battlefields, not small and contained rooms. The Mizukage was also too fast and too small for Han to hit consistently. B was the only one that was ideal for the situation, but he was unable to get up with the large weight of coral on his chest.

The wave of water ended and Han successfully landed next to Roshi and gave him a hand to stand up. The two men stood side by side and stared back at their opponent. The Mizukage had stopped trying to attack for the moment, although he was still eyeing them warily.

Han was starting to wonder if the fight might be helpless. He had other techniques, but the small quarters and the presence of the children meant that he couldn't go all out. He didn't want to hurt anyone else by accident.

"Hey, fool! This Room is for everyone, this fighting shtick is overdone!" B cried as he tried to fight off the coral that was still growing on his chest.

"Do you know what kind of shit I have to deal with?" the man yelled in response. "It's a load of bullshit! You people's inane chatting is making everything worse! Leave if you don't want to get hurt." The man moved back to an offensive stance, but he didn't try to attack, expecting their surrender.

Han gritted his teeth. Retreating seemed like the best option. He loved the Room and spending time there. However, if a tiny Mizukage would fight him over the use of it, it might not be worth staying there. He tapped Roshi on the shoulder and lifted Killer B by the collar. Using his chakra steam, he vaulted back to where Yugito was still protecting the children. He kept his gaze fixed on their enemy as he watched his companions from the corner of his eye.

"I think we may need to retreat for now," Roshi admitted. "This is an opponent we can't easily defeat, especially in these close quarters. We may have to limit our time here."

From the other side of the Room, the man was still watching them. He was listening to their conversation but he didn't move closer. He was apparently satisfied that they were considering a retreat.

"What? No! Mama, he can't make us leave! This is our Room, too!" Fuu was furious, her orange eyes full of tears. She hugged Naruto close to her chest— where he began to cry as well.

At Fuu's words, some indecipherable emotion passed through the stranger's pink eyes. Whatever it was, it faded before Han could begin to assess it.

"Your safety is more important, Butterfly," Roshi explained with a grimace. "This di mean man is too strong for us to fight all out right now."

"No! No! No!" From Fuu's arms, Naruto started sobbing. "Don't leave me! I want to stay with Fuu-chan! I don't want to leave Mama and Papa!"

At Naruto's words, the stranger flinched. He looked uncomfortable. Han wondered if he could use his discomfort to their advantage as he was struck by inspiration.

"It's alright, Naruto-chan, Fuu-chan," Han said to the children while keeping his gaze fixed on the man. "We will still talk to each other through the Doors. We just won't be able to appear here together anymore."

"How is Yugito-senpai going to teach me a new technique if we can't see each other?" she asked angrily as her grip hardened on Naruto. "And this is the only place where Naruto has a family! If he can't spend time with us he's going to be so sad and lonely!"

Huge tears fell down her face and onto the floor as she made her case. Naruto had moved to hug her tightly, his face buried in her midsection. The sound was slightly muffled, but they could all hear the boy's bawling.

This Mizukage definitely looks guilty. If Han had to guess, the man was probably like Roshi and Yugito and a bleeding heart for children. It was time to twist the dagger a little more.

"I know, little one," Han said to Fuu. "I don't want to, but he wants us to leave. He wants us to cut each other out."

He gestured to their enemy, who definitely had a look of guilt on his face. He was still holding his large staff firmly in an offensive stance. Nevertheless, he appeared unsettled by the children crying. Fuu turned to the man, her orange eyes their greatest weapon.

"Please!" she said as she stared at the stranger. "We promise we will be more quiet! But don't make us leave the Room! This is the only place we have! This is the only place where I can see Naruto-chan."

At her words, Naruto's hug tightened and the two children held each other like a lifeline. Han wondered how Fuu could possibly be breathing. Naruto was small, but his grip looked like it could crush steel.

The man stopped to consider her for a second. He looked like he wanted to say something but he stopped himself. The man grunted in exasperation and vanished from the Room without answering to Fuu.

Immediately, the coral that was crushing B disappeared and he stopped struggling. The puddles created by the water release vanished as well. Only the six jinchuuriki remained as they gathered their thoughts. They stood together, with only Fuu and Naruto's sniffling to break the silence as their crying petered out. Roshi spoke up first.

"Well, if he comes again, let's just run," Roshi said with a huff. "Not until the kids can defend themselves at least."

"Agreed," Yugito said with a serious look on her face. "He was a truly dangerous opponent."

"We will have to be quieter," Han added. "He has retreated, but if we're too loud, he might come back for a fight."

Roshi sighed and put his hands on the back of his head. He closed his eyes in exhaustion.

"Well, we are all going to wake up with a migraine tomorrow," Roshi said, sounding irritated. "Battling in the Room always does that."

Han winced. He hadn't tried battling or using chakra beyond basic sparring in the Room with anyone for a long time. The last time he and Roshi used the Room to spar, they had both woken up with the worst migraines of their lives. Their bodies couldn't be hurt or die while in their shared mind space. However, any damage had to be reflected back onto their bodies somehow.

"Are we going to see each other again, soon?" Fuu asked in a small voice. Her tears were drying up, but her eyes were still sad.

At her words, Roshi smiled. He went to stand next to her and picked her and Naruto up for a hug. They went along as he held them on his hip.

"Of course, Butterfly," Roshi reassured the girl. "He will keep us apart over my dead body."

Don't jinx it, Roshi.

"Thank you, Mama," Fuu said, a smile back on her face.

From behind him, he heard Yugito's claws finally retracting back into her fingers and toes. She sighed and moved to stand next to B, who was still lying on the floor despite the vanished coral.

"Well, that man kind of ruined the mood," she complained. "I think I'm gonna have to call it a night for now."

Yugito turned to look at Fuu. Fuu wiped her eyes with her forearm before she looked up at the older girl. Yugito smiled.

"Keep your chin up, girl," Yugito said. "Practice the technique I showed you one hundred times more and I'm sure you'll get it."

"Really? You think so?" Fuu already sounded like her normal enthusiastic self.

Yugito smiled at her and nodded. She patted Fuu on the head softly and bent her head down to look at Naruto in the eye. She combed her hands through his hair.

"You too, little brat," she told the boy. "It's time to go to sleep. I will see you all soon. Good night."

At that, she disappeared.

"Yeah, I'm gonna call it a night, too," Roshi said as he put the children back on the floor. "Goodnight."

The other jinchuuriki departed one by one, saying goodbye before disappearing for the night.

Eventually, Han was the only one left. He sighed and he glared once more at the Door that symbolized the Three-Tails jinchuuriki. He was not sure if it was his imagination or not, but the aquamarine chakra signature appeared to glow more than before.

Before turning in for the night, Han walked calmly to Gaara's Door. He hadn't said goodnight to him yet.

Han put his hand on the Door and carefully recounted the events from earlier. When he finished, he wished the boy good night and let his mind leave their jinchuuriki mind space to enter deep sleep. He would need as much rest as he could get before facing the morning. He was not looking forward to the inevitable migraine.

O-O-O

After the disastrous yet exhilarating fight inside the Room, Yagura's return to work was dreary and depressing.

Yagura wanted to act like the illusion was still working until he found the one responsible. He signed all paperwork that any of his advisors brought. He moved tax expenditures to fund weapons manufacturing. He handed out an A-Ranked mission to a new genin team.

He didn't trust his advisors and he suspected that at least some of them worked for the person that put the genjutsu on him. If he tried to tell the village about the brainwashing, he knew that he would simply be put under again. Or worse, he would be executed and replaced with someone more malleable. Despite being the strongest shinobi in the village, he felt completely powerless.

Listening to the chatter in the Room at night was almost a relief at that point. They had been quieter since their fight. Nevertheless, he could hear their voices whenever they got excited, which happened often.

He liked listening to their daily lives. It was a good distraction for him. Fuu's biggest problem was figuring out how to keep a leaf on her forehead using chakra. Naruto learned how to balance himself on one leg. Yugito wanted permission to take the chuunin exams, despite being jounin level already. B kept trying and failing to rap. Unlike Yagura, they didn't have to worry about the Bloody Civil War.

After the disastrous fight, no one had tried to communicate with him. They were undoubtedly relieved that he left of his own will and were hoping he would never visit again. But it had been nice to be away from the façade that was his life, especially for a fight. He wanted to go to the Room again, despite everything.

Yagura needed to get away.

One week after, his mind pulled him into the Room once he fell asleep.

It was very late, past midnight, and the others had inevitably gone to sleep already. The only one there was the incredibly tall man wearing armor. From the hitai-ate, Yagura knew that he was from Iwagakure.

The man tensed when he sensed Yagura. He moved his body into a defensive taijutsu position— expecting a return to their last fight.

"What do you want?" the man asked in a deep and dangerous voice. "You shouldn't have come here."

"Nothing, I just want to get away," Yagura waved his hand to try to calm the man down, "I'm not going to fight you."

Yagura had left behind his staff and his Mizukage outfit from his current manifestation. He wanted to look as unthreatening as possible. However, the man didn't trust him and he didn't move out of his defensive stance. Yagura approved. I wouldn't trust me either.

Yagura shrugged. He didn't want a fight. They might not die or be injured while inside the Room. But the morning after the fight, he had woken up with a migraine worse than anything else he had felt before. The pain had only made his miserable situation worse. Even having his eye torn out and reconnected had paled in comparison.

Instead of talking, Yagura plopped down onto the floor of the Room and looked up at the domed ceiling, examining the strange fuuinjutsu markings engraved above. The tiles felt cold on his body. The temperature had a grounding effect when his mind felt like it was going to float away.

He forced himself to relax and for tension to leave his body. He took deep breaths in and out. He wished the young jinchuuriki were there. They reminded him of Asahi and Kasumi, even though they looked nothing like his son and daughter.

Yagura laid on the floor, not speaking or moving, only allowing his body to relax. The crisis in Kirigakure could wait for an hour.

When he finally stood up and stretched to go to sleep, the man from Iwa was still in the same position, eyeing him warily. Yagura snorted. As if you're worth fighting, old man. That migraine was not worth it.

"Good night," Yagura said, forcing himself to be polite. The man didn't reply.

As he allowed his mind to leave the Room, he noted that the man hadn't moved from his initial defensive position. Get ready to see me again, old man. And often. I'm using this Room whether you want me to or not.

Chapter Text

As winter neared in the Land of Water, snow began to fall. But in the afternoon sun, it melted as soon as it touched the ground. Still, the weather was cold, humid, and overall uncomfortable.

In a large training area at the edge of Kirigakure, thirteen-year-old Utakata trained alone. He took his pipe and put it inside the soap solution. When he blew, instead of the stream of bubbles he wanted, he created a few malformed spheres instead.

Shit. 

Utakata groaned. For the past few months, he had been trying to create a new jutsu. He wanted to reduce the time needed to form the bubbles while also increasing the total quantity. But it was difficult to concentrate on his jutsu when all he could think about was the damn Room.

He had been seven years old, shortly after the Rokubi had been sealed, when he had first seen it. He had fallen asleep and woken up inside a Room just large enough to host a graduation match. There had been nine Doors corresponding to the bijuu, each labeled with kanji for the numbers one to nine. Some Doors had been glowing with chakra while others were dim. Seals he couldn’t ever hope to understand had been written on the walls and the domed ceiling.

After his first visit, he had vowed to never visit again and forced himself to ignore the voices of the others. Sometimes, a young woman had tried talking to him. She had talked about her old village of Uzushio and asked him questions about his life. He had never answered back and had used all his mental fortitude to block out any insights she could gain about him.

Eventually, the woman stopped talking to him and for a few months, it was finally quiet. He sometimes heard the others talking or practicing their jutsu. He ignored them all, although he had to fortify his mental defenses whenever one of them started rapping. They were nothing more than mild distractions in his life.

Everything changed a few nights ago. Utakata had felt an immense pressure building up in his chest. For a terrifying few minutes, he had felt like his entire body had been buried underground. His lungs had burned from the lack of air and his body had been pushed from all sides by an invisible weight. Although the immense pain was brief, it had taken him the rest of the night to calm down. Instinctively, he had known that the Room was responsible, the same way that he knew the other people were jinchuuriki.

After that night, he has tried to send the incident to the back of his mind. However, as the weeks passed and the voices in his head grew louder, he couldn’t.

Frustratingly, he learned a lot about them. Fuu was a young girl who liked to run around and look after a toddler named Naruto. B was from Kumo and liked rapping. Yugito liked teaching Fuu and Naruto basic ninja techniques. For some reason, one of the shinobi had the nickname of “Mama” while another one was “Papa.” They seemed to be the only ones that Fuu and Naruto obeyed without question.

Learning about the strangers made him feel like he was forced to attend a movie blindfolded. He was unable to see what was happening and he had no desire to listen, but he knew the plot anyway.

To make it worse, Utakata’s techniques had gotten sloppy. His mind was too distracted to give his best effort and his progress had stagnated as a result. He hadn’t been able to sleep the entire night, either. His master, Harusame, had started to notice as well. After a few days of mediocrity, he had prohibited Utakata from taking advanced missions.

Utakata knew that his master was worried. He was normally a good student and it never took him long to learn new techniques or improve on his current ones. But now...

My skills are on par with an academy student.

As he bemoaned his lot in life, his master walked into the training area from the house. He was eyeing him attentively, hands behind his back and spectacles low. Utakata tried to refocus. He inhaled and tried his attack again.

Despite his best efforts, the bubbles Utakata formed were smaller than he wanted and popped immediately. He cursed under his breath. He had wanted to impress his master but his jutsu was pathetic.

“You haven’t been acting normal lately, Utakata-kun,” Harusame said as he raised an eyebrow. “Is something wrong?”

“No, Master,” Utakata lied. “I’m fine.”

As soon as he answered, a bubble exploded next to his ear. Utakata startled and fell back. He rubbed his hand over his hurt ear and groaned. The pain would fade in a few seconds, but the sudden pop still stung.

“That doesn’t look fine,” Harusame murmured as he stared at Utakata on the ground. “You’re a chuunin, Utakata. You should have seen that attack coming from a mile away.”

Utakata stared at the ground. It was already embarrassing to be stagnating, but having his master look at him like that was worse. He hadn’t fallen for any of Harusame’s surprise attacks in years.

From the other side of the training grounds, Harusame sighed and began to walk closer. Utakata tensed when his master loomed over him, but Harusame simply extended his hand to pull him back up.

“Really, Utakata-kun?” his master sounded incredulous. “I’ve known you for years. You can tell me what’s wrong. Trust me.”

Utakata bit his lip. He couldn’t talk about the Room.

Information suppression seals were not uncommon. He had seen Harusame use them whenever a shinobi needed to keep intel classified. Sealed information was impossible to be obtained by others, even under the worst torture. Utakata theorized that the seals in the Room must include something similar. He had never felt like saying anything about the Room to anyone.

Even if he had the ability to speak about the shared mind space, it would be a foolish idea. He suspected he would be sent to Torture and Investigation upon his confession. Kirigakure would extract as much intel about the villages and their jinchuuriki out of him as possible. He doubted they would be gentle when collecting the information either.

“I have been having trouble sleeping lately,” he admitted. It wasn’t a lie. Listening to Naruto shriek as Fuu or “Mama” chased him around kept him awake every night.

“Ah, and why is that, Utakata-kun?” Harusame asked next.

Utakata didn’t respond. He couldn’t respond. Instead, he looked away again with his head down and a grimace on his face.

“I see,” his master said with a cunning smile. “I think I know what’s happening here.”

“What?” Utakata asked, staring up at his teacher with a frown.

“Adolescence, of course!” Harusame responded with a smile as he ruffled Utakata’s hair. “My little student is growing up. I knew the day would come, sooner or later.”

“What? No, Master, it’s not puberty!” Utakata looked back at Harusame, face burning. “There’s nothing wrong with me. I just can’t sleep.”

“Oh, and why can’t you sleep?” Harusame was smiling at him now, a victorious look on his face. “My student is growing up. Well, I wasn’t sure when this day would come, but there are many things I need to tell you now that you are older.”

Utakata’s face was on fire and the cold temperature didn’t help. He didn’t need his master to talk to him about something so embarrassing. Unfortunately, he knew Harusame had a good theory that didn’t betray the existence of the Room. He tried to protest again, although that time it was only half-hearted.

“It’s not puberty,” he complained with a small pout. His master smiled again and pulled him by the elbow.

“There’s a lot you need to know,” he said. “Growing up is a magical and confusing time. Feel free to ask me any questions you want.”

Harusame pulled him into the house and took him to the living room. He sat Utakata down on the floor cushions and made his way into a seated position on the tatami floor.

Utakata wanted to escape, but his master was both faster and more experienced than he was. He would be captured again in a heartbeat. He wanted to say that he had already read about puberty in a book, but Harusame wouldn’t accept his excuse. Reluctantly, he settled down for a lecture.

“Now, it all begins with the pituitary gland,” Harusame said in his lecturing voice. “It may be little, but it has big plans!”

Utakata buried his face into the palms of his hands and groaned.

When Harusame finished, Utakata wished he could talk about the Room to non-jinchuuriki from the bottom of his heart. Being tortured sounded better than listening to his master talk about hormones.

“Do you have any questions, my student?” Harusame said with a smile.

Utakata shook his head dumbly. He had learned more than he ever needed or wanted to know. The last vestiges of childhood, which he didn’t know still existed, were trampled away. Still silent, he stood up to walk back to the training grounds. Frustration was better than mortification.

His master gave him a parting smile and got to the kitchen to get started on dinner.

Utakata groaned. At least his teacher was less suspicious. Silver linings.

O-O-O

After his interaction with the ridiculously tall man, Yagura vowed to visit the Room every night, no matter how the others reacted.

In particular, he wanted to catch a glimpse of the two young children again. Even though they looked nothing like his Asahi and Kasumi, they reminded him of his children. For the millionth time, he cursed whoever had used the genjutsu on him.

Yagura knew that if he truly wanted to, he could have tracked his family down. He knew Anzu better than anyone and she had left the beginning of a trail that no one but him could have followed.

If he did find them, however, he would only put them in danger. They would be killed or used as hostages by the political players in Kirigakure in a heartbeat. Knowing Anzu’s abilities, they were safe in another country. He couldn’t risk their lives and safety just to look at them.

But despite his efforts to talk to the others, Yagura was rejected every time. Whenever Yagura entered the Room, the other jinchuuriki would run away— muttering hurried goodbyes and abandoning Yagura to his solitude. The entire situation made him feel unwanted, to say the least.

He knew that their reaction was entirely his fault. He shouldn’t have attacked first and asked questions later.

Yagura left when they disappeared, feeling annoyed and lonely. He reappeared later past midnight when only the tall man was present— standing in front of the Door of the Ichibi jinchuuriki. He was the only one that didn’t immediately run away. 

After their first reunion, the tension between the two had been dropping slowly but steadily.

For the first few days, as soon as Yagura appeared, the man would take a strong defensive position. He would maintain his position until Yagura left. By the second week, the man gave him a wary glare but said nothing. He then continued his conversation with the Ichibi’s container while Yagura sulked. Three weeks after, the tall man only glanced back before placing his hand back on the Door. Meanwhile, the others continued to run away at the sight of Yagura.

Now, it was almost December and he still hadn’t had a real conversation with anyone except Isobu since he broke free of the illusion. Yagura was tired of it. While he enjoyed talking to his bijuu, Isobu liked to sleep too much for him to be a good conversationalist. If the others didn’t want to talk to him, then he would make them.

Trying to keep his body language casual, Yagura walked to stand next to the man. The man tensed slightly but made no effort to stop him or leave.

“You’re always standing next to the door of the Ichibi Jinchuuriki,” Yagura commented. “Is there a reason for that?”

The man hesitated before answering, likely expecting some kind of trap. He seemed to decide that the attempt at conversation was genuine and he pried his hand away from the Door.

“This jinchuuriki has a faulty seal,” he explained. “He’s very young and lonely. Talking to him cheers him up and helps deal with the side effects.”

“What his name?” Yagura asked.

The man hesitated again before answering, “Gaara. Because of his seal, he hears the voice of his bijuu talking to him nearly non-stop. If he falls asleep, the beast takes over his body until he wakes up." He paused before speaking again. "Do you remember feeling a sudden pain about five weeks ago?”

That was when the genjutsu broke.

Yagura nodded. “Yeah, how is that related?”

“Well, the boy disobeyed orders to stay awake and decided to join the other kids in the Room. The beast was released and the Kazekage buried the kid in tons of sand to wake him up.”

Yagura hummed in understanding. Sealing was tricky in the best of circumstances, even when making a simple storage scroll. Messing up on a seal meant to suppress a being of pure chakra was catastrophic.

“Well, that’s just a shitty and fucked up situation, to say the least,” Yagura responded. The man winced.

“Please try not to use coarse language while the kids are nearby,” he warned. “Naruto has been saying ‘fuck’ to everyone for the past month. If Roshi hears you say those words in front of the children he might actually travel to Kirigakure to kill you. He probably won’t succeed, but he will do everything in his power to burn down your village while he’s there.”

Yagura rolled his eyes. “Fine, I’ll try not to corrupt their sensitive little ears.”

Yagura walked to stand in front of the door of the young jinchuuriki. He hovered his hand tentatively over it and glanced up at the man. When the other man didn’t object, he placed his left hand on the Door, cognizant of the scrutinizing stare.

'Hello, little one,' he said to the boy.

'Ah, hello, who are you? Are you new?'

'Yes, kid, my name is Yagura. What’s your name?'

'My name is Gaara', the boy hesitated before continuing. 'Nice to meet you.'

'Nice to meet you, too,' Yagura replied.

'Are you the one that was fighting Mama, Papa, and B-sama before?' 

Yagura winced. Did the boy already think of him as an enemy?

'Yes, that was me,' he admitted. 'I’m sorry about that. I was feeling very angry and I attacked them without thinking. Can you forgive me?'

'That’s okay, I forgive you,' the boy cheerfully replied. 'Are you going to hurt them again?'

'No, I won’t.'

'Do you promise?'

'I promise.'

'That’s good! I wanna talk again, Yagura-san.'

'Thanks, kid. We’ll talk soon, I hope. Goodbye for now.'

'Goodbye!'

Yagura disconnected from the Door and looked up at the tall man. He had been studying Yagura while he talked with Gaara. He seemed to have been looking for something in particular. Whatever it was, he seemed satisfied because he started the conversation that time.

“So Mizukage-sama, what should I call you, anyway?” the tall man asked.

“My name is Yagura,” he answered. “Yagura Karatachi. And you?”

“My name is Han,” the man replied. “Nice to meet you”

He extended his hand. Yagura shook his hand and felt ridiculous as he had to crane his neck up to look at Han in the eyes.

“Nice to meet you, too,” he answered back. “And who are the other ones, anyway?”

Han hesitated again before he spoke. He seemed to wonder if telling him about them counted as a betrayal. He must have realized that Yagura couldn’t get much from basic descriptions, however, because he started to talk.

“Well,” he began, “there is another Iwa vessel. He’s the short red-headed one. His name is Roshi. The little girl is Fuu. She’s from Takigakure. The little blonde boy is named Naruto. He’s from Konoha. The teenage girl is Yugito. She’s from Kumo. The other tall shinobi is Killer B.”

“Killer B?” Yagura asked in surprise. “Didn’t he almost defeat the Yellow Flash in a fight? I didn’t know he was a jinchuuriki.”

“The very same,” Han noded. “B is kind of an idiot though. He likes rapping a little too much, in my opinion. He’s not even good at it.”

Yagura nodded. He had heard B rapping before, including during the fight, and agreed with Han’s assessment. Silence fell over the two men as they awkwardly tried to think of something to talk about. Yagura was the one to break the silence.

“Anyway, there’s something I wanted to say first,” Yagura stated and he brushed his bangs back from his face. “I’m sorry about how I attacked all of you.” He cleared his throat before continuing. “If it makes you feel better, after our fight, I woke up with a bitch of a migraine. I think my advisors thought that I was going to kill them. I’m sure you already know, but the political situation in Kiri is very... delicate at the moment.”

Han accepted the apology with a nod and a grunt.

“I know, I woke up with a terrible migraine, too” he admitted. “It’s part of the Room’s seals. We can’t hurt or kill each other in here. Extensive chakra use counts as trying to kill one another.”

“Yeah, I wish I’d known before attacking any of you,” Yagura replied with a frown. It had felt worse than any hangover he’d ever had. He wouldn’t ever try to use chakra for battling again while inside the Room. It wasn’t worth it.

Han looked down to stare at Yagura more carefully.

“I have a question, too,” he said. “Do you know the identity of the Six-Tails Jinchuuriki?”

“Of course,” Yagura scoffed as he answered. “I’m the Mizukage and he’s one of my citizens. Why do you ask?”

“The Six-Tails jinchuuriki hasn’t talked to any of us.” Han looked back over his shoulder to stare at the Door inscribed with the kanji of the number six. “Kushina might have communicated with him once or twice, but she’s dead so we’ll never know if they ever talked. Fuu and Naruto are curious, too. Fuu especially wants to meet everyone.”

Yagura hummed in thought. The girl had seemed fixated on the idea of everyone staying together as a family in the little time he got to see her. Now that his own family was far away, he could understand her sentiment.

Yagura considered Han’s answer and thought about Utakata. The boy lived a comfortable life with Harusame, the only true sealing master in Kirigakure. He had been mostly kept out of the civil war, safe because of a combination of age, experience, and status as a vessel.

“Sorry, but I can’t,” Yagura finally replied. “Us shinobi get so little privacy already. I don’t want to expose any of my citizens without consent, even to other jinchuuriki.”

“I see,” Han replied with a sigh. “Although I have to say that I’m very curious about his identity. I hope he joins us soon. The girl has been even more curious ever since you appeared.”

“Yeah, well, you know how it is. We get so few choices. The Rokubi Jinchuuriki deserves this little one.”

Han nodded as he stared down at Yagura. "I understand."

“Anyway, I think it’s about time for me to go,” Yagura said as he walked back to his Door. “I enjoyed our conversation. I hope we can talk again soon. And, once again, sorry for attacking you all so quickly. I hope you can all forgive me.”

Han grunted. “I will pass your apology on to the others. I believe they will accept it once I talk to them. The kids, in particular, are very forgiving. Be careful with Yugito, though. That girl is vicious.”

"If you say." Yagura rolled his eyes but nodded and gave a lazy wave goodbye before vanishing for the night. He was just glad that to have conversation partners other than Isobu.

The next night, he entered the Room as had become the norm. That time, instead of running, the others looked at him warily before resuming their activities. Naruto and Fuu played with toys while the red-headed man, Roshi, supervised from a short distance away. They stared at him but said nothing as Yagura walked to kneel down next to Roshi.

“I wanted to apologize for my behavior,” Yagura said as he bent his head down. "I reacted before thinking when I could've handled the situation much better. I’m sorry.”

The other man waved his apology off.

“It’s alright,” Roshi answered. “It’s in the past now. Han told us how you apologized to him and talked to Gaara. That boy needs as much attention as he can get, even if it comes from someone so short and easily-angered.”

Yagura wondered if hypocrisy was contagious. Roshi was at most two inches taller. He breathed deeply in and out, forcing a smile on his face. He gritted his teeth. With a little effort, he kept himself from punching the other man.

From the corner of his eye, he saw the children. They had stopped playing and were instead looking at him curiously.

“Are you usually the one looking after the kids?” he asked through gritted teeth.

“Yeah, and they are a menace. Don’t let their cute little faces fool you. Can you believe that these little brats call me ‘Mama’?” Roshi glared at them. His anger might have been more convincing without the smile at the corner of his lips.

The children grinned back at Roshi from where they were playing on the floor. He obviously called them brats all the time, no doubt with the same dopey smile. Yagura couldn’t help but chuckle. The man reminded him so much of himself. Anzu always used to tease him whenever he started cooing over Asahi and Kasumi.

“Children really are menaces, aren’t they?” he said with a kind smile at the boy and girl. Beaming, they went back to their game, happy to ignore the two adults in the Room. Asahi and Kasumi would have enjoyed playing with other kids their age. As children of the Mizukage, they didn’t get many opportunities to play with others.

Roshi stared back at him. When he saw Yagura’s fond look, he tried to make conversation.

“Do you have your own kids?” he asked, raising an eyebrow in curiosity.

“I do,” Yagura admitted. "A boy and a girl, although they are older than these two. The oldest one is probably starting his shinobi training now. My younger daughter was always so calm and serious, even as a baby. My wife said she took after me but personally, I always thought she was most like her mother.”

He clenched his jaw. Talking about his family was painful and he didn’t know when he would see them again, if ever. Even if he managed to end the war, his descendants would carry the stain of his bloodline for their entire lives. Asahi and Kasumi would hate him for his legacy if nothing else.

Yagura tried to keep his face calm but some of the pain must have shown through because Roshi tensed. Silence fell over the two as Roshi processed the confession. He seemed to understand Yagura’s somber mood because he changed the topic quickly.

“So is the situation in Kiri as much of a... mess as all of the intelligence reports say?” Roshi asked.

Yagura happily accepted the change in topic. “It is,” he admitted. “It’s probably worse than most villages suspect. It was a shock for me as well. I was under a genjutsu the entire time. Now I can’t do anything different without fearing that I will be put under again.”

“Wait... what?” Roshi yelled. “A genjustu?”

The children turned to look curiously at the two men sitting side by side. Roshi winced and waved at them that it was nothing. The boy and girl returned once more to their game.

“A genjutsu?” he asked again, quieter that time.

“Yes," Yagura sighed. "Kiri wasn’t doing great when I went under but it was better than now. When I woke up, three years of war had passed. All but two of my swordsmen had left or been killed. And my former student was the leader of the rebellion to remove me from power.”

“How did you break out of it?” Roshi asked with one eyebrow raised.

“The Kazekage broke it by accident,” he said. “When the Ichibi was suppressed, it created so much pain that the genjutsu broke. I feel like I should thank the Room for that, to be honest.”

“Well, at least something good happened,” Roshi chuckled. “Gaara refused to talk to us for over a week after that. He’ll be happy to know that something good came out of the whole incident.”

Together, the two men looked back to watch fondly over the children. Asahi and Kasumi’s faces imposed themselves over Naruto and Fuu. His heart ached. Yagura hoped that wherever they were, they were safe and happy.

O-O-O

Three months after the incident and sleep still eluded Utakata. His performance had become so pathetic that Harusame hadn’t allowed him to take any missions alone except for D-ranked ones. Even on those missions, his master forced himself as a companion. He said it was “just in case.”

Utakata tossed and turned as he tried to go to sleep. He felt simultaneously hot and cold. No matter how he lied down or how he arranged his futon, he couldn’t get comfortable. He was hearing the voices again. Part of him wondered if he was just crazy and there was no shared mind space at all.

His curiosity was too high to suppress anymore and his jutsu had been mediocre. Harusame still believed his performance was due to hitting adolescence and Utakata was fine with him thinking that. He could tolerate the embarrassment. What he couldn’t tolerate anymore, however, was getting only a few hours of sleep a night. Unfortunately, the only solution was the most dangerous option.

If there was one thing that had been drilled into his mind, it was that Kiri ninja didn’t interact with foreigners. No amount of shared life experience could supersede that.

But there were no other options anymore. No matter how much he meditated and tried to increase his mental abilities, he couldn’t block them out. Even at the moment, he could hear voices that belonged to Fuu, Naruto, Mama, and a stranger.

Utakata gave up. He stopped fighting the instinct that had been calling to him since the Six-Tails was sealed. When he closed his eyes to sleep, his mind pulled him from the safety of subconscious thought and into the large circular Room he had seen only once.

He felt his mind push open a Door. When he opened his eyes, he was standing in front of a dark blue Door marked with the kanji for “six.” The other jinchuuriki turned immediately to stare at him. Utakata stared back warily, taking in the scene. He flinched when he saw who was standing next to a short red-headed man.

“Mizukage-sama?” he shouted.

“Utakata-kun?” the Mizukage replied. His eyes were wide and he sounded surprised. However, unlike Utakata, his voice was carefully controlled.

Utakata could not contain his disbelief. Was he dreaming? “You’re a jinchuuriki?”

The Mizukage looked back at the boy and shrugged. “Yes, I’m the vessel of the Three-Tails. Not that many people know." He scratched the back of his neck. "Even many of my own advisors don’t know. If they did, Isobu would have been extracted long ago.”

Utakata gulped. He hadn’t expected to meet another Kirigakure ninja in the Room, let alone the Mizukage. He tried to get his breathing back under control before speaking. If he insulted him, the Mizukage could decide that Utakata would be better off dead. Or worse, he could threaten Harusame. He forced himself to exhale.

“Did you know I was a jinchuuriki?” Utakata asked the man. He cringed when his voice came out shaky.

The Mizukage rolled his eyes and snorted. “Of course! Harusame sealed the Six-Tails under my orders, after all. You have a naturally high chakra capacity that makes you ideal to housing a bijuu.”

Utakata had only wanted to enter the Room to sate his curiosity and to be able to sleep. He hadn’t expected the world to be turned upside down. The man responsible for the violent civil war not only had Utakata’s life in his hands but was also responsible for his existence.

It was a lot more information than he had wanted. But Utakata couldn’t run away now. The Mizukage knew where he lived. He needed to have as much emotional restraint as possible. He forced himself to take a deep breath in and out. He clenched his fists to keep them from shaking too much.

He tried to say something back, but the words caught in his throat. He wasn’t even sure what he could say. That he hated the Mizukage’s guts for starting the Bloody Civil War? That he wished he would just die and leave a new and better person in his place? He liked his head where it currently was.

Thankfully, he wasn’t the one to break the silence.

“Hey, kid, my name’s Roshi,” the short red-headed man said with a wave of his hand. “This little girl is Fuu of Takigakure and the little blond terror is Naruto Uzumaki.”

At his introduction, the two children waved at Utakata. They had been building a tower using wooden blocks, but at Roshi’s words, they stood up.

“Hello! I’m Naruto Uzumaki!” the little boy said while pointing at himself with a tiny thumb. He was blond and blue-eyed and his cheeks had whisker marks on them.

“My name is Fuu! What’s your name?” the girl said with a big smile. She was dark-skinned and had short green hair and large orange eyes that could hypnotize anyone. She moved closer to him and Utakata forced himself not to step back. She was just a little girl. What could she do?

“Utakata,” he answered simply as he allowed the child to get closer.

“Wow! You’re tall!” she said. “I’m so happy you’re here because you are the last jinchuuriki to join the Room! Oh! If Naruto and Gaara are my little brothers, Yugito is my big sister, and I have Mama and Papa, does that make you my big brother?”

Utakata flinched and took a step back. “Big brother?”

“Yup! You’re older than me but younger than Yugito, so that makes you our big brother,” she said with complete certainty before turning to look at Naruto. “Isn’t that nice, Naruto-chan? You have a big brother now, too!”

Utakata was confused. He wasn’t sure how he became the big brother to three children when he hadn’t even said ten words to them yet. The boy looked contemplative and walked to stand next to Fuu. He studied Utakata with a concentrated look on his face. He took the sleeve of his yukata in his hands and pulled on it.

“Utakata-nii, why you have pajamas?” he asked and he moved the hem closer to his eyes to examine it.

Utakata pulled his sleeve away from the boy’s hands, “I’m not wearing pajamas! This is my yukata! Don’t touch it!”

From behind the children, he heard Yagura chuckling next to the red-headed man, who was full out laughing. Utakata listened to his peals of laughter and couldn’t stop himself. He clenched his fists so hard that if it were the real world, his palms would have been bleeding.

“How dare you laugh?” he yelled at the Mizukage. “How dare you be so carefree? End the stupid civil war if you have enough time to spend with foreigners! The Land of Water is suffering so much already because of you!”

The Mizukage’s laughter stopped immediately. He looked up at Utakata with an indecipherable look on his face. At once, the children ran back to stand behind Roshi. Fuu whispered something in Naruto’s ear but Utakata couldn’t hear them. He was too furious at the Mizukage to care anyway. The temperature in the Room seemed to drop as Utakata and the Mizukage faced each other.

“Of course I’m working on ending the war,” he said. “But it’s a complicated situation, worse than you could ever imagine. The truth is that—”

“I don’t care!” Utakata interrupted before Yagura could give his excuse. “You’re supposed to protect the village. If you can’t do that, get someone who can!”

Before the Mizukage had time to respond, Utakata turned around and forced his mind to depart.

Shit. I probably shouldn’t have insulted the man who holds my life in his hands, he thought as his mind drifted to sleep for the first time in weeks. 

The next morning, he woke up feeling refreshed and well-rested for the first time in months. Part of him was surprised that he hadn't been murdered in his sleep. Anxiously, he checked in on his master, but Harusame was sleeping, snoring lightly. Utakata sighed in relief. Despite learning something he hadn’t wanted to, his curiosity was finally satisfied.

Still, he couldn’t help but worry. He had insulted the most powerful man in the country and run away immediately afterward. He doubted life would go on as normal. For the rest of the day, Utakata feared that the Mizukage would take him and his master for execution. However, the day passed by like any other and Utakata resigned himself to keep living.

During training, he was able to complete all of the katas that his master prepared and more. Satisfied, Utakata smiled as he blew a stream of bubbles that exploded on impact. His master’s satisfied nod at the strength of his jutsu made his heart warm up with happiness.

In the afternoon, as he was getting ready to take a nap, Utakata heard someone talking to him through the Room. It sounded like the voice of a young woman.

'Hello, are you Utakata-san?'

He hesitated for a second before answering. 'Yes, I’m Utakata. Who are you?'

'My name is Yugito. Roshi-san told me what happened yesterday. Is it true that you chewed out the tiny Mizukage for being lazy and irresponsible?'

Utakata winced. When she put it like that, he couldn’t believe his head was still attached to his neck. 'Yeah, I did. But that’s only because he pissed me off so much!'

The woman laughed. 'Good, good, I’m glad someone finally put that little pipsqueak in his place. Roshi-san said that his jaw dropped when you yelled at him.'

'Well... I wouldn’t know, I left soon afterward,' Utakata said.

'Doesn’t matter. You’ve got some guts kid,' she told him. 'Come and join us. The Tiny Terror isn’t here and I want to congratulate you face to face.'

'Are you sure that--'

'Yes, I’m sure. Just come and join us. Only B and I are here.'

Utakata sighed. He had only wanted to sate his curiosity in order to ignore the others for the rest of his life. Still, he did as he was asked. The woman had asked nicely, after all. It helped that she had insulted the Mizukage.

He sat in a lotus position to meditate and soon enough, his mind manifested itself inside the Room. There was a kunoichi— barely older than him— standing with her hands on her hips, analyzing him. Next to her was a tall dark-skinned man with his arms crossed.

“Congratulations, kid,” the young woman said, eyes full of glee. “I’ve been wanting to insult that angry Mizukage and not only have you done that, but you’ve actually gotten away with it. Congrats!”

“Oh, yeah! That fool didn’t know what was coming, my heartbeat was drumming,” the man said. “My name is B but you can call me Lord Jinchuuriki, ya dumbass phony!”

At these words, the man struck a pose to show off his large upper body muscles. Utakata couldn’t help but feel intimidated as the man loomed over him. The man was much taller and physically stronger than he was.

“Yes, Lord Jinchuuriki,” he replied, slightly nervous as he took a step back.

At his response, Yugito rolled her eyes and slapped the man on the arm.

“Call him whatever you want,” she said with a serious voice. “He isn’t and has never been the Lord of anything.”

“Yugito-chan, don’t be scary,” B argued back although he didn’t sound particularly bothered by her words.

Are they really jinchuuriki? They look so happy and friendly.

Yugito rolled her eyes again before turning back to Utakata. They obviously knew each other well if they could bicker like that.

“But seriously, kid,” she said, her face lowered and her eyes kind. “I’m glad that you said something to that arrogant little man. If you ever need anything, get in contact with us. I have the Two-Tails and B has the Eight-Tails. You can touch my Door if you want to talk.”

“B doesn’t look like it, but he’s a very strong shinobi," she continued. "He can teach you a new technique or give you feedback on one of yours. He’s surprisingly smart when it comes to ninjutsu and kenjutsu. He’s just an idiot with everything else. I’m focused more on taijutsu, so if you want, we can spar together. Nothing serious, though, I don’t want to wake up with a migraine. What do you say?”

“Oh... uh... thank you,” Utakata replied, embarrassed. He didn’t know it would be so easy to get new training partners. Part of him thought that they were only trying to manipulate him, but they didn’t seem to expect much from him.

“You’re welcome,” Yugito said as she put her hand on his shoulder and squeezed. “Please try to come often. This Yagura is a bastard and the children are menaces, but it would be nice to have someone like you here too. Will you visit us again?”

Before he knew what he was agreeing to, Utakata was nodding at her question. He would try joining them in the Room occasionally, even if he ran into the risk of meeting the Mizukage.

At his nod, the two older ninja smiled down at him. They looked so happy at the possibility of making a new friend and training partner. His heart seemed to skip a beat.

Maybe visiting the Room isn’t so bad after all.

Chapter Text

As Tsuyoi-sensei gave their mission report to the Raikage, Yugito thought about Utakata.

He was the newest jinchuuriki in the Room and she already liked him much more than the short-tempered Mizukage. Han and Roshi had told her that the man, Yagura, was repentant about his actions. But Yugito was not the type to forgive and forget. And unlike the older shinobi, she hadn’t gotten the chance to let her frustration out.

But she liked Utakata. He didn’t enter the Room often but he responded whenever she tried to talk. Through his Door, he provided friendly conversation during the day or whenever she was bored. Although he was a little awkward and apprehensive when talking to her or B, Yugito couldn’t help but admire him. Utakata had guts and determination and he was willing to say his real thoughts. After all, how many other people would dare to defy their Kage?

Although he was younger by three years, they had similar experience with an almost equal number of missions. The other jinchuuriki were either far more advanced than her or babies in her eyes. Utakata was a professional equal.

The few times he had turned up in the Room, they had sparred with one another. While she was a close-ranged fighter, he fought from a distance and used bubbles in a variety of imaginative ways. She thought that if they were in a team, they would have complemented each other well.

Yugito was envious of him. Unlike her, he was already a chuunin— promoted when he was eleven years old after only a year of active service. Yugito, meanwhile, had been a genin since she was eight. She had never even been given the chance to participate in the chuunin exams.

Thinking about the situation only served to make her resent the Raikage. She enjoyed her work, but she hated the total control A had over her life. Part of her wanted to scream in his face that he couldn’t control her anymore.

Inside the Raikage’s office, however, she forced herself to keep a passive face. He was her leader and she owed her allegiance to him, no matter what.

Yugito looked at the two other kunoichi that surrounded her.

Samui and Mabui sympathized with the burden that came with being the vessel to a bijuu. But they had their own lives and reputations to improve as well. She knew they resented her for their lack of advancement. Despite their many completed missions, there had been no promotions or chuunin exams.

Yugito understood A’s fears. If she were to participate in exams held in Kumo, clients would petition her for dangerous missions. Meanwhile, if she were to take the exam elsewhere, her safety would be compromised and there would be a risk of desertion. No matter what, her value as a vessel was more important than her value as a shinobi.

B was the only one that truly understood her frustration. B hadn’t been allowed to leave the village since the Third Shinobi War had ended. Like Yugito, he was locked up in the relative safety of the Land of Lighting.

She knew that her skills were those of a chuunin, if not a jounin. All she wanted was the recognition through a professional title. That Utakata already had that promotion only managed to get under her skin. Besides, B had promised to tell her how to tame her bijuu only if she became a chuunin.

A was passive as he listened to Tsuyoi-sensei’s report. Her teacher finished speaking and A gave them all a sharp nod. Yugito could tell that they were dismissed. Next to her, Samui and Mabui turned around to leave the office. However, they stopped when they heard Yugito clear her throat.

“Permission to speak, Raikage-sama?” she asked.

“Permission granted. What do you want, Yugito?” A said as he glared from behind his desk. Samui and Mabui turned back to stand at her sides, a team united. They glanced at her in confusion but focused their gaze back onto their Raikage.

“Raikage-sama,” Yugito began. “I would like to formally ask for permission to take the chuunin exams with my team later in the year. I heard rumors that Iwagakure is holding the next series of exams in February.”

“I don’t know where you get your information from, Yugito." A's glare hardened, contemplative and furious.

A lesser ninja would have frozen under his fierce glare, but Yugito had confronted a creature made out of pure chakra in her mind. Even the Raikage paled in comparison to the Two-Tails. Her teammates remained calm and collected next to her, although Tsuyoi-sensei tensed. Yugito stared back impassively, refusing to be intimidated.

A gave her a final look and sighed, leaning back in his chair. Some of the tension left the room as the Raikage stretched his arms over his head.

“I guess it’s about time for you brats to be promoted,” he grunted. He gave her one final contemplative look.

“Fine, I give you permission to take your genin team to Iwagakure,” he said as he opened a drawer in his desk to take out some paperwork. “You will all need to sign and submit these documents before January 31. Iwagakure is a nominal ally. Still, I don’t need to tell you that any information about your bijuu needs to be kept under wraps.”

“Of course, Raikage-sama,” Yugito kept her voice mild, but inside she was singing and dancing with joy. From the aura emanating from her teammates, she knew that they felt the same way.

“Thank you very much for the opportunity, Raikage-sama,” her sensei said as he bowed to A.

The Raikage nodded in acknowledgment. He handed each of them a document. She took the paper reverently in her hands.

Yugito looked down at the form and smiled. After she passed the chuunin exam, she would be at the same level as Utakata and B would take her to Genbu. If she gave a good enough showing, she might even be promoted directly to jounin. She would love to bypass the chuunin rank entirely.

The three genin bowed down to the Raikage before turning to leave the office. The paper felt like hope inside Yugito’s hands and she was sure Samui and Mabui felt the same way. She was excited to finally leave Kumogakure, too. If she was lucky, she might even see Roshi or Han in person.

One can only hope.

O-O-O

After the Shukaku incident, Gaara’s monitoring increased ten-fold. He couldn’t close his eyes for more than five seconds before a masked ninja flickered next to him and shook him awake. They moved so quickly and appeared so suddenly that the sand fought back, perceiving a threat.

His mind was already exhausted enough as it was. The constant interruptions from his guards added to that. To make it even worse, he couldn’t enjoy storytime the same way anymore.

Roshi was telling him, Naruto, and Fuu a story about how he had protected a beautiful princess from the monstrous Aburame clan using his lava release. According to Roshi, he had fought beetles that drank human blood with only his legs after his arms were broken. The story was immersive and Roshi was the perfect storyteller. Even Fuu was quiet, speaking out in surprise and wonder only at appropriate moments.

Gaara leaned back against his bedroom wall and closed his eyes. He wanted to imagine himself sitting next to Fuu and Naruto, listening to Roshi’s story with them at their sides. Of course, as soon as he closed his eyes, his guard came and shook him violently.

The sand reacted instantaneously at the perceived threat. It threw the shinobi far away to the other side of his bedroom in the blink of an eye. The ANBU’s scream sent Yashamaru running inside soon afterward.

“Gaara-sama! What happened?” he shouted. “Is everything okay?”

Yashamaru was greeted by the sight of Gaara, shivering and wide-eyed, leaning against the wall. An ANBU operative groaned on the floor, a small pool of blood underneath him. The sand was sprawled between them, inert and innocent. His uncle analyzed the situation, sighed, and ran to the ANBU’s side.

“Yashamaru... I’m....” Gaara wanted to apologize but Yashamaru shook his head. Gaara never liked to hurt people but the sand always reacted too quickly for him to control.

Yashamaru hummed in concentration. He bent down to examine and treat the injured ANBU, voice low.

Gaara couldn’t watch. He ran out of his bedroom. No matter what happened, he kept hurting people. He hurt the villagers and because of him, his old ANBU guards and many of Sunagakure’s villagers were dead.

Gaara ran into the bathroom. He felt nauseous and like he could throw up at any moment. He looked at himself in the mirror and saw eyes wide open in panic.

His head was pounding with the blood circulating through his body. His heart was thudding violently in his chest. When he looked down at his hands they were shaking. Vaguely, Gaara realized that he didn’t remember the last time he took a breath.

He forced himself to take in air. When he exhaled, there were tears on his cheeks. Gaara collapsed next to the toilet onto the cold floor. His stomach felt like it was turning around over and over. A sob escaped his lips.

He heard a voice calling his name. It sounded like someone he should know, but he couldn’t place it anymore. Who is calling me?

'Gaara! Gaara! You are having a panic attack. Please, count with me.' Gaara really felt like he should recognize the voice.

Count?

The voice must have read his mind because it replied quickly. 'Yes, it will help you, I promise. Four and breathe in, four and breathe out, okay?'

Gaara didn’t know anything anymore, but he felt like he could trust that voice for some reason. His breathing was shallow and he wasn’t sure if he could get any air anymore.

'When I count to four, you inhale, then I’ll count to four again and you exhale, all right?'

'All right.'

'One, two, three, four, breathe in.' Gaara forced his lungs to inhale.

'Good job. I’m proud of you. Now, one, two, three, four, breathe out.' Gaara exhaled shakily. He still didn’t recognize who was talking to him, but at least now he knew that the voice was friendly.

'Great, one more time, one, two, three, four, breathe in.' That time, the inhale was easier.

'Wonderful, you’re a very strong boy, Gaara, one, two, three, four, breathe out.' Gaara exhaled.

The voice made him count and breathe a few more times. By the fifth exhale, he realized that the ground was very cold. By the tenth, he realized that the mysterious voice was Roshi. By the fifteenth, his breathing was finally back under his control. However, tears were still falling down his face.

'You did it, Gaara. I’m proud of you.'

'Thank you,' Gaara answered. He was thankful. No one ever told him those kinds of words. Yashamaru was kind, but he was distant and didn’t talk to Gaara that often.

Roshi hesitated before talking again. 'Do you want to talk about it, Gaara?'

Gaara's eyes welled up with tears. 'I wanna see you!'  He cried. 'I don’t like it here. I hurt people a lot. The sand doesn’t do what I want it to do.'  He wanted to see and touch everyone in the Room. They talked to him all the time but, in the real world, he was always alone.

'I know you can’t join us by sleeping, Gaara,' Roshi said. His voice sounded sad. 'But you might be able to gain better control of your power and your bijuu by meditating.'

'Meditating?'  Gaara wiped his tears with his sleeve. 'What’s that?'

'It’s a way of making yourself calmer and training your mind. You focus and think. If your mind is strong, you might be able to gain better control over your power.'

'Really? It’s possible?' Gaara's heartrate quickened.

'Possible, but I can’t guarantee anything, Gaara.'

'Okay, Mama, how do I do it?' Gaara thought it sounded too good to be true. How could thinking more make his control better? But Gaara was ready to try anything. He was tired of hurting other people.

'First, find a comfortable place to sit or lie down. I don’t know about you, but lying down next to the toilet is not my first choice.' Some of Roshi’s humor was present in his voice and Gaara realized he was still on the floor next to the toilet.

He stood up and moved to the living room instead. Yashamaru was not there. Gaara guessed that he was still with the ANBU guard. He climbed onto the sofa and sat cross-legged on top of the cushions.

'Now what?' Gaara asked.

'Make sure to breathe normally. Focus on your breath as it goes in and out of your body. Don’t think about anything else but your breath.'

Obediently, Gaara followed his instructions. There was only one problem now. As midnight drew nearer, Shukaku’s whispers were becoming more insistent.

'I hear Shukaku,' he complained to Roshi.

'That happens,' Roshi replied. 'But there will always be something that can distract you. Noises from outside, the blowing of the wind, dogs barking... Think only about your breathing when you start getting distracted.’

Dutifully, Gaara thought about his breathing. He could feel his lungs expanding and his body breathing in and out. He forced himself to ignore Shukaku for the moment.

After a few minutes of breathing, Gaara felt a pull from somewhere inside his stomach. He blinked and when he opened his eyes, Gaara appeared inside the Room in front of three pairs of surprised eyes.

Gaara blinked again. He had never expected to be able to join the Room again. Fuu and Naruto looked a little older than he remembered them. The short red-headed man must have been Roshi because he was touching a Door that could only be Gaara’s.

But Gaara didn’t get a chance to truly look before green and blond hair blocked his vision. Without hesitation, Fuu and Naruto ran toward him and wrapped their arms around him.

Gaara flinched. Why were they holding him? Even Yashamaru refused to touch him because of the sand. In the Room, however, there was only Gaara and the sand was in another world.

“Gaara-chan! You’re here! I can’t believe it. I’m so happy,” Fuu whispered in his ear. Naruto’s cheek was touching Gaara’s and at Fuu’s words, he nodded in agreement.

Gaara returned their hugs tentatively at first, afraid that they would disappear at his touch. But when he felt a tear fall down from Fuu’s face onto his own, he returned her hug desperately. Naruto also clung more tightly. His tears blended with Gaara’s own. Gaara never thought that he would ever see them again

Roshi walked closer and put one hand on his shoulder and another on his head. “I’m very happy that you were able to meditate correctly, Gaara-chan," he said. "I suspected you might be able to join us that way but I didn’t want to get your hopes up."

Gaara struggled to move his head from the tight hold to look up at Roshi’s face. The man was smiling down at him and combing through his hair. Gaara smiled back. For once, he felt wanted.

But now that he was in the Room, he worried. Last time, Shukaku had gotten loose. Will it be the same this time?

With reluctance, Gaara stepped back from their arms. As much as he wanted to stay with them forever, he didn’t want to release his bijuu again.

“Can Shukaku get out when I’m meditating, Mama?” Gaara asked.

“Usually not because your mind and body are awake.” Roshi pulled on his beard while thinking. “However, whenever you meditate, there is always a risk of falling asleep. But you will gain better control over your mind and body as you grow up. For now, I would not recommend trying to stay here for more than ten minutes without checking back on your body.”

Gaara nodded and looked at the other two children.

“Wanna play?” he asked them and extended his hand. Fuu and Naruto smiled and took it. They nodded as they squeezed his hand.

“What do you think of playing tag?” Fuu asked.

Gaara nodded in agreement. He didn’t know what the game was, but he was ready to try anything. If he only got ten minutes in the Room, he wasn’t going to waste it.

O-O-O

For the past few weeks, Utakata’s words had been bouncing around Yagura’s head.

You’re supposed to protect the village. If you can’t do that, get someone who can!

For a long time, he had been thinking about how he could improve the situation as the Mizukage. But now he knew he was no longer the best person to take charge. Someone else needed to take his place.

Yagura thought about the qualities that made a good Mizukage. That person would need to be the strongest ninja in the village. They also needed to have the heart and compassion necessary to protect its citizens. The new Mizukage would also need to have an ideology opposite from his if he wanted things to get better.

There were many people that embodied those precious traits in one way or another. Ao the Byakugan Killer was strong but inflexible and traditional to a fault. The members of the seven swordsmen were among the strongest shinobi in the world. However, all of them cared more about titles than people.

Mei Terumi was the only one who met all his criteria. She was still very young, but she had complete control over two kekkei genkai. She was kind to others and had a strong mind and heart.

But Yagura couldn’t abdicate and put her in place. If he did, Mei would be torn down by his supporters. Her own supporters would abandon her if he was the one that gave her the position. There was only one solution. If he wanted the village to accept her, the Fourth Mizukage needed to die.

Yagura had come to terms with death many times before, of course. It was an occupational hazard. During the graduation exams, he had almost been speared through the stomach.  On a mission as a chuunin, a Kumo ninja had thrown a kunai through his face. It had torn out his left eye and created the large scar that ran down his cheek. Once, he had forgotten his wife’s birthday.

Yagura was more than ready to die at Mei’s hands. But he knew Mei. Her heart was still too soft. She had Ao the Byakugan killer on her side and the loyalty of two of the swordsmen. She knew his techniques almost as well as Anzu did. She could have tried to depose him at any time using all her resources but she hadn’t.

She wouldn’t try to kill him, not until it was too late and Kirigakure had fallen even deeper into ruin. But if he wanted to improve the village, he had to harden her heart and make sure that her attack was genuine. They needed to talk.

Creating a water clone was easy and any Kiri genin could make one before graduation. Creating a clone with enough conscience to act independently was much more difficult. It required a huge amount of chakra to impose his will on another entity. Thankfully, Yagura had chakra to spare.

He formed a Tiger hand seal. His copy stared back at him, face impassive.

'Are you sure about this, Karatachi?' Isobu asked.

'As sure as I’ve ever been. There’s not much I can do anymore. Mei is strong. She will be an amazing Mizukage.'

Yagura’s clone made his own hand seals and transformed into mist.

He allowed the clone to escape using a small gap in the window of his bedroom. The cloud of mist departed to find Mei. Yagura had intel on her rumored location and the clone knew where to go.

Yagura lied down on his bed. He wouldn’t know if his mission succeeded until the clone dispersed. For the moment, all he could do was wait.

O-O-O

Mei Terumi had always been a night owl. Nights were calm and quiet— perfect for training. 

Ao had forbidden her from training alone, but she had never liked listening to him. If she became Mizukage, he would have to obey whatever she said. The thought of stoic Ao forced to obey her every whim brought a smile to her face.

She stood on the ice that covered the lake and moved to her next kata. As fast as she could, she made the necessary seals for her Lava Monster Jutsu.

As soon as she finished with the bird hand seal, she spat out a wave of lava that melted through the frozen lake. She smiled in self satisfaction. Her technique was fast, but not fast enough.

Mei prepared to try her technique again. She would only become the Mizukage when she was the strongest in Kirigakure. Yagura was still much more experienced and had better reaction times.

She felt a familiar pain in her chest when she thought of her old teacher.

Yagura had been such a good teacher. He was hot-headed and a little impatient, but he had always taken care of her. He had taught her almost everything about being a ninja and he had mentored her when few others would have. He was the first shinobi to ever praise her for her kekkei genkai.

Which was why, when she heard the news that the Mizukage had refused to protect holders of kekkei genkai, she couldn’t believe it. Where had her sensei gone? Who had taken his place?

She had been sure that an impostor had taken Yagura’s position. She had snuck into the Mizukage’s office one night, intending to assassinate the person impersonating her teacher.

However, instead of a fake, she had sensed the unmistakable chakra signature of Yagura Karatachi. Not only of her sensei, but of his bijuu. Confronted with the truth, she had run away with Zabuza Momochi and Ao the Byakugan Killer a few hours later.

Her supporters and fellow rebels came later. Soon enough, the Land of Water was divided in two by yet another civil war. On one side were the supporters of Yagura's regime while on the other stood Mei and her allies. The war had continued for over three years. In those three years, hundreds if not thousands had died, most of them civilians.

Thinking about Yagura brought an old and familiar ache to her heart. She tried to ignore that feeling, but it was impossible. Yagura was and would always be a precious person in her eyes, no matter what he did as Mizukage.

Under her feet, the ice had melted completely and she used chakra to stand on the water. She stared down at her reflection on the lake, illuminated by the full moon. Thinking about Yagura brought his face to mind. She could almost imagine him standing next to her.

She stared at her reflection some more and frowned. Her mind must have been more exhausted than normal because the face of Yagura turned to stare at her. That’s unusual.

She squinted at the reflection some more. The Yagura in the reflection raised his eyebrows and stared back. She sighed. It was time to finish training before she started to hallucinate more.

“Have your abilities gotten so weak you can’t even sense me anymore?” a familiar voice asked.

Mei flinched and leaped away from that voice. Once in a defensive position, she turned back to stare at the one who spoke.

“Yagura-sensei! What are you doing here?” She bit her lip hard enough to draw blood but the person standing in front of her didn’t disappear. She pulsed her chakra, but the other person didn’t disappear either. It’s not a genjutsu then.

“Nothing, nothing,” Yagura said while ignoring her panic. “I just wanted to talk to my favorite student. You’re leading a rebel group to depose me from power. I think a discussion is more than warranted.”

“How do I know you’re really Yagura-sensei?” Mei narrowed her eyes and glared at the man who simply couldn’t be the real Yagura.

The man no, the impostor, sighed and gave her a tired glare. He let his body fall on the water and he used chakra to lounge back lazily on the surface of the lake.

“Really? Are we doing this now?” The fake rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands and stared at her. Mei nodded. The impostor sighed again.

“Fine, I’ll tell you things only the real Yagura would know." At this, he sat up to look at her in the eyes. “When you were in the Academy, you were the one who put thumbtacks on Kaito-sensei’s chair. You were never found out. You can’t eat sashimi anymore because the last time you did, you got food poisoning and you couldn’t leave the toilet for three days. When you were fourteen, you picked a bouquet of flowers for a boy you liked and gave them to him. However, you didn’t know he was allergic to the pollen and he almost died. Once, on a mission as a genin, you—"

“Okay, okay! I believe you! Just stop!” Mei yelled at the man, her face burning. She only knew one person that knew all those stories but her mind still refused to accept the truth.

She flared her chakra and concentrated as she tried to get a sense for the man. She startled in surprise. Sure enough, the signature could only belong to Yagura Karatachi. The chakra quantity was lower, however, telling her that the person standing in front of her was only a clone.

“So you sent a clone to find me, huh?” she asked with an angry smile as she readied her body for a fight. “That’s very smart of you sensei. But if you hoped to get rid of me, a clone is not nearly enough.”

Instead of being intimidated, the clone of her teacher yawned in apparent boredom.

“I didn’t come here to fight,” he said. “Just to talk.”

“What is there to talk about?” she yelled. “We could have talked three years ago, but you allowed this civil war to start. The time for discussion has passed!”

“See, Mei-chan, that’s the thing.” Mei tensed at the use of her old nickname. “All the decisions from the past three years... they weren't mine.”

Yagura looked at her with a sad look in his eyes and began to explain. “You see... three years ago I went to meet with a potential informant from another nation. I met a masked man. I don’t remember what happened after that. He, or someone working for him, put my mind under a genjutsu. I only woke up four months ago and have been trying to stop his plans ever since.”

“What? How is that possible? You’re the strongest shinobi in the Land of Water! How could you have been brainwashed so easily?” she yelled at her old teacher.

Mei was furious and she wasn’t sure at whom. At herself for thinking her sensei could have truly allowed their country to fall back into war? At Yagura for falling to the genjutsu so easily and for so long? At his advisors for not noticing and only enabling him? At the villagers for going along with the plans and gleefully continuing the cycle of violence?

At her outburst, the clone stood up on the water and walked to stand in front of her. He looked up at her and Mei was reminded of when she was only a child and she had been the one to look up to him. He looked sad and contemplative. He placed a hand on her wrist, making her flinch at the touch.

“In this civil war,” he said while he looked into her eyes. “You could have killed me at any time you wanted. I know you could have, even if it would have been a long and difficult fight. You have most of the swordsmen with you and the legendary Ao.”

Mei nodded. She had tried to harden her heart and attack Yagura in a direct fight. Zabuza and Ao had urged her to take action. The swordsman, in particular, was only a few months away from trying to assassinate Yagura himself. She was the only one that has even a small chance of defeating him in a one on one fight. But she couldn’t. Not Yagura.

“I couldn’t attack you, sensei,” she admitted as she relaxed from her fighting position. “No matter what Ao and Zabuza told me, I just couldn’t do it.”

Yagura looked at her in understanding and his eyes softened. He smiled gently. With a pang in her chest, she remembered the first time she learned how to use the Water Bullet Jutsu.

Wow, Mei-chan. That’s impressive. And only five days? If you keep at it, you might even make Mizukage one day.

She had smiled in happiness at his compliment and puffed up her chest. So many years had passed since then but she still remembered his praise at her newest jutsu. Remembering brought tears to her eyes but she forced herself to keep them in.

“What do you want me to do, sensei?” she asked as she bit her lip.

At her question, the clone mulled over how to respond. She clenched her fists.

“You have to kill me, Mei-chan,” Yagura said nonchalantly. “And declare yourself the Fifth Mizukage of Kirigakure. Only you can do it.”

Mei flinched. She studied her older teacher, sure that she had misheard, but Yagura stared back, face impassive.

"The Fourth Mizukage can't live when you reign. When the time comes, you are the only one I trust to make a difficult decision,” Yagura said.

“No! Sensei! You can’t! Please, don’t make me!” Mei was not sure if she wanted to cry or beg. Possibly both. “If I haven’t been able to even fight you for the past three years, what makes you think that I will be able to deal a killing blow?”

“I know it’s hard for you, Mei,” he said, “but that’s the only way that everyone in the village will trust in your power. If I live, your office won’t be secure. You know this. The Land of Water is suffering. You are the only one I trust to make it better." He glanced away at the distance before focusing back on her. "You have the kekkei genkai and the power to end the civil wars. And Ao can watch and make sure you don’t come under the effect of a genjutsu like I did.”

Mei didn’t try to fight the tears anymore. In the back of her mind, she realized that her cheeks were wet. “I can’t, Yagura-sensei, please, don’t ask me to do something impossible.” 

“You will be forced to do this sooner or later, Mei,” Yagura replied. “Do it now and fewer people will have to suffer. You have the power and ability to make the Land of Water great in a way that it never has before. I beg of you, this is a plea from a friend.”

At his words, Mei bit the inside of her cheek so hard that she tasted blood again. She hated how much sense Yagura’s plan made. Reluctantly, she nodded.

At her nod, Yagura smiled sadly and let go of her wrist.

“Thank you, Mei,” he said, “for making this difficult decision.”

Before she could think about it, Mei bent down and hugged Yagura tightly.

“I’m sorry, sensei,” she murmured.

Under her, the clone tensed at the sudden contact before relaxing and returning her hug.

“Once you become the Mizukage, I have one favor to ask of you,” he whispered in her ear.

“Anything for you, sensei,” she whispered back.

“Take care of Anzu and my kids. Keep them safe once they return to Kirigakure. They are the only family I have left.”

Mei smiled for the first time since she saw Yagura. She remembered Anzu. She had been the only shinobi to go toe to toe with Yagura. No wonder he fell in love with her.

“Of course, Yagura-sensei,” she said.

“Thank you, Mei." Some of the tension left Yagura's body. "Though if I can ask another favor... when the time comes, make it quick. I don’t want to spend hours bleeding out." He laughed. "See you soon, Mei-chan.”

“See you soon, sensei,” she whispered in his ear.

At her words, the clone dispersed and she was thrown off balance as the water faded into the lake. She looked at her reflection again, hoping for one more glimpse of Yagura. But she only saw herself, eyes wide and afraid.

She stared at her reflection some more. When the face of her sensei refused to appear, she gritted her teeth and forced herself to look away.

If she wanted to make the fight look real and fulfill her sensei’s last wish, she needed to train more.

She took in the view of the lake and moved her hands into a bird hand sign. She ignored the tears on her face as she forced the lava to form.

O-O-O

She was crying for me.

As Yagura rested in bed, he received all of the knowledge and memories from his dispersed clone. Everything was going according to plan but he still frowned.

Mei had always been too kind for her own good but that was also the reason why she would make a great replacement for him. She had to do what was necessary for the good of the village.

Yagura sighed before sitting up to stare at the wall. He knew what he had to do. Dying was not going to be fun. He had asked for a fast death but nothing was ever guaranteed in war. He just needed enough time to prepare.

Yagura moved toward the small desk in his bedroom. Most of his work was done in the office, but he often had to send or read letters from the confines of his quarters, too.

Carefully, he took out two scrolls, an ink well, and a brush. He began to compose his letters. When he finished, he scrawled a bloodline seal on the outside of the scroll. No one without the appropriate chakra signature would be able to open them.

On the outside, he wrote “Kasumi” and “Asahi.” If Mei kept her promise, one day his children would know his last words. He stared at the scrolls in his hands before placing them inside the top drawer of his desk.

He took a new scroll and wrote a message for Mei. That time, he didn’t bother with a bloodline seal. She would read it when she started living in the Mizukage’s quarters.

Imagining her reaction when she got around to reading his final letter made him chuckle. She’ll be furious once she reads this.

From his seat at the desk, he looked out towards Kirigakure. The sun was already beginning to rise. With a sigh, he made it back to bed. He might be able to get an hour or two of sleep before he was forced back into the mockery that was his life.

He closed his eyes. When he opened them, he was alone inside the Room— all the other jinchuuriki fast asleep. He walked towards Utakata’s Door and placed his hand on it.

'Utakata-kun?' The boy didn’t reply— most likely asleep. In any case, Utakata was unlikely to listen anyway. Still, Yagura felt like he should thank him before Mei became the Fifth Mizukage.

'Thank you for the inspiration,' he said. 'Kirigakure will be a great village soon.'

Yagura forced his mind to leave the Room and enter deep sleep. He would need as much rest as he could get to make sure everything went according to plan.

Chapter Text

Gaara is really fun to play with.

Fuu was great and Naruto liked spending time with her a lot, too. She was his only friend considering the children at the orphanage wanted nothing to do with him. But she was very bossy and always treated him like a little baby.

Meanwhile, Gaara was almost the same age and only an inch taller. He didn’t talk a lot, but whenever he did, Naruto made sure to listen attentively. Gaara told him about Sunagakure and the Land of Wind. Naruto’s only knowledge of sand came from the box in the playground and couldn't imagine a country surrounded by it. But he tried.

Their favorite game was tag. Fuu had taught Naruto the game, but since she was older, she always won. Sometimes she let Naruto win, but he didn’t like the easy victory. Gaara, meanwhile, was a worthy opponent.

Naruto sprinted to the other side of the Room. Roshi had agreed to be the base where they were safe from being tagged. The man was talking to Fuu as she demonstrated a new balancing technique she had learned from Yugito.

Naruto laughed as Gaara chased after him, out of breath. Even though he was a little older, Gaara didn’t run as much as Naruto did and had less stamina. But while Gaara tired quickly, he was the faster runner. Overall, they were evenly matched opponents.

Naruto stopped in front of Killer B’s Door and turned around to watch Gaara run closer while he caught his breath. When Gaara was only a few feet away, the other boy stopped as well. The two looked at each other in the eye, trying to analyze each other. Which direction to run?

Gaara stared back at him. He opened his eyes in surprise.

“Wait, Naruto-chan, who is that?” he said as he pointed at something over Naruto’s shoulder.

Distracted, Naruto looked away. Had Killer B arrived? 

Gaara took his chance. He leaped towards Naruto, slapping him lightly on the arm with the palm of his hand. He then ran away, giggling.

Naruto's jaw dropped as Gaara sprinted towards Roshi, who was now clapping politely at Fuu’s demonstration. Naruto chased after him but he was too late. Gaara had reached safe grounds. He threw himself on top of Roshi’s lap, struggling to breathe through his laughter.

The man smiled at the two children playing. He began patting Gaara on the head as the boy struggled to get his breathing back under control. Naruto pouted and pointed an angry finger at him.

“No fair! You tricked me!” he yelled at the older boy.

“All’s fair in love and war, Naruto-chan,” Roshi said wisely with a nod. “You two are going to be shinobi. You need to see deception.”

Gaara couldn’t answer back. He was laughing too hard but he gave Naruto a bright smile. Compared to the fear and hesitation from before, his smile felt like a ray of sunshine. Naruto couldn’t help but grin back. He knew that Gaara had a difficult life and seeing him happy made him forget the frustration of losing.

“Never again!” he yelled in fake anger as jumped on top of Gaara and hugged him.

The other boy returned the embrace desperately, still laughing. Roshi held them both in his lap and sighed. Fuu giggled at the sight of the two boys together, distracted from her demonstration.

Roshi let them sit on his lap for a few seconds before he stood up without warning. The two boys shrieked as they fell to the floor. Their laughter ended and they glared at the man standing over them.

“Mama! No fair!” Naruto whined.

“Sorry, Naruto-chan, Gaara-chan." His eyes and voice were unrepentant. “But I think it’s about time for Gaara to check back. It’s dangerous for him to fall asleep while meditating, remember?”

Next to him, Gaara flinched, the previous joy and laughter evaporating in an instant. He looked down at the floor and his hands grasped the hem of his loose shirt. Roshi’s eyes softened at the sight. He squatted down to look at Gaara in the eye.

“It’s okay, Gaara-chan,” he said. “How about I tell you a story once you get back? I don’t think I’ve told you about how I stole classified intel from Konoha using only my intellect and good looks, have I?”

Gaara shook his head. The tension in his shoulders eased slightly. He looked at Fuu and Naruto as if trying to memorize their faces before leaving.

“That’s right, Gaara-chan!” Fuu said as she joined Roshi's side. “We will be here, too! I haven’t heard the story either and we can all listen together. Is that all right?”

Gaara nodded. He still looked sad.

Naruto gave him another hug. “See you tomorrow, Gaara-chan!” he said.

At his words, Gaara nodded, smiled weakly and hugged him back. Naruto tightened the hug but the other boy didn’t complain. Fuu leaned over and wrapped her arms around both boys. She pressed small kisses on the crowns of their heads.

“Stay safe and come back, Gaara,” she said. “We’re here for you, okay?”

Gaara nodded again. He broke their group hug. He walked back to the golden Door that served as a gateway between the physical world and the Room. He gulped and looked back at them one last time before disappearing.

Naruto ran to put his hand on Gaara’s Door. He flinched when he touched it, but didn’t pull back. 'Are you okay, Gaara-chan?'

'I’m okay,' Gaara responded. 'But I wanted to stay longer with you.'

'It’s okay,' Naruto said, 'we are gonna see each other tomorrow, right?'

'Right!' Gaara already sounded a little more cheerful.

From behind him, Roshi and Fuu walked to stand next to Naruto and put their hands on Gaara’s Door.

'See you tomorrow, Gaara-chan,' Fuu said, voice cheerful.

'Yes, see you soon, boy,' Roshi said. 'Now are you ready to listen to my story? Get comfortable because it’s a long one.'

Roshi sat down to lean on the Door and pulled Naruto onto his lap. Fuu knelt on the floor and laid her head on Roshi’s shoulder. While he wasn’t inside the Room, Naruto could tell that Gaara was listening. Together, the three children settled down to listen to the newest story.

O-O-O

Perfectly balanced, Yugito used chakra to walk on top of the ice and snow that covered the road to Iwagakure. Next to her, Mabui and Samui kept pace with her as they tried to catch their first glimpse of the village. Tsuyui-sensei walked behind the kunoichi, keeping watch and leading the other genin teams.

Yugito paused in her walk and looked back at her group with a raised eyebrow. Were those kids even ready to participate in the exams?

Unlike her teammates, most of the others were struggling to keep up with the pace that Yugito had set. They struggled walking through the snow and often slipped and fell. Throughout their journey, they had been fretting and worrying.

Most of the other teams were made up of recent graduates with fewer than thirty missions under their belts—younger than her by at least a few years. Yugito’s team was the second-oldest team, beat out only by one led by a braggart named Musai.

Among the nervous genin, however, the exemplary ones stood out. A blond boy who looked to be a few years younger walked nonchalantly next to a bored dark-skinned boy. From their conversations, she had learned that the blond boy was named C while the other boy was Darui. They seemed unbothered by the chuunin exams. Yugito suspected they were either complete idiots or rightfully confident in their abilities. In any case, there was nothing to lose by keeping an eye on them.

As soon as they caught their first glimpse of Iwagakure, the nervous muttering intensified around her. Next to her, Samui and Mabui straightened their backs and looked ahead. They couldn’t show weakness in front of another village.

Their group stopped once they reach the closed gate, but no one was there to meet them. The genin and jounin fell silent as they waited for someone to let them in. When no one appeared, Tsuyoi-sensei stepped forward and spoke to the large stone gate.

“Greetings,” he said to no one. “We come from Kumogakure for the chuunin exams. We ask to be allowed safe passage into Iwagakure.”

At his words, a tall broad man jumped in front of the genin.

“Passports and invitations,” the man grumbled with a frown.

“Of course,” Tsuyoi replied, polite as always. “May we enquire about your name?”

“My name is Kitsuchi,” the large man answered. “I will be the primary point of contact during the exams. But first, I will have everyone enter team by team. Get your documents ready for inspection at once.”

Tsuyoi nodded and signaled at all the Kumogakure ninja. Obediently, Yugito pulled out her passport and invitation letter from her weapons pouch. Samui and Mabui copied her lead. They handed their documents over to Tsuyui-sensei in a neat stack. Around them, the other teams readied their documents as well.

Tsuyoi beckoned them closer. Her team stood in front of the tall Iwagakure ninja. Their teacher handed over the four passports for inspection.

The man, Kitsuchi, opened each one, glaring at each one of them in turn. After a few seconds, he nodded in satisfaction and grunted. The stone gate opened slowly behind the man. Without a word, her team passed through the gates and entered Iwagakure.

She had to blink twice when she saw Han.

He stood tall in the middle of the street, one hand hidden inside his armor. In the setting sun, Han's shadow projected an intimidating silhouette for the arriving genin. Combined with Kitsuchi at the gate, Yugito assumed Iwagakure wished to intimidate them before the exams even began. Not a bad idea.

He inspected Yugito, her sensei, and her teammates with a raised eyebrow. Mabui and Samui looked at the man but said nothing. They turned around to look back at their traveling companions.

But Yugito couldn’t tear her eyes away from Han.

While she didn’t talk to Han often in the Room, she liked him. He had been patient and understanding whenever they had interacted. He was also the only one who had managed to lay a finger on the Mizukage. That automatically made him a great shinobi in her eyes. He glanced at her. While she couldn't see his face, from the look he gave her, she could tell that he was smiling. She forced herself to look back at the Kumogakure procession. 

Unlike her team, most of the other shinobi were cowards. Upon catching their first glimpse of Han, they all began to shuffle in place and look away. Yugito forced herself not to roll her eyes. She had seen Han at the edge of tears trying to explain to a stubborn toddler that his shoes were on backwards. After that, she was not sure if the other jinchuuriki could ever intimidate her.

Once all the Kumo genin had passed through the gates, Kitsuchi leaped to stand next to Han. Together, the Kumogakure shinobi turned around to listen to their words.

“Okay, genin, listen up!” Kitsuchi bellowed. “I’m only going to say this once, so pay attention.”

Most of the genin tensed up in fear. Yugito rolled her eyes. Babies.

“You will be sleeping in the largest inn of Iwagakure apart from your teachers" Han added. "Before we begin the exams, we will need to fill out paperwork. Mostly consent forms. If you already know that you don’t want to participate in the exams or you have changed your mind, you are free to walk away now.”

At that, Han moved his gaze through all the gathered genin. Some of her fellow ninja looked away or gulped but no one took the offer. Yugito wasn’t expecting anyone to back out. A was too proud to send weak ninja to take the chuunin exams, especially in a foreign country.

Han gave them all one last look and nodded.

“Good,” he said. “You won’t have any chance to back out in the future.”

He took a deep breath and continued talking. “My name is Han and I have been working with Kitsuchi-san in preparation for the exams. I am the proctor for the first exam, which I will explain soon. For now, we will complete the necessary paperwork. Jounin-sensei,” he stared at their teachers, “follow Kitsuchi-san. He will take you to your hotel.”

He glanced at each of the younger shinobi in turn. “Genin, follow me. We will complete some paperwork and leave you at the inn once we finish.”

“See you soon, sensei,” Yugito said. She turned to follow Han, who had started walking to the outside of the village. She gave her teacher a small bow. Samui and Mabui followed suit and said goodbye.

As they walked, the other Kumogakure genin stared at Han in fear. Most of them looked around the village in nervous tension. Even her fellow kunoichi weren’t immune. While they appeared calm next to her, Mabui was frowning while Samui was chewing on her lip.

Yugito, meanwhile, took the opportunity to look around the village. The tall buildings rose high above her, grand and spectacular. A deep blanket of snow covered the roofs. Because of the cold, she saw few villagers and fewer shinobi. The ones that she did see gave her looks that varied between curiosity and mild disdain.

The looks they gave Han were not as friendly. Every time they saw the man at the front of their group, they glared at him. Some whispered and threw him dirty looks while others ran away in fear. Han appeared not to notice their reactions. But Yugito knew him well enough to know that he would never miss such obvious killing intent.

Yugito clenched her hands into fists. If those people knew she was a jinchuuriki, they would look at her with hate in their eyes too. How could they hate someone who has done so much for their village?

She started to glare back at everyone they passed. She could understand the pain of being looked at with hatred and fear by her own countrymen. Although jinchuuriki were favored in Kumogakure, they were not always well-treated. There were still many who believed she and B were monsters. To be hated for existing was more painful than she could describe.

Walking a short distance behind Han, the man sensed her indignation at his expense. He seemed amused by her glaring, but part of her thought he seemed grateful. She went closer to walk by Han side to side. The corners of his eyes crinkled in happiness and Yugito smiled back.

Don’t worry about them, Yugito, his eyes seemed to say. I’m used to it.

Yugito sighed and fell back to walk next to Samui and Mabui. She couldn’t be seen talking with Han— unless she wanted to visit the Torture and Interrogation department back in Kumogakure.

They walked silently, following Han’s large steps. After a few minutes of walking, their group arrived at a large, tall building.

“I will leave you here,” Han told the group. “You will complete your registration inside. I will see you at the start of the first exam. Good luck.”

Han disappeared in a cloud of smoke, but not before giving Yugito a small wink that was missed by everyone else. Yugito smiled to herself and moved to enter the large building.

This is going to be fun.

O-O-O

It took a month for Yagura to get an opportunity to see Mei again. As he waited, he gritted his teeth and did everything that his counselors asked him to do. He was almost ready to die by his own hand but he needed Mei to take the finishing blow. In a country obsessed with power, they would only listen to the strongest among them.

“Mizukage-sama!" one of his advisors broke into his office and shouted at him in panic. "We have received confirmation that Mei Terumi and her army is nearing Kirigakure! They seem to be coming after you!”

Yagura almost jumped up in joy. Finally. Time to die.

“Mei Terumi?” Yagura sighed. He put down his pen and stared out of the window.

“Yes, sir.”

“Who is with her?” he asked in a casual tone. His advisor stared at him for a few seconds, perplexed about his calm demeanor. Nevertheless, he answered the question dutifully.

“Zabuza Momochi, Ao the Byakugan Killer, and Ameyuri Ringo are her main assets,” he answered. “However, we estimate at least two hundred more shinobi on her side, most of them holders of kekkei genkai.”

Yagura sighed again and stretched his arms over his head. Calm, he took off the Mizukage robes, picked up his staff, and slung it over his back. He jumped to the windowsill and looked out, saying nothing to the advisor.

Despite the mist, he could see clear signs of battle. Sparks from weapons and jutsu were spread throughout the village. He tried to look for hints of Mei’s lava release, but he couldn’t see her calling card. He would have to look for her himself. How annoying.

“Well, I gotta take care of that.”

Yagura said goodbye to his advisor with a lazy wave. He leaped through the window to land at the nearest fighting site.

He stumbled upon a fight between two men. Both of them were wearing Kirigakure hitai-ate. He couldn’t tell who was loyal to him and who was loyal to Mei. They paused in their fight and looked at him, one in fear and one in excitement. Well, now I know.

His supporter turned back to his enemy with a satisfied grin, happy that Yagura had come to save him.

“Where is Mei Terumi?” Yagura asked them.

“Mei Terumi will kill you!” the enemy shinobi said.

I’m not getting any help here. Yagura sighed and forced himself not to roll his eyes. He jumped over the two shinobi and left them to their fighting. He needed to find Mei, not worry about inconsequential battles.

He ran and leaped randomly through the village, making sure to be seen by as many combatants as possible. He was so focused on searching for Mei that he almost died before they could find each other.

Mid-leap, a lighting-charged sword stabbed him through the shoulder. He fell to the ground and managed to narrowly dodge the next strike. He put pressure on his shoulder and his hand came away covered in blood. He winced at the pain but recovered in an instant. He took his weapon in his hands, transformed into the initial jinchuuriki form, and got into a defensive stance.

'Isobu!' he screamed at his bijuu.

'I know, Karatachi. I’m trying. Don’t die while I help you heal.'

“You are faster than I expected, Mizukage-sama.”

Yagura looked at the small woman standing in front of him with a smirk. Yagura winced. Ameyuri Ringo was small and fast. She wasn’t physically strong, but her agility made up for it. With Yagura already weakened, she was a threatening opponent.

“Yeah, well, not fast enough, it seems,” Yagura replied. He felt the hole in his shoulder closing, but blood was still pouring out of him. He didn’t want to fight Ameyuri. She was infamous for being vicious and playing with her targets. Nevertheless, he readied himself for a fight.

“Don’t be so hasty, Ameyuri,” a deep voice called out from behind Yagura.

He turned around to inspect the new arrival. Zabuza Momochi glared at him. His sword was pointed threateningly down at Yagura’s throat. While not as strong as Ameyuri, Zabuza was still a formidable threat. If they were to work together, they might actually manage to defeat him. Yagura groaned. More enemies. I just want to fight Mei, damn it.

“Get the hell out of here Zabuza! Yagura is mine! I will become Mizukage when I kill him!” Ameyuri yelled at her fellow rebel.

“Get off your high horse, bitch. You don’t deserve to be Mizukage. Just cause you’re fast and can channel lighting through your swords doesn’t make you special!”

“Like you’re any better, motherfucker!” Ameyuri replied. “You’re not anywhere near enough to be the strongest ninja in the village. Yagura is my prey and I’m not going to let you steal him away from me!”

“He’s my opponent! I will fight and kill him faster than you can blink!”

“As if! You’re not fast enough to do anything more than fall flat on your face! I don’t know how you got that little minion following your every move when you’re not even worthy to lick my boots!”

They’re like children fighting over a toy.

Yagura glanced back and forth between the two swordsmen but said nothing. He took the time that they were arguing to heal. The only one allowed to kill him was Mei.

When his shoulder felt sufficiently healed, he cleared his throat. Both Ameyuri and Zabuza stopped their bickering to focus their hate back on him.

“Well, if this lover’s quarrel isn’t going to end anytime soon... I would like to leave and go look for someone who could pose a real threat,” Yagura said with a wicked grin.

“He’s mocking us, Zabuza,” Ameyuri scowled.

“No shit,” Zabuza answered.

“Maybe you can play rock, paper, scissors to decide who gets the honor,” Yagura suggested, keeping the smile on his face.

The two swordsmen frowned and sunk their stances deeper into defensive positions. Yagura prepared for their attack and the three fell into a tense silence. He waited to see who would attack first.

Zabuza was the first one to run in his direction, Kubikiribocho grasped in his hand. Yagura dodged easily but Ameyuri took the opportunity to strike. She charged lightning chakra into Kiba and lunged to run her swords through Yagura’s heart.

Yagura prepared himself to take Version Two form. He didn’t want to kill Ameyuri when she would have been a strong part of Mei’s new regime, but she had attacked first.

As soon as he was ready to strike back, however, high-heeled sandals diverted her twin swords and smashed them into the ground. The lighting crashed violently with an explosion of dust and Yagura had to use his forearm to shield himself from the blast.

When the dust cleared, Ameyuri was staring slack-jawed at Mei, who held the twin swords down with the heel of her foot. Yagura blinked up at his former student. Mei had jumped in right before he was ready to kill Ameyuri. Had she timed her defense on purpose?

“You’re both wrong,” Mei said, voice calm and deadly. She turned her glare towards Yagura. “The only one allowed to kill Yagura is me.”

He shuddered involuntarily. He had forgotten how scary his student could sound when given the right motivation. Ameyuri and Zabuza must have noticed her tone too because they looked in wonder at Mei. They relaxed their grip on the hilts of their swords.

“But Mei, he...”

“Mei-chan, I think...”

“He’s mine!” Mei yelled with a scowl as she relaxed her foothold on Kiba. “I’m the one who will become the Fifth Mizukage and the one who will defeat him once and for all.”

Her declaration was full of power and both Zabuza and Ameyuri tensed. Yagura smiled to himself. He truly had chosen the right successor.

He rolled his injured shoulder. Isobu had almost finished healing the wound and the pain was more than manageable. He jumped away from the rebel group and used chakra to stick to the wall of the nearest building.

“You really think that you can kill me, Mei-chan?” Yagura asked with a smirk.

“I know I can,” was Mei’s calm reply. Yagura marveled at her acting abilities.

They stared at one another, waiting to see who would make the first move. Yagura remembered their conversation at the lake and felt a stab of guilt at forcing Mei to do the dirty deed. But there was nothing to be done. He needed to make their fight look convincing. But first... the battleground.

Yagura used chakra to jump to the top of the building. He ran away. If he had to transform into Isobu’s full form, he would need to be in an open area, not in the middle of the village. The interconnected lakes surrounding Kirigakure would provide enough space for their fight.

“Hey! Don’t run away! We’re not finished!” Mei yelled in surprise and annoyance at his retreating back.

Yagura smirked. He sensed Mei chasing a short distance behind him while Ameyuri and Zabuza were left behind. He sighed in relief. They wouldn’t interrupt anything and ruin his plans.

He reached the lake on the outskirts of Kirigakure a few seconds later. He used chakra to stand in the middle of the water and waited for Mei to join him. It didn’t take long for him to see her distinctive long auburn hair.

“What was that about? I thought you wanted to fight!” Mei yelled while pointing an accusing finger in his direction.

“I do,” Yagura replied.

He attacked immediately, swinging his staff over his head and bringing it down on top of Mei. She dodged out of the way but Yagura was ready for that. He used the staff as a lever and kicked her in the stomach. She huffed as the air was knocked out of her lungs, flying away to land many feet away. She stood up on the water surface and glared.

What the hell? I thought you wanted to die? the expression seemed to say.

Did you think it would be that simple? he wanted to reply.

Had she expected Yagura to take it easy on her after his plea? Well, he had never been one to hold back. Even as a little girl, he had never gone easy on her.

Mei huffed in exasperation, no doubt able to read his mind.

Her body language changed. She stood up on the surface of the water and stared at him. She needed to take the fight seriously as a battle to the death. Yagura smiled back and prepared for her attack.

She ran through a set of unfamiliar seals and spat out a cloud of mist. Yagura waited, expecting the Hidden Mist Jutsu. However, instead of obscuring his sight and hearing with haze, the vapor burned his skin with corrosive acid.

Mei has a new technique, it seems. He relinquished control over the chakra on his feet and dove underwater.

Making his own set of seals, Yagura created a dragon made from water. It flew out of the lake and attacked. Mei screamed in surprise and she dodged by flipping back. While she was distracted, Yagura swam back up to the surface. He created a large gust of wind that blew away Mei’s acidic mist. Yagura took some time to admire Mei’s new jutsu. In closed quarters, it would have been a formidable attack.

“Not bad, Yagura-sensei,” Mei said with a smirk. “Not many have enough power to blow away my boil release.”

“You know that I’m exceptional, Mei-chan,” Yagura said with a smile that immediately turned into a frown.

It was time to get serious. Mei must have felt the same way because her smile faded and she looked at Yagura with eyes full of resignation. They began their duel.

In the end, Yagura and Mei fought until sunset. A few of her techniques were new. But  with Yagura’s battle experience and reflexes, she was unable to do any lasting damage. It was the same for her. She avoided his attacks with unprecedented skill and agility.

Sometime during the day, the other shinobi, both on his side and on Mei’s, had begun to appear. They had tried interrupting their fight many times. However, both of them had scolded anyone that had gotten closer than the banks of the lake. They now watched the battle from afar, breaking down into petty skirmishes alongside the shores.

The new moon rose, leaving their world in almost total darkness. Yagura grinned to himself. Perfect.

Yagura paused, panting in exhaustion as he tried to get his breath back. He saw Mei on the opposite side of the lake as she tried to catch her breath, too. Mei was formidable. In a few years, she would be one of the strongest fighters Kirigakure had ever seen. He stared at her silhouette and he sensed her staring back.

“I think we’re almost finished, don’t you agree?” he asked between pants.

“Of course, Yagura-sensei. I think it’s time to finish this fight for good,” she replied. Her voice was exhausted, both physically and emotionally. Not for the first time, Yagura felt guilty for making her do such a difficult task.

This can’t wait anymore. It’s time to finish this.

Yagura sent chakra to the soles of his feet and launched himself from the surface of the water up into the air. He swung his staff in front of himself and prepared to hit Mei.

Before he could, however, Mei’s lava release swept overhead. His concentration gone, Yagura was surrounded by her lava from all sides. He jumped down into the water but that wasn’t enough to quench Mei’s attack. He yelled out in pain although Isobu helped reduce the damage his body was taking. With his left hand burning, he dropped his staff where it promptly sank to the bottom of the lake.

While he recovered, Mei took her chance to strike back. She pulled him out of the water and the cooling effect vanished. She kicked him on the chin and he landed several feet away while still partially covered in her lava. Despite the setback, Yagura smiled to himself.

'Isobu! It’s time!'

'Got it, Karatachi!'

Yagura called upon Isobu's chakra. The bijuu’s complete body appeared on the surface of the water. Mei jumped back and ran her hands through a series of complex hand signs. Before either Yagura or Isobu could react, she covered the bijuu in a blanket of new lava. The shinobi that had been tensely watching their fight stepped back in awe.

Even with Isobu’s tough outer shell, the lava burned and both Yagura and the bijuu screamed out in pain. The bijuu form disappeared at once. Only Yagura’s screams could be heard as the lava smothered the Mizukage.

When Yagura stopped screaming, only Mei was left standing on the surface of the lake. She was panting and on the verge of total chakra exhaustion. Her hair, normally kept out of the way in a small bun, was singed while her clothes were scuffed and torn from the battle.

Despite her exhaustion, she straightened her back and stood on the surface of the water. She raised one fist in victory. She looked out at all of the shinobi that were still watching and waiting at the banks of the lake.

Mei grinned victoriously at them, even though most wouldn’t be able to see in the dark night. She heard both cheers and cries of anguish from her audience. The battle for Kirigakure had only just begun.

O-O-O

When Yagura finally washed up on the empty shore, his first breath of air felt like heaven.

He coughed as much water out of his lungs as possible and forced his body to crawl onto the coarse sand. He collapsed immediately, panting in pain and exhaustion.

With Isobu’s help, he had managed to swim from the bottom of the lake, through the river, and into the ocean, coming up only once for air. He was very thankful that his bijuu was a turtle, at least.

He flipped himself over and looked up at the night sky. With his body not in fighting mode, all the aches from the battle were catching up to him. He wanted to scream at the pain. However, he couldn’t afford even the minuscule chance that someone would hear. He bit his tongue instead.

'Karatachi, what am I going to do with you? '  Isobu's familiar voice scolded. 'You almost died back there, even with the coral protecting you.'

Yagura wanted to reply, but his mind was too exhausted to think of a response. He had barely managed to escape by using coral to protect himself. Mei’s corrosive lava technique had managed to burn the left side of his body. He couldn’t feel his left hand and he hoped he hadn’t lost it completely.

A stab of pain coursed through his body and he had to bite down hard on his tongue so as to not scream out in pain. He tasted blood but he had no energy to spit it out. He swallowed and stared up at the sky.

His bijuu sighed. 'I’ll work on healing you up but some of the damage is permanent. I’m running low on chakra myself, so don’t move and try not to cry.'

Yagura wanted to nod, but after collapsing, the only thing he could do was breathe. Isobu’s chakra was working on healing and the pain was already lessening. But when dealing with lava, he knew that there would be permanent damage.

Yagura thought of Anzu and hoped that she wouldn’t mind the new scars. She had been fine with the scar on his face, but he couldn’t help but worry that she wouldn’t like him anymore.

Remembering her brought an old and familiar pain into his chest that only added to his misery. What would he give to have Anzu and their children there with him? 

The last time he had seen Asahi, he had loved to draw and color in a large green notebook. He had been learning his first kanji and how to hold a kunai correctly. Every time he had learned a new character, he had run up to him, showing off his writing skills. Now the boy was eight years old now and Yagura had missed so much of his childhood.

Kasumi had been so small the last time he saw her. She had followed her older brother around everywhere, holding on to the back of his shirt and repeating everything he said. She had loved to crawl up into Yagura’s arms whenever she was upset or simply tired. He would hug her back, keeping her small body safe and protected in his arms. She was five years old now. Was she getting started on shinobi training, too?

Lying on the sand and feeling close to death, he wanted to see them in front of him more than he had wanted anything else in life. He had missed so many moments with them that he would never get back. Was Asahi’s favorite color still pink? Did Kasumi still follow her brother around everywhere? What were their favorite foods? Their least favorite? Did they eat well? What were their favorite games? It hurt that he didn’t know the answers.

The starry sky began to blur and Yagura realized that he had started crying. Well, that’s embarrassing.

Ever since his mind came back, he hadn’t had a moment of rest to absorb what he had lost. Lying on the beach with nothing to do except heal, he could finally feel sorry for himself. He was too exhausted to move, so he stared up at the sky and let the tears roll down his face.

He was glad that only Isobu was there to watch him be so pathetic.

'I’m sorry, Karatachi.'

'Me too.'

Yagura forced himself to move his right hand up to wipe the tears off his face. He said nothing else to his bijuu. Instead, he rested for a few hours more, staring at the sky.

After a few hours, the moon started to sink beyond the horizon and he gritted his teeth. He couldn’t stay on the beach forever. 'We have to go, Isobu.'

'I know.' The bijuu's voice was resigned. 'You need to rest, but staying here is more dangerous. Can you stand up?'

Yagura nodded and forced himself to his knees. Even that small movement brought a new wave of dizziness. He had to pause with his head down and his eyes closed while he caught his breath.

When he opened them, he had to blink twice. While his right hand was intact, his left hand was missing the pinky finger and the ring finger. Burn scars in the shape of coral also covered his entire arm and most of his shoulder. In the rush of escaping Kirigakure, he hadn’t noticed the true extent of the damage.

He looked at his arm with equal parts fascination and disgust. Jutsu were going to be more difficult to cast with missing fingers. With his staff at the bottom of the lake, taijutsu was going to become more difficult, too.

Yagura stared at his injured arm for a moment longer before he managed to stand up with a groan of pain. He would deal with his missing fingers later. He looked out at the horizon and saw one of the small abandoned islands that belonged to the Land of Tea.

He forced what little chakra remained onto the soles of his feet. He stepped onto the surface of the ocean, as careful as a newborn deer. To his relief, the island wasn’t far. It would take him only a few hours to reach it, even at a slow pace.

He took a deep breath and began to limp away. He would reach land before sunrise even if he had to crawl.

Chapter Text

When Utakata woke up, the day felt like any other. He used the washroom, got dressed, ate breakfast, and headed to the training grounds. He spent the entire morning thinking of new ways to add acid to his bubbles.

The first hint that something was wrong came when Harusame didn't arrive to supervise his training. But Utakata didn't think much of it. Harusame was the best sealing master of Kirigakure and was often called away for various projects. He ignored his master’s absence and continued to hone his jutsu.

It was only later that Utakata felt something out of place.

Upon entering the dining room for lunch, he found his master talking with two strangers. One was a petite woman with vivid red hair while the other was a man with an eyepatch over his right eye. Harusame sat between the man and the woman with his back straight, eyeing Utakata as he entered.

Utakata paused before entering through the sliding doors. He waited to see if he was dismissed, but Harusame beckoned him closer instead. He walked to the table and sat down cross-legged on one of the floor cushions, waiting for someone else to speak first.

“Utakata-kun,” Harusame began. “There have been some new changes in Kirigakure." He swallowed. "Some grave events happened during the night. The village will be changing drastically very soon.”

Utakata gulped but forced his face to remain calm. The words ‘change’ and ‘Kirigakure’ together rarely boded well. 

He waited for Harusame to explain, but his master looked like he was struggling with words. Instead, the small woman grunted and spoke.

“Yagura Karatachi is dead, kid,” she said with an impatient huff. “Mei Terumi killed him and declared herself Mizukage last night.”

“What?” Utakata asked as his jaw dropped open in surprise. The Mizukage was dead?

“Mei fought the Fourth yesterday,” the man with the eyepatch explained. “He transformed into a tailed beast but Mei was able to counter his attack using her Lava Release. She has declared herself the Fifth Mizukage. We are waiting for the daimyo’s approval, but we find his refusal unlikely.”

The three adults stared at Utakata, waiting for him to speak, but he stayed silent. He had a lot of questions, but he wasn’t sure where to begin. Who was Mei Terumi? And would she be any better than the Fourth? Had they traded one tyrant for another?

The woman frowned at his silence but said nothing while the other man stared at Utakata impassively. Meanwhile, Harusame gave him a sympathetic look. They waited for him to speak.

“So, why did you come here?” Utakata finally asked. He was one chuunin of many in the village. Why would the new administration care so much as to speak with him in person?

“You are the jinchuuriki of the Six-Tails,” the man explained. “We needed to make sure that your allegiance is with Mei.”

In other words, you are worried that I’m loyal to Yagura and will betray this new Mizukage at the first chance I get.

“I’m loyal to Kirigakure,” Utakata answered. “I don’t know Mei Terumi. However, if she was able to defeat the Fourth Mizukage, then I will follow her orders in the new village she creates.”

Some of the tension that had been in the room eased immediately. The woman gave him a predatory smile, showing sharp teeth. Harusame breathed out in relief while the other man sighed.

“That’s good to hear, boy,” the man said. “We wouldn’t want to have to look for a new host for the Six-Tails if you know what I mean.”

Utakata suppressed a shudder at the threat. He had almost forgotten that, in the eyes of the village, he was only a weapon to be used and discarded at any time. A shinobi village couldn’t exist with a rebellious weapon.

“Well, now that everything is settled, would anyone like some tea?” Harusame asked their guests politely.

The man shook his head. “No, thank you. We have a lot of business to attend to. It’s been a long night and this day will only be worse. Ameyuri-san, let’s go.”

“Right behind you, Ao-kun,” the woman replied. With that, she stood up and stretched her arms over her head with an exhausted sigh.

They gave him one last contemplative look before leaving Harusame’s estate through the sliding doors. As soon as they departed, his master slumped and collapsed on the tatami floor. Utakata exhaled a breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding. Did I almost get myself killed?

“It’s a good thing you said you were loyal to the village first, Utakata-kun,” Harusame commented. His face was marked with obvious relief. “If you hadn’t, we might not be talking right now.”

“Why would I say I’m loyal to Yagura, sensei?” Utakata complained. “He was a terrible Mizukage. Just look at what Kirigakure is like now. I just couldn’t say anything before. I’m glad he’s gone.”

“Are you?” Harusame asked with a raised eyebrow before exhaling again. “Anyway, let’s have lunch. We can train together afterward.”

Utakata grunted and his master stood up to fetch their food. Utakata waited at the low table, resting his chin on his hand. He thought about Yagura. He couldn’t help but feel happy that the man was dead. He hoped that Kirigakure would change under the leadership of Mei Terumi. Back when he first became Mizukage, Yagura had promised to lead the village into a new future. But he had only made the conflict and hate within Kirigakure worse. How was that even possible?

When Harusame returned, he brought with him a tray full of food. Utakata took his portion and the boy and his teacher ate together in silence. When they finished, Utakata thanked Harusame for the meal and headed back outside.

The rest of the day passed by like any other. After lunch, he fell asleep while meditating on the grass. When he woke up, he practiced his jutsu on the training grounds next to the estate. At dinnertime, Harusame critiqued Utakata's technique and gave him ways to further improve. By the time he went to bed, he had almost forgotten the events of the afternoon.

After befriending B and Yugito, he had been using the Room’s connection more often. But he had only appeared there rarely during the day while meditating. He also only went after he had asked one of the Kumo shinobi to make sure that Yagura wasn’t in the Room.

With the Fourth Mizukage dead, he wouldn't have to worry about running into him ever again. The thought cheered him up more than it should have.

For the first time since the night he saw Yagura, when Utakata fell asleep he allowed himself to join the Room. He hoped to see the Kumo ninja or perhaps the red-headed man who had tried talking to him. Would he meet any of the other jinchuuriki that Yugito and B had told him about? Based on what the Kumo ninja had told him, they seemed like interesting people.

So with his mind celebrating the start of a new regime, Utakata was unprepared to see Yagura Karatachi lying on the ground of the Room.

The Kage lay on the floor, panting heavily as he mumbled something to a short red-headed man. He looked like he already has one foot in the grave. The two children he had seen before were kneeling next to him with worry in their eyes. The red-headed man was squatting down on Yagura’s left side. He seemed anxious about something that Utakata couldn’t see.

“Mizukage-sama?” Utakata screamed before he could reconsider. “You're not dead?”

At his shout, the others turned to look at him at once.

“Not dead? What does that mean, Yagura-san?” the little girl asked with a frown on her face.

“It’s a long story, Fuu-chan,” the former Mizukage said. He looked away from Utakata to stare at the opposite side of the Room.

“You gonna tell us, Yagura-san?” Naruto asked next, his eyes excited.

“I will, Naruto-kun, but let me rest first, okay?” Yagura muttered with a lot of effort.

At his exhausted words, the children and the red-headed man shared worried glances. They then turned their gaze to look at something on Yagura’s left side. Utakata felt like he was intruding on something, but he was too curious to leave yet. He bit his lip and walked toward the other jinchuuriki.

They said nothing, but the red-headed man did raise an eyebrow in curiosity. As he walked closer, he saw the former Mizukage tense at the approach, although he didn’t turn to look at him. When he was finally standing next to the man, he gasped when he saw Yagura’s left arm.

Most of the arm was covered in burns that had barely healed. His hand was the most damaged, with two fingers missing. The burns extended all the way up to his shoulder. Had he lost full use of his arm?

“I thought you died.” Utakata frowned as he stared at the man on the floor.

“Nope,” the man turned his pink eyes to meet him square in the face while giving a shaky smile.

“How did you survive?” Utakata asked.

He saw a look of pain pass through the former Mizukage’s face. The man twitched as he looked from Utakata to the three other jinchuuriki. They glanced nervously back and forth between the Kirigakure shinobi.

“It’s a long story,” the former Mizukage answered with a grimace.

Utakata huffed and crossed his arms, “I’ve got time to listen.”

“I was afraid you’d say that.” Yagura pouted, making his face look almost child-like.

“Oh! Are you gonna tell us a story, Yagura-san?” the little girl asked. Her eyes seemed to sparkle as she met the eyes of the man lying on the floor.

“I guess,” the Fourth answered nonchalantly. “It’s not like I have anything better to do than complain.”

“Wait! Can you tell Gaara-chan the story, too?” the girl continued excitedly. “He likes stories a lot but he can’t come into the Room because Shukaku is mean!”

“Who’s Shu— yeah, sure, whatever. Might as well invite everyone while you’re at it,” the former Mizukage said with a frustrated sigh.

“We can?” the children said at the same time before turning to each other and smiling.

“Naruto-chan, I’ll get B-sama and Yugito nee-chan. You can get Papa,” the little girl ordered before running off to a Door marked with the kanji for the number eight.

“Yes, Fuu nee-chan!” the blond boy shouted as he ran to a Door with the kanji for five carved upon it.

The red-headed man sighed and shared a look of exasperation with the man on the floor. They glanced briefly at Utakata but ignored him. Utakata shifted uncomfortably and wished that Yugito were with him.

“I’m guessing you got hit by lava?” the red-headed man asked in a soft voice to break the silence.

“How did you know?” the former Mizukage groaned.

“I have lava release. I know what lava burns look like, even while shielded,” the man answered while frowning.

“I guess that would explain it,” Yagura replied with a sigh. “Anyway, who is this Shukaku and what did Fuu mean about him being mean to Gaara?”

“Shukaku is the Ichibi,” the man explained. “He likes to torture Gaara. It makes it hard for the boy to concentrate, so we tell him stories to make him feel better.”

“Ah, that sounds nice,” the former Mizukage sighed and closed his eyes.

“Anyway, we need to get closer to Gaara’s Door. Would you prefer for me to drag you closer or do you want to have Han carry you there?” the man asked with a smile.

“I’d rather walk by myself,” Yagura scowled. “But between looking like a baby in Han’s arms and limping closer, I think I prefer the second option.”

“All right, Yagura, I’ll pull you up and you can lean on me while I carry you. It’ll be just like carrying a drunk friend home.”

“Still better than getting carried like a child,” the former Mizukage complained.

Utakata felt oddly ignored. He followed behind the red-headed man and the Fourth Mizukage at a distance as they limped towards a Door marked with the kanji for the number one. The man concentrated and conjured some cushions. Trying to be gentle and failing, he placed down Yagura on top.

“Comfortable?” the red-headed man asked the man lying prone on the floor.

“No,” Yagura answered bluntly. “I feel like I’m dying.”

“Well, you’re not. We’re shinobi. Suck it up.”

Yagura grumbled at the other man’s words but didn't argue. He closed his eyes and seemed to meditate as he waited for the children to come back. The red-headed man turned his gaze towards Utakata.

“So, boy, do you know anything of what’s going on? Yagura just appeared here in the Room looking like that. We’d just started to question him when you showed up.”

“Well, Kirigakure has a new Mizukage,” Utakata explained. “I was told this afternoon that some woman named Mei Terumi killed Yagura Karatachi. Apparently, that was incorrect.”

He tried to keep his voice calm and contained. He had felt so happy learning that Kirigakure was on the brink of great change. If the man on the floor managed to heal and take back his post, Utakata was not sure if Kirigakure would ever recover.

“Hm, is that so?” the red-headed man said as he stared Utakata up and down.

He tried not to tense under the man’s glance. He forced his face to stay neutral. But the man seemed like an experienced shinobi and could no doubt read his true feelings. The red-headed man looked away, crossed his arms, sat down next to Yagura, and remained silent while they waited for the children to come back.

Utakata stared down at his hands and told himself not to listen to Yagura’s painful breathing. He clenched his hands on the sleeves of his yukata and made himself breathe in and out. He didn't want to strangle the man on the floor yet. How could the man have survived? Why couldn't he have died?

“Mama! Mama! Papa’s here!” the blonde boy shouted, interrupting Utakata's thoughts. 

Utakata turned to look at the shouting voice. The boy, Naruto, if Utakata remembered correctly, was pulling on the hand of the tallest man Utakata had ever seen in his life. The man wore heavy armor that covered all his body except for his brown eyes. He was walking calmly, letting the young boy lead him. The man’s eyebrows rose when he saw Utakata standing a few feet away from the former Mizukage.

“Well, hello, I don’t think we’ve met,” the man said voice deep and calm. “My name is Han. I’m from Iwagakure and I’m the jinchuuriki of the Five-Tails.”

“My name is Utakata,” he answered, trying not to betray his nervousness. “I’m the container of the Six-Tails.”

Utakata walked closer to greet the newest jinchuuriki. He had to crane his neck up to meet Han in the eyes. The tall man hummed when he saw Utakata before motioning for him to sit down. He then turned around to look at Yagura on the floor.

“What happened?” Han asked. He sounded strangely unconcerned about finding the former Mizukage burnt and suffering on the floor.

“Short version: lava,” Yagura answered. “I’ll tell you the long version once everyone is here. It’s hard enough to think right now, I don’t want to tell you everything only to repeat the story in a few minutes.”

Han nodded at Yagura’s explanation before walking to the Door that belonged to the One-Tailed Jinchuuriki. He placed his hand on the Door and closed his eyes. A conversation seemed to take place. Han opened his eyes and sat down while leaning on the Door.

Naruto also placed his hand briefly on the Door before sitting down on Han’s lap. The older man ruffled the boy’s hair and Naruto gave him a look of complete admiration.

“Mama! Papa!” the little girl shouted while she ran back to the gathered group. “I got B-sama here! He says he wants to listen to the story, too!”

She smiled and ran to sit on Han’s lap next to Naruto. “I asked Yugito nee-chan though. But she said that if she ever saw ‘that tiny violent man’ ever again, she would go and hunt Yagura-san herself.”

She pouted before continuing her explanation. “She also said that she’s too busy with the chuunin exams to care about what happens to him anyway.”

“Don’t worry little Fuu, she won’t want to deny, the story we’ll hear, I want to lend an ear! You dumbass phonies!” Killer B rapped.

Utakata sighed. He liked talking to Yugito more for a reason.

B gave everyone a wide smile before he sat down to lean on Yugito’s Door a small distance away from the others. Utakata didn’t hesitate before moving to sit next to B. He knew and liked B. He barely knew any of the other jinchuuriki and he had no reason to trust the former Mizukage at all.

“Yagura-san! Yagura-san!” the girl, Fuu, yelled in excitement. “Everyone is here! Please tell us the story. What happened? Why is your arm all burned? What are you going to do now? Where is—”

Han placed his hand over her mouth to keep her from speaking. The girl rolled her eyes but she didn’t protest.

“Let Yagura-san tell us the story however he wants, okay, Fuu?” Han said in a gentle tone as he took his hand off of her face. The girl nodded and looked expectantly down at Yagura, face serious.

Yagura opened his eyes and looked around at his audience. He sighed deeply and began to tell his story.

“Well, it all started one night when I received a message from a potential informant,” he said. “The message told me to meet at one of the lakes near Kirigakure to speak about potential intel on rival villages. Of course, I went to this meeting, not knowing what to expect.”

He paused for breath and swallowed. “The only thing I remember was meeting a man wearing an orange mask with only one eyehole. He wore long robes with blood-red clouds etched on the cloth. I don’t remember what he said and soon after, I lost consciousness.”

From the corner of his eye, Utakata noticed Han’s eyes narrow by a fraction.

“When I came to, three years had passed and I had no memory of what had transpired in that time,” he continued. “When I pieced everything together, everything started to make sense. I realized that all my actions had been caused by a genjutsu strong enough to brainwash not only me but also my bijuu.”

Yagura swallowed again and exhaled before he continued with the rest of the story.

He told them about trying to figure out a way to improve Kirigakure without letting the caster of the genjutsu know. He talked about joining the Room and about the difficulties that came when trying to befriend everyone.

He explained how he had concluded that Mei Terumi was the best person to take his place and why. He told them how he met Zabuza Momochi and Ameyuri Ringo and they had fought over who got the honor of killing him. He told them how he fought Mei Terumi for hours until he took advantage of her lava release to fake his death. When the fight had ended, he had successfully escaped the Land of Water. From there, he had walked to a deserted island in the Land of Tea, where his physical body was now resting and healing.

When Yagura finished, he lay panting on the floor with his eyes closed in pain.

Utakata didn’t want to believe the story, but it made too much sense for him to dismiss the former Mizukage’s words outright. He remembered when Yagura had first become the leader of Kirigakure. They had hoped that the village’s reputation as the Bloody Mist would improve with a new Kage. Instead, it had gotten worse as holders of kekkei genkai were increasingly persecuted and killed.

The Room was silent as everyone processed the story. Utakata had so many questions and concerns that he didn’t know where to start. Thankfully, Han broke the silence first.

“Why were you targeted?” he asked. “Was it because you’re a jinchuuriki or because you were the Mizukage?”

“I don’t know,” Yagura answered. “I’ve told you everything I know and suspect, but if you can see any connections that I missed, tell me. I plan to go looking for intel once I recover.”

Han and the red-headed man shared uneasy glances before Han spoke. “I think we may have a hint.”

“A hint?”

The red-headed man nodded and explained. “Han and I saw someone wearing those robes. He is part of a mercenary company. The Tsuchikage has hired him before because he is cheaper to rent out for missions than most shinobi. He is also willing to do the dirty work that normal villages would never dare to do.”

“Mercenary company?” Yagura asked. “Did they target me as a job or did they target me as part of their own internal mission?”

The red-headed man shrugged and Han sighed before answering, “I have no idea. We only know that the Tsuchikage has hired them because we are Onoki’s personal guards at times. He met a young man with red hair who had the look of a puppet master. I doubt he’s the same person you saw, however.”

“I wish I knew more,” Yagura whined from his position on the floor. He placed his right forearm over his face to cover his eyes.

Utakata couldn’t help but feel bad for the former Mizukage. He couldn’t imagine losing three years of his life to a genjutsu. The rest of the jinchuuriki fell silent as they each absorbed the story. On Han’s lap, the two children held on to one another in a hug.

Predictably, Killer B interrupted with terrible rhymes.

“I don’t like those long faces, we can cover the bases, watch out for the guys, who are full of lies! You dumbass phonies!”

Everyone stared at B with dropped jaws which turned into frowns and groans of exasperation.

“Darn it, B” the red-headed man complained. “We’re trying to be serious and you ruin the mood. What are we going to do?”

“There’s nothing we can do, we are only feeling blue!” B said. “We have to watch out, of that there’s no doubt. If ya see red clouds, don’t make ‘em your shrouds! You dumbass phonies!”

“So are you saying we need to run away if we see anyone wearing cloaks with red clouds on them?” Utakata confirmed.

“Yeah!” B said. “Nothing to be done, we can’t really outrun!”

From the floor, Yagura groaned before he used his right arm to force himself up into a sitting position. He looked around the Room and met each of them in the eye one by one.

“Well, I’m going to see if I can get any information about this organization after I heal some more,” he said. “If you find any intel, please tell me, too. I would really appreciate it. I’ll warn you if I find anything, too. I don’t know if I was targeted for being a jinchuuriki or for being the Mizukage or for another reason. In any case, mercenary companies are unpredictable in the best of circumstances already.”

The three older jinchuuriki nodded at his request. Utakata looked away, unable to meet Yagura’s eyes. He felt guilty for celebrating his death earlier in the day. The man had sacrificed his reputation and his arm for the good of Kirigakure. Utakata wondered if, in other circumstances, he might have been a great Mizukage after all.

“Oh, and Utakata,” Yagura said.

Utakata flinched. He turned to look at the man in the face. He expected to be reprimanded but the man simply smiled for the first time since he arrived. “Thanks for the idea. I hope Mei will be a better Mizukage than I ever was.”

Utakata looked away, embarrassed. He had expected a scolding and he was getting thanked instead. He felt like the entire world had been turned upside down yet again. He heard Yagura sigh in exhaustion.

“Anyway,” Yagura said. “I should go now. It will take at least a few weeks for me to heal. I will see you all soon. Bye.”

With that last comment, Yagura vanished from the Room, leaving the other jinchuuriki to fret about the story. The two children on Han’s lap hugged each other, fear written all over their faces. The red-headed man was pulling on his beard in worry as he chatted with Han next to him. Only Killer B looked calm as he furiously wrote new rhymes in the notebook he carried everywhere.

Utakata stood up and all sets of eyes turned towards him. He rubbed his arm self-consciously.

“Well, good night.” He tried to avoid everyone’s eyes by focusing on the wall.

“Good night,” Han replied. “Will you be joining us more often, now? We will pass any intel we find through your Door if you’re not comfortable with joining the Room.”

Utakata shook his head. “No, that’s all right. I will come here more. I... I think a lot of things have been made clear to me. I don’t hate Yagura anymore.”

“Well, that’s a relief,” the red-headed man answered. “We weren’t looking forward to another fight here with Yagura. He’s too strong for us, even working together. Plus, he’s so small that even hitting him is difficult. Not worth it. Better to make peace.”

Han and B nodded furiously in agreement at Roshi’s words. Utakata raised an eyebrow as he wondered when they had ever fought one another. I’ll have to get that full story from them someday.

Utakata gave them all a small hesitant wave. The children returned his greeting with wide grins and energetic waves. Utakata gave them a small smile before he fell into subconscious sleep.

O-O-O

“Fuu-sama,” a deep and gravelly voice called from behind her, “Hisen-sama would like to see you.”

Fuu paused her kata. It was rare for anyone to interrupt her training. She turned around and saw Senji, the previous village head and the advisor to their newest leader, Hisen.

Suien huffed in annoyance from the other side of the training grounds. He hated whenever his tutoring was interrupted. Fuu’s heart soared. Out of all her instructors, he was the cruelest and she was glad that their training would be cut short.

Careful as always, she slipped her kunai back into her pouch and ran to stand in front of Senji. The old man had always been respectful towards her, despite her status as jinchuuriki.

“What is it, Senji-sama?” she asked. “Does Hisen-sama need anything from me?”

“Not exactly, Fuu-sama,” he answered. “We need to talk about your future. Come with me."

Senji gave Suien a small nod in recognition before leading Fuu away. She followed obediently at his heels. Neither of them talked for the entire walk to Hisen’s office.

Before they opened the door to meet with Hisen, Senji glanced at her messy hair and wrinkled skirt. Under his critical gaze, Fuu tried to fix her clothes and tame her hair with only limited success. She had been training for most of the morning by now and she assumed she looked like a mess.

Senji nodded in approval before he stepped forward and opened the door to Hisen’s office. Fuu followed close behind.

Hisen sat behind his desk, talking softly with a short man that looked familiar, although she couldn’t name him. He had dark skin, black hair, and light green eyes and was looking at her with barely contained disdain.

Fuu forced herself not to flinch under the man’s glare. Roshi and Han had told her to never show emotions in front of potential enemies. She breathed out and forced her face to become a mask of indifference.

“Good afternoon, Fuu-san,” Hisen said. “Please sit.”

Senji moved to stand behind Hisen and next to the man. Fuu pulled out the chair and sat down at the desk.

“Good afternoon, Hisen-sama,” she said. She clutched the hem of her skirt before making herself breathe out and let go. I can't let them see weakness.

“Fuu-san,” Hisen said, “we called you here to talk about your progress in your studies. Suien-sama has let us know that your throwing accuracy is exemplary. You have also demonstrated above adequate chakra control for your age.”

Fuu nodded and gave Hisen a small smile. Thanks to Yugito’s help, she hit her target nine times out of ten and she could use chakra to stick up to five leaves to her face at once. Suien had even suggested that she was ready to learn how to create a henge soon. Although he had sounded exasperated about her progress instead of proud.

Hisen leaned back in his chair and glanced at the two men beside him. A silent conversation seemed to take place and Fuu began to fret. She hoped they wouldn't assign her even more time with Suien. He was the strongest jounin in their village, but he was also cruel and vindictive and loved to watch her fail. If she didn’t have the other jinchuuriki to guide her, Fuu knew that her shinobi abilities would be a lot worse.

“We think that your skills are more than adequate, Fuu-san,” Hisen said at last as he glanced down to meet her eyes. “However, we are worried that you are not as well-rounded in a variety of skills as we would like. There are many things that you need to learn. As a kunoichi, you need to have skills beyond taijutsu and ninjutsu.”

Fuu tilted her head to the side. Variety of skills?

“Do you even know how to read, kid?” the dark-haired man asked from behind Hisen.

Fuu flinched and shook her head. She knew hiragana and katakana, but she didn’t know many kanji. She constantly had to ask her teachers to read things out loud for her. Even when she did recognize all the characters, her reading speed was slow.

“What do you know of mathematics, Fuu-sama?” Senji asked, voice kinder than the other man.

“Not much,” she admitted in a small voice and looked down at her knees. Suien had shown her how to do addition and subtraction. But when she hadn’t immediately understood, he had given up and made her do more taijutsu katas.

“Do you know which villages Takigakure is allied with?” Senji asked next, voice neutral.

When Fuu shook her head again, the man and Hisen sighed in exasperation. Despite their previous praise, she only felt stupid and inadequate.

“This girl knows nothing, Hisen-sama,” the man said. “She only knows how to throw kunai and shuriken. She won’t be a useful weapon to Takigakure like this.”

“I agree,” Hisen answered with a huff. “Especially for a kunoichi. She needs skills that Suien-sama can’t teach her.”

Fuu shifted in her seat as silence fell across the room. She stared down at her lap. She didn’t want to look up at the men.

“Fuu-sama.” Fuu flinched as Senji spoke. “We have been thinking that perhaps you should enroll in the Academy.”

Fuu tore her eyes away from her knees to look up at the three men in front of her. Senji looked calm as usual while Hisen was giving her a contemplative stare. Meanwhile, the third man was looking at her like she was something he had found at the bottom of his shoe. Compared to Suien’s mockery, however, his glare was nothing.

“Academy?” she asked.

“Yes, we believe that your education will be best complemented if you enroll in the Academy.” Hisen nodded before speaking again. “The new term will start in April and you will join other students that are your age. Classes are Monday to Saturday but you will continue your private tutoring with Suien-sama on Sunday. Suien-sama will be training my son during the week instead, now that he’s a genin.”

As Hisen explained, Fuu’s smile got wider and wider. No more daily shinobi practice with Suien? Spending time with other children her age? It felt like a dream come true.

“Really? I get to go to school?” she asked excitedly. Senji nodded at her question and returned her smile. Hisen nodded in confirmation while the third man huffed impatiently.

“Fuu-san,” Hisen continued, “you have four weeks before the start of the term. In that time, you must improve your reading, writing, and mathematics skills for your start at the Academy.”

Fuu nodded enthusiastically, making Hisen smile at her excitement. She would do whatever was necessary to attend.

“Good,” Hisen said as he leaned back and crossed his arms. “You are dismissed, Fuu-san. Take the rest of the day to practice your academic skills. I will send Suien-sama a message. Starting today, you will only spend half of the day on taijutsu and ninjutsu training."

“Of course, Hisen-sama,” she said. Fuu stood up from the chair and moved to leave the room. She forced herself not to skip with excitement. Before she opened the door to leave, she remembered her manners and bowed down at the three men. Hisen and Senji returned her greeting with nods but the third man only glared at her.

Alone, Fuu made her way back to the training grounds. Even Suien’s mockery and cruelty couldn’t dampen her excitement. Soon, she wouldn’t have to deal with him much, anyway.

O-O-O

Yagura stayed in the tiny deserted island for two months with only the voices in his head for company.

For the first few days, he could only twitch in pain, moving only when absolutely necessary. With nothing to do except rest, he ended up spending a lot more time in the Room than before.

After telling his side of the story, his relationships with the others had changed. While Yugito still glared at him in suspicion, she didn’t run away whenever he appeared. Instead, she preferred to give him the cold shoulder, accompanied by furious glare. He kept his distance from her. She was younger and much less experienced, but she scared him in the same way that Mei did.

Han and Roshi had always been polite to him but they were much friendlier now. They had started talking to him as a friend. They told him that they were going to stay inside Iwagakure and report anything they found to Yagura. He felt touched by their consideration.

Meanwhile, Killer B had started rapping at him. Yagura was not sure if he could consider that a reward or a punishment. In any case, he was glad that their relationship was better.

Another change occurred with Utakata.

The first few times, the boy had looked at him in embarrassment. It was very obvious that he had judged Yagura wrongly and was now trying to atone for his old way of thinking. Yagura didn’t confront him— he was only a boy after all. Instead, he asked him questions about what he had been learning and doing during training. Utakata answered his questions nervously at first. But after weeks of conversation, Utakata began to ask for Yagura’s help with ninjutsu.

However, the best change occurred with the three youngest jinchuuriki. While he had seen them many times under Roshi or Han’s watchful eyes, they had always been afraid to get close to Yagura himself. Now that they knew the story, they were constantly running up to him, pulling at his arms and demanding his attention. Fuu liked to ask for advice about jutsu while Naruto asked him to play games or tell stories.

A few days later, he met the other boy with the damaged seal who could only visit for ten minutes at a time. Gaara was shy at first, hiding behind Fuu when he first introduced himself in person. Even after getting to know him, the boy was quiet and reserved. He reminded him painfully of Kasumi. His daughter had been quiet too, preferring to stand by her older brother’s side in silence.

The three children always asked Yagura for stories. Within days, he had gotten used to having them hang on to his every word while he recounted old missions. Sometimes, the other jinchuuriki smirked whenever he had to censor his retellings for their young and sensitive ears. He usually gave them the middle finger whenever the children were out of sight. The act only served to make the other jinchuuriki more amused.

On the small island, his physical body recovered. After a few weeks, Yagura soon found himself able to move almost as well as he could before he faked his death. His left hand and arm, however, would always be scarred and he struggled to move with dexterity.

Because of his injuries, ninjutsu was not easy anymore either. He didn’t need hand signs for every technique. Jutsu could also be cast with variations on the standard formations. But the basic signs were there for a reason and the burns on his left hand made the task difficult. He struggled to make many of the signs that he used to take for granted. With his staff at the bottom of a lake, he also needed to reinvent his fighting style. He couldn’t cast the Water Mirror Jutsu and many of his taijutsu techniques would also need to be altered. He consoled himself by imagining his new weapon once he entered the mainland.

After months of self-imposed physical therapy, Yagura felt ready to leave. He looked across the ocean in a vain attempt to see the shores of the Land of Tea. But the mainland was too far away and the night’s darkness only made searching for it more difficult. Nevertheless, he knew it was the right way.

He clenched his left hand open and closed in a vain attempt to test its flexibility. He winced when the simple movement sent a jolt of pain up his arm. With a grimace, he sent chakra to his feet and stepped on the ocean.

Unlike when he left Kirigakure, his body was full of chakra and the journey was not as perilous. Almost effortlessly, he crossed the ocean by running and leaping over each wave. He reached the mainland within an hour. There were a few lights that belonged to fishing villages in the distance but he sensed no one at the coast.

His heart began to beat in excitement. It had been very boring to spend so long on a deserted island healing and suffering. Besides, now that he was in the Land of Tea, he could start looking for information on the mercenary group.

But first, I want to see Anzu.

Based on the scroll he found inside his desk back in Kirigakure, Yagura could track down his family. He knew that his wife was hiding with Asahi and Kasumi somewhere on the mainland. He only needed to pick up her trail and he would find her.

Knowing her, she is probably hiding at a brothel. She didn’t specialize in seduction and assassination missions for nothing.

Looking around the deserted beach, he knew that he needed to rejoin civilization soon. But his face was too recognizable to go into hiding. With a small grimace of pain, he made the Ram sign and transformed himself.

His body turned itself into a gray-haired version of Roshi. He looked toward the tiny fishing village and began to approach it. He knew Anzu’s trail began there and he wanted to find her as quickly as possible.

Determined, he set off to rejoin civilization.

Chapter Text

One hand in her pocket, Yugito played with the small envelope declaring her a jounin. Samui and Mabui walked at her side, smiles on their faces. Like her, they had been promoted, although only to chuunin level. She heard Samui and Mabui talking, but Yugito tuned them out.

Behind them walked Tsuyoi-sensei. Farther back were the other shinobi. At the end was the Raikage, who had gone to Iwagakure as a judge. Of the rest of the genin, only Darui and C had earned their promotion. The two boys walked side by side, already wearing their new vests.

As they walked, the walls of Kumogakure grew larger and larger. Yugito shivered in anticipation.

After two months in Iwagakure, Yugito missed her hometown and her bed. In addition, B had promised to take her to Genbu only after she got promoted. She was going to hold him to that promise.

To her surprise, instead of the normal gate guards, Killer B met them. He stood at the top of the main gate and looked out at the group of returning ninja.

“Welcome back home, ya dumbass phonies!” He smiled at the gathered shinobi. “I want to say congratulations, some of you changed your stations! You went from zero to the village’s hero, yeah!”

Most of them stared up at B in awe, but Yugito rolled her eyes. She used chakra to leap up to Killer B’s side.

“B, I think you promised me something once I became chuunin,” she began with a smirk.

“But, Yugito, you’re a jounin,” Killer B tried to argue. “I promised at chuunin, we can’t quite begin! You dumbass phony!”

“Don’t try to weasel out of it, B!” she yelled. “A promise is a promise! If you don’t take me, I’ll tell Raikage-sama that you lied to me!”

“Fine, little kitten.” He sighed. “We set out real soon, just don’t change your tune, yeah!”

“Good,” she said with a sincere smile. B grinned back at her.

“I’m very happy for you two, but could you please get down so we can open the gate?” Samui shouted at them from the ground.

The two jinchuuriki froze. They had been so focused on their conversation, they had forgotten about the shinobi waiting to enter. Both of them looked sheepishly back at the waiting ninja.

“Sorry,” Yugito apologized as she jumped back down.

O-O-O

Yagura looked at the bright lanterns of the red-light district and hoped that he had reached the end.

He had spent over a month tracking down his family after leaving the island. He had traveled back and forth through the many tiny nations in the southern part of the world. After what had felt like forever, he had finally reached the end of the trail at Tanzaku Quarters. How paranoid was Anzu about being found?

Crowds of people, mostly older men, walked the tiny streets and alleys of the district. Most of them had younger women entwined in their arms or bottles of alcohol in their hands.

Yagura double-checked his henge. He had transformed into Roshi, but with slight differences, changing Roshi’s vivid red hair for gray and making the man look older. He had changed the clothes, too, forgoing Roshi’s ninja attire for what passed as the clothes of a rich older man.

His stomach stirred nervously as he headed toward the first brothel on the street. Could he get lucky on the first try?

He entered the brothel and walked towards the front desk. A pretty young woman with hair pinned up in twin buns greeted him with a smile.

“Hello, sir, welcome, what kind of service are you looking for?” she asked. She stared down at his clothes, trying to get a sense of how much money he had.

“I have a specific type,” Yagura grunted, trying to imitate Roshi’s rough style of speaking. “I want to see pictures of all your girls.”

“Certainly, sir,” the woman said before handing over a large album.

Yagura flipped it open. He was greeted by pictures of scantily-clad women posed provocatively. He instinctively wanted to slam the album closed in embarrassment, but he couldn’t.

Sending a mental apology to his wife, he inspected the faces of the women, looking for Anzu’s distinctive small scar under her left eye. However, none of the women in the album shared her petite frame and he closed the book, disappointed.

“I don’t like the look of any of these girls,” Yagura said with a sigh.

Before the woman at the front desk could try to offer him a deal, he left. He went back to the main street of the red-light district. With a groan of impatience, he headed to the brothel next door.

Yagura had no luck with the next few brothels. When he stepped into the latest one, he had gotten tired of seeing pictures of naked and nearly-naked women that were not his wife. With a frustrated groan, he walked towards the front desk.

“How may I help you, sir?” an old woman asked.

Yagura looked around the entrance. It was one of the nicest brothels he had ever seen. The floors were clean and the entrance was well-decorated. It was clear that their services were targeted toward higher-end clients.

“I have a specific type,” he said for what he hoped was the last time. “I want to see pictures of your girls.”

“Of course, sir,” the woman said while handing over a large photo album.

He opened the album and began to flip through the pages. Unlike the previous businesses, he saw no provocative, barely-dressed women. Instead, the women wore beautiful kimonos and posed demurely. Each girl had their own page with short biographies next to their picture.

“This place looks well-managed,” he commented as he flipped past the first page.

“We pride ourselves on our quality,” the woman explained with a small bow. “Our Oiran are all well-trained in many different types of art.”

Yagura grunted in response. If he was going to find Anzu, it would be in that kind of establishment. She was a trained kunoichi specializing in seduction and assassination. If she was hiding anywhere, it would be in a high-class brothel.

Yagura flipped past the first few profiles when he finally found exactly who he wanted. In the photo, Anzu was kneeling on the floor while making tea. She smiled with half-lidded eyes at the camera. The short profile next to her picture gave her name as Kyoko, but the small scar under her left eye was unmistakable.

Trying not to cry in relief, he looked up at the old woman. “Is this one available for tonight?”

“She is,” the woman answered with a smile. “What kind of service would you like?”

“All night,” Yagura ordered excitedly, placing the photo album on the counter. “Private room, of course.”

“Yes, sir I will call for Kyoko-chan. That will be 554,000 Ryo,” the woman said.

Yagura almost balked when he heard the price. He shook his head as he reached for his bag. At least he had taken some money when he escaped from Kirigakure. Leave it to Anzu to stay at this kind of brothel.

He handed over almost all of his money. Pained, he watched as the woman carefully unfolded and calculated the total. He tapped his foot impatiently while he waited. But Yagura didn't care. He would pay anything just to see Anzu one more time.

When she finished counting, the woman looked at him with a satisfied nod. “I will fetch her. She is one of our best and I’m sure you will have a good night together.”

“I’m sure I will.”

The woman gave him a parting bow before she left to fetch Anzu. While he waited, Yagura crossed his arms and looked around the entrance. He hoped it wouldn’t take long. To his relief, the old woman returned quickly, a short and slender woman following behind her.

Yagura’s heart skipped a beat when he saw his wife. Her hair was much longer than he remembered and was pinned back in a half ponytail. But the sharp violet eyes were unmistakably hers. She looked past the woman to stare blankly at Yagura, who had almost forgotten he was wearing Roshi’s form.

He wanted to run up to her immediately but instead, he bit his tongue and waited. Anzu stood in front of him and bowed.

“Good evening, sir, I will provide service for tonight. I hope I will be satisfactory,” Anzu said with a fake smile.

Yagura’s heart was threatening to beat out of his chest. Looking down at her, he cleared his throat and motioned for her to stand up.

“Of course. Your face called out to me,” he said, causing Anzu to tilt her head to the side and smile at him again. But he could tell that she saw him as yet another rich customer.

“Sir, if you will follow me, we can go to my room,” Anzu said.

She took his arm and led him down a hallway toward a wooden door, which she opened with a small key.

“After you, sir.”

She held the door open and Yagura entered a well-decorated bedroom. There was a large bed on one side of the room and a dresser on the other. An armchair and mirror were in the corner. Tasteful woodblock paintings decorated the walls. There was a small table with two chairs in the middle of the room. Looking at the bed, his heart beat faster. For a second, he felt like a love-struck, hormonal teenager all over again.

“Would you like anything before we start, sir?” she asked as she closed the door behind her.

Yagura cleared his throat. “Some tea would be nice.” He had always loved the way she made tea.

“Of course, sir,” she said as she turned on the kettle on top of the dresser.

Yagura sat down on the edge of the bed and watched Anzu working. She turned her back to him as she made the drink, moving gracefully and placing two small cups on the table. He took the time to admire her movements— clean and graceful as well.

Yagura looked around the bedroom to search for potential spies or eavesdroppers. To his relief, the room was clear and he sensed no one but himself and Anzu inside. It was time to reveal himself. He took in a deep breath to clear his throat and placed the palms of his hands on his knees. He exhaled before speaking.

“Before my bed, the moonlight is bright,” he recited the first line of their favorite poem.

Anzu froze before spinning around and looking at him with eyes wide open. Her jaw dropped in surprise. Her eyes fell upon Yagura’s gray hair in recognition. She swallowed before answering with the next line of their code.

“I take it for frost on the ground,” she placed the kettle back on the counter and took a step closer.

“Lifting my head, I gaze at the bright moon.” Yagura recited the third line of the poem and Anzu took yet another step closer.

“Lowering my head, I think of my old home.” She stood in front of him, looking down at Roshi’s form in disbelief.

Yagura glanced up in uncertainty. “Hi, Anzu, how nice to see you again.”

Anzu clapped her hands over her mouth in surprise. Her eyes filled up with tears and she let out a small disbelieving chuckle.

“Yagura?” she asked with hands covering her mouth.

“It’s me, love,” Yagura answered as he dropped the henge.

Anzu threw herself on top of Yagura, pushing them both onto the bed.

“I thought you were dead,” she whispered in his ear with a shaky voice. “We got the news that Kirigakure had a new Mizukage. I couldn't believe that little Mei-chan had managed to kill you.”

“No, she didn’t,” he answered, grabbing onto her kimono and pulling her closer.

They stayed together for a few minutes, simply holding onto each other. Anzu sobbed softly onto his shoulder in relief— tears falling onto Yagura's face. After a few minutes, she calmed down and she rolled over to lie down next to Yagura, meeting his eyes

“What happened?” she asked with a raised eyebrow.

Yagura sighed. “It’s a long story. We should get some tea first.”

“You always did love my tea,” she said with a sigh as she sat up.

He moved his right hand down her face and arm, grabbing onto her hand. He didn’t want to let go and he sat up next to her. He leaned in, putting his lips on top of hers. She returned the embrace hungrily, running her hands through his hair and down his body.

She froze when she first touched his left arm. She looked down at his newly scarred hand and gave him a worried look. Yagura shrugged, making her roll her eyes and snort.

“You better tell me the full story soon,” she complained.

“I will,” he promised.

With a smile, she stood up and walked back to the kettle, where she continued to prepare the drinks. He moved to sit on the edge of the bed again. He tried not to blink as he watched her work, not wanting to miss a single second.

“How are the kids?” he asked.

“They’re doing great,” she said as she poured the hot water into the teapot. “Asahi likes to practice throwing shuriken when I’m not around. His aim is getting better. Kasumi doesn't follow Asahi around like a lost puppy, but she usually crawls into his bed in the middle of the night.”

Yagura chuckled. “Is that so? Is Asahi’s favorite color still pink?”

“He says it isn’t.” Anzu rolled her eyes. “Because he says that the color is for girls. But he is always coloring things in pink and he always chooses pink clothes. Kids are just like that.”

“How is he doing with his shinobi training?”

“He’s doing well. He’s not a prodigy of any sort, but he has potential. Kasumi is really talented. She’s only five and she already knows how to throw multiple kunai and shuriken at the same time.”

“She gets the talent from her mother,” Yagura teased.

Anzu chuckled. “Don’t flatter me. We’re already married. You don’t need to try so hard.”

“It’s not flattery if it’s the truth,” he replied with a grin.

As she waited for the tea to steep, she turned to him with a raised eyebrow. She gave him a familiar fond look and walked back to stand in front of him. He took her hands in his and he pulled her in for another kiss.

When they broke apart, Anzu looked at him with an amused look and a quirked eyebrow. “So are you finally going to tell me the whole wonderful story?”

“I will tell you everything.”

He stood up and sat down at the table. She handed him a cup of tea and he took it appreciatively, blowing on the surface before taking a sip. It tasted even better than he remembered and he gave a big sigh of appreciation. Anzu really knows how to brew tea.

“So are you going to tell me what happened, now?” Anzu prodded impatiently before she took a sip out of her own cup.

Yagura nodded and began to speak. Just as with the jinchuuriki, Anzu’s frown only deepened as his retelling progressed. She grabbed for his hand in the middle of the story and he talked as they held hands. When he finished, Anzu looked anxiously at Yagura, chewing her lip in worry.

“So this mercenary group is after you, Yagura?” she asked. “For being a jinchuuriki?”

“I’m not sure why the masked man chose me,” he admitted. “It could have been because I’m a jinchuuriki or because I was the Mizukage. Or it could have been something else entirely. In any case, now that everyone thinks I died, I need to gather as much intel as I can find about this group.”

“So you’re not going to stay with us, then?” Anzu looked down at her hands with disappointment and resignation.

Yagura ran his healthy fingers through her hair. “What happened is more than just me, love. I don’t know what they want and if it’s a threat to our village, I need to find out. Not just for our family, but for all of Kirigakure.”

“I know,” Anzu answered while she looked away. “But I still hate it. I want the kids to grow up with you in their lives.”

“As do I,” Yagura kissed her cheek. “I want to see the kids one last time before I leave, though. Where are they?”

“They are sleeping in our residential area. I bet that Kasumi has already crawled into Asahi’s bed.” She chuckled again and Yagura took the time to appreciate the dimples on her cheeks.

“Can we see them now?” he asked.

“We can, but you should leave clones here just in case. Akane-sama never interrupts our work, but you never know.”

Together, they formed the Ram sign. Two clones appeared in front of them, one looking like Roshi and another like Anzu. With a Tiger sign, they cast the Camouflage Jutsu next. Anzu checked if there was anyone at the door before leaving, pulling Yagura by the hand. They walked down the hall and into what looked like a residential area. Unlike the rest of the brothel, everything seemed more worn-down and lived-in.

“This way,” Anzu whispered as she pulled him through a door at the end of the hall.

He allowed her to take him wherever she desired, enjoying the feel of her hand inside his. They soon reached a small door. He saw two signs on the outside with name plaques inscribed with ‘Asahi’ and ‘Kasumi.’

Yagura's heart was beating faster in anticipation. He had been yearning to see them ever since the genjutsu broke. Now that they were on the other side of the door, he almost wanted to back away.

I’m going to make sure they’re sleeping before letting you in, Anzu wrote the message on the palm of his hand with her finger.

She dropped the camouflage and opened the door, not making a single noise. She entered and walked toward a bed on the corner. Yagura peeked inside the room, but he could only see a vague shape that Anzu was hovering over.

Anzu walked back towards the door and pulled on Yagura’s hand. Hesitantly, he walked inside. His eyes adjusted to the darkness within seconds and he looked down at the two sleeping children.

They are so much bigger, was his first thought

Asahi was much taller than he remembered. Kasumi was sleeping next to her older brother, his arm draped over her in a protective hug. They were snoring softly, their chests moving up and down as they breathed. Watching them alive and breathing lifted a heavy weight from his shoulders.

Yagura stared at them unblinkingly. He tried to memorize every detail, from the length of Kasumi’s eyelashes to the number of freckles on Asahi’s face. He wanted to wake them up and hug them blind, but he couldn’t risk anyone else finding out about his survival. The more people knew, the more he risked the future of his family.

Anzu stepped closer and took his arm, placing her head on top of his shoulder.

“They look very cute, don’t they?” she whispered.

“Yeah. They are.” Yagura felt his throat getting choked up but he forced himself to keep staring at the two children in bed.

“Are you crying?” Anzu asked, sounding both sympathetic and amused.

“No,” Yagura lied, feeling his vision beginning to blur.

Anzu hummed in amusement. “Do you remember when Asahi was born? You cried for an hour when I put him in your arms. It was the same with Kasumi, remember?”

Yagura remembered. On the day of both of their births, he had paced anxiously outside the delivery room for hours. The news of a healthy birth had allowed him to join Anzu, who was holding the tiny baby in her arms.

When she handed the child over, he had been so overwhelmed with admiration at both his wife and children that he had started crying. Anzu had teased him about it for weeks afterward. Looking at them after everything that had happened, he felt like it was his first time seeing them again.

Anzu turned to him and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. He took his free arm and cleared the tears out of his eyes. He could stay watching them forever, but he wanted to spend a final night with Anzu, too.

Let’s go back, he wrote into her hand. Anzu took the lead again and hand-in-hand they snuck away back to the room.

O-O-O

Fuu fidgeted as she walked closer to the Academy building. Senji walked in front, leading the way.

She played with the straps of her backpack and the hem of her shirt. When she had told the other jinchuuriki about attending school, they had been worried. They had then told her about how teachers and other students had despised them.

She hoped that the children and teachers of Takigakure would be better. However, after listening to their stories, she had little hope. In addition, Suien had been taunting her that she was too stupid to be liked by other children. At the memory of his words, she bit her lip before she could start crying.

“Here we are, Fuu-sama.” Senji stopped and gestured toward a small building located near Hisen’s office.

Fuu looked up and saw a banner welcoming the new students. She gulped. Other children and their parents were already entering the Academy.

Watching the children walk in with their family made her stomach twist in despair. Fuu wished her mother were there. Ever since she became a jinchuuriki, her mother had been on an extended mission. She needs to come home already.

“Do I have to go?” she asked as looked up at Senji.

“I thought you wanted to go?” Senji asked, amused. “You spent the last month excited about the first day of school.”

“I changed my mind,” Fuu said. Desperate, she turned to leave, but Senji grabbed onto her backpack before she could run away.

She looked up and pouted at the old man, who only looked down with an amused smile. “Come, Fuu-sama, I will walk you to your classroom.”

Defeated, Fuu allowed Senji to drag her into the building. They walked through the front doors and down the hallway. They soon arrived at a classroom marked as Class 1-A. The door was open and Senji and Fuu walked in. There were a few children in the classroom, already forming new friendships.

The shinobi instructor was at the front, writing on the chalkboard. Senji walked towards him, pulling Fuu by the backpack.

“Takumi-san,” Senji said, causing the teacher to turn towards the old man.

The teacher, Takumi, bowed deeply. “Senji-sama! I’m honored to see you here. What brings about this occasion?”

“I have to drop off Fuu-sama,” Senji explained, grabbing onto Fuu’s shoulder so that she couldn’t escape. “She will start her training at the Academy today.”

The teacher blinked and looked down at Fuu in curiosity before grinning down at her. “So this is...”

“Our village’s newest student, yes,” Senji interrupted. “Fuu-sama is nervous about joining the school and spending time with other children.”

The teacher looked taken aback but took the interruption in stride. “Of course, a new student.” He met Fuu’s eyes and smiled. “Don’t worry, kid. You’ll fit right in. Tell me if the other children say anything, all right?”

Fuu’s jaw dropped and she stared up at her new teacher in awe. He seemed much kinder than Suien or any of her other private tutors. Maybe school wouldn’t be so bad after all.

“You’ll fit right in, Fuu,” Takumi added while he went back to writing on the chalkboard. “Class doesn’t start for another fifteen minutes, so you should sit down and meet your classmates.”

Fuu nodded uncertainly, still amazed by Takumi’s kindness. She glanced up at Senji and gave him a final anxious look before walking toward the desks. She turned around to look at Senji for support but the old man was already leaving. She gulped and looked at the other children.

A few of the other students glanced at her without saying anything. Fuu saw a pair of girls turn to stare and they talked to one another, keeping their eyes fixed on her. Embarrassed, Fuu forced herself not to react to their whispering. She sat down at a desk in the middle of the classroom, as far as she could get from the rest of the students.

She stared at the desk in a vain attempt to keep her mind occupied away from the girls talking about her. Her stomach was tossing and turning and she hoped that Takumi would begin the class already.

“Hey!” one of the girls walked closer and put her hands on Fuu’s desk. Fuu looked up. The girl had lavender hair and large blue eyes.

“Ah, yes?” Fuu looked up and swallowed as she met the other girl’s eyes. She remembered the other jinchuuriki’s stories about being bullied in the Academy. She waited for the girl to speak.

“My name is Hana!” the girl said with a wide grin. “You have really cool hair! Rin and I were talking about it. You look kind of nervous. Do you want to sit with us?”

Fuu’s looked wide-eyed at the girl again, expecting deception. However, Fuu could only see open curiosity in her eyes. The teacher had been kind to her, so perhaps the other students could be, too? Fuu bit her lip.

“My name is Fuu,” she said. “Thank you? I like your hair, too.”

“Aw, you’re so nice!” Hana responded as she combed one hand through her long hair. “We should sit together! It’s my first day, too, so me and Rin are super worried.”

“Thank you!” Fuu said, her normal cheer coming back. “When Senji-sama told me I was going to school, I was really happy, but I got really worried this morning when I saw all of the other kids with their parents. My mom is on a mission right now, so she couldn’t walk me to school.”

“Wow, your mom is a shinobi?” Hana asked as she sat on the desk in front of Fuu. “What about your dad?”

Fuu shrugged. “I don’t have one. I don’t remember him so I guess he died a long time ago.” Fuu knew nothing about her father. Sometimes, she thought she remembered a man laughing and spinning her around in the air. She wasn’t sure if it was a dream or a memory.

“So do you already know shinobi stuff?” Hana asked, placing her cheek on the palm of her hand.

“A little,” Fuu admitted. “Hisen-sama had this man named Suien train me since I was little. He’s really mean, though. I don’t like him. Takumi-sensei seems a lot nicer.”

“I’m jealous, though!” the other girl said. “You already know how to throw shuriken and stuff, right?”

“Yeah, I’m only now learning about channeling chakra, but Senji-sama says my throwing skills are good.” Fuu crossed her arms and puffed up her chest in self-satisfaction.

“Hey! Don’t leave me out of the conversation! You were going to get her to come to us, Hana!” someone said. Fuu turned to the source of the voice. A girl with short blonde hair and green eyes walked to Fuu’s desk, a small frown on her face.

She stood next to Hana and introduced herself. “My name is Rin,” she said. “It’s nice to meet you.”

Fuu took her extended hand and shook it. “It’s nice to meet you, too! I was nervous that everyone would be mean, but everyone is being really nice!”

The girl rolled her eyes. “Of course. Why would they be mean? You should sit with us. Class is about to start.”

Fuu looked up at the clock and saw that the class would indeed begin soon. She took her supplies in her hand. Happily, she walked and sat down with Hana and Rin.

They talked as they waited for the class to start, sharing information about themselves. Rin was serious and pessimistic while Hana was the opposite, bubbly and talkative. They told her they had grown up as neighbors and had been friends almost since birth. It reminded her a little of her relationship with Naruto and Gaara.

Soon enough, the class started and Takumi introduced himself as their instructor. He asked all the students to introduce themselves. One by one, they stood up and talked, giving their names, likes, dislikes, and dreams. Some looked nervous while others were more assertive during their introductions.

Finally, it was Fuu’s turn. She stood up to stare at her classmates, her eyes fixed on her desk. Hana and Rin gave her encouraging smiles. She looked around at the other kids. Gladly, and to her surprise, none of them looked at her with the hate that Suien and her other instructors did. She swallowed to gather her courage.

“My name is Fuu,” she began. “I’m six years old. I like practicing my new techniques and climbing trees. I don’t like boring things. My dream is to be a really strong shinobi one day and make my mother proud.”

Fuu sat down, feeling her face heating up. At her words, the other students clapped politely. She looked at Takumi, who looked at her with his brow furrowed. For a second, she wondered why he looked concerned. She pushed the thought away from her mind when Rin stood up to introduce herself.

After introductions, the class began. Takumi explained how their studies would be separated. They would improve their academic skills in the morning and their physical conditioning in the afternoon. For their first two years at the Academy, they would learn about ninjutsu only on Saturdays.

Once Takumi finished explaining everything, the rest of the morning flew by. To her delight, classes were more fun than she had expected.

When she raised her hand, instead of mocking her like Suien, Takumi answered her questions. When he asked if anyone could name the five major elemental countries, she recited them all. He had smiled at her knowledge and the other students had seemed amazed at her knowledge. Fuu had to force herself not to blush with pride at the attention.

At noon, the bell rang and Takumi told them that it was time for lunch. Some of the kids ran out immediately, but Fuu waited with Hana and Rin in the classroom first.

“Okay then, let’s go out and eat!” Hana said with a grin. “The cherry blossoms look super pretty so we can sit and eat there.”

Fuu and Rin nodded in agreement. The three girls left together with their bento. They talked as they headed toward the garden outside the Academy. They sat down under a cherry tree, watching the blossoms fall. As they ate, they talked about anything and everything that came to mind.

When they finished eating, Fuu showed them one of the balancing techniques she had learned from Yugito. Hana and Rin copied her eagerly and thanked her for the demonstration. She grinned at them as she began teaching them a simple taijutsu kata.

The afternoon passed in mostly the same way. Takumi had them doing some running for conditioning. He congratulated her when she was the first to finish the task. Fuu beamed up at him, glad to have a teacher better than Suien.

When they finished school, Fuu complained to her new friends about their homework. As she left the classroom, she smiled at her classmates and waved goodbye to her teacher. Takumi returned her wave with a grin and a wave of his own.

Her mood fell once she exited the building. The other children ran towards their parents or relatives who had come to pick them up. Fuu’s smile disappeared and she stared at everyone else with their families. She looked down at the ground and wished her mother were there.

She waited a few minutes to see if Senji or one of her caretakers or instructors would pick her up, but no one arrived. Dejected, she walked home alone.

O-O-O

The rest of the week was one of the best in Fuu's life. Fuu talked with Hana and Rin before class and during breaks. She learned the names of her classmates. Takumi answered all of her questions patiently. At lunch, she ate with her friends and showed them basic kata when they finished.

On Saturday, their class had its first shinobi lesson. Takumi taught them a basic taijutsu kata, which Fuu replicated perfectly. He praised her work before moving on to help struggling students.

Although she liked the classes, her life at the Academy was not perfect. Her good mood was always broken when other children's families came to pick them up. It made her realize how much she missed her mother. Fuu hoped she would return soon.

On top of that, she still had lessons with Suien to suffer through. With resignation, she woke up early on Sunday and prepared for his tutoring. After a week with Takumi, Fuu was not looking forward to training with an angry man on a power trip. Nevertheless, she felt obligated to follow Hisen's instructions. Dejected, she got dressed and walked to the training grounds, which she found empty.

With a sigh of annoyance, she sat down and waited for Suien to arrive. She yawned and wished she had stayed in bed longer. When he finally did arrive, he glared at her and scoffed.

“Enjoy your time with other snot-nosed brats?” he asked with a smirk on his face.

“I met new people,” Fuu said, trying not to get angry at his words. If she tried to fight back, he would only be more violent and vindictive during training.

Suien scoffed at her response but said nothing. Without warning, their training session began. When they broke for lunch, she had nicked her fingers three times and had come close to tears twice. In short, it was a typical training session with Suien.

She watched him turn around to leave. However, she had a question and she wasn’t sure who else she could ask. She had gotten tired of seeing the other children go home with their parents. Taking a deep breath to motivate herself, she grasped the hem of her shirt, bit her lip, and forced herself to talk to Suien.

“Suien-sama,” Fuu said. The man turned around to look at her impatiently.

“What is it, you brat?” he asked with hands in his pockets. “It’s time for lunch.”

“I just have a question, Suien-sama,” Fuu said. She tried not to flinch under Suien’s glare, who was looking at her like something he found at the bottom of his shoe.

“Spit it out, brat, I don’t have all day.”

Fuu gulped and made herself speak before she lost her courage. “I only wanted to know when my mother will come back from her mission.”

She looked up at Suien and was dismayed to see the look on his face. Instead of his usual disinterest and contempt, he had a wicked gleam in his eyes that he always got at his cruelest moments. Her heart began to beat faster and she worried about her mother for the first time. Is her mission gonna take a long time?

“I don’t know, brat,” Suien answered with a predatory smile that showed all his teeth. “You need to ask Hisen about it. He might tell you the answer.”

“Hisen-sama?” Fuu repeated, lost for words. Before she could ask more, Suien left, chuckling and leaving Fuu alone at the training grounds.

What could Hisen know about her mother? Perhaps her mission was taking longer than expected? Or perhaps she had gotten injured?

Lunch forgotten, Fuu ran from the training area and toward Hisen’s office. She ran through the village as fast as she could. Learning the truth couldn't wait.

She almost slammed open the door to the office before she remembered her manners. She pounded on the door and waited.

“Come in,” said Hisen’s calm and serious voice.

Fuu opened the door. Inside the office, Hisen sat behind his desk. Senji stood ever-present behind him. An older boy who looked vaguely like Hisen sat at the desk, writing on a piece of paper. The boy wore a Takigakure hitai-ate that looked brand new.

“Fuu-sama!” Senji exclaimed in surprise. “What brings you here? Is there something wrong? You look worried.”

Fuu shook her head. “I'm fine, It's just... I have a question, Senji-sama, Hisen-sama,” she looked down at her feet. “I wanted to know when my mother will come back from her mission.”

Senji and Hisen shared worried glances before looking at Fuu at the door. Fuu gripped her hand over the doorknob and stared back impassively. Hisen glanced at the boy who was looking at the scene curiously.

“Shibuki, please wait outside. I need to talk to Fuu-san,” he said to the boy.

The boy, Shibuki, nodded, stood up and left, glancing back curiously at Fuu. She watched the boy leave before she walked to sit down on the chair the boy had left. She grasped the hem of her skirt in nervous tension. What does he want to tell me?

Hisen focused his gaze back on Fuu. “Fuu-san, We have a lot to tell you. I think it’s time for you to know some hard truths.”

Hisen sighed. “Fuu-san, there is no nice way to tell you this

“Is my mother okay? Is her mission taking longer than expected? When is she coming back?” Fuu interrupted.

Hisen flinched back before staring anxiously at her. He seemed lost for words and Senji stepped in.

“Your mother is not going to come back, Fuu-sama,” Senji said in a tone of voice that reminded her of Han.

“What?”

“You have to understand, Fuu, that your mother is not on a mission,” Hisen explained, his voice calm and focused. “Your mother died almost four years ago when the Seven-Tails was sealed inside you.”

“No! That’s not true! You’re lying!” she jumped up from the chair and slammed her hands on Hisen’s desk. She felt tears falling down her cheeks and onto the surface

At her denial, Senji left Hisen’s side and went to kneel in front of her. He took her hand in his. Shocked, she allowed the old man to comfort her.

“We aren’t lying,” Senji looked into her eyes, face sad. “Your mother sacrificed herself to make you the jinchuuriki of the Seven-Tails. It was for the good of the village. It was the last thing she did as a shinobi of Takigakure.”

At his words, Fuu started sobbing. She wanted to scream and deny everything, but she didn’t know why Hisen and Senji would lie to her. Senji used his knuckles to wipe some of the tears away as he let her cry her heart out.

She heard Hisen open the top drawer of his desk and pass something to Senji. The old man proceeded to wipe her face clean with a tissue. Fuu let him.

“Why?” she asked when her sobs begin to taper off. She looked up and watched the two men have a silent conversation before they looked back at her.

“Because she was the jinchuuriki before you,” Hisen answered, not tearing his gaze away from her.

“What?” Fuu felt her eyes fill up with tears again. She felt like she couldn’t breathe. Jinchuuriki? My mom?

“Emi-sama was the jinchuuriki before you, child,” Senji reiterated as he continued to wipe her tears away. “But the seal was slowly weakening after she gave birth. We could not afford for the demon to come loose if the seal broke completely. We needed to find a new host before that happened and you were the only option.”

"After she gave birth?” Fuu repeated as she wiped her nose. You mean after I was born?

Hisen sighed before he continued his explanation. “The seal you have weakens during childbirth, Fuu-san. As Emi-sama's daughter, you were the only one with chakra compatible with the beast. When we removed the demon from her, she died.”

Fuu reeled back at the new information. She remembered the last time she had seen her mother. It had been shortly before she became a jinchuuriki. Her mother had told Fuu to be strong and to listen to her instructors. She had wiped Fuu’s tears away and told her that she was going on an extended mission. She had said that she would not return to Takigakure for a while.

Like an idiot, Fuu had believed the story. She had begged her mother not to leave and received one last kiss on her forehead in goodbye.

Fuu’s eyes began to fill with tears again. She only wanted to be alone. She slapped away Senji’s arm and stood up, running out of the office without a word. As she exited, the boy from before looked at her with alarm, but she didn’t care about him.

She didn’t care about anything anymore. All she wanted to do was get away.

She arrived back home after running past countless alarmed villagers. She passed her caretakers and ran to her bedroom. When she opened the door, she threw herself onto the bed and sobbed.

She stayed in her bed crying for hours. She heard her caretakers knocking on the door and demanding for her to eat lunch. Fuu didn’t answer and only continued to wail into her pillow. When she ran out of tears, she laid down on the bed with her head on the pillow. She turned her head and looked at the light of the sun as it moved slowly across her room.

She wanted to keep crying, but there were no more tears left to cry. She inspected her hands and tried to remember her mother’s face. She remembered her having green hair, but to her horror, she couldn’t remember the color of her eyes. Were they orange like mine?

She breathed out and heard the other jinchuuriki trying to talk to her through the Room’s connection. They must have felt her distraught and tried to get in contact with her. However, she couldn’t make sense of their words and she didn’t want to try.

Overwhelmed once again, Fuu buried her face in the pillow and cried.

Chapter Text

Despite B’s reluctant acceptance and Yugito’s eagerness, it took a few days for the Raikage to approve their departure.

B knew his brother didn’t like having his jinchuuriki away from the village. But it was critical for Yugito to gain complete control over the Two-Tails.

After a week of arguing, A finally acquiesced. There was only one condition: taking another experienced shinobi with them. After some consideration, B chose to take one of the newly-promoted chuunin, Samui. Yugito always seemed calmer in Samui's presence. She threatened him less often at least.

Even after receiving permission, it took weeks to arrange the ferry that would take them to Genbu. While they waited, Yugito had tried to pressure B into revealing the process of taming a bijuu. Not wanting to explain anything, he had told her to wait until their departure.

But now that B was walking towards the docks with Yugito and Samui at his sides, he had no choice but to explain.

“You see my little kitten, the way this is written, you have to pass, and also surpass! Don’t waste your youth, you won’t go through, the Waterfall of Truth, you dumbass phony!” he sang.

“The Waterfall of Truth?” Yugito tilted her head to the side and stared quizzically up at him. At her side, Samui's eyes narrowed.

B nodded his head. “Soon you will see, there are steps but three, no need to worry, we don’t need to hurry, yo!”

“So the first step is to go through the Waterfall of Truth, right? That’ll be easy! I can handle it! What’s the next step?” Yugito crossed her arms and huffed in determination.

“You then open the seal, and then with much zeal, you fight your tailed beast! You manage to win, your chakra’s increased, you dumbass phony!

Yugito clenched her jaw in annoyance as she tried to make sense of his words. She took a few seconds to think. The boat was in front of them when she finally answered.

“So first, I have to pass the Waterfall of Truth,” she summarized. “Then, I fight my bijuu to take control of its chakra. What’s the last step?”

“For the final step, you don’t want to misstep. You take back the seal, and make the beast kneel! Yeah!”

“Is it really that difficult, B-sama?” Samui asked, tone polite.

“The hardest part is your true self, of that there’s no doubt. You must defeat, the darkness within.” B danced as he reached the dock before jumping onto the ferry.

Samui and Yugito jumped aboard as well, albeit without the dance.

“What do you mean I have to defeat the darkness within?” Yugito frowned impatiently. He got a sense she was tired of trying to make sense of B’s explanations.

“Just what I said, to pass the waterfall, your darkness you shed,” B answered.

“Yes, I get that, but how do I do it?” Yugito demanded.

“I can’t tell you now, the time won’t allow, you must see for yourself, how to find oneself, you dumbass phony!

“Believe me, B,” Yugito answered with a smug grin. “This is going to be easy!”

B shook his head. Facing one's inner darkness was one of the most difficult things he had ever done. If Yugito thought it would be easy, she was only end up disappointed. But here was nothing that B could do to prepare her. She was an adult now. She needed to figure everything out herself.

“You say that now.” B smiled condescendingly at her. “But you are only a little kitten, who doesn’t know what it’s bitten, you dumbass phony!”

Yugito groaned and turned towards the hull where the cabins were located. She glared at Killer B before she walked with Samui to find their shared room.

B shrugged at her annoyance and sat on the deck. He took out his notebook and wrote down new rhymes. Within a few minutes, the captain announced their departure and the ferry left in search of Genbu.

B breathed a sigh of contentment. He had always felt most at ease in the ocean— Gyuuki's influence? He leaned back on his elbows, taking in the smell of salt in the air and the sound of squawking seagulls. He felt the boat moving up and down from underneath and found the movement comforting. He settled back to enjoy the breeze on his face.

He was having a good time when, a few minutes later, Yugito came running out onto the deck, Samui behind her.

Yugito ran toward the railing and grasped it before letting go of the contents of her stomach. Samui joined at her side and rubbed her back in small soothing circles. Yugito placed her forehead on the railing and murmured something B was too far away to hear. Whatever it was, it made Samui tuck a lock of Yugito's hair behind her ear.

B shook his head and scoffed. Not only was Yugito overly optimistic about taming her beast, but she would be seasick for the entire journey. If she didn’t threaten his life on a weekly basis, he might have felt sorry for her.

Samui bent close to whisper something in Yugito’s ear, pressing her body against hers. She touched Yugito’s cheek and let it rest there, blushing as she did so.

For her part, Yugito seemed clueless, as if caressing the face of someone puking their guts out into the ocean was normal.

B shook his head.

'Yugito really needs to get a clue, and not just about how difficult it is to tame a bijuu.’

'Don’t make fun of her, she’s only sixteen,' Gyuuki answered.

'I wasn’t so clueless when I was sixteen.'

'You were. There’s a reason you’re still single, B.'

'I don’t need a girlfriend, I have more time to spend. No need to be tied down, to someone who’ll boss me around, you dumbass phony!'

Gyuuki only sighed in exasperation.

O-O-O

After their battle, Mei had no time to rest.

As her first act, she rescinded most of the worst of Yagura's policies— most involving discrimination against holders of kekkei genkai. Then, she had needed to figure out what to do with the jinchuuriki of the Six-Tails, Utakata. Ao and Ameyuri had reported back that the boy was loyal to Kirigakure. The knowledge had released a large weight from her shoulders. She didn’t want the death of a fourteen-year-old boy on her conscience.

From there, work had only piled up. She worked almost non-stop, sleeping at her desk in the Mizukage's office for only a few hours a day.

While she complained about being busy, it also came as a relief. She didn’t have to process her guilt in Yagura's death when she was busy with taxes and missions. However, after months of constant work and with the help of Ao, Zabuza, and Ameyuri, her workload had eased. She could no longer excuse sleeping in the office. She needed to move into the Mizukage's official residence.

Mei stood at the door of the house anxiously— home of all previous Mizukage. It had been passed down to the next one upon retirement, or, historically, upon death.

Mei closed her eyes and forced herself to breathe in and out. She couldn’t avoid her master's old home forever. Her advisors and friends were already growing suspicious about her reluctance to move into the official home. She gathered her courage, turned the key, and stepped inside.

In front of her was a staircase that led up into the bedrooms. On the lower floor, she knew there was a large kitchen, a living room, a small office, and a dining area. She took off her sandals at the entrance and went up the stairs.

She knew it would be painful to go through her master’s belongings before moving in. However, she wanted to keep some things for both Anzu’s sake and hers. Forcing herself to keep going, she walked toward the main bedroom. I might as well get the worst part over with first.

She forced herself to inhale and exhale before sliding the door open and walking in. Her former master’s bedroom was plain and mostly undecorated. There was a large bed on one side of the wall and a desk on the other. A thin layer of dust covered all the surfaces.

Mei forced herself not to sneeze. She walked to his desk first. On it, there was a collection of framed pictures. She saw Yagura’s smiling face next to Anzu on their wedding day. In another picture, a young Mei stood between Yagura and Anzu, grinning in delight. She also saw pictures of Asahi and Kasumi, some as newborns in their parents’ arms and others as toddlers playing together. She smiled and made a note to keep the pictures for when Anzu and her children returned.

Mei opened the top drawer of the desk. She knew her teacher might have left something for her considering the situation. Sure enough, when she opened the drawer, there were three scrolls. Two were sealed and labeled with Asahi and Kasumi’s name. The third was unsealed but has “Mei” written on it.

With a fond smile, she opened the scroll and read.

 

Mei-chan,

If you are reading this letter, then I’m not dead. This scroll is connected to my chakra and will self-destruct when I die. But I recommend that you burn it anyway.

Since you are reading this letter, I assume that you are now the Fifth Mizukage of Kirigakure. Congratulations!

Please take care of my family since I’m going to find Anzu and tell her that it’s safe to move back to Kiri. I’m gonna wander around the world trying to find out who put me under a genjutsu.

These scrolls are for Asahi and Kasumi. Please give them the scrolls when they are both jounin— or earlier if you think it’s necessary. Thanks.

Love,

Yagura

 

Mei’s smile froze on her face. She read the letter two more times, trying to see if the words would change. When they didn’t, she slammed the scroll on the ground and stomped on it with her foot.

“Stupid sensei! You made me believe I really killed you! I hate you! Die for real!” she yelled.

Panting in anger, she stared at the crushed paper and forced herself to breathe. She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and groaned.

Now calm, she picked up the scroll and read the letter one last time. She memorized the words before using her lava release to burn the scroll away.

She sighed and looked down at her feet. While she was angry that Yagura had made her believe he had died, she was also relieved. So I didn't kill him after all.

With another sigh, she placed the picture frames on top of the scrolls. She would have something to give the Karatachi family later. Slamming the drawer closed, she glared at it as if the drawer had been the one to orchestrate the plan instead of her teacher.

She looked around the room. After months of abandonment, dust covered everything. It was even difficult to see out through the window because of it.

Determined, she tucked her bangs out of her face and headed out to look for a broom.

O-O-O

When Yagura woke up, he was greeted by Anzu’s beautiful face snoring softly in his arms. Rays of morning light fell through the window, illuminating her skin with a heavenly glow. From the door, one of his clones watched out for intruders.

He waited for Anzu to wake up, trying to blink as little as possible. It could be the very last time he ever woke up next to her, and he was determined to enjoy every second of it.

When she finally woke up, rubbing her eyes and yawning, he brushed her hair back from her face.

“So it wasn’t a dream,” she murmured.

“No,” Yagura said and leaned in for a kiss, which she returned eagerly.

He broke the embrace first and sighed in defeat. “I think it’s time for me to go.”

“I know,” Anzu said. She sat up, stretched, and looked at him. “I wish we could stay together.”

He sat up as well. “As do I. I have presents for you and the kids before I leave, though.”

“Why didn’t you give them to me yesterday?” she asked, raising one eyebrow.

“I got distracted,” he said with a lazy wave of his hand.

Stretching first, Yagura stood up and walked to the clothes he had thrown carelessly to the floor. He dressed quickly and grabbed his bag, pulling out a scroll. He pulsed chakra into the seal and opened it, causing three gifts to appear in his hands.

He walked back to the bed and sat down next to Anzu.

“This is for you,” he handed over a pair of small pearl earrings.

Anzu’s eyes lit up. “Oh, Yagura! They’re so pretty! Did you make them yourself?”

“I did,” he said. “I spent days looking for good pearls. I’m glad Isobu is a turtle or it would have taken even longer.”

“Thank you, Yagura,” she said before kissing him on the lips as thanks.

“I love you, Anzu,” he said in return. He felt her lips twist into a smile at his words.

Almost reluctantly, he pulled back to hand over the other presents.

“The scarf is for Asahi and the necklace is for Kasumi,” he said. “Or you can switch it, it doesn’t really matter.”

He placed a long pink scarf and a small beaded necklace in Anzu’s hands. He didn’t know if she would tell the children where the presents came from and he didn't want to ask. At least he was able to leave them something.

“They will love the presents, I’m sure,” she said. She folded the scarf and necklace together and put them on the bedside table.

“I do want something from you in return,” Yagura said. He huffed exasperatedly and frowned.

“Oh?” Anzu tilted her head to the side.

“Do you know how much money I paid last night?” Yagura crossed his arms and glared at his wife. “I’m basically broke. I probably can’t even afford breakfast at a street stall right now,” he complained.

Anzu laughed. Despite the situation, Yagura took the time to enjoy her joy.

“So you need money?” she asked with a smirk. "Isn't the man usually the one that's traditionally supposed to provide for the family?"

"Since when have we been traditional?" Yagura retorted with a snort. "But, no. That's not what I meant. I need a bingo book. Bounties can be very lucrative.”

Anzu sighed. “Also dangerous.”

“You know I like danger.” He grinned. “Besides, it’s the best chance to find intel on the mercenary company.”

“I know,” Anzu looked away, face downcast. “Doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

With a deep sigh, she left the bed and headed towards her kimono. She rummaged through hidden pockets before pulling out a small book.

“It’s outdated,” she explained as she walked back to him and placed the book in his hands. “I haven’t been active duty since I left Kirigakure.”

“That’s fine. I’ll update it when I have the chance.”

Yagura placed the book inside his bag and put on the rest of his clothes. When he was dressed, he looked back at Anzu, who had put on her kimono and was struggling to tie the obi. With a hum of appreciation, he walked closer and began to help.

“Have I told you lately how much I love you?” Anzu said as she lifted her arms in order to give Yagura better access to her waist.

“Not as much as I would like,” Yagura said, eyes focused on the task. “Anyway, I made Mei promise that you would be safe in Kirigakure, so you should go back soon. She will keep you safe.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure. Mei promised,” he answered with full confidence. “I left her letters for her to give to Asahi and Kasumi. The kids probably won’t be receiving them until they are jounin, though.”

“Is this our last time together, Yagura?” Anzu asked as she lowered her arms.

“It probably is,” he admitted as he pulled on the obi to tighten it.

He stared into her eyes and saw resignation. He wanted to stay with her, watching Asahi and Kasumi grow up. But it couldn't happen. Anzu needed to return to Kirigakure and Yagura needed to collect critical intel. He could not ask her to join him in his mission either, not when Asahi and Kasumi's lives were also on the line.

He moved his face closer and placed his forehead on top of hers. He leaned forward, placing one hand on the back of her neck, for a final kiss.

“You should find someone new,” he told her when they broke apart. “You are still young. Find a new husband and forget about me.”

Anzu shook her head. “You know I can’t. You are too extraordinary to replace. Where else am I going to find a jinchuuriki who is also a Kage?”

“Well, the jinchuuriki of the Six-Tails might become Mizukage after Mei,” he speculated. “He’s only fourteen though, so you need to wait a while.”

Anzu laughed before she answered. “I don’t think I could ever love anyone the same way I love you.”

Yagura grinned at her one last time. He made the ram hand seal and transformed back into a grey-haired Roshi. From the door, his clone disappeared, its role fulfilled. With a heavy sigh, he walked to the door. He turned around to look at Anzu for what would probably be the final time. She stared back, her jaw clenched and eyes downcast.

“I love you,” Yagura said before stepping out of the room and closing the door behind him, leaving his wife alone.

Before he could do anything he would later regret— such turning back— he walked down the hallway to the exit. He saw no one else until he arrived at the reception desk. There, the same old woman from the night before tended the front desk.

“Did you have a good night, sir?” she asked with an award-winning smile.

“Yes, madam,” he answered immediately. It was the truth, after all.

“Well, if you ever come back, we have a frequent customer discount,” she said. “Please consider using our services again next time. Our girls are the best in the city.”

“Thanks,” he said, imitating Roshi’s gruff speaking style. “I will keep you in mind next time I pass by.” I’m never coming back here if I can help it, though.

Without any other word, he stepped outside and into the morning streets of the red light district. His stomach grumbled in hunger and he checked his wallet. He had less than 300 Ryo left— not even enough for one day.

Frustrated, he decided to catch his breakfast at the river instead.

O-O-O

Utakata looked in gratitude at the gates of Kirigakure as the morning sun rose behind him.

He had been on an infiltration mission in the Land of Lightning. After weeks on the mission, he missed the daily comforts of life, such as good sleep, fresh food, warm baths, and Harusame.

Utakata dashed through the gates by brandishing his identification card. The kunoichi at the gate gave him a reproachful look, but let him inside. Long used to hate and dismissal, he ignored her. Now inside Kiri, he wanted to run to Harusame’s estate immediately. However, he had to give his mission report at the new Mizukage’s office first.

With a sigh of annoyance, Utakata leaped over the roofs, moving as fast as possible. He arrived at the administration building within minutes. He jumped through the window to enter Mei Terumi’s office.

She’s younger than I expected.

Utakata frowned when he saw the woman under the Mizukage’s hat. The woman looked barely older than Yugito, who was sixteen. She was working furiously, writing something at her desk. She glanced up when he entered the office but turned her eyes back to her paperwork. Silent, she motioned for him to walk closer.

The man and the woman who had visited him at Harusame’s estate stood behind her. They looked at Utakata over the Mizukage’s shoulder. The man held up a hand to tell him to wait. Utakata stopped and stood in front of the desk, waiting for the woman to finish her task. How long was it going to take?

To his relief, the Fifth Mizukage finished a few seconds later. She looked up and smiled kindly, crossing her arms on top of the desk in front of her. Utakata suppressed a shudder. Smiles could be deceiving and he didn’t know what the newest Mizukage was truly like.

“How was the mission?” she asked as she focused her attention on him.

“The mission was a success,” Utakata answered. “The Land of Lightning has been working on some kind of video recording technology. They will use it first for their shinobi to improve long-distance communication. The technology will most likely be released for the public in a few years.”

“That’s good to hear,” the Mizukage leaned forward and placed her chin on her hands. “Were there any difficulties on the mission?”

“None.”

“Good, in that case, you are dismissed,” she said as she turned her eyes back to the documents in front of her. “I expect a fully detailed and complete mission report on my desk before noon tomorrow.”

Utakata blinked. Well, that was fast.

Before, he had been forced to recount every detail of the mission to Yagura’s assistants and advisors, no matter how inane. He turned to leave, but the man with the eyepatch leaned forward and interrupted.

“Mizukage-sama, don’t you think we should ask more?” he asked. “I know there are more important matters, but it’s necessary to know every detail.”

“We have more important things to worry about, Ao,” the Mizukage answered without looking up. “We will have a written report soon, anyway.”

“Yes, but since you have a lot of free time right now, I thought it would be good for—”

At his words, Mei snapped her pen in half. Ao froze and the short woman covered her mouth with the palm of her hand.

“Are you saying I’m too much of a loser to find someone to spend time with?” Mei asked coldly, ink dripping through her fingers.

“What? No! Mizukage-sama, I just think that since you don’t have anything to do, you could—”

“One more word and you die.” The Mizukage turned to look at the tall man with a smile. “Now, get me another pen. Something has happened to mine.”

“O-Of course, Mizukage-sama.” The man shivered before he left the office. The red-headed woman snorted while Mei let out an angry breath.

“Utakata-kun?” the Mizukage said.

Utakata froze where he was standing. “Yes?” He hoped his voice wasn't as shaky as it felt.

“Remember, before noon,” she told him with a vicious grin. “You are dismissed for now.”

“Ah, uh, y-yes, thank you,” Utakata answered.

He bowed deeply and escaped from the office. Once he had jumped out of the window, he heard the petite red-headed woman laughing maniacally.

Glad to be out of there, he wanted to head home immediately. However, his stomach, which had survived off ration bars during the mission, protested. He hadn’t had a full meal in a month and he missed hot food. It was still very early in the morning, but some stalls would already be open. With a new goal in mind, he made his way to the commercial center instead.

When he arrived at a small alley, most of the stalls were still closed for the night. However, he saw a few people selling typical breakfast staples. With a growling stomach, he approached the nearest one and drooled when he smelled the food.

“I would like the eel breakfast, please,” he said to the man behind the counter. “How much will that be?”

The man's stare was full of disdain, making him feel like a piece of meat. Utakata tried not to shrink back. He was a chuunin of Kirigakure and a jinchuuriki. He couldn’t be intimidated so easily. The man gave him a familiar glare and his heart sank.

“For you, any price is too low,” the man answered with a growl. “I don’t want you or your kind anywhere near here.”

“I just want to have breakfast.” Utakata tried to reason with the man but he already knew it would change nothing.

“I said no,” the man replied, voice full of scorn.

Utakata clenched his fists in annoyance but he backed down. He knew from past experiences that it wouldn't be worth it to argue with the man. He turned and searched for somewhere else to eat. He wandered through the different stalls as they set up for the morning rush. However, as soon as anyone looked at him, they glowered at best and spat at his feet at worst.

Dejected and with an empty stomach, Utakata accepted defeat. He leaped onto the roofs and ran back to Harusame’s estate. The meal wouldn’t be anything special, but at least he would get to eat more than a ration bar.

He arrived back home and headed straight to the kitchen. He served himself a bowl of rice and fried two eggs. He salivated as he added a little soy sauce. It wasn't amazing, but it would do.

He took his simple breakfast to the dining room. He was unsurprised to find his master lounging there as he read a book.

“Hello, Harusame-sensei,” Utakata said. He greeted him with one hand while he balanced the bowl and chopsticks with the other.

“Utakata-kun! You’re back quickly this time." Harusame looked up from the book to meet Utakata’s eyes.

“Yes, master.” Utakata sat down at the table and started shoving the food into his mouth. After a long mission, even plain rice was gourmet.

“How was the mission?” Harusame asked.

“It was good,” Utakata mumbled with his mouth full of food. Harusame lifted up an eyebrow. Embarrassed, he swallowed and cleared his throat before repeating himself.

“It was good,” he said. “I collected some intel on Kumogakure’s newest communication technology.” He shoveled more food into his mouth while his master processed the information.

“So Kumogakure is developing technology?” Harusame asked and Utakata nodded, mouth full. “Have you already given your mission report, Utakata-kun?”

That time, he remembered to swallow before answering. “Not yet, master. I only had to give a short debriefing and she told me to submit a written report tomorrow instead.”

“Oh, and what did you think of the new Mizukage?” Harusame asked curiously. "I haven't gotten the chance to talk to Mei Terumi yet."

Utakata took his time to chew, swallow, and think before answering. “She’s terrifying,” he admitted, “but she seemed nice enough. She only wanted a brief report.”

“Did she say anything to you about—”

“No,” Utakata interrupted before Harusame could ask about the Six-Tails. “She just treated me like any normal chuunin. The people of the village weren’t so kind.”

“What did the villagers say?” Harusame asked, his shoulders tensing.

Utakata shrugged and took another bite before answering. “I don’t know. Nothing really. I wanted to eat breakfast in the village since I was hungry, but they said they didn’t want me there. It was easier to come back instead of trying to argue with them about it.”

“Still, they shouldn’t say that kind of stuff to you,” Harusame said with a frown. "You're a valuable shinobi of Kirigakure."

Utakata shrugged again and continued eating in silence. He had gotten used to dealing with the hatred that the villagers gave him. As long as he had Harusame, he didn’t care what anyone else thought about him.

When he finished eating, Utakata told his master that he would train for the rest of the day. Harusame nodded distractedly and Utakata cleaned up after himself.

When he arrived at the training grounds, he stretched before doing a basic taijutsu kata. However, instead of the usual calming effect of the warm-up, he felt incredible sadness.

Why the hell am I sad? The villagers aren’t worth getting upset over. So what if they were mean? Who cares?

Despite his self-reassurances, the sense of grief didn’t leave. He struggled to concentrate as he went through the movements. In the end, he cut the warm-up short, hoping that practicing his normal routine would make him feel better. However, when he began his normal kata, he couldn’t concentrate either. His movement was clumsy and he made simple mistakes. When he blew bubbles, the blobs that appeared burst within seconds. Utakata felt foreboding in the pit of his stomach and he groaned in exasperation.

The Room was interfering again, wasn't it?

Utakata stared up at the sky and frowned. The last time he had trouble with jutsu, he had gone to the Room to find out the Fourth Mizukage was a jinchuuriki. Somehow, that had escalated into a coup and a complete overhaul of Kirigakure’s political system.

Utakata sighed. He hoped whatever new crisis wasn’t as dramatic as encouraging the Fourth Mizukage to fake his death.

Suppressing a whine, Utakata left the training area to take a warm bath instead. Besides his master’s cooking, he missed hot running water the most. After a month on the field, he was likely more grime than person. He entered the tub and tried to relax, but the sadness in his subconscious made it nigh impossible.

With a grumble, he left the bath within minutes, unable to enjoy it. He dried off and got dressed, changing into his normal loose yukata.

He flopped down onto the futon and looked at the early light of the afternoon through the window. Despite the time of day, Utakata was exhausted. Within minutes he fell asleep. He automatically let his mind lead him into the Room. He already knew that something was happening and he tried to prepare himself for anything. He hoped no one was fighting or injured. That would be troublesome.

When his subconsciousness appeared in the Room, Utakata was ready for a fight. But when he saw the little girl curled up with her face on her knees sobbing, he paused.

The girl was leaning on a Door marked with the kanji for the number seven. She didn’t seem to notice his arrival, because she continued crying without glancing at him.

Utakata wanted to disappear. He wasn’t good at dealing with crying or children. He was especially terrible at dealing with crying children. But based on past experiences, he knew that the Room wouldn’t let him concentrate on anything until he did something about it.

With a sigh, he walked toward the girl, wishing someone else was there. He squatted down and sat cross-legged a foot away from her. She tensed slightly at his approach but didn’t otherwise react.

“Hey,” he said, but the girl only continued to cry.

Utakata scratched the back of his neck. He didn’t know what had happened and he didn’t know how he could make her happier. He tried to remember what Harusame used to do when he was much younger and needed comfort. He remembered his master trying to make jokes. They were never funny, but Utakata enjoyed the effort anyway.

“Hey,” he repeated, “your name is Fuji right?”

The girl cried harder. She mumbled something, but Utakata couldn’t understand what she was saying. Reluctantly, he scooted closer and placed the palm of his hand on top of her shoulder. He patted her awkwardly and hoped that she felt comforted in some way.

“Not Fuji, then?” he asked. The girl shook her head.

“Then let me try to guess,” he continued. “Your name is... Mei.”

The girl shook her head again but it sounded like her sobbing had lessened slightly.

“No? Then maybe Yugito?” he asked. She shook her head again.

“Wait, I know! Yuki!” he guessed. “Miyako? Aki? Akito? Kagura? Kairi? Sachiko?” he used random names.

She shook her head but her sobbing was almost nonexistent at that point.

“Naruto?” he asked.

At the last suggestion, she giggled through the tears. Nevertheless, her voice sounded strained.

“No,” she finally whispered, her throat struggling to say that simple word.

Utakata looked down at her and frowned. The girl had seemed very cheerful and talkative the other times he had seen her. Watching her fight to say such a simple word was... difficult.

The girl started crying again. Utakata scooted closer.

At the closeness, the girl placed her head on his knee and started to cry into his yukata. Utakata tensed but didn’t pull away. Awkwardly, he put his hand on top of her head and petted her. They sat together like that for a few minutes. And while Utakata had no idea what to do, the girl seemed comforted. Her crying began to peter out.

“Fuu,” he said once her sobs had turned into hiccups.

“What?” she whispered.

“Your name is Fuu, I remembered,” Utakata said.

“Oh.”

The girl looked up briefly at him before turning her gaze toward the floor. Her head was still resting on his knee and Utakata was starting to feel numb.

They sat together in silence before Utakata spoke again.

“So why were you crying?” he asked.

Fuu flinched before answering. “I don’t wanna talk about it.”

“Okay,” he replied and the two fell back into silence. He could understand needing to keep everything bottled up inside. He leaned on her Door and sighed.

My leg is getting numb. At the thought, Utakata tried to shift his leg. Immediately, Fuu lifted up her head and sat up. She pulled her knees up to her chin and hugged them close. He took the opportunity to stretch out his legs in front of him.

They sat next to each other in silence for a few minutes more, with neither of them knowing what to say.

“My mother is dead,” Fuu finally admitted.

“What?” Utakata turned to the girl in alarm. Before he could react, she had thrown herself on his lap and wrapped her arms around his neck.

Panicked, his first instinct was to throw the girl across the Room, but he stopped himself. She cried into his shoulder and, not knowing what else he could do, he wrapped his arms around her tiny body. Her tears soaked through his yukata within seconds.

“I’m sorry,” he said, not having anything else he could say. “You must have loved her.”

He felt Fuu nodding into his shoulder and he patted her head again. He held onto her, not knowing what else to do. He only had Harusame, and if he died, Utakata would feel the same way.

He let her cry into his shoulder and he wrapped his arms around her. They stayed together until he could only hear her sniffling. When she stopped, he shifted in order to make Fuu sit on his lap instead.

“Do you like bubbles?” he asked her. He had never been good with words but he remembered Harusame making bubbles when he was her age to cheer him up.

“Bubbles?” Despite the situation, she sounded curious.

“Yeah, I can make cool ones. Watch.”

With her attention on him, he conjured his pipe and bubble solution. He blew many bubbles, adding a small amount of chakra to make them glitter more than they normally did.

Fuu looked at the results with eyes wide open. Her eyes were rimmed with red but the bubbles keep her attention. One floated nearby and she raised a hesitant finger to touch it. It popped immediately, releasing a small explosion of blue sparkles like a firework.

Fuu gasped and looked up at him in wonder.

“What else can the bubbles do?” she asked, her voice raw and strained.

“Many things,” he answered. “Watch.”

He sent a small pulse of chakra. All at once, the bubbles burst, showering the Room with lights of a thousand colors. He looked down at Fuu and was glad to see she was enjoying the show, the bright colors reflected in her eyes.

“Let me show you a different type,” he said before he blew a new set of bubbles.

The new bubbles floated up into the air, a few moving in their direction. Fuu touched one that drifted near. That time, instead of bursting at the touch, it bounced away. With a squeak of surprise, she looked up to him and smiled for the first time.

“Wow, Utakata nii-san, you can do so many things with bubbles,” she said. She beamed up at him, although her eyes still looked full of grief.

“You haven’t seen anything yet, Fuu. Just keep watching.” With that, Utakata showed her some more of what he could do.

At first, Fuu was hesitant, only interacting with the bubbles that happened to float near her. But after some time, she stood up, running around the Room and trying to touch every single bubble.

Utakata stopped thinking about the time, too mesmerized watching Fuu. They must have spent a long time together because other jinchuuriki started to show up.

The red-headed man joined them first, raising an eyebrow when he saw Fuu. Fuu waved and the man walked to stand in front of her.

"Hi, Mama," Fuu greeted the man with a sad smile on her face.

"Hello, Butterfly, you haven't answered us in a while," the man said as he squatted down to meet Fuu's eyes. "Is everything okay?"

At the question, Fuu's eyes fell and she looked away. "No, Mama," she answered. "Hisen-sama told me my mother died."

"I'm sorry," Roshi replied as he ruffled her hair. "That must have been difficult for you."

She nodded and looked up at the man. "I have a question though, Mama."

"What is it?"

She bit her lip and looked down at the ground before meeting the man's eyes. "Mama, did you ever meet my mom?"

"Your mom? Why would I have known her?" the red-headed man raised an eyebrow in confusion.

"Hisen-sama told me she was a jinchuuriki. I wanted to know if you ever met her,” Fuu explained. Utakata gasped in surprise. Since when did jinchuuriki become parents?

The red-headed man kept his gaze leveled on her for a few seconds before answering. "No, Butterfly. I didn't know her,” he said. “Before you came along, the jinchuuriki never talked. The only ones I ever met were Kushina and Han and I still barely talked to Kushina. But... everything changed when you came along."

"Me?" Fuu tilted her head to the side as she looked at the older man.

"Yeah,” the man said, scratching the back of his neck. “In the past, we would ignore each other, but you made it better. Everything changed when I decided to comfort a crying little girl. I don't regret it."

"Really, Mama?" Fuu’s eyes filled with tears, but they looked full of happiness instead of grief.

"Really.” The man smiled and nodded. “I will never regret meeting you, Fuu.”

Fuu started to cry again and she jumped up to hug the man around his midsection. "Thank you, Mama," she mumbled. "Thank you."

At the hug, the man picked up the girl and hugged her close. Utakata looked awkwardly at the exchange before turning his gaze to look the other way. He waited for their moment to end.

After what felt like hours of hugging and crying, the red-headed man placed Fuu back on the floor. He greeted Utakata with a small wave of his hand before going to do some sort of stretching exercise by himself. Utakata made more bubbles for Fuu, trying desperately to remember the man's name. He didn’t want to call him “Mama” by accident.

The little boy, Naruto, entered the Room soon afterward. Like Fuu, he was instantly mesmerized by the bubbles. He joined her in the quest to catch as many as possible, but not before giving Fuu a hug and a kiss on the cheek. He talked to Utakata as if he had always been there before demanding that he make specific types of bubbles. He complied with the boy’s requests, if only to make Fuu happy.

Later on, another boy joined them. Just like Naruto, he gave Fuu a hug and a kiss before he talked to Utakata. The boy introduced himself shyly as Gaara, hiding behind Fuu as he did so. He joined them in their quest to capture all of the bubbles. He didn't stay for long as he left only a few minutes later, saying something about a Shukaku.

Utakata waved goodbye to Gaara and he watched as Naruto, Fuu, and the man said goodbye to the boy as well. He made more bubbles and watched the kids try to capture them.

That night, he was the last one to leave the Room.

Chapter Text

After discovering the truth about her mother, Fuu spent two entire weeks cooped up in her bedroom.

During those weeks, Fuu barely left her bed, preferring to hide under the covers. She ate only when forced to by her caretakers and slept for most of the day. Senji came in a few times to talk to her, but his words sounded like gibberish.

She ignored the other jinchuuriki too. They tried to talk through the Room, but she only wanted to wallow in her misery.

Fuu was very thankful to Utakata. He had known nothing about her except for her name. Yet, he had stayed next to her, letting her cry her heart out without prying into why.

Now, after two weeks of misery, she looked at the entrance of the Academy and gulped.

Fuu was anxious to return. She missed spending time with Hana and Rin and talking with them during lunch. Fuu hoped they didn’t think she had dropped out. She missed Takumi-sensei too. She hoped he wouldn’t resent her for being absent for so long.

Taking deep breaths in and out to steady her nerves, she grasped the straps of her backpack. She walked into the Academy while looking straight ahead. A few of the children turned to stare at her but Fuu only walked past them, her head high. She didn’t relax until she reached the classroom and sat down.

“Fuu!”

She immediately heard a cheerful voice calling her name. She felt arms hug her neck from behind and Fuu startled at the sudden touch.

“What? Huh?” Fuu looked up and met Hana’s eyes. She looked relieved to see Fuu although her eyes seemed especially shiny. Rin moved to stand in front of Fuu’s desk, looking at the spectacle with her hands on her hips. Despite the stern pose, Rin looked equally concerned.

“I was so worried about you!” Hana shouted in her ear as she tightened her grip on Fuu’s neck. “Takumi-sensei didn’t know why you hadn’t come to class and we don’t know where you live so we couldn’t visit you! What happened?”

Fuu wanted to answer but Hana’s arms blocked her windpipe. She wanted to cry, and she wasn’t sure if it was because of their concern or because of the lack of air.

“You’re choking her, Hana,” Rin said, voice calm.

“Gah! Sorry!” Hana apologized and immediately let go of Fuu’s neck.

Fuu took a long, grateful breath and pondered how to answer the question. She didn’t want to lie to them but she didn’t want their reunion to start off with bad news.

"I'll tell you at lunch," she compromised.

Hana and Rin shared a perplexed look, but let the matter drop when they saw her face. Fuu gave them a shaky smile in return and the two relaxed as they sat down at the desks on either side of hers.

"So what did you learn in the last two weeks?" Fuu asked them.

At the question, Hana's eyes lit up. She started to ramble about multiplication, kanji, and the history of Takigakure. Rin interjected often with the correct information. Fuu listened attentively to both, trying to make up for her absence.

While they were still catching up, the bell rang. All the children sat down and Takumi arrived in the classroom, carrying a large stack of books under his arm.

"Good morning, kids!" Takumi greeted with a smile.

"Good morning, Takumi-sensei!" they all answered.

The man looked around the classroom and his eyes fell on Fuu. She tensed and slid down her chair, expecting a scolding. However, Takumi beamed at her instead, smile wide and honest.

"Good morning, Fuu, I'm glad you're back," he said. "Don't be afraid to ask me anything if you don't understand, okay?"

Fuu nodded in gratitude and felt a weight lift from her shoulders. She had been terrified of her sensei’s reaction.

The rest of the day passed like normal. They finished their classwork in the morning. Takumi answered all of her questions and more. In a desperate effort to catch up, Fuu copied everything Takumi wrote on the board. At her sides, Rin took studious notes while Hana stared out the window.

When lunchtime arrived, they headed to their usual spot under the cherry trees. Expectantly, Hana and Rin turned to look at Fuu, waiting for the full story.

Fuu grasped the hem of her skirt and exhaled nervously. She had been thinking about what to tell them all day. She considered backing away, but she had promised.

“The truth is...” she began. Hana and Rin leaned forward until they were only a few inches away from Fuu's face. Fuu gulped. She knew she couldn't tell them the full truth. Her status as jinchuuriki and her mother’s past responsibility was supposed to be a secret. She had to omit a lot of information.

“Hisen-sama told me my mother died on a mission,” she lied. If you count giving me her bijuu as a mission.

Rin gasped and placed the palms of her hands over her mouth. Hana jumped forward to envelop Fuu in a hug. Fuu was taken aback by the sudden contact but returned the hug. Soon after that, Rin jumped on her too, causing all three of them to fall on the ground in a pile.

“I’m sorry, Fuu,” Hana said, and her voice sounded choked. “I bet your mom was really cool!”

“She was!” Fuu said, although with a pang she realized that she didn’t know that much about her. She had been so young when her mother died. What if her mother had actually been a loser? She hoped not.

The three sat up and Fuu smiled at them, turning her head to the side. Hana and Rin really were good friends. Maybe one day she would be brave enough to tell them about her bijuu. She knew jinchuuriki were feared and despised, but...

For the rest of the lunch period, they ate and talked about whatever came to mind. At one point, Hana complained that multiplication was difficult. Rin only sighed and told her that if she wanted to understand, she should pay attention to Takumi. Fuu refused to take sides in their argument, although she privately agreed with Rin.

When their break ended, they headed to the training area behind the school. Takumi had them practice climbing over smooth walls. Fuu was the first to reach the top. Upon her victory, she yelled down encouragement and advice to the other students from the top.

When they finished the task, sweaty and exhausted, Takumi led them back to the classroom. For the rest of the afternoon, he lectured them about healthy nutrition for shinobi. Fuu listened attentively and took notes. She had her caretakers at home, but based on the looks they give her, they wouldn’t be there for much longer. Once she was old enough to take care of herself, they would all leave.

Takumi told them their homework for the day to grumbles from the other students. The children ran out of the classroom, saying their hurried goodbyes to one another.

"Just a sec! I need to pack everything!" Fuu said as she dumped her school supplies into her backpack. Hana and Rin waited patiently at her sides.

"Wait, Fuu, I need to talk to you before you leave," Takumi said from the front of the class.

The three girls turned to look at him.

"Me?" Fuu asked, eyes growing wide in curiosity.

Takumi nodded. "Yes, there is something I want to tell you. It might take a while, though, so I think Hana and Rin can go home."

Hana and Rin gave her worried looks but obeyed their teacher. They turned around to leave.

"Don't worry, girls, Fuu is not in trouble," Takumi said. "I just want to speak with her since she's been missing for a while. I have to make sure she's not confused, that's all."

At his words, Hana and Rin relaxed and turned to look at Fuu one last time.

"Bye-bye, Fuu" Hana yelled. She waved her arm back and forth enthusiastically.

"See you tomorrow," Rin said with a small wave of her hand.

"Bye, girls! See you tomorrow!" Fuu answered as she walked to the front of the classroom. Hana and Rin departed, leaving Takumi and Fuu alone.

Fuu shifted her feet and bit her lip. Takumi sighed and sat down at one desk, motioning for Fuu to join him. They sat together in silence and Fuu played with the hem of her skirt.

"What did you want to talk to me about, sensei?" Fuu asked to break the tension.

Takumi closed his eyes and took a deep breath before answering. "Well, might as well just get it out there," he muttered to himself before turning his eyes towards her. He sighed before answering.

"Emi-chan, your mother, was my friend from childhood," he said, his eyes fixed upon her.

"What?" Fuu leaned forward, eyes wide.

"We used to work together back when we were genin," Takumi explained. "She was my best friend. I used to spend some time with you when you were born, but you were too little to remember me."

"You... knew my mother?" Fuu looked up at Takumi in wonder.

"I did," he nodded. "She was a great friend and we loved to spend time together." His eyes were full of grief.

Fuu remembered when Senji had first introduced her to Takumi. She had believed that Senji had interrupted to keep her identity as a jinchuuriki a secret. Perhaps it had been to avoid calling her Emi's daughter instead.

"What was she like?" Fuu asked desperately. "What color were her eyes? What was her favorite food? Did she like boring things? Was she a loser?"

Takumi laughed before smiling down at her fondly. "You are almost exactly like her in personality," he said. "She could have talked for hours without a break! She was always running around and climbing things. She would have lived up in a tree if anyone had let her. Though…” Takumi scratched his chin and grinned, “you don’t look that much like her except for the hair.”

"Really?" Fuu ran a hand through her hair and smiled. Blushing, she imagined a woman with Kushina’s face but with short mint green hair.

"Really." Takumi nodded.

Fuu took the information and held it close. It wasn’t a lot, but it was something she would have never known about her mother otherwise.

"Can you tell me more?" Fuu asked shyly. Despite the smile in Takumi’s face, she could tell that it was difficult for the man to talk about her.

"I'll tell you anything. All you need to do is ask."

Fuu bit her lip and thought of what to ask first. She had so many questions in her head and she wasn’t sure which one to go with first.

“What color were her eyes?” Fuu eventually asked.

“Pink,” he answered. “Like cherry blossoms.”

“Was her nose straight? Did she have thick eyebrows? What about her mouth? What did she look like?” Fuu leaned forward to ask her questions, increasingly desperate, hands tight around her knees.

“Uh...” Takumi gave her a nervous smile at the onslaught of questions. “Well... it might be better to show her to you.”

Fuu’s heart began to beat faster and she beamed up at Takumi with hope in her eyes. Takumi returned her smile before standing up and walking towards his desk. He rummaged for a few minutes inside the top drawer before pulling out something and walking back to her. He held out a picture like an offering.

Fuu took the photo in her hands reverently. In the picture, an older girl with mint green hair stood in the middle of a group of three children. She sported a wide grin on her face as she looked at the camera, pale pink eyes glittering in happiness. She had pale skin and a narrow face, so different from her own. Nevertheless, Fuu saw some parts of herself there, like the shape of the eyebrows and the nose.

Fuu bit her lip. So that’s what she looks like.

“She’s so pretty,” Fuu whispered as she looked up at Takumi, who was smiling gently down at her.

“She was.” Takumi nodded, eyes looking wistfully at the picture held in Fuu’s hands.

Fuu looked down at the picture again and paid attention to the other two children. One was obviously Takumi as a child. The Takumi in the picture was tall and tanned, with gentle dark green eyes and short blond hair. He smiled at the camera.

On her mother’s other side was a short boy with dark skin, black hair, and light green eyes. Unlike Takumi and her mother, he stared at the camera directly, face serious. He looked familiar and Fuu racked her brain to remember him. After a few seconds, she recognized him as the man that had been in Hisen’s office with her and Senji.

“Takumi-sensei! You were so tall as a kid,” Fuu exclaimed.

“Thank you,” Takumi replied bashfully. “We took this picture after we graduated. Back then, we didn’t have jounin-sensei to lead the genin teams. Things... have changed a lot in the village since then.”

Fuu nodded. “But who is this kid?” Fuu pointed at the other boy in the picture.

Takumi frowned. “That’s Ryuu. You don’t know who he is? He assists Senji and Hisen with mission assignments.”

“Oh,” Fuu said. “I saw him before in Hisen-sama’s office. He glared at me the entire time I was there,” she complained. “I haven’t seen him again, though.”

“Hm, is that so?” Takumi smiled, but his eyes were full of fury.

She changed the topic, although she burned in curiosity to know about the man. Who is he? Why have I never met him before? Was he my mom’s friend, too?

“Do you have any more pictures?”

Immediately, Takumi’s expression softened and his smile widened. “I’ll look for them at home. I’ll make some copies if I can for you, okay?”

Fuu nodded. “Okay.”

Takumi leaned forward to ruffle her hair again. “Now, you should head home,” he said. “You have a lot of homework to catch up on.”

“Yes, sensei!” Fuu stood up, reluctantly returning the picture to Takumi’s hands. She started to leave before remembering her manners.

She turned back and bowed down. “Thank you very much, Takumi-sensei.”

“You’re welcome, Fuu,” he replied, eyes soft.

Fuu grinned and ran back home. She had a lot of homework to do.

O-O-O

Yugito stared at her reflection in the waterfall one more time. For the past five months, she had spent every day trying in vain to defeat her darkness. But the monster that appeared every time was as strong as her and it fought exactly like her. Yugito had no way to defeat it. Nevertheless, she tried, waking up early for daily fights with the creature.

She had almost given up. In another life, she might have surrendered, content with the limited amount of control she already had over the Two-Tails. But when there was a mercenary group possibly tracking down jinchuuriki, she couldn’t give up. She had to keep trying, no matter how long it took.

Samui's company was the only factor that made the whole process more bearable. Her previous teammate accompanied her to the waterfall each time. She provided moral support and a place to vent once she failed for the umpteenth time. Yugito loved having her at her side. It was the only point of happiness in her daily fights.

“Give it up, Yugito,” the monster taunted. “You can’t defeat me because I am you! You can’t get rid of yourself. You resent the village too much for me to disappear and you are too weak to ever defeat me.”

“I don’t resent the village!” she yelled. “I need to do everything A says, no matter what! They have given me the Two-Tails for a reason and I will do whatever they ask of me!”

The creature laughed and sneered at her. “You can’t even admit to yourself how much A and the village control your life, can you?” The reflection cackled as it walked to stand closer. “Just admit that you hate the control they have over you, Yugito-chan.”

“I love Kumogakure and I will do anything for it!” she yelled. “There’s nothing you can do to change my mind!”

Now in front of her, the creature met her eyes. Yugito stared into its red pupils and gulped.

“You’re a selfish creature, Yugito-chan. You just can’t admit it,” the creature said as it placed a hand on her shoulder.

“I’m not selfish!” Yugito protested as she slapped the monster’s hand away. “I will do anything for Kumo, even if it kills me! But first, I’ll kill you!”

Yugito lunged forward to attack, claws out.

Smirking, the creature leaped out of the way and responded with the same attack. Yugito dodged to avoid getting cut in half. The other Yugito took the chance and threw shuriken as she jumped in the air.

With a scream, Yugito opened her eyes. She found herself sitting on the tiny island in front of the Waterfall of Truth, panting from exertion.

“Are you okay, Yugito?” Samui’s cool voice asked from behind.

Yugito forced herself to swallow and shook her head. She bent her head down and clenched her hands into fists. She ground her teeth and tried to think.

She knew that it was possible to pass the Waterfall because B had done it before. But she didn’t understand how and when she had asked, he had refused to tell her anything. If he weren't so quick and slippery, she might have tried to torture the information out of him.

Samui walked closer and placed one hand on Yugito’s shoulder. Yugito tensed at the touch. She was unfamiliar with any kind of physical contact. In recent times, she had noticed that Samui liked to get closer. Yugito didn’t mind. She found the touch... reassuring.

“Was it the same as always?” Samui asked as she sat down next to Yugito on the island.

Yugito noticed that Samui’s thigh was touching her own, but she didn’t want to move away. She sighed before she answered Samui’s question.

“Yeah, same as always,” she admitted.

They sat together in silence, listening to the falling water. Samui’s hand was still on her shoulder but Yugito really didn’t want her to move. She knew that she should try again for the good of the village. But her body protested and the only thing she wanted to do was sit with Samui. It felt nice.

Defeated, Yugito placed her head on Samui’s shoulder. She groaned and closed her eyes. Samui didn’t move away, leaning closer to Yugito instead.

“Thanks,” Yugito whispered.

“For what?” Yugito could detect a quiver of hesitation in Samui’s voice.

“For being here,” Yugito answered. “I would have given up without you here.”

“Really?”

“Really. Thanks.”

Samui was silent for a few seconds. Yugito relaxed, happy to be in her presence. Samui had been there for her in the most difficult times. Ever since we were put on the same team.

“You’re welcome,” Samui finally answered.

Samui wrapped one arm around Yugito. Yugito leaned in closer. For a wild moment, she wondered what Samui’s lips tasted like. She swallowed, opened her eyes, and looked at Samui. Samui’s face was pink, and she looked at Yugito with wonder. Yugito leaned forward to close the distance. But before their lips could meet, her logic returned.

What the fuck am I doing? Am I really trying to kiss Samui?

Yugito bolted up, breaking the embrace. She blushed as she turned her head away from Samui to glare at the waterfall. She clenched her hands into fists and tried to forget what almost happened. But her brain replayed the scene, colorfully adding details to their almost-kiss.

“I’d like to be alone for a while,” she told Samui, her gaze fixated on the rocks next to the Waterfall.

“Yugito, I— ” Samui started before Yugito interrupted.

“Alone, please.”

Yugito wanted Samui to argue. She wanted Samui to refuse to leave. Her traitorous mind created scenarios where they kissed to make up for harsh words. But Samui didn't protest. She only sighed before turning around and walking away, leaving Yugito standing alone.

Yugito buried her face in the palms of her hands. What had she almost done? She couldn't let anything distract her. Not now. Not when there was so much at stake.  She had to follow orders.

She bit her thumb and paced. As she walked, she grew angrier and angrier. She had been trying to pass the Waterfall for five months and she had nothing to show for it. She wasn't sure if it was worth trying anymore.

She left the pond and stomped toward a tree, punching the trunk in anger. It made her feel marginally better, so she punched it again and again until her knuckles bled and her hands were covered in blood. But, thanks to her training and the Two-Tails, she healed fast. Within minutes she could barely feel any pain.

She looked down at her hands with mild curiosity.

I’m a weapon for the village. A shinobi must always put the mission first. I don’t have my own desires and I can’t abandon this opportunity.

The monster had called her selfish.

Despite all her sacrifices, she was wondering if it had been right. She had always followed orders, allowing A and the village to dictate her life, but it wasn’t enough. She was a selfish person and the attraction she felt towards Samui was proof of that. She needed to cut all of her own desires away and focus on the village. Unfortunately, that was easier said than done.

With a resigned sigh, Yugito collapsed onto the ground. Tired, she relaxed onto the grass as she stared up at the sky. Despite not doing much for the day, she wanted nothing more than to rest. She knew that she needed to try again, but her mind was a mess.

Exhausted, she moved one forearm to cover her eyes. Perhaps some time in the Room would calm her down.

O-O-O

Tracking down a mercenary company in hiding was more boring than Yagura had ever expected.

Yagura tried not to think about the hole in his wallet as he looked up at the ceiling in the Room. He had spent months doing small jobs, making connections with the criminal world, and pretending to be a mediocre ninja without a village. It didn’t pay well, and he had to supplement his meager income by hunting and fishing for food. It almost made him miss spending time behind the Mizukage’s desk as a puppet. Almost.

He lay on the floor as he looked up. He tried to read the seals on the walls and ceiling, but he couldn’t make sense of it.

Isobu had told him once that the bijuu had a shared mind space like the jinchuuriki. The turtle had said that their space was rarely used because of their dislike for each other. Isobu described their space as infinite instead of contained like the Room. Was it possible for a jinchuuriki to go there?

Fascinated, Yagura traced the calligraphy with the tip of his finger. He had never seen a seal as complex. He could make out some parts of it, such as the information suppression and transportation component. But everything else looked like absolute gibberish.

Who had created it? And why? Was it an Uzumaki? Or was it created when the bijuu came into being? He would probably never know.

Yagura was on the cusp of understanding one of the transportation seals when he felt an angry aura arrive.

He turned around and froze when he saw Yugito with a furious look on her face.

Yagura gulped. His first instinct was to run away. But he was the Fourth Mizukage. He could deal with an angry teenage girl. With new resolve, he turned his gaze back on the ceiling and tried to concentrate on making out the patterns.

To his relief, the girl said nothing to him and he exhaled in relief.

Yagura heard Yugito performing some taijutsu kata. It would have been a calming sound. But instead of the swish of movement and the grunts of effort, he could only hear violent curses and swears. Yagura swallowed and failed to block out what the girl was saying.

"Stupid fucking B," he heard Yugito cursing. "Tell me what the fuck I'm supposed to do! Defeat my dark self! The fuck does that mean?"

Yagura was burning with curiosity. He had always seen B and Yugito as allies. He tried to peek at Yugito from the corner of his eye.

"The fuck you looking at, brat?" Yugito sneered at him when she caught him.

Brat? I'm at least twelve years older than you. Yagura wanted to answer back, but he knew it would be pointless.

"Uh... Nothing," he answered instead, pointedly avoiding Yugito's glare.

"That's right! Mind your own business!" Yugito yelled at him before continuing her kata.

Yagura suppressed a shudder as he turned his attention back to the ceiling. How could a teenage girl be so intimidating? He lay in silence for a few more minutes, listening to her cursing loudly as she punched and kicked the air. He almost wished he had run away instead. After a few minutes of tension, he turned his head to look in her direction.

“What the fuck you want, you asshole?” Yugito yelled when she saw him looking again.

“Ah, uh, nothing. It’s fine.”

“What? Do you think I’m angry? That I have darkness in my heart?” Yugito asked him with a scowl. “How the hell am I supposed to get control over my bijuu like this?”

“Get control?” Yagura had always been too curious for his own good.

“Whatever, I already said too much. It’s not like you can help me, anyway.”

Frighteningly, her eyes, which had burned with anger before, become suspiciously shiny. She collapsed on the floor, hugging her knees to her chest and looking down. Her new reaction was scarier than anything he had seen her do yet.

Yagura sighed deeply. He thought about how to proceed. If he ran away, he would be a coward. If he tried to help her, she might try to kill him. He wasn't sure how, but it seemed as if she could manage it.

Yagura pondered his dilemma for a few seconds before he made up his mind. With a deep breath to gather his courage, he stood up and walked toward Yugito. He sat down cross-legged near her but kept a small distance between them, just in case.

“So you’re trying to get control over you bijuu?” he asked curiously.

“Why do you care?” she kept her eyes looking pointedly away from him. He took it as a good sign that she wouldn’t attack and he scooted slightly closer.

“Isobu and I needed time to learn how to work together,” he said. “He was seen as only a monster for a long time, so it took a while for us to understand each other.” He tried to gauge her reaction, but she was unmoving and glaring at the other side of the Room. “I know how difficult it is to work together with your bijuu. What exactly is the problem for you, Yugito-san?”

Yugito refused to meet his eyes as she scowled at the walls of the Room as if they had done a great disservice to her. When Yagura was almost certain she wouldn’t answer, she spoke.

“I have to pass the Waterfall of Truth,” Yugito explained. “I have to fight and defeat my dark self. I’ve been trying for months, but I can’t even put a scratch on it." Her jaw clenched tight before speaking again. "The monster in the waterfall is just as strong as I am and uses the same techniques I do. There is no way to defeat it.”

“Wait... why are you trying to defeat yourself?” Yagura asked, confused.

“What do you mean, why? B told me I needed to defeat my dark self.” Yugito looked at him with a glare that could curdle milk.

“And you trust B?” Yagura asked her with a shrug. He liked the man and he could recognize Killer B’s talent, but he was strange at best and insane at worst.

At the question, Yugito hesitated and bit her lip. Yagura sighed before moving closer but still far enough away to dodge if necessary.

“Yugito-san,” he said, almost tempted to place a reassuring hand on her shoulder. He refrained. “There is no way to defeat your own darkness in a conventional sense. It’s pointless to try. Everyone has darkness in their hearts and that’s okay.”

Yugito turned to look at him with an eyebrow raised but said nothing. Emboldened that she hadn’t tried to skewer him, he continued. “A bijuu’s first instinct is to take the hate in your heart and mold it for its own use. But it can only do that because you want to deny that this darkness exists. You can’t get rid of it. Accept it as part of yourself."

When he finished, Yugito looked quietly at him. For once, she didn’t have a frown or a glare on her face and she appeared thoughtful instead.

“I can’t get rid of it, huh?” Yugito said to herself as she placed one clenched fist over her heart.

“You can’t,” Yagura answered. “There is nothing wrong with having those kinds of feelings. But your reaction matters. Don’t let darkness win, but don’t try to get rid of it either.”

At his words, Yugito looked thoughtfully at the other side of the Room. She stretched her legs out in front of her.

“Part of me, huh?” she asked. She had stopped glaring. Yagura appreciated the lack of hate in her eyes. He allowed himself to relax marginally in her presence. He waited for her to speak.

“Hm,” she finally answered. “Accept my dark feelings... I never thought about that.”

Yagura shrugged. “It’s part of who you are, whether you like it or not. People aren’t made up of only positive things. We need to feel hate, and resentment, and anger if we want to survive. It’s okay to be selfish sometimes.”

Yugito grunted in agreement. “You look like a little kid, but you can be really wise, too.”

“Little kid?” Yagura wanted to defend himself, but he knew it was useless. He bit his tongue instead.

Yugito exhaled, long and deep, and closed her eyes in contemplation before speaking.

“Fine,” she answered and Yagura relaxed. “I’ll try it your way. Thanks.”

Yugito turned to look at him in the eye and smiled. Yagura felt a shiver course through his body. It was the first time he had seen Yugito happy with anyone other than the children and the effect was unnerving.

“Well, I guess I’ll go,” Yugito said as she stood up. “I think I know what I have to do now.”

With those words, she vanished, leaving Yagura alone in the Room. Yagura sighed in relief.

That girl was terrifying.

O-O-O

When Yugito woke up, she found herself resting under the tree where she had fallen asleep earlier. She blinked up at the tree canopy and tried to get her bearings. After the conversation with the tiny Mizukage, she felt much calmer. Facing her inner demons didn’t sound so terrifying anymore.

She sat up and stared at her hands. They had healed completely, not even a scratch on them. But to her dismay, they were covered in blood. For a moment she grew ashamed about breaking down so easily earlier.

With a sigh, she sat up and headed to the pond in front of the Waterfall of Truth. She dipped her hands into the water and watched the blood wash away and disappear. Alone in the clearing, she wished that she hadn’t told Samui to leave earlier.

Her hands clean, she stood up and walked to the islet. She sat down cross-legged on the grass and concentrated. She blinked and when she opened her eyes. The monster— no, herself— appeared in front of the waterfall, sneering down at her, red eyes full of hate.

“So the little kitten is back?” her reflection mocked. “You might have talked to the little menace, but you can’t beat me.”

Yugito closed her eyes. She was tired. She was tired of trying to pretend that everything she did was for the village. She was tired of sacrificing herself. And she was especially tired of the same useless fight.

“You’re right,” Yugito said as she stared up at her reflection. Her clone frowned and Yugito stood up to meet her face to face. “I will never win against you because neither of us is stronger or weaker than the other.”

The other Yugito snorted. “You can’t delete me from your heart either. I’m part of you, whether you want me to be or not.”

“I know that,” Yugito answered. “But I will not try anymore. It’s like you said, I can’t get rid of you. But talking with Yagura made me realize some things.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know what I mean,” Yugito answered. “You’re me. You know everything I do.” Yugito met herself eye to eye and swallowed. “It’s okay to be selfish sometimes.”

“I thought everything you do is for the village?” The reflection sneered at her.

Yugito shook her head. “I thought so, too. But... thinking about everything... It’s impossible. I want to live my life with my own friends and make my own family. If that makes me selfish, then maybe that’s okay, too.”

“Is it really okay?” the reflection asked. “Is it okay to want and desire things for myself?”

“It is.”

The two Yugitos stood in silence as they appraised each other. Yugito stared impassively at herself. She had only seen the reflection as a monster or creature, but it wasn’t. Whatever selfish desires she had, they weren’t wrong and they didn’t make her a traitor to Kumogakure.

“What are we going to do?” the reflection asked as she crossed her arms in front of her chest.

“I don’t know,” Yugito admitted. “But whatever we decide, we will do it together. I’m not going to pretend that everything I do is for the village anymore.”

At those words, the reflection looked away to stare at the trees surrounding them. Neither of them spoke. Yugito didn’t know what would happen next. But, she didn’t want to be self-sacrificing anymore, either. She wanted to be herself.

The other Yugito turned back to look at her and smiled sincerely. She tilted her head to the side and walked closer. Yugito copied her to meet her on the pond’s surface.

“I’m glad,” the second Yugito said. “I’m tired of pretending.”

“So am I.”

Yugito leaned forward and wrapped her arms around her clone. They hugged but within seconds, Yugito was left holding nothing but air. She stared at the Waterfall of Truth one more time, but there was only water as nothing came out to fight her.

With a sigh of relief, Yugito turned around and ran back to the resort. She needed to find Samui and tell her how she felt. She also needed to find B. She didn’t know if she wanted to slap him or hug him. She might do both. But Samui was more important.

Yugito arrived at the resort and searched for her desperately. She found her quickly at the main lounge. She was sitting at a table, drinking a cup of coffee, and staring out the window. She hadn’t noticed her and Yugito snuck up from behind.

“Samui.”

Samui's shoulders tensed and she turned her head to look up at Yugito. A slight blush spread across her cheeks and she slowly placed the cup of coffee on the table.

“Yugito,” she answered, voice as cool and collected as always.

The two girls stared at each other as they waited for the other to speak. Yugito gulped and sat down on the chair next to Samui’s.

“I’m sorry I told you I wanted to be alone,” Yugito began. “But I was scared.”

“Scared?” Samui asked, head tilted ever so slightly to the side. "I’ve seen you stand up to armies of enemy shinobi. What could scare you?”

Yugito sighed. Sometimes her reputation preceded her.

“I’m afraid of doing what I want to do,” Yugito admitted. “I’ve been denying myself for a long time and I don’t think I can do it anymore.”

“Denying yourself?”

“I...” Yugito swallowed again and felt her face burn in embarrassment. “I want you.”

Yugito looked away to stare at the ocean through the window. Samui fell silent and Yugito waited for her answer. Yugito’s face felt hot, and she tapped her foot impatiently. She waited for what felt like forever for Samui’s reply.

“Oh.”

At the sound, Yugito turned to look at Samui. Samui’s face was red, and she fidgeted with the cup in front of her.

“Oh?” Yugito asked as she leaned forward.

“I... uh...” Samui cleared her throat and swallowed. “I wished you would say that to me one day. But I didn’t want to get my hopes up.”

Yugito smiled and Samui copied her, beaming at her as she placed her elbows on the table and leaned forward. Yugito placed her hand on Samui’s cheek and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. Before she had time to reconsider, she leaned forward until they were only an inch away from each other.

“Is this okay?” Yugito asked, biting her lip.

Samui nodded and swallowed. Her face was still red and her eyes were open wide. Yugito smiled at the sight. It was rare to see Samui so unfettered.

Yugito licked her lips and leaned forward to close the gap. She closed her eyes and felt Samui relax marginally. Samui’s lips moved to meet hers and she heard a small sigh of pleasure from the back of Samui’s throat.

It was a short kiss, almost chaste. Yet, when they broke apart, Samui’s face was flushed and she looked at Yugito like she never had before.

Chapter Text

It was dusk as Roshi leaped through the village. He cradled the bottle of sake in the crook of his elbow as he avoided everyone wandering the streets. Some people gave him dirty looks, but Roshi ignored them with long-practiced ease.

He reached Han’s apartment within minutes, disabling the alarm and letting himself in.

“Han!” he shouted. “I’m here! I got you a bottle of sake from the Land of Fire. This shit was expensive.”

“Roshi?” Han answered from the kitchen. Despite the apron tied around his waist and the lack of armor, Han’s height always made him look imposing. Lucky bastard.

“It’s me,” Roshi confirmed. “I got you the best sake I could find.”

Roshi waved and walked to the kitchen to place the bottle on the counter. He clapped Han on the elbow, the tallest place he could reach without standing on his tiptoes.

“What’s the occasion?” Han asked curiously as he chopped some vegetables.

Roshi sighed in exasperation and pinched the bridge of his nose. Why was Han such a forgetful idiot?

“You nitwit,” he said as he punched Han on the elbow. “Don’t you know what day it is today?”

“Wednesday?” Han frowned.

“No!” Roshi groaned. “It’s May 10! It’s your birthday, jackass.”

“It’s May 10 already?” Distracted, Han cut his finger instead of the vegetables. He hissed and sucked at the wound automatically.

“My birthday?” Han asked, voice incredulous.

Roshi sighed. “Yeah, you’re forty years old. Isn’t that nice?”

“I’m forty?”

“Hey, if it makes you feel any better, I heard forty is the new thirty.”

“That doesn’t make me feel better,” Han complained. “It feels like only yesterday that I got my hitai-ate!”

“We’ve been active shinobi for nearly thirty years now,” Roshi said wistfully. “Two great shinobi wars and too many petty conflicts to count.”

“We’re at peace now, though,” Han replied.

“And how long do you think that’ll last?” Roshi snapped.

“I wish I could say the rest of our lives, but...” Han's voice trailed off. He turned his attention back to his task, a grimace on his face.

Roshi looked away. He had wanted to celebrate Han’s birthday. Instead, they were veering into painful territory. Roshi desired an easy and peaceful life, but without conflict, he had no purpose. He may as well not exist. What use was a shinobi without war?

“Finish your cooking,” Roshi said while avoiding Han’s eyes. “We’ll break open the bottle later.”

Han stared in silence at him for a few moments before he nodded and continued his work, the wound already healed. “It won’t take much longer,” Han said.

Roshi grunted and left the kitchen to sit down on the sofa. He grabbed a newspaper and opened it to a random page, not reading a single word. War was a touchy subject for both of them. Was the end of war even a possibility?

Unable to understand aything he read, Roshi put down the newspaper with a sigh. Frustrated, he stared out of the window instead. He couldn’t believe it had been five years since he had been forced to comfort a crying little girl.

In those five years, their relationships as jinchuuriki had changed. The children were older and they didn’t need as much attention as before. Naruto and Gaara were as close as brothers. Meanwhile, Fuu had taken the role of the older sister astoundingly well.

Almost every night, Yugito gushed about her girlfriend while Utakata listened politely. Yagura wandered through the world, looking for jobs and complaining about his lack of money. Killer B, like Han and Roshi, completed missions for his village as a loyal shinobi. But unlike them, he was forbidden from leaving the Land of Lightning, limiting the choice in missions.

For the past five years, Roshi had come to treasure that connection more than anything else in his life. It was nice to see Gaara and Naruto grow up. He had gotten used to Fuu babbling for hours about school. He enjoyed talking somewhere removed from the machinations of the greater political systems. Roshi saw them as the family he never truly had. While they still argued with one another, usually about stupid things, they would do nearly anything for each other. They were his family.

But as a shinobi, he knew that peace could never last. One day, Onoki or some other idiot would start a war over something petty and Roshi would have to take part in it. He might even be ordered to assassinate another jinchuuriki.

But, if he had to choose between his village and the other jinchuuriki, he already knew his answer. Roshi would always put the other jinchuuriki first. He would kill Onoki with his own hands if necessary.

“Dinner is ready!” Han yelled from the kitchen.

Broken out of the reverie, Roshi noticed that he had been grinding his teeth in frustration. He relaxed his jaw and walked to the table where Han had set their meal out in front of them. Roshi sat down with a grunt, opened the bottle of sake, and poured out two generous portions.

“Happy birthday, Han.” Roshi lifted his cup and Han copied the movement. “I’d have brought cake too, but I know you don’t like sweets.”

“No worries,” Han answered, voice calm and collected as usual. “Sake is better. Cheers!”

“Cheers,” Roshi copied the toast without a lot of enthusiasm. Thinking about world affairs always brought his mood down.

After the toast, they ate in the comfortable silence. Roshi ate automatically. He tasted nothing and tried not to worry about the possibility of war looming over his head. But it was impossible. Thoughts and worries crowded his mind until he knew he had to speak.

“If you had to choose between protecting the other jinchuuriki and Iwagakure, what would you choose?” Roshi asked, his heart beating faster inside his chest. He thought he knew Han’s answer, but he wanted to make sure.

“The jinchuuriki,” Han answered without hesitation.

Roshi sighed in relief and smiled. “Good.”

He took another bite of food. That time, he made sure to savor it.

O-O-O

Naruto wished he could stay in the Room full time. In there, Fuu and Gaara played with him. Han, Roshi, and Yagura told him stories. Utakata blew bubbles whenever he asked. Yugito taught him taijutsu stances and B tried to entertain him with rapping.

In the real world, however...

Naruto listened to the whispers as he wandered the streets of Konoha, hands in his pockets. He heard snippets of conversation and frowned.

The Fourth died because of him... A demon... Not worth it... It’s that child...

Naruto scowled as he passed the crowds. Unlike the eight other people in his head, he had yet to meet anyone who had treated him kindly inside Konoha. But despite their words, they would never dare to harm him. He almost wished they would hate him enough to try and hurt him. Being ignored was almost worse.

Ignoring the villagers as best as he could, he arrived at the park and headed to the sandbox. A few young children were pulled away by their parents as he neared. He frowned.

With a pout, he sat down on the sand and tried to make a house. But it kept collapsing. He wished Gaara were there. The other boy was good at building and planning. With Gaara’s control over sand, they could make something amazing.

Naruto focused on building. He added windows with his thumbs and used sticks to represent all the nine jinchuuriki. He tried to imagine them all living together under one roof.

He was so focused on his task that he didn’t notice a boy walking closer until it was too late. As he placed the longest stick to represent Han on the sand, a sandaled foot stomped on his house, tearing it down.

Shocked, Naruto looked up to see a boy sneering down at him. He didn’t know the kid, but he seemed to be at least two years older than Naruto and was a lot taller. Naruto gulped but hid his fear with loud words.

“Hey! What was that?” he yelled. “I was working on making a house, ya know!”

The kid sneered again. “Like it was anything great! It was so ugly I had to tear it down.”

“Ugly?” Naruto repeated with a furious scowl.

“Just like you!” the kid taunted. Naruto tensed despite himself.

Seeing his reaction, the boy sneered at him, glad that his words had some impact. “Maybe that’s why you don’t have parents,” he said. “You were so ugly when you were born that they dumped you in the trash.”

“Shut up!” Naruto stood up, but even standing up, the other boy towered over him.

“Or maybe your parents were evil people, and that’s why no one wants you around.”

“I said shut up!” Naruto yelled in the boy’s face as he clenched his fists in anger.

“I bet they just looked at you and decided that they didn’t want you at all!” The boy was practically laughing as he watched Naruto’s reactions to the bullying.

Naruto felt his body shaking, but he wasn’t sure if it was in anger or fear. He knew nothing about his parents. Despite understanding that they were only words, the boy's thoughts bounced around in his mind. What if the boy was right? What if his parents hadn't wanted him? What if they hated him?

Frustrated, Naruto shoved the boy as hard as he could, but the other kid was too big and didn't budge. In relation, the boy pushed him and Naruto fell back hard on the sand. He felt tears in the corners of his eyes. He looked around to see if anyone would help, but the other people in the playground look indifferent at best and outright malicious at worst. Naruto had no allies.

Alone, he stood up and ran away. The boy’s cackling followed him, even after he had run far enough away that such a thing wasn’t possible.

By the time he returned to the orphanage, his eyes were full of tears. He rubbed at his face furiously and took a deep breath to quiet himself. The people at the home punished him often for being too loud and he didn’t want to catch their attention.

Naruto snuck through the entrance and headed to his bedroom. He entered and closed the door gently behind him. He rubbed at his eyes again and sniffled before looking around. His bedroom was small but neat. He had a few picture books and toys to entertain him, although they were old and worn-down.

He collapsed onto the bed and planted his face on the pillow. He had thought about his parents before but the boy’s words kept repeating themselves in his mind. You were so ugly when you were born that they dumped you in the trash.

Naruto laid down on his back to stare up at the ceiling. He shouldn’t cry about whatever a random boy said about his parents. Naruto didn’t know who they were and he probably never would. Who cared about them anyway? He had eight jinchuuriki to be his family.

He wiped his nose on his arm and tried to distract himself with his books and toys. It didn’t work. His eyes glazed over all the words and drawings and the toys were too boring to keep his attention. He was glad when the caretaker brought dinner for the distraction.

He tried to occupy himself with the food, but for once he wasn’t hungry. When the caretaker returned to pick up the dishes, she glared at him for not finishing the meal but said nothing.

Naruto was relieved when it was time for bed. He hoped playing with Fuu and Gaara would distract him from the events of the afternoon.

He was alone when he materialized in the Room, but he knew that the others would join him soon. Feeling safe for the first time in the day, he made the Room create wooden blocks for him and Gaara to play with. He entertained himself by trying to make the tallest tower possible as he waited.

Fuu joined him first, yammering about what she had learned in school and about her friends Hana and Rin. Roshi, predictably, joined them later. He ruffled Naruto’s hair and went off by himself to do some sort of stretching exercise. Naruto greeted them with a grin, but he still couldn’t get the boy’s words out of his mind.

Naruto pretended to be happy as he listened to Fuu’s words. But when he barely responded, she frowned.

“What’s wrong, Naruto-chan?” she asked.

“Nothing, Fuu nee-chan,” Naruto answered with a smile. “I’m okay.”

Fuu continued to look concerned, but she continued to talk and play with Naruto as normal.

Gaara joined them soon afterward. He sat down next to Naruto and the two tried to build a tower together as they listened to Fuu. Like Fuu, Gaara gave Naruto a speculative look and asked if something was wrong.

“Nothing is wrong, ya know!” Naruto reiterated while avoiding their eyes. “I’m just tired.”

“You’re never tired,” Gaara replied as he leaned closer. “We know you’re not okay. Did something happen?”

At the question, Naruto looked away and pointedly avoided their gaze. Despite himself, the boy’s words repeated themselves over and over in his mind. He burst into tears.

Immediately, he felt Fuu lean forward to hug him. Relieved, he fell into her arms. He hugged her close, burying his face on her shoulder. He felt Gaara’s hand on his back. A few seconds later, a warm hand that could only belong to Roshi fell on his head.

“What happened?” Roshi asked worriedly as he squatted down.

“I don’t know!” Fuu said, panicked. “Gaara-chan asked if something happened today and he just started crying!”

“Naruto?” Roshi asked and Naruto turned his head to look at Roshi. “What happened? Is everything okay?”

The man had a look of concern in his eyes and Naruto wished he had never burst into tears. It was embarrassing to cry about something as stupid as not knowing who his parents were. But at the moment, he had no choice but to tell them about it.

“My parents never wanted me,” Naruto whispered as he rubbed the tears away from his eyes. “This boy said I was so ugly that my parents threw me away because they didn’t want me.”

After saying those words out loud, Naruto burst into fresh tears once more at the memory.

“Never wanted you?” Roshi asked, sounding shocked. “Kushina always wanted you. I swear, during the months she was pregnant, she always had this big dumb grin on her face whenever I saw her.”

“Kushina?” Naruto asked. The name sounded familiar, and he thought Fuu had mentioned her before a few times. “Who’s Kushina?”

“You don’t know who Kushina is?!” Fuu asked, scandalized at Naruto’s ignorance.

Naruto shook his head. “Is she important?”

Roshi and Fuu shared shocked expressions as if Naruto should definitely know about Kushina. Gaara, at least, looked just as confused as Naruto felt.

“That’s outrageous, Mama!” Fuu shouted as her hug over Naruto tightened. “You mean no one has ever said anything about Kushina to him?!”

“Kushina is your mom, Naruto,” Roshi said while scratching the back of his neck. “I guess we never really talked about her to you, huh? I just assumed the people of Konoha told you about her...”

Naruto froze and he stared at Fuu and Roshi as they gave him apologetic looks. “My mom? You knew my mom?”

Roshi snorted. “Knew her? She was a jinchuuriki too. I didn’t talk to her a lot, but we exchanged recipes sometimes. She used to take care of Fuu when she was very little.”

“She was like a mom to me, Naruto-chan,” Fuu explained. “She was also really cool and super strong.”

“Cool?” Naruto asked.

“Strong?” Gaara asked.

Roshi nodded. With a sigh, he sat down cross-legged on the floor. Naruto couldn’t help but get excited. Roshi’s gonna tell us a story!

“I knew your mother, Naruto, and she was a great shinobi,” he said. “She loved you so much even before you were born.”

“She... she did?”

“Yeah, Naruto-chan! Kushina was so cool! I can’t believe no one has told you anything about her!” Fuu nodded and grinned at Naruto.

"You mean, you can't believe we forgot to tell him about it," Roshi commented.

“You look so much like her," Fuu continued, ignoring Roshi’s comment.

“Very similar in personality too," Roshi added.

“And my father?” Naruto asked. At the question, Fuu and Roshi traded worried glances.

“I don’t know about your father, Naruto,” Roshi admitted. “Kushina never said anything about him. But I knew her well enough to know that she would never have a child with any old loser.”

“I’m sure your father was an amazing man,” Fuu added in agreement.

“Do you want me to tell you about her?” Roshi asked kindly.

Naruto nodded enthusiastically, and he settled down to listen. Gaara had to leave soon after, but he gave Naruto a hug that lasted longer than usual before disappearing. At his departure, they moved to sit by Gaara’s Door. With Gaara listening in, Fuu and Roshi told them stories about an amazing red-headed woman.

Naruto absorbed all the details desperately. She had loved ramen a lot. She had liked to cook. She had been an accomplished shinobi. She had known a lot about fuuinjutsu. But the most important detail, was how much she had loved Naruto, even before he was born.

Later, once he left the Room, he dreamed of a beautiful woman with long red hair.

O-O-O

Gaara stared at the picture of his mother on the table. She was smiling at the camera, eyes kind.

Fuu had known her mother before becoming a jinchuuriki. Naruto, while he had also never gotten to meet his mother, at least had stories from Roshi and Fuu. Yashamaru had told him about his mother, but Gaara wanted to know more.

Gaara looked down at the knife in his hand. Earlier, he had hurt a girl when Shukaku’s power had gotten out of control. He would have killed her if Yashamaru hadn’t stopped him, but he had only hurt his uncle instead.

Gaara took the knife and tried to stab his arm. Predictably, the sand stopped the self-inflicted wound. His skin was left unmarred. The sand always gets in the way.

“Gaara-sama.” Gaara heard Yashamaru’s voice calling out from behind him. He turned around to look at his uncle.

“Yashamaru!” Despite the situation, Gaara tried to smile.

“I know I don’t look it,” Yashamaru said, “but Kazekage-sama entrusted me with being your caretaker. Please stop that behavior under my care.” Gaara looked away, upset at being reminded of his loss of control earlier. “But then again, the sand always protects you.”

Gaara glanced up at his uncle and looked at the bandages on his head and arms. They looked painful and Gaara swallowed nervously before talking. “Yashamaru, I’m sorry.”

“Oh, this?” Yashamaru pointed to the bandages and smiled. “They’re just scratches.”

“Does it hurt a lot?” he asked.

“Just a little. But I’ll heal over time.”

Despite his words, Gaara noticed that his movements were slower than usual. He remembered when his father had crushed him under tons of golden sand. The pain haunted him even after many years.

Gaara shifted his feet. He wondered if his uncle resented him for hurting him.

“Hey, Yashamaru,” he began.

“Yes?”

“Do you... hate me for hurting you?” Gaara clenched his hands into fists, afraid of his answer.

Yashamaru smiled again before he answered. “People will hurt others and get hurt themselves in life. But not everyone hates each other just because of that. It’s just that everyone else is hurt more easily than you, Gaara-sama.”

Gaara nodded. “Maybe I’m always injured too, like everyone else. I’m always in pain... It doesn’t bleed, but it really hurts around here.”

Gaara clenched one hand over his chest. Every time he couldn’t block out Shukaku or whenever his father rejected him, the feeling intensified. It hurt in a different from getting crushed by sand, but that pain was always there.

Yashamaru gave him an indecipherable look before he took the knife in Gaara’s hand. Gaara gasped when Yashamaru made a small cut on the tip of his finger.

“External wounds can bleed and look painful,” Yashamaru said. “But as time goes by, the pain eventually disappears. And if you use medicine, it heals even faster. But what’s trickier is a wounded heart. There’s nothing more difficult to heal.”

“A wounded heart?” Gaara frowned as he looked up at his uncle.

“It’s a bit different from a normal wound,” Yashamaru explained. “Unlike an injury to the body, if you don’t treat it, sometimes it can never heal.” Yashamaru got a faraway look in his eyes. “But there is one thing that can fix a wounded heart. The only thing is, it can only be given to you by someone else.”

“What kind of medicine is it?” Gaara asked curiously. Whatever that medicine was, he wished to have it.

“The only thing that can help a wounded heart...” Yashamaru looked at the picture of his mother and smiled before answering, “is love.”

“Love?” Gaara repeated curiously. Fuu and Naruto always used that word, often in connection to him. They told him they loved him, although he wasn’t exactly sure what it meant.

Seeing his confusion, Yashamaru smiled and explained. “Love is devoting yourself to someone important to you by caring for and protecting them,” he said. “Just like my sister. I believe that she always loved you, Gaara-sama. The Shukaku of the Sand is a destructive demon by nature. When the sand protects you, that’s your mother’s love. I think that your mother’s will is carried in the sand. My sister probably wanted to protect you, even after her death.”

Yashamaru kept his gaze focused on the picture of Gaara’s mother. Gaara looked at her as well, wondering what she was like. Fuu and Naruto’s mothers had loved them a lot, so it made sense that his mother loved him too. The thought warmed him up inside.

If love meant caring for and protecting important people, then he had more than enough. He had Fuu, Naruto, Han, Roshi, and all the other jinchuuriki. They comforted him whenever Shukaku tried to take control. They also helped him whenever he needed. That probably means that they love me.

The other people of Suna might be terrified of him, but he had Yashamaru. Even if Yashamaru was the only person in Sunagakure who cared for him, then he would try to protect the village.

Gaara tore his eyes away from the picture to look at his uncle. “Yashamaru,” he said.

“Yes?”

“Thanks for stopping me before,” Gaara said.

Yashamaru smiled and sucked on his bleeding finger. “I did it because you’re an important person to me, Gaara-sama.”

Gaara smiled and helped Yashamaru bandage the wound. Then, he helped look for an ointment to give to the girl he had hurt earlier. After that, his uncle left, wishing him luck.

He wanted to go to the girl’s home immediately and apologize, but there was something that he needed to do first. Naruto and Fuu should already be in the Room and they worried whenever he didn’t appear.

Gaara sat down and leaned against the wall of his bedroom. After years of practice, he could enter the Room almost immediately. He could also stay as long as twenty minutes without issue. He hoped that in the future he would be able to stay there for longer.

When he appeared in the Room, Fuu, Naruto, and Roshi were already there. They were all standing on one leg and concentrating on their balance. Naruto trembled and fell over once he saw Gaara.

“Gaara! Gaara!” he shouted with a grin on his face. “We’re having a competition to see who can stand on one leg for longer. I would’ve won, but you distracted me, ya know!”

Naruto pouted and ran to Gaara, pulling him by the hand to join their circle of jinchuuriki.

“Hi, Gaara-chan!” Fuu said cheerfully. Like Naruto, she shook as she tried to stand on one leg, but she didn’t fall over. “I’d give you a hug, but I wanna win!”

Roshi snorted. “As if you have any chance, kid. You can’t beat the master.” Unlike Fuu or Naruto, Roshi was balanced perfectly on his foot. He looked down at the three children, completely unfazed by the test.

Roshi turned his head to looked at Gaara. “Hey, kid, nice that you could make it. Wanna try?”

Gaara nodded his head enthusiastically. “Sure, Mama! It looks fun!”

Gaara tried to balance on one leg as long as he could. But like Naruto, he stumbled quickly and soon after, Fuu joined him on the floor.

Roshi was the only one left standing, a smirk on his lips and a pleased blush on his face. “I told you I would win,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for longer than you kids have been alive.”

He finally put both feet on the ground and bent down to ruffle Gaara’s hair. “So how are you, kid? Is everything okay?”

Gaara gave a noncommittal shrug. He wished he hadn’t hurt the girl earlier and lost control, but at least he had learned about love.

“I’m okay, I guess,” he answered. “But I do have a question for you.”

“Oh? What’s that?” Roshi gave him a curious glance.

Gaara shifted his feet nervously. He knew that he loved the other jinchuuriki and he would protect them as well as a six-year-old could. But he wasn’t sure if they felt the same way towards him. He took a deep breath to gather his resolve.

“Yashamaru told me something important today,” he began, shuffling his feet.

“Important?” Fuu asked from where she sat cross-legged on the ground.

Gaara nodded. “He told me that love is devoting yourself to someone important to you. That it means caring for them and protecting them,” he said. “I... care about you a lot... and... I was wondering if you felt the same way.”

When he finished speaking, Fuu and Naruto blinked. Before he could react, they jumped forward to hug him. Gaara flinched at the sudden contact but wrapped his arms around them anyway.

“Of course we love you!” Fuu shouted in his ear. “How could we not? You’re so cute and smart and adorable and... and... great... and...”

“You’re so cool, Gaara!” Naruto shouted from his other ear. “I wish we lived together. I love you, too!”

Gaara felt Roshi’s hand on top of his head.

“So love means to protect the people important to you, huh?” Roshi said. “If so, then I guess I do love you, Gaara-chan. You’re important to me.”

“Oh,” Gaara said, eyes looking down. He was overwhelmed with the love he was receiving and he didn’t understand how to reply. It’s so easy...

“Oh, and before you ask, I think the others feel the same way,” Roshi said. “Even though they might not say anything, I know that B, Yugito, Yagura, Han, and Utakata also like you. They think you’re cute, at the very least.”

“He’s not cute!” Fuu protested as she pinched one of Gaara's cheeks. “He’s adorable!”

“Gaara-chan is super cool!” Naruto added as his grip on Gaara tightened. Gaara felt the air leave his lungs. “I’ll beat up anyone who says he’s not!”

Roshi snorted. “You’re just a kid, Naruto. I think Gaara can handle himself. Isn’t that right, Gaara?”

Gaara nodded. He hugged Fuu and Naruto one last time before breaking the embrace. He beamed at the other jinchuuriki and they returned his smile with fond looks.

“Thanks, I love you too,” he said before turning his gaze back to Roshi. “Mama, how much time has it been?”

Roshi sighed and scratched the back of his head. “Around ten minutes since you came in,” he answered. “We can play a game before you leave.”

Gaara nodded eagerly. The four jinchuuriki spent the next ten minutes trying to see who could keep their eyes open the longest. To everyone's shock, Naruto won. He gloated by jumping and dancing around the Room.

Not much later, Gaara had to leave, and he said his goodbyes. He wished he could stay longer, but he also wanted to apologize to the girl he had hurt earlier.

He appeared in his bedroom and saw the paper bag with the ointment inside. Eager and excited, he jumped up and ran out of the house, carrying the medicine in his arms like a treasure. After his conversations with Yashamaru and the jinchuuriki, nothing could ruin the rest of the night.

Gaara arrived at the girl’s home and knocked on the front door. The girl opened the door a crack and glared at him. Gaara tried not to let it deter him and he smiled nervously.

“I’m... sorry I hurt you earlier,” he said.

“What do you want?” the girl frowned at him but Gaara tried to keep himself calm.

“I brought you some medicine,” he said. “It’s an ointment that is supposed to

Before he could finish explaining himself, the girl slammed the door on his face. “Go away, you freak!” she shouted as she closed the door.

Shocked, the bag fell through his fingers onto the ground. He didn’t bother to pick it up before turning around to walk back home.

Why? Why is everyone in Sunagakure like this? Why can’t I live with the jinchuuriki instead?

Shukaku’s voice, which had been quiet for the past few hours, resurfaced.

'That’s because you’re a little monster and freak. That girl wasn’t lying. Now, give me blood. Those little scratches you put on your uncle are not enough to keep me away for long.'

Gaara pushed the voice away as well as he could. But the hatred of the Shukaku followed him everywhere. He bit his lip and walked back home, trying to ignore his bijuu’s insistent whispers as he looked down at the ground.

On his way home, a man bumped into him.

“Hey, watch where you’re going, you brat!” the man shouted, a bottle of sake grasped in one hand. The man turned around to yell some more but stopped himself when he saw Gaara. “Wait, no, you’re...”

Why? That look again? Before he could control the urge, sand floated up and headed toward the man. The sand encased him, weighing him down and crushing him to death.

Gaara stared at the corpse numbly. In the back of his mind, he heard Shukaku snickering in happiness, content with the blood sacrifice. He tried to ignore it, but a content bijuu was much better than an enraged one.

He stared at the corpse again as the voice of Shukaku receded into his subconscious. He should feel sad, but he couldn’t make himself care about anyone in Suna anymore. He could only trust the other jinchuuriki and Yashamaru. Only Yashamaru.

Gaara kept walking, hearing the murmurs of the other villagers from behind him. He didn’t know if he should care what they said or not. All he wanted was to go home.

On his way, he almost bumped into another man leaning against a wall. Curious, he looked up and saw his father, frowning disapprovingly down at him. Despite his earlier numbness, Gaara couldn’t help but flinch and look away. Immediately, Shukaku laughed wickedly at his discomfort. Gaara tried to push his voice away again.

The Kazekage said nothing and instead watched in silence as Gaara walked past to head home. A few minutes later, Gaara sat on the roof of his home, looking up at the full moon.

I guess it’s just not possible. Why am I such a monster? What am I? Gaara looked down at his hands and frowned. He hoped that one day more than just the jinchuuriki and Yashamaru would care about him.

Gaara was so lost in his thoughts that he only noticed the attack when the sand rose to protect him. He gasped and spun around to see a man wearing a veil over his face throwing kunai at him.

Why? Why is it always me?!

Gaara snarled. He forced the sand to obey him. With a swish of his hand, the sand rushed forward, crushing the man with a terrible sound.

“Who are you? Why...?” Nervously, he took the veil and pulled it away from the man’s face.

“As I expected, Gaara-sama,” Yashamaru said in a strained voice, blood dripping from his face.

“Yashamaru!” Gaara fell onto his knees and burst into tears. He clutched his chest in pain as he sobbed onto the floor. Shukaku was screaming delightedly in the back of his mind, but Gaara couldn’t make sense of its words.

“Why? Why? Yashamaru, why would you...? How come? Tell me!”

Gaara remembered Yashamaru’s words from earlier in the day. Was he not important after all?

“I always... always... thought that you... But...” Gaara tried to get the words out, but his mind was too panicked to be coherent.

Yashamaru glanced at him wearily before talking. “It was an order. I was ordered to kill you. By your father... Kazekage-sama.”

“Father did...?” at those words, Gaara lost the contents of his stomach and he only cried harder. I saw Father earlier, and he said nothing to me. “Why would Father want to—? Want me— ?”

“You were born with the Shukaku of the Sand and raised as a guinea pig, Gaara-sama,” Yashamaru explained, his voice strained from his blood-filled lungs. “But since you couldn’t control the power of the demon, the sand, it was decided that one day you’d become a problem too dangerous for the village to handle. So I was sent— ”

“So father forced you to do this, didn’t he, Yashamaru?” Gaara interrupted, and he smiled in relief.

“No, you’re wrong,” Yashamaru answered and Gaara’s heart skipped a beat. “It’s true that Kazekage-sama ordered me to, but I could have refused if I wished to. Gaara-sama, deep down inside, I’ve always... hated you. You took the life of my beloved sister when you were born.”

Gaara flinched back at the words as he let Yashamaru continue talking. “In her memory... I desperately tried to love you by thinking of you as her precious child... but I just couldn’t. My sister never wanted you to be born. She became this village’s sacrifice and died cursing it to her final breath. Since then, my heart has been permanently wounded.”

Yashamaru took a shaky breath as he turned his gaze away from Gaara. “My sister said this when you were born: ‘This child’s name is Gaara, a demon that loves only himself. He will never give love to anyone else. And he shall fight only for himself. That is how he will continue his existence.'"

Gaara trembled as he waited for Yashamaru to finish talking. He had believed his mother had loved him but it had all been a lie. “But your mother didn’t give you this name out of love or concern. She gave it to you so you could keep living. Because she wanted her hatred to remain in this village that she hated and cursed as she died. To punish everyone. You were never loved.”

Gaara grasped his forehead with the palms of his hands and cried, his head on his knees. He wanted to deny everything and believe that his mother truly loved him. But the evidence that she didn’t was in front of him. Naruto and Fuu’s mothers might have loved them, but not Gaara. Never Gaara.

From the corner of his eye, he saw that Yashamaru had opened up his vest. His chest was covered in exploding tags but Gaara was too shocked to consider moving.

“This is it,” Yashamaru murmured, voice cold. “Please die.”

The tags exploded all at once, but, predictably, the sand jumped in front, shielding him from the blast. When the explosion died down, Gaara was alone on the roof, his head on his knees as he sobbed.

I’m all alone.

'Yes, you are, little boy. Now, let me out. I know you want to destroy this village as much as I do.'

'But... I…'

Gaara forced himself to swallow and think. Shukaku was wrong. He wasn’t alone. He had Naruto and Fuu to play with. He had Han and Roshi to tell him stories. He had Yugito, Killer B, and Utakata to teach him. He had Yagura to tell him about the world outside of Suna.

'No. No, I’m not alone.'

'Yes, you are! Now, let me out!' Shukaku shrieked.

Gaara looked at the sand and what remained of Yashamaru. The only thing he wanted was to be somewhere safe.

He knew that Shukaku would come out, but he didn’t care anymore. The village was worthless. The bijuu could destroy it. It meant nothing anymore.

Gaara heard a delighted laugh from Shukaku as he allowed the bijuu to take control. He concentrated and when he blinked, he was inside the Room. To his surprise, all the other jinchuuriki were there, looking anxious about something. They turned to stare at him, freezing as they saw the tears in his eyes.

“Gaara-chan!” Han reacted first. He leaped forward to kneel in front of him. “What happened? Are you all right?”

Gaara shook his head. Before he could answer, Han picked him up into his arms. Gaara wrapped his arms around Han’s neck, where he buried his face and burst into fresh tears. Keeping his hold tight, Han carried him back to where the other jinchuuriki were fretting anxiously.

“Something happened,” Yagura said. “I felt it, even while I was asleep.”

“Are you okay, kid?” Yugito asked with her arms crossed over her chest. Despite her deliberate calm, her eyebrows were furrowed in worry.

“No,” Gaara answered through his sobbing. “I killed my uncle. I’m alone now.”

Gaara felt Han tense at the words but the man didn’t drop him and instead placed a reassuring hand on his back. Gaara wrapped his arms tighter around his neck in comfort.

“Han, you’re too tall!” Roshi complained. “We can’t comfort Gaara if you keep holding him up!”

Han sighed and he slumped cross-legged down on the floor. Immediately, Gaara felt Fuu and Naruto join at his sides.

“I’m sorry, Gaara-chan,” Fuu said. “But you’re not alone! We’re here!”

Naruto nodded furiously. “Yeah, what she said! You’re not alone as long as you got us, ya know!”

The other jinchuuriki spoke to him one by one, trying to offer some comfort. Despite the situation, warmth spread throughout Gaara's body. The jinchuuriki were his real family, more than his father or even Yashamaru.

Eventually, his crying petered out. Slightly calmer, he looked around the Room at the assembled jinchuuriki. He wiped his face with his forearm.

“Thank you,” he whispered as he looked down at the floor.

“You’re welcome!” Naruto shouted happily and beamed before throwing his arms around Gaara in a hug. “And one day we’re gonna live together, ya know!”

“Together?” Gaara asked.

Naruto nodded. “Yeah! All of us in one house together! It’s gonna be great! We can share a room and eat ramen together! And when Fuu gets home from school, we’ll be there to say hello to her!”

“All of us?”

“Yeah, that’ll be amazing!” Fuu said. “We can all live in one house together!”

“Do you think so?” Gaara asked, daring to get his hopes up. “Do you promise?”

“I promise,” Naruto and Fuu said at the same time.

Gaara smiled. It sounded almost too good to be true. “I’m looking forward to it,” he said.

Now that Yashamaru was dead, he knew that he would never receive any kind of love from anyone in Sunagakure. He had to leave the village as soon as he could, no matter the cost.

“Just remember, Gaara,” Roshi said. Gaara turned to look up at him. “Don’t let your father extract your bijuu. If he does, you die.”

At the stark reminder, a chill ran down Gaara’s spine. He nodded. He would wait until the time was right. He was glad that he had the other jinchuuriki to guide him until that time came. He wouldn’t be alone. The thought comforted him and he left the safety of Han’s lap to stand up.

Gaara sighed. He needed to keep Shukaku under control as much as he could. Unfortunately, that meant leaving the Room. He didn't want his father to use the Gold Dust to crush him again. Not when it would hurt everyone else, too.

Gaara turned to look at the gathered jinchuuriki. They gave him encouraging smiles. Gaara swallowed, feeling something lodged in his throat. So this is what receiving true love feels like.

He returned their smiles shakily and forced himself to leave the Room and wake up.

When he opened his eyes to the real world, he was on the roof of a different building. He looked around the village. He saw devastation everywhere, no doubt from when Shukakaku was released. He wanted to feel sorry for the destruction, but he couldn’t and he didn’t want to. He almost wished he had been sleeping longer. The village might have been completely leveled if he had.

His father... no, the Kazekage stood on another roof. His eyes had rings around them. But the marks vanished when he saw that Gaara was awake and conscious once more.

Gaara glared at the Kazekage coldly. He had ruined not only his life but also the life of his mother and uncle. He hated the man more than he had hated anyone else. He wanted to kill him, but he couldn’t. Gaara was not strong enough. Yet.

He scrunched up his face and growled at the man before turning around and heading back home. One day Gaara would leave and never come back. One day that man will die.

Chapter Text

Yagura stared at the corpse at his feet. He saw a criminal who had prowled the roads, stealing from traveling merchants. A few of his victims had banded together to place a small bounty on him. Yagura was eternally grateful for the extra source of income.

He sighed and opened an empty sealing scroll. With a burst of chakra, the corpse disappeared. Yagura took the scroll and put it inside his knapsack. He leaped up onto a tree. From there, he traveled through the canopy to the drop-off center.

Living a secret life as a hidden Mizukage was not as fun as he had expected.

For years, Yagura had been searching for intel on the mercenary group. He had tried making connections with the criminal underworld, but success eluded him. He rarely had enough money to eat, most nights he slept outside, and even when he earned money, he ran out in days. He wanted to take high-paying bounties. But an outstanding ninja stood out more than a mediocre one. On cold and rainy nights, he wondered if he should have let Mei kill him after all.

He arrived at the bounty station within minutes. He passed through the hidden security checkpoint and descended into the morgue. Zangei, the bounty exchange master, knew Yagura under his alias of Akio, a mediocre missing-nin from Kirigakure. Akio is not much good in a fight, though.

Annoyed, he grumbled to himself about how much money Zangei would withhold. But before he could talk to the man, he entered the morgue to an unusual sight. Next to Zangei stood a tall man wearing a black cloak with red clouds embroidered upon them. Exactly the same as the man that placed the genjutsu.

Yagura's pulse quickened. He stepped forward, making himself look curious instead of excited. He glanced at the corpse on the table. To his surprise, the dead body wore the same outfit as the tall man, although his robes were bloodied and mangled.

At his approach, both men turned. Yagura froze where he stood. The man was very tall and wore a Takigakure hitai-ate on his forehead. The hitai-ate was scratched through the middle, proudly declaring himself a missing-nin.

“What are you looking at, old man?” the man muttered when he saw Yagura.

I don’t know if I prefer to be called an old man or a little kid.

“N-Nothing,” Yagura said, forcing his voice to sound nervous. “I just came here to collect my bounty.”

At his words, the man’s eyes narrowed and he looked at Yagura in suspicion. “You look familiar. Have we met before?”

“I-I think I would have remembered if we did.” Yagura made himself look down at his feet in a nervous gesture. Despite his demeanor, he kept his gaze focused on the man from the corner of his eye.

The man’s eyes narrowed further and he stepped forward to stand in front of Yagura. He bent down and stared into Yagura’s face, trying to analyze him. Yagura forced himself to tremble and flinch back at his approach, wanting to appear like a scared old man. With the enemy in front of him, he also took the opportunity to examine the man.

Up close, he saw that only the man’s green eyes and hands were visible. His fingernails were painted a dark brown color. On his left middle finger, he wore a dark green ring carved with the kanji for “North.” Because of the mask and robe, he couldn’t get a perfect impression on the man, but it was enough.

Yagura waited for the man to speak again, making himself look small and terrified.

The man narrowed his eyes once more before he snorted and stood up straight. “Just an old man about to piss himself.”

“W-What did you mean I looked f-familiar?” he asked nervously.

“You look like someone I’m looking for, that’s all,” he answered. “Where are you from?”

“Ki-Kirigakure.”

The man grunted. “I’m looking for a man from Iwa. You two have almost the exact same face.”

Yagura gulped. He has been using Roshi as his disguise ever since he left the Land of Water. So the mercenary was looking for Roshi. But why? For the money or for something else? He needed to tread carefully.

Yagura swallowed and stepped forward, making his voice shake in terror. “W-well, I’m not a very strong shinobi,” he lied, “but I’m good at gathering intel. Maybe we can work together?”

“I don’t work with anyone,” the man replied immediately. “Look at the corpse on the counter. We were partners, but I killed him anyway. I will only say this once. Don’t get in my way or next time we meet, your body will be on the table instead.”

With those parting words, he turned back to collect his prize. Zangei held out a wad of cash, which the mercenary took without a word. The man counted the money, nodded, and left the room, not looking back.

Yagura’s sigh of relief was only partially faked. Ever since the fight with Mei, his left arm didn’t work as well as it used to. He thought he had a strong chance of winning, but in a battle, victory was never guaranteed. He could always get help from Isobu, but then he would lose his cover.

“Well, that was scary,” he commented to Zangei as he walked to the next empty examination table.

Zangei snorted. “That was nothing. He was in a good mood today because he collected his partner’s bounty. If he had been in a bad mood, you would have already been ground into a paste.”

“Who is he?” Yagura asked with a shudder.

Zangei’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t talk about my business partners,” he said, voice suspicious. “And I especially don’t talk about them to mediocre shinobi.”

Yagura gulped in an effort to look contrite but he wanted to sing and dance instead. This guy is a big deal and a frequent customer for you. I just need to figure out who he is and then I can track him down.

“O-Okay,” Yagura stuttered before changing the topic. He had an act to keep up and Zangei would not help him. There was a certain code of conduct in the criminal world after all. “I brought someone for you.”

Yagura opened the scroll on top of the empty table. With a burst of chakra, the bandit’s body appeared amidst a cloud of smoke. Zangei stepped forward to inspect the body. He opened the mouth, measured the height, and looked into its eyes. Finally, with a satisfied nod, he met Yagura's eyes.

“This is the right one,” Zangei said. “Take your money.”

Overjoyed, Yagura accepted his payment. It wasn’t much, but he could afford a night or two with a roof over his head.

“Thank you,” Yagura said in a meek voice as he placed the cash into his knapsack.

Zangei grunted. With that, their business transaction ended. Yagura left the morgue, passed through the toilets, and arrived outside. The sunny day stood in stark contrast with what was happening underneath. Yagura almost wanted to laugh. Who could've guessed there was a thriving den of criminality hiding underneath a simple rest stop?

Sending chakra to his feet, Yagura climbed up onto the canopy of the trees once again. A few hours later, he arrived at a small town and looked for an inn. He rented a room, heading to the hot springs immediately after checking in. He soaked in the hot water as plans bounced around his head. The safety of his village and the other jinchuuriki depended upon it.

But first, he needed to warn Roshi about the man— whoever he was.

When night finally came, Yagura collapsed upon the futon in relief. His back had started aching recently. He wasn’t sure if that came from sleeping outside or from getting older. He tried not to worry about it.

He took a deep breath to relax and within seconds, his mind led him into the Room. He arrived at the perfect time because Roshi was already there. The other man was doing a taijutsu kata while Fuu and Naruto played. All three of them turned to look at Yagura with grins on their faces. Yagura returned their smiles. It was nice to be wanted for a change.

“Hello, Yagura-san!” Fuu and Naruto said at the same time as they waved their arms enthusiastically at him.

“Hello, Fuu-chan, Naruto-chan.”

Yagura stepped forward to watch what they were doing. They were competing to see who could jump higher. Fuu was the obvious winner but Naruto kept trying and failing, stubborn as always. Yagura sighed at their inane argument before he walked to Roshi’s side.

“Roshi.”

“Yagura.” Roshi raised a curious brow at the look on Yagura’s face. “Did something happen?” Roshi asked, his voice quiet and serious.

“You could say that,” Yagura answered with a sigh. “I might have found a lead on the organization that put the genjutsu on me.”

Roshi frowned and he crossed his arms in front of his chest. “Tell me.”

At that, Yagura recounted the story, from the moment he first captured his bounty to checking in at the inn. He described the tall man he saw, recalling every detail. Roshi frowned as he told the story, only interrupting to ask clarification questions.

When Yagura finished talking, the two men stood together in silence, each lost in his own thoughts. Roshi’s frown deepened, and he glared at Yagura.

“Yagura...” Roshi began, his arms crossed in front of his chest and furious frown on his face.

“What is it?” Yagura looked at his friend with one eyebrow raised, not sure why Roshi would have such a murderous look in his eye.

“Have you been using my face to disguise yourself?” Roshi snarled. “Why didn’t you ask for permission first?”

Yagura looked away in embarrassment and scratched his chin. “Well, when you put it that way...”

“What have you been doing with my body?!”

“Nothing!” Yagura insisted before considering the question. “I mean, I guess I went to a brothel with it...”

“A brothel!” Roshi shouted and the children turn to look at him. Roshi flinched. “A brothel?” he whispered, but the children were already looking in their direction.

“Look...” Yagura tried to explain himself, but he only felt like he was digging his own grave deeper. “I took your face and body, but I changed the hair color! That counts for something!”

“Well, why didn’t you disguise yourself as Han, then?!” Roshi demanded to know. “Or Utakata-kun! Or B-san or Yugito-san?!”

Yagura snorted. “Because you’re the only person I know who’s barely taller than me and it’s weird to be too tall,” Yagura explained. “Also, when I visited the brothel, I needed an adult body. I had to look like an old man to blend in and avoid suspicion.”

“So you’re saying I look like a dirty old man?” Roshi asked with a growl. Yagura wished he had chosen someone else as a disguise. I think Roshi is forgetting the context here.

“No, I just—” before Yagura had the chance to defend himself, Fuu stepped forward between them, a furious scowl on her face. Naruto tagged along behind her.

“Mama! Yagura-san!” she shouted. “Stop fighting!”

At the look on her face, Roshi relaxed, and he scratched the back of his head. “Sorry, Butterfly. But we’re not fighting. Just a little argument between friends. It happens.”

Yagura breathed a sigh of relief. Roshi would do anything for the kids and thankfully Fuu’s interruption had calmed the other man down. Yagura looked down at Fuu. The girl was young, but she was from Takigakure.

“Hey, Fuu-chan,” Yagura said and Fuu looked up at him curiously. “Do you think you could help me with something?”

“With what, Yagura-san?” Fuu asked.

Her orange eyes turned to him, full of excitement and innocence. Yagura felt a stab through the heart that felt a lot like guilt at making a little girl do his dirty work. He stamped the feeling down.

“I met a man who was a missing-nin from Takigakure,” Yagura explained. “Do you think you could help me figure out who he is?”

At that, Yagura described the man, trying to not leave any detail out. If anyone knew or could figure out who he was, it was Fuu. But Fuu was still only an Academy student. When he finished describing the missing-nin, she shook her head.

“Sorry, Yagura-san,” she answered. “That doesn’t sound familiar.”

Yagura tried not to feel disappointed.

“But...” Fuu scratched her chin in thought. “I might be able to find out.”

Yagura tried not to get his hopes up. “Really, kid?”

Fuu nodded happily. “Yeah! It might take me a while though,” she admitted. “I can’t go to the shinobi library to look it up yet.”

“That’s okay, kid,” Yagura said. “Take all the time you need.”

Fuu beamed up at him and pulled on his hand. Yagura’s heart sunk into his stomach. Ever since he told her about his power to make coral, she had insisted that Yagura made interesting playgrounds for them to play on.

He sighed and allowed her to lead him away. He spent the next few hours making complex mazes of coral and trying not to feel used.

O-O-O

Gaara was getting tired of assassination attempts. After the first failure from Yashamaru, he had already prevented four others.

The attempts only cemented his hatred toward his father and the village. He wished he were strong enough to leave, but, as Han insisted, he was only six years old. Even if he managed to escape the village, trying to make his way in the world would be impossible. He had to wait until he was older and more experience.

For that, he needed full control over the sand. He had always had some amount of power over it, able to shape it how he saw fit. But like Shukaku, it was unwieldy and sensitive to Gaara's emotional state.

His solution was to let go of all feelings in order to obtain full control. While the method worked and the sand now obeyed, it had only made the people of Suna more terrified. They had already seen him as a monster. Now that he never smiled, laughed, cried, or frowned, their fear had only intensified. But Gaara didn’t care anymore. He had the other jinchuuriki. He had the Room. In there, he could be as emotional as he wanted. There, he didn’t need to keep everything bottled up inside.

Gaara willed the sand to transform itself into a house. Shukaku fought, but without emotions to feed it, Gaara had full control for once. Within seconds, he had a miniature model at his feet.

He stared at the finished project without blinking. My control is already a lot better.

With a swipe of his hand, the house disappeared and melted into the ground. Gaara took in a deep breath and thought about what to make next. Could he make a miniature version of Suna?

Curious, Gaara extended his hands forward. He was ready to force the village walls to appear when he felt a presence behind him. He waited, but when no one attacked, he relinquished control and turned around.

“Gaara-sama,” a man wearing the Sunagakure ANBU uniform said. Despite the ANBU training, Gaara could hear the slight tremble of fear in the man’s voice.

“What is it?” Gaara asked, his face a neutral mask.

“Your father has asked me to summon you,” the ANBU answered.

Despite his practice, the sand responded as Gaara felt a strong surge of hatred and fury. He clenched his fists to keep himself calm. After a deep breath, the sand settled and he looked at the agent in front of him unblinkingly.

“What does he want?” he asked.

“I have been instructed you summon you, Gaara-sama,” the ANBU answered. “I do not know what he has in mind.”

Gaara nodded. “Fine,” he said.

With a breath of relief he could hear from behind the mask, the ANBU turned around. Without looking back, he led him out of the training area behind his house. Gaara followed dutifully, keeping his distance from the man in front of him.

They arrived at the office of the Kazekage minutes later. The Kazekage sat behind the desk, glaring at Gaara. Gaara tried to pretend the man in front of him was not his father. He forced himself to breathe out so that the sand wouldn’t react to the instinct to attack.

“Gaara,” the Kazekage said, arms folded on top of his desk.

“Father,” Gaara answered, his tongue burning as he wished he didn’t have to keep up the charade. Han is more of a father than you will ever be.

“I’ve noticed you have gained better control over your sand abilities,” Rasa commented. He did not remove his gaze from Gaara.

“I have.” Gaara clenched and unclenched a fist.

“Good,” Rasa said. “I believe you are ready to start more regimented training for shinobi life.”

“Training?” Gaara asked, curious despite himself.

“I have assigned someone to be your personal tutor,” Rasa answered and he stood up to glare down at Gaara. “You will listen to everything he says, am I to be understood?”

“Yes, Father,” Gaara answered immediately.

“Good, in that case, let me introduce you.”

At those words, a new man appeared. Gaara’s first impression was that the man was tall, only a few inches shorter than Killer B. He had two red markings on his right cheek and hid the left side of his face with a sheet that hung from his turban. He wore the standard uniform for a Suna-nin and donned the Suna hitai-ate on his forehead.

The man looked down at Gaara, appearing nervous to be with his new charge. Gaara blinked up at him coldly.

“His name is Baki,” Rasa explained. “He will teach you about becoming a shinobi. You will listen and obey him.”

“It's a pleasure to meet you, Gaara-sama,” Baki said.

He bowed down. Gaara blinked. He was impressed. Hardly anyone was ever brave enough to come near him, let alone put themselves in a weak position. The man might have been the bravest potential assassin he’d met so far.

“It's a pleasure to meet you too, Baki,” Gaara replied formally.

At his words, the man straightened. He looked down at Gaara with fearful eyes. The man might be an assassin, waiting for the best moment to strike. But Gaara had nothing to lose and a lot to gain by learning ninjutsu.

Baki might try to kill him one day. Gaara would wait and see.

O-O-O

Naruto tried to lean back and relax as he balanced precariously on the branch.

But he couldn’t relax. The branches dug into his back, making him fidget. Ants scurried and had already bitten him many times. The leaves got into his eyes and made his entire face itch. Why does Fuu like doing this?

Despite his discomfort, Naruto laid down and tried to meditate like Gaara. But it failed when his mind refused to clear.

Ever since Fuu and Roshi told him about his mother, Naruto hadn’t allowed anyone else to make fun of his parents. He ignored the ugly words and enjoyed their looks of bewilderment whenever other kids tried to bully him. No matter how much they said his mother had been evil, or ugly, or a whore (whatever that meant), he knew the truth. Naruto’s mother had loved him and that was all that mattered.

Once the kids realized any kind of teasing was pointless, they set their sights on other victims. He was alone, but at least Naruto could enjoy his playtime without interruptions.

Naruto tried one more time to relax and watch the clouds drift by. But no matter how much he concentrated on breathing, he could not get comfortable. With a defeated sigh, he sat up and jumped down from the tree. He may as well fail to meditate in the comfort of his bed.

Naruto landed on the grass and stretched his arms over his head. He wanted to go to the park to play on the swings or the sandbox, but he didn’t feel like dealing with anyone else at the moment. He started to walk back home.

“Naruto,” a gravelly voice called out from behind him.

“Aargh!” Naruto yelped in surprise. He spun around in the direction of the voice, falling into one of the taijutsu stances that Yugito had shown him.

When he turned around, he saw an old man looking down quizzically at him. He wore a long white robe with red trimmings and a large hat that covered his face in shadow. He held his hands behind his back. Despite his age, he exuded a level of control and power that reminded him most of Han.

Naruto gazed into the old man’s eyes. To his surprise, instead of the usual fear and disgust, the man only looked curious.

“What do you want, old geezer?” he asked with an angry pout.

The man chuckled and he stepped closer. Naruto tensed. He might know a little taijutsu, but there was no way he could defeat any adult, even an old man. He was about to turn around and run away when the man placed his hand on top of Naruto’s hair and ruffled it.

“My name is Hiruzen Sarutobi,” the man said with a kind smile. “I just wanted to see what you were doing, Naruto.”

Naruto looked up at the man in wonder. Everyone he had met in Konoha had been indifferent towards him at best. He swallowed, trying to suppress his nervousness.

“I was just watching the clouds, ya know,” Naruto said. “How do you know my name, anyway?”

“I’m the Hokage,” the man answered. “I know about everyone in the village.”

“Hokage? What’s that?” Naruto tilted his head to the side. The word sounded familiar but he wasn't sure where he’d heard it.

The old man chuckled. “I’m the leader of the village. I protect everyone in Konoha and I tell all of the other shinobi what to do.”

Naruto stared up at the old man with a frown. He didn’t know why the leader of Konoha would want to speak with him. Unless... it’s about my bijuu. A shiver ran down Naruto’s spine.

The older jinchuuriki had explained to him that he had a tailed beast sealed inside of him. He knew that Yagura, Yugito, and B worked together and shared chakra with their beasts as friends. Han, Utakata, and Roshi, while not as friendly, could also control their power and cooperate when necessary. They had all warned him, Fuu, and Gaara about trying to tame their bijuu before they became genin. They said it was really hard to do.

Naruto’s heart threatened to beat out of his chest. Besides his bijuu, there was nothing interesting about him. What does he want with me?

“What do you want with me?” he asked, trying to keep his voice from shaking without success.

“Just to speak with you.” The Hokage lifted his hand from Naruto’s head to stroke his beard. “There are a few things we should talk about now that you are getting older.”

Naruto’s frown deepened and he glared up at the old man. “Why should I speak with you?” he asked

“I’ll take you to eat ramen,” the Hokage answered.

Ramen? Worries forgotten, Naruto’s eyes lit up in happiness and he beamed at the man. He felt himself drooling. If he could get ramen out of it, he would do whatever the old man said.

The Hokage chuckled again. He turned around to leave, signaling with one hand for Naruto to follow. Naruto tagged along obediently, already trying to decide what flavor he would order. Would the man let him order more than one bowl?

“How many bowls can I order, Hokage-sama?” Naruto asked, overly polite. He could already taste the ramen and he hoped some flattery would let him have more than one bowl.

“How many can you eat?” the old man asked, raising an eyebrow in curiosity.

Naruto shrugged. “I don’t know. A lot probably.”

The Hokage sighed and continued walking. Naruto followed along at his heels, full of excitement. They left the tree grove at the edge of Konoha and headed toward the village center.

Naruto prepared himself for an onslaught of angry stares and mocking sneers. But instead of the usual hate, the people focused on the old man, expressions full of respect and admiration. Some bowed briefly and smiled at the Hokage in reverence while others waved at him. The old man returned their bows with polite nods of his head and spoke to everyone with a smile.

Naruto stared up at the old man in awe. He wished he could walk the village and receive that kind of adoration.

The old man led them down one of the main streets in the village. Curious, Naruto followed him to a small stand with only a few seats. The sign outside has its name in kanji he didn’t recognize. But Naruto could recognize the all-important word for ‘ramen.' It was one of the first words he had learned how to read, after all.

The old man sat down at the bar with a small sigh. Naruto jumped up to sit on the stool next to him. He could smell the broth and meat cooking. He had never smelled anything finer.

“Hokage-sama,” a man behind the counter said. “It’s nice to see you here. To what do I owe the honor?”

“I brought Naruto-kun for lunch,” the Hokage explained.

At his words, the chef turned to look at Naruto at the Hokage’s heels. Naruto stopped himself from cowering and prepared himself for the familiar sneer. But the chef instead looked at him with furrowed eyes. Naruto saw a flash of recognition, but that look was gone so fast that he wondered if he had imagined it.

“Ah, so this is Naruto-kun,” the chef said.

Naruto nodded and gulped. “I’m Naruto Uzumaki. Nice to meet you.”

“My name is Teuchi,” the man answered with a grin. “You can call me Teuchi-san. It’s nice to meet you, too.”

“Thank you, Teuchi-san!” Naruto returned the grin.

He looked up at the Hokage next to him. The old man was smiling at him, hand scratching his beard. Naruto would make sure to visit this particular ramen restaurant the next chance he got. Gotta have money first though.

“Well, now that our introductions are out of the way,” Teuchi said, “what would you like to eat?”

“I want one of everything!” Naruto declared.

The Hokage chuckled. “Let’s start with one bowl, Naruto.”

Naruto scrunched up his face in concentration and looked up at the menu. He didn’t know all of the characters, especially the kanji, but he could make sense of it. He thought for a few seconds before making a decision.

“I want the chashu pork ramen, please!” he said with a smile.

“Of course!” Teuchi replied. “And for you, Hokage-sama?”

“I’ll have the same, please.”

“Two bowls of chashu ramen coming right up!” the man declared with a cheerful smile before turning around to prepare their meals.

Naruto tried to peek over the counter to watch the chef work. To his dismay, he was too short to see and Teuchi’s back blocked the preparation process anyway. With a pout, he dropped his head on the counter and closed his eyes. He tried to content himself with the smell of the broth.

At his side, the Hokage hummed in amusement. “Naruto-kun, I wanted to talk to you about a few things,” he said.

Naruto turned to look up at him. “Talk about what?” he asked.

“I wanted to know how you were doing at the orphanage,” the Hokage said. “Do you like it there?”

Naruto shrugged. “It’s okay, I guess,” he said. “They’re always yellin’ at me for being too loud, ya know.”

“Do you want to continue living there?”

Naruto shook his head. “Not really.”

The Hokage hummed, deep in thought. “If you don’t like it, what do you think about living somewhere else?” he asked.

“Somewhere else?”

The old man nodded. “Yes. Perhaps at a small apartment to yourself. It might take some time for you to adjust, but I could help you get settled into a new place if you want.”

“My own place?” Naruto leaned forward in excitement. “You mean it?”

The Hokage blinked before nodding. “Yes, Naruto-kun. I mean it.”

“So what is that place like? Can I be as loud as I want? Is it near this ramen stand? Can I come to eat ramen here whenever I want?”

Naruto looked up at the Hokage, eyes bright and curious. But when the old man opened his mouth to answer, two hot bowls of ramen were placed in front of them. Distracted, Naruto stared at the bowl in front of him.

It was possibly the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. Slices of chashu pork were placed artfully atop a plush bed of noodles with a soft boiled egg front and center in the broth. His favorite fishcake, the naruto-maki, floated on the surface, surrounded by a colorful variety of vegetables. A sheet of nori was tilted at the edge of the bowl. His mouth salivated from the divine smell emanating from the bowl. He swallowed.

“Thank you for the meal,” Naruto and the Hokage said at the same time.

Reverently, Naruto took a pair of chopsticks and separated them. Ignoring the temperature, he slurped the ramen noodles.

He swallowed and let out a sigh of pleasure. The Hokage chuckled at his side.

“I can tell you really like it,” the old man said.

“Of course he does!” Teuchi answered with a grin. “My ramen is the best in all of Konoha, if not the world! That’s why we are called Ichiraku Ramen!”

Naruto only nodded in agreement, his mouth too full of noodles to answer. He made sure to chew and swallow before answering.

“Yeah!” he answered. “This is the best ramen ever, ya know!”

“You like to flatter this old man!” Teuchi said before laughing.

Naruto ate his bowl as fast as he could. At his side, the Hokage ate much more slowly. He gave Naruto the occasional half-curious and half-horrified glance. Naruto finished his bowl before the Hokage was halfway done with his. He drank the remainder of the broth before sighing in contentment and rubbing at his stomach.

“Ah! That was so good!” Naruto said with a content sigh before turning to look at the Hokage with what he hoped was a sympathetic look. “Can I have another bowl, please, Hokage-sama?”

The Third Hokage sighed in resignation. “Sure, one more.”

Naruto cheered and kicked his legs under the counter. He hummed a song Fuu had taught him as he waited for Teuchi to bring out a second bowl. The Hokage took the opportunity to speak with Naruto without ramen in the way.

“Naruto-kun.” Naruto turned to look up at the man again, a small frown on his face. “I was going to say more, but we got distracted.”

“Argh!” Naruto yelled, remembering everything he had wanted to know. “Can I live in an apartment close to Ichiraku Ramen?”

The old man sighed. “We can look for a place nearby,” he conceded. “However, the most important consideration will be the distance from the Academy.”

“Academy?” Naruto tilted his head to the side. “I have to go to the Academy?”

The Hokage nodded. “Next year at the start of April,” he explained. “You will start with the early students. The first year will focus mainly on reading, writing, history, and mathematics. You won’t be learning ninjutsu until later.”

“I’m going to learn ninjutsu?” Naruto shouted.

“And also reading, writing, history, mathematics,” the old man repeated insistently.

Naruto pouted. Reading and writing were difficult for him, but learning ninjutsu would make it worth it. There would also be other children his own age in school. Fuu was always talking about the friends she met at the Academy. Maybe he could make some friends, too.

“Next year?” Naruto asked as he crossed his arms in front of his chest.

“Next year,” the Hokage confirmed with a nod before taking a bite out of his own bowl of noodles.

“And when can I move into my new house?” Naruto asked.

“In a week or two at most,” the Hokage answered. “I want to make sure you are settled for a few months before the school term starts. You will receive a weekly stipend to use however you wish, but you must manage it wisely so you don’t run out. If you don’t have any money left at the end of the week, you won’t be able to buy more food, so be warned.”

Naruto nodded in understanding. It made sense to him. He hoped the other jinchuuriki would help him learn how to manage the money. He probably wouldn’t have to ask. As the youngest jinchuuriki, they liked telling him what to do. The only ones that never bossed him around were Gaara and Killer B. Fuu is so bossy though.

Teuchi set down the second bowl in front of Naruto. Naruto dug in, although he made sure to slow down and enjoy the flavor the second time. Naruto and the Hokage ate in companionable silence.

When Naruto finished his second bowl, he almost wanted to beg for a third, but he refrained. He didn’t want to take advantage of anyone’s generosity. Roshi had scolded him about it when he had demanded that Utakata make bubbles.

The Hokage finished his first bowl soon after with a content sigh and he turned to look down at Naruto.

“Are you full?” the old man asked.

Naruto nodded insincerely. I can probably eat at least two more bowls.

The Hokage nodded, relieved that Naruto had finished. “In that case,” he said, “let’s go. I will walk you back to the orphanage.”

Naruto nodded and jumped down from the stool. He turned around to look at the ramen chef, who was busy preparing something behind the counter.

“Goodbye, Teuchi-san!” he said with a grin while waving his hand back and forth.

“Goodbye, Naruto-kun, Hokage-sama,” Teuchi replied. “Thank you very much for coming! Please come back again, Naruto-kun.” He smiled kindly down at Naruto from behind the counter. “I think you’re already one of my favorite customers!”

Naruto blushed. He had never been told something so nice by the people of Konoha. He nodded enthusiastically. “Thanks for the meal!” he said while scratching the back of his neck.

“Let’s go, Naruto-kun.”

“Yes, Gramps!” Naruto followed obediently.

Naruto saw the man’s shoulders tense at the familiar term and a weight settled into his stomach. Was I too familiar?

But when Naruto saw his face, the man seemed surprised instead of insulted. When the Hokage caught Naruto looking, he smiled, the corners of his eyes crinkling in happiness. Naruto let out a relieved sigh. He didn’t want to insult people who treated him to ramen. What if he never bought him ramen ever again?

Together, the old man and the boy walked in the direction of the orphanage. As before, everyone they passed greeted the Hokage reverently. The Hokage returned each of their greetings with nods and pleasantries of his own.

They ignored Naruto, only acknowledging him with small frowns of confusion. Naruto assumed they were wondering why he was with the Hokage. Naruto glared at them in return but said nothing, content in the old man’s shadow. They arrived at the gates of the orphanage a few minutes later.

Naruto bit his lip. He had enjoyed the friendly company and he didn’t want the day to end so fast. He wavered at the entrance.

“Why are you the Hokage, Gramps?” Naruto asked while pulling on the man’s coat, only trying to delay their separation.

The old man hummed thoughtfully before answering, looking down at Naruto. “It’s because I’m the strongest shinobi in Konoha,” the Hokage answered.

“Am I going to get stronger if I’m in school?”

The Hokage nodded in agreement. “Yes, but you have to study and pay attention. It’s not easy and it will take time.”

Naruto scratched his chin before beaming up at the old man. “Then, one day, I’m going to be even stronger than you and before the next Hokage!” Naruto declared in excitement. “Then everyone in Konoha will respect me!”

The Hokage’s eyes opened wide in surprise before his face shifted and he smiled. The man chuckled and extended one hand to ruffle Naruto’s hair.

“Becoming Hokage is not only about being recognized, Naruto-kun,” he explained. “It’s about taking care of everyone in the village as if they were your own family. That’s what it means to be Hokage.”

Naruto frowned but nodded nevertheless. He didn't know why he should care about protecting the villagers when they despised him and wished he didn't exist.

With a pout, Naruto turned around to open the gate that led into the orphanage. But the Hokage interrupted before he had a chance to leave.

“Wait, Naruto-kun,” the old man said. “I have something for you.”

At those words, Naruto turned back. He watched the man rummage through pockets hidden in the sleeves of his coat. A few seconds later, he pulled out a small box which he handed over to Naruto.

“Happy birthday, Naruto-kun,” the Hokage said.

Naruto blinked. Birthday? Was it his birthday today?

He looked down at the small box in his hands and gulped. He had never received a present before. Nervous and hesitant, he opened the box. Inside was a small frog-shaped wallet. Its emptiness made it look deflated and sad. Underneath was a red envelope. He looked up at the Hokage for confirmation before pulling it out and opening it. Inside the envelope were a few paper bills.

Naruto gasped in surprise. He had never had his own money before. He looked up at the old man, who was smiling at his reaction.

“I thought you should have a little spending money before you move out on your own,” the Hokage explained. “Feel free to use it however you want, but please be responsible.”

Naruto felt the tears starting to form in his eyes and he looked up in admiration. Before he had a chance to think or change his mind, he leaped forward and hugged the Hokage around the waist. He made sure not to drop his gift.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Naruto muttered as he buried his face on the man’s stomach.

At first, the old man tensed at the sudden contact but simply placed a hand on top of Naruto’s head. “You’re welcome, Naruto-kun,” he said. “Happy birthday. How does it feel to be six years old?”

At the question, Naruto forced himself to let go. He stepped back, rubbing at his eyes with his forearm to stop the tears running down his face. Forcing himself, he grinned at the old man.

“It doesn’t feel any different,” he admitted. “I forgot it was my birthday until you told me, ya know!”

The Hokage chuckled. “Then I’m glad I reminded you.”

Naruto wiped his tears away from his face before bowing down deeply in gratitude.

“Thank you very much, Gramps.”

“You’re welcome,” the old man answered. “I will come and pick you up once it’s time for you to move out. I will see you soon, Naruto-kun.”

“See you soon, Gramps!" Naruto beamed one last time before turning around and passing through the front gate of the orphanage. He looked back to wave at the old man, but by the time he turned, the Hokage had already vanished.

Chapter Text

Since hearing about the Takigakure missing-nin, Fuu had been on the hunt for intel.

For the past two months, she had scoured through all the books in the school library. But even after weeks of searching, she had found nothing that fit the description of the man Yagura had seen. She wanted to ask Takumi, but she couldn’t think of how she could broach the topic. After her search had come up empty, Fuu considered her last remaining option: breaking into Hisen’s office to search through the archives.

It was the middle of the night and the village was quiet, with only the wind to break the silence. A thin blanket of snow covered the ground and she could only see using the faint light from a nearby lantern.

Fuu squinted at the second-story window of the administrative building. She had tried teaching herself how to stick to the walls with chakra, but her control was weak and she pushed herself off the wall instead. She had also tried scaling the old-fashioned way, but the wall was too smooth to climb using her arms and legs.

From the window, she looked at the tree behind her. It stood tall a few feet away from the building, one of its branches extending close to the window. She would have to jump from the tree to Hisen’s archives.

As silently as possible, Fuu climbed the tree and balanced perfectly on the branch. She gauged the distance to the window. If she got a good head start, she could clear the distance.

She took a deep breath and jumped.

While in the air, she smiled to herself as she neared the window, believing her mission accomplished. But when she extended her hands to grab onto the ledge, she missed her target and she fell to the ground.

She swallowed a scream when she landed on her knees. Tears formed in the corners of her eyes but she bit her tongue to keep herself from making a sound. Gingerly, she looked at her injuries. Her knees were skinned, but the snow numbed the pain.

Fuu took a few seconds to rest. Her bijuu healed her quickly and a minute later, she had mostly recovered. With a wince, she stood up and hobbled to the tree again. Climbing up onto the same branch, she walked as close as she dared to the edge before jumping. She felt a rush of victory but failed yet again, falling through the sky to land painfully on the snow.

Determined, she tried again and again, failing miserably each time. Increasingly frustrated with each attempt, she huffed to herself, caring less and less about staying silent.

It was only at her tenth attempt that she realized that she was not alone. As she readied herself to jump, she heard someone clearing their throat from underneath the tree. Concentration broken, Fuu lost her balance and tumbled to land face down at the feet of the intruder.

With a wince of pain, she looked at the person standing over her. He was not much older than her. He looked familiar and she took a second to recognize him as the boy that had been in Hisen’s office years ago.

The boy was older now— a teenager. He crossed his arms and glared at the girl face down in the snow.

“What are you doing?” His voice was full of disapproval.

With a groan, Fuu sat up and rubbed her knees. She racked her brain to come up with an excuse to explain the situation but came out empty.

“I’m just... uh...” Fuu fidgeted with the hem of her shirt. “Practicing my jumping skills.”

“In the middle of the night?”

“Shinobi don’t always fight in the day,” she rationalized. “Besides, I should ask you the same question. What are you doing here?”

“If you must know, I’m going home,” he said. “I live near here. Also, don’t try to shift blame. The most suspicious person is you.”

Fuu bit her lip and looked at the other boy again. She examined his face carefully. He had bags under his eyes that could only come from extreme exhaustion. His clothes were torn, most likely because of shuriken or kunai. Despite his angry posture, he held himself gingerly, leaning on his left leg to stand.

“Why are you so beat up?” Fuu asked in a weak attempt to redirect the conversation. “Did you just get back from a mission?”

To Fuu’s surprise, the other boy flinched and he tapped one finger on his thigh in a nervous gesture. Fuu pressed her advantage.

“How did you get those injuries?” she asked.

The boy sighed before glaring at her again and answering. “If you must know, it’s from training. Suien-sensei pushes me to be the best that I can be. Takigakure, despite not being one of the five great villages, has a reputation to maintain for producing capable shinobi. If I wish to become a jounin of renown, I must—”

“Suien is your sensei, too?” Fuu interrupted incredulously, her mission momentarily forgotten.

“Too?” The boy raised an eyebrow.

Fuu nodded. “Yeah, Suien-sama was my main teacher before I enrolled in the Academy. He was always really mean to me! If I didn’t know any better, I would’ve thought he wanted me to fail! Once I started going to school, I only had to see him on Sundays for training but that stopped after a while.”

“Wait... your teacher? Who are you?” The boy’s frown deepened.

With a smile, Fuu finally stood up and introduced herself. “My name is Fuu!” she said. “Nice to meet you.”

She bowed her head politely, but the boy in front of her was speechless. Curious about his reaction, she lifted her face to meet his eyes. Her heart sank into her stomach.

“You’re the jinchuuriki,” he said. On his face was the same look she had gotten from all of her caretakers and teachers except for Takumi.

“So what?” she asked, clenching her hands into angry fists. She wondered how a random boy could have learned about her status when it was supposed to be a secret inside the village.

The boy swallowed. “My father told me about you. He said a bijuu can destroy an entire village in a few minutes.”

“I’m not a bijuu,” Fuu answered testily. “I’m Fuu. Just cause I have a bijuu sealed inside of me doesn’t mean I will destroy the village. Besides, who is to say my bijuu would destroy Takigakure, anyway? I bet my bijuu is really nice but since no one has ever talked to it, everyone thinks it’s evil! Did you ever think about that?”

“W-well, perhaps, but still...”

Fuu huffed and turned her gaze to look at the trunk of the tree instead. She pouted, arms crossed over her chest. After years of living alone and spending her days with her friends, she had almost forgotten how it felt to be judged for her mere existence.

Yagura, B, and Yugito were always telling her about their tailed beasts. They were friends, able to commiserate with one another about anything. One day, Fuu hoped to have the same kind of relationship with the Nanabi.

The boy in front of her cringed at her reaction. “Sorry, Fuu,” he said apologetically, sounding sincere. “My father told me to be nice when we met but—”

“Wait, your father?” Distracted, Fuu turned around to look at the boy with new eyes. “Who’s your father?”

“The Village Head, of course,” he said proudly. “I will take his place one day, so I have to be as strong as I can.”

“Oh!” Fuu stared at the boy in a new light. He probably has access to the library already! I can convince him to let me in!

“So... what’s your name, anyway?” she asked, trying to make herself sound star-struck.

“My name is Shibuki,” he said. “Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you, too!” Fuu said with a wide smile. He’s my key to the archives, I just know it!

Shibuki huffed impatiently. “So are you going to finally tell me what you were planning to do or not?” he asked.

“Well, you see, the library in the Academy is not very complete.” Fuu decided to tell part of the truth. “And I want to learn more about the history of Takigakure and its most important ninja. But since I don’t have access to the archives yet, I wanted to get information from Hisen-sama’s office.”

“Why didn’t you ask my father if you could use the archives?” he asked.

“I thought he would say no.”

Shibuki sighed. “He would have,” he admitted. “Still! You can’t just try to jump through a window! Wait until you graduate and you will have free access then. What do you have to know that’s so important, anyway?”

The identity of a Takigakure missing-nin that might be hunting for me or the other jinchuuriki I talk to in my head. But Fuu couldn’t say anything about that and she bit her lip instead. She tried to think of a reasonable answer, but her mind was blank.

“I guess I don’t need to know about it now,” she lied.

“That’s right!” Shibuki scolded her. “Wait for graduation! Or ask your teacher about it if you can’t wait. I’m not going to tell Dad about it this time, but if I see you trying to sneak in again, you’re going to be in a lot of trouble!”

Fuu sighed and nodded before waving goodbye and making her way home. She wasn’t giving up yet. She just needed a plan for how to get in. Shibuki is the key.

O-O-O

Han meandered towards the Tsuchikage’s office. Onoki had summoned him and he was anxious to know what he wanted so he could go home. Most likely another stupid mission.

He turned and walked down the hallway that led to the Tsuchikage’s office. To his annoyance, the door was closed. With an impatient sigh, he stopped at the corner and leaned back on the wall with his arms crossed over his chest and his eyes closed.

As he waited, Han let his mind wander. He hoped whatever Onoki wanted, it wouldn’t take long. He wanted to go to the market and buy ingredients for dinner. He was torn between making grilled fish or stir-fried pork.

As he was debating the nutritional benefits of each option, the door to the Tsuchikage’s office opened. Han turned to look, expecting an Iwa shinobi to come out. Instead, a familiar man wearing a black robe embroidered with red clouds closed the door behind him.

Unlike the last time, Han took a careful look at the man’s appearance. He had red hair that curled slightly at the tips and a hazy, dreamy look in his eyes with a smirk on his lips. He was short, only a few inches taller than Roshi and carried himself with an air of arrogance. On his left thumb, he wore a purple ring.

Han narrowed his eyes as the man walked down the hall, memorizing every detail for later. The man approached slowly, looking satisfied with himself. When he reached the corner where Han awaited, the man stopped and looked up.

“Waiting for the Tsuchikage?” the man said with a smirk. “Don’t worry, he’s free now, Han.”

Han felt an involuntary shudder run down his back. He scowled at the man but he didn’t respond. The man sneered and gave him a long and calculating look before walking away. If that man knew his name, what else could he know? The organization was likely looking for Roshi. Were they looking for Han, too?

Han waited for the man’s footsteps to disappear before humming thoughtfully to himself and walking down the hall into Onoki’s office. He closed the door behind him.

“Han,” Onoki began.

“Tsuchikage-sama,” Han responded, forcefully polite. “Who was that man?”

“Oh, him? Just a friend from Sunagakure,” the Tsuchikage answered nonchalantly while waving a hand in front of his face. “He did me a favor. An expensive favor, but what else is there to do.”

Han forced his face into a neutral mask. Only his eyes were visible with his armor, but Onoki was a crafty bastard who could smell insurrection from a mile away.

“I see,” Han answered. “In that case, how may I be of assistance, Tsuchikage-sama?”

“I just wanted to remind you that the next chuunin exams will start next month. Make sure you’re ready for them.”

“Of course, Tsuchikage-sama.” Han was relieved. He had been expecting a long-term mission. Babysitting clueless genin was a lot more fun. With a small bow of his head, Han left, trying not to look hasty.

He went to the market, ignoring all the glares and murmurs as he bought his ingredients. At home, he cooked and ate, unable to enjoy the meal as his mind ran a mile a minute. What does that man know about me? Do they want jinchuuriki for some reason? Or do they just want to collect bounties on our heads?

Han worried about the situation for the rest of the evening and late into the night. Determined, he flipped through his collection of bingo books for hours. He frowned when he found the profile of the red-headed man. Underneath his picture, he read the description: Sasori of the Red Sand. S-Rank Missing-Nin. Run on sight.

Han sighed. The last time there had been a “run on sight” order had been with the Yellow Flash. What the hell was Onoki doing getting favors from S-rank Missing-Nin?

He appeared in the empty Room after midnight when everyone else had already gone to sleep. He walked to the Door marked with the kanji for the number three and opened communication.

‘Yagura, we need to talk.’

Yagura woke up immediately at the mental contact. ‘What is it?’

‘I saw that red-headed man I told you about before. Come to the Room and I can tell you about it in more detail.’

A few seconds later, Yagura’s physical manifestation appeared in front of him, looking disgruntled but alert.

“Couldn’t this have waited for tomorrow?” he complained. “I found a nice pile of dirt to sleep on.”

Han sighed. Is this the thanks I get for spying on my own village for him?

“No, it could not,” Han answered testily. “But I have cause to believe that this organization is looking for jinchuuriki.”

“Why do you say that?” Yagura asked curiously. “Also, can you sit down? I’m gonna get a crick in my neck if I have to look up at you for the entire conversation.”

“This is a mental projection of our physical bodies, Yagura. You can’t get a crick in your neck by looking up,” Han complained but did as told, anyway.

“Thank you,” Yagura said as he flopped down onto the floor. He sighed in exhaustion and waved his hand lazily to motion for Han to speak.

“I saw a young male that appeared to be in his early 20s,” Han said with precision befitting a mission report. “He had red hair that curled slightly at the tips. I approximate his height as 162 to 165 centimeters tall, with a weight of 50 kilos. Slight body. He wore a long black robe with red clouds embroidered upon them and a ring on his left thumb, although I could not make out any markings on it.”

Yagura nodded at the description and scratched his chin thoughtfully. “Well, now there’s another missing-nin to look up,” he complained.

“No, I already know who it is.”

“You do?” Yagura asked, eyes open wide in surprise.

“Yes,” Han answered. “It was Sasori of the Red Sand. Easily the most infamous missing-nin from Sunagakure. He is rumored to use over ten puppets at once.”

Yagura looked at him in surprise before speaking. “How did you figure it out?”

“I looked in the bingo book.”

Yagura sighed. “Of course,” he complained, voice full of bitterness. “My bingo book focuses on ninja from Kiri and Konoha. I don’t suppose you have anything about the Takigakure man I saw in your magic bingo book?”

Han shook his head. “Some villages are more secretive about their missing-nin than Suna or Konoha,” he explained. “I tried looking through the newest versions of the book and through the most recent bounty postings. However, I found no one fitting your description.”

“So we have to wait for Fuu to figure it out, then?”

“Most likely,” Han admitted. “Just don’t put any pressure on her,” he threatened Yagura with a frown. “She already has a lot to worry about.”

Yagura rolled his eyes but nodded. “She’s, like, four. What kind of person do you think I am to pressure a four-year-old girl to find classified intel?”

“She’s ten.”

“Is she?” Yagura asked with a fake gasp. “I must have misheard when she was running around the Room screaming it was her birthday a few months ago.”

Despite the situation, Han chuckled. He hated when Roshi was out of the village on long-term missions. With no one else to talk to, he would have died of boredom without the Room.

“So we know about three members of this mysterious group,” Yagura said while counting down with his fingers. “One was wearing an orange mask and is most likely the one responsible for my brainwashing. The second is a tall, scary man from Takigakure. The last one is Sasori of the Red Sand. Their mission is unknown, but they want something from me and Roshi.”

“Speaking of their interest,” Han added. “The man called me by name. I believe that he was checking me out.”

Yagura blinked and stared up at Han before he burst into laughter. “Checking you out? Were you wearing sexy lingerie or what?”

“What?” Han blushed as he realized what his words had sounded like.

“I mean, you said he was checking you out,” Yagura replied with a smirk. “I’ve always been curious about your face. Are you secretly handsome under all that armor?”

“Not like that!” Han countered, face warm. “He was checking me out curiously, like a piece of meat or a target. I was wearing my full armor, anyway.”

Yagura ignored his objection. “Do you think he just likes taller people, then?”

“Are you being serious, Yagura?” Han complained. He couldn’t believe their lives were on the line and Yagura was focusing on a slip of the tongue.

“Okay, okay, I’ll stop,” Yagura said as he let out a final chuckle. He breathed out to calm himself and stared at Han. Face thoughtful, he remained quiet as he waited for Han to speak.

Han raised a brow. When Yagura said nothing else and his expression remained determined, Han opened his mouth to speak. "Anyway, I believe that—”

“So did you think he was handsome?” Yagura interrupted with a snort. “I know he was checking you out, but were you checking him out? Do I hear wedding bells in the future or is this more of a one-night-stand kind of relationship?”

Han wondered if punching Yagura was worth the headache when he woke up.

Valiantly, he ignored the laughter to continue speaking. “The first one took control over your actions with a genjutsu while the second one was looking for Roshi. I think it’s likely that they are on the hunt for jinchuuriki.”

Yagura snorted but calmed himself enough to answer. “Why do you think so? You and Roshi have bounties on your heads. They might simply want the money.”

Han shrugged. “It’s only a guess,” he admitted. “But one organization being involved with three different jinchuuriki is too much of a coincidence for me to swallow.”

“Oh, and how much are you willing to swallow, Han?” Yagura asked, raising a single eyebrow.

Han glared at his friend. “What’s wrong with you?”

“I miss my wife and I’m sleeping on the dirt. Let me cope,” Yagura answered with an exasperated chuckle before becoming serious again. “What do you think they might want with the jinchuuriki? Or do you think they care more about the bijuu attached to us?”

“We can only speculate. They could brainwash us to do their bidding. They could also extract our bijuu and use it for their own internal mission.”

Yagura scratched his chin thoughtfully. “Mercenary companies tend to only care about money,” he speculated. “They could try to extract the tailed beast and then sell it to the highest bidder.”

“Who knows?” Han shrugged. “The only thing we can do is stay on the lookout for anyone suspicious.”

Yagura sighed and stood up, stretching his body as he did so. “Agreed. Keep an eye on Roshi. Have you told him about this yet?”

Han shook his head. “Not yet. He’s out of the village on a mission and I don’t want to worry him right now. I wanted to get your opinion first. We can tell the others tomorrow when they are all here.”

Yagura nodded in agreement before letting out a big yawn. “Sounds like a plan,” he said. “I think I’m gonna go to sleep now. The pile of dirt I found is softer than the pile of dirt from last night.”

Han stood up and stretched his arms over his head. “Goodnight, Yagura.”

“Goodnight.” Yagura waved his hand lazily. “Oh, and there’s one more thing we have to consider.”

“What is it?” Han asked.

“Would you prefer a spring wedding or a summer wedding?” Yagura teased with a smirk. “It sometimes rains during spring, but summer weddings are boiling hot. There are advantages and disadvantages to both.”

Before he changed his mind, Han called upon his chakra. Steam coursed through his arm and he punched Yagura in the face, causing the former Mizukage to fly to the other side of the Room.

“Ow, you bastard!” Yagura yelled. “Now I’m gonna wake up with a headache!”

“As will I,” Han replied. "You're welcome."

He heard Yagura chuckling to himself. In the morning, both of them would wake up with migraines but Han didn’t care. Worth it.

O-O-O

Naruto liked having his own apartment.

The first few days, he hadn’t known what to do. He had only walked around his new home, looking in awe at everything that now belonged to him and him alone. The apartment was bigger than necessary, separated into three rooms: the bathroom, the bedroom, and the living area. The furnishings were basic and worn but sturdy and he had more than enough space for his limited supply of toys and books. The best part, however, was that Ichiraku Ramen was only a few blocks away.

Through the Room, he allowed the others to look at his apartment. Their reactions varied from harsh criticism to genuine excitement. They all made suggestions about ways to decorate his new place. Naruto listened attentively, although he knew that he would not convert his entire balcony into a greenhouse or build an ant terrarium in his room.

The only downside to living on his own was that he had to learn how to feed himself.

He went to Ichiraku Ramen many times but made sure not to order over two bowls per visit. Teuchi’s ramen might be amazing, but the price added up and instant ramen was also good. He survived for a few days eating only ramen, thinking nothing of it until he told Roshi about it.

“You’re only eating ramen, Naruto?” Roshi asked, horrified.

“Yeah, what’s the big deal?” Naruto frowned in confusion.

Insulted at Naruto’s reaction, Roshi made it his personal mission to teach Naruto everything he knew about cooking. Since then, he had forced Naruto to prepare complex meals when he could eat ramen instead.

Thankfully, Utakata took pity on him and taught Naruto easy ways to cook at home. Unlike Roshi’s more extravagant techniques, Utakata preferred fast and easy meals.

“You should always have rice and eggs at home,” Utakata insisted. “If nothing else, you can have fried eggs with rice. Add a splash of soy sauce and you have a complete meal. Bonito flakes and nori are also good. You can make rice balls.”

Naruto nodded in relief. He didn’t enjoy cooking much. Having a few basic recipes in his repertoire was enough to keep Roshi from teaching him how to make mapo tofu or broiled pork belly.

Two months after moving in, his apartment had become a home. He didn’t have to worry about being a little too loud and he could soak in the bath as long as he wanted. He ate when he was hungry and during the day he wandered the village or spent time outside.

Especially now that winter had come, Naruto enjoyed the empty parks. With most people staying warm inside their homes, he could play alone with no one bothering him.

As he locked his apartment door behind him, he rubbed his hands together and wrapped his red scarf around his neck a few times. Slightly warmer, he shoved his hands into his pockets and walked determinedly to one grove at the edge of the village. People rarely visited it and there was a swing where he liked to sit and think.

Predictably, he saw no one else at the grove when he arrived. The presence of snow combined with the distance from the village center meant that very few people would join him. That suited Naruto perfectly.

He sat on the swing, watching the snowflakes falling and catching them with his tongue. Content, he swung back and forth, the winter chill making his face numb. He enjoyed the solitude for a few minutes before he felt the presence of new people.

He tensed, dreading any attention. Thankfully, they ignored him and Naruto went back to kicking his feet back and forth.

A sharp sob broke him out of his reverie. Curious, he let the swing come to a natural stop as he stared at the children that had joined earlier. He frowned. A small girl was sobbing, her hands covering her eyes while a group of three older boys mocked her.

“Hey Hyuuga girl, show us your Byakugan!” the tallest boy taunted. “If you can’t, then just get lost!”

At his words, the girl looked down with a sob.

“Your eyes are creepy,” says the shortest boy with a sneer. The two other boys laughed at his words.

“You’re actually just a monster, aren’t you?” said the third.

“Yeah, a Byakugan monster!” agreed the first one.

The girl squatted down on the snow with her forehead between her knees. She covered her eyes with her forearms as she sobbed pathetically. Naruto ground his teeth as he listened to the confrontation.

Whoever that girl was, she didn’t deserve what they said. He had been called a freak too, and he knew the pain of those words.

“Hey!” he shouted, pointing one finger at the boys. “Leave her alone!”

“Oh yeah? And who are you anyway?” the tallest one asked with a smug grin on his face.

Naruto gritted his teeth. “My name is Uzumaki Naruto! I’m gonna be the future Hokage, ya know!”

“Future Hokage? Are you an idiot?” one boy asked with a sneer.

Naruto growled in response.

“I’m gonna show you!” Naruto yelled as he got into a taijutsu stance Fuu had shown him.

The older boys, shinobi-in-training most likely, simply sneered at his attempts to fight. Before he could blink, the tallest boy lunged forward, punching Naruto in the nose. Naruto felt blood dripping down his face, and he fell back on the snow.

Defeated, he blinked up at the sky, willing the blood to stop and the pounding in his face to recede. He hoped his nose was not broken. It might take over a day to heal if it was. He wasn’t sure if he felt more embarrassed about losing a fight or about not living up to Fuu’s instructions.

As the pain slowly receded, he heard the boys laughing. At least they’re not making fun of the girl anymore.

“Now let’s have some fun!” one boy said. “Future Hokage, my ass!”

Naruto felt someone pulling on the scarf wrapped around his neck. Too preoccupied with the pain, he let them and felt a twinge of regret. I bought that scarf with my birthday money, asshole! He felt himself go numb from the pain, only hearing the laughter of the older boys.

When Naruto came to, the pain on his face had receded and his nose had stopped dripping blood. Furiously, he jumped up from the snow and fell into another taijutsu stance.

“I’m not done yet!” he yelled. But the other boys were already long gone, leaving him alone with the girl.

Naruto squatted down in defeat to stare at his feet. He had eight other shinobi to teach him taijutsu and ninjutsu and he still couldn’t defeat a small group of boys. He suppressed a wince as he rubbed his cheek in embarrassment.

“Are you okay?” the girl asked in a soft voice as she squatted near Naruto.

“I was holding back, ya know,” Naruto explained, although he knew that he was only deluding himself. He wished he were as big as Han. No one would bother him then.

The girl gulped before talking again.

“They... ruined your scarf,” she said as she held what remained of it up to him.

He examined the girl squatting next to him closely. She had large pale eyes that were furrowed with worry. Her dark hair was cropped short to her ears while her skin was almost as pale as the snow surrounding them.

Naruto frowned. She didn’t look at him with the typical dislike he was used to. It was unusual. With a shake of his head, Naruto sighed and waved his hand back and forth. The humiliation of losing a fight was much worse than losing a scarf.

“I’m sorry,” she said, sounding close to tears.

“Don’t worry about it.” Naruto forced himself to smile despite the pain.

She didn’t return the gesture and instead looked away, eyes wet with unshed tears. Naruto’s smile froze on his face. Part of himself wanted to back home, but the girl reminded him of Gaara: small and made to deal with forces much bigger than himself.

“What’s your name, anyway?” Naruto asked as he stood up, brushing the snow away.

“Huh?” she asked nervously. “My name?”

“Yeah!” Naruto said cheerfully. “My name is Naruto Uzumaki. What’s your name?”

“Hinata Hyuuga,” she said, eyes looking down nervously.

Naruto beamed at her. “Nice to meet you, Hinata-chan!”

“Thank you very much,” Hinata bowed respectfully to Naruto. “I’m very pleased to meet you, Uzumaki-san.”

Naruto grinned. “Don’t need to be so formal, ya know! Call me Naruto!”

“Naruto-kun?” Hinata asked nervously.

Naruto beamed at her and she smiled for the first time in return.

“I hope we can be friends!” Naruto said with a grin.

Hinata blushed. “F-friends?” she stuttered. “With me?”

Naruto’s heart sunk into his stomach. Does she hate me already?

“Yeah,” he grunted angrily. “Is that a problem?”

Hinata blushed. “N-no, Naruto-kun,” she said. “It’s just that...” she looked down at her feet and hugged the corpse of the scarf up to her chest. She gulped again. “It’s just that... um... I’ve never had a friend before.”

At the confession, her face turned into a deeper shade of red, which Naruto had not believed was possible. The weight inside his stomach disappeared, and he exhaled a sigh of relief. He smiled, scratching the back of his neck in embarrassment.

“S-sorry... I’ve never had a friend before either,” he admitted. Not in Konoha at least.

“Oh,” Hinata said. The two stood together, avoiding each other's eyes as they contemplated how to break the awkward silence.

“D’you wanna play together?” Naruto finally asked. He couldn’t look her in the eye, embarrassed for putting her on the spot earlier.

“Uh... what do you want to play, Naruto-kun?” Hinata asked, determined.

Naruto breathed a sigh of relief as he turned to meet her eyes again. “I dunno,” he answered. “We can play ninja or hide and seek. Or I can push you on the swing. I bet I can push you really high, ya know!”

“Really?” Hinata asked before looking down at the remains of the scarf once again.

With a grimace, Naruto took it and threw it on the ground. He made a mental note to discard of it. Perhaps he would burn it. Roshi and Yugito liked to burn things.

Hinata stared down at the scarf on the ground in regret. However, before she had the chance to apologize again, Naruto pulled on her hand and took her to the swing. She let out a small surprised yelp but followed along.

Naruto laughed, and he heard a small giggle from the girl next to him. Naruto motioned for her to sit on the swing.

“So are you training to be a ninja?” he asked, pushing lightly on her back.

“My father is training me now,” she answered. “But Ko-san told me I’m going to enroll at the Academy in April.”

“Academy?” Naruto yelled cheerfully. “I’m going to the Academy, too! We can be friends there!”

“I’m glad,” she said, voice as she swung. “I thought I was not going to make any friends.”

Naruto laughed as he pushed her higher and higher. She squealed in surprise at the height and broke out into laughter. Naruto listened to her giggles, smiling to himself at being able to make her so happy after the events from earlier.

“Higher!” she yelled. Naruto complied and Hinata let out a shriek of excitement as the winter air blew on her face.

“Hinata-sama!” a deep voice yelled out from behind them.

“Ko-san!” Hinata said as the laughter died in her throat.

Naruto stopped pushing and turned around to look at a tall teenage boy who was walking closer and closer. Like Hinata, he had pale pupil-less eyes. He glared and Naruto swallowed at the expression on his face.

In front of him, the swing came to a stop as Hinata planted her feet on the ground. She ran to the teenager and bowed her head in apology.

“Hinata-sama!” the teenager scolded. “I told you to wait for me while I finished the enrollment paperwork.”

“I know Ko-san,” Hinata said. Her previous cheerfulness was gone as she stared at her feet and pushed her index fingers together. Naruto frowned. Why did Hinata have to listen to him anyway?

The teenager sighed, his initial anger receding. “I know, Hinata-sama,” he said. “But your father worries about you. He only wants what’s best for you and the clan.”

Hinata nodded obediently before turning to Naruto and giving him a strained smile. “I will see you at the Academy, Naruto-kun,” she said, looking close to tears again.

“Of course! We’re friends now, ya know!” Naruto placed the palms of his hands on the back of his head and forced a grin on his face.

A small but genuine smile formed on Hinata’s lips and she turned her gaze back on him. “Thank you, Naruto-kun.”

Hinata nodded politely at him. The teenager pulled on her hand and walked away. Before they left the grove, however, he turned his head to glare at Naruto one last time. Naruto stuck his tongue out in return.

Chapter Text

It was a rare night when most of the jinchuuriki were in the Room together. Utakata and Yugito were deep in conversation, sitting across from one another. In one corner, Roshi, Han, and Killer B traded stories about the Third Shinobi War.

Fuu looked at the two children sitting in front of her. Gaara was listening to Naruto as he told them a story about a girl he met while at the park. Fuu listened attentively and grinned. It was nice to see Naruto making friends.

“Fuu-chan,” Yagura’s familiar voice interrupted.

“Yagura-san?” she asked as she turned to look up at him.

“I have something to tell you,” he said with a frown. For a second, she felt a weight drop into the pit of her stomach, terrified about the possibilities. However, Yagura only looked confused.

“What is it, Yagura-san?” she asked.

Yagura opened his mouth as if to speak before reconsidering. He scratched his chin and closed his eyes, deep in thought. Fuu stood up. The boys followed her and stood at her sides in silent support.

“I got a message from Isobu,” Yagura finally said while crossing his arms in front of his chest. “It was weird.”

“A message?” Gaara asked.

“Isobu?” Fuu asked.

“Weird?” Naruto asked.

Yagura nodded. “Isobu is the name of my bijuu,” Yagura answered. “He told me that one of his siblings tried talking to him while he was resting in the space the tailed beasts share.”

“The bijuu share a room of their own?” Han asked in an incredulous tone, distracted from his own conversation.

Yagura shrugged. “It’s what Isobu told me. He described it to me one time. He says it’s infinite and that the floor is made from a shallow pool of water. He says the other bijuu haven’t really used that space ever since the Nine-Tailed Fox threw a hissy fit about being the strongest."

“Oh, yeah! Hachibi said the same thing,” B rapped. “He says they never give 'im a ring! Up in their space, they’re always displaced, oh yeah!”

“So, anyway,” Yagura continued, ignoring B completely. “Isobu sent me a message from the Seven-Tails. He told me to tell you that your bijuu wants to talk.”

“With me?” Fuu asked, blinking in confusion. “Why?”

Yagura shrugged. “I don’t know. He only told me to send the message. He says the Nanabi wishes to speak in person.”

“No! You can’t talk to your bijuu, Fuu-chan, I forbid it!” Roshi yelled as he walked closer, a scowl on his face.

“W-What? Why?” Fuu clutched the hem of her skirt.

“It’s dangerous!” Roshi answered. “Bijuu are creatures made of hate. They love to watch you suffer and in pain. You’re not old enough to face it alone!”

“Not all bijuu are like that,” Yagura commented. “I consider Isobu my friend and comrade and has done a lot to help me survive. If Fuu is careful, she can—”

“No!” Roshi repeated, shaking his head. “It’s too dangerous. We don’t even know what the beast wants!”

“Roshi,” Han interrupted. “Yagura has a point. My bijuu is stubborn and sometimes unpredictable, but she has helped me before. I know you have trouble with your tailed beast, but it’s possible to have a cordial or even friendly relationship with them.”

“Matatabi says I remind her of a kitten,” Yugito admitted. She tried to sound annoyed but sounded pleased instead. “She says I have a desire to prove myself to everyone, so she lets me borrow her power whenever I want.”

“The six-tails lets me use acid with my jutsu,” Utakata added with a lazy wave of his hand. “He and I both like to watch bubbles floating in the air.”

“Oh yeah! With the Hachibi, I’m never alone! With our powers combined, our power’s streamlined, you dumbass phonies!”

Gaara crossed his arms in front of his chest and sighed. “Why do you all have nice bijuu?” he complained. “Shukaku is really mean.”

Yagura chuckled and ruffled Gaara’s hair. “Sorry about that, Gaara-chan. Maybe eventually you will have full control. It’s also possible that someone could alter your seal in the future.”

Gaara sighed but nodded at Yagura’s words. Fuu felt a pang in her chest. She knew how much pain Gaara was in from having Shukaku’s voice in his head. The village’s treatment of him over something he couldn’t control only made it worse.

“Roshi, I think it’s going to be Fuu’s choice,” Yagura said. “I’m only the messenger. So what’s it gonna be, Fuu. Are you going to talk to your bijuu or not?”

Fuu bit her lip. She remembered yelling at Shibuki about not judging her bijuu earlier. But now that it was her turn, she was finding it difficult to remember her own words. What if my bijuu is more like the one Gaara and Mama have instead of the one Yagura-san has?

She considered the situation. She didn’t know what her tailed beast was like. But now that it had asked to speak, she burned in curiosity to know. Yagura's question bounced around in her mind. Are you going to talk to your bijuu or not?

Fuu made her choice. Eyes full of determination, she looked up at Yagura and nodded.

“How do I get in touch with it?” she asked, trying to ignore Roshi’s pleading look.

O-O-O

Fuu took a deep breath in and out to calm herself. She made herself remember all of Yagura’s instructions and warnings.

Make sure you are in a safe place where no one will interrupt. Close your eyes and concentrate. Meditate and enter your mind space. Look for your bijuu once you’re there. Listen to it, but obey nothing. Don’t destroy the seal or let it out.

She leaned back against the tree, looked around the empty forest, and stared up at the sky. For a few minutes, she watched the clouds drift by from behind the canopy. She sighed. There was no going back after this.

Fuu closed her eyes. She inhaled and exhaled slowly, focusing on her breath. She felt a pulling sensation originating from somewhere near her navel, similar to the force that took her to the Room. She allowed it to whisk her away.

When Fuu opened her eyes, she blinked twice as she found herself in one of the school hallways. She looked around, but she saw no one else. Every mind space is different, she remembered Yagura telling her.

Why is my mind space at my school, though?

She shivered before as walked down the familiar hall toward her classroom. She could sense a strong chakra nearby and she followed its call. A few minutes later, she found the door to her class. She placed her hand on the hinge to open it.

With a nervous gulp, she slid the door open. To her surprise, instead of her normal bright classroom, she could see only darkness. Her breath froze in the sudden cold and she swallowed. Part of her wanted to turn around, slam the door closed behind her, and run away to never come back. But... her bijuu wanted something and it had gone through the trouble of sending a message through another bijuu to achieve that goal. I can't ignore it now!

Forcing her body to act, she placed her right foot inside the darkness. She gulped and moved her left foot in front of it. Taking tiny steps, she walked inside. Her breathing was labored and she wanted to cry, but she forced herself to slowly enter the darkness. She felt a second of victory and pride when the door suddenly slammed shut behind her.

With a gasp, she turned around to leave, but her escape had vanished, leaving her alone in the dark. She tried to feel for the door, but her hands felt only air. She clutched her hands together close to her body as her eyes tried in vain to see. This had all been a mistake. She had to leave.

She rubbed her hands against her eyes and felt tears forming. She jumped when she heard a clicking noise emanating from the darkness.

“Wh-wh-who’s there?!” Fuu stuttered.

She saw a point of light. In the darkness, the effect was almost blinding, and she moved a hand in front of her eyes to shield herself. Biting her lip, Fuu hesitated for only a moment before she ran toward the source. Please be the way out.

As she approached the light, she nearly crashed against the bars of a jail cell and her heart sank. Tears fell from her eyes and down her cheeks but she didn’t care. How could she get out?

She looked through the bars and yelped when she saw a giant shape moving inside. It traveled closer and Fuu jumped away from the bars with a scream. She landed on the floor and looked up at the hulking beast.

Her first thought was that the creature looked like a rhinoceros beetle. A soft orange glow emanated from behind the helmet that made up its head. Two giant pincers covered a mouth full of sharp teeth. It had six legs, three on each side. From farther back, Fuu saw six tails that looked like wings while its seventh tail grew from the end of its abdomen.

Fuu wanted to scream at the sight but her body refused to obey. She was glued to the floor and her throat was paralyzed. She waited for the beast to escape its cage and eat her.

“So you finally came!” it said in a sharp and grating voice. “I’m glad Isobu-kun set the message!”

Fuu unfroze. The beast sounded... happy?

“W-what?” Fuu asked dumbly. She stared wide-eyed at the giant insect. She heard a chattering noise that might have been giggling.

“I’m Lucky Seven Chomei!” the insect announced. “I told Isobu-kun to send a message for me since I couldn’t contact you directly yet.”

“I... I... My...” Fuu wanted to respond but her mind ran a mile a minute as it processed the new situation.

The insect giggled again. “I know your name,” it said with a chattering noise. “I’ve been watching you for a long time. I’m glad we could finally get to know each other.”

“I... I...” Fuu swallowed and cleared her throat. “Why did you call me here, Chomei-sama?” she asked.

“Ooh, polite aren’t you? You don’t have to be so formal! Just call me Chomei!” the insect said.

“Chomei?” Fuu repeated. Her experience in her own mind was getting more and more strange. I thought bijuu were supposed to be really arrogant.

“That’s me!” Chomei replied, its voice full of cheer. “I’m glad we finally got to meet each other, Fuu-chan! I guess you have a lot of questions for me? I’ll answer as best as I can before we get down to business.”

Fuu swallowed again as she tried to get her thoughts in order. She had a lot of questions, but she had no idea where to start. After some consideration, her brain caught onto one thing she had wondered since she heard Chomei speaking.

“Chomei,” Fuu began. “Are you a boy or a girl?” Their voice had sounded neither particularly masculine nor particularly feminine. She wasn’t sure how to refer to the insect and she didn't want to be impolite.

Chomei clicked its pincers together in a way that reminded Fuu of a human rubbing their chin in thought.

“I don’t really know,” Chomei answered eventually. “We bijuu are manifestations of chakra, so we don’t have gender the same way you humans do. My siblings have decided on genders for themselves though. I suppose if I were to choose, I would say that I’m both and neither.”

“Both and neither?” Fuu tilted her head to the side in confusion.

Chomei moved its head in a way that might have been a nod. “I am simply me. You may refer to me however you wish. He, she, it, they... it doesn’t matter. I am Lucky Seven Chomei and I can’t be categorized into a single box so easily.”

Fuu nodded. She hadn’t known it was possible to be anything other than a boy or a girl. It sounds cool though. “Okay, Chomei,” she answered.

“Good! Do you have anything else you want to know?”

“Uh...” Fuu racked her brain for ideas, but her mind drew a blank.

Chomei giggled again. “Don’t worry! Now that we’ve opened up communication, we can talk to each other without you needing to come to my space. You can ask me anything later.”

“Thanks, Chomei,” Fuu answered, smiling for the first time since she arrived at the prison. “Why did you want to talk to me?”

“Because of what you said to that brat!” Chomei answered cheerfully as it slithered closer to the bars to inspect Fuu. “Don’t you remember? ‘I bet my bijuu is really nice but since no one has ever talked to it, everyone thinks it’s evil!' It was one of the best things I’ve heard in a long while.”

“Thanks!” Fuu answered with a smile. She was glad to see her indignation had been for something. “Why did you send the message through Yagura-san, though?”

“Our seal doesn’t permit it,” Chomei explained. “I couldn’t talk to you unless you talked to me first. Since I didn’t know when that might happen, I asked Isobu-kun to send a message for me.”

Fuu nodded. "I see."

“I’ve been watching you try to get into the archives,” Chomei continued. “Your chakra control is too weak to climb up and the distance between the tree and the window is too wide to jump. But I know of a way to help you with that.”

“Oh?” Fuu asked. Her bijuu was much nicer than she had expected. “Well, I’m glad we could talk! I was a little afraid of meeting you, Chomei, because Shukaku is really mean to Gaara and Mama says his bijuu is really stubborn.”

“Mama?” Chomei clicked their pincers together.

Fuu nodded. “Roshi-san. He has the Four Tails. He says he has a monkey bijuu and that it’s rude and mean.”

Chomei made a chattering sound that Fuu realized was laughter. “I’m not surprised! Shukaku has always been an impulsive idiot while Son is too arrogant for his own good,” Chomei said. “Don’t worry! You have Lucky Seven Chomei at your side! We can do amazing things together.”

Fuu nodded and beamed at her bijuu. “So you want to thank me for what I said to Shibuki?” Fuu asked with a tilt of her head.

“I do, but there’s more to it than that,” Chomei fluttered its wings. “I have a plan to help you get into the archives.”

“A plan?” Her heart began beating frantically. She had been trying for almost a week to sneak into Hisen’s office but had failed every time.

Chomei nodded and stared into her eyes. Their pincers shifted into what could almost be described as a smile. “Yes,” they said. “I’m going to teach you how to fly.”

O-O-O

Fuu stood under the window to Hisen’s office once again. For the past week, she had been getting to know Chomei. They were funny and interesting, often interrupting lectures in school to tell Fuu a story or add information. The only downside was that Hana and Rin had been giving her weird looks whenever she giggled to herself.

'I got lucky with my bijuu.'

'You sure did, Fuu-chan!' Chomei replied. Fuu smiled to herself.

She breathed in and out to calm her nerves. Around her was a thick blanket of snow. Anyone with half a brain had already gone inside where it was cozy and warm. Fuu, meanwhile, had mild treason to commit.

'You will feel a pull of chakra. Focus on that pull and my tails will appear as physical manifestations,' Chomei said.

Fuu closed her eyes and concentrated. Within seconds, she felt a source of chakra that felt simultaneously new and familiar. Wary, she called the chakra to her, letting it travel through her body and settle at her waist.

She breathed out and opened her eyes. She looked down. Her body floated a few inches off the ground because of the insect wings that had sprouted from her lower back.

'I told you I could teach you,' Chomei’s voice said smugly.

'Thank you, Chomei!'

'You’re welcome!' Chomei answered. 'Now, practice flying a little. You don’t want to crash into the window and leave a trail!'

Fuu knew she had the best bijuu. What tailed beast could teach their jinchuuriki how to fly?

Willing her new wings to obey, she floated higher up. To her surprise and amazement, when she looked down, the ground was farther away than before. Determined, she moved her wings to take her over the tree, where she hovered for a few seconds. The wings obeyed her every command. Full of curiosity, she tested her wings. To her delight, they were easier to control than she had expected. Was Chomei helping her out?

From the tree, she flew through the sky, ascending and descending as she wished. She did a taijutsu kata in the sky and found it almost easier than if she were on the ground. She struggled to hold back her laughter and instead chuckled as silently as possible. Flying is the best!

'Didn’t you have a mission?' Chomei’s shrill voice interrupted, voice full of amusement.

'Argh! I almost forgot!' Fuu heard Chomei chuckling at her words.

Chastened, Fuu descended slowly and hovered next to the window to the archives. She checked for traps or alarms but saw nothing.

'Hisen-sama needs better security.'

'No kidding. Any half-decent shinobi who knows how to walk on walls could sneak in and steal intel. You should tell your village leader to be more careful.'

'But then, how would I get in?'

'Good point. Now, open the window and go inside. I don’t think we have any time to waste.'

Fuu opened the window cautiously, waiting for a trap she might have missed. Nothing attacked and she could only hear her own breathing and the breeze from outside. She sighed in relief as she climbed through the window and stepped inside.

‘If I were a scroll containing classified information about Takigakure missing-nin, where would I be?’ Fuu asked herself.

'Check the labels,' Chomei answered. 'Disturb as little as possible.'

Following their instructions, Fuu walked to the nearest stack of scrolls. She began to read through the labels. Trade. Taxes. Mission logs. Genin list. Chuunin list. Jounin list. Nothing looks promising.

'Don’t give up, there are a lot of books and scrolls to check through.'

Fuu nodded, although she knew that Chomei couldn’t see. She flew to look at the contents on one of the high shelves. Missing-nin, she read on the spine of a book. Her heart began beating faster in anticipation.

Hopeful, she took the book and floated back down to the ground. She took out a candle she had brought with her and lit it to read. She swallowed before opening the book to the first page.

'What are you looking for, anyway?' Chomei asked.

'Yagura-san said he saw a tall man with his face covered and green eyes. He said he looked really scary.'

'Good to know. I’ll help you look. We have two sets of eyes here.'

Fuu didn’t have a long time to read and she couldn’t risk taking the book with her. She scanned through the first few pages. But none of the pictures and drawings looked like what Yagura had described.

Losing her patience, she flipped through the most recent additions to the list. She tried not to despair as she moved further into the past. The list of Takigakure missing-nin was short— many already crossed out by Hisen or other previous village heads.

She was ready to close the book in frustration when she saw a drawing of someone who fit Yagura’s description.

'This is him!' she said to Chomei.

'Are you sure?' Chomei asked skeptically. 'This profile is ancient. He would be either an old man or dead already.'

Fuu frowned. Chomei’s words made sense. Yet, based on everything Yagura had said, he was the only person that looked anything like his description.

'Maybe Yagura saw his son or something?' She read the biography.

 

 

Kakuzu of Takigakure. S-Rank missing-nin. After a failed mission in Konoha, Kakuzu defected from Takigakure, killing the village elders and stealing their hearts. During his escape, he also stole the forbidden Earth Grudge Fear jutsu which grants him immortality by taking the still-beating hearts of other people. Approach with extreme caution.

 

Fuu’s heart beat faster and faster as she read through the profile. When she finished, she closed the book with shaking fingers as all the pieces fell into place. Fuu shivered.

'I hope I never run into him!' she said. 'Immortal and takes the still-beating hearts from people? What kind of monster is he? That’s why no one could find him in the newest version of the bingo books! He’s been a missing-nin for over sixty years!'

'I know! Talk about creepy!' Chomei added.

Fuu bit her lip before opening the book again. She read the short passage one more time, whispering the words to herself in order to memorize them. She couldn’t afford to miss any detail.

O-O-O

Naruto stared up at the entrance of the Academy and grinned.

He hoped he and Hinata would be in the same class. He hadn’t seen her since they met, but he wanted to keep their promise to be friends.

Around him, the other students entered the school, most being dropped off by relatives. He saw some older students returning from spring break, but the majority seemed to be new like him. A few appeared anxious about joining the school while others were as excited as he was.

With a spring in his step, Naruto stepped inside. He found the classroom the Hokage had told him about, Class 1-B, and entered. He was one of the first students there. Excited, he looked around to search for Hinata, but either she hadn’t arrived or was in another classroom. His heart sank, but he consoled himself with the knowledge that at least they could talk at lunchtime.

He sat down in the middle of the classroom and looked around at the other students. In the back corner was a boy with spiky hair yawning next to a chubby boy eating potato chips. At the front of the classroom was a dark-haired boy reading a book. Giggling girls surrounded him, trying to talk to him. But he only looked annoyed as he ignored them.

Naruto snorted. He didn’t understand what was so special about him. Already bored, he fidgeted in his seat and looked around the classroom. He wondered how much longer he had to wait for the teacher to arrive. He was eager to get started. He tapped his foot, shaking the desk, and received a glare from the girl sitting next to him.

“Eh, sorry,” he said while scratching the back of his neck in embarrassment. “Just a little nervous, ya know. I don’t suppose you want to be friends?”

“With you?” the girl scoffed and left the table, moving to sit somewhere near the front of the class.

Naruto felt his face heat up in embarrassment. Why did I expect anything different just because we’re now in school?

Frustrated, he glared at the chalkboard, hoping for their teacher to come in soon. I wish Gaara or Hinata were here.

To his relief, he didn’t have to wait long. A few minutes later, a kunoichi entered the classroom, holding a stack of books. She had wavy hair and wore oval glasses.

“Settle down, kids!” the woman yelled and dropped the books on the table with a thump. “My name is Suzume and you are to refer to me as Suzume-sensei, got it?”

“Yes, Suzume-sensei,” all of them answered.

“Good!” Suzume said with a pleased smile. “Now, before we start, I think we should all introduce ourselves. Please tell us your likes, dislikes, hobbies, and your dreams. I’ll start. I like flowers and flower arranging and dislike when men underestimate the power of a kunoichi. I enjoy reading and cleaning in my free time. My dream is to one day enjoy peace and tranquility in Konoha.”

From there, everyone took their turn to talk about themselves. Naruto listened intently, trying to remember everyone. Over time, however, their names started to blur as they moved through the classroom. He sat up curiously and made it a point to listen to the boy who had been surrounded by girls earlier. Is he a big deal or something?

“My name is Sasuke Uchiha,” the boy said. “I enjoy spending time with my brother and dislike weakness. In my free time, I train with my brother or my cousins. My dream is to one day be as strong as my brother.”

At the end of his introduction, a gaggle of girls sighed dreamily as Sasuke sat down. Naruto ground his teeth in annoyance. What the heck is with this guy? Why the fan club?

Eventually, it was Naruto’s turn, and he stood up. A few of the other children glared at him. Undeterred, he smiled at them.

“My name is Naruto Uzumaki,” he began. “I like ramen and spending time with Old Man Teuchi and Ayame nee-san. I don’t like the time it takes to make ramen. My hobby is training! And... gardening, I guess? My dream is to one day be the Hokage, ya know?”

A few of the children burst out in fits of laughter and Naruto felt his face go red, in anger or indignation, he wasn’t sure.

“You? Hokage?” a boy at the front said. “As if! You’re just a loser no one likes!”

Naruto grit his teeth and growled at the boy, fist raised. “Just watch! I’m gonna be Hokage one day and you’re gonna have to listen to me!”

Naruto looked at Suzume for help, but she said nothing, holding a hand up to her mouth to stifle her giggles. He looked around the room, but only the sleepy-looking boy, his friend at the back, and Sasuke were silent. With a huff of impatience, Naruto sat down, glaring at the desk.

“Now, now, children,” Suzume finally said. “We all have our... dreams. Let’s continue with the introductions.”

Defeated, Naruto placed his chin on the desk and tuned out everyone else. He only listened when the boy at the back introduced himself as Shikamaru, giving his likes as watching clouds and sleeping. His friend followed him, stating his name as Choji and his hobbies as eating. Naruto decided that once he was Hokage, he would make sure they only go on easy missions for not laughing at him.

The next few hours were some of the most excruciating in his short life.

Once they finished with introductions, Suzume handed out their textbook. She explained that they would spend the morning practicing their reading and writing skills. Naruto felt panic in the pit of his stomach. He was terrible with kanji and characters always seemed to turn around and move whenever he had to read. He was fine reading by himself because he could take as much time as necessary. He dreaded having to read out loud in front of others.

Eventually, Suzume called on him to read and Naruto stood up with the book in shaking fingers. He cleared his throat, but he was only delaying the inevitable. He tried to read well, but he stumbled often and his speed was slow. When he finished the passage, he slumped down on his chair and he heard the others giggle at his misery.

He only perked up when it was Sasuke’s turn to read, hoping for the other boy to fail. But the other boy read the passage perfectly, not making a single mistake. When he finished reading and sat down, he heard sighs of admiration from not only the girls, but the teacher and some boys as well. Naruto ground his teeth.

After reading, they moved onto math and Naruto had never felt more stupid. At least with reading, he could guess what the next character was. For math, he understood nothing and the teacher refused to explain anything to him. Suzume only slowed the pace when Shikamaru raised a hand and asked her to explain, giving him time to catch up.

When the bell rang to release them from lunch, Naruto breathed a huge sigh of relief. That was terrible.

He waited for all the other students to run out before leaving the classroom with the lunchbox Roshi had forced him to make. He peered out of the door and turned his head to glance down the hallways. He found Hinata standing at the end of the hall, a small bento box clutched in her hands.

“Hinata-chan, Hinata-chan!” he yelled as he ran up to her with a grin. “You’re here too! Do you wanna eat lunch together?”

“Naruto-kun?” Hinata looked almost surprised to see him and she glanced down at her feet. “You remember me?”

Naruto snorted and grabbed onto her hand. “Of course I do. We’re friends now, ya know?”

“F-friends?”

“Friends!” Naruto started to lead her away before remembering that she hadn’t accepted his offer. A feeling of shame settled into the pit of his stomach and he let go of her hand. “I mean... if you want.”

He readied himself for rejection, but Hinata squeezed his hand instead. “Friends,” she said with a smile.

Feeling happy for the first since school started, he returned her smile. Side by side, they walked out to the courtyard. They sat down at a bench away from most of the students.

Naruto’s food was simple: rice with a hardboiled egg, furikake, and steamed vegetables he had promised Roshi to eat. It was basic but filling. In comparison, Hinata’s bento looked like a professional had prepared it. Naruto couldn’t help but feel a little jealous. He would ask Roshi to teach him how to make those egg omelets later.

Naruto and Hinata talked about their day, comparing their experiences so far. Hinata’s class was friendly according to her. Nothing interesting had happened except for a boy named Kiba jumping up on the desk. She let Naruto rant about his experience, sympathetic to his plight.

“You can be the Hokage, Naruto-kun,” she said with a smile.

Naruto grinned in return. It was nice to see his dream validated by someone that was not a jinchuuriki. They spend the rest of their lunch break talking about whatever came to mind. He learned about Hinata’s baby sister Hanabi, whom she adored, and about the rest of her family, including her strict father and gentle mother.

When the bell rang to indicate the end of their lunch break, Naruto didn’t want to leave. Could he ask the Hokage to transfer him to Hinata's class?

Naruto and Hinata walked back together, chatting, before waving goodbye at each other. Naruto gulped before stepping back into the classroom. He wanted to leave and run back home. But Yugito had threatened to teach him how to play the shamisen if he ever skipped class. Her threats were always real, too.

He entered the classroom to find it in chaos. The students were rowdier after their lunch break and they all turned to sneer at him as he walked in. He forced himself not to flinch under their gaze. Keeping his head high, he sat down at his desk, staring intently at his nails and waiting for Suzume to come back.

The afternoon passed by in the same way as in the morning. Naruto was confused by new kanji and the characters continued to turn around whenever he tried to read.

But once Suzume moved onto talking about practical aspects of shinobi life and history, Naruto breathed a sigh of relief. He had eight other people lecturing him about what it was like to be a ninja. He sat up eagerly at the change of topic.

“Now, who can tell me who the first Hokage was?” Suzume asked with the air of someone not expecting anyone to know. No one answered as they all racked their brains.

“Yes, Naruto, do you have a question?” she asked when Naruto raised his hand.

“Hashirama Senju,” Naruto answered.

“What?” Suzume blinked and all the students turned to look at him. Naruto tried not to squirm under their gaze.

“Hashirama Senju,” Naruto repeated. “He was the first Hokage. He founded Konoha with his friend Madara Uchiha and his brother Tobirama Senju. He was called the God of Shinobi. His younger brother eventually became the Second Hokage. When Madara Uchiha rebelled, he was forced to fight and defeat his friend.”

The classroom was silent at Naruto’s answer. He tensed under their stupefied reactions as he looked around the classroom. Shikamaru gave him a calculating look from the back of the class. Meanwhile, Sasuke scowled for some reason that Naruto couldn’t begin to comprehend.

“Th-that’s right,” Suzume said, pushing her glasses up in surprise. “How did you learn about that, Naruto?”

“Read it in a book.” Naruto shrugged. Han taught me. He forced me to buy a book about the history of Konoha and tell him about everything I read.

“As if! You can’t even read, you idiot!” one student said. Naruto felt his face burn in a combination of anger and embarrassment.

The rest of the class burst into laughter and it took a while for Suzume to calm everyone. Defeated, Naruto refused to answer any other questions, even though he knew the answers to almost everything Suzume asked.

The rest of the day dragged on. Naruto breathed a huge sigh of relief when the bell rang to release them for the day. He stood up to leave.

“Wait, kids!” Suzume yelled and everyone turned to look at her. “Before I forget, we will have a physical exam on Saturday! We will test your physical conditioning and set a baseline for improvement. We will also have our first practice match. We may force any students who do not meet the basic standards to leave the school.”

A few of the children muttered amongst themselves nervously at the announcement. Shikamaru, meanwhile, only yawned and walked out. Chouji followed close behind him eating a bag of chips. Sasuke nodded solemnly at the news before glaring at Naruto and walking out. Naruto only shrugged. A fitness test? It would be a piece of cake.

He ran out of the classroom and went on the lookout for Hinata. But when he found her, the same teenager from before was leading her out by the hand. He only managed to shout goodbye before she disappeared among the crowds, waving at him.

With a pout, Naruto crossed his arms in front of his chest and began to head home. But before he could leave, he felt someone pulling him back by the elbow.

“How do you know about Madara Uchiha?” Sasuke glared at him, a furious frown on his face.

Naruto blinked. “What?”

“I said, how do you know about Madara Uchiha?” Sasuke asked again, narrowing his eyes in suspicion.

Naruto snorted. “I read it in a book. What does it matter, anyway?” Naruto tried to shake Sasuke off, but he pulled him back.

“How is an outsider like you familiar with my clan’s history?” he demanded. “Outsiders aren’t supposed to know about our clan.”

“So what if I know?” Naruto retorted. “What do you want me to do? Erase the information from my mind?”

“Tell me the truth! There is no way you learned about Madara in a book!” Sasuke shouted. “You don’t even know how to read!”

Naruto growled and grabbed onto the front of Sasuke’s shirt. He clenched his teeth and watched as Sasuke glared at him. “I know how to read, ya know! It just takes me a while!”

Sasuke grunted and grabbed onto Naruto’s shirt as well. Frustrated with the events of the day, Naruto got ready to punch Sasuke in the face. From the look in Sasuke’s eyes, he could tell that his classmate felt the same way.

“Sasuke! What are you doing?” a feminine voice interrupted.

Both Naruto and Sasuke froze. They turned to look at the source of the voice. A pretty woman with long straight black hair walked closer. The look of disappointment in her eyes reminded Naruto of when Roshi had scolded him for eating only ramen for three days.

“Mom?” Sasuke asked with a start.

Naruto let go of his shirt and tried his radiate an aura of innocence. But he already knew that any adult would side with their own son over Naruto. He prepared himself for the familiar scorn from all the adults in his life. He stared at the ground and watched the woman’s sandals walk closer.

“Sasuke! Fighting on the first day?” she scolded. “Itachi and your father would feel so disappointed.”

“But, Mom!” Sasuke whined and Naruto glanced at him briefly and was glad to see the panic in Sasuke’s eyes. “He started it! He knows stuff about our clan! He knows about Madara Uchiha! He knows Madara was friends with the First Hokage!”

“And? That’s public information anyone can read in a book,” the woman answered with a heavy sigh. Naruto snickered. That’s what I said!

“But, Mom, I—”

“No excuses, Sasuke,” the woman interrupted. “I will speak to your father about this. Fighting over something so petty... Itachi would have never done that on his first day of school!”

Sasuke flinched back, and he stared down at his feet, the very picture of admonishment. Naruto couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for him. Hesitantly, he turned his gaze to look up at the woman.

From close up, she was prettier than she had appeared from a distance, with unblemished pale skin. She had large black eyes and her eyebrows were creased into a small frown as she stared at Sasuke. Side by side, the similarity to Sasuke was clear as day.

“I’m sorry about Sasuke,” the woman said with a small bow of her head in apology. “I was hoping he would make friends. What’s your name?”

“Naruto Uzumaki,” Naruto answered warily. He awaited the all too familiar glare but to his surprise, it didn’t come. Instead, he saw a flash of recognition in her eyes that was soon followed by a smile.

“Ah, Naruto-kun,” she said. “Please forgive my son. I was hoping you two would be friends.”

“Oh, uh... that’s okay,” Naruto answered, bewildered at her response. Where was the hate? Why didn't she tell Sasuke to stay away from him?

“My name is Mikoto Uchiha,” the woman introduced herself. “It’s very nice to meet you.” She looked back down at Sasuke and her gaze hardened. “Now, Sasuke, apologize to Naruto before we go home.”

Sasuke pouted and shifted his feet in anger. Nevertheless, he sighed, and he turned to Naruto. “I’m sorry,” he said insincerely.

“That’s okay,” Naruto answered politely.

“Hn,” Sasuke grunted as he turned around to leave.

With a sigh of exasperation, Mikoto watched Sasuke walking away. She looked down at Naruto and smiled. Naruto felt shivers of some indescribable emotion course through his body. People aren’t usually so nice to me.

“It’s very nice to meet you, Naruto-kun,” she said. “I hope one day you and Sasuke will be good friends.”

“It’s nice to meet you too, Uchiha-san,” he answered while scratching the back of his neck self-consciously. “I... I don’t know if we can be friends though, ya know?”

She chuckled. “Well, I can always hope.”

She walked away, leaving Naruto standing near the exit of the Academy in confusion. He felt like she was someone he was supposed to know, but he didn’t have any idea why. Confused, he walked home, trying to put into words his feelings. He had a lot to tell the other jinchuuriki.

O-O-O

“And on top of all that, he accuses me of being unable to read!” Naruto ranted. Yugito, Yagura, Fuu, and Roshi listened attentively, offended on his behalf. They had been letting him vent for the past couple of minutes, wincing and muttering when appropriate.

“What an asshole,” Yagura said. Roshi glared at him for the foul language but Yagura only raised an eyebrow.

“I know!” Naruto crossed his arms across his chest and pouted. “But the look on his face when his mom made him say sorry was awesome, ya know!”

Fuu giggled and she leaned forward to ruffle his hair. “Reading is a little hard for me too, Naruto-kun,” she said. “Kanji is the worst!”

“Yeah, well, now everyone thinks I’m stupid,” Naruto complained. “Suzume-sensei asked a lot of questions I didn’t wanna answer cause they were just gonna make fun of me.”

The rest of the jinchuuriki winced.

“When do you start your shinobi training, Naruto?” Yugito asked, leaning casually back on the floor using the palms of her hands.

“Not until next year,” Naruto said. “We’re gonna have some kind of physical conditioning exam this Saturday, though. We’re gonna have a spar, too.”

“Sparring?” Yagura repeated before grinning. “How about I teach you a few tricks? Your classmates won’t make fun of you once they see how well you can fight.”

“You’d do that for me, Yagura-san?” Naruto looked at him admiringly. “Yugito and Fuu have been teaching me a little taijutsu already, ya know.”

“My style of fighting might not be what’s most suitable for you, Naruto-chan,” Yugito explained. “Yagura would probably be a better option. You are shorter than most of your classmates. You need techniques that can take advantage of that height difference.”

“Are you calling me short?” Yagura asked, annoyed.

“You are short, Yagura,” Roshi said with a smirk.

“Look who’s talking!” Yagura stood up to point at Roshi. “You’re only an inch taller than me at the most!”

“I think it’s more than that, Yagura-san,” Fuu added cheerfully.

Yugito snorted. “Roshi-san is definitely more than one inch taller than you, Mizukage-sama.”

Naruto watched the argument break out and grinned. He might only have Hinata in Konoha, but in the Room, he was never alone. With their help, he would dazzle everyone on Saturday and hopefully wipe the smug look off of Sasuke’s face.

Chapter Text

For Sasuke, the first week at the Academy was a dull affair.

He already knew everything they had covered so far, and he wished he could skip ahead a few years. Every day he was increasingly frustrated with all his classmates since no one else was on his level. The worst one was the loud blond boy named Naruto.

After demonstrating his inexplicable knowledge of Madara Uchiha and Hashirama Senju, he had only shown himself to be an idiot. He was loud and talked only about becoming the Hokage, despite being barely able to read. Sasuke tried to ignore him, but the other boy was too loud for him to tune out completely.

The only thing Sasuke had to look forward to was the fitness exam. According to Itachi, at least half of the students failed when they didn’t meet the benchmarks. After all, not everyone had the physical conditioning to become shinobi. Sasuke looked forward to never seeing the loudmouth ever again.

On Saturday morning, Sasuke was the first to arrive at the training grounds. He watched as the other children showed up one by one. Most fretted and muttered with their friends in nervous groups. A few did some stretching or warm-up exercises.

He looked around at some of his classmates and almost snorted. Except for some children from the clans of Konoha, he doubted anyone could come close to his level. He looked around once again and was unsurprised that Naruto had yet to show up. Figures. All talk and too chicken to show his face.

He waited impatiently for the teachers. One minute before the exam was set to begin, a streak of orange and yellow arrived panting at the training area. Naruto walked toward the heiress of the Hyuuga clan and collapsed on the ground next to her.

“Argh! Hinata-chan!” he yelled while wheezing. “I woke up late and I had to run over here!”

“Oh, Naruto-kun,” she said with a relieved smile as she squatted down next to him. “I was getting worried you wouldn’t come.”

Naruto grinned up at her, sweat dripping down his face.

“Should've stayed home,” a boy Sasuke didn’t care to remember said. “It’s not like you’re gonna pass, anyway.”

Angered, Naruto jumped up from the ground and shook his fist. “Wanna say that to my face?” he yelled. “I’m gonna be Hokage and there is no way I’m failing the exam, ya know!”

The boy and a few other children laughed at Naruto’s declarations and shook their heads. Naruto only looked angrier and the Hyuuga heiress placed a hand on his shoulder. In an instant, the boy calmed down and met the girl’s eyes with a bright smile.

“Don’t worry, Hinata-chan,” he declared. “I’m sure we’ll pass! We’re super strong!”

Sasuke held back the snort. He doubted either of them would be anywhere near what he could do. He was about to say something to the loser when a puff of smoke indicated their instructors' arrival.

“Good morning, kids!” a man with a scar across his nose and his hair pulled back in a ponytail greeted with a smile. “In case you don’t know me, my name is Iruka.”

“My name is Suzume,” Suzume-sensei added as she pushed her glasses up her nose.

“We will start with the cardiovascular portion of the exam,” Iruka-sensei said. “We have a 100-meter sprint first and will continue with a 5-kilometer endurance run. Are you ready?”

“Yes, sensei!” Naruto said with an excited grin. Iruka's eyes widened but he smiled at the enthusiasm. “Well, in that case, we will begin with the race. When I call your name, head to the starting line.”

Iruka called on the first ten students and made them run. When their times were recorded, he called upon the next set of ten.

Sasuke watched the other children in disinterest. Most were as slow as they looked, but a few exceeded his expectations. A boy from the Inuzuka clan sprinted the distance within a few seconds without breaking a sweat. The heiress from the Hyuuga clan and a girl from the Yamanaka clan also got decent results. Everyone else, however, was mediocre at best. He waited impatiently for Iruka to call out his name as he tuned out everyone else.

“...Sasuke Uchiha, Naruto Uzumaki...” Iruka called out a few other people, but Sasuke didn’t care about them.

Hands in his pockets, he walked to the starting line. Naruto was already there, bouncing excitedly with a stupid grin on his face. Sasuke wanted to punch him. At least starting next week, he wouldn’t have to deal with him anymore.

“On your marks!” Suzume shouted as all the students got into position. “Get set... go!”

Sasuke sprinted. He expected to leave everyone in the dust, but to his dismay, Naruto kept up the pace. Sasuke called upon an extra burst of speed, yet, he barely arrived at the finish line before Naruto.

He glared, panting, at the other boy and was mortified to see that Naruto was not even breathing hard. Instead, he stomped his feet, complaining about coming in second. How was he so fast? And why was he not winded?

Unnerved, Sasuke rejoined the other students. They whispered amongst themselves about Naruto’s results. Ignoring their classmates, Naruto joined the Hyuuga heiress’s side to talk. They chatted amicably as they compared results. For the first time, Sasuke wondered how two completely different people became friends.

“Well, we have the final results for the first test!” Suzume announced and the students turned to listen. “First place, we have Sasuke Uchiha with a record of 11.14 seconds. Second place...” Suzume paused to push up her glasses in disbelief, “we have Naruto Uzumaki with a record of 11.35 seconds. In third place, Kiba Inuzuka with 12.15 seconds.”

A lot of his fellow students congratulated Sasuke on the win. But he could only grind his teeth in frustration. He forced himself to maintain his calm facade. Naruto might have come close, but he was still the best one. No one would beat him in the other stages.

“Well, now that that’s settled,” Iruka said, “we will start the 5-kilometer endurance run. Everybody, please head to the starting line. Remember to pace yourself.”

Sasuke grunted in assent and walked to the starting position. When all the students had joined and Suzume had finished explaining their route, she shouted for them to start.

Predictably, the other students fell back and Sasuke took the lead. He smirked to himself. This is gonna be so easy.

A few seconds later, however, Naruto joined at his side with a mocking smile.

“Taking the lead early, huh,” he said while jogging. “You might be faster overall, but you can’t beat my stamina, ya know!”

With those parting words, Naruto surpassed Sasuke. Sasuke gritted his teeth and called upon extra speed. He caught up. Naruto lifted his eyebrows in surprise. Annoyed, he frowned and looked away from Sasuke to stare into the distance. Sasuke did the same.

For the first four kilometers, they ran side by side. But to his dismay, at the four-kilometer mark, Naruto turned to him, smiled, and sped up.

“Sensei said to pace myself,” Naruto yelled as he looked back at Sasuke and smirked. “Kiss my ass, jerk!”

With those words, Naruto sprinted away, leaving Sasuke behind. Sasuke clenched his fists in anger. He took a deep breath in and out and forced his legs to move faster. Despite his determination, he couldn’t catch up. The blond boy crossed the finish line almost a full minute before Sasuke did.

To add insult to injury, Naruto barely seemed winded while Sasuke had to make an effort not to collapse on the ground. He glared at Naruto, the palms of his hands on his knees as he tried to get his breath back under control. What kind of monster endurance does this idiot have?

Minutes later, the rest of the students crossed the finish line and joined them as they awaited the results. Suzume once again made the announcement. Sasuke forced himself not to glower at the results as everyone looked at Naruto with new eyes.

“W-well, let’s continue with the other exams,” Suzume said as she dealt with the unexpected results. “We will do some flexibility tests and strength tests. Then some weapons skills, and finally end with a practice spar.”

A few students groaned at her instructions. Sasuke knew that none of the complainers would return on Monday. Good riddance.

Naruto and Sasuke glared at each other as their teachers led them to a different part of the training area.

I’m gonna get the top score, Naruto’s eyes seemed to say.

Try it, loser, Sasuke wanted to respond.

They started their new tests. But despite their shared determination to surpass each other, Sasuke and Naruto were tied neck and neck. Sasuke forced himself to call upon more and more energy, but it was almost pointless. Naruto matched and sometimes exceeded his results.

While Sasuke broke the school’s push-up record through sheer force of will, Naruto won by balancing on the tightrope for longer than anyone else. Sasuke managed more pull-ups, but Naruto was much more flexible. Sasuke could lift more weight, but Naruto could climb a tree faster.

Because of his training with Itachi, Sasuke hoped to do better in the shuriken and kunai skills portion. But Naruto’s accuracy was admittedly amazing. While Sasuke was better with shuriken, Naruto had better control with kunai. To his dismay, Naruto managed to hit ten bullseyes to Sasuke’s eight.

A few of the weakest students had already given up and left, but Sasuke didn’t care about the losers. He only had eyes for Naruto. By the time the sparring sessions started, Sasuke was ahead of Naruto by only one challenge. It was a slim advantage and he vowed to win no matter what it took.

As they were led to the sparring grounds, Sasuke looked around at his classmates. The remaining students were ragged, covered in sweat, dirt, and blood. Even Naruto looked exhausted, face red with exertion and shirt stuck to his body with sweat. Sasuke dreaded to know what he looked like in the mirror.

“This is the last event of the day,” Iruka announced to the remaining students. “There will be no weapons or ninjutsu. Only taijutsu is permitted in these matches. Your opponents are randomized. Do no permanent damage and please try not to hurt each other too much.”

Everyone nodded obediently, too exhausted to speak. “Good!” Suzume said. “In that case, the first match is between...” she checked her clipboard, “Hinata Hyuuga and Ino Yamanaka.”

Two girls entered the arena to stand in front of each other. The blonde girl stood with her feet planted on the ground. She smirked while the dark-haired girl pushed her fingers together in a nervous gesture.

“Yeah! You can do it, Hinata-chan!” Naruto shouted from the crowd with a grin on his face.

Upon hearing those words, the girl stood up straight and fell into a fighting position. She bowed briefly to the Yamanaka girl, who blinked and followed her lead with a smaller bow. Suzume counted down and the fight began.

At first, the Yamanaka seemed to have the lead as she avoided the Hyuuga’s attacks without effort. But her evasions tired her out. At an opportune time, the Hyuuga hit the other girl on the shoulder. While it looked like only a glancing blow to him, the blonde girl shrieked in pain and fell to the ground, defeated.

The Hyuuga blinked in surprise at the victory and gave a small smile before helping the girl stand up. She bowed her head and together they linked their fingers together as a show of friendship.

The Hyuuga joined Naruto’s side and he started to gush about how “cool” she was. Sasuke tried to tune him out on principle, but the other boy was too loud to ignore completely.

He watched the other students fight. Some matches were unfairly one-sided while others are more interesting and took longer. To his disappointment, Naruto was not matched with Sasuke. Instead, Naruto was called forth to fight against the same boy that had teased him earlier in the day.

The boy gulped and shivered while Naruto smirked. It took only a few seconds for Naruto to take him out. Sasuke snorted. Naruto wouldn’t stand a chance against me, though.

Eventually, Sasuke was called to spar against a slim boy from the Nara clan. To Sasuke’s frustration, however, the boy surrendered immediately without a fight. He was forced to watch everyone else’s fun instead.

Finally, after hours of fighting, Iruka clapped his hands together. All the exhausted children turned to look at him.

“Everyone who is still here, congratulations!” he said. “I will now announce the final results and the top three winners. Depending on your performance for each test, you received a certain number of points. These points were added together with a possible total of 1000 points.”

He cleared his throat and glanced down at his clipboard. “First place, with 695 points out of a possible total of 1000...” Sasuke held his breath in anticipation. “We have Sasuke Uchiha! Congratulations! Second place, with 692 points, we have Naruto Uzumaki. Finally, in third place, we have Kiba Inuzuka with 668 points. Good job to everyone!”

The other students clapped their hands enthusiastically, looking at Sasuke in admiration. Despite their adoration, however, Sasuke couldn’t tear his eyes away from Naruto. Only three points difference? He gritted his teeth in frustration, his eyes focused on Naruto. The other boy glared back with his hands clenched into fists.

Iruka called out everyone else’s names, giving their point totals. He said that anyone with more than 400 points would be allowed to stay in the Academy. He heard sighs of relief from the majority of the remaining students. Iruka and Suzume dismissed them for the day. Before they left, they told them to rest up and get ready for class on Monday. They would be combined into one class now that the worst students had been culled.

With relieved sighs, the remaining students left, relieved and eager to rest. But, Sasuke could only grit his teeth in anger. How can a loser that can barely read do so well in these tests?

Forcing his face to remain neutral, he shoved his hands inside his pockets. He tried not to pout as he left the other students at the training grounds. Furious, he wandered the school grounds as a way to calm himself. Once everyone else had left, he headed back to the entrance, where his mother had promised to pick him up.

He sat down at the steps that led to the school. To his surprise, Naruto was nearby, sitting at a swing that hung from a tree a short distance away. The shade from the tree kept Sasuke from making out his features. Yet, based on his posture, he could tell that Naruto was staring at him.

“What are you looking at, loser?” Sasuke shouted with a frown.

“Nothing!” Naruto yelled. “What do you want with me, jerk?”

Angry, Sasuke stood up and stomped closer to the other boy. A three-point difference was almost nothing. He wished they had been chosen as sparring partners. Then we would know who is truly the strongest one.

He stared down at Naruto, who was sitting on the swing as he glared with all the seriousness possible in a six-year-old.

“Where the heck did you learn all of that?” Sasuke asked. “You don't even know how to read. How were you so good at everything?”

“I know how to read, jerk!” Naruto jumped up from the swing and grabbed onto the front of Sasuke’s shirt. “I’m not stupid, ya know!”

Sasuke snorted. “That’s not the impression I get.”

Sasuke was not sure who ultimately threw the first punch. It might have been him or it might have been Naruto. They might have started swinging at the same time for all he knew. Whatever the case, Sasuke felt a fist smash into his cheek and he winced in pain. He also heard the impact of his own fist on Naruto’s face as the other boy cried out in pain.

While Naruto recovered, Sasuke crouched down and tried to trip Naruto with a low kick. Instead of falling, however, the other boy jumped up and retaliated with an attack of his own. Sasuke flipped back and avoided a broken nose by inches. He fell back into the taijutsu stance Itachi had taught him.

Naruto held himself back as well, falling into an unfamiliar taijutsu position. They stared at each other, waiting for the other one to move first.

Sasuke leaped forward with a punch to Naruto’s face. Naruto dodged and tried to kick Sasuke from behind. Sasuke jumped up, putting his forearms to protect his face as Naruto went for his nose once again.

Sasuke landed on the ground gracefully and attacked. He tried a second low kick. He smirked when Naruto fell to the ground. But before Sasuke could press his advantage, Naruto rolled away. The other boy stood up, falling back into a taijutsu position.

Sasuke took a moment to catch his breath. He saw Naruto take a short rest as well. They stared at each other, waiting to see who would act first.

Sasuke inhaled. When he exhaled, he jumped up and headed toward Naruto, a fist extended toward his face.

As expected, Naruto caught his fist with the palm of his hand. Sasuke smirked. With the momentum from the jump, he twisted and kicked Naruto on the side of his ribs. He heard a grunt of pain as Naruto collapsed. Taking his chance, Sasuke expertly pinned down Naruto’s arms with the weight of his knees.

Naruto struggled from under him. But, Sasuke’s weight combined with the exercise from earlier in the day meant he was out of energy. Sasuke gulped down air, but grinned to himself in satisfaction.

“I guess we know who’s stronger now,” he boasted as Naruto growled under him.

“Asshole!” Naruto yelled. His eyes looked shiny, but Sasuke didn’t care to figure out why.

“At least I’m not a loser like you,” Sasuke retorted.

“Get off of me!” Naruto yelled. “Let’s try again!”

Sasuke grunted. “As if you stand a chance. I don’t want to— ”

Before he could complete his threat, a strong arm pulled Sasuke up and away. He glared at the person who interrupted and his heart sank into his stomach when he saw his mother.

“Sasuke! What’s wrong with you? Are you fighting again?” Sasuke struggled briefly, but his mother’s grip was made of iron.

Sasuke panicked as he looked up at his furious mother. After the first day of school, she had threatened him with severe punishment if she caught him fighting again. His father had gotten involved as well, admonishing Sasuke while also saying how Itachi would have never gotten into a fight with a random boy.

“We were only sparring, Mom!” Sasuke said, holding himself back from wincing at the obvious lie.

“Outside of class?” His mother raised an eyebrow as she stared him down.

Desperate, Sasuke turned to Naruto as a final option. “Sparring! Isn’t that right, Naruto?”

Naruto’s eyes widened in surprise and he looked at Sasuke speculatively. Sasuke almost winced when he saw his face. Naruto had a bruise forming in his eye that would certainly become a black eye. He was covered in dirt and his lower lip was cut and bleeding freely. If he looked like that, Sasuke was afraid to look in the mirror. Sasuke sent Naruto a pleading look. Please, just tell her we were sparring.

Sasuke saw Naruto considering his silent plea and watched as the other boy contemplated the issue. Time seemed to stretch on and Sasuke’s heart threatened to beat out of his chest. Please, please, please. I’ll get in so much trouble if she thinks I’m fighting.

Naruto smiled and Sasuke’s stomach flipped over itself in worry. “That’s right, Uchiha-san!” Naruto lied easily. “We were only sparring! I guess we got a little carried away, ya know!”

Sasuke wanted to breathe out a sigh of relief, but his mother still had her hand wrapped around his arm.

She hummed. “Is that so?”

“Yes, Uchiha-san,” Naruto said meekly as he bowed his head down in apology. “We’ll be more careful next time. Isn’t that right, Sasuke?”

“Y-yes.” Sasuke couldn’t help but stutter slightly in surprise. I can’t believe this loser is going along with this.

His mother raised an eyebrow in obvious disbelief and Sasuke’s heart threatened to beat out of his chest. But considering Naruto’s words, she seemed to find their excuse acceptable. Sasuke waited for what felt like hours for his mother to speak again.

“Well, in that case, you need to be more careful,” his mother said. “You can easily hurt each other if you don’t hold back. I think both of you are going to be bruised for a few days at the very least. It won’t look pretty.”

“Yes, mom,” Sasuke said in his meekest voice, burning up at the realization that Naruto was watching him.

“Of course, Uchiha-san!” Naruto said with a grin. To his surprise, Sasuke saw that one of his teeth was missing. He felt an involuntary pang of guilt. He hoped it would grow back quickly.

His mother shifted her gaze between them, trying to get either one to crack, but Sasuke was silent and Naruto only smiled. The gap caused by his missing tooth only served to make him look more innocent.

After what felt like ages, his mother sighed and finally let go of Sasuke’s arm. Sasuke forced himself not to rub at the place where her hand had been.

“Well, Sasuke, say goodbye to Naruto-kun,” his mother ordered. “And then we’re going home. I need to clean up those wounds before they get infected.”

Sasuke nodded obediently and turned his gaze toward Naruto. “I’ll see you later... Naruto.” Loser.

“See you later... Sasuke.” Jerk.

Sasuke turned to leave and his mother followed behind him with an exasperated sigh. Now that the adrenaline had run its course, he could fully feel the pain from the fight earlier. Sasuke might have won, but Naruto had put up a fair fight. Based on how Naruto looked, he was no doubt covered in bruises, cuts, and dirt.

When they arrived back at the Uchiha compound, his mother immediately shepherded him into the bathroom. There, she cleaned his injuries and lectured him about fighting carelessly. Sasuke tuned her out and nodded periodically to keep her satisfied.

At dinner, both Itachi and his father stared at his injuries but said nothing. His mother sighed and shook her head slightly when it seemed like his father was about to speak. Sasuke flushed at the knowledge that his parents would be talking about him later. He went to bed early, exhausted from a long and painful day.

On Sunday, he woke up sore. He cleaned his injuries like his mother had shown him. He spent most of the day in his room, reading books and playing with Itachi’s hand-me-downs. His family said nothing about his injuries. Even so, he could tell that they had discussed the situation somewhere outside of his hearing.

By Monday morning, the pain had barely lessened. He walked alone to school. He sat down at the front of the new classroom now that the two classes have been grouped into one.

He could tell that his classmates were looking at him in curiosity but Sasuke refused to acknowledge their attention. He stared determinedly at the blank blackboard, trying to project an aura of boredom.

It didn’t take long for someone to stand in front of his desk, blocking his view. With an exasperated sigh, he looked up at the face of the person in front of him. He blinked as he took in Naruto.

To his absolute annoyance, Naruto looked completely unmarred, his split lip and black eye already healed. Only his missing tooth remained as evidence of their fight. How was that possible? Did Naruto have some sort of kekkei genkai?

To his surprise, Naruto sat down at the bench next to him and Sasuke turned to look at him. He waited for Naruto to speak and enjoyed watching the other boy squirm as he got his words in order.

“What do you want, loser?” Sasuke finally asked once he saw that Naruto refused to talk.

Instead of the familiar anger, Naruto only looked uncomfortable. “I just... wanna know if you want to practice sparring after class, ya know?”

Sasuke blinked. “Practice?”

Naruto nodded. “Practice. You’re stronger than me right now, but one day, I’m gonna beat you!”

It was Sasuke’s turn to blink. “I thought you hated me.”

“I kinda do, but I can admit when I need more practice. What d’ya say?”

Sasuke huffed. "Fine. Just don’t slow me down.”

“Thanks, jerk,” Naruto said with a roll of his eyes. “I need to be the strongest person if I ever want to be Hokage, ya know!”

With that final message, he left Sasuke’s side to sit somewhere in the middle of the classroom. Sasuke almost wanted to turn around and look, but he had some pride left. He sighed and waited for class to start.

O-O-O

Gaara liked ninjutsu training with Baki more than he had expected.

While the other jinchuuriki had already taught him some of the basics, with his time limit, he preferred playing more than training with them. Baki, on the other hand, focused exclusively on ninjutsu. He tasked him with exercises to improve his sand control and lectured him about chakra.

He had given Gaara a large gourd where he could store his chakra-infused sand. At first, Gaara struggled to lift it, until he figured out that the sand could carry itself. After that, he took his large gourd everywhere he went.

“Your control is improving remarkably fast, Gaara-sama,” Baki commented. He watched as Gaara pushed the sand back and forth on the training grounds.

Gaara hummed in acknowledgment but said nothing. He never talked to Baki unless necessary. Baki fell silent as Gaara recalled the sand back into his gourd. He sighed, exhausted. It was sunset, and he had been practicing since dawn to improve his stamina. He stretched and turned to walk back home.

“Wait, Gaara-sama,” Baki called out.

Gaara stopped and turned to look at his teacher. For the first time in a long time, Baki looked nervous. His eyes darted back and forth as he refused to look Gaara in the eye. He sighed and walked closer.

“Your father made a request for your presence, Gaara-sama,” he said, meeting Gaara's eyes.

Gaara felt a surge of anger. The sand inside the gourd swished back and forth. Baki flinched at the sound and Gaara forced himself to exhale and for his mind to go blank. The sand settled down.

“My father?” Gaara asked with forced calm.

Baki nodded, relieved at his student’s self-control. “He wishes to speak to you about taking your first mission.”

“First mission?” Gaara was curious despite himself. Even Fuu hadn't gone on her first mission yet.

“Yes, Gaara-sama. He thinks that you are ready to complete your first official mission as a shinobi of Sunagakure.”

Gaara hummed to himself before nodding. Baki sighed with obvious relief and together they ran to the Kazekage’s office. The man held the door open for Gaara as they entered.

“Kazekage-sama,” Baki greeted and bowed down to his father. Gaara stayed silent and still.

“Baki, Gaara,” the Kazekage said. “I believe I have the perfect mission for you to get started.”

“Of course, Kazekage-sama.”

His father nodded. “Good. It’s a simple task. We received reports that a group of bandits is attacking merchants traveling from the capital. They have been disturbing the commerce routes. Your mission is to locate and eliminate them.”

With that, the Kazekage extended a small scroll with more relevant information. Baki took it and started to read. “Are they shinobi or civilians?” he asked.

“We have received no sign that they have any shinobi among them,” his father answered. “They have only attacked civilians without armed escorts.”

Baki nodded. “When shall we set out, Kazekage-sama?”

“Tomorrow evening. You need time to prepare and all reported attacks have occurred in the evening or at night.”

“Of course, Kazekage-sama.” Baki bowed down and left.

Gaara followed behind his teacher immediately. He didn't want to spend any more time than necessary inside the office. His father said nothing but Gaara could feel his gaze on his back. Baki led them back to Gaara’s house.

“I will teach you how to prepare for a mission outside of the village, Gaara-sama,” Baki said when they arrived home. “What supplies do you think are most necessary for this mission?”

With that opening question, Baki started the lesson, helping Gaara prepare everything. Gaara listened attentively, focusing on survival techniques for the desert. He needed to know for the inevitable day he left the village.

O-O-O

After the lesson ended and preparations are complete, Baki went to his own home to sleep. Impatient and bored, Gaara could only wait for their mission to start. He visited the Room to talk to the other jinchuuriki, where they played and talked. When they went to sleep, he practiced his sand control simply to have something to do.

When Baki finally returned to start the mission, Gaara followed at his heels as they left the village.

Away from Sunagakure, the desert was beautiful and empty. He breathed the clean, dry air. For a second, he felt completely at ease. There were no angry people in his vicinity or anyone to call him a freak. He could live in the desert for the rest of his life.

Where would you find water, though? And food? Where would you live? His thoughts brought him back to reality and he looked down at his feet. He couldn’t afford to get his hopes up.

“Reports say the previous attacks happened in this area,” Baki explained as they walked on the road that connected Suna with the capital. “We will pretend to be travelers and wait for the bandits to come out.”

With that announcement, Baki took out a sealing scroll. With a pulse of chakra and a puff of smoke, their disguises appeared. Baki took out two traveling cloaks, one of which he passed to Gaara to cover his distinctive hair and gourd. Baki opened a second scroll to release a wagon that looked full of expensive trinkets.

Baki looked at Gaara critically and nodded. “You look like a merchant’s son,” he said. “Stay close to me. We'll travel along the road and wait for anyone to attack.”

Gaara nodded. Baki gave him a rare smile and walked on the road, pulling the wagon behind him, Gaara walking beside him.

It didn’t take more than an hour for someone to attack. As they walked under the light of the full moon, a person holding a cheap sword jumped in front of Baki.

“Stop and hand over the wagon if you don’t want to get hurt,” the man threatened.

“W-what do you want with me?” Baki pretended to stutter. “Please, don’t hurt my son! I’ll do anything you want!”

The bandit smirked. “Good to hear, now step away from the wagon and we’ll let you go.”

Baki followed the instructions, motioning for Gaara to step back. The bandit chuckled and stepped forward to collect his loot.

“See? That was very easy, wasn’t—”

Before the man could complete his boast, Baki threw a kunai. It hit the man through the eye, killing him instantly. Gaara heard an angry shout and two more men jumped out from behind the dunes.

Gaara had no chance to strategize. His sand rushed out from his gourd and floated to attack the two new men, wrapping itself around them. They froze and looked pleadingly into Gaara’s eyes.

“Wait! Please! Stop! I don’t want to die!” one man yelled while the other one sobbed like a child. Gaara hesitated. It was too easy. Why was it so easy?

“Gaara...” Baki said.

Gaara looked up at his teacher. Baki nodded and Gaara gulped. He knew what he had to do.

The two men cried and begged for their lives, but Gaara had an order, and he knew he had to follow it. He couldn’t afford to turn against his father yet. At the very least I can make this as painless as possible.

Gaara clenched his hands into fists. Immediately, the world fell into absolute silence. Even his heart seemed to have stopped beating. He stared as the blood seeped into the desert sands.

It took a few seconds for his sense of hearing to come back. It took longer to realize the sand had floated back into the gourd without his conscious control. Baki walked to stand at his side.

“Good work, Gaara-sama,” Baki complimented.

Gaara nodded in acknowledgment, feeling strangely heavy. He wasn’t sure if he could speak even if he wanted to. It’s too easy. No one told me it would be so easy.

Baki stared at Gaara speculatively and Gaara stared back solemnly. They looked at each other for a few seconds in unnerving quiet. Why is everything so quiet?

“What’s the name of that technique, Gaara-sama?” Baki asked, breaking the silence.

Gaara mulled over the question. “Sand Coffin,” he decided.

Baki nodded. “How are you feeling, Gaara-sama?” he asked. “Do you feel anything about your first mission?”

Yes, I do. But Gaara only shook his head. He wanted to talk about his first official kill with somebody, but he couldn’t trust anyone in Sunagakure. The other jinchuuriki were the only ones that might understand why his mind and body felt so numb.

Baki opened his mouth as if to speak before reconsidering. With a nervous gulp, he opened the sealing scroll again. With a puff of smoke, all of their supplies for the mission disappeared. He took out three new black scrolls to put away the corpses.

Gaara watched him impassibly as he worked. There was something different but he couldn’t put his finger on why. It was only when Baki had packed up and they had turned back home that Gaara realized why everything felt so quiet. Shukaku.

Ever since the kill, the beast had been silent. He heard no insults, threats, or growls. The only things he could hear were the gentle desert breeze and the sound of their footsteps on the road. The silence was disturbing and Gaara didn’t know what to make of it. Was that what normal people heard?

The beast was quiet until they reached the outer gates of Sunagakure.

‘Thanks for the offering, little boy,’ Shukaku said. ‘I’ve been missing the smell of blood.’

Gaara shuddered. He hoped that Baki dismissed his reaction due to the dropping temperature.

‘What do you want?’ Gaara asked the tanuki spirit.

‘Give me more blood. That’s the only thing I want. I’ll even pretend be your mother if you want, so long as you give me blood.’

Gaara ignored the bijuu with practiced ease. Nevertheless, the words struck fear into his heart. The beast would only be quiet and satisfied if it received blood offerings? Gaara doubted that would happen often.

After passing through the gates of the village, Gaara expected Baki to dismiss him and for them to go their separate ways. But instead his teacher signaled for him to wait. 

“Gaara-sama, there is only one thing we must do before we part ways.”

“What is it?” Gaara turned to look up at the man.

“We must give our mission report. Your father also made a request for our presence once the mission was finished.”

Gaara’s heart began beating faster and the sand inside the gourd swished back and forth. He clenched his hands into fists and looked impassively up at Baki. “Why?” he asked.

“He wished for you to meet your siblings, Gaara-sama,” Baki answered. “He wants all of you to work together as a team.”

“My siblings?” Gaara racked his brain to remember any information about them. From his birth, he had always been isolated, with only ANBU and his uncle to keep him company.

“Yes, Gaara-sama,” Baki answered. “He believes that your brother and sister would be suitable as your teammates.”

Gaara nodded hesitantly as he started walking toward his father’s office. Baki followed close behind him in silence. Gaara’s stomach turned over itself and a wave of nausea hit him. It was an uncomfortable feeling, but he didn’t allow it to show on his face. The knowledge that he had siblings had always been there. His uncle had mentioned them a few times, although they had never met in person. After his uncle’s death, he had seen two children a few times at his father’s side from a distance. So those were my brother and sister. I’m finally going to meet them.

Together, Baki and Gaara entered the Kazekage’s office, Baki holding the door open once again. He looked up at his father, who sat at the desk with his arms crossed in front of his chest. Two children stood beside him, both squirming and nervous but trying not to show it.

“Gaara, come closer,” the Kazekage ordered.

“Yes, Father,” Gaara said, biting the inside of his cheek to keep himself in check. He stepped closer and stared at the two children to avoid looking at his father.

“These are your brother and sister, Gaara,” the Kazekage explained. “Your sister Temari and your brother Kankuro. You three will work together under Baki’s supervision and complete missions for the village. Am I to be understood?”

Gaara nodded obediently, but he refused to turn his gaze away from his siblings. They shuddered under his gaze.

His sister appeared to be Fuu’s age, but slightly taller and stockier. Her blonde hair was tied back into four pigtails at the back of her head. She smiled at him, but he could tell that it was fake. His brother, covered in face paint typical of puppet trainees, was nearly the complete opposite. Unlike their sister, he had his arms crossed in front of his chest and he glared at Gaara with fear and anger.

“Hello, Gaara,” Temari broke the silence, nodding her head slightly. “F-father told me we would be in a team! I hope we can work well together!”

Gaara hummed as he turned his gaze toward his brother. Kankuro’s frown deepened, and he only grunted at Gaara. Gaara looked at his siblings for a few seconds more before turning around and leaving.

“Don’t get in my way,” he told them as he departed.

The two children were his brother and sister, but they had done nothing for him and he doubted they ever would. They were only two more people from the village to hate.

Chapter Text

Because the two classes were joined together, Naruto sat next to Hinata every day.

Every morning and during the breaks, they talked about whatever came to mind. She told him about her family: a distant father, a busy mother, and a precocious sister. In exchange, he talked about learning to cook and clean in his apartment. During the lessons, she whispered help whenever he got confused. Likewise, he helped her with the material about history. Hinata was definitely his favorite person in the class.

As for Sasuke, Naruto didn’t know if he liked or hated the guy. After their fight, they glared daggers at each other every single chance they got, only exchanging a few tense words. But despite their animosity, they met every day after school to spar and practice. Yugito had told him to keep his friends close and his enemies closer. While Naruto agreed with her sentiment, he was not sure if he would classify Sasuke as an enemy yet.

To their mutual dismay, they were matched nearly neck and neck in skill. Sasuke was strong and fast, able to disarm and pin Naruto to the ground within seconds. But whenever their spars lasted for longer than a few minutes, Sasuke tired quickly, allowing Naruto to win.

On days in which they didn’t spar, they worked on their shuriken and kunai skills. Naruto was much better with the larger weapons, achieving close to pin-point accuracy. He enjoyed watching Sasuke seethe at being outdone and bragged whenever he could.

“You’re holding the kunai wrong, jerk!” Naruto yelled at him after watching him try and fail for the tenth time. “You’re not accurate because you’re too tense! You have to relax your grip!”

“Don’t tell me what to do, loser!” Sasuke yelled back. “My brother told me this was the correct way and he’s the strongest ninja in my entire clan!”

Naruto snorted. “Then your brother is stupid, ya know.”

“What’d you say about my brother?”

“I said your brother is stupid!” Naruto yelled. “I’m better at kunai, so you should listen to me!”

Sasuke gritted his teeth. He lunged at Naruto, throwing the kunai to the ground, weapon forgotten. Naruto prepared himself for a fight. In the end, Sasuke emerged victorious, forcing Naruto to admit that his brother was not stupid. They said goodbye to each other curtly, promising to get together the next day.

Through their rivalry, they forced each other to improve. Naruto whined to Hinata and the jinchuuriki about Sasuke. Yet, part of him couldn’t help but enjoy his company. It wasn’t like there were other people to spar with, considering how Hinata always went home right after class.

He also liked his new teacher, Iruka. The man was a lot kinder to Naruto than the other adults he’d met. He didn’t mock him whenever he struggled in class. He also discouraged teasing, greatly improving Naruto's overall experience.

Naruto even looked forward to their first exam. He struggled when reading and writing. But with more time to think and sound the words out to himself, he was more than ready for anything.

O-O-O

With fewer children, Iruka and Suzume’s classes were combined into one. Suzume became the specialist kunoichi instructor. Meanwhile, Iruka would teach the newest crop of Academy students. It was a difficult task, but Iruka was ready for the challenge. He was not ready, however, to be the teacher for the Kyuubi.

His name was Naruto Uzumaki and he was much smaller than he had anticipated.

Iruka observed Naruto every day, looking for any hint of the demon that killed his parents. But all he saw was a loud and overly confident boy.

Like everyone else, Iruka had been surprised during the physical trials. Naruto had nearly tied with Sasuke Uchiha and he had surpassed everyone else. In the end, he had achieved one of the highest scores they had ever seen from a first-year student.

On Monday, Iruka re-introduced himself to the students and discussed their objectives. The boy looked at him with glittering eyes. Iruka smiled back. I shouldn’t underestimate him. He’s the Kyuubi.

Iruka didn’t know what to make of Naruto until he asked him to read a passage from their book for the first time.

Immediately, the boy’s face turned pale before shifting into a deep shade of red. Naruto stood up, refusing to meet Iruka’s eyes, before clearing his throat and reading.

“Uh... um... Hokage are... uh— res-respon-responsible for— most of the... uh... v-vill-village’s a-ff-air-s... uh... affairs!”

Naruto painfully stumbled through the paragraph. The entire classroom froze and Iruka felt tempted to interrupt and beg him to stop.

When Naruto finished, he collapsed on his chair with a heavy sigh. He gave Hinata an embarrassed smile while she placed a hand on his shoulder. Iruka, meanwhile, had to suppress the criticism threatening to burst out of his throat. How could you have so much trouble reading something so simple? There are only three kanji in that passage!

“Thank you, Naruto,” he said instead before looking around the classroom. “Well, Shino, would you please read the next paragraph?”

“Yes, Iruka-sensei.” Unlike Naruto, Shino read perfectly with no hesitation. Naruto hid his face behind his book while Hinata threw a concerned glance in his direction.

Iruka shook his head. Did the fox have anything to do with that?

Iruka observed Naruto for the rest of the week. At first, he wondered if the boy only struggled with reading. But, during their math practice, he made just as many mistakes. He also never spoke up during the lessons unless forced to participate. Instead, he stared at Iruka, refusing to actively engage with the material. Occasionally, he saw the boy staring out of the window or whispering with Hinata Hyuuga.

Two weeks after meeting Naruto, Iruka handed out their first test.

“Good luck, everyone!” Iruka cheered once all of the exams had been handed out. “Remember what we’ve learned so far! You can go home as soon as you finish and turn in your test.”

The students began. Predictably, Sasuke, Ino, Shino, and Hinata sped through the exam. Within minutes they were already on the second page. To his surprise, a small pink-haired girl sitting at the back answered faster than anyone else. She wrote so quickly that ink stained her nose.

Naruto, meanwhile, chewed on the back of his pencil as he mumbled to himself. He wrote down something and looked around. Iruka kept him under watch. Naruto paused to look out the window and around the room. He didn’t seem particularly concerned. Iruka dreaded to grade his exam.

The pink-haired girl, Sakura, finished the exam first. She scurried to Iruka’s desk with a blush, dropping off her finished test and running out. Shino followed a few minutes later, leaving the room without saying anything. One by one, the rest of the students finished and left until only Iruka and a handful of students remained.

When only three students remained, Naruto stood up with a grin to turn in his finished test.

“I finished, Iruka-sensei!” he shouted cheerfully. “I tried real hard, ya know!”

“I’m sure you did, Naruto,” Iruka answered with a fake smile. I’m going to suffer grading, aren’t I?

A few minutes later, the last of the students finished and left. Iruka sighed in relief before looking at the finished tests with a whine. He put Naruto’s exam at the bottom of the pile. Might as well save the worst one for last.

As expected, the children of clans had the highest scores. Sasuke and Ino had nearly perfect answers while Shino and Hinata trailed behind them. Even the lazier students like Shikamaru, Chouji, and Kiba managed above-average final scores.

But to his surprise, the highest grade went to the pink-haired girl Sakura. She rarely brought attention to herself, as she preferred to sit at the back and cover her face with her bangs. He hoped her performance would improve her confidence.

He smiled as he graded the exams. Everyone had gotten a passing score, with many students surpassing his expectations. I guess they’re paying attention to me after all.

His smile fell when he reached Naruto’s exam. He glared at the paper for a moment. He knew it would be full of mistakes. He sighed. Let’s just get it over with.

He read through the first answer. He read it again. He read it a third time. He blinked in surprise. It was correct?

Thinking that it was a fluke, Iruka skimmed through the rest. The majority was correct. All the answers about ninjutsu were perfect, as were the answers about history. In reading and literacy, there were only a few minor errors. Only the mathematics section had a couple of significant mistakes.

Iruka smiled at the test before realization set in and he snorted. There was no possible way for Naruto to get so many correct answers without cheating. The boy had been looking around the room during the exam, too. He definitely copied from someone else.

Iruka turned to the first page with a frown. Instead of writing a number as he did with the rest of the students, he wrote ‘See me after class’ in red ink. He sighed and leaned back in his chair. Why did he have to be the one teaching the Kyuubi anyway?

O-O-O

When he returned to class on Monday, Naruto wondered how well he did on the exam. He doubted he got the highest score, but he thought it was better than the average. Now I just gotta wait and see.

“How do you think you did, Hinata-chan?” he asked as he sat down next to her. “The math part was hard, ya know. But everything else was fine if I took my time.”

“I thought it was easy, Naruto-kun,” she answered. “There was only one question about history I couldn’t remember. What was the name of the Second Hokage?”

Naruto’s eyes lit up. “Tobirama Senju! He was the First Hokage’s younger brother.”

“Well, now I remember,” Hinata said with an exaggerated sigh. Naruto grinned. She was usually shy and quiet, so he enjoyed the rare glimpses of frustration.

“Good morning, kids!” Iruka entered while holding a folder full of papers under his arm. Naruto’s heart beat faster. The exams!

“Iruka-sensei!” a girl with short platinum-blonde hair stood up and yelled. “How did everyone do on the exams? Are we gonna get the scores back? Who got the highest score? Did anyone fail?”

Iruka scratched the back of his neck. “Don’t worry, Ino,” he said with a smile. “Everyone did pretty well, even better than I expected. I’ll give you your tests back at the end of the day. I won't publish the scores, but I will say that the person with the highest grade was Sakura Haruno.”

Confused, everyone turned their heads to search for the named student. After a few seconds, their eyes settled on a pink-haired girl sitting at the back of the classroom. With everyone’s attention on her, she yelped and looked down at her desk, face red.

Most of the students grumbled about a civilian girl getting the highest score as they glared at her. The girl seemed to shrink further into herself. Naruto frowned. The heck’s their deal? Are they jealous?

Iruka cleared his throat. “Well, yes, congratulations, Sakura,” he said. “Now I think it’s time to start class.”

“Yes, Iruka-sensei,” they replied as they settled back on their seats and got ready to begin.

Naruto listened to everything, although he refused to volunteer himself to answer. The other kids might not make fun of him anymore, but he didn’t want to call attention to himself. Being embarrassed once for answering a question was more than enough for one lifetime.

After what felt like forever, the day ended and Naruto looked forward to getting his exam back. Iruka handed the papers out one by one as he moved around the classroom. Most of the students cheered or laughed in relief. Hinata smiled at the 91 written at the top of her exam, eyes full of happiness. Sasuke stared at the number, face impassive before folding it in half. Shikamaru only yawned when he read the result, whatever it was. Chouji likewise glanced at it before shoving it inside his bag. Naruto received his exam last, face down. He flipped it over.

His heart sank. Instead of a number score, he only read “See me after class” written in large red characters. He scanned the front and flipped through the other pages, but there were no markings anywhere. With a frown, he stared at the exam, as if glaring would make a score appear.

The students around him packed up their materials and headed home, unaware of Naruto’s dilemma. Hinata beamed at him and waved goodbye. Naruto returned the greeting, but he was frozen to his seat. Why didn’t I get a score?

Naruto waited for everyone to leave before walking to stand in front of Iruka’s desk.

“What’s wrong with my exam, Iruka-sensei?” Naruto asked apprehensively, placing the exam between them on top of the desk.

Iruka let out a heavy sigh and he leaned back in his chair. “I know you cheated, Naruto.”

“Cheated?” Naruto's heart beat faster. I don’t get it.

Iruka nodded. “I don’t know if maybe you just didn’t know, but I don’t condone any sort of cheating during my exams. All work should be your own.”

“But... Iruka-sensei!” Naruto protested. “I didn’t cheat! I did everything on my own, ya know!”

“I wish I could believe that,” Iruka retorted. “But I never see you participate in class. The few times I call on you to answer a question or read a passage, your performance is mediocre at best. I simply can’t believe you could get this high of a score without copying from someone else.”

“But... I really didn’t copy anyone!” Naruto didn’t know if he wanted to cry or shout in frustration.

Iruka groaned with his arms crossed in front of his chest. “Look, Naruto, I know school can be hard, but I don’t condone copying from other students in my classes.”

“Iruka-sensei, I—”

“No excuses, Naruto!” Iruka interrupted before he had a chance to explain himself. “I won’t give you a punishment because this was the first exam. But if I catch you cheating again, then I’m going to tell the Hokage.”

Naruto’s stomach turned over itself. The Hokage? No! If he does that, then I won’t get my allowance anymore! And I won’t be able to get ramen!

Feeling trapped, Naruto nodded reluctantly. He took the exam back from the desk and shoved it inside his pocket, not caring about keeping it intact. He scowled at Iruka before stomping out of the classroom as fast as he could.

Furious, he ran to the training grounds, where he knew that Sasuke was already waiting. A spar is exactly what I need. I’ll win the fight no matter what it takes!

“What took you so long, loser?” Sasuke asked when he saw the glare on Naruto’s face.

“Nothing, jerk,” Naruto answered. “I’m just angry. I’m ready to fight.”

Sasuke obliged, lunging toward Naruto with a punch. Naruto dodged, but his mind was too furious to focus. Sasuke won within seconds, leaving Naruto lying down on the mud in defeat. Sasuke frowned but said nothing. He fell into a taijutsu stance and waited for Naruto to stand up and attack.

Their second fight began. Once again, Sasuke won in seconds, pinning down Naruto with his knees. Sasuke’s frown deepened and they fought again and again. They had five more spars before Sasuke stopped with a deep frown.

“Okay, loser, what’s wrong?” Sasuke asked as he glared at a defeated Naruto on the ground.

“Nothing’s wrong,” Naruto lied.

“You’re lying!”

“I’m not!”

“What’s wrong?” Sasuke repeated.

“Nothing!”

“Is it about the exam?” Sasuke asked.

Naruto couldn’t help but flinch and look away. He sat up and crossed his arms in front of his chest, looking anywhere but in Sasuke’s direction.

Sasuke sighed and sat down next to Naruto. Naruto refused to look at him. They sat silently next to each other as they waited for the other one to break. Naruto won and Sasuke spoke first.

“Did you fail the exam or what, idiot?” Sasuke asked with his usual sensitivity.

“What!” Naruto glared at the other boy. “No! Well, yeah, kinda?”

“No, yeah, kinda? What does that mean?” Sasuke repeated Naruto’s words and snorted. “Did you fail or not?”

Naruto sighed. Well, it’s not like I’ll lose anything if I tell him. “Iruka-sensei thinks I cheated on the exam,’’ Naruto began. “So he gave me a zero on the test! Except that I didn’t cheat and he just doesn’t wanna believe me!”

To Naruto’s gratification, Sasuke looked nearly as surprised by Iruka’s words as Naruto did. “Wait, why does he think that?”

“Cause I never raise my hand in class, so he thinks that I don’t know anything.”

“Why don’t you answer in class?”

Naruto snorted. “Are you kidding me? Last time I answered a question, everyone laughed at me and we almost got into a fight, remember?”

To Naruto’s satisfaction, Sasuke looked away in embarrassment. “It wasn’t that bad.”

Naruto rolled his eyes. “Even now I can tell the others are talking behind my back ‘cause I struggle to read out loud during class. If I start answering questions... it’s probably gonna get worse.”

“No, I don’t think so,” Sasuke shook his head and shrugged. “Only the best students are still here. They’re not gonna say anything, at least not to your face. After they saw your performance during the spars, I don’t think they’d want to get on your bad side, anyway.”

“I guess...” Naruto dared to get his hopes up. He had been holding back on participating during class, fearful of being made fun of, but if what Sasuke said was true...

Sasuke grunted. “Just answer the stupid questions so Iruka-sensei doesn’t suspect you of cheating next time.”

Naruto grinned and laughed, punching Sasuke on the shoulder and standing up. “Fine! Now, are you ready for me to get serious?”

Sasuke smirked and stood up as well, forearms raised in front of his head.

Naruto was starting to like Sasuke. He was never going to tell him that, though. He has a big enough head already.

O-O-O

Whenever Takumi had extra time at the end of school, he told her stories about Fuu’s mother.

While they usually stayed in the classroom, the cherry blossoms compelled them to sit outside in their shade. Fuu laid down on her stomach while her teacher leaned back on the trunk of the cherry tree. He laughed, the corners of his eyes brightening as he retold Fuu one of their favorite stories.

“And then, your mother yelled: ‘If you didn’t want the house to be destroyed, you should have told me from the beginning!’” Takumi said.

'I remember that!' Chomei reminisced. 'I knew it was a bad idea, but your mother always did whatever she wanted.'

Fuu’s laughter intensified at her bijuu’s addition.

She tried to get her breathing back in order when Takumi’s silence told her someone was approaching. Curious, she turned her head around to look at their new visitor. Her heart sank.

Suien walked toward them, a smile on his face that nevertheless made Fuu shiver. The man was at his cruelest when he smiled.

“Takumi-san,” Suien said with a nod before staring down at Fuu. “I’ve been looking around for you, Fuu-sama.”

“Oh,” Fuu answered, trying to quell down the roiling feeling in her stomach.

Always trust your instincts, Han’s voice said in her head. Your instincts are often the difference between life and death.

Biting her lip, she stood up to meet Suien in the eye. While he was no longer as gigantic as when she was his student, he still towered over her. She made a conscious effort not to shudder.

“What is it, Suien-sama?” she asked with forced politeness.

“Hisen-sama is looking for you,” Suien answered. A shiver ran down Fuu’s spine. It was a lie. What did he really want?

“Why didn’t he send Senji-sama?” she asked, feigning confusion.

“Don’t worry about it, girl. Just come with me.”

Fuu flinched and took a step back. The few times Hisen had requested her presence, he had sent Senji to do the task. There was something wrong.

“Why does he want me?” Fuu asked as she took a second step back

Suien frowned and he glared down at her. “I don’t know. Just come. Next time I ask I won’t be so nice.”

“Suien-sama,” Takumi interrupted. He left his resting place under the tree to stand behind Fuu, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder. Immediately, Fuu calmed down. That’s right, Takumi-sensei is here. He’ll know what to do.

“It’s none of your business, Takumi,” Suien snapped. “I’m taking her, no matter what you say.”

Her teacher left her side to stand in front of Suien. “In that case, I’ll— ”

Before he could finish his statement, Suien buried a kunai into Takumi's lower stomach.

Fuu screamed. Her knees gave out and she fell to the ground. She looked up at her sensei with eyes already filling with tears.

“Fuu... run,” Takumi whispered as he grabbed onto Suien’s arm. “I’ll hold him as long as I can. Run and hide. Leave me behind.”

“God, you’re annoying.” Suien twisted the kunai in deeper and Takumi screamed at the pain. “There’s no way for you to run and hide, Fuu. Come along and I won’t hurt your precious Takumi anymore.”

Fuu could hear her heartbeat in her ears and she stared in shock at Takumi trying in vain to push Suien away. Her tears obscured her vision and the only thing she wanted to do was break down and cry.

'Fuu! Fuu!' Chomei’s voice broke her out of her reverie. 'Leave this to me! I know what to do!'

'What to do?' Fuu repeated dumbly. 'What is it?'

'I’ll cause a diversion. Use it to pull Takumi and run away.'

'What kind of diversion?'

'When I say ‘go,’ make the tiger seal, clap your hands together, and then open your mouth. Use the opportunity to grab your teacher and use your wings to fly away. For now, pretend you’re going along with his plan.'

Fuu nodded, although she knew Chomei couldn’t see. Heartened by her bijuu’s words, she stood up and inched her way to Suien.

“If I go with you, do you promise to let Takumi-sensei go?” she asked while biting her lip.

“Of course!” Suien lied while his grip on the kunai stayed the same.

“No, Fuu...” Takumi whispered. “Run away... You’re much more valuable than I am...” Takumi coughed at the effort and he quieted, focused on keeping Suien from moving.

Suien smirked. “He still has a chance to live, girl,” he taunted. “Come closer and I’ll let him go.”

Fuu took a step closer. 'Almost there,' Chomei said. 'Make sure you’re as close to the bastard as possible.'

Fuu bit her lip. She stood next to Takumi. “Let him go,” she said as she held her hands up in front of her chest. “It’s me you want, right?”

“Good, now, come with— ” As soon as Suien began to speak, Fuu heard Chomei telling her “go.”

She made the tiger seal, clapped her hands together, and opened her mouth. A cloud of shimmering scales appeared, blinding Suien. He reflexively took a step back and loosened his grip on the kunai.

Fuu didn't hesitate. She summoned her wings, kicked Suien in the chest, grabbed onto her teacher, and carried him away. By the time Suien had a chance to recover, she was already on her way to the giant tree at the center of the village.

It wasn’t until she has placed her teacher down on one of the branches of the tree that she dared to breathe. She examined her teacher's condition. He was unconscious, yet breathing. But his breath was shaky and Fuu knew that without treatment, he would die in a few hours.

'Chomei,' she said.

'What is it, little one?'

'Thanks. Takumi-sensei would already be dead without you.'

Chomei made a chittering sound. 'I had to show you how to do that eventually anyway.'

Fuu breathed a sigh of relief before turning her attention back to her teacher. She recalled all their first aid training in school. She tore out a chunk of his pants for bandaging and applied pressure on the wound. It was the best she could do considering the situation. A few minutes later, Takumi opened his eyes to blink up at Fuu.

“Fuu?”

“Sensei!” Fuu replied, keeping her hands pushing down on his stomach. “Don’t talk! You’re bleeding!”

“Fuu...” he spoke again. “What happened?”

Fuu bit her lip. She recounted the story briefly, telling him about Chomei’s involvement in the rescue.

“Chomei?” Takumi asked.

“The seven-tails.” Fuu nodded. “That’s their name. They gave me the plan and I followed through with it to rescue you. We need to get you to a hospital though, sensei. I don’t know any healing jutsu.”

Takumi blinked, looking suddenly more alert. “Your bijuu? How is that possible? Does it lend you its power?”

Fuu shrugged. “I don’t know. Chomei is just nice. They think I’m cute and polite.”

'You are cute and polite.'

“Aww, thanks Chomei. You’re super cool, you know that?”

“You can talk to your bijuu?” Takumi blinked up at her. He looked more concerned about the newest revelation than about the blood pouring out of his abdomen.

Fuu shrugged again. “Yeah, for the past couple of months. They taught me how to use my wings to fly. And I guess I have a new technique now, too. I don’t know what it’s called, though.”

'Scaled Sneak Jutsu,' Chomei answered. 'To be more specific, Hiden Ninjutsu: Scaled Sneak Jutsu.'

“Oh! Chomei says it’s called the ‘Hiden Ninjutsu: Scale Sneak Jutsu’ or ‘Scale Sneak Jutsu’ for short,” Fuu said. "That's not that short, though."

Takumi only looked more perturbed the more she spoke. At least he’s not panicking about the stab wound.

“Wait, Fuu, help me sit up,” Takumi said. “I know some medical ninjutsu. I can heal myself well enough for now.”

“Yes, Takumi-sensei!”

Fuu helped Takumi lean against the trunk of the tree. With a wince of pain, he placed a hand over the bleeding wound. A soft glow emanated from his hand and he hovered the chakra over the injury. Slowly, the blood stopped flowing. Takumi collapsed against the tree, his eyes closed in exhaustion.

“Takumi-sensei, are you all right?” Fuu fretted, placing her hands on top of his shoulders.

Takumi opened his eyes and gave her a wan smile. “I still need someone more professional,” he admitted. “But I’m fine for now. We need to stay together until we know what’s going on.”

Fuu bit her lip and looked down at her lap. “Should I look for Hisen-sama or Senji-sama? They probably know what's going on.”

“No, it’s too dangerous and you’re too valuable,” Takumi answered immediately with a shake of his head. “We should wait here until the coast is clear.”

“I can fly and look for someone,” Fuu protested. “And if Suien sees me, I can use the Scale Sneak Jutsu and then fly away.”

Takumi blinked at her, face pale. “I forgot you could fly now." He sighed. “When I woke up this morning, I was not expecting the day to end up like this.”

Despite the situation, Fuu couldn’t help but giggle. Takumi joined her, coughing painfully as he struggled to laugh. Fuu’s face turned serious again.

“I’ll be careful, Takumi-sensei,” she promised. “You need to get to the hospital as fast as possible.”

Takumi sighed. “Promise?”

“Promise.”

“I don’t believe that promise,” he admitted with another sigh and a shake of his head. “Your mother would say the same thing. Then she would charge head-on at an enemy and almost get herself killed.”

“I won’t do that!” Fuu protested. “I double promise!”

Before Takumi could retort, Fuu summoned her wings and floated down through the branches. She heard an exasperated sigh from Takumi as she left.

Descending in complete silence, she hid behind the roof of one of the houses near the tree. Seeing no one, she flew in the direction of Hisen’s office.

'Be careful, little one.'

'I’ll be careful. I’m sure Hisen-sama knows what’s going on.'

She flew through the village, hiding behind roofs and trees in case of enemies. To her surprise, the village was eerily quiet.

'Where is everyone? There should be people wandering around at the very least.'

'I don’t know, but be on your guard, Fuu.'

As she flew, she grew increasingly unnerved about the silence, especially with all the closed windows she saw. She arrived at Hisen’s office without bumping into anyone else. She peeked over the roof at the courtyard in front. She had to slap a hand in front of her mouth to keep herself from yelling.

A group of villagers was tied up, a few shinobi wearing foreign hitai-ate holding them captive. Fuu’s stomach sank when she saw Senji among them. Suien stood in the middle of the courtyard, holding a kunai up to the neck of a terrified Shibuki.

A short distance away, Hisen stood tall and proud, holding a vial of water in one hand and a sword in the other. He glowered at Suien, showing his teeth in anger, impotent with his son out of his hands.

Fuu hid behind the roof before peeking down again, but no one seemed to see her. She sighed in relief and strained to listen to the conversation on the ground.

“Let’s make a trade, Hisen-sama,” Suien said with a mocking smirk. “Your son in exchange for the girl. It seems fair to me.”

“What do you want with her?” Hisen asked, taking a step closer. At his approach, Suien hovered the kunai closer to Shibuki’s neck. Hisen froze.

“Nothing much,” Suien answered. “I just want to sell her off. Amegakure would pay a lot for the Seven-Tails.”

“You can’t do that!” Senji yelled from among the captured. “You would only break the peace and create war!”

“Shut up, old man!” one of the shinobi yelled as he kicked Senji in the face.

Fuu flinched as Senji fell to the ground, blood pouring out of his mouth. Despite the obvious injury, the old man only glared at his attacker, spitting out the blood at the enemy’s feet. The man growled and kicked Senji again, that time in the stomach.

The other villagers protested, pleading for the man to stop. A few children cried while a woman prostrated herself on the ground, begging for mercy. But there was only bloodlust in his eyes as he kicked Senji over and over again.

Fuu couldn’t take it anymore. Before anyone else, Senji had been the one person that had always been kind to her. She flew out from behind the roofline and toward the enemy shinobi. With a kick to the head, the man fell backward, immediately unconscious.

“Senji-sama!” she yelled as she knelt next to the semi-conscious old man and took his hand. “Are you okay?”

“Fuu-sama...?” Senji whispered before closing his eyes. Heart pounding, she checked his pulse, but to her relief, he had only fallen unconscious. She turned around to look at her opponents.

Everyone stared wide-eyed at Fuu’s arrival. Fuu bit her lip. She probably should have thought things through. Now what?

“So you came!” Suien yelled with a deranged smile. “Now we can do the trade! What do you say, Fuu-sama, you for the boy? That’s fair, don’t you think?”

Fuu clenched her jaw and glowered at Suien. The traitor kept his grip on the kunai. Hisen tensed as the sharp edge loomed ever closer.

“Fine!” Fuu yelled. “Let him go and I’ll follow you!”

Suien shook his head. “I’m not falling for that again! Let my friends from Amegakure tie you down and I’ll let him go.”

Fuu looked around at her enemies. If she tried to attack Suien directly, the other shinobi would stop her before she got close. If she attacked the Amegakure ninja, Suien would kill Shibuki before anyone could intervene. If she were to use the Scaled Sneak Jutsu, Suien would kill Shibuki before she had a chance to attack.

'This sure is a shitshow,' Fuu complained to Chomei, borrowing one of the words Yagura liked but that made Roshi mad.

'That’s for sure, but, Fuu, I have a plan.'

'A plan? Another one?' She really did have the best bijuu.

'Yes, I’ll lend you my power and give you one tail’s worth of chakra. Let them capture you and then break out. We have the element of surprise here.'

Fuu bit her lip and looked down, holding her hands up in front of her in surrender. “Fine, tie me up if you want. Just let Shibuki go,” she said.

Suien glared at her for a few seconds before nodding and gesturing to one of the enemy shinobi with his head. “Tie her up. Make sure it’s as secure as possible.”

“Yes, Suien,” a kunoichi said as she grabbed onto a length of rope. She approached Fuu cautiously, but when Fuu did nothing, she wrapped the rope around her arms. Fuu flinched at the pain. The kunoichi had constrained her arms more than necessary.

Now captured, the enemy walked Fuu to stand in front of Suien. Her former teacher looked at her like something he had found on the bottom of his shoe.

Fuu’s heart threatened to beat out of her chest as she stared at Suien. “Now, let him go!” she yelled.

“With pleasure,” Suien kicked Shibuki to the ground before shifting his kunai to point at Fuu's neck. She stared up at the man unflinchingly.

“You know, I knew I would take you first chance I got,” Suien commented. “I tried to make sure you didn’t learn anything, but I guess you were more of a prodigy than I expected.”

Her heart began beating faster as she tried to understand his words. “W-what?”

Suien rolled his eyes. “I knew one day I could find someone who would be willing to pay for you,” he explained. “A weak kid is easier to capture and sell.”

Fuu felt the blood drain out of her face. Suien had always been cruel in his teachings, but she had never thought that it had a higher goal. Years of training came into stark focus. Without the other jinchuuriki to guide her, she would have become a complete failure of a kunoichi.

'Fuu!' Chomei’s voice cut through her thoughts and she flinched in surprise.

'Chomei?'

'Get a hold of yourself, Fuu! You have to escape! I won’t lend you my power until you’re calm!'

'I... okay, Chomei.' Fuu forced herself to breathe. She inhaled and exhaled while Suien gloated with the other Amegakure shinobi. A few seconds later, her mind was clear once again.

'Chomei?'

'Yes, Fuu?'

'I’m ready.'

In an instant, Fuu felt a surge of energy that covered her entire body in a thick shroud of chakra. The rope started to burn away and with a flex of her wrists, Fuu broke free. Her body felt unstoppable like it never had before.

Moving faster than ever, she pushed Suien’s kunai out of her face before kicking him away and flying up. She flew down to attack, but Suien was a jounin and he dodged smoothly. A crater of dirt and dust exploded where she landed on the ground.

“W-what are you?” Suien yelled as he leaped away.

“My name is Fuu! And I’m the jinchuuriki of Lucky Seven Chomei, also known as the Nanabi!”

Silence fell at her words that was only broken when Hisen took a swig of water and leaped to stand in front of Fuu. Chaos ensued as the villagers screamed in fear and shock. Gritting his teeth, one of the Amegakure shinobi lunged forward to attack. Before Fuu had a chance to show off her skills, however, Hisen stepped in front and sliced the attacker away.

“Fuu-san,” he said. “I’m the head of Takigakure. Leave everything to me. Please, go help my son.”

Fuu nodded obediently and ran back to where Shibuki lay on the ground, weeping softly. She placed a comforting hand on his shoulder and he looked up. They exchanged reassuring grimaces as they look back at the fight.

Hisen got into a fighting position, sword in front of him. The rest of the enemy shinobi lunged toward him, weapons at hand. Without breaking a sweat, Hisen held off their attacks, killing them with a single slice of his sword. They tried to swarm him, but Hisen was stronger than he looked, defeating everyone without effort.

“Fuck this, I’m out of here!” one of the enemy Amegakure shinobi yelled as he ran away.

Like a dam breaking, the others tried to leave as well. But Hisen was too fast and he killed them before they have the chance to escape.

“Hisen-sama is a lot stronger than I thought,” Fuu said to Shibuki.

“That’s because he drank the Hero Water,” Shibuki said, face pale.

“Hero Water?”

“It multiplies your chakra ten times of what’s normal, but, in exchange...”

“In exchange?” Fuu asked but Shibuki fell silent, staring at the fight with his hands clenched into fists.

With a shout, Hisen captured and killed the last of the Amegakure shinobi. He looked around in search of Suien, but the man had somehow managed to escape while Hisen was distracted.

“Suien!” Hisen shouted. “Come and fight me like a man! Let’s settle this once and for all!”

No one answered back and Hisen grimaced before turning around to look at his son.

“Shibuki!” he yelled as he ran toward them. “Are you okay? You should have fought back!”

“I-I’m fine, Dad, but... you... the Hero Water....”

Hisen blinked and smiled sadly. “You have to take care of the village, Shibuki,” he said. “I wanted you to enjoy your youth for a while longer, but you have to grow up faster than I wanted.”

Shibuki shook as his eyes filled with tears and fell down his face.

Fuu frowned, not understanding anything. 

“Do you promise me, Shibuki?” Hisen asked.

Shibuki nodded. He leaned over to hug him. Hisen smiled before he flinched back in pain, breaking the embrace.

“Dad!”

“Don’t worry, Shibuki,” Hisen panted. “I’m fine. It'll all be over for me soon, anyway.”

“But... Dad...”

Hisen smiled one last time before collapsing. Shibuki caught his body and pulled his father onto his arms. Fuu’s heart sank as she finally realized what was going to happen.

“No... Hisen-sama!” she shouted, grabbing onto his robes. Without him there, what was going to happen to her and Shibuki?

Fuu felt tears in her eyes once again. Hisen had seemed as constant and solid as the tree at the center of the village, but now he was gone. The man had left, leaving young and terrified Shibuki in charge.

Shibuki cried over the corpse of his father, grabbing onto him as if the mere act of holding on would bring him back.

With shaky legs, Fuu stood up and walked to where all the captives were waiting. The villagers flinched away from her approach, but Fuu didn’t care. She cut open the ropes holding one of the villagers before handing him a kunai.

“Help me free the others,” she ordered.

Chapter Text

Following his conversation with Sasuke, Naruto returned to class with a plan to force Iruka to apologize.

“The correct reading of that kanji is ‘Kaze,’ Iruka-sensei,” Naruto answered as he stood up and stared at Iruka. “It means ‘wind. It's in words like ‘Kazekage,’ which means ‘wind shadow,' ya know?”

Iruka blinked at him and his jaw dropped in surprise. “That’s... correct, Naruto.”

Naruto sat back down and looked around the classroom. He heard some people muttering around him but he didn’t care. The only thing he cared about was proving to his teacher that he knew a lot more than he thought.

Next to him, Hinata beamed in encouragement.

“Wow, Naruto-kun, that was kind of a hard one,” she said. “I wasn’t sure what it meant.”

“Yeah, I read it in a book,” he answered with a grin of his own. “It was about the five major elemental villages.”

At the front of the classroom, Sasuke stared determinedly at the board. Naruto could tell that he was dying to say something. From the back corner of the classroom, he saw that Shikamaru and Chouji were curious about the change in attitude.

Iruka cleared his throat to turn everyone’s attention back to him. “Well, yes, now as Naruto answered for us, this is the character for 'wind.' There are five major elemental countries and we will study the kanji for all of them.”

The rest of the class continued. Naruto raised his hand as often as he could, daring Iruka to say anything or to stop him from answering. He only faltered when they got to the math section. To his relief, the other children struggled just as much as he did, if not more.

The only student who breezed through their math work was the pink-haired girl, Sakura. She also got the highest score in the exam.

Naruto studied her, sitting at the back of the classroom. She covered her face with her bangs as if afraid to look at anyone. Naruto wondered why. He decided to keep an eye on her.

When the day ended, everyone, including Naruto, stood up and made their way out. Naruto took the time to pack up his things before joining the crowd.

“Wait, Naruto,” Iruka said as he sat down behind his desk. “I wish to speak to you for a second.”

Hinata and Naruto shared surprised glances. Hinata pushed her index fingers together in a now-familiar nervous gesture. Naruto shrugged and grinned at her. Immediately, her stance relaxed, and she smiled.

“See you tomorrow, Hinata-chan!” he said. “That cousin or whatever is here to pick you up, right?”

“Yes, Naruto-kun,” she answered. “My mother is busy with Hanabi and clan duties. I will see you tomorrow, Naruto-kun, Iruka-sensei.”

She nodded in Naruto’s direction and bowed to Iruka before leaving. Naruto walked to stand in front of Iruka’s desk, hands in his pockets to hide his fists. He glared at his teacher. Do you still believe I cheated? You better apologize to me, you asshole!

“Naruto-kun, I’m sorry,” he said.

Naruto’s jaw dropped in surprise. “Huh?”

“I judged you too harshly for what your performance was like in class,” Iruka continued. “I never saw you actively taking part in class and wrongfully believed you would copy from other students. I should have known not to judge so fast. I didn’t accuse Sakura of cheating even though she got a perfect score, and she rarely speaks in class.”

“Oh,” Naruto answered. He shifted his feet. He hadn’t actually expected for Iruka to apologize so easily.

“Anyway,” Iruka continued, “I’m going to change your grade to what it should have been. I’ll try not to underestimate you again, okay?”

Naruto nodded, at a loss for words.

“Do you have your exam? I can give you your final score right now if you have it.”

Naruto looked down at his feet. “I... uh... don’t have it anymore.” Yugito and Roshi had compelled him to burn the exam after they heard about it. It had felt cathartic at the time, but now he felt ashamed for destroying it.

Iruka chuckled and shook his head. “Well, I’m not surprised,” he admitted. “If I were in your shoes, I would have done the same thing.”

Iruka opened the drawer of his desk and took out his grade book. “Don’t worry, I’ll give you a numbered score based on what I remember. Plus a few extra points as an apology. I think you were right around... hmm... well the math section was average, but the history and ninjutsu portion was nearly perfect... I guess I’ll grant you a 92.”

“A 92?” Naruto beamed at his teacher, placing the palms of his hand on the desk.

“Yeah, that sounds about right,” Iruka muttered. He scratched out the zero and wrote the new number next to Naruto’s name. “Next exam won’t have bonus points though, so be prepared.”

Naruto laughed and scratched the back of his neck in embarrassment. “Don’t worry, Iruka-sensei,” he said. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Of course,” Iruka said. “Now please keep up the good work.”

“Thank you, Iruka-sensei,” Naruto said, bowing down deeply. He couldn’t believe Sasuke’s idea had actually worked.

“You’re welcome, Naruto,” Iruka said as he placed his grade book back in his desk. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Naruto grinned at his teacher. Iruka returned the gesture with a smile. Despite the happy expression, however, Naruto sensed something disparaging hiding underneath his teacher’s expression. He forced the smile to remain on his face. He knew the real reason why so many of the villagers hated him. He knew many people had died during the Kyuubi attack, including his mother. Had Iruka lost someone that day, too? Despite knowing he was not responsible, he couldn't ignore the guilt that settled into his stomach.

Trying to ignore the heavy feeling, he waved goodbye and ran out to the training area. As expected, Sasuke was already there, throwing shuriken with perfect accuracy. He took a look at Naruto and snorted.

“You look happy,” he commented. “What did Iruka-sensei tell you?”

Naruto giggled as he got ready to share the news. “Iruka-sensei changed my grade, ya know!” he announced. “He even said sorry to me! He’s so cool!”

“Told you that’s what you should do.”

“Yeah yeah, thanks.” Naruto rolled his eyes. “It was a good plan, and you had a good idea, I guess. Are you happy now? I got a 92 on my first test!”

“92? I got 96!” Sasuke protested at the unfairness. “There’s no way you got 92!”

“You’re just jealous because you can’t admit I'm just as good as you if not better!” he shouted, shaking a fist at Sasuke. He ignored the small voice reminding him that he received bonus points as an apology.

“Am not!”

“Are too!”

“Am not!”

“Are too!”

Naruto and Sasuke growled at each other, grabbing onto the front of each other’s shirts. Naruto threw the first punch, but Sasuke dodged it skillfully. With that, their first spar of the day began.

Naruto lost the first round with Sasuke but he didn’t care. Iruka’s apology was enough. He stood up and threw the first punch again. With Sasuke now tired, Naruto had the upper hand.

“Sore loser!” he taunted as Sasuke struggled to break free from under him.

Sasuke only frowned. “No, you are!”

Naruto stuck his tongue out as he let Sasuke go as their next round began.

O-O-O

Once the initial chaos settled down, Fuu led medics to Takumi-sensei. They rushed him to the hospital for treatment. She stayed by his side, leaving only when the doctor kicked her out at night.

She went to Hisen’s funeral the following day, but everyone except for Senji and Shibuki ignored her. Keeping her head high, she approached Hisen’s memorial, bowing deeply and offering her condolences to Shibuki. The older boy stared blankly at her and nodded, face pale.

Following the funeral, the Academy closed down for a week as the village recovered.

A few times, Fuu searched for Hana and Rin, but whenever she visited their homes, no one answered the door. She frowned to herself and left, not knowing what else to do. I guess I’ll talk to them when we go back to school.

Other than trying to find her friends, she stayed by Takumi’s bedside for the rest of the week. Despite the stabbing, Takumi’s eyes were bright as they talked.

“Didn’t you promise me you would not get involved?” Takumi eventually asked as they ate lunch together.

“Actually, I promised that I would be careful,” Fuu said. “I wasn’t hurt, so I was very careful indeed.”

Takumi sighed in exasperation. “You’re just like your mother,” he mumbled to himself. “If she hadn’t been a shinobi, she would have been a lawyer.”

Fuu grinned and took a bite of her food. Takumi took a sip of his tea.

“But now everyone in the village knows you’re a jinchuuriki, Fuu,” Takumi commented as he set the cup down.

“So?” Fuu asked, mouth full of food.

Takumi sighed. “So, people might not treat you the same way,” he explained patiently. “Emi suffered a lot as a jinchuuriki. To keep you away from that, Hisen and Senji kept your existence secret to everyone but a select few. I only knew because we were teammates.”

Fuu shrugged. “Yeah, but everyone in the village knows me already as Fuu! Are they going to treat me different just ‘cause they found out Chomei lives inside me?”

Takumi shook his head and sighed yet again. “I still can’t wrap my head around the fact you befriended a giant demon made of chakra.”

'Hey! I resent that!'

“Chomei resents that,” she passed the message. “They say they’re not a demon, but a being made of chakra created by the Sage of Six Paths himself.”

“What?” Takumi blinked at her.

“Oh, I guess I should have mentioned that before.” Fuu shrugged as she took another bite of her food. Her teacher only looked exasperatedly at her before groaning and continuing to eat.

“Still, Fuu,” Takumi said when he finished his meal. “People have a lot of misconceptions about jinchuuriki and bijuu. Take care of yourself. People might treat you differently now that they know.”

Fuu nodded as she also set her chopsticks down. She had noticed a change in attitude in some of the villagers, but she wasn't worried. She had made friends with her classmates and with the people of Takigakure. There was no way anything would change. With that thought in mind, Fuu eagerly awaited her return to school.

On the first day back, she ran to the Academy, excited to talk to her friends and classmates. She said good morning to everyone she saw, but they looked away with terrified expressions. Fuu’s heart sank. Maybe Takumi-sensei had a bit of a point.

“Hi, Mio-chan!” she greeted one of her classmates. “Have you seen Hana-chan and Rin-chan? I haven’t talked to them in ages!”

Immediately, her classmate’s face turned white. She ran away without saying anything.

Fuu’s jaw dropped in surprise. 'Why is everyone acting like this?'

'They’re afraid,' Chomei answered. 'They think that having a ‘demon’ inside you makes you a ‘demon’ yourself. They don’t understand what it truly means to be a jinchuuriki.'

'But... they know me! And I know them! Why would they push me away if we’ve known each other for so long?'

'I don’t know, Fuu-chan. There’s nothing I can do to help.'

Fuu forced herself not to cry. She reminded herself of the 25th rule of the Shinobi Code of Conduct. A shinobi must never show their tears.

Head held high, she walked to her classroom and entered, sitting at her usual seat. Hana and Rin were nowhere to be found and Takumi was still in the hospital. The few students already inside immediately moved away, ignoring her presence as best as they could. Fuu tried to pretend it didn’t hurt.

She sat down at her desk and waited. A few seconds before the bell rang to start the class, Hana and Rin finally appeared. Fuu looked up at them with a smile, relief flooding through her. But they avoided her eyes and they sat down without sparing her a glance. Fuu’s heart sank into her stomach and she stopped herself from crying by clenching the hem of her skirt in her hands.

A shinobi Fuu had never met before arrived, greeting everyone and introducing himself. Fuu didn’t listen, her mind running a mile a minute. She had never felt such betrayal before. She glared at Hana and Rin, but they refused to even look at her. I thought you were my friends.

The rest of the day passed by in a blur. Their substitute teacher never talked to her or called out her name. He only lectured, calling upon everyone but Fuu to participate. A few times, Fuu raised her hand, but the teacher turned a blind eye, refusing to acknowledge her existence.

At lunchtime, everyone ran away from her. She tried one last attempt to speak with Hana and Rin, but they gave her the cold shoulder. Her heart beat frantically and her lungs struggled to breathe. Takumi-sensei warned me about this. I should have listened.

The end of the day came as a relief. She packed her materials and ran away as fast as she could to the hospital, where Takumi awaited. But her hopes were dashed when a nurse stood in front of the door to his room, blocking her way.

“Takumi-sensei cannot receive any visitors this afternoon,” the nurse said in a cold tone, staring down at Fuu.

“What? Why?” Fuu protested.

“The doctor is doing a check-up right now,” she explained with clenched teeth. “Come back tomorrow. Visiting hours are over anyway.”

Fuu bit her lip and clutched at her skirt, but she knew protesting was pointless. They had let her in to see her teacher before, so she had no reason to believe the nurse was lying.

“Thank you,” she said while bowing her head. “I hope Takumi-sensei recovers quickly. Goodbye.”

The nurse huffed impatiently but said nothing. Fuu left the hospital, feeling lost and disoriented. Where was she supposed to go now? What could she do?

At the edge of tears, she stared at the village around her. It looked bigger than she remembered. She could go home and cry, but if she let that dam break, she knew she wouldn't be able to take it back. Senji.

Senji had always been kind to her, ever since she was a little girl. After the attack, the old man had been injured. But after a few hours at the hospital, he had returned to work as Shibuki's advisor.

With a plan in mind, she headed toward the Village Head’s office. She wanted to see someone smile at her. When she opened the door to Hi— Shibuki’s office, she was taken aback by the flurry of activity.

Shibuki, meek and small, sat behind his father’s desk, a pile of paperwork in front of him. His face was ashen and his eyes were wide in fear. The pencil he held in his hand trembled. Next to him sat Senji, bandages covering parts of his face and head. Despite the injury, his eyes were bright and his body was full of energy. Takigakure shinobi wandered throughout the room, yelling at each other and organizing paperwork. To Fuu, it looked like chaos.

“Senji-sama?” Fuu asked as she inched closer to the desk.

The old man and Shibuki looked up from their paperwork. Senji smiled at her, wide and sincere. Meanwhile, Shibuki’s face contorted into something that looked nominally like a smile. Fuu’s heart felt fifty pounds lighter.

“What is it, Fuu-sama?” Senji asked when he saw her expression.

“Nothing,” she lied. “I was just a little bored and Takumi-sensei is getting his check-up right now. Is there anything I can do to help?”

Senji chuckled. “I’m not sure what you can do. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, it’s been a little chaotic. Though I do have a few questions.” His face turned serious, and he studied Fuu’s face. “Since when can you control the power of your bijuu?”

Shibuki’s eyes filled with curiosity, the first emotion he’d shown since his father’s death. He stared at Fuu, waiting for the answer. Fuu looked down at her feet and clutched the hem of her skirt.

“Well... about that...” she hedged. “It’s less me taking their power and more of us kinda... uh... working together. They lend me their chakra and I use it. Chomei is actually really cool!”

“Chomei?” Shibuki repeated.

Fuu nodded, already tired of trying to explain her relationship with her bijuu. “Their name is Lucky Seven Chomei and they are super cool! They say that I’m very cute and talented!”

'You’re not just cute, you're adorable!'

'Thanks, Chomei.'

“What?” Shibuki asked. “What do you mean?”

Fuu rolled her eyes before embarking on a long-winded explanation of Chomei. She told them about meeting Chomei in her mindscape and about learning how to fly with their help. She told them about how they helped when Suien took everyone captive.

When she finished the story, Senji and Shibuki gaped at her in silence while Fuu waited for them to speak.

“Thank you for saving my life, Fuu-sama,” Senji said, clearing his throat. “However, you have revealed the most important secret we have in Takigakure. We have to enhance security, especially around you. If other villages learn we have a new leader and a powerful jinchuuriki, we are going to become major targets for attacks.”

Fuu winced. She hadn’t considered what other villages might have thought about her status as a jinchuuriki. From Yagura’s reports, she knew there was a group that was looking to capture them or their bijuu. I guess I should have considered that before jumping in to save everyone.

“Was there really no other choice, Senji-sama?” she asked.

Senji hummed to himself thoughtfully. “There might have been,” he said and her heart sank. “But then we would have neither Shibuki nor Hisen with us anymore. I might not be here either. We didn’t have time to plan and with Shibuki’s life on the line, I don’t think there were other options. You did what you thought was best and now we have to deal with the consequences.”

Fuu nodded, chastened. She thought back on her actions during Suien’s attack and tried to come up with alternatives. She could think of nothing. Or at least nothing that wouldn’t have led to Shibuki or Senji’s deaths.

Fuu nodded, relieved that they didn't hold a grudge against her.

“Well, is there anything I can do to help now?” she asked. “I don’t really have anything to do at home.”

Shibuki’s face, which had started to regain color while Fuu was talking, looked up and smiled for the first time since the attack.

“I have the chuunin and jounin here to help me with the complicated stuff. But I give you your first D-ranked mission!” he said with false seriousness. “Your mission is to put all of these papers in chronological order. It’s easy but tedious.”

“Yes, sir!” Fuu obeyed with a grin, immediately grabbing onto the pile of documents.

She took her pile and sat in a corner by herself to sort all the documents. It was just as tedious as Shibuki had promised. Nevertheless, it was a good distraction after a long and terrible day and Fuu was glad for the task.

There were so many files that by sunset, she had gone through less than half of the original pile. She looked up from her task when she noticed that the room had grown quiet. To her surprise, while she had been focused on her mission, everyone except for Shibuki had left.

“Shibuki-sama?” she questioned as she saw the older boy glaring at a pile of documents.

Startled, Shibuki looked up to stare at Fuu in the corner. “Are you finished yet, Fuu-san?” he asked with a strained smile. “If you want, you can leave now and finish your mission tomorrow.”

Fuu bit her lip and shook her head. “I don’t want to go home,” she said.

“Well, you have school tomorrow, right?” he said.

“I don’t want to go to school either.”

Shibuki quieted and stared at her with a frown on his face. “Why?” he finally asked after some contemplation.

“It’s not the same anymore,” she confessed. “My ‘friends’ don’t talk to me anymore. Even the teacher ignores me. I had to eat lunch by myself in the classroom. For the whole day, everyone ran away from me and refused to answer if I talked to them.”

“What? Really?” Shibuki’s brow furrowed in annoyance and anger. “But you saved the village.”

“They don’t see it that way.” Fuu looked down and grabbed onto the hem of her skirt. “They think I’m a demon. They probably think I’ve been faking everything until now. They’re afraid of me.”

“I see,” Shibuki answered, leaning back in his chair. “Do you want me to talk to them?”

Fuu snorted. “No. That’ll probably make everything worse. I don’t want people talking to be because they have to but because they want to.”

Shibuki sighed. “Then what can I do to help?”

“I don’t know,” Fuu admitted, eyes filling with tears despite her earlier conviction. A sob escaped her lips. Before she knew it, she was bawling, all of the events since the attack rushing in at once.

Seeing her tears, Shibuki stood up and walked to her side. He squatted down and sat next to her, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder. She sobbed into her hands, feeling extremely sorry for herself.

“I might have a partial solution, Fuu-san,” Shibuki said.

“What is it?” Fuu asked between sobs.

“Graduate early.”

“W-what? Graduation?”

Shibuki nodded. “Based on what you showed us during... the attack, you have more than enough skill to qualify as a genin. You can take the exam as soon as Takumi-sensei is discharged. He can be your proctor.”

“Really?” Fuu’s eyes lit up and she scrubbed the tears out of her eyes. “I can be a genin early?”

“Sure, as long as you pass the exam,” he said. “Just remember that there is a written portion.”

Fuu paused as she thought over the offer. Her grades in theoretical knowledge were decent, but not much better than the average. Well, I guess I can always cheat and ask Chomei or the other jinchuuriki for help if I get stuck.

'I’m not helping you cheat!' Chomei interrupted. 'And I’ll make sure none of the other jinchuuriki do either. If you can’t pass a written test, you don’t deserve to be a genin.'

Fuu pouted at Chomei’s refusal but nodded. Until she took the exam, she would skip school to study at home. It was not like anyone would talk to her there anymore, anyway.

O-O-O

Utakata hated being a jounin.

The missions were more interesting, but the amount of paperwork was, in one word, cruel. Instead of simple reports, he had to write down every single detail, from the shape of someone’s jaw to the color of their toenails. It was exhausting trying to remember and write down every possible detail and he hated it.

In addition, as a jounin, he was called to the Mizukage’s office increasingly often. He had to attend every meeting, scowling and yawning next to Harusame, who was already used to the pointlessness. The worst part, however, was how often his daily life was interrupted.

“Harusame-sama, Utakata-kun!” Ameyuri, the petite woman from the Mizukage's personal guard greeted, interrupting their lunch.

“Ameyuri-san, to what do I owe the occasion?” Harusame asked as he placed his chopsticks down.

“Mei-chan wants to talk with you,” she said. “It’s urgent, but it’s not going to take long.”

In the back of his mind, Utakata wondered how many people had the courage to call their Mizukage Mei-chan.

Immediately, Harusame stood up, leaving his unfinished food on the table. Utakata continued eating. His master had prepared grilled eel and there was no way he would miss it. He shoved a piece of food into his mouth and chewed.

“You too, Utakata-kun,” Ameyuri said with a wicked smirk.

“Me too? Why?” Utakata asked, mouth full of food. Ameyuri snorted and Harusame glared at him like a naughty child. Chastened, he swallowed his food and stood up.

“What seems to be the problem?” he asked, forcing his face into a mask of politeness.

Ameyuri shrugged. “You’ll see. It’s not anything too big. But Mei-chan and Ao-kun think it would be better for both of you to be there. Did you hear about the attack from the Kaguya clan a few weeks ago?”

Utakata nodded. He had been out of the village at the time and had only received the news when he returned. According to Harusame, the Kaguya clan had tried to assassinate Mei Terumi and her council in broad daylight. She had held them off by herself without any effort. But despite her work, the village was still rebuilding from the attack.

“Well, it’s related to the last survivor of the Kaguya clan,” Ameyuri said. She walked out, Harusame and Utakata following behind her.

“I thought the entire clan was eliminated,” Harusame said.

Ameyuri shook her head. “All the adults. There is a child remaining. Anyway, let’s go. If you put Mei-chan, Zabuza-kun, and Ao-kun in a room together, sooner or later, you’ll get a bloodbath. I’d normally love to participate in one, but there’s enough blood to clean up right now as it is.”

Utakata shivered. What kind of personnel did the Mizukage have?

For the rest of the way out of the estate and toward the Mizukage’s office, the three of them were silent. They traveled through the streets and roofs of Kirigakure until they jumped through the window and arrived at Mei’s office. Utakata looked around the room.

Mei sat tall behind her desk. Her facial expression under the Mizukage hat told him the meeting would not be casual. Behind her stood Ao, face as serious and impassive as ever. At her side was Zabuza, Kubikiribocho slung on his back, glaring at everyone. In front of him, Zabuza grabbed onto a small boy that was quite obviously a member of the Kaguya clan.

The boy’s face was pale, almost white, and his eyes were wide, vivid green, and uncertain. Two scarlet circles, characteristic of the Kaguya clan, adorned his forehead. His straight white hair, divided in a zigzag pattern, nearly reached his shoulders. Utakata estimated him as being no older than ten. Despite his straight posture, the boy was clearly nervous. His fingers were fidgeting and his eyes darted to and fro between Utakata and Harusame.

“Harusame-sama, Utakata-kun,” Mei Terumi greeted them as they arrived.

“Mizukage-sama,” Harusame and Utakata said simultaneously, bowing their heads in front of their leader.

“Yo, Mei-chan!” Ameyuri said with a smirk. “I brought the kid! Don’t you think he’s a little young for the responsibility though?”

Utakata frowned. I’m not a kid! I’m ready for whatever mission you need!

Mei smiled kindly as she motioned for Harumase and Utakata to relax. Together, Utakata and his master stood up.

“I called both of you out here for a reason,” the Mizukage began. “You already know about the attack and elimination of the Kaguya clan, I presume?” Despite talking about the death of his clan, the boy's face remained impassive.

Harusame nodded. “Ameyuri-sama gave us a brief overview. She said there is one sole survivor.”

“Good! You’re informed,” Mei commented before gesturing to the boy. He tensed as everyone’s eyes turned to look at him.

“His name is Kimimaro,” Zabuza drawled, keeping a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t let his age fool you, he’s one of the most talented shinobi I’ve seen in my life. He actually manages to come close to Haku’s level, despite his age.”

Ameyuri giggled. “I think you’re becoming more paternal by the day, Zabuza-kun,” she teased with a wink.

“Shut up, hag, or I’ll have Haku freeze you to the lake while you sleep. Haku was the one that captured this kid, by the way.”

“As if he’d do it! Haku is the nicest, kindest boy I have ever met in my life!”

“Will you two stop it! We’re not here to compare prodigies!” Mei said, slamming a hand on her desk. Zabuza and Ameyuri quieted.

“Besides, Kasumi-chan is the same age and just as talented,” she added with a small pout. The room fell into an awkward silence.

Utakata stared at everyone, perplexed at their petty arguments. Are we supposed to be having a serious discussion or not?

Harusame interrupted, skillfully changing the conversation. “What part do we have to play, Mizukage-sama?” he asked. “If this boy is the last one of the Kaguya-clan, then perhaps it would be best if...”

Utakata suppressed a shudder. He knew a lot of people in the village believed Utakata would be better dead than alive. After the Kaguya clan’s attack, he knew the boy ran a similar risk.

The Mizukage sighed tiredly, placing the palm of her hand on her cheek to calm herself. “I don’t want Kirigakure to punish children for the sins of their parents anymore,” she said. “The boy has the rare Shikotsumyaku kekkei genkai. He is more useful alive than dead. Besides...” she looked down at her desk, eyes full of sadness.

“You should have seen the conditions this boy was kept in. His own clansmen were terrified of him. I’m surprised he managed to survive at all. If Haku-kun hadn’t captured him, I dread to imagine what kind of situation he would have found himself in.”

She finished her explanation and Utakata and Harusame looked at the boy with sympathy. Utakata counted his blessings. Despite everything else in his life, he knew that he was lucky that Harusame had always been so kind to him.

“In that case,” Harusame said, “how may we be of help?”

“I want you two to take him in,” Mei Terumi answered. “Our Torture and Interrogation department has already declared him at low risk of attack. Still, either one of you is more than sufficient to restrain him if necessary.”

“I see,” Harusame said. “And I assume we are to teach him ninjutsu as well?”

Ao nodded and spoke for the first time. “Yes. We also need you to fill in any gaps in knowledge related to literacy and history. Not to mention basic emotional support, which Mizukage-sama tells me is important for a child's development.”

Utakata wondered if the last statement was a direct quote from the Mizukage herself.

“I understand.” Harusame nodded before walking to stand in front of Kimimaro.

The boy tensed and looked away, but with Zabuza holding him, he had no opportunity to escape. Utakata felt a stab of pity for the boy. He had been only five years old, a newly-made jinchuuriki, when Harusame had taken him in for training. All he remembered of that time was crying for weeks. He hoped the boy would eventually get used to living with them.

“Hello, Kimimaro-kun, my name is Harusame,” his master said with a smile. He knelt in front of the boy and extended a hand to shake. “It’s very nice to meet you.”

The boy’s eyes widened and he looked around the room in panic before staring into Harusame’s eyes. “Nice to meet you too,” he whispered, squeezing the offered hand for a second before immediately letting go.

Harusame smiled kindly before standing up and ruffling Kimimaro’s hair. “Don’t worry about anything,” he said. “I’ll teach you everything you need to know.”

The Mizukage cleared her throat. “Well... about that...”

Utakata and Harusame turned to look at her with equally confused expressions.

She cleared her throat again. “We don’t want you to be his primary teacher, Harusame-sama,” Mei said. “We think Utakata-kun is ready for the responsibility.”

“What?” Utakata spoke for the first time since he arrived and looked at everyone in the room. “Me? Teacher?”

Ameyuri smirked devilishly. “That’s right, Utakata-kun! It’s your turn to be a jounin-sensei!”

“Wait, but... huh?” Utakata’s eyes darted around the room.

To his dismay, everyone, including Harusame, looked amused at his reaction. Utakata wanted to run away from the responsibility. Completing normal missions already took so much time away from his sleeping schedule. He dreaded to imagine the time commitment with babysitting a prodigy.

“Don’t worry, Utakata-kun,” Harusame said while biting his lip— a clear indication that he was suppressing his laughter. “I’ll still be around to help. You’re old enough to take your own student under your wing.”

No, I’m not! I’m only seventeen! I’m basically still a kid! Utakata wanted to protest, but based on the looks on everyone’s faces, he knew it would be for nothing. He gulped, looked determinedly away from Harusame, and walked to stand in front of Kimimaro.

“My name is Utakata,” he told the boy with a frown. “I’m your teacher now. Listen to everything I say, got it?”

He heard snorts and suppressed giggles from the older shinobi around him. He forced his face not to turn red. What did I do to deserve this? Was I truly evil in a past life or what?

“I... Yes, Utakata-sama,” the boy said as he stared down at his toes. The urge to run away resurfaced, but Utakata suppressed it. He had only been a teacher for a few seconds, and he had already embarrassed himself and intimidated his student.

Utakata cleared his throat and looked away to stare at the wall. “In that case, I think it’s time for us to go home.”

“Home?” Kimimaro looked up, eyes full of curiosity.

Utakata nodded. “Yes, our lunch was interrupted. Are you hungry?”

Kimimaro frowned. “A little, Utakata-sama.”

“In that case, let’s go,” Utakata said.

He bowed to the Mizukage briefly before running to the window and jumping out. He hoped Harusame and Kimimaro were following, or he might actually die of embarrassment.

Chapter Text

“Excellent work as always, Gaara-sama,” Baki commented once Gaara finished his demonstration of a sand clone. “We will probably take another mission soon, once we find something suitable.”

Gaara nodded, eager to return home. But Baki stood with his hands behind his back— which told him he had some news. He suppressed an impatient sigh and waited for the man to speak.

Baki cleared his throat, a clear sign the news might not be positive. What did the Kazekage want now?

“Gaara-sama, your father...” Baki looked away and swallowed. “Your father has mandated that your siblings will live with you starting tomorrow. He believes that you three would benefit from spending time together outside of training sessions.”

Gaara blinked in surprise. Living? With me? Why now?

After their initial introduction, Gaara, Temari, and Kankuro had started training together. With Baki’s instructions, they had completed drills and exercises as a shinobi team. But he rarely exchanged words with Temari and he had yet to talk with Kankuro at all. He really didn't know how living together would work.

Gaara nodded reluctantly and Baki sighed, obviously relieved that he hadn’t protested. With that announcement out of the way, Gaara went home, trying to put his feelings into words and failing.

Since Yashamaru’s death, Gaara had lived alone, but with his siblings nearby, everything would change. The only visits came from caretakers to supply him with food and other necessities. With more free time than he knew what to do with, he spent his nights cooking, cleaning, and taking care of his cacti collection. Could he still do that if his brother and sister lived with him? A sense of dread and impending doom kept him fretting the entire night, unable to relax at all.

The next morning, Temari and Kankuro moved in, choosing from the many empty rooms in the house. He heard his father, Kankuro, and Temari speaking to each other from downstairs. His father’s voice only served to keep himself locked inside his room.

Even when the Kazekage left, Gaara hid away for the remainder of the day, not wanting to interact with his siblings. Eventually, however, his growling stomach compelled him to go out in search of food. He left his room and headed downstairs, where he could hear voices talking inside the kitchen. He swallowed, forced his face into a calm mask, and stepped inside.

He found Kankuro and Temari at the dinner table. They laughed and talked while they cradled glasses of water in their hands. They fell silent when Gaara entered. They stared at him in shock and fear. Temari was the first one to recover.

“H-hello, Gaara!” she greeted, trying to smile and failing. “How are you?”

In front of her, Kankuro grunted and glared at Gaara, silent as usual.

Gaara stared back at them in silence, contemplating the question. He knew his sister was only asking out of obligation, but part of him still wanted to answer sincerely. He stood silently for so long that his siblings shifted in their seats.

“Hungry,” he answered in the end, walking to the fridge and leaving with some fruit in his hands. He could get something more filling once they went to sleep.

His siblings said nothing else, simply watching him walk away with his prize. He heard an outbreak of whispers once he left the kitchen.

He walked as fast as he could back to his room, not wanting to listen to anything they said. His facade broke as soon as he was in the relative safety of his bedroom. He stared at the fruit in his hands with a frown.

Despite knowing that a relationship with a normal person was doomed to fail, part of him desired their companionship. He wanted to spend time with them, eating in their presence, but he couldn’t. I can’t trust anyone, especially anyone from Sunagakure.

Alone in his room, he took a bite of an apple.

From that first encounter, Gaara tried to see his siblings as little as possible. But he couldn’t avoid them all the time. Whenever he wandered out to use the toilet or make himself a meal, he often bumped into them. Temari, who spoke to him as if he were a feral dog, concealed her fear with kindness. Meanwhile, Kankuro used anger to hide how terrified he truly was.

For the first few days, Kankuro didn't say a single word to him. He only scowled and ran away. They lived in tense silence until Kankuro finally snapped.

“Don’t you feel bad about all the people you killed?” Kankuro yelled. He slammed the palms of his hands on the table where Gaara was eating.

“Kankuro...” Temari said, grabbing onto his sleeve. He shook her off. Gaara took another bite of his food, forcing his face not to display any emotion.

“Don’t you have any shame?” Kankuro continued. “So many people died because of you! And so many buildings were destroyed! It’s all your fault!”

Gaara took another bite of his curry while Kankuro seethed, grinding his teeth.

“It’s because of you that our mother is dead!” he shouted.

Disoriented, Gaara paused as he placed his spoon down. He shifted his eyes up to stare at his brother, forcing his face to remain impassive. How much they know about what happened to our mother? he wondered to himself as he looked at his brother.

“Kankuro!” Temari shouted, the angriest Gaara had seen her yet. Gaara blinked up at her, surprised at her defense.

“Don’t make him angry!” she continued. “Do you want him to destroy more of the village?”

Gaara’s spark of hope disappeared. So that’s what she’s most concerned about. I should have known

“Kankuro,” Gaara said his brother’s name for the first time. Kankuro flinched and Gaara frowned. “Temari...” he continued, wishing for support from his sister, but she took a step back instead.

Gaara thought about what he wanted to say but couldn't think of an answer. He looked down at his unfinished meal and found that his appetite had left him. Part of him wanted to cry and scream, but he forced his face into a now-familiar mask. He stood up, pushing his chair back, and walked away, leaving his unfinished dish on the table.

“Baki says we will have a mission soon,” he said as he departed.

Both Temari and Kankuro said nothing in retort. As usual, they broke out into furious whispering once Gaara was out of the room.

Gaara clenched his fists in frustration as he left. He walked to his room and collapsed on the bed he couldn't sleep on, hating Sunagakure with every fiber of his being. But he couldn't try anything. His father would kill him and Gaara would never get to see any of the other jinchuuriki in person.

He needed to stay in Sunagakure as long as he could endure. Hopefully, it won't be much longer.

O-O-O

Utakata had no idea what he was doing.

Thankfully, after jumping through the Mizukage’s window, Harusame and the boy had followed after him. The three of them had arrived back at Harusame’s estate, where they had warmed up their meal and eaten together.

Utakata tried to talk with his new charge. But the boy, Kimimaro, didn't speak unless spoken to first. He answered reluctantly, sharing snippets of information about the Kaguya clan. His statements only served to confirm the worst rumors surrounding his clan. He didn't know how Kimimaro had managed to survive in that environment.

After lunch, Utakata gave Kimimaro a tour of the estate before leading him to the gardens. They sat together in silence. Occasionally, Utakata laid down on the grass or blew bubbles. He wanted to talk to the boy, but he had no idea what to say.

Kimimaro said nothing the entire time, tailing Utakata like a shadow until it was time to sleep. They went to their respective rooms after dinner, agreeing to meet up in the morning for their first day of training.

Now, Utakata stared at the boy standing in front of him. Kimimaro stared impassively back, a small frown the only thing betraying his uneasiness. Utakata sighed. I think I’d rather be on an assassination mission right now.

“All right,” Utakata said with as much cheer as he could muster, which was not much. “First things first, show me what skills you already have. I can make a training plan based on that.”

“Yes, Master.” Kimimaro bowed his head. Utakata grimaced. He had always hated overly ceremonial displays.

“Don’t need to be so formal,” he said. “First, I want to see your physical conditioning. What’s your endurance and stamina?”

Kimimaro began to bend forward into a bow before he stopped himself and he nodded instead. Progress.

“I’m not sure, Master,” Kimimaro said.

"Too formal," Utakata insisted. "Sensei is fine."

"All right... sensei."

Utakata nodded, relieved. “We’ll go on a run together,” Utakata decided. “See if you can keep up with my pace and for how long. If you start feeling tired, just say stop and we will move on to the next test. Okay?”

“Okay.”

Without waiting for his response, Utakata sprinted away. Kimimaro hesitated for only an instant before following, keeping pace with Utakata despite his smaller strides. Utakata blinked in surprise. This boy has good speed already.

Utakata ran for over an hour without slowing down, at one point increasing his speed when Kimimaro remained at his side. His student stuck to him like a shadow, not appearing tired at all, even in the heat and humidity of mid summer. When Kimimaro continued to say nothing, Utakata was the one that called for the exercise to end.

“You have good stamina, Kimimaro,” he said as he stopped at the center of the training grounds.

“Thank you, master.” Kimimaro stood in front of him. Despite running for more than an hour, the only signs of exertion were thin droplets of sweat on his brow. Utakata was impressed. I definitely could not have done that at his age, jinchuuriki or not.

“Mizukage-sama said you have a kekkei genkai,” Utakata said. “It’s the... uh... shi... kotsu... uh... shi... what was it again?”

“Shikotsumyaku,” Kimimaro answered effortlessly.

“Yeah that. What is it anyway?”

Kimimaro was silent for a few seconds as he mulled the question over. “I can control my skeletal structure,” he answered.

“Skeletal structure?” Utakata wished he had listened more to Harusame’s lectures about the clans of Kirigakure.

Kimimaro nodded. He lifted a hand up. Small phalanges emerged from his fingertips and fell to the ground. Kimimaro lowered his hand. Utakata stared at the small bones on the ground. It was a sickening sight, yet Utakata couldn't look away.

“H-how much control do you have?” Utakata asked in wonder.

“I have near-total control,” Kimimaro said. “I can take out my bones and use them as weapons. I can also control how strong they are. I can alter the shape too. That’s why...” Kimimaro paused, looked down, and swallowed. “That’s why the other people in my clan were scared. They... the shikotsumyaku kekkei genkai is very rare, even in my clan.”

Utakata hummed in understanding. “Having the ability to control your skeletal structure is very advantageous in battle,” he said. “I can see why they would be afraid of you.”

Kimimaro flinched and looked down.

Guilt settled into Utakata's stomach. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so blunt.

“Now I understand why the Mizukage wanted me to teach you specifically,” Utakata said, trying to make his voice as gentle as possible.

The boy looked up, a small frown on his face.

“We’re the same, Kimimaro,” Utakata said. “The people of Kirigakure are terrified of me, too.”

“What? Why?” Kimimaro looked up at him, eyes wide open.

“I have a very dangerous ability,” Utakata explained. “If I really wanted to, I could probably destroy half of Kirigakure before being brought down. There’s not much that can truly stop a bijuu on a rampage.”

“A bijuu?” Kimimaro asked.

Utakata sighed and looked away. He scratched the back of his neck in embarrassment. I’ve never had to explain this to anyone before.

“A bijuu is a creature made of chakra,” he said. “When I was very young, the Six-Tails was sealed inside me, giving me partial access to his chakra. It’s been a pain, to be honest, but I have received a lot of abilities I wouldn’t otherwise have.”

“I see,” Kimimaro said as he mulled over Utakata’s explanation, his frown deepening.

“I think the Mizukage made a good choice,” Utakata continued as he scratched the back of his neck. “We’ve both been gifted in ways we didn’t want.” He looked at the sky before glancing down at his student again.

Kimimaro shifted uneasily. “What’s the point of being given this ability?” he asked. “How... how did you decide that your life was worth living?”

Utakata frowned. Not even ten years old and already questioning his reason for existing.

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “I just know why I want to keep existing.”

“Why is that?” Kimimaro asked, desperation leaking from his every pore, waiting for an answer.

“My family,” Utakata answered with a smile.

Harusame had been a father in everything but name for most of his life. The other jinchuuriki had been there for him as well, acting as siblings or uncles. He would not trade them for anything in the world.

“I don’t have family,” Kimimaro said bitterly, a grimace on his face. “I don’t even know who my parents were. And even if I knew, they’re all dead.”

Utakata shook his head. “Family is not blood,” he explained. “Your family is made up of precious people. The ones you care for above anyone else.”

“Precious people?” Kimimaro asked, looking close to breaking down. It was the most emotion Utakata had seen in the boy so far. “Where do I find them?”

Utakata shrugged. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “And honestly, a lot of times, they find you when you least expect or want them. Sometimes, they just shove themselves into your life and give you headaches.” He winced at the memories. “Wait and see. You will find someone.”

Kimimaro nodded reluctantly as he processed Utakata’s words. Utakata forced himself not to shift in unease. He wished Harusame were there. His master was much better at dealing with existential questions.

“Kimimaro,” Utakata said when the boy said nothing else. The boy looked up, broken out of his reverie. “Can you show me more of what you can do with your kekkei genkai?”

Taken back to the present, Kimimaro looked up at him. He nodded and took a few paces back. He inhaled. When he exhaled, two sword-shaped bones appeared from his shoulders. With the swords in his hands, he began an intricate kata that looked more like a dance than anything else.

Utakata watched the routine, transfixed. He really didn't know what he was supposed to teach the kid. His fighting skills were already at genin level, if not higher. He saw no flaws in form and his kekkei genkai gave him an advantage over anyone else. Can’t I just promote him to chuunin already?

When Kimimaro ended his kata, he bowed down to Utakata. Utakata clapped his hands together but Kimimaro only stared down at the ground.

“Well! That was incredibly impressive!” Utakata said with a grin. “Now, I can test your genjutsu and ninjutsu knowledge and then I can recommend you for a promotion already!”

Kimimaro blinked up at him. “What’s genjutsu?” he asked.

“An illusion cast using chakra,” Utakata explained with a frown, his plans starting to fade away. “A genjutsu can affect your senses and make you believe things that are not true. For example, it can make you see something that’s not real.”

A tiny frown appeared on the boy's forehead. “What’s chakra?”

“It’s the energy you use to do ninjutsu, genjutsu, and, to an extent, taijutsu,” Utakata explained. “There’s a good basic guidebook Harusame-sensei wrote about it. I’ll give it to you and you can read it in your free time.”

The two fell into silence. Utakata could only hear the sound of the nearby flowing river and the birds in the trees. Kimimaro stared up at Utakata with a small frown on his face, looking like he had something to confess. Utakata waited patiently, not wanting to intimidate the boy more than he already had.

“I don’t know how to read,” Kimimaro finally admitted.

Utakata suppressed a groan of exasperation as his earlier hopes for a short mission flew out the window. I guess natural talent doesn’t account for everything.

O-O-O

“Hey, Sasuke, look!” Naruto yelled as he arrived at the training area. “I’ve been practicing a new trick! I bet you can’t do it!”

Sasuke snorted. “As if you could do something I can’t.”

Naruto stuck his tongue out at Sasuke before throwing a kunai at a training post. Without hesitating, he took out a second kunai, which hit the first, causing it to ricochet in the opposite direction. Both kunai hit separate targets in the center.

“My brother can do that with ten kunai,” Sasuke said with a grunt. “He says it’s easy once you get the hang of it.”

Naruto rolled his eyes. Despite his words, Naruto could tell that Sasuke was impressed. He never says what he really thinks.

“Well, if it’s so easy, why don’t you try it?” Naruto asked as he placed two kunai in Sasuke’s hands.

Sasuke looked alarmed for a second before frowning at him. “I bet it’s easier than it looks,” he said.

Naruto shrugged and watched as Sasuke took deep breaths in and out. He glared at the first target and shifted his eyes to look at the second. He grasped the first kunai tightly in his hand, miming a throwing motion. Naruto waited, but Sasuke only pretended to throw.

“Just do it already!” Naruto yelled, tired of waiting.

Sasuke startled and glared at Naruto. When Naruto only glared back, Sasuke returned his attention to the trick with a frown on his face.

Sasuke threw the first kunai. Less than a second later, he threw the second. It hit the first and caused it to bounce in a separate direction. But instead of landing on their targets, one kunai flew off into the forest while the other landed on the ground, yards away.

Naruto blinked at Sasuke. He had practiced the trick with Yugito and even his first attempt had not been so bad. He burst into laughter.

“What?” he yelled as he laughed. “That was so weak! I thought you said it was going to be easy!”

Sasuke’s face turned red as he snarled at Naruto. “It was the first time I tried!” Sasuke yelled back. “I bet you didn’t do so well the first time, either!”

Naruto shook his head. “No,” he admitted. “But that just sucked, ya know!”

Sasuke growled. “Just watch! I’ll get it soon enough! I’ll probably be better at it than you!”

“If you say so,” he retorted with a snort. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

With a grimace, Sasuke fetched his kunai and repeated the throw. Once again, the weapons flew off in different directions from their target. Naruto said nothing, only smirking at the furious pout on Sasuke’s face. Sasuke tried a few more times, grimacing when he saw the smirk on Naruto’s face. it was only on the tenth attempt that Naruto broke and decided to help Sasuke.

“Your grip is too tight, ya know,” Naruto said, watching Sasuke stumble when he tried to throw the kunai.

“What?” Sasuke asked.

“Your grip is too tight!” Naruto repeated. “You need to relax a little!”

With that observation, Naruto threw two kunai again. As before, the second kunai ricocheted from the first. Both hit their intended targets in the middle.

“Don’t tell me what to do,” Sasuke said with a deep frown on his face. “My brother says you need to keep a solid grip on a kunai or someone can take it away.”

Naruto shook his head. I can’t make change his mind. Sasuke was unbelievably stubborn when it comes to his brother. What kind of person was he if Sasuke was so obsessed with him?

“Just keep trying your way!” Naruto said. “I’m not gonna spar with you ‘til you admit I was right, ya know!

“Fine,” Sasuke retorted, turning his attention back to the targets.

“Fine!” Naruto yelled. He crossed his arms in front of his chest and sat down a few feet away, leaning against a post with a huff.

Silently, he watched Sasuke try again and again to hit the targets. Despite all the attempts, he kept failing. Naruto scowled. Can’t you just listen to me for once?

With nothing else to do except watch Sasuke, Naruto took out a book from his bag. He opened it up and started to read. His speed had been improving a lot and he rarely needed to sound out words anymore. Yagura had helped him a lot. He was surprisingly patient, although he often got a faraway look on his face when helping Naruto.

Naruto read. A few times, he looked up from his book to see if Sasuke was doing better, but the other boy refused to meet his gaze. Naruto rolled his eyes.

They spent the next few hours in silence as Naruto waited for Sasuke to give up and ask for his advice. Meanwhile, Sasuke kept throwing kunai at the targets in vain and failing every time.

It was only at sunset that anything interesting happened. Naruto was getting ready to throw in the towel and head home when he heard footsteps coming from behind him.

Naruto turned back to look at the entrance of the training grounds. A tall teenager walked in. He looked a lot like Sasuke, dark serious eyes and pale skin. But unlike Sasuke, he had long hair tied back in a low ponytail. Naruto frowned at him as he stood up. Is he Sasuke’s famous brother?

“Nii-san!” Sasuke yelled, putting his kunai into his holster. “What are you doing here?"

“Mother was getting worried because you still hadn’t come home from the Academy,” his brother said. “She asked me to find you.”

Sasuke nodded at Itachi’s words. “Sorry,” Sasuke said. “I lost track of time.”

Naruto walked closer to where Sasuke and his brother were standing.

“Hello,” Naruto greeted warily.

Sasuke’s brother turned his gaze down to him.

“Good evening,” he returned the greeting. “My name is Itachi Uchiha. Thank you for spending time with my brother.” He bowed his head.

Naruto blinked in surprise at the respectful tone. He bowed his head down briefly, not sure how else to react. “My name is Naruto Uzumaki,” he said. “It’s... nice to meet you.”

“Likewise,” he said. Naruto got the impression that Itachi was a lot more serious and respectful than his younger brother.

Naruto crossed his arms in front of his chest. “Sasuke says you’re really strong and that you know a lot about ninjutsu and stuff.”

“A lot of people seem to think so,” Itachi answered, face neutral. Naruto grinned.

“Sasuke can’t figure out this trick to throwing kunai,” Naruto tattled. “He says you can do it, but Sasuke can’t figure it out. I tell him to relax his grip, but he doesn’t want to do it!”

“Really?” Itachi asked. Naruto saw Sasuke look down at his feet in embarrassment.

“Yeah! Look! Look! I can do it but he can’t!” Naruto said.

With that declaration, Naruto took out two kunai and threw them, showing off the trick perfectly once again. With the task done, he looked back at Sasuke, a smirk on his face.

“I can do it!” Sasuke lied.

“Oh yeah! I wanna see it, ya know!” Naruto yelled while going to fetch his kunai.

Sasuke gulped. He looked up at his brother as if waiting for him to interrupt, but Itachi was silent. Naruto smirked. He’s not gonna save you, ya know?

Sasuke took out his kunai and threw them again. But instead of hitting their two separate targets, one kunai landed on the ground while another flew away in the distance. Itachi said nothing and Naruto could see Sasuke’s face burning in embarrassment. Without saying anything, Sasuke walked away to pick up his kunai.

“Argh! I told you to relax the grip!” Naruto yelled. “You’re too tense!”

“You’re not tense enough!” Sasuke yelled back, putting the kunai back.

“What does that mean? I got it right!”

“You’re too relaxed!”

“You’re too much of a jerk!”

“You’re a loser!”

“Shut up and relax!”

Naruto prepared himself for a spar when Sasuke tried to lunge forward. Before they could begin, however, Itachi grabbed his younger brother by the shoulder.

“Sasuke, you’re too tense,” Itachi said.

“W-what?” Sasuke asked, dumbfounded. Naruto smirked. I told you so!

Itachi nodded. Without waiting, he took out two kunai and threw them at their targets. As expected, they hit their marks exactly.

“Try again, but slacken your hand,” Itachi said, leading Sasuke back to the throwing point.

Naruto watched Sasuke breathing in and out to relax his grip on the kunai. He threw them. That time, instead of falling or ricocheting in the wrong direction, the two kunai hit their targets— slightly off-center. Sasuke smiled at the victory.

“Did you see that?” he said as he pulled on Itachi’s sleeve. “I did it!”

“Congratulations, little brother,” Itachi said. Sasuke grinned. Naruto thought it was the first time he’s seen Sasuke so excited.

“It’s off-center,” Naruto muttered. Sasuke glared at him and Naruto stuck his tongue out in return. But then he also grinned at him in congratulations. Sasuke looked away and Naruto rolled his eyes. Just take the compliment, jerk.

“Keep practicing, Sasuke,” Itachi said. “We need to go home, say goodbye to your friend.”

“He’s not my friend!” Sasuke and Naruto protested at the same time.

Itachi opened his mouth as if to say something before closing it and shaking his head. Without any other words, he took Sasuke’s shoulder and led him away from the training area.

“Goodbye!” Naruto yelled with a wave of his arm.

“See you.” Sasuke grunted as he walked away, refusing to meet his eyes.

Naruto grinned as he watched the two brothers leave. Despite their looks, the two brothers couldn't have been more different. At least Itachi is not a jerk.

O-O-O

“Is he really not your friend?” Itachi asked Sasuke once they had left the training area. “You seem to spend a lot of time with him.”

Sasuke scoffed. “He just has really good endurance, so we train together. I don’t really like him.”

“If you say so,” Itachi responded with obvious disbelief.

“He talks a lot with the Hyuuga heiress. Whatever her name is.”

Itachi sighed. “You need to remember your classmates, little brother.”

Sasuke shrugged.

O-O-O

“Do you know why Onoki wants to see both of us?” Roshi asked Han as they walked down the hall to the Tsuchikage’s office.

“Not sure,” Han answered, a small frown visible through the gap in his armor.

Roshi sighed. Onoki hadn’t called for both of them outside of general meetings since the Third Shinobi War ended. The world had been at peace for the past seven years and he hoped Onoki’s bad nature wouldn’t end that. If he tries to start a new war, I might try to kill him myself. I’ll probably die trying, but the risk might be worth it.

They reached the end of the hallway. Roshi didn't hesitate before pushing the door open, Han following behind him. Inside the office, Onoki sat alone behind his desk, looking at a map in front of him with a smirk.

“You called for us, Tsuchikage-sama?” Han said as he bowed down in front of the Tsuchikage. Roshi followed at his side.

“Yes, Han, Roshi.” Onoki turned to each of them in turn. “We received some interesting intel about Takigakure.”

A chill ran up Roshi’s spine. Fuu had told them about the chaos in the past few weeks. Their village leader had died, Fuu’s secret had become public, and the new head of Takigakure was barely more than a child. Fuu was caught in the middle: shunned by her classmates and fellow villagers. He knew her safety was in jeopardy while Takigakure settled down.

“What news have you heard?” Han asked, voice free of hesitation and worry. Roshi wished he had the same level of self-control.

“It’s related to the jinchuuriki of Takigakure,” Onoki said with a smirk. Roshi bit his cheek in an effort to appear as composed as Han.

“There is a jinchuuriki in Takigakure?” Han asked, feigning surprise.

“Well, we have always known they possessed the Nanabi,” Onoki said. “But we didn’t know any details. We didn’t know if the bijuu was contained inside a jinchuuriki, or if the jinchuuriki had any sort of control over it. But an informant of mine had confirmed that they do have a jinchuuriki,” Onoki continued. “And that their jinchuuriki is only a child: a young girl.”

Roshi’s heart beat faster inside his chest. “What do you expect Iwagakure to do with this information?” he asked.

“Iwagakure? Nothing for now,” Onoki answered. “But we've been given an excellent opportunity. In addition to learning about this jinchuuriki, my informant has let me know that Takigakure is currently in a very precarious situation.”

“How so?” Han asked, a frown the only sign of discomfort.

Onoki grinned. “The jinchuuriki’s identity was discovered during an attack on Takigakure. The previous village head, Hisen, was killed during the attack and left his son in charge. From what my informant says, the new village head is incredibly young and inexperienced.”

“What else has the informant told you?” Roshi asked. So some of the events of that day came out.

“Not much in detail,” Onoki admitted. “My informant got his information through an Amegakure shinobi that managed to escape. Apparently, a Takigakure missing-nin also abandoned the village the same day. But, my source has been unable to find him. All that my informant could figure out is that the jinchuuriki is a young girl. ”

“I see.” Han nodded. Roshi felt his shoulders marginally relax at the news. So they don’t know Fuu’s name or what she looks like.

“What would you like for us to do, Tsuchikage-sama?” Roshi asked. “Why have you called us here?”

Onoki grinned, showing all his teeth. Roshi felt a strong sense of foreboding coursing throughout his body. He bit his tongue to keep himself from saying anything.

“I want you two to enter Takigakure, find this child, and bring her back to Iwagakure,” Onoki said. “If you are unable to capture her, you are to assassinate her and bring back the body as proof.”

“You can’t!” Roshi yelled, slamming his hands on the desk.

“What do you mean I can’t!?” Onoki yelled back, face thunderous as he flew up in order to look down at Roshi.

Roshi flinched and tried to get his expression back in order.

“I only mean... uh... I don’t know if it would be the best idea,” Roshi said. He tried to force himself to appear like the tool Onoki desired above anything else.

“I believe Roshi is worried we would be starting a new war,” Han explained with his calm voice. If Roshi didn’t know any better, he would have thought Han didn’t care about Fuu’s fate.

Onoki grunted, floating back down and sitting behind the desk.

“It’s a rare opportunity to surpass the other villages,” Onoki explained. “Suna and Kumo are still recovering from the effects of the war. Konoha has an old and weakened man as their Hokage. Kiri is focused on its internal affairs. If we gain an advantage now, we will be unstoppable in the next shinobi war.”

“Konoha has a treaty with Taki,” Han said. “If we attack Takigakure and take their jinchuuriki, we are declaring war on Konoha in all but name. Suna is also allied with Konoha. We would see attacks from three fronts. Kumogakure is an ally, but they are unlikely to fight by our side if we start a war.”

Onoki waved Han’s objection away with a smirk. “It doesn’t matter if Konoha, Suna, and Taki declare war. We would have three bijuu at our disposal. At that point, no village could threaten us. Konoha is still rebuilding and mourning from the Kyuubi attack six years ago. Even if they have a jinchuuriki, six years is not enough to gain control over the Kyuubi.”

“I understand,” Roshi said, biting his tongue to calm himself, “but... I don’t know if attacking a child is the best course of action, Tsuchikage-sama.”

“You’ve done worse things during the last war, Roshi,” Onoki said with a scoff.

Roshi grimaced. “I remember.”

Grown men and women sobbing and pleading for their mothers. Recently graduated genin killed on the battlefield, too young to have truly lived. Shinobi forced to take their own friends out of their misery. He never wanted to see anything like that again. He wanted to be responsible for it even less.

“When do you expect us to set out, Tsuchikage-sama?” Han asked. Roshi’s heart beat faster in his chest.

“As soon as possible,” Onoki answered. “Taki’s jinchuuriki is currently vulnerable, but they will make a move to protect it soon.”

“Can we set out tomorrow morning?” Han asked. Roshi looked up at his friend. Han has a plan. 

“Of course,” Onoki answered. “No one is to find out about this, even other Iwagakure shinobi. This is a top-secret S-rank mission until you bring back the jinchuuriki or her body. Am I to be understood?”

Roshi nodded reluctantly. Despite knowing Han didn't plan to follow Onoki’s instructions, he couldn't help but feel like a traitor to Fuu and the other jinchuuriki.

Onoki nodded, satisfied in the false belief that his shinobi would follow orders.

“Is there anything else, Tsuchikage-sama?” Han asked.

Onoki shook his head. “That will be all. Prepare to leave as soon as you’re ready.”

Han and Roshi bowed their heads down together before turning around and leaving the office. Roshi bit his tongue.

“Let’s make a plan in my apartment,” Han said once the door was closed behind them. Roshi understood his true intentions. Stay quiet and wait. Roshi nodded in understanding as they walked together down the hallway.

Upon leaving the Tsuchikage’s office building, they headed toward Han’s apartment, walking side by side. Roshi wanted to run, but they needed to remain as inconspicuous as possible. They already got a lot of attention from the people of Iwagakure as it was.

“What the fuck!” Roshi yelled once they were alone in Han’s apartment and he had locked the door behind him. “What the fuck does that bastard want us to do?”

Han scoffed, his façade falling in the safety of his home. “I know, Roshi,” he said with a grimace.

Roshi clenched his fists at his sides and forced himself to exhale. “What are we going to do?”

“What else can we do?” Han asked. “Ignore the order.”

“Ignore it?” Roshi asked. “Can’t we go to Onoki’s office, kill him, and institute ourselves as the new Tsuchikage?”

Han sighed. “You want to be the Tsuchikage?”

“Not really.”

“Me neither. Besides, even working together, I’m not sure if we could defeat the old man. He’s surprisingly hardy for his age. Not to mention that his guards would jump in as soon as we started to attack.”

“So what are we going to do?” Roshi demanded.

“Pretend we’re leaving on the mission, but in reality run away from Iwa,” Han answered, plopping himself down on the sofa.

“Run away?”

“We can meet up with Yagura or something,” Han said nonchalantly as he stretched his arms over his head. Unlike Roshi, whose heart seemed to be beating a mile a minute, Han looked relaxed at being given the order to kidnap and potentially assassinate a ten-year-old girl.

“What would we do with Yagura?”

“Help him on his mission to find this organization chasing down jinchuuriki,” Han answered. “Or just meet up and talk to him in person for once. I’ve met Yugito before. Yagura would be interesting.”

“You’re taking this incredibly well, Han,” Roshi complained. “I don’t think it’s going to be as easy as you think. Once Onoki finds out we didn’t go to Takigakure, he’s going to hunt us down.”

Han shrugged. “There are a lot of powerful players already hunting us down,” he said. “What’s one more at this point?”

Roshi sighed. “Shouldn’t we talk to Yagura about this first? We don’t even know if he wants company.”

“That man is loneliness personified, Roshi,” Han said with a snort. “He would probably cry if he had someone at his side. The three of us might not stick together the entire time, but he will definitely enjoy the company.”

Roshi chuckled. Well, Han is right about that.

Roshi sat down at the armchair next to Han. He felt much calmer already. Onoki’s intentions with Fuu had rattled him more than he wanted to admit. Reassured with Han’s words, he took a few seconds to stare at the ceiling and allow his heart rate to slow down.

“I guess I should pack anything we wish to take with us?” he asked once the silence had stretched on for a few minutes.

“Probably. I have an extra sealing scroll if you need it.”

Roshi shook his head. “So do I. There’s not much I’m planning to take with me, anyway.”

Roshi stood up and made his way to Han’s door. “See you tonight,” he said. “We can discuss the situation in the Room.”

“Of course,” Han said. “Want to place a bet?”

“A bet?” Roshi raised a curious eyebrow.

“If Yagura will cry about having new company or not?”

Roshi chuckled as he left Han’s apartment and headed toward his own. He had a few hours to prepare everything he needed.

O-O-O

“So tomorrow morning when we wake up, we’re supposed to head out to Takigakure and kidnap Fuu,” Roshi finished explaining to Yagura.

Yagura sat cross-legged in front of him, a hand stroking his chin. After the children had left the Room and gone to sleep, Han had called on Yagura. The former Mizukage had joined them soon afterward, where they had told him about Onoki’s orders.

“So you’re not going to follow this order, I presume?” Yagura asked. “If you do, you will just throw the entire world into chaos.”

“We know,” Roshi said with a nod. “I might have tried fighting him, but the Tsuchikage is too powerful, even in his old age. Even working together, I’m not sure if Han and I could hold him off.”

“What’s your plan, then?” Yagura asked.

Han and Roshi shared glances.

“We’re going to ignore the order,” Han said.

“Of course.” Yagura nodded his agreement.

“And when we’re far enough away, we will find you. We will set out together to track down the organization you’re looking for,” Roshi added.

“Find me?” Yagura asked, eyes open wide in surprise.

“We might not stay all three together the entire time,” Han admitted. “But three heads are better than one. It’s not like we have anything else to do if we abandon Iwagakure.”

“You could claim asylum in a different village,” Yagura suggested.

“Will becoming part of a different village actually change much?”

Yagura sighed and shook his head. “Not likely,” he admitted. “Still, once you leave Iwagakure, you can spend it relaxing in hot springs or at the beach instead. Tracking down this mercenary group is my responsibility. I have to protect Kirigakure. You don’t need to follow my lead.”

Roshi scoffed. “To be honest, I don’t really care about Kirigakure,” he admitted. “But... it’s your village. Your family is there, isn’t it? We will help you, not because we have to, but because we want to.”

Han nodded along. “We leave Iwagakure tomorrow morning,” he said. “Where can we meet up? Somewhere in the Land of Fire would be ideal. It’s one of the most stable regions.”

Speechless, Yagura’s eyes widened at their admissions. For a wild second, Roshi worried that Yagura would actually burst into tears. To his relief, the former Mizukage’s face remained composed.

“I... uh...” Yagura cleared his throat. “I can tell you more once you are closer. Talk to me once you get to Tanzaku Quarters. I’ll meet you somewhere there. People don’t ask questions in Tanzaku Quarters. It’s infamous for a reason.”

“Of course,” Han said with a nod of his head.

Yagura cleared his throat again. “I will see you soon,” he said. “Goodnight.”

Without waiting for a reply, he disappeared from the Room, leaving Han and Roshi sitting together side by side.

“You think he might cry?” Roshi asked with a smirk.

“Definitely crying now,” Han answered. “I told you so.”

“It wasn’t a question of if, but of when,” Roshi retorted.

Han laughed.

Chapter Text

“The last thing I want to see is the henge,” Takumi said from behind his desk.

Fuu grinned. Without any hesitation, she put her hands into the ram sign and gathered her chakra. A second later, a perfect copy of Takumi stood in her place giggling. The second Takumi pranced around the classroom. Fuu let go of the transformation and she reappeared, a cloud of smoke surrounding her.

“Look! Sensei! I did it! Do I pass now?” she yelled. Takumi smiled before writing something down on his clipboard.

As Fuu waited for her answer, she thought about the previous exam portions. The written test had been the hardest, with a lot of material that they had yet to cover in her year’s group. But after weeks of study and motivation from Chomei and the other jinchuuriki, she had managed to get through it.

The practical portion had been much easier. Even without extra help, she had held her own against Takumi in a spar, avoiding his attacks and hitting back when necessary. Ninjutsu had been easy too. She had shown off her substitution and clone jutsu without any issues.

“Of course you pass, Fuu-chan,” Takumi said as he finished writing on his clipboard. “It’s not the best score I’ve ever seen, but it’s enough to graduate early.”

Fuu cheered and she scurried closer to his desk. “For real? I’m a genin now?” she grinned.

Takumi nodded. “Yes, here, take your hitai-ate.” He held out a new forehead protector for her.

Fuu took it and immediately wrapped it around her head. It felt a lot heavier than she had expected.

“Do I have to wear it around my forehead?” she whined. “It’s kind of heavy.”

“You don’t have to,” Takumi answered. Fuu hummed, deep in thought. She would have to think about the best place to tie it.

Takumi grinned before his face turned serious once more and he met her eyes. “Fuu, I hope you know what this means.”

Fuu’s heart began to beat faster. “What do you mean, Takumi-sensei?” she asked.

“You’re no longer a child,” he said. “Normally, you would be sent on missions along with other genin, but because of... the incident, you won’t be able to leave the country for a long time.”

“What? But... why?” she yelled, slamming the palms of her hands against the desk.

Takumi sighed. “Your safety is the most important thing,” he explained. “Until we know for sure that no one outside of Takigakure knows you are a jinchuuriki, we can’t allow you to leave. If someone were to capture you, or worse, the safety of the village would be at risk.”

Fuu nodded, clutching at the hem of her skirt. She had already known the risks, but with the hitai-ate on her forehead, the threat of war seemed more real. I still wish I could go on missions, though.

“So what’s going to happen to me?” Fuu asked. “What’s the point of making me a genin at all?”

“You will be training outside of the village,” Takumi said. “I will go with you. A few other Takigakure shinobi will also go with us. We will stay in hiding until we believe you are strong enough to defend yourself and the village.”

“So we won’t be living in Takigakure anymore?” she asked, biting her lip.

Takumi’s eyes softened. “No. Not for a few years at least. Not until we confirm your safety and the safety of the village.”

“I see...” she answered, looking down at her feet. Despite the hate she had gotten since Suien’s attack, the idea of abandoning the village left a pit in her stomach. It had always been her home. She would miss it.

“Don’t worry though, Fuu,” Takumi said, able to read her expression. “We will still return to talk to Shibuki-sama and Senji-sama and give our progress reports. And if everything goes according to plan, we can come back to the village before you know it.”

Fuu bit her lip and nodded. “Will I have time to pack?” she asked.

“You will,” Takumi answered. “We leave tomorrow afternoon. You have the rest of the day to prepare everything you want to take with us. We will stay in a compound outside of the village a few hours away from here. It has all the basic amenities.”

“I understand,” Fuu said, trying to inject cheerfulness into her voice. “I will be ready by tomorrow.”

Takumi nodded and smiled at her. Fuu grinned back, although she had to force it. She turned around and left the classroom. She walked back home, making a mental catalog of everything she planned to take along with her, ignoring everyone she met along the way.

Once Fuu arrived home, she spent the rest of the day going through all of her things. She had more clothes than she had imagined, many of which she had not worn since Kushina was still alive. She sorted through her weapons as well, leaving behind her broken or rusted tools. After hours of sorting, she found herself with two boxes of her personal things and a large bag full of weapons.

She fell asleep late, exhausted after all her work. I hope whoever is going with me will help me carry everything.

When she appeared in the Room, Roshi and Naruto were listening to something that Gaara was saying. Their faces were intense and focused on Gaara's words. They only waved hello to her before returning to their conversation.

“And then, he said that I should listen to him because he’s the older one,” Gaara complained, face full of annoyance. “Even though I have a lot more experience than he does and even Temari listens to what I say.”

“Is your brother causing you trouble again, Gaara-chan?” she asked as she joined their circle.

Gaara rolled his eyes and snorted. “Yeah,” he answered. “After he complained about me not caring about Sunagakure, he didn’t want to listen to anything I say! He thinks that just ‘cause he’s older than me, he can boss me around!”

Fuu grimaced in sympathy. Ever since Gaara’s siblings had moved in with him, his life had gotten more difficult. Ever since, he had felt disconnected in his own home, surrounded by people who hated and feared him. She hoped the day Gaara left Sunagakure would come soon.

“And what’s going on with you, Fuu-chan?” Roshi asked, avoiding her gaze. For the past few days, he had been acting strange but Fuu had no idea as to why. He seemed reluctant about something but she didn’t want to pry.

Fuu beamed. Naruto and Gaara look up at her, eyes full of curiosity.

“I got promoted into a genin today!” she announced.

“Congrats!” Naruto yelled as he jumped up to hug her around the midsection. Gaara followed his lead, wrapping his arms around both of them. Fuu grinned down at the children wrapped around her waist.

“A genin?” Roshi asked, surprised. “Already?”

“Yup!” she answered with a grin. “I passed the exam! Takumi-sensei said it wasn’t as good as someone who had taken all years at the Academy, but that it was good enough to graduate.”

“I see,” Roshi answered, scratching his beard in contemplation. “Are you going to start doing missions now?”

Fuu sighed heavily and she shook her head. “Not exactly,” she said. “Takumi-sensei says that my safety is the most important thing. So I won’t be doing missions or anything.”

“Oh? Then what’s the point?” Roshi asked as he placed a hand on top of her head.

“Shibuki-sama wants me to be out of the Academy,” she explained. “So then Takumi-sensei can take me to some secret compound and train me.”

“Wait, secret compound? You’re not staying inside the village?” Roshi asked. For some reason Fuu couldn't fathom, he appeared relieved about something.

Fuu shook her head. “No, he says it’s dangerous for me to stay in Takigakure after my secret got revealed. They want to make sure no one from another country knows about me or, that if they do, they can’t find me.”

“I see,” Roshi answered, eyes full of relief. “Your safety is the most important thing, Fuu. Listen to them and keep yourself safe. Do you hear me?”

Fuu wanted to roll her eyes at his words. I know how to take care of myself! But there was something in Roshi’s expression that told her that the man was serious about the warning.

“I will,” she promised. She bent her head down and pressed a kiss on Gaara and Naruto’s crowns. Naruto giggled while Gaara blushed and grinned. Fuu’s heart felt ready to burst at the sight.

“So what have you been learning recently, kids?” she asked.

Immediately, both Gaara and Naruto’s eyes lit up. They began to babble about sand clones, kunai, endurance, and team drills over each other. Fuu listened, offering her own advice when needed.

O-O-O

“Is this the place?” Roshi asked.

Han looked around the entrance to the village. All around him were gambling houses full of drunkards, call girls, and scammers. In the background, he could see a large castle, emblematic of Tanzaku Quarters. It was the kind of village where people woke up without kidneys.

Han nodded. “This is the place. I’m certain.”

Roshi grunted. Side by side, they walked down the main street, ignoring anyone who tried to grab their attention.

For the past few weeks, they had been wandering through the countryside, trying not to leave a trail. Upon abandoning Iwagakure, they had gone down the mountains through the land of Grass. From there, they had traveled through the forests, skirting the border of the land of rain. They knew they had arrived in the Land of Fire when the landscape changed from empty grasslands to giant forests.

They had let go of their disguises after passing through the border. No one outside of the Land of Stone would be able to tell who they were anyway. They also needed to find Yagura as fast as possible. Disguises would only make the task more difficult.

“The castle is this way,” Roshi said, pointing down an empty street.

“I think the fastest way is through there,” Han said at the same time. He pointed in the opposite direction down an equally deserted street. They stared at each other.

Roshi sighed as he took out a scroll from inside his sleeve. “Do we need to check the map again?”

Han grunted in assent. “Let me see.”

Han stared over Roshi’s shoulder as he opened the map and started to read. It was an old map, dated during the time of the Second Shinobi War. Roshi grumbled while Han narrowed his eyes in exasperation. Onoki should have just made an alliance with Konoha. Then we could actually know where we are.

“So if we’re here, then that means...” Roshi muttered to himself.

“I think we’re actually here,” Han responded as he pointed to a different part of the city.

“No! The main street is here, so we have to...”

“The streets changed, so then—”

“You know, you can ask for directions,” a deep voice interrupted from behind them. Han turned around and looked down.

In front of him stood a man that could pass as Roshi’s father. But instead of Roshi’s red hair and dark eyes, his eyes were a dark pink color while his hair was grey. He leaned against a wall, making him look less like an old man and more like a teenager trying too hard.

“Yagura?” Roshi asked, voice full of annoyance.

The disguised Yagura rolled his eyes and put a finger to his lips. “My name is Akio, not Yagura.”

“Ah, yes, of course, Akio,” Han said. “We’ve been searching for you.”

“Yes, for a while... father,” Roshi said, obviously indignant. Han didn’t know why.

Yagura lifted up an eyebrow, equally perplexed, before flinching and looking in the other direction. “So, yeah, anyway, we should go somewhere private to talk.”

Yagura turned around and began to make his way back to the main street. Unlike when he first introduced himself, he walked gingerly, like an old man. Han and Roshi followed next to him.

“Would you like any help, father? Maybe I can help you cross the street?” Roshi asked, sounding annoyed about something that Han couldn't understand.

Yagura blushed for some reason and cleared his throat. “That won’t be necessary... son. I’m still healthy enough to walk on my own.”

Han frowned to himself. What the hell is going on? Not wanting to blow their cover, he followed behind them at a small distance, acting as a respectful bodyguard. Predictably, a few strangers turned to look at him, amazed by his height. Han tried not to fidget. Maybe I should have used a henge to not stand out.

As Yagura and Roshi walked side by side, Roshi emanated an aura of fury that kept people away. Meanwhile, Yagura hunched over. Han was not sure if it was because he was pretending to be an old man or because he feared Roshi

They traveled through the town for what felt like hours but what must have been only a few minutes. They entered the forest surrounding the village, leaving the chaos and revelry behind. Yagura led them to a small clearing next to a river. Once they were alone, he dropped the act of a feeble old man and he waved a hand nonchalantly.

“The coast is clear,” he said. “I set some proximity alarm seals.”

“Why the hell are you still using my face for your stunts?” Roshi yelled at once.

Ah, so that’s why Roshi was angry.

“Well, you see...” Yagura said, looking away in embarrassment. “I already sort of started my life as Akio, so changing my face would be too troublesome.”

“You can just get a new identity then!” Roshi yelled, crossing his arms across his chest. “Change your face and start over! Why do you even need to use the face of someone you know? Make your own!”

“Uh... well...” Yagura shifted uneasily. “I’m actually not very good at transformations. Whenever I try to make my own face, it always comes out kind of wonky.”

“Weren’t you a Mizukage?” Han asked, raising an eyebrow in surprise.

“So? Everyone has weaknesses,” Yagura whined. “Besides, if we travel together, I can just pretend to be Roshi’s father, right?”

“I guess?” Han shrugged. Roshi glared up at him as if in betrayal. He huffed in anger and stomped toward the bank of the river. He began to pace back and forth, muttering to himself.

Yagura started to make his way to his side, but Han grabbed onto his shoulder and shook his head. Just let him get it all out.

Yagura nodded reluctantly and together, the two men set up camp for the night. Han got a fire started while Yagura caught fish from the river. A few minutes later, they had a cozy fire going and a collection of fish cooking on sticks. They sat around the campfire in silence, waiting for the fish to cook and for Roshi to calm down. They watched Roshi pacing, grumbling and occasionally glaring in Yagura’s direction.

Yagura fidgeted and walked to Han’s side. “How long until he calms down?” he whispered.

Han shrugged. “Not long,” he whispered back. “He’ll tire himself out when it’s time to eat.”

Han turned his eyes to look at the fish roasting by the fire. Yagura sat next to him, raising his eyes to glance at Roshi every once in a while. As Han expected, Roshi joined them when the fish was ready to eat.

“Still think you should change your disguise,” Roshi grumbled as he sat next to Han, farther away from Yagura.

“Kind of late now,” Yagura responded, blowing on his fish to cool it down. “I can be your daddy though, don’t worry.”

“Please don’t say it like that,” Roshi said, looking green. Han chuckled. At least Yagura’s not making fun of me this time.

“So what’s the plan?” Han asked as he pulled his mask down to eat. At once, Yagura stared at him, face incredulous.

“So that’s what you look like under the mask...” the former Mizukage muttered to himself. “For some reason, I was expecting something more interesting. Like, a facial scar or a tentacle.”

“A tentacle?” Han rubbed his chin self-consciously. Now that he thought about it, he had never appeared unmasked inside the Room. His armor was too intrinsic to who he was as a person.

“You’re just so... normal?” Yagura continued.

“Thank you?” Han answered, taking a bite of his fish. Roshi chuckled, his anger already fading.

Han cleared his throat and tried to get the conversation centered. “So what’s the plan then?”

Yagura shrugged. “I don’t know, I was kind of hoping you would help me figure out what to do.”

“Weren’t you the Mizukage? Isn’t leadership part of your job description?” Han asked. This man is surprisingly flaky for a former Kage.

“We all have our weaknesses,” Yagura said, chewing on his fish. “Even us Kage.”

“Why did they make you the Mizukage, again?”

Yagura shrugged. “The last Mizukage died in mysterious circumstances. I just so happened to be there, ready to take up the mantle.”

Did he kill the last Mizukage? Han forced himself to leave the speculation for later. He had to focus on the mission at hand.

“What have you been doing in the past few years, anyway?” Roshi asked.

Yagura waved his hand in a vague motion. “You know, going here and there. Collecting information. Fishing.”

Han sighed. “Aren’t you supposed to be protecting your village?”

“Mei is doing a very good job of it so far,” Yagura retorted. “Utakata-kun has been telling me about it. She’s improving the Academy system a lot. He said she wants to improve the medical system as well.”

Han nodded. “Have you found any new leads about this organization?”

Yagura shook his head in annoyance. “No, I haven’t seen this Takigakure man again either. Even though I’ve been going to the bounty collection center as often as I can without raising suspicions! I think we might just have to wait for them to make a move.”

“I’m most worried about the children” Roshi admitted. “Naruto and Gaara should be fine behind the walls of their village, but Fuu’s secret is public knowledge in Takigakure. I know she’s going to be in hiding for the next few years for training, but I still worry.”

“I know,” Yagura said, face serious for once. “But I can’t do anything right now. The only thing we can do is to travel together and look for intel and allies.”

Han nodded reluctantly. “Hopefully three heads are better than one,” he said with a sigh. He took another bite of his fish. They fell into silence as they ate, each lost in his own thoughts.

“We should infiltrate Sunagakure and kidnap Gaara,” Roshi said. Han almost choked on a fishbone.

“We’re fugitives from Iwa,” Han replied, suppressing his coughing. “If we try that, we’re putting not just our lives at risk, but also Gaara’s. He’s only a child.”

“It’s too risky,” Yagura added reluctantly.

Roshi sighed. “I know,” he admitted. “But it’s a nice dream. Maybe we can do it when Onoki has kicked the bucket. He’s already ancient. I doubt he has more than a year or two left in him.”

You’re wrong Roshi. That man will outlast both of us.

“Why do we need to stay in hiding anyway?” Han asked.

“What do you mean why?” Yagura said. “I have to make sure people don’t know I’m still alive.”

Han shook his head. “Not you. Roshi and I. Onoki is no doubt already looking for us and tearing what remains of his hair out. He knows we have declared ourselves as missing-nin.” He shared glances with Roshi. “We can offer ourselves as bait for the organization we’re hunting down.”

Yagura winced. “I don’t know if I feel comfortable offering you two up,” he admitted. “I don’t want to put your lives at risk. Whoever brainwashed me for all those years was strong enough to take over and make me shit all over Kirigakure. I dread to think of what might happen to you.”

“We won’t be alone, though,” Roshi said. “We will watch over each other. If we stick together, especially with the power of our collective bijuu, I’m sure it will all work out.”

Yagura nodded reluctantly. “Are you sure about that?”

Roshi smirked. “Positive. Han and I can offer ourselves as bait. We will make ourselves infamous.” The roar of the fire made shadows dance across his face. For a moment he looked as dangerous as the people of Iwagakure thought.

“Infamous, you say?” Han couldn't help but chuckle at the declaration.

O-O-O

Gaara walked atop the desert dunes, Temari and Kankuro slightly behind him. Baki was at the end of their group, keeping an eye on his students.

After weeks of training, the Kazekage had seen fit to assign them their first mission as a group and Gaara’s second mission overall. There had been more bandits attacking Sunagakure travelers, that time skulking near the border with the Land of Rivers. The Kazekage had ordered them to find and eliminate the threat.

Temari and Kankuro had been silent on their journey to the border, a fact Gaara appreciated. They hadn’t talked to him ever since they set out from the Kazekage’s office. With a mission on their shoulders and Baki keeping an eye on them, Kankuro said nothing while Temari fretted.

“We will have to stop and rest before we reach the border,” Baki called out from behind them. “Only an hour of travel more.”

“Thank you, Baki,” Temari said, obviously exhausted and trying not to show it. Kankuro only grunted from her side.

With their agreement, Baki jumped to the front, leading them toward a hidden oasis in the desert. When they arrived, Temari and Kankuro collapsed, panting. Gaara only stretched his arms and legs. With the help of the sand, he could travel across the dunes without the same level of effort.

Gaara looked around the oasis in curiosity. It was small, with only a well as a source of water. Date palms grew abundantly, no doubt fed from underground. Gaara approached the well first. He took a sip of water, not letting a single drop fall to waste.

“Temari, Kankuro, Gaara-sama,” Baki called them. Obediently, Temari and Kankuro stood in front of him. Gaara joined them, distancing himself from them.

“We will take sleeping shifts,” Baki said, focusing his gaze on Temari and Kankuro. “It’s highly unlikely that we will be attacked here, but it never hurts to be careful. Which of you two wish to take the first watch?” He turned his gaze to Gaara. “Gaara-sama, I assume you will provide an additional set of eyes and ears during the night?”

Gaara nodded. He had lived his entire life without sleeping. He could afford another night awake.

Temari and Kankuro broke into muttering as they decided on who would stay awake first. Finally, they raised their heads and looked up at Baki.

“Kankuro will take first watch and I’ll take second,” Temari said, voice full of authority. Gaara blinked. She’s never that bossy when she’s talking to me.

Baki nodded in acknowledgment. With that agreement in place, they set up camp. Baki started a small fire, Temari collected water, and Kankuro prepared their dinner. Gaara stared at them as they worked, feeling strangely left out.

They ate together soon after, a basic meal prepared in advance for the mission. Gaara ate in silence, but his siblings were loud in comparison. They laughed as they teased each other about things he couldn't understand. Baki watched, his lips quirking up in amusement. Despite being surrounded by people he knew, Gaara felt incredibly alone.

Gaara looked up at the full moon. Naruto and Fuu are probably in the Room right now. After years of practice, he could stay there for almost an hour without fearing for Shukaku to come out. He vowed to join them as soon as possible before the mission continued.

With dinner finished, Temari curled up in her sleeping bag near the fire. Baki sat nearby, appearing to sleep. Kankuro glared at Gaara before turning his gaze to the fire with a frown. Gaara resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Stop trying to make everything my fault.

With nothing else to do, Gaara sat cross-legged, leaning against a date palm. He breathed in and out, forcing his heart rate to slow and his breathing to relax. After years of experience with meditation, he calmed down in seconds. Almost immediately, he felt the familiar sensation pulling him into the Room.

When he opened his eyes, he had appeared in the center of the Room. As expected, Naruto and Fuu were already there. Yugito, Utakata, and B joined them, all five of them chatting about something. When they saw him, they waved enthusiastically at him.

“Hello everyone!” Gaara returned their greetings with a grin as he ran to join them.

“Gaara-chan! You’re just in time!” Fuu said, eyes bright with excitement. “We were just talking about the best place to wear a hitai-ate! I told them that it felt very heavy on my forehead, so I was saying that I think I should wear it somewhere else.”

“A hitai-ate is called a forehead protector for a reason,” Yugito argued. “I only wear mine on my forehead. It’s to show your alliance to your village.”

“It’s the same for me, I completely agree. If it’s not on the forehead, you’ll get a sore head, oh yeah!” Killer B sang.

“I only wear my hitai-ate during official missions,” Utakata confessed. “It’s too much trouble to wear it all the time. Maybe I should just tie it around my neck or something.”

“Oooh! Oooh! Fuu-chan! Put it around your belly! It’ll be like a belt, ya know!” Naruto suggested with bright eyes.

Fuu giggled. “I guess it would be more of a belly protector, then?” she mused before she turned her eyes back to Gaara. “And what do you think Gaara-chan?”

Gaara opened his mouth to speak. But before he could say anything, he felt his connection disintegrating as his mind returned to the physical world. He opened his eyes to look into the terrified face of Baki. Hiding behind him, Kankuro and Temari looked past their teacher’s shoulders. They stared at Gaara with fear and muttered something about sleeping.

Gaara felt a rush of fury and hate enter his body. Predictably, the sand inside his gourd began to swish back and forth. He breathed out and his face reformed into the familiar mask.

“What?” he snapped, his annoyance coming out more easily than usual.

“You were falling asleep, Gaara-sama,” Baki said. “I woke you up.”

“I wasn’t sleeping. I was meditating,” Gaara answered, feeling his heart pounding faster in anger.

Kankuro snorted. “Your eyes were closed. You were definitely falling asleep.”

Gaara opened his mouth to speak before realizing that arguing with his brother was useless. Defeated, he shook his head. It’s not like I can tell them about the Room or anything.

“Fine,” Gaara said. “I’ll stop meditating just for you.”

Kankuro frowned at Gaara’s tone but said nothing. Baki and Temari shared worried glances but remained silent.

“Are you all right, Gaara-sama?” Baki asked.

“I’m fine,” Gaara answered, tone angrier than he intended.

Temari and Kankuro flinched. The worry in their eyes intensified. Temari bit her lip and shook her head before walking back to her sleeping bag. Kankuro glared one last time before taking his place back in front of the fire.

Baki stayed for longer, looking Gaara up and down, as if waiting for something. But when Gaara still said nothing, Baki moved back to his post, throwing Gaara one last concerned glance.

Gaara exhaled, slow and deep, trying to get himself to calm down. He heard the voices in his head from the other jinchuuriki. In the background, Shukaku was trying to interrupt, more vicious than normal. It was giving him a headache.

‘Can’t you just leave me alone?’ Gaara complained.

‘Hey! I’m just worried cause you left all a sudden, ya know!’

Gaara flinched. ‘Sorry, Naruto, I was trying to talk to Shukaku.’

‘Oh. That’s fine then! Is everything okay?’ Naruto asked.

‘Everything is fine. My siblings and teacher were concerned I was falling asleep so they woke me up. They didn’t believe me when I said I was meditating, so I guess I have to stay awake all night now.’

He felt the other jinchuuriki cringing in sympathy.

‘In that case, we’ll stay and talk to you. How does that sound?’ Yugito said.

‘I suppose.’ Listening to the other jinchuuriki was better than nothing. But joining the Room always made Shukaku only a whisper in the back of his mind. Without them, Shukaku’s torture was excruciating.

‘Sure! So what do you think would be a good place to wrap my hitai-ate?' Fuu asked, returning to their previous conversation effortlessly. The change of topic cheered him up more than any words of encouragement.

Gaara forced his face to remain neutral. If Kankuro panicked when he closed his eyes, he couldn't imagine his reaction if he were to smile randomly.

‘Maybe around the leg?’ Gaara suggested.

From there, they had a long conversation about hitai-ate, with frequent arguments and terrible raps from Killer B. Gaara struggled not to giggle. The others were terrified enough of him without adding random bursts of laughter.

Eventually, however, the others departed, leaving Gaara alone with Shukaku’s voice for company. Without any time spent in the Room, the bijuu’s voice was louder than usual and more insistent. The beginnings of his headache intensified into a migraine. He rubbed at his temples, but it didn’t help. He stayed awake the rest of the night, trying to fight the voice of the beast.

Daybreak came as a relief. With a mission on the way, it was easier to ignore his pounding head. They ate breakfast while Baki reviewed their mission objective. Once satisfied that the three of them understood their responsibilities, they set off. They broke down camp and made their way to the border with the Land of Rivers.

Gaara felt more tired than usual as they left. His head pounded and he couldn't block out Shukaku at all. A few times, he winced and rubbed at his temples in pain. Temari and Kankuro looked at him, fearful of his mental condition, but they said nothing. Baki asked him if he was ready for the mission and Gaara lied with a nod.

“This way,” Baki said. They followed behind him as Baki led them near the border. Gaara had to force himself not to stop and stare. He had never seen such large trees before in person. Did Fuu and Naruto see trees like that every day?

They traveled in silence for a few minutes until Baki motioned for them to stop. Gaara and his siblings froze, waiting for their orders. Baki motioned for Gaara to move closer. Obedient as usual, Gaara went to stand at Baki’s side.

“Our targets are nearby,” he whispered. “Can you capture them from here?”

Gaara nodded in agreement, too tired to talk. His migraine was getting worse. The only thing he wanted was to go home and join the Room, if only to block out Shukaku for a few minutes.

As silent as possible, he walked down the direction Baki had pointed to. He could sense his teacher following closely behind, sticking to the trees using chakra. While Gaara couldn't use chakra to climb trees yet, he used the sand to cushion his footsteps, passing through the underbrush in silence.

He found their targets a few minutes later, enjoying a late breakfast around a campfire. They didn’t look like villains, only like regular people. But Gaara knew there would be consequences if he dared to disobey. Reluctantly, Gaara stepped closer to them as he waited for Baki’s signal.

Baki surveyed the situation from his position high in the canopy. After a few minutes of checking, he nodded and signed a few words with his hand. It’s time.

Gaara didn’t hesitate. He knew exactly what he had to do. He called upon his chakra and the sand left his gourd to travel underground. The pressure inside his head intensified, but he forced himself to concentrate on the sand’s movement. It was more difficult than normal and he felt beads of sweat dripping down his back and his forehead at the effort.

Despite the exertion, however, the sand did his bidding. It found its targets easily, sneaking up behind them. The bandits had only a second to shout in surprise before the sand collapsed on them, killing them in an instant.

Immediately, the migraine disappeared. His mind was clear for the first time in the day as Shukaku’s voice faded. His own thoughts seemed louder than normal. Relief combined with guilt coursed through his body.

Exhausted with the previous effort to keep Shukaku’s voice under control, he collapsed panting on his knees. He felt a smile tug at his lips in relief and he giggled, despite himself. The lack of pain was liberating. He’s gone. He’s quiet. Finally. He almost wanted to cry in relief.

“G-Gaara-sama?” Baki stuttered before approaching him.

Gaara flinched. He had forgotten that he wasn’t alone. “The mission is finished,” he said. “They’re dead.”

“I... I see, Gaara-sama,” Baki answered, talking to him with the same tone of voice Temari always used. It made him irrationally angry.

“Don’t talk to me like that,” he snapped. He heard the sand swishing furiously inside his gourd. Baki flinched back, face full of fear.

Gaara forced himself to breathe out, as slow as he could. The sand began to settle down until it was inert once more. He rubbed at his temples. Shukaku was silent, but an echo of the pain remained.

“Let’s go back to Suna,” Gaara said. He needed to meditate and talk to the other jinchuuriki. It was the only thing that might manage to calm him down.

Baki nodded reluctantly before leading Gaara back to where Temari and Kankuro were waiting in hiding. His brother and sister stared at Gaara like they had never seen him before. Gaara ignored them as best as he could.

He brushed past without looking at them as he took the lead in the direction back to Sunagakure. They followed behind him, farther away than before. Gaara tried to tell himself he shouldn’t care what they thought of him. But no matter how much he lied to himself, he couldn't make himself believe it.

He could at least enjoy Shukaku’s silence for the journey back to Sunagakure.

Chapter Text

Since they let out for summer break, Sasuke had been bored out of his mind.

During the summer, the children from clans usually trained and sparred with the other members of their family. Meanwhile, civilian children used their time away from school to relax at home and play games.

Sasuke, however, had nothing to do. His father and brother were too busy with their work to spend more than a few minutes with him. His mother, while she tried her best, had barely more free time to spend with him.

He tried to remember what he used to do before starting school, but his mind drew a blank. None of his toys looked interesting anymore and the only things that kept him entertained at all were books. He didn’t want to admit it, but he missed Naruto.

“Mom, I’m bored,” Sasuke whined to his mother.

She was poring over some documents related to the clan finances. The numbers were long and the table made no sense to him. Apparently, they made little sense to his father too, which was why his mother took care of their money.

His mother looked up, peering at him over the table. “What do you want me to do, Sasuke?” she asked with a kind smile. “I’m a little busy right now. I can teach you a new technique after lunch.”

“Lunch?” Sasuke asked, dismayed. It was only nine in the morning. He wasn’t sure he could survive until then.

She sighed, shaking her head exasperatedly. “Why don’t you go look for your friends?” she asked. “I’m sure they would appreciate your company.”

“I don’t know where any of them live,” he admitted.

On the last day of school, a few of his classmates, mostly girls, had asked for his address. He had refused. He was not going to share that information with just anyone.

Later, during their afterschool training, he had considered asking for Naruto's contact information. But at the end of their sparring, they had said goodbye like they always did: with insults and name-calling. Sasuke didn't want to admit it, but he regretted not sharing his address with Naruto.

“Why don’t you go look for them?” his mother asked, writing something on the margins of the paper. “It’s a long shot, but it’s a part of being a ninja.”

“Part of being a ninja?” he asked. “I don’t get it.”

“When you’re a fully-fledged shinobi, you will have missions to find specific targets,” she explained, her eyes focused on her work. “Think of this as your first mission: find your friends and play with them.”

“A mission?” Sasuke felt excitement coursing throughout his body. My first mission!

His mother nodded, giving him a gentle smile. “As long as you’re back before noon,” she added. “I don’t want to have to go on my own mission, especially if I’m not paid for it. You can bring your friends back here for lunch if you want.”

Sasuke nodded enthusiastically. He had no idea where Naruto lived, but he was sure that he could figure it out. “Okay, Mom,” he said. “I’ll be back soon.”

“You best,” she said, waving him away. She wrote something else on the margin.

Sasuke didn’t wait as he ran out of the Uchiha compound and headed to the center of the village.

O-O-O

Naruto missed the Academy. Without the distraction of school, his days were long and boring. He spent most of the day inside, watering plants and reading books. He tried training by himself, but alone, it wasn’t fun.

On the last day, he had asked Hinata for her address and he had shared his. But the information was useless. She would spend the entire summer holiday training with her clan and Naruto couldn’t join in. He had smiled and nodded, pretending it was fine, but he missed her company. He hoped her summer training would make the separation worth it when she came back, stronger than before.

He missed Sasuke too, although he almost didn’t want to admit it. There were only so many times he could hit a wooden post before he hoped for it to hit back. He wished he had asked Sasuke for his contact information before they parted ways on the last day of school. But he had forgotten and by the time he remembered, it had been too late.

Bored indoors, he decided to go outside and wander the streets and forests of Konoha. Part of himself hoped to run into Sasuke, or even Shikamaru or Chouji.

With that hope in mind, he wandered through the village, trying to ignore all the dirty looks people threw at him. He had thought about retaliating, but the other jinchuuriki had told him that it was pointless. Utakata was especially firm about the idea that ignoring them would be the best course of action.

“There is no way for you to win, Naruto,” Utakata had said, looking abnormally serious. “If you try to take revenge, they will only see you as a troublemaker. And if you try to be nice, they will step on your kindness and break it. The best thing to do is pretend it doesn’t hurt.”

With Utakata's words in mind, Naruto searched for his friends and classmates. He pretended he couldn’t see the dirty looks or hear the ugly things they said about him.

It was when he was near the village center, close to the Hokage’s office and the Academy, that he saw Sasuke. The other boy was wandering through the main street, looking around. What the heck is he doing?

“Sasuke!” he yelled, running toward him.

Sasuke turned around. His eyes widened in surprise at the sight of Naruto before turning into a neutral expression.

“Sasuke! Sasuke! Sasuke!” Naruto yelled as he approached the other boy.

“What do you want, Loser?” Sasuke asked with a smirk, placing his hands inside his pockets.

Naruto shook a fist. “Just saying hello, ya know! Don’t need to be so rude!”

Sasuke rolled his eyes. “Well, hello. Is that all you wanted?”

Naruto sighed. Well, I tried. “Geez, I’m just trying to be polite.”

Sasuke looked away before answering. “I know. Sorry.”

Naruto shifted his feet. It was the first time Sasuke had ever apologized without someone bigger making him. It was a strange experience.

“What have you been doing during the summer holiday?” Naruto asked, trying to change the topic. Sasuke is being weird.

“Not much,” Sasuke answered. “Some training. Shuriken and kunai practice. Normal stuff.”

“Sparring?” Naruto’s eyes lit up.

Sasuke shifted his feet. “Not really,” he admitted. “My family is too busy. And they always go easy on me, anyway.”

Naruto felt his heart beat faster with excitement and he moved closer. Sasuke took a step back but didn't run away.

“Do you want to spar?” Naruto asked, his enthusiasm making him shake. “I have time right now, ya know!”

Sasuke swallowed, a frown on his face. “My mother told me to come back before noon,” he said.

“Oh.” Naruto sighed, defeated. Just when I thought we could hang out for a bit.

“But... she said I could invite anyone if I met them while I was in the village,” Sasuke continued.

Naruto looked up at Sasuke, a grin on his face. “Wait, really? I can go?”

Sasuke nodded. “Yeah, she already said it’s fine. We have better training facilities in the Uchiha compound anyway. Better than the school one at least.”

“Great!” Naruto said, beaming at Sasuke. “Which way?”

“That way.” Sasuke began walking down a street in the direction to the outskirts of the village. Naruto followed eagerly at his side.

“So you have good training areas where you live?” Naruto asked.

Sasuke hummed in assent. “Our property is big and our clan compound is on the outskirts of the village, so there are a lot of places to practice. The grounds in front of my house have a large garden with training posts too.”

“That’s cool!” Naruto said. “I tried going to the training grounds, but there are a lot more people who use them during the holiday, ya know.”

“Yeah, that’s one of the good things about living in a clan compound,” Sasuke admitted.

"You're lucky!" Naruto chuckled. "My apartment is too small to throw shuriken around."

Sasuke's lips quirked up in amusement.

For the rest of the way to the Uchiha clan compound, they talked about whatever came to mind. It was the first time Naruto had spent talking to Sasuke without weapons in the middle. After a few days of talking only to Teuchi and the other jinchuuriki, it was a breath of fresh air. He found their conversation was flowing as easily as it did when he was with Gaara, Fuu, and Hinata.

“We’re here,” Sasuke finally said.

Naruto looked up at the entrance in awe. The gate was large and ornate, one of the most intimidating things he had ever seen. From behind the gate,  buildings were organized neatly alongside the main street. Naruto swallowed nervously. He had never been anywhere nearly as ostentatious.

“A-are you sure it’s okay if I go in?” Naruto asked, shifting his feet before he walked any closer.

Sasuke frowned and glared at him. “What do you mean?”

“It’s just...” Naruto gulped. “Won’t anyone, ya know, kick me out or something?”

“Kick you out?” Sasuke’s eyes widened in surprise. “Why would anyone kick you out?”

Because I’m the jinchuuriki of the Kyuubi and almost everyone in the village hates me. But Naruto couldn’t say anything like that so he shrugged instead.

Sasuke snorted. “They won’t say or do anything,” he insisted. “You’re with me.”

“If you say so...” Naruto said. He took a step inside. He almost expected someone to swoop in and force him out, but nothing happened. He looked around, but no one appeared and the entrance remained.

“Are you sure—?” Naruto began to ask before Sasuke interrupted.

“Yes, I’m sure!” Sasuke snapped. “Stick close to me and no one will say anything. Not to your face at least.”

Without waiting for Naruto, he started walking down the street, fast enough that he was almost running. Naruto huffed before following him. As expected, a few people turn to stared and whispered once they arrived at the populated parts of the compound. But to Naruto's surprise, the people they passed seem more curious than anything.

Unlike their amiable journey from the village, Naruto walked behind Sasuke in silence. He stared around him, waiting for the moment when someone would drag him out, but that moment never came. What’s with this clan?

“I’m home!” Sasuke called out once they reached a large manor tucked behind a row of trees.

Sasuke took his shoes off at the entrance before stepping inside. Naruto followed his lead, feeling completely out of place. It was the first time anyone had invited him to their home.

“Mom?” Sasuke called out as he walked down the hallway. Naruto followed behind him.

“In here!” a feminine voice called out. Sasuke headed toward the source of the voice, Naruto at his heels. They stepped into a very large, clean, and spacious kitchen. Mama would be jealous.

“Mom! I’m home!” Sasuke said again.

“Welcome home, Sasuke,” she said, her back to them as she washed dishes. “Did you find any friends?”

For some reason Naruto couldn’t understand, Sasuke’s face turned a slight shade of pink.

“I brought someone with me,” he said without answering her question.

“Someone? Who is it?”

“Naruto,” he said.

At once, Sasuke’s mother dropped the dishes and she spun around to look at Sasuke and Naruto. Her jaw dropped as she looked Naruto up and down. Naruto tried and failed not to fidget in place.

“O-oh, you brought Naruto-kun,” she said. Naruto’s heart beat faster inside his chest. Is she going to kick me out now?

“Yeah, I found him in the village center,” Sasuke said, a small frown on his face. “He wanted to train, so I brought him over.”

“Well, isn’t that nice?” Sasuke’s mother said, drying her hands on her apron. “I was just a little surprised that you brought Naruto. Considering how you’re always talking about how you two are not friends.”

“We’re not friends!” Naruto and Sasuke insisted at the same time. They glared at each other.

Sasuke’s mother laughed. “Well, if that’s the case, what’s the relationship between you two?” she asked. “If you’re not friends, I suppose you’re...?”

“Rivals!” They answered together. Once again, they glared at each other.

Sasuke’s mother laughed again, harder than before. She shook her head with a smile. “Well, lunch won’t be ready until later, Sasuke,” she said. “You and Naruto-kun can play outside while I finish cleaning up and get the food ready. How does that sound?”

“We’re not playing!” Sasuke said, sounding scandalized. “We’re training.”

Naruto nodded enthusiastically in agreement.

“Oh, sorry, of course, training,” she corrected herself. “Well, have fun in any case. I’ll call you when lunch is ready.”

With that, she turned back to the sink and continued to wash all the dirty dishes. Sasuke stared at Naruto, a smirk on his face.

“Are you ready to lose?” he asked.

Naruto snorted. “As if!” he answered. “I’ll have you crying before lunch, ya know!”

Sasuke glowered before running out, Naruto following like a shadow. He heard a small snort from Sasuke’s mother as they left the kitchen.

They ran back to the entrance and put on their sandals before running to a training area.

It was smaller than the one that they used at the Academy, but much better maintained. The posts and targets had fresh coats of paint and lacquer. The ground was even and compacted. The shade from the nearby trees kept the brunt of the sun off their backs.

“This is a nice training area,” Naruto said in admiration.

Sasuke stared at him with a frown before nodding once he saw that Naruto was being honest. “My mother makes sure everything is in working order,” he bragged.

“Good!” Naruto smirked before leaping forward to hit Sasuke in the jaw.

Sasuke saw the dirty attack coming and Naruto only chanced a glancing blow on his chin. Sasuke’s eyes widened in surprise and their first spar began.

After days of being bored out of his mind at home, fighting with Sasuke was, in one word, amazing. His heart pounded in his chest while he felt the sweat pouring down his back and forehead. Sasuke was not doing much better, his hair starting to stick to the back of his neck.

To Naruto’s eternal joy, he won the first match, catching Sasuke with a kick to the ribs before taking him down. Sasuke glared at him while he gloated, his knees keeping Sasuke’s arms pinned down.

“Are you going to cry?” he asked, teasing but not mocking. Sasuke only frowned until Naruto let him go.

“You got lucky,” Sasuke muttered.

They both took a moment to get their breathing back in order. When they did, their fights began again. They only stopped when the sun hit its peak.

“I won, ya know!” Naruto said, shaking a fist in Sasuke’s direction. They were panting, trying to wipe the sweat from their faces as well as they could.

Sasuke scowled. “No, you didn’t. I won eight times and you only won three times.”

Naruto knew he was lying. He might have lost count, but he had definitely won more than three times.

“Liar!” he shouted, grabbing onto Sasuke by the collar. They wrestled, falling to the ground in an undignified heap. He tried to get Sasuke to give up and admit to lying when he heard a soft voice clearing her throat. Immediately, both Sasuke and Naruto let go, standing up and staring guiltily up at the source of the voice.

“Boys, it’s time for lunch,” Sasuke’s mother said. To Naruto’s relief, she looked more amused than concerned about them wrestling on the ground. He felt something strange fluttering inside his stomach. Why's she so nice to me anyway?

“Oh, okay,” Naruto said, shaking as much dirt as he could off of himself. “Well, see you later then, Sasuke.”

“See you—” Sasuke started to answer automatically before turning to him, eyes open in shock. “Wait, are you leaving now?” he asked.

“Yeah, it’s lunchtime now, right?” Naruto started walking away to exit through the garden.

“Nothing!” Sasuke said. “It’s just that... I thought...” He looked away, frowning for a reason Naruto couldn’t begin to understand.

“Thought what?” Naruto shoved an elbow into Sasuke’s ribs. Sasuke flinched but only stared back in sullen silence.

“Oh, Naruto-kun,” Sasuke’s mother said with a smile. “You’re invited, too. Sasuke is just too shy to say anything.”

“Mom!” Sasuke yelled, face flushed.

Naruto wanted to snicker at the sight, but her words sent a wave of shock coursing through his body. He shifted uneasily and looked down at his feet. She’s inviting me? Why? I thought everyone in the village hated me?

Sasuke’s mother must have been able to sense his thoughts because she placed a hand on his head. He looked up at her shyly.

“Of course you’re invited, Naruto-kun,” she said. “I already set a meal out for you.”

Naruto nodded, not sure how to react or what to say. He had thought no one would ever invite him to a meal in their home, let alone so kindly.

“Oh... uh... thank you,” he muttered, too unsure of himself to meet her eyes. But he knew that if Roshi or Yugito ever learned he wasn't thankful, he would be stuck learning how to play the shamisen until he died of old age.

They walked back to the house together. He didn’t look at Sasuke as he took off his shoes once again and stepped back inside. When they arrived at the kitchen, Naruto almost expected the table to be empty as a cruel prank, but sure enough, three bowls were set out for them. Sasuke and his mother immediately sat down at the table, leaving an empty spot for Naruto.

Naruto joined them, wondering if they would rescind the offer of food at any moment. He looked at his meal: a simple bowl of rice with chicken and a few radish pickles on the side. He gulped before he looked up at Sasuke.

Sasuke was looking at him curiously, taking in his reaction to the entire situation. Naruto saw a hint of pity that only served to annoy him. He stuck his tongue out. Offended, Sasuke huffed and turned away. Naruto sighed in relief. Well, at least one thing is back to normal.

“I made some oyakodon, Naruto,” Sasuke’s mother said. “I hope you like it.”

“Oh, thank you very much,” Naruto replied, still feeling lost. “It... looks really good.”

Sasuke’s mother smiled before clapping her hands together. Naruto and Sasuke followed her lead.

“Thank you for the meal,” Naruto said before he took a bite of the food.

His eyes widened at the taste. It was one of the most amazing things he had ever eaten, close to rivaling Ichiraku ramen. The flavors were perfectly balanced and the portions were just right. He took a new, bigger, bite.

“Do you like it?” she asked kindly.

Naruto had too much food in his mouth to respond with anything but a smile and a nod. He forced himself to swallow.

“It’s really good,” he said, grinning. “Sasuke is real lucky, ya know!”

She chuckled at the praise. “Well, you’re right about at least one thing,” she said with a teasing voice as she leaned over to ruffle Sasuke’s hair.

“Mom!” Sasuke whined.

Naruto wanted to laugh, but as Roshi had told him many times, it was rude to talk with his mouth full. He shot Sasuke a teasing smirk instead. The table fell quiet as they ate, although it was a comfortable type of silence.

“How did you learn to cook, Uchiha-san?” Naruto asked eventually. He’d been following Roshi’s instructions and he had yet to cook anything that was anywhere nearly as good.

“I honestly just learned from my mother,” she said. “I followed her around and watched her.”

Naruto nodded. “Have you tried teaching anyone?” he asked before he took another bite.

She seemed to mull over the question until she nodded, a faraway look in her eyes. “I had a subordinate once,” she said. “She wanted to impress the boy she liked and asked me to teach her how to cook.”

“Did she learn?”

She chuckled, her eyes shining at the memory. “She was never a great cook,” she admitted. “She wasn’t terrible, by any means. She just had a tendency to make little mistakes that made things taste off.”

“Like what?” To Naruto’s surprise, it was Sasuke who asked the question. Naruto wondered if it was the first time he’d heard the story, too.

“Things like adding a little too much salt or not enough,” she said. “Or slightly overcooking the vegetables. It was not enough to make it inedible, just make it taste a little off.”

“What happened with the boy she liked?” Naruto asked. “Did she impress him with her cooking?”

A hundred different emotions flitted across her face as she looked into Naruto’s eyes. But eventually her face settled into amusement and she smiled at Naruto as she shook her head.

“Not exactly,” she admitted. “She did get a little better, but never to a level beyond ‘decent.’”

“So she didn’t impress him?” Naruto asked. Perhaps he had been spending too much time with Yugito because he felt saddened about the idea of missing out on love.

“I wouldn’t say that,” Sasuke’s mother said with a laugh. “It turns out it didn’t matter how good or bad my friend was at cooking. She could have served that boy a lump of coal on a platter and he would have said it was the best thing he had ever tasted.”

Naruto’s eyes brightened and even Sasuke looked mildly amused by the story. “So they got together?” he asked, excited about a story of love.

Sasuke’s mother nodded her head, covering her mouth slightly to hide her laugh. “They spent nearly every waking moment together after that,” she said.

Naruto grinned at the end of the story before he continued his meal. When he finished, he thanked Sasuke and his mother profusely for inviting him to lunch. His mother offered the bathroom to let him clean up. Naruto shook his head, refusing the offer as politely as he could.

He already felt like he had intruded a lot. Besides, he didn’t have any clean clothes to change into and borrowing Sasuke’s clothes was just weird.

Naruto said goodbye, but not before promising to visit again the next day. The look on her face when he bowed his head in gratitude stayed with him for the rest of the day.

O-O-O

Sasuke took a bath soon after Naruto left. He soaked for a long time, feeling the hot water work on his sore muscles. He sighed in contentment. I missed Naruto.

When he got out, he changed into fresh clothes and combed his hair. Now clean, he looked around his room. His toys and books didn’t appeal to him and he didn’t want to get dirty again after a bath. His father and Itachi would not be back for hours more. To his dismay, once Naruto had left, the boredom had come back, stronger than before.

He sighed to himself in disappointment and annoyance. I guess I’ll go talk to Mom.

He left his room, hair still damp, and headed toward the garden where his mother liked to wander. He found her quickly, her back turned to him as she sat on a bench.

“Mom?” he asked as he walked over to her side.

His mother flinched, keeping her face turned away from him. Sasuke frowned. Mom's acting weird.

“Mom?” he asked again, walking closer and taking her arm like he used to when he was younger.

She finally turned her face to look down at him. Sasuke startled in shock. His mother was crying, tears rolling down her cheeks as she looked at the garden. She smiled wanly when she saw that Sasuke had noticed.

“Oh, Sasuke, sorry you had to see me like this.” She wiped her eyes with her hands.

“Mom? What’s wrong?” he asked, having no idea what to do. He had never seen her cry before. What are you supposed to do when your Mom is crying, anyway?

She hummed, smiling as tears roll down her face and onto the grass. “Nothing is wrong,” she answered. “It’s just... I remembered something sad.”

“Something sad?” Sasuke joined her, sitting at her side.

She pondered the question for a few seconds before answering. “Naruto-kun reminded me of a friend I used to have,” she said. “She was very stubborn and excitable, but her heart was pure. Naruto-kun is like that.”

“Pure heart?” Sasuke frowned. He wasn’t sure if someone who had shoved Sasuke’s face into the dirt could be considered “pure” in any way.

His mother chuckled, placing her hands onto her lap neatly. “She died a few years ago, soon after you were born,” she continued. “I hadn’t really thought about her in a while, so remembering her made me sad.”

“Oh,” Sasuke answered, fidgeting at the revelation. “Was your friend... the one you were talking about? The one who was not a very good cook?”

His mother hummed in affirmation. Sasuke’s frown deepened. They sat in silence for a few minutes, watching the birds and insects flying through the garden. Sasuke scooted closer to her until their sides were touching. She wrapped an arm around his shoulders and he leaned in for a hug.

“Sasuke,” his mother began. He looked up to meet her eyes, dark and serious. “There’s something that I want you to do.”

“What is it?” Sasuke fidgeted, wondering what she wanted.

“I want you to make friends,” she said. “Real friends.”

“Friends?”

She nodded. “Sometimes... you lose friends, for whatever reason. Sometimes, they’re not lost but they go far away. But... no matter what, I want you to have people you love and trust by your side.”

Love? Sasuke wanted to protest, to insist that he didn’t need anyone, but when he saw the conviction in her eyes, he nodded.

She grinned at him then, wide and melancholy. “Please, Sasuke,” she said. “Sometimes our friends and even the memories of our friends will bring pain, but that’s no reason not to have any. I don’t want you to be alone.”

“I-I promise, Mom,” Sasuke said, not sure exactly what he was promising. He considered Naruto a nominal friend, even if he would never say it out loud. Is that enough?

Despite his words and her smile, an aura of sadness surrounded her. Before he had a moment to reconsider or doubt himself, he crawled into her lap. She startled in surprise at the contact, but she didn’t push back. Instead, she opened her arms wide and Sasuke burrowed closer to be held.

He hadn’t needed his mother to hold him in her lap for years now and he would have never done it in front of his brother or father. But he knew that his mother liked it. A part of Sasuke liked the close contact too, although he would never admit it out loud to anyone. He suspected that his mother knew, anyway.

O-O-O

Fugaku took off his heavy armor with a relieved sigh. Hours of patrol were never kind on his increasingly weathered back. Being at home with his wife and children were all he needed after hours of work.

“How was your day?” Mikoto asked, dutiful as always as she helped him put the armor away.

Fugaku grunted. “Same old, same old,” he answered. “The Hokage and his advisors are getting on my last nerve, but what else is new?” The last statement came out more poisonous than he had expected.

Mikoto sighed in sympathy, massaging between his shoulder blades. “What about you? How are the boys?” he asked. “Is Sasuke still complaining about having nothing to do?”

Mikoto hummed in contemplation before answering. “Sasuke saw me crying today,” she confessed.

Fugaku spun around to look at his wife. “Sasuke? Crying? You... But, why?” he asked. His wife had never been the type to cry, especially anywhere where someone might see.

Mikoto ground her teeth, looking past him to stare at the wall. He waited for her to speak, watching as she gathered her thoughts.

“Naruto Uzumaki should have two parents,” she finally said. Her eyes were cold and full of fury, just how he remembered from their days of active service.

“I know,” Fugaku answered. “If... Minato-san...” he hadn’t said his co-worker’s name out loud in years and the name felt heavy on his tongue, “if... the fourth Hokage were still with us, everything would be better.”

“Minato was only a co-worker to you,” Mikoto said, voice bitter and angry. “Kushina was like a sister to me.”

“A co-worker I liked,” Fugaku said in his defense. The Fourth Hokage had been friendlier with the Uchiha clan than his predecessors. He had trained Fugaku's nephew with his own two hands and they had grieved together upon his death. I liked Minato-san. Kushina-san too, if only because she brought you so much joy.

“When they died, we should have taken Naruto in,” Mikoto said.

Fugaku frowned. “You know we couldn’t,” he said. “The Hokage forbid it.”

“We should have fought harder,” Mikoto insisted, bitterness seeping into her voice.

“They already suspected us of having something to do with the Kyuubi attack,” Fugaku countered, hating the truth in his own words. “Taking in the container of the Nine-Tailed Fox would have only brought more suspicion to our clan.”

“I know. I remember.” Her eyes stared at the wall, full of malice.

Fugaku flinched. No one except for the late Fourth Hokage knew the full details of the attack. All anyone knew was that on the day Mikoto talked to Kushina for the last time, the Nine-Tailed Fox had attacked. As the last known person to see Kushina alive, Mikoto had been subjected to a full day of interrogation. Upon returning home, shaken and pale, she had said nothing as she took their youngest son, held him close, and broke down. Even now, it remained one of the worst days of his life.

Fugaku grabbed her hand, trying to offer as much comfort as he could.

“What can we do about it?” Fugaku asked, knowing how bitter his voice sounded. “The Hokage expressly forbid us— forbid you from interacting with the boy.”

“Fugaku, we’ve been married nearly twelve years,” she said, her voice sounding determined despite her anger. “Do you think the Hokage’s orders will stop me now that I have a chance to do something?”

O-O-O

“In short, everything is going well,” Utakata said to the Mizukage, wishing he was sleeping at home instead of giving a progress report. “Kimimaro already has great endurance and taijutsu abilities. He only needs refinement with ninjutsu and genjutsu. His reading and writing abilities are also coming along.”

Mei nodded, a kind smile on her lips. Behind her stood Ao, Ameryuri, and Zabuza, ever vigilant.

“So you are progressing quickly?” she asked, looking Kimimaro in the eye.

Kimimaro returned her gaze silently before looking up at Utakata for confirmation. Utakata raised an eyebrow. Of course you’re doing well, Kimimaro.

“He’s very smart,” Utakata continued without looking away from his student. “He can already read katakana and hiragana and his progress learning kanji is also very fast.”

“I can read twenty different kanji now,” Kimimaro muttered, staring down at his feet shyly. It was the most childish thing he had heard the boy say so far.

“Oh! That’s great, Kimimaro!” Mei said. The boy seemed to stand a little straighter. She turned her gaze up to Utakata.

“How much longer until you would consider him suitable for full active duty?” she asked.

Utakata shrugged. “Maybe two or three months?” he guessed. “Half a year more at the most.”

Mei nodded again, looking relieved about something. “That’s a good time frame for what I have in mind,” she muttered.

“What do you have in mind, Mizukage-sama?” Utakata asked, feeling a strong sense of foreboding in his stomach.

She shook her head. “Don’t worry about it. I just want to make sure that Kimimaro will be ready to join our active forces soon.”

Utakata forced his face to remain neutral. This better have nothing to do with me.

“Will that be all, Mizukage-sama?” he asked. The faster they could finish the meeting the faster he could get back to his nap.

“Yes, that will be all,” she said. “You are both dismissed.”

Utakata and Kimimaro bowed their heads and departed from the office. Utakata left first, Kimimaro following closely behind at his heels. They walked in silence down the hall and toward the exit of the administration building.

“Kimimaro-kun?” a soft voice called out from behind them. Kimimaro froze in place.

A child walked toward them, long hair hanging loose down their back. They were wearing a pink yukata, the sleeves cut off. The child was smiling at Kimimaro, waving their hand back and forth as they approached him. Utakata couldn’t tell if they were a girl or a boy.

“H-Haku-kun,” Kimimaro greeted with a stutter, refusing to meet the other child’s eyes. Utakata stared at his student with a frown. Kimimaro was never so nervous about anything.

The second child, Haku, either didn’t notice or didn’t care about Kimimaro’s behavior, because they stopped in front of him. They beamed at his student.

“I’m glad I got to see you, Kimimaro-kun,” Haku said. “Zabuza-san told me you were coming over for a progress report.”

“Y-yes,” Kimimaro said, still avoiding the other child’s gaze. “I’m here with my master, Utakata-sensei.”

Haku looked up curiously at Utakata. Utakata quirked his lips up politely.

“It’s very nice to meet you, Utakata-sensei,” Haku said, bowing their head down.

“Likewise,” Utakata said, returning the gesture with a nod of his head.

Haku smiled at him before looking back at Kimimaro, who seemed more nervous by the second. Utakata stared at his student in surprise. After one month of training Kimimaro, he had never seen him so emotional before.

“I haven’t seen you since you got out of the hospital, Kimimaro-kun,” Haku continued. “How are you doing?”

“I’m fine,” Kimimaro said, stepping slightly closer toward Utakata. Utakata was tempted to put a hand on the boy’s shoulder to offer a sense of comfort.

“That’s great!” Haku answered with a grin. “Do you think we could hang out for a bit? I haven’t heard from you in a long time. I wanted to talk.”

“I can’t,” Kimimaro answered. “Utakata-sensei and I are going back to training right now, aren’t we?” He looked up at Utakata, beseeching him to agree with the lie

Utakata stared at his student. They had already completed their training and their only task for the rest of the day was to relax.

“Yes, we have some training to do,” Utakata lied at once. Why is he lying? He must have a reason. Maybe this child is scarier than they look.

Haku’s face fell and they flashed Kimimaro a defeated smile. “Well... if your sensei said... I’ll see you later Kimimaro-kun.”

“See you,” Kimimaro said, already starting to walk away. Utakata followed along, curious about his attitude.

Once they left the administration building, Utakata led them down an empty alleyway. He turned on his student, staring down at him. His behavior with the other child was unexpected of him. He had almost seemed... afraid.

“Who was that?” Utakata asked.

“He’s... Haku,” Kimimaro answered, looking away from him. Strange, he always meets my eyes.

“Who’s Haku?” Utakata asked. The name sounded familiar but he couldn’t place it.

“He’s...” Kimimaro swallowed, still looking away. “He’s the boy who captured me during the attack of my... of the Kaguya clan.”

“Oh,” Utakata grunted, crossing his arms inside his yukata.

With Kimimaro’s statement, he remembered where he first heard that name. Zabuza had talked about a boy he was mentoring capturing Kimimaro. He remembered Ameyuri calling him a sweet boy. So Haku is a boy, and he studies with Zabuza-san. I guess that’s a few questions answered.

“So you hate him because he captured you? If you want, you can go and punch him. I won’t tell anyone.”

Kimimaro shook his head, mortified. To Utakata’s shock, his face was slightly pink in embarrassment. With his white hair, the slight flush of color stood out more. It was the first time he had seen embarrassment on the boy’s face.

“I don’t... hate him,” Kimimaro said. He started to fidget, his hands wrapping over each other nervously. “It’s just... he’s really nice.”

“Nice?” Utakata raised an eyebrow. “Isn’t that more reason to talk to him?”

Kimimaro’s face got pinker and his hands fidgeted faster. “He said we have the same eyes,” he said, his voice so soft it was almost a whisper.

“Same eyes?” Utakata had no idea what he was talking about.

Kimimaro nodded, embarrassed.

Utakata sighed, squatting down so he could meet his student’s face. Kimimaro startled at the sudden approach.

“Do you like him?” Utakata asked, forcing Kimimaro to meet his eyes.

Kimimaro nodded, almost imperceptibly. “He used to bring me flowers and talk while I was in the hospital,” he whispered. “I didn’t really talk back to him. He told me we should stay in contact once I got out.”

“But you didn’t,” Utakata said bluntly. He only needed to see the red sweeping across Kimimaro’s face to know that he was exactly right.

He sighed again, shaking his head. Compared to dismantling the trauma of growing up a slave in the Kaguya compound, Kimimaro’s current concerns were nothing. So he feels guilty for not talking to his friend for a month.

“Why didn’t you want to talk to Haku now?” he asked.

“Because...” Kimimaro shifted his feet, looking down. “I thought he would be mad because I haven’t talked to him in a month. I thought he talked to me only to be nice.”

Utakata snorted and Kimimaro looked up. “Kimimaro, if he wanted to avoid talking to you, he wouldn’t have been in the administration building.”

Kimimaro frowned. “W-what do you mean, sensei?” he asked.

“He didn’t bump into you,” he explained, as if to a very young child. In some ways, Kimimaro was. “He looked for you just to talk. He probably wanted to spend time with you.”

“Oh,” Kimimaro answered, his eyes looking brighter as the realization set in. “So he wasn’t mad that I didn’t try to talk to him for a month?”

“Well... uh... I mean, he might have been a little mad,” Utakata admitted. “But he seemed very happy when he saw you.”

“Oh.” Kimimaro looked down again. He stared thoughtfully at his toes in silence. Utakata swallowed. The boy had been deprived of his childhood more than anyone he had ever met, which was saying something considering the people he talked to in his head.

“Why don’t you invite him over one day?” Utakata asked, standing up.

“Huh?” Kimimaro’s eyes widened in shock at the suggestion.

“Invite him over to Harusame’s estate,” Utakata suggested. “You two can spend time together. Maybe you can make some friends.”

“But... what about training?” Kimimaro asked.

“Kimimaro...” Utakata pinched the bridge of his nose. “I rarely wake up before noon and I hate training after three in the afternoon. You are already so talented that I don't need to teach you how to do anything, anyway. I’m sure you can find some time to hang out with Haku in the meantime.”

“I— really, sensei?” Kimimaro asked.

Utakata grunted and nodded. “Go find this Haku kid and invite him over,” he ordered, trying to summon the tone of voice Harusame used when lecturing. It seemed to be only partially successful because Kimimaro’s eyebrows contracted into a frown.

“But... don’t I need to focus on training?” Kimimaro asked.

Utakata rolled his eyes with a snort. “You’re focused enough as it is,” he said. “Our training times are between noon and three in the afternoon. How you spend your time outside of our training sessions is none of my concern.”

Kimimaro nodded, eyes looking fit to burst as Utakata’s words finally began to set in. The boy grinned, the first time Utakata had seen him do so. It was sincere and wide and full of hope. It made Utakata’s heart contract at the sight.

“Well, if you’re sure, sensei,” Kimimaro said.

“I’m sure,” Utakata said, throat feeling strangely tight. “Now go find Haku and tell him to visit us. If not, I might change my mind and train you from dawn to dusk instead.”

It was an empty threat. Kimimaro seemed to know it because his grin widened and he ran off back to the administration building, looking like the child he was. Utakata watched him go before he let out a deep breath and stared up at the sky. He counted from one to ten, keeping track of this breathing as he did so. Why did the Mizukage have to choose him?

Chapter Text

Fuu was getting used to life away from the village.

Before leaving Takigakure, she had met two new people who would join in her isolation. Her new companions had been nervous at first, introducing themselves formally with bows of their heads. Fuu had greeted them respectfully if a bit warily.

The first of her new companions was a curly brown-haired boy that looked to be Utakata’s age. His name was Kegon and he was very quiet. The other was a boy with short spiky black hair named Yoro. He was even quieter than Kegon if that was even possible. After introducing themselves and waiting for Takumi, they had departed. The four of them had traveled through the forests to arrive at a compound a few hours away.

Kegon and Yoro were her training partners. They had been recently promoted to jounin when Shibuki had given them the task to protect Fuu. In their own words, they were chosen because they had no other life or obligations.

Upon arriving at the compound, they had been afraid of talking to Fuu. But after weeks of training together their attitudes had changed . Now, they greeted Fuu like a younger sister instead of as a potential attacker.

A few weeks later, an older kunoichi with dark brown hair streaked with gray named Mariko had joined them. Unlike Kegon and Yoro, her face was impassive and unimpressed when she met Fuu. Takumi had introduced her as Fuu’s kunoichi arts instructor. She was just as strict and demanding as Fuu had feared. Despite her attitude, however, she was never cruel and Fuu enjoyed her lessons in deception and infiltration.

“A kunoichi’s best weapon is her face,” Mariko said during one of her lectures. “There are many situations in which a smile or a tear is all you need to complete your mission. Never underestimate that power.”

“I won’t,” Fuu promised. Mariko nodded, satisfied with her answer.

While she trained with Kegon, Yoro, and Mariko daily, Takumi was still her favorite. Her teacher took care of her, preparing her food and organizing her schedule. While she liked her new teachers, Takumi would always hold a special place in her heart.

But the best lessons were the ones with Chomei.

Her bijuu had started to show her ways in which to combine their power. Yugito, Yagura, and B had helped, telling her about ways to mix her chakra with that of her tailed beast. Despite both of them trying to make it work, however, it was difficult to control Chomei's power.

‘Start by learning how to fight using the Initial Jinchuuriki Form, Fuu,’ Chomei said.

‘I’m trying!’ Fuu replied, concentrating as much as she could on Chomei’s chakra. She knew the Initial Jinchuuriki transformation was only a tiny fraction of their complete power. Nevertheless, it still felt like trying to contain an ocean in a kitchen sink. She dreaded to think what she could do with the power of all seven tails.

Fuu gritted her teeth and moved her fingers into a ram hand seal. She tried a transformation. It was the first jutsu they learned at the Academy and one of the easiest. She called upon the now familiar chakra and transformed.

When she opened her eyes, she didn’t need to check a mirror to know that she hadn’t transformed into Takumi. Instead of looking down at the ground, her point of view was lower than before. She bit her fist to suppress her scream of frustration.

“Well, that was a little better than the last time, Fuu,” Takumi said from a short distance away. “You actually got two eyes this time.”

“I know, but it’s not much better!” she whined. She had been trying to do a henge while in the Initial Jinchuuriki form for the last few days and failing.

The first transformation produced a chakra shroud that surrounded her body. While Chomei could give her as much chakra as she desired, maintaining precise control was impossible. She found herself unable to perform the most basic jutsu and breaking things with the simplest taijutsu.

Frustrated, she let go of the chakra. Her transformation gone, she collapsed on the grass and stared up at the sky. Takumi sighed and walked to her side. He sat next to her, but she refused to look at him. She turned her back to him. I’m just letting him down.

“You’ve been progressing really fast, Fuu,” Takumi said. “You’re only ten, but you already have so much potential.”

“That’s not good enough,” she muttered.

She couldn't go back to Takigakure until she got stronger. Until she gained complete control with Chomei, she would be trapped and unable to help anyone.

Takumi said nothing. Instead, he collapsed on the grass next to her. They lay in silence. Even Chomei was quiet, letting her stew in her misery. Fuu knew she should try again, but failure was her only option.

“Fuu,” Takumi eventually interrupted. “You need to try again.”

“What’s the point? I’ll just mess it up,” Fuu whined. To her annoyance, she felt tears beginning to form. She wiped her eyes angrily with a forearm.

Takumi hummed thoughtfully. He sat up and brushed her bangs away from her forehead. He smiled down at her, but she only pouted in return.

“I believe you can figure it out, Fuu,” he said. “You are stronger than you think you are. Don’t you remember one of the sayings of the sage?”

‘I think he’s talking about my father,’ Chomei said.

‘The Sage of the Six Paths?’

‘That’s the one.’

“What saying?” Fuu asked, turning her attention back to Takumi.

“Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising every time we fail,” Takumi said. “It’s impossible to never fail at things, Fuu. The important part is to keep trying, no matter how hard it seems.”

He smiled at her. For a moment, Fuu wondered if that was what a father was supposed to do. She looked away and stared at the grass.

“You’re mean, Takumi-sensei,” she muttered.

“Huh? How am I mean?” His voice sounded perplexed.

“You’re mean because you’re right!” she yelled.

With a sigh, she stood back up. She stretched her arms over her head and bent back to release some of the tension in her body.

‘Try again, Fuu,’ Chomei said. ‘It’ll take a while but you’re getting better and better.’

'I will.'

“Are you going to try again?” Takumi asked with a grin.

Fuu pouted but nodded her head. Takumi moved back to his observation point, but not before beaming at her in encouragement. Fuu forced herself to breathe deeply and relax. She let herself be heavy, feeling her own chakra supply coursing throughout her body.

‘Let’s do it, Chomei.’

At once, she felt Chomei’s chakra. It was overwhelming and made her feel tiny. She pulled on it, trying to combine it with her own chakra. She breathed out as she settled her hands back into the ram hand seal. As before, she prepared herself to use Chomei’s power for the transformation. But before she molded the chakra, she came to a realization.

‘Wait, why am I trying to use all this chakra for one transformation? A henge doesn’t require that much power to use.’

Experimentally, she held onto a tiny portion of Chomei’s borrowed chakra instead of trying to wrestle with its entirety. She closed her eyes and prayed for the best as she molded the chakra. There was nothing to lose by trying something new. 

When she opened her eyes, her viewpoint was higher than before. In front of her, she saw Takumi’s strong hands instead of her own. To her relief, there were exactly ten fingers. She giggled in triumph and Takumi’s voice came out instead.

‘I think you did it, Fuu!’ Chomei said, sounding absolutely delighted.

‘I think I did!’ For confirmation, she turned toward her teacher.

“Takumi-sensei!” she shouted. “Did I do it right? Is my henge correct?”

Takumi nodded and clapped his hands together. “Yes,” he said. “It’s a perfect transformation. Very handsome if I do say so myself.”

Fuu cheered, clapping her hands together in excitement.

Not only had she succeeded at using the transformation jutsu, but Chomei’s chakra shroud remained. It covered her body, both protecting her and boosting her strength. She let go of the chakra, returning to her normal form.

‘I knew you could do it.’

‘Thanks, Chomei.’ Fuu giggled as Takumi patted the top of her head in congratulations.

‘Once you master this initial form, you can start practicing with the One-Tailed chakra shroud version,’ Chomei continued. ‘After that, only six more tails and we can start on Version Two and partial transformations.’

Fuu’s heart skipped a beat and her smile froze on her face. ‘You mean there are more transformations?!’

‘Yup!’ Chomei answered with a chirp. ‘It took you a couple of weeks to learn how to do a henge while using the Initial Jinchuuriki transformation. I don’t know how long it will take to master this initial form, but at the rate so far, we should gain full control in five or six years. Give or take.’

Fuu shouted in frustration. Her celebration already felt premature. Takumi took a step back, perplexed. How could she have thought it would be easy?

Fuu sighed again, taking a step away from Takumi. “I’ve gotta keep practicing, Takumi-sensei,” she said. “Chomei says there are a lot more transformations I need to learn and it’s going to take five or six years, give or take, to master them all.”

“Years?” Takumi asked, shocked. “How many kinds of transformations are there?”

“Too many to count,” Fuu muttered.

Takumi patted her head one last time. He squeezed her shoulder and stepped back to give her space to practice. Fuu put her hands into the ram hand seal as Chomei let her borrow their chakra again.

She might as well master the initial form first.

O-O-O

For the past few days, Roshi, Han, and Yagura had been getting to know one another. At first, they spent their days wandering, relaxing, and talking. After years of stress and missions, it was nice to have nothing to do.

But Roshi knew that wouldn’t last long. To his dismay, Yagura was flightier than expected and seemed to have no plan in place. While Roshi didn’t care much about that— no one had any idea what to do anyway— he did care about one thing.

“Yagura, please,” Roshi begged for the twentieth time as they set up camp for the night. “I’m asking as a friend. Change your face.”

“I thought you wanted me to be your daddy,” Yagura said with a smirk. Roshi forced himself not to hurl as he pinched the bridge of his nose.

“Why must you make me suffer?” Roshi asked.

“Hey, I was able to find out they were looking for you two because of this disguise,” Yagura argued.

“Is it really that difficult to make a face?” Han asked, cool and collected as usual. “That disguise might have worked while you were alone. But now that we’re together, it will be suspicious to have two people with the same face.”

Yagura opened his mouth to speak before Roshi interrupted.

“If anyone who knows me saw you, they would automatically know you were not my father!” Roshi yelled. “My biological father died before I even got my bijuu. You trying to pose as him will only be suspicious, especially when Iwa tries to track us down.”

Yagura sighed. He seemed to consider Roshi’s words because he looked up at the sky, deep in thought. Roshi felt a spark of hope that he would no longer see his own face staring back at him and calling him a son.

“I suppose,” Yagura conceded. “Although you have to admit my disguise was useful for something at least.”

“Sure,” Roshi agreed, if only in hope of getting him to change his face.

“Fine,” Yagura said with a deep sigh.

He sat down cross-legged on the ground, leaning on a tree. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, his hands formed into the ram seal. A few seconds later, the face rearranged itself and a stranger’s appeared.

Yagura’s new features were harsher. His cheekbones were high and sharp. A scar ran down one of the eyes like a tear. His hair remained gray while the eyes were a dark magenta color.

Yagura opened his eyes. “Happy now?” he asked, raising an eyebrow up.

“Yes,” Roshi answered testily. “Thank you. But if it was so easy, why didn’t you do it from the beginning?”

Yagura rolled his eyes. “Because it’s easier to use a face I already know. I have to actually think about it if I have to make my own.”

“Stop being lazy!” Roshi shouted, exasperated. Yagura only rolled his eyes again.

Han laughed. Roshi threw him a betrayed glare, but Han appeared more amused by their argument than anything. Traitor.

“So you have a new face,” Han said. “What’s next?”

“I’ve been thinking about it,” Yagura said, lounging back against the tree trunk. Roshi and Han joined him in a semi-circle. Yagura stared up at the sky in silence. Time slowed down to a crawl.

“What have you been thinking?” Roshi finally asked, tired of waiting. “If you’re going to say that you can be my daddy again, I might try to kill you.”

Yagura shook his head. “No,” he said. “I think you two should make your debut.”

“Our... debut?” Han asked, a frown on his face.

“Yup,” Yagura answered.

“What do you mean by ‘debut’?” Roshi asked.

“Exactly what I said,” he answered. “If you want to be infamous as mercenaries, you need a big and flashy mission to announce yourselves. The easiest way would be to defeat and take the bounty of an S-rank missing-nin.”

“S-rank?” Roshi repeated skeptically. He wasn’t sure how easy he could defeat such a ninja, even with Han’s help.

“Or A-rank,” Yagura conceded. “We need to form a team. We might even get our own underlings over time! You two use your real names, but I need to use a fake name. Any ideas?”

“Asshole,” Roshi muttered.

“Riku,” Han suggested.

“Kaito it is,” Yagura decided. “Now, the question is... what is my role going to be? I can’t show off my complete strength or the world might find out I’m not actually dead.”

Their group fell into silence as they considered their options.

“I can be your bed warmer,” Yagura said jokingly.

“That sounds like a fine idea,” Han said. He shared a glance with Roshi. The only way to deal with this man is to take his words at face value.

“I’m married though,” Yagura said. “But... if you insist...” He smirked, daring either Han or Roshi to accept as he crawled forward.

I’ll never win against this guy. Roshi sighed and Han shook his head. Yagura laughed as he lounged back on the tree.

“Yagura, please be serious,” Han demanded. “What’s your plan?”

“You guys are no fun,” Yagura grumbled. “But sure. I’ll tell you.”

He cleared his throat before speaking again. “I’m going to be a chuunin missing-nin from Kirigakure. I escaped from the village two years ago. I have a son and a daughter who stayed behind. My wife never wants to see my face ever again. I found you two while looking for a target to hunt. We became friends and started a mercenary company together.”

“You seem to have a good backstory,” Roshi commented, an eyebrow raised. Why didn’t you tell us earlier?

Yagura shrugged. “The best backstories have at least an element of truth in them.” Roshi wondered which parts of his introduction were lies.

“Well, we have our identities covered,” Han said. “Now what do you plan to do for our debut?”

“Well, there is one thing that is even more important than that,” Yagura said.

“What’s that?” Roshi asked.

Yagura smirked. “You have to obtain full control over your bijuu,” he said. “Not stealing its power. Not suppressing it. But real and true control over it and their many possible forms.”

Roshi snorted. The Yonbi was an unreasonable creature whose only use was for taking its chakra. Trying to work with that... monster... was at the top of the list of bad ideas.

“Is... is that possible?” Han asked incredulously. “I’ve had the Gobi for decades and while we can work together when necessary, it requires pleading on my part. I think it’s impossible to do as you say.”

“Oh please, like you don’t have Killer B, Yugito, Fuu, and I to show you that it can be done,” Yagura said, rolling his eyes. “Even the angriest, meanest, and most hard-headed bijuu can be tamed. You only need to realize that they are not monsters.”

“Mine is,” Roshi muttered.

A second later, he winced as Yagura leaned forward and flicked him on the forehead. By instinct, he rubbed at his face, staring incredulously at Yagura, who wore a self-satisfied smirk. Did you really just flick my forehead like an entitled child?

“See, this is why you can’t work with the Four-Tails so well,” Yagura scolded. “Calling them monsters is a big no-no. They are creatures created by the Sage of Six Paths himself. They have their own feelings, wants, and needs. Calling them ‘monsters’ is too harsh.”

“The village sees us as monsters too, Roshi,” Han added. “It’s very clear we’re not.”

“You wouldn’t be saying that if you met the Four-Tails,” Roshi complained.

Yagura snorted. “I don’t need to know the Four-Tails personally to know that you are being unreasonable. Can’t you at least try to get along?”

“We must, Roshi,” Han added, staring down at him. “If the person who brainwashed Yagura tries to capture us, we need their full power at our disposal.”

Roshi felt a shiver run down his back. He didn't like their words. The Four-Tails was only a source of power. But then again, he thought about the other jinchuuriki who had already obtained control. They did it, why can’t I?

Reluctantly, Roshi nodded.

O-O-O

After that first training session, Naruto went to the Uchiha compound every day. Like clockwork, he and Sasuke trained in the morning before breaking for lunch.

To his bewilderment, Sasuke’s mother had only been kind and respectful to him. He could count the number of adults outside of the jinchuuriki who treated him with kindness on one hand. That list began and ended with Teuchi.

He knew why the people of Konoha hated him so much and he didn’t understand why Sasuke’s mother was an exception. She always made enough food not only for Sasuke and herself but for Naruto too. As they ate, she sometimes shared stories about her life and her friends. Naruto thought that her friends must have died long ago because her eyes always glazed over whenever she talked about them.

When they finished eating, she always invited him to stay for dinner, but Naruto always declined, sometimes lying about why. They continued that routine for two weeks until Sasuke’s mother finally got her way.

“Please stay for dinner, Naruto-kun,” Sasuke’s mother said as Naruto put his shoes back on at the entrance. “My husband would like to meet you.”

Naruto squirmed. He had been rejecting every invitation so far.

“That’s okay, Uchiha-san,” he responded, shaking his head and pasting a grin on his face. “My clothes are dirty after training, so I don’t wanna stay like that, ya know?” He scratched the back of his neck in embarrassment.

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” she said, a grin on her face. “You can always wash up here. I’m sure Sasuke wouldn’t mind if you borrowed his clothes for a day.”

Naruto chanced a glance at Sasuke, who was standing behind his mother. As expected, Sasuke did not look happy at the offer on his behalf. He glared at Naruto, daring him to agree.

“Oh, I don’t think we’re the same size, Uchiha-san,” Naruto lied. He chuckled. “Sasuke is a little taller than me, ya know.”

“A little?” Sasuke muttered under his breath. Naruto glared at him.

“Well, if not today, how about tomorrow?” she asked, smiling. “I’m sure my husband and Itachi would love to talk to you. Sasuke talks about you a lot when you’re not here and they’re curious.”

“No, I don’t!” Sasuke protested, face reddening in indignation.

Sasuke’s mother ignored him again and she looked down at Naruto, meeting his eyes.

“T-tomorrow?” Naruto had hoped to avoid dinner with Sasuke’s family for the rest of his life if possible. Lunch was weird enough with just Sasuke and his mom. He dreaded to imagine what dinner with the rest of his family would be like.

She nodded. “Yes. If you don’t want to borrow from Sasuke, you can bring a change of clothes tomorrow,” she said. “You can wash up here and be ready for dinner with us. If you can’t tomorrow, we can always set up a specific day that works for you. Or I can ask my husband to take a break from work and meet us for lunch.”

Is she really going to do all this work just for me? Naruto felt trapped. He had no more excuses to deny the invitation beyond thinking that it would be weird.

“N-no, that’s okay,” Naruto said, forcing a grin on his face. “I think I can stay tomorrow. I just don’t want to be annoying, ya know.”

“You’re always annoying,” Sasuke muttered under his breath. They ignored him again.

“You won’t be a bother, Naruto-kun,” she continued. “What do you say, will you stay over tomorrow for dinner?”

Naruto turned his gaze between Sasuke and his mother as he thought about the question. Her eyes were bright and optimistic as she awaited his answer. Meanwhile, Sasuke seemed completely uninterested in whether or not Naruto would accept. It was Sasuke’s complete disinterest that sealed the decision for him. Well, if Sasuke doesn’t care...

“I guess I can stay tomorrow for dinner.” Naruto looked down at his feet.

“Oh, good!” she clapped her hands together and her smile widened. “I will make sure to prepare something you like.”

“Oh, uh, you don’t have to,” Naruto said. “Your food is always really good, Uchiha-san.”

She chuckled. “Oh, you flatter me, Naruto-kun.”

“It’s the truth,” Sasuke said.

“It is,” Naruto agreed.

She chuckled again before she bent forward and placed a hand on top of his head. Naruto flinched at the sudden contact. Her touch was more gentle than anything he had experienced in person before. He felt a strange fluttering in his stomach.

“We will see you tomorrow, Naruto-kun,” she said, brushing his bangs out of his forehead. “Don’t worry about being a bother. We are always happy to have you here, aren’t we, Sasuke?”

Sasuke raised an eyebrow at the mention of his name but the rest of his face remained impassive.

“I guess you’re not the worst person to have around,” Sasuke said. Naruto rolled his eyes. I like spending time with you too, asshole.

Sasuke’s mother sighed exasperatedly. She stepped back, ruffling Naruto’s hair one more time. “Have a good day, Naruto-kun,” she said. “Make sure to bring a change of clothes tomorrow.”

“Will do, Uchiha-san!” Naruto said as he finished putting his sandals back on. He grinned and waved before leaving. He heard both Sasuke and his mother calling out their goodbyes. He headed back home, worried.

O-O-O

“Oh, Father is home,” Sasuke said when they heard the sound of a door closing. His eyes brightened as he put down his book and ran to the entrance. Naruto followed behind him reluctantly.

After their now-typical training and lunch session, Naruto had stayed at Sasuke’s house. He had used his bathroom to clean up, changing into the best clothes he owned, which was not saying much. From there, he had spent the rest of the afternoon with Sasuke in his bedroom.

To Naruto’s amazement, Sasuke had a huge collection of books ranging in all sorts of topics. They had sat reading together mostly in silence until Sasuke’s father arrived.

“Is your father really that strict?” Naruto whispered as they walked down the hall.

Sasuke nodded his head. “He never smiles. You’ll be fine as long as you don’t do anything stupid.”

Naruto gulped. They arrived at the end of the hall. A tall man sat at the entrance, taking off his shoes. He glanced behind his shoulder to look at Naruto and Sasuke.

“Good evening, Sasuke,” he said.

“Good evening, Father,” Sasuke answered, much more formal than when with his mother. Naruto felt his stomach turn over itself. If Sasuke is this formal with his own father, what about me?

“Good evening, Uchiha-sama,” Naruto said, bowing his head down. He felt a bead of sweat rolling down his back. “My name is Naruto Uzumaki. I’m very pleased to meet you.”

Sasuke’s father was silent for a few seconds before answering. “The pleasure is all mine,” he said. “No need to be so formal, Naruto-kun. My name is Fugaku Uchiha.”

“Th-thank you, Uchiha-san.” He looked down at his feet, head bowed down. Naruto hoped his face was not as red as it felt. He chanced a glance at Sasuke, who rolled his eyes. Naruto glared at him. You made me nervous, jerk!

Without saying anything else, Sasuke’s father stepped inside and walked toward the dining room. Sasuke followed at his heels and Naruto fell behind him.

“Fugaku, you arrived a little early,” Sasuke’s mother said as she stirred something at the stove. “I haven’t even finished making dinner yet!”

“That’s fine,” he replied as he sat down at the low table. “I can talk to Naruto and Sasuke in the meantime.”

Sasuke followed his father’s lead and sat down, Naruto at his side. Naruto felt the remains of his confidence fading away. Why does he want to talk to me too? What does he want me to say anyway? He kept his eyes focused on the table to avoid looking at Sasuke’s father.

“Would you like some tea?” Sasuke’s mother asked.

“I’m fine,” the man answered. “How about you two boys?”

“I’m fine, Father,” Sasuke said. “It’s too bitter.”

Naruto shook his head desperately. They’re so generous!

“What did you do today, Sasuke?” his father asked.

Sasuke shifted, almost imperceptibly, before answering. Naruto wished he had the same level of self-control.

“Naruto and I trained in the morning,” Sasuke said. “After lunch, we cleaned up and spent the rest of the afternoon reading and studying.”

“What kind of training did you do today?” he asked.

At once, Sasuke listed and described the different things they had been doing during their mornings in full detail. Naruto listened, afraid to add anything. He wasn’t sure he could have the same degree of eloquence as Sasuke anyway. Sasuke’s father said nothing while his son talked. When Sasuke finished, he stared up at his father, waiting for feedback.

“I see,” the man said. “Your training seems adequate for now.”

Naruto saw Sasuke’s shoulders tense up. A flash of disappointment crossed his eyes before disappearing. I guess Sasuke wanted him to say more.

Naruto looked up from the table. To his horror, Sasuke’s father was staring at Naruto, gaze stern and critical. Despite his earlier promise to himself to be polite, he shifted uneasily. The man probably already hated him.

“What kind of training did you do, Naruto-kun?” he asked, looking directly into his eyes. Naruto had a sudden desire to run away.

“M-me?” he stuttered. Panicked he glanced at Sasuke, but his face was impassive. He turned to look back at Sasuke’s father. “Um... I guess... I’ve mostly been doing the same thing as Sasuke, ya know.”

“You can keep up with my son’s training routine?” the man asked, a small frown on his face.

“Uh... yeah?” Naruto answered nervously. Silence fell inside the room. Naruto shifted in his seat on the floor cushion. The silence stretched on awkwardly.

“I win most of the spars,” Sasuke said once the silence had stretched on for uncomfortably long.

“No, you don’t!” Naruto snapped, broken out of his nervousness as he pulled on Sasuke’s collar. “I win at least half of our matches, ya know!”

“Hn, when you get lucky,” Sasuke muttered.

“Nuh-uh! I won the first bout today!”

Sasuke snorted. “Yeah, but I still won the majority.”

Naruto felt his blood boil. He got ready to argue more with Sasuke when he heard a deep voice clearing his throat. Immediately, the blood drained from his face and he looked up at the Uchiha patriarch in fear.

To his relief, the man did not appear angry about their argument and instead looked almost amused. Naruto breathed a sigh of relief.

“Dinner is ready,” Sasuke’s mother interrupted. “Now, where is Itachi? He said he would—”

Her statement was interrupted by a flurry of wind and smoke as someone entered the kitchen with a body flicker.

“I’m here, Mother, Father,” a deep voice said.

Naruto blinked. When the smoke dissipated, a tall teenager stood at the center of the room. Sasuke’s brother.

Unlike when Naruto first met him, he appeared worn down. He had bags under his eyes that could rival Roshi’s. His face was more serious than before, with not even a trace of a smile. How could he have changed so much since the last time they met?

“Ah! Itachi! You’re here!” Sasuke’s mother said, taking his sudden appearance in stride. “Help me serve dinner.”

Obediently, Itachi accompanied his mother to the kitchen, but not before shooting Naruto a quick glance. Naruto forced himself not to shiver. Sasuke’s brother is scarier than his father.

A minute later, they returned, holding plates and bowls of food which they set down on the table. To Naruto’s relief, it was not fancier than what they usually enjoyed at lunchtime.

“Thank you for the meal,” Sasuke’s father said as he grabbed a pair of chopsticks. The rest of the table followed his lead as they dug into their food.

Compared to lunch with Sasuke’s mother, everyone was serious as they are in silence. Naruto focused on the meal in front of him. He wanted to run away, but he knew that it would’ve been rude. At least the food is good.

“What special training are you doing, Naruto-kun?” Sasuke’s father eventually asked, breaking the silence.

Naruto chewed and swallowed. “I focus on taijutsu right now,” he answered. “My endurance is... good, so it’s good for me.”

“Unfortunately true,” Sasuke complained. “You never get tired.”

“You’re just jealous because I don’t get out of breath after the third match!”

“And you’re jealous that my accuracy with shuriken is better!”

Naruto dug an elbow into Sasuke’s ribs. “At least I know how to ask for help when I need it.”

Sasuke huffed and turned his attention back to his meal. Naruto chanced a glance up at Sasuke’s father, afraid of disappointment. To his surprise, the man looked amused again.

“You should focus on your strengths,” he said with a nod. “You two will learn how to mold chakra soon. You can figure out your own techniques and fighting style later.”

From there, the tension in the dining room lessened as conversation erupted. Sasuke’s mother told them a story while his father asked questions about their training. Only Itachi remained completely silent, eating while observing their conversation.

Naruto answered as honestly as he could. Over time, his initial awkwardness dissipated and he became less afraid to look at Sasuke’s father in the eye. He felt like he had received some sort of silent approval.

When dinner ended, Sasuke’s father left while Naruto, Sasuke, and Itachi stayed behind to help clean up. Naruto offered to wash the dishes.

“Don’t worry about it, Naruto-kun,” she said with a smile. “I can take care of it.”

“Oh... uh... if you’re sure, Uchiha-san.” Naruto fidgeted. “Thank you very much for inviting me to dinner.”

She chuckled. “The pleasure is all mine. Fugaku has been curious about you for a while.” She took the dirty dishes and dumped them in the sink before turning around to look at Naruto in the eye.

“Now, Naruto-kun,” she continued. “I have one little question for you.”

“Oh? What’s that, Uchiha-san?” he asked.

“Would you like to stay the night?” she asked, looking unfortunately sincere about the invitation.

Naruto felt his face heat up. Why are they so nice to me? It’s weird! He shook his head.

“I-it’s okay, Uchiha-san,” he stuttered. “I’ve already stayed here too long, ya know?”

She shook her head. “You haven’t. Besides, isn’t it a little late for you to go home alone? It’s pretty dark outside.”

“Oh... uh... thank you, but I’ll be fine,” Naruto said. He looked down at his feet in embarrassment.

She stared quietly at him for a few seconds. Finally, she sighed. “Fine, if you say, Naruto-kun. But I insist that Itachi take you home. It’s not safe to travel through the village at night, even in these times of peace.”

Itachi? Naruto glanced at Sasuke’s brother. He was drinking a cup of tea at the kitchen table with a calm expression on his face. Sasuke sat at his side, sipping from his own cup and trying not to cringe at the bitterness.

“I can,” Itachi said as he set his cup down. He hadn’t heard Itachi say anything since he arrived, although Sasuke kept staring at him in admiration.

“Um... sure?” Naruto said.

“Can I go too, Itachi?” Sasuke asked excitedly. To Naruto’s surprise, Itachi poked his forehead and pushed him back.

“Next time, Sasuke,” he said. Sasuke rubbed at his forehead with a frustrated pout. The room fell into silence.

“I-I’ll go get my things,” Naruto said to break the awkwardness. Sasuke looked down at his cup of tea.

Naruto ran back to Sasuke’s bedroom, grabbed his backpack, and ran back to the kitchen. Already, Itachi stood at the exit, waiting for him in silence.

“I’m ready to go,” Naruto said unnecessarily. Itachi only nodded while Sasuke sulked at the table and his mother cleaned up. He said goodbye before they left the Uchiha compound.

The walk to Naruto’s apartment was awkward. Itachi said nothing and Naruto had no idea how to break the silence. He wondered why Itachi would rather spend time with Naruto over his own brother. Sasuke could have come with us too, ya know!

Itachi was only a year or two older than Fuu but already seemed more tired and world-weary than Roshi. He could understand why Sasuke admired him so much, but at the same time, he seemed so distant.

“Are you friends with Sasuke?” Itachi asked once they reached Naruto's apartment, breaking the awkwardness. Naruto dropped his keys. Itachi had been quiet for so long that his question startled him.

“Huh?” he asked, spinning around to look up at Itachi.

“Would you consider Sasuke your friend?” he asked again.

Naruto shrugged. “I’m not sure,” he said. “He’d never say it and I never will either. We’re rivals, ya know!”

Itachi raised an eyebrow. Naruto gulped and fidgeted with the keys in his hands.

“But... We spend too much time together not hating or fighting each other,” he admitted. “I guess he’s not just a rival.”

To Naruto’s surprise, Itachi chuckled. It was the first time he had seen Itachi express real and genuine joy. It changed his face completely and Naruto almost dropped his keys again.

Itachi hummed thoughtfully. “I think Sasuke feels the same way.”

“Oh... uh... okay,” Naruto answered, lost for words. Are Sasuke and I friends?

“Have a good night, Naruto-kun,” Itachi said with a nod.

“Good night, Itachi-san,” Naruto replied, returning the gesture.

He opened his front door and stepped inside. When he turned around to say a final thank you and farewell, Itachi was already gone.

Chapter Text

“Controlling the arms is more difficult than I expected,” Han said, a bead of sweat falling down his forehead.

“Of course it is,” Yagura said, rolling his eyes. “If it were easy, every one of us would already be fully-realized jinchuuriki. The hardest part is actually not destroying anything.”

Han nodded and summoned his Chakra Arms again, using the five chakra tails to move a group of rocks. Roshi stared at him with jealous outrage. Yagura had only been training them on how to control the different forms for two weeks. Already, Han had nearly mastered the five-tailed Version 1 form.

And then there’s me.

Roshi had seen no success controlling even the Initial Form. Unlike Han, he could only use the Four-Tails’s chakra by stealing it, forcing the monkey demon to give it up. While it increased his power and speed exponentially, there were drawbacks to taking the chakra by force. Instead of protecting him from attacks, the shroud burned. It also affected his mental state, making him more impulsive and violent.

Meanwhile, Han, Yugito, B, and Yagura could combine their chakra with that of their beasts’ to achieve higher forms. With that power, they were stronger, faster, and more protected than ever before. Once they reached a higher level, they even had access to the Chakra Arms, which acted as supplementary limbs.

Roshi thought the entire situation unfair. How come you got the easy-going bijuu?

He glared at Han in annoyance. The other man was trying to juggle a pile of rocks using his five new limbs while Yagura looked on, impressed.

Frustrated, Roshi tried to use the Initial Jinchuuriki form again. He closed his eyes and called the Yonbi's chakra to himself. He felt its power, furious and frustrated, building behind his navel. When he opened his eyes, a layer of chakra surrounded him, granting him strength and a layer of protection.

But it wasn’t a perfect use. The Four-Tails was inside his mind, corrupting his thoughts and actions. If he concentrated, he could also feel the beast’s chakra burning his skin. Roshi grimaced and let go of the transformation. Two weeks and I still can’t master the Initial Form.

Resigned, Roshi took a break from trying to steal the Four-Tails’s chakra. He collapsed on the grass with a sigh. He stared up at the sky, feeling extremely sorry for himself.

“Still don’t get it?” Yagura stepped in front of him, blocking his sight.

Roshi grimaced. “Nope. The demon keeps interfering with my mind. Han got lucky with his bijuu.”

He glared at Han, who was now juggling the rocks without any effort. Lucky bastard.

Yagura sighed and sat down next to him. To his relief, restoring his view of the sky. “You know, Fuu has nearly mastered her control over the Initial Form,” he said. “And she’s only ten.”

Roshi’s grimace deepened. “She got lucky with her bijuu, too.”

“Utakata can use the Six-Tails’s ability to create acids and combine it with his bubble jutsu,” Yagura added. “With no negative repercussions to his body.”

“His bijuu is probably weak.”

“Yugito-chan obtained full control over her bijuu and all its forms at the age of seventeen.”

“The Two-Tails probably took pity on her.”

“Killer B tamed the 8-Tails,” Yagura continued, voice full of amusement. “The Eight-Tails is considered one of the strongest and most willful of the tailed beasts.”

“It took pity on Killer B’s rapping skills.” Roshi felt himself running out of excuses. Yagura sighed, sounding like he was suppressing laughter. Roshi felt a sudden urge to punch his face.

“Roshi, you know three jinchuuriki with full control over their bijuu and three more with partial control,” Yagura said. “You are the only one I know who stubbornly refuses to admit you’re doing something wrong.”

“What am I doing wrong?” Roshi demanded to know.

“Well, to begin with, you keep referring to your tailed beast as an angry monkey demon,” Yagura answered. “And you keep saying that it’s evil and shouldn’t be alive. You don’t even respect it enough to use the name given to him by the sage. If I were in his position, I would refuse to lend you my chakra, too.”

He’s right. “You’re wrong.”

Yagura raised an eyebrow but said nothing. He collapsed on the grass next to Roshi, looking up at the sky. They laid down in silence for a few minutes, the only sounds coming from Han juggling rocks and the sounds of nature.

Eventually, Yagura sighed. He stood up and stared down at Roshi. “We should relax a little,” he said. “You need to stop focusing so much on... things.”

From the background, Roshi heard the rocks crash to the ground, Han’s exercise finished.

“Yagura is right,” Han said, walking to join them. “We need to celebrate how I was able to obtain control over the Version 1 Form in a couple of weeks.”

Roshi glared at his friend. Rub it in, why don’t you...

“There’s a town nearby,” Yagura said. “We can stay at an inn with an onsen and relax. Have a few drinks. Get your mind off your absolute failure to use the Yonbi's chakra.”

Roshi might have been angrier if Yagura wasn’t completely right. Frustrated, he nodded. Some sake would make the situation better.

O-O-O

The town Yagura led them to was a lot seedier than Roshi had expected. Instead of restaurants, he only saw bars and brothels. The streets were dirty and there were no children. At the inn, they were charged per hour instead of per night. They also appeared surprised to see three grown men sharing a room together, although they politely said nothing.

How come Yagura only likes these kinds of towns? First Tanzaku Quarters and now this? Roshi groaned, taking a sip of his sake. The bar was loud and busy, full of happy people. Next to him, Yagura and Han chatted, sounding completely carefree. Lucky bastards.

He took another, larger, sip. It burned as it went down his throat and arrived at his stomach. He shuddered. Fucking demon monkey.

“So you’re unable to perform, big deal,” Yagura teased as he put his healthy arm over Roshi’s shoulder. “It happens sometimes to a lot of guys.”

Han snorted. Roshi only stopped himself from punching him through sheer force of will.

“What do you know about performance?” Roshi muttered.

“I’ve been married for nearly fifteen years now,” Yagura said. “It’s happened a few times.”

“I don’t think that’s the kind of performance Roshi is talking about,” Han said, voice full of amusement. Roshi got the urge to punch him, too.

“Oh, right,” Yagura said. “Well, whatever kind of performance, no one is perfect.”

“I will kill you,” Roshi said as he pushed Yagura’s arm away from his shoulder. The other man only laughed.

Roshi took another sip of sake. His mind was already clouded and his self-misery didn’t help. He glared at Yagura, who sat next to him. To his dismay, he seemed unaffected by the alcohol. He was chatting animatedly to Han, who could drink three full bottles before starting to feel any effect. The benefits of being big and tall.

“You need to relax, Roshi,” Yagura said. “You’re too serious. Look at Han! He’s already drunk twice what you have!”

“That’s because he weighs three times what I do,” Roshi grumbled.

“And who’s chakra control is better?” Yagura asked with a smirk. Roshi placed his head down on the bar, cocooned inside his crossed arms.

“I’ll kill you both in your sleep,” he grumbled to the bar, half-heartedly. “Anyway, how come you’re not starting to feel the effects?” he asked. “You’ve been drinking as much as I have, if not more.”

“Well, maybe if you had better control of your chakra, you could use it to boost your liver’s filtration speed,” Yagura said, taking a sip of sake.

The bijuu can do that? Roshi lifted his head up to drink more, directly from the bottle that time. Yagura and Han chuckled to themselves. I’m glad my suffering is funny to you.

Han bent forward to speak in Roshi’s ear, keeping their conversation private. “You need to talk to the Four-Tails,” he whispered. “You don’t even talk to him and you still try to take its chakra by force.”

“I don’t want to,” Roshi grumbled. He chugged his sake directly from the bottle. He heard Han sigh in exasperation.

“Just do it,” Han said, out loud that time.

Roshi grimaced. Even in the Room, everyone seemed to be ganging up on him and telling him to talk to his bijuu. The only ones who refrained were Gaara and Naruto, and he knew why they didn’t. He was starting to wonder if he was just stubborn.

“Fine!” Roshi exclaimed, slamming his bottle down on the bar. “I’ll talk to the bastard. Nothing is going to change, though.”

Yagura shrugged. “Don’t be so sure about that.”

Roshi glared at him as he chugged the rest of the sake.

O-O-O

Roshi didn’t wait to sober up before talking to his bijuu. Once they left the bar and headed to their room at the inn, he meditated. A few seconds later, he appeared in his mind space, apart from the Room.

“So you finally saw fit to talk to me,” the monkey demon grumbled.

Roshi stared impassively at the Four-Tails. It was pinned down on a pillar, his arms and legs bound by gigantic chakra chains. It struggled against its constraints, but it was useless. It glowered at Roshi. The seal was too strong, even for a bijuu.

“I need your chakra,” Roshi slurred. Despite not having his physical body there, he felt the effects of alcohol. His vision blurred and he wobbled, collapsing onto his knees.

The monkey demon laughed at the moment of weakness, cruel and sadistic. Roshi grimaced. I can’t remember the last time I talked to the monster.

“I need your chakra,” Roshi repeated, looking up at the tailed beast from his kneeling position. The beast stopped laughing at once.

“How dare you!” it shouted. “For your entire life, you have looked down on me and my kind. You don’t even use my name! Why should I let you use my chakra?”

“Because you live in me,” Roshi answered. “If I die, you die, too.”

The monkey snorted. The sound was strange when coming from the creature. “Even so, I will eventually reform. You won’t. And I will be free.”

“It’ll take a long time though, won’t it?” Roshi said. “And it would take even longer to reach the full extent of your power.”

The bijuu growled. “Still preferable over letting you take my chakra. You probably don’t even remember my name. Why should I trust you with my power?”

Roshi frowned to himself. He was either drunker than he had thought or the Four-Tails was making sense. They stared at each other in silence as they waited for the other one to speak.

“I never forgot your name,” Roshi eventually muttered. “I was only ten years old when I talked to you for the first time, but I still remember it.”

The bijuu snorted again. “Oh yeah? And what is it?”

“You are Son Goku. The King of the Sage Monkeys, The Handsome Monkey King, and the Great Sage Equaling Heaven,” he answered, not missing a beat.

The beast stared at him, shocked that Roshi could remember all the titles. It was silent until it growled again, screeching furiously.

“If you remember, why have you never used my name?” it screamed.

“Because...” Roshi swallowed. He had never thought of admitting it to anyone, let alone the monkey king. “I was too proud. I thought if I didn’t use your name, I could always have some control over you, no matter what.”

“What?” The bijuu stared at Roshi in incredulity. Roshi met his eyes, face impassive.

“I’m sorry,” Roshi said.

Those two words seemed to shock the bijuu more than anything else, because he startled, shifting back as much as his chains could let him. Roshi and the monkey king stared at each other appraisingly, trying to put their thoughts into words.

“Those titles are too long though.” Roshi broke the silence first. “Why don’t I just call you... Son?”

The Four-Tails stared down at Roshi, who was still kneeling and drunk on the ground. After what seemed like an eternity, he grunted and nodded his head.

“That’ll work,” Son Goku said.

Roshi smiled before leaving his mind space. When he opened his eyes, Yagura and Han were hovering over him, staring worriedly into his face.

“So? How did it go?” Han asked.

Roshi didn’t answer. Before anyone could stop him, he ran to the toilet and immediately let go of the contents of his stomach. His companions grimaced in sympathy.

Roshi wiped his mouth with a forearm. At least I finally made some progress.

O-O-O

Hinata looked at the entrance of the Academy with relief. Her summer holiday had not been the best and her separation from Naruto had only made it worse.

Nearly every day, she had woken up early to train with her father or another clan member. She was supposed to be learning how to improve her Byakugan and the beginning of the Gentle Fist style of fighting. But progress had been slow and disappointing.

Hinata was not as strong as her father expected. She tired easily and needed to practice the same move several times before she could replicate it. Her strikes were clumsy and often missed their marks. She hesitated before her opponents.

In comparison, her cousin Neji, despite being from the branch clan, had already progressed much further. He was only eight years old, but he already had a strong foundation in all aspects of clan techniques. Even Hanabi, who was only two, already showed high proficiency in taijutsu and a willingness to learn.

Hinata didn’t feel like the heir to the Hyuuga clan. She felt weak, meek, and shy. Her father, while never overtly cruel, didn’t bother to hide his disappointment in her performance.

Relieved that she wouldn’t have to train every day for hours, she stepped inside her classroom. She was the first person there. She sat down next to the window and waited impatiently for Naruto to arrive.

Slowly, other students started to trickle in. Shino arrived after her, sitting at the back of the classroom. Sasuke arrived next, sitting near the front of the class by himself. A few other students arrived, too, some of whom she didn’t remember. She looked up whenever the door opened but was disappointed every time.

I hope he’s still enrolled in the Academy. Hinata knew that sometimes students dropped out during the breaks. She pushed her fingertips together. She bit her lip and looked down at her desk. Only five minutes were left until the class began and Naruto had yet to arrive.

Around her, her classmates talked amongst each other, catching up after a holiday spent apart. No one talked to her or asked to sit next to her. Despite being surrounded by other children her age, she felt completely alone. By the time Iruka came in to start the class, she remained alone at her table, trying not to cry. I guess it’s just me today.

She stared at the desk as Iruka began his lecture, absorbing nothing of what he was saying.

“Iruka-sensei!” a loud voice yelled from the doorway.

Everyone turned to stare. Naruto stood at the entrance to the classroom. His eyes were open wide in panic and his shirt was inside out. He stopped for a second to get his breathing back in order. Hinata’s heart soared.

“Naruto!” Iruka yelled back. “What happened? Why are you late?”

Naruto grinned bashfully. “I’m sorry, Iruka-sensei,” he panted. “I forgot to set the alarm last night, so I woke up late, ya know.”

Iruka sighed. “I’ll let you off the hook since it’s the first day back,” he said, clearing his throat. “But if you’re late again, you will need to stay here after class and help me clean up. Do you understand?”

Naruto chuckled and scratched the back of his neck. “Yes, Iruka-sensei.”

Hinata caught Sasuke mutter something, but she couldn't hear it. Naruto must have, however, because he stuck his tongue out at Sasuke when Iruka turned his back.

Cheerfully, Naruto scanned the classroom. His eyes widened in happiness when he saw Hinata and the empty seat next to her. He ran to her table and sat down.

“Good morning, Hinata-chan!” he greeted with a grin. “I missed you during the summer, ya know.”

Hinata smiled back. “I missed you too, Naruto-kun.”

O-O-O

On the first day back to school after the summer break, Naruto woke up late. He jolted awake, looking at the alarm clock he forgot to set the night before in panic.

He rushed through his morning routine, brushing his teeth and dressing as fast as possible. He put on his backpack, taking a slice of bread to eat on the way to school.

When he arrived, the class had already started. He apologized to Iruka, trying to get his breath back under control. To his immense relief, his teacher didn’t punish him and allowed him to join the class instead.

Sasuke called him an idiot under his breath. Naruto stuck his tongue out at him before going to sit next to Hinata. To his eternal joy, she looked just as happy to see him as he was to see her.

“Good morning, Hinata-chan!” he said. “I missed you during the summer, ya know.”

Hinata smiled back. “I missed you too, Naruto-kun.”

“So what did you do during the break?” he asked. “Did you learn anything cool?”

Before Hinata had a chance to answer, Iruka cleared his throat. Naruto turned around to look at his teacher. Iruka was glaring at him, his arms crossed in front of his chest.

“Naruto!” he yelled. “This is not the time for talking. The class has started.”

“Sorry, Iruka-sensei,” he apologized again. “I’ll be quiet.”

Naruto mimed zipping his mouth closed. He heard a few other children laughing at him. Iruka sighed and shook his head before continuing with the lecture.

“We’ll talk during lunch, okay?” he whispered to Hinata. She responded with only a short nod.

Naruto settled back in his chair and tried to focus on Iruka. He was glad to be back in school. His summer had been... strange.

After that first dinner with Sasuke’s family, he had spent more and more time at their house. Almost every morning, Naruto had gone to the Uchiha compound for training and lunch.

But a few times he had stayed behind to relax with Sasuke or to help Sasuke’s mother. She had started teaching him some of her recipes. She was a patient teacher, making sure he knew everything about the ingredients and tools of the kitchen. For some reason, she had laughed hysterically when Naruto said his favorite food was ramen. While Naruto’s cooking was not on her level yet, it was better than anything he had made from scratch before.

Sasuke’s father had been similarly kind. The first time Naruto had seen the man, stern and wearing his police uniform, he had felt cold sweat running down his back. He had expected the man to despise him. But he seemed curious more than anything about Naruto, asking him questions about his training and skills.

The member of the Uchiha family Naruto understood the least was Itachi. Sasuke’s older brother was only a year or two older than Fuu but acted like a man the same age as Han. He was quiet and rarely talked to Sasuke and even less often to Naruto. Sasuke looked up to Itachi, often asking him to spend time with them. But despite Sasuke’s pleas, Itachi never stayed for longer than a meal and a short conversation.

After spending so much time in Sasuke’s house, Naruto almost felt like he had yet another adoptive family. Too bad Sasuke is kind of a jerk, though.

“Hey, Sasuke!” Naruto yelled as the bell rang to start their lunch break. “We’re gonna go eat outside. Wanna join?”

Sasuke blinked at Naruto, turning his gaze between him and Hinata. He shook his head. “I’m fine. You two have lunch without me.”

Naruto rolled his eyes. “Fine. We’ll have more fun without you, ya know.”

“Fine.”

“Fine!” He’s such a jerk!

Naruto huffed and stomped out of the classroom. Hinata followed behind him. They walked outside and sat down together under the shade of a large tree. Naruto muttered under his breath about jerks and Sasuke.

“Why did you invite Sasuke-kun to eat with us, Naruto-kun?” Hinata asked, taking a small bento box out and setting it on the ground.

“We trained together during the summer,” Naruto explained. “And we always got lunch after training. I guess he thinks that now that we’re back at the Academy, he doesn’t want to spend time with me anymore.”

He put his chin on his knees, wrapping his arms around his legs in a hug. He had thought that after spending so much time together, they had become friends. I guess he only wanted me as a training partner.

“Oh,” Hinata whispered. She pushed her fingertips together in a now-familiar gesture. “So you trained together during the summer? Did you learn anything new?”

Although Naruto knew that Hinata was only trying to distract him, he grinned and nodded his head, already more cheerful.

“Yeah, we practiced a lot!” he bragged. “And his family is really cool! Cooler than Sasuke, even! His mom showed me a neat trick with shuriken. And a new taijutsu move!”

“New taijutsu?” Hinata asked. “Can I see?”

Naruto nodded his head enthusiastically. He stood up, already feeling happier. “Yeah! Watch this!”

With no hesitation, he began an elaborate taijutsu kata. It was more complex than anything Iruka or the other jinchuuriki had taught him. According to Sasuke’s mother, it was most suitable for people with high endurance and flexibility. He ended the routine with a high kick.

Hinata clapped her hands at the end, eyes shining with happiness at the display. “That was really cool, Naruto-kun!” she said.

Naruto giggled. “Thanks!” he said. “It took me a long time to learn. Maybe three weeks or so?” He scratched his chin in contemplation before he remembered something else. “Oh! And you were doing a lot of training too, right Hinata-chan?” he asked. “What cool things did you learn?”

To Naruto’s surprise, instead of bragging about cool clan jutsu like Sasuke always did, she flinched. She bit her lip and looked down at the ground, her hands on her lap. Her gaze hardened as if she was trying not to cry.

“What is it, Hinata-chan?” he asked, sitting next to her and looking into her face.

“It’s just...” she kept her eyes focused away from him.

“Just what?” he asked.

She swallowed before speaking again, voice softer than he’s heard before. “I’m not as good as you,” she confessed. “My father is always disappointed because I’m very weak and slow.”

“Your father?” Naruto clenched his fists, outraged on Hinata’s behalf.

Hinata nodded. “I get tired very quickly, so I can't practice for long,” she continued. “My cousin is only a year older and he can already do so much. He’s one of the best we’ve ever seen in the Hyuuga clan.”

“I see,” Naruto said, lost for words. He didn’t know what he could say to make her feel better. They sat in silence, side by side, lost in their own thoughts.

“Wait! I have an idea!” Naruto leaned forward to meet Hinata’s eyes, a grin on his face.

“An idea?” she repeated uncertainly.

“Yeah!” Naruto yelled. “You can train with me and Sasuke after school! We always go to the training area and spar there. I’ve gotten loads better with that! Maybe you can tag along, too!”

“M-me?” she stuttered, blushing pink. “But... I don’t think Sasuke-kun likes me. He said no when you asked to eat lunch together.”

Naruto rolled his eyes. “Don’t worry about him,” he said. “Sasuke is just a jerk, but he’s the kind of jerk that will do anything to get stronger.”

“Are you sure?” she asked, biting her lip.

“I’m sure,” he said confidently. “I’ll talk to him after school and then you can come with us tomorrow, ya know. And that way, you can ask for permission too, right? From your cousin or whatever?”

“Y-yeah,” she said. Despite her stutter, she appeared confident and happy with the plan. She sat up straighter.

“I’ll ask my mother and father for permission tonight,” she continued. “If they say it’s okay, I’ll go with you two for extra sparring.”

“Great!” Naruto said, grinning. Hinata returned the smile nervously.

“Thanks for the meal.” Hinata clapped her hands together before opening her bento box. Naruto’s heart sank into his stomach.

“Argh!” he shouted. “I forgot to make myself lunch! I was just running out of my apartment!”

“Oh, Naruto-kun,” Hinata said, looking genuinely sorry for him. “I can share some of my food with you. My mother always packs more than necessary.”

“Thank you, Hinata-chan,” he said with a sigh. “You’re a lifesaver.”

Together, they bent over the bento box. They were ready to eat when someone interrupted them.

“Hey, loser,” Sasuke said, walking toward them. “Forgot your food?”

Naruto glared at him. Did he come here just to make fun of me? “What’s it to ya?” he asked with a grimace.

Sasuke rolled his eyes. To Naruto’s surprise, instead of leaving or saying anything else, he sat down next to Naruto, putting his own bento next to Hinata’s. Naruto’s mouth watered at the sight. Uchiha-san’s cooking!

“I realized you probably forgot to bring food,” Sasuke explained. “You can share some of mine. You’d be a terrible training partner if you’re hungry. Just don’t eat everything.”

Before he could think twice about it, he hugged Sasuke, throwing him down on the ground.

“Thank you, Sasuke!” he said, beaming. “Maybe you’re not as much of a jerk as I thought.”

“Get off of me!” Sasuke said, pushing him away and sitting back up. “And what do you mean, not as much?”

Naruto giggled, refusing to answer Sasuke’s question. With Hinata and Sasuke’s food, it was more than enough for the three of them. They dug in. Hinata’s food was as good as it looked and Sasuke’s mother was the best cook Naruto knew. It was easily one of the best meals he’d ever had.

While Naruto and Hinata talked, Sasuke was silent, eating by himself as he stared into the distance. But Naruto could tell that he was listening to their conversation. It’s all about how he sits.

When they finished, they sat together, enjoying the shade of the tree.

“Oh, yeah, Sasuke,” Naruto said, turning to his friend. “Hinata wants to get stronger, so I invited her over for training.”

“Invited?” Sasuke raised an eyebrow before turning to look at Hinata critically. She blushed and looked away under his intense gaze.

Naruto rolled his eyes. “Yes,” he said. “I invited her. She says she wants to train more. Isn’t that right, Hinata-chan?” She nodded her head hesitantly.

Sasuke’s eyebrows contracted into a frown. “Are you sure you can keep up with us?” he asked. “We spend at least three hours training after school.”

Hinata bit her lip and blushed. Her eyes become shiny and Naruto could tell that she was tempted to deny the invitation.

“She’ll be fine!” Naruto insisted, grabbing onto her shoulder. She startled at the sudden touch. “Besides, the only way to get better is to practice, ya know!”

“I suppose,” Sasuke answered skeptically. His frown remained, but he looked at Hinata more thoughtfully. “My father did say that the Hyuuga clan has a different fighting style.”

Naruto poked Hinata’s shoulder. She jumped before nodding at the implied question.

“Yes,” she said. “I’ve been learning the first steps of the Gentle Fist technique. It’s... a kekkei genkai in my clan.”

“In that case, you might as well come,” Sasuke said. He started to walk away without them. “My father says I should try sparring with more than one person, anyway.”

He left Hinata and Naruto without saying anything else. They watched him walk away. Naruto turned his gaze back to Hinata with a grin.

“So, yeah,” he said. “Ask your parents if you can come train with us! Sasuke is kind of a jerk, but he’s a good training partner. You can practice what you learned with us!”

Hinata nodded. She still looked nervous, but the fear from before was gone. With Sasuke’s approval, he couldn't imagine any excuse for her to say no. They sat and talked for a few more minutes until it was time to return to class.

O-O-O

Her family was eating dinner together in silence. Hinata hesitated. She fidgeted with her chopsticks, turning her gaze to look between her parents.

Her father had his eyes closed. He took a bite of food and chewed thoughtfully. Her mother focused on Hanabi, trying to teach her how to use chopsticks correctly. Hanabi only seemed interested in grabbing the food with her hands, however, stubborn as always.

Hinata looked at her parents and sister before turning around to look at the branch family members. They stood against the walls, silent guards and servants. She swallowed and gathered her courage.

“Father,” she began. She swallowed again as she forced herself to stop fidgeting with her chopsticks.

“What is it?” he asked, not opening his eyes. His indifference made her feel smaller than usual.

Hinata swallowed to gather her courage. “One of my friends asked me if I wanted to do some training and sparring after school with him,” she said.

Her father finally opened his eyes to look at her. Her mother stopped trying to force Hanabi to use chopsticks to look at Hinata, eyes opened wide. Only Hanabi remained focused on her task, shoveling food into her mouth as fast as she could.

“After the Academy hours, I presume?” her father asked. For the first time in a very long time, his attention was fully focused on her.

Hinata nodded. “My friend... um... always did some training with one of his friends after school. He asked me if I wanted to meet with them.”

“Who is this friend, Hinata?” her mother asked. “I don’t think you’ve really mentioned any friends from the Academy before.”

Hinata hesitated. She didn’t want to tell them about Naruto. Ko’s reaction was enough for her to know what they would think.

“It’s with Sasuke Uchiha,” she lied. “We talked during lunch about training together.”

“Sasuke Uchiha?” her father asked, eyebrows raised. “He invited you?”

Hinata thought Naruto would have been insulted on her behalf by his tone. She bit her lip and nodded, not wanting to say anything else. She looked up at her father. Her heart beat faster in anticipation of his answer. Please say yes, father.

After what felt like an eternity, he nodded and Hinata felt the tension release from her shoulders.

“Additional training sessions with a member of the Uchiha clan could be useful,” he said, a thoughtful frown on his face.

“Thank you, Father,” she said, trying not to show how overjoyed she was at his approval.

He stared down at her. “Make sure not to bring shame to our clan,” he ordered.

She bit her lip and nodded. She knew Sasuke and Naruto were both much more talented than she was. She just hoped she wouldn’t embarrass herself too much.

O-O-O

Sasuke stared at the girl in front of him. She had walked to the training area with Naruto after class ended. Now, she stood shyly behind him as if his presence was enough to shield her from anything, avoiding Sasuke’s gaze.

“G-good afternoon, Sasuke-kun,” she said. “H-how are you?”

“Fine,” Sasuke said.

At his curt tone, she shied back farther behind Naruto, keeping her eyes trained on the ground. Sasuke frowned. You can’t become a shinobi if you’re afraid all the time.

“Oh! So how are we gonna break up the fights?” Naruto asked with a grin, ignoring the tense atmosphere completely.

“I don’t know,” Sasuke said with a shrug. “Two against one?”

“That’s not fair!” Naruto protested. “It’s Hinata-chan’s first time with us! We should take turns!”

“Hn, fine,” Sasuke said. He crossed his arms in front of his chest. “Who is first?”

“I don’t know.” Naruto rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Rock, paper, scissors?”

Sasuke shrugged. “Why not?” he asked. “The loser has to sit out and watch the first match.”

“Sure!” Naruto gave him a thumbs up.

Naruto pulled on Hinata’s hand so the three of them were standing in a circle. They played the game. To Sasuke’s dismay, Naruto lost, making the first match of the afternoon a spar between Sasuke and Hinata. I guess I’ll have to take it easy for now.

“Yeah! You can do it, Hinata-chan!” Naruto cheered. Hinata only looked more unsure of herself and she fidgeted, pushing her fingertips together.

“I-I’m not sure if I can be a good opponent, Naruto-kun,” she admitted. We haven’t even started training, and she already looks like she’s ready to cry.

“Don’t worry, Hinata-chan,” Naruto reassured her. “You’re really strong and cool too!”

To Sasuke’s surprise, she nodded and stood up straighter. She walked to the center of the training arena and bowed her head down respectfully. Sasuke copied her, bowing down to her in return. I’ll try not to make you cry at least.

Their spar began. Sasuke pushed her back first, not wanting to finish the match until he understood her fighting style. She stepped back, keeping her hands held in front of her. Her stance was weak, and he saw many openings to attack. He sighed to himself in annoyance. Why did Naruto have to lose the game?

“Are you even taking this seriously?” he asked. She flinched and stared at him.

“W-what do you mean?” she stuttered.

“Come at me with everything you got!” he said, unable to keep his frustration from bleeding into his voice. “If you’re not going to fight back, you might as well go home.”

“Hey! Don’t be a jerk to Hinata-chan!” Naruto yelled. “She’s trying her best, ya know!”

“Naruto...” Hinata turned to look at her friend for a few seconds before her eyes refocused on Sasuke. To Sasuke’s delight, her previous weakness was gone, and she stood straight, her arms held in front of her.

Sasuke smirked. That’s more like it.

“You still can’t beat me!” Sasuke taunted. She only stared at him. While he still saw a hint of nervousness, her eyes were full of determination.

He lunged to attack. It was a sure hit to her shoulder. It was a move that had allowed him to defeat Naruto more times than he could count. However, at the last second, she stepped to the side and hit his arm with an open palm.

Instantly, pain coursed up and down his arm and he screamed at the sensation. Sasuke fell to the ground, grabbing at his wounded arm. It was the worst pain he’d ever felt, even more than when he accidentally cut open the palm of his hand with a kunai. Within seconds, both Naruto and Hinata were at his sides. He tried to stand up by himself but he could only writhe in pain.

“What happened?” Naruto asked, panicked. “Your arm looks okay, Sasuke. did it really hurt so much?”

Sasuke nodded and gritted his teeth. “It hurts,” he said. “What did she do?” Sasuke suppressed a second scream at the pain.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” Hinata repeated the words as she dug into her bag in search of something. She handed a small tub full of ointment over to him.

To Sasuke’s surprise, she was sobbing. “Here is a healing ointment from our clan,” she said through her tears. “It will help with the pain.”

Sasuke swallowed down another scream as he took the tub with his healthy hand. He rubbed the ointment over his shoulder. Almost immediately, the pain lessened, but he still couldn't move his arm well. He breathed out sharply through his mouth. He forced himself to swallow and to breathe again, more slowly through his nose. He looked at his arm, unresponsive and useless, and gritted his teeth. Naruto sat next to Sasuke, face ashen.

“I’m so sorry, Sasuke-kun,” Hinata said, tears streaming down her face. “I used too much chakra in my attack. It was only supposed to sting a little.”

From the corner of his eye, he saw Naruto grabbing onto her hand in silent support. Sasuke shook his head. With her medicine, his arm was already beginning to return to normal.

“No,” Sasuke said. “It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have underestimated you.” My mother is always telling me off me about that.

“Huh?” Hinata stopped sobbing to stare at him in confusion. She wiped her tears away with her forearm.

“You won fair and square,” he admitted. “It’s going to heal, right?”

“R-right,” she said. “I’m very sorry, Sasuke-kun.”

“Don’t be,” Sasuke said. He tried to stand. To his relief, Naruto helped him up. “I asked you to take the fight seriously, and you did.”

“I-I...” she swallowed, keeping her eyes on the ground. “I guess. I’m still very sorry, Sasuke-kun.”

Sasuke shrugged. “I’ll be fine. I guess Naruto was right about you being stronger than you look, though.”

Hinata turned a bright red. She hid her face behind the palms of her hands and wiped her eyes. “Thank you, Sasuke-kun. You are very kind.”

I think that’s the first time anyone’s ever said that to me.

Sasuke grunted. “Hn. I can’t fight in this condition. I’ll practice throwing shuriken instead. You and Naruto can spar.”

Naruto laughed, helping Hinata stand up as well. “Just don’t hit me like you hit Sasuke, ya know!”

Hinata shook her head. “I won’t,” she promised. Her face was blotchy and her eyes were puffy, but she had stopped crying.

For the rest of their training session, Sasuke watched them spar and compare katas while he threw shuriken one-handed. After Sasuke’s praise, she was much less nervous, although her posture was still unsure.

Sasuke looked down at his wounded arm. Maybe she’s not so weak after all.

Chapter Text

After that initial fight with Sasuke, Naruto always invited Hinata to their training sessions.

While Hinata was not as fast or strong as Sasuke, her fighting style meant Naruto was constantly dodging her attacks. When she did manage to hit him, it was enough to take him out. Even with the power of the Kyuubi, it took his body a few minutes to heal the damage. The best solution was to simply avoid her strikes entirely.

He could tell that Sasuke liked her company, too. At the very least, he had taken to joining them for lunch every once in a while. But unlike with Naruto, he had no disparaging nickname for her.

“Oof! I’m beat!” Naruto yelled as he collapsed onto the grass. He had been sparring non-stop since the Academy let out. A short distance away, Hinata and Sasuke sat down, also exhausted.

“Finished already, loser?” Sasuke asked with a smirk. Naruto might have found his words more threatening if he weren’t struggling to breathe.

Naruto smirked back. “I could do this all day, ya know.”

Hinata giggled but said nothing. Naruto closed his eyes as he relaxed on the grass, cradling his head between the palms of his hands. Together, the three of them quieted down as they allowed their breathing to get back in order. No one spoke and Naruto allowed the peace and quiet to settle over him like a security blanket. This is nice.

To his surprise, it was Sasuke who broke the silence first. “Hey, Loser,” he said.

Naruto turned to him with a frown. “What do you want, Jerk?”

“My mother asked me to invite you over for dinner tomorrow,” he said. “And to spend the night. She said that I am to do anything to convince you.”

Naruto frowned. “Spend the night?” he asked. While Sasuke’s mother had invited him over for dinner a few times, she hadn’t insisted that he stay overnight. “Why does she want me to stay over?”

Sasuke shrugged, face deliberately neutral. “I don’t know,” he said. “I think she wants to celebrate Itachi’s promotion. He’s a jounin now.”

“Wait, really? Already?” Naruto sat up to stare incredulously at Sasuke. Fuu was only one or two years younger than Itachi and only a genin. He also remembered Utakata and Yugito becoming jounin when they were fifteen or sixteen years old. I guess Itachi must be really talented.

“Yes,” Sasuke nodded, looking both proud and jealous. “He’s twelve.”

“Twelve?” Naruto repeated, surprised. And I thought Fuu was cool for becoming a genin at ten!

“But that’s not the point,” Sasuke said, trying to refocus the conversation. “My mother wants you to come over.”

“Me?” Naruto pointed to himself, confused. He had never thought Itachi particularly cared about him enough to invite him to a party.

“She also wants me to invite you,” he continued, turning his gaze to Hinata.

“Me too?” she asked, surprised.

“You need to ask for permission first though, right?” Sasuke asked.

“But... why me?” she asked. “I don’t think I’ve ever met your brother...” She pushed the tips of her fingertips together.

Sasuke leaned over and whispered something in her ear. Whatever he said, Hinata’s eyes widened and she grinned.

“I’m not sure if I can go, but I’ll ask for permission,” she said, a smile on her face. “If I can’t, I’ll send a present with you.”

Naruto scowled in confusion. What the heck did just Sasuke tell her?

Sasuke nodded at her words and stood up, stretching his arms over his head. “Well, I should go home,” he said, pointedly ignoring Naruto’s scowl. “See you later, Hinata, Loser.”

“See you later, Jerk,” Naruto said.

“See you tomorrow, Sasuke-kun,” Hinata said.

Without any other words, Sasuke walked away.

Copying Sasuke, Hinata stood up and stretched her arms in front of her. She extended a hand down to help Naruto stand up. Grateful, Naruto took her hand.

“So what did Sasuke tell you?” he asked curiously.

“Oh, nothing important,” she answered with an enigmatic smile. “Just that he needs more people to make it a real party.”

Naruto raised an eyebrow in confusion. He shook his head. He exchanged farewells with Hinata before walking back home. I guess I’ll see what the heck they were talking about later.

O-O-O

“We’re almost there,” Sasuke said as the three of them neared the entrance to the Uchiha quarters.

Naruto and Hinata hummed in assent. While he already knew the journey like the back of his hand, it was Hinata’s first time visiting the Uchiha compound. To their relief, she had received permission to walk with them after the Academy ended, so long as she was by the gate before sundown. While Naruto was disappointed she would leave the celebration early, it was a small price to pay for her company.

“This way,” Sasuke said as they walked through the entrance and into the compound. Within a few minutes, they arrived at Sasuke’s house.

“Mom! I’m home!” Sasuke yelled as he took his shoes off at the entrance.

“Welcome home, Sasuke!” Sasuke’s mother stuck her head out. She smiled when she saw that both Naruto and Hinata were there. “And you brought your friends, too!”

“They’re just my training partners,” Sasuke muttered, although he didn’t seem particularly bothered by her words.

His mother sighed good-naturedly before walking to stand in front of Naruto and Hinata. She turned her gaze to Hinata first.

“Good afternoon, you must be Hinata Hyuuga,” she said. “My name is Mikoto Uchiha. It’s very nice to meet you.”

“Likewise, Uchiha-san,” Hinata said with a bow of her head. “Thank you very much for inviting me into your home. It’s lovely.”

Hinata is so polite. Sasuke’s mother turned her gaze over to Naruto. She smiled when she saw the large backpack slung on his back. “So you packed things to stay overnight, Naruto-kun?”

Naruto nodded enthusiastically. “Yeah! Sasuke told me Itachi is a jounin now and we have to celebrate!”

She covered her mouth as she chuckled. “Well, we are always happy to have you over,” she said.

Naruto felt his face flush. He focused his eyes on his sandals as he took them off. He didn’t know if he would ever get used to her being nice to him. At his side, Hinata also took off her shoes. Together, they donned slippers and stepped inside.

“Would you three like something to eat while we wait for your father and Itachi to arrive?” she asked as she led them to the dining area. “Or drink?”

“Tomatoes?” Sasuke asked, trying to look nonchalant. Naruto almost rolled his eyes. Sasuke guy was obsessed with those stupid things.

“Sure, Sasuke,” she said with a bemused smile. “I’ll cut up some fruit and tomatoes for you three. Just wait.”

She left them as she walked to the kitchen. Silently, the three of them moved to the low table. Without weapons or fists in the way, they stared at each other awkwardly, wondering what to talk about.

“So... Itachi is already a jounin?” Naruto asked, breaking the silence.

Sasuke nodded. “A few weeks ago actually. They’re already talking about him joining ANBU.” The same as the day before, his voice emoted a combination of pride and jealousy.

“That sounds really cool, Sasuke-kun,” Hinata said, trying to keep the conversation going.

“His brother is real scary, though,” Naruto whispered to Hinata. “He always has this super serious look on his face, ya know.”

“I heard that!” Sasuke said, sounding annoyed. Naruto grinned and scratched the back of his head. Hinata giggled.

“Here you go, kids,” Sasuke’s mother said as she set a plate full of snacks in front of them. “I’m going to go start on dinner. Call me if you need anything.”

“Sure, Mom,” Sasuke said.

“Thank you, Uchiha-san,” Naruto and Hinata both said, nodding their heads in appreciation.

She smiled. “You’re welcome, kids. Dinner shouldn’t take too long.”

O-O-O

With nothing else to do until dinner, the three of them decided to get started on their homework. To Naruto’s dismay, both Hinata and Sasuke finished quickly, leaving Naruto behind as he struggled with math.

“You’re supposed to multiply them, not add them!” Sasuke yelled.

He looked close to breaking as Naruto struggled with fractions. It was the most emotion he had seen in Sasuke’s face for a while. Hinata suppressed a giggle at his reaction.

“Sorry, Jerk,” Naruto muttered as he erased his answer. “Guess I gotta follow your genius advice.”

Sasuke opened his mouth to retort before huffing and looking away with a pout. That time, Hinata couldn't suppress her laughter and she snorted. Naruto grinned at her as he wrote the correct answer down. We should do homework together more often. His reactions are hilarious.

Naruto continued going through the problems with Hinata’s help when they heard a sound at the door. Broken out of his sulking, Sasuke sat up straight and smiled.

“Father is home!” he said, sounding excited. Without waiting for them, he walked away toward the front door.

Naruto closed his notebook, vowing to finish it later. He stood up, walking side by side with Hinata to meet with Sasuke. When they arrived at the entrance, Sasuke was waiting for his father’s attention as the man took his shoes off.

“Welcome home, Father,” Sasuke said.

“Thank you Sasuke,” he grunted, not looking in Sasuke’s direction.

“Welcome home, Uchiha-san,” Naruto said as he walked closer. While the man was not as scary as the first time they met, there was still something intimidating about him.

“Hello, Naruto,” he said. His gaze turned from Naruto to Hinata, who stood next to him. She fidgeted slightly as she bowed her head down deeply.

“Good evening, Uchiha-san,” she said. “My name is Hinata Hyuuga. I’m very pleased to make your acquaintance.”

Sasuke’s father nodded his head. “My name is Fugaku Uchiha,” he said. “The pleasure is all mine.”

With the formalities out of the way, he stepped inside. The three of them followed after him like a line of ducklings.

“Welcome home, Fugaku,” Sasuke’s mother said while stirring something on the stove. “Dinner will only take a few more minutes.”

“Of course, Mikoto,” he said. “I brought what you asked for, too.”

Without another word, he placed a box carefully on the kitchen counter. Naruto looked at it. Something important must have been inside because Sasuke’s father put it far away from the edges.

“Thank you, Fugaku! We’ll need that for later,” Sasuke’s mother said. She smiled, eyes bright and cheerful. Sasuke’s father only nodded in return. He turned his gaze back to the children following behind him.

“I will take off my uniform,” he said. “Help your mother set the table.”

Sasuke nodded. “Yes, Father.”

Satisfied, his father walked away while the three children headed to the dining room. Working together, they cleared the table of their homework. Naruto moved his backpack to Sasuke’s room and took the opportunity to use the toilet. When he returned, Hinata and Sasuke had finished setting the table. They sat side by side whispering to each other. They stopped when they saw Naruto standing by the entrance.

“Oh, Naruto! Hello!” Hinata said.

Naruto frowned. “What were you two talking about?” he asked as he sat down next to Hinata, putting her in the middle.

“Oh, nothing important,” Hinata said easily, an honest smile on her face. Naruto’s frown deepened. There’s something going on. I can feel it.

“Dinner is ready!” Sasuke’s mother said as she stepped into the dining room, arms full of food. She set the dishes down at the table. Naruto felt himself drool at the sight.

“Mom, where is Itachi?” Sasuke asked.

“Oh, he said he had some work down at the Hokage’s office,” she said, waving her hand. “He sent me a message saying that we could start without him.” She returned to the kitchen to pick up more dishes.

Naruto’s frown deepened. I thought this was to celebrate Itachi’s promotion. His hunch that something strange was going to happen intensified. He glared at Sasuke and Hinata, daring either of them to crack, but their faces were impassive.

“It smells good,” Sasuke’s father commented as he walked inside. He had changed from his armor into a more casual yukata.

“I tried to make something for everyone,” Sasuke’s mother said as she set more dishes on the table before returning to the kitchen.

Sasuke’s father hummed in agreement. He sat down at the table, directly in front of Sasuke. Sasuke fidgeted marginally at the attention as he straightened his back. In the middle, Hinata knelt unflinchingly, perfectly poised and disciplined. Naruto copied them, although he was sure that he’s moving too much to be anywhere near their level.

Sasuke’s mother returned, holding the mysterious box from earlier. She placed it at the center of the table. Naruto’s eyes immediately gravitated toward it. I wonder what’s inside.

She sat down, next to Sasuke’s father and in front of Naruto. She gave him a smile. Naruto relaxed. Her presence was always enough to calm him down.

“Thank you for the meal, Mikoto,” Sasuke’s father said with a nod of his head.

Her smile widened. “You’re welcome! Now, before we start, I’d just like to say a few words.”

Naruto waited patiently for her to speak before he started eating. To his surprise, instead of saying something about Itachi and his promotion, her eyes turned to Naruto. The other people at the table followed her lead as everyone focused on him. Naruto fidgeted again.

“Happy birthday!” she said with a grin. She took the lid off of the box. Inside was a cake. On the top Naruto could read the words ‘Happy Birthday!’ written in frosting.

Around the table, the others clapped their hands as they congratulated him. Naruto felt his face heat up and he looked down at his knees. It was his birthday? Had he forgotten it again?

“Happy birthday, Naruto-kun!” Hinata said from his side, wrapping her arms around him in a hug.

“Oh... uh... thanks,” Naruto whispered, keeping his eyes focused anywhere but the people congratulating him. Hinata broke the hug to sit back on her seat cushion. She beamed at him. Naruto returned the smile uncertainly. I guess this explains a lot.

He turned his gaze back to Sasuke’s parents. Sasuke’s mother was smiling while his father maintained the same serious expression. But he could tell that the man was mildly amused based on the look in his eyes. On Hinata’s side, Sasuke rolled his eyes. His reaction was enough to snap Naruto out of his shock.

“Thank you very much,” he said. He bowed his head down to Sasuke’s parents. “I’ve never... uh... had a birthday party before.” Well, not in the physical world at least.

Her eyes softened. “It’s always a good time to celebrate,” she said. “I hope we can spend many more birthdays together.”

Naruto nodded his head, lost for words. He felt his throat getting choked up and his eyes filling with tears. He clenched his hands into fists. He pushed his emotions back and forced a smile on his face.

“Thank you very much, Uchiha-san,” he said. “I really appreciate it, ya know!”

“You’re welcome, Naruto-kun,” she said. “Now, without any further ado, let’s eat!”

Relieved to have something to do, Naruto started on his meal. It was as good as he had expected. At his side, Hinata ate slowly, taking little bites, graceful as always.

As soon as they finished eating, Sasuke’s mother cleared the table. She returned from the kitchen with a knife, a lighter, and a camera. She lit a candle at the center of the cake, pushing it so that it was in front of Naruto.

“Make a wish! Blow out the candle, Naruto-kun!” she ordered as she gave the camera to Sasuke’s father. He began to take pictures, keeping the same serious expression.

Unsure, Naruto blew out the flame before realizing his mistake. Wait! I forgot to make a wish! He almost begged to light the candle again, but Sasuke would make fun of him forever if he did.

He let her take the cake away as she cut it into neat little pieces. She handed the first slice to Naruto before giving a piece to Hinata and then to Sasuke. Finally, she served herself and her husband small slices.

“Would you like some milk to go along with the cake?” she asked.

“Oh, uh, sure,” Naruto muttered as he glared at the cake in front of him.

“Please, Uchiha-san,” Hinata said.

“Yes, Mom,” Sasuke added.

She left and returned holding three glasses and a carton full of milk. She started serving them. Without any further hesitation, Sasuke dug into his dessert while Hinata took little bites at his side. Naruto followed their lead as he tasted cake for the first time in his life. At once, his eyes brightened and he hummed in happiness. Wow! So this is what a cake is like!

He ate his dessert quickly, talking and laughing with Hinata and Sasuke about whatever came to mind. Occasionally, Sasuke’s mother or father asked them to pause for a picture or asked them questions about their training. They answered honestly, talking about taijutsu and shuriken training.

“I should leave,” Hinata said once she finished eating her slice. “Ko is probably already waiting at the entrance.”

“I see,” Sasuke’s mother said. “Fugaku can walk you there. It’s safe in the compound but you never know.”

“Thank you very much, Uchiha-san.” Hinata stood up gracefully. She bowed her head down deeply to Sasuke’s parents. They returned her greeting with nods of their heads. She turned her attention back to Naruto as she dug for something inside her pockets.

“Here, I bought something for you, Naruto-kun,” she said. “It’s not much, but I hope you like it.”

She placed a small box inside his hands. Naruto was overwhelmed with emotion once again. Blushing he bowed his head to Hinata in gratitude.

“Thanks, Hinata-chan, you’re the best,” he said. Hinata smiled at him, her cheeks tinted with pink.

“Come, Hyuuga-san,” Sasuke’s father said as he stood up and walked away. “I’ll escort you to the entrance.”

“Thank you very much,” she said. She turned her head to smile at Naruto and Sasuke in turn. With a final wave goodbye, she walked away, leaving Naruto, Sasuke, and his mother in the dining room.

“Well, I guess I should clean up,” Sasuke's mother said. She began to pick up the remaining dirty dishes.

“I’ll help!” Naruto declared as he stood up, empty plate in his hands. He started to pick up everything.

“Oh, Sasuke-kun,” she said. “Could you please find the second futon? It should be in the linen closet of my room. Set if up for Naruto-kun, please.”

Sasuke nodded and left his mother and Naruto to their tasks. Together, they piled all the dirty dishes together and took them to the kitchen sink. At once, she got started on her task, her back turned to him. With nothing to do, Naruto stared at her, unsure of what to say.

I should thank her again. Yugito and Mama would never forgive me if I didn’t say anything. He swallowed to gather his courage. He stood at her side.

“Oh... uh... Uchiha-san,” he began. She paused at her task and stared down at him, drying her hands on her apron.

“What is it, Naruto-kun?” she asked. She looked at him with a smile that made his stomach twist in some indescribable emotion. She tilted her head to the side as she waited for him to speak.

“I just wanted to say, th-than-,” he felt the words catch in his throat.

To his extreme embarrassment, he felt tears rolling down his face. He wiped at his crying eyes, ashamed of his weakness. He tried to rein back the tears, but the buildup of emotion only increased. Before he could do anything, he started to cry, sobbing pathetically as he stared at the floor. He hoped Sasuke would take a long time setting up the futon or he would never live it down.

“Th-thank you,” he managed to say through his tears. “You’re very kind to me.” He bowed his head.

Immediately, she knelt in front of him, making him flinch back at the sudden closeness. She wiped his face with the sleeve of her dress.

“It’s okay, Naruto, you don’t have to say anything,” she said. He didn’t know if he was imagining that her eyes were shinier than usual or not.

She pulled him into a hug, pressing his face onto her shoulder. He considered fighting it, but the need for comfort was too strong. She held onto him for a few seconds as he let his tears out of his system. For the first time in a very long time, he wished more than anything that his mother had never died in the Kyuubi attack. Is this what having a mother is like?

Eventually, he took a step back, embarrassed. It was bad enough to need comfort from the other jinchuuriki, who had known him since he was a baby. Being comforted by Sasuke’s mother was a different level of embarrassment. He wiped his runny nose and his eyes with his sleeve.

“Thank you,” he said when they broke apart, although she kept a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry. I’m not a baby anymore, ya know.”

She smiled, eyes looking sad for a reason he couldn't explain. “It’s fine, Naruto-kun. Enjoy being a child. The opportunities to cry will be few and far between once you get older.”

Naruto grunted in assent. He forced a grin on his face. Part of him still wanted to keep his arms wrapped around her shoulders, but he held back. “Thank you very much... Auntie.”

He bit his lip, waiting to see if she would resent her new name, but she smiled instead.

“I’m glad I got to know you, Naruto-kun,” she said.

She took a towel and cleaned his face. Naruto let her without any complaints. He knew how obvious it would be to Sasuke and his father that he had been crying. He hoped Sasuke wouldn’t lord over him for too long about it.

“Hey, Mom, I found the futon,” Sasuke said as he stepped into the kitchen. Naruto turned his face away while she returned to the kitchen sink. He already makes fun of me for so many things. Crying at my own birthday party will just be the worst one yet.

“Good,” she said. She had her back turned to them as she washed the dishes. “You two should take a bath while I finish cleaning up. Since you don’t have school tomorrow, you two can stay up late if you wish.”

“Sure, Mom,” Sasuke said. To Naruto’s dismay, Sasuke turned his attention toward Naruto, who was trying to keep his face hidden away.

“Hey, Loser,” he said. Naruto flinched and Sasuke’s mother sighed. “You heard Mom, go take a bath. You stink.”

“What’d you say to me, jerk?” Naruto retorted, turning his angry gaze to Sasuke.

Sasuke blinked in surprise when he saw Naruto’s face. But he said nothing disparaging, even though it was obvious Naruto had been crying not too long ago.

“The water is already hot,” Sasuke said, skillfully not talking about the state of Naruto’s face.

“Sure,” Naruto muttered. “I’ll go.” He turned his gaze back to Sasuke’s mother one more time. He bowed. “Thank you very much for the cake and dinner, Auntie.”

She chuckled. “It was the least we could do, Naruto-kun.” She returned to her task at the sink.

Naruto followed Sasuke to get ready for bed. Once they had changed into pajamas, they spent the next few hours arguing about their homework. They stayed up, yelling at each other, until Sasuke’s mother came inside and ordered them, calmly yet firmly, to go to sleep.

With grunts of annoyance, they crawled into their separate futons and turned off the lights. Naruto lay awake, trying to fall asleep. He wanted to join the Room and have a second birthday celebration there. He was starting to doze off when Sasuke spoke up.

“Hey, Loser,” Sasuke muttered.

“What?” Naruto’s heart beat faster as he worried Sasuke would make fun of him for crying earlier.

“Happy birthday,” he said.

Naruto stared at him in shock before he giggled. “Thanks, Jerk.”

“Hn,” Sasuke grunted as he turned his back to Naruto. Naruto kicked him, causing the other boy to groan in annoyance.

Naruto giggled again as he stared up at the ceiling. Sasuke is not so bad, ya know. A few minutes later, he had fallen asleep.

O-O-O

Outside of the testing room, Harusame sat, exuding poise and calm. Utakata waited at his side, appearing equally relaxed.

Inside, however, his heart threatened to beat out of his chest. Is Kimimaro ready? Is he prepared to be a genin? What if he doesn’t meet the minimum benchmarks?

For the past few months, he had been getting to know Kimimaro more and more. While at first he had been shy, never speaking unless spoken to first, the boy had become much more confident. While still reserved, he was less afraid to speak or to show his emotions.

Haku’s company had been a major influence as well. After that incidental meet-up, the other boy had visited the estate a few times. He was kind and patient, allowing Kimimaro to relax and smile. While the two spent their time apart from Utakata, he had seen them together gathering flowers and chatting.

Haku had also helped Kimimaro with his academic work. While his jutsu skills were amazing, he struggled with reading and writing. He often became embarrassed whenever he couldn't immediately understand something. But Haku helped him, explaining things slowly and clearly.

After months of training and practice, Utakata had finally recommended Kimimaro for graduation. The Mizukage had agreed with a grin. The very next day, she had ordered Utakata to take Kimimaro to the testing center for his graduation exam.

Kimimaro had gone alone into the testing room, face impassive except for a small frown. Utakata and Harusame had wished him luck, telling him they would wait outside. While Utakata had not been nervous at first, as the clock ticked by, he couldn't help but worry about his student. Is he ready? He’s only nine!

Since he couldn't do anything, he waited outside, the only sign of anxiety being his twitching eye. After what felt like days, the door to the examination room opened. Utakata and Harusame immediately turned their heads to look.

One of the instructors from the Academy was at the door, Kimimaro at his heels. Utakata’s eyes immediately gravitated to his student, looking for signs of distress or disappointment. Instead, he saw only happiness, excitement, and a Kirigakure hitai-ate held inside his hand.

A wave of relief and pride washed over Utakata as he walked, intentionally slowly, toward his student. Harusame followed a short distance behind him, a happy smile on his face.

“So you passed?” Utakata asked although the answer was obvious.

Kimimaro nodded his head. “Yes, sensei. It was easier than I expected.”

“Good job,” Utakata said. “I’m proud of you.”

Before he could change his mind, he placed his hand on top of his student’s head. Kimimaro blushed at the praise, staring down at the floor. Utakata wondered if he would ever get tired of the sight. Despite his earlier promise to look like a cool and intimating teacher, he grinned.

“How was the boy’s performance?” Harusame asked the proctor.

“A true prodigy,” the instructor answered, face serious. “His taijutsu skills were some of the best I’ve seen since a girl who graduated a few months ago. Only his academic skills leave any room to be desired. I can easily recommend him to begin active duty as a genin.”

Harusame nodded. “That’s good to know.”

Without any other words, the instructor bowed his head down to Utakata and Harusame before turning around and leaving. They waited for him to be out of earshot before speaking again.

“How does it feel to be a genin, Kimimaro-kun?” Harusame asked. His eyes were kind and he offered the boy a congratulatory smile.

Kimimaro shrugged. “It feels the same, Harusame-sensei,” he admitted. “I haven’t really learned anything new.”

“That means you’re already well-skilled,” Utakata said. “I’m not sure who your jounin instructor will be, but they will help you take your abilities to the next level.”

“Jounin instructor?” Kimimaro asked, eyes wide and confused. Utakata cursed himself. Did I forget to tell him about team assignments?

“New genin are almost always put into groups of four,” Utakata started to explain. “Three genin and one jounin. The teams do missions together and improve their skills until they are ready to become chuunin. But you may stay as a genin for the rest of your life if you desire.”

“Oh,” Kimaro answered. He mulled over the explanation, a small and nervous frown on his face. I guess he’s worried about who else will be on his team.

“Don’t fret about that for now, Kimimaro-kun,” Harusame said once he saw the look on the boy’s face. “No matter who your teammates are, you will always have us for help and advice. But it’s also important to get outside of your comfort zone and meet new people, too.”

Kimimaro looked at Harusame for a few seconds, processing his words, before nodding. With his master’s reassurance, the boy already looked calmer. However, he still appeared nervous about the prospect of working with new people.

“We should celebrate,” Utakata declared, trying to distract him. “It’s not every day that someone becomes a genin.”

Kimimaro stared up at him, eyes wide, before he nodded. “How do we celebrate?” he asked.

“Let’s go out to eat,” Utakata said. “Something fancier than usual.”

“Like sashimi,” Harusame added. “Or eel.”

“Or eel,” Utakata agreed. His mouth began to water at the thought of his favorite food. “You should decide though, Kimimaro.”

Kimaro frowned thoughtfully before shaking his head. “I’m not sure, sensei,” he said. “I don’t mind.”

Utakata shrugged. “We’ll figure it out,” he said. “Let’s go.”

Together, they left the Academy and headed outside. Harusame led them to the restaurant district, Utakata and Kimimaro falling behind him quietly. From the corner of his eye, Utakata saw Kimimaro throwing an occasional glance at the new hitai-ate clenched in his hand. Was he ever going to put it on?

“Here we are,” Harusame said as they reached the end of the road. “I’ve heard good things about this place.”

He stood outside of a large restaurant that seemed to specialize in seafood. Utakata’s stomach growled in hunger. The eel here is probably delicious.

They walked inside together. Harusame was looking for the host when a man wearing an expensive-looking yukata stepped in front of them, a furious scowl on his face.

“You can’t come in here,” the man declared.

“What? Why?” Harusame asked, taken aback by the interruption. “What have I done?”

The man shook his head. “Not you,” he said. “Them.” He pointed to where Utakata and Kimimaro stood side by side.

Kimimaro flinched and looked down at his feet. His face reddened in shame and his shoulders tensed. Utakata placed a hand on his shoulder, making the boy looked up at him. Utakata rolled his eyes and yawned, long used to cold treatment from the villagers. To his relief, the tension in Kimimaro’s shoulders lessened and he stepped closer to Utakata’s side.

Harusame glared at the man. “These two are shinobi of Kirigakure,” he said, voice loud and thunderous. “You should be on your knees thanking them for their service, not turning them away.”

Actually, Kimimaro hasn’t done any missions yet.

Utakata left Kimimaro’s side to walk toward Harusame, who looked seconds away from punching the man.

“Master,” he began. “Don’t worry about it. Let’s find a different place. Somewhere better.”

Harusame turned his gaze between Utakata and the man, grimacing. After a few tense seconds, he nodded and took a step back. Utakata led him out and Kimimaro followed at their heels, completely silent.

“They shouldn’t treat you like that!” Harusame exploded in anger once they were outside.

Utakata shrugged. “It’s fine, master. I’m used to it. It happens often enough, I don’t even bother to argue with them.”

Harusame sighed, frustrated, before he nodded his agreement. “Fine, let’s try somewhere else.”

Utakata grunted in assent and began to walk down the street in search of a more welcoming restaurant. He had taken only a few steps when a masked ANBU appeared in front of him.

“Good afternoon, Utakata-san,” a soft feminine voice interrupted.

Utakata looked down. Whoever the ANBU was, he had never seen her before. She was tiny, possibly even shorter than Yagura. He wondered if he was talking to a child, but the voice sounded too mature to be that of anything but an adult.

He suppressed an annoyed sigh. “What seems to be the problem?” he asked.

“Mizukage-sama wishes to speak with you,” she said. “It’s urgent and you must go now.”

That time, Utakata couldn’t suppress his sigh of annoyance. All I wanted to do was eat. He turned around to look back at Harusame and Kimimaro, who were standing behind him.

“You two go on ahead,” Utakata decided. “I’ll join you for lunch later. I’m sure you can find a decent place to eat without me.”

Harusame shook his head. “No, we’ll go home and make something instead. I doubt Mizukage-sama will keep you long. By the time you get to the compound, food should be ready.”

“All right,” he answered. He bowed his head to his teacher and nodded at Kimimaro. “I will see you two soon,” he said. “If the meeting takes longer than I expect, I will send a message.”

“Okay, Utakata-kun,” Harusame said. Kimimaro only nodded, still red-faced from their recent encounter at the restaurant.

Utakata turned back to the ANBU, who was patiently waiting for him. “Let’s go,” he said.

Without waiting any longer, they flickered away. They traveled on top of the roofs toward the Mizukage’s office and entered through the window. As always, Mei was at her desk, Ao keeping a watchful eye over her from behind. Ameyuri and Zabuza were at her sides, ever vigilant. The ANBU agent flickered to stand behind the Mizukage and next to Ao.

“You wanted to speak with me, Mizukage-same?” Utakata began. He bent his head forward in a polite bow.

“Yes, I did,” she answered. “I am to understand that Kimimaro has recently become a genin.”

Word travels fast.

Utakata nodded. “Yes. He seems very happy about the promotion.” And nervous about having someone new as an instructor.

She smiled. “That’s good to know. When we first found him, we were... unsure if he would be suited to serve as a shinobi of Kirigakure.”

“I believe him ready, physically, intellectually, and emotionally,” Utakata defended his student.

She nodded. “Well, now that he’s a genin, he can receive a weekly stipend. We will help him find a place to live and he can move out from Harusame’s estate in a few days.”

“Wait? Move out?” Utakata’s eyebrows contracted into a frown.

Mei stared at him for a second before nodding again. “Yes,” she said. “He can live by himself in an apartment. We can search for somewhere suitable, although he is free to look for one himself if he so desires.”

“But... he’s only nine!” Utakata protested before he could stop himself.

The Mizukage and her guards stared at him, raising their eyebrows in surprise. With a lot of effort, Utakata managed to school his face into indifference.

“He’s only nine,” he repeated, calmer than before. “He is free to stay with us for the indefinite future. We don’t mind his company.”

“Aww, Zabuza-kun, isn’t that cute?” Ameyuri said with a smirk. “I think Utakata-kun likes little Kimimaro. It reminds me of you and Haku-kun.”

Zabuza laughed at her words while Mei’s eyes softened. Ao actually smiled, tilting his head to the side. Only the ANBU remained unphased, her emotions hidden by her mask. Nevertheless, Utakata felt an aura of amusement in her body language. He felt his face heat up in embarrassment.

The Mizukage bit her lip to contain her giggles before speaking again. “That’s not the only thing I wanted to talk to you about, Utakata-kun,” she said. “If anything, I think this second thing is even more critical.”

Utakata frowned as he felt a sense of foreboding building in his stomach. “What is it, Mizukage-sama?”

She grinned and the foreboding feeling intensified. “We haven’t talked about Kimimaro’s jounin sensei yet, have we?”

Utakata shook his head.

“Well, a while ago, we decided that if Kimimaro graduated before the start of winter, we would form a team with the most promising new shinobi of Kiri,” she explained. Utakata nodded at her explanation. It makes sense so far.

“Of course,” she continued. “We had to think very carefully about who would be both strong enough to teach him, but also who needed more experience.” Utakata felt a bead of sweat roll down his back.

“In the end, there is only one choice.” Her grin widened. “We have chosen you to be his jounin instructor,” she announced. “After the past few months, we are even more sure that you are the right person for the job. Good luck, Utakata-sensei.”

Utakata stared speechless at his Mizukage before his gaze turned to each of her guards in turn. He waited for the inevitable moment when they declared it a joke, but it never came. He swallowed. Why me? I just want to sleep and go on fun missions sometimes!

“I... uh...” Utakata tried to answer but he had no idea what to say. “I’ll try to be a satisfactory instructor for whoever is on my team,” he eventually said.

Mei hummed, satisfied. “Good to know,” she said. “I will send your two new students to Harusame’s estate at ten in the morning. You can get to know them then.”

Utakata swallowed and nodded. He hoped his face didn’t show how nervous he truly was. He cursed his life and his luck. Why did it have to be him?

“Am I dismissed?” he asked, bowing his head. He had a lot of things to think about and plan.

"You are dismissed,” the Mizukage confirmed with a nod. He bowed down, first to the Mizukage and then to her guards.

Without any further hesitation, Utakata left, jumping out through the window. He ran through Kirigakure in a daze. He tried to come to terms with the responsibility of training three new genin, but he couldn't. He was already familiar with Kimimaro, but the identities of the other two remained a mystery. I hope Kimimaro gets along with them.

When he arrived back at the estate, he headed to the kitchen first. Immediately, he was greeted with smiles from Harusame and Kimimaro.

“That was fast,” Harusame commented. “I haven’t even finished cooking lunch yet.” He pointed to the kitchen counter, where many ingredients sat, waiting to be cooked. Next to him, Kimimaro stirred a pot, adding blocks of tofu to it.

“No, Mizukage-sama only wanted to talk,” he admitted as he walked to Kimimaro’s side.

He stared at Kimimaro, trying to come up with a way to explain their new situation. The boy shifted uneasily, waiting for Utakata to speak, but the words wouldn’t come out. The kitchen fell into an awkward silence as Utakata considered what to say.

“You have a strange expression on your face,” Harusame finally interrupted. “What has you so worried, Utakata-kun?”

Utakata sighed and shook his head. He was not sure if he was glad that Kimimaro would keep being his student or upset about having more work to do.

“Good news, Kimaro,” Utakata said, keeping his gaze focused on the boy.

“What is it, sensei?” the boy asked, fiddling with the sleeves of his yukata.

Utakata sighed. “I’m going to be your jounin instructor,” he said. “The Mizukage just told me you will be in a team with me as the squad leader. I’m not sure who the other two genin are, though.”

Kimimaro’s eyes brightened and for a second Utakata forgot how much work was ahead of him. He smiled.

Chapter Text

The morning when he had to meet his students, Utakata made sure to wear his formal jounin uniform. He hated wearing it on anything except missions. But he knew from experience the importance of first impressions. Gotta intimidate the new kids, at least.

“Oh, so you are actually wearing your uniform today, Utakata-kun,” Harusame said. He started placing bowls of food on the table as Utakata joined them in the dining area.

Utakata grunted in assent, keeping his eyes closed, too tired to say anything. It was bad enough that he had to wear the uniform, but he also had to wake up a few hours earlier than usual. He tried to rub the tiredness away. When he opened his eyes, he found Kimimaro staring at him.

“Good morning,” he said with a yawn. “Why are you looking at me like that, Kimimaro-kun?”

The boy swallowed and looked down at the table. “It’s just... um... I’ve never seen you wearing a uniform, sensei.”

“Oh yeah, I guess you haven’t,” Utakata responded with a shrug, slumping forward on the table. Mornings were the worst.

“Are you excited to meet your teammates, Kimimaro-kun?” Harusame asked as he sat down, cross-legged, next to Utakata. He shook his shoulder with annoyance. Utakata sat up, yawning once more.

“I... guess?” Kimimaro answered, pulling a bowl of rice toward himself.

Harusame chuckled. He pushed food in front of Utakata before he had a chance to slump forward again,

“Don’t worry,” Harusame said to reassure the boy. “I’m sure they’ll be good people. At the very least, I’m sure Utakata will take care of all three of you.”

Utakata sighed before taking a bite of food. Silently, the three of them got started on breakfast. By the time they finished eating, Utakata was unfortunately wide awake. He stared at his student while Harusame cleaned up, making Kimimaro fidget.

“Are you ready to work with other people, Kimimaro?” he asked. “It’s fine if you’re not. I can talk to the Mizukage about it.”

Kimimaro shook his head. “No, sensei. I’ll be fine.”

Utakata hummed to himself, deep in thought. I hope you are, for both our sakes.

He turned to look at the clock. The Mizukage had promised to send the genin over at ten in the morning and only thirty minutes were left. With a sigh he stood up, stretching his arms over his head.

“When the other two arrive, lead them to our usual training arena,” he ordered with a yawn. “I have to check the grounds first. Can you do that?”

Kimimaro nodded his head. “Yes, sensei.”

Utakata grunted. “Good. I’ll wait for the three of you there.”

With that, Utakata walked away, leaving Kimimaro alone to wait. He headed to the training grounds. Tiredly, he checked the posts and targets, making sure they were ready for use.

Satisfied that everything was set, he leaned against a training post. He closed his eyes and fell into a half-meditative, half-sleeping state. He didn’t have to wait long until his nap was interrupted.

“Utakata-sensei,” Kimimaro’s familiar voice interrupted. “The other two are here.”

Utakata opened his eyes. Kimimaro’s eyes were lit up in happiness and it was not hard to see why. Next to him was Haku, wearing a brown combat outfit instead of his typical pink yukata. I guess it would make sense to have them together. They’re the same age.

The girl who tagged along was not familiar, however. She was short, making him wonder if she was younger than the two boys next to her. She had a round and expressive face, with large pink eyes that stared Utakata up and down judgmentally. Her hair was long, a dark grey that was almost black, tied back in a bun at the back of her head. At her hip was a small sheath containing a sword. She wore a dark green dress with black leggings underneath. Around her neck was a long pink scarf.

Together, the three of them knelt down in a semi-circle in front of Utakata, waiting for him to speak. Utakata turned his gaze at them one by one. He was curious about the girl in particular. She looked familiar in a way he couldn't put a finger on.

“Good morning,” he said. “My name is Utakata and I will be your jounin-sensei. I am tasked with training you.”

“Good morning,” Haku replied with a bright smile. Kimimaro nodded, and the girl waved a hand.

“Well, before we train, I want to get to know the three of you,” he said. “I already know Kimimaro-kun and Haku-kun, but we should all be on the same page.” The three children in front of him nodded. He hummed in appreciation. They’re attentive. That’s good.

“Let me start,” he continued. “As I said before, my name is Utakata. I like grilled eel the most and dislike sweet food in general. My hobbies are sleeping and blowing bubbles. My dream is to have a nice, long, and relaxing life. My specialty is bubble ninjutsu, water-style ninjutsu, and acid attacks.”

He turned his gaze to Kimimaro to indicate for him to talk. Kimimaro straightened his back and looked at the three people surrounding him.

“My name is Kimimaro... Ka-Kaguya.” He stuttered when giving the name of his clan. “I’m not sure what hobbies I have, but I like spending time with Haku-kun. I also like...” He looked at Utakata before turning his gaze down to his knees, a pink tint to his face. Utakata raised an eyebrow but said nothing. “My specialty is the Shikotsumyaku kekkei genkai," he continued. "It lets me control my skeletal structure. I... I’m not sure I have a dream.”

Utakata nodded his head before turning his gaze to Haku. The other boy had visited Harusame’s compound a few times, but Utakata didn’t know much about him. He was curious.

“My name is Haku,” he said with a kind smile and bright eyes. “I also like spending time with Kimimaro-kun.” Kimimaro’s face reddened and his lips quirked up in happiness. “I like flowers and my hobby is pressing plants and flower arranging. I have a kekkei genkai too. It helps me control ice and is called Hyoton. My dream is to be a useful weapon for Zabuza-sama.”

“That's good to know, Haku,” Utakata said, nodding his head. So this kid also has a kekkei genkai? I should have known.

Finally, it was the girl’s turn to speak.

“My name is Kasumi Karatachi,” she began. “I like to—”

“Wait, Karatachi? As in the Mizukage Yagura Karatachi?” Utakata interrupted. Without thinking, he leaned forward to stare at the girl closely. Up close, he realized how similar she looked to his fellow jinchuuriki. Is she his younger sister or something?

A grimace passed across her face and she nodded her head reluctantly. “Yeah, the Fourth Mizukage is my father.”

“Your father? He had kids?” Utakata gasped. He had known Yagura for years and for some reason he had always imagined him as a lonely bachelor. Though in hindsight, they never talked about personal things. The former Mizukage was closer to Han and Roshi.

Her grimace turned into a furious scowl. She stood up. But because of her height and face, she looked completely unthreatening. It reminded him of Yagura more than ever.

“So what if he did?” she shouted, glaring at Utakata. “I didn’t choose who my father was!”

Utakata blinked at the girl, who looked like she was ready to bolt at any second. He forced his face into a mask of indifference. “I know you didn’t,” he said. “I was simply surprised that the Fourth Mizukage had any children at all. He kept his life very private, it seems.”

She huffed. “Yeah, not private enough,” she muttered. “I wish he wasn’t my father.”

Utakata’s eyes widened and he swallowed, unsure of what to say. Haku and Kimimaro shifted, sharing awkward glances, equally confused. The girl collapsed back on the ground, wrapping her arms around her knees close to her chest. She pouted, making her look more like her father than ever before. Utakata sighed. It had to be me, didn’t it?

“Sorry, Kasumi," he said. She looked up at him, still scowling. "Please continue. Believe me when I say your parentage is not going to change how I treat you,” he lied. “All of us here have experienced... inequitable treatment because of our backgrounds. I’ll make sure I don’t do that to you.”

“You mean it?” she asked, forehead still creased into a frown.

“I do,” he nodded. “And I’m sure that Haku and Kimimaro do, too.” The two boys nodded in agreement.

Kasumi sighed and stretched her legs out in front of her. She kept her eyes focused on the ground.

“Fine,” she muttered. “My name is Kasumi Karatachi. I like training. I also like strawberries and chocolate. I hate flowers and flower arranging.” Utakata saw Haku’s eyes twitch in annoyance but she ignored him.

“My hobbies are needlecrafts,” she continued. “You know, like knitting, embroidering, and stuff. My specialty is water-nature ninjutsu and kenjutsu. My dream is to become the second kunoichi to join the Seven Swordsmen of the Mist.”

“It’s very nice to meet you, Kasumi,” Utakata said.

She pouted again, pulling her scarf up to hide the bottom part of her face. Kimimaro and Haku shifted as they waited for their teacher to speak. Utakata cleared his throat.

“Welcome to the team, everyone,” he said. “Traditionally, a jounin-sensei will prepare a final test before letting you become genin.”

“Wait, final test?” Haku asked, a small frown on his face. “I thought we were already genin.”

“Not exactly,” Utakata said. "It's a tradition for the jounin-sensei to have a final test or task and make sure you are ready to work in a four-man team.”

“I see,” Haku said, swallowing nervously. Kimimaro and Kasumi remained silent, staring at Utakata as they waited for him to explain.

“Usually this is something like, finding a scroll or doing a mission or fighting me,” Utakata continued. “It’s supposed to push the new genin with a test that’s different from anything they have done before. Students that fail are sent back to the Academy."

At once, all three children’s brows furrowed in worry. Kimimaro shifted, almost imperceptibly, as he stared up at him. Haku began to fidget with his fingers. Even Kasumi was affected, pulling her knees closer to herself as she leaned forward. I guess they are taking this seriously.

“However,” he continued, "that’s too much effort for me. You all pass.”

The three children blinked and their eyes widened in surprise.

“Wait, that’s it?” Kasumi asked, shifting into a cross-legged position and leaning forward. “My brother told me we had to take a stupid final test.”

Yagura has two children? Utakata nodded before speaking again. “Usually, yes,” he explained. “But it’s too much effort to fail you. If I see any deficiencies, I will simply give you more training exercises and drills to do.”

“I see,” Haku said, tilting his head to the side. “So then, what are we going to do for the rest of the day, Utakata-sensei?”

“I’m going to see what your current level is,” Utakata said, standing up and stretching his arms. “Show me what jutsu you know. Your skills. Your endurance. All that.”

“Yes, Utakata-sensei!” the three genin said as they stood up, excited to show off.

They sure seem happy to pass so easily. He stared at his new charges in contemplation.

“Your first test is an endurance run,” he said. “You will do a full lap around Harusame’s estate. It’s approximately ten kilometers. Kimimaro can lead the way.” Kimimaro nodded, happy at being given the task. “Keep the same pace, all three of you. Slow down if necessary. When you finish we will move on to other tests.”

“Yes, sensei!” the three genin said again, already moving to get started on their run. Utakata nodded and hummed to himself in approval. They sure seem excited to train. Maybe this will be easier than I thought.

“Well, get started,” he said. “I’ll be here. Try not to keep me waiting.”

“We won’t, Utakata-sensei,” they said together.

With bows of their heads, they started running, Kimimaro at the front. Kasumi and Haku kept up with his fast pace effortlessly. Utakata leaned back on the training post, waiting for them to return.

Alone, Utakata pondered over his responsibilities. He was glad to have Haku and Kimimaro on his team but the girl was a mystery. How alike was she to her father? And what did Yagura think of her? Tired, he took a nap as he leaned on the post.

O-O-O

It was late, a few hours past midnight and Han was almost ready to leave the Room.

Earlier, they had played hide and seek with the children, using Yagura's coral to make a maze and learn about infiltration. Naruto had been surprisingly talented with the task, able to hide from everyone nearly the entire time. Fuu had been the worst, too conspicuous to stay hidden for long.

After saying goodbye to the children and Roshi, Han and Yagura had stayed in the Room to talk. While they lived together, Han always preferred to talk to Yagura’s real face instead of his disguise.

While they were discussing the jinchuuriki transformations, a worried Utakata appeared.

“Utakata-kun?” Yagura asked, an eyebrow raised in surprise. “What are you doing here? It’s kind of late.”

Utakata’s eyebrows furrowed more and he walked toward them. Han began to feel a sense of impending doom in the pit of his stomach. Utakata rarely joined them in the Room, especially late at night. He preferred to spend time with Yugito and Killer B in the mornings and late afternoons. Sometimes, he talked to the children in the early evening, but those occasions were rare.

Next to him, Yagura stood up from his lounging position on the floor. Han followed his lead, towering over both Utakata and Yagura.

“Yagura,” Utakata began before stopping. He bit his lip as a thousand different emotions flitted across his face.

“What is it? Is something wrong in Kirigakure?” Yagura asked. “Or are you looking for advice on how to get a girlfriend?” Han could tell the question was a forceful attempt to bring levity to their conversation.

Utakata shook his head. “No, it’s not that,” he said. “It’s just...” he closed his eyes and sighed. “It’s a bit personal and about a shinobi in Kirigakure,” he added. “Is it okay if Han is—”

“Anything you can say to me you can say to Han,” Yagura said. He looked up at Han. “I trust him.” Underneath his armor, Han smirked. He’s come so far from the time he yelled at us to shut the fuck up.

Utakata glanced at Han with a raised eyebrow before focusing once again on Yagura. He nodded. “It’s of a personal nature,” he reiterated.

“Oh, so you do need help getting a girlfriend,” Yagura teased. “Or are you looking more for a boyfriend? I can help with either.”

Utakata rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Why would I ask for your help getting a girlfriend when Yugito is better at it?”

Yagura’s back straightened and he plastered a smile on his face. Han snickered. He should pay more attention to Utakata. The kid was a master in getting Yagura to shut up.

“Fine, what’s the problem?” Yagura snapped, keeping the same fake smile on his face.

Utakata closed his eyes and frowned, deep in thought. Han and Yagura waited. After a few tense seconds, Utakata opened his eyes. He stared down at Yagura with a frown. “Do you know the name Kasumi Karatachi?” he asked.

At once, Han felt a chill course through his body as Yagura’s face hardened into something he had never seen before. The man wore a mask of fury and a forced attempt at self-control.

“How do you know that name?” Yagura asked, his voice cold and calculating.

Utakata bit his lip. “So you do have a daughter,” he muttered.

Han startled. He had almost forgotten that Yagura had a family. He swallowed and looked down at his friend, whose face remained carefully collected.

“How do you know that name?” Yagura repeated the question, taking an angry step forward.

Utakata sighed. “I’m her jounin-sensei,” he explained. “Mizukage-sama has unfortunately made me responsible for a four-man genin squad. It just so happens to include her.”

“Jounin-sensei?” Yagura said in relief as the tension left his body. His voice filled with excitement as he walked closer toward Utakata. “She’s a genin already? But she’s only ten!”

Utakata swallowed at the sudden closeness, but he didn’t step away. He nodded. “Yeah, my entire team is made up of little kids” he explained. “Haku and Kimimaro are also nine. I’m not actually sure if they are older or younger than her, though. It’s a pain in the ass, to be honest.”

“I see,” Yagura said. He looked down at the ground with a sigh of relief. Han could only imagine what was going through his mind.

“Yeah, and I had my first look at her skills today,” Utakata continued.

“Really? What was she like? Does she use any weapons? Did she say anything interesting?” Yagura asked, excitement making him step closer and closer to Utakata.

“She’s... very talented,” Utakata said, frowning in confusion. Han guessed he had never seen Yagura quite as excited before.

Yagura snorted in impatience. “Tell me more,” he ordered. “I haven’t spent time with her since she was two years old.”

Han’s brows contracted in pity. He got sad whenever Roshi was away for more than two weeks. He could only imagine being separated from his family for so long.

“Sure,” Utakata answered, nodding while he began to gather his thoughts. “She has great endurance and taijutsu abilities. Her skill with weapons is also something to behold.”

“Weapons?” Yagura interrupted. “What did she use? A staff?”

“Staff?” Utakata shook his head. “She said staffs are for weak people.” Yagura took an offended step back. “She uses a sword. A wakizashi to be exact. She wants to specialize in kenjutsu and become the second kunoichi to join the Seven Swordsmen of the Mist.”

“Really?” Yagura raised an eyebrow. “A sword? That’s a bit of a surprise.”

Utakata shrugged. “She was able to keep Kimimaro at bay when I had them spar. She was nearly perfect with her throwing accuracy, too.”

“Nearly perfect?” Yagura raised a confused eyebrow.

“Haku was better,” Utakata explained. “That boy has a special skill with senbon, I’ll tell you that much.”

Yagura paused to absorb everything Utakata had said. Han stared at his friend, watching how his face changed as he processed all the information. He could tell that he felt a sense of pride in his daughter’s abilities.

“What did she look like?” Yagura asked.

“Short. Cute. Young.” Utakata said. “She was wearing a long pink scarf. She had long hair and wide eyes.”

“What else can you tell me?” Yagura asked. His eyes were full of tenderness Han had never seen before.

Utakata bit his lip. “She doesn’t seem happy to have the Karatachi name,” he confessed. “She says she wishes you weren’t her father."

To Han and Utakata’s mutual surprise, Yagura laughed at those words. “I can’t blame her,” he said. “I imagine that after my disastrous rule a lot of people hate me and my family name. In her mind, I’m the man that broke the village, made her mother and brother go into hiding, and then died.”

“She... doesn’t know you’re alive?” Utakata asked.

Yagura snorted. “Of course she doesn’t.” Han could tell that he was trying hard to keep his tone of voice neutral. Silence fell across the three of them as they considered the implications.

Utakata stared at Yagura for a few seconds. Yagura waited impatiently for his next words.

“Would you like to see her?” Utakata asked.

Yagura startled back and his eyes widened as he stared at Utakata. “See her?” he asked, confused.

Utakata nodded. “We’re having our first real team training session tomorrow at noon,” Utakata said. “You are free to watch. Just look through my Door.”

Han and Yagura stared at Utakata in shock. The younger jinchuuriki was the most private out of the nine of them. He always blocked off access to everyone else, even Yugito. Letting Yagura look through it was a giant concession for him.

“You... you’d let me do that?” Yagura asked incredulously. Han could tell that he was working hard to keep his face as impassive as possible.

Utakata nodded instead of answering. He stared down at Yagura with an indescribable look on his face.

“Thank you,” Yagura said, keeping his face deliberately controlled.

“You’re welcome,” Utakata said. “I’ll try to take good care of her.”

He smiled before disappearing from the Room, leaving Yagura and Han alone.

As soon as the younger jinchuuriki disappeared, Yagura broke. He squatted down on the floor, putting his head between his knees, vulnerable in a way Han had never seen before.

Han frowned before sitting down next to his friend. He placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. Yagura flinched at the sudden touch but said nothing. They stayed side by side for a few minutes until they collectively decided to leave.

O-O-O

“So what are you doing for the winter break, Hinata-chan?” Naruto asked while they took a break from sparring. It was nearing the start of winter and the beginning of their break. He wondered if she would learn new techniques.

“My family is going to the capital,” she answered before taking a swing of water. “We usually go there during the winter.”

Naruto nodded before turning his attention to Sasuke, who was wiping the sweat away from his forehead. “What about you, Jerk?”

Sasuke rolled his eyes. “I’m staying in Konoha. We always celebrate New Year’s here.”

Naruto sighed in relief. The few days he had spent alone during the summer holiday had been pure torture for him. He was glad to have at least one other person to keep him company. He looked back at Hinata.

“So why is your family going to the capital anyway?” he asked.

“My father... doesn’t like to stay here during that time,” she answered after some thought. “My mother has some cousins who live there too, so we usually celebrate my birthday with them.”

“Wait, your birthday?” Naruto leaned forward until he was almost nose to nose with Hinata. “It’s almost your birthday?”

She leaned back away from him, almost nervous. She nodded. “Yes, December 27.”

Naruto considered her words, tilting his head to the side and rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “You should’ve told me earlier,” he whined. “I would’ve had more time to buy you something, ya know!”

Hinata chuckled. “It’s okay, Naruto-kun,” she said. “You don’t have to get me anything.”

“Yeah, but I want to,” he retorted with a pout.

He would have to get something for her before the break started. For his birthday, she had given him a small box of chocolates with a homemade card. While he knew her present couldn’t have been expensive, he loved that it came from her. He wished he had more time to think of something suitable to give her. Deep in thought, his gaze turned to Sasuke before he realized something else.

“Hey!” he shouted, making both Sasuke and Hinata jump at the suddenness. “I don’t know Sasuke’s birthday! Don’t tell me it’s tomorrow or something!”

Sasuke frowned as he turned his attention back to Naruto. “If you must know, it was July 23. Right when the summer holiday started.”

“Oh, okay,” Naruto said with a sigh. I have a lot of time to think about what to get him, then. They lapsed back into silence as they stretched tired muscles and took sips of water.

“Hey, Loser,” Sasuke said, uncharacteristically breaking the silence.

Naruto automatically glared at Sasuke. “What is it, jerk?”

Sasuke fidgeted and looked away from Naruto. “My mother said you can stay with us during the break,” he said. “At the very least she told me to invite you to stay overnight for New Year’s Eve. Do you want to?”

Naruto blinked in surprise as Sasuke’s words set in. Spend the holiday with Auntie? That sounds awesome!

“Wait, really?” he asked. “Isn’t that normally, like, a family thing?”

Sasuke shrugged. “Mom said you can come if you want. You’re not spending it with anyone else, are you?”

Actually, I usually spend extra long with the jinchuuriki. He couldn't say anything about the Room, however, so he shook his head instead.

“Are you sure I can go?” he asked. He had been going to the Uchiha compound more and more, staying overnight every other weekend. Nevertheless, the idea of spending a major holiday with them sent a shiver of nerves running down his back.

Sasuke rolled his eyes. “If you couldn’t, I wouldn’t invite you,” he said. “Now, show me what you got, this break has gone on for long enough already.”

Naruto grinned before running to the middle of the sparring grounds in wait for Sasuke. Perhaps he was too distracted thinking about the winter break because he lost the next three rounds.

O-O-O

“Naruto-kun, wake up, it’s almost time,” a soft voice said, shaking him awake gently.

Naruto stirred and sat up, blinking. Next to him, Sasuke also rose, rubbing the sleep away from his eyes. He stared at him for a second in confusion before he remembered how he got there. Oh yeah, it’s New Year’s. We have to make a wish. Slightly more awake, he stretched his arms over his head and yawned.

On the last day before the winter holiday, Naruto had given Hinata her present: a chocolate bar and a voucher for free ramen at Ichiraku. Sasuke had given her nothing but had been kind enough to mutter ‘Happy Birthday’ to her. She had thanked them both with a smile before leaving.

For the rest of the winter break, he had gone to the Uchiha compound nearly every day. He trained with Sasuke in the morning, breaking only for lunch. After that, he always helped Sasuke’s mother with whatever cooking or cleaning needed to be done. While he didn't always stay for dinner, he ate at their house more often than at his own. On New Year’s Eve, he had stayed overnight to celebrate and watch the first sunrise.

To Sasuke’s disappointment, Itachi had not joined in the festivities. Instead, his brother had arrived home shortly before midnight. He had sat with them only long enough to eat before disappearing into his room. While Sasuke’s family said nothing about his attitude, Naruto could tell that they were disappointed to not have him around. After midnight, Naruto and Sasuke had been sent to bed, only to wake up later to watch the first sunrise of the new year.

“It's time to make your wish,” Sasuke’s mother said, trying in vain to comb through Sasuke’s hair. “It’s the first sunrise of the year, so make it count.”

Naruto and Sasuke grunted their assent, too tired to talk. Grumbling, the two boys left the comfort of their futons and followed Sasuke’s mother. She led them outside and up a ladder.

By the time he was sitting on the roof, Naruto had woken up. Shivering, he rubbed his hands together and shifted closer to Sasuke. If he says anything, I’ll push him off the roof.

But Sasuke must have felt equally as cold, because he also moved to sit closer to Naruto. Side by side, they rubbed their hands together and shivered.

Sasuke’s mother chuckled. “Cold, boys?”

Naruto nodded furiously, too frozen to speak. He was relieved to see Sasuke agreeing with him. A few seconds later, he felt a heavy warmth settle over his shoulders. He looked up. Sasuke’s father stood over them, placing separate blankets to cover them both. Relieved, he wrapped himself in its warmth.

“Th-thank you, Uchiha-san,” he said through chattering teeth.

“Thank you, Father,” Sasuke said, wrapping himself with the blanket.

Sasuke’s father nodded before taking a step back and looking out at the horizon. “The sun will rise in a few minutes. Be ready for it."

Naruto grunted his assent before turning his gaze to the east. As they waited for the sun in silence, Naruto thought about what to wish for. He had wasted his birthday wish and he didn’t want the same thing to happen again. He had even asked for help from the other jinchuuriki.

Unfortunately, they had been no help. Utakata, Yugito, and Yagura had snorted and said wishes didn't come true with magic. Killer B had rapped something about making his own wishes come true. Roshi and Han had only shrugged, telling him to think about it himself. Even Fuu and Gaara had been useless.

While Gaara had tried to help, he had been confused about the idea of making wishes at sunrise. Fuu, on the other hand, had only recommended things that were physically impossible. He was not sure if wishes could come true or not, but he knew that no amount of magic would make his apartment made out of candy.

Frustrated and mind still blank, Naruto turned to look behind him. Sasuke’s mother and father sat side by side. Unlike him, they appeared comfortable in the cold, not shivering or moving at all. Apart from his family was Itachi. Like his parents, he sat motionless and stared out at the horizon.

Naruto frowned to himself and squinted as he looked out at the land in front of him. It was still pitch dark, with the stars and the moon as the only sources of light. He pondered the question of what to wish for before he finally came to his answer.

A few seconds later, the first rays of sunshine appeared, illuminating the forests in vivid orange and yellow.

“It’s time, boys,” Sasuke’s mother said. “Make a wish.”

Naruto stared out at the horizon. He felt a smile tugging at his lips. My wish is to get a higher score than Sasuke in class!

Wish made, he turned to glare at Sasuke. Like Naruto, he looked out, deep in thought. When he noticed him staring, he glared back.

“What do you want, loser?” Sasuke asked.

Naruto snorted. “Nothing,” he said as he turned his head away. You better be ready to lose, jerk!

Sasuke grunted in retort but said nothing else.

“Happy New Year! I hope we can enjoy many more years together,” Sasuke’s mother said.

She stood up, brushing non-existent dirt from her dress. She walked toward them, balancing perfectly on the roof. She sat down between Naruto and Sasuke. Naruto moved away, but she pulled him in for a hug. Blushing, he allowed her to wrap an arm around him. If Sasuke says anything, I’ll burn his homework.

To his relief, Sasuke said nothing disparaging. Instead, he also allowed his mother to pull him in closer. “Thanks, Mom,” he said.

“Happy New Year, Auntie, Sasuke, Uchiha-san, Itachi-san!” Naruto yelled, turning his face to each of them in turn.

“Happy New Year, Naruto,” Sasuke’s father said as he walked to stand behind his wife. Itachi said nothing but he moved marginally closer.

“Hn,” Sasuke grunted, burrowing closer to his mother’s side. Naruto grinned as he leaned his head against her shoulder. Mama’s boy.

Together, the five of them watched the sky change colors in silence. With the sun fully risen, Sasuke’s mother sighed. She stood up, extricating herself from Naruto and Sasuke.

“Well, I think it’s time for breakfast,” she declared. “But first...”

Naruto turned his face to look up at her in confusion. What else was there to do? 

She grinned when she saw the look on his face. She dug into her dress pockets and pulled out red envelopes. She handed one over to Sasuke before giving one to Naruto.

“Here, this is a present for you two,” she said. “Try to spend it wisely.”

New Year’s money? Embarrassed, Naruto blushed and bowed his head down. “Thank you very much, Auntie.”

“Thank you, Mom,” Sasuke said as he tucked his present into his pocket. While he was less enthusiastic, Naruto could tell that he was equally grateful.

“You’re welcome.” She grinned at them one last time before turning her gaze to her oldest son, who was hovering silently behind them. “Oh, Itachi, come here.”

Naruto saw confusion flash across Itachi’s face. Silent, he left his post and walked to his mother’s side.

“What is it, Mother?” he asked, his face as impassive and tired as always.

“I hope you didn’t think I had forgotten about you!” she said as she dug through her pockets once again. “Happy New Year, Itachi.” She took out a third red envelope, extending it out for Itachi to take.

Itachi’s eyes widened marginally in surprise. “For me?” he asked. “Why?”

“Do I need a reason? You’re my son,” she said, a small smile on her face.

“Oh,” Itachi said as he took the red envelope in his hands. He bowed his head down at his mother as he tucked the gift into his pocket. “Thank you.” He said nothing else as he took a step back, distancing himself from his family once more.

Naruto saw some strange emotion flash across his eyes. He frowned to himself. What’s his deal?

“Well, I guess that’s it,” Sasuke’s mother said as she stretched her arms in front of her. “Now, who wants breakfast?”

Chapter Text

“Your target is there, Gaara-sama,” Baki said, pointing to the horizon.

Gaara nodded as he stepped forward to take a closer look. He saw a small and dilapidated building hidden in the desert made out of mud bricks. Inside was the man he was meant to kill. He looked up at Baki for any further instruction but the man was silent, face impassive. Gaara turned his gaze back to the house and clenched his jaw.

It was a simple mission. The target wasn’t a shinobi and never had been. But he had stolen jewelry from a rich merchant's mistress, which was more than enough to condemn him to death. While Baki had taken him there, Gaara knew he had to complete the mission alone. My first solo mission and it’s an assassination.

Gaara forced the familiar mask of disinterest to form across his face. In the back of his mind, he heard Shukaku trying to interfere with his thoughts, urging him to kill. He ignored the bijuu as best as he could. Without hesitation, he walked toward the tiny house. He felt Baki’s eyes following him, focused on his back.

Gaara pushed the door in, using the sand to cushion the sound of the hinges. He entered the living room, composed of only a sofa and a low table. He walked past down the hallway toward the sound of muttering, arriving at a wide-open door. He looked inside.

An old man sat at a table, giving his back to the door. He had a pile of cash in front of him. He was chucking to himself as he ran his hands through the money, counting it slowly. Gaara couldn’t stand looking at him.

He felt a headache start to build. Shukaku’s voice was growing insistent, urging him to kill, but he needed to confirm the target first. He tried to ignore the pain as he stepped inside.

Sensing his presence for the first time, the man turned around, standing up from his chair.

“Who— who’s there?” he yelled as he stood up, eyes wide. He stared down at Gaara and his panic subsided. “Oh, a kid? Get lost, brat!”

To Gaara’s relief, the man was exactly who he had been ordered to assassinate. He had a grey beard with balding hair, an unmistakable scar adorning his chin.

“Are you Nakazo?” Gaara asked, ignoring the man’s words.

“Yeah, what’s it to you?” the man asked, collapsing back on his chair with a grunt. “I’m not going to be in this village for long anyway. Just leave now, kid, before I give you the pounding of your life.”

Gaara said nothing. He took a step closer. The man's eyes widened in confusion and anger. “Didn’t you hear me? Get lost, brat!”

Gaara ignored him again. Around him, the sand rose, forming a wall at his back. For the first time, the man seemed to notice the gourd slung across his back.

“Wait... I heard of you... You’re...” He swallowed and pushed his chair back, but it was useless. There was no place for him to run.

The man didn’t get the opportunity to say anything else. He opened his mouth to scream when the wall of sand collapsed on him. He struggled for a few seconds to free himself, but it was pointless. Gaara squeezed his hand into a fist. At once, the sand fell on top of him, killing the thief instantly.

Blood splashed throughout the room, covering it in red speckles. As on the last mission, Shukaku quieted at once, letting him enjoy his own thoughts in peace. He felt an immediate sense of relief coursing through him, followed by overwhelming guilt. Why is it so easy to kill people?

With a sigh of exhaustion, Gaara collapsed on the floor. He felt blood drip down his face to the ground. Numb, he tried to wipe it away from his face but it was useless. His forearm became covered in red instead.

He closed his eyes and forced himself to breathe, as steady as possible. He wanted to talk to the other jinchuuriki, any of them, but it was the middle of the afternoon. They were no doubt living their own lives. Alone, he wanted to break down and cry. But he knew that he couldn’t return to Baki with tears in his eyes. Instead of crying, he sat on the ground, trying to get his pulse to slow down and for his breathing to return to normal.

After what felt like years, he stood up with a grunt. To his relief, Shukaku was still quiet. He wondered if the fact that he was covered in blood had anything to do with his silence.

Gaara forced himself to breathe in and out, slowly and deliberately. He counted his breaths. Donning his normal mask, he walked out of the bedroom and back to where Baki was waiting for him. He refused to look at the blood splattered on the walls and floor as he left.

“I assume the mission was a success, Gaara-sama?” Baki asked. The man stood waiting under the shade of a date palm, arms crossed in front of his chest.

Gaara nodded, too afraid of what he might say. Baki grunted in satisfaction. He looked at Gaara up and down but didn’t comment on the shower of blood.

“Good,” he said. “Let’s go.”

Gaara nodded again and fell behind Baki as they headed back to the village.

O-O-O

When he arrived back home, he found Temari and Kankuro eating together in the dining area. They turned their faces to look at Gaara as he stepped inside. They paled when they saw him covered in blood and looked away.

Gaara walked past them. Ever since their first mission as a team, they had ignored him, only speaking to him in Baki’s company. He wasn’t sure if he preferred their total silence more than their previous anger.

Gaara headed to the bathroom. He took off his clothes and threw them into the hamper. For a second, he wondered if his caretakers would be able to clean the blood or if they would have to throw his clothes away. He shook his head to get rid of the thought.

Curious, he walked toward the sink to look at his reflection on the mirror.

He flinched back, glad that no one was there to see his reaction. His entire body was speckled in his target’s blood. His face was the worst, with the red smeared across from when he had tried to clean it away. Next time, I need to stand farther away from my target.

The thought disturbed him. He felt heavy guilt settle into his stomach again. He looked away from the mirror.

Trying to distract himself, he stepped into the bathing area. He filled a bucket with hot water, although he wasn’t sure if that would be enough to wash off the evidence.

Trying to conserve water, he began to wash himself, focusing on his face and hair first. Tired, he watched as the blood mixed with the water as it ran down the drain. Mentally exhausted, he scrubbed slowly.

He ran out of water within a few minutes. Annoyed, he filled another bucket and repeated the process. He had gone through two more buckets until the water finally ran clear. He stared at the water as it swirled down the drain.

A sudden wave of panic hit him. He pressed his face down into his knees and forced himself to breathe in and out slowly. He counted his breath, just how Roshi taught him so long ago, pushing the tears back. I can’t let Temari or Kankuro see me like this.

Swallowing, he stood up, wrapping a clean towel around himself. With a shiver at the cold, he stepped outside and headed toward his bedroom. To his relief, he didn’t see his siblings along the way.

Once inside his room, he changed into clean clothes and walked to his window. In the time it had taken to clean up the blood and change, night had fallen and the moon had risen. He stared at it, trying to get his mind to calm down.

He closed his eyes and concentrated. To his relief, he could hear the other jinchuuriki inside the Room. They were laughing and talking to one another. At once, their cheer lifted his spirits. He smiled to himself.

He walked away to sit down on the floor, leaning against the wall. He closed his eyes and focused on his breathing, willing his mind to take him away.

When he appeared, all of the jinchuuriki were already there. He stared around at them in surprise. They were rarely all together at the same time. In the evening it was usually just him, Fuu, Roshi, and Naruto.

“Hi, Gaara-chan!” Fuu said. She ran to him, enveloping him in a hug. Effortlessly, she lifted him up, carrying him in her arms and pushing his face into her mane of hair. A second later, Naruto was at his side, wrapping his arms around both him and Fuu.

“Gaara! You’re finally here!” he shouted. “I feel like we’ve been waiting forever for you!”

Gaara spit out Fuu’s hair. “What do you mean waiting for me?” he asked, confused. Fuu dropped him back to the ground.

Naruto rolled his eyes. “Because it’s your birthday, dummy!” he said, a grin on his face.

Gaara’s eyes widened in surprise. “It’s my birthday?” he asked. He tried to remember the last time he had looked at the calendar, but he couldn’t recall. With Naruto’s statement, he remembered celebrating the New Year not too long ago.

“Well, at least more than one person forgets their birthdays,” Roshi muttered.

Naruto grinned bashfully. He walked to Gaara’s side, placing a comforting hand on top of his head. “Happy birthday, Gaara,” he said with a grin.

He looked around at the other jinchuuriki again. They smiled at him, giving their own congratulations. He returned their greetings with a smile of his own.

O-O-O

Utakata looked out at the children sparring in front of him. Kimimaro had formed a sword out of his shoulder blade. He held it in his right hand, using the left to aid in balancing. In front of him, Kasumi extended her sword, a short wakizashi, using both hands. The two of them were sparring, lunging at each other and testing their defenses.

Haku knelt at Utakata’s side, watching the fight with an intense stare. He had already been defeated by Kasumi after a few minutes of intense fighting. Panting, she had refused to take a break, demanding to fight Kimimaro instead. Kimimaro had complied, agreeing to fight using only a sword made out of bone.

‘Should I be upset that I don’t actually have to teach them anything?’ Utakata asked himself.

‘Not sure. All I know is that my little baby is growing up so fast,' Yagura said.

Utakata forced himself not to smile. After meeting his team for the first time, he had allowed Yagura to look through and see his daughter during their training sessions. It was a small concession for Utakata, but it meant that he has to focus and keep his face as neutral as possible. The former Mizukage tended to get excited whenever his daughter did anything, no matter how minute.

While Yagura was fawning over his daughter, Utakata had gotten to know his new students.

Haku was fast and perceptive, Kimimaro’s friend and confidante. His throwing accuracy was the best Utakata had ever seen in someone so young. He suspected even some jounin did not have the same level of skill with senbon as Haku. But Utakata had found him indecisive at times, too kind for his own good.

Kasumi, meanwhile, both looked and acted like her father. She was very emotional, equally prone to fits of rage and sadness. She was fast and skilled, a perfect wielder of her wakizashi. To Utakata’s relief, both Kimimaro and Haku seemed to like her. They spent enough time talking to each other at least. They also cooperated well in team drills and exercises, working perfectly as a group. The Mizukage really did choose the most promising shinobi for this team.

While they had completed only D-ranked missions, he knew that their first C-ranked mission was just around the corner. With that thought in mind, Utakata had focused on improving their team coordination and sparring skills.

In front of him, Kimimaro and Kasumi continued fighting. Kasumi was a small and flexible target, forcing Kimimaro to try attacking more often. In comparison, Kimimaro had a stronger defense, able to summon shields of bone to deflect her attacks when necessary. Overall, they were evenly matched.

‘That boy is talented,’ Yagura noted. Utakata could sense how impressed he was. ‘Are you sure he’s only nine?’

‘I’m sure. I feel like I’ve been forced to babysit once-in-a-lifetime prodigies.’

Yagura chuckled. ‘Well, you’re not wrong about that.’

They turned their attention back to the fight. Kasumi weaved around Kimimaro, lunging experimentally, looking for an opening. Kimimaro parried all her attacks. But based on his grimace and the sweat on his forehead, he was feeling pressured. He jumped back to get away from her latest strike. He kept his eyes focused on her as he tried to get his breathing back under control.

Kasumi retreated as well. She crouched, looking at Kimimaro with an intense glare in her eyes. She frowned and took a second to wipe the sweat from her forehead. Tiredly, she exhaled and stood up with a grin at her opponent.

“You’re really, strong, Kimimaro,” she said, voice sincere. “I’m glad you’re on my team.”

Kimimaro blinked. He stared at Kasumi, wide-eyed as he absorbed her words. “Thank you,” he said. “I am, too.”

Kasumi giggled. She lunged to attack as their fight continued. Utakata, Haku, and Yagura watched, captivated. Utakata wondered how long they have been swinging swords at each other. He kept watching, not wanting to miss a single moment.

Kimimaro struck, swinging his sword over his head to attack Kasumi. She parried, moving her left leg back, seemingly to retreat. However, instead of running away, she leaped toward Kimimaro while he still lunging forward.

She weaved under his sword and emerged behind him, holding her wakizashi up to his neck. Kimimaro froze, the tip of her blade against his jugular.

“I win,” she panted with a triumphant grin. Beads of sweat fell down her face and onto the ground. “Drop your weapon.”

Kimimaro let go of the sword. Like Kasumi, he was covered in sweat, panting as he tried to get his breathing back in order. He lifted up his hands as a sign of surrender.

“You win,” Kimimaro confirmed.

‘That’s my baby girl!’ Yagura proclaimed, voice full of pride.

‘Your baby girl is going to give me a headache.’

Kasumi giggled, sheathing her sword and letting Kimimaro go. Exhausted, she walked to Kimimaro’s side. She put her hand on his shoulder. Utakata saw Kimimaro tense at the sudden physical contact.

“No hard feelings, right, Kimimaro-kun?” she said, a grin on her face.

Kimimaro flushed, looking away. He shook his head. Kasumi giggled again. Together, they left the fighting ring and walked toward Utakata and Haku.

“How was that, Utakata-sensei?” Kasumi asked. Her voice was full of excitement as she waited for feedback.

‘Phenomenal. Splendid. The best display of swordsmanship I’ve ever seen in my life.’

“It was good,” Utakata said. He tried not to let Yagura interfere with his emotions too much.

Kasumi pouted and crossed her arms in front of her chest. “Is that all you have to say, sensei?”

Utakata felt an influx of love and adoration upon seeing her cute face. To prevent himself from squealing in joy, he forced his face into a mask of indifference. “It was very good.”

Kasumi huffed. Exhausted, she collapsed on the grass next to Haku. She muttered something about teachers and laziness. Kimimaro followed her lead, sitting down on Haku’s other side. While he was silent, he saw a flash of disappointment cross his face.

Utakata was struck by sudden guilt that was not because of Yagura. He sighed. Why me?

“Fine, all three of you are excellent students,” he said. The three children turned their heads to look at him. “Your skills are already top level and there is not much I can teach you. The only thing I recommend is that you continue honing the abilities you already have.”

“Haku!” he began.

The boy jumped and turned to him. “Yes?” he asked, a nervous frown on his face.

“Your ability with senbon is perfect. Study human anatomy and I believe you’ll be able to hit tenketsu points with accuracy. You also have good control with chakra, so you should consider learning medical ninjutsu. I can talk to Harusame-sensei and look for a medic-nin to teach you if you want.”

“Oh, uh, thank you, sensei,” Haku said. He bowed his head, taking Utakata’s recommendations to heart.

“Kasumi,” he continued. The girl focused on him, excited to receive feedback. “Your mastery over the sword is apparent and you used your small size to your advantage. However, you used too much energy jumping and moving. It worked with Kimimaro because you have similar reserves. But if you ever meet an opponent with more chakra, using too much energy in one fight will leave you vulnerable. You should consider letting your opponent use up their energy before you make your own attacks.”

She nodded enthusiastically at his words. Finally, Utakata turned his eyes to Kimimaro. The boy shifted, looking up at him nervously. Utakata swallowed before saying anything.

“Your skill with a sword is nearly unprecedented, Kimimaro,” he said. “However, you tend to have the opposite problem as Kasumi. While waiting to see what your opponent will do is a valid strategy, if you had tried attacking faster and more aggressively, you could have won. I saw at least two opportunities in which Kasumi’s defenses were lowered. You could have struck at those times.”

“I see,” Kimimaro said with a nod. He frowned, mulling over his words.

Satisfied that he had left them with something to think about, Utakata collapsed on the grass, his hands cradling his head.

From his position lying down, he glanced at his three students. They were talking to one another, going over what Utakata had told them. They took sips of water, trying to rehydrate themselves after all their exercise. He smirked to himself in satisfaction. That should tide them over for a while.

‘You sure are more perceptive than you look, Utakata-kun,’ Yagura teased. ‘Are you sure you don’t want to be Mizukage one day?’

‘Too much work.’

Utakata stayed on the grass, listening half-heartedly to his team’s conversation. He said nothing until the sun began to set.

‘Huh, It got late really fast.’

‘That’s because you were napping.’

Utakata sat up, stretching his arms over his head. He yawned. In front of him, Haku giggled and Kimimaro smiled while Kasumi rolled her eyes.

“You’re so lazy, sensei!” Kasumi complained although she seemed more exasperated than truly upset.

“Yeah, I guess I am,” he admitted.

Kasumi opened her mouth to say something else when Utakata sensed someone approaching, He bolted up, expecting an attack. He pulled the three children behind him as he waited for their new company to show themselves.

However, instead of an enemy, a short woman appeared in front of them, a teenage boy standing next to her. Utakata had no idea who they were, but he felt Yagura mentally screaming at him.

‘Shit.’

‘What? Who are they?’

‘Shit. Shit. Shit. I can’t believe... What the fuck?’

Utakata forced himself to block out Yagura’s mental muttering. Schooling his face into a mask of indifference, he turned his gaze to the people walking toward them.

“Mom! Nii-san!” Kasumi left Utakata’s side and ran toward the boy and the woman.

Mom? Nii-san? Sure enough, the woman extended her arms out. Kasumi ran to her, wrapping her arms around her midsection in a hug. The boy next to him patted her head, a grin on his face. Oh. So that’s why Yagura is yelling.

“Good evening,” Utakata said with a nod. At his sides, Haku and Kimimaro repeated the greeting.

“Good evening,” the woman said, bowing her head down respectfully. “We’ve come to pick up Kasumi. I guess she forgot we have dinner with the Mizukage tonight.”

Kasumi flinched. “Oh... yeah... Sorry, Mom. I forgot.” She chuckled bashfully, still keeping her arms wrapped around her mother’s stomach.

The boy shrugged. “It’s fine. We still have over an hour. I thought you might need a little time to get ready, though.”

“That’s true,” she said, looking up at her older brother’s eyes. “Oh, I should probably introduce you,” she muttered to herself. She turned around, a determined grin on her face.

“Mom, nii-san,” she began. “This is my team. This is my teacher, Utakata-sensei.” Utakata nodded again. “And they are my teammates, Haku-kun and Kimimaro-kun.” Haku smiled and waved a hand while Kimimaro only bowed. “And this is my mom and my brother. His name is Asahi.” She pointed to her family.

“It’s very nice to meet you,” the woman said. “My name is Anzu Karatachi. I’m very pleased to make your acquaintance.”

“Nice to meet you!” the boy, Asahi, said. Unlike his sister, who had the same face as her father, he looked most like his mother. He had sharp eyes and a narrow and serious face. The only hints of his father were his eyes, which were a similar shade of pink, and his hair, which was a light grey.

‘I can’t believe I got to see them again,’ Yagura said.

Utakata felt a wave of melancholy course through his body. He got a sudden urge to cry. He tried to focus back on the introductions, but he couldn’t. Yagura’s emotions were affecting him too much to keep his face neutral.

“I-it’s nice t-to m-meet you, too,” he stuttered.

The woman hummed, staring Utakata up and down with a smirk on her face. With a chill, he realized he had met her before.

‘Wait... She’s the ANBU who sent the message from Mizukage-sama!’

‘Oh, so she’s back in ANBU.’

‘Your wife is an ANBU agent!?’

Yagura snorted. ‘Where else are you supposed to find a wife? Who doesn’t want a wife that could murder them in their sleep?’

‘Literally everyone else in the world.’

Yagura chuckled. To his relief, Yagura’s emotions had become much less volatile and Utakata regained control over his face.

“Anyway, we just came here to take Kasumi-chan home,” the woman said. “We can’t keep the Mizukage waiting.”

“No, I suppose you can’t,” Utakata agreed. He looked down at Kasumi. “Keep what I told you in mind,” he ordered. “Don’t use up your energy too early or you could get tired too quickly.”

“Yes, sensei!” she answered cheerfully. She waved goodbye at her teammates. With no other words exchanged, she walked away, holding her brother’s hand.

‘I guess in the end she’s still just a kid.’

‘The cutest kid.’

‘Debatable.’

He watched her and her family walking away until they were only a speck in the distance. With a sigh, he turned back to his other two students.

“And you, Haku?” he asked. “Are you going home now, too?”

Haku hummed thoughtfully before answering. “Zabuza-sama is probably waiting for me,” he concluded. “I should head home. I will think about what you have told me about medical ninjutsu, Utakata-sensei.” He bowed, first to Utakata and then to Kimimaro. He departed, leaving Utakata and Kimimaro alone.

Utakata raised an eyebrow as he looked down at his remaining student. Kimimaro shifted, waiting to hear what Utakata would say. Utakata sighed and scratched the back of his head.

“Go take a bath,” he ordered. “I’ll meet you for dinner. Think about what I said, I guess.”

Kimimaro’s eyes widened and he nodded. He ran back to the manor. Utakata stayed behind in the training grounds, deep in thought.

‘Yagura?’

‘Yeah?’

‘How did you manage to get such a beautiful wife? Did she hit her head?’

Yagura huffed. Offended, he severed the connection with Utakata’s mind, leaving the Room. Utakata smirked to himself as he rebuilt his mental barriers. Yugito is right. It’s fun to annoy him.

O-O-O

“Oh, this one is really nice!” Sasuke’s mother exclaimed as she held up the picture for them to look at. “Sasuke is even smiling in this one!”

“Mom!” Sasuke whined.

Sasuke's mother shrugged off his complaints. “What? I swear, you are too much like your father and brother at times. It’s like Uchiha men don’t know how to smile!”

Naruto giggled as he threw Sasuke a mocking grin. Sasuke pouted and looked away in annoyance. Naruto only stared back at the picture held in the hands of Sasuke’s mother.

During the break before the start of their second year, Naruto had gone to the Uchiha household. Sasuke’s mother had gotten around to developing the pictures taken at his birthday party. They had gathered around the coffee table in the living room to look at the photos together. Naruto had been curious to see. I don’t think I have any pictures of myself.

“Hey! I like this one! You look really happy, Auntie!” Naruto pointed to the picture. In it, Sasuke’s mother was smiling as she set down glasses of milk on the table. Naruto guessed Sasuke’s father had taken it when none of them were looking.

“Hm, I suppose I don’t look half bad,” she admitted as she stared at the picture.

“You do look nice, Mom,” Sasuke added.

With that, they continued to flip through the pictures. Some of them were blurry, taken at a moment when someone was moving. Others were too light or too dark to make out much. But most were great, capturing the moment when Naruto blew out the candles or when they were eating their cake slices. Naruto knew he would treasure even the ugly photos for the rest of his life. Someone had cared enough not only to take them but to print them out as well. He knew he would hang up all of them in his room later.

“That’s everything?” Sasuke asked when his mother finished going through the stack.

She put the pictures down on the table and nodded. “That’s all.”

“Thank you so much, Auntie!” Naruto said.

“You’re welcome, Naruto,” she said with a kind smile as she put the photos back into the envelope. “Here, keep them. I made extra copies for myself.” She extended the envelope forward, waiting for Naruto to take.

“Oh, uh, thank you.” Naruto took the offered gift in his hands. He felt his face flush and he looked down at his knees in embarrassment. He wasn’t sure if he would ever get used to her being nice to him. He placed the envelope in his jacket pocket.

“Now..." Both boys turned to look at her in curiosity. "Would you like to see pictures of Sasuke as a baby?” she asked with a smile.

"Yes!" Naruto exclaimed as Sasuke screamed out a "No!"

Naruto stared at Sasuke with a smirk, eyes glittering in excitement. Sasuke scowled at him, threatening retribution if Naruto persisted.

Sasuke’s mother only laughed at their reactions. She stood up and walked away, ignoring Sasuke’s silent pleas. “I’ll be right back, boys. I’ll get my photo album.”

“Sure, Auntie!” Naruto said cheerfully before turning to stare at Sasuke, whose face had turned a light pink color. “What's the problem? Were you an ugly baby or what, jerk?”

Sasuke huffed and looked away. He kept his eyes focused determinedly at the wall as they waited for his mother to come back. Naruto giggled to himself.

“Here it is,” Sasuke’s mother said as she walked back and returned to her seat. She placed a large photo album on the table, opening it to the first page. “I started this one soon after I got married.”

Sure enough, on the first page was a wedding photo of Sasuke’s parents. His mother stood proudly, a demure smile on his face, beautiful as always. Her hair was done up in a perfect bun and she wore an intricate red kimono. Her makeup only seemed to emphasize her natural beauty. At her side, Sasuke’s father looked slightly happier than usual.

“Wow! You look really beautiful, Auntie!” Naruto exclaimed. “Uchiha-san looks about the same, though.”

She chuckled. “Why, thank you, Naruto.” She flipped the page of the album to show pictures upon pictures of a chubby baby. “Here is Itachi. He’s really cute, isn’t he?”

“He looks so... small,” Sasuke commented. He stared at the pictures of his older brother with a frown. Naruto nodded in agreement. He was so used to seeing Itachi as Sasuke’s cool and serious brother than imagining him as a newborn was strange.

“You two were that size once, too,” she said. She flipped through a few more pages, letting them see Itachi as he grew up.

“Nii-san used to have short hair,” Sasuke said, sounding confused. “He says he doesn’t like short hair.”

She nodded. “Yes. I had to force him to cut it when he was very young. He used to cry whenever I did it though.” For some reason, she frowned to herself and her eyes glazed over.

“Why did you stop cutting his hair?” Sasuke asked curiously.

She hummed as she considered how best to answer. “I realized it made him sad,” she finally answered. “So I let him grow his hair out as much as he wanted.”

Sasuke nodded at her explanation before his gaze turned back to the photo album. That time, he flipped the page himself.

“Aw! That’s really cute!” Naruto shouted. In the photo, Itachi had a newborn, who he assumed was Sasuke, held inside his arms. Itachi was smiling at the camera while the baby seemed to be sleeping.

Sasuke slammed the book closed, his face red. “Mom! I don’t want Naruto to see it!” he whined.

His mother sighed in exasperation. She grabbed onto her son’s hands and pulled them, gently yet firmly, away. “It’s not a big deal, Sasuke,” she said. “I don’t think Naruto-kun cares that you were once a baby."

“Yeah, Sasuke!” Naruto agreed while holding back giggles. “Someone actually cared enough about you to take pictures! I don’t think there are any photos of myself as a baby, ya know!

For some reason Naruto didn’t understand, both Sasuke and his mother froze. They stared at him, wide-eyed and quiet. Naruto fidgeted in his seat on the sofa. Did I say something weird?

Sasuke bit his lip as he seemed to consider a few things. He took his hands off of the photo album. “Fine,” he muttered as he sat back down. “You can see. Just don’t say anything!”

“Fine,” Naruto promised. I’ll say so many things.

With a sigh, Sasuke’s mother opened the album once again. “I took this one soon after Sasuke was born,” she explained. “Itachi seemed to be really confused to see you, Sasuke. He wouldn’t stop looking and poking at you the entire time.”

“Really?” Sasuke asked with a frown.

She nodded. “Really. He couldn’t take his eyes off of you. He promised me he would always take care of you.” At her words, Sasuke turned his gaze back to the photo with a smile.

“You looked really cute, Sasuke,” Naruto said.

Sasuke grunted in response. His smile vanished and his face turned pink once again.

“What happened? Did you fall down the stairs or something?” Naruto asked with a smirk.

Sasuke grunted again, angrier than before. With no idea how to respond, he looked away to stare at the wall, pouting. Naruto snickered and Sasuke’s mother hummed to herself in amusement.

With that, they continued to flip through the pages. For Naruto, it was interesting to see the Uchiha family changing and growing. Itachi and Sasuke had been so small, looking helpless and fragile. It was strange to see Itachi as a young child, too. I’m just so used to looking up at him.

They were looking at pictures of Itachi’s graduation when the front door opened. Whoever was at the door had come in and started walking down the hall. Curious, the three of them turned their heads to see Itachi, who had stopped at the doorway.

“Nii-san!” Sasuke shouted in excitement as he ran toward his brother. He stopped and stood a few feet away.

“Sasuke,” Itachi muttered as a greeting.

“Itachi,” Sasuke’s mother added. “You’re home early.”

“I am, Mother.”

She smiled and waved a hand to Itachi. “Would you like to look at the photo album with us? We’ve gotten around to when you graduated from the Academy now.”

Itachi shook his head. “No, thank you. I have a lot of work to do.”

Despite her straight posture, Naruto noticed she felt rejected by her son’s refusal. Her lips froze into a smile and her eyes glazed over.

Sasuke did not seem to notice. “Will you teach me a new technique, nii-san?” he asked, a pleading smile on his lips.

At that, Itachi turned to look down at his younger brother. He waved his hand in a gesture for Sasuke to step closer. When he did, Itachi flicked Sasuke on the forehead with his fingers, pushing him back instead.

“Sorry, Sasuke, some other time,” he muttered. With that, he walked away toward what Naruto assumed was his bedroom. That guy is so weird.

Sasuke stared at him walking away before returning to the sofa, more sullen than usual. Naruto shook his head. He had seen Itachi pulling the same trick countless times and Sasuke kept falling for it. Does Sasuke like when Itachi pokes him or something?

Sasuke’s mother sighed before turning her attention back to the photo album. “Don’t worry about your brother, Sasuke,” she said. “He has a lot of work to do. He’s a jounin. He has to do stuff not only for the village but also for the clan.”

Sasuke nodded, still looking downcast. His eyes turned back toward the album, but he didn’t seem to be really looking. Sasuke’s mother seemed sadder too, her eyes glazing over the picture of a young Itachi holding Sasuke’s hand. Naruto swallowed.

“How old is Sasuke in the picture?” he asked, trying to break the tension. To his relief, both Sasuke and his mother snapped out of their stupor as they stared at the photo.

“Almost two years old, I believe,” she said. “Sasuke was still learning how to talk back then.”

Naruto breathed a sigh of relief. Conversation broke out as they looked through the rest of the album.

O-O-O

“I’ll see you soon, Naruto-kun,” Sasuke’s mother said at the doorway. “Stay safe on your way back.”

Naruto was putting on his shoes at the entrance. Sasuke had gone to do his chores, leaving Naruto and his mother alone to say goodbye. “Thank you, Auntie,” he said. “I’ll be careful! Don’t worry!” He finished putting on his sandals and stood up to leave.

“Wait, Naruto-kun,” she interrupted.

He turned back to look at her. She seemed to be mulling over something and her forehead was creased into a frown. Naruto stared at her curiously as he waited for her to speak.

“What is it, Auntie?” he asked, tilting his head to the side.

She smiled at that, bending over to ruffle his hair. “You said you don’t have any pictures of you as a baby, right, Naruto-kun?”

Naruto shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

She looked down at him, biting her lip. “You will have pictures now, though,” she promised. “And I’ll make sure you’re in many more.”

He fidgeted, feeling his face warming up in embarrassment. “Oh... uh... thank you, Auntie.” He looked down at his toes.

“I’ll take care of you,” she continued. “No matter what other people say.”

“Other people?” Had someone told her something? He looked up at her, frowning in confusion.

She stared at him, meeting his eyes. Her face was serious and he could see a small frown on her forehead. “If you want things to change, you have to change them yourself," she said.

Naruto tilted his head to the side. “Huh?”

Her frown deepened. “Sometimes if you want things to get better, you need to be the one forcing the change. Sometimes, revolution is the best option.”

“Revolution?” Naruto was getting more and more confused.

She shook her head. At once, her frown disappeared and her lips quirked up in a smile. “Don’t worry about it,” she reassured him. “I just want you to know that I’ll be here to help you, Naruto-kun. Don’t be afraid to ask for anything.”

“Oh... uh... okay.” Naruto turned around to leave. He felt like a lot of things were going over his head.

“Goodbye, Auntie,” he said as he opened the door.

“Goodbye, Naruto-kun,” she responded with a wave of her hand.

Naruto grinned at her before leaving. As he walked, he ran his hands over the envelope containing photographs. It was possibly the best gift he had ever gotten in his life.

Chapter Text

Naruto glared at the small leaf in his hands, taking a break from the Leaf Concentration Exercise. He looked up to stare in envy at Hinata and Sasuke, leaning against a wooden post.

His friends were sparring. Hinata was fast but Sasuke was faster. But because of her skills, Sasuke was pushed back, too afraid to be taken out by one of Hinata’s strikes. I wanna join them, but I can’t figure out this dumb trick!

He sighed and tried again. He called his chakra to himself and moved it all to stay on his forehead. Crossing his fingers, he tried to focus his chakra and keep the leaf glued to his face.

It didn’t work. Instead, the leaf fluttered down, landing on his lap, mocking his failure. Furious, Naruto crushed the leaf in his hand and threw it as far as he could. To his annoyance, the wind carried it back to crash on his face. He pulled on his hair to suppress a scream of fury.

Why can’t I figure it out? He collapsed with his back on the ground, too angry to try again.

From the beginning of their second year at the Academy, Iruka had started teaching them the basics of ninjutsu. Their first task was supposed to be easy. All they had to do was focus chakra on their forehead in order to stick a leaf on their face. It was the first step before learning how to mold it for any kind of jutsu.

The first one to understand how to do it was the pink-haired girl, Sakura. For some reason, after the final exams, Sakura was acting differently than usual. She had started spending time with Ino and had begun wearing a red ribbon as a headband. She was also more confident, raising her hand often in class. But she still lagged behind almost everyone else in the physical activities.

A short time after her, Ino and Sasuke had both figured out the trick. Then, Hinata had been able to hold the leaf not only to her forehead but also to her arms and legs. She had explained that the Gentle Fist style of fighting gave her an advantage in that regard. Shikamaru and Chouji had gotten the hang of it as well, although Shikamaru only tried when Iruka was looking in his direction.

Little by little, the rest of the class had learned the Leaf Concentration Exercise. They had laughed and pointed at their foreheads, starting contests for who could hold their leaf for longer. After two days of practice and training, Naruto had been the only one who could not figure out how to do it. While everyone else celebrated, sticking their leaves to different parts of their body, Naruto could only look on in jealousy.

Annoyed with his failure, Naruto glared up at the sky. He had tried asking the other jinchuuriki for advice, too, but they had only told him to keep practicing. I guess it wasn’t difficult for them either.

“Hey, loser, still can’t figure it out?”

Naruto looked up and frowned. Sasuke was walking closer, wiping the sweat from his forehead. At his side, Hinata was taking sips of water, face red from exertion.

Naruto grimaced. “What’s it to ya?”

“Hn. I’m just asking,” Sasuke grumbled. Naruto felt a stab of guilt pierce through him. I guess Sasuke’s just trying to be nice in his own way.

“Not well,” Naruto grudgingly admitted. “I can’t figure it out! Do you think...” Naruto swallowed and watched as Hinata and Sasuke turned to him, eyebrows raised. “Do you think there’s something wrong with me? Am I sick?”

Sasuke rolled his eyes and even Hinata looked skeptical at his side.

“Naruto-kun,” she began. “If you were sick, you would already know. You just need to keep practicing. I’m sure you can do it!”

“You’re just stupid,” Sasuke said. “That’s your sickness.”

“What’d you say about me?” Naruto shouted as he leaped forward to fight.

Their spar began. Hinata took a step back with only a sigh of exasperation. Naruto growled and shouted at Sasuke, but inside he felt a sense of relief. Fighting with him was a lot easier than trying to figure out how to use chakra.

In the end, Naruto won the match, pinning Sasuke down with his elbow.

“Hn, at least you’re good for something, loser,” Sasuke muttered.

“Whatever.” Naruto rolled his eyes but inside he was jumping for joy. At least I’m good at this!

Naruto stood up and allowed Sasuke to extricate himself from his grip. He waited for Sasuke to brush the dirt off before starting a new match. From the sidelines, Hinata sighed in annoyance before going to sit and watch the next fight.

O-O-O

“Utakata-sensei, how much further until we get to the village?” Haku asked.

“Not much,” Utakata answered. “Just a few more hours at this pace.”

He heard Kasumi give out an exasperated sigh of annoyance, Haku grimacing at her side. To his relief, Kimimaro was silent and uncritical. Utakata shrugged, unbothered.

They were returning from their second C-ranked assignment: an escort mission to a mountain village. While the task was easy, it had been difficult to assure their client that he could trust a team of three children led by a teenager. I’m just glad the client didn’t know about our background, or it would have been even more troublesome.

“Can’t we run back, sensei?” Kasumi whined. “I’m hungry!"

“And I want to see Zabuza-sama,” Haku added.

Utakata sighed and kept walking, ignoring the children as best as he could. He didn’t see the point of rushing back home.

“We’ll be there by dinnertime,” he assured them. “Now stop whining and keep walking.”

Haku and Kasumi grumbled but they nodded their agreement. Kimimaro said nothing, his face as emotionless as usual. Utakata looked back at his student. He’s been even more quiet than usual. I wonder if he’s all right.

“Hey, Kimimaro,” he began. Kimimaro jumped at the mention of his name before his eyes turned to Utakata.

“Yes, sensei?” the boy asked. Utakata’s eyes narrowed. Kimimaro's face looked more flushed than usual and he struggled to focus his eye